Tonight is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Wales, and is an ysbrydnos, or ‘spirit night’ when the dead walk abroad under the starry skies. Halloween is the most recent tradition associated with this night, known at one time as ‘All Hallows Eve’, but there were traditions that came before it, such as the old Celtic festivities of harvest time. As with Samhain in Ireland, and indeed for many of the early peoples of Europe in general, this was the time when the ripened fruits and crops of late summer and autumn were celebrated as the abundant wealth of the land. Alongside such celebration there would have naturally been a time of reflection, particularly as this fulfilment of life’s fruition also marks the moment when the seasons turn and all growing life prepares itself to pass through the death of winter. This is the natural time to acknowledge mortality and consider what may come after the cold season.
Its probably for this reason that tonight is also the time when Gwyn ap Nudd hunts the land, when even the living can be taken up as souls to join in his eternal hunt, urging on the magical hounds as they chase through the darkness. This happened to one Ned Pugh, a famous Welsh fiddler whose mournful refrains were heard one Nos Galan Gaeaf transforming into the bright call of a huntsman’s bugle. Having entered a cave on that particular Halloween, he wandered deep into the belly of the earth from which he was never to return alive, but was instead taken up as chief huntsman to Gwyn ap Nudd, exchanging his fiddle for a horn.
A similar account could be given of Arawn from the First Branch of the Mabinogi. One of the very few allusions to Arawn in Welsh folklore concerns a ghost that was often heard declaiming Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn, a little verse that roughly translates as ‘Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the wait for Arawn.’ Was this the soul of someone long dead still waiting to be called by Arawn to join the otherworldly hunt? We shall never know for certain, but the other similarities between Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd would lead us to think so.
One of those similarities is the connection both these figures have to the instincts of physical desire, all those visceral and carnal urges that are fired by the hunt. Arawn was the one who tempted Pwyll with his beautiful wife, and Gwyn was a dangerously jealous lover of Creiddylad according to the medieval redactors of Culhwch ac Olwen. Gwyn was also responsible for tempting Collen with illusory food when the saint visited his phantom palace atop Glastonbury Tor. All of these temptations are echoed in an English version of the Magical Huntsman, a figure of superstition that Shakespeare found so intriguing he brought him to life, quite ridiculously, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.
“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Some time a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You’ve heard of such spirit; and well you know
The superstitious idol headed old
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for the truth.”
Despite the paucity of material concerning Herne, Shakespeare’s use of him in the play chimes with much of what we already know of Herne’s Welsh cousins, all three being hunters with supernatural qualities that are associated with fairies and the dead. Not unlike the spirits and sprites of many lands it appears that Herne can cause disease amongst cattle, and his moaning and clanking of chains is not unlike the restless behaviour of the souls of the dead.
But it may also be worthwhile considering Shakespeare’s actual use of Herne in the play. To cut a rather long story short, Falstaff, a lecherous wastrel with expensive tastes, attempts to seduce two married women by employing various deceptions. After realising his unsavoury intentions, both women take their revenge by tricking him into dressing up as Herne the Hunter for a promised night of pleasure. While waiting under the Windsor Oak sporting a pair of horns, Falstaff works himself up to a froth waiting for the two wanton wives to come and ravish him. But instead of his anticipated satisfaction he is accosted by a gang of children and adults in fairy costume whom he believes to be real spirits of the otherworld come to punish his mortal trespass (he obviously went for the trick, not the treat). These cruel fairies and sprites ridicule him and eventually put him in his place, all of which Falstaff accepts with rather good grace.
Lechery and excessive desires in general are a theme that Shakespeare explores throughout the play, with Falstaff being the embodiment of aristocratic excess. In contrast to Falstaff’s debauched appetites, through various mentions and allusions, Shakespeare subtly evokes the Order of the Garter, a royal order of nobles chosen by Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own patron. This order was supposedly one of high-minded restraint and discipline, as stated in their motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, which literally translates as ‘Evil be to him who thinks evil.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor could well have been written to feature in an event held at the royal estate of Windsor attended by Queen Elizabeth and her Order of the Garter. This would explain why Falstaff’s fate in the play appears to be a realisation of the order’s motto. His bad intentions result in a bad outcome where he finds himself dressed in the guise of none other than Herne the Hunter.
There are several hints in The Merry Wives of Windsor of folk traditions concerning the unfortunate figure of the cuckold. When a man’s wife had been unfaithful, some communities would ridicule the couple and in particular the husband by placing horns on his head, thus marking him out as a cuckold, a man who shares his wife with other men. In this way the wearing of horns was associated with a lack of fidelity. But whereas these later traditions have the cuckold as a figure of derision, Shakespeare, in his own magical way, may well have been evoking a much older idea concerning the horned hunter.
There are several points of comparison between Shakespeare’s Herne and Arawn from the Mabinogi. Both figures are party to an exchange of places, Falstaff with Herne and Pwyll with Arawn, both mortals become the god and both gods are the magical huntsmen in their respective regions. Having taken on the external form of the god, both mortals come to meet the fairies of the otherworld, an experience that went better for Pwyll than it did for Falstaff. Pwyll showed restraint and self-control in the bed of Arawn’s fairy queen, where Falstaff was seen for the lecherous toff he was and punished by the ‘fairies.’ One succeeded in wearing the mantle of the otherworld, while the other didn’t. Pwyll was learning his lesson, as was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although in a markedly different way.
If this was Shakespeare’s understanding, and who could deny one of the greatest bards of the English language such an insight, this horned figure was far from the object of ridicule and derision that he appeared to be on the surface. Falstaff’s failure was to be deaf to what the Huntsman had to say about the sowing and reaping of one’s desires. Pwyll, on the other hand, was listening well, as his name suggests.
(extract from the forthcoming audio course, part 1 out in early January 2015)
If, as many scholars have pointed out, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are derived from an earlier mythology, its probably best to begin with the question: what exactly is a myth? In the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the first meaning given to a myth is
. . . a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena etc. . . .
What Celtic scholars are usually referring to when they talk of the mythological roots of the Four Branches is the earlier pantheon of Celtic gods and goddesses that many of the characters are derived from. But we can expand on this meaning by also adding that a myth is a way of communicating that implies a particular ideology or ethos. In that sense the term myth can be used to describe much more than just traditional tales about gods or human origins. We find myths in modern books like The Lord of the Rings, in films like Star Wars and Batman; we find them in modern art, television advertisements and magazines. In fact anything within a culture – story, film, object or person, can become the vehicle of myth.
As the famous French philosopher Roland Barthes said myth is, in its most basic form, a special type of speech.* What he meant was that a myth isn’t just a genre of stories, its a way of saying something. According to Barthes, the special trick of myth is to present an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact its no more than another limited, man-made perspective. A myth doesn’t describe the natural state of the world, but expresses the intentions of its teller, be that a storyteller, priest, artist, journalist, filmmaker, designer or politician.
In this course we’re focussing on the myths we find in traditional narratives, medieval stories that are derived from an earlier body of oral material, what could be considered quite traditional examples of myth. But we shouldn’t forget that like any word in a language, the definition of myth evolves. Whereas we often relegate myth to the same category as children’s stories, Barthes argued that myth, or the mythological way of communicating, permeates much of what we could consider to be culture, mass media, advertising and entertainment. What this modern definition has in common with the old definition is that both place belief at the heart of what myth is. But whereas the old definition of myth generally referred to gods or tales of human origins as the focus of belief, the new definition includes any cultural activity that implies an ethos or ideology as the focus of belief, be that secular or religious. If a myth is to be effective it must be believed in by its audience.
This also means that the same myth can be expressed through many different mediums. For example Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a narrative that dominated European culture for a long time. Implied in that narrative is the myth of the saviour and those he saves as well as the idea of good and evil that’s tied up in that relationship. For Christians this myth is believed to be the natural condition of the world, something they take for granted in their everyday lives. Over the millenia, this myth has been expressed through many different mediums: rituals, ceremonies, paintings, poems, drama, oral texts such as prayers and music such as hymns, symphonies and folk songs. The basic myth of the saviour is expressed in all of these many derived practices and works of art. It has become the centre around which all of these unique expressions are positioned.
A related example is how early Christian leaders explored another aspect of the myth of sin and redemption through a different narrative, that of Adam and Eve. For early Cristians such as St Augustine the story of Adam and Eve explained how humainty became sinful and why it needed a redeemer such as Jesus. Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden were seen as the origin of sin, and because Eve was the symbolic mother of all humainty, all of her descendents therefore inherited that first original sin. For many Christians the doctrine of original sin is a natural condition of the world humans are part of, an ethos that’s presented mythologically in many related works of art such as medieval paintings of Adam and Eve.
As we can see, a myth can sit at the heart of a culture for very long periods of time, becoming a reference point for morality, philosophy, spirituality and art. Another example of this is the Taliesin myth that almost certainly began as a legend about the historic Taliesin who lived in the 6th century. For over 1500 years now Welsh bards and poets have considered him one of the most famous founders of the Welsh tradition. As part of their public performances and rituals, medieval Welsh bards would adopt the dramatic persona of the perfected bard, an echo of the mythical Taliesin. Perhaps as early as the 12th century his tale was being transmitted and adapted through many lineages of the oral tradition, with variations of it migrating throughout Wales. In the legendary poems from the 14th century Book of Taliesin, in this bold and unashamedly self-agrandising poetry we see his legendary persona as the celebrated Welsh wiseman, the archetypal bard.
His fame and popularity gradually grew until by the 16th century Taliesin had evolved into a central symbol of Welsh mythology. In that century the earliest surviving copy of his tale was written down revealing Taliesin to be a symbolic figure that embodied not only the formal bardic ideology, but also beliefs about inspiration, the transmigration of the enlightened soul and the mystic knowledge derived from such an experience. Perhaps because of this native pagan mystique, at various times the figure of Taliesin was also appropriated by the orthodox Christian tradition and given a devoutly religious veneer, expressing sentiments very different to those of his earlier incarnations. In this new context Taliesin became a symbol of Christian virtue, with various prayers and religious poems composed in his name where he humbly acknowledged his sins and need for repentence. This Christian ethos was overlaid upon his more heroic ideology and pagan mystique probably in an attempt to obscure it.
Different tellers of a myth, be they renowned bards, literate monks, advertising agencies, modern druids or academics, will use popular figures such as Taliesin to further their own particular ideology or ethos. The same myth can be told or evoked in many different ways, but almost always for the same reason, to promote the myth-maker’s own position. A religious recital always affirms a particular priests power; the Taliesin persona enhances the mystique and authority of a particular bard; the academic thesis will frame the object of study so that it validates the author’s own ideology. All these are ways of indirectly implying a set of values that are to be taken for granted and are therefore mythological ways of communicating.
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*Roland Barthes, trans. Howard / Lavers, Mythologies (Hill and Wang 2013), 217
To explore Jung’s theory of the unconscious I’m going to look at a very ancient symbol, that of the horned or antlered human. This symbol has been expressed by many cultures across the world – we find it in Africa, Asia and Europe in images dating from the very earliest periods of human history. If any symbol could be deemed mythological in nature, as arising from the depths of the human imagination, it is surely this one. One of the most famous examples of this symbol is found on the Gundestrup Cauldron, made during the La Tene period of Celtic art. This remarkable and ancient relic contains panels that depict many mythological scenes, figures and narratives.
The particular symbol I’m going to look at is on an inside facing panel, called interior plate A.
The central figure on this panel is of course the male figure with antlers, sitting down holding a snake in one hand and what’s known as a torc in the other. This is a very important symbol for us when we look at the First Branch of the Mabinogi in particular, and one I look at in more detail in the audio course. For the time being I’m going to focus on the figure itself. So forget about the animals surrounding him and what he’s holding in his hands and lets just look at the antlered figure as he is.
Scholars have interpreted this figure as being a representation of an old Celtic god called Cernunnos, which translates as the ‘horned one’. Its rather obvious why he’s called that, but this also gives us a clue as to what potentially conflicting elements have been harmonised in this symbolic figure. If this mythic symbol is an expression of the unconscious, according to Jung we should be able to perceive within it some conflicting influences that have been brought together in a more or less stable form.
The two potentially conflicting influences I’m referring to are of course the animal and the human. Cernunnos contains both aspects, and is in many ways a blending of the two. Its not that the Cernunnos figure itself is in anyway conflicted, as this is a balanced image containing a harmonious blend of both elements. Yet its not within our normal experience of things to expect such a form: how can a man be both human and animal at the same time? This is the paradox at the heart of this image that disturbs the normal order of things, and does so in a simple yet very eloquent way. But why would these two aspects necessarily be in conflict?
Perhaps one of the simplest interpretations is that the Cernunnos figure represents a harmonising of the civil and wild aspects of human society. Civility is often expressed in a code of conduct that has evolved across many generations, developing into customs and taboos, influencing all spheres of human interaction including religion, art and politics. Fundamental to the idea of a code of conduct is the concept of self control, that the individual is able to bend his or her will to abide by the socially proscribed forms of behaviour.
This is in contrast to wild, unbounded forms of behaviour where the individual does not abide by a code of conduct. Instead it is an essential, visceral and ultimately liberated state that has its own power, attractions and downfalls. Its the state of instinctive urges and reactions, such as experienced in love-making, hunting or fighting. It is the non-rational state of the animal, where behaviour is instinctively attuned to experience.
The Cernunnos figure, if we treat it purely as a symbol in the Jungian sense, could be interpreted as harmonising these two potentially conflicting attitudes. If the conflicting aspects of civility and wildness were brought into harmony in this symbol, we could conclude that Celtic culture of the time had evolved to embrace both aspects of human life as one experience. The great popularity of the horned god symbol could suggest that balancing these two aspects of the self was a theme in Celtic art and religion, a synthesis expressing the ideal state of the human animal.
But this hypothesis depends upon reducing two ultimately complex aspects of life into simple conflicting opposites, and although this is an attractive interpretation, it is dependent upon abstracted simplifications that are inevitably modern in tone. What we understand to be concepts of civility and wildness will inevitably differ to what was the actual lived experience of historical Celts.
Using the idea of paradox as a starting point for the interpretation of the Cernunnos symbol can throw up many perspectives, of which the wild civility paradox is but one. For example, as a Jungian symbol it could also be a harmonising of the conflicting behaviours of killing an animal and yet being in reverence of it. Its easy to see how modern scholars have interpreted the images on the Gundestrup cauldron as having religious connotations; archaeological evidence shows that Cernunnos was worshiped as a deity in Celtic and Romano-Celtic shrines all across Europe.
In view of this religious significance, we can suggest other possible conflicts that have been brought into balance in the Cernunnos symbol.
Hunting would have been an important part of life for the Celtic tribes, and as in many other parts of the world the hunt developed a spiritual significance. We find remnants of the sacred nature of the hunt in surviving European folklore, something covered in detail in the audio course. But in its basic form, this attitude to hunting clearly contains a fundamental paradox.
As we find on inside panel A of the Gundestrup cauldron, the stag, the dominant male deer, was venerated by the Celts. The depiction and positioning of the stag next to Cernunnos gives us many clues as to what was involved in this veneration.
Traditionally, its thought that you can tell a stag’s age by how many tines it has on its antlers. If we count the tines on one of Cernunnos’ antlers we find that he has 6 tines, but the stag to his left has 7, suggesting that the stag is Cernunnos’ elder. We also see that the stag appears to be speaking into Cernunnos’ ear. The elder stag is communicating something to the younger Cernunnos, perhaps giving him wisdom, special knowledge or power. This would also imply that the stag is Cernunnos’ ancestor. This sets the stag up as a figure of veneration: an ancestor, an elder who passes on his wisdom to his descendants.
In venerating Cernunnos, the Celts venerated their relationship with the sacred stag, and perhaps even saw themselves at least partly as stag people. The Celtic tribes of Europe would have had a close relationship with the deer herds that populated the region, their communities having either absorbed or evolved out of the hunter-gatherer culture of the earlier neolithic. The Cernunnos figure represents a tradition that was ancient in its own day.
Cave Painting 17,000 BC; from the Lascaux cave complex
The long relationship between human and deer would have been founded upon the hunting and killing of deer for food and materials, and as with many other such societies, the European predecessors of the Celts would have long come to appreciate their reliance upon such a valuable source of food, clothing and tools. The hunting of deer would have ensured the survival of neolithic families and clans, particularly in hard times, during long winters or when wild crops failed. In many ways the deer could have been considered a symbolic source of life for the tribes: the people lived because the deer gave them life. They were children of the stag in more ways than one.
This sets up a very complex relationship. These early tribes would have been killing that which they also venerated, setting up the initially conflicting influences that we find resolved in the Cernunnos figure. In the Jungian sense at least, Cernunnos stands as a bridge between the human and animal worlds, defining the terms of that relationship and expressing the ultimate paradox that life gives to life through the medium of death.
But once again we must be careful not to assume this theory exhausts all potential meaning. The religious significance of the Cernunnos figure could be said to transcend such a reductive theory, particularly as the Celts very likely considered him a living god as opposed to the unconscious synthesis of powerfully conflicting experiences. Our reasoning doesn’t necessarily reflect historical reality, although it can suggest new avenues of research that could be fruitful.
The Swastika Paradox
Now that we have a working understanding of how a symbol can embody a paradox while maintaining a stable appearance, lets go back and take a brief look at the swastika once again. We’ve seen how this symbol can be interpreted within different contexts, both marga and deshi, but what of the symbol itself? As a basic symbolic image, can we apply the term paradox in an attempt to interpret this very simple image?
One of the core elements of the swastika is the suggestion of rotation, of movement. The right-angle arms suggesting trailing strands drawn out from a turning centre. In that very simple form we could interpret two contrasting conditions, the rotating movement of the arms juxtaposed against the still centre, the axis of the form itself. Like all circle and cross devices the swastika contains both movement and stillness at the same time, and in that way at least can be seen to embody a paradox.
All myths and symbols arise initially in peoples imaginations, and if they are artists they will express them in creative terms more or less understandable to those around them. All of human imaginative life is inherently influenced by the unconscious, that aspect of the psyche that’s outside of our awareness, containing such things as instincts and automatic responses. Many psychologists believe the imagination acts as a medium between the conscious and unconscious mind, and as a result the art we create often gives us glimpses of our deeper, instinctive selves. Our creative urges move in response to these unseen currents of our own psychology.
As a theory* the unconscious was developed by the early psychologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, a group largely identified with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, although in truth there were many other theorists involved. Through their research, Freud, Jung and many others came to perceive that the unconscious could be understood in mythological terms, although by today some researchers argue that the mythological description of the unconscious could be a convenient projection as opposed to a description of its nature. One way in which the unconscious appears to expresses itself is through primordial human figures and story-like narratives that gravitate around fundamental human experiences such as love, power, cunning, birth, death and self-knowledge. Jung called these deep, unconscious patterns archetypes, and identified some of them, such as the mother, the trickster and the wise old man. Its difficult to say how universal these archetypes are, but its likely that within a given culture there are basic, inherited mythological structures that condition cultural expression.
For example, the tidal movements of the mass media, the memes and trends, fashions and fads can all be interpreted as following the pull of archetypal figures and narratives. To this day, just like countless generations before us, we are fascinated by heroes and villains, the trickery and intrigue of politics and power, the magic of science, religion and art, the otherness and familiarity of nature. These mythological figures and narratives can all be traced back to shared, deep mythical structures. In this way, myths are one of the sources of culture and language, the basic stuff of meaning.
Artists who have a particular sensitivity to these shared myths will often create art that has a significant resonance within their own cultures. The fashion world exemplifies this process better than most aspects of modern culture, with designers reinterpreting old styles and garments within new contexts, finding what is most relevant to the most people. It could be argued that all art and culture has developed as an inherent aspect of our evolution, with the most successful expressions of collective myth being the most enduring and at the same time the most adaptable. Those myths and symbols that manage to retain their influence as they change contexts will surely last longer than those that do not. As reflected in modern consumerism, there is great value in being able to create and express symbols endorsed by popular opinion for successive turns of the cultural wheel. This is exemplified by the modern practice of branding that strives to perpetuate the popularity of a single iconic image for an extended period of time. These modern symbols, although not explicitly set in a mythological context, inevitably draw on the mythic substratum of a culture. Even though they have replaced older mythic symbols, they still exert a similar kind of power and influence.
Its not difficult to find in the concept of an archetype a rational explanation for gods and their powers. Many scholars have explored the idea that myths, even those expressed in a medieval form such as the Four Branches, were originally tales about gods. But it must be born in mind that the modern conception of gods and supernatural agency, particularly in the atheistic cultures of the West, may very well be far removed from how these things were experienced by people in the past. The well established practice of rationalism in modern academia necessarily separates gods and divine powers out from the individual so as to reveal them as cultural fabrications; once they have been separated out as such they naturally dissolve to the touch, converted into nothing more than words and ideas. But to experience such things as core elements of one’s self, as people in the past may have, means these gods could not be separated out from the individual in any meaningful way. We must therefore bare in mind that when we reduce ancient gods and their powers to rational concepts such as the archetype, we don’t automatically discount the power of belief in the creation of culture, for that would skew our own understanding of the historic past regardless of our own position on such things.
What symbols say.
But what exactly is a symbol in this sense? Its impossible to know what the unconscious actually contains; we can’t open up the brain and peer into it as we would a loft in a house. But we can guess at its nature by paying attention to how it influences the conscious mind. By watching the ripples on the surface we can make guesses at how the currents deep bellow are moving. By studying the symbolic images that rise up into conscious awareness, Jung believed that we could interpret the movements of the unconscious. This led him to perceive that one of the basic qualities of the unconscious is its continual attempt to redress psychological balance. He said:
The unconscious, [is] the neutral region of the psyche where everything that is divided and antagonistic in consciousness flows together into groupings and configurations. These, when raised to the light of consciousness, reveal a nature that exhibits the constituents of one side as much as the other; they nevertheless belong to neither but occupy an independent middle position.
(Carl Jung, Psychological Types, p.113)
Jung saw the unconscious as the place where the psyche attempts to regulate the different influences that flow into it. It brings conflicting elements together into what he called groupings and configurations that in turn are expressed in the conscious mind as symbols: images that contain a blending of the original influences. If this theory is correct, then when such symbols are expressed consciously, we should be able to see in them traces of those initially conflicting influences, but presented in a more or less stable state. I’ll explore this idea in the next post.
*It must also be stressed that the theory of the unconscious is by no means uncontroversial: many current researchers tend to remodel the notion of non-conscious processes according to recent developments in neurological science. But this new context of understanding doesn’t change the fact that regardless of their biological correlations and influences, non-conscious phenomena can still be interpreted on both individual and communal levels in terms of mythology.
The previous post outlined the transcendent and the particular as two contrasting perspectives that we can take when interpreting a mythological symbol. Yet neither is necessarily a distinct perspective at all times. Often we discover a mix of both perspectives is needed. To illustrate this point, I’m going to use both these terms to interpret some very common symbols from global culture. The first of these will be a very familiar mythological symbol to many of us, that being the Christian Cross.
The Christian Cross.
In Christian religion the cross is a symbol that expresses many transcendent concepts. To begin with its a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice; its also a symbol of his resurrection, and in that sense it can be interpreted generally as a symbol of life after death. That can also be extended to include all Christians who believe they have an opportunity to gain life after death in heaven.
But the particular cross in the image above also offers a particular perspective: as a Celtic cross, more local or regional elements are apparent. In terms of decoration, we can see that this stone cross includes Celtic knotwork carved into its different panels. Also, in terms of its basic form its a standard Christian cross with an added circle. In terms of its metaphorical depth, we have a surface image that we understand as a religious symbol, beyond which there is a mid ground containing those aspects pertaining to the Celtic nations and the peculiarities of Christian culture. We then have a deeper perspective that transcends not only the prior layers of meaning but also, apparently, the symbol’s own limits.
These interpretations are all ultimately dependent upon our own positions as observers. If we refocus on the particular perspective, we can easily see how those regional features could also in turn reveal transcendent perspectives within themselves. For example, Celtic knotwork can be more than just decoration, symbolising concepts such as the weave of time and manifest creation. The adapted form of the cross could even have significance. The circle and cross is a symbol used in many cultures across the world often to represent physical space, the circle of the metaphorical horizon dissected by the cardinal directions. It is sometimes used to symbolise how people can orientate themselves within an abstract space, an idea that is at the heart of the Welsh Eisteddfod tradition of chairing the bard. In general terms, that orientation provided by the cardinal directions focusses in on a still centre, giving this symbol a connotation of transcendence, representing that point which goes beyond manifest time and space. In terms of the historic Celts themselves, we know that the dissected circle or wheel was an important religious symbol for them, often interpreted by modern scholars as a sun symbol. The Celtic cross as we find it today can be viewed as a symbol expressing all of these perspectives of course, showing how one symbol can incorporate many different kinds of meanings.
Some care needs to be taken with value judgments when using these two terms, when taking up transcendent or particular positions, because on occasion more particular aspects can easily be viewed in terms of their own deeper, transcendent qualities.
The T’ai Chi.
Traditionally used in China to represent Taoism and Taoist arts and philosophy, it is now as ubiquitous a symbol as the Christian cross. The T’ai Chi symbol itself is the central circle of the image, the revolving black and white opposites of yin and yang, which is why this is more commonly referred to as the yin/yang symbol. The surrounding lines, known as a bagua made up of trigrams, are those found in the I Ching, and symbolise the 8 different universal conditions that arise out of the dynamic interplay of yin and yang. This pair of polar opposites is described as female and male, yielding and giving, dark and light. This is clearly a transcendent perspective, expressing universal aspects of creation. Yin and Yang and their accompanying circle of trigrams describe the basic dynamic of the manifest universe as it arises out of Wuji, or the void, thereby becoming the Way, or the Tao of Taoism.
This transcendent symbol is often found in more particular settings. For example, many martial arts organisations incorporate the T’ai Chi into their own club logo, often accompanied by other images such as crossed swords or hands or fists. Just like the Celtic knotwork on the Celtic cross, we can easily view this decoration from a particular perspective, even though its a symbol clearly expressing universal, transcendent themes.
The Buddhist Mandala.
A Buddhist mandala is traditionally used as a focus during meditation, either during its ritual creation as in sand paintings, or as an image to contemplate and impress upon the memory. Mandalas often look like temple floor plans, with four gates in an outer wall, often a black circle symbolising the illusory world of our senses. Moving in toward the centre of the temple brings us closer to buddha nature.
Meditation is ultimately a practice towards enlightenment, and a mandala can symbolise many of the elements involved in that practice. We can easily see how this is the transcendent perspective on this symbol. In terms of its particular connotations, the smaller figures and some of the colours used are specific to particular regions.
The Christian Cross, the Taoist T’ai Chi and the Buddhist Mandala are all derived from the same basic form, and that in itself is a reflection of a basic structural understanding of human experience.
This autumn I’ll be making available a Welsh Mythology home study audio course which you will be able to download from this website. In preparation I’ve put together this series of blog posts that sets out some useful approaches to interpreting mythological symbols. I’ll be posting every few weeks and please feel free to ask any questions or leave comments bellow.
In keeping with the ancient bardic practice of working in threes, this series of posts defines three aspects of a symbol; these are: depth, paradox and potential. There are many other terms and definitions that we could use, but these three can be useful as we begin to interpret a symbol.
Depth, a spatial metaphor
It can be said that a symbol has depth, but what exactly does that mean? This is a spatial metaphor describing a particular characteristic of symbols: they commonly have a surface, literal meaning that points to the deeper, symbolic meaning. For example, the image of Father Christmas is on the surface just that, an image of a merry looking, bearded man in a red costume.
But the image of Father Christmas is also a symbol expressing all those things associated with Christmas time: giving and receiving gifts; children playing; roast turkey dinners. If we separate some of these associations out we find that they in turn contain further associations. For example, the image of children playing taken alone evokes other connotations such as child-hood, happiness, family.
Here the surface image has a literal meaning that points to further, deeper meanings.
Transcendent and Particular
As well as having a depth of meaningful associations, a symbol can be described in terms of another kind of depth that, from the individual’s perspective at least, appears to transcend their cultural associations. On the one hand there are particular features that refer to the regional, ethnic or personal aspects of a symbol, and on the other hand the transcendent associations that refer to the more profound, universal ideas implied, more often than not linked to those ideas that appear to the individual to be too general to be contained by the conceptual bounds of their specific culture. Rightly or wrongly, transcendent interpretations are aplied by an individual to the whole of humanity, the universe and everything.
In other words, symbols can appear to point past themselves to meanings that are not always explicitly obvious in their surface form. Again, the basic metaphor here is that of depth. The symbol itself inhabits a foreground, beyond which lies a mid ground containing interpretations that correspond to personal and communal culture; beyond that there is a further space, where a symbol appears to point past itself to interpretations that seek to transcend those personal or regional definitions.
The legendary poems from the Book of Taliesin provide us with a brief glimpse of the less formal activities of Welsh medieval court bards. Most of these poems are dramatic pieces that were very likely performed by bards and declaimers adopting the dramatic persona of the legendary Taliesin. The differing ages of some of these and other legendary Taliesin poems found in other manuscripts suggest such a practice was popular at least during the few hundred years of the Gogynfeirdd period, if not longer. There are obviously many reasons why these poems were composed, but they can be considered at least partly as material that would have further promoted the essential mystique of the Welsh court bard. As we can see in poems such as ‘Angar Kyfundawt’, possibly composed around the early 1200s, Taliesin is portrayed as the divinely inspired, erudite and magically powerful wise-man who’s own status bolsters that of the ancient order he personifies.
It has been noted by Haycock that this particular version of the Taliesin figure was possibly intended to give some positive spin to the bardic tradition in the wake of accusations concerning its integrity. This may in part have been down to the bad press given to the bards over the years by church men, the 6th century Gildas being one of the earliest, and the 12th century Gerald of Wales who, in his Journey Through Wales, must have caused some discomfort for the bards in describing the babbling and seemingly possessed awenyddion. The use of the Taliesin persona at this time can at least be seen as part of the bardic tradition’s continuing efforts to promote its relevance at the courts of the Welsh princes. The legendary poems in the Book of Taliesin promote the fundamental ideal of the court bard, with the legendary Taliesin’s kaleidoscopic display of learning, wisdom and mystical vision stressing many of the attributes probably held to be important amongst real-life bards working in real-life situations.
So what exactly is it about the Taliesin persona that made it so appealing to bard and audience alike? We find the popularity of the Taliesin myth echoing down the centuries in the form of the Tale of Taliesin; as Ifor Williams commented, this has remained one of the most popular Welsh folk tales for over a thousand years. The reasons for the Taliesin persona’s appeal can perhaps be found in the different strands of political, social and cultural power this archetypal figure mediates. Even though the primary function of this persona was to entertain, through that entertainment it was also a vector for these other influences.
The influences I’ve noted here, the political, social and cultural, clearly overlap, and it should be remembered that in the effervescent moment of performance these strands would not be mediated separately but conveyed as a total effect implied in the whole persona. Neither should we assume that defining such a performance as court theatre means it was of less value than the formal, public ceremonies of praise and eulogy in terms of maintaining a bard’s public authority or ensuring his influence within the wider political sphere. As we find in the works of many great playwrights, apparent frivolity can as easily convey profundity and even revolution. The same should be borne in mind with the Taliesin persona.
We must also bare in mind that the personal authority and mystique of the court bard undertaking such a performance would clearly have a large impact on how it was received, particularly if we consider that some of the legendary Taliesin poems were probably composed and performed by none other than Prydydd y Moch. The real-life status of the court bard would have been essential to the success of any such ‘Taliesin’ performance, as would the audience’s acknowledgement that this was not only good fun, but also a celebration of the cherished bardic ideal. It may also have been considered the embodiment of a venerated and respected ancestor; that is, the performing bard was considered to have evoked the spirit of the historic Taliesin through his characterisation (lines 14 – 16 of ‘Teithi Edmygant’, see bellow: Our generous God / . . . / He wakens the sleeper / He merits a flow [of praise]).
In terms of the political, social and cultural power the Taliesin persona mediated, one example from the Book of Taliesin will serve to illustrate the economy with which this could have been achieved. We find all three kinds of power wielded quite subtly in the poem ‘Teithi Edmygant’ (LPBT, p.370). On the surface, as with many of these poems, the text appears to be quite ambiguous, the meaning inconsistent and apparently confused at times – although as always, a little shift in perspective on the modern reader’s part shows that the text more than likely is complete. The poem includes references to famous ancestors of royal Welsh lineages, those of North and South, and its not immediately clear why these references have been inserted into the regular flow of Taliesin’s boasting. For example, there appears to be a disjoin at the end of this sequence:
Pwy a tal y keinon?
ae Maelgwn o Von?
ae Dyfyd o Aeron?
ae Coel a’e kenawon?
ae Gwrwedw a’e veibon?
Nyt anchward y alon
o Ynyr Wystlon.
Ef kyrch kerdoryon
se syberw Seon.
Who deserves the drink of honour?
Maelgwn from Anglesey?
Or Dyfydd from Aeron?
Or Coel and his hounds?
Or Gwrweddw and his sons?
His enemies do not laugh
because of the hostages [taken by] Ynyr.
Poets make for one in (Caer) Seon with his proud [word-]sowing.
By locating the performance of this poem before a court of Welsh nobles, it may be possible to divine a reason for this apparently confused section of the poem. Marged Haycock, the poem’s editor, suggests two possible scenarios:
“The question arrises as to what occasion might suit a performance of a piece like this which has so many varied elements. One possibility is that it was performed ‘in the story’ – i.e. imagined to be happening at the court of Maelgwn at Degannwy on the occasion when he was receiving visitors. Another is that the mask or persona of Taliesin was used in a real-life setting, not just to provide entertainment, but to foster solidarity in a gathering of representatives from different kingdoms, or satellite regions. Diplomatic flattery could well have turned to the doings of fifth- and sixth century heroic worthies.” (LPBT.371)
In both contexts mentioned here by Haycock, we can assume the poem was declaimed on the occasion of worthies visiting the court, either real or imaginary. Further to that, we can also assume that as with most poetry from this period there will be an element of idealising. It was probably understood by the audience that one of the bard’s traditional roles was to judge the aristocratic community according to noble ideals, a role implicit in the Taliesin figure since the earliest praises of Cynan and Urien. If we interpret the above excerpt with reference to these possible subtexts we may be able to make some sense of the change in direction it contains.
At the beginning of the excerpt the bard playing Taliesin asks ‘who is worthy of the drink of honour?’, that is a symbolic way of asking ‘who is worthy of the dignity and honour provided by this court through its ceremonies?’ In response to this apparent challenge, a list of famous ancestors, or ideal heroes, is offered. The suggestion is that these heroes would be more than worthy of the keinon, the drink of honour. At the end of the list we then have the couplet ‘his enemies do not laugh / because Ynyr took hostages’ – Ynyr more than likely being one of the early kings of Gwent in South East Wales. Even though the couplet names him specifically, the poem could be suggesting generally that the one who is worthy of the honour of the court is one who is also fortunate enough to have enemies that were oppressed (‘his enemies do not laugh’) because of the actions of his ancestors (‘because Ynyr took hostages’). Ynyr does not need to be an actual ancestor, just a famous example of a hero who served his descendants by being a violent oppressor of his and their enemies. The taking of hostages meant that the weaker force (the English here) wished to forgo any violent conflict and instead opted to surrender hostages to the superior force (the Welsh).
What would be the implications of such a suggestion in the context of a medieval court? Even though its clearly impossible to say either way exactly what the social ceremonies of the day were, its likely drink – probably mead – had something to do with it, as suggested by the formal term keinyon, that is ‘the first drink’ or ‘the honour drink’, found in Welsh law text as well as poetry. Before listening to a performance of this particular poem, did noble members of the audience take part in a public ceremony where they received a drink from the king of the court, as a public sign of his welcome and hospitality and their loyalty? That would make these few lines quoted above quite relevant if ever performed in such a context. Metaphorically, the bard playing Taliesin would have asked – “You noblemen, you descendants of famous ancestors, you who are indebted to them for making you noble, are you worthy of this court’s ceremony?” Even though the poem doesn’t state this explicitly, by locating it in such a context it becomes a possible reading.
If we come now to the apparent turn in meaning in the last couplet, we find here another of Taliesin’s boasts, possibly inserted to give a kick of authority to the challenge implied above; only he, famous and honoured as he is, has the authority (and gall) to suggest the present nobility should compare themselves to their famous ancestors to see if they are laking in any way. The apparent change in direction here is instead read as a statement qualifying Taliesin’s authority in posing the challenge, stressing his traditional position as one who ‘judges men of heart’. Either way, whichever of these various contexts we wish to stress, the poem makes an indirect reference to the audience. The final responsibility of answering the challenge implied by Taliesin rests with them. If so, this is not simply a rhetorical device, but an invitation for the audience to engage with the heroic ideals the bardic tradition was so keen on promoting, mediated here by the legendary persona of their most entertaining spokesman.
I’m beginning a new online course this April called The Taliesin Tradition. It covers almost 1500 years of material, from the earliest Welsh poetry by the historic Taliesin, through to the mythic Taliesin and the poems attributed to him in The Book of Taliesin. We will track the development of the Taliesin myth and how it was used by the medieval bards to inform their own myth making. It will also touch briefly on the Taliesin tradition today and its presence in modern culture.
Its a similar format to the Symbolic Keys, only that I’ve extended the length of the sessions to 2 hours. For more information please visit the course page.
I’m also running a short 4 week version of the course in Tre’r Ddol (next door to Tre Taliesin) and Machynlleth. The course begins March 20th in Machynlleth and March 25th in Tre’r Ddol. Please see the fliers bellow for details:
A slightly extended version of the Symbolic Keys online course will also run beginning Sunday April 20th.
According to Marged Haycock, the Book of Taliesin poem ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ could very well have been written by Llywarch ap Llywelyn (for a full explanation see her introduction to her edition of The Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin). The similarites between Llywarch’s more formal court poetry and a number of poems in the Book at least place him closer to the text than any other bard of his period. Although Marged Haycock largely makes the association based on similarities in vocabulary and word combinations, there is also the suggestion of a conceptual similarity, not only with Llywarch, but also with his old master, Cynddelw. This conceptual similarity is of course with regards to the use of dwfn and its counterpart Annwfn as signifying a mythical dimension implied within mundane reality.
As with the majority of the other legendary poems, ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ is a dramatic piece that was likely to have been performed in the voice and persona of the mythical Taliesin; before uttering a word, this in itself would signal that the performer was evoking the mythical depths. The explicit references to ‘the deep’ largely corroborate what’s already been covered in previous posts, such as . . .
Awen a ganaf,
o dwfyn ys dygaf.
I sing awen,
I bring it forth from the depth.
Another section describes in detail what is only suggested in other poems:
Ef a’e rin rodes
seith vgein ogyruen
yssyd yn awen;
wyth vgein o pop vgein
euyd yn vn.
Yn Annwyfn y diwyth,
yn Annwfyn y gorwyth,
yn Annwfyn is eluyd,
yn awyr uch eluyd.
He [God] with his miracle
bestowed immeasurable awen;
seven score ogyrfen
there is in awen,
and eight score of every score
in each one.
In Annwfn he ranged them,
in Annwfn he made them,
in Annwfn below the earth,
in the air above the earth.
Here the legendary Taliesin describes how God created the immeasurable aspects or divisions (ogyrfen) of awen and set them out in Annwfn. The poet unambiguously names Annwfn as the place where awen is created, set out in all its varieties, and more importantly where it is found, the depth from which it rises. This makes sense if we again define Annwfn as the mythical realm, that is the place from which all symbolic, mythic and idealised forms arise. In the Four Branches, Annwfn is the realm that is somehow within Dyfed, and is the place where Pwyll experiences ideal or perfected forms of behaviour.
This also suggests a possible interpretation for the difficult last line in the above excerpt, ‘in the air above the earth’. There are two possible interpretations: first of all that the poem here refers back to awen, and that awen is also found in the air above the earth as well as being arranged by God in the depths; a possible interpretation considering the etymological link between awen and breath / air.
The second interpretation is that the whole sequence is talking about Annwfn and therefore Annwfn is here described as not only being in the earth bellow but also in the air above. It would be reasonable to assume that this is a metaphorical way of saying ‘in all places, above and bellow’ just as Llywarch uses dwfn a bais in the previous post. This interpretation suggests Annwfn is in all things, latent in the whole of God’s creation, not just bellow the earth. In this regard, the meaning of the name Annwfn shouldn’t be taken literally but symbolically; describing it as being bellow ground is simply a storybook metaphor for the more nuanced concept of ‘the world within the world’.
But these are not the only references to ‘the deep’ that we find in ‘Angar Kyfundawt’. If anything, the whole poem is laced with references to this concept, usually implied in double meaning, or ‘meanings within meanings’ which as a feature itself seems to symbolise ‘the world within the world’. In the next few posts I’ll take a more detailed look at these other examples.