Psyche as Soul … as a Goddess
John Keats’s ‘Ode To Psyche’, his definition of ‘Negative Capability’ and Coleridge’s definition of ‘Imagination’
Psyche as Soul … as a Goddess
John Keats’s ‘Ode To Psyche’, his definition of ‘Negative Capability’ and Coleridge’s definition of ‘Imagination’
Three wells of the world – so the Norse myth says
One guarded by Mimir’s head, from which wisdom flows.
Three heads in the well – so the folk tale tells it:
What they say will be, will be.
Prophetic voices out of wells.
So Febul’s seeress says:
“This sea of grey water was once a fair green land with white flowers.
It was Bran who brought it, the flood that drowns the land”.
It was the Head of Brân who spoke to those who came back across the sea
For bliss to reign until the door is opened – until the seal is broken
Like Branwen’s heart – would that she had spoken and proffered the cup
But she was absent from this company, an echo sundered from a body.
Come back Branwen to our feast, our Otherworld sojourn where you offer
The drink that sustains us from the Cup of Plenty and the Mead of Belonging
So there is no door we must not open, no usurped land we cannot claim
So we may inherit and inhabit the land together in your name.
According to Ynglinga Saga The Vanir cut off Mimir’s head and sent it back to the Æsir so Odinn preserved it in herbs and placed it by one of the three wells that rise under Yggdrasil. According to Snorri’s Edda “Under the root that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence is hidden there”. In the Seeress’s Prophecy in the Poetic Edda, Odinn hid his eye there which he gave in exchange for wisdom.
Severed heads are a recurring theme in Celtic myth, often discussed in terms of a ‘cult of the head’ as in Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain. But here I see this as a sundering of Brân from Branwen who together embody the sovereignty of Ynys Prydain (see also notes to the previous post).
At the end of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Brân’s head is cut off by his own instruction after he is wounded in the foot (in the Welsh tale of Peredur while the lamed King entertained him a severed head on a platter is carried through the room instead of a grail as in the Grail legends). Branwen dies of a broken heart and is buried, so is absent from the sojourn in Gwales over which the head of Brân presides.
Meanwhile the sovereignty of Ynys Prydain has been usurped and cannot be regained, so Manawydan in the Third branch cannot inherit and retreats with Pryderi to Dyfed. There he marries Rhiannon and restores sovereignty – by confronting an Otherworld adversary – on a different plane entirely from that of the secular power usurped by Caswallawn.
Is this now our task?
A honno oed tryded prif rieni yn yr ynys hon
(And she was one of the three great progenitors of this Island)
How far back before her story was told
Did she proffer the cup of sovereignty of the Island
Her giant brother – or other self – holding it as a cauldron
Before the spring which pulses beneath Loch Febuil flooded the fair plain
So that the one who plundered and the one who held the treasure became one
Long before the islands of Britain and Ireland were sundered
Before the wolf-grey seas rushed in and so they were separate
Brother and Sister in the legends of the land
(though he would be a bridge between them).
Who then sought sovereignty and where was its source?
Each of them buried deep in the Earth of the Island
Held it in safe keeping : She in a grave at Aber Alaw,
He under the White Mount where Arthur sought him
Taking the sovereignty to hold for his own:
The raid on the White Mount, the raid on Annwfn,
The raid for the Cauldron there and in Ireland
Retelling the story over and over again
(as Culhwch got Olwen and the Giant was vanquished)
Re-living the quest of Bran for the Cauldron
Beneath the spring where Branwen held it.
In the Welsh of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi Brân – or Bendigeidfran – is a giant and is brother to Branwen and Manawydan, offspring of Llŷr. Brân has a cauldron which came with another giant from under a lake in Ireland and is sent back to Ireland with Matholwch when he marries Branwen.
In the well-known Irish story of Bran Son of Febul he sets off in a ship to sail to the Otherworld and meets Manannan Mac Lir on the sea who directs him on his way.
The lesser known story about Bran Son of Febul is recounted in some verses recording an exchange between Febul’s Prophetess and Bran’s Druid. The druid recounts how he had a vision of treasure hidden under a spring and of Bran’s quest to recover it. The Prophetess tells of how beautiful the plain around the spring was before the treasure was taken and how the land was flooded because Bran’s expedition offended the female guardians of the spring. The resultant flood formed Loch Febuil, now known as Lough Foyle.
Arthur in the Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn, from The Book of Taliesin, sails in his ship Prydwen to raid the Otherworld in search of treasure, in particular a cauldron. One of his men, Lleawc, thrusts his sword into the Cauldron. In the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur sails to Ireland to get a cauldron. One of his men, Llenlleawc, said himself to be an Irishmen, wielding Arthur’s sword, captures the Cauldron.
Brân’s head was buried beneath the White Mount to protect the Island of Britain. In one of the Welsh triads, Arthur is said to have dug up the head because he wanted to be the sole protector of the Island. So the symbol of sovereignty became the Crown.
Awakening from a dream
In the half-light of a winter dawn
The vision of a white horse
Bright against the starkness of the day
The Sun riding low on the saddle
Of a ridge shrouded with mist
But the communion cup, the dish of plenty, the cauldron of mystery have a far older lineage. Consider the words of Glenys Goetink who, in her study of the Welsh grail stories, asserts that, behind the Christian relic, the Grail “derives from one of the talismans found in the dwelling of the Otherworld god; it was of great significance in the ritual of conferring sovereignty upon the hero on the occasion of his visit to the Otherworld.” (*) This is certainly the implication of the story as told by Chrétien and in the parallel Welsh Romance Peredur. The Grail in Chrétien’s story is a dish held by a maiden in an episode in which the questing hero comes across a castle in a remote place. A bleeding lance is also carried through the room where he sits conversing with the lamed Fisher King. In the parallel scene in the Welsh story of Peredur the dish is a platter on which sits a severed head. In both cases Perceval/Peredur does not ask the meaning of the objects carried into the room. In Chrétien’s story Perceval awakes the next morning to find the castle empty and with only one way open for him to leave. After he has left he can’t go back and cannot find the castle again. In both stories the hero is later rebuked for not asking the question which would have healed the king, and then sets off to find the castle again. Chrétien’s tale is unfinished so we never know if Perceval eventually finds the castle. Peredur does find it after a random series of adventures which culminate in the killing, with Arthur’s help, of The Nine Witches of Gloucester.
There has been much speculation from different scholars about influences. It is likely that later medieval writers took the story from the French of Chrétien or his successors. Did Chrétien get his story from Brittany, from the same source as the anonymous Welsh author of Peredur, or were there different sources available to both of them? One certainly earlier possible source is the Irish story Baile in Scáil which several scholars have noticed contains parallel scenes to the episode of the visit to the Grail Castle. ‘Baile’ (modern Irish ‘buile’) means ‘frenzy’, though it is sometimes translated ‘ecstasy’ as in terms of the baile stories it describes the ecstatic frenzy which druids, female seers and other gifted people go into to gain visions or make prophecies, much as Giraldus Cambrensis describes the awenyddion in Wales. John Carey provides an extensive analysis of this tale and its possible links with the Grail stories. Here the frenzied visionary state is entered by a ‘phantom’ who turns out to be Lug, and a woman with a crown of gold who asks ‘to whom shall this cup be given?’. Carey says the following about the similarities between the two stories:
“In both, the protagonist comes upon a rich and mysterious stronghold, which is at first concealed from him. He is lavishly entertained by a gracious host, who seems to be identical with a figure who has acted as a guide earlier in the tale. A central part in the feast is played by a young woman who serves as custodian of a extra-ordinary golden vessel; and the apparition of the vessel is associated with the protagonist being served roasted meat. The question as to who it is whom this vessel serves is the pivot of both stories. After the feast, everything disappears: Perceval falls asleep, then wakes in an empty castle which he is unable to find again after he has left it; Conn passes ‘into the shadow’ of Lug, and is suddenly back in Tara.” (**).
Conn, unlike Perceval, is not found wanting and so his sovereignty, and that of his line backwards and forwards, is confirmed and no further searching, such as that undertaken in the later stories, is necessary. In the Welsh tale the situation is eventually resolved, though the significance of the episode gets lost in the series of other adventures it is mixed up with. In the French tale, and even more so in those that came after it, the quest of the Grail becomes an end in itself. That is it becomes a tale of sin and redemption in the best Christian tradition of the Middle Ages. It also becomes a symbol of purity, or the virtuousness of those who seek it. But what was the original cup of sovereignty that seems still to be fulfilling that function in the Irish story? Carey is suggestive in linking it with the role of the cup bearer as identified by Michael Enright (***) and so, possibly back to Rosmerta. Proinsias Mac Cana also refers to this story and identifies the cup bearer as ‘the Sovereignty of Ireland’, the personification of the land itself, who, coupled with Lug, “can scarcely be dissociated from the Gaulish monuments to Mercury and Rosmerta”.(****)
So is the Grail the Cup of Plenty, Rosmerta’s bounty, offered at the feast with its echoes in later tales of cup bearers, seers and the guardians of sacred wells? That will have to be another story.
* Glenys Goetink Peredur : A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends (Cardiff, 1975)
** John Carey Ireland and The Grail (Aberystwyth, 2007)
*** M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)
**** Proinsias Mac Cana Celtic Mythology (Hamlyn, 1983)
For Avon, think Afon, itself ‘river’
flowing from the source in Brythonic Abona
For Severn, think Sæfern, and before that Sabrina
Brythonic ‘flowing’ is heard in Thames, Tavy,
These speak of a common spring far back, streams
of the land, sources that leak silver ore
through the valleys of Ynys Prydain.
of rock and soil, dark waters with names like this:
from Dubglas, source of all Blackwater streams,
And so to Dee / Dyfrdwy, the Goddess Dēuā,
Aerfen’s waters, Tegid’s lake, Ceridwen’s cauldron.
Or the nearby falls
Where the stream fills
The air with living water?
“I know the secrets of Ceridwen’s song” – Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr (1155 – 1200)
There are fifteen occurences of the word awen in The Book of Taliesin as well as several equivalent words or phrases, such as ogyrven which is used both as a division of the awen (‘Seven score ogyrven which are in awen, shaped in Annwfn’) as well as an alternative word for awen itself. The poem ‘Armes Prydain’ (The Prophecies of Britain) begins with the phrase ‘Awen foretells …’, and it is repeated later in the poem. The link between poetic inspiration and divination is implicit in the description of the Awenyddion given by Gerald of Wales in the 12th century and the link between bardic expression and prophecy is a common feature of much early verse in Wales and elsewhere.
Several of the uses of the word awen in The Book of Taliesin are simply boasts , emphasising the skill and the depth of inspiration of the poet compared to lesser practitioners of the art. In one poem awen is specifically conceived of as threefold and having its source in a cauldron, an emphasis which commonly occurs in the references to awen by the early bards, often also linked with Ceridwen as the keeper of the Cauldron. These lines could also contain a reference to the Trinity which was much emphasized in the Christian theology of the time. In one of the few poems in The Book of Taliesin which has been assigned to the historical 6th century bard rather than one of his later imitators or adaptors, the awen is referred to as an ash wand, implying that it is a weapon in the poetic armoury, or perhaps a magical implement. The military metaphor is also implicit in the Llywarch Hen cycle where Llywarch, in his old age, refers to the loss of his awen as his strength and vigour wanes.
A poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen by an unidentified bard, but addressed to Cuhelyn Fardd (1100-1130) asks God to allow the awen to flow so that ‘inspired song from Ceridwen will shape diverse and well-crafted verse’. This anticipates much poetry from identified bards of the Welsh princes between circa 1100-1300 which juggles the competing claims of the Christian religion with the source of the awen in the Cauldron of Ceridwen. It also anticipates them in the complexity of the expression bound up as it is in the woven words and interlocked phrases of cynghanedd and the strict metres of the verse so that it is more or less impossible to translate the combination of form and meaning and the ways they are bound together. This is not only an exercise in creative technique but also close to being a system of coded reference among the bardic elite. Among other things it would enable a formal adherence to Christianity to be subtly balanced against the source of the awen in the Cauldron of Ceridwen and in the inspired utterances of earlier awenyddion.
So Llywarch ap Llywelyn (1173-1220) – also known as ‘Prydydd y Moch’ – can address his patron Llywelyn ap Iorwerth like this:
I greet my lord, bring awen’s great greeting
Words from Ceridwen I compose
Just like Taliesin when he freed Elffin.
The same poet also penned the often quoted lines
The Lord God grant me sweet awen
As from the Cauldron of Ceridwen
Elidr Sais (c. 1195-1246), ‘singing to Christ’, wrote
Brilliant my poetry after Myrddin
Shing forth from the cauldron of awen
while Dafydd Benfras (1220-1258) included both Myrddin (Merlin) and Aneirin in his backward glance:
Full of awen as Myrddin desired
Singing praise as Aneirin before me
when he sang of ‘Gododdin’.
So far all the bards quoted inhabited an independent Wales which looked back to a more extensive homeland which comprised much of western Britain. After the killing of Llywelyn, the last native Prince of Wales in 1282, there was an outpouring of grief from the bards and a sense that an end had come to the world they inhabited, best represented by the ‘Elegy for Llywelyn’ by Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch with lines such as
Not since Camlann has there been such weeping
All Britain is struck down with Nantcoel’s defender
Hearts chilled by a pall of fear
The sun falls and the stars are shrinking
Can you not see our world is ending,
Why does the sea not run over the shore?
As the Norman aristocracy gradually moved into Wales this proved prophetically accurate. There are no surviving further references to awen or the Cauldron of Ceridwen in the poetry for the period after 1300, although much has been lost so we cannot know for certain. The topic does re-emerge in the 15th century, so it is likely that some continuity was maintained. But by then the debate about the source of the awen is framed entirely in Christian terms with the Virgin Mary, rather than Ceridwen, identified and there is no mention of a cauldron. It was not that this had been entirely forgotten. The prose tale of Gwion, Ceridwen and the re-birth of Taliesin dates from this period and includes fragments of the earlier poems. The story was, by the testimony of Elis Gruffydd in the 16th century widespread in popular knowledge in Wales. But it seems that the bards had abandoned it to the folk tradition rather than keeping it as part of their own arcane lore.
I have drawn upon the essay ‘Awen y Cynfeirdd a’r Gogynfeirdd’ by Y Chwaer Bosco in Beirdd a Thywysogion (Cardiff, 1996) for some factual information.
I have also used the editions of the Beirdd y Tywysogion series for quotations from the early bards together with Marged Haycock’s Legendary Poems from The Book of Taliesin (Aberystwyth, 2007) and Prophecies from The Book of Taliesin (Aberystwyth, 2013) and the edition of Armes Prydain by Ifor Williams and Rachel Bromwich (Dublin, 1982).
Translations from the poetry are my own.
Do we need to re-assess the status of Arthur in British mythic and legendary history? I am prompted to ask that question after reading Lorna Smithers ‘ The Broken Cauldron , although it has for some time been an emerging theme in her blog output and her literary work in the service of her patron god Gwyn ap Nudd in her previous book Enchanting the Shadowlands.
Arthur, according to one of the Welsh Triads, decided to dig up Bran’s head at the White Mount thereby removing the older protector of Ynys Prydain (and his mythological sway) because he wanted none but himself to be the defender of Britain. Lorna’s view of Arthur certainly sees him in this light, but concentrates on the significance of his raid on Annwn and the carrying of of the Cauldron of Rebirth from that place as related in the poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ in The Book of Taliesin. Her reconstruction of early Brythonic material is mythically innovative and inspired. Much of the material containing the Arthurian stories which developed into the romance cycles of the later Middle Ages might be called legendary history, following the narrative of the Historia Brittonum and other sources in Latin such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and detailing how Arthur led the resistance of the romanized Britons to the Saxon invasions. Here Arthur is the Dux Bellorum or leader of the warbands. But Lorna goes back, rather, to the mythic Welsh material where his activities include the raid on the Otherworld to capture the Cauldron and the hunt of a magical boar. What Arthur does here is not simply to act as a legendary hero but as a moving force in changing the mythic life of Britain. What Lorna attempts, then, is nothing less than a reclaiming of that earlier mythic layer with Gwyn ap Nudd rather than Arthur as the central protagonist. To do this she does not simply attempt to re-construct the myths, but to recreate them as part of a personal quest which is initiatory in its intensity. The public expression of that quest is contained in her published work such as the book under review putting it in the public domain and therefore available to enrich the common mythos for other Brythonic polytheists.
Arthur’s raid on Annwn and the act of one of his men, Lleawg, in pushing his sword into the Cauldron can be seen as a defining moment in mythic reconfiguring. The Cauldron is traditionally seen as being in the keeping of Ceridwen. Lorna is an awenydd who finds her awen in the impulse to offer Gwyn ap Nudd the poems, tales and other writings which he inspires in her. The source of the awen is traditionally the Cauldron of Ceridwen as featured in the tale of Taliesin but also as perceived by the earliest Welsh bards as the source of their inspiration. For Lorna Ceridwen is ‘Old Mother Universe’, the divine source of all life which is cyclically re-born from the Cauldron of Rebirth.
In updating this mythic material for our own times Lorna conceives the Cauldron by analogy with various modern artefacts such as the vats producing the chemicals which fuel modern industry. Just as, in the story of Taliesin, inspiration was gained from a few drops of the Cauldron’s brew, the remaining poisonous liquid running off to pollute streams and rivers, so modern chemical and energy production and the destructive environmental effects of this are seen by analogy as a deluge from the Broken Cauldron following Arthur’s raid on Annwn to capture it.
I have singled out one thread of Lorna’s thematic narrative here, but there is much more, including as she does that other mythic deluge from the broken well of Mererid and the tales of drowned lands both in Gwyddno Garanhir’s Borth, where Taliesin was discovered in a weir by Elffin, and the location of it in her native Lancashire where the submerged harbour of Portus Setantiorum offers another location for the story.
In the final section on nuclear power, Arthur’s legacy of the Broken Cauldron finds its ultimate expression in the image of a leaking reactor and of meltdown of the reactor core. Here the mix of poems, creative prose and factual information combines in what might be taken as an awenydd‘s pessimistic prediction of the future. Does the final image, then, of Old Mother Universe falling asleep indicate an end or a new beginning? The Awenydd‘s words are always open to interpretation. The future lies also in our hands and Lorna’s inspired mythic re-imaginings should also be taken as words of warning. Will they be heeded?
Re-posted from the BRYTHON Blog
‘It is the bards of the world who judge men of valour’ – Gododdin
So says Aneirin in the oldest surviving text in the Welsh language. Aneirin was one of the bards mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (1) as having been active in the 6th century:
Talhaern Tat Aguen was then renowned in poetry, and Aneirin and Taliesin and Bluchbard and Cian who was called Gwenith Guaut, were all renowned at this time.
Of these, only Aneirin and Taliesin have surviving poems attributed to them and, in the case of Taliesin, poems continued to be written in his name by bards using him as the mouthpiece of the awen up until the end of the thirteenth century. The language of the Historia is Latin, but the epithets for Talhaearn and Cian are in early Welsh. Talhaearn is described as ‘the father of the Awen’, which could mean that he is the source or the earliest of the poets identified as inspired by the Awen, or perhaps that he was a particularly skilful awenydd and foremost of those practising that art. The epithet applied to Cian is usually translated ‘Wheat of Song’. The word for ‘song’ here (guaut, modern Welsh gwawd) is particularly applied to a song of praise or a prophetic song. Certainly the later bards who adopted the Taliesin persona saw prophetic vision as one of the attributes of the figure who became the chief vehicle for the expression of this role of the bards, variously described by them as derwydd (druid), sywydd (enchanter), dewin (wizard) and daroganfardd (soothsayer).
‘Song’ or ‘sing’ are key word in early Welsh poetry, describing the role of the bards. At the beginning of the manuscript of The Gododdin are the words ‘ ..Aneirin ae kant’ (Aneirin sang this). It was a formula used by many of his successors in identifying themselves as authors. A bard not only wrote poetry but he sang it. We might wonder how to take ‘sing’ in this context. It could relate to delivery, in the way that a singer today sings a song, but it is certainly also to be taken in a wider sense of the nature of bardic composition as significant performance. The Celtic scholar J.E. Caerwyn Williams has examined a number of examples of the stem *kan– in early Welsh verse. (2) Among other observations he points out that it is contained in the word cynghanedd, the term for the complex sound combinations which are part of the strict-metre practices of the bards. Also that it is contained in the word dachanu (to declaim, often with a harp) which has a variant form dychanu (to satirise). One theory of how these terms are related is that the satirical implications developed in response to the over-fulsome praise by the bards of their patrons, as witnessed as early as the 6th century when the monk Gildas criticised the Brythonic kings in general, and Maglocunus (Maelgwn Gwynedd) in particular, for the praise received from what he regarded as their lickspittle bards (3).
But the stem *kan is also contained in other emphases of the practice of singing, e,g. darogan (prophecy) and its associated term gwawd (prophetic song, praise) with its cognate forms in Old Irish fáth and Latin & Gaulish uatēs. Caerwyn Williams is drawn to the conclusion that there is an implication of enchantment in the singing of the bards and that this always had both positive and negative implications: “It is obvious that they sang charms, blessings, curses, predictions and prophecies. They were wizards and soothsayers as well as poets.” He reminds us of the description of the awenyddion as described by Giraldus Cambrensis (4) and suggests that the word awenydd contains all of these magical attributes, such as are frequently claimed in the poems of Taliesin. He also asserts that: “..to say that the bards were originally wizards and enchanters is as good as saying that they belonged originally to a priesthood”, by which he understands the druids, citing links between the uatēs and the druidae according to ancient writers (5).
In spite of the more recent sceptical view from Ronald Hutton who asserts that druids and bards should not be confused (6), the testimony of the early bards themselves is rather that they were the inheritors of such a role, re-shaped to meet the needs of changed times and embedded in the grades of the Bardic Order and the arcane matter recorded in the prosodies of the chief poets (7). This is certainly implied by the description of Giraldus of the awenyddion as going into a frenzied state to utter prophecies and of the many references to vaticinatory and related practices in the poems of Taliesin. We might also note a line from the 13th century bard Iorwerth Fychan ‘Gorffwylaf molaf mal awenydd’ (I become frenzied and praise like an awenydd) (8). As J E Caerwyn Williams concludes : “The Celtic bards and their early descendants in Ireland and Wales were inspired (and therefore possessed) by the gods.”
The graphic is from an inscription by David Jones
All quotes from J E Caerwyn Williams are my translation from the work listed in reference 2 below.
1. Historia Brittonum Ch 62
2. ‘Bardus Gallice Cantor Appellatur’ in Beirdd a Thywysogion (GPC, 1996)
3. De Exidio Britanniae Ch 34. These, it might be noted, are the same bards that Taliesin claims to have trounced when he defends Elffin. A typical act of mythic synthesis of Gildas’ criticism of them with his own affirmation of the bardic virtues.
4. Giraldus Cambrensis Descriptio Kambriae Ch 16
5. ‘antiquos poetas vates appellabant‘ – Varro as cited by J E Caerwyn Williams
6. Blood and Mistletoe (Yale, 2009) passim
7. The earliest recorded threefold divisions being Pencerdd (chief singer), Bardd Teulu (household bard), Cerddor (minstrel). Later the divisions were Prydydd (poet), Teuluwr (household man), Clerwr (clerk). Their duties and status are recorded in the various versions of the prosodies brought together as Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid ed. G.J. Williams & E.J. Jones (1934)
8. Gwaith Beirdd y Tywysogion VII (GPC, 1996)