In Search of Sulis

1280px-roman_baths_28bath2c_england29
The reconstructed Roman Bath

The Roman town of Aquae Sulis, now the modern city of Bath, has accumulated many layers of history since it was settled by the Romans, within 30 years of their invasion of Britain, around the hot springs sacred to Sulis and re-dedicated by them to ‘Sulis-Minerva’. I went there recently to see what traces of Sulis I could find beneath the accumulations of successive occupations. As well as visiting the Roman Baths and Museum, I had also arranged to join a small group tour with one of the museum staff below the areas open to the public down to the level of Roman settlement now underneath the museum and surrounding streets. The famous Roman baths which are the main magnet for the many tourists who visit the site are in fact a nineteenth century reconstruction in the Roman style. Even in Roman times these were a public bathing area using water from the sacred springs but separate from the temple of Sulis-Minerva. The oldest part of the surviving building over the springs is in fact the so-called King’s Bath, named for Henry I. The medieval builders apparently had no knowledge of the Roman levels beneath as centuries of silting from the springs had overlain what was left of them.  Some traces were still visible to the Anglo-Saxons as the poem from those times known as ‘The Ruin’ apparently testifies:

This work is wondrous; fate fashioned its fall
Cement smashed; the work of giants come to grief.
Roofs have tumbled, ruinous towers,
Ravaged by frost ; roofs fallen
….

Although it is possible for visitors to walk around the recreated ‘Roman’ bath, the King’s Bath can only be viewed through windows and openings in the stone arches. Here the spring waters can be seen bubbling up into a pool within the derelict and empty medieval space and running off at one end towards the ‘Roman’ bath. This is the nearest that it is possible to get to the spring itself.

King's Bath
The Medieval structure around the Sacred Spring

On the way through to these baths, the museum has a reconstruction of the temple of Sulis-Minerva based on recovered fragments and limited excavations of the site which partly lies beneath the building which houses the museum but also extends out beneath adjoining buildings across the street and towards the medieval abbey situated next to the baths. Excavations beneath these buildings, all of which have their own protected conservation status as historically important later structures, have therefore been restricted.

The tour beneath the museum took us through cellars and along tunnels full of fragments of original Roman structures and over the bases of stone pillars now embedded in the uneven floors. Here we were standing at ground level of the temple beneath the street from where the voice of a busker singing above could be heard. As hard as I tried, it was difficult to imagine myself in the Temenos, the sacred precinct of the temple, before the shrine of Sulis-Minerva. That evening, when the crowds had abated, I stood in the street above where, until the early twentieth century, there was a fountain fed from the spring waters, and had more success locating myself imaginatively in that place.

Of the original Spring of Sulis we have little knowledge. The whole area around the site, in a loop of the River Avon, would have been a reedy marsh. There is evidence of Iron Age settlements on the nearby hills and the remains of a gravel-laid causeway approaching the springs have been discovered. So we do know that access to the site was ensured although no other building work has been found from this period. Perhaps the spring itself was sufficient for Iron-Age devotees visiting the site. If there are now too many layers of history over the original site for any aura of its numen to remain, what then of Sulis today? She remains as ambiguous as the so-called ‘Gorgon’s head’ that adorned the apex of the temple of her coupling with Minerva. Are these the snakes of Gorgon hair associated with Minerva’s protecting shield? And if so why is the face apparently that of a male? Or are they, instead, the swirling waters around the springs? This guardian of her site, as the site itself, remains a mystery for us to fathom in the depths of her waters and the layers from beneath which her divinity emerges.

1280px-romanbathsgorgonhead

Advertisements

Devotional Diary

I will be posting here a lot less often in the immediate future.

I have decided to switch my main  focus to an informal devotional diary rather than researched articles or discursive pieces, though these might still appear here occasionally.

Posts in my devotional diary will appear on The Horse Goddess site : http://rigantona.net

The first of them is about the annual brightening of the horse in my shrine for Rhiannon (as discussed in a recent post on this blog) and it can be found HERE=>

horse
Newly Painted Horse

Aneirin as an Awenydd

book-of-aneirin-facsimile
A page from The Book of Aneirin

 

Mi na fi Neirin
Ys gŵyr Taliesin

Neu chant Ododdin

Aneirin (or Neirin) was one of five poets mentioned in the Ninth Century Historia Brittonum as being active in the Sixth Century. The lines above are included in the series of elegies for warriors of the Gododdin tribe killed in the battle of Catraeth attributed to Aneirin. They seem to say “I who am not Aneirin / As Taliesin knows /…/Sang The Gododdin”. Or do they? Translators have tended to hedge their bets with something like ”I, yet not I …” for the first line. We might think also here of the line from the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen: “As I am Merlin, and then Taliesin”. It seems that the persona of the bard can shift, that one prophetic bard can become another, or speak – inspired – in another’s voice. The act of creating the poem, in this view, comes from the bard drawing upon a power from beyond that inspires ‘song’, a condition which Aneirin here says would also have been shared by Taliesin.

It has been suggested that this verse and the one following from manuscripts in The Book of Aneirin actually belong to a separate saga about Aneirin (*) Taken together the two verses suggest that Aneirin lies beneath the earth in chains with worms or slugs crawling over him and that he was rescued from this place by Cenau whose praise he sings in the second of the two verses. The place of incarceration was “a place of death”.

There seems to be a conflation of two themes here: Aneirin’s rescue from a grave-like prison and his composition of a series of elegies by escaping from his everyday self. It is difficult to know for certain if these two themes are to be taken as significantly connected or if they stand against each other as separate pieces of information. It is not uncommon in this early poetry for unrelated facts to be conveyed together in a single stanza. But if they are connected, the release of the poet from captivity, or from death, and the release into the world of the verses which comprise The Gododdin would need to be taken as a single event. So the poet, who describes himself as “no weary lord” laboured through the night to produce his work “before the dawn” of the following day.

Whether this is to be taken as the night following the battle or the ‘night’ from which he was released, the composition of the Gododdin verses (or those of them that can be regarded as original) were the product of a night’s work during which the bard dwelt in a state resembling death. It’s important here not to think of him as writing down these verses. They would have been composed in the mind and remembered until – having been memorised and perhaps added to by successive generations – eventually written down centuries later. So what of Cenau who released him from whatever condition he was in to greet the dawn?

Cenau was a son of Llywarch Hen,  related to Urien of Rheged  and so unlikely to have fought at Catraeth. But if he rescued Aneirin rather than fought in that battle his “undaunted, bold” actions and his “shining sword” must have been employed in some other way. It could be that Aneirin was captured and that his “fair song” – as an earlier verse has it – saved him and that Cenau rescued him after he had composed the verses. But the narration here suggests that he was released from a death-like state, perhaps an awenydd-trance, after which Cenau rescued him or during which he guarded him.

So these verses may come from a different story, but collected with other extraneous material into The Book of Aneirin (as, for instance the ‘Pais Dinogad’ lines or the verses which apparently record other events than the attack on Catraeth {e.g. ->} ). If so then that story has been lost and these verses may be all that remains of it. Such a story might include events before the composition of the Gododdin verses. Even so, that they were composed by someone who was both Aneirin and Not Aneirin; that he was released (like Mabon) from an earthen prison, returning from darkness to light to sing his song; that it was the quality of his ‘fair song’ that saved him, and that Taliesin would also know these things: all point to the role of the bard as an awenydd, drawing inspiration from the Awen to ensure his immortality.

§

Further pages from Book of Aneirin can be viewed here.


References:

Aneirin Y Gododdin ed. A.O.H. Jarman (Llandysul, 1988)

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ed. A. O H. Jarman (Cardiff, 1982)

(*) Morfudd E  Owen ‘Hwn yw e Gododin. Aneirin ae cant’  in Astudiaethau ar y Hengerdd (Cardiff, 1978) pp. 136-139

Calan Mai

 

Rhiannononhorse

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mayday, but not time just yet to honour her coming
From the Otherworld – Rhiannon on a pale white horse
Evanescing like a glimpse of a first leaf in twilight – there
Then not there – as shadows rise and fall at the edge

Of the wood. I’ll wait for another turn of the Moon,
A new crescent, for a sign of her season; for leaves
Burgeoning bringing green light to the hawthorn,
And then blossom. So I will bright her horse,

With a new coat of whiteness to welcome her:
A new shrine for her coming when summer breezes
Dance in the leaves as her horse slows to turn
And she reigns to be among us once again.

 

altar with rose petals

Gramarye

 

gramarye

So Rudyard Kipling in ‘Puck’s Song’ from Puck of Pooks Hill. ‘Gramarye’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning both ‘grammar’ and also ‘occult learning, magic’. Another form of the word is ‘glamour’ in the sense of ‘enchantment’. Where does ‘grammar’ merge into ‘glamour’ to make magic? Consider that the earliest books of instruction for welsh bards, based on the even earlier purely oral methods of instruction, are known as ‘Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid’ (Grammars of the Chief Bards). Grammar, in the Middle Ages, was regarded as the ‘mother of the arts’. The secrets of the bards of Ynys Prydain were revealed alongside grammatical instruction in these handbooks. Versification and the structure of language were seen as one and the same study: the keys to the mysteries.

We are talking here of a time when literacy was possessed by only a few, and fewer still who were not using it more or less exclusively for ecclesiastical purposes in Latin. These select few were the holders of a skill which enabled them to give shape to a developing tradition to which only they had access. So to manipulate its history, and the ability to pass it on to the future, was an act of power involving both ‘occult knowledge’ and the skill to use it.

But, as the bardic grammars also make clear, both cynghanedd (the music of the language) and the traditional verse forms (the artistic shape of the language) are held within language itself, part of its hidden grammar which the bards had the power to reveal. As one modern theorist of cynghanedd puts it, the bards were instructed to “dathla yr anweledig yn weledig” {*} (celebrate the invisible into visibility). The same theorist also asserts that language has developed not simply as a denotive medium for naming and describing things in the everyday world, but also carries a deeper structure of meaning which may be hidden in its everyday use but which has the power to reveal otherness and, from that revelation, to create articulations of a hidden world. The welsh bards were special in that they produced an institutionalisation of this idea in the bardic grammars.

So grammar becomes glamour or enchantment, glossed as ‘gramarye’ in English in spite of there being no tradition of arcane handbooks of bardic practice in that language. But any inspired poet, or awenydd, in any language, will wish to fulfil the instinct to carry meaning from the hidden realms into the cultural sphere of common conversation and, by doing so, to infuse the world we know with hidden meaning. This is the only grammar that counts.

{*}  R. M. Jones  Meddwl y Gynghanedd  (Barddas, 2005)

The TOWER

From my evolving collection of Tarot Poems:

Tower Marseille Tarot

from the Marseille Tarot

illustrated by Jean Dodal

Tower Rider-Waite Tarot

from the Rider-Waite Tarot

illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith

To climb this is to reach out and to be repulsed.
We know the history : Babel being the prime case,
A step too near The House of God and down it comes:
Jupiter’s bolt of lightning, Zeus’ thunderclap, Jehova’s
Jealous guarding of the gateway to his sanctuary.
Our hubris or divine paranoia? One God’s defence

Against the many who throng the common world.
There are otherworlds around us too, islands
Over the sea, under the waves, below the earth
And right alongside us, a half-step away from here.
So why ascend? True, the ways are perilous, paths
May wind endlessly and then turn back nearly
To where they began; but never end in disillusion.
Never tip us like this tower through empty air.


 

The reflections leading to the poems begin from my past studies of the ‘esoteric’ decks, represented here by the Rider-Waite card, but primarily arise from my current historical study of the older Italian and French decks – represented here by Jean Dodal’s ‘Marseille’ card – and direct responses to the imagery. 

WINDOWS

Early morning landscape at Mynydd Bach
Mists in many hollows;
Some would find it magical
Others not notice at all.

There are many mysteries revealed in the everyday world if we care to be receptive to them and if we can be still long enough to experience them. A stillness of the spirit as well as of the body brings real presences in the world into touch with perception : two things moving into relationship to become one as they weave together what has been torn apart. So for a fleeting moment (which is forever) we are attuned to mysteries. This is to perceive the depths of things. But sometimes a reflection from a surface brings a sudden epiphany:

A WINDOW BURNS BRIGHT
ON A HILLSIDE FACING
THE GLASSY STILLNESS
OF THE WESTERN SEA
AT SUNSET

An ordinary window in the world for someone else to look through mirrors a splendour from far off sharpening the senses to ways in which windows both reflect and suggest ways of seeing through to otherness, glimpsing an otherworld, opening ways into it and paths along which gods may reveal their ways out of it, should our eyes be open to seeing them. Eyes, too, are windows which may be clear or clouded to different views:

EYEN

Even such obscure windows as these, filtering light and vision can enable a view for the seeing eye within as much as the clear glass onto a garden where the shade of leaves may hold deeper mysteries:

Through this window
a small corner of
Paradise glimpsed
momentarily as light
touched by shade under
buds breaking to
blossom on boughs
of a green apple tree

Such views are available to anyone who allows them to clear from the busyness of this and that. Cultivate deeper ways of seeing and whole landscapes of otherness may open up through windows which widen to gateways to travel through. Be open to promptings from within and what is without will open too as

The
N
A
R
R
O
W

ARROW
slit as in a castle wall

W – I – D – E – N – S

out to a FAR HORIZON

Or, like The Birds of Rhiannon, singing out on that horizon over the sea, come as close as a whisper in the ear to encircle and enclose you so that you might feel

Woven into the
stuff of the Universe.

Like a cat
purring
as the waves
of life
wash silkily
over skin
and the Earth
purrs too.

At dusk
something else
breathes mystery
into the
evening air,
silent with birdsong.

Night brings stars
and distances
in the closeness
of darkness
and otherness
deepens.

The Earth
is an anchor
holding the spirit firm
to sail to the stars.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Breaking the Spell That Lies on the Land

BMBronzeHead20BCWitham.JPG

Pryderi’s Tale

This is how it was when I went with Manawydan and Brân over the two rivers – Lli and Archan -: the Cauldron was there, though we did not come back with it for it was broken as was heart of Branwen. There was great grief on all of us. As for Brân, there was only his head to keep company with. We did not quite come back, at least not at once, but remained a while neither here nor there. Time would have weighed heavily upon us then but

The Birds of Rhiannon sang, both near and far, until seven years had passed, but had not passed, as clock-time and deep-time fell out of alignment.

So it seemed and it is only like that I can tell it. We went out over the sea then and might have reached the Otherworld, but we came to the island of Gwales and remained there between the worlds with a portal to Thisworld through a closed door. I remember Manawydan saying:

“Look, there is the door we should not open”

For eighty years of deep-time we were blissful there until clock-time, which had scarcely moved, touched Heilyn. His words echoed in one world from the other:

“Shame on my beard if I shall not open the door.”

There was no choice then but to go through the portal as Brân had told us. His blissful presence there could last no longer. We took him and buried him beneath the White Hill to become part of the strength and vigour of the Island of Britain as he had foretold.

Time pressed upon us now and it was a burden for Manawydan for the sovereignty of the Island had been usurped from him and he knew that he could not recover it in Thisworld. He was haunted, still, by the sounds of Rhiannon’s birds. So I spoke to him of my mother:

“She was the most beautiful woman in the world when she came from Annwn to woo my father. So she is still and if we go to Dyfed we will find her there.”

That is what we did. We found her there with my wife Cigfa. And if she was pleased to see her son she met with my companion too as if she had always known him. As they found each other fair we held a wedding feast for them and Manawydan seemed at peace for a time. Until something stirred between the worlds out of cognizance until that day on the Gorsedd Hill it broke though with a clap of thunder and a fall of mist. When the mist cleared there was a change in the appearance of the land: it was the same land, but before it was homely and close and enclosing,  now it was wild and strange to us. It was as it had been before it was settled.

So we had to hunt for our food and one day while out hunting a gleaming white boar broke cover and we chased it – Manawydan and I – until it ran out of sight. We climbed the Gorsedd Hill to look for it and there before us was a fort that had not been there before. We watched the boar run into the fort and our hounds after it. Then there was silence.

Manawydan said to me

“My counsel is that we do not go into the fort.”

I went in and found no boar nor hounds. There was a fountain and a cup, though no cup-bearer to offer it so I took the cup in my own hands and was instantly struck dumb and could not move. It seems to me now that I waited a fleeting second and yet for ever, though I was soon aware that Rhiannon was there with me and it was as if we were a mare and a foal in a stable.

-*-

Cigfa’s Tale

When my husband Pryderi came back from that expedition bringing Manawydan with him I was unsure of him at first. He was a deep and a brooding presence. He seemed to have brought with him a troubled mind and I could not see through to him. But Rhiannon took to him immediately. I suppose he had something of her own otherworldliness about him and it soon seemed like they would be a perfect couple. For a while everything was fine, until that day on the Gorsedd Hill when the mist came down. I’m sure it was something to do with the two of them getting together that caused it. That evening, when Manawydan came back without Pryderi, I could tell by the tone in Rhiannon’s voice that she had some idea what had happened before he said a word. There was no stopping her from going after him. I remember that eerie silence after she went into the fort and then it just disappeared in a shower of mist.

I was afraid then. My husband had gone. Rhiannon had gone. It was just me and him. What would he want of me? But I had nothing to fear from him. We went away for a while but soon came back with some wheat to plant; he said we could make a start on bringing back the land we had known. When the mice came and ate the wheat he knew what to do. He grew some more. Then more again until he caught one. I told him he was mad to keep a mouse in a glove until he could hang it on a gibbet. But he just kept on building it.

So they came, the emissaries, one by one as if from beyond Dyfed, but no-one came that way any more. One by one he countered them and refused to release the mouse, whatever they offered him. It seemed strange to me then, what he was doing. But he knew. He played their game and won, patiently waiting for his chance to confront that otherworld wizard. As if Manawydan knew that the mouse was his wife. So the wizard took out his wand and agreed to what Manawydan demanded. The land just seemed to resolve itself back to how it had been before all this happened. Then there they were – Rhiannon and Pryderi – walking towards us.

_*_

The spell was broken in Dyfed
and he who had usurped the throne
of the Island of Britain shivered.
For Brân stirred beneath him.

 

Bendigeidfran as a Giant?

2974da28c9f9ba4cefa1dc5ae0fe20ca
Brân’s head being carried back from Ireland as imagined in the animated film Otherworld

There are many giants recorded in the folklore of Wales[*]. Sion Dafydd Rhys told of many of them in his 16th century treatise Olion Cewri , regarding them as remnants of the aboriginal occupants of Britain as asserted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. Many of these giants are seen in traditional fashion as ogres of one sort or another. In the literary tradition this is also the case for the giants in the medieval Welsh tale How Culhwch Won Olwen. Each of them display an ogreish appearance, including Ysbadadden Chief Giant whose daughter, Olwen, is sought by Culhwch. She is not a giant but she does have some extra-human qualities such as the fact that white clover springs up wherever she treads.

In the second of the Mabinogi tales, Bendigeidfran (Blessed Brân) is also taken to be a giant, though neither his sister, Branwen, nor his brother, Manawydan, are giants. Brân himself does not display an ogreish appearance and only seems giant-like in parts of the tale. The description of him at the beginning does not distinguish him in this way at all:

Bendigeidfran son of Llŷr was crowned king over this island and adorned with the crown of London. One afternoon he was in Harddlech in Ardudwy, in a court of his, and one afternoon he was sitting on the rock of Harddlech above the sea with Manawydan Son of Llŷr and two brothers of the same mother as he – Nisien and Efnisien – and other nobles as would be fitting for a king.

In fact nowhere in the tale is the word ‘giant’ (cawr) used to describe him. The reason for regarding him as a giant are:

  1. Because it is said he has never been contained within a house.
  2. Because of his giant-like appearance to the Irish when he is wading through the sea to attack them and his subsequent action of lying across a river so his followers can cross on his back.

The first of these may not necessarily indicate that he is a giant. Though he has not been contained within a house, he happily sits in a tent that has been put up for the wedding feast of Branwen and Matholwch. Not being contained in a house might be a geas – a fated taboo the breaking of which leads to dishonour or death. Geasa are common in the Irish tradition, and often lead to the downfall of heroes when one geas works against another. When the Irish build a house especially to hold Brân, it is not long after he enters it that fighting breaks out leading to him being fatally wounded. The Irish had previously built a house especially to trap the giant Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymidai Cymeinfoll who then escaped and brought the Cauldron of Rebirth to Brân, enabling him to give it to Matholwch.

The second reason is more convincing. The Irish see what looks like a forest and a mountain crossing the sea. Branwen explains this to them as the masts of Brân’s ships and Brân himself next to them:

 ‘… that was my brother, come by wading, for there was never a ship could contain him.’
‘What was that lofty ridge with the lake on either side?’
‘The two lakes on either side of the ridge are his eyes for he is angry.’

But there is a contradiction. Earlier it was said that the sea was not so wide and deep as it is now, and there were just two rivers to cross – the Lli and the Archan – to go from Britain to Ireland. It is thought that the Lli is on the Irish side and could be Loch Laoigh (Belfast Lough) [**] On the Welsh side the candidates for the Archan are either the River Arth which currently runs into Cardigan Bay about 15 miles south of Aberystwyth or the River Ystwyth which has its estuary beside that town. Both of these rivers run into an area of sea now covering a legendary submerged plain called ‘Mays Maichghen’[**] of which the submerged lands of Cantre’r Gwaelod also form a part. There is a triad (No. 44) [***] which mentions Archanad or Archanat being carried up ‘the hill of Maelor’ on a horse called ‘Dappled’. Maelor is the giant who inhabited the hill (currently known as Pendinas) overlooking the estuary of the River Ystwyth. Brân’s crossing of a river here where a giant lived would be fortuitous.

There seems, then, to be an element of double-think in the crossing to Ireland by Brân  and in the crossing from Ireland of Matholwch’s ships at the beginning of the tale. The sea is crossed in ships much as it would be now,  and when the tale was written down, but at the same time there is no sea, only two rivers, as it is known was the case before sea levels rose in the more distant past [****]. Could there also be an element of double-think in regarding Brân as a giant? He is clearly not a giant in the sense of most other giants of Welsh folklore or in comparable literary tales. Yet he does take on giant-like characteristics at key points in the tale; and the final carrying of his head to the otherworld location of Gwales,  the transition there by the singing of the Birds of Rhiannon, the supernatural nature of his head, all point to an other-than-human identity. Is he presented both as a medieval king, or one of the recent past for the medieval audience,  but also as an aboriginal being from that more distant past when the sea levels were lower? By inspiring such double vision can gods inhabit our world while also inhabiting their own.


My reference for the original Welsh text of the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi : Ian Hughes (ed) Bendigeiduran Uab Llyr (Aberystwyth, 2017) and his introductory discussion for suggested river names in addition to the specific references below.

[*] For a comprehensive review of Welsh giant lore see Chris Grooms The Giants of Wales/Cewri Cymru (Lampeter, 1993)
[**] Patrick Sims-Williams Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature   pp.192-196 (Oxford, 2011)
[***] Rachel Bromwich (ed) Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Cardiff, 2006)
[****] For a discussion of the cultural geography of Britain at this time see Chapter 2 of Barry Cunliffe Britain Begins (Oxford, 2013).

WRITING THE DEEP

Beir y Byd

“The more he spurred on his horse, the further was she from him. Yet her pace did not seem to change.” So the magical riding of Rhiannon from the Otherworld in The Mabinogi. No-one can catch up with her – though she proceeds serenely on her way – until she wishes it. When Pwyll speaks to her she stops and allows him to approach. It is then said that she lifts the veil from her face and allows him to see her. This is a revelation, not just for Pwyll who sees his future wife for the first time, but of her Otherworld presence in Thisworld. With this lifting of the veil the two worlds meet and what is hidden is made apparent. This sense of closeness, as Rhiannon rides past, and distance as she suddenly seems farther away, is here located in the narrative of a story from medieval Wales set in an indeterminate time further back in the past. So we weave our experiences of the Otherworld and the revelations of Otherworld beings into stories which embody them in Thisworld.

-§-

There are other ways in which the reality of hidden worlds may be acknowledged. Consider that there are certain techniques in musical counterpoint where two themes are woven around each other and one of them contains within it the echo of the other. So one theme can be heard by the listener and the other is heard as something different, but yet a sense of depth and significance is created as the echo is subliminally perceived. Here a hidden sound-world plays against a perceived sound-world, enacting the interaction between them in the performance of the music, though even the performer may not be fully aware of this, or will only discover it in a fully-realised and inspired performance. So a musicologist speaks of one of Henry Purcell’s 17th century ‘Fantazias’ for viols as “encouraging both players and listeners … to hear the theme as starting on a strong upbeat and – as an equally plausible alternative – to hear it starting on a weak upbeat as well.” and of another of the same composer’s works having a “structural secret” of which even experienced musicians may not be aware, involving an interplay between “the austere cantus firmus [‘fixed melody’]… and the supernatural cantus firmus enunciated only subliminally in a nearly inaudible middle voice.” (*) The suggestion here is that the music both evokes and symbolically represents the interpenetration of an apparent and a hidden world and the uncertain terrain between them.

Such artistic creation is done not just for its own sake but as an act of acknowledgement of the source of creative inspiration. Melodies that are hidden in other melodies; words referring to things that are not obviously apparent; images that are mirrors of other, unseen, images. All these reflect a vocation to bring otherness and thisness into relation with each other and to enact that relation in offerings : prayers that are not asking for something but gifts for the gods presented on the borders between the worlds.

Out of the practice of composing contrapuntal music came a body of definitions of the different types of counterpoint which were comprehensively explored in the fugal works of J S Bach. Similarly, the early Welsh bards developed a range of techniques for the composition of verse which were standardised in the bardic grammars. These became the voice of the awen. Like counterpoint they achieved harmony not so much by the fusion of different sounds in complex chords as in later music, but by setting one sound off against another to create patterns of assonance and alliteration answering each other along a line of verse. This is called cynghanedd and is easier to do in Welsh than in English because it fits well with the natural sound patterns and the grammatical structure of the language. The most creative use of it by an English poet was in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins who taught himself Welsh and studied Welsh metrics and used them to develop innovative ways of constructing verse in English. So, writing of a kestrel in ‘The Windhover’,  he produced lines such as these:

I caught his morning morning’s minion king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding
of the rolling level underneath him, steady air and striding

which incorporate some of the techniques of cynghanedd, not as an exercise or for ornament but in order to capture the essential nature of the bird and its pattern of flight, what he called ‘Instress’. Hopkins developed several such terms to define his verse practice, including also ‘Sprung Rhythm’ and ‘Counter-Pointed Rhythm’ and related them to his attempts to achieve the presentation of ‘Thisness’ and ‘Instress’ in his poetry, both what is concretely presented to us in the world and what lies beneath the surface. So here, too, we have a sense of an invisible world infusing the world of things that can be seen. In the poem ‘Heaven-Haven’ (the title is  ‘cynghanedd groes’), he writes

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb
And out of the swing of the sea.

We might notice the obvious repetition of ‘sw-‘ in ‘swell’ and ‘swing’, but he also links ‘green swell’ with ‘havens’ by the less obvious repetition of ‘ns’ setting up an opposition between ‘swell’ and ‘swing’ which is contrary to their apparent similarity of sound, while also linking the ‘green swell’ and the ‘havens’ in an enlivened comparison of contained stillness.

I have discussed Hopkins to illustrate the use of cynghanedd because it is difficult to link the sounds and meanings of bards writing in Welsh without using that language. But it is clear that the earliest bards saw themselves as engaged in what one scholar writing in Welsh refers to as “declaiming words used for magical purposes in a way different from that used for ordinary speech”(**) It was a way of discovering a form which reflected – to use Hopkins’ terms – both the ‘instress’ and the ‘thisness’ of things: their inward as well as their outward being.

-§-

In the Mabinogi tale of the return from Ireland with the head of Bendigeidfran by the seven surviving members of the band that went there, they gain some respite from their sorrows in Harlech where the Birds of Rhiannon sing to them as they prepare for their transition to the Otherworld: “… three birds came and began to sing a song to them, and of every song they had ever heard none sounded so sweet as did this song. Though they had to look far out over the sea to get a glimpse of the birds, yet the birds seemed so apparent to them that they were there among them.” Here we are back with the idea of things being both close and far away as we were with Rhiannon’s magical riding. So it is with the Otherworld, at once distant and yet as close as an endearment whispered in the ear. Do you hear it? Can you find a way to shape it into a song, an offering, a representation of the winding path through the labyrinth which is also straight and true? This is what is asked of an awenydd and what is offered to the gods in what an awenydd makes out of what is both far and near, distant and close, hidden and apparent. So it is too for all who hear the words the gods speak, feel their breath on the breeze, see their faces in the very shapes of the trees.

 


(*) Laurence Dreyfus in his discussion of Henry Purcell’s ‘Complete Fantasises for Viols’ (PHANTASM CD PSC 1124) on which he also plays and leads the performance.

(**) J. E. Caerwyn Williams ‘Bardus Gallice Cantor Appelatur’, in Beirdd a Thywysogion (Cardiff, 1996)