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.
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:
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
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
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
as the waves
and the Earth
silent with birdsong.
Night brings stars
in the closeness
is an anchor
holding the spirit firm
to sail to the stars.
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.
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.
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:
Because it is said he has never been contained within a house.
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).
“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)
Even before the snow came, the offering cup was frozen in Mererid’s fountain and encased in ice. In the bright, clear days of last week the solar cell had caught enough sunlight to work the pump which I had removed before Midwinter but replaced after Imbolc. Water flowed from under the ice and poured down to melt the frozen layer on the surface of the water. Now it is all frozen solid and I’m not sure if it is irreparably damaged and won’t know until it thaws. Some early blooms that had appeared as heralds of Spring have been laid low or shivered by the frost. So February ended.
Up until now the snow cover here on the west coast has been light and the sub-zero temperatures not so low as just a few miles inland on the mountains. But tonight we are getting a blizzard as winds whip in snow for a white-out as the rain-laden air of Storm Emma from the Atlantic collides with the colder air that has been pressing on Britain from the East for the last week or so.
The Frost Giants stand their ground
As West Wind calls the tune
This is a tale that the gods will tell
In the snow light of a March Full Moon.
There are two Full Moons this month. Between one and the other the Spring may find a way out of Winter.
Some have supposed that Taliesin was a god whose identity – and perhaps name – became confused with the historical bard of the 6th century Brythonic warlord Urien of Rheged.[i] Be that as it may, it is certainly the case that many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin were written by later awenyddion who adopted his mantle and sought to develop his mythos. So his place among the gods, or his relation to them, became less clear as he gained legendary significance as a bard/awenydd. In their later literary representation, the gods themselves, and their relationships to each other, became interlaced as the weavers of song wove their stories into more complex narratives. What follows is an attempt to identify a few threads stitched into the later medieval tapestry.
In the poem known as ‘Cad Goddeu’ (Battle of the Trees) in The Book of Taliesin, Gwydion conjures a host of trees to assist in the battle. The poem also asserts that Taliesin himself was created out of plants, earth and ‘water from the ninth wave’ by Math and Gwydion, in much the same way they created Blodeuedd in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi. No reason is given for the battle in the ‘Cad Goddeu’ poem itself, but No. 84 of Trioedd Ynys Prydein says that it was fought for ‘a bitch, a roebuck and a lapwing’. The Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi contains other examples of Gwydion’s magical abilities, including an episode where he travels from North to South Wales to trick Pryderi into giving him some pigs that were a gift from the Otherworld domain of Annwn. Gwydion later kills Pryderi when they engage in man-to-man combat as part of the war which breaks out as a result of Gwydion’s trickery. But there might be an older version of this story in which Gwydion’s brother Amaethon actually raids Annwn itself, not for pigs but for a white roebuck and a young hound. The story is contained in the Peniarth manuscripts (No. 98B) and records two englyn verses with some explanatory prose. It is thought that the englyns must be older than the prose which refers to the ‘Cad Goddeu’ by an alternative name of ‘Cad Achren’. It says that :
“This battle took place because of a white roe deer and a young hound which came from Annwn. They were taken by Amaethon fab Dôn . Because of this Arawn, King of Annwn, attacked Amaethon.” [ii]
The text goes on to say that there was a person on either side of the battle whose name was not known but if guessed it would ensure that the battle would be won by the side that guessed correctly. On one side this person was a woman called Achren. On the other a man called Brân. It is then said that Gwydion sang two englyns:
Steady are my horse’s hooves as I spur him on
The alder sprigs held high on the left
Brân is your name, of the shining crest.
Or like this:
Steady are my horse’s hooves on the day of battle
The alder sprigs held high in your hand
Brân in your coat of mail with [alder] sprigs on it
The good Amaethon won this battle. [ii]
This must mean that Brân was with Arawn and the woman Achren was with Amaethon. If this is the Bendigeidfran of the Second Branch of The Mabinogi then his presence with the Otherworld troops might go some way to explaining his ‘blessed’ appellation and the description of him as a giant. The ascription to him of alder sprigs fits the ‘Cad Goddeu’ where alder is said to be in the vanguard of the battle which is also a characteristic of Brân in The Mabinogi. The name-guessing game is a well-established folklore motif, most well-known in the story of Rumpelstiltskin as given by the Brothers Grimm, though I know of no other example of it in Brythonic lore. The ‘Cad Achren’ story suggests that the conflict between Gwydion and Pryderi in The Mabinogi, which takes place entirely between North and South Wales, is a re-telling of an earlier tale of a conflict between the Children of Dôn and Arawn in Annwn. Amaethon does not appear with his siblings in The Mabinogi tale so a story which includes him does suggest an earlier provenance.
Instead of pigs this story cites a white roebuck and a young hound as the cause of the battle, two of the three items cited in the Triad as the cause of the ‘Cad Goddeu’. It would be helpful to know the significance of these animals in this case but the story as it has survived appears to be an incomplete fragment preserved only to (partly) explain the verses. Amaethon is usually identified as a god of agriculture and agricultural gods do sometimes become gods of war.[iii] Gwydion is clearly portrayed as a magical adept and trickster, consonant with his appearance in The Mabinogi. Although the suggestion is that Amaethon stole the deer and hound from Arawn, this may not be a raid on Annwn from Thisworld, but a war between different groups of deities. If so the war could be within Annwn itself as with the conflict between Arawn and so Pryderi and Hafgan in the First Branch of The Mabinogi, or possibly between different otherworlds. In one of the ‘conversation’ poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen, Gwyn ap Nudd speaks of his role as a harvester of souls not just in Thisworld but in Otherworld battles too [see HERE ~>]. In another of these conversation poems Taliesin refuses the invitation of Ugnach (a probable synonym for Gwyn ap Nudd –[ see HERE~>]) and instead says he is going to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion. ‘Caer Gwydion’ or ‘Caer Aranrhod’ (the fort of Gwydion’s sister) are names for the Milky Way. Might they also indicate an alternative Otherworld and is this where Taliesin is heading?
If we are dealing with two opposing group of deities , one linked to Annwn and led by Arawn (another probable synonym for Gwyn ap Nudd) and also including Pryderi, Brân and indeed the other chief characters of Branches 1-3 of The Mabinogi, opposed to the family of Dôn, some of whom feature in the Fourth Branch but also include Amaethon and Gofannon, then where does Taliesin fit? The author or redactor of the ‘Cad Goddeu’ poem in The Book of Taliesin (probably the 12th century awenydd Prydydd y Moch [iv]), wearing the mantle of Taliesin, clearly wants to place him as a significant presence in the battle, and to suggest a divine origin for the bard, shaped by the magic of Math and Gwydion and brought into being by the Divine mother Modron. Taliesin is a presence in other conflicts with Annwn, notably joining Arthur’s raid in the ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ poem. In ‘Cad Achren’ he appears to be on the same side as Amaethon and Gwydion if this battle is the same as the ‘Cad Goddeu’ as the prose attached to the englyns sung by Gwydion asserts. But he is said elsewhere to keep company with Brân and Pryderi. [v]. When he joins Arthur’s raid on Annwn he might have a purpose other than the desire for loot as I have intuited [HERE~>]. He is a shape-shifter, a trickster and an all-round slippery customer who makes it hard for us to pin him down. He seems closest in nature to Gwydion who is himself a shape-shifter, a master story-teller and chanter of verse for magical purposes. It may be they both originate in a trickster deity linked to the source of awen who may have been tricksy in causing conflict between the gods too.
[i] Ifor Williams Chwedl Taliesin (O’Donnell Lecture 1955-6)
[ii]My translation from the text as given by Ian Hughes in the introduction to his edition of Bendigeiduran Uab Llyr (Aberystwyth, 2017) . What follows is based both on his discussion in Welsh (p. xxvii), and that of Rachel Bromwich in English in Trioedd Ynys Prydein (p.p. 218-19).
[iii] The most well-known example is Mars who protected agriculture as well as being a god of war.
[iv] As suggested by Marged Haycock : Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin pp. 27-30
[v] e.g in The Second Branch of The Mabinogi where he is one of the seven who returned with Bendigeidfran from Ireland and sojourned with the head of Brân in Gwales.
Working on a sequence of poems on the Tarot cards, I was stalled for a while on ‘The Lovers’ (Major Arcana VI). On the surface this is a simple card but I found myself considering a number of factors, in particular
The alchemical symbolism of the Hermetic Marriage.
The presence of Cupid or Eros.
The woman who ‘ministers’ the lovers, either standing beside them or hovering above as a winged figure, in particular the identity of this woman.
Commentators often see the card as, in Aleister Crowley’s words, “a glyph of duality”, or simply take it as face value as a marriage and a new beginning. Alfred Douglas sees it entirely from the male lover’s point of view as a choice between his mother and his lover. It is, anyway, the only card in the Major Arcana not to focus on a single figure and in that sense it seems best to focus on duality as a unity here. A. E. Waite calls it “a card of human love” but also “in a very high sense, the card is a mystery of the Covenant and Sabbath”. Waite also stresses that, in spite of the imagery from the Garden of Eden on his card, the young woman represents “rather the working of a secret Law of Providence than a willing and conscious temptress”. Although Waite’s analyses of the cards are often more accessible and straightforward, I felt the need to go beyond him here and tackle Crowley’s analysis, trying to disentangle it from his contextualisation in Cabbalistic doctrine and alchemical symbolism. For Crowley this and its twin card XIV [usually ‘Temperance’, but called by Crowley ‘ART’] “are the most obscure and difficult” of the Major Arcana. The Temperance card portrays a cup bearer and has, according to Crowley, cauldron symbolism. He notes that these two cards “are so complementary that they cannot be studied separately, for full interpretation.”
His card has the shadowy form of a hooded figure behind the Lovers which he explains as “another form of The Hermit, who is ….. himself a form of the god Mercury”. Crowley further says that he is engaged in “the Celebration of the Hermetic Marriage.” The marriage is here taking place between a king and a queen fully clothed in royal regalia, unlike Waite’s card where the two figures are naked and their essential innocence is stressed in Waite’s analysis. In contrast, Crowley’s couple are described as the King bearing the Sacred Lance, and the Queen bearing the Holy Grail.
What Crowley has to say about Cupid is also interesting:
“Roman gods usually represent a more material aspect of the Greek gods from whom they are derived; in this case, Eros. Eros is the son of Aphrodite, and tradition varies as to whether his father was Ares, Zeus or Hermes – that is, Mars, Jupiter or Mercury. His appearance in this card suggests that Hermes is the true sire; and this view is confirmed by the fact that it is not altogether easy to distinguish him from the child Mercury, for they have in common wantonness, irresponsibility, and the love of playing tricks”.
Thinking about the question of the ‘Hermetic Marriage’ and the Hermes/Mercury connection, I found myself drawn to the image of the so-called ‘Gaulish Mercury’ who is generally distinguished from the Roman Mercury as being a Celtic deity who was associated with Mercury by the Romans and eventually re-named as such. The original deity is usually now identified as Lugus, though Esus may also have been assimilated to this new identity. (In Trier, in what was Rhineland Gaul, there is a stone pillar with representations of Mercury, Esus and Rosmerta). In much of the iconography of Mercury, both from Roman Gaul and Roman Britain, Mercury is portrayed in company with Rosmerta, though they often seem more like an established couple than lovers. Rosmerta’s iconography most often represents her with a vat and a straining spoon, though on the more romanised reliefs she is also shown with a cornucopia. There is a relief from Gloucester where she appears with a horned Mercury who is holding a caduceus while Rosmerta holds a double-axe sceptre. In another she is shown with Fortuna, Rosmerta holding a downward-facing torch and Fortuna an upward-facing one, which would make Rosmerta’s vat here a cauldron of re-birth. There seems to be a particularly complex range of imagery in the way Rosmerta was represented, whether with or without Mercury.
What might all this tell us about Mercury in relation to the tarot card? If Mercury and Rosmerta can be regarded as a Divine Couple then the two lovers on the card are an expression of that divine principle inspired by Eros. This would seem to make the woman who attends – or looks down upon – the couple either Rosmerta or, more likely, the mother of Eros/Cupid, that is Aphrodite/Venus as Goddess of Love. If the latter where is Rosmerta? As we have seen, ‘The Lovers’ is a card which is paired with the card traditionally called ‘Temperance’ on which a female figure with one leg in water and another on land pours from a pitcher or jug into a cup or another container. This image better fits Rosmerta than any other in the Major Arcana. So is she, as Mercury also, present by reflection though not represented physically on ‘The Lovers’ card, or is she there partnered with Mercury in the image of the lovers themselves? The imagery of the cards should not be limited to one meaning of course and both could simultaneously be the case, especially if we accept Crowley’s suggestion that the two cards can only be fully interpreted as a pair.
The cards, in their evolution over the centuries, have continued to assimilate imagery from different traditions and inspirations, as they certainly continue to do with the plethora of modern decks which are now available. So these are matters for continued reflexion on both cards and on different packs, as well as on ancient iconography and the nature of gods who have inspired the imagery on the cards.