Speaking to the Ancestors

Tuan  watching “a great fleet rolling as in a giant’s hand”                              (illustration :  J. Fitzpatrick)



Part of the lore of Ireland tells the story of Tuan who was visited by Saint Finian, hearing that he did not observe sundays or saints days, and wishing to know if the stories about him as a magician were true. Here is part of their conversation:

“Mine is a long pedigree,” Tuan murmured.

Finnian received that information with respect and interest.

“I also,” he said, “have an honourable record.”

His host continued: “I am indeed Tuan, the son of Starn, the son of Sera, who was brother to Partholon.”

“But,” said Finnian in bewilderment, “there is an error here, for you have recited two different genealogies.”

“Different genealogies, indeed,” replied Tuan thoughtfully, “but they are my genealogies.”

“I do not understand this,” Finnian declared roundly.

“I am now known as Tuan mac Cairill,” the other replied, “but in the days of old I was known as Tuan mac Starn, mac Sera.”

“The brother of Partholon,” the saint gasped.

“That is my pedigree,” Tuan said.

“But,” Finnian objected in bewilderment, “Partholon came to Ireland not long after the Flood.”

“I came with him,” said Tuan mildly.

The saint pushed his chair back hastily, and sat staring at his host, and as he stared the blood grew chill in his veins, and his hair crept along his scalp and stood on end.

(from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens)

How many generations are the ancestors? Do they include the lost tribes, the ones we displaced too long ago to remember? But the land remembers, and some remnant of them may live among us still, quietly marking the passing ages of the world, nurturing the wisdom they cannot pass on to those who cannot own it. As for those who have faded from view, but whose spirits still inhabit the deep recesses of the landscape, the marginal places we have not built upon or shaped for our own purposes,  do they remain among the living presences of the land or fade gradually but inexorably to the Land of the Dead? Even then,  they may leave behind a trace or echo of what they were, so that we might sense them still, if only as an absence, and so a necessary presence, in the world we inhabit.

Some speak of ghosts, some of other world(s) within, beside or beyond our own, of places that are portals, or in which a presence may be felt that is not accounted for in the species lists of natural history and so does not exist in earth, water, fire or air, but which nonetheless has a being with us (t)here.

If we visit such beings, as Finian did, then how should we speak with them, or inhabit their present? If Tuan were to tell us, as he told Finian, of his incarnations as different creatures on land, in air and in water, and the comings and goings of many different peoples over many aeons of time, would we hear the words, as Finian did, with a shiver and a sense of creeping dread? Can we hold such knowledge within us?

The story of Tuan tells: “No-one knows if he died then, or if he still keeps his fort in Ulster, watching all things …”

But if no-one knows , his voice speaks to us still out of the eddies of time, slipping the knots which tie us to the Ship of Time, sailing to the Land of the Dead.

The Otherworld and the Netherworld


Consider the stories from Greece about Hades and Persephone, which operate at the purely mythic level and Orpheus and Eurydice which enacts the same mythic pattern but sets it as a story about humans rather than gods. In the first Hades snatches Persephone away to his dark realm and her mother Demeter eventually manages to rescue her but only on the basis that she spends half the year in Hades and half in the world we know. This is a story about the gods and the turning of the seasons. Now consider the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. As with many Greek stories about interactions between the worlds, the human characters concerned have some divine ancestry but live as humans in our world. Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies so her husband Orpheus, a musician with divine gifts, one might say inspired by the Awen and so godlike in his nature, goes to the Land of the Dead and plays his music charming Hades into releasing her, though the condition that he must not look back until they are both in the open air introduces a tragic dimension that  is often a feature of the Greek stories. This feature often translates to an ironically comic view of human frailty as in the Roman Ovid’s  re-telling of the tale.

So what we have here is a basic myth of a goddess being snatched away by a god into his realm and her return being allowed for part of the year and a parallel story of a woman being taken into this realm and her release negotiated, though not successfully achieved. The story is different but the mythic pattern is the same. In Ireland this pattern occurs in the story of Midhir and Etain. There are two versions of this story which echo the differences between the two Greek stories. In one they are both inhabitants of Tir na Nog (i.e. both gods) but in another version Etain is human and is carried off by Midhir, a king of the Tuatha de Danaan, after he tricks her husband and wins her in a game of chess. The cultural context here is very different and firmly embedded in the mythical history of Ireland. But, again, the mythic pattern is the same.

Celtic otherworlds may be in caves or under hills, beneath lakes or seas, or on far-away islands. The variety of location and context reveals a multi-layered inheritance in how these worlds are perceived and how they tend to fuse, in later literature, in a more generalised experience of Faery or, more trivially, Fairyland. In both these latter cases most often this is an inaccessible place that may be glimpsed but rarely visited though its inhabitants may well also inhabit our world.  In an article about the Welsh name for the Otherworld, Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas remark that ” the Welsh name Annwfn … suggests an etymological notion of an otherworld” [see bleow*]. Suggested Brythonic origins of the name are *an-dubnos (‘not-world’ or ‘not-deep'[deep-notness?]) or *ande-dubnos (‘underworld’ or ‘under-deep’). Also discussed is a Gaulish word antumnos, used in calling upon Dis or Prosperpine and therefore suggesting a nether world of darkness rather than a paradisal parallel realm.

The probable Greek origin of antumnos also suggests a dark, underworld location. The authors of the article find it unlikely that the supposed Brythonic term *an-dubnos was used without knowledge of its associations with the Greek Underworld. This may imply that its later associations with the ‘Hell’ of Christian tradition is not entirely a later overlay. Rather, as Mees and Nicholas suggest “… the entrance of the term to early Brythonic might even be plausibly connected with the development of the dual nature of the Insular Otherworld and Graeco-Roman influence: paradisaical and ageless on the one hand, sinister and Stygian on the other.”

In this view, it seems that the Brythonic Celts wanted it both ways, not wishing to abandon the idea of a blissful parallel dimension to their own world but also paradoxically seeing it as a dark Underworld where the souls of the dead reside. If the fabric of these alternatives appear to have little in common with each other this may be because, for us, ancestors and other-beings seem to require differently imagined locations. But do they?


In Britain the story exists in various folklore and literary versions including the Shetland ballad ‘King Orfeo’ and the Breton lay ‘Sir Orfeo’. Both conceive of the place into which Orfeo’s wife Heroudis is snatched as a domain of Faery. The confusion between this and the Land of the Dead is expressed ambiguously in these tales. ‘King Orfeo’ has the lines “The King of Faery with his dart/Has pierced your lady through the heart” possibly suggesting death but also, potentially, enchantment.  ‘Sir Orfeo’ portrays the land that Orfeo enters as one where the folk who had been captured were “thoughte dede and nere nought” (seemed dead but were not) but a few lines further on “some dede and some awedde” (some dead and some mad).   I wrote my own concise distillation of these British versions some time ago HERE. Lorna Smithers also discusses ‘Sir Orfeo’ and the nature of the Otherworld in her own inspired exploration linking with some different contextual matter HERE where the overlay between Annwn and the Land of the Dead is also discussed. The mythic pattern of capture and release from the Otherworld may also be seen in the story of Rhiannon in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi tales where it is Manawydan who rescues her. Again the cultural context changes but the pattern remains. The medieval Welsh poem of ‘The Girl in Ogyrfen’s Hall’, discussed recently on this blog,  I think gains much of its power from its concentration on just one aspect of this mythic pattern. The gods live in an Otherworld which is parallel to and connected to our world. The seasons come and go as the gods move between the worlds, life leaving the land and returning in due season. So that land is also the Land of the Dead, where the ancestors dwell, just as they also dwell in the landscape that we know, their embedded actions in shaping and naming the landscape and the memories of their lives, their spirits, their being here with us which is also there in the Otherworld where the cauldron of re-birth gives them new identity.

So the mythic world of the gods is also our world, the legendary world of those semi-divine or heroic figures who have visited that world also inhabit our own world, and so it is there for us too if we would see it. Or it is ‘other’ if we choose it to be so.

  • [*]Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas in  Studia Celtica XLVI (2012) pp.23->
  • See also  Gwilym Morus Baird’s discussion of ‘Dwfn’ in relation to Annwn HERE

The Washer at the Ford

beannighe{Arthur Rackham}

Of all the lore concerning the coming of Winter and the transitions (both personal and mythological) which shape the deeper significances of the dark months at the the year’s end, the image of the Washer at the Ford, the Cailleach, the Shadow Woman – call her what you will – is most deeply embedded in my responses to Winterfall. I have written of her elsewhere but I recently came across this interleaving of deep mythos, local folklore and Brythonic legend in a folklore record from North Wales:

“… there is a parish called Llanferrys and Rhyd y Gyfarthfa, ‘Ford of the Barking’, is there, and in olden times the dogs of the country would come there to bark, and no-one would venture to go to see what was there until Urien of Rheged came. He saw nought but a woman washing. And then the dogs stopped barking, and Urien took hold of the woman and had possession of her.”
from T. Gwynn Jones Welsh Folkore and Custom (1930)

The story continues that she is the daughter of the King of Annwn but is destined to have a child fathered by a christian man. She tells him to return at the end of the year and when he returns she presents him with a son and a daughter: Owain and Morfudd.

This is interesting in itself because of the conflation of historical and legendary material from the ‘Old North’ of Welsh tradition with a local tale which itself contains elements of both mythological and folkloric provenance. The coupling of Urien, the sixth century king of the Brythonic territory of Rheged in what is now southern Scotland and north-western England, with the daughter of the King of of the Otherworld (Gwyn ap Nudd) suggests a union between Thisworld and the Otherworld intricate with a sovereignty theme in that a king in Thisworld has to marry and Otherworld woman to validate his power (consider the marriage of Pwyll to Rhiannon in the first of the four Mabinogi tales). At its worse, the tale as related here however portrays the union as little more than a casual rape by a powerful lord of a woman washing her clothes in the river. But identifying the woman as an Otherworld princess shifts the tale to another level. Would such a woman be washing her clothes in the river and would she permit herself to be raped? It seems unlikely on both counts, but Otherworld women are rarely what they seem. The story appears to rationalise her compliance with Urien in that it is her ‘destiny’ to bear his children. But the image of the Washer at the Ford is far too profoundly embedded in the mythos for its appearance here to be taken, as the wording above has it, as “nought but a woman washing”.

In some occurrences of the sovereignty theme in folklore and myth, the king has to be prepared to couple with the goddess of the land both in her winter and her summer aspects, or he has to take her as an old hag so that she may become a young woman again. This is often also a variant in stories about dalliances with Otherworld women who are able to change their form from beautiful to hideous and there is sometimes a suggestion of initiatory processes in this being accepted by the would-be lover. Such an initiatory journey may itself be portrayed in disguised form in story and so find its way into the folklore record. A man may have to be prepared to marry an old crone who becomes a beautiful young woman after he has slept with her, as in stories that made their way into mainstream literature such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tale. A young woman might equally have to become subject to an ogre or, in the classic fairy story, to kiss a frog. It is the confrontation with otherness that is enacted here, being prepared to be tested or to step out of the comfort zone of everyday life. When such stories are embedded in the folk or faërie lore record they tend to reflect in a generalised way personal journeys of quest, change or psychological discovery. At the religious level they are reflective of initiation into the mysteries. Mythologically they embody the personas of the gods through the changing seasons, the changes of history, geology, cosmology. The Washer at the Ford is not to be ‘possessed’ at a whim and it is significant that it has to wait for a great figure like the legendary Urien to approach her.

We have here, then, an impacted record of change. A change of season from Autumn to Winter where the Washer sits at the threshold of the two seasons wailing for the fate of the God of Summer as the leaves fall from the trees all about her. A change of status for one who dares to cross the ford and confront her. A change that also reflects here shifting historical, cultural and religious patterns across the Island of Britain as a momentous leader of an old kingdom in the North turns up in Wales in a story about a place people fear to go to and the barking of the dogs ceases as he appeases the spirit of the place. In such ways are different traditions and older mythologies overlaid, one on the other, interwoven and re-synthesised into stories the significance of which may not always be clear, or even fully discernible, but through which the gods still speak to us as they always have.

Anrhegion yr Awen

A day of dreaming: daydreaming of nightdreams, visions, visits and experiences, things glimpsed, things seen: perceptions in the landscape, in the mindscape, in the sensescape, coalescing in the not-dream, the half-dream, the suspended waking state of stillness, stasis, when nothing moves for an instant but everything flows like an endless welling-up from the springs of Annwn.

So it was, it all came though nothing moved, nothing changed in time but all was flux in not-time, coming not in a sequence or continuous line but flowing together as one wave from an endless sea ebbing back from the high tide of now to the low tide of forever and turning to flow again all in a moment of rhythmic grace occupying no space but the one glimpsed in a glint of light in a single drop from the splash of water over the rocks.

The way through was clear; the way through was dark. But the memories came out of the not-space between: the owl, the horse, the heron’s wingbeat all in a weave of light and not-light. Birds called out over the sea; the wingbeat sounded over the land, the big wing, the widewing of the long-beaked bird – a sound that was no-sound so faint on the still air, so slight on the breeze, rippling like a river through the sentient world, silent as a salve on the soul.

Is there a way back, and from where? I am here, now; yet still there, then. Time still drifts sideways though less widely as the flow is glimpsed again, moving on, sequencing the world and bidding me join in again. Things run once more in a line. It is time.

The Worm of Whispermere


There was a fearsome serpent known as The Worm of Whispermere and no-one ever knew when it would appear and everyone went in fear of it whenever they took one of the paths through the wood or over the desolate hill. But it was part of the life of the land and the soul of the territory that everyone knew they belonged to. Then one day a brave knight came on a quest to slay the serpent and he rode through the wood and out onto the desolate hill with a fearsome spear and a sword and it was said that the serpent was no match for his terrible weapons. The knight rode back to the town and announced that the serpent was dead and drowned in the mere on the desolate hill. The knight decreed that his deed should be recorded in the annals to ensure his fame and then he rode off in quest of further adventures.

As for those left behind, for a while they felt safe to walk across the wild places without fear. But something was missing. Those places no longer felt so wild; in fact they felt ….. empty. Something had gone out of the world and the world had shrunk, become shallow. So it seemed. It wasn’t just that the serpent had gone into the deep mere. The mere itself was no longer deep, no more in fact than a shallow pool with not a whisper of mystery about it. The very deeps of the world had re-adjusted themselves. The shadows at the woodland eaves no longer beckoned or repelled. They were just ….. a bit of shade under the leaves. The path into the wood had been enticing with a bit of the spice of danger attached to it. Now it was just a muddy track that didn’t go anywhere particularly – only across that bare hill with nothing much to be said for it. So it seemed. Some remembered old stories, but less as time went on until there was nothing much to remember except some old tale about a knight, though no-one knew his name.

But if you take the muddy track through the wood and go onto the hill and find the pond, you may also find, looking into it, that the waters hold a secret and if you listen to the whispers in the ripples on the surface they might carry that secret to you so that, somehow, you might hear it. But if the deeps of the world with all their attendant fears and fascinations were then to tilt back out of the empty waters, and the shadows creep back through the eaves of the wood, might you discover the world to be a place where you could find yourself facing the knight, or whoever he would be nowadays, come to slay a serpent? And would you refuse his offer as an unwanted imposition, or would you accept his promise of security?

A Sely Fool

When they talk about Dewi they say he is ‘half way to fairyland’. Of course, it’s just a saying, like he is ‘only half there’ or ‘in a bit of a daze’. But it’s truer than they know. The thing about Dewi is that he has an instinctive talent for finding the paths to Faery. But it’s not something he recognises or is fully conscious of in any way. So he goes off to the woods and wanders along an enticing path and finds himself on he borders of Faery, and sometimes strays across without knowing where he is or what he is doing. Then he comes back – but part of him is still there. Because he doesn’t know how he got there, he doesn’t know how to return. A more proficient path walker might see the way, prepare the approach, and close off the ways behind when coming back. Or might have a helper to show the ways in both directions. But somehow Dewi evaded both knowledge and assistance. He just seemed to be able to step through the veil, but without really seeing anything on the other side or knowing what the way he felt about it meant. So part of him always lingers there and he walks through the everyday world doing everyday things with only half his mind on what he is doing.

If he knew how to write poetry it would no doubt be inspired. If he could play a musical instrument his playing would be enchanting. But he can’t do these things. Sometimes he sings, if given the chance, and the song has something about it that sounds like it comes from elsewhere. But where? Dewi couldn’t say. So he goes about doing odd jobs here and there, just about finding a place for himself in the world. Once he would have been called ‘sely’, the old word having the spice of something holy and blessed about it. But now the same word is ‘silly’ and that is without any depth or even any sense of being dangerous. It’s just trivial.

So it is with the attitude of the busy world to those who appear to wander the byeways of life. There is no time for silliness. There are those that can come and go, that can inhabit both worlds, that can don a cloak of twilight and steal away from the world’s busy-ness for a while, and then come back to its constant business, its blindness to the shallowness of its concerns. They are not themselves blind and are aware of the distant presence of otherness as they do the world’s bidding efficiently enough, while always conscious of the more profound bidding that calls from somewhere that is remote from the world and yet as near as breath.

Dewi knows little of that – of the ways of the world he knows, though not how to accord with their demands; and of the ways to Faery he knows something, but not articulated or made fully conscious. But as time goes on his nearness makes it more and more the place of his daily repose and he is less and less able to do what the world demands of him. So people think of him as a fool, out on the edge. And he is. So it can’t be long until he tips over and Faery takes him for one of its own.

Of Folklore and Myth

Rhiannon yn CysguIllustration by Margaret Jones

It is often said that faërie and folk tales contain remnant myths, the significance having been forgotten while the form remains. This is sometimes true, but I think not always. When such tales contain mythic material it is often quite apparent rather than obscure. But folk tales are as likely to contain elements of everyday wisdom, old social customs and, perhaps more significantly,  insights into our inner lives. It is in the latter case that the distinction between mythic and non-mythic becomes difficult to discern.

While some of the tales that have come down to us originate in collected oral lore, many more have undergone a process of literary production and changed through a series of written adaptations. Where these are simply people recording versions of traditional tales it might be that this is no different from the changes or nuances oral tellers might introduce for particular audiences or to suit changing times. Basic story elements and motifs were often linked together to allow open-ended adaptations and tales of varying length.  But the practice of weaving different stories together into a longer literary production was widespread during the Middle Ages and is not entirely absent from later literature. Here, even if the original tales remain intact, their context and the effects of shaping by more sophisticated literary devices integrate and overlap what had previously been kept distinct and linked only with connectives.

In the First Branch of the Mabinogi tales there is an episode where Rhiannon is falsely accused of murdering her own son who has in fact been snatched away in the night. The women who were supposed to be watching him smear Rhiannon with blood from a puppy while she sleeps  and leave the bones about her as evidence that she has devoured her own child. Like other episodes in these tales, this one has parallels elsewhere in folk and faërie narratives as well as in more obvious mythic material. Mabon, Son of Modron, is said to have been taken from his mother “when he was three nights old” in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. Reading the implications across to the closely related Mabinogi tales, this contextualises the relationship between Rhiannon and her son with that between Modron and Mabon, whose names are later versions of Matrona and Maponos. The mythic context of a divine son of a divine mother is therefore unmistakable. But the broader setting in this tale of a wife who is falsely accused of murdering her child occurs more widely in folk narratives and in the content of faërie tales even when its mythic context is less obvious. Not only does the woman lose her child, but she is maligned and has to undergo humiliation or punishment before her child is eventually returned to her.

We can construe this in mythic terms too, but underlying the symbolism of the seasonal cycle this is one of the deeply embedded themes of folk narrative across many cultures which take on significance in different ways when told within particular cultures. Then they take on resonance and power, as if their significance is potential and dormant until they are enacted with other elements of universal folk narratives and the potential is realised. Like the gods they inhabit psychic space but manifest themselves in physical space in particular forms in particular places and take on identity in the stories we tell.

So as well as embodying mythic themes the universal motifs of folk narratives also contain elements of deep soul stuff, keys to personal journeys, initiatory experiences and perceptions of otherness. Sometimes they are simply agencies for other significant events in the story. So with Rhiannon’s ‘humiliation’ at the horse block and the eventual restoration of her son by Teyrnon all of which follows from this accusation, supporting the mythic content and opening the way to it.

Consider, too, how the same theme is used incidentally in this way in Grimm’s tale of the Six Swans ( and its variants such as the Seven Ravens). Here six brothers have been turned into swans and the only way their sister can restore them to human form is to sew a shirt for each of them out of Star Flowers (Stitchwort?).

Rie_Cramer_GrimmsFairyTales_1927_TheSixSwansGrimm’s story illustrated by Rie Cramer

But she must also remain silent for the six years it will take her to do this. While undertaking this work she is discovered alone in the forest by a young king who marries her in spite of her unwillingness to say a word to anybody. She, too, then has her children snatched away and is falsely accused of killing them but cannot defend herself so is condemned to death. The tale concludes as follows:

When the time had elapsed, and the sentence was to be carried out, it happened that the very day had come round when her dear brothers should be set free; the six shirts were also ready, all but the last, which yet wanted the left sleeve. As she was led to the scaffold, she placed the shirts upon her arm, and just as she had mounted it, and the fire was about to be kindled, she looked around, and saw six swans come flying through the air. Her heart leapt for joy as she perceived her deliverers approaching, and soon the Swans, flying towards her, alighted so near that she was enabled to throw over them the shirts, and as soon as she had done so, their feathers fell off and the brothers stood up alive and well; but the youngest was without his left arm, instead of which he had a swan’s wing. They embraced and kissed each other, and the Queen, going to the King, who was thunderstruck, began to say, “Now may I speak, my dear husband, and prove to you that I am innocent and falsely accused;” and then she told him how the wicked woman had stolen away and hidden her three children. When she had concluded, the King was overcome with joy, and the wicked stepmother was led to the scaffold and bound to the stake and burnt to ashes.

The episode has differences of detail but a clear similarity of form with the Rhiannon story. If the mythic significance of this is less obvious it does touch something deep in its references to transformation across species and the working out of a number of folk tale motifs, including that of the falsely accused wife which is simply the last of a series of adversities which are resolved in the final scene.

So, too, with Rhiannon when her son, now named Pryderi (‘care’, ‘anxiety’) is restored to her and she is restored to her proper place in the court. But here is a difference. In the mythic tale it is necessary that the restoration is complete:

Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, was raised with care as was proper, until he became the most gallant youth and the handsomest and the best skilled in all worthy pursuits of any in those lands.

But in the folktale the human dimension of incomplete resolution prevails. The little touch of one unfinished shirt resulting in one brother retaining a swan’s wing instead of an arm suggests that, for us, it never quite works out so neatly. As with the gods, so with us; but imperfectly so.

The Path to the Open Glade

Last Autumn I published a story called ‘The Hidden Path’ which ended with Gareth and Gwenno walking away from each other through the woods. What happened to them? I thought it was time to find out. So here goes …..


‘Light is another story’ So it was when Gareth and Gwenno separately followed the Hidden Path into the Darkness and found Nothing… Or Nothing found them and because they were there Nothing bided her time, which was the first thing they brought to her, so when they left she was no longer alone. What did they remember – either of them – of what they found there? Nothing. And yet there was something of the trace they left behind them that each carried away, a perception of each other though neither knew it, and also of an absence that – it seemed to each of them – was now a presence. But if you asked either of them all that could be said was that Gareth wandered off his usual path and was lost for a while or that Gwenno wandered off her usual path and was lost for a while.

So each of them wandered home troubled, but also quietly elated. Each aware of a change in their lives as the darkness of Winter followed from the fading light of Autumn. Nothing had happened to them and they would never be the same again. So Winter passed. The Solstice came and went. Imbolc brought the first stirrings of Spring. There was a sense of something waiting in the woods. They always seemed so empty in Winter, without the green depths and hidden promise of Summer. But now there was a presence – something held in reserve but nearing its time. So Gwenno felt. So Gareth felt. And also a sense of something other as well as someone other. Who? Neither could say.

Gwenno went out into the woods to find the first snowdrops, the first celandines, and the green leaves that would bring the scent of bluebells to the woods. But not yet, though her thoughts strayed that way and something stirred within her.

Gareth went out out into the woods and saw the buds on the trees swelling towards the coming Summer and the blackthorn flowers preceding the leaves and he thought of the hawthorn flowers too that would follow the leaves with the warmer weather. But not yet, though his thoughts strayed that way and something stirred within him.

And Nothing? What did Nothing do? Nothing. For she was not there. But there was … Something. Something called and Gwenno heard the call and walked through the woods towards it. Something called and Gareth heard the call and walked through the woods towards it. The path was clear and led them into a glade in the forest where they met. Gareth looked at Gwenno and recognised her though he was sure they had never met before. Gwenno looked at Gareth and recognised him though she was sure they had never met before. So their meeting was tentative. Something had brought them together. A call. An echo of Nothing. And this place was familiar, though neither thought that they had been there before. They had been lost …. But now they were not lost. There had been Nothing. Now there was Something.

Sunlight filtered down into the glade as they spoke to each other for the first time and remembered what they didn’t know, felt what they couldn’t recall; and a story began to take shape around them. It would take time to unfold it. Time. That was what they had brought to this place a season ago. That was what was given to them now. Nothing was on the far side of the Ford of Forgetting. On this side the Well of Memory made a shape of the day and the stream that ran from it flowed into the world. Something was now Everything.

A pact they made then as a shadow moved across the Sun and passed, as the light of day and the dark of night met at a point of perfect balance, at the Dark of the Moon when new light waits in shadow – at this time they made a tryst to meet in the glade when the buds had opened and the leaves would be on the trees, when blossom would be on the boughs, when Spring would burst into Summer and the light lie long on the land. Summer would be theirs and they would be the Summer.


Faërie Gold


Dolbury Camp

In one of her County Folklore (Somerset) volumes, Ruth Tongue records a comment collected in 1907 about the legend of buried treasure on Dolbury Camp:

“ but but nobody hasn’t found the treasure yet. And for why? Well, to start up with it don’t belong to they, and so they won’t ever meet up with it. Twill go on sinking down below never mind how deep they do dig. I tell ee tis the gold of they Redshanks as used to be seed on Dolbury Top. To be sure there’s clever book-read gentlemen as tell as they was Danes, and another say twere all on account of their bare legs being red with the wind, but don’t mind they.

My granny she did tell me they was fairies, ah, and all dressed in red, and so if the treasure med be theirs. If they was Danes how do ee explain all those little clay pipes as ee can find on Dolbury? They did call em ‘fairy pipes’, old miners did. An if there be fairy pipes then there was fairies, and nobody need doubt they was the Redshanks.”

It’s interesting that these faeries wear red. Green is a more usual colour, though red caps are often worn. Sometimes they are naked, or wear old brown-coloured rags. So there is no consistency. Faerie treasure can never be found and even if bestowed may become worthless if misused. Here it is said that it can only be found by those it belongs to.

These faeries have departed, as often with stories about them. Often they leave a place because they don’t like the bell installed in the church or because some human development gets too close. As there is less wild land the faeries shrink into smaller spaces and become less visible. There are many stories of the last of them on their way to somewhere else. But there are always traces. They do not leave entirely, or at least have not done so yet.

Their gold still gleams in hidden caverns out of sight. Its story brightly seams the lands we love; we cannot own it but it is ours to cherish with delight.

Rhiannon, Thisworld and the Otherworld

rhydderch So the manuscript breaks off as we hear that Manawydan has never met a more beautiful woman than Rhiannon. In the First Branch of Y Mabinogi she arrives with a magical aura about her but soon makes her presence felt as a real enough woman letting Pwyll know what she wants from him. In the Third Branch, the beginning of which the above illustrates, she is even more practically present as Manawydan’s wife at least until she passes into an enchanted fort. She has, as any ordinary woman, grown older from the First to the Third Branch, re-married and plays her part in the domestic events of the tale. But between these, in the Second Branch, her birds sing over the sea to those that returned from Ireland, “and all the songs they had ever heard were harsh by comparison”. In Culhwch and Olwen these same birds of Rhiannon are said to “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”. We might wonder how two tales that lead one into the other, regard the same character at once as a person in the story and an other-world enchantress with magical birds?

One answer is to say that elements came into the tale from different stages of an earlier mythological tradition, but this suggests a tale-teller that wasn’t in full control of the material. Whatever we think of Culhwch which is full of what might be regarded as loosely integrated folk-tale material, the author of the Four Branches does seem to be writing stories in which the elements are consistently integrated. But the two identities of Rhiannon do not seem consistent even in the context of interactions between Thisworld and the Otherworld. The final pages of Branwen eerily evoke an otherwordly atmosphere in contrast to the matter-of-fact way characters move between the two worlds in the other tales. 

How can the ghostly and scarcely human Rhiannon of the birds suddenly become Manawydan’s wife? Could the author engage in a sort of double-think? We could propose that the sensibility of medieval authors was different from ours so that they could know what they were dealing with in terms of earlier mythical material while at the same time get on and present a story set in the world they inhabited. Sometimes with medieval literature it seems so, but at others medieval writers appear prone to an intense literalism attached to material objects like obviously fake holy relics. It might be that they knew full well that they were fakes but nevertheless were able to believe in their efficacy. The art of thinking mythically and literally at the same time is one that is more difficult for modern readers. One way to open the borders between the worlds is to cultivate that art, which does not imply either a naive credibility or a cunning sophistry, but a creative openness to the life of the soul-world as well as the life of the physical-world, bringing together what should never be parted.