Breaking the Spell That Lies on the Land

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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.

 

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A Meditation for Manawydan

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Manawydan’s Glass Door – Water Colour by David Jones

Weldy racco … y drws ny dylywn ni y agori  
Look there … the door we should not open

(Spoken by Manawydan as the Company arrive in Gwales with the head of Bran in the second branch of the medieval Welsh  Mabinogi tales.)

 

Meditation

He has lingered at the doors of perception for so long I could not imagine him not being there. But never forthright, never an intrusive presence, sometimes barely a presence at all, as if he said:

“You wanted me for a god but I am not a god for you now … though I am here for you, for counsel should you want to listen – keeping the door that you might not open, but when you do open it telling you what I have to tell about the path that opens through it should you choose to listen, and take me for a companion, walking with you on that path. I am patient and will wait for days, weeks, months, years … longer if it is necessary, for the right time and until then I will be at the threshold watching from beneath my hood of shadow, like the shadow of trees in the corner of a field where the hidden path leads into the wood.

So you ask – or dare not ask – why I did not walk with Pryderi and Rhiannon when the door opened for them? When the Divine Son is snatched away and the Divine Mother follows as she did not follow before, then though I offer counsel which would be wise for you, for them, who are beyond counsel, I could only watch, and wait, and bide my time for action, to bring them back into the world, and bring the world back to its right shaping.

But for you … for you too I wait and will speak the words you need to hear when you need to hear them. The door is not locked; you have already seen through it. You know what is to be found there and that there is a task to fulfil when you walk that path.

But for now, learn patience. Do not call before the appointed time, do not bid me speak before I have something to tell you. But know that I am here for you, acknowledge me and I will hold my counsel and reveal to you its hidden depths: Standing aside from the busy-ness of the world to better see the way through and tell it in quiet words for those who listen.

This for you and for all of those.”

Reflection

When I was taught the art of focused meditation I always had a commentary, a reflection, on what I reported. So here I provide my own. Clearly this meditation results from many years of passive reflection on what it contains. Clearly too it contains things gained from study, from reading, from explorations of Brythonic lore, and so is not without some cultural influence. But it is not consciously shaped from these studies so much as emanating from having internalised them. Like the poet who has learned the verse forms and finds them providing a shape for the shapeless inspiration that is breathed through the breath of words.

So I knew that Manawydan was held to be ‘oet guis y cusil’ (profound of counsel). So I knew that he identified the door in Gwales that must remain shut for eighty years before the Company of the Head must leave their sojourn in that place and take the head of Bran to the White Mount and bury it there; … that he had refrained from claiming the lordship over Britain which had been usurped but retreated to Dyfed to marry the now widowed Rhiannon and ‘there was no woman more beautiful than she’; … that he lived simply but outwitted the Otherworld adversaries that had cast a spell over Dyfed and brought back Pryderi and Rhiannon from Annwn to live among us once again. All these things and more I ‘knew’ in the way that I knew how to breathe rather than as dry academic knowledge.

But more – I have perceived Manawydan on the edge of my meditations, my reflections, my perceptions of the Otherworld, the Gods, the deep presences of deity. And he has stayed there, biding his time quite apart from any cultural conception of him as a mythological figure, a cultural construct or a willed identity. So now as his hood is drawn back to reveal … what? I can only report his words as they came to me and, as he requests, acknowledge him as he has appeared to me.

*

A note on the painting by David Jones.
The reproduction doesn’t do it justice. The original water colour paints have a luminosity that is almost transparent so that the outside and the inside of the room seem to flow into each other. The glass door is a boundary between the two, but one that allows the scene outside to be an extension of the space inside and the carpet similarly seems to flow out of the room. The two worlds are one. Yet they remain apart.

Rhiannon and the Lifting of the Veil

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The Three Reluctant Brides of Ynys Prydain:
Rhiannon, who refused her father’s choice of Gwawl chose Pwyll for herself;
Ffraid, who came from Ireland for refuge in Wales;
Melangell, who hid a hare beneath her skirt from the huntsman.


There is no such triad in the traditional lists, though there might have been. Each of these significant women are specifically said to have refused husbands chosen for them by their fathers. The stories about Ffraid and Melangell bear some similarities to each other in that they both came to Wales from Ireland to avoid an arranged marriage and then lived unmarried. This allowed them to be co-opted by Christianity as holy virgins. But Rhiannon’s story is very different as she came from the Otherworld to claim a husband she wanted for herself rather than the one her father had arranged for her. (We might also note that arranged marriages in the medieval Welsh tales – such as those between Matholwch and Branwen or between Lleu and Blodeuwedd – do not go well).

In the case of the wooing of Pwyll by Rhiannon the refusal of an obedient role goes further. The story-teller makes a point of telling us that she “drew back the part of her head dress that should cover her face and fixed her gaze upon him”. That is, she should keep her face covered by a veil but ignores this convention to speak directly to Pwyll and make a proposal of marriage to him. In societies where women are expected to maintain a standard of modesty this would be considered wanton behaviour. Rhiannon’s subsequent arranging of events during the wedding feast and the defeat of her unwanted spouse Gwawl similarly sees her taking charge of proceedings. In spite of choosing Pwyll as her husband she is quite able to tell him “never has man been more stupid than you” after Gwawl has tricked him.

Later in the tale, after the birth of her son who is spirited away in the night, she is apparently less able to direct affairs. But rather than challenge the lies of the attendants who accuse her of killing the child, she chooses to accept the penance of offering to carry visitors from the horse block. She retains here, in spite of being ‘punished’ a stubborn independence until her son is restored to her by Teyrnon. There is a parallel to this in the third of the four Mabinogi tales where she re-appears as an older woman and this time it is her son Pryderi who suggests to Manawydan, following their return from Ireland and from the enchanted island of Gwales, that he should marry Rhiannon. This time she agrees to her son’s proposal. But things soon go wrong. The consequences of her earlier manipulation of events now bring about the revenge of a spell cast over the land of Dyfed. At this point a review of a sequence of events in the two stories so far will be useful:

Pwyll, then unmarried, was lord of Dyfed. He meets Arawn while out hunting and swops places with him as Lord of Annwn for a year. Following his return to Dyfed Rhiannon comes for him and they are eventually married.

After Pwyll’s death , Rhiannon marries Manawydan but as a result of the spell cast over Dyfed both she and Pryderi are taken back into Annwn and must remain there until Manawydan takes control of events and gets them released and the spell over Dyfed lifted.

The question here is why does Rhiannon, who proved herself so assertive and resourceful in the first tale, allow herself to be married to Manawydan and then captured by going into the enchanted fort in spite of Manawydan’s advice that she should not go into it? There seems to be a set of contraries here. Pwyll has established himself as Lord of Annwn when he sits on the hill of Gorsedd Arberth. The gates of the Otherworld are open to him and Rhiannon rides through them on her pale white steed. She brings the Otherworld into Thisworld. In the later tale, although there is a spell on the land, it can be regarded as being disenchanted. The land has become as it was before it was settled. A blanket of mist falls and when it clears “where they had once seen flocks and herds and dwelling places, they could now see nothing at all.” The land has become “desolate, uninhabited, without people … only the four of them remained.” Once Rhiannon and Pryderi have also been spirited away, only Manawydan and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa remain. Rhiannon came out of the Otherworld and has now returned to it. In the first tale she was temporarily removed from events by the penance of the horse block. In the later tale she is removed from Dyfed into captivity and must wear an ass’s collar.

If she is to return it is up to Manawydan to bring her back just as Teyrnon brought her back from the horse block penance. Manawydan does this by capturing a creature from Annwn (a pregnant woman who has shape-shifted into a mouse) and skilfully negotiating with disguised emissaries. So Rhiannon returns and the land is restored to its former state, re-shaped as a settled land which people can inhabit again. In both cases her return restores things to how they should be. When she is absent there is disruption, discord, vacancy. If in that first lifting of her veil she broke a taboo, once she was in the world it was not complete without her.