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)

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 Girl in Ogyrven’s Hall


According to the poem ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ in The Book of Taliesin the Awen is divided into “seven score ogyrven” with a further division of each of these twenty. Elsewhere in The Book of Taliesin, in the poem ‘Kadeir Teyrnon’ the Awen is simply asserted to be divided into three ogyrven, hence the three shafts of the Awen symbol as later interpreted. John Rhŷs asserted that

“three muses had emerged from Giant Ogyrven’s cauldron. But Ogyrven seems to be one of the names of the terrene god, so that Ogyrven’s cauldron should be no other probably than that which we have found ascribed to the Head of Hades”.

Celtic Heathendom pp 267-269

That Ogyrven is one of the names of the King of the Otherworld is also suggested in a poem by Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd (died 1170). Hywel was the son of Owain of Gwynedd by an Irish woman who lived in his court and was thus both within the privileged mainstream and to some extent marginalised and so was able to practise the art of poetry as the muse took him. At a time when the official court poets were mainly engaged in praise of military prowess or power he penned some delicate love lyrics, including one addressed to a girl “in Ogyrven’s Hall” who has captivated him though he cannot approach her as she stands – fair as the foam on the wave – watching seagulls glide around a hillside:

Unwilling to leave her (it would be my death)
My life-force is with her, my vitality ebbs
Like a legendary lover my desire undoes me
For a girl I can’t reach in Ogyrven’s Hall.

So here the Hall of Ogyrven is a place in the Otherworld (or the Otherworld itself) with a girl who has possessed the poet with unrealisable desire. Is she his muse? And if, as John Rhŷs asserts, Ogyrven is the God of the Otherworld or Netherworld, who is the girl  and how could a poet dare to fall in love with her? Hywel says he would go to her on a white horse but “she would not have me” and also that her fairness flows out of her realm towards us.

Ogyrven, then, seems to be many-faceted not just in the variability of the number of divisions of the Awen, but in the identity of the figure from whom it originates or the number of cauldrons, seething without fire, from which it may emanate according to ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ a poem whose title refers to a malign alliance of uninspired poets. Hywel, clearly, was not one of these. The delicacy of his poem in its original Welsh with its patterning of sound and imagery defies adequate translation not so much of its meaning as of its quietly inspired intensity. Here is no boasting Taliesin but a poet shaping inspired words out of his inability to fully realise his aspiration to fulfil his desire in the Otherworld.

And Ogyrfen? Whether a god, a place, a flow of inspiration streaming out into many further streams, elusive as the girl that Hywel desires or as the words that will adequately describe her, we may, perhaps, catch in a glimpse in one of these streams, some sense of what it is to be inspired and the many aspects of Annwfn as experienced in our world.

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.

Rhiannon and the Lifting of the Veil


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.

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.