Calan Mai

 

Rhiannononhorse

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

altar with rose petals

Breaking the Spell That Lies on the Land

BMBronzeHead20BCWitham.JPG

Pryderi’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manawydan said to me

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

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

-*-

Cigfa’s Tale

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

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

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

_*_

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

 

WRITING THE DEEP

Beir y Byd

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

-§-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-§-

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

 


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

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

For The Birds of Rhiannon at The Dark of the Moon in November

 

epona beasts
EPONA from a funeral stone in Gaul

~§~

dyuot tri aderyn, a dechrau canu udunt  ….. uch ben y weilgi allan’ (*)
Branwen Uerch Lyr

~§~

Birds of Rhiannon, sing for the dying
Over the waves of the wolf-grey sea;
Gather them with you, those who are leaving
Behind them the world’s sweet harmony.

Birds of Rhiannon, call to the dead
Over the waves of the wolf-grey sea;
Bid them witness the echoes fading
Out of the world’s sweet harmony.

~§~

(*) ‘three birds came and began singing to them ….. far out over the sea’.

The word for ‘sea’ here is ‘[g]weilgi’. Gweilgi indicates a ‘howling wolf’ and is often used in medieval Welsh texts, rather than ‘môr’ to mean ‘sea’.  The 20th century Welsh poet Gwenallt used the words ‘y weilgi werdd‘ (‘the green sea’) to write of ‘Adar Rhiannon‘ and his poem has influenced the shape of the above verses.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon_aur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though you are absent, I feel your presence,
A space in the landscape where you would be,
An echo returning from this very place
In the Otherworld where you followed Pryderi.

Did he go there to claim his birthright
In the country you left to be with us here?
Did you follow to give him your blessing
Leaving only the wraith of a riderless mare

To haunt the borders between us and Annwn?
For now we live with your memories lingering
Like elusive  scents  from a summer that’s gone
Or the sounds of your birds so sweetly singing.

In the unwoven woods Manawydan awaits you
Keeping the keys for the expected day
To open the gates when you will come riding
On a shining white horse in bright array.

In the Third Branch of the Mabinogi tales Rhiannon follows Pryderi into an enchanted fort and they are carried off to the Otherworld. Manawydan eventually manages to bring them back. According to the plot of the medieval tale an enchantment has been cast over their land by an otherworld sorcerer and Manawydan also breaks that spell. But I have interpreted these plot mechanisms as a means to explain the comings and goings of Rhiannon – here and in an earlier tale – from the Otherworld, thereby emphasising the mythological aspects of the tales with devotional intent.

To leave a devotional message for Rhiannon visit her shrine HERE

Shrine for Rigantona

 

Celtic Coinage. Northwestern Gaul. The Redones. Gold Stater (8.04 g, 20 mm). 2nd century B.C. jpg

The name Rigantona means ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Divine Queen’ in Brythonic. By a recognised development of letters and syllables from Brythonic to Welsh it becomes Rhiannon in the medieval Welsh tales about her. The stem ‘rhian-‘ corresponds to ‘rigan’ or ‘rigain’ in Old Irish and also to Latin ‘regin-a’. The suffix ‘-ona’ signifies divinity. Celtic and Italic share a common branch on the Indo-European language tree, separate from Germanic. So it is hardly surprising that words in Brythonic can have correspondences in Latin even without the Roman occupation of Brythonic territory. Rigantona’s mythology must have entered the domain of oral folklore, or of written tales in lost manuscripts before emerging in the medieval Welsh stories contained in the manuscripts bound up and preserved in libraries as The Red book of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch, both of which contain complete versions of these tales, together with fragments found elsewhere in, e.g., the Peniarth Manuscripts.

So we might now address her either formally as Rigantona or more familiarly as Rhiannon as this is her current name. Because the stories about her connect her closely with horses, she has been seen to be a mythic expression of the goddess also known as Epona (‘divine horse’) whose surviving iconography from the Ancient World is more widespread and represents her in human form, usually in association with horses. Other posts on this blog outline her attributes in more detail, especially this one.

Many of us who include her in our devotions today recognise her as the same goddess but with different attributes. So in setting up a place for the offering of dedications to her I have separated the dedicatory threads so that dedicants can choose which thread they best prefer to use. If you would like to make such a dedication, you can do so on the Shrine page of the site rigantona.net which also contains discussion and other information about the Horse Goddess in her different manifestations.

Gods in the Shadows

In the bland megalopolitan light
where no shadow is by day or by night
be our shadow


So wrote the artist and poet David Jones in his prayer to ‘The Tutelar of the Place’. To live with the gods is to live in a world of shadows, depths, mysteries. The opposite is a world where there are no shady nooks, hidden places, recesses; a world of hard surfaces and exposed spaces. Such a world does not exist, as hard as humans have tried to create it. Though many do live in such a world, lit by “the bland megalopolitan light” which banishes the natural darkness of night, a world constructed of the flat planes of our buildings and our roads. It is a conjectural world as much as a constructed world. Imagined as an ideal, realised imperfectly as a fact but dominating the imagined spaces around us.

Are the gods real? They are more real than this world we have created, as substantial as it appears to be. The world does still retain its deep places beyond the shallows of urbanity. Not just in leafy glades and misty hollows, but in oily puddles where labyrinths may be formed by coloured streaks, and in windswept streets where messages from the Otherworld may emerge from the tatters of torn scrap of newsprint. There are ways of seeing that reveal the world to us in different ways and what the mind’s eyes see depends on how we look. If we should choose to see them the gods reveal themselves – like the shadows that go with us as companions through the world.

It is not that the gods are absent from our shaped world, a world they are part of as much as we are. All creatures shape their world, make it different because they are in it. So, too, the gods. Consider the tale of the Enchantment on Dyfed in the Mabinogi.The land is transformed into its raw, natural state. It is still there, but there are no people in it, or any of the things that a landscape with people has in it. It is unfamiliar, unhomely. When the Enchantment is lifted it becomes homely again. Rhiannon, who has her being in the Otherworld, returns too. In our homely world she validates what we share (and this, I think, is the deeper meaning of the ‘Sovereignty’ theme). But she is also unhomely, uncanny, other – carrying significance from what is under, beyond, though also infused in our familiar world.

To try to make a world without the gods in it is not only to banish the unhomely and uncanny. It is also to banish their opposites. It is to make a world that is soulless, not only in the loose, general sense of being without depth and significance, but also in the more literal sense of losing touch with that which imbues the physical body with a sense of identity and meaning. I thank the gods for my shadow, even at Midday when the Sun takes it from me, for I know he will not keep it and will make it grow long and stretch it out into this mysterious world, mingled with the shadows of the trees, as afternoon leans into evening.

Rhiannon


A mare rides through the enchanted day, she is wildness,
uncanny, something out of twilight in the light of the Sun
enchanted, our eyes are turned away from the world we know
but as she turns to us, her turning is an embrace, a calmness
dissolves the vision of horse and a woman stands there.
We are undone by the sight of her and everything she is:
Evanescent Horse, Endless Summer, Shining Goddess.

Rhiannon and the Lifting of the Veil

rhiannon-1_1


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.