variations: a non-linear introduction

Welcome back :)

This has taken longer than expected – three full weeks of working, travelling and studying with barely a pause to catch my breath in between.  I managed to find a moment on the solstice (after a long train ride home from London) to gather a small bouquet of wildflowers and weeds growing on a patch of estuary scrubland, and weave them into an offering for the waters – but that will form another answer for a later question…  One of the unexpected challenges of this 30 Days of Deity Devotion has been the discipline of answering each individual question in some kind of order, when in practice all the answers run together, and seem to change shape the moment I grasp them.

On that note, the first instalment in this series of answers blurs the boundaries a little, but only because I find Manawydan impossible to introduce without reference to Manannán.  Who can tell where one sea ends and another begins?

On that note:

1.  A basic introduction to this deity
8.  Variations on this deity (aspects, regional forms, etc.) – part (i).

Manawydan fab Llŷr is the subject of my story.  A mythical chieftain of the Island of Britain, he is one of the three children of Llŷr in the Mabinogi.  He appears first in the second branch, the Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Llŷr, alongside his siblings Branwen and Bendigeifran and his half-siblings Nisien and Efnisien; his story then continues in the third branch of the Mabinogi, which is named after him and introduces the theme of his two epithets in Trioedd Ynys Prydein: humble chieftain, and golden shoemaker.  He is later named as a member of Arthur’s retinue in both the early Welsh poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur and in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, and ‘Manawyd’ is also mentioned in Y Gododdin.

Like any story centred on a deity in neo-pagan practice, what has survived through the ages is “a complex amalgam of tribal history and magico-mythical symbolism,”[1] augmented with folklore and gnosis.  My own tradition views him as a demi-god, an anthropomorphic figure through whom we can approach the fathomless mystery of his father.  I know him as a deity of shorelines and edges, a gatekeeper between our realm and the realm of the Deep.

In the Welsh literature, his only connection with the sea is through his patronymic; llŷr being an old Welsh word for ocean.  But the striking similarity between his name and the name of the Manx and Gaelic sea-god Manannán mac Lir has led to a scholarly consensus that these figures at least share some kind of common origin (various sources attest to this, though none of them with enough clarity to be worth quoting here!).

Now, instinctively, I tend to avoid conflating deities, preferring to meet each individual figure on their own terms.  Rooted as I am in the Welsh mythical world, Manawydan is my focus.  But my instincts increasingly lead me to consider Manannán as, if not another aspect of the same figure exactly, then at least part of the same whole to which Manawydan belongs.  It would be impossible for me to introduce the deity I know and revere without delving into this sense of continuity. Manawydan walks the shores of Gwynedd and Gwales and my homelands in Dyfed, but when I look out of my bedroom window now, it is Manannán I see (literally!).

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I first set foot on Anglesey as part of a walking tour around the island’s many ancient monuments: part archaeology lesson, part immersive storytelling experience; entirely magical.  And one of the emerging themes was that the builders of these monuments were travellers, crossing back and forth across the Irish Sea to bring new ideas and techniques from one settlement to the next.  The boundaries of language and region are, and always have been, mutable – a memory which is, I think, encoded in the tale of Manawydan, which remembers not only the expulsion of the Deisi and later tales of exile and dispossession in the early medieval Celtic world, but perhaps also recalls something of a time when boundaries were only physical and could always be traversed.  In the words of Eduardo Galeano, “in those days long past the entire world was our kingdom, an immense map without borders, and our legs were the only passport required”[2] – or, perhaps, in this case, a boat!  Something more of this memory is preserved in the epithet of Manawydan’s father, Llŷr Llediaith (as opposed to cyfiaith and anghyfiaith: people whose speech is mutually intelligible or unintelligible with ours, while Llŷr’s is somewhere in between) – but that is another story for another time…

[1]  Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, p.371.
[2]  Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors, ‘A Feast on Foot.’


negative capability and positive capability

It’s a strange path I have walked these past few months – if it is a path at all. Perhaps I should call it a shore: I have walked along the edge of the known, skirting the unknowable, without really testing the limits of either. Not really getting my feet wet, and not quite walking on solid ground. One month into my archives course, any spare moments I can devote to my gods are spent simply sitting, experiencing, listening. Scholarly research is for credit now, not for the advancement of my spiritual life (I would say “not for the service of my gods” – but that would be wrong). But still, I feel the lack of it.

Negative capability, as Keats described it, is a good quality to cultivate as a student of mysteries: to be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact” allows us the faculty of wonder, the immersion in experience that enables us to reach out to the gods, the ancestors, the spirits of land and sea and sky; without it, we could not establish the relationships on which modern druidry is founded. These are unverified, unverifiable experiences. There is no external measure of what is ‘valid’ (except, perhaps, consensus) – and although we have the touchstones of myth and folklore, these stories speak to us from different worlds; who is to say whether my ancestors would have made the same sense of these experiences as I have, living in this time and place? Yet these experiences are a real and valid part of who I am.

What does certainty teach us? And uncertainty?

This has been the first big question posed by my devotion to Manawydan.

I walk along the estuary shore at sunset and wonder. What belongs to land and what belongs to sea? Where does the river really end? When mist rises from the sea to obscure the horizon, where does the sky begin?

What can we learn from a figure who is son of the ocean, a chieftain without land who moves from place to place as circumstance dictates; who slips from myth to legend to folklore, cloaked in mist, and whose worship cannot be attested anywhere by physical remains?

These questions are frustratingly reflective: instead of allowing clear insights into the nature of the shore and its mysteries, they show me the state of my current understanding. I am still so focused on what I can learn. My understanding of boundless mystery is still formed with reference to boundaries, clear distinctions between this world and the other; between land and sea and sky. But whether these are good or bad (or, more likely, neutral) things to know about myself, cultivating this awareness helps. Learning the boundaries is a good place to start. If we do not know where they are, we cannot expand them, or seek to go beyond them.

Research and gnosis both have a place; accepting the limitations of what cannot be known goes hand-in-hand with establishing what can be known. Without accepting uncertainty, we can end up conjuring fantasy histories from wishful interpretations of slender facts, leading ourselves and others astray. Without establishing certainties, we can end up spinning off on our own solipsistic flights of fantasy, which in the end serve no-one, not even ourselves.

I have been wondering how best to answer the need for both research and gnosis in my spiritual life; how to honour certainty and uncertainty (not to mention how to work out which is which; not always easy when following a deity of sea-mist and illusion).  For quite a while now, I have been thinking of following the 30 days of deity devotion on this blog, without quite feeling ready.  Talking openly about devotion to a deity is not something that comes easily to me.  But reading Naomi’s blog in spring last year and following her journey through the 30 questions, which culminated in her dedication to her Cailleach Bhéarra, was an inspiration and a privilege; it reminded me that I have so often benefited from the boldness of others.  It is my turn to be bold now, though I don’t feel it. As of yet, I have very little idea where this challenge might take me, or what value may come of me writing about it here.  My own take on it may vary quite a lot from the intention behind the posing of those questions.  All I do know for sure is that the 30 days are unlikely to be consecutive, though I will try to keep up the momentum.

Cailleach Bhéarra, incidentally, is one of the many partners of that slippery sea-god, the son of Lir (perhaps even the son of Llŷr)- it seems fitting that a series of blog posts devoted to her should start me on this journey!

30 Days of Deity Devotion: topics

1. A basic introduction to the deity
2. How did you become first aware of this deity?
3. Symbols and icons of this deity
4. A favorite myth or myths of this deity
5. Members of the family – genealogical connections
6. Other related deities and entities associated with this deity
7. Names and epithets
8. Variations on this deity (aspects, regional forms, etc.)
9. Common mistakes about this deity
10. Offerings – historical and UPG
11. Festivals, days, and times sacred to this deity
12. Places associated with this deity and their worship
13. What modern cultural issues are closest to this deity’s heart?
14. Has worship of this deity changed in modern times?
15. Any mundane practices that are associated with this deity?
16. How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins?
17. How does this deity relate to other gods and other pantheons?
18. How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality? (historical and/or UPG) 19. What quality or qualities of this god do you most admire? What quality or qualities of them do you find the most troubling?
20. Art that reminds you of this deity
21. Music that makes you think of this deity
22. A quote, a poem, or piece of writing that you think this deity resonates strongly with
23. Your own composition – a piece of writing about or for this deity
24. A time when this deity has helped you
25. A time when this deity has refused to help
26. How has your relationship with this deity changed over time?
27. Worst misconception about this deity that you have encountered
28. Something you wish you knew about this deity but don’t currently
29. Any interesting or unusual UPG to share?
30. Any suggestions for others just starting to learn about this deity?

To be continued… once I get back from watching the moon rise over the bay.