a tangled web

5. Members of the family – genealogical connections.
6. Other related deities and entities.

In the Mabinogi, Manawydan sits at the centre of a web of relations between the Houses of Llŷr, Beli Mawr and Annwfn. He is, along with Branwen and Bendigeidfran, one of the children of Llŷr at the heart of the Second Branch. Unlike his sister Branwen (the ‘white’ or ‘sacred crow’) and his brother Bendigeidfran (the ‘blessed crow’), Manawydan has no discernible corvid connections – although, as I have mentioned before, I associate him very strongly with the cormorant; not strictly a crow, but known in Welsh as morfran, ‘sea-crow’. Of their father, Llŷr, very little is written. His name means ‘ocean’ and his epithet Llediaith, or half-speech, suggests either foreign origins or a form of speech which is only partially intelligible – which, as a poetic expression of the sounds and strangeness of the ocean, works for me.

Manawydan’s mother is Penarddun, the ‘chief fair one’, who is either the daughter or the sister of Beli Mawr, depending on your reading of the geneaology. Beli himself is also the father of Aranrhod of the Fourth Branch, making Manawydan a cousin to Lleu Llaw Gyffes and to the oceanic Dylan Eil Ton. Beli is often interpreted as cognate with Belenus, the ‘fair shining one’, a solar deity worshipped throughout the Gaulish and Brythonic regions. The idea of Manawydan belonging to both the ocean and the solar or celestial realm, by lineage, fits well with my experience – and the magical, illusory, mist-wrapped qualities expressed in his stories seem to draw on this dual heritage of sea and sky.

Penarddun herself is also mother to Nisien and Efnisien, the two half-brothers of the children of Llŷr. Efnisien in particular drives most of the action of the Second Branch; first mutilating the horses of Matholwch, then foiling the plot to ambush Bendigeidfran, before throwing Branwen’s son Gwern on the fire and finally destroying the cauldron of rebirth, sacrificing himself in the process. Efnisien and his brother Nisien were conceived when their father, Euroswydd, imprisoned Llŷr, who thus became one of the three ‘exalted prisoners’ of Britain named in Trioedd Ynys Prydein.

In the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, having returned to Britain as one of seven survivors of the raid on Ireland, Manawydan marries the mother of his comrade Pryderi: Rhiannon – about whomthere is more to say than I could possibly squeeze into this blog post! In marrying her, Manawydan marries into the family most closely connected with the realm of Annwfn, on which the First Branch centred. A lot has been written about the symbolic significance of Rhiannon as a goddess of sovereignty and the land; her marriage to Manawydan, son of the ocean, seems to draw on a mythical motif of the marriage between land and sea (Naomi writes beautifully about the marriage of Cailleach Bheara to Manannán mac Lir: https://leithincluan.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/stories-from-the-pilgrimage-pt-1/).

Complex and dry though it may seem, this tangled web of relationships, marriages and filial connections is a beautiful expression of the nature of Manawydan as a deity. He is married to the land, yet apart from her; a son of both ocean and sky, with a father indescribable (or at least undescribed) and only half-intelligible, and a mother named for her luminous beauty. He is the point at which land, sea and sky all melt into one another on the shore, when the otherworldly Western isles feel as though they are just out of reach over the horizon, beyond the setting sun.


otherworldly islands

4. A favourite myth of this deity.

Perfect is my chair in Caer Siddi
Sickness and old age afflict not those within it
Manawyd and Pryderi know it…[1]

Save seven, none survived.

The fleet which sailed to Ireland was so thick with masts that it appeared as though a forest was moving on the waves. Yet, of all those who sailed, only seven returned to the Island of the Mighty. Manawydan. Pryderi. Taliesin. Glifieu Eil Taran. Ynawg. Gruddieu son of Muriel. Heilyn son of Gwyn the Old.

They returned with the head of Bendigeidfran, struck from his poisoned body at his own command. It was a wondrous thing: it remained uncorrupted, as he had foretold, and kept them excellent company as they journeyed through Harlech and Gwales towards London, to bury it beneath the White Hill.

On reaching Harlech, the seven feasted, with the head of Bendigeidfran at their table. The three birds of Rhiannon rose up and surrounded them with song, a song so sweet that it could wake the dead and lull the living to a death-like sleep. Not one of them would stir while those birds were singing. They feasted for seven years, and when the singing stopped, they set out for Gwales, rejuvenated.

The island fort of Gwales was set high above the sea, a beautiful palace with a kingly hall. Two of its doors lay open to them, and a third was closed.

‘There,’ said Manawydan to his six companions, ‘is the door we must not open.’

That night they feasted again, and every night thereafter. For eighty years they remained in that hall, lacking nothing, feeling nothing of their grief, knowing nothing of the time that passed them by. And the head of Bendigeidfran feasted with them, as good company as it had ever been when on his body. But at the end of eighty years, Heilyn son of Gwyn the Old grew restless, and began to look towards the door that had not yet been opened.

‘Shame on my beard,’ he said, ‘if I do not open that door and find out what lies beyond.’

So he opened it, and looked outside, at the silted waters of Aber Henvelen flowing westwards towards the setting sun, and in that moment, he and every other person in the palace knew that they could stay no longer. They took the head of Bendigeidfran and set out for London, with all the burden of their grief to spur them on.

The Assembly of the Wondrous head is one of the most haunting episodes in the Mabinogi, for me. There has been a lot of debate over the precise physical location of the island of Gwales, and in my retelling I hint at its possible real-world counterparts: Aber Henvelen is sometimes taken to mean the Bristol Channel, and the door that must not be opened faces onto Cornwall. But, of course, this episode does not take place in our world.

Will Parker has a lot to say about the tradition of the island otherworld in Celtic literature, which was described by Roman writers as ‘a significant aspect of the belief system of the native populations of Gaul and Britain.’ Remarkably, this tradition continued to flourish on both sides of the Irish Sea after the arrival of Christianity: ‘[with] roots in the pagan past, they also received an important lease of life by being assimilated into the patristic traditions of the peregrinato, and Christian visions of the prelapserian paradise.’ Parker places this story in the context of The Voyage of Bran, and the otherworldly visions described in the poems of the School of Taliesin – particularly the description of Caer Siddi, which seems to be a variation on the Irish ‘sidhe‘. As he notes, the otherworld ‘was sometimes depicted as an underground realm, sometimes as an island in the sea, sometimes in a sub-aquatic location’. It is characterised by spatial and temporal distortion, and the psychic element of the otherworld experience is at least as important as its physical location. Otherworldly islands abound in folkloric tales relating to Manannánand I hope to explore them in greater depth (pun intended?) at some point in the future on this blog. But the Assembly of the Wondrous Head has a strange and magical resonance, capturing the potent mix of pagan and magical Christian beliefs which provide us with our spiritual inheritance as British druids, while also expressing a Celtic world which was fast disappearing; first under Roman conquest, and then under Anglo-Norman rule:

The Second Branch as a whole is shot through with a potent combination of wonder and nostalgic yearning, that distinctive emotion the Welsh know as hiraeth. A fitting mood, perhaps, for the contemplation of the splendour of a distant and irretrievable past, the memories of which were on the point of fading from the terrestrial map of geopolitical validity into the celestial distance of myth, like the melting of the sunset over the Western Sea. [2]

[1] Golychaf i Gulwyd – my own translation, drawing heavily on Kristoffer Hughes’ research for the 13th Mt Haemus lecture: http://www.druidry.org/events-projects/mount-haemus-award/thirteenth-mt-haemus-lecture
[2] Will Parker, http://www.mabinogi.net/

magical motifs

I am making slow progress with these posts, but I keep on keeping on… For the sake of which, I will post this without references for now & try to update it with links and endnotes later on. In the meantime, if anything piques your interest, feel free to ask in the comments!

3. symbols and icons associated with this deity.

Manawydan’s story, in the Third and Second branches of the Mabinogi, offers little in the way of symbols which are unique to him alone. Instead, his story encompasses motifs and symbols which recur throughout these tales, and throughout the mystery tradition they (arguably) articulate.

He is one of seven survivors of the war against Ireland – an echo of the seven survivors of Preiddeu Annwfn (namyn seith ny dyrreith…). The island of Gwales, where the seven survivors in the Second Branch stay to feast and forget their sorrows, is itself echoed in the island forts described by Preiddeu Annwfn. Manawydan is particularly aware of the magical qualities of this otherworldly island, recognising the door which must stay closed to maintain the enchantment.

In the Third Branch, after the enchantment of Dyfed, Manawydan takes to shoemaking. His skill earns him the epithet of ‘golden shoemaker’ – one of the three named in Trioedd Ynys Prydein, along with Gwydion and Lleu. Golden shoes have been associated, in Celtic scholarship, with kingship, and the ritual of king-making, and the repetition of this theme in the two most overtly magical Branches does seem to hint at some deeper significance.

White boars, otherworldly forts and magical bowls also appear in the Third Branch – symbols which occur again and again throughout the Welsh mythos, symbolising points of contact between Annwfn and this world. Rhiannon and Pryderi (figures whose stories map out the margins between this world and the otherworld of Annwfn) are caught by an enchantment which Manawydan resists and, eventually, overcomes. He is a figure who can see through illusion, who understands the nature of enchantment, participating knowingly and resisting wisely. He chooses to play by the rules, but retains a detached perspective on them. Like Gwydion and Math, he wields a wand, a symbol of his mastery of magic.

Manannán, by contrast, has a much clearer set of symbols: a branch of the apple tree (a link to the otherworld – could this be analogous to Manawydan’s wand?); a protective cloak of mist and forgetting; a boat with no need of sails (Scuabtuinne, Wave-Sweeper) and a sea-borne chariot drawn by his horse, Enbarr of the Flowing Mane.

The Irish tales also associate him with a cauldron of regeneration, much like the cauldron described in the Mabinogi and the Taliesin poems. In some stories, he is linked with magical swine – animals of the otherworld, like the swine of Annwfn (although in the Mabinogi, these are more overtly linked with Pwyll and Pryderi and, later, Gwydion and Lleu). And, of course, Manannán is the guardian of islands – the otherworldly Mag Mell and the ‘thrice fifty’ blessed isles. Perhaps most significantly, he is the mythical king of the Isle of Man, which either gives him its name, or derives its name from his. The Manx folkloric tradition of ‘paying the rent’ at midsummer, with offerings of meadowgrass and yellow flowers left on Manannán’s seat of South Barrule, has always captured my imagination – a beautiful ritual to weave into modern devotional practice.

Working with the Welsh mythological tradition, the use of wands and cauldrons, and the symbolism of island forts and otherworldly animals, are all important aspects of my practice. In my more personal devotion to Manawydan I also make pilgrimages to islands in the Irish Sea, as and when I can, and pay special homage when his cloak of sea-mist rolls in and blankets the land, as it so often does in Liverpool Bay (‘the Irish mist’ my mother calls it). Having a vessel or a bowl of water at hand feels increasingly integral to devotional rituals which centre on him – particularly when that water has been gathered from the sea, or from a tidal river. And I also find the triskelion symbolic of Manawydan, somehow; not least because of his strong association with the Isle of Man and its heraldic flag of the ny tree cassyn. The triskelion is a symbol I have always loved, and which I now wear to express my membership of the Anglesey Druid Order. Its union of land, sea and sky speaks to me particularly of this deity of shorelines: son of the sea, married to the land, cloaked in an air of mist.

Finally, on a purely personal and not-at-all scholarly note, whenever I pay homage to Manawydan – usually in the form of song, while walking by the waters – I see cormorants. These birds, to me, symbolise once again the union of land, sea and sky; they also symbolise a link between this world and the deep, unfathomable mysteries of the realm of Llŷr Llediaith, to which Manawydan leads us.

They are also, coincidentally, one of the better-known symbols of my current home town!

coat of arms, as published on http://www.ngw.nl/heraldrywiki/index.php?title=Liverpool_(England)

Liverpool coat of arms, as published on http://www.ngw.nl/: ‘Argent a Cormorant in the beak a Branch of Seaweed called Laver all Proper’