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!