modern manifestations and cultural origins: a personal druidic odyssey

14. Has worship of this deity changed in modern times?
16. How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins?

Has worship of Manawydan changed in modern times? Given that we cannot, in all honesty, say we have clear evidence of his worship in less modern times, how can that question be answered?

The only answer I can give is deeply personal: from as far back as I remember, I have been an avid reader of myths and legends, and the stories of the Mabinogi were no exception. But myths and legends carry possibly even more cultural baggage than any other kind of narrative, and I internalised it almost – almost – without noticing. Reading Classical myths was just so much more acceptable, and there was so much more to read about them. The stories of the Mabinogi were passed down to us by staunchly Christian authors and teachers in Wales; they had the dubious privilege of being “ours” – important at a time when Cymdeithas yr Iaith were actively fighting to keep Welsh-speaking communities alive, but also embarrassingly provincial and unsophisticated (and, for those teachers, alarmingly un-Christian); they were treated as strange and whimsical tales of a simpler time. Nobody quite knew what to make of them. Exciting as it was to hear stories of goddesses and heroes set in the very landscape where I lived, we were never encouraged to view them as important, and so I focused on the Classics.

When I first encountered paganism as a spiritual reality, as opposed to an idea, my rekindled interest in the Mabinogi felt bittersweet. The stories seemed as impenetrable and mysterious as ever. I felt simultaneously irritated that so many people were cheerfully appropriating the language I had been brought up to protect, and ashamed that these same people seemed to know more about my heritage of myth than I did. Since then I have come to understand that myths belong to all of us, and we can all learn a lot from each other.

And then I met the Anglesey druids, and began to really learn about the manuscripts from which the surviving bardic material has been drawn. That learning felt like one of the greatest gifts that has ever been entrusted to me. There really is something in all of this, you know; I always knew it, but never knew how to get at it. I won’t pretend I understand everything about it now, but I do understand a little more about how to approach it. And so, little by little, I began to find the courage to write openly of my devotion to a Celtic deity.

This is a very oblique answer, I know. A shorter answer might be: most people who honour Manawydan now work with him as a god of the sea, usually in a ritual framework derived from the traditions of Western ceremonial magic. Our ancestors, if they worshipped him at all, probably did something very different, but no evidence survives to tell us what that might have been.

These words from Will Parker make a fitting conclusion:

“In order to understand what confronts modern readers when they encounter the text of the Mabinogi, we should consider another metaphor for the work. Let the text be compared to a dried leaf-skeleton –delicate and exquisitely complex –but long since removed from its original organic context. By using the appropriate analytical tools, it is possible build up a picture of the living tree from which this leaf must have originally sprung. It roots would seem to be in myth and tribal history; its boughs the off-shoots of Medieval Romance. Around this tree has grown a tangled forest of latter-day fantasy –which itself has given rise to the nascent seedlings of Celtic neopaganism. But the ancient leaf-skeleton that is the Mabinogi reminds us of a time when the great tree at the heart of this forest was itself no more than a young sapling. What we have here is one of the earliest and most prototypical expressions of this distinctive mode of the Western imagination.” –

places and issues

12. Places associated with this deity and their worship
13. What modern cultural issues are closest to this deity’s heart?

The stories of the children of Llŷr are part of the landscape of North Wales: Aberffraw, where Bendigeidfran holds court, and where Branwen and Matholwch marry; Castell Dinas Bran, overlooking the Dee; Bedd Branwen, on the banks of the Alaw in Anglesey. As one of these siblings, my sense is that Manawydan has a share in these places – if not in any specific sites (interestingly, no monuments mention him by name) then at least in the wider geographical spread of Liverpool Bay, from the Isle of Man to Anglesey.

The Isle of Man, of course – Ynys Manaw – shares his name, but there we stray into Manannan’s waters…

In the Second Branch, Manawydan and his fellow six survivors journey from Harlech, to Gwales (Grassholme? Lundy? At any rate, an island), to London, where they bury Bendigeidfran’s head. Of these three places, only Gwales feels to me like a site of real connection to Manawydan. And that might be because of what happens next: in the Third Branch, he comes to Dyfed – the place of Pryderi and Rhiannon and, coincidentally, my childhood; where Grassholme (and other wonderful islands) can be found, and where several generations of my family have fished and picked cockles and other such things for as long as anyone remembers.

Shorelines, estuaries, islands: these are Manawydan’s places.

To walk the shorelines of this island is to understand their vulnerability. Pollution, from industry and overconsumption, is always encroaching on the delicate balance of these ecosystems. Strangely, although I care about pollution very much, my UPG is that this is not an issue which is close to Manawydan’s heart. As the head of our order often says, whatever we cast into the sea will return to us, however transformed, on the tide. Whenever I clear litter from the shore, I get the strong sense that I am doing it not for Manawydan but for myself, my fellow shore-dwellers and the other beings who share this place – an important and completely valid act of spiritual devotion and environmental responsibility, but not ultimately for his sake. The sea will take anything we cast into it. It is important for us to remember that we are the ones who will not be able to live with ourselves (literally, ecologically, as well as morally) if we poison it. This is our responsibility, not his.

What does seem close to his heart, in my experience, is justice: the enactment of it, with dispassionate neutrality. He is a figure who can work with murky, indefinite shades of grey and, within them, find what little certainty there is, and use it to establish a fair way forward. He does this not by looking for certainty, but by embracing uncertainty and learning to see it for what it truly is: his story could be a perfect illustration of Keats’ quality of “negative capability.” And, of course, I would see this quality in him; my whole career up to this point has been inspired by Albie Sachs’ assertion that the role of an archivist is to “preserve uncertainty.”

And this sense of justice does encompass environmental issues, too – but I get less of the sense of a fierce guardian of place from him than I do from other deities; more a strong commitment to the principle of justice. Cyfiawnder.

Ag yngwirionedd, Cyfiawnder;
Ag ynghyfiawnder, Cariad.

gifts of earth and air

9. Common mistakes about this deity
10. Offerings – historical and UPG
11. Festivals, days, and times sacred to this deity

Skipping straight over question 7 – because something about the issue of epithets feels like it needs deeper research – this is a post about offerings, celebrations and songs.

A few weeks ago I walked with a group of fellow druids along the southern shores of Anglesey and paused by the water, under Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge, to pay homage to Manawydan. The head of our order gave a beautiful, meaningful and playful offering: a feather in a pinecone, which spun a graceful arc into the water. Gifts of earth and air, accompanied with a prayer:

Manawydan mab Llŷr
O dwfnau’r donnau pur,
Offrwm i dy anrhydedd di;
Dy bendith ar ein siwrne ni*

Manawydan son of Llŷr
From the depth of pure waves
With offerings we honour you;
Grant your blessings on our journey**

It was a lovely moment, a fitting end to a magical day of shore-walking with like-minded companions.

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned weaving an offering of wildflowers and summer grasses on the solstice. Many, many years ago, I came across a story of the islanders of Man paying ‘rent’ to the mythical king of their island, Manannan, in the form of yellow flag irises, laid on the summit of a mountain on midsummer’s day. I have no idea how or where I heard the story, but it utterly captured my imagination. It was pretty exciting to find out that the tribute to Manannan was, in some small, folkloric way, a real practice.

Inspired by this, and by a strong personal sense that Manawydan loves music, my offerings tend to take the form of a single flower (often windfall or waste flowers, still beautiful but already sacrificed) and a song. As I have mentioned before, my experience of Manawydan and Manannan is that they are different aspects of the same whole, so it makes sense to me that, what one enjoys, the other will appreciate. I make a special effort on the solstice because this turning point of the solar year seems to have been significant in the folk tradition surrounding Manannan. In the spirit of the islanders paying their ‘rent’ in fresh rushes, I weave an offering from any suitable plants I find growing in abundance on the shore, and pause for a moment to consider exactly what it is that I am ‘paying’.

As an aside, it was on the summer solstice, just over 8 years ago, that I consciously dedicated myself to following a pagan path, so this day always has a special resonance for me.

There is no historical basis for making offerings to Manawydan; as far as archaeology attests, no offerings were ever made. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them. Ours is a new tradition, inspired by and honouring the practice of the past, so much of which is lost to us.

The offerings we made by Menai Bridge were of land (the pinecone) and sky (the feather), and since ours is an order which centres on the three realms of land, sky and sea, this practice symbolically combined them all in one poetic gesture.

On the train home – a beautiful journey which clings to the coast, all the way from Conwy and along the estuary of the Dee – I reflected on my preferred offerings of flowers and song. These, too, are offerings of earth and air to the water, land and sky to the sea.

Singing to the sea has always felt right, but the moment that cemented it for me was a visit to Northumberland last winter. As part of a signing weekend with the Unthanks (which was utterly brilliant, and if you ever get the chance you should definitely go!), we were all taught a song by Alasdair Roberts: I Had A Kiss of the King’s Hand:

I saw him on the strand
he’d been so long at sea
come from the Isle of Man
and none to welcome him but me

Down by the sea, knee-deep in seaweed
I had a kiss of the king’s hand…

Once we were all sure of the lyrics, and our parts in the harmonies, we set out for a windswept walk along Embleton Bay, stopping on the beach to sing beneath the ruins of Dunstanburgh castle. And, my word, it was magnificent. The cold, brilliantly blue North Sea rolled in on bracing breakers, and as we sang I saw a cormorant diving again and again into the water, mere metres away.

Since then, I have noticed cormorants appear almost every time I have made an offering of song to the waters. And, sure, I live in a place where cormorants are common – but, all the same, it is magical to see. I’ve learned sea shanties, Liverpool songs and more modern compositions; sometimes I even take my guitar (or, more likely, ukulele). Everything I learn adds to the sense of being part of a vast, timeless relationship between humans and the realm of sea, expressed in song for countless generations.

As for question 9, ‘common mistakes about this deity’, I’m reminded of a phrase I first read on the druid network social site: “others might know more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know better,” and that works both ways.

On a more personal note, I have taken this project very, very slowly – partly due to illness, partly due to the combined workload of my job and my studies (not to mention the several hiccups of a breaking-down computer…), and partly because I have had the leisure – but now I have a deadline: in 6 weeks’ time I will be moving away from the coast.

So that’s questions 9, 10, 11 and a hint of 21 dispatched with ruthless efficiency and a very sea-deity inspired blurring of the boundaries :)

*from memory, so quite possibly wrong!
**my translation – so quite possibly doubly wrong!

~ another interlude: happiness ~

This post is inspired – and partly lifted from – an email I sent to the Scotsman, which I found while sifting through my inbox for electronic paperwork. I’m about to make some pretty major changes: the decisions have been made, and their consequences are waiting to become reality. If you read some of my forthcoming posts for Manawydan, you will find out that I am moving away from the Wirral, from the shores which have been such an inspiration to me these past few years; the estuary of the Dee with its tidal islands, the heaths with their red sandstone paths and rock carvings, the springs and the marshes. I will miss it all so much. But it is time to move on; these aerial roots need a loosening of the soil around them… a bit of a conundrum, because so much of my idea of happiness is centred on the hearth; on a grounded idea of ‘husbandry’; on living the good life.

Being mostly bed-bound this week has given me plenty of time for reflection. There’s a famous quotation, attributed to John Lennon: “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” Some psychological studies (which I read but misplaced – links to be added later!) have shown that people whose life goal is “to be happy” often, ironically, grow to be less happy than those who have more clearly defined goals – goals such as, I don’t know, becoming a train driver, or living on the Isle of Skye.

Of course, clear-cut achievements work well in this kind of society, where wealth and status still count for a lot, and work forms a large part of our social identity. It is hardly surprising that people who follow less clearly-defined or socially-sanctioned paths might find it harder to attain happiness. But I have started to wonder whether there might not be more to it than that… Happiness means something so different to each of us, and is experienced so differently. Perhaps the vague, ill-defined kind of happiness expressed by internet-meme John Lennon is an irresponsible kind – perhaps the more we define it, the more responsibility we take to create it. When effecting change in conformity with will (which is, after all, one standard definition of magic), intention is everything.

My ambition has always been to live a good life; happiness, to me, is a feeling and not a fixed state. But even the idea of a good life can be unhelpfully ill-undefined. Over the years, I have fallen into the habit of following the path of least resistance; sometimes good, in that it kept me open to opportunities I might have overlooked; but also bad, in that I had no overall sense of where I wanted to be, except that I wasn’t there yet. Things came to a head this summer, not so much because of my depression, but because of the physical/psychological hangover it left. I had done all the groundwork – facing the shadow, embracing the darkness, uprooting the depression – but still didn’t find it any easier to cope with everyday life. So I started thinking about what I had to cope with, and why, and whether I could (or should) start to change all of that.

Starting with work…

I often joke that my life is one long experiment in determining the exact extent to which it is better to be poor but happy. This is not strictly true, because a proper experiment would require a period of outrageously high earnings for a full comparison… But one thing I have learned is that budgeting – for me, at least – is not just linear and rational; it’s elastic and emotional. The happier I am, the less I need. There is a fine art to striking that balance, but I am finally in a place where I feel ready to tinker with it, to get it better than it has been. For the lack of happiness in my present situation, I really need much more money than I currently earn – money to call abroad, to buy train tickets for visits to friends, to buy treats that make the long hours in the office-like environment feel worthwhile. No more money is forthcoming, so the only part of that equation I can change is the happiness.

From that perspective, the only way to change my life is to find more ways to do the things I love.

So I applied, speculatively, for a job that involved doing everything that had made me want to become an archivist in the first place. I didn’t expect to be successful, because the employer was notoriously picky, and anyway the wages were so low that I went to the interview with the attitude that I probably wouldn’t accept the job if offered. But the interview was an eye-opener. People are willing to give up so much, and travel so far, just for a chance of doing something they love. And I was lucky enough to be there with relatively little sacrifice. Needless to say, I fell in love with the place and its collections, and remembered my deeply-buried ambition to work in curating (“you’ll never do that, it’s too competitive, it pays too little…” etc – part of the reason I went for archive work is because nobody understood it well enough to tell me it was hopeless). The job that I was offered, and accepted, is curatorial.

I would say I had accidentally stumbled into fulfilling a dream, but I don’t think it was an accident; it just took a bit more work to clarify my intention, because I had forgotten how to describe what I wanted, after giving up hope of ever getting it.

On a more mystical note, this time of year is always particularly good for me, in terms of taking stock and checking whether my efforts are tending in the right direction; not so much because of the symbolism of the harvest, but because the rowan berries are ripe. They sing. I can hear their note, and I can feel whether or not it’s in harmony with my own; if it is, I’m heading in the right direction, if it’s not, I know I need to make adjustments. And each adjustment has its own pitch, so I can listen for its harmony or discord with the rowan berries as I consider it. This is something I’ve been doing since before I consciously identified as druid, and I’ve never been open about it before; I suppose it’s a very specific, very personal form of divination. It’s one of the reasons why autumn is my favourite time of year.

Hail to the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness /|\

n.b. What makes you happy? Comment below if you like – it’s something I find interesting to read, and figure others might enjoy as well :)