relating

  1.  How does this deity relate to other gods and other pantheons?

I have touched on his links across the Irish Sea, with Manannan; I have also touched on his family: his parentage, of deep ocean and bright light, and his lack of obvious corvid connections, in contrast with his brother and sister. In my very personal experience, he is associated with the cormorant (morfran, lit. ‘sea crow’ – and here is something more to ponder, because Morfran Afagddu is the name of Ceridwen’s son). All three siblings seem to have some connection with kingship, or sovereignty: Bendigeidfran is high king of Britain; Branwen marries the high king of Ireland and becomes the pretext for war between the nations; Manawydan is the ‘humble chieftain’ with no lands of his own, but marries Rhiannon, who is sovereignty personified.

But the sea gods of other pantheons seem quite different, at least to my understanding. I spent some time this autumn in the realm of Poseidon, on an island which owed its wealth to his realm and expressed a deep sense of devotion to the sea in its ancient frescoes and mosaics – but it felt like a very different sea, and a very different deity. And, in pondering this difference, it struck me that, for all the songs I sing to the sea, and all the time I spend listening to the music of Bjork, I never use her sea-inspired songs as offerings for Manawydan; they are so clearly referencing another sea, with a powerful deity of its own.

So why, I wonder, do I perceive so much continuity between Manawydan and his Manx/Gaelic counterpart, Manannan, and yet so much difference from his counterparts in other seas? They are all part of the same great body of water, the same great cycles of ebb and flow, evaporation and precipitation.

The answer, for me, lies in the shorelines: Manawydan is not just a deity of sea, but specifically of the place where sea and land meet and merge. When I seek him, I find him on the northern shores of continental Europe, and all around the islands which have once, in one way or another, been associated with the name of Britain – but further afield, in the warm salt of the Mediterranean or the icy arctic depths, the relationship between land and sea changes, and the local deities express this change.

  1. How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality?

Historically (or at least literarily), heterosexual cis-gendered male; but in practice, I would suggest, amorphous. It is certainly not a defining feature.

  1. What qualities of this deity do you find the most admirable, and the most troubling?

The answer to the first question is best summarised with an episode from the Third Branch:

…said Manawydan ‘we can’t go on like this. Let us make for England where we can find a trade and make a living.’

They made for England, until they came to Henford; and took up saddle-making. Manawydan began to fashion pommels, and they were coloured in the way he had seen Llassar Llaes Gyfnewid do with blue azure; and they[even]made their own blue azure, just as the other man had done. And for that reason, it is still called “calch llasar”, after Llassar Llaes Gyfnewit.

And as a result of that work, not a saddle nor a pommel could be sold by a saddler anywhere in Henford, as long as it could be got from Manawydan – until each of the saddlers realised they were losing profit, and nothing was being bought from them, unless it could not be got from Manawydan.

Thereupon, they banded together and agreed to kill him and his companion. Thereupon [the four] got a warning, and they took counsel about leaving the township.

‘Between myself and God,’ said Pryderi ‘I will not counsel leaving the township, rather than killing those peasants.

‘No,’ said Manawydan ‘if we fight with them, we will get a bad name, and be thrown in prison. It is better for us,’ he continued ‘to make for another township and earn a living there.’

And [so] the four went to another city.

‘What craft shall we take up?’ asked Pryderi.

‘We will make shields,’ said Manawydan.

‘Do we know anything about that?’ asked Pryderi.

‘We will try it,’ he replied.

In a word: adaptable, with a certain kind of wise, peaceful resilience. This is the patience of water, which can wear down rock and find any number of ways around an obstacle. It is the constancy of the tide, ceaseless in its rhythms, not resisting the conditions which dictate its flow, but, slowly and surely, using that flow to shape those conditions.

As for troubling qualities, have I ever mentioned my healthy respect (read: fear) of tidal currents? I am a sea-worshipper who fears immersion in the sea.

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nobility and humility

It’s a new solar year! And I have a computer. Now to return to those unanswered questions of deity devotion…

7. Names and epithets

Tri Eur Gryd Ynys Brydein …Manawydan vab Llyr pan vu hut ar Dyued…

Three Golden Shoemakers of the Isle of Britain …Manawydan son of Llyr, when the enchantment was on Dyfed…

[Triad 67, after the transcription and translation provided by Rachel Bromwich in Trioedd Ynys Prydein]

Manawydan is one of three ‘golden shoemakers’ in the Welsh mythos – the most famous of whom is undoubtedly Lleu Llaw Gyffes, with his likely connections to Lugus, a figure to whom Iberian shoemakers once paid homage. But, in contrast to Lleu and Gwydion’s magical trickery, Manawydan’s shoemaking is a learned craft. In the Third Branch, he becomes a shoemaker to earn his keep, teaching Pryderi what he knows (interestingly, although Pryderi is the fourth shoemaker in the Mabinogi, he is not described as ‘golden’). As the story goes, Manawydan makes such exquisite shoes that ‘as long as it could be obtained from him, neither shoe nor boot nor anything could be sold by a shoemaker in the whole of the township.’

Shoemaking is part of his quest in the Third Branch ‘to find a trade and make a living’ away from the deserted lands of an enchanted Dyfed; an episode in which he also turns his hand to shield-making and saddlery. As Rachel Bromwich notes, Irish sources concur in describing Manannan as ‘a druid and a craftsman and a merchant’ [Trioedd Ynys Prydein p.187]. He is nothing if not resourceful. But the symbol of the shoe in particular – the only of his crafts which is mentioned in the triads – is a potent one, with many possible meanings. Some members of the Anglesey Druid Order have commented that shoes have occult significance, possibly emblematic of the ability of the magician to travel between worlds at will. Another inspired idea from the Order is that the shoe symbolises ‘densification’ – from vast, formless deity, to earth-bound human. Golden shoes may also have been a symbol of sovereignty, in which case I find it interesting that both Manawydan and Lleu make their own golden shoes: in Lleu’s case, to trick his mother into giving him the name which is his birthright, and in Manawydan’s case to find a living after his kingdom is blighted by magic. Sovereignty, in these stories, is about so much more than land and homage.

Continuing this theme, Manaywdan is described as ‘lledyf unben’ twice in the Mabinogi and again in the triads. ‘Unben’ means chieftain, while ‘lledyf’ is translated variously as ungrasping, humble, humbled or prostrate. He is a king without a kingdom, a chieftain with no clan, a sovereign who makes his own golden shoes. In the stories, he seems not so much prostrated as adaptable: ‘to learn, one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.’

Alison Leigh Lilly captures this dualism brilliantly when she writes about Manannan:

‘One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,’ says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks.

This is my kind of god.

Yes indeed.