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.

2 thoughts on “nobility and humility

  1. Glad you’ve got your computer sorted. I was looking forward to reading more about Manawaydan.

    I’d never thought deeply about the occult significance of shoes before. I’m drawn to the idea of shoes making a deity like Manawydan who is as vast is the sea ‘earth-bound’, somehow humanising him but there being something very magical in that humanness and humbleness.

    I also like Manannan’s portrayal by Alison – sounds familiar. When I first met Manawydan I accidentally insulted him. I’d just started journeying and was still questioning the nature of what I was being shown and didn’t realise the otherside could be modern. I got taken to a swimming pool in Blackpool and on the side of the swimming pool was a wizard in a hat with stars and all, whose name read ‘The Wizard of the Waves’. I foolishly said to my guide “why have you brought me to see this tacky wizard?” The wizard started coming to life then everything just fell away and dissipated. Only afterward did I realise who it was and that I’d just offended one of the oldest gods of Britain. I’ve still not got on the right footing with him since :(

    • Hello! Thanks :) The blog still feels a bit messy & disjointed after all my computer mishaps, so I’ll be doing some pruning these next few weeks. But it feels good to be back.

      The thing with the shoes really intrigues me – they seem to have been quite symbolically important in a lot of old Celtic tales. Your description of the vast oneness of the sea being earth-bound, humanised and humbled sums up exactly what I was intuiting. Much more to ponder here, I think.

      And Blackpool sounds like a very fitting place for a first encounter with Manawydan! My first experiences were all around Brighton pier, all flashing lights, sugar highs and fair rides. For all my lyrical musings on the illusory beauty of the wild estuary shorelines, he presides over piers and pleasure beaches. Wizard of the waves, indeed.

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