What Would Efnisien Do?

Efnisien isn’t nice. He is the kind of character who “would provoke conflict between two brothers, [even] while they were at their most amicable.”[Will Parker’s translation]. He bears grudges, mutilates horses, and kills men by crushing their skulls in the fingers of his massive hands. And yet, almost everything that happens in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi happens because of him, from the initial provocation of Math to the ultimate destruction of the cauldron, which brings the conflict to an end. Even his most shockingly barbaric action – throwing Branwen’s beloved son, Gwern, into the fire – may be more significant than it appears:

“It seems most likely that the significance of Gwern was more pronounced in this bardic tradition. The place of the alder (gwern) was prominent in Cad Goddeu (‘The Battle of the Trees’), and a later bardic riddle identified Bran by ‘the high sprigs of Alder’ in his hand’. This riddle, and the Battle of the Trees, lies close to the esoteric core of the Mabinogi as a whole” — Will Parker

My time on Anglesey brought me face to face with Efnisien. In fact, the title of this blog post is taken from a brilliant t-shirt worn by one of the priests of the ADO. At first it felt strange to spend so much time with a character who seemed less important, a mere half-sibling of the House of Llŷr, and so violent too, but with the guidance of the order I began to understand his significance. Even so, it has taken me years to find his voice.

Yesterday evening, walking home, a long trail of thoughts led me back to a Jacobean tragedy I read at school, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. It’s famously gory (spoiler: everybody dies) and, in a way, it has its own Efnisien: Bosola, the malcontent. Bosola, as I remember him, comes from a poor background, but somehow finds his way to a priviledged education where he rubs shoulders with wealthy and influential peers. Once his time as a student is over, Bosola finds he has no place in their world, but cannot comfortably return to his own; he becomes an outsider in both, finding the problems in each and picking away at them until something happens.

Bosola has been on my mind recently. Politics has taken an ugly, populist turn, with everyone accusing one another of abandoning “the working class” and no-one doing anything to help them. Questions and analyses are attacked and disregarded as “elitist.” What would Bosola do, I wonder, with his working class roots and his elitist education?

It hit me as I walked home: what Bosola would do is what Efnisien would do. Efnisien speaks to me through Bosola, and this is how I hear him – because I am the malcontent, caught between my background and my educated peers, and I am not comfortable with either of these worlds. So I chafe, and provoke, and argue – but, until now, I have done it without understanding why.

The strength of the outsider is a lesson so clichéd that I never really bothered learning it. Though I have always felt caught between worlds – always too much of one thing and not enough of another, anywhere I go – I never saw it as a strength. I only wanted to belong. It strikes me as appropriate, as someone who has venerated the House of Llŷr since childhood, that the half-sibling on their periphery should be the one to teach me how to make the most of not belonging.

Efnisien is a dangerous influence but a powerful ally.

Inclusivity in Brythonic Polytheism

An excellent post by Lorna Smithers writing for Dun Brython on inclusivity in Brythonic polytheism. Paganism is as open to xenophobic and bigoted interpretation as any other religion, and it is our responsibility to stand up for honour and inspiration in the face of violence and intolerance.

Dun Brython

We live in frightening times. On June 12th, 49 people were shot dead in a gay club in Orlando. On June 16th, Labour politician Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death by a man influenced by the far-right. Since Brexit a multitude of hate-crimes have been committed against immigrants in Britain by nationalists who ‘want their country back.’

I witnessed racist bullying when I was at school but during my adult life have only been aware of rare instances locally and nationally. Up until the last month I was convinced we were moving forward into an increasingly tolerant society. Now I’m not so sure.

Encouragingly the pagan community have stepped up to address discrimination. The Pagan Federation London have written an open letter on bigotry which states:

‘I want to say right here and right now that everyone is welcome in PF-London. It doesn’t matter where you are from…

View original post 710 more words

love and death

Last night I found myself revisiting the old tale of The Ugly Wife – Emma Restall Orr’s retelling, from which her book Kissing The Hag takes its title. “It’s a story that can be found in very many forms, in old myth and legend, in folklore and music…”

The form it brought to mind was a retelling of another old tale by another wise woman, Clarissa Pinkola Estes: Skeleton Woman. I had never connected the two tales before – the first so rooted in the British Arthurian tradition, the second from the faraway Arctic of the Inuit – yet they speak to the same fears, and the same needs. Put bluntly, they speak of love and death, attraction and revulsion, trust and fear. All are intertwined.

All love must one day meet death. Nothing lasts for ever. The promises I am preparing to make last for a lifetime, and cannot be made in good faith without appreciating just what that means. One of us may well end up burying the other – or, if not, both of us will have to let our life together come to an end, in order to begin anew, alone again. And along the way there are a hundred little deaths: the deaths of illusions, old habits, fleeting physicality (already, the first white hairs, the suggestion of crows’ feet at the eyes, the settling of weight in unfamiliar places). Love itself is constantly dying and can be constantly reborn, if we trust each other and ourselves enough to let it happen.

Between my overblown romantic tendencies (“when love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep”) and studying and celebrating the mysteries of our cycles of death and regeneration, I feel ready to meet this challenge with a steady gaze. Timor mortis (non) conturbat me.

But lurking underneath this tale of renewal are other questions, and my gaze is much less steady when I meet them.

Who is the hag? Who am I? Who are you?

Can you love me like this? Can I love you while I am like this?

Can I be the soft-skinned maiden, feeling myself to be the hag underneath? Can I be the warm-blooded lover as well as the sea-ravaged skeleton? Is one more real than the other? Do they co-exist?

And what if I am the soft-skinned maiden, not the hag, but need your kindness to break me free? What if you, the fisherman, don’t feel that compassion, don’t shed that tear – am I stuck forever as a skeleton beneath the waves?

If I can change, what’s to stop me changing back? What’s to stop me wanting to change back?
Could you weather all these changes?

For some reason I find these questions more difficult to face than the idea of death. They all ask the same thing: am I loveable? Could you love me, really, as I am? Everything I am? Are you worthy? Am I?

And the most difficult thing about these questions is that I have to face them for myself. Each question needs an answer from myself, first, before I pose it to my partner (though in reality he’s several steps ahead of me on these, just as I know I can happily answer all of his questions when he feels ready to ask them).

Fear, it seems, is the one thing I am not ready to let die for the sake of love. It’s such a cliché that it took an unexpected telling of an old, familiar tale to jolt me into recognition of its truth. So I am preparing to sit with my fear for a while, to understand it and to learn from it, until I feel ready to let it die, ready to promise a lifetime of love with my partner, in good faith.