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.

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.

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.” – http://www.mabinogi.net/fourbranches.html

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!

patriotism, celebration and the sacred landscape

Yesterday was St George’s day, and although our household generally disapproves of killing dragons, I like to take a little time on 23rd April to reflect on the many good things about the land where I have made my home.

Coincidentally, this week also saw the announcement of the BBC folk awards, which – though hosted in Cardiff, with the wonderful 9Bach winning album of the year – gave us plenty to celebrate about Englishness. But the folk scene still makes mainstream media uneasy. The guardian, in the past, has described this music as “arthritically white,” linking it to Nick Griffin’s toxic brand of nationalism. Political ideologies of the far-right have always been prone to poisoning the wellspring of national celebration, and there is always work to be done to filter out the toxic elements. But far from being divisive, the English folk tradition shows us (in Eliza Carthy’s words) “how to celebrate the ancient culture of where you are from without pushing anyone away.” Celebration is key: without honouring what you have to offer, you cannot invite anyone to share in it.

Folk traditions are rooted in the land, the cycles of the seasons, and the common human experiences of birth, love, loss and death. English folk songs, in particular, sing of market towns, native birds, seaports and wars; they are all indisputably English, and they all articulate something that is common to human experience the whole world over. Love of the land is, I think, the purest form of patriotism, and it comes easily to pagans. The places I hold sacred in my local landscape are part of the nation which we now know as England, and have given rise to some of the cultural and historical flavour of that nation; this is something I honour, in my celebration of them. I have my own struggles with national and cultural identity; in many ways, I find it easier to be Welsh outside Wales. But being (relatively) secure in my identity as a Welsh person makes it easier for me to celebrate the things I love about England. When I celebrate, as a non-English person resident in England, it is clear that I am sharing in something joyful, not participating in something divisive.

Questions about how and why and where we celebrate are never too far away in druidry, especially where rituals are conducted out in the land, “in the eye of the sun.” After observing the ADO ritual for Alban Arthan at Bryn Celli Ddu, Rhys Mwyn (Wales’ very own punk antiquarian) wrote a thoughtful blog post questioning the suitability of ancient monuments such as Bryn Celli Ddu – which were almost certainly not created by whatever we understand to be “the ancient druids” – for use as sacred sites in neo-pagan ritual. This is something I have often pondered, being more inclined to celebrate special places in my own landscape than traipse across Britain to a monument created for an unknown purpose.

(In the unlikely event that Rhys is reading, the answer I have come up with for myself is that sites like these give a focus for communities to gather. It’s not about belief; it’s about shared celebration.)

Reflecting on the ritual, he asks: “are these people creating false histories, and does that matter?” The unspoken assumption is that, for druids to legitimately use these sites as the focus for a celebration, they should have been created by historical druids specifically for the purpose of this kind of celebration. This point of view – which is not necessarily wrong, and not unknown within neo-paganism either – does not recognise the wider sense of reconnection, in which numinous places can be used as the focus of a celebration centred on a sense of what is sacred about the landscape, whether that be geological features or continuous habitation stretching back across millennia.

A lunchtime chat about morris dancing on St George’s day raised a similar argument about origin and authenticity: it (probably) isn’t really English, in the sense of having originated entirely in England without any outside influence.  So should we really be using it to celebrate a sense of Englishness?  My answer would be yes: no culture exists in isolation, and there is no such thing as a culture without any outside influence, but morris dancing as we know it today – complete with beards, wonderfully-bedecked hats and pints of real ale or scrumpy cider – is now an English tradition. Whether or not you feel it should be used to celebrate Englishness, its “authenticity” is not the issue.

So what should we celebrate, and how, where, and why?

Those questions seem to be at the centre of a quiet national identity crisis in this country – and for good reason: celebrations create and reinforce our values, and from those values our sense of identity is formed. Consciously or not, the choices we make about what we celebrate as druids are part of a much wider picture of what it means to live in our respective nations, wherever those nations happen to be.  Something to think about.

walking this path

It has been a while since my last proper post; in all honesty, bar the tenuous, Telegraph-given connection, the subject of my last actual post is a little out of keeping with the blog (oh hai there new followers!  It is very nice to have you, but I thought you all deserved a warning).  Like its non-identical twin sister, this blog fizzled out a little over the latter part of last year.  I had been using them both to skirt around the sayable, while privately, silently, exploring the unsayable.

Last year feels as though it should have been a turning point, though nothing much has turned.  After withdrawing a little from the online community of pagans, and immersing myself in the mystery tradition of Anglesey Druidry, I have emerged with more or less the same perspective as before, but with a much steadier sense of the ground beneath my feet, and a lot more clarity about how I could explore it further.

Mystery is, in essence, inexpressible; finding ways to express the inexpressible is what art is for – and although I make no claims to be an artist, this blog exists to express ideas about druidry: a path which is partly rooted in gnosis, mysticism and subjective experience.  I need to use it to express the things that actually inspire me, no matter how hesitant I am to expose them to the winds of internet opinion; otherwise it has no heart.  I am starting to understand a little more about what it means to be a bard, having thought for all these years that perhaps I could just quietly avoid that aspect of the druid path without anybody noticing.  Unfortunately, “anybody” included me (who, privately, noticed very much); it also included the deepest wellspring of my inspiration, a deity who is not the type to insist, but is not exactly easily suppressed…

So: what am I doing?

This question (“the old song”) is a favourite of Cat Treadwell’s, and I have learned a lot from the clarity of its simple directness.

Right now, I am re-reading Kuno Meyer’s translation of The Voyage of Bran, son of Febal, thanks to the Forgotten Books project.  And I am writing.  Writing here, because over the past few days I have been devouring pagan blogs; clicking my way into a labyrinth of links and references and, gradually, reading my way out again, laden with a list of new books to find and references to check, and correspondences between ideas that had never quite met one another before.  In that context, it seems miserly to read so much and not offer something in return, no matter how little.  There comes a point when there is more to be learned by sharing one’s own ideas than by hoarding other people’s, and some connections can only be made out loud.  But that leap of faith is terrifying.  I know so little.  Will I ever know enough?

Enough for whom?

Enough by what measure?

If my measure is an inspired and inspiring life, then I think I am at least on track.  The inspiration I feel may not always express itself in art – in the words or music we associate with bard-craft (though the moment on Sunday when I sang to the turning tide and saw a cormorant fly overhead and land in the water with each verse, was a moment of pure magic) – but in some small way I can feel it expressed in everything I do.  Just under four months ago, I was initiated as awenydd; now, I am learning to be one.  It takes faith to spend so much time and effort researching old tales and traditions, and to glean inspiration from sources that have been obscured by time; it takes still more faith to pour our souls into the work of singing this inspiration back into the world.  But it is the work I vowed to undertake.  And – however I try to rationalise it, whatever stories I weave around it –  Manawydan mab Llŷr (and maybe also Manannan mac Lir) is at its heart.

image by the wonderful Thalia Took: www.thaliatook.com

image by the wonderful Thalia Took: http://www.thaliatook.com

Let not thy intoxication overcome thee;
Begin a voyage across the clear sea

The Voyage of Bran, son of Febal

So I begin.