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.

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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.

the ancestors

Thoughts adapted from something I posted on social.druidnetwork.com back in October…

Who are the ancestors?

This is a question I ask myself often – every time they are mentioned in a pagan rite, public or private, and especially when the calends of Winter approach and we light lanterns for the dead.

One answer I keep coming back to, having read through others’ thoughts, is that the ancestors are whoever you want them to be – whoever you wish to connect with.  I say this without judgement: everybody needs a thread to follow, else all our stories would be lost in the cacophony.  Many druids choose to focus on their pre-Roman ancestors; others on their Anglo-Saxon or Viking forebears.  Myself – having the questionable luck to be the (step)daughter of a historiographer – I prefer the small details of everyday life much more than the grand, sweeping visions of the culture as a whole.  I find echoes of the ancestors in the footprints they left behind, the grain they farmed, the letters they sent.  I find common cause with the folk of this land regardless of their origins or race.

For me, the ancestors are threefold: of place, of blood and of spirit – an idea I first encountered in one of Bobcat’s books, The Principles of Druidry, which resounded deeply with my own.  The three sometimes overlap and sometimes clash; their boundaries shift and blur, but whenever I feel jaded or out of touch with a sense of who my ancestors might be, these definitions help me to remind myself.

The ancestors of place help to connect me to wherever I am, which is rarely the same place for very long…  Their stories become part of my own, and my story adds to theirs.  Right now, that story could include prehistoric settlers of the Lancashire coast, Anglo-Saxon monks, Tudor merchants, Victorian industrialists, Mary Seacole and John Lennon – and countless, countless more.  They help me to find a sense of community and common cause with those around me, and to learn how best to love each new part of the world.

The ancestors of blood are a knotty issue for me, as they are for many people that I know – but the stories of my family live on in me, and some of them I will pass on to others, in their turn.  As for my ethnicity… it comes with a weight of cultural heritage – what I sometimes refer to (only half-joking) as “Welsh guilt” – and a healthy dose of ambivalence.  I don’t see myself primarily as Celtic, despite the happy accident of my family/name/schooling; I see myself, like this island, as a gloriously mongrelish mixture.  My roots feel as Roman as they do Anglo-Saxon, as much as anything else – and, above all, they feel human.  For me, this is what matters, above all: my blood ancestors, whoever they may be, are those whose story of flawed and beautiful humanity I carry in my very bones.   It is to them I turn for guidance in my darkest moments.

And the ancestors of spirit: who might they be?  They are the most elusive, and yet – paradoxically – the most ubiquitous of all; the easiest to find and the hardest to define.  They are poets, painters, mystics, heroes, builders, writers, healers, and many, many more.  They are the wellspring of my druidry.  Wherever awen shines through word or deed, I feel the traces of a kindred spirit: an ancestor, or fellow walker of the path (regardless of whether we call it by the same name).  I honour them each time I follow the call of my own spirit.

To finish with a truism: the fundamental aspect of the ancestors, for me, is their humanity.  Much of my druidry is centred around the spirits of the other beings in this world (and perhaps beyond); the ancestors help me to bring humanity back into the frame – a sort of corrective, restoring the balance between the human story and the world of the wild, for both are equally part of each other.  By honouring both, we remind ourselves of their interconnectedness, and carry that knowledge with us in all that we do.