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.



  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.

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.

a tangled web

5. Members of the family – genealogical connections.
6. Other related deities and entities.

In the Mabinogi, Manawydan sits at the centre of a web of relations between the Houses of Llŷr, Beli Mawr and Annwfn. He is, along with Branwen and Bendigeidfran, one of the children of Llŷr at the heart of the Second Branch. Unlike his sister Branwen (the ‘white’ or ‘sacred crow’) and his brother Bendigeidfran (the ‘blessed crow’), Manawydan has no discernible corvid connections – although, as I have mentioned before, I associate him very strongly with the cormorant; not strictly a crow, but known in Welsh as morfran, ‘sea-crow’. Of their father, Llŷr, very little is written. His name means ‘ocean’ and his epithet Llediaith, or half-speech, suggests either foreign origins or a form of speech which is only partially intelligible – which, as a poetic expression of the sounds and strangeness of the ocean, works for me.

Manawydan’s mother is Penarddun, the ‘chief fair one’, who is either the daughter or the sister of Beli Mawr, depending on your reading of the geneaology. Beli himself is also the father of Aranrhod of the Fourth Branch, making Manawydan a cousin to Lleu Llaw Gyffes and to the oceanic Dylan Eil Ton. Beli is often interpreted as cognate with Belenus, the ‘fair shining one’, a solar deity worshipped throughout the Gaulish and Brythonic regions. The idea of Manawydan belonging to both the ocean and the solar or celestial realm, by lineage, fits well with my experience – and the magical, illusory, mist-wrapped qualities expressed in his stories seem to draw on this dual heritage of sea and sky.

Penarddun herself is also mother to Nisien and Efnisien, the two half-brothers of the children of Llŷr. Efnisien in particular drives most of the action of the Second Branch; first mutilating the horses of Matholwch, then foiling the plot to ambush Bendigeidfran, before throwing Branwen’s son Gwern on the fire and finally destroying the cauldron of rebirth, sacrificing himself in the process. Efnisien and his brother Nisien were conceived when their father, Euroswydd, imprisoned Llŷr, who thus became one of the three ‘exalted prisoners’ of Britain named in Trioedd Ynys Prydein.

In the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, having returned to Britain as one of seven survivors of the raid on Ireland, Manawydan marries the mother of his comrade Pryderi: Rhiannon – about whomthere is more to say than I could possibly squeeze into this blog post! In marrying her, Manawydan marries into the family most closely connected with the realm of Annwfn, on which the First Branch centred. A lot has been written about the symbolic significance of Rhiannon as a goddess of sovereignty and the land; her marriage to Manawydan, son of the ocean, seems to draw on a mythical motif of the marriage between land and sea (Naomi writes beautifully about the marriage of Cailleach Bheara to Manannán mac Lir: https://leithincluan.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/stories-from-the-pilgrimage-pt-1/).

Complex and dry though it may seem, this tangled web of relationships, marriages and filial connections is a beautiful expression of the nature of Manawydan as a deity. He is married to the land, yet apart from her; a son of both ocean and sky, with a father indescribable (or at least undescribed) and only half-intelligible, and a mother named for her luminous beauty. He is the point at which land, sea and sky all melt into one another on the shore, when the otherworldly Western isles feel as though they are just out of reach over the horizon, beyond the setting sun.

magical motifs

I am making slow progress with these posts, but I keep on keeping on… For the sake of which, I will post this without references for now & try to update it with links and endnotes later on. In the meantime, if anything piques your interest, feel free to ask in the comments!

3. symbols and icons associated with this deity.

Manawydan’s story, in the Third and Second branches of the Mabinogi, offers little in the way of symbols which are unique to him alone. Instead, his story encompasses motifs and symbols which recur throughout these tales, and throughout the mystery tradition they (arguably) articulate.

He is one of seven survivors of the war against Ireland – an echo of the seven survivors of Preiddeu Annwfn (namyn seith ny dyrreith…). The island of Gwales, where the seven survivors in the Second Branch stay to feast and forget their sorrows, is itself echoed in the island forts described by Preiddeu Annwfn. Manawydan is particularly aware of the magical qualities of this otherworldly island, recognising the door which must stay closed to maintain the enchantment.

In the Third Branch, after the enchantment of Dyfed, Manawydan takes to shoemaking. His skill earns him the epithet of ‘golden shoemaker’ – one of the three named in Trioedd Ynys Prydein, along with Gwydion and Lleu. Golden shoes have been associated, in Celtic scholarship, with kingship, and the ritual of king-making, and the repetition of this theme in the two most overtly magical Branches does seem to hint at some deeper significance.

White boars, otherworldly forts and magical bowls also appear in the Third Branch – symbols which occur again and again throughout the Welsh mythos, symbolising points of contact between Annwfn and this world. Rhiannon and Pryderi (figures whose stories map out the margins between this world and the otherworld of Annwfn) are caught by an enchantment which Manawydan resists and, eventually, overcomes. He is a figure who can see through illusion, who understands the nature of enchantment, participating knowingly and resisting wisely. He chooses to play by the rules, but retains a detached perspective on them. Like Gwydion and Math, he wields a wand, a symbol of his mastery of magic.

Manannán, by contrast, has a much clearer set of symbols: a branch of the apple tree (a link to the otherworld – could this be analogous to Manawydan’s wand?); a protective cloak of mist and forgetting; a boat with no need of sails (Scuabtuinne, Wave-Sweeper) and a sea-borne chariot drawn by his horse, Enbarr of the Flowing Mane.

The Irish tales also associate him with a cauldron of regeneration, much like the cauldron described in the Mabinogi and the Taliesin poems. In some stories, he is linked with magical swine – animals of the otherworld, like the swine of Annwfn (although in the Mabinogi, these are more overtly linked with Pwyll and Pryderi and, later, Gwydion and Lleu). And, of course, Manannán is the guardian of islands – the otherworldly Mag Mell and the ‘thrice fifty’ blessed isles. Perhaps most significantly, he is the mythical king of the Isle of Man, which either gives him its name, or derives its name from his. The Manx folkloric tradition of ‘paying the rent’ at midsummer, with offerings of meadowgrass and yellow flowers left on Manannán’s seat of South Barrule, has always captured my imagination – a beautiful ritual to weave into modern devotional practice.

Working with the Welsh mythological tradition, the use of wands and cauldrons, and the symbolism of island forts and otherworldly animals, are all important aspects of my practice. In my more personal devotion to Manawydan I also make pilgrimages to islands in the Irish Sea, as and when I can, and pay special homage when his cloak of sea-mist rolls in and blankets the land, as it so often does in Liverpool Bay (‘the Irish mist’ my mother calls it). Having a vessel or a bowl of water at hand feels increasingly integral to devotional rituals which centre on him – particularly when that water has been gathered from the sea, or from a tidal river. And I also find the triskelion symbolic of Manawydan, somehow; not least because of his strong association with the Isle of Man and its heraldic flag of the ny tree cassyn. The triskelion is a symbol I have always loved, and which I now wear to express my membership of the Anglesey Druid Order. Its union of land, sea and sky speaks to me particularly of this deity of shorelines: son of the sea, married to the land, cloaked in an air of mist.

Finally, on a purely personal and not-at-all scholarly note, whenever I pay homage to Manawydan – usually in the form of song, while walking by the waters – I see cormorants. These birds, to me, symbolise once again the union of land, sea and sky; they also symbolise a link between this world and the deep, unfathomable mysteries of the realm of Llŷr Llediaith, to which Manawydan leads us.

They are also, coincidentally, one of the better-known symbols of my current home town!

coat of arms, as published on http://www.ngw.nl/heraldrywiki/index.php?title=Liverpool_(England)

Liverpool coat of arms, as published on http://www.ngw.nl/: ‘Argent a Cormorant in the beak a Branch of Seaweed called Laver all Proper’