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

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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!

variations: a non-linear introduction

Welcome back :)

This has taken longer than expected – three full weeks of working, travelling and studying with barely a pause to catch my breath in between.  I managed to find a moment on the solstice (after a long train ride home from London) to gather a small bouquet of wildflowers and weeds growing on a patch of estuary scrubland, and weave them into an offering for the waters – but that will form another answer for a later question…  One of the unexpected challenges of this 30 Days of Deity Devotion has been the discipline of answering each individual question in some kind of order, when in practice all the answers run together, and seem to change shape the moment I grasp them.

On that note, the first instalment in this series of answers blurs the boundaries a little, but only because I find Manawydan impossible to introduce without reference to Manannán.  Who can tell where one sea ends and another begins?

On that note:

1.  A basic introduction to this deity
8.  Variations on this deity (aspects, regional forms, etc.) – part (i).

Manawydan fab Llŷr is the subject of my story.  A mythical chieftain of the Island of Britain, he is one of the three children of Llŷr in the Mabinogi.  He appears first in the second branch, the Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Llŷr, alongside his siblings Branwen and Bendigeifran and his half-siblings Nisien and Efnisien; his story then continues in the third branch of the Mabinogi, which is named after him and introduces the theme of his two epithets in Trioedd Ynys Prydein: humble chieftain, and golden shoemaker.  He is later named as a member of Arthur’s retinue in both the early Welsh poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur and in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, and ‘Manawyd’ is also mentioned in Y Gododdin.

Like any story centred on a deity in neo-pagan practice, what has survived through the ages is “a complex amalgam of tribal history and magico-mythical symbolism,”[1] augmented with folklore and gnosis.  My own tradition views him as a demi-god, an anthropomorphic figure through whom we can approach the fathomless mystery of his father.  I know him as a deity of shorelines and edges, a gatekeeper between our realm and the realm of the Deep.

In the Welsh literature, his only connection with the sea is through his patronymic; llŷr being an old Welsh word for ocean.  But the striking similarity between his name and the name of the Manx and Gaelic sea-god Manannán mac Lir has led to a scholarly consensus that these figures at least share some kind of common origin (various sources attest to this, though none of them with enough clarity to be worth quoting here!).

Now, instinctively, I tend to avoid conflating deities, preferring to meet each individual figure on their own terms.  Rooted as I am in the Welsh mythical world, Manawydan is my focus.  But my instincts increasingly lead me to consider Manannán as, if not another aspect of the same figure exactly, then at least part of the same whole to which Manawydan belongs.  It would be impossible for me to introduce the deity I know and revere without delving into this sense of continuity. Manawydan walks the shores of Gwynedd and Gwales and my homelands in Dyfed, but when I look out of my bedroom window now, it is Manannán I see (literally!).

*                             *                             *                             *

I first set foot on Anglesey as part of a walking tour around the island’s many ancient monuments: part archaeology lesson, part immersive storytelling experience; entirely magical.  And one of the emerging themes was that the builders of these monuments were travellers, crossing back and forth across the Irish Sea to bring new ideas and techniques from one settlement to the next.  The boundaries of language and region are, and always have been, mutable – a memory which is, I think, encoded in the tale of Manawydan, which remembers not only the expulsion of the Deisi and later tales of exile and dispossession in the early medieval Celtic world, but perhaps also recalls something of a time when boundaries were only physical and could always be traversed.  In the words of Eduardo Galeano, “in those days long past the entire world was our kingdom, an immense map without borders, and our legs were the only passport required”[2] – or, perhaps, in this case, a boat!  Something more of this memory is preserved in the epithet of Manawydan’s father, Llŷr Llediaith (as opposed to cyfiaith and anghyfiaith: people whose speech is mutually intelligible or unintelligible with ours, while Llŷr’s is somewhere in between) – but that is another story for another time…

[1]  Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, p.371.
[2]  Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors, ‘A Feast on Foot.’

druidry and depression: facing the illusion

As I write this, I can tell I am heading for a small meltdown. Work has been intense and exhausting this week. I am pushing myself far too hard to compensate for someone’s absence and am still not very good at asking for help (or admitting that I need it). Tomorrow is a holiday; it is also my birthday, a date which I often find difficult. All in all, a cocktail of little things that could lead to me imploding a bit, and wishing my poor partner was not around to deal with it or witness it at all. But I also know that I am well, more or less, and that even if I do burn out this weekend, I can bounce back from it with a little rest and care.

A few people, who I have never met in person but still care about very much, have written about their problems openly and eloquently on their blogs. I have always been intensely private about mine, mentioning them only obliquely if at all, even to people I know pretty well. But reading people who talk about their own experiences so honestly has been a massive help to me at the most difficult of times; I have no idea if writing about my own will help anybody else, but in the spirit of openness and sharing, I want to try.

Last year I managed to haul myself out of a deep depression, the worst I had experienced in about 6 years. Maybe worse. Last time around I was living in Spain, and frequently found myself unable to do anything more than just sit on the floor staring out to sea, sometimes crying, for days on end. This time, I was (mostly) able to leave the house and get myself to work – I factored in extra time for anxiety attacks in my morning routine – and, provided everything went smoothly, once I had managed that much I was mostly able to let myself get carried along by the momentum of my workplace. But at the lowest point, which lasted a month or more, I spent my days privately wrestling with the idea that I was taking up space in the world which could be better used by other people; that I was a strain on the earth, using up resources even without meaning to, creating more problems than my presence here could ever solve. The problem is, my logic was impeccable: it led me down a terrifying cul-de-sac from which there seemed to be no escape. It took a long time for me to accept the idea that my existence was not the problem – that I had as much right to exist, to simply be, as the river, or the trees.

I talk about “hauling myself out”; I am emphatically not suggesting a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach to dealing with depression. Everyone is different. I am proud and independent, and this ended up being the best way for me to get better, this time around. But I hid it too well, and I am still struggling with the repercussions of that. I knew, even in the doldrums of that deep depression, that spending my evenings and weekends sitting on the floor, crying because I lacked the energy to do anything else, meant that everything was not ok. What I struggled with, and still do struggle with at times, was understanding that the problem wasn’t me. The problem was what I had, not what I was.

Druidry was both a foundational support and a bit of a burden at the time. I have spoken elsewhere about how my idea of what a “good” druid ought to be just became another way to give myself a hard time about failing. I stepped away from a lot of the definitions I had built up around my path over the years; at one point, I even stepped away from considering myself a druid at all. But my underlying reasons for being drawn to this path were still there, at the root of it all, and pagan druidry gives a unique perspective on mental health problems. Depression and anxiety are often only talked about in very mainstream cultural terms; we need to understand how it affects the less mainstream but no less important parts of our lives as well, like our spirituality, and how our less-mainstream spiritual path can help. Cat Treadwell’s tremendous book, Facing the Darkness, was a huge inspiration here; her words reminded me that it was ok to seek solace in nature without feeling I had to earn it by being a “good enough” druid.

At my lowest points, intuition became incredibly difficult for me, and I still struggle with it. My brain chemistry was telling me terrible things, and I had to re-learn how to listen to the deeper wisdom underneath it, because my instincts were all awry. The idea of not being able to trust my instincts went against the grain of a lot of ideas I had built up around my pagan practice. Divination really helped. A wonderful friend had gifted me with the Druidcraft Tarot a while back, and I got into the habit of drawing three cards each time I recognised the need. Reflecting on them gave me the space between myself and my feelings to figure out the distinction between what my brain was telling me to feel and what was really going on around me.

Water also became incredibly important to me, and is still the focus of my spiritual path. In modern pagan traditions, water is commonly associated with the realm of emotion, though I associate plenty of emotional states with fire, and even earth and air as well. But importantly, for me, water is also the realm of illusion. Illusion can be protective – my high-functioning veneer of “being ok” in public, while not always helpful to me, did get me through.  It can also be terrifying. The idea that I can’t trust my brain, or my instincts, still scares me. That, more than anything, is what water is teaching me to weather: not so much the emotion (the fear, or… well… I don’t think it’s right to describe depression as an emotion, but perhaps the intense, exhausting weltschmertz that accompanies it for me), but the trick that my brain chemistry is playing on my perceptions; the illusion.

I honour my illusion, but it has no power over me.

Manannan is often described as a master of tricks and illusions, conjuring visions of a huge naval fleet from pea-shells and sedge to repel invaders; concealing his sacred isle beneath a cloak of mist. Manawydan overcame the spell cast by Llwyd ap Cil Coed by staying true to his code of honour, in spite of the illusion. To overcome illusion, first we must honour it: acknowledge its presence, understand its nature. And as soon as we see the nature of the illusion, it no longer has any power to deceive us. At least, for now…

I am also trying to learn when to embrace illusion, and when clarity is better, for Manannan is a god of blurred edges and I cannot always be fully in his world. And I am learning to embrace the ebb and flow of my emotions. There will always be low points, moments devoid of inspiration – but the inspiration returns. I got better.   I will probably get ill again, but I know I can come back, and now I have the beginnings of a map to guide me.

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.