Want to embark on a difficult, fascinating journey of words, an alluring tapestry of stories woven from tangled threads which glisten silver and blue in which stands a woman, sounding of the sea into which a myriad of stars have reflected their light?
Sure? Okay. I almost want to gnaw my fingers off, actually, both from the excitement and also the soreness of untangling so many threads…
Last night, lying in bed after my (sometimes neglected) greeting of the gods, I kept thinking of the meaning of thresholds. Gates, liminal places between where one stands and where one is going. Pass over that spot, that line, and you are no longer where you were. Stay just on this side, and you enter nothing. And in the middle, just at threshold, just over the rod delineating here and there, you are in a third place.
That place is the place of magic, of vision. It’s almost overkill that they used a wand to create it.
IV. Arianrhod of the Mabinogion
The only significant tale we have of Arianrhod is from the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh bardic tales first verifiably compiled in the 12th century.
I love the written word. I like it better when it’s on paper, as opposed to typed on screens. Ink on paper and all that. But writing things down has a downfall; it becomes set, locked into an act of creation which cannot be undone, only destroyed or deleted. Books are great (I mean this more than you suspect), but books do not live on their own.
Ever given much attention to the process of reading? Your eyes scan a page or a screen, moving from one direction to another, following thin shapes which denote sounds. Letters are symbols for sounds, glyphs, runes, an invisible sort of magic.
Those symbols, strung together in patterns create a sound in your head, a sound which represents a meaning, or a meaning we’ve identified with a sound. The words lift from the page into your head through the gates of your eyes, shaping themselves into more complicated symbols which conjure, in the theatre of your mind, the things which those symbols represent. I write “apple,” you read the word, conjure an apple in your head by a process so quick, so seamless, so invisible that you forget you’ve done it.
I write “taco,” and maybe you become a little hungry, identifying the physical experience of eating crisply-fried corn tortillas filled with well-seasoned meat or beans, the sharp but invigorating jolt of chipoltle-lime salsa, the almost exotic earthy-sweet smell of cilantro, the…
You see my point, perhaps. Or maybe you dislike tacos. Or maybe you’re thinking what you’re going to have for dinner, or the last time you made tacos with your lover and found yourself, despite the monotony of making dinner, feeling oddly close to him, his scent mixing with the spices in the kitchen, your feeling of warmth both from the heat of the stove and the proximity of familiar flesh.
Words are fucking magic. I forgot I was talking about reading, or writing, and honestly forgot anyone else was going to be reading this.
The story of Arianrhod in the Mabinogi is the oldest written story we’ve got, and it’s much newer than the written scriptures of the Hebrews or the countless retellings of the stories of Dionysus. And yet I worship her and not the Hebrew god, and I find myself currently more concerned with her cultus than with that of the well-attested god to whom she’s related (I’m getting there, trust me).
This one goes like this:
A powerful sorceror king named Math was under a geas (these are like curses, but not; closer would be one of the older meanings of taboo): when he was not at war, or not preparing for war, he had to rest his feet upon the lap of a maiden.
One of his two nephews fell in love with the maiden, and along with the other nephew (Gwydion,his brother), conspired together so that the love-struck nephew could have her instead. They start a war, pretending to be Bards in order to steal a herd of pigs from another kingdom.
Math leaves his throne, people are slaughtered, a solo combat ensues between Gwydion and the lord of the other kingdom. Gwydion survives, the other lord is slain, the war is over, and Math returns to his throne, preparing for peace until finding the maiden had been raped.
Enraged, Math (maybe the only nice guy in all of this), marries the maiden and makes her his queen, and then magically transforms his two nephews into paired animals. First, a set of deer, then a set of wild boar, and thirdly, a set of wolves. Two brothers becoming animals, one male, one female, sent off into the wilderness and returning each time with male offspring.
Three years of punishment (and three sons later), Gwydion proposes to his uncle, who has not yet found a new maiden, that Arianrhod, daughter of the same mother as the two nephews, be considered. She’s summoned from her castle, and King Math asks her if she’s still a maiden. Her answer?
“I know no other than that I am.”
(That is, “Sure.” Or, “what a strange question for you, my uncle, to be asking…”)
A test is devised: King Math lays down the same wand that he used to transform his nephews into animals, Arianrhod is made to walk across it, and she has two…children.
The first grows immediately into a lad and returns to the sea. The second is not really a child, more a thing, an ill-formed blob or perhaps a placenta, which Gwydion locks away in a chest at the foot of his bed.
Arianrhod returns to her castle and then the thing in the chest becomes a child.
Gwydion (having already been a mother at least once in animal form), adopts the child and takes it to Arianrhod. She asks him if he’d name it, he replied “no,” and then she places a geas upon the child so that he’d have no name unless she gave him one, and she does not.
Gwydion, now acting as both mother and father to the child, “tricks” Arianrhod into doing so by compelling her to leave her castle in order to meet a shoemaker. While outside, she sees the disguised child kill a wren with a slingshot, remarks on his skill and his appearance, and the child earns the name Lleu from her description.
Arianrhod then puts a geas on the child, that he will not have weapons unless she arms him. Again, Gwydion “tricks” her by disguising Lleu. This time he conjures ships upon the sea so that Arianrhod (who lives in a sea-castle), would believe herself under attack, and so she makes certain everyone is armed, including the disguised Lleu.
And finally, a third geas, that Lleu would have no human mate. Gwydion and his uncle, King Math, create a woman with enchantment and sorcery from flowers and wood, naming her Blodeuwedd, and giving her to Lleu to marry.
And from her, Arianrhod disappears from the story.
One can summarize her tale in the Mabinogion in several ways:
- Niece of a Sorceror King gets tricked into giving birth in front of everyone.
- Half-sister of a trickster-mage abandons her two children; one becomes a sea-monster, the other a giant-king.
- An isolated princess is shamed into revealing her infidelity and then seeks ineffective vengeance on those who shamed her.
I don’t like any of these summaries. I’ll tell you the one that came to me last night, laying in bed, thinking about the threshold/wand, the one that suddenly made a lot of other things I’d been thinking about, particularly after my pilgrimage to Bretagne and some crazy dreams.
Magicians and kings interact with a goddess from an older time, a woman from an Other realm who appears repeatedly in multiple stories, and each time fail miserably.
It’s an old story, actually, and also a still-unfolding new one.
You’ll forgive me, perhaps, if I’ve never really quite understood how geneologies of the gods work. I’ve always suspected that, since family is mostly a universal concept throughout history (we’ve all had mothers, whether we’ve known them or not), our human attempts to understand the gods reach for symbols from nature. If you want to order things which are related, you can describe them as families–in fact, scientists technically still do this for all living things (taxonomies, etc). I sometimes wonder if this is how we got stuck with heirarchies. It’s certainly interesting that, at least still, the common family branch name in taxonomies is still “kingdoms!”
In myths and legends (the “lore” of a god or goddess, as it’s often called), there are often family histories. Do gods marry, have sex, give birth, have parents, etc.? I really don’t know. They are said to by some. If you get into Monism or Neoplatonism, then you get some fascinating contortions (including the primal god-mother having sex with her first child in order to birth the world). I don’t delve much into this, and I’m not a fan of incest (unless, as in the story of Arianrhod’s “brothers,” this involves two men becoming animals and having children–that’s something plenty of furry-friends of mine should enjoy greatly).
Several characters are mentioned in the Mabinogion as being related to Arianrhod. Of them, three of them seem most important.
Dôn: The sister of King Math and the mother of Arianrhod, Gwydion, and several other people. I’ve never been able to find any mention of her mates. Several people have suggested that she is equivalent to Danu, the Irish Mother-goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She may be, she may not be. It really should be noted that she’s got no husband, it’s never clear if her children are “full” siblings or half-siblings, and it’s particularly interesting that it doesn’t matter. Children now take on their father’s family name; many of the Celtic societies seem to have been matrilineal. Also, they had goddesses as well as gods–the monotheists only have one god, and he’s male.
Gwydion: Two variations of his name have been brought up as important; Gwyddion, which means forest or trees; gwyddonydd, which means “scientist.” His actions and magics in the Mabionogian certainly lead one to believe that he possesses many of the talents ascribed to ancient Druids. Particularly fascinating is his choice to pretend to be a Bard in order to steal the pigs.
There are all kinds of ideas that Gwydion is sort of a proto-Arthur. This is very alluring, and maybe also distracting. There is one linkage I’ll explore later, but suffice it to say that I suspect the Arthurian legends, much like the Mabinogion and plenty of other tales (like the Hebrew scriptures), are re-tellings of tales for a specific purpose (for those familiar with Christianity, think of Jesus’s parables–did they “actually” happen, or was he merely telling a story to prove a point? Maybe both).
Blodeuwedd: The magically-created woman given to Lleu to marry as a way of getting around Arianrhod’s geas on him. King Math and Gwydion create her together, and then later curse her to live out an eternity as an owl because she chooses to love another king, betraying Lleu’s secrets of invulnerability.
I think that Blodeuwedd is actually more crucial to understanding Arianrhod than Gwydion or even Arianrhod’s “son,” Lleu. But this will involve more myth-telling.
I’ve been researching and writing this all day. That is, I woke up, drank tea, started this, and now it’s seven pm or some rot.
There was lots of tea in the middle of this, also some coffee, and I maybe ate after realising I was getting a little dizzy. It’s kind of exhausting…
…and so much fucking fun. There’s much, more more to write, but I’ll leave you with this for now, a greeting for Arianrhod.