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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)



BLACKBIRD


Granny's Bonnets (Aquilegia)

A Blackbird Chick

...ran out of the undergrowth
where garden runs to wildness,
then scuttled back again.

For weeks the parent sang
from the branches of an oak,
spelled out an arc of protection

around the nest, hidden here below
in a tangle of ivy, under Granny’s Bonnets
and a spiny quince by the garden path.

It was a song that held the spring
of the year in every quavering note,
releasing the summer so this chick

discovers the world awaiting each new life
finding a way through the bushes and briars
out into the open and endless sky.


Quince

The Kalevala






One of the most recent rendering of oral folklore and myth into an epic cycle is Elias Lönnrot’s The Kalevala, shaped as a literary creation in the nineteenth century out of the author’s research collecting oral lore in stories and songs in Finland and rendering them into a continuous narrative in verse. As such it compares with earlier renderings of traditional lore such as Snorri Sturlsson’s Edda and also provides some insights into how oral sources can be shaped into literature as they are in some of the medieval Welsh tales collected as ‘The Mabinogion’. I have dipped into The Kalevala before in a prose translation but have only recently fully engaged with it in Keith Bosley’s vivid and highly readable verse translation. It is the work of a poet, it is also a work where things happen by the right words being found and spoken to make them happen: “Steady old Väinämöinen. put this into words, spoke thus” and because his words are better than his opponent’s words, the battle is won.

What is striking is the way that the chief characters simultaneously inhabit the personas of gods, shamans, bards and ordinary human beings. This too is reminiscent of, for instance, Rhiannon in the medieval Welsh tales riding magically across the landscape from the Otherworld and then continuing to live here as if she were a human character while also appearing in another tale in the cycle with magical birds that can sing people into an enchanted state. The main character in The Kalevala is Väinämöinen who is first met as an agent of the Creation, helping to put the sky in place and shape the world as we know it. But he continues to inhabit that creation as a human being, sometimes with enhanced powers but at other times as a vulnerable person with all-too-human weaknesses. He is a bard who can use his songs as powerful spells, turning aside the songs of a young rival and consigning him into a swamp with his own songs. He is a shaman who journeys to Tuonela, the Land of the Dead, to gather spells from another powerful shaman who has died. He also travels there to get the words he needs to create a boat to go to woo the daughter of The Mistress of Northland, though when he goes to her his friend, the younger Smith God Ilmarinen, is the preferred suitor and he must stand meekly aside.

When the focus then turns to Ilmarinen, the Smith is given apparently impossible tasks to fulfil, consonant with the international folklore motif of the wooing of the  'Giant's Daughter' or the 'Magician's Daughter' also contained in the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch's  wooing of Olwen. But it is not, as there, the father that sets the tasks but the mother, The Mistress of Northland, and it is now Ilmarinen who must travel to Tuonela to fulfil one of these tasks. Having done so the narrative continues to treat the wedding and subsequent events as if they are the domestic arrangements of ordinary humans, incorporating elements of the folklore wisdom of rural life in Finland. This shifting of the signifier backwards and forwards from mundane through heroic to divine activities occurs quite naturally as the narrative progresses and Bosley’s verse translation (using a short seven-syllable line as a base, but varying from five to nine syllables where required) is always fully engaged with these shifts of significance and evocative in its expression of them at all levels.

In Väinämöinen’s bardic prowess and his claims to having been present at the Creation, there are echoes of Taliesin’s boasts, but also hints as to the possible origin of his bardic identity as a divine figure. Similarly, in his journeys to the Netherworld to get what he wants, in particular to regain words and songs that “should not be hidden” we might also think of the claims of Taliesin or other bards for the source of the Awen. If Arthur and his warriors raid Annwn for loot, Taliesin might have had other ideas about what the cauldron would yield, and it is no coincidence that he is also present at the other cauldron quest to Ireland related in the Second Mabinogi. As for raids on the Otherworld, The Kalevala has a raid on what appears to be Lapland in the North to capture a mysterious object called the Sampo which The Mistress of Northland has hidden in a mountain. Northland, or Lapland, seems to function here both as a rival territory and as an Otherworld location, but separate from Tuonela, the Netherworld. This parallels the way that ‘Lochlann’ in Irish stories can variously function as a name for Orkney, Scandinavia or as an Otherworld place, or as the ‘Old North’ in Welsh tales is often a location for Otherworld encounters. Similarly the expedition to Ireland in the Second Mabinogi in some ways parallels the raid on the Otherworld in ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ in The Book of Taliesin. But The Kalevala raid is not entirely an attempt to loot someone else’s treasure as one of the raiders is Ilmarinen who, earlier in the cycle, had created the Sampo in exchange for being able to woo the daughter of The Mistress of Northland, though she at that time rejected his advances. Here, again, Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen seek to free what has been hidden, regaining an object removed from the world that should have a use in the world.

Looking for parallels across different mythologies we should not ignore the differences that make each set of stories culturally specific. The fact that we can identify international folklore motifs in stories from different cultures is certainly signficant, and when we encounter them they often resonate both because they are essentially the same story and because of their distinct differences. We recognise the characters in The Kalevala as gods not so much because of who they are but by what they do. Falling into mythological patterns of behaviour which are recognisable across cultures is one of the clues. But characters in folk tales often also do this without obvious signs of divinity. What makes the characters in Bosley’s translation so obviously divine and yet so characteristically human is a mode of presentation that unselfconsciously allows them to be themselves in a particular landscape and yet transcend that particularity by their enactment of divine themes.

These gods are not remote. They can be lived with, admired, disapproved of, sympathised with, just as people we know in our own lives. Yet they remain larger than life and so can speak to us from another culture and also illuminate our own. At the end of The Kalevala there is an account of the coming of a new god, announcing the arrival of christianity (though churches are mentioned in the preceding chapters) as if to say ‘the time of these gods it at an end’. Väinämöinen bows out after the son of a virgin who had become pregnant by eating a cowberry banishes him, declaring as he goes:

Just let the time pass
one day go, another come
and again I’ll be needed
looked for and longed for
to fix a new Sampo, to
make new music

He leaves behind him the Kantele, the source of music which he had created. But he leaves the world he had helped to create. The folklore sources suggest that acknowledgment of the old gods had run concurrently with christianity for some time before this. There are several references to “The Great Bear”, the constellation that dominates the northern skies, as if it were of cultic significance. ‘God, keeper of heaven’ is often invoked as the source of storm clouds as when the trickster figure Lemminkäinen asks him to whip up a storm so he can escape his pursuers after killing The Master of Northland. One of the set formulas of this epic is that things can be tried three times and the attempt to effect things by spells - spoken words of power - generally proceed by first addressing a local spirit, then a demon and finally ‘The Thunderer, the Old Man, the One in the Sky’. The implication is that there is a final resort to an ultimate God figure, but one who can told what to do if the right words are used. He seems to function as one of the multiple identities and levels of existence that are encompassed in these stories. But when he baptizes the son of the virgin who had eaten the cowberry everything changes, things become set and the old world passes. Yet
still lives in this epic.

 


The Kalevala : An Epic Poem After Oral Tradition  
by Elias  Lönnrot  Translated by Keith Bosley (Oxford, 1989)


Labyrinth, Maze and Maypole






David Jones’ epic poem The Anathémata is structured as a series of circles or parenthetical sections radiating out from a centre encompassing layers of history and prehistory, also forming a circular structure that ends where it begins. His reading of Jackson Knight’s Cumaean Gates provided him with an ancient source for the practice of creating troia or maze patterns in sites such as Troy as magical defences and for the sign-containing properties of such structures. The may-pole is one way of visualising the central space of The Anathémata around which the whole poem turns. It is implied rather than explicit in that poem, which centres on the monologue of The Lady of the Pool, a tutelary deity of sorts. But in reply to a query from Jackson Knight following the publication of The Anathémata in 1952, David Jones wrote that “It has a central theme, a mythos & it circles round that central theme, if it has a ‘plot’ it’s in the sense that the dance around the may-pole plots itself in patterns round the central arbor.”(1)

Such principles are revealed, not only in the grand scale concentric designs of David Jones’ longer works, but also in middle-length poems such as ‘The Tutelar of the Place’ in which the may-pole dance within a labyrinthine defensive structure is more explicit and is symbolically opposed to the square grids of the ‘World Plan’. 

‘The Tutelar of the Place’ is set in a Celtic province of the Roman Empire, the may-pole dancers seek “hidden grammar” as part of the rite of the seasonal festival for the Goddess:

 Gathering all things in, twining each bruised stem to the swaying trellis of the dance, the dance about the sawn lode-stake on the hill where the hidden stillness is at the core of struggle …

The Goddess or the Tutelar is first evoked as Tellus, the Roman Earth Mother, “of the myriad names” but here “she answers Jac o’ the Tump only if he call Great Jill-of-the-tump-that-bare-me”. Later she is addressed as “Mair”, using the Welsh name of Mary to underline the poet’s sense of continuity between ancient rite and his own catholicism. This takes place in the prayer that follows the dance, and which asks the Goddess to protect the settlement:

…..
 mother of particular perfections
queen of otherness
    mistress of asymmetry
   patroness of things counter, parti, pied, several
   protectress of things known and handled
   help of things familiar and small
wardress of the secret crevices
of things wrapped and hidden 
   mediatrix of all the deposits
margravine of the troia
   empress of the labyrinth 
receive our prayers.

The prayer counterbalances the values of locality and identity against those of centralised uniformity characterised in the image of the Ram:

… 
  set up the hedges of illusion around some remnant of us, twine the wattles of mist, 
  white-web a Gwydion-hedge
like fog on the bryniau
against the commissioners
  and assessors bearing the writs of the Ram to square the world-floor and number the tribes  and write down the secret things by which we are ….

So the dance enacts this prayer  as it continues:

  Sweet Mair devise a mazy-guard
  in and out and round about
  double-dance defences
  countermure and echelon meanders round
  the holy mound
                                 fence within the fence
….

The may-pole dance between Jac and Jill - weaving the language of nursery rhyme into elements of folk custom and the ritual fertility dance and setting them with both Latinate and Welsh phraseology woven through the English of the text - creates a sense of tribal locality within the wider globalism of the Roman Empire. But it also employs ancient motifs of the labyrinth as a protective structure enclosing settlements, often involving a virgin goddess or priestesses, which David Jones found in the works of Jackson Knight. The dance, like the prayer, weaves a magical "fence within the fence" around the settlement. But the dance is also the nuptial rite of the Goddess and her consort, guaranteeing the stability of the tribe. So the may-pole dance, the maze, the labyrinth, contain within them the contrary elements both of an open fertility rite, and a closing of the defensive structures symbolised by virginity. David Jones said of The Lady of the Pool in The Anathémata that she is both an Aphrodite and an Athene figure. 

The way into the labyrinth is not through an impenetrable gate but through the dance which finds a way when properly enacted.  Of such contraries and inter-connections is the mythos constructed. 

~*~

David Jones The Anathémata  (Faber 1952)
David Jones The Tutelar of the Place in The Sleeping Lord (Faber 1974)
W. F Jackson Knight Cumaean Gates (Oxford,1936) Re-published together with Vergil’s Troy as Vergil : Epic and Anthropology (Unwin, 1967)
(1) Letter to Jackson Knight. Quoted by Thomas Dilworth in Reading David Jones (Cardiff, 2008) p.181

Starlight

These evenings Venus blazes like a bright lamp in the Western sky, while high in the North-East Arcturus glows red like an ember far out from the tail of the Plough. There are other patterns in the sky, but these are the ones I can see from my vantage points in the night, and the ones that mark an arc of significance across the skyscape. 

I watch Venus sink behind a hill where I know the sea stretches out to the West. But Arcturus remains high above. The  planet moves through the night and is gone. The star moves too, but slowly and seems to remain. I know where each of them are, night after night, even when there is cloud. But only for now. Venus will eventually be absent, then re-appear in the East before dawn. Arcturus will fade in the summer nights. Things change. 

Or appear to affect us differently. Bright lights will fade, diffuse, or be extinguished. The world will have changed. Yet it will be the same. Journeys through or beyond the world will have been made. Identities transformed. Recognitions lost. Though nothing is lost. New things found. Though they were never lost.  

May all your lights continue to shine brightly and those that go out remain bright in memory.

The Open Door


Heilyn opens the door to end the sojourn on Gwales; The Birds of Rhiannon fly.
Illustration by Margaret Jones
 
~*~

When the door is opened,
when Rhiannon’s birds still their song
and the head of Brân is silent,
who will speak to us as we pass
the door that can never again be closed
in our Time?

Shame on my beard” said Heilyn
“If I do not open it” - 
The door that Manawydan counselled
Should not be opened , for he knew
The pain that would fall upon him,
The grief of many deaths
And his world changed beyond enduring.

For now a blackbird sings in a garden enclosed,
fills the bare boughs of a tree with strident beauty.
It is enough. Buds will break. The tree will bear green leaves.
Other doors will open. 

Lockdown




We think of the Plague, or 'Black Death', as something that affected the Middle Ages. But it carried on well into the early-modern era, when they began to take measures to alleviate its spread. Lockdown 17th century style included putting guards outside houses where the infection was present and preventing anyone entering or leaving. Here is part of a contemporary account of the measures taken:

“This shutting up of houses was a method first taken, as I understand, in the plague which happened in 1603, at the coming of King James the First to the crown; and the power of shutting people up in their own houses was granted by Act of Parliament, entitled, 'An Act for the charitable Relief and Ordering of Persons infected with the Plague'; on which Act of Parliament the Lord Mayor and aldermen of the city of London founded the order they made at this time, and which took place the 1st of July 1665, when the numbers infected within the city were but few, the last bill for the ninety-two parishes being but four; and some houses having been shut up in the city, and some people being removed to the pest- house beyond Bunhill Fields, in the way to Islington, - I say, by these means, when there died near one thousand a week in the whole, the number in the city was but twenty-eight, and the city was preserved more healthy in proportion than any other place all the time of the infection.”
Daniel Defoe. Journal of a Plague Year (1665)