Sun shimmering on sea ¬ watched from the arm of Llŷn ¬ from up on the castle rock ¬ gannets diving into glittering water ¬ and over on the far coast ¬ another castle and mountains touched by cloud ¬ Harddlech to which Matholwch’s ships come sailing ¬¬
A landscape, a seascape, with story ¬ the ships as vividly real as these gannets ¬ black-tipped wings stretched out as they plunge ¬ down through air and water ¬¬
Looking across at the southward sweep of the bay ¬ the story unfolds there and elsewhere ¬ then the ships returning ¬ Branwen with Matholwch sailing ¬ away to Ireland carrying ¬ a memory of mutilated horses ¬ a lingering history of these coasts, these castles ¬ the diving gannets & the glittering sea ¬ still here occupying the space of story ¬ the stilled waves yet holding ¬ echoes of troubled waters ¬ layers of time & not-time ¬ unfolding from the rippling tide ¬ quietly lapping a gritty shore. ¬¬
“Kyklops, you ask for my name …..
No-one is my name … as all my friends call me.”
“ … well, I shall eat No-one last of his company.”
“No-one blinded me”, said Kyklops ~ an old joke embedded in a folk tale ~ contained for posterity in an epic poem ~ too good a story to be forgotten ~ “so”, they said, “nothing to be done to no-one” ~ But as he sailed away he was someone ~ again boasting of what he had done ~ overheard by Poseidon ~ not anonymous to the god ~ so the sea roads he sailed ~ remembered him & sought his destruction ~ though other powers kept him whole ~ even a nereid from engulfing ocean ~ he was not bound to that destiny ~ this sea wolf but to some other outcome ~~
His grandfather Autolykos (does it mean ~ werewolf?) sent him out hunting ~ when a boar gored him it made him ~ a man long after that boyhood ~ it was the scar that revealed him ~ returned for his bow and the death ~ of the suitors~~
“… there are two journeys
in every odyssey, one on worried water,
the other crouched and motionless
Derek Walcott Omeros LVIII, ii
Why go? Why stay? ~ if either will bring you to the same destination ~ the same changed state of mind ~ the sense of a journey undertaken ~ and now a return ~~
Only to set out again with an oar ~ to a land far from the sea ~ on a dry road to find ~ one who thought it a wand for winnowing ~ : to appease Poseidon ~~
In his hall he knew he had done this ~ however near or far he wandered ~ the god knew too ~ and that is what mattered.
It was Tireisias, in the Land of the Dead, who predicted this ending and so it was woven into the story even though the tale ends before such things might happen. It is often a tale that looks backwards and forwards, chopping up the time spent on ‘worried water’, episodes from here & there, the end & the beginning looped together around other endings and preludes, caught by one ‘crouched and motionless’.
Gorsedd y Beirdd Ynys Prydain (The Gorsedd of Bards of the Island of Britain) was founded in 1792 by Iolo Morganwg as part of his project to imaginatively re-construct druidry. The insititution has survived with the same name up until the present and is closely associated with The National Eisteddfod of Wales. The Gorsedd performs ceremonies such as the announcement of the annual Eisteddfod festival, the presentation ceremonies of the main literary prizes in the Eisteddfod pavilion and the setting of the competitions for those prizes, including the tasks to be fulfilled by those competing for the Chair (a long poem in cynghanedd, using the strict metres) and for the Crown (a poem in the ‘free’ metres). The Gorsedd also honours practitioners in the other arts and those who have contributed the cultural life of Wales and in the Welsh language, conferring druid robes of white, green or blue for different categories to be worn when taking part in the Gorsedd ceremonies.
This year a proposal to change the name simply to ‘Gorsedd Cymru’ was announced. This has caused some controversy. Those in favour welcome the acknowledgement that the Gorsedd now has a far wider remit than poetry and that it is a specifically Welsh institution and the name should recognise that. Those against deplore the break with the tradition going back to Iolo Morganwg who also devised many of the ceremonies on which the current practices of the Gorsedd are still based. But the main objection is that the name change also breaks the link with the practice of composing poetry in the language inherited from the earlier inhabitants of Britain according to rules devised by the medieval bards who sought to define and continue that earlier tradition.
The arguments and counter-arguments are essentially those of pragmatists, identifying a need to work with current realities and present a modern image, against idealists who see the Gorsedd as embodying an expression of Welsh life inherited from a time when the Bards of the Island of Britain were just that. They see the proposed name change as undermining an important idea at the centre of Welsh identity: that the Welsh language, and the bardic tradition expressed in that language, continues a cultural thread that binds the modern inhabitants of Wales to the Brythonic-speaking peoples who inhabited Britain when the Romans invaded and who continued to speak that language in spite of the dominant influences of Latin and, later, the first English speakers.
Identity and tradition are tricky things which need to evolve and to adapt in order to survive. But they also need to retain certain characteristic features to continue evolving rather than simply being replaced by something else. Does ‘Gorsedd Cymru’ replace the idea that Welsh is the language of the bards of the Island of Britain with an acknowledgement that it is simply the language of the people of Wales? And if so, does this reinforce the sense of Wales as a separate part of of Britain or does it undermine an essential aspect of the identity which underlies and reinforces that sense of separateness?
….. settled on the threshold, drifted in ¬ from one of the martin nests in the eaves ¬ (chicks seem to shed them when flying ¬ for the first time to sail away on the air) ¬ but this one settled, made a claim for possession ¬ of the home the birds return to year on year. ¬ It seemed like a gift, as some claims are, ¬ a token of shared habitation right there ¬ at the entry to the house where we found it ¬ feathering a nest beyond the cup of mud ¬ stuck beneath the overhang of the roof tiles ¬ marking a gateway to the world.
In Plato’s account of the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus he describes them walking out of the town to a wooded glade by a stream and sitting down under a plane tree to shelter from the midday sun. Such a time and place has significance in the lore of otherness. Queen Herouis, in the lay of Sir Orfeo, a version in Middle English of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, falls asleep at Midday under an apple tree and is visited by otherworld beings and eventually taken into the Otherworld. Socrates comments that the place in which they are sitting is clearly blessed with the presence of nymphs. As the dialogue progresses he shifts his initial position of skepticism about the value of love to an acknowledgement that it must be recognised. The change in his position leads to an exposition in which he speaks not in analytical prose but in verse - specifically, he says, in ’dithyrambics’, adding "Truly the place seems divine [theios], so do not be surprised if I often seem to be numpholeptos as my discourse progresses”.* So perhaps Sir Orfeo owes more than its outline narrative and plot to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but also reflects specific Greek lore about Midday as a liminal time. Morning or evening twilight would seem to be more common in native tradition but we should also note that Herouis is taken to a parallel Otherworld rather than to the Land of the Dead as is Eurydice, and so reflects British rather than a Greek mythos in this respect.
That Socrates should be inspired - the awen falling upon him as we might say - at this place and time, is also interesting. Welsh awenyddion, as described by Gerald of Wales in the 12th century, were inspired to prophesy in this way, and Socrates says that he has a ‘prophetic misgiving’ that in denying love he may have offended a divinity - Eros - and a recantation is necessary. He says that madness is a divine gift which may not be refused, and that love, like prophesy, is a form of madness**. Madness, he goes on, might also come from ‘the soul being possessed by the Muses ….. whoever has no touch of the Muses’ madness comes to the door and thinks to get into the temple by the help of art or poetry, but will not be admitted’.
After much further exposition, including an account of the immortality of the soul, Socrates concludes the dialogue with a prayer:
“Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who here abide, grant me to be beautiful in the inner man;
and all I have of outer things be at peace with those within”.
Which is as it should be!
Prayer to Pan from the translation of Plato’s Phaedrus by J. Wright in Socrates A Source Book ed John Ferguson (Macmillan, 1970).
Other references from Jennifer Larson in Greek Nymphs : Myth, Cult, Lore (Oxford, 2001)
*Numpholeptos ('possessed by nymphs') : “the term nympholepsy, which is a blanket word that can be used to describe several overlapping concepts. ….. In such contexts, texts, poetry and prophecy, always closely related, cannot be separated, and the nympholept, like the poet, the Sibyl, or the Pythia, experiences a state of divine madness but not one that his or her contemporaries would regard as pathological.”
** Socrates suggests (playfully?) that the letter tau (Greek ’t’) is an insertion into ‘manike’ to make ‘mantike’.
|Epona on the paths of the dead.|
Funeral stele from ancient Gaul
Akhilleus: “I’d rather slave on earth for another man -
Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive -
Than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
Odyssey Book IX
The hero of the Iliad drained of his life blood,
So a Greek view of the Land of the Dead,
The shades no more than that - shadows
Of their living selves, dwellers neither in
Paradise nor any place of horrific torture
Beyond the emptiness of their deaths.
Odysseus feeds them blood to bring them
Into his living world, but soon again they fade.
Some Greeks thought the druids of the Keltoi
Had no Land of the Dead, believing instead
In reincarnation, reviving from death as
One or more others, a creaturely exchange
Of life for life, or lives - anything that dies
Becoming again and again in one world.
[the Gauls] “do not fear death …..
the human spirit is immortal and will enter a new body”
For the Greeks numphai live in forests, groves,
Rivers, streams and springs of our world.
For Brythons there is the Otherworld - Annwfn
From which otherness comes to us,
The Otherworld’s a world within world,
Without world, a not-world (that negative
Does not deny but asserts a presence)
But animate life is eternal in Thisworld,
Before and after.
What then of our many dead,Passing on roads of transformation, re-configuration?
Here a present life continues to know itself absolutely,
Uniquely, not recognising past or future selves
Though they share a time that is Forever
With a sense of an also world that is Other.
It is not possible to be absolute about what was believed in a particular place and time, let alone in the wider arcs of space and time encompassed by ‘the Greeks’, ‘the Celts’ etc. Certainly, centuries after Homer, and far longer still after the origins of the stories from which he distilled his poem, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras advanced the theory of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls to new physical bodies. Even the Odyssey, with its vivid portrayal of the Greek Land of the Dead in Book IX, also tells us in Book XXIV, where this land is revisited, that Hermes, leading the ghosts of the dead with his golden wand, “charms the eyes of men or wakens those he will”. But the main thrust of the historic heritage of such belief sees the Greek Land of the Dead as a place of gloom which transmutes and becomes overlain over time into later views and of the nature of Hell in the Middle Ages. The Celtic Otherworld, by comparison, though sometimes viewed as an Underworld, seems to originate in a quite different sense of a parallel realm to that of everyday between which exchanges are possible and, indeed, often occur.