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Medieval Literature: Why Should We Care?

Commenting on a recent post on the BDO facebook page, someone described the Mabinogion stories and Taliesin poems included in our courses as ‘filler.’ I was somewhat taken aback by this. To me, this is equivalent to a Jew, Christian or Muslim describing the Torah, Bible or Koran as ‘filler.’ How is it that people in other traditions and cultures first learn about the gods and heroes of their ancestors? Through stories. Always through stories. And next come poems. Why poems? Because rhyme and rhythm are wonderful aids to memory.

In the British branch of Druidry, we are blessed to have a whole library of ancestral stories and poems, mostly gathered together and committed to writing in the 12th century. There has been much argument as to whether, and to what extent, this medieval literature retains enough of the pagan past to be of interest to us as modern pagans.

Brief diversion: Yes, pagans. I know a lot of modern Druidry, taking its cue from 18th century revivalists, is not pagan. I have always been a pagan Druid and the British Druid Order is openly and proudly pagan. It’s hard to argue that classical Druidry was anything but pagan, and it’s the archaic forms of the tradition that interest me more than the recent revivals.

As for the tales and poems containing anything that survives from the pagan past, it seems blindingly obvious to me that they do. Take the deity from which the whole Mabinogion may well take its name, the Mabon. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the Mabon must be found in order to hunt the Twrch Trwyth, a gigantic wild Boar person who is ravaging the land. Why the Mabon? Because he is recognised as the greatest of hunters, and the only one capable of handling two magical hunting hounds. Mabon means ‘Son,’ and he is the son of Modron, meaning ‘Mother.’ Roll back in time a thousand years and an altar is erected and dedicated to the god Maponus near one of the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall. A badly worn scene on one side of it represents Maponus as a hunter, armed with a bow and accompanied by a hunting dog, and an adjacent side shows two Deer. Maponus is the Romanised form of the native British Maponos, which evolved into modern Welsh Mabon and retains the same meaning. Five dedications to him occur in the same area, as also does a large boulder called the Mabenstane, formerly a meeting place for the local population. It is impossible to compare what we know of the native deity with the medieval tale and not conclude that Maponus and the Mabon are the same figure.

Likewise, Gwydion, the foremost enchanter and magician of the Mabinogion, is recorded in a much earlier genealogy as Guidgen, and in Roman-British inscriptions as Mercury Uiducus. Comparing the classical character of Mercury with Gwydion as portrayed in the Mabinogion, their natures are so similar that the native deity, Uidicus, can only be the same being as Gwydion. The Horse goddess of the Mabinogion, Rhiannon, was earlier Rigantona, ‘the Great Queen,’ Manawydan is the same as the Irish sea god, Manannan, and so it goes on. These are pagan gods, of this I have not the slightest doubt, and if we are pagans, surely we need to know the nature of our gods and should revel in their tales?

While editing our courses, it became increasingly clear to me that the bardic colleges of the 12th century were spurred into what amounted to a pagan revival by the same events that led them to gather together the oral literature of our ancestors and cause it to be written down. The events in question were Norman attempts to conquer Wales. This 12th century pagan revival caused the bardic colleges to adopt the extremely witchy goddess, Ceridwen, as patroness of the bardic order.

My own Druid path began in 1974, a time when there were no courses or how-to books, indeed precious little available at all from which to construct a walkable path. That first summer, I had Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Stuart Piggott’s The Druids, Alwyn and Brinley Rees’ Celtic Heritage (borrowed from Hastings Library), and a slightly battered copy of Lady Charlotte Guest’s Victorian translation of The Mabinogion, found in a second-hand book shop. Graves is justifiably criticised for his wild flights of fancy, but his book propelled me onto this path, so I retain a great affection for it. He quotes liberally from The Mabinogion and the poems of Taliesin, hence my delight at finding that pocket Mabinogion. Unlike most modern translations, it includes the Story of Taliesin in which, on first reading, I recognised a threefold cycle of death and rebirth by which the child, Gwion Bach, ‘Little Innocent,’ is reborn as the ultimate enlightened Druid sage, Taliesin, ‘Radiant Brow.’ This story is central to our understanding of British Druidry, which is why it is the first to appear in our bardic course.

In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, that of Math, Son of Mathonwy, I found a mythic cycle dealing with the birth, growth, life, death and rebirth of a young sun god, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. On subsequently joining a Wiccan coven, I used this cycle as the basis for the eight seasonal festivals we celebrated. That coven became the basis of the British Druid Order. That same cycle of myth forms the basis of the festival cycle introduced in our bardic course and greatly expanded upon in the ovate.

The whole edifice of the BDO is, therefore, built on the foundations of the Mabinogion and the poems of Taliesin, the weirder of which expand our understanding of the Story of Taliesin and his strange relationship with Ceridwen, brewer of the cauldron of inspiration. ‘Inspiration’ is the common English translation of the Welsh word, ‘Awen,’ and Awen is, as I describe it in our bardic course, the Holy Spirit of Druidry, that spirit of creativity and inspiration that flows from the tales and poems of our ancestors, through us, and, from us and our stories, poems and songs, to future generations. Awen ultimately lifts us from the mire and gives us the potential to dance with the gods.

I am constantly finding new levels of meaning in this literature. One of the best known of the Taliesin poems is the Cad Goddeu, the ‘Battle of the Trees.’ I’ve known it for about 40 years, but it wasn’t until preparing a version of it to be performed with harp accompaniment in our Iron Age roundhouse that I realised the whole poem is actually about healing. It has distinct parallels with the Anglo-Saxon ‘Nine Herbs Charm.’ This realisation confirmed another I’d had while putting together the material on native healing techniques healing for our ovate course. Thus, again, these ancestral poems and songs continually work to increase my understanding of our tradition.

‘Filler,’ then, is not a term I recognise.

Having been a Druid for 44 years, it’s often puzzled and, I confess, bothered me, that so many British Druids give so little heed to this extraordinary treasure trove that has come down to us from our ancestors. In putting our courses together, then, I hoped to correct this by presenting it in a visually pleasing form that might help persuade people to read it. I know the gorgeous period font I found has proven a pain for folk who are dyslexic, but we do provide plain text versions as an alternative.

In the bardic course, we offer some indications as to why we see specific poems and stories as of particular importance. In the ovate and Druid courses, we continually refer back to them to enhance our understanding of the nature of the gods and of how our ancestors walked the Druid path, understandings I believe we need if we are to fully immerse ourselves in the path and live it as central to our lives. They are the heart of the British Druid tradition.

Having said all that, even if you skip all the medieval texts in our course material, you’ll still be left with a word count higher than that of any comparable course, so you needn’t feel you’re being short changed. And, in terms of quality rather than quantity, you have Ronald Hutton’s stated view that our bardic course is “the most intelligent and erudite sequential introduction to Druidry available.” Given that Ronald has a thorough knowledge of more Druid courses than anyone else I know, and probably anyone else alive, I’m happy to take his word for it!

I’ll leave you with a short quotation from the Taliesin poem, ‘The Cattle-fold of the Bards:’

I am song to the last; I am clear and bright;
I am hard; I am a Druid;
I am a wright; I am well-wrought;
I am a serpent; I am reverence, that is an open receptacle.”

And if that’s not convinced you, go and read the piece I wrote some time ago on Awen, the Holy Spirit of Druidry. It’s full of quotations from the writings of our ancestors, writings we are blessed to have access to and that, to return to an analogy I used earlier, are the nearest thing British Druidry has to a Bible, in that they are a collection of ancient, sacred writings intended to provide an introduction to the pagan gods of our lands.

Many blessings,

Greywolf /|\

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About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

12 thoughts on “Medieval Literature: Why Should We Care?

  1. avatarJill

    I think part of the 'filler' comment could be about expectations of courses in general. A lot of online courses explain and deliver their content without expecting the student to think for themselves, they're just expected to learn the material as far as remembering the words on the page and being able to understand and regurgitate for examination purposes.

    Courses such as the BDO one are not going to fulfil expectations such as these, and it's highly important that the BDO should not spoon-feed their students with pure information alone, but allow the student to learn for themselves and experience the highly personal directions the course will take them on. Spirituality can't be taught by book learning, it must be inspired within the reader and the stories reproduced in the course are very much akin to a meditation where the reader gains flashes of insight.

    Those expecting a course to tell them what to do and what to say are always going to be disappointed or at a loss with courses such as these and perhaps need to realise that they are either approaching things from the wrong angle and mindset, or perhaps Druidry just isn't going to be for them right now.

  2. avatarChris Allen

    Although I have only just started the Bardic course, I am really impressed by the amount of information it contains and the hard work that must have gone into presenting so much material in such a readable way.
    The texts are fascinating and bring to life this feeling of Druidery being a rich oral tradition. The texts take us back and ground us in the tradition. I confess that, as a complete beginner, I keep getting the names mixed up but this doesn't worry time, I'll get my head around the names.
    To dismiss the texts as "filler" suggests a lack of understanding. Sometimes I think people are grasping at some sort tangible list or how-to guide to being a druid/buddhist/christian etc etc..they want to by-pass the stories, thinking there's a quicker way to get to the truth without realising that it is the stories themselves that contain the truth.
    Loving what I'm reading. ..I'll have to revisit the stories n poems many times before I've really understand them fully but that's just part of the process

    1. avatarGreywolf

      Getting the hang of unusual names is never easy, Chris, and thank you for your kind comments. I would have replied much sooner but have been staying offline most of the time to get the Druid course finished. Finished it yesterday and it's looking good!
      many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

  3. avatarKris Hughes

    How anyone following a Celtic or British path can lack interest in their native mythology is very hard to understand. And so, those of us who know and love them just have to keep putting them out there. Bless you for trying!

  4. avatarKate

    I am a complete novice in druidry and medieval literature but after hearing a snippet of a radio 4 programme on Mabinogion I am eager to know more about our British myths and literature heritage but am unable to commit to BDO at present. Please can you point me in the right direction of where to find more to begin to learn? Thank you.

  5. avatarGillian Morgan

    I am doing your bard course at the moment, I do have trouble understanding the poems, but what you have said about the mabinogi being our history, as the bible is, it is our spiritual writings. I can now work with that and see a way of understanding them. Thank you.

  6. avatarLarisa White

    For me, as an avid reader and ponderer of the myths and legends of the world, and what wisdom any of them might have for me -- a misplaced, multi-cultural mutt currently residing on the west coast of the United States -- the mythological tales of the Celtic lands are particularly important because they are some of the very few tales that still exist in the world, as tales fully remembered, and also fully linked to the lands and spirits of place from which they derive. Even if I have not a drop of Celtic heritage in my ancestry, studying the forms of those tales, and the ways in which they connect to land/sea/sky and spirit, can help me to find (or create!) similar tales, which might help me better link myself to the ground beneath my own two feet.

    I have been searching, for years, for Druidry coursework that offers the depth of scholarship that I am finding here, which specifically has that end in mind. I am grateful for your work and dedication to this mission, Greywolf!

    1. avatarGreywolf

      Thank you, Larisa,
      I've been much helped over the years by my friendship with Prof. Ronald Hutton, Britain's foremost Pagan scholar, who took my already considerable interest in the history of our tradition to a whole new level. The old mythologies were my original way into Druidry, as there were no 'how to' books available in the mid 70s when I realised I needed to be a Druid. I've worked with them and studied them ever since, and they continue to teach me more each time I go back to them.
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

  7. avatarroselle

    Interesting post. Thank you for it. I guess myth either takes you by the hand or doesn't; very strange though for the central arcane wisdom teachings of our British tradition to be described as 'filler'.

    Also interestingly, those were exactly the 4 books that turned me on to druidry, also in about 1974. I studied the Mabinogion in its original Welsh at university; something that has shaped my life since.

    Graves I think is unparalleled, whether or not scholarly work keeps up with/approves of/validates his leaps of intuition and imagination – the Awen in full flow!

    Autumn blessings.

  8. avatarShan Morgain

    Lovely and difficult topic. As a PhD scholar of the Mabinogi (as well as priestess going back to the 70s) surprisingly I don't completely agree with this page. It is important to me that people who cannot read, cannot study by reading, or feel unconfident around it, should be able to reach our stories and traditions.
    Nor is it only about inability/ disability. The ancestral stories were not written down until the mid to late mediaeval period. Some may be many centuries older than the written versions. The written versions do differ so the original voice traditions probably did too. Their living voice-to-ear nature is part of what they are and I would like to see that honoured today for initiates and those interested.
    The modern storytelling revival has done much toward this, but sadly it has also done harm by spreading altered versions as if they are original, told with ancestral authority. I totally honour personal inspiration, but I dislike it when it is presented as if it is 'the myth of'.
    Another way to reach the tales I love best is by recordings, musical and tale telling. Two good ones are Damh the Bard's 'The First Branch'; (FREE) and Colin Jones 'Mabinogion' (PART FREE).

    There is, finally a major problem of inaccuracy in Pagan/ New Age circles, on which I am only qualified to speak about my patch of scholarship, the Mabinogi.
    First there is the language. Middle Welsh is difficult but there are many good translations, For anyone who is able to read this shouldn't mean the Welsh is ignored. Learning a few key words brings rich layers of meaning.
    Next, as above, personal inspiration is often allowed, or deliberately made, to look like the original stuff. This can be innocent naivety about looking things up/ crediting. It can be a lazy lack of checking, or power grabbing authority. Or a mix.

    It is also about how jealous the academic world is about their knowledge. Even I as a postgrad academic get shut out by paywalls though I generally find ways round it. But because academia guards its power and status so jealously outsiders (Pagan/ Goddess/ New Age) have relied on older ideas from the 19thC or WJ Gruffydd, which have been solidly disproved.
    A good example is Rhiannon the Moon Goddess. This comes from John Rhys 1880s just one casual comment when he says perhaps Rhiannon is .... But Rhiannon dresses in gold (sun) rides an unnattainable horse (sun, international myth) all the frequent, careful time references in her tales are to year or day periods (sun). There is no hint of moon, which the Celts had little interest, and as a goddess belongs to Greek myth.
    I am deeply glad for Philip Greywolf's valuable work to bring the hidden knowledge out into the sun to share. I hope my own efforts via my website, forthcoming courses and online forum can add a little. There is a contact page and I would love to get in touch with Philip again..
    (Shan Morgain, was Shan Jayran of House of the Goddess)

    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hello Shan,
      Good to hear from you. It's been quite a while and much water has flown under the proverbial bridge.
      As you may have gathered, there are long gaps in my responding to comments on posts. Too heavily engaged in other things.
      That said, thank you for such a thoughtful response. It is good to find fellow pagans who care as much for this magical literature as I do. Since writing the post, we have been blessed by Sioned Davies allowing us to use her excellent translations of the Mabinogi stories in our course material. What I've found is that individual academics are usually incredibly generous with their time and happy to share their expertise. It's (some) academic institutions that tend to put up barriers of one kind or another. Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\


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