Pagan Portals - Rhiannon: Divine Queen of the Celtic Britons

Pagan Portals - Rhiannon: Divine Queen of the Celtic Britons

by Jhenah Telyndru

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Pagan Portals - Rhiannon: Divine Queen of the Celtic Britons by Jhenah Telyndru

To truly know Rhiannon, we must excavate the layers of her myth, decode the meaning of her symbols, and seek to restore the significance of her very name. Although she has a mythology around her, and has many modern-day devotees, nowhere in ancient lore has she been identified as a Goddess. We have no known cult centers or devotional altars dedicated to Rhiannon. How then do we approach this revered Lady? How can we best know her as Goddess? We need but call to her, and ask for what we need. Be it her bag of plenty, the soul-healing song of her birds, or the empowerment of the sovereignty she holds, when you call to Rhiannon, the Divine Queen of the Britons, know that she will stop… and know that she will answer your call.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785354694
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 04/27/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 152
Sales rank: 428,223
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jhenah Telyndru is an author, educator, and Priestess. She holds an MA in Celtic Studies from the University of Wales. Founder of the Sisterhood of Avalon, she presents Avalonian Training Intensives around North America and the UK, and facilitates pilgrimages to sacred sites in the British Isles. Born and raised in NYC, she lives in the Finger Lakes region of Central New York with her two children, two cats, and too many books.

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The Tapestry of Time

To write about Rhiannon is to undertake a journey. While she has a mythology around her, her origins are obscure. While she has many modern-day devotees, she is never identified as a Goddess in any of the primary source material. While she appears to have ancient Pagan attributes, her tales were written during the medieval period in a Christianized country that did not even exist politically when the Island of Britain was Pagan. There are no known ancient prayers or rituals in her honor. We have no known cult centers or devotional altars dedicated to Rhiannon. We have only a breadcrumb trail of clues to follow which are made up of syncretic resonances, embedded symbolism, and a mythic heritage which begs to be traced back through the Otherworldly veils of history. How then do we approach this revered Lady? How can we best know her as Goddess?

Neo-Pagans generally have come to expect to interact with divinities either from within a newly-created tradition that recasts them to work in a neoteric system like Wicca, for example, or else seeks to reconstruct the old ways with as much cultural authenticity as possible. The latter is possible because many ancient societies have left behind a rich corpus of written work detailing the stories, rituals, and observances to honor their Gods. Unfortunately, the Celts did not do the same, preferring to transmit their sacred stories through oral tradition rather than setting them down into writing. Caesar writes of this phenomenon in his Gallic War:

They [the Druids] are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory. (Caesar, Gallic War, Chapter 14)

Regardless of the intention, the result of this practice is that unlike many other ancient cultures, the beliefs, religious practices, and myths of the Pagan Celts were not written down until relatively late, especially in areas that had been annexed by the Roman Empire, such as Gaul and Britain. It is important to note that Druidism — the priestly caste which performed the ceremonies and sacrifices, served as judges and mediators, acted as augurs and healers, and transmitted the lore as bards and poets — was outlawed in Gaul in the first century CE and finally wiped out in Britain during the siege of the Island of Anglesey by Roman troops in 61 CE. The primary keepers of religious knowledge in these areas, therefore, were mostly eradicated, and so it is posited that what may have remained did so as folk memory and practice which were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition.

As time progressed, Britain, like almost all of Europe, became Christianized and endured wave after wave of invasion, first from Germanic tribes after Rome withdrew and then from the Normans. Eventually, several nations arose on the island: Wales, made up of a network of kingdoms to the west of Offa's Dyke, most retained the culture of the Celtic Britons, and resonated strongly with the other Brythonic people of Cornwall and Brittany; Scotland, which was more closely aligned culturally with the Irish and Manx; and England, which was primarily influenced by Germanic and Norman cultures, rather than those of the Celts.

When whatever myths and legends which had endured in oral tradition since Celtic Pagan times finally began to be redacted in the Welsh medieval period, we can assume that the tales had evolved over time, and, as written, we can see that they are greatly influenced by the laws and social mores of the contemporary medieval audience. The stories which comprise The Four Branches of the mythic cycle we know as Y Mabinogi were written down sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries, possibly by clerics, or otherwise by lay scholars interested in preserving Welsh culture at a time when Wales had lost its independence to Anglo-Norman England. Ostensibly, because of this desire to archive and preserve these tales, it is unlikely that the redactors themselves made any substantive changes to the stories as they had received them, and indeed, there are phrases included in the narratives which were typical of the mnemonic and onomastic devices known to have been used during oral recitation (Davies, 1993). If these tales have their roots in Pagan Celtic tradition, therefore, any shifts of characterization or symbolism are likely a natural result of evolution of the tales over time, and not reflective of any kind of political or religious agenda.

The characters we generally assume to be divinities are never identified as such in any existent tales; they are, however, often depicted as supernatural or larger-than-life figures. These stories feature a comfortability with magic and the Otherworld which may seem unusual to us when we consider that Wales was a wholly Christian country at the time they were committed to writing; the Four Branches are filled with faery queens, magicians, shape changers, giants, visits to the Otherworld, magical animals, and even the creation of a woman out of flowers. Textual references are made to religious traditions performed "in the custom of the time", which seem to refer to Pagan rites and rituals from the pre-Christian era. Where scholars of Y Mabinogi and contemporary tales embrace the theory that these stories have Pagan roots, they are careful to say that there is no direct proof of this connection, noting, for example, that the similarity of character names with divine figures in other Celtic mythos (such as Rhiannon's second husband, Manawydan fab Llyr and the Irish God of the sea Manannán mac Lir) and the appearance of common international folk motifs (for example, the king obtains sovereignty by sleeping with a representative of the land) could instead be the result of cultural exchanges in the early medieval period; everyone likes to tell a good story, and these tales may well have been influenced by stories originating in Ireland or on the continent (Jackson, 1961).

There is a similar problem with concluding that British folk customs, such as the winter mumming tradition of the Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare) or those of the Hunting of the Wren, are remnants of Celtic Pagan practices that survived through time. While the symbol sets included in these traditions — a veiled horse's skull with a working jaw used as a pantomime in a ritualized exchange between mummers and individual households in turn, and the capture, displaying, and parading of a tiny, otherwise-protected bird from house to house in order to confer luck and fertility — appear to be very Pagan in origin, they may simply reflect the unconscious needs of an agrarian people who worked the same land, with essentially the same technology, and faced the same survival challenges during the winter months as their ancient ancestors. Since these practices can only be attested to from the 17th century forward, there is again no direct proof of their ancient Pagan origins — but this need not diminish the power of these practices, both psychologically and practically (Wood, 1997).

It is important to again stress that there are no known temples, altar inscriptions, or votive offerings dedicated to Rhiannon; the archaeological record simply does not directly support the idea of her divinity, nor that of any character in existent Welsh lore. However, if we consider the ways in which cultures change and grow over time, especially as new influences and challenges arise, it is possible that a similar process occurs when it comes to the form and even the name of a culture's gods. It is fairly well attested that in the process of becoming Christianized, the gods of a people often became local saints, not necessarily canonical as far as the Church of Rome was concerned, but honored and appealed to as intercessors nonetheless; oftentimes, these saints retained attributes or areas of influence from their godly past. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the transition of the Irish Goddess Brigid to the beloved St. Brigid; both shared a cult site in Cill Dara/Kildare, both were associated with the forge, healing, and creativity, and both had an eternal flame burning in their honor — a devotion that was extinguished during the Reformation, and rekindled in Kildare once more in 1993.

If we accept that this has happened during the transition from Paganism to Christianity, certainly then there have to have been other times when the Gods evolved and changed forms. In Western European traditions, we speak of a reconstructed Indo-European "mother culture" which is believed to have been the origin point for certain language groups and their attendant cultures. The Celtic language family is a branch off of this Proto-Indo-European language tree, and it is possible to trace the approximate times and places where new languages — and, ostensibly, their associated cultural forms — broke off from the main branch. As the Celtic peoples and their ideas began to spread across Europe from what is believed to be their origin points in the upper Danube valley in the 13th century BCE, their tribal nature saw distinct cultural groups develop depending on where they settled (Cunliffe,1997). These differentiations likely arose from a combination of integrating with the peoples who already inhabited these lands, the adoption of Celtic cultural ideas by other peoples, and as a result of the challenges presented by the lands themselves.

Although Celtic territories once spanned from as far east as Turkey, as far west as the Iberian peninsula, and as far north as the British Isles and Ireland at their greatest extent, the two major subgroups branching off of the Common Celtic language was Continental Celtic and Insular Celtic (Koch, 2006). These groups formed their own branches and according to one linguistic model, from Continental Celtic arose Celtiberian, Gaulish, Galatian, Leptonic, and Noric — all of which are extinct. Insular Celtic branched into two major groups: Brythonic (P-Celtic), from which came Welsh, Cornish, and Breton; and Goidelic (Q-Celtic), out of which evolved Irish, Manx, and Scots Gaelic — each of which had their own stages of development (Sifter, 2008). The modern iterations of these languages survive at various levels of success, despite long-term attempts by the English to suppress and extinguish them.

While this may seem like a strange side-track to a conversation about Rhiannon, it is a critical piece for understanding several key ideas. First, it underscores the reality that the Celts were not a monolithic culture; there were Celtic peoples whose languages had evolved so distinctively that although they were related linguistically, the speakers would not have been able to understand each other. Second, it is important to realize that not only were the Celtic peoples separated from each other in space, but also in time. Their cultures existed in various stages during the Pagan period for at least 1000 years, and their different historical experiences had great impact on the further development of their cultures (Cunliffe, 1997). For example, the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain changed the trajectories of these peoples and their religious forms in a way that we do not see in Ireland, a critical distinction when attempting to study the mythos of any of these cultures. Lastly, it is important to realize that Y Mabinogi and contemporary tales were written down in Middle Welsh, a language which did not exist until the 12th century, and that the nation known as Wales didn't even come into being until the 6th century CE, which was approximately the same time that all of Britain had been Christianized (Sifter, 2008).

So, while it is true that Rhiannon is not identified as a Goddess in Y Mabinogi, nor have we found any artifactual proof of her worship, or any observation of her cultus by contemporary ancient writers, perhaps the conclusion that this is because she and other legendary Welsh figures are not divinities is incorrect. Perhaps we have found no shrines, images, or inscriptions dedicated to Rhiannon because there simply could not have been any as a consequence of the pre-Roman Celtic preference to worship in sacred groves and not to write sacred things down. Indeed, the very language of Rhiannon's name had not developed until long after the Pagan Celtic period in Britain had ended. Perhaps then, in order to explore the truth of Rhiannon's potentially divine nature, we must follow a more subtle route - one which requires a deep reading of her mythos, an examination of linguistic evidence, the identification of medieval elements in her tale to discern the provenance of what remains, and a comparative study of similar Goddesses both from adjacent and precursor cultures. What follows is an exploration of this very path, undertaken in hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of Rhiannon.


Primary Sources

The primary mythological source for Rhiannon's story is from a collection of Middle Welsh narrative tales that has come to be called Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi or The Four Branches of the Mabinogi — often given as Y Mabinogi for short. There has been some confusion about the name of this collection of tales, as well as the names of the individual tales themselves since the source manuscripts do not provide titles for any of them. Of the stories collected, only four of them end with the formulaic "and so ends this branch of Y Mabinogi", leaving us to conclude that those particular tales are in some way related (Mac Cana, 1992). The word "mabinogi" is believed to come from the Welsh mab, which means "youth" or "son", and so could potentially mean "Tales of the Youth". This appears to be a Welsh iteration of a type of narrative tradition that relays a hero's youthful adventures, such as we see in the Irish macnímartha genre of tales. While the evidence is not entirely conclusive, it is possible that the youthful hero whose exploits unifies these Four Branches is none other than Rhiannon's son, Pryderi; we will explore this idea in more depth in chapter four.

The term "mabinogion" appears to have been a scribal error in one of the source manuscripts, and when Lady Charlotte Guest translated and published these tales in English for the first time between 1830 and 1840, she did so in multiple volumes which she called The Mabinogion — a convention that has remained to this day. Guest included additional medieval Welsh tales in this collection, all taken from the same source manuscripts, but the story cycle properly known as Y Mabinogi is formally comprised only of the four cainc or branches (Mac Cana, 1992).

The titles given to these branches by Guest are:

The First Branch – Pwyll Pendefeg Dyfed (Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed)

The Second Branch – Branwen ferch Llyr (Branwen, Daughter of Llyr)

The Third Branch – Manawydan fab Llyr (Manawydan, Son of Llyr)

The Fourth Branch – Math fab Mathonwy (Math, Son of Mathonwy)

The additional tales included in the source manuscripts containing the Four Branches and came to be collected with them, but are not part of Y Mabinogi proper are:

The Four Native Tales:

Culhwch ac Olwen (Culhwch and Olwen)

Lludd a Llefelys (Lludd and Llefelys)

Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig (The Dream of Macsen Wledig)

Breuddwyd Rhonabwy (The Dream of Rhonabwy)

The Three Romances:

Owain, neu Chwedyl Iarlles y Ffynnawn (Owain, or The Lady of the Fountain)

Peredur fab Efrawg (Peredur son of Efrawg)

Gereint fab Erbin (Gereint son of Erbin).

The source manuscripts for these eleven tales are:

Peniarth 6 (The earliest source, dating to about 1250 CE, which is unfortunately fragmentary)

Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (The White Book of Rhydderch, dating to around 1350 CE)

Llyfr Goch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest, dating to around 1400 CE)

While most scholars believe that the tales themselves, as written, may date back as far 1050 CE, there are references to some of the characters in the poems of The Book of Taliesin (Llyfr Taliesin) which are believed to predate Y Mabinogi. Further, it is commonly accepted that these tales were redacted from oral tradition, and therefore the stories themselves are likely of much older origin (Davies, 1993). Is it possible that these stories, or at least the seeds of what they wound up becoming, originated in Celtic Pagan British times? Perhaps, but there is no definitive evidence for any direct lineage between them, especially when you consider the timeline involved.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements xvi

Introduction - Climbing the Mound 1

Chapter 1 The Tapestry of Time 5

Chapter 2 Primary Sources 12

Chapter 3 Retelling the Myths 16

Chapter 4 Rhiannon and Divinity 35

Chapter 5 Aspects of the Divine Queen 64

Chapter 6 Seeking Her Within 88

Chapter 7 Building a Relationship with Rhiannon 95

Chapter 8 Rhiannon Speaks 107

Conclusion - The Journey Begins 112

Appendix 1 Notes on Welsh Pronunciation 113

Bibliography 115

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