Yes, it’s back, and I’m very much honoured to be a panelist again for this wonderful event. This year’s keynote speaker is Eimear Burke, the current chosen chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. This online conference is happening on 6 November, so get your tickets now!
Jhenah Telyndru, founder of the Sisterhood of Avalon with an MA in Celtic studies, has just released the follow-up to her wonderful and empowering book, Avalon Within. Avalon Within frames a system of healing and empowerment for women everywhere, who feel called to the wisdom and lore of the mythical isle. With this new release, The Mythic Moons of Avalon, we go even deeper, forging a path of personal sovereignty through the tides of the moon, working with herbs and the goddesses of the Avalonian tradition.
Telyndru weaves a tapestry of incredible beauty, full of lore and history, tradition and inspiration. Whereas in Avalon Within, we find the Cycle of Healing, here we find the Cycle of Revealing, the next step on the path towards sovereignty of the self. Here is the path that no one can walk for you; instead, Telyndru provides signposts along the way to help us remember and reclaim the old lore of the Celtic Britons to weave into our lives for the modern day. She has created an entire system that one can follow that is whole and complete in and of itself, and which can be richly rewarding for anyone who feels the call to Avalon. Here is the knowledge, and it is what you do with it that matters more than anything.
Here we can build bridges to connect with the divine, learn from plant allies and explore herbal energies, and also connect through journeying and pathworking to a realm where real transformation can occur, both on the inner and outer levels. This book is a real treasure, and has been long-awaited by many. Thank you, Jhenah, for your words and wisdom!
Riding side-saddle is both easy and difficult. It’s a strange dichotomy of being securely “locked in” and feeling like you’re going to slide out the side at any moment. I took lessons riding side-saddle, and also did some jumping. I even rode down the aisle at my wedding side-saddle! When I compare this to working with the goddess Rhiannon, I can see how she is often portrayed as riding side-saddle, and I think the fact that she’s wearing skirts is only part of the reason.
If you have a voluminous skirt, it’s quite easy to ride in the normal fashion. Your ankles may be showing and perhaps even your calves (gasp, shock and horror!) but really, it’s quite do-able. But side-saddle just looks more elegant, even though it perhaps fits in with the conformity to “keep your legs together” so as not to be considered a “loose woman” in any shape or form. However, all that nonsense aside, side-saddle is fun and a challenge for any rider, whatever they choose to wear, whatever gender they associate with. My husband tried it, everyone in our Western riding group tried it, just to see what it was like. It’s good to try new things.
Riding side-saddle, you usually have your legs hanging down the left side of the horse. Your left foot is in a stirrup as usual, but your right leg is held above the left and “hooked in” with a curved bar just above the knee. This keeps your right leg in place, though you have to hold your right foot flat against the side of the horse the entire time in order to truly maintain that grip correctly. It’s almost like sitting with one leg crossed over the other, but not quite.
You need to have some flexibility in the spine and torso in order to keep the head, chest and hips facing forward as much as you can, while the legs are over on the left-hand side. It feels really good after a ride to get down and stretch out the other side of your body! It also takes a bit of balance, as it can feel like you are going to slide off the other side of the horse. As mentioned above, keeping the right foot in the correct position helps with this, but that feeling is still there. The emptiness on the right-hand side can be a little daunting, even as you feel fully strapped in with your right leg securely tucked under the leaping head, lower pommel or as it is sometimes known, the leaping horn.
This delicate balance, of security and instability, finds resonance within me with the stories of the Welsh goddess Rhiannon. She is often portrayed as a horse goddess, riding a white mare from the Otherworld and marrying into the human realms, there to face the trials and tribulations of such. She works to re-establish order, correcting her husband and fixing his gaffs, seeking her lost child, and enduring hardships and injustices while remaining true to herself. She literally carries the mantle of sovereignty, as a horse carries a rider, to take it where it needs most to be, to work in the world in co-operation and in compassion.
It can be a tricky ride. One minute you can feel secure, locked in and riding in the correct posture. Forget that posture for a moment, and then you are insecure, literally, feeling like you are going to slide down any moment. It’s a great teacher in remembering to hold true, figuratively and literally. Be mindful of everything you do, if you want to enjoy this ride. Because the moment you aren’t, you could lose your seat, whether that’s the seat on horseback or the seat of sovereignty, in the soul and in the wider world.
But once you understand the delicate balance, once you come to terms with this new way of being, it’s glorious. It’s elegant. It’s graceful. And I’m not just talking about riding side-saddle. This is what Rhiannon can teach us as well. To find a new way of being, to be in balance and staying true to yourself, being present and knowing that some things need to be endured in order to find the beauty in our lives. To carry the burdens with grace, to stay true to yourself. Rhiannon is both the horse and the rider, enduring and carrying, guiding and taking the reins of sovereignty unto herself.
I’ll be working closely with Rhiannon over the next few months, and I look forward to the insights that she brings. If you are interested in this goddess, there is a brilliant book written by Jhenah Telyndru, called Rhiannon: Divine Queen of the Celtic Britons. Jhenah works closely with Rhiannon and other Welsh goddesses in the Sisterhood of Avalon, which she founded in 1995. Do check it out, and all her work, it’s brilliant.
May you ride forth in the present moment, finding your centre and staying true. And remember, when it all comes down to it, horse-riding is merely the art of keeping the horse between you and the ground.
Here is the essay version of my presentation for Leaping Hare. I hope you enjoy it!
Women of the Mabinogion (Rhiannon and Blodeuwedd)
For the longest time I found myself unable to connect, or should I say, unwilling, to try to connect to the stories of the women in the Mabinogion. For those who don’t know what the Mabinogion is, it is a collection of the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. The two main source manuscripts were created c. 1350–1410, as well as a few earlier fragments. These stories offer drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy and humour, and were created by various narrators over time. Scholars from the 18th century to the 1970s predominantly viewed the tales as fragmentary pre-Christian Celtic mythology. Today, we can appreciate the tales for the beautiful and sophisticated work that it is, stemming from an earlier oral Celtic tradition and recorded by Christian monks over time.
In this recording of earlier tales from a different and conquering religion, of course there were misunderstandings and certain flavours that did not sit well with the monks, and so modifications no doubt were made. Whether these were intentional or not we will probably never know, however, we can peel back the layers with what we know of the Celts and their predecessors, to make the tales come alive again to the Pagan soul.
I will admit now, that I am certainly no expert on the Mabinogion or Welsh mythology. Rather, this little presentation is to share my experience with coming to terms with what I had previously seen as an anti-feminist doctrine or propaganda. I also admit that I originally took the tales at face value, and only after having spent many years delving into the history and mythology of the Celtic peoples have I come to a better understanding, and been able to see more clearly just what the tales have been trying to tell us all along. My work with the Sisterhood of Avalon has helped me greatly in uncovering the real strengths of the women in these tales, and the messages that they are trying to convey through the mists of time.
I shall start with Rhiannon. She’s a well-loved goddess, sometimes seen as a Faery Queen. When I first came across this goddess, I could relate to her as a goddess of the land, symbolised by the white horse. I’ve always loved horses, and so discovering another horse goddess was a real treat. But then I learned more of her tale, and that’s when things started to get sticky for me.
Rhiannon had a child with her husband, the king, Pwyll. The child was stolen one night, and her handmaidens, being afraid that they would be blamed for their incompetence (and probably rightly so) killed a puppy and smeared its blood over the bedsheets where Rhiannon slept and where her child had slept. Upon discovering this horrible scene in the morning, Rhiannon was accused of killing her child, and was condemned to punishment. Her punishment? Being a horse goddess, she was condemned for seven long years to carry visitors to the court upon her back after relating the story of what she had done to deserve this punishment, while she sat on a horse block (this is a block used to mount up and get in the saddle, which takes the stress and strain of a human’s weight pulling down on one side of the animal during mounting). Rhiannon obliged, and for seven years she performed these tasks.
Not exactly the most inspiring feminist story ever told, is it? Why didn’t Rhiannon challenge the women who falsely accused her? Why didn’t she stand up for herself and deny the charge in the first place? Why did she accept the punishment so easily? When I first heard this myth, I was disheartened. I wanted strong goddesses to work with, like Morrigan. What on earth was this horse goddess doing, and what does that teach women today? And so, I left Rhiannon far behind, and have only come back to her recently, and learned of other women in the tales contained within the Mabinogion in the last few years.
Let’s begin with looking at Rhiannon as a goddess of sovereignty. Through her marriage to Pwyll, she connects the Otherworld to this world, and consecrating and blessing the choice of king, as was the way in Celtic lands. As representative of the land itself, she offers up many things without discrimination. She is compassion and nourishment. In the association with the horse, she is strength and working in relationship with a partner (think of a horse and rider working together). She is a Great Divine Queen, and indeed, I later found out that her name shares roots with that of Morrigan and Rigantona, who also are Great Divine Queens.
So what does this teach us? Well, it teaches us of patience, compassion and hope. Seeing Rhiannon weather her trials and tribulations with grace, never faltering in her duty can inspire others to do the same. She is a goddess of endurance, a reflection of the strength and endurance seen in her symbol, the horse. She is grace under pressure. She is true to herself, even in the midst of chaos and unjust treatment. She knows what can be changed, and what cannot. She picks her battles wisely.
She also teaches us of inner sovereignty as well as outer sovereignty. Her dignity never leaves her, even as she carries the few people who do choose to accept her offer of being carried into the court. She knows that the truth will win out in the end. She knows this because she is the land itself. The land knows things that we humans do not. The land knows the bigger picture. She knows that there will be challenges, hard challenges but still she does what she needs to do. She knows the right order of things, the way that the land needs to be in order for everything to prosper, even if the humans of the court do not know this. She teaches us not to give in to victimhood or self-pity. She knows that all things will pass, and this is simply one circumstance out of many that lie ahead.
When I found these deeper layers to her being, I was able to resonate more strongly with her story. So many women can relate to being betrayed by other women. So many women are made to live their lives according to what others think they should be. But Rhiannon stands strong in that, while not succumbing to the lowest common denominator. Rhiannon’s son is eventually restored to her, now a little boy of seven years, and Rhiannon returns to her place as Queen. Her son’s name became Pryderi ap Pwyll, which means “Care, son of Wisdom”. If we are strong enough, and if we do not lose our compassion, but still care for things and have compassion while undergoing the trials of experience which lead to wisdom, then we will follow in the footsteps of this goddess of sovereignty. Forgiveness is necessary in order to move forwards. The past cannot be changed, but we can be healed of the wounds of the past in order to provide for a better future. In doing so, we become sovereign of ourselves, making choices based upon the current moment, and not out of fear or hurt of the past, or worry about the future. Rhiannon teaches us that we have choices, and that the choices that we make can either destroy a kingdom, whether it be an external literal kingdom or our own inner kingdom, or we can hold it together until a better circumstance presents itself. Through her own strength of will, her own dignity and grace, she is able to overcome it all. Well, she is a goddess, after all!
While we may not be so graceful and dignified under pressure, it is certainly something to think about and perhaps strive for in our daily interactions. It made me see this Celtic Welsh goddess in a completely different light. The tale has helped in my own journey to find inner peace and sovereignty of my own self. She reminds me to be as compassionate as I can, as well as showing me how strong I can be against the trials and tribulations of the world, injuries and injustices and more.
Another goddess whose story I originally balked at what that of Blodeuwedd. She was a woman created out of flowers in order to be married to Lleu. This story in itself connects with another goddess from the tales, Arianrhod. She laid three tynghedau, the Welsh equivalent of the Irish geis, upon her son: that he should have no name save one which she herself provides; that he should not bear any arms except those that she provides; and that he should never marry a woman from the race of Men. These “rules” may seem harsh and unpleasant, a kind of “wicked stepmother” scene apart from the fact that she is indeed his real mother. But again, when we peel back the layers of the story, we understand more. In ancient times, it was the mother who often bestowed a name, arms and chose a wife for her son. I’m guessing the monks who recorded these tales didn’t quite “get” that idea, and so made her out to be a wicked woman denying her son of many things. And so, Lleu gets his uncle to “make” him a wife, and he creates one out of flowers and she is named Blodeuwedd, or Flower Face.
Arianrhod’s tale continues, but now I’m going to focus on Blodeuwedd. A woman created for a man – hmm, where have we heard this story before? This might very well be a take on the Christian tale, and the original meaning of it lost to history. However, we can look deeper at many parts of this tale, to see the strengths found in the feminine.
Blodeuwedd was the model wife, for a while. But eventually, while the husband was away, she fell in love with Gronw, a neighbouring lord. They lay together for three nights, and then Blodeweudd decided to plot against her husband, in order to kill him and live instead with Gronw. She schemed until she found out how she could kill her husband, who was not easy to kill, ie. he cannot be killed indoors or out, on horseback or on foot and only by a spear that took a year to make and was only worked on during Sunday mass (a forbidden, holy time, which is quite interesting and an open “nod”, if you will, to the story’s Pagan origins). Blodeuwedd discovers how to do this by asking her husband, who seems rather stupid really in giving her all these answers to these riddles, and then Gronw sets to work on the spear.
So when the spear is ready, she makes a bath for Lleu on the banks of a river and builds a house of thatch with only a roof and no walls. She brings either a buck or goat, depending on which translation of this tale you read, and then ask him to show her how he needs to stand with the animal in order to be killed, which he does. Really. Gronw then rises from his hiding place and throws the spear at Lleu, which injures him. As he lies dying, his uncle Gwydion comes and turns him into an eagle in order to save his life. Blodeuwedd and Gronw return to rule over the court, while Gwydion then goes in search of the eagle that flew away, eventually finding him and restoring him back to his original form. After a year has passed, Lleu returns to court, and demands that he should enact the same deed that was done to him, upon Gronw. Gronw has no choice but to accept to keep his honour, but he requests that a stone be placed between him and Lleu. Lleu agrees, and throws the spear, which goes right through the stone leaving a great hole, and kills Gronw. (The stone can still be seen today, with a great big hole through it). Blodeuwedd runs away, but Gwydion tracks her down and turns her into an owl, as “punishment”.
When I first read this tale, I thought “My, what a horrible woman”. But when I looked deeper, and applied what I knew of Celtic mythology and lore, a new picture began to emerge. There are a couple of tales where two kings fight, usually over a woman, such as one of the tales of Gwynn ap Nudd, or the more recent Oak and Holly King. The woman represents the land, and decides who has sovereignty over which part of the year. Lleu means “light” and Gronw is associated with darkness. So, we can see the cycles of the year represented in the “battle” between the light half of the year, and the dark half of the year, with the goddess of the land choosing her mate at the appropriate time.
In lying with Gronw for three nights, this is actually a form of marriage in ancient Celtic law. There were many forms of marriage, this being just one of them. So it is easy to see how the goddess of the land, the one who was literally “made” from the land out of flowers, chooses who will be king. She is dutiful to Lleu during the appropriate time, and then weds Gronw again when the time comes to move into the dark half of the year. In this regard, Blodeuwedd is another goddess of sovereignty.
She herself transforms as well, from that which turns to the light, ie. flowers, to that which turns to the dark: an owl. Married to Lleu, as a flower she turns to the light. Married to Gronw, she is a creature able to see clearly in the darkness, and fly free. The monks who wrote this tale down saw the transformation into an owl as a punishment, and recorded it as such, but really what would you rather be? A flower or an owl? Something rooted to the land, or something that can fly, see in the dark, is an exceptional hunter and which is utterly gorgeous?
Perhaps Gwydion did not change her at all. Perhaps Blodeuwedd changed of her own accord, so that she could fly free and exist in the dark half of year with the appropriate king and husband. Perhaps she will return again the spring as the flower, making the cycle complete. Perhaps that is the truer, older tale.
Blodeuwedd shows us that in us there is both light and shadow, and that we must acknowledge both these aspects of ourselves. For if we do not, if we abandon one for the other, we become imbalanced. We need winter just as we need summer.
With Rhiannon and Blodeuwedd, we can find tales of the stories of women, their struggles and their pain, their choices and the cycles of life, death and rebirth. We can still find them in the old tales, even through the thin veneer of a conquering religion at the time. We have to be able to open up our perceptions, however, to look deeper, as well as do the research into the time and place when these stories occurred. We need context. Without knowledge of ancient Celtic lore, these stories, taken at “face value” in the Christian context can seem utterly demeaning towards women. But when viewed on a deeper level, with what we now know of Celtic lore, as well as the cycle of the seasons and looking with a Pagan eye, we are better equipped to fully understand just what the stories were trying to say.
My work with the Sisterhood of Avalon helped me to better understand these women’s stories. The SOA uses the tales of Rhiannon, Blodeuwedd, Ceridwen, Arianrhod and Branwen to move through cycles of healing and transformation. The creator of the SOA, Jhenah Telyndru, is a wonderful woman and scholar in Celtic studies, bringing good research and lore to a deeper understanding of the myths and tales. You can find out more about the SOA at sisterhoodofavalon.org.
Their stories are our stories. Even today.
My friends Lisa, Michelle and I did our Spring Equinox ritual this morning, getting up pre-dawn and heading out to the beach to greet the rising sun. It was beautiful: the waves crashing, the light and air around us brightening with each passing minute. We chanted and sang, and poured waters from Chalice Well and the White Spring into the North Sea, releasing what needed to be let go, and welcoming change and transformation with the ebb and flow of the tide. We honoured the darkness, and bade a hearty hail to the growing light, the longer days.
Later, Lisa and I headed out to the heath, where we went to my special spot, a copse of birch trees near a stream; a quiet place on the open access land where no one seems to go but me and the deer. The area was filled with narcissus flowers, their small yellow heads shining against the fresh green of the grass in Spring. As I lay among the flowers, their scent filling my senses, I felt the energy of Blodeuwedd coursing through me.
Performing immram (journeying) to Her later before my altar in my home, I asked for guidance on how to transform the energies of abandonment issues I had with childhood friends. Blodeuwedd simply told me to look into the pool of water that lay before the White Spring, and there I would find my answer. As I gazed into its dark depths, a voice said “Stop trying to fix it. You can’t fix the past; it happened, it is done.” I saw the wisdom of this and also how to transform the energies held up in the hurt of abandonment. I needed to nurture the friendships I had right now. I had to really let go of the past, by stopping trying to fix it, to mend it so that it would stop hurting. I needed to focus on the present moment, the current friendships, regardless of how they might turn out. I needed to still love with abandon, instead of fearing abandonment.
Blodeuwedd stopped trying to fix her past, with her husband for whom she was created. It was not a good relationship, and now she is free; she flies free on the wings of freedom, seeing through the darkness of the shadow and of illusion, and grasps the truth of her sovereign self in her talons, never letting go. She is a great teacher, and I honour her for all that she is, with all that I am.
For more on Blodeuwedd, I highly recommend the book Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd (Avalonian Devotionals), with introduction by Jhenah Telyndru.