Ivy Flowers

This time of year ivy comes into flower. The intense perfume of the blossoms has a clean, cold almost otherworldy smell. The flowers also attract the attention of insects, which swarm around this late-season treat. Later in the year, the black berries will form – food for the pigeons during the worst part of the winter.

Ogham and the Celtic Calendar

The poet Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess, associates Ivy with the Irish Ogham letter gort, and the month running from 30th September to 27th October, a time when here in southeast England the ivy flowers are beginning to fade. There are just a few left at the moment,

There’s plenty to read on the associations that Graves and others make with Ivy (see the links below) but you can also try to make your own connection with a plant or tree and see if part of its nature is revealed to you. Reading what others have written is useful, but you don’t have to be bound by it.

Here are a couple of links you can read on Ivy:

Robert Graves’ associations for the tree calendar originate in an old Welsh poem in the book of Taliesin called Kat Godeu, or Battle of the Trees. The lines about Ivy run as follows (in a modern translation by Marged Haycock):

Privet and honeysuckle,
and Ivy, despite his appearance,
how fiercely [did they go] into the fray!

What does this tell us about Ivy? For one thing, perhaps that his appearance is deceptive!

Seeing for ourselves

How do we approach Ivy – or other plants or trees – to find out more about them? Perhaps we can divide our approach into three categories:

Observation – we can use our senses to try and see ivy – look close, watch it in different contexts, in different seasons. Spend time with it. Use other senses: smell, touch, taste (after of course checking to make sure it isn’t poisonous!), maybe sound?

Investigation – this is where reading can come in, finding out about Ivy, but also we can also try our own experiments. What can we use Ivy for? What can we make from it? How does it fit into the local ecosystem? What does it do?

Experience – maybe we can interact with ivy on a different level, where we are not dealing with it as an object in our familiar world, but as an agent in a bigger, less familiar world. Perhaps we can meet the ‘spirit of the ivy.’ To do this we would need to keep a level of inner silence so that we can perceive the ivy, and also a certain courage to allow us to meet the spirit of the ivy as equals.

The Three Winter Berries

The berries of mistletoe, holly and ivy work together in the winter woods. Mistletoe – the golden bough of the druids – born from heaven without touching the ground. His berries are white – the male seed. Holly is shiny and sometimes prickly, flickering light in its leaves. Her berries are red – the female seed. Ivy climbs around and over the other trees and its berries are black – the seed of spirit. Together the three winter berries echo the beginning of the world.

The Diamond Mirror and the Four Worlds – Part 2

The Elemental world

“It is like standing by a lake… On the surface we see the reflection of the world, but in the depths there are those mysterious things that alchemists show in their books – dragons, ravens, eagles, wolves, suns, moons, and the like.”

Sphaera Elementum, from Liber Sphaerae by Colin A. Low

The Diamond Mirror is centred on our sense of ‘I’, with the familiar world around it, shown in white on the diagram below. As discussed in Part 1, we can become more aware of the workings of this world, but the diagram also shows other, less familiar parts of our being, which operate outside the familiar world, often without our awareness.

Instinct and the Elemental world

At the base of the Diamond Mirror is instinct. When we were born, instinct was all that we had. Our bodies worked, we breathed, cried, shat and suckled. Instinct still lives in us. We can be more or less aware of it, and we only have a little control. For example we can adjust our breathing, and breath is an important gate into instinct.

We call the world of instinct the Elemental World. This emphasises the physicality of the world – made from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth.

We may think that we live in the physical world, but we’re not really aware of it. It’s a bit like the two pictures below – zooming in on a carrot in a magazine picture, we see the reality behind the illusion: just coloured dots. We see an alien world under our familiar one.

Extending your awareness

You can extend your awareness and move beyond concepts and constructs towards the raw physical reality you are part of. You could spend a little time out in nature. Settle down and try to be aware of your body, and of the reality and individuality of living beings around you. Set aside your own thoughts and preoccupations for a while. Be aware of the clouds moving in the sky, the air moving on your skin.

“The gods of ancient Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, or the Tribes of the goddess Danu, or the Sidhe … the people of the Faery Hills … still ride the country as of old. Sidhe is also Gaelic for wind, and certainly the Sidhe have much to do with the wind. … When the country people see the leaves whirling on the road they bless themselves, because they believe the Sidhe to be passing by.” 

W.B. Yeats’ Notes on his poem The Hosting of the Sidhe
Riders of the Sidhe, 1911 By John Duncan (MerlinPrints.com)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Can we? Should we?

Before we begin exploring unfamiliar worlds, we should be aware of the potential dangers. There are borders to the unfamiliar worlds for good reasons. For example, interfering with the automatic processes of the body such as breathing can sometimes lead to problems. Maybe it’s dangerous or unnatural to extend our range – after all, we can get by in the familiar world, and in a sense it’s designed for our comfort: in fact we ourselves have designed it for our own comfort.  Many people live all their lives in the familiar world with maybe just a glimpse outside it now and then. But for some people it’s not enough. It’s true that there is danger in going beyond the familiar world, and it is important that we have a strong foundation in the familiar world before attempting to explore beyond it. There are stories of problems that meet the incautious visitor to the otherworld.

Merlin’s warning in the Ballad of Childe Rolande:

“After you have entered the land of Fairy… bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again.”

Our body is our passport

The elemental world has many different scales, from the smallest particles up to the largest clusters of galaxies. It also includes the messy internals of our own bodies: the sinews and flesh, the guts and pulsing heart.  It can be an uncomfortable places for us to visit because of its rawness and sometimes scary power and scale.

One way into the elemental world is through the body, where instinct rules. Think about your body. It has amazing intelligence and endurance. It preserves itself, fighting off disease and repairing damage. It can deal with a wide variety of food, transforming whatever you eat to sustain and fuel itself. It can adapt to different environments, and activities, employing long-term and short-term strategies for survival. But you are probably not aware of all this intelligence and activity unless something goes wrong.

At the borderline of the familiar world is breath. Breathing can be automatic, but it can also be under conscious control. The nature of your breathing tells you something about the state of our body, and being aware of the breath can help you to be fully present.

There are many practices which can help us to become more aware of the body and the breath. One that I personally find helpful is the first part of this morning exercise.


I’m in a stone circle in the middle of the night. I’ve been here a while, keeping a vigil, and my hold on the familiar world is beginning to loosen. Standing in front of one of the large stones, I see it begin to come to life, breathing in and out.

Is it real?

One of the key issues that we deal with in going beyond the familiar world is the question ‘So is it real?’ Experiences we have outside the familiar world by definition don’t make sense and can’t be explained, so we are inclined to either reject them or attempt to rationalise them. A more profitable approach is to leave the experiences as they are without trying to explain them, or to fit them into our familiar world-view.

And you?

How about you? Have you had any strange experiences? You could ask your friends if they have – you might get some interesting stories!

Next time…

More to come on the Dragon World and the Shining World!

An Oral Tradition

The British Mysteries is an oral tradition. This means it is handed from one person to another in a living chain. There may be many people in the chain or few, but the old adage ‘when the student is ready, the master will appear’ is often true.

An oral tradition relies on human interaction. This means that your ‘master’ is likely to be just another ordinary human being. Actually I prefer to use the word ‘guide’ as this is the role that includes everyone and does not have the idea of one person being somehow ‘higher’ than the other. The only difference between you is that the guide will be able to show you some signposts.

Recently I was at Avebury where there is a great avenue of stones that points the way to the main circle, or gathering place. Once you are at the bottom of the hill facing the stone pathway it is obvious where to go. You follow the stones like a bird following breadcrumbs. At one point the stones disappear because a road has been built through the middle of the approach. A bit of searching, and they reappear, but if they did not, you might need a guide to help you find the next sign. The guide’s function in this oral tradition is to place the signposts for you to follow. You still need to make the journey yourself. A real guide will not make promises, tell you what you will find when you get there, or spoon-feed you answers.

Gateway to Avebury Stone Circle

Gateway

One of the pitfalls of looking for someone to be your guide is that you might look for someone extraordinary. Someone wreathed in a golden glow or with thousands of online followers. Real guides are not gurus and don’t need fanfares. They often work quietly, encouraging their few students by their example of a balanced life, and their in-person presence. I’ve been lucky enough to meet several of these people with wisdom and experience, and they all watch TV just like everyone else. They live in this world, but have access to a greater one.

A guide’s function is to act as a gateway – to show you different ways of paying attention and to give you a structure which will enable you to make sense of these different modes of being. (see this post) You can learn a lot on the internet, (or I wouldn’t be writing this!) but most of this is information, not knowledge. In our tradition we make a distinction between these different forms of knowing – knowledge is only gained by direct experience and not second-hand from someone else. For example; it is the difference between someone explaining in words how to ride a bike from the actual practice and skill of balancing on that very wobbly saddle.

Why seek out an oral tradition?

The British Mysteries are mysterious. And the mystery is not easily explained. It needs to be grasped with all your senses if you are to catch a whiff of it. The old welsh bards called this whiff ‘Awen’.

Awen describes the invisible inspiration of the poets, or bards, or anyone possessed of a kind of flowing energy, or a force that flows with the essence of life.

 Where does this inspiration come from? The Book of Taliesin describes this as proceeding from a trinity:

ban pan doeth peir
ogyrwen awen teir

Translation: “the three elements of inspiration that came, splendid, out of the cauldron”.

Triskelion at Newgrange

But the word ‘peir’ (cauldron) can also mean ‘sovereign’ often with the broad meaning of God or the Divine. Awen is sometimes characterised as consisting of three sub-divisions – the ‘ogyrwen’ of the quotation, so ‘the ogyrwen of triple inspiration’ is suggestive of a structure of three-ness.

A guide might point you to this idea of three-ness and suggest various ways to see this in action. (see the previous post https://ynysprydein.org/2022/06/10/the-bull-tor-triangle/)

Want to find out more? Contact us.

Nature Practice

Nowadays, for many, walking in nature has to be a discipline and a practice. In previous eras it was a necessity, but now people can go weeks or even months without any contact with nature.

The best way to explore our natural landscape is to go alone. Anywhere will do, but the further from traffic, people, and buildings, the better.

Often the natural world has remained unchanged for generations. Even if the landscape itself has altered, the elements of nature – earth, sky, the changing weather, still exist as they did for our forefathers.

This tree is a protected ancient lime, there has been a lime tree in this spot from before Roman times

The benefits of a regular ‘nature practice’ are many.

When we go into nature we escape from other people; it is people that cause us to harden our identity into someone they can recognise as unchanging. Without the reinforcement of other people we are free to drop our egos and our conditioning and spend some time in just ‘being.’

The presence of trees, grass, and flowers, which do not speak or seek to persuade us of their opinions, can encourage the walker to do the same, to let go of the need to project anything of our ‘selves’.

The gentle rhythm of breath and footsteps can lead to a quietening.

In the quiet of nature we are more inclined to listen – not for anything in particular, but to sense our surroundings more intensely. The wind, the direction of the sun, the ground under our feet, the buzz of insects, the cry of a bird. It is surprising what insights these can bring.

Many people are hardly ever alone and are afraid of being alone in a remote location. We are lucky in England that predators are few, but we can still use the fear of being alone to our advantage. It makes us more alert, we become more like what we are – an animal in the wild.

In this alert state, with our senses open, we are at once both bigger and smaller  – we are in an expanded condition, yet small in comparison to the immensity of nature and its longevity.

There are special places in the landscape that people have sought out for generations – a spring, a lake, a mountain top, a particular tree. These are places of pilgrimage. The English term ‘pilgrim’ originally comes from the Latin peregrinus (per = through and ager = field or land), someone on a journey. Often the sites have been marked in some way, but you could always find your own resonant spot, and mark it yourself.

A regular journey to the place you have chosen will mark that place for future pilgrims, even if there is nothing externally visible – very much in the way that continual journeying across a field wears a footpath. The process of doing this regular practice, alert to the changes of seasons both inside and outside yourself, is the transformative thing.

Honouring the landscape in this way, by your particular and decisive presence, connects you to all the others who have done the same, those from before, and those that will come after you.

When your time is over, the traces of your practice will still remain.

The Bull Tor triangle

There’s a part of us that likes patterns, and this can be played out in the landscape through alignments marked by ley lines or more complex arrangements like the Glastonbury zodiac. Significant places are linked together in a pattern, which amplifies their significance.

In the Peak District of Derbyshire, there is a triangle formed by three ancient sites: in the northwest, the Neolithic henge circle called The Bull Ring, in the northeast, the Eyam Moor stone circle called Wet Withens, and in the south the Arbor Low stone circle.

The triangle is not quite equal-sided. The distance between The Bull Ring and Wet Withens is about nine miles, compared to more than ten miles for the other two sides. 

This triangle is a central theme in a recently published book called The Dancing Circles, by Andy Leaver Davies. I really enjoyed the book, which describes a tradition of journeying between the circles, and performing particular exercises at each of them. So here’s a bit about the circles and how they are described in the book.

The Bull Ring

The Bull ring, photo credit Dave Dunford, via Wikimedia

The Bull Ring is located on the edge of the village of Dove Holes, by the Cricket Club and Football field. It may have been a stone circle once, but now all that is left is a round circular earthwork with a mound in the middle. In the book, The Bull Ring is used as a place to bring the body into balance, using a simple circle dance.

Arbor Low

Arbor Low, photo credit Wikimedia

The 50+ stones which make up Arbor Low are all on their sides now, on a raised mound surrounded by a ditch and earthen bank. It’s located on high moorland, with long sight-lines to the horizon. In the book, Arbor Low is a place to learn how to open up and apply the mind.

Wet Withens

Wet Withens Chair Stone

For me, Wet Withens is the most elusive of the three circles – it took me three trips before I found it! Located on a gentle slope overlooking the River Derwent, the stones are mostly hidden in the heather, but there are a few large ones. The photo shows the largest stone, called the ‘Chair Stone’ (because of the ledge cut out of its face). Notice the similarity in shape of the top of the stone with the outline of Higger Tor on the horizon behind it. In the book, Wet Withens is linked to the development of feelings.

Bull Tor

Roughly at the centre of the triangle is a hilltop by the river Wye called Bull Tor, and in The Dancing Circles, this is the central place of the triangle, where the journey leads after building strength in the body, opening the mind, and developing the feelings. In the book, Andy’s teacher Tom talks about the people who started the journey and built the stone circles:

“For them, life was hard, dealing with pain, death and suffering. They had to look to their bodies to stop them getting ill. They had to learn about time and how to use it, because life was short. They had to learn to see through pain and suffering to the meaning behind it all. So they learned to join themselves to the land, to what came before and to what was to come. They learned to make themselves part of something, to see their short lives as a part of something bigger so that no matter how short, each life was part of the big plan. And they had to pass this down to the next generations so that each knew of their part in that bigger world. Their feelings of anger, hate, and love meant nothing by themselves. They just come and go like life comes and goes. If it’s not joined to something bigger, it means nothing at all. But if those feelings can be joined to something bigger, it can make them grow so someone can have feelings bigger than themselves. When that happens, all the pain and suffering can be put up against the bigger feelings and can have a meaning. The meaning in everything becomes clearer. There is still and always will be pain, but like life, it will come and go. The world can be faced.”

The Dancing Circles, p.148

Notes and Links:

The Dancing Circles: An extraordinary journey to a different way of living, Andy Leaver Davies, ISBN Dancing Circles Publishing (6 April 2021), 978-1838487515. Available on Amazon:

The Bull Ring on Megalitihic.co.uk

Arbor Low at English Heritage

Wet Withens at stone-circles.org.uk

The Wearing of Horns 2 – Ram’s horns

I’ve been experimenting with the idea of wearing horns as a way of connecting with different states of awareness, and activating different parts of the brain. In my last post about this, I looked at antlers; today it is the turn of the ram. If left alone, ram’s horns are not shed like antlers but the horns grow throughout the lifespan of the animal, and eventually they may form a full spiral. These are different from the horns of goats which usually grow backwards from the skull.

The idea of a horn that curls around your ears is an old one, and the natural spiral is one of the most obvious in nature to early mankind. Sheep are one of our earliest domesticated animals, and the ram is traditionally the undisputed leader of the flock. In a fight for supremacy, competing rams would butt heads in shows of strength, and to show dominancy over the flock.

My main interest in the ram’s horn is that the imaginary wearing of these horns is a way to encourage deep listening. The ram’s horn was possibly one of our earliest instruments, and there is also something haunting about the sound made by the blowing of a horn, the most basic of ways to amplify the human breath. It survives still as a call in hunting, where the simple hunting horn is still used as a signal to riders and hounds. Despite its limitations of tone, many different signals can be given with this instrument in the right hands.

14th Century hunting horn players. Reproduction from a book by the French hunter Gaston Phoebus (Febus) count of Foix (1331-1391), showing a group of hunting horn players. Picture from the SciencePhotoLibrary

Just ‘Google’ ram’s horn, and the sound of it is enough to awaken some deep recognition of the call.

The word for “horn” in French is “cor,” and in Italian “corno” originally meaning an animal’s horn, directly expressing the animal origins of the horn. The word survives in the word ‘cornet’ and in our designation in the orchestra of the ‘horn section’. The British still find echoes of this in the brass band, that most quintessential sound at rural fairs and fetes.

Ram’s horn (Wikipedia)

The ram’s horn has long been used as a way to summon people to meet. In the Basque Country there is an old practice of blowing the horn from five mountains once a year. These mountains are called the montes bocineros, or ‘hornblower mounts’. Up until the late 16th century the people were summoned to the General Council in the town of Guernica by the blowing of horns from the summits. Biblical ‘trumpets’ were probably ram’s horns and survive in the Hebrew shofar, the horn used in various ritual calls to prayer.

In Irish myth, the goddess Brigid, a member of the tribe the Tuatha de Danann and the daughter of The Dagda was the owner of Cirb — king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland — including the seven legendary magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These magical sheep were able to produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman and child in the world. So the ram and its horn was associated with plenty, both in the Irish myth and in other cornucopia myths. Many of these myths have the quality of infinity embedded in them – of the ‘never-ending’ ; never-ending food, never-ending riches.

Once a sound is begun, it keeps on reverberating, though it may now be inaudible to our limited ears. The waves of sound are continuing. A sound from long ago is still reverberating now. I have found this a helpful idea to sit with, as I stretch my hearing sense to listen during contemplation.

The ram’s horn signifies the hunt, the summons, the alertness and readiness of the sheep before it was domesticated. Put on the horns and heed the call.

The Diamond Mirror and the Four Worlds – Part 1

The diamond mirror is a map of our faculties, based on the experience of explorers. It’s an interpretation and a simplification of what is actually there, so that we can get a grasp on our own experience as we explore the range of being human for ourselves. The map is not a substitute for the experience but it helps us organize it and understand where the experience is coming from.

My life as a ghost

We usually operate with only a small part of our capacity. We see what we expect to see and repeat learned actions without thinking very much. I’m a modern-day hunter-gatherer. I go to the supermarket and I walk around, looking for the things on my shopping list and putting them in my basket. Then I queue up, put my shopping onto the conveyor belt, pack it away, and pay the bill. But how aware am I of the other people in the supermarket? They have their own lives and shopping lists, but I’m not really interested in them unless there’s something unusual about them. It’s like we’re ghosts in each other’s worlds. And how much attention do I pay to the process of packing up my shopping? I’ve got my particular method. The heavy stuff goes in the hessian bag, and the cold stuff in the plastic bag, squashy stuff at the top. I don’t think about it that much. I’m usually thinking about something else, like what I’m going to have for dinner. It’s almost as if I’m not there.

Of course, all this is a choice. I can choose to be more aware of the other people and I can pay more attention to what I’m doing. Try it sometime. How does it feel to be more present? How long can you keep it up for? What takes you away from being present?

In order to work with the mysteries, you need to be present.

Mindfulness practice can help us become more present. For example: https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/

The Familiar World

Most people, most of the time, live in quite a small, familiar world, a slice of reality that we’ve learnt about over the years, the home of ‘I’. It’s like a bubble we’ve built around ourselves, a bubble of perception we’ve learnt to deal with, a place of supermarkets, phones and clothes, flowers, friends and nights out, woods and seaside and stories. It’s made of everything we know about. We need the familiar world. We’d literally be like newborn babies without it, struggling to make sense of our perceptions and not knowing how to act. But it’s not all that there is.

Being more present can help us to be more aware of how we operate in the familiar world. We begin to see factors at work, such as conditioning and associations.

On the way to Bull Tor

Conditioning

Conditioning is the set of habitual patterns and learned responses to things, built up over the years, often accidentally, sometimes useful and sometimes not. For example, when I’m going to the supermarket, I usually take the same route. It’s not necessarily the best route, but it’s the one I found when I first went there. The good thing is that I don’t have to spend energy thinking about how to get to the supermarket every time I go, but on the downside, maybe it’s not always the fastest route.

One of the main problems with conditioning is the way that it limits the way we see things.

I sit watching a tree blowing in the wind, but that’s my conditioning. I try to watch without conditioning, and I see the tree alive, moving, and I feel its movement on my skin, hear it talking. Is this true seeing? Conditioning wants me to say yes or no, but if I say neither what happens then?

Associations

The associative or formative mind is the system we use for a lot of our thinking. This level of mind is organised by links or associations between different memories, in the form of feelings, thoughts or sense impressions. One thing leads to another. The associative can work well in some circumstances. For example, in the supermarket I see some lemons and a whole bunch of associations fire off – kebabs, aubergine, hummus, celery. My associative mind is thinking about what to have for dinner. The operation of the associative mind can be seen sometimes when we are trying to be mindful, and sit and watch the thoughts that come and go. When you realise you’ve drifted off, you can often trace back the steps by which you became distracted.

Sitting watching the pond, and a bird calls. Is that a Chiffchaff? Maybe it’s one of the Iberian Chiffchaffs that all those bird watchers came to see. That couple conducting the bird survey last month were nice. Maybe I should join the group. Do they meet in Surbiton? I’ve got to go there tomorrow. When do I have to be there? *I remember what I’m doing, and go back to watching the pond*

Watching the pond

The usual way the mind works in the familiar world is through a kind of flow. It works automatically, using conditioning and associations, linking one thing to the next so that our thoughts flow in a misleadingly named ‘stream of consciousness’.  

I can be more aware of what I am doing and where I am (being present) through for example practicing mindfulness, but only for a few moments, and then I am carried away again by the stream.

Interaction

It is possible to be more aware of the raw interactions we have. I can try to be aware of sense data for example, before it is processed by conditioning and starts to trigger associations. By maintaining awareness I can try to act on a different level.  This is not entirely unfamiliar. For example, sometimes when I wake up and open my eyes there’s something in my field of vision, but I don’t recognise it. It takes a few seconds for it to click that I’m looking at a chair. This can also happen when you’re out and about and maybe see or hear something but can’t place it. That moment before pigeon-holing the impression has a different quality. Scary perhaps, but full of potential and energy.

I’m out walking in the dark, in the woods. I can’t see much at all, but every now and then a shape or a rustling sound triggers a fear reaction. My body is alert, I am aware of my breath. I half see something and my mind wants to identify it: is it an animal, a branch, another person? Can I hold back from making it into one thing?

Night walk

Eating is another good field of practice for getting to raw interaction. Usually I gulp my food, not really paying much attention – perhaps reading or watching TV at the same time. If I try to pay more attention to the eating, I can literally get more out of my food.

Meaning

Another way of extending the familiar world is to become aware of a level beyond associations, where instead of being taken by the flow from one association to another, we can step back to watch the associations a little bit. We can sometimes see this in dreaming. A dream can take us from one scene to another, following associations seemingly at random, but sometimes there is some pattern behind the dream, a meaning which can perhaps be difficult to put into words. Maybe there’s one character in the dream that has a particular quality, or maybe a situation that seems to be significant. We can also use this level to create meaning in writing poetry.

I used to have many dreams about tidal waves, where I would be by the sea, and then suddenly a huge wave would rush in, swamping everything, including me. I kept a dream journal partly so that I could learn more about this type of dream. It seemed to me that a dream that repeated must be significant. After a while, the dream began to change.

To be continued…

Once Upon a Time – the Birds of Rhiannon

Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”. These three legendary birds, traditionally ravens or blackbirds, are connected with Rhiannon the Queen of Dyfed who is thought to be a British horse goddess, in the Welsh mythology of The Mabinogion. Rhiannon herself possesses various magical powers, so one might expect her birds to be harbingers of her presence. Like all winged creatures the birds of Rhiannon evoke ideas of freedom from the tethers of the earth.

Timeshifters

The singing of the birds of Rhiannon also alters the passing of time – making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed. One of their other qualities is that when you hear them they can be remote but the song sounds close by, or they can sound near when they are far away, thus their song has the effect of distorting time and space, or perhaps it is vice-versa and the loss of time and space creates their song.  

In one of the stories, the chief giant Ysbaddaden sets Culhwch, our hero, a number of impossible tasks – tasks he must perform before he will bestow the gift of his daughter Olwen’s hand in marriage. One of these quests is to bring him the birds of Rhiannon, to soothe him with their magical song on the night before his death. For Ysbaddaden is doomed to die on his daughter’s wedding night and lose his kingship, so he hopes Culwhch will fail, that she might never marry, and he might live. The birds are retrieved, although the tale does not explain how. An earlier and fuller version of the tale may possibly have been lost. The birds seem to be associated with the transition time between the living and the dead, the inference being that you may hear them at this liminal time. The fact they have the power to wake the dead, or put the living to sleep speaks of their ability to draw attention to a person’s shift or change of state.

Photo by Natalia Yakovleva on Unsplash

Three Birds, Seven Years

The birds of Rhiannon are also mentioned in the second branch of the Mabinogion, in the tale of Branwen. After the war against the Irish, the fatally wounded British king orders his seven surviving men to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London to bury it as a form of national protection. Are the tower ravens that still protect the Tower of London, a reminder of the protective birds of Rhiannon?

Before setting off, the seven survivors feast at Harlech for seven enchanted years, (seven often being the number of enchantment) whilst they are serenaded by the three birds of Rhiannon. Although Rhiannon’s name is not given it is likely that the three birds in this passage are the same as the ones described in Culhwch and Olwen story.

“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.’

Birdsong

The sound of birdsong is ancient, and speaks to us without language. I am reminded of the birds of Rhiannon whenever I hear the song of the blackbird in my garden. To hear the birds of Rhiannon you have to be in a place where you are free to really listen.

The birds from the trees upon the hill

announce, as they will and have since

they began to sing, the new millennia.

~

For what is new is only old tempered

by wind of changing circumstance.

~

Cry Jubilee unheard: the Lord shall

hear your song and speak it to the

wind. The birds will sing it then as now.

Three Realms

spirals4

The blessing of heaven, cloud blessing,
The blessing of earth, fruit blessing,
The blessing of sea, fish blessing.

The first three blessings from The Story of the Finding of Cashel.

There are many ways to organize our view of the world. One that I like is a division of the world into three realms – the sky above, the earth below, and the waters around us. I find this a useful way of picturing things and placing myself in the landscape.

When I’m out in nature I try to become aware of where I am standing – the sky extending above my head into the unknown, the hidden depth of the earth under my feet, and my place on an island, surrounded by sea on all sides. A proper awareness of the three focuses attention on the here-and-now and fosters stillness.

I imagine that in the olden days, when people dug ditches around holy places, it was so that the place would seem more like an island, and so encourage a more direct awareness of the three realms at that place.

It’s also possible to work with each realm individually, exploring its qualities and finding places, stories and objects that resonate with it.

Sky – the realm of light

What are the qualities of light? In the daytime light defines everything around us, the uncertain possibilities of darkness laid to one side. It has a quality of contact at a distance, openness and great space. Look up into the sky and you see a long way. At night you see light from stars and galaxies across the universe. The sun is our main provider of light, energy and warmth, and indirectly food for everything living. High places are the place of light, where we can see far to the horizon.

Holyhead, Anglesey

Waters

The sea is the great water, trackless, powerful, deep and fertile. Its power cannot be resisted. The cycle of water makes mists, rain, lakes, rivers and springs. There is no life without water. It alone bring motion. In the abstract water is flow and balance, a spiral energy, connecting one thing to another. A whirlpool in the sea, a tornado or the spirals of a galaxy are the work of the waters. Sitting by water there is usually sound – waves breaking or the roar of a fast river, or a gurgle, splash or drip. Sometimes a voices can be heard in the sound.

Port of Ness, Isle of Lewis

Earth – the underworld or fields of space

Beneath our feet, the earth is a largely hidden realm of darkness and quiet, and yet it anchors us down, and provides the material for our bodies. We can approach it through caves, and man-made caves such as barrows, cairns and dolmen. Sometimes in the darkness there might be treasures to be found, and strange half-living shapes to be touched. The great classical mystery religions were centred around the descent into the underworld and our life after death. In the abstract, the underworld has a quality of fields – not only the field of gravity that holds the planets in relationship, but the electromagnetic fields which at the smallest scale mediate physical contact, and at the largest scales form the cosmic web which links the galaxies. Its nature is substance and influence.

Porth yr Ogof cave

If you want to work with the three realms, a good starting point is to spend some time in places which resonate with one of the three realms. Maybe find or make an object which can symbolise that realm. Read (or write) stories or poems about the realm. It’s also a good idea to work with all three together. Ask questions. For example, which god or goddess might belong in each realm? How do the three realms work together to make a tree? What in you reflects each of the three?

Standing Stone

This is Mayburgh Henge.

It survives as a single standing stone within a circular depression, around which is an impressive bank made of river pebbles culled from the nearby river. When you see the scale of the embankment, you realise just how much effort has gone into dragging that tonnage of river pebbles to the site. The site dates to the end of the Neolithic period or the beginning of the Bronze Age, which makes it about 4,500 years old.

Aerial view via English Heritage

No one knows exactly what this site was for. We can only look and imagine. But from historical records we know there were more standing stones here, and that the site was built near a spring and the confluence of the rivers Eamont and Lowther.

Map of 1769

The single remaining stone is like a spindle at the centre – and the large depression forms a navel in the landscape, which curves in towards the site on all sides. The stone is taller than a man, and is exactly at the centre of the circular boundary.

It is single, embedded in the earth, yet pointing up to the sky.

The stars have turned around this axis over millennia.

It occurs to me that this is like the thoughts that are always circling around us, ready to take root.

The thoughts don’t belong to us, though sometimes we mistake them for ours. But we can let them pass, just the way this standing stone lets the turning of the stars pass. Lifespan after lifespan, it has been a witness to the ever-changing sky.

One of the attractions of this standing stone is its aloneness, its stillness and its silence.

The stone cannot speak.

Yet it stands for something.