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.

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.

The Wearing of Horns

Part One – Antlers

Red deer

One of the enduring images of our British animals is that of the stag with its crown of antlers.

Antler – from the old French antoiller – ante (“in front of”) + oueil (“eye”)

Imagining you possess a crown of antlers encourages you to take your attention right out above your head and to sense and feel with the tips of the antlers. During their growth period, the deer’s antlers are very sensitive and full of nerve-endings. The deer are aware of the space above and around their heads.

In Celtic lore, the stag was a symbol for the god Cernunnos, or The Horned One. Cernunnos was often portrayed with antlers himself, and was a god of the forest and wild animals.

Cernunnos on the Gundestrup Cauldron

Horn Dance

The idea of wearing horns survives in the ancient Horn Dance of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. Not only do the horns remind us of the symbolism of strength, power and speed associated with the stag – the King of the Forest, but the dance is also interesting because of its underlying structure, which points us to something bigger with its numerical symbolism of 3, 6, 12 and the division of the horns into two differentiated sets of three. The dance was obviously designed to tell us something.

The first recorded reference to the dance is in Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686, but a carbon analysis done in the 1970’s reveals that the actual antlers used in the dance date back to the 11th century.

Nowadays the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance takes place on Wakes Monday, which is the first Sunday after 4th September, although in previous times, according to Violet Alford, a well-known folklorist, it used to be performed on Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was traditionally a day when the usual order of things was reversed, and there was a temporary suspension of societal rules and norms. On this day servants could become masters, wise men fools and vice versa.

photographer unknown

The actual ‘dance’ starts with a service of blessing in St Nicholas Church, where the horns are housed. The “horns” are six sets of reindeer antlers, three white and three dark. Since there are not believed to have been any reindeer in England back in the 11th century, the horns must have been imported but it is a mystery as to who brought them here and why, and to why they were divided into two sets of three.

There are 12 dancers, traditionally all male. Six carry the horns and they are accompanied by a musician, a man playing Maid Marian, plus the Hobby horse, a jester, a child with a bow and arrow, and another with a triangle. (The hobby horse deserves a post on its own, so more of that later.)

Many videos of the actual dance exist on Youtube. They are well worth watching to see tradition in action. Here is a personal favourite, a more abstract interpretation by the band Stick in the Wheel.

But it’s not only at Abbots Bromley that this idea can be found. The use of deer masks, fashioned from the skulls and antlers of red deer can also be found at Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire, 9000 years old.

Archaeologists’ research suggests that, rather than being used as hunting disguises, the masks were used in dances and ceremonies as part of a ritual costume.

What does it all mean? What is it trying to tell us?

You don’t need the real thing to find out. You can discover a lot by trying on the imaginary antlers for size, taking a walk in the forest, and seeing where they take you.

For the latest news about the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance go HERE

all images in the public domain or from Wikipedia.