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.


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.’


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


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


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.

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.

Working with the Abstract

Nowadays people often favour working with the complexity and variety of nature, rather than the simplicity of the abstract, but in our work we need both.

Mind strives for simplicity. It transforms our complex experience into simpler but perhaps less tangible mental images, thoughts and feelings.

At its deeper levels, beyond the rational and verbal levels, mind works with symbols and archetypes. Rich with meaning and significance, these archetypes are in some sense the pillars of mind, the building blocks of meaning.

Beyond even this, the mind works with the pure abstract – with number and pattern.

One way of working with the abstract is what we now call sacred geometry. Some of the oldest examples of this activity are the 5000-year-old stone balls found in Scotland.

Stone balls, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (via Wikimedia)

Hundreds of carved stone spheres, roughly three inches in diameter have been found over the years in Scotland. Many form regular polyhedra, and some depict platonic solids, long before the Greeks wrote about them. As to the purpose of the stone balls – no one knows. Perhaps they were used as weights, as dice for oracles, in ball games, or just as ‘prestige objects’. Or maybe the Neolithic people used them as objects of contemplation.

Stone ball from Towie in Aberdeenshire, dated from 3200–2500 BC. (via Wikimedia).

I have a replica of the Towie stone. It has four large knobs on it, each decorated with a different pattern. It forms a tetradedron – a triangular-based pyramid.

All of the stone balls are of a size to fit comfortably in the hands. I sit in the dark with the replica, feeling the shape with my fingertips. After a while it warms from my body heat. I sense the fine patterns of decoration. There is nothing to say about it, except that something in me responds to its shape. I wonder if our ancestors made a similar use of the stone.

Valley of the Ancients

Valley of the Ancients was a name I first came across on a South Wales Druid website. Described as the most holy pagan site in Wales, it has a stone circle complex and many other special places. It took a bit of exploring to find it, but it was worthwhile, and I have been back there a number of times over the years.

The valley is the upper reach of the River Tawe, which flows down to the sea at Abertawe (Swansea).

River Tawe in the Valley of the Ancients (some megaliths in the distance).

A small road runs through the valley from the A4067 in the Brecon Beacons just north of Glyntawe. On the approach from the south, you can see the Sleeping giant of Cribarth, a recumbent giant figure which guards the southern entrance to the valley.

There is a megalithic complex in the valley called Cerrig Duon (the black stones), with a stone circle, some stone rows, and some large single stones, including this one, called Maen Mawr (Big Stone). To get to the stones you need to cross the river, which is always a challenge, and I suspect dangerous after rain!

Maen Mawr

The valley runs north to Glasfynydd Forest, and to the West lay the two ‘lakes of the peak’: Lyn y Fan Fawr and Lyn y Fan Fach, respectively the source of the Tawe, and source of the legend of the Lady of the Lake.

I’m sure I’ll be back again to explore more of this special place.

Bran and the British Mysteries

This is from a talk I gave some years ago about Bran the Blessed, who features in the second branch of the Mabinogion, the Tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr

It seems to me that the story of Bran was not just put together for entertainment, and that Bran himself was more than just a fictional or half-remembered historical king. The characteristic of the old stories that interests me is their long life being passed on by word of mouth. These stories would have changed and developed as they were told generation after generation, and I think there’s a parallel here to the ‘survival of the fittest’ in evolution, so that only those stories which resonate within us survive in the long term. At some level, these stories tell a truth, which is as relevant to us now as it ever was to our ancestors.

Apart from the otherworldly nature of Bran in the story, it may well be that Bran was one of the ancient gods of Britain. As in the other stories in the Mabinogion, which were written down in Christian times, the old gods appear as kings, queens and wizards. We have to dig beneath the surface of the story to uncover some glimpses of the meaning that Bran held for the ancient Britons. My interest in doing this is not so much historical or scholarly, but to try and see what significance Bran might have for the way we live today. So what does the story of Bran tell us?

Bran’s Buried Head

Let me start from the end of the tale, where Bran’s head is buried under the white mound in London:

“And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, inasmuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.”

Bran’s head is a clearly a guardian talisman, but it is only effective whilst it is concealed under the white mount. The disinterral mentioned was by King Arthur, who according to another legend, decided that he wanted to protect Britain by his own strength alone, and dug up the buried head, which resulted in the fall of Britain to the Saxons. This episode provides a linkage between Bran and King Arthur, both guardians of Britain, and can be read as Arthur claiming for himself the mantle of Bran. We will see further links between them later.

The idea that Bran’s head was only an effective guardian whilst it was hidden in the earth gives a hint, I think, that Bran’s power is linked to the hidden depths of the earth. In a sense, he can guard the land because burying his head makes him (and his tribe) a part of the land itself.

Traditionally, the white mount is located at the Tower of London, the central Norman white tower having been built on top the white mount. Surprising there is still an echo of Bran’s guardianship at the Tower.

I don’t know how many of you have visited the tower of London, but you may know that they keep ravens there – the only place ravens now live for hundreds of miles around. And there’s a legend about the ravens, that if they ever leave the tower, then the tower would crumble and a great disaster would befall Britain. In earlier times the ravens lived there naturally, but nowadays they clip the ravens’ wings, so they can’t fly away. The fortunes of the Tower ravens reached their lowest point after the second world war, when only a single raven remained. There is a tradition that Winston Churchill arranged that young ravens should be brought to the Tower from Wales and Scotland. In any case, the ravens were soon restored, and a complement of six birds still guard the Tower. Now the significance of the raven is that it is Bran’s totem bird. His name, Bran, is the welsh for crow or raven. So the legend of Bran’s protection of the realm still remains current, and in some sense is taken seriously, at least on a symbolic level.

How does Bran’s head come to be this protective concealed talisman?

It may be that there is an element of a sacrificed king about the tale – someone who can go ahead into the land of the dead and from there provide protection and guidance for the tribe. There are clues to this in the story. The cauldron in the tale, which was originally in Bran’s care, was clearly a gateway between life and death, the difference being that the warriors returned unable to speak, perhaps a sign that they could not profane the mysteries they had experienced. In contrast to this, as Bran lies wounded, he tells his companions what will happen to them, already seeing into the future and guiding them, and then the greatest mystery: the severed head continues to speak and takes the whole company into the otherworld for their 80 year feast. Perhaps there is a parallel between the otherworld feast, and the burial of Bran’s head. The feast comes to an end when a door is opened, just as Bran’s guardianship comes to an end when his head is revealed. These episodes portray Bran as an underworld figure, rooted in the hidden secrets of the earth, but that’s not the whole story.

Bran the Giant

Remember that Bran was a giant. In legend, Britain was first inhabited by a race of giants, and they got a very bad press as being evil, cantankerous, and rather stupid, but Bran is very different in character to your typical big, stupid giant. A giant usually represents primal, earthbound qualities, and indeed this is recalled by an earlier section of Bran’s tale. When he waded through the sea to Ireland, some swineherds saw him approaching and thought it was a mountain moving through the sea, Bran’s eyes appearing to them like lakes, and his nose a lofty ridge on the mountainside. This is the traditional earthy giant, a son of his mother the earth. And yet, in most of the tale Bran has a very different character. He is generous and wise, and usually acts as a peacemaker rather than seeking war.

Bran is a different kind of giant I think – a giant in stature rather than bulk. It was said of Bran several times in the tale that no house ever built could contain him. I don’t think this just means that he was too big to fit, but that it was a kind of need that he should always have the sky open above him, so that the earth would be under his feet, and the heavens over his head. In this way, Bran the giant could always be a link between the heavens and the earth, or more to the point, Bran was a giant because he maintained this link. I feel this connection sometimes myself – when I stand outside, feeling myself grow tall under the stars, and then imagine Bran walking across the countryside, the ground shaking at his step, but with his head way up in the night stars.

Bran is to do with the hidden and mysterious, certainly, but not just with the earth. He is connected into the unseen, he works in the domain of the invisible fields that lie above and below the middle-realm that we inhabit – our familiar world of cars and shops. Like gravity, these fields permeate and influence us – but how often are we aware of them? Can you feel the earth’s gravity now, pulling you down into the earth’s embrace? But don’t forget that it is that same gravity which rules the majestic dance of the stars and planets. Physicists today identify four primordial fields from which the whole universe was built, and the only one we can directly sense if that of gravity. These fields are a scientific paradigm of the hidden roots of the world, linking everything that exists, just as the otherworld is a more human paradigm of the hidden connection between all that lives.

To return to the Tower of London – it is a rather dark and bloody place, and one can easily imagine a sacrificed king being buried there – there have certainly been plenty of executions there over the years. But amongst the military background there is a contrasting vision – the crown jewels, which are housed there now in a rather cave-like vault. There you can see the diamonds and rubies glittering like stars, treasures taken from the depths of the earth. Again this contrast reflects the connection between the earth and the heavens, and the connecting link. Bran is guardian of these hidden treasures, and we must go into the dark to find the light.

The crown jewels are not just for rich display, but are the symbols of Britain’s sovereignty, modern-day equivalents of the thirteen sacred treasures of ancient Britain. In the coronation ceremonies, the crown jewels are used, in effect, as magical instruments to bind the monarch to the land and to the people.

Bran the Bridge

In an earlier part of the tale, Bran and his men are marching across Ireland and they come to a river where the only bridge has been destroyed by the fleeing Irishmen to stop Bran crossing after them. In a curious episode, Bran says ‘he who would be a chief, let him be a bridge,’ and then Bran lies down across the river so that his armies can march over him to the other side. This saying of Bran is quoted as if it was a common proverb, and this episode is being given as the origin of the saying.

This idea of a chief being a bridge is one worth looking into. In ancient times, part of the role of the chief of a tribe was to build and maintain relationships with neighbouring chiefs on behalf of the tribe. In effect this has carried on into modern times in the guise of a passport. In the front of my passport it says:

“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let and hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

In this sense, the queen is acting as our bridge when we go on holiday to Spain!

There is also another aspect to this role as a bridge, which is of more interest to us. The king was supposed to build and maintain another relationship – one to the otherworld, which was considered the source of power, justice and fertility. The king was in some traditions treated as the consort of the land, and the health of the land was the responsibility of the king – bringing a literal meaning to husbandry of the land.

This link between the king and the land is most famously presented in the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail. In this legend, there is a wounded king whose land is a wasteland, with the presumption being that it is the king’s wound that causes the wasteland. In the first part of the story, the rather naïve knight Perceval visits the wounded king and at the evening feast, the grail is carried out in procession in front of them. Despite his curiosity about the grail, Perceval asks nothing, because a nobleman friend had warned him about talking too much in polite company. The next morning the castle is deserted, and Perceval learns that his failure to ask a question about the grail had been a terrible missed opportunity to heal the king and the land.

Another tale continues the story of the grail at King Arthur’s court. The knights were all sitting at the round table when a thunderclap sounded and the grail magically appeared in the centre of the room, spreading a fragrant scent and filling each knight’s plate with their favourite food. Then the grail disappears, and King Arthur’s knights set off in quest of it.

In these stories the grail is both a means of healing and a horn of plenty, and in the later tales it is treated as a symbol of holy spirit descending to earth. Above all else, it is mysterious and holy. It is, like Bran the bridge, a link between heaven and earth, and between this world and the otherworld.

This brings us nicely back to where we started, with Arthur, having taken on Bran’s responsibility as guardian after having dug up Bran’s head, now following Bran’s advice and seeking to be a bridge in order to heal the land.


To summarise, an important part of Bran’s story is about guardianship and kingship, centred on the importance of maintaining connections between this world and the otherworld. Bran’s head can guard Britain because of his connection with the hidden depths of the earth. As a giant, Bran provides a connection between heaven and earth, and as a king he is a bridge to the otherworld.

But we shouldn’t just look on Bran as something outside ourselves, a figure of legend, perhaps telling us a little about the duty of ancient kings. I think the story is giving us clues as to how we ourselves can live a magical life.

Let’s look Bran the giant – no house could contain him. How would we apply this to ourselves? On a literal level perhaps we might spend more time outdoors, with our feet on the earth and our heads open to the sky above. This certainly would give us more opportunity for rich perception of the world around us – more food for the spirit perhaps. On another level, we are perhaps living in houses built of our habitual perceptions and thoughts, which whilst being very convenient and comfortable, may be rather limiting. Leaving this house may let us become giants as well – stretching up into the heavens, and shaking the ground as we walk!

What about Bran’s proverb on chiefdom – let him be a bridge. I think it is quite interesting here that the metaphor of a bridge is used rather than a gate or a door. We could interpret this to say that we need to maintain an open relationship with the otherworld. We should be seeking not so much to enter the otherworld, leaving this world behind, but to keep a leg in both camps, so that we can bring the riches of the otherworld through into this world. The relationship between the two is what is important.

The final clue I think is in the story of the grail: none of this is without effort. The grail may appear to us unbidden, as it did to Arthur’s knights, but it is then up to us to join the quest and go out and find it.


Walking can be a useful technique, either as part of a pilgrimage to a special place, or just a walk by itself. Walking can be a meditative practice. When you want a special walk, be quiet and don’t daydream. It’s often best to go alone. Put your awareness on your surroundings, your breath, and your feet touching the ground – one, two, one, two… Make sure all your senses are open, and keep the attention wide.

Try to adopt a steady rhythmic gait, and empty yourself so that as you breathe, you breathe your surroundings in and breathe them out. There is no you, just the breathing and the landscape.

Sometimes it’s good to push yourself. Go further than you feel comfortable with, or walk in bad weather.

Sometimes it’s good to wander aimlessly, letting the sights and sounds draw you on.

Sometimes it’s good to sing or chant as you walk.

Slow walking is a meditative practice. Take small steps, as slowly as you can. Slower than that! Feel the weight move as you step and be aware of the moment that the weight switches from one foot to the other.