Finding myth and legend in the modern world

Painting inside the Royal Hotel Barmouth

Take a trip to Wales

One of the myth cycles I like to work with is the Welsh Mabinogion. A myth is like a storage battery that holds the ideas, symbology and wisdom of an earlier generation. It points to something bigger; something that goes beyond words and into a realm of more possibility. It untethers us from a world where we think we know reality. By studying myth and working with it, its power can be unleashed and access to its rich content can become present in our own lives.

Whilst on holiday in Barmouth recently we were astonished to find several of the Mabinogion stories painted in rich detail on the walls of the Royal Hotel by artist Mervyn Rowe. We couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay! The stories include Bran and Branwen, Ceridwen, Rhiannon and many more. The whole hotel is covered in paintings and is well worth a visit just to follow the panels of the stories and reconnect with the myths.

Above: From the myth of Rhiannon, Pryderi finds a fountain with a golden bowl fastened by four chains. Having been told by Manawyddan (son of Llyr) not to touch it, of course he does – and is promptly glued to it. On the right, Manawyddan prepares to harvest his grain, which is about to be devastated by a plague of mice. When he catches one of the fleeing mice, he vows he will try and hang the beast.

So what do these stories mean? Well, one good way to find out is to ‘stand them up’, ie to enact them. You can do this as a group, or alone. With proper awareness, these storage batteries reveal truths that perhaps were not so obvious until you see and feel them in action. Bringing them into the physical world allows us to encounter them anew.

Visit the Centre for Folklore, Myth and Magic

Todmorden has been a centre where many of the people in this tradition or associated traditions used to meet. So it was especially interesting to discover that there is now a Centre for Folklore, Myth and Magic based there. They have a cafe, a library, a place for archives and research, and also some events, mostly based around storytelling, or workshops with natural crafts. Well worth a poke around if you are in the area, and you can join their library, which holds the archives and 5000 re-homed books from the Museum of Myth and Fable. Where exactly is it? 65, Halifax Road, Todmorden OL14 5BB

You can also listen to a story being told via The Society for Storytelling. British myths have been passed on in this way informally, but also via public performances for generations. The live presence of the performer and audience in their ‘once upon a time’ can be transformative.

A Book at BedtimeTransporting Reading

There are many books about our British myths, some good, some bad, and some downright dangerous. The Mabinogion is a rich source to explore. Many re-tellings of these myths have a particular slant, a psychological approach, a feminist perspective, or perhaps an attempt at reconstructing the history, or adding more modern accretions of meaning.

With myth, it is best not to nail it to any one meaning or interpretation, but allow the myth some breathing space. With myth we are heading further into the unknown, a place where what is considered ‘normal’ can be turned on its head.

A book I can recommend to give a flavour (though not the form) of the shamanistic side of the work I like to do in the British Mysteries is The Way of Wyrd – Tales of an Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer by Brian Bates. This is a novel based on the author’s research project into the psychology of shamanism. He based it on a collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the British museum. The events and detail of the teachings that the apprentice must navigate have been reconstructed from these manuscripts, and the novel makes interesting reading for anyone engaged on this path.

When once you work with myth, the mythologizing of your own life becomes startlingly apparent, and you cannot help but begin to sense the unknowable presence that animates the story.

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.