So, I’m finally out of book jail and able to start up this new blog; the manuscript of my most recent book* is now complete and in the hands of the publisher. Book jail is a concept that’s been circulating among my author friends; it is that place where one voluntarily locks themselves away from other people, events, and activities (including, sometimes, those that are otherwise required to function in everyday life … I’m looking at *you* scary-huge pile of laundry!) in order to complete a book project.
The irony has not been lost on me that as my time in book jail was coming to a close, I was writing about Mabon, Pryderi, and the concept of the Divine Prisoner. It is an interesting thing to consider that this motif is something that was so impactful, there was an entire cultus built around the figure we believe to be the originator of this archetype – the Gallic God Maponus, whose name means “Divine Youth” or “Divine Son.” Through the mechanisms of cultural diffusion and inheritance of tradition through generations, we not only see his cultus spread from the continent and thrive in the furthest Northwestern extent of the Roman Empire, often in his Gallo-Roman syncretic form of Apollo Maponus, but we also have multiple examples of mythic reflexes showing up in British and Arthurian lore and legend. Mabon, for example, is the Welsh reflex of Maponus, and is known to us from early Welsh literature including Culhwch and Olwen, which is the earliest extant Arthurian prose tale.
In Culhwch and Olwen, we learn that Mabon was stolen from his mother Modron, whose name simply means “Divine Mother”, when he was only 3 days old. No-one knew if he were alive or dead, and if alive, where he had been hidden. The warriors of Arthur’s court take up the cause to find Mabon as part of a larger quest they have embarked upon. They inquire of the Oldest Animals — the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Redynvre, the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the Eagle of Gwern Abwy — seeking Mabon’s whereabouts and each, more ancient than the last, had not heard of him. Finally, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, the oldest animal of all, bears Arthur’s men Cai and Gwrhyr upon his shoulders and up a river to a house of stone in Caerloyw, the modern Gloucester. Upon hearing terrible cries from within, Gwrhyr asks who is lamenting, and receives this reply:
“Alas sir, he who is here has reason to lament. It is Mabon son of Modron who is imprisoned here, and no one has been so painfully incarcerated in a prison as I, neither the prison of Lludd Llaw Eraint, nor the prison of Graid son of Eri.” (Davies, 2007, pg. 205)
With this, Arthur’s men summoned all of the king’s warriors to attack the fort where Mabon was being held, until finally Cai broke down the stone wall, freeing the prisoner at last.
Mabon’s imprisonment is further attested in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (The Triads of the Island of Britain)** which is a medieval compilation of Welsh legend and history grouped thematically into sets of three; these triads were believed to have been used as mnemonic devices for bards and poets. As such, it is a rich trove of lore from a culture that, for the most part, maintained its commitment to orality until about the 10th or 11th century. As a consequence, the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (TYP), which is sometimes also referred to as The Welsh Triads, contains references to cultural tales which have been lost to us — but also permits us to know that there were similarities in that lost tale to the other stories referenced in the same triad. One such triad addresses the Divine Prisoner mytheme:
Triad 52 – Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain: Llyr Half-Speech, and Mabon son of Modron, and Gwair son of Geirioedd. (Bromwich, 2006, p. 424)
Similarly, the Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn), an Early Welsh poem believed to date as far back as the 9th century tells us:
3. Equipped was
the prison of Gweir
in the Mound Fortress,
4. throughout the account(?) of
Pwyll and Pryderi.
5. No one before him
went into it,
6. into the heavy blue/gray chain;
a faithful servant it held.
7. And before the spoils of Annwfyn
bitterly he sang.
This portion of the poem reflects back to Triad 52 as well as to the First Branch of Y Mabinogi, which tells in part the story of Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon. Like Mabon, Pryderi is stolen from his mother’s bed as a newborn. Six nurses were charged with his keeping, but they all fell asleep, and awoke to the horror of the missing infant. Conspiring against Rhiannon, they frame her for the baby’s murder, and she is sentenced to a bizarre punishment by her husband, Pwyll. For seven years, Rhiannon is to sit each day upon a mounting block outside of the gates of town; there, she is to tell each traveller the story of how she destroyed her child, and then to offer them a ride on her back into the court. Most people were said to refuse her offer, and she did this for many years. In the meanwhile, the missing infant was discovered in the doorway of the home of Teyrnon, a local lord, who was a vassal of Pwyll. He and his wife named the baby Gwri, and raised him as their own, until one day Teyrnon heard the tale of Rhiannon’s punishment, and realized how much Gwri looked like Pwyll. They brought the boy to Pwyll’s court, and relayed the story of how the baby had been found.
Teyrnon turned to Rhiannon and said, “this is your son, my lady. And whoever told lies against you are wrong.” Rhiannon replied. “what a relief from my anxiety if that were true!” and it is from this utterance that Pryderi, from the word pryder, meaning “anxiety”, received his name from Rhiannon. (Davies, 2007) The family is thus reunited, and Rhiannon regains her rightful place as Queen.
Pryderi is considered a reflex of Mabon, just as Mabon himself is cognate to Maponus, both of whom transition into the later Arthurian materials as well, appearing in the guises of Mabonagrain, Maboun, and Mabuz — all of whom also have story lines associated with imprisonment. These interlocking tales illustrate a powerful point: that the separation of the son from the mother represents a primal wound so strong, it is embedded in our cultural and mythic memory. But what is it that makes this mytheme so poignant? Why is it something that transcends space and time, to evolve and shift, and yet to remain so enculturated? Who is this Divine Prisoner?
The answer, not hard: The Divine Prisoner is each of us.
He is that part of ourselves that has been parted from our Divine Mother. We are imprisoned by this disconnection in so very many ways: whether it is the literal removal of the Female Divine by the predominant monotheisms of our time; or the damage done by Patriarchy that oppresses women, devalues women’s work, and punishes any behaviors in men that are considered to be “feminine”; or our culture’s overarching value of what is logical and empirical over what is emotional and intuitive; or our subjugation of this planet and reducing all who dwell upon it or within it as resources to be exploited … anywhere the metaphor takes you is what is true. It is the magic of myth that is it universal enough for everyone to see themselves in it, and yet personal enough that we can use it to better understand ourselves and our struggles.
That said, there is no denying that our primal separation, in a very literal sense, is that of the child from the mother, that we are transitioned from a place of safety, warmth, and comfort into a new world where, even in the most gentle of circumstances, there is shock and confusion which comes from suddenly being separate and distinct, set adrift in a sea of experience for which we did not yet have the neural connections to process or understand. As we grow and adapt to life in this world, our conscious, intellectual selves are constantly seeking to make sense of our environment, and for many of us, this is the part that has learned that we are separate, that we are alone, and that we are left to fend for ourselves. Some parenting philosophies model this from the very beginning — don’t immediately respond to a baby’s cries, they admonish, lest the child become spoiled. Don’t sleep with them… isolate them in a crib. Don’t hold them too much… instead push them in a stroller, keep them in a baby bucket, rock them in a cradle… The stress on individuation comes much too soon in our society, in my opinion, and I think we do ourselves a great injustice.
It’s this bootstrap mentality that permeates Western culture, that forces each successive generation and even each individual to have to make it on their own, without the ethic that we should be lifting each other up. We have accepted the lie that we must be independent rather than interdependent. We live in a society that values logic over emotion, knowledge over wisdom, judgement over empathy, and individuality over collectivity… rather than seeking the balance of both. This is not to say we should not be our own person; rather, we must learn to honor our inner sovereignty while also acknowledging that it is in the collective good to honor the sovereignty of others as well. We are in a prison of our own making: culturally, psychologically, and spiritually. We need to reunite with the Mother… to develop emotional maturity, and cultivate a sense of the circle… in the most literal through to the most metaphorical of senses.
The Spoils of Annwn is considered the precursor to the Grail Quest; in the poem, Arthur and his men seek out the Chieftain’s Cauldron which is warmed by the Breath of Nine Maidens. Like Gweir, one of the Exalted Prisoners, this wondrous cauldron is to be found in one of the Fortresses of Annwn, the Celtic British Otherworld… an Otherworld that we can access through the doorway of our own unconscious. Like the grail, this cauldron brings bounty; it nourishes what has withered, and permits the Wasteland to be renewed. But it does not boil the food of a coward, the poem warns us; one must seek the Vessel of Healing by undertaking that inner journey… by partnering with the deep unconscious, by reuniting once more with the Divine Mother.
For it is we who hold the key to our personal prisons, with its bars formed out of fear, out of the belief that we are unworthy of love, or of honor, or of respect. We have accepted that our needs are irrelevant, that our intuitive selves are too “woo-woo”, and that our instincts are wrong. And as much as we seek to be upheld, to be loved, heard, witnessed, and cared for — we need to consider the Mother who also suffers from our separation — She who holds our unmet needs, our unvoiced questions, our unresolved emotions, our disconnect from our inner power.
At this time of turmoil, we are called to reassess our priorities and in many ways, because of this, the wisdom of the Mothers is returning. By learning to honor the emotional self, striving to heed our instincts, seeking to take personal responsibility for our lives, building a sense of trust in the Village, consciously forging bonds of community, and embracing a sense of living in respectful balance with the Earth, we help to facilitate that most beautiful of reunions: The Divine Mother, in joy, once more holds her Divine Child… and we become a humanity that is whole once more. Sometimes we need to call in the troops … to call upon all of our inner resources, and seek out the support of those around us as we come into our changes … in order to break down the wall that has kept us prisoner for so long.
What we gain — the ability live a life of freedom and authenticity — is worth every moment of the struggle.
* Rhiannon: Divine Queen of the Celtic Britons for Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series.
** The Trioedd Ynys Prydein, translated and annotated by Rachel Bromwich is an indispensable resource if you are drawn to Brythonic Paganism/Polytheism or early Arthurian Tradition. It is just recently back in print and easily available — and affordable; I easily paid over a $100 for this book about six years ago, and was happy to have found a copy to do so! Perhaps the elusive pursuit of out-of-print source materials will be the topic of a future blog.
Bromwich, Rachel, ed. and trans., Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads (Cardiff: University of Wales Press 2006).
Davies, Sioned, trans., The Mabinogion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Higley, Sarah, (trans.), Preiddeu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn, The Camelot Project 2007