Thursday 13 August 2009

The Shaman and The Sorcerer: Voices of the Forest

Lud’s Church (XV)
Part One

The way is shut
It was made by those who are Dead
And the Dead keep it
The way is shut

Voices of the Forest
The Myrddin and Lailoken legends show a clear relationship to the tale of Lleu Law Gyffes from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi; following a traumatic event they all flee into the forest existing as wildmen. The condition termed as ‘wyllt’, as in Myrddin Wyllt, is derived from the old Welsh form ‘gwyllt’ meaning ‘wild, deranged, mad’, and ‘gwylleith’ = ‘madness’.

The tales of Lailoken and Myrddin are not the only accounts of ‘gwyllt’, the roots of which can be traced back to a similar primitive motif found in ancient literature such as the the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Indian tale of Rishyasninga. The Rishyasninga, meaning 'deer-horned' in Sanskrit, tells the account of a boy born with the horns of a deer who lives a solitary life in the forest. This tale appears in the Mahabharata originating from the 8th Century BC.

The story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes found in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi has been suggested as having its roots in the prototype of the legend of the Wild Man of the Woods found in the Celtic countries throughout Northern Europe. [2] 'Lleu' contains all of the essential elements associated with the stories of Myrddin and Lailoken, murder (or attempted murder), flight and recovery; elements of the tale which can also be found the story of Buile Shuibhne from the Irish texts of the Cycle of the Kings, also known as the Historical Cycle.

The Story of Suibhne Geilt
The Frenzy of Suibne is set in the 7th Century Battle of Moira (Mag Rath), a historical battle fought in 637AD near Lurgan in Co. Down. Suibhne is a vassal of Congal, the King of Ulster, and went mad during the battle and fled into the forest. The Battle of Moira corresponds to the Battle of Arfderydd and has similarities in the relationship between Congal and Suibhne to Mryddin and Gwenddolau. The Frenzy of Suibhne (Buile Shuibhne) evolved as a separate tale, in its present form dated to the 12th Century but references to the tradition of Suibhne can be found from the 9th Century. One of the contributory factors of the battle was that Congal considered himself to have been insulted when a silver dish with a goose egg placed in front of him suddenly changed into a hen’s egg on a wooden dish. This has been compared to the ‘futile’ causes of the Battle of Arfderydd ‘which was brought by the cause of the lark's nest’ as recalled in the Triads.

The story recalls how before the Battle of Moira, Suibhne had been irritated by the sound of a bell. When he found that the sound came from Bishop Ronan Finn [3] setting up a church, Suibhne stormed naked to the church, threw the Bishop’s psalter into a lake, he would have killed the bishop but at that instant he was called to battle. Bishop Ronan blessed the troops before the battle which Suibhne took the sprinkling of holy water as a taunt and killed one of the bishop's psalmists with a spear and threw another spear at Ronan himself. The spear struck Ronan's bell and broke it. Bishop Ronan placed a two fold curse on Suibhne, known as Ronan’s Curse, this was firstly, as the bell had been broken any sharp sound would send Suibhne into madness, and secondly, as he had killed one of Ronan's clerics, he too would die at by the spear. When the Battle of Moira began, three mighty shouts went out from the opposing armies:

“………when Suibhne heard these great cries together with their sounds and reverberations in the clouds of Heaven and in the vault of the firmament, he looked up, whereupon turbulence (?), and darkness, and fury, and giddiness, and frenzy, and flight, unsteadiness, restlessness, and unquiet filled him, likewise disgust with every place in which he uséd to be and desire for every place which he had not reached. His fingers were palsied, his feet trembled, his heart beat quick, his senses were overcome, his sight was distorted, his weapons fell naked from his hands, so that through Ronan's curse he went, like any bird of the air, in madness and imbecility”. [4]

From then on, Suibhne had acquired the power of levitation like a bird. Also like a bird, he could not trust mankind; people sent him mad with fear, so he fled living hungry and naked, perching on trees. After several years living as a wildman and wandering throughout Ireland, uttering nature poems (which comprise much of the content of Buile Shuibhne), his sanity was briefly restored after he was captured by his kinfolk. His mental state failed again and he returned to his wildman existence. Later he received the protection of St Moling who gave him the sacrament and entrusted his care to a woman from the parish. Unfortunately, her husband grew jealous and killed Suibhne with a spear, fulfilling the prediction of Ronan’s Curse.

The part of St Moling in the tale of Suibhne is reminiscent of St Kentigern role in the tale of Lailoken which has raised much debate as to which version came first and thereby influenced the other. An odd episode recalled during the time of Suibhne’s wanderings is his visit to the ‘land of thee Britons’. Suibhne came to a great forest were he encountered another wildman similar to himself, lamenting and wailing. The British madman explained that he was known as Fer Caille (Man of the Woods) but his name was Alladhan. Again, this account is strikingly similar to the story of Lailoken who had done the same sitting on his rock while St Kentigern held mass. The two wildmen became friends and lived together for a year in the forest. The story associates Suibhne with a place called ‘Dun Rodairc’, (The Fort Of Riderch) which is clearly the historical 6th Century king Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde associated with Myrddin and Laiolken. [5]

The name Alladhan has been explained as being possibly derived from ‘allaidh’ meaning ‘wild’ and similar in meaning to geilt or gwyllt[6] It has also been suggested that the name Lailoken was assimilated to allaidh by the Irish writer of the Buile Shuibhne who may have seen both Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini and the Lailoken material [7] which would indicate the route of transmission of the original tale.

An extended account of Suibhne’s madness (geilt) is included in a later 14th Century version of the Battle of Moira, in which he sees phantoms and demons:

“…horrible aerial phantoms rose up, so that they were in cursed, commingled crowds tormenting him; and in dense, rustling, clamorous, left-turning hordes, without ceasing; and in dismal, regular, aerial, storm shrieking, hovering, fiend-like hosts constantly in motion, shrieking and howling as they hovered about them in every direction………from the uproar of the battle, the frantic pranks of the demons and the clashing of arms………Suibhne was filled and intoxicated with tremor, horror, panic, dismay, fickleness, unsteadiness, fear, flightiness, giddiness, terror and imbecility; so that there was not a joint of a member of him from head to foot which was not converted in to a confused, shaking mass, from the effect of fear, and the panic of dismay………his very soul fluttered with hallucination, and with many and various phantasms…. ”. [8]

The parallels in these stories from Northern England, Wales and Ireland are quite obvious: Shuibhne , like Lailoken/Myrddin predicts his own 'dihenydd'[9] there are conditions or stages to each punishment, adopting bird-like behaviour with flight to the forest (or tree tops) and ultimately it is a spear that strikes the final blow. Even the term for these madmen is similar in both languages; the Welsh wildman being known as ‘gwyllt’ and the Irish being ‘gelt’ (geilt) from the Old Irish word meaning ‘he who goes mad from terror’ the condition being known as ‘geltacht’.

In the Irish Mirabilia a definition is given for the term ‘gelt’:

“It happens that when two hosts meet and are arranged in battle-array, and when the battle-cry is raised loudly on both sides, cowardly men run wild and lose their wits from the dread and fear which seize them. And they run into a wood away from other men, and live there like beasts and shun the meeting of men like wild beasts. And it is said of these men then when they have lived in the woods in that condition for twenty years, that feathers grew on their bodies like birds, whereby their bodies are protected against frost and cold,…………Yet there swiftness is said to be so great that other men cannot approach them and greyhounds just as little as men. For these men run along tress almost as swiftly as monkeys or squirrels”. [10]

The two Myrddin poems in the Red Book of Hergest both contain references to 'mountain ghosts' who he blames for his madness.

Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer ('The Conversation of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd'):

Since mountain ghosts have taken my reason
And I myself am full of thoughts--

After Beli, his son Iago.

Since mountain ghosts have taken your reason,

And you are filled with thoughts--
Who will rule after Iago?

Gwasgargerdd fyrddin yn y Bedd, ('The Diffused Song of Myrddin in the Grave'):
The mountain ghosts come to me,
Here in Aber Carav

This is confirmed by the following passage from Afallennau in which Myrddin states he is amongst spirits:

“Fifty years the plaything of lawless men
I have wandered in gloom among spirits

After great wealth, and gregarious minstrels,
I have been here so long not even sprites

Can lead me astray.. .. ’

In Wizards and Wildmen Part III - Magicians and Madmen we saw how in a line from the Afallennau a mysterious figure known as Hwimleian appears: Hwimleian foretells, The tidings will come”, translated as ‘Disogogan Hwimleian’ this is reminiscent of Myrddin’s first appearance in literature; in the Omen of Britain we have the line: "Dysgogan Myrdin ..." (Myrddin fortells).
The Hwimleian also appears twice in the Oianau (Greetings).

Hwimleian (sometimes given as Chwimleian) is usually translated as ‘pale wanderer’ is yet another word for a spirit, which can also mean supernatural night-wanderers. The Hwimleian seem to possess occult knowledge from the Otherworld and pass on prophetic tidings to Myrddin. As a later development of Myrddin’s companion in the forest, the hwimleian, has come to be associated with the female fairy, the Lady of the Lake, Viviane of medieval Arthurian Romance. Viviane’s name originated variously as Niniane, Nineve, Nyneve, and as Nimue she has a connection with the sacred groves or nimidae, which associates her with Diana, the Roman goddess of the wild places.

The hwimleian, the spirits of the Myrddin poems, are the source of the wizard's prophetic inspiration and therefore must possess access to otherworld occult knowledge not accessible to Myrddin himself. It is a well known concept that psychics and mediums throughout the ages obtain access to the otherworld through a spirit guide.

An essential function of the shaman is to obtain information by consulting with the gods and to retrieve the spirits of the departed.

Continued in The Shaman and the Sorcerer Part II - The Feathered Cloak


1. Recited by the King of the Dead, in J. R. R. Tolkien's Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter 3, The Muster of Rohan
2. Lleu Wyllt : An early British prototype of the legend of the Wild Man?, A E Lea - Journal of Indo-European studies, 1997, vol. 25, no1-2, pp. 35-47.
3. St Ronan was Abbott of Druim-ineascluinn (modern Drumiskin) in the County of Louth.
4. Buile Suibhne (The Frenzy of Suibhne) being The Adventures of Suibhne Geilt - Author: unknown, translated by J. G. O'Keeffe. CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, University College, Cork.
5. John Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age Britain, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1997, p.lxxvii, footnote.4.
6. AOH Jarman, The Merlin Legend and Welsh Prophecy in The Arthur of the Welsh, University Of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1991, p.129.
7. AOH Jarman, Ibid p.130 (see end note 32).
8. John O'Donovan - The Banquet of Dun Na N-Gedh and The Battle of Magh Rath: An Ancient and Historical Tale, Published by For the Irish Archaeological Society, 1842. Available through Google Books - Digitized 2006.
9. W J Gruffydd in his masterful work Math vab Mathonwy: An Inquiry into the Origins and Development of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Cardiff, 1928, uses the term 'dihenydd' to describe the manner of Lleu's death, modern meaning = 'end, death, execution' with associations of 'dienyddio = put to death, execute' and 'dienyddwyr = executioner'.
10. Kuno Meyer: On the Irish Mirabilia in the Old Norse Konungs Skuggsjd "Speculum Regal” - Eriu, Vol. IV. 1910, pp. 11-12.
11. Afallenau – Appletrees, The Black Book of Carmarthen

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