Sunday, 10 July 2011

Isle of Glass (2)

The Abduction of Guinevere Part VI
Throughout Arthurian Romance  Guinevere is commonly portrayed with two weaknesses; her love affairs with Arthur's best knight, and very susceptible to being abducted.

Conclusion: City of Glass?
In a gloss at the end of  Caradoc of Llancarfan's Vita Gildae, the author attempts to explain the etymology of the British name for Glastonbury, Ynisgutrin as the City of Glass:

“Glastonia was of old called Ynisgutrin, and is still called so by the British inhabitants. Ynis in the British language is insula in Latin, and gutrin (made of glass). But after the coming of the English and the expulsion of the Britons, that is, the Welsh, it received a fresh name, Glastigberi, according to the formation of the first name, that is English glass, Latin vitrum, and beria a city; then Glastinberia, that is, the City of Glass.”

We find a similar reference in the Welsh poem the Spoils of Annwn which describes a raid on an Otherworld Isle, citing various names for the Otherworld as a supernatural stronghold, described as a poem providing an opportunity for Taliesin to provide a "glittering kaleidoscope view of the Otherworld." [8] In this poem we find the third name listed for the Celtic Otherworld as 'Caer Wydyr', the 'Fortress of Glass'. This is compatible with the accounts of Chrétien de Troyes and the Historia Brittonum we have seen above (Isle of Glass Part I) which refer to a glass tower on an island.

The association of Glastonbury with the Isle of Glass is based on a false etymology of  the name Ynisgutrin which looks suspiciously like an attempt to explain the English name in the British tongue. In fact there is very little evidence for a pre-Saxon presence at Glastonbury and we must bear in mind that Caradoc of Llancarfan was writing for the monks of Glastonbury, his prime objective in this passage is to explain why the Abbey acquired great estates in ancient times. [9] Indeed, the name of the Somerset town defies a satisfactory etymology and it was not until the 12th century that it became associated with the realm of the Celtic Otherworld of Avalon.

Fabulous Voyages
As we seen above (Isle of Glass Part I), all the accounts of a journey to the Otherworld that feature in Preiddeu Annfwn (Spoils of Annwn), the  Second Branch of the Mabinogi (Mabinogi of Branwen), Cuwlwch and Olwen, and the Vita Gildae (Life of Gildas) appear to possess remnants of a now lost common origin of an ancient Celtic voyage myth. This episode, prominent throughout Welsh Celtic mythology is reminiscent of the early Irish Immrama, the fabulous Voyages in which they literally go Island hoping through the Otherworld.  Indeed, many consider the Spoils of Annwn should be grouped in the same category as the Voyage of Bran, the Voyage of Mael Duin and the Christianised The Voyage of Saint Brendan.

The 10th century tale of the Voyage of Saint Brendan (Navigatio Brendani) commences with a Saint Barrind telling of his visit to the Island of Paradise, which prompts Brendan, a 6th century Saint, to set off on his legendary quest for the Isle of the Blessed (St. Brendan's Island). The tale introduces us to St Barrind, the Christian Saint remembered in Ynys y Barri (Barry Island), a peninsula in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. St Barri, is the 6th century disciple of Saint Cadoc who forgot to bring the Saint's reading matter with him on a journey from the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel. He was sent back to retrieve it but he drowned on the return journey. He was buried on Ynys y Barri, the ruins of the chapel in Friars Road is dedicated to him.

This Saint Barrind is no less than the prototype of Barinthus, the pilot of Arthur's death barge who guides Myrddin and Taliesin on their voyage to 'The Fortunate Isle', introduced to the Arthurian cycle by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini, c.1150:

Julia Margaret Cameron
from Tennyson's Idylls of the King 1875
“The island of apples which men call 'The Fortunate Isle' gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. 

There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. ….......... And men say that she has taught mathematics to her sisters, Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.

“Thither after the battle of Camlan we took the wounded Arthur, guided by Barinthus to whom the waters and the stars of heaven were well known. With him steering the ship we arrived there with the prince.... .. "[10]

It is often assumed that Geoffrey may have obtained his Barinthus from the Voyage of Saint Brendan, with his role that of the ferryman, a Celtic Charon. However, it has been argued that Geoffrey based his Barinthus on an earlier tradition in which he was god of the sea and the Otherworld. [11] The Life of St David reveals a pre-Geoffrey Celtic tradition of St Barri which cannot be a mere adaptation form the Latin legend of Brendan. The tale reveals how one day St Barri borrowed a horse from St David and rode it across the sea from Wales to Ireland, suggesting that Barri must have been riding a sort of fish or sea-horse. Rather an odd thing for a Christian saint to do.

We find similar accounts in Irish mythology in which Manannán mac Lír, is featured riding on a sea-horse across the ocean between Ireland and Wales, although what appears to be the sea to men is to Manannán the flowering plain of Mag Mell. [12Surely the tale reveals that Barri was in all probability originally a Celtic sea god, like Manannán, who became Christianised as a Saint. This is a common trait of the early Saints Lives and other Celtic literature. Barintus may therefore be an epithet, such as the Irish Barrfind, or Finbarr, which means literally 'white-topped'[13] As we have seen previously, the denotation of 'white' implies Otherworldly connotations, usually applied to a deity. [14]

Indeed, a more appropriate name for a god of the sea would be hard to find. It seems highly probable that Barintus, or Barri, was in origin a sea-deity and consequently an early Celtic god of the Land beyond the Waves. The Barintus episode fails to form an integral part of the Voyage of Saint Brendan, as is common in typical Celtic Otherworld voyage tales, he appears briefly at the beginning as an Otherworld messenger who suggests to the Hero the idea of the voyage. [15]

However, while the immrama, the name derived from Middle Irish literally 'rowing out', refer specifically to supernatural sea voyages, they tend to be Christianised accounts, which seems at odds with the accounts discussed above, the Spoils of Annwn, Voyage of Bran and so on, which are overtly pagan. The same must be said of the abduction of Guinevere from the Vita Gildae and the similar episode from the early works of Chrétien de Troyes.  This appears to be mainly due to the misnomer of Immram Brain (The Voyage of Bran).

Essentially the immrama are not strictly concerned with the Otherworld; although they contain supernatural elements, they are firmly set in the Christianised world with a Christian hero. The Voyage of Bran, although named as such, is not an immram but belongs to a group of older tales recounting an excursion to the Otherworld, collectively called 'echtrai'  in Old Irish. The story of Bran's voyage probably became confused with that of Brendan the Navigator (Navigatio Brendani), and the term immram became attached, incorrectly, to Bran's story. [16]

Saint Brendan
The echtrai then are specifically concerned with the adventure of a hero in the Otherworld. As we have seen above with Barrind, a god or goddesses often calls the hero to the voyage, which leads him to one of many Otherworld locations which are not always an island; within hills, beneath lakes or the sea, on islands in lakes or off the coast, or a hall chanced upon during the night but vanished the next day. Evidently they can only be attained by men at particular times. [17] Barrind, Barintus or Barri bears much in common with Manannán mac Lír, who in the echtrae is often the deity of the sea and patron of sea travellers, and the goddess of the tale typically one of his daughters, who are usually bearing a flowering silver branch of apples, as an indicator of their Otherworldy status.

The point of the echtrae is either to lure a hero to the Otherworld  for eternity as a husband for one of the goddesses or to impart some form of wisdom unto the hero. Only the chosen return from the echtrai, and those who return against the will of the gods usually perish, having found that they had been away for hundreds of years. [18] The echtrai are amongst the oldest Celtic tales of supernatural adventures, dating to at least the 8th century, the product of the Celtic imagination at it's most creative. Indeed, the Irish Otherworld adventure tale Baile in Scail (The Ectasy of the Phantom) has been considered a precursor to the episode of the Grail castle. [19] The heroes of the echtrai are typically sovereigns borrowed from other mythological cycles portraying the close relationship between ancient kings and magic; generally the greater the elements of magic, the older the tale.

Caradoc of Llancarfan's account of the abduction of Guinevere as contained in the Vita Gildae betrays traces of an Otherworld adventure, belonging, with the likes of the poem Spoils of Annwn, a Celtic supernatural excursion. As noted above, the Celtic Otherworld location does not necessarily have to lie over the sea, although this is compatible with the belief system of an island society. Indeed, in Middle Welsh, if the location of Annwn is mentioned at all, a place beneath the earth, the abyss, is often favoured, [20but not exclusively so, for it can be over, or under, the sea. Essentially, the Welsh Annwn seems to be a single realm which can be entered from many places on earth and sea. [21] 'Caer Wydyr', the 'Fortress of Glass' is crucially part of that realm.

Whereas, we cannot rule out the possibility of influence from the Greek Persephone myth, in later medieval Arthurian Romance, carried by pilgrims returning into western Europe along the route of the First Crusade in the early 11th century, it is not necessary in the account of the abduction of Guinevere as all the elements were already in existence in the much earlier Celtic Otherworld adventures.



Waters of Wisdom
The supernatural journeys possess the commonality of crossing water to attain the Otherworld, regardless of the location; a motif which we see echoed throughout Indo-European mythologies. On the way to the Otherworld, souls of the dead had to cross a river, the waters of which washed away all of their memories. But these memories were not destroyed, they were carried by the river's waters to a spring where they would bubble up and could be drunk by other, favoured individuals, initiates who would receive inspiration and become infused with supernatural wisdom as a result. [22]

The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin, 1883
We find the motif of drinking from the well of wisdom throughout North European mythologies, one of the best known is the Norse Mimir's Spring, which interprets as the 'Spring of Memory'. Typically, Mimir's Spring is located in the Otherworld, drinking it's waters imbibes supernatural wisdom, it is connected to a river that flows from the Otherworld. Odin sacrificed his eye to drink from these waters in order to gain wisdom.

There can be little doubt that these many voyages to the Otherworld were in origin a quest for such wisdom:

You will find a spring to the left of the house of Hades,
And standing beside that is a white cypress.
Do not approach close to the spring,
You will find another, flowing cold water
From the pool of Memory, before it there are guards,
Say: “I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my lineage is of Heavenly.
You must see this yourselves.
I perish and am withered with thirst. Give quickly
The cold water flowing from the pool of Memory.” 
And they themselves will give you to drink from the divine spring,
And thereafter you shall reign among the other heroes. [23]

7.  The Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan, from Two Lives of Gildas by a monk of Ruys and Caradoc of Llancarfan. Hugh Williams, translator. First published in the Cymmrodorion Record Series, 1899. Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective.
8.  Marged Haycock, Taliesin: Legendary Poems, CMCS Publications, 2007, p.434.
9. James P Carley, Arthur in English History, in The Arthur of the English, ed. WRJ Barron, University of Wales Press, 2001, pp.47-57.
10. The Vita Merlini, Translated by John Jay Parry, 1925. Parry notes that the description of the Fortunate Isles comes largely from classical tradition such as can be found in Isidore, but adds that Geoffrey also seems to have been influenced by Celtic legends of the Otherworld, as a land of paradise. Parry quotes a significant passage in Pomponius Mela, De Situ Orbis, III, 6, which reflects the ancient Celtic tradition. Parry also notes the similarity to The Gesta Regum Britanniae (Deeds of the Kings of Britain), written at some time between 1235 and 1254, and attributed to a Breton monk, William of Rennes, which, although later in date than the Vita Merlini may represent an independent tradition. The Gesta is fundamentally an adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and retains Geoffrey's overall structure, but expands upon some elements, possibly were William had access to traditional Breton sources that Geoffrey omitted. Significantly, following Wace, in his account William omits the Prophecies of Merlin section of the Historia.
11.  Arthur C L Brown, Barintus, Revue Celtique, XXII, 1901.
12.  Francesco Benozzo, Landscape Perception Early Celtic Literature, Celtic Studies Publications, 2004, pp.3-18.
13.  Arthur C L Brown, op cit.
14.  The Abduction of Guinevere, Part IV: White Phantom, Arthur's Otherworld Possessions.
15.  Arthur C L Brown, op cit.
16. Mary Jones, 'echtrae', Jones Celtic Encyclopedia.
17. John Carey, The location of the Otherworld in Irish tradition, First published in The Otherworld voyage in early Irish literature, ed. J. Wooding, Four Courts, 2000, pp.113-119.
18.  Mary Jones, 'immrama', Jones Celtic Encyclopedia.
19. John Carey, Ireland and the Grail, Celtic Studies Publications, 2007, pp.15-26. Carey notes that the similarity between Baile in Scail and Chrétien de Troyes Story of the Graal was first suggested by Roger Sherman Loomis in Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance in 1926.
20. John Carey, The location of the Otherworld in Irish traditionop cit.
21. Patrick Sims-Williams, Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 56-59.
22.  Bruce Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice, University of Chicago Press, 1991.2
23.  Ibid. Instructions for the post mortem journey found on an inscription on a gold plate discovered in a grave in Petelia, southern Italy, third century BC. The thin plate was rolled into a cylinder, inserted in a sheath and hung around the neck of the deceased.

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