Monday, 23 December 2013

Mabon and the Solstice

The Exalted Prisoner
In the Book of Taliesin poem Preiddeu Annwn1 and the tales included in Culhwch and Olwen 2 and The Four Branches of the Mabinogi 3 we find the common theme of a raid on the Otherworld involving a magic cauldron and release of an exalted prisoner, with only seven returning in two of the tales.

Preiddeu Annwn is a sea-borne raid to release the exalted prisoner and retrieve the cauldron of the chief of Annwn from the Otherworld by Arthur and his entourage. The first stanza recalls “the prison of Gweir in Kaer Sidi, throughout the account of Pwyll and Pryderi.” Pryderi is one of the seven survivors, along with Arthur and Taliesin, which holds similarities to the tale of Branwen Daughter of Llyr in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi which tells of a raid on Ireland.“The account of Pwyll and Pryderi” features in the First Branch.

Gwydion illustration from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi
Tales of Mabon
The collection of medieval texts initially edited and translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the early 19th century was published as “The Mabinogion”, although the name first appears in the Cambrian Register of William Owen Pughe in 1795. However, the term 'Mabinogion' is somewhat of a misnomer yet it has persistently adhered to this collection since Guest popularised it. The collection usually consists of the 'Four Branches of the Mabinogi', 'The Three Romances' and 'Four Native Tales'. Guest's collection also included the Hanes Taliesin. Pughe argued that 'Mabinogion' meant ‘juvenile tales, tales written to while away the time of young chieftains’. However, the term Mabinogi should correctly only be used to describe the Four Branches.4

Although The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are dated c.1060-1120, it is generally accepted that they preserve much older material, remnants from a complete cycle of tales centred on Pryderi, who appears in all four branches although he is not always the central character; Pryderi is born in the First Branch and dies in the Fourth. However, the term “Mabinogi” is usually translated as "tales for youth” derived from "mabon" or "meibon", meaning a boy, young man or youth.

Alternatively, Eric Hamp has argued that the term mabinogi has nothing to do with 'youth' 'boy' or 'son' but is a collective of material pertaining to the ancient deity Maponus, 'the Divine Son', of Matrona 'the Divine Mother'. Thus, the term Mabinogi may also mean "tales of Mabon". Mabon is a character who appears in the native British tales included in Guest's Mabinogion collection; the exalted prisoner in How Culhwch won Olwen and briefly in The Dream of Rhonabwy, as one of the chief counsellors of Britain.

Hamp concludes, that the Mabinogi is so-called because it contains material derived from myths of the earlier Brythonic deities, such as those reflected in the names Rhiannon, 'the Divine Queen,' and Teyrnon, 'the Divine King' of the First Branch.5

Rhiannon and Pwyll have a son which is stolen. The boy is found in  in a stable in another part of the country by Terynon, who named him Gwri Golden Hair (Gwri Gwallt Euryn) and is raised away from his family, his true identity unknown. The boy grew at an alarming rate, and when his foster father Terynon went to Pwyll for another matter he realized that this was the missing son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, at which point he was returned to court and his name changed from Gwri to Pryderi. If we accept Hamp's argument then the abducted child Gwri/Pryderi of the Four Branches is synonymous with Mabon.

The Prisoner of  Caer Loyw
Also included in the Mabinogion compilation is the tale of 'How Culhwch won Olwen', the oldest Arthurian tale. Culhwch is the most archaic text in the Mabinogion collection and one of the most important texts in the study of the Arthurian cycle. In this tale we again find Mabon, stolen from his mother when three days old, and held prisoner at Caer Loyw, (Gloucester), said to mean the of "city of light." He can only be found by asking the oldest animal. Mabon is said to be a great hunter and his release is essential in hunting the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth.6

The Black Book of Carmarthen poem 'Pa gur yv y Porthaur?' (What man is the gate-keeper?), is told as a dialogue between Arthur, the leader of a war band, and Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr the porter (gate-keeper), bearing close parallels to Culhwch's attempt to enter Arthur's court.7 The listing of Arthur's warriors in Pa Gur includes Mabon fab Mydron (Modron) described as a "servant to Uther Pendragon" and later includes Mabon fab Mellt, (Son of Ligntning), usually interpreted as the same Mabon (Maponus, the divine son) but with the added patronymic of his father Mellt (Meldius).8

The magical prisoner motif found in How Culhwch Won Olwen continues in Tryoedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Isle of Britain), where Mabon son of Modron is one of the Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain along with Llyr Half-Speech and the third Gweir son of Geirioedd.  Evidently, this account has its roots in the same story of Mabon being stolen from his mother when three nights old in Culhwch.9

Just to throw further confusion on the matter,in Culhwch, Arthur's four uncles of are invoked and all named Gweir: Gweir Dathar the Servitor, and Gweir son of Cadellin Silver-brow, and Gweir Falsevalour, and Gweir White-shaft. But oddly Mabon does not feature in the Court List in Culhwch.10

The captive held as the Exhalted Prisoner, who's release is central throughout these ancient native tales, is always named either Mabon or Gweir. This is essentially the same account that features in Preiddeu Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen and The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. W J Gruffydd 11 has argued, convincingly, that Mabon's role as the abducted prisoner is synonymous with Pryderi/Gweir (Gwri Gwallt Euryn of the The First Branch). Clearly, Pryderi/Gweir/Mabon all appear to derive from a common origin.

Mabon ap Modron is a prominent figure from Welsh literature and mythology, the son of Modron and a member of Arthur's war band. Both he and his mother were likely deities in origin, descending from a divine mother-son pairing. His name is related to the Romano-British god Maponus, whose name means "Divine Son"; Modron, in turn, is seemingly related to the Gaulish goddess Dea Matrona, the “Divine Mother”, the goddess of the river Marne in Gaul.12

As Maponus he is seen as the personification of youth. The epitome of a beardless, athletic youth, thought to represent the Olympian deity Apollo, is seen in the kouros sculptures dating from the Archaic period in Greece. Unsurprisingly, Maponus became identified with Apollo; one depiction identifies him with Apollo the Harper, but mediaeval tradition also identifies him (i.e. Mabon) as the greatest hunter in Britain, and probably also reflects Apollo's role as a hunter, Apollo Cunomaglus, literally “Hound Lord" the epithet of a Celtic god attested in south-west Britain. In the traditionally Celtic lands, Apollo was most often seen as a god of healing and the sun. He was often equated with Celtic gods of similar character, leading to a local fusion of Apollo and Maponus; Apollo Maponus is a deity known from inscriptions in Britain.

We find epigraphic evidence for the Romano-British Maponus and Matrona cults chiefly in the north of Britain and well developed in regions around Hadrian’s Wall. The cult  is attested at Brampton, Corbridge (ancient Coria), Ribchester (In antiquity, Bremetenacum Veteranorum) and Chesterholm (in antiquity, Vindolanda), such as Deo Mapono (to the god Maponos).

Place-name evidence also attests to Maponus in Northern Britain; The survival of the Mabon tradition in the area in post-Roman times is indicated by the village name Lochmaben in Dumfriesshire and the place-name Clochmabenstane near Gretna. The 7th-century Ravenna Cosmography cites 'Locus Maponi' or "the place of Maponos", thought to be between Lochmaben and Lockerbie.13

Mabon and the Solstice
There are many concordances in the story of Mabon but it is of no coincidence that the Romans equated Maponus with Apollo, a god of light and the sun.

The period of three days imprisonment appears to be significant in the tales of Mabon and the Exalted Prisoner; in Culhwch Mabon was taken from his mother when three nights old but is found and released from his prison. In a later, expanded version of the Triad, the Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain, Arthur is included as an Exalted Prisoner who spent three nights in Caer Oeth and Anoeth in an enchanted prison under the Stone of Echymeint before he was released by Goreu, son of Custennin, his cousin.14 Both Mabon and Arthur being imprisoned for three days then released.

Significantly, the tale of How Culhwch Won Olwen starts on 1st January; it can be of little coincidence that this is the time of the mid-winter solstice, the shortest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the time when the sun appears to stop its journey along the horizon before it swings-back and heads toward the mid-summer solstice, the longest day; imprisoned for three days then released.

The word solstice is derived from the Latin 'sol' (sun) and 'sistere' (to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun appears to stands still and its path comes to a stop before reversing direction.  At the mid-winter solstice the ancients considered that the sun had actually died but the sun never actually stops moving, simply the closer it gets to the solstice point the slower it appears to move. The exact time of the solstice is not easy to determine, the movement of the sun along the horizon being hardly detectable with the naked eye when it's moving at its slowest; observations would need to be made over a period of several days to determine the swing-back point when the Sun begins to return to the Northern Hemisphere.

Mid-winter in the northern hemisphere occurs on 21 or 22 December, when the sun appears to standstill for three days before daylight begins to increase again. It can be of no coincidence that three days after the solstice the celebration of the new Solar year begins, a celebration we now call Christmas.

Mid-Winter Solstice  sunrise at Newgrange
The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year even during Neolithic times attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned to the mid-winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the mid-winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). In Irish mythology we find the nearest parallel to Mabon/Maponus is Óengus mac ind-Óg, the 'Son of Youth'. Óengus resides in the Neolithic chambered tomb of Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), which is well known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the light of the mid-winter Solstice sunrise.

In recent times Mabon has become associated with the autumn equinox in September since Aidan Kelly attached it to the Neopagan calendar around 1970. But I can find no evidence for an autumnal Maponus or justification for this deity's association with the late summer harvest.

Mabon/Maponus, and his various identities discussed above, notably the association with Apollo the sun god, should be attached to the mid-winter solstice without doubt. At solstice the sun literally 'stands still' on the horizon for three days before it is 'released' and recommences its journey through the solar year, as in the tale of the Exalted Prisoner. Any celebration of Mabon should surely be held at the mid-winter solstice.

Mabon, the Divine Son of the Divine Mother, reborn three days after the mid-winter solstice; sound familiar?

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References
1. Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, CMCS Publications, 2007.
2. Rachel Bromwich & D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, University of Wales Press, 1992.
3. Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, Oxford University Press, 2008.
4. Proinsias Mac Cana, The Mabinogi, University of Wales Press, 1977.
5. Eric P. Hamp, Mabinogi,Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1974–1975, pp.243–249.
6. Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch.
7. Patrick Sims-Williams in ‘The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems’, in Rachel Bromwich et al, The Arthur of the Welsh: Arthurian Legend in Mediaeval Welsh Literature, University of Wales Press, 1991,  pp. 33-71.
8. Proinsias Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, Bounty Books, 1992.
9. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, University of Wales Press; Third Revised Edition, 2006.
10. Morris Collins, The Arthurian Court List in Culhwch and Olwen, The Camelot Project, 2004 .
11. WJ Gruffydd, Rhiannon: An Inquiry into the Origins of the First and Third Branches of the
Mabinogi. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1953.
12. Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology.
13. John T Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
14. Mary Jones, The Welsh Triads - Llyfr Coch Hergest, from the Celtic Literature Collective

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  1. Fascinating post. I'd also wondered about a connection between Mabon and the Solstice, but based on the flimsiest piece of 'evidence' there is; so it's really interesting to see your synthesis here.

  2. Nicely put. Gwri's association with May Eve should also be noted.