Great to have Caitlin Matthews here to discuss her two books "King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land: The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion" and "Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain: Hero Myths in the Mabinogion". I have always had an interest since my youth of Arthur and Merlin. Then the Mabinogion always drove a curiosity in me to learn more about it. So most assuredly a perfect opportunity to divine knowledge regarding all of the above. Presenting.
1. In both your books by Inner Traditions which are "King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land: The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion" and "Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain: Hero Myths in the Mabinogion." Could you go into what both of these books represent to you knowledge wise?
CM: These two volumes are a breakdown and reader’s guide to the mythic undercarpeting of the Mabinogion, the British myths. In Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain, the first volume, I look at the Four Branches, or foundational stories of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawyddan and Math, as well as the great compendium story of Culhwch and Olwen. Although it’s not part of the Mabinogion, I also look at The Story of Taliesin. Through this first volume, I’m looking at the young heroes whose lives have a similar coda to that of Mabon.
In the second volume, King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land, I explore the other texts: the pseudo-histories of Llydd and Llefelys, the Dream of Rhonabwy and Maxcen Wledig, the three Arthurian romances of Lady of the Fountain, Gereint & Enid and Peredur (which are paralleled by Chrétien de Troyes’ French stories.) In this volume, I trace the footsteps of the Goddess of the Land and her role in these stories.
2. So who exactly is the Mabon and what is his story and what does this being represent?
CM: Mabon ap Modron means ‘Son, son of the Mother,’ so it’s a title not a personal name, just as Kore and Demeter mean ‘daughter and mother.’ Mabon is the impossibly distant figure who was born of Modron and ‘stolen from between his mother and wall when he was only three nights old.’ This happened in a mythic past so remote that no human alive can recall it. He has to be found in the story of Culhwch and Olwen because he is the lynch pin to the destruction of the terrifying Twrch Trwyth, a massive boar, which is symbiotic with chaos and destruction.
Culhwch wants to marry the giant Yspaddaden’s daughter, Olwen, and is set many impossible tasks, including the finding of Mabon. Fortunately, in his band of helpers, Culhwch has the help of a translator who can speak the language of animals. He asks the oldest animals on earth to help them find Mabon, starting with the blackbird and is passed back and back in memory to a stag, an owl, an eagle and finally a salmon who leads the heroes to Caer Loyw (the Shining Fortress) where Mabon is released. Despite the many aeons that have passed, Mabon is now a young man, not a hoary ancient and he fulfils the task that enables Culhwch to marry Olwen.
Here the frame story is less important than the figure of Mabon who holds his place as the primal divinity of innocence, heroism and renewal. Romano-British inscriptions to Mabon or Maponos have been found throughout the country. Lochmabon in Scotland is named for him, as is Rhiwabon in Wales. The youthful spirit of Mabon pervades the stories of the protagonists of the Four Branches and of Taliesin. He represents the poetic student who goes into the houses of darkness to bring back the vision for the people, as I showed in my book King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, which is a study of the key poem, Preiddeu Annwfyn, or the Spoils of the Underworld. I regard this last book as the completion of my Mabinogion duo and as its final key.
3. Could you tell us what the Mabinogion is and some history behind it and the author of it?
CM: We do not know who wrote the Mabinogion, which of course is a name that was coined by Lady Charlotte Guest who in 1847, with the help of two clergymen, made the translation of portions of the medieval Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch in which these myths are told. No-one imagined that this country could have such treasures, since books in Welsh were beyond the cynosure of most scholars in England. One scholar posited recently that these tales were written by Princess Gwenllian of Deuheubarth (d.1136), daughter of Grufudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, but there’s not been much enthusiasm in the academic world for this theory. The stories are already transcriptions of transcriptions of orally told bardic myths, in most instances.
4. The movie Excalibur is my favorite King Arthur film of all time from John Boorman. It certainly helped nurture my love for Merlin the tales of the Knights of the Roundtable. I enjoyed the new tv show Camelot as well. Why do you think these stories are so timeless and appeal to us so much even today?
CM: The Arthurian legend gains power like a river picking up tributaries as generations succeed. Starting as a native British story, it becomes the narrative of the British defiance of Anglo-Saxon invasion and is taken up by the Normans in Britain and France as a heroic web of tales that justify their own colonization and shore up their chivalry. As Europe takes on the sacred task, as it saw it, of liberating the holy places of Palestine, the cauldron myths and Arthurian quests are quilted into the Christian struggle, in a highly unofficial sense. As the longest running soap, on one level, it seems that no-one could quite bear for the story to come to an end and so successive writers and storytellers make their own. The Arthurian river flows on into our time with some of its myths intact but more often the colouration of the middle ages has changed it. Script writers who don’t understand the mountains from which these stories flow often make a poor hash of the myth: it has been bowdlerized for children, blunted by ignorance and poured into thimbles, yet, whatever is done to it, we want these stories with a thirst that is undiminished because they are essentially primal waters. I always urge you to go and read original stories because you will be better refreshed.
5. King Arthur is the King of the Land and pretty much the embodiment of the son of God on Earth during these times to me. In your own eloquent words how would you describe King Arthur metaphysically and historically what do we know of him?
CM: Arthur has the components of a semi-divine being like Heracles: he is a mortal man with human failings, he consorts with heroes of human and otherworldly kind, he visits the otherworld and is visited and gifted by it. He is not one figure but an amalgam of many different visions. John and I wrote about this shifting portrait in King Arthur: History and Legend, published by the Folio Society. Any historical Arthur figure of 5-6th centuries was already in receipt of heroic legends that predated that time, which is why the Mabon underlay is so important. He is a guardian of the land on behalf of Sovereignty, which is why we remember that he will come again when the land needs him. Everyone in Britain knows this fact. This doesn’t necessarily mean a man called Arthur will be reborn but that the spirit of Arthur comes again.
6. Merlin has always definitely been my favorite. Would you share some of your knowledge with us about Merlin and what he and his magic represents?
CM: Merlin does not appear anywhere in the Mabinogion texts. He is a figure who has two antecedents: as Myrddin Sylvestris, the battle-fatigued war-leader of Northern Britain and as Myrddin Emrys of what is now North Wales, the wise youth who has a Mabon underlay. These two separate mythic images fused together in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth who takes Nennius’ chronicle about Myrddin Emrys and conflates it with the mad Myrddin Sylvestris of northern tradition. After this outing, other writers took up and developed the story, notably Robert de Boron who developed a whole back history and introduced the Nimue episode of fooling the wise man into seclusion.
If there is any figure who more represents the druidic role of adviser and shaman, I cannot think of one. In the later medieval stories, he is the overarching intelligence and architect of the Pendragon dynasty. He seems to live outside time, an aspect of his character that T.H. White wrote up in his Once and Future King where Merlin lives backwards and youthens.
7. Who are some other Guardians of Celtic Britain that you can share with us that you find very alluring?
CM: Sovereignty or the Goddess of the Land is clearly one of the most ever-present and underwritten guardians of all. She shows up in the guise of many otherworldly women who appear to test the heroes, to annoy and frustrated them and urge or even harangue them to fulfil their quests! Of course Britain is a mother-land and its genia or spirit was recognized by Rome as Britannia – a figure who is still on our coinage on the 50 pence coin. In Ireland, the Goddess of the Land was called Flaitheas, or Lordliness, and was the bestower of kingship to the rightful candidate who was expected to work closely with her, as in a marriage. Arthur and other characters in the Mabinogion make this contract and their lives are a living out of it.
8. How about some of the tools of divinity in the legends like the Holy Grail and Excalibur. What do you feel they represent to us now even in this modern age spiritually?
CM: The Grail and Excalibur are part of the regalia of Sovereignty and are but two of the Hallows or holy things that do not belong to the heroes who get to wield them but belong to the Goddess. The Hallows are not tools but, in the words of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, rather they are ‘sources of unspeakable power!’ Those who’ve seen the film will testify to the Nazi-shrivelling abilities of the Ark or, as we call it in our house, ‘the Shekhina-effect.’ You don’t mess with the Hallows, clearly! They are guarded powers for good reason and cannot be commanded.
This is why Excalibur has to be thrown back into the lake and not passed on as an heirloom – it has to be won again in another time by another warrior. This is why the Grail or Cauldron is found, only to disappear again or be withdrawn. In every age, the Hallows resurface and those who are fit to wield them with responsibility are called forward.
They are not objects to be dug up by archaeologists, nor metal-detected or put in a museum. They live in the otherworld. This doesn’t mean to say they are gone for good or in the past: when the time is right, they activate once more. I would like to emphasize that the Hallows are not for personal use; they operate in a more systemic way for community purposes. When there is sickness of spirit, there we meet wasteland, and that’s when the dreams and visions of the Hallows reactivate the seekers to quest again. It’s not like winning a medal or an award to be the instrument of the Hallows: they changes lives, transfigure selfishness, consume in a sacred and sacrificial way those who offer their service.
9. In the stories of the Knights and Arthur who would you consider absolute embodiments of the divine feminine and the goddess? And where does Morgan le Fay the villain fit in metaphysically speaking when it comes to divine feminine?
CM: The medieval restatements of the Arthurian myth were of course unable to comprehend the older concept of feminine divinity or power. To a chivalric age, women and the feminine were subservient to male concern. The divine feminine shows itself in many ways in the Arthurian legend: Guinevere or rather Gwenhwyfar as she originally is, is not a human woman but cloak of Sovereignty, someone with a faery (and I don’t mean the mini winged lot) background. She is obviously an embodiment of Sovereignty from all the successive stories and myths because she is abducted times without number: knights who want the land for themselves.
The Morgen of Geoffrey of Monmouth is obviously an otherworldly faery woman who is a healer. She stems from the older Morrigan who superintends the dead, oversees the victory, punishes enemies and the unworthy. The later medieval Morgan le Fay arises because writers cannot conceive of a powerful woman who isn’t evil – vide Disney cartoon stepmothers! Morgan is complex, has other motivations. The recent trend in dramas and novels to make her the mother of Mordred is interesting, because of course, his mum is Morgause in medieval story. Marion Zimmer Bradley began this trend and lazy others have followed in her steps; she polarised the pre-Christian and Christian worlds in her book. The story that show up the older role of Morgan in the Mabinogion is the Lady of the Fountain and the Dream of Rhonabwy.
10. What are you up to next book wise or project wise and any departing wisdom or story you'd like to share with us about the Arthurian legends mentioned in this interview before you depart? Thanks.
CM: I‘ve just finished The Enchanted Lenormand Oracle, as I’ve been working a lot with historical cartomancy over the last few years. Lenormand cards have been around for the last 200 years and are a generic 36 card deck that has been used all over Europe, though is little known in the English speaking world. This is out in October 2013. I’m working on a Lenormand workbook that will work with any pack. John and I are just enjoying the launch of the Steampunk Tarot: Gods of the Machine, a futuristically-retro tarot, showing to the world that we don’t just live in the ancient past!
Also coming, I have The Book of Ancestral Welcome, which is a handbook for those trying to interface with ancestors and a book about divination. John and I are hoping to get some books out on Kindle as we are tired of the present publishing war of attrition that has attempted to limit some of our projects and ideas. Over the last 15 years, I have done more teaching than writing to keep the traditional oral and out there. People can see my program at www.hallowquest.org.uk. I’ll be in US probably in April/May 2013, so check my movements.
Caitlin Matthews is the author of over sixty books, including Celtic Visions, Singing the Soul Back Home and Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom. She writes in fields of metaphysical non-fiction, poetry, fiction, folkstory and myth, as well as writing for children. She is internationally renowned for her research into the Celtic and ancestral traditions, and is one of the foremost exponents in the creative metaphysical field, with a deep understanding of the spiritual path. As co-founder of The Foundation for Inspirational and Oracular Studies, dedicated to the unwritten sacred arts, she teaches courses on a wide variety of esoteric and spiritual subjects worldwide, working with communities and spiritual institutions. Caitlín has a shamanic practice in Oxford, dealing with soul-sickness and ancestral fragmentation; working primarily through sound, she sings the soul’s essential nature, tracking it through the client’s story and bringing it homeward.
Website for courses, books etc: www.hallowquest.org.uk
My blogsite: http://caitlin-matthews.blogspot.com/
My UK Amazon page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B000APC1TS
Storytelling Cards: www.storyworldcards.com
Wildwood Tarot Primer: www.thewildwoodtarot.blogspot.com/
Jeffery Pritchett is the host of The Church Of Mabus Show bringing you high strange stories from professionals in the carousel of fields surrounding the paranormal.