Pwyll, Rhiannon and the Spirits of the Land

The concepts behind the workshops.

The Celtic myths and fairy tales showed our Ancestors paths for their souls to travel and ways to bring healing and harmony to the sacred Land they lived on. In the stories of the Mabinogion, humans and beings from the Otherworld form intimate relationships. Often these connections are beset by tragedy and war, but in the end, balance is restored.

Today we can still forge relationships with the Otherworld and learn how to restore balance to our lives and lands. Our visible, physical world and the Otherworld are two sides of the same coin. The Otherworld is the spiritual side of our world, and its inhabitants are the spirits of our Land. They are the forces that open buds on branches and return leaves to the Earth in winter. Their kings and queens are the Gods and Goddesses of the Land.

At the beginning of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, there is a war in the Otherworld between Arawn and Hafgan. Both are kings of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld. Arawn is a bringer of death, who hunts the stag in autumn. Hafgan means "summer song", a celebration of life. They represent the spiritual forces that change and shape our Land. These forces can be felt at many levels: in our bodies and souls, in the places where we live and work, and in the greater collective of Land and Planet. Imbalance and war between them has consequences for all worlds and all beings connected by the Web of Life.

It is tempting to think of these forces as 'good' and 'bad'. This kind of duality is hard-wired into our culture, and difficult to let go of. The forces of life and death, of creativity and letting go, are not good or bad in themselves. They just are, and our world could not exist without them.

The wonder of the story is that Arawn, the personification of deity in the Land, needs the help of Pwyll, a human. Arawn cannot restore the warring natural forces to harmony on his own. Spirit needs human help, as much as we need the blessings of Sprit, because we are all woven together in the rich tapestry of Life.

The story teaches us how human and spirit can work together to restore harmony. Pwyll and Arawn enter into a very intimate relationship. Pwyll becomes Arawn, and Arawn becomes Pwyll: they literally join forces. For the whole time that Pwyll stays in the Otherworld, the story never mentions his name. It is not clear who exactly he is. He is both Arawn and Pwyll, spirit and man, an intimate alliance of both.

In this form, Pwyll spends a year and a day in the Otherworld. It is a long apprenticeship with the Lady, who is the Goddess of Sovereignty, another spiritual force in the Land. Pwyll respects her and her husband enough to not have sex with her. He is not yet ready for that kind of intimacy with the Otherworld.

At the end of the apprenticeship, Pwyll, still in alliance with Arawn, is ready to meet his foe. This is the ultimate test. Will Pwyll deliver only one blow as he was instructed? Our hero trusts his spirit ally enough to do what is required. The alliance of human and spirit relies heavily on this kind of trust. When travelling in the realm of Spirit, humans must rely on our spiritual allies, because they know the ways of that place.

Why did Pwyll agree to enter into this relationship in the first place? Pwyll has dishonoured the Otherworld and taken the hunting quarry that isn't his. He wants to make amends. Pwyll's trespass seems small in comparison to the titanic Otherworldly war that he is asked to help resolve, yet his help is needed: there are things Spirit can't do without human help, just as there are things we can't do without the help of Spirit.

A large part of the imbalance in the hearts and souls of people in the western world is our lack of connection with the spiritual side of reality. Many of us have forgotten how to experience it. Many have even ceased to believe in it at all. People are missing a huge part of the relationship with Life that makes them whole, and that can have terrible consequences.

The imbalances that are evident in our world today may seem too great for us to do anything about. As humans in the modern western world, it is virtually inevitable that we contribute to them by the way we live. Most of us take more than we need from the bounty of Spirit every day. As Druids we long to make amends and help return harmony to the Land.

This first fragment of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, teaches us how we can do that. We can bring harmony to our lives and our world by forming an intimate relationship with Spirit, by being faithful to and respecting that relationship, and by following our allies' instructions carefully. That way trust can be restored between humans and the spirits of the Land. Because of Pwyll's faithfulness and trust, balance is restored in the Otherworld, and gifts flow freely between the two worlds for a time.

But that is not the end of the story. Because of what Pwyll has done, his title is now Head of Annwn. His status makes him a worthy mate for Rhiannon, the Otherworld queen. And her choice brings another imbalance that reverberates through the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

The story never ends. The spiritual forces that govern our world are always shifting and changing. And our task of coming into balance with them is never finished.

This article is inspired by the teachings of Caitlin Matthews, R.J. Stewart, and my Otherworld allies.
Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, translators, Mabinogion, Everyman Library, Dent & Sons, London, 1974.
Caitlin Matthews, Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain, Hero Myths in the Mabinogion, Inner Tradition International, Rochester, 2002.
R.J. Stewart, The Well of Light, Muse Press, Canada, 2004.


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