The Enduring Power of Myth

Forest pigs

In 2007, I paid a visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, where I was living at the time. One of the exhibitions fascinated me. It was dedicated to the hill tribes of South-east Asia, whose cultures span Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. One of the display boards gave an overview of the belief systems of the the tribes, and I was struck by the fact that some of the tribes’ origin myths indicate that they once lived in Siberia.

It’s hard to decide which is more astonishing – the slow migration over millennia from the frigid wastes of Siberia, through China, to their eventual home in the forested hills of Thailand, or the fact that despite the long ages of movement, and the huge variation in the environments where the tribes had lived, their myths remained unchanged, preserving the folk memory of their first home.

It’s with the same sense of awe that I read reports in the media of a new archaeological discovery earlier this year (2019).

Scientists examining the remains of pigs consumed in Neolithic feasts near Stonehenge discovered something astonishing: most of the pigs eaten had not been raised near the feast site in southern England:

The researchers also analysed pig teeth and bones found at Marden and West Kennet, both in Wiltshire, and Mount Pleasant in Dorset. Their work suggests that live animals were being brought from north-east England, west Wales and the south-west of Britain. (The Guardian)

Some participants travelled hundreds of miles from Scotland, northeast England, the midlands and Wales to significant ritual locations in what are now Wiltshire and Dorset.

[…]

The main meat consumed at these ceremonies was pork – and the new evidence, therefore, demonstrates that participants were expected to contribute pigs from their different home areas around the country.

The conclusion is that Stonehenge-era Britons had some sort of “national” intercommunal or pan-tribal identity, as well as presumably their local tribal or clan ones. In that sense, the megafeasts may well have represented the birth of Britain as a cultural or even geopolitical or ideological concept. However, what is not known is whether any such potential concept continued through time – or was, more likely, merely transitory. (The Independent)

From the point of view of Druidry, this rings two very significant bells.

First of all, it makes clear that the ancient tribes of Britain, in the Neolithic period (which, according to Wikipedia ran from circa 4000 to circa 2,500 BCE) acknowledged some kind of central authority which would bring them from all over the island to gatherings at sites of importance – though whether it was political, religious, cultural, or a mixture of all three remains unknown. What’s more, they all brought pigs to feast upon – pigs which, the archaeological evidence indicates, were brought live, to be slaughtered on-site.

Why is this important? Caesar, in The Gallic Wars, notes that the Druids of Gaul:

assemble at a fixed period of the year in a consecrated place in the territories of the Carnutes, which is reckoned the central region of the whole of Gaul. Hither all, who have disputes, assemble from every part, and submit to their decrees and determinations. This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it. (De Bello Gallico, Book 6, Chapter 13

So: the Druids in Gaul had an annual gathering of the tribes, under the authority of the Druids, where disputes were resolved. This was understood to be a British custom, copied by the Gaulish tribes. Did the Gaulish tribes bring pigs to the gathering? We don’t know. If they did, perhaps Caesar didn’t know, or perhaps he didn’t realise it was significant. We’ll have to wait for future archaeological research in France – but we don’t actually know where the Gaulish gathering was held, other than it was in the territory of the Carnutes (possibly Orleans, or Rheims).

The archaeological evidence now shows incontrovertibly that the British tribes did indeed gather in what must have been regarded as the centre of Britain: the area around Stonehenge. But… this was in the pre-Celtic Neolithic. This would seem to be very clear evidence that the customs of the Neolithic Britons were continued by the Celts, and very strongly suggests that ancient Druidry did indeed pre-date the Celtic migration.

Caesar tells us that those Gauls who wanted to deepen their study of Druidic knowledge went to Britain, and we know from later Roman authors that the British Druids’ centre of learning was on the island of Mona (Anglesey) – in later times, part of the kingdom of Venedotia (Gwynedd).

The archaeological evidence now shows us that the British tribes were converging from all over the island to points in Dorset and Wiltshire, home to the great henges of Avebury and Stonehenge. Thus, this was the “sacred centre” of the Island of Britain.

However…  Stonehenge contains bluestone megaliths which are known to have originated in the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire, being physically moved to Stonehenge. It has long been speculated that this represented the transfer of spiritual authority to Stonehenge from an older site.

Now… the Preseli hills are in the territory of the ancient kingdom of Demetia (Dyfed). Is there anything that would support the idea of Demetia having spiritual significance?

Well, yes there is. Of course there is: it’s in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. Pwyll, the King of Dyfed, befriends Arawn, the king of Annwn, and establishes an enduring bond between Dyfed, site of the sacred bluestones, and the Otherworld.

We get even more insights in the Fourth Branch. We learn that Arawn has given a great gift to Pryderi, son of Pwyll. What is this gift? Pigs!

Gwydion, nephew of the king of Gwynedd, decides to steal Pryderi’s sacred pigs in order to foment war between Gwynedd and Dyfed. This will force his uncle – Math, king of Gwynedd – to go forth to war, leaving his virgin foot-holder Goewin unprotected, and vulnerable to Gwydion’s brother, Gilfaethwy, who desires her.

By means of a trick, Gwydion steals Pryderi’s pigs, and drives them north to Gwynedd. (The possible significance of his route is discussed here). This has always seemed to be one of the most unlikely aspects of the tale; after all, as the Guardian tells us, citing the original scholarly paper:

Pigs are not nearly as well suited to movement over distance as bovids, and transporting them, either slaughtered or on the hoof, over hundreds or even tens of kilometres would have required a monumental effort.

So, for most readers of the Mabinogi, this has always seemed fanciful. And yet! We now know that it was really done in Neolithic times, and over far greater distances than that between Dyfed and Gwynedd.

So this is the second big insight that this archeological insight gives us. The tales of the Mabinogi seem to be telling us a story that dates back far,  far into history. It’s telling us about the movement of sacred pigs between one kingdom with a sacred centre in the Preseli hills, and another kingdom with sacred centre of learning on Anglesey. This is a tale at least as old as the tales of the Thai hill tribes. It’s a tale so old that its survival is a true marvel.

So what does this news about the pig-feasts of Wiltshire reveal to us?

  • The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi tells us that pigs were a gift to humans from the Otherworld.
  • They were given by the King of Annwn, Arawn, to the King of Dyfed, Pryderi, son of Arawn’s friend Pwyll. This friendship was established in the First Branch.
  • Dyfed, the kingdom of Pwyll and Pryderi, was the source of bluestone menhirs, believed to have formed a sacred circle there.
  • The Fourth Branch describes pigs being driven between sacred centres in Wales.
  • The bluestone menhirs were later moved to Wiltshire, and incorporated in a new sacred site at Stonehenge.
  • This sacred site was the focus of regular meetings of tribes from every part of Britain.
  • When they attended these meetings, the tribes brought live pigs with them, despite the difficulty of doing this.
  • Caesar tells us that the tribes of Gaul also met regularly at a sacred site, and says that this custom was adopted from Britain.
  • The Gaulish meeting was where Druids settled disputes. The same thing must have happened at the British site.
  • And if it happened at the Stonehenge meetings… were there similar Druidic convocations in kingdom of Pwyll and his son Pryderi, pre-dating the Wiltshire meetings?

And this is before we even consider any other associations between pigs and Druids, such as those in the poetry of Myrddin… but it’s best to stop here. We already have plenty of things to contemplate…

Update:

A more recent Guardian article reports that chemical analysis of teeth from burials at Stonehenge indicates that a) the individuals were buried at around the same time that the bluestones were moved from Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge, and b) that those individuals originally came from west Wales – in other words, very likely from Pwyll’s kingdom of Dyfed. This not only reinforces the likelihood that this was a religiously important area in Neolithic times; it also starts me wondering about the events of the Third Branch, when Pryderi, Manawydan, Rhiannon and Cigfa are forced to leave Dyfed to make a living in “Lloegr”, today known as ‘England’. Is there an older tale hidden here?

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