Gwyn ap Nudd and the people of fire

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“There are the angels, and there are men, who Allah made from mud, and then there are the people of the fire, the jinn”, said Salim.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

I wrote in an earlier post about the significance of red and green when we consider Gwyn ap Nudd. The green element in the clothes worn by his courtiers represents one of his domains: the forest. The red represents the Tylwyth Teg: the Fair Folk. The red is referred to in the Mabinogi, when Peredur finds the same symbolism in the Burning Tree. Here, we see the fire of Annwn – the flame of Awen that lights up our creativity, the hearth-fire that brings the Cauldron of Inspiration to the boil.

There’s more that needs to be drawn out here, because the Tylwyth Teg, the other of Gwyn’s domains, are a people of fire in the way that humans are a people of earth.

The tale of Lludd and Llefelys tells us of the invasion of Britain by the Coraniaid, who were ultimately defeated and destroyed by Gwyn’s father, Lludd of the Silver Hand.

As I’ve discussed, the description of the Coraniaid in the Mabinogi, and the traditional description of the Tylwyth Teg collected by the folklorist Walter Evans-Weltz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries is so similar that they are clearly talking about the same race.

So who are the Tylwyth Teg? Where did they come from?

The Welsh Triads tell us: the Coraniaid came from Arabia.

Three oppressions that came to this Island, and not one of them went back:
One of them (was) the people of the Coraniaid, who came here in the time of Caswallawn (= Lludd?) son of Beli: and not one of them went back. And they came from Arabia. Source.

Some sources say ‘Asia’, but to anybody before the mid-twentieth century, Asia began at the Bosporus, and included the Arabian Peninsula, so either version works.

It’s generally accepted that the Welsh Tylwyth Teg are the same as the Irish Tuatha Dé Danann. The Tuatha Dé, however, came from the north, not the east. (The name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann‘ means the “People of Danu”. Danu is generally considered to be Irish equivalent of the Welsh goddess Dôn, which will give us some help below).

So, the Coraniaid of the Britons, and the Tylwyth Teg of the Welsh, came from Arabia, according to the oldest sources we have. Is there any record of anything like them in Arabia?

Of course there is. The similarities are so obvious, it surely cannot be disputed. The Tylwyth Teg, and the Tuatha Dé Danann are, in Arabia, known as  Jinn.

In an excellent article in Vice magazine: Who are the Jinn?Leila Ettachfini lays out some of the Arab and Muslim beliefs about the Jinn:

According to El-Zein, pagan Arabs (big believers in the occult) worshipped jinn long before Islam was introduced in the seventh century, believing that the spirits were masters of certain crafts and elements of nature who had the power to turn plots of land fertile.

This excerpt contains two significant elements. Firstly, the Arabs believed in the Jinn long before the arrival of Islam; this fits with the mythic timeline of the Mabinogi and the Triads. The second point is perhaps more subtle: crafts and agriculture are the realm of some of the Children of Dôn, Amaethon and Gofannon in particular – something I will be returning to in a future post. Nevertheless, this aspect of belief in the Jinn does establish a tentative link between them, Dôn, and the Tylwyth Teg in the same way that the Tuatha Dé are linked to Danu.

She goes on to say:

Ancient Arabs, known for their affinity for poetry, even coined the term sha’ir, meaning an Arabic literature poet who was “supernaturally inspired” by jinn, to designate poets like Kuthayyir ‘Azzah. “Poets in pre-Islamic Arabia often said they had a special jinni that was their companion,” says Mubayi. “Sometimes they would attribute their verses to the jinn.”

Music, dancing and poetry are likewise associated with the Tylwyth Teg and the Tuatha Dé Danann, giving us another correspondence. And, surely, to say that a poet was inspired by the Jinn is not that great a step from saying how a Bard was inspired by Awen? The link to the Otherworld, to Annwn, is there in both cases.

Naveeda Khan of Johns Hopkins University has more to say about the Jinn, in her paper Of Children and Jinn: An Inquiry into an Unexpected Friendship during Uncertain Times (2006):

The majority of Muslims believe jinn to be a species of spiritual beings created by God out of smokeless fire long before he created humans out of mud and to whom he gave the earth to inhabit. They are drawn to both good and evil. […] In many ways jinn are the equivalent of humans in that they are endowed with passions, rational faculties, and responsibility for their own actions (El-Zein 1996). Biologically, they eat, grow, procreate, and die much like humans.(Khan, p238)

I emphasized the first sentence to highlight that the Tylwyth Teg, being the same as the Jinn, are a People of Fire; Shining Ones, and thus the flame of the Burning Tree is absolutely, and directly, connected with them.

Humans and jinn co-inhabit the earth, however jinni haunts are primarily desolate places such as forests, ruins, and graveyards. The relations between the two may vary from mutual indifference to warfare in the distant past to relations of love and guardianship between members of both species. (Khan, p238)

Sadakat Kadri, in his 2011 book, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law, notes:

I already knew that the invisible world is considered no less subject to God’s law than the visible one, and that jurists have often had occasion to consider the rights and obligations of genies. A tenth-century writer named al-Shibli once wrote about the lawfulness of [Jinn’s] marriages with human beings, for example: although aware of unions that had been fruitful, he warned of inevitable antagonisms and urged all readers to stick to their own kind.

Kadri also records the response of a prominent Lebanese cleric and jurist, Ayatollah Mohammed Fadlallah when asked:

whether he thought it lawful to have sex with a jinn outside marriage. “It’s fine as long as you use a condom. Next question, please”.

Compare this with the Welsh legends about marriages with the Gwragedd Annwn, for example, and it’s clear that it’s the same thing in different cultural contexts.

Thus,  we learn that Jinn are just like humans but, where we are created from earth, they are formed from smokeless fire.

They look like us, behave like us, and have societies like our societies. They have laws, and kings. They are invisible to us unless they choose to be seen. They are proud, believing themselves to be an older race than humans, and superior. They are powerful, and can command humans. They age, and die, though their lifespan far exceeds ours. They are so close to us that humans and jinn can have sex, and can produce mixed offspring. They live hidden away from us, but their world and ours are connected, and it is possible to travel in either direction.

Reading further, we learn that some Jinn converted to Islam, but others did not. Certainly, there is a very great difference in the treatment of  jinn by Christianity and Islam:

Belief in the existence of jinn is considered equivalent to belief in the existence of angels, one of the primary articles of faith in Islam, and consequently, to disbelieve in them would be heretical (Khan, p238)

In Islam, the Jinn are acknowledged as being separate and distinct from both humans one the one hand, and angels and demons on the other. Being recognised as a distinct race, capable of choice between good and evil, they have been accorded rights and responsibilities in Islamic law, just as humans have (Kadri notes that when classes in Islamic jurisprudence are held, seats are left empty for any Jinn who wish to attend).

Christianity, though, did not make this distinction, and regarded the Tylwyth Teg as devils. Thus, the Lord of the Tylwyth Teg, Gwyn ap Nudd, became a demonic figure in Christian eyes, and the Tylwyth Teg themselves accorded no formal role in a broader society. Christian society was for humans only, and the Tylwyth Teg excluded.

Since the Jinn have an accepted place in Islamic society, they are perhaps better understood. What we learn is that they, and so the Tylwyth Teg, learn and change just as humans do. They are not static, fixed, or unreflective. Many Jinn converted to Islam – because, we are told, of the beauty of the language of the Koran – but others didn’t, and remain pagan. Christianity, in contrast, rejected them all, offering no place to them.

Returning to Evans-Wentz, we learn that in some parts of Wales the Fair Folk were helpful and friendly to humans; in others, they were hostile. This is just as Khan describes relations with the Jinn, and completely makes sense: the Fair Folk are not monolithic, the same everywhere. Some clans have good relationships with the local humans, others do not. But, as I noted in a previous post, they do not need to be actively hostile, though we’ve given them good enough reason: without Gwyn ap Nudd to hold them back, for most of human history they have been quite capable of out-competing us in the same way that we out-competed the Neanderthals.

Of course, the relationship has now been upset. I don’t think that either Gwyn or the Tylwyth Teg will let this lie, and this is something I will discuss in my final post about Gwyn.

The unbalancing began, I would say, with the Christian use of bells. The Tylwyth Teg are  usually invisible to humans, though not always. Evans-Wentz, for example, records a witness, Mr. John Jones, saying ‘I believe personally that the Tylwyth Teg are still existing; but people can’t see them. I have heard of two or three persons being together and one only having been able to see the Tylwyth Teg.’ Another, William Jones, “explained before the congregation that the Lord had given him a special vision which enabled him to see the Tylwyth Teg, and that, therefore, he had seen them time after time as little men playing along the river in the Pass”. In Pembrokeshire, “Only certain people can see fairies, and such people hold communication with them and have dealings with them, but it is difficult to get them to talk about fairies”.

Why can some people see the Fair Folk, but most cannot? This is only speculation, but I believe that it is a matter of ‘mental filters’. My experience of Vipassana meditation leads me to believe that modern culture fills our minds with ‘busy-ness’ – a mental tinnitus that prevents us from seeing what is actually in front of us. I propose that many people simply don’t see what is actually in front of them and around them; their minds are only dealing with abstractions.

This is nicely illustrated by an anecdote contained in John Buchan’s famous thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Although it’s a novel, Buchan drew much of his ‘fictional’ material from his real-life experiences, so I suspect that this really did happen to someone Buchan knew:

“I will tell you a tale,” he said. “It happened many years ago in Senegal. I was quartered in a remote station, and to pass the time used to go fishing for big barbel in the river. A little Arab mare used to carry my luncheon basket—one of the salted dun breed you got at Timbuctoo in the old days. Well, one morning I had good sport, and the mare was unaccountably restless. I could hear her whinnying and squealing and stamping her feet, and I kept soothing her with my voice while my mind was intent on fish. I could see her all the time, as I thought, out of a corner of my eye, tethered to a tree twenty yards away. After a couple of hours I began to think of food. I collected my fish in a tarpaulin bag, and moved down the stream towards the mare, trolling my line. When I got up to her I flung the tarpaulin on her back—”

He paused and looked round.

“It was the smell that gave me warning. I turned my head and found myself looking at a lion three feet off…. An old man-eater, that was the terror of the village…. What was left of the mare, a mass of blood and bones and hide, was behind him.”

“What happened?” I asked. I was enough of a hunter to know a true yarn when I heard it.

“I stuffed my fishing-rod into his jaws, and I had a pistol. Also my servants came presently with rifles. But he left his mark on me.” He held up a hand which lacked three fingers.

“Consider,” he said. “The mare had been dead more than an hour, and the brute had been patiently watching me ever since. I never saw the kill, for I was accustomed to the mare’s fretting, and I never marked her absence, for my consciousness of her was only of something tawny, and the lion filled that part. If I could blunder thus, gentlemen, in a land where men’s senses are keen, why should we busy preoccupied urban folk not err also?”

That has the ring of truth, and that’s why so few people see the Tylwyth Teg: their busy minds don’t permit them to see what is in front of them, substituting instead ‘placeholders’ based on “what’s normal”. In earlier times, the Celts who lived in the wakeful, risky forests of Britain, would from necessity had a clearer perception, and would have found it much easier to see, and interact with, the Fair Folk.

In meditation, one’s mind can become far more perceptive. As the busy thoughts drop away, perception becomes finer, and the mind can be drawn to fainter inputs – inputs that one would not normally process – and one starts to become aware of other presences…

This, however, is not the purpose of meditation – not, at least in the Buddhist traditions, which is where my own experience is grounded. For that reason, the leaders of meditation sessions often ring bells at intervals; the pure sound of the bell collapses the broadening field of perception, returning the sitter’s mind to their breath, and to the internal processes of their body and mind… which is what they are trying to achieve in the Buddhist context, after all.

In Celtic countries, there are many tales of Fairy courts being seen on the move, relocating to areas away from church bells. I believe that this is the same process on a larger scale: the bells collapse people’s ability to see the Otherworld. For the Fair Folk themselves, I wonder whether it collapses their ability to be in two worlds at once; perhaps they are thrown into one or the other. It must make crossing from Annwn to our world difficult; perhaps even painful.

These days, of course, there are fewer churches in use, and the sound of bells much rarer. In the meantime, though, humans have ravaged the natural world. We have destroyed the wild wood; we have covered the fields in poison. We have sanitised the burial mounds, cleaning them up as ‘historical sites’ and stripping them of mystery.

To tie all of this up, it is clear that the Tylwyth Teg and the Jinn are the same race. Like humans, they have different cultures and different beliefs in different places. The fact that Islam has accepted them where Christianity rejected them means that there is a lot of lore and knowledge about them that has been preserved in Islamic culture, and we can use that to enlarge upon what we know from Celtic lore.

Understanding their nature, we know that they are not divine; they are not pure spirits like angels. They are a very proud, very intelligent, very powerful race. They inhabit two worlds, unlike us. They have no love for us, though in local situations the relationship can be better or worse, depending on circumstances. In ancient times, humans were better able to see them and to deal with them, but their strength was such that we needed Gwyn ap Nudd to act as our shield against them.

Now, however, the balance has been upset. Christianity condemned Gwyn and the Fair Folk as devils, and gave them no place in society. The church bells drove them away and, in their absence, we destroyed the places they loved. But the Church was too successful. In time, we became materialistic. We denied the existence of the Otherworld. Where once, we needed protection, it is now us who are the destructive threat. I believe that the Tylwyth Teg are now fighting back, and that Gwyn ap Nudd is aiding them against us, to once again restore a balance. More on this in a later post.

Image credits: The black king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Aswad, from the late 14th century Book of Wonders via Wikipedia. By Multiple/Unknown – Oxford Digital Library, Public Domain, Link

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