The Children of Dôn

stars

The people of the ancient world spent a lot of time watching the stars. Just as we do today, they gazed upwards to the void: the endless emptiness of space, and they wondered at it.

They saw the changes of the moon, and identified the regularity and timings of her cycles.

They watched the movements of the stars. It seemed to them that there were patterns in the stars, and they gave them names. Over time, they learned that the movements of the stars were also regular; that the stars moved, their positions changed – but that these movements and changes were regular and predictable, and that the stars always returned to the same places at the same times.

Overlaying the emptiness, the great void, the cold light of the stars fit into a system:  vast, impersonal, and inhuman; but predictable – and useful.

They gave a name to the void: Dôn. The system of the stars reflected the systems that made sense of human life; the systems which allowed the tribes and peoples to exist while surrounded by the wakeful forest and the Shining People, and they gave these systems a name: Plant Dôn, the Children of Dôn.

In the  Welsh myths, and especially the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, we meet these children, though Dôn herself plays no role in the stories.

There are five of them: four sons, and a daughter. The sons are Amaethon, Gofannon, Gwydion, and Gilfaethwy. The daughter is Arianrhod.

What do they represent?

Amaethon is the easiest to understand. His name relates to the plough (amaethu: to till), and to agriculture (amaethyddiaeth). Amaethon embodies the system of farming that allowed the tribes to grow beyond their hunter-gatherer existence. Amaethon ensured plentiful food, and freed time beyond just seeking to live.

Gofannon is also easy to understand. His name relates to Gof: a smith, or blacksmith. He represents craft, forging, and technology. The smith created the weapons, armour, tools, and technology which the tribes needed for their strength and their freedom.

Gwydion’s name is less obvious to us, because Gwydion’s system is of the mind, not the hand – and also because our culture today denies his existence, and that of his system (except in diluted forms, such as marketing and propaganda).

His name relates to gwŷdd, which is a very interesting word: it means ‘trees’, but it also means ‘loom’ – the tool used for making cloth. It is the root term of gwyddoniaeth: “science”, and of egwyddor: “first principles” and of gwyddor: “alphabet”.

Gwydion’s name relates to applied knowledge: to understanding how the warp and the weft of the world join things together, knowing how to manipulate them, arrange and re-arrange them, using them to get things done . Gwydion’s is the system of magic, insight, and persuasion.

Arianrhod‘s system is not described by her name, or at least by any associations that we understand today, though perhaps it was more obvious to the Druids and tribes of old. Her name means “The Silver Wheel”, or “The Silver Orbit”.

What does she represent? It’s clear, with just a little consideration of her actions in the Fourth Branch. She has the authority to name (or not name) Lleu. She has the authority to arm him. She has the authority to bless his selection of a wife. Naming, manhood, marriage. These are occasions for ritual: they are how a society acknowledges the arrival of a child, the threshold from child to man, and the establishment of a household.

Arianrhod is the system of culture itself. Not “culture” in the sense we use it these days, meaning “the arts”. I mean the kind of organizational culture that’s taught to managers today: the culture of rites, and rituals, and stories, and heroes. This is the culture that binds families together, that brings families together into communities, that binds communities into clans and clans into tribes and tribes into nations. Culture allows a group to cohere, and work together, and identify themselves as a part of a distinct group in which each is connected to all. These concepts are unpopular today in some parts of western societies, but managers still learn about them because they are critical to getting a group to work together successfully.

Arianrhod’s is the system of maintaining the tribe’s cohesion through shared values, culture, and experiences. She walks alongside all true bards.

And then there’s Gilfaethwy.

Oh dear me. Gilfaethwy.

Gilfaethwy’s entry on Wikipedia, at the time that I write this, has the prissy comment that:

Gilfaethwy is a minor character in Welsh legend, and may have been used in the Fourth Branch simply to advance the story of his more illustrious brother Gwydion.

This tells us that whoever wrote that is probably an academic with no real-world experience. Sorry, anonymous Wikipedian, but that’s the long and the short of it.

Anyone with serious real-world project management experience knows Gilfaethwy.

In any project, no matter how carefully you’ve planned, no matter how many contingencies you have considered, no matter how carefully thought-out your plans are, there’s always that one guy who will manage to completely f*** things up and cause chaos. And who somehow always gets rehired and assigned to project after project.

That’s Gilfaethwy.

I’ve never seen a discussion of his name, and it’s beyond my competency in Welsh for me to make any authoritative statement. However, ‘Gil‘ has the overall sense of something going backwards, or being in reverse. ‘Maeth‘ has the general sense of ‘nutrition’ or ‘nourishment’, so there’s a way in which ‘Gilfaethwy‘ could be read as meaning ‘He who was nourished in reverse‘. Sounds a bit obscure, doesn’t it?

Now imagine the CPED (Chief Project Engineering Druid) of a Henge Construction  Project, who has just been told that one of the sub-project engineers has managed to install a menhir upside-down or confused the capstone of a trilithon with one of the uprights. The CPED is holding his head in his hands, and exclaiming “That guy’s so dumb he thinks he should eat through his a**“.

That’s Gilfaethwy.

Gilfaethwy is a minor character in Welsh legend, and may have been used in the Fourth Branch simply to advance the story of his more illustrious brother Gwydion.

Seriously, anonymous Wikipedian? Gilfaethwy is the most significant character in the Fourth Branch. He doesn’t get much airtime, but every single part of that story, every single part, from the theft of the pigs of Annwn, to the devastation of the men of Dyfed, to the death of Pryderi and the rape of Goewin; everything from the shaming of Arianrhod to the birth and cursing of Lleu, to the creation of Blodeuwedd, her marriage to Lleu, and her betrayal of him, and the death of Gronw, is because of him.

Everything happens because of Gilfaethwy, and because the organ he does his thinking with is the one between his thighs, not the one between his ears.

So, on the one level, Gilfaethwy’s role is to warn us that chaos never goes away. Societies can devise system after system to control chaos and to bring prosperity – but there’s always that one charismatic idiot who can turn it all upside down, bringing death and destruction. That’s a very valuable message.

On a more serious level, Gilfaethwy’s role is even more significant than that.

Gilfaethwy’s actions, and the consequences that unfold, are intended to warn us that systems are amoral. Like the cold, silent stars moving in their perfect spheres, they have no concern with good or evil. In human hands they are capable of great good; they are capable of great evil. Which, is entirely up to us, and how we apply them.

This is Gwydion’s role in the story: to demonstrate good systems being used for evil. To help Gilfaethwy, Gwydion facilitates rape, deception, theft, and deliberate war-mongering. He creates a sex slave, and punishes her for rebelling against her fate.

Agriculture can be freedom from famine; it can also be GMO, gene-patented, infertile, poison-riddled Frankenfoods.

Technology can be tools that save us great labour; it can also be wasteful, polluting, destructive extraction, manufacturing, and surveillance and control systems.

Magic, insight and persuasion can change the world through subtle means – for the better, and also for the worse. I don’t want to talk about magic too much here, as it’s not an art that I practice, but I am told by those who know that it can be extraordinarily useful and effective.

Culture can enrich human life and make us feel a valued part of a greater whole; it can also bind us rigidly into fundamentalist societies and give us reason to demonise those who do not belong.

So these are the  Plant Dôn. Those Neolithic henge-builders were wise, and pragmatic, and experienced. They weren’t just day-dreamers and navel-gazers; they got things done on a grand scale, and they understood the effectiveness of systems very well indeed. They looked at the systems of the stars, and were inspired by them to analyse, categorise and name the systems of society – and they were experienced enough in the ways of men to leave a message in their myths: myths which endured, myths which were transferred from their culture to the culture of the Celtic Britons, and on into the culture of mediaeval Wales – myths which endured for thousands of years, And these myths say to us:

Beware.

Systems can build you up. And they can bring you crashing down in ruin, if you are not watchful. The Gods of the Welsh are powerful, but they are not always concerned with Good or Evil as humans understand them. They leave our moral choices, and the consequences to us, and to us alone.

There will be more to be said of this, when we discuss the Cad Goddeu, the Battle of Trees.

Update:

I want to embed this very long, very wide-ranging, and absolutely fascinating conversation between Dr. Oz (with whom I’m otherwise not familiar) and Dr. Jordan Peterson, whose work and message I find incredibly useful and impressive.

At the point I’m linking to, Dr. Oz discusses the ruins at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. He notes that these are the ruins of the oldest known human civilization – they are 12,000 years old – and that they were built by hunter-gatherers. These immense circles of standing stones… were built by people who had not yet developed agriculture. He speculates that the development of agriculture itself was a consequence of that community’s organisation, and its realisation that it could control and manipulate the world around it – and not the other way around, as has traditionally been taught. And that seems to fit very much with what I’ve been describing here. Watch it, it’s only a few minutes out of a much longer clip! (See also this very good Newsweek article).

Image credits:  Stars by Brian Uhreen on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

2 comments

    • Aye. It never occurred to me that Gilfaethwy and Epimetheus had so much in common. That’s a very interesting and enlightening perspective!

      Like

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