As with many of the religions of Asia, Druidry – in the Welsh tradition, at least – is a karmic religion, believing in spiritual progress via reincarnation.
In brief: souls emerge from the cauldron of Annwn, the source of all things. Over countless reincarnations, the spirit experiences all things, learns all things, and eventually transcends the flesh that it no longer needs – not as the end of the journey, but as the beginning of a new stage.
The first incarnation is as the simplest form of life: a single-celled organism. Eventually, the spirit chooses a path: the path of vegetation (the Tree People), or the path of animal life with humans as the final stage. As for the third of the Three Peoples – the Tylwyth Teg, or the Fair Folk – about them, I do not know.
At every stage, in every incarnation, the key is choice. Do we choose what the Chinese call the way of the Tao, in harmony with life, well-being, and positive growth? Or do we choose selfishness and destructiveness, obedient to unreflective instinct?
Each life, each incarnation, is shaped by those gone by. We can make progress; we can regress. We stay on this path until we have learned all we need to advance to the next stage; we stay incarnate until we have mastered mind and body… and then we move on, still on the path, but no longer needing a body…
In an earlier post, I discussed the Plant Dôn; they are strange to us, because they represent the systems needed by entire societies to survive. They are not on a human scale.
The Plant Annwn, by contrast, seem almost boring by comparison. They have extraordinary experiences, but they have little in the way of special powers. They are, in fact, almost embarrassingly human. Don’t be misled by this: their very ordinariness is the whole point. Just as they are the Children of Annwn, so are we. Their role is no less important that that of the Plant Dôn: their role is no more and no less than to show us how to be human.
The Children of Annwn are:
- Pwyll, king of the Demetae, whose name means “Wisdom”.
- Rhiannon, his wife; one of the Fair Folk, originally from Annwn. Rhiannon is a multi-faceted character; there is much to say about her that must wait for a future post, as it not part of this story.
- Pryderi, their son, and king of Demetia after Pwyll. His name derives from “Pryder” – in English, “worry”, “anxiety”, or “apprehension”. As we shall see, it is an apt name.
- Cigfa, his wife. We’ll discuss her name below.
They are called “The Children of Annwn” as a result of the bond formed by Pwyll with Arawn, king of Annwn, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi; a bond which endured into the next generation, after Pryderi became king.
The Children of Annwn are our guides: they show us the way towards being human, rather than being animals in human form.
What do I mean by this? The nature of animals is that their actions and choices are driven by instinct: fear, the urge to escape pain; lust; hunger; the need for status and dominance.
A true human, a spirit that has mastered the full potential of its human form, is able to overcome these primal urges; the moral mind rules over, and masters, the flesh. A person who habitually acts in response to these basic stimuli is an animal in a human body; not yet a true human.
The stories of the Children of Annwn are the stories of choices made between animal and human reactions: choices that were made well, and choices that were made badly, and all of them choices that had consequences.
You will need to be familiar with the Mabinogi for this discussion: I don’t have space to re-tell these tales.
A key lesson from the Children of Annwn is that we are not in control of our destiny. We are subject to forces that may care nothing for us; even if not actively hostile to us, they have their own goals, and we are their tools at best.
We begin with Pwyll.
For most of the First Branch, Pwyll is being manipulated by Arawn, as part of Arawn’s plan to bring eternal summer to Annwn. Arawn knows how to kill Hafgan, but he cannot do it himself; he needs a human to take his place. Their meeting in the forest is no chance encounter; Arawn has been observing Pwyll, and has chosen his man carefully. Pwyll is rash enough to act in greed, taking Arawn’s stag for himself – but he has sufficient self-awareness and honour to accept the consequences in order to redeem himself. An animal in human form would have felt no shame.
Pwyll takes Arawn’s form, and rules his kingdom for a year. He is free to sleep with Arawn’s Queen, who is unaware of the plot, but he refuses to do so.
If he had slept with her, what would have been different? Hafgan would still have died; Arawn would still have become sole king of Annwn… and the story would have ended there. Pwyll would have gone home, and resumed his rule of Demetia, and that would have been that. Instead, though, Pwyll’s human self-control and sense of moral behaviour master the desires of his flesh; he chooses moral action when there is no need to do so, and no consequences for doing otherwise. This is what truly wins him Arawn’s respect – and how Pwyll changes from being Arawn’s pawn to Arawn’s friend.
There is a hugely important lesson here: it is only self-control and self-discipline, not self-indulgence, which can forge an alliance with Annwn and its creative force.
When Rhiannon first appears to him, Pwyll again responds in an animal fashion: pursuit, desire, lust. It is only when his human aspect dominates, and he instead makes a polite request, that he can begin a relationship with his future wife. Rhiannon is of the Tylwyth Teg, a proud people, and she will not deal with one who cannot control himself.
After their marriage, when Rhiannon is framed for the murder of their son, Pwyll, as the King, could have thrown out the accusation and the seemingly damning evidence brought against her – but he does not. He acts morally, obeying and enforcing the law despite his own pain and belief in Rhiannon’s innocence. He understands that the needs of his tribe, and the need for justice to be seen to be done, are greater than his own feelings. Neither, though, does he cast her out or divorce her. He stands by his commitment to her and their relationship. He is not choosing the easy path.
In the Third Branch, Pwyll’s kingdom (now ruled by Pryderi, his son) is afflicted by a curse. We learn that the cause is Pwyll’s lack of compassion in allowing Gwawl ap Clud, Rhiannon’s original fiancé, to be beaten and humiliated. We see here a warning that it may not be us who has to suffer the consequences of our impulses if we give in to them; they may be visited upon others, including those we love best.
The wisdom of Pwyll is the antithesis of his son’s weakness.
We’re told in the final part of the First Branch that Pryderi becomes King in due course. We’re told that he is the most handsome and most accomplished youth in the kingdom. Everybody adores him. He reigns well.
He’s a Golden Child – but he is not, in the end, an admirable man.
Pryderi is not a fully-developed human; he succeeds only because he is not really challenged. All of his golden attributes fell to him without effort. When he is finally confronted with danger, and the unknown, his unthinking nature threatens, or actually causes, disaster.
As king of the Demetae, Pryderi joins Bendigeidfran on the campaign to Ireland, an adventure which is outside the scope of this discussion. He returns home to Demetia with his warriors all dead, in the company of Brân’s brother, Manawydan.
They encounter a series of disasters. The Demetae, and all their property, vanish. Pryderi, Manawydan, Rhiannon, and Cigfa are left in a depopulated wilderness. They decide to go to the towns of England, where they make a living as craftsmen. Under Manawydan’s leadership, they succeed – too well, though: time after time, their success leads their local competitors to conspire against them. Time after time, Pryderi responds rashly: he will kill those who plot against them. He gives no thought to consequences. It takes Manawydan’s wisdom to turn him from his pride and rashness, and to talk him into humbly departing for a new start elsewhere.
Eventually, they return to Demetia, where the curse now captures Pryderi in a mysterious castle; he is trapped by his curiosity and greed and lack of caution – animal traits.
Manwydan saves the day again, and breaks the curse; we’ll look at this when we come to discuss the Children of Llŷr. His kingdom restored, Pryderi resumes his rule over the Demetae. He also continues in his father’s friendship with Arawn, who gives him a great gift: sacred pigs. These are not freely given, though. There is a condition: the pigs are not to be given away.
Pryderi is once more subject to external forces: he becomes the victim of Gwydion’s malice. Gwydion wants a war, and he takes the pigs through deceit in order to provoke one. Pryderi lacks the character to keep his promises to Arawn; his greed and lack of self-control allow Gwydion to trick him. Tricked, he cannot restrain his anger and hurt pride. He falls into Gwydion’s trap, and marches to a doomed war. His behaviour leads to the warriors of the Demetae being wiped out- and, in the end, to his own death, far from home.
Throughout his life, Pryderi is proud, greedy, gullible, reckless. His story tells us that charisma, looks, and skill are all admirable things – but they are not the characteristics on which we, as Druids, should be judging him. When he’s forced to make moral choices, on his own, with no privilege of status or without good advisors, he fails. He lacks the human qualities of self-knowledge and self-control; though in a human form, he is little better than an animal.
Rhiannon is not human: she is of the Fair Folk, one of the Gwragedd Annwn who choose a human husband. In the case of Rhiannon, there is a great deal we do not know: before our story starts, she has has been promised in marriage to another human nobleman, Gwawl fab Clud. Why was this alliance between him and the Tylwyth Teg arranged? Gwawl must have been an unusual man, but we don’t know anything more about him. The marriage is not to Rhiannon’s liking; she has learned of Pwyll, a friend of the King of Annwn and a King in his own right, and she has decided that this is the man that she wants. And so, she arranges it.
Note that Rhiannon, throughout the tales of the Mabinogion is independent of thought, determined in her actions, and a more-than-competent planner. Her judgement, though, is not always good.
Rhiannon devises a plan which will force her fiance to give up his claim to her. It isn’t exactly honourable – but then, different rules apply to the Tylwyth Teg…
Pwyll follows Rhiannon’s instructions, and executes her plan. This has consquences for his family, and for his kingdom. As we have seen already, Gwawl’s friend Llwyd ap Cil Coed, exacts retribution upon the Demetae for Gwawl’s humiliation. It could have been much worse, though: it is clear that Rhiannon’s plan originally called for Gwawl’s death, and it was only his desperate appeal to Pwyll’s honour that saved him. This is to Pwyll’s credit, but must bear in mind that Rhiannon, when she wants something, cares nothing for those who get in her way…
Pwyll and Rhiannon marry, and have a son… but the child vanishes. Something has been watching them… and then acts. The child’s nursemaids respond instinctively, animalistically; they fear having to take responsibility for their failure, so they slaughter a puppy and frame Rhiannon for killing and eating her own baby.
It is Rhiannon who is now the victim of external actors. She bears her unjust punishment with dignity and honour, which visitors to the court are forced to acknowledge even if they believe her guilty.
Who stole the baby? There is another story missing here. Nevertheless, Pwyll and Rhiannon were jointly being watched by third party with its own plans; a party which tried to steal a foal from a Silurian farmer – who foiled the attempt, and ended up restoring the missing child to Pwyll, and restoring Rhiannon to her place of honour.
Like her husband, Rhiannon – having left Annwn and become a part of the human world – shows personal growth and moral development. It is not complete; in the Third Branch she ignores Manawydan’s advice and rashly rushes into the enchanted castle, becoming a prisoner alongside her son.
This, though, shows that Pwyll and Rhiannon are not plaster saints. They are not perfect, and thus characters we cannot relate to. They are flawed, but they are unmistakeably on the path to fully realising their human potential.
Let’s finally talk about Cigfa. She doesn’t play a prominent role; her lack of personality stands in strong contrast to Rhiannon. Of the Children of Annwn, Cigfa alone shows no initiative or self-mastery; she is always and entirely subject to the will of others. Cigfa is introduced at the end of the First Branch in a brief mention. Pryderi, after Pwyll’s death, occupies himself with war and conquest, until he decides to take a wife. He chooses “Cigfa, the daughter of Gwyn Gohoyw, the son of Gloyw Walltlydan”. She has a noble ancestry, and she is no doubt a beautiful and wealthy woman.
She appears again in the Third Branch, in which she again has little to do. This little is revealing, though. When Pryderi and Rhiannon disappear, and she is left alone with Manawydan, she immediately begins to wail that she doesn’t care if she lives or dies – her automatic assumption is that Manawydan will rape her. She seems to see herself only as a sexual object, to be taken possession of and used. What does that say about her? Astonishingly, despite all the time that she has had to get to know and understand Manawydan on their travels into England and back, she still knows nothing about his character.
Later, when Manawydan catches a pregnant mouse, one of the swarm that has been consuming their wheat, her only concern is that his actions are unbecoming to his status and rank. It is telling that her name means “The Meat Place”. Cigfa is an empty vessel: a decorative one, but with no conception of herself other than as a physical object. She interprets relationships simply in terms of desire and status. She doesn’t consider other people as worth really getting to know. She’s the worst stereotype of an empty-headed, narcissistic, entitled princess. It says something more about Pryderi that she was his choice for wife.
We can thus compare the two generations of the Children of Annwn, and learn from their examples.
Pwyll and Rhiannon are wise; they learn from experience, and experience personal growth as a result. They face great challenges, suffer, and emerge all the stronger. At his death, Pwyll leaves a strong, well-ordered, and prosperous kingdom.
Pryderi and Cigfa, though, are spoilt children of privilege. They inherit great advantages, but they do not develop them. They do not reflect on, or learn from, their experiences. By the end of the Mabinogi, Pryderi has left his kingdom in ruins: king dead; warriors dead; no heir to take the throne. It has to be wondered whether it was at this point that the Children of Annwn “lost the Mandate of Heaven” (to use a Chinese concept), and that it was after Pryderi’s death that another tribe, their name now long forgotten, seized the sacred bluestone circle of the Demetae from the Preseli Mountains and removed them to what is now Stonehenge…
The stories of the Children of Annwn thus exemplify a key theme of Druidry. Each of us is on the path to Gwynfyd. It is a long and painful path, in which we suffer all things to know all things. It is our choices and self-control, and our ability to reflect upon, and learn from, exerience which enable us to become fully human – and the Children of Annwn are our guides.