• Emerging Mythic Landscape

    For me one of the most exciting recent developments has been the discovery of new land by the river and the gradual emergence of a sacred mythic landscape. For decades much of the riverside land along the Afon Fachwen was overgrown with brambles and impenetrable. But over the last three years we’ve been slowly clearing it and a magical wonderland is emerging. The first place we made, following Angharad’s inspiration, was a Shrine to Modron, Mabon’s Great Mother. Then earlier this year we began building a Treehouse, or Tree Nest, between five trees. It’s a thing of beauty, set above three streams, amazingly the last place in Cae Mabon lit by the setting summer sun. The walls are clad with curved cedar shingles, making them look like dragon scales or owl feathers. In a moment of madness I imagined one day it will look like the ‘Face of God’!

    Nearby is a great flat Stone for Standing On, a Platform for Proclamation. A Spring, emerging from beneath a huge boulder with a Pool, is dedicated to Maiden Goddesses – Goewin, Creirwy, Blodeuwedd, Olwen, Persephone… There’s a Faery Fort that overlooks the entire area; a Fire Pit with Seating facing the Tree Nest/Face of God; a Rope Swing and, long and staggeringly beautiful, Pepper Island. It is an area calling out for archetypal play, mythic theatre, sacred ritual and intimate nature ceremony.

    At the end of the Open Week in August we had a ceremony to consecrate the Tree Nest. We did an invocation, a blessing, told a story and sang a song. But most remarkably the first person to perform in the Tree Nest was Helen Massey, an operatic soprano. To hear such a voice close up was extraordinary for all of us. I’d never have thought opening the Tree Nest with opera!

    More recently we had a ‘Neuromagica’ group staying and dramatically retold the Taliesin story, using the still unfinished mythic landscape as a theatre set. We made prayers to the Great Mother; invoked the Maiden Goddess with poetry and saxophone; gave voice to Afagddu, Utter Darkness, Ceridwen’s piteous son. Around the cauldron John Crow sang his inspired Taliesin song then we had a literal chase through the elements with hound chasing hare across the earth, otter chasing salmon upstream, birds on a rope swing in the air, hen swallowing grain of wheat by the fire. As the ‘baby in the bag’ rocked on the Ocean of Soul, people offered snippets of song and poetry, wisdom for the gestating genius. Finally we heard a couple of songs representing Elffin’s dissolute ways then finished with Shining Brow’s first cosmic ‘I am’ poem.

    It was a splendid sketch of what is possible. Feels like it could be the natural stage for much more – weddings, dramatic retellings of other mythic tales, picnics, children’s playground, who knows what else. For me, after years of hard slog building the Bunkhouse and Trem Eilio, it’s been a pleasure to play.

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  • High Speech

    Earlier this year my friend Dave Luke – who lived at Cae Mabon for six months in 2016 with his wife, author Anna Hope, and their baby Bridget – asked me to talk at the Breaking Convention conference he co-organises. It’s about altered states of consciousness and ways of getting there. I chose to talk about ‘high speech’, ways of talking – poetry, prayer, prophecy, incantation, spells, blessings, preaching, story – which can, in the right context, have the effect of lifting the state of mind of the listener.

    In the opening section of my talk I said:

    ‘High Speech ranges from Pitjantjatjara elders sitting cross-legged on the sand, rattling their boomerangs and singing ancient songs from the Dreaming in a cascading song-chant melody, to Kate Tempest rousing the crowd at Glastonbury just last weekend. It’s not what is spoken in a state of being ‘high’, although it could be. Rather it’s about the kinds of speech that can in some way elevate the minds and beings of the listeners. Usually the language itself is not ordinary. It may use unusual or even archaic forms. It may not even be comprehensible. But the context, often a ritualised performance, gives it power. It can lift the listener into a state of wonder or rapture. It can invoke supernatural presence and great beauty. Certain words spoken at the right time and place to receptive people can evoke sublime feelings and bring about a transcendent state of mind. Inspired utterance can, in short, bring listeners into communion with the sacred.’

    I went on to give examples mostly from Cymric (Welsh) mythology: vivid descriptions, rhetorical runs and incantatory passages from ‘Culhwch and Olwen’; my version of Merlin’s Prophecy, including lines pinched from the Egyptian Book of the Dead; Taliesin’s first inspired poem.

    Despite it being the first time I’d given this talk it went down well enough. Dennis McKenna (brother of the famous Terence), who came on after me, was complimentary. But the best response was from Sam Ross, a contemporary poet in the inspired Taliesin tradition. His ‘review’ was priceless. He said:

    Eric Maddern brought us ‘High Speech’ – not just the stuff you say when you’re high but words that make the soul soar – via the tale of Taliesin, the prophecy of Merlin and more. There is something profoundly moving in how long these stories, in one form or another, have been told - in how vividly Eric brings them to life and how deeply he embodies the language. I would go so far as to say that if you’re not “animystically” inclined Eric is probably the closest you will come to watching a tree or a stone talk! I’ve rarely laughed so hard as the night I saw him, full of little elves, telling the tale of Culhwch and Olwen around a fire in the Roundhouse at Cae Mabon. This ancient story was just so fucking funny on so many levels, from the absurd yet eminently sensible plot to the eye-glinting embellishments upon embellishments, to the fact that we were all so-called “modern people” rolling around on the floor of a reanimated roundhouse, enjoying some of the same kind of fun that most likely entertained our ancestors, and all this in a self-evident yet somehow unbelievable new context.’

    Alas I’m not always so funny. But I’m working on it!

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  • PERFECT WEEK, AUSPICIOUS DAY

    This is the perfect time of year. Bluebells are in their prime. Primroses and violets are in bloom. Plum, pear and apple trees are blossoming. Oak and hazel leaves are unfurling their fresh green innocent selves, reaching like their forebears to the sun. The ferns are spirals of delight. All it takes is a few rays of sun to light up the forest and wildflower meadows of Cae Mabon and this place is utterly enchanting.

    No wonder this has been a sacred moment in the calendar since time immemorial. These days – the end of April, beginning of May – this week, the Festival of Beltane, is the most beautiful week of the year. The Spirit of Spring has been fully released and life is renewing aplenty. It marks the onset of ‘the burgeoning’. Traditionally it’s the end of the Winter half of the year and the beginning of Summer. Beltane Eve is, in truth, Summer’s Eve. It’s a time of light and eros, expansion and fertility. As Life puts on a growth spurt, why not us too!

    In the mythology of these islands (a.k.a. the Island of the Mighty) Beltane Eve was also when strange, powerful, wondrous things happened.

    It was on Beltane Eve every year that screaming, battling dragons rose up from the centre of the island, bringing chaos to the people and wasting the land. The opposite of what should be happening then. Finally on one of those nights Lludd, the leader of his people, using subtle magic (imparted through an ear-trumpet in a bobbing boat on the narrow seas), captured the dragons, drove them on his cart (as piglets in jars) to the mountains of Eryri and threw them into a pool where they were swallowed back into the earth. In that place, Dinas Emrys, they were safely contained for hundreds of years. And the land flourished once more.

    It was on Beltane Eve that the firstborn child of Rhiannon, Horse Goddess and Queen of Annwn, was mysteriously whisked away and exchanged with the foal of a faraway lord who, with his wife, cared for the golden-haired boy. Eventually they recognised the lad as the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon and returned him to his parents. His mother, released from her agonising bonds, named him Pryderi, meaning Care, Concern, Worry. Or perhaps Love. And Pryderi, a divine youth, became the only hero to appear in all Four Branches of The Mabinogion, the foundation stones of Cymric myth.

    It was on Beltane Eve that Elphin, wastrel son of Gwyddno Garanhir, went to the salmon weir for his father’s gift of many fish to discover there were none, only a leather bag snagged on a post. He slit the bag and out stepped a boy with a shining brow. He named him Taliesin, ‘Shining Brow’, and the child immediately began speaking sparkling verse. This was Gwion Bach who’d swallowed three drops of inspiration, been chased by Ceridwen and transformed through the shapes of Hare on the Earth, Salmon in the Water, Sparrow in the Air and Grain of Wheat in the Fire. After being swallowed by Ceridwen as a Hen he was born again, then cast out in a leather bag upon the waters. There, rocking on the oceans of the deep, he absorbed the wisdom of the world. So, Beltane Eve is also a time for the birth of inspiration.

    Last Beltane Eve I walked into the northern hills and curled up in the renowned Maen y Bardd (‘Poet’s Stone’) burial chamber on the ancient trackway through the Pass of the Two Stones. I communed with many of the demigods of these lands that night and returned refreshed and inspired. Tonight I’ll be staying in the place I reckon to have been Caer Dathyl, the home of Math son of Mathonwy, Bear son of Bearlike, Lord of Gwynedd and key figure in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. Let’s see what comes this time.

    It’s always good to visit mythic places at this sacred time of year. But whatever you do be sure to celebrate Beltane and perhaps you will find love, flourishing and inspiration. Make magic happen!

    30th April 2017

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  • STONES WILL SPEAK - Coming Back to Snowdonia

    Coming back to Snowdonia I’m always struck by the awesome splendour of the mountains. They may be small on a world scale but they are dramatic, rugged, beautiful and perfectly formed.

    In Cymraeg (Welsh) the range is called Eryri, meaning ‘Haunt of Eagles’. As the hills gain in height so they grow in grandeur. The highest peak, Snowdon, is the most majestic of them all. In Cymraeg its name is Yr Wyddfa, the Giant’s Tomb. This is a reference to Rhitta, a mighty giant who vanquished all the kings of Britain and beyond, only to be defeated by Arthur. The amusing tale of ‘Rhitta and the Cloak of Beards’, retold by the bards for a thousand years, served to emphasise Arthur’s greatness. When he died, it’s said, Rhitta’s body was carried to the loftiest peak by Arthur’s retinue and buried beneath a cairn of stones. It’s fitting that the highest mountain is associated with the greatest legendary king. And that it is, or was, attended by Eagles.

    Eryri is, in my opinion, the most spectacular mountain range in northwestern Europe. For that reason I believe it was considered sacred when the Celtic tribes held sway across the Isles. Travellers would have come from far and wide to tune in to their power. They wouldn’t have lingered long on Yr Wyddfa’s inhospitable summit. Indeed it may even have been taboo. But, drawn by its wild and natural majesty, they’d have gathered at its foot, in the sanctuary known today as Dinas Emrys, the Immortal Citadel or Eternal Fortress. Set in a valley guarded by mighty mountains at either end this humble hill holds within it a hollow, shaped like a natural amphitheatre, a pool and the remains of a ritual landscape. It’s easy to see how it would have been sacred to our ancestors. It was such a powerful place that, over fifteen hundred years, it became linked with dragons, Merlin and shining prophesy.

    When I’m approaching Snowdonia along the coast from Chester; or from Shrewsbury in the east along old Watling Street, now the A5; or from Machynlleth in the south; I feel I’m travelling along ancient trackways akin to Aboriginal songlines, lines of force across land marked by story. As I get closer to the mountains I sense their raw power and can imagine how they were once seen as an indomitable natural fortress. They were never easy to penetrate. The two main ways through, Bwlch y Ddeufaen (Pass of the Two Stones) in the north and Bwlch Derwen (Oak Pass) in the south, were heavily guarded. Other routes were difficult and dangerous, probably impossible without a local guide. No wonder Eryri was, for the Cymry, a refuge and haven, a place for making last stands.

    But were these mountains also pointing to something beyond? If so, what were they both guarding and signalling? What fertile, mysterious and yet somehow promised land lay beyond their protective embrace?

    The answer is Môn or Mona; Mam Cymru, the Mother of Wales. This large, low-lying, fruitful island at the hub of the British Isles was once regarded as the breadbasket of Cymru, perhaps even the home of the Mother Goddess. But it was not only its agricultural productivity that made it special. It was also once the heartland of the Druids, the high priests of the Celtic peoples.

    The Druids were wizards, bards and sages. They memorised ancestral lineages and the people’s stories. They closely observed the natural world, seasonal cycles and the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars. They knew the healing powers of herbs and the magical uses of mistletoe. They prophesied the future by reading omens. They chanted spells for calming the elements, inducing sleep and bringing victory in battle. They acted as judges to settle disputes. They knew the gods and goddesses, their realms of power, how to commune with and propitiate them. They were skilled in the arts of offering and sacrifice. They knew that the immortal soul can be reborn many times. They faced death without fear.

    People travelled from all over Europe to study at this Druid College with these ‘men and women of high degree’. If they were let in by the border guards they’d go through one of those two, well defended passes. They must have seen the mountains as both a sign saying ‘you’re nearly there’ but also as a barrier staying ‘stop, wait, let’s see your passport!’ Centuries later when the Vikings landed on Mona (it was in the Norwegian Empire for a while) they must have caught echoes of these ancient holy folk – long since tragically decimated by the Romans – for they named it ‘Angle-sea’, the Island of the Angels. Maybe that’s why it was also known as ‘The Isle of the Glory of the Powerful Ones’.

    So, the sacred mountains were, it seems, guarding the sacred isle.

    There are, of course, other sacred places in Britain. But magnificent Snowdonia and fertile Môn have, perhaps more than any other of the luminous landscapes of these Isles, a rich body of associated ancient mythology, tales that we still know and can tell. It’s my belief that most of the demigods of Ancient Britain – Bran, Math, Gwydion, Lleu, Blodeuwedd, Pryderi, Arianrhod, Mabon, Merlin, Taliesin and Arthur – either came from here or came to here. Their stories are a resonant web of mythic songlines woven deeply into the staggering landscape. There are places where it’s still possible to invoke ancient gods.

    I find this endlessly fascinating, which is why I continue to shape and reshape this ancestral material, continue to seek out what it has to say to us today. My current storytelling offering is ‘STONES WILL SPEAK’, a quote from Merlin’s Prophecy. If you’d like me to regale you and your community with the fulsome richness of it all, let me know!

    Eric Maddern

    21 March 2017

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  • WHAT IS CAE MABON?

    Over the last few winters I’ve been writing a memoir, ‘Not Even A Stick… To Support That Dream’. The core of the book is the tale of my long and winding travels through Oregon, California, Mexico, Louisiana, Guatemala, Hawaii and Samoa between 1972 and 1976. It’s taken four decades before, with the help of scribbled journals, I’ve had time to write the story down. Scattered through my diaries I found glimpses of my journey’s ultimate destination: ‘I want the freedom to work hard and build, to live in rolling hills in a cabin in the country… to be part of a radical, creative, celebrational community, where I can be rooted and yet free.’ I even imagined the Druid high priests of the Celtic peoples and wondered if that’s where I was heading. These were fleeting visions of distant peaks, impossibly far yet mysteriously urging me on.

    Now the dream is realised. I’m writing from that cabin in the country, that creative community. The place is Cae Mabon, the ‘Field of the Divine Youth’. Not surprisingly the influences on it are many. There is a touch of Californian commune, a hint of Mayan hill village, a dash of South Sea island, an Aboriginal desert dreaming. Yet in truth it’s a clearing in an oak forest on a Welsh hillside. A sparkling river, a wild force of nature, flows by to the lake where it has made a beach. West from the water’s edge is a view toward the sea. East is Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa, the highest mountain for four hundred miles and once, I believe, the sacred hub of the British Isles. Just ten miles away across the Menai Straight is Mona, in antiquity the island heartland of the Druids. ‘Cae Mabon’, says the Chief Druid of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, ‘is the most druid-like place I know in the world.’

    In the oak forest clearing rustic cabins, cottages, lodges and huts cluster around a temple-like stone and thatch Celtic Roundhouse. The dwellings are made from natural materials like logs, timber, strawbales, hemp and cob. Each one is unique. The range of styles and materials so appealed to a professor of architecture that in 2008 he declared it ‘number one natural building project in the UK’. He called it ‘a Welsh Shangri La’ and said the planners had been won over by its ‘charm and magic’.

    A small community of people lives here in service to others - groups of between 15 and 30 - who come to stay for a weekend or week. It isn’t only the green, radical, new age fringe that is drawn. Everybody comes, people from all walks of life and all over the world. Most are spiritually curious; many hope for healing or inspiration. There are extended family get togethers; dance and yoga workshops; storytelling and singing retreats; working parties, birthday parties; women’s, men’s and youth groups; forest school training; shamanic, neuro-magical and druidic gatherings; weddings and pixi camps; deaf families, doula women and didgeridoo players; scientists with a spiritual bent; sound healers, company managers, festival organisers… All sorts. There is usually something creative going on. Often people make ceremony and ritual. The social conviviality that is conjured generates radiance and positivity. Immersion in the natural world stimulates health and vitality. One wise man who passed by wrote: ‘sites such as Cae Mabon are like the region’s antibodies, playing a vital role in healing the crippling disconnection within Western culture between body, soul, spirit and place.’

    In a primitive but comfortable natural setting, Cae Mabon is elemental. It offers the possibility of experiencing something ‘spiritual’. As a seventeen year-old once said: ‘Being here… is like being high on nothing!’ At Cae Mabon it’s easy to relax, open up and go deep. The walls have soaked in rich and profound happenings. The grooves of transformation have already been laid down. Masks and pressures of daily life drop away. People chat amiably as they cook, eat or wash up together. They loosen up, become playful, maybe even sink naked into the hot tub by the river. Sometimes they sit by the fire in the ancestral Roundhouse and listen to archetypal tales taking them back to once upon a time, tuning into the enduring wisdom and humour of folklore and myth. Such experience is expansive. It touches something old within. And that’s before they’ve walked down the path to the lake to swim or watch the sunset or see Snowdon.

    All this, taken together, adds up to something: something that stirs the soul and awakens the imagination. It opens a door to the bigger picture and to what’s possible in the world. It’s timeless yet of the moment. It makes people believe in magic, rough and real. And because everything at Cae Mabon is natural, earthy and beautiful, spirits are everywhere. Or maybe it’s Spirit. It’s as if there is a portal here through which flows the Soul of the World.

    Extracted from ‘The Quest for Mabon’, the prologue to ‘Not Even A Stick’.

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