By ericmaddern, Mar 23 2017 6:15PM
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!
21 March 2017
By ericmaddern, Feb 5 2017 1:08PM
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’.
By ericmaddern, Feb 5 2017 1:03PM
The hearse arrived early, bumping down the track to the upper car park. The two dark-suited undertakers were friendly and chipper in the fresh, noon January air. The coffin slid easily into the back of the landrover and was gently driven over more bumps to the lower car park. There it was met by one good woman and five good men who carried it down the narrow path to the beat of a rattle and drum. At the graveside it was gently lowered onto three supporting timbers.
This was the funeral of Barry Gadsby who resided in a caravan at Cae Mabon for seven years from 1993 to 2000. His grave was dug just behind where he used to live. He died on the 10th January, two weeks short of his 75th birthday. Because of his connection with Cae Mabon his sons, Liam and Brian, asked if he could be buried here. As we already have one grave and as it’s legal – providing a couple of technicalities are attended to – I said yes.
Barry was born and grew up in Doncaster in Yorkshire. In his twenties he worked as a fitter in a car factory. It was precise, technical work that gave him a grounding in fine, skilled manual work. Eventually he couldn’t stomach factory life any more and moved to North Wales in the early seventies. Here it seemed he was intent on getting as far away from the modern industrial world as possible. So he went bush, went native, became… aboriginal.
Before I met Barry I used to see him walking along the roadside, often barefooted, miles from the nearest town or village. He looked wild, rugged, mysterious… but intriguing. So when he came here one day and we got chatting I was happy to let him bed down in a little green caravan. Turned out we both played didgeridoo.
He used to help out here. He was working with us when we roofed the first Roundhouse, the one that later burned down. I remember him lashing the hazel spars to the pine rafters, bare feet, and his shirt off, looking very aboriginal in the sun. When we sawed off the legs of the rafters that had been supporting the structure he said: ‘Didn’t drop a thou!’ Meaning the roof had not dropped a thousandth of an inch, a throwback to his days as a fitter.
Before moving here Barry had been making bows. I was very lucky that he gave me probably his finest creation: a six foot six yew longbow. Years ago I took it to an archery shop in South Wales. When the guy saw it he exclaimed: ‘Who made that?’ He estimated it had a pull weight of 100 lbs. Not many bows ever exceed 60 lbs. It led to one of his nicknames: Barry Bowman.
After bows Barry made didgeridoos – by sawing a branch in half lengthways, hollowing out the inside with chisels, gluing the two halves back together and then decorating it. He made quite a few lovely didgeridoos that way.
I remember once talking to him about the book, ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’, by Ursula Le Guin. I think he identified with Ged, the trainee wizard and hero of the story. He liked to think that Ged and Gad, from his name Gadsby, could be one and the same.
There is a quote I particularly like from that book.
The Wizard of Earthsea
You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. (But) the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do...
Ursula Le Guin
Toward the end of the ceremony half a dozen people spoke briefly about Barry, acknowledging his rebellious spirit and stubborn determination to be a lone wolf. It was touching that two of his council flat neighbours, where he lived for the last seven years, came with fond remembrances, including how they waited weeks to get him a hospital bed before realising that he didn’t need one as he always slept on the floor!
Then the coffin was lowered gently into the ground while didgeridoos, a flute and drum made an earthy, drone-like sound. Brian placed one of Barry’s didgeridoos on top of the coffin and crumbled over it a small packet of custard creams. He was a great lover of biscuits and they had been his favourite. Finally I invited the assembled friends to imagine Barry – barefoot, shirtless, silver locks lifting in the breeze, carrying his didgeridoo in one hand – walking off into the sunset.
After a few shovelfuls of earth were thrown onto the coffin Liam fitted an arrow to Barry’s bow and sent it flying high over the oaks and into the forest beyond. Barry’s spirit was released into the heavens and the ceremony was over.
By ericmaddern, Feb 2 2017 10:37PM
Nearly fifty of us gathered around the fire in front of the Roundhouse. The sun’s slanting rays shone a golden light into the mossy oak forest. Eric moved slowly around the circle, greeting everyone, subtly intensifying the excitement that was in the air. When the moment was right he blew the horn and silence fell. He welcomed everyone, including some who’d been coming to Cae Mabon for a long time, and spoke about the ceremony.
‘This place as been called Cae Mabon for many years. But this evening, on the thirtieth anniversary of the day it all began – 26th October 1986 – we will be, for the first time, ceremonially bringing the Spirit of Mabon here.’
‘Mabon son of Modron, the Great Son of the Great Mother, was the Divine Youth of Ancient Britain. According to Welsh legend he is buried high in the Nantlle Valley, a few miles southwest of here as the Raven flies. Last year Gwyn Edwards and I tracked down the probable site of Mabon’s grave. We found, to our dismay, that it’s now buried under a huge, dark, brooding slate tip. We felt, as in the story of long ago, that his spirit should be freed from this prison: and that he should be brought here, where he can breathe again and inspire us in the world now.’
‘As part of the ceremony we will process to the sacred places of Cae Mabon telling, as we go, the old story of the Ancient Animals and the Quest for Mabon.’
With that we all moved to the river by the pool before the Faerie Queen. That evening, magically lit with one of Ted’s flares, she’d never looked more beautiful. Eric, taking on the role of storyteller, stepped onto a rock by the water’s edge, blew the horn and began the tale.
‘Culhwch and his companions went to Arthur seeking advice on how to find Mabon son of Modron. Arthur said they must ask the Ancient Animals. So they went to speak to the Blackbird of Cilgwri. Gwrhyr – the one who spoke all the languages of the world including of the animals – said: “We are the messengers of Arthur seeking Mabon son of Modron. Have you ever heard of him?” And the Blackbird said: “I am old, very old. When I was young there was an iron anvil here. Every night I would wipe my beak on that anvil. Now it’s no bigger than a nut. But in all that time I’ve never heard of the man you seek. However there is one older than I and that is the Stag of Rhedynfre, Go to speak to the Stag.”
Following a powerful drumbeat the procession moved to up the track to a great oak by a waterfall in the river – also dramatically lit. The storyteller spoke again.
‘They came to Rhedynfre and Gwrhyr spoke to the Stag, as before. And the Stag said: “I am old, very old.”’
By now everyone was fervently joining in this chorus line.
‘”When I was young there was a tiny sapling here. It grew into a great oak tree with a hundred branches (gesturing upward to the tree’s crown). Then that tree withered with age and fell. Now there is only this red stump. But (chorus) in all that time I’ve never heard of the man you seek. However there is one older than I and that is the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd. Go to speak to the Owl.”’
The procession continued up river to the great, alder shaded stone slab where log seats surrounded a flickering fire. This time it was the turn of the Owl to say: “I am old, very old. When I was young this valley was filled with a forest. A race of men came, men who live such short lives, and they cut down the trees. But the trees grew back and the forest you see before you now is the third forest to fill this valley. But in all that time I’ve never heard of the man you seek. However there is one older than I and that is the Eagle of Gwernabwy. Go to speak to the Eagle.”
This time the procession wound up a narrow lantern lit path to a tiny ‘chapel’ in the rock where there’s a shrine to Modron, the Great Mother. Here it was the turn of the Eagle to speak. When he was young, he said: ‘He would stand on a rocky crag and peck at the stars. Now that crag is no bigger than a fist. But in all that time…” The Eagle advised Arthur’s men to speak to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw. “If the Salmon doesn’t know about the man you seek,” he said, “I don’t know who will.”
And so our ragged band, still following the beat of the drum, made its way up to the blazing fire in the new courtyard outside Trem Eilio, adorned by fairy lights. Here the storyteller told how of how the Salmon helped Arthur’s warriors to free Mabon from his liminal sea fortress on the banks of the Severn River. Mabon was then able to fulfil his destiny of riding with the Goddess, overcoming the Forces of Darkness and releasing the Spirit of Spring.
The story was told but there was one more stop on our processional route. Over the previous few days, as part of a mini-working party, a young Belgian helper had created Mabon’s Crown, a ring of sturdy slate slabs holding pointed uprights leaning out at an angle, modelled on the Bronze Age cairn of Bryn Caner Fader. At its centre was a thick round of wood, the base for a shrine.
The horn blew, the drum continued to beat. By now it was dark so the whole scene was lit only by flares. Then from the darkness below came Angharad with four girls, each carrying sacred objects brought from the area of Mabon’s grave. About ten other children stood within the circle around the shrine as the adults looked on from without. One by one Mabon’s gifts were brought to the shrine by the girls: a large quartz crystal from the Earth; a pair of beautiful rams horns for Animal Life; and a garland woven from the berried boughs from the thorn grove for Plant Life. Then a jug of Water from the spring at the base of Mabon’s slate tip was poured over the shrine. After these offerings were made the children – representing ‘divine youth’ themselves – were asked to think of what they loved about Cae Mabon and what they dreamed for its future. It was a profoundly moving moment. The Spirit of Mabon had been brought to Cae Mabon.
We all then made our way back down the hill to the fire outside the Roundhouse where, in the flare-light, everybody had the chance to say something about what Cae Mabon meant to him or her personally. It was an intensely rich and varied expression of appreciation and gratitude.
Later we repaired to the Barn where, in a rather miraculous self-organising kind of way, a splendid feast had been manifested. Afterwards some sang in the Roundhouse or luxuriated in the hot tub. It had been a most magical day.
By ericmaddern, Mar 17 2014 5:28PM
Due to cancellations (or failures to confirm) we have three time slots available for booking at Cae Mabon this year. They are: 19-27 May, 16-26 June and 8-18 September. Get in touch by email if you're interested and I'll send you details of costs and what you get. Thanks. Eric
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