MABON'S WAY: Walkabout in Mythic Eryri
Long ago I was a ‘bush artist’ in the remote Aboriginal communities of Central Australia. Unlike missionaries, anthropologists or government officials – who all want to take or control – our brief was to bridge the cultures through music, story, clowning and art.
It was a privilege to step into the lives of indigenous Australians where they still spoke their languages, hunted and gathered, made ceremonies on sacred ground. At least they did then, forty years ago. But the elders were already worried that their youth were losing touch with the old ways, drawn by cars, town, alcohol and the cheap thrills of western society. A forty-thousand-year-old culture was facing oblivion in a generation. Why would the old ones not weep? To see their ancestors forgotten, their sacred lands untended, the way of the Dreaming lost.
I was moved by the nobility and dignity of the people I met and wondered, not only how I could help, but also what we could learn from them. In their view we white Australians ‘had no Dreaming’, no spiritual connection to land, ancestors and story. So I thought, if there was a ‘white man’s Dreaming’, what would it be?
I’ve now lived in Snowdonia, co-creating Cae Mabon, for 35 years. During that time I’ve been looking for sacred land, ancient story and spiritual meaning. As part of that quest I’ve co-run (with Hugh Lupton) a series of retreats for storytellers on ‘storytelling and the mythological landscape’. We’ve delved into the oral traditions of Britain, from the hunter-gatherers to the Industrial Revolution, and we’ve explored the stunning sacred landscapes of Eryri, Môn and Penllyn. Arising from that work I’ve found several songlines, routes across the landscape studded with sacred sites and story. One stands out: the Nantlle Valley Songline. I consider it the most mythically rich twenty miles in Britain!
The original Australians go on ‘walkabout’ following the songlines, performing ceremonies in sacred sites along the way. They wear masks, paint their bodies, chant the stories and dance. By so doing they keep the spirit of the Dreamtime alive and become, they say, ‘who they were at the beginning of time’. This ceremonial ‘business’ invigorates the land and charges the participants with sacred power.
Inspired by this indigenous practice and encouraged by Alan Moore’s statement that magic happens when we “re-invest the physical world around us with the lifeblood of legend and mythology”, a band of ten artists, musicians, storytellers, poets, activists and guides set out to walk Mabon’s Way, the Nantlle Valley Songline. We’d tell the myths where they happened, make music and ceremony, cook and camp in the wild. Perhaps we’d even ‘become who we were at the beginning of time’!
First stop, Dinas Dinlle, looking over the Llyn Peninsula
On the beach between Dinas Dinlle, an eroding hillfort once home to the trickster-wizard Gwydion, and a reef out to sea where Arianrhod’s castle once stood, we gathered.in the late afternoon sunshine. This is the landscape of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. We sculpted seaweed, pebbles, driftwood and shells to honour the wronged Arianrhod. We immersed in the friendly sea then gathered round our shrine. Suddenly a woman was standing there, her arms outstretched, tears streaming down her face. She was moved to see such a thing of beauty and communion. She knew nothing of Arianrhod. We welcomed her into our circle. She was an accidental priestess, blessing our journey with her tears…
Our shrine to Arianrhod on the beach
That night we camped at Caer Dathyl, one-time stronghold of Math son of Mathonwy, the original Bear King of these islands. On the summit he stood, back protected by the Great Mountain, left arm reaching out to the Llyn Peninsula, right hand sweeping across Môn, the fertile Mother Island. Across the sea to the west lay Tir Na Nog, the Land of the Ever-Young. In this strong place we huddled round a windy fire and, with the banjo strumming, continued Math’s tale.
Next morning we walked down to the whirlpool where the Llyfni River flows into the hill. It once teemed with salmon. No more. As we stood there singing and praying a silver trout leapt from the pool and seemed to hover in the air. Never had anyone seen a leaping fish so clearly. Another blessing…
Mabon son of Modron, Great Son of the Great Mother, is said to be buried in the upper Nantlle Valley. But his grave-shrine is now beneath a huge, brooding slate tip. So we called to his spirit, as he’d been called to in the story long ago. We symbolically unburied him and honoured the possibility that this spectacular spot was where the goddess religion of Britain made its last stand!
Looking back through Drws y Coed down to the sea
After passing the Gateway to the Otherworld and hearing of Marged the Mighty, we stopped at Pulpit Rock, singing our grief to the entire valley. Then we climbed the ‘Crystal Crag’ and descended to a ruined cottage called Llwyn y Forwyn, meaning Fairy Maiden’s Bush. This place is regarded by some as ‘Tylwyth Teg Central’. So that night around fire we sang songs and told stories of the Tylwyth Teg, the Fair Folk. Later an erotic fairy shimmer seemed to pass through us from the wild darkness…
The 'three maidens' in the boat, about to disappear into the mist
At dawn cloud hung low. The canoe crossed the lake once with bags then returned to take the rest. But there was room amidships and our three women, ‘fair maidens’, stepped in and were paddled out, disappearing into the mist. By lunchtime we were on Bwlch Cwm Llan, said to overlook the site of Arthur’s last battle, the Battle of Camlann. We heard the tragic tale of how Arthur slew his very own son but was brought down in a rain of arrows on Bwlch y Seithau, Pass of the Arrows; of how his body was carried down the mountain to a lake; of how a boat came from the mist with three maidens and bore him away… Life echoing myth echoing life…
As we crossed this mythic landscape we found ourselves naturally dropping into archetypal roles, like the Lady of the Lake, Wounded King, Minstrel-Fool, Hermit, Priestess, even Arthur…. Was this us ‘becoming who we were at the beginning of time’?
Mabon's merry band on the summit of Yr Aran
At the summit of Yr Aran, High Place with Long Legs, the spectacular view was hidden in cloud. But a banjo chord was plucked, women’s voices rose and fell, and prayers were spoken. This is the nearest peak to Dinas Emrys, our destination, once known as the Fort of Fiery Higher Powers. We communed with the druids and alchemists who must have come here. Then, on our long descent, we howled into the Valley of the Wolves and prayed for their return.
First glimpse of Dinas Emrys
On the final afternoon we stood in the hollow of the sacred pool, named the guardian mountains and invoked the ancient deities of each direction. We told of the making of Blodeuedd, the Flower Maiden, and the coming of the Two Dragons. We drank mead from a leather tankard to toast the Spirits of the Place. And we beseeched the powers concentrated here to help us in the battle against Climate Change. Red and white dragons working together are stronger than when they fight. Our frontline climate warrior made a passionate plea, then bathed in the waters of the pool and was blessed. Merlin swooped in with his ‘healing maiden will return’ prophecy, ending with the words: ‘The Dust of the Ancients shall be Restored.’
Packing up camp the next day
The following night we invited a few friends to the Roundhouse for an impromptu ‘Tales from Mabon’s Way’. We sang-chant-improvised the story of our wayfaring journey. After a week we were well tuned. Artist, poet, singer, musician, drummer, storyteller, guide and shaman played together easily and the stories came tumbling out. Afterwards the Fool said we’d stumbled upon a new art form. Perhaps we had…
One thing, at least, was true. We were not lost. We were ‘mything in action’.
Leslie, our banjo-playing quarter master and holy fool!
And the map he made of