Understanding THE FIRST BRANCH
Throughout the Four Branches, we can imagine that the story is set in Britain during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages as the British tribes undergo a transition within their culture. This is because new people had recently arrived in the island and their new ways were impacting their lives and their Land.
The character of Pwyll represents not just one person but a whole group of people, the most ancient tribes of the Land. They are a direct line to the Mesolithic peoples whose evidence can be found on the Gower peninsular, amongst other places, where verification of Shamanic ritual has been uncovered in Britain (see the section 'Evidence for Shamanic Britain').
Pwyll and his tribe abide in Dyfed, nowadays Pembrokeshire, understood through historical record and DNA survey of Britain (completed in 2015) to be the stronghold of the oldest tribes of Britain, the region from which the Bluestones of Preseli were taken for the first stone-building phase of Stonehenge.
The 2015 large-scale British DNA survey, conducted by Oxford University, had some very interesting results. The study was the culmination of 20 years work. The 2,000 people tested were White British, living in rural areas throughout Britain and Northern Ireland, each with four grandparents all born within 50 miles of each other. This enabled a snapshot of British genetics from the time of the grandparents birth, filtering out 20th Century population movement.
The study found distinct genetic groups that were significantly different from each other. The 'Celtic' groups, for example, including North Wales, South Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where genetic similarity was expected, turned out to show completely separate genetic markers from each other, amongst the most different in the whole study. The Welsh also showed striking differences to the rest of Britain and scientists concluded that their DNA most closely resembles that of the earliest hunter-gatherers who arrived in Britain after the Ice Age. Of these, there are three distinct Welsh groups, clustering around South Pembrokeshire, North Pembrokeshire and North Wales. This means there are people living in the region where this story takes place who are quite literally directly related to the earliest humans, the Mesolithic and Shamanic ancestors of Britain, with very little evidence of genetic corruption in the intervening years.
The act of importing the stones from Dyfed for the Sun Temple of the Neolithic era was quite likely a political act that cemented a strong identification with the old tribes and their ancient ways.
The region of Stonehenge in Wiltshire encompasses a spiritual centre with an unbroken line of sacred usage that dates back to the Mesolithic, thanks to the recent archaeological evidence of long-term Mesolithic occupation at Blick Mead, Vespasian's Camp.
This special site, less than two miles to the east of Stonehenge, focuses on a springhead where Mesolithic occupation spanned thousands of years. This may be a significant part of the reason why Stonehenge was erected where it is. The water of the springhead is a steady 10 to 13 degrees centigrade all year round. The spring's basin provided an accessible and reliable supply of flint nodules for tool making. The red algae, 'Hildenbrandia Rivularis' turns red oxidised flint into a most intense magenta pink, within a couple of days of it being removed from the water. The change is permanent, creating an impressive and magical transformation.
The site at Blick Mead is believed by archaeologists to be the locale for the Mesolithic people who built and raised the pine posts at Stonehenge around 10,000 years ago. (See the section 'Evidence for Shamanic Britain' for more information about this.)
Two other features mark the location of Stonehenge as special. There is an avenue built during the third phase of Stonehenge's construction, around 4,600 years ago. It connects Stonehenge to the River Avon. The avenue is constructed with ditch and bank sides. The straight stretch nearest to the stone circle contains a natural landscape feature, bedrock with glacial striations that look like man-made grooves. They are in natural alignment with the sunrise of the summer solstice. The circle may have been built in association with this natural feature, making the most of the natural alignment to a key solar event.
As one arrives at the site, passing the grooved striations inside the avenue, one encounters the next important natural object, the Heel stone. This standing stone pre-dates the man-made elements of the site. It is an erratic and it was laid at the spot by a glacier some time in the ice age. At some early point, in association with the rest of the sacred complex, people raised it up where it lay.
Archaologists have reached the conclusion that Stonehenge is essentially a place associated with ancestors and ancestral worship. Stonehenge also comes into ascendancy at the time when the previous spiritual capital of Britain is declining, in Orkney. We know from the analysis of teeth taken from domestic animals at nearby Durrington Walls, that people travelled far, bringing their live animals, gathering to feast once a year. A surprisingly large number of those attending came from Orkney. It has been suggested that Durrington Walls represented the land of the living, where people came to feast and celebrate. After the feast they would travel down the river to Stonehenge where they paid respects to their ancestors at the stones.
The ascendancy of Stonehenge as the spiritual centre of Britain, therefore, is a kind of early version of Westminster Abbey. This implies a connection to the later medieval practice, amongst cathedrals and abbies, of procuring the bones of saints as relics. This became a means of attracting a greater number of pilgrims, thus bringing wealth. At Glastonbury Abbey, the monks even went so far as to stage the burial site and bones of King Arthur.
A similar practice could be understood at Stonehenge, except that the 'bones' are the stones, stones representing the oldest ancestors of the Land, risen and transported from South Wales to Wiltshire. The Bluestones are, therefore, relics that draw in the crowds and mark Stonehenge as the place of primary pilgrimage, above all other spiritual centres, such as Orkney, Avebury and the sacred landscape of the Gypsey Race in Yorkshire, lying just south of the Mesolithic site of Star Carr. This explains why people at the time took such trouble to move the Bluestones.
Imagine moving such heavy, large stones 4,600 years ago. Each stone weighs 3 to 5 tons and they were moved 160 miles from Preseli, Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge, Wiltshire. Archaeologist now suspect they were already in use as stone circles in Wales, dismantled and re-erected in Wiltshire, it is believed there were originally eighty Bluestones. They consist of spotted dolerite and, until recently, the Preseli outcrops were the only known place in the world where this type of rock was located.
So it is that the first story of the Four Branches introduces the listener to Pwyll, leader of one of the most ancient tribes in Britain, Chief of the people who are most closely linked to the ancestors and the 'old ways' dating back to Mesolithic Britain.
The majority of the action throughout the story occurs in the Lower-world. When Pwyll loses his companions in the woods and the hounds of Annwn appear, we know Pwyll has entered the Lower-world and is undergoing a Shamanic journey. We know this because of the distinct description of the hounds, white with red ears, a clear symbolic indicator to early listeners that the story is taking place in the Lower-world. White and red are colours specifically associated with Goddess.
The hounds' owner is Arawn, the ruler of Annwn. Annwn is well-known as the Welsh name of the Lower-world, a name dating back, at least to the Medieval period, and very likely, much further. So, the listener is clear from this point on that Pwyll's story is part of Otherworld reality. In early Welsh story, Annwn is not identified as a place synonymous with Hell, even though it is understood as being within the Earth, but with Paradise, for it is well known to be a place full of delights, a place of eternal youth, where disease is unknown and food is abundant.
This is the story of a tribal leader making a Shamanic or trance journey, looking for acknowledgment from the Goddess/Land, that he is worthy to represent his people as Shaman and Chief.
We can imagine Pwyll, a young leader and warrior of his tribe, undergoing a ceremony, a challenge to test his suitability to lead, an initiation as Chief and spiritual leader of his people. We can see the tribe gathered for days and nights, feasting, dancing, drumming, chanting and imbibing natural substances such as fungi or mistletoe, all to help Pwyll enter a heightened state of awareness. Through this means he can travel to the otherworlds to be tested, to speak with the spirits of the Land and the ancestors. The process may take place amongst the rocky gorsedd crags of the Preseli hills. The event may be overseen by the tribal elders or a visiting Shaman. Pwyll may be left alone for days to undergo the full experience. When he returns to the tribe, he tells the elders or Shaman the story of his experience and this is his validation. The First Branch is the story of his trance journey. It is not something that happens outside reality, it is, to the tribe, something more real than our usual reality.
Pwyll meets Arawn, his spirit guide, who invites him to enter the Lower-world. Arawn's 'wife' is really the Goddess herself. The test concerns how well Pwyll behaves towards her. It is by his actions regarding this that he will either pass or fail.
Thanks to his honourable and respectful attitude towards Arawn’s 'wife', Pwyll passes the test and proves himself worthy to be ‘married’ or bonded to the Land. Thus, he makes alliegance with the Lower-world, the spirits of the Land and the place of the Ancestors within the Land.
During the time he is in the Lower-world, Pwyll meets Hafgan (which means ‘People of Summer’). Hafgan's presence represents the Neolithic farming people who are newly settled and encroaching on the lives of the original tribes, such as those Pwyll represents. In fact, the purpose of Pwyll's Shamanic journey may be twofold, to make an alliance with the Goddess, thus marking himself as a worthy Chief and to appeal to the spirits and ancestors because of the tribe's fears concerning the new people and their ways. We know that the new farmers are aggressive and are claiming ownership of the land.
By meeting in the Lower-world, Pwyll and Hafgan enter into a kind of 'battle', one that Pwyll wins. Hafgan, in representing the Neolithic farming communities, is asserting his authority and competing to ‘possess’ power within the Land, by seeking to make a bond with the Goddess. Although Hafgan seems to have the knowledge and ability required to enter trance state and walk through the veils as a Shaman, he is unable to ally with the Goddess and her consort in the story. He makes war against the Goddess with the intent to compell her to serve him, using aggression, instead of using respect and honour to win her alliance, as Pwyll does.
The first part of the First Branch ends when Hafgan (Neolithic farmers) has been defeated and Pwyll (Hunter-Gatherers) has proven himself worthy to be allied with the Lower-world and the Goddess. Pwyll is an old-style Shaman in a new world that will never be the same again. However, round one goes to him.
Later in the story, when Pwyll sits on the mound of Arberth, his second Shamanic journey is about to begin. In meeting Rhiannon and visiting her father's kingdom to win her hand, we are hearing the outcome of his second trance journey, taken to cement his alliance with the Goddess as he is bound to her.
Pwyll sits on a mound called ‘Arberth Gorsedd’ in the story. ‘Gorsedd’ means ‘throne’. This is the name given to the annual gathering of the Bards at the Eisteddfod, but this term was not used in this context when the Four Branches was written in Medieval times.
Gorsedd refers here to rocky outcrops which were sacred places utilised for ritual and ceremony, pre-dating the construction of the ancient monuments in Britain.
They are proto-Neolithic temples, used at a time when our ancestors utilsed Mother Nature's own monuments, made of her very bones. Here is another clue that Pwyll and his people are connected to a pre-Neolithic way of life.
These rocky outcrops are situated on powerful earth energy lines within the landscape. Numerous Neolithic monuments were built in their proximity, lending credibility to the sites. An example that springs to mind is Callanish Stone Circle in the Isle of Lewis. This site was built in the context of a nearby gorsedd, a rocky outcrop of Lewisian gneiss, at 3000 million years old, the oldest rock in Britain. The standing stones themselves were also constructed from the hard, crystalline rock. The avenue of standing stones leading from the main circle aligns with the gorsedd, which is seen in outline as a reclining figure.
Another example is Bryn Celli Ddu mound and chamber on Ynys Mon (Anglesey, North Wales). The name means 'the mound of the dark grove'. This is a complex site that has changed appearance and use over the 1000 or so years of its active life. It's construction dates from 6000 years ago. The gorsedd lies nearby, a large rocky outcrop of bedrock projecting up from the earth. This outcrop has numerous cupmarks at its highest point, an arc of three cupmarks and at least six more about two metres away, with a few more randomly placed. Cupmarks are difficult to date, they exist in sites around the world and it is believed they date to the Megalithic and up to early Neolithic in Britain.
When standing on top of Bryn Celli Ddu's gorsedd, one has a marvellous view over the mound, placing it in the context of the range of Snowdonia mountains beyond. There is an outlying standing stone providing an unequivocal alignment between the gorsedd and the mound.
Bryn Celli Ddu mound and gorsedd conjures up a perfect picture of 'Arberth Gorsedd', the mound in our story, as we picture Pwyll waiting on the top of the mound for his marvellous encounter.
For a better understanding of the relationship between ancient natural gorsedds and later Neolithic sites and where to find them, see Julian Cope’s fabulous book, ‘The Modern Antiquarian’.
The mound represents a portal into the Lower-world.
The use of burial chambers and mounds such as Bryn Celli Ddu for Shamanic journeying seems fairly obvious to me, and, at last, the archaeologists agree.
During this journey, Pwyll succeeds in becoming ‘married’ to the Land/Goddess.
Rhiannon, like Arawn's 'wife', is another aspect of the Goddess. Rhiannon is the Maiden Goddess and her energy is that of 'assertive Teacher'. Arawn's wife is the Goddess in as Bride, her energy being 'passive Bearer'. (Read the section called 'Goddess: Embodying the Divine Feminine' for more information about this. )
Rhiannon is the oldest representation of the Goddess in the Four Branches. Her totem animal is the horse which is depicted by numerous details throughout the First Branch.
Throughout the Four Branches, Rhiannon is Maiden, Bride, Mother and Wise Woman, each of the faces of the Goddess within the cycle of the British year.
The name, Rhiannon, means ‘Maiden’, the aspect in which we first encounter her. She has chosen Pwyll as her consort in preference to Gwawl, whose name means ‘Light’.
In order the make a ‘marriage’ with her and prove himself worthy, Pwyll must first overcome this adversary who represents the tribes of Light.
To make a ‘marriage’ with the Goddess is undoubtedly an act that pre-dates marriage ceremonies between husband and wife. Indeed, the role of ‘Bride’ and ‘Groom’ at a wedding is more likely to be a throw-back to this deeper, older pre-Christian bonding that took place between a Shaman and/or Chief and the Goddess/Land.
The spiritual authority of the Chief/Shaman was dependent on his making a successful 'marriage' with the Goddess/Land.
The word ‘Bride’, as we have seen, comes from the name of the Goddess and the name of the Land.
The Shaman makes a commitment by dedicating his life to the ‘Bride' which is Nature/Land/Goddess, for the benefit of his tribe.
In accordance with the principles of energy, the Goddess/Land/Nature contains or holds the power and energy that the Shaman must access to manifest what is needed for healing and the good of the tribe. Both elements are required for this to happen.
For Pwyll in the story, events do not go smoothly, and when Pwyll and his men act without honour by beating Gwawl after he is captured in the bag, they are eventually affected by the laws of karma, for there are unpleasant consequences for Pwyll’s family, which occur later in the Third Branch.
After Pwyll has succeeded in his ‘marriage’ with the Goddess, their union eventually brings forth issue, but The Child is lost again, even on the day he is born.
The theme of the disappearance of The Child is also found in the tale ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ which is older than the Four Branches.
We hear about Modron (meaning ‘Mother’) who loses her son Mabon (meaning ‘Son’) “from between herself and the wall when he is three nights old.”
The Child is a symbol for what is manifest by the bonding of the Shaman (Consort) with the Goddess (Land/Nature). That The Child is lost and later found represents a delay in the beneficial effects coming to the tribe from the union.
As Rhiannon undergoes her trials and tribulation, so Land/Nature is suffering and the people also.
When Pryderi is reunited with his mother, the outcome of the Shaman’s role has finally brought forth the outcome sought.
Pryderi represents the next evolution of the tribe, adapted to survive alongside the new tribes, and yet maintaining the essential characteristics of the old ways.