WTF Mabinogion, Why You So Weird?

WTF Mabinogion, Why You So Weird?

What the hell did I just read? No, seriously, what the hell was that all about? Pryderi gives his mother, Rhiannon to Manawydan… because loyalty?? Not sure. But Rhiannon seems ok with this. So tra la la, all is well until BOOM! A curse descends on the land, and all the crops and critters are lost. Rhiannon, Manawydan, Pryderi, and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa seem to be the only people living in this desolate land. So Manawydan and Pryderi decide to hunt and fish for a while. Somehow, this life becomes tiresome, and they decide to move to London and open a saddle shop. Sure, why not, two crazy kids in the big city with a dream to make the best damn saddles around. Of course, when the other saddle makers find out how awesome Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Emporium is they take the logical course of action and decide to create a better product at a reasonable price to encourage a healthy and competitive market. No wait, they decide to try and KILL them. A reasonable response, don’t you think? Pryderi wants to kill them in retaliation, Manawydan says, no, let’s go into business making shields. So they do, and Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Emporium is a big hit. Then the other shield makers get their knickers in a twist and decide to get stabby. Pryderi wants to kill them, Manawydan says, no, let’s going to business making shoes. Thus, Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Shoe Emporium is born. Oddly enough, in spite of Manawydan prediction that shoemakers are yella’ bellied, they get homicidal at their success as well. Why these guys didn’t just open up Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Shoe Pointy Things & Seige Weapon Emporium in the first place is beyond me. Somehow, the shoemakers are the final straw, and Manawydan and Pryderi head home. One day, they are out hunting when a white boar appears and leads them to fort or caer. The dogs chase the boar into the fort, and Pryderi decides to go in after his dogs. Inside he finds a golden bowl that freezes him in place as soon as he touches it. Manawydan, like the mensch he is, waits until sundown and then just leaves without Pryderi. When Rhiannon asks where her son is, Manawydan shrugs and says, “Dunno. Somewhere.” Rhiannon is annoyed at his slacker attitude, and goes in search of Pryderi herself, only to fall victim to the same fate when she finds him. Perhaps if they had had some OSHA training at the castle, she would have known to knock him away with a stick, rather than grab it herself. Cigfa sees that only she and Manawydan are left, and she is distraught. Manawydan basically promises not to rape her (I think) and then says, “Hey, you know what we should do?” to which, Cigfa should have replied, “Go in search of our missing mates in the exact place we know they are?”. “Naaaah,” says Manawydan, “Let’s go to London and become shoemakers!” (I somehow missed the fact that the caer had vanished when I first read this… but still). “ Wait,” says Cigfa, “didn’t you and my husband try that and it ended up with hoards of wrathful cobblers chasing you with torches and pitchforks?” “Shhhhh, let’s not speak of such trivial things.”, said Manawydan the sub-genius. Off they went, and Manawydan and Pryderi’s Cigfa’s Saddle Shield Shoe Pointy Things & Seige Weapon Shoes Again Emporium is open for business. Of course, after a year of this the shoemakers once again go on a rampage. And Manawydan and Cigfa head back to their empty kingdom. This time, he plants some wheat. Just as he is about to harvest it, some magical mice destroy his crops. So he captures one in a glove and plans on executing it for it’s crimes. After a dude begs him repeatedly and in different disguises not to kill it, he finally asks they guy why he wants this mouse so badly. Guy admits it’s his wife, and that he had cursed the land in retaliation for Gwawl being subjected to Badger-in-a-Bag two stories ago. Manawydan negotiates the freeing of Pryderi and Rhiannon, as well as the restoration of his land. Then dude tells them that Pryderi and Rhiannon were held in place by door knockers and ass collars. Then I just “noped” outta there, cuz this shit be cray cray.

(I wrote this before reading the 4th branch because I was running out of time. Now I wish I had written about the 4th branch instead of this nutso thing)



Wow. How awesome is the phrase “Badger-in-a-Bag”? LOVE IT. So this is my first time reading the Mabinogion, however I have read about some of the stories and characters before. So far, the writing style is…. well, let’s just say I can see the influence on English writing. It’s a bit stiff compared to The Tain, and it definitely lacks a lot of the comedy and wit (although, Rhiannon telling Pwyll that he could have spared his horse a lot of grief if he had just asked her to stop rather than chase her was a total “OOOH! SNAP!” moment). And I swear, if Pwyll said, “Between me and God” one more time… What? Is he Rainman? He starts every sentence with it!

Another contrast is the women. Oh, the women. We are only about 35 pages in and already I am leery of the way women are going to be treated in these stories. Point number one: Pwyll desires Rhiannon based solely on the fact that she is a hot chick on a fast horse. She’s the Welsh Malibu Barbie (Barbi ap Mallybw?). She manages to negotiate the marriage on her terms, but then at their “engagement party”, Pwyll ends up giving her to another guy, who clearly sees nothing wrong with this arrangement. Seriously, who wants to be married to someone who doesn’t want you? Marriage is hard enough when you both want to be there. Of course, in the end, she gets his dumb ass “badgered”, so again she wins, but what a lousy way to treat a gal. Next, she has a baby, and somehow the six handmaidens lose it. Talk about sucking at your job. Instead of butching up and dealing with the situation, or, I don’t know, LOOKING FOR THE BABY, they decide to frame Rhiannon for eating her kid. Nice. Way to throw a sister under the bus. They persist in their lies until Rhiannon is sentenced to do public penance and tell everyone her story. To make me even more rage-filled, when their lies are exposed and it is shown that Rhiannon clearly did not eat her baby (several YEARS later), not only is she not particularly bitter, NOBODY SEEMS INTERESTED IN PUNISHING THE GAGGLE OF BITCHES THAT ACCUSED HER. Why? Ooooh if I were Rhiannon I would be in a state of mind to retaliate with god-like fury. THIS calls for a warp spasm. You know, I probably would be so hateful towards these women, except 1. Backstabbing women is a hot button issue for me. And 2. They killed puppies to achieve their goal. PUPPIES. Puppy killers get no mercy from me. So far, Rhiannon seems like she’s being bullied left and right, and while in each instance she more or less comes out on top in the end, it still fills me with what my husband calls my “bear rage”.

Interestingly, Rhiannon, like Medb, is associated with the goddess of the throne, that by ritually marrying her a king married his kingdom (Proinsias Mac Cana’s Celtic Mythology- a cool book if you can find a copy). So far, the two seem vastly different as characters. Rhiannon seems to fit that description more, as she seems easier to manipulate in this story and lacks her own motives. She seems less like an actual queen and more like the embodiment of a concept. Medb was nothing BUT motive and seems more like a leader, albeit a lousy one.

Don’t get me started on Branwen. Abused, enslaved, held captive, and then they throw her baby on the fire? Again, we have no idea what her motives or desires are in life. She’s just there to be the Golden Vagina that men want… because vagina. She has zero agency or character. Something tells me The Mabinogion is going to be like a Lars von Trier movie: filled with woman being victimized, abused, and traded like cattle. (Seriously, have you seen his movies? I mean, I actually loved Dogville, but it’s hard to take everything the leads up to the ending. Breaking the Waves was like some kind of really negative personal fetish fantasy, and Dancer in the Dark was like making a musical out of torture porn. Melancholia basically makes a woman’s inability to control her emotions the cause of the apocalypse. I won’t even watch Antichrist, seeing as the woman in the story is supposed to be the titular character, not to mention she mutilates her genitals with scissors. Eeech! I am convinced the man just hates women.)

Rough Week

Rough Week

This weekend it was very difficult to write. I’ve had several rather serious personal dramas fall in my lap, and even though I’ve done the reading I am finding it hard to concentrate on writing my journal. I have also been spending a large amount of time researching my research paper, and my brain is having a hard time shifting gears. I have also noticed that I am having a hard time writing about The Tain in general, even though I didn’t have a problem discussing it in class. I finally figured out that this is because there is something about the style of the tale that lends itself more to dynamic discussion rather than dry prose. I mentioned in class that I felt the Norse wrote great poetry, but the Celts told great stories. Maybe it’s because I am used to dissecting the symbolism and cultural relevance of the Norse stories, but I haven’t really gotten the feel for the Celtic stories. I find the complete futility of the entire raid baffling. All these people die to serve the egomaniacal needs of one pair of jackasses, and in the end both the bulls die anyway (cue 70s sitcom ironic trumpet “loser” sound effect). What in the heck was that all about? I keep looking for some deeper, esoteric wisdom to be gleaned from all this, but I can’t even come up with something akin to a simple moral parable. Were these stories for the sake of entertainment? Historical documentation? I think that their lack of “mythic” feel is what has made them hard for me to put into context. I can discuss what happened in the stories, but not what it means. The best I have been able to reason is that these stories aren’t any kind of moral or spiritual guide, and they aren’t strictly historical documentation, rather they feel like a map of ancient Ireland. The constant listing of names and places, who did what where, etc seems like a way of mapping out the history of the land, rather than the people. As someone who was a habitual gypsy in her youth, I often joke about how the worst thing about moving to a new town is the way people give directions based on what USED to be there. When I first moved back to Seattle from Los Angeles, I had a job in the Greenlake area. Any time I asked how to get somewhere, I was invariably told a list of directions based on where the “Honey Bear Bakery used to be”. Just this weekend, my husband and I drove to the Mukilteo area where I grew up to visit my family. We had to meet my mother at a restaurant in Everett for lunch. I knew the restaurant was where “The Ranch” used to be, and I remembered where “The Ranch” used to be because that’s where my mother met stepfather #2. I knew it was past the apartment complex where my friend Shanel and I got drunk in high school and she had a huge fight with her boyfriend, so I ended up walking 5 miles home at 3am in lousy shoes. I also knew that if we reached the mall that I worked at when I was 18 we had gone too far. By describing the landscape in a way that is relatable and personally engaging gives it meaning. Since ancient Ireland didn’t have signs, stores, and Google Maps, being able to point to the 3 hills Fergus sliced the tops off of was useful. Being able to envision Cu Chulainn’s deeds and movements across the countryside gives you a visualization of what the lay of the land is. As was pointed out in that article you sent, being able to clearly delineate property boundaries would have been crucial to a culture that practices pastoral transhumance. The seasonal migration of cattle with out barbed wire fences, maps, or signposts would risk confrontation between herdsmen, or worse you could end up not finding your pasture land if you didn’t have a way of navigating efficiently. And as anyone here can attest to, navigating in a gloomy, overcast environment without starts or sun to guide you can be tricky. By generating a history of the land with outrageous stories and great feats that carve the landscape, you create memorable landmarks to navigate and mark borders. I think this is a valuable illustration of the different functions of myth in a culture. The Norse used their myths to guide behavior and turn an eye inward. They wanted to make sense of their place in the world. The Celts wanted to describe their world to avoid conflict and strife and ensure survival.



I think I have figured out my problem with writing the journal entries, especially for the Celtic portion of the class. I am so accustom to writing in this very formal, dry tone for my clergy classes, and I am really wanting to just let loose and blather on here. So, I’ma gonna blather, mmm kay?

I am still feeling a love/hate thing with The Tain. When it is good, it is brilliant. This is one of the most amazingly quotable books ever written. Seriously, these are better comebacks than you will find at a Dean Martin roast. There is this deadpan humor that absolutely floors me. The things people say when they are dying are bizarre, I can’t even tell if they are supposed to be humorous or not. When he kills Ferdia, Ferdia actually says, “That is enough now. I’ll die of that”. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or not. On the one hand, the scene is very serious and poignant, as Cuchulainn is killing his foster brother by Scathach. On the other hand, what a weird and wonderful thing to to say. The death of Etarcomol is gruesome, but so extreme and outrageous it’s hard to see it as less than extremely gory slapstick. It’s like a Monty Python skit. The sheer volume of effortlessly brutal slayings in this book is absurd, even by mythological standards. I find the non-stop onslaught of hyperbolic narrative of Cuchulainn’s deeds extraordinary. In almost every hero myth I have ever encountered we are reminded how exceptional and superhuman the hero is, but Cuchulainn edges into the realm of the Tall Tale. He doesn’t just kill men, he obliterates them. In the words of my husband, “I’ma gonna kill ya, swim across the River Styx, and kill ya again! All without mah water wings!” (My husband does the best redneck battle taunts you have ever heard. Of course, he also once chased a friend’s abusive boyfriend through the soft North Carolina night while brandishing a trident, so yeah, he is no stranger to the warp spasm. I have no idea where he got a trident, however, if nothing else it. worked as a psychological deterrent and the guy stopped hurting his girlfriend). He is the ultimate in swagger, capable of “feats” and stunts that aren’t even superhuman, they defy all laws of natural reason.

I wanted to add that I was a bit befuddled at his encounter with The Morrigan. I am wondering if there will be more on that later, but it was a bit of a head scratcher for me. What does she want? Why? The only way we know it is specifically her is the fact that the title of the chapter mentions her. I know from outside reading that she is associated with cattle as well as war, but I guess I am stuck in the Norse paradigm of fate being something already determined, so her attempts to change the course of battle are hard for me to understand. I do find the overlap between her and the valkyries fascinating. She is a chooser of the slain in her own right, and associated with crows and ravens. I also find it telling that the Celts, who were a pastoral culture prone to cattle raids, would combine their Cattle Goddess (usually the Cow Goddess is a nurturing, life affirming figure) with their War Goddess. She’s like a mythical Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, two great tastes that taste great together. I must learn more about this…

I feel like I really need a stronger background in this subject matter to fully appreciate it. I should have spent this past week studying this, but I was wrapped up in working on my research paper, practicing the ukulele, catching up on housework, and getting ready for Yule. Now I just feel like a chump, since we are almost done with the book and I don’t have nearly the depth of understanding I would like to have. Of course, it’s taken years to have the modest level of understanding I have of Norse mythology, so I am probably expecting way too much of myself. It’s more than just knowing the stories, it’s knowing what the stories are about, what they most likely meant to the people who told them. I just don’t have the broad spectrum of knowledge behind it to feel confident in how I am interpreting the story.



So, I am trying to wade through this book. I have to be honest, so far this story is less than scintillating for me. There is a great deal of detail to the stories, and sometimes that makes for magnificant yarn spinning, other times it’s like painting a small room hot pink. The tale gets weighed down with the utter hyperbole and over-abundance of names and places. I think this story stars every single living human in Ireland at the time it was written. I am desperately trying to see it as more than just a really flowerey story about cattle rustling, but I have fallen asleep twice now while reading it. The thing that makes this really lame is that not all of it is bad, the parts that are good are BRILLIANT. I am trying to flesh out my knowledge of the mythoilogy outside of the Tain, but it’s a lot to read in a short amount of time.

As far as why the story is the way it is, I think I am starting to get it. I think I have found one image to completely sum up ancient Celtic culture.

Yep. That pretty much says it all.

The Táin Bó Cúailnge is about a cattle raid. Medb decides she wants Dáire’s splendiferous bull so her wealth will be equal to her husband Ailill. Of course she does, this is a perfectly reasonable justification for war. These folks declare war at the drop of a hat. I think it’s kind of interesting that they seem to hide behind the geis and other restrictions to limit the number of casualties they have and avoid battle altogether.

The Pangs of the Ulstermen is a perfect example of this. Time to march off to battle? UGH! LABOR PAINS! No war for you today my friend (or the next 5 days and 4 nights).This isn’t cowardice (I dare you to day that to their faces), it’s casualty abatement. And seriously, how many times are they going to use this gimmick? I envision their enemies rolling their eyes and checking their watches. Another way of avoiding battle? “Oops! We can’t just go charging in, the guy we want to fight has left this hobbling device here with a message! We wouldn’t want to make him mad, now, would we?”. Why waste the lives of dozens of warriors when you can just send Cú Chulainn in to do single combat with one guy? Contrary to popular belief, life was not any cheaper then than it is today, just more fleeting if you weren’t careful. A king needed his soldiers. If you can resolve a conflict with a minimum of death and without losing face, that was a win-win situation for everyone involved.

I know I am supposed to write more, but I spent all day trying to catch up and my brain is completely fried. To the point where I am adding pictures of Bugs Bunny to my mythology homework assignments. I think I am going to do better with the class discussion with this one.

(I actually started writing this before I read your email with the pages about rituals of conflict reduction. I don’t know if these subjects are related, but it would be funny if they were!)

I will leave you with a lousy haiku:

Rolling hills of green

Cú Chulainn is a bad ass

What’s with the place names?



So, here we are again with yet another tale of unavoidable prophecy leading to death and destruction. Once again it revolves around a woman. I am really starting to wish there was a categorization scheme for mythology similar to the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folklore. Oooh! Maybe I should start one? I mean I’m no expert, but I think I could work something out. Unless there is one out there already I don’t know about.

But I digress.

Derdriu, daughter of Fedlimid mac Daill, is born under a rather bleak prophecy that she will spread misery and pain, causing kings to go to war and the exile of the greatest warriors in Ulster. Of course, the not-completely-brain-dead people in the room at the time say, “OY! (because they are Celts, you see) Let’s just kill the baby and be done with it!”. But Conchobar decides to think with his “side arm” and is seduced by her beauty. Let’s be clear: the man is willing to bet the lives of his subjects, the future of his kingdom, the exile of Ulster’s finest, EVERYTHING, on the possible beauty of a possible girl child, that he maybe might get to nail in the future. I don’t recall the text being very specific about at what age he decides Derdriu is “ready”, but let’s just say for the sake of argument, that is a lot to risk for a potential shag 16 years in the future.

Derdriu is born, and Conchobor the Horny locks her up, presumable in a tall tower, as kings usually do with fair maidens. Derdriu, shockingly, is not interested in the lecherous old creep that is holding her captive, and instead decides she wants a guy who resembles a slaughtered calf. What do you expect? The girl has been locked in a tower her whole life, she probably doesn’t know that a man shouldn’t look like the inside of an animal carcass. She is clued in that her dream carcass is named Noisiu. She lies in wait for him, and in the first instance of what I hope will be many in this section of this class, tells him it’s time for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, so he’d best get to work. Noisiu, like just about any man would, eventually complies. She runs off with him, stuff happens, the prophecy comes true, Noisiu is killed. Conchobar retakes Derdriu, who is now completely defeated. For a year, he keeps her like a miserable house pet (or worse). When he is finally fed up with her resistance (seriously, what did he expect?) he asks her who she hates the most. She says Eogan, the man who killed her beloved Noisiu. As a punishment, Conchobar takes her to live with Eogan for a year. On the way, he mocks her, basically pointing out her role as little more than a book to be loaned to a neighbor, not to mention the implication she is a sex toy (he calls her an ewe between two rams). In his opinion, she is completely powerless. Rather than be defeated. Derdriu takes the only option left to her, and dashes her head against a rock and dies. Fuck you very much, Conchobar. I found her story completely frustrating and rage inducing. My moral outrage at this poor woman being enslaved and treated like a trinket was nauseating. I think perhaps part of the reason it was so upsetting was because Celtic woman did have more power than other woman of the time. She knew what she was missing, she knew that this situation wasn’t just a woman’s lot in life, this was HER lot in life, she had been singled out for this living hell. Maybe it just hit a bit close to home for me on a personal level, or maybe it was the fact that when she finally breaks free her happiness is so short lived. I tend to be very annoyed at the way women are portrayed in the media, either as the shrewish, castrating wife, the perpetual victim, the “boobs”, the useless sidekick, and all of them only if she is appropriately “hot”. I think part of my problem with this story was how she was being cast in the role of The Vagina Men Will Die For (my husband and I call it the “golden vagina”, because she is usually a character who is completely uninteresting but every man wants her and is willing to die for her) and as The Perpetual Victim, but her actions show that she isn’t any of those things. She is trying to take control of her life, and in the end, all she can do is take control of her death.

Brynhild and Gudrun: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Brynhild and Gudrun: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Brynhild and Gudrun are two women who are, for all intents and purposes, diametric polarities on the scale of Norse women. Brynhild represents a strong, feminine warrior, a valkyrie, a woman of conviction. Gudrun’s character leans toward a more passive role, a woman who is a perpetual bride and the passive victim of the circumstances that surround her. In spite of these pronounced differences, both their stories end with the same basic outcome: death and sorrow.

Brynhild’s story begins when we are introduced to her on a fiery mountain top. She reveals to Sigurd that she is either a valkyrie or a shield maiden (depending on which version you accept), and that she is there as a punishment from Odin. The Sigrdrifumol in the Poetic Eddas says:

“Odin pricked her with the sleep-thorn in punishment for this, and said that she should never thereafter win victory in battle, but that she should be wedded. “And I said to him that I had made a vow in my turn, that I would never marry a man who knew the meaning of fear.”

Immediately we know that this is not a woman to be trifled with. She is a warrior, she is a chooser of the slain, and she is self-possessed enough to go against a god. She is also a woman who lives by her convictions. Odin imposes a condition on her future, that she will be forced to lay down her sword and get married. Brynhild counters with a near impossible condition of her own, that he will be a man who knows no fear. Even in the face of divine castigation, she is defiant and insists on calling the shots. It is only through subterfuge and trickery that she is forced into breaking her vow. When the deception is revealed to her by Gudrun, she takes action, and has Sigurd killed. In the end, Brynhild chooses to take her own life, making the final decision about her destiny herself. She is even burned on the funeral pyre of another woman’s husband at her request. It takes a great deal of chutzpa to have a man killed and then ask to have your body burned along with his in front of his widow.

Conversely, all of Gudrun’s actions and decisions are made for her by others. When we first meet Gudrun in the Volsungasaga, she is introduced thusly:

There was a king hight Giuki, who ruled a realm south of the Rhine; three sons he had, thus named: Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm, and Gudrun was the name of his daughter, the fairest of maidens; and all these children were far before all other king’s children in all prowess, and in goodliness and growth withal; ever were his sons at the wars and wrought many a deed of fame.

She is defined as someone’s daughter, an object of beauty. She is there to be strategically married. Gudrun desires Sigurd, but he only has eyes for Brynhild. It is Grimhild who takes action by poisoning Sigurd and making him forget his love for Brynhild. Then it is Gudrun’s brother Gunnar’s desire for Brynhild that takes Brynhild out of the equation once and for all for Sigurd. Gudrun gets to marry Sigurd not because of any action she has taken or decisions she has made, but by default. When she reveals Gunnar and Sigurd’s deception to Brynhild, it is in response to Brynhild’s boasting and snubbing at the river while washing their hair. Again, she does not act, she reacts. Her character is summarized completely by her response to her husband’s death, which is literally to do nothing. She becomes dormant, inactive, almost catatonic. Gudrun is incapable of independent, unfacilitated action throughout the story.

Both Gudrun and Brynhild share a common thread in the tapestry of fate. They both, at different times, are wed or betrothed to Sigurd, both dream of their shared destiny before it happens, and both end up widowed (Brynhild posthumously). There the similarities end. These women are opposite sides of the same coin of how Norse life was for a woman. While there were opportunities for a woman to fight alongside men, to stand up for herself, and to have an independent personality, far too often they were used as bullet points on a trade agreement, a peace offering, or currency. Brynhild demonstrates the perils of life as an independent woman. She is punished repeatedly for pursuing things that she desires. She is forced to give up the only thing she ever wanted, being a shield maiden, and her anger over this is palpable. Gudrun, on the other hand, demonstrates how a life without self-advocacy leaves an individual at the mercy of the maelstrom of world around her. Both women end up victims of their own actions (or inactions), and in the end neither way seems to be the right way in this story.