Mabinog's Liturgy

Nativity with Beasts and Shepherds
(Dum Medium Silentium Tenerent Omnia)
drypoint, 1928, on wove paper

by David Jones


In the middle silences of this night’s course the blackthorn blows white on Orcop Hill.

They do say that on this night

in the warm byres

shippons, hoggots and out-barns of Britain

in the closes and the pannage-runs and on the sweet lawns of Britain

the breathing animals-all

do kneel.

Some may say as on this night

                                                the narrow grey-rib wolves

from the dark virgin wolds and indigenous thickets of Britain,

though very hungry and already over the fosse, kneel content on the shelving berm.

If these are but grannies’ tales

maybe that on this night

the nine crones of Glevum in Britannia Prima, and the three heath-hags that do and do and do

north of the Bodotria

in a wild beyond the Agger Antonini

and all the many sisters of Afagddu

that practise transaccidentation from Sabrina Sea to Dindaethwy

in Mona Insula

tell their aves


(from the ‘Mabinog’s Liturgy’ section of The Anathémata by David Jones)


David Jones (1895-1974), in his work as both an artist and a writer, made extensive use of allusive symbolism. Here are some glosses on the text above for those that need to know.

Orcop Hill
David Jones reports that he spoke to a farmer in Herefordshire in 1949 who claimed to have seen the thorn blossoming on Christmas Eve. The farmer also related the legend that animals knelt at this time, though it was outside his personal experience.

Shippons ... pannage-runs
Cow sheds  ... pig pastures.

Gloucester (for the nine crones see 'Peredur' in The Mabinogion)

Firth of Forth

Agger Antonini     )
Antonine Wall
Afagddu                )    These three rhyme
Cerridwen's son
Sabrina Sea          )
Bristol Channel

Transformation brought about by sorcery (but with a suggestion of transubstantiation)

The seas around Wales

Mona Insula
The Isle of Anglesey

Aves unreversed
Even those practising the black arts are redeemed here.


Bo said...

Stunning, and the picture luminous as well.

(Isn't Afagddu C's *son*, not brother?)

I was wondering if the unreversed Aves line is playing on that staple medieval pun, that with Gabriel's 'AVE gratia plena', the sin of Eva (EVA) is reversed, so that Mary is the new obedient Eve just as Christ is the new Adam. So the 'many sisters' with their unreversed Aves are the wild female forces of native paganism, who for Christmas Eve only say 'Ave' (and thus are Marylike and so within the Christian dispensation) instead of 'Eva', signifying their rest-of-the-year identification with pagan female lawlessness and disobedience.

Heron said...

Yes, of course, he is her son. Don't know how I let that one slip through! I've now changed it - thanks for noticing.

I'm sure you're right about the reversed EVA too. Or at least that's just the sort of thing David Jones delighted in and incorporated into his writing. I don't remember this one being picked up by any of his many commentators, but I'm sure there are plenty of such references in his works that still need to be elucidated in this way in spite of all the work that has already been done on this. Certainly the idea that the wild female forces of paganism are brought into line, if only for one night, is present here. He probably got the idea from Milton's 'Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity' which his father read to the family every year on Christmas morning.

Bo said...

Apollo's shriek the steep of Delphos leaving!

Yes, that makes sense---then the ninefold women areas you say brought into line for one night just as the animals kneel at midnight.

Heron said...

Yes, here for one night only, but this does dovetail into the idea that pagan religion had its culmination on Christianity. This idea permeates The Anathémata. A little further on from the piece quoted the three witches are speaking and one says"our un-witched aves pay/ if only on this HER NIGHT OF ALL" and they pay their respects to Mary. A little later the baby is referred to as Maponos and the mother Rhiannon:"Modron our mother?/Ein mam hawddgar?/Truly!/that we must now call MAIR."
The question marks I suppose supply a little caution, but not much!

Bo said...

Indeed! I sometimes wonder if we don't catch in Jones a whiff, a fleeting impression, of something very deep which Pagans tend to spoil by crudely literalizing it.

Heron said...

I always discern something very deep in Jones even where he is indulging in what his critics haves called 'high-church camp'. I can see this but I think he can be regarded as one of the great symbolists both in his written work and in his visual art. And like all good symbolists, whatever is on the surface (which I also find attractive) it is what is revealed in the symbolic depths that really evokes a response to his work; 'difficult' though it is often perceived as being, it is always significant in the literal sense of that word.