Last night the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth put on the above event at which Welsh-language author, playwright and poet Aled Jones Williams – who is also an ex-Anglican priest – spoke of some spiritual insights he had gained from the Mabinogi stories and the tale of Taliesin. He was joined by Lama Shenpen Hookham who runs a Buddhist hermitage in North Wales. Both speakers had clearly found spiritual inspiration from these stories. For Aled Jones Williams this was part of a personal journey out of alcoholism. For Lama Shempen Hookham it was related to the finding of the right place to establish the hermitage.
These personal insights apart, what came out of the discussion which followed was the notion of spiritually significant places and whether what gives them significance is the place itself or the stories told about it. Aled Jones Williams had begun by speaking of stories as “psychological states” and defined fundamentalist approaches to religion as an attack on myth and, therefore, on language (conversely, he saw the currently prevalent ‘myth of the market’ as “demonic”). Clearly if places, and the stories told about them, are psychological states, then it is what we bring to a place that makes it significant, either for individuals or for those who have a share in a cultural heritage focused on a particular landscape.
But in spite of what Aled Jones Williams said about the fundamentalist desire for the story to be literally true, there were some including, I think, Lama Shempen Hookham, who wanted to promote the idea that a place might be significant in its own right. Here the discussion could have diverted into a discussion of spirits of place. Although it did not, there was a consideration of how places may acquire a context allowing an individual to respond to, or get a response from, a particular place. There was some play on the Welsh word for ‘civilisation’ – ‘diwylliant’, which contains the equivalent of the elements ‘un-‘ and ‘wild’, as part of the context for making a place accessible in this way. From here it is possible to move from the personal to the wider cultural implications of the existence of special places.
I have often felt particular places to have special qualities, but have not always been able to define those qualities. The experience of the place then seems ‘wild’, an experience of nature in the raw, of something ‘other’. That is one way of experiencing a special place. But if you know a story about a place, if you know it not just as part of a ‘personal’ story, but as a story that is shared, and has been shared, by generations of ancestors linked to the land in and around the place, that is another way of knowing it. Stories and places each have lives of their own. But when they share a life and we share it too, then the place itself becomes part of a community and it is not so much ‘other’ as ‘here’. Are the most significant places those where the sense of wildness or otherness underlies the sense of belonging that conveys ‘here’ rather than ‘there’? Where the genius loci is part of the domestic space.
In the third branch of the Mabinogi, when the enchantment is cast on Dyfed, the land reverts to wildness. It does not cease to be fruitful in terms of wild nature, but its cultivated fields and homesteads are gone. It becomes anghyuaned. In this wild state, strange things happen, the gates to the Other World are open and Rhiannon goes through them. When the enchantment is lifted she returns and domestication is restored. Many debates about religion share this dichotomy between the domesticated and the wild, though it is often confused. We might think of three categories of religious perception:
• That direct experience is paramount, so God, gods, spirits of place, religious truths can be apprehended personally as revelation, and seem not to require the intervention of language;
• That these things are experienced culturally within language and a social framework that is inevitably human so such experiences are relative and fluid across cultures and over time;
• That a particular text is absolutely and definitively true and that all other texts or experiences are in error.
Clearly that last position, though prevalent, is a perverse restriction of the second and should be resisted. But the interaction between the first, or mystical tradition, and the second or cultural tradition is necessary and fruitful so that it can be argued that the two need to be held in some sort of tension for religion to remain vital. Certainly each depends on the other. Confronted by wildness the human response is to want to shape it. Deprived of wildness we wish to make it present. The Birds of Rhiannon sing to us out of just such a complex of desires.