Reconstructionism and Celtic Studies
A topic that I have turned to on a number of occasions is the question of the use of medieval folklore and literarure as late sources for the reconstruction of pagan mythology. I discussed it previously on this blog HERE. In a reconsideration of this question I have turned once again to a book that was a considerable influence on my thinking on the subject when I first read it many years ago: W. J. Gruffydd's Rhiannon (1953). Gruffydd, who was a poet in Welsh as well as a scholar, approached the medieval Welsh tales in the 'Four Branches' of Y Mabinogi, in common with many others, as literary constructions built on the remnants of earlier mythology. In attempting to reconstruct that mythology he proposed a series of transformations and substitutions leading from the original myths to the medieval stories.
Inevitably words like 'corruption' and 'contamination' appeared in his analysis of the changes he described. But it would be wrong to lump him entirely with the school of anthropology that saw the agents of the changes, as Matthew Arnold's disparaging remark puts it, “pillaging an antiquity of which they scarcely possessed the secret". He was in fact critical of approaches like those of James Frazer whose monumental work The Golden Bough he says "has diverted attention from the pure mythology - what may be called the history - of the divine beings of the ancient world to their cultural significance, and this has in turn resulted in much unprofitable speculation and darkening of counsel"(* p.100). It is in his concentration on the story of the gods, in pursuit of what he calls 'storyology', that Gruffydd seeks the history of a story that might have many versions and whose characters might have different names in these different versions. The story, in this view, is universal, and will be told in different ways in different cultures. But if the intent of analysis is to relate a cultural significance, or an historically based local variation , then the clear lines of the story itself can be lost in the process. So whatever literary works such as Y Mabinogi can tell us about the literary art of the eleventh or twelfth centuries, about the craft of their author, about the cultural life of the times in which they were composed and even, as some now argue, about historical events that surrounded them, all of this is subordinate to the story they contain.
What is that story? Gruffydd asserts that it was the same story that was told in the Ancient World of Ishtar and Attis, of Demeter and Persephone; and in the Brythonic world, of Matrona and Maponos in one version and Rigantona and Gweir (Pryderi) in another. The point is not that these are are exactly 'equivalent' deities, rather that they are different personalities acting out the same story: the divine mother searches for the lost child and has to go to the Otherworld or the Nether Regions to retrieve him or her. Gruffydd's analysis of Y Mabinogi therefore seeks to show how this story is contained in the first and the third of these tales. The parallel myths of the god and goddess Rigantona and Tigernonos on the one hand and Vironos and Matrona on the other, each pair with a divine child who features in recorded mythology as Maponos, became fused together in one story, suggesting that in the medieval Welsh tales "the story of Rhiannon and Gweir is so precisely that of Modron and Mabon that the corresponding characters have become interchangeable."(*p.103). However mistaken Gruffydd might be in the specificity of his account, or in reshaping the tales to fit his analysis, his insistence on the primacy of the story or the myth of the Horse Goddess, her Husband and her Son, preserves the notion that gods can inhabit stories and that we can find them there and respond to their characters however much literary re-shaping and combination of themes has occurred during their transmission.
(*)Quotations from W. J. Gruffydd's Rhiannon (University of Wales Press, 1953).