Maponos, Aengus Óg, and the Awen

This page is a compilation from a series of earlier blog entries
now edited and brought together as a continuous piece.

Giraldus Cambrensis said in his 
Description of Wales (1194) that

THERE are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves,and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a connected manner; but the person who skilfully observes them, will find, after many preambles, and many nugatory and incoherent, though ornamented speeches, the desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: they are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep, and, as it were, by violence compelled to return to their proper senses. After having answered the questions, they do not recover till violently shaken by other people; nor can they remember the replies they have given. If consulted a second or third time upon the same point, they will make use of expressions totally different; perhaps they speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits. These gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; others fancy that a written schedule is applied to their mouths and on awaking they publicly declare that they have received this gift.
(Chapter XVI: Concerning the soothsayers of this nation,and persons as it were possessed)

 When the English antiquary John Aubrey wrote to his Welsh cousin, the poet Henry Vaughan, enquiring about the inspired bards of Wales, in October 1694, he was presumably looking for further examples of  what Giraldus refers to, but what Vaughan gives him is something quite different. The ‘inspired’ shepherd spoken of by Vaughan is no trained bard but an individual who has been struck by divine inspiration. The idea that a god or an inhabitant of some faërie realm can confer poetic gifts is well established in the folklore tradition where it is often the Queen of Faery on horseback, as in the Scottish border ballads about Thomas of Ercildoune. But in this case it is a god: Here is part of Vaughan’s reply to Aubrey:

 … the antient Bards  … communicated nothing of their knowledge, butt by way of tradition: which I suppose to be the reason that we have no account left nor any sort of remains, or other monuments of  their learning of way of living.

As to the later Bards, you shall have a most curious Account of them.
This vein of poetrie they called Awen, which in their language signifies rapture, or a poetic furore & (in truth) as many of them as I have conversed with are (as I may say) gifted or inspired with it. I was told by a very sober, knowing person (now dead) that in his time, there was a young lad fatherless & motherless, soe very poor that he was forced to beg; butt att last was taken up by a rich man, that kept a great stock of sheep upon the mountains not far from the place where I now dwell who cloathed him & sent him into the mountains to keep his sheep. There in Summer time following the sheep & looking to their lambs, he fell into a deep sleep in which he dreamt, that he saw a beautifull young man with a garland of green leafs upon his head, & an hawk upon his fist: with a quiver full of Arrows att his back, coming towards him (whistling several measures or tunes all the way) att last lett the hawk fly att him, which (he dreamt) gott into his mouth & inward parts, & suddenly awaked in a great fear & consternation: butt possessed with such a vein, or gift of poetrie, that he left the sheep & went about the Countrey, making songs upon all occasions, and came to be the most famous Bard in all the Countrey in his time.

This might not tell us much about the ‘ancient bards’ but the identity of the young man in a garland of green leaves with the hawk and arrows is of some interest. Maponos (Mabon) has been suggested. But even if we prefer to think of him as a generalised ‘Green Man’ figure, this is a remarkably specific and evocative  written record of a pagan spirit of nature, music and inspiration.

For a parallel example from Ireland there is the following in Cormac’s Glossary. The Glossary is ascribed to Cormac, King and Bishop of Cashel who was killed in battle in 908 though the linguistic evidence suggests a later date for the manuscripts that have survived. Some of the glossarial definitions contain apparently gratuitous stories linked with the words defined, and one such is a story about a Chief Bard of Ireland in the seventh century called Senchán. He is embarking from Ireland to the Isle of Man with a retinue of bards when “a foul-faced lad (gillie) called to them from the shore as if he were mad: ‘let me go with you’.” No-one much likes the look of him. He is described as having pus running out of his ears if anyone presses his forehead; as having a ‘congrus craiche’ (translation uncertain) over the crown of his head as if “the layers of his brain had broken through his skull. Rounder than a blackbird’s egg were his two eyes; blacker than death his face; swifter than a fox his glance; yellower than gold the points of his teeth; greener than holly their base; two shins bare, slender; two heels spiky, black-speckled under him. If the rag that was round him were stripped off it would not be hard for it to go on alone unless a stone were put on it, because of the abundance of its lice.” In spite of his appearance Senchán allowed him on board along the steering oar after he asserted that he would be of more use to him than all the other bards in the boat. They make room for him by all moving to the other side nearly causing the boat to capsize and tell Senchán that he has allowed a monster on board, which, it is said, explains why he was named Senchán Torpeist – ‘Senchán to whom a monster (peist) has come’.

When they reach the Isle of Man they are accosted by an old woman poet whose whereabouts have been unknown for some time. She challenges Senchán to a rhyme-matching competition but he is unable to match her rhyme so the lad does so instead. She tries again, and again the lad matches her rhyme. They take her back to Ireland with them and then see that the lad is no longer the bedraggled ‘monster’ that he was but “a young hero with golden-yellow hair curlier than the cross-trees of small harps: royal raiment he wore, and his form was the noblest that hath been seen on a human being.” At this point the Irish text changes to Latin for the following two sentences: “He went right-hand-wise round Senchán and his people and then disappeared. It is not, therefore, doubtful that he was the Spirit of Poetry.”

While there are parallels with the story from Vaughan, there are also differences. If we can make the ascription to Oengus mac Óc, the god here does not enter the young shepherd as Maponos does, but actually appears in the guise of a ‘gillie’ of horrible appearance. His true(?) appearance, when he adopts it, is of a noble hero. He is not, as in Vaughan’s story, a hunter with arrows and a hawk though (in a later manuscript version) he has a sword. If the Spirit of Poetry is manifest in Oengus in Ireland, and Maponos in Britain and Gaul, and if these seem to share some characteristics with Apollo according to the Romans, we have a lot to go on in discerning the nature of this god. But gods regarded as ‘equivalent’ by Roman commentators and by mythographers are often more elusive in the forms they take in particular locations.

So we have the Welsh example of a figure clad in green leaves with a quiver full of arrows and a hawk, clearly a hunter who is also able to enter a shepherd and inspire him to write poetry. A figure we can associate with Maponos or Mabon in a later development of his name.

 And we have in Irish a figure who is transformed from all that is ugly to all that is beautiful and is identified as the spirit of poetry. A figure we can associate with Aengus Óg.
Consider Aengus:

And as to Angus Og, son of the Dagda, sometimes he would come from Brugh na Boinne and let himself be seen upon the earth.
It was a long time after the coming of the Gael that he was seen by Cormac, King of Teamhair, and this is the account he gave of him.
[…..]. "And he was a beautiful young man," he said, "with high looks, and his appearance was more beautiful than all beauty, and there were ornaments of gold on his dress; in his hand he held a silver harp with strings of red gold, and the sound of its strings was sweeter than all music under the sky; and over the harp were two birds that seemed to be playing on it. He sat beside me pleasantly and played his sweet music to me, and in the end he foretold things that put drunkenness on my wits."
The birds, now, that used to be with Angus were four of his kisses that turned into birds and that used to be coming about the young men of Ireland, and crying after them. "Come, come," two of them would say, and "I go, I go," the other two would say, and it was hard to get free of them. But as to Angus, even when he was in his young youth, he used to be called the Frightener, or the Disturber; for the plough teams of the world, and every sort of cattle that is used by men, would make away in terror before him.
(Lady Gregory: Gods and Fighting Men)

On the radiance of true poets, it should be noted that the word 'gillie', although applied to a young servant, usually in a hunting or similar context, literally means 'radiant of skin' (*). Compare this to Taliesin (tal -iesin - radiant brow). There is a discussion of the interaction between dumbness and ugliness on the one hand and fluent speech and great beauty on the other in the article by Patrick Ford cited below(*).


For links between Aengus Óg and Maponos See:
Proinsias Mac Cana Celtic Mythology (1970)
C. O'Rahilly Early Irish History and Mythology (1946)

and for other connections with the Spirit of Poetry:

(*)Patrick  Ford 'The Blind, The Dumb and The Ugly' : Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 19  pp 27-40

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