Hud’s up! A quick heads-up on Welsh magic

(c) The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I was really pleased to find this picture: it’s Ceridwen by Christopher Williams (1873-1934)  Ceridwen  was an enchantress in Welsh medieval legend. She was the mother of a hideous son, Morfran, and a beautiful daughter, Creirwy. Her husband was Tegid Foel, and they lived near Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid) in north Wales. Medieval Welsh poetry refers to her as possessing the cauldron of poetic inspiration (Awen) and the Tale of Taliesin recounts her swallowing her servant Gwion Bach who is then reborn through her as the poet Taliesin. Ceridwen is regarded by many modern Pagans as the Celtic goddess of rebirth, transformation, and inspiration. (Thanks, Wikipedia, for all that, by the way.) Any resemblance between Ceridwen and Ddraigferch (the wicked witch in Tristan and the Dragon Girl) is of course… I mean, that red dress… well, you’ll have to wait for the next volume!


Hud is the Welsh word for magic. There seems to be a lot of hud in my fiction: Bran and the Dragon Girl in Tristan, and Bryn and Cathy in Peter and Paul. But what’s characteristically Welsh about it? And what is “magic” anyway?

If you’re interested in the native mythology of the British Isles, you could do worse than have a look at some of the books by Caitlín & John Matthews and R. J. Stewart which offer not only an introduction to the literature, but also a way of using it in a quasi-religious way. I’m a bit cautious here because I’ve just read an excellent article by Jonathan Jong on defining (or not defining) what is (or is not) religion (sic!) and it’s made me more cautious in trying to write about magic as religion.

Books and coffee

I think religion, or rather, awareness of religion, could be a relatively modern invention. I’m inclined to go along with Julian Jaynes here because I feel intuitively that up until modern times religion was not recognised as a special thing: it was just what people did. Jaynes suggests that until as late as 1627 BCE (the eruption of Thera) people evolved what we would call customs, rituals, and mythologies in direct response to what the world threw at them, but with no special awareness of what they were doing. It was only when this spontaneous, unselfconscious process of stimulus and response broke down (when, in Jaynes’ terms, the voices of the gods fell silent after the shock of the Theran catastrophe) that religion emerged as a concept. Religion was now a thing to be practised consciously, perhaps in opposition to  religions in other cultures or in the teeth of criticism coming from within one’s own. The greatest internal critic of Middle Eastern religion was of course Jesus, who arguably saw through what was going on and returned to the simplest and most dynamic response to human experience possible- love.

Certainly the decision to engage imaginatively with the mythology of the British Isles rather than that of the Middle East is taken in opposition to the religious tradition of those very islands; and the magic is- has to be- thoroughly modern. There are fundamentalists in every spiritual tradition, but I’m sure very few of those walking the paths of Stewart’s or the Matthews’ tarot seriously believe they are on the same journey as pre-Christian Britains; not only is the their use of tarot derived from Kabbalistic Judaism, but the source materials (the Mabinogion and the Historia Regum Britanniae) are mediaeval in origin. In any case, we are, like it or not, modern people. We don’t see the world in the same way as bronze age herdsmen; not because we’re alienated from the land or out of tune with the universe but because we can’t.

What we can do is just to do what modern people do. That needs explaining! As I said above, there is a view that before religion emerged as a phenomenon of which people were aware, they just got on with their lives- which included direct, visceral experiences understood as the presence of the gods and articulated through  ritual action and storytelling. To complete the circle, we just have to identify the direct, visceral experiences which modern people might deify (feel as the presence of the gods) and articulate through  ritual action (films, TV,  computer games, music, travel) and storytelling (Facebook, Twitter, texting, computer games again) The sacred objects are the screen, the phone with its camera: the icon, the selfie. Following the logic of the argument, these things are natural, pre-religious: they are paradoxically both quite unselfconscious and utterly narcissistic.

But there is a desire to opt out of all this. To know a landscape by walking it, and then spiritualising the journey by walking it again in imagination. To be in places where there is no evidence of the modern world, to hear again the voice of the gods in the sound of the wind in the trees or of water rushing in a streambed. To dare to see the figure of Ceridwen emerge from the mists by a frozen lake in the Beacons… to play a deliberate game of hide-and-seek, where the self is both hidden and sought…

And so we can people the dreamscapes, imagine them strongly enough for our own poemagogic faculties to take over, so that the mind appears to be inventing spontaneously, involuntarily. Imagined figures seem autonomous; it is possible to dialogue with them, to find out things the conscious mind did not know that it knew. I first came across this sort of thing through reading Carl Gustav Jung, years before I’d heard of Welsh- or indeed any- magical practices. In The Intrapsychic Model Robert Aziz quotes Jung as saying, “The religious need… longs for wholeness, and therefore lays hold of the images of wholeness offered by the unconscious, which, independently of the conscious mind, rise up from the depths of our psychic nature.” This is what is going on in magic: the archetypes are presented to the mind, and the activated imagination “makes stuff happen”- for good or ill, it might be said- there are plenty of health warnings out there!

So, that’s something of what magic is; and to answer the earlier question (“Why Welsh magic?”) I can only say because I have loved Wales ever since I had my first cigarette in a field on a hillside in the Clwyds. I love the language with its LLs and CHs. Yes, it’s an unrealistic love; I know Wales isn’t all mountains and caves and lakes. But how many of us are truly realistic in love?

Smoking at Cilcain 1966Smoking at Cilcain 1966

(CAD sketch by the author)