Awen

Awen is generally defined as "poetic inspiration". However, it is not only a "poetic inspiration" or a "divine inspiration." In order to truly understand awen, one must look at those poems which are thought to express true awen:

I am a wind on the sea
I am a wave of the ocean
I am the roar of the sea,
I am a powerful ox,
I am a hawk on a cliff,
I am a dewdrop in the sunshine,
I am a boar for valor,
I am a salmon in pools,
I am a lake in a plain,
I am the strength of art,
I am a spear with spoils that wages battle,
I am a man that shapes fire for a head.
Who clears the stone-place of the mountain?
What the place in which the setting of the sun lies?
Who has sought peace without fear seven times?
Who names the waterfalls?
Who brings his cattle from the house of Tethra?
What person, what god
Forms weapons in a fort?
In a fort that nourishes satirists,
Chants a petition, divides the Ogam letters,
Separates a fleet, has sung praises?
A wise satirist.

This is the "Song of Amergin," the bard of the Milesians, as he first sets foot on Ireland in The Book of Invasions, as translated in the Cross & Slover book Ancient Irish Tales.

Now, compare with selections from the poems of Taliesin:

I HAVE been in a multitude of shapes, Before I assumed a consistent form. I have been a sword, narrow, variegated, I will believe when it is apparent. I have been a tear in the air, I have been the dullest of stars. I have been a word among letters, I have been a book in the origin. --From "Cad Goddeu - The Battle of the Trees"

I have been with skilful men, With Matheu and Govannon, With Eunydd and Elestron, In company with Achwyson, For a year in Caer Gofannon. I am old. I am young. I am Gwion, I am universal, I am possessed of penetrating wit. --From "The First Address of Taliesin"

Now what are we told of the origin of awen for Taliesin? (For Amergin, we are told nothing--he arrives already with awen.) This is what the Hanes Taliesin has to say:

{S}he began to boil the cauldron, which from the beginning of its boiling might not cease to boil for a year and a day, until three blessed drops were obtained of the grace of Inspiration... {I}t chanced that three drops of the charmed liquor flew out of the cauldron and fell upon the finger of Gwion Bach. And by reason of their great heat he put his finger to his mouth, and the instant he put those marvel-working drops into his mouth, he foresaw everything that was to come, and perceived that his chief care must be to guard against the wiles of Cerridwen, for vast was her skill.
We are told a similar story of Fionn mac Cumhill, in which young Demne is cooking the salmon of wisdom for his master, but is burned by a splatter. Sticking his thumb in his mouth, he then gains all the wisdom of the world. Note, also, that the name Fionn and Gwion are the same, when one takes into account the liguistic differences of Q-Celtic and P-Celtic languages.

Now, what are we to make of this? The attainment of awen produces not only a certain poetic inspiration, but a sense of oneness with everything--that the one who has awen has attained a level of enlightenment, even godhood. He now experiences everything, he has been everything, he has gone beyond everything. He has experienced all emotion, been objects animate and inanimate, he has been to the depths of the ocean and flown as an eagle.

Now, what of the later history of these poets? Amergin is able to aquire the land of Ireland by promissing a goddess--Eriu--that he will name it after her. He accepts her sovreignty over the island and his people (which is ironic, since he steals it from her people. However, who am I to question the will of the gods?). Gwion Bach must shapeshift, and be born again from Cerridwen's womb as Taliesin, before being set adrift and found by a luckless prince. He then grows at an amazing rate, and is present at various points in history, from the earliest branches of the Mabinogion to the fall of King Arthur and later--spanning over 600 years. Fionn mac Cumhaill, aside from any earthly history, is Cernunnos, lord of the animals, a zoomorphic being, appropriate to the shapeshifting of Taliesin.

And so, what to make of all this? Awen is not only poetic inspiration--there were many poets, bards, of the Celts; few possessed awen. Under what conditions did they obtain it?

He is a child; he is not raised by his parents, but by another, someone of great learning, and away from normal civilization. He gains inspiration through a magic dish--drink or food--but by accident. The meal was not intended for him, but he is the one who is forced to take part in it through the will of the dish itself.

Let us compare to the Grail hero, Perceval/Peredur. He is essentially a child (about 14 when the tale begins); he is ignorant, raised alone in the woods (by his mother, though, and later his hermit uncle), who does not want him to enter the world. He leaves home, comes to the castle of the Fisher King, and (after failing on his first visit), is able to ask the question of "Who is served from the grail?"1 He then becomes the new keeper of the Grail, from which he then is served.

What does this mean? The grail hero was not only a child, but a fool--indeed, we must all become fools, innocent, in order to begin the way to awen. We must break away from the family structure, to broaden those ties beyond just blood, to those who have certain knowledge, certain skills. We must go beyond natural loyalty. We must also reject civilization, and go deep into nature, and experience the primal; we must learn to survive on our own. This reflects the druids teaching methods, to be sure--according to Caesar (IIRC), the druids would take children (boys and girls, I am inclined to believe from reading other Roman historians) away from their parents to study for twenty years. The druids were exempt from the normal workings of civilization--they did not carry weapons or pay taxes, though they could produce children (indeed, as there is an undeniable fertility aspect to the Celtic religion, one must assume that, like the rabbi, the druid was required to reproduce).

Once you are an innocent, faith like a child to use the Christian phrase, and have allowed yourself to subsume, lose your ego and learn from another, you are then able to use that person's wisdom and go beyond it. The loss of ego--of your concept of self, of how you concieve of yourself, your image--allows transformation. In the stories, the fool is put in charge of the "dish" of the wise one. He consumes the dish himself, but not out of greed--only out of instinct. It is by allowing instinct to act in the presence of widsom that one becomes enlightened. Here, the natural impulse is to consume wisdom as a balm for the pain of the soul. Once this is done, one has achieved enlightenment, one has gained awen--the fire in the head. This is easier said than done.

Awen is often symbolized as three rays, sometimes emanating from three small dots: /|\. The earliest example of this only goes back to the book The Barddas (19th C.). However, even the staunchest reconstructionist druid groups use this simple glyph as a symbol for Druidism.


NOTES

1. This is one version of the question; the other is "What ails you?" to the impotent Fisher King, and "What is the meaning of this service?" All are appropriate questions, as they are all interconnected to the mystery of the Grail. Moreover, the grail is sometimes described as a cup carrying liquid, or as a platter carrying a fish; in Christian interpolation, the fish becomes a host, a logical leap, given the Christ=fish parallel.

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Mary Jones 2004