Background to the autumn audio course, part 1

This autumn I’ll be making available a Welsh Mythology home study audio course which you will be able to download from this website. In preparation I’ve put together this series of blog posts that sets out some useful approaches to interpreting mythological symbols. I’ll be posting every few weeks and please feel free to ask any questions or leave comments bellow.

In keeping with the ancient bardic practice of working in threes, this series of posts defines three aspects of a symbol; these are: depth, paradox and potential. There are many other terms and definitions that we could use, but these three can be useful as we begin to interpret a symbol.

Depth, a spatial metaphor
It can be said that a symbol has depth, but what exactly does that mean? This is a spatial metaphor describing a particular characteristic of symbols: they commonly have a surface, literal meaning that points to the deeper, symbolic meaning. For example, the image of Father Christmas is on the surface just that, an image of a merry looking, bearded man in a red costume.

Father Christmas as a symbol.

But the image of Father Christmas is also a symbol expressing all those things associated with Christmas time: giving and receiving gifts; children playing; roast turkey dinners. If we separate some of these associations out we find that they in turn contain further associations. For example, the image of children playing taken alone evokes other connotations such as child-hood, happiness, family.

christmas-merry-christmas-children-playing-in-snow-signed-clapsaddle-500x338

Images associated with Father Christmas.

Here the surface image has a literal meaning that points to further, deeper meanings.

Transcendent and Particular
As well as having a depth of meaningful associations, a symbol can be described in terms of another kind of depth that, from the individual’s perspective at least, appears to transcend their cultural associations. On the one hand there are particular features that refer to the regional, ethnic or personal aspects of a symbol, and on the other hand the transcendent associations that refer to the more profound, universal ideas implied, more often than not linked to those ideas that appear to the individual to be too general to be contained by the conceptual bounds of their specific culture. Rightly or wrongly, transcendent interpretations are aplied by an individual to the whole of humanity, the universe and everything.

In other words, symbols can appear to point past themselves to meanings that are not always explicitly obvious in their surface form. Again, the basic metaphor here is that of depth. The symbol itself inhabits a foreground, beyond which lies a mid ground containing interpretations that correspond to personal and communal culture; beyond that there is a further space, where a symbol appears to point past itself to interpretations that seek to transcend those personal or regional definitions.

The Taliesin Tradition courses

I’m beginning a new online course this April called The Taliesin Tradition. It covers almost 1500 years of material, from the earliest Welsh poetry by the historic Taliesin, through to the mythic Taliesin and the poems attributed to him in The Book of Taliesin. We will track the development of the Taliesin myth and how it was used by the medieval bards to inform their own myth making. It will also touch briefly on the Taliesin tradition today and its presence in modern culture.

Its a similar format to the Symbolic Keys, only that I’ve extended the length of the sessions to 2 hours. For more information please visit the course page.

I’m also running a short 4 week version of the course in Tre’r Ddol (next door to Tre Taliesin) and Machynlleth. The course begins March 20th in Machynlleth and March 25th in Tre’r Ddol. Please see the fliers bellow for details:

Taliesin Tre’r Ddol seminars

Taliesin Mach seminars

A slightly extended version of the Symbolic Keys online course will also run beginning Sunday April 20th.

Approaching Myths and Symbols (article)

When trying to interpret myths and their symbols we usually find ourselves doing so at some distance from the culture that gave birth to them. Surviving texts have very often been long separated from their original social contexts, orphans of a long dead mother tongue. With such a lack of contextual information, often our only guide is our own intuition.

When we do come across motifs and symbols we don’t understand, they don’t necessarily stay meaningless for very long. Our minds are naturally stimulated into interpreting what we see, and ascribing meaning is an instinctive human response. If we stare at it for long enough, a particular symbol will always inevitably slip into one meaningful context or another, be it a simple day dream or a full blown giant leap of understanding. That’s because each one of us carries around inside ourselves a deep pool of reflection from within which we will invariably draw a Rorschach meaning.

Clearly, a purely personal interpretation of a mythological symbol won’t always tell us much about the source culture that gave birth to it, especially if we are greatly removed from that culture. Its reasonable to look for comparators in such cases, similar symbols either from within the source culture itself, or if that’s not available to us then symbols from other similar cultures.

But even these comparisons tend to be selective readings, where we find ourselves inevitably making quite subjective assumptions that we can mistake for objective comparisons. Although great care needs to be taken when interpreting such elusive things as myths and their symbols, it is far better if we can admit to our more subjective responses before we assume them to be common facts. Only after doing so will we be able to see our subjective responses clearly enough to separate them from the actual material itself.

But after separating them out, we should neither neglect to consider these shadowy, internal responses. Interpretation of mythological and symbolic material is sometimes automatic and instinctive; that has some value if handled the right way. If we are correct in regarding at least some myths as collective works of great art, dense and stratified texts with layers of accumulated and condensed meanings, attempting to grasp them without using our own creative intellect would seem to be missing the point.

A useful approach in trying to understand a myth and its symbols is to look at the situation in which they arose. But making assumptions about a myth by re-creating its social context isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, and generally its impossible to do so without leaning somewhat on our own innate common sense regarding what a symbol can and cannot do, what it is and what it isn’t. It is a mistake to think that any old legend can simply be analyzed like an antique box, prodded and tinkered with until it finally pops open to reveal its hidden curiosities, all without any creative engagement by the researchers themselves.

If this is the best that can be done, it will be very difficult to really get to grips with the material: an overly objective, classificatory investigation is usually doomed to be quite boring. To get to grips with the material we need to let it sink in and stir up our own subjective responses. Either we approach myths and their symbols as active, engaging, stimulating cultural artifacts or we simply classify their perceived forms and leave it at that.

A mythological symbol is probably more akin to a living animal than a dead construct, yet there is a danger of assuming that symbols and myths have almost machine-like workings. That is an unfortunate and pervasive influence of some of the natural sciences: depicting the human body as a mechanical thing does not mean that everything it creates, even its ideas, are necessarily mechanical constructs. That is a very difficult position to unknowingly start from if you wish to investigate what is essentially the subjective, generationally condensed and often instinctively created myths of a whole culture of sophisticated, conscious animals.

As well as holding on to the rational, more objective techniques of study that we have refined over the millennia, its important to remember that the interpretation of myth and symbol can require more art than science: a myth, like any work of art, can only ever truly be grasped by the creative imagination. The tendency to narrow the concepts of myth and symbol to simple mechanics of meaning needs to be avoided. Just because a word has a set dictionary definition, does not imply that all vessels of meaning, including symbols, allegories and metaphors have similarly two-dimensional definitions.

Its far too simplistic to see symbol and defined meaning as two sides of the same straight-forward equation. The Saussurean concept is a useful spring-board for developing ideas about language, but symbols tend to be more complex than simple signs pointing to clearly defined signified counterparts. Language – just like myth and symbol – is not a binary code. A complex, long lived symbol will give birth to multiple meanings, and will sometimes evolve beyond its more superficial cultural boundaries. As a result, very often comparative mythology can only ever be a guideline; it may even only serve as a creative primer for a more direct, intuitive interpretation.

Taking an in-depth look at what any mythological symbol means is far more complex than the closed sign / signified duality. A myth and its embedded symbols are quite often multifaceted, containing many dimensions of meaning at the same instant, with significances from the personal to the collective and encompassing much of what lies in between. All of these dimensions need to be brought into view if we are ever to succeed in interpreting a symbol honestly, and come close to discerning some of its history and development.