Seeing Face to Face

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In Corinthians Paul famously contrasts seeing ‘through a glass, darkly’ with seeing ‘face to face’. In Revelations we find a series of glassy images leading up to the servants of God seeing his face. We are told, before the throne of God, is ‘a sea of glass like unto crystal’. This is later described as ‘a sea of glass mingled with fire’ with those who have gained ‘victory over the beast’ standing upon it with ‘the harps of God’. The harpers play the song of Moses who ‘the Lord knew face to face’.

The city of New Jersualem is described as ‘pure gold like unto clear glass’, its street ‘pure gold, as it were transparent glass’ and the river of life, running through it, proceeding from the Throne of God ‘clear as crystal’. We are told the Throne of God is in the city and here, where his servants serve him, ‘they shall see his face’.

These images of glass, no longer dark but crystal clear, are bound up with the process of revelation. Of the revealing of the face of God, which is never described, of which his servants are forbidden to make graven images.

This imagery interests me, as a Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, because in a number of texts his castle is described as being made of glass or crystal and surrounded by water. In The Life of St Collen, Gwyn is depicted seated on a golden throne in ‘the fairest castle’ Collen ‘had ever beheld’ on Glastonbury Tor. Gerald of Wales notes Glastonbury ‘used to be called Ynys Gutrin… the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.’

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Arthur sails across the sea in his ship, Prydwen, to raid seven otherworldly forts on otherworldy islands. It is my belief they are appearances of the same fort – the abode of Pen Annwn ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ (an older name for the King of Annwn/Faery – Gwyn).

One of the fortresses is named Caer Wydyr ‘the Glass Fort’. The narrator, Taliesin, mocks ‘pathetic men’ (monks) ‘who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort’. He tells us ‘six thousand men were standing on its wall; it was hard to communicate with their watchman’. In Nennius’ History of the Britons thirty ships of Spaniards sailing to Ireland find in the midst of the sea ‘a tower of glass, the summit of which was covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer.’

The Fairy King’s castle is described as being made of crystal in Sir Orfeo:

‘Amid the land a castle tall
And rich and proud and wondrous high
Uprose, and all the outmost wall
Shone as crystal to the eye.
A hundred towers lit up the sky,
Of diamond all battled stout;
And buttresses rose up near by
Arched with red gold and broad about.’

In the Biblical and Brythonic traditions the paradisal abodes where the gods are enthroned, the centres of the mysteries where their faces are revealed, are associated with glassy waters and crystal walls.

One wonders whether there are any stories of people meeting the gods of Annwn face to face. In Sir Orfeo we are told he could not look upon the Fairy King or Queen ‘their crowns, their garments, glistened bright… so hot they shone’. This ‘noble sight’ brings him to his knees before the throne. Afterwards he takes up his ‘merry harp’ and sings the lay that wins his wife, Heurodis, back from Fairyland.

This reverent response is echoed in the First Branch of The Mabinogion when Rhiannon, a Queen of Annwn, unveils herself to Pwyll. This does not take place within a crystal castle, but near the fairy mound Gorsedd Arberth. We are told she ‘drew back the part of her headdress that should cover her face, and fixed her gaze upon him’. ‘And then he thought that the face of every maiden and every woman he had ever seen was unattractive compared with her face.’ He immediately falls in love with her and agrees to marry her, choosing her above all other women.

When I first met Gwyn, he did not reveal his face to me in his glass fortress, but beneath the shadows of a leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane in Penwortham. My response was similar. I recognised him as my patron deity, a god who I chose above all gods, who I could not help but love and serve.

In Ethics and Infinity the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas notes that the face to face to encounter draws us into service to the Other. Also ‘the face… signifies: “Do not kill me.”’

In the Welsh myths we find this ordainment repeatedly broken by Arthur and his warriors who commit a panoply of acts of defacing. The heads of the witches of Caer Loyw and Pennant Gofid are split in twain. The beard of Dillus Farfog is plucked out whilst he is still alive before his head is cut off. The giants Diwrnach and Wrnach are beheaded. Most horrifically, before Ysbaddaden Bencawr is beheaded, his face is mutilated – Caw of Prydyn shaves off his beard, ‘flesh and skin to the bone, and both ears completely’.

Because Arthur cannot bear the thought of the head of Brân being beneath White Hill as a threat to his sovereignty over Britain he orders it to be dug up and removed. Interestingly Brân’s head lives after his death for eighty-seven years and only when it starts to decay, when he loses his face, is it buried. It seems that Arthur cannot abide even the distant memory of Brân’s face evoked by his head.

The surrounding stories suggest that either Arthur himself or (Llen)lleog beheaded Pen Annwn with Caledfwlch during his raid on Annwn and this was how he gained his cauldron, the leadership of his hunt, and usurped his role as the warrior-protector of Britain. One might see the beheading of the Head of the Otherworld, ‘Arthur’s feat beyond the glass fort’, as the ultimate crime against the Other and the face of the numinous.

This killing blow, with the thrusting of Lleog’s flashing sword into the cauldron, may be seen to bring about the shattering of the glass fortress, the fragmenting of the mythos of Pen Annwn. We are left only with pieces of the narrative like shards of broken glass, the images within like creatures trapped in amber; seeing through glass darkly as the Dark Age is ushered in.

Yet beyond the glass walls Pen Annwn picks up his head and makes himself whole again.

I see his face and he is laughing.

6 thoughts on “Seeing Face to Face

  1. Greg Hill says:

    Interesting speculatuons about what we can see clearly as through glass as opposed to the indirect view of what might otherwise be too much for us to bear.

    While decapitation and disfigurement are clearly symbols of destruction and tyrrany in many tales, may they not also be essential features of transformation representing a more positive sense of re-making?

    Gwyn’s laughter seems to say so.

    • lornasmithers says:

      I can see how the shaving scenes might originally have been a way of honouring the face of an ancestor and be linked to the cult of the head but personally can’t see the scenes of mutilation in Culhwch as being anything other than a perversion of this and can’t see them positively at all. Unfortunately much of civilisation seems to be founded on horrendous acts of violence that I struggle to see as anything but horrible. I’m possibly not understanding your point. How do you see these deeds as positive acts of re-making?

      • Greg Hill says:

        It’s true that much of civilisation is founded on horrific acts of violence, though often sanitised in the way it is described. Earlier societies were less sensitive about this and often violence was accepted as a fact of life and death and so presented unsentimentally. But I was thinking here of the way transformations are often dealt with in folk tales. In the popular version of the Princess and the Frog she has to kiss the frog to turn him back into a prince. But in the earlier versions she has to cut off his head for this to happen.

        The folk tale motif of the Giant (or Magician) and his daughter, of which the episode of Yspaddaden and Olwen is a variant, often presents the father as an ogre or a tyrant and the suitor for the daughter has having to displace the father in order to win the daughter. This has been seen in psychological terms simply as a transfer of affections from the father to the future husband, but the folk tale versions – like dreams – present the process symbolically in much starker terms. So while in the santitised ‘fairy stories’ the young hero simply has to outwit the magician father, the earlier tales presented this as conquering the father as an ogre and the suitor killing him in gruesome ways. Not literally but symbolically.

        That’s one way of seeing it. But it’s also true that the violence meted out to giants, witches and others by figures such as Arthur, are also representative of a process of ‘civilizing’ that was destructive of the old ways. Seeing it from this historical perspective is a corrective to the tales of Arthur as a glorious hero as you have invaluably emphasized. But the symbolic meanings remain, underlying the literal presentation at a deeper level of significance.

      • lornasmithers says:

        I didn’t know about the Little Princess! Maybe this has something to do with these stories coming from older societies, most of whom would have had to kill at some point, whether it was slaughtering an enemy or an animal for food. And the first kill having some form if initiatory function? Of course such violence is still being committed, on a small scale, and on a much larger scale abroad, and is something we generally think about not being done by ‘us’ (‘civilised people’) yet the potential is always there…

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