The Riddles of Manawydan

What is the water you cannot drink?
What is the mineral that kills and cures?
What is the ship you cannot sink?
What is the light that warns and lures?
Who sings the song that robs and feeds?
Who are the horses that run without feet?
Where is the cloak that was shaken between?
Why does the sea yearn for the land?
Why is this seafarer land bound?

Sea at Blackpool

The Wizard of the Waves

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I.
Several years ago, I made the mistake of offending Manawydan. I was new to journeying. My guide took me to the otherside of Blackpool and we alighted outside a swimming pool. On the wall was a stereotypical plasticy image of a wizard in starry indigo-blue robes with a wand and bent wizard’s hat. Cartoon letters beside him read: ‘THE WIZARD OF THE WAVES’.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was incredulous. This wasn’t how the otherside appeared in books about shamanism. Turning to my guide I asked affrontedly “why have you brought me to see this tacky wizard?”

The wizard stepped from the wall and raised his wand. The scene dissipated with the dismal crashing of all the waves of the sea. I found myself back in my room immensely disorientated. Later it dawned on me that I’d offended Manawydan. I felt like kicking myself.

II.
Manawydan’s stories contain deep magic. However I struggle to connect with him because he’s humble, practical, wise: all the things I’m not.

After the catastrophic battle against Matholwch, King of Ireland, where Brân was slain, Manawydan and seven survivors returned with his head. They feasted with it for seven years at Harlech then for a potentially interminable period on the island of Gwales.

In the feasting hall in Gwales there were three doors: two open, one closed. Previously Brân told them “so long as you do not open the door… you can remain there and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer.”

Manawydan echoed his brother’s wisdom. ‘”See over there… the door we must not open.”‘

Darned doors. Particularly the closed ones. They’re such a temptation. As soon as someone says “don’t open that door”…

This time the culprit was Heilyn. When he opened the door and looked out all their past sufferings and losses returned. Brân’s head began to decay.

III.
Manawydan should have inherited Brân’s Kingdom but it was usurped during their sojourn in Ireland by Caswallon. To make up for his loss, Pryderi offered him Dyfed and marriage to Rhiannon.

Manawydan and Rhiannon were happily married and became firm friends with Pryderi and his wife, Cigfa. Their life of hunting, feasting and enjoyment was brought to an end when a blanket of mist descended leaving Dyfed devoid of men, domestic beasts and dwellings.

They survived in the wilderness for a year by hunting and fishing and eating honey from wild bees. Tiring of their frugal lifestyle, Manawydan suggested leaving for England to earn a living through craftsmanship.

In Hereford Manawydan took up saddlemaking. There were was more than a hint of magic about his work: he enamelled the pommels with the skill of Llasar Llaesgyngwyd; the gigantic blue smith who forged the Cauldron of Rebirth and delivered it to Brân.

Manawydan was a victim of his own success. The jealous townspeople decided to kill him and his company. Pryderi’s response was to “kill these churls.”

More sensibly Manawydan said “if we were to fight them, we would get a bad reputation and would be imprisoned. It would be better for us to go on to another town and earn our living there.”

Pryderi listened and they moved on. However when Manawydan took up shieldmaking he coloured the shields the same way they coloured the saddles. Again the townspeople were jealous and they were forced to move on.

In the next town Manawydan took up shoemaking. Instead of using enamel he made friends with the goldsmiths who taught him to make golden buckles. He became known as one of Three Golden Shoemakers and again was far too successful for his own good.

IV.
Manawydan and his company decided to return to Dyfed. Out hunting they were led by a white boar to a fortress. Manawydan recognised the work of whoever put the spell on the land and advised them not to enter.

“Don’t enter that enchanted fortress!” A bit like “don’t open that door…”

Pryderi rushed straight in. Enraptured by a golden bowl, upon touching it, he became speechless and well and truly stuck. Rhiannon followed and suffered the same fate. The blanket of mist descended and in a blink of an eye the fortress was gone.

Manawydan saved the day by capturing the pregnant wife of Llywd Cil Coed, the enchanter, in the form of a mouse. Ransoming her at a miniature gallows he persuaded Llywd to remove the magic from Dyfed and release Pryderi and Rhiannon.

V.
Manawydan’s stories are filled with magic. He’s got deep knowledge of the magical arts, those who wield magic, the unfathomable nature of magic itself. He’s a true wizard.

However if I was in his stories I’d indubitably be the one who failed to listen to his advice. Who could not resist the temptation to open the door or storm the fortress. Who’d still be wandering through mist subsisting on wild fruits and honey or staring entranced into a golden bowl.

But I’m not in his stories. He’s started coming into mine. In a memory that’s not my own in which I’m drunk aboard The Manxman: a boat moored at Preston Dock and used as a floating nightclub pulled away in 1991 long before I was old enough to drink.

In dreams of tides and shoes and rollercoasters dropping into the sea. In the call of gulls. In the tidal pull of the sea drawing me further and further up the Ribble estuary to the coast.

VI.
The medieval stories of the Brythonic deities are immensely valuable. However because they were penned by Christian monks nearly a thousand years ago they can impose a filter on direct experience of ‘pagan’ deities in the twenty-first century.

I’ve learnt a lot from Manawydan’s devotee, Angharad Lois, who keeps a blog called From the Edges which features stories from the shorelines and also Muddy Boots and Mistletoe where she’s part way through the Thirty Days of Devotion project for Manawydan. Angharad carefully weaves Manawydan’s lore together with her own experiences and contemporary art and literature presenting a fuller picture of who he is in the modern world.

I found a quotation Angharad picked out by Alison Leigh Lilly, about Manawydan’s Irish cognate, Manannan Mac Lir, resonated with me ”One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,’ says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks.’

I recognised this deity in The Wizard of the Waves and this wooden carving of a wizard at Martin Mere titled ‘The Great Mere Vanishing Act’ where he says ‘Can you find the missing mere?’

Quiz on walkway, Martin Mere

Well I worked out what happened to Martin Mere: fifteen miles of lake drawn out to sea by the pumps at Banks. But I still haven’t fathomed Manawydan. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the Wizard of the Waves is unfathomable as magic and his deep blue starry robes of the sea.

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