Friday, 23 October 2015

Finding the Awen Part One - By Steve Gladwin

In 1994, on the magical island of Iona, I was given the gift of awen. Actually that’s not strictly true. It would be more accurate to say that as a result of my week on Iona I received it. Awen, for those not aware of it, is a form of divine inspiration whose physical representation is three drops and three bars of light. Here is an illustration of the awen, (with thanks to MithrandirMage).

At the time I ran a small theatre company in Somerset and I had begun to tell a few stories as well as performing in the pieces the company were doing. I went to Iona on a retreat with the Order of Bards,Ovates and Druids. I had been a member for just over a year and was persuaded over the phone to take this next important step.

Columbus Landing on Iona

The retreat became special even by the standards of OBOD retreats and its legacy has been with me since, as performer, storyteller and latterly, published writer. The make up of the week was unique enough to start with. In the morning we would leave our comfortable hotel on the sea shore and walk past the abbey to a house called Grianan, (‘sun house”) where we did our morning and evening sessions. Grianan - which had once belonged to the local psychic Lucy Bruce, had a very special atmosphere, which made it perfect for the meditation work our group of 15, including two tutors, undertook each day. The subject for these meditations was the old Welsh story of Taliesin which would soon take over my life. Little Gwion is asked to stir and keep watch over a cauldron which the witch/goddess Ceridwen has been brewing. The inevitable happens! While he is asleep exhausted. the brew boils and bursts and three fat sizzling drops land on Gwion’s finger. In sucking it in with an ‘owch’, he is accidentally gifted the awen from the cauldron. Ceridwen had intended the first three magical drops alone, (the remainder being poison) for her unfortunate son Morfran (Sea Crow) or (Afagddu) (Utter Darkness), who was not as favoured by the gods as his beautiful sister Creirwy.

The theme of our morning meditations was to build up a sequence which would mirror little Gwion’s own experience from callow, frightened neophyte to newly inspired bard. The difference was that while we were given the choice, poor Gwion never was. Following our meditations, we would walk back for lunch before walking the island - often in silence, in an effort to get to know the landscape and further immerse ourselves in it. After a fine warm supper we would walk back to Grianan to pick apart and share our day.

For most people the climactic event came after the last and longest meditation on the final friday morning. This was our ‘rebirth’ from the cauldron. I saw and felt some remarkable things that morning, but they were all on behalf of other people. I saw people who had become friends, reborn and reinvigorated with the light of awen shining in their eyes. Not so for me, for nothing had happened. In comparison to them I was as still as stone. I took the day long journey back and returned home, saddened and disappointed.

Gwion takes his eyes off the big pot!

A week later an ex student and I had arranged a Beltane, (May Day) storytelling night in the skittle alley where we rehearsed our productions. She had made such an effort to decorate it seasonally and make it special but I remained Mr Grumpy.  I had made hardly any effort - preparing in a very cursory way a story from Kevin Crossley Holland’s version of a story called The Woman From The Sea. This is one of the many tales of the selkie folk and this particular version comes from the island of Unst. I stood up, welcomed everyone, and introduced the tale I was to tell. I opened my mouth. 

It was then that it happened. I’d come into that room a wanna be storyteller, but I left it having been given the rare gift of the awen. The closest translation of awen is ‘flowing spirit’ a word which may be of either Welsh or Cornish extraction. That night if I did not yet become a bard, I became the beginnings of the one I would become. In that room all the stories of my life so far and still in the future were gathered. There was Midsummer Night’s Dream which we had rehearsed there and The Woman From The Sea itself. But it was the story of Taliesin I had brought back with me from Iona, which became the shining centre. I would soon became a lantern bearer of this ancient tale. I would work with this tale again and again from that moment until this, performing it first in a one man stage show and later that would be preserved in the form of a CD. One day these accumulated stories would lead to a new spiritual and actual home in Wales, a magical grove of trees and my first children’s book.

Gwion receives the awen.

Of course I saw none of that then. I knew only that a story I’d hardly bothered to learn  was pouring from me as if I’d known it all my life. I had been given my awen from Iona’s magical cauldron and boy had my rebirth been worth waiting for?

So what is it like to be given the awen? Is it something you have all the time, or does it just come and pay occasional useful visits. Might it even turn up at the most inappropriate moments.? Can I call it up whenever I sit down at my keyboard? 

I’m sure many of us have had similar experiences, only we think or refer to them in different ways. I don’t whether it can be described and I’m aware that there are people out there who might regard the idea as nonsense. I once described it in an interview as feeling like you are both the vessel being filled and the liquid you are pouring into it. As storytellers we are surely both.

A few years ago, my late wife Celia and I were last minute replacements for a storyteller friend at a Christmas gig at the Bala Lake Hotel. There in the cosy post festive warmth, surrounded by the sort of mainly elderly clientele who don’t normally get to hear traditional tales, I told the story of Gwion and his transformation into Taliesin. Outside, glinting magically in the dark, was Bala Lake itself, where the story was set. I could not have resisted the chance to do so. Awen came.. How could it not have?

The awen symbol above shows both the three drops and the three bars of light. In modern druidry the three drops represent the ones which splashed on to little Gwion. The bars of light show the inspiration which flowed from that meeting.

If however I have a personal definition of awen, I like to think of it as a magical secret given to us by the ancients, transported through time for us to use if we can only decipher the clues. The awen is its own detective story but with a multiplicity of solutions at the end. I wish you much joy in your search for it.

Steve Gladwin

Useful Links

The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids - History, Practice, A Correspondence Course and a whole lot more.

Grianan on Iona. Now a holiday home so go and experience Lucy Bruce's magical house for yourself and see the island at its best.

Thanks to my partner Rose for use of her tactile learning aids.  

My own thoughts about this, that and The Seven in particular.  

gwernseven@wordpress .com


Katherine Roberts said...

A beautiful post, Steve. I can't claim any magical awen but I did kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland the year I finally wrote a book that made it as far as publication (Song Quest). In my mind, that was an opening of my mouth after many years of silence.

Steve Gladwin said...

I'm so glad you liked it Katherine. I'm sure that's a lovely way of finding it. I've always believed that the way which such things can manifest is often as beautiful as the thing itself. But I will remember that lovely phrase of yours ' an opening of my mouth after many years of silence'. Thank you.