Inspiring stories

Journeying to wisdom: The five totemic beasts of Britain

Leaping salmon
Atlantic Salmon, Salmo salar, leaping in turbulent waterfalls in Boenfossen in Kristiansand, Norway

By Cath Everett, content editor of The Spirit of East Anglia community.

It must be said, I do like a good myth – and one I’ve come across lately that seems to be of particular significance in iconic British terms is Culhwch and Olwen.

Believed to be the earliest of the Arthurian romances and the oldest surviving prose tale written in Medieval Welsh no less, a complete version was found in the Red Book of Hergest, a manuscript of yarns and fables written sometime between 1375 and 1425. Another more fragmented account also made its appearance in the White Book of Rhydderch, which was produced in 1350 and is the earliest known anthology of Welsh prose.

Anyway, it is essentially the story of the aforementioned Culhwch, who is the son of King Kilydd. He marries Goleuddydd, who sadly loses her mind during pregnancy, which results in Culhwch being born in a pig-run and raised by a swineherd until he comes of age.

In the meantime, King Kilydd takes himself a new queen who is unhappy on discovering he has no direct heir. But hearing of Culhwch’s existence, she calls him to court in the hope of marrying him off to her daughter and securing the succession.

Finding Olwen

Culhwch refuses though and in a fury, the queen puts a curse on him. This means he is no longer free to marry anyone but Olwen, the beautiful daughter of the king of the giants, Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Luckily however, Culhwch becomes obsessed with the idea of her – although his father warns him that he will never be able to find her without the help of his famous cousin, King Arthur.

So off Culhwch goes to Arthur’s court in Celliwig, Cornwall, to seek his help. After Arthur’s scouts have searched for Olwen for a year to no avail, he gives Culhwch half a dozen handpicked men and, on discovering her, Culhwch is, of course, stunned by her beauty and falls in love.

Although Olwen is quite taken with Culhwch herself, the problem is that her dad is fated to die if she marries, which means he will, understandably, only consent if Culhwch completes a series of nearly impossible tasks. Which, of course he does, before eventually killing poor, old Ysbaddaden, and finally winning his bride.

But the reason that I mention all of this is that, not only is the story a classic, traditional prose tale, believed to be the closest to the original oral version still in existence. But interestingly, one of the tasks also makes mention of Britain’s primary five totemic creatures.

To explain a little further, the aim of the task in question was to recover an exalted prisoner, Mabon, son of the Earth Mother goddess, Modron, and Child of Light, who was imprisoned in the Underworld. But to do so, it was necessary to seek the counsel of the oldest animal in the world.

Blackbird at twilight
Blackbird at twilight.
  1. Blackbird: Calling us to start our journey

So off Culhwch and the rest of his crew go to find the oldest creature they can think of, which is the ancient Blackbird of Cilgwi. Blackbirds are interesting in this context because at twilight, they are said to stand at the threshold between this world and the Otherworld, calling to us with their song.

They urge us to listen to our souls and follow a spiritual path, exploring our inner world through dreams and myths to understand our hidden motivations and potential. By heeding Blackbird’s song, it is said, you can find your way to healing and forge a new reality for yourself based on purpose and passion.

  1. Stag: Helping us to let go

Unfortunately though, the Blackbird knew nothing of Mabon and instead directed the men to a still older animal, the Stag of Rhedynfr on Fernbrake (another name for bracken) Hill in the Forest of Dean. The stag is a messenger from the Otherworld and brings with him the power and knowledge of this realm.

He teaches us the qualities of integrity, grace and dignity, but also symbolises new beginnings and having the strength to let go of unnecessary possessions or emotional attachments in order to gain and maintain your independence, both spiritually and physically.

  1. Owl: Teaching us to engage with life

But the Stag did not know where Mabon was either and so he led the men to the Owl of Cawlwyd. Owls signify esoteric wisdom, a wisdom that comes from objectivity and discernment as they wait and watch – although it is important not to take such detachment too far or hold back too much in case you end up not feeling fully alive, with all the vulnerability this entails.

Owl, meanwhile, is also the totem bird of clairvoyance and astral travel, while likewise signifying the spiral of death and rebirth – the death of one thing, which often leads to the birth of another. He also teaches us the wisdom of turning a disadvantage to an advantage – while most birds are unable to feed in the dark, his amazing hearing enables him to pursue unsuspecting prey while others are asleep.

  1. Eagle: Guiding us to balance mind and heart

Anyway, Owl also had no clue where Mabon was imprisoned and so took the men to meet the Eagle of Gwernaby instead. An important thing to know about eagles is that they are both intelligent and courageous. They help you see life in a wider context, enabling you to come up with clear and objective goals and take appropriate decisions.

Eagles also denote a sense of purpose and the courage to see your goals through to the end, showing you how to renew yourself by plunging at just the right moment into the lake of emotions to catch the Salmon, with which he is closely linked.

The idea is that Eagle denotes our masculine, fiery, intellect, while the lake represents our feminine, watery emotions and the unconscious. If Eagle cannot find the lake, he will starve. Put another way, if we prevent our minds from accessing our hearts, we become overly analytical and our lives become dry and sterile. So it is vital that our minds and hearts remain in balance.

  1. Salmon: Urging us to connect with the dancing child within

And as such, it is Eagle who takes the men to meet the Oldest Animal of all, Bradan, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw (the Lake of the Leader), who is swimming in the Well of Segais at the source of all life. Salmon teaches us wisdom – despite the odds, he always returns to the place of his birth to mate. In the same way, to understand ourselves and our motivations fully, we must also journey back to our beginnings and get to grips with our life experiences.

But it is also worth considering that Salmon is the only creature able to lead Culhwch and his men to the Divine Child, Mabon. Mabon is associated with ChristOrpheus and Apollo, who each symbolise eternal life. In other words, being able to relate to the child within and maintaining a childlike attitude based on openness, innocence and humility will take you on the path to true wisdom.

And so there you have it. Like the Fool in Tarot eternally making his journey, it is about finding ways to integrate the disparate parts of ourselves in order to achieve wholeness, happiness and fulfilment. So good luck – and bon voyage.

Cath Everett

Cath Everett is content editor of the Spirit of East Anglia website.