Oral storytelling traditions do far more than provide fire-side entertainment, although they do a pretty good job of that too. At the heart of such traditions is the understanding that it takes more than one generation to provide a perspective on the human condition. Oral storytelling traditions often evolve as repositories of multi-generational wisdom and knowledge, refining the essence of a culture and ensuring its transmission down the ages. Although it's technically accurate to call these old veins of cultural memory 'storytelling traditions', they are perhaps better described as wisdom traditions teaching the lessons gleaned from many periods of human life.
Alas, for many of us modern-day humans, the living thread of our own oral traditions was dropped long before our parents were born. We didn't inherit the voices of our ancestors directly in that way. We have had to make the connection back in other ways. The Welsh wisdom tradition lasted relatively intact up until about a hundred and fifty years ago. When scholars such as Sir John Rhys started recording Welsh folk tales in the 1880s and 1890s, the last generation of Welsh wisdom keepers were quietly going to their graves. They may not have even understood what they possessed in the tales they told, but their stories still evoked the deeper teachings of the tradition, teachings that we find 800 years earlier in The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a text that itself has roots in a far earlier Celtic past.
In that sense, the thread of the Welsh wisdom tradition can still be picked up, can still be held in the hand, the faint vibrations of the past still felt in our present day. If we read old Welsh tales like The Four Branches of the Mabinogi attentively and patiently, if we allow them to evoke their depths in our imaginations, we can begin to catch glimpses of what they preserve: the light of ancient civility. The thread that these tales offer us is a guideline, leading us along the same intangible paths our ancestors walked between the natural and the supernatural, between life and death, between sovereignty and displacement, between memory and oblivion. If we can really see what these tales are showing us, they will bring us into alignment with an ancestral wisdom tradition which is ready to awaken once again.
Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird will be leading the LORE gateway on the DADENI Spirit School programme, 2018-21
He regularly teaches courses in Welsh myth and folklore. His current work focusses on The Four Branches of the Mabinogi and The Book of Taliesin, interpreting these medieval texts as symbolic and mythic repositories of traditional wisdom. He writes an infrequent blog and offers online courses from his website whitedeer.earth. He is also a musician, with a long track record as a solo artist and collaborator. His music can be found at mwncinel.com.