Edit (5/4): I just saw this got linked in one of the pagan forums, so if you’re coming from there, hi! The source for this story is the Barddas of Iolo Morganwg – the version I reference below is from John Michael Greer’s “Druidry Handbook.” The Barddas is a controversial work – some of it seems to come from ancient sources, but much of it is most likely the product of Iolo’s imagination. I don’t know of any pre-Iolo references to this story – if anyone knows of any I would be interested – and I believe it originated with him.

In spite of his unfortunate penchant for forgery, Iolo was quite the scholar, and had access to some very old texts and knew quite a bit about his source material; while this story probably only goes back to his time (early 19th century) it incorporates some very old themes.

The complete text of the Barddas is here.

Edit over – the rest of this is the original post:

“Three things Divinity has given to every living being: the fullness of its species; the uniqueness of its individuality; and the distinction of an original Awen unlike any other, and these three things set each being apart from all others.” – Iolo Morganwg

I’m trying to work this out. I get “fullness of its species” – this is our inheritance. I have an essential human-ness, my cats have essential catness, my elder tree has her essential elderness – we come into this world with attributes of our species and this is the most basic starting point of identity. Uniqueness of identity I also get – my cat holds essential catness, but she is also a unique expression, that particular cat that has never before been and will never again be. But what is the distinction of original Awen? Is this something like the soul? I’ve never quite understood the word “soul” but I think I might be able to figure out “original Awen.” It’s going to be the next topic for meditation.

I’ve been working with poor Einigen the Giant as a meditation theme for the past month.
“Einigen the Giant, first of all beings, beheld three rays of light descending from the heavens. The three rays were also a word of three syllables, the true name of the God Celi, the hidden spirit of life that creates all things. In them was all the knowledge that ever was or will be.

Einigen took three staves of Rowan and carved all the knowledge upon them, in letters of straight and slanted lines. When others saw the staves, they misunderstood and worshipped the staves, rather than learning what was written on them. Einigen’s grief and anger was so
great that he burst asunder and died.

A year and a day later, Menw happened on the skull of Einigen and saw the three Rowan staves had taken root and were growing out of the skull’s mouth. Menw took the staves and learned to read the writing on them and became famous for his wisdom.”
– The Druidry Handbook, JMG, p. 50

The three rays of light are the descending Awen, that three syllable word that is the hidden spirit of life. Coming from above, \| /, Einigen’s experience, they represent the Awen that comes from without, the divine flash that comes from outside the self. Einigen gained this knowledge and carved it on staves, in Ogam letters. Others (who are these others? those, I suppose, who have not had the divine inspiration) don’t realize that the importance is not in the staves but in what they represent – they are keys to something greater. These others look the wrong way for the knowledge.

I’m forgetting who said this – when I remember I’ll come back and edit this and get the quote right, because it’s just brilliant – I think it was Philip Carr-Gomm. He said that all the books and words and teachings of Druidry were all secondary sources. The words on the page, or from the mouth of the teacher, are not the knowledge of Druidry. The primary source of Druidry is the Awen, and it is found in the trees and the dirt and the fresh clean air. It’s not in books. Those who think to find wisdom in books are like those who worship the staves – they miss the point entirely. If I wanted to be all snarky here I could talk about people with an authenticity fetish who insist that if it’s not in the latest scholarly work on the ancient Celts then it’s not “real” Druidry.

Poor Einigen can’t take this and is totally shattered. The first of all beings, the visionary who sees the three rays of light, the receiver of all knowledge, is blown apart by the misunderstandings of the others. This seemed like a huge overreaction when I first read the story, but of course this is myth and has to be understood this way. It’s kind of a Fall sort of creation story, where mankind has access to the understanding of the gods and blows it so completely that the knowledge is taken away forever. By worshipping the rowan staves, they annihilate the one with the true knowledge. He doesn’t just die – he is broken to pieces; he disintegrates. He loses that which holds him together. I think it’s the Awen that held him together, and his role as the divine receptacle was his entire identity – when he failed to teach the others, he lost himself and who he was and so could no longer exist. Kaboom. He had to go, though – like in any Fall story, the fall is inevitable. There is no possibility at all that things could be otherwise.

A piece survives, though – the skull. A year and a day, the full cycle of seasons goes by and the world is made anew as it is every year. Severed heads are of huge importance in Celtic tales. The head is the seat of the soul, the home of the true identity – the source, as it were, and Einigen is the source of all knowledge – so his skull is an amazing talisman. The staves themselves have transformed as well. No longer plain sticks with writing, they are now living plants. The books (secondary source) have come to life and are now part of the great web of life (primary source) and this transformation happened within the skull of the first of all beings – knowledge and divine inspiration combined with the earth and the forces of nature. Menw (is this the same Menw as in the Mabinogion?) finds these transformed staves, and he reads them. How can he read them? Einigen is not there to interpret them for him. This, as Greer says, represents the other Awen – \| / – that which comes from within. I don’t think he’s just reading the letters that are on the staves – that’s part of it, but he’s also reading the rowan and the skull and all. Menw is like the revivalist druid, who has fragments of an old teaching, and through the use of these fragments as well as his own contemplation and mystical insight and the teachings of the rowan and the skull, he comes to Awen. Those others couldn’t get there from the staves because they only saw the staves – Menw saw the bigger picture and put himself into it as well, and it was all those things working together that brought him wisdom.

There is so much packed into this little story – myths are funny that way. I’m sure I still only have a small part of it.