In the mythology of Mabon, we see a classic tale of a man charged with completing impossible tasks. This is a motif that is repeated worldwide, in tales like the search for the Holy Grail and the classic tales of Baba Yaga. But these are more than simple tales, these can also be seen as shamanic initiations and the plants, animals, and other creatures encountered within these stories reveal the full scope of the journey.
In the Mabon mythology, the main task is for Culthwch, our hero, to find a person named Mabon ap Modron, which means “Great Son” in the Welsh language. Culthwch is cursed to marry a giant’s daughter. Mabon was kidnapped and hidden away when he was 3 days old and no one knows where he is. In order to find Mabon, our hero enlists the aide of King Arthur and a group of his knights. With the help of 5 animals, the group is able to find and rescue Mabon. This is where the Mabon tale ends, but the symbolism held within this tale is rich with shamanic imagery.
The tale starts simply enough, with our hero, Culthwch, wanting to get married. He turns down the offer of his stepsister, much to the chagrin of his stepmother who promptly curses him with the most impossible curse she can think of: to marry the daughter of the giant Ysbaddeden. The catch? It has been prophesied that he will die when she gets married. So Ysbaddeden sets our hero forth with 32 impossible tasks, including the task of finding the lost child Mabon.
In shamanic tradition, our tasks often seem impossible: overcoming the ego-death, seeking out the soul shards lost, “marrying” together the fractured aspects of our soul in order to grow and be complete. In this light, it’s not impossible to view Ysbaddeden as the ego, violently allowing its own death, putting forth time-consuming, convoluted puzzles to keep us occupied and distracted. His daughter, Olwen, can be perceived as the female aspect of our hero’s fractured soul, whom he loves dearly and wishes to join with. Every shamanic journey required the aide of spirit guides who can protect, guide, and aide us in our quest. In order to move past the impossible tasks set out by Ysbaddeden and marry Olwen, the hero enlists the help of King Arthur. By labeling Arthur as king, with a group of knights at his disposal, we can easily assume that he has already undergone his own initiation and is familiar with the landscape and pitfalls that await Culthwch.
King Arthur guides Culthwch through the impossible tasks and to the threshold of the Underworld, where they are confronted by the first animal guardian, the Ouzel (blackbird) of Cilgwri, the gatekeeper to the depths. This is the only one of the 5 animal guardians we will concern ourselves with. He blackbird answers the inquiry “Where is Mabon?” with the following word:
“When I first came here, there was a smith’s anvil over there. No work has ever been done on that anvil save by me sharpening my beak on it every night. There is not so much as a nut of that anvil left and in all that time I have never heard of the man you seek. But I do know of one older than I and I will take you to him.” – The Mabinogion translated by Jeffery Gantz
The Ouzel, by virtue of being the first guardian they come upon, becomes a symbol of the gatekeeper of the Underworld, where our heroes seek Mabon. Blackbirds, or black birds, in Welsh and general Celtic and Norse lore, are seen as messengers of the Gods, harbingers of death and are gifted with the ability to travel between the worlds. This includes ravens and crows. In Celtic lore, the Morrigan is said to be accompanied by ravens on the battlefield, choosing who lives and who dies. In Norse lore, Odin has two ravens who travel the world and bring him back news of all the happenings. The fact that cross and ravens can mimic human speech much have convinced many a lone traveler in the forests of old that they were surrounded by spirits and ghosts.
In the shamanic tradition, death and the Underworld are not necessarily scary places. Instead, the Underworld of where our hopes and dreams are grown, where our subconscious minds pull imagery from. The ghosts and spirits can include those things which still haunt us from our past.
The blackbird speaks the truth, saying that he cannot solve the puzzle for our heroes, he can only point them to the next step. The guardian of the gateway is truly a guardian, he has sharpened his beak every night and is willing to fight interlopers. But Culthwch knows he right question “Where is Mabon?” or where is the great son, the child of the great goddess. This question proves the hero’s worth and he is allowed to pass.
This is where our part ends. Culthwch and King Arthur go through a series of guardian animals to a castle where they rescue Mabon, complete the tasks, get the girl and live happily-ever-after. This is a successful shamanic initiation tale. The ego-death is overcome, the lost (or kidnapped) soul shard is retrieved and the male and female aspects of the soul are successfully reunited. All with the help of the “little bird” on his shoulder.