Welcomed Visitors

Celtic Music Search Engine

Celtic Symbolism in Folk Songs: "Tam Lin" - Part Two

What are we to make of the central theme of the song? Shapeshifting? , The winning of the Otherworld lover?, Initiatory Rituals? The inner conception of birth/creation? Hereby the sequel to the first part of this cute essay by the assistant editor of the magnificent "Inner Keltia" Magazine, Deirdre Green. All rights reserved by the author.

A meeting of the ways is the meeting of the Worlds; this world, and the land of Faery intersect out of time and place, in an undifferentiated "betwixt and between" state which eludes rigorous structure or classification - a state which is (as it were) in permanent transition or fluidity - hence the magical shape-shifting, as we shall see later. (Anthropologists such as Van Gennep and Victor Turner have pointed out the importance of such "betwixt and between" or "liminal" states in rites of passage, initiation, ritual, and so on. Remember the numerous incidents in Keltic Mythology where some character has to perform an action neither mounted nor on foot, neither on water nor on land, neither inside a house nor outside, etc.

According to some versions of the ballad, Janet, arriving at Miles Cross at midnight, has to cast a magic circle with holy water, the idea doubtless being that by staying within the circle she, and Tam Lin once she has pulled him from his horse, are protected from Fairy influences.

Then Janet pulls Tam Lin from his horse, he goes through a series of transformations in her arms as he / passes from one world to another, The exact transformations vary with the versions of the song, but an ask (water newt), a snake or adder; a lion, and a bear are usually included, and sometimes also a toad, eel, swan, dove, greyhound, black dog, Lailly WornT and others. Many of these animals have precise symbolic connotations in Keltic Lore,.

Finally, there is a transformation into a red-hot bar of iron. Wee know that iron was often used as a folk charm against unwanted fairy influences, and we might assume therefore that at this point Janet has won through her battle of holding Tam Lin tight in her arms through-out these frightening changes of shape :

"They'll turn me in your arms, lady
Into an ask and an adder
But hold me fast, and fear not,
I am your bairn's father. "

The physieal contact produced by this close embrace is a means of "earthing", of promoting disenchantment. A more common motif found in many fairy stories and folk tales, also showing the importance of physical contact, is disenchantment by a kiss (the hideous hag, when kissed, turns into a beautiful lady, or the frog into a prince; although this motif also has other meanings, which cannot be gone into here).

In some versions the bar of iron is then transformed into a burning coal, but in either case, Janet has to plunge the red-hot, fiery iron or coal into water or milk - an important magical means of restoring someone or something to its original shape.

The fire metamorphosis is counteracted by the opposite element of water. Tam Lin is then transformed back into his human shape, naked, and Janet has to cast her green mantle over him. This is also significant, for green garments of various kinds are often the mark of fairy peoples or of mortals who have visited Faery, while mantles or robes are connected with magical transformations (compare the common motif of a cloak that makes the wearer invisible).

So Janet wins her lover, and the Fairy Queen, enraged, declares that had she known of this plan, she would have taken out Tam Lin's eyes and heart, and replaced them with "twa een o' tree" and a "heart o' stane".

Keltic folklore is replete with examples of people who, having once seen the fairies, have their sight taken away. Usually it is just the "inner sight" that is lost, the power to see the fairy people, but sometimes physical sight is lost as well.

The heart has frequently been seen as the centre of the soul or self. Perhaps, then, the Fairy Queen means that she would wish to deprive Tam Lin of his power to see the fairy folk from then on, and furthermore to bind his soul by magical force. Perhaps on the other hand, she simply means that if she had known of this plan before hand, she would have taken out Tam Lin's eyes so that he could not see Janet, and his heart so that his lack of human emotion would mean that he would have had no desire to return to her, and thus the Queen would have kept him in the Otherworld.

So what are we to make of the central theme of the song, the transformations that Tam Lin undergoes in Janet's arms?

To begin with, it should be noted that shapeshifting, or magical transformation, is a general Otherworldly characteristic, and may signify different things in different instancea. The abil-ity to appear under different forms is a characteristic not only of fairy peoples, but also of certain magicians, gods, goddeáses, witshes, Druids, kings, great heroes, early Keltic Saints, and supernatural beings of all kinds.

Sometimes shape-shifting is connected with initiatory myth and ritual, as in the Welsh myth of Kerridwen and Gwion, of which another folksong, 'The Coal-Blaek Smith" (also known as 'The Two Magicians') would appear to be a reflection. Sometimes it is connected with the natural cycles of the seasons.

Sometimes it is related to rebirth or reincarnation in animal form. In 'Tam Lin', however, it is connected with the winning of an Otherworld lover.

This connection can be found in other examples from Keltic myth, as well as in other traditions, for example in Greek Mythology (in the story of "Oenghus and Caer" Caer ohanges from a maiden to a swan, or vice versa, each Samhain,) we can also find a connection between shape-shifting and creation/conception, conception and birth being a form of creation on the micro-cosmic level, its analogue in the human being.

In Tam Lin', Janet is with child, and wins her lover back from the Otherworld to be her child 's father. In the Welsh myth, Kerridwen pursues Gwion through many transformations until finally she, as a black hen, swallows him in the shape of a grain of wheat, and later bears him as the child who is to become the great Bard Taliesin.

In Irish mythology, Tuan, the last survivor of Partholons company, after successive animal transformations, is eaten in the form of a salmon by the wife of King Cairell and reborn of her .

Mongán, Pryderi,and Arthur are all conceived through the magical shape-shifting of their natural fathers, although here the change of shape is into another human form, and no animal transformations are involved.

In the Hindu tradition, a creation myth of the Erihadaranyaka Upanisad relates how all living beings are created from the successive animal transformations of the first male and first female, who were originally one androgynous self. She becomes a cow, he a bull; she becomes a mare, he a stallion, she a ewe, he a ramand so on. The Coal Black Smith too, while its main significance seems to be that of the transformations of initiatory ritual (as in the myth of Kerridwen and Gwion), contains also the theme of conception/creation in that the smith pursues a maiden with the intent of "gaining her maidenhead". She becomes a fish, he an otter; she becomes a hare, he a dog; she becomes a fly, he a spider, and so on till the end of the chase.

Hare and hound, fish and otter, are also found in the transformatory chase of Gwion and Kerridwen, although here it is the Goddess that pursues the male hero, and many writers have argued that the earliest form of this mythical theme is the more matriarchal version, where the female pursues the male.

With the initiatory pattern, we can see the shape-shifting transformations as representing the trials, tests and degrees of initiation -the transformations which we all have to undergo in order to attain higher levels of consciousness.

Gwion undergoes his transformations after tasting of the Water of Inspiration from Kerridwen's Cauldron, which was an essential part of initiatory ritual; and the various shape-shifting changes thereafter can be related to other parts of the ritual.

It is tempting to see 'Tam Lin1 as containing vest iges of initiatory shape-changing too. After all, Tam Lin has spent seven years in the Otherworld - a time period often connected with initiaton» (Thomas the Rhymer spends seven years in Faery, and returns with the gift of composing rhyming prophecy) .

Initiatory myths and rituals also often contain the symbolism of fire and of water, by which the initiate is transformed and purified, and these could be compared to Tam Lin's transformation into red-hot iron/coal and his inmersion in water/milk. (Cuchulainn, after his initiation as a warrior, is placed in three vats of cold water to extinguish his burning ardour, his inner fire», although this is not part of the actual initiation process itself.

But whether we see 'Tam Lin' as containing remnants of initiatory ritual, it is clear, at least, that shape-shifting results from contacts between this world and the Otherworld. It occurs in the context of initiatory myth, where the Otherworld is revealed to the candidate; and it occurs in 'Tam Lin' as the hero of our song makes his passage from one World to the other.

The transformations of Gwion and Kerridwen occur after Gwion has tasted of the draught from the Cauldron, that is, after he has penetrated the secrets of the Otherworld, which he later as Taliesin relays to the world of humanity. In many mythologies, when the hero has won the secrets of the Otherworld, he has to cross the threshold back to this world - as Tam Lin does - and magical shape-shifting results from a contact between the two worlds.

What we can say, at least, is that whether we see the shape-shifting of Tam Lin as connected with initiation, or with conception/creation, on either case the transformations into different shapes are an obvious and natural symbol of a change of state or form, while the underlying force or energy remains the same.

Shape-shifting is a characteristic of that which is not fully manifest - of something which is in the process of becoming manifest or actual, something which is betwixt and between one World ( or level of being) and another. Things can only shift shape if they are not fully formed, if the energy which is their being is in a state of potential, creative, dynamic, unstructured free-flow. Tam Lin undergoes his transformations out of time, out of place, out of structure, between the Worlds - at Samhain, at midnight, at a crossroads.

Whilst he is undergoing them, he is neither one creature nor another. As Janet effects his disenchantment by the "earthing" of physical contact, the unstructured energy which is his being, which is manifesting under so many different forms, slowly takes on its original structure and is given stable form as he is restored to human shape.

Perhaps we can sea the fluid composite zoomorphic forms of Keltic Art as pointing to the same reality as do the animal transformations - the reality of the Otherworld, where things are fluid, boundaries and categories indistinct, dualities transcended. Of course, it is also worth considering the specific symbolism of each animal in any series of animal transformations, and the deity that any particular animal may be connected with.

It is characteristic of all true symbols that they are inexhaustible. They relate to many different layers of meaning at once, and their wealth cannot be exhausted in any article, but reveals itself ever deeper to us when a symbol is meditated upon and lived through.

There are many other questions that we can ask ourselves about the symbolism of' 'Tam Lin'. For example : Who is the Otherworld Lover? A god or goddess with whom we have a special relationship? Or another human being with whom we may find Spiritual fulfillment?

For different individuals, it can be any or all of these but whichever it is for us, we can be sure that, as in Tam Lin's story, many deep transformations will have to be undergone to bring the relationship to its full flowering and to bring about the inner conception and birth/creation. And that in order to hold on tight through these transformations, we will need sometimes to step ouside our usual structures and classifications, our preconceived boundaries and categories, into another World.
Post a Comment


Popular Posts