The Ordeal of Lleu as Shamanic Initiation


Mircea Eliade, in Rites and Symbols of Initiation (1958), like van Gennep before him (Rites de Passage, 1909), outlines three stages in initiatory ritual; separation from or death to the old life, the intermediary state of chaotic ambiguity and ordeal, and rebirth in a new life and return to society as a new being. Eliade gives examples of such rites from still-existing tribal cultures such as the Australian aboriginal. The liminal state, Eliade opines, is equivalent to the primal chaos. Crossroads, traditionally the place of uncanny happenings, are liminal places; Samhain and Beltaine are liminal times, offering a partial explanation for the weird and magical happenings associated with them, as are the twilight times of dawn and dusk, neither night nor day. In closer focus, the middle state of liminality and the actual initiation can be further broken down into the component parts of the ritual. In Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Eliade does just this (p. 34), with examples which I also use.

I propose that the episode of Lleu's death, in Math ab Mathonwy, fits into this same ritual structure of shamanic initiation. To begin with, Eliade explains that shamanic initiates undergo a "death" experience, whether through ritual death or apparent physical death (as in coma or catatonic sleep), or in dreams. In an "apparent" death, a young woman among the Araucanians of Chile will collapse as if dead, and on recovery announce her vocation as a machi or shamaness. On the other hand, among California tribes such as the Pomo, initiates are symbolically "killed"; they undergo wounding by the initiating elder shamans and are laid out like corpses, buried under straw. Ecstatic visions of bodily dismemberment, followed by renewal of the organs and viscera, is part of this death.

The Otherworld Journey is another common feature of such rites, as well as of regular shamanic practice, since one of the shaman's functions is that of psychopomp, or leader of souls to the land of the dead. To be able to lead souls there, one must know the way from one's own experience! A shapechange to a flying shape is often involved, since many cultures conceive of the Otherworld as being either far distant (most easily reached by flying) or somewhere Above.

As Joan Halifax, in Shaman: the Wounded Healer (1982), says: "To the heavens, to the well at the end of the world, to the depths of the Underworld, to the bottoms of spirit-filled lakes and seas, around the earth, to the moon and sun, to distant stars and back again does the shaman-bird travel. All the cosmos is accessible when the art of transformation has been mastered." (p. 24)

The World Tree is a universal feature of the Otherworld, a tree whose branches hold all the worlds and which reaches from the underworld to the heavens (in the Siberian tribes, this is the cosmic tent-pole, and the cosmic smoke-hole at the top of it is the North Star). The levels of worlds on the tree in the Siberian worldview are strongely reminiscent of the levels of Otherworlds on the Norse Yggdrasil; and in both worldviews, the Other-worlds may be reached by climbing the World Tree.

Other sacred trees are shadows of the World Tree. The pole of the Plains Sun Dance, to which dancers are tied (or sometimes hung) by skewers through their flesh, reminds one of the Tree of Oðin's hanging ordeal. This quote from Lucan, written during Julius Cæsar's time, could just as easily describe the poles of the Pacific Northwest as it does a sacred Druidic grove: "And there were many dark springs running there, and grim-faced figures of gods uncouthly hewn by the axe from the untrimmed tree-trunk, rotted to whiteness." Such Celtic carvings as have been recovered from votive deposits do indeed resemble Pacific Northwestern posts.

In some cultures, the initiation of a shaman includes dismemberment and consumption by powerful spirits, as Eliade shows. The Master Bear of the circumpolar bear cult and the demons of the Tibetan chöd rite are destroyers of the profane body in preparation for rebuilding it as a magical body filled with spirit-power. In some cases, as among the Yakut, the candidate's dismembered pieces are distributed among disease spirits as an offering to give the shaman power over those diseases. Likewise, to enter into contracts with spirits or to obtain guardians, a candidate of the Plains tribes will offer the spirits (in animal forms) his own flesh to eat. All of these can be seen as metaphors for the death and utter discorporation of the old self, or else as the candidate's own ecstatic visions.

Restoration to the physical body, as Eliade demonstrates, nearly always involves the building of a new spiritual body, whether through being consumed and regurgitated by spirits, being stirred in a boiling pot and pieced back together, having the brains washed and/or replaced, or having bones replaced by magical materials such as quartz crystal or diamond. The South American Cobeno shaman, for example, is said to replace a novice's brain and eyes with crystals, which then become the initiate's "strength". The crystal body or skeleton is seen in Australian, Siberian, and Pacific Northwestern shamanism as well, according to Eliade.

In terms of ordinary reality, the rebuilding might be a metaphor for the Master Shaman revealing how the candidate can use his initiatory experience in this world. Death and rebirth, the rounds of the seasons and stars, all the things which the candidate would have known intellectually by training, are through initiation made part of the candidateÕs experience, and his reality explodes to encompass it. The Master Shaman is the grounding force, the one who shows how all the pieces of the candidate's experience can fit together in a changed and enlightening way. Having sketched an outline of shamanic initiation, let us proceed to fill it in with the elements from the story of Lleu.

The Ordeal and Death

The first stages in shamanic initiation, liminality and death, show clearly in the story of Lleu. Lleu can only be wounded when he stands in a liminal state: neither indoors nor out, neither on foot nor on horse (and though the story doesn't explicitly state it, neither on land nor on water). Having emerged from a gazebo-like bath-house (having a roof but no walls), with one foot on the back of a goat and the other on the edge of the bath, Lleu is vulnerable.

The presence of the goat is interesting; according to Eliade, the goat is attested in shamanism of other cultures as well. Among the Buryat, the initiate is purified by the blood of a goat, and in some places must drink the sacrificed animal's blood. The Tungus sacrifice a black goat prior to a session of the shaman's descent to the underworld. When Lleu is in this ambiguous position, the only weapon to which he is vulnerable is a spear which has been forged for a year "while folk are at prayers on Sunday" -- an implicitly sorcerous spear. What makes Lleu's story not merely that of a strange way to die is what happens after: he is transformed into an eagle and flies away. Gwydion later finds him in a tree between two lakes on an otherwise barren plain. The spear is a significant weapon here, with a clear cognate in the spear with which Oðin is wounded, as described in Hávamál. In Ynglingasaga and N—regs konungatal, too, it is demonstrated that sacrifices to Oðin were marked as such by wounding with a spear.

Other parallels may be indicated by both Oðin and the Irish Lugh possessing a magical spear, and by the Romans equating both Oðin and the continental Lugus with their own psychopomp figure, Mercury. The ordeal in or on a tree also appears in both Oðin 's and Lleu's stories, and indeed, the basic idea of each may be the same: self-sacrifice to gain power. The spear as magical weapon appears again in Cad Goddeu, and in the song of Amergin -- it is plausible that the imagery of ordeal on a tree and wounding with a spear predates the importation of Christianity.

Shapechange and Otherworld Journey

Many things indicate that the oak of Lleu's ordeal is as much the World Tree as the Norse Yggdrasil. It is clearly magical in some way; Gwydion's englynion describe it as indestructible. In other shamanic cultures, especially the Siberian, the World Tree is similarly remote from humankind, and in its branches live the dead and the unborn. Lleu, in his situation, is also between death and life, still in the liminal state.

Like Yggdrasil, Lleu's Oak has waters associated with it; Yggdrasil has one root in each of three pools in three worlds, all associated with wisdom, fate or prophesy. Davidson, in Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe (1988) shows very clear parallels between Celtic and Germanic traditions relating sacred waters and sacred trees. Near temples, where depiction of the macrocosm through the microcosm would make the most sense, trees and pools were deliberately brought together. In areas as distant from each other as Chile, Scandinavia, and Greece, a shamaness can only utter her prophesies from a high seat or tripod -- in Chile the platform of the machi is a tree indeed. From this lofty place, representing the World Tree, the shamaness looks out over all the worlds.

It is suggestive to me at least, that the words for oak and door in Irish and Welsh are related (dair -- the same word for both in Irish -- derwen and drws, and even English "door", Norse dyrr and Greek thura), implying perhaps a view of the Oak as door to the Otherworld as much as the mundane reality of doors being made of "durable" (!) oak.

The subject of the relationship between bards and shamans has been explored elsewhere (Chadwick, 1942; Hussey, 1988). It will suffice here to say merely that certain shamanic techniques, at least, were not unfamiliar to the Celts. The shapechange is common to both bards and shamans, and the shamanic technique of flight and accompanying prophetic utterance was certainly known. Gwion Bach, in the crisis and chaos of his initiatory ordeal, takes on a shape in each of the three worlds -- land, water, and air. Chadwick points out the feather cloaks of early Irish poets, much like those of Siberian shamans.

Regarding feather cloaks, incidentally, the favoured disguise of the Æsir in their journeys beyond the safety of their "gard" into the outer Utgard is that of an eagle or falcon, and the goddess Freyja has just such a cloak. It is as an eagle that Lleu, who has travelled with Gwydion as a poet but has made no poetry himself, goes screaming into the outlands -- is this an ovate's initiation?

The sojourn of Lleu as a bird in the World Tree is significant. As Eliade says (p. 272-3):

Eliade describes Yggdrasil here, with an eagle at its top and the serpent Niðhögg at its foot. Lleu's Oak, too, has a chthonic beast at its root: the sow who consumes his flesh.

Destruction of the Profane Body

The sow here serves the function of destruction of the profane body. When the eagle, high in the Tree, shakes himself, rotten flesh slakes off and falls to the bottom, where the sow feeds on it. She leads Gwydion to the Tree, in much the same way as supernatural animals lead other characters in the Mabinogi to Otherworld situations. A stag leads Pwyll to a part of the woods he has never before seen, a place between worlds where he meets Arawn, king of the underworld. A boar leads Pryderi to his magical imprisonment in the mound. Old and wise animals lead Arthur's men to Mabon ap Modron's prison. The same sow may also be the demon sow who appears in Welsh folklore, in the following chant sung until the 19th c. on Nos Galan Gaeaf, Hallowe'en:

This story's particular method of getting around having both shapechange and consumption, that is, having the sow eat flesh which the eagle sheds, is unique.

Reconstruction of Body

The rebuilding of Lleu's body is done by his uncle Gwydion and great-uncle Math, the established masters. Gwydion coaxes the eagle down from the tree much as Pacific Northwest shamans coax the errant souls of the sick into their "soul-catchers". He strikes the eagle with his magic wand and the eagle becomes Lleu again. Lleu is "wasted" from his ordeal, and it takes Gwydion and Math another year to restore him to full health. The long reconstruction period is found in other shamanic traditions as well (for the Yakut a "proper" shaman takes three years to build).

It is interesting to compare this rebuilding of Lleu with Gwydion and Math's initial construction of Blodeuwedd; one wonders with what substances Gwydion and Math enfleshed their initiate! But certainly, after the reconstruction Lleu is ready to take up his life again, and more decisively than before.

More Questions

After his revenge on Goronwy, Lleu reclaims possession of his cantref, and as the end of the story relates, "he became lord over Gwynedd after that." It is tempting, therefore, to surmise that the initiation was necessary to Lleu's career as king; certainly, he is more effective and active after the initiation than before, and it is a curious similarity that Baldr (in the Norse mythology) is also an ineffective ruler, according to Snorri's Edda, until he has died (also victim of a thrown missile), sojourned in the land of the dead, and returned.

Still, Proinsias MacCana has pointed out to me that in the recorded Irish kingship ceremonies, the liminal state is not at all as prolonged as in Lleu's initiation, in spite of the seeming parallel regarding consumption of the candidate (in India, as in Ireland, Dr. MacCana reminded me, the sovereignty rite involved the king- or queen-to-be bathing in a broth of horseflesh, which the people ate while the sovereign bathed -- while Giraldus is not always reliable, the existence of the same ritual in India is too close for coincidence, MacCana says).

There is, alas, no connection to be made here without artifice. At least for the time being, Lleu's initiatory episode must remain an interesting but mysterious relic of earlier shamanic tradition, bringing up more questions than it answers. Why does Lleu undergo the initiation? What is the point of the "love triangle"? Is Math a constellation of formerly unrelated stories? It is to be hoped that further scholarship, bearing the idea of the ritual in mind, will bring some answers.


Chadwick, Nora K. Poetry and Prophecy. Cambridge, 1942.

Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972 (Bollingen Series LXXVI).
________. Rites and Symbols of Initiation. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.

Ford, Patrick K., trans. & ed. The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977.

Halifax, Joan. Shaman: the Wounded Healer. New York: Crossroad, 1982.

Hussey, Leigh Ann. "Lady of the Depths: Primal Goddess of Celtic Shamanism", Shaman's Drum 14, Mid-Fall 1988: pp. 47-50.

Owen, Trefor. Welsh Folk Customs. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1974.

Copyright © 1989 Leigh Ann Hussey