This issue, we sit down with Jhenah Telyndru, founder of the Avalonian Tradition. A multi-talented author and sing/songwriter, I first became aware of Telyndru’s work through her short story “The Gallinsenae.” Currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Celtic Studies, Telyndru took time out from her busy schedule to discuss Goddess Spirituality, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and the best pilgrimage sites in the British Isles.
Eternal Haunted Summer: If you could correct one misconception about Goddess Spirituality, what would it be?
Jhenah Telyndru: I think the most pervasive misconception is that Goddess Spirituality requires a complete rejection of the Divine Masculine and engenders a hatred of men. While I cannot and do not speak for all Goddess Spirituality traditions, the Avalonian Tradition embraces a focus on female divinities and gathers in all-women hearth groups as part of our ongoing quest to understand the sacred and Sovereign nature of our womanhood. Our immersion in the Divine Feminine is not reactionary nor specifically political, although global issues of women’s equality and personal autonomy are of prime importance to the majority of our Sisters, as are other social justice issues. I do have to add that, in spite of being involved in Goddess Spirituality since the mid-eighties, the overwhelming majority of women I have encountered in the movement have similar goals as the Sisterhood; the prevalent stereotype seems more of an exaggerated caricature than anything resembling the truth, yet I continuously see it parroted in Pagan internet fora.
EHS: You have been in service to the Lady for two decades. What first drew you to Her?
JT: For as long as I can remember, I had a great love for mythology and ancient history. I remember as a child wishing that I lived in the times of ancient Greece or Rome so that I could worship Athena or Diana. When I was nine, I read The Once and Future King [by TH White] and was obsessed with reading everything I could about King Arthur; I spent a good part of my early teen years in the company of works by Thomas Mallory, Mary Stewart, Rosemary Sutcliff, Stephen Lawhead, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Mists of Avalon rekindled within me the longing for Goddesses in my life, but it wasn’t until I happened across a copy of The Women’s Spirituality Book by Diane Stein, that I realized that there was an active movement of Goddess worship happening here and now, and my life has never been the same. Using Stein’s work as a guide, I practiced Dianic Wicca as a solitary for several years until the late 80’s, when I was initiated into a traditional Wiccan coven in NYC. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that path, but felt fortunate to find a group at all -– remember, this was in the days before the internet; fortunately, I lived in a big city and was connected with the coven through Herman Slater’s Magickal Childe shop in Manhattan. When I went away to undergrad, I found a woman’s Goddess Circle which was inspired by Avalon and Druidism, and I finally felt as if I was on the path which had been calling me from childhood. In 1995, I moved to Atlanta for graduate school, and it was there, upon putting up a website seeking other women who felt a call to the Holy Isle, that the Sisterhood of Avalon was born.
EHS: The Avalonian Tradition draws upon Welsh mythology, especially The Mabinogion. Considering the tales were recorded by Christians (usually male), how difficult is it to “tease out” (as it were) the original myths and their Mysteries?
JT: I think the key to understanding the subtextual references is to have a good grounding in Celtic culture and British history. Taking the stories of the women of the Mabinogi at face value does not do them any justice, as most references to their divinity have been stripped away — unless you know what to look for. Believed to be wrought from the remnants of ancient stories that survived the course of time down the stream of the oral tradition, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi were written down sometime between the 11th and 12th centuries possibly by clerics, or otherwise by lay scholars interested in preserving Welsh culture in the face of losing their autonomy during the Anglo-Norman conquest. As they did so, these scribes may well have redacted things from the oral tradition which seemed strange or foreign to them. For example, the prohibitions Arianrhod sets against her son may not be the act of cruelty we witness in the narrative so much as a distant memory of a time when matrilineal inheritance was the norm, and it was the right of the mother to name, and arm, and agree to the marriage of her son.
Too, the greater autonomy of women from Pagan Celtic times may well have seemed fantastical to the redactors of the Four Branches who in turn rendered these queens and noblewomen as being outside of the natural order, and therefore must have come from the Otherworld. Alternatively, these figures may have their origins in older Celtic myths, which abounded with stories of land and fertility Goddesses, and Goddess of sovereignty. While not explicitly stated in the narrative, there is general consensus among scholars that Rhiannon was once a sovereignty Goddess; perhaps Blodeuwedd, having literally been created from flowers, was a Goddess of the land and fertility. Arianrhod’s very name suggests she may have been a moon Goddess, she of the Silver Wheel, while Branwen, too, may have also been a Goddess of sovereignty entering into a sacred marriage with the King of Ireland in order to unite the two lands.
EHS: While I find Rhiannon a compelling Goddess, I was always rather disturbed by the traditional interpretation of Her story. How are the Goddess and Her myths understood within the Avalonian Tradition?
JT: For us, Rhiannon is a Goddess of Sovereignty; not only does She have the power to confer kingship and connection to the Land to an earthly consort, but She teaches us the ways to establish our inner Sovereignty as well. There is a portion of Her myth where She rides out from the Otherworld on three consecutive days, always outpacing the riders that pursue Her, even as Her horse’s gait remains steady and even; it is only when Pwyll asks her to wait that She stops to speak with him, and he learns that She has chosen him to be Her husband. This is only the first of several challenges that Rhiannon and Pywll must overcome in order to be married, and through these processes, She teaches us that we must ask for that which we need, and to pursue the lives we wish to lead no matter the obstacles in our path. But these are just part of the lessons She holds for us.
As Her story continues in the First Branch, Rhiannon’s newborn son is stolen as She sleeps by a monster on Calan Mai; the child’s nurses, afraid for their lives for having lost the child, conceive a plan and frame Rhiannon for his death, smearing Her with puppy blood and claiming She destroyed the child in the night. Although Rhiannon tells them She will be merciful to them if they tell the truth of what happened, they maintain their story, and Pwyll is forced to punish Rhiannon — a penance She chooses to accept in order to keep peace, even as She maintains Her innocence. Again, Her equine nature is alluded to as She is made to sit on a horse block at the gates of Arberth for seven years, telling all who visit the story of how She killed her newborn; She is also required to offer to bear each traveller on Her back to the court, though very few people accepted Her offer. Eventually, the lost child is found and returned to court, and Rhiannon is restored to Her place as queen. While on the surface, She appears to have given up Her station by accepting an unjust punishment, and indeed there are many medieval Welsh cultural considerations involved, from the perspective of the Avalonian Tradition, Rhiannon is modeling the kind of inner strength and endurance that comes from living from a place of Inner Sovereignty — the ability to stay centered in truth and remain connected to Source, regardless of any external challenges which, no matter the degree of suffering or injustice we experience, allows us to persevere and eventually triumph.
EHS: Avalon Within is the first in your Avalonian Tradition series. How many books are you planning?
JT: I have two more books on the Avalonian Tradition in progress; the first explores Avalon’s heritage as an Island of Healing, while the other focuses on the legends of the women of Avalon and how they can inform the spiritual journey of today’s woman.
EHS: As the journal of the Sisterhood of Avalon, is The Tor Stone open to submissions from members only, or the public in general? And what sorts of submissions are you interested in?
JT: The Tor Stone was first published as a print journal in 1997 and transitioned to an e-publication in the early 2000s. The majority of our submissions come from our membership, but we have published essays, poetry, and art from those outside of the Sisterhood, and welcome these submissions. The focus of The Tor Stone is to “present articles, art and poetry which is in tune with the energies of Cycle and which support the ways in which our processes of healing and growth as women mirror the rhythmic shifts of this cosmic dance. Topics include: reflections on personal growth and the journey of the spirit; Celtic Mythos; the Goddesses of Avalon; Lore and Legends of the Celtic Britons; Welsh Traditions and Folk Practices; Women’s Mysteries and the Divine Feminine; Herbalism and other healing modalities; growth-centered energetic and ritual techniques, and much more.” To read The Tor Stone in our new online journal format, and for additional information about submissions, please visit here.
EHS: What about the anthologies in honor of the Avalonian Goddesses, being released by Ninth Wave Press? Are those open to the general public, and what kinds of submissions are you seeking?
JT: We welcome anyone to submit work to our anthologies, and are seeking educational, celebratory, and inspirational works in honor of the Welsh Goddesses Blodeuwedd, Rhiannon, Ceridwen, Branwen, and Arianrhod. These works can be in the form of essays, short stories, poetry, chants, rituals, meditations, photos, and artwork. Our first anthology, in honor of Blodeuwedd, will be published this year. More information can be found at Ninth Wave Press.
EHS: A belated congratulations on the release of the cd, “The Loom.” How did you and Lori Schneider come together to found Afalarian?
JT: Thank you! This is an exciting time and I am thrilled to be working on this project with Lori. She and I were in a women’s circle together 20 years ago, and reconnected through the Sisterhood of Avalon several years ago. In 2011, she participated in one of the SOA’s pilgrimages to Britain, and we shared a deeply moving chanting experience with Sisters during our ceremony at the White Spring in Glastonbury. Afalarian was birthed as a result of the Awen of that night. We journeyed again in pilgrimage to Ireland last year, where we had opportunities to sing and play together at traditional music sessions at pubs in and around Sligo; both of these pilgrimages continue to inspire us and our music. I am primarily a singer/songwriter, while Lori is an incredible, truly professional musician, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist who has created music spanning many genres; she was a founding member of the folk/rock duo Crystal Rose, produced a conceptual rock opera with medieval influence called “Legend: A Knight’s Opera”, and recorded a beautiful album of Indian raga music entitled “Evergreen Heart: Flute Music for Yoga and Relaxation.” Check out her work at www.lorischneidermusic.com, and you can keep up with Afalarian here.
EHS: In our correspondence prior to this interview, you closed your emails with the term “Bendithion.” What does that mean?
JT: Bendithion is Welsh for “blessings.”
EHS: I was fortunate enough to go on a pilgrimage to Ireland, where I visited Kildare and Newgrange. I have not been to Britain yet, though; as someone who has led pilgrimages there, which sites would you recommend I visit?
JT: The British Isles boasts a rich heritage that appeals to many different spiritual paths inspired by its cultural history. When we lead pilgrimages, we seek out the deeper layers of that heritage to connect with the ancestral energies of the landscape in unique and meaningful ways; this means we often visit places well-off the beaten path – creating experiences which I have found to transform my personal practice and enrich my relationship with our Goddesses. In addition to the usual suspects of Stonehenge and the Avebury Complex, Pre-Celtic Britain can be experienced by visiting neolithic sites such as Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Pentre Ifan Dolman, Bryn Celli Ddu passage grave, and Barclodiad y Gawres chamber tomb. Britain’s Celtic heritage comes alive in the immersive environment of Castell Henllys, an in-situ reconstruction of an Iron Age hillfort in Pembrokeshire. For those interested in Welsh Mythology, especially as expressed in the Mabinogi, there are many powerful places to visit, including: Tomen y Mur, the site of Lleu and Blodeuwedd’s court; Bedd Branwen, a Bronze Age ring cairn and cist burial which nonetheless has become associated with the events of the Fourth Branch; Caer Arianrhod, the remains of which are said to be submerged in the waters off of Dinas Dinlle hillfort, once home to Lleu and Gwydion; and Castell Arberth, court of Rhiannon and Pwyll, believed to have stood on the site which now boasts the Norman remains of Castle Narberth. Those interested in the traditions surrounding Arthur and Avalon should visit the well-known sites of Glastonbury, Tintagel, and Cadbury Hill, but would also benefit from exploring Dinas Emrys, a hillfort in Gwynedd associated with Merlin, as well as Bedd Arthur, a henge monument near Carn Menyn, the site where the Stonehenge bluestones are believed to have originated. Finally, there is much to be gained by experiencing some of the ways in which modern Pagan spirituality has blossomed and taken root in Britain: an overnight stay in the roundhouse at Cae Mabon, a visit to the Mabinogion sculpture trail at Castle Henllys, and attendance at one of the Anderida Gorsedd Camps facilitated by Damh the Bard and Cerri Lee are fantastic ways to connect with the still-living spirit of the land.
EHS: What resources would you recommend to those interested in Goddess Spirituality?
JT: As a teenager in 1986, my purchase of Diane Stein’s The Women’s Spirituality Book introduced me to Goddess Traditions, Paganism, and informed my budding Feminism; it retains a special place in my heart and was a beautiful place to begin this path. Since then, I have studied a broad range of Goddess scholarship, which itself requires a re-visioning of dominant academic paradigms and is often controversial. I continue to be inspired by the work of Marija Gimbutas, Max Dashu, Patricia Monaghan, Carol P. Christ, Starhawk, Mary Daly, Merlin Stone, and Genevieve Vaughan, to name a few. An excellent overview of the movement and its history can be found in The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays by the Founding Mothers of the Movement, edited by Charlene Spretnak. Other excellent resources include: The Association for the Study of Women and Mythology, which presents powerful conferences and symposia reflecting current Goddess scholarship; SageWoman magazine, which explores the many expressions of women on Goddess-centered paths; and lastly, I strongly recommend attendance at any of the beautiful and empowering Women’s Spirituality festivals and conferences which take place all around the world. I am especially fond of Where Womyn Gather (formerly Womongathering) in Pennsylvania, and the Elderflower Womanspirit Festival, in Northern California.
EHS: Where can people find your books, recordings, dvds and so forth?
JT: My book Avalon Within is available in brick-and-mortar bookstores, as well as on Amazon and other major online booksellers. Journeys to Avalon, a spoken word album of immrama meditations, and the first Afalairan music single “The Loom”, can be found for download on Amazon, iTunes, and CDBaby. Trancing the Inner Landscape: Avalonian Landscape Postures is available directly through the Sisterhood of Avalon website, where it is offered as a fundraiser for our Sacred Land Project. Links for all of these items can be found on my website.
EHS: What other projects are you currently working on?
JT: I am presently editing the companion book for the oracle deck I designed, and which is being illustrated by artist Emily Brunner. This project will be published in 2014 by Schiffer Books. This deck holds a very special place in my heart, and I hope will be a deep resource for the journeys of others who are drawn to walking a woman-centered spiritual path. I am also hard at work on the dissertation for my Master’s Degree in Celtic Studies through the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, and I hope to complete my first novel by the end of this year.
EHS: Which book fairs, conventions, festivals or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
JT: I am teaching several levels of Sisterhood of Avalon training intensives in New York, Texas, and Ontario, Canada this year, and I am thrilled to be giving two presentations at the Southeast Wise Women Herbal Conference in Black Mountain, NC this fall. I presented a paper at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology Symposium this Spring, and have done workshops and book signings in Minnapolis, MN and Kitchener, ON. I’m still scheduling for next year, and I plan to be at PantheaCon in February, before co-leading two SOA/Mythic Seeker pilgrimages to Wales and Ireland in the Summer and Fall of 2014 respectively. I’d love to connect with any of your readers who will be attending these events, or who have interest in undertaking a pilgrimage to sacred sites in the UK and Ireland with us.
Thank you for this opportunity to share with you and your readers! Summer blessings to all!