BLOG Reginald Francis

NWR Issue 117

The Moon-Eyed People and the White Ravens

‘What is the connection between a first edition of Under Milk Wood and a toy Batmobile?’ storyteller Peter Stevenson asked a puzzled audience. Such unexpected links ran throughout Stevenson’s ‘The Moon-Eyed People and The White Ravens’ event, bridging together elements of Welsh and Native American culture. Through Stephenson’s stories that night, we learned that there is more that unites these places than you might think.

Stevenson, who has qualifications in both art and folklore, has travelled the world collecting stories. His passion for Welsh legends formed over his years in Aberystwyth, are matched by his fascination with the Native American stories learned in his travels on the American east coast. Stevenson took us back to ancient Wales, spinning yarns that stretched across the Atlantic and into the wild forested mountains of Pennsylvania and tall grasslands of Ohio. Accompanied by Ailsa Mair Hughes, who sat poised on a chair playing her harp, dulcimer, flute or her haunting voice, Stevenson used photographs, short films, models and a homemade ‘crankie’, to bring his tales to life. Hughes' musical accompaniment was a pan-genre medley of arrangements spanning from Welsh folk to African-American spiritual.

Stevenson began with the legend of Madog ap Llewellyn, the Welsh prince who is said to have discovered America in 1170, over 300 years before Christopher Columbus was born. Madog and his people are said to have travelled north, building Welsh stone houses as they went. To this day in the borderlands of Georgia and North Carolina stone ruins may be found—their origins are considered a mystery but are likely to have been built by Madog. No other physical traces of the ancient Welsh in America have been found, leading some to believe they never even arrived in America. The stories of Madog would have passed into obscurity were it not for a Cherokee legend that lives on today.

High in the Appalachian Mountains there are strange burial mounds sticking out of the ground, the Cherokees say that these belonged to an ancient race that lived in the mountains before they arrived. These were pale skinned, bearded people who could see in the dark and lived underground. They were called the moon-eyed people and were savage cannibals who fought with their neighbours, until the Cherokee killed them off. These stories have led some to believe that these were Madog’s descendants who travelled further north and lived in the mountains for generations. Although evidence is scarce, the Cherokees keep the theory alive that a Welshman was the first to discover America.

At one time Welsh and Native American culture were very much the same. Both were proud warriors, both told stories about the world around them. While Wales moved into modernity by putting their stories in books, the storytelling tradition is still very much alive in certain American tribes. Bo Taylor is a Cherokee tribe member who keeps his people’s traditions alive through dance, song and storytelling. In the spirit of Taylor, Stevenson not only strives to keep the Welsh stories from fading, but helps people see the harmony between the stories of different cultures.

In Wales and America several stories are centred around animals, particularly birds. The Mabinogi tells of Branwen and the starling that helped free her from captivity in Ireland. A Native American legend tells of a cloud of white ravens that flew from out of the dust of death, warning man not to kill too many animals. The ravens disappear into the sky only to return when the world ends. Similarly, the Mabinogi’s Blodeuwedd is transformed into an owl as punishment for her infidelity, while in a Passamaquoddy tale a young girl is tricked into marrying an owl disguised as a young hunter.

These stores were told to make sense of a world that often appears bleak, unfair, and unromantic. Stevenson and Taylor remind us of the fact that our ancestors were as in need of meaning and purpose as we are. Among the slate rocks, submerged in seas of pine, and upon the tall dewy plains of ancient Wales and America were dreamers, lovers, and teachers who constructed better worlds with their words. This inclination to fill in the gaps of knowledge with stories are necessary because they lend a touch of magic to lives that often seem overly regulated but most importantly, because they remind us of our collective humanity and build connections between peoples that would otherwise remain apart.

There are always connections between things, even a first edition of Under Milk Wood and a toy Batmobile. Stevenson ended the show by revealing that the toy Batmobile was made in the Swansea factory of the Mettoy toy company founded in 1954, the year of Under Milk Wood’s publication by Dylan Thomas who was, of course, from Swansea.

Reginal Francis is blogger-in-residence at New Welsh Review, and is completing an MA in Literary Studies at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.

The Moon-Eyed People and The White Ravens was performed at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 21 March.




       


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