This will be an exploration matching personal revelation with historical research. That is, it sketches part of the process that a polytheist working in a particular tradition must be involved in to match present experience with what can be recovered from a remote time when the tradition was vibrant : finding the old way of saying and making it new.
Maponos is being discussed now because we have placed him in the season of Midsummer for his festival and his remembrance. Gods cannot be fixed only to particular seasons but their nature can seem to fit certain times of year when their particular qualities are most apparent. So why now? Maponos is the Brythonic, and Gaulish, form (Maponus in Latin) of the name which became Mabon in the medieval Welsh tales. So Mabon son of Modron in the tale Culhwch and Olwen is Maponos son of Matrona, or ‘Divine Son of Divine Mother’. In that tale he is released from a dungeon by the River Severn at Caerloyw, or the Roman fort of Glevum (Gloucester). He is discovered there when the Salmon – one of the oldest living creatures of the world – leads Arthur’s men there to besiege the fort while Cei and Bedwyr rescue him. So he is brought out of the darkness into the light. Of Mabon, the giant Ysbaddaden says that he “was taken from his mother when three nights old” which links him with Pryderi who was similarly snatched from his mother Rhiannon (from *Rigantona or ‘Divine Queen’) shortly after his birth and brought back from obscurity as a grown boy into the light of his father’s court by Teyrnon (from *Tigernonos, or ‘Divine Lord’). So Mabon or Maponos is the divine youth, like Aengus mac Oc in the Irish tradition, and was linked to Apollo by the Romans. His story in mythological terms is of youth coming of age, of Spring opening to Summer, of the long summer days when the Sun rises early and sets late, bringing vibrant life as everything is at the peak of new growth and the music of the spheres plays through the luxuriant growth of grassy meadows and leafy woods as he comes as a piper or a harpist, as a huntsman or a woodsman, as weaver of the enchantment of long Midsummer days and the twilight of short Midsummer nights.
Some of the Brythonic forms of the names given above are marked with an asterisk to show that the original form is not found in any surviving records. But Maponos is recorded in several places from ancient times both in Britain and in Gaul:
There is a crescent-shaped silver plaque inscribed ‘DEO MAPONO’ from Vindolanda
There are dedications to ‘Apollo Maponus’ from Hadrians Wall and elsewhere in Britain
The Ravenna Cosmography refers to a ‘Locus Maponi’ or centre of his worship at Loch Maben in S.W. Scotland and the nearby Clochmaben Stone remembers him.
A medieval charter in Gaul records De Mabono fonte suggesting a possible former location for his worship at a sacred spring
He is, therefore well attested both in ancient tradition, in the medieval tales (both directly as Mabon and in analogues such as Pryderi) and in other reflexes some oblique, some less so, where his character, whether named or not, shines through figures of folklore, story and anecdote. One such is the story told by Henry Vaughan in the 17th century about a shepherd lad: “There in Summer time following the sheep & looking to their lambs, he fell into a deep sleep in which he dreamt, that he saw a beautifull young man with a garland of green leafs upon his head, & an hawk upon his fist: with a quiver full of Arrows att his back, coming towards him (whistling several measures or tunes all the way) att last lett the hawk fly att him, which (he dreamt) gott into his mouth & inward parts, & suddenly awaked in a great fear & consternation: butt possessed with such a vein, or gift of poetrie, that he left the sheep & went about the Countrey, making songs upon all occasions, and came to be the most famous Bard in all the Countrey in his time.”
So Maponos, is the Divine Son, marked by matrilineal descent from the Divine Mother, musician and harper in his different aspects and Mabon – in Culhwch and Olwen, – is released from his dark dungeon to join the hunt for Twrch Trwyth and so takes from the King of boars one of the tokens from between his ears which is required for Culhwch to wed Olwen. The giant, Olwen’s father, says that the hunt for the boar cannot take place without him, and so neither can the wedding of Culhwch (himself a type of the divine boy coming of age) to Olwen (herself a type of the divine girl who awaits him). These two also grow into the light of life. So it is Maponos at Midsummer when the Sun rides high who both partakes in and blesses the wedding feast, the Master Magician fluidly inhabiting both roles. Such is the nature of myth. It’s not that he is, or he isn’t a Sun God; not that he is or he isn’t a Vegetation God … and though he is certainly the god that plays the sweetest tune, he doesn’t ask us to judge but to listen and to learn. The story that Apollo and Pan had a competition as to who was the better musician, a context won by Apollo, has been represented as the god competing with his older self. The Irish writer James Stephens made good use of this idea in his novel The Crock of Gold, in which Pan comes to Ireland and competes with Aengus Og. There is something fundamental here in the opposition of the Woodland Piper with the Muse of Song ; of the Hunter with his arrows and the Spirit of Poetry with his lyre; of the God of the Wild Places with the Master of the Revels. Maponos encompasses them all. He is the Awen, the spirit of Summer, youth transforming itself to awareness and remaining ever young, the inspiration and the expiration of the Muse and he plays his music in what seems like an endless day. His speech is not prose, but poetry; the sense of his song is the Summer.
HYMN TO MAPONOS AT MIDSUMMER
The sun sails high in a neverdark sky
And Maponos rides the tide of summer
Tall are the grasses grown in the fields
the Breeze sighs through them, singing of summer
The forests adorned with a crown of green
beneath plays the God, in the glades of summer
The harp of Maponos vibrates the air,
and late, in the twilight, still it’s summer
It often seems that each god has an alter ego, even an antithesis. Like so many gods the nature of Maponos is diverse. So he might also be called upon as here on a Gaulish tablet found in a sacred spring at Chamelières whose words are difficult to translate but might be rendered as
Maponos of the deep, great god
I come to thee with this plea:
Bring the spirits of the Otherworld
To inspire us who are before thee.
Perhaps we could consider the implications of a call to Maponos in this way as, apparently, a guide at the portal to the Underworld/Otherworld,functioning here, as the Romans saw him, in the way Apollo is seen as the patron of the Sybil as prophetess and guardian of the Portal and voice of the spirits. Asking him, then, for aid in calling on the powers of the Otherworld would seem to be an appropriate link with his embodiment as the Muse of prophecy and of inspiration as with the awenyddion of more recent Welsh tradition. So as he is here in the light of Midsummer so he also shows another side of his character facing the shade of the Portal from the nodal opposite of the other Solstice at which his mother, Matrona, brings light from the darkness.
What Arthur and his men enacted by violence and attack at Caer Loyw (a name which might also be construed as ‘the shining fortress’) – though with the more subtle help of the most ancient animals of the world – was simply a gesture in their world to a most ancient release of light from darkness that reaches its apogee now with the near perpetual daylight of Midsummer in the Brythonic lands.
The text in Gaulish of the PRAYER TO MAPONOS together with a tentative word for word translation is given in The Celtic Heroic Age eds John T Koch and John Carey (2003)