The Penhallow Pendant
What does it take to see the Otherworld? Keen eyesight? Special vision? A willingness to believe?
Whatever it is, Matthew Penhallow had it. So did Kathy Henley. Both families shared the ability to see from one generation to the next. And the tommyknockers knew it.
The tommyknockers also knew, or at least believed, it was important to cultivate these gifted family lines. It was important to keep communication open. So they crafted special pendants in bronze and gold and silver and marked them with symbols of ancient lore. They sealed the emblems with bits of magic, then gave them to families that could hear and see. Special families. Families that accepted the terms of a bond and a pledge.
So what were the symbols that marked the pendants? What was the magic embedded inside?
The Penhallow pendant eased the way between the world of men and the Otherworld. It kept communication open. That’s why the pendant was shaped in the form of the Tree of Life. That’s why the Three Elders where placed among its branches. The Tree of Life connected the worlds. The Three Elders carried messages between them.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life, or World Tree, is a universal element found in many faiths throughout the world. With long, outstretched branches and deep, searching roots, it connects the heavens above with the earth and with the Underworld below. It unites the three worlds and, through its branches and roots, offers a pathway into the darkness or the light. While in most faiths, the tree is upright with branches reaching up to God or the Gods, sometimes it is inverted, as with the Hebrew Kabbalah Tree and the Hindu Tree of Eternity or Brahman. Then it is deemed to grow downward from the heavens with its roots originating from the holy. For the Celts, the sacred tree stood upright at the center of the world and was generally considered to be an oak. With its limbs stretching up to the heavens, its roots reached down to the Otherworld, or the realm of Fairy. The Celtic name for oak, duir, is the origin of the word door. The roots of the oak, then, were a doorway to the Otherworld.
The Three Elders of the World – The Owl, the Eagle, and the Blackbird
In Celtic lore, birds are often associated with the Otherworld. Sometimes they are considered healing and benevolent while at other times they can be destructive and demonic. As a creature of flight, they provide a bridge between the worlds, between earth, sky, and the Underworld below. They are often messengers bringing word from one world to the other. Sometimes their mere presence is an omen. Whether fair or foul depends on the bird. Each bird has its own set of stories and its own interpretations.
For the pendants, however, the tommyknockers chose the Three Elders of the World to represent the messengers between the worlds. Perhaps being the Elders, these birds would be the strongest. Perhaps being the Elders, they would also be the wisest.
And who were the Three Elders of the World?
In the Welsh Triads, the “Trioedd Ynys Prydein,” the Owl of Cwm Cowlwyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy, the Blackbird of Celli Gadarn are the Three Elders of the World. Triads were groupings of three things involving events in Welsh history or mythology. Easy to remember, they were used to jog the memory of storytellers in medieval times. The Three Elders Triad refers to the story of Culhwch ac Olwen. In this tale, the ouzel, the owl, and the eagle are among the five oldest creatures consulted by the Knights of King Arthur in their search for the huntsman, Mabon. The ouzel in Britain is related to the blackbird and, for the purposes of the pendants, the two were considered to be the same.
In addition to being the oldest animals of the world, the blackbird, owl and eagle have their own particular traits and tales. The owl belongs to the night. With its keen night vision and its habit of quietly watching and waiting, the owl is considered to have wisdom gained from objectivity and detachment. Sacred to the Cailleach, who was sometimes known as the goddess of death, the owl’s call was often an omen heralding someone’s death. While a favored bird in some tales, in others, it is not. In Math fab Mathonwy, transforming an individual into an owl was a punishment.
The eagle is noted for its wisdom and long life. Symbolically it represents the intellect or the conscious self. Flying close to the heavens, it helps you to see spiritual truths.
Finally, the blackbird is associated with the shimmering place of transition between the worlds, perhaps because he sings at twilight and even later. In Culhwch ac Olwen, the blackbirds of Rhiannon were able to wake the dead and lull the living to the in-between place of sleep and in Branwen Daughter of LLyr, they sang to the hero and his comrades while they slept for seventy-two years. The blackbird then was a gatekeeper, easing the way between the worlds with his song.
If you want to learn more about the Tree of Life or the Three Elders, check out these resources:
A condensed, kid-friendly version of the Culhwch ac Olwen with illustrations is available at The Mabinogion, Culhwch and Olwen.
The Celtic Literature Collective provides easy access to many Celtic tales.
Caldecott, Moyra. 1993. Myths of the Sacred Tree. Destiny Books, Rochester, Bermont.
Heinz, Sabina. 1999. Symbols of the Celts. Sterling Publishing Company, New York.