Who is Siôn ap Siencyn?

Siôn ap Siencyn is the Welsh name meaning John, son of Jenkin. It becomes the common Anglicized name John Jenkins. It is also found in Welsh folklore as Shon Shenkin. A popular folktale, illustrated above, uses the name, which echoes an earlier meaning of “Siencyn” used by Irish Bards (such as the 7th-century AD Irish Bard named Senchán Torpéist, a historical leader of a band of poet-philosophers who sought to retrieve the ancient story of the mytho-historical hero Cuchulainn). The folktale seems a late survival of the story of Culhwch and Olwen from the Welsh Mabinogi, which involves an Otherworld journey with Arthur in search of a Magic Cauldron (one of the oldest references to what later became the Grail Mythos). These themes in turn are echoed in other tales from the Mabinogion including the Noble Head of Bran the Blessed, which was delivered to the White Tower at what later became London.

The Senchan name, as a kind of vocational title, evolved into “Seanchaí,” (or Seanachie) which is what the Irish storytellers and poets call themselves today. (The name may even be behind the term "Yankee", via a Dutch derivation.) The deep etymology of the Jenkins name is (despite later Anglo conflations with "-kin" meaning "relative of") Gaelic and Brythonic, and means: old / lore (Sen or Sean), chief / head (cyn, ken, chinn, cain). The Chief of the Old Lore. In Wales, the Senchán name became popular as a given first name, Jenkyn, which today is rare but still occasionally found. So, John, son of Jenkyn (Siôn ap Siencyn) is one who symbolically descends from the lineage of the Bard-Poets, those semi-shamanic hearers of the spiritual song. And this is exactly what the Siôn ap Siencyn folktale illustrates.

It is the origin of the Rip Van Winkle story written by Washington Irving in the early 19th century. In the original folktale, which is still discussed by British mythologists, a man named Siôn ap Siencyn becomes entranced by the otherworldly singing of a bird. This is the theme of the fairy music that enraptures travelers, found in ancient Welsh poetry. Often the stories involve a special spot under a tree, or a “fairy ring” — a demarcated circle of sacred space created by mushrooms. Obviously there is a reference here to shamanistic use of psychoactive mushrooms by Celtic Bards. That would be the province of the Senchán, the Bardic shaman who travels between the worlds and incantates the poetic sayings that express the ancient lore. A key feature of the story is that Siôn ap Siencyn, having been entranced by the fairy birdsong for what seemed like a few minutes, continues on his way and discovers that centuries have passed. This is a nice portrayal of the alteration of the passage of time that occurs in the mushroom trance. And it can work the other way around, too, where it seems one was gone for years and when one returns, only a few minutes have passed. The Rip Van Winkle story adopts the former scenario, faithful to the original folktale.

There are deep meanings in the name John Jenkins, bringing us far back into a secret history of Druid and Celtic traditions. A late echo is seen in the Siôn ap Siencyn story, known in the late 1700s (see the book called British Goblins), and the name appears in a large spectrum of related contexts throughout British history and literature. It was nicely retold in 1921 by Kenneth Morris (Cynedd Morus), a member of the Celtic revival with A.E. and W. B. Yeats. It is the root of the popular Jack o’Kent trickster figure of Welsh-British folklore. It is the root of the Little John character (John-kin, using the Anglo inflection of “-kin” as “little”) in the Robin Hood mythos. It is found in curious use in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a popular song of the early 17th century called “Of Noble Race Was Shenkin.” The Bardic and shamanic associations are most curious; the ancient Druid Sencha or Seanchán was a poet, historian, a counselor to kings, and sometimes a trickster whose machinations kept things aligned with higher spiritual intention.

Copyright. April 2014. John Major Jenkins. http://www.johnmajorjenkins.com