‘This is the agreement that was made: the maiden was to be left in her father’s house, untouched by either party, and there was to be battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr every May Day forever from that day forth until Judgement Day, and the one that triumphed on Judgement Day would take the maiden.‘
Culhwch and Olwen
Is that any way to end my story? Locked in my father’s house presuming his home has walls, windows and doors. Has a roof and is house-like. Don’t you know the roaming nature of mist transfiguring itself like the dreamworld? How the silent lock-picker is constantly at work unpicking every imagined house?
Do you imagine me in the house of my father? Curled up on the couch staring numbly at some clouded screen whilst he cracks open another can with a rusted hand? Turning restlessly in the white, cleanly pressed sheets of my maiden’s bed, imagining the battle, what never happened afterward and will never happen until the end? Not knowing who will win?
Do you covet my face forever maiden, scared, desperate, desiring? Don’t you know I will have my way again and again?
For I am Lludd’s daughter: the lock-picker unpicking the houses of your story. Opening Ludgate and Lydgate. Welling up from Ludwell. Riding the Lud and the Lydden. Drinking from Lydbrook. Sailing to Lydney. Marching down Ludygate through Ludford, Ludborough, Luddendum, London, into the arms of my lovers.
For I am the lock that lets Gwyn and Gwythyr in. I will not wait until Judgement Day to open my heart to summer and winter. I will come in a wedding dress of wildflowers go in a shroud of wilted leaves. I will lead the living and dead through Lludd’s gates down Lludd’s streets, Lludd’s rivers and streams to the welcoming sea and back again.
For I am Lludd’s daughter. No man can block me. Not even Arthur. There is no end to my story. No limit to my love.
In September 2014 I played a leading role in setting up Korova Poetry: a monthly poetry night at Korova Arts Cafe & Bar in Preston with local poets Terry Quinn, Nick Williams, Martin Domleo, Mike Cracknell, Phil Howard, Yvonne Reddick and Korova’s owner, Sam Buist.
Korova Poetry aims to provide a friendly and welcoming platform for newcomers and established poets to perform. The mainstay of the night is open-mic with two or three headline acts. Headliners have included local poets, students and guests from across the north west.
Since the inception of Korova Poetry, ‘Korova Poets’ have worked in co-operation with the Harris Museum & Art Gallery and the University of Central Lancashire to organise a variety of events. These have included performances based around the Picture the Poet Exhibition and a workshop and series of readings titled ‘The Wild and Rural Lives of Poems.’
Over the past year I’ve put in a lot of work on the organisational side and am delighted finally to have the opportunity to headline at Korova Poetry this coming Wednesday alongside Leila Abuhilal.
I am planning to perform a series of poems tied together by the following quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
‘Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep.’
My set will focus on the unseen creatures of the natural world and the forgotten gods of ancient Britain. It will also address the difficulties of living a spiritual path in a secular society.
*Korova Poetry will take place on Wed 25th November at Korova Arts Cafe & Bar, Charnley St, Preston, Lancashire PR1 2UR. All welcome to open-mic or come along and watch. More details HERE.
‘So often returning to the same place.’
Merchants` House motto
It called to me before I went there
across the bridge of sighs:
green avenues of mausoleums,
huge genius loci of merchant patriarchs
towering over obelisks and plinths,
guardians of locked vaults,
faces grey and sombre.
Nothing escapes the rain in the city of the dead.
It pours its fierce torrential acid force
on statues with eyes empty in prayer
gazing forever heavenward.
Makes them raw. Crafts them so white it hurts.
Grants them tears and new stigmata.
An angel holds an oak leaf like a butterfly.
Orange sycamore birds catch in the wind and fall.
How do they feel, how do they see
when their eyes are pupil-less?
Are they blind or do they see as I see
a crack of light in the magma-like clouds,
my lord of the dead approaching on a lime-white horse
where time bends an army of tombstones
into eternity? Do their hearts beat
with mourning and elation?
Do they remember the steady hand
of devotion that carved their limbs,
immortalised them here as I stare statue-like
from amongst merchants, artists, poets,
gathered on green roads,
in sepulchral houses,
ask the rider on the pale horse
“why am I so often returning to the same place?”
*Glasgow Necropolis was the last place I visited during my time in Glasgow.
One of the last places I visited during my time in Glasgow was the cathedral, which was founded on the site of St Kentigern’s tomb. The first stone was laid in 1136 and the building was consecrated in 1197. During this period, Bishop Jocelin commissioned Jocelyn of Furness to write The Life of St Kentigern (1185) to encourage devotion to the saint.
The story of Kentigern’s birth is a troubling one. His mother, Teneu, was the daughter of Lleuddun, ruler of Gododdin. Teneu was seduced by Owain, ruler of Rheged, in the guise of a woman. Afterward she became pregnant.
When Lleuddun found out, he threw her off Dumpelder (Traplain Law: a hill in Gododdin, which may have been the seat of power prior to Din Eiddyn; Edinburgh). Luckily she survived and washed up in a coracle on the river Forth at Culross. There Kentigern was born.
Teneu is now revered as a saint. A medieval chapel to her once stood on the site of her grave at present-day St Enoch Square. At the ritual to Epona, I was told the well in the cathedral dedicated to Kentigern as Mungo may originally have been to Teneu. This is backed up the nearby street-name Lady Well Street.
This made me wonder whether Teneu may have been a pre-Christian deity. Owain is often equated with Mabon and his mother is Modron. These names are derived from the pre-Christian deities Maponus ‘the Son’ and Matrona ‘Mother’. In a Welsh romance, Owain courts, acts as a guardian for, and eventually marries ‘The Lady of the Well.’
Combined with her river-journey this suggests Teneu may have been a deity connected with sacred waters. If this is the case, her appalling treatment by both Owain and Lleuddun forms a sad reflection on the transition from a worldview where water-deities were revered and women were treated as equals to patriarchal Christianised society.
Teneu and Kentigern were taken in by Saint Serf, who named the boy Mungo ‘my dear’. Kentigern started preaching when he was twenty-five and built a church where the cathedral now stands. He was then expelled by an anti-Christian movement headed by King Morken, ruler of Strathclyde*.
Kentigern fled to Wales until called back by Strathclyde’s new Christian ruler, Rhydderch Hael, after the Battle of Arfderydd in 573. Rhydderch’s defeat of the pagan ruler, Gwenddolau, formed a precedent for St Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, who were said to have worshipped Woden**. Kentigern then returned to Glasgow.
Whilst praying in the wilderness, Kentigern met Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) who spoke of the source of his ‘madness’: a vision of host of warriors in the sky after the Battle of Arfderydd and being ‘torn out of himself’ by an evil spirit and assigned ‘to the wild things of the woods’.
Afterward, Lailoken followed Kentigern back to Glasgow and took to prophesying from a steep rock above Molendinar Burn (unfortunately covered over in the 1870’s and now beneath Wishart Street) north of the church.
Little heed was paid to his words because they were obscure and unintelligible and he refused to repeat himself. However, some of his ‘apparently idle remarks’ were written down. I wonder whether these lost fragments, passed on orally, could have formed the basis for the prophetic poems attributed to Myrddin in The Black Book of Carmarthen?
Just north of Glasgow Cathedral, Lailoken predicted his ‘three-fold’ death and supposedly begged Kentigern for communion before he met his end.
Kentigern’s miracles are depicted outside and within the cathedral and on Glasgow’s Coat of Arms: a robin he brought back to life, a hazel tree from which he started a fire, and a bell he brought back from Rome. Most curious is a fish which swallowed a ring, belonging to Rhydderch’s wife, Languoreth. Rhydderch is said to have thrown her ring into water with the purpose of proving she had given it to a lover. By ordering one of his monks to catch the fish, Kentigern saved her from execution.
Perhaps Kentigern’s compassion resulted from knowledge of his mother’s near execution at the hands of his grandfather?
In his old age Kentigern became increasingly debilitated to the point his chin needed to be tied up with a bandage. He is said to have died in the bath on Sunday 13th of January in 614.
*An alternative king list does not name Morken but Tutagual, Rhydderch Hael’s father as his predecessor to the rulership of Stratchclyde.
**This seems to be an anachronism because the Anglo-Saxons had not arrived in south-west Scotland in the 6th century.
Consolidating Gwyn ap Nudd’s links with the Strathclyde Britons
In October after the ritual to Epona I stayed overnight with Potia and Red Raven in Glasgow. The next morning, Red Raven kindly took me to visit Dumbarton Rock: Dun Breatann ‘Fortress of the Britons’ to continue my research on Gwyn ap Nudd’s lost connections with the Old North.
Dumbarton Rock stands on the estuary of the river Clyde beside the river Leven, stern, stony, commanding, cloven into two peaks, White Tower Crag and The Beak. Its proximity to an ancient hill fort on Carman Hill and Roman Forts such as Whitemoss guarding the estuary suggest its use as a defensive position from at least the Iron Age and Romano-British periods. Looking up at its vertical cliff face from beneath and climbing its 557 steps provided a distinct impression of how difficult it would have been to attack.
Dunbreatann emerged as the capital of Strathclyde, controlling south-west Scotland after the Romans withdrew from the Antonine Wall, in the 4th century. Later it was known as Alt Clut ‘Clyde Rock’. The first written reference comes from St Patrick from Ireland between 453 and 493AD, reprimanding Coroticus (Ceretic, ruler of Alt Clut) for taking his new Christian converts and selling them as slaves to the Picts.
The majority of its rulers were descendants of Ceretic: notably Dyfnawl Hen, Cinuit, Clinoch, Tutagual then Rhydderch Hael. After Rhydderch’s death in 612, rulership passed to another line stemming from Ceretic: Neithon son of Guipno and his lineage ruled until Dumbarton Rock was taken by the Vikings in 869.
A fragment in The Black Book of Chirk states that following the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd in 547, Elidyr Mwynfawr (first cousin of Tutagual and husband of Eurgain, Maelgwyn’s oldest legitimate daughter) attempted to seize the throne from Maelgwn’s illegitimate son, Rhun. Elidyr was killed at Arfon. This led to Rhydderch Hael, Clydno Eiddin, Nudd Hael and Mordaf Hael burning Arfon in revenge and being pursued north by Rhun’s forces to the river Gweryd.
Elidyr’s journey is recorded in a triad of ‘Horse-Burdens’ where the eponymous water-horse Du y Moroedd (‘The Black One of the Seas’) is said to have carried Elidyr and his party (seven and a half people including a cook hanging onto the crupper- hence the half!) from an unknown Benllech in the north to Benllech on Anglesey. Du is notably the steed ridden by Gwyn ap Nudd in the hunt for Twrch Trwyth (‘King of Boars’).
Rhydderch Hael (‘the Generous’) is the most famous of Strathclyde’s rulers. He was renowned as one of ‘Three Generous Men of Britain’ and owned a sword called Dyrnwyn ‘White Hilt’ which burst into flames when held by a well-born man and was numbered amongst the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.
The extent of Rhydderch’s generosity is hinted at by the third ‘Unrestrained Ravaging’ where Aeddan Fradog (‘the Wily’) came to his court and left no food, drink nor living beast (if Rhydderch was exceedingly generous and Aeddan took everything he must have been greedy and unrestrained indeed: one can sense the shock and disbelief of a contemporaneous audience).
Rhydderch championed Christianity and was the patron of St Kentigern. He came to power in 573, which coincides with the Battle of Arfderydd. Poems attributed to Myrddin Wyllt in The Black Book of Carmarthen suggest Rhydderch played a leading role in the defeat of the pagan ruler, Gwenddolau at Arfderydd and this was a factor in his rise to power.
In The Black Book of Carmarthen Gwyn ap Nudd states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death. Gwyn’s appearance to gather the soul of Gwenddolau and other dead warriors played a role in Myrddin’s madness and flight to Celyddon. The ex-warrior become wild man and prophet was hounded by Rhydderch Hael and supposedly converted to Christianity by St Kentigern.
Rhydderch also played a prominent part fighting against Theodric of Anglo-Saxon Bernicia with his Brythonic allies Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Morcant Bulc. During the campaign, whilst the Anglo-Saxons were successfully blockaded on Lindisfarne, Morcant assassinated Urien; a move which eventually led to the fall of the Old North.
Rhydderch’s successor, Nwython (Neithon) and his family feature prominently in the episode of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad in How Culhwch won Olwen. After Gwyn ‘abducts’ Creiddylad from Gwythyr and takes her to Annwn, Nwython, his sons Cyledyr and Pen, Dyfnarth (Dynfawl?) and his Dyfnarth’s father Gwrgst Ledlwm join Gwythyr in an assault on Gwyn to win her back (four generations of Strathcylde Britons!).
Gwyn defeats Gwythyr and his army and imprisons them. During their imprisonment, Gwyn kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who becomes wyllt (‘wild’ ‘mad’). Arthur then rescues Gwythyr and his men and places a command on Gwyn and Gwythyr to battle for Creiddylad every May Day until Judgement Day.
It is my intuition this story originates from an earlier seasonal myth where a hero (‘the Summer King’) challenged the god of Annwn (‘the Winter King’) for the love of a goddess of fertility and sovereignty who may originally have been revered as a free agent in a sacred marriage.
This episode is only one variant, fixed in 6th C Strathclyde, known because of its incorporation within the narrative of How Culhwch won Olwen (14th C). It is clear Gwyn has lost his status as a god of Annwn and Creiddylad her independence as a fertility goddess. Its fixity may be read to mark the death of a seasonal rite and its transition into story.
No doubt this coincided with the rise of Christianity, which led to Gwyn’s demonisation as the representative and literal embodiment of the ‘demons’ of Annwn and Creiddylad’s demotion to a helpless maiden flung like a ragdoll between two male lovers and finally locked away, powerless, in her father’s house.
The seasonal myth is thus replaced in the 6th century with a story designed for the political purpose of cementing alliances between the Strathclyde Britons, Gwythyr ap Greidol (deified as ‘the Summer King’) and Arthur against a common enemy: the demonised King of Winter and Annwn, Gwyn ap Nudd.
The disturbing sequence of Gwyn’s murder of Nwython and torture of Cyledyr has led me to question whether it has any historical basis. From my research so far there is nothing to suggest Nwython died a sudden or inexplicable death or disappeared during a campaign (often attributed to otherworldly forces).
However this does not mean such stories did not exist. Another explanation is that it was cited by the bards of Christian rulers to highlight the atrocities Gwyn committed against the lineage of Strathclyde to keep paganism at bay. One can only imagine the fear and repulsion of Strathclyde’s people and in particular Nwython’s descendants when it was voiced.
It seems possible early variants of these stories were told in the fortress on The Beak alongside inaugural poems which would form Y Gododdin and The Black Book of Carmarthen. The existing texts suggest belief in Gwyn as a psychopomp lingered on beside the Christian faith for a long while. As a guide and warrior-protector to some and a cruel, demonic figure to others, he haunted the margins of every recital of battle-tales.
After Dumbarton Rock was taken by the Vikings, the kingdom of Strathclyde re-emerged up-river at Govan and stretched from Glasgow into Penrith in Cumbria. During this transition and, later, when Strathclyde was finally integrated into Scotland in 1034 many Britons went into exile and settled in Wales. In medieval Wales the oral tales about Gwyn ap Nudd and the fall of the Old North were finally penned.
Since then Dumbarton Rock has seen various uses; most notably as a medieval royal castle with its famous Wallace Tower. It is now primarily a tourist attraction within the custodianship of Historic Scotland.
Time passes. History fades into story into myth and even myth is forgotten. Yet the deepest myths are fated to return from the most distant edges of the otherworld like a boomerang.
Looking out across the Clyde and Leven from the Fortress of the Britons I saw a pair of ravens who have lived forever on that ancient rock flying on the winds from there into poetry to the realm of the gods and back again.
On that note I’ll thank Red Raven for taking me to Dumbarton Rock and bring this piece to end.
The blood moon:
an apple in a goddess’ eye
drops and I think of the windfall
crisp autumn mornings when we released
the horses slipping from their halters
twisting away in leaps and bucks
with piquant glint-eyed excitement
to the trees where they’d drop their heads
whuffle up the crispy moons of green and red.
Some days before we turned them out
we whispered to them “apples”
and they knew exactly what we meant…
The blood moon has passed.
The horses are staying out late this year.
Yet the sun has gone down on my stable-yard:
baling freshly-cut hay, stacking barns
with hard-shouldered labour,
stuffing stretching nets
for hungry mouths.
As I cut the meadow and gather orchard fruits
I reminisce about the rural life that didn’t last.
When the horses are tied behind bar and bolt
tugging at hay with meadow-sweet muzzles
I will feed them apple-moons
from my open palm.
*This poem was written after watching September’s lunar eclipse from Greencroft Valley, where we planted apple trees two years ago, and is based on my experience of working with horses. I read it for Epona at a ritual in Glasgow led by Potia at the beginning of October.
Following receiving a comment enquiring about books on Brythonic mythology, I have started putting together a list of Brythonic resources (in print and on-line) HERE. Aside from the ‘primary sources’ and ‘secondary sources’ discussing them there is isn’t an awful lot of literature with a primarily Brythonic focus. However, information about Brythonic traditions can be found in texts on the Celts, Druidry and the Bardic Tradition. In contrast to other contemporary ‘pagan’ religions such as Heathenry and Gaelic, Roman, Greek and Kemetic polytheisms there is a dearth of material on Brythonic polytheism and individual Brythonic gods and goddesses. If anybody knows of any resources I haven’t mentioned please let me know and I will add them to the list.