Lifelong Dedication to Gwyn – A Year and a Day on

A year and a day ago I made my lifelong dedication to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic warrior-hunter god and ruler of Annwn, following a vigil on the night of the ‘super blood wolf moon’ beneath the leaning yew on Fairy Lane in my home town of Penwortham.

Unlike my initial dedication to Gwyn as my patron god at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor it wasn’t easy. Beforehand I’d suffered from a stress fracture to my foot and I was awaiting an umbilical hernia repair operation shortly afterwards.

The vigil, of six hours before I went out and made my dedication during the lunar eclipse at around 4am, was based around six tarot cards and took me on an intense journey of death and rebirth.

Looking back and interpreting the meaning symbolically I saw the foot injury forced me to slow down and the operation on my naval, my natal place, was bound up with the rebirthing process.

Once I’d recovered I realised, to my surprise and disappointment, in spite of having been through an intense inner experience my external life had not changed. I was still in the same situation as before. Skint and living with my parents, my book recovering Gwyn’s mythos written, with no idea of what to do with the rest of my life aside from knowing I must live within the parameters of my vows.

To remedy my financial situation I took a job in a supermarket. Frustratingly, in my own work, which I had hoped would take me deeper into Welsh mythology and into Annwn I hit several brick walls.

Firstly, after near-completing a course called ‘The Gates of Annwn’ for Gods & Radicals, seeing myself on the videos attempting to teach in six weeks what has taken me years of questioning, doubt, being torn apart and put back together, I realised I’d made a mistake. An Annuvian path is one people find themselves (or are found by). It cannot be taught.

Secondly, I really wanted to write a book called Porth Annwn documenting my explorations of Annwn. However, the deeper I went, the further away I got from traditional depictions in Welsh mythology and folklore, attaining instead personal visions that were fantastical, paradoxical, and contained elements of ‘faerie’, but could not be linked directly to the Brythonic sources.

My third block was failing to learn Welsh as I am not embedded in the culture. This was accentuated by my awareness of the debates about cultural appropriation and the derogative attitudes of Welsh scholars (who are mainly non-conformist Christians) towards Brythonic polytheists.

My frustrations with my work and my supermarket job reached a nadir and resolution when I accidentally killed a dragonfly whilst cycling to Brockholes. This led me to leave the supermarket to volunteer with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust as a way of finding paid work in conservation and to shifting my creative focus away from Wales and Welsh mythology back to the (once Brythonic-speaking) land where I live.

Both these shifts have helped me to deepen and renew my relationship with Gwyn. I feel far more connected with him in my everyday life when I am outside working on the land, whether I’m tree planting, coppicing, clearing scrub, dead hedging etc. than when I was stacking shelves or, worse, sitting on a till beneath the artificial lights in the supermarket.

My new creative project ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’, which focuses on the prehistoric people of wetland Lancashire, has guided me back to the earliest hunter-gatherers who may have venerated Gwyn as a hunter god. My outdoor work and research have knitted together as I’ve learnt skills and used tools our ancestors would have used.

This new more physical connection with Gwyn has also manifested in my running and in taking up Taekwondo. Interestingly, the Fianna, the followers of Finn, Gwyn’s Irish cognate, lived in the woodland, and had to master poetry along with physical feats that involved fighting and running*. These and my work outdoors have made me more connected with Gwyn as a warrior-hunter.

I have also experienced a deepening of my personal relationship with him through spending more time at my altar in stillness and prayer as well as continuing to journey with him.

So a year and a day on, after spending eight months lost, I have finally gained a vision of the path ahead and the central facets of a life shaped around my devotion to Gwyn:

*Personal devotions
*Working on the land
*Poetry
*Journeywork
*Practicing a martial art and running

I have moved on from confusion and frustration to feeling excited about a future full of challenges and promise.

*In ‘A Wildness Comes on the Heart of the Deer’ Christopher Scott Thompson cites the initiation tests of the Fianna: ‘And there was no man taken into the Fianna till he knew the twelve books of poetry. And before any man was taken, he would be put into a deep hole in the ground up to his middle, and he having his shield and a hazel rod in his hand. And nine men would go the length of ten furrows from him and would cast their spears at him at the one time. And if he got a wound from one of them, he was not thought fit to join with the Fianna. And after that again, his hair would be fastened up, and he put to run through the woods of Ireland, and the Fianna following after him to try could they wound him, and only the length of a branch between themselves and himself when they started. And if they came up with him and wounded him, he was not let join them; or if his spears had trembled in his hand, or if a branch of a tree had undone the plaiting of his hair, or if he had cracked a dry stick under his foot, and he running. And they would not take him among them till he had made a leap over a stick the height of himself, and till he had stooped under one the height of his knee, and till he had taken a thorn out from his foot with his nail, and he running his fastest. But if he had done all these things, he was of Finn’s people.’

A Stranger on Bickershaw

I am a stranger here.

There are some familiar trees
but they look at me with different eyes

like the Highland cattle who have come from Lincolnshire –
the ginger bullocks with their long curved horns.

I want insects to walk in the tracks
of my wellies as I pick up
my mallet, spade,
hessian mat,
wooden pegs,
cardboard guard
carefully labelled with
an arrow pointing up lest I forget
my sense of direction in the wind and rain.

But they will not trust me for a long while yet
nor will the lapwings, the redwings, the fieldfare…

I want to be more than a cardboard cut-out
just miming and even more so when
I remember the miners –
hard hats, spades,
picks

(when I Google Bickershaw it says more
about the colliery than the village),

sinking shafts to the Plodder seam,

the falling cage and…

I am here planting trees
sometimes overturning a stone
or a piece of coal the chuck chuck chuck
of my mallet a reminder of all the years of hammering

and I am afraid of the absence of the Whistlers
who once upon a time gave a warning.

I am chucking out their memories.

Oh birds return oh birds return!

I believe this rod of willow is stronger
than my prayers and I take faith in knowing
it will outgrow the touch of a stranger.

The Water Country's Severed Heads

the severed head represents a discrete category of bog deposit, which appears to be particularly well represented in Lancashire
David Barrowclough

Until recently it was believed that the 23 human skulls found on Penwortham Marsh during the excavations for Riversway Docklands provided evidence for human sacrifice or a mass murder. This was based on the premise that they were all contemporary with the Bronze Age spearhead, the remants of a wooden lake dwelling, and two dug-out canoes, which they were found with.

Since then a sample of the skulls have been radio-carbon dated to between 4000BC and 800AD. Four are from the Neolithic period, one the Romano-British, and one the Anglo-Saxon. The range shows these people died at very different times. This has led professor Mick Wysocki to put forward the theory that the skulls belonged to people who died upriver, their corpses floating down to a tidal pool at Penwortham Marsh where their heavy skulls sank whilst their bodies washed out to sea. Wysocki’s theory is widely accepted among historians and archaeologists.

I believe that, for many cases, Wysocki might be right. However, considering the surrounding evidence, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that some of the skulls were purposefully deposited in Penwortham Marsh. Lancashire (the historic county) has many examples of ritual depositions of severed heads.

On Pilling Moss was discovered ‘the head of a woman with long plaited auburn hair… wrapped in a piece of coarse woollen cloth and with it were two strings of cylindrical jet beads, with one string having a large amber bead at its centre.’ The jet beads date it to the Early Bronze Age. Another female head with plaited hair, from Red Moss, Bolton, remains undated.

From Briarfield, on the Fylde coast, we have the head of a man aged less than 50 years ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ and dated to the Late Bronze Age. Another male skull, of a similar age and date, was found on Ashton Moss, Tameside. A skull from Worsley was dated to between the Bronze Age and Romano-British periods. Found near the famous Lindow Man, the head of Lindow Woman has been dated to 250AD. Heads, as yet undated, were also found at Birkdale, near Southport.

The purposeful deposition of the heads, without their bodies, suggests they were deposited for ritual purposes. The plaited hair of the females seems significant. The jet and amber beads with the woman on Pilling Moss implicates she was an important figure among her people. These burials appear to have been made with great reverence. I wonder whether they are suggestive of the belief that the head is the seat of the soul and if it is treated in a certain way the soul might remain present so that a group of people can commune with the deceased until the time of its burial.

The existence of this belief within Brythonic culture is supported by ‘The Second Branch’ of the medieval Welsh text, The Mabinogion, in which Brân the Blessed’s head continued to speak for eighty years before its burial beneath White Hill in London to protect the Island of Britain from attack (until it was dug up by King Arthur who couldn’t stand anyone defending the country but him). It seems possible these heads also had a apotropaic function, demarking territory, repelling enemies.

Whilst the two female heads appear to have been buried reverently, the head of the man from Briarfield was badly mutilated – defleshed and and the mandible removed. David Barrowclough suggests the ‘separation of the mandible’ might show it was a ‘battle trophy’. That the removal of the flesh and the mandible might have been representative of one group or person over this person. One can imagine this gory spectacle as a symbol of glory over a defeated foe and a warning to an enemy.

Again this tradition is hinted at in medieval Welsh mythology. In Culhhwch and Olwen, prior to his beheading and the placement of his head on a stake the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, had his ears cut off and his flesh was pared down to the bone. In Geraint there is an enchanted game where heads on stakes stand in a hedge of mist and it is implied that any who lose the game end up losing their heads.

In The Red Book of Hergest exists a poem attributed to Llywarch Hen in which the sixth century northern British ruler carries his cousin Urien’s head back to the kingdom of Rheged after his assassination:

A head I bear by my side,
The head of Urien, the mild leader of his army–
And on his white bosom the sable raven is perched…

A head I bear from the Riw,
With his lips foaming with blood–
Woe to Rheged from this day!

It has been suggested that Llywarch Hen ruled Ribchester in Lancashire (amongst many other places!)

Ritualised beheadings, burials (and unburials) of heads continued in Britain until 1747 when the Jacobite leader and Scottish clan chief, Simon Fraser, was publically beheaded at Tower Hill.

I therefore believe it is possible that some of the heads from Penwortham Marsh were ritual depositions. It seems to be of no coincidence that, of the six examined, three died violent deaths. A Neolithic man was killed by a stone axe and a Neolithic woman by ‘trauma to the right and back of her skull’. A Romano-British person (the sex cannot be determined) met his or her death through ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’

These people could have been killed and their corpses deposited in the Ribble upriver. Or they might be the heads of people in the group of lake dwellers who at one point built a wooden structure on Penwortham Marsh. Perhaps they were locals killed in battle or enemies whose heads they had taken.

A further possibility is that they were human sacrifices. The Lindow Man famously died a ‘three-fold death’. He was struck on the head (with a blow that fractured his skull), garrotted, then drowned. Lindow Man was buried whole, but only Lindow Woman’s head was buried. The reasons why, in one instance, a whole body was deposited and in another only the head remain unknown.

Perhaps examinations of the other 17 skulls from the Riversway Dock Finds would provide further clues?

Another tradition that has lived on here is the deposition of stone heads (perhaps modelled on an ancestor?) rather than the heads of the dead in the Ribble as evidenced by this specimen in the Harris Museum.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for permission to use the photograph.

SOURCES

David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)William Skene (transl.), ‘Red Book of Hergest XII, Four Ancient Books of Wales, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/fab/fab060.htm (accessed 12/01/2020)
Display in the Discover Preston gallery in the Harris Museum

Twelve Days of Prayer

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a ‘sacred and festive season’ marked by Christians between Christmas Day (25th December) and the Epiphany (6th January). It was instituted by the Council of Tours in 567 to mark the period between the birth of Jesus and the revelation he is God incarnate on the visit of the magi.

For me, as a Brythonic polytheist who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd as Winter’s King, the mid-winter holy days have always felt particularly special and sacred. They begin with Eponalia, on 18th December, the feast of the horse-goddess and midwife of the sun. This is followed by the Winter Solstice, 21st / 22nd December, the height of Gwyn’s reign and presence within the land. 24th December is Mother’s Night and, although this is traditionally an Anglo-Saxon festival, one I associate with the Mother Goddesses such as Matrona/Modron and Anrhuna. 25th December is the day of the rebirth of the sun-child Maponos/Mabon. Then the next twelve days are a time of rest and celebration based around casting out the old year and welcoming in and preparing for the new.

Over the past few years I have noticed an increasing number of other pagans and polytheists exploring ways of marking these holy days. There are existing traditions of using them for divination. From my mum I learnt of the tradition of recording one’s dreams and linking them numerically to the calendar months. Cailtin Matthews has suggested using the Twelve Days for reading nature omens in a similar way.

In his essay ‘On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me…’ Lee Davies connects the Twelve Days with Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead, who ride out to clear the ground for the New Year and also bring blessings of prosperity. He speaks of the koryos tradition in which people not only embody but ‘become the dead’ – a possible root of the misrule associated with the Twelfth Night.

With this in mind I decided to use the Twelve Days as a period of more intensive prayer and prayer writing for Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn and the dead with whom he rides out on his hunt through the winter months. This resulted in a series of visions and visionary dialogues. Here I share a selection from the twelve prayers.

Twelve Days of Prayer

For Gwyn

I.
Prayer
is to open
the little box of the heart
to let in the god who cannot fit within

two sides of a membrane
flap, dissolve like
the so-called
‘veil’

between the worlds
when you ride from the mist
on a creature somewhat like a horse
two hounds with teeth within teeth
all the countless uncontainable
monsters of Annwn

filling
this little box
I sometimes call a heart.
When it bursts and otherworlds
spill forth I know it is
so much more.



III.
You are ghost.
You and your legions.

You clothe yourselves
in cloud, in mist, you move
through our world like the wind.
Sometimes we hear you passing through.
Sometimes we sense only your silence
as you fill our vales with neither
your presence or absence.

Sometimes I feel ashamed
of my flesh and my fear to follow
you into battle in the wars that
rage on between the worlds.

Could it be that I’m afraid of death?

Of seeing my ghost looking back at me
as I write this poem from amongst your kind?

“You wear your flesh and your fear well.”

You speak in the voice that turns gold to leaves
and flesh to dust and skin to paper bearing
an elegy on the heels of your host.



IV.
“Fierce bull of battle,
awesome leader of many,”
I find myself whispering
Gwyddno’s words as though
they were the beginning
of an ancient prayer.

“Who will protect me?

“I will protect you.”

Your armour is a night
of stars and each of them
wields a spear against

my deep demonic fears.

I am awed by your strength
as I am mystified by its origin
for to whom does a god turn?
To whom does a god pray?

I see a bull striding majestic
down a passageway of light
into the infinite brightness
of a star, a heart, a fortress,
the Otherworld within his chest.

VI.
I come to pray
when I want to scream.

If I could comprehend you
could I contain the spirits within?

I fear to scream is the obliteration

of all prayer until you show me

how you tend to all the silent
and the unsilent screams

for a scream is prayer
as crescendo.



VIII.
I pray to you
as your awenydd
as your inspired poet

speak of my restlessness
the jangling of spirits within
my intimation I could be

so much more and you say:

“Poetry is more than rhyming words.
Awen is more than human speech.

The soul of the earth is living poetry
and each soul itself a poem breathed –

part of the divine breath which keeps

the rivers afloat, the mountains high,
the deer running through the woodlands,
the birds in the skies, the flowers growing
upwards turning their heads towards the sun.
And has the power to transform it all –
hurricanes, volcanic flames, tidal waves,
the death-wind from a nuclear blast creating
the wolves with glowing eyes and the monsters
with limbs where there should not be limbs
spoken of by awenyddion of long ago.

It can destroy (or fix) everything.

Why do you think I keep the awen
in a cauldron in a fortress that disappears
that spins that is shrouded by mystery and mist
and is sometimes known as the towers of the winds
and sometimes as the whale’s belly?

There is nothing more – I should know
for I have sought, I have hunted, with every
hound of Annwn beyond where the winds
of Thisworld and Otherworld blow beyond
the Universe and its moment of conception and
come back with nothing on my bloodless spear,
my hounds with nothing in their empty jaws,
bearing nothing in my empty hands but
knowing a little more about nothing.

One cannot be any more and about nothing
there is nothing to be said so be happy
as you are, awenydd, whilst still
a bearer of the divine breath.”



XII.
Your gift

is a shining bow
washed in the light
of the New Year’s sun.

I pray for the strength to draw it.
I pray for the patience to carve the arrows
each engraved with the words of a spell.
I pray for the focus to shoot true,

mind, body, and bow as one,
straight to the heart.

Elk Child

I.
A procession of elk wearing dyed indigo coats.

I blink… once… twice… they do not disappear
but keep shuffling old bones and grumbling
about moving from one place to another

from summer to winter pastures

each print is its own ellipsis filling in
with indigo waters creating every contrapuntal lake.

II.
The need child is born and I do not know her meaning.

She is given the antlers and she sucks out the blood.
Yes, she crunches, and crunches, and crunches
and… this is long long ago… she grows…

III.
The ghost child wields a sabre of light
not quite for killing but not
quite for saving lives.

They scramble towards it…

The impeccable laughter of children…

IV.
In the woodlands is a glockenspiel tacked down,
windchimes that respond to inspiration.

Her head is light and rolls from side-to-side
not yet weighed down by the barrels
of blood and oil and voices…

the heavy weights of left and right.

V.
She will not be like the white elk
who wanders old and blind and staggering,
narrow-withered, not ridden, not tamed, but driven to exhaustion.

She will come with an antler in each hand balanced
on her mother’s back to bring a new-old song

from where the elk-dead walk…

The Broadgate Polished Stone Axe

In the Harris Museum there is a beautifully polished stone axe which was found in the Ribble at Broadgate. The stone is smooth and grey-greenish. The larger cutting edge is sharp and rounded (although it looks like the lower portion may be broken) and the hafting end smaller, round, and smooth.

Hominids have been making axes for over two million years and they have taken many shapes and forms. These ubiqutous tools were used for felling trees, coppicing, in the crafting of dwellings, fencing, wooden walkways, and dug-out canoes, and in battle (one of the skulls found whilst exacavting the Riversway Docklands belonged to a Neolithic man killed by a blow to the head with a stone axe).

Polished stone axes are a Neolithic phenomenon and were made between 2750 and 2000BC. Most of the examples found in Lancashire originate from the Langdale axe industry and were made of Langdale tuff (a ‘greenstone’ formed from volcanic ash) collected and quarried from Pike of Stickle, Harrison Stickle, and Scafell Pike, on some of the highest fells in Cumbria.

These axes would have been recognised not only as special but as sacred due to the qualities of the Langdale tuff and the effort put into shaping and polishing it. Axes were polished with polishing stones, which can be recognised by the grooves made by polishing, and range in size from slightly bigger than the axe to standing stones within the landscape bearing multiple grooves.

Later oral traditions such as ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ listing artefacts such as ‘The Sword of Rhydderch Hael’, ‘The Knife of Llawfrodedd Farchog’, and ‘The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudclyd’ suggest the axe may have borne the name of its most illustrious owner.

After use, having been passed down through generations, polished stone axes were deposited purposefully. In Prehistoric Lancashire David Barrowclough records depositions on the north coast of Morecambe Bay ‘in fissures and gaps in the out-cropping stone’and in a limestone gryke at Skelmore Heads. Nine were discovered on Pilling Moss. At Crookabreast Farm an axe was found with four polishers, one of which was pushed ‘into a cavity in the roots of an oak tree… presumably a “moss stock” or “bog oak”’.

Barrowclough notes: ‘rivers and wetlands were important places for deposition and it is notable that the axes from Lancashire have a definite riverine and mossland distribution… many of the axes must have been deposited deliberately… wet places, whether river or bog, had a specific significance.’

Gaps, grykes, fissures, rivers, wetlands, and mosslands/bogs were seen by the ancient Britons as places of access to the Otherworld and as associated with its gods and spirits and with the ancestors. It seems possible that the Broadgate axe was an offering to Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’ or ‘Most Mighty One’, the goddess of the Ribble.

What brought about the decision to deposit the axe in the Ribble remains unknown. Perhaps the last of its lineage of owners died and it was deposited with his or her body in the waters (Mick Wysocki suspects the Neolithic people disposed of their dead in the river and their passage out to sea might have been seen as representing their passage to the Otherworld which was later known as Annwn ‘the Deep’).

Another possibility is that it was offered to Belisama as a petition to prevent the rising of her waters. Between 2300 and 2000BC the climate grew colder and wetter and the Broadgate area would have been inundated at times of high tides. Again we are entering a period when the waters of our seas and rivers are rising, this time due to man-made climate change, and the Broadgate polished axe might be seen as a symbol connecting us to our ancestors and the shared dangers we face.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photograph of the axe.

The Blade-Makers

Take a walk
before sunrise
before the Capitol Centre

and you might hear them on the Flats –

the slow chip, chip, chip
of hammerstones
striking flint.

This is the sound of patience.

This is not Christmas shopping
nor is it factory or industry.

They are not pigmies or elves.
They are our ancestors –

a father teaching his son,
three brothers in competition,
a broad-shouldered woman
honing her blade alone.

Sometimes they sit in a circle.

Sometimes they sing a song
that sounds like blackbirds at dawn
in words we half-remember

that have been cut away by sharp edges.

When we refer to their ‘cutting edge technology’

they are gone and we are left standing amongst
the Smartphones, the Hotpoint dishwashers,
the tough shockproof waterproof
freezeproof cameras

that will likely break
within a year let alone survive 10, 000 years…