I’ve recently started researching Gwyn ap Nudd’s neglected connections with the Old North. In the final verses of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at the deaths of northern warriors. In How Culhwch won Olwen Gwyn’s rival for the love of Creiddylad, Gwythyr, and his allies (who Gwyn takes captive) are of northern descent. There is consensus amongst scholars that this episode and ‘The Very Black Witch’ originate from the Old North.
As somebody who venerates Gwyn in Lancashire I find it strange, perplexing and quite sad that, whilst in medieval texts equal precedence is given to Gwyn’s roles in Wales and the north, in later literature his northern links disappear entirely. I’m in the process of developing some ideas about how this happened.
Before I started reading Welsh mythology I thought it was solely about the area of land we now know as Wales. When I discovered William Skene’s translation of The Four Books of Ancient Wales I realised that the earliest heroic poetry attributed to Taliesin and Aneirin originates from and is about the fall of the Old North to the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. Whilst the focus of The Mabinogion is Wales many adventures lead beyond. Welsh mythology contains the lore of all of ancient Britain.
This body of ancient British lore was absorbed into ‘Welsh’ mythology because when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came to rule, many Britons were forced west, taking their stories with them. The tantalising fragments of Gwyn’s earliest myths in the medieval texts result from the mixing of northern and Welsh oral tales, which were later penned by Christian scribes.
Memories of Gwyn were kept alive by the reminiscences of Welsh saints, soothsayers and poets and later revived by nineteenth century scholars and folklorists. During this process his name became synonymous with areas where his stories were still told; Wales and Somerset. This is evidenced by Shakespeare’s ‘Heavens defend me from that Welsh Fairy’ and John Cowper Powys’ reference to Glastonbury Tor as ‘the great haunted hill, the hill of Gwyn-ap-Nud, the Welsh Fairy-Demon’.
His northern connections sank into the background. As far as I know there have been no literary references to Gwyn ap Nudd in the north since the medieval period.
Last year, when I was giving a talk on ‘Voicing Place’ in Ipswich, I mentioned my relationship with Gwyn and how some of my journeys under his guidance had led not only to Annwn but to memories in the dreamscape of my locality. Afterward, I got questioned about the legitimacy of my work with a ‘non-local’ god; shouldn’t it be ‘local gods for local people’?
I disagreed, both on the principle that only relationships with local gods are valid and that Gwyn isn’t a local god. Gwyn revealed his presence to me (quite unexpectedly!) at a local fairy site. His imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’ referred to my locality. Throughout my relationship with him he’s demonstrated a concern for the north and its history.
I’ve been pondering this for a while and reached the following conclusion: Gwyn is a king of Annwn and is said to ‘contain’ (literally to hold within and to hold back) the fury of the spirits of Annwn. These are chthonic spirits, referred to today as ‘fairies, who play a role in mediating between this-world and the otherworld, the living and dead. Because of this intermediary role they have a deep concern for the land and the way we maintain our heritage. Their concerns are Gwyn’s.
Gwyn’s concern with history (and some of his fury) also stems from the fact he and the spirits of Annwn have been all but erased by the processes of Anglicisation and Christianisation. Gwyn and his kindred spirits also seem bound up with other voices written out of history by the victors. Thus, he calls me to step outside history to listen to those voices and bring his myths back to life on the land from which they have been erased.
This marks a new direction in my research and writing. Since my dedication to Gwyn, my path as an Awenydd has focused on what Heron refers to as ‘imaginative recall’; working with historical fragments and maps and listening to the land and its deities in order to gather memories in poems and stories.
In Enchanting the Shadowlands my focus was my local area. I am now experiencing the impulse to revisit some of Britain’s most ancient myths at a deeper level and visit the places they are set with the purpose of reweaving Gwyn’s neglected connections with the Old North into the present day.
In this respect, I share aims with Charlotte Hussey who in her collection of medieval glosa Glossing the Spoils set out through active imagining to ‘mend a break in tradition and time.’ Charlotte mentions that P. K. Page ‘defined ‘religion (re-legere)’ as ‘to read again.’’ Re-reading and re-imagining our ancient myths is a religious duty, an act of devotion to land, gods and ancestors.
Hence as an Awenydd to Gwyn and his spirits and all the voices between the lines of known history and myth, I embark on this new project. I am aware at this point it is not only memories I must quest, but an appropriate form to fit them.