Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North

Rivington Moor with Winter HillI’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.

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13 thoughts on “Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North

  1. These are profound promptings – literally from the deepest places so, as before, your path takes you wherever you must go to answer the call. May Gwyn guide you on the way.

  2. My inclinations are that Gwyn stands at the interplay between the wild and untamed and the calmer and more civilised. Right now – he needs us to be more wild than civilised and to tread those paths more than any other.

    Lupercalia has passed and from reading, that festival in Roman times was about also moving from the wild warbands which roamed the land toward become civil, integrating and putting ones strength towards protecting the towns, villages and livestock. Gwyn sits in there somewhere for us in Britain though I almost feel that we need some sort of anti-Lupercalia…move away from our civilisation and focus on the wilderness and guarding and fighting for that.

    1. I think Gwyn’s definitely got a paradoxical nature. In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir,’ he appears as a divine warrior and kind protector of the battle-dead. Yet in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ he plays a disruptive function and in his capture of the men of the north and the incident with Cyledyr he’s down right cruel. These divisions appear again in the way his leadership of the Wild Hunt contrasts completely with the episode where he plays the welcoming host to Collen on Glastonbury Tor. Both show the contrasts you speak of – wildness and civility. And in turn the spirits of Annwn / the fay also possess these dual qualities.

      To me, if Gwyn and the fay are ‘civilised’ they adhere to a code outside the laws and bounds of our society. I’d say in the cases of both their wildness and civility they’re opposed to our norms and epitomise alterity. They challenge us to think otherwise, to stand up for the other, whether it’s the land and its inhabitants or the unacknowledged voices of the ancestors.

  3. Pingback: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North | Tales of the Multiverse My Worlds in Words by Rielle

  4. So many words in this post strike my heart. “Re-reading and re-imagining our ancient myths is a religious duty, an act of devotion to land, gods and ancestors”. It seems that that’s what’s living through me, even on my shores where the ancient myths are not of my blood or are far from their place of origin. As I listen to the birds, converse with plants and trees, and wander and sit on this land, I reimagine and am in ceremony. Thank you again for this post that brings me into your journey — and into my own!

  5. Good to encounter your rich blog, Lorna, and thank you for following mine (though my other, thewildways.co.uk is more explicitly about place, story, myth and poetry etc. My first book, ‘Riding the Dragon – myth and the inner journey’ is about similar themes).

    This is wonderful. Am inspired all over again by the tales of our land on reading your words.

    So glad you’re keeping the old deities alive – Gwynn is a fierce one to be working with! – I agree with Lee, above, that he’s a borderland/threshold god, and to that extent he can also be a trickster god. (Is Herne/Cernunnos also a Gwynn variant? I see him as both a light and a dark god.)

    And mythologically/linguistically speaking certainly Rheged would once upon a time have also been Brythonic, so that all of Wales as it is now would be directly connected with what is now Scotland, and therefore Gwynn would ride throughout. I’m glad you’re re-establishing that.

    Some also say that ‘religion’ = ‘relegere’ meaning ‘to bind or tie back’ – ie a way of reconnecting.

    May your ride into spring be a deep one.

    1. Hello, really like ‘the wildways’ on so many levels!

      I’d certainly agree Gwyn’s a threshold god, who presides over transitions from life to death, civilisation to wildness, sanity to madness… and there may be a certain amount of trickstery involved… and light / dark shown in his old name Vindonnus ‘Clear light, white’ yet being a god of the underworld. Gwyn ‘white, blessed’ yet he blacks his face and can be terrifying!

      I think Gwyn shares traits with Cernunnos and Herne but I personally don’t equate them. Although they may share the wildways?…

  6. Yes, through that mist, here and there aren’t so well defined. At least in Welsh medieval bardic poetry Annwfn may not necessarily be an otherworld, as in a place apart; a deeper place, certainly, but not separate. I take the sense of a chthonic underworld to be a metaphorical description, only taken literally by the more classical tradition. In-world may be more accurate than otherworld, that is Annwfn as a dimension of potential depth that’s always present. In the 12th century Cynddelw claimed this Annwfn to be the source not only of his awen, but the source of the awen’s ability to ‘judge men of heart’. His celebration of his chieftain was informed by the moral nature of this deeper space. That moral nature was itself an expression of an ancestral culture. He saw it as his task to make that more here than there, as did the tradition of the Four Branches: Arawn escorts Pwyll to Annwfn in a matter of a few lines. Ireland is Annwfn and Caer Sidi as wells as Harlech and Gwales. In that description of the world its everywhere, and I think that agrees with your sense of ‘localness’, funnily enough.

    1. Thanks for sharing your insights, particularly on the notion of Annwfn as ‘in-world’ suggesting it is immanent. Which is intuitively right for me, although I hadn’t come across this interpretation before. I’m aware of the ‘depth’ aspect. (Taliesin ‘the Awen I sing from the deep I bring it’). Lots to think about. And many thanks for the hard work in your site, which I’ve followed for a while 🙂

      1. Well funnily enough, that Taliesin poem your quoting was probably composed by Llywarch ap Llywelyn, who may well have been apprenticed to Cynddelw sometime during the 1170’s or 80’s. That line is itself an echo of one of Cynddelw’s descriptions of Annwfn. Both Cynddelw and Llywarch’s references to Annwfn agree on its immanence, as you put it, and both play on the idea of depth. I’ve got a series of blogs on it titled ‘Alternative interpretations of dwfn in Gogynfeirdd poetry’

    1. Yes, seeing the following:

      Yn Annwfn, yn nwfn, yn nyfnder

      In Annwfn, in the world, in the sea

      was most enlightening! Really shows that to understand all the hidden links you really need to be able to read Welsh, which I’m a long way of doing (well) yet!

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