Gwyn ap Nudd and the Gwyllon: ‘Wyllt-ness’ and the Healing Power of Art

Barrow Mound, Fulwood

The wight whose footsteps I heard
imprinted on my cold soul,
the cold marrow of my bones.
He walked in soul as his bones laid still
and my soul reached out to him:
another one of the gwyllon.

The glimmer of fairy lights.
This place secluded and so still.

Fulwood Barrow MoundSometimes you stumble somewhere and forget yourself. No longer breathing. In the time of the gods. You hear the footsteps of a deity. Not your deity. But one connected with him.

***

In the mythology of ancient Britain, Gwyn ap Nudd (a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead) is intimately connected with ‘gwyllon’: madmen, wildmen, wraiths, who through some traumatic experience have become ‘outside themselves’, open to the otherworld, ‘wyllt’.

The most famous is Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin is a golden-torqued warrior of the court of the northern British ruler, Gwenddolau, who becomes wyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd; a conflict between Brythonic kinsmen renowned for its carnage and futility.

Looking across the battlefield, stricken with guilt because his sister Gwendydd’s sons are amongst the dead, Myrddin sees an unendurable brightness and martial battalion in the sky. It seems possible this is Gwyn (‘white’ ‘blessed’ holy’ from Vindos or Vindonnus ‘white’ ‘clear light, white’) and his host: the spirits of Annwn and the war-dead, approaching to gather their kindred to the otherworld.

‘Torn out of himself’ by one of these spirits, Myrddin flees to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest). He wanders there ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon’. These gwyllon are ‘seven score men’ who also fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished.

Similar cases are found in The Triads of the Island of Britain: ‘Tri Gwyd Ellyll Ynys Brydein’ ‘Three Wild Spectres of the Island of Britian’. The notes state ‘ydellyll’ (for ‘gwyd ellyll?’) ‘occurs in the Gododdin in reference to furious activity in battle’ and could relate to tales of men who become wyllt as a consequence of war.

What makes Myrddin’s story unique is his recovery. Amongst wild creatures of the forest; a piglet, a wolf and a favourite apple tree he undergoes a healing process through which he learns the art of poetry and uses it to prophecy against future bloodshed.

***

Cyledyr Wyllt possesses an entirely different story. In Culhwch and Olwen, after Gwyn abducts Creiddylad, his rival Gwythyr ap Greidol raises an army of northern men to win her back. Amongst them are Cyledyr and his brother, Pen, his father Nwython and his great grand-father’s brother, Gwrgst Ledlwm. If Gwrgst is still living this means Cyledyr must be in his teens.

Gwythyr and his army attack Gwyn. My intuition is this attack represents a raid on Annwn. Gwyn triumphs over Gwythyr and the northern men and takes them prisoner. During their captivity he kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who goes mad. The etymological links between Cyledyr and Celyddon suggest that, like Myrddin, he flees to the forest.

Gwyn’s motive for torturing Cyledyr is never explained. Did he do it from fury? For vengeance? Did he have some darker purpose in feeding a young man his father’s heart? Could this have originated from some arcane rite of the past whereby the strength of one’s ancestors was conferred by eating their flesh, of which Gwyn makes a mockery?

Another question worth asking is ‘Did it happen at all?’ The historical Nwython is recorded to have died in his bed.

It seems possible Cyledyr’s fevered recollections result from the effects of unbidden entry to Annwn, the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr’s forces and time spent in prison on an impressionable young mind. Whilst Cyledyr is telling this story Nwython could be anguishing over the unknown fate of his son. Whether Cyledyr recovered from his trauma or died in Celyddon remains uncertain.

***

Another story I believe features Gwyn (as the King of Fairy) and a human ruler who becomes wyllt is Sir Orfeo. This begins when the Fairy King abducts Heurodis, Orfeo’s wife. Driven wyllt by grief, Orfeo abandons his sovereignty and departs ‘like a beggar’ for the wilderness where his only solace is playing his harp, which brings joy to the wild creatures.

After ten long years Orfeo finally finds a way into Fairyland. After travelling sunlit green plains and hunting grounds he comes to the Fairy King’s glass palace. Therein he makes a terrible discovery: ‘Folk long thought dead… as living found’ headless, armless, torn, ‘with dreadful wounds’, ‘full-armed on horses’, strangled, drowned, burned, wives laid in child-bed ‘stolen out of life’: those ‘the fairies seize and keep’. Heurodis lies amongst them.

These images represent a little-known truth, rarely made explicit in Brythonic mythology: the beauty of Fairyland is founded on the horror of death. The knights and damsels of the Fairy King’s hunt who feast in his hall number the war-dead, murder-victims, women who have died in labour.

Heurodis is amongst them because when the Fairy King took her whilst she slept beneath an orchard tree she died or became comatose or catatonic. Such superstitions can be traced through Brythonic fairylore to earlier beliefs about Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn conveying souls to the otherworld.

This knowledge does not prevent Orfeo from entering the Fairy King’s hall and playing his wondrous music. The King is so moved he offers Orfeo anything he wants. Of course, Orfeo asks for Heurodis. He brings her back to this-world where the pair are re-united in sovereignty.

This story shows how Orfeo gains his ability as a musician from his period wandering wyllt and that hard-won art has the power to move the gods, to sing the souls of those held captive in Fairyland back to this earthly home.

***

These myths represent the experience of becoming wyllt at the outermost limits of human experience. The ‘wyllt-ness’ of Myrddin and Cyledyr results from battle trauma. Cyledyr’s battle trauma is exacerbated by his unwarranted entry into Annwn, imprisonment in the ‘not-world’ and real or imagined torture by Gwyn.

Orfeo’s story differs slightly. His wyllt-ness results from loss. His time spent wandering the wilderness provides him with the strength to survives his gnosis of the terrible truth at the heart of Fairyland and Heurodis’ fate to win her back and return to his seat of rule.

Key to the survival of becoming wyllt is the power of art. For Myrddin and Orfeo giving voice to their trauma and to the powers of nature who surround and console them is an essential part of the healing process. It is possibly because he does not discover art that Cyledyr remains wyllt. This may also be the case for the other gwyllon who lapsed into madness and perished.

These stories contain lasting significance for modernity where art and nature therapy are recognised as powerful means of helping victims of war and loss.

***

Later folktales represent a variety of different encounters with and responses to Fairyland. In most we find the recurrent themes of wyllt-ness and art. People who meet fairies, stumble into or are taken to Fairy invariably become ‘dead, mad or poets’. My personal experiences with Gwyn and his realm bear stronger resemblances to these tales.

Glastonbury TorIn the year 2000 at Glastonbury Festival (long before I knew the name of the mysterious god of the Tor) I had a vision of what I recognise now to be Fairyland which left me shocked, stunned and profoundly questioning the nature of reality.

My quest for an explanation led me through a dangerous combination of drink, drugs, all-night dancing and all the texts of the Western European philosophical tradition, deeper into madness, to the brink of an abyss where I was faced with the choice of life or death.

Unable to choose either I was confronted by three beings I now recognise as ellyllon (‘fairies’ akin to gwyllon). What followed was equally beautiful and perturbing and put an end to the pain of having to make that choice. My experiences left me half-wyllt, wandering between life and death, plagued by anxiety and panic attacks and put a temporary end to my vision-quest.

After giving up my philosophy PhD, I spent four years working with horses. During this period of re-connecting with the land, the seasons and the animal world, working hard and thinking little, I underwent a return to nature that bears a little analogy to the flight of the wyllt to Celyddon.

When I met Gwyn and put a face to the god who governed the magical landscape I haphazardly intruded on at Glastonbury Festival twelve years ago, my initial terror was edged by relief. I finally knew the source of the calling to the otherworld that had haunted me for as long as I can remember. Gwyn became my patron and I his awenydd: ‘person inspired’ or ‘poet’.

***

In the contemporary world where poetry, let alone pagan poetry, is rarely acknowledged or valued the path of the awenydd is not an easy vocation. Deep gnosis of nature and Annwn and its deities necessarily places one outside the bounds of ordinary experience; makes one wyllt, other. With Celyddon gone there is no wild and wooded place of retreat outside the norms of society where gwyllon can flee and gather in company.

Yet in the shaded spaces of our localities where trees still stand and that great forest stood before it walked to Scotland centuries ago we can commune with the gwyllon of old and find unison with the gwyllon of today. Sharing can also take place in the green nooks and crannies of books, in the pubs and cafes and wooded stages where we perform and on the internet. In our stories we find camaraderie.

In a world becoming increasingly superficial where we are losing touch with the deep knowledge our ancestors held to help those touched by the wyllt-ness of Fairyland be it through trauma, loss, enchantment or some silly mistake, we have never had a greater need for the stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and the gwyllon. For the healing power of art.

Castle Hill from Fairy LaneSOURCES

Bromwich, Rachel (ed) The Triads of the Island of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. (eds) Culhwch and Olwen (University of Wales, 1998)
Davies, Constance ‘Classical Threads in Orfeo’ The Modern Language Review, Vol 56, No 2, (Modern Humanities Research Association, April 1961)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Friedman, John Block ‘Eurydice, Heurodis and the Noon-Day Demon’ Speculum, Vol 41, Vol 1 (Medieval Academy of America, 1966)
Hunt, Edward Eyre Sir Orfeo (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

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10 thoughts on “Gwyn ap Nudd and the Gwyllon: ‘Wyllt-ness’ and the Healing Power of Art

  1. Thank you for this mythologically rich, thoughtful piece. I have been reading Diane Purkiss this summer, and she makes a similar connection between fairies and the dead, in particular those who’ve died before their time. I also like how you subtly bring in some of your own autobiographical bits near the end. I can resonate with your point that writing pagan inspired poetry in the post-modern world is an often out-of-the-way and thus hard, hard path. You are truly an inspiration for those who want to force their own way forward. XOX

  2. It was good to turn aside from current cares to read this. Linking Gwyn to the Orfeo story via the Gwyllon is suggestive. It’s interesting that the English version Sir Orfeo has a ‘happy’ ending while the Greek story of Orpheus does not. A cultural or an important mythological distinction?

    There’s a lot I’d like to explore here but can’t at present pursue. But I do want to appreciate your comments about a community and the spaces we find wherever we can to share our inspirations and insights. That struck a chord. Each nemeton we can create is precious where we can hear others record experiences we recognise. This is one I value highly.

    “Sometimes you stumble somewhere and forget yourself. No longer breathing. In the time of the gods. You hear the footsteps of a deity.” Yes! Camaraderie indeed. So too what you say about the healing power of art. Between these two sources of experience we often walk a fine line and sometimes cross it at our peril.

    1. Thanks for you comments, Heron, they mean a lot. I’ve also wondered about the changes in the plot of these stories – Heurodis being abducted rather than bitten by a snake (in one article I read the interpreter said Hades / The King of Fairy (identified) was the snake!), the contrasts between the Classical and Celtic Otherworlds and moreover the ending. I attempted an essay on this based on the insight the King of Fairy also abducted the plot… but not yet publishable.

      One of the things that has struck me recently, is that is very easy to miss and appreciate the existing camaraderie and green spaces when running around dissatisfied trying to change the world. Something I’m grappling with at the moment. I’m very glad this struck a chord and was of value and in turn appreciate all your inspiring work and support.

  3. “In a world becoming increasingly superficial…”

    I have been reflecting on living an intimate life when I read this piece. It has become increasingly apparent that many are leading increasingly superficial lives where people are expected to fill “roles” and animals (as pets) are treated more like cuddly, stuffed toys than as living creatures. This “quality” does not easily connect with the subtle and otherworldly spirits, so they are considered fantasy by the superficial. I can appreciate your frustration in this matter.

    I am an American who grew up in a largely Christianized culture that I found unfulfilling. Exploring Paganism caused me to stumble upon the Mabinogion, which captured my attention. This “capture” seemed to make more sense a few years later when a cousin informed me that our family had Welsh roots. Unfortunately, there did not seem to be much explanation of this lore… until I discovered blogs like yours. I do not comment much as I feel more like a student who reads, reflects and digests what you write. However, I do have something to contribute here.

    The most interesting people are intimately engaged in living… in Life. They notice the subtle nuances of life, so they are called “spiritual” or “deep.” This quality is what makes them interesting to read, listen to, or to be generally associated with. This quality truly sets them apart from others. However, it is an unfair to assess their contribution to human culture based on the response of the superficial factions of society.

    I recognize the difficulties this presents to you, and others like you, in trying to meet your calling in such a culture, but I am sure that I am not the only one who appreciates your work. I certainly do not want to abandon living an intimately engaged life to join the superficial masses, no matter how difficult this way of life may seem. Complaining seems to predominate much of the conversation of the “superficial,” and those complaints are what often turns them into “seekers” who will eventually find the words we all leave behind. Peace to you for you are blessed, even though it may not seem like it at times.

    1. Many thanks for your comments and sharing a little of your background. It was only after I discovered paganism through the Greek myths I learnt of the Mabinogion and that Britain had native gods. It is sad and shameful our Brythonic and Gaelic myths are not taught alongside the Classics and English literature in schools. It’s encouraging you find inspiration and a way into these myths in my writing 🙂

  4. I appreciate the connection you make between personal life on the one hand and mythological stories/encouters with greater-than-human persons and will very much look forward to reading your developing thoughts on this as you return to it from time time ….

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