The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid

I journeyed for weeks
through mist and hunger
to find the split rack of her bones,
bones stripped, flesh burnt
and boiled in the cauldron,
blood drained and bottled in two jars.

I plundered the ashes where the cauldron stood,
sniffed for blood where the jars were filled.
Played maracas with her bones,
made intricate arrangements,
chanted and sung
but could not raise her ghost.

“She is amongst the spirits of Annwn now,”
spoke the god I called instead.

“Lay her bones to rest. In the fire of poetry
console her burning spirit.”

***

I’m laying her bones to rest. The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid. Her name was Orddu. It meant ‘the Very Black Witch’. Whether she had black skin, black hair or used black magic seem irrelevant now. All that is left is her scapula split in twain, her shattered pelvis, two arms, two legs, her broken skull. Jagged shadows in two orbits retrieved from either side of the cavern.

Her bones are still. I am angry and restless. I cannot abide the story of her death. How Arthur came as he always did into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches: sword slung over his shoulder like a sundered lightning bolt, a living knife in his hilt, a shield on his thigh adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary, aboard a huge mare.

Caw of Prydyn behind him a giant with a curling beard and the damned jars like heinous milk bottles on each side of his saddle; half a man in size, well-stoppered, thick-glassed, unbreakable. Then the retinue with spear and shield, tawdry banners and flags.

Following to stragglers’ jeers Hygwydd the servant staggering bow-legged bent-backed beneath the gigantic cauldron that brewed food for the brave. Hygwydd’s brother Cacamwri with Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil dragging ponies piled with saddle-bags of food and weapons.

At Arthur’s right Gwythyr ap Greidol, a gristled war-lord with fire and a hundred bloody campaigns in his eyes. A blazing passion. And to Arthur’s left Gwyn ap Nudd, the guide who tricked and dizzied their quest cloaked in mist summoning his hounds to eat the fallen from the mountainside.

Of the host who went to Pennant Gofid only a fragment reached the cave where Orddu plaited her black hair, blackened her skin with war-paint, fastened down her helmet. Sharpened her sword then set it aside like an afterthought. Cracked her knuckles and flexed her talons.

When Arthur blanched a voice mocked from the mist “if you’re scared, witch-killer, why not send your servants in instead?”

Arthur pointed Hygwydd and Cacamwri toward Orddu beckoning. She grabbed Hygwydd by the hair, dragged him to the floor, threw off Cacamwri’s assault, arrested their weapons, beat them out bloody and bruised. Arthur sent Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil in to be crushed in her wrestling hold, torn by her talons, beaten out with broken bones. Arthur fumbled for his knife.

“Why are you afraid, Christian warlord?” Orddu asked. “Far from home. Far from heaven. Do you remember I trained your northern warriors? Without my wisdom, gifts from our gods, they will be nothing but bickering chieftains with a lust for gold and immortality that will bring Prydain’s downfall?”

Overcome by fury Arthur threw his knife in a wrathful arc that sliced down through Orddu’s helmet through her ribs. Dropped to the floor as she fell aside in two halves screaming “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” as the mist writhed and the hounds of Annwn howled.

When her twitching halves lay still Caw filled the bottles with her blood still warm and jammed down the corks. They stripped her of armour and flesh. Boiled a merry meal. Stole her sword. Left with a cauldron filled with northern treasure whilst her spirit watched aghast in the misted arms of Gwyn ap Nudd.

***

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches with his living knife to put an end to wild recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years.

Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Gave us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Took away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Gave us virginity and chastity belts. Cut us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Not long ago I split the jars. Escaped to another place. Wandered my estate kissing Himalayan Balsam. Watching Ragwort sway with wasps. Mugwort flowering like coral. But this was not enough. Gods and fairies walked to the world of the dead and called me after them. Since then I have seen the dead walk in the bright eye of the sun.

I could not go back to the jars. To glass windows and tower blocks. To numbers on computer screens. The pencil skirts of offices. To fracking rigs threatening to break both worlds.

So I came to Pennant Gofid searching for answers and companionship on my lonely path. Found only Orddu’s bones and the god who took her spirit. Yet found a link in spirit with a companion and a god in the magical tradition of the Old North.

***

So I constructed a fire of poetry and spoke my words of consolation:

“Orddu Last Witch of Pennant Gofid
know you are not the last
to walk these paths
to caves and mountain ranges,
through otherworlds and distant ages,
seeking visions of the present
the future and past.

The rule of Arthur has fallen.
Though Prydain still falls
we have broken the jars.
Our blood is no longer contained
by the tyrants of Arthur’s court.
We are winning back our flesh.
Our magic. Our strength.

Remembering our gods.
Know your life will be remembered
where there are prophecies and hailstorms,
rain and rivers, caves and heresy,
in the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd
where your spirit burns
forevermore.”

Then I took her bones in my rucksack and crawled through to a dark chamber. On a little shelf beside Orwen ‘the Very White Witch’ I laid Orddu’s bones to rest.

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12 thoughts on “The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid

    1. Many thanks for sharing my post and for your comment – having read about your ancestral work and calendar in progress for the polytheist and pagan dead your brief words mean a lot.

  1. This is an intense and impressive engagement with the deep matter of Brythonic myth. You have the Arthurian context here just right, both in that it is part of the christian challenge to an older pagan world but also in that the earlier Welsh stories about Arthur also retain some contact with that world and articulate its ethos so that it can still resonate and speak to us, even if only with the pain and outrage that you so eloquently express.

    The story of Culhwch and Olwen contains many such layers of earlier deposits both on and just beneath its surface. Bringing your insights to that story is a valuable re-presentation of one of its elements. May the spirits of Orddu and Orwen live again in the land of Prydain and your evocative memory of them be praised in the annals of the awenyddion.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Heron, and for the re-blog. ‘The annals’ of the awenyddion’ – I like this idea a lot. For a while I have been attempting to map relationships between events and persons in the Brythonic tradition particularly when they shine as numinous and significant and haunting (Orddu’s death, Myrddin’s flight from Celyddon, the shattering of Ceridwen’s cauldron, Gwyn and Gwyddno’s meeting) an ‘annal’ would be one way of doing this?

      Within my personal practice I’d like to take honouring and remembering some of our spiritual ancestors on the path of the awenydd further. Particularly Orddu with whom I’ve found a connection as a warrior woman, witch and visionary. In such a male dominated tradition having a connection with a strong female figure feels important. I’ll let you know how I go on with that.

      1. Yes do keep me posted on your remembering of the female presences in the land.

        And yes, an ‘annal’ of what deserves to be acknowledged and rembered would be a good thing to put together.

  2. i have been interested when you mentioned the very black witch before… i have been waiting for this… i embrace you, my sister in reclaiming wholeness, reclaiming herstory, reclaiming our places in the land… seeing through to the bones of the story… a laying to rest, but a carryiing on… so may it be…

    1. Thanks for you comments, Nina. It feels important to have found an ancestor in the magical tradition of the Old North. Yes, re-claiming our places in the land is a good way of putting of it. It’s my intuition that Orddu’s lineage may have dated back to pre-Roman times when so much of the north was known as Brigantia and goddesses received equal veneration to gods and women were equal to men. As well as the Witches of Caerloyw I thought about Scatach and Cu Chullain when i wrote this. We certainly need to reclaim the herstories within the histories of the Men of the North.

  3. This is a powerhouse piece if there ever was one. As someone who teaches Arthurian Lit courses, I totally agree that what we see in most of the Arthurian canon is true to what James Brown once sang, “It’s a man’s world!” A warrior’s world; a more and more Christian warrior’s world. That’s why recently, I have been ending my course with Gareth Knight’s Melusine texts and prepping a course dealing with faery lais. These Breton lais reflect the 11th & 12 centuries move away from warrior sagas to courtly romance written for the Countess Marie of Champagne and her mother, two of the most powerful women in Europe. Here, the faery women generally have the upper hand, but they lack the primitive, warrior woman power of your wonderful Orddu. Your Orddu does remind me of Grendel’s mother. Your text also calls to mind, Graham Joyce’s “Dark Sister” that I couldn’t put down this summer. You’re fighting a good fight!!

    1. Many thanks for your comments, Charlotte. When I was researching the story of the Witches of Caerloyw in Peredur I returned to your poem ‘The Loathly Lady’ and was thinking about the inspiration I gained from ‘Glossing the Spoils’ which has been a real guide to my engagement with Brythonic tradition. The quest you took up of searching ‘beneath the Christian overlay for an archaic underwriting’, mending ‘a break in tradition and time’ by what Heron refers to as ‘imaginative recall’. Reading again.

      I’m not too familiar with the Breton lais but I like the fact you have introduced this female element into what is, as you say, ‘a man’s world’. One of the factors I’m only struggling with as I work with Gwyn’s myths, which are mainly set in the Arthurian period is that the Old North was dominated by the Men of the North. There are barely any stories about woman and where they are if they’re not obedient virgins they’re demonised as witches, hags or enchantresses presented as evil and killed off. Now I’m not saying all these women were ‘good’ or ‘moral’ but that the Christian standards of good / bad or evil have been applied to them, they’ve been pre-judged and dispatched. And in spite of his witch killing, giant killing, slaying of ancestral animals, people still see Arthur as a hero. Gah!

      How do you approach these issues as a teacher or Arthurian literature by the way? How do your students feel about Arthur?

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