A card which keeps recurring in my readings (I mainly use The Wildwood Tarot) is ‘The Three of Vessels: Joy’. It features two common cranes dancing and a third spreading its wings, rising into flight with three vessels; white, green and gold. Its meaning is welcoming ‘new life or good fortune’, ‘celebration within a communal group or family’ and ‘successful return after migration’. The reading points state it’s about being able to give ourselves permission to experience ‘authentic joy’ as a ‘gift from the universe’.
At the beginning of the year after completing my first publication: Enchanting the Shadowlands and dedicating it to him, Gwyn ap Nudd advised me to ‘find my sun’. Interpreting this as finding a calling I enjoyed, I balked. Although intuitively I knew continuing to serve Gwyn as an awenydd by recovering his neglected stories and their associations with the British landscape was a source of joy, I couldn’t believe in it.
There were too many awful things happening in the world. Too many other people stuck in meaningless jobs for me to deserve the liberty to follow my joy. So I ignored Gwyn’s advice, took an admin job and tried to force myself into the political sphere: areas antithetical to my natural disposition as an intuitive thinker and poet. Unsurprisingly, I had a thoroughly miserable time.
The event that broke my misery was a holiday to Wales where I experienced the enormity of Cadair Idris and, after reading Heron’s translation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ on Borth beach, witnessed the otherworld appearing across the sea at sunset: a gift from Gwyddno’s lands and from Gwyn, a King of Annwn. This led me to write a story based on the ancient Welsh poem called ‘The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir.’
During my research I found out whilst Garanhir is usually translated as ‘longshanks’, ‘garan’ means ‘crane’ in Welsh and could refer to ‘crane-legs’. That’s how Gwyddno appeared to me: an old man, grey-faced, crane-legged, picking his way along the misted edge of Borth Beach. He had lost his memory. This was because the cranes were gone with their elegant black legs whose dancing alphabet spelled the forgotten names of his kindred.
Cranes became extinct in Britain during the 17th C due to shooting and the draining of wetlands. I’m not sure when the last crane was sighted in the precincts of Maes Gwyddno ‘The Land of Gwyddno’. According to local legend, Cantre’r Gwaelod ‘the Bottom Hundred’ was drowned after the flood gates of Gwyddno’s fort were left open after Seithenin’s seduction of Mererid.
Boddi Maes Gwyddno ‘The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno’ is set in the 6th century but could have its roots in sightings of an ancient, submerged forest on Borth beach. Whenever it happened, it seems a flood devastated lowland plains, areas of woodland and the homes of a human community. A haunting story tells of church bells ringing beneath the sea. I imagine the flood-waters drowned coastal wetlands and the nesting places of numerous wildfowl too.
Another tale linked with the area is Hanes Taliesin ‘The Story of Taliesin’. After Gwion Bach spilled three drops of Ceridwen’s brew on his finger and imbibed the Awen, the cauldron shattered and its toxic contents spilled across the land and poisoned Gwyddno’s horses. Today this conjures images of large-scale industrial tragedies such as the Gold King Mine Disaster in Colorado in August this year where three millions gallons of waste water flooded into the Animas.
This may not be far from the ‘truth’ as lead mining took place in the hills close to Cors Fochno ‘Borth Bog’ and lead smelting at Taliesin, Llangynfelyn and Ynys Capel during the Roman period. A medieval wooden walkway connecting these sites has recently been discovered. Perhaps an industrial disaster poisoning streams and wildlife gave rise to this tale? (On a happier note, wild ponies can be seen grazing safely near Cors Fochno in the present-day.)
Both ‘Dark Age’ tales may be related to the disappearance of cranes from Maes Gwyddno. A story which has not made its way into legend is the draining and enclosure of Cors Fochno. This began in 1813 and reduced its area of 24 square kilometres to 7 square kilometres (now protected as an SSSI). Whilst this took place too late to be cited as a cause of the disappearance of cranes from Cors Fochno it would have decimated other wetland species.
The extinction of common cranes forms an incredibly sad marker in British history. These striking birds with their grey body- feathers, black and white necks and unique red crowns are renowned for the choreography of their elaborate ballet-like courtship-dance which involves a complex sequence of bobs, bows, crouches, coils, spins, leaps, pirouettes and calls.
After mating, both parents care for and fiercely protect their eggs which are laid in May and hatch 30 days later. After 5-6 weeks the parents go through a post-breeding molt which renders them unable to fly. Their offspring are ready to fly at 9 weeks. It seems possible the precarious 3 week period when none of the family can take off played a part in the demise of common cranes.
As well as being an irreplaceable part of the natural world, cranes are deeply embedded in Celtic and Romano-Celtic culture and mythology. The most famous example is Tarvostrigaranus ‘the Bull with Three Cranes’ from a 1st C Parisian monument. In Dorset, a statue of a three-horned bull with three female figures on his back was found in a 4th C shrine. These seem related through lore about women shapeshifting into cranes. In Risingham, Northumberland, a Gaulish slab depicts Victory with a crane beneath her and Mars accompanied by a goose.
Whilst crane stories in Brythonic tradition seem lacking, I found cranes play a central role in Irish mythology. In light of my devotion to Gwyn I was delighted to find several stories connecting his Irish counterpart, Finn, with cranes. In ‘Bairne Mor’ whilst Finn is a young child, his father, Cumhall, is slain in battle. Finn is thrown over a cliff and caught by his grandmother in the form of a crane.
In ‘Cailleach an Teampuill’, Finn encounters the Cailleach as ‘the Hag of the Temple’ with four sons who appear as cranes. They are associated with death and will only ’emerge as warriors’ if they receive a drop of blood from the skull of the Connra Bull (who is owned by the Cailleach).
Finn also comes into custodianship of a crane-bag which belonged to his father. The story of its origin is fascinating. The crane-bag first belonged to Manannan Mac Lir and contained his treasures. It is made from the skin of a crane who was originally a woman called Aoife. Aoife was transformed into a crane by Iuchra; a jealous female rival for the love of a man. In modern Druidry, the crane-bag is associated with the ogham alphabet and used to carry magical tools.
When I wrote my story, the only part of this complex web of correspondences I knew of was the connection of the crane-bag with letters. Considering the relationship between cranes and female shapeshifters, looking back, it’s intriguing I was guided by an impulse to relate Gwyddno’s regaining of his crane-knowledge to memories of his mother.
Gwyddno’s recollections of his identity and ancestry took place under the auspices of Gwyn’s protection as a psychopomp. It is my belief the dialogue is set between worlds after Gwyddno’s death. Because Gwyddno lost his memory before he died he was unable to find his way to Annwn. Thus Gwyn appeared with his dog, Dormach, to help him regain his memory and ancestral connections and aid his crossing.
In my story, after Gwyn helped Gwyddno re-gain his ‘inner crane-knowing’, Gwyddno saw the arrival of his family, including his grandmother and his wife Ystradwen as a flock of cranes. Finally he took crane-form, was united with them and flew to Annwn as it appeared across the sea by the light of the setting sun.
Thus, for me, the three cranes on ‘The Three of Vessels: Joy’ could represent Gwyddno and Ystradwen dancing watched over by Gwyddno’s mother with Gwyn’s presence represented by the misty background. The three vessels seem linked to the three drops of Awen, which had led to the poisoning of the landscape, recovered and contained.
Another interesting coincidence is that Gwyn appears to Gwyddno as a ‘bull of battle’: a sacred title referring to his status as a psychopomp. In the dialogue I picture him as a white warrior wearing a bull-horned helmet. Could there be a link to the magical power of Tarvostrigaranus and / or the Cailleach’s bull? If so my story inverts the transformation of the Cailleach’s sons as Gwyddno shifts from king and warrior into crane-form.
Another piece of Irish lore worth mentioning is that three cranes guard the sidh (mound and otherworld entrance) of Midir. Their calls have the capacity to ‘unman’ warriors and if a crane is seen before battle this is taken as an ill omen. I’ve also read three cranes act as guardians of Annwn. Although I haven’t found a scholarly reference for this yet, it would fit with my suggested crane-trio and Gwyn as a King of Annwn.
Whilst writing my story, I was excited to find out common cranes are returning from ‘extinction’ in Britain. In 1979 common cranes arrived at Horsey on the Norfolk Broads. Their survival was made possible by the custodianship and management of ‘Crane Country’ by John Buxton and his team of wardens.
In 2010 ‘The Great Crane Project’ was established and is ongoing. At the WWT Centre in Slimbridge, crane eggs from Germany are incubated and hatched then the chicks are hand-reared and released; mainly on the Somerset levels and also in South Wales, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and East Somerset.
Although over a dozen pairs have established territories and bred, this is the first year chicks have matured to the age of taking flight. In August not only one or two but three young cranes (two in Somerset and one at Slimbridge) took flight for the first time. The trio have all been named Peter after the RSPB’s Peter Newbery who was a driving force behind the project and sadly passed away before he saw the young cranes fly.
A couple of weeks ago, Brian Taylor (who I have been conversing with for a while about soul-birds amongst other topics) mentioned a pair of Eurasian cranes in the ‘wildfowl garden’ of the WWT Centre at Martin Mere. I’d been planning to go to see the Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans so visited with my friend, Peter Dillon.
From a distance, I was struck by the Eurasian cranes’ presence and the dramatic change in their appearance from when they crouched and raised themselves to full height. After spending a short while with them, I walked to the other side of their pen. Both turned from a crouched, coiled, position in synchrony, pirouetted then approached. Seeing them perform a simple movement with such grace in captivity I can only imagine their courtship dance in the wild.
Seeing cranes face to face was a source of joy as was re-imagining the dialogue of Gwyn and Gwyddno. During the process I had an overwhelming gnosis of the significance of Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp, the great service he performs for the dead and his promise of blissful re-union with the depths of nature (Annwn) and one’s ancestors in the afterlife.
In Welsh folklore the hounds who help Gwyn gather the souls of the dead are called Cwn Annwn: ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’. Their barking is identified with noisy nocturnal flights of geese. The hounds in Lancashire folklore who perform this role are Gabriel Ratchets and their baying is also connected with droves of geese and wild swans.
In Wales and Lancashire to hear swans or geese flying over at night is a portent of death. During the day at Martin Mere hearing the calls of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese on the lakes and overhead filled me with great joy: in their presence and a sense of knowing like them one day I would be going ‘home’ to a land far away.
Looking out from the Ron Barker Hide across wetlands lit by magical rays of sunshine as flights of geese and swans arrived and departed I realised in Gwyn, his stories and their revelation within this remarkable landscape I had found my joy, my Awen: my sun.
I perceive parallels between the return of cranes and the re-emergence of the stories of the old gods and ancestral animals of Britain. Such returns don’t happen on their own or without people dedicated to making them happen. Thus I see my vocation as an awenydd to Gwyn and the spirits of the land not only as a source of joy for myself but hope for future generations. I’ve found my sun and finally accept its gifts.
AlainaFae and Cliareach Filleadh, ‘Crane’s Cauldron / Brigid’s Cross‘
AlainaFae and Cliareach Filleadh ‘Artistic Creation Exploration: Corr Teanga‘
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (Routledge, 1992)
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Waterlife, 194, Oct / Dec 2015
The Great Crane Project
The Norfolk Cranes’ Story