In verse four of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the lines about Caer Wydyr (‘Glass Fort’) are followed by a single reference to Caer Golud (‘Fortress of Impediment’).
‘Three loads of Prydwen went with Arthur:
save seven, none came back from the Fort of Impediment.’
Nothing more is said about Caer Golud. To the best of my knowledge it does not appear in any other literature. Marged Haycock translates golud as ‘impediment’ from goludd. This suggests Caer Golud is another name for the impenetrable Caer Wydyr, which is guarded by six thousand men and an incommunicative watchman.
An alternative translation is from coludd (which mutates from ‘g’): ‘guts’, ‘bowels’ or ‘entrails’ This is a fascinating possibility and fits with links between the Glass Fort and Glastonbury (‘the Glass Island’) as a place the 6thC prophet, Melkin, claims is ‘greedy for the death of pagans, above others in the world.’
Melkin’s words suggest pagan beliefs and practices survived in Glastonbury into the 6thC. The word ‘greedy’ evokes devouring and the digestive processes of the guts. This would certainly tie in with other descriptions of the Brythonic otherworld.
In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ the bard inquires into the width of ‘the mouth’ of Uffern (‘inferno’). ‘Kat Godeu’ refers to ‘a great-scaled beast’ with ‘a fierce battalion / beneath the roof of his tongue’ and ‘A speckled crested snake’ with ‘a hundred souls, on account of (their) sin… tortured in its flesh.’
Both poems are heavily Christianised yet if we remove the punitive connotations resulting from Annwn’s identification with Uffern/Hell and thus sin, it is possible to find traces of a shamanistic standpoint far more visceral than courtly medieval portrayals of the otherworld.
We recall Gwion Bach (as a grain of wheat) was swallowed by Ceridwen (as a black hen). A sow feeds on Lleu Llaw Gyfes’ rotten flesh when, mortally wounded, he takes the form of an eagle. The Hounds of Annwn hunt down and devour souls.
Gwion’s swallowing by Ceridwen leads to his rebirth as Taliesin. In a similar Irish story, Dechtire swallows a small animal whilst drinking a glass of water and is then told she is pregnant by Lugh with the son who will grow up to become Cu Chullain.
It is possible these stories date back to a time people didn’t causally connect sex and pregnancy due to the time lapse. The belly is not only the place of digestion but gestation: eating the ‘dead’ and birthing life were connected with this mysterious place.
In From The Cauldron Born, Kristoffer Hughes notes that in Welsh the word for cauldron is pair or crochan, which resembles croth ‘womb’. Ceridwen’s cauldron, her belly, is where Gwion is devoured and reborn as Taliesin.
Taliesin describes his fate in language evocative of malting and brewing in ‘The Hostile Confederacy’:
‘I was a grain…
A hen got hold of me –
a red-clawed one, a crested enemy;
I spent nine nights
residing in her womb.
I was matured,
I was a drink set before a ruler,
I was dead, I was alive,
a stick went into me;
I was on the lees,
separated from it, I was whole;
and the drinking-vessel stiffened resolve,
(for) the red-clawed one imbued me with passion.’
In ‘Lake of the Cauldron’ Charlotte Hussey glosses lines from The Second Branch where the giant, Llasar, emerges from a lake in Ireland with the Cauldron of Rebirth on his back to depict a similar process.
The cauldron is described as decorated with animals and divinities including a woman with ‘long-breasts’ and a ‘sweaty belly’ stirring it ‘as if it were a pan’. The woman pushes the narrator ‘into the boil’. Llasar watches as
shoulder blades, buttocks apart,
scrapes off chunks of flesh,
bones sinking then surging to the rim,
tossed by the churning waters.’
This bears similarities with scenes of initiation from shamanic cultures. Mircea Eliade records that a Samoyed shaman was decapitated and chopped into bits by a blacksmith who boiled him in a cauldron ‘big as half the earth’ then reforged him with magical capacities. In some traditions the initiate is eaten.
In relation to the devouring snake in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it’s of interest amongst the Negritos there is great snake named Mat Chinoi. Thirty female Chinoi ‘of the utmost beauty’ live in its belly with their ornaments and combs. By passing two ordeals it is possible to enter the snake to find a wife.
It’s noticeable none of the Brythonic texts mention bowels or excrement. This may be because they were penned by Christian scribes in the medieval period. This contrasts with the bawdy toilet humour of the Norse myths and the mythologies of other cultures.
In Dream and the Underworld, James Hillman notes that in a late Orphic hymn the name of ‘the Goddess of the realm of death’ is ‘borborophoba, which was can render in the double-sense of shit-fearing: she who keeps it at bay, and she who makes it flow in panic.’ In the Egyptian Otherworld, where everything is reversed, people defecate through their mouths.
Hillman refers to dreams of diarrhea as ‘radical compelling movements into the underworld or as an underworld that has come to sudden irrepressible life within us, independent of who we are and what we are. Like death, diarrhea strikes when it will and all alike. Shit is the great leveller… Toilet dreams… can be read as underworld initiations.’
Our lack of knowledge of Caer Golud parallels the lack of attention our cerebrally obsessed culture has paid to the gut over the last few centuries. Thankfully over the past few decades scientists have begun to pay attention to this long neglected area.
In the 1960’s Michael Gershon published a ground-breaking book called The Second Brain. He draws attention to the fact that if the major nerve between the brain and gut is cut, the gut continues to work, and can function independently of the central nervous system.
The Enteric Nervous System ‘the brain below’ regulates peristalsis. One of the most important neurostransmitters in this process is serotonin. Serotonin plays an important role in the regulation of mood and 95% lies in the gut.
More recently scientists have been studying the microbiota of the gut as a ‘collective unconscious’, their symbiotic relationship with their host, and their influence on behaviour. Gut microbiota affect memory, sociability, and levels of stress and anxiety.
I’ve suffered from anxiety most of my life and a few months ago got diagnosed with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Finding out these links was a eureka moment. When I get stressed I have bowel problems which upset my gut making me more stressed: it’s a vicious cycle.
Frighteningly 10% of people in the UK suffer from IBS and it’s the second biggest cause of absence from work yet nobody talks about it. As I’ve also done in the past, they just make excuses or take Immodium and pretend it isn’t an issue. I can’t help thinking such a high percentage of people suffering from IBS results from living in such a stressful world.
I can’t see an easy or immediate way out of this cycle. However, I do believe the root cause can be addressed. We need to stop participating in the stressful worlds our guts cannot tolerate and which are indigestible to the deities of Annwn and work toward creating alternatives.
The time has returned to learn to listen again to the forgotten worlds of our guts which are paralleled by Caer Golud and its great-scaled beasts and speckled crested snakes in the realm of our Annuvian borborophoba, Ceridwen.
Charlotte Hussey, Glossing the Spoils, (Awen Publications, 2012)
Cryan, Dinan, Stilling, Stanton, ‘Collective Unconscious: How Gut Microbes Shape Human Behaviour’, Journal of Psychiatric Research 63, (2015)
James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, (CN, 1979)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Michael D. Gershon, The Second Brain, (Harper Collins, 1999)
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, (Princeton, 2004)
Nicolas R. Mann, The Isle of Avalon, (Green Magic, 2001)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (OUP, 1979)