An essay on the demonisation of Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwfn
Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic underworld. In two medieval Welsh texts he and the spirits he rules are identified with devils.
In How Culhwch Won Olwen we are told, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd… God has put the fury of the devils of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’
The introduction of God’s agency is clearly a Christian attempt to explain Gwyn’s containment of the spirits of Annwfn. These spirits include the restless dead who have died suddenly or violently:
Some headless stood upon the ground,
Some had no arms, and some were torn
With dreadful wounds, and some lay bound
Fast to the earth in hap forlorn.
And some full-armed on horses sat,
And some were strangled as at meat,
And some were drowned as in a vat,
And some were burned with fiery heat,
Wives lay in child-bed, maidens sweet…
…such the fairies seize and keep.
Others such as the Tylwyth Teg, ‘Fair Family’, or ‘fairies’ and ellyllon, ‘spectres’, ‘goblins’, ‘elves’ occupy a liminal position between life and death, humanity and nature, and mitigate between the worlds. Christians identify these complex and ambiguous spirits with dieuyl, ‘devils’.
Gwyn presents a paradox that does not sit easily with Christianity’s black-and-white theology: because he contains the spirits of Annwfn within him and/or within his realm he is the only being who can hold back their aryal, ‘fury’, and prevent them from destroying this world.
In The Life of St Collen, Collen, the abbot of Glastonbury, overhears two men conversing outside his cell saying Gwyn is ‘king of Annwfn and of the Fairies’. Putting his head out he shouts, ‘Hold your tongues quickly, those are but Devils’.
Collen is invited to feast in Gwyn’s castle on the Tor. There he refuses to eat, saying the food is ‘leaves’ and the red and blue clothing of Gwyn’s host signifies ‘burning’ and ‘coldness’; it is hellish. Collen supposedly banishes them with holy water.
Gwyn’s association with devils stems from a longstanding Christian tradition of identifying pagan deities with the Devil and demons and the realm of the dead with Hell. Any god who was not the one God, who demanded no other gods be worshipped before him, was seen as demonic.
In The Bible, Beelzebub, a Semitic deity originally called Baal-zebul, ‘Lord of Princes’, is equated with the Devil along with Satan and Lucifer. The ‘false gods’ of the Canaanites are referred to as ‘demons’ and the se’irim ‘hairy beings’ or satyros (ie. satyrs) as ‘goat-demons’.
The concept of Hell developed much later. In The Old Testament the original Hebrew word is Sheol, ‘the place of the dead’ (it is frequently translated as ‘the grave’). In The New Testament, Hell is translated from Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna. Hades means ‘the unseen place’ and is the name of the Greek underworld and its ruler. Tarturus is ‘the deep place’ beneath Hades. Contrastingly, Gehenna is a thisworldly place, the Valley of Hinnom, where the Kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire, leading to it being cursed.
Hell derives from the Old English hel or helle stemming from Proto-Germanic *haljo ‘the underworld’ or ‘concealed place’. Hel is also the name of its goddess. Ironically it is a borrowed pagan concept which is not of Biblical origin.
The idea of the land of the dead as a place of punishment by eternal fire was developed in the early days of the Church by scholars such as Second Clement, Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch as a means of controlling the populace. Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regus, was the first Christian leader to teach ‘the doctrine of eternal punishment’ during the 4th century.
Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, shares parallels with the other pagan underworlds and places of the dead. In medieval Welsh mythology there is plenty of evidence that, following their Christianisation between the 4th and 7th centuries, the Britons resisted the view that Annwfn was a place of punishment.
In ‘The First Branch’ of The Mabinogion and even in The Life of St Collen it is a place of beautiful courts and castles, lavishly dressed courtiers, and sumptuous feasts. These paradisal depictions are echoed in later fairylore demonstrating Annwfn became byd Tylwyth Teg, ‘Fairyland’ or ‘Faerie’.
Gwyn’s name means ‘White, Blessed, Holy’ and Gwynfa ‘Paradise’. In Barddas, Iolo Morganwg speaks of Cylch y Gwynvyd, ‘the Circle of White’, ‘the Holy World’ noting gwynvyd denotes ‘bliss or happiness’. Gwynfa and Gwynvyd might originate from a tradition wherein, like Hades and Hel, Gwyn and his realm bore identical names.
When Annwfn became Faerie its associations with the dead were severed and it was reduced to a fantasy realm. However, superstitions remain, many of these pertaining to the uncanny and dangerous nature of the fairies and their associations with abductions, madness, and death.
‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ contains Gwyn’s clearest literary representation as a pre-Christian god of the dead. Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as a ‘bull of battle’: a divine warrior and psychopomp. Other epithets include ‘awesome leader of many’, ‘invincible lord, and ‘lord of hosts’.
Gwyn’s identity as a death-god is revealed when he states he comes from ‘many battles, many deaths’. He asserts his presence at the deaths of Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Bran ap Ywerydd, Llachau ap Arthur, Meurig ap Careian, and Gwallog ap Lleynog before speaking the lines:
I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the north;
I live on; they are in the grave.
I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the south;
I live on; they are dead.
Here Gwyn laments the downfall of the Brythonic kingdoms to the Anglo-Saxons and his living on as a gatherer of souls. He is a venerable figure. The only thing devilish about him is the bull-horns.
Contrastingly How Culhwch Won Olwen presents Gwyn as a sinister being and pits him against Arthur: a champion of Christianity who rose to popularity by slaughtering and subordinating a variety of Annuvian deities, ancestral animals, giants, and witches.
It is my belief that Arthur’s overcoming of Gwyn was a primary step in the destruction of Brythonic Paganism and the assertion of Christianity. Gwyn’s mythos had to be erased and reconfigured in a new literature documenting his defeat and replacement by Arthur as a protector of Britain who fights against the ‘devils’ of Annwfn rather than containing their fury.
In How Culhwch Won Olwen Arthur intercedes in the ancient seasonal struggle between Gwyn, ‘Winter’, and Gwythyr, ‘Summer’, for their beloved, Creiddylad, a fertility goddess. Gwyn takes Creiddylad from Gwythyr by force, presumably abducting her to Annwfn, explaining the coming of winter on Calan Gaeaf.
Gwythyr raises an army and attacks Gwyn. It might be assumed they also descend to Annwfn. Gwyn defeats them singlehandedly and imprisons Gwythyr and seven of his men. The imprisonment of Summer in Annwfn may also be part of a mythos explaining the rule of Winter.
During their imprisonment Gwyn kills Nwython and feeds his heart to his son, Cyledyr, who goes mad. Whether this scene should be read as a punishment for invading Annwfn demonstrating Gwyn’s furious nature, a muddled echo of a rite transferring ancestral strength from father to son, or Christian propaganda demonising Gwyn remains uncertain.
Whatever the case, Arthur comes to the rescue, presumably storming Gwyn’s prison in Annwfn. He defeats Gwyn, then binds Gwyn and Gwythyr in battle for Creiddylad every Calan Mai until Judgement Day. Arthur’s agency is introduced to explain an existing duel on Calan Mai where Winter is defeated and Creiddylad returns to this world, explaining the rule of Summer. The purpose is to display Arthur’s control over these two old seasonal gods and Creiddylad who he locks in her father’s house saying neither can take her until Judgement Day!
The scene where Gwyn and Gwythyr appear together as advisors to Arthur on his assault on Orddu, ‘the Very Black Witch’, who lives in Pennant Gofid, ‘The Valley of Grief’ in ‘the uplands of Hell’ is again designed to demonstrate his power over them and this Annuvian woman, who he slices in half with his knife, Carwennan, before draining her blood.
It is notable that Gwythyr’s father, Greidol, ‘Scorcher’, is one of Arthur’s forty-two counsellors and Gwythyr’s daughter, Gwenhwyfar, is married to Arthur. This is suggestive of a long-standing alliance between Arthur and the powers of summer against winter and death.
The rescued prisoners join Arthur on his hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. That Gwyn must be found before the hunt can start suggests Gwyn was its original leader. Gwyn’s identity as a hunter god is suggested by his ownership of a white stallion, Carngrwn, ‘Round-Hoofed’, and white red-nosed hound, Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’. In Welsh folklore Gwyn and the Cwn Annwfn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, hunt the souls of the dead. He is the Brythonic leader of the Wild Hunt.
Twrch Trwyth’s transformation from a human king into a boar hints at the tradition of a soul hunt. Arthur’s usurpation of Gwyn’s hunt and its depiction as just a boar hunt marks the end of the mythos featuring Gwyn as a god of the dead and leader of the Wild Hunt.
Many of Arthur’s famous landmarks, including Carn Cafall, where the footprint of Arthur’s gigantic dog was left during the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, may formerly have been associated with Gwyn and Dormach.
‘The Spoils of Annwfn’ shares similarities with Arthur’s attack on Gwyn suggesting they are two different variants of the same story. Taliesin, the narrator, accompanies Arthur on his journey to seven otherworldly fortresses (which I believe may be faces of the same fort) where he takes on Pen Annwfn, ‘the Head of Annwfn’.
Storming the glass walls and defeating six thousand unspeaking dead men in a devastating battle, Arthur and his raiding party rescue Gweir (who may be equated with Graid, one of Gwyn’s prisoners), steal the legendary Brindled Ox, and seize ‘the Cauldron of the Head of Annwfn’. Escaping with only seven survivors Arthur slams ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut.
Arthur’s defeat of the Head of Annwfn and seizure of his cauldron represent the triumph of Christianity over Paganism, the realm of death, the dead and their ruler, and the mysteries of death and rebirth.
It is no coincidence that Arthur’s raid on Annwfn shares parallels with Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ (harrow comes from the Old English hergian ‘to harry or despoil’). Between his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus descended to Hell to preach to ‘the imprisoned spirits’ and liberate the righteous who had been trapped there since the beginning of the world (the damned were left to stay!) triumphing over the realm of the dead and death itself.
It is my intuition that prior to Christianity and Arthur’s rise to popularity the series of fortresses might have formed part of a Brythonic tradition documenting the descent of the soul to Annwfn. They would have been approached respectfully with due ritual rather than assaulted and despoiled, their guardians killed, their treasures stolen.
The demonisation of Annwfn is shown by lines from several poems in The Book of Taliesin equating it with Hell (translated from Uffern which originates from the Latin Inferno ‘underworld’).
And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned
What is the measure of Hell?
How thick its veil,
how wide its mouth,
how big are its baths?
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Hell.
Gwyn’s loss of status as a god of the dead led to him being demonised as a demon huntsman who hunted the souls of sinners. His role became punitive as he was subsumed within Christianity’s doctrine of fear and control as a devilish figure.
Charles Squire writes, ‘Gwyn… his game is man… the “mighty hunter”, not of deer, but of men’s souls, riding his demon horse, and cheering on his demon hound to the fearful chase’.
John Rhys notes, ‘What Gwyn hunts are the souls of those who are dying; but Christianity has greatly narrowed his hunting ground, as his quarry can now only be souls of notoriously wicked men.’
Folkloric stories featuring horned figures and/or the devil, Tywsog Annwfn, ‘Prince of Annwfn’, might originally have featured Gwyn, a ‘bull of battle’ who wears bull-horns. The following example is recorded by John Rhys:
‘Ages ago as a man who had been engaged on business, not the most creditable in the world, was returning in the depth of night across Cefn Creini, and thinking in a downcast frame of mind over what he had been doing, he heard in the distance a low and fear-inspiring bark; then another bark, and another, and then half a dozen more. Ere long he became aware that he was being pursued by dogs, and that they were the Cwn Annwfn. He beheld them coming: he tried to flee, but he felt quite powerless and could not escape. Nearer and nearer they came, and he saw the shepherd with them: his face was black and he had horns on his head.’
John Rhys argues this black-faced, horned ‘shepherd’ is Gwyn. This representation is clearly influenced by Biblical tradition, perhaps by the following passage containing Cyril of Alexandria’s interpretation of John 10: 12-13:
‘the father of sin used to put us in Hades like sheep, delivering us over to death as our shepherd, according to what is said in the Psalms: but the really Good Shepherd died for our sakes, that He might take us out of the dark pit of death and prepare to enfold us among the companies of heaven, and give unto us mansions above, even with the Father, instead of dens situated in the depths of the abyss or the recesses of the sea.’
Again we return to Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ and his triumph over the realm of the dead. This story forms a large part of the hubristic anthropocentric worldview where ‘Man’ (Jesus/Arthur) conquers all, including death and its deities, which has led to the Anthropocene.
For many centuries Christianity has cut us off from the magical underworld beneath our feet and from its deities who we have been taught to fear as devils. As the hegemony of Christianity and its bed-partner, Empire, fail, leaving a void filled by consumerism, materialism, right-wing populism, and regressive nationalisms the need arises to reconnect with the gods of the deep.
Within Brythonic culture there is a tradition of spirit-work referred to by Gerald of Wales. He speaks of awenyddion, ‘people inspired’, ‘the soothsayers of this nation’ who are possessed by and speak with the aid of spirits and receive inspiration from dreams.
Following their example we can rebuild our relationship with the spirits of Annwfn. This isn’t an easy path to take as they have long been demonised, shut out, ignored. The restless dead are growing in number as more people die in war and fall victim to the exploitation of capitalism. They can indeed be furious. As can the fairies who mitigate between the worlds and have witnessed our untrammelled destruction of nature and ignorance of Annwfn.
Yet we have a responsibility to them, to the ‘others’, that deserves a response. Their fury demands the destruction of the exploitative systems of this world and the replacement of the shallow facade of consumer culture with a mythos rich and deep in meaning based in respectful relationship with all beings, human and non-human, living and dead.
Within Brythonic tradition Awen, ‘divine inspiration’, the source of mythic meaning, flows from Annwfn.
The Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it,
A river while it flows,
I know its extent;
I know when it disappears;
I know when it fills;
I know when it overflows;
I know when it shrinks;
I know what base
There is beneath the sea.
Our existing mythology and folklore shows there are ways into Annwfn/Faerie that are not only traversed by the likes of Arthur but by children, drunkards, poets, fiddlers, and dancers. Admittedly the risk is madness or death, but those who pass the initiatory challenges of the Fairy Kings and Queens emerge with the Awen to guide the way into a better world.
Capitalism thrives on its domination of meaning. With Awen from Annwfn we create our own.
Gwyn ap Nudd
guide of souls
light of the mist
show us Annwfn’s
Let your dragons
grant us Awen from
Let us be possessed
and ride the fury
of your spirits
into the next world.
Charles Squire, Celtic Myths and Legends, (Lomond Books, 1905)
Dennis Bratcher, ‘Demons in the Old Testament: Issues in Translation’
Edward Eyre Hunt, (transl), Sir Orfeo, (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Gerald of Wales, Description of Wales, Awen ac Awenydd
John Rhys, Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx, Volume 1, (Forgotten Books, 2015),
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Elibron Classics, 2005)
Greg Hill (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Way of the Awenydd
Iolo Morganwg, Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
Lady Charlotte Guest (transl), ‘Gwyn and St Collen’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
Marged Haycock, (transl), ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS Publications, 2015)
Saint Cyril, Saint Cyril Collection, (Aeterna Press, 2016),
Sioned Davies, (transl), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene, Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books, 2007)
*This essay was first published in A Beautiful Resistance 4.