It’s Nos Galan Gaeaf. The night before the first day of winter. An ysbrydnos – ‘a spirit night’. Unlike its counterbalance, Nos Galan Mai, when monsters are slain and dragons calmed this is a night when the ysbrydion Annwn ‘spirits of the Otherworld’ walk abroad at the height of their power.
There is a monster amongst us, COVID-19, the Beast with the Fiery Halo. To represent it as such is in keeping with the traditions of many generations of ancestors who perceived diseases to be caused by malevolent beings, before science and technology revealed they are caused by micro-organisms. From an animistic standpoint, wherein all things are alive and have personhood, these views are not incompatible.
In ‘Hanes Taliesin’ the illustrious bard predicted the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd at the hands of ‘A most strange creature… His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold.’ Maelgwn died after seeing Y Vat Velen, ‘The Yellow Plague’, through the keyhole in the church of Llan Rhos where he was ‘self isolating’.
Malaria, once known as the ague, took the form of a hag. Yr Hen Wrach, ‘The Old Hag’, was a seven foot woman who haunted Cors Fochno, Borth Bog. Her nocturnal visitations caused people to wake with the shakes. Samuel Taylor Coleridge later spoke of ‘the ghastly Dam, / Fev’rish yet freezing, eager paced yet slow, / As she that creeps from forth her swampy reeds, / Ague, the biform Hag!’
Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night when the veil of mist that separates the worlds is thin and the living may commune with the dead and the spirits of Annwn, some of whom we can name, and some whom are beyond categorisation. It is a time for telling stories in which otherworldly beings appear to haunt us and in which journeys to the Otherworld made. There is usually a dispelling or a safe return.
If we had a story about the Beast with the Fiery Halo it might go something like this. Many years ago our ancestors tried to build a world that was very much like the Otherworld, in which there was no want of food, or drink, or light, or heat, where no-one was cold, where no-one went hungry.
And that world was built at a great cost. The land was despoiled by mining and building. The air was polluted by fumes, which caused the temperature to rise. This led to the perishing of millions of trees, plants, animals, fish, and insects and to most of our ancestors living in servitude to the rulers who took power over the resources and machines that made this life possible. To depart from the system and the virtual world created by its technologies meant loneliness and ignominy, and at worst, death.
Most people accepted the cost, whether or not they were happy working at the machines, and turned a blind eye to the despoiling of the natural world because it was the only way to feed their families. Some did not. Some fought for change by protesting on the streets and others created nature reserves and planted trees and wildflowers and started growing their own food as an alternative.
Some prayed, to God, to the old gods, to Mother Earth, to Old Mother Universe, for something that would bring this system to an end. As if in answer to this prayer (and monsters are wily) appeared a beast the size of a sky scraper with limbs of countless animals, bent and twisted, as if trapped in a cage. Its lungs heaved phlegmatically in its scarred and hairy chest. Its many eyes were red and its mouths were gaping holes. Around its head was a blazing halo that burnt without burning the beast.
Like so many of the monsters in our myths it did not have a voice. It did not strike a bargain. It just came silently in the depths of winter and started taking the lives of our oldest most vulnerable people.
Protecting them came at a great cost: maintaining a distance from our friends and family, working less, travelling less, shopping less, to the benefit of the natural world and the detriment of our freedom. Our dependency on the rulers for financial support and the machines connecting us grew.
It felt like the unspoken bargain was this: ‘The lives of your old ones or your lives as you know them.’
Towards the end of summer we saw light shining through our prison bars. Although we all knew we had not defeated the monster we thought our sacrifices had kept it at bay. We dared to hope things might return to ‘normal’ but, as our liberties were restored, the monster took advantage. As winter approached, we saw the light was not sunlight, but the beast’s fiery halo, its triumphal crown.
The death toll is rising again. We are not at the end of the story but in media res, at the ‘crisis’, a Middle English term ‘denoting the turning point of a disease’ which is derived from medical Latin and dates back to the Greek krisis ‘decision’ and krinein ‘decide’. It’s decision time.
It’s as if we’re in a ‘choose your own ending’ book but the endings haven’t yet been written. We can only imagine them, happy or sad, tragic or comedic, apocalyptic or redeeming, guess there may be a twist.
Tonight the light of the blue moon is eclipsed by the beast’s fiery halo burning brighter than bright.
Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night on which, as a Brythonic polytheist devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd, I pray to him as the god who holds back the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent their destruction of the world and takes the souls of the lost and the angry dead to the Otherworld.
Countless times I have wondered why he has not held the beast back. Is it because he cannot or he will not? Is it because we are destroying the world? Because we too are monstrous?
We might consider that ‘monster’ originates from the Latin monstrum ‘to reveal’ or ‘to foretell’. Nos Galan Gaeaf, when Gwyn may be implored to part the mists of time, is a time for divination, for monstrous truths to be revealed and upon them our decisions based.
Gwyn ap Nudd
Starry Hunter in the Darkness
guide us through these nights of fear.
Midnight Rider on the Storm of Madness
teach us to ride these nights of tears.
Wise Warrior who guards the Cauldron
by the light of the blue moon
lead the living to deeper wisdom
and the dead back to Annwn.