The Marsh of the Black Water Horses

Yng Nghors y Ceffylau Dwr Du
mae’r esgyrn yn disgleirio cyn wynned â‘r haul newydd-anedig.

In the Marsh of the Black Water Horses
the bones shine white as the new-born sun.

Pray you do not have to cross it. Pray you do. You might see them oozing, plunging, rising, falling like sea monsters, only vaguely horse-shaped, with shaggy tussocks of manes and huge round hooves.

You may have met one (but you do not know it) stepping out of the rain with a horse’s head and two, four, six, eight, countless legs, a charming long-toothed smile, mounted with ease eight feet up.

You may have felt your hands clasped by the mane and your buttocks gripped to the slippery seat.

You may have been taken from your town across farmlands where cattle churn muddily around troughs, across moorlands stirring up grouse, to peat bogs where hooves slip and sink, to a black marsh where black water horses meet: mares and stallions, foals and colts, sons and daughters of Du.

Then down, down, down beneath the reeds, the marsh grass, the flickering will-o-wisps, to where they keep the bones shining white as the new-born sun and caught a glimpse of the ghostly riders.

You might have seen a face, frightened, charmed, in love with something horselike, like your own.

All you might remember is waking up cold and wet in a ditch and blaming it on one too many drinks.

If this is the case you will remember when you get here. You will feel it in your bones, your shiny white bones. You will know that a part of you never left this place and fears and rejoices in its return.

The Marsh of the Black Water Horses Large*With thanks for the translation into Welsh from Greg Hill.

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Review: Witches in a Crumbling Empire by Rhyd Wildermuth

EMPIRE+promoWitches in a Crumbling Empire is a book of Pagan political theory by Rhyd Wildermuth, and it’s more than that. Its words of mystical prose are a vision and a spell to win back our relationship with the land and the magic at the heart of Paganism, which we lost between ‘the factory floor and the witch’s stake’.

Rhyd speaks of those who go into the Abyss. Those who go ‘to find out if there is meaning… some go mad. And some never return. And some… come back wielding light against the darkness… a fire that can reforge the world.’ Those who are branded heretics, made outcasts. Rhyd is one of those people.

Against the horrors of the crumbling Empire and a resistance made impotent by divisions between Left and Right and social identity Rhyd carries a torch that illuminates, unveils, and shines as a beacon to unite Pagans against ‘the one thing’ that is the source of environmental and political injustice: Capitalism.

For Capitalism ‘has the power to affect every single person, destroy every life and make every person suffer. White and Black, First Nations and Asian, European and African, male and female, trans and cis, able and disabled – each suffers under this thing.’

Rhyd, of course, calls for revolt. He notes that witchcraft (and this applies more widely to Paganism) can be political or anti-political, but never apolitical, as we’re all political subjects in countries dominated by political structures – private property, workplaces, shops; governments and police to maintain law and order. When these ‘reproduce themselves within you… You become Empire.’

Against our becoming of Empire, against our internalisation of its ‘thou cannots’, he opposes ‘thou wilt’. ‘When we are told we cannot grow our own food, we must grow our own food. When we are told we cannot survive without money, we must survive without money. When we are told we cannot be safe without the police, we must become safe without the police.’

No mean feat, but for inspiration we can turn to the revolutionary ancestors: to the Luddites, the Rebeccas, the Molly Maguires. To the gods: to ‘the Raven King, Brighid, or Dionysus’ and of course that ‘spirit’, ‘king’, ‘or general’, the eponymous Ludd himself (who may be a modern appearance of the ancient god Lludd/Nudd/Nodens) as the leader of ‘a new Luddite Revolution’.

Such a revolt aims to win back the land from Capitalism and the magic at the heart of witchcraft and every Pagan path. Not the magic of on-line courses, of vending tables at conferences, oils and candles from Etsy, but the magic ‘which has always been you, you and the world around you… the breathing forests, the scream of the owl and raven as you wander alone through darkness.’

This magic also lies beyond the limitations of the the world as we know it in what Rhyd refers to as ‘the World Without Forms’. The fathomlessness of the Abyss into which we must walk and return with new myths to win back our mythic power and territory from Fascism.

This book will probably not be an easy read whatever your Pagan or political persuasion. Rhyd is critical of all and of himself too. Yet the fire that burns also lights and brings hope. In the unveiling of uncomfortable truths, in the facing of the death of Empire and the resistance going down with it, it shows how we might learn to love and dance in the flames of new worlds being forged and live anew.

Witches in a Crumbling Empire can be purchased HERE.

A Grave for Pryderi

In Aber Gwenoli
Lies the grave of Pryderi
The Stanzas of the Graves

He was buried in Maentwrog, above Y Felenrhyd, and his grave is there
The Fourth Branch

In autumn last year I visited Aber Gwenoli in Coed Felinrhyd, the village of Maentrwog, and the Coedydd Maentwrog. These locations are all part of Snowdonia’s Atlantic oak woodland or temperate rain forest and are associated with the death of Pryderi, ‘Care’ or ‘Worry’, the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon.

Dyffryn Maentwrog Med

Pryderi is the only character who appears in all four branches of The Mabinogion. This has led scholars to speculate he may be the central figure. If this is the case he is a hapless kind of ‘hero’. Although he enjoys success in battle, he is constantly in trouble, sometimes on account of forces beyond his control, at others because of his impetuousness and lack of discernment. He is particularly unskilled at dealing with magic and with the uncanny forces of Annwn and this proves fatal.

On the night of his birth Pryderi mysteriously disappears when his mother and her women fall into an enchanted sleep. He reappears just as mysteriously when Teyrnon cuts off the enormous claw of a monster to save his foal. It’s clear he was stolen by the forces of Annwn, but the reason isn’t stated.

After Pwyll dies, Pryderi becomes the ruler of Dyfed and manages to conquer the three cantrefs of Ystrad Tywi and the four cantrefs of Ceredigion, incorporating them into the seven cantrefs of Seisllwch.

He is named as of one of the seven survivors of the terrible battle between the British and Irish in Ireland where the Irish dead are thrown into the Cauldron of Regeneration and reborn. Whether he survived through his skills in battle, sheer luck, or by cowering in a corner is not revealed.

Pryderi falls victim to Annuvian magic again when he pursues a white boar into a fortress and, enraptured by a golden bowl, gets stuck to it. His mother follows and suffers the same fate. With a ‘tumultous noise’ in a ‘blanket of mist’ they are both whisked away in the enchanted fort. It takes all the wit and persuasion of Manawydan to win them back from the otherwordly enchanter, Llwyd Cil Coed.

It is later revealed Pryderi is the owner of a herd of pigs whose ‘flesh is better than beef’. They were were sent to him by Arawn, a King of Annwn. This gift has its basis in Pwyll’s special relationship with Arawn. Pwyll traded places and identities with Arawn, literally becoming the Annuvian King and ruling in Annwn for a year. He won Arawn’s friendship by defeating his rival, Hafgan, and not sleeping with his wife. Pwyll received the title Pwyll Pen Annwn and they began to exchange horses, hunting dogs, hawks, and other treasures between their kingdoms.

It is possible to conjecture that this relationship has a deeper meaning. If Pwyll ‘is’ Pen ‘Head’ of Annwn, his and Arawn’s roles and identities remain fluid and interchangeable. Pryderi is the son of both Pwyll and Arawn, and thus a semi-Annuvian figure. This might explain why the forces of Annwn snatched him away the night of his birth – perhaps to initiate him into the Otherworld and meet his other father*. It is of interest he and his mother, Rhiannon, who is herself a divinity who originates from Annwn, are captured by the enchanted castle whilst Manawydan and Cigfa remain free.

In Triad 26. Pryderi appears as one of ‘Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain’. In Celtic mythology swineherds are often powerful magicians. The triad tells us Pryderi tends seven swine brought by ‘Pwyll Lord of Annwn’ and given to his foster father, Pendaran Dyfed. He keeps them in Glyn Cuch (the place Pwyll met Arawn). He is called a ‘powerful swineherd’ because no-one can ‘deceive or force him’. This portrait of Pryderi is much at odds with his gullibility in The Mabinogion.

The magician-god, Gwydion, nephew of Math, the ruler of Gwynedd, tricks Pryderi into giving him the pigs. He does this by disguising himself and eleven of his men as poets and conjuring twelve stallions with golden saddles and bridles and twelve hounds from toadstools. Pryderi agrees to exchange them for the pigs.

Fly Agaric, Coed Felinrhyd

A day later, when the enchantment wears off and Pryderi finds only toadstools in his stalls and kennels (a scene sadly left to the imagination of the reader), he raises an army and pursues Gwydion north.

Gwydion’s flight with the Annuvian pigs explains the place names Mochnant, Mochdref, and Creuwrion (moch means ‘pig’ and creu means ‘pen’). Gwydion waits for Pryderi to attack in Arfon, ‘the strongest part of Gwynedd’. A ‘great massacre’ takes place. Gwydion’s army retreats to Nant Call and there is, again, ‘immeasurable slaughter’. At Dol Benmaen Pryderi makes peace by giving twenty-four hostages.

The two armies travel together in peace to Y Traeth Mawr. However, at Y Felenrhyd, ‘The Yellow Ford’, a bank of sand across the river Dwyryd, battle breaks out again because the foot soldiers cannot resist shooting each other.

Y Felinrhyd

To prevent further slaughter Pryderi sends a message requesting Gwydion engage him instead in single combat. Gwydion agrees. ‘Because of strength and valour, and magic and enchantment, Gwydion triumphs and Pryderi is killed.’ Pryderi shows courage in taking on the trickster-god. Yet, surprisingly, his prowess in combat is not described. If he is the central character his swift end is a disappointing climax.

After being stolen away to Annwn on two occasions Pryderi returns there for his third and final sojourn.

We are told ‘he was buried in Maentwrog, above Felenrhyd, and his grave is there.’ A possible place of burial might be the village church where there is a marker stone. However, the church is dedicated to Saint Twrog, who reputedly threw the boulder from the Moelwyn mountains and killed a she-devil. In other accounts a giant threw the stone and destroyed a pagan altar. Aside from the line in The Mabinogion there are no folk memories connecting Pryderi with Maentwrog, ‘Twrog’s Stone’.

Maentwrog

An alternative location for Pryderi’s burial place appears in ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen. ‘In Aber Gwenoli / Lies the grave of Pryderi’. Aber Gwenoli is a stream that runs down from Llyn Tecwyn into the river Prysor, which then joins the Dwyryd at Y Felenrhyd. With help from Greg Hill and another friend I managed to locate it just below Ivy Bridge.

Ivy Bridge

Stream near Pryderi's Grave

Afterwards we completed the circular walk of Coed Felinrhyd, taking in the autumnal colours, the multitude of lichens, mosses and liverworts supported by the rainforest climate.

Lichens

Just before we reached the end we found a ‘story telling chair’, placed there as if it was just for us, and took it in turns to read Pryderi’s story from ‘The Fourth Branch’.

Story Telling Chair

After departing I was not sure of the meaning of this visit. I now have an inkling of understanding. If Pryderi is the son of both Pwyll and Arawn and of Rhiannon he is an Annuvian figure who was killed by Gwydion. Gwydion’s theft of Pryderi’s pigs and slaughter of Pryderi are not the only instances of him stirring up trouble with the Otherworld.

Gwydion also stole a dog, lapwing, and roebuck from Annwn, inciting Arawn, ‘the Wealthy Battle Dispenser’ to lead an army against him. This included enchanted plants, trees, monsters, and giants. Arawn (presumably with the Cauldron of Regeneration) even brought Brân the blessed back from the dead!

Gwydion in turn enchanted 34 different trees and shrubs against Arawn. With help from his nephew, Lleu, ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ and the warrior-bard Taliesin, Gwydion’s men and the battling trees defeated the forces of Annwn.

For some reason I’m being drawn by the deities of Annwn to look at the damage Gwydion’s trickery has caused. Whether my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, is ‘the same’ deity as Arawn, Llwyd ‘Grey’ and Brenin Grey ‘The Grey King’, who all haunt the mist-soaked oak forests of Snowdonia, is not for me to determine. All I know is I feel ‘his’ influence drawing me back to these stories of the British Foretime and to North Wales where land, language, myth, and the misty breath of the gods are one.

Dyffryn Maentwrog II

*For a detailed discussion of joint fatherhood in Celtic mythology see Will Parker’s The Four Branches of the Mabinogi p167 – 170.

SOURCES

Lorna Smithers and Greg Hill, ‘Y Felenrhyd’, Caer Feddwyd, (2017)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Rachel Dixon, ‘Walking in a Welsh rainforest‘, The Guardian, (2015)
Remy Dean, ‘Welsh Folklore: Significance of the Maentwrog Standing Stone’, Folklore Thursday, (2016)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
The magical swineherds of Irish mythology’, Atlantic Religion, (2015)

Swyn

Swyn – charm or incantation; magic
Kristoffer Hughes

This woodland will not be felled by the axe of man or god. I drift with the souls through the mist of blood. It is damp on my cheeks and eyelashes. This is not the time for weeping, but undoing what Gwydion has done. When the featherless wings brush my face I push them away lightly and set to work.

It must begin and end with a snake biting her tail.

It takes me weeks (in this place the weeks are counted by the dripping of the blood) to ease the snakeskin down from the trees, to sew up the tears, to stick the scales back on with super glue, then stretch it out in a circle around the woodland. Lastly I retrieve the skull, prop open the jaws with a strong branch, slip the end of the tail between them, give my instructions to those who will bring the end.

The toadstone with its antidote must form the centre.

With ropes I drag it out of the bloody pool of bones and feel like Sisyphus as I push it into the central grove. A lapwing calls “pee-wit, pee-wit” circling overhead, a red-eared hound sits at my side, and a doe watches fractiously from between the trees as I sponge off the blood and polish it with a yellow duster, beginning to hum a tune as the bufonite sparkles green as emerald beneath my touch.

In the jaws of the hundred-headed beast the gateways must be opened.

I leave the woodland and climb the hill to where the heads of the beast are piled up like a totem. Stepping inside each set of cavernous jaws I light a candle to illuminate each cave and redraw the gateways around each throat with a glow-in-the-dark marker pen and somewhere hear a belly rumble.

The eagle-feathered staff of the swynydd to reverse the swyn.

Slithering on damp bone I climb my way up slowly, a candle, a gateway, in every skull, to the very top. I wrest Gwydion’s staff from between two skulls and shake his presence from it. Gently I untie the eagle feathers and watch them drift slowly to the ground like Lleu sung from the oak in Nant Lleu.

With a smile I tie on the feathers of the owl and speak a prayer to Blodeuwedd and all her kind. I call to my Lord of Annwn, Brân with his alder shield, Pryderi the swineherd dead before his time.

Beneath the stars of promise, seated on the top skull of the beast, one leg crossed over the other, I sing:

Blood drenched trees
beyond Caer Nefenhyr
souls amongst the trees
will you ever be free?

As I sing I see the trees awakening as if from a long sleep, staring about in horror, shaking off the blood. Birch is abashed by his blood-stained armour whereas Ash is proud of his splashes and scars. Golden Rod, afraid her beauty will be forever be marred, lays down her rods of golden flowers like swords.

From their bloody death-spots the souls unattach themselves, ease themselves out of the mist, the rain.

Blood drenched trees
enchanted into warriors
woodland of lost souls
will you ever be free?

A bending of the boughs, a turning and circling in confusion, the deep rumbling voice of Oak as he argues with Holly again, the silvery tongue of Birch calming them, the dream-wisdom of Willow, the fire of Rowan, prickly Blackthorn playing devil’s advocate, the squeak of clover demanding a say.

Souls fly like moths to the flame to the jaws of the beast. The green light of the toadstone begins to glow.

Blood drenched trees
will you return to Annwn
with souls of mist and feather?
Will you accept freedom?

The green light soothes them and, as a woodland, as a whole, united by blood and mycelium they agree.

The souls step into the caverns, to the gateways, and the beast shudders to life. The snakeskin begins to twitch. I sense the end approaching like the snap of countless jaws as the snake bites her tail.

Speckled Crested Snake Ouroboros Med

*This piece follows on Caer Nefenhyr and is based upon a spirit journey into the otherworldly landscape where ‘the Battle of the Trees’ took place.

Support Our Beautiful Resistance

Gods & Radicals is a Pagan anti-capitalist publishing organisation which publishes 3 -4 pieces of free writing on the on-line journal a week. What is unique about Gods & Radicals within the Pagan (and wider) publishing industry is that it pays its writers and pays them fairly. I write for Gods & Radicals once a month and the payment I receive is invaluable. This is made possible by donations and Gods & Radicals are running a fundraiser so the writers and editor can be paid again next year. If you’re a regular reader of the on-line journal please consider donating so our work can continue.

GODS & RADICALS

In 2015, two anarchist witches saw the desperate need for an anti-capitalist voice to confront the profit-driven and exploitative establishment of Pagan publishing. They also saw the need for a magically-driven voice to re-assert the dignity of spiritual cultures in Leftist radicalism.

They created that voice with Gods&Radicals, and many others soon joined them.

From our founding as a website to our expansion as a widely successful book publisher with 14 titles, Gods&Radicals Press has shown the world that resistance can be beautiful, that we do not need to hide our meaning from others, and that meaning can never be for sale.

We do this only with your help.

Our Beautiful Resistance

Gods&Radicals Press is an anti-capitalist, not-for-profit publishing organization. No one owns us. We’re run by a five- women board that supervises the work of our managing editor (Rhyd Wildermuth). Our online journal is edited by Mirna Wabi-Sabi, and…

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Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

Gatherer of Souls has had its first review from Greg Hill at the Way of the Awenydd.

‘Lorna’s quest, then, is not simply one of discovery but also one of actively bringing Gwyn back into focus and out of the shadows to be recognised as the gatherer of the souls of the dead and Lord of the Otherworld.’

THE WAY OF THE AWENYDD

gatherer-of-souls-fc-med1

Available HERE

This is the third collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers chronicling her dedication to the Brythonic god Gwyn ap Nudd and it takes her quest to interpret and re-present his mythology to deeper levels of significance. It also defines her path as an awenydd, engaging in visionary explorations and written evocations of her discoveries. The book is divided into a brief introductory section followed by six longer sections, each taking the reader through a different historical period. A major source for any study of Brythonic lore is the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen. This tale is often drawn upon here, in particular the episode in the tale where Arthur kills Orddu “the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid”. The episode provides an imaginative frame for the chronology of Gatherer of Souls, spanning an immensity of time…

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Gatherer of Souls Book Launch

Gatherer of Souls Poster

The launch of Gatherer of Souls took place on Saturday the 29th of September 7.30 – 9pm at the Black Horse in Preston. Nick Williams, Nina George, Peter Dillon and I performed poems and stories from the book supplemented by Nina singing a paganised version of ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’ and Eleanor Levin’s ‘Wind is Howling’.

We had guest performances from Sarah Miller, Vicky Lindsay, and Terry Quinn and four open mic performers: Martin Domleo, James ‘Badger’ Stott, Gordon Aindow, and Angharad Lois. There was a wonderful range of poetry plus songs in Welsh and Gallic along with melodica playing.

The turnout was excellent and I was deeply moved and honoured to be surrounded by so many supportive and talented people. It was the perfect launch for my devotional book for Gwyn ap Nudd on his feast day.

Below is a slideshow showing the highlights. Lynda Ryder took the photographs of the group performance and cobweb and I took the others.

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