When Black Water Horses Meet

Why, once in a lifetime, do black water horses meet?

Why do they come slithering out of the peat bogs,
out of the mires, from lakes, ponds, estuaries, crooked bays,
coated in sphagnum and sundew, purple moorgrass, wild angelica,
tails filled with water-mint and bog asphodel, bog bush crickets between their ears,
covered in duck-weed, dashing with water-lilies, ribbeting with frog-song,
clacking with barnacles, bright with sea-stars, fronds of thongweed,
wireweed, dabberlocks, spiral wrack, in their startling manes?

Are they brought together by a herding instinct in their perilous unbones
by which they shift into the ubiquitous shapes of tall dark men
and seductive women with cotton grass in their lapels
or chewed in a strand between their teeth?
Long teeth… you’ll recognise them
by their hooves…

Do they come together because they hate each other so much?
Because they’re jealous of each other’s riders,
of each other’s prey?

Or are they fearful that black water horses are disappearing
like the large heath and brown hairstreak butterflies and marsh fritillary,
the argent and sable and Haworth’s minor moths and the mire pill beetle,
the tiny ‘bog hog’ black as them and the grasshopper warbler?

What do they fear more, the drains and pumps, or our lack of belief?

When we say “there are no black water horses” it seems fine to drain that bog,
to suck the water from that fifteen-mile lake, fill in that pond,
take every shell-fish from that estuary;

we are like vacuum cleaners sucking
at the unfathomable miles of the deep extinguishing
the three-dimensional flowers with their blossoms and ignoring
the rippling pulsations of sea mice and sea cucumbers,

we are making the world 1D and black water horses
do not want paper cut out riders.

They complain that we do not want to be eaten anymore:
we do not want their sharp teeth gnashing our shoulders,
their constant gnawing where fish slide past our ribcages,
their teachings of how to breath underwater
and anaerobically.

The Black One of the Seas,
the Stallion of the Crooked Bay who is just about in charge
(although the colts raise their upper lips at him)
listens to their complaints and rolls his eyes
like billiard balls and flickers
his radar ears

just like he does at every meeting of black water horses,
nods his handsome head and whinnies
absolutely nothing.

Why do they meet, these fading beings, larger than life?

Why do I speak of them?

Kelpies, 1886, pub dom - Copy

 

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The Scream Over Annwfn

My essay on ‘the mysterious ritual frenzy’ of the scream over Annwfn and its modern manifestations has been published on Gods & Radicals.

GODS & RADICALS

“Until oppression ends, the dragons will not rest.”

From Lorna Smithers

I. This Headless Screaming

Several years ago I wrote a poem about a scream erupting from the landscape of Preston:

This headless screaming

is the kind of screaming
that gets into your blood

of a headless Madonna
or a headless black dog

running out of leper colonies,
hospitals and friaries,

shrieking over mills
and foundries,

burning up
like an infant’s last cry

or embers in a vagrant’s last pipe
spilled red in any alleyway.

It flaps and flutters in your heart
like an unruly bird,

a carrion cry, a fury.
It will not cease

until its vociferation
is complete. It will not cease.

It struck me as a scream of the dispossessed, those deprived of land and a voice in society: Preston’s confined lepers, condemned recusants, country-dwellers forced from their land into the mills, those who died in the…

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Y Ddraig Goch

Y Ddraig Goch 'The Red Dragon'

Y Ddraig Goch, ‘the Red Dragon’ has been with me for some time; for longer than I have had names and faces for my gods. I spent most of 2009-2010 writing a fantasy novel about a warrior-magician who served a red fire dragon to bring an end to the oppressive regime devastating his world.

A fantasy author I was in a writing group with bought me a statue of a red dragon as a birthday present and she has sat beside my fire ever since. I hadn’t paid much attention to her or the red dragon I stuck above my writing desk to remind me to keep practicing my Welsh.

Then I started dreaming about dragons: two female serpents devouring Manchester Cathedral; a figure with two female torsos but serpentine from the waist down; a vampire hunter from an old Anime film merging with numberless heads, wings, claws, in a cave of dragons; being gifted a full-length dragon-skin coat that allowed me to change colour like a chameleon.

I read The Rain Wild Chronicles by Robin Hobb where dragons drink magic from a well of silver.

I was led back to that old tale about Britain’s dragon fighting against the dragon of the Romans, the red Welsh dragon fighting against the white Anglo-Saxon dragon. Fascinating stories that have lost their origin, I thought as I made the connection between the pit Lludd dug to hold them at the omphalos, ‘navel’, of Britain and the omphalos at Delphi where a python or drakaina resided. Drakainas are female serpents or dragons with women’s features.

There are dragons in most of our world myths and unfortunately they nearly always get slaughtered. Marduk slays Tiamat, Indra slays Vritra, Apollo slays Python. Less violently Britain Y Ddraig Goch and her sparring partner simply get laid to sleep. Although this isn’t the case for the majority of their kindred who are killed off by various ‘knightly’ dragon-slayers.

If Y Ddraig Goch belonged to an older substrate of myth than Lludd and Llefelys what was it?

An answer of a kind came to me in a meditation.

~

Going Down to the Dragon

I walk in a line of people wearing Roman style tunics and sandals going down to the dragon.

We are descending a spiral stairway carved by the dragon’s tail.

Torches have been lit with fire from the dragon’s breath by the servants of the dragon.

We are guided by the shadowy ones who served the dragon in life and now serve her in death.

I recall there was once an awenydd who could speak the words of the dragon by translating them directly from the reptilian depths of the dragon’s brain before she had spoken a single sound.

The Romans killed the awenydd and nobody knows the language of dragons anymore.

But we all hear the dragon’s scream and feel its effects – weakened warriors with pale skin, barren women, barrener fields, inexplicable outbreaks of madness, an endless paralysing terror.

We fear she demands a sacrifice.

We enter the cavern to see her ruby-winged with mead-gold eyes and dagger-like teeth and claws.

Her presence is immense, filling the cavern like a teeming treasure horde animated by a soul so old…

Who would not want to lay down their lives for her?

Something tells me there is more to being devoured by a dragon than being torn apart and swallowed.

Torches glint in the dragon’s eyes as she stands before the omphalos, the navel of Britain, the well of Awen.

A remembering awakens deep at the base of my brain as two shadow people pull me forward.

Missing God

For Gwyn

I knew you were there from the day I was born
because I needed you.

I could not find your name in The Bible
or scrawled on church walls,

there was something about the Devil,
but no…

The feeling in my navel kept tugging me
through the portals in the books I read about sundered worlds.

They opened something and I fell into you
but I didn’t know what you were,

(that a god could be the underworld).

I searched the absences
and filled my hands with empty air

and filled my ears with words without sound.
I danced and raised my hands to the sky

but only found you when I fell to the ground.
I drank my way back to you living

in the epoché where the rules of thisworld
fall away like empty shells

and all the hidden people are revealed,
the times piled on top of one another like broken cars.

You showed me silver spaceships,
three shining gateways,

pathways to the stars that always led back down.
Your world – you – were so beautiful you frightened me.

I returned to my shell
but could not deny what you are or what I am.

Eventually you showed me your face and told me your name.

P1220706 - Copy

‘Orddu, the Very Black Witch’ re-published on Awen ac Awenydd

Cave, Silverdale

Several months ago Kate Large, editor of Pagan Dawn, who had read my story about Orddu ‘The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid‘ in The Broken Cauldron, approached me with the suggestion of writing an article introducing her to the wider pagan community.

I agreed for I wanted to share Orddu’s significance as a northern British warrior-witch connected with Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwfn, who was cruelly murdered by Arthur, who sliced her in half and drained her blood to grease the beard of the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr.

My article, ‘Orddu, the Very Black Witch’ was originally published in Pagan Dawn, No 202, Spring 2017, and can now be read on-line in the Bardic Heritage section on the Awen ac Awenydd website HERE.

WANTED

King Arthur of Camelot Wikipedia Commons

ARTHUR and ARTHUR’S WARBAND for the following CRIMES against the PEOPLE OF ANNWFN –

*The murder of Diwrnarch Gawr, by beheading with his own sword, and the theft of his sword and cauldron.
*The murder of Dillus Farfog, by beheading, and the plucking out of his luxuriant red beard to make the leash that near-strangled Drudwyn, Fierce White, a Hound of Annwfn.
*The murder of Rhitta Gawr, by beheading, and the theft of his cloak of his beards.
*The murder of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, by beheading, and his torture – the shaving of his beloved hawthorn beard, the paring of his skin and flesh to the bone, and the slicing off of both his ears.
*The murder of Orddu, Very Black, Witch of Pennant Gofid, by slicing in half with a lightning-like knife and the draining of her blood into the bottles of Gwyddolwyn Gawr to grease Ysbaddaden’s beard.
*The murder of the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw by splitting their heads and helmets in twain.
*The murder of the dog-heads of Din Eidyn and cutting out of their tongues.
*The murder of Gwrgi Garwlwyd, Leader of the Dog-Heads, deviously assassinated, and the theft of his head.
*The harassment of Rhymi the she-wolf and her two whelps, driven from their sea-cave beneath Aber Daugleddyf and forced into human form.
*The harassment of Ysgithrwyn Pen Baedd, hunted across the North, and his torture as his tusk was pulled from his head to barber Ysbaddaden.
*The harassment of Twrch Trwyth, hunted from Eire to Aber Hafren, and the theft of the comb, shears and razor from between his ears to comb, trim, and shave Ysbaddaden’s beard.
*The disinterment and theft of the head of Brân the Blessed.
*The theft of the Cup of Llwyr ap Llwyrion, the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir, the Horn of Gwlgawd Gododdin, the Harp of Teirtu, and the Birds of Rhiannon.
*Breaking and entering into Annwfn and the unlawful docking of one white-prowed ship named Prydwen.
*The murder of the honoured and fair on the plains of Caer Vandwy.
*The theft of the Brindled Ox and his herd.
*The murder of six thousand speechless dead men on the walls of Caer Wydyr.
*The kidnapping of Gweir, Bard of Annwfn, from Caer Siddi.
*The theft of the cauldron of the Head of Annwfn.
*The attempted murder of the Head of Annwfn.

REWARDS will be paid in the FINEST ANNUVIAN GOLD.

***

This piece came to me a few days after finding out that the current exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, displaying The Black Book of Carmarthen, The Book of Aneurin, and The White Book of Rhydderch, amongst other texts is titled ‘Arthur and Welsh Mythology’.

My heart sank at the mention of Arthur. How can a warlord who, in early Welsh mythology, murders, tortures, and subdues the giants, witches, ancestral animals, and pre-Christian deities associated with our ancient British underworld, Annwfn, still be revered as a national hero?

 Isn’t it time we started looking instead to the ‘colourful characters’ whose stories Arthur has eclipsed for inspiration and wisdom rooted in the deeper mythos of the pre-Arthurian world?

Nodens and the Serpents of the Deep

Nodens is in an ancient British god of hunting/fishing, water, the weather, healing, and dreams. ‘Nodens’ has been translated as ‘the Catcher’ and ‘Cloud-Maker’, and ‘Deus Nodens’ as ‘God of the Abyss’ and ‘God of the Deep’. The latter links him with Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the underworld. The nursery rhyme name for the dreamworld, ‘the Land of Nod’, derives from ‘Nodens’.

Nodens is a god of the subliminal realms beneath the everyday world and their hidden processes. This is suggested by the imagery of his Romano-British dream-temple at Lydney. In the centre was a mosaic depicting two blue and white sea-serpents with intertwined necks and striking red flippers. William Bathurst likens them to the icthyosaurus, ‘fish lizard’, of the late Triassic and early Jurassic whose remains have been found across Europe and Asia.

Mosaic from Nodens' temple

The mosaic also depicts numerous fish, possibly salmon, which would fit with salmon fishing on the river Severn, which the temple overlooks, and the legend of the salmon of Llyn Lliw carrying Arthur’s men up the Severn to Gloucester to rescue Mabon.

An inscription on the mosaic reads: ‘D(eo) N(oenti) T(itus) Flavious Senilis, pr(aepositus) rel(oqiatopmo), ex stipibus possuit o [pus cur]ante Victorio inter[pret]e.’ ‘The god Nodens, Titus Flavious Senilis, officer in charge of the supply-depot of the fleet, laid this pavement out of money offerings; the work being in charge of Victorious, interpreter of the Governor’s staff.’ It has been argued Victorio inter[pret]e, ‘Victorious, interpreter’ was an interpreter of dreams.

Another artefact found in Nodens’ temple was a bronze plaque from a priest’s ceremonial headdress. Nodens rides from the deep on a chariot pulled by four water-horses. He wears a crown, carries a sceptre in his right hand, and a sea-serpent is looped around his left arm. Flanking him are two winged wind-spirits and two icthyocentaurs, ‘fish-centaurs’ or ‘centaur tritons’, with heads and chests of men, front hooves of horses, and tails of fish. They carry hammers and anchors. Beneath is another icthyocentaur with a hammer and chisel and a fisherman with a short tail and gills hooking a fish, which could be a salmon.

Plate XIII Bathurst

All of this imagery is suggestive of the deep: rivers, the sea, and the depths of the dreamworld/underworld where prehistory gives birth to myth and the boundaries between species break down.

Pilgrims came to Lydney for dream-healing. They would arrive at the guesthouse, bathe in the baths, then make offerings to Nodens through a funnel in his temple (which suggests he dwelled below in the deep). They would then retire to a long row of cells to enter a sacred (likely drug-induced) sleep during which they would receive a vision from Nodens. The dream-interpreter would listen to the dream then suggest a method of healing based on Nodens’ message.

Offerings included coins and several beautifully crafted bronze hounds. It is likely dogs were present to lick the wounds of the injured to aid in the healing process. They may also have acted as psychopomps guiding the sleepers through the dreamworld. The son of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn ap Nudd, had a red-nosed dog called Dormach with two serpents’ tails.

***

Nodens’ temple was built on an iron ore mine and he was known as ‘Lord of the Mines’. This may explain the hammers and chisels carried by the icthyocentaurs. Mines are associated with the chthonic depths of the underworld and its riches, which are often guarded by serpents.

Intriguingly a man called Silvianus vowed half the worth of a 12g golden ring to Nodens in exchange for withholding health from its thief, Senicianus, until it was ‘returned to the Temple of Nodens’. The ring was dug up in a field in Silchester in 1785 with a new inscription: Seniciane vivas in deo, ‘Senicianus, may you live in God’. What was originally inscribed on it remains unknown. It seems possible it served a ritual function in Nodens’ temple.

Ring of Silvianus - Wikipedia Commons

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states ‘I have a carved ring, a white horse gold-adorned’. His ring is an important part of his symbology and  might have been a gift from his father. Angelika Rüdiger links its circularity with the ouroboros.

The ouroboros first appears in ‘The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld’ in the ancient Egyptian Funerary text KV62, which focuses on the union of the sun-god Ra with Osiris, god of the underworld. In an illustration two serpents with their tails in their mouths coil around the unified Ra-Osiris. The image represents the beginning and the end of time.

The ouroboros was passed on to the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks who gave it its name. In Greek oura means ‘tail’ and boros ‘eating’, thus ‘tail eater’. The ouroboros appears in most cultures across the world and throughout history.

A pair of sea-serpents are central to Nodens’ temple. He holds a sea-serpent. It seems possible two ouroboros serpents may have been carved on a ring worn by Nodens and passed on to his son, representing their knowledge of the depths of time where beginning and end meet as they bite their tails. Silvianus’ ring may have been a replica of this powerful mythic artefact.

It’s rumoured that Tolkien based his One Ring on the ring from the temple of Nodens and that Nodens, ‘Lord of the Mines’ was a precursor to Sauron, ‘Lord of the Rings’.*

***

In medieval Welsh literature Nodens appears as Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint, ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’. Their linguistic connection is certified by a bronze arm found in the temple of Nodens.

Nobody knows how Lludd lost his arm or how his silver one was made. Parallels might be found with his Irish cognate, Nuada Airgeadlámh, ‘Nuada Silver Arm’, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who lost his arm battling against the Fir Bolg. Because of his physical imperfection Nuada was replaced as king by the tyrant, Bres. After Bres was removed Nuada was restored to sovereignty with a new silver arm made by the healer Dian Cecht.

In the story of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd’s sovereignty is also under threat. Although he is described as ‘a good warrior, and benevolent and bountiful in giving food and drink to all who sought it’ he is unable to defend Britain from three plagues; perhaps this is due to his missing arm.

The first plague is a people called the Coraniaid who cannot be harmed because they can hear all  conversations on the wind. The second is a scream every May eve that causes such terror that men lose their strength, women miscarry, youths go mad, and the land becomes barren. The third is the disappearance of the year’s supply of food and drink from the king’s courts.

This story is set during Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC. The Coraniaid are the Caesariad, ‘Romans’ and the other plagues seem linked to the ill effects of their attacks. Lludd, of course, was not a ‘real’ king at that time but a divine ruler of the underworld who may have been called upon by the Britons for aid against the Romans.

Unable to defeat the plagues himself, Lludd is forced to seek the aid of his brother, Llefelys, ‘king of France’. Llefelys instructs Lludd to poison the Coraniaid with insects crushed into water. He then explains the scream: ‘that is a dragon, and a dragon of another foreign people is fighting it and trying to overthrow it, and because of that your dragon gives out a horrible scream.’

Red and white dragons - from 15th C History of the Kings of Britain - Wikipedia Commons

Lludd’s dragon represents the Britons and the other dragon the Romans. Lludd, again, is connected with two dragons/serpents. Will Parker has likened Lludd’s dragon’s scream to ‘the scream over Annwfn’, a ‘mysterious ritual frenzy’ uttered by a person threatened with losing their claim to inherited land. It may have originated as an invocation of the spirits of Annwfn to bring about madness and barrenness. Likewise Lludd’s dragon screams as its land is lost to the Romans, blighting all who live there. Lludd has lost control of these chthonic forces.

Llefelys teaches Lludd to put an end to the second plague by a complex ritual process. He must measure Britain, length and breadth, and locate its centre. This omphalos, ‘navel’, turns out to be Oxford. It is of interest that the Greek omphalos, Delphi, was formerly known as Pytho and its oracle, the Pythian priestess, spoke with the aid of the whispering python coiled beneath.

Could Oxford have been the location of a dragon (or dragons) who whispered prophecies from the navel of Britain? Dragon Hill lies 50 miles outside Oxford. Its connections with Uther Pendragon and a dragon-slaying by Saint George are suggestive of an older and deeper mythos.

Lludd is instructed to dig a hole at the centre of Britain then place in it a vat of mead with a sheet of brocaded silk over the top. Llefelys says, ‘You will see the dragons fighting in the shape of monstrous animals. But eventually they will rise into the air in the shape of dragons; and finally when they are exhausted after the fierce and frightful fighting, they will fall onto the sheet in the shape of two little pigs, and make the sheet sink down with them, and drag it to the bottom of the vat, and they will drink all the mead, and after that they will fall asleep.’

This scene depicts the return of the escapee dragons to the omphalos of Britain and the deep. It is intriguing that they are not just dragons but are capable of taking many different forms. It is possible to perceive a mythic and perhaps evolutionary development in their shapeshifting from ‘monstrous animals’ beyond description to ‘dragons’ to two seemingly innocent ‘little pigs’.

Finally Llefelys tells Lludd to ‘wrap the sheet around them, and in the strongest place you can find in your kingdom, bury them in a stone chest and hide it in the ground, and as long as they are in that secure place, no plague shall come to the island of Britain from anywhere else.’

Lludd buries the dragons at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The next time they cause trouble is during the reign of Vortigern. Every time he attempts to build a fortress on the hill it falls down. Merlin Emrys reveals to him that the cause is two dragons battling. The red one represents the Welsh and the white one the Anglo-Saxons.

Llefelys informs Lludd that the food and drink are stolen from his court by a magician who uses a sleep spell. He suggests Lludd step in a tub of cold water to keep himself roused. Lludd defeats the magician in combat, all that is lost is restored, and the magician becomes his vassal.

All three plagues are defeated. The chthonic forces of Annwfn are brought back under Lludd’s control. Caesar’s invasion of Britain fails. Lludd and Llefelys depicts the mythic processes beneath this historical period, which the Druids and seers who interacted with the deities of the underworld might have been aware of and perhaps instigated with prayers and invocations.

Lludd reigns ‘until the end of his life’ ‘in peace and prosperity’. One wonders whether Llefelys had a role in creating Lludd’s silver arm…

It seems Lludd’s ‘kingdom’, Annwfn, the deep, is passed on to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, whose role is to contain the spirits of Annwfn to prevent them from bringing about the end of the world.

Does Gwyn’s inheritance include the serpents of the deep: beings who are older than gods, whose ‘battles’ may be less about conflicts between groups of humans than the regenerative processes that shape the earth through the aeons, through the beginnings and endings of each world?

***

*Tolkien advised Sir Mortimer Wheeler on his excavation of Lydney in 1938

SOURCES

Angelika Heike Rüdiger, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: A First and Frame Deity, Temple 13, (Temple Publications)
Caitlin Matthews and Jane Dagger, ‘Temple of Nodens Incubation’ http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/temple-of-nodens-incubation
Elizabeth A. Grey (transl), The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, (Forgotten Books, 2007)
Greg Hill (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Sylvia Victor Linsteadt, ‘The Return of the Snake’ http://theindigovat.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/the-return-of-snake.html
William Hiley Bathurst, Roman Antiquities at Lydney Park, https://archive.org/details/romanantiquitie00bathgoog
‘The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley’s Celts and Romans’ http://www.deanweb.info/history4.html