‘Our connection with the source, with the divine, is lost, when water is piped to our taps from unknown sources. We’re more likely to think of water companies and bills in terms of payment rather than offering back to the deities of our watercourses above ground and to their source in the deep’ – from Lorna Smithers
Water. Dŵr. H2O. The mysterious source of life brought to Earth by comets 4.6 billion years ago. Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, creating her marble sheen of oceanic blue, decked with green continents and swirling white cloud. 96.5% of all the Earth’s water is salt water in the oceans. Of freshwater 1.74% is in the ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow, 1.69% is ground water, 0.022% is ground ice and permafrost, 0.013% is in lakes, 0.001% is in the atmosphere, 0.001% is soil moisture, 0.0008% is swamp…
I’m in the midst of a dream, a very normal dream. I’m on the bus to Leyland. Realising I don’t want to go to Leyland at all, knowing I need to be somewhere else, I head for the doors and ask to get off.
Suddenly I’m whisked away by Gwyn (who has a habit of doing this on occasions when he wants to show me something) to a scene of tall, green, mountainous hills. I know they’re in northern Britain, but can’t place them. They’re not quite the Howgills, or in Bowland, or the Lakes, or the Yorkshire Dales.
Above is an ominous grey sky. The wind is gathering at my back. Overhead I see four stars converging on a fifth star. It disappears, obliterated, without a trace, without a sound. I intuit the strange stars are four war planes shooting down a fifth and know with certitude this is happening NOW.
When I awake I question the reality of the dream. Was a war plane really shot down over our northern hills last night? Or were the strange stars something else? And, in the dream world, when is NOW?
Dormach is the dog of Gwyn ap Nudd, who aids him hunting the souls of the dead. We have only one reference to Dormach by name in medieval Welsh literature. This is from ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350).
In this poem Gwyddno has died and is wandering the misty hinterlands between Thisworld and Annwn. There he meets with Gwyn, who offers him protection and slowly reveals his identity as a gatherer of souls. Gwyn introduces Dormach, then Gwyddno addresses the dog.
In Welsh this reads:
Ystec vy ki ac istrun. Ac yssew. orev or cvn. Dorma ch oet hunnv afv y Maelgun.
Dorma ch triunrut ba ssillit Arnaw canissam giffredit. Dy gruidir ar wibir winit.
Over the past two centuries this verse has been translated into English in various ways. The most recent and best translation is by Greg Hill (2015):
My hound is sleek and fair,
The best of hounds;
Dormach he is, who was with Maelgwn.
Dormach rednose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.
Much controversy has surrounded the name, which is written twice as ‘Dorm ach’, with a letter erased. John Rhys assumed this was an ‘r’ giving ‘Dormarch’ with march meaning ‘horse’ ‘wholly inapplicable to a dog’.*
Rhys suggested ‘Dormach’ should instead be written as ‘Dormarth’, ‘a compound made up of dôr, ‘door,’ and marth.’ He went on to claim that marth is a ‘personification of death’ ‘of the same origin as the Latin mors, mortis… perhaps, the Marth which was the door of Annwn.’ Dormarth means ‘door-death’.
Rhys’s translation is now considered unconvincing. There is no evidence the letter was an ‘r’ and its erasure is viewed as a genuine correction. According to The Dictionary of Welsh Language, ‘Dormach’ means ‘burden, oppression’. There is textual evidence of its use from the 14th century until the 18th century. These meanings fit with medieval Christian conceptions of Gwyn and his dog(s).
Rhys notes that in Wales Bwlch Safan y Ci, ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, is a metaphor for death and bears similarities with the English ‘jaws of death’ and German Rachen des Todes ‘jaws of death’. This argument for Dormach’s association with death and the door of Annwn seems sound. In the Brythonic and Germanic traditions we find corpse-dogs: Cwn Annwn (of whom Dormach is a member and perhaps their leader being ‘the best’) and Gabriel Ratchets, who hunt the souls of the dead and are viewed as death portents. To pass through the jaws of these dogs is to die and go to the next world.
In many world myths, dogs act as guardians to the lands of the dead. The most famous is Cerberus, who guards Hades in Greek mythology. He is variously depicted with one, two, three, or fifty(!) heads, one or more stinging serpent tails, and sometimes with a mane of snakes or snakes down his back.
Intriguingly, in The Black Book of Carmarthen, the scribe has sketched an image of Dormach with a dog’s head and near Cheshire cat-like grin, a dog’s forelegs, and a long body tapering to two serpent tails. He bears a striking similarity to Cerberus and may also have been viewed as a guardian of Annwn.
Part-dog, part-serpent, this image reminds me of the watery, subliminal imagery from the temple of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn’s father. On a mosaic are two sea-serpents or icthyosaurs. On a mural crown Nodens is accompanied by icthyocentaurs with heads of men, front hooves of horses, and fish-tails.
Rhys notes by Dormach he is ‘reminded of the the medieval pictures of hell with the entrance thereinto represented as consisting of the open jaws of a monster mouth.’ He refers to the tenth century Anglo-Saxon Caedmon manuscript where the devil lies chained to a tooth and demons deliver sinners into the gaping maw.
This shares similarities with the Urtecht Psalter (1055) from the Netherlands which features not only Hell Mouths but a ‘Hades Head’ (could we be looking at shared cultural representations of Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Otherworld’?). The 11th century Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter replaces the Hell Mouths with clefts, pits, vents, and chimneys leading into hollow hills where souls are tortured.
In these representations we find a mixture of pre-Christian Brythonic and Anglo-Saxon beliefs about the dead passing through the jaws of death to a world beneath the earth demonised and made hellish. Hell Mouths also appear on the left-hand side of Christ in the bottom corner surrounded by the demonic imagery of Hell (Heaven is on his right) in Doom paintings from across medieval Europe.
These depictions are clearly influenced by the Bible. In Isaiah 5:14 we find the lines: ‘Therefore Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers’ and in Numbers 16.32: ‘and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions.’
In the Book of Jonah, Jonah was swallowed by a gigantic sea creature. In the Hebrew text it is called a dag gadol, ‘huge fish’, in the Greek ketos megas ‘huge fish’, a term associated with sea-monsters, and in the Latin ketos is translated as cetus ‘whale’. Jonah is described as being in ‘the belly of hell’, ‘cast into the deep’: ‘The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever.’ Jonah’s ‘soul fainted’, he offered up a prayer to God, and the whale vomited him up. Here we have a clear depiction of Jonah passing to and returning from another world. ‘Hell’ is translated from Sheol, the Hebrew name for the land of dead.
In Matthew 12:40 Jesus compares his death, journey to Hell, and resurrection with the story of Jonah: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ The sea-monster’s belly and Hell are equated.
In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’, in The Book of Taliesin, the riddling bard poses the question:
Pwy vessur Uffern, pwy tewet y llenn, pwy llet y geneu, pwy mein enneinheu?
What is the measure of Hell,
how thick is it veil,
how wide is its mouth,
how big are its baths?
Here ‘Hell’ is translated from Uffern, which derives from the Latin Inferno, and is used synonymously with Annwn. Margaret Hancock links the geneu ‘maw, jaws’ with the Hell Mouth and the ‘Hell monster’ in ‘The Battle of the Trees’: a ‘great-scaled beast’ with one hundred heads who carries fierce battalions ‘beneath the roof of his tongue’ and ‘in (each of) his napes.’ This beast, like the ‘black-forked toad’ and ‘speckled crested snake’ in whose flesh a hundred souls are tortured ‘on account of (their) sins’ is evidently a death-eater and it seems likely Dormach played a similar role.
These creatures appear to be native to the Brythonic pagan tradition and to Annwn. Whilst they appear monstrous to Christians, from a pagan standpoint, they might be seen as having an essential, albeit unpleasant, function in devouring the dead and acting as vehicles for their passage to the Otherworld.
Of course, such passages are not limited to the dead. As the journeys of Jonah, Jesus, and Taliesin show, the living can pass to Annwn and one of those ways is by entering the jaws of a devouring creature.
Is there some deep and universal truth in the image of the jaws of death? Are pursuit by a monstrous beast, being swallowed, devoured, spat out, integral to the journeys of our souls in life and in death? If this is the case should the ‘oppression’ of Dormach ultimately be seen as liberating, his ‘burden’ the key to release from our fear of death as we pass through his jaws to gain knowledge of the Otherworld?
*Rhys gives no argument for this and I disagree. The name of Arthur’s dog, ‘Cafall’, may derive from the the Latin for horse, Caballus, and mean he was as big as a horse. Bran, the dog of Gwyn’s Irish cognate, Finn, shared Dormach’s colouring with ‘two white sides’ and ‘a fresh crimson tail’ and his head was shoulder high. In the Irish myths we also find dog-headed figures with horse’s manes. There is therefore no good reason why Dormach should not be seen as horse-sized or even as horse-like.
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Awen & Awenydd
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Boughton Press, 2008)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Philip A. Bernhadt House, Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-Headed Men in Celtic Literature, (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010)
Sarah Kemple. ‘Illustrations of damnation in late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts’, Anglo Saxon England, (2003)
Biblical quotes from Bible Hub
With thanks to Linda Sever for passing on Sarah Kemple’s illuminating article.
‘What is the measure of Hell, how thick is its veil, how wide is its mouth, how big are its baths?’
The First Address of Taliesin
You take a tape measure
long enough to wrap around the Earth,
stretch to the moon, encircle Pluto,
Sedna, but it isn’t long enough.
You learn to count to infinity
and beyond, but still cannot tell
East from West, North from South,
keep returning to the same stile
as if under a sorcerer’s spell. What is the measure of Hell?
You wander lost in the mist,
treading broken shards of rulers
and protractors unable to grasp
the distance between your face
and trembling outstretched hand.
Spun and blindfolded you fail
to measure the sunless shadows.
Groping like Blind Man’s Bluff,
thwarted, you break, wail,
“How thick is its veil?”
And then you’re swallowed.
You’ve seen the monster in a book:
dog’s head, two serpent’s tails,
red nose, Cheshire cat grin.
It opens its jaws. You’re in
a cavern with no floor, roof,
swept down a ravening gorge
into a deep belly that devours
scientific truth and untruth. How wide is its mouth?
Your question makes no sense
when you’re washed up on a shore
with hundreds of naked souls,
emptied of pockets, your notebook
floating away like a dead flatfish.
In the Tsunami’s aftermath
you realise you have lost your tape,
calculator, are forgetting how to
count, open your mouth, ask,
“How big are its baths?”
‘Anemoia – nostalgia for a time you’ve never known’
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
Have you ever felt nostalgia not so much for a time you’ve never known but for an event, a gathering, a coming together of a community, a possibility that might happen in our time but hasn’t?
Maybe, just maybe, the Second Heathen Women United Conference, which took place at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Preston over the weekend was that event. Organised by Linda Sever and other HWU members it brought together Heathen women (and a few men) from across Europe, the US, and Canada, to share research on topics ranging from prophesy, seership, and magic, to gender and sexuality, to runes and Galdr, the power of the sagas and storytelling, and the Pagan census. (I spoke on Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, and local wells and watercourses existing and lost).
When I joined UCLan Pagan Society in 2011 most members were Heathen and I felt a strong connection with many aspects of Heathenry – the combination of academic and experiential research, honouring land, gods and, ancestors, the practices of journeying to otherworlds (Seidr) and spell-singing (Galdr). However, I was drawn to the Brythonic mythos rather than the Germanic and Norse.
No-one ever made me feel not at home. No-one ever denied me the right to express my devotional relationships in ritual. Likewise in Druidry I’ve never been disallowed to express my relationships with my gods (although this has been limited to the local and seasonal context). Still I’ve felt like an outsider working with myths and gods nobody else knows or understands and feeling irreparably sad.
At the HWU Conference, during the opening blot, it was enlivening to hear Heathens identifying as ‘Friend of Tyr’ and ‘Daughter of Freyja’, expressing similar levels of devotion to which I feel for my god, Gwyn. Although most of the talks were orientated toward the academic rather than the experiential side of Heathenry, in between, I had a number of conversations about personal gnosis, the doubts, terrors, descents, homecomings, and joys that led others to polytheistic religion, similar to my own.
Throughout the conference, why, I wondered, why are so many people drawn to Heathenry – to the Germanic and Norse traditions rather than the Brythonic? Why am I one of the only ones?
Firstly, there is far more literature in the Germanic and particularly the Norse traditions with which to reconstruct a cosmology and theology and thus a religious framework. Plus, the Norse gods are far more prominent in pop culture, which seems to modern Heathens to be both a blessing and curse.
Secondly, the Brythonic tradition has been incorporated into Druidry. Literary evidence suggests the ancient druids were polytheists who performed the rites and maintained the myths of the Brythonic gods. Whilst some modern druid groups maintain traditions of devotional ritual and deep engagement with myth (ADO), for the most part the gods have been reduced to archetypes and the myths to blueprints for psychological development and re-enactment (OBOD), or the gods and myths have been sidelined in favour of nature connection, seasonal celebration, and human community (TDN).
For these reasons, I’m doubtful I will witness the coming together of a thriving community of Brythonic polytheists in my lifetime*. The HWU Conference was possibly the closest to my anemoiac event I will ever get. At the closing blot many people expressed (and some tearfully) their sense of community and connection and regret at having to depart. Will these connections be maintained? Will a similar event be brought into being by dedicated members of HWU again?
*I attempted to bring this about with the Dun Brython group but we failed to gain any interest.
I carry my heart in my hands
and lay it upon your altar.
“It is so heavy, so sad, so lonely.”
Your spirits bear witness
in the blinking eyes of trees,
shivery breezes rustling leaves,
the distant bones of wind chimes.
Some amongst them are hungry.
They are held back only by
your invisible command.
A part of me wishes it would break.
“What do you want me to do with it?”
You speak wearily from your sleep.
“Bury it and someone will dig it up.
Take it to the end of the universe
and it will return in a space shuttle.
Give it away and it will still be yours.
If I feed it to my hounds or devour it
myself your pain will live on in us.”
It stares back at me – obdurate aorta,
perfect superior vena cava, pulmonary
arteries and veins, atria and ventricles
pumping out their irrepressible beat.
“Take it away,” you speak abruptly.
As I gather it up and depart tearfully,
“it is strong,” you say more kindly,
“see it as a gift and not as a burden.”
A dozen invisible hands press it back
into my chest and seal the vision shut.