I come from here
to go there…
It’s the dark moon after Calan Gaeaf. Her darkness is like a portal from this year to the next. The last leaves hang on the trees in splendid yellows and the hawthorn berries glow red. Soon they will be gone like Creiddylad, Rhiannon, Persephone, the goddesses of flowers returning to the Otherworld.
Like them I must make my journey. For centuries our connection with Annwn/Faery has been systematically closed off by Christianity and secularism yet there have always been poets, bards, awenyddion, witches who have heard the music, joined the dance, ridden with the hunt on the wild winds, sojourned at the feast, defied the norms of society to commune with the gods, spirits, and ancestors.
Because the oldest Brythonic myths pertaining to Annwn were penned by Christians it is represented contrastingly as a heaven-like place of beautiful illusion which can be dispelled with a drop of holy water or as a hellish place populated by monsters slaughtered and subdued by Christian warriors.
Unlike the Egyptians we have no book of the dead filled with beautiful prayers and invocations to aid the soul on its perilous journey through the Otherworld. Unlike the Greeks and Romans we have no coherent narratives about travellers like Odysseus and Aeneas to help us map its contours. Unlike the Norse we have no clear cartography of its landmarks and the various beings who reside there.
What we do have is myths, poems, and folklore, which provide us with fragmentary visions of Annwn. From them certain themes emerge. Annwn ‘the Deep’ is not a transcendent Otherworld but is immanent within the landscape as its hidden depth and is accessible through caves, mounds, wells, down lanes and pathways.
In Annwn/Faery the spatio-temporal laws of Thisworld break down. It’s possible to be at one’s destination in the blink of an eye or the sweep of a wing or to ride for weeks and not be any closer. One can sojourn in Faery for seven years serving the Fairy King or Queen and return to find no time has passed at all or visit for a day and find one’s friends and family are long dead and crumble to dust.
There are certain places where the veil between the worlds is thin and it is easier for the living to pass to the land of the fay and the dead and, conversely, the fay and the dead to the land of the living. The veil is also thinner at liminal times: dawn, dusk, midday, midnight, the solstices, the equinoxes, Nos Galan Gaeaf, and Nos Galan Mai.
In my experience liminality can be natural – certain hills, mountains, waterfalls, caverns have long been connected with gods and spirits who have been revered and/or feared by pre-Christian peoples. It can also be manmade. When we go digging mines, quarries, fracking wells, we are inadvertently creating passages to the Otherworld without the permission of its deities. The physical effluents that result are a sign of deep damage to both worlds and they and their spirits are harmful and dangerous.
Disasters, battles, murders, and violence in general leave their imprint within the landscape. Places become haunted. The wrecking of a ship can be heard and even seen at the same time every year, battles with swords and shields or gunshots and cannons repeat themselves on the land and in the skies, victims swing from gallows on hilltops, the custodian of a well screams rape, a slap still smarts.
Annwn is the Otherworld into which the dead and their memories and the dying memories of Thisworld break down and pass from history into story into legend into myth. Passage is aided by psychopomps – deities like Gwyn ap Nudd and Rhiannon, the spirits and hounds of Annwn, soul-birds, guiding animals, ancestral guides. Breakdown is often the work of devouring monsters or boiling cauldrons. Sometimes it is the slow transformation of the human soul into a tree, animal, bird.
So far I have been shown places from existing myths like the Seven Fortresses in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, the Defwy – a river of the dead, the Meadows of Defwy, the blood drenched woodland outside Caer Nefenhyr where ‘The Battle of the Trees’ took place, and met with known monsters such as the Speckled Crested Snake, Great Forked Toad, and Great Scaled Beast with a Hundred Heads.
I’ve visited places that are not known from the lore such as ‘The Land of the Bird-Heads’ where winged souls travel and revert to foetuses and go back into eggs to be reborn as birds, ‘The Marsh of the Black Water Horses’ where abducted riders are gnawed to bone and eaten by black mares from whom they are reborn to join the herd, ‘The Garden of the Mothers’ where babies are growing in plants a little like the Cabbage Patch Kids (!), and ‘The Forest of the Back of the World’ to which the ways of Elen and her Daughter lead and is populated by gwyllon who are merging into the greenery.
I’ve also been sent on a quest through the scrap yard of an industrial wasteland where the detritus of modernity is being broken down and expect to find more places like this not referenced by older sources.
I am planning to continue these explorations over the next year and a day and to gather my records in a folder called ‘A Year and a Day in Annwn’. My aim is to build up a collection of visionary fragments, poems, chants, aphorisms, and stories about the inhabitants of Annwn which will eventually form the basis of my next book, which has the working title ‘Porth Annwn’, ‘Door/Portal to the Otherworld’. As I do not believe Annwn can be mapped by one person (or perhaps at all) it will be a personal vision – a fragment of an infinite whole – written as an act of service to Gwyn ap Nudd, my Lord of Annwn.
As this will form my next book I’m only going to be posting a limited amount of material on this blog, but will be sharing my experiences in my patron newsletter along with some of my work in progress as unseen work. So if you’d like to follow this journey please consider supporting me on Patreon.
Having support from just a small number of patrons has provided me with confidence and made me feel my work is valued. It has given me hope that I will always be able to make a small amount of income by living by my vocation as an awenydd and that one day we might see a world where pagan vocations are valued as much as those within the church and the professions of the secular world.
As I won’t be spending all my time in Annwn (a recipe for insanity!) I will also be continuing to explore how the ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises, recovering the lost links between the Old North and Wales, writing and performing poetry, and continuing to learn Welsh.