Gatherer of Souls – a review

A thoughtful and touching review of Gatherer of Souls from Nimue Brown at Druid Life.

‘I find the creative responses she’s shared in this book answer a need in me. A hunger I didn’t know I had for some other, wilder, and not-kingly take on things.’

Druid Life

Gatherer of Souls, by Lorna Smithers, is a collection of poetry and short stories about Gwyn ap Nudd that offers a radical re-think of Arthurian mythology. Physically speaking, this is a small book – 114 pages – but what it covers is both vast and important.

Lorna has been studying Arthurian mythology for some time, going into older texts, and reading in more detail than most of us do. What she’s unearthed – and followers of her blog will already know about this – is the questionable nature of Arthur’s activities. We’re been sold Arthur as chivalric hero, protector of Britain, once and future king… but get into his stories and it’s all slaughter and theft. He’s a personification of patriarchy, and a killer of old mysteries and magics.

This is a book that assumes its readers have probably read some of the Arthurian material and aren’t basing all their…

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‘Do dogs of Annwn glast the starving air’

For Remembrance Day, some excerpts from In Parenthesis (1937) by David Jones, who used the ‘subterranean influence’ of ‘the Celtic cycle’ to give voice to his experiences as an infantryman  in the First World War.

1024px-Nash,_Paul_-_The_Menin_Road_-_Google_Art_Project

‘This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt, & was part of. The period covered begins in December 1915 and ends early in July 1916. The first date corresponds to my going to France. The latter roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the Infantry on the Western Front. From then onward things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect…

I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men. I have attempted to appreciate some things, which, at the time of suffering, the flesh was too weak to appraise…

This writing is called ‘In Parenthesis’ because I have written it in a kind of space between… the war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ‘18 – and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in Parenthesis.’

– Preface

‘Unwise it is to disturb the sentinel.

Do dogs of Annwn glast this starving air – do they ride the trajectory zone, between the tangled brake above the leaning walls.

This seventh gate is parked tonight.

His lamps hang in this black cold and hang so still; with this still rain slow-moving vapours wreathe to refract their clear ray – like through glassy walls that slowly turn they rise and fracture – for this fog-smoke wraith they cast a dismal sheen.

What does he brew in his cauldron,
over there.
What is it like.
Does he watch the dixie-rim.
Does he watch –
the Watcher.
Does he stir his Cup – he blesses no coward’s stir over there.

Does he watch for the three score hundred sleeping, or bent to their night tasks under the wall. In the complex galleries his organisation in depth holds many sleeping, well-watched-for sleepers under the night flares.

Old Adams, Usk, sits stark, he already regrets his sixty-two years.’

– Part 3

‘In the Little Hours they sing the Song of Degrees
and of the coals that lie waste.
Soul pass through the torrent
and the whole situation is intolerable.

He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the better of things. When they found him his friends came on him in the secluded fire-bay who miserably wept for the pity of it all and for the things shortly to come to pass and no hills to cover us.

You really can’t behave like this in the face of the enemy.’

– Part 7

‘Oeth and Annoeth’s hosts they were
who in that night grew
younger men
younger striplings.

The geste says this and the man who was on the field… and who wrote the book… the man who does not know this has not understood anything.’

– Part 7

Peace Poppies

Gatherer of Souls – a review

A brilliantly written and knowledgeable review of Gatherer of Souls from Dr Kevan Manwaring at The Bardic Academic.

‘In its authenticity and whole-hearted commitment Gatherer of Souls offers a refreshing counter-blast to the Postmodern posturing of so many poets with their ironic word-games. For those who like their poetic fix pagan, dark and strong, this is for you.’

I never thought I’d see my work compared to David Jones!

The Bardic Academic

Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

a review by Kevan Manwaring

Gatherer of Souls FC Med

This extraordinary collection from self-defining ‘awenydd’ (a spirit worker and inspired poet) Lorna Smithers is the culmination of a full-blooded dedication to the Brythonic god, Gwyn ap Nudd. It charts a contemporary Underworld initiation, a journey to Annwn (the Celtic Hades) and back, with Gwyn as the poet’s psychopompic muse. A figure neglected, or even redacted from the spiritual tradition of the Britannic Isles, Lorna has sought to re-instate Gwyn as ‘warrior-protector of Britain’, a position she feels was usurped by King Arthur. As Lorna herself puts it: ‘After centuries of soul-loss Gwyn re-opened those doors and challenged me to ride with him through war-torn centuries to recover his forgotten mythos.’ Her collection of poetry and prose is a ‘record of [that] journey’.  In its six ‘acts’ or ‘books’ Gatherer of Souls charts a mythopoeiac counter-history of…

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Leaves

For Gwyn

I’m shedding my leaves
getting ready for winter in a flash
of astounding colours that will soon be gone

as I walk naked into the darkness holding my fear
in my hands like a small creature like a beating heart
bringing it as my gift to you because I have nought

but the memories of all the things I once was
and might have been if I had been some Taliesin.
I come not with silver but leaf like-tongue

and offerings of words scrawled on sycamore leaves
hoping their yellows, reds, browns, will be bright enough
for you in your brightness beyond human endurance

where you sit your throne with your brighter bride.
Leaves, leaves, leaves, cascades of leaves I offer them up.
They are so beautiful, so humble, so perfect upon

the altars of the earth everywhere spilling from my heart.
When I shed them I know you will love me when I
am bold and red, orange and defiant, brown

and limping, grey and wizened, crawling slowly
by the grip of root and claw back into your realm again
like the dead leaves dying into the Otherworld.

19. Sycamore Leaves

Shattering the Nunnery

Somewhere between here and Annwn

a part of me is cloistered

thinking already
about the spring flowers

as she paints another saintly visage.

In another life she has been drinking
the truth from a forbidden cup.

The saints no longer look the same:

their hands are red with blood and filled
with splinters and chips of stone
from shattered pagan idols.

The stained glass is blood stained.

Her voice catches on the songs and tears
as if upon nails – she SCREAMS

and the stained glass shatters.
The nunnery falls down.

~

This poem, which is based on a spirit-journey, signals my release from a malaise I have been calling ‘nun envy’. Although I realised Christianity was not for me when I experienced its dull and stuffy sermons and the patriarchal presence of the Christian God in my local C of E church as a Brownie at church parade a part of me has longed for learning and ritual and shared devotion in a religious community.

I have been deeply jealous of Christians because they have a system of support for people who have a sense of vocation. For those who are called to serve God there are ways of living by this calling. Vicars and priests receive an education and a salary for their work and nuns and monks lead lives of dedication to God based around prayer, manual labour, and artistic and intellectual pursuits without worrying how to pay for housing or food. When I hit thirty-five I realised that was the last chance I would have of becoming a Christian nun and living what looked the ideal life except for… the Christianity.

Of course, I decided against, because I did not want to betray my god to the God and saints of the religion that destroyed the pagan traditions and, in particular, demonised him and the Otherworld he rules.

Yet, still I kept yearning for what Christian monastics have. Researching local monasteries and abbeys. Finding myself drawn to Preston’s Carmelite monastery.

 

Visiting the Tabor Retreat Centre, which was once a Carmelite nunnery but is now run by the Xaverian Missionaries (this provides regular meditation classes, Lectio Divina, short courses and even a book club as well as retreats which I’d have loved to go to … if only I was Christian!).

 

Wanting to go back to the ruins of Fountains Abbey (which I visited every weekend when I worked at the Yorkshire Riding School) to sit and mourn something I will never have.

Fountains Abbey II
A strange impulse I believe may be rooted in a past life as a nun. A few years ago when I read in a biography about the ritual burial of Julian of Norwich – entombed like Christ to become his bride and an anchoress who would never see the outside world again I felt like I was being buried alive. As if I’d experienced something similar before. I flung the book into my wardrobe, slammed the door, and went for a walk feeling immensely grateful for my freedom to see trees and taste the fresh air.

I’ve always had a push-pull relationship with Christian mysticism, art, literature, and song. A yearning for its richness and beauty but a dislike of its unhealthy obsession with suffering and punishment.

As a consequence of years of learning about how nearly every splendid church and cathedral is based on the takeover (violent or non-violent) of a pagan sacred site; how nearly every haloed saint is associated with the defeat of a pagan mythic figure or with the slaughter or conversion of pagans; how the Christian tradition is founded on the death of paganism, it has finally lost its fusty-fingered hold on me.

Being an awenydd attempting to reweave the ways between Annwn and This-modern-world isn’t easy. But I think I will be able to do it better and more happily now my yearning for what Christians have and my nun envy is gone. From the ruins of the shattered nunnery may new shoots and tendrils grow.

Fountains Abbey

 

Autumnal Procession

Leaves are falling with the rain.
Darkness is upon us once again.
Hooves splashing through the mud
dance with sycamore colours,
they are no longer flesh or blood
but the shape of time’s procession
riding shadowed through the rain.
Darkness is upon us once again.

~

I’ve decided to re-post this old poem along with a procession of photographs celebrating the colours of autumn and recording the dying of the year in it’s all beauty in my local area. All these photos were taken at places within walking distance of my home in Penwortham. They include Greencroft Valley, Hurst Grange Park, Castle Hill, Central Park, Carr Wood, Avenham Park, the Ribble Way and Riversway Dockland.

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Porth Annwn and Patron Support

Porth Annwn Medium

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.

GCV Nov 2018

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.

Frenchwood Knoll Beeches Nov 2018

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.

Sycamore Leaves Nov 2018