Fragments of Annwn – Fallings

The Broken Harp

I.
My nerves are timbres.

Taut and tense the ganglia
no longer relay the music.

Weak, worn, frayed, spent,
the tendrils torn and stretched
from the strings of a harp.

Like broken bowstrings
they sting and twitch.

II.
On the empty frame
the ‘devils’ of Annwn sit
and mock and chatter.

I cannot take my eyes
from their neat little fangs
and paper-like origami wings.

I cannot shut out their voices,
low, high, squeaking in the wind,
fat with my stolen melodies,

for I am strangely in love
with my distractions.

I court them feed them daily.

I have become their instrument.

And so I lie broken beneath their claws…

III.
And where is my god? Not the harpist
or the one who taught him but the one who
listens for the song in his eternal hall

where the harp played with no player at all?

Is he still listening? Waiting? For the bow
to be restrung? For the song to be sung? For
the arrow that will pierce his heart fine and true?

~

The Place Where the Sky is Falling

In the place where the sky is falling and the winged and the wingless ones with it I am galloping. The faster I gallop the faster it falls and the faster they chase me, swishing, swooping, on wings and not on wings (yet still sounding torn and leathery and creaky-jointed), with and without teeth and claws.

As a little experiment I touch a rein, a brief half-halt, steady from a flat-out to a slower gallop. The sky-fall slows, the flight of the ‘devils’ of Annwn who pursue me, the winds of the abyss that drive us all. I slow to a canter, to a trot, to a walk, pull up. The sky is still. The winged and wingless ones hang before me like puppets on strings, immobile in the air, without a single wing-beat. I frown. They frown. I move my left hand. They move to the left. I move my right hand. They move to the right.

“Is this some game?”

An eruption of laughter flows through them, breaking the strange spell. They shift, flap, nudge, jest. Some fly away and others descend to look on this strange phenomenon of an awenydd in Annwn.

“What are you?” I ask. “Are you devils?” For that is what Christians have called them for hundreds of years and they do look like something out of Doré’s woodcuts for Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet I have a feeling they have existed in the Otherworld before the Christian imposition of Heaven and Hell.

They laugh and shriek and pull their grins wider with their foreclaws like demonic Cheshire cats.

“Seriously…”

“Fliers,” squeaks one. “Fliers, fliers,” the others echo. “Fliers.” “Clawers.” “Takers.” “We take…” “We take what you feed us.” “We feed.” “We bring the takings.” “We bring what you feed us to the abyss.”

“Cursed, cursed.” “We cannot set down our feet.” “We have no feet.” “We fly between the worlds knowing nothing but taking.” “We even sleep on the wing.” “Ours is the dream-storm over the abyss.”

“What have you taken from me?” I have no wounds but no teeth and no claws leave no mark…

They cackle, grin, smack their lips. “What you fed us.” Their mouths purse like secrets.

“Then you are welcome to it,” I incline my head in acknowledgement, “add it your storm of dreams.”

I depart at a slow walk knowing gratefully in Thisworld I will dismount onto the ground onto two feet.

~

It’s Easy to Fall

and keep on falling
when there is nothing
to hold on to – no can,
no bottle and its easy

soon empty comfort.

Its gentle guidance
down into oblivion.

(It is an illusion the
abyss has a bottom).

It’s easy to fall
and keep on falling
when you don’t know
how to do anything else.
Because no-one taught you
how to tread empty air.
How to breathe when
there is no oxygen.
How to balance when
there is nothing between
your two empty ears.

How to hear what
when there is nothing
beyond the abyss?

It’s easy to fall
and keep on falling
unless some unexpected
hand reaches out to
shake you from

that free fall before
you wake with a jolt –
upright in your bed.

It’s easy to fall
and keep on falling
before some person
or some god gives

you a task only you
can do. HERE. NOW.
Where there is land to
stand on air to breathe.
Hope on the horizon.

~

Why These Worries

I do not need unlike the wind that moves the washing?

Why the fear that if they stop I will be nothing
like a lump of a coal in the toe
of a Christmas stocking?

Why do I feel worthless
when I am wanted by a god?

Why do I feel like a failure
when I’ve written three books?

Why does it feel more heroic
to be battling on against these thoughts
when I could let them go to the graveyards
of the winds beneath the towers
from which they were born?

How big a grave for a thought?

How great the work of the gravedigger?

How to engrave the gravestones
with suitable death’s heads?

And if I should let them slip away…
If I should carry them like childhood toys
gifted on Christmas morning then broken by bullies
in cardboard boxes like little coffins (each has a face like my own
like in the fairy funeral and the Fairy King sings
a mournful chant as I lower them in)…

how do I know I will let them rest

and not dig them up like a restless hound?

Come, come, a blast on his horn, come away
from my graveyards and away from mourning.
Spring is here and flowers and hares to chase.
In these sunrise mists a new hunt dawning.


~

*These poems are based on journeys to Annwn undertaken during the process of giving up alcohol as self-medication for my anxiety (which I began on New Year’s Day). This forced me to stop falling, face my worries, and see them for what they are – distractions from my work as an awenydd devoted to Gwyn.
**The image is Doré’s ‘The Fall of Lucifer’ (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons).

Fragments of Annwn – Depths

No-One Knows

the extent of the marshland of Annwn. Some cross it in a day. For others it goes on forever like the mist that obscures the musical birds, the shriekers of the mournful shrieks, the droners of the ancient drone, the players of the carnyxes that gurgle beneath the waters. You never know what is splashing behind on countless feet until it is too late. Sometimes you get lost following the will-o-wisps like lost hopes to where all hope fails. Sometimes you make sacrifices or become the sacrifice see your bog body your ghost flying free like a lonely bird. You become an inspirer or a guide only to bring doom to the unwary. When you think you know the way you slip. When you think you have found the awen you find it escapes words, that the sigh of its name is already escaping your lungs, that breath is not yours to keep forever and must return to the gods.

Awenydd of the Marsh

“You have not yet crossed the marsh.”

No, I’ve got lost again, led round on splashing circle feet to the village where there is a wooden pole and on it a woman seated cross-legged on the head of a bull a crane with wings spread above her.

When she’s not on the pole she’s in the central hut a cord of light down the centre of her spine surrounded by worlds that flicker in and out of existence whether at her will or not I am uncertain.

I’ve never heard her speak, seen her eyes blink, perhaps she dare not for fear of unseeing the realities she holds within her gaze. She doesn’t even breathe. Without her things would fall apart.

My eyes are tired, I’m out of breath, my worlds are out of reach, and I’m missing something.

An Abandoned Sea-Dragon

A blue watery dragon is snared by a weak rusty-looking metal chain around one leg, like a ship at anchor, like an abandoned boat, where the tides come up and wash over her body then back down again. She is ridden with fleas. She is one of the dragons that have been forgotten. I know I could easily break the chain but am told that it is not the chain that binds the dragon there. She has forgotten how to leave. The knight who chained her has fled from his fear of her death. The people do not feed her. She just lingers. It’s an awful story. A terrible mess. There’s no resolution. It’s embarrassing.

elizabeth-explores-unsplash

With thanks to Elizabeth Explores on Unsplash for the image.

Fragments of Annwn – Petrifactions

The Towers of the Wyrms

Nine towers of stone.
Around each coils a wyrm.
No way in – no door, lock, key,
but a single row of windows at the top
where I think I glimpse the face of a madman.
They are old as the grey mountains.
I want to claim they were built
by the haulers of scree,
the wyrms summoned and bound
by the might of magicians or that they came
of their own free will raising the towers
from some secret land underground
that has never been seen. Share rumours
of a sibylline prophetess who consulted the wyrm’s heads
but whose words are not recorded in dusty books
in an arcane language eaten by bookworms.
But no explanation rings true or exists.
I feel like banging my head against
the stone demanding an answer
from the inexplicable unblinking eyes
and long stony tongues silent as the purple

In the Shadows of the Ogres

There is a village in the Shadows of the Ogres – Orius, Oron, Thoronius – whose march through the mountains clubs in hand wading through stone was put to an end to by some unknown magician countless years ago. Now the time is told by their shadows as they loom across the village as the sun moves from east to south to west then sinks back down again and at night they are shadowier still. There is a village fifty miles away in the shadows an ogress. I tend a small garden, growing rosemary and thyme where one by one the clubs fall but no damage is done to the tender leaves.

A Sword in a Stone

I travel as a breath over a land of dark rock until I see something silver glint, sweep down, and see, to my consternation, it is a sword. It’s a tall sword, nearly as tall as me. It’s impossible to know whether someone plunged it into the stone or the living stone claimed it. The pommel is embroidered with a a pair of intertwined serpents and on the blade are runes in the language of an unknown culture. Tied around the hilt there is a lock of hair – the hair of a dead man.

It’s like an adolescent boy’s dream and it makes me uneasy although I’ve never prayed for peace on a full moon. I know what you do with swords stuck in stones and what happens afterwards. I don’t want to be King or Queen and I don’t want to reduce it to a symbol of my own sovereignty. Whereas others would either try what is begging to be done or simply walk away I circle around it like a mill horse, try to philosophise it away, wonder if I can get away with just writing a poem about it.

“If you don’t pull it from the stone another will – you can’t just leave it lying about for another Arthur.”

I don’t know whose voice that is, most likely Temptation’s, that of a secret part of me that wants a sword.

“Ok, whoever you are,” I know if I don’t do it now I’ll be back and utterly furious with myself if it’s gone. Like all the other chances I got that I failed to take, like all those missed opportunities.

A part of me is laughing at myself for assuming that I might be able to pull it out at all. What a relief that would be – another proof that I’m doomed to fail, might as well stop trying, return to the supermarket. Another part has already guessed it will slide out as easily as if from dark magma.

It’s astonishing light, easy to wield, as if I’d wielded it in another life. When I sit down cross legged with it across my knees and run my hands over the runes I realise each marks a life taken and I weep.

The Soul Watcher

A land of stone. A giant’s sword abandoned. A stony citadel lit by cobwebs of pulsing green light. Inside I find a work station with a gigantic swivel chair in the middle. There are billions and billions of monitors, only a quarter of them working, tracking graphs in countless glowing colours. Frequently one flickers out and occasionally another one flickers on. A machine that reminds me of a fruit machine has either broken or been smashed. The screen is shattered and it gapes black behind. At the work station there are databases with flashing figures and I see the names of various species: Acetobacter aurantius, Acinetobacter baumannii, Actinomyces israeliiLycaena boldenarum, Lycaena epixanthe, Lycaena rauparahaVulpes velox, Vulpes vulpes, Vulpes chama, Homo sapiens… for one the figures are rising and most of the rest are rapidly going down. On a stone plinth is a book with a last scrawled note: ‘steep decline… can’t reboot the machine… the well.’ As I depart I notice the green light is fading and know soon the citadel, the sword, we will be gone.

A Worm

You give me

a worm
no longer than
my palm

but alive
so very alive
it pulses

like a heart
it is packed
with life

with light
I know it can
fly through

the night
through stone
bring the dead

back to life
awaken giants
bring back

the morning
if only I can
let it go.

pedro-lastra-cotesauvageatsunset-unsplash

Image ‘Cote Sauvage at sunset’ by Pedro Lasta on Unsplash.

Underground Shrines of the Inspired Ones

Thomas Stephan Unsplash

‘Was the rite conducted by a gutuater?
(‘master of voice’, ‘inspirer of song’)
chanting to inspire a modern awenydd
stepping down into the smoke of the chamber,
hearing the uttered syllables, riding the waves
of sound in the torchlight, finding a way back
to that world, re-creating, even as they did,
a rite that is alive in vision, in the presence
of those spirits called upon to officiate
as before…’
Greg Hill

Greg Hill’s poem ‘Gutuater’ led me to the section on the underground shrine of the Chartres ‘magician’, dated ‘to the second century AD’, in Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Sacred Britannia (2018). In 2005, during excavations for a car park in the centre of Chartres the construction workers found a ‘basement shrine’ accessed by ‘a wooden ladder and ‘a cache of sacred material, including pottery vessels, oil-lamps and a broad-bladed knife, of the kind used in killing sacrificial animals.’

The pottery vessels were incense burners (thuribula) likely used for burning mind-altering drugs. Inscribed on one of the vessels, on each of the four panels, is a script beginning with names of the cardinal points: ‘oriens (East), meridie (South), occidens (West), and septentrio (North).’ Beneath each directional heading is a prayer to ‘all powerful spirits’ written by their ‘guardian’, ‘Caius Verius Sedatus’ and ‘a long list naming these spirits’ (which, disappointingly, Green does not share). However, she does mention the term ‘dru’ occurs in the list, suggesting Sedatus was invoking the spirits of druids.

What stands out to me firstly is that here we have evidence of a Roman citizen with a Gaulish cognomen – Sedatus – performing a ritual underground to invoke underworld spirits. In Gaul they were known as the Andedion and were invoked on the Tablet of Chamalières (50AD) for aid in battle. Secondly, we find a fascinating combination of Greco-Egyptian magic with invoking native spirits.

Finally, Green provides an interesting interpretation of the role of Sedatus. She mentions that Chartres was ‘the capital of the Iron Age Carnutes tribe’ and this land provides ‘evidence for the survival of specifically native, non-Roman spiritual leaders’. Aulus Hirtius ‘an officer in Caesar’s army and later governor of transalpine Gaul’ speaks of the resistance of ‘a freedom fighter called Gutuatrus’. This means ‘master of voice’ or ‘father of inspiration’. It may have been a title rather than a name as references to gutuatri have been found in the nearby Aeduan territory. An altar from Macon ‘recorded the presence of a gutuater of Mars’ (possibly Nodens under interpretatio Romana?). The word ‘GVTVATER’ is inscribed on the base of an altar to the local god, Anvallus, from Autun. Thus Sedatus may have acted in a religious role as a gutuater for his people.

Intriguing parallels can be found between the Gaulish and British traditions. In The Gods of the Celts (2011), Green records a remarkable example of an underground shrine to an underworld god from a similar period:

‘At the bottom of this shaft, found at Deal in Kent, all some 2.5 metres deep, was an oval chamber containing a complete figurine, composed of a featureless block of dressed chalk from which rises a long slender neck and a head with a well-carved, very Celtic face. This figure may have stood in a niche high up in one wall of the chamber. The presence of footholds in the shaft indicates that access to the shrine was intended but only four or five adults could have sat in the chamber at once and the shrine was perhaps meant for the deity or god and priest alone. Pottery would indicate a first or second century AD date for the structure.’

It seems likely this deity is one of the spirits of Annwn, our British equivalent to the Andedion. It may even be Pen Annwn, the Head of the Otherworld, who is known as Arawn or as Gwyn ‘White’.

The term gutuater may be linked to Talhearn Tad Awen ‘Father of Inspiration’ who is mentioned in Nennius’ History of the Britons (828) and to the awenyddion ‘people inspired’ mentioned by Gerald of Wales in his Description of Wales (1194). They served a prophetic function and were said to ‘speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits’. Gerald notes their speeches are ‘nugatory’, ‘incoherent’, and ‘ornamented’ although an explanation can be ‘conveyed in some term of a word’. Their use of a non-logical and poetic language fits with Green drawing attention to the ‘plosive’ sounds in ‘the list of obscure names’ spoken by Sedatus, which lend them power when recited out loud.

These links have led me to wonder whether the ‘priest’ from Deal was an awenydd who invoked Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn in his underground shrine and whether such practices were wider spread. Could there be continuity between these 2nd century inspired ones and the 12th century awenyddion?

dark_cave___free_background_by_digitalequinedesigns

With thanks to Thomas Stephan on Unsplash for the smoke image and to Digital Equine Designs on Deviant Art for ‘Dark Cave’.

Blodeuwedd and the Owl Kind

I.
I’m wandering through a bleak windswept landscape in Annwn and screaming down from the skies come two haggard-looking owl-women who almost look like harpies with shabby feathers, bare breasts, and long claws. At first I’m afraid of them, but less so as I examine their faces, old, wise, grey.

They tell me they are ‘the Owl Kind’ – those who have gone into owls. They watch over families and communities until they stop watching for them. They watch over lands until they become unrecognisable. They watch over the dead and those who go between worlds – their owl eyes are always on them.

They can often be found in graveyards. They show me how they watch over the spirit of a child who is afraid to leave her grave where she thinks she is safe and wants to sleep forever because she died believing there is no life after death and the owlets who sit in a row on the fence who sing her songs.

They tell me the owl kind are becoming less and less as they are leaving the places families and communities have left, where they are forgotten, and fewer know how to or want to go into owls anymore.

They tell me owls watch over my land and to listen for them.

II.
Only once have I met Blodeuwedd, the woman conjured from flowers by Math and Gwydion, then transformed into an owl as a punishment for her part in the plot to murder her husband, Lleu. It was during a journey when I was tricked into Caer Gwydion and she helped me escape, picking me up in her claws and taking me to the Forest at the Back of the World where the Owl Kind dwell. At this point I knew they were connected, that Blodeuwedd was one of the Owl Kind, perhaps the most significant.

This has led me to suspect that when Gwydion and Math conjured Blodeuedd from the blossoms of oak, meadowsweet and broom, when they imbued the blossoms with spirit, that the spirit they unwittingly summoned to animate them was hers – flowers on the surface, owlish huntress and killer beneath. (Thus it’s no wonder she was attracted to the Hunter when he rode into her kingdom).

Perhaps in an older variant of the tale Gwydion did not turn Blodeuwedd into an owl as a punishment but recognised her true nature, that he, the trickster, had been tricked. She couldn’t be confined by his spell.

III.
In modern Britain owls are, rightly, revered as symbolic of wisdom. Yet, appearing wide-eyed and innocent and slightly goofy-looking on bags, pencil cases, cushions, earrings etc. the darker side of their nature (which was emphasised for many centuries in British folklore) has been forgotten.

In a chapter titled ‘Night’s Black Agents’ in The Folklore of Birds Edward A. Armstrong notes that ‘Over Europe and Asia, indeed, most of the world, the owl is, and has long been, a bird of witchcraft, death and doom’. He notes examples of sightings of owls – ‘the trees were covered with owls’ ‘there were a scret (screech) owl on his roof, scretting something horrible’ as precedents of death.

Spenser refers to the owl as ‘death’s dreadful messenger’. Webster writes ‘The Scritch Owle and the whistler shrill / Call upon our dame aloud / And bid her quickly don her shroud.’ Armstrong notes connections between ‘ratchet owls’ and the corpse-eating Gabriel Ratchets and Hounds of Annwn.

In ‘The Owl’ Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of the ‘Crazy Owl’ of Gwyn ap Nudd who ‘incites the hounds of night’ and no doubt flies at the head of his hunt heralding the chase of the souls of the dead.

IV.
In The Witch Ronald Hutton suggests our associations between owls and witchcraft derive from the Classical figure of the strix. These large-eyed, hungry-beaked, grey-white feathered birds of ill-omen dwelled on the outskirts of Tartarus, feasted on flesh and blood and snatched away the bodies of the dead. The term striges was also applied to ‘women who practice witchcraft’ and ‘flying women’.

The striges seem closely linked to harpies ‘snatchers’. They are described both as ‘lovely’ and ‘repulsive’. By Virgil as ‘Bird-bodied, girl-faced things… abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable’. Their names are evocative – Aello ‘storm swift’, Ocypete ‘swift wing’, Celaeno ‘the dark’, Podarge ‘fleet-foot’. Seen as the embodiments of the destructive winds they served as ‘the Hounds of Zeus’ snatching away evil-doers to the Erinyes.

VI.
In Dante’s Inferno harpies are depicted in the seventh circle of Hell in the ‘Wood of Suicides’:

No green here, but discoloured leaves and dark,
No tender shoots, but writhen and gnarled and tough,
No fruit, but poison galls on the withered bark…

Wide-winged like birds and lady-faced are these,
With feathered belly broad and claws of steel;
And there they sit and shriek on strange trees.

Dante is horrified when he realises that the trees are the souls of suicides. Their transformation and their fate of being tortured by the harpies, who feast on the boughs, is described by Augustus:

When the wild soul leaps from the body, which
Its own mad violence forces it to quit,
Minos dispatches it down to the seventh ditch.

It falls in the wood; no place is picked for it,
But as chance carries it, there it falls to be,
And where it falls, it sprouts like a corn of wheat,

And grows to a sapling, and thence to a wild tree;
Then the Harpies feed on its leaves, and the sharp bite
Gives agony, and a vent to agony.

VI.
In ‘The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides’ William Blake provides a vivid depiction of the scene. This partly resonates with my personal vision of the Owl Kind in the Forest at the Back of the World, where the souls of the dead shift into trees, plants, and animals.

800px-The_Wood_of_the_Self-Murderers

Only I do not see the role of the Owl Kind, although they are hunters and devourers of the dead, as punitive. Like the Hounds of Annwn they are simply serving their role hunting down the dead and devouring their dead flesh before bearing their souls back to the otherworldy forest where they can heal.

Perhaps they have always been connected with suicides – teaching them to be tree, plant, flower, blossoming until their bloomy faces are the faces of owls and, like Blodeuwedd, they fly free.

SOURCES

Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover Publications, 1958)
Dorothy I. Sayers, Dante, Hell, (Penguin Classics, 2001)
Rachel Bromwich (transl), Dafydd ap Gwilym, Poems, (Gomer Press, 1982)
Ronald Hutton, The Witch, (Yale University Press, 2018)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Blake, William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations, (Dover Publications, 2008)
Harpy’, Wikipedia
Strix’, Wikipedia

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.

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.

A Great Scaled Beast

Gweint mil mawren
arnaw yd oed canpen
a chat erdygnawt
dan von y tauawt
a chat arall yssyd
yn y wegilyd

I pierced a great-scaled beast:
there were a hundred heads on him,
and a fierce battalion
beneath the roof of his tongue;
and another battalion is
in (each of) his napes
The Battle of the Trees

A great scaled beast sees
wars across the worlds: these
last days of Empire’s fall
beautiful, terrible…
Heads burn East, West, North, South.
Everywhere a Hell Mouth.

On the howl of Dormach
fierce battalions march
forth from beneath the rooves
of his tongues sent to prove
the world’s end to itself
and lead each frightened self

into the great beast’s maw.
Entering his gaping jaws
every step is further
down his throat – surrender
would be bliss if it weren’t
for regret, guilt, the hurt

of leaving all we loved.
Our work was not enough.
This is a night of tears.
This is a night of fear.
This tongue a road we must
walk – perfect faith and trust

keep us strong as we go
where only the gods know
splitting East, West, North, South –
all into the Hell Mouths.
In the maw of the beast
will we relearn to speak?

Will we each be reborn?

A Great Scaled Beast Black, White, Red Final Sml

‘A great scaled beast / there were a hundred heads on him’

A Black Forked Toad

Llyffan du gaflaw
cant ewin arnaw

A black forked toad:
a hundred claws upon him
The Battle of the Trees

As dusk darkens the skies
a black forked toad will rise

from his underworld throne
beneath a cold dark stone,

slow, ponderous, alone,
napes filled with poison,

his long and roving tongue
seeking souls old and young.

His hundred trailing claws
with shrieks like owls will score

the black and tarmaced roads
that killed a hundred toads –

green, brown, grey, mottled, black,
males riding piggy-back

in a sacred parade
plodding to pools to mate.

He will trawl the cracked roads
where cars crash and explode,

movement drawing the lick
of his lips before the flick

of that forked tongue lashes
whip-like, savage, catches

the fleeing souls. No-one
will escape his mouth – run

hide, stand, fight, parry, miss.
One gulp they will be his.

When falls the last swallow
toothless he will swallow

everything that moves.

A Black Forked Toad Med II

‘He will trawl the cracked roads / where cars crash and explode’

A Speckled Crested Snake

Neidyr vreith gribawc:
cant eneit trwy bechawt
a boenir yn y cnawt.’

A speckled crested snake:
a hundred souls, on account of (their) sin,
are tortured in its flesh.’
The Battle of the Trees

A speckled crested snake
rises, falls, slips, like heartache
through ashes in the wake

of worlds that rise and fall.
Handless, legless, she crawls
writhed by agonised calls

of a hundred doomed souls
that hang like birdsong – whole
legions swallowed in halls

where the live can’t follow
where they’re pierced by sorrows –
sins lined in endless rows.

They drown in her venom
which sears, abrades, strips them
of skin, flesh, bone, wisdom

of pain making them one
with her: scaled, speckled. None
escapes as she writhes on.

She seeks a hundred more.
Feeds, grows, fattens, on war.
No-one can stop her maw

devouring what we’ve left.
No spear can bring her death.
No word can end her breath.

We’ll be inside her soon.

A Speckled Crested Snake Large

‘A speckled crested snake / rises, falls, slips like heartache / through ashes in the wake / of worlds that rise and fall.’