13. The Mantle of Arthur

The mantle of Arthur in Cornwall: whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everyone.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

We know of the atrocities
he committed when he was visible:
the headless giants, witches with cloven heads,
slaughtered dog-heads and wolves stripped of their furs.

We have seen the desolate battlefields in thisworld and Annwn.

What then of the invisible deeds behind his rise to power?

Some say Arthur walks invisibly amongst us still,
seeing everyone without being seen,
his hand guiding Empire.

Sweeping from his mantle the blade of Caledfwlch falls.

~

The Mantle of Arthur

~

Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and Eigr and was a legendary warlord who fought against the giants and witches of ancient Britain and carried out an infamous raid on Annwn. He also led twelve battles against the Anglo-Saxons and died at Camlan in 537. It’s odd to find Arthur’s mantle, here associated with Arthur’s court in Cornwall, in this list of northern treasures.

We find a detailed description of Arthur’s mantle, Gwen ‘White’ or ‘Blessed’, in Rhonabwy’s Dream. It is made of ‘damasced, brocaded silk’ and has ‘a reddish gold apple at each of its corners’. We are told of its attributes: ‘the person wrapped in it could see everyone yet no one could see him. And no colour would ever last on it except its own colour.’

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur’s mantle, along with his ship, sword, spear, shield, and dagger are listed as the only gifts that he refuses to give to Culhwch.

In ‘The Second Branch’ Caswallon, son of Beli Mawr, puts on a magic mantle in order to murder Caradog, son of Brân the Blessed, and six of his men, thus usurping the rulership of Britain. We are told ‘no one could see him killing the men – they could only see his sword.’ It may be suggested this is the same mantle and was associated with sovereignty.

As far as I am aware there are no stories about Arthur using his mantle to make himself invisible and carrying out any kind of deeds or misdeeds whilst under its protection.

Rich mantles, cloaks, and coats make frequent appearances in medieval Welsh mythology.  There is story about Arthur attempting to take Padarn’s Coat and I can’t help wondering whether these treasures are connected or the same. Culhwch wears a ‘purple, four-cornered cloak about him, with a ruby-gold ball at each corner. Each ball was worth a hundred cows.’

It seems possible that, like Padarn’s Coat, Arthur’s mantle and Culhwch’s cloak were dyed with Tyrian Purple and thus symbolic of the wealth and prestige of the Romano-British elites. Although the name of Arthur’s cloak, Gwen, suggests it may be white, I think this alludes to its blessed/magical nature. Without laundrettes and whiteners it would have been impractical to keep a garment white particularly for a warlord regularly up to his elbows in blood. One of the qualities of Tyrian Purple was its ‘resistance to weather and light’. For Arthur it would have been a blessing that his mantle kept its own colour and the countless blood stains didn’t show.

~

SOURCES

Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tyrian Purple, Wikipedia

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12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver’.
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I leave my world behind at Carwinley Burn
to follow the feral steps of a girl,
red-haired, torqued, coloured-trousered,
a wild thing with fox’s teeth at her neck
down a fox-hole to the grave
of Gwenddolau.
Beside his bull-horned corpse
stands a table and upon it a golden board.
Round its edges silver dead men lie.
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau.

has lain here as long as my father,”
she says. “It predicts the outcome of battles.
It played before Arfderydd, Catraeth,
when Britain’s air force clashed
with the Luftwaffe,
on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. As yet
it has never mispredicted an event.
At times of peace it sleeps.
At times of threat
if the pieces are set

they play out every move in the coming conflict.”
As she speaks the eyes of a warrior
jerk open and his spasmodic
hand grips his spear.
A warhorse rises from a tangle of stirrups and mane.
A bishop shakes off his robes and delves
for fireballs and mist in his pockets.
Caers rebuild their ramparts.
Returning to health
they play by themselves

speechless as automata resuming their positions.
Warriors move forward two squares
spearing on the diagonal.
Warhorses leap
over the mounting carnage,
on a fiery blast fall into splinters.
A king drags his queen into a caer.
As the bishops prepare the final spell
I am shaken by a premonitory shiver.
The board is gold and the men silver.

~

The Chessboard of Gwenddolaur

~

Gwenddolau was born around 400. He was the son of Ceidio and a descendant of Coel Hen. His fortress, Caer Gwenddolau, stood on present-day Liddel Strength beside Liddel Water north of Carwinley Burn. It is likely Gwenddolau’s rule extended throughout the present-day parish of Arthuret, which was then known as Arfderydd.

Gwenddolau was renowned as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of the Island of Britain and referred to as ‘Chief of the kings of the North’ suggesting he ruled some of the other kingdoms. His ownership of two birds who ate two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and two for supper suggests he practiced excarnation.

In 573 Gwenddolau’s kinsmen: Gwrgi, Peredur, and Dunawd, allied against him with Rhydderch Hael of Alt Clut. In spite of support from his nephew, Dreon ap Nudd, who fought bravely at the Dyke of Arfderydd, and his ability to conjure a mysterious battle-fog, Gwenddolau was killed during the Battle of Arfderydd. Afterward Gwyn ap Nudd gathered his soul.

The Welsh term for ‘chessboard’ is gwyddbwyll. Gwydd means ‘wood’ and pwyll ‘sense’ hence ‘wood sense’. It is translated here as ‘chess’. However it’s important to note that chess originated in the Arab world and was imported into Britain by the Normans in the 11th century. The game played by Gwenddolau would have been quite different to modern chessGwyddbwyll is associated with sovereigns in several medieval Welsh stories. In The Dream of the Emperor Maxen, in the hall of Elen of the Hosts, two lads play with silver and red gold pieces whilst a grey-haired man sits at a second board carving pieces with steel files from a bar of gold.

In Peredur the protagonist finds a board, like Gwenddolau’s, on which the two sides play each other and the losers shout ‘as if they were men’. Peredur is told the side of the Empress has lost and connects this with losing her Empire. This suggests the board represents a ruler’s kingdom.

Arthur and Owain Rheged play gwyddbwyll in Rhonabwy’s dream. The outcome of each game is connected with an ongoing battle between Arthur’s men and Owain’s ravens, suggesting it serves a divinatory function working from the level of microcosm to macrocosm.

One wonders whether Gwenddolau’s silver pieces fell before his death at the Battle of Arfderydd.

~

SOURCES

J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, (Clarendon Press, 1913)
John Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, (ABC-CLIO Ltd, 2006)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

The Crazy Owl of Gwyn ap Nudd

330px-Waldkauz-Strix_aluco

In ‘Y Dylluan’ (‘The Owl’) (1350), the medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym refers to the ‘Crazy Owl’ ‘of Gwyn ap Nudd’:

Piercingly she shrieked: I recognise her form,
she is the bird of Gwyn ap Nudd.
Crazy Owl that sings to robbers,
misfortune on her tongue and on her tune.

She will not be silent whilst he chants his prayer by starlight. He cannot sleep because of ‘the voice and screeching of the Owl, / her frequent outcry and her laugh, / and poetry’s travesty from her tongue.’ His description of her is far from flattering and becomes increasingly sinister:

Dirty she is, with two raucous cries,
big-headed, with a hateful shout,
broad-browed, and berry-bellied,
old wide-eyed catcher of mice,
busy, vile, and colourless,
shrivelled her voice, her colour that of tin…
and her face, like that of a gentle human being,
and her form, she-fiend of birds.

Speaking of her ‘wretched song’ he says ‘“Hw-ddy-hw” – a lively gasp – / with energy, by Anna’s grandson, / she incites the hounds of night.’ By the “hw-ddy-hw” we know Dafydd is referring to the tawny owl who is also known as the screech owl.

‘Anna’s grandson’ refers to Gwyn. In The Mabinogion, Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd is the son of Beli Mawr who, in the Harleian Genealogies, is partnered with Anna. This may be mapped onto an older cosmography where Bel and Don are the ‘parents’ of Gwyn’s father, Nudd.

The ‘hounds of night’ are the Cwn Annwn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, with whom Gwyn hunts the souls of the dead. This poem suggests the screech of Crazy Owl precedes Gwyn’s Hunt and that she flies at its head, terrifying, fiend-like with her human-like face.

In the final verse, Dafydd determines not only to scare the owl away with his song, but to ‘put… a bonfire in each ivied tree’, presumably with the intention of eliminating owls!

***

Gwyn is not the only god of hunting and the dead who appears with an owl. Charles Hardwick notes that the Hunter Hackelberg, who he identifies with Woden, the Germanic leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’, is accompanied by an owl named Tutursel:

‘Mounted on his white or dappled grey steed, the wild huntsman may always be recognised by his broad-brimmed hat, and his wide mantle, from which he is named Hakelbarend or Hakelberg, an old name signifying mantle-wearer. The hooting owl, Tutursel, flies before him.’

In the story of ‘The Hunter Hackelberg and the Tut-Osel’, the owl was a nun called Ursula who tormented her sisterhood and interrupted services with her ‘discordant voice’. Therefore they called her Tutursel. After her death, ‘from eleven o’clock at night she thrust her head through a hole in the tower and tooted miserably; and every morning at about four o’clock she joined unasked in the matin song.’

When the nuns realised the voice was Tutursel’s they refused to enter the nunnery until she was banished. Tutursel eventually met Hackelberg and found she delighted in his wood-cry “Hu Hu!” as much he delighted in her “U! Hu!” and she has flown with him since.

We do not know the story behind how Crazy Owl came to fly with Gwyn. Yet the reference to her ‘face, like that of a gentle human being’ may suggest she is of human origin or is a shapeshifter capable of taking human form.

***

In ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Blodeuwedd, a flower maiden, is transformed into an owl by Gwydion as a punishment for helping her lover, Gronw, to kill her husband, Lleu. This story may be based on an older seasonal myth where Blodeuwedd chose freely to be flowers whilst with Lleu in summer and an owl whilst with Gronw (a hunter god) in winter.

This story is paralleled by Creiddylad spending the summer with Gwythyr and winter with Gwyn. This led me to wonder whether Creiddylad takes owl-form on Gwyn’s Hunt. My meditations spoke otherwise – Crazy Owl is a separate person to Creiddylad with her own story*.

I’d like to end with this poem by Thomas Vantor, written in 1619, which describes the owl as a bright lady singing the dirge of the dying and puts me in mind of the Crazy Owl of Gwyn ap Nudd:

Sweet Suffolk owl, so trimly dight,
With feathers like a lady bright,
Thou sittest alone, singing at night
Te whit, te whoo, te whit, te whoo,
Thy note that forth so freely rolls
With shrill command the mouse controls,
And sings a dirge for dying souls,
Te whit, te whoo, te whit, te whoo.

*Crazy Owl’s story will appear in my next book Gatherer of Souls.

SOURCES

Dafydd ap Gwilym, Poems, (Gomer Press, 1982)
Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions, Folklore, (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Kristine Weinstein, The Owl in Art, Myth, and Legend, (Book Sales, 1991)
Marianne Taylor, Owls, (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
The Hunter Hackelnberg and the Tut-Osel

If Someone Came Back From Time

Test of the Twins

In The Test of the Twins by Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman (*spoilers ahead*) there is a frightening scene where Caramon Majere and Tasslehoff Burrfoot accidentally travel forward two years ahead of their own time. They arrive in a landscape of ‘slick ash-gray mud’, ‘ragged boulders’, and ‘fire-blackened stumps’. The sky is ‘a strange violet colour, boiling with weird luminescent clouds laced with lightning of brilliant blue’. Rain falls ‘like molten lead’, thunder rolls, and fire sweeps across the mountains. Nothing is alive.

To their horror Caramon and Tasslehoff recognise the stumps of the great Vallenwood trees of the valley where Caramon’s home town of Solace lay. They discover a mass grave and a monument commemorating Caramon’s wife: ‘Tika Waylan Majere’ ‘Your life’s tree felled too soon. / I fear, lest in my hands the axe be found’. Beside it lies Caramon’s corpse with a chisel in its hand.

When night falls the companions see the three moons of magic and constellations of the gods have fallen and been replaced by a single new constellation: an hourglass.

***

This desolate future was created by Raistlin Majere, Caramon’s twin brother, a black-robed mage cursed with hourglass eyes that see all things dying by a wizard called Fistandantilus. In a desperate bid to prevent Fistandantilus from claiming his body as a vessel for his soul, Raistlin went back in time, becoming his foe and walking in his footsteps to a certain point.

Raistlin and Fistandantilus shared the same hubristic ambition: to slay Takhisis, Queen of Darkness, become gods themselves by claiming her power and killing all the other gods. Whereas  Fistandantilus failed to open the portal to the Abyss where Takhisis dwells, Raistlin succeeded.

Previously Caramon and Tasslehoff went back in time to save Raistlin from himself. Throughout his life Caramon had supported his twin in spite of him committing increasingly ruthless deeds including attempting to kill him. Only when Raistlin said he would abandon Crysania, a cleric of Paladine, God of Light, once she was useless to him, did Caramon realise he was irredeemable.

Caramon left Raistlin in the distant past and, whilst trying to return to his own time, accidentally visited the future. Having seen what will happen he realises he must go through the portal into the Abyss and do something he should have done long ago: kill his brother.

***

The portal stands in the laboratory in the Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas. It takes the form of a door on a platform surrounded by the five heads of a dragon: black, white, blue, red, and green.

It is guarded by Raistlin’s dark elf apprentice, Dalamar. Dalamar is the sole witness to the wonders and horrors of his master’s magical experiments, his creation of the Live Ones and the Dead Ones, the withered things and staring eyes in the glass jars. Surprisingly he is not on Raistlin’s side. He is a spy for the Wizard’s Conclave who paid for his treachery when Raistlin burned five holes in his chest and has guessed what the world will be like if Raistlin succeeds.

When Caramon arrives in Raistlin’s laboratory Dalamar has been mortally wounded by Caramon and Raistlin’s half-sister, the Dragon High Lord Kitiara, who intended to support Raistlin. It is now up to Caramon to prevent Raistlin from returning through the portal.

***

Caramon enters and finds Crysania on the brink of death before confronting Raistlin. When Raistlin realises Caramon has not come to help him but to prevent him leaving he determines once again to kill his brother. Yet Caramon bears news of the future that Raistlin is, at first, hungry to hear:

‘You will win… You will be victorious, not only over the Queen of Darkness, but over all the gods. Your constellation alone will shine in the skies… over a dead world, Raistlin – a world of grey ash and smouldering ruin and bloated corpses. You are alone in the heavens, Raistlin. You try to create, but there is nothing left within you to draw upon, and so you suck life from the stars themselves until they finally burst and die. And then there is nothing around you and nothing inside you.’

Refusing to believe Caramon, Raistlin uses his magic to drag Caramon’s visions into his own mind. He sees ‘the bones of the world’ and ‘himself, suspended in the cold void, emptiness around him, emptiness within. It pressed down upon him, squeezed him. It gnawed at him, ate at him. He twisted in upon himself, desperately seeking nourishment – a drop of blood, a scrap of pain. But there was nothing there.’ Raistlin recognises the emptiness within himself and can ‘almost see his soul, frightened, lonely, crouched in a dark, empty corner.’

As Raistlin looks upon Crysania’s blackened body he imagines her eyes staring into his emptiness and realising there is nothing. Yet there is ‘something, not much, but something. His soul stretched forth its hand.’ He touches her blistered skin and realises she is not yet dead.

Raistlin gives up his plan and orders Caramon to take Crysania back through the portal whilst he fends off Takhisis to prevent her following, in spite of his knowledge of his fate: ‘You will be tortured in mind and body. At the end of each day, you will die from the pain. At the beginning of each night I will bring you back to life. You will not be able to sleep, but will lie awake in shivering anticipation of the day to come. In the morning my face will be the first sight you see.’

However, when Takhisis sinks her claws into Raistlin he is touched by a hand, a voice telling him it’s just a dream and he can wake up. A strong arm encircles him, a hand ‘forms childish pictures in the night’, “look, Raist, bunnies,” he hears Caramon’s voice.

Caramon takes Crysania through the portal and Raistlin closes it. Caramon’s love saves his brother and the world. The warrior returns to the Vallenwoods of Solace and his happy marriage with Tika to become the father of five children.

When Dalamar has recovered he pulls the curtain across the portal, shuts the staring eyes, locks the laboratory door ‘with a lock that has not been made by any locksmith on Krynn’ and gives the key to one of the spectral guardians to keep for ‘all eternity’.

***

The Test of the Twins is the third book of the Dragonlance ‘Legends’ trilogy and was published in 1986. I first read it when I was at high school. This ending has always stuck with me and is just as powerful and pertinent reading it twenty years on.

As hurricanes and wildfires imperil our world I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone came back from time with a report of ashen lands, barren rocks, blackened trees; the moon and stars falling from the sky to be replaced by a single constellation overlooking this age of the Anthropocene: Man

Only we cannot travel through a portal to prevent a black-robed mage from killing the gods. Beginning with our dragon-headed goddesses they were slaughtered by warriors and priests and the portals closed many centuries ago.

The powers who govern us are deaf to reports, visions, the pleas of their brothers. They cannot see their shrivelled souls cringing in the corners of their million pound penthouses, would never reach out to their victims, turn back to the gods, face their fates.

Luckily gods don’t stay dead forever and now they’re returning to our world. Our portals weren’t locked by dark elves although we might find them as guardians and surprisingly on our side. Caramon and Tasslehoff’s journey through time to save Raistlin and the world succeeded. The undoing of the Anthropocene is a magical quest we must likewise embark upon.

Thy time is thy own
Though across it you travel
Its expanses you see
Whirling through forever
Obstruct not its flow
Grasp firmly the end and the beginning
Turn them back upon themselves
All that is loose shall be secure
Destiny be over your head.’

– Instructions for a time travel device
from Time of the Twins

Lancashire’s Last Wolf

European_grey_wolf_in_Prague_zoo

And here is our old grey enemy, the last wolf in England, stone dead.’
Jerome Mercier

Many counties claim England’s wolf. Lancashire is no exception. It’s a story to raise the hackles, stir a deep and ominous growl from the pit of the belly of anyone who loves the wild.

This mean old tale is set during the fourteenth century but written records are comparatively recent. The earliest appears in The Remains of John Briggs (1825). Here we are told ‘a bold and intrepid knight, named Harrington, fixed his abode at Wraysholme’ and ‘erected the Tower’.

In Harrington’s day all the wolves in the south had been killed, but a few remained in the forest of Cartmel. ‘These it was his amusement to hunt, in order to exterminate the breed.’

Whilst hunting on Humphrey Head, Harrington was ‘stopped by the shrieks of a female in extreme peril’. She was trapped in the cleft of a rock by ‘an enormous wolf… his barking was tremendous and death lightened his eyes’. John ‘transfixed the animal with his lance’.

Humphrey Head

Humphrey Head

The hapless maiden immediately fell in love with her rescuer and they married. Harrington made the wolf – the last in England – his crest. The ‘happy pair… were buried in a niche in Cartmel church. Their effigies were cut in stone with a figure of the wolf at their feet.’

In an elaborated retelling in a ballad printed in the Annals of Cartmel (1872) King Edward had offered a prize for the head of the last wolf in England. To win it Sir Edgar Harrington organised a hunt and promised the hand in marriage of Adela, his ward, to the killer of the wolf.

Two knights competed for her favour: Leyburn and the mysterious Delisle. Delisle was a stranger who appeared on a white Arab horse. Adela wanted neither as her heart belonged to John Harrington, Edgar’s son, who she believed had died fighting in foreign lands.

The hunt reached its end on ‘Humphrey’s Height’ with the wolf ‘racked with sore distress’ approaching a ‘black hole’. Adela sat aboard a palfrey on the other side. Delisle’s horse leapt the chasm where Leyburn’s failed. To Adela’s horror the ‘wild wolf’ burst into sight baring its ‘glistening teeth’.

When Adela next looked the wolf and Delisle’s horse lay dead and the knight unscathed. Delisle revealed his identity as John Harrington, Adela’s lost love, and the pair were married immediately by a priest in a cave ‘called Sir Edgar’s Chapel still’.

P1180821

Fairy Cave (Sir Edgar’s Chapel?), Humphrey Head

The head of the last wolf in England became John Harrington’s crest. The ballad ends:

In Cartmel’s Church his grave is shown,
And o’er it side by side,
All graved in stone lie brave sir John,
And Adela his bride.

Cartmel Priory

Cartmel Priory

Harington Tomb, Cartmel Priory

Harington Tomb, Cartmel Priory

The tale was further romanticised in Jerome Mercier’s novel The Last Wolf (1906) where it is retold from the perspective of a friend of Adela’s called Margaret of Arnside. John Harrington was sent away to fight in the Crusades and Adela feared he had been killed by Turks. He again re-appeared as Delisle on a ‘milk-white Arab’.

Only Delisle’s horse made the leap as rushing toward Margaret and Adela came a ‘gristly beast… with grinning jaws and cruel, bloodless eyes… no hound but the wolf itself, in the rage of imminent death.’ Delisle’s horse was torn down yet he transfixed the wolf with his spear.

As Adela fainted from her horse John caught her and she recognised her former love. Again they were married on the spot in Sir Edgar’s Chapel.

The story ends: ‘And so, by the will of God, and in His own good time, the old, rough, cruel days passed away, even like the race of wolves – the last one being slain by a gentle Christian knight. Thus were the ignorance and cruelty of former ages slain by gentlehood and Christianity, and ere long the dawn of a new day came…’

harrington coat of arms Wikipedia Commons

***

The story of Lancashire’s last wolf has a basis in the local landscape and its history but doesn’t all ring true. John Harington (de Haverington) was a real person. His father was Sir Robert de Haverington. As far as I am aware no records of a Sir Edgar Harrington exist. John was born in Farleton in 1281 and owned lands in Furness. He did not build Wraysholme Tower, which was erected during the 15th century.

John was knighted in 1306 and in 1309 accompanied Edward II on a military expedition to Scotland and stayed within the military until 1335. It seems likely he was involved in the First War of Scottish Independence (1296 – 1314) which ended in Scottish victory when Edward was defeated by Robert de Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. It is impossible that John fought in the Crusades because the ninth and final Crusade took place between 1271 and 1272.

Sir John was married to Joan of the Dacre family (not to Adela), died in Aldingham, and was buried at Cartmel Priory in 1347. At the foot of John’s tomb there is a grotesque with a face that looks part-human, part-wolf, with what looks like a serpent’s tail. The creature at Joan’s tomb-foot, more strangely, looks part-mermaid, part-lion! Unfortunately I have been unable to find out anything more about these enigmatic sculptures.

P1220515

A wolf appears on the Harington family crest and a golden wolf’s head is the weathervane on Cartmel Priory.

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It seems possible John Harington was associated with the hunting of Lancashire’s last wolf and killed it in the cave on Humphrey Head in the early 14th century. If this is the case, the story was clearly embellished, perhaps by John’s descendants when they built Wraysholme Tower during the 15th century as a way of romanticising and justifying their rulership. I remain sceptical about the wolf attacking a screaming maiden and the ‘love story’ being true.

It’s significant to note that an entirely different variant exists wherein the wolf was hunted down by local people from the Bowland Fells and slaughtered with pikes on Humphrey Head. Additionally, other accounts claim that wolves roamed Bowland well into the 15th century.

***

Wolves have been present on the land-mass we know as Britain for at least 120,000 years. This is evidenced by wolf bones found with the remains of hyenas, hippos, elephants, tigers, deer, weasels, and rabbits, in Kirkdale Cave in North Yorkshire.

‘A rude instrument produced from a wolf’s metacarpal bone’ found with the Red Lady of Paviland, the oldest ceremonial burial in Western Europe dating to 33,000 years ago, in Goat’s Hole Cave on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales is suggestive of a long-standing tradition of humans interacting with wolves and associating them with death and passage to the Otherworld.

Dogs began evolving from wolves 32,000 years ago and were domesticated by European hunter-gatherers. When the first humans returned to Britain after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, following the reindeer north, they and their dogs would have competed with wolves and feared and revered them as fellow predators.

Various examples of human bones gnawed by canids before their burial from the prehistoric period show the ancient Britons practiced excarnation. They left the corpses of their dead outside so the flesh could be consumed by wolves or dogs then buried the bones afterward.

Wolves and dogs were sacred to the ancient British hunter god Nodens/Nudd ‘the superior wolf-lord’ and his son Vindos/Gwyn. Gwyn owns a wolfish dog called Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’ and hunts with dogs who devour the corpses of the dead before he gathers their souls to Annwn.

Wolves/dogs appear as guardians of the underworld in many world myths. Intriguingly both Dormach and Cerberus, guardian of Hades in Greek mythology, have serpent’s tails, just like the wolf pictured at the foot of John Harington’s tomb who uncannily shares Dormach’s grin…

Dormach Sketch - Copy

Dormach, Black Book of Carmarthen

***

The relationship between humans and wolves (but not dogs) broke down in the Neolithic as people transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming. The woodland habitat of wolves was destroyed and, as humans laid claim to the herds, the displaced wolves became seen as a nuisance who preyed on ‘their’ animals.

Wolves gained a reputation for being numerous and noisome. According to Hector Boece a king called Dorvadilla who ruled Scotland in 2BCE decreed: ‘he slayer of ane wolf to have ane ox to his reward… Oure elders persewit this beist with gret hatreut, for the gret murdir of beistis.’ Boece’s translator notes the Caledonian forest had ‘gret plente of… wolffis’ and describes the ‘wolffis’ as being ‘rycht noysum to the tame bestiall in all parts of Scotland.’

References from Y Gododdin equating warriors with wolves: Gwefrfawr is ‘a wolf in fury’ and Tudfwlch the ‘wolf of the host’ and bleiddiad, ‘wolfish warrior’, suggest wolves were still held in a certain amount of esteem for their ferocity amongst the Britons in the 6th century.

However, in Arthurian mythology, Rhymi, who goes ‘in the form of a she-wolf’, and her whelps, Gwyddrud and Gwydden ‘two old men from the land of enchantment’, are hunted down by Arthur and changed ‘back into their own shape’. Arthur contends with Gwrgi Garwlwyd, ‘Rough Grey’, another wolfish shapeshifter, and slaughters cynvyd, ‘dog-heads’ ‘by the hundred’.

Britishwolfhunt Wikipedia Commons

Wolves continued to be heavily persecuted into the Middle Ages because they preyed on flocks, devoured the corpses of the dead after battles, and dug them up after burial. The Welsh King Hywel Da paid a tribute of 300 wolf-skins to King Athelstan in 950. Norman kings employed wolf hunters who operated wolf-pits and allowed criminals to pay for their crimes in wolf-tongues rather than being put to death.

Edward I ordered the extermination of all wolves from England and Edward II followed in his footsteps. This led to their extinction from England and Wales in the 15th century and Scotland in the 19th century.

***

Of all extinct animals wolves seem to speak to humans the loudest. This is demonstrated by our plethora of last wolf stories and the comparative lack of tales about the last elk, aurochs, lynx, beaver…

I’m always surprised by how many people in the Pagan community have wolf guides. This seems to go deeper than them simply being ‘cool’ and may have a basis in their presence within the landscape as animals we shared a sacred relationship with for many thousands of years.

Wolves haunt us. Their absence from our physical and spiritual ecosystems leaves a yawning howling gap that, like Bwlch Safan y Ci, ‘the Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, will never be closed.

wolf-clipart-19 Public Domain

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SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin, Y Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Ed Yong, ‘Origin of Domestic Dogs‘, The Scientist,
Janice Short, ‘Wolf’s Tale’, The Wolves and Humans Foundation,
James Stockdale, Annals of Cartmel, (Kessinger, 2010)
Jason Smalley, ‘England’s Last Wolf‘, Way of the Buzzard
Jerome Mercier, The Last Wolf, (Grange Over Sands, 1906)
John Briggs, The Remains of John Briggs (Kessinger, 2010)
Marianne Sommer, Bones and Ochre: The Curious Afterlife of the Red Lady of Paviland, (Harvard University Press, 2008)
Natural Historian, ‘Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den‘, Naturalis Historia,
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Arthur and the Porter’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective,
Ice Age Wolf Bones found in Thornton Cleveleys Garden‘, BBC News,
Wolves in Great Britain‘, Wikipedia,

Grey Geese and Oracles

Between September and November grey geese arrive in my locality. I’ve seen a local flock of greylag geese on the stretch of the river Ribble near Howick Cross at this time two years running. Greylags are the ancestors of domestic geese and residents in the UK all year round; migratory birds are only found in Scotland. This flock also contains Canada and domestic geese.

Greylag Geese, Ribble

Greylag geese, river Ribble

More dramatically pink-footed geese begin arriving from Iceland and Greenland. They can be heard flying overhead to WWT Martin Mere. This year the first group touched down on September the 9th and there are currently 15000 roosting on the reserve.

Pink-footed Geese, Martin Mere

Pink-footed geese, Martin Mere

Watching their return to the last fragment of Martin Mere at sunset is awe-inspiring. One can only imagine the noise and patterns of the skeins before the Lancashire’s Lost Lake, once 15 miles long, was drained.

Pink-footed Geese, Martin Mere

Pink-footed geese return at sunset, Martin Mere

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In the folklore of northern England, the cries of migrating geese are linked to Gabriel Ratchets. ‘Gabriel’ may derive from the name of the Angel of Death, the ‘gabble’ of geese, or the medieval word gabbe, ‘corpse’. ‘Ratchet’ originates from the Old English ‘ræcc’ meaning a ‘a dog that hunts by scent’.

The earliest record of Gabriel Ratchets is from 1664. Whilst living at Coley Hall in the Calder Valley, Reverend Oliver Heywood wrote in his Memoranda:

‘There is also a strange noise in the air heard of many in these parts this winter, called Gabriel-Ratches by this country-people, the noise is as if a great number of whelps were barking and howling, and ‘tis observed that if any see them the persons that see them die shortly after, they are never heard but before a great death or dearth… Though I never heard them.’

In his Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1879), William Henderson suggests the ‘belief in a pack of spectral hounds’ originates from ‘the strange un-earthly cries, so like the yelping of dogs, uttered by wild fowl on their passage southwards.’

Lancashire folklorist James Bowker notes, in his Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1879), ‘Mr Yarrell, the distinguished naturalist, reduces the cries of the Gabriel Hounds, into the whistling of the Bean Goose… as the flocks are flying southward in the night, migrating from Scandinavia.’

Bean Goose, WWT Slimbridge, Wikipedia Commons

Bean Goose, WWT Slimbridge, Wikipedia Commons

This appears to be a mistake: bean geese migrate from Scandinavia to Norfolk and southern Scotland. Here in Lancashire it seems more likely that pink-footed geese, with their ‘high-pitched honking calls, being particularly vocal in flight, with large skeins being almost deafening’ would have been associated with Gabriel Ratchets. The pink-footed goose is closely related to the Bean Goose and was once considered a subspecies. Perhaps Mr Yarrell conflated the two.

Gabriel Ratchets are often associated with a spectral huntsmen. This may originate from pagan beliefs about ‘the Wild Hunt’ which takes place at the time of year geese migrate. In Norse and Germanic tradition it is usually led by Odin or Woden, to whom a goose was sacrificed on the Autumn Equinox. The Germanic goddess, Berchta, has a goose-foot and also leads a hunt with a goose flying in front of her. Dancers in her processions, the Berchten, wear bird-masks.

In Brythonic tradition a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Gwyn ap Nudd. His hounds are known as Cwn Annwn ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, Cwn Wybyr ‘Hounds of the Sky’, or Cwn Cyrff, ‘Corpse Hounds’. Like the Gabriel Ratchets they are seen as death portents because they hunt the souls of the dead. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn who oversees the passage of souls between the worlds, which is mirrored by the migrations of geese.

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Goose is traditionally eaten on Martinmas, November the 11th, which is dedicated to St Martin of Tours. This festival ‘originated in France, then spread to the Low Countries, the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe’. Martin attempted to hide in a goose pen to avoid being ordained as a bishop, but was given away by the cackling of geese. (I can’t help noticing connections between Martin, Martin Mere and geese…)

Roast goose, all things clipart

After the feast, divination was performed by the breast-bone. In 1455, Dr Hartlieb wrote, ‘When the goose has been eaten on St Martin’s Day or Night, the oldest and most sagacious keeps the breast-bone and allowing it to dry until the morning examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet.’ In Hampshire ‘the nature of the coming winter’ was divined from a breast-bone and, in Yorkshire, weather was predicted from the colour of goose-flesh.

The British Apollo (1708) poses the question why the ‘breast of a fowl’ is ‘called the Merry Thought’ and provides the answer, ‘The original of that name was doubtless from the pleasant fancies that commonly arise from the breaking of that bone, and ‘twas then first certainly so called, when these merry notions were first started.’ Every Commercialmas someone in my family breaks the ‘wish-bone’ of our turkey and makes a wish.

These traditions are rooted in a wide-spread belief that the goose was an oracular bird. It has been argued this derives from the Etruscans who ‘believed geese had supernatural visionary powers as oracle birds with these prophetic powers residing within its bones’ and was brought to Britain by the Romans.

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Our understanding of the oracles of geese has diminished; drained away with their wetland homes. We can no longer tell, from the cacophany of voices barking overhead, who carries news and who carries a death portent. Goose is rarely eaten in Britain, with the tradition of rearing flocks of domestic geese for food, particularly for during the festive season, being replaced by turkey farming. Divination has been reduced to a facile act of wish-fulfilment in a world increasingly disconnected from the language of the divine.

Yet, whilst there are geese, there is hope that their language can be re-learnt by re-attuning to their flight paths, their life ways, listening to their gabble, divining how this relates to teachings from our gods. Perhaps, as pumps are shut down and wetlands are re-flooded, our abilities to divine will return with the geese.

Martin Mere at Sunset

Martin Mere at sunset

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SOURCES

 Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover, 1958)
James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (Classic Reprint, 2015)
William Henderson, Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (Create Space, 2014)
‘Origin of the Wishbone Tradition’, Republic of You Blog
‘The Gabble Ratchets’, Ghosts and Legends of the Lower Calder Valley
Pink-Footed Goose, RSPB
WWT Martin Mere

Du y Moroedd

Black horse of wonder
Black horse of terror
Black of the seas
Take me under

Du y Moroedd Devotional Art Benllech Beach

Devotional Art for Du y Moroedd on Benllech beach, Anglesey

Du y Moroedd, ‘Black of the Seas’, is a legendary water-horse in Brythonic tradition. His fame is attested by Taliesin in ‘The Song of the Horses’, ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’.

He is referred to in The Triads of the Islands of Britain in ‘44. Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’:

‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr, who carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’

This passage shows that Du is not only a sea-going water-horse, as his name suggests, but of supernatural size and strength to be able to carry seven-and-a-half people and swim vast distances. He is intimately associated with the sea-lanes between northern Britain and Wales; perhaps sightings of him off the west coast were once common.

Triad 44 is set in the mid-6th century and has a historical basis. According to The Black Book of Chirk, Elidyr made a voyage from his home in the Old North to Wales to press the claim of his wife, Eurgain, to the throne of Gwynedd following the death of Maelgwn in 547, because Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, was illegitimate. Elidyr was slain at Aber Mewdus in Arfon. An army of northern men, including Clyddno Eiddin, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael, and Rhydderch Hael avenged Elidyr by burning Arfon, then were driven back north by Rhun to the river Gweryd.

Morecambe Bay, Lancashire

Morecambe Bay, Lancashire

In Brigantia, Guy Ragland Phillips conjectures that Du might be identified with the Black Horse of Bush Howe in the Howgill Fells in Cumbria. He suggests Elidyr’s northern Benllech was Bush Howe and cites an alignment down Long Rigg Beck valley to Morecambe to Anglesey, saying the horse would be within its line of sight. This might have been the route taken by Du and his riders. ‘Benllech in Mon’ is likely to be present-day Benllech on Anglesey.

Benllech beach, Anglesey

Benllech Beach, Anglesey

Elidyr’s voyage aboard Du with seven-and-a-half or eight people was well known by Welsh poets until the early 16th century. Tudur Aled says ‘Of greater vigour than Du’r Moroedd, such was his strength and daring… for a spree with the cold wind, eight men formerly went upon his back’. Guto’r Glyn speaks of a foal whose ‘mother was a daughter to that horse of Mon who went to carry eight men: Du y Moroedd has grandsons – this one, I know was one of them.’

Another renowned rider of Du is Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic hunter-god and ruler of Annwn. In Culhwch and Olwen it is stated ‘No steed with be of any use to Gwyn in hunting Twrch Trwyth, except Du, the steed of Moro Oerfeddog’ (the latter is a jumbling of Du’s name).

Because he fails to recruit Gwyn, Arthur does not manage to kill Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, who finally escapes into the sea. Only the otherworldly Gwyn can ride Du to hunt the Twrch into the ocean, which might also be identified with Annwn, ‘the Deep’, ‘the Otherworld’.

Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Nodens, is pictured in a chariot pulled by four water-horses. At Vindolanda Nodens is equated with Neptune. Both Neptune (as Neptune Equester) and his Greek counterpart, Poseidon (as Poseidon Hippios) were associated with sea-horses (hippocampi).

Intriguingly we find a story in Irish mythology called ‘The Pursuit of Giolla Deacair’ featuring Gwyn’s cognate, Fionn, wherein fifteen-and-half of Fionn’s men are abducted into the sea by a water-horse.

Giolla Deacair, ‘the Troublesome Slave’ and his horse are taken in by Fionn. Both are described as monstrous. Giolla has a ‘twisted mouth with long pointed teeth projected from it at all angles’ and ‘eyes like black holes in the skull of a corpse’. He drags a large iron club leaving ‘a deep trench in the ground’.

His horse is described as ‘dirty, shaggy hair covered its long, spiny back and the ribs were sticking out through its sides. Its legs and feet were crooked and splayed and a leg that seemed too large for his body dangled awkwardly from a scrawny neck.’

The horse causes trouble amongst the other horses. Feargus tells Conan to jump on its back and ride it across country to break its spirit. However, it will not move until it carries the weight of its rider, Giolla Deacair, which is equal to fifteen men. This shows Giolla and his horse are gigantic. The men pummel and kick the horse yet still it won’t move.

Infuriated by his horse’s mistreatment, Giolla leaves. His horse follows with the men ‘welded’ to him ‘like a sword to its hilt’. Fionn and his remaining warriors follow, but no matter how fast they pursue the horse goes even faster, like the wind, over mountains, rivers, and valleys until reaching the sea. As it shoots into the waves one of Fionn’s warriors grabs onto its tail.

We are told that, as it journeys through the sea, ‘The waves did not touch it nor the fifteen Fianna on its back, nor the unfortunate man clinging to its tail. Instead, the water parted before the animal, so that it travelled on a path of dry land.’ We might imagine Du travelling similarly.

Fionn and his men sail after Giolla and his horse to where the riders are imprisoned in Tír fo Thuinn, ‘The Land Under the Wave’. Giolla reveals he is a magician called Abartach. Fionn’s marriage to Taise persuades Abartach to release his men. As retribution Goll claims fourteen of Abartach’s women to return on the horse’s back and his wife to cling onto the horse’s tail.

This tale suggests Du also originates from the watery regions of the Otherworld. I wonder whether, like Giolla’s horse, Du had an earlier otherworldly owner whose name and stories have been forgotten. Perhaps there was once a story about how Gwyn came to ride Du between worlds.

Du also shares resemblances with the Welsh ceffyl dwr, the northern British dobbie, and the Scottish kelpie. The latter are notorious for luring humans onto their backs then drowning them. Once a rider has mounted, their hand sticks to the kelpie’s neck and they cannot let go.

Du’s stories have fascinated me since I heard his splashing hoofbeats approaching whilst meditating on the Ribble estuary. When I travel to the west coast his presence is always on the edges of my mind: his great arched neck, his oar-like legs, the multitude of riders he has carried. My fingers are caught in his mane and he is forever drawing me toward the Otherworld…

Irish Sea from Morecambe

The Irish Sea from Morecambe Bay