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

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

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.

P1220448

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

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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

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

***

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

You are in the Dark Tower

A while back I dreamt of watching a film in a cinema. The centrepiece was a dark tower on a looming hill. Turning on its foundations, raising and dropping its drawbridge, it possessed the power to command the shifting landscape, influence the weather, and draw people into its swallowing darkness.

At the end of the film the lights went off and a voiceover resonated through the cinema and every molecule of my being: “You are in the Dark Tower”. I believed the statement to be wholly true and was struck by a combination of fear and anticipation and the fulfilling of my destiny.

But the other people seemed completely unfazed. They continued munching popcorn, crackling crisp packets, slurping on straws, and laughing amongst themselves at the ‘special effects’. I felt incredibly angry they did not heed the otherworldly voice. The magic broke. I awoke.

***

I researched ‘the Dark Tower’ and learnt it appears in the folktale of ‘Childe Roland’. Reading this dismal story of a knight (‘childe’ means untested knight) assaulting the Dark Tower, which is identified with the castle of the King of Elfland/Fairyland, left me soul-weary. I’d heard its like so many times before….

The first record of ‘Childe Rowland’ is in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606). Edgar, an exiled son in the guise of Tom O’Bedlam, recites its jumbled lines to a maddened Lear on the heath:

Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.

The first whole version is recorded in Jamieson’s Illustrations of Northern Antiquities (1814). The sons of King Arthur; Rowland and his two elder brothers, are playing ball around a kirk. Their sister, Burd Ellen, runs after the ball, and disappears. Merlin tells them Ellen has been ‘carried away by fairies’ to ‘the castle of the King of Elfland.’

Rowland’s brothers fail to rescue Ellen because they do not follow Merlin’s instructions. Merlin tells Rowland to kill everyone he meets in the land of Fairy and not to eat or drink anything offered. Rowland asks directions to the king’s castle from a fairy horse-herd, cow-herd, sheep-herd, goat-herd, swine-herd, and hen-wife. After they aid him, he remorselessly beheads them.

He arrives at ‘a round green hill surrounded with rings (terraces) from the bottom to the top’ and walks around it widdershins saying, “Open, door! open, door! and let me come in!” Through a twilight passage he enters a brilliant hall adorned with gold, silver, and clusters of diamonds, illumined by ‘an immense lamp of one hollowed pearl’ with a magically turning carbuncle.

Ellen sits on a sofa of ‘velvet, silk, and gold’. She warns Rowland that the King of Elfland poses a threat to his life yet, enspelled, offers him a golden bowl of bread and milk. When Rowland refuses to consume the fairy food the King of Elfland bursts through the doors yelling:

“With ‘fi, fi, fo, and fum!
I smell the blood of a Christian man!
Be he dead, be he living, wi’ my brand
I’ll clash his harns frae his harn-pan!”

“Strike, then, Bogle of Hell, if thou darest!” Rowland exclaims. He defeats the King of Elfland and offers to spare his life if he restores his brothers, who lie in trance in the corner of the hall, and Ellen. The King agrees. Producing a ‘small crystal phial’ he anoints the ‘lips, nostrils, eye-lids, ears, and finger-ends’ of the brothers with a ‘bright red liquor’. They awake ‘as from a profound sleep, during which their souls had quitted their bodies’ to speak visions.

In Joseph Jacob’s retelling in English Fairy Tales (1890) the brothers are not entranced but dead. Rowland demands the King ‘raise my brothers to life’ and ‘they sprang at once into life, and declared that their souls had been away, but had now returned.’ Fairyland is the land of the dead. Rolande’s quest, like Arthur’s before him, is to defeat the ruler of the dead and death itself.

***

This tale is repeated in Robert Browning’s poem ‘Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower Came’ (1895), which is based on a dream and written in the first person from Rowland’s perspective.

The guiding figure of Merlin is replaced by a ‘hoary cripple with malicious eye’ and ‘skull-like laugh’. The landscape is a ‘grey plain’ devoid of life aside from bruised dock and grass ‘scant as hair / In leprosy.’ Instead of herds, Rowland finds a single ‘stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare.’

He is tormented by visions of other knights who set out to the Dark Tower and did not return: ‘Cuthbert’s reddening face / Beneath its garniture of curly gold’ and ‘Giles then, the soul of honour… faugh! what hangman hands / Pin to his breast a parchment?’

Fording a river lined with a ‘suicidal throng’ of ‘drench’d willows’ he is terrified of standing on a ‘dead man’s cheek’ or tangling his spear in ‘his hair or beard’. On the otherside he journeys across a trampled battlefield, through a furlong with an engine ‘fit to reel / Men’s bodies out like silk’, then over marsh, bog, clay, and rubble, to be led by a ‘great black bird’ with unbeating wings to his destination in the ‘mere ugly heights and heaps’ of the mountains.

‘The Tower itself’ is ‘the round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart, / Built of brown stone, without a counterpart / In the whole world’. The ‘tempest’s mocking elf’ he aims to ‘stab and end’.

The poem ends with a vision of the dead:

There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew “Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came.”

It is is repeated again in Stephen King’s eight part dark fantasy series The Dark Tower (1982 – 2012) where Roland Deschain, a member of a knightly order of ‘gunslingers’ of ‘Arthur’s eld’ battles against ‘the Crimson King’.

***

This old tale of the sword-wielding, gun-toting ‘hero’ overcoming the fay and the dead and ultimately the King of the Otherworld has been repeating since Arthur defeated the Head of Annwn.

It’s so deeply ingrained in our consciousness we can’t imagine any other telling.

We sit munching popcorn confident the ‘hero’ will win and the ‘bad guy’ with his ‘fi, fi, fo and fum’ is all special effects.

What if that’s not the case? What if the knights in shining armour are rusting on the scrap heap of a false history, their journey is at an end, we are in the Dark Tower, and the King of Elfland is not just a one-dimensional comic book villain?

What new stories will unfold from the unknighted, the armourless, the weaponless?

Will we wait for the ‘hero’ to save us or is this where our story finally begins?

You are in the Dark Tower

St Michael's Tower, Glastonbury Tor

The Dark Tower on the green terraces of Glastonbury Tor

Nodens and the Serpents of the Deep

Nodens is in an ancient British god of hunting/fishing, water, the weather, healing, and dreams. ‘Nodens’ has been translated as ‘the Catcher’ and ‘Cloud-Maker’, and ‘Deus Nodens’ as ‘God of the Abyss’ and ‘God of the Deep’. The latter links him with Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the underworld. The nursery rhyme name for the dreamworld, ‘the Land of Nod’, derives from ‘Nodens’.

Nodens is a god of the subliminal realms beneath the everyday world and their hidden processes. This is suggested by the imagery of his Romano-British dream-temple at Lydney. In the centre was a mosaic depicting two blue and white sea-serpents with intertwined necks and striking red flippers. William Bathurst likens them to the icthyosaurus, ‘fish lizard’, of the late Triassic and early Jurassic whose remains have been found across Europe and Asia.

Mosaic from Nodens' temple

The mosaic also depicts numerous fish, possibly salmon, which would fit with salmon fishing on the river Severn, which the temple overlooks, and the legend of the salmon of Llyn Lliw carrying Arthur’s men up the Severn to Gloucester to rescue Mabon.

An inscription on the mosaic reads: ‘D(eo) N(oenti) T(itus) Flavious Senilis, pr(aepositus) rel(oqiatopmo), ex stipibus possuit o [pus cur]ante Victorio inter[pret]e.’ ‘The god Nodens, Titus Flavious Senilis, officer in charge of the supply-depot of the fleet, laid this pavement out of money offerings; the work being in charge of Victorious, interpreter of the Governor’s staff.’ It has been argued Victorio inter[pret]e, ‘Victorious, interpreter’ was an interpreter of dreams.

Another artefact found in Nodens’ temple was a bronze plaque from a priest’s ceremonial headdress. Nodens rides from the deep on a chariot pulled by four water-horses. He wears a crown, carries a sceptre in his right hand, and a sea-serpent is looped around his left arm. Flanking him are two winged wind-spirits and two icthyocentaurs, ‘fish-centaurs’ or ‘centaur tritons’, with heads and chests of men, front hooves of horses, and tails of fish. They carry hammers and anchors. Beneath is another icthyocentaur with a hammer and chisel and a fisherman with a short tail and gills hooking a fish, which could be a salmon.

Plate XIII Bathurst

All of this imagery is suggestive of the deep: rivers, the sea, and the depths of the dreamworld/underworld where prehistory gives birth to myth and the boundaries between species break down.

Pilgrims came to Lydney for dream-healing. They would arrive at the guesthouse, bathe in the baths, then make offerings to Nodens through a funnel in his temple (which suggests he dwelled below in the deep). They would then retire to a long row of cells to enter a sacred (likely drug-induced) sleep during which they would receive a vision from Nodens. The dream-interpreter would listen to the dream then suggest a method of healing based on Nodens’ message.

Offerings included coins and several beautifully crafted bronze hounds. It is likely dogs were present to lick the wounds of the injured to aid in the healing process. They may also have acted as psychopomps guiding the sleepers through the dreamworld. The son of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn ap Nudd, had a red-nosed dog called Dormach with two serpents’ tails.

***

Nodens’ temple was built on an iron ore mine and he was known as ‘Lord of the Mines’. This may explain the hammers and chisels carried by the icthyocentaurs. Mines are associated with the chthonic depths of the underworld and its riches, which are often guarded by serpents.

Intriguingly a man called Silvianus vowed half the worth of a 12g golden ring to Nodens in exchange for withholding health from its thief, Senicianus, until it was ‘returned to the Temple of Nodens’. The ring was dug up in a field in Silchester in 1785 with a new inscription: Seniciane vivas in deo, ‘Senicianus, may you live in God’. What was originally inscribed on it remains unknown. It seems possible it served a ritual function in Nodens’ temple.

Ring of Silvianus - Wikipedia Commons

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states ‘I have a carved ring, a white horse gold-adorned’. His ring is an important part of his symbology and  might have been a gift from his father. Angelika Rüdiger links its circularity with the ouroboros.

The ouroboros first appears in ‘The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld’ in the ancient Egyptian Funerary text KV62, which focuses on the union of the sun-god Ra with Osiris, god of the underworld. In an illustration two serpents with their tails in their mouths coil around the unified Ra-Osiris. The image represents the beginning and the end of time.

The ouroboros was passed on to the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks who gave it its name. In Greek oura means ‘tail’ and boros ‘eating’, thus ‘tail eater’. The ouroboros appears in most cultures across the world and throughout history.

A pair of sea-serpents are central to Nodens’ temple. He holds a sea-serpent. It seems possible two ouroboros serpents may have been carved on a ring worn by Nodens and passed on to his son, representing their knowledge of the depths of time where beginning and end meet as they bite their tails. Silvianus’ ring may have been a replica of this powerful mythic artefact.

It’s rumoured that Tolkien based his One Ring on the ring from the temple of Nodens and that Nodens, ‘Lord of the Mines’ was a precursor to Sauron, ‘Lord of the Rings’.*

***

In medieval Welsh literature Nodens appears as Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint, ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’. Their linguistic connection is certified by a bronze arm found in the temple of Nodens.

Nobody knows how Lludd lost his arm or how his silver one was made. Parallels might be found with his Irish cognate, Nuada Airgeadlámh, ‘Nuada Silver Arm’, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who lost his arm battling against the Fir Bolg. Because of his physical imperfection Nuada was replaced as king by the tyrant, Bres. After Bres was removed Nuada was restored to sovereignty with a new silver arm made by the healer Dian Cecht.

In the story of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd’s sovereignty is also under threat. Although he is described as ‘a good warrior, and benevolent and bountiful in giving food and drink to all who sought it’ he is unable to defend Britain from three plagues; perhaps this is due to his missing arm.

The first plague is a people called the Coraniaid who cannot be harmed because they can hear all  conversations on the wind. The second is a scream every May eve that causes such terror that men lose their strength, women miscarry, youths go mad, and the land becomes barren. The third is the disappearance of the year’s supply of food and drink from the king’s courts.

This story is set during Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC. The Coraniaid are the Caesariad, ‘Romans’ and the other plagues seem linked to the ill effects of their attacks. Lludd, of course, was not a ‘real’ king at that time but a divine ruler of the underworld who may have been called upon by the Britons for aid against the Romans.

Unable to defeat the plagues himself, Lludd is forced to seek the aid of his brother, Llefelys, ‘king of France’. Llefelys instructs Lludd to poison the Coraniaid with insects crushed into water. He then explains the scream: ‘that is a dragon, and a dragon of another foreign people is fighting it and trying to overthrow it, and because of that your dragon gives out a horrible scream.’

Red and white dragons - from 15th C History of the Kings of Britain - Wikipedia Commons

Lludd’s dragon represents the Britons and the other dragon the Romans. Lludd, again, is connected with two dragons/serpents. Will Parker has likened Lludd’s dragon’s scream to ‘the scream over Annwfn’, a ‘mysterious ritual frenzy’ uttered by a person threatened with losing their claim to inherited land. It may have originated as an invocation of the spirits of Annwfn to bring about madness and barrenness. Likewise Lludd’s dragon screams as its land is lost to the Romans, blighting all who live there. Lludd has lost control of these chthonic forces.

Llefelys teaches Lludd to put an end to the second plague by a complex ritual process. He must measure Britain, length and breadth, and locate its centre. This omphalos, ‘navel’, turns out to be Oxford. It is of interest that the Greek omphalos, Delphi, was formerly known as Pytho and its oracle, the Pythian priestess, spoke with the aid of the whispering python coiled beneath.

Could Oxford have been the location of a dragon (or dragons) who whispered prophecies from the navel of Britain? Dragon Hill lies 50 miles outside Oxford. Its connections with Uther Pendragon and a dragon-slaying by Saint George are suggestive of an older and deeper mythos.

Lludd is instructed to dig a hole at the centre of Britain then place in it a vat of mead with a sheet of brocaded silk over the top. Llefelys says, ‘You will see the dragons fighting in the shape of monstrous animals. But eventually they will rise into the air in the shape of dragons; and finally when they are exhausted after the fierce and frightful fighting, they will fall onto the sheet in the shape of two little pigs, and make the sheet sink down with them, and drag it to the bottom of the vat, and they will drink all the mead, and after that they will fall asleep.’

This scene depicts the return of the escapee dragons to the omphalos of Britain and the deep. It is intriguing that they are not just dragons but are capable of taking many different forms. It is possible to perceive a mythic and perhaps evolutionary development in their shapeshifting from ‘monstrous animals’ beyond description to ‘dragons’ to two seemingly innocent ‘little pigs’.

Finally Llefelys tells Lludd to ‘wrap the sheet around them, and in the strongest place you can find in your kingdom, bury them in a stone chest and hide it in the ground, and as long as they are in that secure place, no plague shall come to the island of Britain from anywhere else.’

Lludd buries the dragons at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The next time they cause trouble is during the reign of Vortigern. Every time he attempts to build a fortress on the hill it falls down. Merlin Emrys reveals to him that the cause is two dragons battling. The red one represents the Welsh and the white one the Anglo-Saxons.

Llefelys informs Lludd that the food and drink are stolen from his court by a magician who uses a sleep spell. He suggests Lludd step in a tub of cold water to keep himself roused. Lludd defeats the magician in combat, all that is lost is restored, and the magician becomes his vassal.

All three plagues are defeated. The chthonic forces of Annwfn are brought back under Lludd’s control. Caesar’s invasion of Britain fails. Lludd and Llefelys depicts the mythic processes beneath this historical period, which the Druids and seers who interacted with the deities of the underworld might have been aware of and perhaps instigated with prayers and invocations.

Lludd reigns ‘until the end of his life’ ‘in peace and prosperity’. One wonders whether Llefelys had a role in creating Lludd’s silver arm…

It seems Lludd’s ‘kingdom’, Annwfn, the deep, is passed on to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, whose role is to contain the spirits of Annwfn to prevent them from bringing about the end of the world.

Does Gwyn’s inheritance include the serpents of the deep: beings who are older than gods, whose ‘battles’ may be less about conflicts between groups of humans than the regenerative processes that shape the earth through the aeons, through the beginnings and endings of each world?

***

*Tolkien advised Sir Mortimer Wheeler on his excavation of Lydney in 1938

SOURCES

Angelika Heike Rüdiger, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: A First and Frame Deity, Temple 13, (Temple Publications)
Caitlin Matthews and Jane Dagger, ‘Temple of Nodens Incubation’ http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/temple-of-nodens-incubation
Elizabeth A. Grey (transl), The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, (Forgotten Books, 2007)
Greg Hill (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Sylvia Victor Linsteadt, ‘The Return of the Snake’ http://theindigovat.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/the-return-of-snake.html
William Hiley Bathurst, Roman Antiquities at Lydney Park, https://archive.org/details/romanantiquitie00bathgoog
‘The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley’s Celts and Romans’ http://www.deanweb.info/history4.html

The Two Birds of Gwenddolau

In The Triads of the Island of Britain we find two triads referring to ‘the two birds of Gwenddolau’.

The first is Triad 10. W ‘Three Chieftains of Deira and Bernicia, and they were three bards, and three sons of Dissynyndawd, who performed the Three Fortunate Slayings’; ‘Gall son of Dissynyndawd who slew the two birds of Gwenddolau, who were guarding his gold and his silver: two men they used to eat for their dinner, and as much again for their supper.’

The second is Triad 32. ‘Three Men who performed the Three Fortunate Slaughters’. ‘Gall son of Dysgyfawd who slew the two birds of Gwenddolau. And they had a yoke of gold on them. Two corpses of the Cymry they ate for dinner, and two for their supper.’

These birds must have been significant and held a sinister reputation if their deaths are recorded twice amongst the three fortunate slaughters/slayings of the island of Britain.

Who or what were they and why were they so feared so much?

Birds who feast on the corpses of the dead are common in Brythonic tradition. To ‘feed the ravens’ or ‘feed the eagles’ is a common metaphor for death. Gwyn ap Nudd, a death-god, appears with ravens who ‘croak’ on ‘flesh’ and ‘gore’. In the Heledd Cycle the eagle of Eli drinks ‘has swallowed fresh drink, / heart blood of Cyndylan the fair’ and wallows in the blood of ‘fair men’. Similarly the eagle of Pengwern ‘is eager for the flesh of Cyndylan’.

Interestingly August Hunt suggests a possible etymology for Arderydd, where Gwenddolau lived and was killed in battle. ‘Ardd = Hill’, ‘Erydd (= eryr) = Eagle) ‘Eagle-Hill or Eagle-Height’. He backs this up with lines in ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and His Sister, Gwenddydd’, gueith arderyd ac erydon’ ‘The Battle of Arderyd and the Eagles’.

It thus seems likely the two birds of Gwenddolau were eagles. We might enquire further ‘what kind of eagles?’ In the Heledd Cycle the eagle of Eli is clearly a white-tailed eagle (often referred to as a sea-eagle): ‘The eagle of Eli keeps the seas; / He will not course the fish in the Aber. / Let him call, let him look out for the blood of men!’

Haliaeetus_albicilla,_Mull_2 Wikipedia Commons

Ian L. Baxter argues that the white-tailed eagle is the ‘carrion-gulper’ of Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry in which ‘men… gave the eagle food’; ‘Olaf feeds the eagles… the erne* drinks his supper’. He notes the white-tailed eagle is a ‘predator, scavenger and kelptoparasite’ and has a ‘marked preference for carrion… compared with the golden eagle’. Thus I believe Gwenddolau’s birds were white-tailed eagles.

Parallels with Irish stories where pairs of birds bound by gold or silver chains are transformed humans suggest Gwenddolau’s two eagles may be of human origin. Owain Rheged’s army are depicted as ravens who attack Arthur’s army, first carrying off their heads, eyes, ears, and arms, then seizing men into the sky and tearing them apart between each other.

On the Papil Stone we find a fascinating portrayal of two axe-wielding human warriors with bird’s heads and long beaks with a human head between their beaks. It seems possible Gwenddolau’s birds were warriors transformed into white-tailed eagles.

Papilstone

Their ritualised eating of two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and two for supper may symbolise Gwenddolau’s brutality as a warlord who slays four of his Cymric neighbours every day. Or it might refer obliquely to him practicing excarnation – leaving the bodies of his own Cymric people to be eaten by the birds before they were buried. Whatever the case, their corpse-eating certainly inspired a significant amount of fear across the island of Britain.

It is of interest the birds were also seen as guardians of Gwenddolau’s gold and silver. Gwenddolau was renowned for ‘gathering booty from every border’. One of his most treasured possessions was a golden chessboard with silver men who, once set, played by themselves.

How Gall son of Dysgyfawd slew the two birds of Gwenddolau remains unknown. It might be conjectured that they were slain after Gwenddolau was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 and his ‘Faithful War Band’ who ‘continued the battle for a fortnight and month’ were killed.

The death of Gwenddolau and his two birds, like Diffydell Dysgyfawd’s slaying of Gwrgi Garwlwyd, ‘Rough Grey’, who ‘used to make a corpse  of one of the Cymry every day, and two on each Saturday so as not to (slay) one on the Sunday’ might be seen to form part of a process of eradicating shapeshifters associated with the pagan world. Gwrgi’s appearance alongside ‘dog-heads’ in ‘Pa Gur’ suggests he was a dog-headed man who feasted on human flesh.

These beings may once have been considered psychopomps by the pre-Christian peoples of Britain, devouring the flesh of the dead and conveying their souls to the Otherworld, who appeared increasingly uncanny and threatening as pagan beliefs were eliminated and replaced by Christian ones.

In the Neolithic Tomb of the Eagles on Orkney the bones of eight white-tailed eagles were found alongside human remains. It is likely they were buried with the humans as guides into the next life. Perhaps the birds’ associations with treasure might be linked to their custodianship of the wealth of the grave and guardianship of grave goods?

No white-tailed eagles soar over Arderydd anymore. White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 as a consequence of their poisoning and shooting by gamekeepers because they were viewed as threat to livestock and gamebirds. The slaughter of the two birds of Gwenddolau forms an unhappy precedent to the white-tailed eagle’s extinction.

However, white-tailed eagles have been reintroduced to the west coast of Scotland. Since their reintroduction in 1975, 140 have returned to the wild. Still they are threatened by those who seek to poison them and to steal their eggs. We have a long way to go to restoring the sense of sanctity surrounding these birds which was clearly in decline around the time of Gwenddolau.

~

In this poem I attempt to evoke the presence of the two birds of Gwenddolau:

Two warriors fight over the corpse;
two sea-eagles juggling,

sun-yellow metatarsals
a band around the head crushing,
beaks yellow, sharp-tipped,
spliced tongues

darting the eyes
tugging out the optic nerve
sucking up the olfactory
clawing into the pit of the heart.
The sticky lungs are stretched between two beaks,
the duodenum unravelled to the stars like a birth cord.
Well-oiled beaks slide between joints
snipping ligaments.

They glean the bones.
The skull shines on the hilltop of the eagles.

As the extracted part flees like a glowing grain
toward the light of the Otherworld
they rattle their chain,

stomp their feathered legs
and laced up talons.

How long until they are free
to circle Arderydd white-tailed on strong brown wings
coursing for fish and skudding clawing feet
across the shining skin of the sea?

~

*Earn is Anglo-Saxon for white-tailed eagle and erne is Gaelic.

SOURCES

August Hunt, The Mysteries of Avalon, (August Hunt, 2011)
Ian L. Baxter, ‘Eagles in Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems’, https://www.academia.edu/29025802/Eagles_in_Anglo-Saxon_and_Norse_Poems
Kelly A. Kilpatrick, ‘The iconography of the Papil Stone’ http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_141/141_159_205.pdf
Mark Prigg, ‘The return of the sea eagle’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2216152/The-return-Sea-Eagle-Researchers-say-extinct-bird-thriving-Scottish-coast.html
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)
William F. Skene (transl), ‘The Heledd Cycle’ http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/h16.html

Gwyddbwyll – Why the War Games?

Gwyddbwyll is a Brythonic war game. The name derives from gwydd, ‘wood’, and pwyll, ‘sense’, hence ‘wood sense’. It is played with gwerin, which means both ‘pieces’ and ‘men’.

We find references to gwyddbwyll in a number of medieval Welsh texts. Together these suggest it was played by sovereigns and that the board represented their realm and the gwerin their army and the army of a rival. The board and gwerin are usually carved from gold or silver. The gwerin are anthropomorphic and magically endowed with a life of their own.

In The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the Roman Emperor, Macsen, dreams of a hall in which two lads are playing gwyddbwyll 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 watched over by a beautiful, lavishly dressed maiden who he falls in love with.

Macsen finds out the maiden is Elen Luyddog, ‘Elen of the Hosts’ and her castle is at Aber Saint. He travels from Rome to Elen’s hall where he finds her overlooking the gwyddbwyll boards just as in his dream and marries her. It seems likely the first gwyddbwyll board represents Elen’s old realm and the new one the realm she will rule alongside Macsen.

In Peredur, the protagonist sees a gwyddbwyll board in the Fortress of Wonders. The two sides are playing each other. When the side Peredur supports loses, the other side shouts ‘just as if they were men’. Angry because his side has lost, Peredur takes the pieces in his lap and throws the board into a lake.

A black-haired maiden enters saying, ‘May you not receive God’s welcome. You do evil more than good… You have made the empress lose her board, and she would not wish that for her empire.’ Again we find evidence that the gwyddbwyll board of a sovereign represents her realm.

The Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau is amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’. Gwenddolau ruled Arfderydd and may have been a ‘High King’ of northern Britain during the 6th century. The text states, ‘if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver’. It clearly had magical qualities.

Rhonabwy’s Dream features a gwyddbwyll match between Arthur and Owain Rheged. As they play, messengers arrive reporting that Arthur’s men are harassing then wounding and killing Owain’s ‘ravens’. Arthur refuses to call them off saying, “your move” and they play on.

The tides turn. As Owain’s ravens lift Arthur’s men into the skies and drop them in pieces, Owain refuses to call them off saying, “your move” and they play on. When Arthur finally loses his temper and crushes the golden pieces to dust everything becomes peaceful.

This shows gwyddbwyll was related to real wars via the logic of microcosm – macrocosm and suggests that matches had a divinatory function. Perhaps when the gwerin played by themselves they predicted the outcome of future battles.

***

Unfortunately we have no archaeological evidence for the existence of gwyddbwyll. This is odd because boards and counters for the Roman Ludus Latrunculorum, ‘The Game of Little Soldiers’, have been found at Housesteads, Vindolanda, and in the grave of a man from Stanway in AD 50 alongside diving rods suggesting it was buried with its owner and served a divinatory purpose.

Ludus Latrunculorum, modern reconstruction, Museum Quintana, Germany, Wikipedia Commons

Ludus Latrunculorum, modern reconstruction, Museum Quintana, Germany, Wikipedia Commons

These boards were wooden (as ‘wood sense’ might suggest) and have not rotted away. If gold and silver gwyddbwyll sets existed, which indeed might have been possible based on examples of Romano-British silversmithing such as the ‘Empress Pepper Pot’, surely they would have been found?

Empress Pepper Pot, British Museum, Wikipedia Commons

Empress Pepper Pot, British Museum, Wikipedia Commons

In Ireland we find a parallel game called fidchell, from fid, ‘wood’, and ciall, ‘intelligence’, also ‘wood sense’. Again it belongs to sovereigns, the board and pieces are made of gold and silver, and are anthropomorphic and endowed with their own life (in one instance ‘the queen is asleep’). Games are played for high stakes bound up with the livelihood of the realm. Likewise there is no archaeological evidence for its existence.

According to the Lebor Gabala Erenn, the god Lug brought fidchell to Ireland along with ball-play, horse racing and assembling. It seems possible that gwyddbwyll was also perceived to be of divine origin and introduced by the pan-Celtic god Lugus who is euhemerised in the medieval Welsh texts as Lleu Llaw Gyfes, ‘Lleu of the Skillful Hand’ and Lleog, ‘death-dealer’ or ‘flashing light’.

Although gwyddbwyll is the modern Welsh name for chess they should not be equated. Chess originated in India in the 6th century and spread to Spain via Persia, arriving in Britain with the Normans in the 12th century.

***

As I’ve conducted this research I’ve been nagged by a constant question, ‘Why the war games?’

The very concept of gwyddbwyll as a game played by sovereigns predicated on perpetual war between players and realms has felt increasingly problematic.

The gwyddbwyll board symbolises the fact that Britain’s sovereigns have always maintained their power through warfare and by positing a mentality of ‘us’ against ‘the enemy’.

It is no coincidence that Arthur, the first warlord to unite Britain, plays gwyddbwyll. Or that when he raids the Otherworld, subdues its deities, and steals its treasures he is aided by Lleog, the bringer of war games, with his deadly flashing sword.

Arthur’s reign is founded on his defending Britain from enemies within (such as giants, monsters, and the deities of the Otherworld) and from enemies without (such as the Anglo-Saxons).

This gwyddbwyll mentality has led to the Crusades, imperialism, colonialism, and to the War on Terror.

Whereas movements for electoral reform and the rights of minority groups have succeeded, anti-war protests and campaigns have consistently been ignored because war lies at the heart of Britain’s political and economic structure and maintains its hierarchies and elites.

We’re trapped on a gwyddbwyll board growing more terrified of attacks whilst the rulers muster their gwerin.

Where does our hope lie?

In breaking their rules, revealing their war games as ‘wood sense’, refusing to ‘play on’?