My Hawthorn Mind

Beneath the tall blue sky the white-blossomed hawthorns dance. Twisted, gnarled, they are beautiful in their imperfection. They cast no judgement on themselves or others.

People are not like trees with their constrictive norms of body and mind. Look at me from the outside and (aside from the lockdown hair which resembles something between a hedgehog, a mushroom, and a duck’s arse) and you will see a ‘normal’ thirty-eight-year-old woman – able-bodied, physically fit, average-looking. Talk to me at a Pagan or poetry event and I might pass. Get to know me over a few days, a month, a couple of years and you may notice the scars, physical and psychological, catch a glimpse of my hawthorn mind. The twists, the gnarls, the thorns turned out and in.

Since primary school I’ve felt mentally crippled. Highly intelligent but socially inept. Being speccy-four-eyed, pot-bellied in my puppy fat, and lower middle-class with a southern accent at a school on a northern council estate (which was once referred to as ‘the Beirut of Preston’) didn’t help. I was mercilessly bullied.

Eventually I learnt not to talk about the fairies at the bottom of my garden or my imaginary friends. To feign an interest in the other children’s gossip about each other and celebs and to watch the soaps so I could join in (even though I hated them and would much rather have been lost in the imaginal worlds of the Faraway Tree, Narnia, or Krynn).

When I hit my teens I found a crutch. Alcohol. It helped me disguise my social limp, to keep limping along when otherwise I’d have fallen flat on my face in a gormless heap. It quickly became a cure-all. It obliviated, for a while, my feeling of being different. It helped me find words when I had none, to kiss boys when I had no desire to, to find oblivion when I could not sleep, to dance when I wanted to lie down and die.

Between the drink and the drugs and working hard toward my philosophy and English degree I sometimes wondered what was wrong. It wasn’t until my third year when I had a particularly bad meltdown during which, in vision, I was sitting on a rock at the end of the world unable to decide whether to live or die, that I decided to seek help.

I got a standard diagnosis of ‘anxiety and depression’, a packet of anti-depressants, and a referral to a psychiatrist who refused to help me because I wasn’t suicidal at the time, despite having constant panic attacks, suffering from insomnia, and self-harming.

The anti-depressants worked and, perhaps partly because I couldn’t drink on them, I excelled in my final year. I gained a first by getting 80% on my dissertation on the sublime, the writing of which, unknown to my tutors, was my way of understanding the undoing of my own mind by panic brought about by social and/or sensory overwhelm.

After failing to get funding for my PhD, with a career in horses, and to write a fantasy novel, all the while continuing to battle with anxiety and depression and using alcohol again as crutch, I finally met my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. He helped me find meaning and purpose in my life as his awenydd, taking me to other worlds, and out of myself to perform poetry. For the first time in my life, in service to him, I did not fail. I wrote three books and the climax was the performance for Gatherer of Souls.

My depression lifted. I found I didn’t hate myself, others, or the world so much any more. When I discovered the possibility of finding paid work that fit with my vocation and hoped wouldn’t be too taxing on my mental health through volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust I found the strength to kick away the crutch.

Yet the anxiety I had been using alcohol to medicate remained and threatened to be my undoing as my dread of social situations and feeling of being overwhelmed grew. I tried the doctors again and, this time, refusing anti-depressants, was offered counselling.

Three months on, in the midst of lockdown, I’ve started CBT and, during this period, had a revelation that came not from my counsellor but from my mum which explains why I feel so different: she’d always thought I had Asperger’s, but didn’t know how to tell me!

Suddenly everything made sense. My highly focused interests: philosophy, horses, visionary poetry, Brythonic polytheism, my singular devotion to Gwyn. My problems with social communication and human relationships and inability to understand how other people can want to talk about each other and celebrities rather than pursuing ‘that one thing’. That my feelings of panic and overwhelm are symptoms of autistic meltdown.

That this is the reason I have been stuck in a constant cycle of wanting to find paid work and to have a small role in my communities locally and online, but failing because I don’t recognise the limitations brought about by Asperger’s, which lead to me getting anxious, overwhelmed, and burnt out, and giving up, and feeling like a failure.

That it’s likely I have Asperger’s was confirmed when I scored 7/10* in the AQ10 test on the phone with my counsellor a couple of days ago. I’m hoping for a referral to the Lancashire Autism Service (which I understand will take a while particularly at this time).

Looking back a part of me feels bitter. If I’d received a diagnosis as a child perhaps I would have recognised my limitations, wouldn’t have hated myself so much for being different, wouldn’t have got so anxious and depressed, (yet another whispers perhaps I’d have felt worse…).

Another part says I wouldn’t have learnt the lessons I’ve learnt. It’s possible that, living a more sheltered life, ‘the doors of the perception’ to the visionary realms would never have opened, that I’d never have met Gwyn and never become his awenydd.

My gut feeling is that now, during the lockdown, when I’ve got plenty of time to reflect on and process it and work through how it might affect me in the future and plan ahead, is the perfect time to find out. I might have gone to pieces otherwise.

As I walk beside the twisted white-blossomed hawthorns I come to understand my differences. To not only accept but celebrate the twists and gnarls of my hawthorn mind.

*6/10 or above suggests somebody has Asperger’s.

The Other Side of the Door

Porth-Annwfyn. Some numinous, arcane agnomen, but which to my dream cognition was livid as moonshine and did plainly signify: Gate of Elysium.’
David Jones

Porth Annwn ‘Door of the Otherworld’. Porth so easily rolling into ‘portal’. The type of door that not only forms both a barrier and an entranceway between here-and-there but transports elsewhere.

Doors are usually boundaries between rooms in a building or its inside and outside and gates serve a similar function in walls, fences, and hedges. Doors and gates that are portals transport between worlds.

Most famously, in the Brythonic tradition, in the poem ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ we find the lines ‘A rac drws porth Vffern, llugyrn lloscit’ ‘And in front of Hell’s gate lamps were burned.’ This suggests there is a gateway through which Arthur and his warriors travelled from Thisworld to the Otherworld and that lamps were burned in the course of a vigil until he and only seven of his men returned. Annwn, ‘the Deep’, was equated with Uffern ‘Inferno’ or ‘Hell’ by Christians in medieval Wales.

Although there a number of places known as ‘Hell’s Gate’ across the world I’ve never found one in Britain. Although, at liminal times, in liminal places, I have been transported to the Otherworld. I have no control over such events.

Finally, I was guided by the Witches of Pennant Gofid, who I believe were similarly devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd, my Lord of Annwn, to create my own doorway. They guided my hand in drawing it and decorating it with the head of Gwyn as bull-of-battle, shapeshifting horses and hounds, and two new guides – a bird man and antlered woman. The teeth symbolise it being the maw of Dormach, Gwyn’s Death Hound. the Jaws of Death.

When I step out of the door it is always into a misty hinterland. Occasionally I’m standing on solid ground, but often it’s marsh, and more often I’m on my winged horse treading mist with my hounds beside me. It’s said of Gwyn and Dormach that they travel ar wybir ‘on the clouds that haunt the mountaintops’ and that wybir or nuden ‘condensed floating white cloud’ ‘serves as a garment for Gwyn’.

And so we travel ar wybir, like Gwyn, until the mist clears, or someone appears to guide us out. Setting off right or left, or North, East, South, or West never works as the directions don’t function the same in Annwn (if they exist at all). I often end up in the same places, but never by the same routes. In contrast to other followers of shamanistic paths I haven’t managed to form a stable map of Annwn.

I’ve been told by numerous teachers one should always return by the same route. Some days I manage this, but other days the routes undo themselves as if Annwn is innately resistant to memory. I search instead for the mist, wait for it to come, like my god, to sweep me up, place me back at the portal.

The door is always shrouded by mist and I have only just realised, after two years of constant use, that I have never seen the other side of the door. That I drew only my entryway, on my side, in my room, in Thisworld. That the origin and location of the exit, on Gwyn’s side, in the Otherworld, is a mystery.

All I know is that as I approach through the mist I have a feeling of increasing solidity. There is ground beneath my feet and the door is set within a wall. This creates the impression the door may once have been part of a fortress, shattered, fragmented, still able to float in the mist like Gwyn’s castle.

Could it be a cast-off door from the Fort of Pen Annwn rendered disposable by Arthur’s despoiling? A relic of Hell’s Gate? Or something older, or newer, but nonetheless no less mysterious? No burning of lanterns will shift the mist and again I must trust a gift of Gwyn’s that is incomprehensible.

A Farewell

The ship is tall, leaning. Its only crew are the gulls, who tie the knots in the sails; old, old, sailor souls. On its prow stands Barinthus, the helmsman, dark-cloaked, stern, implacable.

No-one sees if his lips move beneath the shadows of his hood as he reads out the roll call: the names of Londeners, Devonians, Bristolians, Scousers, Mancunians, Lancastrians, Glaswegians, Brummies, whose accents mix in the huge make-shift camp that has grown up in the marshy hinterland between the worlds.

They’re mostly old. Veteran souls move between them, boiling tea on stoves that burn on no gas. They drink from metal cups, pull blankets around them, attempt to recall to one another their stories.

Some of them are funny – drunken exploits – other people’s knickers and roundabouts. Some are tragic – motorcycle crashes, the loss of daughters and sons, spouses who lost their memory yet lived on.

“How did we get here?” few recall that journey or what brought them.

White hounds with red markings on their ears, noses, the tips of their tails, patrol the edges of the camp. If anyone tries to leave they are there. A grin and friendly growl is always enough. The pups like to play amongst the child souls, tongues lolling, letting their bellies be rubbed. When their master calls them, not liking them to get attached, they leave whining with their tails between their legs.

“Where are we going?” few recall that journey they have made so many times before.

“The biggest shipload since the last war,” my god’s voice from where he stands invisible so as not to frighten the souls.

Their leaving seems to take forever, one by one getting up from their camp stools, boarding across a wobbly plank and taking their places in the cabins, more cabins-worth of souls than there are cabins on board?

“The number of cabins, the space of the hold, the expanses of the deck, are limitless, infinitesimal,” Gwyn informs me. Speaking ominously “no matter how many passengers the ship is never full.”

I watch with Gwyn as the camp fires go out and the ship sinks deeper and deeper into the waters.

As a gull flies down and with a practiced twist of her yellow red-spotted beak unties the mooring rope I clasp my hands, bow my head in mourning, say farewell to 980 Britons who I never knew.

As I leave, dropping a tea bag in a pot for the next souls, I see them already beginning to arrive. Some are escorted by their ancestors, others by the hounds, others by white birds. A little boy is carrying a white red-spotted hamster wrapped up in his school blazer.

Their numbers are endless.

The Lean Wolf

approaches
with a little bit
of Chernobyl
in its deadly
stride.

A big black bell
is ringing inside it.

Its face is a man’s.

There is nothing
behind it.

I wrote this poem following a dream of which I remember little but the vivid image of a lean menacing wolf with a man’s face and the knowing because I’d seen it, been its presence, I was going to die.

I’ve had a handful of dreams in which I’ve had this gnosis. In one I was a captured soldier awaiting execution and Gwyn prepared me for death by telling me I must go into the hazel, and the beetle, and something I can’t recall. In another I was a clawed creature clinging to a lift descending to the abyss. And in another I was and was not a dark magician, who in a magical battle against mechanical forces, was cut into a thousand pieces by whirling blades and resurrected as a vampiric woman.

Through these dreams I know I have lived many lives, died many deaths, in Thisworld and in Annwn, and perhaps in worlds beyond. That a part of me, which I call my soul, carries these memories.

When I was talking to my dad about his funeral plans I was surprised to hear that he, like me a philosophy graduate, had never thought about whether he had a soul or what would happen when he died. He might have theorised about it but had never really contemplated what would happen to him.

Such questions have been on my mind as long as I can remember. Like my dad I theorised about them, attempting to find answers through philosophy, until I met Gwyn and he taught me to journey to Annwn. Until he and his father, the dream-god Nudd/Nodens, helped me to sleep and listen to my dreams.

For the first time since the Second World War people in Britain are suddenly facing death, due to the threat of the coronavirus. This is a complete unknown for people of my mum and dad’s generation, for mine, and the next generation, who might have included my children, if I’d had them.

I understand that one of the reasons Gwyn appeared in my life and taught me to journey was to help me prepare for death. I know a small handful of others who have had similar experiences with him and different gods, and of those who have gained their own understanding without experience of deity.

In contrast to the advice I’ve seen in various places to focus only on the positives, I believe at this time, when so many of us have so much extra time, there is no better time to contemplate the lean wolf.

The Call of the Hooded Man

He started appearing in my tarot readings at the beginning of the year: the Hooded Man. In my reading for 2020 on New Year’s Eve in the place of ‘home’, then again and again, strangely, mysteriously, as we shifted from a stormy winter to a glorious spring and I was spending more time with people outdoors.

In the Wildwood Tarot the Hooded Man occupies the traditional position of the Hermit. His ‘Position on the Wheel’ is ‘the mid-winter solstice’. Dressed in a black cloak adorned with holly he stands amidst the snow with a wren at his side, a staff in one hand, a shining lantern in the other. He points towards a doorway in a great tree with a wreath upon it, offering solace from winter’s harshness.

The main meaning of this card is ‘this is the time of solitude and contemplation’. Why was I getting this card when I was busying myself with work parties five days a week and preparing for an internship at Brockholes, which involved outdoor work and engaging with large groups of volunteers?

The answer came as the arrival of coronavirus, as the lockdown, the perfect reason to respond to his call. But what did I do for the first three weeks? Spend my time watching what everyone else was doing, beating myself up for not being busy, for not having a proper job, resisting the call of the Hooded Man.

And yes, I felt it, and he spoke to me clearly. On one occasion this was through the new module on ‘Holly’ in the Tree Spirit Medicine course on the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School. The course leaders, Jason and Nicola associate holly with ‘sanctuary, resilience, and protection’. These were qualities I felt I needed to draw upon and immediately I associated them with the Hooded Man. I journeyed to holly to ask ‘how to slow down and participate in the Hooded Man’s sanctuary.

Holly said:

The berries of life
are not always yours.

So what is yours?

How will you
grow your berries?

What can you offer?

How will you shape
your sanctuary?

I took this to mean that I couldn’t just barge into the Hooded Man’s sanctuary and assume his berries (the hard-won fruits of many years of solitude and contemplation) are mine for the taking. That I must take the time and effort to shape my own sanctuary, grow my own berries, share them with others.

What was particularly significant about this journey is that the day afterwards, after I had cut back and cleared the blackberry bushes which were taking over the bottom of my parents’ garden, I found a little holly sprig. Immediately I knew this was ‘the Hooded Man’s corner’: a place I could find sanctuary.

But still I resisted for fear that retreating would make me less of an awenydd to my community and gods. When I first set out on the awenydd path it was with the purpose of serving Gwyn and the spirits of the land through sharing poems and research on mythology and my personal journey.

Somewhere along the line, when I was involved with Dun Brython, when Greg Hill and I founded ‘Awen ac Awenydd’ I felt these responsibilities were nudging me toward community leadership. However, Dun Brython never grew due to a lack of interest in Brythonic Polytheism. Whilst the Awen ac Awenydd Facebook group generated some interesting discussions, the participants didn’t mesh enough to develop a shared practice, and the plans for a physical meet-up failed completely.

I reached the conclusion that Facebook is not a suitable platform for building meaningful relationships and left. ‘You’re not a follower but you’re not a leader,’ the words of my wise friend, who read my tarot, haunted me. What am I then? What is the role of an awenydd who neither leads nor follows?

“You must focus on your gift,” the voice of my god from within.

Reflecting on the nature of this gift I realised that it is the awen and the meaning of ‘gift’ is manifold. The awen is not only my gift, my talent, my role in the world, my destiny, but is given by the gods and something I have a responsibility to give back to others. This being gifted with and my giving of awen is of value in itself. I don’t need to be a leader or a spokesperson for my path.

This revelation came as a huge relief and has given me clarity about where I’ve made mistakes in the past. After watching a podcast with Martin Shaw on ‘Pandemic and Mythic Meanings of this Cultural Movement’ in which he posed the question ‘would this not be a good time to re-establish a relationship with our souls?’ I realised over the past few months I have neglected my soul’s journey.

When I journeyed to the Hooded Man for advice on how to focus on this he said I need to ‘clear space outer and inner’ and ‘cultivate a longing for the mysteries’ in the place of my anxieties.

What was of interest, and slightly disturbed me, was that he told me has had burning ambitions, been riddled by doubts, that he has made made mistakes, that his aura of calm is the result of centuries of inner work. That sometimes it is just a facade that covers over the conflicts he feels within.

For some reason I thought he had always been the Hooded Man at perfect peace in his self-mastery. Yet a story, or many stories, lie beneath the the hood of this man who has many faces.

Lost in the Glass Castle – The Rule of the Web in the Year of Coronavirus

It’s the last day of March. It has been a week since the lockdown to contain coronavirus began in the UK. I wake at 4am, as has become my habit, and lie awake with my mind running through all the things I need to do and all the worries that it is useless to worry about and then I beat myself up for worrying about them. By 5.30am I’ve had enough and decide to get up and do something useful.

Breakfast, my morning prayers to my gods and the spirits of place, my daily too often failed attempt to sit and breathe and listen. Then I fire up my laptop, open Firefox, and click on the link to gmail. ‘This webpage is unavailable’. Agh. How the hell am I going to send my patron newsletters? Now my conservation internship has been cancelled until who knows when I have no route into paid work and my Patreon account is my only source of income. My heart’s racing and I can’t breathe as I check the modem (green lights on) and my network connection (fine) then turn the machine on and off.

Thankfully it starts working. I can breathe again. And now I’m looking back at my reaction. What the fuck? How, in the space of a few days, have I gone from being happy in a role that involves making positive changes out in nature alongside likeminded people – building a hibernaculum for newts, planting wildflowers, installing an outdoor classroom – to being completely dependent on something as ineffable and fallible as the internet not only for money but for a place in society?

~

Over the past few days I have been reflecting on how much of my identity and reason for being have become bound up with this blog, which provides a platform for my voice as an awenydd in service to Gwyn and the gods and spirits of my landscape and my online communities, as well as for book sales.

Its small successes have partly been down to my use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Over the past few years the former, in particular, has had a massively detrimental effect on my mental health. For me it’s the virtual equivalent of walking into a large, noisy crowd in a magical castle that has no walls but the multiplicity of glass screens that grant us access and contain us.

Attempting to find friends and acquaintances at some illusory fairy feast where the food looks its tastiest but cannot be touched and interacting only with their reflections in their best party gear. Like the speechless dead their mouths do not move and their facial expressions do not change one bit.

Yet words appear on the page and conversations take place, stuttering, dragging on for days, as people blink in and out of existence, moving between the worlds, like ghosts. Being able to flit in and out of the crowd, of groups, creates a perennial nosiness. It takes up an incredible amount of headspace trying to keep up, to find the right answers, to argue against points of disagreement, to read responses in the absence of real faces. When I get offline a part of me remains in the glass castle, a shadow of myself arguing with shades of my own imagining, exhausted, distracted, lost.

I recognise this. But it’s only when coronavirus hits and so many people are forced online for work and to communicate due to the social distancing rules I realise just how powerful the internet has become. To the point we can neither earn a living nor live without it. The web has made it possible for us to work and meet without travelling (which is also greener) and set up groups for mutual support. I admit these are very good things yet something within me is screaming a warning about the surrender of our power to the invisible rulers of the halls of the internet on their glass thrones.

I make the decision to leave Facebook. It’s hard. I know the costs. I will lose contact with people, I will miss events, I will be giving up opportunities for publicity. Less people will see my blog posts and buy my books. These are the teeth, like a monster of Annwn, it has sunk into me. These are the tendrils of dependency that the beast beneath the glass castle has coiled around me, extending from my virtual being to my well being in Thisworld. It hurts when I pull them off, although there is no blood.

I return to Peneverdant, to the green hill in this virtual space between Thisworld and Annwn. I look back at the times I’ve been lost in the ether of pointless arguments and at the good it’s done. Through it I’ve helped real people connect with real lands and real gods and put real books in their hands. But at the cost of the loss of a piece myself, the surrender of part of my identity, to the glass castle.

Looking forward, to the promised ‘when this is all over’, I realise, if I survive, I no longer want to be ruled by the web. I want to walk again amongst the people of Thisworld and Annwn. To put down firmer roots in my land and my community – I determine that I will carry on volunteering for the Wildlife Trust whether it leads to paid work or not and put my name on the waiting list for an allotment. I will continue my service of blogging here but I will not let it rule or define me.

I whistle to that lost piece of my soul and pray to my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, to guide it back to his glass castle in Annwn where our souls are reunited and the dance of the dead reconciles illusion and truth.

~

Only once this process is complete do I feel ready to face the scary now this piece self-indulgently avoids. The escalating infections, the escalating deaths, of course relayed in figures and graphs by the internet. The rising numbers worldwide, across the UK, here in Lancashire. I see people are infected in Liverpool, Salford, Bolton, Wigan, Chorley, Blackpool, dying in the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

That soon it will be here in South Ribble and Preston. That people will be fighting for their lives and dying in the Royal Preston Hospital, where the day centre has been allocated to coronavirus patients. I fear for my elderly parents, friends who are old or have health problems, know I’m not immune.

I’m asked to provide a pagan perspective on faith requirements in relation to excess deaths as a result of COVID-19 for the Lancashire Resilience Forum (Lancashire County Council’s emergency planning service). A small useful thing I can do. I revive my Microsoft laptop to attend a Skype meeting.

Right now there is no avoiding using the halls of the internet’s glass castle to bring about physical changes. All over the world fellowships are founded with people we may or may not see on the otherside. I walk these spaces more mindfully, my eyes on the goal, not allowing myself to get lost. I pray that one day some of us will meet on the green hills of Thisworld and, if not, on the hills of Annwn.

Slowing Down

It happened when I was gearing up. Having given up my placement with Carbon Landscapes in Wigan as it was too office based I had returned to volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust closer to home and got the conservation internship at Brockholes.

One hundred per cent practical outdoor work, and just a 6 mile cycle ride away at a place I know and love, it promised to be my dream job. I’d completed my first 10k race in New Longton and was training for the City of Preston 10 miles. I was also preparing for my Taekwondo grading, on the Spring Equinox weekend, to gain my blue belt.

Then it struck. A series of lightning-like strikes. I’d heard the thunder. The first rumblings from China, the news the storm was getting closer, that it had hit Italy, Spain, France, arrived in the UK. We joked about it at first. Me with my perpetually runny nose, like a toddler, in spring, due to my hay fever. Anyone who coughed or sneezed, “I haven’t got coronavirus.” We’d seen it on the news but it didn’t seem real, like our little island with its green hills and fresh air granted some form of immunity. We’re British, right? We won the war. Then people started getting sick and started dying.

Around a fortnight ago hand washing or using antibacterial gel before eating became mandatory. On Monday the 16th of March when I was out with the Mud Pack at Brockholes the next step was stopping sharing PPE. No more slightly musty gloves from the collective stash. I was given my own hi-vis in preparation for beginning my internship on the Thursday. Still we worked together building a hibernaculum for great crested newts and ate our lunch outside on a day bright as coltsfoot.

On Tuesday the 17th of March we received an email saying we could no longer share lifts in the van or meet together inside. On Wednesday the 18th of March, another glorious spring day, I went out on another work party planting sarroccoca and eleganus amongst the daffodils on the rock garden on Avenham Park. There was little joking, even amongst the guys from Preston City Council, who were helping out. Everything felt ominous. Still, it came as a shock when I got home to find out all LWT volunteer work parties had been cancelled until the end of April along with my voluntary internship.

In some ways it was a relief because I live with parents who are over 70 and in ill health. I’d been torn between the choices, if I was to continue volunteering, of moving out or risking their lives. So I accepted it was for the best I isolated with them, just going out to do our shopping and to exercise.

Still, I was bitterly disappointed. After winning the struggle to give up alcohol and manage my anxiety without it, and feeling I was finally coming home from my exodus with Carbon Landscapes to the place and the job role in my local landscape where I truly belonged… this!

Yet, I also felt, in some ways my gods had been preparing me for it. If I hadn’t given up alcohol there is no way I would have coped with the situation or with the responsibility of looking after my parents. When considering whether to quit my placement I’d heard a clear voice telling me to “come home.”

Another point is that, at the beginning of January, after I had a mild attack of exercise-induced asthma as a consequence of running my fastest time of 25.21 for 5k on the Avenham Park Run, Gwyn told me during this Taekwondo belt (green with a blue tag representing growth toward the skies) I needed to ‘learn to breathe’. Since then I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend time in stillness, focusing on my breath, in my morning and evening meditations, but not always managing it.

(What has struck me and many others is that breath is central to this situation on many levels. Coronavirus attacks the lungs and those who get seriously ill face a battle for their breath which, in some cases, can only be won with the aid of mechanical ventilators, and in others not at all. The places worst hit have been cities where the air is badly polluted. Now flights have stopped and most people have stopped commuting by car, the skies are clear of contrails and air pollution has dropped.)

At first, after all that gearing up, I felt like Wily Coyote poised in mid-air off the edge of a cliff with my legs still running. Over the past few days I have been striving to ground myself, to slow down, to process the changes, to find space to breathe. Not easy when surrounded by panic.

My first response was to hit the news and social media to find out what’s happening and what everyone’s doing, leading only to tight chest, shortness of breath. To rush to formulate my own words, to share poems addressing the situation. Like I have some kind of gods-given responsibility… whilst aware of adding to the din of others doing exactly the same and increasing the massive strain on the internet that we forget is causing air pollution as we don’t see the power stations.

“Slow down,” the message kept coming through, from the stopping of traffic the virus has caused. As I ran more slowly, no longer worried about beating my best times, happy to be in the moment, feet steady alongside the Ribble in time with her flow where the daffodils watch with sad beautiful faces.

“Slow down,” as I began to take my time in my parents’ garden instead of rushing through the tasks. Appreciating the sunlight on the pastel colours of the hyacinths and the scent of the magnolia, the steady chuck of spade in earth and textures of compost from the bottom of the heap rich from years of decay.

“Slow down,” every time I sat before my mantlepiece in my bedroom where I keep altars to my deities, feathers and stones, to which I’ve recently added photos of my family ancestors knowing I’ll need their help.

I had developed a new routine based around prayer, writing, housework, gardening, shopping, and exercise when lockdown struck. It didn’t hit too hard as I was already living under those rules.

I’m anticipating a greater slowing. Right now I feel like I’m in ‘defence mode’ with my main prerogatives being to tend to the needs of and protect my vulnerable parents and to maintain my own health. I have also offered to run deliveries on my bike for family and friends, including the older members of my poetry group, if they end up isolating either due to illness or the government order.

An important point of support has been the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School online journey circles and coaching calls. I have been involved with Jason and Nicola’s drumming circles at Cuerden Valley and the Space to Emerge camp since they began and have appreciated being able to continue getting together to do journeywork and discuss the current situation from a shamanistic perspective.

With my daily routine and a support network in place I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. If the UK follows Italy’s curve it is possible that my friends, family, and myself, may be not only be slowed down but locked away by illness, that we may be halted by the life-or-death battle for our breath. That we may have to face the final stopping – death – as usual a topic few think or talk about.

I’ve long had a plan for my funeral but am aware it will be invalidated by these circumstances. There is a huge lack of information about what will happen to the bodies of those who die of coronavirus in the UK. How they will be dealt with, where they will go, how their passing will be acknowledged.

Yet this great slowing gives us time to pause for thought – about the fears we’d rather not face and the solace we can find in each moment of these spring days so beautifully bright in contrast.

The Deep Music: Offerings for the Awen

An Introduction

Nine years of enchantment the awen sang,
Rang from the string of the harp I became
Or which became me as I heeded the song
The harp, the harpist and the harp-string as one
.’
Greg Hill, ‘Telyn Mabon’

A child is stolen from his mother at three nights old. No-one knows where he is or whether he is alive or dead. His sorrowful lament, echoing from a house of stone beneath Caer Loyw, is known only to one being. This is the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, the oldest of the Ancients of the World, and the wisest.

If you speak with the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the Eagle of Gwernabwy they might lead you to the Hafren where the salmon swims the bore each year. Past the Temple of Nodens (or Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Silver Hand’) to Mabon’s stony prison.

If you sit on the back of the salmon, traverse the rivers of time, you may be taken back to when the Hafren was a shiny glittering gauntlet of silver fish and an invisible hand placed the Son in his prison.

You might sit with him in the darkness without end punctuated only by Teulu, his wet nurse, coming, leaving. You might taste her milk on your lips, hear her humming and the chords on her harp.

When she is gone you may hear her harp playing on without a player. Such deep music – it evokes the birth of the universe, stars tumbling from the the cauldron, starry figures and their fortresses. Gods and animals swimming across the sea of stars to find their home. You may join their hunt.

When you can stand this heart-pounding beauty no longer, when you feel your heart might break, you might reach for the harp but realise it is not there. It was never there. Just another illusion of Annwn.

Yet a soft voice will whisper “it is always there – the music is within you – you are the harp”.

~*~

This is but one retelling of the story of the initiation of Mabon. His time in the darkness of Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld, allows him to hear the Song of the Universe. To receive his awen.

The Brythonic/Welsh term awen is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *uel ‘to blow’. It is translated into English as ‘inspiration’, which derives from the Latin inspirare ‘to breathe or blow into’.

After Mabon has been rescued from the house of stone he becomes a formidable huntsman. A rider, I believe, on the wild hunt of Gwyn ap Nudd which rides across the night skies gathering the souls of the dead. In Ribchester, in North West England, he is depicted on a Romano-British altar dedicated to him as Apollo-Maponus, carrying a quiver (his bow is missing), and resting on his harp.

In a letter to John Aubrey, written in 1694, Henry Vaughan shares a story from the Welsh bardic tradition. He speaks of a shepherd boy who falls asleep and dreams of ‘a beautifull young man with a garland of green leafs upon his head, & an hawk upon his fist: with a quiver full of Arrows att his back’. The hawk flies into the lad’s mouth and possesses him with ‘the gift of poetrie’ ‘they called Awen’. Afterwards he becomes ‘the most famous Bard in all the Countrey in his time’.

It is my belief this is Mabon, breathing his gift of awen into the young man, who gifts it to his countrymen. Through this sharing of the divine breath the shepherd lad becomes an awenydd ‘person inspired’.

~*~

This anthology is a collection of the writings of contemporary awenyddion. Those who have heard the deep music, followed its call to Annwn, where the awen is breathed into them by the gods, and returned with their own songs.

Its origins lie in the creation of the ‘Awen ac Awenydd’ website in 2015 by Greg Hill and myself (Lorna Smithers). Brought together by our calling as awenyddion we perceived a void in information and discussion about inspiration, spirit work, mysticism, initiatory experiences, and relationships with the gods in the Brythonic tradition. The site began as a repository of information on the terms ‘awen’ and ‘awenydd’ in the historical sources and grew to become a collaborative project documenting the experiences of awenyddion and providing a home for awenyddau ‘inspired works’.

In 2018 Lia Hunter suggested the creation of an anthology featuring the works of awenyddion. Before we put the call out we thought it would be helpful to provide a definition of our use of the term ‘awenydd’. Collectively, drawing on its usage both in the past when present-day England, Wales, and southern Scotland were united by a shared Brythonic culture and in Wales today, we defined the path as follows: ‘an awenydd is a spirit worker and inspired poet in the Brythonic tradition’.

We decided that we would invite contributors to share a personal definition of the awenydd path and an inspired work. We had submissions from eleven awenyddion and from a druid and a bard who have been inspired by the awen and whose work we feel is of value to the anthology. These have come from Wales, England, France, the United States, and Canada. Some of our contributors are Welsh speakers, whilst others, such as myself, are striving to learn Welsh.

What we share, at this time of climate crisis, is a commitment to seeking the deeper wisdom of the Brythonic tradition and bringing it back to share in our communities to inspire, to lend strength, to heal.

Within these pages you will find the testimonies of awenyddion to a calling from the gods and spirits. To hauntings and experiences of the numinous which can be terrifying until understood, until we have learned to walk again the shadowy ways through the wild wood to Annwn and, most importantly, to perceive our deities alongside us in the here-and-now of our urban and suburban homes.

Join us and walk the deer trods of Elen, shiver at the horn of Gwyn ap Nudd, take your turn at the harp of Mabon, enter the faerie mounds; stand before the cauldron of Ceridwen and be transformed.

The Deep Music: Offerings for the Awen can be purchased HERE.

Fragments of Annwn – Fallings

The Broken Harp

I.
My nerves are timbres.

Taut and tense the ganglia
no longer relay the music.

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

Like broken bowstrings
they sting and twitch.

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

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

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

for I am strangely in love
with my distractions.

I court them feed them daily.

I have become their instrument.

And so I lie broken beneath their claws…

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

where the harp played with no player at all?

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

~

The Place Where the Sky is Falling

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

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

“Is this some game?”

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

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

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

“Seriously…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

It’s Easy to Fall

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

soon empty comfort.

Its gentle guidance
down into oblivion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Why These Worries

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

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

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

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

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

How big a grave for a thought?

How great the work of the gravedigger?

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

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

how do I know I will let them rest

and not dig them up like a restless hound?

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


~

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

Lifelong Dedication to Gwyn – A Year and a Day on

A year and a day ago I made my lifelong dedication to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic warrior-hunter god and ruler of Annwn, following a vigil on the night of the ‘super blood wolf moon’ beneath the leaning yew on Fairy Lane in my home town of Penwortham.

Unlike my initial dedication to Gwyn as my patron god at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor it wasn’t easy. Beforehand I’d suffered from a stress fracture to my foot and I was awaiting an umbilical hernia repair operation shortly afterwards.

The vigil, of six hours before I went out and made my dedication during the lunar eclipse at around 4am, was based around six tarot cards and took me on an intense journey of death and rebirth.

Looking back and interpreting the meaning symbolically I saw the foot injury forced me to slow down and the operation on my naval, my natal place, was bound up with the rebirthing process.

Once I’d recovered I realised, to my surprise and disappointment, in spite of having been through an intense inner experience my external life had not changed. I was still in the same situation as before. Skint and living with my parents, my book recovering Gwyn’s mythos written, with no idea of what to do with the rest of my life aside from knowing I must live within the parameters of my vows.

To remedy my financial situation I took a job in a supermarket. Frustratingly, in my own work, which I had hoped would take me deeper into Welsh mythology and into Annwn I hit several brick walls.

Firstly, after near-completing a course called ‘The Gates of Annwn’ for Gods & Radicals, seeing myself on the videos attempting to teach in six weeks what has taken me years of questioning, doubt, being torn apart and put back together, I realised I’d made a mistake. An Annuvian path is one people find themselves (or are found by). It cannot be taught.

Secondly, I really wanted to write a book called Porth Annwn documenting my explorations of Annwn. However, the deeper I went, the further away I got from traditional depictions in Welsh mythology and folklore, attaining instead personal visions that were fantastical, paradoxical, and contained elements of ‘faerie’, but could not be linked directly to the Brythonic sources.

My third block was failing to learn Welsh as I am not embedded in the culture. This was accentuated by my awareness of the debates about cultural appropriation and the derogative attitudes of Welsh scholars (who are mainly non-conformist Christians) towards Brythonic polytheists.

My frustrations with my work and my supermarket job reached a nadir and resolution when I accidentally killed a dragonfly whilst cycling to Brockholes. This led me to leave the supermarket to volunteer with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust as a way of finding paid work in conservation and to shifting my creative focus away from Wales and Welsh mythology back to the (once Brythonic-speaking) land where I live.

Both these shifts have helped me to deepen and renew my relationship with Gwyn. I feel far more connected with him in my everyday life when I am outside working on the land, whether I’m tree planting, coppicing, clearing scrub, dead hedging etc. than when I was stacking shelves or, worse, sitting on a till beneath the artificial lights in the supermarket.

My new creative project ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’, which focuses on the prehistoric people of wetland Lancashire, has guided me back to the earliest hunter-gatherers who may have venerated Gwyn as a hunter god. My outdoor work and research have knitted together as I’ve learnt skills and used tools our ancestors would have used.

This new more physical connection with Gwyn has also manifested in my running and in taking up Taekwondo. Interestingly, the Fianna, the followers of Finn, Gwyn’s Irish cognate, lived in the woodland, and had to master poetry along with physical feats that involved fighting and running*. These and my work outdoors have made me more connected with Gwyn as a warrior-hunter.

I have also experienced a deepening of my personal relationship with him through spending more time at my altar in stillness and prayer as well as continuing to journey with him.

So a year and a day on, after spending eight months lost, I have finally gained a vision of the path ahead and the central facets of a life shaped around my devotion to Gwyn:

*Personal devotions
*Working on the land
*Poetry
*Journeywork
*Practicing a martial art and running

I have moved on from confusion and frustration to feeling excited about a future full of challenges and promise.

*In ‘A Wildness Comes on the Heart of the Deer’ Christopher Scott Thompson cites the initiation tests of the Fianna: ‘And there was no man taken into the Fianna till he knew the twelve books of poetry. And before any man was taken, he would be put into a deep hole in the ground up to his middle, and he having his shield and a hazel rod in his hand. And nine men would go the length of ten furrows from him and would cast their spears at him at the one time. And if he got a wound from one of them, he was not thought fit to join with the Fianna. And after that again, his hair would be fastened up, and he put to run through the woods of Ireland, and the Fianna following after him to try could they wound him, and only the length of a branch between themselves and himself when they started. And if they came up with him and wounded him, he was not let join them; or if his spears had trembled in his hand, or if a branch of a tree had undone the plaiting of his hair, or if he had cracked a dry stick under his foot, and he running. And they would not take him among them till he had made a leap over a stick the height of himself, and till he had stooped under one the height of his knee, and till he had taken a thorn out from his foot with his nail, and he running his fastest. But if he had done all these things, he was of Finn’s people.’