The wetlands of the old counties of Lancashire and Cheshire which were inhabited by the Setantii tribe ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ are well known for their bog burials; Lindow Man and Woman, Worsley Man, severed heads from Pilling Moss, Briarfield, Red Moss, Ashton Moss, Birkdale.
The archaeological evidence suggests that Lindow Man and Worsley Man were human sacrifices. Lindow Man (also known as Lindow II) was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat was cut before he was cast into the peat bog. Worsley Man was garotted and his skull fractured before his beheading. These ‘overkill’ injuries are suggestive of ritual killing rather than death in battle or murder.
This is supported by the fact many bog burials from Britain and Europe ate special last meals. The last meal of Lindow Man was a griddle cake baked from finely ground wheat and barley. Lindow III, another man whose remains were found nearby, ate a meal of wheat and rye with hazelnuts. Old Croghan man from Ireland, and Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark also ate similar meals.
The head from Briarfield was ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ ‘with abundant remains of hazel’. Further north, at Seascale Moss in Cumbria, a body was buried in the bog with a hazel walking stick. Miranda Aldhouse Green notes that bog bodies from Gallagh in Ireland and Windeby in Germany wore hazel collars and another from Undelev in Denmark was buried with three hazel rods.
She connects them with a lead defixio of ‘late Roman date’ ‘from the river Ouse near the Hockwold Roman temple’ in Suffolk: ‘Whoever… whether male or female slave, whether freedman or freedwoman… has committed theft of an iron pan, he is to be sacrificed to the god Neptune with hazel’.
The Romans equated Neptune with our ancient British water-god Nodens at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall where an inscription reads ‘DEO NO/NEPTU’. At his Romano-British temple at Lydney, Nodens is depicted on a mural crown driving a chariot pulled by four water-horses accompanied by winged wind-spirits and centaurs with fish-tails and a fish-tailed fisherman.
Nodens gifted pilgrims with healing dreams but was also called upon to remove health. A curse tablet reads: ‘For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one-half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good-health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.’
It thus seems possible the people who ingested hazel prior to their deaths or were buried with it were sacrifices to Nodens who was equated with Neptune due to his watery qualities by the Romans.
The associations between Nodens and hazel have deep mythic roots. In Ireland Nodens was known as Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ and Nechtan (from the Old Irish necht ‘clean, pure, white’). Nechtan was the keeper of the Tobar Segais ‘Well of Wisdom’. Around it stood nine hazel trees which dropped their hazelnuts, containing imbas ‘inspiration’, into the water. They were eaten by salmon and this special poetic wisdom, known as awen in the Welsh myths, was infused into their flesh.
Only Nechtan and his three cup-bearers: Flesc, Lam, and Luam, were allowed to visit the well. Of those who transgressed their eyes would explode (!) – a possible metaphor for the effects of poetic vision.
When Nechtan’s wife, Boann, disobeyed this command the well overflowed and became the river Boyne. One of its kennings is ‘the forearm of the wife of Nuadhu’ and it was known in the early 2nd century CE as Buvinda (from early Irish *Bou-vinda ‘the white lady with bovine attributes’).
When Finn ‘White’, a descendant of Nuadha, cooked the Salmon of Wisdom for his master, Finnegeas, he burnt his thumb, put it in his mouth, and accidentally imbibed his eye-bursting imbas.
I believe it is likely a similar mythos surrounded Nodens here in Britain. On his mural crown a fisherman is catching a large fish and, on a mosaic on his temple floor at Lydney, two sea monsters are surrounded by salmon. Additionally, in medieval Welsh mythology, Arthur and his men ride up the river Severn, past the Temple of Nodens, on the back of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, to rescue Mabon.
In the dindsenchas the river flowing from Segais has many names. In Ireland it is not only known as the Boyne, but the Trethnach Tond ‘Ocean Wave’ and Sruth Findchoill ‘Stream of White Hazel’. Abroad it becomes Lunnand in Scotland, the Severn in England, then the Tiber, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris.
At Lydney we also find iconography depicting Nodens’ wife and our British Boann: a stone statuette, thirty inches in height, left leg crossed over right, holding a cornucopia. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. Unfortunately we do not know her name but the early Irish Bou-Vinda may relate to Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, the son she bore Nodens/Nudd. Gwyn’s name not only means ‘White’, but he is referred to as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, suggesting he inherited her bovine attributes.
As Vindonnus, at a spring in Gaul, he was offered bronze plaques depicting eyes. It has been suggested they were for aid curing eye ailments but they may also have been connected with poetic vision.
In medieval Welsh mythology, Gwyn, as Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’, is the guardian of a cauldron that is warmed by the breath of nine maidens and will not brew the food of a coward, suggesting it is associated with initiation into the mysteries of the awen tasted from its bubbling waters.
It seems Gwyn, who like Finn, has tasted the wisdom of the salmon from the hazelnuts from the nine hazel trees, and received his awen, later adopts his father’s role as a wisdom-keeper.
How, then, does this ancient Celtic mythos appear in and relate to the Water Country? On Cockerham Moss two Romano-British silver statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found. This suggests that a temple lay nearby. Cockersand Abbey, the closest sacred site, is dedicated to Mary of the Marsh, a Christian overlay on an earlier water-goddess – the wife of Nodens. I know her as Anrhuna which means ‘Very Great’ and is probably only one of her names.
The church on Castle Hill, the pen which gives its name to Penwortham (earlier Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ as it stood on Penwortham Marsh), is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the holy well at the hill’s foot. The large number of Marian dedications in the marshy areas of Penwortham and Preston with their sacred springs hint at the underlying presence of this water-goddess.
The legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral, set on Castle Hill, with its fairy leader ringing a passing bell and singing a mournful chant as he leads a procession of little black-clad men in red caps, bearing the fairy-double of an unfortunate young man to his grave suggests the presence of Gwyn.
Past the pen, sacred to Anrhuna, Nodens, and Vindos/Gwyn/Pen Annwn, runs the river Ribble. From Ptolemy’s Geography (2AD)we know Belisama is the goddess of the Ribble. She is the sister and/or consort of Bel, who is later known as Beli Mawr, father of Nudd/Lludd. The Ribble is rich in salmon and Maponos/Mabon and his mother Matrona/Modron were worshipped upriver at Ribchester. Modron is the daughter of Afallach (from afall ‘apple’), King of Annwn, a name of Gwyn.
Here, at the Green Hill on the Water, we find a parallel with Lydney ‘Lludd’s Island’. With salmon swimming upriver past a site associated with Mabon to the source where perhaps once stood nine hazel trees.
These stories run deep through this land as they ran through the land of our ancient British ancestors. Before its draining it was truly a water country of intertidal marshlands, reedbeds, carr, lakes and pools, peat bogs, and a damp oak woodland in which hazel and its nourishing nuts were precious.
It’s no wonder they were associated with Nodens, ‘the Catcher’, the wise fisher-god. Perhaps, by sacrificing their enemies to Nodens with hazel, the water dwellers repaid him for his generosity.
Another possibility is that some of the bog burials were devotees of Nodens sacrificed willingly to their god. Awenyddion who, like his son, had imbibed the hazel-rich awen. Lindow III’s consumption of hazelnuts before his death may have been a last act of communion. The man buried with the hazel staff might have carried it as a symbol of his role as a wisdom-keeper.
Hazel grows on the banks of Fish House Brook, which runs through the area once known as Fish Pan Field in Greencroft Valley into the river Ribble. In autumn its nuts are eaten by grey squirrels before they can drop into the brook where, due to changes in water level and pollution, fish no longer swim.
Still, as I pass, I think of the myth of Nodens and his nine hazel trees, Anrhuna’s transgression, Vindos/Gwyn eating the salmon imbued with awen from the hazelnut and his eye-bursting poetic vision, which he has gifted to me as his awenydd to pass on and share with my communities.
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974) Anne Ross, Life and Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of Lindow Man, an Archaeological Sensation, (Touchstone, 1991) David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008) Finnchuill, ‘Catching Wisdom: Nuadha, Nechtan, Nodens’, Finnchuill’s Mast, (2016) Jody Joy, Lindow Man, (The British Museum Press, 2009) Kay Muhr, ‘Water Imagery in Early Irish’, Celtica 23, (1999) Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)
‘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.
‘Do you sense your maker, world?’ Friedrich Nietzsche
My surname is Smithers. On and off I’ve been aware of the presence of a smith-god. The sound of hammer blows in the back of my mind. A vision of a forge at the fiery core of the world. The chisel-strokes of Nietzsche’s world-artist working in the Blakean moment between Thisworld and Annwn, beyond good and evil, where there is no past or future, but only the eternal of now creation. Making artefacts of great beauty, world-shattering technologies, weapons that are unconscionable, a dire world.
Over the past few years, as I have been working with the Brythonic mythos, Gofannon has been appearing in my stories forging important treasures – Caledfwlch (the sword of King Arthur), the Shield of Urien Rheged, the golden ring of Gwyn ap Nudd and the horse shoes for his horse.
The art of smithing is seen in most cultures as a magical process which literally transforms the world. It brought into being the Bronze Age and Iron Age and played a major role in the Industrial Revolution and Information Age. The smith is a central figure in many world myths. Yet, surprisingly little is known about Gofannon, our Brythonic smith god. This article summarises our knowledge from the Welsh myths and uses Irish parallels and modern gnosis to illuminate this ancient figure at his forge.
We know Gofannon is a smith-god as his name derives from the Middle Welsh gof ‘smith’. In Culhwch and Olwen his aid is required to set the plough used by his brother, Amaethon, the god of agriculture. This shows that, like the other children of Don, he was seen as skilled and as a culture god.
This is supported by lines in ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ where the legendary bard says:
I’ve been with skilful men, with Math Hen, with Gofannon, with Eufydd, with Elestron, I’ve been party to privileges. For a year I’ve been in Caer Gofannon.
In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, Gofannon inexplicably kills his nephew, Dylan, the daughter of Arianrhod, who can swim ‘as well as the best fish in the sea’. This is named as one of ‘Three Unfortunate Blows’. Why he does so is never explained. However, we can go some distance to finding an explanation through a comparison with the story of Gofannon’s Irish cognate, Goibnu.
In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, Goibniu is the metalsmith of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Children of Dana. Like the children of Don possessing skills is intrinsic to their identity as culture gods. With Credne the silversmith and Luchta the carpenter Goibnu is one of Trí Dée Dána ‘three gods of art’. Goibniu is the half-brother of Brighid. Their mother is Dana and their fathers are Tuirbe Trágma and the Dagda.
Brighid has a son with the Formorian, Bres, called Ruadan. During the Second Battle of Moytura, which takes place between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the monstrous Formorians, Ruadan is sent by the Formorians to find out the secret of how the craftsmen of the Tuatha Dé Danann make their weapons.
Ruadan finds Goibniua at his forge crafting lance-heads with three blows of his hammer, Luchta cutting shafts with three blows of his axe, and Credne fixing the two parts together. After he reports back, Ruadan is sent by the Formorians to kill Goibniu.
Ruadan goes to the forge and asks Goibniu for a spear. Goibniu, unsuspecting, gives a spear to him. Ruadan thrusts it through Goibniu and, to his surprise, the smith-god plucks it out and hurls it at Ruadan, who is mortally wounded, and returns home to die. Brighid mourns Ruadan and this is the origin of keening.
One wonders whether a similar story lies behind Gofannon’s slaying of Dylan with Arianrhod replacing Brighid/Brigantia as his mother. It certainly seems to be no coincidence that Arianrhod’s second son, Lleu, is mortally wounded by Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuedd, with a poisoned spear.
This spear is crafted by a smith (it does not say by who) when ‘people are at Mass on a Sunday’. This is suggestive of a pre-Christian forger working at a liminal time. Lleu then, in turn, strikes a mortal blow to Gronw with his spear. This exchange is not unlike that between Ruadan and Goibniu. That Gofannon is a forger of spears is backed up by lines from ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin’. The ‘seven spears of Gofannon’ are used at the devastating and futile Battle of Arfderydd.
In support of the existence of an earlier variant of the story of Gofannon killing Brighid/Brigantia’s son I would like to mention the personal gnosis of Potia Pitchford – a modern devotee of both these deities.
Potia and I were (virtually) together in a guided meditation led by Gemma McGowan at a conference on Brighid earlier in the year. This involved meeting the goddess at a forge deep within the land. Potia had a powerful experience which involved not only Brighid but Gofannon. In her blog post ‘Marked by Gofannon’ Potia writes of Gofannon holding her whilst Brighid pulled from her ‘what was needed to be reworked’ and placed it back inside her in three parts – ‘one band for each of three cauldrons’. Finally Gofannon placed an inch-wide copper band on her upper arm. This led to her to her getting the armband created as an item of devotional jewellery by Runecast Copper.
Potia’s vision of Gofannon and Brighid/Brigantia working together at this forge in the core of the earth spoke deeply to me. I’m tempted to see Brighid/Brigantia (who is both a smith and a poet) and Gofannon as the forces of creativity and smithing that shape our world and its technologies for good and for ill. As I work I am aware of their presence in the words I type and the laptop I type them on.
If Gofannon and Brigid/Brigantia are co-forgers, then Gofannon’s slaying of her son, perhaps as the result of an attack, would certainly add a layer of tragedy and poignancy to their relationship.
*With thanks to Hannah Gibbs for the image ‘Blacksmith‘ on Unsplash.
*This poem is addressed to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god whose hunt traditionally rides to gather the souls of the dead on Nos Galan Gaeaf. It is based on my marking of the occasion by reciting my poem ‘When You Hunt for Souls in the Winter Rain‘ (in the winter rain!) for Gwyn in Greencroft Valley. I find it disturbing that some of the leaves are still green and many have not yet fallen at this time of year, which in the Celtic calendars marks the beginning of winter. (The Welsh Nos Galan Gaeaf means ‘The night before the first day of winter’ and the Irish Samhain means ‘Summer’s End’).
The golden horn of endless mead.
The golden plates that make even leaves edible.
The golden cauldron that boils the flesh of the dead.
The golden helmet that lends the strength of the bull.
The golden armour that makes its wearer invincible.
The golden shield that deflects not only blows.
The golden spear that pierces every heart.
The golden leashes that hold back the hounds
and the spirits who strain against the possible.
The golden horseshoes for the horse that runs
between worlds and his golden saddle and bridle.
The golden ring that turns time into a circle.
The golden mist that makes terror beautiful.
The golden keys to the gates of every soul.
The golden secret in the stone chest that rattles
and bleats and sings a strange prophetic song.
This poem is based around the depiction of Gwyn ap Nudd as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ and his role as a King of Annwn presiding over its spoils. It is one of the poems in the narrative of Y Darogan Annwn.