The Peat Pit – the Fish Pond of Gwyn ap Nudd

For nearly a decade I have been writing enthusiastically about two topics – the lost wetlands of Lancashire (lakes, marshlands, wet woodlands, peat bogs) and my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. I didn’t realise there was a link until I watched the first of Gwilym Morus-Baird’s videos on Gwyn’s folklore.

Here he shared three poems by the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1315-1350). Whilst I had read ‘Y Dylluan’, ‘The Owl’, and ‘Y Niwl’, ‘The Mist’, I was unfamiliar with ‘Y Pwll Mawn’, ‘The Peat Pit’. In this masterfully crafted and, in places, humorous poem, Dafydd ap Gwilym narrates how he and his ‘grey-black horse’ foolishly get lost on a ‘cold moor’ in the darkness and fall into a peat-pit.

Unfortunately much of the craftsmanship of the poem in Welsh is lost in translation. The original is written in strict metre with seven syllables in each line, follows an AA BB rhyme scheme, and also contains internal rhyme (possibly cynghanedd – it is beyond my skill to judge). It also features repetition.

Gwae fardd a fai, gyfai orn,
Gofalus ar gyfeiliorn.
Tywyll yw’r nos ar ros ryn,
Tywyll, och am etewyn!
Tywyll draw, ni ddaw ym dda,
Tywyll, mau amwyll, yma.
Tywyll iso fro, mau frad,
Tywyll yw twf y lleuad.

Woe to the poet (though he might be blamed)
who’s lost and full of care.
Dark is the night on a cold moor,
dark, oh, that I had a torch!
It’s dark over there, no good will befall me,
it’s dark (and I’m losing my senses) over here.
Dark is the land down below (I’ve been duped),
dark is the waxing moon.

Here, in the first verse, we see that not only are the rhyme and metre lost in the English translation but also the repetition of tywyll ‘dark’ at the beginning of six of the eight lines.

Dafydd ap Gwilym goes on to lament his ‘woe’ ‘that the shapely girl, of such radiant nature, / does not know how dark it is’ before admitting his foolhardiness for venturing out on the moors at night.

It’s not wise for a poet from another land,
and it’s not pleasant (for fear of treachery or deceit)
to be found in the same land as my foe
and caught, I and my grey–black horse.

Here we gain a sense of unhomeliness, of the poet having ventured far from home, to an arallwlad ‘other-land’ – to the land of his ‘foe’, who we might surmise is the otherworldly Gwyn, from the following lines and those in other poems. In ‘Y Niwl’ the mist is described as ‘his two harsh cheeks’ which ‘conceal the land’ ‘thick and ugly darkness as of night / blinding the world to cheat the poet.’

After speaking of how he and his horse drowned in the peat-pit, Dafydd ap Gwilym goes on to describe evocatively and curse the place of his undoing and to associate it directly with Gwyn and his spirits.

Such peril on a moor that’s an ocean almost,
who can do any more in a peat-pit?
It’s a fish–pond belonging to Gwyn ap Nudd,
alas that we should suffer it!

I love this image of ‘a moor that’s an ocean’. It reminds me of the German term schwingmoor ‘swinging wetland’. This evokes how a bog can sway with each step like the sea.

I am dying to know whether the reference to the peat-pit as a ‘fish pond belonging to Gwyn ap Nudd’ is a metaphor that Dafydd ap Gwilym has created or whether it comes from the oral tradition.

We know Nudd/Nodens, the father of Gwyn, is associated with fishing by the iconography at his temple in Lydney. A crown, which would have been worn by a priest of Nodens, features a strange fisherman with a long tail catching a salmon and images of fish and sea-serpents appear on a mural.

So it isn’t too surprising to find a reference to fish ponds belonging to Gwyn. However, anyone familiar with the ecology of peat bogs will be aware it is very rare to find fish in their waters due to the low oxygen levels. This raises the question: for what is Gwyn fishing?

I believe an answer can be found in a later English poem by Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802 – 1839) called ‘The Red Fisherman’ which might also contain echoes of an older tradition.

This recounts how an abbot came to a pool with the ‘evil name’ ‘The Devil’s Decoy’ and encountered ‘a tall man’ on ‘a three-legged stool’ clad all in red with shrunken and shrivelled ‘tawny skin’ and hands that had ‘long ages ago gone to rest’ – ‘He had fished in the flood with Ham and Shem’.

With a ‘turning of keys and locks’ he took forth bait from his iron box’ and when he cast his hook ‘From the bowels of the earth / strange and varied sounds had birth’, ‘the noisy glee / of a revelling company’.

To this otherworldly music the red fisherman drew up ‘a gasping knight’ ‘with clotted hair’ ‘the cruel Duke of Gloster’. Casting off again, ‘a gentleman fine and fat, / With a big belly as big as a brimming vat’ ‘The Mayor of St Edmund’s Bury’. His next catch, with ‘white cheek’ ‘cold as clay’ and ‘torn raven hair’ was ‘Mistress Shore’ and, after countless others, finally a bishop. The abbot was cursed by the Red Fisherman to carry his hook in his mouth and from then on stammered and stuttered and could not preach.

If this poem derives from an older tradition based around the lore of his Gwyn and his father (like the Red Fisherman Gwyn was also identified with the devil) we might surmise he is fishing for the dead.

The mention of the noise of a revelling company is also pertinent as in ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ we find the lines:

A pit between heath and ravine,
the place of phantoms and their brood.
I’d not willingly drink that water,
it’s their privilege and bathing–place.

The term ellyllon is here translated as ‘phantoms’ but also means ‘elves’. It no doubt refers to Y Tylwyth Teg, ‘the fair family’ or ‘fairies’ over whom Gwyn rules as the Fairy King. ‘Brood’ has been translated from plant ‘children’ which is also suggestive of the family of Gwyn.

The peat-pit, like other bodies of water such as lakes, pools, springs, and wells, is a liminal place where Thisworld and the Otherworld meet, where the fair folk bathe, and their leader fishes for souls.

Finding out about this lore has deepened by intuition that Gwyn is associated with Lancashire’s lost peat bogs and former peat-pits, such as Helleholes, just north of my home.

At the end of his poem Dafydd ap Gwilym curses ‘the idiot’ who dug the peat-pit and swears he will never ‘leave his blessing in the peat bog’. This may refer to a practice taking place in his day – people leaving butter in peat bogs for the fairies, which may carry reminiscences of more ancient offerings to Gwyn and his family.

Contrarily, the next time I visit a peat bog, I intend to leave a blessing for Gwyn, the Blessed One.

*With thanks to Gwilym Morus-Baird for his video HERE and for pointing me in the direction of Dafydd ap Gwilym.net where ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ can be read in Welsh and English.

The Honey-Isle of Beli

Beli Mawr is an important ancestral figure in the medieval Welsh tradition. I believe he was earlier venerated as Bel ‘Shining’*, a god of the sun, fire, and war, here in Britain and across the continent in Gaul, Noricum, and Iberia, by the Celtic-speaking peoples, particularly the Belgae, from perhaps as early as the Neolithic until the Roman-Celtic period. This is evidenced by inscriptions and place-names.

Beli is represented as one of the first of a lineage of god-kings of Britain presiding over a paradisal island. In ‘Kein gyfedwch’, a poem in The Book of Taliesin, ‘Victorious King Beli, / son of King Manogan’ is the ‘rightful ruler’ of ‘the Honey-Isle of Beli’. He resides in ‘an impregnable fortress’, a ‘wondrous retreat’, ‘a well-wrought protection of reinforced stones’. ‘Fair carousing’ takes place around ‘two lakes’ (one is a lake of drink). ‘He with a dragon’s qualities’ watches from above ‘the places of the drinking vessels’ as his people ‘drink in golden horns, golden horns in the hand, a hand (deep in) foam.’

In ‘Glaswawt Taliesin’ we find a reference to Beli wirawt. Marged Haycock notes that the gwirawt ‘alcoholic drink’ (used in conjunction with mead, bragget, and wine) of Beli appears to be a kenning for the sea, ‘Beli’s drink’. This seems linked to the hand (of Beli?) holding the horn deep in foam. The next line refers to a ‘light shield in the depth of night’. Haycock says the yscwyt yscawn ‘light shield’ is ‘collocated with Beli’. Peter Bartrum mentions that in Early Welsh poetry there are ‘several references’ to Beli’s ‘bloody spear’, presenting the image of a warrior.

Thus we can picture Beli above a paradisal isle surrounded by golden seas with a foaming horn of mead in times of peace and, during war, as a shining protector with a light shield and bloody spear. This puts me in mind of Belenus appearing in the air to defend Aquiliea from the Romans in 238 AD.

The most likely location of the Honey-Isle of Beli is the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire, although this name is more commonly taken to mean ‘the isle of eels’ from either the Latin elge or the Anglo-Saxon eilig. Frustratingly I have been unable to find out anything about its prehistory, only that the area was under the control of the Anglo-Saxon Gwyras tribe during the early medieval period, and that Saint Etheldreda founded a monastic community on the hill’s summit in 673 AD, which is now the site of Ely Cathedral. We might conjecture this replaced a Romano-British site that was sacred to Beli.

From the Honey-Isle of Beli the Shining One held reign over Britain some time before the Roman invasions. In ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ Macsen, the Roman Emperor, ‘conquered the island of Britain by force from Beli son of Mynogan, and his two sons, and drove them to the sea.’**

In Lludd ac Llefelys we find another story: ‘Beli the Great, son of Manogan, had three sons, Lludd and Caswallon and Nyniaw. And… Llefelys was a fourth son. And after Beli died, the kingdom of the Island of Britain fell into the hands of Lludd, his eldest son, and Lludd ruled it successfully.’

Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint is the medieval Welsh name of the Romano-British god Nodens. In this story he defends Britain from three plagues, including the Coraniaid, the Romans, with the help of Llefelys.

Nudd/Lludd is associated with Lydney, ‘Lludd’s Isle’. His son, Gwyn ap Nudd or Afallach, who is named as the grandson of Beli in the Harleian Genealogies, presides over Ynys Afallach, the Isle of Avalon.

Like Beli, the descendants of the Shining One also reside over splendid mead-feasts in liminal places, where it is possible for mortals to feast and drink with their gods and their ancestors. In doing so they might be seen to enter Annwn/Faerie, the Otherworld, for a limited period of time.

In ‘Kadeir Taliesin’ the bard speaks of his seat in Caer Siddi ‘The Fairy Fort’: ‘around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea; / and (as for) the fruitful fountain which is above it- / its drink is sweeter than white wine.’

In ‘Preiddu Annwn’ Taliesin reports his raid on seven Annuvian fortresses (which I believe may be seven appearances of the fortress of Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’, Gwyn/Afallach). One is Caer Siddi, another Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’ and another is Caer Rigor ‘The Fort of Hardness’ where ‘sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion.’

The primacy of Beli wirawt ‘Beli’s drink’ suggests alcohol held an important ritual function for our ancestors, effecting the shift in consciousness through which they participated in the feasts of their gods. This remains a reality to this day, when a sip of mead (or more!) and the right rites can take us to the Honey-Isle, Lludd’s Isle, or the Isle of Avalon, or elsewhere, to commune with the Shining Ones.

*This name also takes the forms of Belin, Belinos, Belenos, Belenus.
**This story does not fit well with history as Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus) was not Roman Emperor at the time of the invasions but from 383 until 388 AD after which the imperial presence in Britain and Gaul declined.

SOURCES

Marged Haycock (transl), Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)
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)

Sétanta – A Hero of the Setantii?

Sétanta and the Setantii

I have recently been revisiting the theory that Sétanta (later Cú Chulainn), a hero and perhaps a deity the Irish myths, was associated with the Iron Age Setantii tribe of northern Britain. Writing in 2CE the Roman geographer, Ptolemy, refers to Portus Setantiorum ‘the Port of the Setantii’, which was located at the mouth of the river Wyre, and also to Seteia, the river Mersey. This suggests the Setantii occupied the lowlands of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire from the Mersey to the Wyre.

The etymology of Setantii is one of much debate. Graham Isaac suggests it is emended from sego ‘strong’ and Andrew Breeze that is corrupted from ‘the Celtic *met “cut, harvest”, as in Welsh medaf “I reap”, Medi “September” (when corn is cut), Middle Irish methel “reaping party”’. Breeze notes these people were not ‘harmless agriculturalists’ and ‘Welsh literature indicates a bloodier sense’. Medel means ‘reaper’ ‘killer, mower down (of enemies in combat)’. The warrior-prince Owain Rheged is referred to by Taliesin as medel galon ‘a reaper of enemies’. Thus Metantii or Setantii is best translated as ‘reapers (of men), cutters down (in battle)’ and Meteia or Seteia as ‘reaper’.

In Celtic and Manx Folklore John Rhys puts forward the theory that Sétanta Beg means ‘the Little Setantian’, which we might translate as ‘reaping one’, and this would certainly fit with his ferocity in battle.

Rhys associates both Sétanta and Seithenin with the lost lands between Ireland and Wales. In Welsh legend Seithenin caused the flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir (1) when he failed to close the flood gates due to his liason with Mererid, the ‘fountain cup-bearer’, whose waters were loosed. Traditionally this story is associated with Cantre’r Gwaelod, ‘the Bottom Hundred’, ‘the shallows of Cardigan Bay’. Yet this area extended ‘northwards… off the coast of Cheshire and Lancashire, and occupied Morecambe Bay with a dense growth of oak, Scotch fir, alder, birch, and hazel’.

Gwyddno had two ports – Porth Wyddno (Borth) in Wales and ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’, one of Three Chief Ports in The Triads of the Island of Britain, which was likely Portus Setantiorum.

Holder theorises that Sétanta derives from Setantios and he was originally a Celtic god. Is it possible his mythos, the best developed of all the Irish deities, originated from the people who occupied the lost lands off the Lancashire coast and were later known as the Setantii?

Sétanta’s Birth and Boyhood

The stories of Sétanta/Cú Chulainn were written down by medieval Irish scribes during the 12th century in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster and are now firmly embedded in the Irish landscape. He is associated with Ulster, the Ulstermen, and their king, Conchobar.

‘The Birth of Cú Chulainn’ is a story with much mythic depth. Conchobar rules Ireland from Emain Macha. The plain is devastated by a flock of magical birds, ‘nine-score’ ‘each pair… linked by a silver chain’. Conchobar, his daughter and charioteer, Deichtine, and nine other charioteers hunt them. A heavy snow falls and they are forced to seek refuge in a storehouse where they are welcomed to feast by its owner. His wife is in labour and Deichtine helps her give birth to a son. At the same time a mare gives birth to two colts outside. Deichtine nurses the boy and he is given the colts.

Afterwards Conchobar and his company find themselves east of the Bruig (Newgrange) ‘no house, no birds, only their horses and the boy and his colts’. Deichtine takes the boy to Emain Macha and continues to nurse him but, to her heart break, he dies. Afterwards she drinks a ‘tiny creature’ from a copper vessel. That evening the god, Lug, appears to her and tells her she is pregnant by him and must call their son Sétanta. Because she is engaged to Sualtam mac Róich and fears he may suspect she slept with Conchobar she aborts the child, then becomes pregnant by Sualtam and bears a son. He is called Sétanta and thus has both thisworldly and otherworldly fathers – Sualtam and Lug. His dual paternity, like that of Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Arawn in the Welsh myths, marks him as a ‘special son’.

Lug is an Irish deity who is descended from Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods, and Eithne, daughter of Balor, one of the monstrous Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’. Sétanta’s descent from a human woman on one side and gods and giants on the other goes a long way to explain his superhuman qualities.

As a mere boy he is described as going to play with the others and fending off fifty javelins with his toy shield, stopping fifty hurling balls with his chest, and warding off fifty hurleys with his one hurley.

Sétanta receives the name Cú Chulainn after being attacked by a hound belonging to Culann the smith. He puts an end to it in a grotesque manner. ‘The lad struck his ball with his hurley so that the ball shot down the throat of the hound and carried its insides out through its backside. Then he grabbed two of its legs and smashed it to pieces against a nearby pillar stone’. As recompense to Culann, he offers to be Culann’s hound and guard Muirthemne Plain until a pup has been raised to take his place. From then he is known as Cú Chulainn – the Hound of Culann.

Training with Scáthach

Cú Chulainn trains with the warrior-woman Scáthach ‘the Shadow’ at Dún Scáith ‘The Fortress of Shadows’ on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. From her he learns the arts of war including ‘the apple-feat, the thunder-feat, the blade-feat, the foen-feat, and the spear-feat, the rope-feat, the body-feat, the cat’s feat, the salmon-feat of a chariot-chief, the throw of the staff, the jump over […], the whirl of a brave chariot-chief, the spear of the bellows, the boi of swiftness, the wheel-feat, the othar-feat, the breath-feat, the brud geme, the hero’s whoop, the blow […], the counter-blow, running up a lance and righting the body on its point, the scythe-chariot, and the hero’s twisting round the points of spears’.

Most fearsome is his use of the barbed spear known as the gae bolga:thrown from the fork of the foot; it made a single wound when it entered a man’s body, whereupon it opened into thirty barbs, and it could not be taken from a man’s body without the flesh being cut away around it’.

During this period Cú Chulainn battles against Scáthach’s rival, another warrior-woman called Aife, defeats her, and offers to spare her life but only on the condition that she bears him a son.

The story of Cú Chulainn’s training with Scáthach shows links with Britain and the existence of a tradition where male warriors were trained by warrior women. This is also found in the Welsh myths where Peredur is trained by the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw and it might be suggested that Orddu, the Very Black Witch, of Pennant Gofid, in the North, fulfilled a similar role.

The Battle Rage of Cú Chulainn

After his training Cú Chulainn’s feats are many and his greatest is defending Ulster and the Brown Bull single handedly against the armies of Connacht whilst the Ulstermen are laid up with the Curse of Macha (1). This is recorded in The Tain. After putting them off by magic, picking them off with guerilla tactics and fighting against them in single combat he defeats them in three great massacres.

Here we witness his ability to cause incredible violence. With ‘his scythed chariot that glittered with iron tangs, blades, hooks, hard prongs and brutal spikes, barbs and sharp nails on every shaft, strut, strap and truss’ he drives into the ranks ‘three times encircling them with great ramparts of their own corpses piled sole to sole and headless neck to headless neck’, slaying ‘seven-score and ten kings’.

When he fights, Cú Chulainn is taken over by a battle rage known as his ‘warp spasm’ or ‘torque’. Its vivid descriptions, no doubt a delight to storytellers, driven to greater exaggerations, are worth citing.

‘The first Torque seized Cú Chulainn and turned him into a contorted thing, unrecognisably horrible and grotesque. Every slab and every sinew of him, joint and muscle, shuddered from head to foot like a tree in a storm or a reed in a stream. His body revolved furiously inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees jumped to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams to the front. The bunched sinews of his calves jumped to the front of his shins, bulging with knots the size of a warrior’s clenched fist. The ropes of his neck rippled from ear to nape in an immense, monstrous, incalculable knobs, each as big as the head of a month-old child.

Then he made a red cauldron of his face and features: he sucked one of his eyes so deep into his head that a wild crane would find it difficult to plumb the depths of his skull to drag that eye back to its socket; the other popped out on to his cheek. His mouth became a terrifying, twisted grin. His cheek peeled back from his jaws so you could see his lungs and liver flapping in his throat… The hero’s light sprang from his forehead… thick, steady, strong as the mast of a tall ship was the straight spout of dark blood that rose up from the fount of his skull to dissolve in an otherworldly mist…’

In his battle fury Cú Chulainn is described as warped and monstrous and these transformations may derive from his Formorian heritage. This is hinted at in a further passage: ‘Cú Chulainn torqued himself a hundredfold. He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant or a deep-sea merman’.

He also displays the ability to call up otherworldly spirits. His ‘roar of a hundred warriors’ is ‘echoed by the goblins and ghouls and sprites of the glen and the fiends of the air, for their howls would resound before him, above him, and around him any time he shed the blood of warriors and heroes’. ‘The clouds that boiled above him in his fury glimmered and flickered with malignant flares and sultry smoke – the torches of the Badb.’ This puts us in mind of the Scream over Annwn.

Even when he displays his ‘true beauty’ he is otherworldly with his hair in three layers, dark, blood-red and yellow, ‘four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, blue and purple. Seven brilliant gems gleamed in each regal eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails or claws or talons of each with the grip of a hawk or griffin… He held nine human heads in one hand, ten in the other’.

Sétanta/Cú Chulainn is depicted a monstrous reaper of men and as a hunter of heads. Head-hunting was common amongst the Celtic peoples, particularly the Setantii, which is evidenced by the large number of severed heads ritually buried across their territories. It has been noted, whilst there is an absence of chariot burials in Ireland, there are many in northern Britain. So there is, at least, an argument that this otherworldly figure, like a giant or merman, originates from the people who once occupied the drowned lands between Britain and Ireland and may have been a Setantian god or hero.

The Tragedies of Cú Chulainn

Amidst the relentless violence endemic to a warrior culture whose greatest aim was winning everlasting fame through battle prowess we find some moving scenes based around Cú Chulainn’s relationships. When Cú Chulainn is badly wounded during his battle against the armies of Connacht his otherworld father, Lug, appears to fight his battle for three nights and days whilst he heals.

Tragically Cú Chulainn kills his son by Aife because he does not know who he is until he sees his ring. In an equally tragic scene Cú Chulainn faces and kills his foster-brother who was also possibly his lover, Fer Diad, with whom he trained with Scáthach. Their relationship is described in poignant verse:

Two hearts that beat as one,
we were comrades in the woods,
men who shared a bed
and the same deep sleep
after heavy fighting
in strange territories.
Apprentices of Scáthach,
we would ride out together
to explore the dark woods.

After many days of battle with various weapons Cú Chulainn puts an end to Fer Diad with the gae bolga.

His lament is heart wrenching:

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
I wounded and dripping with gore,
your chariot standing empty.

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
I leak blood from every pore
and you lie dead forever.

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
you dead, I bursting with life.
Courage has a brutal core.

It puts me in mind of the lines spoken by Gwyn, our British death-god and gatherer of souls, who is doomed to live on whilst the warriors of Britain perish in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2), which perhaps speaks of a shared origin to these poems.

Cú Chulainn’s love life also contains tragedy. His main lover is Emer but their relationship is put into jeopardy when Cú Chulainn goes to hunt her one of two magical birds ‘coupled with a red-gold chain’. He shoots but does not kill one. They turn out to be fairy women and, when he falls asleep against a stone, they take revenge by beating him with horsewhips until ‘there is no life left in him’.

He takes to his sick bed for a year and learns the only cure is to help one of them, Fand, to battle against her enemies. They fall in love and sleep together yet she is the wife of the sea-god, Manannan. Cú Chulainn returns to Emer but both are heart-broken. Cú Chulainn wanders the mountains neither sleeping nor drinking (3) until Manannan shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand so she is forgotten.

Cú Chulainn’s death is fittingly tragic. His old enemy, Queen Medb of Connacht conspires to kill him with the sons of her enemies. He is tricked into breaking his geis of not eating the meat of his sacred animal, the dog, and by this he is weakened. He is killed by Lugaid, the son of Cú Roí, another otherworldy figure with whom he battles and defeats to win a maiden called Blathnat (4).

With a magical spear destined to kill three ‘kings’, Lugaid kills Láeg, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, Liath Macha, Cú Chulainn’s horse and finally Cú Chulainn himself. Mortally wounded, Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone so he can die on his feet facing his enemies. They remain afraid of him even after his death, not daring to approach until a raven lands on his shoulder. This symbolises he has been beaten by the only opponent worthy of defeating him, the death goddess, the Morrigan (5).

A Hero of the Setantii?

Here I have provided only glimpses into the rich mythos surrounding Sétanta/Cú Chulainn: his birth and dual paternity, his naming as Culann’s Hound, his training with Scáthach, his feats as a warrior, his love life (which features a number of women and possibly a man), and his death.

As we have seen, these stories are now firmly embedded within the Irish landscape. However, we know that many centuries ago Britain and Ireland were near joined together and that the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Children of Don, share many similarities. Nodens/Nuada, the king of the gods, was worshipped on the Lancashire coast and his son, Gwyn, might have conversed here with Gwyddno. Lug(us) was the patron god of Carlisle (Luguvalium) further north. If he was venerated here it would make sense his son, Sétanta/Setantios, was also viewed also an important deity or hero.

The evidence suggests there is at least a possibility the stories of Sétanta originated from the lost lands off the coast of Lancashire where gods and giants gave birth to monsters, that this monstrous and beguiling head-reaping hero was one of the deities of the Setantii, the reapers of men.

(1) After Macha raced against the horses of the king of Ulster and won she gave birth and screamed that for five days and four nights any man who heard her would be afflicted by her labour pains. She then died. Her curse was passed on for nine generations. Macha’s name was given to Emain Macha.
(2) I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the north;
I live on, they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the south;
I live on, they are dead.
(3) His state resembles geilt/wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’ in the Welsh and Irish myths where we find Suibhne Geilt and Myrddin Wyllt taking on bird transformations and Cynedyr Wyllt ‘nine times wilder than the wildest beast on the mountain’.
(4) ‘The contention of Corroi and Cocholyn’ (Cú Roí and Cú Chulainn) is referred to in the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Death Song of Corroi’ in The Book of Taliesin and the beheading game Cú Chulainn plays with Cú Roí perhaps depicts a conflict with the Head of the Otherworld, here known as Gwyn.
(5) The Morrigan appears earlier in the stories as young prophet then fights against him as an eel, a she-wolf, and a hornless red heifer. After the battle she tricks him into healing her when she appears as a one-eyed hag milking a cow with three teats by drinking from each which heals her three wounds.

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra, and Pen-Y-Ghent, Northern History, XLII: 1, (University of Leeds, 2006)
Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008)
Eoin Mac Neill, Varia. I, Eriu, Vol. 11, (Royal Irish Academy 1932)
Greg Hill, (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Jeffrey Ganz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, (Penguin, 1981)
John Rhys, Celtic and Manx Folklore: Volume One, (Project Gutenberg, 2017)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

With thanks to Wikipedia for the images of Cú Chulainn. The photographs of the former site of Portus Setantiorum near the mouth of the river Wyre and the coast from Rossall Point where the remnants of the forest have been seen are my own.

The Strong Door

Be my
strong door,
mighty-girthed oak,
stout defence of
this island.

Be my
strong door,
dair, derwen, Daronwy,
Oak of Goronwy,
rooted firmly
where

yellow daffodils grow

be the defence of
my people.

Against
disease panic
the viral hordes
of Annwn

help us
hold firm.

Be my strong door.

The Magician of the Orme V -The Vessel and the Lake

In The Lesser Key of Solomon my attention was arrested by the foundation story in which Solomon imprisoned the 72 spirits in a a brazen vessel with a magical seal and threw it into the Lake of Babylon. Unfortunately, the people of Babylon, hungry to see its wonders and suspecting ‘to find great store of treasure within’, found it, broke it open, and let the demons out to return to their original places. The order of the demons in the text relates to the order in which they were imprisoned. The ‘Vessel of Brass’ and its seal are depicted in the text with instructions for making the seal.

Vessel of Brass

Immediately I thought of the similarities with the Cauldron of the King of Annwn. This magical vessel is described in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ as also being intricately decorated having a ‘dark trim and pearls’. It is likely to have been made of brass as the people of Annwn/fairies dislike iron. In the Second Branch of The Mabinogion it is brought from a lake in Ireland by two monstrous giants. It is later used by Matholhwch, King of Ireland, to bring dead warriors back to life. Speechless, near-demonic, their battle with the British brings devastation to Ireland – only five women remain  in caves in the wild. It is likewise deleterious for the British – only seven warriors survive.

Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn, and keeper of the cauldron is described in Culhwch and Olwen as containing the fury of the ‘devils’ of Annwn in order to prevent their destruction of the world. Could it be possible that he was seen as containing them not only in his realm but in the cauldron which, when not being used to boil the meat of the brave* at his fairy feast, was kept carefully sealed?

Could it be possible that, like Solomon, the Magician of the Orme had somehow learned the names of the spirits of Annwn who are contained in the cauldron and how to summon and to command them? That he had attempted to create his own cauldron in imitation of the King of Annwn’s to seal them in? And this is the information contained in ‘The Book the Living Hand’? That, as always, when magicians have the hubris to think they can control spirits who can only truly be contained by the gods, something had gone wrong, and this led to him cutting off his hand to seal it shut?

Whether the Magician of the Orme and his book existed or not I think I have the seeds of a story that remains to be told…

*In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ we are told the cauldron ‘does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so’. The food within may be the flesh of Twrch Trwyth ‘Chief of Boars’ a human shapeshifter hunted by Gwyn. Eating his flesh may represent consuming ancestral wisdom.

The Magician of the Orme III – Fairy Magic in Wales

Following my visit to the Great Orme I began researching the possibility of the existence of a magician who invoked the spirits of Annwn/fairies, recorded their names in a book, and was executed in 1679.

I found out, in contrast to England and Scotland, the numbers of persecutions for witchcraft in Wales were very low. Between 1568 and 1698 forty-two suspects were prosecuted, eight were found guilty, and five sentenced to death. The earliest and most famous case was Gwen ferch Ellis, who was hung in Denbigh town square in 1594. Most of the suspects were women, but included yeomen.

I did not find any cases of execution for witchcraft in Ruthin in 1679. However, there was a gallows outside the courthouse in Ruthin linked to the gaol. The last hanging took place in 1679 and was a Catholic priest called Father Charles Mahoney, who was shipwrecked trying to make his way home to Ireland from Rome.

Intriguingly, in relation to the name of the magician that came through to me being Hugh, I found a reference to a Hugh Bryghan who was persecuted for using ‘art magic’ in Glamorgan much earlier in 1568. He was a soothsayer who found stolen goods through scrying, with the aid of a helper, in a crystal. He denied using ‘familiar spirits’ or keeping them in a crystal and escaped with a fine.

In Wales a wide variety of names were used to refer to magical practitioners – hudolwyr ‘magician’, rheibwyr ‘wizard’, daroganwyr’ ‘soothsayer, swynwyr or swynwraig ‘charmer’ or ‘cunning man’ or ‘cunning woman’, consuwyr ‘conjuror’. The Welsh word for magic is hud. The term wits ‘witch’ is an English loan-word and both it, and persecutions for witchcraft, seem to be English importations. It may thus be suggested that the Welsh were far more tolerant of their magical practitioners.

shui rhys and the tylwyth teg from British Goblins

Richard Suggett notes that, in Wales, there was a longstanding tradition of magical practitioners gaining their ‘power and knowledge’ from Y Tylwyth Teg ‘the Fair Family’ or ‘fairies’. Because they were not ‘constrained by the ordinary limits of time, space and body… they had access to knowledge ordinarily unavailable to men and women.’ This included ‘knowledge of many hidden things’, ‘how to cure illnesses that were beyond the expertise of physicians and surgeons’ and ‘information on the future as well as the past. Because of these characteristics, some enchanters specialised in trying to obtain knowledge from the fairies. Cunning-folk would deny that they had dealings with devils or familiars, but they might concede – or even boast – that they consulted the fairies.’

Unfortunately the two examples we have of prosecutions of persons who claimed a relationship with fairies were charlatans. In 1636 Harry Lloyd of Llandygai was accused of ‘wicked and unlawful arts’ and ‘familiarity with wicked spirits’. He tricked his victims by saying he would make them rich in ‘gold and silver’, which he received from the fairies when on Tuesday and Thursday nights, if they would give him a few shillings to buy candles. Of course these offerings were never enough to prevail, he asked for more and more more money and the fairy gold and silver never materialised.

Ann Jones claimed to be able to heal with the aid of the fairies through magical ‘dew gathered in the month of May’. To heal the sick daughter of John Lewys she said the fairies needed some money on which the girl had breathed. She took nine shillings and did not return. Likewise she told Griffith ap Owen that to cure his child she needed money to show to the fairies and disappeared with 40 shillings in gold. She was committed to Denbighshire gaol and died during her imprisonment.

More significantly, for this line of research, there is also evidence of fairies being invoked by ritual magicians and their spells for invoking and controlling appearing in books. According to Ronald Hutton ‘Fairies were also directly involved in practical magical operations, as proved by the surviving manuscripts of sorcerers from the period between 1560 and 1640. Five contain directions for their invocation and control.’

Suggett notes that conjurers rose to a position of particular importance during the seventeenth century. ‘The title ‘conjurer’ implied a reputation for conjuration, that is the magical technique of invoking and controlling spirits. This was the ars magna of the conjurer. Some conjurers were believed to keep devils, which permanently resided in their magic books.’

Suggett also speaks about the importance of knowing the names of fairies. ‘The fairies lacked the named individuality of human society or, rather, fairy names were not readily apparent to humans. The discovery of a fairy name was part of the process which integrated them – temporarily – in human society. This seems to be fundamental.’ This might be linked to a magician who learnt the names of the spirits of Annwn/fairies and wrote these down, along with invocations and commands in a book.

Some fascinating examples of conjurer’s books are provided by Suggett:

Conjurers compiled their own manuscript books of recipes, charms and incantations, and a few have survived… The most interesting of these manuscripts is the secret book (‘llyfr cyfrin’) of an unnamed Denbighshire wise-man. This stubby volume has been described by Kate Bosse Griffiths: it has 200 pages but was small enough to fit in the pocket of a great coat. The contents were written in Welsh and English and included several conjuring formulae to summon the spirits called fairies (tylwyth teg); a formula to invocate and converse with spirits of the dead; methods of telling fortunes through astrology; and various charms in English and Welsh, one with the note that these ‘words being spoke with grate revarens and faith has don wonders’…

The most famous conjuring Book in Wales was the chained and padlocked book Cwrtycadno. The appearance of this volume was a piece of pure theatre. The large book secured with three locks was placed on the table during consultation but remained locked; it was rumoured that the conjurer’s devils resided within it.

The latter was part of the library of the famous Welsh conjurers of the Harries family who prospered during the nineteenth century at the end of the which the book mysteriously disappeared.

This shows that magicians/conjurers and books recording the names, invocations, and commands of fairies certainly existed during the seventeenth century. I found no evidence for ‘The Book of the Living Hand’ or the Magician of the Orme yet my research showed their existence was possible.

SOURCES

Ronald Hutton, ‘The Making of the Early Modern British Fairy Tradition’, The Historical Journal, 57, 4, (Cambridge Press, 2014)
Richard Suggett, A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales, (The History Press, 2008)
Richard Suggett, Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Wales, (Attramentous Press, 2018)

The Magician of the Orme II – The Great Orme

Before starting my historical research I visited the Great Orme. I discovered that Orme is a Norse word meaning ‘sea serpent’ suggesting it was seen as a serpent living in the stone and guarding the coast. The Welsh name is, more prosaically, Y Gogarth which means ‘terraced rock’ and is equally fitting.

P1310756

As I walked around the Orme, seeing the many heads of the serpent in the rock, admiring the rock flowers, searching for the springs (I only found Fynnon Gogarth and Fynnon Gaseg) I could imagine how a magician might have traversed the land, knowing all its features and the serpent intimately.

On the beach near Llandudno I found a shell that reminded me of the eye on the back of the magician’s hand.

I found out from a leaflet at the visitor centre the area has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period with flint tools and an intricately carved horse’s skull being found in the limestone caves. There is a Neolithic Cromlech, Bronze Age Mines, the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, and St Tudno lived in a cave (Tudno’s Cave) and built a church during the 6th century. Ridges and furrows provide evidence of a medieval farming community. Mining was resumed in the 17th century. The miners were housed at Cwlach and Maes y Fachell. I didn’t find any evidence of people living on the Orme during the period the magician might have lived or any lore suggesting the existence of a magician.

P1310681

Yet on May Eve I had a dream that the magician was sleeping where I stayed in the Grand Hotel (I got a cheap room on the top floor – no doubt cheap because the lights in the bathroom flashed on and off like a disco and there were noisy seagulls nesting on the roof above!) and I had somehow missed him and was chasing him up down the stairs and lifts and looking behind the trolleys of the house keepers. On waking I had a vision of the magician invoking spirits in a huge cave underground.

P1310842

This was significant because that day (May Day) I visited the Bronze Age mines. I hadn’t been before and did not know that, with over 5 miles over of tunnels, they are the largest mines in Europe or that they contain the largest man-made cave. The tunnels leading into the cave are open to the public.

P1310832

When I entered I struck with awe not only by this finding but the numinosity of the great cavern, with its music of dripping calcite, illuminated by lighting that changed colour to accentuate the features of the rock. I could sense the press of the presence of the spirits, see their shifting forms, their faces.

P1310836

I had the sense that, although it was made for mining bronze, it was seen as sacred – perhaps as the belly of the great sea serpent. It also seemed possible that Nodens/Nudd ‘Lord of the Mines’, his son Gwyn, and the spirits of Annwn along with the dead were revered and their fury was placated there.

That rituals took place to appease the underworld gods and spirits in the mines was evidenced by the burial of a cat surrounded by blackberry seeds 60 metres down. Uncannily, after I left the mines, crossing a field in search of the cromlech, a black cat approached and rubbed around my legs.

I found no direct evidence of the existence of a magician, but it certainly seemed possible he might have existed, found his way into the cavern and used it to invoke the spirits of Annwn.

 

The Magician of the Orme I – The Book of the Living Hand

The Book of the Living Hand
now lies closed.

Who closed it?

The Hand itself
or the hand of another?

Who will dare
try to bring the Living Hand to life,
to ask it to open the pages,
to fold them back,

to reveal the names
of the terrible beings who will answer,
to risk releasing their fury
into the world again?

What will lie within?
Will the names be the same
or will the pages have been rewritten
in the Living Hand’s sleep?

Do you see its colour returning?

The dim pulse of a vein?

The opening of the eyelid
on the back of the hand?

The twitch of a finger?

The Book of the Living Hand

This poem and sketch are based on a vision I had several months ago of a book whose cover had been closed by a human hand with an eye on the back. The hand had become part of the book. This roused a series of questions. Who did it belong to? Who are the furious spirits within its pages? How did its owner lose their hand and how did it become part of the book? What is the significance of the eye?

In a series of gnoses it was revealed that it belonged to ‘the Magician of the Orme’ (the Great Orme in North Wales). Within are the names of the spirits of Annwn whose fury Gwyn ap Nudd holds back to prevent their destruction of the world. The magician cut off his hand in a desperate act of magic to seal the book shut before being arrested on the grounds of practicing witchcraft involving the aid of ‘devils’ and was hung in Ruthin in 1679. The meaning of the eye, as yet, remains concealed.

This inspired me to set out doing some research into whether such a magician and his book could have existed. It’s led me on an interesting adventure to the Orme and through the history of spirit aid magic in seventeenth century Wales and beyond. In the following posts I will be sharing my findings.

The Giant’s Letters

In Barddas Iolo Morganwg provides a mythical account of the origin of letters, which he claims was passed down from the ancient Bards of the Isle of Britain.

‘Einigain, Einigair, or Einiger, the Giant, was the first that made a letter to be a sign of the first vocalisation that ever was heard, namely, the Name of God. That is to say, God pronounced His Name, and with the word all the world and its appurtenances, and all the universe leaped together into existence and life, with the triumph of a song of joy. The same song was the first poem that was ever heard, and the sound of the song travelled as far as God and his existence are, and the way in which every other existence, springing into unity with Him, has travelled forever and ever… It was from the hearing, and from him who heard it, that sciences and knowledge and understanding and awen from God, were obtained. The symbol of God’s name from the beginning was /|\…

Einigan the Giant beheld the three pillars of light, having in them all demonstrable sciences that ever were, or ever will be. And he took three rods of the quicken tree, and placed on them the forms and signs of all sciences, so as to be remembered; and exhibited them. But those who saw them misunderstood, and falsely apprehended them, and taught illusive sciences, regarding the rods as a God, whereas they only bore His Name. When Einigan saw this, he was greatly annoyed, and in the intensity of his grief he broke the three rods, nor were others found that contained accurate sciences. He was so distressed on that account that from the intensity he burst asunder, and with his (parting) breath he prayed God that there should be accurate sciences among men in the flesh, and there should be a correct understanding of of the proper discernment thereof. And at the end of a year and a day, after the decease of Einigan, Menw, son of the Three Shouts, beheld three rods growing out of the mouth of Einigan, which exhibited the sciences of the Ten Letters, and the mode in which all the sciences of language and speech were arranged by them, and in language and speech all distinguishable sciences. He then took the rods and taught from them the sciences – all except the name of God, which he kept a secret, lest the Name should be falsely discerned; and hence arose the Secret of the Bards of the Isle of Britain.’

The letters were known as gogyrven, a term which has been translated as ‘spirit’ and ‘muse’, and provides the sense that the letters were inspirited and possessed their own lives and potent agency.

When etched onto wood with a knife each letter was known as a coelbren ‘omen stick’ and ‘The Coelbren’ was the name given to the alphabet, which later developed to contain twenty-four letters.

***

It has long been proven that Morganwg’s writings are forgeries and were not passed on from the ancient bards. They are also heavily influenced by Christianity. However, they may still be read as inspired works that contain deep truths open to reinterpretation from a modern Brythonic pagan perspective.

From numerous instances in medieval Welsh poetry where poets deny adamantly that awen is from God and not from the Great Goddess Ceridwen* we can derive that God replaced Ceridwen as the creator of the world and source of the awen. Their denials conceal an older truth. That the universe was born when she spoke her secret name which brought about the primal shattering of her crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ – the Big Bang, and the echoing of her name throughout creation as awen-song.

If Ceridwen is our great creatrix, Old Mother Universe, who heard her song? Who is Einigan the Giant? A clue may be found in the name gogyrven or ogryven for letter. Ogryven is also the name of a giant. Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd speaks of ‘a girl in Ogyrven’s Hall’:

Unwilling to leave her (it would be my death)
My life-force is with her, my vitality ebbs
Like a legendary lover my desire undoes me
For a girl I can’t reach in Ogyrven’s Hall.

John Rhys says: ‘three muses had emerged from Giant Ogyrven’s cauldron. But Ogyrven seems to be one of the names of the terrene god, so that Ogyrven’s cauldron should be no other probably than that which we have found ascribed to the Head of Hades.’ It seems that Ogyrven is Pen Annwn, the Head of the Otherworld and guardian of Ceridwen’s cauldron. He is elsewhere known as Arawn or Gwyn ap Nudd.

The identity of Einigan with the Head of the Otherworld is consolidated by Iolo himself. In a later passage in Barddas, referring to the creation of the world we find the following dialogue:

Disciple: ‘By what instrumentality or agency did God make these things?’
Master: ‘By the voice of his mighty energy…’
Disciple: ‘Did any living being hear that melodious voice?’
Master: ‘Yes; and co-instantaneously with the voice were seen all sciences and all things cognitive, in the imperishable and endless stability of their existence and life. For the first that existed, and the first that lived, the first that obtained knowledge, and the first that knew it, was the first that practiced it. And the first sage was Huon, the son of Nudd, who is called Gwynn, the son of Nudd, and Enniged the Giant.’

Menw is a character from Welsh mythology who fittingly knows the language of the animals. The reference to him being the ‘son of Three Shouts’ may refer to the ritual cry of Diaspad Uwch Annwfn ‘the scream over Annwn’ and the power of the voice to summon Annuvian spirits to blight land and people.

Thus we have the seeds of an alternative story of the origin of letters inspired by Morganwg’s writings.

***

The Giant’s Letters

In the beginning there was Annwn, the Deep, a place of silent darkness within the crochan of the Great Goddess. In that silence, in that depth, a very small something formed – a name. And when the Goddess spoke her name, her womb, her cauldron shattered with an almighty bang, her waters broke and poured out in torrents of stars, planets, worlds, our beautiful world amongst them. The universe and its song were born from the secret name of Old Mother Universe and that song was known as awen.

But what is a song with noone to hear it? It was lucky that another of the gods of the Deep heard the song. He is known as Einigan the Giant, Ogryven the Giant, Gwyn ap Nudd, and countless other names. When he heard it, it was so powerful, so full of the joy of the becoming of the universe, so full of the sorrow of the shattering of the cauldron that would be never be whole again, that it seared three burning rays of light into his mind /|\. No matter whether he was sleeping or waking, no matter whether he sat still or ran or hunted through the universe for their source on his dark starry-eyed steed, they would not disappear and the song would not stop repeating itself over and over again.

“What is it you want? What is your demand?” he growled whilst resting at noon beneath a quicken tree.

“We want to be born, we want to be known, we want to be understood.”

The giant finally realised what must be done. Taking his knife he harvested a branch from the tree and cut it into three rods. Onto them he engraved markings for the ten deepest and most primal notes of the song, chanting each gogyrven over and over again, channeling into it its share of the light. When the three coelbren, ‘omen sticks’ as he called them, were formed, the rays faded from his mind. As he looked upon his creation he was filled with a feeling of deep satisfaction and peace and a strange but rightful emptiness, not unlike a mother who has just given birth to three beautiful children.

Yet he still could not rest until he found people who would come to know and understand his creation. He passed on the letters, but, to his horror, they soon lost their meaning. Rather than recognising them as the awen-song of Old Mother Universe, the echoing of her secret name, they began to worship the letters and the knowledge that they allowed them to accumulate instead. Every time a letter was written without purpose he was aware of the light of the universe fading out. He grew so angry that he broke the rods. The intensity of his grief burst his heart, burst him asunder like the broken cauldron. With his last breath he prayed their connection to the song of the awen and their rightful expression in poetry would be reclaimed.

A year and a day afterwards, Menw, son of Three Shouts, beheld the three rods growing from the giant’s mouth. Everywhere his parts had fallen the shoots of new forests of wild words sprang up. Menw learnt the letters and found to his delight they allowed him to commune with the animals who ran ran through those woodlands, with the stones, the rivers, the mountains, the bright shining stars. With all the things that echoed with the Song of Old Mother Universe. When he sang them out loud in perfect poetry he saw three rays of light burning in his mind and his heart was filled with joy.

Menw passed on the secrets of the awen to others who, like him, became awenyddion. When the last died, the light faded. Until those three rays were seen once again by an awenydd called Iolo Morganwg, who penned the story of Einigan the Giant. His works were passed on to others who would answer the giant’s prayer and reclaim the connection of his letters to the name of Old Mother Universe.

And what became of him? Death is rarely the end of a giant. Einigan died and returned to the cauldron. From it he was reborn as its guardian, the Head of Annwn, the ruler of the land of the dead from which the universe was born and to which it will return, as his reward for creating the letters.

abcedilros - the giant's letters

*Taliesin says:

I entreat my Lord
that (I may) consider inspiration:
what brought forth (that) necessity
before Ceridfen
at the beginning, in the world
which was in need?

In ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ we find tension between conflicting translations of peir as ‘cauldron’ or ‘Sovereign’ (God). ‘Ban pan doeth o peir / ogyrwen awen teir’; ‘Splendid (was it) when there emanated from the Sovereign/cauldron / the ogyrwen of triune inspiration’.

Amongst later bards petitioning Ceridwen for awen is only acceptable when disguised as a metaphor and under the ordinance of God. Cuhelyn Fardd asks God for poetic power akin to ‘the dignity of Ceridfen’s song, of varied inspiration’. Prydydd y Moch requests inspiration from God ‘as from Ceridfen’s cauldron’ and asks God for ‘the words of Ceridfen, the director of poetry’.

SOURCES

Greg Hill, ‘The Girl in Ogyrven’s Hall’, The Way of the Awenydd, (2015)
Greg Hill, ‘Who was Taliesin?’, Awen ac Awenydd
Iolo Morganwg, The Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
John Michael Greer, The Coelbren Alphabet, (Llewellyn, 2017)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Birch’s Armour

birch's armour v

In ‘The Battle of the Trees’ in The Book of Taliesin we find the following lines about birch putting on armour:

Birch, despite his great intention,
was slow to put on armour,
not because of his cowardice,
but rather because of his greatness.

In this poem the magician-god, Gwydion, enchants 34 species of trees, shrubs, and plants to do battle against the ‘herbage and trees’ and monsters of Annwn.

I assumed birch’s armour was born out of poetic play until I found a passage in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which suggests these lines contain a deeper truth. Wohlleben speaks of how birches are pioneer trees who have developed various ways of defending themselves.

‘They grow quickly, so their trunks get thick fast, and they put on a massive layer of rough outer bark… Not only do browsers break their teeth on the tough bark, but they are also revolted by the taste of its oil-saturated fibres… The white color is because of the active ingredient betulin, its primary component. White reflects sunlight and protects the trunk from sunscald. It also guards the trunk against heating up in the warming rays of the winter sun, which could cause unprotected trees to burst… Betulin also has antiviral and antibacterial properties and is an ingredient in medicines and in many skin care products. What’s really surprising is how much betulin there is in birch bark. A tree that makes its bark primarily out of defensive compounds is a tree that is constantly on the alert… defensive armouring is being thrown up at a breakneck pace everywhere.’

Online research led me to learn that the betulin content in outer birch bark ranges from 10 – 40%. Birch bark has long been used in folk medicine. Native Americans boiled it and pounded it into an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory paste for use on ulcers, cuts, and wounds. Birch bark tar has long been utilised as an antiseptic and is an ingredient in ointments for eczema and psoriasis.

Betulin was ‘first isolated by sublimation from birch bark by Toviasom Lovitz…. In 1788.’ It has been proved to exhibit ‘antiseptic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, and other properties’ and Betulinic acid inhibits the growth of human melanoma and other cancer cells.

Could the ancient bards who passed on the poems attributed to Taliesin have known of the defensive properties of birch’s armour and how birch bark can be used to heal and protect our skin?

birch's armour iii

SOURCES

Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, (William Collins, 2017)
Robin D. Pasquale, The Medicine of The Birch Tree: Beyond Depurative, Naturopathic Doctor News and Review, (2014)
Svetlana Alekseevna Kuznetsova, ‘Extraction of betulin from birch bark and study of its physico-chemical and pharmacological properties’, Russian Journal of Bioorganic Chemistry, (2014)