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)

The Stellar Origins of Taliesin

I.

Taliesin 4am

A premature foetus
with eyelids stretched closed
inner eyes pondering
the universe within

born from the cauldron
of Ceridwen
after the disaster
dancing its stillbirth
like a puppet on the wind

something fay
something alien
something that fell from the stars

II.

The story of the (re)birth of Taliesin is well known. A young man called Gwion Bach stole the Awen from the cauldron of Ceridwen, leaving it shattered and the land poisoned. He fled and was pursued by Ceridwen, each shifting through a series of forms. He was finally swallowed as a piece of grain by Ceridwen as a great black hen. Ceridwen gave birth to him as Taliesin.

Throughout the poetry attributed to Taliesin he repeatedly states this identity is only one of his many forms. For example at the beginning of ‘The Battle of the Trees’ he says ‘I was in a multitude of forms / before I was unfettered’ and lists a number of his transformations:

I was a slender mottled sword
made from the hand.
I was a droplet in the air,
I was the stellar radiance of the stars.
I was a word in writing,
I was a book in my prime.
I was the light of a lantern
for a year and a half.

This way Taliesin consistently denies his origins from Ceridwen’s crochan ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’. It is notable he never refers to her as ‘mother’. In ‘The Battle of the Trees’ he states explicitly: ‘It was not from a mother and father / that I was made’ then he tells an alternative story of his creation:

and my creation was created for me
from nine forms of consistency:
from fruit, from fruits,
from God’s fruit in the beginning;
from primroses and flowers,
from the blossom of trees and shrubs,
from earth, from the sod
was I made,
from nettle blossom,
from the ninth wave’s water.
Math created me
before I was completed.
Gwydion fashioned me –
great enchantment wrought by a magic staff;
by Eurwys, by Euron,
by Euron, by Modron;
by five enchanters –
of a kind like godparents
was I reared.

In ‘The Greater Song of the World’ he says he was made by God from ‘seven consistencies’:

of fire and earth,
and water and air,
and mist and flowers,
and the fruitful wind.

In ‘The Story of Taliesin’ he makes a stranger claim: ‘my original country is the region of the summer stars’. We have already seen Taliesin state he has been ‘the stellar radiance of the stars’. How does this sit with his account of his creation and his (re)birth from Ceridwen’s womb?

III.

Marged Haycock notes Taliesin’s words share similarities with apocryphal Middle Age sources describing the creation of ‘the microcosmic Adam’ not only from dust, but ‘from land and sea, earth, the clouds of the firmament, wind, stones, the light of the world’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’.

There are parallels between the creation of Taliesin as microcosm and the world as macrocosm. Intriguingly we now know our world was born from the stars through the process of stellar nucleosynthesis. The Taliesin poems uncannily predict the theses of modern science. All the elements that make up our planet and the life upon it originate from the stars.

After the Big Bang the stars formed as hydrogen and helium were drawn together by gravity and nuclear fusion began. Hydrogen was burnt first, then helium, which produced carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, argon, calcium, titanium, chromium, and iron. The collapse and explosion of stars in supernovae ejected the elements across the universe.

Our solar system was born from a cloud of interstellar gas and dust composed of hydrogen, helium, and elements from supernovae. As gravity caused it to contract nuclear fusion began in the sun and the planets, including the earth, formed. From the elements came life – microorganisms, plants, trees, fish, birds, animals, then humans and all our creations.

Taliesin is indeed correct that he originates from the stars. The story of the creation of Taliesin by ‘five godparents’: Gwydion, Math, Eurys, Euron, and Modron, is also the story of the creation of the world. It may even be suggested these five deities were once seen to have a role as creator gods, perhaps sharing a similarity with the archons of the Gnostic tradition.

IV.
Taliesin seems to have succeeded in denying his motherhood by Ceridwen. In fact denial of Ceridwen’s status as the Great Goddess of the cauldron, the womb of all life, is a consistent theme throughout the poems attributed to Taliesin and medieval Welsh poetry as a whole.

In ‘The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin’ he 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?

Here he is claiming that awen, inspiration, born from Ceridwen’s cauldron is of earlier origin.

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’.

However, it cannot be denied that when Gwydion and company create Taliesin they are tapping into the creative processes of the womb of the universe and its old mother herself – Ceridwen.

If the stars were born from that first shattering of Ceridwen’s cauldron, the Big Bang, and Taliesin was born from the stars, then Ceridwen is still his mother and this cannot be denied. She will always be his beginning and his ending and he will never escape her no matter how hard he denies her as the origin of his creation and no matter how fast he shifts form and runs.

SOURCESAndrew Zimmerman Jones, ‘Stellar Nucleosynthesis’, Thought.com, (2017)
August Hunt, ‘Dinas Emrys and the Goddess Euron’, Shadows in the Mist (2017)
Greg Hill, ‘Who was Taliesin?’ Awen ac Awenydd
Marged Haycock, Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)


Maelgwn and the Death Hound

I. The Princely Hound

Maelgwn, ‘Princely Hound’, was the king of Gwynedd during the 6th century. His seat of rule was Deganwy on the Creuddyn Peninsula and his fortress overlooked the estuary of the river Conwy.

Deganwy Castle Site big hill summit II Conwy and Beach Med

Maelgwn was a descendant of ‘the Men of the North’ from Manaw Gododdin, the area around Clackmannshire, which included Din Eidyn (Edinburgh). The old Welsh form of Gododdin, Guotodin, derives from the Iron Age tribal name, Votadini. No satisfactory translation has been made.

The Votadini came under Roman rule between 132 and 162 and remained allies with the Romans when they withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall, being awarded with the riches of the Roman lifestyle whilst maintaining independence. The names of Maelgwn’s ancestors, Tegid, Padarn, and Edern, were derived from the Latin names Tacitus, Paternus, and Aeternus, reflecting the pro-Roman sympathies of their lineage.

It seems likely this people worshipped a variety of local, tribal, and pan-Brythonic deities, along with those imported by the Romans. The name ‘Manaw Gododdin’ suggests they venerated Manawydan. A reference to Castle Rock as ‘Lleu’s Rock’ in the poem Y Gododdin shows Lugus/Lleu may also have been an important patron whilst the mention of Cynfelyn ‘Dog Heads’ slaughtered by Arthur at Din Eidyn could refer to a shapeshifting cult dedicated to a wolf/dog god such as Cunomaglos, Nodens/Nudd, or his son Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd. Two statues of horned gods have been found in the area along with altars to Apollo, Sol, and Mithras at the Roman fortress at Inveresk.

It is impossible to pinpoint when the rulers of the Gododdin converted to Christianity. The religion began filtering into Britain and the 1st and 2nd centuries. The Roman Emperor, Constantine I, converted in 312 and began issuing penalties for pagan sacrifice in 324. Constantius followed in his footsteps by ordering the closure of temples ‘in all places and cities’ in 354 and Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380. The burning of a temple to Jupiter Dolichenus at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall in 370 suggests the pro-Roman rulers of Manaw Gododdin would have followed their Roman allies in converting during the 4th century.

It is likely that Maelgwyn’s great-great grandfather, Cunedda, ‘Good Hound’, who lived during the mid-fourth century, was Christian. Triad 81 names ‘Three Saintly Lineages of the Island of Britain’ and these include ‘the Lineage of Cunedda Wledig’. Intriguingly his name, however, contains traces of a totemic relationships with dogs and perhaps a patron relationship with a canine god.

In his History of the Britons (828) Nennius recorded that Cunedda went to Anglesey and drove out the Gaelic tribes:

‘62. The great king, Mailcun, reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota, because his great-great-grandfather, Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come before from the left-hand part, i.e. from the country which is called Manau Gustodin, one hundred and forty-six years before Mailcun reigned, and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries, and they never returned again to inhabit them.’

Cadwallon, Maelgwyn’s father, completed the driving out of the Gaelic people and secured the kingdom of Gwynedd. Originally its name was Venedotia. Ven may be linked with Vindos, ‘White’, and Gwynedd seems to contain Gwyn’s name and his father’s (Nudd was also spelt ‘Nedd’, ‘Nidd’, ‘Nith’, ‘Neath’) although whether it was named after these old pagan hound-gods we’ll never know.

Maelgwn’s name refers both to his princely descent and ancient associations with dogs and dog-gods. Although he attempted to maintain the veneer of a civilised Christian ruler he could not shut out the deities of his land and lineage or his wilder impulses completely. He failed to keep the hounds and monsters of Annwn, within and without, at bay, and ultimately his soul was gathered by Gwyn.

II. The Dragon of the Island

Maelgwn was referred to as ‘high king’, which suggests he maintained a hegemony over other kingdoms. He collected tributes from Gwynllwg and led attacks on Dyfed and on the southern Britons.

Christian, like his ancestors, in some sources he was depicted as a generous supporter of Christianity, financing the foundation of Bangor for St Daniel and helping St Asaph build his church at Llanelwy. However, in many of the saints’ lives he was represented as a ‘great tormentor of the saints’, such as Brynach, Cadog, Curig, Cybi, and Mechyll. His grants of land and monetary donations resulted from his being discomfited by a miracle and making offerings as a sign of his forgiveness.

In a section in The Ruin of Britain (6th century) Gildas presented a damning portrait of Maelgwn and five other princes. He likened them to the beast in the Book of Revelation 13.2: ‘And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.’ Maelgwn was identified with the dragon who gave the beast power and was referred to as ‘the Dragon of the Island.’

‘And thou, the island dragon, who hast driven many of the tyrants mentioned previously, as well from life as from kingdom, thou last in my writing, first in wickedness, exceeding many in power and at the same time in malice, more liberal in giving, more excessive in sin, strong in arms, but stronger in what destroys thy soul – thou Maclocunus, why dost thou obtusely wallow in such an old black pool of crimes, as if sodden with the wine that is pressed from the vine of Sodom?’

He spoke of how Maelgwn committed to Christianity but was drawn instead to sin by the ‘crafty wolf’ and reverted to his ‘fearful vomit like a sick dog’. Rather than attending to the praises of God, his court was a ‘rascally crew yelling forth, like Bacchanalian revellers, full of lies and foaming phlegm’.

Gildas accused Maelgwn of killing his ‘uncle the king with sword, spear, and fire’ to gain power. He told of how, when Maelgwn decided to become a monk, this made his first marriage illicit. After his reversion he killed his wife, then his brother’s son, and took his young wife ‘in desecrated wedlock’.

Whether Gildas’ accusations were true remains uncertain. We do know Maelgwn had a first wife called Sanan with whom he had two children: Alser, and Doeg, and a second who was the mother of Einion and Eurgain. He also had an illegitimate son called Rhun with Gwallen, daughter of Afallach.

Deganwy Castle Site little hill with raven med

Deganwy Castle Site little hill raven close up Med

A raven watches from the opposite hill – do his or her ancestors know the truth?

III. The Silencing of the Bards

Maelgwn’s lacivious lifestyle was echoed in ‘The Story of Taliesin’ (16th century). Here we find a depiction of a bardic competition, a long-standing form of entertainment Maelgwn was most fond of.

Maelgwn was served by a circle of twenty-four sycophantic bards whose chief was Heinin Vardd. They showered him with praises saying no king was as great in ‘form, and beauty, and meekness, and strength’ and all the powers of the soul. They are described as ‘learned men, not only expert in the service of kings and princes, but studious and well versed in the lineage, and arms, and exploits of princes and kings, and in discussions concerning foreign kingdoms, and the ancient things of this kingdom, and chiefly in the annals of the first nobles; and also were prepared always with their answers in various languages, Latin, French, Welsh, and English… great chroniclers, and recorders, and skilful in framing verses, and ready in making englyns in every one of those languages.’

This echoes the structure of the bardic professions in the medieval court. Most important was the Pencerdd, ‘Chief of Song’, who held a special chair. Then there were twenty-four officers holding the position Bardd Teulu, ‘Poet of the Household’. It took nine years to train to be a qualified court poet.

It seems Maelgwn enjoyed hosting competitions, sometimes cruel, amongst his bards and fermenting trouble between them. In an instance recorded in a poem by Iorweth Beli he challenged them to swim from Arfon to Castell Caer Seion across the Conwy. ‘When they came to land the harpers were not worth a halfpenny’ because their strings had broken ‘while the poets sang as well as before’.

Elphin went to Maelgwn’s court at Deganwy to claim he had a better bard than the wise and skilful bards of Maelgwn and was consequently locked in a golden fetter. Taliesin then went to win him back.

Deganwy Castle Site big hill from beach Med

In his opening poem Taliesin not only promised to silence Maelgwn’s bards, but to curse the king and his offspring:

And to the gate I will come;
The hall I will enter,
And my song I will sing;
My speech I will pronounce
To silence royal bards,
In presence of their chief…
I Taliesin, chief of bards,
With a sapient Druid’s words,
Will set kind Elphin free
From haughty tyrant’s bonds…
Let neither grace nor health
Be to Maelgwn Gwynedd,
For this force and this wrong;
And be extremes of ills
And an avenged end
To Rhun and all his race:
Short be his course of life,
Be all his lands laid waste;
And long exile be assigned
To Maelgwn Gwynedd!

Taliesin silenced the bards by sitting in a corner and playing ‘blerwm, blewrm’ with his finger on his lips. When each went to perform for the king this was the only thing they could do. Maelgwn derided them for their drunkenness and ordered a squire to hit Heinin on the head with a broom! This seemed to do the trick as Heinin was then able to tell Maelgwn that Taliesin had caused their indignity.

IV. A Most Strange Creature

Taliesin introduced himself as Elphin’s Chief Bard, told of his origins from ‘the summer stars’ and boasted of a long line of exploits and interactions with pagan and Christian figures – a common bardic practice.

Then, on a more sinister level, he began to invoke Annuvian monsters:

There is a noxious creature,
From the rampart of Satanas,
Which has overcome all
Between the deep and the shallow;
Equally wide are his jaws
As the mountains of the Alps;
Him death will not subdue,
Nor hand or blades;
There is the load of nine hundred wagons
In the hair of his two paws;
There is in his head an eye
Green as the limpid sheet of icicle;
Three springs arise
In the nape of his neck;
Sea-roughs thereon
Swim through it;
There was the dissolution of the oxen
Of Deivrdonwy the water-gifted.

This monster shares similarities with those Taliesin ‘pierced’ in ‘The Battle of the Trees: a great scaled beast, a black forked toad, and speckled crested snake, all of whom were eaters of human souls.

He then spoke a disturbing prophesy against Maelgwn:

A most strange creature will come from the sea marsh of Rhianedd*
As a punishment of iniquity on Maelgwn Gwynedd;
His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold,
And this will bring destruction upon Maelgwn Gwynedd.

After Taliesin summoned the wind, a ‘strong creature’ ‘Without flesh, without bone, / Without vein, without blood, / Without head, without feet’ into Maelgwn’s hall, the terrified king released Elphin.

Deganwy Castle Site big hill with wall Med

Only the walls of an older castle remain…

Deganwy Castle Site big hill wall with jackdaws Med

… and they are haunted by jackdaw bards.

V. The Long Sleep of Maelgwn

The ‘strange creature’ with golden eyes, hair, and teeth, who Taliesin prophesied would destroy Maelgwn, turned out to be Y Fat Velen ‘The Yellow Plague’ – a great pestilence which struck in 547.

In an attempt to avoid the plague he retreated to the church in Llan Rhos and shut all the windows and doors.

Llan Rhos Church III North East Med

However, when he looked out through a hole, he saw Y Vat Velen, that terrifying gold-yellow beast, and fell into a long, long sleep.

Llan Rhos Church Key Hole Med.JPG

His attendants waited for days. When they realised his silence had been too long for sleep they found him dead. Thus a saying originated: ‘Hir hun Faelgwn yn eglwys Ros’, ‘the long sleep of Maelgwn in the Church of Rhos,’ a sleep so long he never awoke.

Although Maelgwn shut himself away in a church he did not escape Y Vat Velen or Gwyn and the hounds of Annwn arriving to take his soul. Lines in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ suggest that Dormach, Gwyn’s best hound, was present at Maelgwn’s death:

My hound is sleek and fair,
The best of hounds;
Dormach he is, who was with Maelgwn.

In this poem Gwyn recites the names of four Men of the North whose souls he gathered from the battlefield: Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Brân ap Ywerydd, Meurig ap Careian, and Gwallog ap Llenog. Gwyddno was of northern origins and on the brink of death. Like these other Men of the North, the Princely Hound did not go to Heaven, but returned with the death hound to join his ancestors in Annwn.

Llan Rhos Church I South Door Med

According to some sources Maelgwn is buried in Llan Rhos Church near the south door and to others on Ynys Seiriol, ‘Puffin Island’.

*Morfa Rhianedd, ‘the Sea-strand of the Maidens’ is between Great and Little Orme’s Head near Llandudno.


SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Charlotte Guest, The Story of Taliesin, Sacred Texts, (1877)
Edward Dawson, ‘Tribal Names: Linguistic Analysis and the Origin of Gwynedd
Eberhard Sauer, Fraser Hunter, John Gooder, Martin Henig, ‘Mithras in Scotland: A Mithraeum at Inveresk’, Britannia, Vol. 46,
Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, Tertullian.org, (1899)
Greg Hill (transl.), ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Awen ac Awenydd‘, (2015)
Greg Hill, ‘Lleu Llaw Gyfes… is that Lugus?’, Dun Brython, (2016)
Mererid Hopwood, Singing in Chains, (Gomer Press, 2004)
Nennius, History of the Britons, Gutenburg.org, (2006)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Book of Revelation 13.2, King James Bible, Bible Gateway