The Re-Emergence of Saint Benedict

All around me in my local landscape, in my parents’ garden, a persistent three-leafed plant. Wood avens (Geum urbanum), otherwise known as colewort, Herb Bennet, and St Benedict’s Herb. My mum wants me to get rid of this common ‘weed’ but, like with the cleavers and the nettles, I give it a small patch as it provides nectar for the bees and is the food plant of the grizzled skipper caterpillar.

I do not know how wood avens came to be associated with Saint Benedict. Only that it was considered to drive off evil spirits and was used to treat the poisonous bites of snakes and rabid dogs. It has been suggested its three leaves and five flowers are reminiscent of the trinity and the wounds of Christ. Whatever the case, it seems like a good plant to have around in a time of pandemic. Its leaves make a tasty addition to salads and it’s possible I’d try using its roots to flavour soup.

Interestingly, with the emergence of Saint Benedict’s Herb into my life, my awareness of the influence of the Order of Saint Benedict in my locality and what feels like either past life or ancestral memory has been growing stronger.

I’ve long been fascinated by the Benedictine Priory which was located next to St Mary’s Church on Castle Hill in my home town of Penwortham. It was founded in the 1140s as an obedience of Evesham Abbey, dissolved in 1539, rebuilt as a mansion, then demolished in the 1940s to make way for housing.

On my daily walks I’ve been repeatedly drawn to St Mary’s Church and the Benedictine Monastery in Bamber Bridge. The latter was founded by the Order at Ampleforth Abbey in 1780 and closed in 2016.

I’ve felt the Benedictines, with their motto of ora et labora ‘pray and work’, and their slow prayerful way of life organised around eight offices of prayer a day: Matins (midnight), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early morning), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (evening), Compline (bedtime), has something important to say to a world in lockdown due to coronavirus.

This feeling was confirmed when I learnt that the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Fidélité de Jouques in France had released six days of their Gregorian chants of the offices in Latin for free via Neumz for Holy Week to help people in isolation. Their singing and the sound of the bells and organ is beautiful and calming and the perfect antidote to the stresses of this turbulent time.

The re-emergence of Saint Benedict has brought back to the forefront my own monastic leanings. A couple of years back I really wanted to be a nun but could not reconcile the demands of living by a rule with my own unruliness or the renunciation of worldly pursuits with sharing awen as an awenydd. I also felt uneasy adopting a lifestyle originating from the Christian religion, which played a major role in extinguishing British pre-Christian beliefs and demonising my god, Gwyn, and his spirits.

Yet my craving for a life of prayer and work has not gone away but has grown stronger. Since the beginning of the year, when I stopped drinking alcohol and thus having drunken evenings and lie-ins and going to the pub, my life has been structured around prayer/meditation/journeywork, writing and study, physical work in the house and outdoors, and exercise including a martial art.

Since the lockdown the biggest changes have been the cancellation of my volunteer work parties with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, my Taekwondo classes, my monthly drumming circle with the Way of the Buzzard, and the Damson Poets event, and not being able to see friends. I’ve dealt with this by replacing my practical conservation work with gardening, practicing my Taekwondo moves and patterns alone in the garden, participating in the Way of the Buzzard online drumming circles, and keeping in touch with friends and the other members of Damson Poets by email and text message.

Slowly I’ve been developing a semi-monastic routine based on my natural rhythms and my duties to Gwyn and the gods and spirits of Peneverdant rather than the rule of a Christian saint. It is helping me stay focused through these days of isolation and to build a deeper relationship with my land and my gods.

5.30am – Dawn prayer and breakfast
6.00am – Morning prayers and practice
7.00am – Writing, study, blog
10.00am – Housework/shopping/cooking/gardening
11.30am – Dinner
12 noon – Noon prayer and study
1.00pm – Housework/gardening
2.00pm – Exercise (walk, run, or cycle, Taekwondo)
4.30pm Afternoon prayer and bath
5.00pm – Tea
5.30pm – Emails and news
6.00pm – Housework and water plants
6.30pm – Evening prayer and meditation in garden
7.00pm – Study
9.30pm – Night and bedtime prayers
10.00pm – Bed

Illuminated Prayers

A nun in a small room. A big woman, robed in grey, not only her bulk but her presence fills the space. Every ounce of her being, of her focus, of her concentration, is directed to the page on which she slowly, painstakingly, inscribes flowing letters and illuminates the words with beautiful artworks.

How I envy her slow pace of life. The space she has, inner and outer, for this steady work. For her fulfilment in this golden now of creation and lack of cravings for whatever lies beyond those stony walls.

She first appeared to me a few weeks ago and I took this as a signal the time had arrived to start writing in a notebook with a cover based on the Lindau Gospels, which a friend bought for me several years back. I’d never dared write in it for fear of spoiling it as the artwork is so beautiful.

The Lindau Gospels are so named because they were once housed in the Abbey of Lindau in Germany. The lower cover, on which my notebook is based, was produced in 8th century Austria, but its style is that of insular British art. It is predominantly Christian. Around the central topaz are the monograms ‘IHS, XPS, DNS, NOS’ ‘Jesus Christ Our Lord’ and Jesus appears on each of the arms of the cross in a cruciform halo. The four evangelists appear in the plaques in the corners. Yet the spaces between the cross and within the cross are filled with swirling, shapeshifting figures, which morph from serpent to bird to fish to dog and back again, and recall pre-Christian traditions.

Illuminated manuscripts, based on Christian scripture, were produced across Western Europe from 500 to 1600 CE. The phrase derives from the use of gold or silver to illuminate the words and pictures. Many were ‘Books of Hours’ containing devotional prayers said at set times of the day.

I’ve been drawn to such books before. Several years back I visited Stonyhurst College, which was founded by the Jesuits in 1593, with Preston Poets’ Society. Whilst the other poets were geeking out over Shakespeare’s First Folio I was far more fascinated by the prayer books of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth of York one of which, if I recall rightly, was illuminated by lapis lazuli.

And, of course, many of the medieval Welsh manuscripts which contain the myths of my gods were illustrated by their scribes, including The Black Book of Carmarthen where we find ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ with a cheeky portrait of Gwyn’s dog, Dormach.

The childlike nature of the drawings in the old Welsh texts and the way the seething mass of pre-Christian imagery unsettles the golden veneer of the Lindau Gospels gave me the confidence and the feeling of rightness to open the notebook, to begin writing. To dedicate it to ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and the gods and spirits of Peneverdant’ and to begin penning within my first prayers and illustrations.

I am now using it as a space in which my re-emerging monastic leanings can combine with my relationship with the Annuvian gods. Where my prayers and pictures are not illuminated by gold but by the golden light of the Otherworld.

I Plant these Seeds

I plant these seeds for better days.
Amaethon, Modron hear my words.
By this full moon I sow and pray
from Annwn they will rise to birth.

I plant these seeds for better days.
Divine Mother, Ploughman who hold
in earth’s row and runnel our fate
bring life from darkness green and bold.

I plant these seeds for better days.
Great She Who Gives and He Who Toils
be kind to us although we’ve strayed
and bring our harvest from the soil.

I plant these seeds for better days.
God and Goddess of Earth’s Furrow
from which these new lives wait to wake
I pray that we will see them grow.

Slowing Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer for Patience

Long is the day and long is the night,
and long is the waiting of Arawn

Cardigan folktale

I do not know
if you are Arawn but

long is your waiting.

Long as the day
and long as the night:
both so long this
equinox

with its
painful dichotomy
of pandemic and sunlight.

I know you are there
waiting patiently.

I pray
my patience
will be long as yours
sitting quietly on a grey horse
on the brink of Annwn
life and death

watching
the flowers grow
your beloved
departing.

I pray
for the patience
of a flower

that we shall grow
and flourish
another
year

touched by
the dew of your tears
on a cold March morning.

First Rose

You
flowered
in my garden
all winter

no waiting
patiently
for spring

first rose.

You
dared to
be in colour
outside my window
whilst I wore
dark clothes
carried

the dark
from my room
past you

brought
it back daily
unable to

imagine

how you
stay so yellow
or red or purple
or blue when
my moods

flicker
flimsier than
your hardy
petals.

When
I wonder
if your beauty
might adorn
my corpse
you try

to smile

remind me
of hardiness.
Of my god who
loves winter
flowers.

“Creiddylad.”

I speak her name.

“Prima rosa.
Rhosyn gyntaf.
First rose.”

“We endure
Annwn’s darkness,”
she smiles back.
“We endure.”

Fragments of Annwn – Fallings

The Broken Harp

I.
My nerves are timbres.

Taut and tense the ganglia
no longer relay the music.

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

Like broken bowstrings
they sting and twitch.

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

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

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

for I am strangely in love
with my distractions.

I court them feed them daily.

I have become their instrument.

And so I lie broken beneath their claws…

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

where the harp played with no player at all?

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

~

The Place Where the Sky is Falling

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

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

“Is this some game?”

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

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

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

“Seriously…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

It’s Easy to Fall

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

soon empty comfort.

Its gentle guidance
down into oblivion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Why These Worries

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

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

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

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

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

How big a grave for a thought?

How great the work of the gravedigger?

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

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

how do I know I will let them rest

and not dig them up like a restless hound?

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


~

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

Lifelong Dedication to Gwyn – A Year and a Day on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words Found in Stillness

In stillness
strength

in strength
courage

in courage
the will

to serve you
mind body soul

when yours at one
in stillness

I wait to know
your will

***

Of all the challenges in my life that are linked to my path of devotion to Gwyn – poetry, running, fighting, the restoration of wild places and creatures, learning practical skills out in the woodlands – the one that requires the least is probably the hardest, that is spending time in stillness and silence listening.

There’s seldom anything to show from it. Few ways to express the feeling of simply being in the presence of a god yet the subtle realignments of the soul that take place in such a state are slowly revealed.

In moments where once I’d have panicked I find myself falling back instead on those moments of stillness, find my strength in the strength of the bull-horned warrior-hunter god who works tirelessly to gather the souls of the dead back into his realm. I’m beginning to understand that, having led me to my spiritual path, gifted me with its magical core, given me a reason to live, he is now teaching me the means of survival and opening up possibilities of me finding a place within the wider world.

Where exactly that will be I’m not sure but I’m coming to know I’m heading in the right direction when I can find stillness, when my breath is one with my god’s, when my will is aligned with his will.

The Forge of Gofannon

Do you sense your maker, world?
Friedrich Nietzsche

My surname is Smithers. On and off I’ve been aware of the presence of a smith-god. The sound of hammer blows in the back of my mind. A vision of a forge at the fiery core of the world. The chisel-strokes of Nietzsche’s world-artist working in the Blakean moment between Thisworld and Annwn, beyond good and evil, where there is no past or future, but only the eternal of now creation. Making artefacts of great beauty, world-shattering technologies, weapons that are unconscionable, a dire world.

Over the past few years, as I have been working with the Brythonic mythos, Gofannon has been appearing in my stories forging important treasures – Caledfwlch (the sword of King Arthur), the Shield of Urien Rheged, the golden ring of Gwyn ap Nudd and the horse shoes for his horse.

The art of smithing is seen in most cultures as a magical process which literally transforms the world. It brought into being the Bronze Age and Iron Age and played a major role in the Industrial Revolution and Information Age. The smith is a central figure in many world myths. Yet, surprisingly little is known about Gofannon, our Brythonic smith god. This article summarises our knowledge from the Welsh myths and uses Irish parallels and modern gnosis to illuminate this ancient figure at his forge.

***

We know Gofannon is a smith-god as his name derives from the Middle Welsh gof ‘smith’. In Culhwch and Olwen his aid is required to set the plough used by his brother, Amaethon, the god of agriculture. This shows that, like the other children of Don, he was seen as skilled and as a culture god.

This is supported by lines in ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ where the legendary bard says:

I’ve been with skilful men,
with Math Hen, with Gofannon,
with Eufydd, with Elestron,
I’ve been party to privileges.
For a year I’ve been in Caer Gofannon.

In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, Gofannon inexplicably kills his nephew, Dylan, the daughter of Arianrhod, who can swim ‘as well as the best fish in the sea’. This is named as one of ‘Three Unfortunate Blows’. Why he does so is never explained. However, we can go some distance to finding an explanation through a comparison with the story of Gofannon’s Irish cognate, Goibnu.

In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, Goibniu is the metalsmith of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Children of Dana. Like the children of Don possessing skills is intrinsic to their identity as culture gods. With Credne the silversmith and Luchta the carpenter Goibnu is one of Trí Dée Dána ‘three gods of art’. Goibniu is the half-brother of Brighid. Their mother is Dana and their fathers are Tuirbe Trágma and the Dagda.

Brighid has a son with the Formorian, Bres, called Ruadan. During the Second Battle of Moytura, which takes place between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the monstrous Formorians, Ruadan is sent by the Formorians to find out the secret of how the craftsmen of the Tuatha Dé Danann make their weapons.

Ruadan finds Goibniua at his forge crafting lance-heads with three blows of his hammer, Luchta cutting shafts with three blows of his axe, and Credne fixing the two parts together. After he reports back, Ruadan is sent by the Formorians to kill Goibniu.

Ruadan goes to the forge and asks Goibniu for a spear. Goibniu, unsuspecting, gives a spear to him. Ruadan thrusts it through Goibniu and, to his surprise, the smith-god plucks it out and hurls it at Ruadan, who is mortally wounded, and returns home to die. Brighid mourns Ruadan and this is the origin of keening.

One wonders whether a similar story lies behind Gofannon’s slaying of Dylan with Arianrhod replacing Brighid/Brigantia as his mother. It certainly seems to be no coincidence that Arianrhod’s second son, Lleu, is mortally wounded by Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuedd, with a poisoned spear.

This spear is crafted by a smith (it does not say by who) when ‘people are at Mass on a Sunday’. This is suggestive of a pre-Christian forger working at a liminal time. Lleu then, in turn, strikes a mortal blow to Gronw with his spear. This exchange is not unlike that between Ruadan and Goibniu. That Gofannon is a forger of spears is backed up by lines from ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin’. The ‘seven spears of Gofannon’ are used at the devastating and futile Battle of Arfderydd.

***

In support of the existence of an earlier variant of the story of Gofannon killing Brighid/Brigantia’s son I would like to mention the personal gnosis of Potia Pitchford – a modern devotee of both these deities.

Potia and I were (virtually) together in a guided meditation led by Gemma McGowan at a conference on Brighid earlier in the year. This involved meeting the goddess at a forge deep within the land. Potia had a powerful experience which involved not only Brighid but Gofannon. In her blog post ‘Marked by Gofannon’ Potia writes of Gofannon holding her whilst Brighid pulled from her ‘what was needed to be reworked’ and placed it back inside her in three parts – ‘one band for each of three cauldrons’. Finally Gofannon placed an inch-wide copper band on her upper arm. This led to her to her getting the armband created as an item of devotional jewellery by Runecast Copper.

Potia’s vision of Gofannon and Brighid/Brigantia working together at this forge in the core of the earth spoke deeply to me. I’m tempted to see Brighid/Brigantia (who is both a smith and a poet) and Gofannon as the forces of creativity and smithing that shape our world and its technologies for good and for ill. As I work I am aware of their presence in the words I type and the laptop I type them on.

If Gofannon and Brigid/Brigantia are co-forgers, then Gofannon’s slaying of her son, perhaps as the result of an attack, would certainly add a layer of tragedy and poignancy to their relationship.

*With thanks to Hannah Gibbs for the image ‘Blacksmith‘ on Unsplash.