She calls on Brigantia to deliver her first-born child.
Drops of hope by the river.
She drinks of her milk.
Will Brigantia deliver us?
No-one knows exactly where they came from or who brought them here in the early sixteenth century. Yet the snowdrop (galanthus nivalis from the Greek gala ‘milk’ and anthos ‘flower’ and the Latin nivalis ‘of the snow’) along with lambs has become an essential part of the constellation of the Celtic festival of Imbolc/Gwyl Ffraid which is celebrated by modern Pagans and Celtic Polytheists on the 1st and/or 2nd of February.
The common etymology of the term Imbolc is that it comes from the old Irish i molc ‘in the belly’. It is usually associated with the pregnancy and lactation of ewes. Sheep, along with domesticated cattle and pigs, were brought to Britain and Ireland during the Neolithic period. This could well have been the time the Celts began venerating the ‘culture gods’ associated with the cross quarter pastoral and agricultural festivals such as Brigid/Brigantia (Imbolc) and Lugh/Lugus (Lughnasadh/Gwyl Awst).
I have often wondered whether ‘in the belly’ relates to earlier human fertility cycles amongst hunter-gatherers in which most of the mating took place at Beltane/Calan Mai so babies were born nine months later, at Imbolc, a time when the days were beginning to lengthen and the weather to warm. One of the roles of Brigid/Brigantia was as a midwife and perhaps relates to an older tradition.
If our ancient ancestors had seen snowdrops at this time would they have seen them as signs of hope as they brought life into a world which remained precarious due to unstable weather, lack of food, and perhaps also winter illnesses such as colds and flus?
Hope in a time of precarity is what snowdrops say to me this year as Brigantia approaches with a bunch of milk-white flowers in her midwife’s hands.
It has been the worst year since I have been born.
I have felt hurt, anger, resentment, abandonment, wondered if I’ve made a mistake.
If my choice to dedicate myself to you has brought family sicknesses, plague, landslips, floods…
But, you reassure me, it has not –
you warned me of the sadness coming to this land long ago.
In your thereness I have found strength knowing how tirelessly you guide the dead (so many!).
You have laughed away my fears. When I’ve cried, wailed, wallowed in self pity and uttered every expletive in Thisworld and Annwn told you: “I’m afraid I’m going crazy…”
you have shown me the lives and deaths of your spirits – what true madness is –
Annwn’s multi-sided perspective.
You have been there for me through the worst year as you are always there for the living and dead.
I have been blessed in my service to you as your awenydd whether in words or in work in the woodlands and the marshlands…
Tonight, in your cauldron, help me transform my battle-fog into mists of enchantment.
White, Blessed, Holy, be not only the Wrathful Hunter but the Kindly One. Help me delight in being yours again.
I wrote the poem above, addressed to Gwyn, to mark the two year anniversary of my lifelong dedication to him. This took place beside yew tree on Fairy Lane by the light of the ‘Super Wolf Blood Moon’. I had already served a seven year apprenticeship to him, most of which had been magical and wonderful.
The last two years have been far harder, in particular the last, for all the reasons stated above. Family illnesses, covid, minor natural disasters in my local area and far worse ones further afield.
All of these devastating signs of the consequences of climate change and overpopulation.
Last night, I performed a ritual to mark the anniversary of my dedication to Gwyn, which involved casting these happenings and the feelings of resentment and anger that were getting in the way of our relationship and my service to him as an awenydd into his cauldron to be transformed.
“Know that every thought, like all things, has a soul,” he reminded me, “like you dies and is reborn.”
During our communion Gwyn gave me a combination of warnings, reassurance, and guidance.
“There is harder to come. I will give you no false hope or empty promises. Yet I can provide inspiration. In the journey of the soul you are not alone. Both the living and the dead face these problems. I too, for we all connected. Set aside your resentment and reach out in cooperation. Every thought, word, act, has its effects running through both worlds and throughout time. Know these cannot be predicted but even the worst horrors can turn to awen in the cauldron.”
So the magic of Annwn was worked and this morning I awoke to the full moon shining over my garden.
Landslip, landslide, we live in treacherous times, the very land we hold so dear to us with the grounds of life as we know it is being pulled from beneath our feet.
Orange mesh and ‘Do Not Enter’ signs at the entrances to Fairy Lane do not deter me slipping by fay-like to bear witness to another cataclysmic event.
For a long while railings, gravestones, have been falling away and no-one speaks of gathering up the bones of the dead.
This has been a place of peace with its holy well, monastery, church, and chapel, but has also been a place of penitence.
Black Roger sent to the ends of the earth.
(I sometimes wonder if I am a penitent and whether I have served my time).
The weather gods have been cruel this year with their freeze-thaw-rain dichotomy opening fresh wounds.
The steps leading down to the yew where I first met Gwyn ap Nudd and to him made my dedication defying the transcendent gaze
of the Christian God who has never set foot on this earth (except perhaps in his son whose feet in ancient times may have walked here in Blake’s poetry)
are now twisted like something out of Labyrinth.
He has thrown my world out of kilter again – a consequence of being devoted to a wild god…
When I see trees upside-down I think how natural it is for us to fall whereas trees are born upright and to go root over crown is certain death.
Yet as we grow older falls hurt more and we come to wonder which will be the last.
I wrote this poem after being called to bear witness to yet another cataclysmic event in my local area. It was three days until the January full moon, on which I made my life-long dedication to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, beside the leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane two years ago. (I made my initial dedication to him at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor on the January moon in 2013.)
It’s a place I visit often, so I was surprised, when I got there, to find orange mesh across the entrance from the A59 and to read a notice stating that the footpath was closed due to a landslip. I walked to the second entrance by the Ribble where, again, I found the orange mesh, but it didn’t extend into the woodland.
Following the intuition that the place was safe now and my gods wanted me to see what had happened I slipped past. Usually the council will fence things off at the tiniest reason. This was not small. It was catastrophic. A whole swathe of land had slipped away from the side of Church Avenue, which runs along Castle Hill – a pen ‘prominent headland’ – shaped a bit like Pendle. It had piled up on Fairy Lane with the debris of huge ivy-clad trees in their prime, fallen root over crown.
Furthermore the steps leading down to the leaning yew had been skewed and looked dangerous.
In some ways, that this had happened, was not a surprise. The whole bank, with its leaning trees, has always looked precarious. There have been landslips before, bearing away railings and graves. Due to falling gravestones the castle mound and parts of the graveyard have been closed off for several years.
There are several reasons for the instability of the land. When the river Ribble was moved five hundred yards south from her original course to run beside Castle Hill, the sandstone bedrock was shattered. The aquifer beneath the hill was broken, leading to the holy well at the hill’s foot drying up. The building of the adjacent by-pass and its vibrations are likely causing the damaged land to slip.
The final contributor to this is the recent weather with its dangerous patterns of freezing, thawing, and heavy rain. No doubt all these factors have come together to cause these landslip.
Yet as well as physical reasons there are spiritual reasons too. The conversion of the hill and well from a pre-Christian to Christian sacred site and the severing of the links between the people and the gods of the land have led to the mindset that makes moving a river, shattering an aquifer that feeds a holy well, and building a by-pass beside a sacred place acceptable. Within a culture that saw the river as a divinity and the hill as the body of a goddess and abode of the dead and their god these would have been seen as acts of desecration that would bring about the wrath of the gods. And so their anger is seen in the decline of this once (and still on occasion) beautiful and enchanting place.
My first thought, when I arrived at the scene, was that this was linked somehow to my Gwyn dedication. Had I done something wrong? Was I on the wrong track? Might it be linked to the series of workshops on Gwyn and his family I am planning with other Gwyn devotees for Land Sea Sky Travel?
I received the gnosis that the landslip had nothing to do with me or my actions and would have happened anyway. I was already in two minds about visiting the yew on my dedication day as I am at my conservation internship on that day and don’t really want to go at night without a friend to accompany me (due to lockdown).
What it means to have the place I met Gwyn and made my life-long dedication cut off I haven’t cogitated yet. It seems to fit with two bridges over the Ribble being declared dangerous and closed. The land, the gods, displaying their anger, the council attempting to protect us, connections being severed.
This event has also made me aware the yew, leaning precariously on an ash, won’t be there forever…
‘I want to live, I want to love But it’s a long hard road out of Hell.’ Marilyn Manson
So it’s December the 31st and we stand at the gateway between one year ending and the next beginning. As ever I feel obliged to write a retrospective. Looking back, quite frankly, 2020 has been a shitter of a year – on global, national, familial, and personal levels.
A global pandemic. A messy Brexit. Life at home has been incredibly difficult with my dad’s ongoing health problems, my mum having a fall and a hip replacement, and my brother having brain surgery and coming to stay with us with us whilst he recovers. And this has all happened on top of me finding out it’s likely I’m autistic for which I’m in the midst of the lengthy process of getting a diagnosis.
I received the first hint that this year would prove portentous in February when I was volunteering on the Wigan Flashes Nature Reserve and noticed a profusion of scarlet elf cups (Sarcoscypha austriaca). In a blog post I posed the question: ‘Will these red cups bring good or bad luck?’
By March we had the answer – coronavirus was spreading rapidly and we entered a national lockdown. This turn of bad luck felt particularly cruel as I had left my supermarket job to volunteer with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust full time as a way into a career in conservation. The first day of the lockdown was meant to be the first day I started a conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve. This got put on hold and all my other volunteering was cancelled. I was left with neither furlough from a paid job or training toward paid work with only the small income from my writing.
During the first lockdown my mum and I agreed that it was like being in Purgatory – a sentiment I have seen echoed elsewhere, for example in the Scarlet Imprint Newsletter. This makes me realise how deeply engrained Christian concepts are within our psyches, even for non-Christians, and how lacking we are in Pagan and Polytheist concepts through which to understand our situation. At several points I have wondered if the gods are punishing us on a global level for our ‘sins’ against nature and whether my family and I have done something to bring about their disfavour.
In the Brythonic tradition it is the fury of the spirits of Annwn that threatens to bring about the destruction of this world and usually this is held back by Gwyn ap Nudd – a King of Annwn. Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd, also played a role in protecting Britain from three plagues – a people called the Coraniaid, a dragon’s scream, and ‘a mighty magician’ – all caused by Annuvian forces.
The term used for these plagues is gormes which also translates as ‘pestilence’, ‘destruction’, ‘oppression by an alien race or conqueror’, ‘oppressor’, ‘oppressive animal or monster’. The coronavirus is a plague and might also be viewed as an alien being or a monster of Annwn.
My prayers, conversations with my gods, meditations, and research have led me to the conclusion that we are experiencing a ‘monstrum event’ (here I resort to Latin as I haven’t found an equivalent Brythonic concept). Monstrum is the root of the word ‘monster’ and also means ‘revelation’ so seems linked with ‘apocalypse’ in its original sense (from the Greek apokaluptein ‘uncover’).
As the Beast with the Fiery Halo has ravaged Britain’s populace, underlying physical and mental health problems have been brought to the fore, accidents waiting to happen have happened, the hidden has surfaced from the deep. Many of the excess deaths were not caused by coronavirus.
If the first lockdown was Purgatory then the past couple of months have felt more like Hell on Earth. Again I struggle to find an equivalent for this oh-so-fitting Christian concept. Perhaps it is possible to see ‘Hell’ as one of the deepest and most unpleasant levels of Annwn, which is described in the medieval Welsh texts both as a paradisal place and a hellish one where souls are imprisoned and tortured in the napes of a Black Forked Toad and within the innards of a Speckled Crested Snake.
It takes a lot of work to undo our associations of these scenes with the Christian concepts notion that unpleasant experiences are the result of our ill doings and are thus punishments for our sins. Gwyn has taught me they are processes of transformation that lie beyond human morality and reason. This is my current understanding of what has been happening with coronavirus.
In the ‘hells’ that I have witnessed others experiencing I have also witnessed the power of healing. Of the miracle of the hip replacement and the remarkable intricacies of brain surgery. In this I have seen the work of Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, a god of healing, to whom I have prayed for my family’s health.
I have also seen the healing hand of Nodens in the advances in treatment for coronavirus and in the creation of the vaccines. It seems to be more than coincidence that, as a more virulent strain emerges in Britain, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines have been approved. This gives me hope that, even as we face this plague, the gods are equipping us with the tools to deal with it.
In most stories, Christian and non-Christian, a descent into Annwn or Hell is followed by a return. As things slowly improve at home, as the time my parents get vaccinated approaches, I am intuiting that our time of descent is approaching an end and I am starting to catch glimpses of the road ahead.
My internship at Brockholes finally began on the 4th of December and I am predicting it will continue within Lancashire’s current Tier 4 restrictions. I believe that due to people being brought into greater appreciation of nature by the lockdown and, unfortunately, because of the climate crisis, in the future there will be more jobs in conservation and am tentatively hopeful about finding work.
I am beginning to feel, for the first time in a long time, like in the words of a Marilyn Manson song that I listened to a lot at a dark point in my life many years ago, ‘I want to live, I want to love,’ but I am painfully aware it is going to be ‘a long hard road out of Hell.’
Don is a Brythonic goddess who is best known as the mother of ‘the Children of Don’. In ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogi she is named as the sister of Math ap Mathonwy (this shows Mathonwy was her father), and her children are named as Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, and Arianrhod. In the Bonedd yr Arwyr they are listed as Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Gofannon, Efydd, Amaethon, Hunawg, Idwel, Elestron, Digant, Kynnan, Hedd, Addien, Elawg, and Arianrhod.
In Triad 35. Beli Mawr is named as the father of Arianrhod and this may suggest Beli fathered some or all of her other children. Beli is also named as the father of Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint, Caswallon, Nyniaw, and Llefelys in Lludd ac Llefelys and it is possible they too are Children of Don.
Don is likely to be identical with Anna, the consort of Beli, in the Harleian Genealogies, and is thus the grandmother of Afallach (Gwyn ap Nudd), who is the father of Modron and the grandfather of Mabon. Don and Anna are named as the forebears of the lineages of many of the kings of the North and Wales.
Parallels exist between the Children of Don and the Tuatha Dé Danann ‘the Children of Danu’. Unfortunately we know nothing about Danu from inscriptions, place-names, or Irish literature. The nominative *Danu is a hypothetical reconstruction from the genitive ‘Danann’.
However, there are strong parallels between some of their children. Nuada and Nudd/Lludd are both warrior-kings with silver arms, Gofannon and Goibnu are both divine smiths, and Lugh and Lleu (more distant descendants of Danu and Don) are many-skilled gods who wield deadly spears.
I was highly excited when, online, I found claims for links between Don and Bel and Danu and Bile. I was disappointed to find out these are based on a loose claim about ‘British analogies’ from Charles Squire in Celtic Myths and Legends (1905) and there are no etymological or textual grounds for Danu and Bile having been consorts or parents of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Nothing more is known about Don from medieval Welsh literature or from inscriptions but she gives her name to the rivers Don in Yorkshire and Aberdeen and perhaps to the river Dee. This forms part of the boundary between the the Wirral and Wales and is known is Wales as the Afon Dyfrdwy. This might derive from Dyfrdonwy with Donwy being an earlier name of the goddess Don.
It is possible that there might be connections between the Irish Danu, the Brythonic Don, and the Hindu goddess Danu rooted in a shared Indo-European tradition. Her name may derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *dʰenh₂- ‘to run, to flow’ and be the source of the river-name Danube.
In The Rig Veda Danu is named as the mother of the 100 Danavas – demonic beings known as asuras. One of these is a dragon called Vritra who holds back the water of the world’s rivers. Vritra is slain by the thunderbolt of Indra and the river-water is released. Vritra then attacks and defeats Danu. This suggests Danu and her descendants are associated with primal waters and rivers.
This is of deep interest to me as it suggests parallels between Danu as the mother of the dragon, Vritra, who is slain by Indra, and Don as the mother of the dragon-goddess Anrhuna, who is slain by Lugus. (Anrhuna is not known in any Brythonic sources but she revealed herself to me as the consort of Nodens/Nudd and the mother of Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd. I was inspired to write a story about how she was killed by Lugus. I hadn’t guessed that Don might be her mother until now. In my story it was not Don who birthed hundreds of demons but Anrhuna who birthed monster-serpents).
The notion that, like Danu, Don is the mother of primordial waters, is one that has long accorded with my intuitions. Several years back I had a vision of Don as the source of generation and I associated her with Fidelma Massey’s ‘Water Mother’ sculpture on the cover of Greg Hill’s Creatures.
The possibility that Don did not only birth the ‘culture gods’ but the dragon-goddess Anrhuna and maybe other dragons and demon-like beings associated with water is one that speaks deeply to me.
As I have been writing this essay the words an dubno have repeatedly come into my mind. When I looked them up I recalled that several years ago I came across the proto-Celtic root *dubno or *dumno meaning ‘the deep’ or ‘dark and gloomy’ and Liz Greene’s claim Danu’s ‘dark face was Dumno’.
An means ‘not’ or ‘very’. The term an dubno thus shares its meaning with Annwn, ‘Very Deep’, the Otherworld. Perhaps this is telling me that Don was originally an Annuvian goddess who proceeded Anrhuna as the Mother of Annwn. In my story both Don and Anrhuna were amongst the oldest children of Old Mother Universe but I am now considering that Anrhuna may be the daughter of Don. This opens new possibilities for when the time returns to resume work on my mythic book.
Alexei Kondratiev, ‘Danu and Bile: The Primordial Parents’, The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism, Vol. 1, No. 4, (1998)Asterope, ‘Danu/Don’, Deity of the Week, (2011), http://deity-of-the-week.blogspot.com/2011/11/danudon.html 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) Sarah E. Zeiser, ‘Performing a Literary Paternity Test: Bonedd yr Arwyr and the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colliqiuim, Vol. 28, (2008) Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
*Updated 15/11/2020 to include the river Don in Aberdeen following a comment from angharadlois.
It’s Nos Galan Gaeaf. The night before the first day of winter. An ysbrydnos – ‘a spirit night’. Unlike its counterbalance, Nos Galan Mai, when monsters are slain and dragons calmed this is a night when the ysbrydion Annwn ‘spirits of the Otherworld’ walk abroad at the height of their power.
There is a monster amongst us, COVID-19, the Beast with the Fiery Halo. To represent it as such is in keeping with the traditions of many generations of ancestors who perceived diseases to be caused by malevolent beings, before science and technology revealed they are caused by micro-organisms. From an animistic standpoint, wherein all things are alive and have personhood, these views are not incompatible.
In ‘Hanes Taliesin’ the illustrious bard predicted the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd at the hands of ‘A most strange creature… His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold.’ Maelgwn died after seeing Y Vat Velen, ‘The Yellow Plague’, through the keyhole in the church of Llan Rhos where he was ‘self isolating’.
Malaria, once known as the ague, took the form of a hag. Yr Hen Wrach, ‘The Old Hag’, was a seven foot woman who haunted Cors Fochno, Borth Bog. Her nocturnal visitations caused people to wake with the shakes. Samuel Taylor Coleridge later spoke of ‘the ghastly Dam, / Fev’rish yet freezing, eager paced yet slow, / As she that creeps from forth her swampy reeds, / Ague, the biform Hag!’
Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night when the veil of mist that separates the worlds is thin and the living may commune with the dead and the spirits of Annwn, some of whom we can name, and some whom are beyond categorisation. It is a time for telling stories in which otherworldly beings appear to haunt us and in which journeys to the Otherworld made. There is usually a dispelling or a safe return.
If we had a story about the Beast with the Fiery Halo it might go something like this. Many years ago our ancestors tried to build a world that was very much like the Otherworld, in which there was no want of food, or drink, or light, or heat, where no-one was cold, where no-one went hungry.
And that world was built at a great cost. The land was despoiled by mining and building. The air was polluted by fumes, which caused the temperature to rise. This led to the perishing of millions of trees, plants, animals, fish, and insects and to most of our ancestors living in servitude to the rulers who took power over the resources and machines that made this life possible. To depart from the system and the virtual world created by its technologies meant loneliness and ignominy, and at worst, death.
Most people accepted the cost, whether or not they were happy working at the machines, and turned a blind eye to the despoiling of the natural world because it was the only way to feed their families. Some did not. Some fought for change by protesting on the streets and others created nature reserves and planted trees and wildflowers and started growing their own food as an alternative.
Some prayed, to God, to the old gods, to Mother Earth, to Old Mother Universe, for something that would bring this system to an end. As if in answer to this prayer (and monsters are wily) appeared a beast the size of a sky scraper with limbs of countless animals, bent and twisted, as if trapped in a cage. Its lungs heaved phlegmatically in its scarred and hairy chest. Its many eyes were red and its mouths were gaping holes. Around its head was a blazing halo that burnt without burning the beast.
Like so many of the monsters in our myths it did not have a voice. It did not strike a bargain. It just came silently in the depths of winter and started taking the lives of our oldest most vulnerable people.
Protecting them came at a great cost: maintaining a distance from our friends and family, working less, travelling less, shopping less, to the benefit of the natural world and the detriment of our freedom. Our dependency on the rulers for financial support and the machines connecting us grew.
It felt like the unspoken bargain was this: ‘The lives of your old ones or your lives as you know them.’
Towards the end of summer we saw light shining through our prison bars. Although we all knew we had not defeated the monster we thought our sacrifices had kept it at bay. We dared to hope things might return to ‘normal’ but, as our liberties were restored, the monster took advantage. As winter approached, we saw the light was not sunlight, but the beast’s fiery halo, its triumphal crown.
The death toll is rising again. We are not at the end of the story but in media res, at the ‘crisis’, a Middle English term ‘denoting the turning point of a disease’ which is derived from medical Latin and dates back to the Greek krisis ‘decision’ and krinein ‘decide’. It’s decision time.
It’s as if we’re in a ‘choose your own ending’ book but the endings haven’t yet been written. We can only imagine them, happy or sad, tragic or comedic, apocalyptic or redeeming, guess there may be a twist.
Tonight the light of the blue moon is eclipsed by the beast’s fiery halo burning brighter than bright.
Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night on which, as a Brythonic polytheist devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd, I pray to him as the god who holds back the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent their destruction of the world and takes the souls of the lost and the angry dead to the Otherworld.
Countless times I have wondered why he has not held the beast back. Is it because he cannot or he will not? Is it because we are destroying the world? Because we too are monstrous?
We might consider that ‘monster’ originates from the Latin monstrum ‘to reveal’ or ‘to foretell’. Nos Galan Gaeaf, when Gwyn may be implored to part the mists of time, is a time for divination, for monstrous truths to be revealed and upon them our decisions based.
Gwyn ap Nudd
Starry Hunter in the Darkness guide us through these nights of fear.
Midnight Rider on the Storm of Madness teach us to ride these nights of tears.
Wise Warrior who guards the Cauldron by the light of the blue moon
lead the living to deeper wisdom and the dead back to Annwn.
Bel (Belin, Belinos, Belenus) ‘Shining’ is a Celtic god whose worship is attested by inscriptions and place-names here in Britain and on the continent. He was likely the patron god of the Belgae tribes.
The term ‘Belgae’ is linked etymologically to the name Bel and to the Proto-Celtic root *belg- or *bolg which means ‘to swell (with anger or battle fury)’. I believe it might also be connected to a tradition amongst the Celts of numerous tribes coming together for the purpose of war and raiding.
The Belgae or Belgi are named as a confederacy of tribes by Strabo and Caesar in the first century BC. Strabo notes that, of the warlike tribes on the northern coast of Gaul, the Belgi ‘are the best.’ He tell us ‘they are divided into fifteen tribes, and live along the ocean between the Rhine and the Loire.’ The best of these tribes are the Bello(v)aci then the Suessiones. He claims ‘the number of the Belgi of former times that can bear arms amounted to about three hundred thousand.’
Caesar tells us: ‘All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third.’ He cites a report from the Remi: ‘the Bellovaci were the most powerful among them… these could muster 100,000 armed men… The Suessiones were their nearest neighbors and possessed a very extensive and fertile country… they had promised 50,000 armed men… the Nervii… the most warlike among them… [had promised] as many; the Atrebates 15,000; the Ambiani, 10,000; the Morini, 25,000; the Menapii, 9,000; the Caleti, 10,000; the Velocasses and the Veromandui as many; the Aduatuci 19,000; that the Condrusi, the Eburones, the Caeraesi, the Paemani, who are called by the common name of Germans [had promised], they thought, to the number of 40,000.’
My research has led me to believe that the roots of the Belgae, their worship of Bel, and tradition of hosting and raiding might be traced back to at least to the sixth century, through the places the Celts migrated to from Gaul, which map onto inscriptions to Bel, and back to their Gaulish homeland.
II. Bellovesus and the Birds of Bel
Writing in the first century BC Livy notes that, during the sixth century BC, ‘The Celts, who make up one of the three divisions of Gaul, were under the the domination of the Bituriges’. Their king was Ambigatus and, under his rule, Gaul ‘grew so rich in corn and so populous, that it seemed hardly possible to govern so great a multitude.’ The old king ‘wishing to relieve his kingdom of a burdensome throng’ decided to send his sister’s sons, Bellovesus and Segovesus, to find new homes.
Here we find a swelling of Celtic people and a son named Bellovesus, who may have taken that name because Bel was the patron deity of his people. We are told they are sent ‘to find such homes as the gods might assign them by augury… Whereupon to Segovesus were by lot assigned the Hercynian highlands (the Black Forest and Bohemia), but to Bellovesus the gods proposed a far pleasanter road, into Italy. Taking with him the surplus population – Bituriges, Arverni, Senones, Aedui, Ambarri, Carnutes, Aulerci – he set out with a vast host, some mounted, some on foot.’
They passed through the Alps into the Po Valley, defeated the Etruscans near the river Ticinus, and established Mediolanum ‘the settlement in the middle of the plain’ (Milan). This became the centre of Cisalpine Gaul ‘Gaul this side of the Alps’. Pompeius Trogus, a native of south Gaul also writing in the 1st century, notes that other Celtic settlements included Como, Brescia, Verona, Bergamo, Trento, and Vicenza. He numbers the host of Bellovesus at 300,000. He says that some ‘settled in Italy… some led by birds spread through the head of the Adriatic and settled in Pannonia.’
It is of interest that the new homes of the Celtic people were assigned by the gods by augury and that they were led by birds. This suggests that Bellovesus or someone amongst his people was an augur, someone skilled in reading the signs of nature, particularly those of birds, and that it was by following those signs they reached and won their settlements. It is possible certain birds were associated with Bel and they saw the will of their gods in the direction of their flight and their victories.
Bellovesus’ invasion paved the way for the influx of more of the Celtic tribes: the Laevi, Libicci, Insubres, and Cenomani, Ananes, Boii, Lingones, and Senones, into the Po Valley in 400 BC. In 390 the Celts marched on Rome, defeated the Roman army at the Tiber tributary to the Allia and destroyed the city, leaving only the defended capitol, and departed with 1,000 pounds of gold.
The Romans were initially terrified by the swollen hoards of the Celts and their attack. They later moved against the Senones between 295 and 283 BC and retook the Po Valley between 197 and 189 BC.
That Bel was the god who led the Celts into Cisalpine Gaul and was worshipped there by both the Celtic peoples and the Romans is proved by numerous inscriptions. 22 were found in Aquiliea (where Bel famously appeared to defend the city in 238 AD) and 6 in Altinum, Concordia, and Iulium Carnicum.
III. Bohemia and Beyond – the Raids of Bolgios and Brennos
Whilst Bellovesus led his people to Italy, Segovesus led his, likely following the Danube, to Bohemia. From there, in 400 BC, there were further migrations with the Celtic peoples establishing new communities in ‘Moravia, Lower Austria, western Hungary, and south-west Slovakia.’ This could explain the inscriptions to Bel in Noricum where he was worshipped as the national god.
During the early fourth century the Celtic war bands passed through the mountains of Illyria and entered negotiations with the King of Macedonia, Alexander the Great. 50 years later Alexander died, his empire fell, and a Celtic warlord named Bolgios led a Celtic and Thracian force against the Macedonians. Bolgios triumphed, the leader of their enemies was killed, and his head was paraded on a spear.
It is notable that the name Bolgios comes from the same root, *belg- or *bolg, as Belgae. As a war leader he was perhaps seen to embody the swollen might of the tribes and their battle fury. It is notable that Bolgios and his people participated in the Celtic tradition of head hunting – taking the heads of the most prestigious of the enemies and displaying them as a sign of their prowess.
Bolgios opened the way for a thrust to the south-east led by Brennos who went on to sack Delphi in 279. This included a raid on the temple to Apollo and the theft of its treasure, which ended up in Toulose. In some accounts Brennos and his men were driven off by their adversaries and in others Apollo took revenge. The Celts were defeated and Brennos, fatigued and humiliated, committed suicide
In some inscriptions Bel is equated Apollo. One wonders whether this was an attempt to replace one shining god with another. Whatever the case it seems it was not the will of the gods and the raiders suffered.
IV. Bel and the Belgae in Britain
The expansion of the Roman Empire pressed some of the Celts back north to their homeland in Gaul and it seems possible this resulted in the hosting of the Belgae described by Caesar in the first century.
By this time some of the Belgae had moved even further north, across the channel, to Britain. Caesar writes: ‘The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands.’
Once again we find the Belgae associated with war and plunder before they settled down to work the land. Barry Cunliffe places the event ‘in the late second or early first century BC since the memory was still alive in Caesar’s time.’ ‘The simplest explanation is that they landed somewhere on the Solent coast and settled in Hampshire, where the Roman geographers later located the Belgae, their capital being Venta Belgarum (‘the market of the Belgae’), modern Winchester.’
Their king, Cunobelinus, ‘Hound of Belinus’, ruled not only the Belgae but the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes from 9 to 40 AD and styled himself as ‘King of the Britons’. He was recognised by Augustus as a client king. His son, Caratacus, expanded his territory into that of the Atrebates, who were also friendly with Rome. The fleeing of their ruler, Verica, to the Emperor Claudius, was the pretext for the Roman invasion of 43 AD. Thenceforth the people of Bel fought against the Romans.
Inscriptions to Bel at Vindolanda and an at unknown site as well as 28 to Belatucadros near Hadrian’s Wall and the dedication of the Ribble, in Lancashire, to Belisama, show Bel and deities who shared the etymology of his name were not only worshipped on the south coast but in the north. Whether Bel’s worship was borne north by the Belgae or whether he was already popular is unknown.
Bel lives on in the medieval Welsh tradition as Beli Mawr and as the consort of Don/Anna he is the father of the Children of Don and, through his daughter, Penarddun, wife of Llyr, an ancestor of the Children of Llyr. He is also listed as an ancestral figure in the genealogies of the Men of the North.
The son of Beli, Caswallon, usurped the throne of Britain from Caradog, the son of Brân the Blessed, a son of Llyr. Another son of Beli, Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint (who was worshipped in Iron Age and Roman Britain by the earlier name of Nodens) later took the throne as a god-king of Britain. Internicine warfare was characteristic of the Brythonic gods and their people.
V. Bel the Bellicose
In this article I have traced the history of Bel and the Belgae and it has revealed that by name and by act they were a warrior people whose lives and culture were based around war and raiding. Bel, ‘Shining’, was a bellicose god who inspired invasions and raids, with a love of shining treasures.
This is perhaps best reflected by the Belgic coins minted during the reign of Cunobelinus.
Their values are at utter odds with my own and many other polytheists living in the twenty-first century for whom war is a source of horror rather than glory and treasure of corruption rather than prestige. My brief encounters with Bel have revealed that he remains a forceful god who likes shiny things.
Bel is also associated with the sun and fire and the Celtic festival of Beltane (1st of May), during which cattle were driven between two ‘Bel-fires’ to purify them before they were moved to summer grazing places. This shows Bel was important not only as a war god for the warrior elite but for cowherds.
The Irish stories suggest, as a bellicose giant with a burning eye, he was slain by his grandson, Lugus/Lugh/Lleu and this is the foundation of the harvest festival of Lughnasadh (1st of August). Thus he held an important position for the people who worked the land in the cross quarter agricultural calendar used in Gaul in the 1st century BC, later in Ireland, and no doubt in Britain too.
The nature of the rites of Bel and how they were practiced and experienced by the Belgae remains unknown. As a devotee of Vindos/Gwyn, son of Nodens/Nudd, grandson of Bel/Beli Mawr I am just beginning to explore these histories and myths and what they might mean for modern polytheists.
I’m back on Idris again at the edge of Llyn Cau alone with the madness of giants surrounded by the battle-fog of Gwenddolau although Arfderydd is distant, Myrddin, the gwyllon, the seven-score men who lapsed into wyllt-ness when battle-rage fled.
The ravens have left and I am alone pondering the edge of a blade lost in my brain-fog, my little Arfderydd, the small traumas etched on my flesh. Battle-scars, battle-madness, the battle- field I thought I’d escaped long ago when you appeared to Myrddin
as the brightness beyond endurance, tore him out of himself and took him to the forest of Celyddon to be healed. When you walked out of the heroic age and took me not like a maiden but like one of your own taught me to fight with Cyledyr, Cynedyr, Cynfelyn,
wilder than beasts of the mountains, to howl with your hounds and exult in the madness of giants bigger than dream. Bull of Battle, Invincible Lord, teach me again the art of turning pain into poetry, to make this battle-fog my strength not my enemy and this edge my blade.
I have recently read Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins for the first time as part of my research into the origins of the veneration of the Brythonic gods. This excellent book has overturned one of the faulty preconceptions I have held since coming to Brythonic polytheism – the myth of Celtic invasions.
Up until now I had been working under the popular misconception put forward by earlier scholars that the Celtic people came from the east and migrated across Europe to invade Britain bringing their gods with them at some point during the Iron Age. This was based on the combination of the Biblical story of Noah’s children spreading out after the flood and classical sources recording Celtic migrations into Italy and Greece and the Balkans and Asia Minor. It was problematic for me as it ran against my gnosis that the Brythonic gods have been venerated here far longer and was a source of confusion.
Cunliffe has thankfully debunked this myth. He argues that there is no evidence for Celtic invasions. He begins his account of the beginnings of Britain with the first hunter-gatherer people moving north from Northern Iberia along the Atlantic seaways and west from the North European Plain across Doggerland. His argument is based on contemporary genetic research.
‘There is broad agreement amongst geneticists that a high percentage of the modern population can trace its ancestry back to the period of recolonization between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the beginning of the Neolithic period. One study offers quite startling figures for the percentages of the population whose ancestry pre-dates c.4000 BC: 88 per cent of the Irish, 81 per cent of the Welsh, 79 per cent of the Cornish, 70 per cent of the Scots, and 68 per cent of the English.’
‘Genetics… is demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that a very high percentage of the British population, both male and female, are descended from hunter-gatherer pioneers who arrived before 4000BC, and it is showing that the Atlantic littoral zone provided one of the major corridors of movement.’
Archaeology combined with genetic studies and linguistics shows that the Celtic language, culture and religious system developed in Western Europe, in western and central Iberia, Gaul, Britain and Ireland.
Rather than our religion being imported the evidence suggests its origins may lie with the first people to repopulate Britain after the Ice Age and their networks of interactions with nearby peoples via the Atlantic and North Sea seaways and with settlers who arrived in two main movements.
Firstly people carrying the Linearbandkeramik and Impressed Ware cultures from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean brought ‘the Neolithic package’ – ‘a fully developed food-producing strategy based on the cultivation of barley and emmer wheat and the husbanding of domestic cattle, pigs, and sheep’. This spread amongst the indigenous people between 4200 – 3800. The excess time and energy created by farming led to the communal monument building traditions of long barrows, passage graves, cursus monuments, causewayed camps and later henge monuments and stone circles.
Secondly the influx of ‘Beaker people’ originating from the Tagus Valley in Iberia in 2500 BC brought metallurgy and the tradition of single burials with the famous bell beaker.
Cunliffe argues that the Celtic language developed as a Lingua Franca spoken in the Tagus Valley in Iberia between 4500 and 3000 BC and developed along the Atlantic seaways. Celtic was spoken in Britain and Ireland by 2000 BC and this was when the split appeared between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages.
It would have been at this time that the gods who were honoured in natural places such as rivers, lakes, springs, and groves, and at man-made monuments became known by Brythonic names.
Cunliffe suggests that, as the Celtic language developed in the West, so did the religious system. He says: ‘It may even be that Caesar was correct and that it had originated in Britain. At any event, the practice that became recognised as druidism in the last century of the first millennium BC had its roots deep in prehistory.’
Cunliffe’s argument fits with my gnosis that the veneration of the gods who I worship may have originated with the first people to colonise Britain and that they became known by Brythonic names as the language developed. Rather than, for example, Bel being imported by the Belgic peoples he may long have been a presence in Britain whose veneration spread to a continental tribe who made him their patron.
I have long felt that Vindos/Gwyn has been venerated here since at least the Ice Age as a hunter god who led the people back to Britain following the reindeer and wild horses with his wolves and ravens. Also that Rigantona/Rhiannon may have been a leader of these horse followers. Both have felt like very old and primal presences within the land and live on to today as Fairy King and Queen.
Cunliffe’s debunking of the myth of Celtic invasions has not only freed me from a flawed misconception but confirmed that it is legitimate to enquire into the origins of my deities in Britain’s deeper past.