“On an island lives the King of Annwn with a mysterious woman and no-one knows whether she is his sister, his beloved, his wife, his queen, or his daughter.”
These were words gifted to me at the beginning of a drumming journey that I undertook with the guidance of my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faerie, after asking him about the links I have intuited between his sister and beloved, Creiddylad, the mare goddess, Rhiannon, and the mother goddess, Modron.
There is little written about Creiddylad, but we know, like Rhiannon, she is a Queen of Annwn. As I have got to know her Creiddylad has revealed she is also associated with roses and horses. One of her names is ‘First Rose’ and she rides and takes the form of a white winged horse. Parallels exist between Rhiannon giving birth to Pryderi and him disappearing the same night as a foal is captured by a monstrous claw and Modron giving birth to Mabon, who is stolen away when he is three nights old. Whilst Creiddylad and Rhiannon are consorts of the King of Annwn, Modron is his daugher.
My journey resulted in the series of visions recorded in my poem ‘The Baby’s Gone’. My gnosis suggests Creiddylad, Rhiannon, and Modron are the same goddess with shifting identities.
Further, in the ‘Rose Queen Triptych’ I was inspired to draw, Creiddylad, ‘The Rose Maiden’, shifts into Rhiannon, ‘The Rose Queen’, then into the Mari Llwyd, ‘The Bone Mare’.
This didn’t come as a great surprise as I had similar experiences with Gwyn. When I first came to polytheism about ten years ago I regarded myself to be a hard polytheist (someone who believes the gods are real individual persons) as opposed to a soft polytheist (someone who believes the gods are aspects of a single god or goddess or psychological archetypes). I still stand by that belief, however, it has become a lot more fluid.
One of the defining characteristics of the gods across cultures is that individual deities have many names and titles. A prime example is the Norse god, Odin. Over forty of his names are recorded in The Poetic Edda alone and he is known by many more in other texts. The Greek goddess, Demeter, possesses several epithets such as aganippe ‘night mare’ and chloe ‘the green shoot’.
Gwyn first revealed himself to me by that name as the King of Annwn/Faerie in 2012. After our initial meeting I made my main focus the myths in which he is known as Gwyn but swiftly found he lay behind a number of our Fairy King and Wild Huntsman legends in Lancashire and my past experiences with the fay and the faerie realm.
My experience of dedicating myself to Gwyn at the cauldron-like White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor confirmed the links I had made between Gwyn feasting on Glastonbury Tor in The Life of St Collen and Pen Annwn presiding over a mead-feast with his cauldron were correct.
I was far more cautious about equating Gwyn with other Kings of Annwn. However, as I worked with the myths, intuiting the similarities between Gwyn and Arawn, both of whom are huntsmen who preside over otherworldly feasts, have beautiful brides, and fight a seasonal battle against a summer god each year, I found myself inhabiting their overlapping tales.
In one instance, in a dream, I was thrust into the role of Pwyll, who took the identity of Arawn in Annwn and had to fight Arawn’s battle, in Arawn’s form, against his rival, Hafgan. Only, in my dream I was taking the role of Gwyn and was preparing to battle against Gwythyr. This resulted in my poem ‘If I Had To Fight Your Battle’. In another, as I was walking my local landscape in winter, I felt for a moment like Arawn-as-Pwyll making a circuit of a thiswordly kingdom, only my identity became conjoined, instead, with Gwyn’s as Winter’s King. Again, I recorded my experience in a poem: ‘Winter Kingdom’. To me this proves Gwyn ‘White’ and Arawn (whose name a translation has not been agreed on) are names or titles of the same god who has shifting identities across time and place.
Similar experiences from intuiting links in the myths and being gifted with poems and visions have led me to believe the King of Annwn goes by many other names. These include Afallach, the Apple King who presides over Avalon and Melwas who shares similar associations with Glastonbury, Llwyd ‘Grey’ who puts an enchantment on the land and abducts Rhiannon and Pryderi in The Mabinogion, Brenin Llwyd, ‘The Grey King’ who haunts the misty Snowdonian mountains, Ugnach, a figure with ‘white hounds’ and ‘great horns’ whose otherworld feast Taliesin refuses to attend, and Ogyrven the Giant, who presides over the spirits of inspiration.
Additionally, the King of Annwn spoke to me directly of his shifting identities in this poem:
I speak from the infinite joining of the circle as the snake bites its tail
the moment of awen in every always of the universe
the sea behind the sea the land behind the land the sun behind the sun.
I come from many deaths. From many deaths I am reborn.
Dis, Vindonnus, Vindos, Llwyd, Brenin Llwyd, Arawn, Ugnach, Melwas, Ogyrven.
Across the sea I am Finn. For tonight I am Gwyn.
Thus it is unsurprising his consort, the Queen of Annwn, has many shifting identities too.
Interestingly, when I was involved with Dun Brython, it was very much Rhiannon/Rigantona who brought the group together in the beginning and I came later as a devotee of Gwyn. One of the other members also had a strong relationship with Gwyn and it was member Greg Hill’s translations of poems featuring Ogyrven and Ugnach that helped me decipher the aforementioned connections. When Greg and I set up the Awen ac Awenydd group many other Gwyn devotees were drawn to it and the King and Queen of Annwn feel very central to the Brythonic tradition in the modern day.
Afallach, a Brythonic god whose name is derived from afal ‘apple’, is best known for his associations with Ynys Afallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or the Isle of Avalon. In his Speculum Ecclesiae (1216)Giraldus Cambrensis says: ‘Avallonia is so called either from the British aval which means apple, because that place abounded with apples, or from a certain (A)vallo, lord of that land’.
Giraldus identifies the Isle of Avalon with Glastonbury, in De Instructione Principium (1193 -9): ‘what is now called Glastonia was anciently called Insula Avallonia, for it is like an island, wholly surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in British Inis Avallon, that is the apple-bearing island.’
William of Mamlesbury, in The Antiquities of Glastonbury (1216), follows this tradition. Glastonbury ‘is also well known as by the name of Insula Avalloniae’. He says it may be ‘named after a certain Avalloc who is said to have lived there with his daughters on account of it being a solitary place. (1)
Ynys Afallach is described as a paradisal island by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini (1150). ‘The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.’
Geoffrey names the nine daughters of Afallach as Morgen, ‘Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.’ He notes Morgen ‘is first of them’, ‘skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person’. She knows the properties of herbs, is skilled in healing, and mathematics and has the ability to shift shape.
Giraldus Cambrensis, in De Instructione Principium (1193), also writes of,‘Morganis, a noble matron who was the ruler and patron of these parts… the island which is now called Glastonia.”
II. Afallach – King of Annwn
It is significant that Morgan is referred to as a ‘noble matron’ for in the Triads she is otherwise named as ‘Modron daughter of Afallach’. Modron is a later form of Matrona ‘Mother’. The Mothers or Matrons were worshipped across northwestern Europe during the Romano-British period.
In Peniarth MS. 70 Modron speaks of herself as ‘the daughter of the King of Annwn’. Annwn means ‘the Deep’ and is the medieval Welsh name for the Otherworld which is a paradisal location.
In The Life of St Collen (14th C)we find an account of Collen’s visit to the castle of Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn, on Glastonbury Tor:
‘he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom.’
It seems likely Gwyn and Afallach are the same deity. Both are named as King of Annwn and are associated with Glastonbury/the Island of Avalon. Afallach is named as the grandson of Beli Mawr in the Harleian Genealogies (1100)and we find out that Gwyn is the grandson of Beli Mawr from Lludd ac Llefelys (1225) where his father, Lludd/Nudd, is named as the son of Beli.
Further traces of his mythos can be found in ‘Preideu Annwn’ where Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ is depicted presiding over an otherworldly mead feast and as the owner of countless treasures including a cauldron ‘kindled by the breath of nine maidens’ with ‘a dark trim and pearls’.
Its refusal to ‘boil a coward’s food’ suggests that it is connected with the initiation of bards such as ‘the loyal lad’, Gwair who, in the poem, is singing before the spoils of Annwn in a heavy grey chain.
III. Afallach and Modron in the Old North
In the Triads and Peniarth MS. 70 Afallach’s daughter, Modron, is the mother of the children of Urien. In Triad 70 the second of the ‘Three Fair Womb Burdens’ is the following: ‘Owain, son of Urien and Morfudd his sister who were carried together in the womb of Modron daughter of Afallach’.
In Peniarth MS. 70 we find the full story of the conception of Modron’s children:
‘In Denbighshire there is a parish which is called Llanferes, and there is there Rhyd y Gyfarthfa (the Ford of Barking). In the old days the hounds of the countryside used to come together to the side of that the ford to bark, and nobody dared go to find out what was there until Urien Rheged came. And when he came to the side of the ford he saw nothing except a woman washing. And then the hounds ceased barking, and Urien seized the woman and he had his will of her; and then she said “God’s blessing on the feet which brought thee here.” “Why?” said he. “Because I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy.” And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.’
The setting of this story in Denbighshire is strange because Urien was the king of the northern kingdom of Rheged during the sixth century. Urien’s seat may have been Luguvalium (present-day Carlisle), on the River Eden, and his realm likely extended throughout the Eden Valley and much of Cumbria to the Solway Firth and perhaps included Dumfries and Galloway. (2)
The name ‘Eden’ holds associations with Paradise and thus with Afallach/Gwyn and his brother Edern. (3) When Rheged was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons some of the fleeing Britons may have taken the tale to Wales.
I believe this story has its basis in the pre-Christian tradition of a human king entering a sacred marriage with the goddess of the land. There is plentiful evidence for the cultus of Modron/Matrona and her son, Mabon/Maponos in the form of altars and place names in northwest England and southern Scotland.
Altars and inscriptions to the Mother Goddesses and the Mothers the Fates have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness, Bowness-on-Solway, Ribchester, and Lund. There is an altar to Apollo-Maponus at Ribchester. Lochmaben and the Clochmaben stone are named after him.
In The Harleian Genealogies the kings of Rheged trace their lineage to Coel Hen and ultimately to Afallach and Beli Mawr. This suggests that Beli, Afallach, Modron, and Mabon were their ancestral deities.
The references to Owain as Mabon in the poetry attributed to Urien’s bard, Taliesin, are suggestive not only of his divine birth, but that he possessed the power to invoke and take on the identity of Mabon.
The story from Peniarth MS. 70 demonstrates the turning of the kings of Rheged to Christianity. Here we find Modron depicted as a sinister figure, as the Washer at the Ford, suggesting links with Morgan and possibly with the Irish death-goddess Morrigan, surrounded by equally sinister hounds (who are likely to be the Hounds of Annwn who hunt the souls of the dead with her father). To see a woman washing one’s clothes was a death portent as was hearing or seeing otherwordly hounds.
Urien, a self-proclaimedly Christian King, ignores the portents, seeing ‘nothing but a woman washing’ and rapes Modron. Her words about being fated to wash there until she conceives a son by a Christian have clearly been put into her mouth by a Christian interlocutor to obscure her role as a sovereignty goddess who holds power not over the land and Annwn but fate itself. Following Urien’s abuse it is no surprise he is assassinated and this leads to the fall of Rheged and the Old North.
The connections of Afallach and Modron with the Old North live on in their folkloric associations with the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass). In these areas of Cumbria Afallach is known as Eveling, which is an Anglicised version of his name.
IV. Afallach and Gwallen in North Wales
Afallach’s associations with Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in Denbighshire have been noted. Near the hill fort of Moel-y-Gaer in Flintshire is a hamlet called Caerfallwch which means ‘the Fortress of Afallach’.
From the ‘Hanesyn Tract’ we learn that Afallach had another daughter called Gwallen. She is referred to as ‘Gwalltwen verch Yvallach’ in ‘Digyniad Pendefigaeth Cymru’ and here we learn that she was mistress of Maelgwn, the ruler of Gwynedd during the sixth century, and the mother of Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, who ‘was not acceptable to some as prince, only as a regent.’
The kings of Gwynedd traced their ancestry through Cunedda to Afallach and Beli Mawr. It is possible that, like Modron, Gwallen was perceived as a sovereignty goddess. Her name might be translated as ‘White Hair’ (from gwallt ‘hair’ and gwyn/(g)wen ‘white’) suggesting Annuvian characteristics shared with her father, Afallach/Gwyn. The rejection of her son may be indicative not only of the laws surrounding illegitimacy, but Christian superstitions surrounding her otherworld nature.
Maelgwn’s wife was Sanan ferch Cyngen. They had a daughter called Eurgain who was married to the northern warlord Elidyr Mwynfawr. According to The Black Book of Chirk (1592 – 1667):
‘After the death of Maelgwn… many of the nobility of Cambria disdained to yield subjection to Rhun his son, being a bastard begot upon Gwallten the daughter of Afallach, Maelgwn’s concubine, especially the nobility of Arfon, who privately sent unto Elidyr Mwynfawr aforesaid to come speedily to Cambria, to aid him in recovery of the kingdom in the right of his children by Eurgain the daughter and heir of Maelgwn’.
The voyage of Elidyr and Eurgain and their companions from the Old North to Wales is recorded in Triad 44 ‘Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’. It is memorable because ‘seven and a half’ people are said to have crossed sea on the back of the water horse Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’.
‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr… carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’
Du y Moroedd is the horse Gwyn ap Nudd rides when hunting for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ and likely for the souls of the dead. (4) Elidyr met his end battling against Rhun at Aber Mefydd. Perhaps Du not only carried them to meet their deaths but to the Otherworld afterwards too.
What this story serves to consolidate is that Afallach/Gwyn and his daughter, Gwallen, had strong and longstanding connections with the Brythonic peoples who claimed descent from Beli Mawr.
V. Lugus and the Island of Apples
In the Irish myths we find Emain Ablach ‘The Island of Apples’. In ‘Ar an doirseoir ris an deaghlaoch’ ‘The doorkeeper said to the noble warrior’, a medieval Irish poem based on the arrival of Lugh at the court of the Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, Lugh introduces himself as ‘a poet from Emain Ablach / of swans and yews’ before gaining entry due to his mastery of many skills. This suggests Lugh might have undergone some kind of bardic initiation on Ablach/Afallach’s isle.
Lugh is the son of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethniu, daughter of the Formorian giant, Balor. After hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, Balor locked Eithne away in a tower on Tory Island, but this did not prevent Cian from entering and fathering Lugh. Balor then attempted to stop the child gaining maturity by preventing him from getting a name and a wife.
In ‘Balor of the Evil Eye and Lui Lavada’ Cian takes Lui to Tory Island where numerous apple trees grow. They pose as gardeners. When Lui shows a good deal of skill picking up the apples Balor says: ‘Tog leat Lui Lavada’ ‘take away with you little long hand’ and this is how he receives his name. Lui/Lugh kills Balor with a slingshot or spear through his burning or poisonous eye.
We find a striking parallel in The Mabinogi (1350 – 1410) in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who is cognate with the Irish Lugh. Lleu is the son of Gwydion and Arianrhod, the son and daughter of Beli Mawr and Don. He was likely conceived by magical subterfuge. (5) In this story it is not Lleu’s grandfather, Beli, but his mother, Arianrhod who curses him with three fates: he will never win a name, arms or a wife. This is because of her ‘shame’ at the slight to her virginity caused by Gwydion.
Gwydion helps Lleu win his name by disguising them as shoemakers and luring Arianrhod onto his boat to get a shoe fitted. When she is on board Lleu shoots a wren that lands on the deck ‘in the leg, between the tendon and the bone’ and she exclaims ‘it is with a skilful hand that the fair one has hit it’ and hence he is called Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair-haired one with the skilful hand’.
Instead of killing his grandfather, Beli, with his spear, Lleu kills Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuwedd. Gronw, a hunter who arrives with a pack of hounds chasing a deer and turns up at night to seduce Lleu’s beloved is likely to be the King of Annwn, Arawn, who displayed his shapeshifting abilities earlier in the text, and may be identified with Afallach/Gwyn, his cousin.
The Welsh and the Irish myths contain suggestions of a shared mythos surrounding Beli/Balor, Ablach/Afallach, Eithne/Arianrhod, Cian/Gwydion, and Lleu/Lugh/Lugus (his pan-Celtic name) that was important to the people of the Brythonic kingdoms who claimed descent from Beli. (6)
VI. The Apple King in Peneverdant
The name of my home town, Penwortham, was Peneverdant in the Domesday Book. The first element, pen, ‘head’ is Brythonic and refers to present-day Castle Hill. Like Glastonbury Tor this headland stood on marshland and is an important sacred site for pagans and Christians.
The dedication of the church on its summit and well at its foot (now dried up) to St Mary Virgin and the fairy funeral legend featuring a fairy leader suggest the presence of a mother goddess and fairy king.
I know from personal experience the fairy king is Afallach/Gwyn. I first intuited the goddess to be Gwyn’s mother, Anrhuna, who I know as the Mother of the Marsh, but am now considering that another presence who better fits the image of Mary in the church with her shining son is Modron with Mabon.
I hadn’t considered this possibility because I hadn’t realised Afallach and Gwyn were the same deity. Looking back I should have realised earlier for I spent a considerable amount of time in the Avalon orchards at Glastonbury when I visited at Calan Mai in 2013 and 2015. On the latter occasion this inspired me to plant five apple trees in Greencroft Valley with the Friends group. Three have survived and two, the Epicure and Sowman’s seedling, have borne apples this year.
I have been making connections between Afallach and Gwyn as I have harvested these apples and those from the two apple trees in my parent’s garden. I’ve noticed they’ve come earlier this year for I usually gather the last before Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September and offer an apple to him with pork.
Of course the sweet and juicy apples we eat in Britain today were imported by the Romans. Yet we do have a native apple tree – the crab apple. Although its fruits are too sour to eat raw there is no doubt our ancient ancestors cooked them and served them with meat as a welcome addition to their diet. The fact that apples are harvested at the time of Gwyn’s Feast further consolidates his identity with Afallach. (7)
Another piece of potentially significant information I first heard orally but only found unreferenced online on a website called ‘Ireland Calling’ is the following: ‘The Celts… were said to bury apples in graves as food for the dead, a practice that is shown to date back over 7,000 years to Europe and West Asia where petrified remains of sliced apple have been found in tombs from 5,000BC.’ However, I haven’t been able to find a trustworthy source naming the date or location of these burials.
If it was proved that the Celtic peoples and in particular the Britons buried their dead with apples this might be suggestive of an offering to Afallach/Gwyn in return for taking the souls of the dead to Annwn.
Whatever the case my offering of an apple to the Apple King at his feast this year will have heightened significance and his relationship with Modron and Mabon opens new horizons to explore.
(1) Malmesbury also provides a fascinating alternative foundation story based around apples. ‘Glasteing found his sow under an apple tree near the ancient church, and because apples were rare in those parts when he first arrived there, he called it Insular Avalloniae in his tongue, that is, Isle of Apples’. (2) Urien’s associations with the Eden Valley are suggested by the poems attributed to Taliesin, Urien’s bard, who refers to Urien as the ‘ruler of Llwyfenedd’, the Lyvennet Valley (the Lyvennet flows into the Eden). (3) However this river was known as Ituna ‘water’ or ‘rushing’during the Roman-British period. Urien was also named ‘ruler of Yrechwedd’. Echwedd means ‘flowing water’ and this could be the origin of this appellation. (4) In Culhwch ac Olwen (1190) Twrch Trwyth was allegedly a human chieftain turned into a boar by God on account of his sins. Behind this story lies his abilities as a shapeshifter and the fact Gwyn’s hunt, ‘the Wild Hunt’, was not really for boar but for human souls. (5) Gwydion’s fathering of Lleu is not explicit in the main source for Lleu’s story, the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, but is evidenced in other sources such as a poem by Lewys Môn and Harleian 3859 where Lleu is spoken of as ‘Lou Hen map Guidgen’. (6) The significance of Lugus is supported by his giving his name to Luguvalium (Carlisle) which means ‘Strong in Lugus’ and was ruled by Urien Rheged, to ‘the rock of Lleu’, the seat of the rulers of Gododdin from whom Maelgwn Gwynedd was descended, and to Dinas Lleu in the kingdom of Gwynedd.
Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ appears in the medieval Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen as the rival of Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ for the love of Creiddylad ‘Heart’s Desire’. That he is a fitting opponent for Gwyn and consort for Creiddylad, who are the son and daughter of the ancient British god Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, suggests he is also an important British deity.
Strip away the Christian veneer from Culhwch and Olwen and we have a story in which Gwyn (Winter’s King) and Gwythyr (Summer’s King) battle for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess). On Nos Galan Gaeaf, Winter’s Eve, Gwyn abducts Creiddylad to Annwn* and Gwythyr rides to Annwn and attempts to rescue her and is imprisoned. The abduction of Creiddylad and imprisonment of Gwythyr explain the coming of winter. On Calan Mai, the First Day of Summer, Gwythyr battles Gwyn for Creiddylad, wins, and she returns with him to Thisworld and together they bring fertility to the land. This explains the coming of summer. Gwyn and Gwythyr may earlier have been seen to slay one another on Nos Galan Gaeaf and Calan Mai and take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad, who acted as a powerful sovereignty figure rather than just a maiden to be fought over.
It is clear from this tale that Gwythyr is our ancient British god of summer. In another episode in Culhwch and Olwen we catch a glimpse of Gwythyr’s associations with fire and sunshine. As he is walking over a mountain he hears ‘weeping and wailing’ and sees its source is a burning anthill. He cuts the anthill off at ground level and rescues the ants from the blaze. We do not know what caused the fire. Did their nest, which ants orientate toward the sun, a little like solar panels, in a summer day, absorb too much heat? Or was the fire caused by Gwythyr’s scorching feet? We have seen that one translation of his father’s name, Greidol, is Scorcher, and we know wildfires break out in the summer. Here we see the dangers of fire and the sun and Gwythyr’s attempt at remediation.
The ants go on to help Gwythyr to gather nine hestors of flax seed which was sown in ‘tilled red soil’, in a field that has remained barren, so it can be ploughed into a new field, to provide the linen for Olwen’s veil in preparation for her marriage to Culhwch. It is possible to read Gwythyr’s association with seed being linked to the ‘male’ side of fertility and with doing the groundwork for the arrival of summer for his bride, Creiddylad, might also require a linen veil for her wedding dress.
The ancient Britons used fire to clear the forest to plant hazel trees and wildfires bring about new growth – in Gwythyr’s associations with fire and seed we find these processes.
These stories show that Gwythyr is a god of summer, fire, and generation in Thisworld who is opposed to Gwyn, a god of winter, ice, and the destructive forces of Annwn, the Otherworld. On the surface one is a bringer of life and the other a bringer of death yet their relationship is one of interdependence. It is necessary they take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad as an eternal summer or an endless winter would have equally deadly consequences for both worlds.
As Gwythyr’s story was passed on through the oral tradition he and his father were depicted as allying with Arthur against Gwyn and the ‘demons’ of Annwn and playing a role in their demise. Thus Gwythyr is associated with other culture gods like Amaethon, the Divine Ploughman, and Gofannon, the Divine Smith, who help the Christian king to civilise the wild and shut out the Annuvian.
This process may be traced back to the Neolithic revolution when farming began to replace the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the cultivation of seed hunting and foraging, the grain god (Gwythyr) the hunter (Gwyn). Christians did their best to eliminate the veneration of Gwyn by depicting him and his spirits as demons yet they continued to be loved in folk culture as the fairies and their king.
The stories of Gwythyr, by name, did not survive in the folk tradition, but it possible to find a likeness between him and other grain gods** who die a ritual death at the end of the harvest – when Gwyn, the harvester of souls, reaps down his rival and Gwythyr and the seed return to Annwn.
From the Neolithic period our society as a whole has favoured Gwythyr over Gwyn. We have created an eternal summer with the fire of Gwythyr in the engines of industry creating a society in which the cold and darkness of winter has been eliminated by electric lighting and central heating. Crops grow all year round under artificial lights. This has unsurprisingly led to global heating, to the climate crisis, to the scorching fires on Winter Hill where I perceive Gwythyr battling his rival. Ironically, and tellingly, these two great gods and the great goddess they battle for have been forgotten.
Yet, slowly, the worship of Gwyn and Creiddylad is reviving amongst modern polytheists. I know few who venerate Gwythyr and believe this is because his stories have been subsumed by those of other grain gods. This is a shame, for Gwythyr’s stories contain deep wisdom relating how fire, sun, summer and seed have played a role in the climate crisis from a polytheist perspective.
As a devotee of Gwyn, committed to the otherside, to the Annuvian, to redressing the balance, Gwythyr is a god whose powers I acknowledge through the summer and during the harvest period although I do not worship him. I would be interested to hear how and whether other polytheists relate to Gwythyr at this time.
*Annwn has been translated as ‘the Deep’ and the ‘Not-World’ and is the medieval Welsh Otherworld or Underworld. **Such as Lleu Llaw Gyffes/Lugus and John Barleycorn.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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).