Gwyn ap Nudd is a Brythonic God of the dead and a ruler of Annwn. In ‘The Life of St Collen’ He is depicted presiding over a magical feast on Glastonbury Tor. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ He is the keeper of a cauldron that will not boil meat for a coward and His fortress has many names including Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead Feast Fort’.
The existence of a feast day for Gwyn is suggested by the tradition of a fair held around the 29th of September on Glastonbury Tor. It is now dedicated to St Michael, who on this date banished Satan from Hell. This is echoed by St Collen supposedly banishing Gwyn and His people who he calls ‘devils’.
I have been celebrating Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September for nearly 10 years as a way of claiming His feast back from St Michael and for entering communion with Him, with the spirits of Annwn, and with the dead. The feast consists of pork (based on Gwyn’s hunt for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’), apples, and mead or cider.
This year Thornsilver Hollysong and I will be holding a celebration of Gwyn’s Feast on Vyvianne Armstrong’s Land Sea Sky Travel Zoom channel from 6pm – 8pm BST / 1pm – 3pm EST. This will include devotions and offerings to Gwyn, a space to discuss experiences with Him, poetry readings and a meditation in which we will join Him and His people at His feast and seek communion with Him.
This is open to all and you can join the meeting HERE.*
This year I have planted Michaelmas daisies in my wildflower area as a way of claiming Gwyn’s Feast back from St Michael. I have also been harvesting apples from our trees, which I associate with Him as Afallach, a name given to Him as a King of Annwn who presides over an isle of apples.
*Please email the team or myself at email@example.com for the password if you are new.
Edited 27/09/22 to add what we feast on following Greg’s comment.
I can’t remember exactly when. It might have been around this last time last year. I was being characteristically irascible, rash, impatient, none of the qualities that you’d associate with being a nun.
“Sister Patience,” I heard the mocking voice of my patron god, Gwyn.
It irked me, but it also awoke and called to something deep within.
Rising to his challenge, “I will be Sister Patience,” I told him.
And that was how Sister Patience came to be.
II. She came into my life as an alter ego at first, as I struggled through my traineeship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester Mosslands, helping me shape and find respite in the sanctuary of Creiddylad’s Garden.
I wrote this poem about her last summer:
The Sanctuary of Sister Patience
Weeks of weeding are fundamental to the path,
to the wedding of him and her and him – Gwyn and Creiddylad and Gwythyr.
When Summer’s King vaults over the wall all the flowers turn their heads towards him, as if to a beam of light.
All the plants need the light and dark reaction to photosynthesise and this is written on her habit in an obscure symbol on one of her voluminous cuffs.
He who stole the light of Bel and Belisama and gave it to mankind…
When he arrives in her garden it is yestereve, yesteryear, and all the flowers are gloaming and he longs to know what lies beneath her cowl for her eyes are two moons that will shine
upon a future world that will never stop flowering with its own weathernarium…
He is all heat and fire and flame and she is patience…
in Annwn, in the soil, in the mycorrhizae, in the roots, in the shoots, in the leaves, in the flowers, turning towards the light and these are the mysteries –
the poetry of nature not of the bardic seat.
Like the ranunculi are the wanderings of the wild nuns knowing no order –
their names a mixing of Latin, Greek, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, common and binomial.
This I was taught by the comfrey I bought when I was first learning to ‘do magic’, which worked its magic here,
filling my garden with purple flowers,
smelling soothing as the healing of bones, one of the favourites of Old Mother Universe.
She loves the first one or two tiny cotyledons of every plant reaching for the light not knowing their origins.
She carries the seeds of all the worlds in the brown paper envelopes in her pockets rustling when she walks, so carefully labelled in the language of Old Mother Universe only she knows – the names, the dates, the places, so distant…
With them she will build her sanctuary beyond the trowelling of my pulse.
Since then, slowly, imperceptibly, the miles between us have closed.
I’ve been patient. I’ve completed my traineeship. I’ve moved on into a new job as a graduate ecologist in which I’ve been faced with a whole new set of challenges. Not only learning to carry out new surveys but a whole new skillset on the admin side – providing quotes, carrying out desktop studies, writing reports, learning to see a job through from beginning to end.
It’s been a steep learning curve and not without its ups and downs. As an autistic person who likes routine and staying close to home I have struggled with travelling long distances to new places and, in particular, with night work.
One of the surveys is monitoring great created newt and wider amphibian populations as part of mitigation schemes on developments. This involves arriving before sunset to set bottle traps, waiting until after sunset to survey for newts by torchlight (as they’re active after dark), then returning early in the morning to empty the bottle traps. This work can only be done in the company of an experienced licence holder who is qualified to handle the newts.
It’s fascinating work and it is a privilege to see these beautiful creatures up close. It’s also a shake-up to my routine, most days get up at 4.30am to do my devotions, meditate, study, and go to the gym or run before cycling to work for 9am, finishing at 5pm, eating, winding down, and being asleep by 8.30pm.
I’ve been lucky to be part of a team who are not only incredibly knowledgeable and experienced, but also supportive and mental health aware. I’ve been able to be open with them about my autism and the anxiety that stems from it from the start. For now, my manager has allowed me to start no earlier than 8am, so that I have time for spirituality and exercise, which are both essential for my mental health, and to do only one night a week.
They have been patient with me and, although I’ve felt like I’ve been slow, looking back, over just a month and a half I have learnt a huge suite of new skills, from assessing habitats and writing species lists on Preliminary Ecological Assessments, wading up rivers looking for otter spraints and prints, investigating buildings for signs of bats, to mastering the routine admin.
When I’ve been tired and shaken and overwhelmed I have walked with Sister Patience and together we have shaped her sanctuary in Creiddylad’s Garden.
IV. I have been patient.
The garden is coming into bloom.
I have found a job where I belong and feel fulfilled.
On work days I am an ecologist and, in my own time, I am Sister Patience.
I’m hoping the two sister strands of my life will one day intertwine to become one and that this job will provide the financial grounds to shape my sanctuary and, perhaps, one day, build the Monastery of Annwn*.
*Whether this is meant to be a physical or spiritual place I don’t yet know…
there will be no rulers and there will be no rule.
All will uphold the virtues of their choosing.
Neither light nor dark will be banished for they form the night sky and the stars – the womb of Old Mother Universe.
Eating, drinking, fasting, will all be allowed for all states of the cauldron must be embraced – empty and full and there will be no divisions between the ones who drink and the ones who stir as this was the root of the original disaster.
There will be no good and there will be no bad.
We will exist in a world before sin existed.
The before that 365 plants come from and art and who we bring to life with our songs.
There will be room for men and women and all between.
It will be accepted that we all are monsters.
The monstrous will be raised on high with the dragons, spiralling, spiralling down, descending into darkness, sleepily drunk on mead.
We will be visible and invisible.
No-one will see that we wear our habits like invisible cloaks as we got about our daily lives.
No-one will see the Monastery of Annwn because it lies beyond doors and walls and no-one will read the forbidden books in our personal libraries
because they lie unwritten on the dark shelves of our souls.
I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder Level One* on the 28th of September.
The day before Gwyn’s Feast. “Happy Autism Day,” he said, “welcome to my people.”
Still, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I’d hoped that a diagnosis would bring clarity. However, being told that I have a lifelong neuro-developmental disorder or disability cast me into a fog of wondering how much my autism had played a role in my difficulties with social relationships and to hold a stable career in the past and how it was going to affect my future.
I’ve been a trainee with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester Mosslands since April. It’s been a great job, on great sites, with great people. Yet my enjoyment of the practical work of growing, planting, translocating, clearing scrub, building dead hedges, of the remarkable opportunity to restore the last remnants of our mosslands to their boggy glory has been overshadowed, fogged, by my anxiety about what people think of me, whether I’m doing well enough, measuring up, whether I will be able to progress to the next position up in this competitive job industry.
I’ve felt like I’ve been on trial and in some ways I have and in some I have not. I know my colleagues would rather I enjoyed my traineeship than see it that way. Still, I’ve had to meet my short term objectives and training targets. When it comes to progress I will have to meet the next person specification.
Good news is that a meeting with my line manager and project manager recently revealed in just six months, in spite of being autistic, I am nearly there.
Job-wise I’m good. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on how my autism and the anxiety that stems from being an autistic person in a neurotypical world, finding it hard to read people and projecting negative opinions of myself, has skewed my perceptions of others and affected my relationships.
Few of us are psychic, but being autistic leaves me less able to judge what others think and feel unless I am directly told. Living with uncertainty is tough but, I’m learning, is better than living with the false certainty everyone hates me.
One of the upsides of living in the fog is the moments it parts like when a friend and I were lost on Cadair Idris and, after a man and his dog approached, the mists shifted and we found ourselves looking down on Llyn Cau. Being able to see and speak the uncomfortable truths that others avoid or ignore.
At least I know I’m living in the fog and, as a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist,’ can know and embrace it as my patron god and as a friend.
“Welcome to my people,” he says and I see the faces of all the others down the centuries who have been able to swing an axe or a mattock or push a wheelbarrow, to write poetry under the trees, to walk light-footed as a will-o-wisp across a peat-bog but could not endure one day of electric light in the office.
“Welcome to my people,” he says, “to doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and truth.”
In the fog, in the unknowing, I walk along the bunds that will bring the peat-bogs back then disappear into the moss as it swallows its surroundings.
It’s cold here and it’s November, but at least I know I’m living in the fog.
*This is the current term for what was formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome.
for the torn apart all the parts of our bodies will ride tonight, crawl up from the bogs onto our swampy horses,
not the bog bodies who were found, but those who were not found.
You summon back our voices like the mast on Winter Hill.
You make us appear again like television. Your hunt would make a good film but most times myth is better told in softly spoken words and half-seen visions.
Radio broken. Someone smashed the television.
You are always off screen. You are the one who is not named. You are the one whose face is the face of a god.
The howls of the wind are the chorus of your hounds,
your words are furies and each has a hand, clutching, pulling, ripping, tearing.
You are the god of illusion and the rending apart of all illusions.
The one who tears our false truths to shreds.
The jostling elbows, stuck-out toes, the heels dug in.
This is the time of fire, flood, rain, and catastrophe, yet the beech leaves are yellow, gold, and green
in the kingdom beyond the kingdom beyond the kings
and we call you a king without knowing the true meaning
of sovereignty, that your throne means more than gold.
Are you silence or the breaker of silence?
So long ago I wrote:
“The universe began with a howl and from the howl came death.”
The death-hounds within me giving tongue to a mythos that came to me before my world had begun.
AWEN is not always a smooth chant in the mouths of druids, but the broken vowels of an awenydd when language cannot help and poetry fails.
Still, the body, its dislocated limbs, remember how to ride tonight.
And where is she in all of this? Riding ahead treading air un-abducted? Did you take her from the underworld or did she take you there?
Time, the clock does not obey, pivots like she on her wild white mare
like a dislocated limb. I have found that myth dislocates too, frees itself from time and space, free and true.
This poem marks the first time I have felt inspired to share something here for a long time, something I felt compelled to share for my god after a walk near Winter Hill on Nos Galan Gaeaf. Maybe there will be more, maybe not, no promises, no deadlines…
Last August, at Brockholes Nature Reserve, I helped on work parties common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium). Winnowing the tiny dark seeds from the fluffy white heads, placing 1 – 2 into each cell of a 60 cell tray, which we had firmly packed with compost, covering them over, praying they would grow.
We sowed 10,000 plants in total. Some have grown better than others. Later I learnt they were for Little Woolden Moss – a strange synchronicity for it was through contacts at Brockholes that I recently gained a six week contract planting common cottongrass and other peatland plants on this mossland (which was purchased by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust in 2012 after having been badly damaged by peat extraction).
Prior to gaining this work I had discovered my patron god Gwyn ap Nudd’s connection with peat bogs/mosslands* in the medieval Welsh poem ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ ‘The Peat Pit’ by Dafydd ap Gwilym. I promised to make an offering to Gwyn next time I visited one. As we were in lockdown I hadn’t expected to go to a peat bog soon (the only area of lowland raised level bog in South Ribble, Much Hoole Moss, has been drained and, to add insult to injury, commandeered as a paint balling site). On receiving the contract, when I asked what Gwyn wanted, he showed me a common cottongrass plant.
So my planting on Little Woolden Moss had meaning in terms of both conservation and devotion.
I loved my time there in spite of the difficulty and what some might call the monotony of the work – pushing heavy wheelbarrows of plant trays along unstable bunds and repeating the same motion of digging five holes with a spear-spade, planting common cottongrass plugs, moving on, for seven hours.
Although we had many cold starts and some days were grim – with constant rain and up to 50mph winds – most were temperate and we were surrounded by the spring song of skylarks and meadow pipits, curlews, lapwings display flighting, brown hares racing up and down the bunds, and deer tracks (but not deer) were often seen.
When encountering the glacial till, seeing the ancient bog oaks exposed by the excavations (with 8 metres of peat 10,000 years of the archaeological record had been stripped away, unknown stories, our exploitation only slightly redeemed in that the compost had been used to nurture new plants) I experienced profound feelings of sorrow, awe, and privilege in partaking in the restoration process.
I later learnt ‘Little Woolden’ derives from the Viking Vuluedene ‘Wolf’s Valley’. This was significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had previously agreed to write a series of poems for a Ghost Wolf Trail in New Moss Wood, just down the road, for the Carbon Landscape Partnership. Secondly, Gwyn and his father, Nudd/Nodens, are associated with wolves.
Little Woolden Moss is one of the few places that, in the words of storyteller Martin Shaw, I have felt ‘claimed’ by. The only others are my locality of Penwortham and the stretch of the Ribble from the Douglas estuary to Brockholes and those to which I have been a fleeting visitor such as Glastonbury, Cadair Idris, Borth beach, and Coed Felenrhyd (beautiful in their own ways but not truly ‘mine’).
Thus I was disappointed when, after succeeding with an application, and attending an interview, I didn’t gain either of two paid Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeships. I received positive feedback from Lancashire Peatlands Initiative Officer, helpful for other interviews, but assumed I had no future in peatland restoration.
So I returned to my voluntary internship at Brockholes, which I continued to enjoy, 3 – 4 days a week. One of my jobs was watering the common cottongrass, which we planted last year, and is due to go to Little Woolden Moss in mid-June.
On Thursday, after watering the cottongrass, I heard my phone ringing and just missed the call.
“That’s odd,” I said to the Assistant Reserve Officer, with whom I was working, “nobody every rings me.”
When I checked the number I saw it belonged to the Lancashire Peatland Initiative Officer.
“You’d better ring him back,” my colleague said, with a knowing tone in his voice.
So I rang back and, to my surprise, was offered the Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeship on the mosslands, based at Little Woolden Moss, as the previous candidate had chosen another job.
So… of course… I have taken it. The funding for the job will last a year. I will hopefully be starting on Monday 26th April and I have arranged to work my contracted 30 hours a week Monday – Thursday so I can continue with my internship at Brockholes one day a week on a Friday. So it looks like I may be both watering the common cottongrass we planted at Brockholes and planting it on Little Woolden Moss.
In total there are another 45,000 plants to be planted on Little Woolden this year. When Gwyn asked me for an offering of cottongrass I wasn’t expecting it to be in quite such numbers or to be planting it later in the year and, if this traineeship leads to a permanent job in peatland restoration, for many years to come.
One of my tasks as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve over the winter was helping to clear the vegetation from the sandy banks, which are used as nesting sites by mining bees. Brockholes is next to the river Ribble, whose shifts of course since its valley was carved by a glacier during the Ice Age, have laid down sandy deposits (although most of the sand and gravel was quarried over a decade ago some remains).
These sandy banks are the perfect homes for mining bees (Andrena species). It is little known that, in Britain, of over 270 species of bee, there is only one species of honey bee, 24 species of bumblebee and around 250 species of solitary bees. 65 of the latter are mining bees. They make homes for their young in soil, sand, or clay, and can be found on river banks, road and railway embankments, cliff faces, garden lawns, allotments, open woodlands, and moorlands.
During their brief life-span of four to six weeks, in spring and summer, female mining bees gather pollen on their hind legs and take it to where they have excavated their nests. They dig a tunnel to a chamber, add pollen to strengthen the walls, lay an egg, seal it shut, and move on to the next. Once laying is complete they perish. The only function of the males is to mate with the females, after which they die. The larvae over-winter in the chambers and emerge in the spring to restart the cycle.
One of the most common species is the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria). TheLatin term cinerarius means‘of ashes’ and refers to the broad ash grey bands on the thorax of the female who is otherwise black. It flies from April to August and is an important pollinator of fruit trees.
Another is the tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva). The female has bright red hairs on her thorax. It flies from March to June and feeds on a variety of nectar-producing and pollen-bearing plants and trees.
The early mining bee (Andrena haemorhhoa) is named for the blood-red tip on its abdomen and red hairs on its thorax and flies from April to July. One of the defining behaviours of the wool carder bee (Anthidium maculatum) is collecting hairs from plants for its nest. The small sallow mining bee (Andrena praecox) is a sallow specialist. There are many more species of these intriguing bees.
Learning about mining bees and their favoured habitat in sandy banks has led me to contemplate how I have long intuited a connection between Belisama, ‘Shining One’, the goddess of the Ribble, and bees. At first I thought this was because she is connected with light and sunshine and the coming of spring and summer, when bees emerge and take flight, but now I see she has a particular connection with mining bees who build their homes on the Ribble’s banks and sandy banks left by the river.
I. The Roos Carr Figures – Voyagers to the Otherworld?
A few weeks ago, fellow awenydd Greg Hill drew my attention to the Roos Carr Figures HERE. These fascinating wooden warrior figurines, eight in total, their shields, and their serpent-headed boats were sealed in a wooden box and deposited in a boggy area (‘carr’ means ‘bog or fen covered with scrub’).
They were found in a layer of blue clay by labourers cleaning a ditch in 1836. Of the eight, only five remain (the fifth was returned after one of the labourers gave him to his daughter as an ‘ancient doll’ to play with), a couple of the shields and one of conjecturally two boats due to decay.
Radiocarbon dating to 606 – 508 BCE places them in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Carved from yew they stand between 31cm and 45cm tall. Their faces are angular with prominent noses, slit-like mouths, and striking eyes made of quartzite pebbles set into eye-holes. Elongated trunks with drill-holes at the shoulders for arms taper into thin peg-like legs. Each has a central pubic hole.
The figures were found with a number of dis-attached appendages, some of which were arms, some of which were phalluses, to be placed in the empty holes. Typically, the Victorians mistook the phalluses for oars. Since then their manhoods have been returned to their correct positions.
I immediately fell in love with these little figures who might be interpreted to be living or dead warriors sailing their serpent-ship on a voyage to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the ancient British Otherworld. Their representation reminded me of the medieval Welsh poem ‘Preiddu Annwn’ ‘The Spoils of the Otherworld’ in which Arthur takes three loads of warriors in his ship, Prydwen, to assault a series of otherworldly fortresses to steal the Brindled Ox and the Cauldron of Pen Annwn.
It suggested the existence of a pre-Arthurian tale in which warriors set out on a quest to Annwn to visit the dead and the deities of Annwn and perhaps bring back treasures to Thisworld.
II. Wooden Idols of Britain and Ireland – Threshold Guardians?
My research on the Roos Carr Figures led me to discovering that a number of wooden figurines have been found across Britain and Ireland. All were found in wet places which were seen as liminal – where crossings of bogs or waters needed to be made – suggesting they were threshold guardians. Some of these ‘idols’ have been interpreted to be gods and goddesses, others spirits of place, and others ancestors and, of course, the boundaries between these terms are intrinsically fluid.
The Ballachulish Goddess was found on Ballchulish Moss, in Inverness-shire, Scotland. Dated to 600 BC it stands at a height of 145cm, the size of a girl, and is the largest of our British figures. Carved from alder wood it has a large head with a long, thin nose, a full mouth, and small white quartzite eyes. Its chest is flat with two pairs of incised circles representing breasts and nipples. The objects it is holding have not yet been securely identified (a couple of scholars have suggested they are severed penises!). Its legs end in a solid block of wood.
It was discovered during building work, in 1880, in deep layers of peat ‘lying face down on the gravel of an old raised beach, around 120 metres from the shore of Loch Leven’ and may have stood beside a pool. ‘Under and above’ were ‘intertwined branches and twigs and ‘straighter poles which might have formed a ‘wickerwork container, or a little shrine’.
Its location, overlooking ‘the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven with the sea’ are suggestive of its worship as ‘the goddess of the straits’ to whom travellers made offerings for a safe crossing.
Another intriguing example is the Somerset God Dolly which is the oldest of Britain’s known wooden idols, dating to between 2285 and 3340 BCE. This hermaphroditic figure was carved from ash wood, was 16cm high, and had a ‘round featureless head, no neck, and a small stubby body with two asymmetrically placed breasts and a large horizontal penis’ ending ‘at the base of the trunk without legs.’
It was found on the Somerset Levels, ‘driven upside down’ ‘within a cluster of pegs’ ‘that formed part of Bell Track A’ and ‘stratigraphically below the Bell B Track’. This suggests it might have been a threshold guardian of the earlier trackway, then made redundant, and buried beneath.
Nearby, in Hillfarrance, an oak forked-branch figure dated to 1131-1410 BCE was retrieved from a pit in a ‘riverine peat wetland’ ‘beside two brooks, both tributaries of the river Tone.’ Only the lower limbs and torso, 45cm long, have survived. It was buried with shards of pottery, a burnt stone and worked wood. Again, this was a deliberate deposition, perhaps of a former guardian.
The Kingsteignton Idol was discovered on the banks of the river Teign, in south Devon, ‘lying up against the trunk of a fallen oak tree’. Carved from oak wood, 33cm tall, it has a ‘long thin body’, ‘elongated neck’, and ‘large head’ with ‘eyes, nose and chin’ ‘indicated’. There is a hole in his neck for insertable arms. Its ‘trunk is straight, square-shouldered, with carefully carved buttocks and erect penis’ and its ‘short, kneed legs end in stubby feet.’ It has been dated to 426-352 BC. It was likely associated with the oak tree, a threshold marker, and may have been its guardian spirit.
On the Dagenham marshes, on the bank of the Thames, down river from London, the Dagenham Idol was found in close proximity to the skeleton of a deer. It has been dated to 2250 BC. Carved from the wood of a Scots pine it stands at 46cm tall and has a large head, flat face, sockets for eyes (‘the right deeper than the left’), and no ears or hair. Its trunk is armless. It has a central pubic hole, potentially for the insertion of a penis and its legs are straight and footless. It might have been a guardian of the marshland and/or river and possibly had an association with deer and other animals.
In Ireland the Ralaghan Figure was found in a peat bog and the Lagore Figure on a crannog in a peat lake. A model dug-out canoe was discovered at Clowanstown 1, County Meath, and might be seen to resemble the serpent boat of the Roos Carr Figures, paddling the lake, and between worlds.
The existence of these idols provides evidence that, from the early Bronze Age into the Iron Age, the people of Britain and Ireland saw wet places as sacred and inspirited as well as potentially dangerous. The gods and spirits appeared to them in anthropomorphic forms and were carved into wooden idols, which were seen to embody them, and to which offerings were likely made for safe passage.
For unknown reasons some of these idols were deposed and buried in or near the place where they stood. Had they reached the end of their power and thus served their purpose? Had they requested to be returned to the waters of their origin? Were they seen as just as or more powerful when buried like the dead? The answers to these questions are as unknowable as the minds of our distant ancestors
III. Wooden Idols and Ritual Landscapes in Northern Europe
Numerous wooden idols serving a similar function have been recovered from across Northern Europe. The best example of a ritual complex is Opfermoor Vogtei in Germany. Situated on a bog, which includes a shallow lake, it was in use from the 5th century to beyond the Roman period.
Within circular enclosures of hazel branches were altars where wooden cult figures were worshipped. Wooden idols were also found on the edges of the lake where they overlooked the waters.
During excavations on Wittemoor timber trackway across a bog in Berne, Lower Saxony, in Germany, six wooden figurines dating to the Iron Age were found. Two of them stood on either side of the track where it crossed a stream. Both were ‘carved in silhouette out of oak planks 3 to 7cm thick’. The male was 105cm tall ‘with a rectangular body’ and the female 95cm tall ‘with breasts or shoulders indicated by a slanted cut, broad hips and vulva’. The male slotted into a plank and the female stood on a mound. The other figures are described as ‘cult poles’. Fire sites ‘at each end of the crossing’ and ‘stones and worked alder sticks’ around two of the poles suggest offerings were made.
These discoveries show that wooden idols served a significant function within ritual landscapes for the Germanic peoples. As representations of gods and goddesses and spirits of place with threshold functions they were raised on altars, fires were built in their honour, and offerings were made to them.
Similar idols, such as the Braak Bog Figures, have been found elsewhere in Germany. From Denmark we have the Broddenjberg Idol and figurines were found in Wilemstad in the Netherlands.
One of the most impressive, from Russia, is the Shigir Idol. Dated to 10500 BCE, the Mesolithic period, around the end of the Ice Age, it is ‘the oldest known wooden sculpture in the world.’
Found in a peat bog in Shigir it is carved from larch and may have originally stood at at 5.3m tall. It has a small head with narrow eyes, a triangular nose, circular mouth, and pointed chin. Its body is flat and pole-like and covered in ‘geometrical motifs’ including ‘zigzag lines’ and ‘depictions of human hands and faces’. It speaks to me of a death god filled with the spirits of the dead.
It has been proposed that the decorations tell the story of a creation myth or ‘serve as a warning not to enter a dangerous area’. Whatever the case, it would have been a formidable figure at the centre of a ritual landscape, seen for miles around, imbued with great meaning for the early hunter-gatherers.
What strikes me the most about these wooden idols is that they seem hauntingly familiar. I’m not sure if this because, as a Smithers, I have Saxon ancestry and connections to the figures from Germany or because, when I’ve been travelling wetlands, physically and in spirit, I have caught glimpses of dark figures who might be wetland spirits or echoes of their representations.
What is certain is that the presence of spirits and the urge to carve them from wood has been felt across Northern Europe since, at least, the Ice Age. In the Norse myths, the first humans were created from ash and elm by the gods and, in the Brythonic myths, soldiers were conjured from trees by a deity. I wonder whether our creation of wooden idols was seen to mirror this divine process?
Bryony Coles, ‘Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures From Britain and Ireland’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 56, 1990
Clive Jonathon Bond, ‘The God-Dolly Wooden Figurine from the Somerset Levels, Britain: The Context, the Place and its Meaning’, Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America, Oxford: Archaeopress/BAR International Series 2138
Jeremy Clark, ‘The Intriguing Roos Carr Model Wooden Boat Figures Found Near Withersea, East Yorkshire’, The Yorkshire Journal, Issue 1, Spring 2011
The pit of despair is a familiar metaphor. For me it’s a peat pit. Not the pwll mawn,the fishpond-sized peat cutting that Dafydd ap Gwilym fell into whilst riding his grey-black horse across the misty moors of Wales many centuries ago, but the empty expanses of the Lancashire peatlands made into gigantic peat pits by commercial peat extraction.
Drained, the vegetation (sphagnum moss, cross-leaved heath, bog rosemary, bog asphodel, sundew, cottongrasses) of the living acrotelm stripped away, rotovated, left to dry, bulldozed, bagged up for horticultural use or taken to power stations. The catotelm left bare, barren, leaking its carbonic ghosts into the atmosphere.
I’ve fallen into it metaphorically many times over the past year. When the first lockdown struck and all my conservation volunteering was cancelled and my internship postponed, when my mum had a fall and broke her hip, when the third lockdown put an end to all my volunteering but my internship.
Now I’m there for real. On Little Woolden Moss, part of Chat Moss (which was once 10 square miles), near Manchester, which has been severely damaged by peat extraction. Since the Lancashire Wildlife Trust took it over in 2012 the east side is steadily being restored, but much of the west is bare.
This week my task, as part of the contracts team, has been planting the barren section with common cottongrass and hare’s tail cottongrass. I’ve been acutely aware of the wrongness of the exposure of the catotelm, the under-layer of peat, the underworld bare for all to see, its spirits disturbed, released.
Yet it has been rewarding to have the opportunity to make amends, hole by hole, plug plant by plug plant. Slowly but steadily recovering and restoring the broken body of the Mother of the Moss. Giving back her tresses by which, like by the hair of Rapunzel, I may too pull myself out of the peat pit.
It seems to be no coincidence, before I got this temporary contract work, I found out ‘the fish-pond of Gwyn ap Nudd’ was y pwll mawn ‘the peat pit’ and Gwyn, my patron god, was associated with peat bogs. I promised to make him an offering next time I visited him a bog.
Two weeks later I was offered this job. When I asked Gwyn what he wanted, he showed me a cottongrass plant and told me my planting would be the offering – restoring the body of his mother, Anrhuna, who I believe to be a long-forgotten Brythonic wetland goddess.
I’ve long been in a pit of despair because I have unable to find paid work by which I can serve my gods. Now I’ve got it, temporarily at least, and have applied for two other watery jobs – traineeships on the Kingfisher Trail (on Bradshaw Brook) and on the Great Manchester Wetlands.
I’m currently in an in-between place with three weeks done and two weeks left on Little Woolden Moss. Not knowing if I’ll get an interview and where my life might be heading next. A little like the mossland, teetering between death and recovery, this fragmented part of Anrhuna’s body slowly being brought to life.
Gwyn has stolen me to the underworld countless times. He has put into my hands the healing plants. He has sent me back to repair the damage of its exploitation with work and words.
I pray to you my gods, Gwyn and Family, to grant me the means to continue with this work.
‘After My Vows (Love Songs from a New Godspouse)’ is the second album from Thornsilver Hollysong. Thorn is a fellow awenydd and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd who I met through the Awen ac Awenydd Facebook group in September 2019. He hosts Gwyn Day Thursdays on Land Sea Sky Travel and we have since worked together on conferences and workshops for Gwyn and his ‘family’.
It has been spiritually affirming to form a friendship with someone else who shares my devotion to Gwyn. Whilst my relationship with Gwyn is primarily devotee to god, Thorn is also a godspouse, thus Gwyn’s lover and husband. Godspousery is an ancient tradition which has probably been around since humans met gods and entered liaisons and marriages with them. Its best-known form is Christian nuns becoming Brides of Christ and it is particularly deeply embedded in the Brythonic tradition, which contains numerous stories of the Fairy King and his people taking humans as lovers. It has been illuminating listening to this album and hearing of experiences familiar and unfamiliar.
‘After My Vows’ was composed by Thorn with his own piano-playing and vocals. There is a rawness and immediacy to this music, a heartfelt passion, an outpouring of devotion. Whereas some songs are waltz-like, others are operatic, some put me in mind of a monk’s voice from a polytheistic cloister.
If there is one line from the album that summarises it for me it is: ‘Come to the ballroom of waltzing shadows’. This is from ‘Won’t You Dance’, a song that, although the tunes differ, put me in mind of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. Here Thorn relates meeting Gwyn as ‘Black shade, silver mist / In a raven’s mask’ ‘At the Faery Ball / Sparkling shadows darkling as the moonbeams fall.’ It took me back to my own clubbing days, dancing alone, melting into the oneness of Faery. It gives voice to the timeless truth that gods are not only met at the altar or out in nature, but on the dance floor. In other songs this moonlit ballroom becomes Gwyn’s Hall in ‘the Castle of ice and bone’ where Thorn sings before his Fairy King like Gweir in his heavy blue-grey chain.
In ‘Greensleeves (He’s My Heart of Gold)’ Thorn takes the tune and rewrites the lyrics from the traditional English Folk Ballad, replacing Lady Greensleeves with Gwyn in an incredibly catchy chorus that I’ve been singing along to since I heard it. The following lines felt deeply familiar:
He rode with grace and I knew his face Though I had no reason to know him– The songs I sing have crowned him King With a pathway of stars strewn below him.
Another song which stirred this sense of familiarity was ‘Reunion’:
Was I a monk or mystic? Did I meet You? Was I a cunning man or woman? Did I know You? Was I a heretic or witch who dared to greet You? And for me, to put the holy Church below You?
It put me in mind of my own feeling, upon meeting Gwyn, that I’d known him in other lives, since the beginning of time. This is also conveyed in Thorn’s songs and his vows to love him ‘forever’.
‘Light of the Mist’, with its softly song couplet ‘Light of the Mist / Ghost of the Void’, sent shivers down my spine. Here ‘ghosts stars’ burn in ‘Inspired art’ and we find untold stories only hinted at such as the tale of ‘the Star who gave his Wings’ and how ‘He kissed the dead/ To bring me back’.
In other songs, like ‘As I Made My Vows (It Felt Like a Wedding)’ and ‘Just a Life with You’ I found lines that, as someone without a romantic or sexual relationship with Gwyn (or a human partner), it was harder to relate to. However, I appreciated their craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty.
And You take my hand Saying “Come, lie down Where the fruit trees stand Each with blossoming crown– In the winter sun Under apples sweet With our hair undone And our joy complete.”
The album is filled with instances anyone who has sat with Gwyn in a woodland or the forests of Annwn would ‘get’: ‘You’re taller than a man could be– / Your antlers, like an ancient tree / Branch out and cover up the distant cross.’ ‘I dream of stars in a forest sky / I dream we watch them, You and I.’
I would recommend ‘After My Vows’ to polytheists who have devotional relationships with Gwyn or other gods, to those who are called to godspousery and to those who are not, and to all who appreciate beautiful music.
‘After My Vows’ is available on Bandcamp for $3 HERE.