It’s Nos Calan Mai. In our old British myths, this is the night on which, centuries ago, a red dragon’s fiery scream blighted the land of Britain. On the next day, Calan Mai, the eternal rivals, Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ and Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ battle for their beloved, the flower maiden Creiddylad. (If either the Summer King or the Winter King take her forever the world will end.)
Five days ago, on Monday, I started my traineeship on the Greater Manchester Wetlands. I was not, thankfully, thrown into either of the fires that had happened on the mosslands in the area that week, but I attended their aftermath.
On Little Woolden Moss I visited the area of wet heath where the characteristic heathers had been burnt along with purple moor grass and brash. This was essential habitat for common lizards, field voles, and field mice, and a crossing place for bog bush crickets.
Gas pipes run beneath and, if the fire had penetrated the peat, it could have resulted in a blaze like a dragon’s breath, like Gwythyr’s flaming sword, which could have taken out the gas supply to much of the surrounding area.
Luckily, the pipes had been protected by scrapes, which had filled with water and been cultivated by sphagnum mosses, providing resistance to the flames.
The fire on Little Woolden Moss was 500 metres square whereas the fire on Red Moss had devastated over a dozen hectares – as far as the eye could see. Whilst the damage to the bog itself, burning off only purple moor grass and leaving the sphagnum mosses intact, was superficial, it was damaging for wildlife.
Small mammals, such as bank vole, water vole, and shrews; amphibians such as toads, frogs, and smooth newts; ground nesting birds such as lapwings and skylark would have lost their lives and, if not, their homes. On my visit I saw a broken nest and lapwings still display flighting over the burnt moss.
The plastic piling dams and drainage pipes were also damaged by the heat.
This, I am sorry to tell you, was not the work of gods or dragons, but humans who had purposefully lit the fires because it was their sick idea of fun.
Still, the symbology stands, the connections between Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, who put a stop to the dragon’s scream, and his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, the lord of the once misty peat bogs whose sphagnum mosses dull his rival’s fiery feet.
On Monday my line manager suggested I take the restoration of the fire damaged wet heath on Little Woolden Moss as one my personal projects. I had never suspected my work on the mosslands would be so directly connected with Gwyn’s battle against Gwythyr.
This is not a warrior’s, or a poet’s, but a healer’s role – something I never imagined I would step into. Once I believed everything I touched died, but sowing seeds and planting flowers with Creiddylad has already proved that is not the case.
She keeps telling me everything comes back to plants – no sphagnum, no mossland; no heather, no heathland; no food for the bees or the butterflies. She is life and, because of our greed, every day, every night is a battle for her. The plants will be my allies against the anthropogenic forces creating an eternal summer.
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.
Nobody knows where the Lost Temple of Nodens on the Lancashire coast once stood.
All we know is that two silver Romano-British statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found on Cockerham Moss (in the 19th century?) and have since been stolen.
I believe it is likely they came from a shrine. My meditations reveal nothing more than the shuffling of robes against chapped skin, quick stitches undone rubbing bare legs, splashing feet. I do not know if they were dropped or deposited, whether by thieves or priests.
I long to know what the statues looked like, who shaped the Cloud Shaper from the clouds and gave him a form and name, who caught the Catcher with his catching hand, so fittingly made of silver
I long to know who brought them back from the Isles of Dream, from the Land of Nod, where our mythos is always forming, ever forming, from the combining of elements into molecules, where air meets water, from the oceans whence emerged the first life where he embraced his consort.
I long to know if he truly deemed it wise to teach the secrets of the atom to his son…
Long I have pondered the existence of his temple, never really got there, seen only the yawn of a priest called Slumber in a huge mouth-like hood and the departures of countless peregrini.
Yet my focus has been on the past. He and the cloud-shapers still shape the clouds as their temple.
Last week a group of polytheists came together to connect with Nodens in the misty interstices of the internet where we might sense him working with Gobannos in the co-creation of other worlds.
When we journeyed to the Lost Temple of Nodens we did not find an ancient temple, but a temple in progress, shaped from clouds, ‘like a cartoon in the making’*, becoming in the here-and-now.
I do not know how or if this temple will be built as its mysteries escape me like the phenomenon of a god made of mist becoming flesh and, on the battlefield, losing his hand, having it replaced by silver.
I do not know how I was touched by that hand, reaching out across the seas, from the Abyss.
I do not know how something comes from nothing, the distinction between dé and andé, god and un-god.
Temples are swept away by the sea, what is dissolved is lost, knowing the past is impossible.
The impossibility of truth shines like a star that died millions of years ago yet is seen by us so far away.
Perhaps in loss we recall ourselves through the light years – ours the silver hands to shape the now – the subtle vibrations of molecules that respond to form our temples in the old gods’ names.
This piece is based on a meditation on the lost temple of Nodens which I ran with Thornsilver Hollysong and Bryan Hewitt for Land Sea Sky Travel on the Nodens/Nudd day of our ‘Tylwyth Gwyn’ series.
*The quote ‘like a cartoon in the making’ was how one of the participants, Emily Kamp, described the temple. She has kindly given me permission to use her words.
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…