Drops of Hope

by the river.

A mother’s first milk.

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.

No Celebration

I.
There is no celebration tonight
but the celebration
of being here –

friends and family
although some are distant.

There are no gatherings
at circles of stone.

No matter –
the solstice sun
has not shown up either.

II.
The clouds are grey
as the smoke pouring from Whitfires
where two old friends choose
to walk the fishery

of old bridge
and goosander

and the moss
that is now farmland
and isn’t quite houses yet.

We raise the oddest of toasts
just out of smell of the recycling centre
on the edge of a muddy track.

III.
And where are you my god?

My King of Winter
in the not-quite drizzling rain?

Are you on the empty train
that I fail to photograph

because it would be
unseemly to pull you from
the invisible realm?

IV.
Where are you going
Gatherer of Souls

on the train track
from Ormskirk to Preston?

My thoughts are ominous
as the virus that culls
all thoughts

of celebration.

V.
I remember
my childhood fears
of being the train
bricked up.

How I fled
from the Mile tunnel
where your ghost-lights dance
and where you a man
somehow bore
a son.

VI.
You speak to me
without tracks

united without
the worldwide web say:

“We must celebrate
for the living and the dead.”

Thus I raise this poem
to thee.

I light a candle

for Epona

to light the way
through the darkness.

I walk through the darkness too

with all the mothers
who have lost their sons

with all the sisters
who have lost their brothers.

We flit like bats against the walls.

We are searching
for our oldest animals

to lead us through the darkness

to the prison of the child
now a young man.

On the solstice
when the sun stands still
by candlelight

we will bring him back.

Today, December the 18th, is the festival of Epona, the Great Mare. Over the past few years the story of the search of the Mare Goddess for her lost son has been revealed to me as a relief of Epona riding through the Otherworld with engravings of animals, Rhiannon’s loss of Pryderi, and Modron’s loss of Mabon have sealed into one.

It’s my personal belief the episode in Culhwch ac Olwen featuring the search of Arthur and his men for Mabon with the help of the Oldest Animals and his rescue from the House of Stone replaced an earlier version in which the Great Mare (Epona) / Great Queen (Rigantona) / Great Mother (Matrona) searched for her son and rescued him from Annwn, where he was taken by his father, Annwn’s King. A similar story is told in the modern film, Labyrinth, where Sarah rescues her brother from the Goblin King.

It has taken on a personal meaning for me this year because, at the beginning of the month, my brother was admitted to hospital for brain surgery. It went well and he came back home to stay with me and my parents to recover, but was readmitted due to complications. We are hoping he will be returning from the hospital, a liminal place like the House of Stone that was Mabon’s Annuvian prison, between sickness and health, life and death, some time after his reassessment on the winter solstice.

Nos Galan Gaeaf and the Beast with the Fiery Halo

It’s Nos Galan Gaeaf. The night before the first day of winter. An ysbrydnos – ‘a spirit night’. Unlike its counterbalance, Nos Galan Mai, when monsters are slain and dragons calmed this is a night when the ysbrydion Annwn ‘spirits of the Otherworld’ walk abroad at the height of their power.

There is a monster amongst us, COVID-19, the Beast with the Fiery Halo. To represent it as such is in keeping with the traditions of many generations of ancestors who perceived diseases to be caused by malevolent beings, before science and technology revealed they are caused by micro-organisms. From an animistic standpoint, wherein all things are alive and have personhood, these views are not incompatible.

In ‘Hanes Taliesin’ the illustrious bard predicted the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd at the hands of ‘A most strange creature… His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold.’ Maelgwn died after seeing Y Vat Velen, ‘The Yellow Plague’, through the keyhole in the church of Llan Rhos where he was ‘self isolating’.

Malaria, once known as the ague, took the form of a hag. Yr Hen Wrach, ‘The Old Hag’, was a seven foot woman who haunted Cors Fochno, Borth Bog. Her nocturnal visitations caused people to wake with the shakes. Samuel Taylor Coleridge later spoke of ‘the ghastly Dam, / Fev’rish yet freezing, eager paced yet slow, / As she that creeps from forth her swampy reeds, / Ague, the biform Hag!’

Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night when the veil of mist that separates the worlds is thin and the living may commune with the dead and the spirits of Annwn, some of whom we can name, and some whom are beyond categorisation. It is a time for telling stories in which otherworldly beings appear to haunt us and in which journeys to the Otherworld made. There is usually a dispelling or a safe return.

If we had a story about the Beast with the Fiery Halo it might go something like this. Many years ago our ancestors tried to build a world that was very much like the Otherworld, in which there was no want of food, or drink, or light, or heat, where no-one was cold, where no-one went hungry.

And that world was built at a great cost. The land was despoiled by mining and building. The air was polluted by fumes, which caused the temperature to rise. This led to the perishing of millions of trees, plants, animals, fish, and insects and to most of our ancestors living in servitude to the rulers who took power over the resources and machines that made this life possible. To depart from the system and the virtual world created by its technologies meant loneliness and ignominy, and at worst, death.

Most people accepted the cost, whether or not they were happy working at the machines, and turned a blind eye to the despoiling of the natural world because it was the only way to feed their families. Some did not. Some fought for change by protesting on the streets and others created nature reserves and planted trees and wildflowers and started growing their own food as an alternative.

Some prayed, to God, to the old gods, to Mother Earth, to Old Mother Universe, for something that would bring this system to an end. As if in answer to this prayer (and monsters are wily) appeared a beast the size of a sky scraper with limbs of countless animals, bent and twisted, as if trapped in a cage. Its lungs heaved phlegmatically in its scarred and hairy chest. Its many eyes were red and its mouths were gaping holes. Around its head was a blazing halo that burnt without burning the beast.

Like so many of the monsters in our myths it did not have a voice. It did not strike a bargain. It just came silently in the depths of winter and started taking the lives of our oldest most vulnerable people.

Protecting them came at a great cost: maintaining a distance from our friends and family, working less, travelling less, shopping less, to the benefit of the natural world and the detriment of our freedom. Our dependency on the rulers for financial support and the machines connecting us grew.

It felt like the unspoken bargain was this: ‘The lives of your old ones or your lives as you know them.’

Towards the end of summer we saw light shining through our prison bars. Although we all knew we had not defeated the monster we thought our sacrifices had kept it at bay. We dared to hope things might return to ‘normal’ but, as our liberties were restored, the monster took advantage. As winter approached, we saw the light was not sunlight, but the beast’s fiery halo, its triumphal crown.

The death toll is rising again. We are not at the end of the story but in media res, at the ‘crisis’, a Middle English term ‘denoting the turning point of a disease’ which is derived from medical Latin and dates back to the Greek krisis ‘decision’ and krinein ‘decide’. It’s decision time.

It’s as if we’re in a ‘choose your own ending’ book but the endings haven’t yet been written. We can only imagine them, happy or sad, tragic or comedic, apocalyptic or redeeming, guess there may be a twist.

Tonight the light of the blue moon is eclipsed by the beast’s fiery halo burning brighter than bright.

Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night on which, as a Brythonic polytheist devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd, I pray to him as the god who holds back the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent their destruction of the world and takes the souls of the lost and the angry dead to the Otherworld.

Countless times I have wondered why he has not held the beast back. Is it because he cannot or he will not? Is it because we are destroying the world? Because we too are monstrous?

We might consider that ‘monster’ originates from the Latin monstrum ‘to reveal’ or ‘to foretell’. Nos Galan Gaeaf, when Gwyn may be implored to part the mists of time, is a time for divination, for monstrous truths to be revealed and upon them our decisions based.

~

Gwyn ap Nudd

Starry Hunter in the Darkness
guide us through these nights of fear.

Midnight Rider on the Storm of Madness
teach us to ride these nights of tears.

Wise Warrior who guards the Cauldron
by the light of the blue moon

lead the living to deeper wisdom
and the dead back to Annwn.

Gwyn’s Feast 2020

Since 2013 I have been holding a feast day for my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, on the 29th of September. Drawing on his mythos as the King of Annwn presiding over an otherworldly mead-feast and leadership of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, the focus is a meal of pork and apple served with mead with a plate and glass offered to Gwyn.

This is followed by readings of poetry, from the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ translated by Greg Hill, to that of modern Gwyn devotees such as Robin Herne and Lee Davies. I have always seen this as a way of bringing folk devoted to Gwyn together in spirit and affirming his presence in the world following years of oppression and demonisation by Christianity.

Over the past few years Gwyn’s Feast has grown slowly with an increasing number of Brythonic polytheists and awenyddion honouring Gwyn on this occasion. This year there has been an exciting new development. Fellow awenydd and Gwyn dedicant Thornsilver is going to be hosting the first virtual Gwyn’s Feast in Land Sea Sky Travel’s Corvids and Cauldrons chat room. This is going to include devotions, discussions, and the sharing of poetry and personal stories and will take place from 10 AM PST / 1 PM EST / 6 PM London to 3 PM PST / 4 PM EST / 11 PM London. There is more information HERE. I’m hoping to attend and am happy and excited to see Gwyn’s Feast day drawing an increasing number of people together to honour him each year.

You can find out more about the background in terms of archaeological and literary evidence for Gwyn’s Feast and why it takes place on Michaelmas Day HERE.

This is a photograph of the bottom part of my current Gwyn altar. To the left and right are altars to Gwyn’s mother and father, Anrhuna, and Nodens/Nudd.

Will You Leave?

Will the seasons continue to turn?

Will your battle still commence?

In these days of plague when
we need you so much

will you depart
to the land of the dead
to sleep in your cold castle
in Annwn?

~

The seasons must turn.

My battle must commence
and my death-blow must be struck.

Yet when I die you will see my ghost
and when I sleep I will sleepwalk.

Many will see the wolf of my soul.

Through these days of plague
I will guide the dead.

This poem is addressed to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, on Calan Mai. Today Gwyn (Winter’s King) battles against Gwythyr (Summer’s King) for Creiddylad, a goddess of spring and flowers, and is destined to lose and return to sleep in the Castle of Cold Stone, in Annwn.

Prayer for Patience

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

Cardigan folktale

I do not know
if you are Arawn but

long is your waiting.

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

with its
painful dichotomy
of pandemic and sunlight.

I know you are there
waiting patiently.

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

watching
the flowers grow
your beloved
departing.

I pray
for the patience
of a flower

that we shall grow
and flourish
another
year

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

Gwyn’s Feast

Gwyn ap Nudd is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn. As the Brythonic leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ he gathers the souls of the deceased back to his realm to be united in an otherworldly feast. This repast of the dead can, at certain times of the year, be participated in by the living.

Unfortunately this is a tradition that Christians went to great lengths to bring to an end. This article will introduce the evidence for Gwyn’s Feast, how it was abolished, and how it can be reclaimed by modern polytheists.

*

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, as Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Underworld’, Gwyn presides over a feast in Caer Vedwit, ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’. At its centre is the cauldron of Pen Annwn, with its ‘dark trim, and pearls’, which ‘does not boil a coward’s food’: a vessel symbolic of rebirth.

Cauldron

Arthur raids seven Annuvian fortresses, confronting six thousand speechless dead men, inflicting violence on ‘the honoured and fair’ and stealing the Brindled Ox, kidnapping a bard called Gweir, and stealing the cauldron of Pen Annwn before slamming ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut.

I believe Arthur’s raid on Annwn replaced an earlier tradition of the soul’s return to the underworld and journey through seven fortresses (which are faces of the same fort) to Gwyn’s Feast and the Cauldron of Rebirth. Arthur’s defeat of Gwyn and his people and theft of his cauldron represent the triumph of Christianity over the pagan mysteries of death and rebirth.

This story is paralleled in Culhwch and Olwen, where Arthur raids Gwyn’s fortress to rescue Gwyn’s rival, Gwythyr, and his army (who include Graid who might be equated with Gweir), and steals a number of otherworldly treasures including the Brindled Ox and a magical cauldron.

Arthur also usurps Gwyn’s hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, ‘a king and for his sins God changed him into a swine’. This thinly disguises that Arthur takes leadership of Gwyn’s hunt for a human soul in boar-form – ‘the Wild Hunt’ – reducing it to just a boar hunt and again obscuring pagan traditions.

*

Glastonbury Tor Calan Mai 2013

Gwyn is intimately associated with Glastonbury Tor. Excavations have revealed the existence of a building with several hearths dating to the 5th – 7th century. Two north-south aligned graves (not Christian) nearby along with an empty stone cairn and helmeted bronze head with ‘a narrow face’ and ‘slit mouth’ in the ‘long’ Celtic style suggest it may have been a pagan temple.

Bones of cattle, sheep, and pigs, from joints of meat, and Mediterranean amphorae (large jugs for holding wine) suggest feasting took place at this temple on the Tor; a liminal place where Thisworld and Annwn and the living and the dead meet in revels presided over by Gwyn.

Several pernicious accounts in saints’ lives record Christian attempts to abolish this tradition. In The Charter of St Patrick, Patrick and his brother Wellias climb the Tor and find ‘an ancient oratory’. There they fast for three months ‘dominating the devils and wild beasts’ and are rewarded with a vision of Jesus telling them to claim the place in his name and invoke St Michael.

In The Life of St Collen, Collen, Abbot of Glastonbury, derides Gwyn and his host as ‘devils’. When Gwyn invites him to the summit of the Tor to feast in ‘the fairest castle he had ever beheld’, Collen refuses to ‘eat the leaves of trees’, says the red of Gwyn’s people’s clothing signifies ‘burning’ and the blue ‘coldness’, then supposedly banishes them with holy water.

Gwyn appears as Melwas (1) in The Life of Gildas, where he violates Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar, and carries her off to the Tor, which is well fortified by ‘thickets of reed, river, and marsh’. Gildas sides with Arthur and wins Gwenhwyfar back. The tradition of ‘Arthur’s Hunting Path’ from Cadbury to Glastonbury and his burial further illustrate his replacement of Gwyn.

*

The tradition of invoking St Michael on Glastonbury Tor continued. In the 11th century a wooden church dedicated to him was built on the summit. In 1243 Henry III granted permission for an annual fair to be held there for six days around the Feast of St Michael, September 29th.

It is likely St Michael’s Feast replaced a feast day for Gwyn. The 29th of September was the final day of bringing in the harvest. In Cornwall, September is known as Gwynngala, ‘White or Blessed Fields’, a name which contains suggestions that Gwyn, a death-god, is associated with reaping and celebrations for him were held when the fields were cleared at the month’s end.

This date has also become attached to St Michael’s defeat of Satan in a war of Heaven and banishment of him to Hell. It seems this Biblical story was recalled to reinforce St Michael’s defeat of Gwyn on his feast day. According to a folkloric tale the Devil first fell to earth and landed in a blackberry bush and spat or urinated on the blackberries, explaining why they go rotten.

Gwyn was identified with ‘that ancient serpent called the Devil’. This is not surprising as Gwyn’s father, Nodens/Nudd/Lludd is associated with two dragons and Gwyn’s dog, Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’, has two serpent’s tails. It may be suggested Gwyn took serpent-form (2).

On the tower of the 14th century stone church on Glastonbury Tor (the wooden one was unsurprisingly destroyed in an earthquake in 1275!) is an image of St Michael with a set of scales weighted toward him, rather than his opponent, the Devil-as-serpent. St Michael’s taking souls to heaven and weighing them forms an antithesis to Gwyn gathering souls to Annwn where all are united at his feast without moral judgement.

St Michael, Scales, Dragon, Glatonbury Tor 2013

*

I’ve been celebrating Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September since 2013 as a way of reaffirming his presence in the place of Arthur and St Michael, who has taken over many other sites sacred to Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn/the fairies, including some in Lancashire (3).

When I asked Gwyn if I could celebrate a feast for him on this date, he agreed. Since then I’ve been joined annually by a friend, and Dun Brython members such as Greg Hill and Lee Davies have held their own celebrations. This year I know of several other devotees of Gwyn, who I’m in contact with online, who will be celebrating Gwyn’s Feast.

A meal I have developed and found Gwyn is happy with (4) is pork with apple sauce, a glass of mead, and offerings of meat for his hounds and apples for his horses. I open the feast by calling to Gwyn and his spirits and acknowledging the connection with all who have feasted with him in the past and those who are feasting with him on September the 29th today. Then we eat.

After the meal I read prayers, poems, and stories, which have been written for Gwyn or remind me of him by myself and others. This is followed by some form of communion with Gwyn such as divination, journeywork, or quiet contemplation. Rather than saying farewell I end by welcoming Gwyn and his spirits back into the landscape as we enter the dark half of the year.

This year I will be holding a feast for Gwyn then afterwards the readings will take place at the launch of Gatherer of Souls at the Black Horse in Preston. The publication of this book, which is dedicated to Gwyn and recovers his mythos, is the culmination of six years of devotion.

*

(1) The identification of Gwyn and Melwas is also backed up by Welsh tradition. In ‘The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar’ Melwas introduces himself: ‘Black is my steed and brave beneath me / No water will make him fear / And no man will make him swerve.’ This is clearly Gwyn’s mount, the legendary water-horse Du y Moroedd, ‘the Black of the Seas’. Other lines suggesting Melwas is Gwyn, referring to his otherworld nature, include, ‘It is I that will ride and will stand, / And walk heavily on the brink of the ebb’, and ‘I would hold against a hundred of myself’.

(2) Robert Graves refers to Gwyn as ‘the Serpent Son’ in The White Goddess. This name is of his own coining based on personal inspiration and does not have any historical basis, yet is fitting.

(3) John Rhys notes Michael ‘was regarded as par excellence the defender of Christians against the sprites and demons with which the Celtic imagination peopled the shades of night, the gloom of the forest, and even the straggling mist on the tops of hills. Perhaps it would not be rash to suppose that most of the old foundations associated with his name occupy sites of sinister reputation, inherited from the time when paganism prevailed in the land, sites which were considered to be dangerous and to form the haunts of evil spirits.’ Here in Lancashire there is a church dedicated to St Michael in Whitewell, which is named for its white well, which many be connected with Gwyn. It is close to Fairy Holes and Fair Oak. In Beetham St Michael’s is the destination of a coffin path/fairy path which is famous for its Fairy Steps.

(4) One small word of advice on something he was very unhappy with… avoid eggs at all cost. In 2014 we decided to add boiled eggs to the arranged meal of ham without asking him. Three times we boiled them for the right amount of time and they were completely uncooked!

An earlier version of this article was published on the Dun Brython blog HERE.

SOURCES

Alex Langstone, ‘The Berwyn Mountains of Poetic Adventure’, Mirror of Isis
Anon, ‘The Charter of St Patrick’, Britannia History
Anon, ‘The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhywfar’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
Ben Johnson, ‘Michaelmas’, Historic UK
Caradoc of Llancarfan, The Life of Gildas, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/gildas06.html
Charlotte Guest (transl), ‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Mary Beth Albright, ‘Michaelmas: The Day the Devil Spit on Your Blackberries’, National Geographic
Nicolas R. Mann, The Isle of Avalon, (Green Magic, 2008)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Yuri Leitch, Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and key to the Glastonbury Zodiac, (The Temple Publications, 2007)