‘Gwyn ap Nudd, helper of hosts, armies fall before the hooves of your horse as swiftly as cut reeds to the ground.’ ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’
Three years have passed since the last time I celebrated the winter solstice here – the reeds still stand as do the standing stones and the tradition of dancing down the sun.
Who or what has fallen since the beginning of the disease?
More than armies, 181,000 deaths to this day.
The reeds still stand but something was cut down within me when I cleared other reed beds in the name of good service, knowing they would grow again, strove to become a good custodian of the Water Country but was not accepted.
I fell and got trampled beneath the huge round hooves of Your horse.
I’m not dead yet, I picked myself up, got back on my bicycle
but appeared a stranger at the Pagan gathering in my hi-vis jacket with my cycle helmet
needing to leave before it got dark
and chasing the sun west to the place I call home.
Here I attend the work of putting the cut reeds together again reciting not the names of long dead warriors Gwenddolau, Gwallog, Llachau…
but making a new bed
for the lost and weary souls who half-died and want to grow tall.
The reeds say that we will grow again no matter how hard we are trampled by the hooves of horses to the ground.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.