In Beowulf, after the protagonist has defeated the monstrous Grendel in the hall of Heorot, he travels beyond the safety of its walls to the mere from which the monsters come to slay Grendel’s mother.
Beforehand, Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose hall Beowulf is defending, describes ‘the haunted mere’:
‘a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch above a mere; the overhanging bank is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface. At night there, something uncanny happens: the water burns. And the mere-bottom has never been sounded by the sons of men.’
When Beowulf and his warriors arrive they find:
‘… The water was infested with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons and monsters slouching on slopes of the cliff, serpents and wild things…’
These quotes reflect a view of the wild land beyond the hall as uncanny and peopled by monsters. Beowulf is set in sixth century Scandinavia, but was composed in East Anglia during the seventh century and written down in the tenth century. I believe it was popular amongst the Anglo-Saxons due to the similarities between the landscapes and beliefs in Scandinavia and England.
Grendel is described as a ‘dark death shadow / who lurked and swooped in the long nights / on the misty moors’. The ‘shadow-stalker’ comes ‘In off the moors, down through the mist bands… greedily loping’. His mother is a ‘monstrous hell-bride’, a ‘hell-dam’, a ‘swamp thing from hell’, ‘a tarn-hag in all her terrible strength’, a ‘she-wolf’, and a ‘wolf of the deep’ who lurks in the mere. We find repeated associations between monsters and an untamed landscape viewed as hellish.
No doubt the descriptions of the Danish landscape and its monsters resonated with the people of East Anglia with its extensive fenlands and lowland moors and bogs and its many meres – Trundle Mere, Whittlesey Mere, Stretham Mere, Soham Mere, Ug Mere, and Ramsey Mere, now sadly drained.
It’s likely the Anglo-Saxons and the Brythonic people whose culture they replaced here in Lancashire viewed the Region Linnuis, ‘the Lake Region’, where Martin Mere (at twenty miles in diameter once the largest lake in England), Shoricar’s Mere, Renacres Mere, Gettern Mere, and Barton Mere once lay, as similarly haunted, before they were all drained with the bogs and marshes.
In the fourteenth century Middle English story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the protagonist battles against an array of monsters as he travels north ‘into the wilderness of the Wirral’ and beyond.
‘He had death-struggles with dragons, did battle with wolves, Warred with wild trolls that dwelt among the crags, Battled with bulls and bears and boars at other times, And ogres that panted after him on the high fells.’
Memories of Grendel-like monsters might be retained in Lancashire’s rich boggart lore. Boggarts are malevolent spirits who haunted the bogs then later the farmhouses when the land was drained. Some merely caused mischief, scaring children with their penny-whistle like voices, breaking pots and pans or curdling milk but others made livestock lame or ill and even killed animals and humans.
King Arthur’s Pit, on the shore of Martin Mere near Holmeswood Hall, was haunted by ‘boggarts and ghouls’. There are traditions of ‘shadowy night-time figures passing marl-pits near the old mere edge’.
Roby records the story of a ‘mermaid’ or ‘meer-woman’ abducting a baby from its natural father then leaving the child with a fisherman who gives him to a Captain Harrington to be fostered. This puts me in mind of the monstrous claw that steals a foal and, implicitly, Pryderi in the First Branch of The Mabinogion then leaves the boy in the care of Teyrnon who raises him as a foster-father.
Coupled with Martin Mere’s associations with the nymph, Vyviane, disappearing into the lake with the infant Lancelot du Lac (who is said to give his name to Lancashire) and with Arthur’s sword we might intuit these stories originate from the presence of a female water deity or monster who stole children.
During the digging of the sluice to drain Martin Mere ‘human bodies entire and uncorrupted’ were found and its seems possible they were deliberately deposited in the water. From the surrounding area we have evidence of bog burials at North Meols and, further afield, Lindow and Worsley Man. Lindow Man was sacrificed, dying a ‘three fold death’, and others may have been sacrifices to water deities.
Bog burials took place from the Bronze Age through the Romano-British period in Britain and were common across Germany and Denmark showing shared practices and beliefs surrounding wet places.
Unfortunately we do not know for certain who these sacrifices were to or how these people perceived their deities. It is clear that by the sixth century, due to the influence of Christianity, both Grendel and his mother and the wild landscape they inhabited had been heavily demonised.
This is evidenced by the Christianised explanation of the origins of these ‘fatherless creatures’ as springing from the exile of Cain for killing Abel with ‘ogres and elves and evil phantoms / and the giants too’.
The pagan beliefs of the Danes are referred to and condemned in Beowulf:
‘Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid and save the people. That was their way, their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts they remembered hell.’
Yet these explanations come up against the conflicting belief these ‘huge marauders’ are ‘from some other world’ and that their origin ‘hidden in a past of demons and ghosts’, defies explanation.
The grendelkin, like the later boggarts, occupy liminal places in the landscape and between the worlds. A wonderful verb, scripan, ‘meaning a sinewy and sinister gliding movement’ is used to describe the way they move and may also apply to the way they shift between the worlds. The dobbie, our northern British waterhorse, a similar kind of being, ‘is described as a big, black, horrible, misshapen thing that “slips about”’ and is ‘more likely to be seen out of the corner of the eye’.
Here, in Lancashire, the deities of the lake were not slain by a dark age ‘hero’ but met a slower, more ignominious end at the hands of the wealthy landowners who drained the mere. The first was Thomas Fleetwood who secured an Act of Parliament in 1694. He employed 2,000 workers to dig the 1.5 mile channel known as the Sluice to the coast at Crossens. His draining of the mere was completed by 1697.
Fleetwood died in 1717 and the following is written on his monument in the church in Churchtown:
‘He wished his bones to be here laid, because he made into dry and firm land the great Martinesian Marsh, by the water having been conveyed through a fosse to the neighbouring sea – a work, which, as the ancients dared not to attempt, posterity will hardly credit… These labours having been accomplished, he at length, alas! Too soon, laid down and died, on the 22nd April, A.D. 1717, in the 56th year of his age.’
Fleetwood’s success was short lived. The flow of the water was not strong enough to prevent the Sluice from silting up and the floodgates were breached leading to winter flooding. In 1778 Thomas Eccleston employed Mr. Gilbert (who built the Bridgewater Canal) to redesign and rebuild the drainage system, which again was successful for a while, until the mere was inundated by the Douglas.
So continued the cycle of rebuilding and flooding until the new pumping station at Crossens was built in 1961 which is capable of 373,000 gallons per minute and is already running to full capacity at peak times.
This leads me to wonder whether the deities of the mere and its monsters are dead or merely waiting beyond the lumbs and deeps of the mere bottom in places ‘never sounded by the sons of men’.
I have recently been revisiting the theory that Sétanta (later Cú Chulainn), a hero and perhaps a deity the Irish myths, was associated with the Iron Age Setantii tribe of northern Britain. Writing in 2CE the Roman geographer, Ptolemy, refers to Portus Setantiorum ‘the Port of the Setantii’, which was located at the mouth of the river Wyre, and also to Seteia, the river Mersey. This suggests the Setantii occupied the lowlands of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire from the Mersey to the Wyre.
The etymology of Setantii is one of much debate. Graham Isaac suggests it is emended from sego ‘strong’ and Andrew Breeze that is corrupted from ‘the Celtic *met “cut, harvest”, as in Welsh medaf “I reap”, Medi “September” (when corn is cut), Middle Irish methel “reaping party”’. Breeze notes these people were not ‘harmless agriculturalists’ and ‘Welsh literature indicates a bloodier sense’. Medel means ‘reaper’ ‘killer, mower down (of enemies in combat)’. The warrior-prince Owain Rheged is referred to by Taliesin as medel galon ‘a reaper of enemies’. Thus Metantii or Setantii is best translated as ‘reapers (of men), cutters down (in battle)’ and Meteia or Seteia as ‘reaper’.
In Celtic and Manx Folklore John Rhys puts forward the theory that Sétanta Beg means ‘the Little Setantian’, which we might translate as ‘reaping one’, and this would certainly fit with his ferocity in battle.
Rhys associates both Sétanta and Seithenin with the lost lands between Ireland and Wales. In Welsh legend Seithenin caused the flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir (1) when he failed to close the flood gates due to his liason with Mererid, the ‘fountain cup-bearer’, whose waters were loosed. Traditionally this story is associated with Cantre’r Gwaelod, ‘the Bottom Hundred’, ‘the shallows of Cardigan Bay’. Yet this area extended ‘northwards… off the coast of Cheshire and Lancashire, and occupied Morecambe Bay with a dense growth of oak, Scotch fir, alder, birch, and hazel’.
Gwyddno had two ports – Porth Wyddno (Borth) in Wales and ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’, one of Three Chief Ports in The Triads of the Island of Britain, which was likely Portus Setantiorum.
Holder theorises that Sétanta derives from Setantios and he was originally a Celtic god. Is it possible his mythos, the best developed of all the Irish deities, originated from the people who occupied the lost lands off the Lancashire coast and were later known as the Setantii?
Sétanta’s Birth and Boyhood
The stories of Sétanta/Cú Chulainn were written down by medieval Irish scribes during the 12th century in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster andare now firmly embedded in the Irish landscape. He is associated with Ulster, the Ulstermen, and their king, Conchobar.
‘The Birth of Cú Chulainn’ is a story with much mythic depth. Conchobar rules Ireland from Emain Macha. The plain is devastated by a flock of magical birds, ‘nine-score’ ‘each pair… linked by a silver chain’. Conchobar, his daughter and charioteer, Deichtine, and nine other charioteers hunt them. A heavy snow falls and they are forced to seek refuge in a storehouse where they are welcomed to feast by its owner. His wife is in labour and Deichtine helps her give birth to a son. At the same time a mare gives birth to two colts outside. Deichtine nurses the boy and he is given the colts.
Afterwards Conchobar and his company find themselves east of the Bruig (Newgrange) ‘no house, no birds, only their horses and the boy and his colts’. Deichtine takes the boy to Emain Macha and continues to nurse him but, to her heart break, he dies. Afterwards she drinks a ‘tiny creature’ from a copper vessel. That evening the god, Lug, appears to her and tells her she is pregnant by him and must call their son Sétanta. Because she is engaged to Sualtam mac Róich and fears he may suspect she slept with Conchobar she aborts the child, then becomes pregnant by Sualtam and bears a son. He is called Sétanta and thus has both thisworldly and otherworldly fathers – Sualtam and Lug. His dual paternity, like that of Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Arawn in the Welsh myths, marks him as a ‘special son’.
Lug is an Irish deity who is descended from Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods, and Eithne, daughter of Balor, one of the monstrous Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’. Sétanta’s descent from a human woman on one side and gods and giants on the other goes a long way to explain his superhuman qualities.
As a mere boy he is described as going to play with the others and fending off fifty javelins with his toy shield, stopping fifty hurling balls with his chest, and warding off fifty hurleys with his one hurley.
Sétanta receives the name Cú Chulainn after being attacked by a hound belonging to Culann the smith. He puts an end to it in a grotesque manner. ‘The lad struck his ball with his hurley so that the ball shot down the throat of the hound and carried its insides out through its backside. Then he grabbed two of its legs and smashed it to pieces against a nearby pillar stone’. As recompense to Culann, he offers to be Culann’s hound and guard Muirthemne Plain until a pup has been raised to take his place. From then he is known as Cú Chulainn – the Hound of Culann.
Training with Scáthach
Cú Chulainn trains with the warrior-woman Scáthach ‘the Shadow’ at Dún Scáith ‘The Fortress of Shadows’ on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. From her he learns the arts of war including ‘the apple-feat, the thunder-feat, the blade-feat, the foen-feat, and the spear-feat, the rope-feat, the body-feat, the cat’s feat, the salmon-feat of a chariot-chief, the throw of the staff, the jump over […], the whirl of a brave chariot-chief, the spear of the bellows, the boi of swiftness, the wheel-feat, the othar-feat, the breath-feat, the brud geme, the hero’s whoop, the blow […], the counter-blow, running up a lance and righting the body on its point, the scythe-chariot, and the hero’s twisting round the points of spears’.
Most fearsome is his use of the barbed spear known as the gae bolga: ‘thrown from the fork of the foot; it made a single wound when it entered a man’s body, whereupon it opened into thirty barbs, and it could not be taken from a man’s body without the flesh being cut away around it’.
During this period Cú Chulainn battles against Scáthach’s rival, another warrior-woman called Aife, defeats her, and offers to spare her life but only on the condition that she bears him a son.
The story of Cú Chulainn’s training with Scáthach shows links with Britain and the existence of a tradition where male warriors were trained by warrior women. This is also found in the Welsh myths where Peredur is trained by the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw and it might be suggested that Orddu, the Very Black Witch, of Pennant Gofid, in the North, fulfilled a similar role.
The Battle Rage of Cú Chulainn
After his training Cú Chulainn’s feats are many and his greatest is defending Ulster and the Brown Bull single handedly against the armies of Connacht whilst the Ulstermen are laid up with the Curse of Macha (1). This is recorded in The Tain. After putting them off by magic, picking them off with guerilla tactics and fighting against them in single combat he defeats them in three great massacres.
Here we witness his ability to cause incredible violence. With ‘his scythed chariot that glittered with iron tangs, blades, hooks, hard prongs and brutal spikes, barbs and sharp nails on every shaft, strut, strap and truss’ he drives into the ranks ‘three times encircling them with great ramparts of their own corpses piled sole to sole and headless neck to headless neck’, slaying ‘seven-score and ten kings’.
When he fights, Cú Chulainn is taken over by a battle rage known as his ‘warp spasm’ or ‘torque’. Its vivid descriptions, no doubt a delight to storytellers, driven to greater exaggerations, are worth citing.
‘The first Torque seized Cú Chulainn and turned him into a contorted thing, unrecognisably horrible and grotesque. Every slab and every sinew of him, joint and muscle, shuddered from head to foot like a tree in a storm or a reed in a stream. His body revolved furiously inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees jumped to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams to the front. The bunched sinews of his calves jumped to the front of his shins, bulging with knots the size of a warrior’s clenched fist. The ropes of his neck rippled from ear to nape in an immense, monstrous, incalculable knobs, each as big as the head of a month-old child.
Then he made a red cauldron of his face and features: he sucked one of his eyes so deep into his head that a wild crane would find it difficult to plumb the depths of his skull to drag that eye back to its socket; the other popped out on to his cheek. His mouth became a terrifying, twisted grin. His cheek peeled back from his jaws so you could see his lungs and liver flapping in his throat… The hero’s light sprang from his forehead… thick, steady, strong as the mast of a tall ship was the straight spout of dark blood that rose up from the fount of his skull to dissolve in an otherworldly mist…’
In his battle fury Cú Chulainn is described as warped and monstrous and these transformations may derive from his Formorian heritage. This is hinted at in a further passage: ‘Cú Chulainn torqued himself a hundredfold. He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant or a deep-sea merman’.
He also displays the ability to call up otherworldly spirits. His ‘roar of a hundred warriors’ is ‘echoed by the goblins and ghouls and sprites of the glen and the fiends of the air, for their howls would resound before him, above him, and around him any time he shed the blood of warriors and heroes’. ‘The clouds that boiled above him in his fury glimmered and flickered with malignant flares and sultry smoke – the torches of the Badb.’ This puts us in mind of the Scream over Annwn.
Even when he displays his ‘true beauty’ he is otherworldly with his hair in three layers, dark, blood-red and yellow, ‘four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, blue and purple. Seven brilliant gems gleamed in each regal eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails or claws or talons of each with the grip of a hawk or griffin… He held nine human heads in one hand, ten in the other’.
Sétanta/Cú Chulainn is depicted a monstrous reaper of men and as a hunter of heads. Head-hunting was common amongst the Celtic peoples, particularly the Setantii, which is evidenced by the large number of severed heads ritually buried across their territories. It has been noted, whilst there is an absence of chariot burials in Ireland, there are many in northern Britain. So there is, at least, an argument that this otherworldly figure, like a giant or merman, originates from the people who once occupied the drowned lands between Britain and Ireland and may have been a Setantian god or hero.
The Tragedies of Cú Chulainn
Amidst the relentless violence endemic to a warrior culture whose greatest aim was winning everlasting fame through battle prowess we find some moving scenes based around Cú Chulainn’s relationships. When Cú Chulainn is badly wounded during his battle against the armies of Connacht his otherworld father, Lug, appears to fight his battle for three nights and days whilst he heals.
Tragically Cú Chulainn kills his son by Aife because he does not know who he is until he sees his ring. In an equally tragic scene Cú Chulainn faces and kills his foster-brother who was also possibly his lover, Fer Diad, with whom he trained with Scáthach. Their relationship is described in poignant verse:
Two hearts that beat as one, we were comrades in the woods, men who shared a bed and the same deep sleep after heavy fighting in strange territories. Apprentices of Scáthach, we would ride out together to explore the dark woods.
After many days of battle with various weapons Cú Chulainn puts an end to Fer Diad with the gae bolga.
His lament is heart wrenching:
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – I wounded and dripping with gore, your chariot standing empty.
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – I leak blood from every pore and you lie dead forever.
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – you dead, I bursting with life. Courage has a brutal core.
It puts me in mind of the lines spoken by Gwyn, our British death-god and gatherer of souls, who is doomed to live on whilst the warriors of Britain perish in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2), which perhaps speaks of a shared origin to these poems.
Cú Chulainn’s love life also contains tragedy. His main lover is Emer but their relationship is put into jeopardy when Cú Chulainn goes to hunt her one of two magical birds ‘coupled with a red-gold chain’. He shoots but does not kill one. They turn out to be fairy women and, when he falls asleep against a stone, they take revenge by beating him with horsewhips until ‘there is no life left in him’.
He takes to his sick bed for a year and learns the only cure is to help one of them, Fand, to battle against her enemies. They fall in love and sleep together yet she is the wife of the sea-god, Manannan. Cú Chulainn returns to Emer but both are heart-broken. Cú Chulainn wanders the mountains neither sleeping nor drinking (3) until Manannan shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand so she is forgotten.
Cú Chulainn’s death is fittingly tragic. His old enemy, Queen Medb of Connacht conspires to kill him with the sons of her enemies. He is tricked into breaking his geis of not eating the meat of his sacred animal, the dog, and by this he is weakened. He is killed by Lugaid, the son of Cú Roí, another otherworldy figure with whom he battles and defeats to win a maiden called Blathnat (4).
With a magical spear destined to kill three ‘kings’, Lugaid kills Láeg, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, Liath Macha, Cú Chulainn’s horse and finally Cú Chulainn himself. Mortally wounded, Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone so he can die on his feet facing his enemies. They remain afraid of him even after his death, not daring to approach until a raven lands on his shoulder. This symbolises he has been beaten by the only opponent worthy of defeating him, the death goddess, the Morrigan (5).
A Hero of the Setantii?
Here I have provided only glimpses into the rich mythos surrounding Sétanta/Cú Chulainn: his birth and dual paternity, his naming as Culann’s Hound, his training with Scáthach, his feats as a warrior, his love life (which features a number of women and possibly a man), and his death.
As we have seen, these stories are now firmly embedded within the Irish landscape. However, we know that many centuries ago Britain and Ireland were near joined together and that the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Children of Don, share many similarities. Nodens/Nuada, the king of the gods, was worshipped on the Lancashire coast and his son, Gwyn, might have conversed here with Gwyddno. Lug(us) was the patron god of Carlisle (Luguvalium) further north. If he was venerated here it would make sense his son, Sétanta/Setantios, was also viewed also an important deity or hero.
The evidence suggests there is at least a possibility the stories of Sétanta originated from the lost lands off the coast of Lancashire where gods and giants gave birth to monsters, that this monstrous and beguiling head-reaping hero was one of the deities of the Setantii, the reapers of men.
(1) After Macha raced against the horses of the king of Ulster and won she gave birth and screamed that for five days and four nights any man who heard her would be afflicted by her labour pains. She then died. Her curse was passed on for nine generations. Macha’s name was given to Emain Macha. (2) I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain From the east to the north; I live on, they are in the grave.
I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain From the east to the south; I live on, they are dead. (3) His state resembles geilt/wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’ in the Welsh and Irish myths where we find Suibhne Geilt and Myrddin Wyllt taking on bird transformations and Cynedyr Wyllt ‘nine times wilder than the wildest beast on the mountain’. (4) ‘The contention of Corroi and Cocholyn’ (Cú Roí and Cú Chulainn) is referred to in the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Death Song of Corroi’ in The Book of Taliesin and the beheading game Cú Chulainn plays with Cú Roí perhaps depicts a conflict with the Head of the Otherworld, here known as Gwyn. (5) The Morrigan appears earlier in the stories as young prophet then fights against him as an eel, a she-wolf, and a hornless red heifer. After the battle she tricks him into healing her when she appears as a one-eyed hag milking a cow with three teats by drinking from each which heals her three wounds.
Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra, and Pen-Y-Ghent, Northern History, XLII: 1, (University of Leeds, 2006) Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008) Eoin Mac Neill, Varia. I, Eriu, Vol. 11, (Royal Irish Academy 1932) Greg Hill, (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/ Jeffrey Ganz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, (Penguin, 1981) John Rhys, Celtic and Manx Folklore: Volume One, (Project Gutenberg, 2017) Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014) Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
With thanks to Wikipedia for the images of Cú Chulainn. The photographs of the former site of Portus Setantiorum near the mouth of the river Wyre and the coast from Rossall Point where the remnants of the forest have been seen are my own.
‘From the Well of Life Three Drops Instilled’ John Milton
This image is based on a combination of the lines above from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a sketch of St Mary’s Well in Penwortham by Edwin Beattie (which can be viewed HERE), and the following words written about it by James Flockhart in 1854:
‘On the road which leads from Penwortham Bridge to the Church, at some distance before reaching the avenue leading to the entrance, there is a narrow pathway by which the traveller, after descending a few rude steps, may reach the fields on the left hand. At the bottom of the steps, a little to the right, is a spring of clear water flowing into a sort of natural basin, surrounded by brushwood, near which I have seen primroses and other wild flowers blooming in the greatest luxuriance. This well, like others in the olden time, had its patron saint. It was one of those acts of piety practised by our forefathers to acknowledge the inestimable value of water by dedicating all springs to some saint, but more particularly to the Virgin Mother of our Saviour, as being emblematical of purity. The well at Penwortham, in accordance with this custom, is said to have been dedicated to ” Our Blessed Ladye,” and to have been formerly remarkable for working extraordinary cures; and it is even believed by some to possess this power at the present day; in fact, I have heard many people in the neighbourhood say, that to wash the hands in its water is a certain antidote to evil.’
St Mary’s Well, at the foot of Castle Hill in Penwortham, dried up between 1884 and 1888 when the aquifer was shattered by the moving of the river Ribble during the creation of Riversway Dockland. As a Well of Healing and a Well of Life, which I believe was sacred to an older goddess named Anrhuna before it was re-dedicated to Mary, it continues to exist in Peneverdant, which for me is becoming a mythic reality of Penwortham much as Avalon is to Glastonbury and Blake’s Jerusalem is to London.
It happened when I was gearing up. Having given up my placement with Carbon Landscapes in Wigan as it was too office based I had returned to volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust closer to home and got the conservation internship at Brockholes.
One hundred per cent practical outdoor work, and just a 6 mile cycle ride away at a place I know and love, it promised to be my dream job. I’d completed my first 10k race in New Longton and was training for the City of Preston 10 miles. I was also preparing for my Taekwondo grading, on the Spring Equinox weekend, to gain my blue belt.
Then it struck. A series of lightning-like strikes. I’d heard the thunder. The first rumblings from China, the news the storm was getting closer, that it had hit Italy, Spain, France, arrived in the UK. We joked about it at first. Me with my perpetually runny nose, like a toddler, in spring, due to my hay fever. Anyone who coughed or sneezed, “I haven’t got coronavirus.” We’d seen it on the news but it didn’t seem real, like our little island with its green hills and fresh air granted some form of immunity. We’re British, right? We won the war. Then people started getting sick and started dying.
Around a fortnight ago hand washing or using antibacterial gel before eating became mandatory. On Monday the 16th of March when I was out with the Mud Pack at Brockholes the next step was stopping sharing PPE. No more slightly musty gloves from the collective stash. I was given my own hi-vis in preparation for beginning my internship on the Thursday. Still we worked together building a hibernaculum for great crested newts and ate our lunch outside on a day bright as coltsfoot.
On Tuesday the 17th of March we received an email saying we could no longer share lifts in the van or meet together inside. On Wednesday the 18th of March, another glorious spring day, I went out on another work party planting sarroccoca and eleganus amongst the daffodils on the rock garden on Avenham Park. There was little joking, even amongst the guys from Preston City Council, who were helping out. Everything felt ominous. Still, it came as a shock when I got home to find out all LWT volunteer work parties had been cancelled until the end of April along with my voluntary internship.
In some ways it was a relief because I live with parents who are over 70 and in ill health. I’d been torn between the choices, if I was to continue volunteering, of moving out or risking their lives. So I accepted it was for the best I isolated with them, just going out to do our shopping and to exercise.
Still, I was bitterly disappointed. After winning the struggle to give up alcohol and manage my anxiety without it, and feeling I was finally coming home from my exodus with Carbon Landscapes to the place and the job role in my local landscape where I truly belonged… this!
Yet, I also felt, in some ways my gods had been preparing me for it. If I hadn’t given up alcohol there is no way I would have coped with the situation or with the responsibility of looking after my parents. When considering whether to quit my placement I’d heard a clear voice telling me to “come home.”
Another point is that, at the beginning of January, after I had a mild attack of exercise-induced asthma as a consequence of running my fastest time of 25.21 for 5k on the Avenham Park Run, Gwyn told me during this Taekwondo belt (green with a blue tag representing growth toward the skies) I needed to ‘learn to breathe’. Since then I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend time in stillness, focusing on my breath, in my morning and evening meditations, but not always managing it.
(What has struck me and many others is that breath is central to this situation on many levels. Coronavirus attacks the lungs and those who get seriously ill face a battle for their breath which, in some cases, can only be won with the aid of mechanical ventilators, and in others not at all. The places worst hit have been cities where the air is badly polluted. Now flights have stopped and most people have stopped commuting by car, the skies are clear of contrails and air pollution has dropped.)
At first, after all that gearing up, I felt like Wily Coyote poised in mid-air off the edge of a cliff with my legs still running. Over the past few days I have been striving to ground myself, to slow down, to process the changes, to find space to breathe. Not easy when surrounded by panic.
My first response was to hit the news and social media to find out what’s happening and what everyone’s doing, leading only to tight chest, shortness of breath. To rush to formulate my own words, to share poems addressing the situation. Like I have some kind of gods-given responsibility… whilst aware of adding to the din of others doing exactly the same and increasing the massive strain on the internet that we forget is causing air pollution as we don’t see the power stations.
“Slow down,” the message kept coming through, from the stopping of traffic the virus has caused. As I ran more slowly, no longer worried about beating my best times, happy to be in the moment, feet steady alongside the Ribble in time with her flow where the daffodils watch with sad beautiful faces.
“Slow down,” as I began to take my time in my parents’ garden instead of rushing through the tasks. Appreciating the sunlight on the pastel colours of the hyacinths and the scent of the magnolia, the steady chuck of spade in earth and textures of compost from the bottom of the heap rich from years of decay.
“Slow down,” every time I sat before my mantlepiece in my bedroom where I keep altars to my deities, feathers and stones, to which I’ve recently added photos of my family ancestors knowing I’ll need their help.
I had developed a new routine based around prayer, writing, housework, gardening, shopping, and exercise when lockdown struck. It didn’t hit too hard as I was already living under those rules.
I’m anticipating a greater slowing. Right now I feel like I’m in ‘defence mode’ with my main prerogatives being to tend to the needs of and protect my vulnerable parents and to maintain my own health. I have also offered to run deliveries on my bike for family and friends, including the older members of my poetry group, if they end up isolating either due to illness or the government order.
An important point of support has been the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School online journey circles and coaching calls. I have been involved with Jason and Nicola’s drumming circles at Cuerden Valley and the Space to Emerge camp since they began and have appreciated being able to continue getting together to do journeywork and discuss the current situation from a shamanistic perspective.
With my daily routine and a support network in place I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. If the UK follows Italy’s curve it is possible that my friends, family, and myself, may be not only be slowed down but locked away by illness, that we may be halted by the life-or-death battle for our breath. That we may have to face the final stopping – death – as usual a topic few think or talk about.
I’ve long had a plan for my funeral but am aware it will be invalidated by these circumstances. There is a huge lack of information about what will happen to the bodies of those who die of coronavirus in the UK. How they will be dealt with, where they will go, how their passing will be acknowledged.
Yet this great slowing gives us time to pause for thought – about the fears we’d rather not face and the solace we can find in each moment of these spring days so beautifully bright in contrast.
The wetlands of the old counties of Lancashire and Cheshire which were inhabited by the Setantii tribe ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ are well known for their bog burials; Lindow Man and Woman, Worsley Man, severed heads from Pilling Moss, Briarfield, Red Moss, Ashton Moss, Birkdale.
The archaeological evidence suggests that Lindow Man and Worsley Man were human sacrifices. Lindow Man (also known as Lindow II) was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat was cut before he was cast into the peat bog. Worsley Man was garotted and his skull fractured before his beheading. These ‘overkill’ injuries are suggestive of ritual killing rather than death in battle or murder.
This is supported by the fact many bog burials from Britain and Europe ate special last meals. The last meal of Lindow Man was a griddle cake baked from finely ground wheat and barley. Lindow III, another man whose remains were found nearby, ate a meal of wheat and rye with hazelnuts. Old Croghan man from Ireland, and Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark also ate similar meals.
The head from Briarfield was ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ ‘with abundant remains of hazel’. Further north, at Seascale Moss in Cumbria, a body was buried in the bog with a hazel walking stick. Miranda Aldhouse Green notes that bog bodies from Gallagh in Ireland and Windeby in Germany wore hazel collars and another from Undelev in Denmark was buried with three hazel rods.
She connects them with a lead defixio of ‘late Roman date’ ‘from the river Ouse near the Hockwold Roman temple’ in Suffolk: ‘Whoever… whether male or female slave, whether freedman or freedwoman… has committed theft of an iron pan, he is to be sacrificed to the god Neptune with hazel’.
The Romans equated Neptune with our ancient British water-god Nodens at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall where an inscription reads ‘DEO NO/NEPTU’. At his Romano-British temple at Lydney, Nodens is depicted on a mural crown driving a chariot pulled by four water-horses accompanied by winged wind-spirits and centaurs with fish-tails and a fish-tailed fisherman.
Nodens gifted pilgrims with healing dreams but was also called upon to remove health. A curse tablet reads: ‘For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one-half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good-health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.’
It thus seems possible the people who ingested hazel prior to their deaths or were buried with it were sacrifices to Nodens who was equated with Neptune due to his watery qualities by the Romans.
The associations between Nodens and hazel have deep mythic roots. In Ireland Nodens was known as Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ and Nechtan (from the Old Irish necht ‘clean, pure, white’). Nechtan was the keeper of the Tobar Segais ‘Well of Wisdom’. Around it stood nine hazel trees which dropped their hazelnuts, containing imbas ‘inspiration’, into the water. They were eaten by salmon and this special poetic wisdom, known as awen in the Welsh myths, was infused into their flesh.
Only Nechtan and his three cup-bearers: Flesc, Lam, and Luam, were allowed to visit the well. Of those who transgressed their eyes would explode (!) – a possible metaphor for the effects of poetic vision.
When Nechtan’s wife, Boann, disobeyed this command the well overflowed and became the river Boyne. One of its kennings is ‘the forearm of the wife of Nuadhu’ and it was known in the early 2nd century CE as Buvinda (from early Irish *Bou-vinda ‘the white lady with bovine attributes’).
When Finn ‘White’, a descendant of Nuadha, cooked the Salmon of Wisdom for his master, Finnegeas, he burnt his thumb, put it in his mouth, and accidentally imbibed his eye-bursting imbas.
I believe it is likely a similar mythos surrounded Nodens here in Britain. On his mural crown a fisherman is catching a large fish and, on a mosaic on his temple floor at Lydney, two sea monsters are surrounded by salmon. Additionally, in medieval Welsh mythology, Arthur and his men ride up the river Severn, past the Temple of Nodens, on the back of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, to rescue Mabon.
In the dindsenchas the river flowing from Segais has many names. In Ireland it is not only known as the Boyne, but the Trethnach Tond ‘Ocean Wave’ and Sruth Findchoill ‘Stream of White Hazel’. Abroad it becomes Lunnand in Scotland, the Severn in England, then the Tiber, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris.
At Lydney we also find iconography depicting Nodens’ wife and our British Boann: a stone statuette, thirty inches in height, left leg crossed over right, holding a cornucopia. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. Unfortunately we do not know her name but the early Irish Bou-Vinda may relate to Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, the son she bore Nodens/Nudd. Gwyn’s name not only means ‘White’, but he is referred to as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, suggesting he inherited her bovine attributes.
As Vindonnus, at a spring in Gaul, he was offered bronze plaques depicting eyes. It has been suggested they were for aid curing eye ailments but they may also have been connected with poetic vision.
In medieval Welsh mythology, Gwyn, as Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’, is the guardian of a cauldron that is warmed by the breath of nine maidens and will not brew the food of a coward, suggesting it is associated with initiation into the mysteries of the awen tasted from its bubbling waters.
It seems Gwyn, who like Finn, has tasted the wisdom of the salmon from the hazelnuts from the nine hazel trees, and received his awen, later adopts his father’s role as a wisdom-keeper.
How, then, does this ancient Celtic mythos appear in and relate to the Water Country? On Cockerham Moss two Romano-British silver statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found. This suggests that a temple lay nearby. Cockersand Abbey, the closest sacred site, is dedicated to Mary of the Marsh, a Christian overlay on an earlier water-goddess – the wife of Nodens. I know her as Anrhuna which means ‘Very Great’ and is probably only one of her names.
The church on Castle Hill, the pen which gives its name to Penwortham (earlier Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ as it stood on Penwortham Marsh), is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the holy well at the hill’s foot. The large number of Marian dedications in the marshy areas of Penwortham and Preston with their sacred springs hint at the underlying presence of this water-goddess.
The legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral, set on Castle Hill, with its fairy leader ringing a passing bell and singing a mournful chant as he leads a procession of little black-clad men in red caps, bearing the fairy-double of an unfortunate young man to his grave suggests the presence of Gwyn.
Past the pen, sacred to Anrhuna, Nodens, and Vindos/Gwyn/Pen Annwn, runs the river Ribble. From Ptolemy’s Geography (2AD)we know Belisama is the goddess of the Ribble. She is the sister and/or consort of Bel, who is later known as Beli Mawr, father of Nudd/Lludd. The Ribble is rich in salmon and Maponos/Mabon and his mother Matrona/Modron were worshipped upriver at Ribchester. Modron is the daughter of Afallach (from afall ‘apple’), King of Annwn, a name of Gwyn.
Here, at the Green Hill on the Water, we find a parallel with Lydney ‘Lludd’s Island’. With salmon swimming upriver past a site associated with Mabon to the source where perhaps once stood nine hazel trees.
These stories run deep through this land as they ran through the land of our ancient British ancestors. Before its draining it was truly a water country of intertidal marshlands, reedbeds, carr, lakes and pools, peat bogs, and a damp oak woodland in which hazel and its nourishing nuts were precious.
It’s no wonder they were associated with Nodens, ‘the Catcher’, the wise fisher-god. Perhaps, by sacrificing their enemies to Nodens with hazel, the water dwellers repaid him for his generosity.
Another possibility is that some of the bog burials were devotees of Nodens sacrificed willingly to their god. Awenyddion who, like his son, had imbibed the hazel-rich awen. Lindow III’s consumption of hazelnuts before his death may have been a last act of communion. The man buried with the hazel staff might have carried it as a symbol of his role as a wisdom-keeper.
Hazel grows on the banks of Fish House Brook, which runs through the area once known as Fish Pan Field in Greencroft Valley into the river Ribble. In autumn its nuts are eaten by grey squirrels before they can drop into the brook where, due to changes in water level and pollution, fish no longer swim.
Still, as I pass, I think of the myth of Nodens and his nine hazel trees, Anrhuna’s transgression, Vindos/Gwyn eating the salmon imbued with awen from the hazelnut and his eye-bursting poetic vision, which he has gifted to me as his awenydd to pass on and share with my communities.
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974) Anne Ross, Life and Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of Lindow Man, an Archaeological Sensation, (Touchstone, 1991) David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008) Finnchuill, ‘Catching Wisdom: Nuadha, Nechtan, Nodens’, Finnchuill’s Mast, (2016) Jody Joy, Lindow Man, (The British Museum Press, 2009) Kay Muhr, ‘Water Imagery in Early Irish’, Celtica 23, (1999) Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)
Over the years I have done lots of different jobs. Some I have enjoyed – poetry, writing, editing, working with horses, and others less so – packing, cleaning, admin, working in a supermarket.
Last year I gave up my supermarket job to begin volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust as a way into a career in conservation. Since then I have worked on a variety of habitats from meadows to woodlands to wetlands to peatlands. I’ve enjoyed tree planting, coppicing, dead hedging, removing tree stumps, building outdoor classrooms, and learnt how to use an axe and lay a hedge.
At my Damson Poets committee meeting last November I described my experiences of planting cross-leafed heath and hare’s tail cotton grass for the large heath butterfly on Highfield Moss. It was a tough but fulfilling day, carrying trays of plants over boggy terrain, welly deep in water, to create finger-holes in the sphagnum for the cross-leafed heath and dig larger holes with pokey sticks in drier areas for the hare’s tail cottongrass. Afterwards Terry Quinn commented, “you were in your element.”
Yes! I thought, he’s onto something there. Far more in my element in the mud and water than when I was stacking the shelves beneath the relentless lights or in a room of a million voices at a million screens. And at the same time, I must be one of a very small proportion of people who would rather spend a cold winter day welly deep in a peat bog rather than sitting in what they see to be a cosy office.
We, as human animals, have collectively been taken out of our element. Abducted by the mad rush of commercialism by which we feed and house and clothe ourselves. Taken away from what we saw as slow hard jobs out in nature – scything the meadows, digging vegetables, chopping wood.
At a great cost both to ourselves and the land for the gain of centrally heated houses, warm baths, running water, ready food, clean clothes, instant connections through phone, email, the internet. Comforts I acknowledge as elements of my life as I sit here in my warm room writing this blog post at my laptop, along with the fact that day in a peat bog would look far less appealing if they didn’t exist.
Still, like on the occasions I’ve worked with horses, I’ve found myself pulled away from the glowing screen. Whether I’m raking up meadow grass, planting trees on the muddy banks of a new stream, or chopping stakes for a new fence to the steady drum of rain on my hood I am in my element.
Take me out of solitude in my room or quiet company out in nature and put me in a brightly lit building filled with people rushing about, talking loudly, playing loud music, arguing, I quickly go insane. And I’m probably the odd one in my love of quietude in a society so addicted to noise I knew a girl who couldn’t sleep without the television on and a woman who left a radio on for her horse…
I’m coming to realise that being in my element is essential for both my physical and mental health. The benefits of being out in nature are becoming much more widely recognised in society as a whole with doctors prescribing time outside as an alternative to counselling and medication and eco-therapy and mindfulness and well being walks proliferating. However, it’s troubling to see that these are viewed as therapies and breaks from ‘normal’ life rather than as something essential to our being.
The need to be in my element is a determining factor not only in my choice to pursue a career in conservation but also in the type of job. There are many positions within the Wildlife Trust with different balances between indoors and outdoors and practical work in nature and engaging with the community.
Over the past few months I’ve worked out that, although I’m a writer, I find offices claustrophobic so a communications role wouldn’t suit me. Whilst I’m a poet and run the occasional workshop, as an introvert I find this work incredibly draining, so a community engagement role wouldn’t work either.
What excites me and calls to me and makes me happy is spending time immersed in nature, restoring and maintaining valuable habitats, giving back to the land, in the quiet company of others. Having done a combination of work on reserves and project work I’m beginning to realise that I would prefer to be grounded in a particular place, leading volunteer work parties throughout the year, than restoring somewhere as part of a particular project and then moving on to the next. This has helped me discern that I would be a better ranger, warden, or reserve officer than a project officer.
Another question that has been raised is what kind of habitat I’d like to work on. Where am I in my element? Whilst I enjoyed my day on Highfield Moss, in the Salford area, I recognised it is not ‘my place’. There is an incongruity in driving to a project 30 miles away which aims to help with carbon capture whilst leaving my own carbon footprint.
Unfortunately the mosslands that covered Penwortham, Hutton, Longton, and Farington, along with the intertidal marshlands that lay along the banks of the Ribble, have long been drained away. What we have left, in the wake of industry, is a ‘mosaic’ of habitats which are slowly being restored by the Wildlife Trust and other organisations.
Birch and mixed woodlands on the banks of old rail and tram ways or newly planted on landfill sites. Alder carr and willow scrub on the banks of streams too steep to build on and beside old ponds. Wet meadows sandwiched between roads and houses on boggy ground. New lakes in the pits of quarries planted with reed beds and re-wetted marshlands calling to them moorhens, coots, mute swans, widgeon, tufted ducks, reclusive bitterns, beginning to recall the ancient wetlands that once were.
These messy suburban places, too often seen as inferior to urban but not quite rural, as in between but not liminal, where bags of dog shit hang on trees and one can find the weirdest bottle bongs, but also, occasionally, might see the flash of the kingfisher come to feed on the lake or hear a willow tit, are my element. Not glamorous, I know, not unique, like the Manchester mosslands. Yet they are my place.
So it is toward being a ranger or a warden or a reserve officer as locally as possible where nature and industry and people meet in all their messiness and unexpected scraps of grandeur I will strive towards.
In being in my element, striving to be at one with the elements, even as they are seen to turn against us. To reclaiming an old way of being-with humans and non-humans, listening, sharing, before it is too late.
‘These three stone tools date from the Stone Age. They were mainly used to cut down trees and chop wood but sometimes as weapons. The large polished axe was found in the Broadgate area of Preston and the smaller axe and large mace head were found in the Forest of Bowland.’ The Harris Museum
It’s not one of those new born-of-mountain green-blue shiny polished “wrap it up tightly” “do not get it dirty” ceremonial “do not touch” “the Thunder God at the top of the mountain who stands on a bull with a bolt of lightning in his hand will blow your head off” “only she who has bathed in the spring at the foot of the Green Hill on the Water then walked round it sunwise blindfold on one leg after fasting for a year,” kind of things…
No, my father’s axe was split from an old flint abandoned on the hillside slightly lopsided blunt at one end sharp at the other like his temper. He worked at it all his life – knapping, sharpening, polishing between felling trees and splitting heads. Grumbling, cursing, like the odd dwarf who led him to it – a gift of the Sons of Stone, from the Lord of the Mines tapped from his veins.
There was flint in him, my dad, flint and river water, bulls and lightning too when he wanted his own way…
This is my my last piece of him chipped from the hills where he wandered with the cattle brought them home safely with the hornless skulls of men.
Yet I am no axe-wielder. I will bury it within – return it to the mines of the Old Ones. Sharpen and polish the stone axe of this voice instead.
*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photograph.
On Thursday I was helping to clear windblown trees from the pathway around Horrocks Flash on the Wigan Flashes on a volunteer work party as part of my placement with the Carbon Landscapes Partnership.
Horrocks Flash (a flash is a lake that formed in a hollow after subsidence – in this case caused by coal mining) is surrounded by wet woodland and is an area that I had never visited before.
As we walked the pathway and cleared the fallen trees we noticed scarlet elfcups on the dead branches and twigs and the leaf litter on the woodland floor almost everywhere we looked. When I went to use the natural facilities I could barely take a step without treading on them.
I’d seen scarlet elfcups in local woodlands and on the Wigan Flashes, but never in such density or high numbers. The Project Officer and Assistant Project Officer agreed there were more than in past years. So I decided to do some research to see if I could find an explanation for this remarkable occurrence.
I found out that scarlet elfcups (Sarcoscypha austriaca) are ‘fairly widespread but uncommon in Britain and Ireland’. Sarcoscypha comes from the Greek skyphos ‘drinking bowl’ and austriaca means ‘from Austria’. Their common names ‘scarlet elf cap, scarlet cup, red cup, moss cups, and fairies’ baths’ originate from the widespread European belief that elves and fairies drink from and bathe in them.
They are sacrophytic fungi (from the Latin sapro ‘detritus’ and phage ‘a thing that devours’) which means they gain their nutrition by processing dead matter. The scarlet cup or bowl shaped caps are their fruiting bodies and their ‘barely discernible’ stems attach to leaf litter and dead and decaying wood (particularly willow, alder, hazel, maple, and elm). They usually appear in winter and in early spring and favour ‘areas with high rainfall’ – damp woodland floor, ditches and stream banks.
Here I found clues to the climatic and ecological conditions scarlet elf cups grow best in. Looking further I discovered that for ‘optimal growth’ sacrophytic fungi require the ‘presence of water’, the ‘presence of oxygen’, ‘neutral-acidic pH’ (under 7), and ‘low-medium temperature’ (between 1°C and 35°C).
I conjecture the mildness of this winter, with only a few cold snaps, and the heavy rainfall, are the main causes of such large numbers of scarlet elfcups in this wet woodland, where water and oxygen, and the types of wood they favour are clearly present (the pH of the soil would require testing).
Their appearance in high numbers vividly marks a mild and wet winter brought about by climate change. On a symbolic level their vibrant red bowls speak of both the enchantment and danger of Elfland/Faerieland and its inhabitants, who are renowned for their abilities to curse and bless. Climate change brings curses to some species and blessings to others.
If this is the year of the scarlet elf cup what does this signify for us, for our wet woodlands, for our relationship with the thisworldly and otherworldy persons with whom we share them?