I. The Glosa
As an awenydd and polytheist writing and sharing poetry is an essential part of my path. Of all the poetic forms I have experimented with, including English, Welsh, Irish, French, and Italian metres, I have found the Spanish glosa the most conducive to religious practice.
The glosa was invented by the Spanish court poets during the Golden Age. It takes the form of four lines of text (texto) from an existing poet and four ten line stanzas of commentary (gloss) written by the glosser with the final line taken consecutively from the quatrain. The conventional rhyme scheme is ABBAACCDDC.
This versatile form was popular in Parisian literary salons during the reign of Louis XVI, in Germany in the Romantic period, and in Latin America throughout the struggles for independence. It was introduced into the English language comparatively recently by the Canadian poet P. K. Page in 1994.
In Hologram, Page used a series of glossae to pay homage to other poets. Her use of a rhyme scheme where the sixth and ninth lines rhyme with the borrowed tenth, and italicisation of the text and its repetitions, has set the form for poetry in English.
Page’s work prepared the ground for Charlotte Hussey, another Canadian poet, who teaches Old Irish and Arthurian literature and studied Celtic Shamanism with Tom Cowan. Her collection of glossae, Glossing the Spoils (2012), glosses the ‘earliest Western European texts’ to ‘mend a break in tradition and time’, thereby reweaving the ancient myths into modernity.
In these glossae Hussey opens a visionary space between texto and gloss where it is possible for conversations with mythic personages and experiences of the transformative qualities of ‘the spoils’ to take place. In ‘Lake of the Cauldron’ she glosses lines from ‘Branwen Daughter of Llyr’. After watching a ‘huge man with yellow-red hair’ emerging ‘from the lake with the cauldron on his back’ the narrator is pushed ‘into the boil’ by a woman with ‘dreadlocks’, ‘long breasts’, and ‘a sweaty belly’ who ‘hacks / shoulder blades, buttocks apart, / scrapes off chunks of flesh / bones sinking then surging to the rim’. The ‘great monstrous man’ from the text watches her dismemberment ‘with an evil thieving look about him’.
Many of the poems reveal the subliminal influence of these near-forgotten myths on our time. ‘Trolls’ is based on lines spoken by the Loathly Lady in Parzival. It ends with ‘The knight, lifting his fluted, iron / visor with its narrow sights’ to ‘stare out’ for ‘a crusading convoy / to join, another holocaust to start, / or a melancholic witch to burn’. Glossing Perlesvaus, Hussey draws parallels between the animistic qualities of the ghastly black shield of the knight’s aggressor with its ‘dragon’s head throwing out / fire and flame with a terrible force’ and the atom bomb – a weapon of destruction she notes cannot be contained or exorcised (1).
I read Glossing the Spoils for the first time in 2012. Discovering the glosa and Hussey’s use of it as a gateway to visionary experience has had a profound effect on my spiritual path and my approach to the medieval Welsh texts that are central to my tradition as an awenydd.
II. The Bull of Conflict
I wrote my first glosa in September that year after an initiatory encounter with Gwyn ap Nudd, a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld. Desiring to honour and thank him for pulling me back from the brink of an abyss and to learn more about him, I decided to gloss four lines from ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2).
This poem, from The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350) documents a conversation that takes place in the misty hinterland between the worlds following Gwyddno’s death. Gwyn appears as a ‘bull of conflict’ – a divine warrior and psychopomp – to guide Gwyddno back to Annwn. Set during the fall of northern Britain to the Anglo-Saxons it contains some of the most powerful and poignant lines in Western European literature, ending with Gwyn’s lament:
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.
Choosing four lines I started by meditating on the first and was taken back to walking the streets of Preston that afternoon in the aftermath of the Preston Guild Festival (4) and the pervading melancholy. Drifting amongst shadow-people I found myself in the Harris Museum surrounded by the spoils of war and face-to-face with Gwyn stepping from the poem.
In this familiar yet unfamiliar space, between texto and gloss, between poet and god a conversation took place that would change my life. Gwyn’s imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’ gave me a purpose, became the title of my first book, and has guided my path ever since.
The Bull of Conflict
I come from battle and conflict
With a shield in my hand;
Broken is the helmet
By the pushing of spears.
‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’
On an empty day automata drift,
Wending suit shapes through the mist.
Touchless I fade like a symbol unhitched.
The spoils of war quake in the museum.
Piercing the grey wearing horns of a bull
A white warrior blackened and bloodied
Disguises his limp in an infinite gloom,
On his spear leans, softly says:
“My comrades are slain and yet I live,
I come from battle and conflict.”
His dire avowal brings howling winds,
Chill clutch at my shoulders their lament dins
Of hero light fading from mortal skin.
In glass cabinets swords clash savage,
Raging figures thrash on ragged pages
Chanting the desolate past of ravaged war bands.
With war-torn wisdom, sombrely he whispers:
“These gathered memories to you I give.
Gone are the days I crossed this land
With a shield in my hand.”
His barrage of sadness barks in my mind
Like hapless hounds on a winter’s night.
Fierce their madness, dark their plight,
For the perishing souls they collect,
The past’s great spirit protect.
Like thundering wind obligation overwhelms me.
The blade of futility threatens to unfasten me.
“How do I cherish and defend these memories
When like the kingdoms of Rheged and Elmet
Broken is the helmet?”
I ask the Bull of Conflict.
His tears run bright with the passing of time,
Chariots wheeling in multihued light,
Victims reflected in star lit skies.
He says: “this shadow land needs enchantment
To banish the blight of despair.
Nurture the memories with magic
And they’ll sing a blessed new year.
Do not be pressed into fear
By the pushing of spears.”
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience which led me to devote myself to Gwyn as my patron god. Nothing quite like it has happened since and I have written many glosa, good and bad.
III. The Spoils
Hussey’s title, Glossing the Spoils, works on many levels. By ‘the spoils’ it refers to the spoils of war, the spoils of the distant past gathered in museums, and the spoils of our literary heritage. It also subtly alludes to ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, from The Book of Taliesin (14th C). Taliesin, the narrator, accompanies Arthur and his men on a raid on Annwn to plunder its treasures, including the cauldron of Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn). There a catastrophic battle takes place, which Gwyn later describes to Gwyddno:
And to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Fanddwy.
At Caer Fanddwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.
Arthur assaults ‘the honoured and fair’: the fair folk ruled by Gwyn, who are forced to retaliate. In a moment suggestive of both pillage and rape Lleog thrusts his ‘flashing sword’ into the cauldron and it is ‘left behind in Lleminog’s hand’. Arthur escapes from Annwn with the spoils, slamming ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut. Only seven of three ship-loads of his men survive the conflict.
Analogously most of the spoils in our museums have been plundered violently from other lands. The literary heritage of Western Europe is largely based on a history of the victors, mythic and real, crusading, conquering, colonising. As Walter Benjamin says: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’
These thoughts were on my mind when I embarked on a quest to explore the contemporary relevance of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain (3). They include the cauldron (which is kept by Dyrnwch the Giant), the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir, vessels for eating and drinking, weapons, items of clothing, and vehicles for transport. It is likely most of them were won or stolen from Annwn by the northern British warlords who own them.
Like the spoils evoked by Hussey the treasures are animate, inspirited, alive, expressing their agency through magical qualities. The cauldron will only brew meat for the brave. Brân’s horn provides any drink one wishes. Morgan’s chariot takes a traveller wherever they wish quickly. Rhydderch’s sword bursts into flames in the hand of any man who is well-born.
The Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau, ‘Chessboard of Gwenddolau’ (4), is made of gold and has silver gwerin, ‘men’, who play by themselves. The men represent Gwenddolau’s army and his enemy and serve a divinatory function – the outcome of the game predicts the result of real battles.
Writing a glosa based on four lines about the chessboard took me on a visionary journey to Gwenddolau’s seat of rule in Arfderydd (modern day Arthuret in Scotland) and gave me a glimpse of its magic outliving Gwenddolau to predict the outcomes of upcoming wars.
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau…
if the pieces are set,
they play by themselves.
The board is gold and the men silver (5).
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain
I leave my world behind at Carwinley Burn
to follow the feral steps of a girl,
red-haired, torqued, coloured-trousered,
a wild thing with fox’s teeth at her neck
down a fox-hole to the grave
Beside his bull-horned corpse
stands a table and upon it a golden board.
Round its edges silver dead men lie.
“The Chessboard of Gwenddolau
has lain here as long as my father,”
she says. “It predicts the outcome of battles.
It played before Arfderydd, Catraeth,
when Britain’s air force clashed
with the Luftwaffe,
on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. As yet
it has never mispredicted an event.
At times of peace it sleeps.
At times of threat
if the pieces are set
they play out every move in the coming conflict.”
As she speaks the eyes of a warrior
jerk open and his spasmodic
hand grips his spear.
A warhorse rises from a tangle of stirrups and mane.
A bishop shakes off his robes and delves
for fireballs and mist in his pockets.
Caers rebuild their ramparts.
Returning to health
they play by themselves
speechless as automata resuming their positions.
Warriors move forward two squares
spearing on the diagonal.
over the mounting carnage,
on a fiery blast fall into splinters.
A king drags his queen into a caer.
As the bishops prepare the final spell
I am shaken by a premonitory shiver.
The board is gold and the men silver.
For me this glosa reveals the sad fact that since the war-torn period when Gwenddolau lived and now there has barely been a time when the warriors of Britain have not been at war. The uncanny battles fought between the gwerin, beneath the earth, in Annwn, represent our militant history.
As modern glossers we are faced with a past of ravaging, wounding, spoiling: a world spoilt by Arthurian warlords. How, between texto and gloss, can we enchant its shadows, heal its wounds?
(1) In ‘Glossing Faery’
(2) At this point I was working with William Skene’s 1868 translation. I recommend the 2015 translation by Greg Hill. The title and glossed lines are from Skene, but the other two are from Hill.
(3) The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain appear in several medieval Welsh manuscripts. The earliest is the autograph of Gwilym Tew in Peniarth Manuscript 51 (1460).
(4) Gwyddbwyll means ‘wood-sense’. Its translation as ‘Chessboard’ isn’t entirely correct because chess originated in the Arab world and was imported to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century.
(5) Here I took the poetic liberty of changing the form and tense of the original quote.
Charlotte Hussey, Glossing the Spoils, (Awen Publications, 2012)
Charlotte Hussey, ‘Glossing Faery’, Awen ac Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Awen ac Awenydd,
Keith Ellis, ‘The Glosa: A Genre to be Noticed for its Constructive Values’, Comparative Literature and World Literature, Vol 1. No. 2 (2016)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
P. K. Page, Hologram, (Brick Books, 1995)
Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History‘, Marxists.org
William Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Four Books of Ancient Wales, (Forgotten Books, 2007)