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.

I Plant these Seeds

I plant these seeds for better days.
Amaethon, Modron hear my words.
By this full moon I sow and pray
from Annwn they will rise to birth.

I plant these seeds for better days.
Divine Mother, Ploughman who hold
in earth’s row and runnel our fate
bring life from darkness green and bold.

I plant these seeds for better days.
Great She Who Gives and He Who Toils
be kind to us although we’ve strayed
and bring our harvest from the soil.

I plant these seeds for better days.
God and Goddess of Earth’s Furrow
from which these new lives wait to wake
I pray that we will see them grow.

The Strong Door

Be my
strong door,
mighty-girthed oak,
stout defence of
this island.

Be my
strong door,
dair, derwen, Daronwy,
Oak of Goronwy,
rooted firmly

yellow daffodils grow

be the defence of
my people.

disease panic
the viral hordes
of Annwn

help us
hold firm.

Be my strong door.

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

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

the flowers grow
your beloved

I pray
for the patience
of a flower

that we shall grow
and flourish

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

Twelve Days of Prayer

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a ‘sacred and festive season’ marked by Christians between Christmas Day (25th December) and the Epiphany (6th January). It was instituted by the Council of Tours in 567 to mark the period between the birth of Jesus and the revelation he is God incarnate on the visit of the magi.

For me, as a Brythonic polytheist who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd as Winter’s King, the mid-winter holy days have always felt particularly special and sacred. They begin with Eponalia, on 18th December, the feast of the horse-goddess and midwife of the sun. This is followed by the Winter Solstice, 21st / 22nd December, the height of Gwyn’s reign and presence within the land. 24th December is Mother’s Night and, although this is traditionally an Anglo-Saxon festival, one I associate with the Mother Goddesses such as Matrona/Modron and Anrhuna. 25th December is the day of the rebirth of the sun-child Maponos/Mabon. Then the next twelve days are a time of rest and celebration based around casting out the old year and welcoming in and preparing for the new.

Over the past few years I have noticed an increasing number of other pagans and polytheists exploring ways of marking these holy days. There are existing traditions of using them for divination. From my mum I learnt of the tradition of recording one’s dreams and linking them numerically to the calendar months. Cailtin Matthews has suggested using the Twelve Days for reading nature omens in a similar way.

In his essay ‘On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me…’ Lee Davies connects the Twelve Days with Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead, who ride out to clear the ground for the New Year and also bring blessings of prosperity. He speaks of the koryos tradition in which people not only embody but ‘become the dead’ – a possible root of the misrule associated with the Twelfth Night.

With this in mind I decided to use the Twelve Days as a period of more intensive prayer and prayer writing for Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn and the dead with whom he rides out on his hunt through the winter months. This resulted in a series of visions and visionary dialogues. Here I share a selection from the twelve prayers.

Twelve Days of Prayer

For Gwyn

is to open
the little box of the heart
to let in the god who cannot fit within

two sides of a membrane
flap, dissolve like
the so-called

between the worlds
when you ride from the mist
on a creature somewhat like a horse
two hounds with teeth within teeth
all the countless uncontainable
monsters of Annwn

this little box
I sometimes call a heart.
When it bursts and otherworlds
spill forth I know it is
so much more.

You are ghost.
You and your legions.

You clothe yourselves
in cloud, in mist, you move
through our world like the wind.
Sometimes we hear you passing through.
Sometimes we sense only your silence
as you fill our vales with neither
your presence or absence.

Sometimes I feel ashamed
of my flesh and my fear to follow
you into battle in the wars that
rage on between the worlds.

Could it be that I’m afraid of death?

Of seeing my ghost looking back at me
as I write this poem from amongst your kind?

“You wear your flesh and your fear well.”

You speak in the voice that turns gold to leaves
and flesh to dust and skin to paper bearing
an elegy on the heels of your host.

“Fierce bull of battle,
awesome leader of many,”
I find myself whispering
Gwyddno’s words as though
they were the beginning
of an ancient prayer.

“Who will protect me?

“I will protect you.”

Your armour is a night
of stars and each of them
wields a spear against

my deep demonic fears.

I am awed by your strength
as I am mystified by its origin
for to whom does a god turn?
To whom does a god pray?

I see a bull striding majestic
down a passageway of light
into the infinite brightness
of a star, a heart, a fortress,
the Otherworld within his chest.

I come to pray
when I want to scream.

If I could comprehend you
could I contain the spirits within?

I fear to scream is the obliteration

of all prayer until you show me

how you tend to all the silent
and the unsilent screams

for a scream is prayer
as crescendo.

I pray to you
as your awenydd
as your inspired poet

speak of my restlessness
the jangling of spirits within
my intimation I could be

so much more and you say:

“Poetry is more than rhyming words.
Awen is more than human speech.

The soul of the earth is living poetry
and each soul itself a poem breathed –

part of the divine breath which keeps

the rivers afloat, the mountains high,
the deer running through the woodlands,
the birds in the skies, the flowers growing
upwards turning their heads towards the sun.
And has the power to transform it all –
hurricanes, volcanic flames, tidal waves,
the death-wind from a nuclear blast creating
the wolves with glowing eyes and the monsters
with limbs where there should not be limbs
spoken of by awenyddion of long ago.

It can destroy (or fix) everything.

Why do you think I keep the awen
in a cauldron in a fortress that disappears
that spins that is shrouded by mystery and mist
and is sometimes known as the towers of the winds
and sometimes as the whale’s belly?

There is nothing more – I should know
for I have sought, I have hunted, with every
hound of Annwn beyond where the winds
of Thisworld and Otherworld blow beyond
the Universe and its moment of conception and
come back with nothing on my bloodless spear,
my hounds with nothing in their empty jaws,
bearing nothing in my empty hands but
knowing a little more about nothing.

One cannot be any more and about nothing
there is nothing to be said so be happy
as you are, awenydd, whilst still
a bearer of the divine breath.”

Your gift

is a shining bow
washed in the light
of the New Year’s sun.

I pray for the strength to draw it.
I pray for the patience to carve the arrows
each engraved with the words of a spell.
I pray for the focus to shoot true,

mind, body, and bow as one,
straight to the heart.

In Moments of Terror

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us
– Rilke

I grew up with negative connotations of prayer and still do not fully understand what it is, only that I prayed reflexively at frightening times in my life and someone answered. It was a long while until I found out who that was, began exploring prayer as a regular practice, and came to realise prayer is a fundamental means of reaching out to the gods essential to our being.

Brought up in a nominally Christian family I was never forced to pray, but vaguely recall sleeping at a friend’s house and both us having to say ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ before we went to bed. We jabbered through it as quickly as we could, not thinking about its meaning. She thought God was called Harold, mistaking ‘hallowed’ for ‘Harold’ in ‘hallowed be thy name’.

I went to Sunday School and attended church parade at St Leonard’s C of E Church with Brownies. Some part of my soul rebelled against the rigid services, punitive black-and-white theology, and the patriarchal presence of the Christian God. Eventually I refused outright to go.

Refusing to worship Jahweh I considered myself an atheist for a number of years even though I was looking for something… somebody… I was drawn to the deities of our world myths, but the mainstream worldview taught they belonged to a naive past, even though I could sense their presences dancing in the back of my mind like sunspots long after I’d put down a book.

Without knowing of the existence of modern Paganism or Polytheism I had no context for the sense of the divine I felt in the landscape, for otherworldly experiences some beautiful, some troubling. In moments of terror I prayed although I did not know who I was praying to.

The root of ‘prayer’ is the Latin precarius, ‘obtained by treaty’, which gives us ‘precarious’, suggesting such treaties are made in ‘risky, dangerous, uncertain’ situations. Non-religious people often pray when their lives or those of their loved ones are threatened; like it’s a base instinct, a mechanism deep-wired within our souls to reach out to the divine when faced with peril.

At times when I had panic attacks or thought I was going mad I prayed. Driving on the motorway in the midst of panic, thinking I was going to lose consciousness or control, I felt strangely held. Despite fears I would never get back I always did. When I was convinced I was mad, that I couldn’t tell what was real and what was not anymore, into my mind came the words, “So you’re mad, what difference does it make?” (I’d thought this was a quote remembered from Nietzsche, who walked with mad gods, but have never been able to find it). Nothing, I realised, nothing at all, and since then madness has held no fear for me.

It wasn’t until I was thirty I met the god who was behind my visions of the Otherworld; who’d led me a chase through poetry, philosophy, drink, dancing, to the brink of the abyss and back: Gwyn ap Nudd, the Hunter, Rider of Insomniac Nights, Gatherer of Souls, Light of the Mist.

This happened at a nadir of despair. After failing to become a philosophy lecturer and succeed in a career with horses, I had realised the fantasy novel I spent two years writing was unpublishable. I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do with my life or any reason to go on. Yet something within me put out an entreaty, ‘a cry from the heart’. Summoned by tolling bells I went to weep beneath a leaning yew tree at an old fairy site and sang a sad song.

Leaning Yew

When Gwyn appeared to me I was struck by a sense of awe bordering on panic by his terrible beauty:

His spectral shine shimmers white as moonlight
His hair floats fair about his phantom limbs
His warrior attire is black as night.
The eyes of the hunter of souls are grim
As the howl of his hounds on Annwn’s winds.

This was followed immediately by recognition. It was he who swept me away on the winds of terror like the riders on his hunt – I often felt like I was flying ‘between sky and air’ – yet also held me and taught me I was safe. He was the storm and the calm at its centre. He, the god of the dead, the mad, and poets, was the source of the words that cured my fear of madness. He was the somebody I’d always been looking for. Always. Since the beginning of time.

Some soul-deep entreaty/prayer had been answered. A treaty between us soon followed. I dedicated myself to Gwyn as my patron, vowing to honour him daily, stand by my truth, and walk between Thisworld and Annwn (the Brythonic Otherworld which he rules) with reverence. I became his awenydd ‘person inspired’ and have been praying to him every day since.

My initial cries of “Please, please, please help me!” opened a gateway of communication between my god and I, unlocked my heart to the divine, to sacred relationship. In Judaism prayer is defined as ‘a service of the heart’ (from Deuteronomy ‘You will serve God with your whole heart’), describing beautifully the depth of service my knee-jerk prayers have led to.

Not only do I pray to Gwyn for inspiration and guidance, but I see my role of journeying with him between the worlds to recover the lost stories of my landscape from the mists of time and reveal the roots of his forgotten myths as a heartfelt and prayerful process essential to my being.

Sadly, in secular society, even when prayers are answered too few of us question by whom or fulfil our side of the treaty. Our potential for relationship with the divine – to reach outside our everyday lives and enter the service of somebody or something greater – remains unfulfilled.

Obscured by oppressive state religions and secular norms our ability to pray remains dormant until precarious times when somebody opens a door. Could it be that we are fundamentally prayerful creatures? That prayer is the heart-root of all purpose, meaning, our relationships with the gods?

*This article was published in ‘People of Prayer‘, Isis-Seshat, Issue 41, Vol. 13, Spring 2018
**I will be speaking on ‘Becoming a Devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd’ at the Pagan Federation North West Conference at Preston Grasshoppers on Saturday.

How to Pray

After Rilke’s First Duino Elegy

In Annwn below the earth…
There is one who knows
what sadness
is better than joy
The Hostile Confederacy

Who, if I cried out, would hear me
in the depths of Annwn? Its spirits
have wings yet are not Rilke’s angels.
I am all alone in my dark sobbing.
My hands are clasped. How to pray
when told prayer has little worth?
How to fling out this heartfelt cry
on the unclipped wings of a bird,
throughout Prydain make it heard
and in Annwn below the earth?

Voices, voices, whisper in my ears.
I, unsaintly, do not know how to hear.
How to listen as saints have heard
to voices of spirits derided as devils,
denied, defied on summits of hills,
chthonic shrines now unhallowed?
How to respond to spirits of Annwn
cast out with their unangelic terror?
Deep below, so very deep below
there is one who knows.

Oh what does he know?
Speak, please, not of sorrow,
the hardness of being dead and those
who move between the dead and living,
who died violently and could not rest,
wandered lost to their madness
until he called them home.
Speak instead of the glow
of his mead hall, the gladness
of his poetry, not what sadness

lies within his soul of many souls.
It’s said he contains the fury of the devils
of Annwn within him – an eternal current
sweeping through all the ages,
both worlds. Swept along
only knowing him when we die,
we have lost so much and are so lost.
How to pray to him in his immensity?
Fling out my cry knowing his reply
will be better than joy?seagull-flying-3-public-domain-photos