My Father’s Axe

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.

Ribble Ancestors

Fists of Stone

The face of a Stone Age man from the North West… about 40 years old when he died
The Harris Museum

They’ve given you a face.

Taken your 5,500 year old skull,
added facial tissue and facial muscles –
temporalis, masseter, buccinator,
occipito frontals, nose, lips.

Decided upon your expression.

It’s 2019 and the ‘ug’ caricatures
and Flintstones references are behind us
yet there is flint and stone in your jaw.
Your shoulders are like a boxer’s

so I imagine you ‘putting them up’.

Fists of stone – you were a prize fighter.
You would have been the strong man
of your day, felling old bog oaks
with your rough stone axe,

pulling them two at a time,

the muscles in your back –
trapezius, rhomboideus, serratus,
teres minor
and major, thoracolumbar fascia
straining as your broad feet sucked
in and out of the marsh.

Your children swinging from
your broad arms like long-tailed tits –
countless, twittering, as you tossed them
like juggling balls into the air.

Your wife liked to massage out
your knots and twists – tighter more oaklike
as you aged, treating each muscle
in turn like a polished stone,

tending to your calloused hands –

bathing your blisters, dabbing ointment
on your cracked knuckles, mending
your broken fingers with oaken splints.

When you fell like a tree,
not in battle but quietly on
your way back from the woods,
little birds in your branches,

muscles knotting one last time,

she did not carve your head but your fists
in stone, cast them into the river
with the oaklike log
of your corpse.

The little pebbles
of your pisiform bone,
metacarpals and phalanges
can be found on the riverbank
where she once grieved.

~

Cribra Orbitalia

This is the oldest skull so far dated – to between 3820 and 3640BC… This woman may have suffered from anaemia, indicated by an area of pitting in her left eye known as cribra orbitalia.’
The Harris Museum

You were a pale child.

Always the first to tire
on the walk from camp to camp,
struggling for breath, clutching at your chest.
You said your head was light as a wisp of smoke
before you lay down and floated away.
You said you were a feather.

The reddest of meat failed
to bring a blush to your cheeks,
to keep you to the ground.

Often you touched the ridge
of your left brow and pressed
as if probing for the lesion.

When your skin turned yellow
as the beak of a whooper swan,
your eyes eerie and wolf-like,

you were exalted and they listened

to your visions of flying white-winged
to the distant north where frost giants fought
with fists of ice and the claws of bears
were hungry for your children.

When you returned with
seven cygnets ghosting from
beneath your right wing

they walked on egg shells
fearing you were the daughter
of the God of the Otherworld.

When you were found
with a single feather on your breast
it was said you flew with him to Cygnus,
rising on your last swan’s breath.

Now instead they point to the pitting
of your left eye and speak of cribra orbitalia –
the hypertrophy of red bone marrow, megabolasts,
megabolastic anaemia, lack of intrinsic factor,
the uptake of coblamin (vitamin B12).

And I try to hold both science and myth
in the cavelike porosities of your left orbit….

~

Shades of Blue

‘an older man who may have lived in the Stone Age as there is evidence that he has been killed with a stone implement, similar to the axes displayed’
The Harris Museum

You had a violent reputation.

It travelled with you across
the Water Country like the flies
on the back of the aurochs

who buzzed around the heads
of your enemies clotting like blood
around their pecked out eyes.

She always knew when you
were coming back by the noise
of the bluebottle… zzz…???

A flicker across the rush light.
Zzz… zzz…. zzz… unmistakeable.
A rush of dread as it was lit up on
the wall shiny iridescent blue.

When she was little she counted
its colours and gave them names like
New Dawn Blue, Noon Blue, Happy Blue,
Deep Waters, Dwellings in the Sea-Sky Blue.
As the shadows of her marriage darkened
she named them Twilight Blue, Indigo,
Bruise Blue, Black Blue of Murder.

Her hand went to her broken cheekbone.

She took the children to the Whistler in the Rushes.

In her hands she took the sharpened stone.

Nobody questioned or regretted your death:
“A crash in the night – so many enemies.”

Except the bluebottle who buzzed in circles
around your head, spiralling, spiralling upwards.
Death Blue, Decision Blue, Tear Blue, Last Bruise,
River-mirror Blue, Bright Blue of Freedom.

It disappeared as you sunk into eternal blue.

~

Loose Tongue

‘Experts disagree whether it is a skull of a woman or man. It’s smaller than other skulls found in the dock, but it has distinct male eyebrow ridges. There is evidence that this person may have died by from a weapon entering their skull. It may be the skull of a Roman settler or someone born in Iron Age Britain.’
The Harris Museum

No-one knew
if you were Roman or Briton,
noble or commoner, male or female,
only that you were not from the North.
The names of the gods mixed on your tongue
like wine and mead in the fortresses of the Otherworld.
“Vindos-Dis, Mars-Nodens, Apollo-Maponus,
Belisama-Minerva, Taranis-Jupiter.”

Your tongue got you into trouble
stirring the desires of the young but
allowing none to lift up your robe.

Everywhere you went there was gossip.

You’d come to the High Hills in purple
wearing sandals, golden bangles, golden rings
on your fingers and toes and a jewelled golden crown.
Come back down like madness to the Water Country,
ragged as a beggar, preaching of a world where
Roman and Briton lived in unison with no
divisions between man and woman or
wrong places to put one’s tongue.

A parochial chieftain hated your
androgyny and the hateful looseness
of your tongue so it was not long before
you were stripped naked and fishlike
beside the river before the gods.

The spear thrust into your mouth
did not stop your brazen tongue from
wagging on as the water embraced
you as both daughter and son.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photographs.

The Broadgate Polished Stone Axe

In the Harris Museum there is a beautifully polished stone axe which was found in the Ribble at Broadgate. The stone is smooth and grey-greenish. The larger cutting edge is sharp and rounded (although it looks like the lower portion may be broken) and the hafting end smaller, round, and smooth.

Hominids have been making axes for over two million years and they have taken many shapes and forms. These ubiqutous tools were used for felling trees, coppicing, in the crafting of dwellings, fencing, wooden walkways, and dug-out canoes, and in battle (one of the skulls found whilst exacavting the Riversway Docklands belonged to a Neolithic man killed by a blow to the head with a stone axe).

Polished stone axes are a Neolithic phenomenon and were made between 2750 and 2000BC. Most of the examples found in Lancashire originate from the Langdale axe industry and were made of Langdale tuff (a ‘greenstone’ formed from volcanic ash) collected and quarried from Pike of Stickle, Harrison Stickle, and Scafell Pike, on some of the highest fells in Cumbria.

These axes would have been recognised not only as special but as sacred due to the qualities of the Langdale tuff and the effort put into shaping and polishing it. Axes were polished with polishing stones, which can be recognised by the grooves made by polishing, and range in size from slightly bigger than the axe to standing stones within the landscape bearing multiple grooves.

Later oral traditions such as ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ listing artefacts such as ‘The Sword of Rhydderch Hael’, ‘The Knife of Llawfrodedd Farchog’, and ‘The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudclyd’ suggest the axe may have borne the name of its most illustrious owner.

After use, having been passed down through generations, polished stone axes were deposited purposefully. In Prehistoric Lancashire David Barrowclough records depositions on the north coast of Morecambe Bay ‘in fissures and gaps in the out-cropping stone’and in a limestone gryke at Skelmore Heads. Nine were discovered on Pilling Moss. At Crookabreast Farm an axe was found with four polishers, one of which was pushed ‘into a cavity in the roots of an oak tree… presumably a “moss stock” or “bog oak”’.

Barrowclough notes: ‘rivers and wetlands were important places for deposition and it is notable that the axes from Lancashire have a definite riverine and mossland distribution… many of the axes must have been deposited deliberately… wet places, whether river or bog, had a specific significance.’

Gaps, grykes, fissures, rivers, wetlands, and mosslands/bogs were seen by the ancient Britons as places of access to the Otherworld and as associated with its gods and spirits and with the ancestors. It seems possible that the Broadgate axe was an offering to Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’ or ‘Most Mighty One’, the goddess of the Ribble.

What brought about the decision to deposit the axe in the Ribble remains unknown. Perhaps the last of its lineage of owners died and it was deposited with his or her body in the waters (Mick Wysocki suspects the Neolithic people disposed of their dead in the river and their passage out to sea might have been seen as representing their passage to the Otherworld which was later known as Annwn ‘the Deep’).

Another possibility is that it was offered to Belisama as a petition to prevent the rising of her waters. Between 2300 and 2000BC the climate grew colder and wetter and the Broadgate area would have been inundated at times of high tides. Again we are entering a period when the waters of our seas and rivers are rising, this time due to man-made climate change, and the Broadgate polished axe might be seen as a symbol connecting us to our ancestors and the shared dangers we face.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photograph of the axe.

I Call to the Ancestors

Featured Image -- 12744

My poem ‘I Call to the Ancestors’ has been published on Gods & Radicals. As an antidote to the anthropocentrism of the Anthropocene, it forms a call to all our ancestors since life’s beginning.

GODS & RADICALS

I call to the first single-celled bacteria who divided on that fateful day.
I call to the green-blue algae sun-bathing slimily on the sea.
I call to the stromatolites, living rocks, anchors, billions of years old.
I call in the Cambrian explosion: BOOM! Let there be life!
I call to the trilobite. Come famous one, hard-shelled, scurrying,
many-legged, throwing off your shadow-fossils on the sea-floor.
I call to anomalocaris: stalk-eyed predator, lobed,
spike-armed, round-mawed.
I call to ottaia, opabinia, hallucigenia, canadaspis, marrela.
I call to the crinoids and nautiloids; many-tentacled in party hats.
I call to the sea scorpion, to jawless and jawed, ray-finned and lobe-finned fish.
I call to the sporing plants; Cooksonia, ready your sporangia.
I call to fern, horse-tail, club moss, scaly tree.
I call to the tetrapods; casineria with your five toes,
aconthostega, diadactes, eucritta from the black lagoon.
I call to the gigantic dragonfly: let…

View original post 284 more words

The lump of my ‘workshyness’ and wanting to change the world

“I want to change the world.”

I state my desire to my deity in meditation at 7am aware as I do so of the rest of the world getting up, feeding the cats, walking the dog, jamming down breakfast, starting the car and joining the endless chug of exhaust fumes to offices and retail centres.

I’m not going to work today. My statement is laden with guilt. As I’m not working and have the luxury of sitting in meditation I feel driven to make my focus changing the world which forces so many other people into mind-numbing meaningless jobs:

sitting in call centres 9-5 Monday to Friday wired up to head phones trying to sell double glazing and insurance;

cleaning the crumbs and greasy handprints off the computers and desks and emptying the bins spilling sandwich and crisp wrappers of the people selling double glazing and insurance;

taking complaint after complaint about benefit fraud and dealing with the pettiness of complaints regarding people claiming to have had a heart attack or to be suffering from depression daring to go outside in the garden or take a walk.

I’m speaking from experience. I’ve done all these jobs: call centre, cleaner, benefit fraud hotline. I’ve also been a chamber maid, shelf-stacker, packer and administrative assistant. I’ve done what is necessary to support my study and later my writing and performing but never managed to stick such jobs because they conflict with what I really want to do.

It’s a vicious cycle and not one I can escape by earning money from my vocation. It’s extremely rare I get paid for my writing and performances or facilitating workshops. Occasionally I sell a book. My yearly income would barely keep me for a month.

If I lived in Nazi Germany I would no doubt be classified as ‘arbeitsscheu’ ‘workshy’ and incarcerated in a concentration camp. Horribly across the UK a similar phenomenon is recurring as people on disability benefits due to physical or mental illness are being reclassified as fit for work. In many instances this has led to suicide.

I’m lucky as I’m not forced to work full-time because my parents put me up. I’m not too ill to work at the moment but I have suffered from anxiety and depression (and still do on and off) and know soul-destroying jobs unfailingly grind me down to tears and hopelessness.

My desire to write goes first. Then my ability to commune with nature and hear the voices of the gods. Meaning and purpose swiftly departs and with that any reason to be alive. If I didn’t have the back-stop of my parents’ home and their support I don’t know what position I’d be in or if I’d be here at all.

Which is why I want to change the world. I want to live in a world where the life of every individual is intrinsically valued. Not this world where a person’s value is determined by their capacity to work in a meaningless job supporting an economy which benefits only the rich and is destroying the earth and human society. A world epitomised by the small-minded vindictiveness of someone who despises their job grassing up the person unable to work because of their depression for taking a walk.

Realistically I don’t possess many qualities suited to changing the world. I’m impractical, illogical and socially inept. I beat myself up continuously because I’m not cut out to be an activist or legislator. Attempting to take a stand on environmental issues at local council meetings I stumble on facts and figures and get the names of councillors wrong to smothered laughs. Unlike some people who buzz off social situations I find them draining and buckle quickly under pressure. I feel like a spare part at protests.(Although I still attend local meetings and protests and will continue to).

What I am good at is poetry and myth. Not the first places you’d look at a time when the greatest need is for manufacturers of pikes, rioters to wield them and thinkers who can traverse the lies and double-speak of parliament with the grace and dexterity of an otter.

Is there anything more useless to this world than a poet? I can think of nothing more useless and could not find a way out of my feelings of uselessness this morning when I dumped the statement of my desire to change the world like a lump of plasticine unformed and unceremoniously at the altar of my god.

Within this monstrous cacophany of thoughts you’re probably wondering whether he got a word in edgeways.

Gwyn ap Nudd’s a King of Annwn: a master of visions and glamoury renowned for his interruptions of hunting horns and a hundred hounds howling on otherworldly winds with a chill to stop one’s heart, his shining beauty and cauldron full of stars.

Today he’s silent. All I see is a depth of indigo and at its edges the melee of my thoughts rattling their pikes. Then further into the deep other pike rattlers throughout the ages who have stated the same desire albeit probably not to Annwn’s King.

Gwyn’s half-smile creases the indigo like a wave. Rattling through the ages comes the answer: there’s no easy solution.

I’m angry. That was not the answer I wanted to hear. I want to throw the ugly unformed plasticine lump of “I want to change the world” out of the window or into the deep.

Sensing my wish curious voices rise. Restless spirits reach forward to examine the plasticine with what may be hands or serpentine tails or wings. I get the impression they want to take it and mould it in their world.

Now it comes down to it I’m not sure I want to give my lump to them. I clutch it close to me. It’s my lump. My problem. My burden. What’s more I want to be seen carrying it and I want to be in control.

They prise it from my fingers. Hold it up to the starlight shining from the seas of Annwn. I see it for what it is. A desire in itself authentic but baked clumsily in the crucible of work and workshyness to the chant of uselessness and guilt. They dive with it back into the deep still indigo.

My guilt and uselessness dissolve and I realise they stem from taking on the values of a system set on devaluing all religion that it cannot harness for political control and all art that does not beg to the custodians of the establishment or market itself as mass entertainment. A system founded on the destruction of mytho-poetic worldviews.

I catch a glimmer of the Awen in what the system needs to keep destroyed. No easy solution but I see what I need to do.

I speak farewell to the lump of my ‘workshyness’ and wanting to change the world.

I assert the value of myth and poetry and the value of a poet ‘useless’ and ‘workshy’.

I pour a libation for Gwyn, the spirits of the deep, the pike-wielding ancestors and walk in trust with a pike in my hand to change the world.

***

*This piece was written yesterday and was provoked by two excellent articles on contemporary political issues: one by Brian Taylor ‘Austerity Watch, Cut to Death‘ and one by Mark Rosher ‘Living with Madness‘ and an awful article condemning ‘otherworldy polytheism’ by John Halstead ‘If It Doesn’t Help Me Save This World, I Don’t Want Your Polytheist Revolution‘.

Birkacre Rioters

‘They went in about 2 o’clock and before 4 destroy’d all the machinery, the Great Wheel, and set fire to the broken frames’
Home Office Papers, October 1799

They had the loudest drums. The boldest banners. The brightest beating hearts. They approached the mill multicoloured; axes, hatchets, guns raised high.

Afternoon sun who has seen many histories made and forgotten gazed on and off the mish-mash of blades as they smashed in the doors.

Unafraid of battle powder and swan shot they fought black-faced against veterans who were no match for their shouting thousands.

Then they took on the frames. Monsters who guillotined their craft. Spinning engines, carding engines, roving engines, twisting wheels, cotton wheels, cotton reels they axed and trampled.

Then they took on the Great Wheel. Tore it off its axis. Brought it down in splinters. Struck the matches. A giant flaming wheel blazed where workers toiled.

And the fire blazed. And the fire blazed. And the fire blazed. And lit the heart of General Ludd and his wives and daughters. All the Luddite sons.

And the fire of Birkacre lit the hearts of the Chartists. Non-conformists. Suffragettes. Forgotten rebels.

And we remember their fire in times of trouble. Hold it close to our hearts.

***

Birkacre was a cotton mill in the Yarrow Valley in Chorley, which Richard Arkwright leased from 1777. It was one of the first mills to make use of his water frame (the first was in Cromford). In 1779 following riots by stocking workers in Nottingham and a slump in the cotton industry, cotton workers turned against the new machines. On Sunday 4th October a mob descended on Birkacre, smashed all the machinery and used it to set fire to the the mill, which they burnt to the ground. Arkwright withdrew his lease shortly afterward. It was rebuilt two years later and used for calico printing, dying and bleaching. The works in the Birkacre area were closed down in 1939. In the 1980’s the derelict land was reclaimed as Yarrow Valley Park. More about the park and its history can be found in this leaflet. It’s a beautiful area and a visit is highly recommended.

Site of Birkacre Mill

Site of Birkacre Mill

Big Lodge

Big Lodge

Mill Leat?

Mill Leat?

The Favour of Creiddylad, May Queen and Queen of Annwn

Wood anenomeA few weeks ago I published an article on the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad, which highlighted its significance as an ancient British seasonal myth originating in the Old North. This showed Creiddylad’s importance as a Brythonic goddess connected with the sovereignty of the land, outlined a depiction of her viewpoint and described her nature as a spring maiden and queen of Annwn.

It was my intuition Gwyn’s pride in being Creiddylad’s lover and references to his invocation in her name suggested she was an important fertility goddess in her own right. More recently I found this idea backed up by analogy with Ann Suter’s reading of The Hymn to Demeter. Like Persephone with Hades, Creiddylad is a free agent in a sacred marriage with Gwyn. As king and queen of Annwn they form a divine couple equal in power and independence.

To win Creiddylad’s favour on Calan Mai, Gwythyr, a human ruler, must descend to Annwn and battle against Gwyn. His willingness and skill are conditions of Creiddylad’s becoming his May Queen. Thus she returns to this-world to bring fertility to the land and makes him her king for the summer. Gwythyr’s reign is only temporary. On Nos Galan Gaeaf Gwyn takes her back to Annwn where in turn she presides over the processes of life and death.

One of the important lessons of this story is that all life comes from and returns to Annwn. The fertility of this-world is dependent on the underworld and its deities. This is reflected in the simple necessity of planting a seed underground and in offerings our ancient ancestors made in ritual shafts and pits. All trees and plants come from and decay back into the soil. This is ultimately the fate of our flesh and bones.

The beauty of the flowers of May is dependent on the deaths of many others. This applies to human ancestry. Our fruitful modern existence is founded on the death and toil of countless people. As is our creativity. Thus the Awen can only be won by making Gwythyr’s descent down through the ancestral heritage of our soil, establishing our own relationships with the underworld deities. Personal sacrifices must be made and their bounty shared.

Only then will our hawthorns blossom and the favour of Creiddylad, May Queen and Queen of Annwn be won.

Hawthorn*With thanks to Brian Taylor for pointing me toward Sarah Pike’s review of Ann Suter’s The Narcissus and the Pomegranate.

Enchanting the Shadowlands Book Launch

Enchanting the Shadowlands Book CoverOn Wednesday 22nd April I held an evening of poetry, song and story to celebrate the launch of Enchanting the Shadowlands at Korova Arts Cafe in Preston. The night was very special for me because it marked the publication of my first book, the completion of a spiritual journey and brought together friends who have supported me since I took to writing poetry seriously in 2012.

Storyteller Peter Dillon was MC for the night. We opened with a joint performance of ‘The Bull of Conflict’ a glosa recording the moment when my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, gave me the imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’.

Vincent Smith’s ‘Woodland Eulogy’ and reflections on early memories of a close friend made a poignant start to the first half. Mike Cracknell brought the house down with his hilarious poem about lovers with nothing in common except filthy habits. Martin Domleo performed poems tying in with my nature themed work including ‘Thor’s Cave’ and the experience of deceleration linking to his passion for motorbikes. Nina GeorgeSinger Nina George was the first headline act. She started with a haunting piece written by a friend. Her second song, she told us, demanded to be sung at the launch! She got everybody joining in with the chorus:

‘She said this is my church here where I stand
With my hands in the earth and my feet on the ground
She said this is my church here where I stand
With my heart in my mouth and my soul in the land.’

Nina finished with a song by Jodi Mitchell. At the end of the first half I performed poems exploring local history written in voices of the ancestors and spirits of the land. These included a reluctant resident of Penwortham Lake Village, a spinner in her cellar, the spirit of the aquifer beneath Castle Hill and Belisama, goddess of the Ribble. During the break we looked out at a pink-purple sunset against fairy-lit trees and the silhouette of St Walburge’s spire. Preston Sunset from KorovaI opened the second half with  ‘Slugless’ which was written when I had a spate of people confessing to me about their slug problems. All but one…. As we often bump into each other walking beside the Ribble, Terry Quinn performed poems about the river, one set at a crucial time when a campaign run successfully by Jane Brunning saved the area that is now Central Park from a huge development scheme. Dorothy mentioned she also had a slug scene in her novel ‘Shouting Back’. Her poems included the memorable ‘City Rats’.

Nina returned to perform a song about reclaiming Druidry and a controversial tongue-in-cheek ditty called ‘The Day the Nazi Died’ by Chumbawamba. Novelist Katharine Ann Angel read excerpts from ‘Being Forgotten’ and ‘The Froggitt Chain’ and spoke of her inspiration from people, particularly working with difficult teenagers.

Nicolas Guy WilliamsThe second headliner was poet Nicolas Guy Williams. He opened with ‘Ancient by thy Winters’ saying he thought it would be suit my launch as it contains howling: ‘Hear them HOWL! HEAR THEM HOWL! Once no forest was defenceless.’ He also performed ‘Woman of the Sap’ and ‘Oh ratchet walk and seek that scent’ one of my personal favourites based on the local legend of the Gabriel Ratchets.

I ended the second half with a piece dedicated to Gwyn on Nos Galan Gaeaf called ‘When You Hunt for Souls in the Winter Rain’ and poems Lorna Enchanting the Shadowlandsrecording a journey to Annwn (the Brythonic Otherworld) with horse and hound to an audience in his hall. As a finale I performed ‘No Rules’ which summarises my philosophy of life:

‘Break every boundary.
There are no rules.
Only truth and promises
Bind us in the boundless infinite.’

Afterward there was an open-mic where it was great to have Flora Martyr, who is missed as a host of Korova Poetry, back to perform. Following Nina’s protest songs John Dreaming the Hound Winstanley, who is involved with the Wigan Digger’s Festival, sung an old diggers song. I also opened some presents from the generous members of my grove. Nina gave me a bottle of wine (knows me too well!). Phil and Lynda Ryder gave me a book about Boudica, a warrior queen and ruler of the Iceni (horse) tribe, called ‘Dreaming the Hound’ with a wonderful bronze image of a howling hound on the cover.

When we left Korova the crescent moon was high in the sky with a bright and beautiful Venus above the fairy-lit trees. I felt the shadowlands had been enchanted. There is power in a promise… and in the support of friends without whom I wouldn’t have been able to see it through. I’d like end on a note of thanks to Peter as MC, everybody who performed and came to watch and to Sam for providing the venue. Moon, Venus and Fairy Trees

Forgotten Arfderydd and the Hearsay of Corvids

Last Saturday I set out north to the site of the Battle of Arfderydd. At the forefront of my mind was the matter of forgetting.

If Arfderydd was significant enough to be recognised as one of Three Futile Battles of Britain, if it was where Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king of the Old North, made his final stand and one hundred and sixty men lost their lives before he died and three hundred after and where Myrddin Wyllt went mad, why no marker of the site? Why no songs? Why has Arfderydd been forgotten?

Considering Gwyn ap Nudd stated his presence at Gwenddolau’s death and at the deaths of other northern warriors and the episode where he abducts Creiddylad, Gwythyr and his (mainly northern) supporters takes place in the Old North why has his memory faded from the minds of the people of northern Britain?

In search of clues, a friend and I travelled north to Longtown and set off on foot up Netherby Road, consciously following in the footsteps of William Skene and Nikolai Tolstoy. The first place we visited was Netherby Hall, the mansion of the Graham family built on the site of the Roman fort Castra Exploratum. An altar dedicated to a god called Vitris and ram-horned head carved from local red sandstone found nearby suggest it was the location of a Romano-British cult.

Netherby HallAs we approached from the south Netherby Hall’s sandstone walls came into view atop a prominent ridge with polygonal towers, parapets and scaffolding. An encircling wire fence said strictly out of bounds. Following the path round the mansion we passed a woodland carpeted with snowdrops and trees stacked with rooks’ nests filled with noisy, vocal, raucous birds

Never before had I seen many rooks or heard such a racket. Their croaking and cawing see-sawed in my mind like something trying to break through. Unfortunately I don’t speak very good rook. Yet the rooks seemed important. More important than the blank face of the mansion and its ‘Private’ sign.

We rejoined the main road and headed north for Carwinley. When Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) told St Kentigern of his guilt at the deaths of the combatants and vision of a host of warriors (who I believe to be Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn) he stated the battle took place ‘in the field between Liddel and Carnwanolow.’ Skene identified Liddel with Liddel Water and Carnwanolow as Caer Gwenddolau and connected this with Carwinley.

Passing Carwinley cottage, farm and water mill we looked down into the sandstone gulley of the burn, steep banks green with ferns, onto shining reddish water. I recalled Andrew Breeze’s interpretation of Arfderydd as ‘burning weapon’ relating to this bloody stream forming the parish of Arthuret’s boundary. Breeze said ‘Car’ need not mark a fort but a defensive stockade. It certainly seemed possible the burn was named after Gwenddolau’s fall.

Carwinley BurnThe Triads of Ancient Britain also mention ‘the retinue of Dreon the Brave at the Dyke of Arfderydd.’ Dreon ap Nudd is the son of Nudd Hael. If this etymological link to Gwyn ap Nudd (and his father Nudd or Nodens) suggests an ancient connection between a northern family and their ancestral deities it is no surprise Gwyn and his host appeared at the battle where Dreon and his retinue met their end.

As I pondered whether the ‘Dyke’ they fought on was above Carwinley Burn I saw crows over the trees who shouted and cawed then pitched their games across a sky of constant silver-grey cloud. A sky of concealing. A sky of protection. A sky of no openings onto crashing visions of warriors.

Fields of Arfderydd

 

As we passed the green and well-tilled-over crow-haunted fields the dead did not rise. There were no whispers, no warnings, only the hearsay of corvids.

 

Upper Moat

 

At Upper Moat where reputedly the three hundred men who fought after Gwenddolau’s death were buried there was no sign of the orchard Skene mentioned but crows filled the trees in the background.

Our final destination was Liddel Strength, a motte and bailey which might have been the location of Gwenddolau’s fort and where his ‘Faithful War Band’ could have made their last stand, fighting for a month and a fortnight after the death of their leader. Unable to find our way we were directed by a local farmer (coincidentally Skene was directed by a farmer from Upper Moat too!) onto a shooter’s path which climbed steeply beside Liddel Water.

On the way we encountered a line of not-dead reeds hauntingly reminiscent of flags or ribboned spears blowing in the wind on an abandoned battlefield. Or of forlorn warriors.

Reeds of ArfderyddThe site of Liddel Strength was badly eroded by the river and appallingly overgrown. Breaching the defensive ditch we scrambled through hat-snatching hawthorns and ankle-snagging brambles up the motte which didn’t feel overly welcoming in its firm return to nature. There were no crows but a bird of prey screeched somewhere out of sight reminding me of Gwenddolau’s birds who fed on the corpses of the Britons.

Looking down from the summit Liddel Water flowed far below at the foot of a slope impossible to ascend. Fields and woodland stretched out before us. The land seemed as determined in swallowing time as it was in absorbing the abandoned railway track Skene arrived on two hundred years ago. On our return journey only the bridge and fragments of the embankment remained.

The dereliction of Liddel Strength contrasted sharply with Caer Laverock Castle (the ‘Lark’s Nest’ Arfderydd was supposedly fought over) which we visited the next day. This splendid medieval stronghold belonging to the Maxwell family was well preserved by the National Trust. Its siege by the English immortalised in the ‘Song of Caerlaverock’ was reconstructed on a video in the display rooms.

Caer Laverock CastleCrows flocked in the trees and played over its terraces. South was an earlier fort closer to the Solway Firth, an artist’s representation showed the higher sea levels and its importance as a strategic location.

Heading north again we climbed Ward Law, a lookout point where the Maxwell Clan gathered shouting their battle cry: “Wardlaw! I bid ye bide Wardlaw!” Beyond was another Roman camp invisible from the ground.

Ward LawLooking south from Ward Law to Solway Firth for the first time the all-encompassing silver-grey clouds broke. Seeing clear light and waters ablaze with cold fire I was reminded of the unendurable brightness Myrddin saw as Gwyn approached with the hosts of Annwn. The otherworld opening only just beyond the sands and tides of this-world.

Solway FirthI left with intuitions but no answers about Gwyn and his kindred, battles, forgetting, clouds and corvids… another part of this story waits to be told about the estuary of the river Nith and I shall be sharing this in my next post…

SOURCES

Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Ross, Anne Pagan Celtic Britain (Cardinal, 1974)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)