Wooden Idols of the Bogs

I. The Roos Carr Figures – Voyagers to the Otherworld?

A few weeks ago, fellow awenydd Greg Hill drew my attention to the Roos Carr Figures HERE. These fascinating wooden warrior figurines, eight in total, their shields, and their serpent-headed boats were sealed in a wooden box and deposited in a boggy area (‘carr’ means ‘bog or fen covered with scrub’).

They were found in a layer of blue clay by labourers cleaning a ditch in 1836. Of the eight, only five remain (the fifth was returned after one of the labourers gave him to his daughter as an ‘ancient doll’ to play with), a couple of the shields and one of conjecturally two boats due to decay.

Radiocarbon dating to 606 – 508 BCE places them in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Carved from yew they stand between 31cm and 45cm tall. Their faces are angular with prominent noses, slit-like mouths, and striking eyes made of quartzite pebbles set into eye-holes. Elongated trunks with drill-holes at the shoulders for arms taper into thin peg-like legs. Each has a central pubic hole.

The figures were found with a number of dis-attached appendages, some of which were arms, some of which were phalluses, to be placed in the empty holes. Typically, the Victorians mistook the phalluses for oars. Since then their manhoods have been returned to their correct positions.

I immediately fell in love with these little figures who might be interpreted to be living or dead warriors sailing their serpent-ship on a voyage to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the ancient British Otherworld. Their representation reminded me of the medieval Welsh poem ‘Preiddu Annwn’ ‘The Spoils of the Otherworld’ in which Arthur takes three loads of warriors in his ship, Prydwen, to assault a series of otherworldly fortresses to steal the Brindled Ox and the Cauldron of Pen Annwn.

It suggested the existence of a pre-Arthurian tale in which warriors set out on a quest to Annwn to visit the dead and the deities of Annwn and perhaps bring back treasures to Thisworld.

II. Wooden Idols of Britain and Ireland – Threshold Guardians?

My research on the Roos Carr Figures led me to discovering that a number of wooden figurines have been found across Britain and Ireland. All were found in wet places which were seen as liminal – where crossings of bogs or waters needed to be made – suggesting they were threshold guardians. Some of these ‘idols’ have been interpreted to be gods and goddesses, others spirits of place, and others ancestors and, of course, the boundaries between these terms are intrinsically fluid.

The Ballachulish Goddess was found on Ballchulish Moss, in Inverness-shire, Scotland. Dated to 600 BC it stands at a height of 145cm, the size of a girl, and is the largest of our British figures. Carved from alder wood it has a large head with a long, thin nose, a full mouth, and small white quartzite eyes. Its chest is flat with two pairs of incised circles representing breasts and nipples. The objects it is holding have not yet been securely identified (a couple of scholars have suggested they are severed penises!). Its legs end in a solid block of wood.

It was discovered during building work, in 1880, in deep layers of peat ‘lying face down on the gravel of an old raised beach, around 120 metres from the shore of Loch Leven’ and may have stood beside a pool. ‘Under and above’ were ‘intertwined branches and twigs and ‘straighter poles which might have formed a ‘wickerwork container, or a little shrine’.

Its location, overlooking ‘the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven with the sea’ are suggestive of its worship as ‘the goddess of the straits’ to whom travellers made offerings for a safe crossing.

Another intriguing example is the Somerset God Dolly which is the oldest of Britain’s known wooden idols, dating to between 2285 and 3340 BCE. This hermaphroditic figure was carved from ash wood, was 16cm high, and had a ‘round featureless head, no neck, and a small stubby body with two asymmetrically placed breasts and a large horizontal penis’ ending ‘at the base of the trunk without legs.’

It was found on the Somerset Levels, ‘driven upside down’ ‘within a cluster of pegs’ ‘that formed part of Bell Track A’ and ‘stratigraphically below the Bell B Track’. This suggests it might have been a threshold guardian of the earlier trackway, then made redundant, and buried beneath.

Nearby, in Hillfarrance, an oak forked-branch figure dated to 1131-1410 BCE was retrieved from a pit in a ‘riverine peat wetland’ ‘beside two brooks, both tributaries of the river Tone.’ Only the lower limbs and torso, 45cm long, have survived. It was buried with shards of pottery, a burnt stone and worked wood. Again, this was a deliberate deposition, perhaps of a former guardian.

The Kingsteignton Idol was discovered on the banks of the river Teign, in south Devon, ‘lying up against the trunk of a fallen oak tree’. Carved from oak wood, 33cm tall, it has a ‘long thin body’, ‘elongated neck’, and ‘large head’ with ‘eyes, nose and chin’ ‘indicated’. There is a hole in his neck for insertable arms. Its ‘trunk is straight, square-shouldered, with carefully carved buttocks and erect penis’ and its ‘short, kneed legs end in stubby feet.’ It has been dated to 426-352 BC. It was likely associated with the oak tree, a threshold marker, and may have been its guardian spirit.

On the Dagenham marshes, on the bank of the Thames, down river from London, the Dagenham Idol was found in close proximity to the skeleton of a deer. It has been dated to 2250 BC. Carved from the wood of a Scots pine it stands at 46cm tall and has a large head, flat face, sockets for eyes (‘the right deeper than the left’), and no ears or hair. Its trunk is armless. It has a central pubic hole, potentially for the insertion of a penis and its legs are straight and footless. It might have been a guardian of the marshland and/or river and possibly had an association with deer and other animals.

In Ireland the Ralaghan Figure was found in a peat bog and the Lagore Figure on a crannog in a peat lake. A model dug-out canoe was discovered at Clowanstown 1, County Meath, and might be seen to resemble the serpent boat of the Roos Carr Figures, paddling the lake, and between worlds.

The existence of these idols provides evidence that, from the early Bronze Age into the Iron Age, the people of Britain and Ireland saw wet places as sacred and inspirited as well as potentially dangerous. The gods and spirits appeared to them in anthropomorphic forms and were carved into wooden idols, which were seen to embody them, and to which offerings were likely made for safe passage.

For unknown reasons some of these idols were deposed and buried in or near the place where they stood. Had they reached the end of their power and thus served their purpose? Had they requested to be returned to the waters of their origin? Were they seen as just as or more powerful when buried like the dead? The answers to these questions are as unknowable as the minds of our distant ancestors

III. Wooden Idols and Ritual Landscapes in Northern Europe

Numerous wooden idols serving a similar function have been recovered from across Northern Europe. The best example of a ritual complex is Opfermoor Vogtei in Germany. Situated on a bog, which includes a shallow lake, it was in use from the 5th century to beyond the Roman period.

Within circular enclosures of hazel branches were altars where wooden cult figures were worshipped. Wooden idols were also found on the edges of the lake where they overlooked the waters.

During excavations on Wittemoor timber trackway across a bog in Berne, Lower Saxony, in Germany, six wooden figurines dating to the Iron Age were found. Two of them stood on either side of the track where it crossed a stream. Both were ‘carved in silhouette out of oak planks 3 to 7cm thick’. The male was 105cm tall ‘with a rectangular body’ and the female 95cm tall ‘with breasts or shoulders indicated by a slanted cut, broad hips and vulva’. The male slotted into a plank and the female stood on a mound. The other figures are described as ‘cult poles’. Fire sites ‘at each end of the crossing’ and ‘stones and worked alder sticks’ around two of the poles suggest offerings were made.

These discoveries show that wooden idols served a significant function within ritual landscapes for the Germanic peoples. As representations of gods and goddesses and spirits of place with threshold functions they were raised on altars, fires were built in their honour, and offerings were made to them.

Similar idols, such as the Braak Bog Figures, have been found elsewhere in Germany. From Denmark we have the Broddenjberg Idol and figurines were found in Wilemstad in the Netherlands.

One of the most impressive, from Russia, is the Shigir Idol. Dated to 10500 BCE, the Mesolithic period, around the end of the Ice Age, it is ‘the oldest known wooden sculpture in the world.’

Found in a peat bog in Shigir it is carved from larch and may have originally stood at at 5.3m tall. It has a small head with narrow eyes, a triangular nose, circular mouth, and pointed chin. Its body is flat and pole-like and covered in ‘geometrical motifs’ including ‘zigzag lines’ and ‘depictions of human hands and faces’. It speaks to me of a death god filled with the spirits of the dead.

It has been proposed that the decorations tell the story of a creation myth or ‘serve as a warning not to enter a dangerous area’. Whatever the case, it would have been a formidable figure at the centre of a ritual landscape, seen for miles around, imbued with great meaning for the early hunter-gatherers.

What strikes me the most about these wooden idols is that they seem hauntingly familiar. I’m not sure if this because, as a Smithers, I have Saxon ancestry and connections to the figures from Germany or because, when I’ve been travelling wetlands, physically and in spirit, I have caught glimpses of dark figures who might be wetland spirits or echoes of their representations.

What is certain is that the presence of spirits and the urge to carve them from wood has been felt across Northern Europe since, at least, the Ice Age. In the Norse myths, the first humans were created from ash and elm by the gods and, in the Brythonic myths, soldiers were conjured from trees by a deity. I wonder whether our creation of wooden idols was seen to mirror this divine process?

SOURCES

Bryony Coles, ‘Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures From Britain and Ireland’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 56, 1990

Clive Jonathon Bond, ‘The God-Dolly Wooden Figurine from the Somerset Levels, Britain: The Context, the Place and its Meaning’, Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America, Oxford: Archaeopress/BAR International Series 2138

Jeremy Clark, ‘The Intriguing Roos Carr Model Wooden Boat Figures Found Near Withersea, East Yorkshire’, The Yorkshire Journal, Issue 1, Spring 2011

‘Ballachulish Figure’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/ballachulish-figure/

‘Introducing the Kingsteignton Idol’, Artefactual, https://artefactual.co.uk/2014/06/29/introducing-the-kingsteignton-idol/

‘Roos Carr Figures: Faces from the Past’, Hull Museums Collections, http://museumcollections.hullcc.gov.uk/collections/storydetail.php?irn=484&master=449

‘Shigir Idol’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shigir_Idol

‘Wittemoor Timber Trackway’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittemoor_timber_trackway

On Eating Hearts

Gwyn son of Nudd… forced Cyldedyr to eat his father’s heart… Cyledyr went mad.’
How Culhwch Won Olwen

We have eaten the hearts of our ancestors.

We have bitten them down in pieces.
We have choked on them, retched on them,
tried to refuse to eat them at our peril.

We have swallowed them whole.

We have made them palatable with condiments –
ketchups squeezed from blood and mustards from bile.

We have been unable to stop eating even when told to stop.

We have seen our faces with blood dripping from our mouths
on the front of the newspapers and pointed our fingers
at everyone else – those heartless heart-eaters.

We have blamed the gods who told us to do it.

We have gone mad with grief and guilt.

We have wandered the Forest of Celyddon
with Cyledyr, with Culhwch, with Myrddin Wyllt,
tried to become poets and we have failed.

We have not heard your whisper in the woods~
in the little cavern within our right atrium,
thought of the hunger of the future.

I have no children so to who
will you feed my heart?

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

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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…

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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