guardian of Annwn
guardian of souls
guardian of mystery
guardian of us all
guardian of Annwn
guardian of souls
guardian of mystery
guardian of us all
We grow from the deep.
We are the descendants of stars,
archaea, bacteria, eukarya,
children of the soil united
in mycorrhizal ecstasy
shedding spores, leaves, seeds,
the bitterest of chemicals
and most beautiful artworks.
Last fruits of this world.
First fruits of another.
‘Fruits of Annwn’ is a kenning for mushrooms. I chose it as the new name for this blog because it reflects the symbiotic relations between the human and non-human, Thisworld and Annwn, from which myths and stories grow like the fruiting bodies of fungi from their underground mycorrhizal threads.
As the world as we know it dies from human greed and excesses we need new myths to teach us to live in respectful relationship with other beings and to die well. By recovering old stories and dreaming new ones, by questing the deep wisdom of Annwn, I aim to reweave the ways between the worlds. This blog will explore the intersections between ancient British mythology, polytheism and spirit work, nature, science, and our environmental and political crises.
May these fruits be good fodder for the next world.
In Pum Llyfr Cerddwriaeth (1570) Simwnt Fychan lists three main stages of poet-hood; disgybl ysbâs heb radd, ‘unqualified apprentice’, disgybl disgyblaidd ‘qualified apprentice’, and pencerdd ‘master poet’.
In January 2013 I took vows to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god of the dead and ruler of Annwn, embarking on an apprenticeship to him that would lead me to becoming a disgybl disgyblaidd and his awenydd.
Undertaking an apprenticeship to a god is little known or spoken about in the Western world. In English schools the myths of ancient Britain contained in medieval Welsh literature are not taught. The names of the gods and spirits associated with our localities are not told. Nobody speaks of Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld, as a place of initiation. An apprenticeship is a route to a secular career rather than to a vocation, a word stemming from vocātiō, a call or summons by the divine.
Because of this I did not recognise the first intimations of my calling. I did not understand the impulse that led me to read, walk, dance, drink myself to the heights of ecstatic visions, to the depths of abyssal despair. Lacking the framework of religion or knowledge of shamanistic experience I did not know whether my visions or the beings I saw were real or symptoms of madness.
Not knowing that it was possible to communicate with them (speaking back would mean I was surely mad!), to walk the Otherworld with will and intention, I could neither embrace or shrug off my calling. I stumbled through life like a drunken teenager, failing in my ambitions to become a philosophy lecturer, a riding instructor, or a fantasy writer because none fulfilled this inexplicable urge.
It was only after learning about the revival of animism and polytheism in the West that I realised my experiences were real and meaningful. That it was possible to communicate with gods and spirits. When Gwyn showed up when I was thirty years old I finally put a face to that calling and understood that my visions were of his realm, Annwn/Faerie, and his people, the spirits of Annwn/fairies.
My life suddenly made sense. Following a haunting vision of a satyr-like spirit in my local woodland in the depths of winter who spoke the words ‘a sadness is coming this land – you must become Gwyn’s apprentice’ I knew for sure what was already in my heart and the depths of my soul; that I must devote myself to Gwyn.
So I made three vows to Gwyn at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor: to honour him daily, to stand in my truth, and to walk between the worlds with reverence. I chose this place not only because it is Gwyn’s best known sacred site, but because of powerful experiences at Glastonbury Festival I believe were associated with this enigmatic god and his bright spirits.
Soon afterwards the name of the vocation I was working towards as an apprentice was revealed. I was to become Gwyn’s awenydd – a spirit worker and inspired poet who travels between the worlds questing the awen, the divine breath of inspiration, from the land and the depths of Annwn.
During my apprenticeship to Gwyn I have learnt and done far more than I ever did at university. Gwyn has taught me how to journey back into the land’s deep memories to retrieve stories from distant times, those of ancestors who have left little or no trace, or have been erased by the victors.
Gwyn has taken me deeper into Annwn, where history fades into myth, to reveal the extent of the atrocities committed against his people by Christian warriors such as Arthur and his warband and by ‘saints’ and the effect on our psyche of our violent separation from our ancient deities and the Otherworld. To me he gave the task of revealing and thus beginning the process of healing these wounds.
Gwyn finally called upon me to recover his forgotten mythos from the mists of time, from the pens of Christian scribes bent on portraying him and his spirits as demons; to give voice to the inspired ones who have served him, whose souls he has gathered, since the last of the ice departed from this land.
I have recorded my personal journey since its beginning along with my research and creative writing on my blog and now have nearly a thousand followers and several patrons who support my work. I have shared my poems and stories in individual and group performances in my local area. At Pagan events in the North West of England and beyond I have spoken on the lore of the land and the Brythonic gods.
With the launch of Gatherer of Souls, my devotional book for Gwyn and Annuvian counter-narrative to Arthurian mythology, my apprenticeship is complete. I am now a disgybl disgyblaidd and his awenydd. Whether I will ever reach, or want to reach, the Taliesinic heights of pencerdd is doubtful.
I am currently happy knowing that I am one of the first of a new generation of awenyddion to complete something ancient and profound, with knowing the joy of being devoted to this terrible beautiful god whose mists shroud the mysteries of the Otherworld; that the well of learning is infinite.
I am planning to take new lifelong vows to Gwyn as his awenydd here in Penwortham, where he first appeared to me in person and where most of my work for him takes place, on this January’s full moon.
I’m shedding my leaves
getting ready for winter in a flash
of astounding colours that will soon be gone
as I walk naked into the darkness holding my fear
in my hands like a small creature like a beating heart
bringing it as my gift to you because I have nought
but the memories of all the things I once was
and might have been if I had been some Taliesin.
I come not with silver but leaf like-tongue
and offerings of words scrawled on sycamore leaves
hoping their yellows, reds, browns, will be bright enough
for you in your brightness beyond human endurance
where you sit your throne with your brighter bride.
Leaves, leaves, leaves, cascades of leaves I offer them up.
They are so beautiful, so humble, so perfect upon
the altars of the earth everywhere spilling from my heart.
When I shed them I know you will love me when I
am bold and red, orange and defiant, brown
and limping, grey and wizened, crawling slowly
by the grip of root and claw back into your realm again
like the dead leaves dying into the Otherworld.
Somewhere between here and Annwn
a part of me is cloistered
about the spring flowers
as she paints another saintly visage.
In another life she has been drinking
the truth from a forbidden cup.
The saints no longer look the same:
their hands are red with blood and filled
with splinters and chips of stone
from shattered pagan idols.
The stained glass is blood stained.
Her voice catches on the songs and tears
as if upon nails – she SCREAMS
and the stained glass shatters.
The nunnery falls down.
This poem, which is based on a spirit-journey, signals my release from a malaise I have been calling ‘nun envy’. Although I realised Christianity was not for me when I experienced its dull and stuffy sermons and the patriarchal presence of the Christian God in my local C of E church as a Brownie at church parade a part of me has longed for learning and ritual and shared devotion in a religious community.
I have been deeply jealous of Christians because they have a system of support for people who have a sense of vocation. For those who are called to serve God there are ways of living by this calling. Vicars and priests receive an education and a salary for their work and nuns and monks lead lives of dedication to God based around prayer, manual labour, and artistic and intellectual pursuits without worrying how to pay for housing or food. When I hit thirty-five I realised that was the last chance I would have of becoming a Christian nun and living what looked the ideal life except for… the Christianity.
Of course, I decided against, because I did not want to betray my god to the God and saints of the religion that destroyed the pagan traditions and, in particular, demonised him and the Otherworld he rules.
Yet, still I kept yearning for what Christian monastics have. Researching local monasteries and abbeys. Finding myself drawn to Preston’s Carmelite monastery.
Visiting the Tabor Retreat Centre, which was once a Carmelite nunnery but is now run by the Xaverian Missionaries (this provides regular meditation classes, Lectio Divina, short courses and even a book club as well as retreats which I’d have loved to go to … if only I was Christian!).
Wanting to go back to the ruins of Fountains Abbey (which I visited every weekend when I worked at the Yorkshire Riding School) to sit and mourn something I will never have.
A strange impulse I believe may be rooted in a past life as a nun. A few years ago when I read in a biography about the ritual burial of Julian of Norwich – entombed like Christ to become his bride and an anchoress who would never see the outside world again I felt like I was being buried alive. As if I’d experienced something similar before. I flung the book into my wardrobe, slammed the door, and went for a walk feeling immensely grateful for my freedom to see trees and taste the fresh air.
I’ve always had a push-pull relationship with Christian mysticism, art, literature, and song. A yearning for its richness and beauty but a dislike of its unhealthy obsession with suffering and punishment.
As a consequence of years of learning about how nearly every splendid church and cathedral is based on the takeover (violent or non-violent) of a pagan sacred site; how nearly every haloed saint is associated with the defeat of a pagan mythic figure or with the slaughter or conversion of pagans; how the Christian tradition is founded on the death of paganism, it has finally lost its fusty-fingered hold on me.
Being an awenydd attempting to reweave the ways between Annwn and This-modern-world isn’t easy. But I think I will be able to do it better and more happily now my yearning for what Christians have and my nun envy is gone. From the ruins of the shattered nunnery may new shoots and tendrils grow.
There is a place where you must go.
There is a place where it is always Nos Galan Gaeaf.
There is a place where the lost are always lost until you find them.
It’s somewhere through the mist somewhere in the mist
half a girl is screaming
“Where am I?” “Where am I?” “Where am I?”
somebody is trying to find a lost foot a lost hand
where they left their head
somebody is tying themselves in knots
trying to find their end and beginning.
Your horn is a calling back
a calling back
that pierces any mortal heart with terror
(we shouldn’t hear it not unless we are broken
unless something is broken)
a calling back
your horn is a calling back
that sounds a little like “Hiraeth! Hiraeth!”
that makes grown men weep
when they put their finger on its pulse.
It is filled with soul-names:
a reminder of many faces many places slipping into Annwn.
Will they return and be whole in the land where everything lives?
And what of we who stumble onto the edges
catch a glimpse of your hounds?
Will we always be hunted?
Haunted into the lost selves we found at last
we shall help you re-weave the threads of name and place.
We shall chant your name “Gwyn ap Nudd” all the way back home.
‘In Aber Gwenoli
Lies the grave of Pryderi’
The Stanzas of the Graves
‘He was buried in Maentwrog, above Y Felenrhyd, and his grave is there’
The Fourth Branch
In autumn last year I visited Aber Gwenoli in Coed Felinrhyd, the village of Maentrwog, and the Coedydd Maentwrog. These locations are all part of Snowdonia’s Atlantic oak woodland or temperate rain forest and are associated with the death of Pryderi, ‘Care’ or ‘Worry’, the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon.
Pryderi is the only character who appears in all four branches of The Mabinogion. This has led scholars to speculate he may be the central figure. If this is the case he is a hapless kind of ‘hero’. Although he enjoys success in battle, he is constantly in trouble, sometimes on account of forces beyond his control, at others because of his impetuousness and lack of discernment. He is particularly unskilled at dealing with magic and with the uncanny forces of Annwn and this proves fatal.
On the night of his birth Pryderi mysteriously disappears when his mother and her women fall into an enchanted sleep. He reappears just as mysteriously when Teyrnon cuts off the enormous claw of a monster to save his foal. It’s clear he was stolen by the forces of Annwn, but the reason isn’t stated.
After Pwyll dies, Pryderi becomes the ruler of Dyfed and manages to conquer the three cantrefs of Ystrad Tywi and the four cantrefs of Ceredigion, incorporating them into the seven cantrefs of Seisllwch.
He is named as of one of the seven survivors of the terrible battle between the British and Irish in Ireland where the Irish dead are thrown into the Cauldron of Regeneration and reborn. Whether he survived through his skills in battle, sheer luck, or by cowering in a corner is not revealed.
Pryderi falls victim to Annuvian magic again when he pursues a white boar into a fortress and, enraptured by a golden bowl, gets stuck to it. His mother follows and suffers the same fate. With a ‘tumultous noise’ in a ‘blanket of mist’ they are both whisked away in the enchanted fort. It takes all the wit and persuasion of Manawydan to win them back from the otherwordly enchanter, Llwyd Cil Coed.
It is later revealed Pryderi is the owner of a herd of pigs whose ‘flesh is better than beef’. They were were sent to him by Arawn, a King of Annwn. This gift has its basis in Pwyll’s special relationship with Arawn. Pwyll traded places and identities with Arawn, literally becoming the Annuvian King and ruling in Annwn for a year. He won Arawn’s friendship by defeating his rival, Hafgan, and not sleeping with his wife. Pwyll received the title Pwyll Pen Annwn and they began to exchange horses, hunting dogs, hawks, and other treasures between their kingdoms.
It is possible to conjecture that this relationship has a deeper meaning. If Pwyll ‘is’ Pen ‘Head’ of Annwn, his and Arawn’s roles and identities remain fluid and interchangeable. Pryderi is the son of both Pwyll and Arawn, and thus a semi-Annuvian figure. This might explain why the forces of Annwn snatched him away the night of his birth – perhaps to initiate him into the Otherworld and meet his other father*. It is of interest he and his mother, Rhiannon, who is herself a divinity who originates from Annwn, are captured by the enchanted castle whilst Manawydan and Cigfa remain free.
In Triad 26. Pryderi appears as one of ‘Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain’. In Celtic mythology swineherds are often powerful magicians. The triad tells us Pryderi tends seven swine brought by ‘Pwyll Lord of Annwn’ and given to his foster father, Pendaran Dyfed. He keeps them in Glyn Cuch (the place Pwyll met Arawn). He is called a ‘powerful swineherd’ because no-one can ‘deceive or force him’. This portrait of Pryderi is much at odds with his gullibility in The Mabinogion.
The magician-god, Gwydion, nephew of Math, the ruler of Gwynedd, tricks Pryderi into giving him the pigs. He does this by disguising himself and eleven of his men as poets and conjuring twelve stallions with golden saddles and bridles and twelve hounds from toadstools. Pryderi agrees to exchange them for the pigs.
A day later, when the enchantment wears off and Pryderi finds only toadstools in his stalls and kennels (a scene sadly left to the imagination of the reader), he raises an army and pursues Gwydion north.
Gwydion’s flight with the Annuvian pigs explains the place names Mochnant, Mochdref, and Creuwrion (moch means ‘pig’ and creu means ‘pen’). Gwydion waits for Pryderi to attack in Arfon, ‘the strongest part of Gwynedd’. A ‘great massacre’ takes place. Gwydion’s army retreats to Nant Call and there is, again, ‘immeasurable slaughter’. At Dol Benmaen Pryderi makes peace by giving twenty-four hostages.
The two armies travel together in peace to Y Traeth Mawr. However, at Y Felenrhyd, ‘The Yellow Ford’, a bank of sand across the river Dwyryd, battle breaks out again because the foot soldiers cannot resist shooting each other.
To prevent further slaughter Pryderi sends a message requesting Gwydion engage him instead in single combat. Gwydion agrees. ‘Because of strength and valour, and magic and enchantment, Gwydion triumphs and Pryderi is killed.’ Pryderi shows courage in taking on the trickster-god. Yet, surprisingly, his prowess in combat is not described. If he is the central character his swift end is a disappointing climax.
After being stolen away to Annwn on two occasions Pryderi returns there for his third and final sojourn.
We are told ‘he was buried in Maentwrog, above Felenrhyd, and his grave is there.’ A possible place of burial might be the village church where there is a marker stone. However, the church is dedicated to Saint Twrog, who reputedly threw the boulder from the Moelwyn mountains and killed a she-devil. In other accounts a giant threw the stone and destroyed a pagan altar. Aside from the line in The Mabinogion there are no folk memories connecting Pryderi with Maentwrog, ‘Twrog’s Stone’.
An alternative location for Pryderi’s burial place appears in ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen. ‘In Aber Gwenoli / Lies the grave of Pryderi’. Aber Gwenoli is a stream that runs down from Llyn Tecwyn into the river Prysor, which then joins the Dwyryd at Y Felenrhyd. With help from Greg Hill and another friend I managed to locate it just below Ivy Bridge.
Afterwards we completed the circular walk of Coed Felinrhyd, taking in the autumnal colours, the multitude of lichens, mosses and liverworts supported by the rainforest climate.
Just before we reached the end we found a ‘story telling chair’, placed there as if it was just for us, and took it in turns to read Pryderi’s story from ‘The Fourth Branch’.
After departing I was not sure of the meaning of this visit. I now have an inkling of understanding. If Pryderi is the son of both Pwyll and Arawn and of Rhiannon he is an Annuvian figure who was killed by Gwydion. Gwydion’s theft of Pryderi’s pigs and slaughter of Pryderi are not the only instances of him stirring up trouble with the Otherworld.
Gwydion also stole a dog, lapwing, and roebuck from Annwn, inciting Arawn, ‘the Wealthy Battle Dispenser’ to lead an army against him. This included enchanted plants, trees, monsters, and giants. Arawn (presumably with the Cauldron of Regeneration) even brought Brân the blessed back from the dead!
Gwydion in turn enchanted 34 different trees and shrubs against Arawn. With help from his nephew, Lleu, ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ and the warrior-bard Taliesin, Gwydion’s men and the battling trees defeated the forces of Annwn.
For some reason I’m being drawn by the deities of Annwn to look at the damage Gwydion’s trickery has caused. Whether my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, is ‘the same’ deity as Arawn, Llwyd ‘Grey’ and Brenin Grey ‘The Grey King’, who all haunt the mist-soaked oak forests of Snowdonia, is not for me to determine. All I know is I feel ‘his’ influence drawing me back to these stories of the British Foretime and to North Wales where land, language, myth, and the misty breath of the gods are one.
*For a detailed discussion of joint fatherhood in Celtic mythology see Will Parker’s The Four Branches of the Mabinogi p167 – 170.
Lorna Smithers and Greg Hill, ‘Y Felenrhyd’, Caer Feddwyd, (2017)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Rachel Dixon, ‘Walking in a Welsh rainforest‘, The Guardian, (2015)
Remy Dean, ‘Welsh Folklore: Significance of the Maentwrog Standing Stone’, Folklore Thursday, (2016)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
‘The magical swineherds of Irish mythology’, Atlantic Religion, (2015)