Ffynnon – Source, Spring, Fountain

A couple of months ago, when I was feeling discouraged about the lack of interest in the Brythonic tradition, Gwyn showed me a fountain cascading down into concentric basins increasing in size and told me that likewise ‘the awen will eventually filter down’ and this made me feel more hopeful.

This vision led me to taking an interest in the role of fountains in medieval Welsh literature. I found out the Welsh word for fountain, ffynnon or ffynhawn, also means ‘source’ and ‘spring’.

In ‘The Death Song of Cörroi’, in The Book of Taliesin, Taliesin speaks of the ffynhawn lydan ‘wide sea-fountain’, the source of the sea. Patrick Sims-Williams suggests this refers to ‘a cosmological spring similar to Hvergelmir in Norse mythology’. Hvergelmir ‘boiling bubbling spring’ is the source from which the 42 rivers, including the 11 Élivágar ‘Ice Waves’, which run through the Nine Worlds flow. In the Greek myths all the rivers rise from Oceanus ‘Ocean’ suggesting a shared mythos.

In a poem called ‘Blessed be the Lord’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen we find the lines:

May the three fountains
bless you,
two above the wind,
one above the earth

Sims-Williams notes that, ‘in a poem called Divregwawt Taliesin “Taliesin” says that the ocean comes to us from one of these’. In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ the bard speaks of teir ffynnawn ‘three springs’ or ‘three fountains / in Mount Sion’ showing a collation of Brythonic and Christian beliefs.

The image of a triple fountain is unsurprising considering many Celtic deities, such as the Matronae, the Genii Cucullati, and the Lugoves, appear in triple forms. The awen, poetic inspiration, is represented as three dots or as as three rays. The threefold fountain recurs in the alchemical tradition as the Fons Mercurialis.

Fons Mercurialis from the Rosarium (1550)

A fountain is central to Iarlles y Fynnon ‘The Lady of the Fountain’. The fountain stands beneath a green tree, with near it a marble slab and silver bowl fastened to a silver chain. Owain Rheged, a hero of the Old North, seeking adventure, throws water from the fountain from the bowl onto the slab. This brings about ‘a tumultuous noise’ then a hailstorm that strips the leaves from the tree and summons a black knight. Owain defeats him and becomes the guardian of the fountain and lover of its otherworldly lady. This story bears a resemblance with Pwyll taking the role of Arawn, King of Annwn.

Thus it is unsurprising that this central image mirrors the well/fountain and golden bowl hanging on four golden chains over a marble slab in the fortress of Llwyd Cil Coed, Brenin Llwyd, King of Annwn, which enchants Pwyll’s son, Pryderi, and his mother, Rhiannon.

It seems these are one and the same with the fountain that Gwyn, King of Annwn, showed me. A powerful symbol of awen springing forth from its source in Annwn ‘the Deep’. Flowing from myth, into story, into words, rippling out its numinous qualities into Thisworld.

SOURCES

Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Patrick Sims-Williams, Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature, (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
‘The Rosary of the Philosophers’, MS Ferguson 210, (18th C)

 

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Those are but Devils

Witches dancing with devils from the History of Wizards and Witches 1720

An essay on the demonisation of Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwfn

Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic underworld. In two medieval Welsh texts he and the spirits he rules are identified with devils.

In How Culhwch Won Olwen we are told, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd… God has put the fury of the devils of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’

The introduction of God’s agency is clearly a Christian attempt to explain Gwyn’s containment of the spirits of Annwfn. These spirits include the restless dead who have died suddenly or violently:

Some headless stood upon the ground,
Some had no arms, and some were torn
With dreadful wounds, and some lay bound
Fast to the earth in hap forlorn.

And some full-armed on horses sat,
And some were strangled as at meat,
And some were drowned as in a vat,
And some were burned with fiery heat,
Wives lay in child-bed, maidens sweet…

…such the fairies seize and keep.

Others such as the Tylwyth Teg, ‘Fair Family’, or ‘fairies’ and ellyllon, ‘spectres’, ‘goblins’, ‘elves’ occupy a liminal position between life and death, humanity and nature, and mitigate between the worlds. Christians identify these complex and ambiguous spirits with dieuyl, ‘devils’.

Gwyn presents a paradox that does not sit easily with Christianity’s black-and-white theology: because he contains the spirits of Annwfn within him and/or within his realm he is the only being who can hold back their aryal, ‘fury’, and prevent them from destroying this world.

In The Life of St Collen, Collen, the abbot of Glastonbury, overhears two men conversing outside his cell saying Gwyn is ‘king of Annwfn and of the Fairies’. Putting his head out he shouts, ‘Hold your tongues quickly, those are but Devils’.

Collen is invited to feast in Gwyn’s castle on the Tor. There he refuses to eat, saying the food is ‘leaves’ and the red and blue clothing of Gwyn’s host signifies ‘burning’ and ‘coldness’; it is hellish. Collen supposedly banishes them with holy water.

***

Gwyn’s association with devils stems from a longstanding Christian tradition of identifying pagan deities with the Devil and demons and the realm of the dead with Hell. Any god who was not the one God, who demanded no other gods be worshipped before him, was seen as demonic.

In The Bible, Beelzebub, a Semitic deity originally called Baal-zebul, ‘Lord of Princes’, is equated with the Devil along with Satan and Lucifer. The ‘false gods’ of the Canaanites are referred to as ‘demons’ and the se’irim ‘hairy beings’ or satyros (ie. satyrs) as ‘goat-demons’.

The concept of Hell developed much later. In The Old Testament the original Hebrew word is Sheol, ‘the place of the dead’ (it is frequently translated as ‘the grave’). In The New Testament, Hell is translated from Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna. Hades means ‘the unseen place’ and is the name of the Greek underworld and its ruler. Tarturus is ‘the deep place’ beneath Hades. Contrastingly, Gehenna is a thisworldly place, the Valley of Hinnom, where the Kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire, leading to it being cursed.

Hell derives from the Old English hel or helle stemming from Proto-Germanic *haljo ‘the underworld’ or ‘concealed place’. Hel is also the name of its goddess. Ironically it is a borrowed pagan concept which is not of Biblical origin.

The idea of the land of the dead as a place of punishment by eternal fire was developed in the early days of the Church by scholars such as Second Clement, Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch as a means of controlling the populace. Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regus, was the first Christian leader to teach ‘the doctrine of eternal punishment’ during the 4th century.

Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, shares parallels with the other pagan underworlds and places of the dead. In medieval Welsh mythology there is plenty of evidence that, following their Christianisation between the 4th and 7th centuries, the Britons resisted the view that Annwfn was a place of punishment.

In ‘The First Branch’ of The Mabinogion and even in The Life of St Collen it is a place of beautiful courts and castles, lavishly dressed courtiers, and sumptuous feasts. These paradisal depictions are echoed in later fairylore demonstrating Annwfn became byd Tylwyth Teg, ‘Fairyland’ or ‘Faerie’.

Gwyn’s name means ‘White, Blessed, Holy’ and Gwynfa ‘Paradise’. In Barddas, Iolo Morganwg speaks of Cylch y Gwynvyd, ‘the Circle of White’, ‘the Holy World’ noting gwynvyd denotes ‘bliss or happiness’. Gwynfa and Gwynvyd might originate from a tradition wherein, like Hades and Hel, Gwyn and his realm bore identical names.

When Annwfn became Faerie its associations with the dead were severed and it was reduced to a fantasy realm. However, superstitions remain, many of these pertaining to the uncanny and dangerous nature of the fairies and their associations with abductions, madness, and death.

***

The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ contains Gwyn’s clearest literary representation as a pre-Christian god of the dead. Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as a ‘bull of battle’: a divine warrior and psychopomp. Other epithets include ‘awesome leader of many’, ‘invincible lord, and ‘lord of hosts’.

Gwyn’s identity as a death-god is revealed when he states he comes from ‘many battles, many deaths’. He asserts his presence at the deaths of Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Bran ap Ywerydd, Llachau ap Arthur, Meurig ap Careian, and Gwallog ap Lleynog before speaking the lines:

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the north;
I live on; they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the south;
I live on; they are dead.

Here Gwyn laments the downfall of the Brythonic kingdoms to the Anglo-Saxons and his living on as a gatherer of souls. He is a venerable figure. The only thing devilish about him is the bull-horns.

Contrastingly How Culhwch Won Olwen presents Gwyn as a sinister being and pits him against Arthur: a champion of Christianity who rose to popularity by slaughtering and subordinating a variety of Annuvian deities, ancestral animals, giants, and witches.

It is my belief that Arthur’s overcoming of Gwyn was a primary step in the destruction of Brythonic Paganism and the assertion of Christianity. Gwyn’s mythos had to be erased and reconfigured in a new literature documenting his defeat and replacement by Arthur as a protector of Britain who fights against the ‘devils’ of Annwfn rather than containing their fury.

In How Culhwch Won Olwen Arthur intercedes in the ancient seasonal struggle between Gwyn, ‘Winter’, and Gwythyr, ‘Summer’, for their beloved, Creiddylad, a fertility goddess. Gwyn takes Creiddylad from Gwythyr by force, presumably abducting her to Annwfn, explaining the coming of winter on Calan Gaeaf.

Gwythyr raises an army and attacks Gwyn. It might be assumed they also descend to Annwfn. Gwyn defeats them singlehandedly and imprisons Gwythyr and seven of his men. The imprisonment of Summer in Annwfn may also be part of a mythos explaining the rule of Winter.

During their imprisonment Gwyn kills Nwython and feeds his heart to his son, Cyledyr, who goes mad. Whether this scene should be read as a punishment for invading Annwfn demonstrating Gwyn’s furious nature, a muddled echo of a rite transferring ancestral strength from father to son, or Christian propaganda demonising Gwyn remains uncertain.

Whatever the case, Arthur comes to the rescue, presumably storming Gwyn’s prison in Annwfn. He defeats Gwyn, then binds Gwyn and Gwythyr in battle for Creiddylad every Calan Mai until Judgement Day. Arthur’s agency is introduced to explain an existing duel on Calan Mai where Winter is defeated and Creiddylad returns to this world, explaining the rule of Summer. The purpose is to display Arthur’s control over these two old seasonal gods and Creiddylad who he locks in her father’s house saying neither can take her until Judgement Day!

The scene where Gwyn and Gwythyr appear together as advisors to Arthur on his assault on Orddu, ‘the Very Black Witch’, who lives in Pennant Gofid, ‘The Valley of Grief’ in ‘the uplands of Hell’ is again designed to demonstrate his power over them and this Annuvian woman, who he slices in half with his knife, Carwennan, before draining her blood.

It is notable that Gwythyr’s father, Greidol, ‘Scorcher’, is one of Arthur’s forty-two counsellors and Gwythyr’s daughter, Gwenhwyfar, is married to Arthur. This is suggestive of a long-standing alliance between Arthur and the powers of summer against winter and death.

The rescued prisoners join Arthur on his hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. That Gwyn must be found before the hunt can start suggests Gwyn was its original leader. Gwyn’s identity as a hunter god is suggested by his ownership of a white stallion, Carngrwn, ‘Round-Hoofed’, and white red-nosed hound, Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’. In Welsh folklore Gwyn and the Cwn Annwfn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, hunt the souls of the dead. He is the Brythonic leader of the Wild Hunt.

Twrch Trwyth’s transformation from a human king into a boar hints at the tradition of a soul hunt. Arthur’s usurpation of Gwyn’s hunt and its depiction as just a boar hunt marks the end of the mythos featuring Gwyn as a god of the dead and leader of the Wild Hunt.

Many of Arthur’s famous landmarks, including Carn Cafall, where the footprint of Arthur’s gigantic dog was left during the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, may formerly have been associated with Gwyn and Dormach.

The Spoils of Annwfn’ shares similarities with Arthur’s attack on Gwyn suggesting they are two different variants of the same story. Taliesin, the narrator, accompanies Arthur on his journey to seven otherworldly fortresses (which I believe may be faces of the same fort) where he takes on Pen Annwfn, ‘the Head of Annwfn’.

Storming the glass walls and defeating six thousand unspeaking dead men in a devastating battle, Arthur and his raiding party rescue Gweir (who may be equated with Graid, one of Gwyn’s prisoners), steal the legendary Brindled Ox, and seize ‘the Cauldron of the Head of Annwfn’. Escaping with only seven survivors Arthur slams ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut.

Arthur’s defeat of the Head of Annwfn and seizure of his cauldron represent the triumph of Christianity over Paganism, the realm of death, the dead and their ruler, and the mysteries of death and rebirth.

It is no coincidence that Arthur’s raid on Annwfn shares parallels with Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ (harrow comes from the Old English hergian ‘to harry or despoil’). Between his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus descended to Hell to preach to ‘the imprisoned spirits’ and liberate the righteous who had been trapped there since the beginning of the world (the damned were left to stay!) triumphing over the realm of the dead and death itself.

It is my intuition that prior to Christianity and Arthur’s rise to popularity the series of fortresses might have formed part of a Brythonic tradition documenting the descent of the soul to Annwfn. They would have been approached respectfully with due ritual rather than assaulted and despoiled, their guardians killed, their treasures stolen.

***

The demonisation of Annwfn is shown by lines from several poems in The Book of Taliesin equating it with Hell (translated from Uffern which originates from the Latin Inferno ‘underworld’).

And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned

What is the measure of Hell?
How thick its veil,
how wide its mouth,
how big are its baths?

Madawg…
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Hell.

Gwyn’s loss of status as a god of the dead led to him being demonised as a demon huntsman who hunted the souls of sinners. His role became punitive as he was subsumed within Christianity’s doctrine of fear and control as a devilish figure.

Charles Squire writes, ‘Gwyn… his game is man… the “mighty hunter”, not of deer, but of men’s souls, riding his demon horse, and cheering on his demon hound to the fearful chase’.

John Rhys notes, ‘What Gwyn hunts are the souls of those who are dying; but Christianity has greatly narrowed his hunting ground, as his quarry can now only be souls of notoriously wicked men.’

Folkloric stories featuring horned figures and/or the devil, Tywsog Annwfn, ‘Prince of Annwfn’, might originally have featured Gwyn, a ‘bull of battle’ who wears bull-horns. The following example is recorded by John Rhys:

‘Ages ago as a man who had been engaged on business, not the most creditable in the world, was returning in the depth of night across Cefn Creini, and thinking in a downcast frame of mind over what he had been doing, he heard in the distance a low and fear-inspiring bark; then another bark, and another, and then half a dozen more. Ere long he became aware that he was being pursued by dogs, and that they were the Cwn Annwfn. He beheld them coming: he tried to flee, but he felt quite powerless and could not escape. Nearer and nearer they came, and he saw the shepherd with them: his face was black and he had horns on his head.’

John Rhys argues this black-faced, horned ‘shepherd’ is Gwyn. This representation is clearly influenced by Biblical tradition, perhaps by the following passage containing Cyril of Alexandria’s interpretation of John 10: 12-13:

‘the father of sin used to put us in Hades like sheep, delivering us over to death as our shepherd, according to what is said in the Psalms: but the really Good Shepherd died for our sakes, that He might take us out of the dark pit of death and prepare to enfold us among the companies of heaven, and give unto us mansions above, even with the Father, instead of dens situated in the depths of the abyss or the recesses of the sea.’

Again we return to Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ and his triumph over the realm of the dead. This story forms a large part of the hubristic anthropocentric worldview where ‘Man’ (Jesus/Arthur) conquers all, including death and its deities, which has led to the Anthropocene.

***

For many centuries Christianity has cut us off from the magical underworld beneath our feet and from its deities who we have been taught to fear as devils. As the hegemony of Christianity and its bed-partner, Empire, fail, leaving a void filled by consumerism, materialism, right-wing populism, and regressive nationalisms the need arises to reconnect with the gods of the deep.

Within Brythonic culture there is a tradition of spirit-work referred to by Gerald of Wales. He speaks of awenyddion, ‘people inspired’, ‘the soothsayers of this nation’ who are possessed by and speak with the aid of spirits and receive inspiration from dreams.

Following their example we can rebuild our relationship with the spirits of Annwfn. This isn’t an easy path to take as they have long been demonised, shut out, ignored. The restless dead are growing in number as more people die in war and fall victim to the exploitation of capitalism. They can indeed be furious. As can the fairies who mitigate between the worlds and have witnessed our untrammelled destruction of nature and ignorance of Annwfn.

Yet we have a responsibility to them, to the ‘others’, that deserves a response. Their fury demands the destruction of the exploitative systems of this world and the replacement of the shallow facade of consumer culture with a mythos rich and deep in meaning based in respectful relationship with all beings, human and non-human, living and dead.

Within Brythonic tradition Awen, ‘divine inspiration’, the source of mythic meaning, flows from Annwfn.

The Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it,
A river while it flows,
I know its extent;
I know when it disappears;
I know when it fills;
I know when it overflows;
I know when it shrinks;
I know what base
There is beneath the sea.

Our existing mythology and folklore shows there are ways into Annwfn/Faerie that are not only traversed by the likes of Arthur but by children, drunkards, poets, fiddlers, and dancers. Admittedly the risk is madness or death, but those who pass the initiatory challenges of the Fairy Kings and Queens emerge with the Awen to guide the way into a better world.

Capitalism thrives on its domination of meaning. With Awen from Annwfn we create our own.

/I\

Gwyn ap Nudd
guide of souls
light of the mist
show us Annwfn’s
disturbing beauty:
shining butterflies
worm-faced death.

Let your dragons
grant us Awen from
unquenchable wells.
Let us be possessed
and ride the fury
of your spirits
into the next world.

***

SOURCES

Charles Squire, Celtic Myths and Legends, (Lomond Books, 1905)
Dennis Bratcher, ‘Demons in the Old Testament: Issues in Translation
Edward Eyre Hunt, (transl), Sir Orfeo, (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Gerald of Wales, Description of Wales, Awen ac Awenydd
John Rhys, Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx, Volume 1, (Forgotten Books, 2015),
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Elibron Classics, 2005)
Greg Hill (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Way of the Awenydd
Iolo Morganwg, Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
Lady Charlotte Guest (transl), ‘Gwyn and St Collen’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
Marged Haycock, (transl), ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS Publications, 2015)
Saint Cyril, Saint Cyril Collection, (Aeterna Press, 2016),
Sioned Davies, (transl), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene, Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books, 2007)

*This essay was first published in A Beautiful Resistance 4.

Henwen – The Birthing and Devouring Sow

gloucester-old-spot-sow-public-domain

I. Henwen – ‘Old White’

In Triad 26. we find the story of a sow called Henwen ‘Old White’. She belongs to Dallwyr Dalben and is kept in Glyn Dallwyr in Cornwall in the care of Coll, son of Collfrewy, one of three ‘Three Powerful Swineherds.’ She becomes pregnant and it is ‘prophesied that the Island of Britain would be the worse for the womb-burden.’ Therefore Arthur and his warriors set out to destroy her.

When Henwen is ready to farrow she goes into the sea at Penrhyn Awstin and is followed by Coll (and, presumably, Arthur and his men). Landing in Wales she begins to give birth to offspring. Surprisingly, they are not piglets! In Gwent she brings forth a grain of wheat and a bee, giving the name to Wheat Field, and in Pembroke barley, ‘therefore, the barley of Llonion is proverbial.’ In these two instances, in South Wales, Henwen’s births are benign and generative, creating crops and pollinators.

When Henwen reaches North Wales, however, she gives birth to wild creatures. At the Hill of Cyferthwch in Arfon she brings forth a wolf-cub and a young eagle. The wolf is given to Bergaed and the eagle to Breat, princes of the North, and they are both ‘the worse for them.’ We find a contrast between the fertile plains of South Wales and the wilder, more rugged regions of North Wales.

‘At Llanfair in Arfon under the Black Rock’ she gives birth to a kitten who is thrown by Coll into the sea. The sons of Palug foster it in Môn (Anglesey) ‘to their own harm’ and it becomes known as Palug’s Cat. In ‘Arthur and the Porter’ we are told that it was eventually ‘pierced’ by Arthur and his men. However, before they managed to kill it, nine score chieftains fell at dawn and it devoured them. Palug’s Cat was one of Three Great Oppressions of Môn along with Daronwy, and Edwin, King of Lloegr.

II. A Sow’s Feast

It believe that Henwen also makes an appearance in ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion. In this story Gwydion is searching for his nephew, Lleu. Gwydion stays at the house of a peasant in Manor Bennard. He learns his learns his host owns a sow who returns every night to feed her piglets. However, nobody knows where she goes during the day ‘any more than if she sank into the earth’. These lines recall Triad 26. where Henwen sinks into the sea, suggesting her otherworldly nature.

Gwydion follows the trail of the sow to a mighty oak which stands between two lakes and is neither wetted by water nor melted by fire. At its roots the sow is feasting hungrily on rotten flesh and maggots. When Gwydion looks up he sees they are falling from Lleu, who is perching in eagle-form in the top-most boughs, pierced by the spear of his rival, Gronw, the gore dripping from his rancid wound.

In the context of this story it seems significant that Gwydion is led to Lleu by this mysterious sow. Earlier Gwydion stole the seven piglets who were given to Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, by Arawn, King of Annwn (along with Coll and Drystan, Pryderi was one of the ‘Three Powerful Swineherds’).

These piglets were special, ‘some kind of creature that has never been in this island before has arrived in the South’. Gwydion’s theft led to a chase from South to North Wales and several devastating battles between his men and Pryderi’s. Pryderi was finally killed by Gwydion in single combat.

It is my intuition Henwen was the Annuvian mother of the seven piglets. Her devouring of Gwydion’s nephew may represent her taking back from him in exchange for what was stolen from her. The chase South to North and trail of devastation are thematically linked with Henwen’s story.

Another point of note is that Daronwy, ‘The Oak of Goronwy’, is referred to as ‘the radiance of the men of Goronwy’ and therefore associated with Lleu’s rival, Gronw Pebr (pebyr mean ‘radiant’). It could be the oak where Lleu perched after being wounded by Gronw’s spear – a scene based on an older initiatory myth. With Henwen’s clawing child, Palug’s Cat, it is included in the Oppressions of Mon. Thus it makes sense to find Henwen devouring the dying Lleu back into Annwn at its roots.

III. Hwcha Ddu Gwta – ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’

In Welsh folklore we find a mysterious verse about Hwch Ddu Gwta ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’:

Black short-tailed sow
On every stile
Spinning and weaving
On Calan Gaeaf night

Get home quick, be the first
The Hwch Ddu Gwta gets the last.

She is said to emerge from the ashes of bonfires on Nos Galan Gaeaf and wait at stiles to prey on people walking home late. It is bad luck to be the last to get home as Hwch Ddu Gwta will eat you.

It seems possible the white Henwen, the birthing mother who provided the harvest, is also the black devourer.

There is a similar legend in southern Sweden. Gloso is a ‘glowing sow’ who appears ‘over the twelve days of Christmas’ with ‘eyes of fire, sparks spring from her bristle, and she travels like a burning flame.’ This recalls Hwch Ddu Gwta’s birth from the embers on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

She is also connected with the harvest. Three blades of wheat are left for her in the field. ‘These are for Gloso: one for Christmas night, one for the night of the new year, one for king’s night.’ This makes me wonder whether similar rituals existed to appease the harvest sow in her darker winter apparel.

IV. Ceridwen – The Old Mother

Greg Hill suggests Hwch Ddu Gwta might be connected with the Ladi Wen ‘White Lady’ who also walks abroad on Nos Galan Gaeaf, and with Ceridwen, the goddess of the cauldron. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, also identified the sow with Ceridwen, ‘the White Lady of Death and Inspiration.’

It is my personal belief that Ceridwen is the Old Mother of the Universe, the Great Goddess from whose crochan, ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’, all life is born and to whom it returns at death. This would certainly fit with the Henwen ‘Old White’ as the mother who births harvests and monsters and swallows the dead.

SOURCES

Charles Lecouteux, Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Dead, (Inner Traditions, 2011)
Greg Hill, ‘Traditional Customs for the Calend of Winter’, Dun Brython
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (Faber & Faber, 1999)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

Ywen

Ywen
dark guardian
guardian of Annwn

Ywen
dark guardian
guardian of souls

Ywen
dark guardian
guardian of mystery

Ywen
dark guardian
guardian of us all

Leaning Yew February 2018

Fruits of Annwn

Mushrooms Med

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.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On Becoming Gwyn’s Awenydd

Gwyn Altar

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.

Leaves

For Gwyn

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.

19. Sycamore Leaves