The Ghost of Myrddin Wyllt

Mountain ghosts come to me
here in Aber Caraf
A Fugitive Poem of Myrddin in his Grave

He haunts me. He who speaks from his grave at Aber Caraf with other wyllon mynydd, ‘mountain ghosts’ – Myrddin Wyllt.

He entered my life when he broke from a scene we both despise. In Stobo Kirk, in a stained glass window, he kneels before Kentigern, begging for the sacrament, as The Life of St Kentigern claims.

368px-Merlin_and_St_Kentigern,_Stobo_Kirk

“This isn’t true!” the gnosis struck me like shattering glass as Myrddin leapt free in an explosion of splinters; ethereal blue, red, green. The bishop fell in pieces with his chalice and crozier. The light swept in. Not just sunlight but that otherlight, the unendurable brightness that Myrddin gazed upon after the Battle of Arfderydd, which made him gwyllt, ‘wild’, ‘mad’. The light of truth. The ‘White/Clear Light’ of Vindonnus, Vindos, Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of Annwn.

It illuminated Myrddin in all his naked glory, leafy-haired, bony-limbed, spry and supple as a sapling even in his old age. It glinted in the scintillae of his pupils, declaring him wildman, madman, prophet, awenydd: one who speaks the Awen from the tangled heart of the forest, from the wind-swept mountains where ghosts scream, from the deep wells of Annwn.

The stories of this wild Myrddin have been smothered beneath the fusty robes of Merlin. The popular wizard, who is frequently depicted as an advisor to King Arthur in film and television, was created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and The Life of Merlin (1150) from the lives of two very different men.

Merlin Ambrosius was based on the Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. He acted as advisor to Vortigern and helped Uther Pendragon to father Arthur by magically disguising him as Gorlois, the husband of Igraine, so he could sleep with her.

Merlin Caledonensis was based on Myrddin Wyllt: a northern British warrior who became gwyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 and retreated to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest) where he learnt the arts of poetry and prophesy and used them to warn against future wars. The two Merlins became conflated.

In Robert de Boron’s Merlin (1190-1200), Merlin became Uther Pendragon’s advisor and responsible for Arthur’s fosterage, his pulling the sword from the stone, and building the Round Table. The ‘Mage Merlin’ appears as Arthur’s advisor and as a guide to the grail quest in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485). His later depictions draw upon these associations.

The conflation of the two Merlins and the downplaying of Myrddin Wyllt’s stories is deeply problematic. Firstly Myrddin lived after Arthur making their association impossible. Secondly Myrddin would never have supported the warmongering of Arthur and his ‘knights’.

Yet he has been subsumed within the Arthurian tradition and its vile strain of Christian militarism, which brought about the slaying of the dragons, giants, and witches of ancient Britain, then the Anglo-Saxons, then ‘the infidels’ who fell in the Crusades, leading to our War on Terror.

He rages against his identification with Merlin: a political advisor to the warlords of Britain who supports going to war over chemical weapons that don’t exist and approves arms sales to countries using our weapons in attacks that breach international humanitarian law.

He calls to me, a fellow awenydd, to shatter the illusion of his complicity in Arthurian imperialism with the otherlight of Annwn from our god, Gwyn ap Nudd. Here I share his story.

Myrddin grew up amongst the warband of Gwenddolau, the last Pagan warlord of the Old North. He was fierce in those days, blood thirsty, callous, with a love of gold and strong mead. Warring in nothing but the golden torque gifted him by Gwenddolau, his battle-madness was legendary. He piled up corpses for Gwenddolau’s two sea-eagles to strip their flesh.

View from Liddel Strength
Caer Gwenddolau (present-day Liddel Strength)

A great change came over Myrddin after the Battle of Arfderydd. This was fought between the armies of Gwenddolau and Rhydderch, who was married to Gwenddydd, Myrddin’s twin sister. Rhydderch had allied with a number of Gwenddolau’s kinsmen.

Gwenddolau was slaughtered. Aggrieved by the death of his lord Myrddin was consumed by such a battle rage that he killed his niece and nephew, the son and daughter of Gwenddydd and Rhydderch, who were fighting on Rhydderch’s side.

After the battle Myrddin was near-blinded by an unendurable brightness illuminating the carnage. By it he recognised the pale faces of his sister’s offspring who he had hacked apart. Martial battalions filled the sky. To his horror he realised they were the victims he had slaughtered gathered in the form of a cold and angry god staring at him with countless dead eyes.

One of those spirits swept down and tore Myrddin out of himself. With a howl of terror and pain that became a whimper and squeak he leapt and fluttered up like a bird-puppet on a string. He was tossed on the winds of Annwn, on a merlin’s wings, to the forest of Celyddon where he shivered in the branches of an apple tree.

That image of Gwyn ap Nudd containing all the dead who he had killed was indelibly impressed on his mind like an irremovable afterimage from staring foolishly at the sun.

Myrddin does not remember the days when he flitted from tree to tree, a lost soul, birdlike, unable to feel or think or see. He remembers some of his slow return to himself, to chill recumbent flesh, relearning the contours of his body and its need to eat and drink, sights, sounds.

Blog 6. Coille Coire Chuilc
A last remnant of Celyddon at Coille Coire Chuilc

The birds of the forest guided him to tasty berries, the squirrels to hazelnuts, and a happy little piglet to roots and grubs and the most exquisite truffles. When the bleak northern winter brought snow to his hips and icicles to his hair a white-haired wolf taught him the secrets of endurance.

Words came last. Stuttering, stammering, then in a sudden stream. With them the wells of the past opened. Every memory flooded back to him and he poured them out to his apple tree and little pig in a poetry that was only stemmed when each wound had bled, was cauterised, could heal.

Most terrible were his outpourings of guilt and desire for death; his attempts to drown and leaps from trees. Gwyn ap Nudd would not take him. Instead he showed him black holes in the fabric of reality from which the otherlight of Annwn streamed in illuminating future battles.

Myrddin knew then that he must give his suffering a purpose by using his prophetic abilities to warn against those devastating wars. Knowing the influence of Kentigern he took himself to the stone above Molendinar Burn, where the bishop spoke his sermons, to share his prophecies.

Kentigern did not listen. Preoccupied with teaching the word of the one true God he had little time for the words of a wildman naked as a new born rabbit and rambunctious as a rutting stag. Yet the truth of Myrddin’s words pierced some of Kentigern’s followers like antlers. The otherlight in his pine-green eyes terrified and enticed them and some began to believe him.

When Myrddin came to Kentigern to prophesy his death the bishop did not think he could die thrice: by being stoned, pierced by a stake, and drowning. He thought the impossibility of this prediction coming true would put an end to his peoples’ belief in the madman’s prophecies.

Myrddin died as predicted. Kentigern constructed the story of him begging for the sacrament to prove his power over him and his uncanny prophecies, which he claimed were no match for the word of God.

Afterward Myrddin haunted Kentigern with the furore of a soul unable to live out its entelechy because more powerful forces have got in its way.

The poetry of a lonely voice was not enough to stop the rise of Christian militarism seeded by Arthur which dominates Britain to this day. Yet Myrddin opened in many people the portals through which the otherlight comes in, illuminating the horrors Merlin’s illusions cannot conceal.

Myrddin walks amongst us opening doors and haunting us with the countless eyes of the dead until we cannot bear to be complicit with the world of Arthur and the wizard Merlin anymore.

Breaking every window, every text, every screen, he tears us out of ourselves and takes us back to the forest.

The ghost of Myrddin Wyllt sets us free.

*First published in Pagan Dawn, 204, August 2017

SOURCES

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, (Penguin Classic, 1973)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Neil Thomas, ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’, Arthuriana, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, (Sceptre, 1985)
Robert de Boron, Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval (DS Brewer, 2008)
Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, (Cassel, 2003)
Tim Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin, (Berlinn, 2016)
William F. Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

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Of Sojourning in Other Worlds

Fantasy_World_Wikia

It’s an old shamanistic art, the art of the fay, taking people away through a story to sojourn in Other Worlds and (unlike some fairies) bringing them back, bedraggled, teary, but safe, to Thisworld.

My first teachers were fantasy writers – C. S. Lewis, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, Ursula Le Guin, Robin Hobb. Reading the visionary poets Blake, Shelley, Coleridge, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, provided intimations otherworldly visions might be real and imagination was a channel to the Divine.

Studying philosophy and literature, not just reading but practicing Husserl’s epoché and Rimbaud’s ‘systematised disorganisation of the senses’, I experimented with intoxicants at festivals, night clubs, parties on the tops, beaches, local woodlands. I gained my own visions of the Otherworld. Some hair-raisingly beautiful, others confusing, odd, downright uncomfortable, some terrifying, mortifying.

The day I ended up on a rock at the end of the world staring into the abyss, unable to decide whether to live or die (I might have died or gone mad if three beings I now know were fay hadn’t brought me back), I decided my journey was at an end and tried to slam the doors of perception shut.

The result was a year of anxiety and panic attacks – terror of the world(s) I’d shut out intruding on this one. I managed to scrape through the third year of my degree, saved by writing a dissertation on the Sublime, which was based on my experience of sublimities undoing my mind and gained me a first.

Studying for my MA in European Philosophy I caught a glimpse of a way of understanding my experiences. In Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy I came across the notion of Dionysian ecstasy giving birth to Apollonian visions, only I hadn’t been seeing  dancing satyrs…

Searching for a deeper understanding of how we envision and imagine Other Worlds I started studying Blake’s conception of the Imagination at PhD level. My lack of funds and growing intuition Imagination cannot be conceptualised led me to abandon my studies and return to working with horses.

I loved the horses, but the force that led me to Other Worlds would not leave me alone. Whilst working as a groom in Hertfordshire I started writing stories about otherworldly encounters. I conceived an idea for a fantasy novel and eventually gave up my equine career, moving back in with my parents and taking a less demanding job in a supermarket to make this my focus.

During this period I discovered polytheism – that people worshipped the old gods and worked with spirits. Failing to connect with the Graeco-Roman deities I discovered Britain has its own. Finally I met Brigantia, goddess of the North, Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, Maponos, ‘the Son’ and Matrona, ‘the Mother’, who have altars at Ribchester. Yet it wasn’t until I met Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn/Faery, our ancient British Otherworld, read the fairylore that my experiences made sense.

Gwyn taught me how to journey to Annwn/Faery with intent and come back with stories of my own. He became my patron and I his awenydd and I have served him ever since. When we first met, his condition of traveling with him to the Otherworld was that I give up my ambition to become a professional fantasy writer. This was tough at the time but worth it for the wonders he’s shown me, which lie beyond the limited stretches of my own mind and the pastiche of the fantasy world I created.

For nearly five years I didn’t dare to so much as open a fantasy book. Then my mum told me about some new novels by Robin Hobb about dragonkeepers and I was soon stuck in, reading them and the final trilogy about Fitz and the Fool, before returning to the whole series again. Then re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet, then all the Dragonlance books by Weiss and Hickman.

When I consulted Gwyn about whether he minded I received the gnosis he’d led me to those Other Worlds.

Why, then, did he ban me from becoming a professional fantasy writer? I’ve been reflecting on this question a lot over the past year. I think one of the reasons was that when I was writing fantasy I was locked in a world that was a projection of my thoughts rather than truly engaging with Other Worlds.

Also, there are differences between the Otherworld(s) of our world myths and the Other Worlds of fantasy. The Otherworld(s) of our many traditions, such as Annwn, Helheim, Hades, even Heaven and Hell, are intrinsically connected with our lives in Thisworld, on this Earth, and are places where our gods, spirits, and ancestors reside. Fantasy worlds are Secondary Worlds with their own Otherworlds. They are not where we live, their laws differ, and our souls won’t go there when we die.

That is not to say those Other Worlds are not real and do not have lessons to teach us. I’ve had dreams and visions where persons from novels have appeared as real as gods. I’ve learnt more about the nature of magic from the wizards of Earthsea and Krynn than from any modern grimoire; of devotion, sacrifice, the undoing of time and space, the sundering and making of worlds.

In contrast the magic of Thisworld and our Otherworld(s) is subtle. Centuries of Christianity have cut us off from the gods and spirits of the land beneath of our feet and our immanent Otherworld(s), denying them as devils, and rationalism and science have denied their existence entirely. Thus it’s become easier to sojourn in Other Worlds comforted by the premise they are only fantasy.

The popularity of the fantasy genre is evidence for the intrinsic yearning of our souls to visit the Otherworld. How many people long to meet with gods and experience magic but don’t dare take that first step because they’re afraid of stepping outside the limits of reality imposed by rationalism?

I’m slowly beginning to perceive why Gwyn banned me from becoming a professional fantasy writer. He wants me instead to open people’s eyes to the magic of this land and of Annwn – the Deep, its hidden depths; to the voices of the gods, dragons, giants, witches, who reside there. I’m being led to fantasy writers again as visionary teachers because of their mastery of the craft of storytelling.

It is my task to create a vision of Thisworld and Annwn as beautiful, enticing, and heart-rending as theirs to entice people away from the restrictions of rationalism and the lies of capitalism to encountering the magic within the land and the Otherworld and to living lives enriched by myth.

It’s a big task. And not one I’m certain I’m able to achieve. But, like the persons in the books who continue to haunt me, I’d rather die trying to fulfil a near-impossible task than surrender to the powers who deny our gods, steal our magic, suck out our souls, thrive on us being mythless and lost.

Twrand o’r Gyre

A hen got hold of me –
a red-clawed one, a crested enemy;
I spent nine nights
residing in her womb
The Hostile Confederacy

Bird-Head

“The witch Ceridwen made me like this.”

He reminds me of one of Baskin’s cave birds:
the bare white skull with its long maxilla,
the sclerotic ring,

the way he stares just ‘so’ like a raptor,
cervical vertebrae twisting down

to feathered shoulders.

Immediately I have questions
I know I shouldn’t ask –

like where he got his cloak,
whether it’s part of him,
what’s beneath.

I keep my beak well shut,

follow with respect up the mountain
to the tap-tap-tap of his stick

as he points out bones picked clean by birds,

the skeleton still sitting waiting for death.

When I grow weary I think of how the dying
made it higher with their last breath
and stumble on to the summit.

Will I fall apart in a heap of bones
or crumble into a pile of dust?

Only his sunken eyes know.

Gyre

I totter like an old woman.

Before I’ve had the chance to look down
at what I’ve left behind I’m swept

into a gyre,
circling and circling
with the last things of Thisworld –
a wardrobe emptying of clothes,
a cupboard spilling chutnies,
jams, ketchups, vinegar.

Things I’ll dimly miss.

A new set of wings
is beating in my chest
carrying me higher higher.
The sun is my new head
illuminating the plains
of a new horizon.

Its brightness is beyond pain,
understanding, words such as ‘firmament’,
‘cloud’,‘cirrocumulus’, ‘Heaven.’

Here

the winged souls are busy,

half human, half bird,

hollowing out their bones
with the chink, chink, chink
of tiny chisels, breaking

and re-fixing humerus,
ulna, radius, fusing carples
and phalanges into wings.

Separating toes into claws.

Stretching lungs into air sacs
and filling lightened bodies full
of soulful air and otherlight.

Far Above

they are greeted by elders
who teach them to build nests

with sticks and clothes pegs,
moss, spit, newspaper cuttings
of past lives they wished they had,
toys, shoes, watch hands, fluff
from the bellies of teddy bears.

Like little old women or foetuses
they climb back into the eggs,

back into a chick-like slumber,

back into the womb of an old hen,
back into the cauldron of Ceridwen,
back into before they were born.

Nine Nights

Finally Twrand tells his story:

“For nine nights and nine days
I resided in her womb asleep like
a feather in the skies drifting from
planet to planet learning stories
of other worlds beyond her dreams
and all her deepest imaginings.

I saw the trajectory of Thisworld.

I plucked the feather of my Awen
from the side of a red-clawed hen.

When I was born she killed me:

wrung my neck, bent me out of shape.
I raised my skeleton from the sand,
fixed my wings and learnt to ride
the winds of the gyre unreturning.”

Twrand o'r Gyre MML

Dormach and the Jaws of Annwn

Dormach is the dog of Gwyn ap Nudd, who aids him hunting the souls of the dead. We have only one reference to Dormach by name in medieval Welsh literature. This is from ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350).

In this poem Gwyddno has died and is wandering the misty hinterlands between Thisworld and Annwn. There he meets with Gwyn, who offers him protection and slowly reveals his identity as a gatherer of souls. Gwyn introduces Dormach, then Gwyddno addresses the dog.

In Welsh this reads:

Ystec vy ki ac istrun.
Ac yssew. orev or cvn.
Dorma ch oet hunnv afv y Maelgun.

Dorma ch triunrut ba ssillit
Arnaw canissam giffredit.
Dy gruidir ar wibir winit.

Over the past two centuries this verse has been translated into English in various ways. The most recent and best translation is by Greg Hill (2015):

My hound is sleek and fair,
The best of hounds;
Dormach he is, who was with Maelgwn.

Dormach rednose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.

Much controversy has surrounded the name, which is written twice as ‘Dorm ach’, with a letter erased. John Rhys assumed this was an ‘r’ giving ‘Dormarch’ with march meaning ‘horse’ ‘wholly inapplicable to a dog’.*

Rhys suggested ‘Dormach’ should instead be written as ‘Dormarth’, ‘a compound made up of dôr, ‘door,’ and marth.’ He went on to claim that marth is a ‘personification of death’ ‘of the same origin as the Latin mors, mortis… perhaps, the Marth which was the door of Annwn.’ Dormarth means ‘door-death’.

Rhys’s translation is now considered unconvincing. There is no evidence the letter was an ‘r’ and its erasure is viewed as a genuine correction. According to The Dictionary of Welsh Language, ‘Dormach’ means ‘burden, oppression’. There is textual evidence of its use from the 14th century until the 18th century. These meanings fit with medieval Christian conceptions of Gwyn and his dog(s).

Rhys notes that in Wales Bwlch Safan y Ci, ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, is a metaphor for death and bears similarities with the English ‘jaws of death’ and German Rachen des Todes ‘jaws of death’. This argument for Dormach’s association with death and the door of Annwn seems sound. In the Brythonic and Germanic traditions we find corpse-dogs: Cwn Annwn (of whom Dormach is a member and perhaps their leader being ‘the best’) and Gabriel Ratchets, who hunt the souls of the dead and are viewed as death portents. To pass through the jaws of these dogs is to die and go to the next world.

In many world myths, dogs act as guardians to the lands of the dead. The most famous is Cerberus, who guards Hades in Greek mythology. He is variously depicted with one, two, three, or fifty(!) heads, one or more stinging serpent tails, and sometimes with a mane of snakes or snakes down his back.

Intriguingly, in The Black Book of Carmarthen, the scribe has sketched an image of Dormach with a dog’s head and near Cheshire cat-like grin, a dog’s forelegs, and a long body tapering to two serpent tails. He bears a striking similarity to Cerberus and may also have been viewed as a guardian of Annwn.

Dormach Sketch - Copy

Part-dog, part-serpent, this image reminds me of the watery, subliminal imagery from the temple of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn’s father. On a mosaic are two sea-serpents or icthyosaurs. On a mural crown Nodens is accompanied by icthyocentaurs with heads of men, front hooves of horses, and fish-tails.

Rhys notes by Dormach he is ‘reminded of the the medieval pictures of hell with the entrance thereinto represented as consisting of the open jaws of a monster mouth.’ He refers to the tenth century Anglo-Saxon Caedmon manuscript where the devil lies chained to a tooth and demons deliver sinners into the gaping maw.

Bodleian_Libraries,_Cædmon_Manuscript_3_Wikipedia_Commons
Caedmon Manuscript

This shares similarities with the Urtecht Psalter (1055) from the Netherlands which features not only Hell Mouths but a ‘Hades Head’ (could we be looking at shared cultural representations of Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Otherworld’?). The 11th century Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter replaces the Hell Mouths with clefts, pits, vents, and chimneys leading into hollow hills where souls are tortured.

Utrecht124_(cropped)_Wikiwand.jpg
Utrecht Psalter with Hades Head

In these representations we find a mixture of pre-Christian Brythonic and Anglo-Saxon beliefs about the dead passing through the jaws of death to a world beneath the earth demonised and made hellish. Hell Mouths also appear on the left-hand side of Christ in the bottom corner surrounded by the demonic imagery of Hell (Heaven is on his right) in Doom paintings from across medieval Europe.

These depictions are clearly influenced by the Bible. In Isaiah 5:14 we find the lines: ‘Therefore Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers’ and in Numbers 16.32: ‘and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions.’

In the Book of Jonah, Jonah was swallowed by a gigantic sea creature. In the Hebrew text it is called a dag gadol, ‘huge fish’, in the Greek ketos megas ‘huge fish’, a term associated with sea-monsters, and in the Latin ketos is translated as cetus ‘whale’. Jonah is described as being in ‘the belly of hell’, ‘cast into the deep’: ‘The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever.’ Jonah’s ‘soul fainted’, he offered up a prayer to God, and the whale vomited him up. Here we have a clear depiction of Jonah passing to and returning from another world. ‘Hell’ is translated from Sheol, the Hebrew name for the land of dead.

800px-Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_Project_Wikiepedia_Commons
‘Jonah and the Whale’ by Pieter Lastman (1621)

In Matthew 12:40 Jesus compares his death, journey to Hell, and resurrection with the story of Jonah: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ The sea-monster’s belly and Hell are equated.

In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’, in The Book of Taliesin, the riddling bard poses the question:

Pwy vessur Uffern,
pwy tewet y llenn,
pwy llet y geneu,
pwy mein enneinheu?

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

Here ‘Hell’ is translated from Uffern, which derives from the Latin Inferno, and is used synonymously with Annwn. Margaret Hancock links the geneu ‘maw, jaws’ with the Hell Mouth and the ‘Hell monster’ in ‘The Battle of the Trees’: a ‘great-scaled beast’ with one hundred heads who carries fierce battalions ‘beneath the roof of his tongue’ and ‘in (each of) his napes.’ This beast, like the ‘black-forked toad’ and ‘speckled crested snake’ in whose flesh a hundred souls are tortured ‘on account of (their) sins’ is evidently a death-eater and it seems likely Dormach played a similar role.

These creatures appear to be native to the Brythonic pagan tradition and to Annwn. Whilst they appear monstrous to Christians, from a pagan standpoint, they might be seen as having an essential, albeit unpleasant, function in devouring the dead and acting as vehicles for their passage to the Otherworld.

Of course, such passages are not limited to the dead. As the journeys of Jonah, Jesus, and Taliesin show, the living can pass to Annwn and one of those ways is by entering the jaws of a devouring creature.

Is there some deep and universal truth in the image of the jaws of death? Are pursuit by a monstrous beast, being swallowed, devoured, spat out, integral to the journeys of our souls in life and in death? If this is the case should the ‘oppression’ of Dormach ultimately be seen as liberating, his ‘burden’ the key to release from our fear of death as we pass through his jaws to gain knowledge of the Otherworld?

*Rhys gives no argument for this and I disagree. The name of Arthur’s dog, ‘Cafall’, may derive from the the Latin for horse, Caballus, and mean he was as big as a horse. Bran, the dog of Gwyn’s Irish cognate, Finn, shared Dormach’s colouring with ‘two white sides’ and ‘a fresh crimson tail’ and his head was shoulder high. In the Irish myths we also find dog-headed figures with horse’s manes. There is therefore no good reason why Dormach should not be seen as horse-sized or even as horse-like.

SOURCES

Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Awen & Awenydd
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Boughton Press, 2008)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Philip A. Bernhadt House, Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-Headed Men in Celtic Literature, (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010)
Sarah Kemple. ‘Illustrations of damnation in late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts’, Anglo Saxon England, (2003)
Biblical quotes from Bible Hub

With thanks to Linda Sever for passing on Sarah Kemple’s illuminating article.

Measuring Annwn

800px-Europe_a_Prophecy,_copy_D,_object_1_(Bentley_1,_Erdman_i,_Keynes_i)_British_Museum_Wikipedia_Commons

What is the measure of Hell,
how thick is its veil,
how wide is its mouth,
how big are its baths?
The First Address of Taliesin

You take a tape measure
long enough to wrap around the Earth,
stretch to the moon, encircle Pluto,
Sedna, but it isn’t long enough.
You learn to count to infinity
and beyond, but still cannot tell
East from West, North from South,
keep returning to the same stile
as if under a sorcerer’s spell.
What is the measure of Hell?

You wander lost in the mist,
treading broken shards of rulers
and protractors unable to grasp
the distance between your face
and trembling outstretched hand.
Spun and blindfolded you fail
to measure the sunless shadows.
Groping like Blind Man’s Bluff,
thwarted, you break, wail,
How thick is its veil?

And then you’re swallowed.
You’ve seen the monster in a book:
dog’s head, two serpent’s tails,
red nose, Cheshire cat grin.
It opens its jaws. You’re in
a cavern with no floor, roof,
swept down a ravening gorge
into a deep belly that devours
scientific truth and untruth.
How wide is its mouth?

Your question makes no sense
when you’re washed up on a shore
with hundreds of naked souls,
emptied of pockets, your notebook
floating away like a dead flatfish.
In the Tsunami’s aftermath
you realise you have lost your tape,
calculator, are forgetting how to
count, open your mouth, ask,
How big are its baths?

 

Call

deep-blue-ocean-waves-goodstock

Deep calls to deep
Psalm 42

I don’t know
if you can hear me
when I cry out,
beat my drum.

Like the psalmist
my soul is downcast
within me and longs
for the breaking

of waves on distant
shores, cloud mounts,
swirling waterfalls
of sweet awen.

Is there anyone else
with some deep god?
Is there anyone else?
who hears this call?

Like the psalmist
tears have been my
food day and night.
I hunger and thirst

for my deep god in
the depths of the earth,
the depths of my soul,
which is disturbed.

Is there anyone else
with some deep god?
Is there anyone else?
who hears this call?

Like the psalmist
my weak bones suffer
mortal agony when
my foes taunt me:

“There are no gods,
just Thisworld ruled
by man – a machine
without a soul.”

Is there anyone else
with some deep god?
Is there anyone else?
who hears this call?

Like the psalmist
when I remember you
my god of the deep
I am made whole

in the vastnesses
where the broken soul
is revealed in shards
of shattered glass,

gathered like fallen
tears into the infinite,
healed and renewed
in Annwn’s mirror.

Is there anyone else
with some deep god?
Is there anyone else?
who hears this call?

Between Texto and Gloss

I. The Glosa

As an awenydd and polytheist writing and sharing poetry is an essential part of my path. Of all the poetic forms I have experimented with, including English, Welsh, Irish, French, and Italian metres, I have found the Spanish glosa the most conducive to religious practice.

The glosa was invented by the Spanish court poets during the Golden Age. It takes the form of four lines of text (texto) from an existing poet and four ten line stanzas of commentary (gloss) written by the glosser with the final line taken consecutively from the quatrain. The conventional rhyme scheme is ABBAACCDDC.

This versatile form was popular in Parisian literary salons during the reign of Louis XVI, in Germany in the Romantic period, and in Latin America throughout the struggles for independence. It was introduced into the English language comparatively recently by the Canadian poet P. K. Page in 1994.

Hologram by P.K.Page

In Hologram, Page used a series of glossae to pay homage to other poets. Her use of a rhyme scheme where the sixth and ninth lines rhyme with the borrowed tenth, and italicisation of the text and its repetitions, has set the form for poetry in English.

Page’s work prepared the ground for Charlotte Hussey, another Canadian poet, who teaches Old Irish and Arthurian literature and studied Celtic Shamanism with Tom Cowan. Her collection of glossae, Glossing the Spoils (2012), glosses the ‘earliest Western European texts’ to ‘mend a break in tradition and time’, thereby reweaving the ancient myths into modernity.

Glossing the Spoils by Charlotte Hussey

In these glossae Hussey opens a visionary space between texto and gloss where it is possible for conversations with mythic personages and experiences of the transformative qualities of ‘the spoils’ to take place. In ‘Lake of the Cauldron’ she glosses lines from ‘Branwen Daughter of Llyr’. After watching a ‘huge man with yellow-red hair’ emerging ‘from the lake with the cauldron on his back’ the narrator is pushed ‘into the boil’ by a woman with ‘dreadlocks’, ‘long breasts’, and ‘a sweaty belly’ who ‘hacks / shoulder blades, buttocks apart, / scrapes off chunks of flesh / bones sinking then surging to the rim’. The ‘great monstrous man’ from the text watches her dismemberment ‘with an evil thieving look about him’.

Many of the poems reveal the subliminal influence of these near-forgotten myths on our time. ‘Trolls’ is based on lines spoken by the Loathly Lady in Parzival. It ends with ‘The knight, lifting his fluted, iron / visor with its narrow sights’ to ‘stare out’ for ‘a crusading convoy / to join, another holocaust to start, / or a melancholic witch to burn’. Glossing Perlesvaus, Hussey draws parallels between the animistic qualities of the ghastly black shield of the knight’s aggressor with its ‘dragon’s head throwing out / fire and flame with a terrible force’ and the atom bomb – a weapon of destruction she notes cannot be contained or exorcised (1).

I read Glossing the Spoils for the first time in 2012. Discovering the glosa and Hussey’s use of it as a gateway to visionary experience has had a profound effect on my spiritual path and my approach to the medieval Welsh texts that are central to my tradition as an awenydd.

II. The Bull of Conflict

I wrote my first glosa in September that year after an initiatory encounter with Gwyn ap Nudd, a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld. Desiring to honour and thank him for pulling me back from the brink of an abyss and to learn more about him, I decided to gloss four lines from ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2).

This poem, from The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350) documents a conversation that takes place in the misty hinterland between the worlds following Gwyddno’s death. Gwyn appears as a ‘bull of conflict’ – a divine warrior and psychopomp – to guide Gwyddno back to Annwn. Set during the fall of northern Britain to the Anglo-Saxons it contains some of the most powerful and poignant lines in Western European literature, ending with Gwyn’s lament:

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.

Choosing four lines I started by meditating on the first and was taken back to walking the streets of Preston that afternoon in the aftermath of the Preston Guild Festival (4) and the pervading melancholy. Drifting amongst shadow-people I found myself in the Harris Museum surrounded by the spoils of war and face-to-face with Gwyn stepping from the poem.

The Harris
The Harris Museum

In this familiar yet unfamiliar space, between texto and gloss, between poet and god a conversation took place that would change my life. Gwyn’s imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’ gave me a purpose, became the title of my first book, and has guided my path ever since.

The Bull of Conflict

I come from battle and conflict
With a shield in my hand;
Broken is the helmet
By the pushing of spears.
‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’

On an empty day automata drift,
Wending suit shapes through the mist.
Touchless I fade like a symbol unhitched.
The spoils of war quake in the museum.
Piercing the grey wearing horns of a bull
A white warrior blackened and bloodied
Disguises his limp in an infinite gloom,
On his spear leans, softly says:
“My comrades are slain and yet I live,
I come from battle and conflict.”

His dire avowal brings howling winds,
Chill clutch at my shoulders their lament dins
Of hero light fading from mortal skin.
In glass cabinets swords clash savage,
Raging figures thrash on ragged pages
Chanting the desolate past of ravaged war bands.
With war-torn wisdom, sombrely he whispers:
“These gathered memories to you I give.
Gone are the days I crossed this land
With a shield in my hand.”

His barrage of sadness barks in my mind
Like hapless hounds on a winter’s night.
Fierce their madness, dark their plight,
For the perishing souls they collect,
The past’s great spirit protect.
Like thundering wind obligation overwhelms me.
The blade of futility threatens to unfasten me.
“How do I cherish and defend these memories
When like the kingdoms of Rheged and Elmet
Broken is the helmet?”

I ask the Bull of Conflict.
His tears run bright with the passing of time,
Chariots wheeling in multihued light,
Victims reflected in star lit skies.
He says: “this shadow land needs enchantment
To banish the blight of despair.
Nurture the memories with magic
And they’ll sing a blessed new year.
Do not be pressed into fear
By the pushing of spears.”

This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience which led me to devote myself to Gwyn as my patron god. Nothing quite like it has happened since and I have written many glosa, good and bad.

III. The Spoils

Hussey’s title, Glossing the Spoils, works on many levels. By ‘the spoils’ it refers to the spoils of war, the spoils of the distant past gathered in museums, and the spoils of our literary heritage. It also subtly alludes to ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, from The Book of Taliesin (14th C). Taliesin, the narrator, accompanies Arthur and his men on a raid on Annwn to plunder its treasures, including the cauldron of Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn). There a catastrophic battle takes place, which Gwyn later describes to Gwyddno:

And to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Fanddwy.

At Caer Fanddwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.

Arthur assaults ‘the honoured and fair’: the fair folk ruled by Gwyn, who are forced to retaliate. In a moment suggestive of both pillage and rape Lleog thrusts his ‘flashing sword’ into the cauldron and it is ‘left behind in Lleminog’s hand’. Arthur escapes from Annwn with the spoils, slamming ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut. Only seven of three ship-loads of his men survive the conflict.

Analogously most of the spoils in our museums have been plundered violently from other lands. The literary heritage of Western Europe is largely based on a history of the victors, mythic and real, crusading, conquering, colonising. As Walter Benjamin says: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

These thoughts were on my mind when I embarked on a quest to explore the contemporary relevance of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain (3). They include the cauldron (which is kept by Dyrnwch the Giant), the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir, vessels for eating and drinking, weapons, items of clothing, and vehicles for transport. It is likely most of them were won or stolen from Annwn by the northern British warlords who own them.

Like the spoils evoked by Hussey the treasures are animate, inspirited, alive, expressing their agency through magical qualities. The cauldron will only brew meat for the brave. Brân’s horn provides any drink one wishes. Morgan’s chariot takes a traveller wherever they wish quickly. Rhydderch’s sword bursts into flames in the hand of any man who is well-born.

The Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau, ‘Chessboard of Gwenddolau’ (4), is made of gold and has silver gwerin, ‘men’, who play by themselves. The men represent Gwenddolau’s army and his enemy and serve a divinatory function – the outcome of the game predicts the result of real battles.

Writing a glosa based on four lines about the chessboard took me on a visionary journey to Gwenddolau’s seat of rule in Arfderydd (modern day Arthuret in Scotland) and gave me a glimpse of its magic outliving Gwenddolau to predict the outcomes of upcoming wars.

View from Liddel Strength
Caer Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau…
if the pieces are set,
they play by themselves.
The board is gold and the men silver
(5).
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I leave my world behind at Carwinley Burn
to follow the feral steps of a girl,
red-haired, torqued, coloured-trousered,
a wild thing with fox’s teeth at her neck
down a fox-hole to the grave
of Gwenddolau.
Beside his bull-horned corpse
stands a table and upon it a golden board.
Round its edges silver dead men lie.
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

has lain here as long as my father,”
she says. “It predicts the outcome of battles.
It played before Arfderydd, Catraeth,
when Britain’s air force clashed
with the Luftwaffe,
on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. As yet
it has never mispredicted an event.
At times of peace it sleeps.
At times of threat
if the pieces are set

they play out every move in the coming conflict.”
As she speaks the eyes of a warrior
jerk open and his spasmodic
hand grips his spear.
A warhorse rises from a tangle of stirrups and mane.
A bishop shakes off his robes and delves
for fireballs and mist in his pockets.
Caers rebuild their ramparts.
Returning to health
they play by themselves

speechless as automata resuming their positions.
Warriors move forward two squares
spearing on the diagonal.
Warhorses leap
over the mounting carnage,
on a fiery blast fall into splinters.
A king drags his queen into a caer.
As the bishops prepare the final spell
I am shaken by a premonitory shiver.
The board is gold and the men silver.

For me this glosa reveals the sad fact that since the war-torn period when Gwenddolau lived and now there has barely been a time when the warriors of Britain have not been at war. The uncanny battles fought between the gwerin, beneath the earth, in Annwn, represent our militant history.

As modern glossers we are faced with a past of ravaging, wounding, spoiling: a world spoilt by Arthurian warlords. How, between texto and gloss, can we enchant its shadows, heal its wounds?

Footnotes

(1) In ‘Glossing Faery
(2) At this point I was working with William Skene’s 1868 translation. I recommend the 2015 translation by Greg Hill. The title and glossed lines are from Skene, but the other two are from Hill.
(3) The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain appear in several medieval Welsh manuscripts. The earliest is the autograph of Gwilym Tew in Peniarth Manuscript 51 (1460).
(4) Gwyddbwyll means ‘wood-sense’. Its translation as ‘Chessboard’ isn’t entirely correct because chess originated in the Arab world and was imported to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century.
(5) Here I took the poetic liberty of changing the form and tense of the original quote.

Sources

Charlotte Hussey, Glossing the Spoils, (Awen Publications, 2012)
Charlotte Hussey, ‘Glossing Faery’, Awen ac Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Awen ac Awenydd,
Keith Ellis, ‘The Glosa: A Genre to be Noticed for its Constructive Values’, Comparative Literature and World Literature, Vol 1. No. 2 (2016)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
P. K. Page, Hologram, (Brick Books, 1995)
Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History‘, Marxists.org
William Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Four Books of Ancient Wales, (Forgotten Books, 2007)