Gwyn’s Feast 2022

Gwyn ap Nudd is a Brythonic God of the dead and a ruler of Annwn. In ‘The Life of St Collen’ He is depicted presiding over a magical feast on Glastonbury Tor. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ He is the keeper of a cauldron that will not boil meat for a coward and His fortress has many names including Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead Feast Fort’.

The existence of a feast day for Gwyn is suggested by the tradition of a fair held around the 29th of September on Glastonbury Tor. It is now dedicated to St Michael, who on this date banished Satan from Hell. This is echoed by St Collen supposedly banishing Gwyn and His people who he calls ‘devils’.

I have been celebrating Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September for nearly 10 years as a way of claiming His feast back from St Michael and for entering communion with Him, with the spirits of Annwn, and with the dead. The feast consists of pork (based on Gwyn’s hunt for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’), apples, and mead or cider.

This year Thornsilver Hollysong and I will be holding a celebration of Gwyn’s Feast on Vyvianne Armstrong’s Land Sea Sky Travel Zoom channel from 6pm – 8pm BST / 1pm – 3pm EST. This will include devotions and offerings to Gwyn, a space to discuss experiences with Him, poetry readings and a meditation in which we will join Him and His people at His feast and seek communion with Him.

This is open to all and you can join the meeting HERE.*

This year I have planted Michaelmas daisies in my wildflower area as a way of claiming Gwyn’s Feast back from St Michael. I have also been harvesting apples from our trees, which I associate with Him as Afallach, a name given to Him as a King of Annwn who presides over an isle of apples.


*Please email the team or myself at lornasmithers81@gmail.com for the password if you are new.

Edited 27/09/22 to add what we feast on following Greg’s comment.

‘In the Deep’ – first excerpt ‘In the Beginning’

This poem is the first of a series of excerpts from my book in progress ‘In the Deep’ and is called ‘In the Beginning’.

The title ‘In the Deep’ refers to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld in medieval Welsh mythology. The book is about the gods and goddesses of Annwn and their conflicts with the Children of Don. Most of these deities are found as euhemerised characters in the Welsh myths and were worshipped as gods in ancient Britain. 

This opening poem, ‘In the Beginning’ was born from my long-standing fascination with creation myths. This began with the Bible where, in Genesis, we find the lines:

‘1. In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. 

2. And the Earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ (1)

This shows that, in the Biblical tradition, the deep existed before the Creator God. 

In medieval Welsh literature God comes to replace Ceridwen, the Goddess of the crochan the cauldron or womb from which inspiration originates and, I believe, the universe was born. 

This role is hinted at in medieval Welsh poems such as ‘The Childhood Deeds of Taliesin’:

‘I entreat my Lord
that I may consider inspiration:
what brought forth that necessity
before Ceridwen
at the beginning, in the world
which was in need?’ (2)

In my poem, ‘In the beginning,’ Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, takes the place of the Biblical creator God.

The universe is born from the shattering of Her cauldron, a recurring motif in the Welsh myths. This mirrors ‘the shattering of the vessels’ in the Kabbalistic tradition. 

  1. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%201&version=KJV
  2. Marged Haycock (ed), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007), p 242

Text

In the Beginning

was the breath, 
the in-breath and the out-breath 
of Old Mother Universe. 

In the vastness of the Void she slept, 
and in her sleep, in her dreams 
she stirred Her cauldron. 

And in her cauldron 
she saw Her face in the Deep 
and she saw it was surrounded by stars

and each star was the eye of a giant
and each was a fiery warrior.
By the light of the stars 

She saw a nine-headed dragon
and knew her for the Mother of Annwn.
She saw the birth of the Gods

and the death of dragons
and the battles that would form worlds:
everything from the beginning

until the end of time.
Her vision was so sad and so beautiful
her cauldron burst and the stars poured forth.

Thus was the beginning –
the first breaking of the cauldron.
Thus from a big bang the universe was born.

I Awenydd

“Remember who you are.”

I am an awenydd of Annwn.

I am a keeper of an ancient monastery
(yes this monastery is ancient although
its builders only built it yesterday).

Likewise I am born from the Deep.

I am forged in Annwn’s fires.

I am the creation of a myriad creatures
who continue to live within me,
barking, stampeding.

I am born of the Dragon-Headed Mother.
The nine elements swirl within me.

I live by the rule of awen*.

My destiny lies before me.

~

This poem was born from a time of crisis and struggle as I have suffered from poor mental health as a result of working a late shift as I find it very difficult to cope with changes in routine and sleeping pattern as an autistic person.

Following the realisation I can’t make a living from my vocation as an awenydd, for the last three years I have poured most of my energy into pursuing a career that is in alignment with my spiritual values. I’ve volunteered my way into paid work in conservation, completed a year-long conservation traineeship, and gained a permanent job as an ecologist.

There is a lot to like about ecology. There is much to learn. I get to visit varied sites. There is an art to getting the best deal for people and nature. But the job is also high pressure and, in many consultancies, (thankfully not mine) there is a complete disregard for mental health with junior ecologists working several nights a week and being expected to keep up with day work

I have been lucky to gain work with a team who are not only friendly and professional but aware of and supportive around mental health problems and have allowed me to cut down nights and take time out for counselling.

Over the period I have been developing my career I have had less time for my spiritual vocation and, it’s sad to say, have only fallen back on it at a time of crisis, when my work alone has not been enough to pull me through.

Having realised that my difficulties with night work will mean I cannot become a good all round ecologist (I will not be able to get my great crested newt and bat licences and will be limited to developing my abilities with habitat and vegetation surveys and protected species I can survey by day) I’ve been questioning if this is the right career path and assessing where my talents lie.

“Remember who you are,” I have heard the voice of my God, Gwyn, on a few occasions, reminding me of my vow to Him, to serve as His awenydd.

This has led to the realisation that I’ve been living an unbalanced life. Devoting too much time to Thisworld and not enough to Annwn, the Deep.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve made a poor choice of job, but outside it, whereas I was spending all my free time reading ecology books and articles, trying to record and memorise plants, and carrying out extra surveys, I need to make room for the soul-world.

From this has been born the Monastery of Annwn as a sanctuary to retreat to; where the Gods and the Deep are revered and honoured and put first; as a place that provides the strength to return to Thisworld and pursue one’s awen/destiny**.

*The phrase ‘the rule of awen’ is not my own but is one of the principles of the Gnostic Celtic Church which resonates deeply with me. 
**In Medieval Welsh poetry ‘awen’ means not only inspiration but destiny.

In the Monastery of Annwn

there will be no rulers and there will be no rule.

All will uphold the virtues of their choosing.

Neither light nor dark will be banished
for they form the night sky and the stars –
the womb of Old Mother Universe.

Eating, drinking, fasting, will all be allowed
for all states of the cauldron must be embraced –
empty and full and there will be no divisions between
the ones who drink and the ones who stir as
this was the root of the original disaster.

There will be no good and there will be no bad.

We will exist in a world before sin existed.

The before that 365 plants come from and art
and who we bring to life with our songs.

There will be room for men and women and all between.

It will be accepted that we all are monsters.

The monstrous will be raised on high with the dragons,
spiralling, spiralling down, descending into
darkness, sleepily drunk on mead.

We will be visible and invisible.

No-one will see that we wear our habits
like invisible cloaks as we got about our daily lives.

No-one will see the Monastery of Annwn because
it lies beyond doors and walls and no-one
will read the forbidden books
in our personal libraries

because they lie unwritten
on the dark shelves of our souls.

No-one will be able to read our motivations.

I ask is this monastery meant to be built?

If I build a monastery will they come?

Or will it always be a rule of one?

For the Dead, for the Mad, for the Poets

for the torn apart all the parts of our bodies will ride tonight,
crawl up from the bogs onto our swampy horses,

not the bog bodies who were found,
but those who were not found.

*

You summon back our voices like the mast on Winter Hill.

You make us appear again like television. Your hunt
would make a good film but most times myth
is better told in softly spoken words
and half-seen visions.

Radio broken. 
Someone smashed the television.

*

You are always off screen.
You are the one who is not named.
You are the one whose face is the face of a god.

The howls of the wind are the chorus of your hounds,

your words are furies and each has a hand, 
clutching, pulling, ripping, tearing.

*

You are the god of illusion
and the rending apart of all illusions.

The one who tears our false truths to shreds.

The jostling elbows, stuck-out toes, the heels dug in.

*

This is the time of fire, flood, rain, and catastrophe,
yet the beech leaves are yellow, gold, and green

in the kingdom beyond the kingdom beyond the kings 

and we call you a king without knowing the true meaning

of sovereignty, that your throne means more than gold.

*

Are you silence or the breaker of silence? 

So long ago I wrote: 

“The universe began 
with a howl and from the howl came death.”

The death-hounds within me giving tongue to a mythos
that came to me before my world had begun.

*

AWEN is not always a smooth chant
in the mouths of druids, but the broken vowels
of an awenydd when language cannot help and poetry fails.

Still, the body, its dislocated limbs, remember how to ride tonight.

*

And where is she in all of this? Riding ahead treading air un-abducted? 
Did you take her from the underworld or did she take you there?

Time, the clock does not obey, pivots like she on her wild white mare

like a dislocated limb. I have found that myth dislocates too,
frees itself from time and space, free and true.

This poem marks the first time I have felt inspired to share something here for a long time, something I felt compelled to share for my god after a walk near Winter Hill on Nos Galan Gaeaf. Maybe there will be more, maybe not, no promises, no deadlines…

Wooden Idols of the Bogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Wooden Idols and Ritual Landscapes in Northern Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOURCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravens Who Croak On Gore

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn recites the names of a series of northern British warriors* whose deaths he attended ‘when ravens croaked on gore’.

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

I was there when Bran was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.

I was there when Llachau was slain
Arthur’s son, wondrous in wordcraft,
When ravens croaked on gore.

I was* there when Meurig was slain,
Careian’s son, honoured in praise,
When ravens croaked on flesh.

I was there when Gwallog was slain,
From a line of princes,
Grief of the Saxons, son of Lleynog.

The repetition of lines featuring croaking battle-ravens at the end of four of the five three line stanzas drives home the devastation wreaked upon the battlefields where these northern men were killed, some in internecine rivalry, some battling against the Anglo-Saxons. It shows few or none of the Britons on their side lived on to bury their dead, who were scorned by their enemies.

The image of battlefield ravens and other carrion birds along with wolves and/or dogs feasting on the corpses of the dead is common throughout the poetry of the ‘heroic age’ across Northern Europe and expresses the gristly reality of conflict and its aftermath, which few of us witness first hand today.

In it we find the expression of attitudes towards heroism, war, death, and the battle-dead. Although most of this poetry was composed after the pre-Christian peoples of Northern Europe had been converted to Christianity it is still possible to find hints of pre-Christian superstitions surrounding ravens and other carrion birds as ‘death-eaters’ who were associated with the death gods and goddesses.

The sense of Gwyn’s omnipresence on the battlefields where these northern British warriors died combined with our knowledge from other sources that he is a ruler of Annwn (‘the Deep’ – the Brythonic Otherworld) suggests he attended their deaths as a psychopomp to gather their souls back to his realm and that, like him and his hounds, the death-eating ravens served a role in their transition.

An examination of the literature surrounding battlefield ravens in the Brythonic and other Northern European cultures suggests they were viewed not only as carrion-eaters associated with the aftermath of battles but as manifestations of the death-gods, those who served them, and the dead.

In the Brythonic tradition there is a great deal of raven imagery in The Gododdin, which relates the tragic Battle of Catraeth, where over three hundred Brythonic warriors died fighting the Anglo-Saxons. Here a battle is referred to as a ‘raven’s feast’ and ‘raven’s gain’. Whilst one of the warriors ‘fed the ravens on the rampart of the fortress’ another became ‘food for ravens’ ‘benefit to the crow’. This reflects a possible heroic adage that the fate of a warrior was either to feed the ravens or become food for them. In ‘The Battles of Gwallog’ ‘there are… many stinking corpses, / and scattered crows’.

The rulers of the northern British kingdom of Rheged were associated with ravens. Three ravens appear on their coat of arms (designed in the Middle Ages) which might have been based on a raven banner**.

Having fed the ravens most of his life Urien Rheged becomes food for ravens after his assassination. Whilst his cousin, Llywarch Hen, rides away with his head, ‘on his white bosom the sable raven gluts.’

In Rhonabwy’s Dream, the warriors of Owain Rheged take the form of ravens and feast on their living enemies. After a defeat by Arthur’s men, the squire ‘raised the banner’, and they took revenge. ‘They carried off the heads of some, the eyes of others, the ears of others, and the arms of others and took them up into the air. There was a great commotion in the sky with the fluttering of jubilant ravens and their croaking, and another great commotion with the screaming of men being attacked’.

In the Irish myths ravens and crows are associated with the battle-goddesses the Badb and the Morrigan. The name Badb means ‘crow’. In ‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’ she appears as ‘a wild, impetuous, precipitate, furious, dark, frightful, voracious, merciless badb, screaming and fluttering over their heads’ with ‘ancient birds’, ‘destroying demons of the air’, and a ‘phantom host’. In The Tain, the Badb is invoked by the war-cry of Cú Chulainn along with ‘fiends of the air’ and it is only when the Morrigan settles as a raven on his shoulder that his enemies know he is dead.
In Anglo-Saxon literature the raven is one of three ‘beasts of battle’ with the eagle and wolf, hungry for, and feasting on the corpses of the dead. In ‘Judith’ ‘the dark raven’ is described as ‘a slaughter-greedy bird’. In ‘Elene’ ‘dark and slaughter-fierce’ it ‘rejoiced in its work’. In the Old English Exodus, in a verse that opens with screams of war-birds, it is described as ‘the dark chooser of the slain’.

This is interesting in relation to the lore surrounding ravens in Norse mythology. Two ravens named Huginn ‘thought’ and Muninn ‘memory’ fly across the world to gather information for Odin, the god who receives half the souls of the battle-dead in his hall, Valhalla, who are taken there by his valkyries.

The term valkyrie comes from valr (the battle-slain) and kjósa (to choose) and means ‘chooser of the slain’. Valkyries and ravens were frequently depicted together, such as in ‘Raven Song’, where a valkyrie asks a raven: ‘How is it with ye ravens? Whence are ye come with bloody beak at rithe dawning of the day? Torn flesh is hanging from your talons, and a reek of carrion comes from your mouths. I do not doubt that ye have passed the night amid a scene of carnage’. These companions may have been seen as shapeshifting into one another, as raven-woman figures, like the Badb.

Another intriguing figure, from Danish lore, is the valravn ‘raven of the slain’. These beings are described alternatively as ravens who gain the knowledge and form of men by eating the heart of a fallen king or as restless souls who can only be rid of their animal countenance by drinking the blood or eating the heart of a child. Sometimes they are described as half-raven, half-wolf.

Parallels with other sources suggest ‘the ravens who croak on gore’ who accompany Gwyn may be more than what they seem, that they might be shapeshifters, valkyrie or Babd or Morrigan-like deities.

In relation to this theory it is notable that Gwyn may be identified with Afallach, the father of Morgan. She appears in the Vita Merlini as one of nine sisters who ‘knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on wings’. Morgan and her sisters may be the nine maidens whose breath kindles the fire beneath the Cauldron of the Head of Annwn in a poem attributed to Taliesin called ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. On the surface the names Morgan and Morrigan appear to be similar. However, mor in Welsh means ‘sea’ whereas mór in Irish means ‘great’ and rigan ‘queen’.

Afallach is also the father of Modron, who is raped by Urien Rheged, and bears Owain and Morfudd, in Peniarth MS. 70. Here we find further potential connections between the King of Annwn and the raven-rulers. Whether Morgan and Modron are the same goddess by different names I remain uncertain.

What my research has opened up is the possibility that whilst, on one level, the ravens in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ are physical beings partaking in the visceral reality of feasting on the battle-dead after tragic battles they might also be seen in other ways.

Perhaps they were shapeshifting goddesses who were daughters of Gwyn, valkyrie-like figures who served him, or embodiments of dead or living warriors. These meanings shift and overlap and open new paradigms for understanding the lines about warriors feeding and becoming food for ravens.

Their croaking over gore becomes increasingly sinister in our modern eyes, but may reflect an older worldview in which life feeds on life and the dead on death and to feed the ravens is not an insult but an honour.

* A possible exception being Arthur’s son, Llachau, unless there is an argument for a northern Arthur.
** It seems possible the rulers of Rheged had a raven banner with animistic qualities like those carried by Viking leaders. If the raven flapped its wings there would be victory and if it hung limp, defeat.

The image is ‘The Twa Corbies’, an illustration from Arthur Rackham’s Some British Ballads (2019). Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)

Aaron K. Hostetter, Old English Poetry Project, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/

Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008)

John Jay Perry (transl.), Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, (1925) https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/index.htm

Greg Hill (transl.), ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/

Hugo Edward Britt, ‘The Beasts of Battle – Associative Connections of the wolf, eagle, and raven in Old English Poetry’, (The University of Melbourne, 2014)

Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)

Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Spoils of Annwn

Only art can bring back that which should never be touched:

grave goods, treasures of the mound
and bottomless lake,

your cauldron.

Like you, my lord,
they are beautiful and cursed,

filled with spirits who haunt us with wishes that shall never be.

Sword of Nodens, Spear of Lugus, Shield of Brân,

your mother’s secret jewellery,

the Golden Ring
by which you are bound
to fight your enemy,

numinous
and just as deadly
as the battles of dragons.

As a great black dragon you watch over the dragon-spirits within.

Only art can bring them back and for those
who touch your terrors reign.

*This image of a dragon’s eye is from a birthday card my aunt sent me last year. It reminds me of Gwyn-as-dragon and is blu-tacked on my wardrobe, overlooking my writing desk.

Gwyn Dedication Two Years and a Day On

It has been the worst year
since I have been born.

I have felt hurt, anger,
resentment, abandonment,
wondered if I’ve made a mistake.

If my choice to dedicate myself to you
has brought family sicknesses,
plague, landslips, floods…

But, you reassure me, it has not –

you warned me of the sadness
coming to this land long ago.

In your thereness I have found
strength knowing how tirelessly
you guide the dead (so many!).

You have laughed away my fears.
When I’ve cried, wailed, wallowed
in self pity and uttered every expletive
in Thisworld and Annwn told you:
“I’m afraid I’m going crazy…”

you have shown me the lives and deaths
of your spirits – what true madness is –

Annwn’s multi-sided perspective.

You have been there for me
through the worst year as you are
always there for the living and dead.

I have been blessed in my service to you
as your awenydd whether in words or in work
in the woodlands and the marshlands…

Tonight, in your cauldron, help me transform
my battle-fog into mists of enchantment.

White, Blessed, Holy, be not only
the Wrathful Hunter but the Kindly One.
Help me delight in being yours again.

I wrote the poem above, addressed to Gwyn, to mark the two year anniversary of my lifelong dedication to him. This took place beside yew tree on Fairy Lane by the light of the ‘Super Wolf Blood Moon’. I had already served a seven year apprenticeship to him, most of which had been magical and wonderful.

The last two years have been far harder, in particular the last, for all the reasons stated above. Family illnesses, covid, minor natural disasters in my local area and far worse ones further afield.

All of these devastating signs of the consequences of climate change and overpopulation.

Last night, I performed a ritual to mark the anniversary of my dedication to Gwyn, which involved casting these happenings and the feelings of resentment and anger that were getting in the way of our relationship and my service to him as an awenydd into his cauldron to be transformed.

“Know that every thought, like all things, has a soul,” he reminded me, “like you dies and is reborn.”

During our communion Gwyn gave me a combination of warnings, reassurance, and guidance.

“There is harder to come. I will give you no false hope or empty promises. Yet I can provide inspiration. In the journey of the soul you are not alone. Both the living and the dead face these problems. I too, for we all connected. Set aside your resentment and reach out in cooperation. Every thought, word, act, has its effects running through both worlds and throughout time. Know these cannot be predicted but even the worst horrors can turn to awen in the cauldron.”

So the magic of Annwn was worked and this morning I awoke to the full moon shining over my garden.

Their Forest Seat

This is an image I was inspired to draw of the King and Queen of Annwn as Bone Wolf and Bone Mare – a guise Gwyn ap Nudd and Creiddylad/Rhiannon have been appearing to me in this winter, a time of revelation, as so many things have been stripped bare.