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

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Shattering the Nunnery

Somewhere between here and Annwn

a part of me is cloistered

thinking already
about the spring flowers

as she paints another saintly visage.

In another life she has been drinking
the truth from a forbidden cup.

The saints no longer look the same:

their hands are red with blood and filled
with splinters and chips of stone
from shattered pagan idols.

The stained glass is blood stained.

Her voice catches on the songs and tears
as if upon nails – she SCREAMS

and the stained glass shatters.
The nunnery falls down.

~

This poem, which is based on a spirit-journey, signals my release from a malaise I have been calling ‘nun envy’. Although I realised Christianity was not for me when I experienced its dull and stuffy sermons and the patriarchal presence of the Christian God in my local C of E church as a Brownie at church parade a part of me has longed for learning and ritual and shared devotion in a religious community.

I have been deeply jealous of Christians because they have a system of support for people who have a sense of vocation. For those who are called to serve God there are ways of living by this calling. Vicars and priests receive an education and a salary for their work and nuns and monks lead lives of dedication to God based around prayer, manual labour, and artistic and intellectual pursuits without worrying how to pay for housing or food. When I hit thirty-five I realised that was the last chance I would have of becoming a Christian nun and living what looked the ideal life except for… the Christianity.

Of course, I decided against, because I did not want to betray my god to the God and saints of the religion that destroyed the pagan traditions and, in particular, demonised him and the Otherworld he rules.

Yet, still I kept yearning for what Christian monastics have. Researching local monasteries and abbeys. Finding myself drawn to Preston’s Carmelite monastery.

 

Visiting the Tabor Retreat Centre, which was once a Carmelite nunnery but is now run by the Xaverian Missionaries (this provides regular meditation classes, Lectio Divina, short courses and even a book club as well as retreats which I’d have loved to go to … if only I was Christian!).

 

Wanting to go back to the ruins of Fountains Abbey (which I visited every weekend when I worked at the Yorkshire Riding School) to sit and mourn something I will never have.

Fountains Abbey II
A strange impulse I believe may be rooted in a past life as a nun. A few years ago when I read in a biography about the ritual burial of Julian of Norwich – entombed like Christ to become his bride and an anchoress who would never see the outside world again I felt like I was being buried alive. As if I’d experienced something similar before. I flung the book into my wardrobe, slammed the door, and went for a walk feeling immensely grateful for my freedom to see trees and taste the fresh air.

I’ve always had a push-pull relationship with Christian mysticism, art, literature, and song. A yearning for its richness and beauty but a dislike of its unhealthy obsession with suffering and punishment.

As a consequence of years of learning about how nearly every splendid church and cathedral is based on the takeover (violent or non-violent) of a pagan sacred site; how nearly every haloed saint is associated with the defeat of a pagan mythic figure or with the slaughter or conversion of pagans; how the Christian tradition is founded on the death of paganism, it has finally lost its fusty-fingered hold on me.

Being an awenydd attempting to reweave the ways between Annwn and This-modern-world isn’t easy. But I think I will be able to do it better and more happily now my yearning for what Christians have and my nun envy is gone. From the ruins of the shattered nunnery may new shoots and tendrils grow.

Fountains Abbey

 

Gwyn’s Hunting Grounds

There is a place where you must go.
There is a place where it is always Nos Galan Gaeaf.
There is a place where the lost are always lost until you find them.

It’s somewhere through the mist somewhere in the mist

half a girl is screaming
“Where am I?” “Where am I?” “Where am I?”

somebody is trying to find a lost foot a lost hand
where they left their head

somebody is tying themselves in knots
trying to find their end and beginning.

Your horn is a calling back
a calling back

that pierces any mortal heart with terror

(we shouldn’t hear it not unless we are broken
unless something is broken)

a calling back
your horn is a calling back

that sounds a little like “Hiraeth! Hiraeth!”

that makes grown men weep
when they put their finger on its pulse.

It is filled with soul-names:
a reminder of many faces many places slipping into Annwn.

Will they return and be whole in the land where everything lives?

And what of we who stumble onto the edges
catch a glimpse of your hounds?

Will we always be hunted?

Haunted into the lost selves we found at last
we shall help you re-weave the threads of name and place.

We shall chant your name “Gwyn ap Nudd” all the way back home.

Gwyn's Hunting Grounds

A Grave for Pryderi

In Aber Gwenoli
Lies the grave of Pryderi
The Stanzas of the Graves

He was buried in Maentwrog, above Y Felenrhyd, and his grave is there
The Fourth Branch

In autumn last year I visited Aber Gwenoli in Coed Felinrhyd, the village of Maentrwog, and the Coedydd Maentwrog. These locations are all part of Snowdonia’s Atlantic oak woodland or temperate rain forest and are associated with the death of Pryderi, ‘Care’ or ‘Worry’, the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon.

Dyffryn Maentwrog Med

Pryderi is the only character who appears in all four branches of The Mabinogion. This has led scholars to speculate he may be the central figure. If this is the case he is a hapless kind of ‘hero’. Although he enjoys success in battle, he is constantly in trouble, sometimes on account of forces beyond his control, at others because of his impetuousness and lack of discernment. He is particularly unskilled at dealing with magic and with the uncanny forces of Annwn and this proves fatal.

On the night of his birth Pryderi mysteriously disappears when his mother and her women fall into an enchanted sleep. He reappears just as mysteriously when Teyrnon cuts off the enormous claw of a monster to save his foal. It’s clear he was stolen by the forces of Annwn, but the reason isn’t stated.

After Pwyll dies, Pryderi becomes the ruler of Dyfed and manages to conquer the three cantrefs of Ystrad Tywi and the four cantrefs of Ceredigion, incorporating them into the seven cantrefs of Seisllwch.

He is named as of one of the seven survivors of the terrible battle between the British and Irish in Ireland where the Irish dead are thrown into the Cauldron of Regeneration and reborn. Whether he survived through his skills in battle, sheer luck, or by cowering in a corner is not revealed.

Pryderi falls victim to Annuvian magic again when he pursues a white boar into a fortress and, enraptured by a golden bowl, gets stuck to it. His mother follows and suffers the same fate. With a ‘tumultous noise’ in a ‘blanket of mist’ they are both whisked away in the enchanted fort. It takes all the wit and persuasion of Manawydan to win them back from the otherwordly enchanter, Llwyd Cil Coed.

It is later revealed Pryderi is the owner of a herd of pigs whose ‘flesh is better than beef’. They were were sent to him by Arawn, a King of Annwn. This gift has its basis in Pwyll’s special relationship with Arawn. Pwyll traded places and identities with Arawn, literally becoming the Annuvian King and ruling in Annwn for a year. He won Arawn’s friendship by defeating his rival, Hafgan, and not sleeping with his wife. Pwyll received the title Pwyll Pen Annwn and they began to exchange horses, hunting dogs, hawks, and other treasures between their kingdoms.

It is possible to conjecture that this relationship has a deeper meaning. If Pwyll ‘is’ Pen ‘Head’ of Annwn, his and Arawn’s roles and identities remain fluid and interchangeable. Pryderi is the son of both Pwyll and Arawn, and thus a semi-Annuvian figure. This might explain why the forces of Annwn snatched him away the night of his birth – perhaps to initiate him into the Otherworld and meet his other father*. It is of interest he and his mother, Rhiannon, who is herself a divinity who originates from Annwn, are captured by the enchanted castle whilst Manawydan and Cigfa remain free.

In Triad 26. Pryderi appears as one of ‘Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain’. In Celtic mythology swineherds are often powerful magicians. The triad tells us Pryderi tends seven swine brought by ‘Pwyll Lord of Annwn’ and given to his foster father, Pendaran Dyfed. He keeps them in Glyn Cuch (the place Pwyll met Arawn). He is called a ‘powerful swineherd’ because no-one can ‘deceive or force him’. This portrait of Pryderi is much at odds with his gullibility in The Mabinogion.

The magician-god, Gwydion, nephew of Math, the ruler of Gwynedd, tricks Pryderi into giving him the pigs. He does this by disguising himself and eleven of his men as poets and conjuring twelve stallions with golden saddles and bridles and twelve hounds from toadstools. Pryderi agrees to exchange them for the pigs.

Fly Agaric, Coed Felinrhyd

A day later, when the enchantment wears off and Pryderi finds only toadstools in his stalls and kennels (a scene sadly left to the imagination of the reader), he raises an army and pursues Gwydion north.

Gwydion’s flight with the Annuvian pigs explains the place names Mochnant, Mochdref, and Creuwrion (moch means ‘pig’ and creu means ‘pen’). Gwydion waits for Pryderi to attack in Arfon, ‘the strongest part of Gwynedd’. A ‘great massacre’ takes place. Gwydion’s army retreats to Nant Call and there is, again, ‘immeasurable slaughter’. At Dol Benmaen Pryderi makes peace by giving twenty-four hostages.

The two armies travel together in peace to Y Traeth Mawr. However, at Y Felenrhyd, ‘The Yellow Ford’, a bank of sand across the river Dwyryd, battle breaks out again because the foot soldiers cannot resist shooting each other.

Y Felinrhyd

To prevent further slaughter Pryderi sends a message requesting Gwydion engage him instead in single combat. Gwydion agrees. ‘Because of strength and valour, and magic and enchantment, Gwydion triumphs and Pryderi is killed.’ Pryderi shows courage in taking on the trickster-god. Yet, surprisingly, his prowess in combat is not described. If he is the central character his swift end is a disappointing climax.

After being stolen away to Annwn on two occasions Pryderi returns there for his third and final sojourn.

We are told ‘he was buried in Maentwrog, above Felenrhyd, and his grave is there.’ A possible place of burial might be the village church where there is a marker stone. However, the church is dedicated to Saint Twrog, who reputedly threw the boulder from the Moelwyn mountains and killed a she-devil. In other accounts a giant threw the stone and destroyed a pagan altar. Aside from the line in The Mabinogion there are no folk memories connecting Pryderi with Maentwrog, ‘Twrog’s Stone’.

Maentwrog

An alternative location for Pryderi’s burial place appears in ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen. ‘In Aber Gwenoli / Lies the grave of Pryderi’. Aber Gwenoli is a stream that runs down from Llyn Tecwyn into the river Prysor, which then joins the Dwyryd at Y Felenrhyd. With help from Greg Hill and another friend I managed to locate it just below Ivy Bridge.

Ivy Bridge

Stream near Pryderi's Grave

Afterwards we completed the circular walk of Coed Felinrhyd, taking in the autumnal colours, the multitude of lichens, mosses and liverworts supported by the rainforest climate.

Lichens

Just before we reached the end we found a ‘story telling chair’, placed there as if it was just for us, and took it in turns to read Pryderi’s story from ‘The Fourth Branch’.

Story Telling Chair

After departing I was not sure of the meaning of this visit. I now have an inkling of understanding. If Pryderi is the son of both Pwyll and Arawn and of Rhiannon he is an Annuvian figure who was killed by Gwydion. Gwydion’s theft of Pryderi’s pigs and slaughter of Pryderi are not the only instances of him stirring up trouble with the Otherworld.

Gwydion also stole a dog, lapwing, and roebuck from Annwn, inciting Arawn, ‘the Wealthy Battle Dispenser’ to lead an army against him. This included enchanted plants, trees, monsters, and giants. Arawn (presumably with the Cauldron of Regeneration) even brought Brân the blessed back from the dead!

Gwydion in turn enchanted 34 different trees and shrubs against Arawn. With help from his nephew, Lleu, ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ and the warrior-bard Taliesin, Gwydion’s men and the battling trees defeated the forces of Annwn.

For some reason I’m being drawn by the deities of Annwn to look at the damage Gwydion’s trickery has caused. Whether my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, is ‘the same’ deity as Arawn, Llwyd ‘Grey’ and Brenin Grey ‘The Grey King’, who all haunt the mist-soaked oak forests of Snowdonia, is not for me to determine. All I know is I feel ‘his’ influence drawing me back to these stories of the British Foretime and to North Wales where land, language, myth, and the misty breath of the gods are one.

Dyffryn Maentwrog II

*For a detailed discussion of joint fatherhood in Celtic mythology see Will Parker’s The Four Branches of the Mabinogi p167 – 170.

SOURCES

Lorna Smithers and Greg Hill, ‘Y Felenrhyd’, Caer Feddwyd, (2017)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Rachel Dixon, ‘Walking in a Welsh rainforest‘, The Guardian, (2015)
Remy Dean, ‘Welsh Folklore: Significance of the Maentwrog Standing Stone’, Folklore Thursday, (2016)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
The magical swineherds of Irish mythology’, Atlantic Religion, (2015)

Gwyn’s Feast

Gwyn ap Nudd is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn. As the Brythonic leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ he gathers the souls of the deceased back to his realm to be united in an otherworldly feast. This repast of the dead can, at certain times of the year, be participated in by the living.

Unfortunately this is a tradition that Christians went to great lengths to bring to an end. This article will introduce the evidence for Gwyn’s Feast, how it was abolished, and how it can be reclaimed by modern polytheists.

*

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, as Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Underworld’, Gwyn presides over a feast in Caer Vedwit, ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’. At its centre is the cauldron of Pen Annwn, with its ‘dark trim, and pearls’, which ‘does not boil a coward’s food’: a vessel symbolic of rebirth.

Cauldron

Arthur raids seven Annuvian fortresses, confronting six thousand speechless dead men, inflicting violence on ‘the honoured and fair’ and stealing the Brindled Ox, kidnapping a bard called Gweir, and stealing the cauldron of Pen Annwn before slamming ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut.

I believe Arthur’s raid on Annwn replaced an earlier tradition of the soul’s return to the underworld and journey through seven fortresses (which are faces of the same fort) to Gwyn’s Feast and the Cauldron of Rebirth. Arthur’s defeat of Gwyn and his people and theft of his cauldron represent the triumph of Christianity over the pagan mysteries of death and rebirth.

This story is paralleled in Culhwch and Olwen, where Arthur raids Gwyn’s fortress to rescue Gwyn’s rival, Gwythyr, and his army (who include Graid who might be equated with Gweir), and steals a number of otherworldly treasures including the Brindled Ox and a magical cauldron.

Arthur also usurps Gwyn’s hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, ‘a king and for his sins God changed him into a swine’. This thinly disguises that Arthur takes leadership of Gwyn’s hunt for a human soul in boar-form – ‘the Wild Hunt’ – reducing it to just a boar hunt and again obscuring pagan traditions.

*

Glastonbury Tor Calan Mai 2013

Gwyn is intimately associated with Glastonbury Tor. Excavations have revealed the existence of a building with several hearths dating to the 5th – 7th century. Two north-south aligned graves (not Christian) nearby along with an empty stone cairn and helmeted bronze head with ‘a narrow face’ and ‘slit mouth’ in the ‘long’ Celtic style suggest it may have been a pagan temple.

Bones of cattle, sheep, and pigs, from joints of meat, and Mediterranean amphorae (large jugs for holding wine) suggest feasting took place at this temple on the Tor; a liminal place where Thisworld and Annwn and the living and the dead meet in revels presided over by Gwyn.

Several pernicious accounts in saints’ lives record Christian attempts to abolish this tradition. In The Charter of St Patrick, Patrick and his brother Wellias climb the Tor and find ‘an ancient oratory’. There they fast for three months ‘dominating the devils and wild beasts’ and are rewarded with a vision of Jesus telling them to claim the place in his name and invoke St Michael.

In The Life of St Collen, Collen, Abbot of Glastonbury, derides Gwyn and his host as ‘devils’. When Gwyn invites him to the summit of the Tor to feast in ‘the fairest castle he had ever beheld’, Collen refuses to ‘eat the leaves of trees’, says the red of Gwyn’s people’s clothing signifies ‘burning’ and the blue ‘coldness’, then supposedly banishes them with holy water.

Gwyn appears as Melwas (1) in The Life of Gildas, where he violates Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar, and carries her off to the Tor, which is well fortified by ‘thickets of reed, river, and marsh’. Gildas sides with Arthur and wins Gwenhwyfar back. The tradition of ‘Arthur’s Hunting Path’ from Cadbury to Glastonbury and his burial further illustrate his replacement of Gwyn.

*

The tradition of invoking St Michael on Glastonbury Tor continued. In the 11th century a wooden church dedicated to him was built on the summit. In 1243 Henry III granted permission for an annual fair to be held there for six days around the Feast of St Michael, September 29th.

It is likely St Michael’s Feast replaced a feast day for Gwyn. The 29th of September was the final day of bringing in the harvest. In Cornwall, September is known as Gwynngala, ‘White or Blessed Fields’, a name which contains suggestions that Gwyn, a death-god, is associated with reaping and celebrations for him were held when the fields were cleared at the month’s end.

This date has also become attached to St Michael’s defeat of Satan in a war of Heaven and banishment of him to Hell. It seems this Biblical story was recalled to reinforce St Michael’s defeat of Gwyn on his feast day. According to a folkloric tale the Devil first fell to earth and landed in a blackberry bush and spat or urinated on the blackberries, explaining why they go rotten.

Gwyn was identified with ‘that ancient serpent called the Devil’. This is not surprising as Gwyn’s father, Nodens/Nudd/Lludd is associated with two dragons and Gwyn’s dog, Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’, has two serpent’s tails. It may be suggested Gwyn took serpent-form (2).

On the tower of the 14th century stone church on Glastonbury Tor (the wooden one was unsurprisingly destroyed in an earthquake in 1275!) is an image of St Michael with a set of scales weighted toward him, rather than his opponent, the Devil-as-serpent. St Michael’s taking souls to heaven and weighing them forms an antithesis to Gwyn gathering souls to Annwn where all are united at his feast without moral judgement.

St Michael, Scales, Dragon, Glatonbury Tor 2013

*

I’ve been celebrating Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September since 2013 as a way of reaffirming his presence in the place of Arthur and St Michael, who has taken over many other sites sacred to Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn/the fairies, including some in Lancashire (3).

When I asked Gwyn if I could celebrate a feast for him on this date, he agreed. Since then I’ve been joined annually by a friend, and Dun Brython members such as Greg Hill and Lee Davies have held their own celebrations. This year I know of several other devotees of Gwyn, who I’m in contact with online, who will be celebrating Gwyn’s Feast.

A meal I have developed and found Gwyn is happy with (4) is pork with apple sauce, a glass of mead, and offerings of meat for his hounds and apples for his horses. I open the feast by calling to Gwyn and his spirits and acknowledging the connection with all who have feasted with him in the past and those who are feasting with him on September the 29th today. Then we eat.

After the meal I read prayers, poems, and stories, which have been written for Gwyn or remind me of him by myself and others. This is followed by some form of communion with Gwyn such as divination, journeywork, or quiet contemplation. Rather than saying farewell I end by welcoming Gwyn and his spirits back into the landscape as we enter the dark half of the year.

This year I will be holding a feast for Gwyn then afterwards the readings will take place at the launch of Gatherer of Souls at the Black Horse in Preston. The publication of this book, which is dedicated to Gwyn and recovers his mythos, is the culmination of six years of devotion.

*

(1) The identification of Gwyn and Melwas is also backed up by Welsh tradition. In ‘The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar’ Melwas introduces himself: ‘Black is my steed and brave beneath me / No water will make him fear / And no man will make him swerve.’ This is clearly Gwyn’s mount, the legendary water-horse Du y Moroedd, ‘the Black of the Seas’. Other lines suggesting Melwas is Gwyn, referring to his otherworld nature, include, ‘It is I that will ride and will stand, / And walk heavily on the brink of the ebb’, and ‘I would hold against a hundred of myself’.

(2) Robert Graves refers to Gwyn as ‘the Serpent Son’ in The White Goddess. This name is of his own coining based on personal inspiration and does not have any historical basis, yet is fitting.

(3) John Rhys notes Michael ‘was regarded as par excellence the defender of Christians against the sprites and demons with which the Celtic imagination peopled the shades of night, the gloom of the forest, and even the straggling mist on the tops of hills. Perhaps it would not be rash to suppose that most of the old foundations associated with his name occupy sites of sinister reputation, inherited from the time when paganism prevailed in the land, sites which were considered to be dangerous and to form the haunts of evil spirits.’ Here in Lancashire there is a church dedicated to St Michael in Whitewell, which is named for its white well, which many be connected with Gwyn. It is close to Fairy Holes and Fair Oak. In Beetham St Michael’s is the destination of a coffin path/fairy path which is famous for its Fairy Steps.

(4) One small word of advice on something he was very unhappy with… avoid eggs at all cost. In 2014 we decided to add boiled eggs to the arranged meal of ham without asking him. Three times we boiled them for the right amount of time and they were completely uncooked!

An earlier version of this article was published on the Dun Brython blog HERE.

SOURCES

Alex Langstone, ‘The Berwyn Mountains of Poetic Adventure’, Mirror of Isis
Anon, ‘The Charter of St Patrick’, Britannia History
Anon, ‘The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhywfar’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
Ben Johnson, ‘Michaelmas’, Historic UK
Caradoc of Llancarfan, The Life of Gildas, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/gildas06.html
Charlotte Guest (transl), ‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Mary Beth Albright, ‘Michaelmas: The Day the Devil Spit on Your Blackberries’, National Geographic
Nicolas R. Mann, The Isle of Avalon, (Green Magic, 2008)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Yuri Leitch, Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and key to the Glastonbury Zodiac, (The Temple Publications, 2007)

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)

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.