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.
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.
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…
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?
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
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 sisterswho‘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’ whereasmór 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.
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.
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.
So far January has been pretty grim. Not only due the slippery alternation of icy weather and heavy rain, but because the UK is back in national lockdown due to a sharp rise in coronavirus cases as a result of holiday gatherings combined with a new variant that is 30 to 50 per cent more infectious. Hospitals are teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed and, on Wednesday the 13th of January, 1, 564 deaths from COVID-19 were recorded – the highest number since the pandemic begun.
My conservation volunteer work parties have been cancelled and my internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve has been limited to one day. Again we’re back to the horrible dichotomy between essential workers being stressed and overstretched whilst others have no work and feel useless.
However, unlike during the first lockdown in March, with the new vaccines and the vaccination programme underway there is hope of a return to some degree of ‘normality’ on the horizon. I have lived with the fear of catching coronavirus and passing it onto my parents, who are over seventy and have health issues for nearly a year, and am hoping they will be vaccinated by mid-February.
This moon cycle Gwyn has prompted me to look more deeply into the nature of the coronavirus and how this relates to his role as a ruler of Annwn who gathers the souls of the dead from battlefields, and arguably those who die of plagues, such as Maelgwn Gwynedd, who died of the Yellow Plague after seeing a golden-eyed monster through the keyhole where he was self-isolating in the church at Llan Rhos.
Gwyn is also said to contain the fury of the ‘devils’ of Annwn to prevent them from destroying the world. We might, perhaps, include viruses amongst this host. It is also notable that Gwyn’s father, Lludd/Nudd, put an end to three plagues in Lludd ac Llyefelys.
When I set out on and progressed with my research I was stunned by the proficiency of the coronavirus and more so by the cleverness and complexity of the human immune system and its cells. As I learnt about them and viewed their 3D representations I was filled with awe and wonder at their agency and beauty and more so because they are part of me.
Here is an account of my discoveries about the nature of coronavirus and the wonders of the immune system upon whose agency and efficacy the success of the vaccine depends. I write this for Gwyn and his father, Lludd/Nudd, defenders against plagues.
SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. Like other coronaviruses it is spherical in shape and consists of a membrane, which encloses its RNA, and protein spikes (which look like a corona). These are really important as they help the virus bind onto and attack host cells.
When droplets of the virus are inhaled or transferred from surfaces to the eyes, nose, or mouth of a healthy person it is provided with passage to the mucous membranes. These epithelial barriers not only provide a barricade against pathogens, but have their own defences such as tears, saliva, and mucus.
However, coronavirus has developed a particularly smart way of penetrating them. On these surfaces is a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 – ACE2 – and to this it binds its spike protein ‘like a key being inserted into a lock’. Thus ACE2 is the doorway by which it enters the host.
Once the virus gets into the membranes of the nose, throat, airways, and the lungs (where ACE2 is particularly abundant on type 2 pneumocytes in the alveoli), it hijacks the original function of the cells and turns them into ‘coronavirus factories’ in which it creates countless copies of itself, which go on to infect more cells, which go on to infect more cells, which go on to infect more cells…
Luckily, the invasion does not go unnoticed for it triggers a response from the innate immune system. (It is worth mentioning here that humans have not only one but two immune systems. The innate immune system, which is shared with other animals, plants, fungi, and insects, is the most ancient and the most primitive, having developed 500 million years ago. This provides a ‘front line’ general response. If it is unsuccessful, the adaptive immune system, which developed in vertebrates only, is activated and provides a more finely honed response, which targets a specific pathogen.)
Upon the invasion of the coronavirus, cells of the innate immune system stationed in the tissues and patrolling in the blood stream, which possess specialised pattern recognition receptors (PPRs), recognise pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) and damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs), and send out chemical signals that initiate the inflammatory response.
Chemicals such as histamine increase the blood flow to the infected area and cytokines attract white blood cells called phagocytes ‘eating cells’ (from Greek phagein ‘to eat’ and cyto ‘cell’) – firstly neutrophils and, within 24 hours, macrophages ‘big eaters’ (from Greek makrós ‘large’ and phagein ‘to eat’)
These phagocytes strive to destroy the virus through a process called phagocytosis that is unlike anything seen in the outside world. They engulf the virus within their membrane, enclose it within a vacuum known as a phagasome, then kill it by bombarding it with toxins. Afterwards neutrophils self-destruct via a process called apotosis. Macrophages also perform the role of devouring the dead cells. Around three days into the infection more phagocytes known as natural killer cells join the fight.
If the innate immune system fails to fend off the virus, the adaptive immune system steps in. The cells of the adaptive immune system target only specific antigens – molecules on the outside of a pathogen – and cannot recognise new antigens alone. Therefore they must be presented with them by antigen-presenting cells, such as macrophages and the dendritic cells of the membranes. These cells not only devour but process the virus and display its antigen on their surface. Thus they play an essential role in mediating between the innate and adaptive immune systems.
The main cells of the adaptive immune system are white blood cells called T-cells (because they are produced in the thymus) and B-cells (because they are produced in the bone marrow). When T-cells are activated by the presentation of an antigen they begin to mature and proliferate.
Four types of T-cell are produced. Cytotoxic T-cells specific to the coronavirus antigen bind to an infected cell and produce a chemical called perforin, which penetrates it, then cytotoxins called granzymes which destroy the cell and any virus inside by causing it to self-destruct via apoptosis.
Helper T-cells produce chemicals such as cytokines, interleukin (a pyrogen which increases molecular activity) and interferons (which cause nearby cells to heighten their viral defences) and activate B-cells. Regulatory T-cells stop the immune response and memory T-cells remember the antigen.
Once activated, B-cells produce and release antibodies that are perfectly fitted to the antigen. These perform several functions. They neutralise the virus, making it incapable of attacking the host cells; bind virus particles together in a process called agglutination; and bind to antigens, labelling them as targets. Memory B-cells, like memory T-cells, which remember the virus antigen, are also formed.
After five days, once the T-cells and B-cells are recruited, and the battle begins in earnest, the infected person starts to feel the symptoms of COVID-19. A sore throat, loss of smell and taste, and a persistent cough are caused by the inflammatory response. The mucus from a runny nose and that coughed up from the lungs is composed of dead phagocytes, dead cells, inflammatory exudate, and dead and living microbes. It is through these particles an infectious person spreads the disease.
Pyrexia, caused by the pyrogen interleukin (which you might recall increases molecular activity), is what brings about a heightened temperature, loss of appetite, and feelings of fatigue.
Most healthy people fight off the virus within 7 – 10 days. Those who do not become more seriously ill because the immune system overreacts and this leads to pneumonia, a condition in which the alveoli fill with water as a result of excess inflammation and tissue damage. This may be caused by coronavirus binding to ACE2 on type-2 pneumocytes and other membranes. ACE2 regulates a protein called angiotensin II, which raises blood pressure and causes inflammation. When coronavirus binds to ACE2, it inhibits its ability to regulate angiotensin II, thus the overreaction.
This can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, which happens when the inflammation of the lungs is so severe the body cannot get enough oxygen to survive, and can lead to organ failure. At this point a person is at risk of death and is admitted to intensive care and put on a ventilator.
Knowledge of the immune system not only helps us to understand how the body fights off coronavirus but also how the vaccines work. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, like other flu vaccines, uses a weakened form of the virus to activate the immune system’s response, so the T-cells and B-cells have memory of the antigen and can respond immediately upon a repeat infection.
The Pfizer-BioNTech is more novel because it takes the genetic code from the coronavirus antigen and uses it to create a messenger RNA (mRNA) sequence that tells the vaccinated person’s cells to produce antigens and present them to the T-cells and B-cells, preparing them for an immediate response.
My research has provided me with an illuminating revelation of hidden processes inside my body I was unaware of. In the death-eating phagocytes who process the dead virus and present its antigens it is possible to find elements of the Annuvian.
Could the white blood cells be seen as ‘guardians’ posted by Gwyn ‘White’ to help us defend ourselves from viruses like he and his host hold back the fury of the spirits of Annwn?
Perhaps… but I think truth of the matter is more complicated for Gwyn is said to contain the spirits of Annwn not only in his realm, but in his person, which is equivalent to us being able to contain the virus. This is impossible for us – for each side it is a battle to the death. It can only be contained by a god.
Paradoxically, Gwyn might be associated both with the breath-stealing life-stealing coronavirus and with the white cells who act as defenders and mediators within our bodies.
As a ‘bull of conflict’ he embodies the dark truth that, without and within, existence is ‘battle and conflict’. Yet that in this, beauty and wonder – the poetry of Annwn – can be found.
Anne Waugh, Alison Grant, Ross and Wilson Anatomy and Physiology, (Elsevier, 2018)
‘I want to live, I want to love But it’s a long hard road out of Hell.’ Marilyn Manson
So it’s December the 31st and we stand at the gateway between one year ending and the next beginning. As ever I feel obliged to write a retrospective. Looking back, quite frankly, 2020 has been a shitter of a year – on global, national, familial, and personal levels.
A global pandemic. A messy Brexit. Life at home has been incredibly difficult with my dad’s ongoing health problems, my mum having a fall and a hip replacement, and my brother having brain surgery and coming to stay with us with us whilst he recovers. And this has all happened on top of me finding out it’s likely I’m autistic for which I’m in the midst of the lengthy process of getting a diagnosis.
I received the first hint that this year would prove portentous in February when I was volunteering on the Wigan Flashes Nature Reserve and noticed a profusion of scarlet elf cups (Sarcoscypha austriaca). In a blog post I posed the question: ‘Will these red cups bring good or bad luck?’
By March we had the answer – coronavirus was spreading rapidly and we entered a national lockdown. This turn of bad luck felt particularly cruel as I had left my supermarket job to volunteer with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust full time as a way into a career in conservation. The first day of the lockdown was meant to be the first day I started a conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve. This got put on hold and all my other volunteering was cancelled. I was left with neither furlough from a paid job or training toward paid work with only the small income from my writing.
During the first lockdown my mum and I agreed that it was like being in Purgatory – a sentiment I have seen echoed elsewhere, for example in the Scarlet Imprint Newsletter. This makes me realise how deeply engrained Christian concepts are within our psyches, even for non-Christians, and how lacking we are in Pagan and Polytheist concepts through which to understand our situation. At several points I have wondered if the gods are punishing us on a global level for our ‘sins’ against nature and whether my family and I have done something to bring about their disfavour.
In the Brythonic tradition it is the fury of the spirits of Annwn that threatens to bring about the destruction of this world and usually this is held back by Gwyn ap Nudd – a King of Annwn. Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd, also played a role in protecting Britain from three plagues – a people called the Coraniaid, a dragon’s scream, and ‘a mighty magician’ – all caused by Annuvian forces.
The term used for these plagues is gormes which also translates as ‘pestilence’, ‘destruction’, ‘oppression by an alien race or conqueror’, ‘oppressor’, ‘oppressive animal or monster’. The coronavirus is a plague and might also be viewed as an alien being or a monster of Annwn.
My prayers, conversations with my gods, meditations, and research have led me to the conclusion that we are experiencing a ‘monstrum event’ (here I resort to Latin as I haven’t found an equivalent Brythonic concept). Monstrum is the root of the word ‘monster’ and also means ‘revelation’ so seems linked with ‘apocalypse’ in its original sense (from the Greek apokaluptein ‘uncover’).
As the Beast with the Fiery Halo has ravaged Britain’s populace, underlying physical and mental health problems have been brought to the fore, accidents waiting to happen have happened, the hidden has surfaced from the deep. Many of the excess deaths were not caused by coronavirus.
If the first lockdown was Purgatory then the past couple of months have felt more like Hell on Earth. Again I struggle to find an equivalent for this oh-so-fitting Christian concept. Perhaps it is possible to see ‘Hell’ as one of the deepest and most unpleasant levels of Annwn, which is described in the medieval Welsh texts both as a paradisal place and a hellish one where souls are imprisoned and tortured in the napes of a Black Forked Toad and within the innards of a Speckled Crested Snake.
It takes a lot of work to undo our associations of these scenes with the Christian concepts notion that unpleasant experiences are the result of our ill doings and are thus punishments for our sins. Gwyn has taught me they are processes of transformation that lie beyond human morality and reason. This is my current understanding of what has been happening with coronavirus.
In the ‘hells’ that I have witnessed others experiencing I have also witnessed the power of healing. Of the miracle of the hip replacement and the remarkable intricacies of brain surgery. In this I have seen the work of Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, a god of healing, to whom I have prayed for my family’s health.
I have also seen the healing hand of Nodens in the advances in treatment for coronavirus and in the creation of the vaccines. It seems to be more than coincidence that, as a more virulent strain emerges in Britain, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines have been approved. This gives me hope that, even as we face this plague, the gods are equipping us with the tools to deal with it.
In most stories, Christian and non-Christian, a descent into Annwn or Hell is followed by a return. As things slowly improve at home, as the time my parents get vaccinated approaches, I am intuiting that our time of descent is approaching an end and I am starting to catch glimpses of the road ahead.
My internship at Brockholes finally began on the 4th of December and I am predicting it will continue within Lancashire’s current Tier 4 restrictions. I believe that due to people being brought into greater appreciation of nature by the lockdown and, unfortunately, because of the climate crisis, in the future there will be more jobs in conservation and am tentatively hopeful about finding work.
I am beginning to feel, for the first time in a long time, like in the words of a Marilyn Manson song that I listened to a lot at a dark point in my life many years ago, ‘I want to live, I want to love,’ but I am painfully aware it is going to be ‘a long hard road out of Hell.’