Over the next month, on Land Sea Sky Travel, in the Corvids and Cauldrons chatroom, Vyviane Armstrong, Thornsilver Hollysong, Bryan Hewitt, and I are going to be hosting a series of meetings titled Tylwyth Gwyn. In them we are going to be exploring and deepening our devotional relationships with the Brythonic deity Gwyn ap Nudd and his family through shared devotions, practices such as meditations, and discussions of gnosis.
Thurs 4th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Gwyn ap Nudd
Thurs 11th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Creiddylad
Thurs 18th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Nodens/Nudd
Thurs 25th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Anrhuna
These meetings are free and everybody is welcome. You can join by the Zoom link HERE.
*This image is an illustration from Y Tylwyth Teg (1935) and pictures a man brought before the Fairy King (Gwyn).
Don is a Brythonic goddess who is best known as the mother of ‘the Children of Don’. In ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogi she is named as the sister of Math ap Mathonwy (this shows Mathonwy was her father), and her children are named as Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, and Arianrhod. In the Bonedd yr Arwyr they are listed as Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Gofannon, Efydd, Amaethon, Hunawg, Idwel, Elestron, Digant, Kynnan, Hedd, Addien, Elawg, and Arianrhod.
In Triad 35. Beli Mawr is named as the father of Arianrhod and this may suggest Beli fathered some or all of her other children. Beli is also named as the father of Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint, Caswallon, Nyniaw, and Llefelys in Lludd ac Llefelys and it is possible they too are Children of Don.
Don is likely to be identical with Anna, the consort of Beli, in the Harleian Genealogies, and is thus the grandmother of Afallach (Gwyn ap Nudd), who is the father of Modron and the grandfather of Mabon. Don and Anna are named as the forebears of the lineages of many of the kings of the North and Wales.
Parallels exist between the Children of Don and the Tuatha Dé Danann ‘the Children of Danu’. Unfortunately we know nothing about Danu from inscriptions, place-names, or Irish literature. The nominative *Danu is a hypothetical reconstruction from the genitive ‘Danann’.
However, there are strong parallels between some of their children. Nuada and Nudd/Lludd are both warrior-kings with silver arms, Gofannon and Goibnu are both divine smiths, and Lugh and Lleu (more distant descendants of Danu and Don) are many-skilled gods who wield deadly spears.
I was highly excited when, online, I found claims for links between Don and Bel and Danu and Bile. I was disappointed to find out these are based on a loose claim about ‘British analogies’ from Charles Squire in Celtic Myths and Legends (1905) and there are no etymological or textual grounds for Danu and Bile having been consorts or parents of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Nothing more is known about Don from medieval Welsh literature or from inscriptions but she gives her name to the rivers Don in Yorkshire and Aberdeen and perhaps to the river Dee. This forms part of the boundary between the the Wirral and Wales and is known is Wales as the Afon Dyfrdwy. This might derive from Dyfrdonwy with Donwy being an earlier name of the goddess Don.
It is possible that there might be connections between the Irish Danu, the Brythonic Don, and the Hindu goddess Danu rooted in a shared Indo-European tradition. Her name may derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *dʰenh₂- ‘to run, to flow’ and be the source of the river-name Danube.
In The Rig Veda Danu is named as the mother of the 100 Danavas – demonic beings known as asuras. One of these is a dragon called Vritra who holds back the water of the world’s rivers. Vritra is slain by the thunderbolt of Indra and the river-water is released. Vritra then attacks and defeats Danu. This suggests Danu and her descendants are associated with primal waters and rivers.
This is of deep interest to me as it suggests parallels between Danu as the mother of the dragon, Vritra, who is slain by Indra, and Don as the mother of the dragon-goddess Anrhuna, who is slain by Lugus. (Anrhuna is not known in any Brythonic sources but she revealed herself to me as the consort of Nodens/Nudd and the mother of Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd. I was inspired to write a story about how she was killed by Lugus. I hadn’t guessed that Don might be her mother until now. In my story it was not Don who birthed hundreds of demons but Anrhuna who birthed monster-serpents).
The notion that, like Danu, Don is the mother of primordial waters, is one that has long accorded with my intuitions. Several years back I had a vision of Don as the source of generation and I associated her with Fidelma Massey’s ‘Water Mother’ sculpture on the cover of Greg Hill’s Creatures.
The possibility that Don did not only birth the ‘culture gods’ but the dragon-goddess Anrhuna and maybe other dragons and demon-like beings associated with water is one that speaks deeply to me.
As I have been writing this essay the words an dubno have repeatedly come into my mind. When I looked them up I recalled that several years ago I came across the proto-Celtic root *dubno or *dumno meaning ‘the deep’ or ‘dark and gloomy’ and Liz Greene’s claim Danu’s ‘dark face was Dumno’.
An means ‘not’ or ‘very’. The term an dubno thus shares its meaning with Annwn, ‘Very Deep’, the Otherworld. Perhaps this is telling me that Don was originally an Annuvian goddess who proceeded Anrhuna as the Mother of Annwn. In my story both Don and Anrhuna were amongst the oldest children of Old Mother Universe but I am now considering that Anrhuna may be the daughter of Don. This opens new possibilities for when the time returns to resume work on my mythic book.
Alexei Kondratiev, ‘Danu and Bile: The Primordial Parents’, The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism, Vol. 1, No. 4, (1998)Asterope, ‘Danu/Don’, Deity of the Week, (2011), http://deity-of-the-week.blogspot.com/2011/11/danudon.html Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993) Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014) Sarah E. Zeiser, ‘Performing a Literary Paternity Test: Bonedd yr Arwyr and the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colliqiuim, Vol. 28, (2008) Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
*Updated 15/11/2020 to include the river Don in Aberdeen following a comment from angharadlois.
Nine towers of stone. Around each coils a wyrm. No way in – no door, lock, key, but a single row of windows at the top where I think I glimpse the face of a madman. They are old as the grey mountains. I want to claim they were built by the haulers of scree, the wyrms summoned and bound by the might of magicians or that they came of their own free will raising the towers from some secret land underground that has never been seen. Share rumours of a sibylline prophetess who consulted the wyrm’s heads but whose words are not recorded in dusty books in an arcane language eaten by bookworms. But no explanation rings true or exists. I feel like banging my head against the stone demanding an answer from the inexplicable unblinking eyes and long stony tongues silent as the purple skies. I cannot accept this vision defeating poetry.
I wrote the poem above a couple of years ago and the vision it is based on has stuck with me. It’s only since I started writing my new mythic book, The Dragon’s Tongue, that I realised that the nine towers correspond to the nine heads of the Dragon Mother Anrhuna and that when she was killed her nine heads were bound on the towers so the creator gods had power over the nine elements (stone, earth, magma, fire, air, wind, water, mist, and ice). I’ve finally got round to trying to draw the scene, which I find helps.
speak of dragons when dragons from the world are gone?
How can I be your inspired one when the myths of the gods are lost?
To sing them back from the void before creation I will need a dragon’s tongue!
Lord of Annwn grant me the strength by the breath of dragons to write this book.
Over the past few weeks I have known possession by the awen; the inspiration, the divine breath that flows from Annwn, the breath of the gods, the breath of dragons; like I have never known it before.
It’s come after a couple of fallow years; sowing, reaping, dissatisfaction with flawed and failed crops.
I was beginning to fear that, after making my lifelong vows to Gwyn ap Nudd, to serve him as his awenydd, that the awen had dried up. What irony! A tiny part of me had begun to wonder if I’d made a mistake. Whether my powers of discernment were off. Whether he’d been having a laugh with me.
But my soul, to him eternally present, spoke otherwise. Only now I’ve realised I’d experienced a time of labouring, harrowing, preparing the ground for the oak to rise and the lightning to strike. For my fall from the tree amidst this collective shattering of the grounds of our society brought about by COVID-19 and into Annwn, the Deep, where I was to find the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue.
Thus has been born my next mythic book – The Dragon’s Tongue. Much of it has been gifted to me at dawn, in response, I believe to my evening prayers, in particular to Gwyn, Gwyn’s father, Nodens, Lord of Dream, Gwyn’s mother, Anrhuna, Dragon Mother of Annwn, and Gwyn’s beloved, Creiddylad.
You will probably not be surprised when I say their stories are central, with those of the dragons, and their conflict with the Children of the Stars*. There isn’t much evidence for dragons in the Brythonic/Welsh myths aside for an episode where Lludd/Nudd/Nodens ends a plague by ending the battle between two dragons and another where they appear, red and white, in a vision of Merlin Emrys. But there is the red dragon is on the Welsh flag and dragons are all around us in our folklore.
I’ve been reading mythic literature, journeying with the deep gods, the dragon-gods, long enough to know, when you get to the bottom of any myth, as Gordon White says, it is ‘dragons all the way down’.
I have long wanted to write the story of Anrhuna, the forgotten Dragon Mother, and also a creation myth. I have wanted what is lacking in the Brythonic/Welsh stories penned by medieval Welsh scribes. Something polytheistic, something penned by an inspired one of the gods, that provides insights into the mysteries of creation, of life, death, and rebirth, without the patriarchal Christian overlay.
Finding nothing else I realised I would have to do it myself. Following being gifted with the voice of the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue I started in the beginning, in the Deep, with Old Mother Universe and her Cauldron and how a dragon slipped from it and fell into the Abyss. How, from formlessness, she gave birth to the elements in dragon-form to form the world (yes – the world was made by dragons and not by God or some other demiurge). How the Children of the Stars slew Anrhuna, cut off her nine dragon heads with their long necks, and bound them on the Towers of the Wyrms…
From this flowed the story of the conflict between the Children of Annwn and the Children of the Stars, a tale of love and war, the mysteries of birth, death, and rebirth, of the coming of the Black Dragon.
After I swore to Gwyn that I would complete it beneath the leaning yew, where I met him, I got most of the first draft written over those days of thunder. When the lightning from the Spear of Lugus which killed Anrhuna lit the skies, when the rain poured, when the energy was strange and high.
This, I believe, would not have been possible if we were not in lockdown due to COVID-19. If I had not had this time without the pressures of finding paid work by volunteering with the Wildlife Trust and helping organise local poetry nights. If I had not stopped drinking, got off social media, started counselling for my anxiety and found out its root is having Asperger’s, which has helped me to stop blaming myself for my failures in ‘the real world’ and to cultivate space for my gods and my soul.
The birth of this book has restored by faith in my gods and through it I finally feel reborn as Gwyn’s awenydd. The first draft is complete, but is far from perfect, and I am predicting it may take months, even a year or so to firm it up. But, it has been born, and I am incredibly excited about it.
So if you’re interested watch this space and if you’re really interested you can find out more about my creative processes and see unseen work, including some of the drafts, by supporting me on Patreon HERE.
Following the revelations that Anrhuna, the Dragon Mother, was reborn as Matrona and replaced by Mary I journeyed to find out more about the land of the dragons. My dragon guide took me on her back to view a scene where the sky was pink, the molten orb of the sun was shrouded by mist, stony platforms floated, and a red dragon flew slowly and majestically by, leaving traces of smoke in the air.
I felt touched and honoured by its beauty but at the same time realised I felt fragile, paper thin. I was no longer sitting on a dragon but was in the tenuous hold of two winged beings, one on each shoulder.
They took me to follow the red dragon into a cave which I instantly knew was ‘the Womb Room’, where Anrhuna’s womb was taken for safekeeping after she had been slain by the Children of the Stars. Within it was a mural of Mary with her child and all around it were red flames.
The red dragon told me that Mary must ‘burn’ so that Anrhuna could return to dragon form again.
Then I received the insight that it is we, humans, who are keeping Anrhuna as Mary in human form. But, knowing how many millions of people love her, I realised that even if I had the power to ‘burn’ her and thus take her away it would be wrong and that this was not my role or my place. I wondered whether ‘burn’ might have a different meaning to being burnt or being destroyed. Could there be some kind of revelation of Mary as Anrhuna in which just her image was burnt away?
At this point I realised that other humans had been to the Womb Room before me to paint the mural and that there were offerings there – a vase of flowers and coins and statuettes and other treasures.
I was afterwards told that the sun always hangs within this land and is ‘The End of Days Sun’. That it is a piece of ‘dragon art’. That the sun isn’t really in their land, but they create this art to remind them of the imminence of the End of Days. I had a feeling this was an important part of their lore.
This vision combined with my constant calling to ‘see Mary’ when I’m out walking, whether it is a visit to the site of St Mary’s Well and St Mary’s Church on Castle Hill in Penwortham, St Mary’s in Bamber Bridge, Our Lady and St Patrick in Walton-le-Dale, Ladyewell in Fernyhalgh, or the old St Mary’s in Leyland, prompted me to do some research on Saint Mary the Virgin in Christianity.
To my astonishment it revealed some imagery which fits quite closely with my vision. I found out that Mary is often identified with ‘the woman clothed with the sun’ in the Book of Revelations. She appears ‘with child’ ‘travailing in birth’ then appears ‘a great red dragon’ waiting to devour the child (!).
The child (Jesus) is taken up to the throne of God and the woman flees to the wilderness. Hence follows the battle between the angels and the dragon (the Devil) and his angels and their casting out. The dragon persecutes Mary but she is given eagle’s wings with which to fly away. He then tries to drown her in a flood of water but the earth saves her by swallowing it. Finally he turns on her descendants.
Here we find Mary with child and burning or ‘clothed with the sun’ which is also ‘the End of Days Sun’ relating to the time of apocalypse or revelation and a reference to a primal battle against a dragon.
Only the stories are very different. In the Christian story the red dragon is the adversary of Mary, God, with whom she conceives her son, and his angels, who battle against the dragon/Devil and his angels. In the story I have been gifted the war between Anrhuna as the Dragon Mother and the Children of the Stars has already taken place and the red dragon is advising me to ‘burn’ Mary. It is, at least, interesting that Mary was given eagle’s wings and I was held in the air by two winged beings.
I have no idea what to make of these complex overlappings and reconfigurings of images yet but feel that in some sense revealing them here is part of the process through which Mary may burn yet not be burnt. Perhaps like the burning bush – ‘the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.’
When I went to visit Mary at Our Lady and Saint Patrick’s on the first of June it was sweltering. She looked serene. Contrastingly my backpack was sweated to my back and the sun was scorching my bare calves.
Spoke the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue, The Voice of the Goddess with Nine Dragon Heads: “The Dragon Goddess shall be slain and in Human Form She shall be reborn as the Mother of the Son.
In His darkest dreams the King of Annwn will tear Out the Eye of Bel, He will tear down the Sun and put it Inside the Belly of His Dead Mother and the Queen of Annwn Will shape for Her Dead Mother a new Earthen Form
And They will send Her in a boat to Portus Setantiorium Where She will be met on the Western Shore with Reedlights And up the River of Belisama will sail to Ribel-Castre And there the Eye of Bel will once again be reborn
As Maponos ‘the Son’ to Matrona ‘the Mother’. Yes! Throughout Belisama’s Vale in the Sacred Groves At the Springs and Wells and the Roaring Fords at the Roman Altars and in the Temples They shall be Honoured.
At the birth of every child She shall appear Threefold To Breathe the Blessings of the Awen into the Infant Mouth. As the Three Mothers of Destiny She shall be Revered In all the Holy Places in the Hills and Vales of the Old North.
And she shall appear Ninefold the Dragon Daughter Of the King of Annwn as Morgana and her Sisters breathing Life into His Cauldron before spiralling into Serpent Forms. And the Nine shall be Recoiled in Circles of Stone.
And when the Priests of Christendom come armed With Book and Vestment and Mitre treading widdershins Around our Holy Wells with splashings of Unholy Water But failing with their Prayers to undo our Spells.
Henceforth she will be known as Mary in Nine Churches In Belisama’s Vale: at Peneverdant, at Prestatun, at Wahltun, At Euxtun, at Leyeland, at Sceamlburgh, at Bamber Brig, At Ruhford, at Fernihough, she will be Honoured.
At Cockersand Abbey as Mary of the Marsh As the Magdalen in Maudlands in Nine Times Nine Churches Across the Islands of Prydain and beyond she will be Honoured,” Spoke the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue.
This poem was written as an early experiment in writing in the voice of ‘The Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue’ in a Blakean style and brings together some of the mythic overlayerings of mother figures I have perceived within my landscape, in the Brythonic myths, and in visions and journeys.
I recognise this will not accord with everybody else’s perception of these deities and is very much a personal revelation. And, of course, I won’t be attempting to imitate Blake again, which I knew before setting out is impossible and foolhardy. I see it as a first step on the way to creating a myth to live by.
In previous posts I have spoken about how I’ve come to know Anrhuna ‘the Lady of Peneverdant’ or ‘the Mother of the Marsh’ as the ancient British mother goddess associated with marshlands and healing waters who was replaced by Saint Mary the Virgin at the well and church on Castle Hill in Penwortham.
As the mother of Vindos/Gwyn (a ruler of Faerie/Annwn whose presence at Castle Hill may be attested by a local fairy funeral legend) by Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, I have more recently been getting to know her as ‘the Mother of Annwn’ and in this guise she appears to me as a nine-headed dragon.
This is an image I have never come across in Brythonic mythology. However, stories of dragons abound across Britain and Nodens/Nudd/Lludd and Vindos/Gwyn are associated with them. In the Temple of Nodens at Lydney is a mosaic of two sea serpents and Nodens is depicted on a mural crown with ‘icthyocentaurs’ with serpent tails. Plus, as Lludd, he stops the battle of two dragons. Gwyn’s dog, Dormach, is depicted with two serpent tails and Robert Graves calls Gwyn ‘the Serpent Son’.
At the Temple of Nodens, who is surrounded by the watery subliminal imagery of the dream world and where sick people received healing dreams, a statue of a mother goddess holding a cornucopia was found. Pilgrims offered her pins for aid in childbirth. This may be a representation of Anrhuna. Maybe, just maybe, the two sea serpents are Anrhuna and Nodens in more primordial forms. In this context the appearance of Anrhuna, Mother of Annwn ‘the Deep’, as a dragon makes more sense.
Yet her myths are lost. I have recently returned to the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, which features a dragon-goddess called Tiamat, who shares similarities with Anrhuna, to look for clues. Tiamat is a goddess of the salt sea. Her name may be cognate with the semitic tehom (‘the deep’ or ‘the abyss’) and she appears as a dragon or sea serpent. After she gives birth to the gods they turn on her. Against them she births an army of monster-serpents and puts her son, Kingu in the lead. Following a primal battle she is slain by the storm god, Marduk, and the world is created from her remains.
I’ve long found the following lines about Tiamat’s birthing of monsters beautiful and awe-inspiring:
Ummu-Hubur [Tiamat] who formed all things, Made in addition weapons invincible; she spawned monster-serpents, Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang; With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies. Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,cc With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature. Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him, Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack. She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu, And hurricanes, and raging hounds, and scorpion-men, And mighty tempests, and fish-men, and rams; They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight. Her commands were mighty, none could resist them; After this fashion, huge of stature, she made eleven [kinds of] monsters. Among the gods who were her sons, inasmuch as he had given her support, She exalted Kingu; in their midst she raised him to power.
I’ve wondered whether we once had a story in which Anrhuna gave birth to Monsters of Annwn such as the Great Scaled Beast, the Black Forked Toad, and the Speckled Crested Snake who feature in ‘The Battle of the Trees’. This depicts a conflict between the forces of Annwn and the Children of Don and perhaps records a primordial battle between monsters and culture gods that shaped the world. The parallels suggest Anrhuna gave the kingship of Annwn to her son and made him leader of her armies.
I am currently exploring these ideas in early drafts of my next book ‘The Gods of Peneverdant’. You can find out more about what is going on behind the scenes in my monthly newsletter and see unseen work by supporting me on Patreon HERE.
‘… to nobler sights Michael from Adam’s eyes the film removed Which that false fruit that promised clearer sight Had bred, then purged with euphrasy and rue The visual nerve (for he had much to see) And from the Well of Life three drops instilled. So deep the power of these ingredients pierced Even to the inmost seat of mental sight That Adam now enforced to close his eyes Sunk down and all his spirits became entranced. But him the gentle angel by the hand Soon raised and his attention thus recalled: Adam, now ope thine eyes and first behold The effects which thy original crime hath wrought…’ Paradise Lost
I’ve recently been re-reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). The third or fourth time round this epic vision seems no less powerful in its depictions of Heaven and Hell and Earth both pre and post fall or radical in Milton’s writing the perspective of Satan and his inner motivations and turmoil.
As an Annuvian kind of person I will admit to feeling more sympathy with Milton’s rather magnificent Satan, refusing to serve in Heaven preferring to reign in Hell, the only one amongst the fallen angels (who include many pre-Christian gods) who dares travel to Paradise to thwart God’s plans by bringing about the fall, than the brainless Adam and Eve, Milton’s spoilsport God, or his Son.
The ending, with its deus ex machina, again was disappointing. It turns out the fall was not only predicted but designed by God to make possible and all the more powerful Jesus’ redemption of humanity. Paradise Lost is, in essence, a work of theodicy, written ‘to justify the ways of God to men’.
I’m sharing this because, whilst re-reading the book, I found the lines cited above that seem to contain Christian and pre-Christian Brythonic lore. When the archangel, Michael, purges Adam’s fallen sight he not only uses traditional plants – euphrasy, or eyebright, and rue were used for treating eye ailments – but ‘three drops’ from ‘the Well of Life’. This grants Adam visions of the future, mainly the ill-doings of his offspring until the Flood. As far as I know there is a Tree of Life but not a Well of Life in Paradise in Christian literature, which makes me wonder if it comes from another source.
The most obvious is the Welsh ‘Story of Taliesin’. In this tale Gwion Bach steals three drops of awen ‘inspiration’ from the cauldron of Ceridwen, which grant him omniscience as the all-seeing Taliesin. Milton’s evocative description of these ‘ingredients’ piercing ‘to the inmost seat of mental sight’ and putting Adam into a trance before he opens his eyes to see the future fit shares similarities with the prophetic visions of Taliesin and other awenyddion, ‘persons inspired’ referred to by Gerald of Wales.
However, although this story had been published in Welsh in the mid-16th century, it was not available in English at Milton’s time. Whether he had travelled to Wales (Milton was born in London, studied at Cambridge, lived in Berkshire, and travelled extensively throughout Europe before returning to London) or had heard the story in England in some form remains unknown.
The resemblances are so uncanny that, if he had not, it seems possible he was tapping into some deeper source. It is of interest that Milton refers not to a cauldron, but to a well, a far older image. Throughout the British and Irish myths cauldrons and wells are associated with inspiration and rebirth.
After Gwion tastes the awen Ceridwen pursues him in a shapeshifting chase and swallows him into her crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ from which he is reborn, shining-browed, and omniscient as Taliesin. In ‘The Second Branch’ the cauldron brings dead warriors to life. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, refusing to ‘boil the food of a coward’ it is associated with the bardic initiation rites of Pen Annwn.
In the Irish myths the Well of Segais is associated with imbas ‘inspiration’. No-one was allowed to approach it except its keeper, Nechtan, and his three cup-bearers on pain of their eyes exploding. However, Boann, Nechtan’s wife, disobeyed. It overflowed and she was dismembered and died. The river created took her name – the Boyne. When Finn burnt his thumb whilst cooking a salmon from this river he received the imbas. In The Battle of Moytura the Tuatha Dé Dannan dig Wells of Healing and throw in their mortally wounded, who not only come out whole but more ‘fiery’ than before (!).
It seems that Milton is, indeed, tapping into a deep source. Here, in Peneverdant we once had a Well of Healing, dedicated to St Mary at the foot of Castle Hill, which I believe was associated with an earlier Brythonic mother goddess of healing waters who has revealed her name to me as Anrhuna. I believe she is the consort of Nodens (cognate with Nechtan) and the mother of Gwyn ap Nudd (cognate with Finn), Pen Annwn. Perhaps we once had a myth based around these deities that has now been lost.
In Paradise Lost, for Adam, as for many who taste the three drops of inspiration (aside perhaps for Taliesin) possessing foreknowledge is both a blessing and curse. At first he laments Michael’s gift:
‘O visions ill foreseen! Better had I Lived ignorant of future, so had borne My part of evil only, each day’s lot Enough to bear! Those now that were dispensed, The burden of many ages, on me light At once, by my foreknowledge gaining birth Abortive to torment me, ere their being, With thought that they must be! Let no man seek Henceforth to be foretold what shall befall Him or his children…’
He is then reconciled by his perception of God’s purpose:
‘… Now I find Mine eyes true op’ning and my heart much eased, Erewhile perplexed with thoughts what would become Of me and all mankind, but now I see His Day in whom all nations shall be blest.’
‘O goodness infinite, goodness immense! That all this good of evil shall produce And evil turn to good more wonderful Than that which by Creation first brought forth Light out of darkness!’
Adam’s visions give him the strength to depart with Eve from Paradise to Earth to beget humankind. The gate to Paradise, to the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, and no doubt to the Well of Life is barred and guarded by a ‘flaming brand’ ‘the brandished Sword of God’ ‘fierce as a comet’.
In Christian literature, in contrast to the simplistic notion preached to school children that the souls of good people go to Heaven and those of bad people go to Hell, Paradise is not truly regained until after the Apocalypse and Jesus’ harrowing of Hell and the resurrection of the dead.
It may be suggested that, in our Brythonic myths, all souls return to the Well of Life. That, with a little awen to awaken ‘mental sight’, the living can travel in spirit to Annwn and be reborn as awenyddion.
Here, in Peneverdant, where the well has run dry due to the foolishness of humans shattering the aquifer when moving the river Ribble to create Riversway Dockland, it remains possible to traverse the waters of the past, of the Otherworld, to return to the unfathomable source from which Milton drew.
The wetlands of the old counties of Lancashire and Cheshire which were inhabited by the Setantii tribe ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ are well known for their bog burials; Lindow Man and Woman, Worsley Man, severed heads from Pilling Moss, Briarfield, Red Moss, Ashton Moss, Birkdale.
The archaeological evidence suggests that Lindow Man and Worsley Man were human sacrifices. Lindow Man (also known as Lindow II) was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat was cut before he was cast into the peat bog. Worsley Man was garotted and his skull fractured before his beheading. These ‘overkill’ injuries are suggestive of ritual killing rather than death in battle or murder.
This is supported by the fact many bog burials from Britain and Europe ate special last meals. The last meal of Lindow Man was a griddle cake baked from finely ground wheat and barley. Lindow III, another man whose remains were found nearby, ate a meal of wheat and rye with hazelnuts. Old Croghan man from Ireland, and Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark also ate similar meals.
The head from Briarfield was ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ ‘with abundant remains of hazel’. Further north, at Seascale Moss in Cumbria, a body was buried in the bog with a hazel walking stick. Miranda Aldhouse Green notes that bog bodies from Gallagh in Ireland and Windeby in Germany wore hazel collars and another from Undelev in Denmark was buried with three hazel rods.
She connects them with a lead defixio of ‘late Roman date’ ‘from the river Ouse near the Hockwold Roman temple’ in Suffolk: ‘Whoever… whether male or female slave, whether freedman or freedwoman… has committed theft of an iron pan, he is to be sacrificed to the god Neptune with hazel’.
The Romans equated Neptune with our ancient British water-god Nodens at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall where an inscription reads ‘DEO NO/NEPTU’. At his Romano-British temple at Lydney, Nodens is depicted on a mural crown driving a chariot pulled by four water-horses accompanied by winged wind-spirits and centaurs with fish-tails and a fish-tailed fisherman.
Nodens gifted pilgrims with healing dreams but was also called upon to remove health. A curse tablet reads: ‘For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one-half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good-health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.’
It thus seems possible the people who ingested hazel prior to their deaths or were buried with it were sacrifices to Nodens who was equated with Neptune due to his watery qualities by the Romans.
The associations between Nodens and hazel have deep mythic roots. In Ireland Nodens was known as Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ and Nechtan (from the Old Irish necht ‘clean, pure, white’). Nechtan was the keeper of the Tobar Segais ‘Well of Wisdom’. Around it stood nine hazel trees which dropped their hazelnuts, containing imbas ‘inspiration’, into the water. They were eaten by salmon and this special poetic wisdom, known as awen in the Welsh myths, was infused into their flesh.
Only Nechtan and his three cup-bearers: Flesc, Lam, and Luam, were allowed to visit the well. Of those who transgressed their eyes would explode (!) – a possible metaphor for the effects of poetic vision.
When Nechtan’s wife, Boann, disobeyed this command the well overflowed and became the river Boyne. One of its kennings is ‘the forearm of the wife of Nuadhu’ and it was known in the early 2nd century CE as Buvinda (from early Irish *Bou-vinda ‘the white lady with bovine attributes’).
When Finn ‘White’, a descendant of Nuadha, cooked the Salmon of Wisdom for his master, Finnegeas, he burnt his thumb, put it in his mouth, and accidentally imbibed his eye-bursting imbas.
I believe it is likely a similar mythos surrounded Nodens here in Britain. On his mural crown a fisherman is catching a large fish and, on a mosaic on his temple floor at Lydney, two sea monsters are surrounded by salmon. Additionally, in medieval Welsh mythology, Arthur and his men ride up the river Severn, past the Temple of Nodens, on the back of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, to rescue Mabon.
In the dindsenchas the river flowing from Segais has many names. In Ireland it is not only known as the Boyne, but the Trethnach Tond ‘Ocean Wave’ and Sruth Findchoill ‘Stream of White Hazel’. Abroad it becomes Lunnand in Scotland, the Severn in England, then the Tiber, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris.
At Lydney we also find iconography depicting Nodens’ wife and our British Boann: a stone statuette, thirty inches in height, left leg crossed over right, holding a cornucopia. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. Unfortunately we do not know her name but the early Irish Bou-Vinda may relate to Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, the son she bore Nodens/Nudd. Gwyn’s name not only means ‘White’, but he is referred to as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, suggesting he inherited her bovine attributes.
As Vindonnus, at a spring in Gaul, he was offered bronze plaques depicting eyes. It has been suggested they were for aid curing eye ailments but they may also have been connected with poetic vision.
In medieval Welsh mythology, Gwyn, as Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’, is the guardian of a cauldron that is warmed by the breath of nine maidens and will not brew the food of a coward, suggesting it is associated with initiation into the mysteries of the awen tasted from its bubbling waters.
It seems Gwyn, who like Finn, has tasted the wisdom of the salmon from the hazelnuts from the nine hazel trees, and received his awen, later adopts his father’s role as a wisdom-keeper.
How, then, does this ancient Celtic mythos appear in and relate to the Water Country? On Cockerham Moss two Romano-British silver statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found. This suggests that a temple lay nearby. Cockersand Abbey, the closest sacred site, is dedicated to Mary of the Marsh, a Christian overlay on an earlier water-goddess – the wife of Nodens. I know her as Anrhuna which means ‘Very Great’ and is probably only one of her names.
The church on Castle Hill, the pen which gives its name to Penwortham (earlier Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ as it stood on Penwortham Marsh), is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the holy well at the hill’s foot. The large number of Marian dedications in the marshy areas of Penwortham and Preston with their sacred springs hint at the underlying presence of this water-goddess.
The legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral, set on Castle Hill, with its fairy leader ringing a passing bell and singing a mournful chant as he leads a procession of little black-clad men in red caps, bearing the fairy-double of an unfortunate young man to his grave suggests the presence of Gwyn.
Past the pen, sacred to Anrhuna, Nodens, and Vindos/Gwyn/Pen Annwn, runs the river Ribble. From Ptolemy’s Geography (2AD)we know Belisama is the goddess of the Ribble. She is the sister and/or consort of Bel, who is later known as Beli Mawr, father of Nudd/Lludd. The Ribble is rich in salmon and Maponos/Mabon and his mother Matrona/Modron were worshipped upriver at Ribchester. Modron is the daughter of Afallach (from afall ‘apple’), King of Annwn, a name of Gwyn.
Here, at the Green Hill on the Water, we find a parallel with Lydney ‘Lludd’s Island’. With salmon swimming upriver past a site associated with Mabon to the source where perhaps once stood nine hazel trees.
These stories run deep through this land as they ran through the land of our ancient British ancestors. Before its draining it was truly a water country of intertidal marshlands, reedbeds, carr, lakes and pools, peat bogs, and a damp oak woodland in which hazel and its nourishing nuts were precious.
It’s no wonder they were associated with Nodens, ‘the Catcher’, the wise fisher-god. Perhaps, by sacrificing their enemies to Nodens with hazel, the water dwellers repaid him for his generosity.
Another possibility is that some of the bog burials were devotees of Nodens sacrificed willingly to their god. Awenyddion who, like his son, had imbibed the hazel-rich awen. Lindow III’s consumption of hazelnuts before his death may have been a last act of communion. The man buried with the hazel staff might have carried it as a symbol of his role as a wisdom-keeper.
Hazel grows on the banks of Fish House Brook, which runs through the area once known as Fish Pan Field in Greencroft Valley into the river Ribble. In autumn its nuts are eaten by grey squirrels before they can drop into the brook where, due to changes in water level and pollution, fish no longer swim.
Still, as I pass, I think of the myth of Nodens and his nine hazel trees, Anrhuna’s transgression, Vindos/Gwyn eating the salmon imbued with awen from the hazelnut and his eye-bursting poetic vision, which he has gifted to me as his awenydd to pass on and share with my communities.
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974) Anne Ross, Life and Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of Lindow Man, an Archaeological Sensation, (Touchstone, 1991) David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008) Finnchuill, ‘Catching Wisdom: Nuadha, Nechtan, Nodens’, Finnchuill’s Mast, (2016) Jody Joy, Lindow Man, (The British Museum Press, 2009) Kay Muhr, ‘Water Imagery in Early Irish’, Celtica 23, (1999) Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)
Dyed he is with the Colour of autumnal days, O red dragonfly.
It was an accident. Still, if I’d accidentally killed a human I’d have been jailed for murder. I’m often killing midges, greenflies, flies, as I cycle down the Guild Wheel along the Ribble to Brockholes Nature Reserve. Not on purpose of course – they just have a terrible habit of getting in my eyes, in my mouth, down my top. It’s said there were more flying insects before cyclists, cars, climate change…
I’m not sure why killing a dragonfly somehow seems worse than killing all those tiny things. I didn’t even see him. I was too busy thinking about the fantasy novel that I was planning to set in a marshland and how the flora and fauna of Brockholes, as a wetland nature reserve, might inspire me.
Thinking not listening. There was just a buzzing at my neck and a kind of crackling against my skin. Without thinking I swatted at it compulsively, then stopped in a panic, fearful of what I’d done. Looking down, for a moment I felt relief, seeing what looked like a twig before I realised it was a ruddy abdomen. Severed from it a furred red-brown thorax, two cobwebby filmy wings, and a head with two huge dark red globular eyes and three small eyes that, between them, didn’t see me coming.
I didn’t know what he was right then, that he was a he, or a common darter. Only that I’d killed a dragonfly. I laid the broken pieces at the side of the cycle way with an apology to dragonfly kind and rode onward more slowly, more aware of other ruddy darters rising from where they were basking on the path. After I’d arrived, locked up my bike, they haunted me for the short period I was there. Flying in front of me, landing on the wooden walkways and handrails.
One, in particular, caught my eye. Beholden by the huge round portals of his eyes I drowned in the utter inadequacy of not knowing what he was thinking. Did he know I was a murderer? Did he know what I was? Could he sense my awkward reaching? My overall impression was one of curiosity. That it seemed likely he was thinking dragonfly thoughts distant from my own – trying to place this gigantic monster with its small eyes within his brief sunlit world of eating and flying and mating.
Dragonflies are old. The oldest fossils date back to the Carboniferous period – 350 million years ago. They spend most of their lives as nymphs, living for up to four years in muddy waters. They then crawl up the stem of a plant and shed their nymph-skin, emerging as dragonflies, leaving behind the exuvia. In the brief six months of their adult life they feed on smaller flying insects and find a mate, in an acrobatic display forming a spectacular mating wheel, then afterwards the female lays her eggs on the leaves of plants or in the water. Death follows shortly and the life cycle begins again.
It’s impossible to know if that dragonfly had fulfilled his life’s purpose before I killed him. And, of course, in that all-too-human way that has reduced the earth and its creatures to resources, I’m searching for a meaning, like nature is here to teach us lessons. I can’t help it. That’s human nature.
And it’s pretty obvious, slow down, listen, maybe just maybe I’m heading off on the wrong path trying to write a fantasy novel about an imaginary marshland when our existing wetlands need our voices. Making up new creatures when it may be more valuable to introduce people to Sympetrum striolatum ‘common darter’, Sympetrum sanguineum ‘ruddy darter’, Anax imperator ‘emperor dragonfly’.
This is leading me to think that, rather than writing second world fantasy, I might be best off writing a novelset in this landscape, but further back in time. Not only before the wetlands, the marshes, the peat bogs, the lakes, were drained off, but before the people lost their spiritual relationship with the land.
I’ve long been drawn to the archaeological evidence for the ancient marsh-dwellers in my local area. During the Romano-British period they were known as the Setantii ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ but had lived here far longer. Here, on Penwortham Marsh (now drained) and not far from the river Ribble (now moved) they had a Bronze Age Lake Village evidenced by the remains of a wooden platform, dug-out canoes, a bronze spearhead, 30 human skulls, and skulls of aurochs and deer. There were numerous other settlements such as those beside the great lakes Marton Mere and Martin Mere (now drained), wooden trackways such as Kate’s Pad, and the (now lost) Port of the Setantii.
If I was to write about that time, rather than making up critters and magic and gods and monsters, I would be able to draw upon the real magic of an animistic and shamanistic culture rooted in a lived relationship with the ‘water country’ – its reeds and rushes, its wetland birds, its dragonflies and damselflies. With the spirits of the ancestors, gods we know throughthe Romans, such as Belisama and Nodens, and those who are unknown such as the goddess I know as Anrhuna, Mother of the Marsh.
That dragonfly was one of her children perhaps. She who has been here as the marshland since, at least, the thaw of the Ice Age and thousands of years of water country, these last four centuries of its draining off, and is still here in the last remnants preserved by wetland nature reserves such as Brockholes.
Would it be too very human to read, in an unlucky accident, a message from a goddess?
O red dragonfly,
Colour of autumnal days,
Dyed he is with the
Mother of the Marsh
Returned to mud and water
Rest well O red one.
Those who follow this blog will note this event has led me to returning to its old name ‘From Peneverdant’. This was the name of my hometown of Penwortham in the Doomsday Book and signals a homecoming from an exodus through Welsh mythology and Annwn. It makes sense in relation to my lifelong dedication to Gwyn, here, in January.