The Shifting Identities of the Gods

“On an island lives the King of Annwn with a mysterious woman and no-one knows whether she is his sister, his beloved, his wife, his queen, or his daughter.”

These were words gifted to me at the beginning of a drumming journey that I undertook with the guidance of my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faerie, after asking him about the links I have intuited between his sister and beloved, Creiddylad, the mare goddess, Rhiannon, and the mother goddess, Modron.

There is little written about Creiddylad, but we know, like Rhiannon, she is a Queen of Annwn. As I have got to know her Creiddylad has revealed she is also associated with roses and horses. One of her names is ‘First Rose’ and she rides and takes the form of a white winged horse. Parallels exist between Rhiannon giving birth to Pryderi and him disappearing the same night as a foal is captured by a monstrous claw and Modron giving birth to Mabon, who is stolen away when he is three nights old. Whilst Creiddylad and Rhiannon are consorts of the King of Annwn, Modron is his daugher.

My journey resulted in the series of visions recorded in my poem ‘The Baby’s Gone’. My gnosis suggests Creiddylad, Rhiannon, and Modron are the same goddess with shifting identities.

Further, in the ‘Rose Queen Triptych’ I was inspired to draw, Creiddylad, ‘The Rose Maiden’, shifts into Rhiannon, ‘The Rose Queen’, then into the Mari Llwyd, ‘The Bone Mare’.

This didn’t come as a great surprise as I had similar experiences with Gwyn. When I first came to polytheism about ten years ago I regarded myself to be a hard polytheist (someone who believes the gods are real individual persons) as opposed to a soft polytheist (someone who believes the gods are aspects of a single god or goddess or psychological archetypes). I still stand by that belief, however, it has become a lot more fluid.

One of the defining characteristics of the gods across cultures is that individual deities have many names and titles. A prime example is the Norse god, Odin. Over forty of his names are recorded in The Poetic Edda alone and he is known by many more in other texts. The Greek goddess, Demeter, possesses several epithets such as aganippe ‘night mare’ and chloe ‘the green shoot’.

Gwyn first revealed himself to me by that name as the King of Annwn/Faerie in 2012. After our initial meeting I made my main focus the myths in which he is known as Gwyn but swiftly found he lay behind a number of our Fairy King and Wild Huntsman legends in Lancashire and my past experiences with the fay and the faerie realm.

My experience of dedicating myself to Gwyn at the cauldron-like White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor confirmed the links I had made between Gwyn feasting on Glastonbury Tor in The Life of St Collen and Pen Annwn presiding over a mead-feast with his cauldron were correct.

I was far more cautious about equating Gwyn with other Kings of Annwn. However, as I worked with the myths, intuiting the similarities between Gwyn and Arawn, both of whom are huntsmen who preside over otherworldly feasts, have beautiful brides, and fight a seasonal battle against a summer god each year, I found myself inhabiting their overlapping tales.

In one instance, in a dream, I was thrust into the role of Pwyll, who took the identity of Arawn in Annwn and had to fight Arawn’s battle, in Arawn’s form, against his rival, Hafgan. Only, in my dream I was taking the role of Gwyn and was preparing to battle against Gwythyr. This resulted in my poem ‘If I Had To Fight Your Battle’. In another, as I was walking my local landscape in winter, I felt for a moment like Arawn-as-Pwyll making a circuit of a thiswordly kingdom, only my identity became conjoined, instead, with Gwyn’s as Winter’s King. Again, I recorded my experience in a poem: ‘Winter Kingdom’. To me this proves Gwyn ‘White’ and Arawn (whose name a translation has not been agreed on) are names or titles of the same god who has shifting identities across time and place.

Similar experiences from intuiting links in the myths and being gifted with poems and visions have led me to believe the King of Annwn goes by many other names. These include Afallach, the Apple King who presides over Avalon and Melwas who shares similar associations with Glastonbury, Llwyd ‘Grey’ who puts an enchantment on the land and abducts Rhiannon and Pryderi in The Mabinogion, Brenin Llwyd, ‘The Grey King’ who haunts the misty Snowdonian mountains, Ugnach, a figure with ‘white hounds’ and ‘great horns’ whose otherworld feast Taliesin refuses to attend, and Ogyrven the Giant, who presides over the spirits of inspiration.

Additionally, the King of Annwn spoke to me directly of his shifting identities in this poem:

I speak from the infinite
joining of the circle
as the snake bites its tail

the moment of awen
in every always of the universe

the sea behind the sea
the land behind the land
the sun behind the sun.

I come from many deaths.
From many deaths
I am reborn.

Dis, Vindonnus, Vindos,
Llwyd, Brenin Llwyd, Arawn,
Ugnach, Melwas, Ogyrven.

Across the sea I am Finn.
For tonight I am Gwyn.

Thus it is unsurprising his consort, the Queen of Annwn, has many shifting identities too.

Interestingly, when I was involved with Dun Brython, it was very much Rhiannon/Rigantona who brought the group together in the beginning and I came later as a devotee of Gwyn. One of the other members also had a strong relationship with Gwyn and it was member Greg Hill’s translations of poems featuring Ogyrven and Ugnach that helped me decipher the aforementioned connections. When Greg and I set up the Awen ac Awenydd group many other Gwyn devotees were drawn to it and the King and Queen of Annwn feel very central to the Brythonic tradition in the modern day.

Prayer for Patience

Long is the day and long is the night,
and long is the waiting of Arawn

Cardigan folktale

I do not know
if you are Arawn but

long is your waiting.

Long as the day
and long as the night:
both so long this
equinox

with its
painful dichotomy
of pandemic and sunlight.

I know you are there
waiting patiently.

I pray
my patience
will be long as yours
sitting quietly on a grey horse
on the brink of Annwn
life and death

watching
the flowers grow
your beloved
departing.

I pray
for the patience
of a flower

that we shall grow
and flourish
another
year

touched by
the dew of your tears
on a cold March morning.

Henwen – The Birthing and Devouring Sow

gloucester-old-spot-sow-public-domain

I. Henwen – ‘Old White’

In Triad 26. we find the story of a sow called Henwen ‘Old White’. She belongs to Dallwyr Dalben and is kept in Glyn Dallwyr in Cornwall in the care of Coll, son of Collfrewy, one of three ‘Three Powerful Swineherds.’ She becomes pregnant and it is ‘prophesied that the Island of Britain would be the worse for the womb-burden.’ Therefore Arthur and his warriors set out to destroy her.

When Henwen is ready to farrow she goes into the sea at Penrhyn Awstin and is followed by Coll (and, presumably, Arthur and his men). Landing in Wales she begins to give birth to offspring. Surprisingly, they are not piglets! In Gwent she brings forth a grain of wheat and a bee, giving the name to Wheat Field, and in Pembroke barley, ‘therefore, the barley of Llonion is proverbial.’ In these two instances, in South Wales, Henwen’s births are benign and generative, creating crops and pollinators.

When Henwen reaches North Wales, however, she gives birth to wild creatures. At the Hill of Cyferthwch in Arfon she brings forth a wolf-cub and a young eagle. The wolf is given to Bergaed and the eagle to Breat, princes of the North, and they are both ‘the worse for them.’ We find a contrast between the fertile plains of South Wales and the wilder, more rugged regions of North Wales.

‘At Llanfair in Arfon under the Black Rock’ she gives birth to a kitten who is thrown by Coll into the sea. The sons of Palug foster it in Môn (Anglesey) ‘to their own harm’ and it becomes known as Palug’s Cat. In ‘Arthur and the Porter’ we are told that it was eventually ‘pierced’ by Arthur and his men. However, before they managed to kill it, nine score chieftains fell at dawn and it devoured them. Palug’s Cat was one of Three Great Oppressions of Môn along with Daronwy, and Edwin, King of Lloegr.

II. A Sow’s Feast

It believe that Henwen also makes an appearance in ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion. In this story Gwydion is searching for his nephew, Lleu. Gwydion stays at the house of a peasant in Manor Bennard. He learns his learns his host owns a sow who returns every night to feed her piglets. However, nobody knows where she goes during the day ‘any more than if she sank into the earth’. These lines recall Triad 26. where Henwen sinks into the sea, suggesting her otherworldly nature.

Gwydion follows the trail of the sow to a mighty oak which stands between two lakes and is neither wetted by water nor melted by fire. At its roots the sow is feasting hungrily on rotten flesh and maggots. When Gwydion looks up he sees they are falling from Lleu, who is perching in eagle-form in the top-most boughs, pierced by the spear of his rival, Gronw, the gore dripping from his rancid wound.

In the context of this story it seems significant that Gwydion is led to Lleu by this mysterious sow. Earlier Gwydion stole the seven piglets who were given to Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, by Arawn, King of Annwn (along with Coll and Drystan, Pryderi was one of the ‘Three Powerful Swineherds’).

These piglets were special, ‘some kind of creature that has never been in this island before has arrived in the South’. Gwydion’s theft led to a chase from South to North Wales and several devastating battles between his men and Pryderi’s. Pryderi was finally killed by Gwydion in single combat.

It is my intuition Henwen was the Annuvian mother of the seven piglets. Her devouring of Gwydion’s nephew may represent her taking back from him in exchange for what was stolen from her. The chase South to North and trail of devastation are thematically linked with Henwen’s story.

Another point of note is that Daronwy, ‘The Oak of Goronwy’, is referred to as ‘the radiance of the men of Goronwy’ and therefore associated with Lleu’s rival, Gronw Pebr (pebyr mean ‘radiant’). It could be the oak where Lleu perched after being wounded by Gronw’s spear – a scene based on an older initiatory myth. With Henwen’s clawing child, Palug’s Cat, it is included in the Oppressions of Mon. Thus it makes sense to find Henwen devouring the dying Lleu back into Annwn at its roots.

III. Hwcha Ddu Gwta – ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’

In Welsh folklore we find a mysterious verse about Hwch Ddu Gwta ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’:

Black short-tailed sow
On every stile
Spinning and weaving
On Calan Gaeaf night

Get home quick, be the first
The Hwch Ddu Gwta gets the last.

She is said to emerge from the ashes of bonfires on Nos Galan Gaeaf and wait at stiles to prey on people walking home late. It is bad luck to be the last to get home as Hwch Ddu Gwta will eat you.

It seems possible the white Henwen, the birthing mother who provided the harvest, is also the black devourer.

There is a similar legend in southern Sweden. Gloso is a ‘glowing sow’ who appears ‘over the twelve days of Christmas’ with ‘eyes of fire, sparks spring from her bristle, and she travels like a burning flame.’ This recalls Hwch Ddu Gwta’s birth from the embers on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

She is also connected with the harvest. Three blades of wheat are left for her in the field. ‘These are for Gloso: one for Christmas night, one for the night of the new year, one for king’s night.’ This makes me wonder whether similar rituals existed to appease the harvest sow in her darker winter apparel.

IV. Ceridwen – The Old Mother

Greg Hill suggests Hwch Ddu Gwta might be connected with the Ladi Wen ‘White Lady’ who also walks abroad on Nos Galan Gaeaf, and with Ceridwen, the goddess of the cauldron. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, also identified the sow with Ceridwen, ‘the White Lady of Death and Inspiration.’

It is my personal belief that Ceridwen is the Old Mother of the Universe, the Great Goddess from whose crochan, ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’, all life is born and to whom it returns at death. This would certainly fit with the Henwen ‘Old White’ as the mother who births harvests and monsters and swallows the dead.

SOURCES

Charles Lecouteux, Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Dead, (Inner Traditions, 2011)
Greg Hill, ‘Traditional Customs for the Calend of Winter’, Dun Brython
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (Faber & Faber, 1999)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

Cwn Annwn Tattoo Design by Nixie

Gwyn ap Nudd… he went between sky and air.’
Peniarth MS. 132

Have you heard them howling through the skies?
Have you heard them howl of distant worlds?
Have you felt the howling fear you’ll die?
Have you feared they’re howling for your soul?
If you have, your soul is no longer yours, my friend,
It has never been and will never be until the end.
And never is never as the howling winds
That carry us between sky and air.

Dormach and Death’s Door

Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Crane-Legs’) stands in a misty hinterland before the divine warrior-huntsman and psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd (‘White son of Mist’) and his white stallion, Carngrwn.

Beside Gwyn is Dormach, his hunting dog, ‘fair and sleek’ and ruddy-nosed. Dormach’s gaze is commanding. His nose shines like a torch-fire; a beacon; a setting sun. Although he appears as a dog his shape somehow exceeds dog-like proportions. Gwyddno says:

‘Dormach red-nose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.’

Gwyddno’s sensory perception is distorted. Dormach is close enough for his nose to be seen yet distantly wandering across the heavens.

This is due to the misty shape-shifting nature he shares with Gwyn. J. Gwengobryn Evans tells us Dormach ‘moved ar wybir, i.e. rode on the clouds which haunt the mountain-tops.’ ‘Wybir‘ is ‘condensed floating white cloud’ referred to as Nuden and ‘serves as a garment for Gwyn.’

In a remarkable image beside the poem, Dormach appears as a strangely grinning dog with forelegs but instead of back legs he possesses two long and tapering serpent’s tails! This illustrates Dormach’s capacity to be near and distant and shows he is clearly not of this world.

Dormach Sketch - Copy

From J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (1907)

Dormach is a member of the Cwn Annwn (‘Hounds of the Otherworld’) who are sometimes known as Cwn Wybyr (‘Hounds of the Sky’). They occupy a liminal position between the worlds and play an important role in the passage of souls.

This is represented beautifully by John Rhys’ translation of Dormach (re-construed as Dormarth) as ‘Death’s Door’. He links this to the Welsh paraphrase for death Bwlch Safan y Ci ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, the English ‘the jaws of death’ and the German Rachen des Todes and suggests Dormach’s jaws are the Door of Annwn. Although this translation is disputed by scholars it possesses poetic truth. Death is not an end but a passage to the next life.

Gwyddno’s passing is not depicted in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. I’ve been meditating on this poem for several years and had a break-through when I realised Gwyddno’s epithet, Garanhir, was an indicator of his inner crane-nature.

In a personal vision following from the poem Gwyddno donned his red crane’s mask, grew wings and followed the red sun of Dormach’s nose to be re-united with his kindred on an island of dancing cranes in Annwn.

Transformation

Physical death is not always a prerequisite of passage to Annwn. This is shown in the story of Pwyll and Arawn in the First Branch of The Mabinogion. Pwyll’s life-changing encounter with a King of Annwn called Arawn is heralded by the ‘cry of another pack’.

Although Pwyll notices Arawn’s hounds are ‘gleaming shining white’ and red-eared he fails to recognise their otherworld nature. He commands his pack to drive them off their kill: a grand stag, and feasts his own pack on it.

As recompense Arawn asks Pwyll to take his form and role in Annwn and fight his ritual battle against his eternal foe: Hafgan. By defeating Hafgan and resisting the temptation to sleep with Arawn’s wife, Pwyll wins the title of Pwyll Pen Annwn (‘Pwyll Head of Annwn’).

In the liminal space opened by the cries of Arawn’s hounds, Pwyll does not die but is transformed. Where passage to Annwn does not demand physical death it demands the death of one’s former identity and birth of a new one in service to the powers of Annwn.

Cwn Annwn

In later Welsh folklore Cwn Annwn are known by a number of names: Cwn Wybyr, Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse Dogs’, Cwn Toili ‘Phantom Funeral Dogs’, Cwn Mamau ‘Mother’s Dogs’, ‘Hell-Hounds’ and ‘Infernal Dogs’. Here we find an admixture of pagan and Christian folk beliefs.

Annwn is identified with hell, its gods with demons, and its hounds with hell-hounds. Christianity’s dualistic logic limits the transformative potency of encounters with Annuvian deities by reducing them to objects of fear and superstition.

Yet the lore of Cwn Annwn endures with startling vivacity. They are famed for barking through the skies pursuing the souls of the dead. Therefore to hear them is a death-portent. They often fly the ways corpses will follow: hence their associations with teulu (‘phantom funerals’).

Their magical and disorientating qualities prevail. The 14th C poet Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of encountering ‘the dogs of night’ whilst lost in ‘unsightly fog’ after hearing Gwyn’s ‘Crazy Owl’. In a report from Carmarthenshire the closer Cwn Annwn get the quieter their voices until they sound like small beagles. The further away the louder their call. In their midst the ‘deep hollow voice’ of a ‘monstrous blood hound’ is often heard.

Like Dormach they delight in a Cheshire-cat-like ability to shift their shape. Some appear as white dogs with red ears or noses. One is a ‘strong fighting mastiff’ with a ‘white tail’ and ‘white snip and ‘grinning teeth’ able to conjure a fire around it. Others are ‘the size of guinea pigs and covered with red and white spots’, ‘small’, ‘grey-red or speckled’. Some are ‘mice or pigs’.

At Cefn Creini in Merioneth they are accompanied by a ‘shepherd’ with a black face and ‘horns on his head’ who sounds remarkably like Gwyn: a horned hunter-god who blacks his face. He is supposedly fended off with a crucifix. In certain areas of Wales the ‘quarry’ of Gwyn and the Cwn Annwn is restricted to the souls of ‘sinners’ and ‘evil-livers’.

Gabriel Ratchets

In northern England we find the parallel of Gabriel Ratchets. Although they are nominally Germanic and rooted in the Wild Hunt there are striking resemblances with Cwn Annwn.

According to Edward A. Armstrong ‘Ratchet’ derives from the ‘Anglo-Saxon raecc and Middle English… rache, a dog which hunts by scent and gives tongue’. Rachen also means jaws: we recall ‘Rachen des Todes’ ‘Jaws of Death’.

In Yorkshire they are known as ‘gabble-ratchets’. Armstrong says ‘Gabble’ is a corruption of ‘Gabriel’ and ‘is connected with gabbara and gabares, meaning a corpse’. We find similarities with Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse-Dogs’.

Gabriel Ratchets are also defined as packs of dogs barking through the skies portending death. Intriguingly they are identified with noisy flights of nocturnal birds who sound like beagles. In Lancashire James Bowker equates them with ‘whistling’ Bean Geese* flying over lonely moors.

In Burnley, Gabriel Ratchets are connected with the Spectre Huntsman of Cliviger Gorge. A maiden called Sibyl hears ‘wild swans winging their way above her’ before she is swept through the air by a ‘demon’. Poet Philip Hamerton shares the evocative lines ‘Wild huntsmen? Twas a flight of swans, / But so invisibly they flew.’

Thousands of Bewick’s swans and Pink-footed Geese arrive to over-winter on Martin Mere between September and November: the time ‘the Wild Hunt’ flies and may form the root of these Lancashire legends.

In Nidderdale the Gabble Ratchet is equated with the ‘night-jar, goat-sucker, screech-owl, churn-owl, puckbird, puckeridge, wheelbird, spinner, razor-grinder, scissor-grinder, night-hawk, night-crow, night-swallow, door-hawk, moth-hawk, goat-hawk, goat-chaffer… and lich-fowl’

We also find the ‘Ratchet Owl’: the ‘death-hound of the Danes’ and ‘night crow’: ‘This kind of owl is dog-footed and covered with hair; his eyes are like the glistering ice; against death he uses a strange whoop.’

Gabble Ratchets also take the form of birds with burning eyes and appear to warn of death. In some cases they are identified with the souls of un-baptised children.

Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

In stories of Cwn Annwn and Gabriel Ratchets we find an astonishing menagerie of imaginal ‘hounds’. These rich folk beliefs, rooted in wild moorlands and piping wetlands, were not extinguished by Christianity.

Industrialisation forced country dwellers into towns to work in factories. 12 hour shifts in ‘dark Satanic mills’ crushed imagination. Wild places disappeared with the wild mind beneath red bricks of housing developments and asylum walls of schools and universities and secular careers.

Yet through the concrete of office-blocks and head-phones of call-centres over the white-noise of television we still hear the Cwn Annwn howling. The harder we try to shut them out the louder they howl.

The stoppers in Death’s Door tremble as they bark back the liminal spaces where the gods of Annwn are encountered and souls are transformed.

An increasing number of people are encountering hounds and gods of Annwn and having their lives turned around. I met Gwyn at a local phantom funeral site when I was lost. Passing through Death’s Door with him confirmed the reality of the afterlife and has given me a deeper appreciation of life in thisworld.

As I have striven to uncover Gwyn’s forgotten mythos from the British landscape I have been unfailingly drawn to flight paths of migratory birds and recovering wetlands. Locally, the Ribble Estuary and Martin Mere; further afield, Nith’s Estuary and Caerlaverock, Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Levels, Cors Fochno (‘Borth Bog’) in Maes Wyddno (‘Gwyddno’s Land’).

This has led me to believe that as Brythonic King of Winter Gwyn presides over wintering birds and the passage of souls. This seems significant at a time migratory birds are threatened by melting glaciers and drained wetlands and floods have wrecked havoc across the UK. Our fates are intrinsically linked.

One of the most powerful lessons trusting my soul to Gwyn taught me was it has never been my own. I have always been one of his pack, one of his flock passing between worlds between sky and air.

Arfderydd, River Nith and Caerlaverock 220 - Copy

Swans over Nith Estuary

SOURCES

Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (Chiefly Lancashire and the North of England) (1872)
Dafydd ap Gwilym, Rachel Bromwich (ed.), A Selection of Poems, (1982)
Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds (1958)
Heron (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2015)
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, (2003)
James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878)
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen (1907)
John Billingsley, West Yorkshire Folk Tales, (2010)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (1841)
John Roby, Traditions of Lancashire: Volume 2 (1829)
John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, (1677)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (1998)
Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Isles of Loch Awe and Other Poems of My Youth, (1855)
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (2007)
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom, (1930)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (1880)
Nottingham Evening Post, Monday 23rd August, 1937

*This seems odd as Bean Geese over-winter in south-west Scotland and Norfolk.
**With thanks to John Billingsley and Brian Taylor for providing some helpful pointers on Gabriel Ratchets, particularly sections from Edward A. Armstrong’s The Folklore of Birds.