In the Awen

I am what I am:
awenydd as noun and verb.

I am possessed and I am possession.

In Peneverdant, between Penwortham and Annwn,
I belong to Gwyn in every extension of my soul
through time and space and dark matter
(and for one moment I am him).

Living by my vows I am fulfilled and fulfilment.

Please don’t take it away from me again,
this inspiration, this divine breath,
until my lord comes for me
at the end of the world.

The Deep Music (book review)

A review from Adam Sargant on the The British Druid Order blog of ‘The Deep Music’ – an anthology of the writings of contemporary awenyddion edited by Greg Hill, Lia Hunter, and myself.

I was intrigued by Adam’s suggestion that this anthology shows a ‘a third way’ ‘the way of the inspired ones’ of coming to awen alongside the courses of contemporary Druidry and studying medieval Welsh bardic texts. For me this would be further defined as learning directly, experientially, from the gods and spirits of the Brythonic tradition.

British Druid Order Blog

The Deep Music is an anthology of writings, some essays, some creative, some poetry, of contemporary awenyddion (for those of you not familiar with the term, an awenydd is one who is inspired. But, as this collection makes abundantly clear, the form of inspiration is quite specific.) The awen, the “poetic inspiration” as explored through the writings and experiences of these contemporary awenyddion, gives us an insight into the nature not only of this inspiration (which I will go into later) but into the way in which a community can come together and successfully fill a void in tradition with a living, contemporary energy.

The collective from which these writings were originated in a collaboration between the poets and awenyddion Lorna Smithers and Greg Hill who created the Awen ac Awenydd website in 2015 and, in Lorna’s words, “perceived a void in information and discussion about inspiration, spirit work, mysticism…

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The Mothers of Destiny

I.

Bendithion yr Awen

I undertake a fool’s quest to understand the origins of the breath of life and in my foolishness am granted an answer. I find myself amongst a crowd singing with them as three Mothers of Destiny breathe the awen (which is at once inspiration and one’s fate) into a baby.

It is suspended over a baptismal font that reminds me of the Roman altar to the Mothers at Lund Church near Springfields around five miles away from me.

Our voices are pre-Roman, Roman, post-Roman, of all the women who have sung their blessings to a child in this ancient gathering place and in churches where Matrona ‘the Mother’ appears as Mary and the Matronae as Faith, Hope and Charity.

They rise and fall as we sing: “Awen bendithion yr awen bendithion yr awen bendithion…”

II.

Sea Maidens

My fool’s quest continues as I cannot, now, resist returning to the mothers to pose the question of my own destiny. They appear as three sea maidens, stormy, stony-faced, amidst a sea of raging waters.

III.

The Web of my Destiny

The goddess in the middle shows me ‘the Web of my Destiny’. She holds it between her hands like a cat’s cradle. It shimmers golden and pulsates with coloured jewels of energy. She tells me that a small tweak can change everything. I realise that making a cat’s cradle is a two-way process, between a person and the gods, and it’s my turn.

‘From the Well of Life Three Drops Instilled’

‘… 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 Deep Music: Offerings for the Awen

An Introduction

Nine years of enchantment the awen sang,
Rang from the string of the harp I became
Or which became me as I heeded the song
The harp, the harpist and the harp-string as one
.’
Greg Hill, ‘Telyn Mabon’

A child is stolen from his mother at three nights old. No-one knows where he is or whether he is alive or dead. His sorrowful lament, echoing from a house of stone beneath Caer Loyw, is known only to one being. This is the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, the oldest of the Ancients of the World, and the wisest.

If you speak with the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the Eagle of Gwernabwy they might lead you to the Hafren where the salmon swims the bore each year. Past the Temple of Nodens (or Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Silver Hand’) to Mabon’s stony prison.

If you sit on the back of the salmon, traverse the rivers of time, you may be taken back to when the Hafren was a shiny glittering gauntlet of silver fish and an invisible hand placed the Son in his prison.

You might sit with him in the darkness without end punctuated only by Teulu, his wet nurse, coming, leaving. You might taste her milk on your lips, hear her humming and the chords on her harp.

When she is gone you may hear her harp playing on without a player. Such deep music – it evokes the birth of the universe, stars tumbling from the the cauldron, starry figures and their fortresses. Gods and animals swimming across the sea of stars to find their home. You may join their hunt.

When you can stand this heart-pounding beauty no longer, when you feel your heart might break, you might reach for the harp but realise it is not there. It was never there. Just another illusion of Annwn.

Yet a soft voice will whisper “it is always there – the music is within you – you are the harp”.

~*~

This is but one retelling of the story of the initiation of Mabon. His time in the darkness of Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld, allows him to hear the Song of the Universe. To receive his awen.

The Brythonic/Welsh term awen is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *uel ‘to blow’. It is translated into English as ‘inspiration’, which derives from the Latin inspirare ‘to breathe or blow into’.

After Mabon has been rescued from the house of stone he becomes a formidable huntsman. A rider, I believe, on the wild hunt of Gwyn ap Nudd which rides across the night skies gathering the souls of the dead. In Ribchester, in North West England, he is depicted on a Romano-British altar dedicated to him as Apollo-Maponus, carrying a quiver (his bow is missing), and resting on his harp.

In a letter to John Aubrey, written in 1694, Henry Vaughan shares a story from the Welsh bardic tradition. He speaks of a shepherd boy who falls asleep and dreams of ‘a beautifull young man with a garland of green leafs upon his head, & an hawk upon his fist: with a quiver full of Arrows att his back’. The hawk flies into the lad’s mouth and possesses him with ‘the gift of poetrie’ ‘they called Awen’. Afterwards he becomes ‘the most famous Bard in all the Countrey in his time’.

It is my belief this is Mabon, breathing his gift of awen into the young man, who gifts it to his countrymen. Through this sharing of the divine breath the shepherd lad becomes an awenydd ‘person inspired’.

~*~

This anthology is a collection of the writings of contemporary awenyddion. Those who have heard the deep music, followed its call to Annwn, where the awen is breathed into them by the gods, and returned with their own songs.

Its origins lie in the creation of the ‘Awen ac Awenydd’ website in 2015 by Greg Hill and myself (Lorna Smithers). Brought together by our calling as awenyddion we perceived a void in information and discussion about inspiration, spirit work, mysticism, initiatory experiences, and relationships with the gods in the Brythonic tradition. The site began as a repository of information on the terms ‘awen’ and ‘awenydd’ in the historical sources and grew to become a collaborative project documenting the experiences of awenyddion and providing a home for awenyddau ‘inspired works’.

In 2018 Lia Hunter suggested the creation of an anthology featuring the works of awenyddion. Before we put the call out we thought it would be helpful to provide a definition of our use of the term ‘awenydd’. Collectively, drawing on its usage both in the past when present-day England, Wales, and southern Scotland were united by a shared Brythonic culture and in Wales today, we defined the path as follows: ‘an awenydd is a spirit worker and inspired poet in the Brythonic tradition’.

We decided that we would invite contributors to share a personal definition of the awenydd path and an inspired work. We had submissions from eleven awenyddion and from a druid and a bard who have been inspired by the awen and whose work we feel is of value to the anthology. These have come from Wales, England, France, the United States, and Canada. Some of our contributors are Welsh speakers, whilst others, such as myself, are striving to learn Welsh.

What we share, at this time of climate crisis, is a commitment to seeking the deeper wisdom of the Brythonic tradition and bringing it back to share in our communities to inspire, to lend strength, to heal.

Within these pages you will find the testimonies of awenyddion to a calling from the gods and spirits. To hauntings and experiences of the numinous which can be terrifying until understood, until we have learned to walk again the shadowy ways through the wild wood to Annwn and, most importantly, to perceive our deities alongside us in the here-and-now of our urban and suburban homes.

Join us and walk the deer trods of Elen, shiver at the horn of Gwyn ap Nudd, take your turn at the harp of Mabon, enter the faerie mounds; stand before the cauldron of Ceridwen and be transformed.

The Deep Music: Offerings for the Awen can be purchased HERE.

Twelve Days of Prayer

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a ‘sacred and festive season’ marked by Christians between Christmas Day (25th December) and the Epiphany (6th January). It was instituted by the Council of Tours in 567 to mark the period between the birth of Jesus and the revelation he is God incarnate on the visit of the magi.

For me, as a Brythonic polytheist who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd as Winter’s King, the mid-winter holy days have always felt particularly special and sacred. They begin with Eponalia, on 18th December, the feast of the horse-goddess and midwife of the sun. This is followed by the Winter Solstice, 21st / 22nd December, the height of Gwyn’s reign and presence within the land. 24th December is Mother’s Night and, although this is traditionally an Anglo-Saxon festival, one I associate with the Mother Goddesses such as Matrona/Modron and Anrhuna. 25th December is the day of the rebirth of the sun-child Maponos/Mabon. Then the next twelve days are a time of rest and celebration based around casting out the old year and welcoming in and preparing for the new.

Over the past few years I have noticed an increasing number of other pagans and polytheists exploring ways of marking these holy days. There are existing traditions of using them for divination. From my mum I learnt of the tradition of recording one’s dreams and linking them numerically to the calendar months. Cailtin Matthews has suggested using the Twelve Days for reading nature omens in a similar way.

In his essay ‘On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me…’ Lee Davies connects the Twelve Days with Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead, who ride out to clear the ground for the New Year and also bring blessings of prosperity. He speaks of the koryos tradition in which people not only embody but ‘become the dead’ – a possible root of the misrule associated with the Twelfth Night.

With this in mind I decided to use the Twelve Days as a period of more intensive prayer and prayer writing for Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn and the dead with whom he rides out on his hunt through the winter months. This resulted in a series of visions and visionary dialogues. Here I share a selection from the twelve prayers.

Twelve Days of Prayer

For Gwyn

I.
Prayer
is to open
the little box of the heart
to let in the god who cannot fit within

two sides of a membrane
flap, dissolve like
the so-called
‘veil’

between the worlds
when you ride from the mist
on a creature somewhat like a horse
two hounds with teeth within teeth
all the countless uncontainable
monsters of Annwn

filling
this little box
I sometimes call a heart.
When it bursts and otherworlds
spill forth I know it is
so much more.



III.
You are ghost.
You and your legions.

You clothe yourselves
in cloud, in mist, you move
through our world like the wind.
Sometimes we hear you passing through.
Sometimes we sense only your silence
as you fill our vales with neither
your presence or absence.

Sometimes I feel ashamed
of my flesh and my fear to follow
you into battle in the wars that
rage on between the worlds.

Could it be that I’m afraid of death?

Of seeing my ghost looking back at me
as I write this poem from amongst your kind?

“You wear your flesh and your fear well.”

You speak in the voice that turns gold to leaves
and flesh to dust and skin to paper bearing
an elegy on the heels of your host.



IV.
“Fierce bull of battle,
awesome leader of many,”
I find myself whispering
Gwyddno’s words as though
they were the beginning
of an ancient prayer.

“Who will protect me?

“I will protect you.”

Your armour is a night
of stars and each of them
wields a spear against

my deep demonic fears.

I am awed by your strength
as I am mystified by its origin
for to whom does a god turn?
To whom does a god pray?

I see a bull striding majestic
down a passageway of light
into the infinite brightness
of a star, a heart, a fortress,
the Otherworld within his chest.

VI.
I come to pray
when I want to scream.

If I could comprehend you
could I contain the spirits within?

I fear to scream is the obliteration

of all prayer until you show me

how you tend to all the silent
and the unsilent screams

for a scream is prayer
as crescendo.



VIII.
I pray to you
as your awenydd
as your inspired poet

speak of my restlessness
the jangling of spirits within
my intimation I could be

so much more and you say:

“Poetry is more than rhyming words.
Awen is more than human speech.

The soul of the earth is living poetry
and each soul itself a poem breathed –

part of the divine breath which keeps

the rivers afloat, the mountains high,
the deer running through the woodlands,
the birds in the skies, the flowers growing
upwards turning their heads towards the sun.
And has the power to transform it all –
hurricanes, volcanic flames, tidal waves,
the death-wind from a nuclear blast creating
the wolves with glowing eyes and the monsters
with limbs where there should not be limbs
spoken of by awenyddion of long ago.

It can destroy (or fix) everything.

Why do you think I keep the awen
in a cauldron in a fortress that disappears
that spins that is shrouded by mystery and mist
and is sometimes known as the towers of the winds
and sometimes as the whale’s belly?

There is nothing more – I should know
for I have sought, I have hunted, with every
hound of Annwn beyond where the winds
of Thisworld and Otherworld blow beyond
the Universe and its moment of conception and
come back with nothing on my bloodless spear,
my hounds with nothing in their empty jaws,
bearing nothing in my empty hands but
knowing a little more about nothing.

One cannot be any more and about nothing
there is nothing to be said so be happy
as you are, awenydd, whilst still
a bearer of the divine breath.”



XII.
Your gift

is a shining bow
washed in the light
of the New Year’s sun.

I pray for the strength to draw it.
I pray for the patience to carve the arrows
each engraved with the words of a spell.
I pray for the focus to shoot true,

mind, body, and bow as one,
straight to the heart.

Fragments of Annwn – Depths

No-One Knows

the extent of the marshland of Annwn. Some cross it in a day. For others it goes on forever like the mist that obscures the musical birds, the shriekers of the mournful shrieks, the droners of the ancient drone, the players of the carnyxes that gurgle beneath the waters. You never know what is splashing behind on countless feet until it is too late. Sometimes you get lost following the will-o-wisps like lost hopes to where all hope fails. Sometimes you make sacrifices or become the sacrifice see your bog body your ghost flying free like a lonely bird. You become an inspirer or a guide only to bring doom to the unwary. When you think you know the way you slip. When you think you have found the awen you find it escapes words, that the sigh of its name is already escaping your lungs, that breath is not yours to keep forever and must return to the gods.

Awenydd of the Marsh

“You have not yet crossed the marsh.”

No, I’ve got lost again, led round on splashing circle feet to the village where there is a wooden pole and on it a woman seated cross-legged on the head of a bull a crane with wings spread above her.

When she’s not on the pole she’s in the central hut a cord of light down the centre of her spine surrounded by worlds that flicker in and out of existence whether at her will or not I am uncertain.

I’ve never heard her speak, seen her eyes blink, perhaps she dare not for fear of unseeing the realities she holds within her gaze. She doesn’t even breathe. Without her things would fall apart.

My eyes are tired, I’m out of breath, my worlds are out of reach, and I’m missing something.

An Abandoned Sea-Dragon

A blue watery dragon is snared by a weak rusty-looking metal chain around one leg, like a ship at anchor, like an abandoned boat, where the tides come up and wash over her body then back down again. She is ridden with fleas. She is one of the dragons that have been forgotten. I know I could easily break the chain but am told that it is not the chain that binds the dragon there. She has forgotten how to leave. The knight who chained her has fled from his fear of her death. The people do not feed her. She just lingers. It’s an awful story. A terrible mess. There’s no resolution. It’s embarrassing.

elizabeth-explores-unsplash

With thanks to Elizabeth Explores on Unsplash for the image.

The Awenydd Identity and Cultural Appropriation

Introduction

I’m writing this essay because, over the past few months, I have noticed a number of people speaking either of their reluctance to identify as awenyddion due to fears of cultural appropriation or more generally voicing their concerns about English and American Pagans appropriating the term.

I first came across the term awenydd ‘person inspired’ in Natural Druidry by Kristoffer Hughes. In its lightning-like connection to the awen ‘poetic inspiration’ and used as a descriptor of one who quests and gives voice to this divine breath in poetry I intuited it was the word I’d been searching for to describe my spiritual path (I had formerly identified as a bard). This was confirmed by my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, on the Winter Solstice in 2013. Since then I have served Gwyn as an awenydd by giving voice to his myths and those of other Brythonic deities, the lore of the land, and the ancestors. With Greg Hill I co-founded the Awen ac Awenydd website and, with Lia Hunter, we have been working on compiling an anthology featuring the voices of other modern awenyddion.

So it came as a bit of a shock that my adoption of the awenydd identity might be seen as cultural appropriation. And that, much worse, I might have unwittingly influenced the choice of others to appropriate the term. Over the past few weeks I have led discussions on the topic on the Awen ac Awenydd Facebook page and discussed it with Greg by email and would like to share some conclusions.

The Awenydd Identity

Firstly I will provide an introduction to the awenydd identity. The earliest use of the term awen is found in Nennius’ History of the Britons (828) where he refers to Talhearn ‘Tad Awen’ ‘Father of Inspiration’, chief of the famous bards Aneirin, Taliesin, and Cian. This may be our first reference to an awenydd.

Here it is important to note that bardism has its roots in an older Brythonic tradition. From the Iron Age, throughout the Roman-British period, until the Anglo-Saxon invasions all of present-day England, Wales, and southern Scotland were part of a shared Brythonic culture. Taliesin and Aneirin composed poems about the battles between the Brythonic rulers and the Anglo-Saxons which gave rise to the fall of Yr Hen Ogledd ‘The Old North’. As the invaders pushed the Brythonic peoples west they took their stories and traditions with them, leading to them being maintained in Wales.

In his Description of Wales (1194) Gerald of Wales speaks of awenyddion ‘people inspired’ who ‘when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit.’ Their answers are described as ‘nugatory’, ‘incoherent’, and ‘ornamented’ yet can be explained the ‘turn of a word’. These are hallmarks of both poetic and prophetic language. Their inspiration comes from states of ecstasy and dreams. The awenydd is depicted as a solitary spirit-worker and soothsayer.

In medieval Welsh poetry awen originates from the cauldron of Ceridwen and/or from God. It is seen to flow from Annwn, ‘the Deep’ or ‘the Otherworld’, where the cauldron is guarded by Pen Annwn. In The Story of Taliesin receiving (or in some versions stealing!) awen from the cauldron, thereby becoming an awenydd, is the source of Taliesin’s omniscience and mastery of the bardic arts.

The term awenydd is consistently used as a synonym for an inspired poet. For example the fourteenth century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym describes himself as an ‘awenydd gwyrdd’ ‘green poet’. Lewis Glyn Cothi, in the fifteenth century, refers to Grufydd ab Rhys and his kinsmen as ‘awenyddion’.

In a letter to his cousin (1694) the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan speaks of an orphaned shepherd receiving awen when the ‘hawk upon the fist’ of ‘a beautiful young man with a garland of green leaves upon his head… a quiver of arrows att his back’ flies into his mouth and awakes in him ‘fear’, ‘consternation’ and ‘the gift of poetrie’. This of interest because it is suggestive of awen being gifted by a numinous figure – perhaps Maponos/Mabon, a god of youth, hunting, and music/poetry.

During the Druidic revival, awenyddion are conceived radically differently. In hisBarddas (written in the late 18th century but published in 1862), Iolo Morganwg speaks of Awenyddion as ‘Aspirants’ who have ‘no privileges’ within the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain until they have completed three years of discipleship. Only then may they graduate from the lowly status of Awenydd to ‘Primitive Bard Positive’. Iolo states that Awen comes ‘from God’.

Following Iolo, in his introduction to the heroic elegies of Llywarch Hen (1792) William Pughe refers to Awenyddion as ‘disciples’ who are examined for their ‘understanding, affections, morals, and principles’, undergo ‘severe trials’, and must ‘learn such verbs and adages as contained the maxims of the institution, and to compose others himself, on any relative subject, doctrinal or moral’ to gain the the degree of ‘Bardd Braint’ a ‘Bard of Privilege’.

Here we find the awenydd as the lowest position within a highly moralistic order based on Christian concepts. We are miles away from the shepherd lad being gifted with inspiration by an unnamed god.

The term awenydd is defined today in The Dictionary of the Welsh Language as an ‘(inspired) poet; bardic pupil; inspired person, genius’. In modern Wales it is used to refer to poets who write in strict metre.

Like many terms some parts of the meaning of awenydd have changed through the centuries, but its essence remains the same. It consistently refers to somebody who receives awen from the divine (be it the Brythonic gods and spirits or the Christian God) and expresses it in well crafted poetry.

Last year, on the basis of these two underlying currents, at Awen ac Awenydd we created our own definition of the awenydd identity – ‘an awenydd is a spirit-worker and inspired poet in the Brythonic tradition’.

Cultural Appropriation

Awen ac Awenydd is a community of self-identified awenyddion. Some of us, such as Greg, live in Wales and are Welsh speakers. Others, such as myself, live in other parts of the UK, or in America, and are learning Welsh. For us the question has risen of whether we are appropriating the awenydd identity.

To answer this question we need to understand the concept of cultural appropriation. This came into use in the 1980s as part of the discourse critiquing Western expansionism and colonialism. It entered the Oxford Dictionaries in 2017 where it is defined as ‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.’

Cultural appropriation involves a dominant culture taking elements from a minority culture and using them to make a profit, for fun, or for fashion, without giving anything back. This is often done without knowledge of or sensitivity to their meaning within the culture they are taken from and is a form of colonialism. This differs from cultural exchange in which the interchange is mutually beneficial.

Examples of cultural appropriation include the adoption of ‘exotic’ aspects of Indian culture following the economic exploitation of the Indian subcontinent by the British Empire, the claiming of the religious term ‘Shaman’ outside the indigenous religion of Siberia and its neighbouring peoples, and the use of ‘Sweat Lodges’ from the Amerindian tradition against the wishes of the Lakota elders (who suggest casually employing their techniques may be harmful to the participants).

Unfortunately, since the term has become fashionable, there have been a proliferation of more superficial examples such as an eighteen-year-old girl wearing a cheongsam to her high school prom and the row over Jamie Oliver’s ‘punchy jerk rice’.

Am I Appropriating?

So the question arises of whether English and American Pagans (members of dominant cultures) are appropriating the term awenydd from the Welsh (a minority culture) thus engaging in an act of colonialism.

First off I’d like to say that this question is based on the presuppositions that there is an absolute distinction between England and Wales and that Wales has been colonised by the English. There is a strong argument for the English colonisation of Wales over the last thousand years. There are numerous examples of military (Anglo-Norman castles), economic (mines, reservoirs), religious (the English Prayer Book), and linguistic (the Welsh Not) oppression. However, Wales along with England and Scotland, has benefited from oppressing other countries as part of the British Empire. More positively there are numerous examples of mutually beneficial cultural exchange between Wales and England (such as the Anglo-Welsh poetry of Henry Vaughan, David Jones, and Dylan Thomas).

These issues are complex, thorny, put our presuppositions into question, and do not take into consideration that for many centuries beforehand present-day England, Wales, and southern Scotland were part of a Brythonic culture which remains alive within the land and our shared heritage.

During our conversations Greg suggested, as a general condition, that an English or American Pagan would be appropriating the awenydd identity if they were doing so without knowledge of the Welsh culture and its Brythonic roots and were profiting in some way without giving anything back. For example an English Pagan selling courses on becoming an awenydd without knowing the background of the Welsh myths and mispronouncing the names would be appropriating.

Since I discovered that the stories of the Brythonic deities have been preserved in the Welsh myths I have been studying them and sharing them online and through performances in my local community. I’ve written three books based on the lore of the land and Brythonic mythology. I occasionally give talks and workshops sharing my knowledge and facilitating connection with the Brythonic gods. I am slowly learning Welsh, am a member of Preston’s Welsh Club, and for the past few years have made sure that Welsh poetry is included in the World Poetry Day event I help organise.

I believe I’m making the necessary effort to learn about the Welsh/Brythonic culture and language. Yet could it be said I’m profiting financially and in terms of status from selling it to other English people? Possibly, but my financial gains from books, talks/workshops,and poetry performances are miniscule in contrast to the amount of time and effort I’ve put into research and creative writing, plus the majority of my work is available for free online to people of all nationalities. And there is really nothing to be gained in terms of status by identifying with a little known path – it’s not like I’m declaring myself Arch High Druid of the Old North or Chief Bard of Gwyn ap Nudd or something.

Conclusion – In the Eyes of the Gods

More fundamentally it’s my personal belief that what we call the awen and the deities associated with it are much older and deeper than human concepts and distinctions. When Gwyn appeared in my life seven years ago I was completely befuddled by the question of why a wild Welsh god would want anything to do with a suburban English poet. It’s taken me that long to unravel his connections with the Old North and role as a psychopomp guiding the dead and the living back to Annwn and presiding over the mysteries of the awen as the guardian of the cauldron of Ceridwen.

For me being an awenydd is a religious calling based on my relationship with my patron god. It’s not something I can give up because I’m afraid someone will accuse me of cultural appropriation.

This was proven when I tried taking down the term ‘awenydd’ from my blog and the Annuvian Awen symbol I’d been gifted. It hurt. Both are essential to my relationship with my god and to my soul.

My personal decision to continue identifying as an awenydd is based on this feeling rather than logical and political arguments, which always break down into meaninglessness in the eyes of the gods.

cropped-annuvian-awen1-250

*With thanks to discussion and feedback from Greg Hill, who is a paradigmatic example of an awenydd who honours and serves the Brythonic gods and is engaged in modern Welsh culture, having learnt Early Welsh and provided translations of many Welsh texts into English as part of his vocation.

Mabon Learns to Play the Harp

It was Mabon who played then in the youth of the world
Greg Hill

Take the hand of the invisible
and make it visible.

Pluck a chord of light
like a string from the ball of the sun.

Imagine spiders spinning their webs

between the constellations;
the songs of the stars,

make them audible.

Fashion the nine chords
of my harp – the harp of Teirtu –

do not think of how it will play alone
as you in this House of Stone

in the hall of Pen Annwn.
Think not of the turning of his fortress

‘in Annwn below the earth’
or ‘in the air above’.

Do not ponder the reason
for your imprisonment – why

you must become an awenydd or bard.

Reach into the darkness with the audacity
of youth and imagine the discovery

of the wealthy realms of Pluto.

Ask not why the sun does not shine there,
why a dog’s jaws are the doors

and questions remain unanswered.
Reach deep within for the chord that moves

the hearts of planets – underworld gods.

In the river of tears consume the hazel nut
unknowing if it contains the awen

or countless meteoric souls.

Escape down the trail of a meteor
on the salmon of Llyn Llyw.

Take the hand of the visible
and make it invisible.

Forget this story –
you have always been the harper
and my harp has always played on…

Mabon's Harp

Ffynnon – Source, Spring, Fountain

A couple of months ago, when I was feeling discouraged about the lack of interest in the Brythonic tradition, Gwyn showed me a fountain cascading down into concentric basins increasing in size and told me that likewise ‘the awen will eventually filter down’ and this made me feel more hopeful.

This vision led me to taking an interest in the role of fountains in medieval Welsh literature. I found out the Welsh word for fountain, ffynnon or ffynhawn, also means ‘source’ and ‘spring’.

In ‘The Death Song of Cörroi’, in The Book of Taliesin, Taliesin speaks of the ffynhawn lydan ‘wide sea-fountain’, the source of the sea. Patrick Sims-Williams suggests this refers to ‘a cosmological spring similar to Hvergelmir in Norse mythology’. Hvergelmir ‘boiling bubbling spring’ is the source from which the 42 rivers, including the 11 Élivágar ‘Ice Waves’, which run through the Nine Worlds flow. In the Greek myths all the rivers rise from Oceanus ‘Ocean’ suggesting a shared mythos.

In a poem called ‘Blessed be the Lord’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen we find the lines:

May the three fountains
bless you,
two above the wind,
one above the earth

Sims-Williams notes that, ‘in a poem called Divregwawt Taliesin “Taliesin” says that the ocean comes to us from one of these’. In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ the bard speaks of teir ffynnawn ‘three springs’ or ‘three fountains / in Mount Sion’ showing a collation of Brythonic and Christian beliefs.

The image of a triple fountain is unsurprising considering many Celtic deities, such as the Matronae, the Genii Cucullati, and the Lugoves, appear in triple forms. The awen, poetic inspiration, is represented as three dots or as as three rays. The threefold fountain recurs in the alchemical tradition as the Fons Mercurialis.

Fons Mercurialis from the Rosarium (1550)

A fountain is central to Iarlles y Fynnon ‘The Lady of the Fountain’. The fountain stands beneath a green tree, with near it a marble slab and silver bowl fastened to a silver chain. Owain Rheged, a hero of the Old North, seeking adventure, throws water from the fountain from the bowl onto the slab. This brings about ‘a tumultuous noise’ then a hailstorm that strips the leaves from the tree and summons a black knight. Owain defeats him and becomes the guardian of the fountain and lover of its otherworldly lady. This story bears a resemblance with Pwyll taking the role of Arawn, King of Annwn.

Thus it is unsurprising that this central image mirrors the well/fountain and golden bowl hanging on four golden chains over a marble slab in the fortress of Llwyd Cil Coed, Brenin Llwyd, King of Annwn, which enchants Pwyll’s son, Pryderi, and his mother, Rhiannon.

It seems these are one and the same with the fountain that Gwyn, King of Annwn, showed me. A powerful symbol of awen springing forth from its source in Annwn ‘the Deep’. Flowing from myth, into story, into words, rippling out its numinous qualities into Thisworld.

SOURCES

Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Patrick Sims-Williams, Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature, (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
‘The Rosary of the Philosophers’, MS Ferguson 210, (18th C)