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.

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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

Mother of Annwn

I.
I stumble through the veil,
I stumble through the darkness,
I stumble through the mist.

At my feet lies a severed head
with a long very Celtic moustache.
When I kneel to close the staring eyes
it turns from flesh to starry stone.

I glimpse a shooting star falling.

This is a land of pain and beauty.

II.
I am standing in deepest indigo.

Land, sea, sky, are one
and filled with jeweled stars.

Two eyes appear,
the shadowed block of a nose.
She holds me between her thumb
and forefinger takes my measure as I
tell her I am an awenydd of Gwyn
and walk an Annuvian path.

III.
She shows me the Lake Region
through which all souls pass,

the water spirits, the water horses,

all the offerings that have been made:
swords, armour, cauldrons,

the words of awenyddion,
the floating corpses.

These are necessary to creation.

IV.
She shows me the meteor
that brought the first waters to earth.

“Did you bring this from the darkness?”

She smiles an enigmatic smile
very much like Gwyn’s

and sends me back on
the Star-Strewn Pathway
that leads neither up
nor down.

Mother of Annwn Med

Methanogens and the End of the World

I. In the Deepest of Places…

They’re possibly the oldest living beings on earth. They possess the power to create and destroy life-giving climates. They thrive in the deepest of places and most extreme conditions – submarine springs, volcanic vents, hot desert sands, glacial ice – as well as in marshlands, rice paddies, landfills, sewage plants, and in the guts of termites, ruminants, and humans. Discovering their existence forced scientists to restructure the phylogenetic tree and rethink the origins of life.

Their name is only just beginning to make it into our mainstream vocabulary. They are methanogens.

Methanogens are methane generating microorganisms who can only survive in anaerobic environments. Because of their microscopic size and inability to survive in air containing oxygen they weren’t identified until the 20th century. Yet suspicions about their existence had been inferred.

Gas collecting in the marshes near Angera JPEG

In 1776 Alessandro Volta discovered the flammability of marsh gas on Lake Maggiore. Poking the reedy bottom of the marsh with his cane he collected the bubbles in a gas container then set fire to it, producing ‘a beautiful blue flame’. Natural scientists called this ‘swamp air’ ‘carbonated hydrogen’ and in 1865 ‘methan’ was proposed. ‘Methane’ was accepted in 1892.

Pierre Jacques Antoine Béchamp was the first to suspect methane was formed by a microbiological process as the result of a fermentation experiment in 1868. It was not until 1936 that the first methanogen, Methanobacillus omelianskii, was isolated with Delft canal sediment by Horace Albert Barker. This marked ‘the beginning of the modern era for the study of methanogenesis.’

Scientists went on to find out methanogenesis, a form of anaerobic respiration which uses carbon rather than oxygen as an electron acceptor, takes place in three ways: carbon dioxide reduction (hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis), cleavage of acetates (acetoclatic methanogenesis), and the breakdown of methylated compounds (methylotrophic methanogenesis).

II. Ancient Things

In 1997, during an experiment with RNA, Carl Woese discovered that methanogens are phylogenetically different from bacteria and eukaryota (this branch includes fungi, plants, and animals) establishing a third domain on the phylogenetic tree.

450px-Phylogenetic_tree.svg

This new group of microorganisms was named archaea, ‘ancient things’. Because their ‘methanogenic metabolism is ideally suited to the kind of atmosphere thought to have existed on the primitive earth: one that was rich in carbon dioxide and included some hydrogen but virtually no oxygen’, Woese asserted they could be the earliest living beings on our planet.

According to James F. Fasting their generation of methane, a greenhouse gas, from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, kept the young earth warm between 3.5 and 2.5 billion years ago when the sun burnt only 80 per cent as brightly as today. They played a significant role in the chain of events that led to the development of other life forms.

Methanogens were driven underground by the great oxygenation event 2.3 billion years ago – a time that corresponds with the first Global Ice Age. The world-changing effects of methanogenesis were felt again 252 million years ago when a bacteria transferred two genes to methanosarcina. This allowed them to feed on carbon on the sea floor, releasing immense amounts of methane into the atmosphere, raising the temperatures and acidifying oceans, leading to the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, which killed 96% of species on the earth.

III. A Dangerous Game

The greenhouse gases responsible for global warming in our current era are carbon dioxide (82%), methane (10%), nitrous oxide (5%), and fluorinated gases (3%). Although methane only accounts for 10% ‘it is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in global warming potential’.

74% of methane emissions in our atmosphere are produced by methanogens. The main sources are wetlands (22%), coal and oil mining and natural gas (19%), enteric fermentation (16%), rice cultivation (12%), biomass burning (8%), landfills (6%), and sewage treatment (6%). Our ability to understand and work with methanogens will play a crucial role in our future. A great deal of research has been carried out into the pros and cons of methanogenesis.

A study by Susannah G. Tringe et al. focuses on ‘a pilot-scale restored wetland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of California.’ Tringe notes that wetlands are effective carbon sinks, but methane production can outweigh the benefits in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases. By mapping the relationships between microbial communities and gas measurements her group aims to ‘reduce methane flux to the atmosphere and enhance belowground carbon storage.’

Several studies have been carried out on methanogenesis in coal mines. It has been discovered that the majority of emissions from mines are biogenic as opposed to thermogenic and take place by acetoclastic methanogensis from hard coal and mine timber. Ways of using the methane for energy are being explored. Methanogenesis also occurs in shale and experiments in biostimulation to improve productivity in combination with fracking are in progress.

Studies on landfills, a new source of organic (and inorganic) matter for these ingenuous microorganisms, show that methanogenesis, which follows hydrolysis, acidification, and acetogenesis, is an essential process in the breakdown of ‘municipal solid waste’. In landfills, as well as in wetlands, coal, and shale, acetoclastic methanogens work with acetate-producing bacteria in a syntrophic relationship. This also occurs in the breakdown of sewage. Again, ways of using the methane for energy and thus reducing emissions are being explored.

A common theme that cropped up in all these studies is that the complex interrelationships between methanogens and other bacteria and the role of methanogenesis in the global cycles are not fully understood. Nothing is said about the intelligence and agency of these secretive near-invisible beings who have played a key role in the shaping of our climate for billions of years.

Methanosarcina, Wikipedia

Science, measuring, quantifying, postulating, manipulating, rarely listens to or respects its subjects. The Permian-Triassic extinction, which took place as the consequence of a small genetic change, highlights the potential dangers of attempting to manipulate these complex microorganisms. Without understanding, without relationship, we are playing a dangerous game.

IV. Listening to the Deep

For me as an awenydd working with Brythonic cosmology, methanogens, chthonic beings who inhabit the deepest of places and feed on organic matter composed of dead organisms, seem associated with Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld, where the dead and dead worlds reside. Death-eaters par excellence, their activities release the gaseous spirits of the dead into the air.

These processes are essential on both physical and spiritual levels and are part of the earth’s innate balance. When this is disturbed, as now, by mankind’s raiding of Annwn for fossil fuels and release of its spirits, extinction events swiftly follow to correct the disequilibrium.

This knowledge from the depths of time is embodied in Brythonic mythology wherein Gwyn ap Nudd is said to contain the spirits of Annwn in order to prevent their destruction of the world.

Whereas we once mined with due reverence for the rules of the gods of the deep (Nodens/Nudd,‘Lord of the Mines’ was venerated at an iron ore mine at Lydney), who keep its spirits in check, their forgetting has led to all-out ravaging with disastrous consequences.

Over two thousands miners in Lancashire alone have lost their lives, many as a result of explosions caused by methane, which is also a threat at landfill sites. Flammable methane haunts the taps of people whose water has been contaminated by fracking. Global warming, caused by greenhouse gases, is claiming the lives of at least ten thousand species a year.

As the death toll rises I believe it is no coincidence that methanogens have begun to reveal themselves to us (as opposed to us thinking we are so clever finding them); coccoid, baccilic, in enigmatic strings and webs, under the UV illumination of fluorescence microscopes. These 3.5 billion year old microorganisms who dwell deep in our guts are clearly communicating.

Methanogen Microwiki

Will we learn their language? Will we listen? If we do will they lead us to redemption or destruction?

Gwyn ap Nudd,
you who have travelled time
to know the secrets of archaea:
their containment and release,

you who exist in the no-time
of Annwn between life and death
please teach us to listen
with reverence again

before you and your spirits
decide our end.

SOURCES

Carl Woese, ‘Archaebacteria: The Third Domain of Life Missed by Biologists for Decades’, Scientific American, (2012, originally published 1981)
Colin Schultz, ‘How a Single Act of Evolution Nearly Wiped Out All Life on Earth’, Smithsonian
Daniela Buckroithner, ‘Microbiology of Landfill Sites’, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Masters Thesis, (2015)
Fabrizio Colozimio et al.,‘Biogenic methane in shale gas and coal bed methane: A review of current knowledge and gaps’, International Journal of Coal Geology, Vol. 165, (2016)
James F. Kasting, ‘When Methane Made Climate,’ Scientific American, (2015)
Ralph S. Wolfe, ‘A Historical Overview of Methanogenesis’, Methanogenesis: Physiology, Biochemistry & Genetics, (Chapman and Hall, 1993)
Sabrina Beckman et al, ‘Acetogens and Acetoclastic Methanosarcinales Govern Methane Formation in Abandoned Coal Mines’, Applied and Environmental Biology, (2011)
Shaomei He et al., ‘Patterns in Wetland Microbial Community Composition and Functional Gene Repertoire Associated with Methane Emissions’, American Society for Microbiology, (2015)

Mist and Darkness and the Road to Joy – The Completion of Gatherer of Souls

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Over the past three years I have been working on a book for Gwyn ap Nudd, my patron god, to whom I devoted myself five years ago in January at the White Spring in Glastonbury.

At first I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. It began simply as ‘Gwyn’s Book’. Because I am based in Lancashire and so many other writers have explored his connections with Glastonbury and Wales I decided to focus on his stories originating from the Old North, which are found in The Black Book of Carmarthen and Culhwch and Olwen.

After some time he made it clear that he did not want me to write an academic book (I therefore published my research on my website HERE) or  simply repeat the old tales penned by Christian scribes. Instead he wanted me to peel back the golden patina, expose the atrocities committed against him and the people of Annwn by Arthur, and journey back to the roots of his mythos in pre-Christian times when he was venerated as a god of the dead and gatherer of souls.

I met with other Inspired Ones who served him and whose souls he gathered such as the ancient ancestors of Orddu, ‘Very Black’, the Last Witch of Pennant Gofid; the northern British prophets Myrddin and his sister Gwenddydd; witches who flew with him between sky and air; wild women, madmen, poets, broken dreamers whose dreams have never been recorded.

I was prompted to explore how the closing of the doors of Annwn led to the sense of disconnection and soul loss that forms the void at the heart of the Anthropocene and to see the wonder in Gwyn’s reappearance on the brink of time as the Anglo-American Empire, which has its roots in Arthur uniting Britain under ‘One King, One God, One Law’, begins to fall.

My devotional journey has had its ups and downs. Sometimes it has felt like an endless ‘wow’ as I’ve discovered faces of Gwyn as yet unrecorded and hidden facets of his nature. At others, when I’ve been stuck in the Arthurian stories, unable to see beneath or get a break through, or I’ve written Gwyn’s voice wrong, I’ve felt frustrated, awkward, unworthy, and utterly inept. Yet I never once thought about giving up as I knew it was something I had to do.

Because there are no groups in the North West of England who venerate the Brythonic gods and goddesses or work experientially with our native myths my journey has been a lonely one. At low points I have contemplated joining the Anglesey Druid Order and even becoming a nun (when I hit thirty-five I realised it was my last chance!) although within I have known that my path in life is to walk with Gwyn even when all he can offer is “mist, darkness, and uncertainty”.

I’ve seen writing this book through to the end because serving him as an awenydd, although sometimes tough – Gwyn is the god who contains the fury of the spirits of Annwn and he is that fury just as he is the god who gathers the dead with love and compassion – is a source of deep and profound joy. Walking with him, whether through the starlit skies, or industrial smog, or blood-strewn battlefields, or the healing woodlands of Celyddon has always felt utterly right.

Gatherer of Souls is a book of new visions of the forgotten mythos of Gwyn ap Nudd  recorded in poems and stories to be published on Gwyn’s Feast, September the 29th, this year.

Over the past week I have read it out loud to Gwyn and it feels fitting that he has approved it as we approach the eclipse of the super blue wolf moon.

The Scarecrow in the Storm

On the 2nd of July I attended Pagancon and participated in a shamanic workshop with Nicola Smalley from Way of the Buzzard. Nicola opened with an introduction to shamanism then told us she had been advised by her guides to lead a journey to find out ‘how to weather the storm’.

This interested me as a number of pagans have recently received communications from the gods and spirits about ‘the storm’. This could be our environmental and political situation and/or something more…

After the journey several of the other participants shared their experiences. I didn’t share mine as I didn’t know what to make of it. Beneath a storm-dark sky in a field of wind-blasted wheat I met a scarecrow clothed in black rags with a burlap sack for a head.

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“Are you the guide who can help me weather the storm?”

No reply from the featureless sack-face as wind tore at the scarecrow’s ragged clothing and he swayed on his stick.

I rode on. And the scarecrow took flight and rode the horseless wind beside me.

“So you are my guide…”

We rode to a cliff edge to look down on a city encased in stone where the people hunkered down, cowering, gnome-like, senses closed to hope and beauty.

“What’s an awenydd to do in such a place?”

Silent the scarecrow. I’m the one with the words it seems… then the drumbeat changed and it was time to return to thisworld.

***

That’s not the first time a scarecrow has appeared in my life. Since I studied a poetry module as part of my degree they’ve been showing up. I’ve written about scarecrows at summer’s end, scarecrow arguments, humans reduced to a scarecrow-like existence. I’ve written in the voice of a bird-scarer.

When I looked up the history of scarecrows I found out they were not used in Britain until many of the children who worked as bird-scarers (armed with a clacker from dusk to dawn to scare away the birds) died during the plague in the 13thC. It was only then that farmers started creating straw men with gourd faces and propping them on poles.

I also discovered they had an abundance of names. In Devon ‘Murmet’, Somerset ‘Mommet’, here in Lancashire and in Yorkshire ‘Mammet’. ‘Mawkin’ in Sussex and ‘Hodmedod’ in Berkshire. ‘Hayman’ across England. ‘Bwbach’ in Wales. On the Isle of Skye ‘Gallybagger’ and on the Isle of Wight ‘Tattie Bogal’. In Scotland ‘Bodach-rocais’ ‘Old man of the rooks’.

Names such as ‘Bwbach’ and ‘bogal’ are synonymous with bogies and ‘Mammet’ was used from the 13th-17thCs to denote a ‘false god or idol’ and later applied to ‘a doll or puppet, a lifeless figure, an effigy, a scarecrow’. All hold an otherworldly resonance. It’s no wonder in many of our stories scarecrows come to life.

***

In relation to weathering the storm it struck me that scarecrows stand strong in all weathers. This is exemplified by Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘The Scarecrow’.

The Scarecrow

All winter through I bow my head
beneath the driving rain;
the North Wind powders me with snow
and blows me black again;
at midnight ‘neath a maze of stars
I flame with glittering rime,
and stand above the stubble, stiff
as mail at morning-prime.
But when that child called Spring, and all
his host of children come,
scattering their buds and dew upon
these acres of my home,
some rapture in my rags awakes;
I lift void eyes and scan
the sky for crows, those ravening foes,
of my strange master, Man.
I watch him striding lank behind
his clashing team, and know
soon will the wheat swish body high
where once lay a sterile snow;
soon I shall gaze across a sea
of sun-begotten grain,
which my unflinching watch hath sealed
for harvest once again.

Made from the leftovers of thisworld yet imbued with the spirit of the otherworld, undignified yet strangely maintaining dignity, the scarecrow is a liminal figure who stands as an unspeaking guardian to the changing seasons and cycles of the crops.

He knows how to weather the storm.

What he lacks is a voice and expression on his burlap face. Perhaps we can work together: the awenydd and the scarecrow in the storm.

No Other Way

Because there’s no other way.
Because the gods have got me by the heartstrings.
Because I see over the horizon not what’s on it.
Because I see birds who are not birds.
Because I am in hidden spaces.
Because I love mist.
Because no-one tells the whispers of the silent.
Because words can dance like pictures on cave walls.
Because my people are hungry.
Because the wind howls down my neck.
Because I wake at night and there are stars.
Because the mortality ship is sailing.
Because I am the threshold.
Because another world’s stars hem me in.
Because I look above and the worms are singing.