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

P1240462 - Copy - Copy - Copy

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.

P1170026 - Copy

“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.

Breaking the Silence

Two months ago I decided to take a break from blogging. I’d returned from Wales after climbing mist-ensorcelled hound-haunted Cadair Idris. Standing on the shoulder of a giant dizzied by his mad dreams. Staring down into Llyn Cau and Llyn y Gadair. Finding refuge in the hut of the mountain guide.

In Wales the gods are huge. Their names and stories echo from deep valleys and massive mountains and are carried in streams and rivers to where the immensity of the sky meets the immaculate sea on the western coast. From Pen y Gadair the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd never leave.

On Borth beach I read Heron’s new translation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. The name Borth derives from Porth Wyddno and is the location of Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bottom Hundred); Gwyddno’s drowned kingdom. It was my intuition Gwyddno died there and the poem records a conversation between the worlds where Gwyn offers Gwyddno protection and guides him to Annwn (the Brythonic otherworld).

Reading the poem was immensely powerful. I experienced vividly the presence of these two great mythic figures speaking against the backdrop of the pebbled beach and roaring sea. Afterward at sunset I saw the otherland of which Gwyn speaks ‘where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore’ appear on the horizon.

Borth VI returned to Penwortham mind-blown with much to absorb in thought and dream only to experience another immensity. This time a crushing one. Walking the section of the old pilgrim’s path that leads across the A59 from the site of St Mary’s Well to the War Memorial I got trapped in the middle of the road: unable to cross because of the heavy rush of traffic at school pick-up time.

A59 between site of St Mary's Well and Penwortham War MemorialI knew this was the result of the widening of Penwortham By-Pass. A rush which will only increase when a new stretch of by-pass is built leading over the river Ribble to Junction 2 of the M55 (which exists only in name having been planned over 40 years ago). That this was linked to the expansion of BAE, the University of Central Lancashire, to the building of new housing developments and employment sites throughout Preston and South Ribble.

I was struck by the overwhelming gnosis it was beyond me to stop the growth of this monster. I could not stop the City Deal. I’d known for a while the City Deal was something not even the most seasoned campaigners would dare take on as a whole. That each of us must find our own way of protecting what we value within the realms of possibility whether it’s by campaigning against individual developments, fracking (which will not only ruin the landscape and poison our sacred watercourses but fuel the monster), austerity, defending and caring for an area of green space or growing and nurturing a community group.

Acknowledging this insight has taken a lot of readjustment during which I realised attempting not even to save the world but just South Ribble and Preston, Penwortham even, was beyond my capability and making me ill. Not only that, Peneverdant ‘the green hill on the water’ with its aquifer shattered in 1884, its holy wells dry, its banks subsiding with falling trees and gravestones under increasing duress from the By-Pass wanted to close down. Hence the closure of ‘From Peneverdant.’

What did I have left? The Friends group I run in Greencroft Valley with its wildflowers and apple trees. The monthly poetry night I play a lead role in organising at Korova Arts Cafe & Bar which provides a safe and welcoming space for newcomers and established poets to perform. The Oak and Feather Grove.

My relationship with the land and the gods which my recent travels north and to Wales have taught me need not be limited to Penwortham. The inspiration and awe I find in my path as an awenydd devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd. The depth and magic of his known and unknown stories. A growing awareness of other Brythonic gods and goddesses and their myths.

Whilst I’ve had support and companionship from friends and family and other poets and pagans, until the past couple of months my path as an awenydd and Brythonic polytheist has been a lonely one. However, in October I went to Glasgow to a ritual to Epona-Rigantona led by Potia and last week returned to Borth and finally met Heron, whose writing has guided and inspired me for several years.

Together on Borth beach Heron and I read my story ‘The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir’ which I wrote after my previous visit to Borth based on his translation of Gwyn and Gwyddno’s dialogue. It was moving and beautiful reading and listening to the words, born from the place, from an ancient poem passed on from poet to poet, feeling it live on the sea breeze and the rolling tides, honouring Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp, Gwyddno’s passing and the absent cranes (‘garan’ from Garanhir means crane in Welsh) who I gave the role of soul-birds. Afterward we walked across Cors Fochno (Borth Bog), where cranes may have nested, up Cwm Clettwr and to Taliesin’s grave.

I returned nourished with my feeling of the increasing import of the Brythonic myths juxtaposed with my frustration so few people have an interest in them. Of having much to share but no-one to share with. Which led once again to despair until I had a dream which somehow I knew took place ten years in the future.

I was leading a guided tour of one or two disinterested people to ‘Cockersand Fields’ (which I interpreted to be the fields near Cockersand Abbey where a statue to Mars-Nodens was found) and was feeling ready to give up on this task and life altogether. I hadn’t put my heart into it for several years. Then I saw a group of young backpackers approaching from boats on a sunset beach with smiles and eyes filled with hope. They’d come searching for stories about Gwyn, which I’d failed to write: a failure I suddenly regretted and a friend pushed me to rectify.

The dream seemed to be telling me not to lose hope in a vocation that nurtures my soul, brings me joy and could likewise bring meaning and purpose to others because my writing doesn’t provoke immediate responses or recognition. To think of the long term rather than satisfaction in the now.

Thus for the first time since the closure of ‘From Peneverdant’ I break my silence. Whilst I can’t promise my words will save the world or even Penwortham, I hope for others led down strange paths by little-known gods they may provide signposts in the mist that lead to the strength and inspiration to live with joy and depth in this troubled world.

Borth III

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Gwyllon: ‘Wyllt-ness’ and the Healing Power of Art

Barrow Mound, Fulwood

The wight whose footsteps I heard
imprinted on my cold soul,
the cold marrow of my bones.
He walked in soul as his bones laid still
and my soul reached out to him:
another one of the gwyllon.

The glimmer of fairy lights.
This place secluded and so still.

Fulwood Barrow MoundSometimes you stumble somewhere and forget yourself. No longer breathing. In the time of the gods. You hear the footsteps of a deity. Not your deity. But one connected with him.

***

In the mythology of ancient Britain, Gwyn ap Nudd (a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead) is intimately connected with ‘gwyllon’: madmen, wildmen, wraiths, who through some traumatic experience have become ‘outside themselves’, open to the otherworld, ‘wyllt’.

The most famous is Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin is a golden-torqued warrior of the court of the northern British ruler, Gwenddolau, who becomes wyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd; a conflict between Brythonic kinsmen renowned for its carnage and futility.

Looking across the battlefield, stricken with guilt because his sister Gwendydd’s sons are amongst the dead, Myrddin sees an unendurable brightness and martial battalion in the sky. It seems possible this is Gwyn (‘white’ ‘blessed’ holy’ from Vindos or Vindonnus ‘white’ ‘clear light, white’) and his host: the spirits of Annwn and the war-dead, approaching to gather their kindred to the otherworld.

‘Torn out of himself’ by one of these spirits, Myrddin flees to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest). He wanders there ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon’. These gwyllon are ‘seven score men’ who also fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished.

Similar cases are found in The Triads of the Island of Britain: ‘Tri Gwyd Ellyll Ynys Brydein’ ‘Three Wild Spectres of the Island of Britian’. The notes state ‘ydellyll’ (for ‘gwyd ellyll?’) ‘occurs in the Gododdin in reference to furious activity in battle’ and could relate to tales of men who become wyllt as a consequence of war.

What makes Myrddin’s story unique is his recovery. Amongst wild creatures of the forest; a piglet, a wolf and a favourite apple tree he undergoes a healing process through which he learns the art of poetry and uses it to prophecy against future bloodshed.

***

Cyledyr Wyllt possesses an entirely different story. In Culhwch and Olwen, after Gwyn abducts Creiddylad, his rival Gwythyr ap Greidol raises an army of northern men to win her back. Amongst them are Cyledyr and his brother, Pen, his father Nwython and his great grand-father’s brother, Gwrgst Ledlwm. If Gwrgst is still living this means Cyledyr must be in his teens.

Gwythyr and his army attack Gwyn. My intuition is this attack represents a raid on Annwn. Gwyn triumphs over Gwythyr and the northern men and takes them prisoner. During their captivity he kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who goes mad. The etymological links between Cyledyr and Celyddon suggest that, like Myrddin, he flees to the forest.

Gwyn’s motive for torturing Cyledyr is never explained. Did he do it from fury? For vengeance? Did he have some darker purpose in feeding a young man his father’s heart? Could this have originated from some arcane rite of the past whereby the strength of one’s ancestors was conferred by eating their flesh, of which Gwyn makes a mockery?

Another question worth asking is ‘Did it happen at all?’ The historical Nwython is recorded to have died in his bed.

It seems possible Cyledyr’s fevered recollections result from the effects of unbidden entry to Annwn, the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr’s forces and time spent in prison on an impressionable young mind. Whilst Cyledyr is telling this story Nwython could be anguishing over the unknown fate of his son. Whether Cyledyr recovered from his trauma or died in Celyddon remains uncertain.

***

Another story I believe features Gwyn (as the King of Fairy) and a human ruler who becomes wyllt is Sir Orfeo. This begins when the Fairy King abducts Heurodis, Orfeo’s wife. Driven wyllt by grief, Orfeo abandons his sovereignty and departs ‘like a beggar’ for the wilderness where his only solace is playing his harp, which brings joy to the wild creatures.

After ten long years Orfeo finally finds a way into Fairyland. After travelling sunlit green plains and hunting grounds he comes to the Fairy King’s glass palace. Therein he makes a terrible discovery: ‘Folk long thought dead… as living found’ headless, armless, torn, ‘with dreadful wounds’, ‘full-armed on horses’, strangled, drowned, burned, wives laid in child-bed ‘stolen out of life’: those ‘the fairies seize and keep’. Heurodis lies amongst them.

These images represent a little-known truth, rarely made explicit in Brythonic mythology: the beauty of Fairyland is founded on the horror of death. The knights and damsels of the Fairy King’s hunt who feast in his hall number the war-dead, murder-victims, women who have died in labour.

Heurodis is amongst them because when the Fairy King took her whilst she slept beneath an orchard tree she died or became comatose or catatonic. Such superstitions can be traced through Brythonic fairylore to earlier beliefs about Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn conveying souls to the otherworld.

This knowledge does not prevent Orfeo from entering the Fairy King’s hall and playing his wondrous music. The King is so moved he offers Orfeo anything he wants. Of course, Orfeo asks for Heurodis. He brings her back to this-world where the pair are re-united in sovereignty.

This story shows how Orfeo gains his ability as a musician from his period wandering wyllt and that hard-won art has the power to move the gods, to sing the souls of those held captive in Fairyland back to this earthly home.

***

These myths represent the experience of becoming wyllt at the outermost limits of human experience. The ‘wyllt-ness’ of Myrddin and Cyledyr results from battle trauma. Cyledyr’s battle trauma is exacerbated by his unwarranted entry into Annwn, imprisonment in the ‘not-world’ and real or imagined torture by Gwyn.

Orfeo’s story differs slightly. His wyllt-ness results from loss. His time spent wandering the wilderness provides him with the strength to survives his gnosis of the terrible truth at the heart of Fairyland and Heurodis’ fate to win her back and return to his seat of rule.

Key to the survival of becoming wyllt is the power of art. For Myrddin and Orfeo giving voice to their trauma and to the powers of nature who surround and console them is an essential part of the healing process. It is possibly because he does not discover art that Cyledyr remains wyllt. This may also be the case for the other gwyllon who lapsed into madness and perished.

These stories contain lasting significance for modernity where art and nature therapy are recognised as powerful means of helping victims of war and loss.

***

Later folktales represent a variety of different encounters with and responses to Fairyland. In most we find the recurrent themes of wyllt-ness and art. People who meet fairies, stumble into or are taken to Fairy invariably become ‘dead, mad or poets’. My personal experiences with Gwyn and his realm bear stronger resemblances to these tales.

Glastonbury TorIn the year 2000 at Glastonbury Festival (long before I knew the name of the mysterious god of the Tor) I had a vision of what I recognise now to be Fairyland which left me shocked, stunned and profoundly questioning the nature of reality.

My quest for an explanation led me through a dangerous combination of drink, drugs, all-night dancing and all the texts of the Western European philosophical tradition, deeper into madness, to the brink of an abyss where I was faced with the choice of life or death.

Unable to choose either I was confronted by three beings I now recognise as ellyllon (‘fairies’ akin to gwyllon). What followed was equally beautiful and perturbing and put an end to the pain of having to make that choice. My experiences left me half-wyllt, wandering between life and death, plagued by anxiety and panic attacks and put a temporary end to my vision-quest.

After giving up my philosophy PhD, I spent four years working with horses. During this period of re-connecting with the land, the seasons and the animal world, working hard and thinking little, I underwent a return to nature that bears a little analogy to the flight of the wyllt to Celyddon.

When I met Gwyn and put a face to the god who governed the magical landscape I haphazardly intruded on at Glastonbury Festival twelve years ago, my initial terror was edged by relief. I finally knew the source of the calling to the otherworld that had haunted me for as long as I can remember. Gwyn became my patron and I his awenydd: ‘person inspired’ or ‘poet’.

***

In the contemporary world where poetry, let alone pagan poetry, is rarely acknowledged or valued the path of the awenydd is not an easy vocation. Deep gnosis of nature and Annwn and its deities necessarily places one outside the bounds of ordinary experience; makes one wyllt, other. With Celyddon gone there is no wild and wooded place of retreat outside the norms of society where gwyllon can flee and gather in company.

Yet in the shaded spaces of our localities where trees still stand and that great forest stood before it walked to Scotland centuries ago we can commune with the gwyllon of old and find unison with the gwyllon of today. Sharing can also take place in the green nooks and crannies of books, in the pubs and cafes and wooded stages where we perform and on the internet. In our stories we find camaraderie.

In a world becoming increasingly superficial where we are losing touch with the deep knowledge our ancestors held to help those touched by the wyllt-ness of Fairyland be it through trauma, loss, enchantment or some silly mistake, we have never had a greater need for the stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and the gwyllon. For the healing power of art.

Castle Hill from Fairy LaneSOURCES

Bromwich, Rachel (ed) The Triads of the Island of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. (eds) Culhwch and Olwen (University of Wales, 1998)
Davies, Constance ‘Classical Threads in Orfeo’ The Modern Language Review, Vol 56, No 2, (Modern Humanities Research Association, April 1961)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Friedman, John Block ‘Eurydice, Heurodis and the Noon-Day Demon’ Speculum, Vol 41, Vol 1 (Medieval Academy of America, 1966)
Hunt, Edward Eyre Sir Orfeo (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North

Rivington Moor with Winter HillI’ve recently started researching Gwyn ap Nudd’s neglected connections with the Old North. In the final verses of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at the deaths of northern warriors. In How Culhwch won Olwen Gwyn’s rival for the love of Creiddylad, Gwythyr, and his allies (who Gwyn takes captive) are of northern descent. There is consensus amongst scholars that this episode and ‘The Very Black Witch’ originate from the Old North.

As somebody who venerates Gwyn in Lancashire I find it strange, perplexing and quite sad that, whilst in medieval texts equal precedence is given to Gwyn’s roles in Wales and the north, in later literature his northern links disappear entirely. I’m in the process of developing some ideas about how this happened.

Before I started reading Welsh mythology I thought it was solely about the area of land we now know as Wales. When I discovered William Skene’s translation of The Four Books of Ancient Wales I realised that the earliest heroic poetry attributed to Taliesin and Aneirin originates from and is about the fall of the Old North to the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. Whilst the focus of The Mabinogion is Wales many adventures lead beyond. Welsh mythology contains the lore of all of ancient Britain.

This body of ancient British lore was absorbed into ‘Welsh’ mythology because when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came to rule, many Britons were forced west, taking their stories with them. The tantalising fragments of Gwyn’s earliest myths in the medieval texts result from the mixing of northern and Welsh oral tales, which were later penned by Christian scribes.

Memories of Gwyn were kept alive by the reminiscences of Welsh saints, soothsayers and poets and later revived by nineteenth century scholars and folklorists. During this process his name became synonymous with areas where his stories were still told; Wales and Somerset. This is evidenced by Shakespeare’s ‘Heavens defend me from that Welsh Fairy’ and John Cowper Powys’ reference to Glastonbury Tor as ‘the great haunted hill, the hill of Gwyn-ap-Nud, the Welsh Fairy-Demon’.

His northern connections sank into the background. As far as I know there have been no literary references to Gwyn ap Nudd in the north since the medieval period.

***

Last year, when I was giving a talk on ‘Voicing Place’ in Ipswich, I mentioned my relationship with Gwyn and how some of my journeys under his guidance had led not only to Annwn but to memories in the dreamscape of my locality. Afterward, I got questioned about the legitimacy of my work with a ‘non-local’ god; shouldn’t it be ‘local gods for local people’?

I disagreed, both on the principle that only relationships with local gods are valid and that Gwyn isn’t a local god. Gwyn revealed his presence to me (quite unexpectedly!) at a local fairy site. His imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’ referred to my locality. Throughout my relationship with him he’s demonstrated a concern for the north and its history.

I’ve been pondering this for a while and reached the following conclusion: Gwyn is a king of Annwn and is said to ‘contain’ (literally to hold within and to hold back) the fury of the spirits of Annwn. These are chthonic spirits, referred to today as ‘fairies, who play a role in mediating between this-world and the otherworld, the living and dead. Because of this intermediary role they have a deep concern for the land and the way we maintain our heritage. Their concerns are Gwyn’s.

Gwyn’s concern with history (and some of his fury) also stems from the fact he and the spirits of Annwn have been all but erased by the processes of Anglicisation and Christianisation. Gwyn and his kindred spirits also seem bound up with other voices written out of history by the victors. Thus, he calls me to step outside history to listen to those voices and bring his myths back to life on the land from which they have been erased.

This marks a new direction in my research and writing. Since my dedication to Gwyn, my path as an Awenydd has focused on what Heron refers to as ‘imaginative recall’; working with historical fragments and maps and listening to the land and its deities in order to gather memories in poems and stories.

In Enchanting the Shadowlands my focus was my local area. I am now experiencing the impulse to revisit some of Britain’s most ancient myths at a deeper level and visit the places they are set with the purpose of reweaving Gwyn’s neglected connections with the Old North into the present day.

In this respect, I share aims with Charlotte Hussey who in her collection of medieval glosa Glossing the Spoils set out through active imagining to ‘mend a break in tradition and time.’ Charlotte mentions that P. K. Page ‘defined ‘religion (re-legere)’ as ‘to read again.’’ Re-reading and re-imagining our ancient myths is a religious duty, an act of devotion to land, gods and ancestors.

Hence as an Awenydd to Gwyn and his spirits and all the voices between the lines of known history and myth, I embark on this new project. I am aware at this point it is not only memories I must quest, but an appropriate form to fit them.

The Star-Strewn Pathway

‘Thence rolled down upon him the storm-clouds from the home of the tempest;
thence streamed up the winter sky the flaming banners of the Northern lights;
thence rose through the illimitable darkness on high
the star-strewn pathway of the fairy king.’
-Wirt Sikes

I write this post as a newcomer to the path of the Awenydd, having walked it in earnest little longer than a year and a day. The terms Awen and Awenydd have been familiar since coming to Druidry. In the Awen I found a name for the all-consuming force of inspiration that has burnt forever in my veins with the fire of stars in the iciest reaches of a dark universe. Its furious purpose was revealed by a god after many years of searching.

Restless years. Wilder years. Seeking Blake’s infinite. Throwing my soul into the furthermost abysses of Western European philosophy where reason bites its own tail, curls up and dies and the only way to survive the white hot sun of truth is to burn with and express its creativity.

Trying to find a framework to decipher visions of our native spirit world without knowing if my experiences were ‘real’. Searching Christian mysticism, Graeco-Roman, Saxon and Norse mythologies and finding only analogies. Discovering Britain has its own mythology in The Mabinogion, The Triads of the Island of Britain, The Four Ancient Books of Wales and regional folk and faerie lore.

Finally, Gwyn ap Nudd, my Fairy King finding me and teaching me to walk the Star-Strewn Pathway.

***

The Star-Strewn Pathway begins in one’s local area with the recognition the whole landscape is inspirited. Awen sings from the earth-sun at this world’s core through its molten mantle, sandstone bedrock, layers of clay and harrowed loam. Wonder can be found in backyards of composting earthworms and hatching spiders.

Pathways lead to suburban edgelands. Narrow valleys of trees impossible to build on, brooks shrunken by drainage systems tripping down wooden platforms. Algae-covered stagnant ponds beloved of ducks. Decaying mills pink with Herb Robert housing volleys of pigeons circling above.

These places are inspirited and there are spirits: huge boggarts who once stretched gurgling through mosslands grey and whiskery; undines clasping their last waters; newly planted woodlands arising into forms of consciousness with inherent knowledge of tree, bird and mycelia of mushrooms to the tread of deer.

Inevitably pathways lead abroad. It is necessary to trace local brooks to the river’s crashing heart, find its trickling source and greet rolling tides with the sea at its shining estuary. To meet its Great Goddess who washes her hair by moonlight and stretches watery arms throughout the watershed.

To travel ancient woodlands of oak men, snow-topped mountains of icy blasting and cities of tower blocks, steeples and malls which guard a heritage locked in catacombs and glassy vaults. Every facet of woe and joy, awe and strife, adds to the alchemy of our own sun.

***

In rain or mist, at twilight to the touch of thunder, it is possible to step from known to unknown pathways. Wandering lost in a storm-cloud of emotion I have often found myself on unfamiliar tracks with strange figures, no longer myself. Sometimes it is those dusky shadows who beckon me, footsteps leading into the wildwood’s tangled heart.

In the wildwood all the fay lights are lit by stars. They dance and glimmer, throwing bright shapes and longer shadows across paths which intertwine like roots. These paths have their own lives, untwining and uprooting to walk their own way through the wood. Where the fay strew their lanterns on the ground one might find the Star-Strewn pathway.

There is a long tradition of caves and holes leading to the underworld. Their entryways are utter darkness. Timeless. Illimitable as despair. They lead into a womb of tunnels, the edge of an abyss, to where that age-old creatrix Old Mother Universe gives birth to stars. From thence the Star-Strewn Pathway unfurls through underground heavens.

When the moon is full she lays out her bridge of vibrant stars in the river. The ripples become stepping stones. From the river-moon the Star-Strewn Pathway leads through the catastrophic beauty of falling stars to the star-decked parapets of the Fairy King’s hall.

At his banquet stars burn and freeze. The order of things is undone. In the crux of fairy arts, the Fairy King’s Star Cauldron, the wonder of the universe is reflected and re-made anew.

***

There are other ways to reach Gwyn’s Hall. As many ways as there are souls. Some fly with coveys of hounds or wild geese. Others do not need to fly at all.

This is not the path for everyone. There are many gods, stars and cauldrons.

Any soul flight requires a return to and grounding in the body of this world; dragging backward through hedgerows, screaming and echoing from slanting rock-faces to kiss the earth with bloodied and muddy lips.

Apostasies need voicing in cafes and bars, chain-stores and museums. Launching into the internet’s mirror-void where the dust-mote of a spark of Awen can be multiplied into a million blazing simulacra fading as quickly into black holes.

Following the Star-Strewn Pathway does not lead to catasterism ‘placing amongst the stars,’ but living a full life upon this earth, returning to and from the halls of our deities, knowing only our bones and star-songs will survive for future generations. Until, with our land and gods, we are swallowed by the sun. Perhaps in this manner we will receive our final catasterism.

***

*This article was written for and first published with an introduction by Heron on ‘The Path of the Awenydd‘. This blog aims to explicate and explore this lesser known path. It is also an excellent and growing resource on Bardic, Brythonic and Faerie Lore. Do check it out. Many thanks to Heron for supporting my work.

Choosing a Path

Fairy LaneThe metaphor of choosing a path appears frequently within Paganism but can be applied to the journey of life, which in many religious traditions is seen as the journey of the soul.

I’ve walked many paths; riding instructor and groom, philosophy student, fantasy writer. Over the past three years I have been writing and performing poetry and exploring Druidry. The binding core is that in each I’ve been seeking magic and I’ve pursued all these paths with religious commitment.

Looking back, it appears I have walked one path with many names. This week I have come to question the suitability of the name ‘Druid.’

I have never felt any commonality with, or desire to join any of the systematic orders of Druidry where one can complete courses and achieve grades in exchange for coins. It’s my firm belief that the living landscape, the gods and ancestors are the greatest teachers. Their guidance, trust and respect are not bought but earned, and thus utterly priceless.

However, one place I have felt at home is The Druid Network. Hearing a talk by its chair, Phil Ryder formed a huge turning point in my life that led me to recognise and honour the divine in my local landscape. The Druid Network is the only organisation I know of that promotes Druidry as a religion. There are no set courses or hierarchies. Each member is encouraged to find and explore their relationship with whatever they hold sacred in their own way, and the social forum provides a safe area for discussing issues and experiences. However, there are guiding principles (1).

I’m in agreement with most of these principles, except that the native religion of the British Isles must nominally be called Druidry. I imagine Heathens, Witches, Shamans and many other Pagan groups would make similar claims.

This winter’s solstice I was gifted a name for my path- Awenydd. For Kristoffer Hughes becoming Awenydd forms the core of Druidry. For Elen Sentier it is a form of native British Shamanism. My path currently seems to sit somewhere in an unknown hinterland between two names I am equally uncomfortable with, ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman.’

For me ‘Awenydd’ works a similar magic to that which others describe in relation to ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman’. It opens the doors of perception and initiates connection with the Awen, divine inspiration. It is as Awenydd I truly serve my land, gods and communities.

I can see a future for myself as Awenydd; continuing to learn the stories and songs of my local landscape and its spirits; journeying more deeply the immensities of the otherworlds with Gwyn and learning his mysteries; bringing my insights back to my communities and thus learning to weave a magic between the worlds.

Contrastingly, I perceive ‘Druid’ as closing doors, leading to pointless arguments, in-fighting, and attempting to define myself against systems and practices with which I share little commonality.

If the journey of life is the journey of the soul, I want to choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder. I want to live a life true to my heart, in devotion to the land and gods who call to me. I want to sing their songs. I want to share their inspiration. I want to die knowing I have done everything I can to respond to their call.

I don’t want to remain a prisoner in the maze of arguments and contradictions which, for me, constitutes contemporary Druidry, and which will only lead me into greater negativity.

It is on this basis I give up the name of Druid and choose Awenydd.

And the consequences?

The biggest consequence is that the path of Awenydd is not classed as a religion. If I am no longer a Druid I no longer belong to a religion.

To anyone on the outside this might look like a massive change. However on the inside this does not change my relationship with my land and deities, nor with family and friends.

It has, and I think will continue to have some impact on my Pagan, Druid and other religious communities. I’ve already talked my decision through with some of the members of TDN who, for the most part, are happy for me to remain a part of the organisation on the basis of shared principles, and I’m hoping to discuss it with my grove at the solstice.

My local Pagan Society is inclusive of open-minded people of any faith or none, so no problems there. As for Preston Faith Forum and the further questions, if I’m not a Druid, then am I Pagan? And can I be an Interfaith Representative if I don’t belong to a faith? That’s another kettle of fish entirely and not one I’m ready to address right now!

I want to live a life that fills my soul with awe and wonder

I choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder, in devotion to the magic this land, its deities and spirits, my patron Gwyn ap Nudd and the ancestors. This path is Awenydd. Let their songs be sung!

(1) http://druidnetwork.org/files/about/constitutionrevnov2009.pdf

Personal Religion?

Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 102 - CopyA couple of days ago I read write-ups of the OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) 50th anniversary gathering on Glastonbury Tor, on the blogs of Joanna van der Hoeven and Robin Herne.

http://downtheforestpath.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/celebrating-50-years-of-obod/

http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-people-of-peace.html

It sounds like they had a grand time. Although one of the things Robin acutely pointed out was the irony that although the main topic was peace, the powers of place, including Gwyn ap Nudd and the Tylwyth Teg (the People of Peace) were not addressed or involved.

Why should that bother me? OBOD aren’t all pagans or polytheists. Hundreds of different religious groups use the Tor for various ceremonies- that’s part of its power and draw, and the eclecticism and chaos that constitutes the spirit of Glastonbury.

It was not until this morning I perceived my vexation was the symptom of an approaching realisation; I awoke with an image of the OBODies on the Tor in my mind combined with an overwhelming gnosis clear as the dawn; THIS ISN’T MY RELIGION.

I know the OBOD doesn’t pretend to be a religious organisation… however my discomfort about the lack of commonality I feel with Druids outside The Druid Network has been growing for a while. I’m beginning to feel the distinctions between my path and those of some other Druids are so huge that there is no meaningful common ground at all.

Plus… I recall Nimue Brown mentioning to be a Druid you must walk your path with conscious intent as a Druid. Looking back, I have done this as a Bard, and now do so as Awenydd. I believed these paths fitted under the umbrella term Druid but now I’m not so sure.

And I’m not so sure I did the right thing in claiming the name Druid for my religion pretty soon after joining TDN, on the ground I was a member of the network and a grove. It was much later I was gifted with the name Awenydd by Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of my local landscape.

So I’m beginning to wonder now whether my path as Awenydd, which is based in these relationships and expressing them through poetry, is not the religion of Druidry but a personal spirituality I live religiously?

I also wonder, because my practice focuses more on ‘anthropomorphised’ deities and spirits than most Druids whether I’m more of a polytheist? In answering that I find myself drawn back to the issue of commonality… I once wondered whether I was a Brythonic polytheist but decided I wasn’t as I don’t know enough about all the deities and their lore in depth, haven’t made enough effort to learn Welsh, and don’t follow a joint ritual structure.

So I wonder now…

Can polytheism be religious without commonality?

Must religion have a name?

Is personal religion a contradiction in terms? And is it possible to live a personal religion?

View from Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 120

Gwyn’s Apprenticeship and the Role of the Awenydd

Moon over Castle HillAfter two years studying Druidry (and many years prior to this of searching) on the morning of the winter solstice I received a name for my spiritual path- Awenydd. It was a gift, bestowed by Gwyn ap Nudd (1) and the spirits of my local landscape.

Over the past year my path has grown to centre on my apprenticeship to Gwyn, which began when I made a vow to him as my patron at Glastonbury’s White Spring last January. This role has involved learning more deeply the life cycles of the trees, plants and wildlife of my local area, journeying to meet their spirits and travelling into the land’s past to learn its history. With Gwyn’s guidance I have journeyed the Otherworld, gaining direct experience of realms such as Annwn and Faery, met their inhabitants and borne witness to mythic events.

In exchange I have strived to share this magic through poetry with the aim of revealing my local landscape as inspirited and communicating my vision of the Otherworld. I believe this serves Gwyn for it his task as a king of the Otherworld and leader of the Wild Hunt to maintain the dynamic between the worlds lest this one be destroyed (2). Being gifted with the role of the Awenydd seems to be a natural development of this relationship.

An early description of the Awenyddion can be found in Giraldus Cambrensis’ 12th century manuscript, Description of Wales.

‘There are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a connected manner; but the person who skilfully observes them, will find, after many preambles, and many nugatory and incoherent, though ornamented speeches, the desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: they are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep, and, as it were, by violence compelled to return to their proper senses. After having answered the questions, they do not recover till violently shaken by other people; nor can they remember the replies they have given. If consulted a second or third time upon the same point, they will make use of expressions totally different; perhaps they speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits. These gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; others fancy that a written schedule is applied to their mouths and on awaking they publicly declare that they have received this gift.’ (3)

When I first read this passage a couple of years back I found little I could relate to. Returning to consider it now I find the ideas more resonant.

A phrase which immediately stands out is that the Awenyddion are people inspired. Within the Bardic Tradition I have found the predominance of structured courses of training and people’s preconceptions about the role of the Bard problematic. Experience has taught me I cannot learn stories or poems by rote. Myths and the deities within them have a life of their own, calling through Bardic, folkloric and contemporary texts, or revealing themselves in the landscapes of either world to impart the gifts of inspiration and transformation when the time is right.

Following a conversation with a visiting speaker at my local pagan society, who when I named my path as “Druid Bard” assumed I was of the ‘Bardic Grade’ and completing a ‘gwers’ within OBOD I began to question (and not for the first time) whether this name was a true fit with my spirituality.

During this period I asked Gwyn how my apprenticeship related to Druidry. He told me my role is bound up with the primal Awen, which flows before thought through all things. This supported my suspicion that true inspiration can only speak when systems, concepts and fear of other people’s opinions are set aside. Only by listening directly to the Awen and my own intuition could I become a person inspired and create works worthy of sharing with others.

Another point of resonance is that inspiration is a gift from the spirits, through possession, dreams, milk or honey or a ‘written schedule.’

I’ve never been possessed in the sense of losing my senses and being unable to recall what happened afterward. However I have channelled the voices of spirits and deities whilst writing poetry. During a writing trance visions have appeared where they have revealed themselves in new ways and I’ve recognised their guiding hand even when making finishing touches, in the gift of a completing image or right feeling of a word.

I’ve also been gifted with inspiration in dreams. One of my most significant dreams was when I learnt the identity of my white totem mare. She appeared to me winged and I joined consciousness with her to fly to the top of Castle Hill, a local sacred site. Another important dream occurred the night before my birthday. After seeing a moon bridge in the river Ribble I dreamt of questioning a series of gnarled fay in a cave in Castle Hill. When I realised the process was futile Gwyn appeared and inquired why I hadn’t asked him. By this time I had forgotten the question. The dream conveyed a powerful message about the ethos of questioning in the realms of Faery and dream.

The mention of milk or honey puts me in mind of mead, which in my experience certainly inspires connection with the spirits, writing processes, performances and rituals. The image of the ‘written schedule’ touching an Awenydd’s lips seems to symbolize direct inspiration through the written word.

In the modern world the role of the Awenydd is not limited to ecstatic prophets. Kristoffer Hughes places ‘becoming Awenydd’ – ‘becoming the inspirer’ at the core of Druidry. He says ‘they were the enlightened ones, those who serve, those who inspire to bring others into the mystery of spirit and the great song… by inspiration.’ (4)

Elen Sentier is an ‘awenydd, a spirit keeper and taleweaver from a long family lineage.’ She describes this path as ‘British native shamanism.’ (5) Alongside her reindeer goddess, Elen of the Ways she works with Gwyn as ‘the goddess’ guardian.’ Part of her work involves tracing Elen’s Deer Trods which are also the ‘energy roads’ down which Gwyn leads the Wild Hunt. Many of these are ‘spirit paths’ taking souls to the Otherworld (6) and correspond with corpse roads such as Church Avenue on Castle Hill.

For me the name Awenydd has a magic born of its direct connection with the spiritual source which flows through the land defying all systems and can only be spoken in poetry. My role as an Awenydd is one that I only have intimations of at present- small clues to the potential of learning with the leader of the wild chase and king of the Otherworld to travel the spirit paths and experience the mysteries of the primal Awen in order to return as the inspirer.

(1) Gwyn ap Nudd is a Brythonic deity. His name means White Son of Mist. He is a king of the Otherworld, leader of the wild hunt and guide of souls.
(2) Evidence of this role is found in The Mabinogion, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found- God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’ Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(3) http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1092/pg1092.html
(4) Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (2007), p67
(5) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), pvii
(6) Ibid. p26-28