Bel – The Shining One

In Ireland’s Immortals Mark Williams speaks of Bel as ‘a completely spurious god’ who ‘lingers in popular accounts of Celtic mythology’. When I read these words I sensed the mirth and indignation of Bel, ‘Shining One’, a god I have known for several years whose presence I associate with the sun and its light shining on water. In this article I will argue that Bel is not only not spurious, but is one of our most significant Celtic deities.

The names ‘Bel’, ‘Belino’, ‘Belinos’, ‘Belenus’, are attested on over fifty altars mainly from Gallia Norbenensis, Noricum, and Cisalpine Gaul, showing he was widely worshipped as a continental Celtic god. Belenus was the patron deity of Aquileia and the Historia Augusta (117 – 284 CE) relates that he aided his people in the defence of the city against the Roman armies led by Maximinus.

In Ausonius’ Poems Commemorating the Professors of Bordeaux (395 CE) we find lines about druids serving Belenus:

You are sprung from the Druids of Bayeux,
If the report does not lie.
To you is a sacred lineage,
From the temple of Belenus.

Nor will I forget
The old man named Phoebicius,
Who through the servant of (the Gaulish god) Belenus
Received no profit thereby
Sprung, it said, from the Druids
Of Armorica (Brittany),
He received a chair at Bordeaux
Through the help of his son.

Although there are no inscriptions to Bel in Britain the Ptolemy records the estuary of the Ribble as Belisama Aest. in his Geography (150 CE). Belisama means ‘Very Shining One’. She is a Gallo-Brythonic goddess with altars in Vaison-la-Romaine and Saint-Lizier and is perceived as Bel’s consort.

Bel may have been the patron god of the Belgae tribe who inhabited northern Gaul and southern Britain during the Iron Age. Will Parker claims ‘Belinos was a powerful cult figure amongst the Belgic dynasties’ and links him to Beli Mawr ‘the personification of the Belgic peoples’.

Beli was an ancestral deity who fathered Lludd/Nudd who was known as Nodens in Iron Age Britain. Parallels with the Irish Tuatha Dé Danann suggest that, like his Irish cognate, Nuada, Nodens was the ruler of the Children of Don, thus his mother was Don and his father was Beli their other children were the skilled gods Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Arianrhod, Gofannon, and Amaethon. The marriage of Beli and Don may date back to 250 BCE when people from the Danube joined the Belgae.

As the father of Lludd/Nudd, Beli was the grandfather of Gwyn ap Nudd and Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, which has particular meaning to me as Gwyn is my patron. As the father of Arianrhod he was the grandfather of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and this may be connected to the Irish tale of Balor and Lugh.

Another of his daughters, likely with Don, was Penarddun. She was the mother of Brân and Manawydan with Llyr. This shows Beli was an ancestral figure both for the Children of Don and the Children of Llyr.

Beli was also the father of Caswallon/Cassivellaunos whose name means ‘lover (i.e. devotee) of Belinos’. His people were known as the Catuvellauni, ‘the Host of Belinos’ and one of their leaders was called Cunobelinos ‘Hound of Belinus’. In the Second Branch of The Mabinogion when Brân takes his armies overseas he leaves his son, Caradog, and seven men in charge. Caswallon dons an invisibility cloak, kills six of the men, excepting Pendaren Dyfed, and is crowned King of Britain.

Parker argues that Beli and Brân may originate from the Belgic warlords Bolgios* and Brennus who were responsible for expeditions in Macedonia and the sacking of Delphi in 279 BCE. They appear as two rival kings, Belinus and Brennus, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Britains.

Many of the royal houses of Wales and the Old North (Gwynedd, Powys, Rheged, Strathclyde and the Gododdin) trace their ancestry back to Beli and Don (in the genealogies she is called Anna). Beli is listed as the grandfather of Afallach, a King of Annwn and the father of Modron.

Afallach may be another name of Gwyn, a King of Annwn, who we know is the son of Lludd/Nudd through Beli. Gwyn is associated with Avalon, ‘the island of apples’, one of his sacred seats being Glastonbury Tor. Afallach is anglicised as Eveling and is said to dwell with Modron at the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass).

Matrona/Modron is the mother of Maponos/Mabon and they are depicted on altars across Britain particularly in the north. Urien, King of Rheged, raped Modron, and she bore his son and daughter, Owain and Morfydd.

Thus, far from being a spurious god, Bel is a deeply significant ancestral god in the lineages of the Children of Don and Llyr and the Welsh and Northern dynasties.

He lives on in later folklore as a giant charming story about how he gave his name to Belgrave. He claimed he could get from Mountsorrel to Leicester in three leaps, but these proved to be his undoing and death. The association of his deed with local place names is recorded in this rhyme:

Mountsorrel he mounted at
Rothley he rode by,
At Wanlip he leaped o’er,
At Birstall he burst his gall,
At Belgrave he was buried at.

Bel also gives his name to Belmont and Belthorn here in Lancashire. I believe his associations with Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, run deep. Nodens/Nudd was venerated in Lancashire and likely Gwyn and there are two altars to the Mothers and one to Maponos on the Ribble. This suggests some kind of cultus surrounded this ‘family’ of deities during the Romano-British period and likely in the Iron Age and even earlier.

Bel is associated with the Irish fire festival of Beltane which in Britain is known as Nos Galan Mai. One of my first encounters with Bel was at a time when I was planning a ritual for my local Pagan society to mark the occasion and, whilst walking by the Ribble I heard the lines: ‘Bel and Belisama / join together / fire and water / sun on the river’. This led to the creation of a rite to Bel and Belisama centring on the mixing of fire and water and jumping over a bowl with a lit candle in it. This, with the backdrop of the Ribble, is still my representation of Bel and Belisama on my altar now.

*Bolgios means ‘to bulge’ and may relate to him being a giant or swelling with battle rage like the distant descendant of Beli, Cú Chulainn: ‘He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant.’ Brân, his grandson in the genealogies, was also depicted as a giant too big to fit in a house large as a mountain with a ridge for a nose and eyes like lakes.

SOURCES

Blanca María Prósper, ‘The Irreducible Gauls used to swear by Belenos – or did they?’, (The University of Manchester Library, 2017)
Esmerelda Mac, ‘Eveling, Cumbria’s Fairy King and Celtic God’, Esmerelda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore, https://esmeraldamac.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/eveling-cumbrias-faery-king-and-celtic-god/
John T. Koch, The Celtic Heroic Age, (Celtic Studies Publications, 2013)
Mark Williams, Ireland’s Immortals, (Princeton University Press, 2018)
Matthew Simpson, Bel – The Leicester Giant, http://www.thiswasleicestershire.co.uk/2012/09/bel-leicester-giant.html
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)

The Mother of the Son

Spoke the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue,
The Voice of the Goddess with Nine Dragon Heads:
“The Dragon Goddess shall be slain and in Human Form
She shall be reborn as the Mother of the Son.

In His darkest dreams the King of Annwn will tear
Out the Eye of Bel, He will tear down the Sun and put it
Inside the Belly of His Dead Mother and the Queen of Annwn
Will shape for Her Dead Mother a new Earthen Form

And They will send Her in a boat to Portus Setantiorium
Where She will be met on the Western Shore with Reedlights
And up the River of Belisama will sail to Ribel-Castre
And there the Eye of Bel will once again be reborn

As Maponos ‘the Son’ to Matrona ‘the Mother’.
Yes! Throughout Belisama’s Vale in the Sacred Groves
At the Springs and Wells and the Roaring Fords at the Roman
Altars and in the Temples They shall be Honoured.

At the birth of every child She shall appear Threefold
To Breathe the Blessings of the Awen into the Infant Mouth.
As the Three Mothers of Destiny She shall be Revered
In all the Holy Places in the Hills and Vales of the Old North.

And she shall appear Ninefold the Dragon Daughter
Of the King of Annwn as Morgana and her Sisters breathing
Life into His Cauldron before spiralling into Serpent Forms.
And the Nine shall be Recoiled in Circles of Stone.

And when the Priests of Christendom come armed
With Book and Vestment and Mitre treading widdershins
Around our Holy Wells with splashings of Unholy Water
But failing with their Prayers to undo our Spells.

Henceforth she will be known as Mary in Nine Churches
In Belisama’s Vale: at Peneverdant, at Prestatun, at Wahltun,
At Euxtun, at Leyeland, at Sceamlburgh, at Bamber Brig,
At Ruhford, at Fernihough, she will be Honoured.

At Cockersand Abbey as Mary of the Marsh
As the Magdalen in Maudlands in Nine Times Nine Churches
Across the Islands of Prydain and beyond she will be Honoured,”
Spoke the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue.

This poem was written as an early experiment in writing in the voice of ‘The Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue’ in a Blakean style and brings together some of the mythic overlayerings of mother figures I have perceived within my landscape, in the Brythonic myths, and in visions and journeys.

I recognise this will not accord with everybody else’s perception of these deities and is very much a personal revelation. And, of course, I won’t be attempting to imitate Blake again, which I knew before setting out is impossible and foolhardy. I see it as a first step on the way to creating a myth to live by.



The Broadgate Polished Stone Axe

In the Harris Museum there is a beautifully polished stone axe which was found in the Ribble at Broadgate. The stone is smooth and grey-greenish. The larger cutting edge is sharp and rounded (although it looks like the lower portion may be broken) and the hafting end smaller, round, and smooth.

Hominids have been making axes for over two million years and they have taken many shapes and forms. These ubiqutous tools were used for felling trees, coppicing, in the crafting of dwellings, fencing, wooden walkways, and dug-out canoes, and in battle (one of the skulls found whilst exacavting the Riversway Docklands belonged to a Neolithic man killed by a blow to the head with a stone axe).

Polished stone axes are a Neolithic phenomenon and were made between 2750 and 2000BC. Most of the examples found in Lancashire originate from the Langdale axe industry and were made of Langdale tuff (a ‘greenstone’ formed from volcanic ash) collected and quarried from Pike of Stickle, Harrison Stickle, and Scafell Pike, on some of the highest fells in Cumbria.

These axes would have been recognised not only as special but as sacred due to the qualities of the Langdale tuff and the effort put into shaping and polishing it. Axes were polished with polishing stones, which can be recognised by the grooves made by polishing, and range in size from slightly bigger than the axe to standing stones within the landscape bearing multiple grooves.

Later oral traditions such as ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ listing artefacts such as ‘The Sword of Rhydderch Hael’, ‘The Knife of Llawfrodedd Farchog’, and ‘The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudclyd’ suggest the axe may have borne the name of its most illustrious owner.

After use, having been passed down through generations, polished stone axes were deposited purposefully. In Prehistoric Lancashire David Barrowclough records depositions on the north coast of Morecambe Bay ‘in fissures and gaps in the out-cropping stone’and in a limestone gryke at Skelmore Heads. Nine were discovered on Pilling Moss. At Crookabreast Farm an axe was found with four polishers, one of which was pushed ‘into a cavity in the roots of an oak tree… presumably a “moss stock” or “bog oak”’.

Barrowclough notes: ‘rivers and wetlands were important places for deposition and it is notable that the axes from Lancashire have a definite riverine and mossland distribution… many of the axes must have been deposited deliberately… wet places, whether river or bog, had a specific significance.’

Gaps, grykes, fissures, rivers, wetlands, and mosslands/bogs were seen by the ancient Britons as places of access to the Otherworld and as associated with its gods and spirits and with the ancestors. It seems possible that the Broadgate axe was an offering to Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’ or ‘Most Mighty One’, the goddess of the Ribble.

What brought about the decision to deposit the axe in the Ribble remains unknown. Perhaps the last of its lineage of owners died and it was deposited with his or her body in the waters (Mick Wysocki suspects the Neolithic people disposed of their dead in the river and their passage out to sea might have been seen as representing their passage to the Otherworld which was later known as Annwn ‘the Deep’).

Another possibility is that it was offered to Belisama as a petition to prevent the rising of her waters. Between 2300 and 2000BC the climate grew colder and wetter and the Broadgate area would have been inundated at times of high tides. Again we are entering a period when the waters of our seas and rivers are rising, this time due to man-made climate change, and the Broadgate polished axe might be seen as a symbol connecting us to our ancestors and the shared dangers we face.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photograph of the axe.

Penwortham Lake Dwelling

Stand on the mound on Castle Hill, look northwest, and you will see a very different scene to 150 years ago. The flats and retail outlets visible through the gaps in the trees were built after the closure of Riversway Dockland in 1981. The dock closed after only 100 years of use, having been constructed during the 1880s. During its construction the Ribble was moved several hundred yards south.

Today – courtesy of Mario Maps

OS First Edition 1:10,000 1840s courtesy of Mario Maps

Beforehand you would have been looking out across the fields of Marsh Farm and Marsh Grange toward Penwortham Marsh, the distant Ribble, and across it Preston Marsh and the settlement at Marsh End. This landscape, in turn, would have been different to 400 years ago before the marsh was drained.

Since the melting of the glaciers after the Ice Age the tidal stretches beside the Ribble would always have been marsh. Archaeological evidence suggests people have inhabited this area since, at least, 3800BC.

The excavations for Riversway Dockland uncovered evidence of a wooden lake dwelling. A ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’, a bronze spear head, two dug-out canoes, 23 human skulls, 21 aurochs skulls with horns, 25 red deer skulls with antlers, and bones of wild horse which showed evidence of ‘chop marks’ and gnawing ‘by a large, dog-sized predator’.

John Lamb lists the Preston Docks Findspot as SD12296, meaning it would have been in the northwest of the present dock area, adjacent to the roundabout. Turner et al note that ‘remains were found at various points in the total area excavated’ including ‘two human crania found close to Castle Hill on the south side of the river’.

Riversway Dockfind Spot

For many years it was the consensus that the human skulls provided evidence of human sacrifice – perhaps a mass murder. In 2002 eight skulls were selected for radio-carbon dating. It turned out that five were Stone Age, one Bronze Age, one from the Romano-British period and one from Anglo-Saxon times.

The latest theory, put forward by Dr Michael Wysocki, is that these people were not sacrificed on Penwortham Marsh. Instead they entered the river system miles away. Their heads settled at a slow-flowing point in the Ribble, a tidal lake, and their bodies floated out to sea. Likewise with the animals. Yet the large number of Stone Age skulls suggests that Neolithic people used the river to dispose of their dead. Even accepting this theory I believe it possible some of the human and animal skulls may have belonged to the lake-dwellers and been deposited in the Ribble in ritual acts.

The carbon dated skulls provide a sample of people who dwelled by the Ribble from between 4000BC – 800AD. The oldest skull, of a ‘mature woman’, is dated to 3820 – 3640 BC. ‘Pitting in the orbit of her left eye’ suggests she ‘suffered from anaemia’. Another, dated to around 3,500 BC, belonged to a man of around 40.

Two of the Stone Age skulls show evidence of violent deaths. An ‘older man’ was killed with a stone axe. The skull of a young woman, dated 3710 – 3510 BC, shows ‘clear evidence of trauma to the right and back of her skull’. This surprised me as I’d thought of Stone Age hunter-gatherers as peaceful people.

Yet it would accord with Roman depictions of the people of Briton and Gaul as savage head-hunters and with poems recording the internecine warfare and raiding that took place in post-Roman Britain. (Notably the northern British bard, Taliesin, describes warriors playing football with the heads of their enemies!). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the root of Setantii set- derives from met- ‘reaping’. In medieval Welsh literature we find a tradition of warriors favouring lethal blows to the head*.

The Romano-British skull is small with ‘distinctive male eyebrow ridges’. It is unclear whether its owner was male or female, Roman or British. However, he or she was killed by ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’ I wonder if she was killed in the Roman invasion. A Roman ballista ball was found on Castle Hill, suggesting there was a battle there.

The owner of the skull from the Anglo-Saxon period, a female aged between 16 and 25, also died violently. There is evidence of a cut across her face, damaging her right eye, and a lethal blow to the head. Again it seems possible this woman was killed during the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.

The dock finds show our local lake-dwellers were fearsome warriors and hunters who travelled the Ribble in dug-out canoes and preyed on aurochs, red deer, and and wild horse. After eating them they probably skinned them and used their skins for clothing. Oddly ‘the carbon 13 readings show that their diet consisted of meat and vegetables – but no fish, despite being found near a river’. This fits with the 3rd century Roman writer Dion Cassius’ report: ‘They never cultivate the land, but live on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees; for they never touch fish, of which they have such prodigious plenty’.

It seems very strange that these people did not eat fish when they were plentiful in the Ribble. I wonder whether this is because it was used to dispose of the dead and to eat from it was seen as taboo. We know from the Roman geographer Ptolemy’s writings in the 2nd century that the Ribble was known as Belisama ‘Most Mighty One’ or ‘Most Shining One’ and was seen as a powerful goddess. Maybe fish were held as sacred to her and ‘totemic’ to the lake-dwellers and were not to be eaten.

Setanta, an Irish hero who may have been of Setantii origins, was later renamed Cu Chulainn (meaning Chullain’s hound). The dog was sacred to him and he was banned from eating dog meat. Breaking this geis led to his death. Perhaps the the lake-dwellers saw fish in a similar manner.

Upriver, between the docks and Castle Hill, on the former site of the Ribble Generating Station stands a ring of wooden carvings – a common darter dragonfly, a brown trout, an otter, a smooth newt (which has been stolen!), and a tawny owl. These creatures have likely inhabited the area since the Stone Age and would have been held as special beings to the lake-dwellers too. I wonder if they recall their stories?

*‘he (Geraint)… raised his sword and struck the knight on the top of the head his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls to his knees.’ (Geraint son of Erbin)

‘Peredur drew his sword and struck the witch on top of her helmet, so that the helmet and all the armour and the head were split in two.’ (Peredur son of Efrog)

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
Alan Turner, Silvia Gonzalez and James C. Ohman, Journal of Archaeological Science, ‘Prehistoric Human and Ungulate Remains from Preston Docks, Lancashire, UK: Problems of River Finds’ (2002)
John Lamb, ‘Lancashire’s Prehistoric Past’, Linda Sever (ed), Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, (2010, History Press)
Meirion Pennar, Taliesin Poems, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1988)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Discover Preston display in the Harris Museum, Preston (with thanks to the Harris for the information and permission to use the photographs of the Riversaway Dockfinds in this blog posts).

Prayer: A Little Window

Following Anna Applegate’s comment on the lack of discourse on prayer in the Pagan communities I’ve decided to share a little window into my prayer life. I’ve never done this before because, rather than saying set prayers, I simply speak to the gods and spirits from the heart. These are examples of heartfelt words rather than literary masterpieces. I’d be interested to hear from others about their daily prayers.

Altars April 2018 II

Morning

I.
Spirit of this house
Spirits of Greencroft Valley
Spirits of this land on which I stand
I give thanks to you.

Lady of the Marsh
Lady of the sacred hill of Penwortham
Lady of the wells now lost
I give thanks to you.

Belisama, Goddess of the Ribble, flowing
from Gavel Gap through Settle, Clitheroe, Ribchester
bringing your gift of sacred waters
I give thanks to you.

Nodens and the Weather Shapers
cloud-makers, wind-bringers
mist, fog, and rain-bearers
I give thanks to you.

Gwyn ap Nudd
first amongst my gods my forever patron
who leads the dead and living to Annwn
I give thanks to you.

II.

Gwyn ap Nudd,
Lord of Annwn,
Guide of Souls,
Light of the Mist,

God who dwells
in the Otherworld yet
close as my heartbeat
close as my breath*

grant me guidance
from Annwn’s dark heart

and inspiration
from Annwn’s deep depths.

As I walk each step
in service to you.

(Followed by a recital of the Annuvian Awen and a meditation, journey, or divination).

Evening

Gwyn ap Nudd
Gatherer of Souls
Walker Between Worlds

God who guides the dead
God who walks the brink of madness
God who contains the fury
of the spirits of Annwn

I come to you in awe and reverence
I come to you in love and service.

Let us share our journeys…

(Followed by communion with Gwyn)

Bedtime

Nodens Lord of Dreams
God of that deep and absurd world
that I vow to remember the next morning
before it slips from my mind with
the waters of forgetting

I give thanks for the joy of sleeping
I give thanks for the joy of dreaming

and these were last night’s dreams…

Nodens Lord of Dreams
guide me in this night of deep dreaming.

*Phrase borrowed from Greg Hill.

Ribble Rising

After a month’s heavy rain across northern England, rivers have risen to record levels. Following 100mm of downpour in one night in Lancashire, the river Ribble (from Gallo-Brythonic Riga Belisama ‘Most Shining’ or ‘Most Mighty Queen’) burst her banks at Ribchester and Whalley, forcing people from their homes.

Yesterday the Ribble ran high between Penwortham and Preston swelling under Penwortham Bridge carrying trees, branches, tyres and other debris out to the sea with an urgent roar.

A playground in Middleforth with an overflowing storm drain was underwater.

Several riverside footpaths were submerged.

The Ribble had flooded the bottom of Miller Park completely, almost covering the fountain and pagoda.

The Pavillion Cafe was cut off like a stranded lake dwelling.

P1130527

As dusk approached, Victorian lamps illuminated the submerged pathway.

P1130534

 

Luckily at the most dangerous point: high tide at around 11pm, the Ribble did not break over the flood walls. Avenham and Miller Parks and the flood plains of Central Park managed the rest and no-one was evacuated.

It would have been a very different story if the Riverworks project, which intended to create a barrage on the Ribble and build on its floodplains had gone ahead. We have Jane Brunning and other ‘Save the Ribble‘ campaigners to thank that we have Central Park instead.

This morning, I walked along the old railway track to see Central Park’s flooded fields.

The floods had receded from Avenham and Miller Park and the Ribble sunk back to her normal course.

P1130579

Last night Belisama heard our apologies, songs and prayers. Today she received gratitude and thanks. This was the highest I have ever seen the Ribble rise. It was really quite terrifying and gave me a fuller understanding of why, before flood-walls, our ancestors revered and feared her as a Mighty Queen.

With temperatures increasing ten times faster than in known history and water levels rising globally I fear this will not be the last time the Ribble bursts her banks. It is a clear message everything possible must be done to slow climate change and adjustments must be made to accomodate rising rivers and returning wetlands.

Having Central Park saved us here. My thoughts are with those not so lucky in Ribchester, Whalley and in York from where 2,200 people have been evacuated.

Lund-in-the-mist and Altar to the Mothers

At the beginning of November, I cycled to the church of St John the Evangelist in Lund, which is about six miles outside Preston. Lund means ‘grove’ in Norse and Germanic thus it seems likely the church was built on a pre-Christian sacred site. This is supported by the presence of an altar to the Mothers within the church now used as a baptismal font.

Matronae ‘Matrons’ and Matres ‘Mothers’ were worshipped across Northern Europe from the 1st to 5th C particularly in Germany and Gaul and other places occupied by the Roman army. They are usually depicted in threes, often with fruit, bread, cornucopias and nursing infants.

Worship of the Mothers was widespread in Britain. Whilst some of the Mother Goddesses were clearly brought from over-seas (shown by inscriptions reading ‘To the Mothers from Overseas’ ‘To the German Mother Goddesses’) there is evidence for a Romano-British tradition centring on Matrona ‘the Mother’ and Maponos ‘the Son’ which seems strongest in north-west England and southern Scotland.

Altars and inscriptions to ‘the Mother Goddesses’ and ‘the Mothers the Fates’ have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness and Bowness-on-Solway. The worship of Maponos in this area is evidenced by the place-name Lochmaben, the Clochmaben stone and the Locus Maponi.

Matrona and Maponus re-appear in medieval Welsh literature as Modron ‘Mother’ and Mabon ‘Son’. The story of Mabon being stolen from Modron when he is three nights old and rescued from imprisonment in a ‘house of stone’ forms an important part of Culhwch and Olwen.

In The Triads, Modron daughter of Avallach, bears Urien Rheged’s son and daughter, Owain and Morfudd. Urien’s relations with Modron and Owain’s inheritance of Mabon’s divine qualities show his family’s dependence on ancestral deities for the fertility of their land and lineage and success in battle.

Modron’s father, Avallach, is the son of Beli Mawr: one of the oldest ancestral gods of Britain. He is associated with Ynys Avallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or ‘The Island of Avalon’. This is inhabited by nine maidens: Morgan and her sisters. In Welsh and Breton folklore, Morgens are water spirits.

The Mothers are frequently associated with water: in Gaul, Matrona is goddess of the Marne. A reference from 1AD exists to ‘the Island of Sein’ ‘known because of the oracle of a Gaulish God; the priestesses of that divinity are nine in number.’ One wonders whether the god is Dis Pater, from whom the Gauls claim descent.

Avalon is often identified with Glastonbury. Another of Glastonbury’s deities is Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn who resides over spirits bearing striking similarities to the Gaulish andedion (underworld gods). Both Morgan and Gwyn become known as ‘fairies’ in later literature.

In Peniarth Manuscript 147. the mother of Urien’s children appears as the Washer at the Ford (‘The Ford of Barking’) and introduces herself as ‘daughter to the King of Annwfn’.

A pattern emerges: one, three or nine female figures connected with an underworld god.

Here in Lancashire there are altars to the Matronae and to Maponos (as Apollo-Maponus) in the Roman museum at Ribchester. This is the site of Bremetenacum ‘place by the roaring river’ and is located on a major ford of the Ribble. Ribchester was also likely to have been a centre of worship for the Ribble’s goddess: Belisama ‘Most Shining One’ ‘Most Mighty One’.

During the Romano-British period, the Ribble ran much closer to Lund. This is shown by the nearby place-name Clifton ‘Cliff Town’. St John the Evangelist also stands very close to the Roman road running from Ribchester through Preston to Kirkham and across the Fylde. Because the stone of the altar at Lund is similar to those from Ribchester, it seems possible it was made there and brought on the road. This would mean, like the Ribchester altars, it dates from 2BC.

The altar’s appearance as a font is recorded in a leaflet in the church. In ‘the records of the Parish Vestry’ it says ‘Matt Hall, Churchwarden of Kirkham in 1688 set up a scandalous trough for a font in Lund Chapel…. For this poor Matthew was presented, that is brought before, the bishop of the diocese. History does not record the outcome of the interview, nor for that matter, how he came by the ‘scandalous trough’ in the first place.’ In spite of the ‘scandal’, the ‘trough’ is still used as a font today.

When I set out to St John’s it was originally for a recky so I could get the timing right when I booked an appointment to visit. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to find the church open (it’s open every day from 10am) and to be greeted by Joan Shepcot, a volunteer gardener and co-ordinator of the Children’s Society, who invited me in to see the altar and let me take as many photographs as I needed.

2. Altar to the Matres, front

As I approached the altar I could see it was beautifully maintained. Three female figures wearing loose dresses or robes stood in the centre. Their hair looked coiffured or perhaps they were wearing headgear. Were they one Mother Goddess in triple-form? Three individual Mothers or the Mothers the Fates?

P1120472 - Copy

On the right and left hand side of the altar female figures were depicted dancing, arms above their heads, feet tapping a beat. They were also clad in loose robes or dresses. Were these the Mother Goddesses dancing? Or perhaps nymphs of the sacred grove? Or devotees? Their swaying stances with arms raised reminded me a little of trees.

 

Together could they form a sisterhood of nine? Could the ancestral presence of an underworld god be felt in the background?

7. Faith, Hope and Charity

The back of the altar was blank because it once stood against a wall. Behind the altar was a stained glass window depicting Faith, Hope and Charity with the head of an unnamed male figure in blue and gold above. This is interesting because Alex Garman says these ‘three sisters’ show a strong influence of the Matronae. Considering their presence on a font I found myself imagining ‘the Mothers the Fates’ as ‘fairy godmothers’ at baptisms.

After a chat with Joan about her wildflower patch I cycled to the next point along the Roman road from St John’s: Dowbridge. As I headed back from the bridge over the river Dow, mist descended; cloaking St John’s at Lund, Clifton Cross and Clifton Mill. Rolling over Savick Brook and the Ribble.

In the cold swathes of mist passing over grey waters where time stood still I sensed the passage of underworld spirits. I had, after all, stumbled out on All Soul’s Day.

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*Many thanks to Joan Shepcot at St John the Evangelist in Lund for permission to use these photographs on my blog.

Enchanting the Shadowlands Book Launch

Enchanting the Shadowlands Book CoverOn Wednesday 22nd April I held an evening of poetry, song and story to celebrate the launch of Enchanting the Shadowlands at Korova Arts Cafe in Preston. The night was very special for me because it marked the publication of my first book, the completion of a spiritual journey and brought together friends who have supported me since I took to writing poetry seriously in 2012.

Storyteller Peter Dillon was MC for the night. We opened with a joint performance of ‘The Bull of Conflict’ a glosa recording the moment when my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, gave me the imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’.

Vincent Smith’s ‘Woodland Eulogy’ and reflections on early memories of a close friend made a poignant start to the first half. Mike Cracknell brought the house down with his hilarious poem about lovers with nothing in common except filthy habits. Martin Domleo performed poems tying in with my nature themed work including ‘Thor’s Cave’ and the experience of deceleration linking to his passion for motorbikes. Nina GeorgeSinger Nina George was the first headline act. She started with a haunting piece written by a friend. Her second song, she told us, demanded to be sung at the launch! She got everybody joining in with the chorus:

‘She said this is my church here where I stand
With my hands in the earth and my feet on the ground
She said this is my church here where I stand
With my heart in my mouth and my soul in the land.’

Nina finished with a song by Jodi Mitchell. At the end of the first half I performed poems exploring local history written in voices of the ancestors and spirits of the land. These included a reluctant resident of Penwortham Lake Village, a spinner in her cellar, the spirit of the aquifer beneath Castle Hill and Belisama, goddess of the Ribble. During the break we looked out at a pink-purple sunset against fairy-lit trees and the silhouette of St Walburge’s spire. Preston Sunset from KorovaI opened the second half with  ‘Slugless’ which was written when I had a spate of people confessing to me about their slug problems. All but one…. As we often bump into each other walking beside the Ribble, Terry Quinn performed poems about the river, one set at a crucial time when a campaign run successfully by Jane Brunning saved the area that is now Central Park from a huge development scheme. Dorothy mentioned she also had a slug scene in her novel ‘Shouting Back’. Her poems included the memorable ‘City Rats’.

Nina returned to perform a song about reclaiming Druidry and a controversial tongue-in-cheek ditty called ‘The Day the Nazi Died’ by Chumbawamba. Novelist Katharine Ann Angel read excerpts from ‘Being Forgotten’ and ‘The Froggitt Chain’ and spoke of her inspiration from people, particularly working with difficult teenagers.

Nicolas Guy WilliamsThe second headliner was poet Nicolas Guy Williams. He opened with ‘Ancient by thy Winters’ saying he thought it would be suit my launch as it contains howling: ‘Hear them HOWL! HEAR THEM HOWL! Once no forest was defenceless.’ He also performed ‘Woman of the Sap’ and ‘Oh ratchet walk and seek that scent’ one of my personal favourites based on the local legend of the Gabriel Ratchets.

I ended the second half with a piece dedicated to Gwyn on Nos Galan Gaeaf called ‘When You Hunt for Souls in the Winter Rain’ and poems Lorna Enchanting the Shadowlandsrecording a journey to Annwn (the Brythonic Otherworld) with horse and hound to an audience in his hall. As a finale I performed ‘No Rules’ which summarises my philosophy of life:

‘Break every boundary.
There are no rules.
Only truth and promises
Bind us in the boundless infinite.’

Afterward there was an open-mic where it was great to have Flora Martyr, who is missed as a host of Korova Poetry, back to perform. Following Nina’s protest songs John Dreaming the Hound Winstanley, who is involved with the Wigan Digger’s Festival, sung an old diggers song. I also opened some presents from the generous members of my grove. Nina gave me a bottle of wine (knows me too well!). Phil and Lynda Ryder gave me a book about Boudica, a warrior queen and ruler of the Iceni (horse) tribe, called ‘Dreaming the Hound’ with a wonderful bronze image of a howling hound on the cover.

When we left Korova the crescent moon was high in the sky with a bright and beautiful Venus above the fairy-lit trees. I felt the shadowlands had been enchanted. There is power in a promise… and in the support of friends without whom I wouldn’t have been able to see it through. I’d like end on a note of thanks to Peter as MC, everybody who performed and came to watch and to Sam for providing the venue. Moon, Venus and Fairy Trees

The Old North from Peneverdant

SnowdropsIn the land where I live, spring awakes. Snowdrops in their prime unfold the voluminous skirts of their lanterns. Lords and ladies push their courtship through the soil alongside first signs and scents of ransoms. Swollen mosses take on a bright green living vibrancy.

As I walk the path centuries of ancestors walked to St Mary’s Well, I hear the loudness of a thrush. Could it be the one who calls me from sleep each morning, speckled chest blanched and white as birch amongst ash and sycamore? The trees hold back for now, but I know the sap will start rising soon.

I pass the site of the healing well and cross the road to the War Memorial. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow primroses are planted in beds before the Celtic cross. Etched on blue-grey slabs are the names of seventy-three men who lost their lives in the First World War and forty-six who died in the second. They are honoured and remembered here. I also think of the dead who have no memorial or whose memories have been erased or forgotten.

I follow the footpath uphill onto Church Avenue. Leading to St Mary’s Church, it once went to a Benedictine Priory, dissolved and more recently demolished. A strange road this; trodden by pilgrims in search of miraculous cures and by funeral processions. By soldiers too, maybe armies, defending this crucial position from what we now see as the castle motte.

Passing the church on the hill’s summit I stand in the graveyard amongst tilted and fallen headstones, beneath sentinel beech trees whose shells and bronzed and curling leaves still litter the greening earth.

There’s no access to the motte’s vantage point, but through leafless trees I can make out the city of Preston with its clock tower, steeples, tower blocks and huge manufacturies along Strand Road. I recall images of its panoply of smoking chimneys, flaming windows, imagine the pounding Dickensian melancholy-mad elephants.

Preston’s sleeker now. Cleaner. Less red and black. Concrete grey. Not so smoky. But sometimes the industrial pall still holds. Somewhere behind its walls lies a medieval town and behind that…

The Pennines form a sweeping backdrop, rising higher than Priest Town’s spires ever could; Parlick, Wolf Fell, Longridge Fell, Billinge Hill, Great Hill, Winter Hill. An easterly green and purple barricade. To the west, the river Ribble, Belisama, strapped into her new course, stretches long arms to her shining estuary. A sea gull cries over the horizon and disappears.

I’ve spent several years researching the history of Penwortham. The Riversway Dockfinds mark the existence of a Bronze Age Lake Village. Ballista balls on Castle Hill and a huge industrial site at Walton-le-dale ascertain a Roman presence. Following the breakdown of Roman rule, history grinds to a halt.

There is a black hole in Penwortham’s past the size of the Dark Ages; during the time of the Old North.

Historians have conjectured about this. David Hunt and Alan Crosby agree that place names (where we find a mixture of Brythonic and Old English, like Penwortham* often conjoined) suggest a gradual settlement of the local area by Anglo-Saxons during the seventh century. They say Penwortham’s remoteness on the edges of Northumbria and Mercia meant it was not a major concern. However, this conflicts with the significance of its location as a defensive position for the early Britons and Romans and later probably for the Saxons of Mercia and the key role it played for the Normans during the harrying of the North.

History starts up again with the Saxon hundreds, invasions from Scandinavia and the Norman Conquest. But what happened in between?

Unfortunately, likewise, there is a black hole in the history of the Old North the size of Penwortham. And it isn’t the only one.

The very concept of ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘the Old North’ is problematic. It is a term used post datum by scholars to identify an area of land covering the majority of northern England and southern Scotland from the time of the breakdown of Roman rule in the fifth century until the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria came to dominate in the eighth century.

During this period, it was simply known as ‘Y Gogledd’ ‘the North’. Its people spoke a Brythonic language known as Cumbric, which was similar to the Cymric language of the Welsh. Its rulers ‘Gwŷr y Gogledd’ ‘the Men of the North’ claimed common descent from either Coel Hen (Old King Coel) or Dyfnawl Hen. Again, the genealogies are problematic because they were created by kings to certify their reign by tracing their lineage back to legendary ancestral figures.

The main kingdoms of the Old North are usually identified as Alt Clud, in the south-west of Scotland, which centred on Dumbarton and later became Strathclyde; Gododdin, in the south-east of Scotland, which had a base at Edinburgh; Elmet, in western Yorkshire and Rheged in north-west England.

The location of Rheged is a matter of ongoing debate. For Ifor Williams it centres on Carlisle and the Eden Valley and covers Cumbria, the Solway Firth and Dumfries and Galloway. John Morris posits the existence of a northern Rheged in Cumbria and a southern Rheged that extended into Lancashire and Cheshire. On the basis of landscape and resources, Mike McCarthy suggests a smaller kingdom or set of sub-kingdoms existed either north or south of the Solway. If McCarthy is correct, we do not have a name for present day Lancashire at all but a black hole the size of a county or larger!

Another problem is that textual sources about the Old North are extremely limited. We have some historical records such as the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Much of the history of this period is derived from the heroic poetry of the Dark Age bards Taliesin and Aneirin. Later saga poetry construes dramatic dialogues between characters associated with earlier events.

Research leads to where history and myth converge but can take us no further. It becomes necessary to step beyond study across the threshold to otherworlds where the past, our ancestors and deities still live.

So I speak my intentions to the spirits of place; the Lady in the Ivy with her glance of green, wood pigeons gathered in the trees, the people buried here in marked and unmarked graves.

I speak with my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, who abides beyond this land but sometimes seems closer than the land itself. The god who initiated and guides this quest.

His suggestion: what is a black hole but a portal?

Our agreement stirs a ghost wind from behind the graves, rustling bronze beech leaves and tree whispers from above.

The hill seems greener. A single white sea gull barks. Then long-tailed tits come chittering and twirling to the brambles.

Beech trees and castle motte*Penwortham first appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as ‘Peneverdant.’ Writing in 1857 Rev. W. Thornber claims this name is of British origin and ‘formed of three words- pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water’. This describes exactly how I imagine Castle Hill would have looked during the eleventh century near the Ribble on the marsh. However, ‘verdant’ has always sounded more like French for ‘green’ to me.

Alan Crosby says ‘Peneverdant’ results from a Norman scribe trying to write an unfamiliar word (which was likely to have been in use for up to 500 years) phonetically. He tells us the ‘Pen’ element in Penwortham is British and means ‘prominent headland’ whilst ‘wortham’ is Old English and means ‘settlement on the bend in the river’.

If Penwortham had an older British name prior to Saxon settlement, it is unknown. I can’t help wondering if it would have been something like ‘y pen gwyrdd ar y dŵr,’ which is modern Welsh for ‘the green hill on the water’. It’s not that far from Peneverdant.

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.