‘From the Well of Life Three Drops Instilled’

‘… to nobler sights
Michael from Adam’s eyes the film removed
Which that false fruit that promised clearer sight
Had bred, then purged with euphrasy and rue
The visual nerve (for he had much to see)
And from the Well of Life three drops instilled.
So deep the power of these ingredients pierced
Even to the inmost seat of mental sight
That Adam now enforced to close his eyes
Sunk down and all his spirits became entranced.
But him the gentle angel by the hand
Soon raised and his attention thus recalled:
Adam, now ope thine eyes and first behold
The effects which thy original crime hath wrought…’
Paradise Lost

I’ve recently been re-reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). The third or fourth time round this epic vision seems no less powerful in its depictions of Heaven and Hell and Earth both pre and post fall or radical in Milton’s writing the perspective of Satan and his inner motivations and turmoil.

As an Annuvian kind of person I will admit to feeling more sympathy with Milton’s rather magnificent Satan, refusing to serve in Heaven preferring to reign in Hell, the only one amongst the fallen angels (who include many pre-Christian gods) who dares travel to Paradise to thwart God’s plans by bringing about the fall, than the brainless Adam and Eve, Milton’s spoilsport God, or his Son.

The ending, with its deus ex machina, again was disappointing. It turns out the fall was not only predicted but designed by God to make possible and all the more powerful Jesus’ redemption of humanity. Paradise Lost is, in essence, a work of theodicy, written ‘to justify the ways of God to men’.

I’m sharing this because, whilst re-reading the book, I found the lines cited above that seem to contain Christian and pre-Christian Brythonic lore. When the archangel, Michael, purges Adam’s fallen sight he not only uses traditional plants – euphrasy, or eyebright, and rue were used for treating eye ailments – but ‘three drops’ from ‘the Well of Life’. This grants Adam visions of the future, mainly the ill-doings of his offspring until the Flood. As far as I know there is a Tree of Life but not a Well of Life in Paradise in Christian literature, which makes me wonder if it comes from another source.

The most obvious is the Welsh ‘Story of Taliesin’. In this tale Gwion Bach steals three drops of awen ‘inspiration’ from the cauldron of Ceridwen, which grant him omniscience as the all-seeing Taliesin. Milton’s evocative description of these ‘ingredients’ piercing ‘to the inmost seat of mental sight’ and putting Adam into a trance before he opens his eyes to see the future fit shares similarities with the prophetic visions of Taliesin and other awenyddion, ‘persons inspired’ referred to by Gerald of Wales.

However, although this story had been published in Welsh in the mid-16th century, it was not available in English at Milton’s time. Whether he had travelled to Wales (Milton was born in London, studied at Cambridge, lived in Berkshire, and travelled extensively throughout Europe before returning to London) or had heard the story in England in some form remains unknown.

The resemblances are so uncanny that, if he had not, it seems possible he was tapping into some deeper source. It is of interest that Milton refers not to a cauldron, but to a well, a far older image. Throughout the British and Irish myths cauldrons and wells are associated with inspiration and rebirth.

After Gwion tastes the awen Ceridwen pursues him in a shapeshifting chase and swallows him into her crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ from which he is reborn, shining-browed, and omniscient as Taliesin. In ‘The Second Branch’ the cauldron brings dead warriors to life. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, refusing to ‘boil the food of a coward’ it is associated with the bardic initiation rites of Pen Annwn.

In the Irish myths the Well of Segais is associated with imbas ‘inspiration’. No-one was allowed to approach it except its keeper, Nechtan, and his three cup-bearers on pain of their eyes exploding. However, Boann, Nechtan’s wife, disobeyed. It overflowed and she was dismembered and died. The river created took her name – the Boyne. When Finn burnt his thumb whilst cooking a salmon from this river he received the imbas. In The Battle of Moytura the Tuatha Dé Dannan dig Wells of Healing and throw in their mortally wounded, who not only come out whole but more ‘fiery’ than before (!).

It seems that Milton is, indeed, tapping into a deep source. Here, in Peneverdant we once had a Well of Healing, dedicated to St Mary at the foot of Castle Hill, which I believe was associated with an earlier Brythonic mother goddess of healing waters who has revealed her name to me as Anrhuna. I believe she is the consort of Nodens (cognate with Nechtan) and the mother of Gwyn ap Nudd (cognate with Finn), Pen Annwn. Perhaps we once had a myth based around these deities that has now been lost.

In Paradise Lost, for Adam, as for many who taste the three drops of inspiration (aside perhaps for Taliesin) possessing foreknowledge is both a blessing and curse. At first he laments Michael’s gift:

‘O visions ill foreseen! Better had I
Lived ignorant of future, so had borne
My part of evil only, each day’s lot
Enough to bear! Those now that were dispensed,
The burden of many ages, on me light
At once, by my foreknowledge gaining birth
Abortive to torment me, ere their being,
With thought that they must be! Let no man seek
Henceforth to be foretold what shall befall
Him or his children…’

He is then reconciled by his perception of God’s purpose:

‘… Now I find
Mine eyes true op’ning and my heart much eased,
Erewhile perplexed with thoughts what would become
Of me and all mankind, but now I see
His Day in whom all nations shall be blest.’

‘O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce
And evil turn to good more wonderful
Than that which by Creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!’

Adam’s visions give him the strength to depart with Eve from Paradise to Earth to beget humankind. The gate to Paradise, to the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, and no doubt to the Well of Life is barred and guarded by a ‘flaming brand’ ‘the brandished Sword of God’ ‘fierce as a comet’.

In Christian literature, in contrast to the simplistic notion preached to school children that the souls of good people go to Heaven and those of bad people go to Hell, Paradise is not truly regained until after the Apocalypse and Jesus’ harrowing of Hell and the resurrection of the dead.

It may be suggested that, in our Brythonic myths, all souls return to the Well of Life. That, with a little awen to awaken ‘mental sight’, the living can travel in spirit to Annwn and be reborn as awenyddion.

Here, in Peneverdant, where the well has run dry due to the foolishness of humans shattering the aquifer when moving the river Ribble to create Riversway Dockland, it remains possible to traverse the waters of the past, of the Otherworld, to return to the unfathomable source from which Milton drew.

They Died With Hazel – Sacrifices to Nodens in the Water Country?

The wetlands of the old counties of Lancashire and Cheshire which were inhabited by the Setantii tribe ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ are well known for their bog burials; Lindow Man and Woman, Worsley Man, severed heads from Pilling Moss, Briarfield, Red Moss, Ashton Moss, Birkdale.

The archaeological evidence suggests that Lindow Man and Worsley Man were human sacrifices. Lindow Man (also known as Lindow II) was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat was cut before he was cast into the peat bog. Worsley Man was garotted and his skull fractured before his beheading. These ‘overkill’ injuries are suggestive of ritual killing rather than death in battle or murder.

This is supported by the fact many bog burials from Britain and Europe ate special last meals. The last meal of Lindow Man was a griddle cake baked from finely ground wheat and barley. Lindow III, another man whose remains were found nearby, ate a meal of wheat and rye with hazelnuts. Old Croghan man from Ireland, and Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark also ate similar meals.

The head from Briarfield was ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ ‘with abundant remains of hazel’. Further north, at Seascale Moss in Cumbria, a body was buried in the bog with a hazel walking stick. Miranda Aldhouse Green notes that bog bodies from Gallagh in Ireland and Windeby in Germany wore hazel collars and another from Undelev in Denmark was buried with three hazel rods.

She connects them with a lead defixio of ‘late Roman date’ ‘from the river Ouse near the Hockwold Roman temple’ in Suffolk: ‘Whoever… whether male or female slave, whether freedman or freedwoman… has committed theft of an iron pan, he is to be sacrificed to the god Neptune with hazel’.

The Romans equated Neptune with our ancient British water-god Nodens at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall where an inscription reads ‘DEO NO/NEPTU’. At his Romano-British temple at Lydney, Nodens is depicted on a mural crown driving a chariot pulled by four water-horses accompanied by winged wind-spirits and centaurs with fish-tails and a fish-tailed fisherman.

Nodens gifted pilgrims with healing dreams but was also called upon to remove health. A curse tablet reads: ‘For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one-half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good-health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.’

It thus seems possible the people who ingested hazel prior to their deaths or were buried with it were sacrifices to Nodens who was equated with Neptune due to his watery qualities by the Romans.

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The associations between Nodens and hazel have deep mythic roots. In Ireland Nodens was known as Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ and Nechtan (from the Old Irish necht ‘clean, pure, white’). Nechtan was the keeper of the Tobar Segais ‘Well of Wisdom’. Around it stood nine hazel trees which dropped their hazelnuts, containing imbas ‘inspiration’, into the water. They were eaten by salmon and this special poetic wisdom, known as awen in the Welsh myths, was infused into their flesh.

Only Nechtan and his three cup-bearers: Flesc, Lam, and Luam, were allowed to visit the well. Of those who transgressed their eyes would explode (!) – a possible metaphor for the effects of poetic vision.

When Nechtan’s wife, Boann, disobeyed this command the well overflowed and became the river Boyne. One of its kennings is ‘the forearm of the wife of Nuadhu’ and it was known in the early 2nd century CE as Buvinda (from early Irish *Bou-vinda ‘the white lady with bovine attributes’).

When Finn ‘White’, a descendant of Nuadha, cooked the Salmon of Wisdom for his master, Finnegeas, he burnt his thumb, put it in his mouth, and accidentally imbibed his eye-bursting imbas.

I believe it is likely a similar mythos surrounded Nodens here in Britain. On his mural crown a fisherman is catching a large fish and, on a mosaic on his temple floor at Lydney, two sea monsters are surrounded by salmon. Additionally, in medieval Welsh mythology, Arthur and his men ride up the river Severn, past the Temple of Nodens, on the back of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, to rescue Mabon.

In the dindsenchas the river flowing from Segais has many names. In Ireland it is not only known as the Boyne, but the Trethnach Tond ‘Ocean Wave’ and Sruth Findchoill ‘Stream of White Hazel’. Abroad it becomes Lunnand in Scotland, the Severn in England, then the Tiber, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris.

At Lydney we also find iconography depicting Nodens’ wife and our British Boann: a stone statuette, thirty inches in height, left leg crossed over right, holding a cornucopia. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. Unfortunately we do not know her name but the early Irish Bou-Vinda may relate to Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, the son she bore Nodens/Nudd. Gwyn’s name not only means ‘White’, but he is referred to as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, suggesting he inherited her bovine attributes.

As Vindonnus, at a spring in Gaul, he was offered bronze plaques depicting eyes. It has been suggested they were for aid curing eye ailments but they may also have been connected with poetic vision.

In medieval Welsh mythology, Gwyn, as Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’, is the guardian of a cauldron that is warmed by the breath of nine maidens and will not brew the food of a coward, suggesting it is associated with initiation into the mysteries of the awen tasted from its bubbling waters.

It seems Gwyn, who like Finn, has tasted the wisdom of the salmon from the hazelnuts from the nine hazel trees, and received his awen, later adopts his father’s role as a wisdom-keeper.

***

How, then, does this ancient Celtic mythos appear in and relate to the Water Country? On Cockerham Moss two Romano-British silver statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found. This suggests that a temple lay nearby. Cockersand Abbey, the closest sacred site, is dedicated to Mary of the Marsh, a Christian overlay on an earlier water-goddess – the wife of Nodens. I know her as Anrhuna which means ‘Very Great’ and is probably only one of her names.

The church on Castle Hill, the pen which gives its name to Penwortham (earlier Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ as it stood on Penwortham Marsh), is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the holy well at the hill’s foot. The large number of Marian dedications in the marshy areas of Penwortham and Preston with their sacred springs hint at the underlying presence of this water-goddess.

The legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral, set on Castle Hill, with its fairy leader ringing a passing bell and singing a mournful chant as he leads a procession of little black-clad men in red caps, bearing the fairy-double of an unfortunate young man to his grave suggests the presence of Gwyn.

Past the pen, sacred to Anrhuna, Nodens, and Vindos/Gwyn/Pen Annwn, runs the river Ribble. From Ptolemy’s Geography (2AD)we know Belisama is the goddess of the Ribble. She is the sister and/or consort of Bel, who is later known as Beli Mawr, father of Nudd/Lludd. The Ribble is rich in salmon and Maponos/Mabon and his mother Matrona/Modron were worshipped upriver at Ribchester. Modron is the daughter of Afallach (from afall ‘apple’), King of Annwn, a name of Gwyn.

Here, at the Green Hill on the Water, we find a parallel with Lydney ‘Lludd’s Island’. With salmon swimming upriver past a site associated with Mabon to the source where perhaps once stood nine hazel trees.

These stories run deep through this land as they ran through the land of our ancient British ancestors. Before its draining it was truly a water country of intertidal marshlands, reedbeds, carr, lakes and pools, peat bogs, and a damp oak woodland in which hazel and its nourishing nuts were precious.

It’s no wonder they were associated with Nodens, ‘the Catcher’, the wise fisher-god. Perhaps, by sacrificing their enemies to Nodens with hazel, the water dwellers repaid him for his generosity.

Another possibility is that some of the bog burials were devotees of Nodens sacrificed willingly to their god. Awenyddion who, like his son, had imbibed the hazel-rich awen. Lindow III’s consumption of hazelnuts before his death may have been a last act of communion. The man buried with the hazel staff might have carried it as a symbol of his role as a wisdom-keeper.

Hazel grows on the banks of Fish House Brook, which runs through the area once known as Fish Pan Field in Greencroft Valley into the river Ribble. In autumn its nuts are eaten by grey squirrels before they can drop into the brook where, due to changes in water level and pollution, fish no longer swim.

Still, as I pass, I think of the myth of Nodens and his nine hazel trees, Anrhuna’s transgression, Vindos/Gwyn eating the salmon imbued with awen from the hazelnut and his eye-bursting poetic vision, which he has gifted to me as his awenydd to pass on and share with my communities.

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SOURCES

Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Anne Ross, Life and Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of Lindow Man, an Archaeological Sensation, (Touchstone, 1991)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)
Finnchuill, ‘Catching Wisdom: Nuadha, Nechtan, Nodens’, Finnchuill’s Mast, (2016)
Jody Joy, Lindow Man, (The British Museum Press, 2009)
Kay Muhr, ‘Water Imagery in Early Irish’, Celtica 23, (1999)
Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)