A Myth To Live By

In the preface to The Red Book, Carl Jung’s account of his ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, there is a quote about how it originated in his drive to find the myth he was living and get to know it:

‘I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: “what is the myth you are living?” I found no answer to this question, and that to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust… So in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth.’

Since I read this book a couple of years ago Jung’s question has stuck with me. I’ve had a fascination with myth since as long as I can remember, the mythic world first being presented to me in the fantasy novels I have loved reading since I was young child and then in increasingly older forms as I read the re-workings of the Graeco-Roman and Christian cosmologies in the poetry of Shelley, Blake, Milton, and followed them back to their sources in ancient Greek myth and the Bible.

It was this longing for the depth of a mythic ground that led me from analytical to Continental philosophy, through phenomenology with its focus on lived experience and aesthetics with its focus on art, to Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy in which the gods Dionysus and Apollo are shown to give birth to myth and its artistic expressions through Dionysian ecstasy and Apollonian vision.

Having discovered ancient Greek polytheism, I posed the questions of whether the gods exist now and whether people worship them. Finding out about modern Paganism I began to seek the gods. The Greek and Roman gods were there, but seemed distant – my connection felt like a broken radio signal.

The gods who found me were the gods of my land, the landscape of Lancashire, of ancient Britain. To my sadness I found that few of them had myths. Bel, Belisama, and Brigantia, were known only by their names on Roman inscriptions, Roman histories, in later place-names. Those who had myths by the names they were known by in medieval Wales: Nodens/Nudd/Lludd and his son, Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, Matrona/Modron and her son Maponos/Mabon, were euhemerised. Lludd appears as a ‘human’ king of Britain. Mabon, Gwyn, his rival, Gwythyr, and his beloved, Creiddylad, are incorporated into King Arthur’s court list and Gwyn is demonised as Arthur’s nemesis. And the dragon-goddess I have come to known as Anrhuna isn’t mentioned anywhere at all.

As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, over the past seven years I have been devoted to him, I have been working with his myths, with the myths of his kindred, to pare away the Christian veneer. To get back (or perhaps forward) to an understanding that is animistic and polytheistic. To a myth I can live by.*

In The Broken Cauldron and Gatherer of Souls I gave voice to myths that I felt spoke not only from medieval Wales but a wider Brythonic and pre-Brythonic culture born when people returned to Britain after the Ice Age and began to listen to the gods of this land, who perhaps guided them here.

As a person with a penchant for philosophy, for asking big questions, for desiring a groundwork, coming to Brythonic polytheism I have been frustrated by the absence of a creation myth and by the lack of stories that speak explicitly about how we came to be here and the journey of our souls.

I have found echoes of the Big Bang in the story of how Ceridwen’s cauldron broke with a scream, in the word crochan which means ‘cauldron’ and ‘womb’ of how she gave birth to the universe. I’ve long intuited that ‘The Battle of the Trees’ in Welsh mythology (which shares parallels with ‘The Battle of Moytura’ in Irish mythology) contains the remnants of the ancient clash of the culture gods against the gods and monsters of the Otherworld from which our world and civilisation originated. I’ve felt ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ contains broken fragments of the soul’s return to Annwn, to the cauldron, to be reborn.

But I didn’t have the courage, the foolishness, the presumptuousness required to attempt penning new myths, myths that exposed a personal vision of my gods that others might not agree with, that would be open to criticism, that would expose the teachings of my soul, until the coronavirus arrived.

Until the lockdown struck and my internship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust was postponed indefinitely and my possibility of finding paid work in conservation began to look increasingly shaky due to the threat of the recession and my discovery that having Asperger’s is the source of my difficulty with social interaction, which was always going to make it tough leading volunteers.

Until I was faced with the possibility that I could lose my elderly parents to the coronavirus and, as I live with them, my home. Without my mum and dad, a home, a job, what would I be left with? The small income from blogging about my vocation as an awenydd from my Patreon supporters. My relationship with my gods and with my soul, my imperative of myth-making, with my soul-work.

Thus my book of new myths, working titled ‘The Gods of Peneverdant’, has been born.

*Here I paraphrase the title of a book by Mary Midgely, The Myths We Live By, in which she presents science as our dominant myth.

Afagddu’s Declamation

Until death it shall be obscure –
Afagddu’s declamation
The Hostile Confederacy

I am bedraggled tonight, unwelcome,
the one taught to hang his head
in his mother’s court:

Utter Darkness, the Dark Son,
the Ugly One she wishes
utterly forgotten.

I carry no shield, spear, or sword.
The brushing of damp fur
on my thighs

unnerves the courtly women.
My hair hangs like ivies over
the face of a bridge,

disappears like rain into a dark adit.
They compare me to Sanddef
the angelic.

Wings tarred to my back, I am
the sea-bird abandoned
in the oil-slick.

I drag myself in with my shadow,
carping words in metres
they can’t name.

The slow swooshing of my feet
reminds them of wetsuits.
From my feathers

sadness drips like tears of oily rain.
When I shake myself off
like a wet dog

they flinch away from the globules.
Looking into my green eye
they are beholden.

With my reptilian beak I speak
of swallowing sorrow
like stones,

plummeting down to the deep
in search of lands
unpoisoned

by my mother’s toxic cauldron.
From the darkest places
I won my awen.

I cleared the blowholes of whales,
untangled sea turtles
from gillnets.

On islands of bottles, pill packets,
polystyrene, prosthetic limbs,
I laid out the dead.

I learnt to divine from the plastics
in the entrails of copepods,
euphausiids,

mussels, mackerel, jellyfish,
sea gulls who rattled
in flight.

From bottle caps and cotton bud sticks,
pieces of red, green, blue, yellow
Lego bricks,

an alphabet of magnetic letters
stuck to a sunken fridge
I read the future.

Of course they were upside down,
back to front, in another
language.

I was forced to turn myself inside out
like a rabbit unskinning
to decipher it.

I’m still not sure whose future
I brought back in
my pockets.

I empty them out and letters writhe
like sea worms spelling
an inky fate

to the chant of plastic-eating bacteria:
Ideonella sakaiensi I gathered
from the deep.

The courtiers draw back their chairs,
weapons aglinting,
curse me.

I am but the messenger – the angelus.
Nevertheless they take aim.
A terrible poetry

of microbeads spills from my belly
as I fly up like a fury
to declaim…

Cormorant_(Phalacrocorax_carbo)_(17)

Afagddu, Prophet of Darkness

I. The Dark Son

Afagddu, ‘Utter Darkness’, is a minor figure in Welsh mythology whose significance has not been recognised because he was pushed out of the way by Gwion Bach, who became the celebrated bard, Taliesin.

Afagddu’s mother is Ceridwen. She and God are called on interchangeably as the ultimate source of awen, divine inspiration, by the medieval bards. This suggests she is the greatest of the Brythonic deities, the Great Goddess closest to a creator God, Old Mother Universe, the creatrix and destructrix from which all life is born and to whom it returns at the moment of death.

If this is the case, then surely her son, Afagddu, should hold a greater position within Brythonic tradition? Why is his story shoved aside like a dirty secret? Why is his name not better known?

I believe this is partly due to his hideous apparel. In Elis Gruffudd’s recording of ‘The Story of Taliesin’ we are told his ‘looks, shape and carriage were extraordinarily odious’. Firstly they named him Morfran, ‘Great Crow’ or ‘Sea Raven’ but ended up calling him Afagddu ‘Utter Darkness’ ‘on account of his gloomy appearance’. John Jones’ redaction describes him as ‘the most ill-favoured man in the world’ and compares him to his sister, Creirwy, ‘Living Treasure’, ‘the fairest maiden in the world’.

Afagddu’s ancestry goes some way to explaining his looks. Ceridwen’s name can be translated as ‘crooked wife’ (from cwrr, ‘crooked’, and fen, ‘wife’) and ‘fair and loved’ (from cerid, ‘love’ and wen, ‘fair’). Perhaps because she is both crooked and fair she gave birth to crooked and fair children. Afagddu’s father is Tegid Foel, ‘the Bald’, whose patrimony is Llyn Tegid. Tegid’s baldness, along with his rulership of a lake rather than a human kingdom, suggest he is a monstrous water deity.

Unfortunately for Afagddu he was born ‘in the days when Arthur started to rule’ – a period when Christianity was the religion of warrior elites who built their status through the repression of the gods, monsters, ancestral animals, and witches of the ancient British pagan traditions. Ceridwen was allegedly keen for Afagddu to ‘win acceptance amongst the nobility.’ It’s my suspicion this was the addition of a Christian interculator who was either ignorant of Ceridwen’s identity as a goddess or purposefully erased it. At some point she was reduced to a ‘magician’ and Tegid to a ‘nobleman’.

II. The Spirit of Prophecy

In Gruffudd’s recording, after realising that Afagddu will not be recognised for his looks, Ceridwen decided instead to ‘make him full of the spirit of prophecy and a great prognosticator of the world to come.’ The link between his ‘ugliness’ and being chosen for a prophetic vocation may date back to traditions of pagan Britain wherein differences were celebrated and revered rather than despised.

After ‘labouring long in her arts’ Ceridwen discovered a way of achieving prophetic knowledge by choosing certain herbs on certain hours and days and brewing them in a cauldron for a year and a day. Resultingly ‘three drops containing all the virtues of the multitude of herbs would spring forth; on whatever man they fell… he would be extraordinarily learned and full of the spirit of prophecy.’

Interestingly, in John Jones’ version, Ceridwen learnt to ‘boil a cauldron of awen’ from the book of the Fferyllt, ‘Alchemists’, and books of astrology. We find a steady shift from a pagan standpoint where Ceridwen was the omniscient mother of the stars and planets and herbs and well aware of their motions and qualities, to her working hard at her art, to her learning it from the books of human mages.

In both variants Ceridwen made the fatal mistake of recruiting a young man called Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron. In Gruffudd’s, after a year and a day had passed, she stationed Afagddu beside the vessel to receive the drops on the allotted hour then… fell asleep!!! When the trio sprang forth, Gwion shoved Afagddu out of the way and received their blessings. In Jones’s, ‘three drops of liquid accidentally leapt from the cauldron onto the thumb of Gwion Bach; lest he be burnt, he thrust the digit into his mouth.’ In the former Gwion was an active thief and in the latter an innocent bystander.

From 'The Story of Taliesin' on Sacred Texts

In both retellings the cauldron shattered and the remains of the brew spilled out and poisoned the land. Ceridwen was, understandably, furious. After finding out what happened from Afagddu she chased Gwion through a variety of shapes (he fled as hare, she pursued as a greyhound, he leapt into a river as a salmon and she dived as an otter, he took flight as a bird and she followed as a hawk) before he became a grain of wheat and she became a black hen and swallowed him whole.

For Afagddu her reaction was too late. Pushed aside by Gwion, who was reborn all-knowing and shiny-browed to take centre stage as Taliesin, erased from the story, he fell into utter darkness. We never find out how he felt or reacted to the theft of the awen. Imagining our own emotions we can assume he was disappointed, angry, jealous, bitter, consumed by wrath. Bereft of the spirit of prophecy, abandoned by his mother in a poisoned land, disparaged by the nobility, Afagddu chose another path.

III. The Man With Stag’s Hairs

From other texts we learn ‘Morfran son of Tegid’ became a fearsome warrior. In The Triads of the Island of Britain, Triad 24, he is listed with Gilbert son of Cadgyffro and Gwgawn Red-Sword as one of ‘Three Slaughter-Blocks of the Island of Britain’. Someone who is an ysgymyd aeruaeu, ‘slaughter block’ or ‘chopping block of battles’ ‘holds his ground firmly… in spite of the enemy’s blows’.

Morfran son of Tegid appears in the court list in Culhwch and Olwen:‘no-one wounded him at the battle of Camlan because of his ugliness. Everyone thought he was an attendant demon; he had hair on him like a stag.’ He is compared, this time, with ‘Sanddef Pryd Angel angel-face – no-one wounded him at the battle of Camlan because of his beauty. Everyone supposed he was an attendant angel.’

Morfran is still clearly despised. The reference to him having ‘stag’s hair’ connects him with other warriors who became wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’ in battle and took the forms of wild animals. In The Gododdin combatants are described as ‘bull of an army’, ‘wolf in fury’, ‘terrible bear’ and ‘celebrated stag’.

He shares a kinship with the shapeshifters who Arthur captured and forced to join his hunt for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’. These include Rhymi who took ‘the form of a she-wolf’ and gwyllon such as Cynedyr Wyllt who was ‘nine times wilder than the wildest beast’. Whether Afagddu fought on Arthur’s side freely or was coerced remains uncertain. Whatever the case his description suggests he became wyllt and battled in a stag-like guise.

The comparison of Morfran to an ‘attendant demon’ is evocative of the ‘devils of Annwn’ led by Gwyn ap Nudd, a pagan god, who gathers the souls of the dead from the battlefield. Gwyn’s epithet is ‘Bull of Battle’ and he has ‘horns on his head’. His host, members of his ‘Wild Hunt’, are part animal.

The evocation of attendant demons and angels gathering souls from the battlefield presents us with a vivid depiction of the conflict between paganism and Christianity. Morfran is placed on the side of Gwyn.

IV. The Bird of Wrath

We find further evidence of Morfran/Afagddu’s connections with battlefield demons in ‘The Death Song of Uther Pendragon’ in The Book of Taliesin. Uncannily the celebrated bard channels Uther’s voice:

I broke a hundred forts.
I slew a hundred stewards.
I bestowed a hundred mantles.
I cut off a hundred heads.

Later lines refer to Afagddu:

The unskillful
May he be possessed by the ravens and eagle and bird of wrath.
Avagddu came to him with his equal,
When the bands of four men feed between two plains.

These lines are obtuse and require unpacking. Firstly we find a reference to an unskillful warrior who Taliesin-as-Uther calls for to be ‘possessed by the ravens and eagle and bird of wrath’. This seems, again, to be evoking the tradition of shapeshifting wherein warriors were possessed by a bird or animal.

The ‘bird of wrath’ is Morfran/Afagddu; he appears in the next line and Morfran means ‘Great Crow’ or ‘Sea Raven’, a name for a cormorant. His approach with his ‘equal’ refers to his bird-form.

The final line is the most difficult to comprehend. Its reference to bands of four men feeding is suggestive of bird-like or animal-like behaviour. In the context of the poem I believe it refers to men-in-bird-form feeding on the corpses of the dead on a battlefield ‘between two plains’.

References to corpse-eating birds are prevalent throughout medieval Welsh literature. Gwenddolau owns two birds: ‘two corpses of the Cymry they ate for dinner, and two for their supper’. The Eagle of Pengwern is ‘greedy for the flesh of Cynddylan’. Gwyn’s ravens ‘croak over gore’. In Rhonabwy’s Dream, Owain’s warband, who are described as ravens, not only kill Arthur’s army but carry off their heads, eyes, ears, and arms. The Papil Stone depicts two bird-headed men bearing a human head between their long beaks, which make them look more like cormorants than carrion birds.

The image of men-as-birds feeding on the dead is a horrific one and perhaps portrays fearful superstitions about warriors who become wyllt. These may not be entirely ungrounded. Bones bearing human teeth marks from Gough’s cave show some of the early Britons practiced cannibalism. In Culhwch and Olwen, Gwyn forced Cyledyr to eat his father’s heart, making him wyllt.

The evidence suggests Afagddu not only partook in the slaughter at numerous battles but may also have joined the birds who feasted on the corpses of the dead. His name became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Driven over the edge by losing the awen he lost himself in war and surrendered to utter darkness.

V. A Night of Unordinary Darkness

Afagddu’s name is derived from y faggdu, ‘a night of unordinary darkness’. What happened to him after he was seen at Camlan amongst the battlefield demons remains unknown. If, as I have surmised, he killed other men and ate their flesh, we can guess he descended traumatised into a long dark night.

That most famous of the gwyllon, Myrddin Wyllt, slew his sister’s son and daughter whilst battle-mad. After the Battle of Arfderydd he witnessed Gwyn and his host arriving to gather the souls of the dead. One of Gwyn’s spirits tore him out of himself and assigned him to the forest of Celyddon where he recovered from trauma, guilt, and grief and learnt the arts of poetry and prophecy.

Is it possible Afagddu also made a recovery and became a poet and prophet? Lines from ‘The Hostile Confederacy’, from The Book of Taliesin, suggest he did:

Until death it shall be obscure –
Afagddu’s declamation:
skilfully he brought forth
speech in metre.

Here we find references to the obscurity of his prophetic speech and to his mastery of poetic metre. Afagddu has become a poet-prophet. How he won his awen and became filled with the spirit of prophecy remains obscure as his declamation. I have only my own experiences and intuitions to go on.

Three years ago, during a conversation with Gwyn, I was transported into ‘The Story of Taliesin’. I found myself in Afagddu’s shoes, watching as the cauldron shattered and the contents spilled out, poisoning the streams and rivers, killing Gwyddno Garanhir’s horses and other animals and birds. I walked with Afagddu as he attempted to comfort the dying. Since then I have been inspired to write about him visiting other areas polluted by man-made disasters, helping those affected, cleaning up the land.

Whereas Myrddin found healing in the forest of Celyddon, Afagddu found it in the darkest of places. Perhaps undoing the damage caused by his mother’s cauldron is his way of making reparations, not only for the toxic effects of her attempt to brew the awen for him, but for his own atrocities.

Afagddu’s awen arises from nights of darkness and poisoning and death in which he sees his own nature reflected. They have their own poetry, which seems ugly to an Arthurian eye, but less so from an Annuvian perspective that embraces what our society derides as hideous as poetic and prophetic.

Afagddu’s story is not without happiness. He owns a horse, ‘Silver-White, Proud and Fair’, one of ‘Three Beloved Horses of the Island of Britain’. Her fairness speaks of faerie/Annuvian qualities. I believe she was a gift from Annwn, from Gwyn, in return for his help with the dead and dying lands. She represents his awen, galloping silver-white, proud and fair, from the longest and darkest of nights.

SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion, (1877)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

Rhymi

‘The bitch Rhymi… in the form of a she-wolf… she goes around with her two whelps. She has killed my livestock many times, and she is down below Aber Daugleddyf in a cave.’
– Culhwch and Olwen

I was in a multitude of shapes before I assumed wolf-form. My keen sense of smell, my canine teeth, the sense of awe surrounding the silence of my feet and my savagery were all conducive to my role as a death-eater.

I was feared and revered by the people of Prydain for thousands of years until they decided their dead: human and animal should not be eaten by wolves.

I’m not sure what brought about this decision – whether it was their abandonment of hunting for farming, their penning in and marking ownership of the herds, the arrival of the sheep or the religion of the sheep with its shepherd-like patriarchs who despised both wolves and women.

Whatever the case, I became reviled. Whenever farmers caught me raising my jaws from a half-eaten carcass, gnawing bones dragged from a freshly dug grave, they sent huntsmen after me with hounds, bows and arrows, knives and spears, to bring back the trophy of my head.

Of course, I knew how to deal with huntsmen. My most ardent pursuer was Deigyr of Caerdydd. When numbers and brute strength did not succeed, he decided to track me by stealth instead. Disguising his scent in fox urine he followed me from kill to kill. Leading him into Caerdydd, I slipped off my wolf-fur and, taking a softer form, allowed him to buy me a flagon of bragget.

We got talking about the art of hunting and the nature of the wolf. The bragget slid down like hot blood. Soon I was back at his house, lounging on a wolf-skin rug, admiring the furs on his walls, the heads of beavers, badgers, foxes, boars, and wolves.

After we slept together I killed Deigyr with his hunter’s knife and devoured his corpse. Many moons later I gave birth to two whelps: Gwyddrud and Gwydden, in a sea-cave beneath Aber Daugleddyf.

Their suckling on the polyps of my teats was interrupted by a ship with a rude white prow carrying hundreds of warriors. As they fired their bows into the water I snapped every arrow with my jaws and rose up, barging and harassing the vessel I recognised as Prydwen to the shore.

An army awaited me with endless rows of spears and shields.

When I showed no fear, Arthur called on God to change me into my own form, grasped my wolf-fur and pulled it off.

The spears dropped to the floor.

The King of Prydain recoiled in dismay, eyes bulging like sea anemones, face pale as coral, “Please God, change her back!”

When his plea went unanswered, Arthur desperately attempted to throw the fur back over me, but it landed limp and useless on the sand.

“Please God, change her back. Please cover her up!”

Rhymi sketch

Not Getting to Caer Siddi: Sea Fortresses, Warships and Prisoners of War

Last year I attempted some journeywork with the otherworldly sea fortress Caer Siddi which did not go to plan. Setting out from the beach and swimming out to sea aboard my white mare, I noticed the waves becoming increasingly turbulent.

A horn blew and I saw a white sleek-prowed warship cutting through the water ahead. I recognised this as Prydwen (‘Fair Form’) the vessel of Arthur and his warriors. The horizon turned red and flashed with explosions. I saw the dark forms of other warships.

The waters rocked. At this point I knew I wasn’t getting to Caer Siddi. I turned my mare back to the beach and slipped from the otherworld dumbfounded. Reading medieval Welsh stories about Caer Siddi hadn’t prepared me for modern warships and warfare.

***

What did this mean? I started looking for clues in the world around me. In an entirely unrelated e-mail, a friend mentioned the sinking of the Lancastria off the French Port of St Nazaire on the 17th of July, 1940, whilst evacuating British nationals and troops from France.

At least 6,000 people (9,000 has been estimated) were aboard the Lancastria when she was bombed by a German aircraft. Three hits to the hold caused the spillage of 300 tons of oil. Twenty minutes later the ship capsized and sank. As the passengers struggled for their lives in the oily water they were strafed by machine gun fire from German planes and tracer bullets fired to set light to the oil.

The_Sinking_of_the_Cunard_Liner_Ss_Lancastria_Off_St_Nazaire_HU3325

Sinking of the Lancastria, Wikipedia Commons

2447 survivors were rescued, many of whom were shipped to Plymouth. Twice that number perished, making the sinking of the Lancastria Britain’s worst maritime disaster and the largest loss of British forces in a single engagement in World War II.

Great controversy surrounds Winston Churchill’s cover-up of this tragedy. A D-Notice prevented newspapers and broadcasters reporting it because two weeks after the Dunkirk Evacuation, British people ‘had had enough bad news’.

Since then the British government have refused to acknowledge the site of the wreck as a war grave. As the result of an extended campaign, the sinking of the Lancastria was finally marked by the government in July last year: 75 years on.

There seems to be some meaning in my vision of warships in the year the Lancastria’s sinking was acknowledged. Lines from ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ stating that of ‘three full loads of Prydwen’ that went into Caer Siddi only seven came back recall the terrible death toll of seaborne warfare.

***

At the same time I was led to re-reading Eternity by the Stars by Louis Auguste Blanqui. This was written in 1871 whilst he was imprisoned in the Fort Du Taureau ‘Castle of the Bull’ (a sea-fortress off the north of Morlaix in France) for his radical political beliefs during the reign of the transitional government of Adolphe Thiers.

1280px-Chateau_du_Taureau

Chateaux du Taureau, Wikipedia Commons

Kept in solitary confinement as the only prisoner of the island and banned from approaching his window on pain of death, Blanqui penned a philosophical treatise that would inspire Nietzsche’s eternal return and Walter Benjamin’s critique of progress.

Some of Blanqui’s insights are hauntingly Taliesin-like. The consensus amongst scholars is that Taliesin’s time in the prison of Arianrhod and acquisition of his chair in Caer Siddi are metaphors for Bardic initiation. Taliesin’s omnipresence is connected with his imprisonment.

Blanqui’s claims are equally profound. However the voice of a lonely 19thC radical in his sea-dungeon possesses none of the bravado of the Taliesin persona:

‘The universe is eternal, the stars are perishable, and since they form all matter, every one of them has passed through billions of existences. Gravity, thanks to its resurrecting shocks, divides, blends and kneeds them incessantly to the point that every one is a compound of the dust of others. Every inch of the ground that we walk has been part of the whole universe.’

‘Every human being is eternal at every second of its existence. That which I am writing in this moment, in a dungeon of the Fort de Taureau, I have written and shall write forever, on a table, with a quill, under clothes and in entirely similar circumstances. And so it is for all of us.’

‘At heart, man’s eternity by the stars is melancholic, and even sadder this estrangement of brother-worlds caused by the inexorable barrier of space. So many identical populations come to pass without having suspected each other’s existence! Well, not really: this shared existence is discovered at last in the 19th century but who shall believe it?’

Is it mere coincidence that I’m led to Eternity by the Stars as I’m trying to work out why I didn’t get to Caer Siddi: The Fortress of the Zodiac?

***

My insights have led me to believe that the medieval Welsh material about Caer Siddi is not only a metaphor for the initiatory journey of bards but may have a basis in the realities of seaborne warfare and prisoners of war.

If it does not refer to historical events it perhaps originated from the efforts of people to make sense of disastrous military expeditions from which only a handful of friends and kinsmen returned and what they endured whilst imprisoned by their enemies.

The stories of Brân’s battle in Ireland, Cunedda driving the Irish out of Wales and Arthur’s theft of the cauldron of Diwrnarch Wyddel (‘the Irishman’) refer to hostilities between the Welsh and Irish that no doubt had maritime dimensions.

Initiatory experiences during periods of imprisonment are rare but the number of existing testimonies (others include Aneirin, Jean Genet and Nicholas R. Mann) demonstrate their reality and provide hope and inspiration for prisoners of today.

I didn’t get to Caer Siddi yet, blown off course, I discovered valuable stories from the modern era which sadly continue to echo the ancient themes of sea-fortresses, warships and prisoners of war.

The Changing Faces of Caer Siddi

Caer Siddi is a legendary fortress in the enigmatic medieval Welsh poem ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, which is written from the perspective of Taliesin and describes his journey with Arthur and his men aboard the warship, Prydwen (‘Fair Form’) to seven fortresses in Annwn (‘the deep’).

Their aim is to accomplish a series of tasks including the rescue of the divine prisoner, Gwair, the theft of the cauldron of the Head of Annwn and capture of the Brindled Ox. Parallels with the anoethau (‘impossible tasks’) in Culhwch and Olwen suggest a shared source in Brythonic tradition.

Caer Siddi is the first fortress Arthur’s party raid. The name Caer Siddi has been translated as ‘Fortress of the Mound’ or ‘Fortress of the Fairies’ from the Welsh caer ‘fortress’ and Irish síd which refers both to the aos sí ‘fairies’ and the sídhe ‘mounds’ they inhabit. Another translation is ‘Fortress of the Zodiac’ from the Welsh siddi ‘zodiac’.

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin says:
‘Maintained was Gwair’s prison in Caer Siddi,
throughout Pwyll and Pryderi’s story.
No-one went there before he did –
into the heavy grey chain guarding the loyal lad.
And before the spoils/herds of Annwfn he was singing sadly.’

Caer Siddi is presented as a prison and Gwair is its first prisoner. Gwair’s imprisonment takes place throughout the story of Pwyll and Pryderi, which is set in the ‘British foretime’ preceding the Roman invasion. Gwair’s prison is magically maintained until Arthur’s day.

The line referring to ‘the spoils/herd of Annwfn’ links the first verse to ensuing verses where the cauldron is stolen, no doubt filled with Annuvian treasure, and the Brindled Ox is towed away from his custodianship of Annwn’s herds.

Gwair’s sad song may be likened to the lamentation of Mabon son of Modron in ‘a house of stone’ in Culhwch and Olwen. Mabon and Gweir son of Gweirioed (Gwair) are listed alongside Llŷr Half-Speech as ‘Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain’ in The Triads.

Mabon provides an alternative triad of prisoners: ‘he who is here has reason to lament… no-one has been so painfully incarcerated in a prison as I, neither the prison of Lludd Llaw Eraint nor the prison of Graid son of Eri.’

There are clear parallels between the trios Mabon, Llŷr, Gweir / Mabon, Lludd, Graid. Some scholars claim Llŷr / Lludd and Gweir / Graid are the same people.

Lundy's Jetty and Harbour by Michael Maggs, Wikipedia Commons

Lundy’s Jetty and Harbour by Michael Maggs, Wikipedia Commons

The name Gweir ap Gweirioed has been translated as ‘Hay son of Grassiness.’ Gwair means ‘hay’, gweirglodd ‘meadow’ and gweiryn ‘blade of grass.’ The green island of Lundy is known as Ynys Weir. Whether this was Gwair’s place of origin or imprisonment remains uncertain. Perhaps Gwair is a deity of grasslands and meadows and his imprisonment is representative of a barren or winter landscape.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Graid son of Eri is part of an army imprisoned by Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn and god of winter. Arthur rescues Graid and the other prisoners along with Graid’s dog, Drudwyn, the leash of Cors Cant Ewin to hold him with, and a steed called Myngddwn for Mabon to use on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth.

Whether these are two different tellings of the same narrative is unclear. However we can assert that imprisonment in Annwn is a longstanding theme in medieval Welsh literature.

***

Caer Siddi is also mentioned by Taliesin in ‘The Chair of Taliesin’:

‘Harmonious is my song in Caer Siddi;
sickness and old age do not afflict those who are there,
as Manawyd and a Phryderi know.
Three instruments/organs around a fire play in front of it
and around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea;
and (as for) the fruitful fountain which is above it-
its drink is sweeter than white wine.’

Contrastingly, for Taliesin, Caer Siddi is a paradisal place where he has attained a Bardic chair. This has been linked to his claim to have spent ‘three times in the prison of Arianrhod’ in The Story of Taliesin. He also says ‘My darling is below / ‘Neath the fetters of Arianrhod’.

Arianrhod (‘Silver Wheel’) and her home, Caer Arianrhod, an island off the coast of Gwynedd seven miles south west of Caernarvon, are described by Taliesin in ‘The Chair of Ceridwen’:

‘Arianrhod, famed for her appearance surpassing the radiance of fair weather,
her terrifying was the greatest shame (to come) from the region of the Britons;
a raging river rushes around her court,
a river with its savage wrath beating against the land:
destructive its snare as it goes round the world.’

Here she appears as a beautiful yet imposing deity. This description fits with her representation in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion where she refuses to give her son, Lleu, a name, arms or a wife.

Unfortunately nothing is written about what happened to Taliesin during his imprisonment in Caer Arianrhod, whether he rescued his ‘darling’ and how this links to his chair in Caer Siddi. Analogies between the ‘heavy grey chain’ and ‘snare’ of a river may suggest Caer Arianrhod is Caer Siddi.

Many scholars and modern Druids interpret Taliesin’s period of imprisonment as a form of Bardic initiation giving rise to his shapeshifting capacities and omnipresence:

‘I was in a multitude of forms
before I was unfettered:
I was a slender mottled sword
made from the hand.
I was a droplet in the air,
I was the stellar radiance of the stars.’

‘I was revealed
in the land of the Trinity;
And I was moved
through the entire universe;
And I shall remain till doomsday
upon the face of the earth.’

***

It is of interest that Taliesin says Manawydan and Pryderi know Caer Siddi. In the Third Branch, Manawydan, his wife Rhiannon, Pryderi and his wife Cigfa follow a white boar to a fortress that belongs to Llwyd Cil Coed, a powerful enchanter who has put a spell on Dyfed.

In spite of Manawydan’s warnings, Pryderi enters. Captivated by a golden bowl hanging over a well he touches it and gets stuck. Rhiannon follows and meets the same fate. A blanket of mist descends and with a tumultuous noise the fortress disappears.

When Llwyd sends his people as mice to devour Manawydan’s wheat fields, Manawydan captures his pregnant wife in mouse form. By threatening to hang her on a miniature gallows, he persuades Llywd to remove the enchantment and release Rhiannon and Pryderi.

Afterward, Llwyd reveals he enchanted Dyfed as revenge for the violence inflicted by Pwyll, Rhiannon’s first husband and Pryderi’s father, on his friend Gwawl ap Clud. As Rhiannon is a divinity associated with Annwn, it may be suggested Gwawl and Llywd are Annuvian figures too.

This is backed up by Llwyd’s reappearance in Culhwch and Olwen. After Arthur and his men return from Ireland with the cauldron of Diwrnarch Wyddel, they land ‘at the house of Llwydeu son of Cilcoed at Porth Cerddin in Dyfed. And Mesur y Pair (‘the measure of the cauldron’) is there.’

The cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant is listed amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ and its property of not brewing meat for a coward identifies it with the cauldron of the Head of Annwn. The symbolic links between ‘the measure of the cauldron’ at Llwyd’s house and the well and golden bowl in his enchanted fortress are intriguing.

***

Caer Siddi is mentioned again in Ellis Gruffydd’s Chronicle of the Ages (16th C). Gruffydd claims that ‘Merlin was a spirit in human form’ who appeared in ‘the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd’ as Taliesin ‘who is said to be alive yet in a place called Caer Sidia.’

He appeared a third time as the son of Merfyn Frych son of Esyllt and ‘was called Merlin the mad. From that day to this, he is said to be resting in Caer Sidia, whence certain people believe firmly he will rise up once again before doomsday.’

An alternative story about Merlin’s resting place is found in Pen. 147. Myrddin (an earlier name for Merlin) sets out to acquire the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain. The owners of the treasures agree to hand them over if Myrddin can obtain the Horn of Brân the Niggard.

Surprisingly, Brân agrees. Myrddin obtains all Thirteen Treasures and takes them to ‘the Glass House’, which is frequently identified with Bardsea Island.

Bardsey Island by Mynydd Mawr, Wikipedia Commons

Bardsea Island by Mynydd Mawr, Wikipedia Commons

***

Caer Siddi has many faces. It is the place where Gwair sings sadly fettered by a heavy grey chain. It disappeared with Rhiannon and Pryderi whilst they stared entranced into a golden bowl. Taliesin holds a Bardic chair there beneath a fountain of mead ever remembering when its rivers were a savage snare. Myrddin rests with an old, battered cauldron filled with rescued treasure beside the well where the golden bowl once hung.

These faces of Caer Siddi were known in medieval Wales. What are its faces now? I can’t tell you because I haven’t got there yet. Not getting there led to some surprising discoveries and I’ll share them in the next post.

SOURCES

Heron, ‘Merlin, Taliesin and Maponus’
John and Caitlin Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Images, 2008)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)