Y Fferllyt / The Alchemists

Gwnëynt eu peiron
a verwynt heb tan
gwnëynt eu delideu
yn oes oesseu.

They’d make their cauldrons
that were boiling without fire;
they’d work their materials
for ever and ever.
The Hostile Confederacy

alchemy

In the blackness of a starless night
I could not stop brow-beating
myself with the hammer
of what is missing
inside me whilst outside
they forged a sky of black iron
with a ringing ringing beat dividing
cosmos from chaos within the metal dome
fixing the crystal constellations.
They’d make their cauldrons

sturdy and strong as they’d make
their crucibles and flasks and funnels
and their chimerical language,
working with the elements,
conjunctions of planets,
365 herbs to inspire,
voices rising like phoenixes
from the ashes of the nigredo
on magical wings higher and higher
that were burning without fire

whilst we burnt everything
and our cauldrons would not boil.
I walked the plains of cold dark vessels;
leaking, cracked, the prima materia
spilling out like poison.
As we emptied the oil wells
and the gas wells and I followed
the dragon ships the emptiness
inside me grew emptier.
Whilst we built our hell
they’d work their materials

in the cauldrons deep inside them.
Thus they’d brew their awen
whilst we pillaged elixirs
from other worlds
and the elements ran wild;
burning, drowning, shaking monsters.
The black sky cracked and with the crystal stars
we fell like charred birds from the heavens
plummeting without feathers
for ever and ever.

7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant: if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

A warrior-bard rides his motorcycle across the north,
his words like his weapons bold and defiant,
seeking to prove his worth
at the Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant.

Will he lose his defiance with his stuttering rifle,
like a broken mike stammer and stall?
If meat for a coward were put in
it would never boil.

Or will he proclaim his exploits on a megaphone
whilst miming each gun-shot wittily?
If meat for a brave man were put in
it would boil quickly.

Either way in the depths of the cauldron
his youthful flesh will be devoured most thoroughly
(and thus the brave could be distinguished
from the cowardly).

~

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch

~

Dyrnwch the Giant is a legendary figure associated with the Old North. His epithet gawr ‘giant’ poses the question of whether he was a large human or belonged to a mythic race. References to giants such as Brân the Blessed shows they held an important position in Brythonic mythology. More confusingly, human chieftains such as Maelor Gawr, who was killed in a raid on his fortress at Pen Dinas by Gwerthmwl Wledig, were given the epithet ‘giant’.

Dyrnwch appears by the name Diwrnach Wyddel ‘the Irishman’ in Culhwch and Olwen. Here the getting of his cauldron to boil food for his wedding guests is one of the impossible tasks Culhwch must fulfil to win the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, ‘Chief Giant’.

Diwrnach is the steward of Odgar King of Ireland. Arthur fulfils the task for Culhwch. He sails to Ireland on his ship, Prydwen, with his men. Diwrnarch invites them into his house to feast. When Arthur asks Diwrnach for the cauldron he refuses to hand it over. Llenlleog Wyddel, one of Diwrnach’s men, betrays him by grabbing Arthur’s sword, Caledfwlch, and killing Diwrnach and all his retinue. Arthur and his men flee with the cauldron filled with Irish treasure.

In Brythonic mythology Ireland is sometimes a synonym for Annwn, the Otherworld, because it is likewise across the sea. If this is the case, ‘Odgar’ is a name for the ruler of Annwn and Diwrnach is his steward. This reading is backed up by the fact that in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the Head of Annwn owns a cauldron just likes Diwrnach’s with a pearly rim that will not boil a coward’s food, which is again seized by Arthur.

Dyrnwch also appears by the name Wrnach in Culhwch and Olwen. Culhwch is told he must get Wrnach’s sword, which is the only weapon that can kill him. In this story he is most definitely a giant for he owns ‘the largest fort in the world’ and from it comes a ‘a black-haired man, bigger than three men of this world’. Cai fulfils the task for Culhwch by posing as a furbisher of swords and killing Wrnach with his own perfectly honed blade.

‘Arthur and the Porter’ mentions Arthur fought with a hag in Awrnach’s hall. This is another variant on the spelling of Dyrnwch and perhaps associates Dyrnwch with Orddu, ‘Very Black’, a ‘hag’ who dwelled in Pennant Gofid, ‘in the uplands of Hell’. Arthur went to the North to kill her. The boundaries between the North, Ireland, and Annwn blur. All are ‘not here’.

From this proliferation of stories we can conjecture that Dyrnwch was an important figure who guarded the cauldron of the Head of Annwn and died attempting to defend it in a liminal place.

From the Bronze Age, cauldrons literally held a central role in Brythonic culture at the centre of the feast. They were essential for cooking meat, which would have been seen as a magical process. The cauldron’s property of distinguishing the brave from the cowardly seems related to ‘the champion’s portion’ in which the bravest warrior was given first choice and the finest meat.

On a deeper level, in Welsh mythology, the cauldron is associated with death and rebirth. Brân the Blessed was gifted a cauldron which had the power to bring dead warriors back to life. Taliesin was reborn from the crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ of Ceridwen from which the Awen* originates.

It seems likely the magical property of Dyrnwch’s cauldron and the champion’s portion had a deeper origin in an initiatory function wherein only a brave person could be initiated into the mysteries of death and rebirth in the depths of Annwn and thus receive his or her Awen.

*Divine inspiration. In some medieval Welsh poems it is synonymous with one’s destiny.

~

SOURCES

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)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, The Black Book of Carmarthen, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

Caer Golud: The Guts of Annwn

In verse four of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the lines about Caer Wydyr (‘Glass Fort’) are followed by a single reference to Caer Golud (‘Fortress of Impediment’).

‘Three loads of Prydwen went with Arthur:
save seven, none came back from the Fort of Impediment.’

Nothing more is said about Caer Golud. To the best of my knowledge it does not appear in any other literature. Marged Haycock translates golud as ‘impediment’ from goludd. This suggests Caer Golud is another name for the impenetrable Caer Wydyr, which is guarded by six thousand men and an incommunicative watchman.

An alternative translation is from coludd (which mutates from ‘g’): ‘guts’, ‘bowels’ or ‘entrails’ This is a fascinating possibility and fits with links between the Glass Fort and Glastonbury (‘the Glass Island’) as a place the 6thC prophet, Melkin, claims is ‘greedy for the death of pagans, above others in the world.’

Melkin’s words suggest pagan beliefs and practices survived in Glastonbury into the 6thC. The word ‘greedy’ evokes devouring and the digestive processes of the guts. This would certainly tie in with other descriptions of the Brythonic otherworld.

In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ the bard inquires into the width of ‘the mouth’ of Uffern (‘inferno’). ‘Kat Godeu’ refers to ‘a great-scaled beast’ with ‘a fierce battalion / beneath the roof of his tongue’ and ‘A speckled crested snake’ with ‘a hundred souls, on account of (their) sin… tortured in its flesh.’

snake-water-river-sketch-cartoon-big-wild-animal

Public Domain

Both poems are heavily Christianised yet if we remove the punitive connotations resulting from Annwn’s identification with Uffern/Hell and thus sin, it is possible to find traces of a shamanistic standpoint far more visceral than courtly medieval portrayals of the otherworld.

We recall Gwion Bach (as a grain of wheat) was swallowed by Ceridwen (as a black hen). A sow feeds on Lleu Llaw Gyfes’ rotten flesh when, mortally wounded, he takes the form of an eagle. The Hounds of Annwn hunt down and devour souls.

Gwion’s swallowing by Ceridwen leads to his rebirth as Taliesin. In a similar Irish story, Dechtire swallows a small animal whilst drinking a glass of water and is then told she is pregnant by Lugh with the son who will grow up to become Cu Chullain.

It is possible these stories date back to a time people didn’t causally connect sex and pregnancy due to the time lapse. The belly is not only the place of digestion but gestation: eating the ‘dead’ and birthing life were connected with this mysterious place.

***

In From The Cauldron Born, Kristoffer Hughes notes that in Welsh the word for cauldron is pair or crochan, which resembles croth ‘womb’. Ceridwen’s cauldron, her belly, is where Gwion is devoured and reborn as Taliesin.

Taliesin describes his fate in language evocative of malting and brewing in ‘The Hostile Confederacy’:

‘I was a grain…
A hen got hold of me –
a red-clawed one, a crested enemy;
I spent nine nights
residing in her womb.
I was matured,
I was a drink set before a ruler,
I was dead, I was alive,
a stick went into me;
I was on the lees,
separated from it, I was whole;
and the drinking-vessel stiffened resolve,
(for) the red-clawed one imbued me with passion.’

In ‘Lake of the Cauldron’ Charlotte Hussey glosses lines from The Second Branch where the giant, Llasar, emerges from a lake in Ireland with the Cauldron of Rebirth on his back to depict a similar process.

The cauldron is described as decorated with animals and divinities including a woman with ‘long-breasts’ and a ‘sweaty belly’ stirring it ‘as if it were a pan’. The woman pushes the narrator ‘into the boil’. Llasar watches as

‘…She hacks
shoulder blades, buttocks apart,
scrapes off chunks of flesh,
bones sinking then surging to the rim,
tossed by the churning waters.’

This bears similarities with scenes of initiation from shamanic cultures. Mircea Eliade records that a Samoyed shaman was decapitated and chopped into bits by a blacksmith who boiled him in a cauldron ‘big as half the earth’ then reforged him with magical capacities. In some traditions the initiate is eaten.

In relation to the devouring snake in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it’s of interest amongst the Negritos there is great snake named Mat Chinoi. Thirty female Chinoi ‘of the utmost beauty’ live in its belly with their ornaments and combs. By passing two ordeals it is possible to enter the snake to find a wife.

It’s noticeable none of the Brythonic texts mention bowels or excrement. This may be because they were penned by Christian scribes in the medieval period. This contrasts with the bawdy toilet humour of the Norse myths and the mythologies of other cultures.

In Dream and the Underworld, James Hillman notes that in a late Orphic hymn the name of ‘the Goddess of the realm of death’ is ‘borborophoba, which was can render in the double-sense of shit-fearing: she who keeps it at bay, and she who makes it flow in panic.’ In the Egyptian Otherworld, where everything is reversed, people defecate through their mouths.

Hillman refers to dreams of diarrhea as ‘radical compelling movements into the underworld or as an underworld that has come to sudden irrepressible life within us, independent of who we are and what we are. Like death, diarrhea strikes when it will and all alike. Shit is the great leveller… Toilet dreams… can be read as underworld initiations.’

***

Our lack of knowledge of Caer Golud parallels the lack of attention our cerebrally obsessed culture has paid to the gut over the last few centuries. Thankfully over the past few decades scientists have begun to pay attention to this long neglected area.

In the 1960’s Michael Gershon published a ground-breaking book called The Second Brain. He draws attention to the fact that if the major nerve between the brain and gut is cut, the gut continues to work, and can function independently of the central nervous system.

The Enteric Nervous System ‘the brain below’ regulates peristalsis. One of the most important neurostransmitters in this process is serotonin. Serotonin plays an important role in the regulation of mood and 95% lies in the gut.

More recently scientists have been studying the microbiota of the gut as a ‘collective unconscious’, their symbiotic relationship with their host, and their influence on behaviour. Gut microbiota affect memory, sociability, and levels of stress and anxiety.

I’ve suffered from anxiety most of my life and a few months ago got diagnosed with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Finding out these links was a eureka moment. When I get stressed I have bowel problems which upset my gut making me more stressed: it’s a vicious cycle.

Frighteningly 10% of people in the UK suffer from IBS and it’s the second biggest cause of absence from work yet nobody talks about it. As I’ve also done in the past, they just make excuses or take Immodium and pretend it isn’t an issue. I can’t help thinking such a high percentage of people suffering from IBS results from living in such a stressful world.

I can’t see an easy or immediate way out of this cycle. However, I do believe the root cause can be addressed. We need to stop participating in the stressful worlds our guts cannot tolerate and which are indigestible to the deities of Annwn and work toward creating alternatives.

The time has returned to learn to listen again to the forgotten worlds of our guts which are paralleled by Caer Golud and its great-scaled beasts and speckled crested snakes in the realm of our Annuvian borborophoba, Ceridwen.

P1160376 - Copy

SOURCES

Charlotte Hussey, Glossing the Spoils, (Awen Publications, 2012)
Cryan, Dinan, Stilling, Stanton, ‘Collective Unconscious: How Gut Microbes Shape Human Behaviour’, Journal of Psychiatric Research 63, (2015)
James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, (CN, 1979)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Michael D. Gershon, The Second Brain, (Harper Collins, 1999)
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, (Princeton, 2004)
Nicolas R. Mann, The Isle of Avalon, (Green Magic, 2001)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (OUP, 1979)

Gwyn’s Feast

Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.
There is no lack of wood upon the hearth,
The hounds are calm, the horses fed and watered.
Put knife to meat, drink your share from the horn,
There is endless plenty in my cauldron.
Join and dream to the songs of my bards,
They play a magic from the world’s beginning.
Beneath the Faery moon and Annwn’s stars
All things are sung back to wonder.
Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.

*The original manuscript ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (1536) relating Gwyn’s feast on Glastonbury Tor can be found here:  http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html It’s possible it took place on Michaelmas day, September 29th, which marks the last day of summer and beginning of Autumn.