The Vision of Ceridwen

I’m the broken bird-thing
at her table again

her wizened hand
in my claws

telling her
I’m going to mend
our broken vision

and all will be beautiful.

***

Sometimes you end up in a myth. It’s not the myth you thought you’d end up in or the myth you chose. You’re not who you thought you would be. Nobody else sees the myth the same way you do.

It began when I first started learning about the Bardic Tradition and heard that Ceridwen was the goddess of the cauldron that brews awen, the poetic inspiration that is like mead to the Brythonic bards.

As a poet I thought Ceridwen was a goddess well worth meeting so I drew myself a cauldron, lit a candle, constructed a visualisation. One of those 2D interfaces that sometimes helps you interact with what is. I imagined Ceridwen as a blue-robed, dark-haired, faceless woman stirring a cauldron.

Nothing happened. Then, from nowhere, out leapt a hideous grey-haired hag who put her bony arms around my neck, nearly strangling me. She demanded I go with her to her cottage in her woods. She sat me down at her table in a room with a sun dial and smaller cauldron over the hearth on a wobbly three-legged stool and insisted that I call her ‘grandmother’. Initially I thought she was an ancestor.

I presumed this showed Ceridwen wasn’t interested in me. She already had worthier devotees. Soon afterwards I got found by my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn and guardian of the cauldron.

I met ‘grandmother’ again when I was travelling Annwn in search of inspiration on my flighty white-winged mare. She ditched me and I found myself falling downwards through the air, flapping my arms like wings, steadily acquiring black feathers, but not quickly enough to stop me hitting the ground. When I returned to my senses the hag-like woman was standing over me. With a wrinkly smile she told me I was ‘beginning to get my raven’s wings’ before taking me to her cottage again.

There she told me to look into her cauldron, where I saw in vivid blues and reds a Dark Age battle of clashing spears, crashing swords, broken shields, fallen flags, blood crimsoning the nearby waters, then the shades rising in a sorrowful march to depart. Researching it afterwards I realised it was the Battle of the Region Linuis fought by Arthur against the Saxons and wrote a poem about it*.

After this gift of awen from her cauldron I began to suspect the hag was the real (as opposed to my imagined) Ceridwen. The name ‘grandmother’ came to make sense a couple of years later. Gwyn had shown me a cauldron filled with stars and not long afterwards I went to see my friend, Nick Williams, performing an experimental poetry set in a blacked-out room with strobe lights. I had the sensation of being in a cauldron of poesy and also in the womb of the universe. I recalled that Nick refers to a goddess called Old Mother Universe and realised she is Ceridwen – the oldest mother of all.

I went on to write a book called The Broken Cauldron, focusing on how Ceridwen’s crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ is shattered in the Welsh myths and of my task of gathering the stars back into it.

Whereas, in the Bardic Tradition and Druidry, Taliesin and Arthur, those responsible for stealing the awen and the cauldron and the shatterings that have brought devastation to the land are hailed as heroes, I found myself standing in the shoes of Morfran ‘Sea Raven’, Ceridwen’s dark and ugly son, who was later known as Afagddu ‘Utter Darkness’.

He for whom she boils her cauldron in the hope the brew will inspire him and cure his imperfections. He who does not get the awen, who cannot win poetic inspiration the quick way, but must work to find the words to heal the lands poisoned by the contents of the broken cauldron, to repair it piece by piece, story by story, so the stars shine in bright new constellations on a new world.

Gwyn is my guide in this task, and in serving him, I am also serving Ceridwen. She does not appear to me often, but when she does, I am often her awkward black-winged child, the dark imperfect one.

As Afagddu I’m learning imperfection is necessary; an understanding of what others find repulsive, whether it’s darkness, death, decay, plastic, the monstrous creatures of Thisworld or the Otherworld. That these hold their own beauty when the concept is not corrupted by our society’s false ideals.

It’s not the Old Mother’s Universe that needs fixing, but the way we perceive it, the collective vision, which guides our acts. When we learn to see clearly both Creirwy* and Afagddu will be beautiful.

A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud Wikipedia Commons

*’The Region Linuis’ was first published in Heroic Fantasy HERE.
**Creirwy means ‘Lively Darling’. She is Afagddu’s beautiful (twin?) sister.

With thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the image ‘A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud’ by ESA/Hubble.

Shattered Vessels and Scattered Sparks

Notes on Welsh Mythology and Lurianic Kabbalah

In 2015 my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, showed me a cauldron filled with stars. Shortly afterwards I was transported into the scene in The Story of Taliesin, where Gwion Bach steals three drops of awen (1) and the cauldron breaks, spilling the deadly remnants of the brew across Gwyddno Garanhir’s lands. With it I saw the stars pouring out and was told by Gwyn my task was to gather them.

This story continues to play a guiding role in my path as an awenydd. I was recently astonished when I found similarities between my personal gnoses and Lurianic Kabbalah. This system was created by the Jewish Rabbi, Issac Luria (1534 – 1572) the Ari or the Holy Lion, who lived in Safed in Israel.

According to Luria Or Ein Sof ‘God’s Infinite Light’ was withdrawn in the Tzimtzum ‘contraction’ that made possible the creation of this finite world. The light continued to emanate through the ten eyes of Adam Kadmon ‘Primordial Man’. Each point of light formed the keter ‘crown’ of a sefirot ‘emanation’ in the world of Tohu ‘Chaos’. These lights were contained by ten vessels. Because the seven bottommost vessels could not contain the intensity of the lights they died, shattering, descending into Tohu. This was known as shevirat ha-kelim ‘the shattering of the vessels’. The three vessels at the top were more powerful and those lights continued to shine, emanating the Infinite Light.

Notozin ‘sparks’ of light clung to the fragments of the vessels. By the act of tikkun, the repair of the world above and below by gathering the sparks (seen both as divine light and holy souls)and returning them to the Creator the unity of the shattered God-Head could be re-established.

Parallels can be found between the broken cauldron and the shattered vessels and between tikkun and the task I was assigned by Gwyn, Gatherer of Souls, gathering the stars back into the cauldron. The three remaining vessels, emanating the Infinite Light, resemble the modern symbol for awen /I\.

In the Welsh myths the cauldron is the womb of Ceridwen. She is replaced as the source of awen and as a creator goddess by God in medieval poetry (2). Her cauldron lies in Annwn ‘the Deep’ and its guardian is Gwyn/Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it is stolen by Arthur and his men. We find the lines: ‘cledyf lluch Lleawc idaw ry dyrchit, / ac yn llaw Leminawc yd edewit’, ‘Lleog’s flashing sword was thrust into it, / and it was left in Lleminog’s hand’ (3). This potent image of violation is suggestive of the shattering of the cauldron in a lighting-flash and the theft of its pieces.

This scene might originate from an older creation myth akin to the Mesopotamian story of the slaying of the dragon-goddess, Tiamat ‘Deep’, by the lightning-god Marduk, and Indra’s release of the waters from the dragon, Vritra, by a thunderbolt in the Hindu tradition. In Genesis, before God creates the world, we are told ‘the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,’ suggesting the existence of an older water-deity.

The shattering of Ceridwen’s cauldron is the Big Bang, the moment of creation, when the waters spill out with the stars (4). Ceridwen may have created of her own will before Lleog broke her sacred vessel.

The cauldron is shattered repeatedly in Welsh mythology and these instances are bound up with the near-destruction of the world. In the Second Branch the cauldron breaks after pouring out the speechless dead in a battle that leaves only seven Britons alive and five pregnant women in Ireland. In The Story of Taliesin its breaking poisons Gwyddno’s lands. The survivors are left to pick up the pieces.

My task as an awenydd living in the Anthropocene, this Sixth Mass Extinction, precipitated by Lleog’s sword and Gwion’s theft of the awen shattering the cauldron, is to regather the stars. By gathering constellations of stories in service to Gwyn and Ceridwen I strive to repair the cauldron, the womb of Old Mother Universe, and mend the ways between Thisworld and Annwn. This is my Tikkun.

Photo by Marika Vinkmann on Unsplash

(1) The Welsh word for poetic inspiration stemming from the Indo-European *uel ‘to blow’ and sharing its root with awel ‘breeze’.
(2) This is evidenced in ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ and ‘The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin’ from The Book of Taliesin and the poems of Cuhelyn Fardd and Prydydd y Moch.
(3) Lleog ‘death-dealer’ (from Lleawc) and Lleminog ‘the leaper’ (from Leminawc) may be names of the same person, who may also be identified with Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the Fair-Haired One with the Skilful Hand’. It would certainly take his skill to steal the cauldron. All may be reflexes of the Pan-Celtic god, Lugus.
(4) This was suggested to me by an initiatory experience. After my first dedication to Gwyn, before the star cauldron (the candlelit White Spring at Glastonbury), I experienced swimming through a sea of stars.

SOURCES

Howard Schwartz, ‘How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism’, Tikkun
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Laurence Fine, ‘Tikkun in Lurianic Kabbalah’, My Jewish Learning
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Moshe Miller, ‘Shattered Vessels, Kabbalah Online
Patrick Ford (transl), Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
Genesis 1., New International Version, The International Bible Society

Henwen – The Birthing and Devouring Sow

gloucester-old-spot-sow-public-domain

I. Henwen – ‘Old White’

In Triad 26. we find the story of a sow called Henwen ‘Old White’. She belongs to Dallwyr Dalben and is kept in Glyn Dallwyr in Cornwall in the care of Coll, son of Collfrewy, one of three ‘Three Powerful Swineherds.’ She becomes pregnant and it is ‘prophesied that the Island of Britain would be the worse for the womb-burden.’ Therefore Arthur and his warriors set out to destroy her.

When Henwen is ready to farrow she goes into the sea at Penrhyn Awstin and is followed by Coll (and, presumably, Arthur and his men). Landing in Wales she begins to give birth to offspring. Surprisingly, they are not piglets! In Gwent she brings forth a grain of wheat and a bee, giving the name to Wheat Field, and in Pembroke barley, ‘therefore, the barley of Llonion is proverbial.’ In these two instances, in South Wales, Henwen’s births are benign and generative, creating crops and pollinators.

When Henwen reaches North Wales, however, she gives birth to wild creatures. At the Hill of Cyferthwch in Arfon she brings forth a wolf-cub and a young eagle. The wolf is given to Bergaed and the eagle to Breat, princes of the North, and they are both ‘the worse for them.’ We find a contrast between the fertile plains of South Wales and the wilder, more rugged regions of North Wales.

‘At Llanfair in Arfon under the Black Rock’ she gives birth to a kitten who is thrown by Coll into the sea. The sons of Palug foster it in Môn (Anglesey) ‘to their own harm’ and it becomes known as Palug’s Cat. In ‘Arthur and the Porter’ we are told that it was eventually ‘pierced’ by Arthur and his men. However, before they managed to kill it, nine score chieftains fell at dawn and it devoured them. Palug’s Cat was one of Three Great Oppressions of Môn along with Daronwy, and Edwin, King of Lloegr.

II. A Sow’s Feast

It believe that Henwen also makes an appearance in ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion. In this story Gwydion is searching for his nephew, Lleu. Gwydion stays at the house of a peasant in Manor Bennard. He learns his learns his host owns a sow who returns every night to feed her piglets. However, nobody knows where she goes during the day ‘any more than if she sank into the earth’. These lines recall Triad 26. where Henwen sinks into the sea, suggesting her otherworldly nature.

Gwydion follows the trail of the sow to a mighty oak which stands between two lakes and is neither wetted by water nor melted by fire. At its roots the sow is feasting hungrily on rotten flesh and maggots. When Gwydion looks up he sees they are falling from Lleu, who is perching in eagle-form in the top-most boughs, pierced by the spear of his rival, Gronw, the gore dripping from his rancid wound.

In the context of this story it seems significant that Gwydion is led to Lleu by this mysterious sow. Earlier Gwydion stole the seven piglets who were given to Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, by Arawn, King of Annwn (along with Coll and Drystan, Pryderi was one of the ‘Three Powerful Swineherds’).

These piglets were special, ‘some kind of creature that has never been in this island before has arrived in the South’. Gwydion’s theft led to a chase from South to North Wales and several devastating battles between his men and Pryderi’s. Pryderi was finally killed by Gwydion in single combat.

It is my intuition Henwen was the Annuvian mother of the seven piglets. Her devouring of Gwydion’s nephew may represent her taking back from him in exchange for what was stolen from her. The chase South to North and trail of devastation are thematically linked with Henwen’s story.

Another point of note is that Daronwy, ‘The Oak of Goronwy’, is referred to as ‘the radiance of the men of Goronwy’ and therefore associated with Lleu’s rival, Gronw Pebr (pebyr mean ‘radiant’). It could be the oak where Lleu perched after being wounded by Gronw’s spear – a scene based on an older initiatory myth. With Henwen’s clawing child, Palug’s Cat, it is included in the Oppressions of Mon. Thus it makes sense to find Henwen devouring the dying Lleu back into Annwn at its roots.

III. Hwcha Ddu Gwta – ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’

In Welsh folklore we find a mysterious verse about Hwch Ddu Gwta ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’:

Black short-tailed sow
On every stile
Spinning and weaving
On Calan Gaeaf night

Get home quick, be the first
The Hwch Ddu Gwta gets the last.

She is said to emerge from the ashes of bonfires on Nos Galan Gaeaf and wait at stiles to prey on people walking home late. It is bad luck to be the last to get home as Hwch Ddu Gwta will eat you.

It seems possible the white Henwen, the birthing mother who provided the harvest, is also the black devourer.

There is a similar legend in southern Sweden. Gloso is a ‘glowing sow’ who appears ‘over the twelve days of Christmas’ with ‘eyes of fire, sparks spring from her bristle, and she travels like a burning flame.’ This recalls Hwch Ddu Gwta’s birth from the embers on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

She is also connected with the harvest. Three blades of wheat are left for her in the field. ‘These are for Gloso: one for Christmas night, one for the night of the new year, one for king’s night.’ This makes me wonder whether similar rituals existed to appease the harvest sow in her darker winter apparel.

IV. Ceridwen – The Old Mother

Greg Hill suggests Hwch Ddu Gwta might be connected with the Ladi Wen ‘White Lady’ who also walks abroad on Nos Galan Gaeaf, and with Ceridwen, the goddess of the cauldron. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, also identified the sow with Ceridwen, ‘the White Lady of Death and Inspiration.’

It is my personal belief that Ceridwen is the Old Mother of the Universe, the Great Goddess from whose crochan, ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’, all life is born and to whom it returns at death. This would certainly fit with the Henwen ‘Old White’ as the mother who births harvests and monsters and swallows the dead.

SOURCES

Charles Lecouteux, Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Dead, (Inner Traditions, 2011)
Greg Hill, ‘Traditional Customs for the Calend of Winter’, Dun Brython
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (Faber & Faber, 1999)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

The Giant’s Letters

In Barddas Iolo Morganwg provides a mythical account of the origin of letters, which he claims was passed down from the ancient Bards of the Isle of Britain.

‘Einigain, Einigair, or Einiger, the Giant, was the first that made a letter to be a sign of the first vocalisation that ever was heard, namely, the Name of God. That is to say, God pronounced His Name, and with the word all the world and its appurtenances, and all the universe leaped together into existence and life, with the triumph of a song of joy. The same song was the first poem that was ever heard, and the sound of the song travelled as far as God and his existence are, and the way in which every other existence, springing into unity with Him, has travelled forever and ever… It was from the hearing, and from him who heard it, that sciences and knowledge and understanding and awen from God, were obtained. The symbol of God’s name from the beginning was /|\…

Einigan the Giant beheld the three pillars of light, having in them all demonstrable sciences that ever were, or ever will be. And he took three rods of the quicken tree, and placed on them the forms and signs of all sciences, so as to be remembered; and exhibited them. But those who saw them misunderstood, and falsely apprehended them, and taught illusive sciences, regarding the rods as a God, whereas they only bore His Name. When Einigan saw this, he was greatly annoyed, and in the intensity of his grief he broke the three rods, nor were others found that contained accurate sciences. He was so distressed on that account that from the intensity he burst asunder, and with his (parting) breath he prayed God that there should be accurate sciences among men in the flesh, and there should be a correct understanding of of the proper discernment thereof. And at the end of a year and a day, after the decease of Einigan, Menw, son of the Three Shouts, beheld three rods growing out of the mouth of Einigan, which exhibited the sciences of the Ten Letters, and the mode in which all the sciences of language and speech were arranged by them, and in language and speech all distinguishable sciences. He then took the rods and taught from them the sciences – all except the name of God, which he kept a secret, lest the Name should be falsely discerned; and hence arose the Secret of the Bards of the Isle of Britain.’

The letters were known as gogyrven, a term which has been translated as ‘spirit’ and ‘muse’, and provides the sense that the letters were inspirited and possessed their own lives and potent agency.

When etched onto wood with a knife each letter was known as a coelbren ‘omen stick’ and ‘The Coelbren’ was the name given to the alphabet, which later developed to contain twenty-four letters.

***

It has long been proven that Morganwg’s writings are forgeries and were not passed on from the ancient bards. They are also heavily influenced by Christianity. However, they may still be read as inspired works that contain deep truths open to reinterpretation from a modern Brythonic pagan perspective.

From numerous instances in medieval Welsh poetry where poets deny adamantly that awen is from God and not from the Great Goddess Ceridwen* we can derive that God replaced Ceridwen as the creator of the world and source of the awen. Their denials conceal an older truth. That the universe was born when she spoke her secret name which brought about the primal shattering of her crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ – the Big Bang, and the echoing of her name throughout creation as awen-song.

If Ceridwen is our great creatrix, Old Mother Universe, who heard her song? Who is Einigan the Giant? A clue may be found in the name gogyrven or ogryven for letter. Ogryven is also the name of a giant. Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd speaks of ‘a girl in Ogyrven’s Hall’:

Unwilling to leave her (it would be my death)
My life-force is with her, my vitality ebbs
Like a legendary lover my desire undoes me
For a girl I can’t reach in Ogyrven’s Hall.

John Rhys says: ‘three muses had emerged from Giant Ogyrven’s cauldron. But Ogyrven seems to be one of the names of the terrene god, so that Ogyrven’s cauldron should be no other probably than that which we have found ascribed to the Head of Hades.’ It seems that Ogyrven is Pen Annwn, the Head of the Otherworld and guardian of Ceridwen’s cauldron. He is elsewhere known as Arawn or Gwyn ap Nudd.

The identity of Einigan with the Head of the Otherworld is consolidated by Iolo himself. In a later passage in Barddas, referring to the creation of the world we find the following dialogue:

Disciple: ‘By what instrumentality or agency did God make these things?’
Master: ‘By the voice of his mighty energy…’
Disciple: ‘Did any living being hear that melodious voice?’
Master: ‘Yes; and co-instantaneously with the voice were seen all sciences and all things cognitive, in the imperishable and endless stability of their existence and life. For the first that existed, and the first that lived, the first that obtained knowledge, and the first that knew it, was the first that practiced it. And the first sage was Huon, the son of Nudd, who is called Gwynn, the son of Nudd, and Enniged the Giant.’

Menw is a character from Welsh mythology who fittingly knows the language of the animals. The reference to him being the ‘son of Three Shouts’ may refer to the ritual cry of Diaspad Uwch Annwfn ‘the scream over Annwn’ and the power of the voice to summon Annuvian spirits to blight land and people.

Thus we have the seeds of an alternative story of the origin of letters inspired by Morganwg’s writings.

***

The Giant’s Letters

In the beginning there was Annwn, the Deep, a place of silent darkness within the crochan of the Great Goddess. In that silence, in that depth, a very small something formed – a name. And when the Goddess spoke her name, her womb, her cauldron shattered with an almighty bang, her waters broke and poured out in torrents of stars, planets, worlds, our beautiful world amongst them. The universe and its song were born from the secret name of Old Mother Universe and that song was known as awen.

But what is a song with noone to hear it? It was lucky that another of the gods of the Deep heard the song. He is known as Einigan the Giant, Ogryven the Giant, Gwyn ap Nudd, and countless other names. When he heard it, it was so powerful, so full of the joy of the becoming of the universe, so full of the sorrow of the shattering of the cauldron that would be never be whole again, that it seared three burning rays of light into his mind /|\. No matter whether he was sleeping or waking, no matter whether he sat still or ran or hunted through the universe for their source on his dark starry-eyed steed, they would not disappear and the song would not stop repeating itself over and over again.

“What is it you want? What is your demand?” he growled whilst resting at noon beneath a quicken tree.

“We want to be born, we want to be known, we want to be understood.”

The giant finally realised what must be done. Taking his knife he harvested a branch from the tree and cut it into three rods. Onto them he engraved markings for the ten deepest and most primal notes of the song, chanting each gogyrven over and over again, channeling into it its share of the light. When the three coelbren, ‘omen sticks’ as he called them, were formed, the rays faded from his mind. As he looked upon his creation he was filled with a feeling of deep satisfaction and peace and a strange but rightful emptiness, not unlike a mother who has just given birth to three beautiful children.

Yet he still could not rest until he found people who would come to know and understand his creation. He passed on the letters, but, to his horror, they soon lost their meaning. Rather than recognising them as the awen-song of Old Mother Universe, the echoing of her secret name, they began to worship the letters and the knowledge that they allowed them to accumulate instead. Every time a letter was written without purpose he was aware of the light of the universe fading out. He grew so angry that he broke the rods. The intensity of his grief burst his heart, burst him asunder like the broken cauldron. With his last breath he prayed their connection to the song of the awen and their rightful expression in poetry would be reclaimed.

A year and a day afterwards, Menw, son of Three Shouts, beheld the three rods growing from the giant’s mouth. Everywhere his parts had fallen the shoots of new forests of wild words sprang up. Menw learnt the letters and found to his delight they allowed him to commune with the animals who ran ran through those woodlands, with the stones, the rivers, the mountains, the bright shining stars. With all the things that echoed with the Song of Old Mother Universe. When he sang them out loud in perfect poetry he saw three rays of light burning in his mind and his heart was filled with joy.

Menw passed on the secrets of the awen to others who, like him, became awenyddion. When the last died, the light faded. Until those three rays were seen once again by an awenydd called Iolo Morganwg, who penned the story of Einigan the Giant. His works were passed on to others who would answer the giant’s prayer and reclaim the connection of his letters to the name of Old Mother Universe.

And what became of him? Death is rarely the end of a giant. Einigan died and returned to the cauldron. From it he was reborn as its guardian, the Head of Annwn, the ruler of the land of the dead from which the universe was born and to which it will return, as his reward for creating the letters.

abcedilros - the giant's letters

*Taliesin says:

I entreat my Lord
that (I may) consider inspiration:
what brought forth (that) necessity
before Ceridfen
at the beginning, in the world
which was in need?

In ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ we find tension between conflicting translations of peir as ‘cauldron’ or ‘Sovereign’ (God). ‘Ban pan doeth o peir / ogyrwen awen teir’; ‘Splendid (was it) when there emanated from the Sovereign/cauldron / the ogyrwen of triune inspiration’.

Amongst later bards petitioning Ceridwen for awen is only acceptable when disguised as a metaphor and under the ordinance of God. Cuhelyn Fardd asks God for poetic power akin to ‘the dignity of Ceridfen’s song, of varied inspiration’. Prydydd y Moch requests inspiration from God ‘as from Ceridfen’s cauldron’ and asks God for ‘the words of Ceridfen, the director of poetry’.

SOURCES

Greg Hill, ‘The Girl in Ogyrven’s Hall’, The Way of the Awenydd, (2015)
Greg Hill, ‘Who was Taliesin?’, Awen ac Awenydd
Iolo Morganwg, The Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
John Michael Greer, The Coelbren Alphabet, (Llewellyn, 2017)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Afagddu’s Sorrows

I.

Oh bone bird mother
do you not see my skeleton on the beach?

Do you not know which cormorant I was?

Do you not know how many stones I ate?
Do you not know of the sorrow of plastic I choked on?
Do you not know how I swallowed enough poison
to save the world but it was still not enough?

Whatever I did I could never gain perfection
with my oily wings, my puddling feet,
my shuffling look of misery.

II.

When I fought I flew into
a blind unchannelled rage like a primeval bird
and no-one could bring me back, could call me back again…

thus I was better as an attendant demon believed malevolent.

I could have been a bard if I had not sung the wrong songs –
the antithesis of the music of the tongue, disharmony, un-cynghanedd.

If my words had not creaked like a broken wing beating and beating
up above as I went about picking up loose pieces of words
that had been discarded like the limbs of dolls
and sad squashed teddies.

III.

In my childhood I had no hug, no cot, no mobile, no talking abacus,
and my mum did not leave the television on.

I didn’t really get to know the village where I was born
down beneath Lake Bala from which only
a harper and robin escaped.

I was more interested in the secret tunnel
between the worlds into which I could drag my ‘belongings’
and keep them safe – the rubbery Wellingtons,
the scribbly marker pens and notes.

Bala has always led to Tryweryn –

to the sunken villages and the empty beds
into which I climbed longing for mum and dad,

to the empty post office, school, chapel, chapel house,
to the cemetery and the new memorial chapel.

IV.

Black, ragged, bloated on November nights
I cannot remember my birthday but only the birthday
of my sister and how this was celebrated with whistles and balloons.

I instead was tarred and feathered and pecked to death

until I was rags and banners of intestine
and of course the cold dry bones,

until the door was opened
and I was bidden go.

Oh bird bone mother
if only you could see me now –

I am flying high beyond perfection.


The Stellar Origins of Taliesin

I.

Taliesin 4am

A premature foetus
with eyelids stretched closed
inner eyes pondering
the universe within

born from the cauldron
of Ceridwen
after the disaster
dancing its stillbirth
like a puppet on the wind

something fay
something alien
something that fell from the stars

II.

The story of the (re)birth of Taliesin is well known. A young man called Gwion Bach stole the Awen from the cauldron of Ceridwen, leaving it shattered and the land poisoned. He fled and was pursued by Ceridwen, each shifting through a series of forms. He was finally swallowed as a piece of grain by Ceridwen as a great black hen. Ceridwen gave birth to him as Taliesin.

Throughout the poetry attributed to Taliesin he repeatedly states this identity is only one of his many forms. For example at the beginning of ‘The Battle of the Trees’ he says ‘I was in a multitude of forms / before I was unfettered’ and lists a number of his transformations:

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 a word in writing,
I was a book in my prime.
I was the light of a lantern
for a year and a half.

This way Taliesin consistently denies his origins from Ceridwen’s crochan ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’. It is notable he never refers to her as ‘mother’. In ‘The Battle of the Trees’ he states explicitly: ‘It was not from a mother and father / that I was made’ then he tells an alternative story of his creation:

and my creation was created for me
from nine forms of consistency:
from fruit, from fruits,
from God’s fruit in the beginning;
from primroses and flowers,
from the blossom of trees and shrubs,
from earth, from the sod
was I made,
from nettle blossom,
from the ninth wave’s water.
Math created me
before I was completed.
Gwydion fashioned me –
great enchantment wrought by a magic staff;
by Eurwys, by Euron,
by Euron, by Modron;
by five enchanters –
of a kind like godparents
was I reared.

In ‘The Greater Song of the World’ he says he was made by God from ‘seven consistencies’:

of fire and earth,
and water and air,
and mist and flowers,
and the fruitful wind.

In ‘The Story of Taliesin’ he makes a stranger claim: ‘my original country is the region of the summer stars’. We have already seen Taliesin state he has been ‘the stellar radiance of the stars’. How does this sit with his account of his creation and his (re)birth from Ceridwen’s womb?

III.

Marged Haycock notes Taliesin’s words share similarities with apocryphal Middle Age sources describing the creation of ‘the microcosmic Adam’ not only from dust, but ‘from land and sea, earth, the clouds of the firmament, wind, stones, the light of the world’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’.

There are parallels between the creation of Taliesin as microcosm and the world as macrocosm. Intriguingly we now know our world was born from the stars through the process of stellar nucleosynthesis. The Taliesin poems uncannily predict the theses of modern science. All the elements that make up our planet and the life upon it originate from the stars.

After the Big Bang the stars formed as hydrogen and helium were drawn together by gravity and nuclear fusion began. Hydrogen was burnt first, then helium, which produced carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, argon, calcium, titanium, chromium, and iron. The collapse and explosion of stars in supernovae ejected the elements across the universe.

Our solar system was born from a cloud of interstellar gas and dust composed of hydrogen, helium, and elements from supernovae. As gravity caused it to contract nuclear fusion began in the sun and the planets, including the earth, formed. From the elements came life – microorganisms, plants, trees, fish, birds, animals, then humans and all our creations.

Taliesin is indeed correct that he originates from the stars. The story of the creation of Taliesin by ‘five godparents’: Gwydion, Math, Eurys, Euron, and Modron, is also the story of the creation of the world. It may even be suggested these five deities were once seen to have a role as creator gods, perhaps sharing a similarity with the archons of the Gnostic tradition.

IV.
Taliesin seems to have succeeded in denying his motherhood by Ceridwen. In fact denial of Ceridwen’s status as the Great Goddess of the cauldron, the womb of all life, is a consistent theme throughout the poems attributed to Taliesin and medieval Welsh poetry as a whole.

In ‘The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin’ he says:

I entreat my Lord
that (I may) consider inspiration:
what brought forth (that) necessity
before Ceridfen
at the beginning, in the world
which was in need?

Here he is claiming that awen, inspiration, born from Ceridwen’s cauldron is of earlier origin.

In ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ we find tension between conflicting translations of peir as ‘cauldron’ or ‘Sovereign’ (God). ‘Ban pan doeth o peir / ogyrwen awen teir’; ‘Splendid (was it) when there emanated from the Sovereign/cauldron / the ‘ogyrwen’ of triune inspiration’.

Amongst later bards petitioning Ceridwen for awen is only acceptable when disguised as a metaphor and under the ordinance of God. Cuhelyn Fardd asks God for poetic power akin to ‘the dignity of Ceridfen’s song, of varied inspiration’. Prydydd y Moch requests inspiration from God ‘as from Ceridfen’s cauldron’ and asks God for ‘the words of Ceridfen, the director of poetry’.

However, it cannot be denied that when Gwydion and company create Taliesin they are tapping into the creative processes of the womb of the universe and its old mother herself – Ceridwen.

If the stars were born from that first shattering of Ceridwen’s cauldron, the Big Bang, and Taliesin was born from the stars, then Ceridwen is still his mother and this cannot be denied. She will always be his beginning and his ending and he will never escape her no matter how hard he denies her as the origin of his creation and no matter how fast he shifts form and runs.

SOURCESAndrew Zimmerman Jones, ‘Stellar Nucleosynthesis’, Thought.com, (2017)
August Hunt, ‘Dinas Emrys and the Goddess Euron’, Shadows in the Mist (2017)
Greg Hill, ‘Who was Taliesin?’ Awen ac Awenydd
Marged Haycock, Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)


Twrand o’r Gyre

A hen got hold of me –
a red-clawed one, a crested enemy;
I spent nine nights
residing in her womb
The Hostile Confederacy

Bird-Head

“The witch Ceridwen made me like this.”

He reminds me of one of Baskin’s cave birds:
the bare white skull with its long maxilla,
the sclerotic ring,

the way he stares just ‘so’ like a raptor,
cervical vertebrae twisting down

to feathered shoulders.

Immediately I have questions
I know I shouldn’t ask –

like where he got his cloak,
whether it’s part of him,
what’s beneath.

I keep my beak well shut,

follow with respect up the mountain
to the tap-tap-tap of his stick

as he points out bones picked clean by birds,

the skeleton still sitting waiting for death.

When I grow weary I think of how the dying
made it higher with their last breath
and stumble on to the summit.

Will I fall apart in a heap of bones
or crumble into a pile of dust?

Only his sunken eyes know.

Gyre

I totter like an old woman.

Before I’ve had the chance to look down
at what I’ve left behind I’m swept

into a gyre,
circling and circling
with the last things of Thisworld –
a wardrobe emptying of clothes,
a cupboard spilling chutnies,
jams, ketchups, vinegar.

Things I’ll dimly miss.

A new set of wings
is beating in my chest
carrying me higher higher.
The sun is my new head
illuminating the plains
of a new horizon.

Its brightness is beyond pain,
understanding, words such as ‘firmament’,
‘cloud’,‘cirrocumulus’, ‘Heaven.’

Here

the winged souls are busy,

half human, half bird,

hollowing out their bones
with the chink, chink, chink
of tiny chisels, breaking

and re-fixing humerus,
ulna, radius, fusing carples
and phalanges into wings.

Separating toes into claws.

Stretching lungs into air sacs
and filling lightened bodies full
of soulful air and otherlight.

Far Above

they are greeted by elders
who teach them to build nests

with sticks and clothes pegs,
moss, spit, newspaper cuttings
of past lives they wished they had,
toys, shoes, watch hands, fluff
from the bellies of teddy bears.

Like little old women or foetuses
they climb back into the eggs,

back into a chick-like slumber,

back into the womb of an old hen,
back into the cauldron of Ceridwen,
back into before they were born.

Nine Nights

Finally Twrand tells his story:

“For nine nights and nine days
I resided in her womb asleep like
a feather in the skies drifting from
planet to planet learning stories
of other worlds beyond her dreams
and all her deepest imaginings.

I saw the trajectory of Thisworld.

I plucked the feather of my Awen
from the side of a red-clawed hen.

When I was born she killed me:

wrung my neck, bent me out of shape.
I raised my skeleton from the sand,
fixed my wings and learnt to ride
the winds of the gyre unreturning.”

Twrand o'r Gyre MML

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)

Annuvian Awen

Annuvian Awen

Allan o dywyllwch caf fy ngeni
Allan o waed caf fy ngeni
Allan o ysbryd caf fy ngeni

Yn canu o Annwn

Tri phelydryn golau
Tri phelydryn llais
Tri phelydryn wirionedd

I oleuo â rhyfeddod
Ac yn torri’r galon wytnaf

Yn canu o Annwn

~

Out of darkness I am born
Out of blood I am born
Out of spirit I am born

Singing from Annwn

Three rays of light
Three rays of voice
Three rays of truth

To illuminate with wonder
And break the hardest heart

Singing from Annwn

~

About a month ago I awoke with the symbol above in my mind with the name ‘Annuvian Awen’. Awen derives from the Indo-European *-uel ‘to blow’ and has the same root as the Welsh awel ‘breeze’. It is the primordial breath that binds all things, as Kristoffer Hughes says, ‘the voice of the universe speaking to itself’.

The Awen symbol was popularised by Iolo Morganwg in the 1860s. He claimed it was derived from a Welsh alphabet recorded by Nennius in the ninth century and that its meaning was ‘I am that I am’. It has been used by Neo-Druids since.

In medieval Welsh poetry ‘the ogyrven of threefold inspiration’ originate from the cauldron of Ceridwen. Crochan means both ‘cauldron’ and ‘womb’. It is the place from which all beings of the universe are born and to where they return at death.

The cauldron of Ceridwen lies in Annwn, ‘Very Deep’, the ancient British Otherworld. It is guarded by the Head of Annwn: a god with many names who I know as Gwyn ap Nudd. Gwyn guides the souls of the dead and of living initiates to the cauldron.

The black background of the Annuvian Awen represents the origin of Awen from the darkness of Ceridwen’s cauldron in the depths of Annwn. The red stands for the blood of the dead (human and non-human) whose sacrifices have made it possible the living can have Awen. The white is spirit: the breath, the voice of truth, the misty otherlight of the ogyrven ‘spirits’ contained in the person of Gwyn ‘White’ who is also known as the giant Ogyrven.

When I had created the design I received the gnosis I must write a poem to accompany it in English and Welsh. My Welsh is very basic. Having written the English version with an eye to how it looked and sounded in Welsh, translating as I went, I contacted fellow awenydd and Welsh-speaker Greg Hill for help with the translation.

Greg corrected my grammatical errors and helped me with choices of individual words. Interestingly this led to changing the tense of the English poem from past to present which was a big improvement. This fortuitous exchange of Awen between awenyddion gave birth to the poem in its present form. We decided to use it with the symbol on the front page of ‘Awen ac Awenydd’: a website providing a repository of information on the awenydd path.

For me the Annuvian Awen forms an expression of the path of the awenydd that acknowledges the importance of depth in our increasingly superficial world; the need to recover the inspiration that lies in the deeps of Annwn and in the deep places of our souls to combat the soullessness that allows the destructive systems that are wrecking Thisworld to thrive.

The ways to Annwn are dark, misty, uncertain, steeped in blood, for the most part forgotten. Yet there are gods and guides who offer to walk with us and share our quest. So we go with them through the darkness, across the river of blood, to return with the otherlight to illuminate the beauty of Thisworld because not only our lives but the lives of our souls depend on it.

SOURCES

Angela Grant, ‘A Short History of the Awen’, The Druid Network
Greg Hill, ‘Awen’, Awen ac Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘Taliesin, the Bardic Tradition and the Awen’, The Way of the Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Girl in Ogyrven’s Hall’
Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (Thoth Publications, 2007)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Awen’, Wikipedia

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.

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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)