Landslip

Fairy Lane, January 2021

Landslip, landslide,
we live in treacherous times,
the very land we hold so dear to us
with the grounds of life as we know it is
being pulled from beneath our feet.

Orange mesh and ‘Do Not Enter’ signs
at the entrances to Fairy Lane do not deter me
slipping by fay-like to bear witness
to another cataclysmic event.

For a long while railings, gravestones,
have been falling away and no-one speaks
of gathering up the bones of the dead.

This has been a place of peace with its
holy well, monastery, church, and chapel,
but has also been a place of penitence.

Black Roger sent to the ends of the earth.

(I sometimes wonder if I am a penitent
and whether I have served my time).

The weather gods have been cruel
this year with their freeze-thaw-rain
dichotomy opening fresh wounds.

The steps leading down to the yew
where I first met Gwyn ap Nudd and to him
made my dedication defying the transcendent gaze

of the Christian God who has never set foot on this earth
(except perhaps in his son whose feet in ancient times
may have walked here in Blake’s poetry)

are now twisted like something out of Labyrinth.

He has thrown my world out of kilter again –
a consequence of being devoted to a wild god…

When I see trees upside-down I think how natural
it is for us to fall whereas trees are born upright
and to go root over crown is certain death.

Yet as we grow older falls hurt more
and we come to wonder which will be the last.

~

I wrote this poem after being called to bear witness to yet another cataclysmic event in my local area. It was three days until the January full moon, on which I made my life-long dedication to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, beside the leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane two years ago. (I made my initial dedication to him at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor on the January moon in 2013.)

It’s a place I visit often, so I was surprised, when I got there, to find orange mesh across the entrance from the A59 and to read a notice stating that the footpath was closed due to a landslip. I walked to the second entrance by the Ribble where, again, I found the orange mesh, but it didn’t extend into the woodland.

Following the intuition that the place was safe now and my gods wanted me to see what had happened I slipped past. Usually the council will fence things off at the tiniest reason. This was not small. It was catastrophic. A whole swathe of land had slipped away from the side of Church Avenue, which runs along Castle Hill – a pen ‘prominent headland’ – shaped a bit like Pendle. It had piled up on Fairy Lane with the debris of huge ivy-clad trees in their prime, fallen root over crown.

Furthermore the steps leading down to the leaning yew had been skewed and looked dangerous.

In some ways, that this had happened, was not a surprise. The whole bank, with its leaning trees, has always looked precarious. There have been landslips before, bearing away railings and graves. Due to falling gravestones the castle mound and parts of the graveyard have been closed off for several years.

There are several reasons for the instability of the land. When the river Ribble was moved five hundred yards south from her original course to run beside Castle Hill, the sandstone bedrock was shattered. The aquifer beneath the hill was broken, leading to the holy well at the hill’s foot drying up. The building of the adjacent by-pass and its vibrations are likely causing the damaged land to slip.

The final contributor to this is the recent weather with its dangerous patterns of freezing, thawing, and heavy rain. No doubt all these factors have come together to cause these landslip.

Yet as well as physical reasons there are spiritual reasons too. The conversion of the hill and well from a pre-Christian to Christian sacred site and the severing of the links between the people and the gods of the land have led to the mindset that makes moving a river, shattering an aquifer that feeds a holy well, and building a by-pass beside a sacred place acceptable. Within a culture that saw the river as a divinity and the hill as the body of a goddess and abode of the dead and their god these would have been seen as acts of desecration that would bring about the wrath of the gods. And so their anger is seen in the decline of this once (and still on occasion) beautiful and enchanting place.

My first thought, when I arrived at the scene, was that this was linked somehow to my Gwyn dedication. Had I done something wrong? Was I on the wrong track? Might it be linked to the series of workshops on Gwyn and his family I am planning with other Gwyn devotees for Land Sea Sky Travel?

I received the gnosis that the landslip had nothing to do with me or my actions and would have happened anyway. I was already in two minds about visiting the yew on my dedication day as I am at my conservation internship on that day and don’t really want to go at night without a friend to accompany me (due to lockdown).

What it means to have the place I met Gwyn and made my life-long dedication cut off I haven’t cogitated yet. It seems to fit with two bridges over the Ribble being declared dangerous and closed. The land, the gods, displaying their anger, the council attempting to protect us, connections being severed.

This event has also made me aware the yew, leaning precariously on an ash, won’t be there forever…

Burning Mary and the End of Days Sun

Following the revelations that Anrhuna, the Dragon Mother, was reborn as Matrona and replaced by Mary I journeyed to find out more about the land of the dragons. My dragon guide took me on her back to view a scene where the sky was pink, the molten orb of the sun was shrouded by mist, stony platforms floated, and a red dragon flew slowly and majestically by, leaving traces of smoke in the air.

I felt touched and honoured by its beauty but at the same time realised I felt fragile, paper thin. I was no longer sitting on a dragon but was in the tenuous hold of two winged beings, one on each shoulder.

They took me to follow the red dragon into a cave which I instantly knew was ‘the Womb Room’, where Anrhuna’s womb was taken for safekeeping after she had been slain by the Children of the Stars. Within it was a mural of Mary with her child and all around it were red flames.

The red dragon told me that Mary must ‘burn’ so that Anrhuna could return to dragon form again.

Then I received the insight that it is we, humans, who are keeping Anrhuna as Mary in human form. But, knowing how many millions of people love her, I realised that even if I had the power to ‘burn’ her and thus take her away it would be wrong and that this was not my role or my place. I wondered whether ‘burn’ might have a different meaning to being burnt or being destroyed. Could there be some kind of revelation of Mary as Anrhuna in which just her image was burnt away?

At this point I realised that other humans had been to the Womb Room before me to paint the mural and that there were offerings there – a vase of flowers and coins and statuettes and other treasures.

I was afterwards told that the sun always hangs within this land and is ‘The End of Days Sun’. That it is a piece of ‘dragon art’. That the sun isn’t really in their land, but they create this art to remind them of the imminence of the End of Days. I had a feeling this was an important part of their lore.

This vision combined with my constant calling to ‘see Mary’ when I’m out walking, whether it is a visit to the site of St Mary’s Well and St Mary’s Church on Castle Hill in Penwortham, St Mary’s in Bamber Bridge, Our Lady and St Patrick in Walton-le-Dale, Ladyewell in Fernyhalgh, or the old St Mary’s in Leyland, prompted me to do some research on Saint Mary the Virgin in Christianity.

To my astonishment it revealed some imagery which fits quite closely with my vision. I found out that Mary is often identified with ‘the woman clothed with the sun’ in the Book of Revelations. She appears ‘with child’ ‘travailing in birth’ then appears ‘a great red dragon’ waiting to devour the child (!).

The child (Jesus) is taken up to the throne of God and the woman flees to the wilderness. Hence follows the battle between the angels and the dragon (the Devil) and his angels and their casting out. The dragon persecutes Mary but she is given eagle’s wings with which to fly away. He then tries to drown her in a flood of water but the earth saves her by swallowing it. Finally he turns on her descendants.

Here we find Mary with child and burning or ‘clothed with the sun’ which is also ‘the End of Days Sun’ relating to the time of apocalypse or revelation and a reference to a primal battle against a dragon.

Only the stories are very different. In the Christian story the red dragon is the adversary of Mary, God, with whom she conceives her son, and his angels, who battle against the dragon/Devil and his angels. In the story I have been gifted the war between Anrhuna as the Dragon Mother and the Children of the Stars has already taken place and the red dragon is advising me to ‘burn’ Mary. It is, at least, interesting that Mary was given eagle’s wings and I was held in the air by two winged beings.

I have no idea what to make of these complex overlappings and reconfigurings of images yet but feel that in some sense revealing them here is part of the process through which Mary may burn yet not be burnt. Perhaps like the burning bush – ‘the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.’

When I went to visit Mary at Our Lady and Saint Patrick’s on the first of June it was sweltering. She looked serene. Contrastingly my backpack was sweated to my back and the sun was scorching my bare calves.

Mary said: “It’s not me who is burning but you.”

Those are but Devils

Witches dancing with devils from the History of Wizards and Witches 1720

An essay on the demonisation of Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwfn

Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic underworld. In two medieval Welsh texts he and the spirits he rules are identified with devils.

In How Culhwch Won Olwen we are told, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd… God has put the fury of the devils of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’

The introduction of God’s agency is clearly a Christian attempt to explain Gwyn’s containment of the spirits of Annwfn. These spirits include the restless dead who have died suddenly or violently:

Some headless stood upon the ground,
Some had no arms, and some were torn
With dreadful wounds, and some lay bound
Fast to the earth in hap forlorn.

And some full-armed on horses sat,
And some were strangled as at meat,
And some were drowned as in a vat,
And some were burned with fiery heat,
Wives lay in child-bed, maidens sweet…

…such the fairies seize and keep.

Others such as the Tylwyth Teg, ‘Fair Family’, or ‘fairies’ and ellyllon, ‘spectres’, ‘goblins’, ‘elves’ occupy a liminal position between life and death, humanity and nature, and mitigate between the worlds. Christians identify these complex and ambiguous spirits with dieuyl, ‘devils’.

Gwyn presents a paradox that does not sit easily with Christianity’s black-and-white theology: because he contains the spirits of Annwfn within him and/or within his realm he is the only being who can hold back their aryal, ‘fury’, and prevent them from destroying this world.

In The Life of St Collen, Collen, the abbot of Glastonbury, overhears two men conversing outside his cell saying Gwyn is ‘king of Annwfn and of the Fairies’. Putting his head out he shouts, ‘Hold your tongues quickly, those are but Devils’.

Collen is invited to feast in Gwyn’s castle on the Tor. There he refuses to eat, saying the food is ‘leaves’ and the red and blue clothing of Gwyn’s host signifies ‘burning’ and ‘coldness’; it is hellish. Collen supposedly banishes them with holy water.

***

Gwyn’s association with devils stems from a longstanding Christian tradition of identifying pagan deities with the Devil and demons and the realm of the dead with Hell. Any god who was not the one God, who demanded no other gods be worshipped before him, was seen as demonic.

In The Bible, Beelzebub, a Semitic deity originally called Baal-zebul, ‘Lord of Princes’, is equated with the Devil along with Satan and Lucifer. The ‘false gods’ of the Canaanites are referred to as ‘demons’ and the se’irim ‘hairy beings’ or satyros (ie. satyrs) as ‘goat-demons’.

The concept of Hell developed much later. In The Old Testament the original Hebrew word is Sheol, ‘the place of the dead’ (it is frequently translated as ‘the grave’). In The New Testament, Hell is translated from Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna. Hades means ‘the unseen place’ and is the name of the Greek underworld and its ruler. Tarturus is ‘the deep place’ beneath Hades. Contrastingly, Gehenna is a thisworldly place, the Valley of Hinnom, where the Kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire, leading to it being cursed.

Hell derives from the Old English hel or helle stemming from Proto-Germanic *haljo ‘the underworld’ or ‘concealed place’. Hel is also the name of its goddess. Ironically it is a borrowed pagan concept which is not of Biblical origin.

The idea of the land of the dead as a place of punishment by eternal fire was developed in the early days of the Church by scholars such as Second Clement, Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch as a means of controlling the populace. Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regus, was the first Christian leader to teach ‘the doctrine of eternal punishment’ during the 4th century.

Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, shares parallels with the other pagan underworlds and places of the dead. In medieval Welsh mythology there is plenty of evidence that, following their Christianisation between the 4th and 7th centuries, the Britons resisted the view that Annwfn was a place of punishment.

In ‘The First Branch’ of The Mabinogion and even in The Life of St Collen it is a place of beautiful courts and castles, lavishly dressed courtiers, and sumptuous feasts. These paradisal depictions are echoed in later fairylore demonstrating Annwfn became byd Tylwyth Teg, ‘Fairyland’ or ‘Faerie’.

Gwyn’s name means ‘White, Blessed, Holy’ and Gwynfa ‘Paradise’. In Barddas, Iolo Morganwg speaks of Cylch y Gwynvyd, ‘the Circle of White’, ‘the Holy World’ noting gwynvyd denotes ‘bliss or happiness’. Gwynfa and Gwynvyd might originate from a tradition wherein, like Hades and Hel, Gwyn and his realm bore identical names.

When Annwfn became Faerie its associations with the dead were severed and it was reduced to a fantasy realm. However, superstitions remain, many of these pertaining to the uncanny and dangerous nature of the fairies and their associations with abductions, madness, and death.

***

The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ contains Gwyn’s clearest literary representation as a pre-Christian god of the dead. Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as a ‘bull of battle’: a divine warrior and psychopomp. Other epithets include ‘awesome leader of many’, ‘invincible lord, and ‘lord of hosts’.

Gwyn’s identity as a death-god is revealed when he states he comes from ‘many battles, many deaths’. He asserts his presence at the deaths of Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Bran ap Ywerydd, Llachau ap Arthur, Meurig ap Careian, and Gwallog ap Lleynog before speaking the lines:

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the north;
I live on; they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the south;
I live on; they are dead.

Here Gwyn laments the downfall of the Brythonic kingdoms to the Anglo-Saxons and his living on as a gatherer of souls. He is a venerable figure. The only thing devilish about him is the bull-horns.

Contrastingly How Culhwch Won Olwen presents Gwyn as a sinister being and pits him against Arthur: a champion of Christianity who rose to popularity by slaughtering and subordinating a variety of Annuvian deities, ancestral animals, giants, and witches.

It is my belief that Arthur’s overcoming of Gwyn was a primary step in the destruction of Brythonic Paganism and the assertion of Christianity. Gwyn’s mythos had to be erased and reconfigured in a new literature documenting his defeat and replacement by Arthur as a protector of Britain who fights against the ‘devils’ of Annwfn rather than containing their fury.

In How Culhwch Won Olwen Arthur intercedes in the ancient seasonal struggle between Gwyn, ‘Winter’, and Gwythyr, ‘Summer’, for their beloved, Creiddylad, a fertility goddess. Gwyn takes Creiddylad from Gwythyr by force, presumably abducting her to Annwfn, explaining the coming of winter on Calan Gaeaf.

Gwythyr raises an army and attacks Gwyn. It might be assumed they also descend to Annwfn. Gwyn defeats them singlehandedly and imprisons Gwythyr and seven of his men. The imprisonment of Summer in Annwfn may also be part of a mythos explaining the rule of Winter.

During their imprisonment Gwyn kills Nwython and feeds his heart to his son, Cyledyr, who goes mad. Whether this scene should be read as a punishment for invading Annwfn demonstrating Gwyn’s furious nature, a muddled echo of a rite transferring ancestral strength from father to son, or Christian propaganda demonising Gwyn remains uncertain.

Whatever the case, Arthur comes to the rescue, presumably storming Gwyn’s prison in Annwfn. He defeats Gwyn, then binds Gwyn and Gwythyr in battle for Creiddylad every Calan Mai until Judgement Day. Arthur’s agency is introduced to explain an existing duel on Calan Mai where Winter is defeated and Creiddylad returns to this world, explaining the rule of Summer. The purpose is to display Arthur’s control over these two old seasonal gods and Creiddylad who he locks in her father’s house saying neither can take her until Judgement Day!

The scene where Gwyn and Gwythyr appear together as advisors to Arthur on his assault on Orddu, ‘the Very Black Witch’, who lives in Pennant Gofid, ‘The Valley of Grief’ in ‘the uplands of Hell’ is again designed to demonstrate his power over them and this Annuvian woman, who he slices in half with his knife, Carwennan, before draining her blood.

It is notable that Gwythyr’s father, Greidol, ‘Scorcher’, is one of Arthur’s forty-two counsellors and Gwythyr’s daughter, Gwenhwyfar, is married to Arthur. This is suggestive of a long-standing alliance between Arthur and the powers of summer against winter and death.

The rescued prisoners join Arthur on his hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. That Gwyn must be found before the hunt can start suggests Gwyn was its original leader. Gwyn’s identity as a hunter god is suggested by his ownership of a white stallion, Carngrwn, ‘Round-Hoofed’, and white red-nosed hound, Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’. In Welsh folklore Gwyn and the Cwn Annwfn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, hunt the souls of the dead. He is the Brythonic leader of the Wild Hunt.

Twrch Trwyth’s transformation from a human king into a boar hints at the tradition of a soul hunt. Arthur’s usurpation of Gwyn’s hunt and its depiction as just a boar hunt marks the end of the mythos featuring Gwyn as a god of the dead and leader of the Wild Hunt.

Many of Arthur’s famous landmarks, including Carn Cafall, where the footprint of Arthur’s gigantic dog was left during the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, may formerly have been associated with Gwyn and Dormach.

The Spoils of Annwfn’ shares similarities with Arthur’s attack on Gwyn suggesting they are two different variants of the same story. Taliesin, the narrator, accompanies Arthur on his journey to seven otherworldly fortresses (which I believe may be faces of the same fort) where he takes on Pen Annwfn, ‘the Head of Annwfn’.

Storming the glass walls and defeating six thousand unspeaking dead men in a devastating battle, Arthur and his raiding party rescue Gweir (who may be equated with Graid, one of Gwyn’s prisoners), steal the legendary Brindled Ox, and seize ‘the Cauldron of the Head of Annwfn’. Escaping with only seven survivors Arthur slams ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut.

Arthur’s defeat of the Head of Annwfn and seizure of his cauldron represent the triumph of Christianity over Paganism, the realm of death, the dead and their ruler, and the mysteries of death and rebirth.

It is no coincidence that Arthur’s raid on Annwfn shares parallels with Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ (harrow comes from the Old English hergian ‘to harry or despoil’). Between his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus descended to Hell to preach to ‘the imprisoned spirits’ and liberate the righteous who had been trapped there since the beginning of the world (the damned were left to stay!) triumphing over the realm of the dead and death itself.

It is my intuition that prior to Christianity and Arthur’s rise to popularity the series of fortresses might have formed part of a Brythonic tradition documenting the descent of the soul to Annwfn. They would have been approached respectfully with due ritual rather than assaulted and despoiled, their guardians killed, their treasures stolen.

***

The demonisation of Annwfn is shown by lines from several poems in The Book of Taliesin equating it with Hell (translated from Uffern which originates from the Latin Inferno ‘underworld’).

And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned

What is the measure of Hell?
How thick its veil,
how wide its mouth,
how big are its baths?

Madawg…
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Hell.

Gwyn’s loss of status as a god of the dead led to him being demonised as a demon huntsman who hunted the souls of sinners. His role became punitive as he was subsumed within Christianity’s doctrine of fear and control as a devilish figure.

Charles Squire writes, ‘Gwyn… his game is man… the “mighty hunter”, not of deer, but of men’s souls, riding his demon horse, and cheering on his demon hound to the fearful chase’.

John Rhys notes, ‘What Gwyn hunts are the souls of those who are dying; but Christianity has greatly narrowed his hunting ground, as his quarry can now only be souls of notoriously wicked men.’

Folkloric stories featuring horned figures and/or the devil, Tywsog Annwfn, ‘Prince of Annwfn’, might originally have featured Gwyn, a ‘bull of battle’ who wears bull-horns. The following example is recorded by John Rhys:

‘Ages ago as a man who had been engaged on business, not the most creditable in the world, was returning in the depth of night across Cefn Creini, and thinking in a downcast frame of mind over what he had been doing, he heard in the distance a low and fear-inspiring bark; then another bark, and another, and then half a dozen more. Ere long he became aware that he was being pursued by dogs, and that they were the Cwn Annwfn. He beheld them coming: he tried to flee, but he felt quite powerless and could not escape. Nearer and nearer they came, and he saw the shepherd with them: his face was black and he had horns on his head.’

John Rhys argues this black-faced, horned ‘shepherd’ is Gwyn. This representation is clearly influenced by Biblical tradition, perhaps by the following passage containing Cyril of Alexandria’s interpretation of John 10: 12-13:

‘the father of sin used to put us in Hades like sheep, delivering us over to death as our shepherd, according to what is said in the Psalms: but the really Good Shepherd died for our sakes, that He might take us out of the dark pit of death and prepare to enfold us among the companies of heaven, and give unto us mansions above, even with the Father, instead of dens situated in the depths of the abyss or the recesses of the sea.’

Again we return to Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ and his triumph over the realm of the dead. This story forms a large part of the hubristic anthropocentric worldview where ‘Man’ (Jesus/Arthur) conquers all, including death and its deities, which has led to the Anthropocene.

***

For many centuries Christianity has cut us off from the magical underworld beneath our feet and from its deities who we have been taught to fear as devils. As the hegemony of Christianity and its bed-partner, Empire, fail, leaving a void filled by consumerism, materialism, right-wing populism, and regressive nationalisms the need arises to reconnect with the gods of the deep.

Within Brythonic culture there is a tradition of spirit-work referred to by Gerald of Wales. He speaks of awenyddion, ‘people inspired’, ‘the soothsayers of this nation’ who are possessed by and speak with the aid of spirits and receive inspiration from dreams.

Following their example we can rebuild our relationship with the spirits of Annwfn. This isn’t an easy path to take as they have long been demonised, shut out, ignored. The restless dead are growing in number as more people die in war and fall victim to the exploitation of capitalism. They can indeed be furious. As can the fairies who mitigate between the worlds and have witnessed our untrammelled destruction of nature and ignorance of Annwfn.

Yet we have a responsibility to them, to the ‘others’, that deserves a response. Their fury demands the destruction of the exploitative systems of this world and the replacement of the shallow facade of consumer culture with a mythos rich and deep in meaning based in respectful relationship with all beings, human and non-human, living and dead.

Within Brythonic tradition Awen, ‘divine inspiration’, the source of mythic meaning, flows from Annwfn.

The Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it,
A river while it flows,
I know its extent;
I know when it disappears;
I know when it fills;
I know when it overflows;
I know when it shrinks;
I know what base
There is beneath the sea.

Our existing mythology and folklore shows there are ways into Annwfn/Faerie that are not only traversed by the likes of Arthur but by children, drunkards, poets, fiddlers, and dancers. Admittedly the risk is madness or death, but those who pass the initiatory challenges of the Fairy Kings and Queens emerge with the Awen to guide the way into a better world.

Capitalism thrives on its domination of meaning. With Awen from Annwfn we create our own.

/I\

Gwyn ap Nudd
guide of souls
light of the mist
show us Annwfn’s
disturbing beauty:
shining butterflies
worm-faced death.

Let your dragons
grant us Awen from
unquenchable wells.
Let us be possessed
and ride the fury
of your spirits
into the next world.

***

SOURCES

Charles Squire, Celtic Myths and Legends, (Lomond Books, 1905)
Dennis Bratcher, ‘Demons in the Old Testament: Issues in Translation
Edward Eyre Hunt, (transl), Sir Orfeo, (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Gerald of Wales, Description of Wales, Awen ac Awenydd
John Rhys, Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx, Volume 1, (Forgotten Books, 2015),
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Elibron Classics, 2005)
Greg Hill (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Way of the Awenydd
Iolo Morganwg, Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
Lady Charlotte Guest (transl), ‘Gwyn and St Collen’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
Marged Haycock, (transl), ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS Publications, 2015)
Saint Cyril, Saint Cyril Collection, (Aeterna Press, 2016),
Sioned Davies, (transl), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene, Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books, 2007)

*This essay was first published in A Beautiful Resistance 4.

Shattering the Nunnery

Somewhere between here and Annwn

a part of me is cloistered

thinking already
about the spring flowers

as she paints another saintly visage.

In another life she has been drinking
the truth from a forbidden cup.

The saints no longer look the same:

their hands are red with blood and filled
with splinters and chips of stone
from shattered pagan idols.

The stained glass is blood stained.

Her voice catches on the songs and tears
as if upon nails – she SCREAMS

and the stained glass shatters.
The nunnery falls down.

~

This poem, which is based on a spirit-journey, signals my release from a malaise I have been calling ‘nun envy’. Although I realised Christianity was not for me when I experienced its dull and stuffy sermons and the patriarchal presence of the Christian God in my local C of E church as a Brownie at church parade a part of me has longed for learning and ritual and shared devotion in a religious community.

I have been deeply jealous of Christians because they have a system of support for people who have a sense of vocation. For those who are called to serve God there are ways of living by this calling. Vicars and priests receive an education and a salary for their work and nuns and monks lead lives of dedication to God based around prayer, manual labour, and artistic and intellectual pursuits without worrying how to pay for housing or food. When I hit thirty-five I realised that was the last chance I would have of becoming a Christian nun and living what looked the ideal life except for… the Christianity.

Of course, I decided against, because I did not want to betray my god to the God and saints of the religion that destroyed the pagan traditions and, in particular, demonised him and the Otherworld he rules.

Yet, still I kept yearning for what Christian monastics have. Researching local monasteries and abbeys. Finding myself drawn to Preston’s Carmelite monastery.

 

Visiting the Tabor Retreat Centre, which was once a Carmelite nunnery but is now run by the Xaverian Missionaries (this provides regular meditation classes, Lectio Divina, short courses and even a book club as well as retreats which I’d have loved to go to … if only I was Christian!).

 

Wanting to go back to the ruins of Fountains Abbey (which I visited every weekend when I worked at the Yorkshire Riding School) to sit and mourn something I will never have.

Fountains Abbey II
A strange impulse I believe may be rooted in a past life as a nun. A few years ago when I read in a biography about the ritual burial of Julian of Norwich – entombed like Christ to become his bride and an anchoress who would never see the outside world again I felt like I was being buried alive. As if I’d experienced something similar before. I flung the book into my wardrobe, slammed the door, and went for a walk feeling immensely grateful for my freedom to see trees and taste the fresh air.

I’ve always had a push-pull relationship with Christian mysticism, art, literature, and song. A yearning for its richness and beauty but a dislike of its unhealthy obsession with suffering and punishment.

As a consequence of years of learning about how nearly every splendid church and cathedral is based on the takeover (violent or non-violent) of a pagan sacred site; how nearly every haloed saint is associated with the defeat of a pagan mythic figure or with the slaughter or conversion of pagans; how the Christian tradition is founded on the death of paganism, it has finally lost its fusty-fingered hold on me.

Being an awenydd attempting to reweave the ways between Annwn and This-modern-world isn’t easy. But I think I will be able to do it better and more happily now my yearning for what Christians have and my nun envy is gone. From the ruins of the shattered nunnery may new shoots and tendrils grow.

Fountains Abbey

 

Maelgwn and the Death Hound

I. The Princely Hound

Maelgwn, ‘Princely Hound’, was the king of Gwynedd during the 6th century. His seat of rule was Deganwy on the Creuddyn Peninsula and his fortress overlooked the estuary of the river Conwy.

Deganwy Castle Site big hill summit II Conwy and Beach Med

Maelgwn was a descendant of ‘the Men of the North’ from Manaw Gododdin, the area around Clackmannshire, which included Din Eidyn (Edinburgh). The old Welsh form of Gododdin, Guotodin, derives from the Iron Age tribal name, Votadini. No satisfactory translation has been made.

The Votadini came under Roman rule between 132 and 162 and remained allies with the Romans when they withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall, being awarded with the riches of the Roman lifestyle whilst maintaining independence. The names of Maelgwn’s ancestors, Tegid, Padarn, and Edern, were derived from the Latin names Tacitus, Paternus, and Aeternus, reflecting the pro-Roman sympathies of their lineage.

It seems likely this people worshipped a variety of local, tribal, and pan-Brythonic deities, along with those imported by the Romans. The name ‘Manaw Gododdin’ suggests they venerated Manawydan. A reference to Castle Rock as ‘Lleu’s Rock’ in the poem Y Gododdin shows Lugus/Lleu may also have been an important patron whilst the mention of Cynfelyn ‘Dog Heads’ slaughtered by Arthur at Din Eidyn could refer to a shapeshifting cult dedicated to a wolf/dog god such as Cunomaglos, Nodens/Nudd, or his son Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd. Two statues of horned gods have been found in the area along with altars to Apollo, Sol, and Mithras at the Roman fortress at Inveresk.

It is impossible to pinpoint when the rulers of the Gododdin converted to Christianity. The religion began filtering into Britain and the 1st and 2nd centuries. The Roman Emperor, Constantine I, converted in 312 and began issuing penalties for pagan sacrifice in 324. Constantius followed in his footsteps by ordering the closure of temples ‘in all places and cities’ in 354 and Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380. The burning of a temple to Jupiter Dolichenus at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall in 370 suggests the pro-Roman rulers of Manaw Gododdin would have followed their Roman allies in converting during the 4th century.

It is likely that Maelgwyn’s great-great grandfather, Cunedda, ‘Good Hound’, who lived during the mid-fourth century, was Christian. Triad 81 names ‘Three Saintly Lineages of the Island of Britain’ and these include ‘the Lineage of Cunedda Wledig’. Intriguingly his name, however, contains traces of a totemic relationships with dogs and perhaps a patron relationship with a canine god.

In his History of the Britons (828) Nennius recorded that Cunedda went to Anglesey and drove out the Gaelic tribes:

‘62. The great king, Mailcun, reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota, because his great-great-grandfather, Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come before from the left-hand part, i.e. from the country which is called Manau Gustodin, one hundred and forty-six years before Mailcun reigned, and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries, and they never returned again to inhabit them.’

Cadwallon, Maelgwyn’s father, completed the driving out of the Gaelic people and secured the kingdom of Gwynedd. Originally its name was Venedotia. Ven may be linked with Vindos, ‘White’, and Gwynedd seems to contain Gwyn’s name and his father’s (Nudd was also spelt ‘Nedd’, ‘Nidd’, ‘Nith’, ‘Neath’) although whether it was named after these old pagan hound-gods we’ll never know.

Maelgwn’s name refers both to his princely descent and ancient associations with dogs and dog-gods. Although he attempted to maintain the veneer of a civilised Christian ruler he could not shut out the deities of his land and lineage or his wilder impulses completely. He failed to keep the hounds and monsters of Annwn, within and without, at bay, and ultimately his soul was gathered by Gwyn.

II. The Dragon of the Island

Maelgwn was referred to as ‘high king’, which suggests he maintained a hegemony over other kingdoms. He collected tributes from Gwynllwg and led attacks on Dyfed and on the southern Britons.

Christian, like his ancestors, in some sources he was depicted as a generous supporter of Christianity, financing the foundation of Bangor for St Daniel and helping St Asaph build his church at Llanelwy. However, in many of the saints’ lives he was represented as a ‘great tormentor of the saints’, such as Brynach, Cadog, Curig, Cybi, and Mechyll. His grants of land and monetary donations resulted from his being discomfited by a miracle and making offerings as a sign of his forgiveness.

In a section in The Ruin of Britain (6th century) Gildas presented a damning portrait of Maelgwn and five other princes. He likened them to the beast in the Book of Revelation 13.2: ‘And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.’ Maelgwn was identified with the dragon who gave the beast power and was referred to as ‘the Dragon of the Island.’

‘And thou, the island dragon, who hast driven many of the tyrants mentioned previously, as well from life as from kingdom, thou last in my writing, first in wickedness, exceeding many in power and at the same time in malice, more liberal in giving, more excessive in sin, strong in arms, but stronger in what destroys thy soul – thou Maclocunus, why dost thou obtusely wallow in such an old black pool of crimes, as if sodden with the wine that is pressed from the vine of Sodom?’

He spoke of how Maelgwn committed to Christianity but was drawn instead to sin by the ‘crafty wolf’ and reverted to his ‘fearful vomit like a sick dog’. Rather than attending to the praises of God, his court was a ‘rascally crew yelling forth, like Bacchanalian revellers, full of lies and foaming phlegm’.

Gildas accused Maelgwn of killing his ‘uncle the king with sword, spear, and fire’ to gain power. He told of how, when Maelgwn decided to become a monk, this made his first marriage illicit. After his reversion he killed his wife, then his brother’s son, and took his young wife ‘in desecrated wedlock’.

Whether Gildas’ accusations were true remains uncertain. We do know Maelgwn had a first wife called Sanan with whom he had two children: Alser, and Doeg, and a second who was the mother of Einion and Eurgain. He also had an illegitimate son called Rhun with Gwallen, daughter of Afallach.

Deganwy Castle Site little hill with raven med

Deganwy Castle Site little hill raven close up Med

A raven watches from the opposite hill – do his or her ancestors know the truth?

III. The Silencing of the Bards

Maelgwn’s lacivious lifestyle was echoed in ‘The Story of Taliesin’ (16th century). Here we find a depiction of a bardic competition, a long-standing form of entertainment Maelgwn was most fond of.

Maelgwn was served by a circle of twenty-four sycophantic bards whose chief was Heinin Vardd. They showered him with praises saying no king was as great in ‘form, and beauty, and meekness, and strength’ and all the powers of the soul. They are described as ‘learned men, not only expert in the service of kings and princes, but studious and well versed in the lineage, and arms, and exploits of princes and kings, and in discussions concerning foreign kingdoms, and the ancient things of this kingdom, and chiefly in the annals of the first nobles; and also were prepared always with their answers in various languages, Latin, French, Welsh, and English… great chroniclers, and recorders, and skilful in framing verses, and ready in making englyns in every one of those languages.’

This echoes the structure of the bardic professions in the medieval court. Most important was the Pencerdd, ‘Chief of Song’, who held a special chair. Then there were twenty-four officers holding the position Bardd Teulu, ‘Poet of the Household’. It took nine years to train to be a qualified court poet.

It seems Maelgwn enjoyed hosting competitions, sometimes cruel, amongst his bards and fermenting trouble between them. In an instance recorded in a poem by Iorweth Beli he challenged them to swim from Arfon to Castell Caer Seion across the Conwy. ‘When they came to land the harpers were not worth a halfpenny’ because their strings had broken ‘while the poets sang as well as before’.

Elphin went to Maelgwn’s court at Deganwy to claim he had a better bard than the wise and skilful bards of Maelgwn and was consequently locked in a golden fetter. Taliesin then went to win him back.

Deganwy Castle Site big hill from beach Med

In his opening poem Taliesin not only promised to silence Maelgwn’s bards, but to curse the king and his offspring:

And to the gate I will come;
The hall I will enter,
And my song I will sing;
My speech I will pronounce
To silence royal bards,
In presence of their chief…
I Taliesin, chief of bards,
With a sapient Druid’s words,
Will set kind Elphin free
From haughty tyrant’s bonds…
Let neither grace nor health
Be to Maelgwn Gwynedd,
For this force and this wrong;
And be extremes of ills
And an avenged end
To Rhun and all his race:
Short be his course of life,
Be all his lands laid waste;
And long exile be assigned
To Maelgwn Gwynedd!

Taliesin silenced the bards by sitting in a corner and playing ‘blerwm, blewrm’ with his finger on his lips. When each went to perform for the king this was the only thing they could do. Maelgwn derided them for their drunkenness and ordered a squire to hit Heinin on the head with a broom! This seemed to do the trick as Heinin was then able to tell Maelgwn that Taliesin had caused their indignity.

IV. A Most Strange Creature

Taliesin introduced himself as Elphin’s Chief Bard, told of his origins from ‘the summer stars’ and boasted of a long line of exploits and interactions with pagan and Christian figures – a common bardic practice.

Then, on a more sinister level, he began to invoke Annuvian monsters:

There is a noxious creature,
From the rampart of Satanas,
Which has overcome all
Between the deep and the shallow;
Equally wide are his jaws
As the mountains of the Alps;
Him death will not subdue,
Nor hand or blades;
There is the load of nine hundred wagons
In the hair of his two paws;
There is in his head an eye
Green as the limpid sheet of icicle;
Three springs arise
In the nape of his neck;
Sea-roughs thereon
Swim through it;
There was the dissolution of the oxen
Of Deivrdonwy the water-gifted.

This monster shares similarities with those Taliesin ‘pierced’ in ‘The Battle of the Trees: a great scaled beast, a black forked toad, and speckled crested snake, all of whom were eaters of human souls.

He then spoke a disturbing prophesy against Maelgwn:

A most strange creature will come from the sea marsh of Rhianedd*
As a punishment of iniquity on Maelgwn Gwynedd;
His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold,
And this will bring destruction upon Maelgwn Gwynedd.

After Taliesin summoned the wind, a ‘strong creature’ ‘Without flesh, without bone, / Without vein, without blood, / Without head, without feet’ into Maelgwn’s hall, the terrified king released Elphin.

Deganwy Castle Site big hill with wall Med

Only the walls of an older castle remain…

Deganwy Castle Site big hill wall with jackdaws Med

… and they are haunted by jackdaw bards.

V. The Long Sleep of Maelgwn

The ‘strange creature’ with golden eyes, hair, and teeth, who Taliesin prophesied would destroy Maelgwn, turned out to be Y Fat Velen ‘The Yellow Plague’ – a great pestilence which struck in 547.

In an attempt to avoid the plague he retreated to the church in Llan Rhos and shut all the windows and doors.

Llan Rhos Church III North East Med

However, when he looked out through a hole, he saw Y Vat Velen, that terrifying gold-yellow beast, and fell into a long, long sleep.

Llan Rhos Church Key Hole Med.JPG

His attendants waited for days. When they realised his silence had been too long for sleep they found him dead. Thus a saying originated: ‘Hir hun Faelgwn yn eglwys Ros’, ‘the long sleep of Maelgwn in the Church of Rhos,’ a sleep so long he never awoke.

Although Maelgwn shut himself away in a church he did not escape Y Vat Velen or Gwyn and the hounds of Annwn arriving to take his soul. Lines in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ suggest that Dormach, Gwyn’s best hound, was present at Maelgwn’s death:

My hound is sleek and fair,
The best of hounds;
Dormach he is, who was with Maelgwn.

In this poem Gwyn recites the names of four Men of the North whose souls he gathered from the battlefield: Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Brân ap Ywerydd, Meurig ap Careian, and Gwallog ap Llenog. Gwyddno was of northern origins and on the brink of death. Like these other Men of the North, the Princely Hound did not go to Heaven, but returned with the death hound to join his ancestors in Annwn.

Llan Rhos Church I South Door Med

According to some sources Maelgwn is buried in Llan Rhos Church near the south door and to others on Ynys Seiriol, ‘Puffin Island’.

*Morfa Rhianedd, ‘the Sea-strand of the Maidens’ is between Great and Little Orme’s Head near Llandudno.


SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Charlotte Guest, The Story of Taliesin, Sacred Texts, (1877)
Edward Dawson, ‘Tribal Names: Linguistic Analysis and the Origin of Gwynedd
Eberhard Sauer, Fraser Hunter, John Gooder, Martin Henig, ‘Mithras in Scotland: A Mithraeum at Inveresk’, Britannia, Vol. 46,
Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, Tertullian.org, (1899)
Greg Hill (transl.), ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Awen ac Awenydd‘, (2015)
Greg Hill, ‘Lleu Llaw Gyfes… is that Lugus?’, Dun Brython, (2016)
Mererid Hopwood, Singing in Chains, (Gomer Press, 2004)
Nennius, History of the Britons, Gutenburg.org, (2006)
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)
Book of Revelation 13.2, King James Bible, Bible Gateway

Penwortham Priory and the Rule of Saint Benedict

You wouldn’t know it had ever been there if wasn’t for the street names Priory Lane, Priory Close, Priory Crescent, Monk’s Walk, and the names of Priory Park Care Home and Penwortham Priory High School (where I was educated between 11 and 16 and from where I tried to escape as often as possible!).

Castle Hill, the pen, the prominent headland, which puts the ‘Pen’ in Penwortham has been the town’s central religious and defensive site for thousands of years. The castle mound remains along with St Mary’s Church and graveyard, but Penwortham Priory and its black-robed monks are long gone.

St Mary's Church

Penwortham Priory was founded in the 1140s when Warin (de) Bussel, a Norman Lord who was the first Baron of Penwortham, transferred St Mary’s Church to the Benedictine abbey of Evesham in Worcestershire. The abbot funded the building of the priory and sent a prior and three monks to serve.

The priory was an ‘obedience’ of Evesham Abbey and had no independence of its own. Because it was replaced with a mansion after the dissolution we do not know what it looked like. Alan Crosby suggests it is was a ‘monastic grange with a chapel… built around a quadrangle in some form of cloister.’

Penworthampriory_authorunknown_wikipedia

Penwortham Priory rebuilt as a mansion

The priors and monks were often sent from the larger and richer abbey (where there were sixty-seven monks, five nuns, three clerks, and sixty-five servants) as a punishment. This bleak north-western headland, overlooking Penwortham Marsh and the tidal Ribble, must have been cold and wet and probably felt like the end of the world in contrast to Evesham.

We know little about Penwortham’s monks and priors. The priors’ names are listed from Henry in 1159 to Richard Hawkesbury, who withdrew before the dissolution of the priory in 1539. Those whose lives have warranted comment are a ‘good-hearted’ Prior Wilcote who fed his monks up after periodical blood-letting (this disturbingly suggests he was the exception) and a notorious prior called Roger Norris.

Norris was described as ‘a glutton, wine-bibber, and loose-liver’ who could nevertheless through eloquence and courtly manners put on a show of learning. After betraying his brethren at Christ Church, Canterbury, and being imprisoned, he escaped through a sewer. Richard I made him abbot of Evesham and he ‘dissipated its revenues until the monks were reduced to a diet of bread and water… for lack of decent clothing many of them could not appear in the choir or chapter house.’

Norris was eventually removed from his position and instead made prior of Penwortham where he continued in his excesses, being deposed then reinstated until 1223, when he died refusing to be reconciled to the abbot of Evesham and withholding certain revenues that belonged to the abbey.

Although there are no records of the everyday lives of the monks of Penwortham Priory we can gain insights into their routine and religious values by examining the life and rule of St Benedict and the Benedictine movement.

***

Benedict was born in Nursia, in Italy, in 480. He was sent to Rome to study but, disappointed by the immoral lives of his companions, he decided to leave and become a hermit. He departed for Enfide and, on his way through a narrow valley, met with Romanus of Subiaco, who lived in a monastery on the cliff. Subiaco gave Benedict his monk’s habit and counselled him to live in the cave beneath the cliff.

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Between the summit and the clear blue lake beneath Benedict lived alone for three years with Romanus bringing him food. Afterwards, when the monks of another nearby monastery asked him to become their abbot, he reluctantly agreed, but because of their ‘diverse manners’ they did not get on and attempted to poison him. Benedict prayed a blessing over the poisoned cup and it shattered.

When he returned to his cave a jealous priest called Florentius tried poisoning him with poisoned bread, but he prayed another blessing and a raven flew down and took the loaf away. When Benedict attracted his own followers Florentius tried to seduce them with prostitutes and failed.

To avoid further persecution Benedict left Subiaco and established 12 monasteries nearby. In 530 he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino where he died of a fever on the 21st of March in 543 or 547.

800px-Monte_Cassino_Opactwo_1

Benedict originally wrote his Rule for autonomous self-governing communities. Its 56 chapters form guidelines regulating the daily offices of prayer, work, sleep, meals, clothing, possessions, and behaviour.

After his death Benedictine monasticism grew rapidly in popularity throughout Europe and was brought to England by Saint Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory I to Christianise the pagan Anglo-Saxons. He founded the first Benedictine monastery in Canterbury and became its abbot in 597.

Saint Wilfrid, the first English Christian to visit Rome in 658, enforced the Roman method for calculating Easter and introduced the Rule of Saint Benedict in his monasteries at Ripon and Hexham. Wilfrid was granted lands ‘iuxta Rippel’ ‘by the Ribble’ at Preston (Preosta Tun ‘Priest Town’) across from Penwortham. The parish church was dedicated him and he became the town’s patron saint. However, there is no evidence that Wilfrid set up any Benedictine monasteries in the local area.

Evesham Abbey was built by St Egwin between 700 and 710 after a swineherd called Eog experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. Thus its link to St Mary’s in Penwortham is of interest.

320px-Evesham_Abbey_Bell_Tower

The Order of Saint Benedict was founded in 910 by the abbot of Cluny and this is when it became centralised.

152 Benedictine monasteries and 52 nunneries were established across England. They became important seats of learning and literature and sanctuaries for holy relics and works of art. It was partly because of their wealth and power that King Henry VIII dissolved them between 1536 and 1541.

***

From the Rule of St Benedict we can guess the monks of Penwortham performed eight offices of prayer a day: Matins (midnight), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early morning), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (evening), Compline (bedtime). They would have performed no less than five hours of manual labour. Eating the flesh of four-legged animals was banned. The usual fare was a pound of bread and quarter litre of wine (which I imagine was supplemented with seasonal fruit and vegetables and fish from the fisheries and panneries). They lived by strict vows of obedience, stability, and chastity, and the renunciation of all worldly possessions.

I have often wondered what led them to becoming monks. The call of God? The promise of a life rich in religion and art? The guarantee of safety and stability in a harsh and war-torn world? Did they find God, Jesus, Mary, here on this lonely hill as the rain poured and fires burnt low in the grates?

Did any of them sense the presence of the ancient goddess of the hill, the marsh, the healing well, or the otherworldly god and his spirits who would later be seen marching in a fairy funeral procession?

As an awenydd I can understand the appeal of leading a life of prayer in community in devotion to one’s god(s). However, I cannot imagine wanting to be part of an Order founded on the elimination of a multitude of local variants of Christianity, which in turn eliminated a multitude of local variants of paganism.

When I visit the sites of priories and abbeys I often feel a combination of yearning and sorrow. The yearning to be a part of something big, to participate in shared devotion, to find and wonder in the same god. Yet I also feel saddened by the weight of destruction that has brought this hegemonic religion about. All the gods and spirits and the diverse sets of beliefs that have been crushed, wiped out.

Whilst I long for a devotional community I could never join a Christian monastery or a pagan, polytheistic or druidic order that is based on or even inspired by Christian monastic ideals and principles as it these very things that have cast out and demonised the gods and spirits within the landscape.

Thus I remain a solitary devotee of those deities within the land, beneath the church, beneath the roads and street names that mark where the feet of monks once trod and where they tread no longer.

Monks Walk


SOURCES

Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, Carnegie Press, (1988)
Saint Benedict, Rev. Verheyen Boniface (transl), The Rule of Saint Benedict, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1923)
William Farrer and J Brownbill (ed.), ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Penwortham’, A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2, (London, 1908)
Benedict of Nursia, Wikipedia

Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

In Jocelyn’s The Life of St Kentigern there is a story about the saint’s recall from Wales to the Old North by Glasgow’s ruler, Rhydderch Hael. Following an angelic vision, Kentigern sets out with 665 disciples and arrives in Hoddom where he is greeted by a multitude of people.

Drawing a cross and invoking the Holy Trinity, Kentigern orders anyone against the word of God to depart. This results in ‘a vast multitude of skeleton-like creatures, horrible in form and aspect’ departing from the assemblage and fleeing from sight.

Reassuring the terrified crowd Kentigern ‘lays bare’ what they believe in. He condemns their idols to the fire and tells them their principal deity ‘Woden’ from whom they claim descent is nothing more than a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is ‘loose in the dust’ whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

As Kentigern preaches faith in Jesus Christ the flat plain of ‘Hodelm’ rises into a hill which remains to this day. The people ‘renounce Satan’ and are washed in the waters of baptism.

This foundation legend explains the association of the site of the church and the graveyard beside the river Annan across from Woodcock Air (the hill) at Hoddom with St Kentigern.

Woodcock Air Hill

The Life of St Kentigern was commissioned by Jocelyn, Bishop of Glasgow, and written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, in the 12th century. As a literary hagiography it was clearly designed to promote the life of Kentigern (who lived in the 6th century) and vilify paganism. As a historical document it should be approached with caution, particularly in light of the anachronism concerning Woden.

Whilst there is archaeological evidence of a Northumbrian monastery based around St Kentigern’s church at Hoddom it was not founded until the 8th century. (This is evidenced by an 8th century letter sent by Alcuin to Wolfhard, Abbott of Hodda Helm). The Anglo-Saxons did not arrive until long after Kentigern died. It seems Jocelyn wove later tales concerning the conversion of Woden’s worshippers into the text.

This leaves us with the question of who the people of Hoddom venerated prior to Kentigern’s arrival. The existence of a local cult is evidenced by a Roman altar stone found in the wall of the church at Hoddom Cross and built into the porch in 1817. Unfortunately when it was found the sides could not be seen and the ‘mouldings of the capital and base’ had been ‘dressed off’. There are no clues who it was dedicated to.

However the surrounding area echoes with pagan memories: the place-names Brydekirk and Lochmaben; an altar to Vitris and a ram’s head at Netherby; the story of Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king, whose soul was gathered by Gwyn ap Nudd after he was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd. Myrddin Wyllt’s flight from Arfderydd in battle-madness to Celyddon.

Intrigued and troubled by the story of Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, wondering whether between the lines and beneath the Hollywood-style Biblical pyrotechnics any ‘truths’ (or at least personal gnoses) about their pagan religion may be intuited from the land, I returned to the area North of the Wall.

Walking from Ecclefechan to Hoddom, the first thing that struck me was the teeming of nature in the Scottish villages and fields. Flocks of spotted starlings on the roofs and telephone wires. Droves of sparrows flitting in and out of the hedgerows. The un-mowed roadsides were alive with flowers and every flower was covered with bees. Slick black slugs wandered through long grasses. I felt an unusual liberty in ‘the right to roam’.

Hoddom CrossMy first stop was at the church at Hoddom Cross. Roofless and derelict due to a fire, ivy climbed its walls and mausoleums. Ferns and wildflowers pushed through the railings to adorn older graves marked by sandstone gravestones. Newer graves with shiny porcelain headstones adorned with freshly wrapped bouquets glimmered in the background.

Something birch-white caught my eye. Going to investigate I found myself blinking in disbelief. In a Christian graveyard a couple of miles from any village I was staring at what to all appearances was a carving of a white dog with a purposively painted red nose. Dormach red-nose! I thought immediately of Gwyn ap Nudd’s famous hound who accompanies him as he guides the dead to the otherworld.

Admittedly it had antler-like twigs for ears and might have been a representation of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. But why carve it white from birch? It looked far more like a dog and a hound of Annwn at that. Too strange a find in a graveyard to be pure coincidence when I was tracing the deity(s) associated with the Roman altar (which I did not see).

River AnnanAfter visiting the ‘new’ church I walked to St Kentigern’s graveyard at Hoddom across the Annan from Woodcock Air. Watched over by a tall fir (or pine?) tree it was blissfully overgrown with ferns, yarrow, willowherb, bee-humming knapweed, decorated by harebells.

St Kentigern's Graveyard

Wandering amongst the gravestones I noticed carved images of skulls and crossbones and remarkable winged souls which a notice recorded as ’18th century folk art’. So here are Kentigern’s skeletons, I thought, unbanished. Symbols of death and our transition to the otherworld living on through years of Christian rule.

From the vantage point on Woodcock Air as I looked down on St Kentigern’s graveyard the sandstone gravestones shifted into brown-clad people. I gained a sense of the slowness of lives decanted by prayer, steady seasonal work in the fields, the slow turning of cart wheels, the satisfaction of self-subsistency and knowing you would die and be buried in your land close to your community.

St Kentigern's Graveyard from Woodcock AirAnd beneath the Northumbrian monastery did I gain a sense of St Kentigern’s church? The scene of conversion? The deity(s) to whom the ‘idols’ were dedicated? The ‘truth’ felt buried deep. Momentarily seeing the raised area where the church stood as a burial mound I thought back to Jocelyn’s words about ‘Woden’ being a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is in the dust whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

Could these words be read obliquitously to refer to a deified ancestor or ancestral deity believed to live on in the brightness of the world beyond this world? Perhaps even to Gwyn who as a psychopomp and leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Woden’s closest Brythonic equivalent?

BrydekirkI also had the opportunity to visit Brydekirk. Intriguingly Ronald Cunliffe Shawe claims Gwenddolau worshipped ‘Woden’ and ‘a fire goddess’. His reference leads to the passage about Woden in The Life of St Kentigern. I can’t find anything mentioning a fire goddess. However Gwenddolau’s worship of such a deity would make perfect sense if Brydekirk is named after Bride or Brigid. Brigid was later venerated as St Brigid and her priestesses tended an eternal flame.

At the church I was told by one of the parishioners it was indeed named after St Brigid of Ireland. I also learnt St Bryde’s Well was a natural spring and was gifted with an indispensable description of its location.

My walk to the well down the Annan then alongside fields was accompanied by a curious herd of cows who followed peeping out through gaps in the hedge. Their strange behaviour led me to recall the story of how St Brigid was raised by a white cow with red ears: another otherworldly animal.

CowsThe area surrounding St Bryde’s Well was hopelessly overgrown with brambles, nettles and Himalayan Balsam. With the guidance of the parishioners I still couldn’t find it. Ready to give up I saw what looked like a pink veil. I first assumed it was a votive offering marking the spring. When I got closer I realised it was a balloon strung with pale gauze. Another extraordinary marker that proved to be no mere coincidence.

Turning round, I noticed a water dispenser and beyond heard running water. Seeing a rivulet at the bottom of a steep bank running into the Annan, I followed its course to find a small stream leading to the natural spring pouring from amongst mosses and ferns into an orangey circular basin: St Bryde’s Well.

Across the river I also visited the remains of St Bryde’s tower. All I found was a single flight of steps climbing upward into the fire of the sun. Could this has have been a stairway walked by Brigid’s priestesses who maintained her eternal flame?

St Bryde's TowerI returned to Penwortham with no clear answers about how or whether St Kentigern converted the people of Hoddom or what they experienced and believed. Such ‘truths’ can only be conjectural and are always determined by our questions, assumptions and  beliefs.

What I gained was a deeper understanding of how our physical and literary landscapes interweave. How sign and signified lead the dance of a journey which is led by the gods who lead us to places where all distinctions break down in the numinosity of their presence.

At Hoddom and Brydekirk I met a myriad inhabitants of a northern land and I met Gwyn and Bride (who I know here in Lancashire as Brigantia) in new ways. I learnt that within the land and its stories and even in the most depredatory of Christian texts the fire of the gods endures.

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)