In the May Snow

For Gwyn


In the May Snow
I mourn for you.

Crack willow take
my soul again

to the raven’s
places of Annwn,

to where the bones
are old and grey.


In the cold castle
lies your tomb

and on its corners
stand four cranes

to coax your soul
from death and gloom,

to sing you back
to life again.

Crane-Dance in the Labyrinth?

Over the past few months I’ve been involved with several of the work parties building a labyrinth for ‘fun, exploration and meditation’ at Brockholes Nature Reserve. It was designed by John Lamb (an archaeologist and Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Senior Conservation Officer) and opened on April the 23rd 2016.

During the period the labyrinth was being built, I was researching links between Gwyn ap Nudd as a ‘bull of battle’ and Gwyddno Garanhir (‘the Knowing One with Long/Crane Legs’) and Tarvos Trigaranus (‘The Bull with Three Cranes’).

Coincidentally I came across a ritual crane-dance in Greece called geranos initiated by Theseus after defeating the minotaur in the  labyrinth in Crete. Its blows and crane-like turns imitated the battle and the labyrinth’s winding course and the leader of the dance was known as geranoulkos. This got me wondering whether the name Gwyddno Garanhir may have been a title deriving from a similar role.

Crane-dances are found in many parts of the world. One of the most famous is the Japanese Shirasagi-no-mai ‘White Heron (‘Crane’) Dance’ which is one thousand years old and ‘was originally performed to drive out the plague and to purify the spirits on their passage to the next world.’ Cranes are also associated with the otherworld in Celtic mythology.

Shirasagi no mai (White heron dance) of Sensō-ji, Wikipedia Commons

Shirasagi-no-mai, Wikipedia Commons

Cranes are depicted accompanying the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology. They inhabit five islands in the Bohai Sea which include Mount Penglai. This is known as Horai by the Japanese. In both cultures it is a paradisal place with endless amounts of food and drink where nobody grows old. This is intriguing because Gwyddno is a sage-like figure.


Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, Wikipedia Commons

One of the earliest finds relating to a crane-dance is an 8,500 year old crane wing found on top of a cattle horn core in Çatalhöyük in ancient Anatolia. The crane bones were pierced by holes of a suitable size for string which suggests they were tied to the arms of a crane-dancer. Two black cranes are depicted on a painting on one of the walls facing a bull  on the opposite wall. A dance scene depicting a sacred marriage and mother and child may prove the dance focused on fertility and birth.

Dance of the Cranes John-Gordon Swogger

Dance of the Cranes by John-Gordon Swogger

Crane-dances have many meanings across cultures. One theme that stands out is passage: from the trials of the labyrinth, from one world to the next on birth or death. Gwyn and Gwyddno’s conversation takes place upon Gwyddno’s passing from thisworld to Annwn, possibly in crane-form.

At Brockholes the closest likenesses to a bull (or minotaur!) with cranes are the long-horned cattle and numerous herons who can be seen on the river Ribble and lakes.

When I walked the labyrinth for the first time my intention was getting a feel for its path within the nature reserve between the car park and stone circle as skylarks loudened the summer sky and oystercatchers pipped overhead.


I found myself pondering whether a geranoulkos would have used such a setting for a crane-dance and what the steps would have looked like at various rites. But I didn’t dance. I’ll leave that to those more agile with longer legs…


Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover, 1970)
Nerissa Russell & Kevin J. McGowan, ‘Dance of the Cranes: Crane Symbolism at Çatalhöyük and beyond’, (2003) HERE
‘Hypocherma’ (Geranos), Wikipedia HERE
‘White heron (“crane”) dance: Shirasagi-no-mai and heron symbolism’, Japanese Mythology and Folklore HERE

The Bull of Battle and the Great Horned Bull

Auroch Skull, the Harris Museum

Auroch Skull, Harris Museum, Preston

I. Bull of Battle: Tracing an Epithet

In the opening line of The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as tarv trin* ‘bull of battle.’ This has always struck me as a sacred title suitable for Gwyn (‘White’ ‘Blessed’) as a divine warrior-huntsman and psychopomp on an intuitive level. Tracing its origin has led to fascinating discoveries.

Gwyn is not the only one awarded this title. In The Gododdin, a poem from The Book of Aneirin which praises the exploits of the warriors who died in the catastrophic battle of Catraeth, Eithinyn is called tarw trin twice. Caradog and ‘a man of Gwynedd’ are referred to as tarw byddin ‘bull of an army’.

In The Triads we find Tri Tharw Unben ‘Three Bull-Chieftains’ and Tri Tharw Caduc ‘Three Bull-Protectors’. Amongst them are several famous warriors of the Old North: Cynfawr ap Cynwyd Cynwydion, Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Urien ap Cynfarch, Gwallog ap Lleenog and Afaon, son of Urien’s bard, Taliesin.

More strangely we find Tri Tharw Ellyll ‘Three Bull-Spectres’. Ellyll means ‘spirit, phantom, ghost,’ ‘goblin, elf’ or ‘wraith’ whilst gwyd ellyll refers to ‘furious activity in battle’ and is related to gwyllt ‘wild’ ‘mad’. ‘Bull-Spectres’ may be bull-epitheted warriors who went mad through battle-trauma or their ghosts.

These bull-epithets are more than poetic metaphors. Anne Ross says their underlying significance is ‘an especially apposite title for eminent warriors in a society which at one stage likened its tribal god, leader in war and protector of his people, to a great horned bull, possessing all the most impressive and desirable qualities of the animal.’

Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as ‘awesome / Leader of many’ and enters his protection. Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and recitation of the names of prominent warriors whose deaths he attended demonstrate his role as a psychopomp and tribal or ancestral deity.

If Gwyn is the ‘tribal god’ of the men whose souls he gathers and other bull-epitheted warriors, who is the ‘great horned bull’ to whom he is likened?

II. The Great Horned Bull

Cattle played a central role in Celtic society and bulls were highly valued for their virility and strength. Therefore it is surprising we do not have an equivalent of Deiotarus ‘Divine Bull’ or Donnotaurus ‘Lordly Bull’ in Britain.

However in Paris we find a sculpture named Tarvos Trigaranus (‘The Bull with Three Cranes’). He is depicted on ‘The Pillar of the Boatmen’ (1AD) thick-set, heavy-chested, with two cranes back-to-back on his back and a third crane on his head. He stands in front of a willow. On an adjacent panel Esus (‘Lord’) is pictured cutting a willow-branch.

Tarvos Trigaranus, Wikipedia Commons

Tarvos Trigaranus, Wikipedia Commons

On a similar monument from Triers on a single stone a man cuts down a tree with a bull’s head and three cranes or egrets in it. At Maiden Castle in Dorset a bronze bull with three horns carrying three female figures was found at a 4AD shrine and may have a basis in legends of shapeshifters who took the form of cranes.

This intrigues me because with Gwyn as a bull of battle we find Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Crane-Legs’). In a personal vision, after their conversation, Gwyddno took the form of a crane and flew to Annwn with his wife and mother who were also cranes. I saw a bull and three cranes before knowing anything about Tarvos Trigaranus.

Miranda Green suggests a naturalistic explanation for the Bull with Three Cranes: ‘egrets and cattle are symbiotically linked in that the birds feed on tics and other pests which infest the hides of the cattle.’ The cattle egret is variously named ‘cow crane’, ‘cow bird’, ‘cow heron’, ‘father of ticks’ and performs this role. Could an egret picking tics from a bull’s back be the source?

Cattle egrets are native to Africa, Spain and Portugal and only spread to northern France in 1981 and Britain in 2007 so it appears this is not the case. Cranes migrate from Sweden through Germany and France to Spain and Mexico but their stops are only temporary and wouldn’t explain a long-term link with local cattle.

Although cattle egrets have only just arrived in Britain, lasting relationships exist between longhorned cattle and wetland birds. English Longhorns originate from Craven and were popular before Holstein Friesians were imported in the 19th C. They are currently being revived as ‘wetland lawnmowers’ at nature reserves because their grazing of long grasses leaves tufts for wildfowl to feed on and hollows left by their hooves are used by nesting lapwings and redshanks.

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Longhorned Cow, Brockholes Nature Reserve

It seems possible such relations date back two thousand years to when aurochs existed alongside wetland birds. Paris’s ancient name was Lutetia (‘marsh’). The image of the ‘great horned bull’ Tarvos Trigaranus was no doubt born from Lutetia’s landscape and inhabitants.

III. The Sacrificial Bull

Auroch bulls could stand two metres high at the shoulder and weigh 1000kg. In his Gallic Wars (48-49BC), Julius Caesar describes an aurochs as ‘a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull.’ These mighty beasts were prized prey for hunters and sadly hunted to extinction in Britain in the Iron Age.

The hunting and killing of an aurochs-like bull is depicted in the bottom of the Gundestrup Cauldron. A hunter or huntress aided by three hounds prepares its slaughter with a blade. Cleverly this death-scene is also one of regeneration. The dead bull lies in a near foetal position surrounded by foliage. On a separate panel three bulls are killed by three hunters accompanied by hounds above and beneath.

'The Bull Fight' National Museum of Denmark

‘The Bull Fight’ National Museum of Denmaek

A sculpture of a sacrificial bull in the same position is found in Paris. On two altars from Alpraham near Chester we find the same bull sculpture and a hound with a close resemblance to one of the three in the bottom of the Gundestrup Cauldron.

We possess several written records of bull sacrifices. Pliny’s Natural History (1AD) refers to a complex Druidic healing ceremony in Gaul where a white-robed Druid climbs a tree and cuts mistletoe with a golden sickle on the sixth day of the moon. Afterward two white bulls ‘whose horns are bound for the first time’ are sacrificed with prayers to an unnamed god. This is followed by ritual feasting.

In Tara the way of selecting a new king was through a tarbhfhess (‘bull feast’). A bull was slaughtered then a medium ate its meat and drank its broth. Four Druids chanted a truth-spell whilst he slept and received a vision of the king. A trace of similar rites in Britain is found in Rhonabwy’s Dream where Rhonabwy experiences a prophetic vision sleeping on an ox-hide.

Stories of bull sacrifices are supported by archaeological evidence. At the war sanctuary of Gournay-sur-Aronde, cattle (including bulls) were led to a pit, killed by a single blow to the nape of the neck then left to decompose; their blood and rotting flesh feeding the earth and underworld deities. Broken weapons were piled in pits surrounding the dead animal.

Afterward the cattle bones were separated. The heads were removed and stored whilst the neck, shoulder and spine were deposited in ditches either side of the entrance with the weapons. About 3,000 bones and 2,000 bent and broken weapons were found. This provides clear evidence of associations between bulls, battle and the underworld gods.

In Britain a complete bull was found interred in a subterranean Cambridge shrine which may have been a sacrifice to the chthonic deities. A West Yorkshire chariot burial surrounded by bones from 300 cattle is suggestive of ritual feasting taking place over hundreds of years. At Maiden Castle human burials were discovered with joints of beef.

This accumulation of evidence shows the importance of the bull as a sacrificial animal whose flesh was deemed incredibly sacred as food for humans and the gods. The sacrifice of a bull would have been a considerable cost for a community. From it powerful magic stemmed for healing, prophecy and war.

IV. Magical Bulls and the Underworld

A pair of magical bulls: Finnbennach (‘White-horned of Connacht’) and Donn Cúailnge (‘Brown Bull of Cooley’) appear in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’) and fight to their deaths at the end. These bulls were originally divine herdsmen and also took the forms of ‘ravens, stags, champions, water-beasts, demons and water-worms.’

Their capacity to shift shape suggests they were theriomorphic bull deities and progenitors and protectors of their herd (which may be extended metaphorically to people). Donn Cúailnge bears resemblances to Donnotaurus ‘Lordly Bull’ whereas Finnbennach may be connected to the special white cattle sacrificed by the Gaulish Druids.

In Culhwch and Olwen, the impossible tasks fulfilled by Arthur and his men for Culhwch include the capture and yoking together of three pairs of legendary oxen: ‘two oxen of Gwylwlydd Winau’, ‘the Melyn Gwanwyn (‘The one of the yellow of spring’) and the Ych Brych (‘Brindled Ox’)’ and ‘Two horned oxen… Nyniaw and Peibiaw.’

Nyniaw and Peibiaw are the sons of Erb, King of Archenfield, ‘whom God transformed into oxen for their sins.’ I suspect this is a Christian overlay for divine herdsmen who defied the boundaries of man and ox like Finnbennach and Donn Cúailnge.

In Culhwch and Olwen it is not explained how the Brindled Ox is captured or where from. This may be derived from his appearance in The Spoils of Annwn at Caer Fanddwy (‘Fortress of God’s Peak’). Along with seven other Caers, Caer Fanddwy is located in Annwn. The Brindled Ox is described: ‘thick his headband / Seven score links / on his collar’.

The headband gives him a human-like apparel and puts me in mind of Anne Ross’s description of bronze heads on Bronze and Iron Age bucket mounts. One has a ‘hair-line defined by means of a narrow, notched band.’ Human heads with bull’s horns and birds emerging from bull’s heads appear together and are suggestive of shapeshifting bull deities. Such ancient iconography may lie behind the Brindled Ox.

In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn speaks of his sorrow at witnessing battle at Caer Fanddwy: ‘a host / Shields shattered, spears broken, / Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’ It seems likely Gwyn refers to the struggle between Arthur and the people of Annwn for the Brindled Ox and this is how he was captured. Of Arthur’s side ‘except seven / none rose up.’

I believe it is no coincidence Gwyn, a bull of battle and ruler of Annwn, is present at the capture of the Brindled Ox. The Chief of Annwn is a central figure in The Spoils of Annwn and Gwyn is a potential candidate for this title. The Chief of Annwn possesses a magical cauldron. This could well be connected with a bull sacrifice and feast.

V. Fairy Kine

The notion cattle come from the underworld is deeply ingrained in the lore of Ireland and Wales. In Cruachan, King Conn steals cattle from the Sidhe then covers his land with magical snow. To melt the snow, the Sidhe kill three hundred white cows with red ears and spread their livers across the plains. For this reason, Magh Ai is called ‘The Plain of Livers’.

Here we find white cows with red ears belonging to the Sidhe (‘fairies’) which presumably come from the Sidhe (‘mounds’). A shining white coat and red ears are traditional significators of otherworldly origins.

Several Welsh stories refer to Gwartheg y Llyn (‘Kine of the Lake’) watched over by divine herdswomen called Gwragedd Annwn (‘Wives of the Underworld’). Wirt Sikes says their favourite haunts are ‘lakes and rivers… especially the wild and lonely lakes upon the mountain heights’ which ‘serve as avenues of communication between this world and the lower one of Annwn, the shadowy domain presided over by Gwyn ap Nudd.’

Cairn adjacent to Llyn Barfog,, by andy, Wikimedia Commons

‘Cairn adjacent to Llyn Barfog’,, by Andy, Wikipedia Commons

Gwragedd Annwn were rumoured to appear at dusk close to Llyn Barfog, in the hills behind Aberdovey, clad in green with hounds and ‘beautiful milk white kine’. When one of these cows strayed, falling in love with cattle from a thisworldly herd, a farmer managed to catch her. She produced calves, milk, butter and cheese like none seen in Wales.

Unfortunately the farmer decided to fatten her up to eat. Once she was fatter than the fattest cow he’d ever seen he called for the butcher. As the butcher raised his ‘red right arm’ and ‘struck fair and hard between the eyes’ with his bludgeon the blow went straight through the cow’s ‘goblin head’ raising a deafening shriek and knocking over nine men. A green Graig appeared on a crag above the lake crying:

‘Dere di felen Emion,
Cyrn Cyfeiliorn-braith y Llyn,
A’r foci Dodin,
Codwch, dewch adre.

Come yellow Anvil, stray horns,
Speckled one of the lake,
And of the hornless Dodlin,
Arise, come home.’

The milk white cow returned with all her progeny, leaving only one cow who turned from white to black. This legend explains the origin of Welsh black cattle.

VI. White Park Cattle

Historical records exist of payments of ‘real’ white cows with red ears. An Irish law tract states the penalty for satirising King Cernodon of Ulster included ‘seven white cows with red ears’.

In Wales The Laws of Hywel Dda (10th C) determined fines by numbers of colour-pointed cattle. The honour price for an insult to the King of Aberffraw was ‘100 cows for each cantref (‘hundred town’) in his dominion; a white bull with red ears for every hundred cows.’

The Lord of Dinefwr’s honour price was ‘as many white cattle with red ears that will extend, the head of the one to the tail of the other from Argoel to the palace of Dinefwr, with a bull of the same colour for every score.’ The Welsh sent 400 white colour-pointed cows and a bull to King John (who reigned 1199 – 1216AD) in a failed attempt at appeasement.

A fascinating fact that emerged from my research is that white cattle with red ears really existed and are still with us in Britain today. On Dinefwr Park in Carmarthenshire, Cadzow in Lanarkshire and Chartley in Staffordshire herds of White Park cattle are thriving. They are white and ‘have a pigmented skin with red or black ears, eyelids, muzzle, feat and teats. Sometimes there are freckles on the face, neck or shoulders. Sometimes the tail switch is white.’

White Park cow with calf on Hambledon Hill 1 Marilyn Peddle, Wikipedia Commons

White Park cow with calf on Hambledon Hill 1, Marilyn Peddle,, Wikipedia Commons

White Parks could be the source of the laws and earlier stories about white bulls and fairy kine. They even carry a recessive gene resulting in black calves which could explain the remaining black cow in the story from Llyn Barfog. Although scholars have speculated they were brought by the Romans, genetic research has proved this is not true. These Ancient British cattle could come from the underworld.

VII. The Bull and the Portal

In September 2012, Gwyn appeared to me as a bull of battle: a white warrior in a bull-horned helmet stepping with spear and shield straight out of 6th C Wales into 21st C Preston to gift me the imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands.’ Now my book is complete I’m being led through the portal opened on that day to explore the connections between the modern world and ‘Heroic Age’.

The image of Gwyn in the numinous prophetic aegis of tarv trin emerged from a Brythonic society not only at war with the Anglo-Saxons but plagued by bloody internecine warfare between its rulers. Gwyn served as a psychopomp to the Men of the North and the death of an era.

1500 years on thankfully wars between rival kingdoms in Britain are at an end. However we still face battle and conflict in relation to environmental and political issues.

Gwyn appears again in the Old North calling me to enter Annwn, learn to shift shape like his herdsmen and women. To seek the friendship of a great horned bull with horns of willow filled with singing birds, an island of dancing cranes, stampedes of wild white red-eared cattle careering from lakes stopping traffic on country lanes. To return with horns and hair full of birds and twigs to speak visions of hope for a new world alongside the marsh and the gods of the deep.

P1130785 - Copy

*The change in spelling from tarv to tarw results from the transition between Old and Middle Welsh. Tarv would have been pronounced ‘tarb’ whilst tarw is ‘tar-oo’. The shift from tarw to tharw is caused by the spirant mutation. Many thanks to Heron for this information and help with understanding Jarman’s translations in The Gododdin.


A.O.H. Jarman (transl), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Anne Ross & Don Robins, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, (Touchstone, 1991)
Heron (transl), Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir (2015)
Janet Vorwald Dohner, The Encyclopedia of Endangered and Historic Lifestock and Poultry Breeds, (Yale University Press, 2002)
Jean Sprackland, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, (Vintage, 2013)
Lady Augusta Gregory (transl), Cuchulain of Muirthemne, (Sacred Texts, 1902)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (Routledge, 1998)
Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)
Peter Thomas Ellis, Welsh Law and Custom in the Middle Ages, (University of Bristol)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Rachel Bromwich and Simon D. Evans (eds), Culhwch and Olwen, (University of Wales, 1998)
Sarah Higley (transl), Preiddu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn, (The Camelot Project, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (Oxford University Press, 1969)
W.A.McDevitte & W.S.Bohn (transl.), Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, (Sacred Texts, 1859)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (Lightning Source, 1880)

Thirteen calves born at WWT Martin Mere‘, Wetland and Wildfowl Trust
Ancient chariot burial excites experts‘, BBC News
The famous white cattle of Carmarthenshire’s Dinefwr’ Park‘, Wales Online

Crane-Dance and Sunshine

P1130306A card which keeps recurring in my readings (I mainly use The Wildwood Tarot) is ‘The Three of Vessels: Joy’. It features two common cranes dancing and a third spreading its wings, rising into flight with three vessels; white, green and gold. Its meaning is welcoming ‘new life or good fortune’, ‘celebration within a communal group or family’ and ‘successful return after migration’. The reading points state it’s about being able to give ourselves permission to experience ‘authentic joy’ as a ‘gift from the universe’.

At the beginning of the year after completing my first publication: Enchanting the Shadowlands and dedicating it to him, Gwyn ap Nudd advised me to ‘find my sun’. Interpreting this as finding a calling I enjoyed, I balked. Although intuitively I knew continuing to serve Gwyn as an awenydd by recovering his neglected stories and their associations with the British landscape was a source of joy, I couldn’t believe in it.

There were too many awful things happening in the world. Too many other people stuck in meaningless jobs for me to deserve the liberty to follow my joy. So I ignored Gwyn’s advice, took an admin job and tried to force myself into the political sphere: areas antithetical to my natural disposition as an intuitive thinker and poet. Unsurprisingly, I had a thoroughly miserable time.

The event that broke my misery was a holiday to Wales where I experienced the enormity of Cadair Idris and, after reading Heron’s translation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ on Borth beach, witnessed the otherworld appearing across the sea at sunset: a gift from Gwyddno’s lands and from Gwyn, a King of Annwn. This led me to write a story based on the ancient Welsh poem called ‘The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir.’

During my research I found out whilst Garanhir is usually translated as ‘longshanks’, ‘garan’ means ‘crane’ in Welsh and could refer to ‘crane-legs’. That’s how Gwyddno appeared to me: an old man, grey-faced, crane-legged, picking his way along the misted edge of Borth Beach. He had lost his memory. This was because the cranes were gone with their elegant black legs whose dancing alphabet spelled the forgotten names of his kindred.

Cranes became extinct in Britain during the 17th C due to shooting and the draining of wetlands. I’m not sure when the last crane was sighted in the precincts of Maes Gwyddno ‘The Land of Gwyddno’. According to local legend, Cantre’r Gwaelod ‘the Bottom Hundred’ was drowned after the flood gates of Gwyddno’s fort were left open after Seithenin’s seduction of Mererid.

Boddi Maes Gwyddno ‘The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno’ is set in the 6th century but could have its roots in sightings of an ancient, submerged forest on Borth beach. Whenever it happened, it seems a flood devastated lowland plains, areas of woodland and the homes of a human community. A haunting story tells of church bells ringing beneath the sea. I imagine the flood-waters drowned coastal wetlands and the nesting places of numerous wildfowl too.

Another tale linked with the area is Hanes Taliesin ‘The Story of Taliesin’. After Gwion Bach spilled three drops of Ceridwen’s brew on his finger and imbibed the Awen, the cauldron shattered and its toxic contents spilled across the land and poisoned Gwyddno’s horses. Today this conjures images of large-scale industrial tragedies such as the Gold King Mine Disaster in Colorado in August this year where three millions gallons of waste water flooded into the Animas.

This may not be far from the ‘truth’ as lead mining took place in the hills close to Cors Fochno ‘Borth Bog’ and lead smelting at Taliesin, Llangynfelyn and Ynys Capel during the Roman period. A medieval wooden walkway connecting these sites has recently been discovered. Perhaps an industrial disaster poisoning streams and wildlife gave rise to this tale? (On a happier note, wild ponies can be seen grazing safely near Cors Fochno in the present-day.)


Both ‘Dark Age’ tales may be related to the disappearance of cranes from Maes Gwyddno. A story which has not made its way into legend is the draining and enclosure of Cors Fochno. This began in 1813 and reduced its area of 24 square kilometres to 7 square kilometres (now protected as an SSSI). Whilst this took place too late to be cited as a cause of the disappearance of cranes from Cors Fochno it would have decimated other wetland species.



Wikipedia Commons

The extinction of common cranes forms an incredibly sad marker in British history. These striking birds with their grey body- feathers, black and white necks and unique red crowns are renowned for the choreography of their elaborate ballet-like courtship-dance which involves a complex sequence of bobs, bows, crouches, coils, spins, leaps, pirouettes and calls.

After mating, both parents care for and fiercely protect their eggs which are laid in May and hatch 30 days later. After 5-6 weeks the parents go through a post-breeding molt which renders them unable to fly. Their offspring are ready to fly at 9 weeks. It seems possible the precarious 3 week period when none of the family can take off played a part in the demise of common cranes.

As well as being an irreplaceable part of the natural world, cranes are deeply embedded in Celtic and Romano-Celtic culture and mythology. The most famous example is Tarvostrigaranus ‘the Bull with Three Cranes’ from a 1st C Parisian monument. In Dorset, a statue of a three-horned bull with three female figures on his back was found in a 4th C shrine. These seem related through lore about women shapeshifting into cranes. In Risingham, Northumberland, a Gaulish slab depicts Victory with a crane beneath her and Mars accompanied by a goose.

Whilst crane stories in Brythonic tradition seem lacking, I found cranes play a central role in Irish mythology. In light of my devotion to Gwyn I was delighted to find several stories connecting his Irish counterpart, Finn, with cranes. In ‘Bairne Mor’ whilst Finn is a young child, his father, Cumhall, is slain in battle. Finn is thrown over a cliff and caught by his grandmother in the form of a crane.

In ‘Cailleach an Teampuill’, Finn encounters the Cailleach as ‘the Hag of the Temple’ with four sons who appear as cranes. They are associated with death and will only ’emerge as warriors’ if they receive a drop of blood from the skull of the Connra Bull (who is owned by the Cailleach).

Finn also comes into custodianship of a crane-bag which belonged to his father. The story of its origin is fascinating. The crane-bag first belonged to Manannan Mac Lir and contained his treasures. It is made from the skin of a crane who was originally a woman called Aoife. Aoife was transformed into a crane by Iuchra; a jealous female rival for the love of a man. In modern Druidry, the crane-bag is associated with the ogham alphabet and used to carry magical tools.

When I wrote my story, the only part of this complex web of correspondences I knew of was the connection of the crane-bag with letters. Considering the relationship between cranes and female shapeshifters, looking back, it’s intriguing I was guided by an impulse to relate Gwyddno’s regaining of his crane-knowledge to memories of his mother.

Gwyddno’s recollections of his identity and ancestry took place under the auspices of Gwyn’s protection as a psychopomp. It is my belief the dialogue is set between worlds after Gwyddno’s death. Because Gwyddno lost his memory before he died he was unable to find his way to Annwn. Thus Gwyn appeared with his dog, Dormach, to help him regain his memory and ancestral connections and aid his crossing.

In my story, after Gwyn helped Gwyddno re-gain his ‘inner crane-knowing’, Gwyddno saw the arrival of his family, including his grandmother and his wife Ystradwen as a flock of cranes. Finally he took crane-form, was united with them and flew to Annwn as it appeared across the sea by the light of the setting sun.

Thus, for me, the three cranes on ‘The Three of Vessels: Joy’ could represent Gwyddno and Ystradwen dancing watched over by Gwyddno’s mother with Gwyn’s presence represented by the misty background. The three vessels seem linked to the three drops of Awen, which had led to the poisoning of the landscape, recovered and contained.

Another interesting coincidence is that Gwyn appears to Gwyddno as a ‘bull of battle’: a sacred title referring to his status as a psychopomp. In the dialogue I picture him as a white warrior wearing a bull-horned helmet. Could there be a link to the magical power of Tarvostrigaranus and / or the Cailleach’s bull? If so my story inverts the transformation of the Cailleach’s sons as Gwyddno shifts from king and warrior into crane-form.

Another piece of Irish lore worth mentioning is that three cranes guard the sidh (mound and otherworld entrance) of Midir. Their calls have the capacity to ‘unman’ warriors and if a crane is seen before battle this is taken as an ill omen. I’ve also read three cranes act as guardians of Annwn. Although I haven’t found a scholarly reference for this yet, it would fit with my suggested crane-trio and Gwyn as a King of Annwn.


Whilst writing my story, I was excited to find out common cranes are returning from ‘extinction’ in Britain. In 1979 common cranes arrived at Horsey on the Norfolk Broads. Their survival was made possible by the custodianship and management of ‘Crane Country’ by John Buxton and his team of wardens.

In 2010 ‘The Great Crane Project’ was established and is ongoing. At the WWT Centre in Slimbridge, crane eggs from Germany are incubated and hatched then the chicks are hand-reared and released; mainly on the Somerset levels and also in South Wales, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and East Somerset.

Although over a dozen pairs have established territories and bred, this is the first year chicks have matured to the age of taking flight. In August not only one or two but three young cranes (two in Somerset and one at Slimbridge) took flight for the first time. The trio have all been named Peter after the RSPB’s Peter Newbery who was a driving force behind the project and sadly passed away before he saw the young cranes fly.

A couple of weeks ago, Brian Taylor (who I have been conversing with for a while about soul-birds amongst other topics) mentioned a pair of Eurasian cranes in the ‘wildfowl garden’ of the WWT Centre at Martin Mere. I’d been planning to go to see the Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans so visited with my friend, Peter Dillon.

From a distance, I was struck by the Eurasian cranes’ presence and the dramatic change in their appearance from when they crouched and raised themselves to full height. After spending a short while with them, I walked to the other side of their pen. Both turned from a crouched, coiled, position in synchrony, pirouetted then approached. Seeing them perform a simple movement with such grace in captivity I can only imagine their courtship dance in the wild.

Seeing cranes face to face was a source of joy as was re-imagining the dialogue of Gwyn and Gwyddno. During the process I had an overwhelming gnosis of the significance of Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp, the great service he performs for the dead and his promise of blissful re-union with the depths of nature (Annwn) and one’s ancestors in the afterlife.

In Welsh folklore the hounds who help Gwyn gather the souls of the dead are called Cwn Annwn: ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’. Their barking is identified with noisy nocturnal flights of geese. The hounds in Lancashire folklore who perform this role are Gabriel Ratchets and their baying is also connected with droves of geese and wild swans.

In Wales and Lancashire to hear swans or geese flying over at night is a portent of death. During the day at Martin Mere hearing the calls of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese on the lakes and overhead filled me with great joy: in their presence and a sense of knowing like them one day I would be going ‘home’ to a land far away.

Looking out from the Ron Barker Hide across wetlands lit by magical rays of sunshine as flights of geese and swans arrived and departed I realised in Gwyn, his stories and their revelation within this remarkable landscape I had found my joy, my Awen: my sun.

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I perceive parallels between the return of cranes and the re-emergence of the stories of the old gods and ancestral animals of Britain. Such returns don’t happen on their own or without people dedicated to making them happen. Thus I see my vocation as an awenydd to Gwyn and the spirits of the land not only as a source of joy for myself but hope for future generations. I’ve found my sun and finally accept its gifts.



AlainaFae and Cliareach Filleadh, ‘Crane’s Cauldron / Brigid’s Cross
AlainaFae and Cliareach Filleadh ‘Artistic Creation Exploration: Corr Teanga
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (Routledge, 1992)
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Waterlife, 194, Oct / Dec 2015
The Great Crane Project
The Norfolk Cranes’ Story