Gwyn ap Nudd Devotional Pendant

As a symbol of my of lifetime dedication to Gwyn ap Nudd I commissioned this beautiful silver pendant from Emily Brunner. The image is based on Gwyn’s appearance as a ‘Bull of Conflict’ in the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’: ‘I come from battle and conflict / With a shield in my hand; / Broken is the helmet / By the pushing of spears.’ Emily was inspired to craft it in the style of Iron Age metalwork and the addition of the two Cwn Annwn ‘Hounds of Annwn’ (who mirror my guides) was her idea. She was a pleasure to work with and I am immensely proud of the outcome. Putting it on for my morning and evening devotions to Gwyn makes me very happy.

gwyn ap nudd pendant small

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

Gwyn’s Hunt

Within modern Paganism Gwyn ap Nudd is generally understood to be a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’. Before Jacob Grimm developed the term Wilde Jagd ‘Wild Hunt’ and applied it to various otherworldly hunts across Europe in his Deutsch Mythologie (1835), they were known by individual names, often referring to their leaders, such as ‘Woden’s Hunt’, ‘Household of Harlequin’, and ‘Herla’s Assembly’. This essay will focus on the Brythonic tradition of ‘Gwyn’s Hunt’.

The earliest literary reference to Gwyn as a hunter comes from Culhwch and Olwen (1090) where it is stated, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found.’ This suggests Gwyn was the leader of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, prior to Arthur. According to the text, which was penned by Christian scribes, Twrch Trwyth was a king changed into a swine by God ‘for his sins’. This overlay conceals a pagan tradition wherein the ‘boar’ was a human shapeshifter. Gwyn’s hunt was for a man: a shapeshifting human soul.

The following lines, ‘God has put the fury of the devils of Annwn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ form another Christian overlay obscuring Gwyn’s role as a protector and ruler of Annwn containing furious spirits including the fay and the dead within his realm and person. The comb, razor, and shears Twrch Trwyth mysteriously carries between his ears may have been grave goods, suggesting he is a restless soul Gwyn hunts down into the ocean (symbolic of Annwn ‘the Deep’) on a cyclical basis to lay to rest.

In later folklore Gwyn is depicted hunting for souls with the Cwn Annwn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, who are also known as Cwn Wybyr, ‘Hounds of the Sky’, and Cwn Cyrff, ‘Corpse Dogs’. These include Dormach, Gwyn’s fair red-nosed hunting dog. To hear or see the Cwn Annwn is a portent of death. This belief may be rooted in earlier traditions where wolves and dogs along with carrion birds (Gwyn is also associated with ravens who ‘croak over blood’) devoured the corpses of the dead before Gwyn gathered their souls.

A fascinating legend surrounds the minstrel Ned Pugh or Iolo ap Huw who disappeared into the cave of Tag y Clegyr playing ‘Ffarwel Ned Pugh’, ‘Ned Pugh’s Farewell’:

‘To leave my dear girl, my country, and friends,
and roam o’er the ocean, where toil never ends;
to mount the high yards, when the whistle shall sound,
Amidst the wild winds as they bluster around!’

Exchanging ‘his fiddle for a bugle’ the minstrel became Gwyn’s huntsman-in-chief and can be found ‘cheering Cwn Annwn over Cader Idris’ every Nos Galan Gaeaf.

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There are numerous instances where Gwyn (by this name or as a spectral or demon huntsman or fairy king), sometimes with his hunt and sometimes alone, also carries off the souls of the living. On Nos Galan Gaeaf, Gwyn wins back his beloved, Creiddylad, from Gwythyr and takes her to Annwn. Creiddylad’s descent with Gwyn to the underworld explains the coming of winter. Later folktales featuring abductions may have some basis in this old seasonal myth.

Here, on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire, there is a story featuring Sybil, the Lady of Bearnshaw Tower, who spends an unseemly amount of time on the hills and moors chasing wild swans whose hound-like calls remind her of ‘wild hunters and the spectral horseman’. She is swept from the dizzy heights of Eagle Crag overlooking Cliviger Gorge by a ‘demon’:

‘Immediately she felt as though she were sweeping through the trackless air… she thought the whole world lay at her feet, and the kingdoms of the earth moved on like a mighty pageant. Then did the vision change. Objects began to waver and grow dim, as if passing through a mist; and she found herself again upon that lonely crag, and her conductor at her side.’

Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, goes ‘between sky and air’ and moves ar wybir ‘through the clouds’. I believe Gwyn is ‘the spectral horseman’ and Sybil’s demonic ‘conductor’.

Sybil’s ability to shapeshift may have been learnt from Gwyn: a god of transformation. In deer-form she is hunted down by a human huntsman called William Towneley and forced to marry him. Her failed attempt to escape in cat-form leads to her death and burial at Eagle’s Crag where she was captured; her ghost and William’s can be seen there every Nos Galan Gaeaf.

eagle-crag-drawn-by-g-pickering-and-engraved-by-edward-finden-copy

The Cliviger area is also haunted by Gabriel Ratchets, corpse hounds who may be an Anglicised variant of the Cwn Annwn. In his poem, ‘Gabriel Ratchets’, which is based on Sybil’s story, Philip Hamerton opens: ‘Wild huntsmen? ‘Twas a flight of swans / But how invisibly they flew.’

Gwyn and his hunt are associated with soul flight and ecstasis. Ecstatic experiences with otherworldly beings were frowned upon by the Christian church and twisted into stories of abduction by a demon huntsman or fairy king who was confronted by knights and heroes who won those ‘poor souls’ back (whether they wanted to return or not…).

When I accepted Gwyn’s challenge to ride with him to the Otherworld and offered my soul into his care he showed me parts of Lancashire where people lived in lake villages and walked on wooden trackways then glaciers creeping across the landscape with blizzard winds.

This has led me to believe Gwyn was worshiped as a god of hunting and the transitions of the souls of the dead and living between worlds by this land’s earliest inhabitants after the Ice Age. Yuri Leitch identifies Gwyn with the constellation of Orion and Dormach with Canis Major (Sirius, the dog star, is Dormach’s nose). Gwyn is our ancient British Hunter in the Skies who rises from Annwn on Nos Galan Gaeaf and presides over the dark months of winter.

Nos Galan Gaeaf is an ysbrydnos ‘spirit night’ when Gwyn’s Hunt rides and the borders between thisworld and Annwn, life and death, and the laws that govern time and space break down. It is a time of migrating swans and geese and transitions of souls. It is a time of deep magic.

I’ll end with a passage from Sian Hayton’s ‘The Story of Kigva’ because, for me, it evokes so beautifully the experience of flying with Gwyn:

‘She felt a hand on her arm… steady, comforting her in her despair. The strongest one of all was there, as he had been in the forest and he promised, silently, that he would stay with her for the rest of her vigil. With tears she thanked him and felt herself gathered up in his arms. Together, from then on, they wandered the universe. He showed her things which only he knew. With him she touched the cold, hard moon and walked on the black rind of the sky. She found the stars felt like the taste of blaeberries and the north wind was truly a great river whose source was the mountains of the sun. He gave her jewelled collars and crowns and broke open an oak-tree so that she could feast on the honey. There was no one equal to him.’

*This article was first published on Dun Brython HERE.

SOURCES

Jacob Grimm, Deutsch Mythologie, https://archive.org/details/deutschemytholo07grimgoog
J. Gwengobryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Lightning Source,1901)
John Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (Oxford, 1901)
John Roby, Traditions of Lancashire I, (1872) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15271/15271-h/15271-h.htm
Philip Hamerton, The Isle of Loch Awe and Other Poems of My Youth, (Forgotten Books, 2017)
Sian Hayton, ‘The Story of Kigva’, Within the Hollow Hills, (Lindisfarne Books, 1995)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom, (Redwood Burn, 1979)

Rhymi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spears dropped to the floor.

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

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

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

Rhymi sketch

Gwyn’s Hunt

For Nos Galan Gaeaf: An article on soul hunting and soul flight in the Brythonic tradition of Gwyn’s Hunt on this night of deep magic as the borders between thisworld and Annwn, life and death, and the laws that govern time and space break down.

Dun Brython

Within Neo-Paganism Gwyn ap Nudd is generally understood to be a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’. Before Jacob Grimm developed ‘the Wild Hunt’ as a concept applied to various otherworldly hunts across Europe in his Deutsch Mythologie (1835), they were known by individual names often referring to their leaders such as ‘Woden’s Hunt’, ‘Household of Harlequin’, and ‘Herla’s Assembly’. This essay will focus on the Brythonic tradition of ‘Gwyn’s Hunt’.

The earliest literary reference to Gwyn as a hunter comes from Culhwch and Olwen (1090) where it is stated, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found.’ This suggests Gwyn was the leader of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, prior to Arthur. According to the text, which was penned by Christian scribes, Twrch Trwyth was a king changed into a swine by God ‘for his sins’. This overlay conceals a pagan tradition…

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Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

Cwn Annwn Tattoo Design by Nixie

Gwyn ap Nudd… he went between sky and air.’
Peniarth MS. 132

Have you heard them howling through the skies?
Have you heard them howl of distant worlds?
Have you felt the howling fear you’ll die?
Have you feared they’re howling for your soul?
If you have, your soul is no longer yours, my friend,
It has never been and will never be until the end.
And never is never as the howling winds
That carry us between sky and air.

Dormach and Death’s Door

Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Crane-Legs’) stands in a misty hinterland before the divine warrior-huntsman and psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd (‘White son of Mist’) and his white stallion, Carngrwn.

Beside Gwyn is Dormach, his hunting dog, ‘fair and sleek’ and ruddy-nosed. Dormach’s gaze is commanding. His nose shines like a torch-fire; a beacon; a setting sun. Although he appears as a dog his shape somehow exceeds dog-like proportions. Gwyddno says:

‘Dormach red-nose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.’

Gwyddno’s sensory perception is distorted. Dormach is close enough for his nose to be seen yet distantly wandering across the heavens.

This is due to the misty shape-shifting nature he shares with Gwyn. J. Gwengobryn Evans tells us Dormach ‘moved ar wybir, i.e. rode on the clouds which haunt the mountain-tops.’ ‘Wybir‘ is ‘condensed floating white cloud’ referred to as Nuden and ‘serves as a garment for Gwyn.’

In a remarkable image beside the poem, Dormach appears as a strangely grinning dog with forelegs but instead of back legs he possesses two long and tapering serpent’s tails! This illustrates Dormach’s capacity to be near and distant and shows he is clearly not of this world.

Dormach Sketch - Copy

From J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (1907)

Dormach is a member of the Cwn Annwn (‘Hounds of the Otherworld’) who are sometimes known as Cwn Wybyr (‘Hounds of the Sky’). They occupy a liminal position between the worlds and play an important role in the passage of souls.

This is represented beautifully by John Rhys’ translation of Dormach (re-construed as Dormarth) as ‘Death’s Door’. He links this to the Welsh paraphrase for death Bwlch Safan y Ci ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, the English ‘the jaws of death’ and the German Rachen des Todes and suggests Dormach’s jaws are the Door of Annwn. Although this translation is disputed by scholars it possesses poetic truth. Death is not an end but a passage to the next life.

Gwyddno’s passing is not depicted in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. I’ve been meditating on this poem for several years and had a break-through when I realised Gwyddno’s epithet, Garanhir, was an indicator of his inner crane-nature.

In a personal vision following from the poem Gwyddno donned his red crane’s mask, grew wings and followed the red sun of Dormach’s nose to be re-united with his kindred on an island of dancing cranes in Annwn.

Transformation

Physical death is not always a prerequisite of passage to Annwn. This is shown in the story of Pwyll and Arawn in the First Branch of The Mabinogion. Pwyll’s life-changing encounter with a King of Annwn called Arawn is heralded by the ‘cry of another pack’.

Although Pwyll notices Arawn’s hounds are ‘gleaming shining white’ and red-eared he fails to recognise their otherworld nature. He commands his pack to drive them off their kill: a grand stag, and feasts his own pack on it.

As recompense Arawn asks Pwyll to take his form and role in Annwn and fight his ritual battle against his eternal foe: Hafgan. By defeating Hafgan and resisting the temptation to sleep with Arawn’s wife, Pwyll wins the title of Pwyll Pen Annwn (‘Pwyll Head of Annwn’).

In the liminal space opened by the cries of Arawn’s hounds, Pwyll does not die but is transformed. Where passage to Annwn does not demand physical death it demands the death of one’s former identity and birth of a new one in service to the powers of Annwn.

Cwn Annwn

In later Welsh folklore Cwn Annwn are known by a number of names: Cwn Wybyr, Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse Dogs’, Cwn Toili ‘Phantom Funeral Dogs’, Cwn Mamau ‘Mother’s Dogs’, ‘Hell-Hounds’ and ‘Infernal Dogs’. Here we find an admixture of pagan and Christian folk beliefs.

Annwn is identified with hell, its gods with demons, and its hounds with hell-hounds. Christianity’s dualistic logic limits the transformative potency of encounters with Annuvian deities by reducing them to objects of fear and superstition.

Yet the lore of Cwn Annwn endures with startling vivacity. They are famed for barking through the skies pursuing the souls of the dead. Therefore to hear them is a death-portent. They often fly the ways corpses will follow: hence their associations with teulu (‘phantom funerals’).

Their magical and disorientating qualities prevail. The 14th C poet Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of encountering ‘the dogs of night’ whilst lost in ‘unsightly fog’ after hearing Gwyn’s ‘Crazy Owl’. In a report from Carmarthenshire the closer Cwn Annwn get the quieter their voices until they sound like small beagles. The further away the louder their call. In their midst the ‘deep hollow voice’ of a ‘monstrous blood hound’ is often heard.

Like Dormach they delight in a Cheshire-cat-like ability to shift their shape. Some appear as white dogs with red ears or noses. One is a ‘strong fighting mastiff’ with a ‘white tail’ and ‘white snip and ‘grinning teeth’ able to conjure a fire around it. Others are ‘the size of guinea pigs and covered with red and white spots’, ‘small’, ‘grey-red or speckled’. Some are ‘mice or pigs’.

At Cefn Creini in Merioneth they are accompanied by a ‘shepherd’ with a black face and ‘horns on his head’ who sounds remarkably like Gwyn: a horned hunter-god who blacks his face. He is supposedly fended off with a crucifix. In certain areas of Wales the ‘quarry’ of Gwyn and the Cwn Annwn is restricted to the souls of ‘sinners’ and ‘evil-livers’.

Gabriel Ratchets

In northern England we find the parallel of Gabriel Ratchets. Although they are nominally Germanic and rooted in the Wild Hunt there are striking resemblances with Cwn Annwn.

According to Edward A. Armstrong ‘Ratchet’ derives from the ‘Anglo-Saxon raecc and Middle English… rache, a dog which hunts by scent and gives tongue’. Rachen also means jaws: we recall ‘Rachen des Todes’ ‘Jaws of Death’.

In Yorkshire they are known as ‘gabble-ratchets’. Armstrong says ‘Gabble’ is a corruption of ‘Gabriel’ and ‘is connected with gabbara and gabares, meaning a corpse’. We find similarities with Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse-Dogs’.

Gabriel Ratchets are also defined as packs of dogs barking through the skies portending death. Intriguingly they are identified with noisy flights of nocturnal birds who sound like beagles. In Lancashire James Bowker equates them with ‘whistling’ Bean Geese* flying over lonely moors.

In Burnley, Gabriel Ratchets are connected with the Spectre Huntsman of Cliviger Gorge. A maiden called Sibyl hears ‘wild swans winging their way above her’ before she is swept through the air by a ‘demon’. Poet Philip Hamerton shares the evocative lines ‘Wild huntsmen? Twas a flight of swans, / But so invisibly they flew.’

Thousands of Bewick’s swans and Pink-footed Geese arrive to over-winter on Martin Mere between September and November: the time ‘the Wild Hunt’ flies and may form the root of these Lancashire legends.

In Nidderdale the Gabble Ratchet is equated with the ‘night-jar, goat-sucker, screech-owl, churn-owl, puckbird, puckeridge, wheelbird, spinner, razor-grinder, scissor-grinder, night-hawk, night-crow, night-swallow, door-hawk, moth-hawk, goat-hawk, goat-chaffer… and lich-fowl’

We also find the ‘Ratchet Owl’: the ‘death-hound of the Danes’ and ‘night crow’: ‘This kind of owl is dog-footed and covered with hair; his eyes are like the glistering ice; against death he uses a strange whoop.’

Gabble Ratchets also take the form of birds with burning eyes and appear to warn of death. In some cases they are identified with the souls of un-baptised children.

Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

In stories of Cwn Annwn and Gabriel Ratchets we find an astonishing menagerie of imaginal ‘hounds’. These rich folk beliefs, rooted in wild moorlands and piping wetlands, were not extinguished by Christianity.

Industrialisation forced country dwellers into towns to work in factories. 12 hour shifts in ‘dark Satanic mills’ crushed imagination. Wild places disappeared with the wild mind beneath red bricks of housing developments and asylum walls of schools and universities and secular careers.

Yet through the concrete of office-blocks and head-phones of call-centres over the white-noise of television we still hear the Cwn Annwn howling. The harder we try to shut them out the louder they howl.

The stoppers in Death’s Door tremble as they bark back the liminal spaces where the gods of Annwn are encountered and souls are transformed.

An increasing number of people are encountering hounds and gods of Annwn and having their lives turned around. I met Gwyn at a local phantom funeral site when I was lost. Passing through Death’s Door with him confirmed the reality of the afterlife and has given me a deeper appreciation of life in thisworld.

As I have striven to uncover Gwyn’s forgotten mythos from the British landscape I have been unfailingly drawn to flight paths of migratory birds and recovering wetlands. Locally, the Ribble Estuary and Martin Mere; further afield, Nith’s Estuary and Caerlaverock, Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Levels, Cors Fochno (‘Borth Bog’) in Maes Wyddno (‘Gwyddno’s Land’).

This has led me to believe that as Brythonic King of Winter Gwyn presides over wintering birds and the passage of souls. This seems significant at a time migratory birds are threatened by melting glaciers and drained wetlands and floods have wrecked havoc across the UK. Our fates are intrinsically linked.

One of the most powerful lessons trusting my soul to Gwyn taught me was it has never been my own. I have always been one of his pack, one of his flock passing between worlds between sky and air.

Arfderydd, River Nith and Caerlaverock 220 - Copy

Swans over Nith Estuary

SOURCES

Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (Chiefly Lancashire and the North of England) (1872)
Dafydd ap Gwilym, Rachel Bromwich (ed.), A Selection of Poems, (1982)
Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds (1958)
Heron (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2015)
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, (2003)
James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878)
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen (1907)
John Billingsley, West Yorkshire Folk Tales, (2010)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (1841)
John Roby, Traditions of Lancashire: Volume 2 (1829)
John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, (1677)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (1998)
Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Isles of Loch Awe and Other Poems of My Youth, (1855)
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (2007)
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom, (1930)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (1880)
Nottingham Evening Post, Monday 23rd August, 1937

*This seems odd as Bean Geese over-winter in south-west Scotland and Norfolk.
**With thanks to John Billingsley and Brian Taylor for providing some helpful pointers on Gabriel Ratchets, particularly sections from Edward A. Armstrong’s The Folklore of Birds.