In the May Snow

For Gwyn

I.

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.

II.

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.

Will You Leave?

Will the seasons continue to turn?

Will your battle still commence?

In these days of plague when
we need you so much

will you depart
to the land of the dead
to sleep in your cold castle
in Annwn?

~

The seasons must turn.

My battle must commence
and my death-blow must be struck.

Yet when I die you will see my ghost
and when I sleep I will sleepwalk.

Many will see the wolf of my soul.

Through these days of plague
I will guide the dead.

This poem is addressed to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, on Calan Mai. Today Gwyn (Winter’s King) battles against Gwythyr (Summer’s King) for Creiddylad, a goddess of spring and flowers, and is destined to lose and return to sleep in the Castle of Cold Stone, in Annwn.

The Lean Wolf

approaches
with a little bit
of Chernobyl
in its deadly
stride.

A big black bell
is ringing inside it.

Its face is a man’s.

There is nothing
behind it.

I wrote this poem following a dream of which I remember little but the vivid image of a lean menacing wolf with a man’s face and the knowing because I’d seen it, been its presence, I was going to die.

I’ve had a handful of dreams in which I’ve had this gnosis. In one I was a captured soldier awaiting execution and Gwyn prepared me for death by telling me I must go into the hazel, and the beetle, and something I can’t recall. In another I was a clawed creature clinging to a lift descending to the abyss. And in another I was and was not a dark magician, who in a magical battle against mechanical forces, was cut into a thousand pieces by whirling blades and resurrected as a vampiric woman.

Through these dreams I know I have lived many lives, died many deaths, in Thisworld and in Annwn, and perhaps in worlds beyond. That a part of me, which I call my soul, carries these memories.

When I was talking to my dad about his funeral plans I was surprised to hear that he, like me a philosophy graduate, had never thought about whether he had a soul or what would happen when he died. He might have theorised about it but had never really contemplated what would happen to him.

Such questions have been on my mind as long as I can remember. Like my dad I theorised about them, attempting to find answers through philosophy, until I met Gwyn and he taught me to journey to Annwn. Until he and his father, the dream-god Nudd/Nodens, helped me to sleep and listen to my dreams.

For the first time since the Second World War people in Britain are suddenly facing death, due to the threat of the coronavirus. This is a complete unknown for people of my mum and dad’s generation, for mine, and the next generation, who might have included my children, if I’d had them.

I understand that one of the reasons Gwyn appeared in my life and taught me to journey was to help me prepare for death. I know a small handful of others who have had similar experiences with him and different gods, and of those who have gained their own understanding without experience of deity.

In contrast to the advice I’ve seen in various places to focus only on the positives, I believe at this time, when so many of us have so much extra time, there is no better time to contemplate the lean wolf.

Slowing Down

It happened when I was gearing up. Having given up my placement with Carbon Landscapes in Wigan as it was too office based I had returned to volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust closer to home and got the conservation internship at Brockholes.

One hundred per cent practical outdoor work, and just a 6 mile cycle ride away at a place I know and love, it promised to be my dream job. I’d completed my first 10k race in New Longton and was training for the City of Preston 10 miles. I was also preparing for my Taekwondo grading, on the Spring Equinox weekend, to gain my blue belt.

Then it struck. A series of lightning-like strikes. I’d heard the thunder. The first rumblings from China, the news the storm was getting closer, that it had hit Italy, Spain, France, arrived in the UK. We joked about it at first. Me with my perpetually runny nose, like a toddler, in spring, due to my hay fever. Anyone who coughed or sneezed, “I haven’t got coronavirus.” We’d seen it on the news but it didn’t seem real, like our little island with its green hills and fresh air granted some form of immunity. We’re British, right? We won the war. Then people started getting sick and started dying.

Around a fortnight ago hand washing or using antibacterial gel before eating became mandatory. On Monday the 16th of March when I was out with the Mud Pack at Brockholes the next step was stopping sharing PPE. No more slightly musty gloves from the collective stash. I was given my own hi-vis in preparation for beginning my internship on the Thursday. Still we worked together building a hibernaculum for great crested newts and ate our lunch outside on a day bright as coltsfoot.

On Tuesday the 17th of March we received an email saying we could no longer share lifts in the van or meet together inside. On Wednesday the 18th of March, another glorious spring day, I went out on another work party planting sarroccoca and eleganus amongst the daffodils on the rock garden on Avenham Park. There was little joking, even amongst the guys from Preston City Council, who were helping out. Everything felt ominous. Still, it came as a shock when I got home to find out all LWT volunteer work parties had been cancelled until the end of April along with my voluntary internship.

In some ways it was a relief because I live with parents who are over 70 and in ill health. I’d been torn between the choices, if I was to continue volunteering, of moving out or risking their lives. So I accepted it was for the best I isolated with them, just going out to do our shopping and to exercise.

Still, I was bitterly disappointed. After winning the struggle to give up alcohol and manage my anxiety without it, and feeling I was finally coming home from my exodus with Carbon Landscapes to the place and the job role in my local landscape where I truly belonged… this!

Yet, I also felt, in some ways my gods had been preparing me for it. If I hadn’t given up alcohol there is no way I would have coped with the situation or with the responsibility of looking after my parents. When considering whether to quit my placement I’d heard a clear voice telling me to “come home.”

Another point is that, at the beginning of January, after I had a mild attack of exercise-induced asthma as a consequence of running my fastest time of 25.21 for 5k on the Avenham Park Run, Gwyn told me during this Taekwondo belt (green with a blue tag representing growth toward the skies) I needed to ‘learn to breathe’. Since then I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend time in stillness, focusing on my breath, in my morning and evening meditations, but not always managing it.

(What has struck me and many others is that breath is central to this situation on many levels. Coronavirus attacks the lungs and those who get seriously ill face a battle for their breath which, in some cases, can only be won with the aid of mechanical ventilators, and in others not at all. The places worst hit have been cities where the air is badly polluted. Now flights have stopped and most people have stopped commuting by car, the skies are clear of contrails and air pollution has dropped.)

At first, after all that gearing up, I felt like Wily Coyote poised in mid-air off the edge of a cliff with my legs still running. Over the past few days I have been striving to ground myself, to slow down, to process the changes, to find space to breathe. Not easy when surrounded by panic.

My first response was to hit the news and social media to find out what’s happening and what everyone’s doing, leading only to tight chest, shortness of breath. To rush to formulate my own words, to share poems addressing the situation. Like I have some kind of gods-given responsibility… whilst aware of adding to the din of others doing exactly the same and increasing the massive strain on the internet that we forget is causing air pollution as we don’t see the power stations.

“Slow down,” the message kept coming through, from the stopping of traffic the virus has caused. As I ran more slowly, no longer worried about beating my best times, happy to be in the moment, feet steady alongside the Ribble in time with her flow where the daffodils watch with sad beautiful faces.

“Slow down,” as I began to take my time in my parents’ garden instead of rushing through the tasks. Appreciating the sunlight on the pastel colours of the hyacinths and the scent of the magnolia, the steady chuck of spade in earth and textures of compost from the bottom of the heap rich from years of decay.

“Slow down,” every time I sat before my mantlepiece in my bedroom where I keep altars to my deities, feathers and stones, to which I’ve recently added photos of my family ancestors knowing I’ll need their help.

I had developed a new routine based around prayer, writing, housework, gardening, shopping, and exercise when lockdown struck. It didn’t hit too hard as I was already living under those rules.

I’m anticipating a greater slowing. Right now I feel like I’m in ‘defence mode’ with my main prerogatives being to tend to the needs of and protect my vulnerable parents and to maintain my own health. I have also offered to run deliveries on my bike for family and friends, including the older members of my poetry group, if they end up isolating either due to illness or the government order.

An important point of support has been the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School online journey circles and coaching calls. I have been involved with Jason and Nicola’s drumming circles at Cuerden Valley and the Space to Emerge camp since they began and have appreciated being able to continue getting together to do journeywork and discuss the current situation from a shamanistic perspective.

With my daily routine and a support network in place I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. If the UK follows Italy’s curve it is possible that my friends, family, and myself, may be not only be slowed down but locked away by illness, that we may be halted by the life-or-death battle for our breath. That we may have to face the final stopping – death – as usual a topic few think or talk about.

I’ve long had a plan for my funeral but am aware it will be invalidated by these circumstances. There is a huge lack of information about what will happen to the bodies of those who die of coronavirus in the UK. How they will be dealt with, where they will go, how their passing will be acknowledged.

Yet this great slowing gives us time to pause for thought – about the fears we’d rather not face and the solace we can find in each moment of these spring days so beautifully bright in contrast.

Breathe

We need to remember that our very breathing is to drink our mother’s milk – the air – made for us by countless microbial brothers and sisters in the sea and soil, and by the plant beings with whom we share the great land surfaces of our mother’s lustrous sphere.’
Stephan Harding

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lungs. Two. Right and left. Each enclosed in a pleural sack in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Primary bronchus, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, terminal bronchiole. In the alveoli, ‘little cavities’, across the blood-air barrier, gas exchange takes place.

Breathe in: oxygen 21%, carbon dioxide 0.04%. Breathe out: oxygen 16%, carbon dioxide 4.4%. 6 carbon glucose, oxidised, forms carbon dioxide. Product: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ‘the molecular unit of currency of intracellular energy transfer’. The spark of all life.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Birds have lungs plus cervical, clavicular, abdominal, and thoracic air sacs. Hollow-boned they are light as balloons, breathing in, breathing out. Then there are the lungless. Through tiny holes in the abdomen called spiracles leading to the trachea, insects fill their air sacs. Earthworms and amphibians breathe in and out through moist skins. Fish breathe water in through gulpy mouth breathe it out through gapey gills.

Plants breathe through their leaves. By daylight they photosynthesise. Stomata breathe carbon dioxide. It mixes with water. The green lions of chlorophyll work their magic by sunlight. Oxygen is released. From glucose the magical hum and buzz of ATP. At night they respire glucose and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water. 10 times more oxygen produced than used.

Underground fungi breathe the air of the soil through thread-like hyphae that mass as mycelia. They respire aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), changing glucose to ATP (it’s all about ATP!), ethanol, carbon dioxide, and water. This old, old, metabolic pathway dates back to the days before oxygen ruled our breath and is utilised by microbes. The hidden ones of the deep, single-celled, or living colonies, breathe through their single cell walls in ancient ways – acetogenesis, methanogenesis – to gain the blessed ATP.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

And what is this creature that does not breathe (in or out) with no metabolism or need for ATP? This simple strand of genes in a designer jacket called a capsid? Does this thing, neither dead nor living, have a spirit? Like all living things was it breathed into life by the gods?

Or is this death-bringer undead? This assaulter of lungs? Lung-cell-killer and causer of coughs – dead lung cells coughed up as sputum, mucus, the yellow remains of what was ours?

By what dark programme does it turn the body against itself – alveoli ‘little cavities’ where the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place filling with water – no space to make ATP? No lungs – no breath. The pump of ventilators, breathing in, breathing out, our new iron lungs…

Did it crawl from the cauldron of inspiration like the speechless dead or is it something entirely other?

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

To whom do we pray? To the gods and goddesses of breath and to the spirits of inspiration? To Ceridwen, Gwyn ap Nudd, Morgana and her sisters, who gave us breath, and take it away?

“Breath always leads to me,” says Gwyn. I find this reassuring and disconcerting from a death-god. From the one who releases the spirits of Annwn from the cauldron and holds them back.

So we breathe together with the lunged and lungless creatures with skin, fur, feathers, shells, scales, leaves, hyphae, the single-celled, the uncelled who ride our breath, until we return to the gods. To the winds that carry the voices of all ancestors over our 4.543 billion year old earth.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

*I adapted this meditation from an earlier version ‘The Ways We Breathe‘ previously published on Gods & Radicals following guidance from my deities to focus on my breath and being struck by the realisation that a distinguishing feature of coronavirus and other viruses is that they do not breathe.

Dormach and the Jaws of Annwn

Dormach is the dog of Gwyn ap Nudd, who aids him hunting the souls of the dead. We have only one reference to Dormach by name in medieval Welsh literature. This is from ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350).

In this poem Gwyddno has died and is wandering the misty hinterlands between Thisworld and Annwn. There he meets with Gwyn, who offers him protection and slowly reveals his identity as a gatherer of souls. Gwyn introduces Dormach, then Gwyddno addresses the dog.

In Welsh this reads:

Ystec vy ki ac istrun.
Ac yssew. orev or cvn.
Dorma ch oet hunnv afv y Maelgun.

Dorma ch triunrut ba ssillit
Arnaw canissam giffredit.
Dy gruidir ar wibir winit.

Over the past two centuries this verse has been translated into English in various ways. The most recent and best translation is by Greg Hill (2015):

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

Dormach rednose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.

Much controversy has surrounded the name, which is written twice as ‘Dorm ach’, with a letter erased. John Rhys assumed this was an ‘r’ giving ‘Dormarch’ with march meaning ‘horse’ ‘wholly inapplicable to a dog’.*

Rhys suggested ‘Dormach’ should instead be written as ‘Dormarth’, ‘a compound made up of dôr, ‘door,’ and marth.’ He went on to claim that marth is a ‘personification of death’ ‘of the same origin as the Latin mors, mortis… perhaps, the Marth which was the door of Annwn.’ Dormarth means ‘door-death’.

Rhys’s translation is now considered unconvincing. There is no evidence the letter was an ‘r’ and its erasure is viewed as a genuine correction. According to The Dictionary of Welsh Language, ‘Dormach’ means ‘burden, oppression’. There is textual evidence of its use from the 14th century until the 18th century. These meanings fit with medieval Christian conceptions of Gwyn and his dog(s).

Rhys notes that in Wales Bwlch Safan y Ci, ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, is a metaphor for death and bears similarities with the English ‘jaws of death’ and German Rachen des Todes ‘jaws of death’. This argument for Dormach’s association with death and the door of Annwn seems sound. In the Brythonic and Germanic traditions we find corpse-dogs: Cwn Annwn (of whom Dormach is a member and perhaps their leader being ‘the best’) and Gabriel Ratchets, who hunt the souls of the dead and are viewed as death portents. To pass through the jaws of these dogs is to die and go to the next world.

In many world myths, dogs act as guardians to the lands of the dead. The most famous is Cerberus, who guards Hades in Greek mythology. He is variously depicted with one, two, three, or fifty(!) heads, one or more stinging serpent tails, and sometimes with a mane of snakes or snakes down his back.

Intriguingly, in The Black Book of Carmarthen, the scribe has sketched an image of Dormach with a dog’s head and near Cheshire cat-like grin, a dog’s forelegs, and a long body tapering to two serpent tails. He bears a striking similarity to Cerberus and may also have been viewed as a guardian of Annwn.

Dormach Sketch - Copy

Part-dog, part-serpent, this image reminds me of the watery, subliminal imagery from the temple of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn’s father. On a mosaic are two sea-serpents or icthyosaurs. On a mural crown Nodens is accompanied by icthyocentaurs with heads of men, front hooves of horses, and fish-tails.

Rhys notes by Dormach he is ‘reminded of the the medieval pictures of hell with the entrance thereinto represented as consisting of the open jaws of a monster mouth.’ He refers to the tenth century Anglo-Saxon Caedmon manuscript where the devil lies chained to a tooth and demons deliver sinners into the gaping maw.

Bodleian_Libraries,_Cædmon_Manuscript_3_Wikipedia_Commons

Caedmon Manuscript

This shares similarities with the Urtecht Psalter (1055) from the Netherlands which features not only Hell Mouths but a ‘Hades Head’ (could we be looking at shared cultural representations of Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Otherworld’?). The 11th century Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter replaces the Hell Mouths with clefts, pits, vents, and chimneys leading into hollow hills where souls are tortured.

Utrecht124_(cropped)_Wikiwand.jpg

Utrecht Psalter with Hades Head

In these representations we find a mixture of pre-Christian Brythonic and Anglo-Saxon beliefs about the dead passing through the jaws of death to a world beneath the earth demonised and made hellish. Hell Mouths also appear on the left-hand side of Christ in the bottom corner surrounded by the demonic imagery of Hell (Heaven is on his right) in Doom paintings from across medieval Europe.

These depictions are clearly influenced by the Bible. In Isaiah 5:14 we find the lines: ‘Therefore Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers’ and in Numbers 16.32: ‘and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions.’

In the Book of Jonah, Jonah was swallowed by a gigantic sea creature. In the Hebrew text it is called a dag gadol, ‘huge fish’, in the Greek ketos megas ‘huge fish’, a term associated with sea-monsters, and in the Latin ketos is translated as cetus ‘whale’. Jonah is described as being in ‘the belly of hell’, ‘cast into the deep’: ‘The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever.’ Jonah’s ‘soul fainted’, he offered up a prayer to God, and the whale vomited him up. Here we have a clear depiction of Jonah passing to and returning from another world. ‘Hell’ is translated from Sheol, the Hebrew name for the land of dead.

800px-Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_Project_Wikiepedia_Commons

‘Jonah and the Whale’ by Pieter Lastman (1621)

In Matthew 12:40 Jesus compares his death, journey to Hell, and resurrection with the story of Jonah: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ The sea-monster’s belly and Hell are equated.

In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’, in The Book of Taliesin, the riddling bard poses the question:

Pwy vessur Uffern,
pwy tewet y llenn,
pwy llet y geneu,
pwy mein enneinheu?

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

Here ‘Hell’ is translated from Uffern, which derives from the Latin Inferno, and is used synonymously with Annwn. Margaret Hancock links the geneu ‘maw, jaws’ with the Hell Mouth and the ‘Hell monster’ in ‘The Battle of the Trees’: a ‘great-scaled beast’ with one hundred heads who carries fierce battalions ‘beneath the roof of his tongue’ and ‘in (each of) his napes.’ This beast, like the ‘black-forked toad’ and ‘speckled crested snake’ in whose flesh a hundred souls are tortured ‘on account of (their) sins’ is evidently a death-eater and it seems likely Dormach played a similar role.

These creatures appear to be native to the Brythonic pagan tradition and to Annwn. Whilst they appear monstrous to Christians, from a pagan standpoint, they might be seen as having an essential, albeit unpleasant, function in devouring the dead and acting as vehicles for their passage to the Otherworld.

Of course, such passages are not limited to the dead. As the journeys of Jonah, Jesus, and Taliesin show, the living can pass to Annwn and one of those ways is by entering the jaws of a devouring creature.

Is there some deep and universal truth in the image of the jaws of death? Are pursuit by a monstrous beast, being swallowed, devoured, spat out, integral to the journeys of our souls in life and in death? If this is the case should the ‘oppression’ of Dormach ultimately be seen as liberating, his ‘burden’ the key to release from our fear of death as we pass through his jaws to gain knowledge of the Otherworld?

*Rhys gives no argument for this and I disagree. The name of Arthur’s dog, ‘Cafall’, may derive from the the Latin for horse, Caballus, and mean he was as big as a horse. Bran, the dog of Gwyn’s Irish cognate, Finn, shared Dormach’s colouring with ‘two white sides’ and ‘a fresh crimson tail’ and his head was shoulder high. In the Irish myths we also find dog-headed figures with horse’s manes. There is therefore no good reason why Dormach should not be seen as horse-sized or even as horse-like.

SOURCES

Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Awen & Awenydd
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Boughton Press, 2008)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Philip A. Bernhadt House, Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-Headed Men in Celtic Literature, (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010)
Sarah Kemple. ‘Illustrations of damnation in late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts’, Anglo Saxon England, (2003)
Biblical quotes from Bible Hub

With thanks to Linda Sever for passing on Sarah Kemple’s illuminating article.

Signposts to Annwn: Lore

Book.of.Taliesin.facsimile

This posts shares some of the lore associated with Annwn. Awen, the divine breath of inspiration, is seen to originate from Annwn. Also included are passages about initiation, death and rebirth, and the soul.

Awen

‘Let’s approach God who is
– according to the utterance of Talhaearn –
the true judge of the worth of the world,
the One who adjudged the qualities
of passionate song.
He with his miracle bestowed
immeasurable inspiration:
there are 140 ‘ogrfen’
in inspiration;
eight score
in each one.
In Annwfn he ranged the (divisions of inspiration),
in Annwfn he made them,
in Annwfn below the earth,
in the air above the earth.
There is one who knows
what sadness
is better than joy.
I know the set gradations
of inspiration when it flows;
(I know) about payments to a poet,
about propitious days,
about a joyful life,
about the aeons of the fortress,
about the ones like kings,
how long their dwelling places (shall last)…

I sing inspiration,
I bring it forth from the depth.
The connected river which flows (around the world):
I know its might,
I know how it ebbs,
I know how it flows,
I know how it courses,
I know how it retreats.
I know how many creatures
are under the sea;
I know the nature
of each one in its shoal;
how many divisions in a day,
how many days in a year…’
– The Hostile Confederacy, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘I entreat my Lord
that (I may) consider inspiration:
what brought forth (that) necessity
before Ceridfen
at the beginning, in the world
which was in need?’
– The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘Where does inspiration flow to,
at midnight (and) mid-day?’
– I am the vitality, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘He (Urien) defended my song (emanating) from Ceridfen’s cauldron;
unrestrained is my tongue, a repository of inspiration.
That inspiration of poetry – my God created it
at the same time as fresh as fresh milk and dew and acorns…

I have three songs of consistent harmony
and they will be perpetuated by poets until Judgement.’
– The Chair of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘Here is the declamation of a brilliant poem
of immeasurable inspiration…

splendid (was it) when there emanated from the Sovereign/cauldron
the ‘ogyrwen’ of triune inspiration.’
– The Chair of Teyrnon, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘When the ‘Cadeiriau’ come to be judged
my own will be the best of them:
my song, and my cauldron, and my rules,
and my careful declamation, worthy of a chair in harmonious song.
I’m called a knowledgeable one in Don’s court,
I, and Euronwy, and Euron.’
– The Chair of Ceridwen, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Initiation

Sixty Years of Solitude

‘For sixty years
I endured solitude
in the water gathered in a band (around the earth),
(and) in the lands of the world.
I had a hundred servants,
(and) a hundred dominions after that.’
– The Hostile Confederacy, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Death and Rebirth

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

The Soul

‘Do you know what you are
when you are asleep:
a body or a soul
or a pale mysterious thing?…

The lamented soul –
who saw it, who recognises it?
I am amazed in books
that they do not know for certain
what the soul’s dwelling is,
(and) what its limbs look like;
from which region flow
the great wind and the great stream
in dire combat
endangering the sinner.’
– The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘I praise my Father,
My God, my sustainer,
who added, through my head,
a soul into my design.’
– Song of the Great World, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Kingfisher in Flight

For Brian Taylor

An unexpected kingfisher.

I might not have been there
in the hide if it wasn’t for you,
your teachings on the agency of birds,
the transformations of souls,
auspices of sapphire-blue.

The sad news was unexpected too.

It took me back to our brief meetings:
how you always wore binoculars,
showed me my first goosander.

I thought I’d never see a kingfisher
let alone a halcyon wonder so close
whistling from branch to branch.

You’d have called it ‘a showing’.

I e-mailed you to share the news.

Another e-mail flash from the blue
jolts me back to your careful records
on alcedo atthis and ‘the best views’.

You wrote of death with such beauty
citing Ovid’s resurrection of Alcyone:

a kingfisher in flight – ‘a departing light’.

Kingfisher in Flight


Brian Taylor, a dedicated animist and the author of Animist Jottings, passed away on the 13th of February. I was particularly moved by Brian’s writings on kingfishers and admired his advocation of an animism deeply rooted in the natural world that had room for magical encounters and the otherworldly too. Although we only met in person a few times (most memorably when he came to Penwortham and pointed out a goosander on the Ribble and when we visited Bridestones and marvelled at the expressions of the rocks and the flying ants) we shared many fruitful conversations in the blogosphere and through e-mail. Brian was one of the wisest, most caring, thoughtful, and articulate people I have ever met. He will be missed.

Picture with Brian Taylor Bridestones 5th September 2014

Brian Taylor and myself at Bridestones, September 5th, 2014

In Van Gogh’s Starry Night

I can picture you
with many-headed horses
many-headed hounds

amongst stars unswung
swinging cypress

hear your laughter
in the Mistral ‘the idiot wind’.

But you are not in
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

You are here on Castle Hill
swaying beech trees
where St Walburge’s
cannot outspire the Pennines.

Why the stars so bright and loud?
The processions of mist walking on the summits?
The long lapping tongue of a death-hound?

You are silent
but from a small room
in a distant asylum Van Gogh speaks:

“we take death to reach a star”.

1280px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

 

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.