Review – After My Vows by Thornsilver Hollysong

‘After My Vows (Love Songs from a New Godspouse)’ is the second album from Thornsilver Hollysong. Thorn is a fellow awenydd and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd who I met through the Awen ac Awenydd Facebook group in September 2019. He hosts Gwyn Day Thursdays on Land Sea Sky Travel and we have since worked together on conferences and workshops for Gwyn and his ‘family’.

It has been spiritually affirming to form a friendship with someone else who shares my devotion to Gwyn. Whilst my relationship with Gwyn is primarily devotee to god, Thorn is also a godspouse, thus Gwyn’s lover and husband. Godspousery is an ancient tradition which has probably been around since humans met gods and entered liaisons and marriages with them. Its best-known form is Christian nuns becoming Brides of Christ and it is particularly deeply embedded in the Brythonic tradition, which contains numerous stories of the Fairy King and his people taking humans as lovers. It has been illuminating listening to this album and hearing of experiences familiar and unfamiliar.

‘After My Vows’ was composed by Thorn with his own piano-playing and vocals. There is a rawness and immediacy to this music, a heartfelt passion, an outpouring of devotion. Whereas some songs are waltz-like, others are operatic, some put me in mind of a monk’s voice from a polytheistic cloister.

If there is one line from the album that summarises it for me it is: ‘Come to the ballroom of waltzing shadows’. This is from ‘Won’t You Dance’, a song that, although the tunes differ, put me in mind of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. Here Thorn relates meeting Gwyn as ‘Black shade, silver mist / In a raven’s mask’ ‘At the Faery Ball / Sparkling shadows darkling as the moonbeams fall.’ It took me back to my own clubbing days, dancing alone, melting into the oneness of Faery. It gives voice to the timeless truth that gods are not only met at the altar or out in nature, but on the dance floor. In other songs this moonlit ballroom becomes Gwyn’s Hall in ‘the Castle of ice and bone’ where Thorn sings before his Fairy King like Gweir in his heavy blue-grey chain.

In ‘Greensleeves (He’s My Heart of Gold)’ Thorn takes the tune and rewrites the lyrics from the traditional English Folk Ballad, replacing Lady Greensleeves with Gwyn in an incredibly catchy chorus that I’ve been singing along to since I heard it. The following lines felt deeply familiar:

He rode with grace and I knew his face
Though I had no reason to know him–
The songs I sing have crowned him King
With a pathway of stars strewn below him.

Another song which stirred this sense of familiarity was ‘Reunion’:

Was I a monk or mystic? Did I meet You?
Was I a cunning man or woman? Did I know You?
Was I a heretic or witch who dared to greet You?
And for me, to put the holy Church below You?

It put me in mind of my own feeling, upon meeting Gwyn, that I’d known him in other lives, since the beginning of time. This is also conveyed in Thorn’s songs and his vows to love him ‘forever’.

‘Light of the Mist’, with its softly song couplet ‘Light of the Mist / Ghost of the Void’, sent shivers down my spine. Here ‘ghosts stars’ burn in ‘Inspired art’ and we find untold stories only hinted at such as the tale of ‘the Star who gave his Wings’ and how ‘He kissed the dead/ To bring me back’.

In other songs, like ‘As I Made My Vows (It Felt Like a Wedding)’ and ‘Just a Life with You’ I found lines that, as someone without a romantic or sexual relationship with Gwyn (or a human partner), it was harder to relate to. However, I appreciated their craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty.

And You take my hand
Saying “Come, lie down
Where the fruit trees stand
Each with blossoming crown–
In the winter sun
Under apples sweet
With our hair undone
And our joy complete.”

The album is filled with instances anyone who has sat with Gwyn in a woodland or the forests of Annwn would ‘get’: ‘You’re taller than a man could be– / Your antlers, like an ancient tree / Branch out and cover up the distant cross.’ ‘I dream of stars in a forest sky / I dream we watch them, You and I.’

I would recommend ‘After My Vows’ to polytheists who have devotional relationships with Gwyn or other gods, to those who are called to godspousery and to those who are not, and to all who appreciate beautiful music.

‘After My Vows’ is available on Bandcamp for $3 HERE.

Thorn also blogs at Starstruck Awenydd HERE.

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

 

Mist and Darkness and the Road to Joy – The Completion of Gatherer of Souls

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Over the past three years I have been working on a book for Gwyn ap Nudd, my patron god, to whom I devoted myself five years ago in January at the White Spring in Glastonbury.

At first I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. It began simply as ‘Gwyn’s Book’. Because I am based in Lancashire and so many other writers have explored his connections with Glastonbury and Wales I decided to focus on his stories originating from the Old North, which are found in The Black Book of Carmarthen and Culhwch and Olwen.

After some time he made it clear that he did not want me to write an academic book (I therefore published my research on my website HERE) or  simply repeat the old tales penned by Christian scribes. Instead he wanted me to peel back the golden patina, expose the atrocities committed against him and the people of Annwn by Arthur, and journey back to the roots of his mythos in pre-Christian times when he was venerated as a god of the dead and gatherer of souls.

I met with other Inspired Ones who served him and whose souls he gathered such as the ancient ancestors of Orddu, ‘Very Black’, the Last Witch of Pennant Gofid; the northern British prophets Myrddin and his sister Gwenddydd; witches who flew with him between sky and air; wild women, madmen, poets, broken dreamers whose dreams have never been recorded.

I was prompted to explore how the closing of the doors of Annwn led to the sense of disconnection and soul loss that forms the void at the heart of the Anthropocene and to see the wonder in Gwyn’s reappearance on the brink of time as the Anglo-American Empire, which has its roots in Arthur uniting Britain under ‘One King, One God, One Law’, begins to fall.

My devotional journey has had its ups and downs. Sometimes it has felt like an endless ‘wow’ as I’ve discovered faces of Gwyn as yet unrecorded and hidden facets of his nature. At others, when I’ve been stuck in the Arthurian stories, unable to see beneath or get a break through, or I’ve written Gwyn’s voice wrong, I’ve felt frustrated, awkward, unworthy, and utterly inept. Yet I never once thought about giving up as I knew it was something I had to do.

Because there are no groups in the North West of England who venerate the Brythonic gods and goddesses or work experientially with our native myths my journey has been a lonely one. At low points I have contemplated joining the Anglesey Druid Order and even becoming a nun (when I hit thirty-five I realised it was my last chance!) although within I have known that my path in life is to walk with Gwyn even when all he can offer is “mist, darkness, and uncertainty”.

I’ve seen writing this book through to the end because serving him as an awenydd, although sometimes tough – Gwyn is the god who contains the fury of the spirits of Annwn and he is that fury just as he is the god who gathers the dead with love and compassion – is a source of deep and profound joy. Walking with him, whether through the starlit skies, or industrial smog, or blood-strewn battlefields, or the healing woodlands of Celyddon has always felt utterly right.

Gatherer of Souls is a book of new visions of the forgotten mythos of Gwyn ap Nudd  recorded in poems and stories to be published on Gwyn’s Feast, September the 29th, this year.

Over the past week I have read it out loud to Gwyn and it feels fitting that he has approved it as we approach the eclipse of the super blue wolf moon.

Missing God

For Gwyn

I knew you were there from the day I was born
because I needed you.

I could not find your name in The Bible
or scrawled on church walls,

there was something about the Devil,
but no…

The feeling in my navel kept tugging me
through the portals in the books I read about sundered worlds.

They opened something and I fell into you
but I didn’t know what you were,

(that a god could be the underworld).

I searched the absences
and filled my hands with empty air

and filled my ears with words without sound.
I danced and raised my hands to the sky

but only found you when I fell to the ground.
I drank my way back to you living

in the epoché where the rules of thisworld
fall away like empty shells

and all the hidden people are revealed,
the times piled on top of one another like broken cars.

You showed me silver spaceships,
three shining gateways,

pathways to the stars that always led back down.
Your world – you – were so beautiful you frightened me.

I returned to my shell
but could not deny what you are or what I am.

Eventually you showed me your face and told me your name.

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A Prayer For When You Sleep

For Gwyn

Four months without your presence here,
May, June, July, August…

you have pulled the hill-doors shut,
drawn your shadow

into your fortress
where snow is heaped upon the roof

and you are guarded by a vigil
of loyal, loyal hounds.

In the blink of your eye
the fortress turns –

one moment
an eternity in Annwn,

here May, June, July, August…
The flowers mark the stations

of your sleep – bluebells, red campion, ox-eye daisies.
The trees are green with your rival’s victory

yet in a yew grove I see you sleepwalk,
mime the making of a bow.

For four months I count forget-me-nots,
blow white seeds of dandelions

into the silent tolling of Annwn
and gather mugwort.

Four months without your presence here,
May, June, July, August…

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Gwyn Altar - Sleeping - Caer Ochren - Meg Falconer

Image Caer Ochren, based on lines about the birth of Pen Annwn in Preiddu Annwn, by Meg Falconer

She Walks Between Worlds and Lovers (Calan Gaeaf)

It is summer in the otherworld when she is there
winter in the otherworld without her.
In Gwyn’s arms she is Lady Death:
petals fading wilting perishing discoloured
returning to the earth with work of insects,
seeds descending into soft and loamy soil,
sinking down with the work of worms.
Into his fateful embrace he takes her
down beneath bones of the dead,
fallen trunks and golden pollen.
In ancientmost forests Creiddylad
is Annwn’s Queen in sacred marriage.
Their passion in the unseen summer
stirs the dreams of sleeping corm,
bulb, knotty seed: movement
of potential, hidden, dormant
until the explosion to life. Each
underground power puts out shoot, stem, leaf,
reaching upward through snow for another sun.
She is their secret growth until the moment of flowering
when she sees her time in the otherworld is over
and walks between worlds and lovers.

Leaves in Greencroft Valley

Gwyn’s Death and Departure

You say you come from many battles and many deaths.
I try not to hold on or shed tears on the edge
of summer.

You’ve been doing this for many years.
I’m the fearful one.

After death you staunch your wounds,
draw your blood back
into itself

before your hounds come forever guides into the mists
with your horse who carries the dead.

You’ve never been more yourself.

You remind me of the November
we touched the moon and tell me not to mourn.

You are long-lived and my summers are limited:
hours to be savoured as a bee
drinks nectar from
a gold cup.

I cast off my grief
for my gown is not yet a shroud.

On the motorway bridge
where the railings sing like hummingbirds in the gale

I am alive yet your hunt is never far off.

Gatherer of Souls

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain…
I am alive, they in their graves!
– Words spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Black Book of Carmarthen XXXIII

Spring is here, daffodils
amongst the headstones,
flowers on the cenotaph
grieving summers of war-

shells shattering spirit paths,
ditches filled with corpses,
a perverse test of love
for brave young fools

and you being liminal,
battle rage and compassion
on the blood soaked fields
where banshees wail

gathering the fallen
from amongst explosions,
returning to Prydain
wracked and torn.

Spring is here, yet in
Annwn’s long autumn you know
the weight of the battle dead,
the sorrow behind the veil.

War memorial in Penwortham

Honouring Gwyn ap Nudd

Glastonbury Tor, January 2013On the Winter Solstice a post for Winter’s King.

Samhain has passed. We’re in the dead season. The wild hunt rides the passageways of time and spirit paths lie open. Communities gather and ancestors draw close. Here I feel called to honour Gwyn ap Nudd by telling the story of how he became my muse and patron and made my life whole.

My first meeting with Gwyn took place at the nadir of a crisis. At the end of August 2012 I reached a point of conflict between my spiritual path and ambition to become a professional writer. After two years work completing a fantasy novel I realised its world was too complex and the language too heavy, it held little relevance or hope for a contemporary audience and was at odds with my developing relationship with the land and its myths.

His first appearance was at the head of a fairy procession at a local sacred site. Although I knew of the legend of the fairy funeral I didn’t think I’d encounter it directly nor did I suspect it would be led by a Welsh Fairy King. Yet Gwyn made his name and message clear. The myths of this land are real and he could help me access them. He challenged me to journey with him to the Otherworld, the condition of his guidance being that I lay aside my personal ambitions.

I spent several days considering- could I truly give up my ambition to become a professional writer? How would this change my life? How did I know I could trust him? What if I didn’t come back? Yet this experience, although it was confusing and terrifying felt more powerful and real than anything that had ever happened to me. I knew it was a once in a life time opportunity and I’d only get one chance. I returned to the fairy site and agreed.

Gwyn opened the gates to the past of this land and its myths. With his guidance I learnt how to ride the skies and ancestral pathways on my white mare, viewing the landscape’s lineaments from contemporary suburbia to medieval farmland, oak wood and peat bog to tundra and the age of ice. I met with ancestral people, the ghosts of trees and stampeding aurochs. I entered Faery and descended to Annwn.

Yet I still questioned what a deity associated with Wales and Glastonbury was doing in Lancashire. Reading his myths I realised two of Gwyn’s main stories- the abduction of Creiddylad and Arthur’s slaying of Orddu take place in the North. In the conversation with Gwyddno Garanhir, which depicts his role gathering the souls of the battle dead Gwyn says:

‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the North;
I am alive, they in their graves!
I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the South
I am alive, they in death!’

Gwyn is not only a king of Annwn and the fairies but a traveller between the worlds and across the landscape of Britain, maintaining the bonds between nature and humanity, the living and the dead. As a ruler and guide of this isle’s ancestral people his turning up at the head of a local fairy procession was not out of place.

Reassessing my past experiences I realised this wasn’t the first time I’d felt his influence. At Glastonbury festival in my late teens the veil had been lifted to reveal a vision of the Otherworld, a place I now recognise as Gwynfyd, which was coupled with a feeling of truth and ecstatic unity. Thirteen years later he had finally made his presence known, leading me from the cycle of aspiration, failure and frustration caused by my ambition to be a writer back to this magical unison with the land and its myths. He had made my life whole. In January I returned to Glastonbury and made my vow to him at the White Spring.

Since then my relationship with Gwyn has been a constant source of support and inspiration. Whilst the only piece of literature I know of that might link him with the Bardic Tradition is a reference in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ to the Chief of Annwn possessing a cauldron warmed by the breath of nine maidens, I see him as a god of primal poetry- the wild Awen that thunders like the hunt through space and time and exists in the magic of nature, the songs of the fay and wisdom of the ancestors.

With his guidance I have discovered ways of connecting more deeply with the land and its spirits, its known myths and some unknown ones (a couple of which correspond with factual evidence!). In return I strive to communicate what I have learnt through written and spoken words to maintain the bonds between nature and humanity, this world and the Otherworlds.

And so, as we gather in the dead season, the wild hunt rides and spirit paths lie open I choose this time to tell this story to thank and honour Gwyn ap Nudd.