Grey Geese and Oracles

Between September and November grey geese arrive in my locality. I’ve seen a local flock of greylag geese on the stretch of the river Ribble near Howick Cross at this time two years running. Greylags are the ancestors of domestic geese and residents in the UK all year round; migratory birds are only found in Scotland. This flock also contains Canada and domestic geese.

Greylag Geese, Ribble

Greylag geese, river Ribble

More dramatically pink-footed geese begin arriving from Iceland and Greenland. They can be heard flying overhead to WWT Martin Mere. This year the first group touched down on September the 9th and there are currently 15000 roosting on the reserve.

Pink-footed Geese, Martin Mere

Pink-footed geese, Martin Mere

Watching their return to the last fragment of Martin Mere at sunset is awe-inspiring. One can only imagine the noise and patterns of the skeins before the Lancashire’s Lost Lake, once 15 miles long, was drained.

Pink-footed Geese, Martin Mere

Pink-footed geese return at sunset, Martin Mere

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In the folklore of northern England, the cries of migrating geese are linked to Gabriel Ratchets. ‘Gabriel’ may derive from the name of the Angel of Death, the ‘gabble’ of geese, or the medieval word gabbe, ‘corpse’. ‘Ratchet’ originates from the Old English ‘ræcc’ meaning a ‘a dog that hunts by scent’.

The earliest record of Gabriel Ratchets is from 1664. Whilst living at Coley Hall in the Calder Valley, Reverend Oliver Heywood wrote in his Memoranda:

‘There is also a strange noise in the air heard of many in these parts this winter, called Gabriel-Ratches by this country-people, the noise is as if a great number of whelps were barking and howling, and ‘tis observed that if any see them the persons that see them die shortly after, they are never heard but before a great death or dearth… Though I never heard them.’

In his Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1879), William Henderson suggests the ‘belief in a pack of spectral hounds’ originates from ‘the strange un-earthly cries, so like the yelping of dogs, uttered by wild fowl on their passage southwards.’

Lancashire folklorist James Bowker notes, in his Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1879), ‘Mr Yarrell, the distinguished naturalist, reduces the cries of the Gabriel Hounds, into the whistling of the Bean Goose… as the flocks are flying southward in the night, migrating from Scandinavia.’

Bean Goose, WWT Slimbridge, Wikipedia Commons

Bean Goose, WWT Slimbridge, Wikipedia Commons

This appears to be a mistake: bean geese migrate from Scandinavia to Norfolk and southern Scotland. Here in Lancashire it seems more likely that pink-footed geese, with their ‘high-pitched honking calls, being particularly vocal in flight, with large skeins being almost deafening’ would have been associated with Gabriel Ratchets. The pink-footed goose is closely related to the Bean Goose and was once considered a subspecies. Perhaps Mr Yarrell conflated the two.

Gabriel Ratchets are often associated with a spectral huntsmen. This may originate from pagan beliefs about ‘the Wild Hunt’ which takes place at the time of year geese migrate. In Norse and Germanic tradition it is usually led by Odin or Woden, to whom a goose was sacrificed on the Autumn Equinox. The Germanic goddess, Berchta, has a goose-foot and also leads a hunt with a goose flying in front of her. Dancers in her processions, the Berchten, wear bird-masks.

In Brythonic tradition a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Gwyn ap Nudd. His hounds are known as Cwn Annwn ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, Cwn Wybyr ‘Hounds of the Sky’, or Cwn Cyrff, ‘Corpse Hounds’. Like the Gabriel Ratchets they are seen as death portents because they hunt the souls of the dead. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn who oversees the passage of souls between the worlds, which is mirrored by the migrations of geese.

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Goose is traditionally eaten on Martinmas, November the 11th, which is dedicated to St Martin of Tours. This festival ‘originated in France, then spread to the Low Countries, the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe’. Martin attempted to hide in a goose pen to avoid being ordained as a bishop, but was given away by the cackling of geese. (I can’t help noticing connections between Martin, Martin Mere and geese…)

Roast goose, all things clipart

After the feast, divination was performed by the breast-bone. In 1455, Dr Hartlieb wrote, ‘When the goose has been eaten on St Martin’s Day or Night, the oldest and most sagacious keeps the breast-bone and allowing it to dry until the morning examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet.’ In Hampshire ‘the nature of the coming winter’ was divined from a breast-bone and, in Yorkshire, weather was predicted from the colour of goose-flesh.

The British Apollo (1708) poses the question why the ‘breast of a fowl’ is ‘called the Merry Thought’ and provides the answer, ‘The original of that name was doubtless from the pleasant fancies that commonly arise from the breaking of that bone, and ‘twas then first certainly so called, when these merry notions were first started.’ Every Commercialmas someone in my family breaks the ‘wish-bone’ of our turkey and makes a wish.

These traditions are rooted in a wide-spread belief that the goose was an oracular bird. It has been argued this derives from the Etruscans who ‘believed geese had supernatural visionary powers as oracle birds with these prophetic powers residing within its bones’ and was brought to Britain by the Romans.

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Our understanding of the oracles of geese has diminished; drained away with their wetland homes. We can no longer tell, from the cacophany of voices barking overhead, who carries news and who carries a death portent. Goose is rarely eaten in Britain, with the tradition of rearing flocks of domestic geese for food, particularly for during the festive season, being replaced by turkey farming. Divination has been reduced to a facile act of wish-fulfilment in a world increasingly disconnected from the language of the divine.

Yet, whilst there are geese, there is hope that their language can be re-learnt by re-attuning to their flight paths, their life ways, listening to their gabble, divining how this relates to teachings from our gods. Perhaps, as pumps are shut down and wetlands are re-flooded, our abilities to divine will return with the geese.

Martin Mere at Sunset

Martin Mere at sunset

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SOURCES

 Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover, 1958)
James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (Classic Reprint, 2015)
William Henderson, Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (Create Space, 2014)
‘Origin of the Wishbone Tradition’, Republic of You Blog
‘The Gabble Ratchets’, Ghosts and Legends of the Lower Calder Valley
Pink-Footed Goose, RSPB
WWT Martin Mere

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.