Seeing Face to Face

broken-549087_960_720_Pixabay Free Image

In Corinthians Paul famously contrasts seeing ‘through a glass, darkly’ with seeing ‘face to face’. In Revelations we find a series of glassy images leading up to the servants of God seeing his face. We are told, before the throne of God, is ‘a sea of glass like unto crystal’. This is later described as ‘a sea of glass mingled with fire’ with those who have gained ‘victory over the beast’ standing upon it with ‘the harps of God’. The harpers play the song of Moses who ‘the Lord knew face to face’.

The city of New Jersualem is described as ‘pure gold like unto clear glass’, its street ‘pure gold, as it were transparent glass’ and the river of life, running through it, proceeding from the Throne of God ‘clear as crystal’. We are told the Throne of God is in the city and here, where his servants serve him, ‘they shall see his face’.

These images of glass, no longer dark but crystal clear, are bound up with the process of revelation. Of the revealing of the face of God, which is never described, of which his servants are forbidden to make graven images.

This imagery interests me, as a Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, because in a number of texts his castle is described as being made of glass or crystal and surrounded by water. In The Life of St Collen, Gwyn is depicted seated on a golden throne in ‘the fairest castle’ Collen ‘had ever beheld’ on Glastonbury Tor. Gerald of Wales notes Glastonbury ‘used to be called Ynys Gutrin… the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.’

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Arthur sails across the sea in his ship, Prydwen, to raid seven otherworldly forts on otherworldy islands. It is my belief they are appearances of the same fort – the abode of Pen Annwn ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ (an older name for the King of Annwn/Faery – Gwyn).

One of the fortresses is named Caer Wydyr ‘the Glass Fort’. The narrator, Taliesin, mocks ‘pathetic men’ (monks) ‘who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort’. He tells us ‘six thousand men were standing on its wall; it was hard to communicate with their watchman’. In Nennius’ History of the Britons thirty ships of Spaniards sailing to Ireland find in the midst of the sea ‘a tower of glass, the summit of which was covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer.’

The Fairy King’s castle is described as being made of crystal in Sir Orfeo:

‘Amid the land a castle tall
And rich and proud and wondrous high
Uprose, and all the outmost wall
Shone as crystal to the eye.
A hundred towers lit up the sky,
Of diamond all battled stout;
And buttresses rose up near by
Arched with red gold and broad about.’

In the Biblical and Brythonic traditions the paradisal abodes where the gods are enthroned, the centres of the mysteries where their faces are revealed, are associated with glassy waters and crystal walls.

One wonders whether there are any stories of people meeting the gods of Annwn face to face. In Sir Orfeo we are told he could not look upon the Fairy King or Queen ‘their crowns, their garments, glistened bright… so hot they shone’. This ‘noble sight’ brings him to his knees before the throne. Afterwards he takes up his ‘merry harp’ and sings the lay that wins his wife, Heurodis, back from Fairyland.

This reverent response is echoed in the First Branch of The Mabinogion when Rhiannon, a Queen of Annwn, unveils herself to Pwyll. This does not take place within a crystal castle, but near the fairy mound Gorsedd Arberth. We are told she ‘drew back the part of her headdress that should cover her face, and fixed her gaze upon him’. ‘And then he thought that the face of every maiden and every woman he had ever seen was unattractive compared with her face.’ He immediately falls in love with her and agrees to marry her, choosing her above all other women.

When I first met Gwyn, he did not reveal his face to me in his glass fortress, but beneath the shadows of a leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane in Penwortham. My response was similar. I recognised him as my patron deity, a god who I chose above all gods, who I could not help but love and serve.

In Ethics and Infinity the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas notes that the face to face to encounter draws us into service to the Other. Also ‘the face… signifies: “Do not kill me.”’

In the Welsh myths we find this ordainment repeatedly broken by Arthur and his warriors who commit a panoply of acts of defacing. The heads of the witches of Caer Loyw and Pennant Gofid are split in twain. The beard of Dillus Farfog is plucked out whilst he is still alive before his head is cut off. The giants Diwrnach and Wrnach are beheaded. Most horrifically, before Ysbaddaden Bencawr is beheaded, his face is mutilated – Caw of Prydyn shaves off his beard, ‘flesh and skin to the bone, and both ears completely’.

Because Arthur cannot bear the thought of the head of Brân being beneath White Hill as a threat to his sovereignty over Britain he orders it to be dug up and removed. Interestingly Brân’s head lives after his death for eighty-seven years and only when it starts to decay, when he loses his face, is it buried. It seems that Arthur cannot abide even the distant memory of Brân’s face evoked by his head.

The surrounding stories suggest that either Arthur himself or (Llen)lleog beheaded Pen Annwn with Caledfwlch during his raid on Annwn and this was how he gained his cauldron, the leadership of his hunt, and usurped his role as the warrior-protector of Britain. One might see the beheading of the Head of the Otherworld, ‘Arthur’s feat beyond the glass fort’, as the ultimate crime against the Other and the face of the numinous.

This killing blow, with the thrusting of Lleog’s flashing sword into the cauldron, may be seen to bring about the shattering of the glass fortress, the fragmenting of the mythos of Pen Annwn. We are left only with pieces of the narrative like shards of broken glass, the images within like creatures trapped in amber; seeing through glass darkly as the Dark Age is ushered in.

Yet beyond the glass walls Pen Annwn picks up his head and makes himself whole again.

I see his face and he is laughing.

Caer Wydyr: Seeing Beyond the Glass Fort

As I progress through ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it is my growing intuition that imagistic links* suggest Taliesin is not referring to a series of different forts raided by Arthur and his men but to one otherworldly fortress by different names.

Under this tentative interpretation, verse four takes us from the theft of the cauldron and escape from Annwn back to the beginning of the action. Taliesin says:

‘I don’t rate the pathetic men involved with religious writings,
those who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort:
six thousand men were standing on its wall;
it was hard to communicate with their watchman.’

Taliesin is mocking ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for being unable to see beyond Caer Wydyr: the Glass Fort. This is the fourth fortress named in the poem but, I intuit, the first to be approached.

In modern Welsh, gwydyr means glass. The image of the fort as glass: clear, see-through, near-invisible, is deeply evocative of its otherworld nature. Its walls, with room for six thousand men, are extensive.

It is possible to think of these glass walls as representative of the boundary between thisworld and Annwn. To penetrate beyond requires an invitation from Annwn’s deities, cunning, or a good deal of brute force.

Much speculation surrounds the incommunicative nature of the watchman. In other poems and stories such as ‘Arthur and the Porter’ and Culhwch and Olwen, the watchmen/gatekeepers are communicative. Questions must be answered and conditions met to enter the fortresses of otherworldly persons.

The watchman’s incommunicability has led some scholars to suggest he and perhaps the six thousand men on the walls are risen dead. In The Second Branch of The Mabinogion, dead Irishmen thrown into the Cauldron of Rebirth rise able to fight but unable to speak.

Another possibility is the guards are the spirits of Annwn who are ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd. They are perfectly able to speak: in The Life of St Collen, Gwyn’s watchman courteously invites St Collen into ‘the fairest castle he had ever beheld’.

The ominous silence of the watchman and six thousand men could stem from the fact three loads of warriors from Arthur’s warship have just landed outside their home, fully-armed, with their eyes glinting with lust for Annwn’s treasures.

***

Glass fortresses are a recurrent feature in Celtic literature and are often the abode of otherworldly rulers. This leads me to suspect there was once a deep, underlying mythos surrounding the Head of Annwn and his otherworldly fort which has gradually been lost.

A very close parallel with Caer Wydyr can be found in Nennius’ History of the Britons. Thirty ships of Spaniards sailing to Ireland find in the midst of the sea ‘a tower of glass, the summit of which was covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer.’ When they attack the tower, all but one of their ships are swallowed by the waves.

In The Life of St Gildas, Glastonbury is described as the Island of Glass. Caradog of Llancarfan says ‘Glastonia was of old called Ynisgutrin, and is still called so by the British inhabitants. Ynis in the British language is insula in Latin, and gutrin (made of glass).’

This is echoed by Gerald of Wales in Speculum Ecclesiae. Glastonbury ‘used to be called “Ynys Gutrin” in the Welsh language, that is the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.’

Glastonbury is the abode of Gwyn ap Nudd and Melwas who are both abductors of important female figures and riders of the famous water-horse ‘The Black of the Seas’**. Melwas keeps Gwenhwyfar imprisoned on the Island of Glass.

In Sir Orfeo, the Fairy King abducts Orfeo’s wife, Heurodis, and takes her to his crystal castle. Its vivid description provides clues to the appearance of Caer Wydyr:

‘Amid the land a castle tall
And rich and proud and wondrous high
Uprose, and all the outmost wall
Shone as crystal to the eye.
A hundred towers lit up the sky,
Of diamond all battled stout;
And buttresses rose up near by
Arched with red gold and broad about.

All the bonsour was carved in stone
With every beast and every wight,
And all within the castle shone
And sparkled with unearthly light.’

***

In The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Will Parker suggests the imagery of ‘the Indigenous Underworld of Annwfn’ stems from the ‘memory of the riches of the Romano-British civilian zone’.

The Romans brought glass-making to Britain and it seems likely memories of their cosmopolitan ways of life, fine clothes, and wine fed into conceptions of Annwn, which later became known as Faery.

A fascinating blend of Brythonic and Roman influence can be found in the list of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘that were in the North’:
‘Drynwyn… the Sword of Rhydderch the Generous’, ‘The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank’, ‘The Horn of Brân the Niggard’, ‘The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy’, ‘The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn’, ‘The Knife of Llawfroedd the Horseman’, ‘The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant’, ‘The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd’, ‘The Coat of Padarn Red-Coat’, ‘The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric’, ‘The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio’ and ‘The Mantle of Arthur’.

All these treasures possess magical qualities which are suggestive of their otherworld origin. They are also of interest because in the marginalia of the list in Pen. 147 (1566) we find the story of how Myrddin managed to acquire them and retreat ‘to the Glass House’ (ty gwydyr).

The traditional location of Myrddin’s glass house is Bardsey Island. Patrick Ford says ‘In a version of… “Treasures of the Kings of Britain”… Mad Merlin took all these from the city called Caerlleon-on-Usk to the House of Glass in Bardsey Island’.

In Celtic Remains, Lewis Morris says ‘In Caerlleon on Usk there was a museum of rarities in King Arthur’s time, which Myrddin ap Morfran, the Caledonian, upon the destruction of that place, carried with him to a house of glass on the Isle of Enlli or Bardsey…

This house of glass, it seems, was the museum where they kept their curiosities to be seen by everybody, but not handled; and it is possible Myrddin, who is said to live in it, was the keeper of their museum at the time’.

The shift from treasures used by their owners (some stolen by Arthur: Gwyddno’s Hamper and Dyrnwch’s cauldron) to their placing in a glass museum as relics is an interesting one, which reflects that they have fallen out of use and become part of our cultural heritage.

It also shows we have become cut off from their magic. As Christianity replaced Romano-British paganism, the doors to Annwn were sealed. Mad Myrddin became the uncommunicative watchman of the glass walls.

Caer Wydyr and its people have been forgotten and we have since then built our own Glass Fortresses: Crystal Palaces, Arcades, department stores, shopping malls, and stocked them full of the treasures of thisworld.

Crystal_Palace

The Crystal Palace, London,  Great Exhibition 1851, Wikipedia Commons

P1150490 - Copy

Yet the call returns to journey to Annwn, to see beyond the Glass Fort to the feats of Arthur, to their consequences reflected like mirror images in the years between then and now.

*Caer Vedwit and Caer Rigor are described as having four quarters/corners/turrets/pinnacles/ peaks and Caer Vandwy is referred to as the Fortress of God’s Peak. The sea beats around the turrets/pinnacles of Caer Siddi.
**In Culhwch and Olwen the only horse Gwyn can hunt Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ with is Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’. In the opening lines of The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer, Melwas introduces his horse before himself

‘Black is my steed and brave beneath me
No water will make him fear
And no man will make him swerve.’

It is notable that in The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn also introduces his horse (although here it is Carngrwn) first.