Gwyn’s Feast

Gwyn ap Nudd is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn. As the Brythonic leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ he gathers the souls of the deceased back to his realm to be united in an otherworldly feast. This repast of the dead can, at certain times of the year, be participated in by the living.

Unfortunately this is a tradition that Christians went to great lengths to bring to an end. This article will introduce the evidence for Gwyn’s Feast, how it was abolished, and how it can be reclaimed by modern polytheists.

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In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, as Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Underworld’, Gwyn presides over a feast in Caer Vedwit, ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’. At its centre is the cauldron of Pen Annwn, with its ‘dark trim, and pearls’, which ‘does not boil a coward’s food’: a vessel symbolic of rebirth.

Cauldron

Arthur raids seven Annuvian fortresses, confronting six thousand speechless dead men, inflicting violence on ‘the honoured and fair’ and stealing the Brindled Ox, kidnapping a bard called Gweir, and stealing the cauldron of Pen Annwn before slamming ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut.

I believe Arthur’s raid on Annwn replaced an earlier tradition of the soul’s return to the underworld and journey through seven fortresses (which are faces of the same fort) to Gwyn’s Feast and the Cauldron of Rebirth. Arthur’s defeat of Gwyn and his people and theft of his cauldron represent the triumph of Christianity over the pagan mysteries of death and rebirth.

This story is paralleled in Culhwch and Olwen, where Arthur raids Gwyn’s fortress to rescue Gwyn’s rival, Gwythyr, and his army (who include Graid who might be equated with Gweir), and steals a number of otherworldly treasures including the Brindled Ox and a magical cauldron.

Arthur also usurps Gwyn’s hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, ‘a king and for his sins God changed him into a swine’. This thinly disguises that Arthur takes leadership of Gwyn’s hunt for a human soul in boar-form – ‘the Wild Hunt’ – reducing it to just a boar hunt and again obscuring pagan traditions.

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Glastonbury Tor Calan Mai 2013

Gwyn is intimately associated with Glastonbury Tor. Excavations have revealed the existence of a building with several hearths dating to the 5th – 7th century. Two north-south aligned graves (not Christian) nearby along with an empty stone cairn and helmeted bronze head with ‘a narrow face’ and ‘slit mouth’ in the ‘long’ Celtic style suggest it may have been a pagan temple.

Bones of cattle, sheep, and pigs, from joints of meat, and Mediterranean amphorae (large jugs for holding wine) suggest feasting took place at this temple on the Tor; a liminal place where Thisworld and Annwn and the living and the dead meet in revels presided over by Gwyn.

Several pernicious accounts in saints’ lives record Christian attempts to abolish this tradition. In The Charter of St Patrick, Patrick and his brother Wellias climb the Tor and find ‘an ancient oratory’. There they fast for three months ‘dominating the devils and wild beasts’ and are rewarded with a vision of Jesus telling them to claim the place in his name and invoke St Michael.

In The Life of St Collen, Collen, Abbot of Glastonbury, derides Gwyn and his host as ‘devils’. When Gwyn invites him to the summit of the Tor to feast in ‘the fairest castle he had ever beheld’, Collen refuses to ‘eat the leaves of trees’, says the red of Gwyn’s people’s clothing signifies ‘burning’ and the blue ‘coldness’, then supposedly banishes them with holy water.

Gwyn appears as Melwas (1) in The Life of Gildas, where he violates Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar, and carries her off to the Tor, which is well fortified by ‘thickets of reed, river, and marsh’. Gildas sides with Arthur and wins Gwenhwyfar back. The tradition of ‘Arthur’s Hunting Path’ from Cadbury to Glastonbury and his burial further illustrate his replacement of Gwyn.

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The tradition of invoking St Michael on Glastonbury Tor continued. In the 11th century a wooden church dedicated to him was built on the summit. In 1243 Henry III granted permission for an annual fair to be held there for six days around the Feast of St Michael, September 29th.

It is likely St Michael’s Feast replaced a feast day for Gwyn. The 29th of September was the final day of bringing in the harvest. In Cornwall, September is known as Gwynngala, ‘White or Blessed Fields’, a name which contains suggestions that Gwyn, a death-god, is associated with reaping and celebrations for him were held when the fields were cleared at the month’s end.

This date has also become attached to St Michael’s defeat of Satan in a war of Heaven and banishment of him to Hell. It seems this Biblical story was recalled to reinforce St Michael’s defeat of Gwyn on his feast day. According to a folkloric tale the Devil first fell to earth and landed in a blackberry bush and spat or urinated on the blackberries, explaining why they go rotten.

Gwyn was identified with ‘that ancient serpent called the Devil’. This is not surprising as Gwyn’s father, Nodens/Nudd/Lludd is associated with two dragons and Gwyn’s dog, Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’, has two serpent’s tails. It may be suggested Gwyn took serpent-form (2).

On the tower of the 14th century stone church on Glastonbury Tor (the wooden one was unsurprisingly destroyed in an earthquake in 1275!) is an image of St Michael with a set of scales weighted toward him, rather than his opponent, the Devil-as-serpent. St Michael’s taking souls to heaven and weighing them forms an antithesis to Gwyn gathering souls to Annwn where all are united at his feast without moral judgement.

St Michael, Scales, Dragon, Glatonbury Tor 2013

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I’ve been celebrating Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September since 2013 as a way of reaffirming his presence in the place of Arthur and St Michael, who has taken over many other sites sacred to Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn/the fairies, including some in Lancashire (3).

When I asked Gwyn if I could celebrate a feast for him on this date, he agreed. Since then I’ve been joined annually by a friend, and Dun Brython members such as Greg Hill and Lee Davies have held their own celebrations. This year I know of several other devotees of Gwyn, who I’m in contact with online, who will be celebrating Gwyn’s Feast.

A meal I have developed and found Gwyn is happy with (4) is pork with apple sauce, a glass of mead, and offerings of meat for his hounds and apples for his horses. I open the feast by calling to Gwyn and his spirits and acknowledging the connection with all who have feasted with him in the past and those who are feasting with him on September the 29th today. Then we eat.

After the meal I read prayers, poems, and stories, which have been written for Gwyn or remind me of him by myself and others. This is followed by some form of communion with Gwyn such as divination, journeywork, or quiet contemplation. Rather than saying farewell I end by welcoming Gwyn and his spirits back into the landscape as we enter the dark half of the year.

This year I will be holding a feast for Gwyn then afterwards the readings will take place at the launch of Gatherer of Souls at the Black Horse in Preston. The publication of this book, which is dedicated to Gwyn and recovers his mythos, is the culmination of six years of devotion.

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(1) The identification of Gwyn and Melwas is also backed up by Welsh tradition. In ‘The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar’ Melwas introduces himself: ‘Black is my steed and brave beneath me / No water will make him fear / And no man will make him swerve.’ This is clearly Gwyn’s mount, the legendary water-horse Du y Moroedd, ‘the Black of the Seas’. Other lines suggesting Melwas is Gwyn, referring to his otherworld nature, include, ‘It is I that will ride and will stand, / And walk heavily on the brink of the ebb’, and ‘I would hold against a hundred of myself’.

(2) Robert Graves refers to Gwyn as ‘the Serpent Son’ in The White Goddess. This name is of his own coining based on personal inspiration and does not have any historical basis, yet is fitting.

(3) John Rhys notes Michael ‘was regarded as par excellence the defender of Christians against the sprites and demons with which the Celtic imagination peopled the shades of night, the gloom of the forest, and even the straggling mist on the tops of hills. Perhaps it would not be rash to suppose that most of the old foundations associated with his name occupy sites of sinister reputation, inherited from the time when paganism prevailed in the land, sites which were considered to be dangerous and to form the haunts of evil spirits.’ Here in Lancashire there is a church dedicated to St Michael in Whitewell, which is named for its white well, which many be connected with Gwyn. It is close to Fairy Holes and Fair Oak. In Beetham St Michael’s is the destination of a coffin path/fairy path which is famous for its Fairy Steps.

(4) One small word of advice on something he was very unhappy with… avoid eggs at all cost. In 2014 we decided to add boiled eggs to the arranged meal of ham without asking him. Three times we boiled them for the right amount of time and they were completely uncooked!

An earlier version of this article was published on the Dun Brython blog HERE.

SOURCES

Alex Langstone, ‘The Berwyn Mountains of Poetic Adventure’, Mirror of Isis
Anon, ‘The Charter of St Patrick’, Britannia History
Anon, ‘The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhywfar’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
Ben Johnson, ‘Michaelmas’, Historic UK
Caradoc of Llancarfan, The Life of Gildas, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/gildas06.html
Charlotte Guest (transl), ‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Mary Beth Albright, ‘Michaelmas: The Day the Devil Spit on Your Blackberries’, National Geographic
Nicolas R. Mann, The Isle of Avalon, (Green Magic, 2008)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Yuri Leitch, Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and key to the Glastonbury Zodiac, (The Temple Publications, 2007)

Caer Vedwit: The Fortress of the Mead-Feast and its Revolutions

The second sea fortress raided by Arthur, Taliesin and ‘three full loads’ of Prydwen in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’.

Opening the second verse Taliesin says:

‘I’m splendid of fame – song was heard
in the four quarters of the fort, revolving (to face) the four directions.’

Kaer pedryuan, ‘four quarters of the fort’ has also been translated as ‘Four-Cornered Fort’, ‘Four-Pinnacled Fort’, ‘Four-Peaked Fort and ‘Four-Turreted Fort’. The latter suggests it bears relationship with Caer Siddi: ‘around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea’.

The image of a four-quartered, revolving fortress filled with song is fascinating and compelling. So far I have not come across the name Caer Vedwit or revolving fortresses in any other medieval Welsh literature. However fortresses that disappear, recede, or can only be entered under special conditions feature in numerous stories.

A close parallel with Caer Vedwit is found in the Ulster Cycle. In ‘The Feast of Bricriu’, Cú Roí has a fortress which revolves to his chant throughout the night so that nobody can enter:

‘In what airt soever of the globe Curoi should happen to be, every night o’er the fort he chaunted a spell, til the fort revolved as swiftly as a mill-stone. The entrance was never to be found after sunset.’

Caer Vedwit is associated with the Head of Annwn. It seems possible its revolutions are brought about by his spell-song.

The mead-feast is a central feature of medieval stories set in thisworld and Annwn. The status of a lord was judged by his capacity to maintain large groups of warriors feasting and drinking in his hall. The consumption of copious amounts of mead could provide a more prosaic explanation for the songs in Caer Vedwit and its revolutions.

The Cauldron of the Head of Annwn

The purpose of raiding Caer Vedwit is the theft of the cauldron of the Head of Annwn, which no doubt formed the centre of the mead-feast. Taliesin says:

‘My first utterance was spoken concerning the cauldron
kindled by the breath of nine maidens.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
(with its) a dark trim, and pearls?
It does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so;’

A cauldron with similar qualities appears in ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’. It is owned by Dyrnwch the Giant ‘if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in it, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly.’

The cauldron’s special ‘disposition’ of only brewing food for the brave shares similarities with the Irish tradition of the champion’s portion. In ‘The Feast of Bricriu’, Bricriu invites a group of champions to his house to fight for ‘a cauldron full of generous wine with room enough for the three valiant braves of Ulster’ along with a seven-year-old boar and other delicacies.

Cú Chulainn wins but his right to the champion’s portion is not settled until he has defended Cú Roí’s fortress and proved his courage to Cú Roí in the beheading game*.

The Blue Smith and the Cauldron of Rebirth

Haycock says gwrym am y oror a mererit (‘a dark trim and pearls’) refers to a dark substance decorating the rim of the cauldron such as ‘an iron band, or enamel, jet or niello (black sulphide of silver)’. Mererit is borrowed from Latin margarita and means ‘pearl’.

John and Caitlin Matthews translate gwrym am y oror a mererit as ‘Ridged with enamel, rimmed with pearl’ and suggest the cauldron was crafted by Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid (‘Blue Smith who Reforges the Weak’).

In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Llasar emerged from the Lake of the Cauldron in Ireland with the cauldron of rebirth on his back. After he and his wife were driven out of Ireland, he took it to Britain and gifted it to Brân then taught Manawydan the art of enamelling.

Brân gave the cauldron to Matholwch, King of Ireland, as recompense for an insult. Matholwch later used it to bring life to dead Irish warriors who were killed by Brân’s army. The cauldron was shattered when a living man was thrown into it.

We hear nothing else about Llasar except that his son, Llashar, was one of seven men left by Brân to guard Britain. Bryn Saith Marchog ‘The Hill of the Seven Horsemen’ is named after them.

Whether the cauldron of rebirth and the cauldron of the Head of Annwn are the same remains a matter of speculation. Their magical properties and elaborate craftmanship suggest they were forged by an otherworldly being, perhaps a gargantuan blue smith, in Annwn’s depths.

The Head of Annwn

Who is the Head of Annwn? In ‘The First Branch’, Pwyll wins the title Pen Annwn by taking the form and role of Arawn, a King of Annwn, winning his yearly battle and resisting the temptation of sleeping with his wife. It’s my intuition Pwyll’s acquisition of the title is based on his assumption of Arawn’s identity and Arawn was formerly Pen Annwn.

Another candidate for the title is Gwyn ap Nudd. In Culhwch and Olwen, Gwyn is introduced as the deity who contains the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent the destruction of the world and adversary of Arthur.

Arthur sides with Gwyn’s rival, Gwythyr, during their struggle for Creiddylad and binds them in battle for her every May Day. Gwyn and Gwythyr also act as tricksters when Arthur goes to kill Orddu ‘The Very Black Witch’.

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn refers to witnessing a battle at Caer Vandwy:

‘… I saw a host
shield shattered, spears broken,
violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’

Caer Vandwy is the sixth fortress in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. It seems likely Gwyn refers to the battle between Arthur and the people of Annwn for the Brindled Ox.

Seasonal Revolutions

In the sixth verse we find a second reference to the Head of Annwn:

‘(those) who don’t know on what day the Head** is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal is it they guard, with his silver head.’

It’s likely the silver-headed animal is the Brindled Ox guarded by the people of Annwn and the ‘Ruler’ is the Head of Annwn. This riddle pertains to his conception and birth. In his Gallic Wars (58-49BC) Julius Caesar said:

‘All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.’

Dis was a Roman god of the underworld who presided over its wealth. Whilst it seems unlikely the Gaulish deity was called Dis this identification suggests he performed a similar role and had deep connections with how people perceived the passage of time and the seasons.

Caesar says the ‘institution’ of the Druids ‘is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it.’

It seems possible Gaulish beliefs about ‘Dis’ derive from the mythos of the Head of Annwn. Arawn and Gwyn both fight yearly battles against opponents associated with summer: Hafgan (haf means ‘summer’) and Gwythyr ap Greidol (‘Victor son of Scorcher’) placing them in the role of the Winter King who must be defeated for summer to come.

In The Death of Cú Roí, Cú Roí carries off a maiden called Blathnat (‘Blossom’) along with a cauldron that is the child of three cows who carry three men/birds on their ears. Cú Chulainn’s army behead Cú Roí and win Blathnat, cattle and treasure.

Parallels with Gwyn’s abduction of Creiddylad, Arthur rescuing her and taking the cauldron and Brindled Ox are obvious. Of course these wintry deities don’t stay ‘dead’ long.

It may be suggested the revolutions of Caer Vedwit, home of the Head of Annwn, are bound up with the passage of day and night and the seasons and the cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.

The Nine Maidens

Taliesin says the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is kindled by the breath of nine maidens. There are numerous references to groups of nine women connected with underworld gods in Gallo-Brythonic tradition.

In 1AD, Pomponius Mela wrote of nine priestesses serving a Gaulish god on the island of Sein. Known as Senes, they could create storms, shift shape, cure illnesses and foretell the future.

A Gaulish tablet from Larzac dated 90AD provides evidence of a coven of nine sorceresses working underworld magic:

‘Herein-:
– a magical incantation of women,
– their special infernal names,
– the magical incantation of a seeress who fashions this prophecy…

…Below, there they shall be impressed, the prophetic curse of these names of theirs is a magical incantation of a group of practitioners of underworld magic: Banona daughter of Flatucia, Paulla wife of Potitos, Aiia daughter of Adiega, Potitos father of Paulla, Severa daughter of Valens (and) wife of Paullos(?), Adiega mother of Aiia, Pottita wife of Primos daughter of Abesa.’

Here anderna is used to refer to the underworld and andernados to a group of practitioners working underworld magic. A similar tablet from Chamalières invokes andedion ‘underworld gods’ and anderon ‘infernal beings’. These Gaulish terms bear similarities with the Irish Andeé ‘non-gods’ and Brythonic Annwn ‘the deep’ ‘the not-world’.

Superstitions surrounding witchcraft and the underworld no doubt lie behind Arthur’s slaughter of Orddu and the nine witches of Caer Loyw and Cai’s killing of nine witches in Arthur and the Porter.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Life of Merlin, Morgan and her sisters: Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis and Thitis with her lyre, are presented in a more positive light. They inhabit the paradisal island of Avalon. Morgan is a shapeshifter adept in herbalism and the healing arts who tends Arthur’s fatal wound after Camlan.

Bringing Life to the Dead

A man named Morgan Tud appears as Arthur’s physician in Geraint son of Erbin. It’s my suspicion this is Morgan in male guise. Morgan acts as healer to Gwyn’s brother, Edern ap Nudd. Edern is defeated by Geraint in another seasonal battle at Whitsuntide.

Geraint strikes Edern what sounds like a killing blow: ‘he summoned up his strength and struck the knight on the top of his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls on his knees.’

However Edern gets up and ride to Arthur’s court. Upon his arrival the gatekeeper says: ‘no one has ever seen such a terrible sight to gaze upon as he. He is wearing broken armour, in poor condition, with the colour of his blood more conspicuous on it than its own colour.’

Edern’s invincibility indubitably stems from his identity as an Annuvian deity like Gwyn. Morgan is assigned the task of healing Edern, which is analogous to bringing him back to life.

The capacity of women not only to heal but bring life to the dead is shown in Peredur. At the court of the King of Suffering, Peredur sees ‘only women’ then:

‘a horse approaching with a saddle on it, and a corpse in the saddle. One of the women got up and took the corpse from the saddle, and bathed it in a tub of warm water that was by the door, and applied precious ointment to it. The man got up, alive, and went up to Peredur, and greeted him, and made him welcome. Two other corpses entered on their saddles, and the maiden gave those two the same treatment as the previous one.’

E. Wallcousins 'In Caer Pedryvan' (1912) Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

Morgan is also associated with the mysteries of death and rebirth represented by the cauldron. It may be suggested the scene where she heals Arthur is based on an older myth wherein she and her sisters tended the Head of Annwn after his seasonal death.

Glastonbury Tor and the Mead-Feast

The sacred complex associated with Caer Vedwit: the cauldron, the Head of Annwn, and the nine maidens came together for me several years ago at Glastonbury Tor.

The isle of Avalon (‘apples’) is frequently identified with Glastonbury in the apple-growing summerlands of the Somerset Levels. Prior to the fall in sea levels, Glastonbury was an island; the area is still prone to flooding. It is easy to see how the story of Arthur being taken to Morgan and her sisters on Avalon by boat emerged from the landscape.

In The Life of St Collen whilst Collen was abbot of Glastonbury he supposedly banished Gwyn and his fairy host whilst they were feasting in the hall of his magical castle on the Tor. It seems likely the cauldron formed the centre of their mead-feast.

My first vision of the otherworld took place at Glastonbury Festival. After thirteen years of searching for an explanation, Gwyn finally appeared in my life and I realised he was my patron. Identifying the nine maidens as Morgan and her sisters and the Head of Annwn as Gwyn led me back to Glastonbury to devote myself him.

When I entered the Well House of the White Spring I could barely believe my eyes. The scene depicted in Caer Vedwit was there before me. In the centre of a subterranean cavern was the cauldron overflowing with thundering water. A dark haired woman in long skirts kindled candles around its rim. In the centre was a shrine to the Lady of Avalon and to the right and left altars for Gwyn and Brigid***.

For one day of my life everything went beautifully to plan. I made my vow to Gwyn beside the candle-lit cauldron as shadows of otherworlds and othertimes circled around me. The world spun around my resolution and my life has never been the same.

However Caer Vedwit has revolved since. Last time I went to Glastonbury the White Spring was barred. Shortly afterward I witnessed a vision where the cauldron lay shattered, its poison streaming throughout the land. I’d tasted the Awen. The time had arrived to look at the consequences of bringing forth Annuvian magic into thisworld.

The theft of the cauldron will be covered in upcoming posts.

* Cú Roí arrives at the Royal Court in Emain and challenges the Ultonians to behead him if he can return the blow. Presuming Cú Roí will die, Fat Neck agrees. Afterward Cú Roí picks up his head and returns the next night for his recompense. Fat Neck refuses. Loigaire and Conall Cernach also play the game but refuse to accept the blow. The only person brave enough to proffer his neck to Cú Roí is Cú Chullain who through his bravery wins the champion’s portion. The beheading game also forms the central plot of Gawain and the Green Knight.
**ny wdant py dyd peridyd Pen is translated by Marged Haycock as ‘(those) who don’t known on what day the Lord is created’ but I’ve chosen the more literal translation of ‘Pen’ as ‘Head’. An alternative used by Sarah Higley and John and Caitlin Matthews is ‘Chief’.
***Some scholars have connected the role of the nine maidens kindling the flames beneath the cauldron with their breath with the work of St Brigid’s flamekeepers at Kildare. In his 12th C The History and Topography of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis ‘it is only lawful for women to blow the fire, fanning it or using bellows only, and not with their breath.’ It seems possible this was a ban on older pagan practices.

SOURCES

Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Geraldus Cambrensis, The History and Topography of Ireland, (Penguin Classics, 1982)
George Henderson (transl.), Fled Bricend (The Feast of Bricriu), (Parentheses Publications, 1999)
John Koch (transl.), ‘The Tablet of Larzac,’ The Celtic Heroic Age (CSP, 2003)
Lady Charlotte Guest, ‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Maria Tymoczko, Two Death Tales from the Ulster Cycle: The Death of Cu Roi and the Death of Cu Chulainn, (Dolmen Press, 1981)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sarah Higley (transl.), Preiddu Annwn, (Camelot, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
W. A. W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn (transl.), The Works of Julius Caesar, (Sacred  Texts, 1869)

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Gwyllon: ‘Wyllt-ness’ and the Healing Power of Art

Barrow Mound, Fulwood

The wight whose footsteps I heard
imprinted on my cold soul,
the cold marrow of my bones.
He walked in soul as his bones laid still
and my soul reached out to him:
another one of the gwyllon.

The glimmer of fairy lights.
This place secluded and so still.

Fulwood Barrow MoundSometimes you stumble somewhere and forget yourself. No longer breathing. In the time of the gods. You hear the footsteps of a deity. Not your deity. But one connected with him.

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In the mythology of ancient Britain, Gwyn ap Nudd (a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead) is intimately connected with ‘gwyllon’: madmen, wildmen, wraiths, who through some traumatic experience have become ‘outside themselves’, open to the otherworld, ‘wyllt’.

The most famous is Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin is a golden-torqued warrior of the court of the northern British ruler, Gwenddolau, who becomes wyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd; a conflict between Brythonic kinsmen renowned for its carnage and futility.

Looking across the battlefield, stricken with guilt because his sister Gwendydd’s sons are amongst the dead, Myrddin sees an unendurable brightness and martial battalion in the sky. It seems possible this is Gwyn (‘white’ ‘blessed’ holy’ from Vindos or Vindonnus ‘white’ ‘clear light, white’) and his host: the spirits of Annwn and the war-dead, approaching to gather their kindred to the otherworld.

‘Torn out of himself’ by one of these spirits, Myrddin flees to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest). He wanders there ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon’. These gwyllon are ‘seven score men’ who also fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished.

Similar cases are found in The Triads of the Island of Britain: ‘Tri Gwyd Ellyll Ynys Brydein’ ‘Three Wild Spectres of the Island of Britian’. The notes state ‘ydellyll’ (for ‘gwyd ellyll?’) ‘occurs in the Gododdin in reference to furious activity in battle’ and could relate to tales of men who become wyllt as a consequence of war.

What makes Myrddin’s story unique is his recovery. Amongst wild creatures of the forest; a piglet, a wolf and a favourite apple tree he undergoes a healing process through which he learns the art of poetry and uses it to prophecy against future bloodshed.

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Cyledyr Wyllt possesses an entirely different story. In Culhwch and Olwen, after Gwyn abducts Creiddylad, his rival Gwythyr ap Greidol raises an army of northern men to win her back. Amongst them are Cyledyr and his brother, Pen, his father Nwython and his great grand-father’s brother, Gwrgst Ledlwm. If Gwrgst is still living this means Cyledyr must be in his teens.

Gwythyr and his army attack Gwyn. My intuition is this attack represents a raid on Annwn. Gwyn triumphs over Gwythyr and the northern men and takes them prisoner. During their captivity he kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who goes mad. The etymological links between Cyledyr and Celyddon suggest that, like Myrddin, he flees to the forest.

Gwyn’s motive for torturing Cyledyr is never explained. Did he do it from fury? For vengeance? Did he have some darker purpose in feeding a young man his father’s heart? Could this have originated from some arcane rite of the past whereby the strength of one’s ancestors was conferred by eating their flesh, of which Gwyn makes a mockery?

Another question worth asking is ‘Did it happen at all?’ The historical Nwython is recorded to have died in his bed.

It seems possible Cyledyr’s fevered recollections result from the effects of unbidden entry to Annwn, the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr’s forces and time spent in prison on an impressionable young mind. Whilst Cyledyr is telling this story Nwython could be anguishing over the unknown fate of his son. Whether Cyledyr recovered from his trauma or died in Celyddon remains uncertain.

***

Another story I believe features Gwyn (as the King of Fairy) and a human ruler who becomes wyllt is Sir Orfeo. This begins when the Fairy King abducts Heurodis, Orfeo’s wife. Driven wyllt by grief, Orfeo abandons his sovereignty and departs ‘like a beggar’ for the wilderness where his only solace is playing his harp, which brings joy to the wild creatures.

After ten long years Orfeo finally finds a way into Fairyland. After travelling sunlit green plains and hunting grounds he comes to the Fairy King’s glass palace. Therein he makes a terrible discovery: ‘Folk long thought dead… as living found’ headless, armless, torn, ‘with dreadful wounds’, ‘full-armed on horses’, strangled, drowned, burned, wives laid in child-bed ‘stolen out of life’: those ‘the fairies seize and keep’. Heurodis lies amongst them.

These images represent a little-known truth, rarely made explicit in Brythonic mythology: the beauty of Fairyland is founded on the horror of death. The knights and damsels of the Fairy King’s hunt who feast in his hall number the war-dead, murder-victims, women who have died in labour.

Heurodis is amongst them because when the Fairy King took her whilst she slept beneath an orchard tree she died or became comatose or catatonic. Such superstitions can be traced through Brythonic fairylore to earlier beliefs about Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn conveying souls to the otherworld.

This knowledge does not prevent Orfeo from entering the Fairy King’s hall and playing his wondrous music. The King is so moved he offers Orfeo anything he wants. Of course, Orfeo asks for Heurodis. He brings her back to this-world where the pair are re-united in sovereignty.

This story shows how Orfeo gains his ability as a musician from his period wandering wyllt and that hard-won art has the power to move the gods, to sing the souls of those held captive in Fairyland back to this earthly home.

***

These myths represent the experience of becoming wyllt at the outermost limits of human experience. The ‘wyllt-ness’ of Myrddin and Cyledyr results from battle trauma. Cyledyr’s battle trauma is exacerbated by his unwarranted entry into Annwn, imprisonment in the ‘not-world’ and real or imagined torture by Gwyn.

Orfeo’s story differs slightly. His wyllt-ness results from loss. His time spent wandering the wilderness provides him with the strength to survives his gnosis of the terrible truth at the heart of Fairyland and Heurodis’ fate to win her back and return to his seat of rule.

Key to the survival of becoming wyllt is the power of art. For Myrddin and Orfeo giving voice to their trauma and to the powers of nature who surround and console them is an essential part of the healing process. It is possibly because he does not discover art that Cyledyr remains wyllt. This may also be the case for the other gwyllon who lapsed into madness and perished.

These stories contain lasting significance for modernity where art and nature therapy are recognised as powerful means of helping victims of war and loss.

***

Later folktales represent a variety of different encounters with and responses to Fairyland. In most we find the recurrent themes of wyllt-ness and art. People who meet fairies, stumble into or are taken to Fairy invariably become ‘dead, mad or poets’. My personal experiences with Gwyn and his realm bear stronger resemblances to these tales.

Glastonbury TorIn the year 2000 at Glastonbury Festival (long before I knew the name of the mysterious god of the Tor) I had a vision of what I recognise now to be Fairyland which left me shocked, stunned and profoundly questioning the nature of reality.

My quest for an explanation led me through a dangerous combination of drink, drugs, all-night dancing and all the texts of the Western European philosophical tradition, deeper into madness, to the brink of an abyss where I was faced with the choice of life or death.

Unable to choose either I was confronted by three beings I now recognise as ellyllon (‘fairies’ akin to gwyllon). What followed was equally beautiful and perturbing and put an end to the pain of having to make that choice. My experiences left me half-wyllt, wandering between life and death, plagued by anxiety and panic attacks and put a temporary end to my vision-quest.

After giving up my philosophy PhD, I spent four years working with horses. During this period of re-connecting with the land, the seasons and the animal world, working hard and thinking little, I underwent a return to nature that bears a little analogy to the flight of the wyllt to Celyddon.

When I met Gwyn and put a face to the god who governed the magical landscape I haphazardly intruded on at Glastonbury Festival twelve years ago, my initial terror was edged by relief. I finally knew the source of the calling to the otherworld that had haunted me for as long as I can remember. Gwyn became my patron and I his awenydd: ‘person inspired’ or ‘poet’.

***

In the contemporary world where poetry, let alone pagan poetry, is rarely acknowledged or valued the path of the awenydd is not an easy vocation. Deep gnosis of nature and Annwn and its deities necessarily places one outside the bounds of ordinary experience; makes one wyllt, other. With Celyddon gone there is no wild and wooded place of retreat outside the norms of society where gwyllon can flee and gather in company.

Yet in the shaded spaces of our localities where trees still stand and that great forest stood before it walked to Scotland centuries ago we can commune with the gwyllon of old and find unison with the gwyllon of today. Sharing can also take place in the green nooks and crannies of books, in the pubs and cafes and wooded stages where we perform and on the internet. In our stories we find camaraderie.

In a world becoming increasingly superficial where we are losing touch with the deep knowledge our ancestors held to help those touched by the wyllt-ness of Fairyland be it through trauma, loss, enchantment or some silly mistake, we have never had a greater need for the stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and the gwyllon. For the healing power of art.

Castle Hill from Fairy LaneSOURCES

Bromwich, Rachel (ed) The Triads of the Island of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. (eds) Culhwch and Olwen (University of Wales, 1998)
Davies, Constance ‘Classical Threads in Orfeo’ The Modern Language Review, Vol 56, No 2, (Modern Humanities Research Association, April 1961)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Friedman, John Block ‘Eurydice, Heurodis and the Noon-Day Demon’ Speculum, Vol 41, Vol 1 (Medieval Academy of America, 1966)
Hunt, Edward Eyre Sir Orfeo (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

Personal Religion?

Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 102 - CopyA couple of days ago I read write-ups of the OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) 50th anniversary gathering on Glastonbury Tor, on the blogs of Joanna van der Hoeven and Robin Herne.

http://downtheforestpath.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/celebrating-50-years-of-obod/

http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-people-of-peace.html

It sounds like they had a grand time. Although one of the things Robin acutely pointed out was the irony that although the main topic was peace, the powers of place, including Gwyn ap Nudd and the Tylwyth Teg (the People of Peace) were not addressed or involved.

Why should that bother me? OBOD aren’t all pagans or polytheists. Hundreds of different religious groups use the Tor for various ceremonies- that’s part of its power and draw, and the eclecticism and chaos that constitutes the spirit of Glastonbury.

It was not until this morning I perceived my vexation was the symptom of an approaching realisation; I awoke with an image of the OBODies on the Tor in my mind combined with an overwhelming gnosis clear as the dawn; THIS ISN’T MY RELIGION.

I know the OBOD doesn’t pretend to be a religious organisation… however my discomfort about the lack of commonality I feel with Druids outside The Druid Network has been growing for a while. I’m beginning to feel the distinctions between my path and those of some other Druids are so huge that there is no meaningful common ground at all.

Plus… I recall Nimue Brown mentioning to be a Druid you must walk your path with conscious intent as a Druid. Looking back, I have done this as a Bard, and now do so as Awenydd. I believed these paths fitted under the umbrella term Druid but now I’m not so sure.

And I’m not so sure I did the right thing in claiming the name Druid for my religion pretty soon after joining TDN, on the ground I was a member of the network and a grove. It was much later I was gifted with the name Awenydd by Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of my local landscape.

So I’m beginning to wonder now whether my path as Awenydd, which is based in these relationships and expressing them through poetry, is not the religion of Druidry but a personal spirituality I live religiously?

I also wonder, because my practice focuses more on ‘anthropomorphised’ deities and spirits than most Druids whether I’m more of a polytheist? In answering that I find myself drawn back to the issue of commonality… I once wondered whether I was a Brythonic polytheist but decided I wasn’t as I don’t know enough about all the deities and their lore in depth, haven’t made enough effort to learn Welsh, and don’t follow a joint ritual structure.

So I wonder now…

Can polytheism be religious without commonality?

Must religion have a name?

Is personal religion a contradiction in terms? And is it possible to live a personal religion?

View from Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 120

Gwyn’s Feast

Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.
There is no lack of wood upon the hearth,
The hounds are calm, the horses fed and watered.
Put knife to meat, drink your share from the horn,
There is endless plenty in my cauldron.
Join and dream to the songs of my bards,
They play a magic from the world’s beginning.
Beneath the Faery moon and Annwn’s stars
All things are sung back to wonder.
Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.

*The original manuscript ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (1536) relating Gwyn’s feast on Glastonbury Tor can be found here:  http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html It’s possible it took place on Michaelmas day, September 29th, which marks the last day of summer and beginning of Autumn.

The Other Side

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide
– Pink Floyd High Hopes

Glastonbury 2000

The world was ours, the moment all that mattered.
Our hopes were high in the mist of dawn.
We flung our friendship over the wildest horizons
riding rainbow lights and drums to distant haunts
that never satisfied the fire in our souls
nor the loneliness that lay its pall between us.
Strung out on stars, burning everything of value
we reached the ravaged borderlands and paused
so far gone even astronomers couldn’t find us.
Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us

they saw the stone circle and distant Tor,
the penumbra of a festival vanished to the night.
At last we staggered home lost and nearly blind,
dazzled by the sun we couldn’t find to tiny houses
with stiff front doors surrendering hope for certainty.
The return was hard, obeying the constant grind
of re-learning how to put one foot in front
of the other one. Re-mastering the system, unseeing
starry skies. Yet on the odd occasion reality elides
to a glimpse of how green it was on the other side.

I fought onward, eventually alone
as the division bell began to toll, making happy
families with freshly ironed clothes, polished homes
and forced smiles. From a dusty library I looked out
across the hills- a glimpse of green and beacon fire.
My feet trod through cotton grass to broken remains
of tribal ruins drawn by chants on the west wind.
The other side returned to life in the vestibules of trees.
I saw a river goddess wash her hair in the rain.
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again

the fragments stayed broken, my vision incomplete.
Stunned by the Tor redrawing itself on the backdrop
of my mind I relit the embers on the Ribble’s bank
and recalled the last hint of paradise before everything
went black and time took our dreams away. Guided
by the voice of an otherworldy king I reclaimed my pride
at the Tor’s white spring. Time performed its circle,
gave back my starlit dream. The world is mine again.
To the other side and spiralling back I ride
dragged by the force of some inner tide.

Glastonbury Tor 2013