Sétanta – A Hero of the Setantii?

Sétanta and the Setantii

I have recently been revisiting the theory that Sétanta (later Cú Chulainn), a hero and perhaps a deity the Irish myths, was associated with the Iron Age Setantii tribe of northern Britain. Writing in 2CE the Roman geographer, Ptolemy, refers to Portus Setantiorum ‘the Port of the Setantii’, which was located at the mouth of the river Wyre, and also to Seteia, the river Mersey. This suggests the Setantii occupied the lowlands of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire from the Mersey to the Wyre.

The etymology of Setantii is one of much debate. Graham Isaac suggests it is emended from sego ‘strong’ and Andrew Breeze that is corrupted from ‘the Celtic *met “cut, harvest”, as in Welsh medaf “I reap”, Medi “September” (when corn is cut), Middle Irish methel “reaping party”’. Breeze notes these people were not ‘harmless agriculturalists’ and ‘Welsh literature indicates a bloodier sense’. Medel means ‘reaper’ ‘killer, mower down (of enemies in combat)’. The warrior-prince Owain Rheged is referred to by Taliesin as medel galon ‘a reaper of enemies’. Thus Metantii or Setantii is best translated as ‘reapers (of men), cutters down (in battle)’ and Meteia or Seteia as ‘reaper’.

In Celtic and Manx Folklore John Rhys puts forward the theory that Sétanta Beg means ‘the Little Setantian’, which we might translate as ‘reaping one’, and this would certainly fit with his ferocity in battle.

Rhys associates both Sétanta and Seithenin with the lost lands between Ireland and Wales. In Welsh legend Seithenin caused the flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir (1) when he failed to close the flood gates due to his liason with Mererid, the ‘fountain cup-bearer’, whose waters were loosed. Traditionally this story is associated with Cantre’r Gwaelod, ‘the Bottom Hundred’, ‘the shallows of Cardigan Bay’. Yet this area extended ‘northwards… off the coast of Cheshire and Lancashire, and occupied Morecambe Bay with a dense growth of oak, Scotch fir, alder, birch, and hazel’.

Gwyddno had two ports – Porth Wyddno (Borth) in Wales and ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’, one of Three Chief Ports in The Triads of the Island of Britain, which was likely Portus Setantiorum.

Holder theorises that Sétanta derives from Setantios and he was originally a Celtic god. Is it possible his mythos, the best developed of all the Irish deities, originated from the people who occupied the lost lands off the Lancashire coast and were later known as the Setantii?

Sétanta’s Birth and Boyhood

The stories of Sétanta/Cú Chulainn were written down by medieval Irish scribes during the 12th century in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster and are now firmly embedded in the Irish landscape. He is associated with Ulster, the Ulstermen, and their king, Conchobar.

‘The Birth of Cú Chulainn’ is a story with much mythic depth. Conchobar rules Ireland from Emain Macha. The plain is devastated by a flock of magical birds, ‘nine-score’ ‘each pair… linked by a silver chain’. Conchobar, his daughter and charioteer, Deichtine, and nine other charioteers hunt them. A heavy snow falls and they are forced to seek refuge in a storehouse where they are welcomed to feast by its owner. His wife is in labour and Deichtine helps her give birth to a son. At the same time a mare gives birth to two colts outside. Deichtine nurses the boy and he is given the colts.

Afterwards Conchobar and his company find themselves east of the Bruig (Newgrange) ‘no house, no birds, only their horses and the boy and his colts’. Deichtine takes the boy to Emain Macha and continues to nurse him but, to her heart break, he dies. Afterwards she drinks a ‘tiny creature’ from a copper vessel. That evening the god, Lug, appears to her and tells her she is pregnant by him and must call their son Sétanta. Because she is engaged to Sualtam mac Róich and fears he may suspect she slept with Conchobar she aborts the child, then becomes pregnant by Sualtam and bears a son. He is called Sétanta and thus has both thisworldly and otherworldly fathers – Sualtam and Lug. His dual paternity, like that of Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Arawn in the Welsh myths, marks him as a ‘special son’.

Lug is an Irish deity who is descended from Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods, and Eithne, daughter of Balor, one of the monstrous Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’. Sétanta’s descent from a human woman on one side and gods and giants on the other goes a long way to explain his superhuman qualities.

As a mere boy he is described as going to play with the others and fending off fifty javelins with his toy shield, stopping fifty hurling balls with his chest, and warding off fifty hurleys with his one hurley.

Sétanta receives the name Cú Chulainn after being attacked by a hound belonging to Culann the smith. He puts an end to it in a grotesque manner. ‘The lad struck his ball with his hurley so that the ball shot down the throat of the hound and carried its insides out through its backside. Then he grabbed two of its legs and smashed it to pieces against a nearby pillar stone’. As recompense to Culann, he offers to be Culann’s hound and guard Muirthemne Plain until a pup has been raised to take his place. From then he is known as Cú Chulainn – the Hound of Culann.

Training with Scáthach

Cú Chulainn trains with the warrior-woman Scáthach ‘the Shadow’ at Dún Scáith ‘The Fortress of Shadows’ on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. From her he learns the arts of war including ‘the apple-feat, the thunder-feat, the blade-feat, the foen-feat, and the spear-feat, the rope-feat, the body-feat, the cat’s feat, the salmon-feat of a chariot-chief, the throw of the staff, the jump over […], the whirl of a brave chariot-chief, the spear of the bellows, the boi of swiftness, the wheel-feat, the othar-feat, the breath-feat, the brud geme, the hero’s whoop, the blow […], the counter-blow, running up a lance and righting the body on its point, the scythe-chariot, and the hero’s twisting round the points of spears’.

Most fearsome is his use of the barbed spear known as the gae bolga:thrown from the fork of the foot; it made a single wound when it entered a man’s body, whereupon it opened into thirty barbs, and it could not be taken from a man’s body without the flesh being cut away around it’.

During this period Cú Chulainn battles against Scáthach’s rival, another warrior-woman called Aife, defeats her, and offers to spare her life but only on the condition that she bears him a son.

The story of Cú Chulainn’s training with Scáthach shows links with Britain and the existence of a tradition where male warriors were trained by warrior women. This is also found in the Welsh myths where Peredur is trained by the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw and it might be suggested that Orddu, the Very Black Witch, of Pennant Gofid, in the North, fulfilled a similar role.

The Battle Rage of Cú Chulainn

After his training Cú Chulainn’s feats are many and his greatest is defending Ulster and the Brown Bull single handedly against the armies of Connacht whilst the Ulstermen are laid up with the Curse of Macha (1). This is recorded in The Tain. After putting them off by magic, picking them off with guerilla tactics and fighting against them in single combat he defeats them in three great massacres.

Here we witness his ability to cause incredible violence. With ‘his scythed chariot that glittered with iron tangs, blades, hooks, hard prongs and brutal spikes, barbs and sharp nails on every shaft, strut, strap and truss’ he drives into the ranks ‘three times encircling them with great ramparts of their own corpses piled sole to sole and headless neck to headless neck’, slaying ‘seven-score and ten kings’.

When he fights, Cú Chulainn is taken over by a battle rage known as his ‘warp spasm’ or ‘torque’. Its vivid descriptions, no doubt a delight to storytellers, driven to greater exaggerations, are worth citing.

‘The first Torque seized Cú Chulainn and turned him into a contorted thing, unrecognisably horrible and grotesque. Every slab and every sinew of him, joint and muscle, shuddered from head to foot like a tree in a storm or a reed in a stream. His body revolved furiously inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees jumped to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams to the front. The bunched sinews of his calves jumped to the front of his shins, bulging with knots the size of a warrior’s clenched fist. The ropes of his neck rippled from ear to nape in an immense, monstrous, incalculable knobs, each as big as the head of a month-old child.

Then he made a red cauldron of his face and features: he sucked one of his eyes so deep into his head that a wild crane would find it difficult to plumb the depths of his skull to drag that eye back to its socket; the other popped out on to his cheek. His mouth became a terrifying, twisted grin. His cheek peeled back from his jaws so you could see his lungs and liver flapping in his throat… The hero’s light sprang from his forehead… thick, steady, strong as the mast of a tall ship was the straight spout of dark blood that rose up from the fount of his skull to dissolve in an otherworldly mist…’

In his battle fury Cú Chulainn is described as warped and monstrous and these transformations may derive from his Formorian heritage. This is hinted at in a further passage: ‘Cú Chulainn torqued himself a hundredfold. He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant or a deep-sea merman’.

He also displays the ability to call up otherworldly spirits. His ‘roar of a hundred warriors’ is ‘echoed by the goblins and ghouls and sprites of the glen and the fiends of the air, for their howls would resound before him, above him, and around him any time he shed the blood of warriors and heroes’. ‘The clouds that boiled above him in his fury glimmered and flickered with malignant flares and sultry smoke – the torches of the Badb.’ This puts us in mind of the Scream over Annwn.

Even when he displays his ‘true beauty’ he is otherworldly with his hair in three layers, dark, blood-red and yellow, ‘four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, blue and purple. Seven brilliant gems gleamed in each regal eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails or claws or talons of each with the grip of a hawk or griffin… He held nine human heads in one hand, ten in the other’.

Sétanta/Cú Chulainn is depicted a monstrous reaper of men and as a hunter of heads. Head-hunting was common amongst the Celtic peoples, particularly the Setantii, which is evidenced by the large number of severed heads ritually buried across their territories. It has been noted, whilst there is an absence of chariot burials in Ireland, there are many in northern Britain. So there is, at least, an argument that this otherworldly figure, like a giant or merman, originates from the people who once occupied the drowned lands between Britain and Ireland and may have been a Setantian god or hero.

The Tragedies of Cú Chulainn

Amidst the relentless violence endemic to a warrior culture whose greatest aim was winning everlasting fame through battle prowess we find some moving scenes based around Cú Chulainn’s relationships. When Cú Chulainn is badly wounded during his battle against the armies of Connacht his otherworld father, Lug, appears to fight his battle for three nights and days whilst he heals.

Tragically Cú Chulainn kills his son by Aife because he does not know who he is until he sees his ring. In an equally tragic scene Cú Chulainn faces and kills his foster-brother who was also possibly his lover, Fer Diad, with whom he trained with Scáthach. Their relationship is described in poignant verse:

Two hearts that beat as one,
we were comrades in the woods,
men who shared a bed
and the same deep sleep
after heavy fighting
in strange territories.
Apprentices of Scáthach,
we would ride out together
to explore the dark woods.

After many days of battle with various weapons Cú Chulainn puts an end to Fer Diad with the gae bolga.

His lament is heart wrenching:

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
I wounded and dripping with gore,
your chariot standing empty.

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
I leak blood from every pore
and you lie dead forever.

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
you dead, I bursting with life.
Courage has a brutal core.

It puts me in mind of the lines spoken by Gwyn, our British death-god and gatherer of souls, who is doomed to live on whilst the warriors of Britain perish in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2), which perhaps speaks of a shared origin to these poems.

Cú Chulainn’s love life also contains tragedy. His main lover is Emer but their relationship is put into jeopardy when Cú Chulainn goes to hunt her one of two magical birds ‘coupled with a red-gold chain’. He shoots but does not kill one. They turn out to be fairy women and, when he falls asleep against a stone, they take revenge by beating him with horsewhips until ‘there is no life left in him’.

He takes to his sick bed for a year and learns the only cure is to help one of them, Fand, to battle against her enemies. They fall in love and sleep together yet she is the wife of the sea-god, Manannan. Cú Chulainn returns to Emer but both are heart-broken. Cú Chulainn wanders the mountains neither sleeping nor drinking (3) until Manannan shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand so she is forgotten.

Cú Chulainn’s death is fittingly tragic. His old enemy, Queen Medb of Connacht conspires to kill him with the sons of her enemies. He is tricked into breaking his geis of not eating the meat of his sacred animal, the dog, and by this he is weakened. He is killed by Lugaid, the son of Cú Roí, another otherworldy figure with whom he battles and defeats to win a maiden called Blathnat (4).

With a magical spear destined to kill three ‘kings’, Lugaid kills Láeg, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, Liath Macha, Cú Chulainn’s horse and finally Cú Chulainn himself. Mortally wounded, Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone so he can die on his feet facing his enemies. They remain afraid of him even after his death, not daring to approach until a raven lands on his shoulder. This symbolises he has been beaten by the only opponent worthy of defeating him, the death goddess, the Morrigan (5).

A Hero of the Setantii?

Here I have provided only glimpses into the rich mythos surrounding Sétanta/Cú Chulainn: his birth and dual paternity, his naming as Culann’s Hound, his training with Scáthach, his feats as a warrior, his love life (which features a number of women and possibly a man), and his death.

As we have seen, these stories are now firmly embedded within the Irish landscape. However, we know that many centuries ago Britain and Ireland were near joined together and that the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Children of Don, share many similarities. Nodens/Nuada, the king of the gods, was worshipped on the Lancashire coast and his son, Gwyn, might have conversed here with Gwyddno. Lug(us) was the patron god of Carlisle (Luguvalium) further north. If he was venerated here it would make sense his son, Sétanta/Setantios, was also viewed also an important deity or hero.

The evidence suggests there is at least a possibility the stories of Sétanta originated from the lost lands off the coast of Lancashire where gods and giants gave birth to monsters, that this monstrous and beguiling head-reaping hero was one of the deities of the Setantii, the reapers of men.

(1) After Macha raced against the horses of the king of Ulster and won she gave birth and screamed that for five days and four nights any man who heard her would be afflicted by her labour pains. She then died. Her curse was passed on for nine generations. Macha’s name was given to Emain Macha.
(2) I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the north;
I live on, they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the south;
I live on, they are dead.
(3) His state resembles geilt/wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’ in the Welsh and Irish myths where we find Suibhne Geilt and Myrddin Wyllt taking on bird transformations and Cynedyr Wyllt ‘nine times wilder than the wildest beast on the mountain’.
(4) ‘The contention of Corroi and Cocholyn’ (Cú Roí and Cú Chulainn) is referred to in the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Death Song of Corroi’ in The Book of Taliesin and the beheading game Cú Chulainn plays with Cú Roí perhaps depicts a conflict with the Head of the Otherworld, here known as Gwyn.
(5) The Morrigan appears earlier in the stories as young prophet then fights against him as an eel, a she-wolf, and a hornless red heifer. After the battle she tricks him into healing her when she appears as a one-eyed hag milking a cow with three teats by drinking from each which heals her three wounds.

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra, and Pen-Y-Ghent, Northern History, XLII: 1, (University of Leeds, 2006)
Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008)
Eoin Mac Neill, Varia. I, Eriu, Vol. 11, (Royal Irish Academy 1932)
Greg Hill, (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Jeffrey Ganz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, (Penguin, 1981)
John Rhys, Celtic and Manx Folklore: Volume One, (Project Gutenberg, 2017)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

With thanks to Wikipedia for the images of Cú Chulainn. The photographs of the former site of Portus Setantiorum near the mouth of the river Wyre and the coast from Rossall Point where the remnants of the forest have been seen are my own.

2. The Hamper of Gwyddno

‘The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank: Food for one man would be put in it, and when it was opened, food for a hundred men would be found in it.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I.
After the picnic I’m left to clear up the mess:
hundreds of crisp packets,
chocolate wrappers,
beer cans

mixed with debris
washed up on the beach
where it’s said Gwyddno kept
a hamper that would feed one hundred men.

Some say it was a basket others a fish weir.
In it he found a shiny-browed bard.
“I’m no good to eat,”
said Taliesin.

He slipped away
like a gingerbread child.
As I pick through the bin bags
shiny black and squishy as basking seals

my litter pickers clamp onto a tiny skull
like forceps and pull the foetus out
shrivelled by sea water
still kicking.

“Not food,”
he says, “but a poet!
Those idiots threw me away.
A nation starved of poetry will ever hunger!”

II.
A man with long legs and a piercing beak
walks the tidal brink footprints fading
as soil trickles away like sand
through an hourglass.

He will take the hamper on crane-wings
into a sunset red as his crown,
black legs spelling out
our fate.

~

The Hamper of Gwyddno

~

Gwyddno Garanhir ‘Long-Legged Crane’ lived during the 6th century. He is the son of Cawdraf and thus part of the Macsen Wledig lineage*. He is associated with ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’ one of the ‘Three Chief Ports of the Island of Britain’. I believe this was Portus Setantiorum, the lost port of the Setantii, which lies north of Fleetwood in Lancashire. Its flooding in 574 may have given rise to the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen where Gwyddno berates Seithenin and Mererid for failing to close the flood gates. This legend is more famously set in Borth and Conwy in Wales.

Gwyddno also appears in ‘The Story of Taliesin’. His land and horses are poisoned when Gwion mistakenly imbibes the Awen thus shattering Ceridwen’s cauldron. Gwion, reborn from Ceridwen’s womb as Taliesin, is found in ‘a coracle or hide-covered basket’ in Gwyddno’s fish weir, which is famed for yielding ten pounds of salmon every Nos Galan Gaeaf. This story is located in Conwy but, as the earliest poems attributed to the historical Taliesin are in praise of the northern warlord, Urien Rheged, it seems likely there were northern variants.

Hampers were introduced to Britain from France in the Norman period by William the Conqueror. As mwys means both ‘hamper’ and basket’ in Welsh and the ancients Britons were renowned for their skill at weaving wicker baskets, I believe it was a beautifully crafted basket. It’s also possible ‘hamper’ was a metaphor for Gwyddno’s abundant fish weir or fertile farmlands before they were drowned.

Getting Gwyddno’s Hamper is amongst the forty impossible tasks Culhwch must fulfil for Ysbaddaden. The giants says: ‘If the whole world were to gather around it, three nines at a time, everyone would find the food that he wanted in it, just to his liking. I want to eat from that the night my daughter sleeps with you. He will not give it willingly to any one, nor can you force him.’ Unfortunately we do not find out how or if Culhwch gets the Hamper. Its magical property is suggestive of Otherworld origins.

Gwyddno’s epithet (garan means ‘crane’ and hir ‘long’) connects him with cranes who, with their black, white, and red colouring, and intricate dance-steps and flight patterns have long-standing associations with Annwn. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn appears to escort Gwyddno back to his realm. I’ve always pictured Gwyddno departing as a crane and flying to the Island of the Dancing Cranes where fish is ever plentiful and from where the basket (woven by a crane-woman?) might have originated.

*According to some versions of Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd. Other genealogies differ.

~

SOURCES

Gilbert J. French, ‘On the Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol. 15
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
The History of the Hamper from 1066 to 2016’, Regency Hampers
Mwys’, Geriadur Pryfysgol Cymru

Riddles and Howling Monks

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn, after Taliesin has finished narrating Arthur’s raid, he continues to mock the monks (earlier referred to as ‘pathetic men’) because they do not know the answers to certain riddles.

The opening ‘Myneich dychnut val cunin cor / o gyfranc udyd ae gwidanhor’ has been translated ‘Monks congregate like a pack of dogs / because of the clash between masters who know’ and ‘Monks howl like a choir of dogs / from an encounter with lords who know’.

Dychnut may derive from cnut ‘pack of hounds, wolves’ or *dychnudo, an archaism meaning ‘howl’. Cun means ‘pack of dogs’ or ‘lord’. The primary meaning of cor is ‘choir’, but it is also used to refer to groups such as ‘a host of angels’ or ‘a company of bards’. Côr bytheiaid and côr hela  both mean ‘kennel or pack of hounds’. Udyd may be the plural of ud ‘lord’ or relate to udaw ‘howl’.

In these ambiguous, carefully chosen words, dogs/wolves, choirs, lords and howling are cleverly and intricately linked. These intricate connections are unfortunately not conveyed by the English language.

Within Welsh tradition numerous divine ‘lords’ are associated with hounds: Cunomaglus ‘Hound Lord’; Cunobelinus ‘Hound of Belinus’; Nudd who Taliesin refers to as ‘the superior wolf lord’ and his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, who owns a hound called Dormach ‘Death’s Door’ and hunts with the Cwn Annwn. Another is Arawn who, like Gwyn, is a ruler of Annwn and associated with white, red-eared Annuvian hounds. It seems possible Taliesin is comparing the howling monks with their howling hounds.

Cyfranc means ‘clash, contention’ or ‘tale, story’. This brings to mind Taliesin’s clash with the bards of Maelgwn in The Story of Taliesin. Taliesin enters this contest to rescue his master, Elphin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, from Maelgwn’s imprisonment.

Gwidanhor ‘one who knows’ (from gwybod ‘know’) shares a likeness with Gwyddno Garanhir ‘knowing one’. In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyddno converses with Gwyn and meets his hound, Dormach. Gwyn reminds Gwyddno that Dormach ‘was with Maelgwn’. These complex mythic intersections would have been in a medieval Welsh audience’s mind.

Taliesin claims the lords/masters  know, ‘Whether the wind (follows) a single path, whether the sea is all one water, / whether fire – an unstoppable force is all one spark’. In The Story of Taliesin, Taliesin wins the contest with a series of poems including an extended riddle about the wind. He is claiming knowledge of the elements Maelgwn’s bards do not possess.

Taliesin counts himself amongst the ‘knowing ones’ initiated into the mysteries of the universe alongside lords/masters such as Gwyddno and Gwyn. The howling of the monks parodies their otherworldly company.

The next verse continues in a similar vein:

‘Monks congregate like wolves
because of the clash between masters who know.
They (the monks) don’t know how the darkness and light divide,
(nor) the wind’s course, its onrush,
what place it devastates, what land it strikes,
how many saints are in the void, and how many altars.’

The reference to the monks’ lack of knowledge of where darkness and light divide echoes preceding verses where Taliesin mocks them for not knowing the divisions of time nor when Pen Annwn ‘Head of Annwn’ was conceived or born. These questions are intrinsically linked as Pen Annwn is associated with the transitions between night and day, the seasons and the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The line referring to saints and altars being ‘in the void’ is intriguing. This may relate back to the transitional period between paganism and Christianity when the links between Annwn and the dead were severed and Annwn was re-construed as a hellish (hot, cold or empty) place.

In the final lines Taliesin says, ‘I praise the Lord, the great Ruler: / may I not endure sadness: Christ will reward me.’ The ending is undeniably Christian yet in Pendefic mawr, ‘great Ruler’ we find traces of a most un-Christian lord: Pen Annwn.

 So the end of the poem has been reached. Arthur and his men have raided Annwn and slammed its gate shut. As Taliesin returns to his chair in Caer Siddi we’re left contemplating a trail of destruction amongst the howling monks whose choir echoes the howling of the hounds of the Lord(s) of Annwn.

 ***

The monks howl.
We howl with them.
There is no turning back
to when Annwn was unspoilt
before the flashing sword
the stolen cauldron
and trail of death.

No turning back
only howling onwards
into the next chapter
the next myth…

P1170785 - Copy

*The translations of Preiddu Annwn ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ I have used are Marged Haycock’s from Legendary Poems of Taliesin and Sarah Higley’s HERE. With thanks to Heron for notes on cor from The University of Wales Dictionary.

Crane-Dance in the Labyrinth?

Over the past few months I’ve been involved with several of the work parties building a labyrinth for ‘fun, exploration and meditation’ at Brockholes Nature Reserve. It was designed by John Lamb (an archaeologist and Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Senior Conservation Officer) and opened on April the 23rd 2016.

During the period the labyrinth was being built, I was researching links between Gwyn ap Nudd as a ‘bull of battle’ and Gwyddno Garanhir (‘the Knowing One with Long/Crane Legs’) and Tarvos Trigaranus (‘The Bull with Three Cranes’).

Coincidentally I came across a ritual crane-dance in Greece called geranos initiated by Theseus after defeating the minotaur in the  labyrinth in Crete. Its blows and crane-like turns imitated the battle and the labyrinth’s winding course and the leader of the dance was known as geranoulkos. This got me wondering whether the name Gwyddno Garanhir may have been a title deriving from a similar role.

Crane-dances are found in many parts of the world. One of the most famous is the Japanese Shirasagi-no-mai ‘White Heron (‘Crane’) Dance’ which is one thousand years old and ‘was originally performed to drive out the plague and to purify the spirits on their passage to the next world.’ Cranes are also associated with the otherworld in Celtic mythology.

Shirasagi no mai (White heron dance) of Sensō-ji, Wikipedia Commons

Shirasagi-no-mai, Wikipedia Commons

Cranes are depicted accompanying the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology. They inhabit five islands in the Bohai Sea which include Mount Penglai. This is known as Horai by the Japanese. In both cultures it is a paradisal place with endless amounts of food and drink where nobody grows old. This is intriguing because Gwyddno is a sage-like figure.

Eight_Immortals_Crossing_the_Sea_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15250

Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, Wikipedia Commons

One of the earliest finds relating to a crane-dance is an 8,500 year old crane wing found on top of a cattle horn core in Çatalhöyük in ancient Anatolia. The crane bones were pierced by holes of a suitable size for string which suggests they were tied to the arms of a crane-dancer. Two black cranes are depicted on a painting on one of the walls facing a bull  on the opposite wall. A dance scene depicting a sacred marriage and mother and child may prove the dance focused on fertility and birth.

Dance of the Cranes John-Gordon Swogger

Dance of the Cranes by John-Gordon Swogger http://www.savingcranes.org

Crane-dances have many meanings across cultures. One theme that stands out is passage: from the trials of the labyrinth, from one world to the next on birth or death. Gwyn and Gwyddno’s conversation takes place upon Gwyddno’s passing from thisworld to Annwn, possibly in crane-form.

At Brockholes the closest likenesses to a bull (or minotaur!) with cranes are the long-horned cattle and numerous herons who can be seen on the river Ribble and lakes.

When I walked the labyrinth for the first time my intention was getting a feel for its path within the nature reserve between the car park and stone circle as skylarks loudened the summer sky and oystercatchers pipped overhead.

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I found myself pondering whether a geranoulkos would have used such a setting for a crane-dance and what the steps would have looked like at various rites. But I didn’t dance. I’ll leave that to those more agile with longer legs…

SOURCES

Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover, 1970)
Nerissa Russell & Kevin J. McGowan, ‘Dance of the Cranes: Crane Symbolism at Çatalhöyük and beyond’, (2003) HERE
‘Hypocherma’ (Geranos), Wikipedia HERE
‘White heron (“crane”) dance: Shirasagi-no-mai and heron symbolism’, Japanese Mythology and Folklore HERE

The Bull of Battle and the Great Horned Bull

Auroch Skull, the Harris Museum

Auroch Skull, Harris Museum, Preston

I. Bull of Battle: Tracing an Epithet

In the opening line of The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as tarv trin* ‘bull of battle.’ This has always struck me as a sacred title suitable for Gwyn (‘White’ ‘Blessed’) as a divine warrior-huntsman and psychopomp on an intuitive level. Tracing its origin has led to fascinating discoveries.

Gwyn is not the only one awarded this title. In The Gododdin, a poem from The Book of Aneirin which praises the exploits of the warriors who died in the catastrophic battle of Catraeth, Eithinyn is called tarw trin twice. Caradog and ‘a man of Gwynedd’ are referred to as tarw byddin ‘bull of an army’.

In The Triads we find Tri Tharw Unben ‘Three Bull-Chieftains’ and Tri Tharw Caduc ‘Three Bull-Protectors’. Amongst them are several famous warriors of the Old North: Cynfawr ap Cynwyd Cynwydion, Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Urien ap Cynfarch, Gwallog ap Lleenog and Afaon, son of Urien’s bard, Taliesin.

More strangely we find Tri Tharw Ellyll ‘Three Bull-Spectres’. Ellyll means ‘spirit, phantom, ghost,’ ‘goblin, elf’ or ‘wraith’ whilst gwyd ellyll refers to ‘furious activity in battle’ and is related to gwyllt ‘wild’ ‘mad’. ‘Bull-Spectres’ may be bull-epitheted warriors who went mad through battle-trauma or their ghosts.

These bull-epithets are more than poetic metaphors. Anne Ross says their underlying significance is ‘an especially apposite title for eminent warriors in a society which at one stage likened its tribal god, leader in war and protector of his people, to a great horned bull, possessing all the most impressive and desirable qualities of the animal.’

Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as ‘awesome / Leader of many’ and enters his protection. Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and recitation of the names of prominent warriors whose deaths he attended demonstrate his role as a psychopomp and tribal or ancestral deity.

If Gwyn is the ‘tribal god’ of the men whose souls he gathers and other bull-epitheted warriors, who is the ‘great horned bull’ to whom he is likened?

II. The Great Horned Bull

Cattle played a central role in Celtic society and bulls were highly valued for their virility and strength. Therefore it is surprising we do not have an equivalent of Deiotarus ‘Divine Bull’ or Donnotaurus ‘Lordly Bull’ in Britain.

However in Paris we find a sculpture named Tarvos Trigaranus (‘The Bull with Three Cranes’). He is depicted on ‘The Pillar of the Boatmen’ (1AD) thick-set, heavy-chested, with two cranes back-to-back on his back and a third crane on his head. He stands in front of a willow. On an adjacent panel Esus (‘Lord’) is pictured cutting a willow-branch.

Tarvos Trigaranus, Wikipedia Commons

Tarvos Trigaranus, Wikipedia Commons

On a similar monument from Triers on a single stone a man cuts down a tree with a bull’s head and three cranes or egrets in it. At Maiden Castle in Dorset a bronze bull with three horns carrying three female figures was found at a 4AD shrine and may have a basis in legends of shapeshifters who took the form of cranes.

This intrigues me because with Gwyn as a bull of battle we find Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Crane-Legs’). In a personal vision, after their conversation, Gwyddno took the form of a crane and flew to Annwn with his wife and mother who were also cranes. I saw a bull and three cranes before knowing anything about Tarvos Trigaranus.

Miranda Green suggests a naturalistic explanation for the Bull with Three Cranes: ‘egrets and cattle are symbiotically linked in that the birds feed on tics and other pests which infest the hides of the cattle.’ The cattle egret is variously named ‘cow crane’, ‘cow bird’, ‘cow heron’, ‘father of ticks’ and performs this role. Could an egret picking tics from a bull’s back be the source?

Cattle egrets are native to Africa, Spain and Portugal and only spread to northern France in 1981 and Britain in 2007 so it appears this is not the case. Cranes migrate from Sweden through Germany and France to Spain and Mexico but their stops are only temporary and wouldn’t explain a long-term link with local cattle.

Although cattle egrets have only just arrived in Britain, lasting relationships exist between longhorned cattle and wetland birds. English Longhorns originate from Craven and were popular before Holstein Friesians were imported in the 19th C. They are currently being revived as ‘wetland lawnmowers’ at nature reserves because their grazing of long grasses leaves tufts for wildfowl to feed on and hollows left by their hooves are used by nesting lapwings and redshanks.

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Longhorned Cow, Brockholes Nature Reserve

It seems possible such relations date back two thousand years to when aurochs existed alongside wetland birds. Paris’s ancient name was Lutetia (‘marsh’). The image of the ‘great horned bull’ Tarvos Trigaranus was no doubt born from Lutetia’s landscape and inhabitants.

III. The Sacrificial Bull

Auroch bulls could stand two metres high at the shoulder and weigh 1000kg. In his Gallic Wars (48-49BC), Julius Caesar describes an aurochs as ‘a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull.’ These mighty beasts were prized prey for hunters and sadly hunted to extinction in Britain in the Iron Age.

The hunting and killing of an aurochs-like bull is depicted in the bottom of the Gundestrup Cauldron. A hunter or huntress aided by three hounds prepares its slaughter with a blade. Cleverly this death-scene is also one of regeneration. The dead bull lies in a near foetal position surrounded by foliage. On a separate panel three bulls are killed by three hunters accompanied by hounds above and beneath.

'The Bull Fight' National Museum of Denmark

‘The Bull Fight’ National Museum of Denmaek

A sculpture of a sacrificial bull in the same position is found in Paris. On two altars from Alpraham near Chester we find the same bull sculpture and a hound with a close resemblance to one of the three in the bottom of the Gundestrup Cauldron.

We possess several written records of bull sacrifices. Pliny’s Natural History (1AD) refers to a complex Druidic healing ceremony in Gaul where a white-robed Druid climbs a tree and cuts mistletoe with a golden sickle on the sixth day of the moon. Afterward two white bulls ‘whose horns are bound for the first time’ are sacrificed with prayers to an unnamed god. This is followed by ritual feasting.

In Tara the way of selecting a new king was through a tarbhfhess (‘bull feast’). A bull was slaughtered then a medium ate its meat and drank its broth. Four Druids chanted a truth-spell whilst he slept and received a vision of the king. A trace of similar rites in Britain is found in Rhonabwy’s Dream where Rhonabwy experiences a prophetic vision sleeping on an ox-hide.

Stories of bull sacrifices are supported by archaeological evidence. At the war sanctuary of Gournay-sur-Aronde, cattle (including bulls) were led to a pit, killed by a single blow to the nape of the neck then left to decompose; their blood and rotting flesh feeding the earth and underworld deities. Broken weapons were piled in pits surrounding the dead animal.

Afterward the cattle bones were separated. The heads were removed and stored whilst the neck, shoulder and spine were deposited in ditches either side of the entrance with the weapons. About 3,000 bones and 2,000 bent and broken weapons were found. This provides clear evidence of associations between bulls, battle and the underworld gods.

In Britain a complete bull was found interred in a subterranean Cambridge shrine which may have been a sacrifice to the chthonic deities. A West Yorkshire chariot burial surrounded by bones from 300 cattle is suggestive of ritual feasting taking place over hundreds of years. At Maiden Castle human burials were discovered with joints of beef.

This accumulation of evidence shows the importance of the bull as a sacrificial animal whose flesh was deemed incredibly sacred as food for humans and the gods. The sacrifice of a bull would have been a considerable cost for a community. From it powerful magic stemmed for healing, prophecy and war.

IV. Magical Bulls and the Underworld

A pair of magical bulls: Finnbennach (‘White-horned of Connacht’) and Donn Cúailnge (‘Brown Bull of Cooley’) appear in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’) and fight to their deaths at the end. These bulls were originally divine herdsmen and also took the forms of ‘ravens, stags, champions, water-beasts, demons and water-worms.’

Their capacity to shift shape suggests they were theriomorphic bull deities and progenitors and protectors of their herd (which may be extended metaphorically to people). Donn Cúailnge bears resemblances to Donnotaurus ‘Lordly Bull’ whereas Finnbennach may be connected to the special white cattle sacrificed by the Gaulish Druids.

In Culhwch and Olwen, the impossible tasks fulfilled by Arthur and his men for Culhwch include the capture and yoking together of three pairs of legendary oxen: ‘two oxen of Gwylwlydd Winau’, ‘the Melyn Gwanwyn (‘The one of the yellow of spring’) and the Ych Brych (‘Brindled Ox’)’ and ‘Two horned oxen… Nyniaw and Peibiaw.’

Nyniaw and Peibiaw are the sons of Erb, King of Archenfield, ‘whom God transformed into oxen for their sins.’ I suspect this is a Christian overlay for divine herdsmen who defied the boundaries of man and ox like Finnbennach and Donn Cúailnge.

In Culhwch and Olwen it is not explained how the Brindled Ox is captured or where from. This may be derived from his appearance in The Spoils of Annwn at Caer Fanddwy (‘Fortress of God’s Peak’). Along with seven other Caers, Caer Fanddwy is located in Annwn. The Brindled Ox is described: ‘thick his headband / Seven score links / on his collar’.

The headband gives him a human-like apparel and puts me in mind of Anne Ross’s description of bronze heads on Bronze and Iron Age bucket mounts. One has a ‘hair-line defined by means of a narrow, notched band.’ Human heads with bull’s horns and birds emerging from bull’s heads appear together and are suggestive of shapeshifting bull deities. Such ancient iconography may lie behind the Brindled Ox.

In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn speaks of his sorrow at witnessing battle at Caer Fanddwy: ‘a host / Shields shattered, spears broken, / Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’ It seems likely Gwyn refers to the struggle between Arthur and the people of Annwn for the Brindled Ox and this is how he was captured. Of Arthur’s side ‘except seven / none rose up.’

I believe it is no coincidence Gwyn, a bull of battle and ruler of Annwn, is present at the capture of the Brindled Ox. The Chief of Annwn is a central figure in The Spoils of Annwn and Gwyn is a potential candidate for this title. The Chief of Annwn possesses a magical cauldron. This could well be connected with a bull sacrifice and feast.

V. Fairy Kine

The notion cattle come from the underworld is deeply ingrained in the lore of Ireland and Wales. In Cruachan, King Conn steals cattle from the Sidhe then covers his land with magical snow. To melt the snow, the Sidhe kill three hundred white cows with red ears and spread their livers across the plains. For this reason, Magh Ai is called ‘The Plain of Livers’.

Here we find white cows with red ears belonging to the Sidhe (‘fairies’) which presumably come from the Sidhe (‘mounds’). A shining white coat and red ears are traditional significators of otherworldly origins.

Several Welsh stories refer to Gwartheg y Llyn (‘Kine of the Lake’) watched over by divine herdswomen called Gwragedd Annwn (‘Wives of the Underworld’). Wirt Sikes says their favourite haunts are ‘lakes and rivers… especially the wild and lonely lakes upon the mountain heights’ which ‘serve as avenues of communication between this world and the lower one of Annwn, the shadowy domain presided over by Gwyn ap Nudd.’

Cairn adjacent to Llyn Barfog, geograph.org.uk, by andy, Wikimedia Commons

‘Cairn adjacent to Llyn Barfog’, geograph.co.uk, by Andy, Wikipedia Commons

Gwragedd Annwn were rumoured to appear at dusk close to Llyn Barfog, in the hills behind Aberdovey, clad in green with hounds and ‘beautiful milk white kine’. When one of these cows strayed, falling in love with cattle from a thisworldly herd, a farmer managed to catch her. She produced calves, milk, butter and cheese like none seen in Wales.

Unfortunately the farmer decided to fatten her up to eat. Once she was fatter than the fattest cow he’d ever seen he called for the butcher. As the butcher raised his ‘red right arm’ and ‘struck fair and hard between the eyes’ with his bludgeon the blow went straight through the cow’s ‘goblin head’ raising a deafening shriek and knocking over nine men. A green Graig appeared on a crag above the lake crying:

‘Dere di felen Emion,
Cyrn Cyfeiliorn-braith y Llyn,
A’r foci Dodin,
Codwch, dewch adre.

Come yellow Anvil, stray horns,
Speckled one of the lake,
And of the hornless Dodlin,
Arise, come home.’

The milk white cow returned with all her progeny, leaving only one cow who turned from white to black. This legend explains the origin of Welsh black cattle.

VI. White Park Cattle

Historical records exist of payments of ‘real’ white cows with red ears. An Irish law tract states the penalty for satirising King Cernodon of Ulster included ‘seven white cows with red ears’.

In Wales The Laws of Hywel Dda (10th C) determined fines by numbers of colour-pointed cattle. The honour price for an insult to the King of Aberffraw was ‘100 cows for each cantref (‘hundred town’) in his dominion; a white bull with red ears for every hundred cows.’

The Lord of Dinefwr’s honour price was ‘as many white cattle with red ears that will extend, the head of the one to the tail of the other from Argoel to the palace of Dinefwr, with a bull of the same colour for every score.’ The Welsh sent 400 white colour-pointed cows and a bull to King John (who reigned 1199 – 1216AD) in a failed attempt at appeasement.

A fascinating fact that emerged from my research is that white cattle with red ears really existed and are still with us in Britain today. On Dinefwr Park in Carmarthenshire, Cadzow in Lanarkshire and Chartley in Staffordshire herds of White Park cattle are thriving. They are white and ‘have a pigmented skin with red or black ears, eyelids, muzzle, feat and teats. Sometimes there are freckles on the face, neck or shoulders. Sometimes the tail switch is white.’

White Park cow with calf on Hambledon Hill 1 Marilyn Peddle,  flickr.com. Wikipedia Commons

White Park cow with calf on Hambledon Hill 1, Marilyn Peddle, flickr.com, Wikipedia Commons

White Parks could be the source of the laws and earlier stories about white bulls and fairy kine. They even carry a recessive gene resulting in black calves which could explain the remaining black cow in the story from Llyn Barfog. Although scholars have speculated they were brought by the Romans, genetic research has proved this is not true. These Ancient British cattle could come from the underworld.

VII. The Bull and the Portal

In September 2012, Gwyn appeared to me as a bull of battle: a white warrior in a bull-horned helmet stepping with spear and shield straight out of 6th C Wales into 21st C Preston to gift me the imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands.’ Now my book is complete I’m being led through the portal opened on that day to explore the connections between the modern world and ‘Heroic Age’.

The image of Gwyn in the numinous prophetic aegis of tarv trin emerged from a Brythonic society not only at war with the Anglo-Saxons but plagued by bloody internecine warfare between its rulers. Gwyn served as a psychopomp to the Men of the North and the death of an era.

1500 years on thankfully wars between rival kingdoms in Britain are at an end. However we still face battle and conflict in relation to environmental and political issues.

Gwyn appears again in the Old North calling me to enter Annwn, learn to shift shape like his herdsmen and women. To seek the friendship of a great horned bull with horns of willow filled with singing birds, an island of dancing cranes, stampedes of wild white red-eared cattle careering from lakes stopping traffic on country lanes. To return with horns and hair full of birds and twigs to speak visions of hope for a new world alongside the marsh and the gods of the deep.

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*The change in spelling from tarv to tarw results from the transition between Old and Middle Welsh. Tarv would have been pronounced ‘tarb’ whilst tarw is ‘tar-oo’. The shift from tarw to tharw is caused by the spirant mutation. Many thanks to Heron for this information and help with understanding Jarman’s translations in The Gododdin.

SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Anne Ross & Don Robins, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, (Touchstone, 1991)
Heron (transl), Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir (2015)
Janet Vorwald Dohner, The Encyclopedia of Endangered and Historic Lifestock and Poultry Breeds, (Yale University Press, 2002)
Jean Sprackland, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, (Vintage, 2013)
Lady Augusta Gregory (transl), Cuchulain of Muirthemne, (Sacred Texts, 1902)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (Routledge, 1998)
Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)
Peter Thomas Ellis, Welsh Law and Custom in the Middle Ages, (University of Bristol)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Rachel Bromwich and Simon D. Evans (eds), Culhwch and Olwen, (University of Wales, 1998)
Sarah Higley (transl), Preiddu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn, (The Camelot Project, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (Oxford University Press, 1969)
W.A.McDevitte & W.S.Bohn (transl.), Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, (Sacred Texts, 1859)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (Lightning Source, 1880)

Thirteen calves born at WWT Martin Mere‘, Wetland and Wildfowl Trust
Ancient chariot burial excites experts‘, BBC News
The famous white cattle of Carmarthenshire’s Dinefwr’ Park‘, Wales Online

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.

Crane-Dance and Sunshine

P1130306A card which keeps recurring in my readings (I mainly use The Wildwood Tarot) is ‘The Three of Vessels: Joy’. It features two common cranes dancing and a third spreading its wings, rising into flight with three vessels; white, green and gold. Its meaning is welcoming ‘new life or good fortune’, ‘celebration within a communal group or family’ and ‘successful return after migration’. The reading points state it’s about being able to give ourselves permission to experience ‘authentic joy’ as a ‘gift from the universe’.

At the beginning of the year after completing my first publication: Enchanting the Shadowlands and dedicating it to him, Gwyn ap Nudd advised me to ‘find my sun’. Interpreting this as finding a calling I enjoyed, I balked. Although intuitively I knew continuing to serve Gwyn as an awenydd by recovering his neglected stories and their associations with the British landscape was a source of joy, I couldn’t believe in it.

There were too many awful things happening in the world. Too many other people stuck in meaningless jobs for me to deserve the liberty to follow my joy. So I ignored Gwyn’s advice, took an admin job and tried to force myself into the political sphere: areas antithetical to my natural disposition as an intuitive thinker and poet. Unsurprisingly, I had a thoroughly miserable time.

The event that broke my misery was a holiday to Wales where I experienced the enormity of Cadair Idris and, after reading Heron’s translation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ on Borth beach, witnessed the otherworld appearing across the sea at sunset: a gift from Gwyddno’s lands and from Gwyn, a King of Annwn. This led me to write a story based on the ancient Welsh poem called ‘The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir.’

During my research I found out whilst Garanhir is usually translated as ‘longshanks’, ‘garan’ means ‘crane’ in Welsh and could refer to ‘crane-legs’. That’s how Gwyddno appeared to me: an old man, grey-faced, crane-legged, picking his way along the misted edge of Borth Beach. He had lost his memory. This was because the cranes were gone with their elegant black legs whose dancing alphabet spelled the forgotten names of his kindred.

Cranes became extinct in Britain during the 17th C due to shooting and the draining of wetlands. I’m not sure when the last crane was sighted in the precincts of Maes Gwyddno ‘The Land of Gwyddno’. According to local legend, Cantre’r Gwaelod ‘the Bottom Hundred’ was drowned after the flood gates of Gwyddno’s fort were left open after Seithenin’s seduction of Mererid.

Boddi Maes Gwyddno ‘The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno’ is set in the 6th century but could have its roots in sightings of an ancient, submerged forest on Borth beach. Whenever it happened, it seems a flood devastated lowland plains, areas of woodland and the homes of a human community. A haunting story tells of church bells ringing beneath the sea. I imagine the flood-waters drowned coastal wetlands and the nesting places of numerous wildfowl too.

Another tale linked with the area is Hanes Taliesin ‘The Story of Taliesin’. After Gwion Bach spilled three drops of Ceridwen’s brew on his finger and imbibed the Awen, the cauldron shattered and its toxic contents spilled across the land and poisoned Gwyddno’s horses. Today this conjures images of large-scale industrial tragedies such as the Gold King Mine Disaster in Colorado in August this year where three millions gallons of waste water flooded into the Animas.

This may not be far from the ‘truth’ as lead mining took place in the hills close to Cors Fochno ‘Borth Bog’ and lead smelting at Taliesin, Llangynfelyn and Ynys Capel during the Roman period. A medieval wooden walkway connecting these sites has recently been discovered. Perhaps an industrial disaster poisoning streams and wildlife gave rise to this tale? (On a happier note, wild ponies can be seen grazing safely near Cors Fochno in the present-day.)

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Both ‘Dark Age’ tales may be related to the disappearance of cranes from Maes Gwyddno. A story which has not made its way into legend is the draining and enclosure of Cors Fochno. This began in 1813 and reduced its area of 24 square kilometres to 7 square kilometres (now protected as an SSSI). Whilst this took place too late to be cited as a cause of the disappearance of cranes from Cors Fochno it would have decimated other wetland species.

***

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Wikipedia Commons

The extinction of common cranes forms an incredibly sad marker in British history. These striking birds with their grey body- feathers, black and white necks and unique red crowns are renowned for the choreography of their elaborate ballet-like courtship-dance which involves a complex sequence of bobs, bows, crouches, coils, spins, leaps, pirouettes and calls.

After mating, both parents care for and fiercely protect their eggs which are laid in May and hatch 30 days later. After 5-6 weeks the parents go through a post-breeding molt which renders them unable to fly. Their offspring are ready to fly at 9 weeks. It seems possible the precarious 3 week period when none of the family can take off played a part in the demise of common cranes.

As well as being an irreplaceable part of the natural world, cranes are deeply embedded in Celtic and Romano-Celtic culture and mythology. The most famous example is Tarvostrigaranus ‘the Bull with Three Cranes’ from a 1st C Parisian monument. In Dorset, a statue of a three-horned bull with three female figures on his back was found in a 4th C shrine. These seem related through lore about women shapeshifting into cranes. In Risingham, Northumberland, a Gaulish slab depicts Victory with a crane beneath her and Mars accompanied by a goose.

Whilst crane stories in Brythonic tradition seem lacking, I found cranes play a central role in Irish mythology. In light of my devotion to Gwyn I was delighted to find several stories connecting his Irish counterpart, Finn, with cranes. In ‘Bairne Mor’ whilst Finn is a young child, his father, Cumhall, is slain in battle. Finn is thrown over a cliff and caught by his grandmother in the form of a crane.

In ‘Cailleach an Teampuill’, Finn encounters the Cailleach as ‘the Hag of the Temple’ with four sons who appear as cranes. They are associated with death and will only ’emerge as warriors’ if they receive a drop of blood from the skull of the Connra Bull (who is owned by the Cailleach).

Finn also comes into custodianship of a crane-bag which belonged to his father. The story of its origin is fascinating. The crane-bag first belonged to Manannan Mac Lir and contained his treasures. It is made from the skin of a crane who was originally a woman called Aoife. Aoife was transformed into a crane by Iuchra; a jealous female rival for the love of a man. In modern Druidry, the crane-bag is associated with the ogham alphabet and used to carry magical tools.

When I wrote my story, the only part of this complex web of correspondences I knew of was the connection of the crane-bag with letters. Considering the relationship between cranes and female shapeshifters, looking back, it’s intriguing I was guided by an impulse to relate Gwyddno’s regaining of his crane-knowledge to memories of his mother.

Gwyddno’s recollections of his identity and ancestry took place under the auspices of Gwyn’s protection as a psychopomp. It is my belief the dialogue is set between worlds after Gwyddno’s death. Because Gwyddno lost his memory before he died he was unable to find his way to Annwn. Thus Gwyn appeared with his dog, Dormach, to help him regain his memory and ancestral connections and aid his crossing.

In my story, after Gwyn helped Gwyddno re-gain his ‘inner crane-knowing’, Gwyddno saw the arrival of his family, including his grandmother and his wife Ystradwen as a flock of cranes. Finally he took crane-form, was united with them and flew to Annwn as it appeared across the sea by the light of the setting sun.

Thus, for me, the three cranes on ‘The Three of Vessels: Joy’ could represent Gwyddno and Ystradwen dancing watched over by Gwyddno’s mother with Gwyn’s presence represented by the misty background. The three vessels seem linked to the three drops of Awen, which had led to the poisoning of the landscape, recovered and contained.

Another interesting coincidence is that Gwyn appears to Gwyddno as a ‘bull of battle’: a sacred title referring to his status as a psychopomp. In the dialogue I picture him as a white warrior wearing a bull-horned helmet. Could there be a link to the magical power of Tarvostrigaranus and / or the Cailleach’s bull? If so my story inverts the transformation of the Cailleach’s sons as Gwyddno shifts from king and warrior into crane-form.

Another piece of Irish lore worth mentioning is that three cranes guard the sidh (mound and otherworld entrance) of Midir. Their calls have the capacity to ‘unman’ warriors and if a crane is seen before battle this is taken as an ill omen. I’ve also read three cranes act as guardians of Annwn. Although I haven’t found a scholarly reference for this yet, it would fit with my suggested crane-trio and Gwyn as a King of Annwn.

***

Whilst writing my story, I was excited to find out common cranes are returning from ‘extinction’ in Britain. In 1979 common cranes arrived at Horsey on the Norfolk Broads. Their survival was made possible by the custodianship and management of ‘Crane Country’ by John Buxton and his team of wardens.

In 2010 ‘The Great Crane Project’ was established and is ongoing. At the WWT Centre in Slimbridge, crane eggs from Germany are incubated and hatched then the chicks are hand-reared and released; mainly on the Somerset levels and also in South Wales, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and East Somerset.

Although over a dozen pairs have established territories and bred, this is the first year chicks have matured to the age of taking flight. In August not only one or two but three young cranes (two in Somerset and one at Slimbridge) took flight for the first time. The trio have all been named Peter after the RSPB’s Peter Newbery who was a driving force behind the project and sadly passed away before he saw the young cranes fly.

A couple of weeks ago, Brian Taylor (who I have been conversing with for a while about soul-birds amongst other topics) mentioned a pair of Eurasian cranes in the ‘wildfowl garden’ of the WWT Centre at Martin Mere. I’d been planning to go to see the Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans so visited with my friend, Peter Dillon.

From a distance, I was struck by the Eurasian cranes’ presence and the dramatic change in their appearance from when they crouched and raised themselves to full height. After spending a short while with them, I walked to the other side of their pen. Both turned from a crouched, coiled, position in synchrony, pirouetted then approached. Seeing them perform a simple movement with such grace in captivity I can only imagine their courtship dance in the wild.

Seeing cranes face to face was a source of joy as was re-imagining the dialogue of Gwyn and Gwyddno. During the process I had an overwhelming gnosis of the significance of Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp, the great service he performs for the dead and his promise of blissful re-union with the depths of nature (Annwn) and one’s ancestors in the afterlife.

In Welsh folklore the hounds who help Gwyn gather the souls of the dead are called Cwn Annwn: ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’. Their barking is identified with noisy nocturnal flights of geese. The hounds in Lancashire folklore who perform this role are Gabriel Ratchets and their baying is also connected with droves of geese and wild swans.

In Wales and Lancashire to hear swans or geese flying over at night is a portent of death. During the day at Martin Mere hearing the calls of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese on the lakes and overhead filled me with great joy: in their presence and a sense of knowing like them one day I would be going ‘home’ to a land far away.

Looking out from the Ron Barker Hide across wetlands lit by magical rays of sunshine as flights of geese and swans arrived and departed I realised in Gwyn, his stories and their revelation within this remarkable landscape I had found my joy, my Awen: my sun.

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I perceive parallels between the return of cranes and the re-emergence of the stories of the old gods and ancestral animals of Britain. Such returns don’t happen on their own or without people dedicated to making them happen. Thus I see my vocation as an awenydd to Gwyn and the spirits of the land not only as a source of joy for myself but hope for future generations. I’ve found my sun and finally accept its gifts.

***

SOURCES

AlainaFae and Cliareach Filleadh, ‘Crane’s Cauldron / Brigid’s Cross
AlainaFae and Cliareach Filleadh ‘Artistic Creation Exploration: Corr Teanga
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (Routledge, 1992)
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Waterlife, 194, Oct / Dec 2015
The Great Crane Project
The Norfolk Cranes’ Story

Breaking the Silence

Two months ago I decided to take a break from blogging. I’d returned from Wales after climbing mist-ensorcelled hound-haunted Cadair Idris. Standing on the shoulder of a giant dizzied by his mad dreams. Staring down into Llyn Cau and Llyn y Gadair. Finding refuge in the hut of the mountain guide.

In Wales the gods are huge. Their names and stories echo from deep valleys and massive mountains and are carried in streams and rivers to where the immensity of the sky meets the immaculate sea on the western coast. From Pen y Gadair the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd never leave.

On Borth beach I read Heron’s new translation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. The name Borth derives from Porth Wyddno and is the location of Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bottom Hundred); Gwyddno’s drowned kingdom. It was my intuition Gwyddno died there and the poem records a conversation between the worlds where Gwyn offers Gwyddno protection and guides him to Annwn (the Brythonic otherworld).

Reading the poem was immensely powerful. I experienced vividly the presence of these two great mythic figures speaking against the backdrop of the pebbled beach and roaring sea. Afterward at sunset I saw the otherland of which Gwyn speaks ‘where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore’ appear on the horizon.

Borth VI returned to Penwortham mind-blown with much to absorb in thought and dream only to experience another immensity. This time a crushing one. Walking the section of the old pilgrim’s path that leads across the A59 from the site of St Mary’s Well to the War Memorial I got trapped in the middle of the road: unable to cross because of the heavy rush of traffic at school pick-up time.

A59 between site of St Mary's Well and Penwortham War MemorialI knew this was the result of the widening of Penwortham By-Pass. A rush which will only increase when a new stretch of by-pass is built leading over the river Ribble to Junction 2 of the M55 (which exists only in name having been planned over 40 years ago). That this was linked to the expansion of BAE, the University of Central Lancashire, to the building of new housing developments and employment sites throughout Preston and South Ribble.

I was struck by the overwhelming gnosis it was beyond me to stop the growth of this monster. I could not stop the City Deal. I’d known for a while the City Deal was something not even the most seasoned campaigners would dare take on as a whole. That each of us must find our own way of protecting what we value within the realms of possibility whether it’s by campaigning against individual developments, fracking (which will not only ruin the landscape and poison our sacred watercourses but fuel the monster), austerity, defending and caring for an area of green space or growing and nurturing a community group.

Acknowledging this insight has taken a lot of readjustment during which I realised attempting not even to save the world but just South Ribble and Preston, Penwortham even, was beyond my capability and making me ill. Not only that, Peneverdant ‘the green hill on the water’ with its aquifer shattered in 1884, its holy wells dry, its banks subsiding with falling trees and gravestones under increasing duress from the By-Pass wanted to close down. Hence the closure of ‘From Peneverdant.’

What did I have left? The Friends group I run in Greencroft Valley with its wildflowers and apple trees. The monthly poetry night I play a lead role in organising at Korova Arts Cafe & Bar which provides a safe and welcoming space for newcomers and established poets to perform. The Oak and Feather Grove.

My relationship with the land and the gods which my recent travels north and to Wales have taught me need not be limited to Penwortham. The inspiration and awe I find in my path as an awenydd devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd. The depth and magic of his known and unknown stories. A growing awareness of other Brythonic gods and goddesses and their myths.

Whilst I’ve had support and companionship from friends and family and other poets and pagans, until the past couple of months my path as an awenydd and Brythonic polytheist has been a lonely one. However, in October I went to Glasgow to a ritual to Epona-Rigantona led by Potia and last week returned to Borth and finally met Heron, whose writing has guided and inspired me for several years.

Together on Borth beach Heron and I read my story ‘The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir’ which I wrote after my previous visit to Borth based on his translation of Gwyn and Gwyddno’s dialogue. It was moving and beautiful reading and listening to the words, born from the place, from an ancient poem passed on from poet to poet, feeling it live on the sea breeze and the rolling tides, honouring Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp, Gwyddno’s passing and the absent cranes (‘garan’ from Garanhir means crane in Welsh) who I gave the role of soul-birds. Afterward we walked across Cors Fochno (Borth Bog), where cranes may have nested, up Cwm Clettwr and to Taliesin’s grave.

I returned nourished with my feeling of the increasing import of the Brythonic myths juxtaposed with my frustration so few people have an interest in them. Of having much to share but no-one to share with. Which led once again to despair until I had a dream which somehow I knew took place ten years in the future.

I was leading a guided tour of one or two disinterested people to ‘Cockersand Fields’ (which I interpreted to be the fields near Cockersand Abbey where a statue to Mars-Nodens was found) and was feeling ready to give up on this task and life altogether. I hadn’t put my heart into it for several years. Then I saw a group of young backpackers approaching from boats on a sunset beach with smiles and eyes filled with hope. They’d come searching for stories about Gwyn, which I’d failed to write: a failure I suddenly regretted and a friend pushed me to rectify.

The dream seemed to be telling me not to lose hope in a vocation that nurtures my soul, brings me joy and could likewise bring meaning and purpose to others because my writing doesn’t provoke immediate responses or recognition. To think of the long term rather than satisfaction in the now.

Thus for the first time since the closure of ‘From Peneverdant’ I break my silence. Whilst I can’t promise my words will save the world or even Penwortham, I hope for others led down strange paths by little-known gods they may provide signposts in the mist that lead to the strength and inspiration to live with joy and depth in this troubled world.

Borth III

Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir

This is a link to Heron’s translation and interpretation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir,’ found in The Black Book of Carmarthen. This dramatic dialogue is one of the earliest pieces of known literature featuring Gwyn ap Nudd, who appears as a divine warrior and gatherer of the battle-dead.

Heron has undertaken an important task, as the only translation currently available to the public on the internet is William Skene’s (1868), which is both dated and considered flawed. His hard work and understanding of this poem on historical and mythic levels is highly appreciated.

THE WAY OF THE AWENYDD

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The beginning of the Exchange Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen

An interpretation of the conversation between 
Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir.

 This conversation appears in a manuscript collection known as The Black Book of Carmarthen which is a collection of copies from earlier manuscripts made by a monk in Carmarthen in the Thirteenth Century, some of which are verses which may have originally been embedded in lost prose sagas. As with much early Welsh verse some parts of it are difficult to interpret and the only easily available version in English is that contained in Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales, a pioneering translation which is now regarded as flawed. I’ll provide my own attempt to translate it during the course of the ensuing discussion based on consulting modern editions and commentaries in Welsh. There are some…

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