Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

In Jocelyn’s The Life of St Kentigern there is a story about the saint’s recall from Wales to the Old North by Glasgow’s ruler, Rhydderch Hael. Following an angelic vision, Kentigern sets out with 665 disciples and arrives in Hoddom where he is greeted by a multitude of people.

Drawing a cross and invoking the Holy Trinity, Kentigern orders anyone against the word of God to depart. This results in ‘a vast multitude of skeleton-like creatures, horrible in form and aspect’ departing from the assemblage and fleeing from sight.

Reassuring the terrified crowd Kentigern ‘lays bare’ what they believe in. He condemns their idols to the fire and tells them their principal deity ‘Woden’ from whom they claim descent is nothing more than a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is ‘loose in the dust’ whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

As Kentigern preaches faith in Jesus Christ the flat plain of ‘Hodelm’ rises into a hill which remains to this day. The people ‘renounce Satan’ and are washed in the waters of baptism.

This foundation legend explains the association of the site of the church and the graveyard beside the river Annan across from Woodcock Air (the hill) at Hoddom with St Kentigern.

Woodcock Air Hill

The Life of St Kentigern was commissioned by Jocelyn, Bishop of Glasgow, and written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, in the 12th century. As a literary hagiography it was clearly designed to promote the life of Kentigern (who lived in the 6th century) and vilify paganism. As a historical document it should be approached with caution, particularly in light of the anachronism concerning Woden.

Whilst there is archaeological evidence of a Northumbrian monastery based around St Kentigern’s church at Hoddom it was not founded until the 8th century. (This is evidenced by an 8th century letter sent by Alcuin to Wolfhard, Abbott of Hodda Helm). The Anglo-Saxons did not arrive until long after Kentigern died. It seems Jocelyn wove later tales concerning the conversion of Woden’s worshippers into the text.

This leaves us with the question of who the people of Hoddom venerated prior to Kentigern’s arrival. The existence of a local cult is evidenced by a Roman altar stone found in the wall of the church at Hoddom Cross and built into the porch in 1817. Unfortunately when it was found the sides could not be seen and the ‘mouldings of the capital and base’ had been ‘dressed off’. There are no clues who it was dedicated to.

However the surrounding area echoes with pagan memories: the place-names Brydekirk and Lochmaben; an altar to Vitris and a ram’s head at Netherby; the story of Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king, whose soul was gathered by Gwyn ap Nudd after he was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd. Myrddin Wyllt’s flight from Arfderydd in battle-madness to Celyddon.

Intrigued and troubled by the story of Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, wondering whether between the lines and beneath the Hollywood-style Biblical pyrotechnics any ‘truths’ (or at least personal gnoses) about their pagan religion may be intuited from the land, I returned to the area North of the Wall.

Walking from Ecclefechan to Hoddom, the first thing that struck me was the teeming of nature in the Scottish villages and fields. Flocks of spotted starlings on the roofs and telephone wires. Droves of sparrows flitting in and out of the hedgerows. The un-mowed roadsides were alive with flowers and every flower was covered with bees. Slick black slugs wandered through long grasses. I felt an unusual liberty in ‘the right to roam’.

Hoddom CrossMy first stop was at the church at Hoddom Cross. Roofless and derelict due to a fire, ivy climbed its walls and mausoleums. Ferns and wildflowers pushed through the railings to adorn older graves marked by sandstone gravestones. Newer graves with shiny porcelain headstones adorned with freshly wrapped bouquets glimmered in the background.

Something birch-white caught my eye. Going to investigate I found myself blinking in disbelief. In a Christian graveyard a couple of miles from any village I was staring at what to all appearances was a carving of a white dog with a purposively painted red nose. Dormach red-nose! I thought immediately of Gwyn ap Nudd’s famous hound who accompanies him as he guides the dead to the otherworld.

Admittedly it had antler-like twigs for ears and might have been a representation of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. But why carve it white from birch? It looked far more like a dog and a hound of Annwn at that. Too strange a find in a graveyard to be pure coincidence when I was tracing the deity(s) associated with the Roman altar (which I did not see).

River AnnanAfter visiting the ‘new’ church I walked to St Kentigern’s graveyard at Hoddom across the Annan from Woodcock Air. Watched over by a tall fir (or pine?) tree it was blissfully overgrown with ferns, yarrow, willowherb, bee-humming knapweed, decorated by harebells.

St Kentigern's Graveyard

Wandering amongst the gravestones I noticed carved images of skulls and crossbones and remarkable winged souls which a notice recorded as ’18th century folk art’. So here are Kentigern’s skeletons, I thought, unbanished. Symbols of death and our transition to the otherworld living on through years of Christian rule.

From the vantage point on Woodcock Air as I looked down on St Kentigern’s graveyard the sandstone gravestones shifted into brown-clad people. I gained a sense of the slowness of lives decanted by prayer, steady seasonal work in the fields, the slow turning of cart wheels, the satisfaction of self-subsistency and knowing you would die and be buried in your land close to your community.

St Kentigern's Graveyard from Woodcock AirAnd beneath the Northumbrian monastery did I gain a sense of St Kentigern’s church? The scene of conversion? The deity(s) to whom the ‘idols’ were dedicated? The ‘truth’ felt buried deep. Momentarily seeing the raised area where the church stood as a burial mound I thought back to Jocelyn’s words about ‘Woden’ being a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is in the dust whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

Could these words be read obliquitously to refer to a deified ancestor or ancestral deity believed to live on in the brightness of the world beyond this world? Perhaps even to Gwyn who as a psychopomp and leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Woden’s closest Brythonic equivalent?

BrydekirkI also had the opportunity to visit Brydekirk. Intriguingly Ronald Cunliffe Shawe claims Gwenddolau worshipped ‘Woden’ and ‘a fire goddess’. His reference leads to the passage about Woden in The Life of St Kentigern. I can’t find anything mentioning a fire goddess. However Gwenddolau’s worship of such a deity would make perfect sense if Brydekirk is named after Bride or Brigid. Brigid was later venerated as St Brigid and her priestesses tended an eternal flame.

At the church I was told by one of the parishioners it was indeed named after St Brigid of Ireland. I also learnt St Bryde’s Well was a natural spring and was gifted with an indispensable description of its location.

My walk to the well down the Annan then alongside fields was accompanied by a curious herd of cows who followed peeping out through gaps in the hedge. Their strange behaviour led me to recall the story of how St Brigid was raised by a white cow with red ears: another otherworldly animal.

CowsThe area surrounding St Bryde’s Well was hopelessly overgrown with brambles, nettles and Himalayan Balsam. With the guidance of the parishioners I still couldn’t find it. Ready to give up I saw what looked like a pink veil. I first assumed it was a votive offering marking the spring. When I got closer I realised it was a balloon strung with pale gauze. Another extraordinary marker that proved to be no mere coincidence.

Turning round, I noticed a water dispenser and beyond heard running water. Seeing a rivulet at the bottom of a steep bank running into the Annan, I followed its course to find a small stream leading to the natural spring pouring from amongst mosses and ferns into an orangey circular basin: St Bryde’s Well.

Across the river I also visited the remains of St Bryde’s tower. All I found was a single flight of steps climbing upward into the fire of the sun. Could this has have been a stairway walked by Brigid’s priestesses who maintained her eternal flame?

St Bryde's TowerI returned to Penwortham with no clear answers about how or whether St Kentigern converted the people of Hoddom or what they experienced and believed. Such ‘truths’ can only be conjectural and are always determined by our questions, assumptions and  beliefs.

What I gained was a deeper understanding of how our physical and literary landscapes interweave. How sign and signified lead the dance of a journey which is led by the gods who lead us to places where all distinctions break down in the numinosity of their presence.

At Hoddom and Brydekirk I met a myriad inhabitants of a northern land and I met Gwyn and Bride (who I know here in Lancashire as Brigantia) in new ways. I learnt that within the land and its stories and even in the most depredatory of Christian texts the fire of the gods endures.

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
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)