Ravens Who Croak On Gore

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn recites the names of a series of northern British warriors* whose deaths he attended ‘when ravens croaked on gore’.

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

I was there when Bran was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.

I was there when Llachau was slain
Arthur’s son, wondrous in wordcraft,
When ravens croaked on gore.

I was* there when Meurig was slain,
Careian’s son, honoured in praise,
When ravens croaked on flesh.

I was there when Gwallog was slain,
From a line of princes,
Grief of the Saxons, son of Lleynog.

The repetition of lines featuring croaking battle-ravens at the end of four of the five three line stanzas drives home the devastation wreaked upon the battlefields where these northern men were killed, some in internecine rivalry, some battling against the Anglo-Saxons. It shows few or none of the Britons on their side lived on to bury their dead, who were scorned by their enemies.

The image of battlefield ravens and other carrion birds along with wolves and/or dogs feasting on the corpses of the dead is common throughout the poetry of the ‘heroic age’ across Northern Europe and expresses the gristly reality of conflict and its aftermath, which few of us witness first hand today.

In it we find the expression of attitudes towards heroism, war, death, and the battle-dead. Although most of this poetry was composed after the pre-Christian peoples of Northern Europe had been converted to Christianity it is still possible to find hints of pre-Christian superstitions surrounding ravens and other carrion birds as ‘death-eaters’ who were associated with the death gods and goddesses.

The sense of Gwyn’s omnipresence on the battlefields where these northern British warriors died combined with our knowledge from other sources that he is a ruler of Annwn (‘the Deep’ – the Brythonic Otherworld) suggests he attended their deaths as a psychopomp to gather their souls back to his realm and that, like him and his hounds, the death-eating ravens served a role in their transition.

An examination of the literature surrounding battlefield ravens in the Brythonic and other Northern European cultures suggests they were viewed not only as carrion-eaters associated with the aftermath of battles but as manifestations of the death-gods, those who served them, and the dead.

In the Brythonic tradition there is a great deal of raven imagery in The Gododdin, which relates the tragic Battle of Catraeth, where over three hundred Brythonic warriors died fighting the Anglo-Saxons. Here a battle is referred to as a ‘raven’s feast’ and ‘raven’s gain’. Whilst one of the warriors ‘fed the ravens on the rampart of the fortress’ another became ‘food for ravens’ ‘benefit to the crow’. This reflects a possible heroic adage that the fate of a warrior was either to feed the ravens or become food for them. In ‘The Battles of Gwallog’ ‘there are… many stinking corpses, / and scattered crows’.

The rulers of the northern British kingdom of Rheged were associated with ravens. Three ravens appear on their coat of arms (designed in the Middle Ages) which might have been based on a raven banner**.

Having fed the ravens most of his life Urien Rheged becomes food for ravens after his assassination. Whilst his cousin, Llywarch Hen, rides away with his head, ‘on his white bosom the sable raven gluts.’

In Rhonabwy’s Dream, the warriors of Owain Rheged take the form of ravens and feast on their living enemies. After a defeat by Arthur’s men, the squire ‘raised the banner’, and they took revenge. ‘They carried off the heads of some, the eyes of others, the ears of others, and the arms of others and took them up into the air. There was a great commotion in the sky with the fluttering of jubilant ravens and their croaking, and another great commotion with the screaming of men being attacked’.

In the Irish myths ravens and crows are associated with the battle-goddesses the Badb and the Morrigan. The name Badb means ‘crow’. In ‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’ she appears as ‘a wild, impetuous, precipitate, furious, dark, frightful, voracious, merciless badb, screaming and fluttering over their heads’ with ‘ancient birds’, ‘destroying demons of the air’, and a ‘phantom host’. In The Tain, the Badb is invoked by the war-cry of Cú Chulainn along with ‘fiends of the air’ and it is only when the Morrigan settles as a raven on his shoulder that his enemies know he is dead.
In Anglo-Saxon literature the raven is one of three ‘beasts of battle’ with the eagle and wolf, hungry for, and feasting on the corpses of the dead. In ‘Judith’ ‘the dark raven’ is described as ‘a slaughter-greedy bird’. In ‘Elene’ ‘dark and slaughter-fierce’ it ‘rejoiced in its work’. In the Old English Exodus, in a verse that opens with screams of war-birds, it is described as ‘the dark chooser of the slain’.

This is interesting in relation to the lore surrounding ravens in Norse mythology. Two ravens named Huginn ‘thought’ and Muninn ‘memory’ fly across the world to gather information for Odin, the god who receives half the souls of the battle-dead in his hall, Valhalla, who are taken there by his valkyries.

The term valkyrie comes from valr (the battle-slain) and kjósa (to choose) and means ‘chooser of the slain’. Valkyries and ravens were frequently depicted together, such as in ‘Raven Song’, where a valkyrie asks a raven: ‘How is it with ye ravens? Whence are ye come with bloody beak at rithe dawning of the day? Torn flesh is hanging from your talons, and a reek of carrion comes from your mouths. I do not doubt that ye have passed the night amid a scene of carnage’. These companions may have been seen as shapeshifting into one another, as raven-woman figures, like the Badb.

Another intriguing figure, from Danish lore, is the valravn ‘raven of the slain’. These beings are described alternatively as ravens who gain the knowledge and form of men by eating the heart of a fallen king or as restless souls who can only be rid of their animal countenance by drinking the blood or eating the heart of a child. Sometimes they are described as half-raven, half-wolf.

Parallels with other sources suggest ‘the ravens who croak on gore’ who accompany Gwyn may be more than what they seem, that they might be shapeshifters, valkyrie or Babd or Morrigan-like deities.

In relation to this theory it is notable that Gwyn may be identified with Afallach, the father of Morgan. She appears in the Vita Merlini as one of nine sisters who ‘knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on wings’. Morgan and her sisters may be the nine maidens whose breath kindles the fire beneath the Cauldron of the Head of Annwn in a poem attributed to Taliesin called ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. On the surface the names Morgan and Morrigan appear to be similar. However, mor in Welsh means ‘sea’ whereas mór in Irish means ‘great’ and rigan ‘queen’.

Afallach is also the father of Modron, who is raped by Urien Rheged, and bears Owain and Morfudd, in Peniarth MS. 70. Here we find further potential connections between the King of Annwn and the raven-rulers. Whether Morgan and Modron are the same goddess by different names I remain uncertain.

What my research has opened up is the possibility that whilst, on one level, the ravens in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ are physical beings partaking in the visceral reality of feasting on the battle-dead after tragic battles they might also be seen in other ways.

Perhaps they were shapeshifting goddesses who were daughters of Gwyn, valkyrie-like figures who served him, or embodiments of dead or living warriors. These meanings shift and overlap and open new paradigms for understanding the lines about warriors feeding and becoming food for ravens.

Their croaking over gore becomes increasingly sinister in our modern eyes, but may reflect an older worldview in which life feeds on life and the dead on death and to feed the ravens is not an insult but an honour.

* A possible exception being Arthur’s son, Llachau, unless there is an argument for a northern Arthur.
** It seems possible the rulers of Rheged had a raven banner with animistic qualities like those carried by Viking leaders. If the raven flapped its wings there would be victory and if it hung limp, defeat.

The image is ‘The Twa Corbies’, an illustration from Arthur Rackham’s Some British Ballads (2019). Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)

Aaron K. Hostetter, Old English Poetry Project, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/

Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008)

John Jay Perry (transl.), Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, (1925) https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/index.htm

Greg Hill (transl.), ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/

Hugo Edward Britt, ‘The Beasts of Battle – Associative Connections of the wolf, eagle, and raven in Old English Poetry’, (The University of Melbourne, 2014)

Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)

Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Co(r)vid Moon – A Poetry Pamphlet for my Patrons

On the last dark moon, as England entered another national lockdown, I prayed to Gwyn for advice on what to make my focus over the approaching moon cycle. I received his answers through divination, a journey, and free writing, and the next morning, on the new moon, I was given the theme ‘Co(r)vid Moon’.

So, I decided to commit to writing 28 poems, one for each day of the moon cycle, relating to corvids and/or covid. Some days I wrote 2 – 4 and on others I didn’t write any at all, but I met my target. Of them 19 are shareable and I have put them together as a poetry pamphlet exclusively for my patrons as an expression of my gratitude for their invaluable support through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In these poems I explore my relationship with Gwyn as a gatherer of souls who guides the dead with ‘ravens who croak over gore’ and their role in this plague. I also dive into immunology and cell biology.

If you enjoy my work and would like a copy of the pamphlet please consider becoming a patron through Patreon HERE. There will be other gifts along with regular rewards such as a monthly newsletter, crazy things, access to unseen work, and your name in my future print publications and free signed books on higher tiers.

Here is a selection of the poems:

The Summoning of the Ravens

It is not we who summon but the ravens.

You will know it by the moment the sky goes out
to the cronk of their calls like the blinking of a god’s eyelid.

Do not ignore the momentary shadow of their four-fingered wings.

The casting of doubt on everything is only the beginning.

I have seen ravens on Dumbarton Rock, the Great Orme,
Pen Dinas, but never expected to see them here
in Peneverdant shuddering out the skies.

“Who” and “what’”and “why?” I cry
in this wilderness of lockdown, try to interpret
their unconquerable calls and their potent messages.

Every time I find words the ravens shift further out of sight.


A Raven has a Job Interview

“Tell me, raven, what qualities make you a good candidate for this role?”

“My great black wings, the sharpness of my beak, my love of flying between worlds.
My legendary wit and cleverness. My ability to find shiny and unshiny things.
My incredible memory and the comforting and uncomforting sounds of my words.
The unfathomable darkness, greatness, ultimately the kindness of my heart.”

“Can you give me examples of when you have worked alone and in a team?”

“Alone I fly, ever onwards, dark eyes swivelling like planets in their orbits,
searching for the corpses of the dead but, alone, I cannot open them, peck them apart,
so I call to the wolves and they come howling with their stronger muzzles to lay open
the wet flesh, the steaming jewels of the innards, and I call my sisters to feast.”

“And, finally, can you tell me what rewards you expect to get out of the job?”

“Well I would be lying if I didn’t admit it was the eyes – the colours of the irises,
the beautiful fragility of their dying light, their exquisite taste, the softness of corpses.
The magic in the moment a soul flies free. The prestige of flying with Gwyn ap Nudd.
Yet, in all honesty, what drew me to this job was the promise of immortality.”


A Raven Carries

the full moon in her beak

or is it a white blood cell – a stolen piece of me?

I see the sky is filled with ravens carrying little moons,
carrying pieces of me away and there are billions of them
because the body produces 10 billion white blood cells a day.

The sky is white with moons and black with raven’s wings.

I wonder if I am alive or dead or somewhere in between.

Are there islands of the dead for dead leukocytes
or do they long instead for another body and plasma?

Will they head for my co-walker and her horse and hounds
and settle like expected guests into her ectoplasm

or wing away to some otherworldly graveyard
where upon each stone is a small engraving
in a language only cells can speak?

Spoils of Annwn

Only art can bring back that which should never be touched:

grave goods, treasures of the mound
and bottomless lake,

your cauldron.

Like you, my lord,
they are beautiful and cursed,

filled with spirits who haunt us with wishes that shall never be.

Sword of Nodens, Spear of Lugus, Shield of Brân,

your mother’s secret jewellery,

the Golden Ring
by which you are bound
to fight your enemy,

numinous
and just as deadly
as the battles of dragons.

As a great black dragon you watch over the dragon-spirits within.

Only art can bring them back and for those
who touch your terrors reign.

*This image of a dragon’s eye is from a birthday card my aunt sent me last year. It reminds me of Gwyn-as-dragon and is blu-tacked on my wardrobe, overlooking my writing desk.

Tylwyth Gwyn on Land Sea Sky Travel

Over the next month, on Land Sea Sky Travel, in the Corvids and Cauldrons chatroom, Vyviane Armstrong, Thornsilver Hollysong, Bryan Hewitt, and I are going to be hosting a series of meetings titled Tylwyth Gwyn. In them we are going to be exploring and deepening our devotional relationships with the Brythonic deity Gwyn ap Nudd and his family through shared devotions, practices such as meditations, and discussions of gnosis.

Thurs 4th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Gwyn ap Nudd

Thurs 11th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Creiddylad

Thurs 18th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Nodens/Nudd

Thurs 25th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Anrhuna

These meetings are free and everybody is welcome. You can join by the Zoom link HERE.

*This image is an illustration from Y Tylwyth Teg (1935) and pictures a man brought before the Fairy King (Gwyn).

Gwyn Dedication Two Years and a Day On

It has been the worst year
since I have been born.

I have felt hurt, anger,
resentment, abandonment,
wondered if I’ve made a mistake.

If my choice to dedicate myself to you
has brought family sicknesses,
plague, landslips, floods…

But, you reassure me, it has not –

you warned me of the sadness
coming to this land long ago.

In your thereness I have found
strength knowing how tirelessly
you guide the dead (so many!).

You have laughed away my fears.
When I’ve cried, wailed, wallowed
in self pity and uttered every expletive
in Thisworld and Annwn told you:
“I’m afraid I’m going crazy…”

you have shown me the lives and deaths
of your spirits – what true madness is –

Annwn’s multi-sided perspective.

You have been there for me
through the worst year as you are
always there for the living and dead.

I have been blessed in my service to you
as your awenydd whether in words or in work
in the woodlands and the marshlands…

Tonight, in your cauldron, help me transform
my battle-fog into mists of enchantment.

White, Blessed, Holy, be not only
the Wrathful Hunter but the Kindly One.
Help me delight in being yours again.

I wrote the poem above, addressed to Gwyn, to mark the two year anniversary of my lifelong dedication to him. This took place beside yew tree on Fairy Lane by the light of the ‘Super Wolf Blood Moon’. I had already served a seven year apprenticeship to him, most of which had been magical and wonderful.

The last two years have been far harder, in particular the last, for all the reasons stated above. Family illnesses, covid, minor natural disasters in my local area and far worse ones further afield.

All of these devastating signs of the consequences of climate change and overpopulation.

Last night, I performed a ritual to mark the anniversary of my dedication to Gwyn, which involved casting these happenings and the feelings of resentment and anger that were getting in the way of our relationship and my service to him as an awenydd into his cauldron to be transformed.

“Know that every thought, like all things, has a soul,” he reminded me, “like you dies and is reborn.”

During our communion Gwyn gave me a combination of warnings, reassurance, and guidance.

“There is harder to come. I will give you no false hope or empty promises. Yet I can provide inspiration. In the journey of the soul you are not alone. Both the living and the dead face these problems. I too, for we all connected. Set aside your resentment and reach out in cooperation. Every thought, word, act, has its effects running through both worlds and throughout time. Know these cannot be predicted but even the worst horrors can turn to awen in the cauldron.”

So the magic of Annwn was worked and this morning I awoke to the full moon shining over my garden.

Their Forest Seat

This is an image I was inspired to draw of the King and Queen of Annwn as Bone Wolf and Bone Mare – a guise Gwyn ap Nudd and Creiddylad/Rhiannon have been appearing to me in this winter, a time of revelation, as so many things have been stripped bare.

Landslip

Fairy Lane, January 2021

Landslip, landslide,
we live in treacherous times,
the very land we hold so dear to us
with the grounds of life as we know it is
being pulled from beneath our feet.

Orange mesh and ‘Do Not Enter’ signs
at the entrances to Fairy Lane do not deter me
slipping by fay-like to bear witness
to another cataclysmic event.

For a long while railings, gravestones,
have been falling away and no-one speaks
of gathering up the bones of the dead.

This has been a place of peace with its
holy well, monastery, church, and chapel,
but has also been a place of penitence.

Black Roger sent to the ends of the earth.

(I sometimes wonder if I am a penitent
and whether I have served my time).

The weather gods have been cruel
this year with their freeze-thaw-rain
dichotomy opening fresh wounds.

The steps leading down to the yew
where I first met Gwyn ap Nudd and to him
made my dedication defying the transcendent gaze

of the Christian God who has never set foot on this earth
(except perhaps in his son whose feet in ancient times
may have walked here in Blake’s poetry)

are now twisted like something out of Labyrinth.

He has thrown my world out of kilter again –
a consequence of being devoted to a wild god…

When I see trees upside-down I think how natural
it is for us to fall whereas trees are born upright
and to go root over crown is certain death.

Yet as we grow older falls hurt more
and we come to wonder which will be the last.

~

I wrote this poem after being called to bear witness to yet another cataclysmic event in my local area. It was three days until the January full moon, on which I made my life-long dedication to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, beside the leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane two years ago. (I made my initial dedication to him at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor on the January moon in 2013.)

It’s a place I visit often, so I was surprised, when I got there, to find orange mesh across the entrance from the A59 and to read a notice stating that the footpath was closed due to a landslip. I walked to the second entrance by the Ribble where, again, I found the orange mesh, but it didn’t extend into the woodland.

Following the intuition that the place was safe now and my gods wanted me to see what had happened I slipped past. Usually the council will fence things off at the tiniest reason. This was not small. It was catastrophic. A whole swathe of land had slipped away from the side of Church Avenue, which runs along Castle Hill – a pen ‘prominent headland’ – shaped a bit like Pendle. It had piled up on Fairy Lane with the debris of huge ivy-clad trees in their prime, fallen root over crown.

Furthermore the steps leading down to the leaning yew had been skewed and looked dangerous.

In some ways, that this had happened, was not a surprise. The whole bank, with its leaning trees, has always looked precarious. There have been landslips before, bearing away railings and graves. Due to falling gravestones the castle mound and parts of the graveyard have been closed off for several years.

There are several reasons for the instability of the land. When the river Ribble was moved five hundred yards south from her original course to run beside Castle Hill, the sandstone bedrock was shattered. The aquifer beneath the hill was broken, leading to the holy well at the hill’s foot drying up. The building of the adjacent by-pass and its vibrations are likely causing the damaged land to slip.

The final contributor to this is the recent weather with its dangerous patterns of freezing, thawing, and heavy rain. No doubt all these factors have come together to cause these landslip.

Yet as well as physical reasons there are spiritual reasons too. The conversion of the hill and well from a pre-Christian to Christian sacred site and the severing of the links between the people and the gods of the land have led to the mindset that makes moving a river, shattering an aquifer that feeds a holy well, and building a by-pass beside a sacred place acceptable. Within a culture that saw the river as a divinity and the hill as the body of a goddess and abode of the dead and their god these would have been seen as acts of desecration that would bring about the wrath of the gods. And so their anger is seen in the decline of this once (and still on occasion) beautiful and enchanting place.

My first thought, when I arrived at the scene, was that this was linked somehow to my Gwyn dedication. Had I done something wrong? Was I on the wrong track? Might it be linked to the series of workshops on Gwyn and his family I am planning with other Gwyn devotees for Land Sea Sky Travel?

I received the gnosis that the landslip had nothing to do with me or my actions and would have happened anyway. I was already in two minds about visiting the yew on my dedication day as I am at my conservation internship on that day and don’t really want to go at night without a friend to accompany me (due to lockdown).

What it means to have the place I met Gwyn and made my life-long dedication cut off I haven’t cogitated yet. It seems to fit with two bridges over the Ribble being declared dangerous and closed. The land, the gods, displaying their anger, the council attempting to protect us, connections being severed.

This event has also made me aware the yew, leaning precariously on an ash, won’t be there forever…

The Peat Pit – the Fish Pond of Gwyn ap Nudd

For nearly a decade I have been writing enthusiastically about two topics – the lost wetlands of Lancashire (lakes, marshlands, wet woodlands, peat bogs) and my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. I didn’t realise there was a link until I watched the first of Gwilym Morus-Baird’s videos on Gwyn’s folklore.

Here he shared three poems by the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1315-1350). Whilst I had read ‘Y Dylluan’, ‘The Owl’, and ‘Y Niwl’, ‘The Mist’, I was unfamiliar with ‘Y Pwll Mawn’, ‘The Peat Pit’. In this masterfully crafted and, in places, humorous poem, Dafydd ap Gwilym narrates how he and his ‘grey-black horse’ foolishly get lost on a ‘cold moor’ in the darkness and fall into a peat-pit.

Unfortunately much of the craftsmanship of the poem in Welsh is lost in translation. The original is written in strict metre with seven syllables in each line, follows an AA BB rhyme scheme, and also contains internal rhyme (possibly cynghanedd – it is beyond my skill to judge). It also features repetition.

Gwae fardd a fai, gyfai orn,
Gofalus ar gyfeiliorn.
Tywyll yw’r nos ar ros ryn,
Tywyll, och am etewyn!
Tywyll draw, ni ddaw ym dda,
Tywyll, mau amwyll, yma.
Tywyll iso fro, mau frad,
Tywyll yw twf y lleuad.

Woe to the poet (though he might be blamed)
who’s lost and full of care.
Dark is the night on a cold moor,
dark, oh, that I had a torch!
It’s dark over there, no good will befall me,
it’s dark (and I’m losing my senses) over here.
Dark is the land down below (I’ve been duped),
dark is the waxing moon.

Here, in the first verse, we see that not only are the rhyme and metre lost in the English translation but also the repetition of tywyll ‘dark’ at the beginning of six of the eight lines.

Dafydd ap Gwilym goes on to lament his ‘woe’ ‘that the shapely girl, of such radiant nature, / does not know how dark it is’ before admitting his foolhardiness for venturing out on the moors at night.

It’s not wise for a poet from another land,
and it’s not pleasant (for fear of treachery or deceit)
to be found in the same land as my foe
and caught, I and my grey–black horse.

Here we gain a sense of unhomeliness, of the poet having ventured far from home, to an arallwlad ‘other-land’ – to the land of his ‘foe’, who we might surmise is the otherworldly Gwyn, from the following lines and those in other poems. In ‘Y Niwl’ the mist is described as ‘his two harsh cheeks’ which ‘conceal the land’ ‘thick and ugly darkness as of night / blinding the world to cheat the poet.’

After speaking of how he and his horse drowned in the peat-pit, Dafydd ap Gwilym goes on to describe evocatively and curse the place of his undoing and to associate it directly with Gwyn and his spirits.

Such peril on a moor that’s an ocean almost,
who can do any more in a peat-pit?
It’s a fish–pond belonging to Gwyn ap Nudd,
alas that we should suffer it!

I love this image of ‘a moor that’s an ocean’. It reminds me of the German term schwingmoor ‘swinging wetland’. This evokes how a bog can sway with each step like the sea.

I am dying to know whether the reference to the peat-pit as a ‘fish pond belonging to Gwyn ap Nudd’ is a metaphor that Dafydd ap Gwilym has created or whether it comes from the oral tradition.

We know Nudd/Nodens, the father of Gwyn, is associated with fishing by the iconography at his temple in Lydney. A crown, which would have been worn by a priest of Nodens, features a strange fisherman with a long tail catching a salmon and images of fish and sea-serpents appear on a mural.

So it isn’t too surprising to find a reference to fish ponds belonging to Gwyn. However, anyone familiar with the ecology of peat bogs will be aware it is very rare to find fish in their waters due to the low oxygen levels. This raises the question: for what is Gwyn fishing?

I believe an answer can be found in a later English poem by Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802 – 1839) called ‘The Red Fisherman’ which might also contain echoes of an older tradition.

This recounts how an abbot came to a pool with the ‘evil name’ ‘The Devil’s Decoy’ and encountered ‘a tall man’ on ‘a three-legged stool’ clad all in red with shrunken and shrivelled ‘tawny skin’ and hands that had ‘long ages ago gone to rest’ – ‘He had fished in the flood with Ham and Shem’.

With a ‘turning of keys and locks’ he took forth bait from his iron box’ and when he cast his hook ‘From the bowels of the earth / strange and varied sounds had birth’, ‘the noisy glee / of a revelling company’.

To this otherworldly music the red fisherman drew up ‘a gasping knight’ ‘with clotted hair’ ‘the cruel Duke of Gloster’. Casting off again, ‘a gentleman fine and fat, / With a big belly as big as a brimming vat’ ‘The Mayor of St Edmund’s Bury’. His next catch, with ‘white cheek’ ‘cold as clay’ and ‘torn raven hair’ was ‘Mistress Shore’ and, after countless others, finally a bishop. The abbot was cursed by the Red Fisherman to carry his hook in his mouth and from then on stammered and stuttered and could not preach.

If this poem derives from an older tradition based around the lore of his Gwyn and his father (like the Red Fisherman Gwyn was also identified with the devil) we might surmise he is fishing for the dead.

The mention of the noise of a revelling company is also pertinent as in ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ we find the lines:

A pit between heath and ravine,
the place of phantoms and their brood.
I’d not willingly drink that water,
it’s their privilege and bathing–place.

The term ellyllon is here translated as ‘phantoms’ but also means ‘elves’. It no doubt refers to Y Tylwyth Teg, ‘the fair family’ or ‘fairies’ over whom Gwyn rules as the Fairy King. ‘Brood’ has been translated from plant ‘children’ which is also suggestive of the family of Gwyn.

The peat-pit, like other bodies of water such as lakes, pools, springs, and wells, is a liminal place where Thisworld and the Otherworld meet, where the fair folk bathe, and their leader fishes for souls.

Finding out about this lore has deepened by intuition that Gwyn is associated with Lancashire’s lost peat bogs and former peat-pits, such as Helleholes, just north of my home.

At the end of his poem Dafydd ap Gwilym curses ‘the idiot’ who dug the peat-pit and swears he will never ‘leave his blessing in the peat bog’. This may refer to a practice taking place in his day – people leaving butter in peat bogs for the fairies, which may carry reminiscences of more ancient offerings to Gwyn and his family.

Contrarily, the next time I visit a peat bog, I intend to leave a blessing for Gwyn, the Blessed One.

*With thanks to Gwilym Morus-Baird for his video HERE and for pointing me in the direction of Dafydd ap Gwilym.net where ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ can be read in Welsh and English.

Coronavirus and the Wonders of the Immune System

So far January has been pretty grim. Not only due the slippery alternation of icy weather and heavy rain, but because the UK is back in national lockdown due to a sharp rise in coronavirus cases as a result of holiday gatherings combined with a new variant that is 30 to 50 per cent more infectious. Hospitals are teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed and, on Wednesday the 13th of January, 1, 564 deaths from COVID-19 were recorded – the highest number since the pandemic begun.

My conservation volunteer work parties have been cancelled and my internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve has been limited to one day. Again we’re back to the horrible dichotomy between essential workers being stressed and overstretched whilst others have no work and feel useless.

However, unlike during the first lockdown in March, with the new vaccines and the vaccination programme underway there is hope of a return to some degree of ‘normality’ on the horizon. I have lived with the fear of catching coronavirus and passing it onto my parents, who are over seventy and have health issues for nearly a year, and am hoping they will be vaccinated by mid-February.

This moon cycle Gwyn has prompted me to look more deeply into the nature of the coronavirus and how this relates to his role as a ruler of Annwn who gathers the souls of the dead from battlefields, and arguably those who die of plagues, such as Maelgwn Gwynedd, who died of the Yellow Plague after seeing a golden-eyed monster through the keyhole where he was self-isolating in the church at Llan Rhos.

Gwyn is also said to contain the fury of the ‘devils’ of Annwn to prevent them from destroying the world. We might, perhaps, include viruses amongst this host. It is also notable that Gwyn’s father, Lludd/Nudd, put an end to three plagues in Lludd ac Llyefelys.

When I set out on and progressed with my research I was stunned by the proficiency of the coronavirus and more so by the cleverness and complexity of the human immune system and its cells. As I learnt about them and viewed their 3D representations I was filled with awe and wonder at their agency and beauty and more so because they are part of me.

Here is an account of my discoveries about the nature of coronavirus and the wonders of the immune system upon whose agency and efficacy the success of the vaccine depends. I write this for Gwyn and his father, Lludd/Nudd, defenders against plagues.

***

SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. Like other coronaviruses it is spherical in shape and consists of a membrane, which encloses its RNA, and protein spikes (which look like a corona). These are really important as they help the virus bind onto and attack host cells.

When droplets of the virus are inhaled or transferred from surfaces to the eyes, nose, or mouth of a healthy person it is provided with passage to the mucous membranes. These epithelial barriers not only provide a barricade against pathogens, but have their own defences such as tears, saliva, and mucus.

However, coronavirus has developed a particularly smart way of penetrating them. On these surfaces is a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 – ACE2 – and to this it binds its spike protein ‘like a key being inserted into a lock’. Thus ACE2 is the doorway by which it enters the host.

Once the virus gets into the membranes of the nose, throat, airways, and the lungs (where ACE2 is particularly abundant on type 2 pneumocytes in the alveoli), it hijacks the original function of the cells and turns them into ‘coronavirus factories’ in which it creates countless copies of itself, which go on to infect more cells, which go on to infect more cells, which go on to infect more cells…

Luckily, the invasion does not go unnoticed for it triggers a response from the innate immune system. (It is worth mentioning here that humans have not only one but two immune systems. The innate immune system, which is shared with other animals, plants, fungi, and insects, is the most ancient and the most primitive, having developed 500 million years ago. This provides a ‘front line’ general response. If it is unsuccessful, the adaptive immune system, which developed in vertebrates only, is activated and provides a more finely honed response, which targets a specific pathogen.)

Upon the invasion of the coronavirus, cells of the innate immune system stationed in the tissues and patrolling in the blood stream, which possess specialised pattern recognition receptors (PPRs), recognise pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) and damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs), and send out chemical signals that initiate the inflammatory response.

Chemicals such as histamine increase the blood flow to the infected area and cytokines attract white blood cells called phagocytes ‘eating cells’ (from Greek phagein ‘to eat’ and cyto ‘cell’) – firstly neutrophils and, within 24 hours, macrophages ‘big eaters’ (from Greek makrós ‘large’ and phagein ‘to eat’)

These phagocytes strive to destroy the virus through a process called phagocytosis that is unlike anything seen in the outside world. They engulf the virus within their membrane, enclose it within a vacuum known as a phagasome, then kill it by bombarding it with toxins. Afterwards neutrophils self-destruct via a process called apotosis. Macrophages also perform the role of devouring the dead cells. Around three days into the infection more phagocytes known as natural killer cells join the fight.

If the innate immune system fails to fend off the virus, the adaptive immune system steps in. The cells of the adaptive immune system target only specific antigens – molecules on the outside of a pathogen – and cannot recognise new antigens alone. Therefore they must be presented with them by antigen-presenting cells, such as macrophages and the dendritic cells of the membranes. These cells not only devour but process the virus and display its antigen on their surface. Thus they play an essential role in mediating between the innate and adaptive immune systems.

The main cells of the adaptive immune system are white blood cells called T-cells (because they are produced in the thymus) and B-cells (because they are produced in the bone marrow). When T-cells are activated by the presentation of an antigen they begin to mature and proliferate.

Four types of T-cell are produced. Cytotoxic T-cells specific to the coronavirus antigen bind to an infected cell and produce a chemical called perforin, which penetrates it, then cytotoxins called granzymes which destroy the cell and any virus inside by causing it to self-destruct via apoptosis.

Helper T-cells produce chemicals such as cytokines, interleukin (a pyrogen which increases molecular activity) and interferons (which cause nearby cells to heighten their viral defences) and activate B-cells. Regulatory T-cells stop the immune response and memory T-cells remember the antigen.

Once activated, B-cells produce and release antibodies that are perfectly fitted to the antigen. These perform several functions. They neutralise the virus, making it incapable of attacking the host cells; bind virus particles together in a process called agglutination; and bind to antigens, labelling them as targets. Memory B-cells, like memory T-cells, which remember the virus antigen, are also formed.

After five days, once the T-cells and B-cells are recruited, and the battle begins in earnest, the infected person starts to feel the symptoms of COVID-19. A sore throat, loss of smell and taste, and a persistent cough are caused by the inflammatory response. The mucus from a runny nose and that coughed up from the lungs is composed of dead phagocytes, dead cells, inflammatory exudate, and dead and living microbes. It is through these particles an infectious person spreads the disease.

Pyrexia, caused by the pyrogen interleukin (which you might recall increases molecular activity), is what brings about a heightened temperature, loss of appetite, and feelings of fatigue.

Most healthy people fight off the virus within 7 – 10 days. Those who do not become more seriously ill because the immune system overreacts and this leads to pneumonia, a condition in which the alveoli fill with water as a result of excess inflammation and tissue damage. This may be caused by coronavirus binding to ACE2 on type-2 pneumocytes and other membranes. ACE2 regulates a protein called angiotensin II, which raises blood pressure and causes inflammation. When coronavirus binds to ACE2, it inhibits its ability to regulate angiotensin II, thus the overreaction.

This can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, which happens when the inflammation of the lungs is so severe the body cannot get enough oxygen to survive, and can lead to organ failure. At this point a person is at risk of death and is admitted to intensive care and put on a ventilator.

Knowledge of the immune system not only helps us to understand how the body fights off coronavirus but also how the vaccines work. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, like other flu vaccines, uses a weakened form of the virus to activate the immune system’s response, so the T-cells and B-cells have memory of the antigen and can respond immediately upon a repeat infection.

The Pfizer-BioNTech is more novel because it takes the genetic code from the coronavirus antigen and uses it to create a messenger RNA (mRNA) sequence that tells the vaccinated person’s cells to produce antigens and present them to the T-cells and B-cells, preparing them for an immediate response.

***

My research has provided me with an illuminating revelation of hidden processes inside my body I was unaware of. In the death-eating phagocytes who process the dead virus and present its antigens it is possible to find elements of the Annuvian.

Could the white blood cells be seen as ‘guardians’ posted by Gwyn ‘White’ to help us defend ourselves from viruses like he and his host hold back the fury of the spirits of Annwn?

Perhaps… but I think truth of the matter is more complicated for Gwyn is said to contain the spirits of Annwn not only in his realm, but in his person, which is equivalent to us being able to contain the virus. This is impossible for us – for each side it is a battle to the death. It can only be contained by a god.

Paradoxically, Gwyn might be associated both with the breath-stealing life-stealing coronavirus and with the white cells who act as defenders and mediators within our bodies.

As a ‘bull of conflict’ he embodies the dark truth that, without and within, existence is ‘battle and conflict’. Yet that in this, beauty and wonder – the poetry of Annwn – can be found.

SOURCES

Anne Waugh, Alison Grant, Ross and Wilson Anatomy and Physiology, (Elsevier, 2018)

‘What is the ACE2 receptor, how is it connected to coronavirus and why might it be key to treating COVID-19? The experts explain’, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/what-is-the-ace2-receptor-how-is-it-connected-to-coronavirus-and-why-might-it-be-key-to-treating-covid-19-the-experts-explain-136928

‘Coronavirus: What it does the body’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51214864

The Long Hard Road

I want to live, I want to love
But it’s a long hard road out of Hell.’
Marilyn Manson

So it’s December the 31st and we stand at the gateway between one year ending and the next beginning. As ever I feel obliged to write a retrospective. Looking back, quite frankly, 2020 has been a shitter of a year – on global, national, familial, and personal levels.

A global pandemic. A messy Brexit. Life at home has been incredibly difficult with my dad’s ongoing health problems, my mum having a fall and a hip replacement, and my brother having brain surgery and coming to stay with us with us whilst he recovers. And this has all happened on top of me finding out it’s likely I’m autistic for which I’m in the midst of the lengthy process of getting a diagnosis.

I received the first hint that this year would prove portentous in February when I was volunteering on the Wigan Flashes Nature Reserve and noticed a profusion of scarlet elf cups (Sarcoscypha austriaca). In a blog post I posed the question: ‘Will these red cups bring good or bad luck?’

By March we had the answer – coronavirus was spreading rapidly and we entered a national lockdown. This turn of bad luck felt particularly cruel as I had left my supermarket job to volunteer with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust full time as a way into a career in conservation. The first day of the lockdown was meant to be the first day I started a conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve. This got put on hold and all my other volunteering was cancelled. I was left with neither furlough from a paid job or training toward paid work with only the small income from my writing.

During the first lockdown my mum and I agreed that it was like being in Purgatory – a sentiment I have seen echoed elsewhere, for example in the Scarlet Imprint Newsletter. This makes me realise how deeply engrained Christian concepts are within our psyches, even for non-Christians, and how lacking we are in Pagan and Polytheist concepts through which to understand our situation. At several points I have wondered if the gods are punishing us on a global level for our ‘sins’ against nature and whether my family and I have done something to bring about their disfavour.

In the Brythonic tradition it is the fury of the spirits of Annwn that threatens to bring about the destruction of this world and usually this is held back by Gwyn ap Nudd – a King of Annwn. Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd, also played a role in protecting Britain from three plagues – a people called the Coraniaid, a dragon’s scream, and ‘a mighty magician’ – all caused by Annuvian forces.

The term used for these plagues is gormes which also translates as ‘pestilence’, ‘destruction’, ‘oppression by an alien race or conqueror’, ‘oppressor’, ‘oppressive animal or monster’. The coronavirus is a plague and might also be viewed as an alien being or a monster of Annwn.

My prayers, conversations with my gods, meditations, and research have led me to the conclusion that we are experiencing a ‘monstrum event’ (here I resort to Latin as I haven’t found an equivalent Brythonic concept). Monstrum is the root of the word ‘monster’ and also means ‘revelation’ so seems linked with ‘apocalypse’ in its original sense (from the Greek apokaluptein ‘uncover’).

As the Beast with the Fiery Halo has ravaged Britain’s populace, underlying physical and mental health problems have been brought to the fore, accidents waiting to happen have happened, the hidden has surfaced from the deep. Many of the excess deaths were not caused by coronavirus.

If the first lockdown was Purgatory then the past couple of months have felt more like Hell on Earth. Again I struggle to find an equivalent for this oh-so-fitting Christian concept. Perhaps it is possible to see ‘Hell’ as one of the deepest and most unpleasant levels of Annwn, which is described in the medieval Welsh texts both as a paradisal place and a hellish one where souls are imprisoned and tortured in the napes of a Black Forked Toad and within the innards of a Speckled Crested Snake.

It takes a lot of work to undo our associations of these scenes with the Christian concepts notion that unpleasant experiences are the result of our ill doings and are thus punishments for our sins. Gwyn has taught me they are processes of transformation that lie beyond human morality and reason. This is my current understanding of what has been happening with coronavirus.

In the ‘hells’ that I have witnessed others experiencing I have also witnessed the power of healing. Of the miracle of the hip replacement and the remarkable intricacies of brain surgery. In this I have seen the work of Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, a god of healing, to whom I have prayed for my family’s health.

I have also seen the healing hand of Nodens in the advances in treatment for coronavirus and in the creation of the vaccines. It seems to be more than coincidence that, as a more virulent strain emerges in Britain, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines have been approved. This gives me hope that, even as we face this plague, the gods are equipping us with the tools to deal with it.

In most stories, Christian and non-Christian, a descent into Annwn or Hell is followed by a return. As things slowly improve at home, as the time my parents get vaccinated approaches, I am intuiting that our time of descent is approaching an end and I am starting to catch glimpses of the road ahead.

My internship at Brockholes finally began on the 4th of December and I am predicting it will continue within Lancashire’s current Tier 4 restrictions. I believe that due to people being brought into greater appreciation of nature by the lockdown and, unfortunately, because of the climate crisis, in the future there will be more jobs in conservation and am tentatively hopeful about finding work.

I am beginning to feel, for the first time in a long time, like in the words of a Marilyn Manson song that I listened to a lot at a dark point in my life many years ago, ‘I want to live, I want to love,’ but I am painfully aware it is going to be ‘a long hard road out of Hell.’