Blodeuwedd and the Owl Kind

I.
I’m wandering through a bleak windswept landscape in Annwn and screaming down from the skies come two haggard-looking owl-women who almost look like harpies with shabby feathers, bare breasts, and long claws. At first I’m afraid of them, but less so as I examine their faces, old, wise, grey.

They tell me they are ‘the Owl Kind’ – those who have gone into owls. They watch over families and communities until they stop watching for them. They watch over lands until they become unrecognisable. They watch over the dead and those who go between worlds – their owl eyes are always on them.

They can often be found in graveyards. They show me how they watch over the spirit of a child who is afraid to leave her grave where she thinks she is safe and wants to sleep forever because she died believing there is no life after death and the owlets who sit in a row on the fence who sing her songs.

They tell me the owl kind are becoming less and less as they are leaving the places families and communities have left, where they are forgotten, and fewer know how to or want to go into owls anymore.

They tell me owls watch over my land and to listen for them.

II.
Only once have I met Blodeuwedd, the woman conjured from flowers by Math and Gwydion, then transformed into an owl as a punishment for her part in the plot to murder her husband, Lleu. It was during a journey when I was tricked into Caer Gwydion and she helped me escape, picking me up in her claws and taking me to the Forest at the Back of the World where the Owl Kind dwell. At this point I knew they were connected, that Blodeuwedd was one of the Owl Kind, perhaps the most significant.

This has led me to suspect that when Gwydion and Math conjured Blodeuedd from the blossoms of oak, meadowsweet and broom, when they imbued the blossoms with spirit, that the spirit they unwittingly summoned to animate them was hers – flowers on the surface, owlish huntress and killer beneath. (Thus it’s no wonder she was attracted to the Hunter when he rode into her kingdom).

Perhaps in an older variant of the tale Gwydion did not turn Blodeuwedd into an owl as a punishment but recognised her true nature, that he, the trickster, had been tricked. She couldn’t be confined by his spell.

III.
In modern Britain owls are, rightly, revered as symbolic of wisdom. Yet, appearing wide-eyed and innocent and slightly goofy-looking on bags, pencil cases, cushions, earrings etc. the darker side of their nature (which was emphasised for many centuries in British folklore) has been forgotten.

In a chapter titled ‘Night’s Black Agents’ in The Folklore of Birds Edward A. Armstrong notes that ‘Over Europe and Asia, indeed, most of the world, the owl is, and has long been, a bird of witchcraft, death and doom’. He notes examples of sightings of owls – ‘the trees were covered with owls’ ‘there were a scret (screech) owl on his roof, scretting something horrible’ as precedents of death.

Spenser refers to the owl as ‘death’s dreadful messenger’. Webster writes ‘The Scritch Owle and the whistler shrill / Call upon our dame aloud / And bid her quickly don her shroud.’ Armstrong notes connections between ‘ratchet owls’ and the corpse-eating Gabriel Ratchets and Hounds of Annwn.

In ‘The Owl’ Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of the ‘Crazy Owl’ of Gwyn ap Nudd who ‘incites the hounds of night’ and no doubt flies at the head of his hunt heralding the chase of the souls of the dead.

IV.
In The Witch Ronald Hutton suggests our associations between owls and witchcraft derive from the Classical figure of the strix. These large-eyed, hungry-beaked, grey-white feathered birds of ill-omen dwelled on the outskirts of Tartarus, feasted on flesh and blood and snatched away the bodies of the dead. The term striges was also applied to ‘women who practice witchcraft’ and ‘flying women’.

The striges seem closely linked to harpies ‘snatchers’. They are described both as ‘lovely’ and ‘repulsive’. By Virgil as ‘Bird-bodied, girl-faced things… abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable’. Their names are evocative – Aello ‘storm swift’, Ocypete ‘swift wing’, Celaeno ‘the dark’, Podarge ‘fleet-foot’. Seen as the embodiments of the destructive winds they served as ‘the Hounds of Zeus’ snatching away evil-doers to the Erinyes.

VI.
In Dante’s Inferno harpies are depicted in the seventh circle of Hell in the ‘Wood of Suicides’:

No green here, but discoloured leaves and dark,
No tender shoots, but writhen and gnarled and tough,
No fruit, but poison galls on the withered bark…

Wide-winged like birds and lady-faced are these,
With feathered belly broad and claws of steel;
And there they sit and shriek on strange trees.

Dante is horrified when he realises that the trees are the souls of suicides. Their transformation and their fate of being tortured by the harpies, who feast on the boughs, is described by Augustus:

When the wild soul leaps from the body, which
Its own mad violence forces it to quit,
Minos dispatches it down to the seventh ditch.

It falls in the wood; no place is picked for it,
But as chance carries it, there it falls to be,
And where it falls, it sprouts like a corn of wheat,

And grows to a sapling, and thence to a wild tree;
Then the Harpies feed on its leaves, and the sharp bite
Gives agony, and a vent to agony.

VI.
In ‘The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides’ William Blake provides a vivid depiction of the scene. This partly resonates with my personal vision of the Owl Kind in the Forest at the Back of the World, where the souls of the dead shift into trees, plants, and animals.

800px-The_Wood_of_the_Self-Murderers

Only I do not see the role of the Owl Kind, although they are hunters and devourers of the dead, as punitive. Like the Hounds of Annwn they are simply serving their role hunting down the dead and devouring their dead flesh before bearing their souls back to the otherworldy forest where they can heal.

Perhaps they have always been connected with suicides – teaching them to be tree, plant, flower, blossoming until their bloomy faces are the faces of owls and, like Blodeuwedd, they fly free.

SOURCES

Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover Publications, 1958)
Dorothy I. Sayers, Dante, Hell, (Penguin Classics, 2001)
Rachel Bromwich (transl), Dafydd ap Gwilym, Poems, (Gomer Press, 1982)
Ronald Hutton, The Witch, (Yale University Press, 2018)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Blake, William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations, (Dover Publications, 2008)
Harpy’, Wikipedia
Strix’, Wikipedia

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Ffynnon – Source, Spring, Fountain

A couple of months ago, when I was feeling discouraged about the lack of interest in the Brythonic tradition, Gwyn showed me a fountain cascading down into concentric basins increasing in size and told me that likewise ‘the awen will eventually filter down’ and this made me feel more hopeful.

This vision led me to taking an interest in the role of fountains in medieval Welsh literature. I found out the Welsh word for fountain, ffynnon or ffynhawn, also means ‘source’ and ‘spring’.

In ‘The Death Song of Cörroi’, in The Book of Taliesin, Taliesin speaks of the ffynhawn lydan ‘wide sea-fountain’, the source of the sea. Patrick Sims-Williams suggests this refers to ‘a cosmological spring similar to Hvergelmir in Norse mythology’. Hvergelmir ‘boiling bubbling spring’ is the source from which the 42 rivers, including the 11 Élivágar ‘Ice Waves’, which run through the Nine Worlds flow. In the Greek myths all the rivers rise from Oceanus ‘Ocean’ suggesting a shared mythos.

In a poem called ‘Blessed be the Lord’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen we find the lines:

May the three fountains
bless you,
two above the wind,
one above the earth

Sims-Williams notes that, ‘in a poem called Divregwawt Taliesin “Taliesin” says that the ocean comes to us from one of these’. In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ the bard speaks of teir ffynnawn ‘three springs’ or ‘three fountains / in Mount Sion’ showing a collation of Brythonic and Christian beliefs.

The image of a triple fountain is unsurprising considering many Celtic deities, such as the Matronae, the Genii Cucullati, and the Lugoves, appear in triple forms. The awen, poetic inspiration, is represented as three dots or as as three rays. The threefold fountain recurs in the alchemical tradition as the Fons Mercurialis.

Fons Mercurialis from the Rosarium (1550)

A fountain is central to Iarlles y Fynnon ‘The Lady of the Fountain’. The fountain stands beneath a green tree, with near it a marble slab and silver bowl fastened to a silver chain. Owain Rheged, a hero of the Old North, seeking adventure, throws water from the fountain from the bowl onto the slab. This brings about ‘a tumultuous noise’ then a hailstorm that strips the leaves from the tree and summons a black knight. Owain defeats him and becomes the guardian of the fountain and lover of its otherworldly lady. This story bears a resemblance with Pwyll taking the role of Arawn, King of Annwn.

Thus it is unsurprising that this central image mirrors the well/fountain and golden bowl hanging on four golden chains over a marble slab in the fortress of Llwyd Cil Coed, Brenin Llwyd, King of Annwn, which enchants Pwyll’s son, Pryderi, and his mother, Rhiannon.

It seems these are one and the same with the fountain that Gwyn, King of Annwn, showed me. A powerful symbol of awen springing forth from its source in Annwn ‘the Deep’. Flowing from myth, into story, into words, rippling out its numinous qualities into Thisworld.

SOURCES

Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Patrick Sims-Williams, Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature, (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
‘The Rosary of the Philosophers’, MS Ferguson 210, (18th C)

 

Patron Rewards April 2019

This month’s patron rewards for my supporters on Patreon have been mailed out. In my monthly newsletter I talk about how finding part time work at a local supermarket has proved liberating as I no longer have to worry as much about my writing making money.

I also share how a journey, in which I was shown skeletons with keys around their necks who had died before finding the locks, helped motivate me on my personal quest and unlocked the secret of the identity of the child prophet, Y Darogan Annwn, who will play an important role in my fourth book, ‘Porth Annwn’.

In ‘A Bit of Crazy’ I speak of the craziness of being inspired to write the story of a magician and a book that, as far as I know, do not exist, but are very insistent. Is he a historical person or a fictional person whose story needs to be told? Does it matter? Following on from this in ‘Unseen Work’ I share a draft prose poem called ‘Do Not Speak Their Names’ from ‘The Book of the Living Hand’, which belongs to the Magician of the Orme.

Even more crazily I’m off to the Great Orme tomorrow to search for whether there is any truth to this story, to commune with the serpent, to witness sunset on Nos Galan Mai and sunrise on Calan Mai in this mythic and inspirited landscape.

This pivotal time of year is always bittersweet for me, on the one hand filled with joy with Gwythyr and Creiddylad’s union, on the other filled with sadness because of Gwyn’s death and departure.

However you experience it many blessings /I\

Fallen Cherry Blossoms Conti Bench

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The Vision of Ceridwen

I’m the broken bird-thing
at her table again

her wizened hand
in my claws

telling her
I’m going to mend
our broken vision

and all will be beautiful.

***

Sometimes you end up in a myth. It’s not the myth you thought you’d end up in or the myth you chose. You’re not who you thought you would be. Nobody else sees the myth the same way you do.

It began when I first started learning about the Bardic Tradition and heard that Ceridwen was the goddess of the cauldron that brews awen, the poetic inspiration that is like mead to the Brythonic bards.

As a poet I thought Ceridwen was a goddess well worth meeting so I drew myself a cauldron, lit a candle, constructed a visualisation. One of those 2D interfaces that sometimes helps you interact with what is. I imagined Ceridwen as a blue-robed, dark-haired, faceless woman stirring a cauldron.

Nothing happened. Then, from nowhere, out leapt a hideous grey-haired hag who put her bony arms around my neck, nearly strangling me. She demanded I go with her to her cottage in her woods. She sat me down at her table in a room with a sun dial and smaller cauldron over the hearth on a wobbly three-legged stool and insisted that I call her ‘grandmother’. Initially I thought she was an ancestor.

I presumed this showed Ceridwen wasn’t interested in me. She already had worthier devotees. Soon afterwards I got found by my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn and guardian of the cauldron.

I met ‘grandmother’ again when I was travelling Annwn in search of inspiration on my flighty white-winged mare. She ditched me and I found myself falling downwards through the air, flapping my arms like wings, steadily acquiring black feathers, but not quickly enough to stop me hitting the ground. When I returned to my senses the hag-like woman was standing over me. With a wrinkly smile she told me I was ‘beginning to get my raven’s wings’ before taking me to her cottage again.

There she told me to look into her cauldron, where I saw in vivid blues and reds a Dark Age battle of clashing spears, crashing swords, broken shields, fallen flags, blood crimsoning the nearby waters, then the shades rising in a sorrowful march to depart. Researching it afterwards I realised it was the Battle of the Region Linuis fought by Arthur against the Saxons and wrote a poem about it*.

After this gift of awen from her cauldron I began to suspect the hag was the real (as opposed to my imagined) Ceridwen. The name ‘grandmother’ came to make sense a couple of years later. Gwyn had shown me a cauldron filled with stars and not long afterwards I went to see my friend, Nick Williams, performing an experimental poetry set in a blacked-out room with strobe lights. I had the sensation of being in a cauldron of poesy and also in the womb of the universe. I recalled that Nick refers to a goddess called Old Mother Universe and realised she is Ceridwen – the oldest mother of all.

I went on to write a book called The Broken Cauldron, focusing on how Ceridwen’s crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ is shattered in the Welsh myths and of my task of gathering the stars back into it.

Whereas, in the Bardic Tradition and Druidry, Taliesin and Arthur, those responsible for stealing the awen and the cauldron and the shatterings that have brought devastation to the land are hailed as heroes, I found myself standing in the shoes of Morfran ‘Sea Raven’, Ceridwen’s dark and ugly son, who was later known as Afagddu ‘Utter Darkness’.

He for whom she boils her cauldron in the hope the brew will inspire him and cure his imperfections. He who does not get the awen, who cannot win poetic inspiration the quick way, but must work to find the words to heal the lands poisoned by the contents of the broken cauldron, to repair it piece by piece, story by story, so the stars shine in bright new constellations on a new world.

Gwyn is my guide in this task, and in serving him, I am also serving Ceridwen. She does not appear to me often, but when she does, I am often her awkward black-winged child, the dark imperfect one.

As Afagddu I’m learning imperfection is necessary; an understanding of what others find repulsive, whether it’s darkness, death, decay, plastic, the monstrous creatures of Thisworld or the Otherworld. That these hold their own beauty when the concept is not corrupted by our society’s false ideals.

It’s not the Old Mother’s Universe that needs fixing, but the way we perceive it, the collective vision, which guides our acts. When we learn to see clearly both Creirwy* and Afagddu will be beautiful.

A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud Wikipedia Commons

*’The Region Linuis’ was first published in Heroic Fantasy HERE.
**Creirwy means ‘Lively Darling’. She is Afagddu’s beautiful (twin?) sister.

With thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the image ‘A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud’ by ESA/Hubble.

Shattered Vessels and Scattered Sparks

Notes on Welsh Mythology and Lurianic Kabbalah

In 2015 my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, showed me a cauldron filled with stars. Shortly afterwards I was transported into the scene in The Story of Taliesin, where Gwion Bach steals three drops of awen (1) and the cauldron breaks, spilling the deadly remnants of the brew across Gwyddno Garanhir’s lands. With it I saw the stars pouring out and was told by Gwyn my task was to gather them.

This story continues to play a guiding role in my path as an awenydd. I was recently astonished when I found similarities between my personal gnoses and Lurianic Kabbalah. This system was created by the Jewish Rabbi, Issac Luria (1534 – 1572) the Ari or the Holy Lion, who lived in Safed in Israel.

According to Luria Or Ein Sof ‘God’s Infinite Light’ was withdrawn in the Tzimtzum ‘contraction’ that made possible the creation of this finite world. The light continued to emanate through the ten eyes of Adam Kadmon ‘Primordial Man’. Each point of light formed the keter ‘crown’ of a sefirot ‘emanation’ in the world of Tohu ‘Chaos’. These lights were contained by ten vessels. Because the seven bottommost vessels could not contain the intensity of the lights they died, shattering, descending into Tohu. This was known as shevirat ha-kelim ‘the shattering of the vessels’. The three vessels at the top were more powerful and those lights continued to shine, emanating the Infinite Light.

Notozin ‘sparks’ of light clung to the fragments of the vessels. By the act of tikkun, the repair of the world above and below by gathering the sparks (seen both as divine light and holy souls)and returning them to the Creator the unity of the shattered God-Head could be re-established.

Parallels can be found between the broken cauldron and the shattered vessels and between tikkun and the task I was assigned by Gwyn, Gatherer of Souls, gathering the stars back into the cauldron. The three remaining vessels, emanating the Infinite Light, resemble the modern symbol for awen /I\.

In the Welsh myths the cauldron is the womb of Ceridwen. She is replaced as the source of awen and as a creator goddess by God in medieval poetry (2). Her cauldron lies in Annwn ‘the Deep’ and its guardian is Gwyn/Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it is stolen by Arthur and his men. We find the lines: ‘cledyf lluch Lleawc idaw ry dyrchit, / ac yn llaw Leminawc yd edewit’, ‘Lleog’s flashing sword was thrust into it, / and it was left in Lleminog’s hand’ (3). This potent image of violation is suggestive of the shattering of the cauldron in a lighting-flash and the theft of its pieces.

This scene might originate from an older creation myth akin to the Mesopotamian story of the slaying of the dragon-goddess, Tiamat ‘Deep’, by the lightning-god Marduk, and Indra’s release of the waters from the dragon, Vritra, by a thunderbolt in the Hindu tradition. In Genesis, before God creates the world, we are told ‘the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,’ suggesting the existence of an older water-deity.

The shattering of Ceridwen’s cauldron is the Big Bang, the moment of creation, when the waters spill out with the stars (4). Ceridwen may have created of her own will before Lleog broke her sacred vessel.

The cauldron is shattered repeatedly in Welsh mythology and these instances are bound up with the near-destruction of the world. In the Second Branch the cauldron breaks after pouring out the speechless dead in a battle that leaves only seven Britons alive and five pregnant women in Ireland. In The Story of Taliesin its breaking poisons Gwyddno’s lands. The survivors are left to pick up the pieces.

My task as an awenydd living in the Anthropocene, this Sixth Mass Extinction, precipitated by Lleog’s sword and Gwion’s theft of the awen shattering the cauldron, is to regather the stars. By gathering constellations of stories in service to Gwyn and Ceridwen I strive to repair the cauldron, the womb of Old Mother Universe, and mend the ways between Thisworld and Annwn. This is my Tikkun.

Photo by Marika Vinkmann on Unsplash

(1) The Welsh word for poetic inspiration stemming from the Indo-European *uel ‘to blow’ and sharing its root with awel ‘breeze’.
(2) This is evidenced in ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ and ‘The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin’ from The Book of Taliesin and the poems of Cuhelyn Fardd and Prydydd y Moch.
(3) Lleog ‘death-dealer’ (from Lleawc) and Lleminog ‘the leaper’ (from Leminawc) may be names of the same person, who may also be identified with Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the Fair-Haired One with the Skilful Hand’. It would certainly take his skill to steal the cauldron. All may be reflexes of the Pan-Celtic god, Lugus.
(4) This was suggested to me by an initiatory experience. After my first dedication to Gwyn, before the star cauldron (the candlelit White Spring at Glastonbury), I experienced swimming through a sea of stars.

SOURCES

Howard Schwartz, ‘How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism’, Tikkun
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Laurence Fine, ‘Tikkun in Lurianic Kabbalah’, My Jewish Learning
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Moshe Miller, ‘Shattered Vessels, Kabbalah Online
Patrick Ford (transl), Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
Genesis 1., New International Version, The International Bible Society

Those are but Devils

Witches dancing with devils from the History of Wizards and Witches 1720

An essay on the demonisation of Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwfn

Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic underworld. In two medieval Welsh texts he and the spirits he rules are identified with devils.

In How Culhwch Won Olwen we are told, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd… God has put the fury of the devils of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’

The introduction of God’s agency is clearly a Christian attempt to explain Gwyn’s containment of the spirits of Annwfn. These spirits include the restless dead who have died suddenly or violently:

Some headless stood upon the ground,
Some had no arms, and some were torn
With dreadful wounds, and some lay bound
Fast to the earth in hap forlorn.

And some full-armed on horses sat,
And some were strangled as at meat,
And some were drowned as in a vat,
And some were burned with fiery heat,
Wives lay in child-bed, maidens sweet…

…such the fairies seize and keep.

Others such as the Tylwyth Teg, ‘Fair Family’, or ‘fairies’ and ellyllon, ‘spectres’, ‘goblins’, ‘elves’ occupy a liminal position between life and death, humanity and nature, and mitigate between the worlds. Christians identify these complex and ambiguous spirits with dieuyl, ‘devils’.

Gwyn presents a paradox that does not sit easily with Christianity’s black-and-white theology: because he contains the spirits of Annwfn within him and/or within his realm he is the only being who can hold back their aryal, ‘fury’, and prevent them from destroying this world.

In The Life of St Collen, Collen, the abbot of Glastonbury, overhears two men conversing outside his cell saying Gwyn is ‘king of Annwfn and of the Fairies’. Putting his head out he shouts, ‘Hold your tongues quickly, those are but Devils’.

Collen is invited to feast in Gwyn’s castle on the Tor. There he refuses to eat, saying the food is ‘leaves’ and the red and blue clothing of Gwyn’s host signifies ‘burning’ and ‘coldness’; it is hellish. Collen supposedly banishes them with holy water.

***

Gwyn’s association with devils stems from a longstanding Christian tradition of identifying pagan deities with the Devil and demons and the realm of the dead with Hell. Any god who was not the one God, who demanded no other gods be worshipped before him, was seen as demonic.

In The Bible, Beelzebub, a Semitic deity originally called Baal-zebul, ‘Lord of Princes’, is equated with the Devil along with Satan and Lucifer. The ‘false gods’ of the Canaanites are referred to as ‘demons’ and the se’irim ‘hairy beings’ or satyros (ie. satyrs) as ‘goat-demons’.

The concept of Hell developed much later. In The Old Testament the original Hebrew word is Sheol, ‘the place of the dead’ (it is frequently translated as ‘the grave’). In The New Testament, Hell is translated from Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna. Hades means ‘the unseen place’ and is the name of the Greek underworld and its ruler. Tarturus is ‘the deep place’ beneath Hades. Contrastingly, Gehenna is a thisworldly place, the Valley of Hinnom, where the Kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire, leading to it being cursed.

Hell derives from the Old English hel or helle stemming from Proto-Germanic *haljo ‘the underworld’ or ‘concealed place’. Hel is also the name of its goddess. Ironically it is a borrowed pagan concept which is not of Biblical origin.

The idea of the land of the dead as a place of punishment by eternal fire was developed in the early days of the Church by scholars such as Second Clement, Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch as a means of controlling the populace. Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regus, was the first Christian leader to teach ‘the doctrine of eternal punishment’ during the 4th century.

Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, shares parallels with the other pagan underworlds and places of the dead. In medieval Welsh mythology there is plenty of evidence that, following their Christianisation between the 4th and 7th centuries, the Britons resisted the view that Annwfn was a place of punishment.

In ‘The First Branch’ of The Mabinogion and even in The Life of St Collen it is a place of beautiful courts and castles, lavishly dressed courtiers, and sumptuous feasts. These paradisal depictions are echoed in later fairylore demonstrating Annwfn became byd Tylwyth Teg, ‘Fairyland’ or ‘Faerie’.

Gwyn’s name means ‘White, Blessed, Holy’ and Gwynfa ‘Paradise’. In Barddas, Iolo Morganwg speaks of Cylch y Gwynvyd, ‘the Circle of White’, ‘the Holy World’ noting gwynvyd denotes ‘bliss or happiness’. Gwynfa and Gwynvyd might originate from a tradition wherein, like Hades and Hel, Gwyn and his realm bore identical names.

When Annwfn became Faerie its associations with the dead were severed and it was reduced to a fantasy realm. However, superstitions remain, many of these pertaining to the uncanny and dangerous nature of the fairies and their associations with abductions, madness, and death.

***

The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ contains Gwyn’s clearest literary representation as a pre-Christian god of the dead. Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as a ‘bull of battle’: a divine warrior and psychopomp. Other epithets include ‘awesome leader of many’, ‘invincible lord, and ‘lord of hosts’.

Gwyn’s identity as a death-god is revealed when he states he comes from ‘many battles, many deaths’. He asserts his presence at the deaths of Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Bran ap Ywerydd, Llachau ap Arthur, Meurig ap Careian, and Gwallog ap Lleynog before speaking the lines:

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.

Here Gwyn laments the downfall of the Brythonic kingdoms to the Anglo-Saxons and his living on as a gatherer of souls. He is a venerable figure. The only thing devilish about him is the bull-horns.

Contrastingly How Culhwch Won Olwen presents Gwyn as a sinister being and pits him against Arthur: a champion of Christianity who rose to popularity by slaughtering and subordinating a variety of Annuvian deities, ancestral animals, giants, and witches.

It is my belief that Arthur’s overcoming of Gwyn was a primary step in the destruction of Brythonic Paganism and the assertion of Christianity. Gwyn’s mythos had to be erased and reconfigured in a new literature documenting his defeat and replacement by Arthur as a protector of Britain who fights against the ‘devils’ of Annwfn rather than containing their fury.

In How Culhwch Won Olwen Arthur intercedes in the ancient seasonal struggle between Gwyn, ‘Winter’, and Gwythyr, ‘Summer’, for their beloved, Creiddylad, a fertility goddess. Gwyn takes Creiddylad from Gwythyr by force, presumably abducting her to Annwfn, explaining the coming of winter on Calan Gaeaf.

Gwythyr raises an army and attacks Gwyn. It might be assumed they also descend to Annwfn. Gwyn defeats them singlehandedly and imprisons Gwythyr and seven of his men. The imprisonment of Summer in Annwfn may also be part of a mythos explaining the rule of Winter.

During their imprisonment Gwyn kills Nwython and feeds his heart to his son, Cyledyr, who goes mad. Whether this scene should be read as a punishment for invading Annwfn demonstrating Gwyn’s furious nature, a muddled echo of a rite transferring ancestral strength from father to son, or Christian propaganda demonising Gwyn remains uncertain.

Whatever the case, Arthur comes to the rescue, presumably storming Gwyn’s prison in Annwfn. He defeats Gwyn, then binds Gwyn and Gwythyr in battle for Creiddylad every Calan Mai until Judgement Day. Arthur’s agency is introduced to explain an existing duel on Calan Mai where Winter is defeated and Creiddylad returns to this world, explaining the rule of Summer. The purpose is to display Arthur’s control over these two old seasonal gods and Creiddylad who he locks in her father’s house saying neither can take her until Judgement Day!

The scene where Gwyn and Gwythyr appear together as advisors to Arthur on his assault on Orddu, ‘the Very Black Witch’, who lives in Pennant Gofid, ‘The Valley of Grief’ in ‘the uplands of Hell’ is again designed to demonstrate his power over them and this Annuvian woman, who he slices in half with his knife, Carwennan, before draining her blood.

It is notable that Gwythyr’s father, Greidol, ‘Scorcher’, is one of Arthur’s forty-two counsellors and Gwythyr’s daughter, Gwenhwyfar, is married to Arthur. This is suggestive of a long-standing alliance between Arthur and the powers of summer against winter and death.

The rescued prisoners join Arthur on his hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. That Gwyn must be found before the hunt can start suggests Gwyn was its original leader. Gwyn’s identity as a hunter god is suggested by his ownership of a white stallion, Carngrwn, ‘Round-Hoofed’, and white red-nosed hound, Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’. In Welsh folklore Gwyn and the Cwn Annwfn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, hunt the souls of the dead. He is the Brythonic leader of the Wild Hunt.

Twrch Trwyth’s transformation from a human king into a boar hints at the tradition of a soul hunt. Arthur’s usurpation of Gwyn’s hunt and its depiction as just a boar hunt marks the end of the mythos featuring Gwyn as a god of the dead and leader of the Wild Hunt.

Many of Arthur’s famous landmarks, including Carn Cafall, where the footprint of Arthur’s gigantic dog was left during the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, may formerly have been associated with Gwyn and Dormach.

The Spoils of Annwfn’ shares similarities with Arthur’s attack on Gwyn suggesting they are two different variants of the same story. Taliesin, the narrator, accompanies Arthur on his journey to seven otherworldly fortresses (which I believe may be faces of the same fort) where he takes on Pen Annwfn, ‘the Head of Annwfn’.

Storming the glass walls and defeating six thousand unspeaking dead men in a devastating battle, Arthur and his raiding party rescue Gweir (who may be equated with Graid, one of Gwyn’s prisoners), steal the legendary Brindled Ox, and seize ‘the Cauldron of the Head of Annwfn’. Escaping with only seven survivors Arthur slams ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut.

Arthur’s defeat of the Head of Annwfn and seizure of his cauldron represent the triumph of Christianity over Paganism, the realm of death, the dead and their ruler, and the mysteries of death and rebirth.

It is no coincidence that Arthur’s raid on Annwfn shares parallels with Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ (harrow comes from the Old English hergian ‘to harry or despoil’). Between his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus descended to Hell to preach to ‘the imprisoned spirits’ and liberate the righteous who had been trapped there since the beginning of the world (the damned were left to stay!) triumphing over the realm of the dead and death itself.

It is my intuition that prior to Christianity and Arthur’s rise to popularity the series of fortresses might have formed part of a Brythonic tradition documenting the descent of the soul to Annwfn. They would have been approached respectfully with due ritual rather than assaulted and despoiled, their guardians killed, their treasures stolen.

***

The demonisation of Annwfn is shown by lines from several poems in The Book of Taliesin equating it with Hell (translated from Uffern which originates from the Latin Inferno ‘underworld’).

And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned

What is the measure of Hell?
How thick its veil,
how wide its mouth,
how big are its baths?

Madawg…
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Hell.

Gwyn’s loss of status as a god of the dead led to him being demonised as a demon huntsman who hunted the souls of sinners. His role became punitive as he was subsumed within Christianity’s doctrine of fear and control as a devilish figure.

Charles Squire writes, ‘Gwyn… his game is man… the “mighty hunter”, not of deer, but of men’s souls, riding his demon horse, and cheering on his demon hound to the fearful chase’.

John Rhys notes, ‘What Gwyn hunts are the souls of those who are dying; but Christianity has greatly narrowed his hunting ground, as his quarry can now only be souls of notoriously wicked men.’

Folkloric stories featuring horned figures and/or the devil, Tywsog Annwfn, ‘Prince of Annwfn’, might originally have featured Gwyn, a ‘bull of battle’ who wears bull-horns. The following example is recorded by John Rhys:

‘Ages ago as a man who had been engaged on business, not the most creditable in the world, was returning in the depth of night across Cefn Creini, and thinking in a downcast frame of mind over what he had been doing, he heard in the distance a low and fear-inspiring bark; then another bark, and another, and then half a dozen more. Ere long he became aware that he was being pursued by dogs, and that they were the Cwn Annwfn. He beheld them coming: he tried to flee, but he felt quite powerless and could not escape. Nearer and nearer they came, and he saw the shepherd with them: his face was black and he had horns on his head.’

John Rhys argues this black-faced, horned ‘shepherd’ is Gwyn. This representation is clearly influenced by Biblical tradition, perhaps by the following passage containing Cyril of Alexandria’s interpretation of John 10: 12-13:

‘the father of sin used to put us in Hades like sheep, delivering us over to death as our shepherd, according to what is said in the Psalms: but the really Good Shepherd died for our sakes, that He might take us out of the dark pit of death and prepare to enfold us among the companies of heaven, and give unto us mansions above, even with the Father, instead of dens situated in the depths of the abyss or the recesses of the sea.’

Again we return to Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ and his triumph over the realm of the dead. This story forms a large part of the hubristic anthropocentric worldview where ‘Man’ (Jesus/Arthur) conquers all, including death and its deities, which has led to the Anthropocene.

***

For many centuries Christianity has cut us off from the magical underworld beneath our feet and from its deities who we have been taught to fear as devils. As the hegemony of Christianity and its bed-partner, Empire, fail, leaving a void filled by consumerism, materialism, right-wing populism, and regressive nationalisms the need arises to reconnect with the gods of the deep.

Within Brythonic culture there is a tradition of spirit-work referred to by Gerald of Wales. He speaks of awenyddion, ‘people inspired’, ‘the soothsayers of this nation’ who are possessed by and speak with the aid of spirits and receive inspiration from dreams.

Following their example we can rebuild our relationship with the spirits of Annwfn. This isn’t an easy path to take as they have long been demonised, shut out, ignored. The restless dead are growing in number as more people die in war and fall victim to the exploitation of capitalism. They can indeed be furious. As can the fairies who mitigate between the worlds and have witnessed our untrammelled destruction of nature and ignorance of Annwfn.

Yet we have a responsibility to them, to the ‘others’, that deserves a response. Their fury demands the destruction of the exploitative systems of this world and the replacement of the shallow facade of consumer culture with a mythos rich and deep in meaning based in respectful relationship with all beings, human and non-human, living and dead.

Within Brythonic tradition Awen, ‘divine inspiration’, the source of mythic meaning, flows from Annwfn.

The Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it,
A river while it flows,
I know its extent;
I know when it disappears;
I know when it fills;
I know when it overflows;
I know when it shrinks;
I know what base
There is beneath the sea.

Our existing mythology and folklore shows there are ways into Annwfn/Faerie that are not only traversed by the likes of Arthur but by children, drunkards, poets, fiddlers, and dancers. Admittedly the risk is madness or death, but those who pass the initiatory challenges of the Fairy Kings and Queens emerge with the Awen to guide the way into a better world.

Capitalism thrives on its domination of meaning. With Awen from Annwfn we create our own.

/I\

Gwyn ap Nudd
guide of souls
light of the mist
show us Annwfn’s
disturbing beauty:
shining butterflies
worm-faced death.

Let your dragons
grant us Awen from
unquenchable wells.
Let us be possessed
and ride the fury
of your spirits
into the next world.

***

SOURCES

Charles Squire, Celtic Myths and Legends, (Lomond Books, 1905)
Dennis Bratcher, ‘Demons in the Old Testament: Issues in Translation
Edward Eyre Hunt, (transl), Sir Orfeo, (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Gerald of Wales, Description of Wales, Awen ac Awenydd
John Rhys, Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx, Volume 1, (Forgotten Books, 2015),
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Elibron Classics, 2005)
Greg Hill (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Way of the Awenydd
Iolo Morganwg, Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
Lady Charlotte Guest (transl), ‘Gwyn and St Collen’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective
Marged Haycock, (transl), ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS Publications, 2015)
Saint Cyril, Saint Cyril Collection, (Aeterna Press, 2016),
Sioned Davies, (transl), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene, Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books, 2007)

*This essay was first published in A Beautiful Resistance 4.

On Vocation and the Mystical Collage

Vocation, from the Latin vocatio ‘a call or summons’ by God/a god, is rarely discussed in the Pagan communities, yet it is central to other religions. Why the silence? Is it because not all Pagans see Paganism as a religion? Because not all are called to revere and worship and serve the gods? If only a few of us receive such a calling and there is no framework of support within the major Pagan organisations, how do we navigate the highs and lows, the trials and pitfalls, of trying to live a vocation that has no precedent in the modern world and cannot be wholly reconstructed from the ancient?

These are questions I have been faced with, have wrestled with, have returned to time and time again during the last seven years over which I’ve finally responded to my calling by serving an apprenticeship to the Brythonic god Gwyn ap Nudd and making a lifelong dedication to him as his awenydd.

At the very beginning I knew of no-one else who had a received calling from a god. Having discovered the awen and the Brythonic myths through Druidry I met others within the Oak and Feather Grove and the Druid Network who offered support, but only a few who could relate to my experiences.

Only a few people experienced the awen as a burning all-consuming force demanding total dedication, that could only be quenched in the ice of a death-god, that would only be satisfied when its flames were seared as words onto a page, the cost of whose burning is burn-out and the ashes of depression.

Thus, for the most part, I stumbled through the mist and the darkness with the guidance of my god as my only certainty and, in my darkest moments, sometimes wondered if I could even trust him, he of many names and guises, whose realm is one of uncertainty and illusion, whose hounds are not always hounds. (So far his lack of pretences to truth and lack of false promises have always proved true).

Through speaking openly about my experiences and reaching out to others I slowly began to find other polytheists who had experienced a similar calling and shared all the same problems. The main one being that we have no support structure, no guidance, no place within secular society or the big religions. That we all know in our hearts what we are doing by building devotional relationships with the gods and spirits of the land and bringing inspiration to our communities has value, but this cannot be seen or understood by a society that values material wealth and economic growth above all else.

Because of this it is impossible to make a living from such a vocation. Yet some people manage to find careers through which it might be expressed such as teaching, counselling, conservation; some even get paid for their art. Others take any job that pays the bills and leaves the mind free for the true work.

I am currently making a small amount of income from book sales, writing for Gods & Radicals, and from my Patreon supporters, and have been able to live off this because my parents put me up. However, as this ultimately unsustainable, I am aware the time has arrived to return to part-time work.

Perhaps this has always been the case. Mysticism has never spoken to the masses, yet for those who follow such a path, the words of the mystics of the past are like bright shining jewels that glitter above the abyss, and can be life saving. Thus I write to add words born out of dedication to my gods to that glittering collage in the hope they will shine for others in the future.

flower-frost-stone-coral-eye-violet-614138-pxhere.com-creative-commons

The question I pose to others is how can we support each other when there is no institutional support? How can we make our collage outshine the allure of goods and wealth? How can we work together as co-creators of a world in which the gods are honoured and the land and its spirits are respected?

One of the reasons Greg Hill and myself set up the Awen ac Awenydd website and several awenyddion set up the Facebook group was to create an online space for such discussions. I’d be interested to hear the response of people from the wider Pagan and Polytheist communities.