On Becoming Gwyn’s Awenydd

Gwyn Altar

In Pum Llyfr Cerddwriaeth (1570) Simwnt Fychan lists three main stages of poet-hood; disgybl ysbâs heb radd, ‘unqualified apprentice’, disgybl disgyblaidd ‘qualified apprentice’, and pencerdd ‘master poet’.

In January 2013 I took vows to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god of the dead and ruler of Annwn, embarking on an apprenticeship to him that would lead me to becoming a disgybl disgyblaidd and his awenydd.

Undertaking an apprenticeship to a god is little known or spoken about in the Western world. In English schools the myths of ancient Britain contained in medieval Welsh literature are not taught. The names of the gods and spirits associated with our localities are not told. Nobody speaks of Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld, as a place of initiation. An apprenticeship is a route to a secular career rather than to a vocation, a word stemming from vocātiō, a call or summons by the divine.

Because of this I did not recognise the first intimations of my calling. I did not understand the impulse that led me to read, walk, dance, drink myself to the heights of ecstatic visions, to the depths of abyssal despair. Lacking the framework of religion or knowledge of shamanistic experience I did not know whether my visions or the beings I saw were real or symptoms of madness.

Not knowing that it was possible to communicate with them (speaking back would mean I was surely mad!), to walk the Otherworld with will and intention, I could neither embrace or shrug off my calling. I stumbled through life like a drunken teenager, failing in my ambitions to become a philosophy lecturer, a riding instructor, or a fantasy writer because none fulfilled this inexplicable urge.

It was only after learning about the revival of animism and polytheism in the West that I realised my experiences were real and meaningful. That it was possible to communicate with gods and spirits. When Gwyn showed up when I was thirty years old I finally put a face to that calling and understood that my visions were of his realm, Annwn/Faerie, and his people, the spirits of Annwn/fairies.

My life suddenly made sense. Following a haunting vision of a satyr-like spirit in my local woodland in the depths of winter who spoke the words ‘a sadness is coming this land – you must become Gwyn’s apprentice’ I knew for sure what was already in my heart and the depths of my soul; that I must devote myself to Gwyn.

So I made three vows to Gwyn at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor: to honour him daily, to stand in my truth, and to walk between the worlds with reverence. I chose this place not only because it is Gwyn’s best known sacred site, but because of powerful experiences at Glastonbury Festival I believe were associated with this enigmatic god and his bright spirits.

Soon afterwards the name of the vocation I was working towards as an apprentice was revealed. I was to become Gwyn’s awenydd – a spirit worker and inspired poet who travels between the worlds questing the awen, the divine breath of inspiration, from the land and the depths of Annwn.

During my apprenticeship to Gwyn I have learnt and done far more than I ever did at university. Gwyn has taught me how to journey back into the land’s deep memories to retrieve stories from distant times, those of ancestors who have left little or no trace, or have been erased by the victors.

Gwyn has taken me deeper into Annwn, where history fades into myth, to reveal the extent of the atrocities committed against his people by Christian warriors such as Arthur and his warband and by ‘saints’ and the effect on our psyche of our violent separation from our ancient deities and the Otherworld. To me he gave the task of revealing and thus beginning the process of healing these wounds.

Gwyn finally called upon me to recover his forgotten mythos from the mists of time, from the pens of Christian scribes bent on portraying him and his spirits as demons; to give voice to the inspired ones who have served him, whose souls he has gathered, since the last of the ice departed from this land.

I have recorded my personal journey since its beginning along with my research and creative writing on my blog and now have nearly a thousand followers and several patrons who support my work. I have shared my poems and stories in individual and group performances in my local area. At Pagan events in the North West of England and beyond I have spoken on the lore of the land and the Brythonic gods.

With the launch of Gatherer of Souls, my devotional book for Gwyn and Annuvian counter-narrative to Arthurian mythology, my apprenticeship is complete. I am now a disgybl disgyblaidd and his awenydd. Whether I will ever reach, or want to reach, the Taliesinic heights of pencerdd is doubtful.

I am currently happy knowing that I am one of the first of a new generation of awenyddion to complete something ancient and profound, with knowing the joy of being devoted to this terrible beautiful god whose mists shroud the mysteries of the Otherworld; that the well of learning is infinite.

I am planning to take new lifelong vows to Gwyn as his awenydd here in Penwortham, where he first appeared to me in person and where most of my work for him takes place, on this January’s full moon.

Mist and Darkness and the Road to Joy – The Completion of Gatherer of Souls

P1240462 - Copy - Copy - Copy

Over the past three years I have been working on a book for Gwyn ap Nudd, my patron god, to whom I devoted myself five years ago in January at the White Spring in Glastonbury.

At first I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. It began simply as ‘Gwyn’s Book’. Because I am based in Lancashire and so many other writers have explored his connections with Glastonbury and Wales I decided to focus on his stories originating from the Old North, which are found in The Black Book of Carmarthen and Culhwch and Olwen.

After some time he made it clear that he did not want me to write an academic book (I therefore published my research on my website HERE) or  simply repeat the old tales penned by Christian scribes. Instead he wanted me to peel back the golden patina, expose the atrocities committed against him and the people of Annwn by Arthur, and journey back to the roots of his mythos in pre-Christian times when he was venerated as a god of the dead and gatherer of souls.

I met with other Inspired Ones who served him and whose souls he gathered such as the ancient ancestors of Orddu, ‘Very Black’, the Last Witch of Pennant Gofid; the northern British prophets Myrddin and his sister Gwenddydd; witches who flew with him between sky and air; wild women, madmen, poets, broken dreamers whose dreams have never been recorded.

I was prompted to explore how the closing of the doors of Annwn led to the sense of disconnection and soul loss that forms the void at the heart of the Anthropocene and to see the wonder in Gwyn’s reappearance on the brink of time as the Anglo-American Empire, which has its roots in Arthur uniting Britain under ‘One King, One God, One Law’, begins to fall.

My devotional journey has had its ups and downs. Sometimes it has felt like an endless ‘wow’ as I’ve discovered faces of Gwyn as yet unrecorded and hidden facets of his nature. At others, when I’ve been stuck in the Arthurian stories, unable to see beneath or get a break through, or I’ve written Gwyn’s voice wrong, I’ve felt frustrated, awkward, unworthy, and utterly inept. Yet I never once thought about giving up as I knew it was something I had to do.

Because there are no groups in the North West of England who venerate the Brythonic gods and goddesses or work experientially with our native myths my journey has been a lonely one. At low points I have contemplated joining the Anglesey Druid Order and even becoming a nun (when I hit thirty-five I realised it was my last chance!) although within I have known that my path in life is to walk with Gwyn even when all he can offer is “mist, darkness, and uncertainty”.

I’ve seen writing this book through to the end because serving him as an awenydd, although sometimes tough – Gwyn is the god who contains the fury of the spirits of Annwn and he is that fury just as he is the god who gathers the dead with love and compassion – is a source of deep and profound joy. Walking with him, whether through the starlit skies, or industrial smog, or blood-strewn battlefields, or the healing woodlands of Celyddon has always felt utterly right.

Gatherer of Souls is a book of new visions of the forgotten mythos of Gwyn ap Nudd  recorded in poems and stories to be published on Gwyn’s Feast, September the 29th, this year.

Over the past week I have read it out loud to Gwyn and it feels fitting that he has approved it as we approach the eclipse of the super blue wolf moon.

Fairy Lights and The Strangeness, Fishergate

Last night I dreamt I was watching a television programme in my living room. Somehow I entered it and became an active participant. With a group of friends I was preparing to stage a protest. For it to succeed, a special light on a tree needed to be changed. I ran with a blonde, sporty woman (who I did not know) across a car park to the tree, which stood on the end of a busy city street I identified as Fishergate in Preston.

The lights were off. The one we had to change looked more like a silver Christmas decoration and stood out as markedly special and ‘other.’ As the woman started taking it down, chatting easily, she paused. Her expression froze into uncanny wistfulness and her gaze grew distant. Speaking in a voice from far away, she told me “it belonged to Gwyn ap Nudd.”

I knew at this point (somehow being outside the programme and within it) the words and memory that possessed her were not her own. Like in a film there was powerful, beautiful music. A strange wind blew, stripping away the façade of the city streets. I had a profound sense of another landscape stirring and awaking at the sound of Gwyn’s name. Once the strangeness had blown over, the woman began chatting normally as if nothing had happened and traffic started driving past again.

Throughout the preparations there were rumours about the massing of an army of otherworldly beings. As someone in the programme with an audience member’s knowledge I knew they were the fay / Gwyn’s hunt and could sense them gathering in clouds and forests somewhere behind. I had the feeling they might disrupt the clash between the two sides in the protest. As audience, I was aware this was the part I was looking forward to.

This awareness brought me back to my living room to see the credits rolling down the screen…

***

The dream inspired me to walk into Preston at dusk tonight. Several months ago, Fishergate (the high street) was pedestrianised. The road was narrowed to make way for wider pavements and as a final touch, trees. Delighted when I saw first saw them, I walked the street, greeting them in turn and welcoming them to the city.

Since the Christmas lights went off, the trees have been lit by fairy lights. Following rain and hail, the pavements gleamed. Reflected in windscreens the lights shone like cold stars, miniscule glances leaping from fragments of hail.

Fishergate, PrestonIdentifying the tree from my dream, I noticed all the lights were working.

Tree, FishergateI stood with the tree for a short while. Crossing the road and looking back, I saw huge dark ominous clouds gathering over the County Hall, which is where the anti-fracking protests will take place on the 28th and 29th of January.

Fishergate, County HallThe music of hail came down. An immense strangeness like none I had known before came over the city. I felt as if I stood in another Preston where the landscape was more than it was by the strange life of those lights against winter’s silver-grey sky. Everything seemed more profound and enthused with meaning, although I couldn’t divine what the exact meaning was.

Fairy LightWhat happened to the silvery light, which belonged to Gwyn ap Nudd and led me to the strangeness remains uncertain.

Gwyn’s Apprenticeship and the Role of the Awenydd

Moon over Castle HillAfter two years studying Druidry (and many years prior to this of searching) on the morning of the winter solstice I received a name for my spiritual path- Awenydd. It was a gift, bestowed by Gwyn ap Nudd (1) and the spirits of my local landscape.

Over the past year my path has grown to centre on my apprenticeship to Gwyn, which began when I made a vow to him as my patron at Glastonbury’s White Spring last January. This role has involved learning more deeply the life cycles of the trees, plants and wildlife of my local area, journeying to meet their spirits and travelling into the land’s past to learn its history. With Gwyn’s guidance I have journeyed the Otherworld, gaining direct experience of realms such as Annwn and Faery, met their inhabitants and borne witness to mythic events.

In exchange I have strived to share this magic through poetry with the aim of revealing my local landscape as inspirited and communicating my vision of the Otherworld. I believe this serves Gwyn for it his task as a king of the Otherworld and leader of the Wild Hunt to maintain the dynamic between the worlds lest this one be destroyed (2). Being gifted with the role of the Awenydd seems to be a natural development of this relationship.

An early description of the Awenyddion can be found in Giraldus Cambrensis’ 12th century manuscript, Description of Wales.

‘There are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a connected manner; but the person who skilfully observes them, will find, after many preambles, and many nugatory and incoherent, though ornamented speeches, the desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: they are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep, and, as it were, by violence compelled to return to their proper senses. After having answered the questions, they do not recover till violently shaken by other people; nor can they remember the replies they have given. If consulted a second or third time upon the same point, they will make use of expressions totally different; perhaps they speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits. These gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; others fancy that a written schedule is applied to their mouths and on awaking they publicly declare that they have received this gift.’ (3)

When I first read this passage a couple of years back I found little I could relate to. Returning to consider it now I find the ideas more resonant.

A phrase which immediately stands out is that the Awenyddion are people inspired. Within the Bardic Tradition I have found the predominance of structured courses of training and people’s preconceptions about the role of the Bard problematic. Experience has taught me I cannot learn stories or poems by rote. Myths and the deities within them have a life of their own, calling through Bardic, folkloric and contemporary texts, or revealing themselves in the landscapes of either world to impart the gifts of inspiration and transformation when the time is right.

Following a conversation with a visiting speaker at my local pagan society, who when I named my path as “Druid Bard” assumed I was of the ‘Bardic Grade’ and completing a ‘gwers’ within OBOD I began to question (and not for the first time) whether this name was a true fit with my spirituality.

During this period I asked Gwyn how my apprenticeship related to Druidry. He told me my role is bound up with the primal Awen, which flows before thought through all things. This supported my suspicion that true inspiration can only speak when systems, concepts and fear of other people’s opinions are set aside. Only by listening directly to the Awen and my own intuition could I become a person inspired and create works worthy of sharing with others.

Another point of resonance is that inspiration is a gift from the spirits, through possession, dreams, milk or honey or a ‘written schedule.’

I’ve never been possessed in the sense of losing my senses and being unable to recall what happened afterward. However I have channelled the voices of spirits and deities whilst writing poetry. During a writing trance visions have appeared where they have revealed themselves in new ways and I’ve recognised their guiding hand even when making finishing touches, in the gift of a completing image or right feeling of a word.

I’ve also been gifted with inspiration in dreams. One of my most significant dreams was when I learnt the identity of my white totem mare. She appeared to me winged and I joined consciousness with her to fly to the top of Castle Hill, a local sacred site. Another important dream occurred the night before my birthday. After seeing a moon bridge in the river Ribble I dreamt of questioning a series of gnarled fay in a cave in Castle Hill. When I realised the process was futile Gwyn appeared and inquired why I hadn’t asked him. By this time I had forgotten the question. The dream conveyed a powerful message about the ethos of questioning in the realms of Faery and dream.

The mention of milk or honey puts me in mind of mead, which in my experience certainly inspires connection with the spirits, writing processes, performances and rituals. The image of the ‘written schedule’ touching an Awenydd’s lips seems to symbolize direct inspiration through the written word.

In the modern world the role of the Awenydd is not limited to ecstatic prophets. Kristoffer Hughes places ‘becoming Awenydd’ – ‘becoming the inspirer’ at the core of Druidry. He says ‘they were the enlightened ones, those who serve, those who inspire to bring others into the mystery of spirit and the great song… by inspiration.’ (4)

Elen Sentier is an ‘awenydd, a spirit keeper and taleweaver from a long family lineage.’ She describes this path as ‘British native shamanism.’ (5) Alongside her reindeer goddess, Elen of the Ways she works with Gwyn as ‘the goddess’ guardian.’ Part of her work involves tracing Elen’s Deer Trods which are also the ‘energy roads’ down which Gwyn leads the Wild Hunt. Many of these are ‘spirit paths’ taking souls to the Otherworld (6) and correspond with corpse roads such as Church Avenue on Castle Hill.

For me the name Awenydd has a magic born of its direct connection with the spiritual source which flows through the land defying all systems and can only be spoken in poetry. My role as an Awenydd is one that I only have intimations of at present- small clues to the potential of learning with the leader of the wild chase and king of the Otherworld to travel the spirit paths and experience the mysteries of the primal Awen in order to return as the inspirer.

(1) Gwyn ap Nudd is a Brythonic deity. His name means White Son of Mist. He is a king of the Otherworld, leader of the wild hunt and guide of souls.
(2) Evidence of this role is found in The Mabinogion, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found- God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’ Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(3) http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1092/pg1092.html
(4) Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (2007), p67
(5) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), pvii
(6) Ibid. p26-28

Honouring Gwyn ap Nudd

Glastonbury Tor, January 2013On the Winter Solstice a post for Winter’s King.

Samhain has passed. We’re in the dead season. The wild hunt rides the passageways of time and spirit paths lie open. Communities gather and ancestors draw close. Here I feel called to honour Gwyn ap Nudd by telling the story of how he became my muse and patron and made my life whole.

My first meeting with Gwyn took place at the nadir of a crisis. At the end of August 2012 I reached a point of conflict between my spiritual path and ambition to become a professional writer. After two years work completing a fantasy novel I realised its world was too complex and the language too heavy, it held little relevance or hope for a contemporary audience and was at odds with my developing relationship with the land and its myths.

His first appearance was at the head of a fairy procession at a local sacred site. Although I knew of the legend of the fairy funeral I didn’t think I’d encounter it directly nor did I suspect it would be led by a Welsh Fairy King. Yet Gwyn made his name and message clear. The myths of this land are real and he could help me access them. He challenged me to journey with him to the Otherworld, the condition of his guidance being that I lay aside my personal ambitions.

I spent several days considering- could I truly give up my ambition to become a professional writer? How would this change my life? How did I know I could trust him? What if I didn’t come back? Yet this experience, although it was confusing and terrifying felt more powerful and real than anything that had ever happened to me. I knew it was a once in a life time opportunity and I’d only get one chance. I returned to the fairy site and agreed.

Gwyn opened the gates to the past of this land and its myths. With his guidance I learnt how to ride the skies and ancestral pathways on my white mare, viewing the landscape’s lineaments from contemporary suburbia to medieval farmland, oak wood and peat bog to tundra and the age of ice. I met with ancestral people, the ghosts of trees and stampeding aurochs. I entered Faery and descended to Annwn.

Yet I still questioned what a deity associated with Wales and Glastonbury was doing in Lancashire. Reading his myths I realised two of Gwyn’s main stories- the abduction of Creiddylad and Arthur’s slaying of Orddu take place in the North. In the conversation with Gwyddno Garanhir, which depicts his role gathering the souls of the battle dead Gwyn says:

‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the North;
I am alive, they in their graves!
I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the South
I am alive, they in death!’

Gwyn is not only a king of Annwn and the fairies but a traveller between the worlds and across the landscape of Britain, maintaining the bonds between nature and humanity, the living and the dead. As a ruler and guide of this isle’s ancestral people his turning up at the head of a local fairy procession was not out of place.

Reassessing my past experiences I realised this wasn’t the first time I’d felt his influence. At Glastonbury festival in my late teens the veil had been lifted to reveal a vision of the Otherworld, a place I now recognise as Gwynfyd, which was coupled with a feeling of truth and ecstatic unity. Thirteen years later he had finally made his presence known, leading me from the cycle of aspiration, failure and frustration caused by my ambition to be a writer back to this magical unison with the land and its myths. He had made my life whole. In January I returned to Glastonbury and made my vow to him at the White Spring.

Since then my relationship with Gwyn has been a constant source of support and inspiration. Whilst the only piece of literature I know of that might link him with the Bardic Tradition is a reference in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ to the Chief of Annwn possessing a cauldron warmed by the breath of nine maidens, I see him as a god of primal poetry- the wild Awen that thunders like the hunt through space and time and exists in the magic of nature, the songs of the fay and wisdom of the ancestors.

With his guidance I have discovered ways of connecting more deeply with the land and its spirits, its known myths and some unknown ones (a couple of which correspond with factual evidence!). In return I strive to communicate what I have learnt through written and spoken words to maintain the bonds between nature and humanity, this world and the Otherworlds.

And so, as we gather in the dead season, the wild hunt rides and spirit paths lie open I choose this time to tell this story to thank and honour Gwyn ap Nudd.