King Fishing

I.

Your azure blue splash.

The quickness
of your dive.

Your kiss of fire.

Your splendour.

Your spine-snapping
savagery.

II.
Your body weight
in fish eaten

every day

fishing for
each of your young.

Your aeronautics.

III.
You were here
before someone wounded
the Fisher King

red dripping into blue

the blood from
his groin

like blood
from his queen’s
menses

flowing into the sea

(when male and female
had to bleed).

IV.
You were here
before the fae danced
in your colours

in the hall
of the King of Annwn
like devils

burning red
and cooling blue.

V.
You sat on your perch
and you watched

the gods –

some say
you advised
the Fisher King.

VI.
His wound

is beginning to heal
with the demise

of industry.

The red rivers
are flowing blue.

VII.
You are no longer
a myth

we cannot reach

on boats
of fish bones

sailing for halcyon days

because
they are here
like you

on this river.

VIII.
The Fisher King
is fishing.

The red world
is turning
blue.

This poem is the third of three pieces about creatures who build their nests in sandy banks and can be seen at Brockholes Nature Reserve. I wrote it a couple of weeks ago when I was applying for a paid traineeship on the Kingfisher Trail – a 14 mile recreational route following the rivers of the Croal-Irwell Valley connecting ‘the rural West Pennine Moors to the urban communities of Bolton, Bury, and Salford’ (HERE). Although I didn’t get the job (of 300 applicants I made the top three) I intend to walk the trail.

In this poem I link the kingfisher to Nodens/Nudd, an ancient British god of hunting, fishing, healing and dreams, from whose mythos the story of the Fisher King may have arisen (although Brân is a candidate too) and to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faery, whose people make merry in red and blue costumes in his feasting hall.

Coincidentally, around the same time, Gwilym Morus-Baird published a video on ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (HERE) where he discusses the symbology of Gwyn’s people wearing red and blue, which might have alchemical significance. Intriguingly he linked this to the two streams, Y Gwter Las and Y Gwter Goch which flow into Llyn y Fan Fach, the location of a story where a fairy bride is given away by a Fairy King-like figure.

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.’

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Gwyllon: ‘Wyllt-ness’ and the Healing Power of Art

Barrow Mound, Fulwood

The wight whose footsteps I heard
imprinted on my cold soul,
the cold marrow of my bones.
He walked in soul as his bones laid still
and my soul reached out to him:
another one of the gwyllon.

The glimmer of fairy lights.
This place secluded and so still.

Fulwood Barrow MoundSometimes you stumble somewhere and forget yourself. No longer breathing. In the time of the gods. You hear the footsteps of a deity. Not your deity. But one connected with him.

***

In the mythology of ancient Britain, Gwyn ap Nudd (a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead) is intimately connected with ‘gwyllon’: madmen, wildmen, wraiths, who through some traumatic experience have become ‘outside themselves’, open to the otherworld, ‘wyllt’.

The most famous is Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin is a golden-torqued warrior of the court of the northern British ruler, Gwenddolau, who becomes wyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd; a conflict between Brythonic kinsmen renowned for its carnage and futility.

Looking across the battlefield, stricken with guilt because his sister Gwendydd’s sons are amongst the dead, Myrddin sees an unendurable brightness and martial battalion in the sky. It seems possible this is Gwyn (‘white’ ‘blessed’ holy’ from Vindos or Vindonnus ‘white’ ‘clear light, white’) and his host: the spirits of Annwn and the war-dead, approaching to gather their kindred to the otherworld.

‘Torn out of himself’ by one of these spirits, Myrddin flees to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest). He wanders there ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon’. These gwyllon are ‘seven score men’ who also fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished.

Similar cases are found in The Triads of the Island of Britain: ‘Tri Gwyd Ellyll Ynys Brydein’ ‘Three Wild Spectres of the Island of Britian’. The notes state ‘ydellyll’ (for ‘gwyd ellyll?’) ‘occurs in the Gododdin in reference to furious activity in battle’ and could relate to tales of men who become wyllt as a consequence of war.

What makes Myrddin’s story unique is his recovery. Amongst wild creatures of the forest; a piglet, a wolf and a favourite apple tree he undergoes a healing process through which he learns the art of poetry and uses it to prophecy against future bloodshed.

***

Cyledyr Wyllt possesses an entirely different story. In Culhwch and Olwen, after Gwyn abducts Creiddylad, his rival Gwythyr ap Greidol raises an army of northern men to win her back. Amongst them are Cyledyr and his brother, Pen, his father Nwython and his great grand-father’s brother, Gwrgst Ledlwm. If Gwrgst is still living this means Cyledyr must be in his teens.

Gwythyr and his army attack Gwyn. My intuition is this attack represents a raid on Annwn. Gwyn triumphs over Gwythyr and the northern men and takes them prisoner. During their captivity he kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who goes mad. The etymological links between Cyledyr and Celyddon suggest that, like Myrddin, he flees to the forest.

Gwyn’s motive for torturing Cyledyr is never explained. Did he do it from fury? For vengeance? Did he have some darker purpose in feeding a young man his father’s heart? Could this have originated from some arcane rite of the past whereby the strength of one’s ancestors was conferred by eating their flesh, of which Gwyn makes a mockery?

Another question worth asking is ‘Did it happen at all?’ The historical Nwython is recorded to have died in his bed.

It seems possible Cyledyr’s fevered recollections result from the effects of unbidden entry to Annwn, the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr’s forces and time spent in prison on an impressionable young mind. Whilst Cyledyr is telling this story Nwython could be anguishing over the unknown fate of his son. Whether Cyledyr recovered from his trauma or died in Celyddon remains uncertain.

***

Another story I believe features Gwyn (as the King of Fairy) and a human ruler who becomes wyllt is Sir Orfeo. This begins when the Fairy King abducts Heurodis, Orfeo’s wife. Driven wyllt by grief, Orfeo abandons his sovereignty and departs ‘like a beggar’ for the wilderness where his only solace is playing his harp, which brings joy to the wild creatures.

After ten long years Orfeo finally finds a way into Fairyland. After travelling sunlit green plains and hunting grounds he comes to the Fairy King’s glass palace. Therein he makes a terrible discovery: ‘Folk long thought dead… as living found’ headless, armless, torn, ‘with dreadful wounds’, ‘full-armed on horses’, strangled, drowned, burned, wives laid in child-bed ‘stolen out of life’: those ‘the fairies seize and keep’. Heurodis lies amongst them.

These images represent a little-known truth, rarely made explicit in Brythonic mythology: the beauty of Fairyland is founded on the horror of death. The knights and damsels of the Fairy King’s hunt who feast in his hall number the war-dead, murder-victims, women who have died in labour.

Heurodis is amongst them because when the Fairy King took her whilst she slept beneath an orchard tree she died or became comatose or catatonic. Such superstitions can be traced through Brythonic fairylore to earlier beliefs about Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn conveying souls to the otherworld.

This knowledge does not prevent Orfeo from entering the Fairy King’s hall and playing his wondrous music. The King is so moved he offers Orfeo anything he wants. Of course, Orfeo asks for Heurodis. He brings her back to this-world where the pair are re-united in sovereignty.

This story shows how Orfeo gains his ability as a musician from his period wandering wyllt and that hard-won art has the power to move the gods, to sing the souls of those held captive in Fairyland back to this earthly home.

***

These myths represent the experience of becoming wyllt at the outermost limits of human experience. The ‘wyllt-ness’ of Myrddin and Cyledyr results from battle trauma. Cyledyr’s battle trauma is exacerbated by his unwarranted entry into Annwn, imprisonment in the ‘not-world’ and real or imagined torture by Gwyn.

Orfeo’s story differs slightly. His wyllt-ness results from loss. His time spent wandering the wilderness provides him with the strength to survives his gnosis of the terrible truth at the heart of Fairyland and Heurodis’ fate to win her back and return to his seat of rule.

Key to the survival of becoming wyllt is the power of art. For Myrddin and Orfeo giving voice to their trauma and to the powers of nature who surround and console them is an essential part of the healing process. It is possibly because he does not discover art that Cyledyr remains wyllt. This may also be the case for the other gwyllon who lapsed into madness and perished.

These stories contain lasting significance for modernity where art and nature therapy are recognised as powerful means of helping victims of war and loss.

***

Later folktales represent a variety of different encounters with and responses to Fairyland. In most we find the recurrent themes of wyllt-ness and art. People who meet fairies, stumble into or are taken to Fairy invariably become ‘dead, mad or poets’. My personal experiences with Gwyn and his realm bear stronger resemblances to these tales.

Glastonbury TorIn the year 2000 at Glastonbury Festival (long before I knew the name of the mysterious god of the Tor) I had a vision of what I recognise now to be Fairyland which left me shocked, stunned and profoundly questioning the nature of reality.

My quest for an explanation led me through a dangerous combination of drink, drugs, all-night dancing and all the texts of the Western European philosophical tradition, deeper into madness, to the brink of an abyss where I was faced with the choice of life or death.

Unable to choose either I was confronted by three beings I now recognise as ellyllon (‘fairies’ akin to gwyllon). What followed was equally beautiful and perturbing and put an end to the pain of having to make that choice. My experiences left me half-wyllt, wandering between life and death, plagued by anxiety and panic attacks and put a temporary end to my vision-quest.

After giving up my philosophy PhD, I spent four years working with horses. During this period of re-connecting with the land, the seasons and the animal world, working hard and thinking little, I underwent a return to nature that bears a little analogy to the flight of the wyllt to Celyddon.

When I met Gwyn and put a face to the god who governed the magical landscape I haphazardly intruded on at Glastonbury Festival twelve years ago, my initial terror was edged by relief. I finally knew the source of the calling to the otherworld that had haunted me for as long as I can remember. Gwyn became my patron and I his awenydd: ‘person inspired’ or ‘poet’.

***

In the contemporary world where poetry, let alone pagan poetry, is rarely acknowledged or valued the path of the awenydd is not an easy vocation. Deep gnosis of nature and Annwn and its deities necessarily places one outside the bounds of ordinary experience; makes one wyllt, other. With Celyddon gone there is no wild and wooded place of retreat outside the norms of society where gwyllon can flee and gather in company.

Yet in the shaded spaces of our localities where trees still stand and that great forest stood before it walked to Scotland centuries ago we can commune with the gwyllon of old and find unison with the gwyllon of today. Sharing can also take place in the green nooks and crannies of books, in the pubs and cafes and wooded stages where we perform and on the internet. In our stories we find camaraderie.

In a world becoming increasingly superficial where we are losing touch with the deep knowledge our ancestors held to help those touched by the wyllt-ness of Fairyland be it through trauma, loss, enchantment or some silly mistake, we have never had a greater need for the stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and the gwyllon. For the healing power of art.

Castle Hill from Fairy LaneSOURCES

Bromwich, Rachel (ed) The Triads of the Island of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. (eds) Culhwch and Olwen (University of Wales, 1998)
Davies, Constance ‘Classical Threads in Orfeo’ The Modern Language Review, Vol 56, No 2, (Modern Humanities Research Association, April 1961)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Friedman, John Block ‘Eurydice, Heurodis and the Noon-Day Demon’ Speculum, Vol 41, Vol 1 (Medieval Academy of America, 1966)
Hunt, Edward Eyre Sir Orfeo (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

Mary of the Marsh

Enduring years of disconnection,
incredulity of stars,
anger beneath the heavens,
she scathed the priests and walked alone,
drifting among chapels, knowing she didn’t belong,
her robes of night fell on soft rushes.

They say she walked along the marsh.
They say she walked out to the river.
They say she looked out to the sea.

In the damp, dark parishes
paradise was never hers,
she walked amongst the outcasts and the sick
healing wounds that should never open,
seeing what shouldn’t be seen,
her robes of night fell on troubled waters.

Mary of the lepers,
Mary of the marsh,
I saw you running to the river,
I saw you running to the sea.
How you longed to sail away…

Winter Kingdom

As I make my circuit stars hold vigil in an icy breath.
Roses of Annwn bring beauty from death.
Wintering starlings spotted with snow
sleep in a tree that nobody knows.
There is a courtship of stability in this kingdom of cold
where we reknit the bonds as dream unfolds
in shadows of farmhouses down the pilgrim’s path
through old stony gates in footsteps of the past
to the healing well where a serpent’s eye
sees through the layers of time’s disguise.
A procession sways down the old corpse road
where the lych gate swings open and closes alone.
From the empty church bells resound.
Reasserting its place on the abandoned mound
a castle extends to the brink of the sky.
Within its dark memory a fire comes to life.
As warriors gather to warm their cold hands
I know I am a stranger in a strange land.

Fungi, Greencroft Valley

 

*Roses of Annwn is a kenning for mushrooms I came across in The Faery Teachings by Orion Foxwood

Spirit of the Aquifer

In eighteen eighty four
a monolithic feat of engineering
shifts the Ribble’s course:
no water to the springs.

From the hill’s abyssal deep
a rumbling of the bowels,
a vexed aquatic shriek:
no water to the wells.

Breached within the chasm
a dragon lies gasping
with a pain she cannot fathom:
no water to the springs.

Water table reft
her giving womb unswells,
surging through the clefts:
no water to the wells.

Unravelling inside
her serpent magic streams
to join the angry tides:
no water to the springs.

Culverted and banked
her serpent powers fail,
leaking dry and cracked:
no water to the wells.

The spinning dragon-girl
tumbles from her swing
and slips to the underworld:
no water to the springs.

Her spirit will not rise
through the dead and empty tunnels,
disconsolate we cry:
no water to the wells.

The hill, no longer healing
stands broken of its spell,
no water to the springs,
no water to the wells.