You Read of a Smith

who made a pact with the devil
know little of how the story began
or what it implies when he sees the huntsman
galloping out of the fog on a cold dark October night.

You see the sweat dripping from his forehead sizzling
in the flames and are unable to tell what passes
between those dark brows when he sees
the horse he always shoes is lame,
its rider tired, shrouded by desperation,
yet still quiet-spoken when he makes his request
for shoes for running further faster between the worlds
to hunt down something that isn’t dead yet but isn’t living either.

You see the smith shiver as if ice has been dropped down his back
but not waver as he pumps the bellows, heats the furnace,
fires the steel, raises his hammer tries to imagine
what he is shoeing is only a hoof with wall,
toe, sole, tough and sensitive parts,
that this creature might be able to feel,
tries not to count the hooves that keep his forge ablaze all night
as the arched neck towers over him and the eyes flicker and glow.

Instead of counting his heartbeat he counts the beat of his hammer
which steeled his will during his ordeal in the fires that burn
like ice beyond good and evil, where he is working now,
face reddened, straining every muscle, engulfed
in the pain and ecstasy of creation for…
he will only ponder when there is nought but ashes
and hoof prints leading to where he, lame, cannot wander.
To where the stories you have read have come to an end and beyond.

*This poem is a Brythonic retelling of the traditional folkloric tale of a smith shoeing a horse for the devil. It features the smith-god, Gofannon, shoeing Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’ for Gwyn ap Nudd. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn, the Otherworld, and was equated with the devil. He rides out with his hunt to gather the souls of the dead on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

**Image ‘Man Shoeing a Horse’ by Jonathon Bean on Unsplash

5. The Halter of Clydno

The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn, which was fixed to a staple at the foot of his bed: whatever horse he might wish for, he would find in the halter.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I twist the wizened leather in my hands:
noseband, headpiece, cheekstrap,
miraculously preserved
by the peat bog,

imagining Clydno Eiddyn
sitting on the end of his bed,
thumbing the horse-head stamp,
incanting the names of horses:

Slender Grey, Strong Grey,
Dun-Grey, Dark Grey of the Grove,
Silver-White, Dappled, Dappled Roan,
Fearless Roan with Wolf’s Tread,
Fierce Black, Black of the Seas…

When I speak their names adding
Red Rum, Desert Orchid, Man O War,
Milton, Charisma, Warrior, Shergar,
the horses of my youth whose plaques
long disappeared from stables doors

I see their ears pricking on a distant plain.
Their muzzles are foamy with sweet grass,
their liquid eyes sparkling with otherlight.

As their ghosts fill the halter and the scent
of damp coats on a dewy morning I desire
to leap on bare-back and ride to their land.

Were they the undoing of Clydno Eiddyn?

I unpick burrs from tails, straighten manes,
let them go again halterless back to Annwn.

~

The Halter of Clydno - drawing - border

~

Clydno Eiddyn was born around 530 and was a ruler of Din Eidyn ‘Edinburgh’ and of the Gododdin. He was the son of Cynfelyn, placing him amongst the Coel Hen lineage. Clydno accompanied Rhydderch and his allies in their attack on Arfon in 547. Nothing more is known about him.

Clydno had a son called Cynon. For some reason the rulership of Din Eidyn fell to Mynyddog Mwynfawr, son of Ysgyrran, rather than to Cynon. Cynon fought and died with Mynyddog’s retinue at Catraeth. Cynon’s love of Urien’s daughter, Morfudd, and friendship with Urien’s son, Owain, suggests Clydno and Cynon were allies of Urien and his descendants.

When horses were domesticated around 2000 BCE it seems likely they would have been introduced to halters before other equipment. Because most tack is made of leather the only surviving parts are metal bits from bridles and fittings from harnesses. No halters seem to have survived.

I have been unable to find any other references to halters in Brythonic mythology. However, they play an important role in the kelpie legends of Scotland. Some kelpies appeared wearing tack to give the appearance of being ready to ride to lure riders to their drowning in pools. If a person took a bridle or halter from a kelpie it gave them control of it. Likewise if a kelpie appeared without tack it could be captured by a special bridle or halter and made to do one’s bidding.

I wonder if these legends have an origin in older myths about magical halters that gave a person the ability to summon horses not only from the fields of thisworld but from the plains of Annwn and its watery depths?

~

SOURCES

Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Kelpie’, Wikipedia
History of the Horse in Britain,’ Wikipedia

Riding the White Horse

Carngrwn

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn introduces his white stallion, Carngrwn, before introducing himself. He says:

“My horse is Carngrwn from battle throng
So I am called Gwyn ap Nudd”

At first I was surprised to hear Gwyn introducing his horse before himself. Then I realised a medieval audience would have recognised riding Carngrwn ‘Terror of the Field’ was an essential part of his identity as a gatherer souls and a precedent to the revelation of his name.

Later in the poem ‘the white horse’ calls the conversation between Gwyn and Gwyddno to an end. Carngrwn leads Gwyn away to battles not in Neath and Tawe in this land but a Tawe ‘far away in a distant land / where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore’.

Gwyn’s service as a psychopomp is necessary not only in thisworld but Annwn. It seems Carngrwn, the white horse, has power over his destiny and he has little choice but to trust in and ride this wild kindred spirit to where he is needed most.

Nothing is known about how Gwyn came into partnership with Carngrwn. My intuition is this story may bear similarities with Cu Chulainn’s. Cu Chulainn was born at the same time as two horses: Liath Macha ‘The Grey of Macha’ and Dub Sainglend ‘The Black of Saingliu’. The grey (or white) horse is a companion from birth and protects him until death.

Gwyn is associated with a white horse: Carngrwn and a black horse: Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’. Both are supernatural in origin. I feel Gwyn’s relationship with Carngrwn is stronger and the white horse will be with him until the end. In his case this could mean until the end of the world. The white horse is his destiny.

These insights have helped me understand my own relationship with the white horse. Horses have been part of my life since childhood and I worked with them in my twenties. I constantly dream about them and a white fairy-mare is my guide to the otherworld.

Although I haven’t been called to serve as a psychopomp (yet) I know what it’s like to walk between worlds, tell the stories of the dead and feel my destiny is beyond my control. Whenever I’ve sought to find a comfortable role in the system something with big hooves has kicked back and galloped me away.

Yet since meeting Gwyn I’ve got better at riding the white horse: trusting his guidance; staying true to my wild inner nature; letting my fay-mare run and take me where I’m needed; not being restricted by today’s opinions knowing my destiny will keep running until the end of the world.

Apples

For Epona

The blood moon:
an apple in a goddess’ eye
drops and I think of the windfall
crisp autumn mornings when we released
the horses slipping from their halters
twisting away in leaps and bucks
with piquant glint-eyed excitement
to the trees where they’d drop their heads
whuffle up the crispy moons of green and red.

Some days before we turned them out
we whispered to them “apples”
and they knew exactly what we meant…

The blood moon has passed.
The horses are staying out late this year.
Yet the sun has gone down on my stable-yard:
baling freshly-cut hay, stacking barns
with hard-shouldered labour,
stuffing stretching nets
for hungry mouths.

As I cut the meadow and gather orchard fruits
I reminisce about the rural life that didn’t last.

When the horses are tied behind bar and bolt
tugging at hay with meadow-sweet muzzles
I will feed them apple-moons
from my open palm.

*This poem was written after watching September’s lunar eclipse from Greencroft Valley, where we planted apple trees two years ago, and is based on my experience of working with horses. I read it for Epona at a ritual in Glasgow led by Potia at the beginning of October.

Gwyn ap Nudd and Du y Moroedd: Travelling the Old North, Wales and Beyond

In Culhwch and Olwen, Du y Moroedd (‘The Black of the Seas’) is introduced as the only horse who can carry Gwyn ap Nudd on the hunt for Twrch Twryth (‘King of Boars’). Du is a water-horse of celebrated fame in the Brythonic tradition. A study of his stories reveals that, like Gwyn, he is intimately connected with the landscapes and peoples of the Old North and Wales. He is also a traveller between worlds and thus a most fitting mount for Annwn’s ruler on his hunt for the greatest of boars.

The most detailed piece of information we possess about Du appears in The Triads of the Islands of Britain. As one of three ‘horse burdens’ he ‘carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’

The historical basis of this triad is Elidyr’s seaward journey from his home in northern Britain to Wales to seize the throne of Gwynedd from Rhun, Maelgwn’s illegitimate son (Elidyr’s claim was based on his marriage to Eurgain). Elidyr was killed at Aber Mewydd near Arfon. Afterward his fellow Men of the North; Clydno Eidyn, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael and Rhydderch Hael took vengeance by burning Arfon. Rhun and all the men of Gwynedd pursued them north to the river Gweryd.

This demonstrates the complex ancestral and political relationships between the people of the north and Wales and exemplifies the internecine strife that eventually led to the fall of the northern Brythonic kingdoms. It also shows that armies travelled between the Old North and Wales by land and sea.

It is of interest the Men of the North who came to avenge Elidyr are all of the ‘Macsen Guledig’ lineage. This places them in the same family as Gwyn’s ally and rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol and his kinsmen who Gwyn battles against and takes captive. Gwyn’s relationship with these northern men as a ruler of Annwn is just as fraught and unstable as relations between human rulers.

That Gwyn rides the same horse as Elidyr strengthens the sense of his familial ties with these Men of the North. That he acts as a psychopomp to several northern warriors suggests he may have been seen as an ancestral god. This is backed up by common usage of the name Nudd: Nudd Hael, Dreon ap Nudd and Nudus (the Latinised form from a memorial stone in Yarrow).

***

I assume Du is named as the only horse who can carry Gwyn due to his capacity to move between worlds. This is supported by analogy with The Pursuit of Giolla Dheachair where a ‘monstrous horse’ carries fifteen and a half of Finn’s (Gwyn’s Irish counterpart) companions to the Otherworld.

In this context it seems possible the triad depicts the surprise arrival of Elidyr and his party from the blackness of the sea on the darkest of nights as if from (or perhaps literally from!) the Otherworld. After Elidyr’s death one can imagine Gwyn appearing aboard this great water-horse on the bank of the Arfon to escort him to Annwn.

Du’s possession of uncanny and even monstrous qualities is echoed in later water-horse legends. In Brigantia: A Mysteriography Guy Ragland Phillips identifies the Black Horse of Bush Howe (a horse-shaped landscape feature of stone on the Howgill Fells in Cumbria) with Du. He suggests Elidyr’s northern Benllech was Bush Howe and cites an alignment down Long Rigg Beck valley to Morecambe to Anglesey saying the horse would be within its line of sight.

Ragland Phillips also claims a ‘dobbie cult’ centres on the Black Horse. ‘Dobbie’ is the ‘Brigantian’ name for a water-horse and he defines it as ‘a big, black misshapen thing that ‘slips about’. Like dobbin (a term still commonly used in the north for horses who are ploddy or woodenheaded) it ‘may have for its first element the Celtic Dhu, ‘black’.’

David Raven records a recent visit to the site, during which he photographed the Black Horse and stood on its back. Afterward he found out from a local historian that in the 1930’s and 40’s school children used to be allowed a day off to maintain the horse. A village elder said this was a practice undertaken by farmers in the pre-war period on an ‘annual Boon Day’.

This is strongly suggestive of cult activity and a longstanding service to the Black Horse. Jack (the village elder) also told David of a legend about Roman legions using the horse as a landmark on their travels ‘up the Lune valley, from Lancaster to Penrith and Carlisle.’ The Black Horse of Bush Howe is associated with travelling the northern landscape too.

The continuity of Du’s fame in Wales is attested by Welsh poetry. He appears in The Song of the Horses, a poem attributed to Taliesin: ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’. He is frequently used as a standard of comparison. Guto’r Glyn compares a foal with the ‘Son of the Black One of Prydyn’ (Du’s grandson) and Tudur Aled compares another horse with Du saying he is of ‘greater vigour… such was his strength and daring.

Like northern Britain, Wales has a water-horse tradition: the ‘ceffyl dwr’. I haven’t found any water-horse stories connected with Anglesey or Arfon on the internet but this doesn’t eliminate the possibility they exist in Welsh literature or folk memory.

***

Finally I’d like to return to Gwyn’s partnership with Du on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth in Culhwch and Olwen. Ysbaddaden’s statement to Culhwch that the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn is found hints at his role as a divine huntsmen and former leader of the boar hunt. Culhwch’s central task of assembling an array of renowned huntsmen, hounds and horses to hunt the Twrch is founded on an older and deeper myth.

About its details we can only conjecture. It is my guess it featured Gwyn, huntsmen, horses and hounds pursuing the King of Boars. It may have contained clues to the ‘mysteries’ of hunting: the hunt, the kill and ensuing feast as sacred activities based on an earlier shamanistic perspective.

Further insights may be gained by analogy with Odin’s hunting of the boar Saehrimnir (‘Sooty Sea-Beast’). Odin rides a great black eight-legged horse who can travel between worlds called Sleipnir (‘Slippy’ or ‘Slipper’). After the hunt Saehrimnir is cooked every evening but the next day is whole. Odin’s feast in Valhalla is mirrored by Gwyn’s feast in his otherworldy hall (in The Life of St Collen on Glastonbury Tor). Perhaps Gwyn’s hunt also rides each day to slay the Twrch then magically he is reborn and this reflects the sacred acts of hunting and eating and the procreation of the boar.

In Culhwch and Olwen it is not mentioned whether Gwyn or Du are found. They do not appear on Arthur’s hunt. Gwyn only comes when summoned by Arthur, who asks him if he knows the whereabouts of Twrch Twryth after he disappears at Glyn Ystun. It is implicit Arthur is seeking Gwyn’s knowledge because he suspects the Twrch has fled to Annwn. Gwyn claims he does not know anything about Twrch Trwyth. It is my intuition he is lying to protect the King of Boars and perhaps to cause mischief.

Following a chase across Wales and finally to Cornwall, whereby many of Arthur’s men are injured or killed by the Twrch and his piglets, they finally catch him and remove the comb and shears from between his ears. Afterward he is driven into the sea, which is suggestive of his return to Annwn. It is of interest that, unlike other otherworldly animals he confronts, Arthur does not slay Twrch Trwyth.

In later Welsh folklore Gwyn is depicted as a demon huntsman aboard a monstrous black horse who preys on the souls of sinners. This image derives from and parodies his partnership with Du as a divine huntsmen and his role as a guide of the dead. Whereas he was revered as much as feared by the pagan Britons, in this Christianised guise he solely brings terror (a misguided and one-sided view).

Gwyn and Du’s names disappear from the stories of northern Britain completely after the medieval period. It seems possible their myths lie behind some of our stories of spectral huntsmen and dobbies but due to the complex intermingling of local legends with Brythonic and Germanic lore the origins of these tales cannot be ascertained.

Yet our landscape remembers the travels of Gwyn and Du across the Old North, Wales and beyond by land and sea. On the paths of the hunt and at river-estuaries where tides beat the shore to gull-cries and winds of distant longing they are still here.

Ribble EstuarySOURCES
Bartrum, Peter A Welsh Classical Dictionary (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Bromwich, Rachel (ed.) The Triads of the Islands of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Ragland Phillips, Guy Brigantia: A Mysteriography (Routledge and Keegan Paul Ltd, 1976)
Raven, David http://davidraven-uk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/black-horse-of-bush-howe.html
Rhys, John Studies in the Arthurian Legend (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Sturluson, Snorri The Prose Edda (Penguin Books, 2005)

Gwyn Portrait, April’s End

The huntsman has ridden all night, following the brilliance of the spirit roads- the shining tracks that criss-cross the island of Britain. Instead of returning home he remains here for dawn, listening to the idiosyncrasies of each bird’s song, watching dew form on blades of grass, on petals of hawthorn blossoms and may flowers.

He is and is not the mist, riding through damp meadows over hills, mountains and moors on a pale horse accompanied by a hound of the same complexion. He is and is not each sun-lit cloud he travels with, the touch and whisper of the wind.

He cannot stay here long, for this world we see as the land of the living is not his. He must return home to Annwn, the Otherworld, to prepare for a battle that cannot be won. To fight for a maiden he shouldn’t have loved, shouldn’t still love… in bluebells and forget-me-nots, emerging greens and white and yellow flowers he sees her colours.

For a moment he is possessed by memories of their passion, and the crimes it drove him to. A glimpse of his blacked face in a reed strewn pool shows no amount of war paint can mask his guilt, which he must live with for as long as there are people to sing his songs.

He searches for a sign. What is Judgement Day? When is it? Although he knows the language of the trees and plants, the tracks of every wild creature and the flight of birds, these questions are beyond his power to divine. When the worlds end, will Creiddylad and I be together again?

May Flower, Penwortham

Fairy Horse

Fairy horse fairy horse
Dancing on the brink
Of a cliff’s sharp edge
Above time’s dark sea.

Fairy horse fairy horse
Horned and winged
In a beam of bright moonlight
Her cold coat gleams.

Fairy horse fairy horse
With hooves of steel
Is quick to the hunt
And quicker to the kill.

Fairy horse fairy horse
Swift as poetry
And deadly as moonshine
Defies reality.

Fairy horse fairy horse
Eternally wick
Will never surrender
To a virgin’s tricks.

Fairy horse fairy horse
Will never be named.
She will never be caught.
She will never be tamed.

Faery Horse

Wild Hunt Villanelle

When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
Hurtling from the deeps and bowers of unseen Annwn
They raze all life with their sundering might,

Sweeping heavens black warriors of starry white
Unite with rebel cries to form a spectral fugue.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Cities tremble as the harrowing horns descry
Ghost white horses, hounds of death and long lost truth.
They raze all life with their sundering might

As they gather up the souls of the dead in flight
Striking with a fear none but their kindred can endure.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Bringing down the skies and singing back the light
Around our fires only hope can see us through.
They raze all life with their sundering might

Then vanish to Annwn from tumultuous heights
Ending the old year and heralding in the new.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
They raze all life with their sundering might.

Gwyn’s Feast

Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.
There is no lack of wood upon the hearth,
The hounds are calm, the horses fed and watered.
Put knife to meat, drink your share from the horn,
There is endless plenty in my cauldron.
Join and dream to the songs of my bards,
They play a magic from the world’s beginning.
Beneath the Faery moon and Annwn’s stars
All things are sung back to wonder.
Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.

*The original manuscript ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (1536) relating Gwyn’s feast on Glastonbury Tor can be found here:  http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html It’s possible it took place on Michaelmas day, September 29th, which marks the last day of summer and beginning of Autumn.