This is an image I was inspired to draw of the King and Queen of Annwn as Bone Wolf and Bone Mare – a guise Gwyn ap Nudd and Creiddylad/Rhiannon have been appearing to me in this winter, a time of revelation, as so many things have been stripped bare.
to light the way
through the darkness.
I walk through the darkness too
with all the mothers
who have lost their sons
with all the sisters
who have lost their brothers.
We flit like bats against the walls.
We are searching
for our oldest animals
to lead us through the darkness
to the prison of the child
now a young man.
On the solstice
when the sun stands still
we will bring him back.
Today, December the 18th, is the festival of Epona, the Great Mare. Over the past few years the story of the search of the Mare Goddess for her lost son has been revealed to me as a relief of Epona riding through the Otherworld with engravings of animals, Rhiannon’s loss of Pryderi, and Modron’s loss of Mabon have sealed into one.
It’s my personal belief the episode in Culhwch ac Olwen featuring the search of Arthur and his men for Mabon with the help of the Oldest Animals and his rescue from the House of Stone replaced an earlier version in which the Great Mare (Epona) / Great Queen (Rigantona) / Great Mother (Matrona) searched for her son and rescued him from Annwn, where he was taken by his father, Annwn’s King. A similar story is told in the modern film, Labyrinth, where Sarah rescues her brother from the Goblin King.
It has taken on a personal meaning for me this year because, at the beginning of the month, my brother was admitted to hospital for brain surgery. It went well and he came back home to stay with me and my parents to recover, but was readmitted due to complications. We are hoping he will be returning from the hospital, a liminal place like the House of Stone that was Mabon’s Annuvian prison, between sickness and health, life and death, some time after his reassessment on the winter solstice.
Since 2013 I have been holding a feast day for my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, on the 29th of September. Drawing on his mythos as the King of Annwn presiding over an otherworldly mead-feast and leadership of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, the focus is a meal of pork and apple served with mead with a plate and glass offered to Gwyn.
This is followed by readings of poetry, from the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ translated by Greg Hill, to that of modern Gwyn devotees such as Robin Herne and Lee Davies. I have always seen this as a way of bringing folk devoted to Gwyn together in spirit and affirming his presence in the world following years of oppression and demonisation by Christianity.
Over the past few years Gwyn’s Feast has grown slowly with an increasing number of Brythonic polytheists and awenyddion honouring Gwyn on this occasion. This year there has been an exciting new development. Fellow awenydd and Gwyn dedicant Thornsilver is going to be hosting the first virtual Gwyn’s Feast in Land Sea Sky Travel’s Corvids and Cauldrons chat room. This is going to include devotions, discussions, and the sharing of poetry and personal stories and will take place from 10 AM PST / 1 PM EST / 6 PM London to 3 PM PST / 4 PM EST / 11 PM London. There is more information HERE. I’m hoping to attend and am happy and excited to see Gwyn’s Feast day drawing an increasing number of people together to honour him each year.
You can find out more about the background in terms of archaeological and literary evidence for Gwyn’s Feast and why it takes place on Michaelmas Day HERE.
This is a photograph of the bottom part of my current Gwyn altar. To the left and right are altars to Gwyn’s mother and father, Anrhuna, and Nodens/Nudd.
I. Afallach and the Island of Apples
Afallach, a Brythonic god whose name is derived from afal ‘apple’, is best known for his associations with Ynys Afallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or the Isle of Avalon. In his Speculum Ecclesiae (1216) Giraldus Cambrensis says: ‘Avallonia is so called either from the British aval which means apple, because that place abounded with apples, or from a certain (A)vallo, lord of that land’.
Giraldus identifies the Isle of Avalon with Glastonbury, in De Instructione Principium (1193 -9): ‘what is now called Glastonia was anciently called Insula Avallonia, for it is like an island, wholly surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in British Inis Avallon, that is the apple-bearing island.’
William of Mamlesbury, in The Antiquities of Glastonbury (1216), follows this tradition. Glastonbury ‘is also well known as by the name of Insula Avalloniae’. He says it may be ‘named after a certain Avalloc who is said to have lived there with his daughters on account of it being a solitary place. (1)
Ynys Afallach is described as a paradisal island by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini (1150). ‘The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.’
Geoffrey names the nine daughters of Afallach as Morgen, ‘Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.’ He notes Morgen ‘is first of them’, ‘skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person’. She knows the properties of herbs, is skilled in healing, and mathematics and has the ability to shift shape.
Giraldus Cambrensis, in De Instructione Principium (1193), also writes of,‘Morganis, a noble matron who was the ruler and patron of these parts… the island which is now called Glastonia.”
II. Afallach – King of Annwn
It is significant that Morgan is referred to as a ‘noble matron’ for in the Triads she is otherwise named as ‘Modron daughter of Afallach’. Modron is a later form of Matrona ‘Mother’. The Mothers or Matrons were worshipped across northwestern Europe during the Romano-British period.
In Peniarth MS. 70 Modron speaks of herself as ‘the daughter of the King of Annwn’. Annwn means ‘the Deep’ and is the medieval Welsh name for the Otherworld which is a paradisal location.
In The Life of St Collen (14th C) we find an account of Collen’s visit to the castle of Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn, on Glastonbury Tor:
‘he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom.’
It seems likely Gwyn and Afallach are the same deity. Both are named as King of Annwn and are associated with Glastonbury/the Island of Avalon. Afallach is named as the grandson of Beli Mawr in the Harleian Genealogies (1100) and we find out that Gwyn is the grandson of Beli Mawr from Lludd ac Llefelys (1225) where his father, Lludd/Nudd, is named as the son of Beli.
Further traces of his mythos can be found in ‘Preideu Annwn’ where Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ is depicted presiding over an otherworldly mead feast and as the owner of countless treasures including a cauldron ‘kindled by the breath of nine maidens’ with ‘a dark trim and pearls’.
Its refusal to ‘boil a coward’s food’ suggests that it is connected with the initiation of bards such as ‘the loyal lad’, Gwair who, in the poem, is singing before the spoils of Annwn in a heavy grey chain.
III. Afallach and Modron in the Old North
In the Triads and Peniarth MS. 70 Afallach’s daughter, Modron, is the mother of the children of Urien. In Triad 70 the second of the ‘Three Fair Womb Burdens’ is the following: ‘Owain, son of Urien and Morfudd his sister who were carried together in the womb of Modron daughter of Afallach’.
In Peniarth MS. 70 we find the full story of the conception of Modron’s children:
‘In Denbighshire there is a parish which is called Llanferes, and there is there Rhyd y Gyfarthfa (the Ford of Barking). In the old days the hounds of the countryside used to come together to the side of that the ford to bark, and nobody dared go to find out what was there until Urien Rheged came. And when he came to the side of the ford he saw nothing except a woman washing. And then the hounds ceased barking, and Urien seized the woman and he had his will of her; and then she said “God’s blessing on the feet which brought thee here.” “Why?” said he. “Because I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy.” And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.’
The setting of this story in Denbighshire is strange because Urien was the king of the northern kingdom of Rheged during the sixth century. Urien’s seat may have been Luguvalium (present-day Carlisle), on the River Eden, and his realm likely extended throughout the Eden Valley and much of Cumbria to the Solway Firth and perhaps included Dumfries and Galloway. (2)
The name ‘Eden’ holds associations with Paradise and thus with Afallach/Gwyn and his brother Edern. (3) When Rheged was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons some of the fleeing Britons may have taken the tale to Wales.
I believe this story has its basis in the pre-Christian tradition of a human king entering a sacred marriage with the goddess of the land. There is plentiful evidence for the cultus of Modron/Matrona and her son, Mabon/Maponos in the form of altars and place names in northwest England and southern Scotland.
Altars and inscriptions to the Mother Goddesses and the Mothers the Fates have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness, Bowness-on-Solway, Ribchester, and Lund. There is an altar to Apollo-Maponus at Ribchester. Lochmaben and the Clochmaben stone are named after him.
In The Harleian Genealogies the kings of Rheged trace their lineage to Coel Hen and ultimately to Afallach and Beli Mawr. This suggests that Beli, Afallach, Modron, and Mabon were their ancestral deities.
The references to Owain as Mabon in the poetry attributed to Urien’s bard, Taliesin, are suggestive not only of his divine birth, but that he possessed the power to invoke and take on the identity of Mabon.
The story from Peniarth MS. 70 demonstrates the turning of the kings of Rheged to Christianity. Here we find Modron depicted as a sinister figure, as the Washer at the Ford, suggesting links with Morgan and possibly with the Irish death-goddess Morrigan, surrounded by equally sinister hounds (who are likely to be the Hounds of Annwn who hunt the souls of the dead with her father). To see a woman washing one’s clothes was a death portent as was hearing or seeing otherwordly hounds.
Urien, a self-proclaimedly Christian King, ignores the portents, seeing ‘nothing but a woman washing’ and rapes Modron. Her words about being fated to wash there until she conceives a son by a Christian have clearly been put into her mouth by a Christian interlocutor to obscure her role as a sovereignty goddess who holds power not over the land and Annwn but fate itself. Following Urien’s abuse it is no surprise he is assassinated and this leads to the fall of Rheged and the Old North.
The connections of Afallach and Modron with the Old North live on in their folkloric associations with the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass). In these areas of Cumbria Afallach is known as Eveling, which is an Anglicised version of his name.
IV. Afallach and Gwallen in North Wales
Afallach’s associations with Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in Denbighshire have been noted. Near the hill fort of Moel-y-Gaer in Flintshire is a hamlet called Caerfallwch which means ‘the Fortress of Afallach’.
From the ‘Hanesyn Tract’ we learn that Afallach had another daughter called Gwallen. She is referred to as ‘Gwalltwen verch Yvallach’ in ‘Digyniad Pendefigaeth Cymru’ and here we learn that she was mistress of Maelgwn, the ruler of Gwynedd during the sixth century, and the mother of Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, who ‘was not acceptable to some as prince, only as a regent.’
The kings of Gwynedd traced their ancestry through Cunedda to Afallach and Beli Mawr. It is possible that, like Modron, Gwallen was perceived as a sovereignty goddess. Her name might be translated as ‘White Hair’ (from gwallt ‘hair’ and gwyn/(g)wen ‘white’) suggesting Annuvian characteristics shared with her father, Afallach/Gwyn. The rejection of her son may be indicative not only of the laws surrounding illegitimacy, but Christian superstitions surrounding her otherworld nature.
Maelgwn’s wife was Sanan ferch Cyngen. They had a daughter called Eurgain who was married to the northern warlord Elidyr Mwynfawr. According to The Black Book of Chirk (1592 – 1667):
‘After the death of Maelgwn… many of the nobility of Cambria disdained to yield subjection to Rhun his son, being a bastard begot upon Gwallten the daughter of Afallach, Maelgwn’s concubine, especially the nobility of Arfon, who privately sent unto Elidyr Mwynfawr aforesaid to come speedily to Cambria, to aid him in recovery of the kingdom in the right of his children by Eurgain the daughter and heir of Maelgwn’.
The voyage of Elidyr and Eurgain and their companions from the Old North to Wales is recorded in Triad 44 ‘Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’. It is memorable because ‘seven and a half’ people are said to have crossed sea on the back of the water horse Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’.
‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr… 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.’
Du y Moroedd is the horse Gwyn ap Nudd rides when hunting for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ and likely for the souls of the dead. (4) Elidyr met his end battling against Rhun at Aber Mefydd. Perhaps Du not only carried them to meet their deaths but to the Otherworld afterwards too.
What this story serves to consolidate is that Afallach/Gwyn and his daughter, Gwallen, had strong and longstanding connections with the Brythonic peoples who claimed descent from Beli Mawr.
V. Lugus and the Island of Apples
In the Irish myths we find Emain Ablach ‘The Island of Apples’. In ‘Ar an doirseoir ris an deaghlaoch’ ‘The doorkeeper said to the noble warrior’, a medieval Irish poem based on the arrival of Lugh at the court of the Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, Lugh introduces himself as ‘a poet from Emain Ablach / of swans and yews’ before gaining entry due to his mastery of many skills. This suggests Lugh might have undergone some kind of bardic initiation on Ablach/Afallach’s isle.
Lugh is the son of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethniu, daughter of the Formorian giant, Balor. After hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, Balor locked Eithne away in a tower on Tory Island, but this did not prevent Cian from entering and fathering Lugh. Balor then attempted to stop the child gaining maturity by preventing him from getting a name and a wife.
In ‘Balor of the Evil Eye and Lui Lavada’ Cian takes Lui to Tory Island where numerous apple trees grow. They pose as gardeners. When Lui shows a good deal of skill picking up the apples Balor says: ‘Tog leat Lui Lavada’ ‘take away with you little long hand’ and this is how he receives his name. Lui/Lugh kills Balor with a slingshot or spear through his burning or poisonous eye.
We find a striking parallel in The Mabinogi (1350 – 1410) in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who is cognate with the Irish Lugh. Lleu is the son of Gwydion and Arianrhod, the son and daughter of Beli Mawr and Don. He was likely conceived by magical subterfuge. (5) In this story it is not Lleu’s grandfather, Beli, but his mother, Arianrhod who curses him with three fates: he will never win a name, arms or a wife. This is because of her ‘shame’ at the slight to her virginity caused by Gwydion.
Gwydion helps Lleu win his name by disguising them as shoemakers and luring Arianrhod onto his boat to get a shoe fitted. When she is on board Lleu shoots a wren that lands on the deck ‘in the leg, between the tendon and the bone’ and she exclaims ‘it is with a skilful hand that the fair one has hit it’ and hence he is called Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair-haired one with the skilful hand’.
Instead of killing his grandfather, Beli, with his spear, Lleu kills Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuwedd. Gronw, a hunter who arrives with a pack of hounds chasing a deer and turns up at night to seduce Lleu’s beloved is likely to be the King of Annwn, Arawn, who displayed his shapeshifting abilities earlier in the text, and may be identified with Afallach/Gwyn, his cousin.
The Welsh and the Irish myths contain suggestions of a shared mythos surrounding Beli/Balor, Ablach/Afallach, Eithne/Arianrhod, Cian/Gwydion, and Lleu/Lugh/Lugus (his pan-Celtic name) that was important to the people of the Brythonic kingdoms who claimed descent from Beli. (6)
VI. The Apple King in Peneverdant
The name of my home town, Penwortham, was Peneverdant in the Domesday Book. The first element, pen, ‘head’ is Brythonic and refers to present-day Castle Hill. Like Glastonbury Tor this headland stood on marshland and is an important sacred site for pagans and Christians.
The dedication of the church on its summit and well at its foot (now dried up) to St Mary Virgin and the fairy funeral legend featuring a fairy leader suggest the presence of a mother goddess and fairy king.
I know from personal experience the fairy king is Afallach/Gwyn. I first intuited the goddess to be Gwyn’s mother, Anrhuna, who I know as the Mother of the Marsh, but am now considering that another presence who better fits the image of Mary in the church with her shining son is Modron with Mabon.
I hadn’t considered this possibility because I hadn’t realised Afallach and Gwyn were the same deity. Looking back I should have realised earlier for I spent a considerable amount of time in the Avalon orchards at Glastonbury when I visited at Calan Mai in 2013 and 2015. On the latter occasion this inspired me to plant five apple trees in Greencroft Valley with the Friends group. Three have survived and two, the Epicure and Sowman’s seedling, have borne apples this year.
I have been making connections between Afallach and Gwyn as I have harvested these apples and those from the two apple trees in my parent’s garden. I’ve noticed they’ve come earlier this year for I usually gather the last before Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September and offer an apple to him with pork.
Of course the sweet and juicy apples we eat in Britain today were imported by the Romans. Yet we do have a native apple tree – the crab apple. Although its fruits are too sour to eat raw there is no doubt our ancient ancestors cooked them and served them with meat as a welcome addition to their diet. The fact that apples are harvested at the time of Gwyn’s Feast further consolidates his identity with Afallach. (7)
Another piece of potentially significant information I first heard orally but only found unreferenced online on a website called ‘Ireland Calling’ is the following: ‘The Celts… were said to bury apples in graves as food for the dead, a practice that is shown to date back over 7,000 years to Europe and West Asia where petrified remains of sliced apple have been found in tombs from 5,000BC.’ However, I haven’t been able to find a trustworthy source naming the date or location of these burials.
If it was proved that the Celtic peoples and in particular the Britons buried their dead with apples this might be suggestive of an offering to Afallach/Gwyn in return for taking the souls of the dead to Annwn.
Whatever the case my offering of an apple to the Apple King at his feast this year will have heightened significance and his relationship with Modron and Mabon opens new horizons to explore.
(1) Malmesbury also provides a fascinating alternative foundation story based around apples. ‘Glasteing found his sow under an apple tree near the ancient church, and because apples were rare in those parts when he first arrived there, he called it Insular Avalloniae in his tongue, that is, Isle of Apples’.
(2) Urien’s associations with the Eden Valley are suggested by the poems attributed to Taliesin, Urien’s bard, who refers to Urien as the ‘ruler of Llwyfenedd’, the Lyvennet Valley (the Lyvennet flows into the Eden).
(3) However this river was known as Ituna ‘water’ or ‘rushing’ during the Roman-British period. Urien was also named ‘ruler of Yrechwedd’. Echwedd means ‘flowing water’ and this could be the origin of this appellation.
(4) In Culhwch ac Olwen (1190) Twrch Trwyth was allegedly a human chieftain turned into a boar by God on account of his sins. Behind this story lies his abilities as a shapeshifter and the fact Gwyn’s hunt, ‘the Wild Hunt’, was not really for boar but for human souls.
(5) Gwydion’s fathering of Lleu is not explicit in the main source for Lleu’s story, the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, but is evidenced in other sources such as a poem by Lewys Môn and Harleian 3859 where Lleu is spoken of as ‘Lou Hen map Guidgen’.
(6) The significance of Lugus is supported by his giving his name to Luguvalium (Carlisle) which means ‘Strong in Lugus’ and was ruled by Urien Rheged, to ‘the rock of Lleu’, the seat of the rulers of Gododdin from whom Maelgwn Gwynedd was descended, and to Dinas Lleu in the kingdom of Gwynedd.
Alex Langstone, ‘Pistyll Rhaedr’, http://www.pistyllrhaeadr.co.uk/berwyns.html
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Greg Hill, ‘Lleu Llaw Gyffes – Is that Lugus?’ https://awenydd.cymru/lleu-llaw-gyffes-is-that-lugus/
Jeremiah Curtin, Hero Tales of Ireland, (1894), https://archive.org/details/herotalesofirela00curtuoft/page/308/mode/2up
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
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)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
The Apple Tree in Celtic Mythology, Ireland Calling, https://ireland-calling.com/celtic-mythology-apple-tree/
‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ Ancient Texts, https://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/collen.html
is in my chest.
A stone with a hole
where my heart once was.
I fought your battle for you
on the riverbank –
on the bank of the Cynfal
near Bryn Cygergyr
where I have never
walked and Welsh words
roll like stones in my mouth
from Ceunant Coch.
I feel like Blaenau Ffestiniog.
No, the mountains above
slate hearts torn out.
Where have we hidden it
this time in this never ending
shadowplay of shifting guises
not knowing whose hand
reaches through the hole
in the slate into another world
and drags something back
to make us whole?
This poem is based on the battle between Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebyr in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi. In it I believe the King of Annwn takes the guise of Gronw to defeat Lleu. In an additional identity exchange, in this poem, I found myself in the role of Annwn’s king becoming Gronw.
The battle took place on the bank of Afon Cynfal near Bryn Cygergyr ‘the Hill of the Blow’. Llech Ronw ‘the Slate of Gronw’ is a stone found in 1934 on the bank of the Cynfal. It was washed down from Ceunant Coch and now stands on Afon Bryn Saeth. I haven’t visited Llech Ronw. The pictured stone is the replica at Llyn Trawsfynydd and the accompanying photograph is of the mountains above Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Spoke the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue,
The Voice of the Goddess with Nine Dragon Heads:
“The Dragon Goddess shall be slain and in Human Form
She shall be reborn as the Mother of the Son.
In His darkest dreams the King of Annwn will tear
Out the Eye of Bel, He will tear down the Sun and put it
Inside the Belly of His Dead Mother and the Queen of Annwn
Will shape for Her Dead Mother a new Earthen Form
And They will send Her in a boat to Portus Setantiorium
Where She will be met on the Western Shore with Reedlights
And up the River of Belisama will sail to Ribel-Castre
And there the Eye of Bel will once again be reborn
As Maponos ‘the Son’ to Matrona ‘the Mother’.
Yes! Throughout Belisama’s Vale in the Sacred Groves
At the Springs and Wells and the Roaring Fords at the Roman
Altars and in the Temples They shall be Honoured.
At the birth of every child She shall appear Threefold
To Breathe the Blessings of the Awen into the Infant Mouth.
As the Three Mothers of Destiny She shall be Revered
In all the Holy Places in the Hills and Vales of the Old North.
And she shall appear Ninefold the Dragon Daughter
Of the King of Annwn as Morgana and her Sisters breathing
Life into His Cauldron before spiralling into Serpent Forms.
And the Nine shall be Recoiled in Circles of Stone.
And when the Priests of Christendom come armed
With Book and Vestment and Mitre treading widdershins
Around our Holy Wells with splashings of Unholy Water
But failing with their Prayers to undo our Spells.
Henceforth she will be known as Mary in Nine Churches
In Belisama’s Vale: at Peneverdant, at Prestatun, at Wahltun,
At Euxtun, at Leyeland, at Sceamlburgh, at Bamber Brig,
At Ruhford, at Fernihough, she will be Honoured.
At Cockersand Abbey as Mary of the Marsh
As the Magdalen in Maudlands in Nine Times Nine Churches
Across the Islands of Prydain and beyond she will be Honoured,”
Spoke the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue.
This poem was written as an early experiment in writing in the voice of ‘The Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue’ in a Blakean style and brings together some of the mythic overlayerings of mother figures I have perceived within my landscape, in the Brythonic myths, and in visions and journeys.
I recognise this will not accord with everybody else’s perception of these deities and is very much a personal revelation. And, of course, I won’t be attempting to imitate Blake again, which I knew before setting out is impossible and foolhardy. I see it as a first step on the way to creating a myth to live by.
‘Long is the day and long is the night,
and long is the waiting of Arawn’
I do not know
if you are Arawn but
long is your waiting.
Long as the day
and long as the night:
both so long this
of pandemic and sunlight.
I know you are there
will be long as yours
sitting quietly on a grey horse
on the brink of Annwn
life and death
the flowers grow
for the patience
of a flower
that we shall grow
the dew of your tears
on a cold March morning.
The golden horn of endless mead.
The golden plates that make even leaves edible.
The golden cauldron that boils the flesh of the dead.
The golden helmet that lends the strength of the bull.
The golden armour that makes its wearer invincible.
The golden shield that deflects not only blows.
The golden spear that pierces every heart.
The golden leashes that hold back the hounds
and the spirits who strain against the possible.
The golden horseshoes for the horse that runs
between worlds and his golden saddle and bridle.
The golden ring that turns time into a circle.
The golden mist that makes terror beautiful.
The golden keys to the gates of every soul.
The golden secret in the stone chest that rattles
and bleats and sings a strange prophetic song.
This poem is based around the depiction of Gwyn ap Nudd as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ and his role as a King of Annwn presiding over its spoils. It is one of the poems in the narrative of Y Darogan Annwn.
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
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.
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.
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)
At the beginning of November, I cycled to the church of St John the Evangelist in Lund, which is about six miles outside Preston. Lund means ‘grove’ in Norse and Germanic thus it seems likely the church was built on a pre-Christian sacred site. This is supported by the presence of an altar to the Mothers within the church now used as a baptismal font.
Matronae ‘Matrons’ and Matres ‘Mothers’ were worshipped across Northern Europe from the 1st to 5th C particularly in Germany and Gaul and other places occupied by the Roman army. They are usually depicted in threes, often with fruit, bread, cornucopias and nursing infants.
Worship of the Mothers was widespread in Britain. Whilst some of the Mother Goddesses were clearly brought from over-seas (shown by inscriptions reading ‘To the Mothers from Overseas’ ‘To the German Mother Goddesses’) there is evidence for a Romano-British tradition centring on Matrona ‘the Mother’ and Maponos ‘the Son’ which seems strongest in north-west England and southern Scotland.
Altars and inscriptions to ‘the Mother Goddesses’ and ‘the Mothers the Fates’ have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness and Bowness-on-Solway. The worship of Maponos in this area is evidenced by the place-name Lochmaben, the Clochmaben stone and the Locus Maponi.
Matrona and Maponus re-appear in medieval Welsh literature as Modron ‘Mother’ and Mabon ‘Son’. The story of Mabon being stolen from Modron when he is three nights old and rescued from imprisonment in a ‘house of stone’ forms an important part of Culhwch and Olwen.
In The Triads, Modron daughter of Avallach, bears Urien Rheged’s son and daughter, Owain and Morfudd. Urien’s relations with Modron and Owain’s inheritance of Mabon’s divine qualities show his family’s dependence on ancestral deities for the fertility of their land and lineage and success in battle.
Modron’s father, Avallach, is the son of Beli Mawr: one of the oldest ancestral gods of Britain. He is associated with Ynys Avallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or ‘The Island of Avalon’. This is inhabited by nine maidens: Morgan and her sisters. In Welsh and Breton folklore, Morgens are water spirits.
The Mothers are frequently associated with water: in Gaul, Matrona is goddess of the Marne. A reference from 1AD exists to ‘the Island of Sein’ ‘known because of the oracle of a Gaulish God; the priestesses of that divinity are nine in number.’ One wonders whether the god is Dis Pater, from whom the Gauls claim descent.
Avalon is often identified with Glastonbury. Another of Glastonbury’s deities is Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn who resides over spirits bearing striking similarities to the Gaulish andedion (underworld gods). Both Morgan and Gwyn become known as ‘fairies’ in later literature.
In Peniarth Manuscript 147. the mother of Urien’s children appears as the Washer at the Ford (‘The Ford of Barking’) and introduces herself as ‘daughter to the King of Annwfn’.
A pattern emerges: one, three or nine female figures connected with an underworld god.
Here in Lancashire there are altars to the Matronae and to Maponos (as Apollo-Maponus) in the Roman museum at Ribchester. This is the site of Bremetenacum ‘place by the roaring river’ and is located on a major ford of the Ribble. Ribchester was also likely to have been a centre of worship for the Ribble’s goddess: Belisama ‘Most Shining One’ ‘Most Mighty One’.
During the Romano-British period, the Ribble ran much closer to Lund. This is shown by the nearby place-name Clifton ‘Cliff Town’. St John the Evangelist also stands very close to the Roman road running from Ribchester through Preston to Kirkham and across the Fylde. Because the stone of the altar at Lund is similar to those from Ribchester, it seems possible it was made there and brought on the road. This would mean, like the Ribchester altars, it dates from 2BC.
The altar’s appearance as a font is recorded in a leaflet in the church. In ‘the records of the Parish Vestry’ it says ‘Matt Hall, Churchwarden of Kirkham in 1688 set up a scandalous trough for a font in Lund Chapel…. For this poor Matthew was presented, that is brought before, the bishop of the diocese. History does not record the outcome of the interview, nor for that matter, how he came by the ‘scandalous trough’ in the first place.’ In spite of the ‘scandal’, the ‘trough’ is still used as a font today.
When I set out to St John’s it was originally for a recky so I could get the timing right when I booked an appointment to visit. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to find the church open (it’s open every day from 10am) and to be greeted by Joan Shepcot, a volunteer gardener and co-ordinator of the Children’s Society, who invited me in to see the altar and let me take as many photographs as I needed.
As I approached the altar I could see it was beautifully maintained. Three female figures wearing loose dresses or robes stood in the centre. Their hair looked coiffured or perhaps they were wearing headgear. Were they one Mother Goddess in triple-form? Three individual Mothers or the Mothers the Fates?
On the right and left hand side of the altar female figures were depicted dancing, arms above their heads, feet tapping a beat. They were also clad in loose robes or dresses. Were these the Mother Goddesses dancing? Or perhaps nymphs of the sacred grove? Or devotees? Their swaying stances with arms raised reminded me a little of trees.
Together could they form a sisterhood of nine? Could the ancestral presence of an underworld god be felt in the background?
The back of the altar was blank because it once stood against a wall. Behind the altar was a stained glass window depicting Faith, Hope and Charity with the head of an unnamed male figure in blue and gold above. This is interesting because Alex Garman says these ‘three sisters’ show a strong influence of the Matronae. Considering their presence on a font I found myself imagining ‘the Mothers the Fates’ as ‘fairy godmothers’ at baptisms.
After a chat with Joan about her wildflower patch I cycled to the next point along the Roman road from St John’s: Dowbridge. As I headed back from the bridge over the river Dow, mist descended; cloaking St John’s at Lund, Clifton Cross and Clifton Mill. Rolling over Savick Brook and the Ribble.
In the cold swathes of mist passing over grey waters where time stood still I sensed the passage of underworld spirits. I had, after all, stumbled out on All Soul’s Day.
*Many thanks to Joan Shepcot at St John the Evangelist in Lund for permission to use these photographs on my blog.