Breathe

We need to remember that our very breathing is to drink our mother’s milk – the air – made for us by countless microbial brothers and sisters in the sea and soil, and by the plant beings with whom we share the great land surfaces of our mother’s lustrous sphere.’
Stephan Harding

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lungs. Two. Right and left. Each enclosed in a pleural sack in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Primary bronchus, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, terminal bronchiole. In the alveoli, ‘little cavities’, across the blood-air barrier, gas exchange takes place.

Breathe in: oxygen 21%, carbon dioxide 0.04%. Breathe out: oxygen 16%, carbon dioxide 4.4%. 6 carbon glucose, oxidised, forms carbon dioxide. Product: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ‘the molecular unit of currency of intracellular energy transfer’. The spark of all life.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Birds have lungs plus cervical, clavicular, abdominal, and thoracic air sacs. Hollow-boned they are light as balloons, breathing in, breathing out. Then there are the lungless. Through tiny holes in the abdomen called spiracles leading to the trachea, insects fill their air sacs. Earthworms and amphibians breathe in and out through moist skins. Fish breathe water in through gulpy mouth breathe it out through gapey gills.

Plants breathe through their leaves. By daylight they photosynthesise. Stomata breathe carbon dioxide. It mixes with water. The green lions of chlorophyll work their magic by sunlight. Oxygen is released. From glucose the magical hum and buzz of ATP. At night they respire glucose and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water. 10 times more oxygen produced than used.

Underground fungi breathe the air of the soil through thread-like hyphae that mass as mycelia. They respire aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), changing glucose to ATP (it’s all about ATP!), ethanol, carbon dioxide, and water. This old, old, metabolic pathway dates back to the days before oxygen ruled our breath and is utilised by microbes. The hidden ones of the deep, single-celled, or living colonies, breathe through their single cell walls in ancient ways – acetogenesis, methanogenesis – to gain the blessed ATP.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

And what is this creature that does not breathe (in or out) with no metabolism or need for ATP? This simple strand of genes in a designer jacket called a capsid? Does this thing, neither dead nor living, have a spirit? Like all living things was it breathed into life by the gods?

Or is this death-bringer undead? This assaulter of lungs? Lung-cell-killer and causer of coughs – dead lung cells coughed up as sputum, mucus, the yellow remains of what was ours?

By what dark programme does it turn the body against itself – alveoli ‘little cavities’ where the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place filling with water – no space to make ATP? No lungs – no breath. The pump of ventilators, breathing in, breathing out, our new iron lungs…

Did it crawl from the cauldron of inspiration like the speechless dead or is it something entirely other?

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

To whom do we pray? To the gods and goddesses of breath and to the spirits of inspiration? To Ceridwen, Gwyn ap Nudd, Morgana and her sisters, who gave us breath, and take it away?

“Breath always leads to me,” says Gwyn. I find this reassuring and disconcerting from a death-god. From the one who releases the spirits of Annwn from the cauldron and holds them back.

So we breathe together with the lunged and lungless creatures with skin, fur, feathers, shells, scales, leaves, hyphae, the single-celled, the uncelled who ride our breath, until we return to the gods. To the winds that carry the voices of all ancestors over our 4.543 billion year old earth.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

*I adapted this meditation from an earlier version ‘The Ways We Breathe‘ previously published on Gods & Radicals following guidance from my deities to focus on my breath and being struck by the realisation that a distinguishing feature of coronavirus and other viruses is that they do not breathe.

Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

In Jocelyn’s The Life of St Kentigern there is a story about the saint’s recall from Wales to the Old North by Glasgow’s ruler, Rhydderch Hael. Following an angelic vision, Kentigern sets out with 665 disciples and arrives in Hoddom where he is greeted by a multitude of people.

Drawing a cross and invoking the Holy Trinity, Kentigern orders anyone against the word of God to depart. This results in ‘a vast multitude of skeleton-like creatures, horrible in form and aspect’ departing from the assemblage and fleeing from sight.

Reassuring the terrified crowd Kentigern ‘lays bare’ what they believe in. He condemns their idols to the fire and tells them their principal deity ‘Woden’ from whom they claim descent is nothing more than a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is ‘loose in the dust’ whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

As Kentigern preaches faith in Jesus Christ the flat plain of ‘Hodelm’ rises into a hill which remains to this day. The people ‘renounce Satan’ and are washed in the waters of baptism.

This foundation legend explains the association of the site of the church and the graveyard beside the river Annan across from Woodcock Air (the hill) at Hoddom with St Kentigern.

Woodcock Air Hill

The Life of St Kentigern was commissioned by Jocelyn, Bishop of Glasgow, and written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, in the 12th century. As a literary hagiography it was clearly designed to promote the life of Kentigern (who lived in the 6th century) and vilify paganism. As a historical document it should be approached with caution, particularly in light of the anachronism concerning Woden.

Whilst there is archaeological evidence of a Northumbrian monastery based around St Kentigern’s church at Hoddom it was not founded until the 8th century. (This is evidenced by an 8th century letter sent by Alcuin to Wolfhard, Abbott of Hodda Helm). The Anglo-Saxons did not arrive until long after Kentigern died. It seems Jocelyn wove later tales concerning the conversion of Woden’s worshippers into the text.

This leaves us with the question of who the people of Hoddom venerated prior to Kentigern’s arrival. The existence of a local cult is evidenced by a Roman altar stone found in the wall of the church at Hoddom Cross and built into the porch in 1817. Unfortunately when it was found the sides could not be seen and the ‘mouldings of the capital and base’ had been ‘dressed off’. There are no clues who it was dedicated to.

However the surrounding area echoes with pagan memories: the place-names Brydekirk and Lochmaben; an altar to Vitris and a ram’s head at Netherby; the story of Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king, whose soul was gathered by Gwyn ap Nudd after he was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd. Myrddin Wyllt’s flight from Arfderydd in battle-madness to Celyddon.

Intrigued and troubled by the story of Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, wondering whether between the lines and beneath the Hollywood-style Biblical pyrotechnics any ‘truths’ (or at least personal gnoses) about their pagan religion may be intuited from the land, I returned to the area North of the Wall.

Walking from Ecclefechan to Hoddom, the first thing that struck me was the teeming of nature in the Scottish villages and fields. Flocks of spotted starlings on the roofs and telephone wires. Droves of sparrows flitting in and out of the hedgerows. The un-mowed roadsides were alive with flowers and every flower was covered with bees. Slick black slugs wandered through long grasses. I felt an unusual liberty in ‘the right to roam’.

Hoddom CrossMy first stop was at the church at Hoddom Cross. Roofless and derelict due to a fire, ivy climbed its walls and mausoleums. Ferns and wildflowers pushed through the railings to adorn older graves marked by sandstone gravestones. Newer graves with shiny porcelain headstones adorned with freshly wrapped bouquets glimmered in the background.

Something birch-white caught my eye. Going to investigate I found myself blinking in disbelief. In a Christian graveyard a couple of miles from any village I was staring at what to all appearances was a carving of a white dog with a purposively painted red nose. Dormach red-nose! I thought immediately of Gwyn ap Nudd’s famous hound who accompanies him as he guides the dead to the otherworld.

Admittedly it had antler-like twigs for ears and might have been a representation of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. But why carve it white from birch? It looked far more like a dog and a hound of Annwn at that. Too strange a find in a graveyard to be pure coincidence when I was tracing the deity(s) associated with the Roman altar (which I did not see).

River AnnanAfter visiting the ‘new’ church I walked to St Kentigern’s graveyard at Hoddom across the Annan from Woodcock Air. Watched over by a tall fir (or pine?) tree it was blissfully overgrown with ferns, yarrow, willowherb, bee-humming knapweed, decorated by harebells.

St Kentigern's Graveyard

Wandering amongst the gravestones I noticed carved images of skulls and crossbones and remarkable winged souls which a notice recorded as ’18th century folk art’. So here are Kentigern’s skeletons, I thought, unbanished. Symbols of death and our transition to the otherworld living on through years of Christian rule.

From the vantage point on Woodcock Air as I looked down on St Kentigern’s graveyard the sandstone gravestones shifted into brown-clad people. I gained a sense of the slowness of lives decanted by prayer, steady seasonal work in the fields, the slow turning of cart wheels, the satisfaction of self-subsistency and knowing you would die and be buried in your land close to your community.

St Kentigern's Graveyard from Woodcock AirAnd beneath the Northumbrian monastery did I gain a sense of St Kentigern’s church? The scene of conversion? The deity(s) to whom the ‘idols’ were dedicated? The ‘truth’ felt buried deep. Momentarily seeing the raised area where the church stood as a burial mound I thought back to Jocelyn’s words about ‘Woden’ being a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is in the dust whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

Could these words be read obliquitously to refer to a deified ancestor or ancestral deity believed to live on in the brightness of the world beyond this world? Perhaps even to Gwyn who as a psychopomp and leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Woden’s closest Brythonic equivalent?

BrydekirkI also had the opportunity to visit Brydekirk. Intriguingly Ronald Cunliffe Shawe claims Gwenddolau worshipped ‘Woden’ and ‘a fire goddess’. His reference leads to the passage about Woden in The Life of St Kentigern. I can’t find anything mentioning a fire goddess. However Gwenddolau’s worship of such a deity would make perfect sense if Brydekirk is named after Bride or Brigid. Brigid was later venerated as St Brigid and her priestesses tended an eternal flame.

At the church I was told by one of the parishioners it was indeed named after St Brigid of Ireland. I also learnt St Bryde’s Well was a natural spring and was gifted with an indispensable description of its location.

My walk to the well down the Annan then alongside fields was accompanied by a curious herd of cows who followed peeping out through gaps in the hedge. Their strange behaviour led me to recall the story of how St Brigid was raised by a white cow with red ears: another otherworldly animal.

CowsThe area surrounding St Bryde’s Well was hopelessly overgrown with brambles, nettles and Himalayan Balsam. With the guidance of the parishioners I still couldn’t find it. Ready to give up I saw what looked like a pink veil. I first assumed it was a votive offering marking the spring. When I got closer I realised it was a balloon strung with pale gauze. Another extraordinary marker that proved to be no mere coincidence.

Turning round, I noticed a water dispenser and beyond heard running water. Seeing a rivulet at the bottom of a steep bank running into the Annan, I followed its course to find a small stream leading to the natural spring pouring from amongst mosses and ferns into an orangey circular basin: St Bryde’s Well.

Across the river I also visited the remains of St Bryde’s tower. All I found was a single flight of steps climbing upward into the fire of the sun. Could this has have been a stairway walked by Brigid’s priestesses who maintained her eternal flame?

St Bryde's TowerI returned to Penwortham with no clear answers about how or whether St Kentigern converted the people of Hoddom or what they experienced and believed. Such ‘truths’ can only be conjectural and are always determined by our questions, assumptions and  beliefs.

What I gained was a deeper understanding of how our physical and literary landscapes interweave. How sign and signified lead the dance of a journey which is led by the gods who lead us to places where all distinctions break down in the numinosity of their presence.

At Hoddom and Brydekirk I met a myriad inhabitants of a northern land and I met Gwyn and Bride (who I know here in Lancashire as Brigantia) in new ways. I learnt that within the land and its stories and even in the most depredatory of Christian texts the fire of the gods endures.

Bezza Bridge

Pink of willowherb
and white of meadowsweet

line the road to Bezza Brook.
Where you cross at Bezza Bridge

step down, step down, step down
in the incantation of the strange-light

hear the brook’s flow see the spirits stream
on the walls of the tunnel of life.

Dwell not on the tunnel of death
lest you hear the Skriker skrike.

Do not look for a rag on the wind
or an eye in the midst of the strange-light.

Bezza Bridge

Choosing a Path

Fairy LaneThe metaphor of choosing a path appears frequently within Paganism but can be applied to the journey of life, which in many religious traditions is seen as the journey of the soul.

I’ve walked many paths; riding instructor and groom, philosophy student, fantasy writer. Over the past three years I have been writing and performing poetry and exploring Druidry. The binding core is that in each I’ve been seeking magic and I’ve pursued all these paths with religious commitment.

Looking back, it appears I have walked one path with many names. This week I have come to question the suitability of the name ‘Druid.’

I have never felt any commonality with, or desire to join any of the systematic orders of Druidry where one can complete courses and achieve grades in exchange for coins. It’s my firm belief that the living landscape, the gods and ancestors are the greatest teachers. Their guidance, trust and respect are not bought but earned, and thus utterly priceless.

However, one place I have felt at home is The Druid Network. Hearing a talk by its chair, Phil Ryder formed a huge turning point in my life that led me to recognise and honour the divine in my local landscape. The Druid Network is the only organisation I know of that promotes Druidry as a religion. There are no set courses or hierarchies. Each member is encouraged to find and explore their relationship with whatever they hold sacred in their own way, and the social forum provides a safe area for discussing issues and experiences. However, there are guiding principles (1).

I’m in agreement with most of these principles, except that the native religion of the British Isles must nominally be called Druidry. I imagine Heathens, Witches, Shamans and many other Pagan groups would make similar claims.

This winter’s solstice I was gifted a name for my path- Awenydd. For Kristoffer Hughes becoming Awenydd forms the core of Druidry. For Elen Sentier it is a form of native British Shamanism. My path currently seems to sit somewhere in an unknown hinterland between two names I am equally uncomfortable with, ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman.’

For me ‘Awenydd’ works a similar magic to that which others describe in relation to ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman’. It opens the doors of perception and initiates connection with the Awen, divine inspiration. It is as Awenydd I truly serve my land, gods and communities.

I can see a future for myself as Awenydd; continuing to learn the stories and songs of my local landscape and its spirits; journeying more deeply the immensities of the otherworlds with Gwyn and learning his mysteries; bringing my insights back to my communities and thus learning to weave a magic between the worlds.

Contrastingly, I perceive ‘Druid’ as closing doors, leading to pointless arguments, in-fighting, and attempting to define myself against systems and practices with which I share little commonality.

If the journey of life is the journey of the soul, I want to choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder. I want to live a life true to my heart, in devotion to the land and gods who call to me. I want to sing their songs. I want to share their inspiration. I want to die knowing I have done everything I can to respond to their call.

I don’t want to remain a prisoner in the maze of arguments and contradictions which, for me, constitutes contemporary Druidry, and which will only lead me into greater negativity.

It is on this basis I give up the name of Druid and choose Awenydd.

And the consequences?

The biggest consequence is that the path of Awenydd is not classed as a religion. If I am no longer a Druid I no longer belong to a religion.

To anyone on the outside this might look like a massive change. However on the inside this does not change my relationship with my land and deities, nor with family and friends.

It has, and I think will continue to have some impact on my Pagan, Druid and other religious communities. I’ve already talked my decision through with some of the members of TDN who, for the most part, are happy for me to remain a part of the organisation on the basis of shared principles, and I’m hoping to discuss it with my grove at the solstice.

My local Pagan Society is inclusive of open-minded people of any faith or none, so no problems there. As for Preston Faith Forum and the further questions, if I’m not a Druid, then am I Pagan? And can I be an Interfaith Representative if I don’t belong to a faith? That’s another kettle of fish entirely and not one I’m ready to address right now!

I want to live a life that fills my soul with awe and wonder

I choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder, in devotion to the magic this land, its deities and spirits, my patron Gwyn ap Nudd and the ancestors. This path is Awenydd. Let their songs be sung!

(1) http://druidnetwork.org/files/about/constitutionrevnov2009.pdf

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.

Calling

Before my calling I slept in a glass coffin.
No-one knew if I was live or dead until
I raised my head. And still they are pondering.

Whilst I slept I watched processions
of black clad men carrying coffins,
who march here still putting time
to death, brief as dragonflies.

Their echo beats loud. In woodlands
at March I search for a heartbeat, whilst
mad winds whirl the winter skies overhead.

Roads steal sound. Pylons warp every sense.
Yet when I look the past in the eye it looks back.
They need us now as much as we need them
and the people of the future need us again.

For live or dead there is no rest, no place
to hide nor coffins left, only time processing
through both worlds to a fathomless end.

Porth Annwn

Porth-Annwfyn. Some numinous, arcane agnomen, but which to my dream cognition was livid as moonshine and did plainly signify: Gate of Elysium.’
– David Jones The Dream of Private Clitus

I.
Where is the door?
The shadowy portal exists
In the thickness of the veil
In the heart of mist
Where life divides
And fateful cataracts meet.
There are as many doors
As you have eyes that open.

II.
And who is the porter?
It is never who you thought it would be.
It is always who secretly you knew
From the world’s beginning.

III.
There are many doors
And I can speak of but a few.

Trees keep doors.
They are not in the front or back
But in the spiralling melt
Into arboreal existence.
This is the forest path.

Look into a river
To find yourself on the mirror side.
Remember to be returned
With the turning of the tide.

To reach the summer stars
Seek out a silver space ship.
Beware for Elysium’s bliss
Is more deadly than Annwn’s darkness.

Beside the door of death
A spectral hound sits.
He’s black or white-
Depends on the way
You’re looking.
He swallows whole souls.
The lucky ones hit the ground running.

Song for Gwyn

Penwortham HolmeHero of hosts, perpetual wild huntsman,
Wind through the trees, in the leaves, in my blood.
King of the fair folk and darkest of demons,
Keeper of Annwn and Gwynfyd’s High Courts.

CloudsLover of Creiddylad, render of veils,
Mover of seasons rides billowing tides,
Black One of the Seas swings round and sails,
A flash of wild horses cross thundering skies.

Old railway bridge, Avenham ParkWith Dormarth traverses the wefts of the worlds,
Horse saddled bright, ancestral guide,
Wending a way twixt dead and live souls,
Maintaining the magic lest worlds be destroyed.