Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.

Review: Your Face is a Forest by Rhyd Wildermuth

Your Face is a ForestRhyd Wildermuth is a writer and social worker based in Seattle. He writes for ‘The Wild Hunt,’ ‘Patheos Pagan’ and ‘Polytheist.com’ and blogs at ‘Paganarch.com.’ He describes himself as ‘a dream-drenched, tea-swilling leftist pagan punk bard.’ He is also a student of Druidry with OBOD. What drew me to his work was his boldness, passion, vision and the fact he proudly and outspokenly ‘worships gods.’

Your Face is a Forest is a collection of essays and prose. Rhyd describes his style as ‘weaving a forest from meaning’. This book’s a tapestry of poetic prose and prose poetry woven from themes that make sense as a whole only in the non-rational way trees make a forest. It’s rough, edgy and raw, and also a little rough around the edges, which adds to its anarchic charm.

Rhyd invites the reader to step into his life and accompany him through the places where he lives into forests behind to meet the faces of ‘the Other’ in ‘tasselled willows’, pines and alders, satyr dances and Dionysian revels. To find the tooth of an elk long dead and buried where cars now drive. A world full of life and another world behind it.

What I love about this book is that Rhyd speaks deeply and richly of both worlds. On pilgrimages to France and Germany he tells of the wonder of waking in a field of rabbits, playing flute with locals on unknown streets, sitting within the pink fur womb of a Berlin bar. He speaks of his despair at social inequality and the continuing repression of homosexuality in Christian colleges. He is a poet of the sacredness of this-worldly life on all levels.

He also shares some of his innermost visions of the gods and otherworlds. These have guided his life and thus form the reader’s guiding threads. Outstanding was a vision of Bran, which deserves quoting in full; ‘When I saw Bran, his great black cloak rippled in an unseen wind, his powerful form straddling a Breton valley between the River of Alder and the sea. But the cloak fled from his body, a myriad of ravens having stripped from his flesh sinew and skin, leaving only great white pillars of bone, the foundation of a temple and a tower. I do not yet know where his head lies.’ On his pilgrimages we find a mysterious tower on a mountain, a stone head in a fountain and a magical cloak. But Rhyd doesn’t give all his secrets away.

Other deities include Arianrhod, Ceridwen, Brighid, Dionysos and the unnamed gods and spirits of the city streets, buried forests and culverted rivers. What I liked most about these sections is that rather than kowtowing to being acceptable, Rhyd speaks his experiences directly and authentically. This was encouraging and inspiring for me and I think will be for other polytheists whose encounters with the gods go beyond known mythology and conventional Pagan text books. There are few modern authors who speak of the mystical aspects of deity and Rhyd does it exceptionally well.

I’d recommend Your Face is a Forest to all Pagans who are looking for real, undoctored insights into nature and the gods. Because it’s not only about Paganism and is written by somebody fully immersed in the beauty and pain of life and the search for love I’d recommend it to non-Pagans too, particularly those interested in spiritual journeys and visionary prose and poetry. Quoting Rhyd’s dedication, to ‘Everyone who’s ever looked into the Abyss / And brought back light for the rest of us.’

Your Face is a Forest is available through Lulu: http://www.lulu.com/shop/rhyd-wildermuth/your-face-is-a-forest/paperback/product-21887986.html

The Edge of the Dark

‘as ‘th’ edge o’ dark’ threw its weird glamour over the scene, boggarts and phantoms would begin to creep about to the music of the unearthly voices heard in every sough and sigh of the wandering wind…’
– James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire

This landscape has only just been claimed and in its deepest knowing holds the memory of the edge of the dark. The majority of Lancashire’s towns and fields developed where thick shaggy mosses, carr and marsh held rule. Its people lived on the edge of darkness, the edge of unknowable waters, the edge of the otherworld.

Is this existence on the edge the source of its legends? Its fairy lanes and dells, boggart bridges, cloughs and holes, its headless phantoms and saucer-eyed spectral hounds?

How far do these stories stretch back in the minds of its people? Are they the creation of an industrial age that sought to banish darkness and uncertainty with city walls yet built a new hell in its abominable mills: its Dickensian fairy palaces as the wilderness outside grew wilder?

Are they based on the wildening of tales always strange yet homely: of the household boggart whose help might be bought with butter or milk but whose wrath could estrange a family; of fay whose magic could curse or cure; of water spirits who gave of themselves and their secrets but only at great sacrifice?

Could these stories signal an endemic relationship with the otherworld stretching back through centuries? Through Anglo-Saxon boggarts and barguests to the arcane myths of Britain to the repository of stories about ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘The Old North’ in Welsh mythology and beyond to a near forgotten oral tradition? All hinge upon the cusp of thisworld and the otherworld: the edge of the dark.

In Welsh mythology the otherworld is known as Annwn: the not-world, the deep. It is the beyond of adventure, the locus of alterity. Its landscapes are unstill, its deities and monsters have many faces. It is a source of beauty and terror, of awe, of Awen, the divine inspiration quested by the bards and awenyddion who crossed the edge of the dark to explore its depths.

The ways between the worlds are fraught with danger. Safe passage is only granted at a cost. Those who return from the otherworld are never the same. Thus they shroud themselves in the cowl of the edge of the dark.

Those who live on the edge see our precarious reign over the land and its myths is illusory. Tower blocks and elaborate street lamps are ephemeral as Dickens’ fairy palaces. Electric lighting is no defence against the edge of the dark, which seeps in because its memories are deeper than us, its darkness more permeating than headlights.

These memories evoke intense loss and mourning. Yearning for the fluting wetland birds, bog oaks, reeds, rushes, and hoofed and pawed animals of the wild quagmire we banished. For the fairies and boggarts we dare not believe in. For the gods of the otherworld who haunt the edge of the dark with pawing steeds and sniffing dogs whilst we seal ourselves in a not-world that is not Annwn choosing to occupy tiny lamp lit portions of thisworld beyond the bog’s rushy melodies.

Immersed in false light we neither perceive the people of thisworld nor Annwn until the rain pours down, the marshland rises up, and the weird glamour of the edge of the dark undoes all security as the deepest memories of our land and its legendary reality return.

Greencroft Valley

Black Dog

He lies beneath my bed
and skrikes through the night,
plummeting the suburb into blackness.

Dampening floodlit windows,
putting out the streetlights,
he licks my hand when I am lonely.

When I fear I cannot live he takes me
to the otherside where we enter
the secret commonwealth of Middleforth

padding along the causey past the windmill’s
constant throb, cows with swaying udders
and hens clucking in the tithe barn.

Yet on communal ground
we are still invisible outcasts
with insatiable hunger and baleful breath.

Bound here by an obscure debt we pace the causey,
sniffing for dog-bones buried by the wayside
in a ritual that once had meaning on a lightless night.

Middleforth BrowMiddleforth Green, Spring Mist 007 - CopyMiddleforth Green

Awenydd

I.
As the longest night looses
darkest claws I walk amongst shadows
at dawn where moonlight floods
through the arms of trees
and a solitary lamppost lights the vale.

Lamppost, Greencroft ValleyII.
River-trees stand stark and tall,
consistent in her mind’s
unravelling of currents and tides,
cormorants and gulls,
a ragged heron.

RibbleIII.
The host’s roar to a lullaby
quells as moon leads dawn
over chiming hills to be swallowed
by cloud as the hunt returns
to graveyard and mound.

Moon over Castle HillIV.
My lord of the fay
makes his presence known.
He speaks to the mist within my bones
like the lych gate unfastening,
awenydd– my magic word.

Lych gate, St Mary's ChurchV.
The spirit paths are mine
to walk for an evanescent pulse
of dawn. Time stands still
from vale to hill and the stream
sings: awenydd, awenydd.

Fish House Brook

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.