The Dragon’s Tongue

How Can I

speak of dragons
when dragons from the world are gone?

How can I
be your inspired one
when the myths of the gods are lost?

To sing them back from the void before creation
I will need a dragon’s tongue!

Lord of Annwn
grant me the strength
by the breath of dragons
to write this book.

Over the past few weeks I have known possession by the awen; the inspiration, the divine breath that flows from Annwn, the breath of the gods, the breath of dragons; like I have never known it before.

It’s come after a couple of fallow years; sowing, reaping, dissatisfaction with flawed and failed crops.

I was beginning to fear that, after making my lifelong vows to Gwyn ap Nudd, to serve him as his awenydd, that the awen had dried up. What irony! A tiny part of me had begun to wonder if I’d made a mistake. Whether my powers of discernment were off. Whether he’d been having a laugh with me.

But my soul, to him eternally present, spoke otherwise. Only now I’ve realised I’d experienced a time of labouring, harrowing, preparing the ground for the oak to rise and the lightning to strike. For my fall from the tree amidst this collective shattering of the grounds of our society brought about by COVID-19 and into Annwn, the Deep, where I was to find the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue.

Thus has been born my next mythic book – The Dragon’s Tongue. Much of it has been gifted to me at dawn, in response, I believe to my evening prayers, in particular to Gwyn, Gwyn’s father, Nodens, Lord of Dream, Gwyn’s mother, Anrhuna, Dragon Mother of Annwn, and Gwyn’s beloved, Creiddylad.

You will probably not be surprised when I say their stories are central, with those of the dragons, and their conflict with the Children of the Stars*. There isn’t much evidence for dragons in the Brythonic/Welsh myths aside for an episode where Lludd/Nudd/Nodens ends a plague by ending the battle between two dragons and another where they appear, red and white, in a vision of Merlin Emrys. But there is the red dragon is on the Welsh flag and dragons are all around us in our folklore.

I’ve been reading mythic literature, journeying with the deep gods, the dragon-gods, long enough to know, when you get to the bottom of any myth, as Gordon White says, it is ‘dragons all the way down’.

I have long wanted to write the story of Anrhuna, the forgotten Dragon Mother, and also a creation myth. I have wanted what is lacking in the Brythonic/Welsh stories penned by medieval Welsh scribes. Something polytheistic, something penned by an inspired one of the gods, that provides insights into the mysteries of creation, of life, death, and rebirth, without the patriarchal Christian overlay.

Finding nothing else I realised I would have to do it myself. Following being gifted with the voice of the Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue I started in the beginning, in the Deep, with Old Mother Universe and her Cauldron and how a dragon slipped from it and fell into the Abyss. How, from formlessness, she gave birth to the elements in dragon-form to form the world (yes – the world was made by dragons and not by God or some other demiurge). How the Children of the Stars slew Anrhuna, cut off her nine dragon heads with their long necks, and bound them on the Towers of the Wyrms…

From this flowed the story of the conflict between the Children of Annwn and the Children of the Stars, a tale of love and war, the mysteries of birth, death, and rebirth, of the coming of the Black Dragon.

After I swore to Gwyn that I would complete it beneath the leaning yew, where I met him, I got most of the first draft written over those days of thunder. When the lightning from the Spear of Lugus which killed Anrhuna lit the skies, when the rain poured, when the energy was strange and high.

This, I believe, would not have been possible if we were not in lockdown due to COVID-19. If I had not had this time without the pressures of finding paid work by volunteering with the Wildlife Trust and helping organise local poetry nights. If I had not stopped drinking, got off social media, started counselling for my anxiety and found out its root is having Asperger’s, which has helped me to stop blaming myself for my failures in ‘the real world’ and to cultivate space for my gods and my soul.

The birth of this book has restored by faith in my gods and through it I finally feel reborn as Gwyn’s awenydd. The first draft is complete, but is far from perfect, and I am predicting it may take months, even a year or so to firm it up. But, it has been born, and I am incredibly excited about it.

So if you’re interested watch this space and if you’re really interested you can find out more about my creative processes and see unseen work, including some of the drafts, by supporting me on Patreon HERE.

*My name for the Children of Bel(i) and Don.

Green Equinox

This equinox
seems greener than before –
warmth, steam remind me of the Atlantic rainforests in Wales
where it rains six days out of seven glaw, glaw, glaw,
whilst protests sweep the planet like clouds
but do not quell the Amazon fires.

I win my green belt in a martial art
learning to harness light like photosynthesis,
undoing my roots, learning to twist, kick, turn, leap,
kicking back against body dysmorphia.

The leaves, all green-brown, are not yet
in their autumn splendour bursting into colour
like lollipops like coloured belts I don’t yet know the meaning of.

Leaves of ash fall, touch my shoulder, give me strength.

Heaven and Light, Joyfulness, Fire and Sun, these
are the names of the first three poomsae but the fourth
is Thunder and the morning after I win that belt

I’m awoken by a mighty roar and flash of lightning
illuminating my room, the altars of my gods, a broken mirror,
my laptop and the jam jar in which I keep my pens
painted black with yellow and red stars,

the rubber the only dumb thing like the doubts
that hold me back yet the eraser of my past.

The skies are broken glass and the stream a darkness
running from eternity as a voice from a martial arts film asks:
“What do you see in front of your fist?” “My destiny.”

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*‘Glaw, glaw, glaw’ is Welsh for ‘rain, rain, rain’.
**The martial art I am learning is Taekwondo and my instructor is Eddie Ellison.
***The lines from the martial arts film are from Streetfighter II: The Animated Movie (1994).
****All photos are my own except ‘Lightning Ground Storm‘ by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash.

The Epiphany of Lleu Llaw Gyffes

Lleu

I. The Oak

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
he has pierced us
with his spear

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
ooze drips from our
rancid wounds

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
we are filled with
rot and maggots

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me what
visions we must see
in these leaves

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me what
lessons we have
failed to learn

II. Lleu’s Lament

I am filled with bitterness:
black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood,
yet no theory of the humours
or anatomy of melancholy
explains my sad state

and no letting of blood
or application of leeches can
purge the badness within.

So I am here on this tree
telling the story of how I saw
the sun and it was Fool’s Gold.
My wife was made of flowers.
My armour turned to dust.
My fortress was rubble.

I have lost the meaning of my name.

I have come to doubt I even exist,
yet cannot close my eagle eyes.

Like the Eagle of Gwernabwy
I have watched civilisations rise and fall.
Like the Eagles of Pengwern and Eli
I have sunk my beak into flesh
and tasted rot and maggots.

I have seen the rotting corpses
on the battlefield at the end of the world,
the souls sparkling like iron pyrite
in the veins of the night skies.

I have looked into the abyss
and the bright lights do not console me.

I go with reluctance into Gwydion’s arms.

III. Lleu’s Resurrection

He does not want to live,
this putrid sack of dirty feathers,
bones, rotten flesh, stench,

still I clamp my mouth to his,

massage his reluctant heart
slippery and recalcitrant.

When this does not work
I call upon all the electricity
from Maentwrog Power Station,
take the paddles and recite

the words of a forbidden spell
stolen from the depths of Annwn
to bring life to the newly dead.

An ALMIGHTY FLASH –

his body jerks like frog’s legs
or the monster of Frankenstein.

He breaks the leathery bonds,
shakes off his feathers and rises
like the sun from my stony table
leaving a black charred shape.

A haze of smoke surrounds him.

His eyes are burning his hair aflame!

BEHOLD THE RESURRECTION
OF THE LIGHTNING GOD!

IV. Dinas Lleu

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

woodbine twines the walls
as if in search for a lover

an owl circles overhead
with a hoot is gone.

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

thistles break into the hall
to find an empty hearth

the fire long gone out,
a pile of black char.

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

in the ashes I scrawl
with a feather the outline

of a bird against the sun
unknowing if it is the end

or beginning of a myth.

*I wrote this sequence of poems in a single morning shortly after finding out I’d got an infection following my hernia repair operation. Thankfully it seems to have cleared up now.

Daronwy – The Prophetic Oak

Daronwy Long 300

I. The Oaken Warrior

In The Book of Taliesin there is a prophetic poem titled ‘Daronwy’. Taliesin poses the question ‘Py pren a vo mwy; / No get daronwy?’ ‘What tree is greater / Than he, Daronwy?’

Dar is an alternative form of derw ‘oak’. Thus Daronwy is an oak tree. Pren ‘tree’ or ‘wood’ is also a figurative term for a warrior and its fluidity is the key to understanding Daronwy’s nature. In medieval Welsh literature warriors are often referred to as trees and even plants. In The Gododdin the combatants are called ‘trees of battle’ and ‘battle-leeks’. The army of Brân the Blessed is seen as a marching forest in ‘The Second Branch’ and Gwydion enchants trees to do battle against an army of ‘herbage and trees’ led by Brân  in ‘The Battle of the Trees’. Thus Daronwy is both tree and warrior.

In Triad 26 Daronwy is referred to as ‘one of the Three Great Oppressions of Mon’ along with Palug’s Cat and Edwin, king of Lloegr. This suggests he was located on Anglesey and may have been a tree who local people believed had the capacity to come to life and fight on notable occasions.

He perhaps gave his name to the township and stream Dronwy (formerly Daronwy) in North-East Anglesey. Other place-names derived from Daronwy include Daron in Llyn, Darowen near Machynlleth, and Darwen here in Lancashire. They may all once have had their own Daronwy stories.

II. Thundering Prophecies

Additionally, John Williams notes thaty daran is a ‘servile form’ of taran ‘thunder’. Thus ‘dar’ signifies both ‘oak’ and ‘thunder’. The thundering voice of derw ‘oak’ is mentioned in ‘The Battle of the Trees’: Derw buanwr: / racdaw crynei Nef a llawer.’ ‘Oak swift of shout: / Heaven and Earth trembled before him.’ This fits well with the image of Daronwy as a great oaken warrior.

Another word that derives from dar is darogan ‘prophecy’. This is significant because oaks are linked to thunder gods and their prophets across Western Europe. At Dodona the priestesses of Zeus prophesied by the sounds and movements of the leaves and branches of the sacred oaks. There were oaks on the Alban Mount where Jupiter was worshipped and at Praeneste where he was reverenced with his mother (who is elsewhere seen as his daughter) Fortuna whose oracle prophesied with oak rods. Donar’s Oak, sacred to Thor, in Hesse, was sadly cut down by Saint Boniface in the 8th century.

The term ‘Druid’ originates from derw and gwydd ‘knowledge’, suggesting that the Druids gained wisdom and prophetic insights from their relationships with oak trees. In ‘The Battle of the Trees we find the lines: ‘Derwydon, doethur, / daroganwch y Arthur!’ ‘Druids, wise men, / prophesy Arthur!’

Unfortunately there are no direct references to our Gallo-Brythonic thunder god, Taranis, having a sacred oak. However, in his Natural History (77-79), Pliny speaks of the Gaulish Druids sacrificing two white bulls in an oak grove. Bulls were sacred to Zeus and Jupiter and a white bull was sacrificed to the latter during the feriae in the Capitol. Thus it seems likely this sacrifice was to Taranis and that the Druids, like the prophets of Zeus and Jupiter, practiced dendromancy in oak groves. That they communed with Daronwy whose thundering voice was one with the thunder god’s.

III. The Oak Between Two Lakes

Taliesin goes on to say: ‘Yssit rin yssyd uwy – / gwawr gwyr Goronwy; / odit a’e gwypwy.’ ‘There is a secret which is greater – / the radiance of Goronwy’s men; / it is a rare man who knows it.’ Marged Haycock suggests the name Daronwy may mean the ‘oak tree of Goronwy’. The identity of Goronwy is a question of debate. Possible candidates are Goronwy, who hung Roger de Pulesdon during the Anglesey revolt in 1294, and Goronwy ab Ednyfed, who led king Llywelyn ap Grufudd’s troops to triumph against the Marcher Lords in 1263. I suspect Goronwy may be an older mythic figure.

Haycock says it’s possible the name derives from Gronw Befr. An oak is central to the story of the rivalry between Gronw and Lleu Llaw Gyfes in ‘The Fourth Branch’, yet it is far more intimately connected with Lleu than with Gronw. Gronw is the lover of Lleu’s wife, Blodeuedd. Together they plot to kill Lleu, who can only be killed with a spear crafted for a year every Sunday when people are at mass and ‘cannot be killed indoors nor out of doors… on horseback, nor on foot’. Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into enacting the only position in which his death is possible. Lleu stands with one foot on a billy-goat and the other on a bath tub with an arched roof over it and Gronw strikes with the spear.

The wounded Lleu departs in eagle form to an oak ‘between two lakes’ in ‘a valley’ (Llyn Nantlle Uchaf and Llyn Nantlle Isaf in Nantlle). This tree occupies a liminal position and possesses magical qualities: ‘Rain does not wet it, heat no longer melts it.’ Lleu’s wound turns rancid. As flesh and maggots fall from him they are eaten by a great sow. The sow leads Lleu’s uncle, the magician god, Gwydion, to him. Gwydion sings Lleu down from the oak with a trio of englyns and nurses him back to health.

IV. The Lightning Tree

In Lleu’s story we find two liminal images which may have their origin in pre-Christian traditions. The conditions of Lleu’s death distantly echo the story of the infant Zeus being dangled on a rope from a tree so he was was suspended between earth, sea, and water, thus invisible to his child-eating father, Cronus. It is also of interest that Jupiter Dolichenus, a thunder god worshipped throughout the Roman Empire between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, including here in Britain at Vindolanda, was depicted holding a lightning-rod, standing on a bull, and accompanied by an eagle. The strange, parodic, and slightly pathetic image of Lleu on his billy-goat and roofed bath tub may derive from these.

800px-Dolichenusvotive

Lleu’s ascent in eagle-form to the oak following his spear wound contains echoes of Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree,where an eagle sits in the highest branches, to gain the knowledge of the runes. And the fate of Jesus, pierced by a spear on the holy rood – a wondrous and sentient tree. Lleu’s ritual death and rescue by Gwydion, who sings him down from the heights, to the middle, to the bottom of the oak, contains elements of shamanic initiation.

It also seems significant that Lleu’s ability to kill Gronw with a spear results from his initiatory experience. Lleu is cognate with the Irish Lugh who possesses a lightning-like spear. Oak is renowned for being a tree that attracts lightning and mistletoe was believed to be produced by lightning and thus to contain its magical qualities as a gift from the thunder god. For this reason the cutting of mistletoe from an oak, along with the slaughter of the two white bulls, was part of the Druid ritual shared by Pliny. It seems that Lleu won his lightning-spear and, perhaps, also the lightning-like inspiration of prophesy from the thunder god whilst in bird-form in Daronwy’s branches.

Lleu’s associations with the lightning tree suggest it was not connected with his darker rival, Gronw. It seems the identity and stories of Goronwy, who may be referred to by Taliesin in the lines, ‘now no-one visits me but Goronwy from the water-meadows of Edrywy’, have been lost in the mists of time along with the great secret of the radiance of his men. Perhaps this was the lightning-like battle-skills and prophetic inspiration gained by initiates of the mysteries of Daronwy?

IV. The Fruitful Wand

The following lines, which mention Mathonwy, who is referred to in ‘The Fourth Branch’, add strength to the argument that Daronwy is associated with Lleu’s epiphany:

Hutlath Vathonwy,
ygkoet pan tyfwy,
ffrwytheu rwy kymrwy
ar lan gwyllonwy.

Mathonwy’s magic wand,
when it grows in the wood,
promotes fruits/successes
on the bank of the Gwyllonwy.

Mathonwy is the father of Math, who is the uncle of Gwydion. Math uses his own magic wand to punish Gwydion and his brother, Gilfaethwy, for plotting the rape of his footholder. He turns them into boars, deer, and wolves, alternately male and female, who mate with each other and bear offspring.

Lleu is ‘born’ as a ‘small something’ dropped by Arianrhod after the sturdy yellow-haired boy Dylan when she steps over Math’s wand. He is raised by Gwydion who takes the role of foster-father.

The hutlath ‘wand’ or ‘staff’ is essential to Mathonwy and his descendants for the arts of magic and enchantment. As these lines appear in a poem dedicated to Daronwy it seems likely their wands were made of oak and channelled the lightning of the thunder god. Perhaps by this power Math and Gwydion brought Taliesin and Blodeuedd to life, respectively from the seven elements and the blossoms of oak, broom, and meadowsweet, and Gwydion enchanted the trees to battle against Brân’s army.

The image of the wand growing in a wood is a fascinating one that works on many levels. Here it regains its life as a tree, bearing fruit, both literally and metaphorically. Haycock notes that, in the Christian tradition, ‘Aaron’s rod (sometimes equated with the rod of Moses)… put forth buds, blossoms and ripe almonds… this miraculously flowering staff of Scripture was connected typologically with the incarnation of Christ, and its wood with both the Tree of Life and Christ’s Cross.’

V. The River of Madness

The location of the wand ‘on the bank of the Gwyllonwy’ is also significant. This river-name derives from gwyllt, which means ‘mad’, ‘wild’ and ‘spectre’. Throughout the Celtic tradition there are many instances of people becoming gwyllt or geilt in the Irish language. One of the most famous is Sweeney Geilt, who becomes geilt and takes bird-form after being cursed for murdering a psalmist:

His brain convulsed,
his mind split open…
His fingers stiffened,
his feet scuffled and flurried,
his heart was startled,
his senses were mesmerized,
his sight was bent,
the weapons fell from his hands
and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion
like a bird of the air.

It may be suggested that when Myrddin Wyllt becomes gwyllt after murdering his son and daughter at the Battle of Arferderydd he takes the form of a merlin before retreating to the forest of Celyddon. The experience of becoming gwyllt gives Myrddin his powers of poetry and prophecy.

Suffering trauma, becoming gwyllt, taking the form of a bird and taking to the trees are common motifs in Celtic literature. This is exactly what happens to Lleu. It may thus be suggested that the wand/oak is located ‘on the bank of the Gwyllonwy’ because this river represents the stream of gwyllon, of those who have become gwyllt, living and dead, who have received initiations in the trees.

V. Daronwy – The Brythonic World Tree?

The centrality of Daronwy, the prophetic oak, in the epiphany of Lleu suggests he may have been seen as the Brythonic World Tree. The image of the wounded Lleu in eagle-form receiving lightning-like inspiration from the thunder god in his upper branches whilst down beneath the great sow (who may be the goddess Ceridwen, who takes the guise of a black tailless sow on Nos Galan Gaeaf) devours the rotten flesh and wriggling maggots of his former being is a powerful one.

Perhaps it is because Daronwy was associated with initiatory rites and prophetic wisdom along with sacrifices to the thunder god that he was viewed as an oppression. I wonder whether such rituals were viewed as giving power to the oak, who could be invoked as a warrior for strength in battles, who might come to life with a marching forest of oaken warriors to the aid of his people at times of need?

Daronwy Wide

*With thanks to Greg Hill for passing on Marged Haycock’s translation of ‘Daronwy’, which is cited here.

SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Arthur Bernard Cook, ‘Zeus, Jupiter and the Oak’, The Classical Review, Vol.17, No.3, (1903)
Diego Chapinal Heras, ‘Between the Oak and the Doves: Changes in the Sanctuary of Dodona Over the Centuries’, Simple Twists of Faith, (2017)
James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009)
John Williams, Gomer; or a Brief Analysis of the Language and Knowledge of the Ancient Cymry, (Hughes and Butler, 1854)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Marged Haycock (transl), Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray, (Faber & Faber, 2001)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)