Wooden Idols of the Bogs

I. The Roos Carr Figures – Voyagers to the Otherworld?

A few weeks ago, fellow awenydd Greg Hill drew my attention to the Roos Carr Figures HERE. These fascinating wooden warrior figurines, eight in total, their shields, and their serpent-headed boats were sealed in a wooden box and deposited in a boggy area (‘carr’ means ‘bog or fen covered with scrub’).

They were found in a layer of blue clay by labourers cleaning a ditch in 1836. Of the eight, only five remain (the fifth was returned after one of the labourers gave him to his daughter as an ‘ancient doll’ to play with), a couple of the shields and one of conjecturally two boats due to decay.

Radiocarbon dating to 606 – 508 BCE places them in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Carved from yew they stand between 31cm and 45cm tall. Their faces are angular with prominent noses, slit-like mouths, and striking eyes made of quartzite pebbles set into eye-holes. Elongated trunks with drill-holes at the shoulders for arms taper into thin peg-like legs. Each has a central pubic hole.

The figures were found with a number of dis-attached appendages, some of which were arms, some of which were phalluses, to be placed in the empty holes. Typically, the Victorians mistook the phalluses for oars. Since then their manhoods have been returned to their correct positions.

I immediately fell in love with these little figures who might be interpreted to be living or dead warriors sailing their serpent-ship on a voyage to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the ancient British Otherworld. Their representation reminded me of the medieval Welsh poem ‘Preiddu Annwn’ ‘The Spoils of the Otherworld’ in which Arthur takes three loads of warriors in his ship, Prydwen, to assault a series of otherworldly fortresses to steal the Brindled Ox and the Cauldron of Pen Annwn.

It suggested the existence of a pre-Arthurian tale in which warriors set out on a quest to Annwn to visit the dead and the deities of Annwn and perhaps bring back treasures to Thisworld.

II. Wooden Idols of Britain and Ireland – Threshold Guardians?

My research on the Roos Carr Figures led me to discovering that a number of wooden figurines have been found across Britain and Ireland. All were found in wet places which were seen as liminal – where crossings of bogs or waters needed to be made – suggesting they were threshold guardians. Some of these ‘idols’ have been interpreted to be gods and goddesses, others spirits of place, and others ancestors and, of course, the boundaries between these terms are intrinsically fluid.

The Ballachulish Goddess was found on Ballchulish Moss, in Inverness-shire, Scotland. Dated to 600 BC it stands at a height of 145cm, the size of a girl, and is the largest of our British figures. Carved from alder wood it has a large head with a long, thin nose, a full mouth, and small white quartzite eyes. Its chest is flat with two pairs of incised circles representing breasts and nipples. The objects it is holding have not yet been securely identified (a couple of scholars have suggested they are severed penises!). Its legs end in a solid block of wood.

It was discovered during building work, in 1880, in deep layers of peat ‘lying face down on the gravel of an old raised beach, around 120 metres from the shore of Loch Leven’ and may have stood beside a pool. ‘Under and above’ were ‘intertwined branches and twigs and ‘straighter poles which might have formed a ‘wickerwork container, or a little shrine’.

Its location, overlooking ‘the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven with the sea’ are suggestive of its worship as ‘the goddess of the straits’ to whom travellers made offerings for a safe crossing.

Another intriguing example is the Somerset God Dolly which is the oldest of Britain’s known wooden idols, dating to between 2285 and 3340 BCE. This hermaphroditic figure was carved from ash wood, was 16cm high, and had a ‘round featureless head, no neck, and a small stubby body with two asymmetrically placed breasts and a large horizontal penis’ ending ‘at the base of the trunk without legs.’

It was found on the Somerset Levels, ‘driven upside down’ ‘within a cluster of pegs’ ‘that formed part of Bell Track A’ and ‘stratigraphically below the Bell B Track’. This suggests it might have been a threshold guardian of the earlier trackway, then made redundant, and buried beneath.

Nearby, in Hillfarrance, an oak forked-branch figure dated to 1131-1410 BCE was retrieved from a pit in a ‘riverine peat wetland’ ‘beside two brooks, both tributaries of the river Tone.’ Only the lower limbs and torso, 45cm long, have survived. It was buried with shards of pottery, a burnt stone and worked wood. Again, this was a deliberate deposition, perhaps of a former guardian.

The Kingsteignton Idol was discovered on the banks of the river Teign, in south Devon, ‘lying up against the trunk of a fallen oak tree’. Carved from oak wood, 33cm tall, it has a ‘long thin body’, ‘elongated neck’, and ‘large head’ with ‘eyes, nose and chin’ ‘indicated’. There is a hole in his neck for insertable arms. Its ‘trunk is straight, square-shouldered, with carefully carved buttocks and erect penis’ and its ‘short, kneed legs end in stubby feet.’ It has been dated to 426-352 BC. It was likely associated with the oak tree, a threshold marker, and may have been its guardian spirit.

On the Dagenham marshes, on the bank of the Thames, down river from London, the Dagenham Idol was found in close proximity to the skeleton of a deer. It has been dated to 2250 BC. Carved from the wood of a Scots pine it stands at 46cm tall and has a large head, flat face, sockets for eyes (‘the right deeper than the left’), and no ears or hair. Its trunk is armless. It has a central pubic hole, potentially for the insertion of a penis and its legs are straight and footless. It might have been a guardian of the marshland and/or river and possibly had an association with deer and other animals.

In Ireland the Ralaghan Figure was found in a peat bog and the Lagore Figure on a crannog in a peat lake. A model dug-out canoe was discovered at Clowanstown 1, County Meath, and might be seen to resemble the serpent boat of the Roos Carr Figures, paddling the lake, and between worlds.

The existence of these idols provides evidence that, from the early Bronze Age into the Iron Age, the people of Britain and Ireland saw wet places as sacred and inspirited as well as potentially dangerous. The gods and spirits appeared to them in anthropomorphic forms and were carved into wooden idols, which were seen to embody them, and to which offerings were likely made for safe passage.

For unknown reasons some of these idols were deposed and buried in or near the place where they stood. Had they reached the end of their power and thus served their purpose? Had they requested to be returned to the waters of their origin? Were they seen as just as or more powerful when buried like the dead? The answers to these questions are as unknowable as the minds of our distant ancestors

III. Wooden Idols and Ritual Landscapes in Northern Europe

Numerous wooden idols serving a similar function have been recovered from across Northern Europe. The best example of a ritual complex is Opfermoor Vogtei in Germany. Situated on a bog, which includes a shallow lake, it was in use from the 5th century to beyond the Roman period.

Within circular enclosures of hazel branches were altars where wooden cult figures were worshipped. Wooden idols were also found on the edges of the lake where they overlooked the waters.

During excavations on Wittemoor timber trackway across a bog in Berne, Lower Saxony, in Germany, six wooden figurines dating to the Iron Age were found. Two of them stood on either side of the track where it crossed a stream. Both were ‘carved in silhouette out of oak planks 3 to 7cm thick’. The male was 105cm tall ‘with a rectangular body’ and the female 95cm tall ‘with breasts or shoulders indicated by a slanted cut, broad hips and vulva’. The male slotted into a plank and the female stood on a mound. The other figures are described as ‘cult poles’. Fire sites ‘at each end of the crossing’ and ‘stones and worked alder sticks’ around two of the poles suggest offerings were made.

These discoveries show that wooden idols served a significant function within ritual landscapes for the Germanic peoples. As representations of gods and goddesses and spirits of place with threshold functions they were raised on altars, fires were built in their honour, and offerings were made to them.

Similar idols, such as the Braak Bog Figures, have been found elsewhere in Germany. From Denmark we have the Broddenjberg Idol and figurines were found in Wilemstad in the Netherlands.

One of the most impressive, from Russia, is the Shigir Idol. Dated to 10500 BCE, the Mesolithic period, around the end of the Ice Age, it is ‘the oldest known wooden sculpture in the world.’

Found in a peat bog in Shigir it is carved from larch and may have originally stood at at 5.3m tall. It has a small head with narrow eyes, a triangular nose, circular mouth, and pointed chin. Its body is flat and pole-like and covered in ‘geometrical motifs’ including ‘zigzag lines’ and ‘depictions of human hands and faces’. It speaks to me of a death god filled with the spirits of the dead.

It has been proposed that the decorations tell the story of a creation myth or ‘serve as a warning not to enter a dangerous area’. Whatever the case, it would have been a formidable figure at the centre of a ritual landscape, seen for miles around, imbued with great meaning for the early hunter-gatherers.

What strikes me the most about these wooden idols is that they seem hauntingly familiar. I’m not sure if this because, as a Smithers, I have Saxon ancestry and connections to the figures from Germany or because, when I’ve been travelling wetlands, physically and in spirit, I have caught glimpses of dark figures who might be wetland spirits or echoes of their representations.

What is certain is that the presence of spirits and the urge to carve them from wood has been felt across Northern Europe since, at least, the Ice Age. In the Norse myths, the first humans were created from ash and elm by the gods and, in the Brythonic myths, soldiers were conjured from trees by a deity. I wonder whether our creation of wooden idols was seen to mirror this divine process?

SOURCES

Bryony Coles, ‘Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures From Britain and Ireland’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 56, 1990

Clive Jonathon Bond, ‘The God-Dolly Wooden Figurine from the Somerset Levels, Britain: The Context, the Place and its Meaning’, Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America, Oxford: Archaeopress/BAR International Series 2138

Jeremy Clark, ‘The Intriguing Roos Carr Model Wooden Boat Figures Found Near Withersea, East Yorkshire’, The Yorkshire Journal, Issue 1, Spring 2011

‘Ballachulish Figure’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/ballachulish-figure/

‘Introducing the Kingsteignton Idol’, Artefactual, https://artefactual.co.uk/2014/06/29/introducing-the-kingsteignton-idol/

‘Roos Carr Figures: Faces from the Past’, Hull Museums Collections, http://museumcollections.hullcc.gov.uk/collections/storydetail.php?irn=484&master=449

‘Shigir Idol’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shigir_Idol

‘Wittemoor Timber Trackway’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittemoor_timber_trackway

Signposts to Annwn: Places

Signpost

Sharing this post marks the beginning of my attempt to document the references to Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld, in the core texts of medieval Welsh literature. Its aim is to build a picture of what is known about Annwn; its places, inhabitants, and the bardic lore that surrounds its mysteries. I believe this is important because Annwn is not only a magical place immanent within the British landscape, but the land of the dead. Growing to know Annwn in life could aid our passage into death.

The existing sources provide signposts by which to begin our own explorations. I have included both references that speak of Annwn explicitly and those that do so implicitly. The latter can be identified by markers such as the appearance of guiding animals, spatio-temporal distortion, extremes of beauty or ugliness and feelings of intense joy or terror. It’s worth noting that many places in Thisworld have Otherworld realities and the divisions are not absolute. This project will be ongoing and my developing research will be accessible via my ‘Porth Annwn’ page.

Fortresses

The most common destinations in Annwn are fortresses. Many are associated with the gods and spirits of Annwn who are later known as fairies.

A Hundred Islands A Hundred Citadels

‘I slept on a hundred islands;
I sojourned in a hundred citadels.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Siddi (The Fairy Fort)

‘Harmonious is my song in Caer Siddi;
sickness and age do not afflict those who are there,
as Manawyd and Pryderi know.
Three instruments/organs around a fire play in front of it
and around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea;
and (as for) the fruitful fountain which is above it –
its drink is sweeter than the white wine.’
– The Chair of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘Maintained was Gwair’s prison in Caer Siddi
throughout Pwll and Pryderi’s story.
No-one went there before he did –
into the heavy chain guarding the loyal lad.
And before the spoils/herds of Annwfn he was singing sadly,
and until Doom shall our poetic prayer continue.
Three loads of Prydwen went into it:
save seven, none came back from Caer Siddi.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Vedwit (The Mead-Feast Fort)

‘I’m splendid of fame – song was heard
in the four quarters of the fort, revolving (to face) the four directions.
My first utterance was spoken concerning the cauldron
kindled by the breath of nine maidens.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
(with its) a dark trim, and pearls?
It does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so;
Lleog’s flashing sword was thrust into it,
and it was left in Lleminog’s hand.
And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned
and when we went in with Arthur, famed in tribulation,
save seven, none returned from the Mead-Feast Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Pedryvan (The Four-Cornered Fort)

‘I’m splendid of fame: songs are heard
in the four quarters of the fort, stout defence of the island.’
– – The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Rigor (The Petrifaction Fort)

‘Fresh water and jet are mixed together:
sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion.
Three loads of Prydwen went by sea:
save seven, none came back from the Petrifaction Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Wydyr (The Glass Fort)

‘I don’t rate the pathetic men involved with religious writings,
those who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort:
six thousand men were standing on its wall;
it was hard to communicate with their watchman.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Golud (The Fort of Impediment)

‘Three loads of Prydwen went with Arthur:
save seven, none came back from the Fort of Impediment.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Vandwy (The Fort of God’s Peak)

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men with their trailing shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day was God born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;
those who nothing of the Brindled Ox, with his stout collar,
(and) seven score links in its chain.
And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none returned from Man(d)wy Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘And to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Fanddwy.

At Caer Fanddwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’
– The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Hill transl.)

Caer Ochren (The Angular Fort)

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men, with no go in them,
(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal it is they guard, with his silver head.
When we went with Arthur, sad conflict,
save seven none came back from the Angular Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Arianrhod

‘Arianrhod, famed for her appearance surpassing the radiance of fair weather,
her terrifying was the greatest shame (to come) from the region of the Britons;
a raging river rushes around her court,
a river with its savage wrath beating against the land:
destructive its snare as it goes round the world.’
– The Chair of Ceridwen, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Gofannon

‘I’ve been with skilful men,
with Math Hen, with Gofannon…
For a year I’ve been in Caer Gofannon,
I’m old, I’m new, I’m Gwion;’
– The First Address of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Arawn

‘He (Pwyll) made his way to the court. He saw sleeping quarters there and halls and rooms and the most beautifully adorned buildings that anyone had seen… The hall was got ready. With that he could see a war-band and retinues coming in, and fairest and best-equipped men that anyone had ever seen, and the queen with them, the most beautiful woman that anyone had seen, wearing a golden garment of brocaded silk… They spent the time eating and drinking, singing and carousing. Of all the courts he had seen on earth, that was the court with the most food and drink and golden vessels and royal jewels.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Gwyn

‘And when he (Collen) came there, 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…

‘Didst thou ever see men of better equipment than those in red and blue?’ asked the king.
– St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd, The Mabinogion, (Guest transl.)

Caer Llwyd

‘They (Pryderi and Manawydan) followed the boar until they saw a huge, towering, newly built, in a place where they had never been before seen any building at all. The boar was heading quickly for the fort, with the dogs after him…

In spite of the advice he received from Manawaydan, Pryderi approached the fort. When he entered, neither man nor beast, neither boar nor dogs, neither house nor dwelling place could be seen in the fort. But he could see in the middle of the floor, as it were, a well with marble-work around it. At the edge of the well there was a golden bowl fastened to four chains, over a marble slab, and the chains reached up to the sky, and he could see no end to them. He was enraptured by the beauty of the gold and the fine workmanship of the bowl. And he went to the bowl and grabbed it. But as soon as he grabs the bowl, his hands stick to it and his feet stick to the slab on which he is standing, and the power of speech is taken from him so that he could not utter a single word. And there he stood…

She (Rhiannon) found the gate of the fort open – it was ajar – and in she came. As soon as she entered she discovered Pryderi gripping the bowl, and she went up to him.

“My lord,” she said, “what are you doing here?” Then she too grabbed the bowl. As soon as she grabs it, her hands too stick to the bowl and her feet to the slab, so that she too could not utter a single word. Then, as soon as it was night, where was a tumultuous noise above them, and a blanket of mist, and then the fort disappeared and so did they…’
– The Third Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Hyfaidd Hen

Hyfaidd Hen is the father of Rhiannon and presumably a ruler of Annwn.

‘He (Pwyll) set off for the court of Hyfaidd Hen, and he came to the court and they welcomed him, and there was a gathering and rejoicing and great preparations waiting for him, and all the the wealth of the court was placed at his disposal. The hall was prepared, and they went to the tables. This is how they sat: Hyfaidd Hen on one side of Pwyll, and Rhiannon on the other; after that each according to his rank. They ate and caroused and conversed.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Nefenhir

This is a real location in Western Galloway, but had its Otherworld reality.

‘I was in the Fort of Nefenhyr:
herbage and trees were attacking.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

The Fortress of Wonders

‘Suddenly he could see two lads entering the hall, and from the hall they proceeded to a chamber, carrying a spear of huge proportions, with three streams of blood running from its socket to the floor. When everyone saw the lads coming in this way, they all began weeping and wailing sot that it was not easy for anyone to endure it. Yet the man did not interrupt his conversation with Peredur. The man did not explain to Peredur what that was, nor did Peredur ask him about it. After a short silence, suddenly two maidens entered with a large salver between them, and a man’s head on the salver, and much blood around the head. And then they all shrieked and wailed so that it was not easy for anyone to stay in the same building. At last they stopped, and remained sitting as long as it pleased them, and drank.’
– Peredur son of Efrog, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Rivers and Streams

The Defwy

Defwy is likely to refer to a Brythonic river of the dead. According to Hancock the name derives drom def-/dyf– ‘black’ ‘as in Dyfi’ (Dovey).

‘who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Hancock tranl.)

‘Fine it is on the banks of the Dyfwy
when the waters flow’
– The Spoils of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Pennar transl.)

The River which Flows around the World

This likely refers to the ocean which, like Oceanus in Greek mythology, separated Thisworld and Annwn.

‘the connected river which flows (around the world)
I know its might,
I know how it ebbs,
I know how it flows,
I know how it courses,
I know how it retreats.
I know how many creatures
are under the sea’
– The Hostile Confederacy, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

The Other Tawe

The Tawe is a river in Wales but, like the Dovey/Defwy has its Otherworld reality too.

‘The white horse calls this talk to an end
His bridle leads us away
Hurrying to battles in Tawe and Nedd.

Not the Tawe here in this land
But the one far away in a distant land
Where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore.’
– The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Hill. transl.)

The Streams of Annwn

‘My two keen spears:
from Heaven did they come.
In the streams of Annwfn
they come ready for battle.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Wells

The Lady’s Well

‘you will see a great tree, its branches greener than the greenest fir trees. And under that tree is a well, and near that tree is a marble slab, and on that slab is a silver bowl fastened to a silver chain so they cannot be separated. Take the bowl and throw a bowlful of water over the slab. And then you will hear a tumultuous noise, and think that heaven and earth are trembling with the noise. And after the noise there will be a very cold shower – a shower of hailstones – and it will be difficult for you to survive it. And after the shower there will be fine weather. And there will not be one leaf on the tree that the shower will not have carried away. And then a flock of birds will alight on the tree, and you have never heard in your own country such singing as theirs. And when you are enjoying the song most, you will hear a great groaning and moaning coming towards you along the valley. And with that you will see a knight on a pure black horse dressed in brocaded silk of pure black, with a banner of pure black linen on his spear. And he will attack you as quickly as he can. If you flee, he will catch up with you; if you wait for him on horseback he will leave you on foot. And if you do not find trouble there, you will not need to look for it as long as you live.’
– The Lady of the Well, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Meadows

The Meadows of Defwy

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men with their trailing shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day was God born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock tranl.)

Rocks

A Rock Beyond the Wave

‘There is a Rock beyond the wave, according to (God’s) great plan –
(while) the refuge of the enemy is a forlorn place of terror –
the Rock of the foremost Ruler, the supreme judge,
where the intoxication provided by the ruler will pleasure us.’
– The Fold of the Bards, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Trees and Hedges

The Tree of Leaf and Flame

‘He could see a tall tree in the riverbank, and one half of it was burning from its roots to its tip, but the other half had fresh leaves on it.’
– Peredur son of Efrog, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

The Hedge of Mist

‘“Down there,” he said, “is a hedge of mist, and within it there are enchanted games. And no man who has gone there has ever come back…

And no lower was the top of the hedge they could see than the highest point they could see in the sky. And on every stake they could see in the hedge there was a man’s head, except for two stakes. And there were a great many stakes within the hedge and through it…

there was an apple-tree facing the entrance to the pavilion, and on a branch of the apple-tree was a large hunting horn… There was no-one inside the pavilion except for a single maiden, sitting in a golden chair, and an empty chair facing her. Geraint sat in the empty chair.’
– Geraint son of Erbin, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Uffern

The term Uffern, ‘Inferno’, is used synonymously with ‘Annwn’ and is translated as ‘Hell’. It seems to refer to infernal and frightening places that are the destinations of souls..

‘What is the measure of Hell,
how thick is it veil,
how wide its its mouth,
how big are its baths?… (‘presumably the pits or rivers in which souls are tormented’ – Hancock)

The tops of the bare trees –
what forces them to be so bent over,
how many evils
are there (lurking) in their trunks?’
– The First Address of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘Madawg…
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Hell.’
– The Death Song of Madawg, The Book of Taliesin, (Skene transl.)

Pennant Gofid

‘Arthur said, “Are there any of the wonders we have still not obtained?”

One of the men said, “Yes, the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell.”

Arthur set out for the North, and came to where the hag’s cave was.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Liminal Places

Glyn Cuch

‘The part of his realm he (Pwll) wanted to hunt was Glyn Cuch… He set out that night from Arberth, and came as far as Pen Llywn Diarwya, and stayed there that night. And early the next day he got up, and came to Glyn Cuch to unleash his dogs in the forest. And he blew his horn and began to muster the hunt, and went off after the dogs, and became separated from his companions. And as he was listening for the cry of his pack, he heard the cry of another pack… a stag in front of the other pack… a gleaming shining white and their ears were red… he could see a rider coming after the pack on a large dapple-grey horse, with a hunting horn round his neck, and wearing hunting clothes of a light grey material… Arawn, King of Annwfn.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Gorsedd Arberth

‘After the first sitting Pwyll got up to take a walk, and he made for the top of a mound that was above the court, called Gorsedd Arberth.

“Lord”, said one of the court, “the strange thing about the mound is that whatever nobleman sits on it will not leave there without one of two things happening: either he will be wounded or injured, or else he will see something wonderful.”

“I am not afraid to be wounded or injured among such a large company as this. As for something wonderful, I would be glad to see that. I will go and sit on the mound,” he said.

He sat on the mound. And as they were sitting, they could see a woman wearing a shining golden garment of brocaded silk on a big, tall, pale-white horse coming along the highway that ran past the mound. Anyone who saw it would think that the horse had a slow, steady pace, and it was drawing level with the mound.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Glyn Ystun

‘From there he (Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’) went to Glyn Ystun, and then the men and hounds lost him.

Arthur summoned Gwyn son of Nudd to him, and asked him if he knew anything about Twrch Trwyth. He said that he did not.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Harlech

‘Then they (the seven survivors with Bendigeidfran’s head) went to Harlech, and sat down and were regaled with food and drink. As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and began to sing them a song, and all the songs they had heard were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were with them. And they feasted for seven years.’
– The Second Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Gwales

‘There was a pleasant royal dwelling for them there (the seven survivors with Bendigeidfran’s head), above the sea, and there was a large hall, and they went to the hall. They could see two doors open; the third door was closed, the one facing Cornwall.

‘See over there,’ said Manawydan, ‘the door we must not open.’

That night they stayed there contented and lacking nothing. And of all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, they remembered none of it nor of any grief in the world. And there they spent eighty years so that they were not aware of ever having spent a more pleasurable or delightful time. It was no more unpleasant than when they first arrived, nor could anyone tell by looking at the other that he had aged in that time. Having the head there was no more unpleasant than when Bendigeidfran had been alive with them. Because of those eighty years, this was called The Assembly of the Noble Head.’
– The Second Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Oxford

‘Lludd had the length and breadth of the Island measured, and the central point was found to be in Oxford. He had the ground dug up there, and into that hole he put a vat full of the best mead that could be made, and a sheet of brocaded silk on top of it, and he himself kept watch that night. And as he was watching he saw the dragons fighting. When they had grown tired and weary, they landed on top of the sheet and pulled it down with them into the vat. And when they had drunk the mead, they fell asleep.’
– Lludd and Llyfelys, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Dinas Emrys

‘in the safest place he could find in Eryi he hid them (the dragons) in a stone chest. After that the place was was called Dinas Emrys.’
– Lludd and Llyfelys, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

‘”I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress.” “What is your name?” asked the king: “I am called Ambrose.”’
Historia Britonnum, (transl. J. A. Giles)

Caer Loyw

This is the home of the Witches of Caerloyw and the place of Mabon’s prison.

‘With every flood tide I travel up the river until I come to the bend in the wall of Caerloyw; never before in my life have I found as much wickedness as I found there.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

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

The River Syke

Syke StreetOn a rainy day in the not so-distant future, Tom, a tour-guide in training, decided to visit the city of Preston.

Great intrigue surrounded the town of priests, which had once been the Catholic capital of Lancashire. Every spire and street name told a story, from the cathedral of St Walburge to Friargate, to the catacombs beneath St Peter’s. Each had its relics and dealt in a great number of copies to tempt the less discerning tourist.

However, Tom was not interested in the rise and decline of Christianity. Neither did he care for the oral tales passed on by the city’s people such as the headless black dog that haunted Maudlands, the wicked fairy on the market with his tricksy ointment, or the Bannister Doll.

Tom had been led to Preston by a new myth about the underground river Syke.

This watercourse had run from present day Syke Street, through Winckley Square, parallel with Fishergate then into the Ribble at the New Bridge. At one point there had been fish garths across the Ribble and a boatyard where the two rivers met. In 1812, as industrialisation progressed, the Syke was culverted beneath the town. It had not seen daylight since.

250 years later, as part of a desperate money-making bid, the tourist board decided to open its underground passageway to the public. Above the grate covering the Syke’s mouth they erected a ticket booth, then a flight of stairs leading down to a platform. Over the entrance was placed a flashing neon sign- Enter the mouth of Annwn- the Ancient British Otherworld.

Caroline, Tom’s girlfriend, had been obsessed by stories about Annwn. “It is a beautiful, terrible world,” she had used to tell him, “peopled with fairies and monsters. There are thin places where you can slip over. It is possible to find your ancestors, and the lost ones you once loved. It’s possible to escape again, if you do not fall prey to its seductions.”

Several days ago, Caroline had left on a trip to Preston and had not returned. She was not the only one. Another three people had been reported missing, mysteriously disappearing on the boat ride back to the entrance. These stories were connected with rumours of people hearing strange songs and experiencing visions of ships and fishermen, huge fish, and women with fishtails.

If it hadn’t been for Caroline’s absence, Tom would have thought this was all propaganda. However, his strongest suspicion was these tall tales were a cover for poor management. A fact left untold was that the Ribble is tidal. Should the attraction remain open as the tides washed in, the entrance to the Syke would be blocked and its passageway flooded. Tom suspected these poor souls had drowned, and he was terrified Caroline might have met the same fate.

After paying his admission, Tom entered a sheltered area where he joined two families, three couples and a group of teenage girls who were talking and laughing.

“We need to look out for ghostly fishermen.”

“Mermaids.”

“Mermen, more like.”

“It’s some kind of creature with slimy tentacles that will drag you down through the water and into the Otherworld.”

Once the preceding group had exited they were ushered down to the platform. Standing beside the Ribble’s churning grey, Tom recalled Caroline telling him how every river had its goddess and each stream its nymph. The name of the Ribble’s goddess was Belisama and it was believed she claimed a life every seven years.

“Is everybody ready to enter the mouth of Annwn?” asked the tour guide, an aging man dressed in a wax jacket and waders. His long greying hair hung damp from beneath a fisherman’s hat.

To cries of affirmation he pressed a button, which rolled back the grate. The passageway was illumined by intermittent white lights, which cast an occasional silver sheen on the dark water. One by one they entered the tunnel, walking in a single line, on the river’s left. Enthralled by its impenetrable flow, Tom could not help himself imagining Caroline trapped beneath those waters drowning amongst terrible aquatic creatures who had not seen sunlight for 250 years.

The girls in front of Tom jostled and giggled. “I can see a fish!” “I think it was a mermaid!” As their conjectures became wilder their voices grew more high pitched.

The weight of the walls pressed in and the river’s roaring voice and echo rose to an unsteadying crescendo. By the time they reached the boat, Tom was trembling and disoriented. As he crossed the gangplank onto Syke’s Trawler, it took all his effort to hold his balance. Looking beneath he glimpsed something silver, dark and serpentine, then in a flash of dread saw Caroline’s sunken face staring up at him. The tunnel spun around him.

The next thing he knew, Tom was assailed by the scent of wax and brine. The tour guide was lowering him onto a wooden bench, fastening his seat belt and placing his hands firmly on the rail. “Hold on tight. Keep your eyes well shut and be careful not to listen. You do not want to fall prey to the lures of Annwn.” There was a mocking, knowing look in his grey eyes

He cast off and took the wheel with such exuberance and expertise Tom realised he must have been a true fisherman in his time.

The boat pitched down river. The teenagers screamed.

“Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Tom was almost deafened by the river repeating its name. “Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Or could it be the voice of its goddess?

The limitations of the tunnel shattered to reveal bright sky and a flashing landscape, the grey shapes of yachts and fishermen.

“There are places where you can slip over,” Caroline’s words filled Tom’s mind.

He held tightly to the rail, imagining himself as Odysseus lashed to the mast.

“It is possible to find your loved ones.”

Tom realised Caroline’s voice was not in his mind. She stood on the adjacent vessel beside an older fisherman who shared her dark features. Tom guessed he was her grandfather.

“Caroline!” Tom cried.

“Tom, how I’ve missed you, I knew you would come to find me!” Caroline rushed to the edge of her boat.

“I’ve been worried sick about you,” said Tom. “What happened?”

“Come and join us,” said Caroline. As her boat drifted closer she held out her hand.

Unable to stop himself, Tom let go of the rail and unfastened his seatbelt. Leaning between the swaying boats he took Caroline’s hand and scrambled over. After all those long months they were together again, embracing and kissing. In her arms the rocking deck, perilous river and distinction between the worlds no longer mattered.

A horn blared from Syke’s Trawler.

Caroline pushed Tom away. “The tides are coming in.” The colour left her face and her skin became cold to his touch. With the sweep of a long black and silver fishtail she dove into the water. Tom noticed her grandfather had already disappeared. The boat shuddered beneath his feet then, with a dismal groan, plank by plank began to break apart.

With a thunk something round and orange struck his chest. It was a rubber ring, attached to a rope, attached to the trawler.

“Get in and keep hold,” the tour guide’s voice bellowed, “if you want to return to Preston, that is.”

Struggling against panic, Tom managed to pull the rubber ring on as the deck gave way beneath him and a wave crashed over his head. The cold water stunned him. He struggled and gasped for breath, thrown this way and that between the incoming tide and the river’s force. Hauled back onto the trawler by the tour guide he coughed up salt water before descending into uncontrollable sobs.

By the time his tears had ended, the boat was safely moored on the Ribble’s bank and the rest of the group had gone.

“You love her, but you don’t want to die for her?” the tour guide’s voice was soft in Tom’s ear. His nostrils filled with his briny scent. “I know how you feel, and I may be able to help.”

Tom looked up hopefully, “how?” he rasped.

“It is possible to walk, or sail, between the worlds,” said the old fisherman. “Why don’t you join me, as my trainee, at the helm of Syke’s Trawler? You can learn to serve our goddess. We’re desperately short of tour guides.”

Mouth of the River Syke