Gwyn Dedication Two Years and a Day On

It has been the worst year
since I have been born.

I have felt hurt, anger,
resentment, abandonment,
wondered if I’ve made a mistake.

If my choice to dedicate myself to you
has brought family sicknesses,
plague, landslips, floods…

But, you reassure me, it has not –

you warned me of the sadness
coming to this land long ago.

In your thereness I have found
strength knowing how tirelessly
you guide the dead (so many!).

You have laughed away my fears.
When I’ve cried, wailed, wallowed
in self pity and uttered every expletive
in Thisworld and Annwn told you:
“I’m afraid I’m going crazy…”

you have shown me the lives and deaths
of your spirits – what true madness is –

Annwn’s multi-sided perspective.

You have been there for me
through the worst year as you are
always there for the living and dead.

I have been blessed in my service to you
as your awenydd whether in words or in work
in the woodlands and the marshlands…

Tonight, in your cauldron, help me transform
my battle-fog into mists of enchantment.

White, Blessed, Holy, be not only
the Wrathful Hunter but the Kindly One.
Help me delight in being yours again.

I wrote the poem above, addressed to Gwyn, to mark the two year anniversary of my lifelong dedication to him. This took place beside yew tree on Fairy Lane by the light of the ‘Super Wolf Blood Moon’. I had already served a seven year apprenticeship to him, most of which had been magical and wonderful.

The last two years have been far harder, in particular the last, for all the reasons stated above. Family illnesses, covid, minor natural disasters in my local area and far worse ones further afield.

All of these devastating signs of the consequences of climate change and overpopulation.

Last night, I performed a ritual to mark the anniversary of my dedication to Gwyn, which involved casting these happenings and the feelings of resentment and anger that were getting in the way of our relationship and my service to him as an awenydd into his cauldron to be transformed.

“Know that every thought, like all things, has a soul,” he reminded me, “like you dies and is reborn.”

During our communion Gwyn gave me a combination of warnings, reassurance, and guidance.

“There is harder to come. I will give you no false hope or empty promises. Yet I can provide inspiration. In the journey of the soul you are not alone. Both the living and the dead face these problems. I too, for we all connected. Set aside your resentment and reach out in cooperation. Every thought, word, act, has its effects running through both worlds and throughout time. Know these cannot be predicted but even the worst horrors can turn to awen in the cauldron.”

So the magic of Annwn was worked and this morning I awoke to the full moon shining over my garden.

The Magician of the Orme III – Fairy Magic in Wales

Following my visit to the Great Orme I began researching the possibility of the existence of a magician who invoked the spirits of Annwn/fairies, recorded their names in a book, and was executed in 1679.

I found out, in contrast to England and Scotland, the numbers of persecutions for witchcraft in Wales were very low. Between 1568 and 1698 forty-two suspects were prosecuted, eight were found guilty, and five sentenced to death. The earliest and most famous case was Gwen ferch Ellis, who was hung in Denbigh town square in 1594. Most of the suspects were women, but included yeomen.

I did not find any cases of execution for witchcraft in Ruthin in 1679. However, there was a gallows outside the courthouse in Ruthin linked to the gaol. The last hanging took place in 1679 and was a Catholic priest called Father Charles Mahoney, who was shipwrecked trying to make his way home to Ireland from Rome.

Intriguingly, in relation to the name of the magician that came through to me being Hugh, I found a reference to a Hugh Bryghan who was persecuted for using ‘art magic’ in Glamorgan much earlier in 1568. He was a soothsayer who found stolen goods through scrying, with the aid of a helper, in a crystal. He denied using ‘familiar spirits’ or keeping them in a crystal and escaped with a fine.

In Wales a wide variety of names were used to refer to magical practitioners – hudolwyr ‘magician’, rheibwyr ‘wizard’, daroganwyr’ ‘soothsayer, swynwyr or swynwraig ‘charmer’ or ‘cunning man’ or ‘cunning woman’, consuwyr ‘conjuror’. The Welsh word for magic is hud. The term wits ‘witch’ is an English loan-word and both it, and persecutions for witchcraft, seem to be English importations. It may thus be suggested that the Welsh were far more tolerant of their magical practitioners.

shui rhys and the tylwyth teg from British Goblins

Richard Suggett notes that, in Wales, there was a longstanding tradition of magical practitioners gaining their ‘power and knowledge’ from Y Tylwyth Teg ‘the Fair Family’ or ‘fairies’. Because they were not ‘constrained by the ordinary limits of time, space and body… they had access to knowledge ordinarily unavailable to men and women.’ This included ‘knowledge of many hidden things’, ‘how to cure illnesses that were beyond the expertise of physicians and surgeons’ and ‘information on the future as well as the past. Because of these characteristics, some enchanters specialised in trying to obtain knowledge from the fairies. Cunning-folk would deny that they had dealings with devils or familiars, but they might concede – or even boast – that they consulted the fairies.’

Unfortunately the two examples we have of prosecutions of persons who claimed a relationship with fairies were charlatans. In 1636 Harry Lloyd of Llandygai was accused of ‘wicked and unlawful arts’ and ‘familiarity with wicked spirits’. He tricked his victims by saying he would make them rich in ‘gold and silver’, which he received from the fairies when on Tuesday and Thursday nights, if they would give him a few shillings to buy candles. Of course these offerings were never enough to prevail, he asked for more and more more money and the fairy gold and silver never materialised.

Ann Jones claimed to be able to heal with the aid of the fairies through magical ‘dew gathered in the month of May’. To heal the sick daughter of John Lewys she said the fairies needed some money on which the girl had breathed. She took nine shillings and did not return. Likewise she told Griffith ap Owen that to cure his child she needed money to show to the fairies and disappeared with 40 shillings in gold. She was committed to Denbighshire gaol and died during her imprisonment.

More significantly, for this line of research, there is also evidence of fairies being invoked by ritual magicians and their spells for invoking and controlling appearing in books. According to Ronald Hutton ‘Fairies were also directly involved in practical magical operations, as proved by the surviving manuscripts of sorcerers from the period between 1560 and 1640. Five contain directions for their invocation and control.’

Suggett notes that conjurers rose to a position of particular importance during the seventeenth century. ‘The title ‘conjurer’ implied a reputation for conjuration, that is the magical technique of invoking and controlling spirits. This was the ars magna of the conjurer. Some conjurers were believed to keep devils, which permanently resided in their magic books.’

Suggett also speaks about the importance of knowing the names of fairies. ‘The fairies lacked the named individuality of human society or, rather, fairy names were not readily apparent to humans. The discovery of a fairy name was part of the process which integrated them – temporarily – in human society. This seems to be fundamental.’ This might be linked to a magician who learnt the names of the spirits of Annwn/fairies and wrote these down, along with invocations and commands in a book.

Some fascinating examples of conjurer’s books are provided by Suggett:

Conjurers compiled their own manuscript books of recipes, charms and incantations, and a few have survived… The most interesting of these manuscripts is the secret book (‘llyfr cyfrin’) of an unnamed Denbighshire wise-man. This stubby volume has been described by Kate Bosse Griffiths: it has 200 pages but was small enough to fit in the pocket of a great coat. The contents were written in Welsh and English and included several conjuring formulae to summon the spirits called fairies (tylwyth teg); a formula to invocate and converse with spirits of the dead; methods of telling fortunes through astrology; and various charms in English and Welsh, one with the note that these ‘words being spoke with grate revarens and faith has don wonders’…

The most famous conjuring Book in Wales was the chained and padlocked book Cwrtycadno. The appearance of this volume was a piece of pure theatre. The large book secured with three locks was placed on the table during consultation but remained locked; it was rumoured that the conjurer’s devils resided within it.

The latter was part of the library of the famous Welsh conjurers of the Harries family who prospered during the nineteenth century at the end of the which the book mysteriously disappeared.

This shows that magicians/conjurers and books recording the names, invocations, and commands of fairies certainly existed during the seventeenth century. I found no evidence for ‘The Book of the Living Hand’ or the Magician of the Orme yet my research showed their existence was possible.

SOURCES

Ronald Hutton, ‘The Making of the Early Modern British Fairy Tradition’, The Historical Journal, 57, 4, (Cambridge Press, 2014)
Richard Suggett, A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales, (The History Press, 2008)
Richard Suggett, Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Wales, (Attramentous Press, 2018)

The Magician of the Orme I – The Book of the Living Hand

The Book of the Living Hand
now lies closed.

Who closed it?

The Hand itself
or the hand of another?

Who will dare
try to bring the Living Hand to life,
to ask it to open the pages,
to fold them back,

to reveal the names
of the terrible beings who will answer,
to risk releasing their fury
into the world again?

What will lie within?
Will the names be the same
or will the pages have been rewritten
in the Living Hand’s sleep?

Do you see its colour returning?

The dim pulse of a vein?

The opening of the eyelid
on the back of the hand?

The twitch of a finger?

The Book of the Living Hand

This poem and sketch are based on a vision I had several months ago of a book whose cover had been closed by a human hand with an eye on the back. The hand had become part of the book. This roused a series of questions. Who did it belong to? Who are the furious spirits within its pages? How did its owner lose their hand and how did it become part of the book? What is the significance of the eye?

In a series of gnoses it was revealed that it belonged to ‘the Magician of the Orme’ (the Great Orme in North Wales). Within are the names of the spirits of Annwn whose fury Gwyn ap Nudd holds back to prevent their destruction of the world. The magician cut off his hand in a desperate act of magic to seal the book shut before being arrested on the grounds of practicing witchcraft involving the aid of ‘devils’ and was hung in Ruthin in 1679. The meaning of the eye, as yet, remains concealed.

This inspired me to set out doing some research into whether such a magician and his book could have existed. It’s led me on an interesting adventure to the Orme and through the history of spirit aid magic in seventeenth century Wales and beyond. In the following posts I will be sharing my findings.

The Trickery of Gwydion

Gwydion's Wand

I. The Trickster

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the trickery of the magician-god, Gwydion son of Don, and the trouble he causes within his own family, the House of Don, and to the people of Annwn.

In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, Gwydion and his brother, Gilfaethwy, plot to rape Goewin, the virgin footholder of his uncle, Math. Math cannot live without his feet being in the lap of a virgin except at times of turmoil. Therefore Gwydion steals the pigs gifted to Pryderi by Arawn, King of Annwn, causing a war between Math, ruler of Gwynedd in North Wales and Pryderi, ruler of twenty-one cantrefs in the South. During the conflict Gwydion helps Gilfaethwy to rape Goewin in Math’s bed. Returning to the battle he then kills Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, who is implicitly also Arawn’s son, ‘because of strength and valour, and magic and enchantment’.

Math punishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy by turning them into animals; deer, boar, and wolves, alternately male and female so that, unable to resist their animal desires, they mate with each other and have offspring. They are named as Bleiddwn, Hyddwn, and Hychddwn Hir, ‘Three sons of wicked Gilfaethwy’.

In spite (or perhaps because of) Math’s punishment Gwydion does not cease to cause trouble. When Math voices his need for a new virgin footholder, Gwydion suggests his sister, Arianrhod. Math tests her virginity by breaking his wand and telling her to step over it. From her drops ‘a large, sturdy, yellow-haired boy’ and ‘a small something’ which Gwydion wraps in silk and hides in a ‘chest at the foot of his bed’.

It is clear Gwydion knows his sister is not a virgin. Arianrhod’s anger with him and the heat of their conflict suggests he played a role in her pregnancy. There exists a variant of the tale in which Arianrhod rather than Goewin is Math’s footholder and is raped by Gilfaethewy with Gwydion’s help. This is shown by the following lines from a poem by Lewys Môn, translated by Gwilym Morus-Baird:

My complaint about a maiden is greater
Than that of Old Math son of Mathonwy;
the arm of a chaste one, white-armed and wise,
was his pillow every night,
Arianrhod the same as the snow,
a man could not live without her.

The ‘small something’ grows up to be a boy as sturdy as an eight-year-old at the age of four. When Gwydion takes him to Caer Arianrhod his mother rejects him as a sign of her ‘shame’. She places three destinies upon him – that he will not get a name, weapons, or a wife, and Gwydion wins each of them through a combination of trickery and magic.

The boy’s name is won when he and Gwydion pose as shoe-makers on a boat conjured from dulse and wrack. Arianrhod names him Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair one with the skilfil hand’ when he shoots a wren whilst she is having a shoe fitted. By conjuring an illusion of an army attacking Caer Arianrhod and asking for arms for he and Lleu to defend it, Gwydion win Lleu’s weapons. With Math’s help, Gwydion conjures a wife, Blodeuedd ‘Flowers’, from the blossoms of oak, broom, and meadow sweet for his nephew.

After Lleu has been fatally wounded by Gronw, his rival for the love of Blodeuedd, Gwydion searches from him across Gwynedd and Powys. Finally Gwydion finds Lleu in an oak tree in eagle form, sings him down with a series of englyns, and changes him back to his own form.

Even though his trickery has caused Lleu a great amount of sorrow (Gwydion turns Blodeuedd into Blodeuwedd ‘Flower Face’, an owl, and she deserts him) he doesn’t stop playing tricks. Lines from Peniarth Manuscript 98.B tell us that Cad Godeu ‘The Battle of the Trees’ was brought about ‘because of a white roebuck and a greyhound pup which came from Annwfn and Amathaon vab Don caught them’. Rachel Bromwich suggests that Gwydion, rather than his brother, Amaethon, originally won the dog and roebuck along with the swine belonging to Pryderi from Annwn.

Unsurprisingly the theft of his sacred animals infuriates Arawn, who leads an army of trees, shrubs, and Annuvian monsters against Gwydion and the House of Don. At the head of his army marches the giant, Brân the Blessed, possibly raised with other dead warriors from the Cauldron of Rebirth. Taliesin, the narrator of the poem ‘The Battle of the Trees’ speaks of how Gwydion fashioned ‘majestic trees / a hundred forces into a host’ ‘by means of language and (materials of) the earth’. Lleu, ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ leads Gwydion’s armies against those of Arawn, ‘the vigorous one, / the wealthy battle-dispenser’. Lines from the Myvyrian Archaeology suggest that Gwydion won by guessing Brân’s name*. Perhaps Gwydion’s singing of two englyns and naming of Brân reversed the magic by which Arawn raised the dead.

The impact of the battle was calamitous. Taliesin speaks of his side fighting with ‘the blood of men up to our thighs’ and claims ‘Four hundred men / did I pierce despite their rapacity’ along with piercing three Annuvian monsters: a hundred-headed beast, a black-forked toad, and a speckled crested snake. He compares it to other cataclysmic events: the Flood, Christ’s Crucifixion, and the Day of Judgement. It is also listed as one of ‘Three Futile Battles’ in The Triads of the Island of Britain.

II. Who can understand gwydd?

My feelings about Gwydion are mixed. I find his assistance in the rape of Goewin/Arianrhod deplorable. His stirring of trouble with Annwn, killing of Pryderi, and bringing about two devastating battles fills me with anger. Yet, unlike Arthur, that other opponent of the Annuvian deities who is little more than a numbskull, Gwydion possesses a number of admirable qualities.

He is the ‘best storyteller in the world’. He is a master magician who conjures shields from toadstools, a ship from dulse and wrack, a wife for Lleu from blossoms, and marching trees from language and earthy materials. With Math, from nine elements, he even created Taliesin, the silver-tongued bard whose spirit still inspires the bardic tradition. He is a caring uncle to Lleu, and shows him deep affection.

Whilst many of Gwydion’s actions, like Arthur’s, are unforgivable, I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of deeper meaning to Gwydion’s transgressions of boundaries. Without his breaking of rules, mating with his sister (then, shifting form and gender, thrice with his brother!), crossing into and stealing from Annwn, the action of the Fourth Branch and ‘The Battle of the Trees’ would not have taken place.

That Gwydion possesses a certain kind of knowledge is suggested by the etymology of his name. It derives from the mysterious little word gwydd. Gwydd is linked to gwybod ‘to know’ and has many meanings including ‘knowledge’, ‘tree(s), branches, twigs; forest, woods, shrub(s)’, ‘weaver of songs’. It forms the root of gwyddon, which can refer to a ‘knowledgeable one’ or ‘sage’ and to a ‘giantess, female monster; hag, witch… wizard, sorcerer… satyr, nymph’. These meanings seem significant in relation to Gwydion’s enchantment of trees and knowledge of wild magic.

It also possible that Gwydion had a role in creating the chess-like game of gwyddbwyll ‘wood sense’. In the Irish myths its equivalent, fidchell, was a gift from Lugh, the cognate of Lleu. So it would make sense that the knowledgeable Gwydion and his skilful-handed nephew created the game. Iolo Morganwg’s citations from ‘The Chair of Ceridwen’ ‘Gwydion ap Don – / A rithwys gorwyddawd y ar plagawd’, ‘Gwydion son of Don – / Formed wood knowledge upon plagawd’ suggest that Gwydion also played a role in creating the Coelbren alphabet. Both gwyddbwyll and Coelbren had magical and prophetic functions and were bound up with wood and mystical knowledge.

The contrast between Gwydion as knowledgeable sage and pyschopath is a troubling one, but not one that is unfamiliar in modern culture (take Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs) or within modern society at large. There are a good number of men (and women) who use their knowledge to evil ends, and to the end retain a certain amount of flair and charm, an allure to their victims.

The psychopathic mind continues to fascinate. We continue to ask ‘who can understand Gwydion?’

III. Gwyddoniaeth

Gwydd is also the root of gwyddoniaeth ‘science’. Other the last few centuries we have seen a shift from the woodland knowledge of gwydd to the mechanistic principles of gwyddoniaeth.

Whereas, in the medieval stories, Gwydion created a woman from flowers by magic, I detect Gwydion’s hand in the genetic engineering of plants and crops and robotic insects to pollinate them.

Whereas, in the medieval stories, Gwydion sang Lleu down from the tree with englyns and turned him back into his own shape and healed his fatal wound by magic, I was shown a vision of him raising Lleu, the lightning god, from the dead, with electric paddles in a Frankenstein-like scene.

If someone was to ask me ‘where is Gwydion now?’ I would say he is at the heart of the mad science that rapes and strives to change nature against its will, but also that he is still trying to look after the little boy, Lleu, one of the appearances of the Divine Son, the Mabon, who may also be humanity.

To where will his madness lead? To devastation again, certainly, like in the battles of the North and South, like the Battle of the Trees, to the forces of Annwn rising up in rebellion, to another world’s end.

*Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield;
Bran art thou called, of the glittering branches.”

“Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle:
The high sprigs of alder are on thy hand:
Bran by the branch thou bearest
Has Amathaon the good prevailed.

*With thanks to Gwilym Morus-Baird for the translation of the poem by Lewys Môn.

SOURCES

Iolo Morganwg, The Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (Thoth Publications, 2007)
Kristoffer Hughes, The Book of Celtic Magic, (Llewellyn, 2014)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru

Fairy Glow: The Magic of Emiliania Huxleyi

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the queer impression of whiteness coming upwards: as if the light was below the sea instead of above it… the fairy glow or white reflection that I had experienced long ago
Mr Ronald Bells, World Fishing, 1954

It’s a magic that can be found across the world’s oceans, but is particularly innate to the North Atlantic; to the Norwegian fjords, southern Iceland, the English Channel; this magical blooming, this milky turquoise, this white water, this fairy glow shining upwards as if from a subterranean castle.

If I told you it was caused by fairies would you be enthralled? We all know the fay can take many shapes and forms from the microscopic to the macrocosms of huge hulking universes stalking through the void. Well I shall tell you it is created by beings who work fairy magic called emiliania huxleyii.

Emiliania_huxleyi_coccolithophore_(PLoS)

Emiliania Huxleyi is a single-celled marine phytoplankton which dwells in the surface waters of all the world’s oceans and lives by photosynthesis – using the energy of the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars and energy. This is not its only magical art. As a coccolithophore it forges intricate coccoliths – scales or platelets like plate armour – deep within its cell from calcium carbonate. When emiliania huxleyi blooms it sheds hundreds of extra coccoliths, which act like mirrors, creating the fairy glow, just like the countless shifting walls of the Fairy King’s castle.

The blooming of emiliania huxleyi, its fairy glow, has a number of profound ecological effects. The first and most obvious is its alteration of the ocean’s albedo ‘whiteness’. This results in more light and heat being reflected into the atmosphere and less penetrating deeper into the water, thus cooling the ocean.

It also affects the carbon cycle. The ocean is the earth’s largest active carbon sink. Emiliania huxelyi plays a significant role in the carbon pump by which it removes carbon from the atmosphere. Emiliania huxleyi utilises carbon absorbed by the ocean to create its calcium carbonate plate armour. When it blooms it removes an excessive amount. Afterwards, some coccoliths sink to the depths as marine snow, removing the carbon from the cycle for millions of years, to be revealed as chalk formations such as the White Cliffs of Dover and the Seven Sisters. Some coccoliths decompose and release their carbon back into the ocean. The partial pressure* of carbon dioxide in the ocean determines how much can be taken from the atmosphere in this complex transaction.

By a less obvious magic emiliania huxleyi’s blooming brings about the formation of clouds. Emiliania huxleyi contains dimethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP), which it breaks down into dimethyl sulphide (DMS) and acrylic acid to ward off predators. DMSP is also converted to DMS when it dies. Huge pulses of DMS are also released when emiliania huxleyi blooms. DMS reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere leaving molecules of sulphate aerosol to act as cloud condensation nuclei (CNN). As the clouds form and rise due to energy being released as heat, emiliania huxleyi is sucked up with the surface water and travels in the clouds to fall as rain or snow in a new region.

Scientists are only just beginning to gain an understanding of this magic. Blooms of emiliania huxleyi cool the ocean through reflectance and cloud generation and remove a great amount of carbon from the ocean. In this era of man-driven climate change these processes are of fundamental importance.

It is therefore troubling to hear that the existence of emiliania huxleyi is under threat from ocean acidification. The rise in carbon emissions has led to an increase in the partial pressure of carbon dioxide, dissolved inorganic carbon, and bicarbonate ion concentration, and decrease in the concentration of carbonate ions and pH in the ocean. The decrease in carbonate ions makes it more difficult for emiliania huxleyi to create its calcium carbonate shell. Its beautifully crafted plate armour is becoming thinner, weaker, lighter, and suffering malformations. Emiliania huxleyi could die out.

I believe it is no coincidence that emiliania huxleyi has started revealing itself on the brink of its’ extinction. Thomas Henry Huxley discovered coccoliths whilst dredging mud in the depths of the ocean in 1858. Thus, it was named coccolithus huxleyi when identified under a light microscope in 1902. Its structure was described under an electron microscope by Braacht et al in 1952. Cesare Emiliania’s name was added in honour of his contributions to paleooceanography. Much of his work involved drilling cores into the sea bottom and revolutionised our ideas about the ocean’s history.

As someone versed in fairylore my feelings about the methods of the discovery of emiliania huxleyi are mixed. I’m not sure if I see Huxley and Emiliania as walkers between worlds whose genius and dedication has earned them great gifts of insight from Faerie, or as raiders like Arthur whose dredgers and drill cores are the flashing swords coercing the Otherworld’s mysteries into Thisworld’s light.

One thing I’m sure of is that the disappearance of the fairy glow of emiliania huxleyi is a powerful portent of the retreat of the magic of the fay and breakdown of the relationship between the worlds. The loss of this enigmatic phytoplankton would not only be sad, but could play a role in bringing about the end of the world as we know it as magical being by magical being slips away into the deep.

*Partial pressure ‘is the hypothetical pressure of that gas if it alone occupied the entire volume of the original mixture at the same temperature.’

SOURCES

J. D. Shutler et al, ‘Coccolithophore surface distributions in the North Atlantic and
their modulation of the air-sea flux of CO 2 from 10 years of Earth System Dynamics satellite Earth observation data’, Biogeosciences, 10, 2699-2709, 2013
K. J. S. Meier et al, The role of ocean acidification in Emiliania huxleyi coccolith thinning in the Mediterranean Sea’, HAL Archives-ouvertes, 2016, https://hal-univ-perp.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01280556, accessed 29th April 2018
Sophie Richier et al, ‘Response of the calcifying coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi to low pH/high pCO 2 : from physiology to molecular level’, Marine Biology, 158: 551-560, 2011
Stephen Harding, Animate Earth, (Green Books, 2009)
William H. Wilson et al., Isolation of viruses responsible for the demise of an Emiliania huxleyi bloom in the English Channel’, Journal of Marine Biology Association of the United Kingdom, 82, 369 – 377, 2002
Emiliania Huxleyi Home Page, Science Netwatch, http://www.soes.soton.ac.uk/staff/tt/, accessed 26th April 2018
‘Partial Pressure’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partial_pressure, accessed 29th April, 2018

The Wizard of the Waves

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I.
Several years ago, I made the mistake of offending Manawydan. I was new to journeying. My guide took me to the otherside of Blackpool and we alighted outside a swimming pool. On the wall was a stereotypical plasticy image of a wizard in starry indigo-blue robes with a wand and bent wizard’s hat. Cartoon letters beside him read: ‘THE WIZARD OF THE WAVES’.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was incredulous. This wasn’t how the otherside appeared in books about shamanism. Turning to my guide I asked affrontedly “why have you brought me to see this tacky wizard?”

The wizard stepped from the wall and raised his wand. The scene dissipated with the dismal crashing of all the waves of the sea. I found myself back in my room immensely disorientated. Later it dawned on me that I’d offended Manawydan. I felt like kicking myself.

II.
Manawydan’s stories contain deep magic. However I struggle to connect with him because he’s humble, practical, wise: all the things I’m not.

After the catastrophic battle against Matholwch, King of Ireland, where Brân was slain, Manawydan and seven survivors returned with his head. They feasted with it for seven years at Harlech then for a potentially interminable period on the island of Gwales.

In the feasting hall in Gwales there were three doors: two open, one closed. Previously Brân told them “so long as you do not open the door… you can remain there and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer.”

Manawydan echoed his brother’s wisdom. ‘”See over there… the door we must not open.”‘

Darned doors. Particularly the closed ones. They’re such a temptation. As soon as someone says “don’t open that door”…

This time the culprit was Heilyn. When he opened the door and looked out all their past sufferings and losses returned. Brân’s head began to decay.

III.
Manawydan should have inherited Brân’s Kingdom but it was usurped during their sojourn in Ireland by Caswallon. To make up for his loss, Pryderi offered him Dyfed and marriage to Rhiannon.

Manawydan and Rhiannon were happily married and became firm friends with Pryderi and his wife, Cigfa. Their life of hunting, feasting and enjoyment was brought to an end when a blanket of mist descended leaving Dyfed devoid of men, domestic beasts and dwellings.

They survived in the wilderness for a year by hunting and fishing and eating honey from wild bees. Tiring of their frugal lifestyle, Manawydan suggested leaving for England to earn a living through craftsmanship.

In Hereford Manawydan took up saddlemaking. There were was more than a hint of magic about his work: he enamelled the pommels with the skill of Llasar Llaesgyngwyd; the gigantic blue smith who forged the Cauldron of Rebirth and delivered it to Brân.

Manawydan was a victim of his own success. The jealous townspeople decided to kill him and his company. Pryderi’s response was to “kill these churls.”

More sensibly Manawydan said “if we were to fight them, we would get a bad reputation and would be imprisoned. It would be better for us to go on to another town and earn our living there.”

Pryderi listened and they moved on. However when Manawydan took up shieldmaking he coloured the shields the same way they coloured the saddles. Again the townspeople were jealous and they were forced to move on.

In the next town Manawydan took up shoemaking. Instead of using enamel he made friends with the goldsmiths who taught him to make golden buckles. He became known as one of Three Golden Shoemakers and again was far too successful for his own good.

IV.
Manawydan and his company decided to return to Dyfed. Out hunting they were led by a white boar to a fortress. Manawydan recognised the work of whoever put the spell on the land and advised them not to enter.

“Don’t enter that enchanted fortress!” A bit like “don’t open that door…”

Pryderi rushed straight in. Enraptured by a golden bowl, upon touching it, he became speechless and well and truly stuck. Rhiannon followed and suffered the same fate. The blanket of mist descended and in a blink of an eye the fortress was gone.

Manawydan saved the day by capturing the pregnant wife of Llywd Cil Coed, the enchanter, in the form of a mouse. Ransoming her at a miniature gallows he persuaded Llywd to remove the magic from Dyfed and release Pryderi and Rhiannon.

V.
Manawydan’s stories are filled with magic. He’s got deep knowledge of the magical arts, those who wield magic, the unfathomable nature of magic itself. He’s a true wizard.

However if I was in his stories I’d indubitably be the one who failed to listen to his advice. Who could not resist the temptation to open the door or storm the fortress. Who’d still be wandering through mist subsisting on wild fruits and honey or staring entranced into a golden bowl.

But I’m not in his stories. He’s started coming into mine. In a memory that’s not my own in which I’m drunk aboard The Manxman: a boat moored at Preston Dock and used as a floating nightclub pulled away in 1991 long before I was old enough to drink.

In dreams of tides and shoes and rollercoasters dropping into the sea. In the call of gulls. In the tidal pull of the sea drawing me further and further up the Ribble estuary to the coast.

VI.
The medieval stories of the Brythonic deities are immensely valuable. However because they were penned by Christian monks nearly a thousand years ago they can impose a filter on direct experience of ‘pagan’ deities in the twenty-first century.

I’ve learnt a lot from Manawydan’s devotee, Angharad Lois, who keeps a blog called From the Edges which features stories from the shorelines and also Muddy Boots and Mistletoe where she’s part way through the Thirty Days of Devotion project for Manawydan. Angharad carefully weaves Manawydan’s lore together with her own experiences and contemporary art and literature presenting a fuller picture of who he is in the modern world.

I found a quotation Angharad picked out by Alison Leigh Lilly, about Manawydan’s Irish cognate, Manannan Mac Lir, resonated with me ”One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,’ says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks.’

I recognised this deity in The Wizard of the Waves and this wooden carving of a wizard at Martin Mere titled ‘The Great Mere Vanishing Act’ where he says ‘Can you find the missing mere?’

Quiz on walkway, Martin Mere

Well I worked out what happened to Martin Mere: fifteen miles of lake drawn out to sea by the pumps at Banks. But I still haven’t fathomed Manawydan. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the Wizard of the Waves is unfathomable as magic and his deep blue starry robes of the sea.

P1140208 - Copy

The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid

I journeyed for weeks
through mist and hunger
to find the split rack of her bones,
bones stripped, flesh burnt
and boiled in the cauldron,
blood drained and bottled in two jars.

I plundered the ashes where the cauldron stood,
sniffed for blood where the jars were filled.
Played maracas with her bones,
made intricate arrangements,
chanted and sung
but could not raise her ghost.

“She is amongst the spirits of Annwn now,”
spoke the god I called instead.

“Lay her bones to rest. In the fire of poetry
console her burning spirit.”

***

I’m laying her bones to rest. The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid. Her name was Orddu. It meant ‘the Very Black Witch’. Whether she had black skin, black hair or used black magic seem irrelevant now. All that is left is her scapula split in twain, her shattered pelvis, two arms, two legs, her broken skull. Jagged shadows in two orbits retrieved from either side of the cavern.

Her bones are still. I am angry and restless. I cannot abide the story of her death. How Arthur came as he always did into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches: sword slung over his shoulder like a sundered lightning bolt, a living knife in his hilt, a shield on his thigh adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary, aboard a huge mare.

Caw of Prydyn behind him a giant with a curling beard and the damned jars like heinous milk bottles on each side of his saddle; half a man in size, well-stoppered, thick-glassed, unbreakable. Then the retinue with spear and shield, tawdry banners and flags.

Following to stragglers’ jeers Hygwydd the servant staggering bow-legged bent-backed beneath the gigantic cauldron that brewed food for the brave. Hygwydd’s brother Cacamwri with Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil dragging ponies piled with saddle-bags of food and weapons.

At Arthur’s right Gwythyr ap Greidol, a gristled war-lord with fire and a hundred bloody campaigns in his eyes. A blazing passion. And to Arthur’s left Gwyn ap Nudd, the guide who tricked and dizzied their quest cloaked in mist summoning his hounds to eat the fallen from the mountainside.

Of the host who went to Pennant Gofid only a fragment reached the cave where Orddu plaited her black hair, blackened her skin with war-paint, fastened down her helmet. Sharpened her sword then set it aside like an afterthought. Cracked her knuckles and flexed her talons.

When Arthur blanched a voice mocked from the mist “if you’re scared, witch-killer, why not send your servants in instead?”

Arthur pointed Hygwydd and Cacamwri toward Orddu beckoning. She grabbed Hygwydd by the hair, dragged him to the floor, threw off Cacamwri’s assault, arrested their weapons, beat them out bloody and bruised. Arthur sent Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil in to be crushed in her wrestling hold, torn by her talons, beaten out with broken bones. Arthur fumbled for his knife.

“Why are you afraid, Christian warlord?” Orddu asked. “Far from home. Far from heaven. Do you remember I trained your northern warriors? Without my wisdom, gifts from our gods, they will be nothing but bickering chieftains with a lust for gold and immortality that will bring Prydain’s downfall?”

Overcome by fury Arthur threw his knife in a wrathful arc that sliced down through Orddu’s helmet through her ribs. Dropped to the floor as she fell aside in two halves screaming “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” as the mist writhed and the hounds of Annwn howled.

When her twitching halves lay still Caw filled the bottles with her blood still warm and jammed down the corks. They stripped her of armour and flesh. Boiled a merry meal. Stole her sword. Left with a cauldron filled with northern treasure whilst her spirit watched aghast in the misted arms of Gwyn ap Nudd.

***

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches with his living knife to put an end to wild recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years.

Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Gave us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Took away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Gave us virginity and chastity belts. Cut us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Not long ago I split the jars. Escaped to another place. Wandered my estate kissing Himalayan Balsam. Watching Ragwort sway with wasps. Mugwort flowering like coral. But this was not enough. Gods and fairies walked to the world of the dead and called me after them. Since then I have seen the dead walk in the bright eye of the sun.

I could not go back to the jars. To glass windows and tower blocks. To numbers on computer screens. The pencil skirts of offices. To fracking rigs threatening to break both worlds.

So I came to Pennant Gofid searching for answers and companionship on my lonely path. Found only Orddu’s bones and the god who took her spirit. Yet found a link in spirit with a companion and a god in the magical tradition of the Old North.

***

So I constructed a fire of poetry and spoke my words of consolation:

“Orddu Last Witch of Pennant Gofid
know you are not the last
to walk these paths
to caves and mountain ranges,
through otherworlds and distant ages,
seeking visions of the present
the future and past.

The rule of Arthur has fallen.
Though Prydain still falls
we have broken the jars.
Our blood is no longer contained
by the tyrants of Arthur’s court.
We are winning back our flesh.
Our magic. Our strength.

Remembering our gods.
Know your life will be remembered
where there are prophecies and hailstorms,
rain and rivers, caves and heresy,
in the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd
where your spirit burns
forevermore.”

Then I took her bones in my rucksack and crawled through to a dark chamber. On a little shelf beside Orwen ‘the Very White Witch’ I laid Orddu’s bones to rest.

Mid-Winter Magic, Ingleborough

I.
Following a pathway of foot-jewels to the capsized summit

IngleboroughII.
Leaving low lying lands whose gyres and waterfalls climb

View toward IngletonIII.
Entering the site of undecided cloud wars

Clouds from IngleboroughIV.
My shadow touches the trig-point leaving my body’s mechanics behind

Ingleborough Trig-PointV.
Clouds volley my shadow into the valley

Ingleborough towards TwistletonVI.
Ash trees shake snowfall down limestone’s spine

Ingleborough Pavement  - CopyVII.
Crescent moon blinks a snow-smile and winks out until next time

Crescent Moon over Park Fell

Review: Creatures by Greg Hill

Creatures by Greg HillGreg Hill lives in Wales. He was editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review and contributes regularly to Welsh literary magazines. I’ve followed his blog for a while and was delighted when I heard about the release of his first full length collection of poetry in print; Creatures.

The title alone creates intrigue. What kind of creatures? The epigraph replies; ‘All creaturely things… Plants growing, / Roads running, / Rivers flowing, / Places that sing.’ It is clear from the outset this collection is about an animate landscape where every being is a creature, alive and sentient.

The first ekphrastic poem is based on the picture on the cover; Fidelma Massey’s sculpture, ‘Water Mother,’ who dreams thoughts of water into being. Here, the ‘cosmic ebb and flow’ of thought and water is contained in the poem. Analogies between living water and perception recur throughout the book. In ‘Cwm Eleri’ the poem’s tight structure fails to contain the river, which slips from grasp like time. In ‘Myddleton’s River’ water-ways link London, Wales and the underworld, forming a conduit for complicated alchemical processes of mental and physical transformation.

The contrast between our immediate perception of creatures and those aspects of their being impossible to grasp is central. A jackdaw sitting happily in the hearth becomes ‘an image… a token of wildness… like a jigsaw piece from another puzzle;’ a homely and familiar event made strange. Greg writes that as a heron dips out of sight ‘a part of me fell out of the sky with it,’ lost ‘except that something / settles in the flow of these words.’ We can never completely grasp our perceptions. Only through words can they find permanent representation.

Several poems present roads, paths and boundaries as living entities and how our understanding of them shifts once they are crossed and they slip into memory. If we try to return, the roads are ‘dull,’ ‘dusty,’ ‘empty.’ Our former selves are shadows, unfamiliar reflections. ‘Strange border guards’ usher us ‘from what / we neither know nor recognise.’ These haunting and complex poems demonstrate how choices shape our relationship with the landscape and hence our memories.

The mysteries of the Bardic Tradition and its creatures are explored in novel ways. ‘Awen’ depicts a shepherd lad inspired to speak poetry by a spirit ‘like a forest god’ who is elusive as the words he inspires. Four episodes from the Mabinogion are covered. I was fascinated by ‘A Scaffold for a Mouse,’ which depicts ‘Manawydan living in a dream / landscape with the life / conjured out of it like a flat plane.’ Through his ‘firm grip’ on the mouse, ‘a small thing / for a great purpose,’ he breaks the ‘powerful magic’ of Llwyd, awakening ‘form to its true nature’ thus freeing Rhiannon, Pryderi and Cigfa.

This collection depicts a relationship with the creaturely world that is on the surface simple and direct yet beneath mysterious and disconcerting. Each time I return to these poems I discover new meanings and thematic relationships within the whole. I’d recommend this book to anybody who likes poetry with lots of depth and has a love for nature, myth and creatures.

Creatures can be purchased through Lulu here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/greghillpoetry

Greg Hill’s poetry site is here: http://greghill.weebly.com/
Greg’s blog, Hill’s Chroicle can be found here: http://hills-chronicle.blogspot.co.uk/

Ribble Illusions

Yesterday I had a most uncanny experience. Approaching the river Ribble from Castle Hill, I found myself facing a long stretch of tide marked wall that gave the appearance it had dropped away into nowhere. I was struck by a sudden sense of vertigo. The Ribble couldn’t have disappeared, as if had fallen into a void, surely?

River RibbleOn closer inspection, seeing the reflections of the grilles and staircases, and catching subtle fluctuations in the surface of the water, I realised this was an illusion created by a combination of its stillness with the markings on the stone.

River Ribble, reflection of a grilleRiver Ribble, stairsTo my relief at either end of the concrete barriers, the ‘true’ water level was clear.

River Ribble, water level

River Ribble, water levelDrawn  to stay a while in meditation on the strange appearance and disappearance of the river, which occurred as I shifted my eye-line, I was gifted with the sight of several birds. Common and black headed gulls and terns circled, their darker shadows mirrored in the water. Another bird, which I think may have been a grebe or even a black throated diver flew in. Diving with quick flips of its tail it emerged, for the most part, triumphant with white-silver fish, which after a brief kerfuffle vanished down its throat. Finally, a heron arrived to land majestically on a piece of flotsam.

Heron, river RibbleFor me this goes to show that even where it is channelled, the Ribble is a magical and mind altering place. I give thanks to the river, all its visitors and inhabitants, and its goddess Belisama.