Monsters of the Mere

In Beowulf, after the protagonist has defeated the monstrous Grendel in the hall of Heorot, he travels beyond the safety of its walls to the mere from which the monsters come to slay Grendel’s mother.

Beforehand, Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose hall Beowulf is defending, describes ‘the haunted mere’:

‘a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere-bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.’

When Beowulf and his warriors arrive they find:

‘… The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes of the cliff,
serpents and wild things…’

These quotes reflect a view of the wild land beyond the hall as uncanny and peopled by monsters. Beowulf is set in sixth century Scandinavia, but was composed in East Anglia during the seventh century and written down in the tenth century. I believe it was popular amongst the Anglo-Saxons due to the similarities between the landscapes and beliefs in Scandinavia and England.

Grendel is described as a ‘dark death shadow / who lurked and swooped in the long nights / on the misty moors’. The ‘shadow-stalker’ comes ‘In off the moors, down through the mist bands… greedily loping’. His mother is a ‘monstrous hell-bride’, a ‘hell-dam’, a ‘swamp thing from hell’, ‘a tarn-hag in all her terrible strength’, a ‘she-wolf’, and a ‘wolf of the deep’ who lurks in the mere. We find repeated associations between monsters and an untamed landscape viewed as hellish.

No doubt the descriptions of the Danish landscape and its monsters resonated with the people of East Anglia with its extensive fenlands and lowland moors and bogs and its many meres – Trundle Mere, Whittlesey Mere, Stretham Mere, Soham Mere, Ug Mere, and Ramsey Mere, now sadly drained.

It’s likely the Anglo-Saxons and the Brythonic people whose culture they replaced here in Lancashire viewed the Region Linnuis, ‘the Lake Region’, where Martin Mere (at twenty miles in diameter once the largest lake in England), Shoricar’s Mere, Renacres Mere, Gettern Mere, and Barton Mere once lay, as similarly haunted, before they were all drained with the bogs and marshes.

In the fourteenth century Middle English story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the protagonist battles against an array of monsters as he travels north ‘into the wilderness of the Wirral’ and beyond.

‘He had death-struggles with dragons, did battle with wolves,
Warred with wild trolls that dwelt among the crags,
Battled with bulls and bears and boars at other times,
And ogres that panted after him on the high fells.’

Memories of Grendel-like monsters might be retained in Lancashire’s rich boggart lore. Boggarts are malevolent spirits who haunted the bogs then later the farmhouses when the land was drained. Some merely caused mischief, scaring children with their penny-whistle like voices, breaking pots and pans or curdling milk but others made livestock lame or ill and even killed animals and humans.

King Arthur’s Pit, on the shore of Martin Mere near Holmeswood Hall, was haunted by ‘boggarts and ghouls’. There are traditions of ‘shadowy night-time figures passing marl-pits near the old mere edge’.

Roby records the story of a ‘mermaid’ or ‘meer-woman’ abducting a baby from its natural father then leaving the child with a fisherman who gives him to a Captain Harrington to be fostered. This puts me in mind of the monstrous claw that steals a foal and, implicitly, Pryderi in the First Branch of The Mabinogion then leaves the boy in the care of Teyrnon who raises him as a foster-father.

Coupled with Martin Mere’s associations with the nymph, Vyviane, disappearing into the lake with the infant Lancelot du Lac (who is said to give his name to Lancashire) and with Arthur’s sword we might intuit these stories originate from the presence of a female water deity or monster who stole children.

During the digging of the sluice to drain Martin Mere ‘human bodies entire and uncorrupted’ were found and its seems possible they were deliberately deposited in the water. From the surrounding area we have evidence of bog burials at North Meols and, further afield, Lindow and Worsley Man. Lindow Man was sacrificed, dying a ‘three fold death’, and others may have been sacrifices to water deities.

Bog burials took place from the Bronze Age through the Romano-British period in Britain and were common across Germany and Denmark showing shared practices and beliefs surrounding wet places.

Unfortunately we do not know for certain who these sacrifices were to or how these people perceived their deities. It is clear that by the sixth century, due to the influence of Christianity, both Grendel and his mother and the wild landscape they inhabited had been heavily demonised.

This is evidenced by the Christianised explanation of the origins of these ‘fatherless creatures’ as springing from the exile of Cain for killing Abel with ‘ogres and elves and evil phantoms / and the giants too’.

The pagan beliefs of the Danes are referred to and condemned in Beowulf:

‘Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell.’

Yet these explanations come up against the conflicting belief these ‘huge marauders’ are ‘from some other world’ and that their origin ‘hidden in a past of demons and ghosts’, defies explanation.

The grendelkin, like the later boggarts, occupy liminal places in the landscape and between the worlds. A wonderful verb, scripan, ‘meaning a sinewy and sinister gliding movement’ is used to describe the way they move and may also apply to the way they shift between the worlds. The dobbie, our northern British waterhorse, a similar kind of being, ‘is described as a big, black, horrible, misshapen thing that “slips about”’ and is ‘more likely to be seen out of the corner of the eye’.

Here, in Lancashire, the deities of the lake were not slain by a dark age ‘hero’ but met a slower, more ignominious end at the hands of the wealthy landowners who drained the mere. The first was Thomas Fleetwood who secured an Act of Parliament in 1694. He employed 2,000 workers to dig the 1.5 mile channel known as the Sluice to the coast at Crossens. His draining of the mere was completed by 1697.

Fleetwood died in 1717 and the following is written on his monument in the church in Churchtown:

‘He wished his bones to be here laid, because he made into dry and firm land the great Martinesian Marsh, by the water having been conveyed through a fosse to the neighbouring sea – a work, which, as the ancients dared not to attempt, posterity will hardly credit… These labours having been accomplished, he at length, alas! Too soon, laid down and died, on the 22nd April, A.D. 1717, in the 56th year of his age.’

Fleetwood’s success was short lived. The flow of the water was not strong enough to prevent the Sluice from silting up and the floodgates were breached leading to winter flooding. In 1778 Thomas Eccleston employed Mr. Gilbert (who built the Bridgewater Canal) to redesign and rebuild the drainage system, which again was successful for a while, until the mere was inundated by the Douglas.

So continued the cycle of rebuilding and flooding until the new pumping station at Crossens was built in 1961 which is capable of 373,000 gallons per minute and is already running to full capacity at peak times.

This leads me to wonder whether the deities of the mere and its monsters are dead or merely waiting beyond the lumbs and deeps of the mere bottom in places ‘never sounded by the sons of men’.

Mid-Winter Reflections

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The Mid-Winter Solstice arrives: a time to pause and reflect. It’s been a turbulent month. Floods have drowned much of Cumbria. Here in Penwortham in Lancashire we’ve not been badly affected but the Ribble’s been high and during heavy rain the roads and footpaths have taken on the apparel of rivers and streams.

The water’s been washing up into my dreams. In one I was working at a riding school where the horses could only be turned out at certain times due to tides covering the path to the fields. In another instead of roads we had transport akin to fairground water-rides.

This future is not unperceivable. Following the agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to reduce global warming to 2 degrees, the UK government announced 68 new shale gas drilling sites including a well in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.

Along with environmentalists and pagans across Britain I was outraged. A greener future will not be brought about by causing further damage to the landscape in a ruthless quest to extract expendable fossil fuel which benefits only rich share-holders. This can only mean more industry, more roads, more cars, more pollution, worse climate change and more floods.

Earlier this year Lancashire County Council stood by local people and refused to grant permission to Cuadrilla to drill at Roseacre and Little Plumpton. Cuadrilla have appealed and it was recently announced the decision will be made by the central government. With their plans to ‘get shale gas moving’ it’s obvious which way the decision will go. The last resort will be resistance at the sites themselves.

The atmosphere in Preston is increasingly edgy. On the 17th I received a call from a friend asking me to join anti-fracking protestors outside the County Hall to stand against a pro-fracking vigil. When I arrived there were no pro-frackers to be seen: it appears to have been a farce spread by Facebook. However seeing the anti-frackers with placards, a group walking past shouted “let the workers get their jobs”.

That very morning the Fishergate Centre and adjoining roads had been shut off because an ‘incendiary device’ was found in the men’s toilets. Luckily a member of the public put it out. It wasn’t a bomb but a lot of people were freaked out by the thought it could have been.

The war against IS is fabricating divisions in the city. Recently The Daily Mail made a false claim about Muslim no-go areas. Fortunately this has been refuted by the Lancashire Police and Muslim faith-workers. There are more homeless people on the streets than ever due to austerity.

It’s 16 degrees and plants are flowering and it doesn’t feel like winter. Within the tumult it is difficult to pause and find anything positive to reflect on.

Looking back, on personal and community levels it has been a good year. I published my first book: Enchanting the Shadowlands, presented it to Gwyn on Glastonbury Tor and held a successful book launch. I’ve performed ancient British and Greek seasonal myths at local festivals with Guests of the Earth. It’s possible this is the first time the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad has been told in the Old North for centuries.

My poem ‘Devil’s Bagpipes on Stoneygate’ was published in the pioneering Gods & Radicals journal: A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are. Korova Poetry has had its ups and downs in numbers of attendees but is still going strong after over a year.

I’ve met Potia, Neil and Heron from the Dun Brython group and contributed to The Grey Mare on the Hill anthology (edited by Lee). We’re planning a group meeting and new devotional and creative endeavours for 2016. I’m also arranging additional events with the Oak and Feather Grove to supplement the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year.

I’ve learnt about the re-introduction of cranes in Norfolk and on the Somerset Levels. Over the past few years I’ve felt a growing connection with local wetlands. Much of Lancashire used to be lowland raised bog and marsh which is reflected in the name of the Romano-British tribe ‘the Setantii’ ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

Over the past four centuries most of Lancashire’s wetlands have been drained and made into farmland. The most dramatic example is ‘Lancashire’s Lost Lake’: Martin Mere. Of its 15 mile diameter only the shrunken remnant of the mere, outlying lakes and place-names such as Mere Sands Wood and Mere Brow remain. However the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust are doing valuable work restoring Martin Mere’s reed beds. Thousands of whooper swans and pink-footed geese over-winter there every year.

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One of WWT’s recent accomplishment is the opening of Steart Marshes. To protect the coastal village of Steart the flood walls have been breached, flooding the Steart peninsula creating new saltmarshes to absorb tidal surges. This is good news for the villagers and wildlife with avocet hatching eggs for the first time and water voles, otters, oystercatchers, lapwing and ringed plovers doing well. This proves it possible to live alongside nature in this time of rising tides.

One of my favourite destinations for a bike ride is Brockhole Nature Reserve. Lying 4 miles outside Preston, its lakes, reed beds, meadows, woodlands and floating visitor centre occupy the former site of a quarry. Opened in 2011 it is still developing. Last year on the Winter Solstice with the Oak and Feather Grove I attended the opening of a new stone circle built by John Lamb and a team of volunteers (the OaFs will be celebrating there again tomorrow afternoon).

Every time I visit I’m struck by how Brockholes reminds me of (how I imagine) the landscapes of our ancient British ancestors with its lake dwellings, wooden walkways and new circle of stones. At places like Brockholes and Martin Mere I am able to pause and find hope for a future lived harmoniously alongside the birds and animals of our wetland landscapes and divinities of our sacred watercourses and the deep.

On that note I would like to wish everybody a blessed solstice and a hopeful new year.

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Crane-Dance and Sunshine

P1130306A card which keeps recurring in my readings (I mainly use The Wildwood Tarot) is ‘The Three of Vessels: Joy’. It features two common cranes dancing and a third spreading its wings, rising into flight with three vessels; white, green and gold. Its meaning is welcoming ‘new life or good fortune’, ‘celebration within a communal group or family’ and ‘successful return after migration’. The reading points state it’s about being able to give ourselves permission to experience ‘authentic joy’ as a ‘gift from the universe’.

At the beginning of the year after completing my first publication: Enchanting the Shadowlands and dedicating it to him, Gwyn ap Nudd advised me to ‘find my sun’. Interpreting this as finding a calling I enjoyed, I balked. Although intuitively I knew continuing to serve Gwyn as an awenydd by recovering his neglected stories and their associations with the British landscape was a source of joy, I couldn’t believe in it.

There were too many awful things happening in the world. Too many other people stuck in meaningless jobs for me to deserve the liberty to follow my joy. So I ignored Gwyn’s advice, took an admin job and tried to force myself into the political sphere: areas antithetical to my natural disposition as an intuitive thinker and poet. Unsurprisingly, I had a thoroughly miserable time.

The event that broke my misery was a holiday to Wales where I experienced the enormity of Cadair Idris and, after reading Heron’s translation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ on Borth beach, witnessed the otherworld appearing across the sea at sunset: a gift from Gwyddno’s lands and from Gwyn, a King of Annwn. This led me to write a story based on the ancient Welsh poem called ‘The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir.’

During my research I found out whilst Garanhir is usually translated as ‘longshanks’, ‘garan’ means ‘crane’ in Welsh and could refer to ‘crane-legs’. That’s how Gwyddno appeared to me: an old man, grey-faced, crane-legged, picking his way along the misted edge of Borth Beach. He had lost his memory. This was because the cranes were gone with their elegant black legs whose dancing alphabet spelled the forgotten names of his kindred.

Cranes became extinct in Britain during the 17th C due to shooting and the draining of wetlands. I’m not sure when the last crane was sighted in the precincts of Maes Gwyddno ‘The Land of Gwyddno’. According to local legend, Cantre’r Gwaelod ‘the Bottom Hundred’ was drowned after the flood gates of Gwyddno’s fort were left open after Seithenin’s seduction of Mererid.

Boddi Maes Gwyddno ‘The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno’ is set in the 6th century but could have its roots in sightings of an ancient, submerged forest on Borth beach. Whenever it happened, it seems a flood devastated lowland plains, areas of woodland and the homes of a human community. A haunting story tells of church bells ringing beneath the sea. I imagine the flood-waters drowned coastal wetlands and the nesting places of numerous wildfowl too.

Another tale linked with the area is Hanes Taliesin ‘The Story of Taliesin’. After Gwion Bach spilled three drops of Ceridwen’s brew on his finger and imbibed the Awen, the cauldron shattered and its toxic contents spilled across the land and poisoned Gwyddno’s horses. Today this conjures images of large-scale industrial tragedies such as the Gold King Mine Disaster in Colorado in August this year where three millions gallons of waste water flooded into the Animas.

This may not be far from the ‘truth’ as lead mining took place in the hills close to Cors Fochno ‘Borth Bog’ and lead smelting at Taliesin, Llangynfelyn and Ynys Capel during the Roman period. A medieval wooden walkway connecting these sites has recently been discovered. Perhaps an industrial disaster poisoning streams and wildlife gave rise to this tale? (On a happier note, wild ponies can be seen grazing safely near Cors Fochno in the present-day.)

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Both ‘Dark Age’ tales may be related to the disappearance of cranes from Maes Gwyddno. A story which has not made its way into legend is the draining and enclosure of Cors Fochno. This began in 1813 and reduced its area of 24 square kilometres to 7 square kilometres (now protected as an SSSI). Whilst this took place too late to be cited as a cause of the disappearance of cranes from Cors Fochno it would have decimated other wetland species.

***

Common_crane_grus_grus

Wikipedia Commons

The extinction of common cranes forms an incredibly sad marker in British history. These striking birds with their grey body- feathers, black and white necks and unique red crowns are renowned for the choreography of their elaborate ballet-like courtship-dance which involves a complex sequence of bobs, bows, crouches, coils, spins, leaps, pirouettes and calls.

After mating, both parents care for and fiercely protect their eggs which are laid in May and hatch 30 days later. After 5-6 weeks the parents go through a post-breeding molt which renders them unable to fly. Their offspring are ready to fly at 9 weeks. It seems possible the precarious 3 week period when none of the family can take off played a part in the demise of common cranes.

As well as being an irreplaceable part of the natural world, cranes are deeply embedded in Celtic and Romano-Celtic culture and mythology. The most famous example is Tarvostrigaranus ‘the Bull with Three Cranes’ from a 1st C Parisian monument. In Dorset, a statue of a three-horned bull with three female figures on his back was found in a 4th C shrine. These seem related through lore about women shapeshifting into cranes. In Risingham, Northumberland, a Gaulish slab depicts Victory with a crane beneath her and Mars accompanied by a goose.

Whilst crane stories in Brythonic tradition seem lacking, I found cranes play a central role in Irish mythology. In light of my devotion to Gwyn I was delighted to find several stories connecting his Irish counterpart, Finn, with cranes. In ‘Bairne Mor’ whilst Finn is a young child, his father, Cumhall, is slain in battle. Finn is thrown over a cliff and caught by his grandmother in the form of a crane.

In ‘Cailleach an Teampuill’, Finn encounters the Cailleach as ‘the Hag of the Temple’ with four sons who appear as cranes. They are associated with death and will only ’emerge as warriors’ if they receive a drop of blood from the skull of the Connra Bull (who is owned by the Cailleach).

Finn also comes into custodianship of a crane-bag which belonged to his father. The story of its origin is fascinating. The crane-bag first belonged to Manannan Mac Lir and contained his treasures. It is made from the skin of a crane who was originally a woman called Aoife. Aoife was transformed into a crane by Iuchra; a jealous female rival for the love of a man. In modern Druidry, the crane-bag is associated with the ogham alphabet and used to carry magical tools.

When I wrote my story, the only part of this complex web of correspondences I knew of was the connection of the crane-bag with letters. Considering the relationship between cranes and female shapeshifters, looking back, it’s intriguing I was guided by an impulse to relate Gwyddno’s regaining of his crane-knowledge to memories of his mother.

Gwyddno’s recollections of his identity and ancestry took place under the auspices of Gwyn’s protection as a psychopomp. It is my belief the dialogue is set between worlds after Gwyddno’s death. Because Gwyddno lost his memory before he died he was unable to find his way to Annwn. Thus Gwyn appeared with his dog, Dormach, to help him regain his memory and ancestral connections and aid his crossing.

In my story, after Gwyn helped Gwyddno re-gain his ‘inner crane-knowing’, Gwyddno saw the arrival of his family, including his grandmother and his wife Ystradwen as a flock of cranes. Finally he took crane-form, was united with them and flew to Annwn as it appeared across the sea by the light of the setting sun.

Thus, for me, the three cranes on ‘The Three of Vessels: Joy’ could represent Gwyddno and Ystradwen dancing watched over by Gwyddno’s mother with Gwyn’s presence represented by the misty background. The three vessels seem linked to the three drops of Awen, which had led to the poisoning of the landscape, recovered and contained.

Another interesting coincidence is that Gwyn appears to Gwyddno as a ‘bull of battle’: a sacred title referring to his status as a psychopomp. In the dialogue I picture him as a white warrior wearing a bull-horned helmet. Could there be a link to the magical power of Tarvostrigaranus and / or the Cailleach’s bull? If so my story inverts the transformation of the Cailleach’s sons as Gwyddno shifts from king and warrior into crane-form.

Another piece of Irish lore worth mentioning is that three cranes guard the sidh (mound and otherworld entrance) of Midir. Their calls have the capacity to ‘unman’ warriors and if a crane is seen before battle this is taken as an ill omen. I’ve also read three cranes act as guardians of Annwn. Although I haven’t found a scholarly reference for this yet, it would fit with my suggested crane-trio and Gwyn as a King of Annwn.

***

Whilst writing my story, I was excited to find out common cranes are returning from ‘extinction’ in Britain. In 1979 common cranes arrived at Horsey on the Norfolk Broads. Their survival was made possible by the custodianship and management of ‘Crane Country’ by John Buxton and his team of wardens.

In 2010 ‘The Great Crane Project’ was established and is ongoing. At the WWT Centre in Slimbridge, crane eggs from Germany are incubated and hatched then the chicks are hand-reared and released; mainly on the Somerset levels and also in South Wales, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and East Somerset.

Although over a dozen pairs have established territories and bred, this is the first year chicks have matured to the age of taking flight. In August not only one or two but three young cranes (two in Somerset and one at Slimbridge) took flight for the first time. The trio have all been named Peter after the RSPB’s Peter Newbery who was a driving force behind the project and sadly passed away before he saw the young cranes fly.

A couple of weeks ago, Brian Taylor (who I have been conversing with for a while about soul-birds amongst other topics) mentioned a pair of Eurasian cranes in the ‘wildfowl garden’ of the WWT Centre at Martin Mere. I’d been planning to go to see the Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans so visited with my friend, Peter Dillon.

From a distance, I was struck by the Eurasian cranes’ presence and the dramatic change in their appearance from when they crouched and raised themselves to full height. After spending a short while with them, I walked to the other side of their pen. Both turned from a crouched, coiled, position in synchrony, pirouetted then approached. Seeing them perform a simple movement with such grace in captivity I can only imagine their courtship dance in the wild.

Seeing cranes face to face was a source of joy as was re-imagining the dialogue of Gwyn and Gwyddno. During the process I had an overwhelming gnosis of the significance of Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp, the great service he performs for the dead and his promise of blissful re-union with the depths of nature (Annwn) and one’s ancestors in the afterlife.

In Welsh folklore the hounds who help Gwyn gather the souls of the dead are called Cwn Annwn: ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’. Their barking is identified with noisy nocturnal flights of geese. The hounds in Lancashire folklore who perform this role are Gabriel Ratchets and their baying is also connected with droves of geese and wild swans.

In Wales and Lancashire to hear swans or geese flying over at night is a portent of death. During the day at Martin Mere hearing the calls of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese on the lakes and overhead filled me with great joy: in their presence and a sense of knowing like them one day I would be going ‘home’ to a land far away.

Looking out from the Ron Barker Hide across wetlands lit by magical rays of sunshine as flights of geese and swans arrived and departed I realised in Gwyn, his stories and their revelation within this remarkable landscape I had found my joy, my Awen: my sun.

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I perceive parallels between the return of cranes and the re-emergence of the stories of the old gods and ancestral animals of Britain. Such returns don’t happen on their own or without people dedicated to making them happen. Thus I see my vocation as an awenydd to Gwyn and the spirits of the land not only as a source of joy for myself but hope for future generations. I’ve found my sun and finally accept its gifts.

***

SOURCES

AlainaFae and Cliareach Filleadh, ‘Crane’s Cauldron / Brigid’s Cross
AlainaFae and Cliareach Filleadh ‘Artistic Creation Exploration: Corr Teanga
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (Routledge, 1992)
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Waterlife, 194, Oct / Dec 2015
The Great Crane Project
The Norfolk Cranes’ Story