“On an island lives the King of Annwn with a mysterious woman and no-one knows whether she is his sister, his beloved, his wife, his queen, or his daughter.”
These were words gifted to me at the beginning of a drumming journey that I undertook with the guidance of my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faerie, after asking him about the links I have intuited between his sister and beloved, Creiddylad, the mare goddess, Rhiannon, and the mother goddess, Modron.
There is little written about Creiddylad, but we know, like Rhiannon, she is a Queen of Annwn. As I have got to know her Creiddylad has revealed she is also associated with roses and horses. One of her names is ‘First Rose’ and she rides and takes the form of a white winged horse. Parallels exist between Rhiannon giving birth to Pryderi and him disappearing the same night as a foal is captured by a monstrous claw and Modron giving birth to Mabon, who is stolen away when he is three nights old. Whilst Creiddylad and Rhiannon are consorts of the King of Annwn, Modron is his daugher.
My journey resulted in the series of visions recorded in my poem ‘The Baby’s Gone’. My gnosis suggests Creiddylad, Rhiannon, and Modron are the same goddess with shifting identities.
Further, in the ‘Rose Queen Triptych’ I was inspired to draw, Creiddylad, ‘The Rose Maiden’, shifts into Rhiannon, ‘The Rose Queen’, then into the Mari Llwyd, ‘The Bone Mare’.
This didn’t come as a great surprise as I had similar experiences with Gwyn. When I first came to polytheism about ten years ago I regarded myself to be a hard polytheist (someone who believes the gods are real individual persons) as opposed to a soft polytheist (someone who believes the gods are aspects of a single god or goddess or psychological archetypes). I still stand by that belief, however, it has become a lot more fluid.
One of the defining characteristics of the gods across cultures is that individual deities have many names and titles. A prime example is the Norse god, Odin. Over forty of his names are recorded in The Poetic Edda alone and he is known by many more in other texts. The Greek goddess, Demeter, possesses several epithets such as aganippe ‘night mare’ and chloe ‘the green shoot’.
Gwyn first revealed himself to me by that name as the King of Annwn/Faerie in 2012. After our initial meeting I made my main focus the myths in which he is known as Gwyn but swiftly found he lay behind a number of our Fairy King and Wild Huntsman legends in Lancashire and my past experiences with the fay and the faerie realm.
My experience of dedicating myself to Gwyn at the cauldron-like White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor confirmed the links I had made between Gwyn feasting on Glastonbury Tor in The Life of St Collen and Pen Annwn presiding over a mead-feast with his cauldron were correct.
I was far more cautious about equating Gwyn with other Kings of Annwn. However, as I worked with the myths, intuiting the similarities between Gwyn and Arawn, both of whom are huntsmen who preside over otherworldly feasts, have beautiful brides, and fight a seasonal battle against a summer god each year, I found myself inhabiting their overlapping tales.
In one instance, in a dream, I was thrust into the role of Pwyll, who took the identity of Arawn in Annwn and had to fight Arawn’s battle, in Arawn’s form, against his rival, Hafgan. Only, in my dream I was taking the role of Gwyn and was preparing to battle against Gwythyr. This resulted in my poem ‘If I Had To Fight Your Battle’. In another, as I was walking my local landscape in winter, I felt for a moment like Arawn-as-Pwyll making a circuit of a thiswordly kingdom, only my identity became conjoined, instead, with Gwyn’s as Winter’s King. Again, I recorded my experience in a poem: ‘Winter Kingdom’. To me this proves Gwyn ‘White’ and Arawn (whose name a translation has not been agreed on) are names or titles of the same god who has shifting identities across time and place.
Similar experiences from intuiting links in the myths and being gifted with poems and visions have led me to believe the King of Annwn goes by many other names. These include Afallach, the Apple King who presides over Avalon and Melwas who shares similar associations with Glastonbury, Llwyd ‘Grey’ who puts an enchantment on the land and abducts Rhiannon and Pryderi in The Mabinogion, Brenin Llwyd, ‘The Grey King’ who haunts the misty Snowdonian mountains, Ugnach, a figure with ‘white hounds’ and ‘great horns’ whose otherworld feast Taliesin refuses to attend, and Ogyrven the Giant, who presides over the spirits of inspiration.
Additionally, the King of Annwn spoke to me directly of his shifting identities in this poem:
I speak from the infinite joining of the circle as the snake bites its tail
the moment of awen in every always of the universe
the sea behind the sea the land behind the land the sun behind the sun.
I come from many deaths. From many deaths I am reborn.
Dis, Vindonnus, Vindos, Llwyd, Brenin Llwyd, Arawn, Ugnach, Melwas, Ogyrven.
Across the sea I am Finn. For tonight I am Gwyn.
Thus it is unsurprising his consort, the Queen of Annwn, has many shifting identities too.
Interestingly, when I was involved with Dun Brython, it was very much Rhiannon/Rigantona who brought the group together in the beginning and I came later as a devotee of Gwyn. One of the other members also had a strong relationship with Gwyn and it was member Greg Hill’s translations of poems featuring Ogyrven and Ugnach that helped me decipher the aforementioned connections. When Greg and I set up the Awen ac Awenydd group many other Gwyn devotees were drawn to it and the King and Queen of Annwn feel very central to the Brythonic tradition in the modern day.
I see her, the one I love, surrounded by wilted flowers. Her sheets, her dress, are torn, bloody. It’s as if something with a monstrous claw… Do not awake oh innocent one taste the blood on your lips.
“The baby’s gone.”
She’s sitting bolt upright clutching nothing to her breast staring at her bloody hands sharp nails and has she bitten her tongue?
And above the accusations the howling of a stag-hound bitch for her six slaughtered pups.
“The baby’s gone.”
The circles beneath her eyes are dark as the moon that has ceased to ride across the night skies as she crawls on her hands and knees through the long dark tunnels.
Upon her back she carries the world as a theatre acting out a mystery play that begins as a nativity and grows dark.
“The baby’s gone.”
And is that his laughter she hears on the other side of the wall or is it some changeling she follows fingers tracing hieroglyphs?
Has this happened before and did she draw these very pictures to remind herself? Seek not the truth at the heart of the labyrinth dear one.
“The baby’s gone.”
In the play I am evil – on my head there are bull’s horns. They dare not admit I am her father or lover or brother reaching out from behind the curtains to take the son who is mine from where she lay with another.
“The baby’s gone.”
Where did I put him this time?
She’s tracing the outline of an otter and she is splashing through the water on the bank of a river with him trying to catch a silver salmon slipping
through his claws turning to stone –
a cold dead speckled fish and next the dragonfly that landed on the end of her nose and how we laughed…
She did not see the wolf in me.
“The baby’s gone.”
Yet I saw her wild horse.
She’s close to touching the truth. She’s reading the symbols like braille. On her back the bone mare is riding to the stable where the claw lies severed fingers clutching neither boy nor foal but emptiness.
(We cannot hold what we love.)
He is the object of her riddles.
“The baby’s gone.”
I am behind her curtains.
On the stage there is a man beneath her skirts and the time of revelation is drawing nigh.
“The baby’s gone.”
When she reaches the heart of the labyrinth the truth is too terrible to behold the centre unfolds.
She gallops back into not-knowing.
She is waiting outside the stable for the old man leading a colt with a boy upon his back.
Afallach, a Brythonic god whose name is derived from afal ‘apple’, is best known for his associations with Ynys Afallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or the Isle of Avalon. In his Speculum Ecclesiae (1216)Giraldus Cambrensis says: ‘Avallonia is so called either from the British aval which means apple, because that place abounded with apples, or from a certain (A)vallo, lord of that land’.
Giraldus identifies the Isle of Avalon with Glastonbury, in De Instructione Principium (1193 -9): ‘what is now called Glastonia was anciently called Insula Avallonia, for it is like an island, wholly surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in British Inis Avallon, that is the apple-bearing island.’
William of Mamlesbury, in The Antiquities of Glastonbury (1216), follows this tradition. Glastonbury ‘is also well known as by the name of Insula Avalloniae’. He says it may be ‘named after a certain Avalloc who is said to have lived there with his daughters on account of it being a solitary place. (1)
Ynys Afallach is described as a paradisal island by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini (1150). ‘The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.’
Geoffrey names the nine daughters of Afallach as Morgen, ‘Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.’ He notes Morgen ‘is first of them’, ‘skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person’. She knows the properties of herbs, is skilled in healing, and mathematics and has the ability to shift shape.
Giraldus Cambrensis, in De Instructione Principium (1193), also writes of,‘Morganis, a noble matron who was the ruler and patron of these parts… the island which is now called Glastonia.”
II. Afallach – King of Annwn
It is significant that Morgan is referred to as a ‘noble matron’ for in the Triads she is otherwise named as ‘Modron daughter of Afallach’. Modron is a later form of Matrona ‘Mother’. The Mothers or Matrons were worshipped across northwestern Europe during the Romano-British period.
In Peniarth MS. 70 Modron speaks of herself as ‘the daughter of the King of Annwn’. Annwn means ‘the Deep’ and is the medieval Welsh name for the Otherworld which is a paradisal location.
In The Life of St Collen (14th C)we find an account of Collen’s visit to the castle of Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn, on Glastonbury Tor:
‘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.’
It seems likely Gwyn and Afallach are the same deity. Both are named as King of Annwn and are associated with Glastonbury/the Island of Avalon. Afallach is named as the grandson of Beli Mawr in the Harleian Genealogies (1100)and we find out that Gwyn is the grandson of Beli Mawr from Lludd ac Llefelys (1225) where his father, Lludd/Nudd, is named as the son of Beli.
Further traces of his mythos can be found in ‘Preideu Annwn’ where Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ is depicted presiding over an otherworldly mead feast and as the owner of countless treasures including a cauldron ‘kindled by the breath of nine maidens’ with ‘a dark trim and pearls’.
Its refusal to ‘boil a coward’s food’ suggests that it is connected with the initiation of bards such as ‘the loyal lad’, Gwair who, in the poem, is singing before the spoils of Annwn in a heavy grey chain.
III. Afallach and Modron in the Old North
In the Triads and Peniarth MS. 70 Afallach’s daughter, Modron, is the mother of the children of Urien. In Triad 70 the second of the ‘Three Fair Womb Burdens’ is the following: ‘Owain, son of Urien and Morfudd his sister who were carried together in the womb of Modron daughter of Afallach’.
In Peniarth MS. 70 we find the full story of the conception of Modron’s children:
‘In Denbighshire there is a parish which is called Llanferes, and there is there Rhyd y Gyfarthfa (the Ford of Barking). In the old days the hounds of the countryside used to come together to the side of that the ford to bark, and nobody dared go to find out what was there until Urien Rheged came. And when he came to the side of the ford he saw nothing except a woman washing. And then the hounds ceased barking, and Urien seized the woman and he had his will of her; and then she said “God’s blessing on the feet which brought thee here.” “Why?” said he. “Because I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy.” And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.’
The setting of this story in Denbighshire is strange because Urien was the king of the northern kingdom of Rheged during the sixth century. Urien’s seat may have been Luguvalium (present-day Carlisle), on the River Eden, and his realm likely extended throughout the Eden Valley and much of Cumbria to the Solway Firth and perhaps included Dumfries and Galloway. (2)
The name ‘Eden’ holds associations with Paradise and thus with Afallach/Gwyn and his brother Edern. (3) When Rheged was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons some of the fleeing Britons may have taken the tale to Wales.
I believe this story has its basis in the pre-Christian tradition of a human king entering a sacred marriage with the goddess of the land. There is plentiful evidence for the cultus of Modron/Matrona and her son, Mabon/Maponos in the form of altars and place names in northwest England and southern Scotland.
Altars and inscriptions to the Mother Goddesses and the Mothers the Fates have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness, Bowness-on-Solway, Ribchester, and Lund. There is an altar to Apollo-Maponus at Ribchester. Lochmaben and the Clochmaben stone are named after him.
In The Harleian Genealogies the kings of Rheged trace their lineage to Coel Hen and ultimately to Afallach and Beli Mawr. This suggests that Beli, Afallach, Modron, and Mabon were their ancestral deities.
The references to Owain as Mabon in the poetry attributed to Urien’s bard, Taliesin, are suggestive not only of his divine birth, but that he possessed the power to invoke and take on the identity of Mabon.
The story from Peniarth MS. 70 demonstrates the turning of the kings of Rheged to Christianity. Here we find Modron depicted as a sinister figure, as the Washer at the Ford, suggesting links with Morgan and possibly with the Irish death-goddess Morrigan, surrounded by equally sinister hounds (who are likely to be the Hounds of Annwn who hunt the souls of the dead with her father). To see a woman washing one’s clothes was a death portent as was hearing or seeing otherwordly hounds.
Urien, a self-proclaimedly Christian King, ignores the portents, seeing ‘nothing but a woman washing’ and rapes Modron. Her words about being fated to wash there until she conceives a son by a Christian have clearly been put into her mouth by a Christian interlocutor to obscure her role as a sovereignty goddess who holds power not over the land and Annwn but fate itself. Following Urien’s abuse it is no surprise he is assassinated and this leads to the fall of Rheged and the Old North.
The connections of Afallach and Modron with the Old North live on in their folkloric associations with the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass). In these areas of Cumbria Afallach is known as Eveling, which is an Anglicised version of his name.
IV. Afallach and Gwallen in North Wales
Afallach’s associations with Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in Denbighshire have been noted. Near the hill fort of Moel-y-Gaer in Flintshire is a hamlet called Caerfallwch which means ‘the Fortress of Afallach’.
From the ‘Hanesyn Tract’ we learn that Afallach had another daughter called Gwallen. She is referred to as ‘Gwalltwen verch Yvallach’ in ‘Digyniad Pendefigaeth Cymru’ and here we learn that she was mistress of Maelgwn, the ruler of Gwynedd during the sixth century, and the mother of Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, who ‘was not acceptable to some as prince, only as a regent.’
The kings of Gwynedd traced their ancestry through Cunedda to Afallach and Beli Mawr. It is possible that, like Modron, Gwallen was perceived as a sovereignty goddess. Her name might be translated as ‘White Hair’ (from gwallt ‘hair’ and gwyn/(g)wen ‘white’) suggesting Annuvian characteristics shared with her father, Afallach/Gwyn. The rejection of her son may be indicative not only of the laws surrounding illegitimacy, but Christian superstitions surrounding her otherworld nature.
Maelgwn’s wife was Sanan ferch Cyngen. They had a daughter called Eurgain who was married to the northern warlord Elidyr Mwynfawr. According to The Black Book of Chirk (1592 – 1667):
‘After the death of Maelgwn… many of the nobility of Cambria disdained to yield subjection to Rhun his son, being a bastard begot upon Gwallten the daughter of Afallach, Maelgwn’s concubine, especially the nobility of Arfon, who privately sent unto Elidyr Mwynfawr aforesaid to come speedily to Cambria, to aid him in recovery of the kingdom in the right of his children by Eurgain the daughter and heir of Maelgwn’.
The voyage of Elidyr and Eurgain and their companions from the Old North to Wales is recorded in Triad 44 ‘Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’. It is memorable because ‘seven and a half’ people are said to have crossed sea on the back of the water horse Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’.
‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr… carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’
Du y Moroedd is the horse Gwyn ap Nudd rides when hunting for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ and likely for the souls of the dead. (4) Elidyr met his end battling against Rhun at Aber Mefydd. Perhaps Du not only carried them to meet their deaths but to the Otherworld afterwards too.
What this story serves to consolidate is that Afallach/Gwyn and his daughter, Gwallen, had strong and longstanding connections with the Brythonic peoples who claimed descent from Beli Mawr.
V. Lugus and the Island of Apples
In the Irish myths we find Emain Ablach ‘The Island of Apples’. In ‘Ar an doirseoir ris an deaghlaoch’ ‘The doorkeeper said to the noble warrior’, a medieval Irish poem based on the arrival of Lugh at the court of the Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, Lugh introduces himself as ‘a poet from Emain Ablach / of swans and yews’ before gaining entry due to his mastery of many skills. This suggests Lugh might have undergone some kind of bardic initiation on Ablach/Afallach’s isle.
Lugh is the son of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethniu, daughter of the Formorian giant, Balor. After hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, Balor locked Eithne away in a tower on Tory Island, but this did not prevent Cian from entering and fathering Lugh. Balor then attempted to stop the child gaining maturity by preventing him from getting a name and a wife.
In ‘Balor of the Evil Eye and Lui Lavada’ Cian takes Lui to Tory Island where numerous apple trees grow. They pose as gardeners. When Lui shows a good deal of skill picking up the apples Balor says: ‘Tog leat Lui Lavada’ ‘take away with you little long hand’ and this is how he receives his name. Lui/Lugh kills Balor with a slingshot or spear through his burning or poisonous eye.
We find a striking parallel in The Mabinogi (1350 – 1410) in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who is cognate with the Irish Lugh. Lleu is the son of Gwydion and Arianrhod, the son and daughter of Beli Mawr and Don. He was likely conceived by magical subterfuge. (5) In this story it is not Lleu’s grandfather, Beli, but his mother, Arianrhod who curses him with three fates: he will never win a name, arms or a wife. This is because of her ‘shame’ at the slight to her virginity caused by Gwydion.
Gwydion helps Lleu win his name by disguising them as shoemakers and luring Arianrhod onto his boat to get a shoe fitted. When she is on board Lleu shoots a wren that lands on the deck ‘in the leg, between the tendon and the bone’ and she exclaims ‘it is with a skilful hand that the fair one has hit it’ and hence he is called Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair-haired one with the skilful hand’.
Instead of killing his grandfather, Beli, with his spear, Lleu kills Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuwedd. Gronw, a hunter who arrives with a pack of hounds chasing a deer and turns up at night to seduce Lleu’s beloved is likely to be the King of Annwn, Arawn, who displayed his shapeshifting abilities earlier in the text, and may be identified with Afallach/Gwyn, his cousin.
The Welsh and the Irish myths contain suggestions of a shared mythos surrounding Beli/Balor, Ablach/Afallach, Eithne/Arianrhod, Cian/Gwydion, and Lleu/Lugh/Lugus (his pan-Celtic name) that was important to the people of the Brythonic kingdoms who claimed descent from Beli. (6)
VI. The Apple King in Peneverdant
The name of my home town, Penwortham, was Peneverdant in the Domesday Book. The first element, pen, ‘head’ is Brythonic and refers to present-day Castle Hill. Like Glastonbury Tor this headland stood on marshland and is an important sacred site for pagans and Christians.
The dedication of the church on its summit and well at its foot (now dried up) to St Mary Virgin and the fairy funeral legend featuring a fairy leader suggest the presence of a mother goddess and fairy king.
I know from personal experience the fairy king is Afallach/Gwyn. I first intuited the goddess to be Gwyn’s mother, Anrhuna, who I know as the Mother of the Marsh, but am now considering that another presence who better fits the image of Mary in the church with her shining son is Modron with Mabon.
I hadn’t considered this possibility because I hadn’t realised Afallach and Gwyn were the same deity. Looking back I should have realised earlier for I spent a considerable amount of time in the Avalon orchards at Glastonbury when I visited at Calan Mai in 2013 and 2015. On the latter occasion this inspired me to plant five apple trees in Greencroft Valley with the Friends group. Three have survived and two, the Epicure and Sowman’s seedling, have borne apples this year.
I have been making connections between Afallach and Gwyn as I have harvested these apples and those from the two apple trees in my parent’s garden. I’ve noticed they’ve come earlier this year for I usually gather the last before Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September and offer an apple to him with pork.
Of course the sweet and juicy apples we eat in Britain today were imported by the Romans. Yet we do have a native apple tree – the crab apple. Although its fruits are too sour to eat raw there is no doubt our ancient ancestors cooked them and served them with meat as a welcome addition to their diet. The fact that apples are harvested at the time of Gwyn’s Feast further consolidates his identity with Afallach. (7)
Another piece of potentially significant information I first heard orally but only found unreferenced online on a website called ‘Ireland Calling’ is the following: ‘The Celts… were said to bury apples in graves as food for the dead, a practice that is shown to date back over 7,000 years to Europe and West Asia where petrified remains of sliced apple have been found in tombs from 5,000BC.’ However, I haven’t been able to find a trustworthy source naming the date or location of these burials.
If it was proved that the Celtic peoples and in particular the Britons buried their dead with apples this might be suggestive of an offering to Afallach/Gwyn in return for taking the souls of the dead to Annwn.
Whatever the case my offering of an apple to the Apple King at his feast this year will have heightened significance and his relationship with Modron and Mabon opens new horizons to explore.
(1) Malmesbury also provides a fascinating alternative foundation story based around apples. ‘Glasteing found his sow under an apple tree near the ancient church, and because apples were rare in those parts when he first arrived there, he called it Insular Avalloniae in his tongue, that is, Isle of Apples’. (2) Urien’s associations with the Eden Valley are suggested by the poems attributed to Taliesin, Urien’s bard, who refers to Urien as the ‘ruler of Llwyfenedd’, the Lyvennet Valley (the Lyvennet flows into the Eden). (3) However this river was known as Ituna ‘water’ or ‘rushing’during the Roman-British period. Urien was also named ‘ruler of Yrechwedd’. Echwedd means ‘flowing water’ and this could be the origin of this appellation. (4) In Culhwch ac Olwen (1190) Twrch Trwyth was allegedly a human chieftain turned into a boar by God on account of his sins. Behind this story lies his abilities as a shapeshifter and the fact Gwyn’s hunt, ‘the Wild Hunt’, was not really for boar but for human souls. (5) Gwydion’s fathering of Lleu is not explicit in the main source for Lleu’s story, the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, but is evidenced in other sources such as a poem by Lewys Môn and Harleian 3859 where Lleu is spoken of as ‘Lou Hen map Guidgen’. (6) The significance of Lugus is supported by his giving his name to Luguvalium (Carlisle) which means ‘Strong in Lugus’ and was ruled by Urien Rheged, to ‘the rock of Lleu’, the seat of the rulers of Gododdin from whom Maelgwn Gwynedd was descended, and to Dinas Lleu in the kingdom of Gwynedd.
At the beginning of November, I cycled to the church of St John the Evangelist in Lund, which is about six miles outside Preston. Lund means ‘grove’ in Norse and Germanic thus it seems likely the church was built on a pre-Christian sacred site. This is supported by the presence of an altar to the Mothers within the church now used as a baptismal font.
Matronae ‘Matrons’ and Matres ‘Mothers’ were worshipped across Northern Europe from the 1st to 5th C particularly in Germany and Gaul and other places occupied by the Roman army. They are usually depicted in threes, often with fruit, bread, cornucopias and nursing infants.
Worship of the Mothers was widespread in Britain. Whilst some of the Mother Goddesses were clearly brought from over-seas (shown by inscriptions reading ‘To the Mothers from Overseas’ ‘To the German Mother Goddesses’) there is evidence for a Romano-British tradition centring on Matrona ‘the Mother’ and Maponos ‘the Son’ which seems strongest in north-west England and southern Scotland.
Altars and inscriptions to ‘the Mother Goddesses’ and ‘the Mothers the Fates’ have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness and Bowness-on-Solway. The worship of Maponos in this area is evidenced by the place-name Lochmaben, the Clochmaben stone and the Locus Maponi.
Matrona and Maponus re-appear in medieval Welsh literature as Modron ‘Mother’ and Mabon ‘Son’. The story of Mabon being stolen from Modron when he is three nights old and rescued from imprisonment in a ‘house of stone’ forms an important part of Culhwch and Olwen.
In The Triads, Modron daughter of Avallach, bears Urien Rheged’s son and daughter, Owain and Morfudd. Urien’s relations with Modron and Owain’s inheritance of Mabon’s divine qualities show his family’s dependence on ancestral deities for the fertility of their land and lineage and success in battle.
Modron’s father, Avallach, is the son of Beli Mawr: one of the oldest ancestral gods of Britain. He is associated with Ynys Avallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or ‘The Island of Avalon’. This is inhabited by nine maidens: Morgan and her sisters. In Welsh and Breton folklore, Morgens are water spirits.
The Mothers are frequently associated with water: in Gaul, Matrona is goddess of the Marne. A reference from 1AD exists to ‘the Island of Sein’ ‘known because of the oracle of a Gaulish God; the priestesses of that divinity are nine in number.’ One wonders whether the god is Dis Pater, from whom the Gauls claim descent.
Avalon is often identified with Glastonbury. Another of Glastonbury’s deities is Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn who resides over spirits bearing striking similarities to the Gaulish andedion (underworld gods). Both Morgan and Gwyn become known as ‘fairies’ in later literature.
In Peniarth Manuscript 147. the mother of Urien’s children appears as the Washer at the Ford (‘The Ford of Barking’) and introduces herself as ‘daughter to the King of Annwfn’.
A pattern emerges: one, three or nine female figures connected with an underworld god.
Here in Lancashire there are altars to the Matronae and to Maponos (as Apollo-Maponus) in the Roman museum at Ribchester. This is the site of Bremetenacum ‘place by the roaring river’ and is located on a major ford of the Ribble. Ribchester was also likely to have been a centre of worship for the Ribble’s goddess: Belisama ‘Most Shining One’ ‘Most Mighty One’.
During the Romano-British period, the Ribble ran much closer to Lund. This is shown by the nearby place-name Clifton ‘Cliff Town’. St John the Evangelist also stands very close to the Roman road running from Ribchester through Preston to Kirkham and across the Fylde. Because the stone of the altar at Lund is similar to those from Ribchester, it seems possible it was made there and brought on the road. This would mean, like the Ribchester altars, it dates from 2BC.
The altar’s appearance as a font is recorded in a leaflet in the church. In ‘the records of the Parish Vestry’ it says ‘Matt Hall, Churchwarden of Kirkham in 1688 set up a scandalous trough for a font in Lund Chapel…. For this poor Matthew was presented, that is brought before, the bishop of the diocese. History does not record the outcome of the interview, nor for that matter, how he came by the ‘scandalous trough’ in the first place.’ In spite of the ‘scandal’, the ‘trough’ is still used as a font today.
When I set out to St John’s it was originally for a recky so I could get the timing right when I booked an appointment to visit. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to find the church open (it’s open every day from 10am) and to be greeted by Joan Shepcot, a volunteer gardener and co-ordinator of the Children’s Society, who invited me in to see the altar and let me take as many photographs as I needed.
As I approached the altar I could see it was beautifully maintained. Three female figures wearing loose dresses or robes stood in the centre. Their hair looked coiffured or perhaps they were wearing headgear. Were they one Mother Goddess in triple-form? Three individual Mothers or the Mothers the Fates?
On the right and left hand side of the altar female figures were depicted dancing, arms above their heads, feet tapping a beat. They were also clad in loose robes or dresses. Were these the Mother Goddesses dancing? Or perhaps nymphs of the sacred grove? Or devotees? Their swaying stances with arms raised reminded me a little of trees.
Together could they form a sisterhood of nine? Could the ancestral presence of an underworld god be felt in the background?
The back of the altar was blank because it once stood against a wall. Behind the altar was a stained glass window depicting Faith, Hope and Charity with the head of an unnamed male figure in blue and gold above. This is interesting because Alex Garman says these ‘three sisters’ show a strong influence of the Matronae. Considering their presence on a font I found myself imagining ‘the Mothers the Fates’ as ‘fairy godmothers’ at baptisms.
After a chat with Joan about her wildflower patch I cycled to the next point along the Roman road from St John’s: Dowbridge. As I headed back from the bridge over the river Dow, mist descended; cloaking St John’s at Lund, Clifton Cross and Clifton Mill. Rolling over Savick Brook and the Ribble.
In the cold swathes of mist passing over grey waters where time stood still I sensed the passage of underworld spirits. I had, after all, stumbled out on All Soul’s Day.
*Many thanks to Joan Shepcot at St John the Evangelist in Lund for permission to use these photographs on my blog.
‘Mabon son of Modron… was taken when three nights old from between his mother and the wall… No-one knows where he is, nor what state he’s in, whether dead or alive.’
– How Culwch Won Olwen
On the verge of May when the veil is thin
Between city and suburb and faery hall and glen
Modron born of Avalon bewails her missing son.
If he is not rescued, summer will not come.
Across Britain’s suburbs and industrial towns
A clarion blast sounds on a white bone horn.
The landscape reverberates like water at its call.
Plunging steeds leap forth bearing fair Cai tree tall,
Bedwyr swinging the spear of nine blows,
Gwalchmai hawk eyed screeching,
Gwryrh each language speaking,
Cynddylig guide, Menw the enchanter,
And Eidoel son of slaughter.
We’ve searched all of Wales and England too
Mabon is lost midst the sky scraper rows.
The impenetrable wall we cannot break through.
Hidden is his prison and invisible its rooms.
We’ve lost the wolf and elk, walrus and bear
See the drays of grey squirrels have replaced the red.
The countryside has evaporated, bees are humming scarce,
The wildest animals are gone. This land is sunk in death.
I’ve spoken to the cattle, sheep and pigs
And the household pets but they no longer speak.
I’ve tried asking people but they neither see nor hear,
While the darkness keeps darkening and Modron weeps.
The curse on this land cloys denser than a spell,
Its wizards are more cunning than the witches of Caerglow.
As Mabon’s release is their shining sun
If he remains in prison then their days are done.
Why should we care?
The subjects here are our distant sons and daughters
Prisoners like Mabon in their tower block quarters.
And if Mabon is not sought,
Twrch Trwyth will not be caught,
The razor he carries stolen,
Yssbaddaden will not be shaven
And Culwch will not win Olwen.
Then we must seek out the oldest animals.
I believe a blackbird can be found nearby.
Blackbird of Cilgwri (on the Wirral Peninsula):
When I first came here I alighted on an anvil,
Watched engrossed the glow of the furnace and hot iron.
My song combined with the hammer as I pecked,
Joined by centuries of smiths until only a nut remained.
When factories replaced the forge I hid it.
My nut and I survived the blitz.
I have seen industry rise and fall and suburbs sprawl
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.
Stag of Rhendynfre (in Cheshire):
When I first came here there was an oak sapling
That grew like my antlers branching into a mighty crown.
It fell, leaving a stump red with blood. Over Farndon
Welsh and Angles, Royalists and Roundheads fought.
I have seen battles aplenty lost and won
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.
Owl of Cwm Calwyd (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here this vale of Conwy was wild wood
Destroyed by men, grown back, brought down again.
I have seen mine shafts sunk, pit men gone
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.
Eagle of Gwernabwy (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here from my tall rock I tasted the stars, rolled
Their crackle on my tongue and passed their wisdom to my young.
Now my rock is sunk, the sky forbidden. To Gwynedd
I have seen carloads of holiday makers come,
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet in a lake on the Severn dwells a salmon
Who drowned me before I wrenched fifty tridents from his spine.
I think you might benefit from his wisdom.
Salmon of Llyn Lliw (on the mouth of the Severn):
Mabon was once prisoner in Gloucester’s wall
But now the cell is empty, his captors gone.
Rumour tells me by the Ribble in the North
Mabon is imprisoned in another house of stone.
Down the old tram road they see the Ribble’s shining vista,
Hear the song of the river, catch the moonlight shimmer.
From the dazzling pitch and flow a salmon pokes his nose.
Salmon of the Ribble:
Stand upon on my shoulders and to Mabon we will go.
The intrepid troupe assemble on the salmon’s back
And ride to the north bank with their steeds swimming behind.
Salmon of the Ribble:
Cross through Avenham Park to the city of Preston.
Listen for the groan of Mabon in his prison.
Modron’s son is cruelly engorged
In the seat of all that’s wicked- in the Centre of St George.
Lances high to starry sky, flags unfurled the cavort ride
Crashing over tarmac and bursting neon lights
To rally at the entrance of the centre of all evil
Where the elevators slide and the lifts glide baleful.
Artificial lights light the artificial caer
And a one eyed giant bawls
One Eyed Giant
Who goes there?
Mount the lance, draw the sword, stay the shield, set the spear,
We will tear down the walls like the fire cracks a bier.
Wheel the steed, raise our arms, to this wickedness amend
Wrest the son from his prison, by the hand of my friend.
Doorways shatter like a crystal cave in
Steeds arc bucking like the breath of Faery
Down the false lit corridor their swiftness chasing
To the circlet hall where the giant is waiting.
His circular eye is as gold as wealth
His maw brims wide to devour the world
Glistening black as a politician’s soul
He unwinds his scales into dragon form.
Cai smites with lethal bright immutable sword,
Growing taller than the tallest of the trees on Avenham park.
One thrust from handsome Bedwyr strikes nine blows
Driving the serpent into dismal throes.
Eidoel Aer, pepped for the slaughter
Cuts a phalanx of sores into the creature’s quarters.
Gwalchmai’s hawk pecks its eye bone bare
Cai thrusts his sword into the eyeless stare.
The scales subside like a sliding slogan
At the flick of nine wands the spell is broken.
Ascend nine wizards in immaculate suits
They float on greed and designer shoes.
Their ties are tied in perfect knots
Like the bonds of life in the hangman’s garrotte.
Menw steps forward with his wand of hazel
Subtle illusionists, cease your evil!
Fools of Faery, you don’t stand a chance
When the light of the world lies locked in our banks.
Deep in our vaults Mabon laments
As we sap out his life to sustain our command.
Curse your greed, we will have our inspiration.
Menw, weave a spell, let us fight his liberation.
Menw raises his wand, the hallowed hall crackles
And rocks in rivets like a dome in shackles.
Shop faces fall like dull dumb dolls,
Beauty’s errant features leak ugly holes.
Deep within the atmosphere the air is shimmering
Strangled in their suits the wizards are shrivelling.
On the strike of spear and sword thick runs the gore
Sluicing parapets of wealth down the stairs and out the doors.
Slicing through disguise, every garment falls
The knights of Faery tear down the wall.
From the house of stone, Mabon rises,
On the slender stroke of dawn, as a shaft of beaming light.
Pure and youthful, small but bright,
His miniscule frame holds infinitesimal might.
He leashes his hound, mounts white dark mane
Travailing forth at a time of desperation.
Gathers the reins, readies his bow,
Notches an arrow for a-hunting he must go.
Hence Mabon was sought,
Twrch Trwyth was caught,
The razor was stolen,
Yssbaddaden was shaven
And Culwch won Olwen.
Modron born of Avalon gathers in her arms
And rejoices glad her fleeting son as beaming summer comes.
Maponos is a god of youth, music and hunting who is known from dedications from the Romano-British period in the North of Britain and Gaul. His name, which is Gallo-Brythonic, means ‘the son.’ Of the five dedications, which occur in Northumbria, Cumberland and here in Lancashire at Ribchester, four equate Maponos with Apollo , a Roman god associated with music, healing, prophecy, archery and the sun. In the Pythagorean tradition, the British Isles were seen as the home of the ‘Hyperborean Apollo,’ a sign of the longevity of Maponos’ worship and reputation here.
The dedication at Ribchester (241CE), which can be found in the museum, reads: ‘To the holy god Apollo Maponus, and for the health of our Lord (i.e. the Emperor) and the unit of the Gordian Sarmartian Horse at Bremetenacum, Aelius Antonius, centurion of the Sixth Legion, the Victrix (Victress) from Melitanis (?) praepositus (provost) of the unit and the region, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow .’
Within Ribchester’s museum stands a pedestal, which is believed to have ‘carried four figures in relief . On one side is Apollo, clad in a cloak and Phrygian cap, wearing a quiver and resting on his lyre. The side which possibly carried a relief of Maponos has been defaced. On another side are two female figures, whose identity and roles have been interpreted differently. Nick Ford interprets the relief to depict the genius loci of Ribchester making an offering to Belisama, the goddess of the Ribble.
Anne Ross believes the figures might be Maponos’ mother Modron and a native hunter goddess equated with Diana (Diana’s Greek counterpart was Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister). Anne’s theory stems from the identification of Maponos with Mabon, son of Modron in Welsh myth. Modron means ‘mother.’ It is likely she was known earlier as Matrona. An altar from Ribchester bears an inscription to ‘all the mother goddesses’ (the deae matrones) and another, similar, has been found in Kirkham .
Mapon0s has strong associations with the village of Lochmaben in Dumfrieshire. A folk tale from this area tells of ‘the harper of Lochmaben’ who ‘goes to London and steals away King Henry’s brown mare’. Close to the village lies the Clochmabenstone, a tribal gathering place near Gretna where runaway lovers were married . It stands beside the Solway, close to the estuary. Anne Ross suggests this may have been Maponos’ ‘fanum’ (shrine or sacred precinct), which features as the ‘locus Maponi’ of the Ravenna cosmology. The promonotory at Lochmaben may have been his temenos . Another place named after him is ‘Ruabon, the Hill of Mabon, below Wrexham’ on the Severn . Guy Ragland Philips identifies ‘Mapon’ with the spirit known as the son of the rocks, at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire’.
Most of these places are connected with water and / or stone. A relief from Whitley castle in Cumbria of a ‘native radiate god’ suggests that like Apollo Maponus is connected with the sun. The associations of Maponos with stone, water and the sun recur in the story of the rescue of Mabon in ‘How Culwch won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion.
Before moving on, I’d like to pause to address the question of whether Maponos and Mabon are the same god. The historian Ronald Hutton believes there is no proof to identify figures from the Welsh myths with earlier gods known from archaeological evidence. This is the starting point I usually set out from. However through connecting with both Maponos and Mabon, I have found that although my connection with Maponos feels stronger, their presence feels the same. This suggests to me they are the same god / divine figure, seen and named at different times by different cultures (i.e. Romano-British and Medieval Welsh).
In ‘How Culwch won Olwen’ there are several references to ‘the North,’ suggesting some episodes may have originated from ‘The Old North,’ an area which between the 5th and 7th covered Northern Britain and Southern Scotland and was divided between a number of petty kings.
Mabon’s rescue takes place within the context of Culhwch’s task to win Olwen by hunting down the King of Boars, Twrch Trwth. To hunt the boar, Culwch requires Mabon’s aid. However, Mabon was stolen when three nights old from ‘between his mother and the wall… No one knows where he is, nor what state he’s in, whether dead or alive.’ The search for Mabon takes Arthur’s men, via the story of the ‘Oldest Animals’ (a blackbird, stag, owl, eagle and salmon) through the present day Wirral, Cheshire and parts of Wales to Gloucester on the river Severn. Mabon is found imprisoned lamenting in a ‘house of stone.’ Whilst Arthur and his men fight, Cai tears down the walls and rescues Mabon aboard the back of the salmon. With the dog Drudwyn (‘fierce white’) and steed- Gwyn Myngddwn (‘white dark mane’) who is ‘swift as a wave’ Mabon joins the hunt for Twrch Trwth, riding into the Hafren to take the razor from between the boar’s ears . It is possible to read from this traces of an older myth of the rescue of the sun from its house of stone in the earth, at dawn appearing shining in the river.
A number of tales / poems connect Mabon and Modron to the Kingdom of Rheged, which covered Cumbria, Lancashire and northern Cheshire. In one story Urien Rheged travels to ‘the Ford of Barking’ in Llanferes, where he meets Modron, ‘daughter of Avallach’ washing in the ford. He sleeps with her and she conceives his children, Owein and Morfudd . In The Black Book Carmarthen, Mabon appears as ‘the son of Myrdon the servant of Uther Pendragon’ . References to Mabon also appear in The Book of Taliesin (who was Urien Rheged’s Bard). ‘Will greet Mabon from another country / A battle, when Owain defends the cattle of his country.’ ‘Against Mabon without corpses they would not go.’ ‘The country of Mabon is pierced with destructive slaughter.’ ‘When was caused the battle of the king, sovereign, prince / Very wild will be the kine before Mabon . However it is unclear whether Mabon is himself taking part in the battle, whether Mabon is being used as a title for Owain ‘the son,’ or whether Mabon is referred to as a location.
In Brigantia, Guy Ragland Phillips mentions a ‘written charm’ found at a Farmhouse at Oxenhope in 1934 beginning ‘Ominas X Laudet X Mapon.’ He translates this as ‘everybody praises Mapon.’ When Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner invented to the pagan wheel of the year in the 1950’s the autumn equinox was dedicated to Mabon, showing the continuity of his influence into the twenty first century. His largest festival takes place at Thornborough Henge . With the number of pagans in England and Wales increasing from 42K in 2001 to 82K in 2011, my guess is that the following of our native god of youth, music and happiness will grow and continue for many years to come.
(1) Nick Ford, ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p87.
(2) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1974) p463- 4
(3) Caitlin Matthews, Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain, (2002), p179.
(4) Nick Ford, ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p87.
(5) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1974) p276
(6) Nick Ford, ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p88
(7) Ibid. p277
(8) Nick Ford, ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p86.
(9) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1974), p270.
(10) Caitlin Matthews, Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain, (2002), p178.
(11) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, p458
(12) Caitlin Matthews, Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain, (2002), p178.
(13) Guy Ragland Phillips, Brigantia: A Mysteriography, (1976), p128
(14) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1974), p477
(15) Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, p 198 – 212
(17) Ed. William F. Skene, ‘The Black Book of Caermarthen XXXI’. ‘Pa Gur. Arthur and the Porter.’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (1868), p179.
(18) Ibid. ‘The Book of Taliessin XVIII’ ‘A Rumour had come to from Calchvynd’ p277.