The Lost Temple of Nodens

Nobody knows where the Lost Temple of Nodens on the Lancashire coast once stood.

All we know is that two silver Romano-British statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found on Cockerham Moss (in the 19th century?) and have since been stolen.

I believe it is likely they came from a shrine. My meditations reveal nothing more than the shuffling of robes against chapped skin, quick stitches undone rubbing bare legs, splashing feet. I do not know if they were dropped or deposited, whether by thieves or priests.

I long to know what the statues looked like, who shaped the Cloud Shaper from the clouds and gave him a form and name, who caught the Catcher with his catching hand, so fittingly made of silver

(arian, eraint, airgead, airgetlam, argentum, Ag, relating to quicksilver, hydrargyrum, Hg).

I long to know who brought them back from the Isles of Dream, from the Land of Nod, where our mythos is always forming, ever forming, from the combining of elements into molecules, where air meets water, from the oceans whence emerged the first life where he embraced his consort.

I long to know if he truly deemed it wise to teach the secrets of the atom to his son…

Long I have pondered the existence of his temple, never really got there, seen only the yawn of a priest called Slumber in a huge mouth-like hood and the departures of countless peregrini.

Yet my focus has been on the past. He and the cloud-shapers still shape the clouds as their temple.

Last week a group of polytheists came together to connect with Nodens in the misty interstices of the internet where we might sense him working with Gobannos in the co-creation of other worlds.

When we journeyed to the Lost Temple of Nodens we did not find an ancient temple, but a temple in progress, shaped from clouds, ‘like a cartoon in the making’*, becoming in the here-and-now.

I do not know how or if this temple will be built as its mysteries escape me like the phenomenon of a god made of mist becoming flesh and, on the battlefield, losing his hand, having it replaced by silver.

I do not know how I was touched by that hand, reaching out across the seas, from the Abyss.

I do not know how something comes from nothing, the distinction between dé and andé, god and un-god.

Temples are swept away by the sea, what is dissolved is lost, knowing the past is impossible.

The impossibility of truth shines like a star that died millions of years ago yet is seen by us so far away.

Perhaps in loss we recall ourselves through the light years – ours the silver hands to shape the now – the subtle vibrations of molecules that respond to form our temples in the old gods’ names.

This piece is based on a meditation on the lost temple of Nodens which I ran with Thornsilver Hollysong and Bryan Hewitt for Land Sea Sky Travel on the Nodens/Nudd day of our ‘Tylwyth Gwyn’ series.

*The quote ‘like a cartoon in the making’ was how one of the participants, Emily Kamp, described the temple. She has kindly given me permission to use her words.

Du y Moroedd

Black horse of wonder
Black horse of terror
Black of the seas
Take me under

Du y Moroedd Devotional Art Benllech Beach

Devotional Art for Du y Moroedd on Benllech beach, Anglesey

Du y Moroedd, ‘Black of the Seas’, is a legendary water-horse in Brythonic tradition. His fame is attested by Taliesin in ‘The Song of the Horses’, ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’.

He is referred to in The Triads of the Islands of Britain in ‘44. Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’:

‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr, who 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.’

This passage shows that Du is not only a sea-going water-horse, as his name suggests, but of supernatural size and strength to be able to carry seven-and-a-half people and swim vast distances. He is intimately associated with the sea-lanes between northern Britain and Wales; perhaps sightings of him off the west coast were once common.

Triad 44 is set in the mid-6th century and has a historical basis. According to The Black Book of Chirk, Elidyr made a voyage from his home in the Old North to Wales to press the claim of his wife, Eurgain, to the throne of Gwynedd following the death of Maelgwn in 547, because Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, was illegitimate. Elidyr was slain at Aber Mewdus in Arfon. An army of northern men, including Clyddno Eiddin, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael, and Rhydderch Hael avenged Elidyr by burning Arfon, then were driven back north by Rhun to the river Gweryd.

Morecambe Bay, Lancashire

Morecambe Bay, Lancashire

In Brigantia, Guy Ragland Phillips conjectures that Du might be identified with the Black Horse of Bush Howe in the Howgill Fells in Cumbria. He suggests Elidyr’s northern Benllech was Bush Howe and cites an alignment down Long Rigg Beck valley to Morecambe to Anglesey, saying the horse would be within its line of sight. This might have been the route taken by Du and his riders. ‘Benllech in Mon’ is likely to be present-day Benllech on Anglesey.

Benllech beach, Anglesey

Benllech Beach, Anglesey

Elidyr’s voyage aboard Du with seven-and-a-half or eight people was well known by Welsh poets until the early 16th century. Tudur Aled says ‘Of greater vigour than Du’r Moroedd, such was his strength and daring… for a spree with the cold wind, eight men formerly went upon his back’. Guto’r Glyn speaks of a foal whose ‘mother was a daughter to that horse of Mon who went to carry eight men: Du y Moroedd has grandsons – this one, I know was one of them.’

Another renowned rider of Du is Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic hunter-god and ruler of Annwn. In Culhwch and Olwen it is stated ‘No steed with be of any use to Gwyn in hunting Twrch Trwyth, except Du, the steed of Moro Oerfeddog’ (the latter is a jumbling of Du’s name).

Because he fails to recruit Gwyn, Arthur does not manage to kill Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, who finally escapes into the sea. Only the otherworldly Gwyn can ride Du to hunt the Twrch into the ocean, which might also be identified with Annwn, ‘the Deep’, ‘the Otherworld’.

Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Nodens, is pictured in a chariot pulled by four water-horses. At Vindolanda Nodens is equated with Neptune. Both Neptune (as Neptune Equester) and his Greek counterpart, Poseidon (as Poseidon Hippios) were associated with sea-horses (hippocampi).

Intriguingly we find a story in Irish mythology called ‘The Pursuit of Giolla Deacair’ featuring Gwyn’s cognate, Fionn, wherein fifteen-and-half of Fionn’s men are abducted into the sea by a water-horse.

Giolla Deacair, ‘the Troublesome Slave’ and his horse are taken in by Fionn. Both are described as monstrous. Giolla has a ‘twisted mouth with long pointed teeth projected from it at all angles’ and ‘eyes like black holes in the skull of a corpse’. He drags a large iron club leaving ‘a deep trench in the ground’.

His horse is described as ‘dirty, shaggy hair covered its long, spiny back and the ribs were sticking out through its sides. Its legs and feet were crooked and splayed and a leg that seemed too large for his body dangled awkwardly from a scrawny neck.’

The horse causes trouble amongst the other horses. Feargus tells Conan to jump on its back and ride it across country to break its spirit. However, it will not move until it carries the weight of its rider, Giolla Deacair, which is equal to fifteen men. This shows Giolla and his horse are gigantic. The men pummel and kick the horse yet still it won’t move.

Infuriated by his horse’s mistreatment, Giolla leaves. His horse follows with the men ‘welded’ to him ‘like a sword to its hilt’. Fionn and his remaining warriors follow, but no matter how fast they pursue the horse goes even faster, like the wind, over mountains, rivers, and valleys until reaching the sea. As it shoots into the waves one of Fionn’s warriors grabs onto its tail.

We are told that, as it journeys through the sea, ‘The waves did not touch it nor the fifteen Fianna on its back, nor the unfortunate man clinging to its tail. Instead, the water parted before the animal, so that it travelled on a path of dry land.’ We might imagine Du travelling similarly.

Fionn and his men sail after Giolla and his horse to where the riders are imprisoned in Tír fo Thuinn, ‘The Land Under the Wave’. Giolla reveals he is a magician called Abartach. Fionn’s marriage to Taise persuades Abartach to release his men. As retribution Goll claims fourteen of Abartach’s women to return on the horse’s back and his wife to cling onto the horse’s tail.

This tale suggests Du also originates from the watery regions of the Otherworld. I wonder whether, like Giolla’s horse, Du had an earlier otherworldly owner whose name and stories have been forgotten. Perhaps there was once a story about how Gwyn came to ride Du between worlds.

Du also shares resemblances with the Welsh ceffyl dwr, the northern British dobbie, and the Scottish kelpie. The latter are notorious for luring humans onto their backs then drowning them. Once a rider has mounted, their hand sticks to the kelpie’s neck and they cannot let go.

Du’s stories have fascinated me since I heard his splashing hoofbeats approaching whilst meditating on the Ribble estuary. When I travel to the west coast his presence is always on the edges of my mind: his great arched neck, his oar-like legs, the multitude of riders he has carried. My fingers are caught in his mane and he is forever drawing me toward the Otherworld…

Irish Sea from Morecambe

The Irish Sea from Morecambe Bay

Giant’s Seat

The giant chooses solitude on a limestone seat
overlooking the bay

resting bones of weathered limestone
bunches of ragwort for hair twisted with purple heather

delicate harebells and stitchwort her apron
toes roots squirming in quicksand dipping in tidal waters

her mind a boomerang scudding across silver clouds
returning with infinite thoughts.

She looks into our little minds
prising apart grey stone sees through cracks

people arguing in our flesh-and-blood lives
people arguing on screens

hears chitter-chatter drowning out birds
wishes we’d turn down the noise.

A butterfly flaps its wings
powerful as Heysham and the off-shore windfarm.

The giant keeps her knowledge of cause and effect
in a pouch full of wing-beats:

bombers plucked from the skies like gnats
between a thumb and forefinger.

She seems serene
but damage the land with a single thought

and you will feel her hurricane,
trees uprooting through limestone cracks

as she shakes thoughts like people from her caves.
Perhaps one day she will shrug us off and become truly alone

with only the fugue of the tireless sea beating
against her limestone throne.

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