The Old North from Peneverdant

SnowdropsIn the land where I live, spring awakes. Snowdrops in their prime unfold the voluminous skirts of their lanterns. Lords and ladies push their courtship through the soil alongside first signs and scents of ransoms. Swollen mosses take on a bright green living vibrancy.

As I walk the path centuries of ancestors walked to St Mary’s Well, I hear the loudness of a thrush. Could it be the one who calls me from sleep each morning, speckled chest blanched and white as birch amongst ash and sycamore? The trees hold back for now, but I know the sap will start rising soon.

I pass the site of the healing well and cross the road to the War Memorial. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow primroses are planted in beds before the Celtic cross. Etched on blue-grey slabs are the names of seventy-three men who lost their lives in the First World War and forty-six who died in the second. They are honoured and remembered here. I also think of the dead who have no memorial or whose memories have been erased or forgotten.

I follow the footpath uphill onto Church Avenue. Leading to St Mary’s Church, it once went to a Benedictine Priory, dissolved and more recently demolished. A strange road this; trodden by pilgrims in search of miraculous cures and by funeral processions. By soldiers too, maybe armies, defending this crucial position from what we now see as the castle motte.

Passing the church on the hill’s summit I stand in the graveyard amongst tilted and fallen headstones, beneath sentinel beech trees whose shells and bronzed and curling leaves still litter the greening earth.

There’s no access to the motte’s vantage point, but through leafless trees I can make out the city of Preston with its clock tower, steeples, tower blocks and huge manufacturies along Strand Road. I recall images of its panoply of smoking chimneys, flaming windows, imagine the pounding Dickensian melancholy-mad elephants.

Preston’s sleeker now. Cleaner. Less red and black. Concrete grey. Not so smoky. But sometimes the industrial pall still holds. Somewhere behind its walls lies a medieval town and behind that…

The Pennines form a sweeping backdrop, rising higher than Priest Town’s spires ever could; Parlick, Wolf Fell, Longridge Fell, Billinge Hill, Great Hill, Winter Hill. An easterly green and purple barricade. To the west, the river Ribble, Belisama, strapped into her new course, stretches long arms to her shining estuary. A sea gull cries over the horizon and disappears.

I’ve spent several years researching the history of Penwortham. The Riversway Dockfinds mark the existence of a Bronze Age Lake Village. Ballista balls on Castle Hill and a huge industrial site at Walton-le-dale ascertain a Roman presence. Following the breakdown of Roman rule, history grinds to a halt.

There is a black hole in Penwortham’s past the size of the Dark Ages; during the time of the Old North.

Historians have conjectured about this. David Hunt and Alan Crosby agree that place names (where we find a mixture of Brythonic and Old English, like Penwortham* often conjoined) suggest a gradual settlement of the local area by Anglo-Saxons during the seventh century. They say Penwortham’s remoteness on the edges of Northumbria and Mercia meant it was not a major concern. However, this conflicts with the significance of its location as a defensive position for the early Britons and Romans and later probably for the Saxons of Mercia and the key role it played for the Normans during the harrying of the North.

History starts up again with the Saxon hundreds, invasions from Scandinavia and the Norman Conquest. But what happened in between?

Unfortunately, likewise, there is a black hole in the history of the Old North the size of Penwortham. And it isn’t the only one.

The very concept of ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘the Old North’ is problematic. It is a term used post datum by scholars to identify an area of land covering the majority of northern England and southern Scotland from the time of the breakdown of Roman rule in the fifth century until the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria came to dominate in the eighth century.

During this period, it was simply known as ‘Y Gogledd’ ‘the North’. Its people spoke a Brythonic language known as Cumbric, which was similar to the Cymric language of the Welsh. Its rulers ‘Gwŷr y Gogledd’ ‘the Men of the North’ claimed common descent from either Coel Hen (Old King Coel) or Dyfnawl Hen. Again, the genealogies are problematic because they were created by kings to certify their reign by tracing their lineage back to legendary ancestral figures.

The main kingdoms of the Old North are usually identified as Alt Clud, in the south-west of Scotland, which centred on Dumbarton and later became Strathclyde; Gododdin, in the south-east of Scotland, which had a base at Edinburgh; Elmet, in western Yorkshire and Rheged in north-west England.

The location of Rheged is a matter of ongoing debate. For Ifor Williams it centres on Carlisle and the Eden Valley and covers Cumbria, the Solway Firth and Dumfries and Galloway. John Morris posits the existence of a northern Rheged in Cumbria and a southern Rheged that extended into Lancashire and Cheshire. On the basis of landscape and resources, Mike McCarthy suggests a smaller kingdom or set of sub-kingdoms existed either north or south of the Solway. If McCarthy is correct, we do not have a name for present day Lancashire at all but a black hole the size of a county or larger!

Another problem is that textual sources about the Old North are extremely limited. We have some historical records such as the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Much of the history of this period is derived from the heroic poetry of the Dark Age bards Taliesin and Aneirin. Later saga poetry construes dramatic dialogues between characters associated with earlier events.

Research leads to where history and myth converge but can take us no further. It becomes necessary to step beyond study across the threshold to otherworlds where the past, our ancestors and deities still live.

So I speak my intentions to the spirits of place; the Lady in the Ivy with her glance of green, wood pigeons gathered in the trees, the people buried here in marked and unmarked graves.

I speak with my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, who abides beyond this land but sometimes seems closer than the land itself. The god who initiated and guides this quest.

His suggestion: what is a black hole but a portal?

Our agreement stirs a ghost wind from behind the graves, rustling bronze beech leaves and tree whispers from above.

The hill seems greener. A single white sea gull barks. Then long-tailed tits come chittering and twirling to the brambles.

Beech trees and castle motte*Penwortham first appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as ‘Peneverdant.’ Writing in 1857 Rev. W. Thornber claims this name is of British origin and ‘formed of three words- pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water’. This describes exactly how I imagine Castle Hill would have looked during the eleventh century near the Ribble on the marsh. However, ‘verdant’ has always sounded more like French for ‘green’ to me.

Alan Crosby says ‘Peneverdant’ results from a Norman scribe trying to write an unfamiliar word (which was likely to have been in use for up to 500 years) phonetically. He tells us the ‘Pen’ element in Penwortham is British and means ‘prominent headland’ whilst ‘wortham’ is Old English and means ‘settlement on the bend in the river’.

If Penwortham had an older British name prior to Saxon settlement, it is unknown. I can’t help wondering if it would have been something like ‘y pen gwyrdd ar y dŵr,’ which is modern Welsh for ‘the green hill on the water’. It’s not that far from Peneverdant.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North

Rivington Moor with Winter HillI’ve recently started researching Gwyn ap Nudd’s neglected connections with the Old North. In the final verses of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at the deaths of northern warriors. In How Culhwch won Olwen Gwyn’s rival for the love of Creiddylad, Gwythyr, and his allies (who Gwyn takes captive) are of northern descent. There is consensus amongst scholars that this episode and ‘The Very Black Witch’ originate from the Old North.

As somebody who venerates Gwyn in Lancashire I find it strange, perplexing and quite sad that, whilst in medieval texts equal precedence is given to Gwyn’s roles in Wales and the north, in later literature his northern links disappear entirely. I’m in the process of developing some ideas about how this happened.

Before I started reading Welsh mythology I thought it was solely about the area of land we now know as Wales. When I discovered William Skene’s translation of The Four Books of Ancient Wales I realised that the earliest heroic poetry attributed to Taliesin and Aneirin originates from and is about the fall of the Old North to the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. Whilst the focus of The Mabinogion is Wales many adventures lead beyond. Welsh mythology contains the lore of all of ancient Britain.

This body of ancient British lore was absorbed into ‘Welsh’ mythology because when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came to rule, many Britons were forced west, taking their stories with them. The tantalising fragments of Gwyn’s earliest myths in the medieval texts result from the mixing of northern and Welsh oral tales, which were later penned by Christian scribes.

Memories of Gwyn were kept alive by the reminiscences of Welsh saints, soothsayers and poets and later revived by nineteenth century scholars and folklorists. During this process his name became synonymous with areas where his stories were still told; Wales and Somerset. This is evidenced by Shakespeare’s ‘Heavens defend me from that Welsh Fairy’ and John Cowper Powys’ reference to Glastonbury Tor as ‘the great haunted hill, the hill of Gwyn-ap-Nud, the Welsh Fairy-Demon’.

His northern connections sank into the background. As far as I know there have been no literary references to Gwyn ap Nudd in the north since the medieval period.

***

Last year, when I was giving a talk on ‘Voicing Place’ in Ipswich, I mentioned my relationship with Gwyn and how some of my journeys under his guidance had led not only to Annwn but to memories in the dreamscape of my locality. Afterward, I got questioned about the legitimacy of my work with a ‘non-local’ god; shouldn’t it be ‘local gods for local people’?

I disagreed, both on the principle that only relationships with local gods are valid and that Gwyn isn’t a local god. Gwyn revealed his presence to me (quite unexpectedly!) at a local fairy site. His imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’ referred to my locality. Throughout my relationship with him he’s demonstrated a concern for the north and its history.

I’ve been pondering this for a while and reached the following conclusion: Gwyn is a king of Annwn and is said to ‘contain’ (literally to hold within and to hold back) the fury of the spirits of Annwn. These are chthonic spirits, referred to today as ‘fairies, who play a role in mediating between this-world and the otherworld, the living and dead. Because of this intermediary role they have a deep concern for the land and the way we maintain our heritage. Their concerns are Gwyn’s.

Gwyn’s concern with history (and some of his fury) also stems from the fact he and the spirits of Annwn have been all but erased by the processes of Anglicisation and Christianisation. Gwyn and his kindred spirits also seem bound up with other voices written out of history by the victors. Thus, he calls me to step outside history to listen to those voices and bring his myths back to life on the land from which they have been erased.

This marks a new direction in my research and writing. Since my dedication to Gwyn, my path as an Awenydd has focused on what Heron refers to as ‘imaginative recall’; working with historical fragments and maps and listening to the land and its deities in order to gather memories in poems and stories.

In Enchanting the Shadowlands my focus was my local area. I am now experiencing the impulse to revisit some of Britain’s most ancient myths at a deeper level and visit the places they are set with the purpose of reweaving Gwyn’s neglected connections with the Old North into the present day.

In this respect, I share aims with Charlotte Hussey who in her collection of medieval glosa Glossing the Spoils set out through active imagining to ‘mend a break in tradition and time.’ Charlotte mentions that P. K. Page ‘defined ‘religion (re-legere)’ as ‘to read again.’’ Re-reading and re-imagining our ancient myths is a religious duty, an act of devotion to land, gods and ancestors.

Hence as an Awenydd to Gwyn and his spirits and all the voices between the lines of known history and myth, I embark on this new project. I am aware at this point it is not only memories I must quest, but an appropriate form to fit them.

Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir

This is a link to Heron’s translation and interpretation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir,’ found in The Black Book of Carmarthen. This dramatic dialogue is one of the earliest pieces of known literature featuring Gwyn ap Nudd, who appears as a divine warrior and gatherer of the battle-dead.

Heron has undertaken an important task, as the only translation currently available to the public on the internet is William Skene’s (1868), which is both dated and considered flawed. His hard work and understanding of this poem on historical and mythic levels is highly appreciated.

AWENYDD

IMG_0109
The beginning of the Exchange Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen

An interpretation of the conversation between 
Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir.

 This conversation appears in a manuscript collection known as The Black Book of Carmarthen which is a collection of copies from earlier manuscripts made by a monk in Carmarthen in the Thirteenth Century, some of which are verses which may have originally been embedded in lost prose sagas. As with much early Welsh verse some parts of it are difficult to interpret and the only easily available version in English is that contained in Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales, a pioneering translation which is now regarded as flawed. I’ll provide my own attempt to translate it during the course of the ensuing discussion based on consulting modern editions and commentaries in Welsh. There are some…

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Review: Bard Song by Robin Herne

Bard SongThis review is long overdue. Coincidentally I was re-reading Bard Song with the intention of reviewing it at the time Robin published his recording of Gwynn’s Guest, dedicating it to me, which has spurred me along.

I’m not sure if I can give this book an objective review as I’ve owned it so long and like it so much. The pages are scored with under-linings. Against many of the poems are pencilled a’s, b’s and c’s from my attempts to decipher complex metres. The spine bends open on my favourite poems, which I return to frequently, have shared with my local Poetry Society and used as examples in Bardic workshops. But I’ll give it a go.

Robin Herne is a polytheist Druid based in Ipswich. Bard Song provides an introduction to reading and writing honorific and seasonal poetry (in English) in mainly Welsh and Irish metres. This fulfils an important role in Brythonic and Gaelic polytheism, giving people like myself who have not yet mastered the language of their gods the tools and inspiration to compose poems based on Celtic metres. It also opens new and exciting vistas for future developments within poetry as a whole.

In his introduction Robin speaks of the Awen, the source of Bardic inspiration as ‘a wild spirit, a passionate and consuming Muse that imparts not just pretty turns of phrase, but a new vision of the world.’ Poetry is a magical art which can be used to commune with and honour gods and ancestors, attain and express a spiritual vision, record history, praise (or deride) a person and for fun. Its ultimate purpose is re-enchantment.

The first four parts of the book are divided in accordance with the Gaelic festivals; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh. In each section Robin introduces the festival with associated myths, traditions, deities and suitable metres before sharing a selection of his poems, many of which have been used by his clan in ritual.

For Samhain, Robin introduces the forsundud, an Irish genealogical poem for the ancestors. We meet the Cailleach holding ‘cold vigil’ in ‘The House of Winter’ and rutting stags. ‘Gwynn’s Guest,’ one of my favourite poems of all time (written in tawddgyrch cadwnog metre) records St Collen’s encounter with the Welsh Fairy King on Glastonbury Tor. The first stanza captures Gwynn’s wild nature so perfectly I can’t resist quoting it;

‘Wind tears the Tor, unravels hair
Bound in plaits fair, wild blood yearning
For thunder’s roar, this hill my Chair,
Blessed wolf’s lair, white fire burning.

Tribes rise and fall…’ And the ending is wickedly humorous.

At Imbolc’s core stands the hearth of Brigit. ‘Sisters of the Hearth’ introduces her triple role as smith, healer and poet. ‘Brigit’s Song’ takes place in her Hall. Robin’s words in ‘Three Flames’ resonate most strongly with my personal experience of her as Brigantia, goddess of northern England and the fires of inspiration which consume and heal;

‘Light of compassion white burning
Thaw the ice that scalds my mind
Stir the flesh from torpor afresh,
Night-blind, scars mesh; pray be kind.’

The section on Beltaine speaks of magical and military poetry. ‘Cu Chulainn at the Ford’ provides a heart-wrenching representation of Cu Chulainn and Ferdiad’s tragic battle in Ae Freisilighe metre. On a more cheerful note we find ‘The Honey-Tongued,’ dedicated to Ogma ‘carpenter of song,’ who is the patron god of Robin’s Clan. Since its publication this poem has fittingly given its name to a new brand of mead.

Lughnasadh introduces the stories of Lugh and Tailtiu, recording Lugh’s arrival ‘At Tara’s Gates’ and Tailtiu’s death and ‘funereal commemoration.’ It covers the story of Gobanos, a god of smithing and brewing and there is also discussion of famed cauldrons in Celtic mythology and the important role of select brews in the arts of inspiration.

I have mentioned only a small selection of poems and themes. In later chapters Robin shares poems devoted to Heathen, Greek and Roman gods and those written for fun. In the appendices he provides guidelines for writing in Irish and Welsh metres. These are clearly introduced with rhythmic and syllabic patterns with examples. For Englyn Penfyr;

‘######a##b
###b##a
######a’

‘The old hunter sought the beast in the night,
Though without might, hope never ceased,
Yet frail, his skill found the feast.’

I have learnt vast amounts from this book about Celtic metres, composed some poems of my own in the Welsh ones and found it to be an excellent resource for use in Bardic workshops. Robin’s dedication to the Old Gods shines throughout his work and this alone has inspired me on my path as an Awenydd and polytheist.

Bard Song is a must read for Bards, Fili and people of Celtic and other polytheistic religions. I’d also recommend it highly to all Pagans and to poets looking for new and exciting metres with origins in the British Isles.

***

Bard Song can be purchased through Moon Books: http://www.moon-books.net/books/bard-song

Robin’s most recent poems, which continue his exploration of world mythology in carefully chosen metres can be found in Moon Poets: http://www.moon-books.net/books/moon-poets

His blog ‘Round the Herne’ is here: http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/

The Edge of the Dark

‘as ‘th’ edge o’ dark’ threw its weird glamour over the scene, boggarts and phantoms would begin to creep about to the music of the unearthly voices heard in every sough and sigh of the wandering wind…’
– James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire

This landscape has only just been claimed and in its deepest knowing holds the memory of the edge of the dark. The majority of Lancashire’s towns and fields developed where thick shaggy mosses, carr and marsh held rule. Its people lived on the edge of darkness, the edge of unknowable waters, the edge of the otherworld.

Is this existence on the edge the source of its legends? Its fairy lanes and dells, boggart bridges, cloughs and holes, its headless phantoms and saucer-eyed spectral hounds?

How far do these stories stretch back in the minds of its people? Are they the creation of an industrial age that sought to banish darkness and uncertainty with city walls yet built a new hell in its abominable mills: its Dickensian fairy palaces as the wilderness outside grew wilder?

Are they based on the wildening of tales always strange yet homely: of the household boggart whose help might be bought with butter or milk but whose wrath could estrange a family; of fay whose magic could curse or cure; of water spirits who gave of themselves and their secrets but only at great sacrifice?

Could these stories signal an endemic relationship with the otherworld stretching back through centuries? Through Anglo-Saxon boggarts and barguests to the arcane myths of Britain to the repository of stories about ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘The Old North’ in Welsh mythology and beyond to a near forgotten oral tradition? All hinge upon the cusp of thisworld and the otherworld: the edge of the dark.

In Welsh mythology the otherworld is known as Annwn: the not-world, the deep. It is the beyond of adventure, the locus of alterity. Its landscapes are unstill, its deities and monsters have many faces. It is a source of beauty and terror, of awe, of Awen, the divine inspiration quested by the bards and awenyddion who crossed the edge of the dark to explore its depths.

The ways between the worlds are fraught with danger. Safe passage is only granted at a cost. Those who return from the otherworld are never the same. Thus they shroud themselves in the cowl of the edge of the dark.

Those who live on the edge see our precarious reign over the land and its myths is illusory. Tower blocks and elaborate street lamps are ephemeral as Dickens’ fairy palaces. Electric lighting is no defence against the edge of the dark, which seeps in because its memories are deeper than us, its darkness more permeating than headlights.

These memories evoke intense loss and mourning. Yearning for the fluting wetland birds, bog oaks, reeds, rushes, and hoofed and pawed animals of the wild quagmire we banished. For the fairies and boggarts we dare not believe in. For the gods of the otherworld who haunt the edge of the dark with pawing steeds and sniffing dogs whilst we seal ourselves in a not-world that is not Annwn choosing to occupy tiny lamp lit portions of thisworld beyond the bog’s rushy melodies.

Immersed in false light we neither perceive the people of thisworld nor Annwn until the rain pours down, the marshland rises up, and the weird glamour of the edge of the dark undoes all security as the deepest memories of our land and its legendary reality return.

Greencroft Valley

Spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields

Spurned birds circle
fields weeping
for all that is good
in the world
gone

dry harvest
all the legions of the dead
strewn fallen scattered
let them seed
this world in the arms of their loved ones

the circles begin again
hearts cut in twain

by the reapers’ blades
hear them come
softly sweeping bare-footed
with the silence of a love song

pile straw onto carts

the hallowed dead
ascending in a cloud of wings

spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields

then down and under
circling circling

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwn: Remembering the Underworld Gods

I recently came across an article through the Caer Feddwyd Forum (1) called ‘The Underworld Gods’ by medieval scholar, Will Parker. It brought to my awareness the existence of an inscription in Chamalieres in central France, which took the form of a prayer or invocation addressed to an entity or group of entities known in Ancient Gaul as the andedion, ‘the Under-world God(s)’ or ‘Infernal One(s)’ (2).

Parker links the andedion to the Irish andee ‘non-gods’ and suggests a similar group of deities would have been worshipped in Iron Age Britain. Through etymological links between the ‘elements Clt. dio(n) (Ir. dé) ‘god(s)’ and ‘the suffix ande-/an-‘ he connects them to Annwn ‘not world’, Britain’s indigenous otherworld or underworld. Parker goes on to identify the andedion and andee with the spirits of Annwn and their ruler, Gwyn ap Nudd.

This is of interest to me because Gwyn is my patron god. Parker’s insights make it possible to trace a trajectory from Iron Age beliefs concerning underworld gods, through Gwyn’s appearances in medieval literature and later folklore to those who worship him today.

Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ is a Brythonic deity. His veneration dates back, at least, to the Iron Age, where he appears as Vindonnus ‘White or Clear Light,’ in a trio of Gallo-Brythonic inscriptions in Essarois. Here he is equated with Apollo, another hunter deity (3). It is likely he was worshipped across Britain as Vindos ‘White’ (4). It has also been conjectured that Gwyn and his hunting dog, Dormarth ‘Death’s Door’ occupied the astrological positions of Orion and Sirius to the ancient Britons.

Cave, SilverdaleParker suggests Late Bronze Age ‘ritual shafts’ and ‘offering pits’ containing depositions including human and animal bones, grain, pottery and metalwork express a ‘quid-pro-quo’ relationship between the ancient Britons and the underworld gods. If he is correct, it is possible that Vindos / Gwyn, Dormarth and other kindred spirits were involved in these rites.

Gwyn’s first literary appearances are in medieval Welsh texts; ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (11th C) in The Mabinogion and ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’ (13th C) in The Four Ancient Books of Wales. These texts have roots in an older, oral tradition and contain fragments of tales from across Britain that predate Christianity. A significant number of these, including two featuring Gwyn, are from ‘The Old North’ (5). This is important to me because I connect with Gwyn in Lancashire.

Parker argues that superstitions about the underworld gods carry over into The Mabinogion. This is evidenced in the disappearance of livestock, children and crops. Pwyll’s encounter with Arawn, a King of Annwn, is the catalyst for the unfolding drama of the first four Mabinogi. Parker says these stories show the spirits of Annwn could not ‘be simply dismissed or ignored. Instead, a complex narrative had to be constructed in which, through a series of symbolic ritual manoeuvres, their power was drawn out, confronted and finally neutralised.’ The attempts of medieval scholars to disempower these deities can be seen at work in the development of Gwyn’s mythology.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ (6) Gwyn is presented as a divine warrior returning from battle to the Tawe near the vale of Neath. Gwyddno, ruler of Cantre’r Gwaelod, speaks of and addresses him with reverence and respect. ‘Bull of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army, / The ruler of hosts, indisposed to anger, / Blameless and pure was his conduct in protecting life.’ Other epithets Gwyddno uses include ‘hope of armies’ and ‘hero of hosts.’ ‘Host’ may refer to the spirits of Annwn.

Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn, the son of Nud, / The lover of Creurdilad, the daughter of Lud.’ He names his horse as ‘the torment of battle’ and refers to Dormarth as ‘truly the best of dogs,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘round bodied’ and ‘ruddy nosed.’ References to his possession of a ‘polished ring’ and ‘golden saddle’ are also suggestive of his status.

The title ‘Bull of Conflict’ refers to Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp. At the end of the poem he describes his travels across Britain gathering the souls of fallen soldiers. He appears to be berating this task. ‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain, / From the East to the North; / I am alive, they in their graves! / I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain / From the East to the South / I am alive, they in death!’

This poem contains important clues about Gwyn’s identity as a divine warrior and huntsman, whose role was to gather the souls of the dead and take them to Annwn.

In ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion, Gwyn is depicted as a huntsman and advisor to King Arthur. His place in Arthur’s court list and apparent subjection to both Arthur and God may be read as attempts by medieval scholars’ to explain and downgrade his position.

That ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found’ (7) hints at his role as leader of the hunt, and knowledge of otherworldly beings. The Twrch was a king reputedly turned into a swine by God. When Gwyn does not reveal his location it is possible he is defending his own.

The advice of Gwyn and Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor Son of Scorcher’ is also needed by Arthur to find Pennant Gofid in the ‘uplands of hell,’ which Evans and Bromwich say is ‘clearly situated in North Britain’ (8). When they reach this location, Gwyn and Gwythyr advise Arthur in his defeat of the ‘The Hag of Pennant Gofid,’ another otherworldly entity. The parcity of their advice, which leads to several failed attempts by Arthur’s men before the Christian King is forced to step in to slay her, may also suggest that Gwyn and Gwythyr are acting as tricksters.

A pair of lines fundamental to understanding Gwyn’s mythos, and which continue to intrigue and perplex me, are the following; ‘God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ (9).

Taken literally, this seems to mean that at some point during the period of Christianisation God put the spirit of the demons of Annwn ‘in’ Gwyn’s person to prevent the world’s destruction. Or it may mean that he granted Gwyn rulership of them for this purpose. However, it is probable that the agency of God was brought in as a cover to excuse the prevalent belief in the existence of these spirits and their ruler.

Even if we assume God’s agency is a cover for existing beliefs, the notion that Gwyn somehow contains ‘the spirit of the demons of Annwn’ is a fascinating one. In a conversation via e-mail, Heron (10) told me the word ‘spirit,’ in Welsh, is ‘aryal,’ which can mean ‘ferocity,’ ‘essence’ or ‘nature’. He referred me to Evans and Bromwich, who say ‘Gwyn’s partaking of the ‘nature of the devils of Annwfn’ indicates a recognition on the part of the redactor of the tale that Gwyn ap Nudd belonged to a sinister and forbidden mythology’ (11). Within this mythology he may already be seen to embody the nature of these entities, or to hold power over them.

That the destruction of the world is at stake suggests Gwyn’s role was extremely significant. If it is assumed this notion has older roots, some of the offerings of the ancient Britons may be explained as attempts to placate these spirits and their ruler due to their destructive capacity. It is also possible Gwyn was invoked as the only being who could hold them in check.

Fears and superstitions surrounding Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn may lie behind the story of his abduction of Creiddylad. After Creiddylad, who is both Gwyn’s lover and sister, elopes with Gwythyr, Gwyn seizes her back. It might be assumed he takes her to Annwn, and that this suggests an underlying fear of being abducted by Gwyn and his forces.

Gwythyr amasses his armies and attacks Gwyn. Gwyn triumphs and captures a number of Gwythyr’s allies, who are mainly rulers of the Old North. During their captivity Gwyn slaughters Nwython, cuts out his heart and feeds it to his son, Cyledr, who goes mad. This could be read as a clear example of Gwyn’s ferocity and hints at existing superstitions about what goes on in Annwn.

Evans and Bromwich say the concentration of the names of people Gwyn kidnaps suggest ‘that north Britain was the ultimate place of origin for the Creiddylad episode, and that this incident was one of the surviving fragments of tradition emanating from there’ (12). It is therefore likely it originates in earlier beliefs held about Gwyn and his host by the Northern Britons.

Arthur eventually comes North to Gwythyr’s aid and frees his noblemen. Afterward he makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by placing a dihenydd ‘fate’ on them. This dictates that they must fight for Creiddylad’s hand every Calan Mai ‘May Day’. An added condition, which seems particularly unfair, is that Creiddylad must remain in her father’s house, and no matter who wins neither can take her until Judgement Day. It is likely Arthur’s agency was brought in to explain an earlier myth, which was already prevalent in the Old North.

Whilst, on one level, this myth may be about fears of abduction to the underworld, it is more frequently interpreted as a seasonal drama comparable with Hades’ capture of Persephone. In this reading, Creiddylad is a maiden goddess who embodies the powers of spring and fertility. Creiddylad’s abduction by Gwyn may explain the failure of these powers at Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. Gwythyr and Arthur’s rescue of her at Calan Mai, the first day of summer, may explain their resurgence.

Winter Hill

Winter Hill

Gwyn is also seen as the Winter King. It is possible his white, shining qualities relate to snow and cold, associations which could date back to the Ice Age. Elen Sentier links Gwyn with the reindeer goddess Elen of the Ways (13) and the Boreal forest. He may also be connected with the North wind. The 14th C Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilim refers to ‘Tylwyth Gwyn, talaith y gwynt’ ‘the family of Gwyn, the province of the wind’ (14). The pervasiveness of a myth featuring Gwyn in Northern Britain could have a basis in its harsh winters.

In a later text, The Life of St Collen (14th C), Gwyn is referred to as ‘the King of Annwn and the Fairies’ and is supposedly banished by the saint from Glastonbury Tor (15). The transition from belief in Gwyn as a King of Annwn to King of the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ or ‘Fair Folk’ is a significant one. The original natures of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are covered over by their reduction to diminutive form. However, hints at their mythos can still be found in the majority of folktales.

Gwyn retains his status as leader of the Wild Hunt in the folklore of Wales and Somerset. There he is seen to appear on horse back with a pack of white, red-eared hounds, riding out on Nos Calan Gaeaf and through the winter months, chasing down the souls of the dead. To hear his hounds is an omen of death. The other riders are seen often seen as captive souls and may represent the spirits of Annwn.

In the North West of England, however, the hunt is assigned either to the Norse god Odin, or to Christian angels. In Cumbria it is Michael, and in Lancashire and Yorkshire Gabriel is said to lead a pack of black, red-eyed dogs, the Gabriel Ratchetts.

Coincidentally, Preston born writer Francis Thompson is famous for a poem called ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ Anybody who has felt like Gwyn’s hounds are on their tail might find these lines hauntingly familiar; ‘I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears / I hid from him, and under running laughter.’ (16)

More recently, Gwyn’s significance as an ancient god has been attested by contemporary scholars such as Geoffrey Ashe, in King Arthur’s Avalon (2007) and Nicholas R. Mann in The Isle of Avalon (1996) and Glastonbury Tor (2012). He is also the subject of a full length book called Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and Key to the Glastonbury Zodiac (2007) by Yuri Leitch.

This increase in interest suggests we are approaching a time when Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are taken seriously as Brythonic deities again. However, the main focus of these books is Gwyn’s role at Glastonbury, with only a small mention of his place in Wales and other areas of Britain. Disappointingly there is no mention of Gwyn’s activities in the North. In this respect I have only my own experiences and conjectures to go on.

Fairy Lane

Fairy Lane

I first met Gwyn on Fairy Lane in my hometown of Penwortham, where he challenged me to journey with him to Annwn. Since then I have worked with him as a guide to the otherside of my local landscape and its hidden myths. His interest in my locality surprised me at first. However, it seems less surprising when looked at in the context of his role as an ancient underworld god of Britain, particularly in relation to the history and folklore surrounding this site.

Penwortham has been inhabited since 4000BC. The Riversway Dockfinds, a collection of animal bones, 30 human skulls, two dug out canoes and the remains of a timber structure suggest the existence of a lake village on Penwortham Marsh. Nearby is Castle Hill, a point of military and religious importance. There is a church dedicated to St Mary on the summit of Castle Hill, which means it was likely to have been a pre-Christian sacred site.

That the church is dedicated to St Mary and she was also the patron saint of a healing well at the foot of Castle Hill suggest the presence of an earlier female deity with healing powers, who has been Christianised as Mary. Three human skulls found in the wall of the church (17), which may have served an apotraic function suggest superstitious beliefs in chthonic spirits were also once popular but not openly acknowledged.

The survival of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral attests to these superstitions. In the earliest version in Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878), it is set on Church Avenue on Castle Hill. Two men walking home to Longton encounter a procession of fairies carrying a coffin. Robin, one of the men, looks into the coffin and sees his own miniature corpse. Frightened by the sight, they follow the fairies into St Mary’s graveyard. Robin attempts to prevent the burial by reaching out to grab the leader of the fairies. The procession vanishes and Robin, driven mad, topples to his death from a haystack a couple of months later (18). In later versions, this story takes place on Fairy Lane, which runs through Penwortham Wood at the foot of Castle Hill.

This legend may be interpreted to hint at older beliefs in underworld gods. Church ways are often identified with spirit paths. It is possible that prior to Christianity people believed chthonic spirits to have been actively involved in bearing the deceased to the underworld. The ringing of bells to drive them away and superstitions surrounding lych gates are testaments to fear of such entities. The movement of the legend to Fairy Lane may be seen as an attempt to sever their connection with the church. It is also possible it represents a shift in the energy of the area.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn (more frequently referred to as fairies today) are frightening beings. However, they play an essential role in maintaining the relationships between the worlds, the seasons, and the living and the dead. Like death itself and the cold dark of winter they will never go away. Their roles and identities, covered over or ignored for many centuries, can be recovered and understood.

Like Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn, my relationship with Gwyn has changed my life. He guides me to visions in Annwn and the physical world I would not be able to access without him. He teaches me to walk the spirit paths and inspires me to learn the song lines of this land’s ancestral heritage.

As late summer arrives, harvesters take to the fields and leaves begin to fall I sense the spirits of Annwn stirring, the first hint of the breath of winter on the wind. Monday is the date of the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War. When I help lay candles in front of Preston cenotaph for each of the 1956 soldiers who lost their lives I will remember that care of the souls of the battle dead was once believed to be Gwyn’s role.

(1) http://www.caerfeddwyd.co.uk/
(2) http://www.mabinogi.net/sections/Appendix/The_Underworld_Gods.pdf
(3) James MacKilliop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (1998), p375
(4) Robin Herne, Old Gods, New Druids, (2009), p48
(5) A collection of Kingdoms in the North of England and Southern Scotland from 500AD and 800AD.
(6) Transl. William F. Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (2007), p210-211
(7) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(8) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p169
(9) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(10) https://www.blogger.com/profile/02055792516386371373
(11) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p133
(12) Ibid. p150
(13) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), p26-28
(14) Dafydd ap Gwilim, Poems, (1982), p132 – 133
(15) http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html
(16) Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems, (2000), p11
(17) Rev C. Nelson, St Mary’s Church, Penwortham, Lancashire, Archaeological Watching Brief and Explanation, (2011), p48
(18) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL

Many thanks to Heron and Lee at Caer Feddwyd for bringing Will Parker’s article to my attention.

Gatherer of Souls

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain…
I am alive, they in their graves!
– Words spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Black Book of Carmarthen XXXIII

Spring is here, daffodils
amongst the headstones,
flowers on the cenotaph
grieving summers of war-

shells shattering spirit paths,
ditches filled with corpses,
a perverse test of love
for brave young fools

and you being liminal,
battle rage and compassion
on the blood soaked fields
where banshees wail

gathering the fallen
from amongst explosions,
returning to Prydain
wracked and torn.

Spring is here, yet in
Annwn’s long autumn you know
the weight of the battle dead,
the sorrow behind the veil.

War memorial in Penwortham

Gwyn’s Apprenticeship and the Role of the Awenydd

Moon over Castle HillAfter two years studying Druidry (and many years prior to this of searching) on the morning of the winter solstice I received a name for my spiritual path- Awenydd. It was a gift, bestowed by Gwyn ap Nudd (1) and the spirits of my local landscape.

Over the past year my path has grown to centre on my apprenticeship to Gwyn, which began when I made a vow to him as my patron at Glastonbury’s White Spring last January. This role has involved learning more deeply the life cycles of the trees, plants and wildlife of my local area, journeying to meet their spirits and travelling into the land’s past to learn its history. With Gwyn’s guidance I have journeyed the Otherworld, gaining direct experience of realms such as Annwn and Faery, met their inhabitants and borne witness to mythic events.

In exchange I have strived to share this magic through poetry with the aim of revealing my local landscape as inspirited and communicating my vision of the Otherworld. I believe this serves Gwyn for it his task as a king of the Otherworld and leader of the Wild Hunt to maintain the dynamic between the worlds lest this one be destroyed (2). Being gifted with the role of the Awenydd seems to be a natural development of this relationship.

An early description of the Awenyddion can be found in Giraldus Cambrensis’ 12th century manuscript, Description of Wales.

‘There are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a connected manner; but the person who skilfully observes them, will find, after many preambles, and many nugatory and incoherent, though ornamented speeches, the desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: they are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep, and, as it were, by violence compelled to return to their proper senses. After having answered the questions, they do not recover till violently shaken by other people; nor can they remember the replies they have given. If consulted a second or third time upon the same point, they will make use of expressions totally different; perhaps they speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits. These gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; others fancy that a written schedule is applied to their mouths and on awaking they publicly declare that they have received this gift.’ (3)

When I first read this passage a couple of years back I found little I could relate to. Returning to consider it now I find the ideas more resonant.

A phrase which immediately stands out is that the Awenyddion are people inspired. Within the Bardic Tradition I have found the predominance of structured courses of training and people’s preconceptions about the role of the Bard problematic. Experience has taught me I cannot learn stories or poems by rote. Myths and the deities within them have a life of their own, calling through Bardic, folkloric and contemporary texts, or revealing themselves in the landscapes of either world to impart the gifts of inspiration and transformation when the time is right.

Following a conversation with a visiting speaker at my local pagan society, who when I named my path as “Druid Bard” assumed I was of the ‘Bardic Grade’ and completing a ‘gwers’ within OBOD I began to question (and not for the first time) whether this name was a true fit with my spirituality.

During this period I asked Gwyn how my apprenticeship related to Druidry. He told me my role is bound up with the primal Awen, which flows before thought through all things. This supported my suspicion that true inspiration can only speak when systems, concepts and fear of other people’s opinions are set aside. Only by listening directly to the Awen and my own intuition could I become a person inspired and create works worthy of sharing with others.

Another point of resonance is that inspiration is a gift from the spirits, through possession, dreams, milk or honey or a ‘written schedule.’

I’ve never been possessed in the sense of losing my senses and being unable to recall what happened afterward. However I have channelled the voices of spirits and deities whilst writing poetry. During a writing trance visions have appeared where they have revealed themselves in new ways and I’ve recognised their guiding hand even when making finishing touches, in the gift of a completing image or right feeling of a word.

I’ve also been gifted with inspiration in dreams. One of my most significant dreams was when I learnt the identity of my white totem mare. She appeared to me winged and I joined consciousness with her to fly to the top of Castle Hill, a local sacred site. Another important dream occurred the night before my birthday. After seeing a moon bridge in the river Ribble I dreamt of questioning a series of gnarled fay in a cave in Castle Hill. When I realised the process was futile Gwyn appeared and inquired why I hadn’t asked him. By this time I had forgotten the question. The dream conveyed a powerful message about the ethos of questioning in the realms of Faery and dream.

The mention of milk or honey puts me in mind of mead, which in my experience certainly inspires connection with the spirits, writing processes, performances and rituals. The image of the ‘written schedule’ touching an Awenydd’s lips seems to symbolize direct inspiration through the written word.

In the modern world the role of the Awenydd is not limited to ecstatic prophets. Kristoffer Hughes places ‘becoming Awenydd’ – ‘becoming the inspirer’ at the core of Druidry. He says ‘they were the enlightened ones, those who serve, those who inspire to bring others into the mystery of spirit and the great song… by inspiration.’ (4)

Elen Sentier is an ‘awenydd, a spirit keeper and taleweaver from a long family lineage.’ She describes this path as ‘British native shamanism.’ (5) Alongside her reindeer goddess, Elen of the Ways she works with Gwyn as ‘the goddess’ guardian.’ Part of her work involves tracing Elen’s Deer Trods which are also the ‘energy roads’ down which Gwyn leads the Wild Hunt. Many of these are ‘spirit paths’ taking souls to the Otherworld (6) and correspond with corpse roads such as Church Avenue on Castle Hill.

For me the name Awenydd has a magic born of its direct connection with the spiritual source which flows through the land defying all systems and can only be spoken in poetry. My role as an Awenydd is one that I only have intimations of at present- small clues to the potential of learning with the leader of the wild chase and king of the Otherworld to travel the spirit paths and experience the mysteries of the primal Awen in order to return as the inspirer.

(1) Gwyn ap Nudd is a Brythonic deity. His name means White Son of Mist. He is a king of the Otherworld, leader of the wild hunt and guide of souls.
(2) Evidence of this role is found in The Mabinogion, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found- God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’ Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(3) http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1092/pg1092.html
(4) Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (2007), p67
(5) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), pvii
(6) Ibid. p26-28

Wild Hunt Villanelle

When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
Hurtling from the deeps and bowers of unseen Annwn
They raze all life with their sundering might,

Sweeping heavens black warriors of starry white
Unite with rebel cries to form a spectral fugue.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Cities tremble as the harrowing horns descry
Ghost white horses, hounds of death and long lost truth.
They raze all life with their sundering might

As they gather up the souls of the dead in flight
Striking with a fear none but their kindred can endure.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Bringing down the skies and singing back the light
Around our fires only hope can see us through.
They raze all life with their sundering might

Then vanish to Annwn from tumultuous heights
Ending the old year and heralding in the new.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
They raze all life with their sundering might.