The Long Hard Road

I want to live, I want to love
But it’s a long hard road out of Hell.’
Marilyn Manson

So it’s December the 31st and we stand at the gateway between one year ending and the next beginning. As ever I feel obliged to write a retrospective. Looking back, quite frankly, 2020 has been a shitter of a year – on global, national, familial, and personal levels.

A global pandemic. A messy Brexit. Life at home has been incredibly difficult with my dad’s ongoing health problems, my mum having a fall and a hip replacement, and my brother having brain surgery and coming to stay with us with us whilst he recovers. And this has all happened on top of me finding out it’s likely I’m autistic for which I’m in the midst of the lengthy process of getting a diagnosis.

I received the first hint that this year would prove portentous in February when I was volunteering on the Wigan Flashes Nature Reserve and noticed a profusion of scarlet elf cups (Sarcoscypha austriaca). In a blog post I posed the question: ‘Will these red cups bring good or bad luck?’

By March we had the answer – coronavirus was spreading rapidly and we entered a national lockdown. This turn of bad luck felt particularly cruel as I had left my supermarket job to volunteer with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust full time as a way into a career in conservation. The first day of the lockdown was meant to be the first day I started a conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve. This got put on hold and all my other volunteering was cancelled. I was left with neither furlough from a paid job or training toward paid work with only the small income from my writing.

During the first lockdown my mum and I agreed that it was like being in Purgatory – a sentiment I have seen echoed elsewhere, for example in the Scarlet Imprint Newsletter. This makes me realise how deeply engrained Christian concepts are within our psyches, even for non-Christians, and how lacking we are in Pagan and Polytheist concepts through which to understand our situation. At several points I have wondered if the gods are punishing us on a global level for our ‘sins’ against nature and whether my family and I have done something to bring about their disfavour.

In the Brythonic tradition it is the fury of the spirits of Annwn that threatens to bring about the destruction of this world and usually this is held back by Gwyn ap Nudd – a King of Annwn. Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd, also played a role in protecting Britain from three plagues – a people called the Coraniaid, a dragon’s scream, and ‘a mighty magician’ – all caused by Annuvian forces.

The term used for these plagues is gormes which also translates as ‘pestilence’, ‘destruction’, ‘oppression by an alien race or conqueror’, ‘oppressor’, ‘oppressive animal or monster’. The coronavirus is a plague and might also be viewed as an alien being or a monster of Annwn.

My prayers, conversations with my gods, meditations, and research have led me to the conclusion that we are experiencing a ‘monstrum event’ (here I resort to Latin as I haven’t found an equivalent Brythonic concept). Monstrum is the root of the word ‘monster’ and also means ‘revelation’ so seems linked with ‘apocalypse’ in its original sense (from the Greek apokaluptein ‘uncover’).

As the Beast with the Fiery Halo has ravaged Britain’s populace, underlying physical and mental health problems have been brought to the fore, accidents waiting to happen have happened, the hidden has surfaced from the deep. Many of the excess deaths were not caused by coronavirus.

If the first lockdown was Purgatory then the past couple of months have felt more like Hell on Earth. Again I struggle to find an equivalent for this oh-so-fitting Christian concept. Perhaps it is possible to see ‘Hell’ as one of the deepest and most unpleasant levels of Annwn, which is described in the medieval Welsh texts both as a paradisal place and a hellish one where souls are imprisoned and tortured in the napes of a Black Forked Toad and within the innards of a Speckled Crested Snake.

It takes a lot of work to undo our associations of these scenes with the Christian concepts notion that unpleasant experiences are the result of our ill doings and are thus punishments for our sins. Gwyn has taught me they are processes of transformation that lie beyond human morality and reason. This is my current understanding of what has been happening with coronavirus.

In the ‘hells’ that I have witnessed others experiencing I have also witnessed the power of healing. Of the miracle of the hip replacement and the remarkable intricacies of brain surgery. In this I have seen the work of Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, a god of healing, to whom I have prayed for my family’s health.

I have also seen the healing hand of Nodens in the advances in treatment for coronavirus and in the creation of the vaccines. It seems to be more than coincidence that, as a more virulent strain emerges in Britain, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines have been approved. This gives me hope that, even as we face this plague, the gods are equipping us with the tools to deal with it.

In most stories, Christian and non-Christian, a descent into Annwn or Hell is followed by a return. As things slowly improve at home, as the time my parents get vaccinated approaches, I am intuiting that our time of descent is approaching an end and I am starting to catch glimpses of the road ahead.

My internship at Brockholes finally began on the 4th of December and I am predicting it will continue within Lancashire’s current Tier 4 restrictions. I believe that due to people being brought into greater appreciation of nature by the lockdown and, unfortunately, because of the climate crisis, in the future there will be more jobs in conservation and am tentatively hopeful about finding work.

I am beginning to feel, for the first time in a long time, like in the words of a Marilyn Manson song that I listened to a lot at a dark point in my life many years ago, ‘I want to live, I want to love,’ but I am painfully aware it is going to be ‘a long hard road out of Hell.’

Twelve Days of Prayer

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a ‘sacred and festive season’ marked by Christians between Christmas Day (25th December) and the Epiphany (6th January). It was instituted by the Council of Tours in 567 to mark the period between the birth of Jesus and the revelation he is God incarnate on the visit of the magi.

For me, as a Brythonic polytheist who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd as Winter’s King, the mid-winter holy days have always felt particularly special and sacred. They begin with Eponalia, on 18th December, the feast of the horse-goddess and midwife of the sun. This is followed by the Winter Solstice, 21st / 22nd December, the height of Gwyn’s reign and presence within the land. 24th December is Mother’s Night and, although this is traditionally an Anglo-Saxon festival, one I associate with the Mother Goddesses such as Matrona/Modron and Anrhuna. 25th December is the day of the rebirth of the sun-child Maponos/Mabon. Then the next twelve days are a time of rest and celebration based around casting out the old year and welcoming in and preparing for the new.

Over the past few years I have noticed an increasing number of other pagans and polytheists exploring ways of marking these holy days. There are existing traditions of using them for divination. From my mum I learnt of the tradition of recording one’s dreams and linking them numerically to the calendar months. Cailtin Matthews has suggested using the Twelve Days for reading nature omens in a similar way.

In his essay ‘On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me…’ Lee Davies connects the Twelve Days with Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead, who ride out to clear the ground for the New Year and also bring blessings of prosperity. He speaks of the koryos tradition in which people not only embody but ‘become the dead’ – a possible root of the misrule associated with the Twelfth Night.

With this in mind I decided to use the Twelve Days as a period of more intensive prayer and prayer writing for Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn and the dead with whom he rides out on his hunt through the winter months. This resulted in a series of visions and visionary dialogues. Here I share a selection from the twelve prayers.

Twelve Days of Prayer

For Gwyn

I.
Prayer
is to open
the little box of the heart
to let in the god who cannot fit within

two sides of a membrane
flap, dissolve like
the so-called
‘veil’

between the worlds
when you ride from the mist
on a creature somewhat like a horse
two hounds with teeth within teeth
all the countless uncontainable
monsters of Annwn

filling
this little box
I sometimes call a heart.
When it bursts and otherworlds
spill forth I know it is
so much more.



III.
You are ghost.
You and your legions.

You clothe yourselves
in cloud, in mist, you move
through our world like the wind.
Sometimes we hear you passing through.
Sometimes we sense only your silence
as you fill our vales with neither
your presence or absence.

Sometimes I feel ashamed
of my flesh and my fear to follow
you into battle in the wars that
rage on between the worlds.

Could it be that I’m afraid of death?

Of seeing my ghost looking back at me
as I write this poem from amongst your kind?

“You wear your flesh and your fear well.”

You speak in the voice that turns gold to leaves
and flesh to dust and skin to paper bearing
an elegy on the heels of your host.



IV.
“Fierce bull of battle,
awesome leader of many,”
I find myself whispering
Gwyddno’s words as though
they were the beginning
of an ancient prayer.

“Who will protect me?

“I will protect you.”

Your armour is a night
of stars and each of them
wields a spear against

my deep demonic fears.

I am awed by your strength
as I am mystified by its origin
for to whom does a god turn?
To whom does a god pray?

I see a bull striding majestic
down a passageway of light
into the infinite brightness
of a star, a heart, a fortress,
the Otherworld within his chest.

VI.
I come to pray
when I want to scream.

If I could comprehend you
could I contain the spirits within?

I fear to scream is the obliteration

of all prayer until you show me

how you tend to all the silent
and the unsilent screams

for a scream is prayer
as crescendo.



VIII.
I pray to you
as your awenydd
as your inspired poet

speak of my restlessness
the jangling of spirits within
my intimation I could be

so much more and you say:

“Poetry is more than rhyming words.
Awen is more than human speech.

The soul of the earth is living poetry
and each soul itself a poem breathed –

part of the divine breath which keeps

the rivers afloat, the mountains high,
the deer running through the woodlands,
the birds in the skies, the flowers growing
upwards turning their heads towards the sun.
And has the power to transform it all –
hurricanes, volcanic flames, tidal waves,
the death-wind from a nuclear blast creating
the wolves with glowing eyes and the monsters
with limbs where there should not be limbs
spoken of by awenyddion of long ago.

It can destroy (or fix) everything.

Why do you think I keep the awen
in a cauldron in a fortress that disappears
that spins that is shrouded by mystery and mist
and is sometimes known as the towers of the winds
and sometimes as the whale’s belly?

There is nothing more – I should know
for I have sought, I have hunted, with every
hound of Annwn beyond where the winds
of Thisworld and Otherworld blow beyond
the Universe and its moment of conception and
come back with nothing on my bloodless spear,
my hounds with nothing in their empty jaws,
bearing nothing in my empty hands but
knowing a little more about nothing.

One cannot be any more and about nothing
there is nothing to be said so be happy
as you are, awenydd, whilst still
a bearer of the divine breath.”



XII.
Your gift

is a shining bow
washed in the light
of the New Year’s sun.

I pray for the strength to draw it.
I pray for the patience to carve the arrows
each engraved with the words of a spell.
I pray for the focus to shoot true,

mind, body, and bow as one,
straight to the heart.