III. You were here before someone wounded the Fisher King
red dripping into blue
the blood from his groin
like blood from his queen’s menses
flowing into the sea
(when male and female had to bleed).
IV. You were here before the fae danced in your colours
in the hall of the King of Annwn like devils
burning red and cooling blue.
V. You sat on your perch and you watched
the gods –
some say you advised the Fisher King.
VI. His wound
is beginning to heal with the demise
The red rivers are flowing blue.
VII. You are no longer a myth
we cannot reach
on boats of fish bones
sailing for halcyon days
because they are here like you
on this river.
VIII. The Fisher King is fishing.
The red world is turning blue.
This poem is the third of three pieces about creatures who build their nests in sandy banks and can be seen at Brockholes Nature Reserve. I wrote it a couple of weeks ago when I was applying for a paid traineeship on the Kingfisher Trail – a 14 mile recreational route following the rivers of the Croal-Irwell Valley connecting ‘the rural West Pennine Moors to the urban communities of Bolton, Bury, and Salford’ (HERE). Although I didn’t get the job (of 300 applicants I made the top three) I intend to walk the trail.
In this poem I link the kingfisher to Nodens/Nudd, an ancient British god of hunting, fishing, healing and dreams, from whose mythos the story of the Fisher King may have arisen (although Brân is a candidate too) and to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faery, whose people make merry in red and blue costumes in his feasting hall.
Coincidentally, around the same time, Gwilym Morus-Baird published a video on ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (HERE) where he discusses the symbology of Gwyn’s people wearing red and blue, which might have alchemical significance. Intriguingly he linked this to the two streams, Y Gwter Las and Y Gwter Goch which flow into Llyn y Fan Fach, the location of a story where a fairy bride is given away by a Fairy King-like figure.
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
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.
For nearly a decade I have been writing enthusiastically about two topics – the lost wetlands of Lancashire (lakes, marshlands, wet woodlands, peat bogs) and my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. I didn’t realise there was a link until I watched the first of Gwilym Morus-Baird’s videos on Gwyn’s folklore.
Here he shared three poems by the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1315-1350). Whilst I had read ‘Y Dylluan’, ‘The Owl’, and ‘Y Niwl’, ‘The Mist’, I was unfamiliar with ‘Y Pwll Mawn’, ‘The Peat Pit’. In this masterfully crafted and, in places, humorous poem, Dafydd ap Gwilym narrates how he and his‘grey-black horse’ foolishly get lost on a ‘cold moor’ in the darkness and fall into a peat-pit.
Unfortunately much of the craftsmanship of the poem in Welsh is lost in translation. The original is written in strict metre with seven syllables in each line, follows an AA BB rhyme scheme, and also contains internal rhyme (possibly cynghanedd – it is beyond my skill to judge). It also features repetition.
Gwae fardd a fai, gyfai orn, Gofalus ar gyfeiliorn. Tywyll yw’r nos ar ros ryn, Tywyll, och am etewyn! Tywyll draw, ni ddaw ym dda, Tywyll, mau amwyll, yma. Tywyll iso fro, mau frad, Tywyll yw twf y lleuad.
Woe to the poet (though he might be blamed) who’s lost and full of care. Dark is the night on a cold moor, dark, oh, that I had a torch! It’s dark over there, no good will befall me, it’s dark (and I’m losing my senses) over here. Dark is the land down below (I’ve been duped), dark is the waxing moon.
Here, in the first verse, we see that not only are the rhyme and metre lost in the English translation but also the repetition of tywyll ‘dark’ at the beginning of six of the eight lines.
Dafydd ap Gwilym goes on to lament his ‘woe’ ‘that the shapely girl, of such radiant nature, / does not know how dark it is’ before admitting his foolhardiness for venturing out on the moors at night.
It’s not wise for a poet from another land, and it’s not pleasant (for fear of treachery or deceit) to be found in the same land as my foe and caught, I and my grey–black horse.
Here we gain a sense of unhomeliness, of the poet having ventured far from home, to an arallwlad ‘other-land’ – to the land of his ‘foe’, who we might surmise is the otherworldly Gwyn, from the following lines and those in other poems. In ‘Y Niwl’ the mist is described as ‘his two harsh cheeks’ which ‘conceal the land’ ‘thick and ugly darkness as of night / blinding the world to cheat the poet.’
After speaking of how he and his horse drowned in the peat-pit, Dafydd ap Gwilym goes on to describe evocatively and curse the place of his undoing and to associate it directly with Gwyn and his spirits.
Such peril on a moor that’s an ocean almost, who can do any more in a peat-pit? It’s a fish–pond belonging to Gwyn ap Nudd, alas that we should suffer it!
I love this image of ‘a moor that’s an ocean’. It reminds me of the German term schwingmoor ‘swinging wetland’. This evokes how a bog can sway with each step like the sea.
I am dying to know whether the reference to the peat-pit as a ‘fish pond belonging to Gwyn ap Nudd’ is a metaphor that Dafydd ap Gwilym has created or whether it comes from the oral tradition.
We know Nudd/Nodens, the father of Gwyn, is associated with fishing by the iconography at his temple in Lydney. A crown, which would have been worn by a priest of Nodens, features a strange fisherman with a long tail catching a salmon and images of fish and sea-serpents appear on a mural.
So it isn’t too surprising to find a reference to fish ponds belonging to Gwyn. However, anyone familiar with the ecology of peat bogs will be aware it is very rare to find fish in their waters due to the low oxygen levels. This raises the question: for what is Gwyn fishing?
I believe an answer can be found in a later English poem by Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802 – 1839) called ‘The Red Fisherman’ which might also contain echoes of an older tradition.
This recounts how an abbot came to a pool with the ‘evil name’ ‘The Devil’s Decoy’ and encountered ‘a tall man’ on ‘a three-legged stool’ clad all in red with shrunken and shrivelled ‘tawny skin’ and hands that had ‘long ages ago gone to rest’ – ‘He had fished in the flood with Ham and Shem’.
With a ‘turning of keys and locks’ he took forth bait from his iron box’ and when he cast his hook ‘From the bowels of the earth / strange and varied sounds had birth’, ‘the noisy glee / of a revelling company’.
To this otherworldly music the red fisherman drew up ‘a gasping knight’ ‘with clotted hair’ ‘the cruel Duke of Gloster’. Casting off again, ‘a gentleman fine and fat, / With a big belly as big as a brimming vat’ ‘The Mayor of St Edmund’s Bury’. His next catch, with ‘white cheek’ ‘cold as clay’ and ‘torn raven hair’ was ‘Mistress Shore’ and, after countless others, finally a bishop. The abbot was cursed by the Red Fisherman to carry his hook in his mouth and from then on stammered and stuttered and could not preach.
If this poem derives from an older tradition based around the lore of his Gwyn and his father (like the Red Fisherman Gwyn was also identified with the devil) we might surmise he is fishing for the dead.
The mention of the noise of a revelling company is also pertinent as in ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ we find the lines:
A pit between heath and ravine, the place of phantoms and their brood. I’d not willingly drink that water, it’s their privilege and bathing–place.
The term ellyllon is here translated as ‘phantoms’ but also means ‘elves’. It no doubt refers to Y Tylwyth Teg, ‘the fair family’ or ‘fairies’ over whom Gwyn rules as the Fairy King. ‘Brood’ has been translated from plant ‘children’ which is also suggestive of the family of Gwyn.
The peat-pit, like other bodies of water such as lakes, pools, springs, and wells, is a liminal place where Thisworld and the Otherworld meet, where the fair folk bathe, and their leader fishes for souls.
Finding out about this lore has deepened by intuition that Gwyn is associated with Lancashire’s lost peat bogs and former peat-pits, such as Helleholes, just north of my home.
At the end of his poem Dafydd ap Gwilym curses ‘the idiot’ who dug the peat-pit and swears he will never ‘leave his blessing in the peat bog’. This may refer to a practice taking place in his day – people leaving butter in peat bogs for the fairies, which may carry reminiscences of more ancient offerings to Gwyn and his family.
Contrarily, the next time I visit a peat bog, I intend to leave a blessing for Gwyn, the Blessed One.
*With thanks to Gwilym Morus-Baird for his video HERE and for pointing me in the direction of Dafydd ap Gwilym.net where ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ can be read in Welsh and English.
‘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.’
At the beginning of last month, the day after the heavy rain and flooding, I saw an otter. I was crossing a small bridge over one of the tributaries to the Ribble, taking the side route after yet another bridge had been removed or blocked because it had become too dangerous.
As I crossed and looked upstream my eyes were drawn to what, at first, I thought was a tyre. I then realised it was in fact a rump of sleek fur and beneath the water I made out legs and an otter-shape. Thrilled and excited I was torn between the impulses to stay stuck-eyed in this wonderful moment or to try and capture it on the camera of my phone for longevity and unfortunately the latter won out. Having fumbled off my thick gloves, turned my eyes to the screen to enter the pin, and opened the camera, by the time it came into focus, the little hump of the miniature sea monster had all but gone.
I didn’t take a picture at all and, the day after when I returned, the water was much lower – far too low for an otter to swim. I realised the moment I had witnessed had been exceptional, for not often do both heavy flooding and a high tide make it possible for an otter to swim upstream.
Since then I’ve returned to look for paw prints and spraint, but found nothing. I’m guessing I’m unlikely to find anything in areas of the Ribble that might be erased by the tides. Still, I’ve been looking out for other signs such as tunnels in the grass and rolling places. I’m aware the Ribble Rivers Trust have filmed otters on the river and farmland locally.
This got me researching the natural history of otters and their cultural representations. Otters belong to the Mustelid family, which includes badgers, weasels, stoats, skunks, and pine martens. They evolved 30 million years ago (in contrast to hominids have only been about for 2.7 million years). There are 13 species of otter and those we see in the wild in Britain are European otters (Lutra lutra).
On average male otters are 140cm long and weigh 10kg and female otters are 105cm long weigh 7kg. The females begin to breed at 2 years old and give birth to 2 – 5 pups. The males leave them to raise the cubs alone and they must be taught to swim and catch fish before they leave home after 18 months. They can live up to 10 years but usually only survive for 5 due to the countless dangers they face.
Otters lead liminal lives between land and water patrolling territories up to 40km long. Within a territory they have a number of holts, underground dens formed in the cavities of tree roots or in old fox earths or rabbit burrow, along with resting-places called hovers, and lying-places called couches.
To survive the wet cold conditions they have developed a thick, thermal, waterproof pelt with two layers – an undercoat of short hairs and a top layer of guard hairs totalling 70,000 hairs per square centimetre.
Their metabolisms are so quick they must eat 15 per cent of their body weight a day – 1 1/2kg. Their favoured food is eels because they move slowly and have plenty of fat on them. They also consume fish, shell fish, and amphibians, turning them inside out to avoid the poison on their skins. Ducklings and rabbits are also occasionally on the menu, along with slugs, snails, and dragonfly larvae.
The end product is spraint, which is used to mark their territories, and is renowned for its sweet smell, like jasmine tea. In an otter’s spraint the shells and bones of their last meals can easily be seen.
In the 1960s it was noticed that otters were disappearing rapidly from our rivers – the result of the use of organochlorines and other chemicals that built up in their reproductive organs and left them blind. These damaging chemicals have been banned and since the 1990s efforts have been made to clear up and restore our rivers. This has led to the reappearance of otters on the Ribble with a 44 percent increase being claimed by the Environment Agency in 2011 (although this was the result of an increase in spraint rather than individual otters). The otter is described by Miriam Darlington as the ‘spirit level’ of our rivers – as an apex predator a measure of their health.
The term ‘otter’ derives from the Old English otor which shares similarities with the Norwegian oter, Icelandic otur, and Swedish utter. It originates from the Proto-Indo-European *udrós ‘water animal’.
In the Norse myths we find a dwarf named Ótr who is the son of the king Hreimdar. Ótr takes the form of an otter and is killed by Loki for his pelt. Hreimdar demanded a large weregild for Ótr’s death – his pelt stuffed with yellow gold and covered with red gold. Loki covered all of Ótr but one whisker, which he was forced to conceal with the cursed ring, Andvarinaut. Afterwards greed for these treasures, known as Otter’s Ransom, brings disaster and death to Hreidmar and his other two sons.
In Welsh the otter is known as dŵr-ci, in Irish as dobhar-chú ‘water dog’, and in Scottish as dobhar or beaste dubh (black beast). These names also refer to a folkloric creature known as ‘King Otter’ who, in Ireland, was half-fish and half-dog and resembled an otter, but was five times as large.
The otter is the central character in the literary classics Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell. It appears in poems by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Elizabeth Bishop, and recent books by authors tracking its disappearance from and return to our rivers such as Otter Country by Miriam Darlington and The Otter Among Us by James Williams.
In the Wildwood Tarot the otter is the Page of Vessels and John Matthews claims it is one of the oldest animals in the story of the search for Mabon, but I cannot find his source.
However, on a personal level, his claim relates to my desire to craft an oldest animals story for Mabon/Maponos here on the Ribble (where he was worshiped with his mother, Modron/Matrona, upriver at Ribchester and possibly here on Castle Hill). Beside the river are wooden sculptures of five creatures who I perceive to be ‘the Oldest Animals of Peneverdant’ and they are an owl, a dragonfly, a great crested newt, a trout, and an otter, all vital species within our local ecosystem.
The original story of the search for Mabon ends on the river Severn with Arthur and his men riding upriver on the back of a huge salmon to Mabon’s prison in a House of Stone at Caer Loyw.
Overlooking the Severn is a temple to Nodens/Nudd, ‘the Catcher’, a god of hunting, fishing, water, dreams, and healing. Bronze statuettes of dogs were offered to him in exchange for healing dreams. Nodens has no known associations with otters, but seems to share a kinship with them as a fellow fisher. He is associated with dwarves who might, like Ótr, take otter form. In the reappearance of water dogs on the Ribble, after years of pollution, I detect the healing touch of Nodens’ silver hand.
Environment Agency, “More otters living in the North West than ever before,” August 2011, http://test.environment-agency .gov.uk/cy/new/132443.aspx Nicola Chesters, RSPB Spotlight: Otters, Bloomsbury Natural History (2014) Miriam Darlington, Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter, (Granta, 2013) Paul and Katy Yoxton, ‘Estimating Otter Numbers Using Spraints: Is It Possible?’, Journal of Marine Biology, (2014)
‘… to nobler sights Michael from Adam’s eyes the film removed Which that false fruit that promised clearer sight Had bred, then purged with euphrasy and rue The visual nerve (for he had much to see) And from the Well of Life three drops instilled. So deep the power of these ingredients pierced Even to the inmost seat of mental sight That Adam now enforced to close his eyes Sunk down and all his spirits became entranced. But him the gentle angel by the hand Soon raised and his attention thus recalled: Adam, now ope thine eyes and first behold The effects which thy original crime hath wrought…’ Paradise Lost
I’ve recently been re-reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). The third or fourth time round this epic vision seems no less powerful in its depictions of Heaven and Hell and Earth both pre and post fall or radical in Milton’s writing the perspective of Satan and his inner motivations and turmoil.
As an Annuvian kind of person I will admit to feeling more sympathy with Milton’s rather magnificent Satan, refusing to serve in Heaven preferring to reign in Hell, the only one amongst the fallen angels (who include many pre-Christian gods) who dares travel to Paradise to thwart God’s plans by bringing about the fall, than the brainless Adam and Eve, Milton’s spoilsport God, or his Son.
The ending, with its deus ex machina, again was disappointing. It turns out the fall was not only predicted but designed by God to make possible and all the more powerful Jesus’ redemption of humanity. Paradise Lost is, in essence, a work of theodicy, written ‘to justify the ways of God to men’.
I’m sharing this because, whilst re-reading the book, I found the lines cited above that seem to contain Christian and pre-Christian Brythonic lore. When the archangel, Michael, purges Adam’s fallen sight he not only uses traditional plants – euphrasy, or eyebright, and rue were used for treating eye ailments – but ‘three drops’ from ‘the Well of Life’. This grants Adam visions of the future, mainly the ill-doings of his offspring until the Flood. As far as I know there is a Tree of Life but not a Well of Life in Paradise in Christian literature, which makes me wonder if it comes from another source.
The most obvious is the Welsh ‘Story of Taliesin’. In this tale Gwion Bach steals three drops of awen ‘inspiration’ from the cauldron of Ceridwen, which grant him omniscience as the all-seeing Taliesin. Milton’s evocative description of these ‘ingredients’ piercing ‘to the inmost seat of mental sight’ and putting Adam into a trance before he opens his eyes to see the future fit shares similarities with the prophetic visions of Taliesin and other awenyddion, ‘persons inspired’ referred to by Gerald of Wales.
However, although this story had been published in Welsh in the mid-16th century, it was not available in English at Milton’s time. Whether he had travelled to Wales (Milton was born in London, studied at Cambridge, lived in Berkshire, and travelled extensively throughout Europe before returning to London) or had heard the story in England in some form remains unknown.
The resemblances are so uncanny that, if he had not, it seems possible he was tapping into some deeper source. It is of interest that Milton refers not to a cauldron, but to a well, a far older image. Throughout the British and Irish myths cauldrons and wells are associated with inspiration and rebirth.
After Gwion tastes the awen Ceridwen pursues him in a shapeshifting chase and swallows him into her crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ from which he is reborn, shining-browed, and omniscient as Taliesin. In ‘The Second Branch’ the cauldron brings dead warriors to life. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, refusing to ‘boil the food of a coward’ it is associated with the bardic initiation rites of Pen Annwn.
In the Irish myths the Well of Segais is associated with imbas ‘inspiration’. No-one was allowed to approach it except its keeper, Nechtan, and his three cup-bearers on pain of their eyes exploding. However, Boann, Nechtan’s wife, disobeyed. It overflowed and she was dismembered and died. The river created took her name – the Boyne. When Finn burnt his thumb whilst cooking a salmon from this river he received the imbas. In The Battle of Moytura the Tuatha Dé Dannan dig Wells of Healing and throw in their mortally wounded, who not only come out whole but more ‘fiery’ than before (!).
It seems that Milton is, indeed, tapping into a deep source. Here, in Peneverdant we once had a Well of Healing, dedicated to St Mary at the foot of Castle Hill, which I believe was associated with an earlier Brythonic mother goddess of healing waters who has revealed her name to me as Anrhuna. I believe she is the consort of Nodens (cognate with Nechtan) and the mother of Gwyn ap Nudd (cognate with Finn), Pen Annwn. Perhaps we once had a myth based around these deities that has now been lost.
In Paradise Lost, for Adam, as for many who taste the three drops of inspiration (aside perhaps for Taliesin) possessing foreknowledge is both a blessing and curse. At first he laments Michael’s gift:
‘O visions ill foreseen! Better had I Lived ignorant of future, so had borne My part of evil only, each day’s lot Enough to bear! Those now that were dispensed, The burden of many ages, on me light At once, by my foreknowledge gaining birth Abortive to torment me, ere their being, With thought that they must be! Let no man seek Henceforth to be foretold what shall befall Him or his children…’
He is then reconciled by his perception of God’s purpose:
‘… Now I find Mine eyes true op’ning and my heart much eased, Erewhile perplexed with thoughts what would become Of me and all mankind, but now I see His Day in whom all nations shall be blest.’
‘O goodness infinite, goodness immense! That all this good of evil shall produce And evil turn to good more wonderful Than that which by Creation first brought forth Light out of darkness!’
Adam’s visions give him the strength to depart with Eve from Paradise to Earth to beget humankind. The gate to Paradise, to the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, and no doubt to the Well of Life is barred and guarded by a ‘flaming brand’ ‘the brandished Sword of God’ ‘fierce as a comet’.
In Christian literature, in contrast to the simplistic notion preached to school children that the souls of good people go to Heaven and those of bad people go to Hell, Paradise is not truly regained until after the Apocalypse and Jesus’ harrowing of Hell and the resurrection of the dead.
It may be suggested that, in our Brythonic myths, all souls return to the Well of Life. That, with a little awen to awaken ‘mental sight’, the living can travel in spirit to Annwn and be reborn as awenyddion.
Here, in Peneverdant, where the well has run dry due to the foolishness of humans shattering the aquifer when moving the river Ribble to create Riversway Dockland, it remains possible to traverse the waters of the past, of the Otherworld, to return to the unfathomable source from which Milton drew.
The wetlands of the old counties of Lancashire and Cheshire which were inhabited by the Setantii tribe ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ are well known for their bog burials; Lindow Man and Woman, Worsley Man, severed heads from Pilling Moss, Briarfield, Red Moss, Ashton Moss, Birkdale.
The archaeological evidence suggests that Lindow Man and Worsley Man were human sacrifices. Lindow Man (also known as Lindow II) was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat was cut before he was cast into the peat bog. Worsley Man was garotted and his skull fractured before his beheading. These ‘overkill’ injuries are suggestive of ritual killing rather than death in battle or murder.
This is supported by the fact many bog burials from Britain and Europe ate special last meals. The last meal of Lindow Man was a griddle cake baked from finely ground wheat and barley. Lindow III, another man whose remains were found nearby, ate a meal of wheat and rye with hazelnuts. Old Croghan man from Ireland, and Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark also ate similar meals.
The head from Briarfield was ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ ‘with abundant remains of hazel’. Further north, at Seascale Moss in Cumbria, a body was buried in the bog with a hazel walking stick. Miranda Aldhouse Green notes that bog bodies from Gallagh in Ireland and Windeby in Germany wore hazel collars and another from Undelev in Denmark was buried with three hazel rods.
She connects them with a lead defixio of ‘late Roman date’ ‘from the river Ouse near the Hockwold Roman temple’ in Suffolk: ‘Whoever… whether male or female slave, whether freedman or freedwoman… has committed theft of an iron pan, he is to be sacrificed to the god Neptune with hazel’.
The Romans equated Neptune with our ancient British water-god Nodens at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall where an inscription reads ‘DEO NO/NEPTU’. At his Romano-British temple at Lydney, Nodens is depicted on a mural crown driving a chariot pulled by four water-horses accompanied by winged wind-spirits and centaurs with fish-tails and a fish-tailed fisherman.
Nodens gifted pilgrims with healing dreams but was also called upon to remove health. A curse tablet reads: ‘For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one-half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good-health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.’
It thus seems possible the people who ingested hazel prior to their deaths or were buried with it were sacrifices to Nodens who was equated with Neptune due to his watery qualities by the Romans.
The associations between Nodens and hazel have deep mythic roots. In Ireland Nodens was known as Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ and Nechtan (from the Old Irish necht ‘clean, pure, white’). Nechtan was the keeper of the Tobar Segais ‘Well of Wisdom’. Around it stood nine hazel trees which dropped their hazelnuts, containing imbas ‘inspiration’, into the water. They were eaten by salmon and this special poetic wisdom, known as awen in the Welsh myths, was infused into their flesh.
Only Nechtan and his three cup-bearers: Flesc, Lam, and Luam, were allowed to visit the well. Of those who transgressed their eyes would explode (!) – a possible metaphor for the effects of poetic vision.
When Nechtan’s wife, Boann, disobeyed this command the well overflowed and became the river Boyne. One of its kennings is ‘the forearm of the wife of Nuadhu’ and it was known in the early 2nd century CE as Buvinda (from early Irish *Bou-vinda ‘the white lady with bovine attributes’).
When Finn ‘White’, a descendant of Nuadha, cooked the Salmon of Wisdom for his master, Finnegeas, he burnt his thumb, put it in his mouth, and accidentally imbibed his eye-bursting imbas.
I believe it is likely a similar mythos surrounded Nodens here in Britain. On his mural crown a fisherman is catching a large fish and, on a mosaic on his temple floor at Lydney, two sea monsters are surrounded by salmon. Additionally, in medieval Welsh mythology, Arthur and his men ride up the river Severn, past the Temple of Nodens, on the back of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, to rescue Mabon.
In the dindsenchas the river flowing from Segais has many names. In Ireland it is not only known as the Boyne, but the Trethnach Tond ‘Ocean Wave’ and Sruth Findchoill ‘Stream of White Hazel’. Abroad it becomes Lunnand in Scotland, the Severn in England, then the Tiber, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris.
At Lydney we also find iconography depicting Nodens’ wife and our British Boann: a stone statuette, thirty inches in height, left leg crossed over right, holding a cornucopia. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. Unfortunately we do not know her name but the early Irish Bou-Vinda may relate to Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, the son she bore Nodens/Nudd. Gwyn’s name not only means ‘White’, but he is referred to as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, suggesting he inherited her bovine attributes.
As Vindonnus, at a spring in Gaul, he was offered bronze plaques depicting eyes. It has been suggested they were for aid curing eye ailments but they may also have been connected with poetic vision.
In medieval Welsh mythology, Gwyn, as Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’, is the guardian of a cauldron that is warmed by the breath of nine maidens and will not brew the food of a coward, suggesting it is associated with initiation into the mysteries of the awen tasted from its bubbling waters.
It seems Gwyn, who like Finn, has tasted the wisdom of the salmon from the hazelnuts from the nine hazel trees, and received his awen, later adopts his father’s role as a wisdom-keeper.
How, then, does this ancient Celtic mythos appear in and relate to the Water Country? On Cockerham Moss two Romano-British silver statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found. This suggests that a temple lay nearby. Cockersand Abbey, the closest sacred site, is dedicated to Mary of the Marsh, a Christian overlay on an earlier water-goddess – the wife of Nodens. I know her as Anrhuna which means ‘Very Great’ and is probably only one of her names.
The church on Castle Hill, the pen which gives its name to Penwortham (earlier Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ as it stood on Penwortham Marsh), is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the holy well at the hill’s foot. The large number of Marian dedications in the marshy areas of Penwortham and Preston with their sacred springs hint at the underlying presence of this water-goddess.
The legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral, set on Castle Hill, with its fairy leader ringing a passing bell and singing a mournful chant as he leads a procession of little black-clad men in red caps, bearing the fairy-double of an unfortunate young man to his grave suggests the presence of Gwyn.
Past the pen, sacred to Anrhuna, Nodens, and Vindos/Gwyn/Pen Annwn, runs the river Ribble. From Ptolemy’s Geography (2AD)we know Belisama is the goddess of the Ribble. She is the sister and/or consort of Bel, who is later known as Beli Mawr, father of Nudd/Lludd. The Ribble is rich in salmon and Maponos/Mabon and his mother Matrona/Modron were worshipped upriver at Ribchester. Modron is the daughter of Afallach (from afall ‘apple’), King of Annwn, a name of Gwyn.
Here, at the Green Hill on the Water, we find a parallel with Lydney ‘Lludd’s Island’. With salmon swimming upriver past a site associated with Mabon to the source where perhaps once stood nine hazel trees.
These stories run deep through this land as they ran through the land of our ancient British ancestors. Before its draining it was truly a water country of intertidal marshlands, reedbeds, carr, lakes and pools, peat bogs, and a damp oak woodland in which hazel and its nourishing nuts were precious.
It’s no wonder they were associated with Nodens, ‘the Catcher’, the wise fisher-god. Perhaps, by sacrificing their enemies to Nodens with hazel, the water dwellers repaid him for his generosity.
Another possibility is that some of the bog burials were devotees of Nodens sacrificed willingly to their god. Awenyddion who, like his son, had imbibed the hazel-rich awen. Lindow III’s consumption of hazelnuts before his death may have been a last act of communion. The man buried with the hazel staff might have carried it as a symbol of his role as a wisdom-keeper.
Hazel grows on the banks of Fish House Brook, which runs through the area once known as Fish Pan Field in Greencroft Valley into the river Ribble. In autumn its nuts are eaten by grey squirrels before they can drop into the brook where, due to changes in water level and pollution, fish no longer swim.
Still, as I pass, I think of the myth of Nodens and his nine hazel trees, Anrhuna’s transgression, Vindos/Gwyn eating the salmon imbued with awen from the hazelnut and his eye-bursting poetic vision, which he has gifted to me as his awenydd to pass on and share with my communities.
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974) Anne Ross, Life and Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of Lindow Man, an Archaeological Sensation, (Touchstone, 1991) David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008) Finnchuill, ‘Catching Wisdom: Nuadha, Nechtan, Nodens’, Finnchuill’s Mast, (2016) Jody Joy, Lindow Man, (The British Museum Press, 2009) Kay Muhr, ‘Water Imagery in Early Irish’, Celtica 23, (1999) Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)
Before starting my historical research I visited the Great Orme. I discovered that Orme is a Norse word meaning ‘sea serpent’ suggesting it was seen as a serpent living in the stone and guarding the coast. The Welsh name is, more prosaically, Y Gogarth which means ‘terraced rock’ and is equally fitting.
As I walked around the Orme, seeing the many heads of the serpent in the rock, admiring the rock flowers, searching for the springs (I only found Fynnon Gogarth and Fynnon Gaseg) I could imagine how a magician might have traversed the land, knowing all its features and the serpent intimately.
On the beach near Llandudno I found a shell that reminded me of the eye on the back of the magician’s hand.
I found out from a leaflet at the visitor centre the area has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period with flint tools and an intricately carved horse’s skull being found in the limestone caves. There is a Neolithic Cromlech, Bronze Age Mines, the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, and St Tudno lived in a cave (Tudno’s Cave) and built a church during the 6th century. Ridges and furrows provide evidence of a medieval farming community. Mining was resumed in the 17th century. The miners were housed at Cwlach and Maes y Fachell. I didn’t find any evidence of people living on the Orme during the period the magician might have lived or any lore suggesting the existence of a magician.
Yet on May Eve I had a dream that the magician was sleeping where I stayed in the Grand Hotel (I got a cheap room on the top floor – no doubt cheap because the lights in the bathroom flashed on and off like a disco and there were noisy seagulls nesting on the roof above!) and I had somehow missed him and was chasing him up down the stairs and lifts and looking behind the trolleys of the house keepers. On waking I had a vision of the magician invoking spirits in a huge cave underground.
This was significant because that day (May Day) I visited the Bronze Age mines. I hadn’t been before and did not know that, with over 5 miles over of tunnels, they are the largest mines in Europe or that they contain the largest man-made cave. The tunnels leading into the cave are open to the public.
When I entered I struck with awe not only by this finding but the numinosity of the great cavern, with its music of dripping calcite, illuminated by lighting that changed colour to accentuate the features of the rock. I could sense the press of the presence of the spirits, see their shifting forms, their faces.
I had the sense that, although it was made for mining bronze, it was seen as sacred – perhaps as the belly of the great sea serpent. It also seemed possible that Nodens/Nudd ‘Lord of the Mines’, his son Gwyn, and the spirits of Annwn along with the dead were revered and their fury was placated there.
That rituals took place to appease the underworld gods and spirits in the mines was evidenced by the burial of a cat surrounded by blackberry seeds 60 metres down. Uncannily, after I left the mines, crossing a field in search of the cromlech, a black cat approached and rubbed around my legs.
I found no direct evidence of the existence of a magician, but it certainly seemed possible he might have existed, found his way into the cavern and used it to invoke the spirits of Annwn.
Anrhuna… it’s taken me many years to find out her name… nearly as many years as the many names I’ve known her by: Lady Ivy, Lady Green, Lady of Peneverdant (‘The Green Hill on the Water’), Lady of the Marsh, Mother of the Marsh, Mary of the Marsh, Marian, Mother of Annwn.
At my local sacred site, Castle Hill in Penwortham (Peneverdant in the Domesday Book), the church on the summit is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the well at the hill’s foot. I have known for a long time a goddess replaced by Mary lies beneath. I’ve felt her presence in the water dripping from the ivy, in ferns, hart’s tongue, enchanter’s nightshade, all the plants that love the damp.
She’s gifted me with visions of how the land appeared to the ancient Britons who worshipped her. The Bronze Age Lake Village, the way across the marsh to the sacred hill marked out by stakes, the moonlit processions spiralling around the hill to light a beacon fire, the burial mound beneath the castle mound, the grove of trees circling the area where the church now stands, beloved of the druids.
Where the river Ribble (known then as Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’) runs culverted and shifted from her course and on the other side stand the flats and out of town stores around the redundant docks I have listened to widgeon whistling and curlew calling across the marsh. I have seen tall, handsome cranes grazing beside the river and taller, mightier aurochs drinking deep, raising horned heads.
Stranger still, two people from the US have contacted me to share visions of this place. A while back Heather Awen spoke of witnessing women making offerings from a wooden platform, praying for ‘a baby to fill their womb’, and seeing a woman ‘wrapped in burlap… tied with ropes’ lowered into the marsh. More recently Bryan Hewitt reported being drawn to do healing work in the area and seeing people in wooden boats traversing the river. Afterwards I had my first vision of the goddess as a person – a woman in a wooden boat getting bigger and bigger until she filled the skies, then trying to take the hill and docklands, severed by the moved river, in her arms to make her marshland one again.
Bryan spoke to me of his relationship with a goddess he knows as the Mother of Annwn. When I met her on a journey she presented me with watery marshland imagery. A number of threads came together and I realised my local marsh goddess is this goddess of the waters of life flowing from Annwn.
Another thread that helped to complete this mysterious tapestry of place and deity is Bryan’s knowledge that the Mother of Annwn is the mother of Gwyn ap Nudd, my patron god, who I met in the damp woodland on the east bank of Castle Hill, where our local fairy funeral legend is set.
It is well known from his patronymic that Gwyn’s father is Nudd/Nodens, but the identity of his mother has fallen into obscurity. In The Descent of the Saints Gwyn is listed as the son of Tywanwedd, a little-known sixth century saint, who is also the father of Gwallog and Caradog, yet this has never rung true. Neither has the ungrounded claim of Robert Graves that Gwyn’s mother is Arianrhod.
The only real clue I have found is Ann Ross’s mention that at Nodens’ temple at Lydney there was found a stone statuette of a mother goddess, thirty inches in height, ‘her left leg crossed over her right’, ‘a corncupia in the crook of her left arm’, her head unfortunately missing. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. It seems likely she is Nodens’ consort and Gwyn’s mother.
There is also evidence for the worship of Nodens here in Lancashire. Two statuettes dedicated to him were found on Cockersand Moss very close the remains of Cockersand Abbey. This was dedicated to Mary of the Marsh – my marshland goddess Christianised. I realised it was likely she and Nodens were worshipped together both there and here on Castle Hill with their son, Gwyn.
The final thread was finding out the goddess’s name. When guesswork failed I asked her directly and she set me searching for it through the reeds as if for a bird’s egg scaring up whistling ducks, digging down into the peat through layers of history to the age of dug-out canoes and bronze spears, hearing it whispered in my ear as if on the breath of a bog body – “Anrhuna” (tentatively ‘Very Great’).
The tapestry of land and deity at Castle Hill – Anrhuna, Nodens, Gwyn, alongside Belisama, is complete.