Nos Galan Gaeaf and the Beast with the Fiery Halo

It’s Nos Galan Gaeaf. The night before the first day of winter. An ysbrydnos – ‘a spirit night’. Unlike its counterbalance, Nos Galan Mai, when monsters are slain and dragons calmed this is a night when the ysbrydion Annwn ‘spirits of the Otherworld’ walk abroad at the height of their power.

There is a monster amongst us, COVID-19, the Beast with the Fiery Halo. To represent it as such is in keeping with the traditions of many generations of ancestors who perceived diseases to be caused by malevolent beings, before science and technology revealed they are caused by micro-organisms. From an animistic standpoint, wherein all things are alive and have personhood, these views are not incompatible.

In ‘Hanes Taliesin’ the illustrious bard predicted the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd at the hands of ‘A most strange creature… His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold.’ Maelgwn died after seeing Y Vat Velen, ‘The Yellow Plague’, through the keyhole in the church of Llan Rhos where he was ‘self isolating’.

Malaria, once known as the ague, took the form of a hag. Yr Hen Wrach, ‘The Old Hag’, was a seven foot woman who haunted Cors Fochno, Borth Bog. Her nocturnal visitations caused people to wake with the shakes. Samuel Taylor Coleridge later spoke of ‘the ghastly Dam, / Fev’rish yet freezing, eager paced yet slow, / As she that creeps from forth her swampy reeds, / Ague, the biform Hag!’

Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night when the veil of mist that separates the worlds is thin and the living may commune with the dead and the spirits of Annwn, some of whom we can name, and some whom are beyond categorisation. It is a time for telling stories in which otherworldly beings appear to haunt us and in which journeys to the Otherworld made. There is usually a dispelling or a safe return.

If we had a story about the Beast with the Fiery Halo it might go something like this. Many years ago our ancestors tried to build a world that was very much like the Otherworld, in which there was no want of food, or drink, or light, or heat, where no-one was cold, where no-one went hungry.

And that world was built at a great cost. The land was despoiled by mining and building. The air was polluted by fumes, which caused the temperature to rise. This led to the perishing of millions of trees, plants, animals, fish, and insects and to most of our ancestors living in servitude to the rulers who took power over the resources and machines that made this life possible. To depart from the system and the virtual world created by its technologies meant loneliness and ignominy, and at worst, death.

Most people accepted the cost, whether or not they were happy working at the machines, and turned a blind eye to the despoiling of the natural world because it was the only way to feed their families. Some did not. Some fought for change by protesting on the streets and others created nature reserves and planted trees and wildflowers and started growing their own food as an alternative.

Some prayed, to God, to the old gods, to Mother Earth, to Old Mother Universe, for something that would bring this system to an end. As if in answer to this prayer (and monsters are wily) appeared a beast the size of a sky scraper with limbs of countless animals, bent and twisted, as if trapped in a cage. Its lungs heaved phlegmatically in its scarred and hairy chest. Its many eyes were red and its mouths were gaping holes. Around its head was a blazing halo that burnt without burning the beast.

Like so many of the monsters in our myths it did not have a voice. It did not strike a bargain. It just came silently in the depths of winter and started taking the lives of our oldest most vulnerable people.

Protecting them came at a great cost: maintaining a distance from our friends and family, working less, travelling less, shopping less, to the benefit of the natural world and the detriment of our freedom. Our dependency on the rulers for financial support and the machines connecting us grew.

It felt like the unspoken bargain was this: ‘The lives of your old ones or your lives as you know them.’

Towards the end of summer we saw light shining through our prison bars. Although we all knew we had not defeated the monster we thought our sacrifices had kept it at bay. We dared to hope things might return to ‘normal’ but, as our liberties were restored, the monster took advantage. As winter approached, we saw the light was not sunlight, but the beast’s fiery halo, its triumphal crown.

The death toll is rising again. We are not at the end of the story but in media res, at the ‘crisis’, a Middle English term ‘denoting the turning point of a disease’ which is derived from medical Latin and dates back to the Greek krisis ‘decision’ and krinein ‘decide’. It’s decision time.

It’s as if we’re in a ‘choose your own ending’ book but the endings haven’t yet been written. We can only imagine them, happy or sad, tragic or comedic, apocalyptic or redeeming, guess there may be a twist.

Tonight the light of the blue moon is eclipsed by the beast’s fiery halo burning brighter than bright.

Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night on which, as a Brythonic polytheist devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd, I pray to him as the god who holds back the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent their destruction of the world and takes the souls of the lost and the angry dead to the Otherworld.

Countless times I have wondered why he has not held the beast back. Is it because he cannot or he will not? Is it because we are destroying the world? Because we too are monstrous?

We might consider that ‘monster’ originates from the Latin monstrum ‘to reveal’ or ‘to foretell’. Nos Galan Gaeaf, when Gwyn may be implored to part the mists of time, is a time for divination, for monstrous truths to be revealed and upon them our decisions based.

~

Gwyn ap Nudd

Starry Hunter in the Darkness
guide us through these nights of fear.

Midnight Rider on the Storm of Madness
teach us to ride these nights of tears.

Wise Warrior who guards the Cauldron
by the light of the blue moon

lead the living to deeper wisdom
and the dead back to Annwn.

The Hunt is Late

I fear
the hunt
is late
this year

because
of the green
canopies

because
of the unfallen
leaves

because
your presence
is just

a whisper
of an antlered
figure in

boughs
not yet shaken
by wind.

You are here.

You are here

I know it
by the black cat
who leaps

into my
arms trembling.
The quick-

ening beat
of my heart and
the shiver

of winter
rain falling by
lamplight.

You are here.

You are here.

I know it
when I recite
my poem –

the rain
falls harder your
night-drum

beating
within me and
the wood.

Shadows
stretch and prowl
yet your

hunters
remain dark to
the seer.

I fear
the hunt
is late
this year.

*This poem is addressed to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god whose hunt traditionally rides to gather the souls of the dead on Nos Galan Gaeaf. It is based on my marking of the occasion by reciting my poem ‘When You Hunt for Souls in the Winter Rain‘ (in the winter rain!) for Gwyn in Greencroft Valley. I find it disturbing that some of the leaves are still green and many have not yet fallen at this time of year, which in the Celtic calendars marks the beginning of winter. (The Welsh Nos Galan Gaeaf means ‘The night before the first day of winter’ and the Irish Samhain means ‘Summer’s End’).

You Read of a Smith

who made a pact with the devil
know little of how the story began
or what it implies when he sees the huntsman
galloping out of the fog on a cold dark October night.

You see the sweat dripping from his forehead sizzling
in the flames and are unable to tell what passes
between those dark brows when he sees
the horse he always shoes is lame,
its rider tired, shrouded by desperation,
yet still quiet-spoken when he makes his request
for shoes for running further faster between the worlds
to hunt down something that isn’t dead yet but isn’t living either.

You see the smith shiver as if ice has been dropped down his back
but not waver as he pumps the bellows, heats the furnace,
fires the steel, raises his hammer tries to imagine
what he is shoeing is only a hoof with wall,
toe, sole, tough and sensitive parts,
that this creature might be able to feel,
tries not to count the hooves that keep his forge ablaze all night
as the arched neck towers over him and the eyes flicker and glow.

Instead of counting his heartbeat he counts the beat of his hammer
which steeled his will during his ordeal in the fires that burn
like ice beyond good and evil, where he is working now,
face reddened, straining every muscle, engulfed
in the pain and ecstasy of creation for…
he will only ponder when there is nought but ashes
and hoof prints leading to where he, lame, cannot wander.
To where the stories you have read have come to an end and beyond.

*This poem is a Brythonic retelling of the traditional folkloric tale of a smith shoeing a horse for the devil. It features the smith-god, Gofannon, shoeing Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’ for Gwyn ap Nudd. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn, the Otherworld, and was equated with the devil. He rides out with his hunt to gather the souls of the dead on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

**Image ‘Man Shoeing a Horse’ by Jonathon Bean on Unsplash

Gwyn’s Hunt

Within modern Paganism Gwyn ap Nudd is generally understood to be a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’. Before Jacob Grimm developed the term Wilde Jagd ‘Wild Hunt’ and applied it to various otherworldly hunts across Europe in his Deutsch Mythologie (1835), they were known by individual names, often referring to their leaders, such as ‘Woden’s Hunt’, ‘Household of Harlequin’, and ‘Herla’s Assembly’. This essay will focus on the Brythonic tradition of ‘Gwyn’s Hunt’.

The earliest literary reference to Gwyn as a hunter comes from Culhwch and Olwen (1090) where it is stated, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found.’ This suggests Gwyn was the leader of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, prior to Arthur. According to the text, which was penned by Christian scribes, Twrch Trwyth was a king changed into a swine by God ‘for his sins’. This overlay conceals a pagan tradition wherein the ‘boar’ was a human shapeshifter. Gwyn’s hunt was for a man: a shapeshifting human soul.

The following lines, ‘God has put the fury of the devils of Annwn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ form another Christian overlay obscuring Gwyn’s role as a protector and ruler of Annwn containing furious spirits including the fay and the dead within his realm and person. The comb, razor, and shears Twrch Trwyth mysteriously carries between his ears may have been grave goods, suggesting he is a restless soul Gwyn hunts down into the ocean (symbolic of Annwn ‘the Deep’) on a cyclical basis to lay to rest.

In later folklore Gwyn is depicted hunting for souls with the Cwn Annwn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, who are also known as Cwn Wybyr, ‘Hounds of the Sky’, and Cwn Cyrff, ‘Corpse Dogs’. These include Dormach, Gwyn’s fair red-nosed hunting dog. To hear or see the Cwn Annwn is a portent of death. This belief may be rooted in earlier traditions where wolves and dogs along with carrion birds (Gwyn is also associated with ravens who ‘croak over blood’) devoured the corpses of the dead before Gwyn gathered their souls.

A fascinating legend surrounds the minstrel Ned Pugh or Iolo ap Huw who disappeared into the cave of Tag y Clegyr playing ‘Ffarwel Ned Pugh’, ‘Ned Pugh’s Farewell’:

‘To leave my dear girl, my country, and friends,
and roam o’er the ocean, where toil never ends;
to mount the high yards, when the whistle shall sound,
Amidst the wild winds as they bluster around!’

Exchanging ‘his fiddle for a bugle’ the minstrel became Gwyn’s huntsman-in-chief and can be found ‘cheering Cwn Annwn over Cader Idris’ every Nos Galan Gaeaf.

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There are numerous instances where Gwyn (by this name or as a spectral or demon huntsman or fairy king), sometimes with his hunt and sometimes alone, also carries off the souls of the living. On Nos Galan Gaeaf, Gwyn wins back his beloved, Creiddylad, from Gwythyr and takes her to Annwn. Creiddylad’s descent with Gwyn to the underworld explains the coming of winter. Later folktales featuring abductions may have some basis in this old seasonal myth.

Here, on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire, there is a story featuring Sybil, the Lady of Bearnshaw Tower, who spends an unseemly amount of time on the hills and moors chasing wild swans whose hound-like calls remind her of ‘wild hunters and the spectral horseman’. She is swept from the dizzy heights of Eagle Crag overlooking Cliviger Gorge by a ‘demon’:

‘Immediately she felt as though she were sweeping through the trackless air… she thought the whole world lay at her feet, and the kingdoms of the earth moved on like a mighty pageant. Then did the vision change. Objects began to waver and grow dim, as if passing through a mist; and she found herself again upon that lonely crag, and her conductor at her side.’

Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, goes ‘between sky and air’ and moves ar wybir ‘through the clouds’. I believe Gwyn is ‘the spectral horseman’ and Sybil’s demonic ‘conductor’.

Sybil’s ability to shapeshift may have been learnt from Gwyn: a god of transformation. In deer-form she is hunted down by a human huntsman called William Towneley and forced to marry him. Her failed attempt to escape in cat-form leads to her death and burial at Eagle’s Crag where she was captured; her ghost and William’s can be seen there every Nos Galan Gaeaf.

eagle-crag-drawn-by-g-pickering-and-engraved-by-edward-finden-copy

The Cliviger area is also haunted by Gabriel Ratchets, corpse hounds who may be an Anglicised variant of the Cwn Annwn. In his poem, ‘Gabriel Ratchets’, which is based on Sybil’s story, Philip Hamerton opens: ‘Wild huntsmen? ‘Twas a flight of swans / But how invisibly they flew.’

Gwyn and his hunt are associated with soul flight and ecstasis. Ecstatic experiences with otherworldly beings were frowned upon by the Christian church and twisted into stories of abduction by a demon huntsman or fairy king who was confronted by knights and heroes who won those ‘poor souls’ back (whether they wanted to return or not…).

When I accepted Gwyn’s challenge to ride with him to the Otherworld and offered my soul into his care he showed me parts of Lancashire where people lived in lake villages and walked on wooden trackways then glaciers creeping across the landscape with blizzard winds.

This has led me to believe Gwyn was worshiped as a god of hunting and the transitions of the souls of the dead and living between worlds by this land’s earliest inhabitants after the Ice Age. Yuri Leitch identifies Gwyn with the constellation of Orion and Dormach with Canis Major (Sirius, the dog star, is Dormach’s nose). Gwyn is our ancient British Hunter in the Skies who rises from Annwn on Nos Galan Gaeaf and presides over the dark months of winter.

Nos Galan Gaeaf is an ysbrydnos ‘spirit night’ when Gwyn’s Hunt rides and the borders between thisworld and Annwn, life and death, and the laws that govern time and space break down. It is a time of migrating swans and geese and transitions of souls. It is a time of deep magic.

I’ll end with a passage from Sian Hayton’s ‘The Story of Kigva’ because, for me, it evokes so beautifully the experience of flying with Gwyn:

‘She felt a hand on her arm… steady, comforting her in her despair. The strongest one of all was there, as he had been in the forest and he promised, silently, that he would stay with her for the rest of her vigil. With tears she thanked him and felt herself gathered up in his arms. Together, from then on, they wandered the universe. He showed her things which only he knew. With him she touched the cold, hard moon and walked on the black rind of the sky. She found the stars felt like the taste of blaeberries and the north wind was truly a great river whose source was the mountains of the sun. He gave her jewelled collars and crowns and broke open an oak-tree so that she could feast on the honey. There was no one equal to him.’

*This article was first published on Dun Brython HERE.

SOURCES

Jacob Grimm, Deutsch Mythologie, https://archive.org/details/deutschemytholo07grimgoog
J. Gwengobryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Lightning Source,1901)
John Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (Oxford, 1901)
John Roby, Traditions of Lancashire I, (1872) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15271/15271-h/15271-h.htm
Philip Hamerton, The Isle of Loch Awe and Other Poems of My Youth, (Forgotten Books, 2017)
Sian Hayton, ‘The Story of Kigva’, Within the Hollow Hills, (Lindisfarne Books, 1995)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom, (Redwood Burn, 1979)

Gwyn’s Hunt

For Nos Galan Gaeaf: An article on soul hunting and soul flight in the Brythonic tradition of Gwyn’s Hunt on this night of deep magic as the borders between thisworld and Annwn, life and death, and the laws that govern time and space break down.

Dun Brython

Within Neo-Paganism Gwyn ap Nudd is generally understood to be a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’. Before Jacob Grimm developed ‘the Wild Hunt’ as a concept applied to various otherworldly hunts across Europe in his Deutsch Mythologie (1835), they were known by individual names often referring to their leaders such as ‘Woden’s Hunt’, ‘Household of Harlequin’, and ‘Herla’s Assembly’. This essay will focus on the Brythonic tradition of ‘Gwyn’s Hunt’.

The earliest literary reference to Gwyn as a hunter comes from Culhwch and Olwen (1090) where it is stated, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found.’ This suggests Gwyn was the leader of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, prior to Arthur. According to the text, which was penned by Christian scribes, Twrch Trwyth was a king changed into a swine by God ‘for his sins’. This overlay conceals a pagan tradition…

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