Tylwyth Gwyn on Land Sea Sky Travel

Over the next month, on Land Sea Sky Travel, in the Corvids and Cauldrons chatroom, Vyviane Armstrong, Thornsilver Hollysong, Bryan Hewitt, and I are going to be hosting a series of meetings titled Tylwyth Gwyn. In them we are going to be exploring and deepening our devotional relationships with the Brythonic deity Gwyn ap Nudd and his family through shared devotions, practices such as meditations, and discussions of gnosis.

Thurs 4th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Gwyn ap Nudd

Thurs 11th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Creiddylad

Thurs 18th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Nodens/Nudd

Thurs 25th Feb 2.30pm EST / 7.30pm GMT – Anrhuna

These meetings are free and everybody is welcome. You can join by the Zoom link HERE.

*This image is an illustration from Y Tylwyth Teg (1935) and pictures a man brought before the Fairy King (Gwyn).

The Peat Pit – the Fish Pond of Gwyn ap Nudd

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.

Coronavirus and the Wonders of the Immune System

So far January has been pretty grim. Not only due the slippery alternation of icy weather and heavy rain, but because the UK is back in national lockdown due to a sharp rise in coronavirus cases as a result of holiday gatherings combined with a new variant that is 30 to 50 per cent more infectious. Hospitals are teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed and, on Wednesday the 13th of January, 1, 564 deaths from COVID-19 were recorded – the highest number since the pandemic begun.

My conservation volunteer work parties have been cancelled and my internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve has been limited to one day. Again we’re back to the horrible dichotomy between essential workers being stressed and overstretched whilst others have no work and feel useless.

However, unlike during the first lockdown in March, with the new vaccines and the vaccination programme underway there is hope of a return to some degree of ‘normality’ on the horizon. I have lived with the fear of catching coronavirus and passing it onto my parents, who are over seventy and have health issues for nearly a year, and am hoping they will be vaccinated by mid-February.

This moon cycle Gwyn has prompted me to look more deeply into the nature of the coronavirus and how this relates to his role as a ruler of Annwn who gathers the souls of the dead from battlefields, and arguably those who die of plagues, such as Maelgwn Gwynedd, who died of the Yellow Plague after seeing a golden-eyed monster through the keyhole where he was self-isolating in the church at Llan Rhos.

Gwyn is also said to contain the fury of the ‘devils’ of Annwn to prevent them from destroying the world. We might, perhaps, include viruses amongst this host. It is also notable that Gwyn’s father, Lludd/Nudd, put an end to three plagues in Lludd ac Llyefelys.

When I set out on and progressed with my research I was stunned by the proficiency of the coronavirus and more so by the cleverness and complexity of the human immune system and its cells. As I learnt about them and viewed their 3D representations I was filled with awe and wonder at their agency and beauty and more so because they are part of me.

Here is an account of my discoveries about the nature of coronavirus and the wonders of the immune system upon whose agency and efficacy the success of the vaccine depends. I write this for Gwyn and his father, Lludd/Nudd, defenders against plagues.

***

SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. Like other coronaviruses it is spherical in shape and consists of a membrane, which encloses its RNA, and protein spikes (which look like a corona). These are really important as they help the virus bind onto and attack host cells.

When droplets of the virus are inhaled or transferred from surfaces to the eyes, nose, or mouth of a healthy person it is provided with passage to the mucous membranes. These epithelial barriers not only provide a barricade against pathogens, but have their own defences such as tears, saliva, and mucus.

However, coronavirus has developed a particularly smart way of penetrating them. On these surfaces is a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 – ACE2 – and to this it binds its spike protein ‘like a key being inserted into a lock’. Thus ACE2 is the doorway by which it enters the host.

Once the virus gets into the membranes of the nose, throat, airways, and the lungs (where ACE2 is particularly abundant on type 2 pneumocytes in the alveoli), it hijacks the original function of the cells and turns them into ‘coronavirus factories’ in which it creates countless copies of itself, which go on to infect more cells, which go on to infect more cells, which go on to infect more cells…

Luckily, the invasion does not go unnoticed for it triggers a response from the innate immune system. (It is worth mentioning here that humans have not only one but two immune systems. The innate immune system, which is shared with other animals, plants, fungi, and insects, is the most ancient and the most primitive, having developed 500 million years ago. This provides a ‘front line’ general response. If it is unsuccessful, the adaptive immune system, which developed in vertebrates only, is activated and provides a more finely honed response, which targets a specific pathogen.)

Upon the invasion of the coronavirus, cells of the innate immune system stationed in the tissues and patrolling in the blood stream, which possess specialised pattern recognition receptors (PPRs), recognise pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) and damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs), and send out chemical signals that initiate the inflammatory response.

Chemicals such as histamine increase the blood flow to the infected area and cytokines attract white blood cells called phagocytes ‘eating cells’ (from Greek phagein ‘to eat’ and cyto ‘cell’) – firstly neutrophils and, within 24 hours, macrophages ‘big eaters’ (from Greek makrós ‘large’ and phagein ‘to eat’)

These phagocytes strive to destroy the virus through a process called phagocytosis that is unlike anything seen in the outside world. They engulf the virus within their membrane, enclose it within a vacuum known as a phagasome, then kill it by bombarding it with toxins. Afterwards neutrophils self-destruct via a process called apotosis. Macrophages also perform the role of devouring the dead cells. Around three days into the infection more phagocytes known as natural killer cells join the fight.

If the innate immune system fails to fend off the virus, the adaptive immune system steps in. The cells of the adaptive immune system target only specific antigens – molecules on the outside of a pathogen – and cannot recognise new antigens alone. Therefore they must be presented with them by antigen-presenting cells, such as macrophages and the dendritic cells of the membranes. These cells not only devour but process the virus and display its antigen on their surface. Thus they play an essential role in mediating between the innate and adaptive immune systems.

The main cells of the adaptive immune system are white blood cells called T-cells (because they are produced in the thymus) and B-cells (because they are produced in the bone marrow). When T-cells are activated by the presentation of an antigen they begin to mature and proliferate.

Four types of T-cell are produced. Cytotoxic T-cells specific to the coronavirus antigen bind to an infected cell and produce a chemical called perforin, which penetrates it, then cytotoxins called granzymes which destroy the cell and any virus inside by causing it to self-destruct via apoptosis.

Helper T-cells produce chemicals such as cytokines, interleukin (a pyrogen which increases molecular activity) and interferons (which cause nearby cells to heighten their viral defences) and activate B-cells. Regulatory T-cells stop the immune response and memory T-cells remember the antigen.

Once activated, B-cells produce and release antibodies that are perfectly fitted to the antigen. These perform several functions. They neutralise the virus, making it incapable of attacking the host cells; bind virus particles together in a process called agglutination; and bind to antigens, labelling them as targets. Memory B-cells, like memory T-cells, which remember the virus antigen, are also formed.

After five days, once the T-cells and B-cells are recruited, and the battle begins in earnest, the infected person starts to feel the symptoms of COVID-19. A sore throat, loss of smell and taste, and a persistent cough are caused by the inflammatory response. The mucus from a runny nose and that coughed up from the lungs is composed of dead phagocytes, dead cells, inflammatory exudate, and dead and living microbes. It is through these particles an infectious person spreads the disease.

Pyrexia, caused by the pyrogen interleukin (which you might recall increases molecular activity), is what brings about a heightened temperature, loss of appetite, and feelings of fatigue.

Most healthy people fight off the virus within 7 – 10 days. Those who do not become more seriously ill because the immune system overreacts and this leads to pneumonia, a condition in which the alveoli fill with water as a result of excess inflammation and tissue damage. This may be caused by coronavirus binding to ACE2 on type-2 pneumocytes and other membranes. ACE2 regulates a protein called angiotensin II, which raises blood pressure and causes inflammation. When coronavirus binds to ACE2, it inhibits its ability to regulate angiotensin II, thus the overreaction.

This can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, which happens when the inflammation of the lungs is so severe the body cannot get enough oxygen to survive, and can lead to organ failure. At this point a person is at risk of death and is admitted to intensive care and put on a ventilator.

Knowledge of the immune system not only helps us to understand how the body fights off coronavirus but also how the vaccines work. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, like other flu vaccines, uses a weakened form of the virus to activate the immune system’s response, so the T-cells and B-cells have memory of the antigen and can respond immediately upon a repeat infection.

The Pfizer-BioNTech is more novel because it takes the genetic code from the coronavirus antigen and uses it to create a messenger RNA (mRNA) sequence that tells the vaccinated person’s cells to produce antigens and present them to the T-cells and B-cells, preparing them for an immediate response.

***

My research has provided me with an illuminating revelation of hidden processes inside my body I was unaware of. In the death-eating phagocytes who process the dead virus and present its antigens it is possible to find elements of the Annuvian.

Could the white blood cells be seen as ‘guardians’ posted by Gwyn ‘White’ to help us defend ourselves from viruses like he and his host hold back the fury of the spirits of Annwn?

Perhaps… but I think truth of the matter is more complicated for Gwyn is said to contain the spirits of Annwn not only in his realm, but in his person, which is equivalent to us being able to contain the virus. This is impossible for us – for each side it is a battle to the death. It can only be contained by a god.

Paradoxically, Gwyn might be associated both with the breath-stealing life-stealing coronavirus and with the white cells who act as defenders and mediators within our bodies.

As a ‘bull of conflict’ he embodies the dark truth that, without and within, existence is ‘battle and conflict’. Yet that in this, beauty and wonder – the poetry of Annwn – can be found.

SOURCES

Anne Waugh, Alison Grant, Ross and Wilson Anatomy and Physiology, (Elsevier, 2018)

‘What is the ACE2 receptor, how is it connected to coronavirus and why might it be key to treating COVID-19? The experts explain’, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/what-is-the-ace2-receptor-how-is-it-connected-to-coronavirus-and-why-might-it-be-key-to-treating-covid-19-the-experts-explain-136928

‘Coronavirus: What it does the body’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51214864

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.’

Nodens Silver Hand

Silver Hand of Nodens Med

Nodens ‘the Catcher’ was worshipped across Britain in the Romano-British period. This is evidenced by his temple at Lydney, an inscription at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, and two silver statuettes found in Lancashire on Cockerham Moss suggesting the existence of a nearby shrine.

In medieval Welsh literature Nodens appears as Lludd Llaw Eraint. Lludd originates from Nudd ‘Mist’ and ‘Llaw Eraint’ means ‘Silver Hand’. A bronze arm found in Nodens’ temple in Lydney supports this link. His iconography and identifications with Mars and Neptune suggest he was a sovereignty figure associated with hunting, fishing, war, mining, healing, water, weather, and dreams. Many of these skills would have depended on his catching hand, which was lost and replaced in silver. Sadly we have no Brythonic stories explaining how Nodens/Nudd/Lludd got his silver hand.

Therefore we must turn to the Irish myths and the story of Nodens’ cognate Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ in The Battle of Moytura. This opens with the Children of Nemed departing from Ireland to escape the oppression of the Formorians, their exile in Greece, and return to Ireland to reclaim their land as the Fir Bolg at the time ‘the children of Israel were leaving Egypt’ (around 1000BCE*).

The Lebor Gabála Érenn informs us that the Children of Nemed split into three groups – the Fir Bolg, one that went to Britain, and one that went North and became the Tuatha Dé Dannan. It is amongst the Tuatha Dé Dannan, ‘People of the Goddess Danu’, that we find Nuada as High King.

In The Battle of Moytura we are told the Tuatha Dé Dannan returned to Ireland from the North to reclaim their share of the land from the Fir Bolg ‘in a cloud of mist and a magic shower’. Nuada made the demand: ‘They must surrender the half of Ireland, and we shall divide the land between us.’

The Fir Bolg refused and this led to a fearsome battle. Nuada played a central role. He ‘was in centre of the fight’ with ‘his princes’, ‘supporting warriors’ and ‘bodyguard’ and took on Sreng, the Fir Bolg’s champion. Sreng ‘struck nine blows on the shield of the High-King Nuada, and Nuada dealt him nine wounds.’ During this combat Nuada lost his hand, which is described dramatically in vivid detail. ‘Sreng dealt a blow with his sword at Nuada, and, cutting away the rim of his shield, severed his right arm at the shoulder; and the king’s arm with a third of his shield fell to the ground.’

Nuada was carried from the battlefield. This is followed by a striking and grotesque scene: ‘His hand was raised in the king’s stead on the fold of valour, a fold of stones surrounding the king, and on it the blood of Nuada’s hand trickled.’ What to make of this? I’ve heard of severed heads put on stakes and revered due to the belief the soul resides in the head, but not of severed limbs raised on folds of stones. Perhaps this represents a tradition where a ruler or warrior’s strength was believed to reside in his sword arm/hand. For this reason the hand/arm received reverence whilst its mutilated owner was seen as lacking in strength (this would explain Nuada’s later demotion).

Afterwards the Tuatha Dé Dannan gained ascendancy. A truce was called and the Fir Bolg were given three options: to leave Ireland, share the land, or continue fighting. Sreng decided to fight and challenged Nuada to single combat. ‘Nuada faced him bravely and boldly as if he had been whole.“If single combat on fair terms be what you seek, fasten your right hand, as I have lost mine; only so can our combat be fair.” This shows Nuada was seen as unwhole yet still acted bravely and fairly.

Sreng refused. Taking counsel, the Tuatha Dé Dannan decided to offer Sreng ‘his choice of the provinces of Ireland’. ‘A compact of peace, goodwill, and friendship’ was made and Sreng chose Connacht.

Because he was not whole Nuada was forced to step down from his position as High King. He was replaced by the half-Formorian half-Dannan prince Bres. Bres oppressed the Tuatha Dé Dannan: ‘their knives were not greased by him… their breaths did not smell of ale; and they did not see their poets nor their bards… nor did they see their warriors proving their skill at arms before the king.’ Ogma was forced to carry fire-wood and the great father-god, the Dagda, served as a rampart-builder.

During this period a silver hand was made for Nuada through the combined efforts of the physician, Dian Cecht, and the brazier, Credne. It seems both an intimate knowledge of human anatomy and skill at silver-work were required for this process. Successfully crafted, it ‘moved as well as any other hand’. This scene is uncannily reminiscent of modern bionic technologies.

What follows is even more uncanny. Credne’s son, Miach, felt an inexplicable disliking for Nuada’s silver hand. We are told ‘he went to the hand’ (here, frustratingly it is not clear if he is speaking to the severed hand or to the silver hand) ‘and said “joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew”; and he healed it in nine days and nights. The first three days he carried it against his side, and it became covered with skin. The second three days he carried it against his chest. The third three days he would cast white wisps of black bulrushes after they had been blackened in a fire.’

Here we find a complex ritual for the regeneration of a flesh-and-blood hand! Again, this seems to predict modern stem cell research; scientists are still struggling with complex processes of decellurisation and recellurisation in order to grow ‘ghost limbs’. Another example of a regenerating hand from the Welsh myths is the monstrous appendage that snatched Pryderi and Teyrnon’s foal and was chopped off by Teyrnon no doubt to reappear the next Calan Mai for more victims.

Similar miraculous healings took place in The Battle of Moytura. Both the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Dannan dug Wells of Healing. The Fir Bolg’s physicians ‘brought healing herbs with them, and crushed and scattered them on the surface of the water in the well, so that the precious healing waters became thick and green. Their wounded were put into the well, and immediately came out whole.’

The Tuatha Dé Dannan’s well was called Slaine. Dian Cecht and his sons Octriul and Miach chanted spells over it ‘to kindle the warriors who were wounded there so that they were more fiery the next day.’ It not only healed the wounded, but the mortally wounded and brought the dead back to life! ‘They would cast their mortally-wounded men into it as they were struck down; and they were alive when they came out.’ It shares qualities with the Cauldron of Regeneration in the Welsh myths.

Returning to the narrative, Bres was deposed. Nuada, with his flesh-and-blood sword hand, now whole, and thus seen as capable of rulership, was returned to his position of High King, now ruler of Ireland. Bres journeyed to the lands of his Formorian father and raised an army, led by Balor of the Piercing Eye.

As they approached, ‘making a single bridge of ships from the Hebrides to Ireland’, ‘terrifying’, ‘dreadful’, ‘a handsome well-built young warrior wearing a king’s diadem’ arrived at the gates of Nuada’s court. Cue the entry of Lug Lormansclech, ‘the son of Cian son of Dian Cecht and of Ethne Daughter of Balor’. Lug was half Danann and half Formorian. ‘Lormanslech’ means ‘Long-Handed’. It was revealed the youth is Samildanach, ‘many-skilled’. Like Nuada, many of his talents, such as building, smithing, fighting, playing a harp, were dependant on his sword-hand.

Nuada welcomed Lug and, perceiving his superior skill in combat, surrendered his kingship to him on the condition he released the Tuatha Dé Dannan from the oppression of the Formori. In the following battle Nuada was defeated and killed by Balor. Lug avenged Nuada by slaughtering Balor, his grandfather, by shooting a stone into his single eye with a sling and became the High King.

This epic story speaks clearly of Nuada’s bravery in combat, the slicing off of his arm and its raising on a fold of stones, the crafting of his silver hand and the magical regeneration of his flesh-and-blood hand, his loss and regaining of his sovereignty, his special friendship with Lug, and his death.

We might expect to discover a parallel mythos in ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion, which tells the story of the House of Dôn, who are cognate with the Tuatha Dé Dannan. Lleu Llaw Gyfes ‘Skilful Hand’ is a central figure and his story shares similarities with his cognate, Lug**. However, Lludd is not mentioned at all. Math is the sovereign of the House of Dôn and the grandfather of Lleu.

Will Parker suggests a parallel with the battle against the Formorians may be found in the ‘The Battle of the Trees’, from The Book of Taliesin, where the House of Dôn took on the forces of Annwn, the Otherworld. According to Triad 84 this ‘Futile Battle’ was initiated when Amaethon stole a lapwing, a dog, and roebuck from Arawn, King of Annwn. Gwydion enchanted the trees*** and Lleu was the battle-leader, ‘Radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’.

Amongst the enemy were ‘a great-scaled beast’, a ‘black-forked toad’, and ‘speckled crested snake’. Two englyns**** suggest Brân the Blessed, a gigantic son of Llyr previously associated with moving woodlands, now dead, fought amongst the people of Annwn. Once again, frustratingly, Lludd is conspicuous by his absence. If this was the battle where he lost his hand, his story has been lost.

Lludd appears instead in Lludd and Llefelys. He is introduced as Lludd Llaw Eraint, King of Britain. He already has his silver hand. The narrator presupposes the audience know the back story. We are told Lludd was a son of Beli Mawr, the father of Caswallon, who usurped the throne from Caradog, son of Brân, in ‘The Second Branch’. Assuming Lludd’s mother was Dôn this places him in a medial position between the Houses of Dôn and Beli. His power of mediating forms the heart of the tale.

We learn that, with advice from his brother, Llefelys, King of France, Lludd defeated three plagues, which bore some resemblance to the oppressions of Bres and the Formorians. The first was a people called the Coriniaid who were undefeatable because they could hear everything. The second was the scream of a dragon that blighted the land, causing loss of strength, miscarriages, barrenness, and crop failure. The third was a ‘powerful magician’ of ‘enormous stature’ who carried off Lludd’s provisions.

Lludd defeated them, not in epic battles, but through wit and magic. He banished the Coriniaid with a poison made from insects mixed in water. He calmed the two battling dragons by luring them into a well filled with mead, wrapped them in silk, and buried them in a stone chest. He caught the magician, who used a sleep spell, by standing in a tub of cold water to stay awake, defeated him in combat, then made him his vassal. Lludd then ruled Britain ‘in peace and prosperity’ until his death.

This story is set during the time of the Roman invasions. The Coriniaid (or Caesariad) were the army of Caesar who invaded in 55BCE and were driven from Britain by a wintry storm. Lludd’s dragon screamed because it was battling the dragon ‘of a foreign people’. Lludd’s calming of the dragons possibly represents him making peace between the Britons and Romans many years later. These historicised stories, particularly that of the battling dragons who fight again during the Anglo-Saxon invasion, are likely to have a deeper mythic basis. The magician was a purely otherworld figure.

Lludd mediated between threats from other lands and from the Otherworld and made peace with Llefelys’ aid. Their relationship bears similarities to the special friendship between Nuada and Lug.

In Britain Lludd’s role as a peacemaker rather than as a warrior was emphasised. The focus of his temple was not war but healing dreams. It’s my intuition his associations with healing may stem from his wounding, from the loss of his hand, his status as a wounded king. Silver-handed, he is whole-and-not-whole, and occupies a liminal and dreamlike position between Thisworld and the Otherworld.

It is of interest that Nodens/Nudd/Lludd’s son, Gwyn ap Nudd, is a ruler of Annwn. His role is to contain the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent their destruction of Thisworld. Gwyn is also a mediator.

Putting the evidence together we can conclude that Nodens lost his hand in a battle against some form of oppressor, possibly an Annuvian giant with a single eye, during ‘the mythic foretime’. His severed hand was raised on a fold of stone or paraded through the land with reverence and solemnity. Somebody, perhaps Gobbanus the smith-god, with the help of a physician, crafted him a silver arm. During this process he lost and regained his sovereignty. In the face of another threat Lugus arrived at his court and, in the ensuing battle, Nodens was killed and Lugus took his place.

Resurrected as King of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion Nodens/Nudd/Lludd worked with Lugus/Llefelys to bring peace to the island. Both deities were revered by the Roman Britons. After their veneration died their stories lived on and form an important part of the text we know as The Mabinogion.

And this was not Lludd’s only rebirth. In the name of King Lud, the eponymous leader of the Luddites, who struggled against the oppression of the Cotton Lords, we find echoes of Lludd’s name.

Again, as we are faced with oppression from right-wing groups and governments, he is invoked: “No King but Lludd!” As the sovereignty of the gods is affirmed against the corrupt rulers of Thisworld a fitting symbol of this time might be a silver hand; dealing blows, healing, bringing peace.

*Scholars have traced the story of the exile of the Israelites to prophets in 700BCE and suggest it may have happened around 1000BCE, although no archaeological evidence has bd een found to support.
** The attempts of Arianrhod, Lleu’s mother, to prevent him from winning a name, arms and a wife share parallels with Balor trying to stop Lug gaining a name and wife in order to prevent his prophesied death. Lleu’s defeat of his rival in love, Balor, with a spear-blow is similar to Lug killing Balor with a sling-shot or, in some cases, an enchanted spear.
***In The Battle of Moytura, Be Chuille and Dianaan, Lug’s ‘two witches’ said: “We will enchant the trees and the stones and the sods of the earth so that they will be a host under arms against them; and they will scatter in flight terrified and trembling.”
****These englyns are found in the Myvyrian Archaeology:

Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield;
Bran art thou called, of the glittering branches.

Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle:
The high sprigs of alder are on thy hand:
Bran by the branch thou bearest
Has Amathaon the good prevailed.

SOURCES

Edwin Hopper (transl), ‘The Battle of Moytura’, Edwin Hopper
John T. Koch (ed), The Celtic Heroic Age, (Celtic Studies Publications, 2003)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, (Faber & Faber, 1999)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
Cad Godau’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

Nodens and the Serpents of the Deep

Nodens is in an ancient British god of hunting/fishing, water, the weather, healing, and dreams. ‘Nodens’ has been translated as ‘the Catcher’ and ‘Cloud-Maker’, and ‘Deus Nodens’ as ‘God of the Abyss’ and ‘God of the Deep’. The latter links him with Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the underworld. The nursery rhyme name for the dreamworld, ‘the Land of Nod’, derives from ‘Nodens’.

Nodens is a god of the subliminal realms beneath the everyday world and their hidden processes. This is suggested by the imagery of his Romano-British dream-temple at Lydney. In the centre was a mosaic depicting two blue and white sea-serpents with intertwined necks and striking red flippers. William Bathurst likens them to the icthyosaurus, ‘fish lizard’, of the late Triassic and early Jurassic whose remains have been found across Europe and Asia.

Mosaic from Nodens' temple

The mosaic also depicts numerous fish, possibly salmon, which would fit with salmon fishing on the river Severn, which the temple overlooks, and the legend of the salmon of Llyn Lliw carrying Arthur’s men up the Severn to Gloucester to rescue Mabon.

An inscription on the mosaic reads: ‘D(eo) N(oenti) T(itus) Flavious Senilis, pr(aepositus) rel(oqiatopmo), ex stipibus possuit o [pus cur]ante Victorio inter[pret]e.’ ‘The god Nodens, Titus Flavious Senilis, officer in charge of the supply-depot of the fleet, laid this pavement out of money offerings; the work being in charge of Victorious, interpreter of the Governor’s staff.’ It has been argued Victorio inter[pret]e, ‘Victorious, interpreter’ was an interpreter of dreams.

Another artefact found in Nodens’ temple was a bronze plaque from a priest’s ceremonial headdress. Nodens rides from the deep on a chariot pulled by four water-horses. He wears a crown, carries a sceptre in his right hand, and a sea-serpent is looped around his left arm. Flanking him are two winged wind-spirits and two icthyocentaurs, ‘fish-centaurs’ or ‘centaur tritons’, with heads and chests of men, front hooves of horses, and tails of fish. They carry hammers and anchors. Beneath is another icthyocentaur with a hammer and chisel and a fisherman with a short tail and gills hooking a fish, which could be a salmon.

Plate XIII Bathurst

All of this imagery is suggestive of the deep: rivers, the sea, and the depths of the dreamworld/underworld where prehistory gives birth to myth and the boundaries between species break down.

Pilgrims came to Lydney for dream-healing. They would arrive at the guesthouse, bathe in the baths, then make offerings to Nodens through a funnel in his temple (which suggests he dwelled below in the deep). They would then retire to a long row of cells to enter a sacred (likely drug-induced) sleep during which they would receive a vision from Nodens. The dream-interpreter would listen to the dream then suggest a method of healing based on Nodens’ message.

Offerings included coins and several beautifully crafted bronze hounds. It is likely dogs were present to lick the wounds of the injured to aid in the healing process. They may also have acted as psychopomps guiding the sleepers through the dreamworld. The son of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn ap Nudd, had a red-nosed dog called Dormach with two serpents’ tails.

***

Nodens’ temple was built on an iron ore mine and he was known as ‘Lord of the Mines’. This may explain the hammers and chisels carried by the icthyocentaurs. Mines are associated with the chthonic depths of the underworld and its riches, which are often guarded by serpents.

Intriguingly a man called Silvianus vowed half the worth of a 12g golden ring to Nodens in exchange for withholding health from its thief, Senicianus, until it was ‘returned to the Temple of Nodens’. The ring was dug up in a field in Silchester in 1785 with a new inscription: Seniciane vivas in deo, ‘Senicianus, may you live in God’. What was originally inscribed on it remains unknown. It seems possible it served a ritual function in Nodens’ temple.

Ring of Silvianus - Wikipedia Commons

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states ‘I have a carved ring, a white horse gold-adorned’. His ring is an important part of his symbology and  might have been a gift from his father. Angelika Rüdiger links its circularity with the ouroboros.

The ouroboros first appears in ‘The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld’ in the ancient Egyptian Funerary text KV62, which focuses on the union of the sun-god Ra with Osiris, god of the underworld. In an illustration two serpents with their tails in their mouths coil around the unified Ra-Osiris. The image represents the beginning and the end of time.

The ouroboros was passed on to the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks who gave it its name. In Greek oura means ‘tail’ and boros ‘eating’, thus ‘tail eater’. The ouroboros appears in most cultures across the world and throughout history.

A pair of sea-serpents are central to Nodens’ temple. He holds a sea-serpent. It seems possible two ouroboros serpents may have been carved on a ring worn by Nodens and passed on to his son, representing their knowledge of the depths of time where beginning and end meet as they bite their tails. Silvianus’ ring may have been a replica of this powerful mythic artefact.

It’s rumoured that Tolkien based his One Ring on the ring from the temple of Nodens and that Nodens, ‘Lord of the Mines’ was a precursor to Sauron, ‘Lord of the Rings’.*

***

In medieval Welsh literature Nodens appears as Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint, ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’. Their linguistic connection is certified by a bronze arm found in the temple of Nodens.

Nobody knows how Lludd lost his arm or how his silver one was made. Parallels might be found with his Irish cognate, Nuada Airgeadlámh, ‘Nuada Silver Arm’, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who lost his arm battling against the Fir Bolg. Because of his physical imperfection Nuada was replaced as king by the tyrant, Bres. After Bres was removed Nuada was restored to sovereignty with a new silver arm made by the healer Dian Cecht.

In the story of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd’s sovereignty is also under threat. Although he is described as ‘a good warrior, and benevolent and bountiful in giving food and drink to all who sought it’ he is unable to defend Britain from three plagues; perhaps this is due to his missing arm.

The first plague is a people called the Coraniaid who cannot be harmed because they can hear all  conversations on the wind. The second is a scream every May eve that causes such terror that men lose their strength, women miscarry, youths go mad, and the land becomes barren. The third is the disappearance of the year’s supply of food and drink from the king’s courts.

This story is set during Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC. The Coraniaid are the Caesariad, ‘Romans’ and the other plagues seem linked to the ill effects of their attacks. Lludd, of course, was not a ‘real’ king at that time but a divine ruler of the underworld who may have been called upon by the Britons for aid against the Romans.

Unable to defeat the plagues himself, Lludd is forced to seek the aid of his brother, Llefelys, ‘king of France’. Llefelys instructs Lludd to poison the Coraniaid with insects crushed into water. He then explains the scream: ‘that is a dragon, and a dragon of another foreign people is fighting it and trying to overthrow it, and because of that your dragon gives out a horrible scream.’

Red and white dragons - from 15th C History of the Kings of Britain - Wikipedia Commons

Lludd’s dragon represents the Britons and the other dragon the Romans. Lludd, again, is connected with two dragons/serpents. Will Parker has likened Lludd’s dragon’s scream to ‘the scream over Annwfn’, a ‘mysterious ritual frenzy’ uttered by a person threatened with losing their claim to inherited land. It may have originated as an invocation of the spirits of Annwfn to bring about madness and barrenness. Likewise Lludd’s dragon screams as its land is lost to the Romans, blighting all who live there. Lludd has lost control of these chthonic forces.

Llefelys teaches Lludd to put an end to the second plague by a complex ritual process. He must measure Britain, length and breadth, and locate its centre. This omphalos, ‘navel’, turns out to be Oxford. It is of interest that the Greek omphalos, Delphi, was formerly known as Pytho and its oracle, the Pythian priestess, spoke with the aid of the whispering python coiled beneath.

Could Oxford have been the location of a dragon (or dragons) who whispered prophecies from the navel of Britain? Dragon Hill lies 50 miles outside Oxford. Its connections with Uther Pendragon and a dragon-slaying by Saint George are suggestive of an older and deeper mythos.

Lludd is instructed to dig a hole at the centre of Britain then place in it a vat of mead with a sheet of brocaded silk over the top. Llefelys says, ‘You will see the dragons fighting in the shape of monstrous animals. But eventually they will rise into the air in the shape of dragons; and finally when they are exhausted after the fierce and frightful fighting, they will fall onto the sheet in the shape of two little pigs, and make the sheet sink down with them, and drag it to the bottom of the vat, and they will drink all the mead, and after that they will fall asleep.’

This scene depicts the return of the escapee dragons to the omphalos of Britain and the deep. It is intriguing that they are not just dragons but are capable of taking many different forms. It is possible to perceive a mythic and perhaps evolutionary development in their shapeshifting from ‘monstrous animals’ beyond description to ‘dragons’ to two seemingly innocent ‘little pigs’.

Finally Llefelys tells Lludd to ‘wrap the sheet around them, and in the strongest place you can find in your kingdom, bury them in a stone chest and hide it in the ground, and as long as they are in that secure place, no plague shall come to the island of Britain from anywhere else.’

Lludd buries the dragons at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The next time they cause trouble is during the reign of Vortigern. Every time he attempts to build a fortress on the hill it falls down. Merlin Emrys reveals to him that the cause is two dragons battling. The red one represents the Welsh and the white one the Anglo-Saxons.

Llefelys informs Lludd that the food and drink are stolen from his court by a magician who uses a sleep spell. He suggests Lludd step in a tub of cold water to keep himself roused. Lludd defeats the magician in combat, all that is lost is restored, and the magician becomes his vassal.

All three plagues are defeated. The chthonic forces of Annwfn are brought back under Lludd’s control. Caesar’s invasion of Britain fails. Lludd and Llefelys depicts the mythic processes beneath this historical period, which the Druids and seers who interacted with the deities of the underworld might have been aware of and perhaps instigated with prayers and invocations.

Lludd reigns ‘until the end of his life’ ‘in peace and prosperity’. One wonders whether Llefelys had a role in creating Lludd’s silver arm…

It seems Lludd’s ‘kingdom’, Annwfn, the deep, is passed on to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, whose role is to contain the spirits of Annwfn to prevent them from bringing about the end of the world.

Does Gwyn’s inheritance include the serpents of the deep: beings who are older than gods, whose ‘battles’ may be less about conflicts between groups of humans than the regenerative processes that shape the earth through the aeons, through the beginnings and endings of each world?

***

*Tolkien advised Sir Mortimer Wheeler on his excavation of Lydney in 1938

SOURCES

Angelika Heike Rüdiger, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: A First and Frame Deity, Temple 13, (Temple Publications)
Caitlin Matthews and Jane Dagger, ‘Temple of Nodens Incubation’ http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/temple-of-nodens-incubation
Elizabeth A. Grey (transl), The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, (Forgotten Books, 2007)
Greg Hill (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Sylvia Victor Linsteadt, ‘The Return of the Snake’ http://theindigovat.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/the-return-of-snake.html
William Hiley Bathurst, Roman Antiquities at Lydney Park, https://archive.org/details/romanantiquitie00bathgoog
‘The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley’s Celts and Romans’ http://www.deanweb.info/history4.html

Dôn and Returning to the Source

Creatures by Greg Hill

On the cover of Greg Hill’s poetry collection, Creatures, is an image of a sculpture by Fidelma Massey called ‘Water Mother’. The first ekphrastic poem bears the same name. Rivers flow through the book with rain and turning tides.

When I reviewed Creatures in November 2014 I didn’t think I’d ever meet a mother goddess; I decided not to have children at an early age and don’t have a nurturing bone in my body.

However I’ve long been drawn to local rivers, streams and wells, above ground and those unseen, been haunted by the songs of their spirits whether rippling in sunshine, hurtling through darkness, rattling against culverts or running free.

I’ve seen a water dragon shrink and die because we shattered her aquifer, heard the screams of her daughters, stood before the empty greyness of her ghost.

In retrospect it’s not that surprising I should meet a water mother: the primal source from whom every river flows and returns. The fountainhead of all water. She who gives and draws back into the abyss.

***

Her name is Dôn. I met her last October in a vision where I was surrounded by hills filled with people. Somehow the hills became the folds of my coat and I was privileged with custodianship of these people whilst together we witnessed a primordial creation scene.

A dark orb appeared, then pupil-like, placenta-like, emerged the diaphanous form of a goddess. After her appearance the orb came to life: amoeba, green moving swards of vegetation, trees, people, marching through a labyrinthine kingdom back into the void carrying houses and entire civilisations.

Sometimes people get stuck, I heard them knocking, felt they wanted to shout out through me. From a huge crow watching above I received the gnosis my patron, Gwyn, carries the lost ones under his wings, that I too bear some responsibility for them; albeit by carrying their stories.

At the end the goddess’s name rang through the hills, from the spiralling abyss of the deep, echoing in the minds of her people, in the vow I’d made to Gwyn who flies between them: Dôn Dôn Dôn. I had the feeling of being part of her family.

***

Little is known about Dôn from Brythonic tradition. The rivers Don in south Yorkshire and Aberdeenshire bear her name suggesting she is a water goddess. In The Mabinogion we find her children: Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Arianrhod, Gofannon, Amaethon, Eufydd and Elestron.

To learn more it is necessary to turn to Irish parallels and Danu, mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danaan (‘Tribe of the Goddess Danu’). Danu derives from proto-Celtic *Dānu ‘fluvial water’ and is associated with the ‘Indo-European heartland’ of the river Danube. Liz Greene says her ‘dark face was Domnu, which means “abyss” or “deep sea”.

The Tuatha Dé Danaan arrived in dark clouds from islands in the north and took the kingship of Ireland from the Fir Bolg. In turn they were defeated by the sons of Míl Espáne who took the surface whereas the Tuatha were forced underground into the sídhe (‘mounds’) becoming the aos sí (‘people of the mounds’).

Will Parker suggests the Tuatha’s arrival from the north is based on a migratory route from Greece via Scandinavia and says Neolithic Grooved Ware and Bronze Age Bell Beaker cultures show Indo-European influence.

There are no records of how the Children of Don arrived. In the Fourth Branch, Dôn has fallen into the background and her son, Gwydion, is lord of Gwynedd. Similarly we find out little about Beli, grandfather of Brân and father of Caswallon and Lludd, who become rulers of Britain.

In contrast with the Irish myths, the sons of Beli do not defeat the children of Dôn. Instead, Dôn and Beli marry and their children are seen as one family belonging to the House of Dôn.

After the death of Nudd / Lludd Llaw Eraint (‘Lludd of the Silver Arm’), like the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the Children of Dôn retreat into the Brythonic ‘underworld’ Annwn (‘not-world’ ‘the deep’). Gwyn ap Nudd appears as Annwn’s ruler and later as a Fairy King.

***

I’ve been devoted to Gwyn for three years and have gradually been getting to know him and Annwn. My explorations have led me through the deep memories of the landscape to his realm where history and myth blur and are never wholly separate

My initial work (which remains important) involved recovering the memories of my locality. Now I am being led deeper into the underworld where Nudd / Nodens, keeps the matter of dream and Dôn presides over the waters of creation and destruction.

Although earlier worlds and their children have sunk into Annwn they remain in our sacred landscape: in the hollow hills, in deep lakes and the sea, in our flowing rivers and their names.

Although barrow mounds have been ploughed over, rivers culverted, lakes drained, they are still with us in Annwn’s memory which will not let us forget their presence and what we’ve done.

Old bonds split and severed by centuries of Christianity, industrialisation, commodification, hyper-rationalism can be reknit and renewed by swimming back down the labyrinthine ways to where we’re unified with our ancestors, the old gods, their primal source: the water mother Dôn.

SOURCES

Liz Greene, The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption, (Weiser, 1996)
Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn, (Dublin University Press, 1937)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)

Invernith

My arrival is slow to wonder
initial disbelief
fading into silver-lined water
the mirror imprint
of Nith’s name a god in glass
becoming grey cloud
in the ether says
BELIEVE BELIEVE.

In the netherworld gloaming birds
shriek BELIEVE BELIEVE:
barnacle geese beat
black and white hearts against Crifell.
As the dark moon starts her slow pull
downward to Invernith
my fingers brush water
and touch a silver hand.

Invernith with Crifell

Nith’s Estuary

After visiting the site of the Battle of Arfderydd, we chose to stay in the Nith Hotel at the mouth of the estuary as it was close to Caerlaverock and because I wondered whether, like Neath, there was a connection with Nudd and his son, Gwyn. I went with no strong expectations or feelings.

When we arrived at the car park I was utterly blown away. Clouds dark blue and dappled silver were reflected perfectly in still quiet waters. Splitting the silence hollering overhead flew drove after drove of barnacle geese following the river’s course then disappearing from sight at the estuary.

Earlier we had accidentally spooked a field filled with these magnificent birds. With barking cries and clamouring wings they took off flashing black and white, ascending into hurtling v’s.Shortly afterward a covey of swans flew over honking deep and resonant calls.

SwansIn the folklore of Wales, northern England (and beyond) ‘the Wild Hunt’ is associated with flights of swans and geese. Gwyn is one of its leaders. The term is usually limited to instances where the birds cannot be seen and those who hear them fear for their lives and souls.

My experience in this case was more of beauty than terror. The estuary of the Nith where sky met river and Criffel displayed its otherside in the lucid water was clearly a liminal place. There was something deeply magical about the passing birds and their wild song.

This reminded me a translation of Annwn (the Brythonic ‘otherworld’ Gwyn rules) is ‘the deep’. Annwn as hidden depth has intriguing resonances with the sound of ‘Nudd’. Onomatopoeically it links not only to Neath and Nith but the concepts beneath, underneath and the netherworld. This evening showed Annwn’s depth is immanent in this-world and can be experienced here.

Later on the brink of sleep I found myself thinking of Nudd / Nodens’ temple on the estuary of the river Severn. People made votive offerings to him as a god of hunting, healing and dream then slept in a designated space and priests interpreted their dreams in the morning.

Recently I discovered Nudd is not only the name of a family of Brythonic gods but also a human family name. Dreon ap Nudd fought on the dyke of Arfderydd not far from the Nith. His father, Nudd Hael, is included in the genealogies of the Men of the North. In the Yarrow valley lies a memorial stone to ‘the illustrious princes Nudus and Dumnogenus. In this tomb lies the son of Liberalis.’ Tim Clarkson says ‘Nudus is a Latinisation of Nud or Nudd.’

It seems possible this ancient northern family derived their name from Nodens / Nudd and that he was their ancestral deity and they may have served him in a similar way to the priests on the Severn. Preparing to slip into the netherworld, ‘the land of Nod,’ I wondered how many other worshippers of Nudd and his kindred had slept on Nith’s estuary.

In the morning when I awoke the barnacle geese were flying back up river to feed on the fields and salt marsh. Several groups landed on the banks and by making a careful approach we managed to draw close enough to photograph them.

Barnacle GeeseBarnacle geese possess some fascinating folklore. It was once believed they grew on driftwood like barnacles hanging down from their beaks until they grew a coat of feathers and were ready to fly away. Their growth from barnacles in summer explained why they only appeared as birds in the winter months.

Visiting the Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust we found out the ‘real’ reason they can only be seen in winter. Barnacle geese incubate their eggs and raise their goslings in Svalbard in Norway between May and September when the Gulf Stream melts the ice. As winter approaches they fly 3000 km south to the Solway Firth.

In the 1940’s there were only 300 birds. Due to the work of the trust there are now over 30,000. However, if global warming continues it is possible that ice melting early in Svalbard will leave their eggs vulnerable to being eaten by polar bears.

As well as finding out more about barnacle geese we got to see whooper swans up close at feeding time. Whooper swans are another over-wintering bird who fly in from Iceland and can be told apart from mute swans by their yellow beaks.

Whooper SwansIt is my growing intuition that Gwyn, as a god of winter, may have a connection with birds over-wintering in Britain and that this would vary from place to place.

Forgotten Arfderydd and the Hearsay of Corvids

Last Saturday I set out north to the site of the Battle of Arfderydd. At the forefront of my mind was the matter of forgetting.

If Arfderydd was significant enough to be recognised as one of Three Futile Battles of Britain, if it was where Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king of the Old North, made his final stand and one hundred and sixty men lost their lives before he died and three hundred after and where Myrddin Wyllt went mad, why no marker of the site? Why no songs? Why has Arfderydd been forgotten?

Considering Gwyn ap Nudd stated his presence at Gwenddolau’s death and at the deaths of other northern warriors and the episode where he abducts Creiddylad, Gwythyr and his (mainly northern) supporters takes place in the Old North why has his memory faded from the minds of the people of northern Britain?

In search of clues, a friend and I travelled north to Longtown and set off on foot up Netherby Road, consciously following in the footsteps of William Skene and Nikolai Tolstoy. The first place we visited was Netherby Hall, the mansion of the Graham family built on the site of the Roman fort Castra Exploratum. An altar dedicated to a god called Vitris and ram-horned head carved from local red sandstone found nearby suggest it was the location of a Romano-British cult.

Netherby HallAs we approached from the south Netherby Hall’s sandstone walls came into view atop a prominent ridge with polygonal towers, parapets and scaffolding. An encircling wire fence said strictly out of bounds. Following the path round the mansion we passed a woodland carpeted with snowdrops and trees stacked with rooks’ nests filled with noisy, vocal, raucous birds

Never before had I seen many rooks or heard such a racket. Their croaking and cawing see-sawed in my mind like something trying to break through. Unfortunately I don’t speak very good rook. Yet the rooks seemed important. More important than the blank face of the mansion and its ‘Private’ sign.

We rejoined the main road and headed north for Carwinley. When Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) told St Kentigern of his guilt at the deaths of the combatants and vision of a host of warriors (who I believe to be Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn) he stated the battle took place ‘in the field between Liddel and Carnwanolow.’ Skene identified Liddel with Liddel Water and Carnwanolow as Caer Gwenddolau and connected this with Carwinley.

Passing Carwinley cottage, farm and water mill we looked down into the sandstone gulley of the burn, steep banks green with ferns, onto shining reddish water. I recalled Andrew Breeze’s interpretation of Arfderydd as ‘burning weapon’ relating to this bloody stream forming the parish of Arthuret’s boundary. Breeze said ‘Car’ need not mark a fort but a defensive stockade. It certainly seemed possible the burn was named after Gwenddolau’s fall.

Carwinley BurnThe Triads of Ancient Britain also mention ‘the retinue of Dreon the Brave at the Dyke of Arfderydd.’ Dreon ap Nudd is the son of Nudd Hael. If this etymological link to Gwyn ap Nudd (and his father Nudd or Nodens) suggests an ancient connection between a northern family and their ancestral deities it is no surprise Gwyn and his host appeared at the battle where Dreon and his retinue met their end.

As I pondered whether the ‘Dyke’ they fought on was above Carwinley Burn I saw crows over the trees who shouted and cawed then pitched their games across a sky of constant silver-grey cloud. A sky of concealing. A sky of protection. A sky of no openings onto crashing visions of warriors.

Fields of Arfderydd

 

As we passed the green and well-tilled-over crow-haunted fields the dead did not rise. There were no whispers, no warnings, only the hearsay of corvids.

 

Upper Moat

 

At Upper Moat where reputedly the three hundred men who fought after Gwenddolau’s death were buried there was no sign of the orchard Skene mentioned but crows filled the trees in the background.

Our final destination was Liddel Strength, a motte and bailey which might have been the location of Gwenddolau’s fort and where his ‘Faithful War Band’ could have made their last stand, fighting for a month and a fortnight after the death of their leader. Unable to find our way we were directed by a local farmer (coincidentally Skene was directed by a farmer from Upper Moat too!) onto a shooter’s path which climbed steeply beside Liddel Water.

On the way we encountered a line of not-dead reeds hauntingly reminiscent of flags or ribboned spears blowing in the wind on an abandoned battlefield. Or of forlorn warriors.

Reeds of ArfderyddThe site of Liddel Strength was badly eroded by the river and appallingly overgrown. Breaching the defensive ditch we scrambled through hat-snatching hawthorns and ankle-snagging brambles up the motte which didn’t feel overly welcoming in its firm return to nature. There were no crows but a bird of prey screeched somewhere out of sight reminding me of Gwenddolau’s birds who fed on the corpses of the Britons.

Looking down from the summit Liddel Water flowed far below at the foot of a slope impossible to ascend. Fields and woodland stretched out before us. The land seemed as determined in swallowing time as it was in absorbing the abandoned railway track Skene arrived on two hundred years ago. On our return journey only the bridge and fragments of the embankment remained.

The dereliction of Liddel Strength contrasted sharply with Caer Laverock Castle (the ‘Lark’s Nest’ Arfderydd was supposedly fought over) which we visited the next day. This splendid medieval stronghold belonging to the Maxwell family was well preserved by the National Trust. Its siege by the English immortalised in the ‘Song of Caerlaverock’ was reconstructed on a video in the display rooms.

Caer Laverock CastleCrows flocked in the trees and played over its terraces. South was an earlier fort closer to the Solway Firth, an artist’s representation showed the higher sea levels and its importance as a strategic location.

Heading north again we climbed Ward Law, a lookout point where the Maxwell Clan gathered shouting their battle cry: “Wardlaw! I bid ye bide Wardlaw!” Beyond was another Roman camp invisible from the ground.

Ward LawLooking south from Ward Law to Solway Firth for the first time the all-encompassing silver-grey clouds broke. Seeing clear light and waters ablaze with cold fire I was reminded of the unendurable brightness Myrddin saw as Gwyn approached with the hosts of Annwn. The otherworld opening only just beyond the sands and tides of this-world.

Solway FirthI left with intuitions but no answers about Gwyn and his kindred, battles, forgetting, clouds and corvids… another part of this story waits to be told about the estuary of the river Nith and I shall be sharing this in my next post…

SOURCES

Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Ross, Anne Pagan Celtic Britain (Cardinal, 1974)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)