‘In the Deep’ – first excerpt ‘In the Beginning’

This poem is the first of a series of excerpts from my book in progress ‘In the Deep’ and is called ‘In the Beginning’.

The title ‘In the Deep’ refers to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld in medieval Welsh mythology. The book is about the gods and goddesses of Annwn and their conflicts with the Children of Don. Most of these deities are found as euhemerised characters in the Welsh myths and were worshipped as gods in ancient Britain. 

This opening poem, ‘In the Beginning’ was born from my long-standing fascination with creation myths. This began with the Bible where, in Genesis, we find the lines:

‘1. In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. 

2. And the Earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ (1)

This shows that, in the Biblical tradition, the deep existed before the Creator God. 

In medieval Welsh literature God comes to replace Ceridwen, the Goddess of the crochan the cauldron or womb from which inspiration originates and, I believe, the universe was born. 

This role is hinted at in medieval Welsh poems such as ‘The Childhood Deeds of Taliesin’:

‘I entreat my Lord
that I may consider inspiration:
what brought forth that necessity
before Ceridwen
at the beginning, in the world
which was in need?’ (2)

In my poem, ‘In the beginning,’ Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, takes the place of the Biblical creator God.

The universe is born from the shattering of Her cauldron, a recurring motif in the Welsh myths. This mirrors ‘the shattering of the vessels’ in the Kabbalistic tradition. 

  1. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%201&version=KJV
  2. Marged Haycock (ed), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007), p 242

Text

In the Beginning

was the breath, 
the in-breath and the out-breath 
of Old Mother Universe. 

In the vastness of the Void she slept, 
and in her sleep, in her dreams 
she stirred Her cauldron. 

And in her cauldron 
she saw Her face in the Deep 
and she saw it was surrounded by stars

and each star was the eye of a giant
and each was a fiery warrior.
By the light of the stars 

She saw a nine-headed dragon
and knew her for the Mother of Annwn.
She saw the birth of the Gods

and the death of dragons
and the battles that would form worlds:
everything from the beginning

until the end of time.
Her vision was so sad and so beautiful
her cauldron burst and the stars poured forth.

Thus was the beginning –
the first breaking of the cauldron.
Thus from a big bang the universe was born.

Being Sister Patience

I.
It started as a joke.

I can’t remember exactly when. It might have been around this last time last year. I was being characteristically irascible, rash, impatient, none of the qualities that you’d associate with being a nun.

“Sister Patience,” I heard the mocking voice of my patron god, Gwyn.

It irked me, but it also awoke and called to something deep within.

Rising to his challenge, “I will be Sister Patience,” I told him.

And that was how Sister Patience came to be.

II.
She came into my life as an alter ego at first, as I struggled through my traineeship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester Mosslands, helping me shape and find respite in the sanctuary of Creiddylad’s Garden.

I wrote this poem about her last summer:

The Sanctuary of Sister Patience

Weeks of weeding
are fundamental to the path,

to the wedding of him and her and him –
Gwyn and Creiddylad and Gwythyr.

When Summer’s King vaults over the wall
all the flowers turn their heads towards him, as if to a beam of light.

All the plants need the light and dark reaction to photosynthesise and this is written on her habit in an obscure symbol on one of her voluminous cuffs.

He who stole the light of Bel and Belisama and gave it to mankind…

When he arrives in her garden it is yestereve, yesteryear,
and all the flowers are gloaming and he longs
to know what lies beneath her cowl
for her eyes are two moons
that will shine

upon a future world that will never stop flowering with its own weathernarium…

He is all heat and fire and flame
and she is patience…

in Annwn, in the soil, in the mycorrhizae,
in the roots, in the shoots, in the leaves, in the flowers, turning
towards the light and these are the mysteries –

the poetry of nature not
of the bardic seat.

Like the ranunculi
are the wanderings of
the wild nuns knowing no order –

their names a mixing of Latin, Greek, 
Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, common and binomial.

This I was taught by the comfrey I bought
when I was first learning to ‘do magic’,
which worked its magic here,

filling my garden with purple flowers,

smelling soothing as the healing of bones,
one of the favourites of Old Mother Universe.

She loves the first one or two tiny cotyledons
of every plant reaching for the light not knowing their origins.

She carries the seeds of all the worlds in the brown paper envelopes
in her pockets rustling when she walks, so carefully labelled
in the language of Old Mother Universe only she knows – 
the names, the dates, the places, so distant…

With them she will build her sanctuary
beyond the trowelling
of my pulse.

III.

Since then, slowly, imperceptibly, the miles between us have closed.

I’ve been patient. I’ve completed my traineeship. I’ve moved on into a new job as a graduate ecologist in which I’ve been faced with a whole new set of challenges. Not only learning to carry out new surveys but a whole new skillset on the admin side – providing quotes, carrying out desktop studies, writing reports, learning to see a job through from beginning to end.

It’s been a steep learning curve and not without its ups and downs. As an autistic person who likes routine and staying close to home I have struggled with travelling long distances to new places and, in particular, with night work.

One of the surveys is monitoring great created newt and wider amphibian populations as part of mitigation schemes on developments. This involves arriving before sunset to set bottle traps, waiting until after sunset to survey for newts by torchlight (as they’re active after dark), then returning early in the morning to empty the bottle traps. This work can only be done in the company of an experienced licence holder who is qualified to handle the newts.

It’s fascinating work and it is a privilege to see these beautiful creatures up close. It’s also a shake-up to my routine, most days get up at 4.30am to do my devotions, meditate, study, and go to the gym or run before cycling to work for 9am, finishing at 5pm, eating, winding down, and being asleep by 8.30pm.

I’ve been lucky to be part of a team who are not only incredibly knowledgeable and experienced, but also supportive and mental health aware. I’ve been able to be open with them about my autism and the anxiety that stems from it from the start. For now, my manager has allowed me to start no earlier than 8am, so that I have time for spirituality and exercise, which are both essential for my mental health, and to do only one night a week.

They have been patient with me and, although I’ve felt like I’ve been slow, looking back, over just a month and a half I have learnt a huge suite of new skills, from assessing habitats and writing species lists on Preliminary Ecological Assessments, wading up rivers looking for otter spraints and prints, investigating buildings for signs of bats, to mastering the routine admin.

When I’ve been tired and shaken and overwhelmed I have walked with Sister Patience and together we have shaped her sanctuary in Creiddylad’s Garden.

IV.
I have been patient.

The garden is coming into bloom.

I have found a job where I belong and feel fulfilled.

On work days I am an ecologist and, in my own time, I am Sister Patience.

I’m hoping the two sister strands of my life will one day intertwine to become one and that this job will provide the financial grounds to shape my sanctuary and, perhaps, one day, build the Monastery of Annwn*.

*Whether this is meant to be a physical or spiritual place I don’t yet know…

In the Monastery of Annwn

there will be no rulers and there will be no rule.

All will uphold the virtues of their choosing.

Neither light nor dark will be banished
for they form the night sky and the stars –
the womb of Old Mother Universe.

Eating, drinking, fasting, will all be allowed
for all states of the cauldron must be embraced –
empty and full and there will be no divisions between
the ones who drink and the ones who stir as
this was the root of the original disaster.

There will be no good and there will be no bad.

We will exist in a world before sin existed.

The before that 365 plants come from and art
and who we bring to life with our songs.

There will be room for men and women and all between.

It will be accepted that we all are monsters.

The monstrous will be raised on high with the dragons,
spiralling, spiralling down, descending into
darkness, sleepily drunk on mead.

We will be visible and invisible.

No-one will see that we wear our habits
like invisible cloaks as we got about our daily lives.

No-one will see the Monastery of Annwn because
it lies beyond doors and walls and no-one
will read the forbidden books
in our personal libraries

because they lie unwritten
on the dark shelves of our souls.

No-one will be able to read our motivations.

I ask is this monastery meant to be built?

If I build a monastery will they come?

Or will it always be a rule of one?

The Vision of Ceridwen

I’m the broken bird-thing
at her table again

her wizened hand
in my claws

telling her
I’m going to mend
our broken vision

and all will be beautiful.

***

Sometimes you end up in a myth. It’s not the myth you thought you’d end up in or the myth you chose. You’re not who you thought you would be. Nobody else sees the myth the same way you do.

It began when I first started learning about the Bardic Tradition and heard that Ceridwen was the goddess of the cauldron that brews awen, the poetic inspiration that is like mead to the Brythonic bards.

As a poet I thought Ceridwen was a goddess well worth meeting so I drew myself a cauldron, lit a candle, constructed a visualisation. One of those 2D interfaces that sometimes helps you interact with what is. I imagined Ceridwen as a blue-robed, dark-haired, faceless woman stirring a cauldron.

Nothing happened. Then, from nowhere, out leapt a hideous grey-haired hag who put her bony arms around my neck, nearly strangling me. She demanded I go with her to her cottage in her woods. She sat me down at her table in a room with a sun dial and smaller cauldron over the hearth on a wobbly three-legged stool and insisted that I call her ‘grandmother’. Initially I thought she was an ancestor.

I presumed this showed Ceridwen wasn’t interested in me. She already had worthier devotees. Soon afterwards I got found by my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn and guardian of the cauldron.

I met ‘grandmother’ again when I was travelling Annwn in search of inspiration on my flighty white-winged mare. She ditched me and I found myself falling downwards through the air, flapping my arms like wings, steadily acquiring black feathers, but not quickly enough to stop me hitting the ground. When I returned to my senses the hag-like woman was standing over me. With a wrinkly smile she told me I was ‘beginning to get my raven’s wings’ before taking me to her cottage again.

There she told me to look into her cauldron, where I saw in vivid blues and reds a Dark Age battle of clashing spears, crashing swords, broken shields, fallen flags, blood crimsoning the nearby waters, then the shades rising in a sorrowful march to depart. Researching it afterwards I realised it was the Battle of the Region Linuis fought by Arthur against the Saxons and wrote a poem about it*.

After this gift of awen from her cauldron I began to suspect the hag was the real (as opposed to my imagined) Ceridwen. The name ‘grandmother’ came to make sense a couple of years later. Gwyn had shown me a cauldron filled with stars and not long afterwards I went to see my friend, Nick Williams, performing an experimental poetry set in a blacked-out room with strobe lights. I had the sensation of being in a cauldron of poesy and also in the womb of the universe. I recalled that Nick refers to a goddess called Old Mother Universe and realised she is Ceridwen – the oldest mother of all.

I went on to write a book called The Broken Cauldron, focusing on how Ceridwen’s crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ is shattered in the Welsh myths and of my task of gathering the stars back into it.

Whereas, in the Bardic Tradition and Druidry, Taliesin and Arthur, those responsible for stealing the awen and the cauldron and the shatterings that have brought devastation to the land are hailed as heroes, I found myself standing in the shoes of Morfran ‘Sea Raven’, Ceridwen’s dark and ugly son, who was later known as Afagddu ‘Utter Darkness’.

He for whom she boils her cauldron in the hope the brew will inspire him and cure his imperfections. He who does not get the awen, who cannot win poetic inspiration the quick way, but must work to find the words to heal the lands poisoned by the contents of the broken cauldron, to repair it piece by piece, story by story, so the stars shine in bright new constellations on a new world.

Gwyn is my guide in this task, and in serving him, I am also serving Ceridwen. She does not appear to me often, but when she does, I am often her awkward black-winged child, the dark imperfect one.

As Afagddu I’m learning imperfection is necessary; an understanding of what others find repulsive, whether it’s darkness, death, decay, plastic, the monstrous creatures of Thisworld or the Otherworld. That these hold their own beauty when the concept is not corrupted by our society’s false ideals.

It’s not the Old Mother’s Universe that needs fixing, but the way we perceive it, the collective vision, which guides our acts. When we learn to see clearly both Creirwy* and Afagddu will be beautiful.

A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud Wikipedia Commons

*’The Region Linuis’ was first published in Heroic Fantasy HERE.
**Creirwy means ‘Lively Darling’. She is Afagddu’s beautiful (twin?) sister.

With thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the image ‘A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud’ by ESA/Hubble.