In Corinthians Paul famously contrasts seeing ‘through a glass, darkly’ with seeing ‘face to face’. In Revelations we find a series of glassy images leading up to the servants of God seeing his face. We are told, before the throne of God, is ‘a sea of glass like unto crystal’. This is later described as ‘a sea of glass mingled with fire’ with those who have gained ‘victory over the beast’ standing upon it with ‘the harps of God’. The harpers play the song of Moses who ‘the Lord knew face to face’.
The city of New Jersualem is described as ‘pure gold like unto clear glass’, its street ‘pure gold, as it were transparent glass’ and the river of life, running through it, proceeding from the Throne of God ‘clear as crystal’. We are told the Throne of God is in the city and here, where his servants serve him, ‘they shall see his face’.
These images of glass, no longer dark but crystal clear, are bound up with the process of revelation. Of the revealing of the face of God, which is never described, of which his servants are forbidden to make graven images.
This imagery interests me, as a Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, because in a number of texts his castle is described as being made of glass or crystal and surrounded by water. In The Life of St Collen, Gwyn is depicted seated on a golden throne in ‘the fairest castle’ Collen ‘had ever beheld’ on Glastonbury Tor. Gerald of Wales notes Glastonbury ‘used to be called Ynys Gutrin… the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.’
In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Arthur sails across the sea in his ship, Prydwen, to raid seven otherworldly forts on otherworldy islands. It is my belief they are appearances of the same fort – the abode of Pen Annwn ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ (an older name for the King of Annwn/Faery – Gwyn).
One of the fortresses is named Caer Wydyr ‘the Glass Fort’. The narrator, Taliesin, mocks ‘pathetic men’ (monks) ‘who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort’. He tells us ‘six thousand men were standing on its wall; it was hard to communicate with their watchman’. In Nennius’ History of the Britons thirty ships of Spaniards sailing to Ireland find in the midst of the sea ‘a tower of glass, the summit of which was covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer.’
The Fairy King’s castle is described as being made of crystal in Sir Orfeo:
‘Amid the land a castle tall
And rich and proud and wondrous high
Uprose, and all the outmost wall
Shone as crystal to the eye.
A hundred towers lit up the sky,
Of diamond all battled stout;
And buttresses rose up near by
Arched with red gold and broad about.’
In the Biblical and Brythonic traditions the paradisal abodes where the gods are enthroned, the centres of the mysteries where their faces are revealed, are associated with glassy waters and crystal walls.
One wonders whether there are any stories of people meeting the gods of Annwn face to face. In Sir Orfeo we are told he could not look upon the Fairy King or Queen ‘their crowns, their garments, glistened bright… so hot they shone’. This ‘noble sight’ brings him to his knees before the throne. Afterwards he takes up his ‘merry harp’ and sings the lay that wins his wife, Heurodis, back from Fairyland.
This reverent response is echoed in the First Branch of The Mabinogion when Rhiannon, a Queen of Annwn, unveils herself to Pwyll. This does not take place within a crystal castle, but near the fairy mound Gorsedd Arberth. We are told she ‘drew back the part of her headdress that should cover her face, and fixed her gaze upon him’. ‘And then he thought that the face of every maiden and every woman he had ever seen was unattractive compared with her face.’ He immediately falls in love with her and agrees to marry her, choosing her above all other women.
When I first met Gwyn, he did not reveal his face to me in his glass fortress, but beneath the shadows of a leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane in Penwortham. My response was similar. I recognised him as my patron deity, a god who I chose above all gods, who I could not help but love and serve.
In Ethics and Infinity the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas notes that the face to face to encounter draws us into service to the Other. Also ‘the face… signifies: “Do not kill me.”’
In the Welsh myths we find this ordainment repeatedly broken by Arthur and his warriors who commit a panoply of acts of defacing. The heads of the witches of Caer Loyw and Pennant Gofid are split in twain. The beard of Dillus Farfog is plucked out whilst he is still alive before his head is cut off. The giants Diwrnach and Wrnach are beheaded. Most horrifically, before Ysbaddaden Bencawr is beheaded, his face is mutilated – Caw of Prydyn shaves off his beard, ‘flesh and skin to the bone, and both ears completely’.
Because Arthur cannot bear the thought of the head of Brân being beneath White Hill as a threat to his sovereignty over Britain he orders it to be dug up and removed. Interestingly Brân’s head lives after his death for eighty-seven years and only when it starts to decay, when he loses his face, is it buried. It seems that Arthur cannot abide even the distant memory of Brân’s face evoked by his head.
The surrounding stories suggest that either Arthur himself or (Llen)lleog beheaded Pen Annwn with Caledfwlch during his raid on Annwn and this was how he gained his cauldron, the leadership of his hunt, and usurped his role as the warrior-protector of Britain. One might see the beheading of the Head of the Otherworld, ‘Arthur’s feat beyond the glass fort’, as the ultimate crime against the Other and the face of the numinous.
This killing blow, with the thrusting of Lleog’s flashing sword into the cauldron, may be seen to bring about the shattering of the glass fortress, the fragmenting of the mythos of Pen Annwn. We are left only with pieces of the narrative like shards of broken glass, the images within like creatures trapped in amber; seeing through glass darkly as the Dark Age is ushered in.
Yet beyond the glass walls Pen Annwn picks up his head and makes himself whole again.
I see his face and he is laughing.