Seeing Face to Face

broken-549087_960_720_Pixabay Free Image

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.

Mabon Learns to Play the Harp

It was Mabon who played then in the youth of the world
Greg Hill

Take the hand of the invisible
and make it visible.

Pluck a chord of light
like a string from the ball of the sun.

Imagine spiders spinning their webs

between the constellations;
the songs of the stars,

make them audible.

Fashion the nine chords
of my harp – the harp of Teirtu –

do not think of how it will play alone
as you in this House of Stone

in the hall of Pen Annwn.
Think not of the turning of his fortress

‘in Annwn below the earth’
or ‘in the air above’.

Do not ponder the reason
for your imprisonment – why

you must become an awenydd or bard.

Reach into the darkness with the audacity
of youth and imagine the discovery

of the wealthy realms of Pluto.

Ask not why the sun does not shine there,
why a dog’s jaws are the doors

and questions remain unanswered.
Reach deep within for the chord that moves

the hearts of planets – underworld gods.

In the river of tears consume the hazel nut
unknowing if it contains the awen

or countless meteoric souls.

Escape down the trail of a meteor
on the salmon of Llyn Llyw.

Take the hand of the visible
and make it invisible.

Forget this story –
you have always been the harper
and my harp has always played on…

Mabon's Harp

Underground Shrines of the Inspired Ones

Thomas Stephan Unsplash

‘Was the rite conducted by a gutuater?
(‘master of voice’, ‘inspirer of song’)
chanting to inspire a modern awenydd
stepping down into the smoke of the chamber,
hearing the uttered syllables, riding the waves
of sound in the torchlight, finding a way back
to that world, re-creating, even as they did,
a rite that is alive in vision, in the presence
of those spirits called upon to officiate
as before…’
Greg Hill

Greg Hill’s poem ‘Gutuater’ led me to the section on the underground shrine of the Chartres ‘magician’, dated ‘to the second century AD’, in Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Sacred Britannia (2018). In 2005, during excavations for a car park in the centre of Chartres the construction workers found a ‘basement shrine’ accessed by ‘a wooden ladder and ‘a cache of sacred material, including pottery vessels, oil-lamps and a broad-bladed knife, of the kind used in killing sacrificial animals.’

The pottery vessels were incense burners (thuribula) likely used for burning mind-altering drugs. Inscribed on one of the vessels, on each of the four panels, is a script beginning with names of the cardinal points: ‘oriens (East), meridie (South), occidens (West), and septentrio (North).’ Beneath each directional heading is a prayer to ‘all powerful spirits’ written by their ‘guardian’, ‘Caius Verius Sedatus’ and ‘a long list naming these spirits’ (which, disappointingly, Green does not share). However, she does mention the term ‘dru’ occurs in the list, suggesting Sedatus was invoking the spirits of druids.

What stands out to me firstly is that here we have evidence of a Roman citizen with a Gaulish cognomen – Sedatus – performing a ritual underground to invoke underworld spirits. In Gaul they were known as the Andedion and were invoked on the Tablet of Chamalières (50AD) for aid in battle. Secondly, we find a fascinating combination of Greco-Egyptian magic with invoking native spirits.

Finally, Green provides an interesting interpretation of the role of Sedatus. She mentions that Chartres was ‘the capital of the Iron Age Carnutes tribe’ and this land provides ‘evidence for the survival of specifically native, non-Roman spiritual leaders’. Aulus Hirtius ‘an officer in Caesar’s army and later governor of transalpine Gaul’ speaks of the resistance of ‘a freedom fighter called Gutuatrus’. This means ‘master of voice’ or ‘father of inspiration’. It may have been a title rather than a name as references to gutuatri have been found in the nearby Aeduan territory. An altar from Macon ‘recorded the presence of a gutuater of Mars’ (possibly Nodens under interpretatio Romana?). The word ‘GVTVATER’ is inscribed on the base of an altar to the local god, Anvallus, from Autun. Thus Sedatus may have acted in a religious role as a gutuater for his people.

Intriguing parallels can be found between the Gaulish and British traditions. In The Gods of the Celts (2011), Green records a remarkable example of an underground shrine to an underworld god from a similar period:

‘At the bottom of this shaft, found at Deal in Kent, all some 2.5 metres deep, was an oval chamber containing a complete figurine, composed of a featureless block of dressed chalk from which rises a long slender neck and a head with a well-carved, very Celtic face. This figure may have stood in a niche high up in one wall of the chamber. The presence of footholds in the shaft indicates that access to the shrine was intended but only four or five adults could have sat in the chamber at once and the shrine was perhaps meant for the deity or god and priest alone. Pottery would indicate a first or second century AD date for the structure.’

It seems likely this deity is one of the spirits of Annwn, our British equivalent to the Andedion. It may even be Pen Annwn, the Head of the Otherworld, who is known as Arawn or as Gwyn ‘White’.

The term gutuater may be linked to Talhearn Tad Awen ‘Father of Inspiration’ who is mentioned in Nennius’ History of the Britons (828) and to the awenyddion ‘people inspired’ mentioned by Gerald of Wales in his Description of Wales (1194). They served a prophetic function and were said to ‘speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits’. Gerald notes their speeches are ‘nugatory’, ‘incoherent’, and ‘ornamented’ although an explanation can be ‘conveyed in some term of a word’. Their use of a non-logical and poetic language fits with Green drawing attention to the ‘plosive’ sounds in ‘the list of obscure names’ spoken by Sedatus, which lend them power when recited out loud.

These links have led me to wonder whether the ‘priest’ from Deal was an awenydd who invoked Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn in his underground shrine and whether such practices were wider spread. Could there be continuity between these 2nd century inspired ones and the 12th century awenyddion?

dark_cave___free_background_by_digitalequinedesigns

With thanks to Thomas Stephan on Unsplash for the smoke image and to Digital Equine Designs on Deviant Art for ‘Dark Cave’.

The One Who Didn’t Go To The Meadows of Defwy

In the fifth verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) who do not know ‘who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy’. I have been perplexed for several months by these lines, which pose the questions: Where and what are these mysterious meadows? Who didn’t go? What is the significance of not going? Who is his/her maker?

The Meadows of Defwy

Both my research and spirit-journeys suggest the Meadows of Defwy are in Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld. ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ depicts Arthur’s raid on seven otherworldly fortresses and his plundering of its treasures. Arthur’s adversaries are Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’, and his people.

In the fifth verse, the Meadows of Defwy are connected with the Brindled Ox and Caer Vandwy, ‘the Fortress of God’s Peak’. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn (Pen Annwn) speaks of his ‘sorrow’ at witnessing ‘a battle at Caer Vandwy’ where ‘the honoured and fair’ fought Arthur’s raiding party and lost. This resulted in the theft of the Brindled Ox.

The first time I journeyed to the Meadows of Defwy I walked straight into the aftermath of the Arthur’s battle and recorded what I saw in the following verse:

A plain of blood where men once stood.
The lights have gone out in Caer Vandwy.
The clashing sea rolls over shield and spear.
The living dead. The dead dead again.

The Brindled Ox had been stolen, leaving only the deep trails of his struggling hooves as he was hauled aboard Prydwen, Arthur’s ship. His herd were frightened witnesses who had watched from a distance.

The association of the Brindled Ox with the Meadows of Defwy suggests it is a place where the animals of Annwn graze. This is backed up by the folktale Childe Roland, in which Roland found herds of horses, cows, sheep, goats, swine, and a flock of hens in Fairyland/Annwn. Roland beheaded each of their herders before assaulting the Fairy King’s castle.

wild-flowers-1363733002BId

In more recent journeys I have found myself galloping through the Meadows of Defwy as a horse with the horse-herds. The meadows have appeared as a paradisal place of endless grassy plains alive with meadowflowers, bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets.

It shares a kinship with ‘the Plains of Annwn’, which are written about by modern polytheist Nick Ford:

Broad and wide the plains of Annwn,
Sweet and thick, the grass thereon;
Fragrant with a million flowers,
Where graze the herds of Riganton.

Mild the breeze breathes on the pastures,
Blows the grasses that way, this;
As the horse-herds, like the wind, race
Further than the mind can guess.

The Meadows of Defwy are connected with the mare goddess Rigantona/Rhiannon and seem to bear some resemblance to the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology where the souls of the dead go to lead a blessed and happy afterlife.

Marged Haycock suggests Defwy is a river-name deriving from def-/dyf ‘black’ and may have been viewed as a river of the dead. A river Dyfwy is referred to in ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’: ‘Fine it is on the banks of Dyfwy / when the waters flow’. The Elysian Fields are located by the river of Oceanus, which separates this world from the underworld.

This ties together to suggest the Meadows of Defwy are a liminal place where the dead reside happily alongside the animals of Annwn (unless assaulted by thisworldly raiders!).

The One Who Didn’t Go

 It is my belief the phrase ‘the one who didn’t go the Meadows of Defwy’ does not literally mean someone who has not visited the meadows, but refers figuratively to someone who has escaped death.

Who could that be?

After pondering this question for a long while I received an answer from Greg Hill’s new translation of ‘The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach’. When I first read this poem, which opens: ‘Horseman who rides to the fortress, / With white hounds and great horns’ I had a strong feeling the horseman was Gwyn, but was confused by his revelation of his name as Ugnach.

My confusion was laid to rest by Greg’s explanation that the suffix -ach signifies a supernatural character. It’s therefore likely to be another title of Gwyn/Pen Annwn. Greg added in a discussion that when Ugnach identifies himself he uses the word ‘heno’, a variant on ‘name’, but that ‘heno’ also means ‘tonight’. He might be saying ‘he is Ugnach just for tonight’.

The identification of Ugnach with Gwyn/Pen Annwn makes perfect sense in the context of the poem. Ugnach repeatedly extends his invitation to Taliesin to visit his fortress, promising ‘shining mead’, ‘wine flowing freely’, ‘fine gold for your spear-rest’ and a ‘bed’. Taliesin refuses to be lured by his ‘speech honeyed and fair’ and repeatedly states he does not know Ugnach. Whilst acknowledging Ugnach’s feast he insists he cannot stay.

Taliesin is refusing to stay with Ugnach in the lands of the dead; to accept death; to go to the Meadows of Defwy.

Taliesin is the One Who Didn’t Go To The Meadows of Defwy. Characteristically he is riddling about himself!

Who then is his maker?

Taliesin describes his making in ‘the Battle of the Trees’:

It was not from a mother and a father
that I was made,
and my creation was created for me
from nine forms of consistency:
from fruit, from fruits,
from God’s fruit in the beginning;
from primroses and flowers,
from the blossom of trees and shrubs,
from earth, from the sod
was I made,
from nettle blossom,
from the ninth wave’s water.
Math created me
before I was completed.
Gwydion fashioned me –
great enchantment wrought by a magic staff.

It seems this story refers to his making prior to his incarnation as Gwion Bach and rebirth from the womb of Ceridwen as Taliesin. He believes himself to have been created by the magician gods ‘before the world (was made)’ ‘when the extent of the world was (still) small’.

Thus he places himself above the processes of death and rebirth symbolised by the cauldron of Ceridwen which stands at the centre of the feast of Pen Annwn. Refusing to go to the fortress of Ugnach, Taliesin goes instead to ‘the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion’. Caer Gwydion is located in the Milky Way. There he hopes to reside in eternal life with his makers.

Taliesin escapes the fortress from which he helped steal the cauldron, the meadows where he fought ‘the honoured and fair’, the god of many names he refuses to know, but for how long?…

SOURCES

 Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Way of the Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach’, The Way of the Awenydd
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Nick Ford, ‘The Plains of Annwn’, Association of Polytheist Traditions

Annuvian Awen

Annuvian Awen

Allan o dywyllwch caf fy ngeni
Allan o waed caf fy ngeni
Allan o ysbryd caf fy ngeni

Yn canu o Annwn

Tri phelydryn golau
Tri phelydryn llais
Tri phelydryn wirionedd

I oleuo â rhyfeddod
Ac yn torri’r galon wytnaf

Yn canu o Annwn

~

Out of darkness I am born
Out of blood I am born
Out of spirit I am born

Singing from Annwn

Three rays of light
Three rays of voice
Three rays of truth

To illuminate with wonder
And break the hardest heart

Singing from Annwn

~

About a month ago I awoke with the symbol above in my mind with the name ‘Annuvian Awen’. Awen derives from the Indo-European *-uel ‘to blow’ and has the same root as the Welsh awel ‘breeze’. It is the primordial breath that binds all things, as Kristoffer Hughes says, ‘the voice of the universe speaking to itself’.

The Awen symbol was popularised by Iolo Morganwg in the 1860s. He claimed it was derived from a Welsh alphabet recorded by Nennius in the ninth century and that its meaning was ‘I am that I am’. It has been used by Neo-Druids since.

In medieval Welsh poetry ‘the ogyrven of threefold inspiration’ originate from the cauldron of Ceridwen. Crochan means both ‘cauldron’ and ‘womb’. It is the place from which all beings of the universe are born and to where they return at death.

The cauldron of Ceridwen lies in Annwn, ‘Very Deep’, the ancient British Otherworld. It is guarded by the Head of Annwn: a god with many names who I know as Gwyn ap Nudd. Gwyn guides the souls of the dead and of living initiates to the cauldron.

The black background of the Annuvian Awen represents the origin of Awen from the darkness of Ceridwen’s cauldron in the depths of Annwn. The red stands for the blood of the dead (human and non-human) whose sacrifices have made it possible the living can have Awen. The white is spirit: the breath, the voice of truth, the misty otherlight of the ogyrven ‘spirits’ contained in the person of Gwyn ‘White’ who is also known as the giant Ogyrven.

When I had created the design I received the gnosis I must write a poem to accompany it in English and Welsh. My Welsh is very basic. Having written the English version with an eye to how it looked and sounded in Welsh, translating as I went, I contacted fellow awenydd and Welsh-speaker Greg Hill for help with the translation.

Greg corrected my grammatical errors and helped me with choices of individual words. Interestingly this led to changing the tense of the English poem from past to present which was a big improvement. This fortuitous exchange of Awen between awenyddion gave birth to the poem in its present form. We decided to use it with the symbol on the front page of ‘Awen ac Awenydd’: a website providing a repository of information on the awenydd path.

For me the Annuvian Awen forms an expression of the path of the awenydd that acknowledges the importance of depth in our increasingly superficial world; the need to recover the inspiration that lies in the deeps of Annwn and in the deep places of our souls to combat the soullessness that allows the destructive systems that are wrecking Thisworld to thrive.

The ways to Annwn are dark, misty, uncertain, steeped in blood, for the most part forgotten. Yet there are gods and guides who offer to walk with us and share our quest. So we go with them through the darkness, across the river of blood, to return with the otherlight to illuminate the beauty of Thisworld because not only our lives but the lives of our souls depend on it.

SOURCES

Angela Grant, ‘A Short History of the Awen’, The Druid Network
Greg Hill, ‘Awen’, Awen ac Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘Taliesin, the Bardic Tradition and the Awen’, The Way of the Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Girl in Ogyrven’s Hall’
Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (Thoth Publications, 2007)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Awen’, Wikipedia

Riddles and Howling Monks

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn, after Taliesin has finished narrating Arthur’s raid, he continues to mock the monks (earlier referred to as ‘pathetic men’) because they do not know the answers to certain riddles.

The opening ‘Myneich dychnut val cunin cor / o gyfranc udyd ae gwidanhor’ has been translated ‘Monks congregate like a pack of dogs / because of the clash between masters who know’ and ‘Monks howl like a choir of dogs / from an encounter with lords who know’.

Dychnut may derive from cnut ‘pack of hounds, wolves’ or *dychnudo, an archaism meaning ‘howl’. Cun means ‘pack of dogs’ or ‘lord’. The primary meaning of cor is ‘choir’, but it is also used to refer to groups such as ‘a host of angels’ or ‘a company of bards’. Côr bytheiaid and côr hela  both mean ‘kennel or pack of hounds’. Udyd may be the plural of ud ‘lord’ or relate to udaw ‘howl’.

In these ambiguous, carefully chosen words, dogs/wolves, choirs, lords and howling are cleverly and intricately linked. These intricate connections are unfortunately not conveyed by the English language.

Within Welsh tradition numerous divine ‘lords’ are associated with hounds: Cunomaglus ‘Hound Lord’; Cunobelinus ‘Hound of Belinus’; Nudd who Taliesin refers to as ‘the superior wolf lord’ and his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, who owns a hound called Dormach ‘Death’s Door’ and hunts with the Cwn Annwn. Another is Arawn who, like Gwyn, is a ruler of Annwn and associated with white, red-eared Annuvian hounds. It seems possible Taliesin is comparing the howling monks with their howling hounds.

Cyfranc means ‘clash, contention’ or ‘tale, story’. This brings to mind Taliesin’s clash with the bards of Maelgwn in The Story of Taliesin. Taliesin enters this contest to rescue his master, Elphin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, from Maelgwn’s imprisonment.

Gwidanhor ‘one who knows’ (from gwybod ‘know’) shares a likeness with Gwyddno Garanhir ‘knowing one’. In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyddno converses with Gwyn and meets his hound, Dormach. Gwyn reminds Gwyddno that Dormach ‘was with Maelgwn’. These complex mythic intersections would have been in a medieval Welsh audience’s mind.

Taliesin claims the lords/masters  know, ‘Whether the wind (follows) a single path, whether the sea is all one water, / whether fire – an unstoppable force is all one spark’. In The Story of Taliesin, Taliesin wins the contest with a series of poems including an extended riddle about the wind. He is claiming knowledge of the elements Maelgwn’s bards do not possess.

Taliesin counts himself amongst the ‘knowing ones’ initiated into the mysteries of the universe alongside lords/masters such as Gwyddno and Gwyn. The howling of the monks parodies their otherworldly company.

The next verse continues in a similar vein:

‘Monks congregate like wolves
because of the clash between masters who know.
They (the monks) don’t know how the darkness and light divide,
(nor) the wind’s course, its onrush,
what place it devastates, what land it strikes,
how many saints are in the void, and how many altars.’

The reference to the monks’ lack of knowledge of where darkness and light divide echoes preceding verses where Taliesin mocks them for not knowing the divisions of time nor when Pen Annwn ‘Head of Annwn’ was conceived or born. These questions are intrinsically linked as Pen Annwn is associated with the transitions between night and day, the seasons and the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The line referring to saints and altars being ‘in the void’ is intriguing. This may relate back to the transitional period between paganism and Christianity when the links between Annwn and the dead were severed and Annwn was re-construed as a hellish (hot, cold or empty) place.

In the final lines Taliesin says, ‘I praise the Lord, the great Ruler: / may I not endure sadness: Christ will reward me.’ The ending is undeniably Christian yet in Pendefic mawr, ‘great Ruler’ we find traces of a most un-Christian lord: Pen Annwn.

 So the end of the poem has been reached. Arthur and his men have raided Annwn and slammed its gate shut. As Taliesin returns to his chair in Caer Siddi we’re left contemplating a trail of destruction amongst the howling monks whose choir echoes the howling of the hounds of the Lord(s) of Annwn.

 ***

The monks howl.
We howl with them.
There is no turning back
to when Annwn was unspoilt
before the flashing sword
the stolen cauldron
and trail of death.

No turning back
only howling onwards
into the next chapter
the next myth…

P1170785 - Copy

*The translations of Preiddu Annwn ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ I have used are Marged Haycock’s from Legendary Poems of Taliesin and Sarah Higley’s HERE. With thanks to Heron for notes on cor from The University of Wales Dictionary.

Caer Ochren: The Birth of Pen Annwn and the Silver-Headed Beast

The final fort which Arthur, Taliesin and their party raid in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Ochren. Marged Haycock translates Caer Ochren as ‘Angular Fort’ (from ochr ‘edge’, side’). This name could relate to the fortresses having four corners/quarters/turrets/peaks. Ochr also translates as ‘aspect’ or ‘facet’. My working thesis is we’re looking at seven names for the same fort. Caer Ochren thus encompasses all its facets rolled into one.

Once again Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of certain mysteries:

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men, with no go in them,
(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal it is they guard, with his silver head.’

Haycock draws parallels with Christian tradition. ‘What hour was he (Christ) born? As the prophet says, he came at midnight from his regal thrones’. ‘At what time of the day or night was the world made, and (at what time) will it be destroyed, and (at what time) did the Lord arise from the dead?’

However, this relies on the translation of ‘Lord’ from Pen which literally means ‘Head’. Considering the poem centres on the theft of the cauldron of Pen Annwn (‘Head of Annwn’), it seems more likely he is the subject of the riddles and they refer to the day of his creation and the hour of his birth.

This is the interpretation of Caitlin and John Matthews, who refer to ‘the conception and birth of the Chief (of Annwn)’. In an evocative painting of Caer Ochren*, Meg Falconer depicts the Chief’s face as he awaits birth beneath a snowy mound accompanied by running deer, a triskele, and slither of new moon. The text around the painting reads: ‘Caer Ochran – the cold castle under the stone – the magic beast of the silverhead – day of the kings birth.’ It seems significant the birth of Pen Annwn is linked with the last fort in the poem.

Next we come to the silver-headed animal. ‘Animal’ is translated from vil (mil) by Haycock whereas the Matthews favour ‘beast’. We find the repetition of pen (aryant y pen ‘silver head). Sarah Higley and the Matthews translate Perchen as ‘owner’, which suggests it belongs to Pen Annwn and is guarded by his people. The question of the identity of this beastie has produced a proliferation of divergent conjectures.

Robin Melrose suggests the silver-headed animal/beast is the Brindled Ox from the previous verse. The lines about the Brindled Ox are also preceded by a similar riddle about the birth at mid-day of Dwy, ‘God’ (Pen Annwn?) and it’s possible this verse echoes the one before it. An old ox could certainly be pictured with silver hairs.

An alternative theory is put forward by Marged Haycock. She says ‘Mil is understood as an ‘animal’ guarded by the monks, perhaps a riddling question referring to ‘a silver-headed crozier with a zoomorphic crook bearing a reliquary box.’

The Matthews point out ‘The animal that most commonly has silver hair on its head is an elderly human.’ They suggest this may be a kenning for Henben ‘Old Head’, an epithet of Maelgwn Gwynedd’s chief poet Henin Fardd. Further ‘the real Henben or Old Head is Brân himself.’

The mention of a silver-headed beast puts me in mind of Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. One of his piglets is Grugyn Gwrych Eraint, ‘Grugyn Silver-bristle’; ‘all his bristles were like wings of silver, and one could see the path he took through the woods and over fields by the way his bristles glittered.’ It seems likely Grugyn inherited his silvery bristles from his father.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur leads the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, yet lines stating the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn ap Nudd is found suggest Gwyn was the original leader. Gwyn is a candidate for the title Pen Annwn and it seems possible his people guard the silver-headed beast. An objection is the Twrch is a wild animal unlikely to be owned or guarded.

Another suggestion is the animal owned by Pen Annwn is a dog. Both Gwyn and Arawn are connected with hounds of Annwn. Gwyn owns a dog named Dormach who is ‘fair’, ‘red-nosed’ and pictured with two serpent’s tails. He could possess a few silver hairs. However it’s more likely he’d be doing the guarding than being guarded!

The silver-headed beast slips from grasp like quick-silver and perhaps that’s the key. Many animals in Celtic mythology were shapeshifters and didn’t stay the same for long. Interestingly there is no record of Arthur getting his hands on this evasive beast.

The verse ends with the refrain:

‘And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none came back from Caer Ochren.’

The journey of Arthur, Taliesin and the other survivors is complete. It is drawn into connection with the birth of Pen Annwn. In Caer Ochren end and beginning meet. Yet the poem has not finished. Taliesin has plenty of insults left for those monks…

~

Caer Ochren

I am the end and the beginning.
Count my angles. You will never count them all
because I am spinning beyond the terminal velocity
of sight. You will never know what is behind,
beyond the walls unless you come in,
scratch the head of a silver-headed beast,
a hound beside the chair of the one who rules the fort
and has been absent half a year. How he stretches
his great jaws, unrolls himself into a serpent.
Where teeth touch tail the story ends
and begins again.

P1170370

*In King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld. Some of Meg’s paintings can be viewed HERE.

Caer Vandwy and the Theft of the Brindled Ox

A plain of blood where men once stood.
The lights have gone out in Caer Vandwy.
The clashing sea rolls over shield and spear.
The living dead. The dead dead again.

***

The sixth fortress in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Vandwy. This has been translated as ‘Fortress of God’s Peak’ and ‘Fort of the High God’. Marged Haycock uses ‘Mand(d)wy Fort’ but does not explain her re-rendering. It could relate to Manawydan (‘Manawyd’ in ‘Arthur and the Porter’). The connection of a sea-god with an island location seems credible.

In the verse relating to Caer Vandwy, Taliesin again berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of insight into certain mysteries he is knowledgeable about:

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men trailing their shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day God was born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy.’

The second line suggests the existence of a Bardic riddle enumerating mythic and/or historic figures born on certain days. In line three, Haycock reconstitutes Dwy ‘God’ from Cwy. Caitlin and John Matthews prefer Cyw ‘chick’ whereas Sarah Higley sticks with Cwy as a personal name.

Haycock’s choice fits with the translations of Caer Vandwy as a fortress belonging to (a) God. This may not be the Christian God. In the next verse Taliesin refers to the ‘pathetic men’ as ‘(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created’. Lord is translated from Pen ‘Head’. Perhaps this god is Pen Annwn ‘The Head of Annwn’.

Next we come across an unnamed person ‘who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy’. Haycock suggests Defwy is a river-name meaning ‘black’ (from def-/dyf) and poses the question ‘Was this imagined as a river between this world and the next?’

The Matthews link the Meadows of Defwy to Gweir ap Gweirioed ‘Hay son of Grassiness’ (the divine prisoner in verse one) and say ‘we may be looking at Doleu Defwy as an otherworldly meadow’.

This brings to mind the Gwerddonau Llion (translated as ‘green meadows of the sea’ and ‘green islands of the floods’). In a triad* referring to ‘three losses by disappearance of the Isle of Britain’ Gavran is said to have gone to sea in search of the Gwerddonau Llion.

Philip Runngaldier connects the Gwerddonau Llion with the sunken land of Cantre’r Gwaelod ‘The Bottom Hundred’ and says they are inhabited by ‘Gwyllion’: ‘the shades of (Llyn) Llion’ ‘the dead’. Perhaps the one who didn’t go to these mysterious meadows escaped death.

***

Taliesin continues to deride the monks:

‘those who know nothing of the Brindled Ox, with his stout collar,
(and) seven score links in its chain.’

Grazing on the Meadows of Defwy we come across an animal of great fame: Ych Brych ‘The Brindled Ox’. He appears in The Triads as one of ‘Three Principal Oxen of the Island of Britain’:

‘Yellow Spring (‘The One of the yellow of spring’)
and Chestnut, of Gwylwylyd (or ‘a meek and gentle ox),
and the Brindled Ox.’

His capture is amongst the ‘impossible tasks’ Arthur and his men must fulfil on Culhwch’s behalf in Culhwch and Olwen. For food to be grown for Culhwch and Olwen’s wedding feast, a field must be ploughed by the divine ploughman, Amaethon.

The plough must be pulled by a team of six oxen: ‘the two oxen of Gwylwlydd Winau, yoked together’, ‘Melyn Gwanwyn and the Ych Brych yoked together’ and ‘two horned oxen… Nyniaw and Peibiaw.’

Two oxen from the triad: Yellow Spring and the Brindled Ox are placed together and Gwylwylyd appears as the owner of two oxen, presumably Chestnut and an unnamed ox. Intriguingly Nyniaw and Peibiaw are the sons of the king of Archenfield ‘whom God transformed into oxen for their sins.’

John Rhŷs records a folkloric story where Nyniaw and Peibiaw are brother kings. One moonlit night, Nyniaw boasts his field is ‘the whole firmament’. Peibiaw says his sheep and cattle are grazing in his fields: ‘the great host of stars, each of golden brightness, with the moon to shepherd them.’ Nyniaw is furious and a terrible battle ensues which leads to their transformation into oxen by God.

This may be a Christianised explanation of their shapeshifting capacities. In The Tain, the two bulls Finnbennach and Donn Cuailnge are ‘pig-keepers’ ‘practiced in the pagan arts’ who can ‘form themselves into any shape’. Tricked into falling out, they battle against each other as birds of prey, whale and seabeast, stags, warriors, phantoms, and as dragons before becoming maggots, being swallowed by cows and reborn as bulls. It seems likely the Brindled Ox was originally a shapeshifter with the capacity to take human and other forms.

***

In the last lines of the verse Taliesin says:

‘And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none came back from Caer Vandwy*’.

The final line is repeated as a refrain at the end of each verse. Of three full loads of Prydwen who went to Annwn, only seven survivors return. Some catastrophe has taken place. Lines spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir suggest this was a battle at Caer Vandwy:

‘to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Vandwy**.

At Caer Vandwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’

It is my growing intuition the names of individual fortresses are in fact different names for the same fort. In the previous verse Taliesin said six thousand men and an incommunicative watchman were standing on Caer Wydyr’s glass walls. Gwyn is referring to the catastrophic battle against the people of Annwn by which Arthur and his men broke into the fort. After breaking in, they took Gweir, stole the Head of Annwn’s cauldron, and captured the Brindled Ox before slamming ‘Hell’s gate’ shut.

A couple of months ago Brian Taylor drew my attention to a passage in James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld which illustrates the parallels between Arthur’s raid on the Head of Annwn’s fortress and Hercules’ assault on the House of Hades: ‘drawing his sword, wounding Hades in the shoulder, slaughtering cattle, wrestling the herdsman, choking and chaining Cerberos… the Herculean ego does not know how to behave in the underworld’.

As I continue my own journey through ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ where others see a quest for inspiration, I see violence, desecration, the utmost disrespect for the people of Annwn: a trail of atrocities committed by a power-hungry warlord and ambitious bard.

Far from being a model for seekers of Annwn’s mysteries it advocates the selfish pursuit of objects of desire through deceit and brute force. Our stories of journeys to the underworld are reflected in the upperworld and we have still not outgrown this Arthurian/Herculean mindset.

New ways of approaching Annwn based on respectful relationships with its people are required. Perhaps in time these will yield the stories needed to replace Arthur’s hegemony. But first repairs must be made…

*This is referred to in The Cambro Briton but I can’t find a source. It isn’t in The Triads of the Islands of Britain.
**Rather than using Haycock’s unexplained re-rendering of Gaer Vandwy I have stuck with the name in the Welsh text.
***Heron translates kaer wantvy as Caer Fanddwy. I’ve stuck to Caer Vandwy for consistency.

SOURCES

Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’
James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, (CN, 1979)
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Philip Runggaldier, Llyn Llion Theory, (Matador, 2016)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sarah Higley (transl.), ‘Preiddu Annwn’, (Camelot, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (OUP, 1979)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (Lightning Source, 1880)