The lump of my ‘workshyness’ and wanting to change the world

“I want to change the world.”

I state my desire to my deity in meditation at 7am aware as I do so of the rest of the world getting up, feeding the cats, walking the dog, jamming down breakfast, starting the car and joining the endless chug of exhaust fumes to offices and retail centres.

I’m not going to work today. My statement is laden with guilt. As I’m not working and have the luxury of sitting in meditation I feel driven to make my focus changing the world which forces so many other people into mind-numbing meaningless jobs:

sitting in call centres 9-5 Monday to Friday wired up to head phones trying to sell double glazing and insurance;

cleaning the crumbs and greasy handprints off the computers and desks and emptying the bins spilling sandwich and crisp wrappers of the people selling double glazing and insurance;

taking complaint after complaint about benefit fraud and dealing with the pettiness of complaints regarding people claiming to have had a heart attack or to be suffering from depression daring to go outside in the garden or take a walk.

I’m speaking from experience. I’ve done all these jobs: call centre, cleaner, benefit fraud hotline. I’ve also been a chamber maid, shelf-stacker, packer and administrative assistant. I’ve done what is necessary to support my study and later my writing and performing but never managed to stick such jobs because they conflict with what I really want to do.

It’s a vicious cycle and not one I can escape by earning money from my vocation. It’s extremely rare I get paid for my writing and performances or facilitating workshops. Occasionally I sell a book. My yearly income would barely keep me for a month.

If I lived in Nazi Germany I would no doubt be classified as ‘arbeitsscheu’ ‘workshy’ and incarcerated in a concentration camp. Horribly across the UK a similar phenomenon is recurring as people on disability benefits due to physical or mental illness are being reclassified as fit for work. In many instances this has led to suicide.

I’m lucky as I’m not forced to work full-time because my parents put me up. I’m not too ill to work at the moment but I have suffered from anxiety and depression (and still do on and off) and know soul-destroying jobs unfailingly grind me down to tears and hopelessness.

My desire to write goes first. Then my ability to commune with nature and hear the voices of the gods. Meaning and purpose swiftly departs and with that any reason to be alive. If I didn’t have the back-stop of my parents’ home and their support I don’t know what position I’d be in or if I’d be here at all.

Which is why I want to change the world. I want to live in a world where the life of every individual is intrinsically valued. Not this world where a person’s value is determined by their capacity to work in a meaningless job supporting an economy which benefits only the rich and is destroying the earth and human society. A world epitomised by the small-minded vindictiveness of someone who despises their job grassing up the person unable to work because of their depression for taking a walk.

Realistically I don’t possess many qualities suited to changing the world. I’m impractical, illogical and socially inept. I beat myself up continuously because I’m not cut out to be an activist or legislator. Attempting to take a stand on environmental issues at local council meetings I stumble on facts and figures and get the names of councillors wrong to smothered laughs. Unlike some people who buzz off social situations I find them draining and buckle quickly under pressure. I feel like a spare part at protests.(Although I still attend local meetings and protests and will continue to).

What I am good at is poetry and myth. Not the first places you’d look at a time when the greatest need is for manufacturers of pikes, rioters to wield them and thinkers who can traverse the lies and double-speak of parliament with the grace and dexterity of an otter.

Is there anything more useless to this world than a poet? I can think of nothing more useless and could not find a way out of my feelings of uselessness this morning when I dumped the statement of my desire to change the world like a lump of plasticine unformed and unceremoniously at the altar of my god.

Within this monstrous cacophany of thoughts you’re probably wondering whether he got a word in edgeways.

Gwyn ap Nudd’s a King of Annwn: a master of visions and glamoury renowned for his interruptions of hunting horns and a hundred hounds howling on otherworldly winds with a chill to stop one’s heart, his shining beauty and cauldron full of stars.

Today he’s silent. All I see is a depth of indigo and at its edges the melee of my thoughts rattling their pikes. Then further into the deep other pike rattlers throughout the ages who have stated the same desire albeit probably not to Annwn’s King.

Gwyn’s half-smile creases the indigo like a wave. Rattling through the ages comes the answer: there’s no easy solution.

I’m angry. That was not the answer I wanted to hear. I want to throw the ugly unformed plasticine lump of “I want to change the world” out of the window or into the deep.

Sensing my wish curious voices rise. Restless spirits reach forward to examine the plasticine with what may be hands or serpentine tails or wings. I get the impression they want to take it and mould it in their world.

Now it comes down to it I’m not sure I want to give my lump to them. I clutch it close to me. It’s my lump. My problem. My burden. What’s more I want to be seen carrying it and I want to be in control.

They prise it from my fingers. Hold it up to the starlight shining from the seas of Annwn. I see it for what it is. A desire in itself authentic but baked clumsily in the crucible of work and workshyness to the chant of uselessness and guilt. They dive with it back into the deep still indigo.

My guilt and uselessness dissolve and I realise they stem from taking on the values of a system set on devaluing all religion that it cannot harness for political control and all art that does not beg to the custodians of the establishment or market itself as mass entertainment. A system founded on the destruction of mytho-poetic worldviews.

I catch a glimmer of the Awen in what the system needs to keep destroyed. No easy solution but I see what I need to do.

I speak farewell to the lump of my ‘workshyness’ and wanting to change the world.

I assert the value of myth and poetry and the value of a poet ‘useless’ and ‘workshy’.

I pour a libation for Gwyn, the spirits of the deep, the pike-wielding ancestors and walk in trust with a pike in my hand to change the world.

***

*This piece was written yesterday and was provoked by two excellent articles on contemporary political issues: one by Brian Taylor ‘Austerity Watch, Cut to Death‘ and one by Mark Rosher ‘Living with Madness‘ and an awful article condemning ‘otherworldy polytheism’ by John Halstead ‘If It Doesn’t Help Me Save This World, I Don’t Want Your Polytheist Revolution‘.

The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid

I journeyed for weeks
through mist and hunger
to find the split rack of her bones,
bones stripped, flesh burnt
and boiled in the cauldron,
blood drained and bottled in two jars.

I plundered the ashes where the cauldron stood,
sniffed for blood where the jars were filled.
Played maracas with her bones,
made intricate arrangements,
chanted and sung
but could not raise her ghost.

“She is amongst the spirits of Annwn now,”
spoke the god I called instead.

“Lay her bones to rest. In the fire of poetry
console her burning spirit.”

***

I’m laying her bones to rest. The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid. Her name was Orddu. It meant ‘the Very Black Witch’. Whether she had black skin, black hair or used black magic seem irrelevant now. All that is left is her scapula split in twain, her shattered pelvis, two arms, two legs, her broken skull. Jagged shadows in two orbits retrieved from either side of the cavern.

Her bones are still. I am angry and restless. I cannot abide the story of her death. How Arthur came as he always did into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches: sword slung over his shoulder like a sundered lightning bolt, a living knife in his hilt, a shield on his thigh adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary, aboard a huge mare.

Caw of Prydyn behind him a giant with a curling beard and the damned jars like heinous milk bottles on each side of his saddle; half a man in size, well-stoppered, thick-glassed, unbreakable. Then the retinue with spear and shield, tawdry banners and flags.

Following to stragglers’ jeers Hygwydd the servant staggering bow-legged bent-backed beneath the gigantic cauldron that brewed food for the brave. Hygwydd’s brother Cacamwri with Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil dragging ponies piled with saddle-bags of food and weapons.

At Arthur’s right Gwythyr ap Greidol, a gristled war-lord with fire and a hundred bloody campaigns in his eyes. A blazing passion. And to Arthur’s left Gwyn ap Nudd, the guide who tricked and dizzied their quest cloaked in mist summoning his hounds to eat the fallen from the mountainside.

Of the host who went to Pennant Gofid only a fragment reached the cave where Orddu plaited her black hair, blackened her skin with war-paint, fastened down her helmet. Sharpened her sword then set it aside like an afterthought. Cracked her knuckles and flexed her talons.

When Arthur blanched a voice mocked from the mist “if you’re scared, witch-killer, why not send your servants in instead?”

Arthur pointed Hygwydd and Cacamwri toward Orddu beckoning. She grabbed Hygwydd by the hair, dragged him to the floor, threw off Cacamwri’s assault, arrested their weapons, beat them out bloody and bruised. Arthur sent Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil in to be crushed in her wrestling hold, torn by her talons, beaten out with broken bones. Arthur fumbled for his knife.

“Why are you afraid, Christian warlord?” Orddu asked. “Far from home. Far from heaven. Do you remember I trained your northern warriors? Without my wisdom, gifts from our gods, they will be nothing but bickering chieftains with a lust for gold and immortality that will bring Prydain’s downfall?”

Overcome by fury Arthur threw his knife in a wrathful arc that sliced down through Orddu’s helmet through her ribs. Dropped to the floor as she fell aside in two halves screaming “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” as the mist writhed and the hounds of Annwn howled.

When her twitching halves lay still Caw filled the bottles with her blood still warm and jammed down the corks. They stripped her of armour and flesh. Boiled a merry meal. Stole her sword. Left with a cauldron filled with northern treasure whilst her spirit watched aghast in the misted arms of Gwyn ap Nudd.

***

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches with his living knife to put an end to wild recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years.

Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Gave us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Took away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Gave us virginity and chastity belts. Cut us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Not long ago I split the jars. Escaped to another place. Wandered my estate kissing Himalayan Balsam. Watching Ragwort sway with wasps. Mugwort flowering like coral. But this was not enough. Gods and fairies walked to the world of the dead and called me after them. Since then I have seen the dead walk in the bright eye of the sun.

I could not go back to the jars. To glass windows and tower blocks. To numbers on computer screens. The pencil skirts of offices. To fracking rigs threatening to break both worlds.

So I came to Pennant Gofid searching for answers and companionship on my lonely path. Found only Orddu’s bones and the god who took her spirit. Yet found a link in spirit with a companion and a god in the magical tradition of the Old North.

***

So I constructed a fire of poetry and spoke my words of consolation:

“Orddu Last Witch of Pennant Gofid
know you are not the last
to walk these paths
to caves and mountain ranges,
through otherworlds and distant ages,
seeking visions of the present
the future and past.

The rule of Arthur has fallen.
Though Prydain still falls
we have broken the jars.
Our blood is no longer contained
by the tyrants of Arthur’s court.
We are winning back our flesh.
Our magic. Our strength.

Remembering our gods.
Know your life will be remembered
where there are prophecies and hailstorms,
rain and rivers, caves and heresy,
in the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd
where your spirit burns
forevermore.”

Then I took her bones in my rucksack and crawled through to a dark chamber. On a little shelf beside Orwen ‘the Very White Witch’ I laid Orddu’s bones to rest.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Gwyllon: ‘Wyllt-ness’ and the Healing Power of Art

Barrow Mound, Fulwood

The wight whose footsteps I heard
imprinted on my cold soul,
the cold marrow of my bones.
He walked in soul as his bones laid still
and my soul reached out to him:
another one of the gwyllon.

The glimmer of fairy lights.
This place secluded and so still.

Fulwood Barrow MoundSometimes you stumble somewhere and forget yourself. No longer breathing. In the time of the gods. You hear the footsteps of a deity. Not your deity. But one connected with him.

***

In the mythology of ancient Britain, Gwyn ap Nudd (a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead) is intimately connected with ‘gwyllon’: madmen, wildmen, wraiths, who through some traumatic experience have become ‘outside themselves’, open to the otherworld, ‘wyllt’.

The most famous is Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin is a golden-torqued warrior of the court of the northern British ruler, Gwenddolau, who becomes wyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd; a conflict between Brythonic kinsmen renowned for its carnage and futility.

Looking across the battlefield, stricken with guilt because his sister Gwendydd’s sons are amongst the dead, Myrddin sees an unendurable brightness and martial battalion in the sky. It seems possible this is Gwyn (‘white’ ‘blessed’ holy’ from Vindos or Vindonnus ‘white’ ‘clear light, white’) and his host: the spirits of Annwn and the war-dead, approaching to gather their kindred to the otherworld.

‘Torn out of himself’ by one of these spirits, Myrddin flees to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest). He wanders there ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon’. These gwyllon are ‘seven score men’ who also fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished.

Similar cases are found in The Triads of the Island of Britain: ‘Tri Gwyd Ellyll Ynys Brydein’ ‘Three Wild Spectres of the Island of Britian’. The notes state ‘ydellyll’ (for ‘gwyd ellyll?’) ‘occurs in the Gododdin in reference to furious activity in battle’ and could relate to tales of men who become wyllt as a consequence of war.

What makes Myrddin’s story unique is his recovery. Amongst wild creatures of the forest; a piglet, a wolf and a favourite apple tree he undergoes a healing process through which he learns the art of poetry and uses it to prophecy against future bloodshed.

***

Cyledyr Wyllt possesses an entirely different story. In Culhwch and Olwen, after Gwyn abducts Creiddylad, his rival Gwythyr ap Greidol raises an army of northern men to win her back. Amongst them are Cyledyr and his brother, Pen, his father Nwython and his great grand-father’s brother, Gwrgst Ledlwm. If Gwrgst is still living this means Cyledyr must be in his teens.

Gwythyr and his army attack Gwyn. My intuition is this attack represents a raid on Annwn. Gwyn triumphs over Gwythyr and the northern men and takes them prisoner. During their captivity he kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who goes mad. The etymological links between Cyledyr and Celyddon suggest that, like Myrddin, he flees to the forest.

Gwyn’s motive for torturing Cyledyr is never explained. Did he do it from fury? For vengeance? Did he have some darker purpose in feeding a young man his father’s heart? Could this have originated from some arcane rite of the past whereby the strength of one’s ancestors was conferred by eating their flesh, of which Gwyn makes a mockery?

Another question worth asking is ‘Did it happen at all?’ The historical Nwython is recorded to have died in his bed.

It seems possible Cyledyr’s fevered recollections result from the effects of unbidden entry to Annwn, the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr’s forces and time spent in prison on an impressionable young mind. Whilst Cyledyr is telling this story Nwython could be anguishing over the unknown fate of his son. Whether Cyledyr recovered from his trauma or died in Celyddon remains uncertain.

***

Another story I believe features Gwyn (as the King of Fairy) and a human ruler who becomes wyllt is Sir Orfeo. This begins when the Fairy King abducts Heurodis, Orfeo’s wife. Driven wyllt by grief, Orfeo abandons his sovereignty and departs ‘like a beggar’ for the wilderness where his only solace is playing his harp, which brings joy to the wild creatures.

After ten long years Orfeo finally finds a way into Fairyland. After travelling sunlit green plains and hunting grounds he comes to the Fairy King’s glass palace. Therein he makes a terrible discovery: ‘Folk long thought dead… as living found’ headless, armless, torn, ‘with dreadful wounds’, ‘full-armed on horses’, strangled, drowned, burned, wives laid in child-bed ‘stolen out of life’: those ‘the fairies seize and keep’. Heurodis lies amongst them.

These images represent a little-known truth, rarely made explicit in Brythonic mythology: the beauty of Fairyland is founded on the horror of death. The knights and damsels of the Fairy King’s hunt who feast in his hall number the war-dead, murder-victims, women who have died in labour.

Heurodis is amongst them because when the Fairy King took her whilst she slept beneath an orchard tree she died or became comatose or catatonic. Such superstitions can be traced through Brythonic fairylore to earlier beliefs about Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn conveying souls to the otherworld.

This knowledge does not prevent Orfeo from entering the Fairy King’s hall and playing his wondrous music. The King is so moved he offers Orfeo anything he wants. Of course, Orfeo asks for Heurodis. He brings her back to this-world where the pair are re-united in sovereignty.

This story shows how Orfeo gains his ability as a musician from his period wandering wyllt and that hard-won art has the power to move the gods, to sing the souls of those held captive in Fairyland back to this earthly home.

***

These myths represent the experience of becoming wyllt at the outermost limits of human experience. The ‘wyllt-ness’ of Myrddin and Cyledyr results from battle trauma. Cyledyr’s battle trauma is exacerbated by his unwarranted entry into Annwn, imprisonment in the ‘not-world’ and real or imagined torture by Gwyn.

Orfeo’s story differs slightly. His wyllt-ness results from loss. His time spent wandering the wilderness provides him with the strength to survives his gnosis of the terrible truth at the heart of Fairyland and Heurodis’ fate to win her back and return to his seat of rule.

Key to the survival of becoming wyllt is the power of art. For Myrddin and Orfeo giving voice to their trauma and to the powers of nature who surround and console them is an essential part of the healing process. It is possibly because he does not discover art that Cyledyr remains wyllt. This may also be the case for the other gwyllon who lapsed into madness and perished.

These stories contain lasting significance for modernity where art and nature therapy are recognised as powerful means of helping victims of war and loss.

***

Later folktales represent a variety of different encounters with and responses to Fairyland. In most we find the recurrent themes of wyllt-ness and art. People who meet fairies, stumble into or are taken to Fairy invariably become ‘dead, mad or poets’. My personal experiences with Gwyn and his realm bear stronger resemblances to these tales.

Glastonbury TorIn the year 2000 at Glastonbury Festival (long before I knew the name of the mysterious god of the Tor) I had a vision of what I recognise now to be Fairyland which left me shocked, stunned and profoundly questioning the nature of reality.

My quest for an explanation led me through a dangerous combination of drink, drugs, all-night dancing and all the texts of the Western European philosophical tradition, deeper into madness, to the brink of an abyss where I was faced with the choice of life or death.

Unable to choose either I was confronted by three beings I now recognise as ellyllon (‘fairies’ akin to gwyllon). What followed was equally beautiful and perturbing and put an end to the pain of having to make that choice. My experiences left me half-wyllt, wandering between life and death, plagued by anxiety and panic attacks and put a temporary end to my vision-quest.

After giving up my philosophy PhD, I spent four years working with horses. During this period of re-connecting with the land, the seasons and the animal world, working hard and thinking little, I underwent a return to nature that bears a little analogy to the flight of the wyllt to Celyddon.

When I met Gwyn and put a face to the god who governed the magical landscape I haphazardly intruded on at Glastonbury Festival twelve years ago, my initial terror was edged by relief. I finally knew the source of the calling to the otherworld that had haunted me for as long as I can remember. Gwyn became my patron and I his awenydd: ‘person inspired’ or ‘poet’.

***

In the contemporary world where poetry, let alone pagan poetry, is rarely acknowledged or valued the path of the awenydd is not an easy vocation. Deep gnosis of nature and Annwn and its deities necessarily places one outside the bounds of ordinary experience; makes one wyllt, other. With Celyddon gone there is no wild and wooded place of retreat outside the norms of society where gwyllon can flee and gather in company.

Yet in the shaded spaces of our localities where trees still stand and that great forest stood before it walked to Scotland centuries ago we can commune with the gwyllon of old and find unison with the gwyllon of today. Sharing can also take place in the green nooks and crannies of books, in the pubs and cafes and wooded stages where we perform and on the internet. In our stories we find camaraderie.

In a world becoming increasingly superficial where we are losing touch with the deep knowledge our ancestors held to help those touched by the wyllt-ness of Fairyland be it through trauma, loss, enchantment or some silly mistake, we have never had a greater need for the stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and the gwyllon. For the healing power of art.

Castle Hill from Fairy LaneSOURCES

Bromwich, Rachel (ed) The Triads of the Island of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. (eds) Culhwch and Olwen (University of Wales, 1998)
Davies, Constance ‘Classical Threads in Orfeo’ The Modern Language Review, Vol 56, No 2, (Modern Humanities Research Association, April 1961)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Friedman, John Block ‘Eurydice, Heurodis and the Noon-Day Demon’ Speculum, Vol 41, Vol 1 (Medieval Academy of America, 1966)
Hunt, Edward Eyre Sir Orfeo (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

Four Wells

Four wells at Preston New Road.
Four wells at Roseacre.
Four wells in the darkness
between drilling and decision.

Four wells of steel meets shale.
Four wells boring into the mind.
Four wells of screaming poison.
Four wells of deadly sands of time.

Four wells where gas the question
scorches ears of invisible skies.
Four wells? An uneasy whisper
from underworld gods.

Four wells to decide the future.
Four wells of choice. Four wells of trembling.
By the word on four wells our land
will be saved or destroyed.

~

This is a poem I sent to Lancashire County Council’s Development Management Group along with more logical reasons why I am opposed to Caudrilla’s drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of four wells at Preston New Road and Roseacre. Protests at the County Hall will be beginning tomorrow (Wed 23rd June) as LCC make their final decision about Caudrilla’s application. For more information on how to register opposition by e-mail and join the protest see Frack Free Lancashire’s website.

Sign for fracking protest

Below are some photos from when I visited the potential fracking site at Preston New Road. The area is cordoned off and anti-trespassing notices are in place. It looks like work has already been done to prepare it for the drilling rig.

Edwina Walk, Penwortham Live 022 - CopyPreston New RoadEdwina Walk, Penwortham Live 028 - CopyEdwina Walk, Penwortham Live 054 - Copy

She who was jealous of flowers

How jealous I am fragile flowers
of how you only arrive
once a year
how you are always beautiful
vibrant coloured
how you do not have to labour
on and on pink-fleshed at the modern wheel.

How ignorant you are of everything beneath you
of the effortfulness of soil
worms with their moon rakes
bent double like miners in midnight toil
the dung beetle rolling his ball
to the edge of the world.
Look down and see beauty costs the earth.
It is made of broken snail shells.

But you pretty flowers are not labourers.

Have you ever tried to sprout from a cold hard bulb?
Endured the underworld’s permafrost?
Seen miniscules of worms die?
Do you know the origin of minerals or miracles?

We are told they come from God.

They come from years and the bones of dinosaurs.
Do you know how many continents
it takes to make a flower?
How many extinctions?
How the rumbling of plague carts
served us before you were here?
How like you we come from many deaths?

I did not know you could talk or how
we have grown together.
I am amazed.
My widening eyes
are brimming with forbidden knowledge.

Then be beautiful in your petals for us
tread lightly on the dead
for these are short hours
of spring sun
before we cast our bodies
on the ground and are together again.

Enchanting the Shadowlands Book Launch

Enchanting the Shadowlands Book CoverOn Wednesday 22nd April I held an evening of poetry, song and story to celebrate the launch of Enchanting the Shadowlands at Korova Arts Cafe in Preston. The night was very special for me because it marked the publication of my first book, the completion of a spiritual journey and brought together friends who have supported me since I took to writing poetry seriously in 2012.

Storyteller Peter Dillon was MC for the night. We opened with a joint performance of ‘The Bull of Conflict’ a glosa recording the moment when my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, gave me the imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’.

Vincent Smith’s ‘Woodland Eulogy’ and reflections on early memories of a close friend made a poignant start to the first half. Mike Cracknell brought the house down with his hilarious poem about lovers with nothing in common except filthy habits. Martin Domleo performed poems tying in with my nature themed work including ‘Thor’s Cave’ and the experience of deceleration linking to his passion for motorbikes. Nina GeorgeSinger Nina George was the first headline act. She started with a haunting piece written by a friend. Her second song, she told us, demanded to be sung at the launch! She got everybody joining in with the chorus:

‘She said this is my church here where I stand
With my hands in the earth and my feet on the ground
She said this is my church here where I stand
With my heart in my mouth and my soul in the land.’

Nina finished with a song by Jodi Mitchell. At the end of the first half I performed poems exploring local history written in voices of the ancestors and spirits of the land. These included a reluctant resident of Penwortham Lake Village, a spinner in her cellar, the spirit of the aquifer beneath Castle Hill and Belisama, goddess of the Ribble. During the break we looked out at a pink-purple sunset against fairy-lit trees and the silhouette of St Walburge’s spire. Preston Sunset from KorovaI opened the second half with  ‘Slugless’ which was written when I had a spate of people confessing to me about their slug problems. All but one…. As we often bump into each other walking beside the Ribble, Terry Quinn performed poems about the river, one set at a crucial time when a campaign run successfully by Jane Brunning saved the area that is now Central Park from a huge development scheme. Dorothy mentioned she also had a slug scene in her novel ‘Shouting Back’. Her poems included the memorable ‘City Rats’.

Nina returned to perform a song about reclaiming Druidry and a controversial tongue-in-cheek ditty called ‘The Day the Nazi Died’ by Chumbawamba. Novelist Katharine Ann Angel read excerpts from ‘Being Forgotten’ and ‘The Froggitt Chain’ and spoke of her inspiration from people, particularly working with difficult teenagers.

Nicolas Guy WilliamsThe second headliner was poet Nicolas Guy Williams. He opened with ‘Ancient by thy Winters’ saying he thought it would be suit my launch as it contains howling: ‘Hear them HOWL! HEAR THEM HOWL! Once no forest was defenceless.’ He also performed ‘Woman of the Sap’ and ‘Oh ratchet walk and seek that scent’ one of my personal favourites based on the local legend of the Gabriel Ratchets.

I ended the second half with a piece dedicated to Gwyn on Nos Galan Gaeaf called ‘When You Hunt for Souls in the Winter Rain’ and poems Lorna Enchanting the Shadowlandsrecording a journey to Annwn (the Brythonic Otherworld) with horse and hound to an audience in his hall. As a finale I performed ‘No Rules’ which summarises my philosophy of life:

‘Break every boundary.
There are no rules.
Only truth and promises
Bind us in the boundless infinite.’

Afterward there was an open-mic where it was great to have Flora Martyr, who is missed as a host of Korova Poetry, back to perform. Following Nina’s protest songs John Dreaming the Hound Winstanley, who is involved with the Wigan Digger’s Festival, sung an old diggers song. I also opened some presents from the generous members of my grove. Nina gave me a bottle of wine (knows me too well!). Phil and Lynda Ryder gave me a book about Boudica, a warrior queen and ruler of the Iceni (horse) tribe, called ‘Dreaming the Hound’ with a wonderful bronze image of a howling hound on the cover.

When we left Korova the crescent moon was high in the sky with a bright and beautiful Venus above the fairy-lit trees. I felt the shadowlands had been enchanted. There is power in a promise… and in the support of friends without whom I wouldn’t have been able to see it through. I’d like end on a note of thanks to Peter as MC, everybody who performed and came to watch and to Sam for providing the venue. Moon, Venus and Fairy Trees

The Fairies Chapel

I.
Where factories
are washed into the earth,

the old mill in the thrutch
over-run by rolling rapids,

white waters stir
in a wind-swept cauldron.

A voice between drops of water,
lichen and rocks

offers a glimpse
of another piece of world;

a handful of light,
sarcophagus and broken chair,

scattered flowers
offerings of souls

worshipful in a shared space,
remains of fairies and giants.

II.
When I think I have left
the voice calls me back

to speak my testimony
in that memory-place

cleft between dripping water,
rocks and lichen:

the fairies chapel
I will make my home.

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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

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.