The Bottomless Well

Chalice Well, Glastonbury

I recently discovered an article titled ‘Deep Polytheism’ by Morpheus Ravenna. I particularly liked what she has to say about religion done right feeling like a bottomless well and her suggestion that when we touch those depths we become part of the stories of our deities creating a shared story and future.

Beneath is an excerpt and the full piece can be read HERE.

‘When we recognize the Gods as beings with identities rather than as symbols, expansion happens. When we recognize Them as agents within their own stories, expansion happens. Greater vistas for learning, and greater opportunities for connection and relationship are opening up. New and deeper questions come up faster than we can learn answers. That expansion, that deepening, is an indicator that we are on the track of something important. I often say that if you’re doing your religion right, it should feel like a bottomless well – the deeper you go, the deeper you discover that you can go. That is what happens when we start to recognize the agency and sovereignty of the Gods.

It’s expansive. It goes even deeper. We can look at the story arcs of the Gods engaging with history, but we can simultaneously recognize that They Themselves may not be bound by time – may exist in a non-linear relationship to these historical journeys we are looking at. Thus, it is conceivable that every form and habit and identity that a God may have undergone throughout history could be simultaneously reachable within devotional relationships.

Imagine if you could contact and talk to and get to know someone you love at every age of their life, in every one of the identities they have occupied. Once we recognize evolution and change as possibilities within the stories of the Gods, it becomes possible for us to engage with any part of Them along that story arc…

And there’s something more that arises from that orientation. Because the Gods are alive within Their stories, we ourselves participate in the unfolding of those stories. We participate in the stories of the Gods in our studies of Them. In our asking and our researching where They came from and where They have been, we add to what is known of Them, and we help to shape those narratives. In our devotional cultus, in the knowledge of the Gods that comes through oracular and revelatory work, we contribute to Their stories. In being another of the peoples that have worshiped, fed and sung songs to Them, we become part of Their stories.

This is what comes from engaging with the Gods on this level. This is true relationship. When someone begins to matter to us as a real person within Their own story, we move beyond seeking what we can get from Them. They cease to be a symbol for something or a source of something and instead They become part of our story. We begin seeking to create a story together, a shared future.’

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Notes from a Polytheist’s Dictionary

Devotion

1. Love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person or activity.

1.1 Religious worship or observance.

This knot in my mouth, this tie in my tongue, tying me to you is this religious observance? Love? Something not in the dictionary? I have trawled the history books as they are eaten like bread by ravens and crumpled by their claws like crumbs and in their dust found nothing to describe this. Are there no words for the tongue-tied? Is there no bread?

Invoke

1. Call on (a deity or spirit) in prayer, as a witness, or for inspiration.

To invoke is to call on who is already present and make their presence manifest in this heartbeat of time. To invoke a deity you must have travelled into their labyrinth, taken all the wrong turnings, made your mistakes, fallen from sliding stepping stones into their abyss, climbed out spiderlike on the silken ropes that bind you to them. You must have found your voice screaming on the eagle-winds of their parapets and your silence in their most secret gardens. You must have met their dragons and their worms in death-masks, learnt to wriggle like the most humble thing before emerging from the wormholes of the stars to see your deity in another light.

Prayer

1. A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or another deity.

How do we know that we are praying when we do not set aside enough time beside the waterfalls to hear the flute players whose music is pure prayer and floats like a dragonfly to its bittersweet end? If only we could pray like flutists, like waters, rather than casting our boomerangs like throwing axes into the night skies with our iron demands. Is it enough when moths are drawn to our candles and beasts on misericords crowd around bending their ears? Last night I prayed to the horses of the otherworld and they came with indigo skins of twilight. I had a friend who prayed to a pterodactyl and she came from millions of years ago to help with a project she did not understand, that her wings eclipsed, her primal call dismissed. When I prayed to a god I was a minnow swimming amongst other minnows then I was his.

Review: A Kindness of Ravens by Rhyd Wildermuth

product_thumbnail.phpRhyd Wildermuth is a writer, anarchist, theorist, bard, and the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. A Kindness of Ravens is his second book. At its core lie Rhyd’s struggles to re-establish the cultus of Brân ‘the Raven King’ and bring an end to capitalism. These quests go hand-in-hand.

The book’s based around a haunting vision of ‘The City At The Gates Of The Dead’ where Rhyd stands beside a dead bard of Brân’s and sees a settlement, a town, a city, built and destroyed then a ‘last city… encompassing the world… And I saw what was coming.’

The cause of this destructive cycle is disenchantment which ‘follows disinheritance, displacement from the land into factories and mills and offices.’ Capitalism cuts us off from the land and creates cities where there is no place for gods, spirits, the dead, poets or the poor.

Rhyd’s work is inspirational because it not only elucidates the problem but offers solutions: ‘a change of place consciousness and a resurrection of class-consciousness, a solidarity between peoples and the spirits of place, a new treaty with the land and its inhabitants (living and dead, seen and unseen)…. we must see every place our home and a site of beautiful resistance.’

One of my favourite pieces, which has been a continuing influence on my thought and work, is ‘Awakening the Land: Madness and the Return of the Welsh Gods’. Narrated from a cliff-face in Snowdonia (which Rhyd climbed to ask advice from giants!) it seamlessly interweaves the stories of Brân with the personal and political.

Rhyd says ‘to know a god you must go mad’ and contrasts the divine madness of the awenyddion with the ‘sanity’ of waging out time for work and waging war. Against ‘the desolation of disenchantment’ he evokes Brân as a revolutionary figure who ‘embodies the land and its power’.

A problem Rhyd draws attention to is ‘trying to world in a god most don’t know’. Elsewhere Rhyd speaks of worlding the gods into existence: a process by which the gods come into the world through us. This can be beautiful and awe-inspiring but also frightening and disruptive.

Unlike members of older religions, contemporary polytheists have few scriptures or predecessors to turn to. It’s even more difficult when communications come from gods only a handful of people have written about from a polytheistic perspective. In the Welsh myths, Brân acts as a bridge for his people. In A Kindness of Ravens, Rhyd acts as a bridge for Brân and the revolutionary potency of his mythos.

Much of this book is intense: written with the raw, uncensored force of the untrammelled Awen. Rhyd’s masterful at taking you into his world to see through his eyes vast seams of injustice, the anger of his gods and the dead, the sorrow of ‘the Singers in the Dark.’

There are plenty of ravens and examples of kindness and care for others too. Rhyd writes ‘As long as we’re happy to enjoy the safety and protection of systems-of-meaning which devalue forests and Black bodies, our gods will be our own personal secret story.’

Rhyd advocates a polytheism wherein the land, gods, ancestors, our communities, the personal and political are intrinsically linked. The fates of all are bound up with the hegemony of capitalism and the imperative to resist it and build a better world.

A Kindness of Ravens is a revolutionary book: an inspiration for artists and activists and a way-marker for polytheists. I return it to my shelf with the firm belief it will be influential for many years to come.

Available through Lulu HERE.

Re-telling Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad II

For Calan Mai, a friend and I headed north of the wall for the May Bank Holiday. We stayed in a cottage on Inistrynich beside Loch Awe. My original plan was to re-tell the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad in Coille Coire Chuilc, one of the southernmost remnants of the Caledonian forest, as I had reason to believe the Strathclyde Britons associated it with Annwn.

However this didn’t happen. We got a bit too drunk on Nos Galan Mai and didn’t feel like travelling far. Instead I ended up telling the version written for Guests of the Earth by the loch in a grove of evergreens.

Evergreen Grove, Loch AweThe surrounding landscape reflected the dynamics of the time of year; wood anemones and bluebells on woodland edges, marsh marigolds in damper nooks. In wetter areas we found American Skunk Cabbage (or Swamp Lantern) with brilliantly suggestive leafy spathes and yellow spandixes.

Whilst the flowery floor said May most of the trees were only just coming into bud. The loch was ringed by snow-topped mountains; Ben Cruachan ‘Conical Mountain’, Creag Mhor ‘Great Rocky Hill’, Beinn Na Sroine ‘Mountain of the Nose’, Ben Lui ‘Deer Calf Mountain’, Beinn A Cleibh ‘Mountain of the Chest’, Meall Nan Gabhar ‘Hill of the Goats’, Meall Nan Tighearn ‘Hill of the Lords’.

Loch Awe and MountainsI found myself pondering whether this reflected the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr for Creiddylad: winter and summer kings fighting for a fertility goddess, or whether it should be seen within the Gaelic context of the story of the Cailleach, Bride and Angus. Cailleach Bheur was one of the genii loci. Her failure to cover a fountain springing from Ben Cruachan resulted in the creation of the river Awe and Loch Awe. Turned to stone as a punishment she guards the Pass of Brander.

However I had an obligation to fulfil. I asked the spirits of place and spruce trees whether they minded if I told them an old Brythonic story. My request was met by a curious silence and agreement of tolerance. I decided to go ahead.

As I told the story I experienced less connection with the landscape than I do in Lancashire. Going through the words and figures, the bones of what happened, those bones seemed thin as wind. It didn’t touch the land or live. Afterward the spirits of place politely motioned us to leave.

Inistrynich GroveVisiting Coille Coire Chuilc the following day I was glad I hadn’t chosen to tell the story there. I experienced the landscape and its spirits, disturbed by lead and gold mining and taken over by tourists, as hostile. Locating Annwn in the Caledonian forest may have been valid for the Strathclyde Britons in the Dark Ages but didn’t feel right for me.

On the whole, and most ironically considering I had linked Loch Awe with the Awen, I felt more distant from Gwyn as his Awenydd than I ever had. Although he told me deep magic could be worked beside the loch I could not grasp it. I could not see the beyond of the shore even when liminal rain provided the cloaked apparel of mist.

I was glad to get back to Lancashire. To the Greencroft Valley meadow with its wood avens, leafy ox-eye daisies, newly planted plugs and apple trees blossoming pink and white. My fragment of Avalon in Penwortham.

Walking through the Yarrow Valley’s banks of bluebells, woodlands where with greater stitchwort they formed an undulating sea stretching away for miles in heady glory, I experienced Creiddylad’s presence more strongly than I ever had.

Of course, Gwyn keeps telling me in various ways we’re here, immanent within this landscape. To believe in his assertion. Yet I fight him because he’s not a recognised genius loci and I worry about what people will think even though I know he speaks the truth…

Whilst my quest to uncover Gwyn’s neglected connections with the Old North continues, I now feel a deeper pull to explore how his mythos maps onto this land, its changing seasons and ways into Annwn. Hidden histories and multitudes of otherworlds. Years he has been here and infinite future possibilities.

Re-telling Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad

This January after completing Enchanting the Shadowlands, I was invited by Gwyn ap Nudd to contemplate the shape of the coming year from Glastonbury Tor. In my mind’s eye the sickle moon of the previous evening reappeared in gold suggesting the importance of scything the wildflower meadow in Greencroft Valley. Recalling the golden sun and pinkish folds of the sky at sunrise lead to the gnosis I must set aside time to do something special on Calan Mai.

Two years ago I marked the occasion with the Grove of the Avalon Sidhe in the orchard beside Glastonbury Tor. Last year I recited a poem called ‘If I Had To Fight Your Battle’ for Gwyn in en-sorcelling mists on Winter Hill here in Lancashire.

This year I started studying the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad and its origins in the Old North in more depth. During this period I realised I was meant to re-tell it somewhere in the north on Calan Mai. At the same time Guests of the Earth started putting together a new set for local events in April and May. We decided to make our theme seasonal myths about the emergence of spring. It made sense I should re-tell it as part of the performance.

Re-writing it wasn’t easy. Arthur’s introduction into this early seasonal myth in Culhwch and Olwen was problematic for me. I was also concerned Creiddylad’s perspective was inadequately represented, the focus being the conflict between the male rivals and Arthur’s resolution of their struggle. This made it important to focus on Creiddylad as the main character.

Something that struck me was since I’ve been devoted to Gwyn I’ve not seen much of Creiddylad. At first I thought this was because she was shut away in her father’s house, as suggested in Culhwch and Olwen. Realising this was a later addition reflecting Christianity’s repression of fertility rites on Calan Mai I started trying to connect with her in person through meditation and free writing.

At the outset I received little and not exactly what I expected from a spring maiden: scattered images of gnarly bulbs and bones, layers of sediment, flowers but often on graves and damp with tears, the sensation of staring into a profound darkness.

A revelation occurred when I started looking at the relationships between her story and Persephone’s. Like Persephone who is both a spring maiden and queen of the underworld, Creiddylad is May Queen and Queen of Annwn. The battle on Calan Mai and Gwythyr’s triumph marks Creiddylad’s return to this-world with may flowers and hawthorn blossom. Her abduction by Gwyn marks her passage to Annwn when the meadow-flowers are scythed, through soil and stony bedrock.

I have tried re-telling Creiddylad’s story many times and haven’t yet written a version I’m completely happy with. For the Guests of the Earth performance I ended up choosing an early one focusing on her abduction and transformation from spring maiden into Queen of Annwn and return to this-world in maturity as May Queen.

Although this cast Creiddylad as a naive maiden stolen away by Gwyn and didn’t contain a strong enough sense of the sovereignty she possesses as an independent fertility goddess (I found out about this after writing it) the group agreed it was the most poetic. It was also the one that seemed to want to be told.

Our first audience at Market Walk on Market Street at ‘What’s Your Story, Chorley?’ including the children, enjoyed it (particularly the howling!). We’re planning to perform it again at Penwortham Live on Friday 23rd May in Aphrodite’s Health Food Shop.

Guests of the Earth at What's Your Story, Chorley 2015 012 - CopyThe version performed with Guests of the Earth (Peter Dillon, Nicolas Guy Williams and myself) can be found on our website. The following post covers what happened when I re-told this story north of the wall.

Sandham Memorial Chapel, Manchester Art Gallery

Snowdrops in Sandbags outside Manchester Art GalleryWhite the snowdrops in garden and park.
White for peace and white for hope.

White on the bunker in sandbags they grow
to whiten the way to Sandham Chapel.

White the walls (though the windows are dark).
White the intent to paint a memorial

of white sheets and white wash, soap and suds:
daily regimes bring us closer to God.

White the scrubbing. White the baking.
White the endless sleeping and waking.

White the buzz in the back of the head.
White the cocoons of mosquito nets.

White the devotion. White the will
to wipe the mind with the daily drill.

Not-white the wounds. Not-white the skin.
Not-white the war and the world we live in.

White the eruptions of angel wings.
White the colour of crucifixes

borne through a salient of fire and blood
and offered up to a not-white God.

White the high altar. White the bread.
White the magic of resurrection.

Not-white the pain of a broken nation.
Not-white the sigh and the scream unexpressed.

White the pardons. White the excuses.
White this March too late for white rabbits.

White my forgotten god of the dead.
White my need to honour them.

***

I wrote this poem after visiting Manchester for the first time in a long while and being struck by its transformation into Snowdrop City (in September 2014 snowdrops were planted across the city in commemoration of the First World War) and by the effect of visiting the ‘Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War’ exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.

The latter was a temporary installation from Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire. The chapel was built to honour the forgotten dead of the First World War. The murals inside it were painted by Stanley Spencer and depict his experiences working on the Salonika Front as a medical orderly and soldier.

The murals depict scenes of everyday life; getting up, eating, washing, collecting water, the treatment of wounds, making beds. They are adorned with intriguing paradisal details; glimpses of angel’s wings, a man sprouting wings likes colinders, flowers growing from flesh. Each scene is framed within a heavenly archway. The pure horror of war is expressed only by Spencer’s strange distortions of human forms and features.

As I walked around the gallery-made-chapel a video played over and again on a loop every two minutes. Each time, a particular sentence about Spencer seeing these daily routines as bringing him closer to God kept echoing in my head. It jarred. Whilst I felt respect for Spencer’s wish to honour the forgotten people who had worked behind the scenes in the First World War, I struggled to comprehend his depictions of their work as heavenly and of soldiers offering their lives to Christ or God, leading to eventual resurrection.

The Resurrection of the Soldiers by Sir Stanley Spencer, CBE,RA (Cookham 1891¿ Cliveden 1959)
‘The Resurrection of the Soldiers’ http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/790185

As my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ is associated with the otherworld and the war-dead in ancient British mythology, I was also led to ponder when, why and how he and his mythos were replaced by the Christian paradigm and the ways our relationships with the gods and understanding of the afterlife affect our attitudes towards war and peace, life and death. This poem was written as a knee-jerk response to my thoughts and feelings.

Review: Bard Song by Robin Herne

Bard SongThis review is long overdue. Coincidentally I was re-reading Bard Song with the intention of reviewing it at the time Robin published his recording of Gwynn’s Guest, dedicating it to me, which has spurred me along.

I’m not sure if I can give this book an objective review as I’ve owned it so long and like it so much. The pages are scored with under-linings. Against many of the poems are pencilled a’s, b’s and c’s from my attempts to decipher complex metres. The spine bends open on my favourite poems, which I return to frequently, have shared with my local Poetry Society and used as examples in Bardic workshops. But I’ll give it a go.

Robin Herne is a polytheist Druid based in Ipswich. Bard Song provides an introduction to reading and writing honorific and seasonal poetry (in English) in mainly Welsh and Irish metres. This fulfils an important role in Brythonic and Gaelic polytheism, giving people like myself who have not yet mastered the language of their gods the tools and inspiration to compose poems based on Celtic metres. It also opens new and exciting vistas for future developments within poetry as a whole.

In his introduction Robin speaks of the Awen, the source of Bardic inspiration as ‘a wild spirit, a passionate and consuming Muse that imparts not just pretty turns of phrase, but a new vision of the world.’ Poetry is a magical art which can be used to commune with and honour gods and ancestors, attain and express a spiritual vision, record history, praise (or deride) a person and for fun. Its ultimate purpose is re-enchantment.

The first four parts of the book are divided in accordance with the Gaelic festivals; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh. In each section Robin introduces the festival with associated myths, traditions, deities and suitable metres before sharing a selection of his poems, many of which have been used by his clan in ritual.

For Samhain, Robin introduces the forsundud, an Irish genealogical poem for the ancestors. We meet the Cailleach holding ‘cold vigil’ in ‘The House of Winter’ and rutting stags. ‘Gwynn’s Guest,’ one of my favourite poems of all time (written in tawddgyrch cadwnog metre) records St Collen’s encounter with the Welsh Fairy King on Glastonbury Tor. The first stanza captures Gwynn’s wild nature so perfectly I can’t resist quoting it;

‘Wind tears the Tor, unravels hair
Bound in plaits fair, wild blood yearning
For thunder’s roar, this hill my Chair,
Blessed wolf’s lair, white fire burning.

Tribes rise and fall…’ And the ending is wickedly humorous.

At Imbolc’s core stands the hearth of Brigit. ‘Sisters of the Hearth’ introduces her triple role as smith, healer and poet. ‘Brigit’s Song’ takes place in her Hall. Robin’s words in ‘Three Flames’ resonate most strongly with my personal experience of her as Brigantia, goddess of northern England and the fires of inspiration which consume and heal;

‘Light of compassion white burning
Thaw the ice that scalds my mind
Stir the flesh from torpor afresh,
Night-blind, scars mesh; pray be kind.’

The section on Beltaine speaks of magical and military poetry. ‘Cu Chulainn at the Ford’ provides a heart-wrenching representation of Cu Chulainn and Ferdiad’s tragic battle in Ae Freisilighe metre. On a more cheerful note we find ‘The Honey-Tongued,’ dedicated to Ogma ‘carpenter of song,’ who is the patron god of Robin’s Clan. Since its publication this poem has fittingly given its name to a new brand of mead.

Lughnasadh introduces the stories of Lugh and Tailtiu, recording Lugh’s arrival ‘At Tara’s Gates’ and Tailtiu’s death and ‘funereal commemoration.’ It covers the story of Gobanos, a god of smithing and brewing and there is also discussion of famed cauldrons in Celtic mythology and the important role of select brews in the arts of inspiration.

I have mentioned only a small selection of poems and themes. In later chapters Robin shares poems devoted to Heathen, Greek and Roman gods and those written for fun. In the appendices he provides guidelines for writing in Irish and Welsh metres. These are clearly introduced with rhythmic and syllabic patterns with examples. For Englyn Penfyr;

‘######a##b
###b##a
######a’

‘The old hunter sought the beast in the night,
Though without might, hope never ceased,
Yet frail, his skill found the feast.’

I have learnt vast amounts from this book about Celtic metres, composed some poems of my own in the Welsh ones and found it to be an excellent resource for use in Bardic workshops. Robin’s dedication to the Old Gods shines throughout his work and this alone has inspired me on my path as an Awenydd and polytheist.

Bard Song is a must read for Bards, Fili and people of Celtic and other polytheistic religions. I’d also recommend it highly to all Pagans and to poets looking for new and exciting metres with origins in the British Isles.

***

Bard Song can be purchased through Moon Books: http://www.moon-books.net/books/bard-song

Robin’s most recent poems, which continue his exploration of world mythology in carefully chosen metres can be found in Moon Poets: http://www.moon-books.net/books/moon-poets

His blog ‘Round the Herne’ is here: http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/