Ravens Who Croak On Gore

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn recites the names of a series of northern British warriors* whose deaths he attended ‘when ravens croaked on gore’.

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

I was there when Bran was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.

I was there when Llachau was slain
Arthur’s son, wondrous in wordcraft,
When ravens croaked on gore.

I was* there when Meurig was slain,
Careian’s son, honoured in praise,
When ravens croaked on flesh.

I was there when Gwallog was slain,
From a line of princes,
Grief of the Saxons, son of Lleynog.

The repetition of lines featuring croaking battle-ravens at the end of four of the five three line stanzas drives home the devastation wreaked upon the battlefields where these northern men were killed, some in internecine rivalry, some battling against the Anglo-Saxons. It shows few or none of the Britons on their side lived on to bury their dead, who were scorned by their enemies.

The image of battlefield ravens and other carrion birds along with wolves and/or dogs feasting on the corpses of the dead is common throughout the poetry of the ‘heroic age’ across Northern Europe and expresses the gristly reality of conflict and its aftermath, which few of us witness first hand today.

In it we find the expression of attitudes towards heroism, war, death, and the battle-dead. Although most of this poetry was composed after the pre-Christian peoples of Northern Europe had been converted to Christianity it is still possible to find hints of pre-Christian superstitions surrounding ravens and other carrion birds as ‘death-eaters’ who were associated with the death gods and goddesses.

The sense of Gwyn’s omnipresence on the battlefields where these northern British warriors died combined with our knowledge from other sources that he is a ruler of Annwn (‘the Deep’ – the Brythonic Otherworld) suggests he attended their deaths as a psychopomp to gather their souls back to his realm and that, like him and his hounds, the death-eating ravens served a role in their transition.

An examination of the literature surrounding battlefield ravens in the Brythonic and other Northern European cultures suggests they were viewed not only as carrion-eaters associated with the aftermath of battles but as manifestations of the death-gods, those who served them, and the dead.

In the Brythonic tradition there is a great deal of raven imagery in The Gododdin, which relates the tragic Battle of Catraeth, where over three hundred Brythonic warriors died fighting the Anglo-Saxons. Here a battle is referred to as a ‘raven’s feast’ and ‘raven’s gain’. Whilst one of the warriors ‘fed the ravens on the rampart of the fortress’ another became ‘food for ravens’ ‘benefit to the crow’. This reflects a possible heroic adage that the fate of a warrior was either to feed the ravens or become food for them. In ‘The Battles of Gwallog’ ‘there are… many stinking corpses, / and scattered crows’.

The rulers of the northern British kingdom of Rheged were associated with ravens. Three ravens appear on their coat of arms (designed in the Middle Ages) which might have been based on a raven banner**.

Having fed the ravens most of his life Urien Rheged becomes food for ravens after his assassination. Whilst his cousin, Llywarch Hen, rides away with his head, ‘on his white bosom the sable raven gluts.’

In Rhonabwy’s Dream, the warriors of Owain Rheged take the form of ravens and feast on their living enemies. After a defeat by Arthur’s men, the squire ‘raised the banner’, and they took revenge. ‘They carried off the heads of some, the eyes of others, the ears of others, and the arms of others and took them up into the air. There was a great commotion in the sky with the fluttering of jubilant ravens and their croaking, and another great commotion with the screaming of men being attacked’.

In the Irish myths ravens and crows are associated with the battle-goddesses the Badb and the Morrigan. The name Badb means ‘crow’. In ‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’ she appears as ‘a wild, impetuous, precipitate, furious, dark, frightful, voracious, merciless badb, screaming and fluttering over their heads’ with ‘ancient birds’, ‘destroying demons of the air’, and a ‘phantom host’. In The Tain, the Badb is invoked by the war-cry of Cú Chulainn along with ‘fiends of the air’ and it is only when the Morrigan settles as a raven on his shoulder that his enemies know he is dead.
In Anglo-Saxon literature the raven is one of three ‘beasts of battle’ with the eagle and wolf, hungry for, and feasting on the corpses of the dead. In ‘Judith’ ‘the dark raven’ is described as ‘a slaughter-greedy bird’. In ‘Elene’ ‘dark and slaughter-fierce’ it ‘rejoiced in its work’. In the Old English Exodus, in a verse that opens with screams of war-birds, it is described as ‘the dark chooser of the slain’.

This is interesting in relation to the lore surrounding ravens in Norse mythology. Two ravens named Huginn ‘thought’ and Muninn ‘memory’ fly across the world to gather information for Odin, the god who receives half the souls of the battle-dead in his hall, Valhalla, who are taken there by his valkyries.

The term valkyrie comes from valr (the battle-slain) and kjósa (to choose) and means ‘chooser of the slain’. Valkyries and ravens were frequently depicted together, such as in ‘Raven Song’, where a valkyrie asks a raven: ‘How is it with ye ravens? Whence are ye come with bloody beak at rithe dawning of the day? Torn flesh is hanging from your talons, and a reek of carrion comes from your mouths. I do not doubt that ye have passed the night amid a scene of carnage’. These companions may have been seen as shapeshifting into one another, as raven-woman figures, like the Badb.

Another intriguing figure, from Danish lore, is the valravn ‘raven of the slain’. These beings are described alternatively as ravens who gain the knowledge and form of men by eating the heart of a fallen king or as restless souls who can only be rid of their animal countenance by drinking the blood or eating the heart of a child. Sometimes they are described as half-raven, half-wolf.

Parallels with other sources suggest ‘the ravens who croak on gore’ who accompany Gwyn may be more than what they seem, that they might be shapeshifters, valkyrie or Babd or Morrigan-like deities.

In relation to this theory it is notable that Gwyn may be identified with Afallach, the father of Morgan. She appears in the Vita Merlini as one of nine sisters who ‘knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on wings’. Morgan and her sisters may be the nine maidens whose breath kindles the fire beneath the Cauldron of the Head of Annwn in a poem attributed to Taliesin called ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. On the surface the names Morgan and Morrigan appear to be similar. However, mor in Welsh means ‘sea’ whereas mór in Irish means ‘great’ and rigan ‘queen’.

Afallach is also the father of Modron, who is raped by Urien Rheged, and bears Owain and Morfudd, in Peniarth MS. 70. Here we find further potential connections between the King of Annwn and the raven-rulers. Whether Morgan and Modron are the same goddess by different names I remain uncertain.

What my research has opened up is the possibility that whilst, on one level, the ravens in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ are physical beings partaking in the visceral reality of feasting on the battle-dead after tragic battles they might also be seen in other ways.

Perhaps they were shapeshifting goddesses who were daughters of Gwyn, valkyrie-like figures who served him, or embodiments of dead or living warriors. These meanings shift and overlap and open new paradigms for understanding the lines about warriors feeding and becoming food for ravens.

Their croaking over gore becomes increasingly sinister in our modern eyes, but may reflect an older worldview in which life feeds on life and the dead on death and to feed the ravens is not an insult but an honour.

* A possible exception being Arthur’s son, Llachau, unless there is an argument for a northern Arthur.
** It seems possible the rulers of Rheged had a raven banner with animistic qualities like those carried by Viking leaders. If the raven flapped its wings there would be victory and if it hung limp, defeat.

The image is ‘The Twa Corbies’, an illustration from Arthur Rackham’s Some British Ballads (2019). Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)

Aaron K. Hostetter, Old English Poetry Project, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/

Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008)

John Jay Perry (transl.), Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, (1925) https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/index.htm

Greg Hill (transl.), ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/

Hugo Edward Britt, ‘The Beasts of Battle – Associative Connections of the wolf, eagle, and raven in Old English Poetry’, (The University of Melbourne, 2014)

Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)

Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Co(r)vid Moon – A Poetry Pamphlet for my Patrons

On the last dark moon, as England entered another national lockdown, I prayed to Gwyn for advice on what to make my focus over the approaching moon cycle. I received his answers through divination, a journey, and free writing, and the next morning, on the new moon, I was given the theme ‘Co(r)vid Moon’.

So, I decided to commit to writing 28 poems, one for each day of the moon cycle, relating to corvids and/or covid. Some days I wrote 2 – 4 and on others I didn’t write any at all, but I met my target. Of them 19 are shareable and I have put them together as a poetry pamphlet exclusively for my patrons as an expression of my gratitude for their invaluable support through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In these poems I explore my relationship with Gwyn as a gatherer of souls who guides the dead with ‘ravens who croak over gore’ and their role in this plague. I also dive into immunology and cell biology.

If you enjoy my work and would like a copy of the pamphlet please consider becoming a patron through Patreon HERE. There will be other gifts along with regular rewards such as a monthly newsletter, crazy things, access to unseen work, and your name in my future print publications and free signed books on higher tiers.

Here is a selection of the poems:

The Summoning of the Ravens

It is not we who summon but the ravens.

You will know it by the moment the sky goes out
to the cronk of their calls like the blinking of a god’s eyelid.

Do not ignore the momentary shadow of their four-fingered wings.

The casting of doubt on everything is only the beginning.

I have seen ravens on Dumbarton Rock, the Great Orme,
Pen Dinas, but never expected to see them here
in Peneverdant shuddering out the skies.

“Who” and “what’”and “why?” I cry
in this wilderness of lockdown, try to interpret
their unconquerable calls and their potent messages.

Every time I find words the ravens shift further out of sight.


A Raven has a Job Interview

“Tell me, raven, what qualities make you a good candidate for this role?”

“My great black wings, the sharpness of my beak, my love of flying between worlds.
My legendary wit and cleverness. My ability to find shiny and unshiny things.
My incredible memory and the comforting and uncomforting sounds of my words.
The unfathomable darkness, greatness, ultimately the kindness of my heart.”

“Can you give me examples of when you have worked alone and in a team?”

“Alone I fly, ever onwards, dark eyes swivelling like planets in their orbits,
searching for the corpses of the dead but, alone, I cannot open them, peck them apart,
so I call to the wolves and they come howling with their stronger muzzles to lay open
the wet flesh, the steaming jewels of the innards, and I call my sisters to feast.”

“And, finally, can you tell me what rewards you expect to get out of the job?”

“Well I would be lying if I didn’t admit it was the eyes – the colours of the irises,
the beautiful fragility of their dying light, their exquisite taste, the softness of corpses.
The magic in the moment a soul flies free. The prestige of flying with Gwyn ap Nudd.
Yet, in all honesty, what drew me to this job was the promise of immortality.”


A Raven Carries

the full moon in her beak

or is it a white blood cell – a stolen piece of me?

I see the sky is filled with ravens carrying little moons,
carrying pieces of me away and there are billions of them
because the body produces 10 billion white blood cells a day.

The sky is white with moons and black with raven’s wings.

I wonder if I am alive or dead or somewhere in between.

Are there islands of the dead for dead leukocytes
or do they long instead for another body and plasma?

Will they head for my co-walker and her horse and hounds
and settle like expected guests into her ectoplasm

or wing away to some otherworldly graveyard
where upon each stone is a small engraving
in a language only cells can speak?

Gwyn ap Nudd and Brân ap Ywerydd: Five Brâns?

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states his presence at the death of Brân ap Ywerydd:

‘I was there when Brân was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.’

Gwyn recites Brân’s name amongst the names of three famous northern warlords: Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Gwallog ap Llenog and Meurig ap Careian* and also Llachau, Arthur’s son. It is clear Brân was slain in battle and that Gwyn was present as a psychopomp to gather his soul back to Annwn. Brân’s name must have held meaning for Gwyddno Garanhir** and the audience. Who is Brân ap Ywerydd? Scholars have attempted to solve this puzzle by identifying him with a number of mythological and historical figures.

Brân the Blessed

raven-clipart-we-heart-it-public-domain

There exists a tradition which identifies Brân ap Ywerydd with Bendigeidfran ‘Blessed Raven’ or ‘Brân the Blessed’ son of Llŷr. Brân is a well known and much loved figure in British mythology who was fatally wounded in a battle against King Matholwch of Ireland. His severed head, buried beneath the Tower of London, served an apotropaic function protecting the Island of Britain until Arthur dug it up.

Scholars such as John Rhŷs and John Koch identify Iwerydd as the mother of Brân the Blessed. Koch says ‘Iwerydd (Atlantic) was a goddess from the Atlantic ocean, from the Western land of Hades, which could have been Ireland (Iwerddon). Iwerydd married Llyr and bore him two children named Brân (Raven) and Branwen (White Raven).’

The birth of Brân, his sister, Branwen, and perhaps their brother Manawydan by Iwerydd and Llŷr Llediaith (Irish Ler ‘the sea’, Welsh Llediaith ‘half-speech) makes sense within the context of Brân’s gargantuan stature and his affairs across the sea in Ireland.

If Brân ap Ywerydd and Brân the Blessed were identified, this would place Gwyn at the near-apocalyptic battle between the armies of Brân and Matholwch where the Irish dead are reborn from the Cauldron of Rebirth before it is broken by Efnysien. Of the Irish only five pregnant women are left alive. Just seven British survivors return with Brân’s head. If Gwyn attended the death of Brân the Blessed it might be suggested he also served as psychopomp to the victims of this terrible clash.

However, there are arguments against the identification of these two Brâns. Elsewhere, Brân the Blessed’s mother is named as Penarddun (‘Chief Beauty’). In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Bendigeidfran is named as a son of Llŷr with Manawydan as his brother and Branwen as his sister. Nysien and Efnysien are sons of Euroswydd by ‘his own mother Penarddun, daughter of Beli.’

In The Triads of Ancient Britain, Llŷr Half-Speech is named as one of ‘Three Exalted (Supreme) Prisoners of the Island of Britain’. He was ‘imprisoned by Euroswydd’. It seems likely Euroswydd conceived Nysien and Efnysien with Penarddun whilst Llŷr was his prisoner.

Although textual evidence provides a stronger case for Penarddun being Brân’s mother than Iwerydd, within mythology we often find multiple genealogies which are equally valid. Iwerydd and Penarddun could also be titles for the same divinity. Therefore the identification of these two Brâns cannot be ruled out.

Brân ap Ymellryn

Grufudd Hiraethog identifies Brân ap Ywerydd with Brân ap Ymellyrn: a historical figure who appears in the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen. These are set after the assassination of Llywarch’s cousin, Urien Rheged, on the order of his jealous rival, Morgan, during a campaign against the Anglo-Saxons on Lindisfarne in 585.

Llywarch bore Urien’s head home. Afterward, Urien’s sons and Llywarch were driven from their lands in the Old North*** by Urien’s enemies who included Dunawd, Morgant, Gwallawg and Brân ap Ymellyrn. In The Death of Urien, Llywarch speaks of his plight (Pasgen and Elphin are Urien’s sons):

‘Dunawd, the chief of the age, would drive onward,
Intent upon making battle,
Against the conflict of Pasgen.

Gwallawg, the horseman of tumult, would drive onward,
Intent upon trying the sharpest edge,
Against the conflict of Elphin.

Brân, the son of Mellyrn, would drive onward,
Collecting men to burn my ovens:
A wolf that looked grimly by the banks of Abers.

Morgant and his men would drive onward,
Collecting a host to burn my lands:
He was a mouse that scratched against a rock.’

Llywarch flees to the court of Cynddylan in Powys. After Cynddylan is killed, he is again left homeless and destitute. A friend advises him to trust neither Brân nor Dunawd and to take refuge in Llanfawr:

‘Trust not Brân, trust not Dunawd;
Consort not with them in hardship.
Herdsman of calves, go to Llanfawr.’

Glyn E. Jones suggests Brân ap Ymellyrn may be identified with Brân ap Dyfnwal (Ymellyrn was his mother and Dyfnwal his father). This places him with Urien, Llywarch and their enemies Gwallawg and Dunawd amongst the descendants of Coel Hen within the lineages of the Old North.

Brân Galed

Hiraethog identifies Brân ab Ywerydd with Brân Galed (‘the Niggard’). He is the keeper of a magical horn that appears amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’: ‘The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.’ Most of the owners of the treasures (who include Gwyddno and Gwenddolau) are ‘Men of the North’ and lived during the 6thC.

In the marginalia of an early list is a story about how Myrddin asked for the treasures from the thirteen owners. They all agreed if Myrddin obtained Brân’s horn, they would hand their treasures over, assuming Brân was so niggardly he would never give his up. Somehow, Myrddin persuaded Brân to give him the horn and he took all the treasures to a glass house where they remain forever.

It has been suggested Taliesin played a role in Brân’s decision. In a poem by Guto’r Glyn ‘Miserly, niggardly Brân they used to call him, who of old was descended from the Men of the North; Taliesin, no mean magician, transformed him into one better than the three generous men.’ In some variants Taliesin is the collector of the treasures. In another, Hercules slays a centaur and obtains Brân’s horn from its head.

Brân at Cynwyd

In The Gododdin we find the line ‘Brân was at Cynwyd’. Jenny Rowlands notes ‘Cynwyd is attested as both a personal and place name’. It may relate to a battle where Pelis, son of Urien fought, or to his leadership of the Cynwydion (named after Cynwyd Cynwydion, another descendent of Coel Hen).

Considering the antipathy between Urien’s sons and Brân ap Ymellyrn, it seems possible Pelis and the Cynwydion fought against Brân ap Ymellyrn and his allies and are commemorated at Cynwyd. Brân may have perished there too. The location remains unconfirmed, although there is a Cynwyd near to Corwen beside the river Dee in Wales.

Five Brâns?

Can we ascertain Brân ap Ywerydd’s identification with any or all of these Brâns? Are we looking at one, two, three, four or five different figures?  I think it’s safe to say that Brân the Blessed and the Brâns of the sixth century are entirely different due to the differences in timescale and mythological and historical context.

Within the context of Brân ap Ywerydd’s appearance in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, I think it most likely, like Gwenddolau, Gwallog and Meurig, he is a northern British figure from the 6thC. Brân ap Ywerydd, Brân ap Ymellyrn, the Brân who was at Cynwyd, and Brân Galed could be the same person.

We can tentatively piece together his story as follows: Brân was the son of Ywerydd and Dyfnawl and lived during the period of intense internecine conflict between the Brythonic kingdoms of the Old North as they fought against the Anglo-Saxons. Brân, Gwallawg, Dunawd and Morgant allied against Urien and Llywarch, arranging Urien’s assassination and driving Llywarch from the North. Brân later fought against Urien’s son, Pelis, at Cynwyd and perished and Gwyn attended his death. Brân was renowned for his niggardly nature and keeping his horn and his drink to himself. Sometime after his death, this fell into the realm of myth and became one of the Thirteen Treasures.

Gwyn’s association with Brân the Blessed cannot, however, be ruled out. As Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead he could well have attended Bendigeidfran’s death too. The croaking ravens in each of the elegaic verses spoken by Gwyn invoke Brân’s presence as a reminder of the futile, destructive and seemingly unending nature of war.

Associations between ravens and the battlefield continue to endure in contemporary poetry. Speaking of the Iraq war in her modern rewriting of the traditional ballad ‘The Two Ravens’, Clare Pollard writes:

‘I watched the ravens feed on war,
and knew I’d watch for evermore.’

***

*Meurig ap Careian is a famous northern warlord if Careian is a scribal error and he is identified with Meurig ap Idno. I’ll cover this in a later post.
**Another ‘Man of the North’ associated with Porth Wyddno in the North and Borth in Wales.
***Some scholars associate Llywarch with Caerlaverock (Caer Llywarch) on the Solway Firth. Others have conjectured he may have ruled ‘South Rheged’ (Lancashire?) from modern-day Ribchester.

SOURCES

Clare Pollard, ‘There Wasn’t Even a Song in that Desolation: Poetry After a Decade in Iraq
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, (2015)
John Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, (ABC-CLIO, 2006)
John Rhŷs, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

Dumbarton Rock

Consolidating Gwyn ap Nudd’s links with the Strathclyde Britons

In October after the ritual to Epona I stayed overnight with Potia and Red Raven in Glasgow. The next morning, Red Raven kindly took me to visit Dumbarton Rock: Dun Breatann ‘Fortress of the Britons’ to continue my research on Gwyn ap Nudd’s lost connections with the Old North.

Dumbarton Rock stands on the estuary of the river Clyde beside the river Leven, stern, stony, commanding, cloven into two peaks, White Tower Crag and The Beak. Its proximity to an ancient hill fort on Carman Hill and Roman Forts such as Whitemoss guarding the estuary suggest its use as a defensive position from at least the Iron Age and Romano-British periods. Looking up at its vertical cliff face from beneath and climbing its 557 steps provided a distinct impression of how difficult it would have been to attack.

Dunbreatann emerged as the capital of Strathclyde, controlling south-west Scotland after the Romans withdrew from the Antonine Wall, in the 4th century. Later it was known as Alt Clut ‘Clyde Rock’. The first written reference comes from St Patrick from Ireland between 453 and 493AD, reprimanding Coroticus (Ceretic, ruler of Alt Clut) for taking his new Christian converts and selling them as slaves to the Picts.

The majority of its rulers were descendants of Ceretic: notably Dyfnawl Hen, Cinuit, Clinoch, Tutagual then Rhydderch Hael. After Rhydderch’s death in 612, rulership passed to another line stemming from Ceretic: Neithon son of Guipno and his lineage ruled until Dumbarton Rock was taken by the Vikings in 869.

A fragment in The Black Book of Chirk states that following the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd in 547, Elidyr Mwynfawr (first cousin of Tutagual and husband of Eurgain, Maelgwyn’s oldest legitimate daughter) attempted to seize the throne from Maelgwn’s illegitimate son, Rhun. Elidyr was killed at Arfon. This led to Rhydderch Hael, Clydno Eiddin, Nudd Hael and Mordaf Hael burning Arfon in revenge and being pursued north by Rhun’s forces to the river Gweryd.

Elidyr’s journey is recorded in a triad of ‘Horse-Burdens’ where the eponymous water-horse Du y Moroedd (‘The Black One of the Seas’) is said to have carried Elidyr and his party (seven and a half people including a cook hanging onto the crupper- hence the half!) from an unknown Benllech in the north to Benllech on Anglesey. Du is notably the steed ridden by Gwyn ap Nudd in the hunt for Twrch Trwyth (‘King of Boars’).

Rhydderch Hael (‘the Generous’) is the most famous of Strathclyde’s rulers. He was renowned as one of ‘Three Generous Men of Britain’ and owned a sword called Dyrnwyn ‘White Hilt’ which burst into flames when held by a well-born man and was numbered amongst the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.

The extent of Rhydderch’s generosity is hinted at by the third ‘Unrestrained Ravaging’ where Aeddan Fradog (‘the Wily’) came to his court and left no food, drink nor living beast (if Rhydderch was exceedingly generous and Aeddan took everything he must have been greedy and unrestrained indeed: one can sense the shock and disbelief of a contemporaneous audience).

Rhydderch championed Christianity and was the patron of St Kentigern. He came to power in 573, which coincides with the Battle of Arfderydd. Poems attributed to Myrddin Wyllt in The Black Book of Carmarthen suggest Rhydderch played a leading role in the defeat of the pagan ruler, Gwenddolau at Arfderydd and this was a factor in his rise to power.

In The Black Book of Carmarthen Gwyn ap Nudd states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death. Gwyn’s appearance to gather the soul of Gwenddolau and other dead warriors played a role in Myrddin’s madness and flight to Celyddon. The ex-warrior become wild man and prophet was hounded by Rhydderch Hael and supposedly converted to Christianity by St Kentigern.

Rhydderch also played a prominent part fighting against Theodric of Anglo-Saxon Bernicia with his Brythonic allies Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Morcant Bulc. During the campaign, whilst the Anglo-Saxons were successfully blockaded on Lindisfarne, Morcant assassinated Urien; a move which eventually led to the fall of the Old North.

Rhydderch’s successor, Nwython (Neithon) and his family feature prominently in the episode of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad in How Culhwch won Olwen. After Gwyn ‘abducts’ Creiddylad from Gwythyr and takes her to Annwn, Nwython, his sons Cyledyr and Pen, Dyfnarth (Dynfawl?) and his Dyfnarth’s father Gwrgst Ledlwm join Gwythyr in an assault on Gwyn to win her back (four generations of Strathcylde Britons!).

Gwyn defeats Gwythyr and his army and imprisons them. During their imprisonment, Gwyn kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who becomes wyllt (‘wild’ ‘mad’). Arthur then rescues Gwythyr and his men and places a command on Gwyn and Gwythyr to battle for Creiddylad every May Day until Judgement Day.

It is my intuition this story originates from an earlier seasonal myth where a hero (‘the Summer King’) challenged the god of Annwn (‘the Winter King’) for the love of a goddess of fertility and sovereignty who may originally have been revered as a free agent in a sacred marriage.

This episode is only one variant, fixed in 6th C Strathclyde, known because of its incorporation within the narrative of How Culhwch won Olwen (14th C). It is clear Gwyn has lost his status as a god of Annwn and Creiddylad her independence as a fertility goddess. Its fixity may be read to mark the death of a seasonal rite and its transition into story.

No doubt this coincided with the rise of Christianity, which led to Gwyn’s demonisation as the representative and literal embodiment of the ‘demons’ of Annwn and Creiddylad’s demotion to a helpless maiden flung like a ragdoll between two male lovers and finally locked away, powerless, in her father’s house.

The seasonal myth is thus replaced in the 6th century with a story designed for the political purpose of cementing alliances between the Strathclyde Britons, Gwythyr ap Greidol (deified as ‘the Summer King’) and Arthur against a common enemy: the demonised King of Winter and Annwn, Gwyn ap Nudd.

The disturbing sequence of Gwyn’s murder of Nwython and torture of Cyledyr has led me to question whether it has any historical basis. From my research so far there is nothing to suggest Nwython died a sudden or inexplicable death or disappeared during a campaign (often attributed to otherworldly forces).

However this does not mean such stories did not exist. Another explanation is that it was cited by the bards of Christian rulers to highlight the atrocities Gwyn committed against the lineage of Strathclyde to keep paganism at bay. One can only imagine the fear and repulsion of Strathclyde’s people and in particular Nwython’s descendants when it was voiced.

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It seems possible early variants of these stories were told in the fortress on The Beak alongside inaugural poems which would form Y Gododdin and The Black Book of Carmarthen. The existing texts suggest belief in Gwyn as a psychopomp lingered on beside the Christian faith for a long while. As a guide and warrior-protector to some and a cruel, demonic figure to others, he haunted the margins of every recital of battle-tales.

After Dumbarton Rock was taken by the Vikings, the kingdom of Strathclyde re-emerged up-river at Govan and stretched from Glasgow into Penrith in Cumbria. During this transition and, later, when Strathclyde was finally integrated into Scotland in 1034 many Britons went into exile and settled in Wales. In medieval Wales the oral tales about Gwyn ap Nudd and the fall of the Old North were finally penned.

Since then Dumbarton Rock has seen various uses; most notably as a medieval royal castle with its famous Wallace Tower. It is now primarily a tourist attraction within the custodianship of Historic Scotland.

Time passes. History fades into story into myth and even myth is forgotten. Yet the deepest myths are fated to return from the most distant edges of the otherworld like a boomerang.

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Looking out across the Clyde and Leven from the Fortress of the Britons I saw a pair of ravens who have lived forever on that ancient rock flying on the winds from there into poetry to the realm of the gods and back again.

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On that note I’ll thank Red Raven for taking me to Dumbarton Rock and bring this piece to end.

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.