Lady of the Oak

I leave the shelter of the grove ducking beneath twisted hawthorn branches. The trees weave the entrance closed behind me. Rain hits my face, falling from a heaven of relentless grey. Reading the sky’s grimace I wonder what has been seen.

A crow caws his warning. Sprinting toward me up the hollow way I see a young man, legs a blur of blue white checkers and feet a splash of mud and leather. Hair slicked to his head, his dark eyes flicker with awe and wariness. The first dapples of a beard play across his chin like leafy shadows.

“M-my Lady of the Oak,” he stammers pulling up.

His breathless chest heaves beneath a sodden tunic. It is rare for youths to approach me without an elder. Looking more closely at my gnarled face his eyes widen in dawning horror. “Bad news travels from up river. A Man of the Oak wishes to speak with you.” He runs away in a flurry of muddy feet.

I follow down the hollow way heedless of the downpour weighing my cloak for the damp of the air already resides deep within my bones. Looking east, rain drenches the green hill, our sacred headland, and the greener barrow housing our ancestors. The torrent’s drumming beat strikes bubbles across the marsh land. As I walk onto the wooden pad way the reeds hiss like snakes. Decay bites my throat. The steely cast of the river of shining water reflects the glumness of the sky.

In a canoe roped to the jetty my cousin Drust sits hunched in his robes. I question what he is doing here, alone.

The river’s song answers. Her visions flood my mind. I see the battle at the ford of roaring water. Broken chariots, tribesmen slaughtered, the hero light vanishing from their eyes like fleeing stars. The eagle standard flies high, reflected in the crimson river. Seeing the pale flicker of their separating ghosts I speak a prayer for the souls doomed to return to a land where they no longer belong.

Sorrow chokes me like bile. I vomit it in anger at Drust, “what are you doing here, when your clan are dead?”

Drust looks up, yet his face remains hidden by his cowl. “I am taking the remnants of our traditions and our gods to the island across the sea.”

I laugh, a throaty brittle sound like twigs twisting and snapping. “Gods are not like saplings, to be taken away and re-rooted and traditions are not nurtured by foreign soils. It seems the ideas of the invaders have penetrated more deeply than I imagined.”

Drust tenses. Drawing my knife from its leather sheath I lean down and slice the rope tying his canoe to the jetty. The river sluices him west and out to sea.

The wind carries enemy voices. Reflected in the falling droplets I see swords and plumed helms. Slipping on the wood and slithering up the hollow way I reach the grove and beg the hawthorns for passage. A peace of ancient green breaks over me, like I’m sinking into a bed of moss. Beneath the canopy’s protective shadow I believe myself safe until tumult disturbs the roots. Crows caw, anticipating carrion.

I cross a sea of acorns and approach the grove’s mighty king. Putting my arms around his trunk, I press my face to the rough bark. “Brother Oak, let me see into the future.”

My heartbeat merges with the pulse of rising sap. My feet become roots reaching downward through damp soil to the outer edges of the grove. My arms stretch into branches and split, bearing bunches of lobed leaves nourished by the hidden sun, washed by the rain, flourishing green.

The ground shudders at the march of soldiers, galloping hooves and chariot wheels. Battle cries are hollered. Bows hum to the crash of metal. Screams and groans rock me. I taste blood and its bitterness fills me.

Earth and water shift as ditches are cut, fields plundered to feed the enemy. Ancestral ghosts clutch my twigs shrieking of their barrow torn down and a temple built to a foreign god. I moan at the ache of rot softening my flesh, bowing and creaking as my branches snap and innards hollow. I beg for lightning’s merciful release but there is no answer from the clouds of sorrow.

“Brother, let me return,” I speak. “The tribe need my support in their defeat.”

I ease back from the oak as the hawthorns scream and turn to see branches broken, shredded leaves and burst haws at the sandaled feet of a man dressed in a plumed helmet, iron breast plate and red woollen tunic. His eyes are blue, skin tanned by the sun of a hotter land. Brandishing a sword stained with blood and sap he accuses me of witchcraft, of sacrificing innocents to divine the future from their death throes.

I smile. The man freezes in horror. I draw my knife and mustering all my oaken might I drive it between the iron plates and slice open his stomach, spilling his guts upon the grass. Attempting to gather them in like rope he drops twitching and groaning to his knees.

I read the future of his people and their empire from his pulsing entrails.

Kneeling, I pick up a handful of blood soaked acorns and address my brother, “do not fear. Whilst tribes and empires rise and fall, the steady strength of oak will conquer all.”

Oak, St Mary's graveyard, Castle Hill

Maponos

Castle Hill Walk April 2012 007 - CopyMaponos is a god of youth, music and hunting who is known from dedications from the Romano-British period in the North of Britain and Gaul. His name, which is Gallo-Brythonic, means ‘the son.’ Of the five dedications, which occur in Northumbria, Cumberland and here in Lancashire at Ribchester, four equate Maponos with Apollo , a Roman god associated with music, healing, prophecy, archery and the sun. In the Pythagorean tradition, the British Isles were seen as the home of the ‘Hyperborean Apollo,’ a sign of the longevity of Maponos’ worship and reputation here.

The dedication at Ribchester (241CE), which can be found in the museum, reads: ‘To the holy god Apollo Maponus, and for the health of our Lord (i.e. the Emperor) and the unit of the Gordian Sarmartian Horse at Bremetenacum, Aelius Antonius, centurion of the Sixth Legion, the Victrix (Victress) from Melitanis (?) praepositus (provost) of the unit and the region, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow .’

Within Ribchester’s museum stands a pedestal, which is believed to have ‘carried four figures in relief . On one side is Apollo, clad in a cloak and Phrygian cap, wearing a quiver and resting on his lyre. The side which possibly carried a relief of Maponos has been defaced. On another side are two female figures, whose identity and roles have been interpreted differently. Nick Ford interprets the relief to depict the genius loci of Ribchester making an offering to Belisama, the goddess of the Ribble.

Anne Ross believes the figures might be Maponos’ mother Modron and a native hunter goddess equated with Diana (Diana’s Greek counterpart was Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister). Anne’s theory stems from the identification of Maponos with Mabon, son of Modron in Welsh myth. Modron means ‘mother.’ It is likely she was known earlier as Matrona. An altar from Ribchester bears an inscription to ‘all the mother goddesses’ (the deae matrones) and another, similar, has been found in Kirkham .

Mapon0s has strong associations with the village of Lochmaben in Dumfrieshire. A folk tale from this area tells of ‘the harper of Lochmaben’ who ‘goes to London and steals away King Henry’s brown mare’. Close to the village lies the Clochmabenstone, a tribal gathering place near Gretna where runaway lovers were married . It stands beside the Solway, close to the estuary. Anne Ross suggests this may have been Maponos’ ‘fanum’ (shrine or sacred precinct), which features as the ‘locus Maponi’ of the Ravenna cosmology. The promonotory at Lochmaben may have been his temenos . Another place named after him is ‘Ruabon, the Hill of Mabon, below Wrexham’ on the Severn . Guy Ragland Philips identifies ‘Mapon’ with the spirit known as the son of the rocks, at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire’.

Most of these places are connected with water and / or stone. A relief from Whitley castle in Cumbria of a ‘native radiate god’ suggests that like Apollo Maponus is connected with the sun. The associations of Maponos with stone, water and the sun recur in the story of the rescue of Mabon in ‘How Culwch won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion.

Before moving on, I’d like to pause to address the question of whether Maponos and Mabon are the same god. The historian Ronald Hutton believes there is no proof to identify figures from the Welsh myths with earlier gods known from archaeological evidence. This is the starting point I usually set out from. However through connecting with both Maponos and Mabon, I have found that although my connection with Maponos feels stronger, their presence feels the same. This suggests to me they are the same god / divine figure, seen and named at different times by different cultures (i.e. Romano-British and Medieval Welsh).

In ‘How Culwch won Olwen’ there are several references to ‘the North,’ suggesting some episodes may have originated from ‘The Old North,’ an area which between the 5th and 7th covered Northern Britain and Southern Scotland and was divided between a number of petty kings.

Mabon’s rescue takes place within the context of Culhwch’s task to win Olwen by hunting down the King of Boars, Twrch Trwth. To hunt the boar, Culwch requires Mabon’s aid. However, Mabon was stolen when three nights old from ‘between his mother and the wall… No one knows where he is, nor what state he’s in, whether dead or alive.’ The search for Mabon takes Arthur’s men, via the story of the ‘Oldest Animals’ (a blackbird, stag, owl, eagle and salmon) through the present day Wirral, Cheshire and parts of Wales to Gloucester on the river Severn. Mabon is found imprisoned lamenting in a ‘house of stone.’ Whilst Arthur and his men fight, Cai tears down the walls and rescues Mabon aboard the back of the salmon. With the dog Drudwyn (‘fierce white’) and steed- Gwyn Myngddwn (‘white dark mane’) who is ‘swift as a wave’ Mabon joins the hunt for Twrch Trwth, riding into the Hafren to take the razor from between the boar’s ears . It is possible to read from this traces of an older myth of the rescue of the sun from its house of stone in the earth, at dawn appearing shining in the river.

A number of tales / poems connect Mabon and Modron to the Kingdom of Rheged, which covered Cumbria, Lancashire and northern Cheshire. In one story Urien Rheged travels to ‘the Ford of Barking’ in Llanferes, where he meets Modron, ‘daughter of Avallach’ washing in the ford. He sleeps with her and she conceives his children, Owein and Morfudd . In The Black Book Carmarthen, Mabon appears as ‘the son of Myrdon the servant of Uther Pendragon’ . References to Mabon also appear in The Book of Taliesin (who was Urien Rheged’s Bard). ‘Will greet Mabon from another country / A battle, when Owain defends the cattle of his country.’ ‘Against Mabon without corpses they would not go.’ ‘The country of Mabon is pierced with destructive slaughter.’ ‘When was caused the battle of the king, sovereign, prince / Very wild will be the kine before Mabon . However it is unclear whether Mabon is himself taking part in the battle, whether Mabon is being used as a title for Owain ‘the son,’ or whether Mabon is referred to as a location.

In Brigantia, Guy Ragland Phillips mentions a ‘written charm’ found at a Farmhouse at Oxenhope in 1934 beginning ‘Ominas X Laudet X Mapon.’ He translates this as ‘everybody praises Mapon.’ When Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner invented to the pagan wheel of the year in the 1950’s the autumn equinox was dedicated to Mabon, showing the continuity of his influence into the twenty first century. His largest festival takes place at Thornborough Henge . With the number of pagans in England and Wales increasing from 42K in 2001 to 82K in 2011, my guess is that the following of our native god of youth, music and happiness will grow and continue for many years to come.

(1) Nick Ford, ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p87.
(2) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1974) p463- 4
(3) Caitlin Matthews, Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain, (2002), p179.
(4) Nick Ford, ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p87.
(5) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1974) p276
(6) Nick Ford, ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p88
(7) Ibid. p277
(8) Nick Ford, ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p86.
(9) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1974), p270.
(10) Caitlin Matthews, Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain, (2002), p178.
(11) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, p458
(12) Caitlin Matthews, Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain, (2002), p178.
(13) Guy Ragland Phillips, Brigantia: A Mysteriography, (1976), p128
(14) Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (1974), p477
(15) Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, p 198 – 212
(16) http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/modron.html
(17) Ed. William F. Skene, ‘The Black Book of Caermarthen XXXI’. ‘Pa Gur. Arthur and the Porter.’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (1868), p179.
(18) Ibid. ‘The Book of Taliessin XVIII’ ‘A Rumour had come to from Calchvynd’ p277.
(19) http://www.celebratemabon.co.uk/

Belisama: Goddess of the Ribble

Belisama is the goddess of the river Ribble, which runs from Ribble Head in North Yorkshire, through Ribblesdale, Central Lancashire and out to the Irish Sea. Her name is known from Ptolemy’s Geography 2AD, where at co-ordinates corresponding to the Ribble’s estuary he places ‘Belisama aest[1]’. Inscriptions to Belisama have also been found in Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence and Saint-Lizier, in the Pyrenees[2].

Her name has received a number of interpretations. Nick Ford translates ‘Rigabelisama (Riga-, a queen, and Belisama)’ as ‘Most Shining One’ making her the ‘Most Shining Queen’ or ‘Most Mighty Queen’[3]. Seeing the dazzling beauty of the Ribble illumined by sunlight or moonlight confirms the legitimacy of this epithet to me. However Delamarre claims the translation of bhel as ‘white or brilliant’ is based on a false interpretation of Belinus’ identification with Apollo. Belinus is ‘the Powerful One’ and Belisama is the ‘Most Powerful One’[4]. Watching the Ribble after heavy rain, particularly at high tide conveys a sense of her power, as does observing the landscapes she has shaped.

The town of Ribchester has a close connection with the Ribble. It’s native name Bremetonacon means ‘place by the roaring river[5].’ In Saint-Lizier Belisama is identified with the Roman goddess Minerva. A bust of Minerva was found at Ribchester and it was once largely accepted the town had a temple to Minerva-Belisama[6]. Whilst it would make sense that a place of worship dedicated to Belisama was located in the heart of the Ribble Valley beside the roaring ford this is based on a mistranslated inscription[7]. To whom the temple was dedicated is unknown. As a large part has been washed away by the Ribble it might be assumed either that it didn’t belong to Belisama or she didn’t want one.

A question I’ve pondered is how much to read into Belisama’s possible identification with Minerva at Ribchester- when the Romans built the fort in 70AD they were polytheists, and their experiences of Belisama may have led to this equation. Minerva is a goddess of wisdom, crafts and healing. From the Norman period (and indubitably before), until the end of the 18th century the Ribble was renown for being rich in salmon, the quintessential fish of wisdom, with the most important of the fish garths being located at Fish House Bridge in Penwortham[8]. Another possible reason for this identification is that wisdom can be gained from watching and listening to the flow of the Ribble in different spots. One of the lessons I’ve learnt from Belisama is dynamism and change; due to a combination of the tides, rain fall and the position of the sun or moon her waters never look the same in any place.

In terms of crafts, Belisama has inspired a good deal of creative writing from the poems of Richard Dugdale (the Bard of Ribblesdale 1849), James Flockhart’s ‘The River’ (1854), Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Ribblesdale’ (1876) and John Heath-Stubb’s ‘The Green Man’s Last will and Testament’ – ‘the cruel nymphs / Of the northern streams, Peg Towler of the Tees / And Jenny Greenteeth of the Ribble, / Sisters of Belisama, the very fair one’ (1973)[9]. Jane Brunning, a Penwortham based author blogging as Reigh Belisama runs a site called ‘Save the Ribble,’ which played a leading role in preventing the river barrage at Brockholes and continues to oppose fracking on the Ribble Estuary[10].

Belisama’s influence on the cotton industry can be recalled by the number of old mills on her tributaries. Without Riversway Dockland, which was created by moving the Ribble from Strand Road to her present course beside Castle Hill, Preston could not have played its huge role in the industrial revolution. Whilst I’m unaware of any associations linking Belisama with physical healing, spending time beside the Ribble usually has a calming, cleansing effect on me.

Moving from Belisama to the Ribble, the first mention of the change of name is in ‘the Latin Life of St Wilfrid’ (patron saint of Preston) where ‘lands identified as ‘round Ribble’ (iuxta Rippel), Yeadon, Dent and Catlow’ are granted by the English ruler to ‘the community at Ripon’[11]. The Saxon Ripel was taken by Ekwall to mean ‘tearing, reaping’ making the Ribble ‘the tearing one’[12] relating Belisama’s qualities of power and might. Andrew Breeze suggests that Ribble may derive from the Welsh rhybwyll, which combined with the prefix ri could mean very great wisdom[13]. The name change and it’s interpretations demonstrate the qualities of flux and continuity innate to Belisama.

For me in present day Penwortham, (which without Belisama, in its current form would not exist), Belisama and her tributaries continue to shape the valleys and plains, as well as the lives of the wildlife and people who inhabit them. Belisama’s power and wisdom shine throughout her ever changing course and in those by which it is transmitted, whether by the spoken or written word, craftsmanship, or in the actions of those who stand against her exploitation and pollution.


[1] http://www.roman-britain.org/ptolemys-geography.htm
[2] Whilst this might be seen to indicate the presence of a goddess worshipped across Britain and Gaul, Nick Ford reminds us ‘most, if not all, the names of Celtic divinities seem to be descriptive epithets rather than real names.’ Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p82.
[3] Ibid.
[4] http://theses.univ-lyon2.fr/documents/getpart.php?id=lyon2.2009.beck_n&part=159190
[5] Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water,’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, The History Press, 2010, p82
[6] Malcolm Greenhalgh, Ribble River and Valley: A Local and Natural History, Carnegie Book Production, 2009, p83.
[7] ‘commander of the unit and region’ was mistranslated as ‘to the very mighty numen and queen’ Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water,’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, The History Press, 2010, p82
[8] Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, Carnegie Press, 1988, p48
[9] John Heath-Stubbs ‘The Green Man’s Last Will and Testament,’ Earth Shattering: Eco-Poems, ed. Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 2007.
[10] http://save-the-ribble.blogspot.co.uk/
[11] Andrew Breeze, ‘Communications Yrechwydd and the River Ribble,’ Northern History, XLVII; 2, September 2010, p324.
[12] Ibid. p324
[13] Ibid. p326.