Caer Wydyr: Seeing Beyond the Glass Fort

As I progress through ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it is my growing intuition that imagistic links* suggest Taliesin is not referring to a series of different forts raided by Arthur and his men but to one otherworldly fortress by different names.

Under this tentative interpretation, verse four takes us from the theft of the cauldron and escape from Annwn back to the beginning of the action. Taliesin says:

‘I don’t rate the pathetic men involved with religious writings,
those who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort:
six thousand men were standing on its wall;
it was hard to communicate with their watchman.’

Taliesin is mocking ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for being unable to see beyond Caer Wydyr: the Glass Fort. This is the fourth fortress named in the poem but, I intuit, the first to be approached.

In modern Welsh, gwydyr means glass. The image of the fort as glass: clear, see-through, near-invisible, is deeply evocative of its otherworld nature. Its walls, with room for six thousand men, are extensive.

It is possible to think of these glass walls as representative of the boundary between thisworld and Annwn. To penetrate beyond requires an invitation from Annwn’s deities, cunning, or a good deal of brute force.

Much speculation surrounds the incommunicative nature of the watchman. In other poems and stories such as ‘Arthur and the Porter’ and Culhwch and Olwen, the watchmen/gatekeepers are communicative. Questions must be answered and conditions met to enter the fortresses of otherworldly persons.

The watchman’s incommunicability has led some scholars to suggest he and perhaps the six thousand men on the walls are risen dead. In The Second Branch of The Mabinogion, dead Irishmen thrown into the Cauldron of Rebirth rise able to fight but unable to speak.

Another possibility is the guards are the spirits of Annwn who are ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd. They are perfectly able to speak: in The Life of St Collen, Gwyn’s watchman courteously invites St Collen into ‘the fairest castle he had ever beheld’.

The ominous silence of the watchman and six thousand men could stem from the fact three loads of warriors from Arthur’s warship have just landed outside their home, fully-armed, with their eyes glinting with lust for Annwn’s treasures.

***

Glass fortresses are a recurrent feature in Celtic literature and are often the abode of otherworldly rulers. This leads me to suspect there was once a deep, underlying mythos surrounding the Head of Annwn and his otherworldly fort which has gradually been lost.

A very close parallel with Caer Wydyr can be found in Nennius’ History of the Britons. Thirty ships of Spaniards sailing to Ireland find in the midst of the sea ‘a tower of glass, the summit of which was covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer.’ When they attack the tower, all but one of their ships are swallowed by the waves.

In The Life of St Gildas, Glastonbury is described as the Island of Glass. Caradog of Llancarfan says ‘Glastonia was of old called Ynisgutrin, and is still called so by the British inhabitants. Ynis in the British language is insula in Latin, and gutrin (made of glass).’

This is echoed by Gerald of Wales in Speculum Ecclesiae. Glastonbury ‘used to be called “Ynys Gutrin” in the Welsh language, that is the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.’

Glastonbury is the abode of Gwyn ap Nudd and Melwas who are both abductors of important female figures and riders of the famous water-horse ‘The Black of the Seas’**. Melwas keeps Gwenhwyfar imprisoned on the Island of Glass.

In Sir Orfeo, the Fairy King abducts Orfeo’s wife, Heurodis, and takes her to his crystal castle. Its vivid description provides clues to the appearance of Caer Wydyr:

‘Amid the land a castle tall
And rich and proud and wondrous high
Uprose, and all the outmost wall
Shone as crystal to the eye.
A hundred towers lit up the sky,
Of diamond all battled stout;
And buttresses rose up near by
Arched with red gold and broad about.

All the bonsour was carved in stone
With every beast and every wight,
And all within the castle shone
And sparkled with unearthly light.’

***

In The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Will Parker suggests the imagery of ‘the Indigenous Underworld of Annwfn’ stems from the ‘memory of the riches of the Romano-British civilian zone’.

The Romans brought glass-making to Britain and it seems likely memories of their cosmopolitan ways of life, fine clothes, and wine fed into conceptions of Annwn, which later became known as Faery.

A fascinating blend of Brythonic and Roman influence can be found in the list of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘that were in the North’:
‘Drynwyn… the Sword of Rhydderch the Generous’, ‘The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank’, ‘The Horn of Brân the Niggard’, ‘The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy’, ‘The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn’, ‘The Knife of Llawfroedd the Horseman’, ‘The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant’, ‘The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd’, ‘The Coat of Padarn Red-Coat’, ‘The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric’, ‘The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio’ and ‘The Mantle of Arthur’.

All these treasures possess magical qualities which are suggestive of their otherworld origin. They are also of interest because in the marginalia of the list in Pen. 147 (1566) we find the story of how Myrddin managed to acquire them and retreat ‘to the Glass House’ (ty gwydyr).

The traditional location of Myrddin’s glass house is Bardsey Island. Patrick Ford says ‘In a version of… “Treasures of the Kings of Britain”… Mad Merlin took all these from the city called Caerlleon-on-Usk to the House of Glass in Bardsey Island’.

In Celtic Remains, Lewis Morris says ‘In Caerlleon on Usk there was a museum of rarities in King Arthur’s time, which Myrddin ap Morfran, the Caledonian, upon the destruction of that place, carried with him to a house of glass on the Isle of Enlli or Bardsey…

This house of glass, it seems, was the museum where they kept their curiosities to be seen by everybody, but not handled; and it is possible Myrddin, who is said to live in it, was the keeper of their museum at the time’.

The shift from treasures used by their owners (some stolen by Arthur: Gwyddno’s Hamper and Dyrnwch’s cauldron) to their placing in a glass museum as relics is an interesting one, which reflects that they have fallen out of use and become part of our cultural heritage.

It also shows we have become cut off from their magic. As Christianity replaced Romano-British paganism, the doors to Annwn were sealed. Mad Myrddin became the uncommunicative watchman of the glass walls.

Caer Wydyr and its people have been forgotten and we have since then built our own Glass Fortresses: Crystal Palaces, Arcades, department stores, shopping malls, and stocked them full of the treasures of thisworld.

Crystal_Palace

The Crystal Palace, London,  Great Exhibition 1851, Wikipedia Commons

P1150490 - Copy

Yet the call returns to journey to Annwn, to see beyond the Glass Fort to the feats of Arthur, to their consequences reflected like mirror images in the years between then and now.

*Caer Vedwit and Caer Rigor are described as having four quarters/corners/turrets/pinnacles/ peaks and Caer Vandwy is referred to as the Fortress of God’s Peak. The sea beats around the turrets/pinnacles of Caer Siddi.
**In Culhwch and Olwen the only horse Gwyn can hunt Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ with is Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’. In the opening lines of The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer, Melwas introduces his horse before himself

‘Black is my steed and brave beneath me
No water will make him fear
And no man will make him swerve.’

It is notable that in The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn also introduces his horse (although here it is Carngrwn) first.

Devil’s Bagpipes on Stoneygate

Arkwright HouseWhen Richard Arkwright played the devil’s bagpipes on Stoneygate a giant hush came over the town. The blistering whirring sound against the pink horizon of a sun that would not set over clear sights for two centuries of soot and smog was damnable. Yes damnable! Gathering in storm clouds over Snape Fell.

You who have seen a premonition might have heard the village seers tell of smoke for flesh charry knees and the squalor of shanty towns. Red brick mills turning satanic faces to the coin of their heliotropic sun: Empire.

Piecers running between generations bent legged beggers, tongue in cheek defiant. Weavers watching shuttles slipping through fingers like untamed flies. Luddites sweeping across greens with armaments and gritted teeth. The new need-fires of burnt-out mills. Staggerings of Chorley.

How he rubbed gristly chubby jaws and did not see the unfairness of profit or tightly curled hair when hair-pin thin people laboured in his thrall. How he played the devil’s bagpipes over breached bones of the dead then one day toppled pot-bellied splay-legged from his cushy stool.

In bugle layers of this town decided long ago I long to rush through industrial rain, knock and knock on his front door and beg him to stop. But know he will not listen. Only play on and on laughing his demonic laugh. So we dance the hurly-burly on the ruins of Horrocks’ back yard in a splash of flowers and cement as if it is our last.

Site of Horrocks' Yardworks

Dudey Hound Grffiti, Horrocks' Yardworks

Review: ‘The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens’ by Morgan Daimler

MorriganMorgan Daimler is a Celtic Reconstructionist and dedicant of Macha based in New England. She teaches Irish myth, magic and folklore and has published nine books as well as poetry and prose in a variety of magazines, journals and anthologies.

The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens is a short, introductory book (eighty pages) in the Moon Books Pagan Portals series. By bringing together material from ancient Irish texts and academic sources it aims to provide readers new to the Morrigan with a basic introduction to this goddess, those who share her title, Badb and Macha and other associated goddesses such as Nemain, Be Neit and Grian.

The result is a tightly packed text with an abundance of subject matter to learn from and plenty of references to follow up. Morgan’s research is thorough and she demonstrates a learned understanding of the original texts and scholarly viewpoints. Morgan’s approach is to let the stories of each goddess speak for themselves. Whilst she presents contrasting viewpoints and shares her own, she encourages the reader to seek their own interpretation through further study rather than leading them to her own conclusions.

The benefits are that she provides a holistic picture of the Morrigan and introduces her to newcomers without swaying their opinion. A slight cost is the book doesn’t flow as well as it could. As someone with only a vague knowledge of Irish mythology, I found myself frequently having to pause and look back to check names, associations and references to texts rather than being guided forward by the author’s argument. I also found the APA method of citation where references disrupt the text irritating. These are my only criticisms.

What I liked best about this book is that as well as sharing her academic knowledge of the Morrigan(s), Morgan shares her personal experience of each goddess; what it feels like to be in their presence, their physical appearance and their role in her life. These gnoses permeate her prayers and invocations.

Importantly for newcomers, Morgan astutely points out the differences between ‘working with’ and worshipping a goddess. The former is a temporary arrangement governed by specific guidelines and goals. The latter is based in relationship (she warns that when you invite a deity into your life you never know how it might go!) and interactions, which for her mainly take the form of prayers, meditations and offerings.

Morgan does not shy away from confronting moral questions raised by worshipping a goddess connected with war and death. She presents her own resolutions and also challenges readers who may have been drawn to the Morrigan as a ‘Dark Goddess’ to think what this means to them before applying this category.

A hidden gem of particular interest was Morgan’s description of ‘reconstructing celtic seership with Badb.’ Here she shares her use of the ancient techniques of ‘imbas forosna’ ‘tenm laida’ and ‘dichetal do chenaib’ with Badb’s guidance for divinatory purposes. The latter, which involves the spontaneous recitation of poetry is something I’ve felt compelled to do for a while and, inspired by Morgan, hope to try in my own way in the future.

Overall this is a cracking introduction to the Morrigan(s) and I’m sure there will be plenty of hidden surprises in it for everybody. I would recommend it to anybody new to this goddess who is looking for a trustworthy starting point, devotees of the Morrigan wanting to learn more about others’ experiences and anybody interested in polytheism in general.

The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens is officially released tomorrow and is available here: http://amzn.to/1Bh3LCs

Ribble Illusions

Yesterday I had a most uncanny experience. Approaching the river Ribble from Castle Hill, I found myself facing a long stretch of tide marked wall that gave the appearance it had dropped away into nowhere. I was struck by a sudden sense of vertigo. The Ribble couldn’t have disappeared, as if had fallen into a void, surely?

River RibbleOn closer inspection, seeing the reflections of the grilles and staircases, and catching subtle fluctuations in the surface of the water, I realised this was an illusion created by a combination of its stillness with the markings on the stone.

River Ribble, reflection of a grilleRiver Ribble, stairsTo my relief at either end of the concrete barriers, the ‘true’ water level was clear.

River Ribble, water level

River Ribble, water levelDrawn  to stay a while in meditation on the strange appearance and disappearance of the river, which occurred as I shifted my eye-line, I was gifted with the sight of several birds. Common and black headed gulls and terns circled, their darker shadows mirrored in the water. Another bird, which I think may have been a grebe or even a black throated diver flew in. Diving with quick flips of its tail it emerged, for the most part, triumphant with white-silver fish, which after a brief kerfuffle vanished down its throat. Finally, a heron arrived to land majestically on a piece of flotsam.

Heron, river RibbleFor me this goes to show that even where it is channelled, the Ribble is a magical and mind altering place. I give thanks to the river, all its visitors and inhabitants, and its goddess Belisama.

Choosing a Path

Fairy LaneThe metaphor of choosing a path appears frequently within Paganism but can be applied to the journey of life, which in many religious traditions is seen as the journey of the soul.

I’ve walked many paths; riding instructor and groom, philosophy student, fantasy writer. Over the past three years I have been writing and performing poetry and exploring Druidry. The binding core is that in each I’ve been seeking magic and I’ve pursued all these paths with religious commitment.

Looking back, it appears I have walked one path with many names. This week I have come to question the suitability of the name ‘Druid.’

I have never felt any commonality with, or desire to join any of the systematic orders of Druidry where one can complete courses and achieve grades in exchange for coins. It’s my firm belief that the living landscape, the gods and ancestors are the greatest teachers. Their guidance, trust and respect are not bought but earned, and thus utterly priceless.

However, one place I have felt at home is The Druid Network. Hearing a talk by its chair, Phil Ryder formed a huge turning point in my life that led me to recognise and honour the divine in my local landscape. The Druid Network is the only organisation I know of that promotes Druidry as a religion. There are no set courses or hierarchies. Each member is encouraged to find and explore their relationship with whatever they hold sacred in their own way, and the social forum provides a safe area for discussing issues and experiences. However, there are guiding principles (1).

I’m in agreement with most of these principles, except that the native religion of the British Isles must nominally be called Druidry. I imagine Heathens, Witches, Shamans and many other Pagan groups would make similar claims.

This winter’s solstice I was gifted a name for my path- Awenydd. For Kristoffer Hughes becoming Awenydd forms the core of Druidry. For Elen Sentier it is a form of native British Shamanism. My path currently seems to sit somewhere in an unknown hinterland between two names I am equally uncomfortable with, ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman.’

For me ‘Awenydd’ works a similar magic to that which others describe in relation to ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman’. It opens the doors of perception and initiates connection with the Awen, divine inspiration. It is as Awenydd I truly serve my land, gods and communities.

I can see a future for myself as Awenydd; continuing to learn the stories and songs of my local landscape and its spirits; journeying more deeply the immensities of the otherworlds with Gwyn and learning his mysteries; bringing my insights back to my communities and thus learning to weave a magic between the worlds.

Contrastingly, I perceive ‘Druid’ as closing doors, leading to pointless arguments, in-fighting, and attempting to define myself against systems and practices with which I share little commonality.

If the journey of life is the journey of the soul, I want to choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder. I want to live a life true to my heart, in devotion to the land and gods who call to me. I want to sing their songs. I want to share their inspiration. I want to die knowing I have done everything I can to respond to their call.

I don’t want to remain a prisoner in the maze of arguments and contradictions which, for me, constitutes contemporary Druidry, and which will only lead me into greater negativity.

It is on this basis I give up the name of Druid and choose Awenydd.

And the consequences?

The biggest consequence is that the path of Awenydd is not classed as a religion. If I am no longer a Druid I no longer belong to a religion.

To anyone on the outside this might look like a massive change. However on the inside this does not change my relationship with my land and deities, nor with family and friends.

It has, and I think will continue to have some impact on my Pagan, Druid and other religious communities. I’ve already talked my decision through with some of the members of TDN who, for the most part, are happy for me to remain a part of the organisation on the basis of shared principles, and I’m hoping to discuss it with my grove at the solstice.

My local Pagan Society is inclusive of open-minded people of any faith or none, so no problems there. As for Preston Faith Forum and the further questions, if I’m not a Druid, then am I Pagan? And can I be an Interfaith Representative if I don’t belong to a faith? That’s another kettle of fish entirely and not one I’m ready to address right now!

I want to live a life that fills my soul with awe and wonder

I choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder, in devotion to the magic this land, its deities and spirits, my patron Gwyn ap Nudd and the ancestors. This path is Awenydd. Let their songs be sung!

(1) http://druidnetwork.org/files/about/constitutionrevnov2009.pdf

Gwyn Portrait, April’s End

The huntsman has ridden all night, following the brilliance of the spirit roads- the shining tracks that criss-cross the island of Britain. Instead of returning home he remains here for dawn, listening to the idiosyncrasies of each bird’s song, watching dew form on blades of grass, on petals of hawthorn blossoms and may flowers.

He is and is not the mist, riding through damp meadows over hills, mountains and moors on a pale horse accompanied by a hound of the same complexion. He is and is not each sun-lit cloud he travels with, the touch and whisper of the wind.

He cannot stay here long, for this world we see as the land of the living is not his. He must return home to Annwn, the Otherworld, to prepare for a battle that cannot be won. To fight for a maiden he shouldn’t have loved, shouldn’t still love… in bluebells and forget-me-nots, emerging greens and white and yellow flowers he sees her colours.

For a moment he is possessed by memories of their passion, and the crimes it drove him to. A glimpse of his blacked face in a reed strewn pool shows no amount of war paint can mask his guilt, which he must live with for as long as there are people to sing his songs.

He searches for a sign. What is Judgement Day? When is it? Although he knows the language of the trees and plants, the tracks of every wild creature and the flight of birds, these questions are beyond his power to divine. When the worlds end, will Creiddylad and I be together again?

May Flower, Penwortham

Black Dog

He lies beneath my bed
and skrikes through the night,
plummeting the suburb into blackness.

Dampening floodlit windows,
putting out the streetlights,
he licks my hand when I am lonely.

When I fear I cannot live he takes me
to the otherside where we enter
the secret commonwealth of Middleforth

padding along the causey past the windmill’s
constant throb, cows with swaying udders
and hens clucking in the tithe barn.

Yet on communal ground
we are still invisible outcasts
with insatiable hunger and baleful breath.

Bound here by an obscure debt we pace the causey,
sniffing for dog-bones buried by the wayside
in a ritual that once had meaning on a lightless night.

Middleforth BrowMiddleforth Green, Spring Mist 007 - CopyMiddleforth Green

Mary of the Marsh

Enduring years of disconnection,
incredulity of stars,
anger beneath the heavens,
she scathed the priests and walked alone,
drifting among chapels, knowing she didn’t belong,
her robes of night fell on soft rushes.

They say she walked along the marsh.
They say she walked out to the river.
They say she looked out to the sea.

In the damp, dark parishes
paradise was never hers,
she walked amongst the outcasts and the sick
healing wounds that should never open,
seeing what shouldn’t be seen,
her robes of night fell on troubled waters.

Mary of the lepers,
Mary of the marsh,
I saw you running to the river,
I saw you running to the sea.
How you longed to sail away…

Half Moon and the Holly King

Half moon over Greencroft ValleyHalf bitten moon cries a waning scream.
Her severed pieces are brought by the stream
to the cavernous lair of the holly king
who grinds his axe on a sharpening stone
and prepares his block for the gore of heroes.

Silent and pensive he waits in his cave.
The moon arrives and his blood red eyes
are filled with silver swimming.
Outside the blackbirds sing
a song which knows no kenning.

The half formed moon describes her sorrows.
The king laments his lack of heroes-
vision waned and bravery gone.
Blackbirds sing their endless song
of an empty sky and bloodstained block…

then as hope elides a knight of dawn
approaches on a starless horse
with fire-lit eyes and maenad’s locks.
She boldly casts her gauntlet down
at the feet of the holly king.

The half formed moon departs from his arms.
He performs his task with an aura of calm.
The blackbirds watch in silence.
Then moon and lair are gone.
Dawn rides free, afraid, yet unharmed.

Holly, Greencroft Valley

Peneverdant, A Lunar Cycle

I. Dark Moon

On a dark moon
the lady in the ivy
winds down the dark hill
and the falling graves.

All memory
is sliding into darkness,
the river’s tides
her open mouth.

She is waiting
for the return
of her tribe
on their oaken boats.

The moon is dark
over the river-
an eye, a maelstrom
between the worlds.

The fleet are ready,
the church is empty,
graves as hollow
as the old green hill.

She will be waiting
in the ivy
for the return
of her tribe
on their oaken boats.

II. New Moon

All is darkness
but the splash of the tide,
the wing of an owl.

Lady Ivy
recounts her losses
on the hill
and the bank
where the hangman
wore his cowl.

They are waiting
in the maelstrom eye
of the new moon-
the river’s entryway
to living day
and deep Annwn.

They are waiting,
her hidden tribe
on their oaken boats
in a slit of light,
an opening moonbeam
to row through
the night
to the old green hill.

III. Moon First Quarter

There is wisdom
in the eyes of an owl-
a demand,
a categorical imperative.

Behind cumulonimbus clouds
secretly moon’s orb
is swelling.

They row.
History is written
in their woad-
gods and goddesses,
an oak king,
the lakes and water courses
of their oaken fleet,
the moon’s eye
in the shining river
and all the laws of the deep.

IV. Full Moon

The moon is full
behind the clouds.
She casts no light
on the empty boats,
the processional route
around the old green hill,
the moving river of woad.

Lantern bearers
pass the old iron rails,
the gloomy gathering of graves
to assemble on the mound,
igniting the beacon fire.

By the wing of an owl
the clouds are moved.
The moon looks down,
victorious.

They salute her orb
in the shining river,
the gods of the hill
and the deep.

On this night
of opened graves
anything is possible
in the light of the beacon fire
before the lambent eye of the moon.

V. Moon Last Quarter

Night has fallen
from the moon’s closing eye.

The owl has flown
to the hunt.

The fire gone cold
with the lanterns’ glow
is eclipsed by street lamps
and brake lights.

The by-pass roars
by the old green hill.
The river is concreted
back in her new course.

Lady Ivy
winds down
the hill and the graves.
She waits
for the tribe to row
to the river-moon
on their oaken boats,
to her maelstrom-eye
between the worlds.