Sunshine Old as Memory: Hôrai and Preserving Visions of Fairyland

I. Blue Vision of Depth

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‘Blue vision of depth lost in height – sea and sky interblending through luminous haze. The day of spring and the hour morning.
Only sky and sea – one azure enormity… in the fore ripples are catching a silvery light, and threads of foam are swirling. But a little farther off no motion is visible, nor anything save colour: dim warm blue of water widening away to meet into blue of air. Horizon there is none: only distance soaring into space – infinite concavity hovering before you, and hugely arching above you – the colour deepening with the height. But far in the mid-way blue there hangs a faint, faint vision of palace towers, with high roofs horned and curved like moons – some shadowing of splendour strange and old, illumined by sunshine old as memory…
…Those are the glimmering portals of Hôrai the blest; and those are the moony roofs of the Palace of the Dragon King.’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan (1904) is a collection of Japanese ghost stories and studies of superstitions about the insect world by Lafcadio Hearn. Hôrai is a legendary place in Japanese mythology known as Mount Penglai by the Chinese. Lafcadio’s ethereal yet beautiful descriptions share surprising parallels with Celtic representations of Fairyland.

Lafcadio says in the books of the Chinese Shin dynasty Hôrai is a place where there is no death, pain or winter. The flowers never fade and the fruits never fail. Enchanted plants heal sickness. A fountain of perpetual youth nourishes grass that quickens the dead. The people eat rice and drink wine out of very small cups that are never empty.

However Lafcadio claims these books were not written by people who have visited Hôrai. Really there are no fruits that forever satisfy the eater, magical grasses that revive the dead, fountains of perpetual youth or cups never empty. It is not true sorrow and death never enter Hôrai or that there is no winter: ‘The winter in Hôrai is cold; and winds then bite to the bone; and the heaping of snow is monstrous on the roofs of the Dragon King.’

The textual descriptions of Hôrai are deceptive as the place itself. Another name for Hôrai is Shinkirō: ‘Mirage.’ Similarly on the surface Fairyland appears a paradisal place. Take for example this description of St Collen’s arrival at the castle of the Brythonic Fairy King, Gwyn ap Nudd:

‘he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign…
And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish.’

Collen refused to partake in the meal saying “I will not eat the leaves of trees” and disparaged the costumes of Gwyn’s host because their red signified burning and blue coldness. When he threw holy water the castle and its inhabitants disappeared.

Collen saw through the fairies’ glamoury but gained no perception of the deeper reality beneath. In my earliest travels to Gwyn’s castle I found I had to go through a curious combination of sky and sea – an ocean filled with stars. Sometimes I arrived on the shore and sometimes above. The palace’s most distinguishing feature was a lunar crescent on its roof mirroring the bull horns Gwyn wore in an earlier vision of him as a ‘bull of battle.’

Sometimes the palace was alive and thronging with people and there was feasting, singing and mead. Sometimes it was derelict, cold, draped in hoar frost and Gwyn sat with only his hound, Dormach, for company. I voiced this in my poem ‘Gwyn’s Hall’ at midsummer in 2013:

‘Summer here and winter there
My longest day your darkest night
Hoar frost drapes your haunted fortress
Whilst swallows ride my glowing sunlight.

Summer here and winter there
My brightest day your longest night
Whilst blackbirds sing my endless fanfare
Crazy owl streaks across your vaunted midnight.

Winter there and summer here
And I between them like the song
That lies unsung between the years
Between your hall and my brief home.’

My jaw dropped when I read Lafcadio’s words about Hôrai and its blue vision of depth which corresponded so well with my experiences of Fairyland, or as it was earlier known, Annwn ‘the deep.’ Particularly considering on the day of my dedication to Gwyn at Glastonbury Tor he appeared to me as a dragon, something completely unrecorded in known literature, although there are plenty of references to divine shapeshifters taking serpentine form.

Since then I have learnt that although Fairyland can be mind blowingly beautiful it is far from perfect. Its winters and sorrows mirror our own. Its treasures are not indestructible. Its resources are finite. There are no panaceas or such thing as eternal youth.

Fairyland is not free from death, war or political strife. When we die we carry the concerns of thisworld with us and indeed our world passes over into the next. The blue vision of depth is ours in the making and we bear as much responsibility as the gods.

II. Made of Ghost

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‘It is an atmosphere peculiar to the place; and, because of it, the sunshine in Hôrai is whiter than any other sunshine – a milky light that never dazzles – astonishingly clear, but very soft. This atmosphere is not of our human period: it is enormously old, so old that I feel afraid when I try to think how old it is; and it is not a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. It is not made of air at all, but of ghost – the substance of quintillions of quintillions of generations of souls blended into one immense translucency – souls of people who thought in ways never resembling our ways. Whatever mortal man inhales that atmosphere, he takes into his blood the thrilling of these spirits; and they change the senses within him – reshaping his notions of Space and Time – so that he can see only as they used to see, and feel only as they used to feel, and think only as they used to think. Soft as sleep are these changes of sense…’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn

Gwyn ap Nudd translates as ‘White son of Mist’. His presence can be felt on misty mornings when the cold winter sun is an icy disk moving through a limboland of grey clouds reflected in the river. He and the dead in the smooth white air silently whispering the blurring of borderlines reshaping benches, trees, rivers, hills, the thoughts in our minds.

In Culhwch and Olwen it is said ‘God has put the spirits of the demons of Annwn in him, lest the world be destroyed.’ These words suggest Gwyn physically contains the spirits of Annwn although this may be a gloss on his rulership of them. Taken literally he is made of ghost.

It’s rare in Celtic literature to find links between Fairyland and the dead. It seems possible these connections were repressed by Christian rulers in favour of eternal reward in heaven or punishment in hell to ensure moral conduct. Such acts of repression are represented in St Collen’s supposed banishment of Gwyn and his host.

Gwyn’s role as a gatherer of the dead and King of Fairy provides a clue. Further evidence may be gleaned from Sir Orfeo. This Breton lay displays roots in Brythonic tradition:

‘In Britain in the days of yore
The harpers writ that men should praise
The gallant deeds that were before-
Of such the Britons made their lays.’

The setting is Winchester. Although it is modelled on the story of Orpheus the protagonist, Orfeo, does not descend to the gloomy depths of the Classical underworld to win back his beloved, Heurodis, but enters Fairyland by striding into a rock.

Fairyland is described as a country ‘bright as the summer sun… green vast.’ The knights are ‘bright… with large display / Of gorgeous banners gaily blent’ and the ladies ‘dancing free / In quaint attire… To sound of pipes and minstrelsy.’ Heurodis is amongst them.

Orfeo goes to the castle of the Fairy King who abducted her on May Day many years ago. This is described as a castle tall with a hundred towers of crystal ‘The jewelled stones shed forth a light / Like sunbeams on a summer’s day.’

The Fairy King and Queen are seated on a ‘tabernacle fair and light’ wearing glistening crowns and garments ‘so hot they shone’ ‘He could not gaze.’ The court are got up in ‘rich array.’

This contrasts with a horrifying discovery Orfeo made previously in the castle:

‘Some headless stood upon the ground,
Some had no arms, and some were torn
With dreadful wounds, and some lay bound
Fast to the earth in hap forlorn.

And some full-armed on horses sat,
And some were strangled as at meat,
And some were drowned as in a vat,
And some were burned with fiery heat,
Wives lay in child-bed, maidens sweet…

…Each thus was stolen out of life,
For such the fairies sieze and keep.
And there he saw his darling wife,
Sweet Heurodis as one asleep.’

These lines provide clear evidence of connections between the fairies and the dead. The host of knights, ladies including Heurodis herself is composed of people who have died suddenly or violently. Gwyn is intimately associated with the battle dead and people who have perished of unknown causes were often seen as taken by the fairies.

Orfeo’s task is not only to bring Heurodis back from Fairyland but from the dead. He succeeds through his wit and the power of his music. In Sir Orfeo there is no cruel condition vetoing looking back. He returns from Fairyland, from the Fairy King and Queen and their host bright and shining and made of ghost, to fleshly existence with his wife.

III. The Vision is Fading

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‘Evil winds from the West are blowing over Hôrai; and the magical atmosphere, alas! is shrinking away before them. It lingers now in patches only, and bands like those long bright bands of cloud that trail across the landscapes of Japanese painters. Under these threads of the elfish vapour you still can find Hôrai – but not elsewhere… Remember that Hôrai is also called Shinkirō, which signifies Mirage – the Vision of the Intangible. And the Vision is fading – never again to appear save in pictures and poems and dreams…’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn

It is impossible to imagine a time the Vision has not been under threat. The ancient tribal people who inhabited Britain and those who still exist in small wild pockets across the world living off the land, maintaining old stories, communing with their deities and ancestors, have never been immune to natural disasters or invasions by other people.

Kwaidan was published in 1904. Lafcadio translated most of the stories from old Japanese manuscripts. Yuki-onna was told to him by a farmer and Riki-baka and Hi-Mawara are based on his own experiences. ‘Evil winds from the West are blowing over Hôrai’ suggests Lafcadio thought the introduction of Western institutions posed a threat to Japanese folk beliefs and this motivated him to translate and share them.

Similarly in Britain as the industrial revolution forced country dwellers to move into towns to find factory work the loss of their beliefs prompted a resurgence of interest in folklore. Here in Lancashire folktales collected in the 19th and 20th centuries contain a fascinating admixture of ‘pagan’ Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Christian folk beliefs featuring fairies, boggarts, demons, spectral huntsmen, phantoms and ghosts.

Whilst these stories have not died out, belief in our ability to interact with Fairyland has. Its name, once held in superstitious regard, evokes parodic Barbie Fashion Party Fairytale Palaces with glitzy innocuous fairy god mothers with glitter wands and nothing of its deeper truths: a trend initiated by Shakespeare’s reduction of Queen Mab to diminutive size with butterfly wings and enforced by an era of Victorian twee.

The connection between Fairyland and the dead has been lost. The majority of people in our secularised society do not give much serious thought to where they will go when they die, what it will look like, who will guide them, who will be waiting when they arrive.

Disappointingly the majority of books on shamanism offer little but hypostasised lower, middle and upper worlds, instructions for entering green and leafy glades for pleasant get-togethers with spirit guides and power animals and tips for self development.

The myths and stories of our lands and ancestors make better field guides but are dated. We’ve seen industrial change on a global scale since then, two devastating world wars decimating towns and cities and tearing apart blood lines, and are still embroiled in brutal conflicts.

Before setting off on otherworld journeys we think little of what effect this has had on Fairyland. What great effort it takes to cover over nuclear waste and fracking wells. How much mead is needed to calm the dead forced to go to war for the sake of empire; for a political system founded on the ceaseless exploitation of finite resources to fuel machines of war.

Sunshine old as memory still shines in Fairyland. Go there and you will taste its magic, breath its atmosphere of quintillions of souls. Its Vision may be fading, fragile, fractured, rent by bloody wounds but it is still with us. It is our responsibility to preserve it for generations to come in pictures and poems and dreams; in our creation of thisworld as it passes into the otherworld.

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

Barrow Mound, Fulwood

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Castle Hill from Fairy LaneSOURCES

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