In the preface to The Red Book, Carl Jung’s account of his ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, there is a quote about how it originated in his drive to find the myth he was living and get to know it:
‘I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: “what is the myth you are living?” I found no answer to this question, and that to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust… So in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth.’
Since I read this book a couple of years ago Jung’s question has stuck with me. I’ve had a fascination with myth since as long as I can remember, the mythic world first being presented to me in the fantasy novels I have loved reading since I was young child and then in increasingly older forms as I read the re-workings of the Graeco-Roman and Christian cosmologies in the poetry of Shelley, Blake, Milton, and followed them back to their sources in ancient Greek myth and the Bible.
It was this longing for the depth of a mythic ground that led me from analytical to Continental philosophy, through phenomenology with its focus on lived experience and aesthetics with its focus on art, to Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy in which the gods Dionysus and Apollo are shown to give birth to myth and its artistic expressions through Dionysian ecstasy and Apollonian vision.
Having discovered ancient Greek polytheism, I posed the questions of whether the gods exist now and whether people worship them. Finding out about modern Paganism I began to seek the gods. The Greek and Roman gods were there, but seemed distant – my connection felt like a broken radio signal.
The gods who found me were the gods of my land, the landscape of Lancashire, of ancient Britain. To my sadness I found that few of them had myths. Bel, Belisama, and Brigantia, were known only by their names on Roman inscriptions, Roman histories, in later place-names. Those who had myths by the names they were known by in medieval Wales: Nodens/Nudd/Lludd and his son, Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, Matrona/Modron and her son Maponos/Mabon, were euhemerised. Lludd appears as a ‘human’ king of Britain. Mabon, Gwyn, his rival, Gwythyr, and his beloved, Creiddylad, are incorporated into King Arthur’s court list and Gwyn is demonised as Arthur’s nemesis. And the dragon-goddess I have come to known as Anrhuna isn’t mentioned anywhere at all.
As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, over the past seven years I have been devoted to him, I have been working with his myths, with the myths of his kindred, to pare away the Christian veneer. To get back (or perhaps forward) to an understanding that is animistic and polytheistic. To a myth I can live by.*
In The Broken Cauldron and Gatherer of Souls I gave voice to myths that I felt spoke not only from medieval Wales but a wider Brythonic and pre-Brythonic culture born when people returned to Britain after the Ice Age and began to listen to the gods of this land, who perhaps guided them here.
As a person with a penchant for philosophy, for asking big questions, for desiring a groundwork, coming to Brythonic polytheism I have been frustrated by the absence of a creation myth and by the lack of stories that speak explicitly about how we came to be here and the journey of our souls.
I have found echoes of the Big Bang in the story of how Ceridwen’s cauldron broke with a scream, in the word crochan which means ‘cauldron’ and ‘womb’ of how she gave birth to the universe. I’ve long intuited that ‘The Battle of the Trees’ in Welsh mythology (which shares parallels with ‘The Battle of Moytura’ in Irish mythology) contains the remnants of the ancient clash of the culture gods against the gods and monsters of the Otherworld from which our world and civilisation originated. I’ve felt ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ contains broken fragments of the soul’s return to Annwn, to the cauldron, to be reborn.
But I didn’t have the courage, the foolishness, the presumptuousness required to attempt penning new myths, myths that exposed a personal vision of my gods that others might not agree with, that would be open to criticism, that would expose the teachings of my soul, until the coronavirus arrived.
Until the lockdown struck and my internship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust was postponed indefinitely and my possibility of finding paid work in conservation began to look increasingly shaky due to the threat of the recession and my discovery that having Asperger’s is the source of my difficulty with social interaction, which was always going to make it tough leading volunteers.
Until I was faced with the possibility that I could lose my elderly parents to the coronavirus and, as I live with them, my home. Without my mum and dad, a home, a job, what would I be left with? The small income from blogging about my vocation as an awenydd from my Patreon supporters. My relationship with my gods and with my soul, my imperative of myth-making, with my soul-work.
Thus my book of new myths, working titled ‘The Gods of Peneverdant’, has been born.
*Here I paraphrase the title of a book by Mary Midgely, The Myths We Live By, in which she presents science as our dominant myth.
approaches with a little bit of Chernobyl in its deadly stride.
A big black bell is ringing inside it.
Its face is a man’s.
There is nothing behind it.
I wrote this poem following a dream of which I remember little but the vivid image of a lean menacing wolf with a man’s face and the knowing because I’d seen it, been its presence, I was going to die.
I’ve had a handful of dreams in which I’ve had this gnosis. In one I was a captured soldier awaiting execution and Gwyn prepared me for death by telling me I must go into the hazel, and the beetle, and something I can’t recall. In another I was a clawed creature clinging to a lift descending to the abyss. And in another I was and was not a dark magician, who in a magical battle against mechanical forces, was cut into a thousand pieces by whirling blades and resurrected as a vampiric woman.
Through these dreams I know I have lived many lives, died many deaths, in Thisworld and in Annwn, and perhaps in worlds beyond. That a part of me, which I call my soul, carries these memories.
When I was talking to my dad about his funeral plans I was surprised to hear that he, like me a philosophy graduate, had never thought about whether he had a soul or what would happen when he died. He might have theorised about it but had never really contemplated what would happen to him.
Such questions have been on my mind as long as I can remember. Like my dad I theorised about them, attempting to find answers through philosophy, until I met Gwyn and he taught me to journey to Annwn. Until he and his father, the dream-god Nudd/Nodens, helped me to sleep and listen to my dreams.
For the first time since the Second World War people in Britain are suddenly facing death, due to the threat of the coronavirus. This is a complete unknown for people of my mum and dad’s generation, for mine, and the next generation, who might have included my children, if I’d had them.
I understand that one of the reasons Gwyn appeared in my life and taught me to journey was to help me prepare for death. I know a small handful of others who have had similar experiences with him and different gods, and of those who have gained their own understanding without experience of deity.
In contrast to the advice I’ve seen in various places to focus only on the positives, I believe at this time, when so many of us have so much extra time, there is no better time to contemplate the lean wolf.
The final prose poem in Melissa Lee-Houghton’s challenging confessional collection, Sunshine, is called ‘Hope’. Hope is scarce. The subject is a dream akin to a horror movie where the narrator is kidnapped and her companions are beheaded one by one, ‘blood gushing like red schnapps.’ When she is the only one left alive for a moment she thinks she’s won. Yet the time arrives for her to hang her head over the metal sink for the man in the white surgeon’s mask with the scalpel. ‘Hope’ ends with the following lines: ‘Although my psychiatric worker said it’s more than unusual, I died in that dream, and I went somewhere. Part of me remains there, happily, in the glamorous glare of lost hope and a sadness spun of pure sunshine.’
This poem struck a chord because two years ago I had a horrific dream ending with the suggestion of an afterlife. I was a soldier fighting in a jungle and had been captured to be executed. As I faced the firing squad, I knew I was going to die. I called to Gwyn ap Nudd, my patron god, for help. Filled with superhuman strength, I broke away in the form of a heavily muscled pig-like warrior. However, I was tracked down and recaptured. When I consulted Gwyn from my cell, he told me he couldn’t save me again. I must send my soul into the hazel, the beetle and… a third thing I can’t remember when it came to my execution. The next minute I was walking amongst hazel trees with a friend, speaking with complete calm about how to get my soul into a tree and turning over the leaves to find a beetle. I was utterly convinced about the survival of my soul, the calmest and surest I’ve ever felt. That reassuring feeling, like a glimpse of pure sunshine, remains with me to this day.