The Spirit of the Depths and the Service of the Soul

My soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak, I call you – are you there? I have returned. I am here again.’
Carl Jung

In his Red Book Carl Jung speaks of refinding his soul and rebuilding his relationship with her after a period of soul loss. He was called to do this by ‘the spirit of the depths’ who is opposed to ‘the spirit of this time’:

‘The spirit of this time would like to hear of use and value… that other spirit forces me nevertheless to speak beyond justification, use, and meaning… He took away my belief in science… my understanding and all my knowledge and placed them at the service of the inexplicable and the paradoxical. He robbed me of speaking and writing for everything that was not in his service.’

Jung records how the spirit of the depths opened his eyes to vision – to his soul, the things of the soul, and the soul world. This spirit forced Jung to stop treating his soul as a ‘scientific object’ and told him to ‘call upon her as a living and self-existing being. I had to become aware that I had lost my soul.’

Once he reached that awareness Jung called out to his soul and encountered her as a person and as a living landscape. She appeared to him in a number of guises (all female) – as Salome, as the spirit of a dead girl (who forced him to eat her liver!), as a serpent, and as a ‘small white bird’. She showed him a variety of visions, some of which predicted the First World War, some beautiful, most Hellish. She appeared to him as a desert, and, it may be argued, as the many places in Hell he explored.

Jung learnt that he is merely the ‘symbol and expression’ of his soul. She taught him that everything he does and says ‘comes from and belongs to me’. Ultimately he entered ‘the service of the soul’.

***

Jung’s words are of interest not only because they contain a great deal of mystical depth and wisdom but because they remind me of my own calling to serve Gwyn ap Nudd, a god of Annwn (‘the Deep’ – the soul world in the Brythonic tradition) and to restore my relationship with my own soul.

Like Jung I was called away from service to ‘the spirit of the times’ by ‘the spirit of the depths’.

From doing something ‘of use and value’ to the ‘inexplicable’ and ‘paradoxical’ – to ‘the service of the soul’. This happened when I decided to write my PhD thesis on ‘Imagination’ in William Blake’s prophetic books rather than trending topics and in my choice to write books based on personal visions that challenge the grounds of already obscure Brythonic/Welsh myths rather than a ‘how to’.

It’s only since I’ve accepted I’m never going to be able to make a living from such work and stopped using social media to publicise it I’ve managed to make space to journey and write more deeply.

Over the past month I’ve begun a quest, like Jung’s, for ‘a myth to live by’, that has been calling me even further away from the myths that others recognise from the medieval Welsh texts. To visions of my gods that are more direct, unfiltered by Christianised narratives, but less recognisable and hence relatable (unless, as I hope, I ultimately succeed on touching, through the personal, on the universal…).

In this space, as a way of repairing my own soul loss, I have been reconsidering my relationship with my soul. This began the day I met Gwyn leading the fairy funeral procession on Fairy Lane in my home town of Penwortham. Unlike in the original legend in which the fairies were tiny black-clad men clad with red caps they were taller than me and dressed in Victorian funeral garments. Gwyn, who I didn’t recognise, was wearing a black hat and leaning on a walking cane, his only recognisable feature being his long, silky white hair. As in the original the ‘fairies’ carried a coffin. And, like the hapless protagonist, I looked into the coffin and saw my own corpse. Only she looked ‘other’. Gwyn told me “a part of your soul is trapped in Annwn” before revealing his identity.

When I started journeying to Annwn with Gwyn I was reunited with this lost part of my soul. She appears as a warrior-huntress (who I am and/or watch) aboard my white winged mare with hounds. She’s everything I’m not – practical, courageous, able to fight, hunt her own food, survive in the forest.

At first I wondered whether this is simply facile wish fulfilment. Shouldn’t I, a suburban muppet, be more like my usual bumbling, clumsy, scatter-brained self? To this Gwyn replied with a resounding “No!” and told me this is the exact form my soul needs to take to get work done in his world.

I wasn’t completely certain she was my soul at first and I’m still not sure she’s the whole of my soul. Yet I haven’t found any other parts yet. I’ve has inklings in intuitions and dreams of past lives as a soldier and a nun but they feel like past selves my soul has inhabited rather than soul parts.

There is also the dark magician who sometimes shows up in my dreams and who I’ve chased through a number of books and who I’ve always kind of wanted to be if only I was good at magic. I spent a while wondering if he is my animus* but have reached the conclusion he has his own enigmatic existence, that dark magicians don’t give away their secrets, and accepted him as a guide of sorts.

In contrast to Jung I’ve found that my soul rarely speaks to me. For the past eight years since I’ve journeyed with/as her she hasn’t said a word and it’s only since reading Jung I’ve tried to speak to her. This resulted in her telling me to ‘be silent’ and ‘to come’ (to see what she had to show me). This demonstrates it’s not that she can’t speak but she’s not very talkative. I’m guessing this may be because I’m so full of words and chatter and her silence compensates like with our other qualities.

I think it’s possible that my white winged mare and perhaps my hounds are also parts of my soul. I believe my mare has been with me since birth and am tentatively referring to her as ‘my soul animal’ or ‘my spirit animal’ (as opposed to ‘a spirit animal’) to avoid terms from other cultures such as power animal’ or ‘totem animal’. This manifested early on in me galloping round and round the playground on my own pretending to be a horse when the other children were playing games. Eventually I started horse riding and spending all my time at a local riding school working for rides, training as a riding instructor, and later returning to a career in horses after finishing my PhD.

And with horses there were always yard dogs – labradors, terriers, the crazy cocker spaniel I shared a mobile home with. Unlike with horses I’ve never had my own dog (my parents are cat people) so I’ve never got to know dogs that intimately. Whilst I generally feel at one with my horse I often feel like I’m full of yappy excitable hounds jumping up and down inside me that refuse to calm down. Like the dogs that come and shake all over me or out me when I’m meditating I find them annoying. Whilst I’ve only got one horse** my first hound guide was an old shaggy wolf hound and he was replaced by two young Hounds of Annwn when I decided to make my lifelong dedication to Gwyn.

So my current view contrasts with Jung’s in that my soul appears as many parts at once. Also my soul is both male and female – my huntress is female, my mare is female, and both my hounds are male.

My main challenge in this deepening ‘service of the soul’ is learning to trust my soul. Putting aside my feelings of bitterness and resentment that my soul will never earn me any money and my fears that by following my soul away from known Brythonic mythology I may lose my already small audience.

But what are these fears compared to losing one’s soul?

*Mainly because Jung states that that men have a female anima and women have a male animus – a gendered binary logic that doesn’t ring true to me.
**Ok there’s ‘the dark horse’ but I think he’s a water-horse, a land spirit, rather than a part of my soul.

Ywen

Ywen
dark guardian
guardian of Annwn

Ywen
dark guardian
guardian of souls

Ywen
dark guardian
guardian of mystery

Ywen
dark guardian
guardian of us all

Leaning Yew February 2018

Swyn

Swyn – charm or incantation; magic
Kristoffer Hughes

This woodland will not be felled by the axe of man or god. I drift with the souls through the mist of blood. It is damp on my cheeks and eyelashes. This is not the time for weeping, but undoing what Gwydion has done. When the featherless wings brush my face I push them away lightly and set to work.

It must begin and end with a snake biting her tail.

It takes me weeks (in this place the weeks are counted by the dripping of the blood) to ease the snakeskin down from the trees, to sew up the tears, to stick the scales back on with super glue, then stretch it out in a circle around the woodland. Lastly I retrieve the skull, prop open the jaws with a strong branch, slip the end of the tail between them, give my instructions to those who will bring the end.

The toadstone with its antidote must form the centre.

With ropes I drag it out of the bloody pool of bones and feel like Sisyphus as I push it into the central grove. A lapwing calls “pee-wit, pee-wit” circling overhead, a red-eared hound sits at my side, and a doe watches fractiously from between the trees as I sponge off the blood and polish it with a yellow duster, beginning to hum a tune as the bufonite sparkles green as emerald beneath my touch.

In the jaws of the hundred-headed beast the gateways must be opened.

I leave the woodland and climb the hill to where the heads of the beast are piled up like a totem. Stepping inside each set of cavernous jaws I light a candle to illuminate each cave and redraw the gateways around each throat with a glow-in-the-dark marker pen and somewhere hear a belly rumble.

The eagle-feathered staff of the swynydd to reverse the swyn.

Slithering on damp bone I climb my way up slowly, a candle, a gateway, in every skull, to the very top. I wrest Gwydion’s staff from between two skulls and shake his presence from it. Gently I untie the eagle feathers and watch them drift slowly to the ground like Lleu sung from the oak in Nant Lleu.

With a smile I tie on the feathers of the owl and speak a prayer to Blodeuwedd and all her kind. I call to my Lord of Annwn, Brân with his alder shield, Pryderi the swineherd dead before his time.

Beneath the stars of promise, seated on the top skull of the beast, one leg crossed over the other, I sing:

Blood drenched trees
beyond Caer Nefenhyr
souls amongst the trees
will you ever be free?

As I sing I see the trees awakening as if from a long sleep, staring about in horror, shaking off the blood. Birch is abashed by his blood-stained armour whereas Ash is proud of his splashes and scars. Golden Rod, afraid her beauty will be forever be marred, lays down her rods of golden flowers like swords.

From their bloody death-spots the souls unattach themselves, ease themselves out of the mist, the rain.

Blood drenched trees
enchanted into warriors
woodland of lost souls
will you ever be free?

A bending of the boughs, a turning and circling in confusion, the deep rumbling voice of Oak as he argues with Holly again, the silvery tongue of Birch calming them, the dream-wisdom of Willow, the fire of Rowan, prickly Blackthorn playing devil’s advocate, the squeak of clover demanding a say.

Souls fly like moths to the flame to the jaws of the beast. The green light of the toadstone begins to glow.

Blood drenched trees
will you return to Annwn
with souls of mist and feather?
Will you accept freedom?

The green light soothes them and, as a woodland, as a whole, united by blood and mycelium they agree.

The souls step into the caverns, to the gateways, and the beast shudders to life. The snakeskin begins to twitch. I sense the end approaching like the snap of countless jaws as the snake bites her tail.

Speckled Crested Snake Ouroboros Med

*This piece follows on Caer Nefenhyr and is based upon a spirit journey into the otherworldly landscape where ‘the Battle of the Trees’ took place.

A Speckled Crested Snake

Neidyr vreith gribawc:
cant eneit trwy bechawt
a boenir yn y cnawt.’

A speckled crested snake:
a hundred souls, on account of (their) sin,
are tortured in its flesh.’
The Battle of the Trees

A speckled crested snake
rises, falls, slips, like heartache
through ashes in the wake

of worlds that rise and fall.
Handless, legless, she crawls
writhed by agonised calls

of a hundred doomed souls
that hang like birdsong – whole
legions swallowed in halls

where the live can’t follow
where they’re pierced by sorrows –
sins lined in endless rows.

They drown in her venom
which sears, abrades, strips them
of skin, flesh, bone, wisdom

of pain making them one
with her: scaled, speckled. None
escapes as she writhes on.

She seeks a hundred more.
Feeds, grows, fattens, on war.
No-one can stop her maw

devouring what we’ve left.
No spear can bring her death.
No word can end her breath.

We’ll be inside her soon.

A Speckled Crested Snake Large

‘A speckled crested snake / rises, falls, slips like heartache / through ashes in the wake / of worlds that rise and fall.’

Twrand o’r Gyre

A hen got hold of me –
a red-clawed one, a crested enemy;
I spent nine nights
residing in her womb
The Hostile Confederacy

Bird-Head

“The witch Ceridwen made me like this.”

He reminds me of one of Baskin’s cave birds:
the bare white skull with its long maxilla,
the sclerotic ring,

the way he stares just ‘so’ like a raptor,
cervical vertebrae twisting down

to feathered shoulders.

Immediately I have questions
I know I shouldn’t ask –

like where he got his cloak,
whether it’s part of him,
what’s beneath.

I keep my beak well shut,

follow with respect up the mountain
to the tap-tap-tap of his stick

as he points out bones picked clean by birds,

the skeleton still sitting waiting for death.

When I grow weary I think of how the dying
made it higher with their last breath
and stumble on to the summit.

Will I fall apart in a heap of bones
or crumble into a pile of dust?

Only his sunken eyes know.

Gyre

I totter like an old woman.

Before I’ve had the chance to look down
at what I’ve left behind I’m swept

into a gyre,
circling and circling
with the last things of Thisworld –
a wardrobe emptying of clothes,
a cupboard spilling chutnies,
jams, ketchups, vinegar.

Things I’ll dimly miss.

A new set of wings
is beating in my chest
carrying me higher higher.
The sun is my new head
illuminating the plains
of a new horizon.

Its brightness is beyond pain,
understanding, words such as ‘firmament’,
‘cloud’,‘cirrocumulus’, ‘Heaven.’

Here

the winged souls are busy,

half human, half bird,

hollowing out their bones
with the chink, chink, chink
of tiny chisels, breaking

and re-fixing humerus,
ulna, radius, fusing carples
and phalanges into wings.

Separating toes into claws.

Stretching lungs into air sacs
and filling lightened bodies full
of soulful air and otherlight.

Far Above

they are greeted by elders
who teach them to build nests

with sticks and clothes pegs,
moss, spit, newspaper cuttings
of past lives they wished they had,
toys, shoes, watch hands, fluff
from the bellies of teddy bears.

Like little old women or foetuses
they climb back into the eggs,

back into a chick-like slumber,

back into the womb of an old hen,
back into the cauldron of Ceridwen,
back into before they were born.

Nine Nights

Finally Twrand tells his story:

“For nine nights and nine days
I resided in her womb asleep like
a feather in the skies drifting from
planet to planet learning stories
of other worlds beyond her dreams
and all her deepest imaginings.

I saw the trajectory of Thisworld.

I plucked the feather of my Awen
from the side of a red-clawed hen.

When I was born she killed me:

wrung my neck, bent me out of shape.
I raised my skeleton from the sand,
fixed my wings and learnt to ride
the winds of the gyre unreturning.”

Twrand o'r Gyre MML

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwn: Remembering the Underworld Gods

I recently came across an article through the Caer Feddwyd Forum (1) called ‘The Underworld Gods’ by medieval scholar, Will Parker. It brought to my awareness the existence of an inscription in Chamalieres in central France, which took the form of a prayer or invocation addressed to an entity or group of entities known in Ancient Gaul as the andedion, ‘the Under-world God(s)’ or ‘Infernal One(s)’ (2).

Parker links the andedion to the Irish andee ‘non-gods’ and suggests a similar group of deities would have been worshipped in Iron Age Britain. Through etymological links between the ‘elements Clt. dio(n) (Ir. dé) ‘god(s)’ and ‘the suffix ande-/an-‘ he connects them to Annwn ‘not world’, Britain’s indigenous otherworld or underworld. Parker goes on to identify the andedion and andee with the spirits of Annwn and their ruler, Gwyn ap Nudd.

This is of interest to me because Gwyn is my patron god. Parker’s insights make it possible to trace a trajectory from Iron Age beliefs concerning underworld gods, through Gwyn’s appearances in medieval literature and later folklore to those who worship him today.

Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ is a Brythonic deity. His veneration dates back, at least, to the Iron Age, where he appears as Vindonnus ‘White or Clear Light,’ in a trio of Gallo-Brythonic inscriptions in Essarois. Here he is equated with Apollo, another hunter deity (3). It is likely he was worshipped across Britain as Vindos ‘White’ (4). It has also been conjectured that Gwyn and his hunting dog, Dormarth ‘Death’s Door’ occupied the astrological positions of Orion and Sirius to the ancient Britons.

Cave, SilverdaleParker suggests Late Bronze Age ‘ritual shafts’ and ‘offering pits’ containing depositions including human and animal bones, grain, pottery and metalwork express a ‘quid-pro-quo’ relationship between the ancient Britons and the underworld gods. If he is correct, it is possible that Vindos / Gwyn, Dormarth and other kindred spirits were involved in these rites.

Gwyn’s first literary appearances are in medieval Welsh texts; ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (11th C) in The Mabinogion and ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’ (13th C) in The Four Ancient Books of Wales. These texts have roots in an older, oral tradition and contain fragments of tales from across Britain that predate Christianity. A significant number of these, including two featuring Gwyn, are from ‘The Old North’ (5). This is important to me because I connect with Gwyn in Lancashire.

Parker argues that superstitions about the underworld gods carry over into The Mabinogion. This is evidenced in the disappearance of livestock, children and crops. Pwyll’s encounter with Arawn, a King of Annwn, is the catalyst for the unfolding drama of the first four Mabinogi. Parker says these stories show the spirits of Annwn could not ‘be simply dismissed or ignored. Instead, a complex narrative had to be constructed in which, through a series of symbolic ritual manoeuvres, their power was drawn out, confronted and finally neutralised.’ The attempts of medieval scholars to disempower these deities can be seen at work in the development of Gwyn’s mythology.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ (6) Gwyn is presented as a divine warrior returning from battle to the Tawe near the vale of Neath. Gwyddno, ruler of Cantre’r Gwaelod, speaks of and addresses him with reverence and respect. ‘Bull of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army, / The ruler of hosts, indisposed to anger, / Blameless and pure was his conduct in protecting life.’ Other epithets Gwyddno uses include ‘hope of armies’ and ‘hero of hosts.’ ‘Host’ may refer to the spirits of Annwn.

Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn, the son of Nud, / The lover of Creurdilad, the daughter of Lud.’ He names his horse as ‘the torment of battle’ and refers to Dormarth as ‘truly the best of dogs,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘round bodied’ and ‘ruddy nosed.’ References to his possession of a ‘polished ring’ and ‘golden saddle’ are also suggestive of his status.

The title ‘Bull of Conflict’ refers to Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp. At the end of the poem he describes his travels across Britain gathering the souls of fallen soldiers. He appears to be berating this task. ‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain, / From the East to the North; / I am alive, they in their graves! / I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain / From the East to the South / I am alive, they in death!’

This poem contains important clues about Gwyn’s identity as a divine warrior and huntsman, whose role was to gather the souls of the dead and take them to Annwn.

In ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion, Gwyn is depicted as a huntsman and advisor to King Arthur. His place in Arthur’s court list and apparent subjection to both Arthur and God may be read as attempts by medieval scholars’ to explain and downgrade his position.

That ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found’ (7) hints at his role as leader of the hunt, and knowledge of otherworldly beings. The Twrch was a king reputedly turned into a swine by God. When Gwyn does not reveal his location it is possible he is defending his own.

The advice of Gwyn and Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor Son of Scorcher’ is also needed by Arthur to find Pennant Gofid in the ‘uplands of hell,’ which Evans and Bromwich say is ‘clearly situated in North Britain’ (8). When they reach this location, Gwyn and Gwythyr advise Arthur in his defeat of the ‘The Hag of Pennant Gofid,’ another otherworldly entity. The parcity of their advice, which leads to several failed attempts by Arthur’s men before the Christian King is forced to step in to slay her, may also suggest that Gwyn and Gwythyr are acting as tricksters.

A pair of lines fundamental to understanding Gwyn’s mythos, and which continue to intrigue and perplex me, are the following; ‘God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ (9).

Taken literally, this seems to mean that at some point during the period of Christianisation God put the spirit of the demons of Annwn ‘in’ Gwyn’s person to prevent the world’s destruction. Or it may mean that he granted Gwyn rulership of them for this purpose. However, it is probable that the agency of God was brought in as a cover to excuse the prevalent belief in the existence of these spirits and their ruler.

Even if we assume God’s agency is a cover for existing beliefs, the notion that Gwyn somehow contains ‘the spirit of the demons of Annwn’ is a fascinating one. In a conversation via e-mail, Heron (10) told me the word ‘spirit,’ in Welsh, is ‘aryal,’ which can mean ‘ferocity,’ ‘essence’ or ‘nature’. He referred me to Evans and Bromwich, who say ‘Gwyn’s partaking of the ‘nature of the devils of Annwfn’ indicates a recognition on the part of the redactor of the tale that Gwyn ap Nudd belonged to a sinister and forbidden mythology’ (11). Within this mythology he may already be seen to embody the nature of these entities, or to hold power over them.

That the destruction of the world is at stake suggests Gwyn’s role was extremely significant. If it is assumed this notion has older roots, some of the offerings of the ancient Britons may be explained as attempts to placate these spirits and their ruler due to their destructive capacity. It is also possible Gwyn was invoked as the only being who could hold them in check.

Fears and superstitions surrounding Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn may lie behind the story of his abduction of Creiddylad. After Creiddylad, who is both Gwyn’s lover and sister, elopes with Gwythyr, Gwyn seizes her back. It might be assumed he takes her to Annwn, and that this suggests an underlying fear of being abducted by Gwyn and his forces.

Gwythyr amasses his armies and attacks Gwyn. Gwyn triumphs and captures a number of Gwythyr’s allies, who are mainly rulers of the Old North. During their captivity Gwyn slaughters Nwython, cuts out his heart and feeds it to his son, Cyledr, who goes mad. This could be read as a clear example of Gwyn’s ferocity and hints at existing superstitions about what goes on in Annwn.

Evans and Bromwich say the concentration of the names of people Gwyn kidnaps suggest ‘that north Britain was the ultimate place of origin for the Creiddylad episode, and that this incident was one of the surviving fragments of tradition emanating from there’ (12). It is therefore likely it originates in earlier beliefs held about Gwyn and his host by the Northern Britons.

Arthur eventually comes North to Gwythyr’s aid and frees his noblemen. Afterward he makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by placing a dihenydd ‘fate’ on them. This dictates that they must fight for Creiddylad’s hand every Calan Mai ‘May Day’. An added condition, which seems particularly unfair, is that Creiddylad must remain in her father’s house, and no matter who wins neither can take her until Judgement Day. It is likely Arthur’s agency was brought in to explain an earlier myth, which was already prevalent in the Old North.

Whilst, on one level, this myth may be about fears of abduction to the underworld, it is more frequently interpreted as a seasonal drama comparable with Hades’ capture of Persephone. In this reading, Creiddylad is a maiden goddess who embodies the powers of spring and fertility. Creiddylad’s abduction by Gwyn may explain the failure of these powers at Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. Gwythyr and Arthur’s rescue of her at Calan Mai, the first day of summer, may explain their resurgence.

Winter Hill

Winter Hill

Gwyn is also seen as the Winter King. It is possible his white, shining qualities relate to snow and cold, associations which could date back to the Ice Age. Elen Sentier links Gwyn with the reindeer goddess Elen of the Ways (13) and the Boreal forest. He may also be connected with the North wind. The 14th C Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilim refers to ‘Tylwyth Gwyn, talaith y gwynt’ ‘the family of Gwyn, the province of the wind’ (14). The pervasiveness of a myth featuring Gwyn in Northern Britain could have a basis in its harsh winters.

In a later text, The Life of St Collen (14th C), Gwyn is referred to as ‘the King of Annwn and the Fairies’ and is supposedly banished by the saint from Glastonbury Tor (15). The transition from belief in Gwyn as a King of Annwn to King of the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ or ‘Fair Folk’ is a significant one. The original natures of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are covered over by their reduction to diminutive form. However, hints at their mythos can still be found in the majority of folktales.

Gwyn retains his status as leader of the Wild Hunt in the folklore of Wales and Somerset. There he is seen to appear on horse back with a pack of white, red-eared hounds, riding out on Nos Calan Gaeaf and through the winter months, chasing down the souls of the dead. To hear his hounds is an omen of death. The other riders are seen often seen as captive souls and may represent the spirits of Annwn.

In the North West of England, however, the hunt is assigned either to the Norse god Odin, or to Christian angels. In Cumbria it is Michael, and in Lancashire and Yorkshire Gabriel is said to lead a pack of black, red-eyed dogs, the Gabriel Ratchetts.

Coincidentally, Preston born writer Francis Thompson is famous for a poem called ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ Anybody who has felt like Gwyn’s hounds are on their tail might find these lines hauntingly familiar; ‘I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears / I hid from him, and under running laughter.’ (16)

More recently, Gwyn’s significance as an ancient god has been attested by contemporary scholars such as Geoffrey Ashe, in King Arthur’s Avalon (2007) and Nicholas R. Mann in The Isle of Avalon (1996) and Glastonbury Tor (2012). He is also the subject of a full length book called Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and Key to the Glastonbury Zodiac (2007) by Yuri Leitch.

This increase in interest suggests we are approaching a time when Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are taken seriously as Brythonic deities again. However, the main focus of these books is Gwyn’s role at Glastonbury, with only a small mention of his place in Wales and other areas of Britain. Disappointingly there is no mention of Gwyn’s activities in the North. In this respect I have only my own experiences and conjectures to go on.

Fairy Lane

Fairy Lane

I first met Gwyn on Fairy Lane in my hometown of Penwortham, where he challenged me to journey with him to Annwn. Since then I have worked with him as a guide to the otherside of my local landscape and its hidden myths. His interest in my locality surprised me at first. However, it seems less surprising when looked at in the context of his role as an ancient underworld god of Britain, particularly in relation to the history and folklore surrounding this site.

Penwortham has been inhabited since 4000BC. The Riversway Dockfinds, a collection of animal bones, 30 human skulls, two dug out canoes and the remains of a timber structure suggest the existence of a lake village on Penwortham Marsh. Nearby is Castle Hill, a point of military and religious importance. There is a church dedicated to St Mary on the summit of Castle Hill, which means it was likely to have been a pre-Christian sacred site.

That the church is dedicated to St Mary and she was also the patron saint of a healing well at the foot of Castle Hill suggest the presence of an earlier female deity with healing powers, who has been Christianised as Mary. Three human skulls found in the wall of the church (17), which may have served an apotraic function suggest superstitious beliefs in chthonic spirits were also once popular but not openly acknowledged.

The survival of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral attests to these superstitions. In the earliest version in Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878), it is set on Church Avenue on Castle Hill. Two men walking home to Longton encounter a procession of fairies carrying a coffin. Robin, one of the men, looks into the coffin and sees his own miniature corpse. Frightened by the sight, they follow the fairies into St Mary’s graveyard. Robin attempts to prevent the burial by reaching out to grab the leader of the fairies. The procession vanishes and Robin, driven mad, topples to his death from a haystack a couple of months later (18). In later versions, this story takes place on Fairy Lane, which runs through Penwortham Wood at the foot of Castle Hill.

This legend may be interpreted to hint at older beliefs in underworld gods. Church ways are often identified with spirit paths. It is possible that prior to Christianity people believed chthonic spirits to have been actively involved in bearing the deceased to the underworld. The ringing of bells to drive them away and superstitions surrounding lych gates are testaments to fear of such entities. The movement of the legend to Fairy Lane may be seen as an attempt to sever their connection with the church. It is also possible it represents a shift in the energy of the area.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn (more frequently referred to as fairies today) are frightening beings. However, they play an essential role in maintaining the relationships between the worlds, the seasons, and the living and the dead. Like death itself and the cold dark of winter they will never go away. Their roles and identities, covered over or ignored for many centuries, can be recovered and understood.

Like Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn, my relationship with Gwyn has changed my life. He guides me to visions in Annwn and the physical world I would not be able to access without him. He teaches me to walk the spirit paths and inspires me to learn the song lines of this land’s ancestral heritage.

As late summer arrives, harvesters take to the fields and leaves begin to fall I sense the spirits of Annwn stirring, the first hint of the breath of winter on the wind. Monday is the date of the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War. When I help lay candles in front of Preston cenotaph for each of the 1956 soldiers who lost their lives I will remember that care of the souls of the battle dead was once believed to be Gwyn’s role.

(1) http://www.caerfeddwyd.co.uk/
(2) http://www.mabinogi.net/sections/Appendix/The_Underworld_Gods.pdf
(3) James MacKilliop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (1998), p375
(4) Robin Herne, Old Gods, New Druids, (2009), p48
(5) A collection of Kingdoms in the North of England and Southern Scotland from 500AD and 800AD.
(6) Transl. William F. Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (2007), p210-211
(7) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(8) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p169
(9) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(10) https://www.blogger.com/profile/02055792516386371373
(11) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p133
(12) Ibid. p150
(13) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), p26-28
(14) Dafydd ap Gwilim, Poems, (1982), p132 – 133
(15) http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html
(16) Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems, (2000), p11
(17) Rev C. Nelson, St Mary’s Church, Penwortham, Lancashire, Archaeological Watching Brief and Explanation, (2011), p48
(18) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL

Many thanks to Heron and Lee at Caer Feddwyd for bringing Will Parker’s article to my attention.

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

Gatherer of Souls

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain…
I am alive, they in their graves!
– Words spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Black Book of Carmarthen XXXIII

Spring is here, daffodils
amongst the headstones,
flowers on the cenotaph
grieving summers of war-

shells shattering spirit paths,
ditches filled with corpses,
a perverse test of love
for brave young fools

and you being liminal,
battle rage and compassion
on the blood soaked fields
where banshees wail

gathering the fallen
from amongst explosions,
returning to Prydain
wracked and torn.

Spring is here, yet in
Annwn’s long autumn you know
the weight of the battle dead,
the sorrow behind the veil.

War memorial in Penwortham

Wild Hunt Villanelle

When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
Hurtling from the deeps and bowers of unseen Annwn
They raze all life with their sundering might,

Sweeping heavens black warriors of starry white
Unite with rebel cries to form a spectral fugue.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Cities tremble as the harrowing horns descry
Ghost white horses, hounds of death and long lost truth.
They raze all life with their sundering might

As they gather up the souls of the dead in flight
Striking with a fear none but their kindred can endure.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Bringing down the skies and singing back the light
Around our fires only hope can see us through.
They raze all life with their sundering might

Then vanish to Annwn from tumultuous heights
Ending the old year and heralding in the new.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
They raze all life with their sundering might.

Oak Man

I am the voice inside an acorn.
I wear a cup shaped hat.
I tip it when I please.
I chatter in the hands of squirrels.
I buzz in wasps.
I whisper with the bolete.
I sleep. I spring.
I am sprightly. I am green.
I endure the push of each lobed leaf.
I carouse in the flush.
I take time to reach maturity.

I am the tree that holds the world.

I am the guardian and the gateway.
I come well equipped with elves.
I run in ants down many passageways.
I hollow out.
I don a skirt of armillaria.
I am mulch for the weevil and moth.
I am rot and I am canker.
I sink in the bog.
I am a sunk and empty vessel.
I am a coffin for your soul.
I am a boat to the eternal.

Oak and Feather Acorn

 

*Poem inspired by the gift of this acorn pendant from Lynda Ryder to the members of the Oak and Feather grove.