Nos Galan Gaeaf and the Beast with the Fiery Halo

It’s Nos Galan Gaeaf. The night before the first day of winter. An ysbrydnos – ‘a spirit night’. Unlike its counterbalance, Nos Galan Mai, when monsters are slain and dragons calmed this is a night when the ysbrydion Annwn ‘spirits of the Otherworld’ walk abroad at the height of their power.

There is a monster amongst us, COVID-19, the Beast with the Fiery Halo. To represent it as such is in keeping with the traditions of many generations of ancestors who perceived diseases to be caused by malevolent beings, before science and technology revealed they are caused by micro-organisms. From an animistic standpoint, wherein all things are alive and have personhood, these views are not incompatible.

In ‘Hanes Taliesin’ the illustrious bard predicted the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd at the hands of ‘A most strange creature… His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold.’ Maelgwn died after seeing Y Vat Velen, ‘The Yellow Plague’, through the keyhole in the church of Llan Rhos where he was ‘self isolating’.

Malaria, once known as the ague, took the form of a hag. Yr Hen Wrach, ‘The Old Hag’, was a seven foot woman who haunted Cors Fochno, Borth Bog. Her nocturnal visitations caused people to wake with the shakes. Samuel Taylor Coleridge later spoke of ‘the ghastly Dam, / Fev’rish yet freezing, eager paced yet slow, / As she that creeps from forth her swampy reeds, / Ague, the biform Hag!’

Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night when the veil of mist that separates the worlds is thin and the living may commune with the dead and the spirits of Annwn, some of whom we can name, and some whom are beyond categorisation. It is a time for telling stories in which otherworldly beings appear to haunt us and in which journeys to the Otherworld made. There is usually a dispelling or a safe return.

If we had a story about the Beast with the Fiery Halo it might go something like this. Many years ago our ancestors tried to build a world that was very much like the Otherworld, in which there was no want of food, or drink, or light, or heat, where no-one was cold, where no-one went hungry.

And that world was built at a great cost. The land was despoiled by mining and building. The air was polluted by fumes, which caused the temperature to rise. This led to the perishing of millions of trees, plants, animals, fish, and insects and to most of our ancestors living in servitude to the rulers who took power over the resources and machines that made this life possible. To depart from the system and the virtual world created by its technologies meant loneliness and ignominy, and at worst, death.

Most people accepted the cost, whether or not they were happy working at the machines, and turned a blind eye to the despoiling of the natural world because it was the only way to feed their families. Some did not. Some fought for change by protesting on the streets and others created nature reserves and planted trees and wildflowers and started growing their own food as an alternative.

Some prayed, to God, to the old gods, to Mother Earth, to Old Mother Universe, for something that would bring this system to an end. As if in answer to this prayer (and monsters are wily) appeared a beast the size of a sky scraper with limbs of countless animals, bent and twisted, as if trapped in a cage. Its lungs heaved phlegmatically in its scarred and hairy chest. Its many eyes were red and its mouths were gaping holes. Around its head was a blazing halo that burnt without burning the beast.

Like so many of the monsters in our myths it did not have a voice. It did not strike a bargain. It just came silently in the depths of winter and started taking the lives of our oldest most vulnerable people.

Protecting them came at a great cost: maintaining a distance from our friends and family, working less, travelling less, shopping less, to the benefit of the natural world and the detriment of our freedom. Our dependency on the rulers for financial support and the machines connecting us grew.

It felt like the unspoken bargain was this: ‘The lives of your old ones or your lives as you know them.’

Towards the end of summer we saw light shining through our prison bars. Although we all knew we had not defeated the monster we thought our sacrifices had kept it at bay. We dared to hope things might return to ‘normal’ but, as our liberties were restored, the monster took advantage. As winter approached, we saw the light was not sunlight, but the beast’s fiery halo, its triumphal crown.

The death toll is rising again. We are not at the end of the story but in media res, at the ‘crisis’, a Middle English term ‘denoting the turning point of a disease’ which is derived from medical Latin and dates back to the Greek krisis ‘decision’ and krinein ‘decide’. It’s decision time.

It’s as if we’re in a ‘choose your own ending’ book but the endings haven’t yet been written. We can only imagine them, happy or sad, tragic or comedic, apocalyptic or redeeming, guess there may be a twist.

Tonight the light of the blue moon is eclipsed by the beast’s fiery halo burning brighter than bright.

Nos Galan Gaeaf is a night on which, as a Brythonic polytheist devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd, I pray to him as the god who holds back the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent their destruction of the world and takes the souls of the lost and the angry dead to the Otherworld.

Countless times I have wondered why he has not held the beast back. Is it because he cannot or he will not? Is it because we are destroying the world? Because we too are monstrous?

We might consider that ‘monster’ originates from the Latin monstrum ‘to reveal’ or ‘to foretell’. Nos Galan Gaeaf, when Gwyn may be implored to part the mists of time, is a time for divination, for monstrous truths to be revealed and upon them our decisions based.

~

Gwyn ap Nudd

Starry Hunter in the Darkness
guide us through these nights of fear.

Midnight Rider on the Storm of Madness
teach us to ride these nights of tears.

Wise Warrior who guards the Cauldron
by the light of the blue moon

lead the living to deeper wisdom
and the dead back to Annwn.

The Strong Door

Be my
strong door,
mighty-girthed oak,
stout defence of
this island.

Be my
strong door,
dair, derwen, Daronwy,
Oak of Goronwy,
rooted firmly
where

yellow daffodils grow

be the defence of
my people.

Against
disease panic
the viral hordes
of Annwn

help us
hold firm.

Be my strong door.

Breathe

We need to remember that our very breathing is to drink our mother’s milk – the air – made for us by countless microbial brothers and sisters in the sea and soil, and by the plant beings with whom we share the great land surfaces of our mother’s lustrous sphere.’
Stephan Harding

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lungs. Two. Right and left. Each enclosed in a pleural sack in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Primary bronchus, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, terminal bronchiole. In the alveoli, ‘little cavities’, across the blood-air barrier, gas exchange takes place.

Breathe in: oxygen 21%, carbon dioxide 0.04%. Breathe out: oxygen 16%, carbon dioxide 4.4%. 6 carbon glucose, oxidised, forms carbon dioxide. Product: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ‘the molecular unit of currency of intracellular energy transfer’. The spark of all life.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Birds have lungs plus cervical, clavicular, abdominal, and thoracic air sacs. Hollow-boned they are light as balloons, breathing in, breathing out. Then there are the lungless. Through tiny holes in the abdomen called spiracles leading to the trachea, insects fill their air sacs. Earthworms and amphibians breathe in and out through moist skins. Fish breathe water in through gulpy mouth breathe it out through gapey gills.

Plants breathe through their leaves. By daylight they photosynthesise. Stomata breathe carbon dioxide. It mixes with water. The green lions of chlorophyll work their magic by sunlight. Oxygen is released. From glucose the magical hum and buzz of ATP. At night they respire glucose and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water. 10 times more oxygen produced than used.

Underground fungi breathe the air of the soil through thread-like hyphae that mass as mycelia. They respire aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), changing glucose to ATP (it’s all about ATP!), ethanol, carbon dioxide, and water. This old, old, metabolic pathway dates back to the days before oxygen ruled our breath and is utilised by microbes. The hidden ones of the deep, single-celled, or living colonies, breathe through their single cell walls in ancient ways – acetogenesis, methanogenesis – to gain the blessed ATP.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

And what is this creature that does not breathe (in or out) with no metabolism or need for ATP? This simple strand of genes in a designer jacket called a capsid? Does this thing, neither dead nor living, have a spirit? Like all living things was it breathed into life by the gods?

Or is this death-bringer undead? This assaulter of lungs? Lung-cell-killer and causer of coughs – dead lung cells coughed up as sputum, mucus, the yellow remains of what was ours?

By what dark programme does it turn the body against itself – alveoli ‘little cavities’ where the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place filling with water – no space to make ATP? No lungs – no breath. The pump of ventilators, breathing in, breathing out, our new iron lungs…

Did it crawl from the cauldron of inspiration like the speechless dead or is it something entirely other?

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

To whom do we pray? To the gods and goddesses of breath and to the spirits of inspiration? To Ceridwen, Gwyn ap Nudd, Morgana and her sisters, who gave us breath, and take it away?

“Breath always leads to me,” says Gwyn. I find this reassuring and disconcerting from a death-god. From the one who releases the spirits of Annwn from the cauldron and holds them back.

So we breathe together with the lunged and lungless creatures with skin, fur, feathers, shells, scales, leaves, hyphae, the single-celled, the uncelled who ride our breath, until we return to the gods. To the winds that carry the voices of all ancestors over our 4.543 billion year old earth.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

*I adapted this meditation from an earlier version ‘The Ways We Breathe‘ previously published on Gods & Radicals following guidance from my deities to focus on my breath and being struck by the realisation that a distinguishing feature of coronavirus and other viruses is that they do not breathe.

Fragments of Annwn – Fallings

The Broken Harp

I.
My nerves are timbres.

Taut and tense the ganglia
no longer relay the music.

Weak, worn, frayed, spent,
the tendrils torn and stretched
from the strings of a harp.

Like broken bowstrings
they sting and twitch.

II.
On the empty frame
the ‘devils’ of Annwn sit
and mock and chatter.

I cannot take my eyes
from their neat little fangs
and paper-like origami wings.

I cannot shut out their voices,
low, high, squeaking in the wind,
fat with my stolen melodies,

for I am strangely in love
with my distractions.

I court them feed them daily.

I have become their instrument.

And so I lie broken beneath their claws…

III.
And where is my god? Not the harpist
or the one who taught him but the one who
listens for the song in his eternal hall

where the harp played with no player at all?

Is he still listening? Waiting? For the bow
to be restrung? For the song to be sung? For
the arrow that will pierce his heart fine and true?

~

The Place Where the Sky is Falling

In the place where the sky is falling and the winged and the wingless ones with it I am galloping. The faster I gallop the faster it falls and the faster they chase me, swishing, swooping, on wings and not on wings (yet still sounding torn and leathery and creaky-jointed), with and without teeth and claws.

As a little experiment I touch a rein, a brief half-halt, steady from a flat-out to a slower gallop. The sky-fall slows, the flight of the ‘devils’ of Annwn who pursue me, the winds of the abyss that drive us all. I slow to a canter, to a trot, to a walk, pull up. The sky is still. The winged and wingless ones hang before me like puppets on strings, immobile in the air, without a single wing-beat. I frown. They frown. I move my left hand. They move to the left. I move my right hand. They move to the right.

“Is this some game?”

An eruption of laughter flows through them, breaking the strange spell. They shift, flap, nudge, jest. Some fly away and others descend to look on this strange phenomenon of an awenydd in Annwn.

“What are you?” I ask. “Are you devils?” For that is what Christians have called them for hundreds of years and they do look like something out of Doré’s woodcuts for Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet I have a feeling they have existed in the Otherworld before the Christian imposition of Heaven and Hell.

They laugh and shriek and pull their grins wider with their foreclaws like demonic Cheshire cats.

“Seriously…”

“Fliers,” squeaks one. “Fliers, fliers,” the others echo. “Fliers.” “Clawers.” “Takers.” “We take…” “We take what you feed us.” “We feed.” “We bring the takings.” “We bring what you feed us to the abyss.”

“Cursed, cursed.” “We cannot set down our feet.” “We have no feet.” “We fly between the worlds knowing nothing but taking.” “We even sleep on the wing.” “Ours is the dream-storm over the abyss.”

“What have you taken from me?” I have no wounds but no teeth and no claws leave no mark…

They cackle, grin, smack their lips. “What you fed us.” Their mouths purse like secrets.

“Then you are welcome to it,” I incline my head in acknowledgement, “add it your storm of dreams.”

I depart at a slow walk knowing gratefully in Thisworld I will dismount onto the ground onto two feet.

~

It’s Easy to Fall

and keep on falling
when there is nothing
to hold on to – no can,
no bottle and its easy

soon empty comfort.

Its gentle guidance
down into oblivion.

(It is an illusion the
abyss has a bottom).

It’s easy to fall
and keep on falling
when you don’t know
how to do anything else.
Because no-one taught you
how to tread empty air.
How to breathe when
there is no oxygen.
How to balance when
there is nothing between
your two empty ears.

How to hear what
when there is nothing
beyond the abyss?

It’s easy to fall
and keep on falling
unless some unexpected
hand reaches out to
shake you from

that free fall before
you wake with a jolt –
upright in your bed.

It’s easy to fall
and keep on falling
before some person
or some god gives

you a task only you
can do. HERE. NOW.
Where there is land to
stand on air to breathe.
Hope on the horizon.

~

Why These Worries

I do not need unlike the wind that moves the washing?

Why the fear that if they stop I will be nothing
like a lump of a coal in the toe
of a Christmas stocking?

Why do I feel worthless
when I am wanted by a god?

Why do I feel like a failure
when I’ve written three books?

Why does it feel more heroic
to be battling on against these thoughts
when I could let them go to the graveyards
of the winds beneath the towers
from which they were born?

How big a grave for a thought?

How great the work of the gravedigger?

How to engrave the gravestones
with suitable death’s heads?

And if I should let them slip away…
If I should carry them like childhood toys
gifted on Christmas morning then broken by bullies
in cardboard boxes like little coffins (each has a face like my own
like in the fairy funeral and the Fairy King sings
a mournful chant as I lower them in)…

how do I know I will let them rest

and not dig them up like a restless hound?

Come, come, a blast on his horn, come away
from my graveyards and away from mourning.
Spring is here and flowers and hares to chase.
In these sunrise mists a new hunt dawning.


~

*These poems are based on journeys to Annwn undertaken during the process of giving up alcohol as self-medication for my anxiety (which I began on New Year’s Day). This forced me to stop falling, face my worries, and see them for what they are – distractions from my work as an awenydd devoted to Gwyn.
**The image is Doré’s ‘The Fall of Lucifer’ (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons).

Twelve Days of Prayer

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a ‘sacred and festive season’ marked by Christians between Christmas Day (25th December) and the Epiphany (6th January). It was instituted by the Council of Tours in 567 to mark the period between the birth of Jesus and the revelation he is God incarnate on the visit of the magi.

For me, as a Brythonic polytheist who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd as Winter’s King, the mid-winter holy days have always felt particularly special and sacred. They begin with Eponalia, on 18th December, the feast of the horse-goddess and midwife of the sun. This is followed by the Winter Solstice, 21st / 22nd December, the height of Gwyn’s reign and presence within the land. 24th December is Mother’s Night and, although this is traditionally an Anglo-Saxon festival, one I associate with the Mother Goddesses such as Matrona/Modron and Anrhuna. 25th December is the day of the rebirth of the sun-child Maponos/Mabon. Then the next twelve days are a time of rest and celebration based around casting out the old year and welcoming in and preparing for the new.

Over the past few years I have noticed an increasing number of other pagans and polytheists exploring ways of marking these holy days. There are existing traditions of using them for divination. From my mum I learnt of the tradition of recording one’s dreams and linking them numerically to the calendar months. Cailtin Matthews has suggested using the Twelve Days for reading nature omens in a similar way.

In his essay ‘On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me…’ Lee Davies connects the Twelve Days with Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead, who ride out to clear the ground for the New Year and also bring blessings of prosperity. He speaks of the koryos tradition in which people not only embody but ‘become the dead’ – a possible root of the misrule associated with the Twelfth Night.

With this in mind I decided to use the Twelve Days as a period of more intensive prayer and prayer writing for Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn and the dead with whom he rides out on his hunt through the winter months. This resulted in a series of visions and visionary dialogues. Here I share a selection from the twelve prayers.

Twelve Days of Prayer

For Gwyn

I.
Prayer
is to open
the little box of the heart
to let in the god who cannot fit within

two sides of a membrane
flap, dissolve like
the so-called
‘veil’

between the worlds
when you ride from the mist
on a creature somewhat like a horse
two hounds with teeth within teeth
all the countless uncontainable
monsters of Annwn

filling
this little box
I sometimes call a heart.
When it bursts and otherworlds
spill forth I know it is
so much more.



III.
You are ghost.
You and your legions.

You clothe yourselves
in cloud, in mist, you move
through our world like the wind.
Sometimes we hear you passing through.
Sometimes we sense only your silence
as you fill our vales with neither
your presence or absence.

Sometimes I feel ashamed
of my flesh and my fear to follow
you into battle in the wars that
rage on between the worlds.

Could it be that I’m afraid of death?

Of seeing my ghost looking back at me
as I write this poem from amongst your kind?

“You wear your flesh and your fear well.”

You speak in the voice that turns gold to leaves
and flesh to dust and skin to paper bearing
an elegy on the heels of your host.



IV.
“Fierce bull of battle,
awesome leader of many,”
I find myself whispering
Gwyddno’s words as though
they were the beginning
of an ancient prayer.

“Who will protect me?

“I will protect you.”

Your armour is a night
of stars and each of them
wields a spear against

my deep demonic fears.

I am awed by your strength
as I am mystified by its origin
for to whom does a god turn?
To whom does a god pray?

I see a bull striding majestic
down a passageway of light
into the infinite brightness
of a star, a heart, a fortress,
the Otherworld within his chest.

VI.
I come to pray
when I want to scream.

If I could comprehend you
could I contain the spirits within?

I fear to scream is the obliteration

of all prayer until you show me

how you tend to all the silent
and the unsilent screams

for a scream is prayer
as crescendo.



VIII.
I pray to you
as your awenydd
as your inspired poet

speak of my restlessness
the jangling of spirits within
my intimation I could be

so much more and you say:

“Poetry is more than rhyming words.
Awen is more than human speech.

The soul of the earth is living poetry
and each soul itself a poem breathed –

part of the divine breath which keeps

the rivers afloat, the mountains high,
the deer running through the woodlands,
the birds in the skies, the flowers growing
upwards turning their heads towards the sun.
And has the power to transform it all –
hurricanes, volcanic flames, tidal waves,
the death-wind from a nuclear blast creating
the wolves with glowing eyes and the monsters
with limbs where there should not be limbs
spoken of by awenyddion of long ago.

It can destroy (or fix) everything.

Why do you think I keep the awen
in a cauldron in a fortress that disappears
that spins that is shrouded by mystery and mist
and is sometimes known as the towers of the winds
and sometimes as the whale’s belly?

There is nothing more – I should know
for I have sought, I have hunted, with every
hound of Annwn beyond where the winds
of Thisworld and Otherworld blow beyond
the Universe and its moment of conception and
come back with nothing on my bloodless spear,
my hounds with nothing in their empty jaws,
bearing nothing in my empty hands but
knowing a little more about nothing.

One cannot be any more and about nothing
there is nothing to be said so be happy
as you are, awenydd, whilst still
a bearer of the divine breath.”



XII.
Your gift

is a shining bow
washed in the light
of the New Year’s sun.

I pray for the strength to draw it.
I pray for the patience to carve the arrows
each engraved with the words of a spell.
I pray for the focus to shoot true,

mind, body, and bow as one,
straight to the heart.

Introducing Y Darogan Annwn

I Was Not Born

of a mother of flesh
and blood – I crawled
out of the belly of
a dying dragon.

I have been a maggot.
I have been a wyrm.
I have flown wingless.
I have burrowed deep.
I have been a serpent
gnawing on the roots
of the falling World Tree.

I have been an oak.
I have been an acorn.
I have been blossom.
I have been a thorn.

I have been a speck
of blood on a fallen leaf.

I have been a woodland.
I have been a stag, a boar,
an elk running through it.

I have been a hound in
the hunt of Annwn’s King.

I have been a lapwing
circling like a planet over
the Battle of the Trees.

I have been the clash
of the boughs of oak, ash,
thorn, willow, holly, rowan.
I have been the screams
of dying warriors dripping
down trunks and worms
writhing within corpses.

I have been a shield,
a spear, a sword, a gun,
a grenade flung over wire
and its fiery explosion.

I have been a rocket
hurtling beyond the stars.

I have been a fallen star
and a tear in a river of tears
flowing through Annwn.

I have been hydrogen,
oxygen, carbon, nitrogen,
helium burning in the sun.

I have been an atom.
I have been an atom bomb.
I have become death.
I have been reborn.

I have been dark matter.

I have not been found by
the scientists of Gwydion.

I am a child of the gods
and daughter of dragons.
I come to sing the end
of the Age of Man.

Y Darogan Annwn means ‘The Prophecy of the Otherworld’. Like Y Mab Darogan ‘The Son of Prophecy’ she is a child-prophet. I first heard her voice in a vision when I was sitting beneath Daronwy, the Mighty Oak who I believe to be the Brythonic World Tree, and realised he is falling. She later appeared to me as a little girl with a muddy and tattered white dress, thick black hair, and a black hole in her head where a third eye might have been, carrying a staff with a sheep’s skull on it.

At the time I’d been thinking of writing a book about the fall of Daronwy as a metaphor for climate change yet that seemed too obvious… it soon became clearer Y Darogan Annwn wanted me to tell her story. The mystery of her birth was revealed to me (she was born but is unaware of it) along with her quest to prevent Daronwy from falling by bringing an end to the Age of Man*.

Writing a collection of poems about one person that forms a coherent narrative was a new challenge and a big experiment for me**. I’ll admit that I don’t think I’ve completely pulled it off. It’s a desperately ambitious attempt to bring together Brythonic, Norse, and Christian mythology and eschatology, and to understand Y Darogan’s role in my personal mythos, which is very much centred around Gwyn and the potential of the spirits of Annwn (with the child-prophet at their head) to bring an end to our world.

Therefore I’m not going to be publishing it in print. Yet, as I’ve put hundreds of hours of work into it, and believe it has value and may be appreciated by those who have read my other books, I have published it as a PDF. I have sent it as a free gift to my patrons today and will begin selling it on my blog later in the week.

If you’d *really* like an early copy you will receive one if you sign up to support me on Patreon HERE.

*The Anthropocene.
**My other books take the form of individual poems and stories arranged into constellations of meaning.

The Magician of the Orme V -The Vessel and the Lake

In The Lesser Key of Solomon my attention was arrested by the foundation story in which Solomon imprisoned the 72 spirits in a a brazen vessel with a magical seal and threw it into the Lake of Babylon. Unfortunately, the people of Babylon, hungry to see its wonders and suspecting ‘to find great store of treasure within’, found it, broke it open, and let the demons out to return to their original places. The order of the demons in the text relates to the order in which they were imprisoned. The ‘Vessel of Brass’ and its seal are depicted in the text with instructions for making the seal.

Vessel of Brass

Immediately I thought of the similarities with the Cauldron of the King of Annwn. This magical vessel is described in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ as also being intricately decorated having a ‘dark trim and pearls’. It is likely to have been made of brass as the people of Annwn/fairies dislike iron. In the Second Branch of The Mabinogion it is brought from a lake in Ireland by two monstrous giants. It is later used by Matholhwch, King of Ireland, to bring dead warriors back to life. Speechless, near-demonic, their battle with the British brings devastation to Ireland – only five women remain  in caves in the wild. It is likewise deleterious for the British – only seven warriors survive.

Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn, and keeper of the cauldron is described in Culhwch and Olwen as containing the fury of the ‘devils’ of Annwn in order to prevent their destruction of the world. Could it be possible that he was seen as containing them not only in his realm but in the cauldron which, when not being used to boil the meat of the brave* at his fairy feast, was kept carefully sealed?

Could it be possible that, like Solomon, the Magician of the Orme had somehow learned the names of the spirits of Annwn who are contained in the cauldron and how to summon and to command them? That he had attempted to create his own cauldron in imitation of the King of Annwn’s to seal them in? And this is the information contained in ‘The Book the Living Hand’? That, as always, when magicians have the hubris to think they can control spirits who can only truly be contained by the gods, something had gone wrong, and this led to him cutting off his hand to seal it shut?

Whether the Magician of the Orme and his book existed or not I think I have the seeds of a story that remains to be told…

*In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ we are told the cauldron ‘does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so’. The food within may be the flesh of Twrch Trwyth ‘Chief of Boars’ a human shapeshifter hunted by Gwyn. Eating his flesh may represent consuming ancestral wisdom.

The Magician of the Orme II – The Great Orme

Before starting my historical research I visited the Great Orme. I discovered that Orme is a Norse word meaning ‘sea serpent’ suggesting it was seen as a serpent living in the stone and guarding the coast. The Welsh name is, more prosaically, Y Gogarth which means ‘terraced rock’ and is equally fitting.

P1310756

As I walked around the Orme, seeing the many heads of the serpent in the rock, admiring the rock flowers, searching for the springs (I only found Fynnon Gogarth and Fynnon Gaseg) I could imagine how a magician might have traversed the land, knowing all its features and the serpent intimately.

On the beach near Llandudno I found a shell that reminded me of the eye on the back of the magician’s hand.

I found out from a leaflet at the visitor centre the area has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period with flint tools and an intricately carved horse’s skull being found in the limestone caves. There is a Neolithic Cromlech, Bronze Age Mines, the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, and St Tudno lived in a cave (Tudno’s Cave) and built a church during the 6th century. Ridges and furrows provide evidence of a medieval farming community. Mining was resumed in the 17th century. The miners were housed at Cwlach and Maes y Fachell. I didn’t find any evidence of people living on the Orme during the period the magician might have lived or any lore suggesting the existence of a magician.

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Yet on May Eve I had a dream that the magician was sleeping where I stayed in the Grand Hotel (I got a cheap room on the top floor – no doubt cheap because the lights in the bathroom flashed on and off like a disco and there were noisy seagulls nesting on the roof above!) and I had somehow missed him and was chasing him up down the stairs and lifts and looking behind the trolleys of the house keepers. On waking I had a vision of the magician invoking spirits in a huge cave underground.

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This was significant because that day (May Day) I visited the Bronze Age mines. I hadn’t been before and did not know that, with over 5 miles over of tunnels, they are the largest mines in Europe or that they contain the largest man-made cave. The tunnels leading into the cave are open to the public.

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When I entered I struck with awe not only by this finding but the numinosity of the great cavern, with its music of dripping calcite, illuminated by lighting that changed colour to accentuate the features of the rock. I could sense the press of the presence of the spirits, see their shifting forms, their faces.

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I had the sense that, although it was made for mining bronze, it was seen as sacred – perhaps as the belly of the great sea serpent. It also seemed possible that Nodens/Nudd ‘Lord of the Mines’, his son Gwyn, and the spirits of Annwn along with the dead were revered and their fury was placated there.

That rituals took place to appease the underworld gods and spirits in the mines was evidenced by the burial of a cat surrounded by blackberry seeds 60 metres down. Uncannily, after I left the mines, crossing a field in search of the cromlech, a black cat approached and rubbed around my legs.

I found no direct evidence of the existence of a magician, but it certainly seemed possible he might have existed, found his way into the cavern and used it to invoke the spirits of Annwn.

 

The Magician of the Orme I – The Book of the Living Hand

The Book of the Living Hand
now lies closed.

Who closed it?

The Hand itself
or the hand of another?

Who will dare
try to bring the Living Hand to life,
to ask it to open the pages,
to fold them back,

to reveal the names
of the terrible beings who will answer,
to risk releasing their fury
into the world again?

What will lie within?
Will the names be the same
or will the pages have been rewritten
in the Living Hand’s sleep?

Do you see its colour returning?

The dim pulse of a vein?

The opening of the eyelid
on the back of the hand?

The twitch of a finger?

The Book of the Living Hand

This poem and sketch are based on a vision I had several months ago of a book whose cover had been closed by a human hand with an eye on the back. The hand had become part of the book. This roused a series of questions. Who did it belong to? Who are the furious spirits within its pages? How did its owner lose their hand and how did it become part of the book? What is the significance of the eye?

In a series of gnoses it was revealed that it belonged to ‘the Magician of the Orme’ (the Great Orme in North Wales). Within are the names of the spirits of Annwn whose fury Gwyn ap Nudd holds back to prevent their destruction of the world. The magician cut off his hand in a desperate act of magic to seal the book shut before being arrested on the grounds of practicing witchcraft involving the aid of ‘devils’ and was hung in Ruthin in 1679. The meaning of the eye, as yet, remains concealed.

This inspired me to set out doing some research into whether such a magician and his book could have existed. It’s led me on an interesting adventure to the Orme and through the history of spirit aid magic in seventeenth century Wales and beyond. In the following posts I will be sharing my findings.

Underground Shrines of the Inspired Ones

Thomas Stephan Unsplash

‘Was the rite conducted by a gutuater?
(‘master of voice’, ‘inspirer of song’)
chanting to inspire a modern awenydd
stepping down into the smoke of the chamber,
hearing the uttered syllables, riding the waves
of sound in the torchlight, finding a way back
to that world, re-creating, even as they did,
a rite that is alive in vision, in the presence
of those spirits called upon to officiate
as before…’
Greg Hill

Greg Hill’s poem ‘Gutuater’ led me to the section on the underground shrine of the Chartres ‘magician’, dated ‘to the second century AD’, in Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Sacred Britannia (2018). In 2005, during excavations for a car park in the centre of Chartres the construction workers found a ‘basement shrine’ accessed by ‘a wooden ladder and ‘a cache of sacred material, including pottery vessels, oil-lamps and a broad-bladed knife, of the kind used in killing sacrificial animals.’

The pottery vessels were incense burners (thuribula) likely used for burning mind-altering drugs. Inscribed on one of the vessels, on each of the four panels, is a script beginning with names of the cardinal points: ‘oriens (East), meridie (South), occidens (West), and septentrio (North).’ Beneath each directional heading is a prayer to ‘all powerful spirits’ written by their ‘guardian’, ‘Caius Verius Sedatus’ and ‘a long list naming these spirits’ (which, disappointingly, Green does not share). However, she does mention the term ‘dru’ occurs in the list, suggesting Sedatus was invoking the spirits of druids.

What stands out to me firstly is that here we have evidence of a Roman citizen with a Gaulish cognomen – Sedatus – performing a ritual underground to invoke underworld spirits. In Gaul they were known as the Andedion and were invoked on the Tablet of Chamalières (50AD) for aid in battle. Secondly, we find a fascinating combination of Greco-Egyptian magic with invoking native spirits.

Finally, Green provides an interesting interpretation of the role of Sedatus. She mentions that Chartres was ‘the capital of the Iron Age Carnutes tribe’ and this land provides ‘evidence for the survival of specifically native, non-Roman spiritual leaders’. Aulus Hirtius ‘an officer in Caesar’s army and later governor of transalpine Gaul’ speaks of the resistance of ‘a freedom fighter called Gutuatrus’. This means ‘master of voice’ or ‘father of inspiration’. It may have been a title rather than a name as references to gutuatri have been found in the nearby Aeduan territory. An altar from Macon ‘recorded the presence of a gutuater of Mars’ (possibly Nodens under interpretatio Romana?). The word ‘GVTVATER’ is inscribed on the base of an altar to the local god, Anvallus, from Autun. Thus Sedatus may have acted in a religious role as a gutuater for his people.

Intriguing parallels can be found between the Gaulish and British traditions. In The Gods of the Celts (2011), Green records a remarkable example of an underground shrine to an underworld god from a similar period:

‘At the bottom of this shaft, found at Deal in Kent, all some 2.5 metres deep, was an oval chamber containing a complete figurine, composed of a featureless block of dressed chalk from which rises a long slender neck and a head with a well-carved, very Celtic face. This figure may have stood in a niche high up in one wall of the chamber. The presence of footholds in the shaft indicates that access to the shrine was intended but only four or five adults could have sat in the chamber at once and the shrine was perhaps meant for the deity or god and priest alone. Pottery would indicate a first or second century AD date for the structure.’

It seems likely this deity is one of the spirits of Annwn, our British equivalent to the Andedion. It may even be Pen Annwn, the Head of the Otherworld, who is known as Arawn or as Gwyn ‘White’.

The term gutuater may be linked to Talhearn Tad Awen ‘Father of Inspiration’ who is mentioned in Nennius’ History of the Britons (828) and to the awenyddion ‘people inspired’ mentioned by Gerald of Wales in his Description of Wales (1194). They served a prophetic function and were said to ‘speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits’. Gerald notes their speeches are ‘nugatory’, ‘incoherent’, and ‘ornamented’ although an explanation can be ‘conveyed in some term of a word’. Their use of a non-logical and poetic language fits with Green drawing attention to the ‘plosive’ sounds in ‘the list of obscure names’ spoken by Sedatus, which lend them power when recited out loud.

These links have led me to wonder whether the ‘priest’ from Deal was an awenydd who invoked Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn in his underground shrine and whether such practices were wider spread. Could there be continuity between these 2nd century inspired ones and the 12th century awenyddion?

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With thanks to Thomas Stephan on Unsplash for the smoke image and to Digital Equine Designs on Deviant Art for ‘Dark Cave’.