The Ghost of Myrddin Wyllt

Mountain ghosts come to me
here in Aber Caraf
A Fugitive Poem of Myrddin in his Grave

He haunts me. He who speaks from his grave at Aber Caraf with other wyllon mynydd, ‘mountain ghosts’ – Myrddin Wyllt.

He entered my life when he broke from a scene we both despise. In Stobo Kirk, in a stained glass window, he kneels before Kentigern, begging for the sacrament, as The Life of St Kentigern claims.

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“This isn’t true!” the gnosis struck me like shattering glass as Myrddin leapt free in an explosion of splinters; ethereal blue, red, green. The bishop fell in pieces with his chalice and crozier. The light swept in. Not just sunlight but that otherlight, the unendurable brightness that Myrddin gazed upon after the Battle of Arfderydd, which made him gwyllt, ‘wild’, ‘mad’. The light of truth. The ‘White/Clear Light’ of Vindonnus, Vindos, Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of Annwn.

It illuminated Myrddin in all his naked glory, leafy-haired, bony-limbed, spry and supple as a sapling even in his old age. It glinted in the scintillae of his pupils, declaring him wildman, madman, prophet, awenydd: one who speaks the Awen from the tangled heart of the forest, from the wind-swept mountains where ghosts scream, from the deep wells of Annwn.

The stories of this wild Myrddin have been smothered beneath the fusty robes of Merlin. The popular wizard, who is frequently depicted as an advisor to King Arthur in film and television, was created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and The Life of Merlin (1150) from the lives of two very different men.

Merlin Ambrosius was based on the Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. He acted as advisor to Vortigern and helped Uther Pendragon to father Arthur by magically disguising him as Gorlois, the husband of Igraine, so he could sleep with her.

Merlin Caledonensis was based on Myrddin Wyllt: a northern British warrior who became gwyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 and retreated to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest) where he learnt the arts of poetry and prophesy and used them to warn against future wars. The two Merlins became conflated.

In Robert de Boron’s Merlin (1190-1200), Merlin became Uther Pendragon’s advisor and responsible for Arthur’s fosterage, his pulling the sword from the stone, and building the Round Table. The ‘Mage Merlin’ appears as Arthur’s advisor and as a guide to the grail quest in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485). His later depictions draw upon these associations.

The conflation of the two Merlins and the downplaying of Myrddin Wyllt’s stories is deeply problematic. Firstly Myrddin lived after Arthur making their association impossible. Secondly Myrddin would never have supported the warmongering of Arthur and his ‘knights’.

Yet he has been subsumed within the Arthurian tradition and its vile strain of Christian militarism, which brought about the slaying of the dragons, giants, and witches of ancient Britain, then the Anglo-Saxons, then ‘the infidels’ who fell in the Crusades, leading to our War on Terror.

He rages against his identification with Merlin: a political advisor to the warlords of Britain who supports going to war over chemical weapons that don’t exist and approves arms sales to countries using our weapons in attacks that breach international humanitarian law.

He calls to me, a fellow awenydd, to shatter the illusion of his complicity in Arthurian imperialism with the otherlight of Annwn from our god, Gwyn ap Nudd. Here I share his story.

Myrddin grew up amongst the warband of Gwenddolau, the last Pagan warlord of the Old North. He was fierce in those days, blood thirsty, callous, with a love of gold and strong mead. Warring in nothing but the golden torque gifted him by Gwenddolau, his battle-madness was legendary. He piled up corpses for Gwenddolau’s two sea-eagles to strip their flesh.

View from Liddel Strength

Caer Gwenddolau (present-day Liddel Strength)

A great change came over Myrddin after the Battle of Arfderydd. This was fought between the armies of Gwenddolau and Rhydderch, who was married to Gwenddydd, Myrddin’s twin sister. Rhydderch had allied with a number of Gwenddolau’s kinsmen.

Gwenddolau was slaughtered. Aggrieved by the death of his lord Myrddin was consumed by such a battle rage that he killed his niece and nephew, the son and daughter of Gwenddydd and Rhydderch, who were fighting on Rhydderch’s side.

After the battle Myrddin was near-blinded by an unendurable brightness illuminating the carnage. By it he recognised the pale faces of his sister’s offspring who he had hacked apart. Martial battalions filled the sky. To his horror he realised they were the victims he had slaughtered gathered in the form of a cold and angry god staring at him with countless dead eyes.

One of those spirits swept down and tore Myrddin out of himself. With a howl of terror and pain that became a whimper and squeak he leapt and fluttered up like a bird-puppet on a string. He was tossed on the winds of Annwn, on a merlin’s wings, to the forest of Celyddon where he shivered in the branches of an apple tree.

That image of Gwyn ap Nudd containing all the dead who he had killed was indelibly impressed on his mind like an irremovable afterimage from staring foolishly at the sun.

Myrddin does not remember the days when he flitted from tree to tree, a lost soul, birdlike, unable to feel or think or see. He remembers some of his slow return to himself, to chill recumbent flesh, relearning the contours of his body and its need to eat and drink, sights, sounds.

Blog 6. Coille Coire Chuilc

A last remnant of Celyddon at Coille Coire Chuilc

The birds of the forest guided him to tasty berries, the squirrels to hazelnuts, and a happy little piglet to roots and grubs and the most exquisite truffles. When the bleak northern winter brought snow to his hips and icicles to his hair a white-haired wolf taught him the secrets of endurance.

Words came last. Stuttering, stammering, then in a sudden stream. With them the wells of the past opened. Every memory flooded back to him and he poured them out to his apple tree and little pig in a poetry that was only stemmed when each wound had bled, was cauterised, could heal.

Most terrible were his outpourings of guilt and desire for death; his attempts to drown and leaps from trees. Gwyn ap Nudd would not take him. Instead he showed him black holes in the fabric of reality from which the otherlight of Annwn streamed in illuminating future battles.

Myrddin knew then that he must give his suffering a purpose by using his prophetic abilities to warn against those devastating wars. Knowing the influence of Kentigern he took himself to the stone above Molendinar Burn, where the bishop spoke his sermons, to share his prophecies.

Kentigern did not listen. Preoccupied with teaching the word of the one true God he had little time for the words of a wildman naked as a new born rabbit and rambunctious as a rutting stag. Yet the truth of Myrddin’s words pierced some of Kentigern’s followers like antlers. The otherlight in his pine-green eyes terrified and enticed them and some began to believe him.

When Myrddin came to Kentigern to prophesy his death the bishop did not think he could die thrice: by being stoned, pierced by a stake, and drowning. He thought the impossibility of this prediction coming true would put an end to his peoples’ belief in the madman’s prophecies.

Myrddin died as predicted. Kentigern constructed the story of him begging for the sacrament to prove his power over him and his uncanny prophecies, which he claimed were no match for the word of God.

Afterward Myrddin haunted Kentigern with the furore of a soul unable to live out its entelechy because more powerful forces have got in its way.

The poetry of a lonely voice was not enough to stop the rise of Christian militarism seeded by Arthur which dominates Britain to this day. Yet Myrddin opened in many people the portals through which the otherlight comes in, illuminating the horrors Merlin’s illusions cannot conceal.

Myrddin walks amongst us opening doors and haunting us with the countless eyes of the dead until we cannot bear to be complicit with the world of Arthur and the wizard Merlin anymore.

Breaking every window, every text, every screen, he tears us out of ourselves and takes us back to the forest.

The ghost of Myrddin Wyllt sets us free.

*First published in Pagan Dawn, 204, August 2017

SOURCES

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, (Penguin Classic, 1973)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Neil Thomas, ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’, Arthuriana, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, (Sceptre, 1985)
Robert de Boron, Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval (DS Brewer, 2008)
Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, (Cassel, 2003)
Tim Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin, (Berlinn, 2016)
William F. Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

Dumbarton Rock

Consolidating Gwyn ap Nudd’s links with the Strathclyde Britons

In October after the ritual to Epona I stayed overnight with Potia and Red Raven in Glasgow. The next morning, Red Raven kindly took me to visit Dumbarton Rock: Dun Breatann ‘Fortress of the Britons’ to continue my research on Gwyn ap Nudd’s lost connections with the Old North.

Dumbarton Rock stands on the estuary of the river Clyde beside the river Leven, stern, stony, commanding, cloven into two peaks, White Tower Crag and The Beak. Its proximity to an ancient hill fort on Carman Hill and Roman Forts such as Whitemoss guarding the estuary suggest its use as a defensive position from at least the Iron Age and Romano-British periods. Looking up at its vertical cliff face from beneath and climbing its 557 steps provided a distinct impression of how difficult it would have been to attack.

Dunbreatann emerged as the capital of Strathclyde, controlling south-west Scotland after the Romans withdrew from the Antonine Wall, in the 4th century. Later it was known as Alt Clut ‘Clyde Rock’. The first written reference comes from St Patrick from Ireland between 453 and 493AD, reprimanding Coroticus (Ceretic, ruler of Alt Clut) for taking his new Christian converts and selling them as slaves to the Picts.

The majority of its rulers were descendants of Ceretic: notably Dyfnawl Hen, Cinuit, Clinoch, Tutagual then Rhydderch Hael. After Rhydderch’s death in 612, rulership passed to another line stemming from Ceretic: Neithon son of Guipno and his lineage ruled until Dumbarton Rock was taken by the Vikings in 869.

A fragment in The Black Book of Chirk states that following the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd in 547, Elidyr Mwynfawr (first cousin of Tutagual and husband of Eurgain, Maelgwyn’s oldest legitimate daughter) attempted to seize the throne from Maelgwn’s illegitimate son, Rhun. Elidyr was killed at Arfon. This led to Rhydderch Hael, Clydno Eiddin, Nudd Hael and Mordaf Hael burning Arfon in revenge and being pursued north by Rhun’s forces to the river Gweryd.

Elidyr’s journey is recorded in a triad of ‘Horse-Burdens’ where the eponymous water-horse Du y Moroedd (‘The Black One of the Seas’) is said to have carried Elidyr and his party (seven and a half people including a cook hanging onto the crupper- hence the half!) from an unknown Benllech in the north to Benllech on Anglesey. Du is notably the steed ridden by Gwyn ap Nudd in the hunt for Twrch Trwyth (‘King of Boars’).

Rhydderch Hael (‘the Generous’) is the most famous of Strathclyde’s rulers. He was renowned as one of ‘Three Generous Men of Britain’ and owned a sword called Dyrnwyn ‘White Hilt’ which burst into flames when held by a well-born man and was numbered amongst the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.

The extent of Rhydderch’s generosity is hinted at by the third ‘Unrestrained Ravaging’ where Aeddan Fradog (‘the Wily’) came to his court and left no food, drink nor living beast (if Rhydderch was exceedingly generous and Aeddan took everything he must have been greedy and unrestrained indeed: one can sense the shock and disbelief of a contemporaneous audience).

Rhydderch championed Christianity and was the patron of St Kentigern. He came to power in 573, which coincides with the Battle of Arfderydd. Poems attributed to Myrddin Wyllt in The Black Book of Carmarthen suggest Rhydderch played a leading role in the defeat of the pagan ruler, Gwenddolau at Arfderydd and this was a factor in his rise to power.

In The Black Book of Carmarthen Gwyn ap Nudd states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death. Gwyn’s appearance to gather the soul of Gwenddolau and other dead warriors played a role in Myrddin’s madness and flight to Celyddon. The ex-warrior become wild man and prophet was hounded by Rhydderch Hael and supposedly converted to Christianity by St Kentigern.

Rhydderch also played a prominent part fighting against Theodric of Anglo-Saxon Bernicia with his Brythonic allies Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Morcant Bulc. During the campaign, whilst the Anglo-Saxons were successfully blockaded on Lindisfarne, Morcant assassinated Urien; a move which eventually led to the fall of the Old North.

Rhydderch’s successor, Nwython (Neithon) and his family feature prominently in the episode of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad in How Culhwch won Olwen. After Gwyn ‘abducts’ Creiddylad from Gwythyr and takes her to Annwn, Nwython, his sons Cyledyr and Pen, Dyfnarth (Dynfawl?) and his Dyfnarth’s father Gwrgst Ledlwm join Gwythyr in an assault on Gwyn to win her back (four generations of Strathcylde Britons!).

Gwyn defeats Gwythyr and his army and imprisons them. During their imprisonment, Gwyn kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who becomes wyllt (‘wild’ ‘mad’). Arthur then rescues Gwythyr and his men and places a command on Gwyn and Gwythyr to battle for Creiddylad every May Day until Judgement Day.

It is my intuition this story originates from an earlier seasonal myth where a hero (‘the Summer King’) challenged the god of Annwn (‘the Winter King’) for the love of a goddess of fertility and sovereignty who may originally have been revered as a free agent in a sacred marriage.

This episode is only one variant, fixed in 6th C Strathclyde, known because of its incorporation within the narrative of How Culhwch won Olwen (14th C). It is clear Gwyn has lost his status as a god of Annwn and Creiddylad her independence as a fertility goddess. Its fixity may be read to mark the death of a seasonal rite and its transition into story.

No doubt this coincided with the rise of Christianity, which led to Gwyn’s demonisation as the representative and literal embodiment of the ‘demons’ of Annwn and Creiddylad’s demotion to a helpless maiden flung like a ragdoll between two male lovers and finally locked away, powerless, in her father’s house.

The seasonal myth is thus replaced in the 6th century with a story designed for the political purpose of cementing alliances between the Strathclyde Britons, Gwythyr ap Greidol (deified as ‘the Summer King’) and Arthur against a common enemy: the demonised King of Winter and Annwn, Gwyn ap Nudd.

The disturbing sequence of Gwyn’s murder of Nwython and torture of Cyledyr has led me to question whether it has any historical basis. From my research so far there is nothing to suggest Nwython died a sudden or inexplicable death or disappeared during a campaign (often attributed to otherworldly forces).

However this does not mean such stories did not exist. Another explanation is that it was cited by the bards of Christian rulers to highlight the atrocities Gwyn committed against the lineage of Strathclyde to keep paganism at bay. One can only imagine the fear and repulsion of Strathclyde’s people and in particular Nwython’s descendants when it was voiced.

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It seems possible early variants of these stories were told in the fortress on The Beak alongside inaugural poems which would form Y Gododdin and The Black Book of Carmarthen. The existing texts suggest belief in Gwyn as a psychopomp lingered on beside the Christian faith for a long while. As a guide and warrior-protector to some and a cruel, demonic figure to others, he haunted the margins of every recital of battle-tales.

After Dumbarton Rock was taken by the Vikings, the kingdom of Strathclyde re-emerged up-river at Govan and stretched from Glasgow into Penrith in Cumbria. During this transition and, later, when Strathclyde was finally integrated into Scotland in 1034 many Britons went into exile and settled in Wales. In medieval Wales the oral tales about Gwyn ap Nudd and the fall of the Old North were finally penned.

Since then Dumbarton Rock has seen various uses; most notably as a medieval royal castle with its famous Wallace Tower. It is now primarily a tourist attraction within the custodianship of Historic Scotland.

Time passes. History fades into story into myth and even myth is forgotten. Yet the deepest myths are fated to return from the most distant edges of the otherworld like a boomerang.

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Looking out across the Clyde and Leven from the Fortress of the Britons I saw a pair of ravens who have lived forever on that ancient rock flying on the winds from there into poetry to the realm of the gods and back again.

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On that note I’ll thank Red Raven for taking me to Dumbarton Rock and bring this piece to end.

Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

In Jocelyn’s The Life of St Kentigern there is a story about the saint’s recall from Wales to the Old North by Glasgow’s ruler, Rhydderch Hael. Following an angelic vision, Kentigern sets out with 665 disciples and arrives in Hoddom where he is greeted by a multitude of people.

Drawing a cross and invoking the Holy Trinity, Kentigern orders anyone against the word of God to depart. This results in ‘a vast multitude of skeleton-like creatures, horrible in form and aspect’ departing from the assemblage and fleeing from sight.

Reassuring the terrified crowd Kentigern ‘lays bare’ what they believe in. He condemns their idols to the fire and tells them their principal deity ‘Woden’ from whom they claim descent is nothing more than a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is ‘loose in the dust’ whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

As Kentigern preaches faith in Jesus Christ the flat plain of ‘Hodelm’ rises into a hill which remains to this day. The people ‘renounce Satan’ and are washed in the waters of baptism.

This foundation legend explains the association of the site of the church and the graveyard beside the river Annan across from Woodcock Air (the hill) at Hoddom with St Kentigern.

Woodcock Air Hill

The Life of St Kentigern was commissioned by Jocelyn, Bishop of Glasgow, and written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, in the 12th century. As a literary hagiography it was clearly designed to promote the life of Kentigern (who lived in the 6th century) and vilify paganism. As a historical document it should be approached with caution, particularly in light of the anachronism concerning Woden.

Whilst there is archaeological evidence of a Northumbrian monastery based around St Kentigern’s church at Hoddom it was not founded until the 8th century. (This is evidenced by an 8th century letter sent by Alcuin to Wolfhard, Abbott of Hodda Helm). The Anglo-Saxons did not arrive until long after Kentigern died. It seems Jocelyn wove later tales concerning the conversion of Woden’s worshippers into the text.

This leaves us with the question of who the people of Hoddom venerated prior to Kentigern’s arrival. The existence of a local cult is evidenced by a Roman altar stone found in the wall of the church at Hoddom Cross and built into the porch in 1817. Unfortunately when it was found the sides could not be seen and the ‘mouldings of the capital and base’ had been ‘dressed off’. There are no clues who it was dedicated to.

However the surrounding area echoes with pagan memories: the place-names Brydekirk and Lochmaben; an altar to Vitris and a ram’s head at Netherby; the story of Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king, whose soul was gathered by Gwyn ap Nudd after he was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd. Myrddin Wyllt’s flight from Arfderydd in battle-madness to Celyddon.

Intrigued and troubled by the story of Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, wondering whether between the lines and beneath the Hollywood-style Biblical pyrotechnics any ‘truths’ (or at least personal gnoses) about their pagan religion may be intuited from the land, I returned to the area North of the Wall.

Walking from Ecclefechan to Hoddom, the first thing that struck me was the teeming of nature in the Scottish villages and fields. Flocks of spotted starlings on the roofs and telephone wires. Droves of sparrows flitting in and out of the hedgerows. The un-mowed roadsides were alive with flowers and every flower was covered with bees. Slick black slugs wandered through long grasses. I felt an unusual liberty in ‘the right to roam’.

Hoddom CrossMy first stop was at the church at Hoddom Cross. Roofless and derelict due to a fire, ivy climbed its walls and mausoleums. Ferns and wildflowers pushed through the railings to adorn older graves marked by sandstone gravestones. Newer graves with shiny porcelain headstones adorned with freshly wrapped bouquets glimmered in the background.

Something birch-white caught my eye. Going to investigate I found myself blinking in disbelief. In a Christian graveyard a couple of miles from any village I was staring at what to all appearances was a carving of a white dog with a purposively painted red nose. Dormach red-nose! I thought immediately of Gwyn ap Nudd’s famous hound who accompanies him as he guides the dead to the otherworld.

Admittedly it had antler-like twigs for ears and might have been a representation of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. But why carve it white from birch? It looked far more like a dog and a hound of Annwn at that. Too strange a find in a graveyard to be pure coincidence when I was tracing the deity(s) associated with the Roman altar (which I did not see).

River AnnanAfter visiting the ‘new’ church I walked to St Kentigern’s graveyard at Hoddom across the Annan from Woodcock Air. Watched over by a tall fir (or pine?) tree it was blissfully overgrown with ferns, yarrow, willowherb, bee-humming knapweed, decorated by harebells.

St Kentigern's Graveyard

Wandering amongst the gravestones I noticed carved images of skulls and crossbones and remarkable winged souls which a notice recorded as ’18th century folk art’. So here are Kentigern’s skeletons, I thought, unbanished. Symbols of death and our transition to the otherworld living on through years of Christian rule.

From the vantage point on Woodcock Air as I looked down on St Kentigern’s graveyard the sandstone gravestones shifted into brown-clad people. I gained a sense of the slowness of lives decanted by prayer, steady seasonal work in the fields, the slow turning of cart wheels, the satisfaction of self-subsistency and knowing you would die and be buried in your land close to your community.

St Kentigern's Graveyard from Woodcock AirAnd beneath the Northumbrian monastery did I gain a sense of St Kentigern’s church? The scene of conversion? The deity(s) to whom the ‘idols’ were dedicated? The ‘truth’ felt buried deep. Momentarily seeing the raised area where the church stood as a burial mound I thought back to Jocelyn’s words about ‘Woden’ being a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is in the dust whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

Could these words be read obliquitously to refer to a deified ancestor or ancestral deity believed to live on in the brightness of the world beyond this world? Perhaps even to Gwyn who as a psychopomp and leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Woden’s closest Brythonic equivalent?

BrydekirkI also had the opportunity to visit Brydekirk. Intriguingly Ronald Cunliffe Shawe claims Gwenddolau worshipped ‘Woden’ and ‘a fire goddess’. His reference leads to the passage about Woden in The Life of St Kentigern. I can’t find anything mentioning a fire goddess. However Gwenddolau’s worship of such a deity would make perfect sense if Brydekirk is named after Bride or Brigid. Brigid was later venerated as St Brigid and her priestesses tended an eternal flame.

At the church I was told by one of the parishioners it was indeed named after St Brigid of Ireland. I also learnt St Bryde’s Well was a natural spring and was gifted with an indispensable description of its location.

My walk to the well down the Annan then alongside fields was accompanied by a curious herd of cows who followed peeping out through gaps in the hedge. Their strange behaviour led me to recall the story of how St Brigid was raised by a white cow with red ears: another otherworldly animal.

CowsThe area surrounding St Bryde’s Well was hopelessly overgrown with brambles, nettles and Himalayan Balsam. With the guidance of the parishioners I still couldn’t find it. Ready to give up I saw what looked like a pink veil. I first assumed it was a votive offering marking the spring. When I got closer I realised it was a balloon strung with pale gauze. Another extraordinary marker that proved to be no mere coincidence.

Turning round, I noticed a water dispenser and beyond heard running water. Seeing a rivulet at the bottom of a steep bank running into the Annan, I followed its course to find a small stream leading to the natural spring pouring from amongst mosses and ferns into an orangey circular basin: St Bryde’s Well.

Across the river I also visited the remains of St Bryde’s tower. All I found was a single flight of steps climbing upward into the fire of the sun. Could this has have been a stairway walked by Brigid’s priestesses who maintained her eternal flame?

St Bryde's TowerI returned to Penwortham with no clear answers about how or whether St Kentigern converted the people of Hoddom or what they experienced and believed. Such ‘truths’ can only be conjectural and are always determined by our questions, assumptions and  beliefs.

What I gained was a deeper understanding of how our physical and literary landscapes interweave. How sign and signified lead the dance of a journey which is led by the gods who lead us to places where all distinctions break down in the numinosity of their presence.

At Hoddom and Brydekirk I met a myriad inhabitants of a northern land and I met Gwyn and Bride (who I know here in Lancashire as Brigantia) in new ways. I learnt that within the land and its stories and even in the most depredatory of Christian texts the fire of the gods endures.

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
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)