Gwythyr ap Greidol: An Ancient British God of Fire, Sun, Summer, and Seed

Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ appears in the medieval Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen as the rival of Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ for the love of Creiddylad ‘Heart’s Desire’. That he is a fitting opponent for Gwyn and consort for Creiddylad, who are the son and daughter of the ancient British god Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, suggests he is also an important British deity.

Strip away the Christian veneer from Culhwch and Olwen and we have a story in which Gwyn (Winter’s King) and Gwythyr (Summer’s King) battle for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess). On Nos Galan Gaeaf, Winter’s Eve, Gwyn abducts Creiddylad to Annwn* and Gwythyr rides to Annwn and attempts to rescue her and is imprisoned. The abduction of Creiddylad and imprisonment of Gwythyr explain the coming of winter. On Calan Mai, the First Day of Summer, Gwythyr battles Gwyn for Creiddylad, wins, and she returns with him to Thisworld and together they bring fertility to the land. This explains the coming of summer. Gwyn and Gwythyr may earlier have been seen to slay one another on Nos Galan Gaeaf and Calan Mai and take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad, who acted as a powerful sovereignty figure rather than just a maiden to be fought over.

It is clear from this tale that Gwythyr is our ancient British god of summer. In another episode in Culhwch and Olwen we catch a glimpse of Gwythyr’s associations with fire and sunshine. As he is walking over a mountain he hears ‘weeping and wailing’ and sees its source is a burning anthill. He cuts the anthill off at ground level and rescues the ants from the blaze. We do not know what caused the fire. Did their nest, which ants orientate toward the sun, a little like solar panels, in a summer day, absorb too much heat? Or was the fire caused by Gwythyr’s scorching feet? We have seen that one translation of his father’s name, Greidol, is Scorcher, and we know wildfires break out in the summer. Here we see the dangers of fire and the sun and Gwythyr’s attempt at remediation.

The ants go on to help Gwythyr to gather nine hestors of flax seed which was sown in ‘tilled red soil’, in a field that has remained barren, so it can be ploughed into a new field, to provide the linen for Olwen’s veil in preparation for her marriage to Culhwch. It is possible to read Gwythyr’s association with seed being linked to the ‘male’ side of fertility and with doing the groundwork for the arrival of summer for his bride, Creiddylad, might also require a linen veil for her wedding dress.

The ancient Britons used fire to clear the forest to plant hazel trees and wildfires bring about new growth – in Gwythyr’s associations with fire and seed we find these processes.

These stories show that Gwythyr is a god of summer, fire, and generation in Thisworld who is opposed to Gwyn, a god of winter, ice, and the destructive forces of Annwn, the Otherworld. On the surface one is a bringer of life and the other a bringer of death yet their relationship is one of interdependence. It is necessary they take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad as an eternal summer or an endless winter would have equally deadly consequences for both worlds.

As Gwythyr’s story was passed on through the oral tradition he and his father were depicted as allying with Arthur against Gwyn and the ‘demons’ of Annwn and playing a role in their demise. Thus Gwythyr is associated with other culture gods like Amaethon, the Divine Ploughman, and Gofannon, the Divine Smith, who help the Christian king to civilise the wild and shut out the Annuvian.

This process may be traced back to the Neolithic revolution when farming began to replace the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the cultivation of seed hunting and foraging, the grain god (Gwythyr) the hunter (Gwyn). Christians did their best to eliminate the veneration of Gwyn by depicting him and his spirits as demons yet they continued to be loved in folk culture as the fairies and their king.

The stories of Gwythyr, by name, did not survive in the folk tradition, but it possible to find a likeness between him and other grain gods** who die a ritual death at the end of the harvest – when Gwyn, the harvester of souls, reaps down his rival and Gwythyr and the seed return to Annwn.

From the Neolithic period our society as a whole has favoured Gwythyr over Gwyn. We have created an eternal summer with the fire of Gwythyr in the engines of industry creating a society in which the cold and darkness of winter has been eliminated by electric lighting and central heating. Crops grow all year round under artificial lights. This has unsurprisingly led to global heating, to the climate crisis, to the scorching fires on Winter Hill where I perceive Gwythyr battling his rival. Ironically, and tellingly, these two great gods and the great goddess they battle for have been forgotten.

Yet, slowly, the worship of Gwyn and Creiddylad is reviving amongst modern polytheists. I know few who venerate Gwythyr and believe this is because his stories have been subsumed by those of other grain gods. This is a shame, for Gwythyr’s stories contain deep wisdom relating how fire, sun, summer and seed have played a role in the climate crisis from a polytheist perspective.

As a devotee of Gwyn, committed to the otherside, to the Annuvian, to redressing the balance, Gwythyr is a god whose powers I acknowledge through the summer and during the harvest period although I do not worship him. I would be interested to hear how and whether other polytheists relate to Gwythyr at this time.

*Annwn has been translated as ‘the Deep’ and the ‘Not-World’ and is the medieval Welsh Otherworld or Underworld.
**Such as Lleu Llaw Gyffes/Lugus and John Barleycorn.

Last Night

was the night
you were furthest
away from the world
like a distant asteroid
– like Pluto.

From now
you’re coming back
– your land of ice and darkness
will thaw and the mists will make it beautiful again.

From the coffin where you dream of nuclear winter
you will step into a new suit of armour.

Summer is a’coming to Annwn
and winter is already
on its way here.

This poem is based on my gnosis that whilst it is summer in Thisworld it is winter in the Otherworld. It is addressed to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic ruler of the Otherworld and Winter’s King, who is killed by his rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol, Summer’s King, on Calan Mai, and sleeps through the Summer.

After I received this poem in a vision this morning I looked up Pluto, a planet named after the Roman King of the Underworld and saw that, in Japanese its name is Meiōsei – ‘Star of the King of the Underworld’. I thought this was very beautiful and apt for the planet that rules my birth sign, Scorpio, much as Gwyn, my patron god, is the ruling force in my life.

I then returned to an essay by Brian Taylor called ‘Photographing the Underworld? A Note of NASA’s Pluto Fly-by’ which has had a big influence on me. Here he speaks of how the photographing of Pluto ‘ruler of occultation, and protector of the integrity of mystery’ may have been saved from being an act of ‘casual intrusion’ by the plutonium powered spaceship carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh ‘discoverer of Pluto’ (as a kind of offering to the underworld gods?).

Brian also speaks of how he ‘traced the exteriorisation of Pluto in the history of the nuclear era, and found the planet’s signature etched into the geography of the discovery region, most notably in an extraordinary spatial co-incidence. Pluto was discovered in 1930 at the Percevall Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona. Ten years later Plutonium was manufactured at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, and five years after that the first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity Test Site north of Alamagordo in New Mexico. Curiously these three sites fall in an almost perfect straight line, about a thousand miles long, that maps the connection between the planet and the nuclear project on to the land in the most unexpectedly graphic way.’

Coincidentally I have been returning to these themes, which I touched on in The Broken Cauldron, in the later sections of the new book I am writing, which explores more deeply the influence of the gods within the modern world and Gwyn’s connections with nuclear war and nuclear winter.

At the bottom of the essay I saw an old comment I left for Brian in 2015 mentioning a dream I had about Gwyn and nuclear winter, leading me to recall it. Brian notes that the spaceship made closest contact with Pluto on a dark moon and the moon was dark last night.

Uffern ar y Ddaear

Uffern ar y Ddaear – Hell on Earth

I’m surrounded by the smell of dead grass
dreaming of a machine that creates water from nothing.
Someone’s got the radio on too loud and always a baby is wailing.

I lift my nose and smell the smoke on the wind and my throat
is already whining for my master dead on the moors
like cottongrass, heather, butterfly, grasshopper,

where the battle that began on the first of May is still going on
between a fire ignited by one who belongs to the inferno
and the fire fighters with hoses, beaters, leaf blowers.

If only they could bring the rains and autumn winds,
summon them into a summer already too hot and too long,
where reservoirs empty and carbon reservoirs bake, burn, reignite.

I hear they’re trying to save the mast, 1000 feet high, which I saw
lit red like a warning sign beneath the full moon transmitting not only
radio, television for the BBC, ITV, C4, signals for mobile phones,

but some kind of howl we’ve somehow got used to between silences.
What if it goes down like the plane that crashed on the 27th of February
in 1958 when the snow was so cold no-one could rescue the 35 dead

who still roam the hill cursing the faulty radio signals and the drones
flying overhead in the way of the helicopter pouring its cauldron
of water from the reservoirs over the baking baking peat?

When the endless chatter ceases will everyone hear the howl
pouring the dead down Winter Hill like radio waves
from the spring where the Douglas starts

and the mourning song for Winter’s King
dead like a bog body amongst the burial mounds
beneath the burning feet of his rival who is ever victorious?

When we try to shut Hell’s gate with torches on each side
and inside red as a death hound’s oesophagus will we realise
the throat will never close and the howl wrenched from it is us?

800px-Campfire_flames

*This poem is based on the Winter Hill fire and the mythic battle between Gwyn ap Nudd (Winter) and Gwythyr ap Greidol (Summer).

Burial

A Poem for Calan Mai

Two gods fight. Two dragons circle the sky.
A scream is in my mouth – soon my god will be gone.

He dies so the bluebells, mayflowers, hawthorn blossoms thrive,
baby birds pecking from eggs stumbling pink into the dawn.

There will be a victory tonight and there will be a wedding.
There will be a death tonight and there will be a burial.

Whilst lovers dance the maypole and tryst in the woods
I will walk alone without a bouquet and in silence

down forgotten paths to the castle of cold stone
where winter is entombed while summer rules

to pay my regards in tears of dew and mourning songs
amongst the kindly fay, the winged horses, the howling hounds.

While others laugh at the wedding I will weep at the funeral.
I will bury two dragons in the stone chest of my heart.

I will bury two dragons

A Prayer For When You Sleep

For Gwyn

Four months without your presence here,
May, June, July, August…

you have pulled the hill-doors shut,
drawn your shadow

into your fortress
where snow is heaped upon the roof

and you are guarded by a vigil
of loyal, loyal hounds.

In the blink of your eye
the fortress turns –

one moment
an eternity in Annwn,

here May, June, July, August…
The flowers mark the stations

of your sleep – bluebells, red campion, ox-eye daisies.
The trees are green with your rival’s victory

yet in a yew grove I see you sleepwalk,
mime the making of a bow.

For four months I count forget-me-nots,
blow white seeds of dandelions

into the silent tolling of Annwn
and gather mugwort.

Four months without your presence here,
May, June, July, August…

P1210750

Gwyn Altar - Sleeping - Caer Ochren - Meg Falconer

Image Caer Ochren, based on lines about the birth of Pen Annwn in Preiddu Annwn, by Meg Falconer

Unsung Meadow

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall,
wild carrot, buttercup and nettle,
time is slowing down.

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall,
plantain, clover and yellow rattle,
world is slowing down.

In my summer eiderdown
time and world are slowing down,
sleep easy, sleep easy, sleep easy,
unsung meadow sings.

Unsung Meadow Unsung Meadow

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

Gwyn’s Feast

Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.
There is no lack of wood upon the hearth,
The hounds are calm, the horses fed and watered.
Put knife to meat, drink your share from the horn,
There is endless plenty in my cauldron.
Join and dream to the songs of my bards,
They play a magic from the world’s beginning.
Beneath the Faery moon and Annwn’s stars
All things are sung back to wonder.
Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.

*The original manuscript ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (1536) relating Gwyn’s feast on Glastonbury Tor can be found here:  http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html It’s possible it took place on Michaelmas day, September 29th, which marks the last day of summer and beginning of Autumn.

The Search for Mabon

Mabon son of Modron… was taken when three nights old from between his mother and the wall… No-one knows where he is, nor what state he’s in, whether dead or alive.’
– How Culwch Won Olwen

Narrator:
On the verge of May when the veil is thin
Between city and suburb and faery hall and glen
Modron born of Avalon bewails her missing son.
If he is not rescued, summer will not come.

Across Britain’s suburbs and industrial towns
A clarion blast sounds on a white bone horn.
The landscape reverberates like water at its call.
Plunging steeds leap forth bearing fair Cai tree tall,
Bedwyr swinging the spear of nine blows,
Gwalchmai hawk eyed screeching,
Gwryrh each language speaking,
Cynddylig guide, Menw the enchanter,
And Eidoel son of slaughter.

Cai:
We’ve searched all of Wales and England too
Mabon is lost midst the sky scraper rows.
The impenetrable wall we cannot break through.
Hidden is his prison and invisible its rooms.

Gwalchmai:
We’ve lost the wolf and elk, walrus and bear
See the drays of grey squirrels have replaced the red.
The countryside has evaporated, bees are humming scarce,
The wildest animals are gone. This land is sunk in death.

Gwryrh:
I’ve spoken to the cattle, sheep and pigs
And the household pets but they no longer speak.
I’ve tried asking people but they neither see nor hear,
While the darkness keeps darkening and Modron weeps.

Menw:
The curse on this land cloys denser than a spell,
Its wizards are more cunning than the witches of Caerglow.
As Mabon’s release is their shining sun
If he remains in prison then their days are done.

Cai:
Why should we care?

Gwalchmai:
The subjects here are our distant sons and daughters
Prisoners like Mabon in their tower block quarters.

Bedwyr:
And if Mabon is not sought,
Twrch Trwyth will not be caught,
The razor he carries stolen,
Yssbaddaden will not be shaven
And Culwch will not win Olwen.

Cai:
Then we must seek out the oldest animals.
I believe a blackbird can be found nearby.

Blackbird of Cilgwri (on the Wirral Peninsula):
When I first came here I alighted on an anvil,
Watched engrossed the glow of the furnace and hot iron.
My song combined with the hammer as I pecked,
Joined by centuries of smiths until only a nut remained.
When factories replaced the forge I hid it.
My nut and I survived the blitz.
I have seen industry rise and fall and suburbs sprawl
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Stag of Rhendynfre (in Cheshire):
When I first came here there was an oak sapling
That grew like my antlers branching into a mighty crown.
It fell, leaving a stump red with blood. Over Farndon
Welsh and Angles, Royalists and Roundheads fought.
I have seen battles aplenty lost and won
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Owl of Cwm Calwyd (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here this vale of Conwy was wild wood
Destroyed by men, grown back, brought down again.
I have seen mine shafts sunk, pit men gone
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Eagle of Gwernabwy (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here from my tall rock I tasted the stars, rolled
Their crackle on my tongue and passed their wisdom to my young.
Now my rock is sunk, the sky forbidden. To Gwynedd
I have seen carloads of holiday makers come,
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet in a lake on the Severn dwells a salmon
Who drowned me before I wrenched fifty tridents from his spine.
I think you might benefit from his wisdom.

Salmon of Llyn Lliw (on the mouth of the Severn):
Mabon was once prisoner in Gloucester’s wall
But now the cell is empty, his captors gone.
Rumour tells me by the Ribble in the North
Mabon is imprisoned in another house of stone.

Narrator:
Down the old tram road they see the Ribble’s shining vista,
Hear the song of the river, catch the moonlight shimmer.
From the dazzling pitch and flow a salmon pokes his nose.

Salmon of the Ribble:
Stand upon on my shoulders and to Mabon we will go.

Narrator:
The intrepid troupe assemble on the salmon’s back
And ride to the north bank with their steeds swimming behind.

Salmon of the Ribble:
Cross through Avenham Park to the city of Preston.
Listen for the groan of Mabon in his prison.
Modron’s son is cruelly engorged
In the seat of all that’s wicked- in the Centre of St George.

Narrator:
Lances high to starry sky, flags unfurled the cavort ride
Crashing over tarmac and bursting neon lights
To rally at the entrance of the centre of all evil
Where the elevators slide and the lifts glide baleful.
Artificial lights light the artificial caer
And a one eyed giant bawls

One Eyed Giant
Who goes there?

Cai:
Mount the lance, draw the sword, stay the shield, set the spear,
We will tear down the walls like the fire cracks a bier.
Wheel the steed, raise our arms, to this wickedness amend
Wrest the son from his prison, by the hand of my friend.

Narrator:
Doorways shatter like a crystal cave in
Steeds arc bucking like the breath of Faery
Down the false lit corridor their swiftness chasing
To the circlet hall where the giant is waiting.

His circular eye is as gold as wealth
His maw brims wide to devour the world
Glistening black as a politician’s soul
He unwinds his scales into dragon form.

Cai smites with lethal bright immutable sword,
Growing taller than the tallest of the trees on Avenham park.
One thrust from handsome Bedwyr strikes nine blows
Driving the serpent into dismal throes.
Eidoel Aer, pepped for the slaughter
Cuts a phalanx of sores into the creature’s quarters.
Gwalchmai’s hawk pecks its eye bone bare
Cai thrusts his sword into the eyeless stare.
The scales subside like a sliding slogan
At the flick of nine wands the spell is broken.

Ascend nine wizards in immaculate suits
They float on greed and designer shoes.
Their ties are tied in perfect knots
Like the bonds of life in the hangman’s garrotte.

Menw steps forward with his wand of hazel

Menw:
Subtle illusionists, cease your evil!

Wizard One:
Fools of Faery, you don’t stand a chance
When the light of the world lies locked in our banks.

Wizard Two:
Deep in our vaults Mabon laments
As we sap out his life to sustain our command.

Cai:
Curse your greed, we will have our inspiration.
Menw, weave a spell, let us fight his liberation.

Narrator:
Menw raises his wand, the hallowed hall crackles
And rocks in rivets like a dome in shackles.
Shop faces fall like dull dumb dolls,
Beauty’s errant features leak ugly holes.

Deep within the atmosphere the air is shimmering
Strangled in their suits the wizards are shrivelling.
On the strike of spear and sword thick runs the gore
Sluicing parapets of wealth down the stairs and out the doors.
Slicing through disguise, every garment falls
The knights of Faery tear down the wall.

From the house of stone, Mabon rises,
On the slender stroke of dawn, as a shaft of beaming light.
Pure and youthful, small but bright,
His miniscule frame holds infinitesimal might.

He leashes his hound, mounts white dark mane
Travailing forth at a time of desperation.
Gathers the reins, readies his bow,
Notches an arrow for a-hunting he must go.

Hence Mabon was sought,
Twrch Trwyth was caught,
The razor was stolen,
Yssbaddaden was shaven
And Culwch won Olwen.

Modron born of Avalon gathers in her arms
And rejoices glad her fleeting son as beaming summer comes.