The Gifts of Solitude

The past few weeks, following my discovery it’s likely I have Asperger’s, have been difficult and revealing, but ultimately rewarding and healing. I feel like this revelation has come at the right time, during this period of lockdown, when I have time alone to process it.

Learning more about autism I have gained some valuable insights for others. I discovered the story of Matthew Tinsley* who, like me, used alcohol as ‘a coping strategy against the extreme anxiety caused by being autistic and living in a non-autistic, social, flexible world.’ ‘His diagnosis gave him the knowledge to realise his own anxiety as an autistic person, and his need to reduce the demands upon him.’

I also watched Chris Packham’s ‘Asperger’s and Me’**. In this programme Chris shares his experiences of sensory overwhelm, struggles with social relationships, and his obsession with the natural world. I was particularly disturbed by his visits to the US to find out more about remedies to eradicate autism and agreed with his conclusion that for many autistic people the best treatment is to be allowed to spend time alone. Chris is blessed with being able to live on his own in a house in the woods.

Looking back at the past I can now see that the periods when I experienced the highest levels of anxiety were those when I was putting the greatest demands to be in social situations upon myself. At the time I was writing and editing for Gods & Radicals and forcing myself to go out to protests and engage in a lot of political debate online I got so ill with anxiety and IBS I didn’t dare go anywhere that wasn’t within 20 minutes of a toilet ‘just in case’ and that lasted for a couple of years.

I also got very stressed when I combined taking an admin job that I found overwhelming (I had mistakenly taken it presuming it would mainly be managing a website and producing posters and a newsletter and hadn’t realised it involved dealing with spreadsheets and… administration… duh!) with a leading role in applying for and gaining funding to organise a series of local events called ‘The Wild and Rural Lives of Poems’. These lines from a poem written at the time describe the effect:

After the late night meeting
my head was pale and flashing
a tawdry halo a broken circuit
a worn out lighthouse
behind my eyes…

I did those things for the right and the wrong reasons. I went to the anti-fracking protests because I genuinely wanted to stand up for the landscape I love – I didn’t want to see Belisama’s river poisoned, more aquifers shattered like the aquifer beneath Castle Hill, more damage to the underworld. I wanted to create beautiful and magical events. But I was also aspiring to fit with a model of the ideal pagan/poet – socially and politically engaged and doing outward service to my community because I felt insecure about the value of my own work, which is more personal and mystical.

Repeatedly I’ve made the mistake of thinking to be a good awenydd and polytheist to my gods I should have a role in a religious community and be promoting the awenydd path and Brythonic polytheism. This drive again, came from good and bad motives, and had mixed results. During my time with Dun Brython we produced some valuable articles and shared some enjoyable meet-ups. Yet we never achieved our aim of growing the group and developing a shared practice due to lack of interest.

At Awen ac Awenydd we’ve done good work collecting and sharing information on the path and personal testimonies on our website and in our anthology ‘The Deep Music’. Yet I failed, after three attempts, to organise a physical meeting in the North West of England. The strain of administering the Facebook group, never knowing what arguments I might have to deal with, outweighed the benefits.

The time arrived to acknowledge it is best for me to be solitary, like many of the awenyddion of the past. Myrddin in his forest, Orddu in her cave, Afagddu hanging out his black wings on the shoreline. That, as I’ve always known, I’m not cut out to be a Taliesin – a celebrity bard.

These insights are the gifts of solitude. Having worked through them I have reached the stage where I can begin, as my gods keep telling me, to focus on ‘my gift’ – my awen. Learning I’m autistic and will always struggle with social relationships has given this imperative the additional strength and urgency needed to blast away my lack of belief in my path born from the arguments about cultural appropriation and my failure to learn Welsh, master the medieval texts, and prove myself a ‘proper’ awenydd.

In my solitude, free of demands, praying, journeying, drumming, drawing, writing, I’ve been thrown back on a far more raw and primal relationship with the awen and with my gods little mediated by the Welsh scribes. Visions of the deep and its deities from before Welsh was spoken, Brythonic, ancient British, before there were humans to speak at all. Of the Annuvian, of the depths, of the Other.

The gift of a mythos that is deeply personal and that I hope to say a little more about soon.

*https://network.autism.org.uk/good-practice/case-studies/autism-and-alcohol
**https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjdEJdr-vfs

The Call of the Hooded Man

He started appearing in my tarot readings at the beginning of the year: the Hooded Man. In my reading for 2020 on New Year’s Eve in the place of ‘home’, then again and again, strangely, mysteriously, as we shifted from a stormy winter to a glorious spring and I was spending more time with people outdoors.

In the Wildwood Tarot the Hooded Man occupies the traditional position of the Hermit. His ‘Position on the Wheel’ is ‘the mid-winter solstice’. Dressed in a black cloak adorned with holly he stands amidst the snow with a wren at his side, a staff in one hand, a shining lantern in the other. He points towards a doorway in a great tree with a wreath upon it, offering solace from winter’s harshness.

The main meaning of this card is ‘this is the time of solitude and contemplation’. Why was I getting this card when I was busying myself with work parties five days a week and preparing for an internship at Brockholes, which involved outdoor work and engaging with large groups of volunteers?

The answer came as the arrival of coronavirus, as the lockdown, the perfect reason to respond to his call. But what did I do for the first three weeks? Spend my time watching what everyone else was doing, beating myself up for not being busy, for not having a proper job, resisting the call of the Hooded Man.

And yes, I felt it, and he spoke to me clearly. On one occasion this was through the new module on ‘Holly’ in the Tree Spirit Medicine course on the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School. The course leaders, Jason and Nicola associate holly with ‘sanctuary, resilience, and protection’. These were qualities I felt I needed to draw upon and immediately I associated them with the Hooded Man. I journeyed to holly to ask ‘how to slow down and participate in the Hooded Man’s sanctuary.

Holly said:

The berries of life
are not always yours.

So what is yours?

How will you
grow your berries?

What can you offer?

How will you shape
your sanctuary?

I took this to mean that I couldn’t just barge into the Hooded Man’s sanctuary and assume his berries (the hard-won fruits of many years of solitude and contemplation) are mine for the taking. That I must take the time and effort to shape my own sanctuary, grow my own berries, share them with others.

What was particularly significant about this journey is that the day afterwards, after I had cut back and cleared the blackberry bushes which were taking over the bottom of my parents’ garden, I found a little holly sprig. Immediately I knew this was ‘the Hooded Man’s corner’: a place I could find sanctuary.

But still I resisted for fear that retreating would make me less of an awenydd to my community and gods. When I first set out on the awenydd path it was with the purpose of serving Gwyn and the spirits of the land through sharing poems and research on mythology and my personal journey.

Somewhere along the line, when I was involved with Dun Brython, when Greg Hill and I founded ‘Awen ac Awenydd’ I felt these responsibilities were nudging me toward community leadership. However, Dun Brython never grew due to a lack of interest in Brythonic Polytheism. Whilst the Awen ac Awenydd Facebook group generated some interesting discussions, the participants didn’t mesh enough to develop a shared practice, and the plans for a physical meet-up failed completely.

I reached the conclusion that Facebook is not a suitable platform for building meaningful relationships and left. ‘You’re not a follower but you’re not a leader,’ the words of my wise friend, who read my tarot, haunted me. What am I then? What is the role of an awenydd who neither leads nor follows?

“You must focus on your gift,” the voice of my god from within.

Reflecting on the nature of this gift I realised that it is the awen and the meaning of ‘gift’ is manifold. The awen is not only my gift, my talent, my role in the world, my destiny, but is given by the gods and something I have a responsibility to give back to others. This being gifted with and my giving of awen is of value in itself. I don’t need to be a leader or a spokesperson for my path.

This revelation came as a huge relief and has given me clarity about where I’ve made mistakes in the past. After watching a podcast with Martin Shaw on ‘Pandemic and Mythic Meanings of this Cultural Movement’ in which he posed the question ‘would this not be a good time to re-establish a relationship with our souls?’ I realised over the past few months I have neglected my soul’s journey.

When I journeyed to the Hooded Man for advice on how to focus on this he said I need to ‘clear space outer and inner’ and ‘cultivate a longing for the mysteries’ in the place of my anxieties.

What was of interest, and slightly disturbed me, was that he told me has had burning ambitions, been riddled by doubts, that he has made made mistakes, that his aura of calm is the result of centuries of inner work. That sometimes it is just a facade that covers over the conflicts he feels within.

For some reason I thought he had always been the Hooded Man at perfect peace in his self-mastery. Yet a story, or many stories, lie beneath the the hood of this man who has many faces.

The lump of my ‘workshyness’ and wanting to change the world

“I want to change the world.”

I state my desire to my deity in meditation at 7am aware as I do so of the rest of the world getting up, feeding the cats, walking the dog, jamming down breakfast, starting the car and joining the endless chug of exhaust fumes to offices and retail centres.

I’m not going to work today. My statement is laden with guilt. As I’m not working and have the luxury of sitting in meditation I feel driven to make my focus changing the world which forces so many other people into mind-numbing meaningless jobs:

sitting in call centres 9-5 Monday to Friday wired up to head phones trying to sell double glazing and insurance;

cleaning the crumbs and greasy handprints off the computers and desks and emptying the bins spilling sandwich and crisp wrappers of the people selling double glazing and insurance;

taking complaint after complaint about benefit fraud and dealing with the pettiness of complaints regarding people claiming to have had a heart attack or to be suffering from depression daring to go outside in the garden or take a walk.

I’m speaking from experience. I’ve done all these jobs: call centre, cleaner, benefit fraud hotline. I’ve also been a chamber maid, shelf-stacker, packer and administrative assistant. I’ve done what is necessary to support my study and later my writing and performing but never managed to stick such jobs because they conflict with what I really want to do.

It’s a vicious cycle and not one I can escape by earning money from my vocation. It’s extremely rare I get paid for my writing and performances or facilitating workshops. Occasionally I sell a book. My yearly income would barely keep me for a month.

If I lived in Nazi Germany I would no doubt be classified as ‘arbeitsscheu’ ‘workshy’ and incarcerated in a concentration camp. Horribly across the UK a similar phenomenon is recurring as people on disability benefits due to physical or mental illness are being reclassified as fit for work. In many instances this has led to suicide.

I’m lucky as I’m not forced to work full-time because my parents put me up. I’m not too ill to work at the moment but I have suffered from anxiety and depression (and still do on and off) and know soul-destroying jobs unfailingly grind me down to tears and hopelessness.

My desire to write goes first. Then my ability to commune with nature and hear the voices of the gods. Meaning and purpose swiftly departs and with that any reason to be alive. If I didn’t have the back-stop of my parents’ home and their support I don’t know what position I’d be in or if I’d be here at all.

Which is why I want to change the world. I want to live in a world where the life of every individual is intrinsically valued. Not this world where a person’s value is determined by their capacity to work in a meaningless job supporting an economy which benefits only the rich and is destroying the earth and human society. A world epitomised by the small-minded vindictiveness of someone who despises their job grassing up the person unable to work because of their depression for taking a walk.

Realistically I don’t possess many qualities suited to changing the world. I’m impractical, illogical and socially inept. I beat myself up continuously because I’m not cut out to be an activist or legislator. Attempting to take a stand on environmental issues at local council meetings I stumble on facts and figures and get the names of councillors wrong to smothered laughs. Unlike some people who buzz off social situations I find them draining and buckle quickly under pressure. I feel like a spare part at protests.(Although I still attend local meetings and protests and will continue to).

What I am good at is poetry and myth. Not the first places you’d look at a time when the greatest need is for manufacturers of pikes, rioters to wield them and thinkers who can traverse the lies and double-speak of parliament with the grace and dexterity of an otter.

Is there anything more useless to this world than a poet? I can think of nothing more useless and could not find a way out of my feelings of uselessness this morning when I dumped the statement of my desire to change the world like a lump of plasticine unformed and unceremoniously at the altar of my god.

Within this monstrous cacophany of thoughts you’re probably wondering whether he got a word in edgeways.

Gwyn ap Nudd’s a King of Annwn: a master of visions and glamoury renowned for his interruptions of hunting horns and a hundred hounds howling on otherworldly winds with a chill to stop one’s heart, his shining beauty and cauldron full of stars.

Today he’s silent. All I see is a depth of indigo and at its edges the melee of my thoughts rattling their pikes. Then further into the deep other pike rattlers throughout the ages who have stated the same desire albeit probably not to Annwn’s King.

Gwyn’s half-smile creases the indigo like a wave. Rattling through the ages comes the answer: there’s no easy solution.

I’m angry. That was not the answer I wanted to hear. I want to throw the ugly unformed plasticine lump of “I want to change the world” out of the window or into the deep.

Sensing my wish curious voices rise. Restless spirits reach forward to examine the plasticine with what may be hands or serpentine tails or wings. I get the impression they want to take it and mould it in their world.

Now it comes down to it I’m not sure I want to give my lump to them. I clutch it close to me. It’s my lump. My problem. My burden. What’s more I want to be seen carrying it and I want to be in control.

They prise it from my fingers. Hold it up to the starlight shining from the seas of Annwn. I see it for what it is. A desire in itself authentic but baked clumsily in the crucible of work and workshyness to the chant of uselessness and guilt. They dive with it back into the deep still indigo.

My guilt and uselessness dissolve and I realise they stem from taking on the values of a system set on devaluing all religion that it cannot harness for political control and all art that does not beg to the custodians of the establishment or market itself as mass entertainment. A system founded on the destruction of mytho-poetic worldviews.

I catch a glimmer of the Awen in what the system needs to keep destroyed. No easy solution but I see what I need to do.

I speak farewell to the lump of my ‘workshyness’ and wanting to change the world.

I assert the value of myth and poetry and the value of a poet ‘useless’ and ‘workshy’.

I pour a libation for Gwyn, the spirits of the deep, the pike-wielding ancestors and walk in trust with a pike in my hand to change the world.

***

*This piece was written yesterday and was provoked by two excellent articles on contemporary political issues: one by Brian Taylor ‘Austerity Watch, Cut to Death‘ and one by Mark Rosher ‘Living with Madness‘ and an awful article condemning ‘otherworldy polytheism’ by John Halstead ‘If It Doesn’t Help Me Save This World, I Don’t Want Your Polytheist Revolution‘.

The Favour of Creiddylad, May Queen and Queen of Annwn

Wood anenomeA few weeks ago I published an article on the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad, which highlighted its significance as an ancient British seasonal myth originating in the Old North. This showed Creiddylad’s importance as a Brythonic goddess connected with the sovereignty of the land, outlined a depiction of her viewpoint and described her nature as a spring maiden and queen of Annwn.

It was my intuition Gwyn’s pride in being Creiddylad’s lover and references to his invocation in her name suggested she was an important fertility goddess in her own right. More recently I found this idea backed up by analogy with Ann Suter’s reading of The Hymn to Demeter. Like Persephone with Hades, Creiddylad is a free agent in a sacred marriage with Gwyn. As king and queen of Annwn they form a divine couple equal in power and independence.

To win Creiddylad’s favour on Calan Mai, Gwythyr, a human ruler, must descend to Annwn and battle against Gwyn. His willingness and skill are conditions of Creiddylad’s becoming his May Queen. Thus she returns to this-world to bring fertility to the land and makes him her king for the summer. Gwythyr’s reign is only temporary. On Nos Galan Gaeaf Gwyn takes her back to Annwn where in turn she presides over the processes of life and death.

One of the important lessons of this story is that all life comes from and returns to Annwn. The fertility of this-world is dependent on the underworld and its deities. This is reflected in the simple necessity of planting a seed underground and in offerings our ancient ancestors made in ritual shafts and pits. All trees and plants come from and decay back into the soil. This is ultimately the fate of our flesh and bones.

The beauty of the flowers of May is dependent on the deaths of many others. This applies to human ancestry. Our fruitful modern existence is founded on the death and toil of countless people. As is our creativity. Thus the Awen can only be won by making Gwythyr’s descent down through the ancestral heritage of our soil, establishing our own relationships with the underworld deities. Personal sacrifices must be made and their bounty shared.

Only then will our hawthorns blossom and the favour of Creiddylad, May Queen and Queen of Annwn be won.

Hawthorn*With thanks to Brian Taylor for pointing me toward Sarah Pike’s review of Ann Suter’s The Narcissus and the Pomegranate.

Brigantia Stone

Brigantia Stone Earlier in January I dreamt the Oak and Feather Grove were holding a celebration on the West Pennine Moors around a sandstone monument carved with a goddess figure rooted in the earth drawing up its energy to combine with shining rays of sunshine. I knew this was a ‘Brigantia Stone.’

Today is the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, which is connected to the goddess Brighid or Bride. In Scottish mythology she is imprisoned in a mountain by the Cailleach throughout winter and escapes her prison in spring, bringing new growth and regeneration. In Wales she is known as Ffraid and this festival is Gwyl Ffraid.

Here in Northern England she is known as Brigantia. Her name is Brythonic and means ‘High One.’ She was the warrior goddess of the Brigantes tribe, whose tribal confederation dominated the North until the Roman Invasions. I associate Brigantia with high places, locally with the West Pennine Moors and in particular Great Hill.

Great Hill from Brindle

Great Hill viewed from Brindle

In contrast to Brighid, whose stories and roles as a poet, smith and healer are well documented, we know comparatively less about Brigantia. Seven inscriptions exist to her across Northern England and Southern Scotland. She is equated with Victory, and on a statue with Minerva in warrior form, holding a spear and a globe of Victory and wearing a Gorgon’s head.

In my experience, Brigantia is a goddess of the wild harshness of the high hills. A warrior for certain and a goddess of the all-consuming fire of the Awen, the hammer beat of creation and a forger of souls. She’s the first goddess I met. Because she’s a poet and we share a fiery irascible temperament I thought she would become my patroness.

I was wrong and the reason behind this was a difficult one to learn. I worked very closely with Brigantia for two years whilst completing a fantasy novel. It was about a fire magician who, in order to bring down capitalism, made a pact with fire elementals which resulted in his near destruction of the world and death in the flames by which he made his pact. With my anti-hero a part of me burnt and was consumed.

After completing the novel I realised it was too dark and incomprehensible to publish. I’d wasted two years, wasn’t cut out to be a fantasy writer and and I’d lost my trust in Brigantia.

The death of my novel left a void. And into it stepped my true god. Perhaps this was Brigantia’s plan. I needed to learn the dangers of working with the untrammelled Awen; fire in the head, pure imagining, without relation to this world or the realities of the Otherworld, to which Gwyn ap Nudd opened the gates.

Afterward I resented her. Because I’d sold my car and could no longer drive to the Pennines we also became physically distanced. In spite of this, looking down on my valley from the surrounding hills, in the fire of the Awen, she has continued to be a presence in my life. I still honour her as the warrior goddess of the North. But we rarely speak in person.

My dream of the Brigantia Stone came as a surprise, even though Brigantia is in many ways a patroness of the Oak and Feather grove. I experienced the calling to redraw the stone for our Imbolc celebration (which I’d sketched in my diary) in colour, as a Bardic contribution to the grove and for Brigantia as an offering on her festival day. It came out perfectly first time, so well I decided to make copies for each member of the grove.

Lynda has suggested we take a grove walk to find the stone on the West Pennine Moors. Whether it ‘really’ exists on the moors, or in their dreamscape, I’m not certain. However, I do know it is the time to acknowledge and accept Brigantia’s role and place in my life.

Brigantia Altar

The Star-Strewn Pathway

‘Thence rolled down upon him the storm-clouds from the home of the tempest;
thence streamed up the winter sky the flaming banners of the Northern lights;
thence rose through the illimitable darkness on high
the star-strewn pathway of the fairy king.’
-Wirt Sikes

I write this post as a newcomer to the path of the Awenydd, having walked it in earnest little longer than a year and a day. The terms Awen and Awenydd have been familiar since coming to Druidry. In the Awen I found a name for the all-consuming force of inspiration that has burnt forever in my veins with the fire of stars in the iciest reaches of a dark universe. Its furious purpose was revealed by a god after many years of searching.

Restless years. Wilder years. Seeking Blake’s infinite. Throwing my soul into the furthermost abysses of Western European philosophy where reason bites its own tail, curls up and dies and the only way to survive the white hot sun of truth is to burn with and express its creativity.

Trying to find a framework to decipher visions of our native spirit world without knowing if my experiences were ‘real’. Searching Christian mysticism, Graeco-Roman, Saxon and Norse mythologies and finding only analogies. Discovering Britain has its own mythology in The Mabinogion, The Triads of the Island of Britain, The Four Ancient Books of Wales and regional folk and faerie lore.

Finally, Gwyn ap Nudd, my Fairy King finding me and teaching me to walk the Star-Strewn Pathway.

***

The Star-Strewn Pathway begins in one’s local area with the recognition the whole landscape is inspirited. Awen sings from the earth-sun at this world’s core through its molten mantle, sandstone bedrock, layers of clay and harrowed loam. Wonder can be found in backyards of composting earthworms and hatching spiders.

Pathways lead to suburban edgelands. Narrow valleys of trees impossible to build on, brooks shrunken by drainage systems tripping down wooden platforms. Algae-covered stagnant ponds beloved of ducks. Decaying mills pink with Herb Robert housing volleys of pigeons circling above.

These places are inspirited and there are spirits: huge boggarts who once stretched gurgling through mosslands grey and whiskery; undines clasping their last waters; newly planted woodlands arising into forms of consciousness with inherent knowledge of tree, bird and mycelia of mushrooms to the tread of deer.

Inevitably pathways lead abroad. It is necessary to trace local brooks to the river’s crashing heart, find its trickling source and greet rolling tides with the sea at its shining estuary. To meet its Great Goddess who washes her hair by moonlight and stretches watery arms throughout the watershed.

To travel ancient woodlands of oak men, snow-topped mountains of icy blasting and cities of tower blocks, steeples and malls which guard a heritage locked in catacombs and glassy vaults. Every facet of woe and joy, awe and strife, adds to the alchemy of our own sun.

***

In rain or mist, at twilight to the touch of thunder, it is possible to step from known to unknown pathways. Wandering lost in a storm-cloud of emotion I have often found myself on unfamiliar tracks with strange figures, no longer myself. Sometimes it is those dusky shadows who beckon me, footsteps leading into the wildwood’s tangled heart.

In the wildwood all the fay lights are lit by stars. They dance and glimmer, throwing bright shapes and longer shadows across paths which intertwine like roots. These paths have their own lives, untwining and uprooting to walk their own way through the wood. Where the fay strew their lanterns on the ground one might find the Star-Strewn pathway.

There is a long tradition of caves and holes leading to the underworld. Their entryways are utter darkness. Timeless. Illimitable as despair. They lead into a womb of tunnels, the edge of an abyss, to where that age-old creatrix Old Mother Universe gives birth to stars. From thence the Star-Strewn Pathway unfurls through underground heavens.

When the moon is full she lays out her bridge of vibrant stars in the river. The ripples become stepping stones. From the river-moon the Star-Strewn Pathway leads through the catastrophic beauty of falling stars to the star-decked parapets of the Fairy King’s hall.

At his banquet stars burn and freeze. The order of things is undone. In the crux of fairy arts, the Fairy King’s Star Cauldron, the wonder of the universe is reflected and re-made anew.

***

There are other ways to reach Gwyn’s Hall. As many ways as there are souls. Some fly with coveys of hounds or wild geese. Others do not need to fly at all.

This is not the path for everyone. There are many gods, stars and cauldrons.

Any soul flight requires a return to and grounding in the body of this world; dragging backward through hedgerows, screaming and echoing from slanting rock-faces to kiss the earth with bloodied and muddy lips.

Apostasies need voicing in cafes and bars, chain-stores and museums. Launching into the internet’s mirror-void where the dust-mote of a spark of Awen can be multiplied into a million blazing simulacra fading as quickly into black holes.

Following the Star-Strewn Pathway does not lead to catasterism ‘placing amongst the stars,’ but living a full life upon this earth, returning to and from the halls of our deities, knowing only our bones and star-songs will survive for future generations. Until, with our land and gods, we are swallowed by the sun. Perhaps in this manner we will receive our final catasterism.

***

*This article was written for and first published with an introduction by Heron on ‘The Path of the Awenydd‘. This blog aims to explicate and explore this lesser known path. It is also an excellent and growing resource on Bardic, Brythonic and Faerie Lore. Do check it out. Many thanks to Heron for supporting my work.

The Star Cauldron

‘Is it not the cauldron of the chief of Annwn? What is its intention?
A ridge about its edge and pearls.
It will not boil the food of a coward, that has not been sworn…’
The Spoils of Annwn

Returning not on time
but at the perfect time
to the place I made my vow,
your cauldron of pouring water
is still flowing and today
it contains the stars.

As always I have a question,
tearing through the veil
torn a million times,
calling through the names
and faces of indefinite thoughts,
impelled by a shape and form unsung:

the suggestion of a bardic book
prompted by a voyage
to the moon in the river
where I stood amongst your stars
and in the river-rain of their fire
learnt the Awen only follows absolute necessity.

You say “do what is necessary.
Write the book that needs to be written.
The stars in my cauldron, write it in their fire.”

Ribble Stars

Review: Creatures by Greg Hill

Creatures by Greg HillGreg Hill lives in Wales. He was editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review and contributes regularly to Welsh literary magazines. I’ve followed his blog for a while and was delighted when I heard about the release of his first full length collection of poetry in print; Creatures.

The title alone creates intrigue. What kind of creatures? The epigraph replies; ‘All creaturely things… Plants growing, / Roads running, / Rivers flowing, / Places that sing.’ It is clear from the outset this collection is about an animate landscape where every being is a creature, alive and sentient.

The first ekphrastic poem is based on the picture on the cover; Fidelma Massey’s sculpture, ‘Water Mother,’ who dreams thoughts of water into being. Here, the ‘cosmic ebb and flow’ of thought and water is contained in the poem. Analogies between living water and perception recur throughout the book. In ‘Cwm Eleri’ the poem’s tight structure fails to contain the river, which slips from grasp like time. In ‘Myddleton’s River’ water-ways link London, Wales and the underworld, forming a conduit for complicated alchemical processes of mental and physical transformation.

The contrast between our immediate perception of creatures and those aspects of their being impossible to grasp is central. A jackdaw sitting happily in the hearth becomes ‘an image… a token of wildness… like a jigsaw piece from another puzzle;’ a homely and familiar event made strange. Greg writes that as a heron dips out of sight ‘a part of me fell out of the sky with it,’ lost ‘except that something / settles in the flow of these words.’ We can never completely grasp our perceptions. Only through words can they find permanent representation.

Several poems present roads, paths and boundaries as living entities and how our understanding of them shifts once they are crossed and they slip into memory. If we try to return, the roads are ‘dull,’ ‘dusty,’ ‘empty.’ Our former selves are shadows, unfamiliar reflections. ‘Strange border guards’ usher us ‘from what / we neither know nor recognise.’ These haunting and complex poems demonstrate how choices shape our relationship with the landscape and hence our memories.

The mysteries of the Bardic Tradition and its creatures are explored in novel ways. ‘Awen’ depicts a shepherd lad inspired to speak poetry by a spirit ‘like a forest god’ who is elusive as the words he inspires. Four episodes from the Mabinogion are covered. I was fascinated by ‘A Scaffold for a Mouse,’ which depicts ‘Manawydan living in a dream / landscape with the life / conjured out of it like a flat plane.’ Through his ‘firm grip’ on the mouse, ‘a small thing / for a great purpose,’ he breaks the ‘powerful magic’ of Llwyd, awakening ‘form to its true nature’ thus freeing Rhiannon, Pryderi and Cigfa.

This collection depicts a relationship with the creaturely world that is on the surface simple and direct yet beneath mysterious and disconcerting. Each time I return to these poems I discover new meanings and thematic relationships within the whole. I’d recommend this book to anybody who likes poetry with lots of depth and has a love for nature, myth and creatures.

Creatures can be purchased through Lulu here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/greghillpoetry

Greg Hill’s poetry site is here: http://greghill.weebly.com/
Greg’s blog, Hill’s Chroicle can be found here: http://hills-chronicle.blogspot.co.uk/

The Edge of the Dark

‘as ‘th’ edge o’ dark’ threw its weird glamour over the scene, boggarts and phantoms would begin to creep about to the music of the unearthly voices heard in every sough and sigh of the wandering wind…’
– James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire

This landscape has only just been claimed and in its deepest knowing holds the memory of the edge of the dark. The majority of Lancashire’s towns and fields developed where thick shaggy mosses, carr and marsh held rule. Its people lived on the edge of darkness, the edge of unknowable waters, the edge of the otherworld.

Is this existence on the edge the source of its legends? Its fairy lanes and dells, boggart bridges, cloughs and holes, its headless phantoms and saucer-eyed spectral hounds?

How far do these stories stretch back in the minds of its people? Are they the creation of an industrial age that sought to banish darkness and uncertainty with city walls yet built a new hell in its abominable mills: its Dickensian fairy palaces as the wilderness outside grew wilder?

Are they based on the wildening of tales always strange yet homely: of the household boggart whose help might be bought with butter or milk but whose wrath could estrange a family; of fay whose magic could curse or cure; of water spirits who gave of themselves and their secrets but only at great sacrifice?

Could these stories signal an endemic relationship with the otherworld stretching back through centuries? Through Anglo-Saxon boggarts and barguests to the arcane myths of Britain to the repository of stories about ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘The Old North’ in Welsh mythology and beyond to a near forgotten oral tradition? All hinge upon the cusp of thisworld and the otherworld: the edge of the dark.

In Welsh mythology the otherworld is known as Annwn: the not-world, the deep. It is the beyond of adventure, the locus of alterity. Its landscapes are unstill, its deities and monsters have many faces. It is a source of beauty and terror, of awe, of Awen, the divine inspiration quested by the bards and awenyddion who crossed the edge of the dark to explore its depths.

The ways between the worlds are fraught with danger. Safe passage is only granted at a cost. Those who return from the otherworld are never the same. Thus they shroud themselves in the cowl of the edge of the dark.

Those who live on the edge see our precarious reign over the land and its myths is illusory. Tower blocks and elaborate street lamps are ephemeral as Dickens’ fairy palaces. Electric lighting is no defence against the edge of the dark, which seeps in because its memories are deeper than us, its darkness more permeating than headlights.

These memories evoke intense loss and mourning. Yearning for the fluting wetland birds, bog oaks, reeds, rushes, and hoofed and pawed animals of the wild quagmire we banished. For the fairies and boggarts we dare not believe in. For the gods of the otherworld who haunt the edge of the dark with pawing steeds and sniffing dogs whilst we seal ourselves in a not-world that is not Annwn choosing to occupy tiny lamp lit portions of thisworld beyond the bog’s rushy melodies.

Immersed in false light we neither perceive the people of thisworld nor Annwn until the rain pours down, the marshland rises up, and the weird glamour of the edge of the dark undoes all security as the deepest memories of our land and its legendary reality return.

Greencroft Valley

Choosing a Path

Fairy LaneThe metaphor of choosing a path appears frequently within Paganism but can be applied to the journey of life, which in many religious traditions is seen as the journey of the soul.

I’ve walked many paths; riding instructor and groom, philosophy student, fantasy writer. Over the past three years I have been writing and performing poetry and exploring Druidry. The binding core is that in each I’ve been seeking magic and I’ve pursued all these paths with religious commitment.

Looking back, it appears I have walked one path with many names. This week I have come to question the suitability of the name ‘Druid.’

I have never felt any commonality with, or desire to join any of the systematic orders of Druidry where one can complete courses and achieve grades in exchange for coins. It’s my firm belief that the living landscape, the gods and ancestors are the greatest teachers. Their guidance, trust and respect are not bought but earned, and thus utterly priceless.

However, one place I have felt at home is The Druid Network. Hearing a talk by its chair, Phil Ryder formed a huge turning point in my life that led me to recognise and honour the divine in my local landscape. The Druid Network is the only organisation I know of that promotes Druidry as a religion. There are no set courses or hierarchies. Each member is encouraged to find and explore their relationship with whatever they hold sacred in their own way, and the social forum provides a safe area for discussing issues and experiences. However, there are guiding principles (1).

I’m in agreement with most of these principles, except that the native religion of the British Isles must nominally be called Druidry. I imagine Heathens, Witches, Shamans and many other Pagan groups would make similar claims.

This winter’s solstice I was gifted a name for my path- Awenydd. For Kristoffer Hughes becoming Awenydd forms the core of Druidry. For Elen Sentier it is a form of native British Shamanism. My path currently seems to sit somewhere in an unknown hinterland between two names I am equally uncomfortable with, ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman.’

For me ‘Awenydd’ works a similar magic to that which others describe in relation to ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman’. It opens the doors of perception and initiates connection with the Awen, divine inspiration. It is as Awenydd I truly serve my land, gods and communities.

I can see a future for myself as Awenydd; continuing to learn the stories and songs of my local landscape and its spirits; journeying more deeply the immensities of the otherworlds with Gwyn and learning his mysteries; bringing my insights back to my communities and thus learning to weave a magic between the worlds.

Contrastingly, I perceive ‘Druid’ as closing doors, leading to pointless arguments, in-fighting, and attempting to define myself against systems and practices with which I share little commonality.

If the journey of life is the journey of the soul, I want to choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder. I want to live a life true to my heart, in devotion to the land and gods who call to me. I want to sing their songs. I want to share their inspiration. I want to die knowing I have done everything I can to respond to their call.

I don’t want to remain a prisoner in the maze of arguments and contradictions which, for me, constitutes contemporary Druidry, and which will only lead me into greater negativity.

It is on this basis I give up the name of Druid and choose Awenydd.

And the consequences?

The biggest consequence is that the path of Awenydd is not classed as a religion. If I am no longer a Druid I no longer belong to a religion.

To anyone on the outside this might look like a massive change. However on the inside this does not change my relationship with my land and deities, nor with family and friends.

It has, and I think will continue to have some impact on my Pagan, Druid and other religious communities. I’ve already talked my decision through with some of the members of TDN who, for the most part, are happy for me to remain a part of the organisation on the basis of shared principles, and I’m hoping to discuss it with my grove at the solstice.

My local Pagan Society is inclusive of open-minded people of any faith or none, so no problems there. As for Preston Faith Forum and the further questions, if I’m not a Druid, then am I Pagan? And can I be an Interfaith Representative if I don’t belong to a faith? That’s another kettle of fish entirely and not one I’m ready to address right now!

I want to live a life that fills my soul with awe and wonder

I choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder, in devotion to the magic this land, its deities and spirits, my patron Gwyn ap Nudd and the ancestors. This path is Awenydd. Let their songs be sung!

(1) http://druidnetwork.org/files/about/constitutionrevnov2009.pdf