Rigantona’s Departure

I.
The fall of tempered leaves
stamps itself out mid-November
like leaf-shaped arrow heads

the yellow birch my old daggers

distant memories of the ancestors
contort the gloaming wearing

cloaks as grey as your shroud

and the grey spider who hangs
above watching you departing from
the darkness without a thread.

II.
I cannot imagine you Great Queen
as the young girl who was taken
against her will when the last leaf

fell by the hunter with the horns

and the ember-eyes headlight bright

before there were cars and cars and cars…
before with the leaves the forest fell…
before Annwn was known as Hell.

III.
You always knew where you were going
didn’t you? Needed no thread to lead
you back to your own home in his arms?

They knew that too – our ancestors

who offered up coins minted like leaves
in fairyland where money grows on trees
and crumbles likes us to grey dust.

IV.
I have no coin the leaves in my pockets
are old and withered as grey spiders.

When my fingers are dust I shall
follow without a thread shrugging into
your shroud joining the contours

of the grey-cloaked ever-marching dead.

A Farewell

The ship is tall, leaning. Its only crew are the gulls, who tie the knots in the sails; old, old, sailor souls. On its prow stands Barinthus, the helmsman, dark-cloaked, stern, implacable.

No-one sees if his lips move beneath the shadows of his hood as he reads out the roll call: the names of Londeners, Devonians, Bristolians, Scousers, Mancunians, Lancastrians, Glaswegians, Brummies, whose accents mix in the huge make-shift camp that has grown up in the marshy hinterland between the worlds.

They’re mostly old. Veteran souls move between them, boiling tea on stoves that burn on no gas. They drink from metal cups, pull blankets around them, attempt to recall to one another their stories.

Some of them are funny – drunken exploits – other people’s knickers and roundabouts. Some are tragic – motorcycle crashes, the loss of daughters and sons, spouses who lost their memory yet lived on.

“How did we get here?” few recall that journey or what brought them.

White hounds with red markings on their ears, noses, the tips of their tails, patrol the edges of the camp. If anyone tries to leave they are there. A grin and friendly growl is always enough. The pups like to play amongst the child souls, tongues lolling, letting their bellies be rubbed. When their master calls them, not liking them to get attached, they leave whining with their tails between their legs.

“Where are we going?” few recall that journey they have made so many times before.

“The biggest shipload since the last war,” my god’s voice from where he stands invisible so as not to frighten the souls.

Their leaving seems to take forever, one by one getting up from their camp stools, boarding across a wobbly plank and taking their places in the cabins, more cabins-worth of souls than there are cabins on board?

“The number of cabins, the space of the hold, the expanses of the deck, are limitless, infinitesimal,” Gwyn informs me. Speaking ominously “no matter how many passengers the ship is never full.”

I watch with Gwyn as the camp fires go out and the ship sinks deeper and deeper into the waters.

As a gull flies down and with a practiced twist of her yellow red-spotted beak unties the mooring rope I clasp my hands, bow my head in mourning, say farewell to 980 Britons who I never knew.

As I leave, dropping a tea bag in a pot for the next souls, I see them already beginning to arrive. Some are escorted by their ancestors, others by the hounds, others by white birds. A little boy is carrying a white red-spotted hamster wrapped up in his school blazer.

Their numbers are endless.

Twelve Days of Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

Twelve Days of Prayer

For Gwyn

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

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

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

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



III.
You are ghost.
You and your legions.

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

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

Could it be that I’m afraid of death?

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

“You wear your flesh and your fear well.”

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



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

“Who will protect me?

“I will protect you.”

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

my deep demonic fears.

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

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

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

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

I fear to scream is the obliteration

of all prayer until you show me

how you tend to all the silent
and the unsilent screams

for a scream is prayer
as crescendo.



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

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

so much more and you say:

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

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

part of the divine breath which keeps

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

It can destroy (or fix) everything.

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

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

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



XII.
Your gift

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

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

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

The Forest at the Back of the World

Leaning Yew

Yng nghysgod yr ywen wyrol
saif y goedwig yng nghefn y byd.

In the shadow of the leaning yew
stands the forest at the back of the world.

***

Easeful
easeful the forest.

Easeful
easeful its mansions perfected.

Where we grow
where we grow
where we grow
and decay no longer.

Easeful
easeful the forest.

***

Fairy Lane August 2018

Do you remember walking or riding through a forest
down a path that never ends with sunlight dappling the shade
and crunchy leaves and woodland winds
and a feeling of infinite freedom?

Do you remember sleeping beneath the boughs
on summer nights or watching the passage of the stars
whilst the blackbirds continued to sing past midnight
into the early hours never ceasing at dawn?

Do you remember the feeling of unease,
as if someone was trying to shake you awake from a dream,
turning back over, dreaming, dreaming, dreaming on?
Does it trouble you that these memories are not your own?

***

Easeful
easeful the forest.

Easeful
easeful its mansions perfected.

Where we grow
where we grow
where we grow
and decay no longer.

Easeful
easeful the forest.

***

Branches Fairy Lane

In the perfection of memory they walk
through the infinite houses
room for everyone

the clatter of factories forgotten
the feuds between families and gangs
the arguments of politicians.

In the perfection of memory they walk
through the infinite houses
room for everyone

the hours behind glass and bars forgotten
free as gods or ghosts drifting
like pollen or birdsong.

In the perfection of memory they walk
through the infinite houses
room for everyone

until the butterfly on the shoulder
or the lizard emerging from the mouth
calls them to move on.

***

Easeful
easeful the forest.

Easeful
easeful its mansions perfected.

Where we grow
where we grow
where we grow
and decay no longer.

Easeful
easeful the forest.

***

Yng nghysgod yr ywen wyrol
saif y goedwig yng nghefn y byd.

In the shadow of the leaning yew
stands the forest at the back of the world.

Leaning Yew

***

*The song repeated three times is based on lines from ‘The Birdsong of the Wayreth Forest’ by poet Michael Williams in the Dragonlance series, ‘Easeful the forest, easeful its mansions perfected / Where we grow and decay no longer, our trees ever green.’
**With thanks to Greg Hill for the Welsh translations.

The Defwy – A Brythonic River of the Dead

In the sixth verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of the answers to riddles which in his day must have been well known. He says they do not know ‘who made the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’.

The meadows of Defwy are clearly in Annwn. Marged Haycock notes it has been suggested Defwy is a river-name from def-/dyf- ‘black’ ‘as in Dyfi’ and may be ‘a river between this world and the next’. Taliesin also sings of this river in a list of fine things in ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’: ‘Fine it is on the banks of the Dyfwy / when the waters flow’.

Rivers dividing Thisworld and the Otherworld, the realms of the living and the dead, are found in many world cultures. In Greek mythology the Styx ‘Hatred’ divides Thisworld and Hades, the dead must cross the Acheron ‘Woe’ to reach their destination, and surrender their memories to the Lethe ‘forgetfulness’ to be reborn. There are another two rivers: Cocytus ‘Lamentation’ and Phlegyton ‘fire’. All originate from Oceanus ‘Ocean’. Each is a deity. Each flows through both worlds: the Styx is a stream in Arcadia, the Acheron and Cocytus flow through Thesprotia, the Lethe through Boetia, and the Phlegethon near to Avernus.

In Norse mythology eleven rivers called Elvigar ‘Ice Waves’ arise from Hvergelmir ‘Boiling Bubbling Spring’ in Niflheim ‘Mist-World’. Amongst them is Gjǫll, which flows past Hel’s Gate and separates the living from the dead. There are forty-two rivers in total. Some flow into the ‘fields of the gods’. Others ‘go among men’ before falling into Hel. Midgard, Thisworld, is encircled by an impassable ocean where Jörmungandr, the world-serpent, lives.

Unfortunately in Brythonic tradition we possess far less lore about the cartography of Annwn. Whether it was simply lost or actively erased by Christian scribes is impossible to know. Much of what we have is obscured by Taliesin’s riddling. In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ he speaks of:

‘the connected river which flows (around the world)
I know its might,
I know how it ebbs,
I know how it flows,
I know how it courses,
I know how it retreats.
I know how many creatures
are under the sea’

It seems the Britons shared with the Greeks and the Norse a concept of a river/ocean encircling the world. To me this speaks of an intuitive knowledge of the oceanic currents of our ‘global conveyor belt’ which flow through the world’s oceans maintaining its ecosystems.

Another riddle suggests we once possessed knowledge of many rivers thisworldly and otherworldy:

‘how many winds, how many waters,
how many waters, how many winds,
how many coursing rivers,
how many rivers they are’

It’s my intuition that, like the Greek and Norse rivers, the rivers of Annwn flow through Thisworld and the Otherworld too. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn, a ruler of Annwn and gatherer of souls, says he is:

‘Hurrying to battles in Tawe and Nedd.

Not the Tawe here in this land
But the one far away in a distant land
Where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore.’

The Tawe is a river in Thisworld that flows through ‘a distant land’ – Annwn – too. It seems likely the Defwy, which might be identified with the Dyfi, appears in both worlds.

Afon_Dyfi_-_geograph.org.uk_-_242012

Afon Dyfi – the Defwy here in this land?

It is notable that Gwyn speaks to Gwyddno of his ‘sorrow’ at seeing ‘battle at Caer Vandwy’, ‘Shields shattered, spears broken / Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair’. Caer Vandwy ‘The Fortress of God’s Peak’ is mentioned in the same verse as ‘the meadows of Defwy’ with the legendary Ych Brych ‘Brindled Ox’.

Gwyn is speaking of a devastating battle between his people ‘the honoured and fair’ (the dead) and Arthur and his men who Taliesin accompanied on their raid on Annwn to plunder its spoils, which included the Brindled Ox and cauldron of Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn).

Even the impervious Taliesin describes this part of the raid of a ‘sad journey’ and says ‘save seven none returned from Caer Vandwy’. Arthur set out with ‘three loads full of Prydwen’ (his ship).

It seems Gwyn is sorrowful because the dead, who should be free of sorrow, were forced to fight and die again and he had again to gather their souls – a task he performs at battles in both worlds.

On a journey to the Defwy with Gwyn I saw people approaching the river, some to kneel and pray, some to cry, some to pour into it great jugs of tears. He told me that the Defwy is the place where the dead discard their sorrowful memories so they can move on to the lands of joy.

He also said the living can come here to do the same, but discarding one’s sorrows is a dangerous process, a form of death, and that they can never be regained because they flow away into the ocean to be reborn in new shapes walking abroad in forms unrecognisable to us.

In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ Taliesin says in Annwn ‘There is one that knows / what sadness is / better than joy’. I believe this is Gwyn, who knows too well the sorrow of the dead who leave their memories at the Defwy in order to travel onward into his joyful realm.

Taliesin is, of course, ‘the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’, the one who continues to evade death, who claims to know all, remember all, yet in spite of this feels little sorrow, little guilt, for the catastrophes that he has witnessed and played a role in.

Knowing neither sorrow nor death will this mysterious glib-tongued entity, who was created by the magician-gods from fruit, blossoms and flowers, earth and water, ever truly know life or joy?

 

Lamentation for Catraeth

‘By fighting they made women widows,
Many a mother with her tear on her eyelid’
Y Gododdin

After Catraeth battle flags sway in the wind.
Storm darks our hair. Our tears are rain.
We press cheeks against cold skin,
load biers with sons and husbands
who will never drink in the mead-hall again,
lift weapons, smile across a furrowed field,
mend the plough, yoke oxen, share a meal,
touch ought but blood-stained soil,
chilled fingers reticent to let go.

Storm sky breaks. Our love pours out.
Ravens descend on soft wings to take them.
How we wish they would take our burning eyes,
flesh we rend with nails unkempt
from the year they left for Din Eiddyn,
drunk their reward before it was earned

at dawn with sharpened spears
at daybreak with clashing spears
at noon with bloody spears
at dusk with broken spears
at night with fallen spears,
shattered shields, smashed armour, severed heads.

Seven days of wading through blood.
Of each three hundred only one lives.
Their steel was dark-blue. Now it is red.
Because of mead and battle-madness
our husbands and sons are dead.

We rend our veils. The veil is rent.
We long to tear out our hearts
and offer them instead
to the Gatherer of Souls approaching
with the ravens and hounds of death,
whose face is black as our lament,
whose hair is the death-wind,
whose touch is sorrow,
whose heart is the portal to the otherworld.

Our men rise up to meet him.
The march of the dead is his heart-beat.
The dead of centuries march through him.
The great night is his saddle.
The dead men ride his horse.

Forefathers and foremothers hold out their hands.
We do not want to let go but they slip
through our fingers like water
like tears
from sooty eyelids
into the eyes of others
into the eyes of their kin
to gather in the eyes of the Gatherer of Souls.

They are stars in our eyes now.
They are stars in the eyes of the hounds of death,
marching from drunken Catraeth:
the battle that knows no end.

Sunshine Old as Memory: Hôrai and Preserving Visions of Fairyland

I. Blue Vision of Depth

P1120613 - Copy

‘Blue vision of depth lost in height – sea and sky interblending through luminous haze. The day of spring and the hour morning.
Only sky and sea – one azure enormity… in the fore ripples are catching a silvery light, and threads of foam are swirling. But a little farther off no motion is visible, nor anything save colour: dim warm blue of water widening away to meet into blue of air. Horizon there is none: only distance soaring into space – infinite concavity hovering before you, and hugely arching above you – the colour deepening with the height. But far in the mid-way blue there hangs a faint, faint vision of palace towers, with high roofs horned and curved like moons – some shadowing of splendour strange and old, illumined by sunshine old as memory…
…Those are the glimmering portals of Hôrai the blest; and those are the moony roofs of the Palace of the Dragon King.’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan (1904) is a collection of Japanese ghost stories and studies of superstitions about the insect world by Lafcadio Hearn. Hôrai is a legendary place in Japanese mythology known as Mount Penglai by the Chinese. Lafcadio’s ethereal yet beautiful descriptions share surprising parallels with Celtic representations of Fairyland.

Lafcadio says in the books of the Chinese Shin dynasty Hôrai is a place where there is no death, pain or winter. The flowers never fade and the fruits never fail. Enchanted plants heal sickness. A fountain of perpetual youth nourishes grass that quickens the dead. The people eat rice and drink wine out of very small cups that are never empty.

However Lafcadio claims these books were not written by people who have visited Hôrai. Really there are no fruits that forever satisfy the eater, magical grasses that revive the dead, fountains of perpetual youth or cups never empty. It is not true sorrow and death never enter Hôrai or that there is no winter: ‘The winter in Hôrai is cold; and winds then bite to the bone; and the heaping of snow is monstrous on the roofs of the Dragon King.’

The textual descriptions of Hôrai are deceptive as the place itself. Another name for Hôrai is Shinkirō: ‘Mirage.’ Similarly on the surface Fairyland appears a paradisal place. Take for example this description of St Collen’s arrival at the castle of the Brythonic Fairy King, Gwyn ap Nudd:

‘he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign…
And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish.’

Collen refused to partake in the meal saying “I will not eat the leaves of trees” and disparaged the costumes of Gwyn’s host because their red signified burning and blue coldness. When he threw holy water the castle and its inhabitants disappeared.

Collen saw through the fairies’ glamoury but gained no perception of the deeper reality beneath. In my earliest travels to Gwyn’s castle I found I had to go through a curious combination of sky and sea – an ocean filled with stars. Sometimes I arrived on the shore and sometimes above. The palace’s most distinguishing feature was a lunar crescent on its roof mirroring the bull horns Gwyn wore in an earlier vision of him as a ‘bull of battle.’

Sometimes the palace was alive and thronging with people and there was feasting, singing and mead. Sometimes it was derelict, cold, draped in hoar frost and Gwyn sat with only his hound, Dormach, for company. I voiced this in my poem ‘Gwyn’s Hall’ at midsummer in 2013:

‘Summer here and winter there
My longest day your darkest night
Hoar frost drapes your haunted fortress
Whilst swallows ride my glowing sunlight.

Summer here and winter there
My brightest day your longest night
Whilst blackbirds sing my endless fanfare
Crazy owl streaks across your vaunted midnight.

Winter there and summer here
And I between them like the song
That lies unsung between the years
Between your hall and my brief home.’

My jaw dropped when I read Lafcadio’s words about Hôrai and its blue vision of depth which corresponded so well with my experiences of Fairyland, or as it was earlier known, Annwn ‘the deep.’ Particularly considering on the day of my dedication to Gwyn at Glastonbury Tor he appeared to me as a dragon, something completely unrecorded in known literature, although there are plenty of references to divine shapeshifters taking serpentine form.

Since then I have learnt that although Fairyland can be mind blowingly beautiful it is far from perfect. Its winters and sorrows mirror our own. Its treasures are not indestructible. Its resources are finite. There are no panaceas or such thing as eternal youth.

Fairyland is not free from death, war or political strife. When we die we carry the concerns of thisworld with us and indeed our world passes over into the next. The blue vision of depth is ours in the making and we bear as much responsibility as the gods.

II. Made of Ghost

Lost in the Mist 082 - Copy

‘It is an atmosphere peculiar to the place; and, because of it, the sunshine in Hôrai is whiter than any other sunshine – a milky light that never dazzles – astonishingly clear, but very soft. This atmosphere is not of our human period: it is enormously old, so old that I feel afraid when I try to think how old it is; and it is not a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. It is not made of air at all, but of ghost – the substance of quintillions of quintillions of generations of souls blended into one immense translucency – souls of people who thought in ways never resembling our ways. Whatever mortal man inhales that atmosphere, he takes into his blood the thrilling of these spirits; and they change the senses within him – reshaping his notions of Space and Time – so that he can see only as they used to see, and feel only as they used to feel, and think only as they used to think. Soft as sleep are these changes of sense…’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn

Gwyn ap Nudd translates as ‘White son of Mist’. His presence can be felt on misty mornings when the cold winter sun is an icy disk moving through a limboland of grey clouds reflected in the river. He and the dead in the smooth white air silently whispering the blurring of borderlines reshaping benches, trees, rivers, hills, the thoughts in our minds.

In Culhwch and Olwen it is said ‘God has put the spirits of the demons of Annwn in him, lest the world be destroyed.’ These words suggest Gwyn physically contains the spirits of Annwn although this may be a gloss on his rulership of them. Taken literally he is made of ghost.

It’s rare in Celtic literature to find links between Fairyland and the dead. It seems possible these connections were repressed by Christian rulers in favour of eternal reward in heaven or punishment in hell to ensure moral conduct. Such acts of repression are represented in St Collen’s supposed banishment of Gwyn and his host.

Gwyn’s role as a gatherer of the dead and King of Fairy provides a clue. Further evidence may be gleaned from Sir Orfeo. This Breton lay displays roots in Brythonic tradition:

‘In Britain in the days of yore
The harpers writ that men should praise
The gallant deeds that were before-
Of such the Britons made their lays.’

The setting is Winchester. Although it is modelled on the story of Orpheus the protagonist, Orfeo, does not descend to the gloomy depths of the Classical underworld to win back his beloved, Heurodis, but enters Fairyland by striding into a rock.

Fairyland is described as a country ‘bright as the summer sun… green vast.’ The knights are ‘bright… with large display / Of gorgeous banners gaily blent’ and the ladies ‘dancing free / In quaint attire… To sound of pipes and minstrelsy.’ Heurodis is amongst them.

Orfeo goes to the castle of the Fairy King who abducted her on May Day many years ago. This is described as a castle tall with a hundred towers of crystal ‘The jewelled stones shed forth a light / Like sunbeams on a summer’s day.’

The Fairy King and Queen are seated on a ‘tabernacle fair and light’ wearing glistening crowns and garments ‘so hot they shone’ ‘He could not gaze.’ The court are got up in ‘rich array.’

This contrasts with a horrifying discovery Orfeo made previously in the castle:

‘Some headless stood upon the ground,
Some had no arms, and some were torn
With dreadful wounds, and some lay bound
Fast to the earth in hap forlorn.

And some full-armed on horses sat,
And some were strangled as at meat,
And some were drowned as in a vat,
And some were burned with fiery heat,
Wives lay in child-bed, maidens sweet…

…Each thus was stolen out of life,
For such the fairies sieze and keep.
And there he saw his darling wife,
Sweet Heurodis as one asleep.’

These lines provide clear evidence of connections between the fairies and the dead. The host of knights, ladies including Heurodis herself is composed of people who have died suddenly or violently. Gwyn is intimately associated with the battle dead and people who have perished of unknown causes were often seen as taken by the fairies.

Orfeo’s task is not only to bring Heurodis back from Fairyland but from the dead. He succeeds through his wit and the power of his music. In Sir Orfeo there is no cruel condition vetoing looking back. He returns from Fairyland, from the Fairy King and Queen and their host bright and shining and made of ghost, to fleshly existence with his wife.

III. The Vision is Fading

View from Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 109 - Copy

‘Evil winds from the West are blowing over Hôrai; and the magical atmosphere, alas! is shrinking away before them. It lingers now in patches only, and bands like those long bright bands of cloud that trail across the landscapes of Japanese painters. Under these threads of the elfish vapour you still can find Hôrai – but not elsewhere… Remember that Hôrai is also called Shinkirō, which signifies Mirage – the Vision of the Intangible. And the Vision is fading – never again to appear save in pictures and poems and dreams…’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn

It is impossible to imagine a time the Vision has not been under threat. The ancient tribal people who inhabited Britain and those who still exist in small wild pockets across the world living off the land, maintaining old stories, communing with their deities and ancestors, have never been immune to natural disasters or invasions by other people.

Kwaidan was published in 1904. Lafcadio translated most of the stories from old Japanese manuscripts. Yuki-onna was told to him by a farmer and Riki-baka and Hi-Mawara are based on his own experiences. ‘Evil winds from the West are blowing over Hôrai’ suggests Lafcadio thought the introduction of Western institutions posed a threat to Japanese folk beliefs and this motivated him to translate and share them.

Similarly in Britain as the industrial revolution forced country dwellers to move into towns to find factory work the loss of their beliefs prompted a resurgence of interest in folklore. Here in Lancashire folktales collected in the 19th and 20th centuries contain a fascinating admixture of ‘pagan’ Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Christian folk beliefs featuring fairies, boggarts, demons, spectral huntsmen, phantoms and ghosts.

Whilst these stories have not died out, belief in our ability to interact with Fairyland has. Its name, once held in superstitious regard, evokes parodic Barbie Fashion Party Fairytale Palaces with glitzy innocuous fairy god mothers with glitter wands and nothing of its deeper truths: a trend initiated by Shakespeare’s reduction of Queen Mab to diminutive size with butterfly wings and enforced by an era of Victorian twee.

The connection between Fairyland and the dead has been lost. The majority of people in our secularised society do not give much serious thought to where they will go when they die, what it will look like, who will guide them, who will be waiting when they arrive.

Disappointingly the majority of books on shamanism offer little but hypostasised lower, middle and upper worlds, instructions for entering green and leafy glades for pleasant get-togethers with spirit guides and power animals and tips for self development.

The myths and stories of our lands and ancestors make better field guides but are dated. We’ve seen industrial change on a global scale since then, two devastating world wars decimating towns and cities and tearing apart blood lines, and are still embroiled in brutal conflicts.

Before setting off on otherworld journeys we think little of what effect this has had on Fairyland. What great effort it takes to cover over nuclear waste and fracking wells. How much mead is needed to calm the dead forced to go to war for the sake of empire; for a political system founded on the ceaseless exploitation of finite resources to fuel machines of war.

Sunshine old as memory still shines in Fairyland. Go there and you will taste its magic, breath its atmosphere of quintillions of souls. Its Vision may be fading, fragile, fractured, rent by bloody wounds but it is still with us. It is our responsibility to preserve it for generations to come in pictures and poems and dreams; in our creation of thisworld as it passes into the otherworld.

Glasgow Necropolis

So often returning to the same place.’
Merchants` House motto

It called to me before I went there
across the bridge of sighs:
green avenues of mausoleums,
huge genius loci of merchant patriarchs
towering over obelisks and plinths,
guardians of locked vaults,
faces grey and sombre.

Nothing escapes the rain in the city of the dead.
It pours its fierce torrential acid force
on statues with eyes empty in prayer
gazing forever heavenward.
Makes them raw. Crafts them so white it hurts.
Grants them tears and new stigmata.
An angel holds an oak leaf like a butterfly.
Orange sycamore birds catch in the wind and fall.

How do they feel, how do they see
when their eyes are pupil-less?
Are they blind or do they see as I see
a crack of light in the magma-like clouds,
my lord of the dead approaching on a lime-white horse
where time bends an army of tombstones
into eternity? Do their hearts beat
with mourning and elation?

Do they remember the steady hand
of devotion that carved their limbs,
immortalised them here as I stare statue-like
from amongst merchants, artists, poets,
gathered on green roads,
in sepulchral houses,
ask the rider on the pale horse
“why am I so often returning to the same place?”

Bridge of Sighs

*Glasgow Necropolis was the last place I visited during my time in Glasgow.

 

 

The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid

I journeyed for weeks
through mist and hunger
to find the split rack of her bones,
bones stripped, flesh burnt
and boiled in the cauldron,
blood drained and bottled in two jars.

I plundered the ashes where the cauldron stood,
sniffed for blood where the jars were filled.
Played maracas with her bones,
made intricate arrangements,
chanted and sung
but could not raise her ghost.

“She is amongst the spirits of Annwn now,”
spoke the god I called instead.

“Lay her bones to rest. In the fire of poetry
console her burning spirit.”

***

I’m laying her bones to rest. The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid. Her name was Orddu. It meant ‘the Very Black Witch’. Whether she had black skin, black hair or used black magic seem irrelevant now. All that is left is her scapula split in twain, her shattered pelvis, two arms, two legs, her broken skull. Jagged shadows in two orbits retrieved from either side of the cavern.

Her bones are still. I am angry and restless. I cannot abide the story of her death. How Arthur came as he always did into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches: sword slung over his shoulder like a sundered lightning bolt, a living knife in his hilt, a shield on his thigh adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary, aboard a huge mare.

Caw of Prydyn behind him a giant with a curling beard and the damned jars like heinous milk bottles on each side of his saddle; half a man in size, well-stoppered, thick-glassed, unbreakable. Then the retinue with spear and shield, tawdry banners and flags.

Following to stragglers’ jeers Hygwydd the servant staggering bow-legged bent-backed beneath the gigantic cauldron that brewed food for the brave. Hygwydd’s brother Cacamwri with Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil dragging ponies piled with saddle-bags of food and weapons.

At Arthur’s right Gwythyr ap Greidol, a gristled war-lord with fire and a hundred bloody campaigns in his eyes. A blazing passion. And to Arthur’s left Gwyn ap Nudd, the guide who tricked and dizzied their quest cloaked in mist summoning his hounds to eat the fallen from the mountainside.

Of the host who went to Pennant Gofid only a fragment reached the cave where Orddu plaited her black hair, blackened her skin with war-paint, fastened down her helmet. Sharpened her sword then set it aside like an afterthought. Cracked her knuckles and flexed her talons.

When Arthur blanched a voice mocked from the mist “if you’re scared, witch-killer, why not send your servants in instead?”

Arthur pointed Hygwydd and Cacamwri toward Orddu beckoning. She grabbed Hygwydd by the hair, dragged him to the floor, threw off Cacamwri’s assault, arrested their weapons, beat them out bloody and bruised. Arthur sent Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil in to be crushed in her wrestling hold, torn by her talons, beaten out with broken bones. Arthur fumbled for his knife.

“Why are you afraid, Christian warlord?” Orddu asked. “Far from home. Far from heaven. Do you remember I trained your northern warriors? Without my wisdom, gifts from our gods, they will be nothing but bickering chieftains with a lust for gold and immortality that will bring Prydain’s downfall?”

Overcome by fury Arthur threw his knife in a wrathful arc that sliced down through Orddu’s helmet through her ribs. Dropped to the floor as she fell aside in two halves screaming “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” as the mist writhed and the hounds of Annwn howled.

When her twitching halves lay still Caw filled the bottles with her blood still warm and jammed down the corks. They stripped her of armour and flesh. Boiled a merry meal. Stole her sword. Left with a cauldron filled with northern treasure whilst her spirit watched aghast in the misted arms of Gwyn ap Nudd.

***

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches with his living knife to put an end to wild recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years.

Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Gave us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Took away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Gave us virginity and chastity belts. Cut us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Not long ago I split the jars. Escaped to another place. Wandered my estate kissing Himalayan Balsam. Watching Ragwort sway with wasps. Mugwort flowering like coral. But this was not enough. Gods and fairies walked to the world of the dead and called me after them. Since then I have seen the dead walk in the bright eye of the sun.

I could not go back to the jars. To glass windows and tower blocks. To numbers on computer screens. The pencil skirts of offices. To fracking rigs threatening to break both worlds.

So I came to Pennant Gofid searching for answers and companionship on my lonely path. Found only Orddu’s bones and the god who took her spirit. Yet found a link in spirit with a companion and a god in the magical tradition of the Old North.

***

So I constructed a fire of poetry and spoke my words of consolation:

“Orddu Last Witch of Pennant Gofid
know you are not the last
to walk these paths
to caves and mountain ranges,
through otherworlds and distant ages,
seeking visions of the present
the future and past.

The rule of Arthur has fallen.
Though Prydain still falls
we have broken the jars.
Our blood is no longer contained
by the tyrants of Arthur’s court.
We are winning back our flesh.
Our magic. Our strength.

Remembering our gods.
Know your life will be remembered
where there are prophecies and hailstorms,
rain and rivers, caves and heresy,
in the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd
where your spirit burns
forevermore.”

Then I took her bones in my rucksack and crawled through to a dark chamber. On a little shelf beside Orwen ‘the Very White Witch’ I laid Orddu’s bones to rest.