Lockdown – life in a bubble then… pop!

For me the lockdown has been a safe bubble and has had a number of benefits. I’ve had the opportunity to cultivate a better relationship with my immediate reality at home, where I live with my parents. I’ve been doing more gardening and this has included food growing. We are now self-sufficient in lettuce, green vegetables, and fresh herbs. This has fitted with having more time to cook with them, to make tasty meals from scratch, my favourites being pea and mint soup and minty lamb stew.

The raspberries long ago strayed from their patch and ramble freely around the garden and they have gifted us a brilliant crop this year in spite of the rain.

I’ve had the time and space to begin repairing my mental health. I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life and, since my late teens, used alcohol as a way of self-medicating. I stopped drinking in January and, over the last few months, have completed a series of counselling sessions through the Minds Matter service.

This has resulted in me finding out that the source of my anxiety is likely having Asperger’s and that’s why I struggle with loud, noisy social situations, whether in public or online, and thrive on time alone or in quiet company, working on the land, in devotion to my gods, and nurturing my creativity.

In the place of alcohol, which obliviated my worries only temporarily, I’ve developed some worry management strategies. This has included keeping a worry diary and assessing whether a worry is practical or hypothetical. If it’s practical I have problem solving techniques to deal with it, and if hypothetical, a technique of setting it aside for a worry period so it doesn’t interfere with the rest of my day. This has made my worries seem less overwhelming thus I’m less worried about worry itself. Other small dietary changes like excluding caffeine and cane sugar have helped too.

The most major result is the realisation that my mental health limitations make it more important to focus on my gift – my awen, my creativity. This has led to my next book, The Dragon’s Tongue, in which I explore a myth of origins personal to me and my deities.

From the safety of my bubble I’ve been watching the lockdown ease. The shops, the hairdressers, the pubs opening, the traffic building up. I barely ever buy clothes, decided to clip my hair off, have stopped drinking, and rarely borrow my dad’s car, preferring to walk or cycle, so this hasn’t affected me much (although the busyness of the roads has made walking and cycling more unpleasant).

Yesterday, however, my bubble finally went pop. I cycled to Brockholes Nature Reserve for the first time since its reopening for a walk. My long term plan for finding paid work that doesn’t have a negative impact on my mental health has been getting a job in conservation which involves working outside alone or in the quiet company of other staff and volunteers. I was due to begin an internship at Brockholes to gain the necessary experience before the lockdown began and it was postponed.

On arrival I was pleased to see the meadows in flower with a mixture of lady’s bedstraw, thistle, vetch, ox-eye daisies, red campion, ragged robin, bird’s foot trefoil and other wild flowers.

Yet when I walked past the office I saw and spoke to the reserve manager, who informed me there have been staffing cuts. Everything is up in the air at the moment. If I was still to take the internship there would be less work and my opportunities would be limited to ‘income projects’ with less conservation.

The prospect of finding paid work with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust or any other conservation organisation is looking bleak. As is finding employment in any sector aside from key work. The future, due to coronavirus and the environmental crisis is a great unknown, with little chance of ‘normal’, much less ‘better’.

Still, I’m going to continue with my internship and other conservation volunteering whether it leads to paid work or not as I value the work of the Wildlife Trust and it is a way of serving my land and gods.

And I’m going to pull my bubble back around myself for a while and continue to use this opportunity to ‘tend to my domain – myth, gods, and the soul’, as my deity advised this morning.

Prayer: A Little Window

Following Anna Applegate’s comment on the lack of discourse on prayer in the Pagan communities I’ve decided to share a little window into my prayer life. I’ve never done this before because, rather than saying set prayers, I simply speak to the gods and spirits from the heart. These are examples of heartfelt words rather than literary masterpieces. I’d be interested to hear from others about their daily prayers.

Altars April 2018 II

Morning

I.
Spirit of this house
Spirits of Greencroft Valley
Spirits of this land on which I stand
I give thanks to you.

Lady of the Marsh
Lady of the sacred hill of Penwortham
Lady of the wells now lost
I give thanks to you.

Belisama, Goddess of the Ribble, flowing
from Gavel Gap through Settle, Clitheroe, Ribchester
bringing your gift of sacred waters
I give thanks to you.

Nodens and the Weather Shapers
cloud-makers, wind-bringers
mist, fog, and rain-bearers
I give thanks to you.

Gwyn ap Nudd
first amongst my gods my forever patron
who leads the dead and living to Annwn
I give thanks to you.

II.

Gwyn ap Nudd,
Lord of Annwn,
Guide of Souls,
Light of the Mist,

God who dwells
in the Otherworld yet
close as my heartbeat
close as my breath*

grant me guidance
from Annwn’s dark heart

and inspiration
from Annwn’s deep depths.

As I walk each step
in service to you.

(Followed by a recital of the Annuvian Awen and a meditation, journey, or divination).

Evening

Gwyn ap Nudd
Gatherer of Souls
Walker Between Worlds

God who guides the dead
God who walks the brink of madness
God who contains the fury
of the spirits of Annwn

I come to you in awe and reverence
I come to you in love and service.

Let us share our journeys…

(Followed by communion with Gwyn)

Bedtime

Nodens Lord of Dreams
God of that deep and absurd world
that I vow to remember the next morning
before it slips from my mind with
the waters of forgetting

I give thanks for the joy of sleeping
I give thanks for the joy of dreaming

and these were last night’s dreams…

Nodens Lord of Dreams
guide me in this night of deep dreaming.

*Phrase borrowed from Greg Hill.

What Ails You, Father? The Rain of Nodens

P1130621 - Copy

My article ‘What Ails You, Father? The Rain of Nodens’ has been published on Gods & Radicals HERE.

After heavy rain and floods across northern England, Scotland and Wales my article focuses on addressing Nodens (‘the Catcher’) as a Romano-British rain god. Exploring Nodens’ identification with Neptune as a god of rain it moves onto his role as a dream-god at Lydney and transformation into Lludd of the Silver Hand (a Catcher who cannot catch) and parallels with the Fisher King. It ends by discussing the importance of ‘asking the question’ and being open to answers in a time of uncertainty and climate change.

Apples

For Epona

The blood moon:
an apple in a goddess’ eye
drops and I think of the windfall
crisp autumn mornings when we released
the horses slipping from their halters
twisting away in leaps and bucks
with piquant glint-eyed excitement
to the trees where they’d drop their heads
whuffle up the crispy moons of green and red.

Some days before we turned them out
we whispered to them “apples”
and they knew exactly what we meant…

The blood moon has passed.
The horses are staying out late this year.
Yet the sun has gone down on my stable-yard:
baling freshly-cut hay, stacking barns
with hard-shouldered labour,
stuffing stretching nets
for hungry mouths.

As I cut the meadow and gather orchard fruits
I reminisce about the rural life that didn’t last.

When the horses are tied behind bar and bolt
tugging at hay with meadow-sweet muzzles
I will feed them apple-moons
from my open palm.

*This poem was written after watching September’s lunar eclipse from Greencroft Valley, where we planted apple trees two years ago, and is based on my experience of working with horses. I read it for Epona at a ritual in Glasgow led by Potia at the beginning of October.

Breaking the Silence

Two months ago I decided to take a break from blogging. I’d returned from Wales after climbing mist-ensorcelled hound-haunted Cadair Idris. Standing on the shoulder of a giant dizzied by his mad dreams. Staring down into Llyn Cau and Llyn y Gadair. Finding refuge in the hut of the mountain guide.

In Wales the gods are huge. Their names and stories echo from deep valleys and massive mountains and are carried in streams and rivers to where the immensity of the sky meets the immaculate sea on the western coast. From Pen y Gadair the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd never leave.

On Borth beach I read Heron’s new translation of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. The name Borth derives from Porth Wyddno and is the location of Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bottom Hundred); Gwyddno’s drowned kingdom. It was my intuition Gwyddno died there and the poem records a conversation between the worlds where Gwyn offers Gwyddno protection and guides him to Annwn (the Brythonic otherworld).

Reading the poem was immensely powerful. I experienced vividly the presence of these two great mythic figures speaking against the backdrop of the pebbled beach and roaring sea. Afterward at sunset I saw the otherland of which Gwyn speaks ‘where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore’ appear on the horizon.

Borth VI returned to Penwortham mind-blown with much to absorb in thought and dream only to experience another immensity. This time a crushing one. Walking the section of the old pilgrim’s path that leads across the A59 from the site of St Mary’s Well to the War Memorial I got trapped in the middle of the road: unable to cross because of the heavy rush of traffic at school pick-up time.

A59 between site of St Mary's Well and Penwortham War MemorialI knew this was the result of the widening of Penwortham By-Pass. A rush which will only increase when a new stretch of by-pass is built leading over the river Ribble to Junction 2 of the M55 (which exists only in name having been planned over 40 years ago). That this was linked to the expansion of BAE, the University of Central Lancashire, to the building of new housing developments and employment sites throughout Preston and South Ribble.

I was struck by the overwhelming gnosis it was beyond me to stop the growth of this monster. I could not stop the City Deal. I’d known for a while the City Deal was something not even the most seasoned campaigners would dare take on as a whole. That each of us must find our own way of protecting what we value within the realms of possibility whether it’s by campaigning against individual developments, fracking (which will not only ruin the landscape and poison our sacred watercourses but fuel the monster), austerity, defending and caring for an area of green space or growing and nurturing a community group.

Acknowledging this insight has taken a lot of readjustment during which I realised attempting not even to save the world but just South Ribble and Preston, Penwortham even, was beyond my capability and making me ill. Not only that, Peneverdant ‘the green hill on the water’ with its aquifer shattered in 1884, its holy wells dry, its banks subsiding with falling trees and gravestones under increasing duress from the By-Pass wanted to close down. Hence the closure of ‘From Peneverdant.’

What did I have left? The Friends group I run in Greencroft Valley with its wildflowers and apple trees. The monthly poetry night I play a lead role in organising at Korova Arts Cafe & Bar which provides a safe and welcoming space for newcomers and established poets to perform. The Oak and Feather Grove.

My relationship with the land and the gods which my recent travels north and to Wales have taught me need not be limited to Penwortham. The inspiration and awe I find in my path as an awenydd devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd. The depth and magic of his known and unknown stories. A growing awareness of other Brythonic gods and goddesses and their myths.

Whilst I’ve had support and companionship from friends and family and other poets and pagans, until the past couple of months my path as an awenydd and Brythonic polytheist has been a lonely one. However, in October I went to Glasgow to a ritual to Epona-Rigantona led by Potia and last week returned to Borth and finally met Heron, whose writing has guided and inspired me for several years.

Together on Borth beach Heron and I read my story ‘The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir’ which I wrote after my previous visit to Borth based on his translation of Gwyn and Gwyddno’s dialogue. It was moving and beautiful reading and listening to the words, born from the place, from an ancient poem passed on from poet to poet, feeling it live on the sea breeze and the rolling tides, honouring Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp, Gwyddno’s passing and the absent cranes (‘garan’ from Garanhir means crane in Welsh) who I gave the role of soul-birds. Afterward we walked across Cors Fochno (Borth Bog), where cranes may have nested, up Cwm Clettwr and to Taliesin’s grave.

I returned nourished with my feeling of the increasing import of the Brythonic myths juxtaposed with my frustration so few people have an interest in them. Of having much to share but no-one to share with. Which led once again to despair until I had a dream which somehow I knew took place ten years in the future.

I was leading a guided tour of one or two disinterested people to ‘Cockersand Fields’ (which I interpreted to be the fields near Cockersand Abbey where a statue to Mars-Nodens was found) and was feeling ready to give up on this task and life altogether. I hadn’t put my heart into it for several years. Then I saw a group of young backpackers approaching from boats on a sunset beach with smiles and eyes filled with hope. They’d come searching for stories about Gwyn, which I’d failed to write: a failure I suddenly regretted and a friend pushed me to rectify.

The dream seemed to be telling me not to lose hope in a vocation that nurtures my soul, brings me joy and could likewise bring meaning and purpose to others because my writing doesn’t provoke immediate responses or recognition. To think of the long term rather than satisfaction in the now.

Thus for the first time since the closure of ‘From Peneverdant’ I break my silence. Whilst I can’t promise my words will save the world or even Penwortham, I hope for others led down strange paths by little-known gods they may provide signposts in the mist that lead to the strength and inspiration to live with joy and depth in this troubled world.

Borth III

Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

Woodcock Air Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Kentigern's Graveyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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 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.

Of Ducklings, Ganesh and Woodland Fires

Thursday the 9th of July was a strange and crazy day. My disastrous morning began with buying blu-tac to put up signs for a conference at work: signs I realised on arrival I hadn’t printed off. It went downhill from there. After managing to print the signs double-sided and procrastinating whether to leave at the agreed time of 9.45am after doing such a botched job, I fled to the Lancashire Archives.

On arrival I realised I had spent the £5 I put in my purse for a photography pass on blu-tac. Apologising and rushing to the cash machine, my head was in such a spin I entered the wrong pin code thrice and had to go to my bank to get a new one and ask for the money in person.

That done, I had a reasonable amount of success in photographing the 1811 Enclosure Act for Fulwood Forest and accompanying map and acquiring Ronald Cunliffe Shaw’s massive tome The Royal Forest of Lancaster from the basement of the Harris Library. With the huge book under my arm, feeling slightly nervous about dropping or damaging it, I headed home.

The Forest of Lancashire by Ronald Cunliffe Shawe

The Forest of Lancashire by Ronald Cunliffe Shawe

Walking down Riverside beside the Ribble, crossing a street, I caught the silvery glint of a pair of glasses. Stopping to pick them up and wondering what to do with them, I heard a shout from behind. It was a postman, who told me the glasses were his and he had lost them because he had been trying to catch a duckling and put it back over the river wall.

Assuming said duckling had been caught and put back I walked on, only moments later, to see her; striped tawny and brown running panickedly with a flap of short wings dangerously close to the roadside. With no idea how I was going to catch her or where to put the book I began following her with the aim, at least, of making sure she wasn’t run over.

Riverside

Riverside

As the duckling pursuit approached Penwortham Bridge a couple on a tandem bike stopped to help. The woman took my book and her partner and I managed to herd the duckling into a front yard. Four bins stood on the right. When she ran behind we manoeuvred them to form a make-shift duck pen.

When we finally thought we had caught her she slipped through the cyclists’ hands yet he managed to catch her in the next garden whilst I was left explaining to the owner of the house why we had used his bins to make a duck-pen.

The cyclist handed me the duckling and the pair departed. Realising quickly that holding the frightened creature was a job that necessitated constant attention and two hands, and with no sign of the duckling’s mother in sight, I asked the local resident if he would hold her whilst I phoned for advice.

13th C statue of Ganesh, courtesy of Wikipedia

13th C statue of Ganesh, courtesy of Wikipedia

He kindly obliged, inviting me into the porch of his vibrantly decorated house where I borrowed his telephone to ring the RSPCA whilst standing in front of a statue of Ganesh. I first met Ganesh when I performed Puja to him at a Druid and Hindu gathering last year. Beforehand I had been stressed as I’d been told at the last minute I had to drastically cut down a talk I’d spent some time preparing and rehearsing. After the Puja, I felt calm and my contribution went well.

Whilst navigating the phone system of the RSPCA was an absolute nightmare, Ganesh provided a sense of reassurance. Eventually I got put through to a human operator by pressing the line for ‘tangled and trapped animals’. She told me to remain beside the river and look out for the mother for a couple of hours and if I didn’t see her to call them back.

Realising I couldn’t hold the duckling and use my phone I called my friend, Nick, who was luckily in town and said he would meet me. Leaving my book at the Broadgate resident’s house, I walked up river and noticed a small family of ducks. However, the mother showed no sign of having lost one of her flock.

When I met Nick he told me he had phoned his friend, Lee, an animal rescue volunteer. She arrived within minutes in her van with a bird carrier. When I mentioned the family Lee said as it wasn’t certain the duckling belonged to them it was safer for her to take her home. Farewells were made to the duckling who ran swiftly into the carrier then, clearly exhausted, settled down.

After a catch-up with Nick, Lee departed. Reassured the duckling was safe, I picked up the book and thanked the gentleman. Thinking back, I couldn’t help pondering how if I hadn’t been delayed at the archives I would have been home a couple of hours ago reading my book and wouldn’t have seen and rescued the duckling at all.

However this strange chain of events had not reached its end. Close to home I found my local valley filled with smoke. Although I assumed it must be from someone’s bonfire I checked the woodland and was glad I did as someone had built and abandoned a large fire which, with the wind, looked perilously close to the withered cow parsley and other dry vegetation.

I rushed home, dropped off the book and picked up two buckets and a jug to fill them from Fish House Brook. After ten trips the fire was out. I was left exhausted and shaken by the realisation if it hadn’t been for my delay at the archives and the duckling pursuit I might have got home before the fire was lit and it might have caused considerable damage to the valley.

GCV Fire

Doused fire, Greencroft Valley

Looking back I can make no clear sense of the events. Yet what stands out is the slow inexorable pull of nature away from the white noise of forms and formalities. From the confines of the university to the archives and enclosed and mapped landscape of 1811 to the living webbed running feet of the duckling to the manual labour of filling buckets from my local stream, with a hiss, fizz and sizzle, dousing the fire in the valley I love.

A clearish lesson is I’m much better at rescuing ducklings and fire-fighting than administration and I feel more myself and grounded in these tasks and the land. And what of Ganesh? Hindu god of removing obstacles, peace and new beginnings? I hope his appearance signals a time when I can clear away my failures, renew my connection with my land and my gods and move on, even if means sacrificing some of the ambitions that led me to the position I’m currently trapped in.

Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwallog ap Lleenog: One Brother Dies and the Other Lives On

In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn states his presence at the death of Gwallog ap Lleenog ‘From a long line of princes / Grief of the Saxons’. Gwallog is a descendant of Gwyr y Gogledd ‘The Men of the North’. His descent on his father’s side is recorded in the Harleian Genealogies. ‘[G]uallauc map Laenauc map Masguic clop map Ceneu map Coyl hen.’ This places him amongst the lineage of Coel Hen (Old King Cole).

More importantly within the context of my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North, Gwyn, Gwallog and Caradog are mentioned as half-brothers through their shared descent on the maternal side from Tywanwedd in Descent of the Saints. Tywanwedd is the daughter of Amlawdd Wledig, a Welsh prince who may have ruled on the border of Herefordshire.

These three brothers appear again in an entry in Peniarth MS 132: ‘Gwyn ap Nudd greiddyei (?) ap Lludd. He went to Llew ap Llyminod Angel. He went between sky and air. He was brother to Caradog Freichfras and Gwallog ap Lleenog. He and they had the same mother.’

Between Sky and Air

Between Sky and Air

In Geraint son of Erbin Caradog, Gwallog, Gwalchmai and Owain son of Nudd appear alongside Arthur as ‘guarantors’ of Edern son of Nudd after he is mortally wounded by Geraint. Caradog and Edern appear together as Arthur’s ‘counsellors’ in The Dream of Rhonabwy. This brings to light further familial links.

It is of great interest to note that if Tywanwedd is Gwyn’s mother, this places him in the same lineage as Arthur (Arthur’s mother was Eigr daughter of Amlawdd) and Culhwch (Culhwch’s father was Goleuddydd, son of Amlawdd): the three are first cousins (!).

However, Peter Bartrum argues due to Gwyn, Gwallog and Caradog’s ‘disparate nature’ in ‘character, place and time’ it was more likely their mother was a fairy like Gwyn. Considering Gwyn is a god whose worship as Vindos / Vindoroicos / Vindonnus can be traced back to the Romano-British period it seems clear she must also have been divine: a goddess who, like Gwyn, may later have been perceived as a fairy.

As within Brythonic mythology there is a long tradition of relations between deities and mortals, often bearing offspring (for example Owain Rheged’s parents were Urien Rheged and the goddess Modron, mother of Mabon) it seems possible the story behind Gwallog’s birth was that his father, Lleenog, slept with a fairy woman. Perhaps one of her guises was Tywanwedd, and as Tywanwedd she seduced Lleenog?

The story of Gwallog’s birth from a fairy woman provides some fascinating insights into the continuity of pagan beliefs within a northern British society that was nominally Christian. It also supports my growing intuition that Gwyn, his father (and now his mother) were viewed as ancestral deities by the Britons of the Old North, Wales and beyond.

***

Gwallog’s kingdom is traditionally Elmet. This is derived from Ifor Williams’ translation of lines in The Song of Gwallawg ap Lleenawg where Gwallog is named ‘a judge over Elmet’. Bede speaks of ‘silva elmete’ (‘the forest of Elmet’) saying ‘subsequent kings made a house for themselves in the district, which is called Loidis.’ Loidis is Leeds and place-name evidence suggests Elmet covered West Yorkshire.

Further evidence Gwallog ruled Elmet comes from Nennius’ History of the Britons. He tells of how Edwin of Northumbria ‘occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country’. Certic is usually identified as Ceredig, Gwallog’s son.

Gwallog’s renown as a war-leader is evidenced by the Triads, where he is named as one of three ‘Pillars of Battle’, ‘Bull Protectors’ and ‘Battle-Leaders’ of Britain. According to Nennius he was amongst four kings; Urien, Rhydderch the Old, Gwallog and Morcant, who played a leading role in defending the north against the Bernician Angles. Whilst some scholars assume Nennius refers to an alliance between the four kings, Tim Clarkson believes he refers to separate campaigns and these northern rulers were as likely to have been enemies as allies.

Whilst the existence of an alliance is impossible to prove or disprove we know Morcant ordered Urien’s assassination at Aber Lleu (opposite Lindisfarne) and Gwallog fought either with or against the sons of Urien Rheged ‘Gwallach, horseman of battle, planned / to make battle in Erechwydd (Rheged) / against the attack of Elphin’ following Urien’s death.

In two poems attributed to Taliesin we find further evidence Gwallog fought just as ferociously against other Brythonic war-lords as against the Angles and Saxons. In The Song of Llenawg, Taliesin lists battles in Agathes, Bretrwyn, Aeron (a river in Ceredigion), Arddunion, the wood of Beit, Gwensteri and the marsh of Terra. He also mentions a cattle raid and conflict ‘At the end of the wood of Oleddyfein, / From which there will be pierced corpses, / And ravens wandering about.’

In The Song of Gwallog ap Lleenawg, Taliesin says Gwallog ‘rejected uniform ranks of the rulers, / Of the hosts of Rhun and Nudd and Nwython’. This shows he battled against other well-known northern rulers. He is finally described as ‘king of the kings of tranquil aspect’ over Caer Clud (Dumbarton, capital of the kingdom of Strathcylde), Caer Caradawg (the location of one of three ‘perpetual harmonies’ of the Isle of Britain) and the land of Penprys (Powys?). It seems he subjugated a number of other kings.

In The Black Book of Carmarthen we find an enigmatic poem called A Song on Gwallawg ab Lleenawg which refers to how Gwallog lost an eye in his youth. He is said to have lost it to an ‘accursed tree’ which appears thrice: as ‘black’, ‘white’ then ‘green’. In another variant he loses it to a ‘white goose’.

That Gwallog and his battles are so well remembered suggests this fearsome one-eyed warrior was known across Britain during his time and centuries later. Whilst his exploits are celebrated by the Bards I can only imagine his opponents and the ordinary people must have lived in dread of being caught up in the conflicts or ordered to fight.

Sadly we have no records of how anybody outside the ruling classes viewed Gwallog. However in the poem about how he lost his eye we may find reminiscences of a folk tradition. One can imagine gatherings around the fire whereby beery speculations led to a plethora of ‘how Gwallog lost his eye’ songs.

***

The only record I have been able to find which may relate how Gwallog met his end is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. He refers to Guallauc of Salisbury who dies fighting against the Romans in the Battle of Saussy (France). Whether this is ‘true’ and whether Gwallog and Guallauc are the same person remains uncertain.

In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn tells Gwyddno he was present at Gwallog’s death. Within the context of Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and role as a psychopomp, I assume he appeared to guide him to the land of the dead. The knowledge that Gwyn and Gwallog were half-brothers adds a whole new dimension to this scene and to their relationship. Gwyn was not only acting as a guide of the dead to a celebrated warrior but to his kinsman.

Gwyn also mentions his presence at Llachau’s death. Llachau is Arthur’s son. If Tywanwedd was Gwyn’s mother, this makes them cousins once removed. Again he gathers the soul of a relative.

At the end of The Conversation, Gwyn laments that he is alive whilst the warriors of Prydain (Britain) are slain and in their graves. Knowledge of Gwyn’s ancestral connections with these men provides a deeper understanding of why he chooses to recite their names to Gwyddno and particularly grieves their fall.

Because Gwyn is a god of Annwn whose role is to guide and contain its spirits until the world’s end, he is fated to witness the deaths of his mortal and semi-mortal kindred as he lives on.

Cotton Grass, Winter HillSOURCES

Bartrum, Peter A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000 (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Bromwich, Rachel (ed) The Triads of the Island of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl) Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Monmouth, Geoffrey of The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Classic, 1973)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)