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 mother was Goleuddydd, daughter 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)

Four Wells

Four wells at Preston New Road.
Four wells at Roseacre.
Four wells in the darkness
between drilling and decision.

Four wells of steel meets shale.
Four wells boring into the mind.
Four wells of screaming poison.
Four wells of deadly sands of time.

Four wells where gas the question
scorches ears of invisible skies.
Four wells? An uneasy whisper
from underworld gods.

Four wells to decide the future.
Four wells of choice. Four wells of trembling.
By the word on four wells our land
will be saved or destroyed.

~

This is a poem I sent to Lancashire County Council’s Development Management Group along with more logical reasons why I am opposed to Caudrilla’s drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of four wells at Preston New Road and Roseacre. Protests at the County Hall will be beginning tomorrow (Wed 23rd June) as LCC make their final decision about Caudrilla’s application. For more information on how to register opposition by e-mail and join the protest see Frack Free Lancashire’s website.

Sign for fracking protest

Below are some photos from when I visited the potential fracking site at Preston New Road. The area is cordoned off and anti-trespassing notices are in place. It looks like work has already been done to prepare it for the drilling rig.

Edwina Walk, Penwortham Live 022 - CopyPreston New RoadEdwina Walk, Penwortham Live 028 - CopyEdwina Walk, Penwortham Live 054 - Copy

Gwyn ap Nudd and Du y Moroedd: Travelling the Old North, Wales and Beyond

In Culhwch and Olwen, Du y Moroedd (‘The Black of the Seas’) is introduced as the only horse who can carry Gwyn ap Nudd on the hunt for Twrch Twryth (‘King of Boars’). Du is a water-horse of celebrated fame in the Brythonic tradition. A study of his stories reveals that, like Gwyn, he is intimately connected with the landscapes and peoples of the Old North and Wales. He is also a traveller between worlds and thus a most fitting mount for Annwn’s ruler on his hunt for the greatest of boars.

The most detailed piece of information we possess about Du appears in The Triads of the Islands of Britain. As one of three ‘horse burdens’ he ‘carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’

The historical basis of this triad is Elidyr’s seaward journey from his home in northern Britain to Wales to seize the throne of Gwynedd from Rhun, Maelgwn’s illegitimate son (Elidyr’s claim was based on his marriage to Eurgain). Elidyr was killed at Aber Mewydd near Arfon. Afterward his fellow Men of the North; Clydno Eidyn, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael and Rhydderch Hael took vengeance by burning Arfon. Rhun and all the men of Gwynedd pursued them north to the river Gweryd.

This demonstrates the complex ancestral and political relationships between the people of the north and Wales and exemplifies the internecine strife that eventually led to the fall of the northern Brythonic kingdoms. It also shows that armies travelled between the Old North and Wales by land and sea.

It is of interest the Men of the North who came to avenge Elidyr are all of the ‘Macsen Guledig’ lineage. This places them in the same family as Gwyn’s ally and rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol and his kinsmen who Gwyn battles against and takes captive. Gwyn’s relationship with these northern men as a ruler of Annwn is just as fraught and unstable as relations between human rulers.

That Gwyn rides the same horse as Elidyr strengthens the sense of his familial ties with these Men of the North. That he acts as a psychopomp to several northern warriors suggests he may have been seen as an ancestral god. This is backed up by common usage of the name Nudd: Nudd Hael, Dreon ap Nudd and Nudus (the Latinised form from a memorial stone in Yarrow).

***

I assume Du is named as the only horse who can carry Gwyn due to his capacity to move between worlds. This is supported by analogy with The Pursuit of Giolla Dheachair where a ‘monstrous horse’ carries fifteen and a half of Finn’s (Gwyn’s Irish counterpart) companions to the Otherworld.

In this context it seems possible the triad depicts the surprise arrival of Elidyr and his party from the blackness of the sea on the darkest of nights as if from (or perhaps literally from!) the Otherworld. After Elidyr’s death one can imagine Gwyn appearing aboard this great water-horse on the bank of the Arfon to escort him to Annwn.

Du’s possession of uncanny and even monstrous qualities is echoed in later water-horse legends. In Brigantia: A Mysteriography Guy Ragland Phillips identifies the Black Horse of Bush Howe (a horse-shaped landscape feature of stone on the Howgill Fells in Cumbria) with Du. He suggests Elidyr’s northern Benllech was Bush Howe and cites an alignment down Long Rigg Beck valley to Morecambe to Anglesey saying the horse would be within its line of sight.

Ragland Phillips also claims a ‘dobbie cult’ centres on the Black Horse. ‘Dobbie’ is the ‘Brigantian’ name for a water-horse and he defines it as ‘a big, black misshapen thing that ‘slips about’. Like dobbin (a term still commonly used in the north for horses who are ploddy or woodenheaded) it ‘may have for its first element the Celtic Dhu, ‘black’.’

David Raven records a recent visit to the site, during which he photographed the Black Horse and stood on its back. Afterward he found out from a local historian that in the 1930’s and 40’s school children used to be allowed a day off to maintain the horse. A village elder said this was a practice undertaken by farmers in the pre-war period on an ‘annual Boon Day’.

This is strongly suggestive of cult activity and a longstanding service to the Black Horse. Jack (the village elder) also told David of a legend about Roman legions using the horse as a landmark on their travels ‘up the Lune valley, from Lancaster to Penrith and Carlisle.’ The Black Horse of Bush Howe is associated with travelling the northern landscape too.

The continuity of Du’s fame in Wales is attested by Welsh poetry. He appears in The Song of the Horses, a poem attributed to Taliesin: ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’. He is frequently used as a standard of comparison. Guto’r Glyn compares a foal with the ‘Son of the Black One of Prydyn’ (Du’s grandson) and Tudur Aled compares another horse with Du saying he is of ‘greater vigour… such was his strength and daring.

Like northern Britain, Wales has a water-horse tradition: the ‘ceffyl dwr’. I haven’t found any water-horse stories connected with Anglesey or Arfon on the internet but this doesn’t eliminate the possibility they exist in Welsh literature or folk memory.

***

Finally I’d like to return to Gwyn’s partnership with Du on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth in Culhwch and Olwen. Ysbaddaden’s statement to Culhwch that the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn is found hints at his role as a divine huntsmen and former leader of the boar hunt. Culhwch’s central task of assembling an array of renowned huntsmen, hounds and horses to hunt the Twrch is founded on an older and deeper myth.

About its details we can only conjecture. It is my guess it featured Gwyn, huntsmen, horses and hounds pursuing the King of Boars. It may have contained clues to the ‘mysteries’ of hunting: the hunt, the kill and ensuing feast as sacred activities based on an earlier shamanistic perspective.

Further insights may be gained by analogy with Odin’s hunting of the boar Saehrimnir (‘Sooty Sea-Beast’). Odin rides a great black eight-legged horse who can travel between worlds called Sleipnir (‘Slippy’ or ‘Slipper’). After the hunt Saehrimnir is cooked every evening but the next day is whole. Odin’s feast in Valhalla is mirrored by Gwyn’s feast in his otherworldy hall (in The Life of St Collen on Glastonbury Tor). Perhaps Gwyn’s hunt also rides each day to slay the Twrch then magically he is reborn and this reflects the sacred acts of hunting and eating and the procreation of the boar.

In Culhwch and Olwen it is not mentioned whether Gwyn or Du are found. They do not appear on Arthur’s hunt. Gwyn only comes when summoned by Arthur, who asks him if he knows the whereabouts of Twrch Twryth after he disappears at Glyn Ystun. It is implicit Arthur is seeking Gwyn’s knowledge because he suspects the Twrch has fled to Annwn. Gwyn claims he does not know anything about Twrch Trwyth. It is my intuition he is lying to protect the King of Boars and perhaps to cause mischief.

Following a chase across Wales and finally to Cornwall, whereby many of Arthur’s men are injured or killed by the Twrch and his piglets, they finally catch him and remove the comb and shears from between his ears. Afterward he is driven into the sea, which is suggestive of his return to Annwn. It is of interest that, unlike other otherworldly animals he confronts, Arthur does not slay Twrch Trwyth.

In later Welsh folklore Gwyn is depicted as a demon huntsman aboard a monstrous black horse who preys on the souls of sinners. This image derives from and parodies his partnership with Du as a divine huntsmen and his role as a guide of the dead. Whereas he was revered as much as feared by the pagan Britons, in this Christianised guise he solely brings terror (a misguided and one-sided view).

Gwyn and Du’s names disappear from the stories of northern Britain completely after the medieval period. It seems possible their myths lie behind some of our stories of spectral huntsmen and dobbies but due to the complex intermingling of local legends with Brythonic and Germanic lore the origins of these tales cannot be ascertained.

Yet our landscape remembers the travels of Gwyn and Du across the Old North, Wales and beyond by land and sea. On the paths of the hunt and at river-estuaries where tides beat the shore to gull-cries and winds of distant longing they are still here.

Ribble EstuarySOURCES
Bartrum, Peter A Welsh Classical Dictionary (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Bromwich, Rachel (ed.) The Triads of the Islands of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Ragland Phillips, Guy Brigantia: A Mysteriography (Routledge and Keegan Paul Ltd, 1976)
Raven, David http://davidraven-uk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/black-horse-of-bush-howe.html
Rhys, John Studies in the Arthurian Legend (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Sturluson, Snorri The Prose Edda (Penguin Books, 2005)

Invernith

My arrival is slow to wonder
initial disbelief
fading into silver-lined water
the mirror imprint
of Nith’s name a god in glass
becoming grey cloud
in the ether says
BELIEVE BELIEVE.

In the netherworld gloaming birds
shriek BELIEVE BELIEVE:
barnacle geese beat
black and white hearts against Crifell.
As the dark moon starts her slow pull
downward to Invernith
my fingers brush water
and touch a silver hand.

Invernith with Crifell

The Old North from Peneverdant

SnowdropsIn the land where I live, spring awakes. Snowdrops in their prime unfold the voluminous skirts of their lanterns. Lords and ladies push their courtship through the soil alongside first signs and scents of ransoms. Swollen mosses take on a bright green living vibrancy.

As I walk the path centuries of ancestors walked to St Mary’s Well, I hear the loudness of a thrush. Could it be the one who calls me from sleep each morning, speckled chest blanched and white as birch amongst ash and sycamore? The trees hold back for now, but I know the sap will start rising soon.

I pass the site of the healing well and cross the road to the War Memorial. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow primroses are planted in beds before the Celtic cross. Etched on blue-grey slabs are the names of seventy-three men who lost their lives in the First World War and forty-six who died in the second. They are honoured and remembered here. I also think of the dead who have no memorial or whose memories have been erased or forgotten.

I follow the footpath uphill onto Church Avenue. Leading to St Mary’s Church, it once went to a Benedictine Priory, dissolved and more recently demolished. A strange road this; trodden by pilgrims in search of miraculous cures and by funeral processions. By soldiers too, maybe armies, defending this crucial position from what we now see as the castle motte.

Passing the church on the hill’s summit I stand in the graveyard amongst tilted and fallen headstones, beneath sentinel beech trees whose shells and bronzed and curling leaves still litter the greening earth.

There’s no access to the motte’s vantage point, but through leafless trees I can make out the city of Preston with its clock tower, steeples, tower blocks and huge manufacturies along Strand Road. I recall images of its panoply of smoking chimneys, flaming windows, imagine the pounding Dickensian melancholy-mad elephants.

Preston’s sleeker now. Cleaner. Less red and black. Concrete grey. Not so smoky. But sometimes the industrial pall still holds. Somewhere behind its walls lies a medieval town and behind that…

The Pennines form a sweeping backdrop, rising higher than Priest Town’s spires ever could; Parlick, Wolf Fell, Longridge Fell, Billinge Hill, Great Hill, Winter Hill. An easterly green and purple barricade. To the west, the river Ribble, Belisama, strapped into her new course, stretches long arms to her shining estuary. A sea gull cries over the horizon and disappears.

I’ve spent several years researching the history of Penwortham. The Riversway Dockfinds mark the existence of a Bronze Age Lake Village. Ballista balls on Castle Hill and a huge industrial site at Walton-le-dale ascertain a Roman presence. Following the breakdown of Roman rule, history grinds to a halt.

There is a black hole in Penwortham’s past the size of the Dark Ages; during the time of the Old North.

Historians have conjectured about this. David Hunt and Alan Crosby agree that place names (where we find a mixture of Brythonic and Old English, like Penwortham* often conjoined) suggest a gradual settlement of the local area by Anglo-Saxons during the seventh century. They say Penwortham’s remoteness on the edges of Northumbria and Mercia meant it was not a major concern. However, this conflicts with the significance of its location as a defensive position for the early Britons and Romans and later probably for the Saxons of Mercia and the key role it played for the Normans during the harrying of the North.

History starts up again with the Saxon hundreds, invasions from Scandinavia and the Norman Conquest. But what happened in between?

Unfortunately, likewise, there is a black hole in the history of the Old North the size of Penwortham. And it isn’t the only one.

The very concept of ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘the Old North’ is problematic. It is a term used post datum by scholars to identify an area of land covering the majority of northern England and southern Scotland from the time of the breakdown of Roman rule in the fifth century until the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria came to dominate in the eighth century.

During this period, it was simply known as ‘Y Gogledd’ ‘the North’. Its people spoke a Brythonic language known as Cumbric, which was similar to the Cymric language of the Welsh. Its rulers ‘Gwŷr y Gogledd’ ‘the Men of the North’ claimed common descent from either Coel Hen (Old King Coel) or Dyfnawl Hen. Again, the genealogies are problematic because they were created by kings to certify their reign by tracing their lineage back to legendary ancestral figures.

The main kingdoms of the Old North are usually identified as Alt Clud, in the south-west of Scotland, which centred on Dumbarton and later became Strathclyde; Gododdin, in the south-east of Scotland, which had a base at Edinburgh; Elmet, in western Yorkshire and Rheged in north-west England.

The location of Rheged is a matter of ongoing debate. For Ifor Williams it centres on Carlisle and the Eden Valley and covers Cumbria, the Solway Firth and Dumfries and Galloway. John Morris posits the existence of a northern Rheged in Cumbria and a southern Rheged that extended into Lancashire and Cheshire. On the basis of landscape and resources, Mike McCarthy suggests a smaller kingdom or set of sub-kingdoms existed either north or south of the Solway. If McCarthy is correct, we do not have a name for present day Lancashire at all but a black hole the size of a county or larger!

Another problem is that textual sources about the Old North are extremely limited. We have some historical records such as the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Much of the history of this period is derived from the heroic poetry of the Dark Age bards Taliesin and Aneirin. Later saga poetry construes dramatic dialogues between characters associated with earlier events.

Research leads to where history and myth converge but can take us no further. It becomes necessary to step beyond study across the threshold to otherworlds where the past, our ancestors and deities still live.

So I speak my intentions to the spirits of place; the Lady in the Ivy with her glance of green, wood pigeons gathered in the trees, the people buried here in marked and unmarked graves.

I speak with my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, who abides beyond this land but sometimes seems closer than the land itself. The god who initiated and guides this quest.

His suggestion: what is a black hole but a portal?

Our agreement stirs a ghost wind from behind the graves, rustling bronze beech leaves and tree whispers from above.

The hill seems greener. A single white sea gull barks. Then long-tailed tits come chittering and twirling to the brambles.

Beech trees and castle motte*Penwortham first appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as ‘Peneverdant.’ Writing in 1857 Rev. W. Thornber claims this name is of British origin and ‘formed of three words- pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water’. This describes exactly how I imagine Castle Hill would have looked during the eleventh century near the Ribble on the marsh. However, ‘verdant’ has always sounded more like French for ‘green’ to me.

Alan Crosby says ‘Peneverdant’ results from a Norman scribe trying to write an unfamiliar word (which was likely to have been in use for up to 500 years) phonetically. He tells us the ‘Pen’ element in Penwortham is British and means ‘prominent headland’ whilst ‘wortham’ is Old English and means ‘settlement on the bend in the river’.

If Penwortham had an older British name prior to Saxon settlement, it is unknown. I can’t help wondering if it would have been something like ‘y pen gwyrdd ar y dŵr,’ which is modern Welsh for ‘the green hill on the water’. It’s not that far from Peneverdant.

Brigantia Stone

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

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

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

Great Hill from Brindle

Great Hill viewed from Brindle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brigantia Altar

The Star-Strewn Pathway

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Review: Your Face is a Forest by Rhyd Wildermuth

Your Face is a ForestRhyd Wildermuth is a writer and social worker based in Seattle. He writes for ‘The Wild Hunt,’ ‘Patheos Pagan’ and ‘Polytheist.com’ and blogs at ‘Paganarch.com.’ He describes himself as ‘a dream-drenched, tea-swilling leftist pagan punk bard.’ He is also a student of Druidry with OBOD. What drew me to his work was his boldness, passion, vision and the fact he proudly and outspokenly ‘worships gods.’

Your Face is a Forest is a collection of essays and prose. Rhyd describes his style as ‘weaving a forest from meaning’. This book’s a tapestry of poetic prose and prose poetry woven from themes that make sense as a whole only in the non-rational way trees make a forest. It’s rough, edgy and raw, and also a little rough around the edges, which adds to its anarchic charm.

Rhyd invites the reader to step into his life and accompany him through the places where he lives into forests behind to meet the faces of ‘the Other’ in ‘tasselled willows’, pines and alders, satyr dances and Dionysian revels. To find the tooth of an elk long dead and buried where cars now drive. A world full of life and another world behind it.

What I love about this book is that Rhyd speaks deeply and richly of both worlds. On pilgrimages to France and Germany he tells of the wonder of waking in a field of rabbits, playing flute with locals on unknown streets, sitting within the pink fur womb of a Berlin bar. He speaks of his despair at social inequality and the continuing repression of homosexuality in Christian colleges. He is a poet of the sacredness of this-worldly life on all levels.

He also shares some of his innermost visions of the gods and otherworlds. These have guided his life and thus form the reader’s guiding threads. Outstanding was a vision of Bran, which deserves quoting in full; ‘When I saw Bran, his great black cloak rippled in an unseen wind, his powerful form straddling a Breton valley between the River of Alder and the sea. But the cloak fled from his body, a myriad of ravens having stripped from his flesh sinew and skin, leaving only great white pillars of bone, the foundation of a temple and a tower. I do not yet know where his head lies.’ On his pilgrimages we find a mysterious tower on a mountain, a stone head in a fountain and a magical cloak. But Rhyd doesn’t give all his secrets away.

Other deities include Arianrhod, Ceridwen, Brighid, Dionysos and the unnamed gods and spirits of the city streets, buried forests and culverted rivers. What I liked most about these sections is that rather than kowtowing to being acceptable, Rhyd speaks his experiences directly and authentically. This was encouraging and inspiring for me and I think will be for other polytheists whose encounters with the gods go beyond known mythology and conventional Pagan text books. There are few modern authors who speak of the mystical aspects of deity and Rhyd does it exceptionally well.

I’d recommend Your Face is a Forest to all Pagans who are looking for real, undoctored insights into nature and the gods. Because it’s not only about Paganism and is written by somebody fully immersed in the beauty and pain of life and the search for love I’d recommend it to non-Pagans too, particularly those interested in spiritual journeys and visionary prose and poetry. Quoting Rhyd’s dedication, to ‘Everyone who’s ever looked into the Abyss / And brought back light for the rest of us.’

Your Face is a Forest is available through Lulu: http://www.lulu.com/shop/rhyd-wildermuth/your-face-is-a-forest/paperback/product-21887986.html

Review: Bard Song by Robin Herne

Bard SongThis review is long overdue. Coincidentally I was re-reading Bard Song with the intention of reviewing it at the time Robin published his recording of Gwynn’s Guest, dedicating it to me, which has spurred me along.

I’m not sure if I can give this book an objective review as I’ve owned it so long and like it so much. The pages are scored with under-linings. Against many of the poems are pencilled a’s, b’s and c’s from my attempts to decipher complex metres. The spine bends open on my favourite poems, which I return to frequently, have shared with my local Poetry Society and used as examples in Bardic workshops. But I’ll give it a go.

Robin Herne is a polytheist Druid based in Ipswich. Bard Song provides an introduction to reading and writing honorific and seasonal poetry (in English) in mainly Welsh and Irish metres. This fulfils an important role in Brythonic and Gaelic polytheism, giving people like myself who have not yet mastered the language of their gods the tools and inspiration to compose poems based on Celtic metres. It also opens new and exciting vistas for future developments within poetry as a whole.

In his introduction Robin speaks of the Awen, the source of Bardic inspiration as ‘a wild spirit, a passionate and consuming Muse that imparts not just pretty turns of phrase, but a new vision of the world.’ Poetry is a magical art which can be used to commune with and honour gods and ancestors, attain and express a spiritual vision, record history, praise (or deride) a person and for fun. Its ultimate purpose is re-enchantment.

The first four parts of the book are divided in accordance with the Gaelic festivals; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh. In each section Robin introduces the festival with associated myths, traditions, deities and suitable metres before sharing a selection of his poems, many of which have been used by his clan in ritual.

For Samhain, Robin introduces the forsundud, an Irish genealogical poem for the ancestors. We meet the Cailleach holding ‘cold vigil’ in ‘The House of Winter’ and rutting stags. ‘Gwynn’s Guest,’ one of my favourite poems of all time (written in tawddgyrch cadwnog metre) records St Collen’s encounter with the Welsh Fairy King on Glastonbury Tor. The first stanza captures Gwynn’s wild nature so perfectly I can’t resist quoting it;

‘Wind tears the Tor, unravels hair
Bound in plaits fair, wild blood yearning
For thunder’s roar, this hill my Chair,
Blessed wolf’s lair, white fire burning.

Tribes rise and fall…’ And the ending is wickedly humorous.

At Imbolc’s core stands the hearth of Brigit. ‘Sisters of the Hearth’ introduces her triple role as smith, healer and poet. ‘Brigit’s Song’ takes place in her Hall. Robin’s words in ‘Three Flames’ resonate most strongly with my personal experience of her as Brigantia, goddess of northern England and the fires of inspiration which consume and heal;

‘Light of compassion white burning
Thaw the ice that scalds my mind
Stir the flesh from torpor afresh,
Night-blind, scars mesh; pray be kind.’

The section on Beltaine speaks of magical and military poetry. ‘Cu Chulainn at the Ford’ provides a heart-wrenching representation of Cu Chulainn and Ferdiad’s tragic battle in Ae Freisilighe metre. On a more cheerful note we find ‘The Honey-Tongued,’ dedicated to Ogma ‘carpenter of song,’ who is the patron god of Robin’s Clan. Since its publication this poem has fittingly given its name to a new brand of mead.

Lughnasadh introduces the stories of Lugh and Tailtiu, recording Lugh’s arrival ‘At Tara’s Gates’ and Tailtiu’s death and ‘funereal commemoration.’ It covers the story of Gobanos, a god of smithing and brewing and there is also discussion of famed cauldrons in Celtic mythology and the important role of select brews in the arts of inspiration.

I have mentioned only a small selection of poems and themes. In later chapters Robin shares poems devoted to Heathen, Greek and Roman gods and those written for fun. In the appendices he provides guidelines for writing in Irish and Welsh metres. These are clearly introduced with rhythmic and syllabic patterns with examples. For Englyn Penfyr;

‘######a##b
###b##a
######a’

‘The old hunter sought the beast in the night,
Though without might, hope never ceased,
Yet frail, his skill found the feast.’

I have learnt vast amounts from this book about Celtic metres, composed some poems of my own in the Welsh ones and found it to be an excellent resource for use in Bardic workshops. Robin’s dedication to the Old Gods shines throughout his work and this alone has inspired me on my path as an Awenydd and polytheist.

Bard Song is a must read for Bards, Fili and people of Celtic and other polytheistic religions. I’d also recommend it highly to all Pagans and to poets looking for new and exciting metres with origins in the British Isles.

***

Bard Song can be purchased through Moon Books: http://www.moon-books.net/books/bard-song

Robin’s most recent poems, which continue his exploration of world mythology in carefully chosen metres can be found in Moon Poets: http://www.moon-books.net/books/moon-poets

His blog ‘Round the Herne’ is here: http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/