Review: ‘The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens’ by Morgan Daimler

MorriganMorgan Daimler is a Celtic Reconstructionist and dedicant of Macha based in New England. She teaches Irish myth, magic and folklore and has published nine books as well as poetry and prose in a variety of magazines, journals and anthologies.

The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens is a short, introductory book (eighty pages) in the Moon Books Pagan Portals series. By bringing together material from ancient Irish texts and academic sources it aims to provide readers new to the Morrigan with a basic introduction to this goddess, those who share her title, Badb and Macha and other associated goddesses such as Nemain, Be Neit and Grian.

The result is a tightly packed text with an abundance of subject matter to learn from and plenty of references to follow up. Morgan’s research is thorough and she demonstrates a learned understanding of the original texts and scholarly viewpoints. Morgan’s approach is to let the stories of each goddess speak for themselves. Whilst she presents contrasting viewpoints and shares her own, she encourages the reader to seek their own interpretation through further study rather than leading them to her own conclusions.

The benefits are that she provides a holistic picture of the Morrigan and introduces her to newcomers without swaying their opinion. A slight cost is the book doesn’t flow as well as it could. As someone with only a vague knowledge of Irish mythology, I found myself frequently having to pause and look back to check names, associations and references to texts rather than being guided forward by the author’s argument. I also found the APA method of citation where references disrupt the text irritating. These are my only criticisms.

What I liked best about this book is that as well as sharing her academic knowledge of the Morrigan(s), Morgan shares her personal experience of each goddess; what it feels like to be in their presence, their physical appearance and their role in her life. These gnoses permeate her prayers and invocations.

Importantly for newcomers, Morgan astutely points out the differences between ‘working with’ and worshipping a goddess. The former is a temporary arrangement governed by specific guidelines and goals. The latter is based in relationship (she warns that when you invite a deity into your life you never know how it might go!) and interactions, which for her mainly take the form of prayers, meditations and offerings.

Morgan does not shy away from confronting moral questions raised by worshipping a goddess connected with war and death. She presents her own resolutions and also challenges readers who may have been drawn to the Morrigan as a ‘Dark Goddess’ to think what this means to them before applying this category.

A hidden gem of particular interest was Morgan’s description of ‘reconstructing celtic seership with Badb.’ Here she shares her use of the ancient techniques of ‘imbas forosna’ ‘tenm laida’ and ‘dichetal do chenaib’ with Badb’s guidance for divinatory purposes. The latter, which involves the spontaneous recitation of poetry is something I’ve felt compelled to do for a while and, inspired by Morgan, hope to try in my own way in the future.

Overall this is a cracking introduction to the Morrigan(s) and I’m sure there will be plenty of hidden surprises in it for everybody. I would recommend it to anybody new to this goddess who is looking for a trustworthy starting point, devotees of the Morrigan wanting to learn more about others’ experiences and anybody interested in polytheism in general.

The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens is officially released tomorrow and is available here: http://amzn.to/1Bh3LCs

The Edge of the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greencroft Valley

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwn: Remembering the Underworld Gods

I recently came across an article through the Caer Feddwyd Forum (1) called ‘The Underworld Gods’ by medieval scholar, Will Parker. It brought to my awareness the existence of an inscription in Chamalieres in central France, which took the form of a prayer or invocation addressed to an entity or group of entities known in Ancient Gaul as the andedion, ‘the Under-world God(s)’ or ‘Infernal One(s)’ (2).

Parker links the andedion to the Irish andee ‘non-gods’ and suggests a similar group of deities would have been worshipped in Iron Age Britain. Through etymological links between the ‘elements Clt. dio(n) (Ir. dé) ‘god(s)’ and ‘the suffix ande-/an-‘ he connects them to Annwn ‘not world’, Britain’s indigenous otherworld or underworld. Parker goes on to identify the andedion and andee with the spirits of Annwn and their ruler, Gwyn ap Nudd.

This is of interest to me because Gwyn is my patron god. Parker’s insights make it possible to trace a trajectory from Iron Age beliefs concerning underworld gods, through Gwyn’s appearances in medieval literature and later folklore to those who worship him today.

Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ is a Brythonic deity. His veneration dates back, at least, to the Iron Age, where he appears as Vindonnus ‘White or Clear Light,’ in a trio of Gallo-Brythonic inscriptions in Essarois. Here he is equated with Apollo, another hunter deity (3). It is likely he was worshipped across Britain as Vindos ‘White’ (4). It has also been conjectured that Gwyn and his hunting dog, Dormarth ‘Death’s Door’ occupied the astrological positions of Orion and Sirius to the ancient Britons.

Cave, SilverdaleParker suggests Late Bronze Age ‘ritual shafts’ and ‘offering pits’ containing depositions including human and animal bones, grain, pottery and metalwork express a ‘quid-pro-quo’ relationship between the ancient Britons and the underworld gods. If he is correct, it is possible that Vindos / Gwyn, Dormarth and other kindred spirits were involved in these rites.

Gwyn’s first literary appearances are in medieval Welsh texts; ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (11th C) in The Mabinogion and ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’ (13th C) in The Four Ancient Books of Wales. These texts have roots in an older, oral tradition and contain fragments of tales from across Britain that predate Christianity. A significant number of these, including two featuring Gwyn, are from ‘The Old North’ (5). This is important to me because I connect with Gwyn in Lancashire.

Parker argues that superstitions about the underworld gods carry over into The Mabinogion. This is evidenced in the disappearance of livestock, children and crops. Pwyll’s encounter with Arawn, a King of Annwn, is the catalyst for the unfolding drama of the first four Mabinogi. Parker says these stories show the spirits of Annwn could not ‘be simply dismissed or ignored. Instead, a complex narrative had to be constructed in which, through a series of symbolic ritual manoeuvres, their power was drawn out, confronted and finally neutralised.’ The attempts of medieval scholars to disempower these deities can be seen at work in the development of Gwyn’s mythology.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ (6) Gwyn is presented as a divine warrior returning from battle to the Tawe near the vale of Neath. Gwyddno, ruler of Cantre’r Gwaelod, speaks of and addresses him with reverence and respect. ‘Bull of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army, / The ruler of hosts, indisposed to anger, / Blameless and pure was his conduct in protecting life.’ Other epithets Gwyddno uses include ‘hope of armies’ and ‘hero of hosts.’ ‘Host’ may refer to the spirits of Annwn.

Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn, the son of Nud, / The lover of Creurdilad, the daughter of Lud.’ He names his horse as ‘the torment of battle’ and refers to Dormarth as ‘truly the best of dogs,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘round bodied’ and ‘ruddy nosed.’ References to his possession of a ‘polished ring’ and ‘golden saddle’ are also suggestive of his status.

The title ‘Bull of Conflict’ refers to Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp. At the end of the poem he describes his travels across Britain gathering the souls of fallen soldiers. He appears to be berating this task. ‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain, / From the East to the North; / I am alive, they in their graves! / I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain / From the East to the South / I am alive, they in death!’

This poem contains important clues about Gwyn’s identity as a divine warrior and huntsman, whose role was to gather the souls of the dead and take them to Annwn.

In ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion, Gwyn is depicted as a huntsman and advisor to King Arthur. His place in Arthur’s court list and apparent subjection to both Arthur and God may be read as attempts by medieval scholars’ to explain and downgrade his position.

That ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found’ (7) hints at his role as leader of the hunt, and knowledge of otherworldly beings. The Twrch was a king reputedly turned into a swine by God. When Gwyn does not reveal his location it is possible he is defending his own.

The advice of Gwyn and Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor Son of Scorcher’ is also needed by Arthur to find Pennant Gofid in the ‘uplands of hell,’ which Evans and Bromwich say is ‘clearly situated in North Britain’ (8). When they reach this location, Gwyn and Gwythyr advise Arthur in his defeat of the ‘The Hag of Pennant Gofid,’ another otherworldly entity. The parcity of their advice, which leads to several failed attempts by Arthur’s men before the Christian King is forced to step in to slay her, may also suggest that Gwyn and Gwythyr are acting as tricksters.

A pair of lines fundamental to understanding Gwyn’s mythos, and which continue to intrigue and perplex me, are the following; ‘God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ (9).

Taken literally, this seems to mean that at some point during the period of Christianisation God put the spirit of the demons of Annwn ‘in’ Gwyn’s person to prevent the world’s destruction. Or it may mean that he granted Gwyn rulership of them for this purpose. However, it is probable that the agency of God was brought in as a cover to excuse the prevalent belief in the existence of these spirits and their ruler.

Even if we assume God’s agency is a cover for existing beliefs, the notion that Gwyn somehow contains ‘the spirit of the demons of Annwn’ is a fascinating one. In a conversation via e-mail, Heron (10) told me the word ‘spirit,’ in Welsh, is ‘aryal,’ which can mean ‘ferocity,’ ‘essence’ or ‘nature’. He referred me to Evans and Bromwich, who say ‘Gwyn’s partaking of the ‘nature of the devils of Annwfn’ indicates a recognition on the part of the redactor of the tale that Gwyn ap Nudd belonged to a sinister and forbidden mythology’ (11). Within this mythology he may already be seen to embody the nature of these entities, or to hold power over them.

That the destruction of the world is at stake suggests Gwyn’s role was extremely significant. If it is assumed this notion has older roots, some of the offerings of the ancient Britons may be explained as attempts to placate these spirits and their ruler due to their destructive capacity. It is also possible Gwyn was invoked as the only being who could hold them in check.

Fears and superstitions surrounding Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn may lie behind the story of his abduction of Creiddylad. After Creiddylad, who is both Gwyn’s lover and sister, elopes with Gwythyr, Gwyn seizes her back. It might be assumed he takes her to Annwn, and that this suggests an underlying fear of being abducted by Gwyn and his forces.

Gwythyr amasses his armies and attacks Gwyn. Gwyn triumphs and captures a number of Gwythyr’s allies, who are mainly rulers of the Old North. During their captivity Gwyn slaughters Nwython, cuts out his heart and feeds it to his son, Cyledr, who goes mad. This could be read as a clear example of Gwyn’s ferocity and hints at existing superstitions about what goes on in Annwn.

Evans and Bromwich say the concentration of the names of people Gwyn kidnaps suggest ‘that north Britain was the ultimate place of origin for the Creiddylad episode, and that this incident was one of the surviving fragments of tradition emanating from there’ (12). It is therefore likely it originates in earlier beliefs held about Gwyn and his host by the Northern Britons.

Arthur eventually comes North to Gwythyr’s aid and frees his noblemen. Afterward he makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by placing a dihenydd ‘fate’ on them. This dictates that they must fight for Creiddylad’s hand every Calan Mai ‘May Day’. An added condition, which seems particularly unfair, is that Creiddylad must remain in her father’s house, and no matter who wins neither can take her until Judgement Day. It is likely Arthur’s agency was brought in to explain an earlier myth, which was already prevalent in the Old North.

Whilst, on one level, this myth may be about fears of abduction to the underworld, it is more frequently interpreted as a seasonal drama comparable with Hades’ capture of Persephone. In this reading, Creiddylad is a maiden goddess who embodies the powers of spring and fertility. Creiddylad’s abduction by Gwyn may explain the failure of these powers at Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. Gwythyr and Arthur’s rescue of her at Calan Mai, the first day of summer, may explain their resurgence.

Winter Hill

Winter Hill

Gwyn is also seen as the Winter King. It is possible his white, shining qualities relate to snow and cold, associations which could date back to the Ice Age. Elen Sentier links Gwyn with the reindeer goddess Elen of the Ways (13) and the Boreal forest. He may also be connected with the North wind. The 14th C Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilim refers to ‘Tylwyth Gwyn, talaith y gwynt’ ‘the family of Gwyn, the province of the wind’ (14). The pervasiveness of a myth featuring Gwyn in Northern Britain could have a basis in its harsh winters.

In a later text, The Life of St Collen (14th C), Gwyn is referred to as ‘the King of Annwn and the Fairies’ and is supposedly banished by the saint from Glastonbury Tor (15). The transition from belief in Gwyn as a King of Annwn to King of the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ or ‘Fair Folk’ is a significant one. The original natures of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are covered over by their reduction to diminutive form. However, hints at their mythos can still be found in the majority of folktales.

Gwyn retains his status as leader of the Wild Hunt in the folklore of Wales and Somerset. There he is seen to appear on horse back with a pack of white, red-eared hounds, riding out on Nos Calan Gaeaf and through the winter months, chasing down the souls of the dead. To hear his hounds is an omen of death. The other riders are seen often seen as captive souls and may represent the spirits of Annwn.

In the North West of England, however, the hunt is assigned either to the Norse god Odin, or to Christian angels. In Cumbria it is Michael, and in Lancashire and Yorkshire Gabriel is said to lead a pack of black, red-eyed dogs, the Gabriel Ratchetts.

Coincidentally, Preston born writer Francis Thompson is famous for a poem called ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ Anybody who has felt like Gwyn’s hounds are on their tail might find these lines hauntingly familiar; ‘I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears / I hid from him, and under running laughter.’ (16)

More recently, Gwyn’s significance as an ancient god has been attested by contemporary scholars such as Geoffrey Ashe, in King Arthur’s Avalon (2007) and Nicholas R. Mann in The Isle of Avalon (1996) and Glastonbury Tor (2012). He is also the subject of a full length book called Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and Key to the Glastonbury Zodiac (2007) by Yuri Leitch.

This increase in interest suggests we are approaching a time when Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are taken seriously as Brythonic deities again. However, the main focus of these books is Gwyn’s role at Glastonbury, with only a small mention of his place in Wales and other areas of Britain. Disappointingly there is no mention of Gwyn’s activities in the North. In this respect I have only my own experiences and conjectures to go on.

Fairy Lane

Fairy Lane

I first met Gwyn on Fairy Lane in my hometown of Penwortham, where he challenged me to journey with him to Annwn. Since then I have worked with him as a guide to the otherside of my local landscape and its hidden myths. His interest in my locality surprised me at first. However, it seems less surprising when looked at in the context of his role as an ancient underworld god of Britain, particularly in relation to the history and folklore surrounding this site.

Penwortham has been inhabited since 4000BC. The Riversway Dockfinds, a collection of animal bones, 30 human skulls, two dug out canoes and the remains of a timber structure suggest the existence of a lake village on Penwortham Marsh. Nearby is Castle Hill, a point of military and religious importance. There is a church dedicated to St Mary on the summit of Castle Hill, which means it was likely to have been a pre-Christian sacred site.

That the church is dedicated to St Mary and she was also the patron saint of a healing well at the foot of Castle Hill suggest the presence of an earlier female deity with healing powers, who has been Christianised as Mary. Three human skulls found in the wall of the church (17), which may have served an apotraic function suggest superstitious beliefs in chthonic spirits were also once popular but not openly acknowledged.

The survival of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral attests to these superstitions. In the earliest version in Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878), it is set on Church Avenue on Castle Hill. Two men walking home to Longton encounter a procession of fairies carrying a coffin. Robin, one of the men, looks into the coffin and sees his own miniature corpse. Frightened by the sight, they follow the fairies into St Mary’s graveyard. Robin attempts to prevent the burial by reaching out to grab the leader of the fairies. The procession vanishes and Robin, driven mad, topples to his death from a haystack a couple of months later (18). In later versions, this story takes place on Fairy Lane, which runs through Penwortham Wood at the foot of Castle Hill.

This legend may be interpreted to hint at older beliefs in underworld gods. Church ways are often identified with spirit paths. It is possible that prior to Christianity people believed chthonic spirits to have been actively involved in bearing the deceased to the underworld. The ringing of bells to drive them away and superstitions surrounding lych gates are testaments to fear of such entities. The movement of the legend to Fairy Lane may be seen as an attempt to sever their connection with the church. It is also possible it represents a shift in the energy of the area.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn (more frequently referred to as fairies today) are frightening beings. However, they play an essential role in maintaining the relationships between the worlds, the seasons, and the living and the dead. Like death itself and the cold dark of winter they will never go away. Their roles and identities, covered over or ignored for many centuries, can be recovered and understood.

Like Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn, my relationship with Gwyn has changed my life. He guides me to visions in Annwn and the physical world I would not be able to access without him. He teaches me to walk the spirit paths and inspires me to learn the song lines of this land’s ancestral heritage.

As late summer arrives, harvesters take to the fields and leaves begin to fall I sense the spirits of Annwn stirring, the first hint of the breath of winter on the wind. Monday is the date of the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War. When I help lay candles in front of Preston cenotaph for each of the 1956 soldiers who lost their lives I will remember that care of the souls of the battle dead was once believed to be Gwyn’s role.

(1) http://www.caerfeddwyd.co.uk/
(2) http://www.mabinogi.net/sections/Appendix/The_Underworld_Gods.pdf
(3) James MacKilliop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (1998), p375
(4) Robin Herne, Old Gods, New Druids, (2009), p48
(5) A collection of Kingdoms in the North of England and Southern Scotland from 500AD and 800AD.
(6) Transl. William F. Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (2007), p210-211
(7) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(8) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p169
(9) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(10) https://www.blogger.com/profile/02055792516386371373
(11) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p133
(12) Ibid. p150
(13) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), p26-28
(14) Dafydd ap Gwilim, Poems, (1982), p132 – 133
(15) http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html
(16) Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems, (2000), p11
(17) Rev C. Nelson, St Mary’s Church, Penwortham, Lancashire, Archaeological Watching Brief and Explanation, (2011), p48
(18) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL

Many thanks to Heron and Lee at Caer Feddwyd for bringing Will Parker’s article to my attention.

Ribble Illusions

Yesterday I had a most uncanny experience. Approaching the river Ribble from Castle Hill, I found myself facing a long stretch of tide marked wall that gave the appearance it had dropped away into nowhere. I was struck by a sudden sense of vertigo. The Ribble couldn’t have disappeared, as if had fallen into a void, surely?

River RibbleOn closer inspection, seeing the reflections of the grilles and staircases, and catching subtle fluctuations in the surface of the water, I realised this was an illusion created by a combination of its stillness with the markings on the stone.

River Ribble, reflection of a grilleRiver Ribble, stairsTo my relief at either end of the concrete barriers, the ‘true’ water level was clear.

River Ribble, water level

River Ribble, water levelDrawn  to stay a while in meditation on the strange appearance and disappearance of the river, which occurred as I shifted my eye-line, I was gifted with the sight of several birds. Common and black headed gulls and terns circled, their darker shadows mirrored in the water. Another bird, which I think may have been a grebe or even a black throated diver flew in. Diving with quick flips of its tail it emerged, for the most part, triumphant with white-silver fish, which after a brief kerfuffle vanished down its throat. Finally, a heron arrived to land majestically on a piece of flotsam.

Heron, river RibbleFor me this goes to show that even where it is channelled, the Ribble is a magical and mind altering place. I give thanks to the river, all its visitors and inhabitants, and its goddess Belisama.

Personal Religion?

Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 102 - CopyA couple of days ago I read write-ups of the OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) 50th anniversary gathering on Glastonbury Tor, on the blogs of Joanna van der Hoeven and Robin Herne.

http://downtheforestpath.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/celebrating-50-years-of-obod/

http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-people-of-peace.html

It sounds like they had a grand time. Although one of the things Robin acutely pointed out was the irony that although the main topic was peace, the powers of place, including Gwyn ap Nudd and the Tylwyth Teg (the People of Peace) were not addressed or involved.

Why should that bother me? OBOD aren’t all pagans or polytheists. Hundreds of different religious groups use the Tor for various ceremonies- that’s part of its power and draw, and the eclecticism and chaos that constitutes the spirit of Glastonbury.

It was not until this morning I perceived my vexation was the symptom of an approaching realisation; I awoke with an image of the OBODies on the Tor in my mind combined with an overwhelming gnosis clear as the dawn; THIS ISN’T MY RELIGION.

I know the OBOD doesn’t pretend to be a religious organisation… however my discomfort about the lack of commonality I feel with Druids outside The Druid Network has been growing for a while. I’m beginning to feel the distinctions between my path and those of some other Druids are so huge that there is no meaningful common ground at all.

Plus… I recall Nimue Brown mentioning to be a Druid you must walk your path with conscious intent as a Druid. Looking back, I have done this as a Bard, and now do so as Awenydd. I believed these paths fitted under the umbrella term Druid but now I’m not so sure.

And I’m not so sure I did the right thing in claiming the name Druid for my religion pretty soon after joining TDN, on the ground I was a member of the network and a grove. It was much later I was gifted with the name Awenydd by Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of my local landscape.

So I’m beginning to wonder now whether my path as Awenydd, which is based in these relationships and expressing them through poetry, is not the religion of Druidry but a personal spirituality I live religiously?

I also wonder, because my practice focuses more on ‘anthropomorphised’ deities and spirits than most Druids whether I’m more of a polytheist? In answering that I find myself drawn back to the issue of commonality… I once wondered whether I was a Brythonic polytheist but decided I wasn’t as I don’t know enough about all the deities and their lore in depth, haven’t made enough effort to learn Welsh, and don’t follow a joint ritual structure.

So I wonder now…

Can polytheism be religious without commonality?

Must religion have a name?

Is personal religion a contradiction in terms? And is it possible to live a personal religion?

View from Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 120

The River Syke

Syke StreetOn a rainy day in the not so-distant future, Tom, a tour-guide in training, decided to visit the city of Preston.

Great intrigue surrounded the town of priests, which had once been the Catholic capital of Lancashire. Every spire and street name told a story, from the cathedral of St Walburge to Friargate, to the catacombs beneath St Peter’s. Each had its relics and dealt in a great number of copies to tempt the less discerning tourist.

However, Tom was not interested in the rise and decline of Christianity. Neither did he care for the oral tales passed on by the city’s people such as the headless black dog that haunted Maudlands, the wicked fairy on the market with his tricksy ointment, or the Bannister Doll.

Tom had been led to Preston by a new myth about the underground river Syke.

This watercourse had run from present day Syke Street, through Winckley Square, parallel with Fishergate then into the Ribble at the New Bridge. At one point there had been fish garths across the Ribble and a boatyard where the two rivers met. In 1812, as industrialisation progressed, the Syke was culverted beneath the town. It had not seen daylight since.

250 years later, as part of a desperate money-making bid, the tourist board decided to open its underground passageway to the public. Above the grate covering the Syke’s mouth they erected a ticket booth, then a flight of stairs leading down to a platform. Over the entrance was placed a flashing neon sign- Enter the mouth of Annwn- the Ancient British Otherworld.

Caroline, Tom’s girlfriend, had been obsessed by stories about Annwn. “It is a beautiful, terrible world,” she had used to tell him, “peopled with fairies and monsters. There are thin places where you can slip over. It is possible to find your ancestors, and the lost ones you once loved. It’s possible to escape again, if you do not fall prey to its seductions.”

Several days ago, Caroline had left on a trip to Preston and had not returned. She was not the only one. Another three people had been reported missing, mysteriously disappearing on the boat ride back to the entrance. These stories were connected with rumours of people hearing strange songs and experiencing visions of ships and fishermen, huge fish, and women with fishtails.

If it hadn’t been for Caroline’s absence, Tom would have thought this was all propaganda. However, his strongest suspicion was these tall tales were a cover for poor management. A fact left untold was that the Ribble is tidal. Should the attraction remain open as the tides washed in, the entrance to the Syke would be blocked and its passageway flooded. Tom suspected these poor souls had drowned, and he was terrified Caroline might have met the same fate.

After paying his admission, Tom entered a sheltered area where he joined two families, three couples and a group of teenage girls who were talking and laughing.

“We need to look out for ghostly fishermen.”

“Mermaids.”

“Mermen, more like.”

“It’s some kind of creature with slimy tentacles that will drag you down through the water and into the Otherworld.”

Once the preceding group had exited they were ushered down to the platform. Standing beside the Ribble’s churning grey, Tom recalled Caroline telling him how every river had its goddess and each stream its nymph. The name of the Ribble’s goddess was Belisama and it was believed she claimed a life every seven years.

“Is everybody ready to enter the mouth of Annwn?” asked the tour guide, an aging man dressed in a wax jacket and waders. His long greying hair hung damp from beneath a fisherman’s hat.

To cries of affirmation he pressed a button, which rolled back the grate. The passageway was illumined by intermittent white lights, which cast an occasional silver sheen on the dark water. One by one they entered the tunnel, walking in a single line, on the river’s left. Enthralled by its impenetrable flow, Tom could not help himself imagining Caroline trapped beneath those waters drowning amongst terrible aquatic creatures who had not seen sunlight for 250 years.

The girls in front of Tom jostled and giggled. “I can see a fish!” “I think it was a mermaid!” As their conjectures became wilder their voices grew more high pitched.

The weight of the walls pressed in and the river’s roaring voice and echo rose to an unsteadying crescendo. By the time they reached the boat, Tom was trembling and disoriented. As he crossed the gangplank onto Syke’s Trawler, it took all his effort to hold his balance. Looking beneath he glimpsed something silver, dark and serpentine, then in a flash of dread saw Caroline’s sunken face staring up at him. The tunnel spun around him.

The next thing he knew, Tom was assailed by the scent of wax and brine. The tour guide was lowering him onto a wooden bench, fastening his seat belt and placing his hands firmly on the rail. “Hold on tight. Keep your eyes well shut and be careful not to listen. You do not want to fall prey to the lures of Annwn.” There was a mocking, knowing look in his grey eyes

He cast off and took the wheel with such exuberance and expertise Tom realised he must have been a true fisherman in his time.

The boat pitched down river. The teenagers screamed.

“Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Tom was almost deafened by the river repeating its name. “Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Or could it be the voice of its goddess?

The limitations of the tunnel shattered to reveal bright sky and a flashing landscape, the grey shapes of yachts and fishermen.

“There are places where you can slip over,” Caroline’s words filled Tom’s mind.

He held tightly to the rail, imagining himself as Odysseus lashed to the mast.

“It is possible to find your loved ones.”

Tom realised Caroline’s voice was not in his mind. She stood on the adjacent vessel beside an older fisherman who shared her dark features. Tom guessed he was her grandfather.

“Caroline!” Tom cried.

“Tom, how I’ve missed you, I knew you would come to find me!” Caroline rushed to the edge of her boat.

“I’ve been worried sick about you,” said Tom. “What happened?”

“Come and join us,” said Caroline. As her boat drifted closer she held out her hand.

Unable to stop himself, Tom let go of the rail and unfastened his seatbelt. Leaning between the swaying boats he took Caroline’s hand and scrambled over. After all those long months they were together again, embracing and kissing. In her arms the rocking deck, perilous river and distinction between the worlds no longer mattered.

A horn blared from Syke’s Trawler.

Caroline pushed Tom away. “The tides are coming in.” The colour left her face and her skin became cold to his touch. With the sweep of a long black and silver fishtail she dove into the water. Tom noticed her grandfather had already disappeared. The boat shuddered beneath his feet then, with a dismal groan, plank by plank began to break apart.

With a thunk something round and orange struck his chest. It was a rubber ring, attached to a rope, attached to the trawler.

“Get in and keep hold,” the tour guide’s voice bellowed, “if you want to return to Preston, that is.”

Struggling against panic, Tom managed to pull the rubber ring on as the deck gave way beneath him and a wave crashed over his head. The cold water stunned him. He struggled and gasped for breath, thrown this way and that between the incoming tide and the river’s force. Hauled back onto the trawler by the tour guide he coughed up salt water before descending into uncontrollable sobs.

By the time his tears had ended, the boat was safely moored on the Ribble’s bank and the rest of the group had gone.

“You love her, but you don’t want to die for her?” the tour guide’s voice was soft in Tom’s ear. His nostrils filled with his briny scent. “I know how you feel, and I may be able to help.”

Tom looked up hopefully, “how?” he rasped.

“It is possible to walk, or sail, between the worlds,” said the old fisherman. “Why don’t you join me, as my trainee, at the helm of Syke’s Trawler? You can learn to serve our goddess. We’re desperately short of tour guides.”

Mouth of the River Syke

Gwyn Portrait, April’s End

The huntsman has ridden all night, following the brilliance of the spirit roads- the shining tracks that criss-cross the island of Britain. Instead of returning home he remains here for dawn, listening to the idiosyncrasies of each bird’s song, watching dew form on blades of grass, on petals of hawthorn blossoms and may flowers.

He is and is not the mist, riding through damp meadows over hills, mountains and moors on a pale horse accompanied by a hound of the same complexion. He is and is not each sun-lit cloud he travels with, the touch and whisper of the wind.

He cannot stay here long, for this world we see as the land of the living is not his. He must return home to Annwn, the Otherworld, to prepare for a battle that cannot be won. To fight for a maiden he shouldn’t have loved, shouldn’t still love… in bluebells and forget-me-nots, emerging greens and white and yellow flowers he sees her colours.

For a moment he is possessed by memories of their passion, and the crimes it drove him to. A glimpse of his blacked face in a reed strewn pool shows no amount of war paint can mask his guilt, which he must live with for as long as there are people to sing his songs.

He searches for a sign. What is Judgement Day? When is it? Although he knows the language of the trees and plants, the tracks of every wild creature and the flight of birds, these questions are beyond his power to divine. When the worlds end, will Creiddylad and I be together again?

May Flower, Penwortham

Corpse Road

Birch and Blackthorn, Hurst Grange Park, PenworthamWho’ll walk the corpse road back to me?
– ‘Revenants’ Andrew O’Riordan

Where spring brings hope to downy birch
And blossoms of stars to blackthorn trees
When the hunt is still as the final frosts
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to drunks of the woods
With the pale potential of anemone
When my court dance in dew where a man lay cold
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to primrose hills
But none to vagrants on city streets
When wills clash like I do with impudent rivals
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to prison gardens
For a watchful moment the condemned walk free
When to solitary confinement comes Annwn’s darkness
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to those who can see it
Yet Victorian cells of asylums scream
When dreams of my kind are derided as madness
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings no hope and death is release
And no fusion of flowers can quench the pain
When souls are lost as my absent queen
Will you walk the corpse road back to me?

Lych Gate, St Mary's Church, Penwortham* Poem written in the voice of Gwyn ap Nudd, a British King of the dead and the fairies

Gatherer of Souls

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain…
I am alive, they in their graves!
– Words spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Black Book of Carmarthen XXXIII

Spring is here, daffodils
amongst the headstones,
flowers on the cenotaph
grieving summers of war-

shells shattering spirit paths,
ditches filled with corpses,
a perverse test of love
for brave young fools

and you being liminal,
battle rage and compassion
on the blood soaked fields
where banshees wail

gathering the fallen
from amongst explosions,
returning to Prydain
wracked and torn.

Spring is here, yet in
Annwn’s long autumn you know
the weight of the battle dead,
the sorrow behind the veil.

War memorial in Penwortham

Gwyn’s Apprenticeship and the Role of the Awenydd

Moon over Castle HillAfter two years studying Druidry (and many years prior to this of searching) on the morning of the winter solstice I received a name for my spiritual path- Awenydd. It was a gift, bestowed by Gwyn ap Nudd (1) and the spirits of my local landscape.

Over the past year my path has grown to centre on my apprenticeship to Gwyn, which began when I made a vow to him as my patron at Glastonbury’s White Spring last January. This role has involved learning more deeply the life cycles of the trees, plants and wildlife of my local area, journeying to meet their spirits and travelling into the land’s past to learn its history. With Gwyn’s guidance I have journeyed the Otherworld, gaining direct experience of realms such as Annwn and Faery, met their inhabitants and borne witness to mythic events.

In exchange I have strived to share this magic through poetry with the aim of revealing my local landscape as inspirited and communicating my vision of the Otherworld. I believe this serves Gwyn for it his task as a king of the Otherworld and leader of the Wild Hunt to maintain the dynamic between the worlds lest this one be destroyed (2). Being gifted with the role of the Awenydd seems to be a natural development of this relationship.

An early description of the Awenyddion can be found in Giraldus Cambrensis’ 12th century manuscript, Description of Wales.

‘There are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a connected manner; but the person who skilfully observes them, will find, after many preambles, and many nugatory and incoherent, though ornamented speeches, the desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: they are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep, and, as it were, by violence compelled to return to their proper senses. After having answered the questions, they do not recover till violently shaken by other people; nor can they remember the replies they have given. If consulted a second or third time upon the same point, they will make use of expressions totally different; perhaps they speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits. These gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; others fancy that a written schedule is applied to their mouths and on awaking they publicly declare that they have received this gift.’ (3)

When I first read this passage a couple of years back I found little I could relate to. Returning to consider it now I find the ideas more resonant.

A phrase which immediately stands out is that the Awenyddion are people inspired. Within the Bardic Tradition I have found the predominance of structured courses of training and people’s preconceptions about the role of the Bard problematic. Experience has taught me I cannot learn stories or poems by rote. Myths and the deities within them have a life of their own, calling through Bardic, folkloric and contemporary texts, or revealing themselves in the landscapes of either world to impart the gifts of inspiration and transformation when the time is right.

Following a conversation with a visiting speaker at my local pagan society, who when I named my path as “Druid Bard” assumed I was of the ‘Bardic Grade’ and completing a ‘gwers’ within OBOD I began to question (and not for the first time) whether this name was a true fit with my spirituality.

During this period I asked Gwyn how my apprenticeship related to Druidry. He told me my role is bound up with the primal Awen, which flows before thought through all things. This supported my suspicion that true inspiration can only speak when systems, concepts and fear of other people’s opinions are set aside. Only by listening directly to the Awen and my own intuition could I become a person inspired and create works worthy of sharing with others.

Another point of resonance is that inspiration is a gift from the spirits, through possession, dreams, milk or honey or a ‘written schedule.’

I’ve never been possessed in the sense of losing my senses and being unable to recall what happened afterward. However I have channelled the voices of spirits and deities whilst writing poetry. During a writing trance visions have appeared where they have revealed themselves in new ways and I’ve recognised their guiding hand even when making finishing touches, in the gift of a completing image or right feeling of a word.

I’ve also been gifted with inspiration in dreams. One of my most significant dreams was when I learnt the identity of my white totem mare. She appeared to me winged and I joined consciousness with her to fly to the top of Castle Hill, a local sacred site. Another important dream occurred the night before my birthday. After seeing a moon bridge in the river Ribble I dreamt of questioning a series of gnarled fay in a cave in Castle Hill. When I realised the process was futile Gwyn appeared and inquired why I hadn’t asked him. By this time I had forgotten the question. The dream conveyed a powerful message about the ethos of questioning in the realms of Faery and dream.

The mention of milk or honey puts me in mind of mead, which in my experience certainly inspires connection with the spirits, writing processes, performances and rituals. The image of the ‘written schedule’ touching an Awenydd’s lips seems to symbolize direct inspiration through the written word.

In the modern world the role of the Awenydd is not limited to ecstatic prophets. Kristoffer Hughes places ‘becoming Awenydd’ – ‘becoming the inspirer’ at the core of Druidry. He says ‘they were the enlightened ones, those who serve, those who inspire to bring others into the mystery of spirit and the great song… by inspiration.’ (4)

Elen Sentier is an ‘awenydd, a spirit keeper and taleweaver from a long family lineage.’ She describes this path as ‘British native shamanism.’ (5) Alongside her reindeer goddess, Elen of the Ways she works with Gwyn as ‘the goddess’ guardian.’ Part of her work involves tracing Elen’s Deer Trods which are also the ‘energy roads’ down which Gwyn leads the Wild Hunt. Many of these are ‘spirit paths’ taking souls to the Otherworld (6) and correspond with corpse roads such as Church Avenue on Castle Hill.

For me the name Awenydd has a magic born of its direct connection with the spiritual source which flows through the land defying all systems and can only be spoken in poetry. My role as an Awenydd is one that I only have intimations of at present- small clues to the potential of learning with the leader of the wild chase and king of the Otherworld to travel the spirit paths and experience the mysteries of the primal Awen in order to return as the inspirer.

(1) Gwyn ap Nudd is a Brythonic deity. His name means White Son of Mist. He is a king of the Otherworld, leader of the wild hunt and guide of souls.
(2) Evidence of this role is found in The Mabinogion, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found- God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’ Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(3) http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1092/pg1092.html
(4) Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (2007), p67
(5) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), pvii
(6) Ibid. p26-28