The Return of the Son

For three days
she journeyed there
and for three days
journeyed back

to return a lost son
to return a lost brother
and I alone stand witness
at the standing stone

that might have been
placed here for this day
as his golden rays shine
over the marshland.

How did she win him
back from Winter’s King?
That is for her alone to know
and the birds who sing.

This poem is a follow up of my poem ‘I light a candle for Epona‘ based on the journey of the Great Mare to the Otherworld to win back her lost son. I linked this to my brother’s period of hospitalisation. I’m glad to say he is back now and on the road to recovery so many thanks to the mare goddess and to those who sent good wishes and lit candles.

The photographs are of the sun beginning to set over the winter solstice stone at the stone circle at Brockholes Nature Reserve and over the visitor village and Meadow Lake.

Orddu and Returning to the Cave

Arthur said, “Are there any of the wonders we have still not obtained?

One of the men said, “Yes, the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell.

Arthur set out for the North, and came to where the hag’s cave was.’

– Culhwch ac Olwen

I. The Witch’s Cave

In the medieval Welsh story Culhwch ac Olwen (1090), Orddu ‘Very Black’, a ‘witch’ who lives in a cave in Pennant Gofid ‘the Valley of Grief’, battles against the servants of Arthur and is slaughtered by him in a gristly scene where he cuts her in twain with his knife to drain her blood.

In this tale Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god of the dead and ruler of Annwn, is dubiously made to appear beside his eternal rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol, as an advisor to Arthur. I judge this to be a move by a Christian interlocutor do demonstrate Arthur’s power not only over Orddu but her god.

It is my personal belief that Orddu was the last of a lineage of ‘witches’ of the Old North who resided in the cave at Pennant Gofid, which is identified with hell, showing Annuvian associations. They were powerful warrior-women and prophets who shared a kinship with the Witches of Caer Loyw who trained Peredur and with Scatach ‘the Shadow’ who schooled Cú Chulainn.

Their martial prowess and ability to commune with Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn to prophecy were seen as a threat to Christianity thus Orddu met her brutal end at the hands of the Christian king.

Orddu’s story has long haunted me. A few years ago it led me to trace her lineage through a series of spirit-journeys and in inspired writing from her mother, Orwen ‘Very White’, back to Snow, the first of her ancestors to arrive in Pennant Gofid (then known as the Valley of Winter) after the Ice Age.

Of all the stories I have written Snow’s has felt the realest, the deepest and the most profound. It tells how she and her people were led by Vindos/Gwyn and his wolves and ravens, following the reindeer and wild horses, to her northern cave, where it is remembered in her lore her ancestors once lived.

I have no idea whether Orddu, Orwen, or Snow are real or mythic persons or whether Pennant Gofid is an actual place in northern Britain (if it is I haven’t found it yet). However, archaeological evidence demonstrates that people lived here in caves after the last Ice Age and in the interstadials.

During recent research I found out from Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins and Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Origins of the British that a high percentage of the modern population can trace its ancestry back to the period after the last Ice Age when people recolonised Britain from Northern Iberia along the Atlantic seaways and from the North European Plain across Doggerland.

Up until now it had never occurred to me to question who Orddu’s people were and where they came from. To follow their footsteps back to the continent, into older times, and deeper into the cave.

II. After the Ice Age

Following the end of the last Ice Age, the Younger Dryas Stadial, (12,900 to 11,700 BP), the earliest evidence for the inhabitation of Britain comes from caves in south-west Wales. The oldest human remains from Worm’s Head include a human scapula (9920 BP), an ulna (9450 BP), a femur (9420 BP), and a cranium (9360 BP). Human bones dating from between 9000 and 7000 BP have been found at Paviland, Foxhole Cave, Ogof-yr-Ychen ‘Cave of the Oxen’, Potter’s Cave, and Daylight Rock.

One of the most famous Mesolithic burial sites is Aveline’s Hole in the Mendip Hills of Somerset. It was discovered in 1797 and investigations reported the presence of between 50 and 100 human skeletons. Unfortunately most of the finds and documentation were destroyed by bombing during World War II. Only 21 skeletons remain and they have been dated to between 9115 and 8740 BP.

Most were adults and adolescents, but they also included three children aged between 2 and 7 and an infant of 6 – 18 months. One of the skeletons was buried ceremonially in a disused hearth with ‘red ochre, abundant animal teeth some of which were perforated, and a set of fossil ammonites’.

The cave was sealed after the burial. This may have symbolised closing a connection to relatives become ancestors and to the Otherworld, or may have been a precaution to prevent their return.

In 2003 ‘an engraved panel’ consisting ‘of two rows of crosses with six in the upper row and four in the lower’ was discovered in Aveline’s Hole. Because the cave was sealed after the burial it is suspected this cave art belongs to the Mesolithic. Further art, three engravings taking the form of ‘rectilinear abstract designs’, possibly of a similar date, were found nearby, in Long Hole.

Other finds from the Mendips from this time include a mandible (9360 BP) and cranial fragments (9060 BP) from Badger Hole and the skeleton of Cheddar Man (9100 BP) from Gough’s Cave. Research into DNA has made possible a reconstruction of Cheddar Man’s appearance. His genetic make-up shows he had dark skin of a pigmentation ‘usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa’ and blue eyes.

This suggests that the earliest inhabitants of Britain, including Snow and her people, were dark-skinned. Snow received her name because she was born in a snow storm not because she had snow-white skin. Dark skin is hinted at in the way I describe Snow’s Very Great Grandmother whose face was ‘wrinkled like an old crowberry’, crowberry (empetrum nigrum), being black. Perhaps Orddu ‘Very Black’ was herself black due to a gene that linked her back to oldest ancestors.

In northern Britain a piece of human thigh bone contemporary with the burials in Aveline’s Hole was found in Kent’s Bank Cavern near the Kent estuary where it enters Morecambe Bay. Other evidence of human inhabitation of this area includes microliths and an antler point from Bart’s Shelter.

III. Creswell Crags Cave Art

Snow possessed stories about her cave, passed down by her ancestors, suggesting her people had lived in Britain in the past. Archaeological finds from a number of caves show the landmass, then attached to the continent, had indeed been occupied during the Lateglacial Interstadial (14,670 – 12,890 BP).

Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge in Derbyshire, is famous for its parietal and portable cave art and stone tools. According to Paul Petitt these have ‘very direct parallels with material from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany… the term Magdalenian… links these British industries to a much wider population dispersal into empty areas of Europe following the Last Glacial Maximum. This dispersal has its roots in the Magdalenian of south-western Europe… Magdalenian sites in Britain cluster relatively tightly between 12,600 and 12,200 radiocarbon years ago, which places the sites in the relatively mild conditions of the first half of the Lateglacial Interstadial.’

There are 25 examples of parietal art at Creswell; 23 in Church Hole, one in Robin Hood Cave, and one in Mother Grundy’s Parlour. All are engravings that often use the structures of the cave walls.

The clearest engravings are of a stag, bison, and an ibis. The latter is a bird for whom we have no faunal remains in Britain, but would have been seen on the continent by the highly mobile artists.

One of the most intriguing is a bird/woman motif, which has been interpreted as ‘long-necked birds of some kind…. cranes, herons, bitterns, and swans’ and ‘schematic human females, drawn upside down.’

Another, equally ambiguous, is described as ‘a diving bird, a serpentiform or a stylised human female?’ There is a also a ‘headless horse’, ‘small incomplete engraved animal’ and ‘abstract designs such as a ‘boomerang’, ‘engraved triangle’, ‘horn-like motif’ and ‘two small triangles’. ‘Figures of uncertainty’ include a ‘square’, a ‘bison-head profile’, a ‘horse-head’, and a ‘bear’.

In Robin Hood’s Cave was found a rib engraved with a horse coloured by red ochre. William Boyd Dawkins described it in 1867: ‘the head and fore quarters of a horse incised on a smoothed and rounded fragment of rib, cut short off at one end and broken at the other. On the flat side the head is represented with the nostrils and mouth and neck carefully drawn. A series of fine oblique lines show that the animal was hog-maned. They stop at the bend of the back which is very correctly drawn.’

The Ochre Horse shares parallels with portable Ice Age horse depictions from the caves of Perigord in France and Kesserloch in Switzerland. It is also contemporary with a decorated horse jaw from Kendrick’s Cave, Llandudno, which had five panels of chevrons cut into it creating a zig-zag effect. That people carried these representations with them may suggest horses held a special place in their traditions. Whether this was simply as a prey animal or as a spirit guide or deity remains unknown.

In Pin Hole Cave, engraved on the rib-bone of a woolly rhincoeros, was a masked figure described by Albert Leslie Armstrong as a ‘masked figure in the act of dancing a ceremonial dance.’ Again, the identity of this figure and why he was carried into and left in the cave remains a mystery.

Other British examples include an engraving of a reindeer from Gower Cave in Wales and engraved plaquettes from La Varines in New Jersey featuring abstract designs and ‘zoomorphic representations’, possibly of horses, mammoths, a bovid, and human face, dating to 14,000 years ago.

The art of Creswell Crags shares similarities with Magdalenian art from across south-western Europe. Paul Pettitt links its characteristics artworks at Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France. He suggests the Creswell Crag artists spent their summers in this area and retreated to the lowlands that now form part of the North Sea or the Netherlands and central Rhine areas and says they would have been in contact with people from Ardennes and the Dordogne, which was also accessible on foot. “The Magdalenian era was the last time that Europe was unified in a real sense and on a grand scale.”

IV. Prehistoric Chapels and Rites of Initiation

The French archaeologist and Catholic Priest, Abbé Breuil, referred to Lascaux as ‘the Sistine chapel of prehistory’. The caves of the Franco-Cantabrian area have long been seen as sacred sites that were central to the religion of the Magdalenian people and their predecessors who made earlier paintings.

According to Bruno David these caves were used for ritual performances and rites of passage. He describes Cougnac: ‘Human engagements in the deep, dark space of the cave are intriguing: here are found animals that take shape along rock walls in a combination of natural concretions and painted red or black lines. At the entrance of chambers, palms of hands were dipped in red ochre and fingers smeared with black pigment, and then pressed against rock walls to leave distinctive marks. Animals were neatly arranged along rock walls, their viewing intentionally and carefully choreographed. Depictions were made of repeatedly speared humans or human-like creatures, and rocky concretions were tapped to make a ringing sound, it appears. This is the stuff of rituals… It formed part of an inner sanctum of knowledge, of an inner life, one that needed to be performed.’

David speaks also of ‘orchestrated performance’ at Tuc d’Audoubert where, adjacent to the Gallery of the Clay Bison, in the Chamber of Heels are found ‘183 impressions of the balls of human heels and myriad shallow impressions of fingertips’ ‘which show that those who walked this space did so on the heels of their feet, carefully avoiding placing the flat of their feet on the ground… The size of the heel imprints… indicates they were not made by adults but by youths probably adolescents.’

‘What we see in the art and imprints in the clay are the products of choreographed actions involving youths walking on the balls of their feet and pressing fingertips into clay along long and sometimes narrow tunnels underground, leading to sculpted clay bison that were never meant to be seen by the broader populace of the outside world. These were rituals along passageways that were, we think, literally rites of passage for youths approaching adulthood. The art was not just to be seen, but to be performed.’

David Williams argues that Lascaux holds ‘the key to major mysteries’ as a place for ‘vision quests’ leading to shamanic initiation. He says ‘different rituals were performed in contrasting areas’. In the ‘Hall of the Bulls’ the only area that can accommodate a large number of people, ‘dancing, music, and chanting’ may have taken place. He describes this area as a ‘vestibule’. In the Axial Gallery the Roaring Bull might have evoked auditory hallucinations and the Falling Horse sensations of falling and descent.

The dense engravings in the Apse featuring ‘crowded images of horses, bison, aurochs, ibexes, deer, and a possible wolf’ etched on top of one another might have provided a glimpse of the spirit world. Having passed a pair of ‘Cerberus-like paired bison’ and crawled down a tunnel to the Diverticule of the Felines to eight formidable cave-lions, ‘a horse seen face-on’, and ‘bison with a raised tail’, ‘questers came face to face with visions of power and made personal contact with the spirit realm.’

The Shaft, and end area, which falls away into a deep well is where offerings with ‘broken signs’ were left. Here is the famous painting of a bison wounded by a spear charging down a bird-headed man with a bird-staff. Williams says here ‘we have transformation by death: the ‘death’ of the man paralleling the ‘death’ of the eviscerated bison. As both ‘die’, the man fuses with one of his spirit helpers, a bird’. He interprets this as the ‘zoomorphic transformation… becoming a shaman necessitated.’

It seems possible that Creswell Crags was also seen as a prehistoric ‘chapel’ where people communed with spirit animals and sought and then engraved visions of the spirit world. Perhaps the witch’s cave at Pennant Gofid was also used for rituals of descent presided over by Orddu and her kin that led to initiates, like them, becoming awenyddion, ‘people inspired’, the Brythonic term for ‘shamans’.

V. Gough’s Cave – Skull Caps and Cannibalism

A discussion of the cave-based rituals of the people living in Britain during the Magdalenian period would not be complete without mention of the skull caps of Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and ritual cannibalism.

There were discovered the skeletal remains of ‘a Minimum Number of six individuals: a child (aged 3.2 years), a young adolescent (approximately 12–14 years old), an older adolescent (approximately 14–16 years old), at least two adults and an older adult’ dating to 14,700 BP. Results of the research by Silvia Bello et al. ‘suggest the processing of cadavers for the consumption of body tissues (bone marrow), accompanied by meticulous shaping of cranial vaults. The distribution of cut-marks and percussion features indicates that the skulls were scrupulously ‘cleaned’ of any soft tissues, and subsequently modified by controlled removal of the facial region and breakage of the cranial base along a sub-horizontal plane. The vaults were also ‘retouched’, possibly to make the broken edges more regular. This manipulation suggests the shaping of skulls to produce skull-cups.’

These skull caps resemble those from other Magdalenian sites such as La Placard Cave and Isturitz in France, and from Herxhein, Germany, in the Neolithic period, and El Mirador, Spain, in the Bronze Age.

In Gough’s Cave was also found a human radius engraved with a zig-zag pattern of ‘87 incisions: 33 single-stroke incisions, 32 to-and-fro sawing incisions’, also bearing evidence of cannibalism. What was particularly interesting is that ‘the decorative pattern seems to have been applied in the middle of this process: the break where the bone was snapped to extract marrow cuts across the zig-zag. It seems that the arm’s flesh had been removed, but then the butchery was paused while someone engraved the bone, and only then was it broken to get at its contents.’

This shares similarities with an ulnus from Kent’s Cavern with fine cut marks and percussion marks dating to 8185 BP. The zig-zag also resembles the pattering on the Kendrick’s Cave decorated horse skull.

It is clear that complex rituals and beliefs surrounded these acts of cannibalism and the creating of skull-caps and engraving of bones. Were these acts performed to honour the ancestors? Was eating one’s kindred an act of holy communion through which their life’s essence passed from the dead to the living?

What did the marks on the bones symbolise? Days? Acts? The release of the spirit from the bones? Was the creation of skull caps linked to belief that the soul presided in the head and with its release? What did wearing or drinking from the skull caps mean? Answers to these questions can only be guessed at.

It is worth nothing that, in Culhwch ac Olwen, Gwyn is associated with ritual cannibalism. He feeds the heart of Nwython, the ruler of Strathclyde to his son, Cyledyr, who becomes wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’, but later becomes a rider on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth – a veiled version of the Wild Hunt. Here the consumption of the flesh of an ancestor is initiatory, leading first to madness, then to prowess.

Orddu is associated with Gwyn and witchcraft and her abode is described as hellish. One wonders whether the practice of cannibalism lived on and was practised by her and her ancestors in the Old North.

It certainly continued into the Iron Age in other areas of Britain. In the Bone Cave of Alveston, in Gloucestershire, the remains of seven individuals were found including an individual murdered by a pole-axe. The femur of one these adults ‘had been split longitudinally and the bone marrow scraped out.’

The skeletons were deposited with dog bones, cattle bones, a possible bear vertebra, and wooden twigs.’ Mark Horton says: ‘This was a highly structured deposit that can only have got there as a result of some form of ritual activity. This region was an important centre for underworld cults during the later Iron Age, some of which survived into the Roman period; in particular the Celtic Hound God, Cunomaglus, was represented as a dog guarding the underworld in a local temple sculpture.’

VI. Further Back in Time and Back to Now

The footsteps of Snow and her ancestors might be followed back from Britain to the continent and back again through earlier glacials and interglacials. The famous ‘Paviland Red Lady’, actually a male hunter found in Goat’s Hole Cave, Paviland, on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, his bones stained with red ochre, with mammoth ivory and nerite shells, dates to 33,000 BP. This is our earliest evidence for a ritual burial and thus for beliefs linking caves and the Otherworld.

The first record of Homo sapiens in Britain comes from a maxilla fragment from Kent’s Cavern, Devon, and is dated to between 34,700 and 36,400 BP and an Aurignacian burin busqué from Ffeunon Beuno, Wales, dated to 36,000 BP may have belonged to an early ancestor.

Homo sapiens arrived in Europe in 43,000 years ago having travelled through Israel after dispersing from Africa 120,000 years ago where the earliest evidence, from Omo I, dates to 195,000 years ago.

The stories of Snow and her predecessors remind us of our shared European heritage and its origins in Africa when, as Brexit approaches, Britain is cutting itself off from the EU and limiting foreign aid.

Whilst the cave art of the Magdalenians appears to have been born of a shared culture and religion, much later on, due to Christianity, Orddu, the last carrier of these traditions, appears alone in her cave. Isolated like those of us drawn to the Brythonic tradition today and those isolating due to COVID-19.

Dare we hope, instead of fearing death by Arthur’s knife, for a happier time when we can meet safely in caves and other sacred places to celebrate our bond with the Otherworld and its gods and spirits?

SOURCES

Anon, ‘Gower cave reindeer is Britain’s oldest rock art,’ BBC News, (2012), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-west-wales-18648683
Anon, ‘Cannibalistic Celts discovered in South Gloucestershire’, University of Bristol, (2001), http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2001/cannibal.html
Emily Hellewell and Nicky Milner, ‘Burial Practices at the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition: Change of Continuity’, Documenta Praehistorica, XXXVII, (2011)
Graham Mullan and Linda Wilson, ‘Possible Mesolithic Art in Southern England’, Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/british_isles_prehistory_archive/prehistory_mendip_hills/mesolithic_cave_art_southern_england.php
Kathryn Krakowka, ‘More evidence of ritual cannibalism at Gough’s Cave,’ Current Archaeology, (2017), https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/evidence-ritual-cannibalism-goughs-cave.htm
Kerry Lotzof, ‘Cheddar Man: Mesolithic Britain’s Blue-Eyed Boy, National History Museum, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/cheddar-man-mesolithic-britain-blue-eyed-boy.html
Paul Rincon, ‘Earliest art in the British Isles discovered on Jersey’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-53835146
Rick Schulting, Worm’s Head and Caldey Island (South Wales, UK) and the question of Mesolithic territories’, Mesolithic Horizons, Oxbow Books, Oxford, (2009)
Rick Schulting and Mick Wysocki, ‘The Mesolithic Human Skeletal Collection from Aveline’s Hole: A preliminary Note’, Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spaelological Society, 22, 3, (2002)
Sean Clarke, ‘Dancing Girls and the Merry Magdalenian,’ The Guardian, (2004), https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/apr/15/highereducation.research
Silvia Bello et al., ‘Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups’, Plus One, (2011), https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0017026
Silvia Bello et al., ‘A Cut-marked and Fractured Mesolithic Human Bone from Kent’s Cavern, Devon, UK’, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, (2015)
Silvia Bello et al., ‘An Upper Palaeolithic engraved human bone associated with ritualistic cannibalism,’ Plos One, (2017), https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0182127



Last Night

was the night
you were furthest
away from the world
like a distant asteroid
– like Pluto.

From now
you’re coming back
– your land of ice and darkness
will thaw and the mists will make it beautiful again.

From the coffin where you dream of nuclear winter
you will step into a new suit of armour.

Summer is a’coming to Annwn
and winter is already
on its way here.

This poem is based on my gnosis that whilst it is summer in Thisworld it is winter in the Otherworld. It is addressed to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic ruler of the Otherworld and Winter’s King, who is killed by his rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol, Summer’s King, on Calan Mai, and sleeps through the Summer.

After I received this poem in a vision this morning I looked up Pluto, a planet named after the Roman King of the Underworld and saw that, in Japanese its name is Meiōsei – ‘Star of the King of the Underworld’. I thought this was very beautiful and apt for the planet that rules my birth sign, Scorpio, much as Gwyn, my patron god, is the ruling force in my life.

I then returned to an essay by Brian Taylor called ‘Photographing the Underworld? A Note of NASA’s Pluto Fly-by’ which has had a big influence on me. Here he speaks of how the photographing of Pluto ‘ruler of occultation, and protector of the integrity of mystery’ may have been saved from being an act of ‘casual intrusion’ by the plutonium powered spaceship carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh ‘discoverer of Pluto’ (as a kind of offering to the underworld gods?).

Brian also speaks of how he ‘traced the exteriorisation of Pluto in the history of the nuclear era, and found the planet’s signature etched into the geography of the discovery region, most notably in an extraordinary spatial co-incidence. Pluto was discovered in 1930 at the Percevall Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona. Ten years later Plutonium was manufactured at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, and five years after that the first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity Test Site north of Alamagordo in New Mexico. Curiously these three sites fall in an almost perfect straight line, about a thousand miles long, that maps the connection between the planet and the nuclear project on to the land in the most unexpectedly graphic way.’

Coincidentally I have been returning to these themes, which I touched on in The Broken Cauldron, in the later sections of the new book I am writing, which explores more deeply the influence of the gods within the modern world and Gwyn’s connections with nuclear war and nuclear winter.

At the bottom of the essay I saw an old comment I left for Brian in 2015 mentioning a dream I had about Gwyn and nuclear winter, leading me to recall it. Brian notes that the spaceship made closest contact with Pluto on a dark moon and the moon was dark last night.

The Other Side of the Door

Porth-Annwfyn. Some numinous, arcane agnomen, but which to my dream cognition was livid as moonshine and did plainly signify: Gate of Elysium.’
David Jones

Porth Annwn ‘Door of the Otherworld’. Porth so easily rolling into ‘portal’. The type of door that not only forms both a barrier and an entranceway between here-and-there but transports elsewhere.

Doors are usually boundaries between rooms in a building or its inside and outside and gates serve a similar function in walls, fences, and hedges. Doors and gates that are portals transport between worlds.

Most famously, in the Brythonic tradition, in the poem ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ we find the lines ‘A rac drws porth Vffern, llugyrn lloscit’ ‘And in front of Hell’s gate lamps were burned.’ This suggests there is a gateway through which Arthur and his warriors travelled from Thisworld to the Otherworld and that lamps were burned in the course of a vigil until he and only seven of his men returned. Annwn, ‘the Deep’, was equated with Uffern ‘Inferno’ or ‘Hell’ by Christians in medieval Wales.

Although there a number of places known as ‘Hell’s Gate’ across the world I’ve never found one in Britain. Although, at liminal times, in liminal places, I have been transported to the Otherworld. I have no control over such events.

Finally, I was guided by the Witches of Pennant Gofid, who I believe were similarly devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd, my Lord of Annwn, to create my own doorway. They guided my hand in drawing it and decorating it with the head of Gwyn as bull-of-battle, shapeshifting horses and hounds, and two new guides – a bird man and antlered woman. The teeth symbolise it being the maw of Dormach, Gwyn’s Death Hound. the Jaws of Death.

When I step out of the door it is always into a misty hinterland. Occasionally I’m standing on solid ground, but often it’s marsh, and more often I’m on my winged horse treading mist with my hounds beside me. It’s said of Gwyn and Dormach that they travel ar wybir ‘on the clouds that haunt the mountaintops’ and that wybir or nuden ‘condensed floating white cloud’ ‘serves as a garment for Gwyn’.

And so we travel ar wybir, like Gwyn, until the mist clears, or someone appears to guide us out. Setting off right or left, or North, East, South, or West never works as the directions don’t function the same in Annwn (if they exist at all). I often end up in the same places, but never by the same routes. In contrast to other followers of shamanistic paths I haven’t managed to form a stable map of Annwn.

I’ve been told by numerous teachers one should always return by the same route. Some days I manage this, but other days the routes undo themselves as if Annwn is innately resistant to memory. I search instead for the mist, wait for it to come, like my god, to sweep me up, place me back at the portal.

The door is always shrouded by mist and I have only just realised, after two years of constant use, that I have never seen the other side of the door. That I drew only my entryway, on my side, in my room, in Thisworld. That the origin and location of the exit, on Gwyn’s side, in the Otherworld, is a mystery.

All I know is that as I approach through the mist I have a feeling of increasing solidity. There is ground beneath my feet and the door is set within a wall. This creates the impression the door may once have been part of a fortress, shattered, fragmented, still able to float in the mist like Gwyn’s castle.

Could it be a cast-off door from the Fort of Pen Annwn rendered disposable by Arthur’s despoiling? A relic of Hell’s Gate? Or something older, or newer, but nonetheless no less mysterious? No burning of lanterns will shift the mist and again I must trust a gift of Gwyn’s that is incomprehensible.

What if Barinthus was Blind?

guided by Barinthus to whom the waters and the stars of heaven were well known. With him steering the ship we arrived’
Vita Merlini

What stars will you navigate by when they have fallen from the sky?
Where is North when there is no North Star?
How will the swans fly?

When your boat is stuck on a turning oar in the blackest of midnights
shall I tie my blindfold with a sailor’s knot?
Trust your sightless eyes?

Speak the words that have never been heard this side of the sunrise?
Place my payment shiny and cold in your spitless
mouth that never lies?

Your cloak of stars ragged torn will you wrap around my shoulders tight
as you swear by dead sea-gods we will arrive
on your boat that flies

on the wings of a swan where the sea is filled with the Northern Lights?
Find the frost-dark isle of my mysterious god where the sun
escapes the sunrise?

Where the living are dead and the dead alive and the blind no longer blind
will we find the oar, the compass, the stars, bring them back
with the starlight?

*This image is the Six of Arrows – Transition – from the Wildwood Tarot.

Review: The Book of Onei by Christopher Scott Thompson

The Book of Onei by Christopher Scott Thompson is ‘an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.’

It is narrated in the voice of a ‘dark seer’, a ‘night wanderer’ drawn to seek the wisdom of the ‘beautiful chaos’ and ‘primal darkness’ and its ‘chthonic and horrifying entities’ rather than the light. Unlike similar narratives involving journeys to otherworlds he does not go with a benevolent aim such as bringing back a dead lover or relative. Following in the footsteps of his father, who stole The Book of Onei from the Great Library, this Promethean anti-hero goes instead to steal a secret – the knowledge of how to understand the book. “Prometheus didn’t give the fire back,” he tells his wife before setting out through the door in the basement.

The main thread of the narrative is this unnamed dark seer’s journey. The rest is composed of lore from The Book of Onei. This includes stories which take the form of powerful parables in a similar strain to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathrustra, riddling poems, and lists of the Powers of Onei and how they might be invoked or exorcised through prayers, offerings, charms, symbols, and rituals.

The visionary scope of this book is immense and could only have been channelled from the depths of dream. One of the most striking characters is the prophet Eyes For Flowers, one of the Sons of Crow, who has huge sunflowers spilling through the eye-holes of his crow-mask. This image and the depiction of demons transformed into angels who ‘rose up from the husks of their bodies as burning wheels, as gears and eyes and wings’ put me in mind of the raw genius of Blake and Ted Hughes.

There is also a lot of animistic wonder. I was mesmerised by the song of the spider who sung to the Fool who would become Three-Times Exiled in his cage and by the words of the swaying serpent who teaches that ‘the Chaos Ocean is not a place you can walk to’ but lies ‘in the crevices between moments.’

As you might have guessed this book is packed with paradoxes. The places and powers in the Book of Onei may not exist in Onei itself and it remains unclear whether there is ‘a secret to be uncovered, or only lies within lies.’ The only way to discover the truth is ‘to go there in person.’ Deep contrary wisdom is conveyed about travelling otherworlds, drawn from fairylore, grimoires, alchemy, demonology, and, forthmost from the author’s experiences as a dreamwalker and visionary.

As a kindred spirit drawn to the beauty of the darkness I fell in love with The Book of Onei when it first started out as a series of blog posts and was delighted to hear it has been published in book form. When I read it in full I was not disappointed. It is a valuable contribution to visionary literature and dark mysticism that deserves to be preserved for longevity. Although not explicitly political it is a work that provides gnosis and guidance for facing dark truths in troubled times.

I would recommend it to anyone who has heard the call of the Veiled One who stirs her ‘cauldron made of swirling stars and galaxies’ or been haunted by the ‘eerie, dreadful dead’ of the Host. I don’t want to give away how it ends, only that it begs a follow up – more!!!

The Book of Onei can be purchased HERE.

Signposts to Annwn: Places

Signpost

Sharing this post marks the beginning of my attempt to document the references to Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld, in the core texts of medieval Welsh literature. Its aim is to build a picture of what is known about Annwn; its places, inhabitants, and the bardic lore that surrounds its mysteries. I believe this is important because Annwn is not only a magical place immanent within the British landscape, but the land of the dead. Growing to know Annwn in life could aid our passage into death.

The existing sources provide signposts by which to begin our own explorations. I have included both references that speak of Annwn explicitly and those that do so implicitly. The latter can be identified by markers such as the appearance of guiding animals, spatio-temporal distortion, extremes of beauty or ugliness and feelings of intense joy or terror. It’s worth noting that many places in Thisworld have Otherworld realities and the divisions are not absolute. This project will be ongoing and my developing research will be accessible via my ‘Porth Annwn’ page.

Fortresses

The most common destinations in Annwn are fortresses. Many are associated with the gods and spirits of Annwn who are later known as fairies.

A Hundred Islands A Hundred Citadels

‘I slept on a hundred islands;
I sojourned in a hundred citadels.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Siddi (The Fairy Fort)

‘Harmonious is my song in Caer Siddi;
sickness and age do not afflict those who are there,
as Manawyd and Pryderi know.
Three instruments/organs around a fire play in front of it
and around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea;
and (as for) the fruitful fountain which is above it –
its drink is sweeter than the white wine.’
– The Chair of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘Maintained was Gwair’s prison in Caer Siddi
throughout Pwll and Pryderi’s story.
No-one went there before he did –
into the heavy chain guarding the loyal lad.
And before the spoils/herds of Annwfn he was singing sadly,
and until Doom shall our poetic prayer continue.
Three loads of Prydwen went into it:
save seven, none came back from Caer Siddi.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Vedwit (The Mead-Feast Fort)

‘I’m splendid of fame – song was heard
in the four quarters of the fort, revolving (to face) the four directions.
My first utterance was spoken concerning the cauldron
kindled by the breath of nine maidens.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
(with its) a dark trim, and pearls?
It does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so;
Lleog’s flashing sword was thrust into it,
and it was left in Lleminog’s hand.
And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned
and when we went in with Arthur, famed in tribulation,
save seven, none returned from the Mead-Feast Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Pedryvan (The Four-Cornered Fort)

‘I’m splendid of fame: songs are heard
in the four quarters of the fort, stout defence of the island.’
– – The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Rigor (The Petrifaction Fort)

‘Fresh water and jet are mixed together:
sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion.
Three loads of Prydwen went by sea:
save seven, none came back from the Petrifaction Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Wydyr (The Glass Fort)

‘I don’t rate the pathetic men involved with religious writings,
those who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort:
six thousand men were standing on its wall;
it was hard to communicate with their watchman.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Golud (The Fort of Impediment)

‘Three loads of Prydwen went with Arthur:
save seven, none came back from the Fort of Impediment.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Vandwy (The Fort of God’s Peak)

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men with their trailing shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day was God born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;
those who nothing of the Brindled Ox, with his stout collar,
(and) seven score links in its chain.
And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none returned from Man(d)wy Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘And to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Fanddwy.

At Caer Fanddwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’
– The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Hill transl.)

Caer Ochren (The Angular Fort)

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men, with no go in them,
(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal it is they guard, with his silver head.
When we went with Arthur, sad conflict,
save seven none came back from the Angular Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Arianrhod

‘Arianrhod, famed for her appearance surpassing the radiance of fair weather,
her terrifying was the greatest shame (to come) from the region of the Britons;
a raging river rushes around her court,
a river with its savage wrath beating against the land:
destructive its snare as it goes round the world.’
– The Chair of Ceridwen, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Gofannon

‘I’ve been with skilful men,
with Math Hen, with Gofannon…
For a year I’ve been in Caer Gofannon,
I’m old, I’m new, I’m Gwion;’
– The First Address of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Arawn

‘He (Pwyll) made his way to the court. He saw sleeping quarters there and halls and rooms and the most beautifully adorned buildings that anyone had seen… The hall was got ready. With that he could see a war-band and retinues coming in, and fairest and best-equipped men that anyone had ever seen, and the queen with them, the most beautiful woman that anyone had seen, wearing a golden garment of brocaded silk… They spent the time eating and drinking, singing and carousing. Of all the courts he had seen on earth, that was the court with the most food and drink and golden vessels and royal jewels.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Gwyn

‘And when he (Collen) came there, he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom…

‘Didst thou ever see men of better equipment than those in red and blue?’ asked the king.
– St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd, The Mabinogion, (Guest transl.)

Caer Llwyd

‘They (Pryderi and Manawydan) followed the boar until they saw a huge, towering, newly built, in a place where they had never been before seen any building at all. The boar was heading quickly for the fort, with the dogs after him…

In spite of the advice he received from Manawaydan, Pryderi approached the fort. When he entered, neither man nor beast, neither boar nor dogs, neither house nor dwelling place could be seen in the fort. But he could see in the middle of the floor, as it were, a well with marble-work around it. At the edge of the well there was a golden bowl fastened to four chains, over a marble slab, and the chains reached up to the sky, and he could see no end to them. He was enraptured by the beauty of the gold and the fine workmanship of the bowl. And he went to the bowl and grabbed it. But as soon as he grabs the bowl, his hands stick to it and his feet stick to the slab on which he is standing, and the power of speech is taken from him so that he could not utter a single word. And there he stood…

She (Rhiannon) found the gate of the fort open – it was ajar – and in she came. As soon as she entered she discovered Pryderi gripping the bowl, and she went up to him.

“My lord,” she said, “what are you doing here?” Then she too grabbed the bowl. As soon as she grabs it, her hands too stick to the bowl and her feet to the slab, so that she too could not utter a single word. Then, as soon as it was night, where was a tumultuous noise above them, and a blanket of mist, and then the fort disappeared and so did they…’
– The Third Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Hyfaidd Hen

Hyfaidd Hen is the father of Rhiannon and presumably a ruler of Annwn.

‘He (Pwyll) set off for the court of Hyfaidd Hen, and he came to the court and they welcomed him, and there was a gathering and rejoicing and great preparations waiting for him, and all the the wealth of the court was placed at his disposal. The hall was prepared, and they went to the tables. This is how they sat: Hyfaidd Hen on one side of Pwyll, and Rhiannon on the other; after that each according to his rank. They ate and caroused and conversed.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Nefenhir

This is a real location in Western Galloway, but had its Otherworld reality.

‘I was in the Fort of Nefenhyr:
herbage and trees were attacking.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

The Fortress of Wonders

‘Suddenly he could see two lads entering the hall, and from the hall they proceeded to a chamber, carrying a spear of huge proportions, with three streams of blood running from its socket to the floor. When everyone saw the lads coming in this way, they all began weeping and wailing sot that it was not easy for anyone to endure it. Yet the man did not interrupt his conversation with Peredur. The man did not explain to Peredur what that was, nor did Peredur ask him about it. After a short silence, suddenly two maidens entered with a large salver between them, and a man’s head on the salver, and much blood around the head. And then they all shrieked and wailed so that it was not easy for anyone to stay in the same building. At last they stopped, and remained sitting as long as it pleased them, and drank.’
– Peredur son of Efrog, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Rivers and Streams

The Defwy

Defwy is likely to refer to a Brythonic river of the dead. According to Hancock the name derives drom def-/dyf– ‘black’ ‘as in Dyfi’ (Dovey).

‘who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Hancock tranl.)

‘Fine it is on the banks of the Dyfwy
when the waters flow’
– The Spoils of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Pennar transl.)

The River which Flows around the World

This likely refers to the ocean which, like Oceanus in Greek mythology, separated Thisworld and Annwn.

‘the connected river which flows (around the world)
I know its might,
I know how it ebbs,
I know how it flows,
I know how it courses,
I know how it retreats.
I know how many creatures
are under the sea’
– The Hostile Confederacy, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

The Other Tawe

The Tawe is a river in Wales but, like the Dovey/Defwy has its Otherworld reality too.

‘The white horse calls this talk to an end
His bridle leads us away
Hurrying to battles in Tawe and Nedd.

Not the Tawe here in this land
But the one far away in a distant land
Where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore.’
– The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Hill. transl.)

The Streams of Annwn

‘My two keen spears:
from Heaven did they come.
In the streams of Annwfn
they come ready for battle.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Wells

The Lady’s Well

‘you will see a great tree, its branches greener than the greenest fir trees. And under that tree is a well, and near that tree is a marble slab, and on that slab is a silver bowl fastened to a silver chain so they cannot be separated. Take the bowl and throw a bowlful of water over the slab. And then you will hear a tumultuous noise, and think that heaven and earth are trembling with the noise. And after the noise there will be a very cold shower – a shower of hailstones – and it will be difficult for you to survive it. And after the shower there will be fine weather. And there will not be one leaf on the tree that the shower will not have carried away. And then a flock of birds will alight on the tree, and you have never heard in your own country such singing as theirs. And when you are enjoying the song most, you will hear a great groaning and moaning coming towards you along the valley. And with that you will see a knight on a pure black horse dressed in brocaded silk of pure black, with a banner of pure black linen on his spear. And he will attack you as quickly as he can. If you flee, he will catch up with you; if you wait for him on horseback he will leave you on foot. And if you do not find trouble there, you will not need to look for it as long as you live.’
– The Lady of the Well, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Meadows

The Meadows of Defwy

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men with their trailing shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day was God born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock tranl.)

Rocks

A Rock Beyond the Wave

‘There is a Rock beyond the wave, according to (God’s) great plan –
(while) the refuge of the enemy is a forlorn place of terror –
the Rock of the foremost Ruler, the supreme judge,
where the intoxication provided by the ruler will pleasure us.’
– The Fold of the Bards, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Trees and Hedges

The Tree of Leaf and Flame

‘He could see a tall tree in the riverbank, and one half of it was burning from its roots to its tip, but the other half had fresh leaves on it.’
– Peredur son of Efrog, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

The Hedge of Mist

‘“Down there,” he said, “is a hedge of mist, and within it there are enchanted games. And no man who has gone there has ever come back…

And no lower was the top of the hedge they could see than the highest point they could see in the sky. And on every stake they could see in the hedge there was a man’s head, except for two stakes. And there were a great many stakes within the hedge and through it…

there was an apple-tree facing the entrance to the pavilion, and on a branch of the apple-tree was a large hunting horn… There was no-one inside the pavilion except for a single maiden, sitting in a golden chair, and an empty chair facing her. Geraint sat in the empty chair.’
– Geraint son of Erbin, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Uffern

The term Uffern, ‘Inferno’, is used synonymously with ‘Annwn’ and is translated as ‘Hell’. It seems to refer to infernal and frightening places that are the destinations of souls..

‘What is the measure of Hell,
how thick is it veil,
how wide its its mouth,
how big are its baths?… (‘presumably the pits or rivers in which souls are tormented’ – Hancock)

The tops of the bare trees –
what forces them to be so bent over,
how many evils
are there (lurking) in their trunks?’
– The First Address of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘Madawg…
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Hell.’
– The Death Song of Madawg, The Book of Taliesin, (Skene transl.)

Pennant Gofid

‘Arthur said, “Are there any of the wonders we have still not obtained?”

One of the men said, “Yes, the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell.”

Arthur set out for the North, and came to where the hag’s cave was.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Liminal Places

Glyn Cuch

‘The part of his realm he (Pwll) wanted to hunt was Glyn Cuch… He set out that night from Arberth, and came as far as Pen Llywn Diarwya, and stayed there that night. And early the next day he got up, and came to Glyn Cuch to unleash his dogs in the forest. And he blew his horn and began to muster the hunt, and went off after the dogs, and became separated from his companions. And as he was listening for the cry of his pack, he heard the cry of another pack… a stag in front of the other pack… a gleaming shining white and their ears were red… he could see a rider coming after the pack on a large dapple-grey horse, with a hunting horn round his neck, and wearing hunting clothes of a light grey material… Arawn, King of Annwfn.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Gorsedd Arberth

‘After the first sitting Pwyll got up to take a walk, and he made for the top of a mound that was above the court, called Gorsedd Arberth.

“Lord”, said one of the court, “the strange thing about the mound is that whatever nobleman sits on it will not leave there without one of two things happening: either he will be wounded or injured, or else he will see something wonderful.”

“I am not afraid to be wounded or injured among such a large company as this. As for something wonderful, I would be glad to see that. I will go and sit on the mound,” he said.

He sat on the mound. And as they were sitting, they could see a woman wearing a shining golden garment of brocaded silk on a big, tall, pale-white horse coming along the highway that ran past the mound. Anyone who saw it would think that the horse had a slow, steady pace, and it was drawing level with the mound.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Glyn Ystun

‘From there he (Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’) went to Glyn Ystun, and then the men and hounds lost him.

Arthur summoned Gwyn son of Nudd to him, and asked him if he knew anything about Twrch Trwyth. He said that he did not.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Harlech

‘Then they (the seven survivors with Bendigeidfran’s head) went to Harlech, and sat down and were regaled with food and drink. As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and began to sing them a song, and all the songs they had heard were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were with them. And they feasted for seven years.’
– The Second Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Gwales

‘There was a pleasant royal dwelling for them there (the seven survivors with Bendigeidfran’s head), above the sea, and there was a large hall, and they went to the hall. They could see two doors open; the third door was closed, the one facing Cornwall.

‘See over there,’ said Manawydan, ‘the door we must not open.’

That night they stayed there contented and lacking nothing. And of all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, they remembered none of it nor of any grief in the world. And there they spent eighty years so that they were not aware of ever having spent a more pleasurable or delightful time. It was no more unpleasant than when they first arrived, nor could anyone tell by looking at the other that he had aged in that time. Having the head there was no more unpleasant than when Bendigeidfran had been alive with them. Because of those eighty years, this was called The Assembly of the Noble Head.’
– The Second Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Oxford

‘Lludd had the length and breadth of the Island measured, and the central point was found to be in Oxford. He had the ground dug up there, and into that hole he put a vat full of the best mead that could be made, and a sheet of brocaded silk on top of it, and he himself kept watch that night. And as he was watching he saw the dragons fighting. When they had grown tired and weary, they landed on top of the sheet and pulled it down with them into the vat. And when they had drunk the mead, they fell asleep.’
– Lludd and Llyfelys, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Dinas Emrys

‘in the safest place he could find in Eryi he hid them (the dragons) in a stone chest. After that the place was was called Dinas Emrys.’
– Lludd and Llyfelys, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

‘”I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress.” “What is your name?” asked the king: “I am called Ambrose.”’
Historia Britonnum, (transl. J. A. Giles)

Caer Loyw

This is the home of the Witches of Caerloyw and the place of Mabon’s prison.

‘With every flood tide I travel up the river until I come to the bend in the wall of Caerloyw; never before in my life have I found as much wickedness as I found there.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

The Thirteen Treasures of the North

The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain appear in a number of medieval Welsh manuscripts. The earliest is the autograph of Gwilym Tew in Peniarth Manuscript 51 and is dated to 1460. It introduces the list as ‘The Names of the Thirteen Treasures which were in the North’.

This shows the Thirteen Treasures were intimately associated with the Old North: the Brythonic-speaking kingdoms of northern England and southern Scotland that arose in post-Roman Britain and fell to Anglo-Saxon and Scottish rule between the 6th and 11th centuries. Most of the owners of the treasures are included in the genealogies of the Men of the North.

In later lists, notes were added describing the magical properties of the treasures. The following is a variant in the hand of Rowland Lewis o Fallwyd from Cardiff MSS 17 (16th C) cited by Rachel Bromwich in The Triads of the Island of Britain.

~

THE THIRTEEN TREASURES OF THE ISLAND OF BRITAIN

(The Names of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, which were in the North):

1. Dyrnwyn (‘White-Hilt’), the sword of Rhydderch the Generous: if a well-born man drew it himself, it burst into flame from its hilt to its tip. And everyone who used to ask for it would receive it; but because of this peculiarity everyone used to reject it. And therefore he was called Rhydderch the Generous.

2. The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank: Food for one man would be put in it, and when it was opened, food for a hundred men would be found in it.

3. The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.

4. The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy: if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.

5. The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn, which was fixed to a staple at the foot of his bed: whatever horse he might wish for, he would find in the halter.

6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd the Horseman, which would serve for twenty-four men to eat at table.

7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant: if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).

8. The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd: if a brave man sharpened his sword on it, if he (then) drew blood from a man, he would die. If a cowardly man (sharpened his sword on it), he (his opponent) would be no worse.

9. The Coat of Padarn Red-Coat: if a well-born man put it on, it would be the right size for him; if a churl, it would not go upon him.

10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric: whatever food might be wished for in them, it would be found.

12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver.

13. The Mantle of Arthur in Cornwall: whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everyone.

~

The whereabouts of some of the treasures can be identified through the locations of their owners. The map of the Old North below is taken from Wikipedia and originates from John T. Koch’s Celtic Culture. I have added the numbers of the treasures.

Thirteen Treasures of the North Map

~

It has been suggested that, like the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann from Irish tradition: the Stone of Fál, Spear of Lug, Sword of Nuada, and Cauldron of the Dagda, the Thirteen Treasures of the North are ‘hallows’: holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld.

The magical properties of the Thirteen Treasures, which grant wishes, provide copious amounts of food or drink, and have a testing function, may be suggestive of origins in Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld, which was later known as Faery.

If this is the case, it may be conjectured that stories once existed about how the owners won the treasures. This is supported by the inclusion of the story of the theft of cauldron of Dyrnwch in Culhwch and Olwen, which also mentions the Hamper of Gwyddno and a magical horn.

In the existing lists their magic is less associated with Annwn than with the ruling elites of post-Roman Britain whose hunger for power and internecine rivalry led to the fall of the Old North to the Anglo-Saxons. This world was dominated by male warlords and, for me, as a female awenydd living in the 21st century, is one I find difficult to connect with.

For me the question has arisen of whether the Thirteen Treasures are holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld relevant to today or the rich boy’s toys of a forgotten age. Through research, meditating, journeying, and writing, I have attempted to provide an answer.

Over the next twelve days, as an alternative to the twelve days of Christmas (this works because 10 and 11 are included together), I will be posting original poems based on my experiences with the treasures along with notes documenting my research.

The Two Birds of Gwenddolau

In The Triads of the Island of Britain we find two triads referring to ‘the two birds of Gwenddolau’.

The first is Triad 10. W ‘Three Chieftains of Deira and Bernicia, and they were three bards, and three sons of Dissynyndawd, who performed the Three Fortunate Slayings’; ‘Gall son of Dissynyndawd who slew the two birds of Gwenddolau, who were guarding his gold and his silver: two men they used to eat for their dinner, and as much again for their supper.’

The second is Triad 32. ‘Three Men who performed the Three Fortunate Slaughters’. ‘Gall son of Dysgyfawd who slew the two birds of Gwenddolau. And they had a yoke of gold on them. Two corpses of the Cymry they ate for dinner, and two for their supper.’

These birds must have been significant and held a sinister reputation if their deaths are recorded twice amongst the three fortunate slaughters/slayings of the island of Britain.

Who or what were they and why were they so feared so much?

Birds who feast on the corpses of the dead are common in Brythonic tradition. To ‘feed the ravens’ or ‘feed the eagles’ is a common metaphor for death. Gwyn ap Nudd, a death-god, appears with ravens who ‘croak’ on ‘flesh’ and ‘gore’. In the Heledd Cycle the eagle of Eli drinks ‘has swallowed fresh drink, / heart blood of Cyndylan the fair’ and wallows in the blood of ‘fair men’. Similarly the eagle of Pengwern ‘is eager for the flesh of Cyndylan’.

Interestingly August Hunt suggests a possible etymology for Arderydd, where Gwenddolau lived and was killed in battle. ‘Ardd = Hill’, ‘Erydd (= eryr) = Eagle) ‘Eagle-Hill or Eagle-Height’. He backs this up with lines in ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and His Sister, Gwenddydd’, gueith arderyd ac erydon’ ‘The Battle of Arderyd and the Eagles’.

It thus seems likely the two birds of Gwenddolau were eagles. We might enquire further ‘what kind of eagles?’ In the Heledd Cycle the eagle of Eli is clearly a white-tailed eagle (often referred to as a sea-eagle): ‘The eagle of Eli keeps the seas; / He will not course the fish in the Aber. / Let him call, let him look out for the blood of men!’

Haliaeetus_albicilla,_Mull_2 Wikipedia Commons

Ian L. Baxter argues that the white-tailed eagle is the ‘carrion-gulper’ of Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry in which ‘men… gave the eagle food’; ‘Olaf feeds the eagles… the erne* drinks his supper’. He notes the white-tailed eagle is a ‘predator, scavenger and kelptoparasite’ and has a ‘marked preference for carrion… compared with the golden eagle’. Thus I believe Gwenddolau’s birds were white-tailed eagles.

Parallels with Irish stories where pairs of birds bound by gold or silver chains are transformed humans suggest Gwenddolau’s two eagles may be of human origin. Owain Rheged’s army are depicted as ravens who attack Arthur’s army, first carrying off their heads, eyes, ears, and arms, then seizing men into the sky and tearing them apart between each other.

On the Papil Stone we find a fascinating portrayal of two axe-wielding human warriors with bird’s heads and long beaks with a human head between their beaks. It seems possible Gwenddolau’s birds were warriors transformed into white-tailed eagles.

Papilstone

Their ritualised eating of two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and two for supper may symbolise Gwenddolau’s brutality as a warlord who slays four of his Cymric neighbours every day. Or it might refer obliquely to him practicing excarnation – leaving the bodies of his own Cymric people to be eaten by the birds before they were buried. Whatever the case, their corpse-eating certainly inspired a significant amount of fear across the island of Britain.

It is of interest the birds were also seen as guardians of Gwenddolau’s gold and silver. Gwenddolau was renowned for ‘gathering booty from every border’. One of his most treasured possessions was a golden chessboard with silver men who, once set, played by themselves.

How Gall son of Dysgyfawd slew the two birds of Gwenddolau remains unknown. It might be conjectured that they were slain after Gwenddolau was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 and his ‘Faithful War Band’ who ‘continued the battle for a fortnight and month’ were killed.

The death of Gwenddolau and his two birds, like Diffydell Dysgyfawd’s slaying of Gwrgi Garwlwyd, ‘Rough Grey’, who ‘used to make a corpse  of one of the Cymry every day, and two on each Saturday so as not to (slay) one on the Sunday’ might be seen to form part of a process of eradicating shapeshifters associated with the pagan world. Gwrgi’s appearance alongside ‘dog-heads’ in ‘Pa Gur’ suggests he was a dog-headed man who feasted on human flesh.

These beings may once have been considered psychopomps by the pre-Christian peoples of Britain, devouring the flesh of the dead and conveying their souls to the Otherworld, who appeared increasingly uncanny and threatening as pagan beliefs were eliminated and replaced by Christian ones.

In the Neolithic Tomb of the Eagles on Orkney the bones of eight white-tailed eagles were found alongside human remains. It is likely they were buried with the humans as guides into the next life. Perhaps the birds’ associations with treasure might be linked to their custodianship of the wealth of the grave and guardianship of grave goods?

No white-tailed eagles soar over Arderydd anymore. White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 as a consequence of their poisoning and shooting by gamekeepers because they were viewed as threat to livestock and gamebirds. The slaughter of the two birds of Gwenddolau forms an unhappy precedent to the white-tailed eagle’s extinction.

However, white-tailed eagles have been reintroduced to the west coast of Scotland. Since their reintroduction in 1975, 140 have returned to the wild. Still they are threatened by those who seek to poison them and to steal their eggs. We have a long way to go to restoring the sense of sanctity surrounding these birds which was clearly in decline around the time of Gwenddolau.

~

In this poem I attempt to evoke the presence of the two birds of Gwenddolau:

Two warriors fight over the corpse;
two sea-eagles juggling,

sun-yellow metatarsals
a band around the head crushing,
beaks yellow, sharp-tipped,
spliced tongues

darting the eyes
tugging out the optic nerve
sucking up the olfactory
clawing into the pit of the heart.
The sticky lungs are stretched between two beaks,
the duodenum unravelled to the stars like a birth cord.
Well-oiled beaks slide between joints
snipping ligaments.

They glean the bones.
The skull shines on the hilltop of the eagles.

As the extracted part flees like a glowing grain
toward the light of the Otherworld
they rattle their chain,

stomp their feathered legs
and laced up talons.

How long until they are free
to circle Arderydd white-tailed on strong brown wings
coursing for fish and skudding clawing feet
across the shining skin of the sea?

~

*Earn is Anglo-Saxon for white-tailed eagle and erne is Gaelic.

SOURCES

August Hunt, The Mysteries of Avalon, (August Hunt, 2011)
Ian L. Baxter, ‘Eagles in Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems’, https://www.academia.edu/29025802/Eagles_in_Anglo-Saxon_and_Norse_Poems
Kelly A. Kilpatrick, ‘The iconography of the Papil Stone’ http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_141/141_159_205.pdf
Mark Prigg, ‘The return of the sea eagle’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2216152/The-return-Sea-Eagle-Researchers-say-extinct-bird-thriving-Scottish-coast.html
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), ‘The Heledd Cycle’ http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/h16.html