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

Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

Woodcock Air Hill

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 As a historical document it should be approached with caution, particularly in light of the anachronism concerning Woden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Kentigern's Graveyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old North from Peneverdant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brigantia Stone

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

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

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

Great Hill from Brindle

Great Hill viewed from Brindle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brigantia Altar

Fairy Lights and The Strangeness, Fishergate

Last night I dreamt I was watching a television programme in my living room. Somehow I entered it and became an active participant. With a group of friends I was preparing to stage a protest. For it to succeed, a special light on a tree needed to be changed. I ran with a blonde, sporty woman (who I did not know) across a car park to the tree, which stood on the end of a busy city street I identified as Fishergate in Preston.

The lights were off. The one we had to change looked more like a silver Christmas decoration and stood out as markedly special and ‘other.’ As the woman started taking it down, chatting easily, she paused. Her expression froze into uncanny wistfulness and her gaze grew distant. Speaking in a voice from far away, she told me “it belonged to Gwyn ap Nudd.”

I knew at this point (somehow being outside the programme and within it) the words and memory that possessed her were not her own. Like in a film there was powerful, beautiful music. A strange wind blew, stripping away the façade of the city streets. I had a profound sense of another landscape stirring and awaking at the sound of Gwyn’s name. Once the strangeness had blown over, the woman began chatting normally as if nothing had happened and traffic started driving past again.

Throughout the preparations there were rumours about the massing of an army of otherworldly beings. As someone in the programme with an audience member’s knowledge I knew they were the fay / Gwyn’s hunt and could sense them gathering in clouds and forests somewhere behind. I had the feeling they might disrupt the clash between the two sides in the protest. As audience, I was aware this was the part I was looking forward to.

This awareness brought me back to my living room to see the credits rolling down the screen…

***

The dream inspired me to walk into Preston at dusk tonight. Several months ago, Fishergate (the high street) was pedestrianised. The road was narrowed to make way for wider pavements and as a final touch, trees. Delighted when I saw first saw them, I walked the street, greeting them in turn and welcoming them to the city.

Since the Christmas lights went off, the trees have been lit by fairy lights. Following rain and hail, the pavements gleamed. Reflected in windscreens the lights shone like cold stars, miniscule glances leaping from fragments of hail.

Fishergate, PrestonIdentifying the tree from my dream, I noticed all the lights were working.

Tree, FishergateI stood with the tree for a short while. Crossing the road and looking back, I saw huge dark ominous clouds gathering over the County Hall, which is where the anti-fracking protests will take place on the 28th and 29th of January.

Fishergate, County HallThe music of hail came down. An immense strangeness like none I had known before came over the city. I felt as if I stood in another Preston where the landscape was more than it was by the strange life of those lights against winter’s silver-grey sky. Everything seemed more profound and enthused with meaning, although I couldn’t divine what the exact meaning was.

Fairy LightWhat happened to the silvery light, which belonged to Gwyn ap Nudd and led me to the strangeness remains uncertain.

Review: Your Face is a Forest by Rhyd Wildermuth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Dog of Preston

The Black Dog of PrestonI have recently been researching the legend of the black dog of Preston. The process has led me on a journey through the places it is associated with and their history. It has also brought me to consider the meaning and origin of its roles as a harbinger of death and guardian of the town’s gates.

I first came across this tale earlier in the year on a walk with local folklorist Aidan Turner-Bishop, which was organised by UCLan Pagan Society. Aidan told us that a headless black dog haunts the area between Maudlands and Marsh Lane.

St Walburge's

St Walburge’s

These locations seem significant due to their history. Maudlands receives its name from a 12th century leper hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, which was dissolved in 1548 and later replaced by St Walburge’s.

Preston International Hotel

Preston International Hotel

Marsh Lane was the location of a Friary belonging to the Franciscan Order, which was founded in 1260 and dissolved in 1539 and occupied the position of Preston International Hotel. The Friary gave its name to Friargate and the The Grey Friar Pub.

The Grey FriarNext to it was Ladywell, which was venerated up until the nineteenth century and is now remembered only by the street name (1). Water was piped from Ladywell to the Friary.

Ladywell - CopyThe earliest written records of the black dog I have come across are in Charles Hardwick’s Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore (1872). Firstly, ‘I remember in my youth hearing a story of a headless boggart that haunted Preston’s streets and neighbouring lanes. Its presence was often accompanied by the rattling of chains. I forget now what was its special mission. It frequently changed its form, however, but whether it appeared as a woman or a black dog, it was always headless’ (2).

And secondly, ‘This spectre hound or dog is a very common sprite in Lancashire. I remember well being terrified in my youth in Preston, by Christmas recitals of strange stories of its appearance, and the misfortune which its howling was said to forebode. The Preston black dog was without a head, which rendered the said howling still more mysterious to my youthful imagination’ (3).

A story called ‘The Black Dog of Preston’ is serialised by James Borlase in The Preston Guardian in December 1878. This story is set in 1715 during the period of the Jacobite rebellion, which led to the Battle of Preston.

Once again, it appears as a portent of death ‘several people who had been abroad late at night and alone, had caught sight of the THE BLACK DOG OF PRESTON, a headless boggart, who could howl nevertheless, and whose howl meant death, as also did its lying down upon a doorstep to someone who dwelt within that special house’ (4).

A connection between the black dog and Gallows Hill is mentioned twice. The first instance is a mock sighting of ‘the huge and hideous form of The Headless Black Dog of Preston, a weird boggart that for centuries was famous in our town, pawing the air, swaying from side to side, and howling most lugubriously’. Here it turns out to be one of the protagonists’ servants clad in a sheepskin (5).

In the second it appears as a guardian of the dead; ‘sixteen of the lesser rebels were hanged upon Gallows Hill in chains, and there suffered to remain for many months, guarded, it is said, of a night time, by the Headless Black Dog of Preston’ (6).

English Martyrs' Church

English Martyrs’ Church

English Martyrs' Church, Gallows Hill

English Martyrs’ Church, Gallows Hill

The English Martyrs’ Church, which now stands on the summit of Gallows Hill, derives its name from these executions. The nearby street names Derwentwater Place and Lovat Road refer to Jacobites captured and killed in the rebellion. That people were hung and decapitated there is evidenced by two headless bodies found during the building of North Road, which cuts through the hill. The area is described as a ‘provincial Tyburn’ (7).

Derwentwater PlaceThe black dog is also connected to the strange phenomenon of the parting of the Ribble’s waters, which occurred in the years 1715 and 1774 and is recounted by Peter Whittle. ‘The river Ribble, in Lancashire, stood still; and for the length of three miles, there was no water, except in deep places; in about five hours it came down with a strong current, and continues to flow as usual’ (8).

As the protagonists in Borlase’s story ride double into the Ribble, down river from Walton Bridge, their horse shies, ‘it was not the water that was terrifying the horse, but a great black something, like a weed-covered rock, that seemed to be lying half in and half out of it… the thing became suddenly instinct with life, and rolling rather than moving toward them exhibited the hideous form of The Headless Black Dog of Preston…The black dog uttered a most lugubrious howl, not withstanding its headlessness, and then waddled off; whereupon, and immediately, a most extraordinary circumstance occurred, for with a roar the river parted in twain from the Preston shore’ (9).

The river Ribble from Walton Bridge

Whilst this story is fictitious it is possible some of its elements are founded on earlier beliefs.

During the 19th century the superstition that a howling dog was a portent of death was popular. James Bowker says ‘few superstitions have a wider circle of believers in Lancashire than that which attributes to dogs the power of foretelling death and disaster’ (10). Hardwick attributes this to the dog’s delicate sense of smell, saying the capacity to scent putrid flesh ‘may have influenced the original personification of the dog as an attendant on the dead’ (11).

Contemporary writer Alby Stone suggests this superstition may relate to earlier beliefs about dogs being able to see spirits and thus forewarn of death. She adds ‘in many traditions… such creatures are not merely harbingers of death. They are both guides to and guardians of the land of the dead’ (12). In Borlase’s tale the black dog appears as a guardian of the dead on Gallows Hill and guides the protagonists across the Ribble.

It is possible to link this liminal role to the term ‘boggart,’ which Hardwick and Borlase use interchangeably with ‘black dog’. According to Brand ‘boggart’ may derive from the Northern pronunciation of ‘bar’ meaning ‘gate’ and ‘guest’ meaning ‘ghost.’ A boggart or ‘bar-guest’ is hence a ‘gate-ghost’ (13). To complicate things further ‘gate’ actually meant ‘street,’ hence Friargate. Brand says ‘Many streets are haunted by a guest, who assumes many strange appearances, as a mastiff-dog, &c. It is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon gast, spiritus, anima.”’ (14).

Friargate IIThis is interesting as older maps of Preston show the town’s ‘bars.’ The bar of Friargate is located in the present day position of The Sun Hotel, not far from Marsh Lane (15).

Approximate Location of Friargate Bar

Approximate Location of Friargate Bar

This may go some way to explain the Friargate connection. The black dog may be seen as both a guardian of the physical gates of the town and the gateways between the lands of the living and dead. The former is supported by a reference on the Paranormal Database, which says ‘It is said that the town was once haunted by a headless black hound, appearing when danger threatened the town’ (16).

This idea may date back to pre-Christian beliefs. Alby Stone argues that evidence of ritual burials dating back to Bronze Age Britain suggests that dogs may have been killed and interred to serve as spirit guardians. She lists a pair of dogs buried at Flag Fen in Peterborough and another at Caldicot in Gwent (17). A recent example suggesting such practices may have continued into the medieval period and beyond is the discovery of the seven foot skeleton of Black Shuck outside Leiston Abbey (18).

At the time Bowker was writing it appears the belief in ‘foundation burials’ was current in Lancashire. He cites Rev. S. Baring Gould, ‘It was the custom to bury a dog or a boar alive under the corner-stone of a church, that its ghost might haunt the neighbourhood, and drive off any who would profane it—i.e. witches or warlocks’ (19). However, as far as I know, there is no archaeological evidence of this kind of practice in Preston.

There are other idiosyncrasies bound up with the legend that are less easy to interpret. For example how did the black dog lose its head; was it a dog beheaded as part of a ritual burial, or is it the ghost of a decapitated human?

There is also the paradox that although the boggart was supposedly laid it continues to haunt the streets of Preston. Hardwick says ‘The story went that this boggart or ghost was at length “laid” by some magical or religious ceremony in Walton Church yard. I have often thought that the story told by Weaver, a Preston antiquary, in his “Funerall Monuments,” printed in 1631, and which I have transcribed at page 149 of the “History of Preston and its Environs,” may have had some remote connection with this tradition’ (20). If the black dog was laid in 1560 as part of Dee and Kelly’s misdemeanours in Walton Churchyard,  which are referred to in Weaver’s story, how come it figures so largely in tales set in 18th to 19th C Preston?

I’ve visited Walton Churchyard and seen no obvious signs of a boggart having been laid, such as the Written Stone in Longridge (21). However, like in this legend and a tale from Clayton Hall ‘Whilst ivy climbs and holly is green, / Clayton Hall boggart shall no more be seen’ (22) there is a holly tree in the centre of the graveyard and plenty of ivy about. Holly is renown for its apotropaic function (23).

Holly Tree, Walton Churchyard

Holly Tree, Walton Churchyard

One possibility is that it wasn’t laid. Another is that the laying was ineffective. The Gristlehurst Boggart was reputedly laid in a hollow and assuaged with milk but still seemed to be out and about causing trouble at the time Edwin Waugh was writing (24).

Old Dog Inn

The Old Dog Inn

Aside from these stories, and the pub name The Old Dog Inn (which is tenuous as it pictures a grey coloured hound with a head) I haven’t come across any more evidence of its existence. More current accounts of paranormal activity in Lancashire refer to big cats.

Old Dog - Copy

The Old Dog

Could this be because the black dog of Preston has abandoned the city? Or could it be because nobody who has seen it or heard it howling has lived to hear the tale?..

(1) David Hunt, A History of Preston, (2009), p31-33
(2) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p130
(3) Ibid. p172
(4) The Preston Guardian, 17th December 1887
(5) Ibid.
(6) The Preston Guardian, 24th December 1887
(7)http://www.englishmartyrspreston.org.uk/history1.htm#Gallows%20Hill%20History%20of%20the%20Church%E2%80%99s%20Location
(8) Peter Whittle, aka Marmaduke Tulket, A topographical, statistical, & historical account of the borough of Preston, (1821), p15
(9) The Preston Guardian, 24th December 1887
(10) James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire,(1878), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41148/41148-h/41148-h.htm
(11) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p174-5
(12) Alby Stone, ‘Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters and Corpse Eaters,’ in ed. Bob Trubshaw, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, (2005), p36
(13) John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (1867), p50
(14) Ibid.
(15) David Hunt, Preston Centuries of Change, (2003), p39
(16)http://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/shuckdata.php?pageNum_paradata=9&totalRows_paradata=258
(17) Alby Stone, ‘Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters and Corpse Eaters,’ in ed. Bob Trubshaw, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, (2005), p41
(18) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2629353/Is-skeleton-legendary-devil-dog-Black-Shuck-terrorised-16th-century-East-Anglia.html
(19) James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41148/41148-h/41148-h.htm
(20) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p130
(21) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire’ in ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, p105 and 107
(22) John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (1867), p50
(23) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire’ in ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, p106
(24) Edwin Waugh, ‘Gristlehurst Boggart,’ Lancashire Sketches Vol. 2, http://gerald-massey.org.uk/waugh/c_sketches_2a.htm

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.

Choosing a Path

Fairy LaneThe metaphor of choosing a path appears frequently within Paganism but can be applied to the journey of life, which in many religious traditions is seen as the journey of the soul.

I’ve walked many paths; riding instructor and groom, philosophy student, fantasy writer. Over the past three years I have been writing and performing poetry and exploring Druidry. The binding core is that in each I’ve been seeking magic and I’ve pursued all these paths with religious commitment.

Looking back, it appears I have walked one path with many names. This week I have come to question the suitability of the name ‘Druid.’

I have never felt any commonality with, or desire to join any of the systematic orders of Druidry where one can complete courses and achieve grades in exchange for coins. It’s my firm belief that the living landscape, the gods and ancestors are the greatest teachers. Their guidance, trust and respect are not bought but earned, and thus utterly priceless.

However, one place I have felt at home is The Druid Network. Hearing a talk by its chair, Phil Ryder formed a huge turning point in my life that led me to recognise and honour the divine in my local landscape. The Druid Network is the only organisation I know of that promotes Druidry as a religion. There are no set courses or hierarchies. Each member is encouraged to find and explore their relationship with whatever they hold sacred in their own way, and the social forum provides a safe area for discussing issues and experiences. However, there are guiding principles (1).

I’m in agreement with most of these principles, except that the native religion of the British Isles must nominally be called Druidry. I imagine Heathens, Witches, Shamans and many other Pagan groups would make similar claims.

This winter’s solstice I was gifted a name for my path- Awenydd. For Kristoffer Hughes becoming Awenydd forms the core of Druidry. For Elen Sentier it is a form of native British Shamanism. My path currently seems to sit somewhere in an unknown hinterland between two names I am equally uncomfortable with, ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman.’

For me ‘Awenydd’ works a similar magic to that which others describe in relation to ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman’. It opens the doors of perception and initiates connection with the Awen, divine inspiration. It is as Awenydd I truly serve my land, gods and communities.

I can see a future for myself as Awenydd; continuing to learn the stories and songs of my local landscape and its spirits; journeying more deeply the immensities of the otherworlds with Gwyn and learning his mysteries; bringing my insights back to my communities and thus learning to weave a magic between the worlds.

Contrastingly, I perceive ‘Druid’ as closing doors, leading to pointless arguments, in-fighting, and attempting to define myself against systems and practices with which I share little commonality.

If the journey of life is the journey of the soul, I want to choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder. I want to live a life true to my heart, in devotion to the land and gods who call to me. I want to sing their songs. I want to share their inspiration. I want to die knowing I have done everything I can to respond to their call.

I don’t want to remain a prisoner in the maze of arguments and contradictions which, for me, constitutes contemporary Druidry, and which will only lead me into greater negativity.

It is on this basis I give up the name of Druid and choose Awenydd.

And the consequences?

The biggest consequence is that the path of Awenydd is not classed as a religion. If I am no longer a Druid I no longer belong to a religion.

To anyone on the outside this might look like a massive change. However on the inside this does not change my relationship with my land and deities, nor with family and friends.

It has, and I think will continue to have some impact on my Pagan, Druid and other religious communities. I’ve already talked my decision through with some of the members of TDN who, for the most part, are happy for me to remain a part of the organisation on the basis of shared principles, and I’m hoping to discuss it with my grove at the solstice.

My local Pagan Society is inclusive of open-minded people of any faith or none, so no problems there. As for Preston Faith Forum and the further questions, if I’m not a Druid, then am I Pagan? And can I be an Interfaith Representative if I don’t belong to a faith? That’s another kettle of fish entirely and not one I’m ready to address right now!

I want to live a life that fills my soul with awe and wonder

I choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder, in devotion to the magic this land, its deities and spirits, my patron Gwyn ap Nudd and the ancestors. This path is Awenydd. Let their songs be sung!

(1) http://druidnetwork.org/files/about/constitutionrevnov2009.pdf