Today is the first day of September. This name originates from the Latin septum ‘seven’ which derives from a time when it was the seventh month because the Roman calendar began with March.
In Wales this month is known as mis Medi. According to Andrew Breeze this name is related to medaf ‘I reap’ and to met ‘cut, harvest’. This seems to be a fitting etymology for the month when the last of the crops are cut down and harvested and the last of the meadows are mown or reaped.
Breeze claims that the name of my local Iron Age tribe, the Setantii, who inhabited the plains of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire between the Mersey and the Wyre may be corrupted from met.
Breeze suggests they were less reapers of crops than of men. To this our archaeology recording the burials of severed heads and the head-hunting depicted in poetry from the Old North bears testimony.
My patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic death-god is a reaper of souls. Some of his worshippers, such as Kristoffer Hughes, see him as death himself, as Britain’s original grim reaper.
Gwyn ap Nudd, helper of hosts, Armies fall before the hooves of your horse As swiftly as cut reeds to the ground.
Interestingly, as the Setantii inhabited my local landscape when it was mainly marshland and mossland and there is scarce evidence for agriculture, it seems likely they would have cut and used reeds (although reed cutting usually takes place from December to April rather than in September).
I first met Gwyn on August the 31st 2012 close to sunset. As, for the Celts, days begin at sundown not sunrise, this would be very close to the beginning of September. Since he came into my life I have been involved with the reaping of local wildflower meadows and how this shares a kinship with Gwyn harvesting souls and cutting down his rival, Gwythyr ap Graidol, a god of summer and seed.
In Cornwall September is known as Gwyngala ‘White Fields’ suggesting associations with Gwyn.
Return of the Reaper
I hear you galloping back your horse’s hooves are like scythes glinting in
the September breeze.
I will pick up the blade again the long-handled rake bend my back with you
reap these armies.
Heads of grass and meadow flowers fall limbs folding. Scattered shields. Bright helms.
A woman weeps.
Your beloved mourns your rival. His headless corpse on the stubble dead again.
Spirits are freed
to join your host mingling in night air in fields of white mist as we stop and drink toast the harvests
I have recently been revisiting the theory that Sétanta (later Cú Chulainn), a hero and perhaps a deity the Irish myths, was associated with the Iron Age Setantii tribe of northern Britain. Writing in 2CE the Roman geographer, Ptolemy, refers to Portus Setantiorum ‘the Port of the Setantii’, which was located at the mouth of the river Wyre, and also to Seteia, the river Mersey. This suggests the Setantii occupied the lowlands of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire from the Mersey to the Wyre.
The etymology of Setantii is one of much debate. Graham Isaac suggests it is emended from sego ‘strong’ and Andrew Breeze that is corrupted from ‘the Celtic *met “cut, harvest”, as in Welsh medaf “I reap”, Medi “September” (when corn is cut), Middle Irish methel “reaping party”’. Breeze notes these people were not ‘harmless agriculturalists’ and ‘Welsh literature indicates a bloodier sense’. Medel means ‘reaper’ ‘killer, mower down (of enemies in combat)’. The warrior-prince Owain Rheged is referred to by Taliesin as medel galon ‘a reaper of enemies’. Thus Metantii or Setantii is best translated as ‘reapers (of men), cutters down (in battle)’ and Meteia or Seteia as ‘reaper’.
In Celtic and Manx Folklore John Rhys puts forward the theory that Sétanta Beg means ‘the Little Setantian’, which we might translate as ‘reaping one’, and this would certainly fit with his ferocity in battle.
Rhys associates both Sétanta and Seithenin with the lost lands between Ireland and Wales. In Welsh legend Seithenin caused the flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir (1) when he failed to close the flood gates due to his liason with Mererid, the ‘fountain cup-bearer’, whose waters were loosed. Traditionally this story is associated with Cantre’r Gwaelod, ‘the Bottom Hundred’, ‘the shallows of Cardigan Bay’. Yet this area extended ‘northwards… off the coast of Cheshire and Lancashire, and occupied Morecambe Bay with a dense growth of oak, Scotch fir, alder, birch, and hazel’.
Gwyddno had two ports – Porth Wyddno (Borth) in Wales and ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’, one of Three Chief Ports in The Triads of the Island of Britain, which was likely Portus Setantiorum.
Holder theorises that Sétanta derives from Setantios and he was originally a Celtic god. Is it possible his mythos, the best developed of all the Irish deities, originated from the people who occupied the lost lands off the Lancashire coast and were later known as the Setantii?
Sétanta’s Birth and Boyhood
The stories of Sétanta/Cú Chulainn were written down by medieval Irish scribes during the 12th century in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster andare now firmly embedded in the Irish landscape. He is associated with Ulster, the Ulstermen, and their king, Conchobar.
‘The Birth of Cú Chulainn’ is a story with much mythic depth. Conchobar rules Ireland from Emain Macha. The plain is devastated by a flock of magical birds, ‘nine-score’ ‘each pair… linked by a silver chain’. Conchobar, his daughter and charioteer, Deichtine, and nine other charioteers hunt them. A heavy snow falls and they are forced to seek refuge in a storehouse where they are welcomed to feast by its owner. His wife is in labour and Deichtine helps her give birth to a son. At the same time a mare gives birth to two colts outside. Deichtine nurses the boy and he is given the colts.
Afterwards Conchobar and his company find themselves east of the Bruig (Newgrange) ‘no house, no birds, only their horses and the boy and his colts’. Deichtine takes the boy to Emain Macha and continues to nurse him but, to her heart break, he dies. Afterwards she drinks a ‘tiny creature’ from a copper vessel. That evening the god, Lug, appears to her and tells her she is pregnant by him and must call their son Sétanta. Because she is engaged to Sualtam mac Róich and fears he may suspect she slept with Conchobar she aborts the child, then becomes pregnant by Sualtam and bears a son. He is called Sétanta and thus has both thisworldly and otherworldly fathers – Sualtam and Lug. His dual paternity, like that of Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Arawn in the Welsh myths, marks him as a ‘special son’.
Lug is an Irish deity who is descended from Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods, and Eithne, daughter of Balor, one of the monstrous Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’. Sétanta’s descent from a human woman on one side and gods and giants on the other goes a long way to explain his superhuman qualities.
As a mere boy he is described as going to play with the others and fending off fifty javelins with his toy shield, stopping fifty hurling balls with his chest, and warding off fifty hurleys with his one hurley.
Sétanta receives the name Cú Chulainn after being attacked by a hound belonging to Culann the smith. He puts an end to it in a grotesque manner. ‘The lad struck his ball with his hurley so that the ball shot down the throat of the hound and carried its insides out through its backside. Then he grabbed two of its legs and smashed it to pieces against a nearby pillar stone’. As recompense to Culann, he offers to be Culann’s hound and guard Muirthemne Plain until a pup has been raised to take his place. From then he is known as Cú Chulainn – the Hound of Culann.
Training with Scáthach
Cú Chulainn trains with the warrior-woman Scáthach ‘the Shadow’ at Dún Scáith ‘The Fortress of Shadows’ on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. From her he learns the arts of war including ‘the apple-feat, the thunder-feat, the blade-feat, the foen-feat, and the spear-feat, the rope-feat, the body-feat, the cat’s feat, the salmon-feat of a chariot-chief, the throw of the staff, the jump over […], the whirl of a brave chariot-chief, the spear of the bellows, the boi of swiftness, the wheel-feat, the othar-feat, the breath-feat, the brud geme, the hero’s whoop, the blow […], the counter-blow, running up a lance and righting the body on its point, the scythe-chariot, and the hero’s twisting round the points of spears’.
Most fearsome is his use of the barbed spear known as the gae bolga: ‘thrown from the fork of the foot; it made a single wound when it entered a man’s body, whereupon it opened into thirty barbs, and it could not be taken from a man’s body without the flesh being cut away around it’.
During this period Cú Chulainn battles against Scáthach’s rival, another warrior-woman called Aife, defeats her, and offers to spare her life but only on the condition that she bears him a son.
The story of Cú Chulainn’s training with Scáthach shows links with Britain and the existence of a tradition where male warriors were trained by warrior women. This is also found in the Welsh myths where Peredur is trained by the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw and it might be suggested that Orddu, the Very Black Witch, of Pennant Gofid, in the North, fulfilled a similar role.
The Battle Rage of Cú Chulainn
After his training Cú Chulainn’s feats are many and his greatest is defending Ulster and the Brown Bull single handedly against the armies of Connacht whilst the Ulstermen are laid up with the Curse of Macha (1). This is recorded in The Tain. After putting them off by magic, picking them off with guerilla tactics and fighting against them in single combat he defeats them in three great massacres.
Here we witness his ability to cause incredible violence. With ‘his scythed chariot that glittered with iron tangs, blades, hooks, hard prongs and brutal spikes, barbs and sharp nails on every shaft, strut, strap and truss’ he drives into the ranks ‘three times encircling them with great ramparts of their own corpses piled sole to sole and headless neck to headless neck’, slaying ‘seven-score and ten kings’.
When he fights, Cú Chulainn is taken over by a battle rage known as his ‘warp spasm’ or ‘torque’. Its vivid descriptions, no doubt a delight to storytellers, driven to greater exaggerations, are worth citing.
‘The first Torque seized Cú Chulainn and turned him into a contorted thing, unrecognisably horrible and grotesque. Every slab and every sinew of him, joint and muscle, shuddered from head to foot like a tree in a storm or a reed in a stream. His body revolved furiously inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees jumped to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams to the front. The bunched sinews of his calves jumped to the front of his shins, bulging with knots the size of a warrior’s clenched fist. The ropes of his neck rippled from ear to nape in an immense, monstrous, incalculable knobs, each as big as the head of a month-old child.
Then he made a red cauldron of his face and features: he sucked one of his eyes so deep into his head that a wild crane would find it difficult to plumb the depths of his skull to drag that eye back to its socket; the other popped out on to his cheek. His mouth became a terrifying, twisted grin. His cheek peeled back from his jaws so you could see his lungs and liver flapping in his throat… The hero’s light sprang from his forehead… thick, steady, strong as the mast of a tall ship was the straight spout of dark blood that rose up from the fount of his skull to dissolve in an otherworldly mist…’
In his battle fury Cú Chulainn is described as warped and monstrous and these transformations may derive from his Formorian heritage. This is hinted at in a further passage: ‘Cú Chulainn torqued himself a hundredfold. He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant or a deep-sea merman’.
He also displays the ability to call up otherworldly spirits. His ‘roar of a hundred warriors’ is ‘echoed by the goblins and ghouls and sprites of the glen and the fiends of the air, for their howls would resound before him, above him, and around him any time he shed the blood of warriors and heroes’. ‘The clouds that boiled above him in his fury glimmered and flickered with malignant flares and sultry smoke – the torches of the Badb.’ This puts us in mind of the Scream over Annwn.
Even when he displays his ‘true beauty’ he is otherworldly with his hair in three layers, dark, blood-red and yellow, ‘four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, blue and purple. Seven brilliant gems gleamed in each regal eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails or claws or talons of each with the grip of a hawk or griffin… He held nine human heads in one hand, ten in the other’.
Sétanta/Cú Chulainn is depicted a monstrous reaper of men and as a hunter of heads. Head-hunting was common amongst the Celtic peoples, particularly the Setantii, which is evidenced by the large number of severed heads ritually buried across their territories. It has been noted, whilst there is an absence of chariot burials in Ireland, there are many in northern Britain. So there is, at least, an argument that this otherworldly figure, like a giant or merman, originates from the people who once occupied the drowned lands between Britain and Ireland and may have been a Setantian god or hero.
The Tragedies of Cú Chulainn
Amidst the relentless violence endemic to a warrior culture whose greatest aim was winning everlasting fame through battle prowess we find some moving scenes based around Cú Chulainn’s relationships. When Cú Chulainn is badly wounded during his battle against the armies of Connacht his otherworld father, Lug, appears to fight his battle for three nights and days whilst he heals.
Tragically Cú Chulainn kills his son by Aife because he does not know who he is until he sees his ring. In an equally tragic scene Cú Chulainn faces and kills his foster-brother who was also possibly his lover, Fer Diad, with whom he trained with Scáthach. Their relationship is described in poignant verse:
Two hearts that beat as one, we were comrades in the woods, men who shared a bed and the same deep sleep after heavy fighting in strange territories. Apprentices of Scáthach, we would ride out together to explore the dark woods.
After many days of battle with various weapons Cú Chulainn puts an end to Fer Diad with the gae bolga.
His lament is heart wrenching:
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – I wounded and dripping with gore, your chariot standing empty.
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – I leak blood from every pore and you lie dead forever.
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – you dead, I bursting with life. Courage has a brutal core.
It puts me in mind of the lines spoken by Gwyn, our British death-god and gatherer of souls, who is doomed to live on whilst the warriors of Britain perish in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2), which perhaps speaks of a shared origin to these poems.
Cú Chulainn’s love life also contains tragedy. His main lover is Emer but their relationship is put into jeopardy when Cú Chulainn goes to hunt her one of two magical birds ‘coupled with a red-gold chain’. He shoots but does not kill one. They turn out to be fairy women and, when he falls asleep against a stone, they take revenge by beating him with horsewhips until ‘there is no life left in him’.
He takes to his sick bed for a year and learns the only cure is to help one of them, Fand, to battle against her enemies. They fall in love and sleep together yet she is the wife of the sea-god, Manannan. Cú Chulainn returns to Emer but both are heart-broken. Cú Chulainn wanders the mountains neither sleeping nor drinking (3) until Manannan shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand so she is forgotten.
Cú Chulainn’s death is fittingly tragic. His old enemy, Queen Medb of Connacht conspires to kill him with the sons of her enemies. He is tricked into breaking his geis of not eating the meat of his sacred animal, the dog, and by this he is weakened. He is killed by Lugaid, the son of Cú Roí, another otherworldy figure with whom he battles and defeats to win a maiden called Blathnat (4).
With a magical spear destined to kill three ‘kings’, Lugaid kills Láeg, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, Liath Macha, Cú Chulainn’s horse and finally Cú Chulainn himself. Mortally wounded, Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone so he can die on his feet facing his enemies. They remain afraid of him even after his death, not daring to approach until a raven lands on his shoulder. This symbolises he has been beaten by the only opponent worthy of defeating him, the death goddess, the Morrigan (5).
A Hero of the Setantii?
Here I have provided only glimpses into the rich mythos surrounding Sétanta/Cú Chulainn: his birth and dual paternity, his naming as Culann’s Hound, his training with Scáthach, his feats as a warrior, his love life (which features a number of women and possibly a man), and his death.
As we have seen, these stories are now firmly embedded within the Irish landscape. However, we know that many centuries ago Britain and Ireland were near joined together and that the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Children of Don, share many similarities. Nodens/Nuada, the king of the gods, was worshipped on the Lancashire coast and his son, Gwyn, might have conversed here with Gwyddno. Lug(us) was the patron god of Carlisle (Luguvalium) further north. If he was venerated here it would make sense his son, Sétanta/Setantios, was also viewed also an important deity or hero.
The evidence suggests there is at least a possibility the stories of Sétanta originated from the lost lands off the coast of Lancashire where gods and giants gave birth to monsters, that this monstrous and beguiling head-reaping hero was one of the deities of the Setantii, the reapers of men.
(1) After Macha raced against the horses of the king of Ulster and won she gave birth and screamed that for five days and four nights any man who heard her would be afflicted by her labour pains. She then died. Her curse was passed on for nine generations. Macha’s name was given to Emain Macha. (2) I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain From the east to the north; I live on, they are in the grave.
I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain From the east to the south; I live on, they are dead. (3) His state resembles geilt/wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’ in the Welsh and Irish myths where we find Suibhne Geilt and Myrddin Wyllt taking on bird transformations and Cynedyr Wyllt ‘nine times wilder than the wildest beast on the mountain’. (4) ‘The contention of Corroi and Cocholyn’ (Cú Roí and Cú Chulainn) is referred to in the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Death Song of Corroi’ in The Book of Taliesin and the beheading game Cú Chulainn plays with Cú Roí perhaps depicts a conflict with the Head of the Otherworld, here known as Gwyn. (5) The Morrigan appears earlier in the stories as young prophet then fights against him as an eel, a she-wolf, and a hornless red heifer. After the battle she tricks him into healing her when she appears as a one-eyed hag milking a cow with three teats by drinking from each which heals her three wounds.
Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra, and Pen-Y-Ghent, Northern History, XLII: 1, (University of Leeds, 2006) Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008) Eoin Mac Neill, Varia. I, Eriu, Vol. 11, (Royal Irish Academy 1932) Greg Hill, (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/ Jeffrey Ganz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, (Penguin, 1981) John Rhys, Celtic and Manx Folklore: Volume One, (Project Gutenberg, 2017) Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014) Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
With thanks to Wikipedia for the images of Cú Chulainn. The photographs of the former site of Portus Setantiorum near the mouth of the river Wyre and the coast from Rossall Point where the remnants of the forest have been seen are my own.
Stand on the mound on Castle Hill, look northwest, and you will see a very different scene to 150 years ago. The flats and retail outlets visible through the gaps in the trees were built after the closure of Riversway Dockland in 1981. The dock closed after only 100 years of use, having been constructed during the 1880s. During its construction the Ribble was moved several hundred yards south.
Today – courtesy of Mario Maps
OS First Edition 1:10,000 1840s courtesy of Mario Maps
Beforehand you would have been looking out across the fields of Marsh Farm and Marsh Grange toward Penwortham Marsh, the distant Ribble, and across it Preston Marsh and the settlement at Marsh End. This landscape, in turn, would have been different to 400 years ago before the marsh was drained.
Since the melting of the glaciers after the Ice Age the tidal stretches beside the Ribble would always have been marsh. Archaeological evidence suggests people have inhabited this area since, at least, 3800BC.
The excavations for Riversway Dockland uncovered evidence of a wooden lake dwelling. A ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’, a bronze spear head, two dug-out canoes, 23 human skulls, 21 aurochs skulls with horns, 25 red deer skulls with antlers, and bones of wild horse which showed evidence of ‘chop marks’ and gnawing ‘by a large, dog-sized predator’.
John Lamb lists the Preston Docks Findspot as SD12296, meaning it would have been in the northwest of the present dock area, adjacent to the roundabout. Turner et al note that ‘remains were found at various points in the total area excavated’ including ‘two human crania found close to Castle Hill on the south side of the river’.
Riversway Dockfind Spot
For many years it was the consensus that the human skulls provided evidence of human sacrifice – perhaps a mass murder. In 2002 eight skulls were selected for radio-carbon dating. It turned out that five were Stone Age, one Bronze Age, one from the Romano-British period and one from Anglo-Saxon times.
The latest theory, put forward by Dr Michael Wysocki, is that these people were not sacrificed on Penwortham Marsh. Instead they entered the river system miles away. Their heads settled at a slow-flowing point in the Ribble, a tidal lake, and their bodies floated out to sea. Likewise with the animals. Yet the large number of Stone Age skulls suggests that Neolithic people used the river to dispose of their dead. Even accepting this theory I believe it possible some of the human and animal skulls may have belonged to the lake-dwellers and been deposited in the Ribble in ritual acts.
The carbon dated skulls provide a sample of people who dwelled by the Ribble from between 4000BC – 800AD. The oldest skull, of a ‘mature woman’, is dated to 3820 – 3640 BC. ‘Pitting in the orbit of her left eye’ suggests she ‘suffered from anaemia’. Another, dated to around 3,500 BC, belonged to a man of around 40.
Two of the Stone Age skulls show evidence of violent deaths. An ‘older man’ was killed with a stone axe. The skull of a young woman, dated 3710 – 3510 BC, shows ‘clear evidence of trauma to the right and back of her skull’. This surprised me as I’d thought of Stone Age hunter-gatherers as peaceful people.
Yet it would accord with Roman depictions of the people of Briton and Gaul as savage head-hunters and with poems recording the internecine warfare and raiding that took place in post-Roman Britain. (Notably the northern British bard, Taliesin, describes warriors playing football with the heads of their enemies!). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the root of Setantii set- derives from met- ‘reaping’. In medieval Welsh literature we find a tradition of warriors favouring lethal blows to the head*.
The Romano-British skull is small with ‘distinctive male eyebrow ridges’. It is unclear whether its owner was male or female, Roman or British. However, he or she was killed by ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’ I wonder if she was killed in the Roman invasion. A Roman ballista ball was found on Castle Hill, suggesting there was a battle there.
The owner of the skull from the Anglo-Saxon period, a female aged between 16 and 25, also died violently. There is evidence of a cut across her face, damaging her right eye, and a lethal blow to the head. Again it seems possible this woman was killed during the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.
The dock finds show our local lake-dwellers were fearsome warriors and hunters who travelled the Ribble in dug-out canoes and preyed on aurochs, red deer, and and wild horse. After eating them they probably skinned them and used their skins for clothing. Oddly ‘the carbon 13 readings show that their diet consisted of meat and vegetables – but no fish, despite being found near a river’. This fits with the 3rd century Roman writer Dion Cassius’ report: ‘They never cultivate the land, but live on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees; for they never touch fish, of which they have such prodigious plenty’.
It seems very strange that these people did not eat fish when they were plentiful in the Ribble. I wonder whether this is because it was used to dispose of the dead and to eat from it was seen as taboo. We know from the Roman geographer Ptolemy’s writings in the 2nd century that the Ribble was known as Belisama ‘Most Mighty One’ or ‘Most Shining One’ and was seen as a powerful goddess. Maybe fish were held as sacred to her and ‘totemic’ to the lake-dwellers and were not to be eaten.
Setanta, an Irish hero who may have been of Setantii origins, was later renamed Cu Chulainn (meaning Chullain’s hound). The dog was sacred to him and he was banned from eating dog meat. Breaking this geis led to his death. Perhaps the the lake-dwellers saw fish in a similar manner.
Upriver, between the docks and Castle Hill, on the former site of the Ribble Generating Station stands a ring of wooden carvings – a common darter dragonfly, a brown trout, an otter, a smooth newt (which has been stolen!), and a tawny owl. These creatures have likely inhabited the area since the Stone Age and would have been held as special beings to the lake-dwellers too. I wonder if they recall their stories?
*‘he (Geraint)… raised his sword and struck the knight on the top of the head his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls to his knees.’ (Geraint son of Erbin)
‘Peredur drew his sword and struck the witch on top of her helmet, so that the helmet and all the armour and the head were split in two.’ (Peredur son of Efrog)
Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
Alan Turner, Silvia Gonzalez and James C. Ohman, Journal of Archaeological Science, ‘Prehistoric Human and Ungulate Remains from Preston Docks, Lancashire, UK: Problems of River Finds’ (2002)
John Lamb, ‘Lancashire’s Prehistoric Past’, Linda Sever (ed), Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, (2010, History Press)
Meirion Pennar, Taliesin Poems, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1988)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Discover Preston display in the Harris Museum, Preston (with thanks to the Harris for the information and permission to use the photographs of the Riversaway Dockfinds in this blog posts).
In his History of the Fylde (1876) John Porter speaks of the ancient British tribe who inhabited the wetlands between the Mersey and the Wyre as ‘the Setantii or Segantii’ ‘the dwellers in the country of water’*. He then provides a colourful description of the way they lived based on Roman records:
The hardihood of the native Britons of these parts is attested by Dion Cassius, who informs us that they lived on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees, and were accustomed to brave hunger, cold, and all kinds of toil, for they would “continue several days up to their chins in water, and bear hunger many days.” In the woods their habitations were wicker shelters, formed of the branches of trees interwoven together, and, in the open grounds, clay or mud huts. They were indebted to the skins of animals slain in the chase for such scanty covering as they cared to wear, and according to Caesar and other writers, dyed their bodies with woad, which produced a blue colour, and had long flowing hair, being cleanly shaved except the head and upper lip.
He then goes on to express his doubts that the Setantii, or their neighbours, the Brigantes, who Cassius refers to, could be ‘reduced or exalted to such a amphibious condition’. Yet he notes that during their hunting expeditions across ‘wooded and marshy tracts’ ‘there is no question the followers of the chase would be more or less in a state of immersion during the whole time they were so engaged’.
Although exaggerated, Porter’s imaginings of the lifestyle of the Setantii contains elements of truth. Before its draining this landscape was marshland, lowland raised peat bog, alder carr, and damp oak woodland. Archaeological evidence dating from the end of the Ice Age to the time of Roman occupation shows that they hunted animals such as elk, aurochs, and red deer, travelled the rivers in dug-out canoes, and lived in wooden huts around the many lakes (the area was later referred to as ‘The Region Linuis’ ‘The Lake Region’ by the 9th century historian Nennius).
They traversed not only the rivers but the seas. The name of the Setantii tribe is derived from Ptolemy’s Geography (2CE) in which he notes the co-ordinates for Portus Setantiorum ‘The Port of the Setantii’ (which is now lost but may have been located near the mouth of the Wyre).
The dwellers in the water country feel important to me as someone living in the former lands of the Setantii because, during this time of climate crisis, water levels are rising, marshlands and lakes returning, and we are finally beginning to recognise the value of the watery places we drained off.
Over the past few decades organisations such as the Wildlife Trust, the Wetland and Wildfowl Trust, and the RSPB have been working to restore drained off wetlands. Recently the Carbon Landscapes project started up with the aim of restoring an interconnected wilderness from the Wigan Flashes through the mosslands of Salford to the Mersey Wetlands Corridor.
It was of great interest for me to find out that the water country is being restored. I will soon be volunteering on this project and am hoping it will give me insights into the plants and wildlife of the landscapes of the Setantii and the tasks they did such as scrub clearance and building wooden walkways.
Over the next few months I am going to be sharing my research on the dwellers in the water country – the wetlands they inhabited, the way they lived, how they related to the land and its deities, in the hope it will provide clues as to how we might live in better relationship with our surroundings. I’m also going to be producing some creative work. Whether this is poems, stories, or perhaps even a novel, remains to be seen. I hope you will enjoy accompanying me on this journey.
*It is important to note that Porter’s description of the Setantii as ‘the dwellers in the country of water’ is based on their lifestyle and is not etymological. The root set- is also found in Seteia, the old name for the Mersey, but has no meaning in the Brittonic language. Andrew Breeze suggests it has been ‘corrupted’ from met– ‘to reap’ and may refer to the Setantii being fierce in battle as reapers of men rather than of crops. Another possibility is the root should be seg– from sego- ‘strong’.
The name of the Irish hero, Setanta, who later became the charioteering warrior Cu Chulainn, also derives from this root. Cassius speaks of the northern Britons driving chariots and Cu Chulainn’s fearsome battle rage, known as the ‘warp spasm’, would fit with being one of the reaping people.
Dyed he is with the Colour of autumnal days, O red dragonfly.
It was an accident. Still, if I’d accidentally killed a human I’d have been jailed for murder. I’m often killing midges, greenflies, flies, as I cycle down the Guild Wheel along the Ribble to Brockholes Nature Reserve. Not on purpose of course – they just have a terrible habit of getting in my eyes, in my mouth, down my top. It’s said there were more flying insects before cyclists, cars, climate change…
I’m not sure why killing a dragonfly somehow seems worse than killing all those tiny things. I didn’t even see him. I was too busy thinking about the fantasy novel that I was planning to set in a marshland and how the flora and fauna of Brockholes, as a wetland nature reserve, might inspire me.
Thinking not listening. There was just a buzzing at my neck and a kind of crackling against my skin. Without thinking I swatted at it compulsively, then stopped in a panic, fearful of what I’d done. Looking down, for a moment I felt relief, seeing what looked like a twig before I realised it was a ruddy abdomen. Severed from it a furred red-brown thorax, two cobwebby filmy wings, and a head with two huge dark red globular eyes and three small eyes that, between them, didn’t see me coming.
I didn’t know what he was right then, that he was a he, or a common darter. Only that I’d killed a dragonfly. I laid the broken pieces at the side of the cycle way with an apology to dragonfly kind and rode onward more slowly, more aware of other ruddy darters rising from where they were basking on the path. After I’d arrived, locked up my bike, they haunted me for the short period I was there. Flying in front of me, landing on the wooden walkways and handrails.
One, in particular, caught my eye. Beholden by the huge round portals of his eyes I drowned in the utter inadequacy of not knowing what he was thinking. Did he know I was a murderer? Did he know what I was? Could he sense my awkward reaching? My overall impression was one of curiosity. That it seemed likely he was thinking dragonfly thoughts distant from my own – trying to place this gigantic monster with its small eyes within his brief sunlit world of eating and flying and mating.
Dragonflies are old. The oldest fossils date back to the Carboniferous period – 350 million years ago. They spend most of their lives as nymphs, living for up to four years in muddy waters. They then crawl up the stem of a plant and shed their nymph-skin, emerging as dragonflies, leaving behind the exuvia. In the brief six months of their adult life they feed on smaller flying insects and find a mate, in an acrobatic display forming a spectacular mating wheel, then afterwards the female lays her eggs on the leaves of plants or in the water. Death follows shortly and the life cycle begins again.
It’s impossible to know if that dragonfly had fulfilled his life’s purpose before I killed him. And, of course, in that all-too-human way that has reduced the earth and its creatures to resources, I’m searching for a meaning, like nature is here to teach us lessons. I can’t help it. That’s human nature.
And it’s pretty obvious, slow down, listen, maybe just maybe I’m heading off on the wrong path trying to write a fantasy novel about an imaginary marshland when our existing wetlands need our voices. Making up new creatures when it may be more valuable to introduce people to Sympetrum striolatum ‘common darter’, Sympetrum sanguineum ‘ruddy darter’, Anax imperator ‘emperor dragonfly’.
This is leading me to think that, rather than writing second world fantasy, I might be best off writing a novelset in this landscape, but further back in time. Not only before the wetlands, the marshes, the peat bogs, the lakes, were drained off, but before the people lost their spiritual relationship with the land.
I’ve long been drawn to the archaeological evidence for the ancient marsh-dwellers in my local area. During the Romano-British period they were known as the Setantii ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ but had lived here far longer. Here, on Penwortham Marsh (now drained) and not far from the river Ribble (now moved) they had a Bronze Age Lake Village evidenced by the remains of a wooden platform, dug-out canoes, a bronze spearhead, 30 human skulls, and skulls of aurochs and deer. There were numerous other settlements such as those beside the great lakes Marton Mere and Martin Mere (now drained), wooden trackways such as Kate’s Pad, and the (now lost) Port of the Setantii.
If I was to write about that time, rather than making up critters and magic and gods and monsters, I would be able to draw upon the real magic of an animistic and shamanistic culture rooted in a lived relationship with the ‘water country’ – its reeds and rushes, its wetland birds, its dragonflies and damselflies. With the spirits of the ancestors, gods we know throughthe Romans, such as Belisama and Nodens, and those who are unknown such as the goddess I know as Anrhuna, Mother of the Marsh.
That dragonfly was one of her children perhaps. She who has been here as the marshland since, at least, the thaw of the Ice Age and thousands of years of water country, these last four centuries of its draining off, and is still here in the last remnants preserved by wetland nature reserves such as Brockholes.
Would it be too very human to read, in an unlucky accident, a message from a goddess?
O red dragonfly,
Colour of autumnal days,
Dyed he is with the
Mother of the Marsh
Returned to mud and water
Rest well O red one.
Those who follow this blog will note this event has led me to returning to its old name ‘From Peneverdant’. This was the name of my hometown of Penwortham in the Doomsday Book and signals a homecoming from an exodus through Welsh mythology and Annwn. It makes sense in relation to my lifelong dedication to Gwyn, here, in January.
Two miles east of Blackpool lies a lake called Marton Mere which was born when the Ice Age reshaped the land leaving a glacial boulder, a huge ball of ice thousands of years old. This melted a kettle hole and in the melt water a dragon formed serpentine, curious, luxuriating in her freedom to swim and lap at the thawing earth after enduring her icy bonds.
When the first people came and paddled out on animal skin coracles they were aware of the stillness of that depth. As they fished with bone hooks within a panorama of reeds and bulrushes amidst piping calls of wetland birds they often thought they glimpsed an eye beneath, a flash of shimmery skin, wondered if it was a giant pike, something more reptilian.
The dragon knew if she appeared in their reality she’d undo their minds and landscape. So she entered the dreams of one of the young fishermen as a beautiful woman, taught him how to charm the fish and gift back to their spirits who swam thick where the real ones roved.
In turn he taught his people what she taught him and he became well-respected within his tribe. She often asked for personal gifts: shells, bone ornaments, joints of meat, to maintain that he acknowledged the source of his wisdom. Before he died he told his people about the lady of the mere and asked for his body to be deposited in its midst.
A tradition arose that when the person who served the lady died she entered the dreams of the next. So she did until a time of change. Her current fisherwoman was awkward and unpopular and had a tough message to deliver. An era of heavy rain approached when the lady would take her true form and devour their village.
The fisherwoman stammered but spoke the truth bravely. Her people did not believe her. It was their village, their mere, they’d lived beside it for generations. A group who secretly wanted rid of the lady’s influence so they could take control knocked the fisherwoman out in her sleep, took her out on a coracle to the middle of the mere, slit her throat and threw her into the dark water. An angry wind of dragon’s breath blew them back across the mere. A tidal wave overturned their coracle. Beneath it they drowned. Rain poured from dark clouds.
The next morning a young man leapt from his sleeping pallet, half-naked, clutching his dishevelled hair “they killed her! I saw them kill her! Behind them a dragon rose up. A dragon. A huge beautiful monstrous dragon with caves for eyes and the skin of a pike and a parade of winds leaping from her nostrils. She’s going to kill us.”
He ran from his dwelling and threw himself to his knees at the end of the jetty uttering a stream of incoherent words. Following through torrential rain his tribe saw the coracle floating in the distance like an empty tortoiseshell. Floodwaters rushed toward their village.
They could get no more sense from the young man. Recalling the tradition of retaining the lady’s favour with gifts, they collected together their finest bronze spears and axes, took them to the end of the jetty and cast them into the mere with prayers of placation.
Still the waters rose. As waves washed over the young man’s knees he suddenly shouted “leave! Go to the ridge: one day it will be Marton. Your offerings have saved everyone but he who saw the dragon.”
All the warriors could not drag him from where he stuck to the platform. With deep regret they left him and departed to the ridge where Great Marton now stands, stood arm in arm, hand in hand, and watched the mere devour their village.
Afterward it became an ill omen to dream of the lady or worse the dragon. Those who saw her, daring not to admit it to their people, either served her privately, left, or lost their minds.
When the Romans arrived they left the inhabitants of Marton and the mere well alone. Contrastingly the Culdee monks (who settled at the site later known as Kilgrimol) were astonished by the stupidity of their refusal to fish in the abundant mere, farm the surrounding landscape or allow anyone else to. So they decided to create a story stupid enough to fool them.
Drawing on the rumours of people making offerings of meat to the dragon they came up with the idea a monk hid a spring in a side of bacon disguised as a gift and threw it into her maw. Its rushing waters forced her jaws open and drowned her. She sunk to the bottom of the mere and was never seen again.
In spite of the logical inconsistency of the drowning of a water dragon some of Marton’s people were fooled. They wanted desperately to live in a world that was safe and governed by one God who gifted his monks with power over dragons.
Fishing on the mere gained in popularity and rights were highly contested. Farmers began to work the land but, in spite of God’s omnipotence, it was frequently inundated by flood water and plagued by disappearances of cows, sheep and pigs. Whispers of a dragon continued.
In the 18th century a decision was made by the majority of Marton’s people to drain the mere. Main Dyke was deepened and widened sluicing all but a fragment of those ominous waters which gave birth to the dragon away into the river Wyre.
During the digging two coracles and bronze axes and spearheads were unearthed: an uneasy reminder of the legend. The people consoled themselves that with the dyke draining the mere like a severed vein pulse by pulse the dragon would be too weak to return.
Although Marton Mere has been drained its kettle hole remains and the dragon lives on. In spring and summer water lilies do not grow above her lair. After the M55 was built a driver swore he saw a crocodile heading across the lanes to the mere.
A new village of holiday homes lies perilously close to the water’s edge. It is said the dragon haunts the dreams of those who sleep there and waits for the one who will share her message.
*This story is based on the archaeology, history and folklore of Marton Mere, much of which is covered in Nick Moor’s extensive on-going project on the history of Blackpool and the Fylde: http://www.blackpoolhistory.co.uk/#!pdf/c1e71
Segregated by the howling by-pass and enclosed within a shroud of trees Castle Hill is a well kept secret unknown to most of Penwortham’s residents. Yet this hidden headland puts the ‘pen’ in Penwortham, or Peneverdant- ‘the green hill on the water’. It is the place where the history of the township began.
Occupation of the area dates to the Neolithic Period. The construction of Preston Docks in the late nineteenth century unearthed a collection of human skulls dating from 4000BC to 800BC, the bones of auroch and red deer, a bronze age spearhead, remnants of a brushwood platform and pair of dug out canoes indicating the existence of a dwelling akin to Glastonbury Lake Village inhabited by the Setantii tribe. Following from the notion that churches are built on pagan sacred sites it is possible St Mary’s church (which is on the summit) replaced a burial mound and / or stone circle.
The sacred nature of the hill is shown by three recorded holy wells. The best known is St Mary’s Well, which was located at the hill’s foot. It was attributed healing properties and was an important sight of pilgrimage. Since drying up its has sadly been covered over by the by-pass. This well was of such importance local people walked a mile to fetch water from it, following the pilgrim’s path. St Anne’s well was located to the west of the church. A well within the church was recently discovered to contain a body inhumed with three skulls which might serve an apotraic function.
A ballista ball and nearby industrial site supplemented by the tale of a ghostly troupe of centurions suggest Roman occupation. The castle mound and its twin at Tulketh were built by Saxons to hold off the Vikings who buried the infamous Cuerdale Horde. When the Normans invaded they rebuilt the castle and Peneverdant served as administrative centre to the Barony of Bussel. The hill was also the site of Penwortham Priory and residence of some scurrilous monks.
Since then St Mary’s church has governed the parish. Whilst the earliest known grave is of a 12th C crusader, the graveyard has served as a burial place for Penwortham’s people since the sixteenth century. The war memorial on the south bank resonates deeply with its association with ancestral remembrance.
One of its darkest legends concerns a fairy funeral. Two men returning home come upon a procession of little men clad in black, wearing red caps and bearing a coffin. One of them dares to look within and sees his miniature doppelganger dead and cold. When the fairies begin the burial he tries to stop it by grasping their leader and the party vanishes. Driven mad by the experience he topples from a haystack to his untimely end.
The path running through Church Wood beside the hill is known as Fairy Lane. In spring it is covered by bluebells and ransoms. In summer the blackbird song never ends. In autumn winds crash, leaves fall and the by-pass roars. Through winter’s depth ivy keeps the wood alive, the leaning yew holds vigil and for a blessed moment there is silence.
Every visit to this magical place, standing between humanity and nature, the dead and the living reminds me of those unseen bonds which might otherwise remain unacknowledged as the old green hill.
* First published in The Druid Network Newsletter (Samhain 2013)
I leave the shelter of the grove ducking beneath twisted hawthorn branches. The trees weave the entrance closed behind me. Rain hits my face, falling from a heaven of relentless grey. Reading the sky’s grimace I wonder what has been seen.
A crow caws his warning. Sprinting toward me up the hollow way I see a young man, legs a blur of blue white checkers and feet a splash of mud and leather. Hair slicked to his head, his dark eyes flicker with awe and wariness. The first dapples of a beard play across his chin like leafy shadows.
“M-my Lady of the Oak,” he stammers pulling up.
His breathless chest heaves beneath a sodden tunic. It is rare for youths to approach me without an elder. Looking more closely at my gnarled face his eyes widen in dawning horror. “Bad news travels from up river. A Man of the Oak wishes to speak with you.” He runs away in a flurry of muddy feet.
I follow down the hollow way heedless of the downpour weighing my cloak for the damp of the air already resides deep within my bones. Looking east, rain drenches the green hill, our sacred headland, and the greener barrow housing our ancestors. The torrent’s drumming beat strikes bubbles across the marsh land. As I walk onto the wooden pad way the reeds hiss like snakes. Decay bites my throat. The steely cast of the river of shining water reflects the glumness of the sky.
In a canoe roped to the jetty my cousin Drust sits hunched in his robes. I question what he is doing here, alone.
The river’s song answers. Her visions flood my mind. I see the battle at the ford of roaring water. Broken chariots, tribesmen slaughtered, the hero light vanishing from their eyes like fleeing stars. The eagle standard flies high, reflected in the crimson river. Seeing the pale flicker of their separating ghosts I speak a prayer for the souls doomed to return to a land where they no longer belong.
Sorrow chokes me like bile. I vomit it in anger at Drust, “what are you doing here, when your clan are dead?”
Drust looks up, yet his face remains hidden by his cowl. “I am taking the remnants of our traditions and our gods to the island across the sea.”
I laugh, a throaty brittle sound like twigs twisting and snapping. “Gods are not like saplings, to be taken away and re-rooted and traditions are not nurtured by foreign soils. It seems the ideas of the invaders have penetrated more deeply than I imagined.”
Drust tenses. Drawing my knife from its leather sheath I lean down and slice the rope tying his canoe to the jetty. The river sluices him west and out to sea.
The wind carries enemy voices. Reflected in the falling droplets I see swords and plumed helms. Slipping on the wood and slithering up the hollow way I reach the grove and beg the hawthorns for passage. A peace of ancient green breaks over me, like I’m sinking into a bed of moss. Beneath the canopy’s protective shadow I believe myself safe until tumult disturbs the roots. Crows caw, anticipating carrion.
I cross a sea of acorns and approach the grove’s mighty king. Putting my arms around his trunk, I press my face to the rough bark. “Brother Oak, let me see into the future.”
My heartbeat merges with the pulse of rising sap. My feet become roots reaching downward through damp soil to the outer edges of the grove. My arms stretch into branches and split, bearing bunches of lobed leaves nourished by the hidden sun, washed by the rain, flourishing green.
The ground shudders at the march of soldiers, galloping hooves and chariot wheels. Battle cries are hollered. Bows hum to the crash of metal. Screams and groans rock me. I taste blood and its bitterness fills me.
Earth and water shift as ditches are cut, fields plundered to feed the enemy. Ancestral ghosts clutch my twigs shrieking of their barrow torn down and a temple built to a foreign god. I moan at the ache of rot softening my flesh, bowing and creaking as my branches snap and innards hollow. I beg for lightning’s merciful release but there is no answer from the clouds of sorrow.
“Brother, let me return,” I speak. “The tribe need my support in their defeat.”
I ease back from the oak as the hawthorns scream and turn to see branches broken, shredded leaves and burst haws at the sandaled feet of a man dressed in a plumed helmet, iron breast plate and red woollen tunic. His eyes are blue, skin tanned by the sun of a hotter land. Brandishing a sword stained with blood and sap he accuses me of witchcraft, of sacrificing innocents to divine the future from their death throes.
I smile. The man freezes in horror. I draw my knife and mustering all my oaken might I drive it between the iron plates and slice open his stomach, spilling his guts upon the grass. Attempting to gather them in like rope he drops twitching and groaning to his knees.
I read the future of his people and their empire from his pulsing entrails.
Kneeling, I pick up a handful of blood soaked acorns and address my brother, “do not fear. Whilst tribes and empires rise and fall, the steady strength of oak will conquer all.”
We bend against the rain.
Corporate faces are too pinched to sob.
The rain drops laugh tearfully,
Drip down red.
The bricks outlive the factories.
Vacant shops are hollowed out. The ectoplasm of capitalism recedes
Like the spectre of Marxism.
On Frenchwood knoll
I met a tribesman who pointed
To the hills across the river,
Turbulent sky and spiralling stars,
I touched the earth and felt her rhythm, Dark pulse caught
Between the supermarket and spire.
Sold off, covered over, offered up,
Remembered only by the weather.