Between Texto and Gloss

I. The Glosa

As an awenydd and polytheist writing and sharing poetry is an essential part of my path. Of all the poetic forms I have experimented with, including English, Welsh, Irish, French, and Italian metres, I have found the Spanish glosa the most conducive to religious practice.

The glosa was invented by the Spanish court poets during the Golden Age. It takes the form of four lines of text (texto) from an existing poet and four ten line stanzas of commentary (gloss) written by the glosser with the final line taken consecutively from the quatrain. The conventional rhyme scheme is ABBAACCDDC.

This versatile form was popular in Parisian literary salons during the reign of Louis XVI, in Germany in the Romantic period, and in Latin America throughout the struggles for independence. It was introduced into the English language comparatively recently by the Canadian poet P. K. Page in 1994.

Hologram by P.K.Page

In Hologram, Page used a series of glossae to pay homage to other poets. Her use of a rhyme scheme where the sixth and ninth lines rhyme with the borrowed tenth, and italicisation of the text and its repetitions, has set the form for poetry in English.

Page’s work prepared the ground for Charlotte Hussey, another Canadian poet, who teaches Old Irish and Arthurian literature and studied Celtic Shamanism with Tom Cowan. Her collection of glossae, Glossing the Spoils (2012), glosses the ‘earliest Western European texts’ to ‘mend a break in tradition and time’, thereby reweaving the ancient myths into modernity.

Glossing the Spoils by Charlotte Hussey

In these glossae Hussey opens a visionary space between texto and gloss where it is possible for conversations with mythic personages and experiences of the transformative qualities of ‘the spoils’ to take place. In ‘Lake of the Cauldron’ she glosses lines from ‘Branwen Daughter of Llyr’. After watching a ‘huge man with yellow-red hair’ emerging ‘from the lake with the cauldron on his back’ the narrator is pushed ‘into the boil’ by a woman with ‘dreadlocks’, ‘long breasts’, and ‘a sweaty belly’ who ‘hacks / shoulder blades, buttocks apart, / scrapes off chunks of flesh / bones sinking then surging to the rim’. The ‘great monstrous man’ from the text watches her dismemberment ‘with an evil thieving look about him’.

Many of the poems reveal the subliminal influence of these near-forgotten myths on our time. ‘Trolls’ is based on lines spoken by the Loathly Lady in Parzival. It ends with ‘The knight, lifting his fluted, iron / visor with its narrow sights’ to ‘stare out’ for ‘a crusading convoy / to join, another holocaust to start, / or a melancholic witch to burn’. Glossing Perlesvaus, Hussey draws parallels between the animistic qualities of the ghastly black shield of the knight’s aggressor with its ‘dragon’s head throwing out / fire and flame with a terrible force’ and the atom bomb – a weapon of destruction she notes cannot be contained or exorcised (1).

I read Glossing the Spoils for the first time in 2012. Discovering the glosa and Hussey’s use of it as a gateway to visionary experience has had a profound effect on my spiritual path and my approach to the medieval Welsh texts that are central to my tradition as an awenydd.

II. The Bull of Conflict

I wrote my first glosa in September that year after an initiatory encounter with Gwyn ap Nudd, a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld. Desiring to honour and thank him for pulling me back from the brink of an abyss and to learn more about him, I decided to gloss four lines from ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2).

This poem, from The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350) documents a conversation that takes place in the misty hinterland between the worlds following Gwyddno’s death. Gwyn appears as a ‘bull of conflict’ – a divine warrior and psychopomp – to guide Gwyddno back to Annwn. Set during the fall of northern Britain to the Anglo-Saxons it contains some of the most powerful and poignant lines in Western European literature, ending with Gwyn’s lament:

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.

Choosing four lines I started by meditating on the first and was taken back to walking the streets of Preston that afternoon in the aftermath of the Preston Guild Festival (4) and the pervading melancholy. Drifting amongst shadow-people I found myself in the Harris Museum surrounded by the spoils of war and face-to-face with Gwyn stepping from the poem.

The Harris

The Harris Museum

In this familiar yet unfamiliar space, between texto and gloss, between poet and god a conversation took place that would change my life. Gwyn’s imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’ gave me a purpose, became the title of my first book, and has guided my path ever since.

The Bull of Conflict

I come from battle and conflict
With a shield in my hand;
Broken is the helmet
By the pushing of spears.
‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’

On an empty day automata drift,
Wending suit shapes through the mist.
Touchless I fade like a symbol unhitched.
The spoils of war quake in the museum.
Piercing the grey wearing horns of a bull
A white warrior blackened and bloodied
Disguises his limp in an infinite gloom,
On his spear leans, softly says:
“My comrades are slain and yet I live,
I come from battle and conflict.”

His dire avowal brings howling winds,
Chill clutch at my shoulders their lament dins
Of hero light fading from mortal skin.
In glass cabinets swords clash savage,
Raging figures thrash on ragged pages
Chanting the desolate past of ravaged war bands.
With war-torn wisdom, sombrely he whispers:
“These gathered memories to you I give.
Gone are the days I crossed this land
With a shield in my hand.”

His barrage of sadness barks in my mind
Like hapless hounds on a winter’s night.
Fierce their madness, dark their plight,
For the perishing souls they collect,
The past’s great spirit protect.
Like thundering wind obligation overwhelms me.
The blade of futility threatens to unfasten me.
“How do I cherish and defend these memories
When like the kingdoms of Rheged and Elmet
Broken is the helmet?”

I ask the Bull of Conflict.
His tears run bright with the passing of time,
Chariots wheeling in multihued light,
Victims reflected in star lit skies.
He says: “this shadow land needs enchantment
To banish the blight of despair.
Nurture the memories with magic
And they’ll sing a blessed new year.
Do not be pressed into fear
By the pushing of spears.”

This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience which led me to devote myself to Gwyn as my patron god. Nothing quite like it has happened since and I have written many glosa, good and bad.

III. The Spoils

Hussey’s title, Glossing the Spoils, works on many levels. By ‘the spoils’ it refers to the spoils of war, the spoils of the distant past gathered in museums, and the spoils of our literary heritage. It also subtly alludes to ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, from The Book of Taliesin (14th C). Taliesin, the narrator, accompanies Arthur and his men on a raid on Annwn to plunder its treasures, including the cauldron of Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn). There a catastrophic battle takes place, which Gwyn later describes to Gwyddno:

And to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Fanddwy.

At Caer Fanddwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.

Arthur assaults ‘the honoured and fair’: the fair folk ruled by Gwyn, who are forced to retaliate. In a moment suggestive of both pillage and rape Lleog thrusts his ‘flashing sword’ into the cauldron and it is ‘left behind in Lleminog’s hand’. Arthur escapes from Annwn with the spoils, slamming ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut. Only seven of three ship-loads of his men survive the conflict.

Analogously most of the spoils in our museums have been plundered violently from other lands. The literary heritage of Western Europe is largely based on a history of the victors, mythic and real, crusading, conquering, colonising. As Walter Benjamin says: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

These thoughts were on my mind when I embarked on a quest to explore the contemporary relevance of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain (3). They include the cauldron (which is kept by Dyrnwch the Giant), the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir, vessels for eating and drinking, weapons, items of clothing, and vehicles for transport. It is likely most of them were won or stolen from Annwn by the northern British warlords who own them.

Like the spoils evoked by Hussey the treasures are animate, inspirited, alive, expressing their agency through magical qualities. The cauldron will only brew meat for the brave. Brân’s horn provides any drink one wishes. Morgan’s chariot takes a traveller wherever they wish quickly. Rhydderch’s sword bursts into flames in the hand of any man who is well-born.

The Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau, ‘Chessboard of Gwenddolau’ (4), is made of gold and has silver gwerin, ‘men’, who play by themselves. The men represent Gwenddolau’s army and his enemy and serve a divinatory function – the outcome of the game predicts the result of real battles.

Writing a glosa based on four lines about the chessboard took me on a visionary journey to Gwenddolau’s seat of rule in Arfderydd (modern day Arthuret in Scotland) and gave me a glimpse of its magic outliving Gwenddolau to predict the outcomes of upcoming wars.

View from Liddel Strength

Caer Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau…
if the pieces are set,
they play by themselves.
The board is gold and the men silver
(5).
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I leave my world behind at Carwinley Burn
to follow the feral steps of a girl,
red-haired, torqued, coloured-trousered,
a wild thing with fox’s teeth at her neck
down a fox-hole to the grave
of Gwenddolau.
Beside his bull-horned corpse
stands a table and upon it a golden board.
Round its edges silver dead men lie.
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

has lain here as long as my father,”
she says. “It predicts the outcome of battles.
It played before Arfderydd, Catraeth,
when Britain’s air force clashed
with the Luftwaffe,
on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. As yet
it has never mispredicted an event.
At times of peace it sleeps.
At times of threat
if the pieces are set

they play out every move in the coming conflict.”
As she speaks the eyes of a warrior
jerk open and his spasmodic
hand grips his spear.
A warhorse rises from a tangle of stirrups and mane.
A bishop shakes off his robes and delves
for fireballs and mist in his pockets.
Caers rebuild their ramparts.
Returning to health
they play by themselves

speechless as automata resuming their positions.
Warriors move forward two squares
spearing on the diagonal.
Warhorses leap
over the mounting carnage,
on a fiery blast fall into splinters.
A king drags his queen into a caer.
As the bishops prepare the final spell
I am shaken by a premonitory shiver.
The board is gold and the men silver.

For me this glosa reveals the sad fact that since the war-torn period when Gwenddolau lived and now there has barely been a time when the warriors of Britain have not been at war. The uncanny battles fought between the gwerin, beneath the earth, in Annwn, represent our militant history.

As modern glossers we are faced with a past of ravaging, wounding, spoiling: a world spoilt by Arthurian warlords. How, between texto and gloss, can we enchant its shadows, heal its wounds?

Footnotes

(1) In ‘Glossing Faery
(2) At this point I was working with William Skene’s 1868 translation. I recommend the 2015 translation by Greg Hill. The title and glossed lines are from Skene, but the other two are from Hill.
(3) The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain appear in several medieval Welsh manuscripts. The earliest is the autograph of Gwilym Tew in Peniarth Manuscript 51 (1460).
(4) Gwyddbwyll means ‘wood-sense’. Its translation as ‘Chessboard’ isn’t entirely correct because chess originated in the Arab world and was imported to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century.
(5) Here I took the poetic liberty of changing the form and tense of the original quote.

Sources

Charlotte Hussey, Glossing the Spoils, (Awen Publications, 2012)
Charlotte Hussey, ‘Glossing Faery’, Awen ac Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Awen ac Awenydd,
Keith Ellis, ‘The Glosa: A Genre to be Noticed for its Constructive Values’, Comparative Literature and World Literature, Vol 1. No. 2 (2016)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
P. K. Page, Hologram, (Brick Books, 1995)
Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History‘, Marxists.org
William Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Four Books of Ancient Wales, (Forgotten Books, 2007)

Caer Ochren: The Birth of Pen Annwn and the Silver-Headed Beast

The final fort which Arthur, Taliesin and their party raid in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Ochren. Marged Haycock translates Caer Ochren as ‘Angular Fort’ (from ochr ‘edge’, side’). This name could relate to the fortresses having four corners/quarters/turrets/peaks. Ochr also translates as ‘aspect’ or ‘facet’. My working thesis is we’re looking at seven names for the same fort. Caer Ochren thus encompasses all its facets rolled into one.

Once again Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of certain mysteries:

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men, with no go in them,
(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal it is they guard, with his silver head.’

Haycock draws parallels with Christian tradition. ‘What hour was he (Christ) born? As the prophet says, he came at midnight from his regal thrones’. ‘At what time of the day or night was the world made, and (at what time) will it be destroyed, and (at what time) did the Lord arise from the dead?’

However, this relies on the translation of ‘Lord’ from Pen which literally means ‘Head’. Considering the poem centres on the theft of the cauldron of Pen Annwn (‘Head of Annwn’), it seems more likely he is the subject of the riddles and they refer to the day of his creation and the hour of his birth.

This is the interpretation of Caitlin and John Matthews, who refer to ‘the conception and birth of the Chief (of Annwn)’. In an evocative painting of Caer Ochren*, Meg Falconer depicts the Chief’s face as he awaits birth beneath a snowy mound accompanied by running deer, a triskele, and slither of new moon. The text around the painting reads: ‘Caer Ochran – the cold castle under the stone – the magic beast of the silverhead – day of the kings birth.’ It seems significant the birth of Pen Annwn is linked with the last fort in the poem.

Next we come to the silver-headed animal. ‘Animal’ is translated from vil (mil) by Haycock whereas the Matthews favour ‘beast’. We find the repetition of pen (aryant y pen ‘silver head). Sarah Higley and the Matthews translate Perchen as ‘owner’, which suggests it belongs to Pen Annwn and is guarded by his people. The question of the identity of this beastie has produced a proliferation of divergent conjectures.

Robin Melrose suggests the silver-headed animal/beast is the Brindled Ox from the previous verse. The lines about the Brindled Ox are also preceded by a similar riddle about the birth at mid-day of Dwy, ‘God’ (Pen Annwn?) and it’s possible this verse echoes the one before it. An old ox could certainly be pictured with silver hairs.

An alternative theory is put forward by Marged Haycock. She says ‘Mil is understood as an ‘animal’ guarded by the monks, perhaps a riddling question referring to ‘a silver-headed crozier with a zoomorphic crook bearing a reliquary box.’

The Matthews point out ‘The animal that most commonly has silver hair on its head is an elderly human.’ They suggest this may be a kenning for Henben ‘Old Head’, an epithet of Maelgwn Gwynedd’s chief poet Henin Fardd. Further ‘the real Henben or Old Head is Brân himself.’

The mention of a silver-headed beast puts me in mind of Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. One of his piglets is Grugyn Gwrych Eraint, ‘Grugyn Silver-bristle’; ‘all his bristles were like wings of silver, and one could see the path he took through the woods and over fields by the way his bristles glittered.’ It seems likely Grugyn inherited his silvery bristles from his father.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur leads the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, yet lines stating the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn ap Nudd is found suggest Gwyn was the original leader. Gwyn is a candidate for the title Pen Annwn and it seems possible his people guard the silver-headed beast. An objection is the Twrch is a wild animal unlikely to be owned or guarded.

Another suggestion is the animal owned by Pen Annwn is a dog. Both Gwyn and Arawn are connected with hounds of Annwn. Gwyn owns a dog named Dormach who is ‘fair’, ‘red-nosed’ and pictured with two serpent’s tails. He could possess a few silver hairs. However it’s more likely he’d be doing the guarding than being guarded!

The silver-headed beast slips from grasp like quick-silver and perhaps that’s the key. Many animals in Celtic mythology were shapeshifters and didn’t stay the same for long. Interestingly there is no record of Arthur getting his hands on this evasive beast.

The verse ends with the refrain:

‘And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none came back from Caer Ochren.’

The journey of Arthur, Taliesin and the other survivors is complete. It is drawn into connection with the birth of Pen Annwn. In Caer Ochren end and beginning meet. Yet the poem has not finished. Taliesin has plenty of insults left for those monks…

~

Caer Ochren

I am the end and the beginning.
Count my angles. You will never count them all
because I am spinning beyond the terminal velocity
of sight. You will never know what is behind,
beyond the walls unless you come in,
scratch the head of a silver-headed beast,
a hound beside the chair of the one who rules the fort
and has been absent half a year. How he stretches
his great jaws, unrolls himself into a serpent.
Where teeth touch tail the story ends
and begins again.

P1170370

*In King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld. Some of Meg’s paintings can be viewed HERE.

Caer Golud: The Guts of Annwn

In verse four of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the lines about Caer Wydyr (‘Glass Fort’) are followed by a single reference to Caer Golud (‘Fortress of Impediment’).

‘Three loads of Prydwen went with Arthur:
save seven, none came back from the Fort of Impediment.’

Nothing more is said about Caer Golud. To the best of my knowledge it does not appear in any other literature. Marged Haycock translates golud as ‘impediment’ from goludd. This suggests Caer Golud is another name for the impenetrable Caer Wydyr, which is guarded by six thousand men and an incommunicative watchman.

An alternative translation is from coludd (which mutates from ‘g’): ‘guts’, ‘bowels’ or ‘entrails’ This is a fascinating possibility and fits with links between the Glass Fort and Glastonbury (‘the Glass Island’) as a place the 6thC prophet, Melkin, claims is ‘greedy for the death of pagans, above others in the world.’

Melkin’s words suggest pagan beliefs and practices survived in Glastonbury into the 6thC. The word ‘greedy’ evokes devouring and the digestive processes of the guts. This would certainly tie in with other descriptions of the Brythonic otherworld.

In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ the bard inquires into the width of ‘the mouth’ of Uffern (‘inferno’). ‘Kat Godeu’ refers to ‘a great-scaled beast’ with ‘a fierce battalion / beneath the roof of his tongue’ and ‘A speckled crested snake’ with ‘a hundred souls, on account of (their) sin… tortured in its flesh.’

snake-water-river-sketch-cartoon-big-wild-animal

Public Domain

Both poems are heavily Christianised yet if we remove the punitive connotations resulting from Annwn’s identification with Uffern/Hell and thus sin, it is possible to find traces of a shamanistic standpoint far more visceral than courtly medieval portrayals of the otherworld.

We recall Gwion Bach (as a grain of wheat) was swallowed by Ceridwen (as a black hen). A sow feeds on Lleu Llaw Gyfes’ rotten flesh when, mortally wounded, he takes the form of an eagle. The Hounds of Annwn hunt down and devour souls.

Gwion’s swallowing by Ceridwen leads to his rebirth as Taliesin. In a similar Irish story, Dechtire swallows a small animal whilst drinking a glass of water and is then told she is pregnant by Lugh with the son who will grow up to become Cu Chullain.

It is possible these stories date back to a time people didn’t causally connect sex and pregnancy due to the time lapse. The belly is not only the place of digestion but gestation: eating the ‘dead’ and birthing life were connected with this mysterious place.

***

In From The Cauldron Born, Kristoffer Hughes notes that in Welsh the word for cauldron is pair or crochan, which resembles croth ‘womb’. Ceridwen’s cauldron, her belly, is where Gwion is devoured and reborn as Taliesin.

Taliesin describes his fate in language evocative of malting and brewing in ‘The Hostile Confederacy’:

‘I was a grain…
A hen got hold of me –
a red-clawed one, a crested enemy;
I spent nine nights
residing in her womb.
I was matured,
I was a drink set before a ruler,
I was dead, I was alive,
a stick went into me;
I was on the lees,
separated from it, I was whole;
and the drinking-vessel stiffened resolve,
(for) the red-clawed one imbued me with passion.’

In ‘Lake of the Cauldron’ Charlotte Hussey glosses lines from The Second Branch where the giant, Llasar, emerges from a lake in Ireland with the Cauldron of Rebirth on his back to depict a similar process.

The cauldron is described as decorated with animals and divinities including a woman with ‘long-breasts’ and a ‘sweaty belly’ stirring it ‘as if it were a pan’. The woman pushes the narrator ‘into the boil’. Llasar watches as

‘…She hacks
shoulder blades, buttocks apart,
scrapes off chunks of flesh,
bones sinking then surging to the rim,
tossed by the churning waters.’

This bears similarities with scenes of initiation from shamanic cultures. Mircea Eliade records that a Samoyed shaman was decapitated and chopped into bits by a blacksmith who boiled him in a cauldron ‘big as half the earth’ then reforged him with magical capacities. In some traditions the initiate is eaten.

In relation to the devouring snake in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it’s of interest amongst the Negritos there is great snake named Mat Chinoi. Thirty female Chinoi ‘of the utmost beauty’ live in its belly with their ornaments and combs. By passing two ordeals it is possible to enter the snake to find a wife.

It’s noticeable none of the Brythonic texts mention bowels or excrement. This may be because they were penned by Christian scribes in the medieval period. This contrasts with the bawdy toilet humour of the Norse myths and the mythologies of other cultures.

In Dream and the Underworld, James Hillman notes that in a late Orphic hymn the name of ‘the Goddess of the realm of death’ is ‘borborophoba, which was can render in the double-sense of shit-fearing: she who keeps it at bay, and she who makes it flow in panic.’ In the Egyptian Otherworld, where everything is reversed, people defecate through their mouths.

Hillman refers to dreams of diarrhea as ‘radical compelling movements into the underworld or as an underworld that has come to sudden irrepressible life within us, independent of who we are and what we are. Like death, diarrhea strikes when it will and all alike. Shit is the great leveller… Toilet dreams… can be read as underworld initiations.’

***

Our lack of knowledge of Caer Golud parallels the lack of attention our cerebrally obsessed culture has paid to the gut over the last few centuries. Thankfully over the past few decades scientists have begun to pay attention to this long neglected area.

In the 1960’s Michael Gershon published a ground-breaking book called The Second Brain. He draws attention to the fact that if the major nerve between the brain and gut is cut, the gut continues to work, and can function independently of the central nervous system.

The Enteric Nervous System ‘the brain below’ regulates peristalsis. One of the most important neurostransmitters in this process is serotonin. Serotonin plays an important role in the regulation of mood and 95% lies in the gut.

More recently scientists have been studying the microbiota of the gut as a ‘collective unconscious’, their symbiotic relationship with their host, and their influence on behaviour. Gut microbiota affect memory, sociability, and levels of stress and anxiety.

I’ve suffered from anxiety most of my life and a few months ago got diagnosed with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Finding out these links was a eureka moment. When I get stressed I have bowel problems which upset my gut making me more stressed: it’s a vicious cycle.

Frighteningly 10% of people in the UK suffer from IBS and it’s the second biggest cause of absence from work yet nobody talks about it. As I’ve also done in the past, they just make excuses or take Immodium and pretend it isn’t an issue. I can’t help thinking such a high percentage of people suffering from IBS results from living in such a stressful world.

I can’t see an easy or immediate way out of this cycle. However, I do believe the root cause can be addressed. We need to stop participating in the stressful worlds our guts cannot tolerate and which are indigestible to the deities of Annwn and work toward creating alternatives.

The time has returned to learn to listen again to the forgotten worlds of our guts which are paralleled by Caer Golud and its great-scaled beasts and speckled crested snakes in the realm of our Annuvian borborophoba, Ceridwen.

P1160376 - Copy

SOURCES

Charlotte Hussey, Glossing the Spoils, (Awen Publications, 2012)
Cryan, Dinan, Stilling, Stanton, ‘Collective Unconscious: How Gut Microbes Shape Human Behaviour’, Journal of Psychiatric Research 63, (2015)
James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, (CN, 1979)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Michael D. Gershon, The Second Brain, (Harper Collins, 1999)
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, (Princeton, 2004)
Nicolas R. Mann, The Isle of Avalon, (Green Magic, 2001)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (OUP, 1979)

Caer Wydyr: Seeing Beyond the Glass Fort

As I progress through ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it is my growing intuition that imagistic links* suggest Taliesin is not referring to a series of different forts raided by Arthur and his men but to one otherworldly fortress by different names.

Under this tentative interpretation, verse four takes us from the theft of the cauldron and escape from Annwn back to the beginning of the action. Taliesin says:

‘I don’t rate the pathetic men involved with religious writings,
those who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort:
six thousand men were standing on its wall;
it was hard to communicate with their watchman.’

Taliesin is mocking ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for being unable to see beyond Caer Wydyr: the Glass Fort. This is the fourth fortress named in the poem but, I intuit, the first to be approached.

In modern Welsh, gwydyr means glass. The image of the fort as glass: clear, see-through, near-invisible, is deeply evocative of its otherworld nature. Its walls, with room for six thousand men, are extensive.

It is possible to think of these glass walls as representative of the boundary between thisworld and Annwn. To penetrate beyond requires an invitation from Annwn’s deities, cunning, or a good deal of brute force.

Much speculation surrounds the incommunicative nature of the watchman. In other poems and stories such as ‘Arthur and the Porter’ and Culhwch and Olwen, the watchmen/gatekeepers are communicative. Questions must be answered and conditions met to enter the fortresses of otherworldly persons.

The watchman’s incommunicability has led some scholars to suggest he and perhaps the six thousand men on the walls are risen dead. In The Second Branch of The Mabinogion, dead Irishmen thrown into the Cauldron of Rebirth rise able to fight but unable to speak.

Another possibility is the guards are the spirits of Annwn who are ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd. They are perfectly able to speak: in The Life of St Collen, Gwyn’s watchman courteously invites St Collen into ‘the fairest castle he had ever beheld’.

The ominous silence of the watchman and six thousand men could stem from the fact three loads of warriors from Arthur’s warship have just landed outside their home, fully-armed, with their eyes glinting with lust for Annwn’s treasures.

***

Glass fortresses are a recurrent feature in Celtic literature and are often the abode of otherworldly rulers. This leads me to suspect there was once a deep, underlying mythos surrounding the Head of Annwn and his otherworldly fort which has gradually been lost.

A very close parallel with Caer Wydyr can be found in Nennius’ History of the Britons. Thirty ships of Spaniards sailing to Ireland find in the midst of the sea ‘a tower of glass, the summit of which was covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer.’ When they attack the tower, all but one of their ships are swallowed by the waves.

In The Life of St Gildas, Glastonbury is described as the Island of Glass. Caradog of Llancarfan says ‘Glastonia was of old called Ynisgutrin, and is still called so by the British inhabitants. Ynis in the British language is insula in Latin, and gutrin (made of glass).’

This is echoed by Gerald of Wales in Speculum Ecclesiae. Glastonbury ‘used to be called “Ynys Gutrin” in the Welsh language, that is the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.’

Glastonbury is the abode of Gwyn ap Nudd and Melwas who are both abductors of important female figures and riders of the famous water-horse ‘The Black of the Seas’**. Melwas keeps Gwenhwyfar imprisoned on the Island of Glass.

In Sir Orfeo, the Fairy King abducts Orfeo’s wife, Heurodis, and takes her to his crystal castle. Its vivid description provides clues to the appearance of Caer Wydyr:

‘Amid the land a castle tall
And rich and proud and wondrous high
Uprose, and all the outmost wall
Shone as crystal to the eye.
A hundred towers lit up the sky,
Of diamond all battled stout;
And buttresses rose up near by
Arched with red gold and broad about.

All the bonsour was carved in stone
With every beast and every wight,
And all within the castle shone
And sparkled with unearthly light.’

***

In The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Will Parker suggests the imagery of ‘the Indigenous Underworld of Annwfn’ stems from the ‘memory of the riches of the Romano-British civilian zone’.

The Romans brought glass-making to Britain and it seems likely memories of their cosmopolitan ways of life, fine clothes, and wine fed into conceptions of Annwn, which later became known as Faery.

A fascinating blend of Brythonic and Roman influence can be found in the list of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘that were in the North’:
‘Drynwyn… the Sword of Rhydderch the Generous’, ‘The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank’, ‘The Horn of Brân the Niggard’, ‘The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy’, ‘The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn’, ‘The Knife of Llawfroedd the Horseman’, ‘The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant’, ‘The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd’, ‘The Coat of Padarn Red-Coat’, ‘The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric’, ‘The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio’ and ‘The Mantle of Arthur’.

All these treasures possess magical qualities which are suggestive of their otherworld origin. They are also of interest because in the marginalia of the list in Pen. 147 (1566) we find the story of how Myrddin managed to acquire them and retreat ‘to the Glass House’ (ty gwydyr).

The traditional location of Myrddin’s glass house is Bardsey Island. Patrick Ford says ‘In a version of… “Treasures of the Kings of Britain”… Mad Merlin took all these from the city called Caerlleon-on-Usk to the House of Glass in Bardsey Island’.

In Celtic Remains, Lewis Morris says ‘In Caerlleon on Usk there was a museum of rarities in King Arthur’s time, which Myrddin ap Morfran, the Caledonian, upon the destruction of that place, carried with him to a house of glass on the Isle of Enlli or Bardsey…

This house of glass, it seems, was the museum where they kept their curiosities to be seen by everybody, but not handled; and it is possible Myrddin, who is said to live in it, was the keeper of their museum at the time’.

The shift from treasures used by their owners (some stolen by Arthur: Gwyddno’s Hamper and Dyrnwch’s cauldron) to their placing in a glass museum as relics is an interesting one, which reflects that they have fallen out of use and become part of our cultural heritage.

It also shows we have become cut off from their magic. As Christianity replaced Romano-British paganism, the doors to Annwn were sealed. Mad Myrddin became the uncommunicative watchman of the glass walls.

Caer Wydyr and its people have been forgotten and we have since then built our own Glass Fortresses: Crystal Palaces, Arcades, department stores, shopping malls, and stocked them full of the treasures of thisworld.

Crystal_Palace

The Crystal Palace, London,  Great Exhibition 1851, Wikipedia Commons

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Yet the call returns to journey to Annwn, to see beyond the Glass Fort to the feats of Arthur, to their consequences reflected like mirror images in the years between then and now.

*Caer Vedwit and Caer Rigor are described as having four quarters/corners/turrets/pinnacles/ peaks and Caer Vandwy is referred to as the Fortress of God’s Peak. The sea beats around the turrets/pinnacles of Caer Siddi.
**In Culhwch and Olwen the only horse Gwyn can hunt Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ with is Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’. In the opening lines of The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer, Melwas introduces his horse before himself

‘Black is my steed and brave beneath me
No water will make him fear
And no man will make him swerve.’

It is notable that in The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn also introduces his horse (although here it is Carngrwn) first.

Caer Rigor and the Closed Door

In the second verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin, Arthur and his men stole the cauldron of the Head of Annwn, escaped from Caer Vedwit, slammed ‘Hell’s gate’ shut and lit lamps outside. By their flickering light they saw only seven survivors remained.

At the opening of the third verse Taliesin says:

‘I’m splendid of fame: songs are heard
in the four quarters of the fort, stout defence of the island.’

Taliesin’s reference to songs heard ‘in the four quarters of the fort’ echoes the opening of the second verse. Here the fortress is not revolving. Instead, its defensive function is emphasised.

Marged Haycock translates ynys pybyrdor as ‘stout defence of the island’. However, it is more commonly translated as ‘island of the strong door’ (from ynys ‘island’, pybyr ‘strong’ and dor ‘door’).

This suggests it bears relation to the feasting hall on the island of Gwales in ‘The Second Branch’. Taliesin was one of seven survivors from the battle between the armies of Brân (King of Prydain) and Matholwch (King of Ireland). He and his companions feasted with Brân’s head. Beforehand Brân told them:

‘And you will stay for eighty years in Gwales in Penfro. And so long as you do not open the door towards Aber Henfelen, facing Cornwall, you can remain there and the head will not decay. But as soon as you enter that door you can stay no longer.’

After eighty years, Heilyn’s curiosity got the better of him and he opened ‘that door’. When he looked out at Cornwall and Aber Henfelen ‘every loss they had ever suffered, and every kinsman and companion they had lost, and every ill that had befallen them was as clear as if they had encountered it in that very place; and most of all concerning their lord.’

Robin Melrose says ‘The ‘strong door’… seems to be the door between the otherworld and the world of the living – strong because in this case it prevents the dead from regretting all that they have left behind in the world of the living.’

When Taliesin and his companions feasted with Brân’s head, they entered the timeless state of the otherworld host; of the dead. Contrastingly in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ they raid the otherworld, assault its people, steal their treasure then slam ‘the strong door’ shut behind them.

The shift in narrative from participation to raiding, assault and theft is symbolic of how views of Annwn differed between the British Foretime and Arthurian period. In the former, Pwyll and Arawn, a King of Annwn, struck up an honourable alliance. The gargantuan Brân was considered a hero. In the latter, giants and the rulers of Annwn appear as adversaries.

Haycock notes there is scribal confusion between pybyr and pefr. Pefrdor has been translated as ‘radiant door’, ‘shining door’ and ‘flaming door’. Perhaps because of its fiery connotations the door was labelled as ‘porth Vffern’ (Vffern is from Latin inferno) ‘Hell’s gate’.

flaming_door_by_dull_stock

Flaming Door by Dull Stock on Deviant Art

The closing of the door seems symbolic of the way relationships with Annwn and its deities were shut off during the Arthurian period. Annwn was equated with hell and its people with demons. They later became known as fairies.

In the next lines, Taliesin refers to what is going on in the fortress whilst they stand outside the door listening to the songs:

‘Fresh water and jet are mixed together;
sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion.’

The lines about the otherworldly battalion drinking wine are self-explanatory but what about the mixing of jet and water? Jet is a lignite, like coal formed from trees decaying under extreme pressure, which was used in jewellery during the Bronze Age and late Roman period.

Jet’s chthonic nature links it with the otherworld. It is frequently found in ancient burials. As the dead were buried with jet to wear in the next life, it seems possible some of the otherworld host are wearing jet.

However, this doesn’t explain its mixing with water. A possible source is the Archbishop of Seville’s Etymologiae (600-625): ‘(Jet) is black, flat, smooth, and burns when brought near fire. Dishes cut out of it are not destructible. If burned it puts serpents to flight, betrays those who are possessed by demons, and reveals virginity. It is wonderful that it is set on fire by water and extinguished with oil.’

The main focus is on jet’s combustible nature. Caitlin and John Matthews describe the effect of jet being set on fire by water as ‘like a flambeau’. The term ‘flambeau’ may refer to a burning torch or to a cocktail to which a splash of Grand Mariner is added before it is ignited. This certainly fits with the imagery of the lamps outside ‘Hell’s Gate’ and the drinking party within illuminated by the hallucinatory effect of water and jet mixing.

Haycocks translates muchyd as ‘jet’ and echwyd as ‘fresh water’. She says echwyd could also mean ‘mid-day’, thus contrasting the darkness of jet with the light of the mid-day sun. This fits with the later question of ‘when, at noon, the Ruler (of Annwn?) was born’.

At the end of the verse we find out this fortress is called Caer Rigor. This is from the Latin rigor ‘stiffness, rigidity’ hence Haycock translates Caer Rigor as ‘The Petrifaction Fort’. For me this represents the hardening of the fluidity of the otherworld, the closing of doors and the end of relationship.

Additionally, frigor means ‘cold’ which contrasts with porth Vffern. Annwn is both fiery and icy. This is paralleled in The Life of St Collen where Collen says the garments of the host of the Annuvian King, Gwyn ap Nudd, are ‘red’ to signify ‘burning’ and ‘blue’ to signify ‘coldness’.

In Norse mythology, Muspel: ‘bright and hot’ and Niflheim: source of all things cold and grim, were the first two worlds to come into existence from Ginnungagap ‘the great void before creation’. The fierceness and intensity of fire and ice originated from other worlds. Only under Christianity did these qualities become punitive.

Later in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin poses questions about the nature of the elements:

‘… whether the sea is all one water,
whether fire – an unstoppable force is all one spark.’

The mixing of jet and water may well be connected with the mysteries of creation. In an earlier post, I noted that Caer Vedwit ‘is bound up with the passage of day and night and the seasons and the cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.’

The door to Annwn is now closed yet Taliesin, Arthur and their party possess the cauldron: the vessel of its mysteries. To what use will they put it now they have shut themselves off from the advice of the deities of the otherworld?

~

Caer Rigor

This is Caer Rigor
(from the Latin rigor:
rigid, stiff, petrified,
frigid, cold).

Rigor mortis has
set in to this dead fort.
This is the body
post mortem.

The revolving fort
does not move.
When it turns
it turns backwards.

The song in its quarters
is sung backward
like a record
on loop.

Caer Rigor is dying
into itself:
a sword blow
to the sacred place,

the desecrated cauldron
borne away.
In the vortex
jet and water mix.

The song of the dead
is deafening.
Taliesin,
how will you explain?

How will you craft
your verses
so you are the hero
and no-one hears

Caer Rigor?

The Theft of the Cauldron

In the second verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is stolen in one swift move:

‘Lleog’s flashing sword was thrust into it,
and it was left behind in Lleminog’s hand.

These lines have been interpreted in many different ways. Cledyf means ‘sword’ and lluch ‘flashing’. Lleawc (‘Lleog’) has been taken to mean ‘destroyer’ or ‘death-dealer’.

Lluch Lleawc has been identified with Llen(n)l(l)eawc Wyddel ‘Llenlleog the Irishman’ from Culhwch and Olwen. There is a strong case for this because parallels exist between Lleog’s role in the theft of the Head of Annwn’s cauldron and Llenlleog’s in stealing the cauldron of Diwrnarch Wyddel.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur and his men must attain Diwrnarch’s cauldron to boil food for the guests at Culhwch’s wedding feast. (In an earlier post I mentioned that the cauldrons of Diwrnarch and the Head of Annwn share the quality of only boiling meat for the brave).

Arthur sends a message to Odgar, King of Ireland, to tell Diwrnarch, his steward, to hand the cauldron over. Diwrnarch refuses. Arthur and his men set sail for Ireland and make for Diwrnarch’s house where they eat and drink. After feasting, Arthur asks for the cauldron.

Diwrnach says no again. Bedwyr seizes the cauldron and puts it on the back of Hygwydd, Arthur’s servant. Llenlleog Wyddel grabs Caledfwlch (‘hard breach / cleft’ Arthur’s sword) and by swinging it round kills Diwrnarch Wyddel and all his retinue. They escape with the cauldron filled with Irish treasure.

It seems possible the flash of Lleog’s sword as he thrusts it into the cauldron parallels its death-dealing swing, killing or blinding and incapacitating the Head of Annwn and his company as they feast and drink in Caer Vedwit.

Some scholars equate Lleog with the Irish god Lugh whose name may derive from the Proto-Indo-European *leuk ‘flashing light’. Lugh’s epithets include Lámhfhada ‘long arm’ or ‘long hand’, Lonnbeimnech ‘fierce striker’ and Ildánach ‘skilled in many arts’.

To complicate matters further, Lleog has been identified with Lleminog, in whose hand the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is left. Lleminawc may be translated as ‘leaping (one)’ or ‘leaper’.

In ‘Teithi etmygant’* (‘They admire qualities’) Llyminawc bears the meaning ‘keen, eager, ready.’ It refers to ‘an eager leader of an army’ who is a prophetic figure. Some scholars identify Lleminog with Arthur.

So… the Head of Annwn and his people are defeated by Lleog’s flashing sword and the cauldron is left in the hand of Lleminog (who may be Lleog or Arthur). We don’t find out whether there is further conflict or how Arthur and his men escape with the cauldron.

The next line of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ reads: ‘And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned’.

One assumes the escape has been made, ‘hell’s’ door slammed shut and lamps lit outside it. The word translated as Hell here is Vffern. ‘Uffern’ is borrowed from the Latin inferno and appears frequently in medieval Welsh poetry as a negative appellation for the otherworld.

‘What is the measure of Hell? (translated from Uffern)
how thick its veil,
how wide its mouth,
how big are its baths?’**

‘Madawg…
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Uffern.’***

Doors between the worlds are also a regular feature in Welsh mythology. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, Ynys pybyrdor has been translated as ‘isle of the strong door’ (ynys ‘island’, pybyr ‘strong’ + dor ‘door’). In ‘The Second Branch’ the Assembly of the Noble Head takes place in an otherworldly stasis on the island of Gwales until a forbidden door is opened.

The name of Dormach, the dog of Gwyn ap Nudd, has been translated as ‘death’s door’ by John Rhys (dor ‘door’ and marth ‘death’). Dogs are frequently guardians of the otherworld. There are no dogs in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ but Taliesin speaks of monks congregating and howling like wolves and dogs in the final two verses.

Emphasis is placed on closing the door between the worlds and keeping it shut. The people of Annwn and its spatio-temporal laws must be kept separate. We recall that if Gwyn did not contain the fury of the spirits of Annwn, they would destroy thisworld.

The second verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ ends with the refrain ‘save seven, none returned from the Mead-Feast Fort’. This is repeated after the visit to each fort and conveys the terrible cost of raiding the otherworld. Its repetition suggests the names of seemingly individual fortresses are perhaps names for one fort and the verses refer to different parts of the same journey.

The forces of Annwn are shut out yet the presence of the cauldron represents the destabilising power of Annuvian magic in thisworld. The cauldron of the Head of Annwn has been stolen from the mead feast in Caer Vedwit: the revolving fortress, centre of the mysteries of day and night, the seasons, birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.

Diwrnarch’s cauldron is taken from Ireland to the house of Llwydeu son of Cilcoed in Dyfed where it is remembered by Mesur y Pair (‘the measure of the cauldron’). It is then presumably used to brew food for Culhwch and Olwen’s guests at their wedding feast. Later it is taken by Myrddin to ‘the glass house’ with the other Treasures of the Island of Britain.

What happens to the cauldron of the Head of Annwn after it is stolen next nobody knows. It is never seen again. It may be worth contemplating the question “where is it now?”

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*In Skene’s translation this is the second part of ‘Canu y Cwrwf’ (A Song to Ale’)
**‘The First Address of Taliesin’ (transl. Marged Haycock)
***‘The Death-song of Madawg’ (transl. William Skene)

SOURCES

Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sarah Higley (transl.), ‘Preiddu Annwn’, (Camelot, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

Caer Vedwit: The Fortress of the Mead-Feast and its Revolutions

The second sea fortress raided by Arthur, Taliesin and ‘three full loads’ of Prydwen in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’.

Opening the second verse Taliesin says:

‘I’m splendid of fame – song was heard
in the four quarters of the fort, revolving (to face) the four directions.’

Kaer pedryuan, ‘four quarters of the fort’ has also been translated as ‘Four-Cornered Fort’, ‘Four-Pinnacled Fort’, ‘Four-Peaked Fort and ‘Four-Turreted Fort’. The latter suggests it bears relationship with Caer Siddi: ‘around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea’.

The image of a four-quartered, revolving fortress filled with song is fascinating and compelling. So far I have not come across the name Caer Vedwit or revolving fortresses in any other medieval Welsh literature. However fortresses that disappear, recede, or can only be entered under special conditions feature in numerous stories.

A close parallel with Caer Vedwit is found in the Ulster Cycle. In ‘The Feast of Bricriu’, Cú Roí has a fortress which revolves to his chant throughout the night so that nobody can enter:

‘In what airt soever of the globe Curoi should happen to be, every night o’er the fort he chaunted a spell, til the fort revolved as swiftly as a mill-stone. The entrance was never to be found after sunset.’

Caer Vedwit is associated with the Head of Annwn. It seems possible its revolutions are brought about by his spell-song.

The mead-feast is a central feature of medieval stories set in thisworld and Annwn. The status of a lord was judged by his capacity to maintain large groups of warriors feasting and drinking in his hall. The consumption of copious amounts of mead could provide a more prosaic explanation for the songs in Caer Vedwit and its revolutions.

The Cauldron of the Head of Annwn

The purpose of raiding Caer Vedwit is the theft of the cauldron of the Head of Annwn, which no doubt formed the centre of the mead-feast. Taliesin says:

‘My first utterance was spoken concerning the cauldron
kindled by the breath of nine maidens.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
(with its) a dark trim, and pearls?
It does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so;’

A cauldron with similar qualities appears in ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’. It is owned by Dyrnwch the Giant ‘if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in it, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly.’

The cauldron’s special ‘disposition’ of only brewing food for the brave shares similarities with the Irish tradition of the champion’s portion. In ‘The Feast of Bricriu’, Bricriu invites a group of champions to his house to fight for ‘a cauldron full of generous wine with room enough for the three valiant braves of Ulster’ along with a seven-year-old boar and other delicacies.

Cú Chulainn wins but his right to the champion’s portion is not settled until he has defended Cú Roí’s fortress and proved his courage to Cú Roí in the beheading game*.

The Blue Smith and the Cauldron of Rebirth

Haycock says gwrym am y oror a mererit (‘a dark trim and pearls’) refers to a dark substance decorating the rim of the cauldron such as ‘an iron band, or enamel, jet or niello (black sulphide of silver)’. Mererit is borrowed from Latin margarita and means ‘pearl’.

John and Caitlin Matthews translate gwrym am y oror a mererit as ‘Ridged with enamel, rimmed with pearl’ and suggest the cauldron was crafted by Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid (‘Blue Smith who Reforges the Weak’).

In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Llasar emerged from the Lake of the Cauldron in Ireland with the cauldron of rebirth on his back. After he and his wife were driven out of Ireland, he took it to Britain and gifted it to Brân then taught Manawydan the art of enamelling.

Brân gave the cauldron to Matholwch, King of Ireland, as recompense for an insult. Matholwch later used it to bring life to dead Irish warriors who were killed by Brân’s army. The cauldron was shattered when a living man was thrown into it.

We hear nothing else about Llasar except that his son, Llashar, was one of seven men left by Brân to guard Britain. Bryn Saith Marchog ‘The Hill of the Seven Horsemen’ is named after them.

Whether the cauldron of rebirth and the cauldron of the Head of Annwn are the same remains a matter of speculation. Their magical properties and elaborate craftmanship suggest they were forged by an otherworldly being, perhaps a gargantuan blue smith, in Annwn’s depths.

The Head of Annwn

Who is the Head of Annwn? In ‘The First Branch’, Pwyll wins the title Pen Annwn by taking the form and role of Arawn, a King of Annwn, winning his yearly battle and resisting the temptation of sleeping with his wife. It’s my intuition Pwyll’s acquisition of the title is based on his assumption of Arawn’s identity and Arawn was formerly Pen Annwn.

Another candidate for the title is Gwyn ap Nudd. In Culhwch and Olwen, Gwyn is introduced as the deity who contains the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent the destruction of the world and adversary of Arthur.

Arthur sides with Gwyn’s rival, Gwythyr, during their struggle for Creiddylad and binds them in battle for her every May Day. Gwyn and Gwythyr also act as tricksters when Arthur goes to kill Orddu ‘The Very Black Witch’.

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn refers to witnessing a battle at Caer Vandwy:

‘… I saw a host
shield shattered, spears broken,
violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’

Caer Vandwy is the sixth fortress in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. It seems likely Gwyn refers to the battle between Arthur and the people of Annwn for the Brindled Ox.

Seasonal Revolutions

In the sixth verse we find a second reference to the Head of Annwn:

‘(those) who don’t know on what day the Head** is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal is it they guard, with his silver head.’

It’s likely the silver-headed animal is the Brindled Ox guarded by the people of Annwn and the ‘Ruler’ is the Head of Annwn. This riddle pertains to his conception and birth. In his Gallic Wars (58-49BC) Julius Caesar said:

‘All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.’

Dis was a Roman god of the underworld who presided over its wealth. Whilst it seems unlikely the Gaulish deity was called Dis this identification suggests he performed a similar role and had deep connections with how people perceived the passage of time and the seasons.

Caesar says the ‘institution’ of the Druids ‘is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it.’

It seems possible Gaulish beliefs about ‘Dis’ derive from the mythos of the Head of Annwn. Arawn and Gwyn both fight yearly battles against opponents associated with summer: Hafgan (haf means ‘summer’) and Gwythyr ap Greidol (‘Victor son of Scorcher’) placing them in the role of the Winter King who must be defeated for summer to come.

In The Death of Cú Roí, Cú Roí carries off a maiden called Blathnat (‘Blossom’) along with a cauldron that is the child of three cows who carry three men/birds on their ears. Cú Chulainn’s army behead Cú Roí and win Blathnat, cattle and treasure.

Parallels with Gwyn’s abduction of Creiddylad, Arthur rescuing her and taking the cauldron and Brindled Ox are obvious. Of course these wintry deities don’t stay ‘dead’ long.

It may be suggested the revolutions of Caer Vedwit, home of the Head of Annwn, are bound up with the passage of day and night and the seasons and the cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.

The Nine Maidens

Taliesin says the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is kindled by the breath of nine maidens. There are numerous references to groups of nine women connected with underworld gods in Gallo-Brythonic tradition.

In 1AD, Pomponius Mela wrote of nine priestesses serving a Gaulish god on the island of Sein. Known as Senes, they could create storms, shift shape, cure illnesses and foretell the future.

A Gaulish tablet from Larzac dated 90AD provides evidence of a coven of nine sorceresses working underworld magic:

‘Herein-:
– a magical incantation of women,
– their special infernal names,
– the magical incantation of a seeress who fashions this prophecy…

…Below, there they shall be impressed, the prophetic curse of these names of theirs is a magical incantation of a group of practitioners of underworld magic: Banona daughter of Flatucia, Paulla wife of Potitos, Aiia daughter of Adiega, Potitos father of Paulla, Severa daughter of Valens (and) wife of Paullos(?), Adiega mother of Aiia, Pottita wife of Primos daughter of Abesa.’

Here anderna is used to refer to the underworld and andernados to a group of practitioners working underworld magic. A similar tablet from Chamalières invokes andedion ‘underworld gods’ and anderon ‘infernal beings’. These Gaulish terms bear similarities with the Irish Andeé ‘non-gods’ and Brythonic Annwn ‘the deep’ ‘the not-world’.

Superstitions surrounding witchcraft and the underworld no doubt lie behind Arthur’s slaughter of Orddu and the nine witches of Caer Loyw and Cai’s killing of nine witches in Arthur and the Porter.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Life of Merlin, Morgan and her sisters: Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis and Thitis with her lyre, are presented in a more positive light. They inhabit the paradisal island of Avalon. Morgan is a shapeshifter adept in herbalism and the healing arts who tends Arthur’s fatal wound after Camlan.

Bringing Life to the Dead

A man named Morgan Tud appears as Arthur’s physician in Geraint son of Erbin. It’s my suspicion this is Morgan in male guise. Morgan acts as healer to Gwyn’s brother, Edern ap Nudd. Edern is defeated by Geraint in another seasonal battle at Whitsuntide.

Geraint strikes Edern what sounds like a killing blow: ‘he summoned up his strength and struck the knight on the top of 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 on his knees.’

However Edern gets up and ride to Arthur’s court. Upon his arrival the gatekeeper says: ‘no one has ever seen such a terrible sight to gaze upon as he. He is wearing broken armour, in poor condition, with the colour of his blood more conspicuous on it than its own colour.’

Edern’s invincibility indubitably stems from his identity as an Annuvian deity like Gwyn. Morgan is assigned the task of healing Edern, which is analogous to bringing him back to life.

The capacity of women not only to heal but bring life to the dead is shown in Peredur. At the court of the King of Suffering, Peredur sees ‘only women’ then:

‘a horse approaching with a saddle on it, and a corpse in the saddle. One of the women got up and took the corpse from the saddle, and bathed it in a tub of warm water that was by the door, and applied precious ointment to it. The man got up, alive, and went up to Peredur, and greeted him, and made him welcome. Two other corpses entered on their saddles, and the maiden gave those two the same treatment as the previous one.’

E. Wallcousins 'In Caer Pedryvan' (1912) Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

Morgan is also associated with the mysteries of death and rebirth represented by the cauldron. It may be suggested the scene where she heals Arthur is based on an older myth wherein she and her sisters tended the Head of Annwn after his seasonal death.

Glastonbury Tor and the Mead-Feast

The sacred complex associated with Caer Vedwit: the cauldron, the Head of Annwn, and the nine maidens came together for me several years ago at Glastonbury Tor.

The isle of Avalon (‘apples’) is frequently identified with Glastonbury in the apple-growing summerlands of the Somerset Levels. Prior to the fall in sea levels, Glastonbury was an island; the area is still prone to flooding. It is easy to see how the story of Arthur being taken to Morgan and her sisters on Avalon by boat emerged from the landscape.

In The Life of St Collen whilst Collen was abbot of Glastonbury he supposedly banished Gwyn and his fairy host whilst they were feasting in the hall of his magical castle on the Tor. It seems likely the cauldron formed the centre of their mead-feast.

My first vision of the otherworld took place at Glastonbury Festival. After thirteen years of searching for an explanation, Gwyn finally appeared in my life and I realised he was my patron. Identifying the nine maidens as Morgan and her sisters and the Head of Annwn as Gwyn led me back to Glastonbury to devote myself him.

When I entered the Well House of the White Spring I could barely believe my eyes. The scene depicted in Caer Vedwit was there before me. In the centre of a subterranean cavern was the cauldron overflowing with thundering water. A dark haired woman in long skirts kindled candles around its rim. In the centre was a shrine to the Lady of Avalon and to the right and left altars for Gwyn and Brigid***.

For one day of my life everything went beautifully to plan. I made my vow to Gwyn beside the candle-lit cauldron as shadows of otherworlds and othertimes circled around me. The world spun around my resolution and my life has never been the same.

However Caer Vedwit has revolved since. Last time I went to Glastonbury the White Spring was barred. Shortly afterward I witnessed a vision where the cauldron lay shattered, its poison streaming throughout the land. I’d tasted the Awen. The time had arrived to look at the consequences of bringing forth Annuvian magic into thisworld.

The theft of the cauldron will be covered in upcoming posts.

* Cú Roí arrives at the Royal Court in Emain and challenges the Ultonians to behead him if he can return the blow. Presuming Cú Roí will die, Fat Neck agrees. Afterward Cú Roí picks up his head and returns the next night for his recompense. Fat Neck refuses. Loigaire and Conall Cernach also play the game but refuse to accept the blow. The only person brave enough to proffer his neck to Cú Roí is Cú Chullain who through his bravery wins the champion’s portion. The beheading game also forms the central plot of Gawain and the Green Knight.
**ny wdant py dyd peridyd Pen is translated by Marged Haycock as ‘(those) who don’t known on what day the Lord is created’ but I’ve chosen the more literal translation of ‘Pen’ as ‘Head’. An alternative used by Sarah Higley and John and Caitlin Matthews is ‘Chief’.
***Some scholars have connected the role of the nine maidens kindling the flames beneath the cauldron with their breath with the work of St Brigid’s flamekeepers at Kildare. In his 12th C The History and Topography of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis ‘it is only lawful for women to blow the fire, fanning it or using bellows only, and not with their breath.’ It seems possible this was a ban on older pagan practices.

SOURCES

Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Geraldus Cambrensis, The History and Topography of Ireland, (Penguin Classics, 1982)
George Henderson (transl.), Fled Bricend (The Feast of Bricriu), (Parentheses Publications, 1999)
John Koch (transl.), ‘The Tablet of Larzac,’ The Celtic Heroic Age (CSP, 2003)
Lady Charlotte Guest, ‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Maria Tymoczko, Two Death Tales from the Ulster Cycle: The Death of Cu Roi and the Death of Cu Chulainn, (Dolmen Press, 1981)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sarah Higley (transl.), Preiddu Annwn, (Camelot, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
W. A. W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn (transl.), The Works of Julius Caesar, (Sacred  Texts, 1869)

The Changing Faces of Caer Siddi

Caer Siddi is a legendary fortress in the enigmatic medieval Welsh poem ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, which is written from the perspective of Taliesin and describes his journey with Arthur and his men aboard the warship, Prydwen (‘Fair Form’) to seven fortresses in Annwn (‘the deep’).

Their aim is to accomplish a series of tasks including the rescue of the divine prisoner, Gwair, the theft of the cauldron of the Head of Annwn and capture of the Brindled Ox. Parallels with the anoethau (‘impossible tasks’) in Culhwch and Olwen suggest a shared source in Brythonic tradition.

Caer Siddi is the first fortress Arthur’s party raid. The name Caer Siddi has been translated as ‘Fortress of the Mound’ or ‘Fortress of the Fairies’ from the Welsh caer ‘fortress’ and Irish síd which refers both to the aos sí ‘fairies’ and the sídhe ‘mounds’ they inhabit. Another translation is ‘Fortress of the Zodiac’ from the Welsh siddi ‘zodiac’.

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin says:
‘Maintained was Gwair’s prison in Caer Siddi,
throughout Pwyll and Pryderi’s story.
No-one went there before he did –
into the heavy grey chain guarding the loyal lad.
And before the spoils/herds of Annwfn he was singing sadly.’

Caer Siddi is presented as a prison and Gwair is its first prisoner. Gwair’s imprisonment takes place throughout the story of Pwyll and Pryderi, which is set in the ‘British foretime’ preceding the Roman invasion. Gwair’s prison is magically maintained until Arthur’s day.

The line referring to ‘the spoils/herd of Annwfn’ links the first verse to ensuing verses where the cauldron is stolen, no doubt filled with Annuvian treasure, and the Brindled Ox is towed away from his custodianship of Annwn’s herds.

Gwair’s sad song may be likened to the lamentation of Mabon son of Modron in ‘a house of stone’ in Culhwch and Olwen. Mabon and Gweir son of Gweirioed (Gwair) are listed alongside Llŷr Half-Speech as ‘Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain’ in The Triads.

Mabon provides an alternative triad of prisoners: ‘he who is here has reason to lament… no-one has been so painfully incarcerated in a prison as I, neither the prison of Lludd Llaw Eraint nor the prison of Graid son of Eri.’

There are clear parallels between the trios Mabon, Llŷr, Gweir / Mabon, Lludd, Graid. Some scholars claim Llŷr / Lludd and Gweir / Graid are the same people.

Lundy's Jetty and Harbour by Michael Maggs, Wikipedia Commons

Lundy’s Jetty and Harbour by Michael Maggs, Wikipedia Commons

The name Gweir ap Gweirioed has been translated as ‘Hay son of Grassiness.’ Gwair means ‘hay’, gweirglodd ‘meadow’ and gweiryn ‘blade of grass.’ The green island of Lundy is known as Ynys Weir. Whether this was Gwair’s place of origin or imprisonment remains uncertain. Perhaps Gwair is a deity of grasslands and meadows and his imprisonment is representative of a barren or winter landscape.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Graid son of Eri is part of an army imprisoned by Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn and god of winter. Arthur rescues Graid and the other prisoners along with Graid’s dog, Drudwyn, the leash of Cors Cant Ewin to hold him with, and a steed called Myngddwn for Mabon to use on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth.

Whether these are two different tellings of the same narrative is unclear. However we can assert that imprisonment in Annwn is a longstanding theme in medieval Welsh literature.

***

Caer Siddi is also mentioned by Taliesin in ‘The Chair of Taliesin’:

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

Contrastingly, for Taliesin, Caer Siddi is a paradisal place where he has attained a Bardic chair. This has been linked to his claim to have spent ‘three times in the prison of Arianrhod’ in The Story of Taliesin. He also says ‘My darling is below / ‘Neath the fetters of Arianrhod’.

Arianrhod (‘Silver Wheel’) and her home, Caer Arianrhod, an island off the coast of Gwynedd seven miles south west of Caernarvon, are described by Taliesin in ‘The Chair of Ceridwen’:

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

Here she appears as a beautiful yet imposing deity. This description fits with her representation in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion where she refuses to give her son, Lleu, a name, arms or a wife.

Unfortunately nothing is written about what happened to Taliesin during his imprisonment in Caer Arianrhod, whether he rescued his ‘darling’ and how this links to his chair in Caer Siddi. Analogies between the ‘heavy grey chain’ and ‘snare’ of a river may suggest Caer Arianrhod is Caer Siddi.

Many scholars and modern Druids interpret Taliesin’s period of imprisonment as a form of Bardic initiation giving rise to his shapeshifting capacities and omnipresence:

‘I was in a multitude of forms
before I was unfettered:
I was a slender mottled sword
made from the hand.
I was a droplet in the air,
I was the stellar radiance of the stars.’

‘I was revealed
in the land of the Trinity;
And I was moved
through the entire universe;
And I shall remain till doomsday
upon the face of the earth.’

***

It is of interest that Taliesin says Manawydan and Pryderi know Caer Siddi. In the Third Branch, Manawydan, his wife Rhiannon, Pryderi and his wife Cigfa follow a white boar to a fortress that belongs to Llwyd Cil Coed, a powerful enchanter who has put a spell on Dyfed.

In spite of Manawydan’s warnings, Pryderi enters. Captivated by a golden bowl hanging over a well he touches it and gets stuck. Rhiannon follows and meets the same fate. A blanket of mist descends and with a tumultuous noise the fortress disappears.

When Llwyd sends his people as mice to devour Manawydan’s wheat fields, Manawydan captures his pregnant wife in mouse form. By threatening to hang her on a miniature gallows, he persuades Llywd to remove the enchantment and release Rhiannon and Pryderi.

Afterward, Llwyd reveals he enchanted Dyfed as revenge for the violence inflicted by Pwyll, Rhiannon’s first husband and Pryderi’s father, on his friend Gwawl ap Clud. As Rhiannon is a divinity associated with Annwn, it may be suggested Gwawl and Llywd are Annuvian figures too.

This is backed up by Llwyd’s reappearance in Culhwch and Olwen. After Arthur and his men return from Ireland with the cauldron of Diwrnarch Wyddel, they land ‘at the house of Llwydeu son of Cilcoed at Porth Cerddin in Dyfed. And Mesur y Pair (‘the measure of the cauldron’) is there.’

The cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant is listed amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ and its property of not brewing meat for a coward identifies it with the cauldron of the Head of Annwn. The symbolic links between ‘the measure of the cauldron’ at Llwyd’s house and the well and golden bowl in his enchanted fortress are intriguing.

***

Caer Siddi is mentioned again in Ellis Gruffydd’s Chronicle of the Ages (16th C). Gruffydd claims that ‘Merlin was a spirit in human form’ who appeared in ‘the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd’ as Taliesin ‘who is said to be alive yet in a place called Caer Sidia.’

He appeared a third time as the son of Merfyn Frych son of Esyllt and ‘was called Merlin the mad. From that day to this, he is said to be resting in Caer Sidia, whence certain people believe firmly he will rise up once again before doomsday.’

An alternative story about Merlin’s resting place is found in Pen. 147. Myrddin (an earlier name for Merlin) sets out to acquire the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain. The owners of the treasures agree to hand them over if Myrddin can obtain the Horn of Brân the Niggard.

Surprisingly, Brân agrees. Myrddin obtains all Thirteen Treasures and takes them to ‘the Glass House’, which is frequently identified with Bardsea Island.

Bardsey Island by Mynydd Mawr, Wikipedia Commons

Bardsea Island by Mynydd Mawr, Wikipedia Commons

***

Caer Siddi has many faces. It is the place where Gwair sings sadly fettered by a heavy grey chain. It disappeared with Rhiannon and Pryderi whilst they stared entranced into a golden bowl. Taliesin holds a Bardic chair there beneath a fountain of mead ever remembering when its rivers were a savage snare. Myrddin rests with an old, battered cauldron filled with rescued treasure beside the well where the golden bowl once hung.

These faces of Caer Siddi were known in medieval Wales. What are its faces now? I can’t tell you because I haven’t got there yet. Not getting there led to some surprising discoveries and I’ll share them in the next post.

SOURCES

Heron, ‘Merlin, Taliesin and Maponus’
John and Caitlin Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Images, 2008)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)

The Star Cauldron

‘Is it not the cauldron of the chief of Annwn? What is its intention?
A ridge about its edge and pearls.
It will not boil the food of a coward, that has not been sworn…’
The Spoils of Annwn

Returning not on time
but at the perfect time
to the place I made my vow,
your cauldron of pouring water
is still flowing and today
it contains the stars.

As always I have a question,
tearing through the veil
torn a million times,
calling through the names
and faces of indefinite thoughts,
impelled by a shape and form unsung:

the suggestion of a bardic book
prompted by a voyage
to the moon in the river
where I stood amongst your stars
and in the river-rain of their fire
learnt the Awen only follows absolute necessity.

You say “do what is necessary.
Write the book that needs to be written.
The stars in my cauldron, write it in their fire.”

Ribble Stars