What if a mammoth

was found buried beneath the snow?

What if it was found by a ragged band of hunters
and amongst them was a young man who spoke a single word
that rolled like a stone from the back of his throat onto the tip of his tongue
recalling the unblocking of a passageway to an ancient cave

where an unknown creature was painted in red ochre with long tusks?

What if, when he spoke its name, those old bones
and the ragged chunks of skin and dirty frozen clumps of fur
began to shudder and something massive began to raise itself from the ice?

What if, when it shook itself off, the boy climbed onto its back like a monkey?

Would you stare with eyes wide as frozen lakes or would you run
or would you take his hand, climb onto mammoth-back,
put your arms around his chest and ride away?

I wrote this poem based on a journey I undertook to find out more about my haunting by visions of mammoth graveyards. I have recently found out such places exist, for example at Yana-Indighirka and Volchya Griva in Siberia and that, more disturbingly, as the ice melts due to climate change, more mammoth remains are being exposed. This has sparked a ‘Siberian mammoth tusk gold rush’ and, in Yukatia, guided tours to mammoth graveyards are being offered along with the opportunity to join hunts.

I also discovered that people in Dolní Věstonice, in the Czech Republic, and in Mezherich, in Russia, built houses out of elaborately arranged mammoth bones and that, at Kostenski, a 40 foot circular building created from the bones of 60 mammoths was unearthed – possibly a temple? These buildings are some of our oldest examples of human architecture and are suggestive of a spiritual relationship with the massive creatures with whom they shared their tundral landscape. Such care and shared communal use contrasts with the individualistic money-grabbing in our time.

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) roamed not only Siberia but Europe during the Ice Age. Its remains have been found in Scotland but are most concentrated in southern England, where the glaciers did not reach for so long, particularly on the Thames.

Remains of the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii), the woolly mammoth’s older larger predecessor, dating back 600,000 years, have been found on West Runton Beach in Norfolk.

It seems likely the mammoth played a central part in the religion and culture of Paleolithic people in Europe too. The Red Lady of Paviland (who was really a male hunter) was buried with mammoth ivory in Paviland Cave, on the Gower Peninsula, 33,000 years ago and is our earliest ritual burial. In the Franco-Cantabrian caves are numerous paintings of mammoths including the Cave of the Hundred Mammoths in Rouffignac.

There is a mammoth-shaped hole in our psyches which cannot be filled in an interglacial. Yet the memories of mammoths continue to speak to us in visions, in dreams, and, more hauntingly, in physical reality as their remains are removed from the ice.

Anrhuna – The Dragon Mother

In previous posts I have spoken about how I’ve come to know Anrhuna ‘the Lady of Peneverdant’ or ‘the Mother of the Marsh’ as the ancient British mother goddess associated with marshlands and healing waters who was replaced by Saint Mary the Virgin at the well and church on Castle Hill in Penwortham.

As the mother of Vindos/Gwyn (a ruler of Faerie/Annwn whose presence at Castle Hill may be attested by a local fairy funeral legend) by Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, I have more recently been getting to know her as ‘the Mother of Annwn’ and in this guise she appears to me as a nine-headed dragon.

This is an image I have never come across in Brythonic mythology. However, stories of dragons abound across Britain and Nodens/Nudd/Lludd and Vindos/Gwyn are associated with them. In the Temple of Nodens at Lydney is a mosaic of two sea serpents and Nodens is depicted on a mural crown with ‘icthyocentaurs’ with serpent tails. Plus, as Lludd, he stops the battle of two dragons. Gwyn’s dog, Dormach, is depicted with two serpent tails and Robert Graves calls Gwyn ‘the Serpent Son’.

At the Temple of Nodens, who is surrounded by the watery subliminal imagery of the dream world and where sick people received healing dreams, a statue of a mother goddess holding a cornucopia was found. Pilgrims offered her pins for aid in childbirth. This may be a representation of Anrhuna. Maybe, just maybe, the two sea serpents are Anrhuna and Nodens in more primordial forms. In this context the appearance of Anrhuna, Mother of Annwn ‘the Deep’, as a dragon makes more sense.

Yet her myths are lost. I have recently returned to the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, which features a dragon-goddess called Tiamat, who shares similarities with Anrhuna, to look for clues. Tiamat is a goddess of the salt sea. Her name may be cognate with the semitic tehom (‘the deep’ or ‘the abyss’) and she appears as a dragon or sea serpent. After she gives birth to the gods they turn on her. Against them she births an army of monster-serpents and puts her son, Kingu in the lead. Following a primal battle she is slain by the storm god, Marduk, and the world is created from her remains.

I’ve long found the following lines about Tiamat’s birthing of monsters beautiful and awe-inspiring:

Ummu-Hubur [Tiamat] who formed all things,
Made in addition weapons invincible; she spawned monster-serpents,
Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;
With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.
Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,cc
With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature.
Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,
Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack.
She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu,
And hurricanes, and raging hounds, and scorpion-men,
And mighty tempests, and fish-men, and rams;
They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight.
Her commands were mighty, none could resist them;
After this fashion, huge of stature, she made eleven [kinds of] monsters.
Among the gods who were her sons, inasmuch as he had given her support,
She exalted Kingu; in their midst she raised him to power.

I’ve wondered whether we once had a story in which Anrhuna gave birth to Monsters of Annwn such as the Great Scaled Beast, the Black Forked Toad, and the Speckled Crested Snake who feature in ‘The Battle of the Trees’. This depicts a conflict between the forces of Annwn and the Children of Don and perhaps records a primordial battle between monsters and culture gods that shaped the world. The parallels suggest Anrhuna gave the kingship of Annwn to her son and made him leader of her armies.

I am currently exploring these ideas in early drafts of my next book ‘The Gods of Peneverdant’. You can find out more about what is going on behind the scenes in my monthly newsletter and see unseen work by supporting me on Patreon HERE.

The Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue

A red dragon crawls through the ashes of a dead world. Her eye is a black void. It is like an oil slick. She crawls on her belly. She crawls on broken claws. She crawls with raspy breath, a small strand of smoke wavering from her nostril like a broken signal, not quite forming a question mark.

Above her fireworks flash in hallucinatory patterns with the rainbow pain and beauty of an LSD trip. The essences of the dead world, its eidetic memories, which only the eyes of the void can read. She does not look up because her optic nerves are frayed and jangled and her neck is stiff from gazing.

As the lights fade she lies down, lays her heavy head in the dust. The final images flash in her scales. As she disintegrates they fall with the pictures contained within them like monads – if only they survived those in the present might have glimpsed their errors in this future but with her they crumble.

As the cavern of her skull caves in the last thing left is her lower jaw and her long red tongue. On its tip is a spark of fire. Spitting, hissing, crackling, it refuses to give over this meaty muscle to the death winds, who are already arriving with their steeds, their chariots, their hounds, their whips to drive her remnants across the plains of dust so that she and her world are well and truly forever gone.

It spits, hisses, crackles against the attacks of the death winds. It glows, it grows, a fiery orb, hardens into a dragon’s egg. After nine nights and nine days it cracks, each split like dark lightning, and from it bursts a female figure black as the void with a multitude of wings and a serpent’s tail.

She puts the tongue into her mouth and her voice is heard in every mote of the dead world.

*The Prophet with the Dragon’s Tongue is going to be the narrator of some or all of the new mythic book I am working on.

Elk Child

I.
A procession of elk wearing dyed indigo coats.

I blink… once… twice… they do not disappear
but keep shuffling old bones and grumbling
about moving from one place to another

from summer to winter pastures

each print is its own ellipsis filling in
with indigo waters creating every contrapuntal lake.

II.
The need child is born and I do not know her meaning.

She is given the antlers and she sucks out the blood.
Yes, she crunches, and crunches, and crunches
and… this is long long ago… she grows…

III.
The ghost child wields a sabre of light
not quite for killing but not
quite for saving lives.

They scramble towards it…

The impeccable laughter of children…

IV.
In the woodlands is a glockenspiel tacked down,
windchimes that respond to inspiration.

Her head is light and rolls from side-to-side
not yet weighed down by the barrels
of blood and oil and voices…

the heavy weights of left and right.

V.
She will not be like the white elk
who wanders old and blind and staggering,
narrow-withered, not ridden, not tamed, but driven to exhaustion.

She will come with an antler in each hand balanced
on her mother’s back to bring a new-old song

from where the elk-dead walk…

The Vision of Ceridwen

I’m the broken bird-thing
at her table again

her wizened hand
in my claws

telling her
I’m going to mend
our broken vision

and all will be beautiful.

***

Sometimes you end up in a myth. It’s not the myth you thought you’d end up in or the myth you chose. You’re not who you thought you would be. Nobody else sees the myth the same way you do.

It began when I first started learning about the Bardic Tradition and heard that Ceridwen was the goddess of the cauldron that brews awen, the poetic inspiration that is like mead to the Brythonic bards.

As a poet I thought Ceridwen was a goddess well worth meeting so I drew myself a cauldron, lit a candle, constructed a visualisation. One of those 2D interfaces that sometimes helps you interact with what is. I imagined Ceridwen as a blue-robed, dark-haired, faceless woman stirring a cauldron.

Nothing happened. Then, from nowhere, out leapt a hideous grey-haired hag who put her bony arms around my neck, nearly strangling me. She demanded I go with her to her cottage in her woods. She sat me down at her table in a room with a sun dial and smaller cauldron over the hearth on a wobbly three-legged stool and insisted that I call her ‘grandmother’. Initially I thought she was an ancestor.

I presumed this showed Ceridwen wasn’t interested in me. She already had worthier devotees. Soon afterwards I got found by my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn and guardian of the cauldron.

I met ‘grandmother’ again when I was travelling Annwn in search of inspiration on my flighty white-winged mare. She ditched me and I found myself falling downwards through the air, flapping my arms like wings, steadily acquiring black feathers, but not quickly enough to stop me hitting the ground. When I returned to my senses the hag-like woman was standing over me. With a wrinkly smile she told me I was ‘beginning to get my raven’s wings’ before taking me to her cottage again.

There she told me to look into her cauldron, where I saw in vivid blues and reds a Dark Age battle of clashing spears, crashing swords, broken shields, fallen flags, blood crimsoning the nearby waters, then the shades rising in a sorrowful march to depart. Researching it afterwards I realised it was the Battle of the Region Linuis fought by Arthur against the Saxons and wrote a poem about it*.

After this gift of awen from her cauldron I began to suspect the hag was the real (as opposed to my imagined) Ceridwen. The name ‘grandmother’ came to make sense a couple of years later. Gwyn had shown me a cauldron filled with stars and not long afterwards I went to see my friend, Nick Williams, performing an experimental poetry set in a blacked-out room with strobe lights. I had the sensation of being in a cauldron of poesy and also in the womb of the universe. I recalled that Nick refers to a goddess called Old Mother Universe and realised she is Ceridwen – the oldest mother of all.

I went on to write a book called The Broken Cauldron, focusing on how Ceridwen’s crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ is shattered in the Welsh myths and of my task of gathering the stars back into it.

Whereas, in the Bardic Tradition and Druidry, Taliesin and Arthur, those responsible for stealing the awen and the cauldron and the shatterings that have brought devastation to the land are hailed as heroes, I found myself standing in the shoes of Morfran ‘Sea Raven’, Ceridwen’s dark and ugly son, who was later known as Afagddu ‘Utter Darkness’.

He for whom she boils her cauldron in the hope the brew will inspire him and cure his imperfections. He who does not get the awen, who cannot win poetic inspiration the quick way, but must work to find the words to heal the lands poisoned by the contents of the broken cauldron, to repair it piece by piece, story by story, so the stars shine in bright new constellations on a new world.

Gwyn is my guide in this task, and in serving him, I am also serving Ceridwen. She does not appear to me often, but when she does, I am often her awkward black-winged child, the dark imperfect one.

As Afagddu I’m learning imperfection is necessary; an understanding of what others find repulsive, whether it’s darkness, death, decay, plastic, the monstrous creatures of Thisworld or the Otherworld. That these hold their own beauty when the concept is not corrupted by our society’s false ideals.

It’s not the Old Mother’s Universe that needs fixing, but the way we perceive it, the collective vision, which guides our acts. When we learn to see clearly both Creirwy* and Afagddu will be beautiful.

A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud Wikipedia Commons

*’The Region Linuis’ was first published in Heroic Fantasy HERE.
**Creirwy means ‘Lively Darling’. She is Afagddu’s beautiful (twin?) sister.

With thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the image ‘A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud’ by ESA/Hubble.

Dôn and Returning to the Source

Creatures by Greg Hill

On the cover of Greg Hill’s poetry collection, Creatures, is an image of a sculpture by Fidelma Massey called ‘Water Mother’. The first ekphrastic poem bears the same name. Rivers flow through the book with rain and turning tides.

When I reviewed Creatures in November 2014 I didn’t think I’d ever meet a mother goddess; I decided not to have children at an early age and don’t have a nurturing bone in my body.

However I’ve long been drawn to local rivers, streams and wells, above ground and those unseen, been haunted by the songs of their spirits whether rippling in sunshine, hurtling through darkness, rattling against culverts or running free.

I’ve seen a water dragon shrink and die because we shattered her aquifer, heard the screams of her daughters, stood before the empty greyness of her ghost.

In retrospect it’s not that surprising I should meet a water mother: the primal source from whom every river flows and returns. The fountainhead of all water. She who gives and draws back into the abyss.

***

Her name is Dôn. I met her last October in a vision where I was surrounded by hills filled with people. Somehow the hills became the folds of my coat and I was privileged with custodianship of these people whilst together we witnessed a primordial creation scene.

A dark orb appeared, then pupil-like, placenta-like, emerged the diaphanous form of a goddess. After her appearance the orb came to life: amoeba, green moving swards of vegetation, trees, people, marching through a labyrinthine kingdom back into the void carrying houses and entire civilisations.

Sometimes people get stuck, I heard them knocking, felt they wanted to shout out through me. From a huge crow watching above I received the gnosis my patron, Gwyn, carries the lost ones under his wings, that I too bear some responsibility for them; albeit by carrying their stories.

At the end the goddess’s name rang through the hills, from the spiralling abyss of the deep, echoing in the minds of her people, in the vow I’d made to Gwyn who flies between them: Dôn Dôn Dôn. I had the feeling of being part of her family.

***

Little is known about Dôn from Brythonic tradition. The rivers Don in south Yorkshire and Aberdeenshire bear her name suggesting she is a water goddess. In The Mabinogion we find her children: Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Arianrhod, Gofannon, Amaethon, Eufydd and Elestron.

To learn more it is necessary to turn to Irish parallels and Danu, mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danaan (‘Tribe of the Goddess Danu’). Danu derives from proto-Celtic *Dānu ‘fluvial water’ and is associated with the ‘Indo-European heartland’ of the river Danube. Liz Greene says her ‘dark face was Domnu, which means “abyss” or “deep sea”.

The Tuatha Dé Danaan arrived in dark clouds from islands in the north and took the kingship of Ireland from the Fir Bolg. In turn they were defeated by the sons of Míl Espáne who took the surface whereas the Tuatha were forced underground into the sídhe (‘mounds’) becoming the aos sí (‘people of the mounds’).

Will Parker suggests the Tuatha’s arrival from the north is based on a migratory route from Greece via Scandinavia and says Neolithic Grooved Ware and Bronze Age Bell Beaker cultures show Indo-European influence.

There are no records of how the Children of Don arrived. In the Fourth Branch, Dôn has fallen into the background and her son, Gwydion, is lord of Gwynedd. Similarly we find out little about Beli, grandfather of Brân and father of Caswallon and Lludd, who become rulers of Britain.

In contrast with the Irish myths, the sons of Beli do not defeat the children of Dôn. Instead, Dôn and Beli marry and their children are seen as one family belonging to the House of Dôn.

After the death of Nudd / Lludd Llaw Eraint (‘Lludd of the Silver Arm’), like the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the Children of Dôn retreat into the Brythonic ‘underworld’ Annwn (‘not-world’ ‘the deep’). Gwyn ap Nudd appears as Annwn’s ruler and later as a Fairy King.

***

I’ve been devoted to Gwyn for three years and have gradually been getting to know him and Annwn. My explorations have led me through the deep memories of the landscape to his realm where history and myth blur and are never wholly separate

My initial work (which remains important) involved recovering the memories of my locality. Now I am being led deeper into the underworld where Nudd / Nodens, keeps the matter of dream and Dôn presides over the waters of creation and destruction.

Although earlier worlds and their children have sunk into Annwn they remain in our sacred landscape: in the hollow hills, in deep lakes and the sea, in our flowing rivers and their names.

Although barrow mounds have been ploughed over, rivers culverted, lakes drained, they are still with us in Annwn’s memory which will not let us forget their presence and what we’ve done.

Old bonds split and severed by centuries of Christianity, industrialisation, commodification, hyper-rationalism can be reknit and renewed by swimming back down the labyrinthine ways to where we’re unified with our ancestors, the old gods, their primal source: the water mother Dôn.

SOURCES

Liz Greene, The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption, (Weiser, 1996)
Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn, (Dublin University Press, 1937)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)

Gwyn Portrait, April’s End

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

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

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

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

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

May Flower, Penwortham

Black Dog

He lies beneath my bed
and skrikes through the night,
plummeting the suburb into blackness.

Dampening floodlit windows,
putting out the streetlights,
he licks my hand when I am lonely.

When I fear I cannot live he takes me
to the otherside where we enter
the secret commonwealth of Middleforth

padding along the causey past the windmill’s
constant throb, cows with swaying udders
and hens clucking in the tithe barn.

Yet on communal ground
we are still invisible outcasts
with insatiable hunger and baleful breath.

Bound here by an obscure debt we pace the causey,
sniffing for dog-bones buried by the wayside
in a ritual that once had meaning on a lightless night.

Middleforth BrowMiddleforth Green, Spring Mist 007 - CopyMiddleforth Green

Mary of the Marsh

Enduring years of disconnection,
incredulity of stars,
anger beneath the heavens,
she scathed the priests and walked alone,
drifting among chapels, knowing she didn’t belong,
her robes of night fell on soft rushes.

They say she walked along the marsh.
They say she walked out to the river.
They say she looked out to the sea.

In the damp, dark parishes
paradise was never hers,
she walked amongst the outcasts and the sick
healing wounds that should never open,
seeing what shouldn’t be seen,
her robes of night fell on troubled waters.

Mary of the lepers,
Mary of the marsh,
I saw you running to the river,
I saw you running to the sea.
How you longed to sail away…

Winter Kingdom

As I make my circuit stars hold vigil in an icy breath.
Roses of Annwn bring beauty from death.
Wintering starlings spotted with snow
sleep in a tree that nobody knows.
There is a courtship of stability in this kingdom of cold
where we reknit the bonds as dream unfolds
in shadows of farmhouses down the pilgrim’s path
through old stony gates in footsteps of the past
to the healing well where a serpent’s eye
sees through the layers of time’s disguise.
A procession sways down the old corpse road
where the lych gate swings open and closes alone.
From the empty church bells resound.
Reasserting its place on the abandoned mound
a castle extends to the brink of the sky.
Within its dark memory a fire comes to life.
As warriors gather to warm their cold hands
I know I am a stranger in a strange land.

Fungi, Greencroft Valley

 

*Roses of Annwn is a kenning for mushrooms I came across in The Faery Teachings by Orion Foxwood