Caer Nefenhyr

I was in the Fort of Nefenhyr:
herbage and trees were attacking.
Poets were singing;
soldiers were attacking.’
The Battle of the Trees

The trees are still. Frozen. Still stained with blood thigh-deep. It trickles down trunks, drips from boughs. Mighty Oak is soaked in it and whomping Willow and Alder, who marched at the fore as Brân clashed his spear on his shield and Lleu, strong-handed, radiant, rode in the branches like an Eagle.

Blood is dripping from heart-shaped Ivy. Honeysuckle cannot shake off her tendrils. Clover is drowned. Bramble is, of course, in his element, and Blackthorn is bloodily pretty. Birch regrets putting on his armour, now speckled white and red like a hound, he is kneeling like a sorrowful knight.

Raspberry, who did not put on his defensive palisade, lies broken and bereft of his blood-red fruits. Vine the destroyer is destroyed, Pear the oppressor oppressed, Bracken the pillager pillaged. Heather, no longer purple but red, regrets being enchanted into the army. Cherry’s commotion is silenced.

Pine, in the place of honour, downed his needles and wept. Dogwood, bull of battle, hangs his head. In the woodland beyond Caer Nefenhyr it rains nothing but blood and the cry of a lapwing ever circles.

Souls of soldiers and poets flit between the trees like birds fighting over blood-red berries like harpies. They have gazes like the fragile doe who wanders leaving bloody footprints between worlds.

A sagging snakeskin is strung up, stretched out in the trees like an afterbirth, emptied of a hundred souls.

Amidst the alders is a bloody pool. In it float the bones of a toad and his hundred claws. In the centre is the green and glowing toadstone from his head which, like a crown, symbolised his majesty.

Beyond the woodland, on a hill, like a cairn or totem, are piled the hundred heads of a great-scaled beast. The roof of his tongue and his napes are empty of battalions yet cries still echo from the hollows.

Atop the heads, like a flag of victory, is Gwydion’s staff with Eagle feathers fluttering in the wind.

In the Woodlands Beyond Caer Nefenhyr it Rains Nothing but Blood

‘In the woodland beyond Caer Nefenhyr it rains nothing but blood’

 

Strange Stars

I’m in the midst of a dream, a very normal dream. I’m on the bus to Leyland. Realising I don’t want to go to Leyland at all, knowing I need to be somewhere else, I head for the doors and ask to get off.

Suddenly I’m whisked away by Gwyn (who has a habit of doing this on occasions when he wants to show me something) to a scene of tall, green, mountainous hills. I know they’re in northern Britain, but can’t place them. They’re not quite the Howgills, or in Bowland, or the Lakes, or the Yorkshire Dales.

Above is an ominous grey sky. The wind is gathering at my back. Overhead I see four stars converging on a fifth star. It disappears, obliterated, without a trace, without a sound. I intuit the strange stars are four war planes shooting down a fifth and know with certitude this is happening NOW.

When I awake I question the reality of the dream. Was a war plane really shot down over our northern hills last night? Or were the strange stars something else? And, in the dream world, when is NOW?

Strange Stars

Gwyn ap Nudd and Brân ap Ywerydd: Five Brâns?

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states his presence at the death of Brân ap Ywerydd:

‘I was there when Brân was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.’

Gwyn recites Brân’s name amongst the names of three famous northern warlords: Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Gwallog ap Llenog and Meurig ap Careian* and also Llachau, Arthur’s son. It is clear Brân was slain in battle and that Gwyn was present as a psychopomp to gather his soul back to Annwn. Brân’s name must have held meaning for Gwyddno Garanhir** and the audience. Who is Brân ap Ywerydd? Scholars have attempted to solve this puzzle by identifying him with a number of mythological and historical figures.

Brân the Blessed

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There exists a tradition which identifies Brân ap Ywerydd with Bendigeidfran ‘Blessed Raven’ or ‘Brân the Blessed’ son of Llŷr. Brân is a well known and much loved figure in British mythology who was fatally wounded in a battle against King Matholwch of Ireland. His severed head, buried beneath the Tower of London, served an apotropaic function protecting the Island of Britain until Arthur dug it up.

Scholars such as John Rhŷs and John Koch identify Iwerydd as the mother of Brân the Blessed. Koch says ‘Iwerydd (Atlantic) was a goddess from the Atlantic ocean, from the Western land of Hades, which could have been Ireland (Iwerddon). Iwerydd married Llyr and bore him two children named Brân (Raven) and Branwen (White Raven).’

The birth of Brân, his sister, Branwen, and perhaps their brother Manawydan by Iwerydd and Llŷr Llediaith (Irish Ler ‘the sea’, Welsh Llediaith ‘half-speech) makes sense within the context of Brân’s gargantuan stature and his affairs across the sea in Ireland.

If Brân ap Ywerydd and Brân the Blessed were identified, this would place Gwyn at the near-apocalyptic battle between the armies of Brân and Matholwch where the Irish dead are reborn from the Cauldron of Rebirth before it is broken by Efnysien. Of the Irish only five pregnant women are left alive. Just seven British survivors return with Brân’s head. If Gwyn attended the death of Brân the Blessed it might be suggested he also served as psychopomp to the victims of this terrible clash.

However, there are arguments against the identification of these two Brâns. Elsewhere, Brân the Blessed’s mother is named as Penarddun (‘Chief Beauty’). In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Bendigeidfran is named as a son of Llŷr with Manawydan as his brother and Branwen as his sister. Nysien and Efnysien are sons of Euroswydd by ‘his own mother Penarddun, daughter of Beli.’

In The Triads of Ancient Britain, Llŷr Half-Speech is named as one of ‘Three Exalted (Supreme) Prisoners of the Island of Britain’. He was ‘imprisoned by Euroswydd’. It seems likely Euroswydd conceived Nysien and Efnysien with Penarddun whilst Llŷr was his prisoner.

Although textual evidence provides a stronger case for Penarddun being Brân’s mother than Iwerydd, within mythology we often find multiple genealogies which are equally valid. Iwerydd and Penarddun could also be titles for the same divinity. Therefore the identification of these two Brâns cannot be ruled out.

Brân ap Ymellryn

Grufudd Hiraethog identifies Brân ap Ywerydd with Brân ap Ymellyrn: a historical figure who appears in the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen. These are set after the assassination of Llywarch’s cousin, Urien Rheged, on the order of his jealous rival, Morgan, during a campaign against the Anglo-Saxons on Lindisfarne in 585.

Llywarch bore Urien’s head home. Afterward, Urien’s sons and Llywarch were driven from their lands in the Old North*** by Urien’s enemies who included Dunawd, Morgant, Gwallawg and Brân ap Ymellyrn. In The Death of Urien, Llywarch speaks of his plight (Pasgen and Elphin are Urien’s sons):

‘Dunawd, the chief of the age, would drive onward,
Intent upon making battle,
Against the conflict of Pasgen.

Gwallawg, the horseman of tumult, would drive onward,
Intent upon trying the sharpest edge,
Against the conflict of Elphin.

Brân, the son of Mellyrn, would drive onward,
Collecting men to burn my ovens:
A wolf that looked grimly by the banks of Abers.

Morgant and his men would drive onward,
Collecting a host to burn my lands:
He was a mouse that scratched against a rock.’

Llywarch flees to the court of Cynddylan in Powys. After Cynddylan is killed, he is again left homeless and destitute. A friend advises him to trust neither Brân nor Dunawd and to take refuge in Llanfawr:

‘Trust not Brân, trust not Dunawd;
Consort not with them in hardship.
Herdsman of calves, go to Llanfawr.’

Glyn E. Jones suggests Brân ap Ymellyrn may be identified with Brân ap Dyfnwal (Ymellyrn was his mother and Dyfnwal his father). This places him with Urien, Llywarch and their enemies Gwallawg and Dunawd amongst the descendants of Coel Hen within the lineages of the Old North.

Brân Galed

Hiraethog identifies Brân ab Ywerydd with Brân Galed (‘the Niggard’). He is the keeper of a magical horn that appears amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’: ‘The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.’ Most of the owners of the treasures (who include Gwyddno and Gwenddolau) are ‘Men of the North’ and lived during the 6thC.

In the marginalia of an early list is a story about how Myrddin asked for the treasures from the thirteen owners. They all agreed if Myrddin obtained Brân’s horn, they would hand their treasures over, assuming Brân was so niggardly he would never give his up. Somehow, Myrddin persuaded Brân to give him the horn and he took all the treasures to a glass house where they remain forever.

It has been suggested Taliesin played a role in Brân’s decision. In a poem by Guto’r Glyn ‘Miserly, niggardly Brân they used to call him, who of old was descended from the Men of the North; Taliesin, no mean magician, transformed him into one better than the three generous men.’ In some variants Taliesin is the collector of the treasures. In another, Hercules slays a centaur and obtains Brân’s horn from its head.

Brân at Cynwyd

In The Gododdin we find the line ‘Brân was at Cynwyd’. Jenny Rowlands notes ‘Cynwyd is attested as both a personal and place name’. It may relate to a battle where Pelis, son of Urien fought, or to his leadership of the Cynwydion (named after Cynwyd Cynwydion, another descendent of Coel Hen).

Considering the antipathy between Urien’s sons and Brân ap Ymellyrn, it seems possible Pelis and the Cynwydion fought against Brân ap Ymellyrn and his allies and are commemorated at Cynwyd. Brân may have perished there too. The location remains unconfirmed, although there is a Cynwyd near to Corwen beside the river Dee in Wales.

Five Brâns?

Can we ascertain Brân ap Ywerydd’s identification with any or all of these Brâns? Are we looking at one, two, three, four or five different figures?  I think it’s safe to say that Brân the Blessed and the Brâns of the sixth century are entirely different due to the differences in timescale and mythological and historical context.

Within the context of Brân ap Ywerydd’s appearance in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, I think it most likely, like Gwenddolau, Gwallog and Meurig, he is a northern British figure from the 6thC. Brân ap Ywerydd, Brân ap Ymellyrn, the Brân who was at Cynwyd, and Brân Galed could be the same person.

We can tentatively piece together his story as follows: Brân was the son of Ywerydd and Dyfnawl and lived during the period of intense internecine conflict between the Brythonic kingdoms of the Old North as they fought against the Anglo-Saxons. Brân, Gwallawg, Dunawd and Morgant allied against Urien and Llywarch, arranging Urien’s assassination and driving Llywarch from the North. Brân later fought against Urien’s son, Pelis, at Cynwyd and perished and Gwyn attended his death. Brân was renowned for his niggardly nature and keeping his horn and his drink to himself. Sometime after his death, this fell into the realm of myth and became one of the Thirteen Treasures.

Gwyn’s association with Brân the Blessed cannot, however, be ruled out. As Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead he could well have attended Bendigeidfran’s death too. The croaking ravens in each of the elegaic verses spoken by Gwyn invoke Brân’s presence as a reminder of the futile, destructive and seemingly unending nature of war.

Associations between ravens and the battlefield continue to endure in contemporary poetry. Speaking of the Iraq war in her modern rewriting of the traditional ballad ‘The Two Ravens’, Clare Pollard writes:

‘I watched the ravens feed on war,
and knew I’d watch for evermore.’

***

*Meurig ap Careian is a famous northern warlord if Careian is a scribal error and he is identified with Meurig ap Idno. I’ll cover this in a later post.
**Another ‘Man of the North’ associated with Porth Wyddno in the North and Borth in Wales.
***Some scholars associate Llywarch with Caerlaverock (Caer Llywarch) on the Solway Firth. Others have conjectured he may have ruled ‘South Rheged’ (Lancashire?) from modern-day Ribchester.

SOURCES

Clare Pollard, ‘There Wasn’t Even a Song in that Desolation: Poetry After a Decade in Iraq
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, (2015)
John Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, (ABC-CLIO, 2006)
John Rhŷs, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

Lamentation for Catraeth

‘By fighting they made women widows,
Many a mother with her tear on her eyelid’
Y Gododdin

After Catraeth battle flags sway in the wind.
Storm darks our hair. Our tears are rain.
We press cheeks against cold skin,
load biers with sons and husbands
who will never drink in the mead-hall again,
lift weapons, smile across a furrowed field,
mend the plough, yoke oxen, share a meal,
touch ought but blood-stained soil,
chilled fingers reticent to let go.

Storm sky breaks. Our love pours out.
Ravens descend on soft wings to take them.
How we wish they would take our burning eyes,
flesh we rend with nails unkempt
from the year they left for Din Eiddyn,
drunk their reward before it was earned

at dawn with sharpened spears
at daybreak with clashing spears
at noon with bloody spears
at dusk with broken spears
at night with fallen spears,
shattered shields, smashed armour, severed heads.

Seven days of wading through blood.
Of each three hundred only one lives.
Their steel was dark-blue. Now it is red.
Because of mead and battle-madness
our husbands and sons are dead.

We rend our veils. The veil is rent.
We long to tear out our hearts
and offer them instead
to the Gatherer of Souls approaching
with the ravens and hounds of death,
whose face is black as our lament,
whose hair is the death-wind,
whose touch is sorrow,
whose heart is the portal to the otherworld.

Our men rise up to meet him.
The march of the dead is his heart-beat.
The dead of centuries march through him.
The great night is his saddle.
The dead men ride his horse.

Forefathers and foremothers hold out their hands.
We do not want to let go but they slip
through our fingers like water
like tears
from sooty eyelids
into the eyes of others
into the eyes of their kin
to gather in the eyes of the Gatherer of Souls.

They are stars in our eyes now.
They are stars in the eyes of the hounds of death,
marching from drunken Catraeth:
the battle that knows no end.

Din Eidyn and Drunken Catraeth

A few weeks ago I visited Edinburgh. This was partly due to my interest in its history as part of the Old North. During this period it was known as Din Eidyn ‘fort of Eidyn’ (Eidyn’s identity and whether this name refers to a person and/or place remain a mystery).

There is evidence of settlements on Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat from the Bronze and Iron Ages. The earliest fort was known as ‘The Castle of the Maidens’. It may have been established on a pre-Christian site sacred to ‘the nine maidens’ amongst whom was Morgen: a divinity connected with water, shapeshifting, healing and the weather.

During the Iron Age the local tribe were known as the Votadini. It has been argued this name originates from the early Celtic *wo-tādo, which means ‘foundation’ or ‘support’ and that this was the name of an ancestral figure. During the Romano-British period, the Votadini became known as the Gododdin and their kingdom was Manaw Gododdin.

Like many of the northern British peoples, the Gododdin had complex relationships with Wales. Sometime between 380 and 440, Cunedda, a man from Manaw Gododdin, helped defend north Wales from the Irish and played a prominent role in founding the kingdom of Gwynedd, which his offspring ruled.

After the death of Cunedda’s descendant, Maelgwn Gwynedd in 547, Elidyr Mwynfawr, who was married to Maelgwn’s daughter, Eurgain, travelled from Benllech in the North via the sea* to Benllech on Anglesey to contest the claim of Maelgwn’s illegitimate son, Rhun, to the throne of Gwynedd. Elidyr was killed at Arfon.

Afterward, Clydno Eiddyn, who may have ruled Din Eidyn, formed part of a warband alongside other northern rulers; Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael and Rhydderch Hael. Seeking vengeance for Elidyr’s death, they travelled to Wales, set fire to Arfon and were driven back all the way to the river Gwerydd (the Forth).

Clydno was also the keeper of one of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’: ‘The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn, which was fixed to a staple at the foot of his bed: whatever horse he might wish for, he would find in the halter.’

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The Gododdin are immortalised in the poem The Gododdin, which has been dated to the 7th century. This takes the form of a series of verses eulogising and elegising the northern Britons who perished in the battle of Catraeth** in 600AD fighting against the Bernician Angles. Prior to the battle, the warriors feasted and drank for a year in the hall of Mynyddog Mwynfawr, ruler of Din Eidyn. The joy of the mead-feast is repeatedly contrasted with the bloodshed of the battle from which ‘of three hundred, save one man, none returned.’

‘Warriors went to Catraeth with the dawn,
Their ardours shortened their lives,
They drank mead, yellow, sweet, ensnaring,
For a year many a minstrel was joyful.
Blood-stained were their swords, may their spears not be cleansed;
White were the shields and square-pointed the spearheads
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mwynfawr.’

Cynon, a son of Clydno Eidyn was amongst the casualties and is the subject of several verses.

‘…generous-hearted Cynon, lord of graces…
Whomever he struck would not be struck again.
Sharp-pointed were his spears,
With shattered shields he tore through armies,
His horses swift racing forward.’

‘He slew the enemy with the sharpest blade,
Like rushes they fell before his hand.
Son of Clydno of enduring fame’

The imagery of The Gododdin is strikingly similar to that of The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir. In The Conversation, Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as a ‘bull of battle’ and says ‘armies fall before the hooves of your horse / As swiftly as cut reeds to the ground’. Gwyn speaks of ‘shields shattered, spears broken’ and states his presence at the deaths of a number of northern warriors ‘where ravens croaked on gore’.

In The Gododdin, two warriors are referred to as ‘bull(s) of battle’, one as ‘bull of an army’ and another as ‘heroic bull’. Men are hewn down ‘like rushes’, there are countless references to ‘shattered’ and ‘splintered’ spears and shields and the dead become ‘food’ for ‘ravens’. This suggests both poems originated from the same milieu. It seems possible Gwyn gathered the souls of the dead after the battle of Catraeth as he did after the battle of Arfderydd in 573.

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When I visited Edinburgh Castle, I was struck by the height and impenetrability of the cliff face (Castle Rock was originally a volcano which was later flattened by a glacier) and could see why it has been a defensive location for so long.

Unsurprisingly, after so many centuries, there were few traces of the Gododdin. The castle was built in stone in the 12th century and the current banqueting hall during the 15th. The hall has a prominent hearth fire and is decorated with spears, swords and armoury. It’s possible to imagine Mynyddog Mwynfawr’s hall would have been equipped in a similar manner.

Since Catraeth, Edinburgh’s people have seen countless bloody battles, including the Wars of Independence from 1296 and 1341, the ‘Lang’ siege which lasted from 1571-1573 and the Jacobite Risings from 1688-1746. The castle was later used as a military prison. It is still a barracks and is now home to the Scottish National War Memorial: an extensive ‘shrine to the fallen of two world wars and campaigns since 1945’.

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As a metaphor for tragic and ill-conceived warfare, ‘drunken Catraeth’ may be seen to repeat itself throughout history. A. O. H. Jarman notes ‘a veteran of the action of Mametz Wood during the battle of the Somme in 1916 ‘recalled an observer saying what a magnificent sight it was seeing the Welsh battalions moving along in a line without wavering until they fell’… His observation could have translated a couplet of Y Gododdin.

In ‘Elegy for the Welsh Dead in the Falkland Islands, 1982’, Tony Conran draws analogies between Catraeth and the Falklands War:

‘Men went to Catraeth. The luxury liner
For three weeks feasted them…
With the dawn men went. Those forty-three,
Gentlemen all, from the streets and byways of Wales,
Dragons of Aberdare, Denbigh and Neath –
Fragment of Empire, whore’s honour, held them.
Forty-three at Catraeth died for our dregs.’

Beneath Din Eidyn I read my poem, ‘Lamentation for Catraeth’, which is also based on lines from The Gododdin: ‘By fighting they made women widows, / Many a mother with her tear on her eyelid’. Written in the voices of mourning women, it laments ‘drunken Catraeth / the battle that knows no end’.

***

*This is recorded in the triad of the Horse Burdens where Elidyr and seven-and-a-half men (one holding onto the crupper!) are carried by the legendary water-horse, Du y Moroedd.
**The location of Catraeth is hotly contested. Traditionally it has been identified as Catterick, yet so far no evidence for a full-scale battle has been found. Tim Clarkson notes the identification of Catraeth with Catterick is based on a ‘sounds like’ etymology’ and suggests the conflict was more likely to have taken place on the fringes of Lothian.

SOURCES

John Matthews (ed), The Book of Celtic Verse, (Watkins Publishing, 2007)
Heron (transl), Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, HERE
Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson (transl), The Gododdin, (Edinburgh University Press, 1969)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Stuart McHardy, The Quest for the Nine Maidens, (Luath Press, 2002)
Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland, (John Donald, 2010)
Votadini, ‘The History Files’, HERE

Forgotten Arfderydd and the Hearsay of Corvids

Last Saturday I set out north to the site of the Battle of Arfderydd. At the forefront of my mind was the matter of forgetting.

If Arfderydd was significant enough to be recognised as one of Three Futile Battles of Britain, if it was where Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king of the Old North, made his final stand and one hundred and sixty men lost their lives before he died and three hundred after and where Myrddin Wyllt went mad, why no marker of the site? Why no songs? Why has Arfderydd been forgotten?

Considering Gwyn ap Nudd stated his presence at Gwenddolau’s death and at the deaths of other northern warriors and the episode where he abducts Creiddylad, Gwythyr and his (mainly northern) supporters takes place in the Old North why has his memory faded from the minds of the people of northern Britain?

In search of clues, a friend and I travelled north to Longtown and set off on foot up Netherby Road, consciously following in the footsteps of William Skene and Nikolai Tolstoy. The first place we visited was Netherby Hall, the mansion of the Graham family built on the site of the Roman fort Castra Exploratum. An altar dedicated to a god called Vitris and ram-horned head carved from local red sandstone found nearby suggest it was the location of a Romano-British cult.

Netherby HallAs we approached from the south Netherby Hall’s sandstone walls came into view atop a prominent ridge with polygonal towers, parapets and scaffolding. An encircling wire fence said strictly out of bounds. Following the path round the mansion we passed a woodland carpeted with snowdrops and trees stacked with rooks’ nests filled with noisy, vocal, raucous birds

Never before had I seen many rooks or heard such a racket. Their croaking and cawing see-sawed in my mind like something trying to break through. Unfortunately I don’t speak very good rook. Yet the rooks seemed important. More important than the blank face of the mansion and its ‘Private’ sign.

We rejoined the main road and headed north for Carwinley. When Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) told St Kentigern of his guilt at the deaths of the combatants and vision of a host of warriors (who I believe to be Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn) he stated the battle took place ‘in the field between Liddel and Carnwanolow.’ Skene identified Liddel with Liddel Water and Carnwanolow as Caer Gwenddolau and connected this with Carwinley.

Passing Carwinley cottage, farm and water mill we looked down into the sandstone gulley of the burn, steep banks green with ferns, onto shining reddish water. I recalled Andrew Breeze’s interpretation of Arfderydd as ‘burning weapon’ relating to this bloody stream forming the parish of Arthuret’s boundary. Breeze said ‘Car’ need not mark a fort but a defensive stockade. It certainly seemed possible the burn was named after Gwenddolau’s fall.

Carwinley BurnThe Triads of Ancient Britain also mention ‘the retinue of Dreon the Brave at the Dyke of Arfderydd.’ Dreon ap Nudd is the son of Nudd Hael. If this etymological link to Gwyn ap Nudd (and his father Nudd or Nodens) suggests an ancient connection between a northern family and their ancestral deities it is no surprise Gwyn and his host appeared at the battle where Dreon and his retinue met their end.

As I pondered whether the ‘Dyke’ they fought on was above Carwinley Burn I saw crows over the trees who shouted and cawed then pitched their games across a sky of constant silver-grey cloud. A sky of concealing. A sky of protection. A sky of no openings onto crashing visions of warriors.

Fields of Arfderydd

 

As we passed the green and well-tilled-over crow-haunted fields the dead did not rise. There were no whispers, no warnings, only the hearsay of corvids.

 

Upper Moat

 

At Upper Moat where reputedly the three hundred men who fought after Gwenddolau’s death were buried there was no sign of the orchard Skene mentioned but crows filled the trees in the background.

Our final destination was Liddel Strength, a motte and bailey which might have been the location of Gwenddolau’s fort and where his ‘Faithful War Band’ could have made their last stand, fighting for a month and a fortnight after the death of their leader. Unable to find our way we were directed by a local farmer (coincidentally Skene was directed by a farmer from Upper Moat too!) onto a shooter’s path which climbed steeply beside Liddel Water.

On the way we encountered a line of not-dead reeds hauntingly reminiscent of flags or ribboned spears blowing in the wind on an abandoned battlefield. Or of forlorn warriors.

Reeds of ArfderyddThe site of Liddel Strength was badly eroded by the river and appallingly overgrown. Breaching the defensive ditch we scrambled through hat-snatching hawthorns and ankle-snagging brambles up the motte which didn’t feel overly welcoming in its firm return to nature. There were no crows but a bird of prey screeched somewhere out of sight reminding me of Gwenddolau’s birds who fed on the corpses of the Britons.

Looking down from the summit Liddel Water flowed far below at the foot of a slope impossible to ascend. Fields and woodland stretched out before us. The land seemed as determined in swallowing time as it was in absorbing the abandoned railway track Skene arrived on two hundred years ago. On our return journey only the bridge and fragments of the embankment remained.

The dereliction of Liddel Strength contrasted sharply with Caer Laverock Castle (the ‘Lark’s Nest’ Arfderydd was supposedly fought over) which we visited the next day. This splendid medieval stronghold belonging to the Maxwell family was well preserved by the National Trust. Its siege by the English immortalised in the ‘Song of Caerlaverock’ was reconstructed on a video in the display rooms.

Caer Laverock CastleCrows flocked in the trees and played over its terraces. South was an earlier fort closer to the Solway Firth, an artist’s representation showed the higher sea levels and its importance as a strategic location.

Heading north again we climbed Ward Law, a lookout point where the Maxwell Clan gathered shouting their battle cry: “Wardlaw! I bid ye bide Wardlaw!” Beyond was another Roman camp invisible from the ground.

Ward LawLooking south from Ward Law to Solway Firth for the first time the all-encompassing silver-grey clouds broke. Seeing clear light and waters ablaze with cold fire I was reminded of the unendurable brightness Myrddin saw as Gwyn approached with the hosts of Annwn. The otherworld opening only just beyond the sands and tides of this-world.

Solway FirthI left with intuitions but no answers about Gwyn and his kindred, battles, forgetting, clouds and corvids… another part of this story waits to be told about the estuary of the river Nith and I shall be sharing this in my next post…

SOURCES

Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Ross, Anne Pagan Celtic Britain (Cardinal, 1974)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

Gatherer of Souls

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain…
I am alive, they in their graves!
– Words spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Black Book of Carmarthen XXXIII

Spring is here, daffodils
amongst the headstones,
flowers on the cenotaph
grieving summers of war-

shells shattering spirit paths,
ditches filled with corpses,
a perverse test of love
for brave young fools

and you being liminal,
battle rage and compassion
on the blood soaked fields
where banshees wail

gathering the fallen
from amongst explosions,
returning to Prydain
wracked and torn.

Spring is here, yet in
Annwn’s long autumn you know
the weight of the battle dead,
the sorrow behind the veil.

War memorial in Penwortham