No Celebration

I.
There is no celebration tonight
but the celebration
of being here –

friends and family
although some are distant.

There are no gatherings
at circles of stone.

No matter –
the solstice sun
has not shown up either.

II.
The clouds are grey
as the smoke pouring from Whitfires
where two old friends choose
to walk the fishery

of old bridge
and goosander

and the moss
that is now farmland
and isn’t quite houses yet.

We raise the oddest of toasts
just out of smell of the recycling centre
on the edge of a muddy track.

III.
And where are you my god?

My King of Winter
in the not-quite drizzling rain?

Are you on the empty train
that I fail to photograph

because it would be
unseemly to pull you from
the invisible realm?

IV.
Where are you going
Gatherer of Souls

on the train track
from Ormskirk to Preston?

My thoughts are ominous
as the virus that culls
all thoughts

of celebration.

V.
I remember
my childhood fears
of being the train
bricked up.

How I fled
from the Mile tunnel
where your ghost-lights dance
and where you a man
somehow bore
a son.

VI.
You speak to me
without tracks

united without
the worldwide web say:

“We must celebrate
for the living and the dead.”

Thus I raise this poem
to thee.

My Lady of the Autumn Flowers

let me ride with you
into the sunset of calendula.
Let me weep Michaelmas daisies
in the purple of dusk.

Let me ride the mountains
to gather wolfsbane in a distant land
where it was spat from the jaws
of a monstrous hound.

Let me sit and count violas
so delicate as you count the days
down until you leave for the place
from which flowers come.

The Summer King is dead.
Your coffin is waiting in Annwn.
It shall be adorned with flowers.
The Winter King awaits.

We both hear on the crystal wind
the baying of his hounds –
call of the otherplace
growing stronger and stronger.

Let me ride with you
these last moons see your face
in the faces of flowers marking the days
until you return to Annwn.

Winter Break

Winter is a time
of nurturing deeper dreams
whilst the land sleeps beneath
the rule of Winter’s King

so I’m going to be taking a break from blogging here until Imbolc to work on my new book and other gestating ideas and to explore the landscape. Best wishes to everybody for the cold season.

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Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

Cwn Annwn Tattoo Design by Nixie

Gwyn ap Nudd… he went between sky and air.’
Peniarth MS. 132

Have you heard them howling through the skies?
Have you heard them howl of distant worlds?
Have you felt the howling fear you’ll die?
Have you feared they’re howling for your soul?
If you have, your soul is no longer yours, my friend,
It has never been and will never be until the end.
And never is never as the howling winds
That carry us between sky and air.

Dormach and Death’s Door

Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Crane-Legs’) stands in a misty hinterland before the divine warrior-huntsman and psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd (‘White son of Mist’) and his white stallion, Carngrwn.

Beside Gwyn is Dormach, his hunting dog, ‘fair and sleek’ and ruddy-nosed. Dormach’s gaze is commanding. His nose shines like a torch-fire; a beacon; a setting sun. Although he appears as a dog his shape somehow exceeds dog-like proportions. Gwyddno says:

‘Dormach red-nose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.’

Gwyddno’s sensory perception is distorted. Dormach is close enough for his nose to be seen yet distantly wandering across the heavens.

This is due to the misty shape-shifting nature he shares with Gwyn. J. Gwengobryn Evans tells us Dormach ‘moved ar wybir, i.e. rode on the clouds which haunt the mountain-tops.’ ‘Wybir‘ is ‘condensed floating white cloud’ referred to as Nuden and ‘serves as a garment for Gwyn.’

In a remarkable image beside the poem, Dormach appears as a strangely grinning dog with forelegs but instead of back legs he possesses two long and tapering serpent’s tails! This illustrates Dormach’s capacity to be near and distant and shows he is clearly not of this world.

Dormach Sketch - Copy

From J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (1907)

Dormach is a member of the Cwn Annwn (‘Hounds of the Otherworld’) who are sometimes known as Cwn Wybyr (‘Hounds of the Sky’). They occupy a liminal position between the worlds and play an important role in the passage of souls.

This is represented beautifully by John Rhys’ translation of Dormach (re-construed as Dormarth) as ‘Death’s Door’. He links this to the Welsh paraphrase for death Bwlch Safan y Ci ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, the English ‘the jaws of death’ and the German Rachen des Todes and suggests Dormach’s jaws are the Door of Annwn. Although this translation is disputed by scholars it possesses poetic truth. Death is not an end but a passage to the next life.

Gwyddno’s passing is not depicted in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. I’ve been meditating on this poem for several years and had a break-through when I realised Gwyddno’s epithet, Garanhir, was an indicator of his inner crane-nature.

In a personal vision following from the poem Gwyddno donned his red crane’s mask, grew wings and followed the red sun of Dormach’s nose to be re-united with his kindred on an island of dancing cranes in Annwn.

Transformation

Physical death is not always a prerequisite of passage to Annwn. This is shown in the story of Pwyll and Arawn in the First Branch of The Mabinogion. Pwyll’s life-changing encounter with a King of Annwn called Arawn is heralded by the ‘cry of another pack’.

Although Pwyll notices Arawn’s hounds are ‘gleaming shining white’ and red-eared he fails to recognise their otherworld nature. He commands his pack to drive them off their kill: a grand stag, and feasts his own pack on it.

As recompense Arawn asks Pwyll to take his form and role in Annwn and fight his ritual battle against his eternal foe: Hafgan. By defeating Hafgan and resisting the temptation to sleep with Arawn’s wife, Pwyll wins the title of Pwyll Pen Annwn (‘Pwyll Head of Annwn’).

In the liminal space opened by the cries of Arawn’s hounds, Pwyll does not die but is transformed. Where passage to Annwn does not demand physical death it demands the death of one’s former identity and birth of a new one in service to the powers of Annwn.

Cwn Annwn

In later Welsh folklore Cwn Annwn are known by a number of names: Cwn Wybyr, Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse Dogs’, Cwn Toili ‘Phantom Funeral Dogs’, Cwn Mamau ‘Mother’s Dogs’, ‘Hell-Hounds’ and ‘Infernal Dogs’. Here we find an admixture of pagan and Christian folk beliefs.

Annwn is identified with hell, its gods with demons, and its hounds with hell-hounds. Christianity’s dualistic logic limits the transformative potency of encounters with Annuvian deities by reducing them to objects of fear and superstition.

Yet the lore of Cwn Annwn endures with startling vivacity. They are famed for barking through the skies pursuing the souls of the dead. Therefore to hear them is a death-portent. They often fly the ways corpses will follow: hence their associations with teulu (‘phantom funerals’).

Their magical and disorientating qualities prevail. The 14th C poet Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of encountering ‘the dogs of night’ whilst lost in ‘unsightly fog’ after hearing Gwyn’s ‘Crazy Owl’. In a report from Carmarthenshire the closer Cwn Annwn get the quieter their voices until they sound like small beagles. The further away the louder their call. In their midst the ‘deep hollow voice’ of a ‘monstrous blood hound’ is often heard.

Like Dormach they delight in a Cheshire-cat-like ability to shift their shape. Some appear as white dogs with red ears or noses. One is a ‘strong fighting mastiff’ with a ‘white tail’ and ‘white snip and ‘grinning teeth’ able to conjure a fire around it. Others are ‘the size of guinea pigs and covered with red and white spots’, ‘small’, ‘grey-red or speckled’. Some are ‘mice or pigs’.

At Cefn Creini in Merioneth they are accompanied by a ‘shepherd’ with a black face and ‘horns on his head’ who sounds remarkably like Gwyn: a horned hunter-god who blacks his face. He is supposedly fended off with a crucifix. In certain areas of Wales the ‘quarry’ of Gwyn and the Cwn Annwn is restricted to the souls of ‘sinners’ and ‘evil-livers’.

Gabriel Ratchets

In northern England we find the parallel of Gabriel Ratchets. Although they are nominally Germanic and rooted in the Wild Hunt there are striking resemblances with Cwn Annwn.

According to Edward A. Armstrong ‘Ratchet’ derives from the ‘Anglo-Saxon raecc and Middle English… rache, a dog which hunts by scent and gives tongue’. Rachen also means jaws: we recall ‘Rachen des Todes’ ‘Jaws of Death’.

In Yorkshire they are known as ‘gabble-ratchets’. Armstrong says ‘Gabble’ is a corruption of ‘Gabriel’ and ‘is connected with gabbara and gabares, meaning a corpse’. We find similarities with Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse-Dogs’.

Gabriel Ratchets are also defined as packs of dogs barking through the skies portending death. Intriguingly they are identified with noisy flights of nocturnal birds who sound like beagles. In Lancashire James Bowker equates them with ‘whistling’ Bean Geese* flying over lonely moors.

In Burnley, Gabriel Ratchets are connected with the Spectre Huntsman of Cliviger Gorge. A maiden called Sibyl hears ‘wild swans winging their way above her’ before she is swept through the air by a ‘demon’. Poet Philip Hamerton shares the evocative lines ‘Wild huntsmen? Twas a flight of swans, / But so invisibly they flew.’

Thousands of Bewick’s swans and Pink-footed Geese arrive to over-winter on Martin Mere between September and November: the time ‘the Wild Hunt’ flies and may form the root of these Lancashire legends.

In Nidderdale the Gabble Ratchet is equated with the ‘night-jar, goat-sucker, screech-owl, churn-owl, puckbird, puckeridge, wheelbird, spinner, razor-grinder, scissor-grinder, night-hawk, night-crow, night-swallow, door-hawk, moth-hawk, goat-hawk, goat-chaffer… and lich-fowl’

We also find the ‘Ratchet Owl’: the ‘death-hound of the Danes’ and ‘night crow’: ‘This kind of owl is dog-footed and covered with hair; his eyes are like the glistering ice; against death he uses a strange whoop.’

Gabble Ratchets also take the form of birds with burning eyes and appear to warn of death. In some cases they are identified with the souls of un-baptised children.

Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

In stories of Cwn Annwn and Gabriel Ratchets we find an astonishing menagerie of imaginal ‘hounds’. These rich folk beliefs, rooted in wild moorlands and piping wetlands, were not extinguished by Christianity.

Industrialisation forced country dwellers into towns to work in factories. 12 hour shifts in ‘dark Satanic mills’ crushed imagination. Wild places disappeared with the wild mind beneath red bricks of housing developments and asylum walls of schools and universities and secular careers.

Yet through the concrete of office-blocks and head-phones of call-centres over the white-noise of television we still hear the Cwn Annwn howling. The harder we try to shut them out the louder they howl.

The stoppers in Death’s Door tremble as they bark back the liminal spaces where the gods of Annwn are encountered and souls are transformed.

An increasing number of people are encountering hounds and gods of Annwn and having their lives turned around. I met Gwyn at a local phantom funeral site when I was lost. Passing through Death’s Door with him confirmed the reality of the afterlife and has given me a deeper appreciation of life in thisworld.

As I have striven to uncover Gwyn’s forgotten mythos from the British landscape I have been unfailingly drawn to flight paths of migratory birds and recovering wetlands. Locally, the Ribble Estuary and Martin Mere; further afield, Nith’s Estuary and Caerlaverock, Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Levels, Cors Fochno (‘Borth Bog’) in Maes Wyddno (‘Gwyddno’s Land’).

This has led me to believe that as Brythonic King of Winter Gwyn presides over wintering birds and the passage of souls. This seems significant at a time migratory birds are threatened by melting glaciers and drained wetlands and floods have wrecked havoc across the UK. Our fates are intrinsically linked.

One of the most powerful lessons trusting my soul to Gwyn taught me was it has never been my own. I have always been one of his pack, one of his flock passing between worlds between sky and air.

Arfderydd, River Nith and Caerlaverock 220 - Copy

Swans over Nith Estuary

SOURCES

Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (Chiefly Lancashire and the North of England) (1872)
Dafydd ap Gwilym, Rachel Bromwich (ed.), A Selection of Poems, (1982)
Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds (1958)
Heron (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2015)
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, (2003)
James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878)
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen (1907)
John Billingsley, West Yorkshire Folk Tales, (2010)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (1841)
John Roby, Traditions of Lancashire: Volume 2 (1829)
John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, (1677)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (1998)
Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Isles of Loch Awe and Other Poems of My Youth, (1855)
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (2007)
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom, (1930)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (1880)
Nottingham Evening Post, Monday 23rd August, 1937

*This seems odd as Bean Geese over-winter in south-west Scotland and Norfolk.
**With thanks to John Billingsley and Brian Taylor for providing some helpful pointers on Gabriel Ratchets, particularly sections from Edward A. Armstrong’s The Folklore of Birds.

Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad: A Story from the Old North

Cherry BlossomCulhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.

Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.

This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because I am based in Lancashire it also of great interest that it originates from the Old North. In this article I summarise the story and introduce its themes and background with the aim of bringing Gwyn’s neglected connections with the north to the fore. In conclusion I discuss its contemporary relevance.

The story begins by stating that Creiddylad ‘went off’ with Gwythyr. Creiddylad is the daughter of Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’ a mythic king of Britain. Earlier in the main narrative we are told she is ‘the most majestic maiden there ever was in the Three Islands of Britain and her Adjacent Three Islands.’ This shows she is deeply connected with the sovereignty of the land. Whilst attempts to trace the etymology of her name have been made such as ‘Craidd’ ‘heart’ and ‘dylan’ ‘water’ no agreement has been reached.

Gwythyr and his father, Greidol, are named in the genealogies of the Men of the North. Greidol is ‘the son of Enfael the son of Deigyr the son of Dyfnwal (Dyfnarth) the son of Ednyfed the son of Maxen (Macsen Guledig)’. Greidol’s name means ‘hot, passionate, fierce’. He was a knight in Arthur’s court and appears in the triads as one of the great architects and enemy-subduers of Britain.

Robert Graves interprets Gwythyr ap Greidol as ‘Victor son of Scorcher’. Gwythyr is the father of Arthur’s wife, Gwenhyfawr. His horse appears alongside Arthur’s in The Songs of the Horses ‘boldly bestowing pain’. In Culhwch and Olwen he wins the friendship of a colony of ants who bring nine hestors of flax seed, one of the items Culhwch must attain. Gwythyr’s resting place is included in The Stanzas of the Graves. These references show the longevity of his connection with Arthur and that he was a significant hero in his own right.

Unfortunately I have not found any references to where Greidol or Gwythyr lived. As other Men of the North in his family such as Nwython ruled in the Strathclyde area, south-west Scotland may be a possibility.

Creiddylad’s status as a maiden and the statement about her going off with Gwythyr suggest he may be her first love. Next we are told ‘before he could sleep with her Gwyn ap Nudd came and took her by force.’ It is likely Gwythyr is waiting to marry Creiddylad before they sleep together. Before they can wed Gwyn takes her away.

In Culhwch and Olwen Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ is introduced as a ruler of Annwn (the Brythonic underworld) who contains the fury of its spirits and prevents their destruction of this-world. This may relate to earlier beliefs about Gwyn’s status as a god of the dead connected with chthonic spirits. Will Parker cites examples of offerings in ritual shafts and pits to propitiate such deities in the Bronze to Romano-British periods.

In The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir Gwyn appears as a gatherer of the battle dead. After offering Gwyddno protection he states his presence at the deaths of a number of warriors; Gwenddolau, a northern British king who perished at the Battle of Arfderydd (north of Carlisle) and Bran who died alongside him, Gwallog ap Llenog ruler of Elmet (Yorkshire), Llachau Arthur’s son and Meurig ap Careian. This provides further confirmation of Gwyn’s role as a god who facilitates the transition from life to death.

In later literature Annwn becomes Fairyland and Gwyn its King. Although Gwyn’s status is reduced from god to fairy (and likewise his people) he remains feared and respected. Our rich heritage of Brythonic fairy lore demonstrates a continuity of relations between the worlds and interactions with spirits. In most of these tales uncanny themes such as glamoury, enchantment, changeling children and abduction take the fore. Fairies are often connected with wild and liminal places. Divisions between the fay and the dead remain blurred.

Gwyn’s abduction of Creiddylad may have its basis in prevalent superstitions. Professor Ronald Hutton notes that Early Welsh literature testifies ‘to the attribution of an especially arcane quality to May Day (‘Calan Mai’) and its eve.’ This was a liminal time when winter gave way to summer and was connected with love, fertility and woodland trysts. It was also a time dangerous spirits were abroad. Marriage was not advised in case one should mistakenly take a fairy lover.

When Gwyn takes Creiddylad by force I assume he abducts her to Annwn and claims her maidenhood. Frustratingly we gain no insight from the text into what Creiddylad thinks or feels. As a ‘maiden’ I imagine she must be terrified when he takes her and they descend. What he says to her and whether their sex is consensual remains uncertain.

Later Gwyn and Creiddylad become lovers. This is shown in The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir where Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn ap Nudd / The lover of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd’. If scholars are correct in identifying Nudd (the Romano-British god Nodens) and Lludd, Gwyn and Creiddylad are brother and sister. Whilst this would make their relationship incestuous in human terms, in many myths gods and goddesses consider it superior to sleep with members of their blood-line.

The 14th century manuscript Speculum Christiani reads ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home’. Gwyn’s love of Creiddylad is central. Whilst he may not always be moved directly by human pleas he can be compelled to answer for love of his partner. This shows Gwyn holds Creiddylad in reverence and esteem. In later stories where Gwyn appears as the King of Fairy he is often accompanied by his Queen who is a respected equal.

Creiddylad’s transition from maiden to Queen of Annwn may be read as a story of coming to maturity. It might also reflect an ‘initiatory’ process whereby her relationship with Gwyn introduces her not only to sexuality but wild nature and the hidden wisdom of the underworld.

In relation to Gwyn and Creiddylad being ‘far in the forest’ it is interesting to note a tradition amongst the Strathclyde Britons of locating Annwn in the forests of the north. The 6th century Byzantine writer Procopius claims the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall were populated with snakes, serpents and other wild creatures. Those who cross the wall die straight away and this area is the destination of the souls of the dead. This fits with Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and dwelling with Creiddylad in a forest abode. A feasible location is Celyddon (the Caledonian forest).

Gwythyr gathers a host and goes to fight against Gwyn. I imagine they ride into the wild depths of Celyddon and thereby enter Annwn to seek out the lovers. Their attack on Gwyn relates to a long tradition of stories depicting raids on the underworld by the armies of this-world.

In this case Gwyn triumphs and captures Gwythyr and a number of his noblemen. The majority are Men of the North and close relations of Gwythyr’s. Gwrgwst Ledlwm is the son of Dynfnarth. Cyledyr and his father, Nwython are also descended, through Guipno, from Dyfnarth. Pen son of Nethog is a corruption of Nwython. Hence Pen is Nwython’s son. If the genealogies are correct, Gwyn captures four generations of northern men (!). The only persons not of northern descent are Graid son of Eri and Glinneu son of Taran.

Gwyn’s slaughter of Nwython, cutting out his heart and feeding it to Cyledyr casts him as a cruel and sinister deity. This is hinted at in the lines about him containing the fury of Annwn’s spirits. However, there is no historical record of Nwython meeting his end this way. Tim Clarkson says that Neithon ap Guipno ‘died peacefully in his bed’. How much of this episode is a result of Gwyn’s demonization by adherents of Christianity and how much reflects his true nature is open to debate.

That Cyledyr becomes ‘Wyllt’ may relate to superstitions connecting Gwyn and his spirits with wildness and madness. Following the Battle of Arfderydd (where Gwyn states his presence at the death of Gwenddolau) Lailoken (Myrddin) sees an unendurable brightness and host of warriors in the sky. Afterward he becomes ‘Wyllt’ living amongst ‘gwyllon’ in Celyddon. The gwyllon hold a similar status to the spirits of Annwn as ancestral presences immanent in wild places. It seems significant they are connected with the forests of the north.

Afterward Arthur ‘comes north’ summons Gwyn to him and releases Gwythyr and his other noblemen from captivity. The source of Arthur’s power over Gwyn is not mentioned nor is it obvious he brings an army. Sense suggests he cannot take on Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn alone, particularly considering that in The Spoils of Annwn only seven return of each three hundred who set sail for the underworld.

Arthur makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by consigning them to battle every May Day for Creiddylad’s hand. An additional condition, which seems rather unfair, is that neither can take her until Judgement Day. Until then she must remain in her father’s house. Creiddylad is presented not only as a puppet tossed between two lovers but at the beck and call of Arthur. It is not explained how Arthur puts this command on Gwyn, Gwythyr or Creiddylad.

It is my intuition Arthur’s intercession is a later addition to an earlier myth inserted for the purpose of integrating it into the narrative of Culhwch and Olwen. Like ‘God’ (who is said to have put the fury of the spirits of Annwn in Gwyn!) Arthur is introduced as a deus ex machina. His agency explains and makes palatable to a Christian audience the rivalry between an underworld god and human (or perhaps semi-divine) hero for the favour of a fertility goddess. Arthur shutting Creiddylad in her father’s house could represent a Christian ban on woodland liaisons.

MayflowerThis story may originate from an earlier seasonal myth where Gwyn and Gwythyr are the forces of winter and summer battling over Creiddylad who embodies new life and spring. In this case their struggle is eternal. On May Day, Gwythyr the Summer King and a hero of this-world triumphs over Gwyn the Winter King and ruler of the underworld.

That such a tradition existed is suggested by ritual combats enacted in Wales in the nineteenth century by representatives of summer and winter. After summer won celebratory dancing was held around a May-pole. Pairs or groups would often fight over the May-pole. Whilst May-pole dancing is still a strong tradition across northern Britain, I haven’t found any battles between summer and winter yet.

If Gwythyr wins Creiddylad’s hand on Calan Mai (May Day) it would make sense that Gwyn takes her back to Annwn on Nos Galan Gaeaf or Calan Gaeaf (the eve or first of November) another time associated with dangerous spirits. If this is the case I know of no stories or traditions based around it.

I find it important to remember this story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad is only one medieval variant set in the Old North. Doubtless it underwent countless re-tellings in other times and places before it was written down and stuck. For me it is imperative to gain a personal understanding of it through lived relationships with its deities on the land where I live in the here and now.

So far I have reached the insights that the forgetting of this story in northern Britain is also the story of our forgetting of our relationship with the passing seasons, the deities associated with them and the sovereignty of the land. Another lesson it discloses is that human ownership of the land is transitory. There is a balance the forces of the wild and the underworld maintain.

In modern times the majority of people walk only within the Arthurian courts of this-world, paying respect to celebrities, pop culture and football heroes. In this era Gwythyr rules. He and the people of the north have forgotten about Creiddylad’s marriage to Gwyn in the wild forests of Annwn.

However, after centuries of forgetting Gwyn is appearing again within our folklore and as a god to his devotees. We’re remembering the seasons. We’re remembering Annwn, wild places, spirits and the dead. And first-most in Gwyn’s eyes we’re remembering Creiddylad and to treat her with reverence and respect.

***

SOURCES

 Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. Culhwch and Olwen (University of Cardiff Press, 1992)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Green, Thomas Concepts of Arthur (Tempus Publishing, 2007)
Gwynn Jones, T. Welsh Folklore and Custom (D. S. Brewer, 1979)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hutton, Ronald The Stations of the Sun (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Parker, Will The Four Branches of the Mabinogi http://www.mabinogi.net/
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)
Sikes, Wirt British Goblins (Lightning Source UK, 2011)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Squire, Charles Celtic Myths and Legends (Parragon, 2000)

Nith’s Estuary

After visiting the site of the Battle of Arfderydd, we chose to stay in the Nith Hotel at the mouth of the estuary as it was close to Caerlaverock and because I wondered whether, like Neath, there was a connection with Nudd and his son, Gwyn. I went with no strong expectations or feelings.

When we arrived at the car park I was utterly blown away. Clouds dark blue and dappled silver were reflected perfectly in still quiet waters. Splitting the silence hollering overhead flew drove after drove of barnacle geese following the river’s course then disappearing from sight at the estuary.

Earlier we had accidentally spooked a field filled with these magnificent birds. With barking cries and clamouring wings they took off flashing black and white, ascending into hurtling v’s.Shortly afterward a covey of swans flew over honking deep and resonant calls.

SwansIn the folklore of Wales, northern England (and beyond) ‘the Wild Hunt’ is associated with flights of swans and geese. Gwyn is one of its leaders. The term is usually limited to instances where the birds cannot be seen and those who hear them fear for their lives and souls.

My experience in this case was more of beauty than terror. The estuary of the Nith where sky met river and Criffel displayed its otherside in the lucid water was clearly a liminal place. There was something deeply magical about the passing birds and their wild song.

This reminded me a translation of Annwn (the Brythonic ‘otherworld’ Gwyn rules) is ‘the deep’. Annwn as hidden depth has intriguing resonances with the sound of ‘Nudd’. Onomatopoeically it links not only to Neath and Nith but the concepts beneath, underneath and the netherworld. This evening showed Annwn’s depth is immanent in this-world and can be experienced here.

Later on the brink of sleep I found myself thinking of Nudd / Nodens’ temple on the estuary of the river Severn. People made votive offerings to him as a god of hunting, healing and dream then slept in a designated space and priests interpreted their dreams in the morning.

Recently I discovered Nudd is not only the name of a family of Brythonic gods but also a human family name. Dreon ap Nudd fought on the dyke of Arfderydd not far from the Nith. His father, Nudd Hael, is included in the genealogies of the Men of the North. In the Yarrow valley lies a memorial stone to ‘the illustrious princes Nudus and Dumnogenus. In this tomb lies the son of Liberalis.’ Tim Clarkson says ‘Nudus is a Latinisation of Nud or Nudd.’

It seems possible this ancient northern family derived their name from Nodens / Nudd and that he was their ancestral deity and they may have served him in a similar way to the priests on the Severn. Preparing to slip into the netherworld, ‘the land of Nod,’ I wondered how many other worshippers of Nudd and his kindred had slept on Nith’s estuary.

In the morning when I awoke the barnacle geese were flying back up river to feed on the fields and salt marsh. Several groups landed on the banks and by making a careful approach we managed to draw close enough to photograph them.

Barnacle GeeseBarnacle geese possess some fascinating folklore. It was once believed they grew on driftwood like barnacles hanging down from their beaks until they grew a coat of feathers and were ready to fly away. Their growth from barnacles in summer explained why they only appeared as birds in the winter months.

Visiting the Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust we found out the ‘real’ reason they can only be seen in winter. Barnacle geese incubate their eggs and raise their goslings in Svalbard in Norway between May and September when the Gulf Stream melts the ice. As winter approaches they fly 3000 km south to the Solway Firth.

In the 1940’s there were only 300 birds. Due to the work of the trust there are now over 30,000. However, if global warming continues it is possible that ice melting early in Svalbard will leave their eggs vulnerable to being eaten by polar bears.

As well as finding out more about barnacle geese we got to see whooper swans up close at feeding time. Whooper swans are another over-wintering bird who fly in from Iceland and can be told apart from mute swans by their yellow beaks.

Whooper SwansIt is my growing intuition that Gwyn, as a god of winter, may have a connection with birds over-wintering in Britain and that this would vary from place to place.

Honouring Gwyn ap Nudd

Glastonbury Tor, January 2013On the Winter Solstice a post for Winter’s King.

Samhain has passed. We’re in the dead season. The wild hunt rides the passageways of time and spirit paths lie open. Communities gather and ancestors draw close. Here I feel called to honour Gwyn ap Nudd by telling the story of how he became my muse and patron and made my life whole.

My first meeting with Gwyn took place at the nadir of a crisis. At the end of August 2012 I reached a point of conflict between my spiritual path and ambition to become a professional writer. After two years work completing a fantasy novel I realised its world was too complex and the language too heavy, it held little relevance or hope for a contemporary audience and was at odds with my developing relationship with the land and its myths.

His first appearance was at the head of a fairy procession at a local sacred site. Although I knew of the legend of the fairy funeral I didn’t think I’d encounter it directly nor did I suspect it would be led by a Welsh Fairy King. Yet Gwyn made his name and message clear. The myths of this land are real and he could help me access them. He challenged me to journey with him to the Otherworld, the condition of his guidance being that I lay aside my personal ambitions.

I spent several days considering- could I truly give up my ambition to become a professional writer? How would this change my life? How did I know I could trust him? What if I didn’t come back? Yet this experience, although it was confusing and terrifying felt more powerful and real than anything that had ever happened to me. I knew it was a once in a life time opportunity and I’d only get one chance. I returned to the fairy site and agreed.

Gwyn opened the gates to the past of this land and its myths. With his guidance I learnt how to ride the skies and ancestral pathways on my white mare, viewing the landscape’s lineaments from contemporary suburbia to medieval farmland, oak wood and peat bog to tundra and the age of ice. I met with ancestral people, the ghosts of trees and stampeding aurochs. I entered Faery and descended to Annwn.

Yet I still questioned what a deity associated with Wales and Glastonbury was doing in Lancashire. Reading his myths I realised two of Gwyn’s main stories- the abduction of Creiddylad and Arthur’s slaying of Orddu take place in the North. In the conversation with Gwyddno Garanhir, which depicts his role gathering the souls of the battle dead Gwyn says:

‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the North;
I am alive, they in their graves!
I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the South
I am alive, they in death!’

Gwyn is not only a king of Annwn and the fairies but a traveller between the worlds and across the landscape of Britain, maintaining the bonds between nature and humanity, the living and the dead. As a ruler and guide of this isle’s ancestral people his turning up at the head of a local fairy procession was not out of place.

Reassessing my past experiences I realised this wasn’t the first time I’d felt his influence. At Glastonbury festival in my late teens the veil had been lifted to reveal a vision of the Otherworld, a place I now recognise as Gwynfyd, which was coupled with a feeling of truth and ecstatic unity. Thirteen years later he had finally made his presence known, leading me from the cycle of aspiration, failure and frustration caused by my ambition to be a writer back to this magical unison with the land and its myths. He had made my life whole. In January I returned to Glastonbury and made my vow to him at the White Spring.

Since then my relationship with Gwyn has been a constant source of support and inspiration. Whilst the only piece of literature I know of that might link him with the Bardic Tradition is a reference in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ to the Chief of Annwn possessing a cauldron warmed by the breath of nine maidens, I see him as a god of primal poetry- the wild Awen that thunders like the hunt through space and time and exists in the magic of nature, the songs of the fay and wisdom of the ancestors.

With his guidance I have discovered ways of connecting more deeply with the land and its spirits, its known myths and some unknown ones (a couple of which correspond with factual evidence!). In return I strive to communicate what I have learnt through written and spoken words to maintain the bonds between nature and humanity, this world and the Otherworlds.

And so, as we gather in the dead season, the wild hunt rides and spirit paths lie open I choose this time to tell this story to thank and honour Gwyn ap Nudd.