After Procopius

In place of my planned piece I’ve decided to publish something a little more topical. Last year, I wrote a poem based on words from the ancient Classical historian Procopius. In History of the Wars (6AD) he says:

Now in the island of Britain the men of ancient times built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it; and the climate and the soil and everything else is not alike on the two sides of it. For to the south of the wall there is a salubrious air, changing with the seasons, being moderately warm in summer and cool in winter… But on the north side everything is the reverse of this, so that it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even a half-hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy this area as their own. And, strangest of all, the inhabitants say that if a man crosses this wall and goes to the other side, he dies straightaway… They say, then, that the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place.’ (1)

It is my intuition that Procopius was talking about the Antonine Wall, which ran from the Firth of Forth to the Forth of Clyde and formed the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. It was built in 142AD. After only eight years the Romans abandoned it and fled back to Hadrian’s Wall. When Roman power broke down in the 5thC, it became the border between the Brythonic Kingdoms of the Old North and the Picts.

In medieval Welsh literature ‘the North’ has longstanding associations with Annwn, the Brythonic otherworld. After the devastating Battle of Arfderydd, Myrddin Wyllt fled north to Celyddon (2) where he wandered for ‘ten and twenty years’ amongst wild creatures and gwllon: ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’, or ‘shades’ and learnt the arts of poetry and prophecy.

In Culhwch and Olwen, the earliest of Arthurian stories, Arthur ‘came to the North’ to rescue Gwythyr ap Greidol (3) and his allies from imprisonment by Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn who contains its ‘demons’. In another episode he ‘set out to the North’ to drain the blood of Orddu ‘The Very Black Witch’ who dwelt in ‘Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell’.

‘The North’ has long-lasting associations with the otherworld and the other. These stem from the othering of Annwn (earlier known as Annfwn ‘the deep’) itself. Prior to Christianity, people lived in reciprocal relationship with their ancestors and the deities of Annwn, making offerings at burial mounds and in ritual pits and shafts. Annwn was close as a prayer.

In the Four Branches of The Mabinogion, which are set in Wales prior to the Roman invasion, Annwn is another kingdom adjacent to and much like ours where marriages and allegiances can be made with its deities. In the post-Roman, militarised, Christianised north, Annwn was identified with hell and its people with demons. They were dislocated from their immanent locations within the landscape and superimposed on territories beyond a wall further north. Arthur was introduced as the defender of Romanised civilisation who kept the other at bay.

Of course, the landscape one side of a wall or any north/south divide is never much different to the other side. The people may be culturally or racially different but they’re still human. Annwn and its deities remain close as a prayer within the landscape. Superstitions about what lies beyond the wall result from the false mythologisations of elites whose power is grounded in fostering fear and creating divisions they claim must be maintained, by them, for the safety of the people.

I believe the othering effects of the Antonine Wall in the writing of Procopius have relevance today. Britain’s Leave campaign was founded on the myth that immigrants are responsible for our social and economic ills. This not only others people working hard to contribute to society and the economy but obfuscates the government’s failures.

With 52% voting Leave and 48% Remain, a huge wall has been driven between Britain and Europe, Leave and Remain camps, ‘citizens’ and immigrants. It is likely Scotland will hold a second referendum for independence and, if this is successful, will wall itself off from England.

In the face of these divisions it is essential we remember our common ground with those on the other side of the wall rather than listening to those whose power grows from fostering fear and hatred of others. Their blaming of our grievances on immigrants is a myth of the worst kind.

As our government falls apart, now is not the time to look for another Arthur but to reach beyond the wall to our human and non-human neighbours, the living and the dead, to the deities of Annwn, to embrace all others. Let’s avoid a return to the standpoint of Procopius.

~

After Procopius

But on the north side… it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even half an hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy their area as their own.’
Procopius, The History of the Wars (6th C)

North of the Wall I am running
from Roman civilisation
from the ones who build straight roads
from the ones who stand in line.

North of the Wall I am running
to greet my madness
a whirlwind of serpents at my heels
torn-out leaves in my hair.

North of the Wall I am running
amongst mad women
streaking bare through the forest
shedding my second skin.

North of the Wall I am running
with every wild creature
a halo of birds around my coming
open-beaked with soaring wings.

North of the Wall I am running
with the hunger of the wolf-pack
howling and slithery-jawed
erupting into fur and paw.

North of the Wall I am running
with the madness of gwyllon:
shadowed men who come as wolves
the greater shadow of Annwn’s lord.

North of the Wall I am running
until I don’t want to run any more.
In our grove of pine there is silence
and the heartbeat of steady awe.

North of the Wall I stop running
and turn to face my challengers:
roads running on forever
countless rows of spears and shields.

From North of the Wall I return
cloaked in feather and claw.
To breach the gap
and bring down the divide

I am running back from the Wall.

14. Coille Coire Chuilc II - Copy
Last remnants of Celyddon, Collie Coire Chuilc

(1) Cited by August Hunt in The Mysteries of Avalon (2011).
(2) The Caledonian Forest.
(3) A nobleman of Arthur’s court and father of his wife, Gwenhwyfar.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist and is a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython. She is also the editor of this issue of A Beautiful Resistance