Plotting the Fall of the King

Said Arthur, “Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained?”

Said one of his men, “There isthe blood of the witch Orddu, the daughter of the witch Orwen, of Penn Nant Govid, on the confines of Hell.”

From Culhwch and Olwen

British colonialism soaks through English-speaking Paganism like fetid morning piss. Glance through the shelves of witch bookstores and, once you get past the how-to’s on crystal communication and appropriative dream-catcher spirituality, you find books full of it: delusions of chivalric murderers, bent-knee begging for noble sovereigns, and bourgeois rituals of lords and ladies playing sex by sticking dull knives into etsy-bought chalices.

This should not surprise us. Wicca—the most prevalent of the Pagan traditions—was started by a British Colonial Administrator (Gerald Gardner) and a one-time member of two British fascist groups (Doreen Valiente; National Front and Northern League). Why wouldn’t modern Paganism find itself stained with the trappings of Empire?

No place is this seen more than the spiritualisation of the Arthurian myths. Equal parts feudal nostalgia and patriarchal obsession, the Pagan longing for the return of Great Sovereigns who might restore the balance of the world is inseparable from the nationalist fictions of fading white dominance.

Along with King Arthur (that giant-killing, witch-slaughtering thief), many traditions, particularly Druidry, find deep alchemical meaning in the form of another problematic figure: Taliesin. Born Gwion Bach, a boy tasked to watch a cauldron for a witch, he stole wisdom from a witch-goddess and went on to serve kings. Whereas Prometheus stole fire from the gods to help humans, Taliesin stole the creative force of the world to serve the imperial ambitions of slaughtering empire.

While Peter Grey challenged Pagan elders for their desire to defang witchcraft, and I have aggressed them for their allegiance with Capital, Lorna Smithers has done something even more dangerous than either of us. In The Broken Cauldron, the awenydd and poet becomes the Old Mother of the Universe herself, rebirthing beheaded giants and slaughtered witches through the starry cauldron of poetry.  In the otherworld halls of the Gatherer of Souls she collects their bones, caresses their withered heads, and speaks their condemnations into our polluted, irradiated present.

Several figures recur in her mythic wanderings, suppressed blackened figures given scant reference in the Welsh lore. One such is the witch, Orddu (Welsh: Very Black), slain by King Arthur to claim a vial of her blood. According to Culhwch and Olwen, the servants of King Arthur volunteered to go fight her first so that his honor would not be stained (what King would want to be seen fighting a common woman?) Servant after servant fought against her and failed, wrestled to the ground by her bare strength alone, until Arthur himself was ‘man enough’ to fight her.

He slayed Orddu, split her in two, and collected her blood. Another trophy for a British king, another relic in the Royal museum, given three paragraphs in the Welsh bardic lore until Orddu’s bones are gathered again by a rogue awenydd:

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story, every world, every myth, with his hatred of witches, with his living knife, to put an end to wild, recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years. Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Giving us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Taking away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Confining us to virginity and chastity belts. Cutting us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Arthur was not just a witch-killer, but a giant-slayer, slaughtering ancient land-god after land-god to gain their cauldrons and their power. Subduing the earth beneath him, sending the old ways under hill into Annwn, even then following after. Accompanied by the sycophantic Taliesin, he stole what the land hid from him. Amongst these otherworldy ‘spoils’ was the cauldron of Annwn, once held by the Welsh giant Brân whose head once protected Britain from invasion. We read in the Welsh triads that Arthur dug that up, too, finding it unseemly that the common people relied upon a land-god, rather than their slaughtering, arrogant king.

It’s in this last fact that we glimpse the reason for Paganism’s Arthurian obsession. Tales of a king who needed no godsonly strength and the magic of his advisorsread in the context of British colonialism suddenly seem less like myth and more like imperial propaganda. The gods of land subdued, the power of witch-women destroyed: For traditions claiming to venerate the earth and the divine feminine, the prominence of Arthurian forms and Taliesin start to seem hypocritical.

Broken Cauldron, Chernobyl

Orddu is not the only dark shadow re-awakened into Lorna’s poetry. Taliesin stole the awen from Ceridwen, who did not brew it for herself. Rather, the draught was boiled and stirred for her malformed son, Afagddu (Welsh: Utter Dark), later also called Morfrân (Welsh: Sea Raven). When first I encountered the story of Taliesin’s birth and Ceridwen’s chase, I took no delight in it. The selfless act of a mother to grant her disfigured child wisdom was sabotaged by the thoughtlessness of a child who later upheld kings and helped kill giants. What is there to love in this story?

And anyway, what happened to Afagddu?

Lorna answers this question delightfully, repeatedly giving Afagddu voice. Most startling is his tale in her piece, Sea Raven:

There’s been another disaster at the chemical plant, three people injured, one missing presumed dead. That young man’s name was Gwion Bach. He was employed in the control room in charge of the 30,000 gallon reactor vessel. His task was to keep the paddle stirring at several thousand revolutions a minute and monitor the changes in heat and pressure.

He was an absentminded sort, so lost in daydreams he didn’t realise the paddle had stuck. The temperature rose over 300°F. By the time he’d filled the cooling jacket it was too late. With a sound like a jet engine and deafening crash, the reactor exploded with a blast that broke every window.

Gwion was seen staggering from the control room like a drunk toward the toxic brew, dipping his finger in and putting it to his lips, his hair standing on end, before my wrathful mother leapt from the offices and he hare-footed it away with her hot on his heels.

Retelling ancient myths in modern settings is a tired trope, but Lorna is not writing urban fantasy.  Rather than recycling old stories for new audiences, she expands the (nuclear) core of the broken cauldrons and shows that they are still shattering.

After all, what else is atomic energy but a cauldron of shattered stars? When oil spills pollute the earth and oceans, is this not also the poisoning of the land after Gwion shattered Ceridwen’s cauldron? And the industrialisation of war: does not the giant-forged Cauldron of Annwn still bring forth unspeaking, obedient warriors?

For King and Country, I bore the cauldron whilst Arthur’s advisers listened to wheezing chests and throats of phlegm; counted blisters; bandaged weeping, reddened skin. I fought off green waves of nausea as it buckled my knees and wore a hollow in my spine.

When I heard an old woman’s lament, I repeated my mantra, plugged my ears as she screamed while the soldiers of Prydain unleashed poisonous gases at Loos and the Somme and foreign men drowned in yellow-green seas.

The powerthe magicof the awenyddion is to bend time around them and dance in those re-connected threads. The greater magic still is to pull you into their dance, to weave you into those threads so that, when you have left, you and time are still tangled in knots.

Post-colonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote of these ‘time-knots’ in his introduction to Provincializing Europe, a book whose confrontation of European (and especially British) exceptionalism makes irrelevant most of the stories of kings and empire:

“what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is precisely the fact that these worlds are never lost. It is because we live in time-knots that we can undertake the task of straightening some part of the knot (which is what chronology is). Subaltern pastsaspects of these time-knotsact as a supplement to the historian’s past and in fact aid our capacity to historicize.”

It’s precisely this that Lorna does. Afagddu, Orrdu, Diwrnachthese are the subaltern pasts Paganism tries to deny. By telling their stories, we hear the cauldrons shatter again not because they are in the past, but they are shattering even now.

Ecological destruction, technological optimism, capitalist exuberance and industrialised warfarethese are the only stories kings can tell. The boy Gwion became the thief Taliesin, and the suppressed blackened ones spill out from oil wells, explode from shattered nuclear reactors, poisoning the world.

And we come to the final horror of our Paganism when we remember that both Capitalism and Industrialisation (and as Lorna points out, the very first nuclear reactor) each started in the same land where Arthur slayed witches and giants, where Taliesin broke the cauldron. And like that broken cauldron, they have all swept like choking black poison out to every part of the world.

“What lies in the cauldron now you have done away with the knowledge of wise women? Split the witches in half? Killed the giants? Driven to the seas the most ancient of boars? You are on the wrong quest, looking for the wrong grail, the cure-all that does not exist.”

If even our Pagan myths are the self-delusions of empire, then what is left for us? Though we who hear the silenced voices might raise the dead so that they might use our lips, will this ever be enough to stop the endless sundering? What good would be the reawakening of that suppressed blackness, the beheaded gods of land?

I do not know; but blackened witches, beheaded giants, and disfigured crows insist we try anyway:

Feathered arches of black wings tore from my shoulders and cracked open. My feet shrunk into claws and my body tightened into bird-form. With a black-beaked scream I flew away from the Court of the King of Suffering and broke the Spell of Nine Maidens.

Yet the death of the dead did not stop the bloodshed. Today corpses are flown in on steel horses, driven down long, wet roads to be laid on slabs in mortuaries. I no longer wish to raise them. I travel the country winged, cawing my truth and plotting the fall of the King.

In such plotting perhaps is a path far less blood-soaked than the shattering of our world.

Lorna Smithers’ book, The Broken Cauldron, is available here.

Rhyd Wildermuth

6tag_221116-215034Rhyd is a co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He was born in Appalachia, lives nomadically, speaks with stars and dead things, and likes tea.

He is an anarchist, theorist, Pagan, Marxist, punk, and really damn good cook.

He writes at Gods&Radicals and on his own blog, Paganarch.

9 thoughts on “Plotting the Fall of the King

  1. Not that I need any convincing to get my eyes on “The shattered cauldron” your review did it fair share of intriguing me. This seems very fitting as a present for myself and a o good read for the upcoming corporate holiday.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think pretty much every Wiccan would be prepared to admit that our founders were not particularly glorious.

    I think that either Doreen misunderstood what the National Front were all about, and left once she had realised; or that she actually was infiltrating them for spying reasons. The latter conclusion is borne out by the letter she wrote to the Farrars stating that she had infiltrated a group, and that she was worried by the degree of fascism in England.

    And it does seem inconsistent with her other stated positions. And people can change. She also argued for LGBTQ people to be included in Wicca and Paganism.

    Please read the whole chapter (or even the book, “Doreen Valiente: Witch” by Philip Heselton) before leaping to conclusions. It’s not clear what she was up to, and I think more research is needed.

    And honestly, if I thought she was definitely a fascist, I would be really upset. I think there’s a big question mark around this issue, though.

    As to Gerald Gardner: yes, he was a colonial administrator, but he was also one of the few that was actually interested in the locals, and talked to Malaysian people – for example, proving that Malaysians had built large ocean-going vessels (contrary to the racist rhetoric of his day).

    Gardner was also flaky, weird, inconsistent, and frequently made stuff up (like his fake PhD). Philip Heselton doesn’t gloss over any of that in his biography of Gardner.

    As to whether the whole of Wicca is somehow tainted by all this… it certainly means we should examine our structures and rituals to be sure that we’ve got rid of any such notions. I personally believe that oaths of secrecy are unhelpful, but am very unlikely to be able to convince my co-religionists of that. I do think that there is a limit to what can be called Wicca (and I don’t think that initiatory Wicca has a monopoly on the term; but some of the fluffy New Age stuff that passes for Wicca is not helpful).

    And the stories of Taliesin, Arthur, Afagddu, Ceridwen etc are not referred to in any of the original BoS rituals, so that stuff would be a problem for Druidry.

    Various early Wiccans were rather excited by the king-sacrifice story about William Rufus and Walter Tyrrell — or at least, Margaret Murray was excited about it — but I find it hard to see how sacrificing kings has anything to do with fascism. (Sacred kings who don’t get sacrificed is fascistic, certainly, but not ones that get bumped off.)

    On a separate point: Lorna’s book sounds intriguing.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think pretty much every Wiccan would be prepared to admit that our founders were not particularly glorious.

    I think that either Doreen misunderstood what the National Front were all about, and left once she did realise that (though her resignation letter is ambivalent); OR that she was actually infiltrating them. The latter conclusion is borne out by her letter to the Farrars stating that she had infiltrated a fascist group, and that the UK was sick with fascism.

    In 1997, in her talk at the Pagan Federation conference, she stood up for LGBT people being included in Wicca and Paganism, and stated that she believed Gerald had been wrong about it. I was there.

    Please read the whole chapter (or even the whole book, “Doreen Valiente, Witch” by Philip Heselton) before leaping to conclusions.

    As to Gardner, yes he was a colonial administrator, but he was also one who talked to the locals, learnt their languages and folklore, and proved that the Malaysians had built large ocean-going ships (contrary to the racist notions prevailing at the time). He also wrote about the Malay Kris. He was immersed in a racist society – but I’d say he was less racist than many, if not most, of his contemporaries.

    However, he was also flaky, weird, unreliable, and frequently just made stuff up – like his fake PhD. Philip Heselton doesn’t gloss over any of this in his biography of Gardner. So when Philip says that he is not sure of the motivations of Doreen joining the NF, I believe him. I would be really upset if I thought Doreen was a fascist, but if she really was, then it doesn’t do any good to try to cover it up. However, I think the evidence is somewhat inconclusive, and further research is needed.

    Does this mean we should examine the structure of Wicca to see if there is any lingering taint of fascism? Certainly it does.

    Some have argued that Wicca’s hierarchical and initiatory structure is inherently dodgy. I for one would like to see less insistentence on oathbound secrets, as I don’t think it is healthy, but most of my co-religionists don’t agree.

    As to Afagddu, Cerridwen, Taliesin, and Arthur – that story is not in any core Wiccan rituals, i.e. the ones in the BoS. Granted, early Wiccans (or at least Margaret Murray) were rather interested in the myth of the sacrificed god-king — but whilst I agree that sacred kingship is fascistic, I think bumping off your sacred king is a very effective way of ensuring he doesn’t get too much power. Except I suppose that the idea is then to appoint another one.

    On a separate point: Lorna’s book sounds interesting.

    I think it would have been much better if you had written a separate article about the whole Doreen thing.

    And WordPress ate the first version of this comment, argh.


  4. I would also like to speak up for Doreen Valiente. It is well-known that her husband fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side – not usually the mark of a fascist. I had direct correspondence with Doreen during the 1980’s in my work as Pagans Against Nukes. She was always supportive of this work – again, hardly indicative of a fascist. I am not aware as to evidence of her membership of objectionable organisations (reference please anyone). There may be some confusion here regarding the origin of the UK Pagan Federation in which Doreen was involved. I believe that this was indeed briefly known as ‘Wiccan Front’ or possibly ‘Pagan Front’. The usage has nothing to do with the fascist NF. Rather, the organisation was specifically intended as a ‘public front’ for Gardnerian covens (others were ‘the wrong kind of witch’) intended as a ‘transmission belt’ to direct occultist ‘seekers’ to the ‘inner court’. This way of working was not much different from that of ‘front organisations’ adopted by Communists at various times. In later life (her book ‘Witchcraft for Tomorrow), Doreen endorsed the opening up of the coven-monopoly via self-initiation and so on – again not to my mind the mark of a fascist or authoritarian.


    1. Phillip Heselton has shown she was a member of both the National Front and the Northern League, the former for 18 months.
      He theorises that she was either spying on them for the UK government or that she was clueless as to their fascist goals.


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