“Until oppression ends, the dragons will not rest.”
From Lorna Smithers
I. This Headless Screaming
Several years ago I wrote a poem about a scream erupting from the landscape of Preston:
This headless screaming
is the kind of screaming
that gets into your blood
of a headless Madonna
or a headless black dog
running out of leper colonies,
hospitals and friaries,
shrieking over mills
like an infant’s last cry
or embers in a vagrant’s last pipe
spilled red in any alleyway.
It flaps and flutters in your heart
like an unruly bird,
a carrion cry, a fury.
It will not cease
until its vociferation
is complete. It will not cease.
It struck me as a scream of the dispossessed, those deprived of land and a voice in society: Preston’s confined lepers, condemned recusants, country-dwellers forced from their land into the mills, those who died in the slums with their deficient drains and foul ditches, Chartists gunned down the by the police, force-fed suffragettes, the homeless, unheeded poets and protestors.
II. The Scream Over Annwfn
I later found a reference to Diaspad Uwch Annwfn ‘the scream over Annwfn’ in Will Parker’s Appendix to The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. He refers to it as a ‘mysterious gesture of ritual frenzy… evidently employed by disinherited persons making the transition from the status of proprietor to that of an indentured taeog bondsman’.
Looking into this further I found out, with help from Greg Hill and Andrew Smith (Will Parker’s publisher), that in Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru: A Dictionary of the Welsh Language the diasbad uwch annwfn is defined as a ‘claim for share in an ancestral land (lit. cry over the abyss).’
It appears in several versions of the Welsh Laws texts including The Laws of Hywel Dda (13th C). There it states diasbad is ‘a shriek, cry of distress’ and the expression uwch Annwfn ‘perhaps implies that the claimant is crying out against being expelled from the human world of landed proprietors’. In a section titled ‘Claims by Proprietary Right’ we find the following:
‘If the ninth person comes to ask for land, his proprietorship is extinguished, and he gives a shriek because he is passing from proprietor to non-proprietor. And then the law hears that shriek and gives him an allowance, that is to say, as much as each of their number who are seated against him; and that is called diasbad uwch Annwfn. And though that shriek be given thereafter, it will never be heard; and others say that the ninth person is not entitled to give that shriek, but that he has passed from proprietor to non-proprietor.’
Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales (1841) refers to ‘several ways for claiming land and soil lawfully’ which include ‘by kin and descent’. There it states:
‘the claim does not become extinct, until the end of the ninth generation. And the cry of such a person, becoming from a proprietor to a non-proprietor, in the last descent, will be listened to by the law: and that cry is called a cry over the abyss, and will be listened to… Thereupon, such one is to set up a cry over the deserted place; and he is then entitled to obtain a refuge, and that is as much as the man of greatest conservancy.’
The scream over Annwfn is uttered by a ninth descendant threatened with the loss of unclaimed hereditary land. There exists a tradition of employing the scream to gain a hearing by the law and through that an allowance. It is uttered by the dispossessed to ensure their voices are heard. Its legitimacy seems to be in question in The Laws of Hywel Dda.
III. Invoking the Spirits of Annwfn
There is something primal and archaic about the scream over Annwfn that doesn’t fit with our everyday conception of law-making. Parker mentions it in a section on ‘The Underworld Gods’ who include the Gaulish andedion, the Irish andée, and the British spirits of Annwfn.
From the Gallo-Roman period we possess two tablets relating to the andedion and underworld magic. On The Tablet of Chamalières (50CE) a group of male magical practitioners invoke Andedion ‘Underworld God(s)’ and call upon Maponos Avernatis (the god Maponos) to quicken them by the magic of Andernon ‘underworld spirits’. On The Tablet of Larzac (90CE) a group of women with anuana san- anderna, ‘special underworld names’ employ an incantation using andernados brictum, ‘underworld-group magic’. It seems likely traditions invoking the spirits of Annwfn in a similar way existed in Britain.
Tacitus refers to what may be described as a ‘ritual frenzy’ used by the Britons who defended Mona (Anglesey) from the Romans in 60CE:
‘On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement.’
In medieval Welsh literature the aryal, ‘fury’ of the spirits of Annwfn (who are frequently referred to as dieuyl, ‘devils’) is contained by Gwyn ap Nudd to prevent their destruction of the world. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwfn. Because he contains their furious nature within him and his realm he possesses the power to unleash their fury and to hold it back.
An invocation of Gwyn appears in the Latin manuscript Speculum Christiani (14th C), here translated by Brinley Roberts:
‘Some stupid people also stupidly go the door holding fire and iron in the hands of one 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 love of your mate allow us to come home”. In this they are acting most stupidly that they ask help of the evil spirits which have nothing but eternal damnation…’
This interpretation is heavily Christianised. Yet from it we can glean that Gwyn and the spirits of Annwfn have the ability to take away illness and thus to heal. This may originate from superstitions about them being the source of illness and therefore being able to remove it.
Interestingly, in a Romano-British inscription, Gwyn’s father Nudd/Nodens is called upon to ‘withhold health’ from the thief of a ring until it is returned to his temple.
The scream over Annwfn might have originated as an invocation of the gods and spirits of Annwfn to maintain that a dispossessed person’s claim to their land was heard, and have carried a serious threat to the health and well-being of the land and its inhabitants if it was not.
IV. To Raise Three Shouts
In Culhwch and Olwen (1090) a variant of the scream over Annwfn may appear as a threat employed by Culhwch, cousin of Arthur, when Arthur’s gate-keeper refuses to let him into Arthur’s court:
‘If you open the gate, well and good. If not, I will bring dishonour on your lord and give you a bad name. And I will raise three shouts at the entrance of this gate that will be no less audible on the top of Pen Pengwaedd in Cornwall as at the bottom of Dinsol in the North, and in Esgair Oerfel in Ireland. And all the women in this court that are pregnant shall miscarry, and those that are not, their wombs shall become heavy within them so that they shall never be with child from this day forth.’
Culhwch’s threat to ‘raise three shouts’ could contain a memory of an older ritual procedure. Three is a sacred number to the Celts and the scream/shout may have been uttered three times. Its audibility from Pen Pengwaedd to Dinsol to Esgair Oerfel shows the extent of its reach.
We also find out that it causes pregnant women to miscarry and women who are not pregnant to become barren. The spirits of Annwfn have power over the processes of fertility. In this case Culhwch’s threat to employ the scream because he is shut out of his uncle’s feast feels like a parody of the ritual frenzy of the dispossessed. He is a spoilt rich kid having a tantrum because he cannot his own way. Sadly this fits with the rest of this highly Christianised and Arthurianised text, which consistently makes a mockery of Annwfn and its denizens.
V. Lludd’s Dragon Screams
Parker connects the scream over Annwfn with the second plague in Lludd and Llefelys (12th – 13th C):
‘The second plague was a scream that was heard every May eve above every hearth in the island of Britain. It pierced people’s hearts and terrified them so much that men lost their colour and strength, and women miscarried, and young men and maidens lost their senses, and all animals and trees and the earth and the waters were left barren.’
Once more we find the effect of barrenness, both of the land and of women, with the additional effects of loss of strength and colour, and madness. These could well be attributed to the spirits of Annwfn.
It is significant that the scream takes place on May eve. Every Calan Mai, Gwyn (Winter) fights a battle against Gwythyr (Summer) for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess). Gwyn loses and he and the spirits of Annwfn, who are associated with wintry weather and barrenness, retreat. Gwythyr’s sacred marriage with Creiddylad brings about the fertility of the landscape. The blighting of the land on May eve would have been seen as a cataclysmic precedent to Calan Mai. Perhaps this was the last chance for the spirits of Annwfn to strike before they withdraw.
It is notable that, in Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, it states that a descendant’s claim to land must be made ‘nine days after the calends of winter; or, in nine days after the calends of May.’
‘If he claim on the ninth day of May, he is to have an answer before the nine days to the calends of winter. If he have not then an answer, let him claim in the nine days from the succeeding calends of winter; and, if he do not then obtain it, the law is not ever to be closed against him thenceforth, whenever the Lord be minded to grant him law except in the blank days.’
This shows that claims to land, and the scream over Annwfn, are legally bound up with Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf, which mark the transitions between summer and winter, and the ascendancy and retreat of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwfn as he and Gwythyr battle for Creiddylad.
In Lludd and Llefelys the scream is not uttered by a dispossessed human, but by a dragon! The dragon is connected with Lludd (Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn’s father) who is here presented as a god-king of Britain. Lludd’s dragon is fighting against ‘the dragon of another foreign people’ (the Coriniaid, ‘Romans’) and this is why ‘it gives out a horrible scream’.
As the landscape of Britain is lost to the Romans the dispossessed Britons cry out. This is mirrored in Lludd’s dragon screaming as it loses to the Roman dragon. The scream invokes the spirits of Annwfn with the unfortunate effect of blighting both Roman and Briton and the land itself.
Lludd puts an end to the dragon’s scream by a complex ritual process. Measuring Britain he locates the omphalos, ‘navel’ at Oxford, digs a hole, and puts into it a vat of mead covered by brocaded silk. When the dragons tire of fighting they sink down onto the silk into the vat, drink the mead, and fall asleep. Lludd wraps them up and buries them in a stone chest under Dinas Emrys. This story is set during the invasion of Caesar in 55BC. It seems Lludd’s putting an end to the battle between the British and Roman dragons/Britons and Romans and hence to the scream and plague upon the land is successful. The dragons are returned to the underworld and silenced and the spirits of Annwfn are no longer invoked to bring about destruction. Yet it will not be long before the Romans return to complete their invasion of Britain.
VI. It Will Not Cease
In the time of Vortigern, during the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the dragons reawaken. Merlin Emrys tells Vortigern the red dragon of the Welsh is battling against the white dragon of the Anglo-Saxons. Nothing is said about the scream but, as at all times of war, no doubt a plague of terror falls upon the land, weakening its inhabitants as the dispossessed cry out against their losses.
It might be assumed that the dragons battle and scream at all times of oppression when people are dispossessed and crying out – the Viking and Norman invasions, Edward 1st’s Conquest of Wales, during the Reformation, the Enclosures, the Highland Clearances, the Industrial Revolution…
The likenesses between the name Nudd/Lludd King of Britain and Ned Ludd/General Ludd/King Ludd, the eponymous figurehead of the Luddites, whose war cry was ‘down with all kings but Ludd!’ suggest Lludd and his dragon took the side of the workers fighting against the cotton lords.
From a mythic perspective the Industrial Revolution might be seen as the greatest plague known to Britain. The dragon screams with the dispossessed driven from their land into factories. Workers on twelve hour shifts graft like the living dead drained of strength and colour. In the slums and shanty towns illness is rife. Women miscarry and infants die in their arms. Asylums fill with those driven insane by the loss of their autonomy. Smoke poisons the air, rivers run purple with dye, birds and fish are poisoned, plants and trees and wither, and we no longer see the touch of the spirits of Annwfn invoked by the scream. Is it any wonder it still lingers in our ears in old mill towns such as Preston where the Industrial Revolution began?
Industrialisation has not reached an end – it continues in house building, road building, fracking, in the continuing development of military aircraft and the weapons industry, all laying claim to more and more land. Those who cry out against these encroachments are seldom heard.
A good many of us have no claim to land, let alone land passed down through nine generations of ancestors. A third of the land is owned by the aristocracy and 0.6 of the population own 50 per cent of rural land. Collectively we are dispossessed and our screams at the injustice of society join the scream over Annwfn proliferating the blight.
How do we deal with this scream, this plague, this endless battle between two dragons? Our myths and the Welsh Laws suggest that the blight will not end until the scream has been heard and an allowance has been made to the dispossessed. Until oppression ends the dragons will not rest.
In the meantime we can learn to be aware of the effects of our screams and the powers we unwittingly summon. We can work with the spirits of Annwfn to destroy and heal and draw upon the wisdom of Lludd/Nudd and Gwyn to teach us the times for fierceness and mead-soaked dreaming.
With thanks to Andrew Smith for telling me the scream over Annwfn appears in the Welsh Laws texts and sharing the link to Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, to Greg Hill for the citation from The Laws of Hywel Dda, and to Will Parker for confirming my intuition that the scream over Annwfn originated as an invocation of the spirits of Annwfn.
Aneurin Owen (transl), Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, (University of Michigan, 2008)
Brinley Roberts, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd’ in Llen Cymru, XIII (jonor-gorffenaf, 1980/1)
Dafydd Jenkins (transl), The Laws of Hywel Dda, (Gomer 2000)
John T. Koch (ed), The Celtic Heroic Age, (Celtic Studies Publications, 2003)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tacitus, Annals, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/tacitus/annals/14b*.html
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
Will Parker, ‘Lludd a Llefelys’ http://www.mabinogion.info/llud.htm
Lorna Smithers is a poet, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here, and a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython. She performs poetry in her home county of Lancashire in the North West of England and blogs at Signposts in the Mist.
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