‘Summer here and winter there
My longest day your darkest night’
From Lorna Smithers
I. Gwyn’s Hall
It’s midsummer 2013. I’ve just got home from my packing job. It’s not a particularly hot solstice, but the noise of the sun-stand-still and my conflicts with my life and the world are burning in my brain.
I haven’t been one for festivals, dancing all night until the sun comes up, since my madder years. I want silence, solace, darkness. I plan to go the Leaning Yew where I met Gwyn ap Nudd, my Winter God, make an offering of mead to him in his frozen castle in the depths of Annwn.
I open the mead. Several sips later I’m composing a poem. One of those poems that writes itself. Inspired contrarily by bees and sunshine and the ice of a demand from another world:
Summer here and winter there
My longest day your darkest night
Hoar frost drapes your haunted fortress
Whilst swallows ride my glowing sunlight.
Summer here and winter there
My brightest day your longest night
Whilst blackbirds sing my endless fanfare
Crazy owl streaks across your vaunted midnight.
Winter there and summer here
And I between them like the song
That lies unsung between the years
Between your hall and my brief home.
‘Without Contraries is no progression’ wrote William Blake in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (1790).
‘Summer here and winter there,’ I’m mouthing those words again, thinking of the contrasts between the Global North and the Global South, Thisworld and the Otherworld. Of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, Ice Ages and Interglacials, Snowball Earth and her molten beginnings.
It was the hottest May on record here in the UK and the first two weeks in June have been scorching. It’s clear we’re experiencing global warming, but scientists are unsure what the outcome will be. Will the earth continue to warm or will her adjustive measures flip instead to global cooling? It’s said our computer-generated models are flawed and cannot predict the future.
Science has its limits. One of our oldest myths from northern Britain tells that Gwyn and Gwythyr, Summer and Winter, will battle until the Day of Doom, the end of the world. Of course, the apocalypse, the day of uncovering and revelation, gyrates eternally between the poles of always and never.
Our drive toward progress has led to devastation, the rubble piling up at the feet of the Angel of History, our seasonal gods being blown on the winds of our folly into an unpredictable future.
“Will you walk with me through mist, darkness, and uncertainty?”
This was the question Gwyn posed the day before I got the tattoo of his hounds, a pair of Cwn Annwn, on my right shoulder as a symbol of my devotion to him last year for my thirty-sixth birthday.
Certainty is, perhaps, the reason people join a religion. We like to have answers about the ends and beginnings of the world, the existence of God/the gods, what will happen in the future, when we die.
Religions answer these questions. Science, our new religion, provides the answers, but for how long?
Gwyn, the Gatherer of Souls, makes no promises. Perhaps he does not know when someone will lose everything – their mind, their life, their soul, and he’ll be called to convey them to the Otherworld.
The debris of Thisworld keeps piling up in Annwn, the living keep dying, and it makes no sense at all.
IV. Too Many Souls
Fire and ice. The sun on my skin. The knowing that one day my flesh will be cold. Summer and Winter. Life and Death. Too many moths are gone, too many butterflies, too many souls.
Elk, aurochs, lynx, bear, wolf, great auk, white stork, agile frog, blue stag beetle, horned dung beetle, apple bumblebee, mason wasp, large copper, flame brocade, mazarine blue, frosted yellow.
Young men sent to fight in ceaseless wars. Revolutionaries gunned down by the law. Old women hung and burned for magic they may or may not have practiced. Those dead on the streets whose names we’ll never know, poets whose words we’ll never hear, children who never had the chance to live.
I try to catch the flies, the bees, the wasps, when they come in through my window, with a piece of cardboard and plastic cup, release them back to life, but still they pile up on my windowsill. I can’t help it.
Is that how Gwyn feels? Does he feel anything on a midsummer night asleep in the Castle of Cold Stone?
V. The Wintry Hag
In ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937) David Jones compares a ‘starving night’ on the Western Front to ‘Pen Nant Govid, on the confines of hell’ and notes the passage ‘has to do with the frozen regions of the Celtic underworld’ where ‘sits that wintry hag, the black sorceress, the daughter of the white sorceress.’
He’s talking about Orddu, ‘Very Black’, daughter of Orwen, ‘Very White’, the last of a lineage of ‘witches’: wise women, warriors, prophets, practitioners of underworld magic associated with Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn who held a powerful position in northern Britain until the sixth century.
On a cold winter’s night Orddu was slaughtered by Arthur and her blood was drained and bottled. What would the world be like if our Annuvian traditions had not been destroyed? If Arthur had not claimed dominance over Gwythyr and Gwyn, Summer and Winter? Would we have a better understanding of the wild unpredictability of the seasons and deeper awareness of the effects of our actions?
If Arthur had not succeeded in his raid on Annwn, his oppression of the old gods, the ancestral animals, the giants, the witches, would we have this Empire to which after his long sleep beneath the hollow hills he has returned as the Once and Future King, all guns blazing, with his hawkish knights?
VI. Dig Deep
I go to seek advice, not from Orddu or Orwen, but from Eira, ‘Snow’, the first of that lineage of inspired ones to return to Pennant Gofid, ‘The Valley of Grief’, which I believe was earlier known as Pennant Gaeaf, ‘The Valley of Winter’, after sojourning further south, at the end of the Ice Age.
She and her descendants also lived through a time of unprecedented global warming – as the glaciers melted herds and people moving further north, new trees and plants marching in, sea levels rising.
Snow is dark-skinned. Her hair is black and flecked with snow-like spots. She’s wrapped in wolf’s furs, her eyes are wolfish, and wolfish dogs are her only companions in the ‘hag’s cave’ where her lineage lived, passing on their wisdom and prophecies from the depths of Annwn for thousands of years.
She advises me to “dig deep.” As she knew the trees, plants, birds, and animals, the river of her valley, its weather patterns, its spirits and all the routes to the Otherworld, to get to know my own. To learn from them, from the ancestors who too have seen great change, to seek the perspectives of Others.
The next evening I’m deeply impressed by the resilience of the little brook who flows through Greencroft Valley and allows us to use her waters for the wildflowers and apple trees. Whilst the Ribble runs low she seems no lower, flowing from an underground source like the awen from Annwn, the cold breath of my god with which I’m blessed to write this essay in the summer’s heat.
is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how our ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new stories. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published two books: Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at ‘Signposts in the Mist‘.