The Cloud Seeders Part Three

“Recovering our pagan traditions we could learn again to swim in the skies, return with cloud seeds to sow new myths, new rites, to recite and paint the poetry of clouds”

From Lorna Smithers



The science of meteorology (from the Greek metéōron ‘thing up high’) has ancient roots. In his Meteorology 350BCE Aristotle developed explanations of the weather based on the relationships between the four elements: ‘fire, air, water, earth’. He provided an early theory of cloud formation: ‘The exhalation of water is vapour: air condensing into water is cloud. Mist is what is left over when a cloud condenses into water, and is therefore rather a sign of fine weather than of rain; for mist might be called a barren cloud… From the latter there fall three bodies condensed by cold, namely rain, snow, hail.’ His work was developed by his successor, Theophrastrus, in ‘On Weather Signs’.

Naturalistic explanations of the weather sat reasonably comfortably alongside polytheism. Once Christianity became the dominant religion, scientific principles were replaced by the doctrine of the Bible. Aristotle’s ideas were kept alive by Muslim scholars and revived in Europe in the 12th century.

During the Renaissance the four elements became central to philosophers and occultists. For Cornelius Agrippa, in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1531 – 1533), the elements were the basis of magic: ‘As therefore the Fire is to the Aire, so Aire is to the Water, and Water to the Earth; and again, as the Earth is to the Water, so is the Water to the Aire, and the Aire to the Fire… he which shall know these qualities of the Elements… shall be perfect in Magick.’

In the Liber de Nymphis in the Philosophia Magna (1556) Paracelsus introduced spirits associated with the four elements: salamanders (fire), sylphs (air), undines (water), and gnomes (earth). ‘As a fish lives in the water, it being its element, so each being lives in its own element.’ ‘The sylphs/sylvestres ‘are the nearest related to us, for they live in the air like ourselves; they would be drowned if they were under water, and they would suffocate in the earth and be burned in the fire.’

Once again agency was attributed to spirits who shaped the weather. In a remarkable passage in Of Spectres (1593) Randall Hutchins spoke of ‘aerial spirits, who, straying here and there in the air, tread nearer us. Such can descend to lower regions quicker than thought and, having taken on bodies from the denser air, appear visibly at times.’ He claimed they appeared to his father as ‘men of the air’. ‘These spirits often disturb the air, stir up tempests and thunders. They do not retain one form, but take on various forms, and change these according to the manifold variety of attitudes they encounter.’

Robert Burton also wrote of ‘aerial spirits’ in his ‘Digression of the Nature of Spirits’ (1621), saying they ‘are such as keep quarter most part in the aire, cause many tempests, thunder, and lightnings, tear Oakes.’ Both Hutchins and Burton believed these spirits could be invoked by witches and magicians.

The paradigmatic example of an aerial spirit is Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (or The Enchanted Island) (1611). Ariel was bound to serve the magician, Prospero, who rescued from him a tree, where he was imprisoned by the witch, Sycorax. It is he who caused the tempest which destroyed the ship of Prospero’s brother, Antonio, the usurper of Prospero’s position as Duke of Milan.

At the beginning of the play Ariel boasts of his abilities ‘to fly, to swim, to shoot into the fire, to ride on the the curl’d Clouds’. It is slowly revealed he is a being of immense power with the ability to charm, bind, and imprison mortals ‘with Walls of Adamant, / Invisible as air.’ In one night he flies across the earth collecting herbs then to the planet that ruled each to increase their power to cure Hippolito

Although the name Ariel, with its –el (god) suffix seems related to the names of the angels, he is clearly an elemental spirit. He speaks of his origins in ‘the lightsome Regions of the Air’ and says ‘we Airy Spirits are not of temper / So malicious as the Earthy, / But of a Nature more approaching good. / For which we meet in swarms, and often combat / Betwixt the Confines of the Air and Earth.’

Through Ariel Shakespeare gave voice to an occult philosophy wherein aerial spirits occupied the sublunar regions between the celestial spirits (angels) and earth spirits and controlled the weather. His representation contrasts with Biblical doctrines in which spirits of the air were identified with devils.

The relationship between Ariel and his ‘master’ Prospero is complex and quite moving. At some points Ariel is willing to serve, ‘All hail great Master, grave Sir, hail, I come to answer thy best pleasure’, whilst at others he rails against his servitude, ‘Why shou’d a mortal by Enchantments hold / In chains a spirit of ætherial mould?’ At the end he is finally freed and the ‘Enchanted Isle’ flourishes.

Shakespeare’s artistic representation of a relationship between a magician and an aerial spirit with power and personhood at a time when witches and magicians who interacted with spirits were being persecuted was quite radical. Although learned magicians (usually men) were targeted less than uneducated witches (usually women) persecutions still took place. Giordano Bruno was tried in Rome on account of seven charges including ‘dealings in magic and divination’. In 1600 with ‘his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words’ he was hung upside down naked then burnt at the stake.

The Enlightenment, which ended the witch hunts by ending the belief in spirits and magic, also culled the Renaissance occult tradition. The scientific revolution replaced theories about aerial spirits with scientific laws. The potential for re-establishing our relationships with the spirits of the skies was snuffed out and would not gain popularity again until the occult revival of the mid-19th century.


During the scientific revolution nature was subjected to the mechanical principles of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). With thermometer, barometer, anemometer, hydrometer, hygrometer, rain and wind gauges the skies were weighed and measured. Even the ever-changing clouds were classified and systematised.

In ‘The Modifications of Clouds’ (1803) Luke Howard established seven modifications based on Latin words: cirrus ‘curl’, cumulus ‘heap’, stratus ‘layer’, nimbus ‘rain’. 1. Cirrus 2. Cumulus 3. Stratus 4. Cirro-cumulus 5. Cirro-stratus 6. Cumulo-stratus 7. Cumulo-cirro-stratus vel Nimbus.

These replaced the older poetic names of which, sadly, only a few remain in living memory. In English: sheep’s backs, buttermilk, mackerel skies. In Welsh: cwmylau blew geifr ‘goat’s hair clouds’, cwmwl boliog ‘pregant clouds’, cwmwl cawn ‘reed-grass clouds’, cwmwl caws a llaeth ‘cheese and milk clouds’, cwmwl psygod awr ‘fish of the air clouds’, cwmwl torgoch ‘red-bellied clouds’.

The science of cloud seeding was discovered by the French pharmacist Paul-Jean Coulier and Scottish meterologist John Aitken. In papers published in 1875 and 1880 they conducted experiments with similar results supporting the explanation: ‘vapours condense on solid airborne nuclei’. Together they validated the ‘condensation nuclei hypothesis.’

In 1911 the Scottish physicist Charles Wilson perfected the cloud chamber – a sealed device containing air supersaturated with water vapour which detected charged particles by their condensation trails. Experimenting with a cloud chamber the American meteorologist Vincent Shaefer discovered that clouds can be seeded from dry ice in 1946. His colleague, Bernard Vonnegut, learnt that silver iodide, which has a similar crystalline structure to ice, works the same way.

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Soon afterwards governments across the world began experimenting with cloud seeding to modify the weather and for military purposes. In the early 1950s the British military conducted an experiment into rainmaking called Operation Cumulus. Its aims were clearing airfields of fog, ‘bogging down enemy movement’, and ‘incrementing the water flow in rivers and streams to hinder or stop enemy crossings’. There was also talk of exploding ‘an atomic weapon in a seeded storm system or cloud’.

Pilots poured salt, dry ice, or silver iodide, into the tops of clouds. A pilot called Alan Yates expressed his elation at bringing about a heavy downpour over Staines in Middlesex. On the 15th of August 1952 disaster followed. A terrible flash flood hit Lynmouth in Devon, destroying buildings and bridges and killing 35 people. Operation Cumulus was put on hold. The UK government has still not admitted to responsibility for causing this tragedy. The US military notoriously seeded clouds during the Vietnam War on the Ho Chi Minh trail to increase the monsoon season.

Across Europe cloud seeding is used to prevent hail storms from damaging crops and vineyards. When hail cloud formation is detected silver iodide is either dropped from planes or fired by hail cannons, seeding smaller hailstones higher in the atmosphere which melt before hitting the ground.

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In drier places cloud seeding is being utilised to create rain. The most ambitious project is taking place in China on the Tibetan plateau where tens of thousands of fuel burning chambers are being built to produce silver iodide which will be swept into the clouds by the wind. This will result in an increase of rainfall by up to 10 billion cubic metres a year across an area of 620,000 square miles.

The United Arab Emirates recently launched its £3.6 million UAE Research Programme for Rain Enhancement last year. Last year, in the first three months, 101 cloud seeding operations took place. This resulted in two months of ‘unusually wet weather’ and record rainfall was recorded in Dubai and Al Ain.

On the downside cloud seeding has resulted in a sudden temperature drop closing roads in Beijing, 600 accidents caused by rain in Dubai, and the flooding and floods that killed 100 people in Jeddah. Scientists have voiced concerns about unpredictable effects and the possibility it might change the climate.

Seeding clouds to prevent crop damage and create rain for the purposes of human survival is, perhaps, ethically viable. It seems less so when used purely for the defence of capitalist interests. It also used by car manufacturers based in North America to stop hail storms damaging the cars. People near the Nissan plant in Mississippi have voiced complaints about the noise of the hail cannons and farmers in Mexico have accused Volkswagen of ruining their crops by causing a drought.

Cloud seeding has also been used to create snow at ski resorts – the weather manipulated to provide pleasure for the rich. In a jaw-dropping example of ultra-capitalism, UK company Oliver’s Travels charge £100,000 to use cloud seeding to clear the skies in advance of weddings at select venues in France.

The most disturbing thing about cloud seeding technologies is they have the potential to be abused in wars for water. When they are in the hands of capitalists it will always be certain the poorest people will suffer along with the earth’s non-human inhabitants who are rarely given consideration.

Disasters such as Lynmouth and Jeddah provide just a taste of what might happen if we continue to treat the skies like a cloud chamber without consulting the sky gods or considering the global impact.


In the paintings of Eugene Boudin (1824 -1898) awesome cloudscapes dwarf les parasites dorés ‘the golden parasites’ (the upper classes) and place humans within nature rather than above it.

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In his diary Boudin wrote: ‘To swim in the open sky. To achieve the tenderness of clouds. To suspend these masses in the distance, very far away in the grey mist, make the blue explode. I feel all this coming, dawning in my intentions. What joy and what torment! If the bottom were still, perhaps I would never reach these depths. Did they do better in the past? Did the Dutch achieve the poetry of clouds I seek? That tenderness of the sky which even extends to admiration, to worship: it is no exaggeration.’

It is the loss of this kind of worshipful attitude toward the sky and its gods and spirits that has resulted in cloud seeding. I believe this is something we need to win back as artists and pagans if we are to live in tune with the changing climate rather than working against it and causing further disasters.

Recovering our pagan traditions we could learn again to swim in the skies, return with cloud seeds to sow new myths, new rites, to recite and paint the poetry of clouds. To seed a new world based on respectful relationship with the gods and spirits of the skies, the animate earth and all her inhabitants.


Andrew Griffin, ‘Rain-free Weddings’, Belfast Telegraph, (2015)
Britta K. Ager, Roman Agricultural Magic, (The University of Michigan, 2010)
Boudin, ‘Skies’, Muma Le Havre,
Detlev Möller, ‘On the History of the Scientific Exploration of Fog, Dew, Rain and Other Atmospheric Water’, Die Erde, 139, (2008)
Franz Hartmann (transl), The Life and the Substance of the Teachings of Paracelsus, (Philalethians, 2018)
Jessica Brown, ‘Cloud Seeding: Should we be playing god and controlling the weather?’, The Independent, (2018)
John Vidal and Helen Weinstein, ‘RAF rainmakers ‘caused 1952 flood’’, The Guardian, (2001)
Luke Howard, ‘The Modifications of Clouds’, (John and Churchill, 1803)
Olivia Solon, ‘Rain Dancing 2.0: Should humans be using tech to control the weather?’, The Guardian, (2018)
Randall Hutchins, Virgil B. Heltzel and Clyde Murley (transl.) ‘Of Spectres’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, (1948)
Shakespeare, The Tempest,
Stephan Harding, Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, (Green Books, 2009)
Stephen Chen, ‘China needs more water. So it’s building a rain making network the size of Spain’, South China Morning Post, (2018)
W. Stacy Johnson, ‘The Genesis of Ariel’, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, (1951)

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Profile July 2018 MediumLorna Smithers 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 three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.

The Cloud Seeders Part Two

the disappearance of “the hedge of mist, and the magic and enchantment”… symbolises the banishing of the gods of the mist and practitioners of weather magic from Britain’ 

From Lorna Smithers

Glastonbury Tor Calan Mai 2013

This is the second of a three part series exploring the roots of the coercive technology of cloud seeding. The first part can be read HERE.

IV. Banishing the Mists

After the Roman Empire collapsed in 476 the Roman Catholic Church retained its power. Throughout the early Middle Ages Christians worked to bring about the conversion of the Western world. People were converted and pagan shrines and temples reconsecrated in the name of Christian God.

Many stories passed down orally from this period and penned by Christian scribes contain scenes where Christian saints and warriors battled directly against pagan gods and spirits identified with devils and with wizards and witches who served them as prophets and weather workers.

In Adomnan’s The Life of Columba (640), Broichan the wizard threatened to impede Columba’s voyage with his ‘power to produce an adverse wind and to bring down a thick mist’. When Columba and his people headed to Loch Ness it was covered by ‘a great mist’ and ‘a stormy wind was blowing against them’.

The narrator relates this to ‘the art of devils’, ‘legions of evil spirits’ who attacked St Germanus when he was sailing from Gaul to Britain ‘stirring storms and blotting out the daylight sky with a mist of darkness’. This was ended by Germanus’ prayer. Similarly Columba called on Christ, set off directly into the wind at ‘marvellous speed’, turned the wind, and reached his destination.

The ancient British god of death, Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’, is a ruler of Annwn who contains the fury of its ‘devils’. He hunts for souls travelling ar wybir ‘on the clouds’ and wears a cloak of nuden which ‘claws at one’s vitals’. It seems possible he was associated with these dark mists.

In two saints’ lives Gwyn and his ‘devils’ were supposedly banished from their sacred site on Glastonbury Tor. Glastonbury derives its name from Ynys Witrin ‘The Glass Isle’ and was also known as Avalon ‘The Island of Apples’. In The Charter of St Patrick (13th century), Patrick discovered an ‘old oratory’ which may have been the remains of a Romano-British temple dedicated to Vindos/Gwyn, and spent three months fasting against and dominating ‘devils and beasts of many forms’. In The Life of St Collen (14th century) Collen threw holy water over Gwyn and his ‘devils’. Their ‘fairest castle’ and sumptuous feast disappeared, leaving nothing but ‘green hillocks’.

Several medieval Welsh stories depict Arthur battling against Gwyn and his family and slaughtering witches. Dafydd ap Gwilym refers to mist as ‘the ointment of the witches of Annwn’. These witches were likely to have been prophets and weather-workers who venerated Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn.

In Culhwch and Olwen (1190) Arthur sided with Gwyn against his rival, Gwythyr, and slaughtered Orddu ‘Very Black’, a witch who lived in a cave in ‘the Valley of Grief’ ‘in the uplands of Hell’, cutting her in twain so she was ‘like two vats’, and bottling her blood. Peredur slew one of the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw with a blow ‘on top of her helmet, so that the helmet and all the armour and the head were split in two’, then Arthur and his warband killed the rest.

A noteworthy exception to these massacres of magical women can be found in a tradition recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini (1150). He speaks of ‘nine sisters’ who ruled the ‘island of apples’ (Avalon). Amongst them was Morgen, a healer who could ‘change her shape’, ‘cleave the air on new wings’ and slip ‘down from the air onto your shores’. After Arthur was wounded at the battle of Camlan he was taken to the island and Morgen offered to restore his health.

Morgen re-appears as Morgan in male guise in Geraint son of Erbin (1250) serving Arthur as a healer. He healed Edern ap Nudd (Gwyn’s brother) after a fatal wound. Geraint ‘struck the knight on the top of his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls on his knees.’ The repeated image of head-splitting may be based in the belief the skull was the seat of the soul, which could live on in the head of a pagan enemy unless it was split.

Morgan’s miraculous healing of Edern may have a basis in a pagan cult wherein nine priestesses resurrected a slaughtered god. It’s my intuition that the story of Arthur being taken to Avalon to be healed by Morgen may have replaced a myth in which she healed Gwyn after his annual battle with Gwythyr.

Geraint won Enid, the daughter of Earl Niwl (niwl means mist) and defeated Owain, who owned a fortress surrounded by a hedge of mist, which contained ‘a great many stakes’ with men’s heads on them. The story ends with the disappearance of ‘the hedge of mist, and the magic and enchantment’. This symbolises the banishing of the gods of the mist and practitioners of weather magic from Britain.

Gwenddolau, the last British pagan warlord, fought his Christian enemies in a battle-fog. He is named as one of ‘Three Bull Protectors of the Island of Britain’. ‘Protector’ is translated from caduc, ‘fog, gloom, darkness, covering, armour’. This suggests he conjured a defensive fog, perhaps with aid from Gwyn, who gathered his soul after his death in the Battle of Arfderydd in 573.

After the rulers of Britain lost their relationship with their deities they were soon defeated by the Anglo-Saxons. The Germanic peoples and then the Norse brought their own gods, including the thunder-god Thunor/Thor who gave his name to several landmarks, but were eventually converted.

V. How They Raise and Stir Up Hailstorms

Once Christianity was firmly established as the dominant religion across Europe attitudes towards magic amongst the ecclesiastical elite became sceptical. The Canon Episcopi, which originated in the 9th century and became the canon law until the 13th century, condemned the very belief in witchcraft.

In ‘Of Hail and Thunder’ (815), Agobard of Lyons wrote of the ‘foolishness’ of beliefs that ‘storm makers’ produced thunder and lightning. He also mocked the idea they were in cahoots with ‘aerial sailors’ from the realm of Magonia who arrived in ships from the clouds to collect the damaged crops.

However, as witchcraft was assimilated with heresy during the Inquisition and demonical aspects came to the forefront there was a turnaround which re-established the reality of maleficent magic. The Papal Bull of 1448 condemned those who have ‘abandoned themselves to devils… slain infants yet in the mother’s womb, as also the offspring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, nay, men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, vineyards, orchards, meadows, pasture-land, corn, wheat, and all other cereals.’

Weather magic was notably included amongst the maleficia. In The Malleus Malleficarum (1478), in a chapter called ‘How they Raise and Stir up Hailstorms and Tempests, and Cause Lightning to Blast both Men and Beasts’, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger gave the practice a theological basis in collusion with ‘devils’. Devils have ‘their place… in the clouds of the air… and around the fiery sphere’ because they are not allowed to dwell in heaven or on earth. Having ‘power from God’, ‘with God’s permission’, they ‘disturb the air, raise up winds, and make the fire fall from heaven.’

Kramer and Sprenger cited a number of examples. In the Formicarius (1436 – 1438) a man able to ‘easily cause hailstorms’ confessed: ‘first we use certain words in the fields to implore the chief of the devils to send one of his servants to strike the man whom we name. Then, when the devil has come, we sacrifice to him a black cock at two cross-roads, throwing it up into the air; and when the devil has received this, he performs our wish and stirs up the air, but not always in the places which we have named, and, according to the permission of the living God, sends down hailstorms and lightnings.’


Within their experience, in the diocese of Constance, ‘a violent hailstorm destroyed all the fruit, crops and vineyards in a belt one mile wide, so that the vines hardly bore fruit for three years.’ Two women, Agnes, a bath-woman, and Anna von Mindelheim, were examined by the Inquisition. ‘In the torture chamber’ Agnes admitted ‘a familiar came to me and told me to go with a little water to the field… he said that he wanted to make it rain. So I went out at the town gate, and found the devil standing under a tree… The devil told me to dig a hole and pour the water into it… I stirred it with my finger, and called on the name of the devil himself and all the other devils.’ The hailstorm occurred after ‘just sufficient interval of time to allow me to get back to my house.’

In Waldshut, also in Constance, ‘there was a certain witch who was so detested by the townsfolk that she was not invited to the celebration of a wedding… Being indignant because of this, and wishing to be revenged, she summoned a devil and, telling him the cause of her vexation, asked him to raise a hailstorm and drive all the wedding guests from their dancing; and the devil agreed, and raising her up, carried her through the air to a hill near the town, in the sight of some shepherds.’ She afterwards confessed that as ‘she had no water… she made a small trench and filled it with her urine instead… and stirred it with her finger, after their custom, with the devil standing by. Then the devil suddenly raised that liquid up and sent a violent storm of hailstones which fell only on the dancers and townsfolk.’

To what extent these confessions reflect genuine magical practices with a basis in relationships with demonised weather spirits is impossible to ascertain because they were made under torture. It is impossible to know whether the victims confessed full or partial truths or simply repeated what they thought their interrogators would want to hear based upon prevalent superstitions.

In England Henry VIII passed the Witchcraft Act of 1542, making witchcraft punishable by death, and the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 made both witchcraft and consulting with witches capital offences.

During the 1560s, in Germany, at the beginning of the Little Ice Age, links between witchcraft and bad weather were reiterated. The Witch Trials of Trier, which resulted in the persecution of 368 witches, were connected with crop failures. The letter that initiated the Shongau Inquisition in 1589 reads: ‘inclement weather, showers and hail spoiled these dear people’s fruits of the field… the Almighty has allowed them to be so sorely afflicted by the devil and his damnable agents, and we order that you should secretly pay close attention to evil persons and witches.’

A peasant named Christopher Gostner accused of causing a storm in Tyrol in 1595 claimed ‘he pushed the weather back to the highest mountains, where no cock crows, nether hay is mown, no ox lives and no flower blooms, so it could do no harm, and so the storm became just a weak rain.’ Of course, he was then asked why he didn’t stop a another storm, and resorted to claiming he was too drunk.

In 1589, in North Berwick, in Scotland, between 70 and 200 witches were tried, tortured and executed on suspicion of causing a storm which prevented King James VI of Scotland from collecting his new bride, Anne, from Denmark. Their persecution was based on superstitions about covens meeting and dancing with the devil at St Andrew’s Kirk, which overlooked the seafront, and a rumour about a witch sailing ‘into the Firth of Forth on a sieve to summon the storm’.

Under duress of horrible tortures (implements included the scold’s bridle and a ‘breast ripper’) Agnes Sampson, a midwife, and Gellie Duncan, a healer, confessed to digging corpses from graveyards, dismembering them, tying the limbs to dead cats, and throwing the body parts into the sea to summon a storm to kill King James. In this case it is clear the confessions resulted purely from torture.

In 1597 King James published his Daemonologie, which backed the persecution of witches with Biblical teachings. After his accession to the English throne, he passed the Witchcraft Act of 1604, extending the death penalty to anyone who invoked familiar spirits. This laid the ground for the persecution of hundreds of witches across Britain including the Pendle Witches (1612) and the victims of the East Anglia Witch Hunts (1645-47) led by the Witch Finder General, Matthew Hopkins.

It has been estimated that around 60,00 witches were killed in Europe during the witch hunts. Scholars such as Wolfgang Behringer and Emily Oster have linked this period with the revival of superstitions about unnatural bad weather during the Little Ice Age. Oster’s graphs demonstrate an overlap between the coldest segments of the Little Ice Age and the heights of persecution.

There is a horrible in the irony in the fact that, deluded by the church, the peoples in places blighted by cold weather and storms turned against the weather-workers who may have been able to help them.

The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and science, put an end to the irrational thinking that lay behind the witch hunts and to the persecution of witches. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 made witchcraft an impossible crime and punishments were instead issued for the pretence of witchcraft. The cost of the ending of the witch hunts was the end of beliefs in spirits, witchcraft, and weather magic.

*Part three will look at the origins of meterology, how the agency of aerial spirits was replaced after the Renaissance by mechanistic principles, and the development of the technology of cloud seeding.


Adomnan of Iona, Richard Sharpe (transl.), Life of St Columba, (Penguin Classics, 1995)
Agobard of Lyon, W. J. Lewis (transl), ‘Of Hail and Thunder’, Internet Medieval Source Book (Fordham University, 2001)
David Bressen, ‘Medieval Witch Hunts Influenced by Climate Change’, Scientific American, (2014)
Emily Oster, ‘Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 1, (2004)
Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Montague Summers (transl.), The Malleus Malleficarum, (Dover Occult, 1971)
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Boughton Press, 2008)
King James I, Daemonologie, (Project Gutenburg E-Book, 2008)
Rhiannon Anderson, ‘The Systematic Demonization of Medieval Witchcraft’, Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University, (2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Terry Stewart, ‘North Berwick Witch Trials, Historic UK
Wolfgang Behringer, ‘Weather, Hunger and Fear: Origins of the European Witch Hunts’, The Witchcraft Reader, (Routledge, 2008)
Yuri Leitch, Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and key to the Glastonbury Zodiac, (The Temple Publications, 2007)

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Profile July 2018 MediumLorna Smithers 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 three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.

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The Cloud Seeders: Part One

“The shooting of aerosols into the skies with hail cannons or dropping them from planes like bombs provides a disturbing image of war with the sky gods that runs contrary to the pagan principle of respectful relationship.”

From Lorna Smithers

Clouds over Penwortham Sept 2018

To you alone it is given to know the gods
And spirits of the sky, or perhaps not at all


I. The Seeding of the Skies

Cloud seeding is a magical art worked by the land, the sea, the sky, the gods and spirits, humans too.

Clouds form when water vapour condenses on cloud seeds – tiny particles of dust. This happens when the land is heated by the sun, when air is forced to rise over hills and mountains, at weather fronts, and over rainforests and peat bogs where water evaporates from leaves and mosses seeding clouds. When the air cools and the tiny droplets of water vapour become larger and heavier drops they fall as rain, hail, or snow. Thunder and lightning are generated by the electric charges in storm clouds.

Since the earth’s birth as a cloud of dust and gas 4.5 billion years ago clouds have played an essential role regulating her temperature and bringing the rain that is a necessary condition for life. The existence of all beings is dependent on the climate and extreme changes have been the main cause of the mass extinctions that have come close to wiping all living things from the face of the planet.

For many thousands of years humans understood themselves to be part of an animate earth governed by gods and spirits some of whom brought about the seeding of the skies. They recognised their survival and the survival of the plants and animals they eat is dependent on external forces. Their spirit-workers were skilled in divining the weather. Rites existed through which communities participated in shaping the weather, calling on the gods to bring rain and to avert storms (amongst indigenous people in North America, Africa, Thailand, Romania, and elsewhere they still exist).

It was not until two thousand years ago, when Christianity began establishing its authority, that humanity’s link with the weather-gods was severed and the widespread persecution of witches began. The demonisation and rationalistic dismissal of animistic and polytheistic worldviews laid the ground for the hegemony of modern science and new mechanistic ways of controlling the weather.

The artificial seeding of clouds with salt, dry ice, or silver iodide is used across the world to create rain and prevent hail storms, for the purposes of war, and to defend capitalist interests. The shooting of aerosols into the skies with hail cannons or dropping them from planes like bombs provides a disturbing image of war with the sky gods that runs contrary to the pagan principle of respectful relationship.

In this three part essay, as an awenydd and Brythonic polytheist based in North West England, I will trace the history of the eradication of pagan beliefs and weather magic in Britain and Europe and show how this laid the grounds for the development of the technology of cloud seeding. I will argue that we need to relearn to listen to the gods and spirits who seed the skies to live in tune with the changing climate rather than developing coercive technologies which can only bring about further disasters.

II. Invoking the Weather Gods

From archaeological evidence and medieval Welsh literature we know the people of Britain venerated a number of weather gods: Taranis/Taran ‘the Thunderer’, Meldos/Mellt ‘Lightning’, Nodens/Nudd ‘the CloudMaker/Mist’, and Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’.

Roman writers recorded Britain was ‘spell bound’ by magic. Vates or seers were ‘greatly respected’ and used ‘auguries or sacrifices to predict the future’. Druids claimed ‘to know the size of the earth and cosmos, the movements of the heavens and the stars, and the will of the gods’ and taught ‘in caves or hidden groves’, instructing ‘by riddles, urging worship of the gods’.

As the Gaulish Druids were trained in Britain we can assume they shared similar rites. In his Natural History (77-79) Pliny referred to a ritual in Gaul, which took place in an oak grove and involved the cutting of mistletoe with a golden sickle then the sacrifice of two white bulls with prayers to the gods for prosperity. Humans were also sacrificed. In his epic poem, Pharsalia (begun 61), Lucan spoke of ‘those who pacify with blood accursed… Taranis’ altars.’ This suggests sacrifices were made to Taranis. It’s unclear whether accounts of human sacrifices to the gods by the Druids were regular occurrences, made only in times of desperation and war, or Roman exaggerations. Archaeological evidence such as the Lindow Man shows human sacrifices definitely took place.

Because most Roman writers focused on extremes to vilify their enemies we have few records of benign rituals and none of weather magic. However, the identification of Taranis with Jupiter may suggest their rites were similar. Rituals for rain were offered to Jupiter in the Capitol. The Satyricon (1st century) depicted ‘robed matrons’ going ‘barefoot up the hill, with loose hair and pure minds to beg rain from Jupiter.’

Jupiter was also equated with Zeus and Pausanias (2nd century) recorded a striking example of cloud-seeding magic performed by a priest of Zeus from ancient Greece: ‘If a drought persists for a long time, and the seeds in the earth and the trees wither, then the priest of Lycaean Zeus, praying to the water and making the customary sacrifices, dips an oak branch in the surface of the spring, not deep. When the water has been stirred up there rises a vapor, like mist; after a time it becomes a cloud, and gathers other clouds to itself, and makes rain fall on the land of the Arcadians.’ One wonders whether a similar rite may have been offered to Taranis or the other weather-gods to bring rain.

Two Oaks Penwortham
Oaks were sacred to Zeus, Jupiter, Thunor, Thor, and probably Taranis

From ancient Greece and Rome we also have records of magic used to avert hail, snow, and storms. A bronze phylactery from a vineyard in Avignon invoked Oamoutha and Abrasax for protection against bad weather read: ‘Thosouderkyo vinyard oumixonthei, divert from this property all hail and all snow, and whatever might injure the land. The god, Oamoutha, orders it, and you Abrasax, assist! Iae Iao.’

Offerings of chickens, sheep, and blood from one’s finger were made to appease the weather-gods. Menstrual blood was known to drive away hail and whirlwinds and was used by the hail-wardens of Cleonae. It seems likely the Britons used similar kinds of magic to avert bad weather from their crops.

In his Description of the World (44) Pompomius Mela wrote of nine virgin priestesses who served the Gallic deity of the island of Sena. They had the power to ‘stir up the seas and the winds by their magic charms’, ‘turn into whatever animals they want,’ ‘cure what is incurable’, and ‘predict the future’. The existence of landmarks like the Nine Maidens suggests similar cults of priestesses who prophesied, shifted shape, healed, and controlled the weather existed in ancient Britain.

It seems possible the brand-waving ‘furies’ and Druids ‘lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations’ during the attack of the Romans on Anglesey were calling on the weather gods for aid.

After the Romans slaughtered the Druids and Vates they incorporated the British gods into the state religion via interpretatio Romana, equating them with their own deities and building altars, statues, and temples.

A Romano-British temple at Lydney was dedicated to Nodens (who was equated with Mars). On a mural crown worn by a Roman priest Nodens was depicted on a chariot pulled by four water horses flanked by winged wind spirits and icthyocentaurs showing his connections with water and the weather.

On an altar from Chester Taranis (spelt ‘Tanarus’) was identified with Jupiter. Taranis was pictured with a wheel, evoking the chariot wheels of the Thunderer riding the skies. An altar now in Tullie House Museum in Carlisle dedicated to the Great God Jupiter was decorated with a wheel. An altar from Castlesteads was similarly decorated and a mould for a wheel-god was found at Corbridge.

This demonstrates Mars-Nodens and Jupiter-Taranis were worshipped during the Romano-British period and suggests they and other weather gods were invoked in rituals to seed clouds and ward off storms.

III. Struck Down with the Avenging Sword

The roots of persecution for pagan worship and magic are found in the Bible, which condemns all magic practiced outside the cult of Jahweh and labels its practitioners as witches. In Exodus 22. 18 we find the law: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ The Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity in 312 and, in 324, passed a law issuing the death penalty for pagan sacrifice.

Since the establishment of the code of law in the Twelve Tables in 450BCE malevolent magic was viewed as punishable by death, but more benevolent rites such as weather magic were widely accepted. Between 321 and 324 Constantine passed a law stating: ‘no implication of crime is to be attached… to the magic rites which are innocently employed in rural districts to provide against the fear of rain storms on the mature grape harvests their being battered by hailstorms.’ This suggests weather magic remained acceptable so long as it did not involve sacrifices to the pagan gods.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Constantius held the maxim: ‘Superstition shall cease; the madness of sacrifices shall be abolished’. In 354 he issued laws ordering the closure of temples ‘in all places and cities’ and that anyone who sacrificed should ‘be struck down with the avenging sword.’ The death penalty was extended to the worship of images in 356 and to consulting a seer in 357.

In 380 Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire: ‘we shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity’. In 391 Theodosius re-instated the laws against sacrifice, visiting temples, and revering images ‘lest he become guilty by divine and human laws’. He even prohibited domestic cult saying no-one may ‘venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths from them.’

The destruction of the pagan temples began with Constantine. He targeted sanctuaries dedicated to Aphrodite, Hapy, and Isis, which were served by transgender priests, reflecting his transphobia. During the reign of Theodosius in 386 Marcellus laid waste to the temple of Zeus in Apamea. In 388 Cynegius destroyed the temple of Zeus Belos in Apomae along with temples to Sin and Dea Syria.

The Serapeum of Alexandria was devastated by Roman soldiers and Christian mobs rallied by Theodosius in 391. The statue of Serapis, crafted from wood, metals, and precious stones such as sapphire, hematite, emerald, and topaz was brutally smashed with an axe, its jewels purloined by the church.

In 394 Theodosius extinguished the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta and disbanded the Vestal Virgins. Temples to Tanit, Cybele, Baal, and countless other gods were torn down, closed, or converted.

This trend spread throughout the Empire and beyond as Christianity replaced paganism. Here, in Britain, whilst some temples such as the temple to Nodens at Lydney were closed without destruction, others such as the temple to Jupiter Dolichenus at Vindolanda were destroyed and burnt. Pagan traditions with ancient roots were struck down within a few centuries by the avenging sword.


Part two will cover the medieval lore depicting the banishing of the gods of the mist and those who served them from Britain during the ‘Dark Age’ and the persecution of witches for weather magic as witch hunts spread across Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.


Britta K. Ager, Roman Agricultural Magic, (The University of Michigan, 2010)

Clyde Pharr, ‘The Interdiction of Magic in Roman Law’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, (Vol. 63), (1932)

Michael Routery, ‘The First Missionary War: The Church Take Over of the Roman Empire’,, (1998)

Philip Tilden, ‘Religious Intolerance in the Later Roman Empire’, (University of Exeter, 2006)

R. Kotansky, ‘Greek magical amulets: the inscribed gold, silver, copper, and bronze lamellae’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 116, (1996)

Scott Bradbury, ‘Constantine and the Problem of Anti-Pagan Legislation in the Fourth Century’, Classical Philology, Vol. 98, No. 2, (1994)

Sheila McGrath, ‘Taranis: Celtic Thunder’, Earth and Starry Heaven, (2017)

Stephan Harding, Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, (Green Books, 2009)

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Profile July 2018 MediumLorna Smithers 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 three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.

Drought Summit

‘I see the reapers in the distance with their blades and the man in the combine harvester reaping nothing not far off’

From Lorna Smithers

Harvesting Dust by Lorna Smithers

I. Gwyl Awst

On Wednesday 1st August, Lammas/Lughnasadh/Gwyl Awst, a drought summit took place in the UK between the National Farmers’ Union and environment secretary Michael Gove. Due to the summer heatwave crops have been ‘wilting or failing’ and ‘livestock running short of grass and fodder’. To assuage this the Environment Agency have agreed to be more flexible with abstraction rights for ground and river water so farmers can water their crops and animals.

Is this a freak occurrence like the summer of 1976? Or, along with the trend of record-breaking temperatures is it demonstrative of man-made global warming and a weakening jet stream? Whatever the case, the holding of a drought summit on the day of our harvest festivals seems ominous.

Science can present us with the facts and figures about such events, but does not explain their meaning. For this we must turn to myth, to the gods and goddesses associated with harvest and drought.

In the Irish myths Lugh is a god associated with Lughnasadh and the harvest. He instigated this festival in honour of his mother, Tailtiu, who died clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. He also rid Ireland of oppression by killing the giant, Balor of the Piercing Eye, and forced the tyrant, Bres, to teach his people to plough, sow and reap.

Thus it makes sense for me, as a Brythonic polytheist, to turn to Lugh’s cognate, Lleu Llaw Gyfes*. However, this is not as easy as it seems for, in the Welsh myths, Lleu isn’t associated with the harvest at all. There are only vague overlaps** between their stories and Lleu’s is far more enigmatic and less comprehensible. So, the day after Gwyl Awst, I set out on a journey in search of Lleu.

II. Where is Lleu?

“Where is Lleu?” I take flight as something like a bird that is fast as a bullet.

I fly over the two oaks in the farmer’s field near the Ribble, settle black-winged amongst the crows who jostle in the trees. I see a tractor harvesting dust but there is no sign of the skilful-handed one.

“Where is Lleu?” I fly south over fields where wheat once stood but has been harvested early, dry looking barley, brittle oil-seed rape that may not yield its precious oil, see no sign of Lleu Llaw Gyfes.

“Where is Lleu?” I fly to Wales and circle Dinas Lleu, but the ruler of the fortress is not at home.

“Where is Lleu?” I call out to my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, for guidance, find myself plunging through a portal between two oaks then landing in nothingness in a sprawl of black feathers and arms and legs.

A man in a combine harvester is creating the nothingness as he harvests up the crops leaving nothing.

I run through the nothingness. Nothing gets in the way and I reach the fields. I am surrounded by wheat, swaying gently in the wind, the summer sun shining down on my face; I am no longer myself but a golden boy, laughing, dancing, playing, chewing on the sweetness of a stalk, bright and warm.

Yet paradise doesn’t last for long. An ill wind blows, the sky darkens, fills with crows. I see the reapers in the distance with their blades and the man in the combine harvester reaping nothing not far off.

That is my first intimation of death. “Uncle Gwydion, Uncle Gwydion!” I run into his arms.

My second intimation occurs when I am on a ship. A wren lands on the bow before the bright burning eye of the sun and I hit it between the eyes with my sling shot and it falls down but the sun won’t stop staring – it is the eye of a giant – and the giant is raising a piercing spear and taking aim.

My third intimation is within the coronas of my wife’s eyes. I tell her the conditions of my death and see myself in that ludicrous position – one foot on a bathtub under an arched roof and one on a goat.

The spear pierces my side. Knocked sideways I scream horribly, flapping clumsily. Finally I gain my wings and fly as an eagle to the tallest of two oak trees. My blood drips down and, as the wound festers, rotting flesh, writhing maggots, like useless stories, which are devoured by a hungry sow.

In the distance I see the combine harvester circling closer and closer with its nothingness. The second oak catches fire and I cannot shift my rotting skeleton. “Uncle Gwydion, Uncle Gwydion!”

III. From the Summit of the Oak

In ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Gwydion sings Lleu down from the oak and he takes revenge on his killer, Gronw (the man driving the combine harvester?), by killing him, in turn, with a spear.

What do my visions of Lleu mean in the context of the drought summit? Unlike Lugh, Lleu is not much of a hero and it takes a near-death experience for him to gain the veracity to triumph over his rival.

The man in the combine harvester perhaps represents destructive ways of farming. In response to Gove’s decision, Nick Rau from Friends of the Earth said: ‘Food production is clearly essential, but so are our wild-life rich rivers. These mustn’t be sucked dry to help prop up unsustainable farming methods. Sustainable farming systems that work with nature are more resilient to extreme weather conditions. Measures such as building up soil carbon will improve soil resilience and help fight climate change. And the government must do far more to boost water-efficiency and force water firms to fix their pipes. It’s a scandal that millions of litres of water are lost every day through leaks.’

Lleu, the harvest, and Gronw, the harvester, are constantly at odds, killing each other with their spears. And all the while the bright burning eye of the sun-giant shines down, getting hotter and hotter each year as our climate grows warmer. It seems we need a better alternative than constant battle.

Our dependence on the land and agriculture feels increasingly important as we face the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, knowing Britain grows only 60% of its food and 40% is imported. Our government, increasingly incompetent, to which we turn child-like, cannot sing Lleu down from the tree.

Yet in times of crisis come new visions. From the summit of the oak what do you see?

*Both Lleu and Lugh may have developed from the pan-Celtic god, Lugus. Their epithets Lámhfhada ‘Long Arm’ and Llaw Gyffes ‘Skilful Hand’ also suggest a common origin.
**The attempts of Arianrhod, Lleu’s mother, to prevent him from winning a name, arms and a wife share parallels with Balor trying to stop Lug gaining a name and wife in order to prevent his prophesied death.

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Profile July 2018 MediumLorna Smithers 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 A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.

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Questions of Water

Our connection with the source, with the divine, is lost, when water is piped to our taps from unknown sources. We’re more likely to think of water companies and bills in terms of payment rather than offering back to the deities of our watercourses above ground and to their source in the deep’

From Lorna Smithers

 I. Water

Water. Dŵr. H2O. The mysterious source of life brought to Earth by comets 4.6 billion years ago. Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, creating her marble sheen of oceanic blue, decked with green continents and swirling white cloud. 96.5% of all the Earth’s water is salt water in the oceans. Of freshwater 1.74% is in the ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow, 1.69% is ground water, 0.022% is ground ice and permafrost, 0.013% is in lakes, 0.001% is in the atmosphere, 0.001% is soil moisture, 0.0008% is swamp water, 0.0002% is in rivers, and 0.0001% is in living creatures.

A minuscule percentage of the Earth’s freshwater provides for the needs of life. Globally, humans consume 4 trillion cubic metres per year. Yearly, in the UK, industry and commerce consume 1300 million and a standard household 164 cubic metres. Each day the average person uses 150 litres. Only 2 litres of this are drinking water whilst a bath takes 115 litres, a shower 50 litres, a washing machine 50 litres, a dishwasher 15 litres, flushing the toilet 10 litres, washing up in the sink 6 litres, a watering can 5 litres, a hosepipe 15 litres per minute. When there are 65.64 million people in the UK that’s a heck of a lot of water.

I was called to investigate these figures because of the prolonged and uncharacteristic heat wave we are experiencing in the UK. Preston has been dubbed ‘the wettest city in England’ and we usually have 60 – 80mm of rainfall per month over the summer. Since the beginning of May it’s barely rained. My local brook, Fish House Brook, and the river Ribble are the lowest I have ever seen. United Utilities have advised people in the North West to cut down on water use and I’m certain a hosepipe ban will follow and possibly further restrictions if we don’t see rain in the next couple of weeks.

Scorched Ribble

I’ve found myself amazed that, in the absence of rain, our demands can still be catered for, that our rivers and streams are flowing at all. This has brought to mind the massive amounts of water contained within the land, out of sight, forming the source of the watercourses we see on the surface.

II. The Source

In modern Welsh the word for water is dŵr stemming ‘from Middle Welsh dwfyr, from Proto-Brythonic *duβr, from Proto-Celtic *dubros, from Proto-Indo-European *dʰubrós (‘deep’)’. Etymologically it is linked with Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld, from which Britain’s waters originate along with Awen, the divine breath of inspiration, which inspires bards and awenyddion.

In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ in The Book of Taliesin the legendary bard speaks of bringing Awen from the deep as ‘a connected river which flows around the world’ and says he knows ‘its might’, ‘how it ebbs… flows… courses… retreats’. In other poems he refers to the ‘streams of Annwn’ and a river near the otherworld fortress of Caer Vandwy called the Defwy, which may be linked with the Dovey. The Tawe also has an otherworldly source. Annwn is the land to which the dead return to be reborn, often by following or crossing watercourses. There are parallels in other Western European myths.

In Norse mythology ‘all waters rise’ from Hvergelmir,‘Boiling Bubbling Spring’. This is located in Niflheim ‘Mist-World’ at the very bottom of one of the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Eleven of the rivers, the Elvigar ‘Ice Waves’ are named: ‘Svol, Gunnthra, Fiorm, Fimbulthul, Slidr and Hrid, Sylg and Ylg, Vid, Leiptr; Gioll is next to Hell-gates’. Hvergelmir is said to contain innumerable snakes and the serpent Níðhöggr who gnaws the root and ‘torments the bodies of the dead’.

In Plato’s Phaedo rivers and streams flow into and out of Tartarus, ‘the inmost depth beneath the earth’. They are named Oceanus ‘Ocean’, Acheron ‘Woe’, Pyriphlegethon ‘Fire-Flaming’, and Cocytus ‘Lamentation’, and carry the dead to the regions beneath Hades to do penance with the Titans.

III. On Tap

These myths speak from a time before piped water when our ancestors were called to contemplate daily the origination of water from mysterious springs and ever-flowing watercourses. When each source of water had its own deity. Some of the names of our river gods and goddesses are still recorded today: Belisama (the Ribble), Sabrina (the Severn), Clutha (the Clyde), Nodens/Nudd, (the Nith, Neath, Nidd). The qualities of well spirits are reflected in those of the saints they are rededicated to.

Our connection with the source, with the divine, is lost, when water is piped to our taps from unknown sources. We’re more likely to think of water companies and bills in terms of payment rather than offering back to the deities of our watercourses above ground and to their source in the deep.

Because water is literally ‘on tap’ we use it thoughtlessly and wastefully. As the population increases and our watercourses are destroyed and depleted by industrialisation, water is being hailed as ‘the new oil’ ‘a finite resource that is running out in some areas and will become more and more expensive.’

Over the past few years there has been a call to examine our ‘water footprint’ – the volume of water we use. This does not just mean drinking and wash water but water used in processes, which we are again out of touch with, such as growing and rearing animals for food and the manufacture of clothing and equipment. In terms of ‘virtual water’ the production of a pound of beef requires 9500 litres, cheese 3391 litres, eggs 2169 litres, chocolate 10777 litres (!), rice 1525 litres, wheat bread 582 litres, potatoes 113 litres, tomatoes 83 litres, lettuce 57 litres, wine 219 litres, beer 136 litres, coffee 110 gal, tea 26 litres. Leather shoes require 16655 litres, jeans 10848 litres, a dress 7498 litres, a T-shirt 2153 litres, boxer shorts 953 litres and women’s underwear 325 litres. The virtual water content of objects such as laptops, mobile phones, televisions, radios, cars is more complicated to calculate.

With virtual water added the average Briton uses a whopping 4,645 litres a day. To make things worse, most of this is from food and goods imported from other countries where water is depleted, water sources are being destroyed, and people who are poorer than us are suffering because of our excesses.

This is another example of our ignorance of the source of our water, not this time in the Otherworld’s depths, but in other lands across the seas where others (human and non-human) are exploited.

IV. Questions

As a remedy for our lack of knowlege we might ask questions. Where does my water come from? How much do I use when I bathe, when I wash, with each meal and drink? Who profits and who suffers?

Some of these have been easier for me to answer than others. My domestic water consumption is easy. I use around 100 litres of water. One shower: 50 litres, one clothes wash divided by three: 16 litres, two kitchen sink washes divided by three: 4 litres, three toilet flushes (we’re trying to stick to just the essential ones!): 30 litres. Virtual water is more difficult without being able to find measures for, say, one egg, one slice of bread, one serving of cucumber. As an average meat-eater consumes 5000 litres and a vegetarian 2500 litres and I’m a meat-eater trying cut down on meat I’d say it’s 4000 litres. We (I live with my parents) do most of our shopping at Booths, a supermarket which supports local farmers, and do our best to stick to locally grown products rather than those imported from overseas. I buy most of my clothes from charity shops, partly because I can’t afford new ones, partly to avoid feeding exploitative systems.

The question of where my water comes from has been more difficult to answer. The North West’s water provider is United Utilities and all they are willing to tell us is that our water comes from ‘upland sources, groundwater sources and river sources’. This could mean it comes from anywhere!

When piped water was introduced to Preston by the Preston Waterworks Company in 1835 it came from newly built reservoirs at Grimsargh. These are no longer in use and in 2017 were handed over to the Grimsargh Wetlands Trust. Our nearest reservoirs are Longridge, Horns, and Barn’s Fold. Anglezarke and Rivington are also nearby but it’s likely supply Chorley rather than Preston and South Ribble.

Anglezarke_Wikipedia Commons

As for rivers I live near the Ribble estuary so presume water may be taken from the Ribble and its tributaries. In relation to ground water sources we are situated on a primary aquifer, ‘the North West’s most important aquifer’. According to the ‘Central Lancashire and Blackpool Outline Water Cycle Study’ there are boreholes in Penwortham and Preston at undisclosed locations.

I’ve had a similar lack of success finding information about our sewage. Preston’s combined sewers were built in the 1870s and there are maps of them in the Lancashire Archives. But finding anything post 1950s is absolutely impossible as United Utilities have the monopoly and will only sell maps for specific properties to property owners at £16.41 for A4, £29.16 for A3 and £85.17 for A1. I have been told our sewage goes to the treatment works at Clifton Marsh, but been refused a map of the whole system. Likewise maps of one’s water pipes are available at the above prices, but not the whole system.

It’s my suspicion this is not only due to United Utilities wanting to make money from selling the maps, but a need for secrecy. As the population grows, climate change brings droughts and floods, and industrialisation continues to damage our watercourses and aquifers and lower the water table, water shortages are going to become more common. When water becomes ‘the new oil’ United Utilities will need to keep the sources of water and the locations of pipes and sewers secret due to fears about theft and acts of terrorism.

A dark thought as I finish this article and take a sip of tea, a sip taken for granted, but for how long?


Benjamin Jowett (transl), Plato, ‘Phaedo’, Project Gutenburg
Felicity Lawrence, ‘Revealed: the massive scale of UK’s water consumption’, The Guardian
Mat McDermot, ‘From Lettuce to Beef, What’s the Water Footprint of Your Food?’
Matt Williams, ‘What percent of Earth is water?’
Average Water Use’, Naverage
Blackpool and Central Lancashire Outline Water Cycle Study’, Halcrow Group Limited
Climate: Average Monthly Weather in Preston‘, World Weather and Climate Information
Drinking water quality’, United Utilities
Dŵr’, Wiktionary
Hvergelmir’, Wikipedia
Grimsargh now has control of its reservoirs back’, Blog Preston
Property Search‘, United Utilities
The Concepts of Water Footprint and Virtual Water’, GDRC
Using water at home’, Anglian Water
Water Facts’, Water Intelligence
What Water Are You Wearing?’, The Shortest Straw
How much water is there on, in, and above the Earth?The USGS Water Science School

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic II

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‘.

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Summer Here and Winter There

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.

II. Contraries

‘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.

III. Uncertainty

“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.

Fish House Brook June 2018

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic II

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‘.

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The Ways We Breathe

“This era of mass consumerism… is imperilling the ways we breathe”

From Lorna Smithers

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

“We need to remember that our very breathing is to drink our mother’s milk – the air – made for us by countless microbial brothers and sisters in the sea and soil, and by the plant beings with whom we share the great land surfaces of our mother’s lustrous sphere.”

Stephen Harding

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lungs. Two. Right and left. Each enclosed in a pleural sack in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Primary bronchus, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, terminal bronchiole. In the alveoli, ‘little cavities’, across the blood-air barrier, gas exchange takes place.

Breathe in: oxygen 21%, carbon dioxide 0.04%. Breathe out: oxygen 16%, carbon dioxide 4.4%. 6 carbon glucose, oxidised, forms carbon dioxide. Product: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ‘the molecular unit of currency of intracellular energy transfer’. The spark of all life.

Birds have lungs plus cervical, clavicular, abdominal, and thoracic air sacs. Hollow-boned they are light as balloons, breathing in, breathing out. Then there are the lungless. Through tiny holes in the abdomen called spiracles leading to trachea, insects fill their air sacs, breathing in, breathing out. Earthworms and amphibians breathe in and out through their moist skins. Fish breathe water in through their gulpy mouths then out through their gapey gills.

Plants breathe through their leaves. By daylight they photosynthesise. Stomata breathe carbon dioxide. It mixes with water. The green lions of chlorophyll work their magic by sunlight. Oxygen is released. From glucose the magical hum and buzz of ATP. At night they respire glucose and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water. 10 times more oxygen is produced than used.

Underground, fungi breathe the air of the soil through thread-like hyphae that mass as mycelia. They respire aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), changing glucose to ATP (it’s all about ATP!), ethanol, carbon dioxide, and water. This old, old, metabolic pathway dates back to the days before oxygen ruled our breath and is also utilised by microbes. The hidden ones of the deep, single-celled, or living colonies, breathe through their single cell walls in ancient ways – acetogenesis, methanogenesis – to gain the blessed ATP.

To live we must not only breathe, but consume. Life lives on death. And this human animal consumes not only to create ATP, but for warmth, light, housing, transport, pleasure. Some say it began with fire, others with farming, others with writing, others with machines, others that it originated deep within human cells in the power plants of mitochondria – the Anthropocene.

The spark of this era of mass consumption has become a funeral pyre fanned by the winds of greed. Its smoke is imperilling the ways we breathe. Fire triangle: oxygen, fuel, heat. Smoke from carbons and hydrocarbons is composed of water, carbon dioxide, countless other fumes.

Smoke inhalation damages the lungs through burning, tissue irritation, oxygen starvation (asphyxiation). In 1952, 4000 people died in the Great Smog of London. Great smogs hang over Delhi, Baghdad, Beijing, Los Angeles, Rome. Asthma, lung cancer, COPD, leukemia, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, weakening of lung function, difficulties breathing in and out.

Carbon dioxide levels rising, increasing greenhouse effect, raising temperatures. The forests, cut down, cannot help. The peat bogs, drained off, cannot help. The oceans acidifying cannot help. We are choking those who breathe with us, who are dropping like canaries in coal mines.

Who would dare to douse the fires? Throttle the exhausts? Get locked out of the factories for good?

Those who inspire. Those who burn with inspiration, ysbrydoliaeth, rooted in spirit, ysbryd. The breath of the universe, the breath of our human and non-human ancestors, the breath of the gods. Those who not only consume but give and offer those gifted breaths back before expiring.

Inspired ones! Burn with me! Breathe with me! Breathing in, breathing out, with the lunged and lungless creatures with skin, fur, feathers, shells, scales, leaves, hyphae, the single-celled.

All one breath.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers 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 A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.

Support our work here.

The Alchemy of Waste

“Our dark night of the soul seems endless. Yet it’s something that must be faced. It’s the duty of each of us to look into our bins, follow the garbage trucks to their destinations, behold the alchemy of waste.”

From Lorna Smithers


‘Alchemy… the medieval forerunner of chemistry, concerned with the transmutation of matter, in particular with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir.’
Oxford English Dictionary

I. Prima Materia

Waste. Billions of tonnes of plastic in our oceans and many more billions of industrial, commercial, and household materials filling landfills trawled by rag pickers rescuing the best of our excesses. It’s our dirty not-so-secret, a source of guilt and shame, one of the primary banes of the 21st century.

It’s what remains when the golden profits have been siphoned off. As end and beginning it is the khmi, ‘black earth’, at the root of khēmia which gives us alchemy, the prima materia. Its slow decomposition, the nigredo, ‘blackening’, is our shadow made real, our long dark night of the soul. It’s the domain of Afagddu, ‘Utter Darkness’, Ceridwen’s ugly son, who did not taste the universal elixir.

Long before there were human alchemists the earth was dealing with waste through alchemical processes. The oil from which we make the plastics which plague us today was formed from the burial of dead animals and plants on the bottom of the sea through diagenesis (chemical reaction, compaction, microbial action) and catagenesis (thermal degradation) during the Carboniferous period.

Humanity’s manipulation of alchemy by fractionating and cracking the hydrocarbons in crude oil to make petroleum for fuel and produce plastics by polymerisation has birthed ingenious creations which are useful whilst in use but dangerous when discarded because they take so long to decay.

Because plastics are not biodegradable plastic bags can take 1000 years to decompose, sanitary towels and nappies 500 – 800 years, and plastic bottles 450 years. Out at sea, plastics are photograded by the sun’s UV rays breaking down the polymeric chains turning big pieces into lots of tiny pieces.

Microplastics: ‘rayon, lyocell, ramie, nylon, polyethylene, polyamide, and polyvinyls such as polyvinyl chloride or PVC’ have been found 11 kilometres down in the guts of crustaceans who are eaten by fish who are eaten by sea birds (and humans) contaminating the food chain with deadly consequences.

Our dark night of the soul seems endless. Yet it’s something that must be faced. It’s the duty of each of us to look into our bins, follow the garbage trucks to their destinations, behold the alchemy of waste.

II. My Waste – An Account

I live in Penwortham, Lancashire, in North West England, where the average person produces 412kg of waste a year. In 2016/2017 Lancashire’s recycling and composting rate was 45.6% (England’s average was 44.9%). 37.4% of general waste went to landfill and 12% to energy from waste.


Lancashire’s recycling is taken to the Global Renewables Recycling Centre in Farington where it is ‘weighed, checked for contamination and is then processed through GRL’s sophisticated sorting equipment’. It is then sent to a variety of ‘alchemists’ to be transmuted into recycled materials.

Glass greater than 25mm goes to Refresco in Cheshire who send it to manufacturers to be melted down in a furnace and made into glass bottles and jars. Mixed glass smaller than 25mm is taken by Greener Futures in Blackpool to be made into aggregate or used in filtration systems. The smallest pieces go to JA Jackson Recycling in Preston to be processed into filler for roads and stone.

Textiles are delivered to I & G Cohen Ltd in Salford or Wilcox Textile Reclaimers in Bilston who sort and grade it. Used clothing is exported to Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia to be sold. I was shocked but not surprised to hear that the ‘crème grade’ items are sent to Eastern Europe and ‘a Tropical mix grade’ to Africa, demonstrating a distinctive social hierarchy with the Western Europeans who discard the clothes at the top, Eastern Europeans in the middle, and Africans at the bottom. Ripped or blemished items are baled up and sent to recycling centres to be made into cloths.

Plastic bottles are sent to Viridor in Skelmersdale where they are sorted into streams of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) then ‘intensively washed and granulated to form new flakes or pellets of polymer which are than sold to be manufactured into new plastic products’. Film and rigid plastics go to Hanbury Plastics Recycling Ltd in Stoke-on-Trent and other plastics to JKN Polymers Ltd in Hull where they are turned into manhole foundations and cable troughs.

EMR in Manchester, Liverpool, and Salford take scrap metal, producing ‘over 100 grades of high quality recycled materials’. Cans go to Recycling Lives in Preston where they are baled and processed for remelt elsewhere in the UK then rolled into sheet material for new cans or steel products.

Paper and card goes to Saicur Natur UK in Manchester who process it into ‘plasterboard and other liners’.


Last year 303,000 tonnes of Lancashire’s waste was disposed of, primarily by landfill. LCC’s only current landfill contract is at Whinney Hill, Altham, in Hyndburn, which is owned by Suez (formerly Sita UK).

Whinney Hill started life as a quarry in the late 1800s and quarrying for sandstone and shale is ongoing. The application for ‘infilling’ ‘the existent and emergent void’ with ‘household, industrial, and commercial waste over a period of approximately forty years’ was put forward in 2005 (it had been used as landfill for inert waste prior to this). It covers 70 hectares of land and will be full by 2050.

Disposal in landfills is the least preferable form of management due to the waste of materials, loss of land, the risks of explosions and groundwater and air pollution, and generation of greenhouse gases.

Nevertheless, the alchemy of landfilling is fascinating by virtue of the ingenuity of both its human and non-human participants. Firstly a liner, usually of engineered clay plus a synthetic geomembrane, is laid down and covered with sand or gravel. Pipes are set in place to collect the leachate.

After trucks have dumped their load, track-type tractors spread the waste and landfill compactors with impressive steel teeth on huge metal wheels drive over it in a fourfold pass to compact it down. The ‘working face’ is covered each night with a layer of soil to control odours and deter ‘vectors’ (ie. rats).


Within days aerobic bacteria get to work breaking down the organic material by glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, and oxidative phosphorylation. Once the oxygen is used up anaerobic bacteria take over using hydrolysis, acidification, and acetogenesis. Methanogenic archaea complete the process by methanogenesis.

These activities release carbon dioxide, methane, and small amounts of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. The latter were, no doubt, the source of ‘a horrible sour smell’ so bad local residents could not open their windows or put their washing out, resulting in legal action in 2012.

Methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times as strong as carbon dioxide in global warming potential and potentially explosive, is collected by gas wells and either flared off or used as a renewable energy source. The Whinney Hill site generated 3,686.00 MWh from landfill gas in October 2017 making £293,341.78.

Once a section of landfill is full it is capped with a liner and approximately 24 inches of soil and vegetation is planted. By 2050 Whinney Hill will have been landscaped and will probably become a nature reserve like many of the former landfill sites in my locality such as Carr Wood and Fishwick Bottoms.

Energy From Waste

In 2016/2017, Lancashire sent 36,000 tonnes of general waste to Viridor’s energy from waste facility at Runcorn. The plant was constructed in 2010 as a joint venture with INOVYN and burns up to 850,000 tonnes of Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) per year.

Like landfill, energy to waste possesses its own alchemy. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is processed into RDF through the separation and removal of metals, glass, and stones, and by shredding. It is delivered by HGVs and freight trains, weighed, then unloaded down chutes into the main fuel bunker. The RDF is then fed into one of four combustion chambers and heated at 850°C. The heat is used to create steam, driving turbines to produce electricity.

The waste gases are treated by hydrated lime injection, activated carbon injection, and a bag filtration system. Viridor go to great lengths to show their facilities meet the Environment Agency standards for emissions of total organic carbon, hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen.

Oddly nothing is mentioned on the Viridor website about carbon dioxide emissions. The incineration of one tonne of MSW produces approximately one tonne of CO2. I haven’t been able to find any figures for RDF, but assuming the amounts are similar, Runcorn could emit up to 850,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. (In 2017, the UK emitted 381 million tonnes of CO2).

Friends of the Earth note ‘electricity-only incinerators emit 33 percent more fossil CO2 than gas power stations’ and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facilities like Runcorn ‘have similar efficiency to gas-fired plants’. Whilst superior to landfilling because methane emissions have a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide, they are not, as claimed, a form of ‘green energy’ or environmentally friendly.

Runcorn ‘generates up to 70MW of electricity and up to 51MW of heat for exclusive use by INOVYN’, a ‘premier chemical company’ belonging to the petrochemical firm INEOS. INEOS is the UK’s largest holder of fracking exploration licences and intends to use shale gas as feedstock in the manufacture of plastic and to power its plants.

INOVYN Chlorvinyls produce chlorine, chlorine derivatives, chlor alkali, general purpose vinyls (these include PVCs) and speciality vinyls. Some of their chlorine products, which include pesticides such as Dichlopropene, a chemical currently being phased out by the EU, are harmful to the environment. The manufacture of more plastic can only add to our problem.

It seems counter intuitive for Viridor to be fuelling this chemical giant until we see through their green guise to the centrality of capital. The government’s aim to divert waste from landfill to energy from waste is less rooted in concern about climate change than the potential to use our waste to fuel the economic growth of the industries increasing pollution. Another example is the VPI Immingham CHP plant, which generates up to 1,240 MW of electricity and 900t of steam per hour for the Humber and Lindsey oil refineries.

Not only do we pay local authorities to take our waste away, but polluting industries are profiting from it!

III. Gold or Black Earth?

My investigations have led to a deeper understanding of where my waste goes and the alchemical processes by which it is treated. Establishing an awareness of where each item I put into my green, blue, brown, and grey bins ends up, exactly what happens to it, and who profits from it, provides a much firmer foundation for ethical living and resisting exploitation than simply following instructions to refuse, reuse and recycle, and being bombarded with photos of dead sea creatures.

On a personal level I can make a small difference by composting most of my organic waste, recycling glass and some plastics, and using as few non-recyclable plastics as possible (not always easy when the only shops within walking distance still use plastic wrappers for meat and on some veg).

On a national level we are paralysed by a hypocritical government who make a big show of encouraging plastic free aisles in supermarkets and ending the exemption on small shops charging 5 pence per carrier bag, whilst pledging unprecedented support for the fossil fuel industry and making no effort to stop chemical plants manufacturing the non-recyclable plastics they claim to be concerned about.

The aim of alchemy is the transmutation of the prima materia into the universal elixir or, more tellingly, gold. The primacy of golden profits has led to the exploitation of the black earth – dug up, drilled out, transmuted. What cannot be made into gold has been discarded and become a legacy of poison.

Our long dark night of the soul can only get darker as the Gwions of thisworld continue to drink up the awen from the cauldrons of our modern alchemists and the rest of us are left with Afagddu in utter darkness with the poisoned fumes, slow leakage of leachate, and suffocation of our sea waters.

paula-may-566498-unsplash.Photo by Paula May on Unsplash

Yet, if we set aside the notion that life should be a progression from black earth to gold, our dark night might be seen as a revelation in itself and not a step on the way to the profits of the shiny-browed.

This I learnt when I sat with Afagddu and watched the RV Ocean Starr and her seventeen sister vessels trawling from east to west with their tow nets gathering data with bottles, buoys, fishing nets.

This I learn whenever I pick up litter from my local valley and walk on landfills. It might be learnt from any litter picker, rag picker, garbage man, driver of landfill compactors; gulls, rats, fungi, aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, methanogenic archaea; any guide to the alchemy of waste.


Akshat Rathi, ‘Carbon emissions in the UK have fallen to a 120-year low’, Quartz, May 2017

Ben Chapman, ‘Conservatives pledge ‘unprecedented’ support for fossil fuels after receiving almost £400,000 from oil bosses’, The Independent, May 2017

Daniela Buckroithner, ‘Microbiology of Landfill Sites’, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Masters Thesis, (2015)

Friends of the Earth, ‘Dirty Truths: Incineration and Climate Change,’ 2006

Friends of the Earth, ‘Ineos, fracking and plastic’, 2017

Janice Lund (Waste Management Group, LCC), email communication, March 2017

L. Lebreton et al. ‘Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic’, Nature, March 2017

Russell Hutchinson (Waste & Transport Officer SRBC), email communication, March 2017.

Stephanie Pappas, ‘Plastic found in deepest living creatures’, Live Science, 2017

Tom Goulding, ‘Viridor to begin operations at Runcorn Efw’, Lets Recycle, 2014

‘Alchemy’, Wikipedia

‘Waste to Energy’, Wikipedia

‘Where does all my waste go?’, Preston City Council

‘Whinney Hill landfill smells: Accrington residents take legal action’, BBC News, 2012

‘Whinney Hill Landfill Gas’, Variable Pitch, 2017

Websites of Viridor, INOVYN, INEOS, and VPI Immingham

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers 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 ones. 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, edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance, and blogs at ‘Signposts in the Mist’.

Support our work here.