Exploiting Chaos

“I picture an awenydd seated beside a gas flare prophesying chaos…”

From Lorna Smithers

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Gas’ – ‘invented by J. B. van Helmont (1577–1644), Belgian chemist, to denote an occult principle which he believed to exist in all matter; suggested by Greek khaos ‘chaos’, with Dutch g representing Greek kh.’
Oxford English Dictionary

Chaomancy exhibits its signs by the stars of the air and the wind… Necromicae fall down from the upper air, and frequently voices and answers are heard. Trees are plucked up from the earth by their roots, and houses thrown down. Lemurs, Penates, Undines, and Sylvans are seen.’
Paracelsus

I. Gas Flare

It’s 1999. I’m the designated driver. On summer nights we park up at a landfill site, light up with snazzy Zippos, inhale, sit back, drift away to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. Through the steamy windscreen I glimpse a flame, a lonely solitary thing, like a will-o-wisp. Only it’s not flitting and dancing across a marshland. It’s stationary. Doing penance. Still I admire its allure.

That flame burns no more. I now know it was a gas flare lit to burn off flammable gases: methane and carbon dioxide produced by the decomposition of organic waste in the landfill. Methane, created by methanogenesis, as anaerobic bacteria break down the detritus of humanity’s excesses, is notorious for causing explosions, thus this chaotic gas must be flared off.

‘Gas’. This is a relatively new term in our vocabulary in contrast to more ancient words used to describe the spirits of the atmosphere who are intrinsically bound up with our capacity to breathe and live. The Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus both mean ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. These terms acknowledge that when we breathe we are participating in a vast realm filled with spirits.

When J. B. Helmont coined the term ‘gas’ in 1609 he described it as a ‘wild spirit’ which ‘differed little from the chaos of the ancients’. The Dutch ‘g’ in ‘gas’ replaced the ‘kh’ in the Greek khaos, ‘chaos’, which meant ‘a vast chasm or abyss’ before ‘complete disorder and confusion’.

In Welsh, nwy, ‘gas’, is related to nwyfre, ‘sky’, ‘firmament’. In medieval Welsh literature Nwyfre appears as a deity with a son called Lliwas, ‘host’ which is suggested of a group of nwyon, ‘gases’, and with sons and grandsons with names such as Gwyn, ‘White’, Fflam, ‘Flame’, Gwenwynwyn, ‘Thrice White’, and Gwanar, ‘Weak’, who might be seen as gaseous spirits.

In this etymology we catch a glimpse of the chaotic agency of the gases who flare from beneath the earth to play an essential yet destabilising role in our cosmos as we exploit their power.

II. The Vapours of Prophecy

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Natural gas flares were once viewed as very sacred. In the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the seat of the Delphic Oracle or Pythian Priestess, there once burnt an eternal flame. In 1400 BCE this site was associated with the great Earth Mother, Gaia, and her serpent daughter, Python.

Its usurpation in 800 BCE is remembered by the story in which Apollo slew Python, cast her into a fissure in the earth, then took the form of a dolphin and brought his new priests on his back.

The Delphic Oracle, who once spoke for Gaia, became the priestess of Apollo. Prophesying from a tripod over the fissure she was inspired by gases rising from the decomposing corpse of the serpent. ‘Python’ means ‘to rot’. Plutarch attributed her powers to sweet-smelling vapours.

Modern studies provide geological confirmation of this myth. Beneath the location of the adyton from which the oracle prophesied lie two faults, breaking through bituminous limestone, which is rich in hydrocarbons. Friction between them caused gases to rise into the temple.

These gases included methane, carbon dioxide, benzene, and ethylene. The latter, a sweet-smelling gas, fits Plutarch’s description. Inhalation of ethylene causes ‘benign trances and euphoric frenzied states’ and doses of over 20% lead to unconsciousness. The preceding goat sacrifice and reading from the quivering of its skin indicated whether the chamber was safe. Plutarch noted on the sole occasion the divination was not heeded the oracle fell down dead.

Chthonic vapours, chaotic spirits, inspired the prophecies of the Delphic Oracle. The ancient Greeks had a deep and intimate relationship with the gases who rose from the delph, ‘womb’, of the earth, bringing inspiration to their prophet and knowledge of the future.

In Wales prophets were known as awenyddion, ‘people inspired’ and were inspired by spirits. ‘Inspiration’, ysbrydoliaeth, derives from ysbryd, ‘spirit’, and awen, ‘poetic inspiration’ from *uel ‘to blow’. It rises from Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld, from Annuvian gods and spirits.

As this tradition is revived I picture an awenydd seated beside a gas flare prophesying chaos…

III. Climate Chaos

Our exploitation of gases began with the fossil fuel buried deep in the underworld that drove the Industrial Revolution – coal. The flammability of coal was unsurprisingly first recognised by miners who called flammable coal gas ‘fire damp’(the German dampf corresponds to ‘vapour’).

In the Philosophical Transactions of 1739 Rev. Dr. John Clayton records his discovery of ‘the spirit of coal’:

‘Having seen a ditch within two miles of Wigan, in Lancashire, wherein the water would seemingly burn like brandy, the flame of which was so fierce that several strangers have boiled eggs over it, the people thereabouts, indeed, affirm that about thirty years ago it would have boiled a piece of beef… I came to see the place and make some experiments… we found a shelly coal, and the candle being then put down into the hole, the air catched fire and continued burning…

‘I got some coal, and distilled it in a retort over an open fire. At first there came over only phlegm, afterwards a black oil, and then, likewise, a spirit arose which I could no ways condense; but it forced my lute and broke my glasses.’

Coal gas was first exploited for gas lighting by William Murdoch in 1792. This made it possible for factories to operate after daylight leading to an increase in the exploitation of workers. The once sacred flames took on a devilish apparel in the ‘dark Satanic mills’. Below in the mines the spirit of coal caused chaos as firedamp exploded, claiming thousands of lives.

Such dangers were surrounded by portents. The Seven Whistlers – flocks of plovers whistling in a storm – were heard before a gas explosion claimed the lives of 70 men at Ince Moss Colliery, Wigan, in 1871. Birds were seen in the mines before 439 miners were killed in the Senghynedd explosion in Glamorgan in 1913. Whistling was banned in case it summoned chaotic spirits.

The production of ‘town gas’ for lighting was a dirty process that took place in gasworks in the shabbier areas of each town. Coal was heated in retorts and the crude gas was siphoned off, condensed, scrubbed, purified, then transferred to a gas holder connected to distribution pipes. This released vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and contaminated the land with ammonia liquors, coal tar, spent oxide, and cyanides including the notorious ‘blue billy’, a deadly ferrocyanide that has been the bane of developers to this day.

After the UK act for ‘the exploration and exploitation of the continental shelf’ was passed, the Sea Gem discovered natural gas in a basin of Permian sandstone in the North Sea in 1965. This was followed by disaster when the off-shore rig’s legs collapsed killing 13 men.

Over a hundred gas fields in the North Sea and Irish Sea have been found and exploited since. Town gas was replaced by the cleaner natural gas, requiring an overhaul of piping and appliances. Natural gas is piped from the gas fields to terminals on the shore, then compressed and piped to local distribution networks. Carbon emissions from natural gas are less than coal and oil, but the leakage of methane during drilling and transporting is considerable.

Britain was self-sufficient in gas until 2004. Now the North Sea fields are running out and we’re relying on the Morecambe Bay Fields in the Irish Sea along with piped imports from Norway, the Netherlands, and the rest of Europe, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar.

This has led to the UK government supporting fracking, a controversial process used to extract gas from shale, which will add to air pollution and poison groundwater aquifers.

Burning fossil fuels has released an alarming number of chaotic spirits into the atmosphere, causing warming temperatures, melting sea ice, rising sea levels, storms, flooding, wildfires, droughts…

Europe was recently struck by a dramatic snowstorm named ‘the Beast from the East’. The melting of Arctic sea ice caused a sudden stratospheric warming, splitting the polar vortex and displacing it southward where it met the East wind and disrupted the polar jet stream. Britain endured 50 mile-an-hour winds and temperatures as low as minus 12C. In its midst the National Grid announced a gas shortage and gas prices rocketed by over 400%.

This destructive feedback loop of ‘wacky’ (from WACC Warm Arctic Cold Continent) weather threatens to get worse as the Arctic warms, the polar vortex weakens, European winters get colder, and we ramp up the heating, producing more emissions.

How can we cope with this chaos?

VI. Chaomancy

Chaomancy (from chaos and manteia ‘divination’) is a branch of aeromancy – divination by air. Along with geomancy, hydromancy, pyromancy, chiromancy, scapulamancy, and necromancy, it is one of seven divinatory arts which were forbidden during the Renaissance.

The practice of these ‘arts’, divided and classified, would once have been the domain of the seers and prophets of the past. Interactions with the spirits of the elements and the dead and readings from skin and bones was central to the life of communities who recognised their well-being was dependent on the visible and invisible inhabitants of the other-than-human world.

Paracelsus says chaomancy ‘exhibits its signs by the stars of the air and the wind, by discoloration, the loss and destruction of all tender and subtle things… shaking off and stripping flowers, leaves, fronds, stalks’. These ‘signs’ are uncannily close to the effects of the Beast from the East, which tore the limbs from trees, the leaves from plants, and withered flowers.

Tree felled in Penwortham after the Beast from the East

He also speaks of hearing ‘voices’ and ‘answers’ and the appearance of a variety of spirits. As the Beast howled and clattered in the trees and roared down my chimney, as a modern awenydd, I was painfully aware of my inability to interpret the words of this vast creature displaced from its lair above the polar vortex; a stranger and estranged in these mild green lands.

Our ability to see and hear the chaotic spirits of the air has been destroyed by centuries of Christianity and the rise of objectifying sciences that do not recognise the agency of their subjects.

A shame because science is potentially an Annuvian art allowing us to see into the hidden depths of an inspirited world, granting us an understanding of the invisible cycles governing life.

Is it possible both science and chaomancy can be reclaimed within the context of a world that is essentially inspirited? Wherein carbon dioxide and methane are CO2 and CH4 but also living spirits with whom the chaomancer can interact and give voice to in words of prophecy?

If we were to form a relationship with these living beings would we be so ready to exploit them?

How might we work together in ways that are mutually beneficial? The utilisation of methane from landfills rather than ravaging fossil fuels is a renewable and redemptive possibility being pursued

As we look into a future, which even the most refined and up to date technologies predict as chaotic, I glimpse a flame on a landfill revered as sacred again. Beside it an awenydd sings…

SOURCES

Adam Vaughan, ‘Qatar crisis highlights rising UK energy reliance on imports’, The Guardian,( June 2017)
James B. Speight, Natural Gas: A Basic Handbook, (Gulf Publishing, 2007)
Judith Nathanail, ‘Chemistry of Gas Works Contaminants’, (Land Quality Management, 2013)
John Billingsley, ‘The Last Shift’, Northern Earth, 144, (March 2016)
Paracelsus, The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings Vol. 1, (Cornell University Library, 1894)
Stella Tsolakidu, ‘Did the Earth’s Fumes Drive Pythian Prophecies?’, Greek Reporter, (2012)
Sylvia Linsteadt, ‘The Return of the Snake’, The Gleewoman’s Notes, (2017)
William Matthews, A Historical Sketch of the Origin, Progress, and Present State of Gas-Lighting, (Kessinger Publishing, 2010)


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and has edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She gives talks and workshops in her home country of Lancashire and occasionally further afield. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.


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Tower Hill

‘Once again I see Brân’s head, unlit, decaying, mouthing silent words at me.’

From Lorna Smithers

1200px-Tower_of_London_viewed_from_the_River_Thames Wikipedia Commons

Although the road was long they came to London and buried the head on the White Hill.’

The Second Branch

I.

I’m trapped in traffic on Tower Hill. A busy day done. A long drive home. I unbutton my collar and loosen my tie because I’m stifling in the heat of the midsummer sun.

Crowds of people are filing from Tower Gateway into the Underground. Like me they’re going down, only they’ll come back up far from the capital, far from the underworld, and turn on televisions able to bear ads without being plagued by huge black ravens of guilt.

My neck is cramped and sticky-wet. I think of all the people beheaded on Tower Hill, the blood-stained axe cutting through bone and sinew, blood dripping from necks, terrified I’ll be next. Arthur has reinstalled the chopping block. The heads of traitors are impaled on stakes on London Bridge with ravens circling above them.

Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table moved into the White Tower six months ago. He wants it rebranding, all traces of Brân, its ancient guardian, removed. When he came to my agency with a price that could not be refused our Creative Director leapt at the chance.

That night on my way home I saw Brân’s head. It was a rush-hour dusk, late winter, the capital lighting up. At first I thought it was part of a light show, levitating over the Tower of London with a stony ridge for a nose, lake-like eyes reflecting a million headlights, raven-black hair and beard, pale wax-like flesh lit from within.

Yet the people on the Double Decker buses showed no sign of surprise or awe as the tour guide spoke through a megaphone about the Tower, its guardian, his ravens. The processions continued regardless. The drivers did not lift their sight from the next set of traffic lights, the streams of number plates and brake lights.

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It was not on the evening news. I’d worked in advertising long enough to know such an expensive display would have received mass media coverage. The apparition was seen only by me. As my company formed strategies to erase Brân, I made it a priority to learn his story:

Brân was one of the god-kings of Prydain. He owned a cauldron, gifted to him by a giant and giantess from the depths of Annwn, which brought the dead back to life at the cost of being unable to speak.

Brân gave the cauldron to Matholwch, King of Ireland, who married his sister, Branwen. Matholwch’s mistreatment of Branwen led to a war in which Matholwch used the cauldron to resurrect his dead warriors.

Brân’s army triumphed narrowly. Fatally wounded, Brân ordered the survivors to cut off his head and bear it back across the sea. After feasting with it in Harlech and on the island of Gwales they bore it to London and buried it beneath the White Hill (Tower Hill) to protect Prydain from oppression. Arthur dug it up and these lands have been besieged by conflict since.

II.

Brân’s story troubled me because when my partner, Heilyn, returned from Afghanistan he was tongue-tied. Refusing to speak, he ate little and rarely moved from our bedroom where he watched talk shows, soaps, old war films. I feared he’d become one of the speechless dead.

1280px-Air_assaulting_Lwar_Kowndalan By Mike Pryor - httpwww.defense.govnewsnewsarticle.aspxid=18008, Public Domain, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid12212783

When eventually he began talking, he found it easier to tell me about how his squadron were attacked on patrol, their capture, the beheading of their commander, and their dramatic helicopter rescue, than what happened on the island where they convalesced.

“We were half-drunk, admittedly, but all of us saw it: in the centre of the room, our commander’s head. It grew to gigantic proportions, then blood started pouring from its eyes and nose, from its ears and mouth, filling the room. I feared we were drowning in his blood, the blood of our comrades, of the enemy, of the civilians, the dead of all the world.”

Heilyn couldn’t return to the army. Because they’ve cut his benefits I have to bring in a wage. If my agency wins the bid to Arthur that would more than cover the mortgage. I could cut down my hours.

But I can’t go through with it… Brân’s head… the heads on London Bridge… I don’t want to be responsible for erasing Brân and supporting Arthur’s recruitment drive for his new crusades.

Every night I dream about processions of young men marching into the Underground and being taken by tube to fortresses surrounded by barbed wire where their heads are shaved, they’re stripped, deprived of their names, then thrown by uniformed men into enormous cauldrons.

Within the cauldrons are endless levels of gruelling tasks: slippery mud-slick obstacle courses, lines of targets without end, cardboard cut-outs of infidels, inflatable giants with beards and turbans floating like bosses at the end of a video game laughing maniacally.

They have to master shooting them down with guns then with hawk-like drones whilst watching the devastation on a flat screen. The final test is showing a willingness to drop the Mother of all Bombs.

Those who complete every level (many die in the cauldrons, which are lined with skulls staring from the bottom as a reminder of the price of failure) emerge reborn with a knightly name, fully armed, aboard a metal-clad warhorse, yet unable to speak.

This is why I daren’t use the Underground.

III.

I know the source of these dreams. Two years ago I visited an exhibition of Celtic art at Prydain’s Museum. Not my kind of thing, but copy writers have to keep their fingers on the pulse-beat of culture.

To my surprise I was mesmerised by an antlered deity on the Gundestrup Cauldron holding a serpent in one hand and a torque in the other, surrounded by wild creatures: a hound, a deer, a bull, a man riding on a salmon, others less identifiable but all strangely alive.

CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid192624

He appeared again (somehow I knew it was him) on another plate with a hound beside him presiding over a cauldron. Before my eyes the scene came to life! Dead warriors, battered, war-torn, carrying dented shields, leaning on their spears, limped toward him. He picked them up and plunged them headfirst into the cauldron to be reborn. They rode free on otherworldly horses with horns and feathers and statuettes of wild things on their heads led by a serpent.

CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid192747

That’s how it’s supposed to work! I found out in Gaul the deity is known as Cernunnos, and here in Prydain as Gwyn ap Nudd. He is the Head of Annwn, the keeper of the Cauldron of Rebirth, to which he takes the souls of the dead to be reborn.

Arthur stole the cauldron and, like Matholwch, is misusing it in this world. Only he’s throwing in living men to be rebirthed as soulless crusaders. That’s why he wants Brân and Gwyn’s stories erased.

IV.

I can’t follow through on the bid. I’d prefer to lose my head than lose my soul. The radio is muttering about an accident and build-up of traffic on the M25. The dials on my dashboard shuddering on red indicate my engine is overheating and I’m running out of fuel. The scent of artificial pine is failing to drown my sweat.

The pine tree swinging to and fro on a string beneath my rear view window reminds me of backpacking with Heilyn in Celyddon; its pine bowers and birdsong, our tent and boyish smiles. A distant dreamtime before we settled down, got a mortgage, civil partnership, and full-time jobs.

A raven lands scratchy-clawed on my bonnet, taps on my windscreen with its wise black beak, then flies toward the Tower. Once again I see Brân’s head, unlit, decaying, mouthing silent words at me.

Tower_hill_entrance By Mrsteviec at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid300309

Whatever happens I’m going down. I stop the engine, switch on the hazard lights, abandon my car on Tower Hill, and join the procession to the Underground. Once I’m below I do not seek out a train. I’ve seen a door. Beside it stands Heilyn in his combat gear. My armour has always been this shirt, trousers with ironed-in creases, shiny shoes, and my polished smile (which I exchange for a real smile for him).

Like the weary warriors on that panel we bear our burdens: a broken rifle and shabby briefcase containing the copy Arthur will never receive, down the dark tunnel, beyond where Brân’s head was buried to where the cauldron of the Head of Annwn still lies outside time to be reborn with antlers on our heads and stars in our hair, galloping free after the fiery serpent to turn Arthur’s reign upside down.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods and dreaming new ones. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and has edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She performs poetry and gives talks and workshops in her home county of Lancashire and occasionally further far afield. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.


Digital versions of Lorna’s two books (Enchanting The Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron) are available in our online bookstore. And until 1 March, all digital works are 20% off!

An Unfortunate Disclosure

A giant’s face, even when buried sixty feet down, has diplomacy and mastery of international relations.”

From Lorna Smithers

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‘Arthur disclosed the head ofBrân the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but his own.’
The Triads of the Island of Britain

‘The face is a living presence; it is expression… The face speaks.’
Emmanuel Levinas

A giant does not find it easy to die. We are too big for the cauldron. Our flesh does not boil. Our bones and gristle do not grind. Our faces remain; stark, expressive, chiselled, and insurmountable as cliffs.

I took control of my fate the day the cauldron shattered and the Gatherer of Souls, bent-backed, leaning against the winds of a broken universe, gathered the dead and the undead back to Annwn.

As I died from a poisoned wound in my foot, loosening the tourniquet, I told the seven survivors of my army to cut off my head and carry it back to Prydain to be buried beneath White Hill.

A giant’s face, even when buried sixty feet down, has diplomacy and mastery of international relations. My expressive eyes are lakes, drinking the reflections of others, reflecting back to them an understanding. My smile and the wrinkles around my eyes are hospitality. The imposing ridge of my nose ensures I am taken seriously. A frown ripples waves and a scowl summons marooning winds.

Thus I maintained my kingdom, welcoming traders, craftsmen, refugees (even the monstrous fiery-headed giants who brought the cauldron) into the forests of my beard. Many languages rang from the markets. I witnessed a mingling of skins; tribes with the heads of dogs, lions, horses. Even under the Romans, many peoples commingled worshipping many gods.

The conflict with the Saxons was not insuperable. There is room in Prydain for all when it is not dominated by tables of power-hungry kings and the shadowy threat of the assassin’s knife.

When Arthur declared himself King of Prydain he could not bear this island being defended by anyone but him (defence being his prerogative: drawing lines on shifting sands, dictating which faces belonged). So he brought a workforce to White Hill. Spades dug down. Wheelbarrows carted mud. Finally they struck my skull.

I groaned. The workforce dropped their spades and stared at blood oozing from beneath raven-black hair. More gently they worked; easing the mud from the cliffs of my cheeks, dusting off my eyebrows and eyelashes, revealing my frown and my dry lips pressed together amidst my beard. Every worker trembled when he looked at my face. One bowed down. Arthur kicked him up.

The King of Prydain did not look at me. When I looked at him, I saw his fate. “Twelve battles will be fought.”

The workers dropped their trowels and rags. A wheelbarrow toppled. Two men took flight up the ramp and out of the hollow hill. Arthur turned and saw his reflection in the lakes of my eyes.

“Twelve battles between Briton and Saxon: one on the river Glen, four in the river Dubglas in the Region Linuis, one on the river Bassas, one in the Caledonian Forest, one in Guinnion Fort, one in the City of the Legion, one on the river Tribuit, one on the Hill called Agned, and one on Badon Hill.

“In the thirteenth battle, at Camlan, you will meet your death.” In my eyes Arthur saw himself lying helpless, blood pouring from a wound half a foot wide, surrounded by ravens.

“Take the cursed thing away!” he bawled. “Far from my kingdom.”

The workforce put a gigantic sack over my head so they did not have to look at my face. Many pairs of trembling hands lifted it onto a cart hauled by a pair of draught horses down bumpy roads. It was hoisted onto a ship, loaded into the deepest part of the hold, deposited on the continent.

Since then my head has passed through many hands. From an undisclosed place it speaks. Some see a new Prydain in the lakes of my eyes, the untamed forest of my beard, the welcoming cliffs of my cheeks.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods and dreaming new ones. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and has edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She performs poetry and gives talks and workshops in her home county of Lancashire and occasionally further far afield. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.

Battle Not With Monsters

A poem from Lorna Smithers


 

Battle not with monsters
Lest you become a monster.
If you gaze into the abyss
The abyss also gazes into you.’
Friedrich Nietzsche

You call us monsters,
we with single eyes in our heads
glaring with an ugly neon green light.
We who keep battalions of men beneath
the roofs of our mouths and in our napes,
fat with hundreds of souls softly slither
through the netherworld’s nocturnal
grandeur undoing form and shape.
If you wish to live and prosper
battle not with monsters.

Do not pierce us with spears.
Do not slice off our sanguine limbs
and nail them to the gables of your halls.
Do not cut off our voices with our heads.
Do not come to us with mirrors for fear
of being turned to stone and slaughter
all of our many-headed reflections.
Do not lure us with scantily clad
innocent-eyed virgin daughters
lest you become a monster,

sacrificing the last vestiges
of humanity for love of conquering.
If you kill us you will not be satisfied
dominating the otherworld of Annwn.
You will seek out other lands sailing forth
fervourous in your white-prowed ships
with burning swords and fiery lances
crusading, enslaving, becoming
the monsters you dismissed.
If you gaze into the abyss

we will gaze back with a million
crippled one-eyed stares undulating
through the underworld of your Empire
devouring ruined tower blocks bearing
all those you enslaved and conquered
shouting their defiance of your rules
in our splendiferous serpent skins,
riding aboard monstrous eyelids.
“Slaughterers behold the truth:
the abyss also gazes into you!”

*This glosa has a loose basis in the depiction of the monsters of Annwn in ‘The Battle of the Trees’ in The Book of Taliesin. Here Taliesin battles on the side of the magician god, Gwydion, who conjures a host of trees against the forces of Annwn, the Brythonic underworld. The warrior-bard later accompanies Arthur on his raid on Annwn, plundering its treasures. I also reference other monster-slaying tales such as Beowulf and Peredur.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods and dreaming new ones. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and has edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signpost in the Mist.


You can help us pay Lorna and other anti-capitalist Pagans and witches at Gods&Radicals here. And thanks!

The Scream Over Annwfn

“Until oppression ends, the dragons will not rest.”

From Lorna Smithers

I. This Headless Screaming

Several years ago I wrote a poem about a scream erupting from the landscape of Preston:

This headless screaming

is the kind of screaming
that gets into your blood

of a headless Madonna
or a headless black dog

running out of leper colonies,
hospitals and friaries,

shrieking over mills
and foundries,

burning up
like an infant’s last cry

or embers in a vagrant’s last pipe
spilled red in any alleyway.

It flaps and flutters in your heart
like an unruly bird,

a carrion cry, a fury.
It will not cease

until its vociferation
is complete. It will not cease.

It struck me as a scream of the dispossessed, those deprived of land and a voice in society: Preston’s confined lepers, condemned recusants, country-dwellers forced from their land into the mills, those who died in the slums with their deficient drains and foul ditches, Chartists gunned down the by the police, force-fed suffragettes, the homeless, unheeded poets and protestors.

II. The Scream Over Annwfn

I later found a reference to Diaspad Uwch Annwfn ‘the scream over Annwfn’ in Will Parker’s Appendix to The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. He refers to it as a ‘mysterious gesture of ritual frenzy… evidently employed by disinherited persons making the transition from the status of proprietor to that of an indentured taeog bondsman’.

Looking into this further I found out, with help from Greg Hill and Andrew Smith (Will Parker’s publisher), that in Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru: A Dictionary of the Welsh Language the diasbad uwch annwfn is defined as a ‘claim for share in an ancestral land (lit. cry over the abyss).’

It appears in several versions of the Welsh Laws texts including The Laws of Hywel Dda (13th C). There it states diasbad is ‘a shriek, cry of distress’ and the expression uwch Annwfn ‘perhaps implies that the claimant is crying out against being expelled from the human world of landed proprietors’. In a section titled ‘Claims by Proprietary Right’ we find the following:

‘If the ninth person comes to ask for land, his proprietorship is extinguished, and he gives a shriek because he is passing from proprietor to non-proprietor. And then the law hears that shriek and gives him an allowance, that is to say, as much as each of their number who are seated against him; and that is called diasbad uwch Annwfn. And though that shriek be given thereafter, it will never be heard; and others say that the ninth person is not entitled to give that shriek, but that he has passed from proprietor to non-proprietor.’

Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales (1841) refers to ‘several ways for claiming land and soil lawfully’ which include ‘by kin and descent’. There it states:

‘the claim does not become extinct, until the end of the ninth generation. And the cry of such a person, becoming from a proprietor to a non-proprietor, in the last descent, will be listened to by the law: and that cry is called a cry over the abyss, and will be listened to… Thereupon, such one is to set up a cry over the deserted place; and he is then entitled to obtain a refuge, and that is as much as the man of greatest conservancy.’

The scream over Annwfn is uttered by a ninth descendant threatened with the loss of unclaimed hereditary land. There exists a tradition of employing the scream to gain a hearing by the law and through that an allowance. It is uttered by the dispossessed to ensure their voices are heard. Its legitimacy seems to be in question in The Laws of Hywel Dda.

III. Invoking the Spirits of Annwfn

There is something primal and archaic about the scream over Annwfn that doesn’t fit with our everyday conception of law-making. Parker mentions it in a section on ‘The Underworld Gods’ who include the Gaulish andedion, the Irish andée, and the British spirits of Annwfn.

From the Gallo-Roman period we possess two tablets relating to the andedion and underworld magic. On The Tablet of Chamalières (50CE) a group of male magical practitioners invoke Andedion ‘Underworld God(s)’ and call upon Maponos Avernatis (the god Maponos) to quicken them by the magic of Andernon ‘underworld spirits’. On The Tablet of Larzac (90CE) a group of women with anuana san- anderna, ‘special underworld names’ employ an incantation using andernados brictum, ‘underworld-group magic’. It seems likely traditions invoking the spirits of Annwfn in a similar way existed in Britain.

Tacitus refers to what may be described as a ‘ritual frenzy’ used by the Britons who defended Mona (Anglesey) from the Romans in 60CE:

‘On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement.’

In medieval Welsh literature the aryal, ‘fury’ of the spirits of Annwfn (who are frequently referred to as dieuyl, ‘devils’) is contained by Gwyn ap Nudd to prevent their destruction of the world. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwfn. Because he contains their furious nature within him and his realm he possesses the power to unleash their fury and to hold it back.

An invocation of Gwyn appears in the Latin manuscript Speculum Christiani (14th C), here translated by Brinley Roberts:

‘Some stupid people also stupidly go the door holding fire and iron in the hands of one when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying “Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for love of your mate allow us to come home”. In this they are acting most stupidly that they ask help of the evil spirits which have nothing but eternal damnation…’

This interpretation is heavily Christianised. Yet from it we can glean that Gwyn and the spirits of Annwfn have the ability to take away illness and thus to heal. This may originate from superstitions about them being the source of illness and therefore being able to remove it.

Interestingly, in a Romano-British inscription, Gwyn’s father Nudd/Nodens is called upon to ‘withhold health’ from the thief of a ring until it is returned to his temple.

The scream over Annwfn might have originated as an invocation of the gods and spirits of Annwfn to maintain that a dispossessed person’s claim to their land was heard, and have carried a serious threat to the health and well-being of the land and its inhabitants if it was not.

IV. To Raise Three Shouts

In Culhwch and Olwen (1090) a variant of the scream over Annwfn may appear as a threat employed by Culhwch, cousin of Arthur, when Arthur’s gate-keeper refuses to let him into Arthur’s court:

 ‘If you open the gate, well and good. If not, I will bring dishonour on your lord and give you a bad name. And I will raise three shouts at the entrance of this gate that will be no less audible on the top of Pen Pengwaedd in Cornwall as at the bottom of Dinsol in the North, and in Esgair Oerfel in Ireland. And all the women in this court that are pregnant shall miscarry, and those that are not, their wombs shall become heavy within them so that they shall never be with child from this day forth.’

Culhwch’s threat to ‘raise three shouts’ could contain a memory of an older ritual procedure. Three is a sacred number to the Celts and the scream/shout may have been uttered three times. Its audibility from Pen Pengwaedd to Dinsol to Esgair Oerfel shows the extent of its reach.

We also find out that it causes pregnant women to miscarry and women who are not pregnant to become barren. The spirits of Annwfn have power over the processes of fertility. In this case Culhwch’s threat to employ the scream because he is shut out of his uncle’s feast feels like a parody of the ritual frenzy of the dispossessed. He is a spoilt rich kid having a tantrum because he cannot his own way. Sadly this fits with the rest of this highly Christianised and Arthurianised text, which consistently makes a mockery of Annwfn and its denizens.

Llyn Dinas, below Dinas Emrys

V. Lludd’s Dragon Screams

Parker connects the scream over Annwfn with the second plague in Lludd and Llefelys (12th – 13th C):

‘The second plague was a scream that was heard every May eve above every hearth in the island of Britain. It pierced people’s hearts and terrified them so much that men lost their colour and strength, and women miscarried, and young men and maidens lost their senses, and all animals and trees and the earth and the waters were left barren.’

Once more we find the effect of barrenness, both of the land and of women, with the additional effects of loss of strength and colour, and madness. These could well be attributed to the spirits of Annwfn.

It is significant that the scream takes place on May eve. Every Calan Mai, Gwyn (Winter) fights a battle against Gwythyr (Summer) for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess). Gwyn loses and he and the spirits of Annwfn, who are associated with wintry weather and barrenness, retreat. Gwythyr’s sacred marriage with Creiddylad brings about the fertility of the landscape. The blighting of the land on May eve would have been seen as a cataclysmic precedent to Calan Mai. Perhaps this was the last chance for the spirits of Annwfn to strike before they withdraw.

It is notable that, in Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, it states that a descendant’s claim to land must be made ‘nine days after the calends of winter; or, in nine days after the calends of May.’

‘If he claim on the ninth day of May, he is to have an answer before the nine days to the calends of winter. If he have not then an answer, let him claim in the nine days from the succeeding calends of winter; and, if he do not then obtain it, the law is not ever to be closed against him thenceforth, whenever the Lord be minded to grant him law except in the blank days.’

This shows that claims to land, and the scream over Annwfn, are legally bound up with Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf, which mark the transitions between summer and winter, and the ascendancy and retreat of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwfn as he and Gwythyr battle for Creiddylad.

In Lludd and Llefelys the scream is not uttered by a dispossessed human, but by a dragon! The dragon is connected with Lludd (Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn’s father) who is here presented as a god-king of Britain. Lludd’s dragon is fighting against ‘the dragon of another foreign people’  (the Coriniaid, ‘Romans’) and this is why ‘it gives out a horrible scream’.

As the landscape of Britain is lost to the Romans the dispossessed Britons cry out. This is mirrored in Lludd’s dragon screaming as it loses to the Roman dragon. The scream invokes the spirits of Annwfn with the unfortunate effect of blighting both Roman and Briton and the land itself.

Lludd puts an end to the dragon’s scream by a complex ritual process. Measuring Britain he locates the omphalos, ‘navel’ at Oxford, digs a hole, and puts into it a vat of mead covered by brocaded silk. When the dragons tire of fighting they sink down onto the silk into the vat, drink the mead, and fall asleep. Lludd wraps them up and buries them in a stone chest under Dinas Emrys. This story is set during the invasion of Caesar in 55BC. It seems Lludd’s putting an end to the battle between the British and Roman dragons/Britons and Romans and hence to the scream and plague upon the land is successful. The dragons are returned to the underworld and silenced and the spirits of Annwfn are no longer invoked to bring about destruction. Yet it will not be long before the Romans return to complete their invasion of Britain.

VI. It Will Not Cease

In the time of Vortigern, during the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the dragons reawaken. Merlin Emrys tells Vortigern the red dragon of the Welsh is battling against the white dragon of the Anglo-Saxons. Nothing is said about the scream but, as at all times of war, no doubt a plague of terror falls upon the land, weakening its inhabitants as the dispossessed cry out against their losses.

It might be assumed that the dragons battle and scream at all times of oppression when people are dispossessed and crying out – the Viking and Norman invasions, Edward 1st’s Conquest of Wales, during the Reformation, the Enclosures, the Highland Clearances, the Industrial Revolution…

The likenesses between the name Nudd/Lludd King of Britain and Ned Ludd/General Ludd/King Ludd, the eponymous figurehead of the Luddites, whose war cry was ‘down with all kings but Ludd!’ suggest Lludd and his dragon took the side of the workers fighting against the cotton lords.

From a mythic perspective the Industrial Revolution might be seen as the greatest plague known to Britain. The dragon screams with the dispossessed driven from their land into factories. Workers on twelve hour shifts graft like the living dead drained of strength and colour. In the slums and shanty towns illness is rife. Women miscarry and infants die in their arms. Asylums fill with those driven insane by the loss of their autonomy. Smoke poisons the air, rivers run purple with dye, birds and fish are poisoned, plants and trees and wither, and we no longer see the touch of the spirits of Annwfn invoked by the scream. Is it any wonder it still lingers in our ears in old mill towns such as Preston where the Industrial Revolution began?

Industrialisation has not reached an end – it continues in house building, road building, fracking, in the continuing development of military aircraft and the weapons industry, all laying claim to more and more land. Those who cry out against these encroachments are seldom heard.

A good many of us have no claim to land, let alone land passed down through nine generations of ancestors. A third of the land is owned by the aristocracy and 0.6 of the population own 50 per cent of rural land. Collectively we are dispossessed and our screams at the injustice of society join the scream over Annwfn proliferating the blight.

How do we deal with this scream, this plague, this endless battle between two dragons? Our myths and the Welsh Laws suggest that the blight will not end until the scream has been heard and an allowance has been made to the dispossessed. Until oppression ends the dragons will not rest.

In the meantime we can learn to be aware of the effects of our screams and the powers we unwittingly summon. We can work with the spirits of Annwfn to destroy and heal and draw upon the wisdom of Lludd/Nudd and Gwyn to teach us the times for fierceness and mead-soaked dreaming.

***

With thanks to Andrew Smith for telling me the scream over Annwfn appears in the Welsh Laws texts and sharing the link to Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, to Greg Hill for the citation from The Laws of Hywel Dda, and to Will Parker for confirming my intuition that the scream over Annwfn originated as an invocation of the spirits of Annwfn.

SOURCES

Aneurin Owen (transl), Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, (University of Michigan, 2008)
Brinley Roberts, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd’ in Llen Cymru, XIII (jonor-gorffenaf, 1980/1)
Dafydd Jenkins (transl), The Laws of Hywel Dda, (Gomer 2000)
John T. Koch (ed), The Celtic Heroic Age, (Celtic Studies Publications, 2003)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tacitus, Annals, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/tacitus/annals/14b*.html
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
Will Parker, ‘Lludd a Llefelys’ http://www.mabinogion.info/llud.htm

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is a poet, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron,  editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here, and a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython. She performs poetry in her home county of Lancashire in the North West of England and blogs at Signposts in the Mist.


This sticker and many others, as well as our print and digital works, is available in our online bookstore.

Detritus

These three poems explore the theme of detritus – ‘waste or debris’. The term derives from the Latin deterere ‘wear away’. Drawing on this additional sense they attempt to wear away the ignorance that has led to the build-up of detritus threatening our environment and its inhabitants with a world’s ending. Each poem is based on a dream.

~

Hurricane Garbage

We hear it coming –

it’s like the morning when they empty the dustbins;
the rumbling of wheels in the sky,
the sky god’s garbage truck
inside out upside down
the biting mouth
that chewed the garbage is regurgitating a hurricane.

A shoal of thirteen million plastic bottles
has rattled from the deep into the sky’s crescendo.
They are playing each other like a glockenspiel.

I see wars amongst the plastic cutlery.
Plastic shopping bags are swollen demonic ghosts
with bulging foreheads branded with high street names
chased by chip papers and cellophane and cigarette packets and butts.

Mattresses and sofas are pranging their springs.
Fridges are buzzing like frizbies.

Little girls of the wind are smashing cans
and shaking lollipop sticks.

Four have their heads through the nooses
of a four pack and are singing
a strange dirge.

Hurricane Garbage is blotting out the sun
and rattling like the apocalypse.

We know we should run
but we just stand
and stare.

~

Sarcophagus City

I dreamt of sarcophagi.
Grey the city.

Midnight blue the cloak
of my god

who I served with prayers
tucking offerings

in plastic wrappers round stony
bodies of the dead.

Slowly I forgot my words.
Doubt unfolded

me in frail threads on a wind
that was not a wind

and did not unfold the city
as it was too still.

The wind that never was blasted
the tower block

where I made my bed. I could not
wake from the softness

of too many pillows and dream
myself home again.

~

Self-portrait as a rat at the world’s end

It will be the rat, he told her, that first emerges from the crud
and crap
David Harsent

After the world ended
I hung suspended, head first,
by I knew not what over a four-sided black hole.
Four ladders were guarded by four egg-headed men
with bony white fingers pointing down.

So I went, head first,
on palms or elbows or claws,
I knew not what, whatever was left of me
moving like a mist I could not see or feel

down
down
down

until I did not know up from down
crawling scuttling pitter-pattering on I knew not what
through a tunnel through which all the waste
of the dead world flowed:

plastics bobbing in a river of faeces and bog roll with human limbs.

As I dove in sleeker than an otter
paddling with a pink tail growing stronger and heavier,
sharp-toothed, whiskered, knowing what I was
I knew my soul was a survivor.

~

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron,  and the editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.

I Call to the Ancestors

I call to the first single-celled bacteria who divided on that fateful day.
I call to the green-blue algae sun-bathing slimily on the sea.
I call to the stromatolites, living rocks, anchors, billions of years old.
I call in the Cambrian explosion: BOOM! Let there be life!
I call to the trilobite. Come famous one, hard-shelled, scurrying,
many-legged, throwing off your shadow-fossils on the sea-floor.
I call to anomalocaris: stalk-eyed predator, lobed,
spike-armed, round-mawed.
I call to ottaia, opabinia, hallucigenia, canadaspis, marrela.
I call to the crinoids and nautiloids; many-tentacled in party hats.
I call to the sea scorpion, to jawless and jawed, ray-finned and lobe-finned fish.
I call to the sporing plants; Cooksonia, ready your sporangia.
I call to fern, horse-tail, club moss, scaly tree.
I call to the tetrapods; casineria with your five toes,
aconthostega, diadactes, eucritta from the black lagoon.
I call to the gigantic dragonfly: let us borrow your diamond eyes
and filmy wings to fly over the great forest from
which we drink the oil of your bones.
I call to the dinosaurs: those of you with and without feathers,
archaeoptryx, sinosauropteryx, caudipteryx, T-Rex,
pterodactyl, stegosaurus, brontosaurus,
all of you who crawled or soared.
I call to the meteor that brought your end.
I call to the mammals snuffling mouse-like from terror underground.
I call to the marsupials and the furry purses of their young.
I call to eohippus running dog-sized on three toes,
becoming orohippus, epihippus… one-toed horse.
I call to the canids with sharp carnassials and bone-crunching molars
becoming fox, coyote, dingo, wolf and dog.
I call to our ancestors of blood and bone.
I call to the loving ape.
I call to those who walked from Africa.
I call to our black-skinned, red-skinned,
white-skinned, brown-skinned, yellow-skinned ancestors.
I call to all the souls who have walked this earth and will walk again
in many forms: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lovers.
I call to the ancestors who walk with us
on each fateful day into each
new world.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories of the land and myths of forgotten gods and leaving Signposts in the Mist. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands, editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here and a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd, Dun Brython, and Gods & Radicals.


Lorna Smithers was the editor of the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance, and her work appears in all three. You can now purchase our entire catalogue of publications in digital form together for $20 US.

On a Swan’s Wing

For Sacha Dench

I.

She flies on a single swan’s wing,
engine thrumming in her head,
swan’s heart beating

like the hammer in Arctic ice
driving wingbeats southward
southward

down flight-ways
over the Rakovie Lakes,
the Taiga, the Gulf of Finland,

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,
Slonsk National Park in Poland,
Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands,

Belgium, France, across the foaming
Channel to the White Cliffs,
then back to Slimbridge,

the mudflats of the Severn
to dip her beak into
home sands.

II.

They say that shaman fly
in bird form,
transform to seek answers,

stake their souls against the winds
of industrialisation,
brave the guns,

return exhausted
with shattered pieces
of the world-soul.

III.

Nine Bewick’s swans were tagged,
told apart by the patterns
on their beaks:

Butters, Charlotte, Daisy Clark,
Eileen, Leho, Hope, Maisie,
Pola, Zolotitsa.

We are gathering the pixels
of their data,
trying to assemble a picture.

A story is forming in the electric night
like when the first bacteria
birthed life:

wetlands shrinking like ice caps,
swans falling from the sky
like comets;

wings snapped on powerlines,
feathered corpses pumped
full of lead.

IV.

She says our destinies are intertwined,
hang upon a swan’s wing.
She flies away

at the end of the rite
to join the swans returning
to the Arctic at the call of spring.


*You can find out more about Sacha’s radical journey as a human swan and The Flight of the Swans project HERE.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories of the land and myths of forgotten gods and leaving Signposts in the Mist. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands, editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here and a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd, Dun Brython, and Gods & Radicals.


Lorna Smithers was the editor of the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance, and also has a piece in the most latest issue, A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred. You can buy both here.

Winter King

Winter King

you take me back to what is raw,
glacial plains of horror,
the obnoxious beauty of it all

to beyond the ice age
when millennia ago we met
when the universe drew breath,

when the binding song coalesced.
You came as cold wind
and your inspiration was death.

You are the muse that moves the forest,
the ice that strips the hills,
the hunt that runs without flesh or bone

by the force of its boreal will.
Your voice is the chill that keeps me alive,
the poem that sparkles when all else dies.

When frost rimes my window I cannot forget
you were there at my beginning
and will greet me again at the end.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories of the land and myths of forgotten gods and leaving Signposts in the Mist. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands, editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here and a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd, Dun Brython, and Gods & Radicals.

 


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