Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

Gwyn ap Nudd… he went between sky and air.’
Peniarth MS. 132

~

Have you heard them howling through the skies?
Have you heard them howl of distant worlds?
Have you felt the howling fear you’ll die?
Have you feared they’re howling for your soul?
If you have, your soul is no longer yours, my friend,
It has never been and will never be until the end.
And never is never as the howling winds
That carry us between sky and air.

Dormach and Death’s Door

Gwyddno Garanhir (‘The Knowing One with Crane-Legs’) stands in a misty hinterland before the divine warrior-huntsman and psychopomp, Gwyn ap Nudd (‘White son of Mist’), and his white stallion, Carngrwn.

Beside Gwyn is Dormach, his hunting dog, ‘fair and sleek’ and ruddy-nosed. Dormach’s gaze is commanding. His nose shines like a torch-fire; a beacon; a setting sun. Although he appears as a dog, his shape somehow exceeds dog-like proportions. Gwyddno says:

‘Dormach red-nose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.’

Gwyddno’s sensory perception is distorted. Dormach is close enough for his nose to be seen, yet distantly wandering across the heavens.

This is due to the misty shape-shifting nature he shares with Gwyn. J. Gwengobryn Evans tells us Dormach ‘moved ar wybir, i.e. rode on the clouds which haunt the mountain-tops.’ ‘Wybir‘ is ‘condensed floating white cloud’ referred to as Nuden and ‘serves as a garment for Gwyn.’

In a remarkable image beside the poem, Dormach appears as a strangely grinning dog with forelegs, but instead of back legs he possesses two long and tapering serpent’s tails! This illustrates Dormach’s capacity to be near and distant and shows he is clearly not of this world.

dormach-sketch-copy

Dormach is a member of the Cwn Annwn (‘Hounds of the Otherworld’) who are sometimes known as Cwn Wybyr (‘Hounds of the Sky’). They occupy a liminal position between the worlds and play an important role in the passage of souls.

This is represented beautifully by John Rhys’ translation of Dormach (re-construed as Dormarth) as ‘Death’s Door’. He links this to the Welsh paraphrase for death Bwlch Safan y Ci ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, the English ‘the jaws of death’ and the German Rachen des Todes and suggests Dormach’s jaws are the Door of Annwn. Although this translation is disputed by scholars, it possesses poetic truth. Death is not an end but a passage to the next life.

Gwyddno’s passing is not depicted in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. I’ve been meditating on this poem for several years and had a break-through when I realised Gwyddno’s epithet, Garanhir, was an indicator of his inner crane-nature.

In a personal vision following from the poem, Gwyddno donned his red crane’s mask, grew wings and followed the red sun of Dormach’s nose to be re-united with his kindred on an island of dancing cranes in Annwn.

Transformation

Physical death is not always a prerequisite of passage to Annwn. This is shown in the story of Pwyll and Arawn in the First Branch of The Mabinogion. Pwyll’s life-changing encounter with a King of Annwn called Arawn is heralded by the ‘cry of another pack’.

Although Pwyll notices Arawn’s hounds are ‘gleaming shining white’ and red-eared he fails to recognise their otherworld nature. He commands his pack to drive them off their kill: a grand stag, and feasts his own pack on it.

As recompense, Arawn asks Pwyll to take his form and role in Annwn and fight his ritual battle against his eternal foe: Hafgan. By defeating Hafgan and resisting the temptation to sleep with Arawn’s wife, Pwyll wins the title of Pwyll Pen Annwn (‘Pwyll Head of Annwn’).

In the liminal space opened by the cries of Arawn’s hounds, Pwyll does not die but is transformed. Where passage to Annwn does not demand physical death, it demands the death of one’s former identity and birth of a new one in service to the powers of Annwn.

Cwn Annwn

In later Welsh folklore, Cwn Annwn are known by a number of names: Cwn Wybyr, Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse Dogs’, Cwn Toili ‘Phantom Funeral Dogs’, Cwn Mamau ‘Mother’s Dogs’, ‘Hell-Hounds’ and ‘Infernal Dogs’. Here we find an admixture of pagan and Christian folk beliefs.

Annwn is identified with hell, its gods with demons, and its hounds with hell-hounds. Christianity’s dualistic logic limits the transformative potency of encounters with Annuvian deities by reducing them to objects of fear and superstition.

Yet the lore of Cwn Annwn endures with startling vivacity. They are famed for barking through the skies pursuing the souls of the dead. Therefore to hear them is a death-portent. They often fly the ways corpses will follow: hence their associations with teulu (‘phantom funerals’).

Their magical and disorientating qualities prevail. The 14th C poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, speaks of encountering ‘the dogs of night’ whilst lost in ‘unsightly fog’ after hearing Gwyn’s ‘Crazy Owl’. In a report from Carmarthenshire the closer Cwn Annwn get the quieter their voices until they sound like small beagles. The further away the louder their call. In their midst the ‘deep hollow voice’ of a ‘monstrous blood hound’ is often heard.

Like Dormach they delight in a Cheshire-cat-like ability to shift their shape. Some appear as white dogs with red ears or noses. One is a ‘strong fighting mastiff’ with a ‘white tail’ and ‘white snip and ‘grinning teeth’ able to conjure a fire around it. Others are ‘the size of guinea pigs and covered with red and white spots’, ‘small’, ‘grey-red or speckled’. Some are ‘mice or pigs’.

At Cefn Creini in Merioneth they are accompanied by a ‘shepherd’ with a black face and ‘horns on his head’ who sounds remarkably like Gwyn: a horned hunter-god who blacks his face. He is supposedly fended off with a crucifix. In certain areas of Wales the ‘quarry’ of Gwyn and the Cwn Annwn is restricted to the souls of ‘sinners’ and ‘evil-livers’.

Gabriel Ratchets

In northern England we find the parallel of Gabriel Ratchets. Although they are nominally Germanic and rooted in the Wild Hunt there are striking resemblances with Cwn Annwn.

According to Edward A. Armstrong ‘Ratchet’ derives from the ‘Anglo-Saxon raecc and Middle English… rache, a dog which hunts by scent and gives tongue’. Rachen also means jaws: we recall Rachen des Todes ‘Jaws of Death’.

In Yorkshire, they are known as ‘gabble-ratchets’. Armstrong says ‘Gabble’ is a corruption of ‘Gabriel’ and ‘is connected with gabbara and gabares, meaning a corpse’. We find similarities with Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse-Dogs’.

Gabriel Ratchets are also defined as packs of dogs barking through the skies portending death. Intriguingly they are identified with noisy flights of nocturnal birds who sound like beagles. In Lancashire James Bowker equates them with ‘whistling’ Bean Geese* flying over lonely moors.

In Burnley, Gabriel Ratchets are connected with the Spectre Huntsman of Cliviger Gorge. A maiden called Sibyl hears ‘wild swans winging their way above her’ before she is swept through the air by a ‘demon’. Poet Philip Hamerton shares the evocative lines ‘Wild huntsmen? Twas a flight of swans, / But so invisibly they flew.’

Thousands of Bewick’s swans and Pink-footed Geese arrive to over-winter on Martin Mere between September and November: the time ‘the Wild Hunt’ flies and may form the root of these Lancashire legends.

p1140469-copy

In Nidderdale, the Gabble Ratchet is equated with the ‘night-jar, goat-sucker, screech-owl, churn-owl, puckbird, puckeridge, wheelbird, spinner, razor-grinder, scissor-grinder, night-hawk, night-crow, night-swallow, door-hawk, moth-hawk, goat-hawk, goat-chaffer… and lich-fowl’

We also find the ‘Ratchet Owl’: the ‘death-hound of the Danes’ and ‘night crow’: ‘This kind of owl is dog-footed and covered with hair; his eyes are like the glistering ice; against death he uses a strange whoop.’

Gabble Ratchets also take the form of birds with burning eyes and appear to warn of death. In some cases they are identified with the souls of un-baptised children.

Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

In stories of Cwn Annwn and Gabriel Ratchets we find an astonishing menagerie of otherworldly ‘hounds’. These rich folk beliefs, rooted in wild moorlands and piping wetlands, were not extinguished by Christianity.

Industrialisation forced country dwellers into towns to work in factories. 12 hour shifts in ‘dark Satanic mills’ crushed imagination. Wild places disappeared with the wild mind beneath red bricks of housing developments and asylum walls of schools and universities and secular careers.

Yet through the concrete of office blocks and headphones of call centres, over the white noise of television, we still hear the Cwn Annwn howling. The harder we try to shut them out the louder they howl.

The stoppers in Death’s Door tremble as they bark back the liminal spaces where the gods of Annwn are encountered and souls are transformed.

An increasing number of people are encountering hounds and gods of Annwn and having their lives turned around. I met Gwyn at a local phantom funeral site when I was lost. Passing through Death’s Door with him confirmed the reality of the afterlife and has given me a deeper appreciation of life in thisworld.

As I have striven to uncover Gwyn’s forgotten mythos from the British landscape I have been unfailingly drawn to flight paths of migratory birds and recovering wetlands. Locally, the Ribble Estuary and Martin Mere; further afield, Nith’s Estuary and Caerlaverock, Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Levels, Cors Fochno (‘Borth Bog’) in Maes Wyddno (‘Gwyddno’s Land’).

This has led me to believe that as Brythonic King of Winter Gwyn presides over wintering birds and the passage of souls. This seems significant at a time migratory birds are threatened by melting glaciers and drained wetlands and floods have wrecked havoc across the UK. Our fates are intrinsically linked.

One of the most powerful lessons trusting my soul to Gwyn taught me was it has never been my own. I have always been one of his pack, one of his flock passing between worlds between sky and air.

arfderydd-river-nith-and-caerlaverock-220-copy

~

First published on ‘Signposts in the Mist‘ and Awen ac Awenydd.

SOURCES

Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (Chiefly Lancashire and the North of England) (1872)
Dafydd ap Gwilym, Rachel Bromwich (ed.), A Selection of Poems, (1982)
Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds (1958)
Heron (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2015)
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, (2003)
James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878)
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen (1907)
John Billingsley, West Yorkshire Folk Tales, (2010)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (1841)
John Roby, Traditions of Lancashire: Volume 2 (1829)
John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, (1677)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (1998)
Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Isles of Loch Awe and Other Poems of My Youth, (1855)
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (2007)
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom, (1930)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (1880)
Nottingham Evening Post, Monday 23rd August, 1937

*This seems odd as Bean Geese over-winter in south-west Scotland and Norfolk.
**With thanks to John Billingsley and Brian Taylor for providing some helpful pointers on Gabriel Ratchets, particularly sections from Edward A. Armstrong’s The Folklore of Birds.


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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Review: Words of Re-Enchantment, by Anthony Nanson

Anthony Nanson is a storyteller and writer based in Stroud. He currently runs Awen Publications. Words of Re-Enchantment: Writings on Storytelling, Myth and Ecological Desire is a collection of essays originally written for various publications and occasions gathered into one text.

In his introduction, Anthony states that the core theme of his creative work is desire: ‘the longing for earthly paradise.’ This desire is connected with his ‘longstanding love of the natural world’, ‘ever-growing concern about the impact of human activities on nature, and thereby with the politics of the environment.’

Words of Re-Enchantment is divided into three sections: ‘Myth’, ‘Storytelling’ and ‘Eco-Bardic’. The subject matter is varied. The book is designed so it can be read from cover to cover or dipped into. I did the former and noticed the variegated pieces fit together through careful choice and arrangement as a coherent whole.

In the ‘Myth’ section I found ‘Mythscapes of Arcadia’ particularly enlightening as I have never visited Greece and was intrigued by Anthony’s account of his experiences at mythic sites in the modern day. Anthony spent a year in Greece with his spouse, Kirsty Hartsiotis. He describes the Styx ravine as ‘as a more intense example of the general awareness of easy access to death’ and notes evidence of pagan ritual at the Corycian Cave.

Anthony says the numinous placement of the ‘ancient temple sanctuaries’ evokes ‘a sense of the gods as potent elemental spirits, in contrast to the typically anthropomorphic depiction of the gods in the myths.’ In antithesis to experiencing the numinosity of the inspirited landscape he records his shock at the ‘thick littered’ beaches, fans of garbage fly-tipped down mountains and ‘the stink and pipework of petrochemical factories’ surrounding the ‘tiny oasis’ of green Eleusis. I was surprised and saddened to hear that even the big myths of Greece have failed to instil a strong enough sense of sanctity in the land to protect it from industrialisation and its consequences.

In the second section ‘Storytelling’ the essays which struck me the most, as someone with little knowledge of the area, were those addressing issues faced by Christian storytellers. In ‘The Meeting of Sacred and Secular’, Anthony notes ‘sensitivity is needed… in presenting biblical stories in secular contexts’ due to many peoples’ hostility toward the ‘institutional church’. His approach is one of re-imagination and re-interpretation rather than ‘preaching a narrow gospel message and expecting the audience to either take it or leave it.’

Anthony speaks of a performance of ‘Mark’ put on by ‘The Telling Place’, ‘an initiative to promote storytelling in the church and wider culture’. Anthony contrasts a comedic scene where Jesus walks on water with the ‘long prophetic speech before his arrest’: ‘The stage was bathed in blood-red light as Jesus grimly foretells the wars and suffering to come. With war brewing in the Middle East (March 2003), it was scary. As my companion pointed out, its strength came from one’s conviction in that moment that Dave was Jesus addressing us directly.’

Anthony’s account of this scene gave me goosebumps. It put me in mind of the rare occasions I’ve experienced the pagan gods speak through somebody. It illustrates the potential within our diverse religious traditions to draw upon the words of radical and prophetic figures to illuminate and critique our current political situation and also our responsibility as storytellers for our divinities.

The final section is ‘Ecobardic’. As the name suggests, the Ecobardic movement is rooted in the oral tradition of the ancient Bards and in commitment to tackling contemporary environmental and political issues. In ‘What Do You Mean, Ecobardic?’ Anthony discusses the five Ecobardic principles along with the problem of how to create art with a message that still functions as art.

My favourite essays in this section were those illustrated with examples from Anthony’s storytelling. In ‘Telling Stories from the Big Picture of Ecological History’, Anthony uses his telling of how the passenger pigeon became extinct to show how history can be made into story. In ‘How Can Storytelling Re-enchant the Natural World?’ he presents ‘Erysichton’, a Greek myth where a King cuts down a sacred oak in the grove of Demeter and is punished by a kiss from Hunger which compels him to eat everything around him then himself, as ‘a potent ecological parable for today’s world.’

Words of Re-Enchantment is a valuable repository of wisdom on storytelling written by a passionate and knowledgeable guide with a deep love of the natural world and a keen understanding of contemporary environmental and political concerns. I would recommend it to all storytellers and writers who are interested in how art can address ‘the challenges of our time’ and bring about social change.

You can purchase Words of Re-Enchantment from Awen Publications HERE.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She believes to change the world we must renew our myths. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, the editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here, and blogs at Signposts in the Mist. She is also a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython.

 


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Spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields

Spurned birds circle
fields weeping
for all that is good
in the world
gone

dry harvest
all the legions of the dead
strewn fallen scattered
let them seed
this world in the arms of their loved ones

the circles begin again
hearts cut in twain

by the reapers’ blades
hear them come
softly sweeping bare-footed
with the silence of a love song

to pile straw onto carts

the hallowed dead
ascending in a cloud of wings

spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields

then down and under
circling circling


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 A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. Get it in print or in digital!

Vanguard

most of the 150 crew never know where they are or where they have been
Trident Nuclear Programme, Wikipedia

You are lost at sea
wondering whether to push the button.

The radio went down four hours ago.
You did not hear the end
of The Archers.

No message was relayed
from Whitehall.

You feared the worst.

They took the keys to the safe,
gave you the Letter of Last Resort.

You read with captive eyes
the decision is yours:

to fire from who knows where
at who knows what,

never to return from anywhere,
to be forever lost.

You are not lost yet.

I am calling you back to Loch Long.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist and is a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython. She is also the editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here

 

After Procopius

In place of my planned piece I’ve decided to publish something a little more topical. Last year, I wrote a poem based on words from the ancient Classical historian Procopius. In History of the Wars (6AD) he says:

Now in the island of Britain the men of ancient times built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it; and the climate and the soil and everything else is not alike on the two sides of it. For to the south of the wall there is a salubrious air, changing with the seasons, being moderately warm in summer and cool in winter… But on the north side everything is the reverse of this, so that it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even a half-hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy this area as their own. And, strangest of all, the inhabitants say that if a man crosses this wall and goes to the other side, he dies straightaway… They say, then, that the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place.’ (1)

It is my intuition that Procopius was talking about the Antonine Wall, which ran from the Firth of Forth to the Forth of Clyde and formed the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. It was built in 142AD. After only eight years the Romans abandoned it and fled back to Hadrian’s Wall. When Roman power broke down in the 5thC, it became the border between the Brythonic Kingdoms of the Old North and the Picts.

In medieval Welsh literature ‘the North’ has longstanding associations with Annwn, the Brythonic otherworld. After the devastating Battle of Arfderydd, Myrddin Wyllt fled north to Celyddon (2) where he wandered for ‘ten and twenty years’ amongst wild creatures and gwllon: ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’, or ‘shades’ and learnt the arts of poetry and prophecy.

In Culhwch and Olwen, the earliest of Arthurian stories, Arthur ‘came to the North’ to rescue Gwythyr ap Greidol (3) and his allies from imprisonment by Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn who contains its ‘demons’. In another episode he ‘set out to the North’ to drain the blood of Orddu ‘The Very Black Witch’ who dwelt in ‘Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell’.

‘The North’ has long-lasting associations with the otherworld and the other. These stem from the othering of Annwn (earlier known as Annfwn ‘the deep’) itself. Prior to Christianity, people lived in reciprocal relationship with their ancestors and the deities of Annwn, making offerings at burial mounds and in ritual pits and shafts. Annwn was close as a prayer.

In the Four Branches of The Mabinogion, which are set in Wales prior to the Roman invasion, Annwn is another kingdom adjacent to and much like ours where marriages and allegiances can be made with its deities. In the post-Roman, militarised, Christianised north, Annwn was identified with hell and its people with demons. They were dislocated from their immanent locations within the landscape and superimposed on territories beyond a wall further north. Arthur was introduced as the defender of Romanised civilisation who kept the other at bay.

Of course, the landscape one side of a wall or any north/south divide is never much different to the other side. The people may be culturally or racially different but they’re still human. Annwn and its deities remain close as a prayer within the landscape. Superstitions about what lies beyond the wall result from the false mythologisations of elites whose power is grounded in fostering fear and creating divisions they claim must be maintained, by them, for the safety of the people.

I believe the othering effects of the Antonine Wall in the writing of Procopius have relevance today. Britain’s Leave campaign was founded on the myth that immigrants are responsible for our social and economic ills. This not only others people working hard to contribute to society and the economy but obfuscates the government’s failures.

With 52% voting Leave and 48% Remain, a huge wall has been driven between Britain and Europe, Leave and Remain camps, ‘citizens’ and immigrants. It is likely Scotland will hold a second referendum for independence and, if this is successful, will wall itself off from England.

In the face of these divisions it is essential we remember our common ground with those on the other side of the wall rather than listening to those whose power grows from fostering fear and hatred of others. Their blaming of our grievances on immigrants is a myth of the worst kind.

As our government falls apart, now is not the time to look for another Arthur but to reach beyond the wall to our human and non-human neighbours, the living and the dead, to the deities of Annwn, to embrace all others. Let’s avoid a return to the standpoint of Procopius.

~

After Procopius

But on the north side… it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even half an hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy their area as their own.’
Procopius, The History of the Wars (6th C)

North of the Wall I am running
from Roman civilisation
from the ones who build straight roads
from the ones who stand in line.

North of the Wall I am running
to greet my madness
a whirlwind of serpents at my heels
torn-out leaves in my hair.

North of the Wall I am running
amongst mad women
streaking bare through the forest
shedding my second skin.

North of the Wall I am running
with every wild creature
a halo of birds around my coming
open-beaked with soaring wings.

North of the Wall I am running
with the hunger of the wolf-pack
howling and slithery-jawed
erupting into fur and paw.

North of the Wall I am running
with the madness of gwyllon:
shadowed men who come as wolves
the greater shadow of Annwn’s lord.

North of the Wall I am running
until I don’t want to run any more.
In our grove of pine there is silence
and the heartbeat of steady awe.

North of the Wall I stop running
and turn to face my challengers:
roads running on forever
countless rows of spears and shields.

From North of the Wall I return
cloaked in feather and claw.
To breach the gap
and bring down the divide

I am running back from the Wall.

14. Coille Coire Chuilc II - Copy
Last remnants of Celyddon, Collie Coire Chuilc

(1) Cited by August Hunt in The Mysteries of Avalon (2011).
(2) The Caledonian Forest.
(3) A nobleman of Arthur’s court and father of his wife, Gwenhwyfar.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist and is a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython. She is also the editor of this issue of A Beautiful Resistance

Review: Soul of the Earth

Soul of the Earth: The Awen Anthology of Eco-Spiritual Poetry was released by Awen Publications in 2010. I first read it in 2011 after discovering the Eco-Bardic Movement. It has been republished this year with a new introduction by Kevan Manwaring (founder of Awen Publications) and an endorsement from Rowan Williams.

In his 2010 introduction, editor Jay Ramsay evokes the image of the earth from space ‘in its glowing blueness with its swathes of cloud, sea, and continents’ and says ‘The soul of a thing is visible to the naked eye. What we’re seeing is the Soul of the Earth’. He then outlines our environmental and spiritual crisis and the eco-spiritual response it necessitates.

Kevan Manwaring notes in his new introduction that the world is in a worse state now with this epoch’s designation as the Anthropocene, war in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Syria, the fragmentation of the EU and rise of Right-wing extremism. Therefore it is ‘more poignant than ever to think of ourselves as souls of the earth’ united by ‘the sheer unlikeliness and precariousness of our existence on this fragile blue jewel’.

As I read through the pages from this year’s position of heightened crisis, I found the poems continued to resonate and feel important. Some do the essential work of critiquing the materialistic worldview of consumer capitalism responsible for our destruction of the earth.

In ‘Running on Empty’, Rose Flint speaks of ‘chasing the easy speedy / routes of fields of fuel’, spilling babies, drawing crowds, ‘eating and spitting out riches’ before at the edge of nothingness she chooses to stop running and wrap her Prada jacket around Grandmother Earth.

Using Wile E. Coyote’s constant failure to catch Road Runner, Adam Horovitz cleverly depicts our futile pursuit of impossible endeavours: ‘a blurring swarm of legs / scrabbling at molecules of air’ until ‘Nature’ says ‘No.’ Lynne Wycherley’s ‘Substitute Sky’ laments our ‘core addiction’ to staring ‘at screens’ whilst ‘Outside the real world breathes, and dies.’

Other poems celebrate our relationship with the earth and suggest hope lies in finding new ways of perceiving and being. In ‘Green Drift’ Helen Moore shares the ‘bliss’ of crawling ‘into bed like a peasant, / with mud-grained feet, soil under the nails / of my toes’ ‘green rushing on the inside of my eyelids’ surrendering ‘like a drunken bee’ to ‘divine inebriation’.

Dawn Gorman finds hope and potential in the gift of an apple tree ‘spreading today / into the future / like pollen on bees’. Paul Matthews outlines a ‘Green Theology’ where ‘leaves catching light’ ‘are their own green messages’.

Several poems voice the stories of gods and spirits. Sedna and Cailleach are honoured. Charlotte Hussey’s ‘Elementals’ ‘scuttle about on this branch’ unconsidered. ‘Undines’ whose ‘little river’ has been bulldozed over churn ‘the air / as if it were water into an addled haze’.

A personal favourite is ‘God’s Underwear’ by Karen Eberhardt-Shelton. God wanders ‘around  the village / And across the moors / Lonely in his white boxers’. She offers him clothes but ‘only his fox-shadow sniffs / And those owl eyes never blink’. When she touches him, his form is empty; she ‘must become an animal, cast off / And then we will be together as a world’.

In these poems deities are perceived as part of or intrinsically linked to the natural world. Our current crisis affects the gods (and even God) and in particular the spirits tied to individual patches of land devastated by human activity.

In the afterword, Awen’s current publisher, Anthony Nanson highlights the importance of re-enchantment, which opens ‘the door to the possibility of the spiritual’ which may be conceived of ‘in brazenly metaphysical terms – as a Christian, a Druid or Buddhist will – or in a more psychological way’ as ‘the sense of the ‘and more’ in everything’.

Soul of the Earth is a valuable book, which reveals the earth to be ensouled/inspirited, and shows ways of reclaiming our spiritual relationship with nature and its multitude of deities from the hegemonic narrative of global capitalism.

I’d recommend it to all people with a love of the earth, and to those looking for poetry that goes beyond witticisms and clever wording to address the ecological and spiritual crisis that faces our modern world.

The Unopened Door

“Don’t open that door,” Brân said before we cut off his head and brought it back from the war. We’ve been stuck here with it eighty years. It never speaks. Nothing happens anymore.

Life’s an endless party. I drink a can every morn, with a light and breezy head look out the window where the tides ebb and roll, open another one. The days are always the same unspiralling cigarette by cigarette.

We’ve got stores of food and nobody has to do any cooking. Cornflakes for breakfast and microwave meals. It’s curry night every night then every night there’s bawdy jokes and dancing.

When we turned the music up, Brân used to sing along but his baritone got too big for our small pop songs. When Pryderi tried to cheer him up by putting a party hat on his head it shrivelled and fell off as he narrowed his gargantuan eyebrows.

Nothing makes him smile anymore. Not even Taliesin’s rude rhymes and limericks.

We know the Awen’s gone sour like the milk we cannot find sniffing round refrigerators that never hum or leak are never empty or grow mould.

“You’ll never find it,” says Manawydan, always in the background shaking his head. The one who keeps his brother’s orders yet stares with longing at the sea.
There’s only so much beer one can drink. Only so many games of cards and poker and gambling chips. Only so many songs that speak of nothing but the emptiness of bliss.

My life’s become a blur of repetition but for the increasing nagging in my soul.
Remember, remember, what’s behind that door? There’s a reason we have to keep it shut, I’m sure.

That’s the point, if you remembered… but I cannot… I cannot hear my soul. I’m getting edgy. I’m off the beer. Heart racing, clammy handed, I’ve got the shakes. Looking at Brân’s head’s beginning to make me queasy. Something within me small, trembling, winged is trying to escape.

I can’t believe they’re reading the same old newspapers, circling the same Monopoly board, leaving no empties where the ash trays never spill.

Manawydan’s asleep on the slouchy chair dreaming of flying away as a great black seabird. He isn’t going to stop me opening that door.

They’re engulfed in the game. Glifau’s got Regent Street and Oxford Street but Pryderi’s heading for Bond Street on double sixes. Ynog’s on the edge of his seat because he’s stuck in jail. Gruddieu’s counting coloured notes. Something’s telling me to remember…

Still I slip from my seat and round the back of the settee. Try to look inconspicuous, like I’m stretching my legs, trying to get a better view in.
That door. That door. It’s a plain old thing: white painted, brass handled, just like the other ones except for the DO NOT OPEN sign Pryderi made from cardboard and string for a joke.

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They haven’t noticed me sliding toward it, reaching out, touching the cold metallic handle. Do you really want to end your time on Gwales? Remember everything that should be shut out?

Brân’s eyes flash open.
Without a doubt. I turn the handle and look out. A sea breeze whips in with plaintive cries of gulls telling of every loss we have ever suffered, every kinsman and companion lost, staccato of gun-shots, crash of bombs. The broken cauldron that birthed the Awen and split the atom.

As I look across to Prydain in eighty years nothing has changed. They’re still birthing warplanes from slick white aerodromes and building glassy universities to teach deadly technologies. Sending young men away and bringing us back useless with headless comrades.

I remember every single thing including why I should not have opened that door. The colour fades from Brân’s cheeks. The colour fades from us all. Not a year has passed. Not a thing has changed. We must face the world again and bear Brân’s head with us.

*This story is based on the Assembly of the Noble Head from the Second Branch of The Mabinogion which can be read HERE.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist and is a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython.

 


Click here to order A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

Our first issue, A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are is also available.  The digital edition is now only $6 US

The Fire is Here

 

A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here will be released very soon.

Here is the introduction, written by editor and poet Lorna Smithers.

Information on ordering is available below.


I.

‘I hunted out and stored in fennel stalk the stolen source of fire that has proved a teacher to mortals in every art and a means to mighty ends. Such is the offence for which I pay the penalty, riveted in fetters beneath the open sky.’
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

‘Each of them has the care of the fire for a single night in turn, and, on the evening before the twentieth night, the last nun, having heaped wood upon the fire, says, “Brigit, take charge of your own fire ; for this night belongs to you.”’
Gerald of Wales, The Topography of Ireland

A stolen fire passed down by generations.

We are the flame-keepers of a questionable heritage.

In many cultures fire is taken from the gods and gifted to mankind by a trickster, who suffers for their hubris, or is kept alive by a group of virgins serving a goddess. These are the costs and vetoes of fire.

Fire, of itself, is amoral. It lights and heats our homes. It burns in the furnaces of factories and power stations and burns them down. It inspires revolutions and burns martyrs. It burned the victims of the Holocaust.

The uses we make of fire are our responsibility. When we look back at its misuses we are suffocated by horror, fettered by sky gods as eagles descend to peck upon our guilty livers.

However, we remember Prometheus was unbound. The unfastening of fetters is a Herculean task. By learning to listen to voices consigned to the flames, walking through fire and awakening to uncomfortable truths, gifting back to the gods (“fire… belongs to you”) we can become good flame-keepers.

II.

‘Svasud is the name of the father of Summer. He is a man so content that from his name comes the expression ‘it is svaslight’ referring to what is pleasant. The father of Winter is alternately called Vindloni or Vindsval (Wind Chill). His is the son of Vasad (Damp Cold). These are cruel and cold-hearted kinsmen and Winter takes its nature from them.’
Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

‘there was to be battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr every May Day until Judgement Day, and the one that triumphed on Judgement Day would take the maiden.’
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion

Eternal Summer is founded on the death of Winter.

For thousands of years we have been stealing fuel for our fire from the underworld: the bones and breath of dead worlds.

The smog-blackened chimneys of mill towns, the concrete towers of coal-fired power stations, a million million vehicles chugging on oil have together contributed to the asphyxiating build-up of gases that may postpone the next Ice Age.

Glaciers are calving. Sea levels rising. Last winter in northern England heavy rain caused rivers to burst their banks, washing away venerable old trees and an historic pub, flooding towns and cities and leaving hundreds of people bereft of belongings. This summer is set to be the hottest on record again.

The dialectic between summer and winter is represented by the battle between two gods: Summer and Winter Kings, and their courtship of the sovereign goddess of the land.

On May Day Summer’s King wins and takes the goddess’ hand in sacred marriage. Winter’s King dies and retreats. He returns for his beloved at summer’s end. But for how long?

If either King keeps her forever it will bring about the end of the world.

III.

‘Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror.’
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

 

‘It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow.’
Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

Our heritage is as questionable as the stolen fire in which it was forged.

It has taken two devastating world wars, and the dedicated effort of thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, to put into question the ideal of progress which drove the industrial revolution and gave rise to dehumanising and militant right and left-wing ideologies.

Benjamin died of an overdose fleeing the Nazis at Portbou. His Theses on the Philosophy of History were passed on to his colleague, Theodor Adorno, by Hannah Arendt. Another manuscript, which some scholars have speculated may have been his completed Arcades Project, was forever lost.

The transmission of our heritage and connection with our ancestors are fragile and fraught with danger. They run beyond paganism into interconnectedness with all humanity.

When we look into the flames of a fire we see what collectively we share with the rest of the world: a shared history, a shared responsibility.

The shadow cast by that fire will never go out.

It reminds us as pagans, magic-workers, devotees of our gods, of the need to sustain the fire of love for each other and our seared earth.

On May Eve we gather around the fire in love. We hold hands in the darkness.

We are flame-keepers of a stolen fire brought at great cost.

The fire is here.

Use it wisely.

 

The Fire Is Here is the work of 26 writers, 5 artists and 2 photographers. The narrative flickered into life as the contributions arranged themselves into a tapestry bound together by summer’s burning thread. Taking the form of a Beltane / May Day rite it crackled and roared.

The first section IGNITEs the Bel fire and calls in the revolutionary spirit. THE SICKNESS AND THE MEDICINE forms a journey of purification where the ills of capitalism are exposed and cures are found at its ailing core. SOVEREIGNTY AND THE TRIALS OF LOVE focuses on relationship with the land, gods, and each other and gives voice to the tribulations and joys of love. The spirits of the greenwood offer A FOREST ALLEGIANCE and lead to the storytellers’ grove. With fire in our heads we confront our social and political situation and depart with revolutionary ancestors leaving FOOTSTEPS IN THE EMBERS.

The title The Fire Is Here is borrowed from the title of an inspired piece in the journal by Heathen Chinese. My introduction was born from meditating on Li Pallas’ stunning cover art. The layout and design have been completed by Li. I was thrilled when Emma Restall Orr agreed to write the foreword and more so when I read her thought-provoking words.

It has been a pleasure and honour to bring together these thoughts and visions as an act of service to the authors and their lands and deities. To witness pagans from all paths coming together in resistance to capitalism ‘to create the world we want now’(1).

As a way of introducing the individual pieces, as an awenydd and poet, I have chosen to compose a cento. This is a poetic form crafted from the words of others. For the artworks I have used a combination of titles and personal impressions.

These words are a spellbreaking,
a subterranean fire.
In the valley of sickness
we are healed by what can end us
six hundred feet deep
raise the tainted cup
in the soul of every man.
Only connect! A bond in blood.
We are living on Turtle Island.
The ancient new seductive healing sound
clothed in enchantment
myth and folklore
addresses the False Kings.
The Mother of the Gods answers
“My body is not acreage
savage, immoral, uncivilised, wild,
Earth Mound Mother, Sustain-her of Life.
Come voice yourselves
from tree heart to tree top
in revolutionary magic
shake up the sanity of everyday life
in the Holy Grove
pen roaring and bloody words
trembling and flooded with moonlight.
Tell stories in the summertime.
Hold close the fire until it burns your mind.”
The magic-wielders are waking up.
Soulfood for imagination
the fire is already here.
The dead wait for us who are willing to cross
then heal. Then build. Then sing.

***

As Summer’s King triumphs I go to mourn the death of my god.
May the gifts of this journal fire your inspiration
and guide you through the wakening wood.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist and is a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython.

 


Click here to order A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

Our first issue, A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are is also available.  The digital edition is now only $6 US

The Strikebreakers

Maudland Bridge Station, Preston, 3rd March 1854

They came like sleepwalkers in nightcaps
mistaking the station for the Land of Nod.

A land of famine in their eyes. Blighted potatoes.
They held their children like bony sacks of spuds.

Alighting like ghosts they padded slipper-foot
onto the platform into our town,

the creak of the hold in their silent heels,
fingers of nothing in their out-stretched hands.

The rage we’d borne against the strikebreakers
fired by a winter of Cotton Lords’ unfairness

wizened like tubers on a rotten mound
before dark eyes and sallow faces.

Though we knew they’d take our jobs,
work for sure without the ten per cent

we dared not wake them from their dream,
shake them from their night-clothes:

their waking death.

~

This poem is set during the Great Preston Lock Out. On the 15th of October 1853 the Cotton Lords of 36 Preston firms locked the workers out of the mills in response to their demands for the restoration of the 10 per cent cut from their wages during the 1840’s recession.

The lock out took place through a long hard winter during which donations flowed in from across the country and were distributed by the Preston unions to support the hungry often starving dissidents. Their battle cry “ten per cent and no surrender!” was echoed in support.

Still the masters did not accede. In February 1854 they reopened the mills, attempting to force the suffering people back to work. The workers responded by picketing the mills and the lockout became a strike.

Emigrants Leave Ireland, engraving by Henry Doyle (1827–1893), from Mary Frances Cusack's Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868, Wikipedia Commons
Emigrants leave Ireland by Henry Doyle, Wikipedia Commons

The masters decided to import ‘knobstick’ workers from neighbouring towns such as Manchester and from Ireland. In one famous example Irish emigrants were intercepted at Fleetwood, fed at The Farmers’ Arms, then escorted back by union officials.

On the 3rd of March 1854 the strikers heard that a party of Irish strikebreakers would be arriving from Ulster via Fleetwood at Maudland Bridge Station. 2-3,000 people assembled outside. Seeing the strikebreakers they peaceably allowed them to be transferred to Hanover Street Mill.

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Hanover Street Mill ( 2016)

Many were former inmates of the Belfast workhouse. The Preston Guardian describes them:

‘These people presented a most melancholy sight, nearly all were destitute of shoes and stockings and some were dressed in nightcaps. They included all ages, from the infant in arms to females advanced in years, altogether a wretched specimen of what Irish famine had reduced the peasantry of the Country to.’

My poem attempts to capture this scene.

Maudland Bridge Station closed to passengers in 1930 yet the track was used by goods trains until the 1990’s. The area is now the location of university buildings and student halls yet the train tracks leading into the abandoned Mile Tunnel and memories of the past remain.

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Mile Tunnel from Maudland Bridge

SOURCES

David Hunt, A History of Preston, (Carnegie Publishing, 1992)
J. S. Leigh, Preston Cotton Martyrs, (Palatine Books, 2008)