Summer Here and Winter There

Summer here and winter there
My longest day your darkest night’

From Lorna Smithers

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I. Gwyn’s Hall

It’s midsummer 2013. I’ve just got home from my packing job. It’s not a particularly hot solstice, but the noise of the sun-stand-still and my conflicts with my life and the world are burning in my brain.

I haven’t been one for festivals, dancing all night until the sun comes up, since my madder years. I want silence, solace, darkness. I plan to go the Leaning Yew where I met Gwyn ap Nudd, my Winter God, make an offering of mead to him in his frozen castle in the depths of Annwn.

I open the mead. Several sips later I’m composing a poem. One of those poems that writes itself. Inspired contrarily by bees and sunshine and the ice of a demand from another world:

Summer here and winter there
My longest day your darkest night
Hoar frost drapes your haunted fortress
Whilst swallows ride my glowing sunlight.

Summer here and winter there
My brightest day your longest night
Whilst blackbirds sing my endless fanfare
Crazy owl streaks across your vaunted midnight.

Winter there and summer here
And I between them like the song
That lies unsung between the years
Between your hall and my brief home.

II. Contraries

‘Without Contraries is no progression’ wrote William Blake in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (1790).

‘Summer here and winter there,’ I’m mouthing those words again, thinking of the contrasts between the Global North and the Global South, Thisworld and the Otherworld. Of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, Ice Ages and Interglacials, Snowball Earth and her molten beginnings.

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It was the hottest May on record here in the UK and the first two weeks in June have been scorching. It’s clear we’re experiencing global warming, but scientists are unsure what the outcome will be. Will the earth continue to warm or will her adjustive measures flip instead to global cooling? It’s said our computer-generated models are flawed and cannot predict the future.

Science has its limits. One of our oldest myths from northern Britain tells that Gwyn and Gwythyr, Summer and Winter, will battle until the Day of Doom, the end of the world. Of course, the apocalypse, the day of uncovering and revelation, gyrates eternally between the poles of always and never.

Our drive toward progress has led to devastation, the rubble piling up at the feet of the Angel of History, our seasonal gods being blown on the winds of our folly into an unpredictable future.

III. Uncertainty

“Will you walk with me through mist, darkness, and uncertainty?”

This was the question Gwyn posed the day before I got the tattoo of his hounds, a pair of Cwn Annwn, on my right shoulder as a symbol of my devotion to him last year for my thirty-sixth birthday.

Certainty is, perhaps, the reason people join a religion. We like to have answers about the ends and beginnings of the world, the existence of God/the gods, what will happen in the future, when we die.

Religions answer these questions. Science, our new religion, provides the answers, but for how long?

Gwyn, the Gatherer of Souls, makes no promises. Perhaps he does not know when someone will lose everything – their mind, their life, their soul, and he’ll be called to convey them to the Otherworld.

The debris of Thisworld keeps piling up in Annwn, the living keep dying, and it makes no sense at all.

IV. Too Many Souls

Fire and ice. The sun on my skin. The knowing that one day my flesh will be cold. Summer and Winter. Life and Death. Too many moths are gone, too many butterflies, too many souls.

Elk, aurochs, lynx, bear, wolf, great auk, white stork, agile frog, blue stag beetle, horned dung beetle, apple bumblebee, mason wasp, large copper, flame brocade, mazarine blue, frosted yellow.

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Young men sent to fight in ceaseless wars. Revolutionaries gunned down by the law. Old women hung and burned for magic they may or may not have practiced. Those dead on the streets whose names we’ll never know, poets whose words we’ll never hear, children who never had the chance to live.

I try to catch the flies, the bees, the wasps, when they come in through my window, with a piece of cardboard and plastic cup, release them back to life, but still they pile up on my windowsill. I can’t help it.

Is that how Gwyn feels? Does he feel anything on a midsummer night asleep in the Castle of Cold Stone?

V. The Wintry Hag

In ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937) David Jones compares a ‘starving night’ on the Western Front to ‘Pen Nant Govid, on the confines of hell’ and notes the passage ‘has to do with the frozen regions of the Celtic underworld’ where ‘sits that wintry hag, the black sorceress, the daughter of the white sorceress.’

He’s talking about Orddu, ‘Very Black’, daughter of Orwen, ‘Very White’, the last of a lineage of ‘witches’: wise women, warriors, prophets, practitioners of underworld magic associated with Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn who held a powerful position in northern Britain until the sixth century.

On a cold winter’s night Orddu was slaughtered by Arthur and her blood was drained and bottled. What would the world be like if our Annuvian traditions had not been destroyed? If Arthur had not claimed dominance over Gwythyr and Gwyn, Summer and Winter? Would we have a better understanding of the wild unpredictability of the seasons and deeper awareness of the effects of our actions?

If Arthur had not succeeded in his raid on Annwn, his oppression of the old gods, the ancestral animals, the giants, the witches, would we have this Empire to which after his long sleep beneath the hollow hills he has returned as the Once and Future King, all guns blazing, with his hawkish knights?

VI. Dig Deep

I go to seek advice, not from Orddu or Orwen, but from Eira, ‘Snow’, the first of that lineage of inspired ones to return to Pennant Gofid, ‘The Valley of Grief’, which I believe was earlier known as Pennant Gaeaf, ‘The Valley of Winter’, after sojourning further south, at the end of the Ice Age.

She and her descendants also lived through a time of unprecedented global warming – as the glaciers melted herds and people moving further north, new trees and plants marching in, sea levels rising.

Snow is dark-skinned. Her hair is black and flecked with snow-like spots. She’s wrapped in wolf’s furs, her eyes are wolfish, and wolfish dogs are her only companions in the ‘hag’s cave’ where her lineage lived, passing on their wisdom and prophecies from the depths of Annwn for thousands of years.

She advises me to “dig deep.” As she knew the trees, plants, birds, and animals, the river of her valley, its weather patterns, its spirits and all the routes to the Otherworld, to get to know my own. To learn from them, from the ancestors who too have seen great change, to seek the perspectives of Others.

The next evening I’m deeply impressed by the resilience of the little brook who flows through Greencroft Valley and allows us to use her waters for the wildflowers and apple trees. Whilst the Ribble runs low she seems no lower, flowing from an underground source like the awen from Annwn, the cold breath of my god with which I’m blessed to write this essay in the summer’s heat.

Fish House Brook June 2018


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic II

is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how our ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new stories. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published two books: Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at ‘Signposts in the Mist‘.


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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.

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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.


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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!

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.

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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.

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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.

 


Lorna is one of the many writers at Gods&Radicals whom we’d love to pay for their work, and we’re asking for your help.  Thanks in advance!

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