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!

Plotting the Fall of the King

Said Arthur, “Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained?”

Said one of his men, “There isthe blood of the witch Orddu, the daughter of the witch Orwen, of Penn Nant Govid, on the confines of Hell.”

From Culhwch and Olwen


British colonialism soaks through English-speaking Paganism like fetid morning piss. Glance through the shelves of witch bookstores and, once you get past the how-to’s on crystal communication and appropriative dream-catcher spirituality, you find books full of it: delusions of chivalric murderers, bent-knee begging for noble sovereigns, and bourgeois rituals of lords and ladies playing sex by sticking dull knives into etsy-bought chalices.

This should not surprise us. Wicca—the most prevalent of the Pagan traditions—was started by a British Colonial Administrator (Gerald Gardner) and a one-time member of two British fascist groups (Doreen Valiente; National Front and Northern League). Why wouldn’t modern Paganism find itself stained with the trappings of Empire?

No place is this seen more than the spiritualisation of the Arthurian myths. Equal parts feudal nostalgia and patriarchal obsession, the Pagan longing for the return of Great Sovereigns who might restore the balance of the world is inseparable from the nationalist fictions of fading white dominance.

Along with King Arthur (that giant-killing, witch-slaughtering thief), many traditions, particularly Druidry, find deep alchemical meaning in the form of another problematic figure: Taliesin. Born Gwion Bach, a boy tasked to watch a cauldron for a witch, he stole wisdom from a witch-goddess and went on to serve kings. Whereas Prometheus stole fire from the gods to help humans, Taliesin stole the creative force of the world to serve the imperial ambitions of slaughtering empire.

While Peter Grey challenged Pagan elders for their desire to defang witchcraft, and I have aggressed them for their allegiance with Capital, Lorna Smithers has done something even more dangerous than either of us. In The Broken Cauldron, the awenydd and poet becomes the Old Mother of the Universe herself, rebirthing beheaded giants and slaughtered witches through the starry cauldron of poetry.  In the otherworld halls of the Gatherer of Souls she collects their bones, caresses their withered heads, and speaks their condemnations into our polluted, irradiated present.

Several figures recur in her mythic wanderings, suppressed blackened figures given scant reference in the Welsh lore. One such is the witch, Orddu (Welsh: Very Black), slain by King Arthur to claim a vial of her blood. According to Culhwch and Olwen, the servants of King Arthur volunteered to go fight her first so that his honor would not be stained (what King would want to be seen fighting a common woman?) Servant after servant fought against her and failed, wrestled to the ground by her bare strength alone, until Arthur himself was ‘man enough’ to fight her.

He slayed Orddu, split her in two, and collected her blood. Another trophy for a British king, another relic in the Royal museum, given three paragraphs in the Welsh bardic lore until Orddu’s bones are gathered again by a rogue awenydd:

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story, every world, every myth, with his hatred of witches, with his living knife, to put an end to wild, recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years. Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Giving us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Taking away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Confining us to virginity and chastity belts. Cutting us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Arthur was not just a witch-killer, but a giant-slayer, slaughtering ancient land-god after land-god to gain their cauldrons and their power. Subduing the earth beneath him, sending the old ways under hill into Annwn, even then following after. Accompanied by the sycophantic Taliesin, he stole what the land hid from him. Amongst these otherworldy ‘spoils’ was the cauldron of Annwn, once held by the Welsh giant Brân whose head once protected Britain from invasion. We read in the Welsh triads that Arthur dug that up, too, finding it unseemly that the common people relied upon a land-god, rather than their slaughtering, arrogant king.

It’s in this last fact that we glimpse the reason for Paganism’s Arthurian obsession. Tales of a king who needed no godsonly strength and the magic of his advisorsread in the context of British colonialism suddenly seem less like myth and more like imperial propaganda. The gods of land subdued, the power of witch-women destroyed: For traditions claiming to venerate the earth and the divine feminine, the prominence of Arthurian forms and Taliesin start to seem hypocritical.

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Broken Cauldron, Chernobyl

Orddu is not the only dark shadow re-awakened into Lorna’s poetry. Taliesin stole the awen from Ceridwen, who did not brew it for herself. Rather, the draught was boiled and stirred for her malformed son, Afagddu (Welsh: Utter Dark), later also called Morfrân (Welsh: Sea Raven). When first I encountered the story of Taliesin’s birth and Ceridwen’s chase, I took no delight in it. The selfless act of a mother to grant her disfigured child wisdom was sabotaged by the thoughtlessness of a child who later upheld kings and helped kill giants. What is there to love in this story?

And anyway, what happened to Afagddu?

Lorna answers this question delightfully, repeatedly giving Afagddu voice. Most startling is his tale in her piece, Sea Raven:

There’s been another disaster at the chemical plant, three people injured, one missing presumed dead. That young man’s name was Gwion Bach. He was employed in the control room in charge of the 30,000 gallon reactor vessel. His task was to keep the paddle stirring at several thousand revolutions a minute and monitor the changes in heat and pressure.

He was an absentminded sort, so lost in daydreams he didn’t realise the paddle had stuck. The temperature rose over 300°F. By the time he’d filled the cooling jacket it was too late. With a sound like a jet engine and deafening crash, the reactor exploded with a blast that broke every window.

Gwion was seen staggering from the control room like a drunk toward the toxic brew, dipping his finger in and putting it to his lips, his hair standing on end, before my wrathful mother leapt from the offices and he hare-footed it away with her hot on his heels.

Retelling ancient myths in modern settings is a tired trope, but Lorna is not writing urban fantasy.  Rather than recycling old stories for new audiences, she expands the (nuclear) core of the broken cauldrons and shows that they are still shattering.

After all, what else is atomic energy but a cauldron of shattered stars? When oil spills pollute the earth and oceans, is this not also the poisoning of the land after Gwion shattered Ceridwen’s cauldron? And the industrialisation of war: does not the giant-forged Cauldron of Annwn still bring forth unspeaking, obedient warriors?

For King and Country, I bore the cauldron whilst Arthur’s advisers listened to wheezing chests and throats of phlegm; counted blisters; bandaged weeping, reddened skin. I fought off green waves of nausea as it buckled my knees and wore a hollow in my spine.

When I heard an old woman’s lament, I repeated my mantra, plugged my ears as she screamed while the soldiers of Prydain unleashed poisonous gases at Loos and the Somme and foreign men drowned in yellow-green seas.

The powerthe magicof the awenyddion is to bend time around them and dance in those re-connected threads. The greater magic still is to pull you into their dance, to weave you into those threads so that, when you have left, you and time are still tangled in knots.

Post-colonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote of these ‘time-knots’ in his introduction to Provincializing Europe, a book whose confrontation of European (and especially British) exceptionalism makes irrelevant most of the stories of kings and empire:

“what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is precisely the fact that these worlds are never lost. It is because we live in time-knots that we can undertake the task of straightening some part of the knot (which is what chronology is). Subaltern pastsaspects of these time-knotsact as a supplement to the historian’s past and in fact aid our capacity to historicize.”

It’s precisely this that Lorna does. Afagddu, Orrdu, Diwrnachthese are the subaltern pasts Paganism tries to deny. By telling their stories, we hear the cauldrons shatter again not because they are in the past, but they are shattering even now.

Ecological destruction, technological optimism, capitalist exuberance and industrialised warfarethese are the only stories kings can tell. The boy Gwion became the thief Taliesin, and the suppressed blackened ones spill out from oil wells, explode from shattered nuclear reactors, poisoning the world.

And we come to the final horror of our Paganism when we remember that both Capitalism and Industrialisation (and as Lorna points out, the very first nuclear reactor) each started in the same land where Arthur slayed witches and giants, where Taliesin broke the cauldron. And like that broken cauldron, they have all swept like choking black poison out to every part of the world.

“What lies in the cauldron now you have done away with the knowledge of wise women? Split the witches in half? Killed the giants? Driven to the seas the most ancient of boars? You are on the wrong quest, looking for the wrong grail, the cure-all that does not exist.”

If even our Pagan myths are the self-delusions of empire, then what is left for us? Though we who hear the silenced voices might raise the dead so that they might use our lips, will this ever be enough to stop the endless sundering? What good would be the reawakening of that suppressed blackness, the beheaded gods of land?

I do not know; but blackened witches, beheaded giants, and disfigured crows insist we try anyway:

Feathered arches of black wings tore from my shoulders and cracked open. My feet shrunk into claws and my body tightened into bird-form. With a black-beaked scream I flew away from the Court of the King of Suffering and broke the Spell of Nine Maidens.

Yet the death of the dead did not stop the bloodshed. Today corpses are flown in on steel horses, driven down long, wet roads to be laid on slabs in mortuaries. I no longer wish to raise them. I travel the country winged, cawing my truth and plotting the fall of the King.

In such plotting perhaps is a path far less blood-soaked than the shattering of our world.


Lorna Smithers’ book, The Broken Cauldron, is available here.


Rhyd Wildermuth

6tag_221116-215034Rhyd is a co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He was born in Appalachia, lives nomadically, speaks with stars and dead things, and likes tea.

He is an anarchist, theorist, Pagan, Marxist, punk, and really damn good cook.

He writes at Gods&Radicals and on his own blog, Paganarch.