‘Summer here and winter there My longest day your darkest night’
From Lorna Smithers
I. Gwyn’s Hall
It’s midsummer 2013. I’ve just got home from my packing job. It’s not a particularly hot solstice, but the noise of the sun-stand-still and my conflicts with my life and the world are burning in my brain.
I haven’t been one for festivals, dancing all night until the sun comes up, since my madder years. I want silence, solace, darkness. I plan to go the Leaning Yew where I met Gwyn ap Nudd, my Winter God, make an offering of mead to him in his frozen castle in the depths of Annwn.
I open the mead. Several sips later I’m composing a poem. One of those poems that writes itself. Inspired contrarily by bees and sunshine and the ice of a demand from another world:
Summer here and winter there
My longest day your darkest night
Hoar frost drapes your haunted fortress
Whilst swallows ride my glowing sunlight.
Summer here and winter there
My brightest day your longest night
Whilst blackbirds sing my endless fanfare
Crazy owl streaks across your vaunted midnight.
Winter there and summer here
And I between them like the song
That lies unsung between the years
Between your hall and my brief home.
‘Without Contraries is no progression’ wrote William Blake in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (1790).
‘Summer here and winter there,’ I’m mouthing those words again, thinking of the contrasts between the Global North and the Global South, Thisworld and the Otherworld. Of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, Ice Ages and Interglacials, Snowball Earth and her molten beginnings.
It was the hottest May on record here in the UK and the first two weeks in June have been scorching. It’s clear we’re experiencing global warming, but scientists are unsure what the outcome will be. Will the earth continue to warm or will her adjustive measures flip instead to global cooling? It’s said our computer-generated models are flawed and cannot predict the future.
Science has its limits. One of our oldest myths from northern Britain tells that Gwyn and Gwythyr, Summer and Winter, will battle until the Day of Doom, the end of the world. Of course, the apocalypse, the day of uncovering and revelation, gyrates eternally between the poles of always and never.
Our drive toward progress has led to devastation, the rubble piling up at the feet of the Angel of History, our seasonal gods being blown on the winds of our folly into an unpredictable future.
“Will you walk with me through mist, darkness, and uncertainty?”
This was the question Gwyn posed the day before I got the tattoo of his hounds, a pair of Cwn Annwn, on my right shoulder as a symbol of my devotion to him last year for my thirty-sixth birthday.
Certainty is, perhaps, the reason people join a religion. We like to have answers about the ends and beginnings of the world, the existence of God/the gods, what will happen in the future, when we die.
Religions answer these questions. Science, our new religion, provides the answers, but for how long?
Gwyn, the Gatherer of Souls, makes no promises. Perhaps he does not know when someone will lose everything – their mind, their life, their soul, and he’ll be called to convey them to the Otherworld.
The debris of Thisworld keeps piling up in Annwn, the living keep dying, and it makes no sense at all.
IV. Too Many Souls
Fire and ice. The sun on my skin. The knowing that one day my flesh will be cold. Summer and Winter. Life and Death. Too many moths are gone, too many butterflies, too many souls.
Elk, aurochs, lynx, bear, wolf, great auk, white stork, agile frog, blue stag beetle, horned dung beetle, apple bumblebee, mason wasp, large copper, flame brocade, mazarine blue, frosted yellow.
Young men sent to fight in ceaseless wars. Revolutionaries gunned down by the law. Old women hung and burned for magic they may or may not have practiced. Those dead on the streets whose names we’ll never know, poets whose words we’ll never hear, children who never had the chance to live.
I try to catch the flies, the bees, the wasps, when they come in through my window, with a piece of cardboard and plastic cup, release them back to life, but still they pile up on my windowsill. I can’t help it.
Is that how Gwyn feels? Does he feel anything on a midsummer night asleep in the Castle of Cold Stone?
V. The Wintry Hag
In ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937) David Jones compares a ‘starving night’ on the Western Front to ‘Pen Nant Govid, on the confines of hell’ and notes the passage ‘has to do with the frozen regions of the Celtic underworld’ where ‘sits that wintry hag, the black sorceress, the daughter of the white sorceress.’
He’s talking about Orddu, ‘Very Black’, daughter of Orwen, ‘Very White’, the last of a lineage of ‘witches’: wise women, warriors, prophets, practitioners of underworld magic associated with Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn who held a powerful position in northern Britain until the sixth century.
On a cold winter’s night Orddu was slaughtered by Arthur and her blood was drained and bottled. What would the world be like if our Annuvian traditions had not been destroyed? If Arthur had not claimed dominance over Gwythyr and Gwyn, Summer and Winter? Would we have a better understanding of the wild unpredictability of the seasons and deeper awareness of the effects of our actions?
If Arthur had not succeeded in his raid on Annwn, his oppression of the old gods, the ancestral animals, the giants, the witches, would we have this Empire to which after his long sleep beneath the hollow hills he has returned as the Once and Future King, all guns blazing, with his hawkish knights?
VI. Dig Deep
I go to seek advice, not from Orddu or Orwen, but from Eira, ‘Snow’, the first of that lineage of inspired ones to return to Pennant Gofid, ‘The Valley of Grief’, which I believe was earlier known as Pennant Gaeaf, ‘The Valley of Winter’, after sojourning further south, at the end of the Ice Age.
She and her descendants also lived through a time of unprecedented global warming – as the glaciers melted herds and people moving further north, new trees and plants marching in, sea levels rising.
Snow is dark-skinned. Her hair is black and flecked with snow-like spots. She’s wrapped in wolf’s furs, her eyes are wolfish, and wolfish dogs are her only companions in the ‘hag’s cave’ where her lineage lived, passing on their wisdom and prophecies from the depths of Annwn for thousands of years.
She advises me to “dig deep.” As she knew the trees, plants, birds, and animals, the river of her valley, its weather patterns, its spirits and all the routes to the Otherworld, to get to know my own. To learn from them, from the ancestors who too have seen great change, to seek the perspectives of Others.
The next evening I’m deeply impressed by the resilience of the little brook who flows through Greencroft Valley and allows us to use her waters for the wildflowers and apple trees. Whilst the Ribble runs low she seems no lower, flowing from an underground source like the awen from Annwn, the cold breath of my god with which I’m blessed to write this essay in the summer’s heat.
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‘.
‘Once again I see Brân’s head, unlit, decaying, mouthing silent words at me.’
From Lorna Smithers
‘Although the road was long they came to London and buried the head on the White Hill.’
The Second Branch
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
“Until oppression ends, the dragons will not rest.”
From Lorna Smithers
I. This Headless Screaming
Several years ago I wrote a poem about a scream erupting from the landscape of Preston:
This headless screaming
is the kind of screaming
that gets into your blood
of a headless Madonna
or a headless black dog
running out of leper colonies,
hospitals and friaries,
shrieking over mills
like an infant’s last cry
or embers in a vagrant’s last pipe
spilled red in any alleyway.
It flaps and flutters in your heart
like an unruly bird,
a carrion cry, a fury.
It will not cease
until its vociferation
is complete. It will not cease.
It struck me as a scream of the dispossessed, those deprived of land and a voice in society: Preston’s confined lepers, condemned recusants, country-dwellers forced from their land into the mills, those who died in the slums with their deficient drains and foul ditches, Chartists gunned down the by the police, force-fed suffragettes, the homeless, unheeded poets and protestors.
II. The Scream Over Annwfn
I later found a reference to Diaspad Uwch Annwfn ‘the scream over Annwfn’ in Will Parker’s Appendix to The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. He refers to it as a ‘mysterious gesture of ritual frenzy… evidently employed by disinherited persons making the transition from the status of proprietor to that of an indentured taeog bondsman’.
Looking into this further I found out, with help from Greg Hill and Andrew Smith (Will Parker’s publisher), that in Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru: A Dictionary of the Welsh Language the diasbad uwch annwfn is defined as a ‘claim for share in an ancestral land (lit. cry over the abyss).’
It appears in several versions of the Welsh Laws texts including The Laws of Hywel Dda (13th C). There it states diasbad is ‘a shriek, cry of distress’ and the expression uwch Annwfn ‘perhaps implies that the claimant is crying out against being expelled from the human world of landed proprietors’. In a section titled ‘Claims by Proprietary Right’ we find the following:
‘If the ninth person comes to ask for land, his proprietorship is extinguished, and he gives a shriek because he is passing from proprietor to non-proprietor. And then the law hears that shriek and gives him an allowance, that is to say, as much as each of their number who are seated against him; and that is called diasbad uwch Annwfn. And though that shriek be given thereafter, it will never be heard; and others say that the ninth person is not entitled to give that shriek, but that he has passed from proprietor to non-proprietor.’
Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales (1841) refers to ‘several ways for claiming land and soil lawfully’ which include ‘by kin and descent’. There it states:
‘the claim does not become extinct, until the end of the ninth generation. And the cry of such a person, becoming from a proprietor to a non-proprietor, in the last descent, will be listened to by the law: and that cry is called a cry over the abyss, and will be listened to… Thereupon, such one is to set up a cry over the deserted place; and he is then entitled to obtain a refuge, and that is as much as the man of greatest conservancy.’
The scream over Annwfn is uttered by a ninth descendant threatened with the loss of unclaimed hereditary land. There exists a tradition of employing the scream to gain a hearing by the law and through that an allowance. It is uttered by the dispossessed to ensure their voices are heard. Its legitimacy seems to be in question in The Laws of Hywel Dda.
III. Invoking the Spirits of Annwfn
There is something primal and archaic about the scream over Annwfn that doesn’t fit with our everyday conception of law-making. Parker mentions it in a section on ‘The Underworld Gods’ who include the Gaulish andedion, the Irish andée, and the British spirits of Annwfn.
From the Gallo-Roman period we possess two tablets relating to the andedion and underworld magic. On The Tablet of Chamalières (50CE) a group of male magical practitioners invoke Andedion ‘Underworld God(s)’ and call upon MaponosAvernatis (the god Maponos) to quicken them by the magic of Andernon ‘underworld spirits’. On The Tablet of Larzac (90CE) a group of women with anuanasan- anderna, ‘special underworld names’ employ an incantation using andernados brictum, ‘underworld-group magic’. It seems likely traditions invoking the spirits of Annwfn in a similar way existed in Britain.
Tacitus refers to what may be described as a ‘ritual frenzy’ used by the Britons who defended Mona (Anglesey) from the Romans in 60CE:
‘On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement.’
In medieval Welsh literature the aryal, ‘fury’ of the spirits of Annwfn (who are frequently referred to as dieuyl, ‘devils’) is contained by Gwyn ap Nudd to prevent their destruction of the world. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwfn. Because he contains their furious nature within him and his realm he possesses the power to unleash their fury and to hold it back.
An invocation of Gwyn appears in the Latin manuscript Speculum Christiani (14th C), here translated by Brinley Roberts:
‘Some stupid people also stupidly go the door holding fire and iron in the hands of one when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying “Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for love of your mate allow us to come home”. In this they are acting most stupidly that they ask help of the evil spirits which have nothing but eternal damnation…’
This interpretation is heavily Christianised. Yet from it we can glean that Gwyn and the spirits of Annwfn have the ability to take away illness and thus to heal. This may originate from superstitions about them being the source of illness and therefore being able to remove it.
Interestingly, in a Romano-British inscription, Gwyn’s father Nudd/Nodens is called upon to ‘withhold health’ from the thief of a ring until it is returned to his temple.
The scream over Annwfn might have originated as an invocation of the gods and spirits of Annwfn to maintain that a dispossessed person’s claim to their land was heard, and have carried a serious threat to the health and well-being of the land and its inhabitants if it was not.
IV. To Raise Three Shouts
In Culhwch and Olwen (1090) a variant of the scream over Annwfn may appear as a threat employed by Culhwch, cousin of Arthur, when Arthur’s gate-keeper refuses to let him into Arthur’s court:
‘If you open the gate, well and good. If not, I will bring dishonour on your lord and give you a bad name. And I will raise three shouts at the entrance of this gate that will be no less audible on the top of Pen Pengwaedd in Cornwall as at the bottom of Dinsol in the North, and in Esgair Oerfel in Ireland. And all the women in this court that are pregnant shall miscarry, and those that are not, their wombs shall become heavy within them so that they shall never be with child from this day forth.’
Culhwch’s threat to ‘raise three shouts’ could contain a memory of an older ritual procedure. Three is a sacred number to the Celts and the scream/shout may have been uttered three times. Its audibility from Pen Pengwaedd to Dinsol to Esgair Oerfel shows the extent of its reach.
We also find out that it causes pregnant women to miscarry and women who are not pregnant to become barren. The spirits of Annwfn have power over the processes of fertility. In this case Culhwch’s threat to employ the scream because he is shut out of his uncle’s feast feels like a parody of the ritual frenzy of the dispossessed. He is a spoilt rich kid having a tantrum because he cannot his own way. Sadly this fits with the rest of this highly Christianised and Arthurianised text, which consistently makes a mockery of Annwfn and its denizens.
V. Lludd’s Dragon Screams
Parker connects the scream over Annwfn with the second plague in Lludd and Llefelys (12th – 13th C):
‘The second plague was a scream that was heard every May eve above every hearth in the island of Britain. It pierced people’s hearts and terrified them so much that men lost their colour and strength, and women miscarried, and young men and maidens lost their senses, and all animals and trees and the earth and the waters were left barren.’
Once more we find the effect of barrenness, both of the land and of women, with the additional effects of loss of strength and colour, and madness. These could well be attributed to the spirits of Annwfn.
It is significant that the scream takes place on May eve. Every Calan Mai, Gwyn (Winter) fights a battle against Gwythyr (Summer) for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess). Gwyn loses and he and the spirits of Annwfn, who are associated with wintry weather and barrenness, retreat. Gwythyr’s sacred marriage with Creiddylad brings about the fertility of the landscape. The blighting of the land on May eve would have been seen as a cataclysmic precedent to Calan Mai. Perhaps this was the last chance for the spirits of Annwfn to strike before they withdraw.
It is notable that, in Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, it states that a descendant’s claim to land must be made ‘nine days after the calends of winter; or, in nine days after the calends of May.’
‘If he claim on the ninth day of May, he is to have an answer before the nine days to the calends of winter. If he have not then an answer, let him claim in the nine days from the succeeding calends of winter; and, if he do not then obtain it, the law is not ever to be closed against him thenceforth, whenever the Lord be minded to grant him law except in the blank days.’
This shows that claims to land, and the scream over Annwfn, are legally bound up with Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf, which mark the transitions between summer and winter, and the ascendancy and retreat of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwfn as he and Gwythyr battle for Creiddylad.
In Lludd and Llefelys the scream is not uttered by a dispossessed human, but by a dragon! The dragon is connected with Lludd (Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn’s father) who is here presented as a god-king of Britain. Lludd’s dragon is fighting against ‘the dragon of another foreign people’ (the Coriniaid, ‘Romans’) and this is why ‘it gives out a horrible scream’.
As the landscape of Britain is lost to the Romans the dispossessed Britons cry out. This is mirrored in Lludd’s dragon screaming as it loses to the Roman dragon. The scream invokes the spirits of Annwfn with the unfortunate effect of blighting both Roman and Briton and the land itself.
Lludd puts an end to the dragon’s scream by a complex ritual process. Measuring Britain he locates the omphalos, ‘navel’ at Oxford, digs a hole, and puts into it a vat of mead covered by brocaded silk. When the dragons tire of fighting they sink down onto the silk into the vat, drink the mead, and fall asleep. Lludd wraps them up and buries them in a stone chest under Dinas Emrys. This story is set during the invasion of Caesar in 55BC. It seems Lludd’s putting an end to the battle between the British and Roman dragons/Britons and Romans and hence to the scream and plague upon the land is successful. The dragons are returned to the underworld and silenced and the spirits of Annwfn are no longer invoked to bring about destruction. Yet it will not be long before the Romans return to complete their invasion of Britain.
VI. It Will Not Cease
In the time of Vortigern, during the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the dragons reawaken. Merlin Emrys tells Vortigern the red dragon of the Welsh is battling against the white dragon of the Anglo-Saxons. Nothing is said about the scream but, as at all times of war, no doubt a plague of terror falls upon the land, weakening its inhabitants as the dispossessed cry out against their losses.
It might be assumed that the dragons battle and scream at all times of oppression when people are dispossessed and crying out – the Viking and Norman invasions, Edward 1st’s Conquest of Wales, during the Reformation, the Enclosures, the Highland Clearances, the Industrial Revolution…
The likenesses between the name Nudd/Lludd King of Britain and Ned Ludd/General Ludd/King Ludd, the eponymous figurehead of the Luddites, whose war cry was ‘down with all kings but Ludd!’ suggest Lludd and his dragon took the side of the workers fighting against the cotton lords.
From a mythic perspective the Industrial Revolution might be seen as the greatest plague known to Britain. The dragon screams with the dispossessed driven from their land into factories. Workers on twelve hour shifts graft like the living dead drained of strength and colour. In the slums and shanty towns illness is rife. Women miscarry and infants die in their arms. Asylums fill with those driven insane by the loss of their autonomy. Smoke poisons the air, rivers run purple with dye, birds and fish are poisoned, plants and trees and wither, and we no longer see the touch of the spirits of Annwfn invoked by the scream. Is it any wonder it still lingers in our ears in old mill towns such as Preston where the Industrial Revolution began?
Industrialisation has not reached an end – it continues in house building, road building, fracking, in the continuing development of military aircraft and the weapons industry, all laying claim to more and more land. Those who cry out against these encroachments are seldom heard.
A good many of us have no claim to land, let alone land passed down through nine generations of ancestors. A third of the land is owned by the aristocracy and 0.6 of the population own 50 per cent of rural land. Collectively we are dispossessed and our screams at the injustice of society join the scream over Annwfn proliferating the blight.
How do we deal with this scream, this plague, this endless battle between two dragons? Our myths and the Welsh Laws suggest that the blight will not end until the scream has been heard and an allowance has been made to the dispossessed. Until oppression ends the dragons will not rest.
In the meantime we can learn to be aware of the effects of our screams and the powers we unwittingly summon. We can work with the spirits of Annwfn to destroy and heal and draw upon the wisdom of Lludd/Nudd and Gwyn to teach us the times for fierceness and mead-soaked dreaming.
With thanks to Andrew Smith for telling me the scream over Annwfn appears in the Welsh Laws texts and sharing the link to Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, to Greg Hill for the citation from The Laws of Hywel Dda, and to Will Parker for confirming my intuition that the scream over Annwfn originated as an invocation of the spirits of Annwfn.
Aneurin Owen (transl), Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, (University of Michigan, 2008)
Brinley Roberts, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd’ in Llen Cymru, XIII (jonor-gorffenaf, 1980/1)
Dafydd Jenkins (transl), The Laws of Hywel Dda, (Gomer 2000)
John T. Koch (ed), The Celtic Heroic Age, (Celtic Studies Publications, 2003)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tacitus, Annals, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/tacitus/annals/14b*.html
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
Will Parker, ‘Lludd a Llefelys’ http://www.mabinogion.info/llud.htm
Lorna Smithers is a poet, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here, and a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython. She performs poetry in her home county of Lancashire in the North West of England and blogs at Signposts in the Mist.
you take me back to what is raw,
glacial plains of horror,
the obnoxious beauty of it all
to beyond the ice age
when millennia ago we met
when the universe drew breath,
when the binding song coalesced.
You came as cold wind
and your inspiration was death.
You are the muse that moves the forest,
the ice that strips the hills,
the hunt that runs without flesh or bone
by the force of its boreal will.
Your voice is the chill that keeps me alive,
the poem that sparkles when all else dies.
When frost rimes my window I cannot forget
you were there at my beginning
and will greet me again at the end.
Lorna Smithers 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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‘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 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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 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.