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

The Three Bears

I receive messages from the Gods but I don’t think I’m particularly special in this; the Gods Who wish to talk to people do so to many people frequently. I have a natural affinity for hearing Gods which is like being able to sing or draw— something anyone can do a little, some people have a talent for, and anyone who wishes to improves with practice. The hard part is being able to interpret the God-sendings into coherent, action-oriented directives and using divinatory tools is one of the ways I use to make sense of the sendings. As well, divination allows me to ask specific questions and get directed answers. Since I am Diaspora Irish I use a traditional Irish divination tool, the Ogham.

DuirI spent some years doing professional divination with a set of Ogham cards that I had developed. I developed the design on the cards, that is, not the tree significator nor the traditional kennings although I did a little substitution for North American plants instead of a few British Isles ones that don’t grow here at all.
So there I was at a ‘Psychic’ show, doing readings with ‘Ancient Irish Tree Cards’ (in all the hundreds of readings I did professionally over the years only one person actually knew what ‘Ogham’ was) and the activities director of a local retirement home came by and asked me if I would come and do a little talk about Irishness at the home on Saint Patrick’s Day. I’m open to talking, but on the day of the presentation I drove up to the home and thought, ‘Whew!! This is a pretty upscale nursing home– I’m not sure I feel comfortable with this….’
Soldiering on (in solidarity) I was escorted into the library and given an easel

(I started with a recitation of an adaption of ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’:

Here in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness
All these I place
By the Gods’ almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness.

with large-sized copies of appropriate cards for each invocation).

After that I was talking about the imagery in the various pictures and told the story of why the wren is the king of birds.

One old geezer who had clearly spent a long long lifetime of never being opposed in anything nor ever spending a moment of his time in doubt of his essential self-worth decided that now was the ideal instant for him to step up to his favourite pastime of pestering:

“This is just MAKE-BELIEVE!” he said querulously.

“These are legends, yes” I responded, “But they explicate essential truths in a fantastical format.”

“Faugh!” he said, “Fairy tales!”

Bear childThen I lost my Socialist temper (as the sparks fly upward) and countered,

“Look at the back-story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, for example:
Goldilocks thinks of herself as a cut above the disadvantaged people living in a little cottage in the forest.

 

‘They are not like me’ she says, ‘They do not feel things the same way— they are just bears.’

 

So she feels quite comfortable eating their porridge, breaking their chairs, and using their beds. When the ‘bears’ come home and find her asleep, what is the essential truth, the moral of the story, that is the teaching lesson here?”

The Querulous Geezer was thrown off balance by the indirection and not having me straightforwardly complain that he is causing trouble or being impolite and has no answer nor does any other of the audience…

“If you take all that they have from the poor they will rise up against you and eat you.

And then one of the Nize Little Old Ladies changed the subject.

When I told the story at dinner that night, my son laughed and said,

So you’re not invited back for next year?”

It has become common usage in my family to identify what might on today’s Internet elicit ‘check your privilege’ as ‘they think we’re just bears’. It is the first move in the action that the Capitalists-in-Power use to disempower and enslave— the creation of Otherness.

On the one hand, Otherness is a completely fallacious concept— in the broad overview we are barely different from chimpanzees; the tiny differences of pigmentation, of religious belief, of sexuality are vanishingly small against the universal human need for inclusion and the push of curiosity.

On the other hand, what individual people signify as important to themselves is so wildly variable as to preclude assumptions altogether. Everyone is slightly Other— having different likes and dislikes, believing different things sacred, valuing different behaviours.

On the gripping hand all of our prejudices, our cultural mores, our languages, and the mind-set each language creates, are learned and can be re-learned at need when we are exposed to some other culture or decide that the biases of our ancestors or starting culture no longer applies. What always applies is the First Law:

Don’t be a Douche’.

No one is so Other as to justify being treated as less than ourselves.


 

Judith O’Grady

judithJudith is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).

Her piece, “Call To The Cold Gods” appears in A Beautiful Resistance–Everything We Already Are.