Sabrina and the River Severn

PICT0412The source spring of the River Severn
PICT0413The first stream away from the source waters

The river runs from a spring beneath a peaty pool on a wild mountain also gathering waters draining through the peat from a small lake on the hill above. In a few miles it cascades over the rocks of a waterfall known as Blaenhafren. From here the stream becomes a river flowing down the forested slopes through small towns and then larger towns in Mid Wales and on into England where it turns southwards to run more or less in parallel with the border through larger towns and cities of Shrewsbury, Worcester, Gloucester, and then to the sea.The Romans called this river – and the goddess of the river – Sabrina . It was a name they took from the Brythonic, though in the earlier Welsh texts it was already in transition to its later form ‘Habren’. The Saxons called it Sæfern. So the modern name of the river in Welsh is ‘Hafren’ and in English ‘Severn’. How did this come about? There is an established pattern of sound change in early Welsh where the initial ’S’ becomes ‘H’ (perhaps via an intermediate ‘Sh’) which explains how Sabrēna becomes Habrēna. Another is that the ‘b’ in the middle of the word softens to a ‘v’ sound (represented by ‘f’ in  modern Welsh). Losing the ‘a’ ending indicates a loss of the feminine deity name to that of a simple river name. So it is easy to see how the Roman Sabrina became the Welsh Hafren. But what about Severn? Clearly the saxons borrowed the name before the initial ’S’ shifted to ‘H’, but after the ‘b’ shifted to ‘f’ or ‘v’, which allows the adaptation to be dated to the end of the 6th century. Names here reflect historical as well as linguistic change.

So it is with the river itself, beginning in the Welsh heartland of Elenydd, running off the mountain of Pumlummon which Alwyn and Brinley Rees, in their book Celtic Heritage identified as the centre, comparable to Uisnech in Ireland, and where both the Severn and the River Wye have their source. The land between these two rivers, which run in different directions off the mountain before meeting again in their common estuary, stretches east across the Cambrian Mountains towards the borderlands. Between Severn and Wye is often an ambiguous terrain, where the lost sagas about the destruction of Pengwern are remembered only in fragments of verse, here from the Canu Heledd,

The Hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight
With no fire, no bed.
I weep a while, then I am silent.

It is the land where subsequently Offa’s Dyke marked the demarcation between Welsh and Mercians and later the territories of Norman ‘Marcher Lords’ pushed the border further west as they carved out their own domains between England and Wales; or the Forest of Dean, an enclave bounded by the two rivers on the western side of which the Temple of Nodens looks down over the tidal Severn from the lands of Teÿrnon Twrf Liant.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story about the displaced princess Habren being drowned in the river is clearly a rationalisation of the River Goddess. But his statement that “right down to our own times this river is called Habren  in the British language, although by a corruption of speech is called Sabrina in the other tongue” does record confusion about the change. It also reflects shifting dynastic changes and ‘corruption’ in the line of inheritance that were still being played out in Geoffrey’s time. His King Arthur was a warrior in that conflict, while the earlier Welsh tales told of him wrestling with the great boar Twrch Trwyth as he escaped into the Severn Sea. 

Much later John Milton invoked her as “Sabrina Fair” and envisaged her as “sitting, under the cool translucent wave”. Here she is the tutelar goddess of the Severn Valley in a masque performed at Ludlow Castle, an aery spirit who sets “… printless feet/ O’er the cowslip’s velvet head/That bends not as I tread”.

This is a long way – both in miles and in sentiment – from where the waters trickle from the peat of the mountains. The way to the source of the Severn is well-marked, unlike that of the Wye which is hard to locate precisely. But these are lonely places where it can often be difficult to say which is the main stream and which are the tributary streams. The goddess, though, is featured on the waymarkers of the Sarn Sabrina, a footpath following the river along the upper reaches to the source. This has more recently been incorporated into a longer path called the Severn Way with a waymarker displaying the symbol of a sailing boat instead. 

Every picture tells a story.

sarn_sabrinaThe Sarn Sabrina Waymarker

The Path to the Open Glade

Last Autumn I published a story called ‘The Hidden Path’ which ended with Gareth and Gwenno walking away from each other through the woods. What happened to them? I thought it was time to find out. So here goes …..


‘Light is another story’ So it was when Gareth and Gwenno separately followed the Hidden Path into the Darkness and found Nothing… Or Nothing found them and because they were there Nothing bided her time, which was the first thing they brought to her, so when they left she was no longer alone. What did they remember – either of them – of what they found there? Nothing. And yet there was something of the trace they left behind them that each carried away, a perception of each other though neither knew it, and also of an absence that – it seemed to each of them – was now a presence. But if you asked either of them all that could be said was that Gareth wandered off his usual path and was lost for a while or that Gwenno wandered off her usual path and was lost for a while.

So each of them wandered home troubled, but also quietly elated. Each aware of a change in their lives as the darkness of Winter followed from the fading light of Autumn. Nothing had happened to them and they would never be the same again. So Winter passed. The Solstice came and went. Imbolc brought the first stirrings of Spring. There was a sense of something waiting in the woods. They always seemed so empty in Winter, without the green depths and hidden promise of Summer. But now there was a presence – something held in reserve but nearing its time. So Gwenno felt. So Gareth felt. And also a sense of something other as well as someone other. Who? Neither could say.

Gwenno went out into the woods to find the first snowdrops, the first celandines, and the green leaves that would bring the scent of bluebells to the woods. But not yet, though her thoughts strayed that way and something stirred within her.

Gareth went out out into the woods and saw the buds on the trees swelling towards the coming Summer and the blackthorn flowers preceding the leaves and he thought of the hawthorn flowers too that would follow the leaves with the warmer weather. But not yet, though his thoughts strayed that way and something stirred within him.

And Nothing? What did Nothing do? Nothing. For she was not there. But there was … Something. Something called and Gwenno heard the call and walked through the woods towards it. Something called and Gareth heard the call and walked through the woods towards it. The path was clear and led them into a glade in the forest where they met. Gareth looked at Gwenno and recognised her though he was sure they had never met before. Gwenno looked at Gareth and recognised him though she was sure they had never met before. So their meeting was tentative. Something had brought them together. A call. An echo of Nothing. And this place was familiar, though neither thought that they had been there before. They had been lost …. But now they were not lost. There had been Nothing. Now there was Something.

Sunlight filtered down into the glade as they spoke to each other for the first time and remembered what they didn’t know, felt what they couldn’t recall; and a story began to take shape around them. It would take time to unfold it. Time. That was what they had brought to this place a season ago. That was what was given to them now. Nothing was on the far side of the Ford of Forgetting. On this side the Well of Memory made a shape of the day and the stream that ran from it flowed into the world. Something was now Everything.

A pact they made then as a shadow moved across the Sun and passed, as the light of day and the dark of night met at a point of perfect balance, at the Dark of the Moon when new light waits in shadow – at this time they made a tryst to meet in the glade when the buds had opened and the leaves would be on the trees, when blossom would be on the boughs, when Spring would burst into Summer and the light lie long on the land. Summer would be theirs and they would be the Summer.


Rhiannon and the Lifting of the Veil


The Three Reluctant Brides of Ynys Prydain:
Rhiannon, who refused her father’s choice of Gwawl chose Pwyll for herself;
Ffraid, who came from Ireland for refuge in Wales;
Melangell, who hid a hare beneath her skirt from the huntsman.

There is no such triad in the traditional lists, though there might have been. Each of these significant women are specifically said to have refused husbands chosen for them by their fathers. The stories about Ffraid and Melangell bear some similarities to each other in that they both came to Wales from Ireland to avoid an arranged marriage and then lived unmarried. This allowed them to be co-opted by Christianity as holy virgins. But Rhiannon’s story is very different as she came from the Otherworld to claim a husband she wanted for herself rather than the one her father had arranged for her. (We might also note that arranged marriages in the medieval Welsh tales – such as those between Matholwch and Branwen or between Lleu and Blodeuwedd – do not go well).

In the case of the wooing of Pwyll by Rhiannon the refusal of an obedient role goes further. The story-teller makes a point of telling us that she “drew back the part of her head dress that should cover her face and fixed her gaze upon him”. That is, she should keep her face covered by a veil but ignores this convention to speak directly to Pwyll and make a proposal of marriage to him. In societies where women are expected to maintain a standard of modesty this would be considered wanton behaviour. Rhiannon’s subsequent arranging of events during the wedding feast and the defeat of her unwanted spouse Gwawl similarly sees her taking charge of proceedings. In spite of choosing Pwyll as her husband she is quite able to tell him “never has man been more stupid than you” after Gwawl has tricked him.

Later in the tale, after the birth of her son who is spirited away in the night, she is apparently less able to direct affairs. But rather than challenge the lies of the attendants who accuse her of killing the child, she chooses to accept the penance of offering to carry visitors from the horse block. She retains here, in spite of being ‘punished’ a stubborn independence until her son is restored to her by Teyrnon. There is a parallel to this in the third of the four Mabinogi tales where she re-appears as an older woman and this time it is her son Pryderi who suggests to Manawydan, following their return from Ireland and from the enchanted island of Gwales, that he should marry Rhiannon. This time she agrees to her son’s proposal. But things soon go wrong. The consequences of her earlier manipulation of events now bring about the revenge of a spell cast over the land of Dyfed. At this point a review of a sequence of events in the two stories so far will be useful:

Pwyll, then unmarried, was lord of Dyfed. He meets Arawn while out hunting and swops places with him as Lord of Annwn for a year. Following his return to Dyfed Rhiannon comes for him and they are eventually married.

After Pwyll’s death , Rhiannon marries Manawydan but as a result of the spell cast over Dyfed both she and Pryderi are taken back into Annwn and must remain there until Manawydan takes control of events and gets them released and the spell over Dyfed lifted.

The question here is why does Rhiannon, who proved herself so assertive and resourceful in the first tale, allow herself to be married to Manawydan and then captured by going into the enchanted fort in spite of Manawydan’s advice that she should not go into it? There seems to be a set of contraries here. Pwyll has established himself as Lord of Annwn when he sits on the hill of Gorsedd Arberth. The gates of the Otherworld are open to him and Rhiannon rides through them on her pale white steed. She brings the Otherworld into Thisworld. In the later tale, although there is a spell on the land, it can be regarded as being disenchanted. The land has become as it was before it was settled. A blanket of mist falls and when it clears “where they had once seen flocks and herds and dwelling places, they could now see nothing at all.” The land has become “desolate, uninhabited, without people … only the four of them remained.” Once Rhiannon and Pryderi have also been spirited away, only Manawydan and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa remain. Rhiannon came out of the Otherworld and has now returned to it. In the first tale she was temporarily removed from events by the penance of the horse block. In the later tale she is removed from Dyfed into captivity and must wear an ass’s collar.

If she is to return it is up to Manawydan to bring her back just as Teyrnon brought her back from the horse block penance. Manawydan does this by capturing a creature from Annwn (a pregnant woman who has shape-shifted into a mouse) and skilfully negotiating with disguised emissaries. So Rhiannon returns and the land is restored to its former state, re-shaped as a settled land which people can inhabit again. In both cases her return restores things to how they should be. When she is absent there is disruption, discord, vacancy. If in that first lifting of her veil she broke a taboo, once she was in the world it was not complete without her.

The Domain of Teyrnon Twrf Liant


The Severn Bore

In the First Branch of Y Mabinogi it is said that Teyrnon Twrf Liant is Lord over Gwent Is-goed (Gwent Below the Forest). This forest stretched across the south-eastern corner of Wales to the River Severn. The remaining woodlands of Wentwood above the town of Newport and near to the remains of the Roman fortress of Caerleon – or the Arthurian court of Caer Llion – are a remnant of this forest. There are also large tracts of forested land along the valley of the River Wye either side of the present border between England and Wales. On the eastern side of the Wye the Forest of Dean stretches across to the River Severn. Most of this latter forest is now in the English county of Gloucestershire, though it has always seemed to me to be an extended border enclave between the two lands, such is its liminal quality. Certainly it would have been part of the territory of Teyrnon whose name ‘Twrf Liant'(Roar of the Flood Tide?) has been linked to the phenomenon of the Severn Bore.

I have witnessed the Bore a number of times. It is caused because of the huge width of the extensive estuary of the river. At particular high tides this causes a sudden rush of water into the tidal stretch where the river narrows nearly as far up as the city of Gloucester (Glevum or Caer Loyw in the ancient tales). Standing expectantly watching the waters flow steadily towards the sea, watchers are suddenly confronted by a huge wave rushing up-river. As it rushes upwards the downward flow of the current is reversed and the river continues to rise for some time until it eventually subsides and begins to sink down again as its usual direction of flow is restored.

‘Teyrnon’ is a modernised form of ‘Tigernonos’ (Great Lord). In the medieval tale he is the foster father of Pryderi, son of Rhiannon or Rigantona (Great Queen). Pryderi was snatched from his mother soon after birth. So too was Mabon son of Modron, or Maponos son of Matrona who was imprisoned in the dungeon at Caer Loyw. It is often the case that typological motifs are paired or doubled, indicating mythological origins. These characters continue their psychic presence in stories making their own ways through the world. So here, in these woods, I can imagine the boyhood of the Divine Son whose father resides by the roaring waters of the River Goddess Habren, or Sabrina.

Once, following links between the names Nudd and Lludd as reflexes of Nodens I wondered about the river after which Lydney – the site of an ancient temple of Nodens -is named. Is this Nudd’s or Lludd’s river? I followed the course of the Lyd, the small river that runs down through Lydney to the Severn, as part of an exploration of the Forest of Dean. It is called ‘Lyd’, only from the point where it emerges from the forest and runs down through Lydney itself. Several streams run together at this point but the main one is called ‘Cannop Brook’ and runs in a deep valley right across the forest for about ten miles or so from a source area where several springs are marked on the detailed map above the village of Lydbrook on the banks of the River Wye. So there is another ‘Lyd’ place name on the other side of the forest but no obvious association, as far as I know, with Nodens here, though the site was inhabited in Roman times. A stream also runs from this area of springs towards Lydbrook itself but in spite of the name of the village the brook running through it is not ‘Lydbrook’ but ‘Greathough Brook’. At least it is now, but apparently it was known in medieval times as ‘Lyd Brook’ or ‘Lud Brook’, explained in local records as ‘Loud Brook’ (Old English ‘hlud’) because of its rushing down the steep slope to the river, though this may be a later explanation. The stream can be followed back to two sources in the forest. One is a spring and the other a well. These two sources (‘Little Hough Brook’ and ‘Great Hough Brook’) run together under a bridge, which carries a forest road over the stream. “Hough’ (‘hock’) is puzzling. But it might have been ‘how’ (‘hill’) or ‘howe’ (‘hollow’).

The track back to the spring from this bridge is about a mile along the road running by the side of the stream, but the place from which it emerges is inaccessible and is part of the grounds of a large house. Back at the confluence, the other stream flows down through the forest and can be followed along a delightful winding path. Here is pure enchantment. For much of its course the stream is hidden in a narrow channel. But to wander along the steep-sided valley with its wooded slopes listening to the waters rushing through the green valley floor is to enter an enchanted place. The valley sings its numen song in its tinkling waters. Even when a brief shower fell I felt blessed by the drops of rain falling on my face. I slowed my pace. At one point the stream was easily reached from the path and I knelt and touched some of the water to my forehead and spoke a blessing

I was beginning to feel this walk should last forever. But the path did have an end and I emerged from the trees onto a lane turning away from the stream now rushing swiftly down the slope from a point above where the well is marked on the map. I found it, sadly neglected, with a padlocked gate across it. It was a wonderful day. It had been a search for Lludd between two rivers and the streams of Lyd sang to me and still flow within me. The well was in some ways a sad conclusion to the trek through the forest but as I turned back from the sinuous Wye to the wider waters of the Severn across the domain of Teyrnon Twrf Liant and towards the temple of Nudd I knew that I had touched a deep spring that continues to rise in the well of the imagination. From such deep waters do the gods make themselves known to us.


The padlocked well

Maes Gwyddno and the Waters of the Otherworld

The semi-fossilised remains of trees on the beach near Borth.

Maes Gwyddno lies under the sea, west of the Cambrian Mountains and around the estuary of the River Dyfi. Some of it is still open to the air: sand dunes, salt marsh, peat bog and water meadows reclaimed from the bog and the marsh. Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Longshanks’) whose land it was, spoke with Gwyn ap Nudd, and was the father of Elffin who found the infant Taliesin in a salmon weir on the land called Maes Gwyddno , better known as Cantre’r Gwaelod, the lost land under the waves. So much myth, legend and Brythonic lore implicate him in the unfolding of their stories. The intersections of legend, geology and history are enmeshed here too as this is a factually drowned land as the semi-fossilised trees uncovered on the beach at low tide confirm. Most of these can be seen near the village of Borth, originally surmised to be Porth Gwyddno. To the south and to the north of this area causeways run out into the sea and they too are uncovered at low tide like roads running into an undersea domain. At the end of one of these, known as Sarn Cynfelyn, is a rocky outcrop marked on the maps as Caer Wyddno (“Gwyddno’s Fort’). According to the Taliesin story the salmon weir in which he was found by Elffin was in sight of Gwyddno’s fortress and so, knowing the stretch of coast as intimately as I do, I wonder which of the rivers running into the sea across the level land between the cliffs either side is the one on which the weir was placed. Was it Eleri, as at least one re-telling in Welsh claims? Was it Clarach? – though this seems too far south. Or was it one of the other streams that run into these rivers, or like Clettwr into the Dyfi estuary, but which might once have run directly to the sea?

It is difficult to know as the land is submerged and the coastline is not now where it was. The well-known story is that a character called Seithennin did not close the sluice gates when the tide came in because he was drunk. But this story is a recent one. The older story, recorded in verses in The Black Book of Carmarthen which are thought once to have been part of a prose saga, tells of a woman called Mererid who has caused the flood. She is referred to by the title ‘Machteith’ which means ‘maiden’ but was also an official title indicating an office at court, often the attendant of the Queen. As she is also called a “fountain cup bearer” she clearly had some responsibility for a well or spring. John Rhŷs identifies a number of legends from Wales according to which lakes have their origins in the overflowing of sacred wells when they have been neglected or because the well guardian is offended in some way. This is part of Rhŷs’s general survey of the importance of water as a portal to the Otherworld[*].

So the drowned land was submerged because Mererid allowed the well to overflow. But who was she? We might suppose she had the office of guardian or priestess of the well. As such her story can be re-imagined as it is HERE. Her name is the equivalent of Margaret or ‘Pearl’. John Rhŷs felt that this could hardly have been her original name and other, more recent, scholars have agreed. One analysis of the structure of the verses finds the lines containing her name to be metrically too long.[**] So a shorter name would be a better fit. Elsewhere John Rhŷs suggests that the name Morgan or Morgen (‘sea-born’) would have been attached to female water spirits who inhabited wells or springs as well as to mermaids. So was Gwyddno’s land flooded in the same way that lakes like Llyn Llech Owen were created by the overflowing of a spring, and did a Morgan, a nereid or water deity, cause the land to be engulfed by water from the Otherworld?

If we retreat from the flat land and climb to higher ground, to where the old Roman road called Sarn Elen runs along a ridge, we will find a Bronze Age chambered tomb known as Bedd Taliesin (‘Taliesin’s Grave’) just above the ridge and below a track running off from Sarn Elen, to an area of higher ground called Cae’r Arglwyddes (‘The Lady’s Field’) which is scattered with the remains of what look like many broken cairns. Even higher, sitting in its own rocky bowl above this, is a lake called Moel Y Llyn. From one side of the lake streams run off to form the River Clettwr which runs directly down the wooded slopes to join the estuary of the River Dyfi, and on the other side streams run off to form the River Ceulan which flows on into the River Eleri. But none of these streams run directly from the lake as the following piece of local folklore, translated here directly from Welsh, indicates:

“There are a number of unexplained mysteries linked with the lake. No crystal shines brighter than its waters though they are heavy with peat. No drop of water runs into it nor from it. The lake is self-sufficient and unchanging. I saw it in the Winter of 1936 and it was full, but a friend who accompanied me said he had seen it in the middle of the dry summer and it was no different and was equally full then. Summer and Winter – wet or dry – the lake is the same.

According to tradition the lake is guarded by a supernatural power. The following story was told by Mr Richard Griffiths [… references to the reliability and family connections of the source …]. One summer when there had been no rain for several weeks the River Ceulan dried up and the owner of the water mill decided to release the waters of the lake into the river to get the mill working again. He went with others up to the lake on a clear summer’s day and began digging a ditch towards the lake. As they were working heavy clouds formed and began to descend and a gloom came over the mountain above them. Thunder and lightning followed as a violent storm developed. The men fled in fear for their lives. The ditch can still be seen at the lakeside. Mr Griffiths estimated that this had happened about 120 years before.” [***]

Imagine then if the ‘supernatural power’ of this lake was unleashed. Something worse than the digging of a ditch by the miller must have been involved to offend such a spirit and cause the lake to overflow. But if it did then the waters rushing down the hill would fill the narrow rivers running down to the sea and overflow onto the steep slopes to drown the flat land of Gwyddno’s domain below allowing the sea to wash over them. Might this have been the original story that is reflected in the verses about Mererid? She is said to cry out from the ramparts of the fortress and from the back of a bay horse. The refrain “after presumption there is loss .. after presumption there is repentance .. after excess is want” seems to indicate regret. Seithennin here is addressed in the first verse and in the final verse he is referred to as “Seithennin the presumptuous” in his grave. We can only guess at what story was told in a lost saga relating the events leading to the flood. Flood legends are common. But Rachel Bromwich observed that the story was “not to be sought in the Bible tale; here we have an ancient story-theme common to the Celtic nations” [****].

What links, if any, can be made to the other stories about Maes Gwyddno? ‘Taliesin’s Grave’ some way below the lake has been dated to the Bronze Age. There is a ‘Gwion’s Hill’ (Bronwion) just over the ridge above the Einon Valley. It is said in the tale of Taliesin that the contents of Cerridwen’s cauldron spilt into the river and poisoned Gwyddno’s horse so its estuary was afterwards referred to ‘’Gwenwynfeirch Gwyddno’ (Gwyddno’s Horse-poison). Gwilym Morus has outlined his own theories about links between this landscape and the Taliesin story HERE. But any attempt to link it with the inundation would place the origins of the legend a lot further back in time than the sixth century. The common denominator in all this is Gwyddno Garanhir. Rachel Bromwich says of him that “It would seem that the historical Gwyddno of the North either took over some of the attributes of an earlier mythological character , or that there were two persons of the same name known to tradition.” [****] Either way he seems to be a key figure in the mythological, the legendary and the imaginative life of the Brythonic cultural ethos so it is hardly surprising that we also have a record of him conversing with Gwyn ap Nudd.

[*] John Rhŷs Celtic Folklore (1901)
[**] Jenny Rowland Early Welsh Saga Poetry (1990)
[***] Evan Isaac Coelion Cymru (1938)
[****] Rachel Bromwich ‘Cantref y Gwaelod and Ker Is’ chapter in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe eds. C Fox & B Dickens (1950)

Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir

The beginning of the Exchange Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen

An interpretation of the conversation between 
Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir.

 This conversation appears in a manuscript collection known as The Black Book of Carmarthen which is a collection of copies from earlier manuscripts made by a monk in Carmarthen in the Thirteenth Century, some of which are verses which may have originally been embedded in lost prose sagas. As with much early Welsh verse some parts of it are difficult to interpret and the only easily available version in English is that contained in Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales, a pioneering translation which is now regarded as flawed. I’ll provide my own attempt to translate it during the course of the ensuing discussion based on consulting modern editions and commentaries in Welsh. There are some uncertainties expressed by careful modern scholars and I have taken note of these while also venturing to suggest interpretations which they do not explicitly give but which are implied by their commentaries.

The conversation takes the form of series of englynion, each three-line englyn conforming to the syllabic and metrical requirements for the type of englyn used with apparent exceptions usually ascribed to faulty manuscript copying. The requirements of the englyn form would have determined the precise choice of words and expression and it’s necessary to be sensitive to that process when deciding on possible meanings of uncertain phrases. The exchange follows a conventional format to begin with of a defeated warrior asking for protection from his attacker. But as, in this case, the conversation is between an historical character and a mythological character it soon develops into an enquiry  into the nature of Gwyn ap Nudd which implies his coming from the Otherworld as a harvester of the dead. It is likely that it was not necessary to be explicit about this for readers or hearers of the poem and the nature of these poems is anyway that they are usually elliptical rather than explicit.

A typical feature of one of these conversation poems is that there would be a balanced exchange between the two parties and this is how this poem begins. But it then develops into a monologue from Gwyn with the occasional interjection from Gwyddno.  A problem here is that the manuscript does not indicate who is speaking and although this is often obvious there are one or two places where it is not. The final section of the poem as published by Skene is often detached by modern scholars who profess themselves uncertain if it belongs to the exchange although there is no indication in the manuscript of a new poem beginning and as this is usually indicated by a larger coloured capital or ornamented letter. I’ll discuss below another reason why I think it should be regarded as a continuation of Gwyn’s monologue.

The first two englyns set up the exchange with Gwyddno speaking first and Gwyn replying

Fierce bull of battle, awesome
Leader of many , slow to anger,
Of trust unfailing, who will protect me?

From the man who leads the conquest
Invincible lord,  strong in anger,
You who ask shall have protection.

Having established his safety Gwyddno begins to ask his questions:

Since you give me such protection
I will ask you, Lord of Hosts
Where is the land from which you come?

The answer is characteristically oblique, not so much identifying a place of origin as a function:

I come from many battles, many deaths
With shields held aloft,
Many heads pierced by spears.

Unperturbed by the indirectness of the answer, Gwyddno tries again:

I greet you great warrior
Your shield ready,
Tell me, great one, of your descent.

At this point it begins to be clear that Gwyn is more than a victorious opponent who is being placated but a powerful figure with special attributes. Gwyn answers and Gwyddno replies politely also identifying himself:

My horse is Carngrwn from battle throng
So I am called Gwyn ap Nudd
The lover of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd.

Since you, Gwyn, are so forthright
I will not hide from you
I am Gwyddno Garanhir.

At this point the contemporary audience may have been reminded of the story of Gwyn’s love for Creiddylad related as an aside in the story of Culhwch and Olwen. It is clear, anyway, by now that he is a mythological figure and from this point on he begins a monologue making his Otherworld nature more apparent rather than responding to questions from Gwyddno. The next four verses are therefore from Gwyn:

The white horse calls this talk to an end
His bridle leads us away
Hurrying to battles in Tawe and Nedd.

Not the Tawe here in this land
But the one far away in a distant land
Where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore.

I have a carved ring, a white horse gold-adorned
And to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Fanddwy.

At Caer Fanddwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.

His horse is clearly a kindred spirit, calling him away to battles elsewhere. So we begin to get the sense of Gwyn as one who is called to wherever battles are raging, his function as Lord of the Dead, harvester of souls, becoming apparent. ‘Tawe’ and ‘Nedd’ are both rivers in South Wales. But he says it is not to the Tawe nearby he is called but to one far away. Where this might be is made clearer in the next two verses where he refers to Caer Fanddwy a place in the Otherworld mentioned by Taliesin in the poem Preiddeu Annwn, one of the forts in Annwn raided by Arthur (‘Save seven none returned from Caer Fanddwy’).   So not only is Gwyn clearly an Otherworld character but he performs the task of Lord of the Dead, attending battles in that world too. But while he was previously portrayed as being victorious in this role, in the Otherworld he is sorrowful.

Here Gwyddno makes a brief interjection endorsing this view of Gwyn:

Gwyn ap Nudd, helper of hosts,
Armies fall before the hooves of your horse
As swiftly as cut reeds to the ground.

This seems to enable a change of direction for Gwyn:

My hound is sleek and fair,
The best of hounds;
Dormach he is, who was with Maelgwn.

There is some uncertainty about the name Dormach. The scribe had originally written Dormarch but the second ‘r’ has been removed and a space left in the manuscript. It is, however interesting that he belonged to Maelgwn as he had a legendary pack of hounds referred to by later Welsh bards. Gwyddno, of course, was father of Elffin who discovered Taliesin in a weir. He was lord of the land drowned in the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod. More of this in a later post but it is interesting to note here their connection in legendary history.

There is some confusion about who speaks the next verse, partly caused by an uncertainty about the meaning of part of the wording. It could be argued that Gwyn continues to speak but in my interpretation I suggest that Gwyddno speaks:

Dormach rednose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.

The reading of the final line is difficult, but interpreting it in the way I have allows for a reference to the Wild Hunt, and an indirect reference to Gwyn’s role as its leader.

Following this verse there is a complete change of tone and direction so that some scholars have doubted if it is a continuation of the same poem although there is no indication in the manuscript that it isn’t. Some uncertainty has also been expressed as to who speaks the remaining verses if they are to be regarded as part of the same poem. But if we regard the reference in the verse above as being to the Wild Hunt, it does not seem to me problematic to regard them as being spoken by Gwyn and relating to his activities as a harvester of souls:

I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.

I was there when Bran was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.

I was there when Llachau was slain
Arthur’s son, wondrous in wordcraft,
When ravens croaked on gore.

I was* there when Meurig was slain,
Careian’s son, honoured in praise,
When ravens croaked on flesh.

I was there when Gwallog was slain,
From a line of princes,
Grief of the Saxons, son of Lleynog

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the north;
I live on; they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the south;
I live on; they are dead.

*Here the manuscript reads ‘I was not there’ (‘Ny buum’ instead of ‘Mi awum’) but it is likely that this is a scribe’s mistake.

And so finally we may note the characterisation of Gwyn in folklore as the leader of the Cwn Annwn and so the Wild Hunt and another of the references to him in Culhwch and Olwen where the giant Ysbadadden tells Culhwch that he can never hunt the Boar Twrch Trwyth without Gwyn ap Nudd who “contains the nature of the devils of Annwn”. This is the burden he takes upon himself. In the medieval Life of St Collen, this Welsh saint is said to be lured by Gwyn – described as King of Annwn – into his fortress, but the saint throws holy water over him. In a medieval Latin text advising the clergy how to deal with superstitions an addition was copied in by a Welsh monk referring to Gwyn ap Nudd and his “concubine” in the context of love trysts in the woods, a not uncommon theme of medieval Welsh poetry. There are various passing references to him by the medieval Welsh bards, usually in the context of being lost in the mist and encountering Gwyn or the Cwn Annwn. In the view of Idris Foster[*] his original character was lost in some of these later references to him which simply see him as a leader of the Tylwyth Teg. He describes a number of “fluctuating descriptions” ranging from fairy to devil, but concludes that underlying these “there was one basic conception which was decidedly old – that of Gwyn as the magic huntsman”[*].

J Gwenogvryn Evans (ed) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Pwllheli, 1907)
A O H Jarman (ed) Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin   (Cardiff, 1982)
B F Roberts ‘Ymddiddan Gwyn ap Nudd a Gwyddno Garanhir’  in Astudiaethau ar y Hengerdd ed. Rachel Bromwich & R Brinley Jones (Cardiff, 1978).
[*]Idris Foster in Duanaire Finn quoted by Brinley Roberts in Gwyn ap Nudd Llên Cymru XIII pp 283-289.

Enchanting the Shadowlands

enchanting Review of Enchanting the Shadowlands by Lorna Smithers

This is a substantial collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers written in response to an imperative from Gwyn ap Nudd who gave her the task of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’, of bringing back enchantment to the land through her writings. As a task carried out for the god she follows it is an exemplary illustration of one way of following the path of the awenydd and , indeed, of showing dedication to the gods.

The Prelude sets the scene for the collection with a reference to the ‘Bull of Conflict’, the words addressing Gwyn ap Nudd at the beginning of the dialogue between him and Gwyddno Garanhir contained in an early Welsh poem in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen. Following this the collection is divided into a number of sections, each of which are aspects of a journey in the sense that they chronicle a development through time both in the imaginative life of the poet and in the landscape she celebrates while at the same time culminating in a union with Gwyn.

The first section recalls the early history of what is called ‘the ‘water country’ before the land was drained and when people lived close to the wetlands. There is then a section for Nodens, Gwyn’s father in the mythological record. Sections follow which look at the growth of community around Castle Hill, the life of the meadows, the re-imagining of the town of Preston in its original designation of Priest Town, the river Ribble and its Goddess Belisama and, finally, sections focussing on Gwyn himself and his Hall. There is a rhythmic movement between these sections, each changing the perspective but also keeping a clear focus on different aspects of the project of imaginative recall.
As the reader moves through each section the landscape is explored, relationship affirmed and the purpose of the developing narrative kept firmly in the author’s gaze:

I write this prayer for the souls
of the long forgotten dead
who greet us in the fields,
wandering roads and haunted farmsteads.

This is an assured voice, balancing the free expression of her message with a control of the rhythmic development of the verse so that the emphasised words also carry subtle echoes of each other, so ‘souls … fields’ assonate together and interrelate with the harder ‘d’ sounds of ‘roads’, ‘fields’ and ‘farmsteads’.
The “stories must be told”, as a verse in the same poem has it, and the task of discovering a place to live that is ‘enchanted’ is fulfilled by this telling so that gramarye may once again be infused with our experience of living in the landscape. This is not simply an antiquarian exercise in recovery but clearly, as well as being divinely inspired, also undertaken out of love for the landscape itself.

There is, of course, a particular focus on her own locality of Penwortham, or Peneverdant as it is called in he sources back to the Domesday Survey of 1086 that have been researched as part of the project. Understanding history and the felt particularities of the lives of the people who have lived on the land is a strong feature of the poems, and with more detail and a little more definitively in the prose pieces which intersperse them. These also relate some of the legends and myths of the area as in the moving story and subsequent poem about the drying up of a local well. In this way the recognised history of the area known as Castle Hill is brought to life with imaginative insights into events and the people who experienced them. The spirit life, which is inseparable from the physical life for those who would really know it, and the perception of Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of Annwn as he is described in another early Welsh text, infuses the stories told and shapes the collection.

‘The Meadows’ section evokes the life of the fields and ends with a powerfully resonant poem with the refrain “ …Horse of my dreams …” and the charged final line “And we plunge into darkness to the kingdom of our bond” which as well as re-iterating the pact also begins to anticipate the concluding sections. We get there via ‘Priest Town’ and the songs to Belisama and the Ribble. The Gwyn ap Nudd section returns to the early Welsh sources of his mythology, from Culhwch and Olwen and the legends of the Wild Hunt. And so to his Hall in the final section. This might be regarded as the hall of the dead but this is no place of gloomy sojourn. Though it is “Summer here and winter there” and the celebrated life of the earlier poems is a “brief home”, the arrival there is a consummation :

When my task is complete
will you take me, make me whole?

This is addressed to the Hounds of Annwn at the end of the previous section. Once in the Hall

When you are truly swallowed
the universe will spit you out saying
break every boundary.

We are part, that is, of an enduring eternity. Nothing is set in stone. There is “no theodicy” as another poem has it, but there are “truth and promises” binding us to “the boundless infinite”. By such apparent paradoxes truth is found, promises made and the imperative of the god fulfilled.

The Coda poem that completes the collection is addressed to the Ancestors who are “… presence … stories on our lips.” In this collection those stories are told and the Ancestors are made present. It is a remarkable testament to a promise made as well as being a skilfully wrought work by a committed awenydd.

The Star-Strewn Pathway

Who walks the Path of the Awenydd? One such is Lorna Smithers. Her dedication to the Path in seeking to fulfil her pact with Gwyn ap Nudd has resulted in her producing a newly-published collection of poems –Enchanting the Shadowlands – in response to his prompting. This will be reviewed here in a future post. Her formal dedication of the collection took place at Glastonbury and is recorded on her blog which can be accessed via the feed in the sidebar of this blog. It is fitting that she should be given space to present her personal interpretation of the nature of the path . Each of us must walk it as the call of the gods determine. Her voice deserves a place here as one who walks it with honour and exemplifies how the role of the Awenydd can be adopted today. This is what she has to say:


The Star-Strewn Pathway
‘Thence rolled down upon him the storm-clouds from the home of the tempest;
thence streamed up the winter sky the flaming banners of the Northern lights;
thence rose through the illimitable darkness on high
the star-strewn pathway of the fairy king.’
Wirt Sikes

I write this post as a newcomer to the path of the Awenydd, having walked it in earnest little longer than a year and a day. The terms Awen and Awenydd have been familiar since coming to Druidry. In the Awen I found a name for the all-consuming force of inspiration that has burnt forever in my veins with the fire of stars in the iciest reaches of a dark universe. Its furious purpose was revealed by a god after many years of searching.

Restless years. Wilder years. Seeking Blake’s infinite. Throwing my soul into the furthermost abysses of Western European philosophy where reason bites its own tail, curls up and dies and the only way to survive the white hot sun of truth is to burn with and express its creativity.

Trying to find a framework to decipher visions of our native spirit world without knowing if my experiences were ‘real’. Searching Christian mysticism, Graeco-Roman, Saxon and Norse mythologies and finding only analogies. Discovering Britain has its own mythology in The Mabinogion, The Triads of the Island of Britain, The Four Ancient Books of Wales and regional folk and faerie lore.

Finally, Gwyn ap Nudd, my Fairy King finding me and teaching me to walk the Star-Strewn Pathway.


The Star-Strewn Pathway begins in one’s local area with the recognition the whole landscape is inspirited. Awen sings from the earth-sun at this world’s core through its molten mantle, sandstone bedrock, layers of clay and harrowed loam. Wonder can be found in backyards of composting earthworms and hatching spiders.

Pathways lead to suburban edgelands. Narrow valleys of trees impossible to build on, brooks shrunken by drainage systems tripping down wooden platforms. Algae-covered stagnant ponds beloved of ducks. Decaying mills pink with Herb Robert housing volleys of pigeons circling above.

These places are inspirited and there are spirits: huge boggarts who once stretched gurgling through mosslands grey and whiskery; undines clasping their last waters; newly planted woodlands arising into forms of consciousness with inherent knowledge of tree, bird and mycelia of mushrooms to the tread of deer.

Inevitably pathways lead abroad. It is necessary to trace local brooks to the river’s crashing heart, find its trickling source and greet rolling tides with the sea at its shining estuary. To meet its Great Goddess who washes her hair by moonlight and stretches watery arms throughout the watershed.

To travel ancient woodlands of oak men, snow-topped mountains of icy blasting and cities of tower blocks, steeples and malls which guard a heritage locked in catacombs and glassy vaults. Every facet of woe and joy, awe and strife, adds to the alchemy of our own sun.


In rain or mist, at twilight to the touch of thunder, it is possible to step from known to unknown pathways. Wandering lost in a storm-cloud of emotion I have often found myself on unfamiliar tracks with strange figures, no longer myself. Sometimes it is those dusky shadows who beckon me, footsteps leading into the wildwood’s tangled heart.

In the wildwood all the fay lights are lit by stars. They dance and glimmer, throwing bright shapes and longer shadows across paths which intertwine like roots. These paths have their own lives, untwining and uprooting to walk their own way through the wood. Where the fay strew their lanterns on the ground one might find the Star-Strewn pathway.

There is a long tradition of caves and holes leading to the underworld. Their entryways are utter darkness. Timeless. Illimitable as despair. They lead into a womb of tunnels, the edge of an abyss, to where that age-old creatrix Old Mother Universe gives birth to stars. From thence the Star-Strewn Pathway unfurls through underground heavens.

When the moon is full she lays out her bridge of vibrant stars in the river. The ripples become stepping stones. From the river-moon the Star-Strewn Pathway leads through the catastrophic beauty of falling stars to the star-decked parapets of the Fairy King’s hall.

At his banquet stars burn and freeze. The order of things is undone. In the crux of fairy arts, the Fairy King’s Star Cauldron, the wonder of the universe is reflected and re-made anew.


There are other ways to reach Gwyn’s Hall. As many ways as there are souls. Some fly with coveys of hounds or wild geese. Others do not need to fly at all.

This is not the path for everyone. There are many gods, stars and cauldrons.

Any soul flight requires a return to and grounding in the body of this world; dragging backward through hedgerows, screaming and echoing from slanting rock-faces to kiss the earth with bloodied and muddy lips.

Apostasies need voicing in cafes and bars, chain-stores and museums. Launching into the internet’s mirror-void where the dust-mote of a spark of Awen can be multiplied into a million blazing simulacra fading as quickly into black holes.

Following the Star-Strewn Pathway does not lead to catasterism ‘placing amongst the stars,’ but living a full life upon this earth, returning to and from the halls of our deities, knowing only our bones and star-songs will survive for future generations. Until, with our land and gods, we are swallowed by the sun. Perhaps in this manner we will receive our final catasterism.


Everyone knows who Merlin is – or do they?

For many the stories about a wizard who aids King Arthur are an integral part of the Arthurian Romance tradition. But trace that tradition back far enough and both Arthur and Merlin have separate existences unrelated to each other. The two were brought together by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136). Geoffrey had previously published a series of Prophecies of Merlin and included these in his ‘History’. Some years later he wrote a long verse ‘Life of Merlin’ which draws upon pre-existing Welsh legendary material about a character called Myrddin who lived as a wild man in the Caledonian Forest. Gerald of Wales, writing later in the twelfth century, speaks explicitly of two Merlins: Merlin Ambrosius and Merlin Silvestris. While he is likely to have drawn these from the work of Geoffrey he may also have seen other material and claimed he had his own ancient book of the prophecies of Merlin, though he never published these.

Geoffrey based the Merlin of his ‘History’ on a character called Ambrosius mentioned by Nennius in the ninth century and attached him to the stories about King Arthur. He may not have become fully familiar with the earlier Welsh legendary material about ‘Myrddin Wyllt’ until after writing his ‘History’, his later ‘Life of Merlin’ is based on earlier material in Welsh, some of which has survived. This Merlin, like Taliesin, was regarded as a prophet and had a number of verses attached to his name over an extended period of time. The earliest ones, probably from the ninth or tenth centuries rather than the sixth century when he was supposed to have lived, are contained in a series called the ‘Afallenau’ because they are addressed to an apple tree which seems to afford him some sort of protection and prevent others finding him:

In this glade a sweet apple tree

From Rhydderch’s men hides me

Though many are there to see.

(Awallen peren atif in llanerch/y hanger tae hargel rac riev Ryderch/amsaethir in y bon. maon yn y chilch.)

He was living in the woods as a wild man following the Battle of Arfderydd where Gwenddolau was defeated by Rhydderch Hael. This battle is an historically attested event and is thought to have taken place at Arthuret near to the border between England and Scotland in the year 573. It is likely that the legendary ‘wild man’ stories (which have parallels in the Scottish tale of Lailoken and the Irish tale of Suibhne Geilt) became attached to the story about a survivor from the Battle of Arfderydd. There are references in the ‘Afallenau’ to Merlin having the company of a “fair, wanton maiden” ( bun wen warius) in his early days in the forest but she has left him by the time the verses are written. There is also a dialogue between Merlin and his sister Gwendydd whose son Merlin has slain in the battle and this is given as a reason for the madness that made him flee to the forest.

Armes Prydein (‘Prophecies of Britain’) in The Book of Taliesin contains the phrase “Merlin predicts …” which appears as a parallel to “Awen predicts …” elsewhere in the poem. Also attributed to Merlin is a ‘conversation poem’ (Ymdiddan) between himself and Taliesin. And so he becomes one of the ‘Cynfeirdd’ (earliest poets writing in Welsh) located in the area known later in Wales as ‘The Old North’, and like Taliesin a bard with prophetic powers. Once his legend was established in Wales it also became associated with Carmarthen because his name seems to be contained in the Welsh form ‘Caerfyrddin’, though this actually originates in Moridunon which would naturally have developed into ‘Mer-ddin’ (Sea Fort) and the tautology ‘Caer’ would have been added when it was thought of as ‘Merlin’s Town’. This is compounded by the fact that the verses of Myrddin are recorded in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen and therefore seeming to record a local tradition. At the same time, Geoffrey’s composite Merlin was gaining fame across Europe as the wizard behind the throne of King Arthur and gaining further accretions as it did so. He has been reinterpreted in our own day among other things as, e.g., Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and reconstructed by the writer Nikolai Tolstoy, as a remnant druid and priest of Lugh surviving in the Celtic kingdoms of the North. He still has the power to conjure such images as a figure who answers the call to something embedded deep in psychic space: the magician, the wise man, the hermit removed from but integral to our cultural life.


History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, various editions)

Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini) by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Richard Barber in Myths and Legends of the British Isles, Folio Society 1998) ; also JJ Perry (Forgotten Books, 2008)

Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales by Gerald of Wales (translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, various editions)

‘Early Stages in the Development of the Merlin Legend’ by A.O.H. Jarman in Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (ed. Rachel Bromwich a Brinley Jones, Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1978)

Trioedd Ynys Prydain ed Rachel Bromwich (University of Wales Press, various editions) also contains useful discussion and quotations.

The poems attributed to Myrddin are contained in the manuscripts of The Black Book of Carmarthen and some are anthologised though these are hard to find in translation (the translation above is mine). A good source of extracts is the edition with translations by Meirion Pennar (Llanerch, 1989)