There was a fearsome serpent known as The Worm of Whispermere and no-one ever knew when it would appear and everyone went in fear of it whenever they took one of the paths through the wood or over the desolate hill. But it was part of the life of the land and the soul of the territory that everyone knew they belonged to. Then one day a brave knight came on a quest to slay the serpent and he rode through the wood and out onto the desolate hill with a fearsome spear and a sword and it was said that the serpent was no match for his terrible weapons. The knight rode back to the town and announced that the serpent was dead and drowned in the mere on the desolate hill. The knight decreed that his deed should be recorded in the annals to ensure his fame and then he rode off in quest of further adventures.
As for those left behind, for a while they felt safe to walk across the wild places without fear. But something was missing. Those places no longer felt so wild; in fact they felt ….. empty. Something had gone out of the world and the world had shrunk, become shallow. So it seemed. It wasn’t just that the serpent had gone into the deep mere. The mere itself was no longer deep, no more in fact than a shallow pool with not a whisper of mystery about it. The very deeps of the world had re-adjusted themselves. The shadows at the woodland eaves no longer beckoned or repelled. They were just ….. a bit of shade under the leaves. The path into the wood had been enticing with a bit of the spice of danger attached to it. Now it was just a muddy track that didn’t go anywhere particularly – only across that bare hill with nothing much to be said for it. So it seemed. Some remembered old stories, but less as time went on until there was nothing much to remember except some old tale about a knight, though no-one knew his name.
But if you take the muddy track through the wood and go onto the hill and find the pond, you may also find, looking into it, that the waters hold a secret and if you listen to the whispers in the ripples on the surface they might carry that secret to you so that, somehow, you might hear it. But if the deeps of the world with all their attendant fears and fascinations were then to tilt back out of the empty waters, and the shadows creep back through the eaves of the wood, might you discover the world to be a place where you could find yourself facing the knight, or whoever he would be nowadays, come to slay a serpent? And would you refuse his offer as an unwanted imposition, or would you accept his promise of security?
I sought some solace in Rhiannon’s birds
that I might come to life again
or be lulled into a gentle sleep from which
a new life might begin. So birds came:
A blue tit hopped in through the window
and flew back to the wild from a cupped hand;
the swallows in the garage had four chicks
which came and went through an open door;
A young heron stepped slowly along a streamlet
intent on prey – these birds moved through the world
to bring me back to it, taking me with them
as they flew into the light of the Sun.
Then at Full Moon I awoke long before dawn
to go out under stars bright in the Moon’s eclipse
which was not an eclipse because there, smoke-red
she was visible in the sky and yet not visible.
From this deep mystery I went back
to the otherworld of sleep, it seemed
that I still walked the path of the dead
and so another day passed, another night
when the the Moon was bright, so bright
that as I watched her rise I flew
like a bird through the world, and still
next morning she was there in the western sky,
A daylight Moon remaining big and round
before she faded as the Sun broke through
and a bright day grew and something of Summer
still wreathed itself through coming Autumn.
Soon the swallows will fly south for the Winter
and we’ll hang food for blue tits on the apple tree
which now bears fruit for a sweet harvest
as Rhiannon’s birds sing their song for me.
There is a well in my village, simply know as the “Ffynnon Sanctaidd” (Sacred Well). Though just outside the bounds of a church dedicated to Mihangel (Michael), the well itself does not have a particular dedicatee and would, of course, have been here, like the nearby ancient yew tree, before the church was built. There are some springs a mile or so along the valley in an area associated with Ffraid (Bride or Brigit) and a story that the church was originally to have been built there and dedicated to her. This, I know, is a story told of other churches: that attempts to build in one place are thwarted by the structure falling down each night until a voice from the heavens tells the builders to build elsewhere and/or to a different saint. These stories clearly reflect conflict in the past as much about who would be honoured rather, I suspect, than where the church should be built.
Wells are older than churches, their springs of water carrying the blessings of saints or deities variously named back to prehistory when the Earth last shifted to the shape she has now in each particular place. So when I sat by this well, as I often do to contemplate the changing seasons and dwell upon the pulse of water beneath me, I did not feel that I had to be bound by a name to embody the sacred space I inhabited – and yet the identity of she who brings sacred water into our world could not be denied for this season, this time, this point of correlation between myself and a goddess.
How does this work? The gods reveal themselves to us at different times, in different places and at different stages of our lives. It’s as if their identity can shine through a dedicated space or one in which we find ourselves ready to receive them, or shine through, even, the identity of another god’s dedicated space or persona. Or is it the same god? People may assert that their god is the only god, that their saint is the one to whom the church should be dedicated, or argue that one space is special not for others but only for them (consider Jerusalem). The god who calls to us is one identity at that moment of experience; the goddess who whispers her secrets is the only voice that matters in that moment which is forever.
Here the pronoun breaks down. It needs to change from plural to singular. I’ve spoken of ‘we’ and ‘us’ because I’ve tried to communicate a common experience. But, for each of us, it is ‘I’ that finds the god and ‘me’ that the goddess finds with words whispered on the winds. Although we may seek communal affirmation and desire to share our experiences, although we may congregate to honour the gods, the experience is not congregational but individual. Dedications to the gods in the ancient world were usually from individuals rather than social expressions of devotion. I can think of a few examples of community dedications such as the one to Epona by the burgesses of Trier, but these seem to be political or commercial rather than purely devotional inscriptions.
So now, as I sit by the well savouring the last of summer before autumn, watching bees go from flower to flower in the fuchsia bush, my experience of grace from the water of the well is a personal one, though by no means regarded by me as exclusive. I think of Odysseus and his personal devotion to, and relationship with, Athene, a goddess who was also acknowledged across the world that Odysseus inhabited. His covenant with her was intensely personal; her concern for him unquestioned. So my own relationship with the water of the well here where the church was built, and the springs there, further down the valley, where it wasn’t built, can centre on my developing relationship with Coventina whom I honoured with a visit to her well by Hadrian’s Wall over two hundred miles away. Nor does this detract from my acknowledgement of Bride of the Springs, or of any other deity which this well by the church of Michael may have embodied, or whose nature it may have expressed, or of other devotees with whom I share a love of this land and the springs that flow into and across it from the abode of the gods.
Beside the minor road that runs beneath Hadrian’s Wall at Carrawburgh is the site of a fort. The only visible excavated feature is the remains of a Mithraeum or temple of Mithras used by soldiers stationed on the Wall. There is also an area designated the Nymphaeum, or place where devotions were made to the spirits of the place. On the edge of the fort is the site of a well. This was dug out in the nineteenth century by the land owner in a search for deposits of lead ore. But large numbers of coins were found in the well along with incense burners and votive stones with inscriptions which are now housed in the nearby museum at Chester’s Fort. The inscriptions make it clear that the well was sacred to Coventina and her depiction holding the leaf of a water lily, and others where she pours water from a container makes it clear that she is a water goddess. Two of these featuring carved depictions are well-known and have been much reproduced. They appear at the head and foot of this post and are often cited as the chief evidence of the worship of Coventina. But there are other stones with inscriptions also dedicated to her and made especially for placing by the well in her honour. Here is a selection from the nearby museum.
What now of her spring of sacred water? When I visited the site I knew that the well had been neglected and uncared for by comparison with the carefully excavated and preserved Mithraeum that most visitors stop here to view. But I did not expect there to be no visible trace of it. I have an area in my garden at home dedicated to her and visited her well to bring her a gift and possibly to bring back a stone or small token from the well site for my altar. My own personal devotions apart, I wonder what can be done to bring such neglected deities to wider attention? They live in their own parallel world of course, and if we have no need of them they may never trouble us. But we are poorer without them and their presence in the land is never quite gone, especially as there are those of us who remember them. The site at Carrawburgh (once known as Bricolita) is the only identified site for Coventina in Britain and there are only two other possible sites in Gaul. Her neglected well, then, seems symptomatic of her liminal status. Stories of the ill-treatment of wells or their guardians, often with dire consequences, are common enough in myth and folklore to suggest that such neglect serves as an icon for the abandonment of the world of the gods and of a life lived alongside them.
I walked around the site for a couple of hours looking for the well. Eventually I decided to go to the fully excavated Chester’s Fort a few miles away to view the items that had been removed from the well and to ask for the precise location. There is a case full of objects in the small museum there in addition to the stone inscriptions. These include clay incense burners especially made with inscription for placing by the well:
And these small bronze horse figures.
Many of the coins that were found in the well were later stolen.
An English Heritage official there explained to me that the well site was not on land administered by them so no signs indicating its position could be displayed and there was anyway nothing left to see as the original excavation of the site had destroyed it. But he did indicate to me more or less where it was. So I went back to the site, my gift still ungiven, to look for it again. The ground in the area area indicated between the fort and the open moor beyond is fenced off and very boggy. Bright yellow king cups, a flower of very wet ground, adorned the miry place where I guessed the well must have been. But in spite of their beauty I could not feel the presence of Coventina there. A narrow brook seems to emerge from or mix with these waters and flows away from the site. In one place this piece of fenced-off bog is traversed by the long distance footpath which follows Hadrian’s Wall. I climbed the stile to walk across using the large stone slabs that make this possible. Beside one of them I found this pool
In spite of appearing to be part of the sequence of wet places fed by the waters of the brook it has the feel of a well-spring about it. The water is clear to the bottom where a number of small creatures including some fresh-water shrimps scurried around in the soft sediment. Here was Coventina! This was the place to leave my gift and the small geode with a precious stone in it sank through the water and into the sediment out of sight.
Who brings us otherworld water
Budding through earth and stone
Into our world of dry words:
Liquid whispers of something deeper.
I went on a quest to discover a particular place. Did I discover it? Or did I discover that it is not the one site that is important so much as the journey to find it. But she is there wherever water flows. So each time I stop at a well, a spring or a stream of rushing water I think of Coventina and the water world and the deep well of memory of the gods and the world they inhabit. When I touch a drop of water from a spring to my skin I make a dedication to that world of sacred water as I did at that pool at Brocolita where Coventina was once acknowledged as I acknowledge her now and bring the memory of that place to my own dedicated space for her.
I’m re-blogging Lorna Smither’s post ‘The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid’ – it’s an inspired response to an episode in Culhwch and Olwen and deserves the widest possible circulation.
I journeyed for weeks
through mist and hunger
to find the split rack of her bones,
bones stripped, flesh burnt
and boiled in the cauldron,
blood drained and bottled in two jars.
I plundered the ashes where the cauldron stood,
sniffed for blood where the jars were filled.
Played maracas with her bones,
made intricate arrangements,
chanted and sung
but could not raise her ghost.
“She is amongst the spirits of Annwn now,”
spoke the god I called instead.
“Lay her bones to rest. In the fire of poetry
console her burning spirit.”
I’m laying her bones to rest. The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid. Her name was Orddu. It meant ‘the Very Black Witch’. Whether she had black skin, black hair or used black magic seem irrelevant now. All that is left is her scapula split in twain, her shattered pelvis, two arms, two legs, her broken skull…
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The hospital bed had been a place of turmoil for much of the day. My mum was pulling at the leads in her arm and the plastic face mask feeding her oxygen. Her condition had worsened since my visit the previous day. She had been poorly but able talk and ask about my journey from Wales to Lincoln. But now she was distracted, the world and its pains becoming too much to bear. When I came back later that evening she seemed hardly to know me. The duty doctor took me aside and indicated that I could stay after visiting time as she was unlikely to last the night. So I sat by the bed, curtains drawn around us, the machine occasionally flashing red and beeping as I held her hand to be with her in her travails.
It began to seem that the tubes and machines were an intrusion into an inevitable process, no longer useful in keeping her alive but hindering her passing, obstacles to her journey out of this life. I know that one of her feeds was giving her pain relief, and she would have been worse without it, but she seemed to be fighting them off, wishing to be free of the encumberance of them. I wished her a better journey, to walk the paths out of this life more serenely.
I thought of a Gaulish funeral stone I had been looking at recently, showing Epona leading one of the dead through a host of fantastic animals, walking the paths of the dead as a guide. Could I help her find these paths? We could not talk now, although I said reassuring things not knowing if she even heard them. But she did respond to my hand holding hers and gripped it for support. So I held on and imagined her walking with Epona through those dark ways surrounded by strange sights, perhaps bewildered but yet knowing she was led on the right path, the way she had to go.
The lights in the ward went off for the night, with only the background night lights still on. Her breathing became less laboured, as her light too faded and she seemed to be calmer. Her breaths were slower, more spaced out and she seemed almost peaceful, as if the fight was over and she could relax. The gaps between breaths lengthened and I knew her time had come. One more breath, almost a sigh as her head turned slightly to one side. Still I held her hand. The lights on the machine changed, not flashing now and a different colour, a single line of them, static and still. She too was still. A nurse came and looked at the machine. I said, ‘I think she’s gone’ and she turned to feel for a pulse at the neck. She nodded and went away before returning with a doctor. He too nodded and asked if I needed anything, more concerned with the living than the dead.
I needed a moment more, so they left me holding on still to her hand as I wished her well on her journey with Epona, that she should be led safely through the paths of the dead. Only then did I let go of her hand and gave her a farewell kiss before leaving her there looking so peaceful now, though sad to leave this life behind. Then, after saying what had to be said to the staff on the ward, I walked out into the strangeness of the night.
When they talk about Dewi they say he is ‘half way to fairyland’. Of course, it’s just a saying, like he is ‘only half there’ or ‘in a bit of a daze’. But it’s truer than they know. The thing about Dewi is that he has an instinctive talent for finding the paths to Faery. But it’s not something he recognises or is fully conscious of in any way. So he goes off to the woods and wanders along an enticing path and finds himself on he borders of Faery, and sometimes strays across without knowing where he is or what he is doing. Then he comes back – but part of him is still there. Because he doesn’t know how he got there, he doesn’t know how to return. A more proficient path walker might see the way, prepare the approach, and close off the ways behind when coming back. Or might have a helper to show the ways in both directions. But somehow Dewi evaded both knowledge and assistance. He just seemed to be able to step through the veil, but without really seeing anything on the other side or knowing what the way he felt about it meant. So part of him always lingers there and he walks through the everyday world doing everyday things with only half his mind on what he is doing.
If he knew how to write poetry it would no doubt be inspired. If he could play a musical instrument his playing would be enchanting. But he can’t do these things. Sometimes he sings, if given the chance, and the song has something about it that sounds like it comes from elsewhere. But where? Dewi couldn’t say. So he goes about doing odd jobs here and there, just about finding a place for himself in the world. Once he would have been called ‘sely’, the old word having the spice of something holy and blessed about it. But now the same word is ‘silly’ and that is without any depth or even any sense of being dangerous. It’s just trivial.
So it is with the attitude of the busy world to those who appear to wander the byeways of life. There is no time for silliness. There are those that can come and go, that can inhabit both worlds, that can don a cloak of twilight and steal away from the world’s busy-ness for a while, and then come back to its constant business, its blindness to the shallowness of its concerns. They are not themselves blind and are aware of the distant presence of otherness as they do the world’s bidding efficiently enough, while always conscious of the more profound bidding that calls from somewhere that is remote from the world and yet as near as breath.
Dewi knows little of that – of the ways of the world he knows, though not how to accord with their demands; and of the ways to Faery he knows something, but not articulated or made fully conscious. But as time goes on his nearness makes it more and more the place of his daily repose and he is less and less able to do what the world demands of him. So people think of him as a fool, out on the edge. And he is. So it can’t be long until he tips over and Faery takes him for one of its own.
One place I like to go is a pathway that dips under trees into a wide furrow. It is a world of itself, separate from the open woodland and fields that surround it. In winter it is often wet and boggy underfoot, with rivulets of muddy water, and it is difficult to pass through without wellington boots.But today when I went there, though the going was soft, it was passable. On cloudy days in summer, and for much of the winter, only a little light penetrates even when the leaves are off the trees. But today the Sun was out and bright shafts of sunlight cast a clear liquid glow through the gaps and dappled the leaves overhead with flickers of dancing green.
Then The Spirit of the Place seems to hide, not furtively but withdrawn back to his element of dampness and shadows. I sense him watching, not unhappy but making a natural retreat from penetrating sunbeams, from the glitter in the leaves. At other times when I walk through and linger, savouring the presence of an intense gloom it seems that I am in a semblance of the Underworld, somewhere far removed even from the thin light of a December afternoon.
But not today as the Sun streams down the hillside and filters through the mesh of hazel, thorn and briar and down into the deep trough of the lane, leaking like rainwater into the pits and runnels of the ground where, for a brief season of midsummer, grass can grow. And I can go confidently through with a light step, not thinking that the slough of the floor will prevent me. So the Spirit watches as I go and I acknowledge him, shifting sideways to a shady spot before stepping back into a pool of light, and on towards the shining portal of the opening where the path rises again onto the open hillside.
In the bland megalopolitan light
where no shadow is by day or by night
be our shadow
So wrote the artist and poet David Jones in his prayer to ‘The Tutelar of the Place’. To live with the gods is to live in a world of shadows, depths, mysteries. The opposite is a world where there are no shady nooks, hidden places, recesses; a world of hard surfaces and exposed spaces. Such a world does not exist, as hard as humans have tried to create it. Though many do live in such a world, lit by “the bland megalopolitan light” which banishes the natural darkness of night, a world constructed of the flat planes of our buildings and our roads. It is a conjectural world as much as a constructed world. Imagined as an ideal, realised imperfectly as a fact but dominating the imagined spaces around us.
Are the gods real? They are more real than this world we have created, as substantial as it appears to be. The world does still retain its deep places beyond the shallows of urbanity. Not just in leafy glades and misty hollows, but in oily puddles where labyrinths may be formed by coloured streaks, and in windswept streets where messages from the Otherworld may emerge from the tatters of torn scrap of newsprint. There are ways of seeing that reveal the world to us in different ways and what the mind’s eyes see depends on how we look. If we should choose to see them the gods reveal themselves – like the shadows that go with us as companions through the world.
It is not that the gods are absent from our shaped world, a world they are part of as much as we are. All creatures shape their world, make it different because they are in it. So, too, the gods. Consider the tale of the Enchantment on Dyfed in the Mabinogi.The land is transformed into its raw, natural state. It is still there, but there are no people in it, or any of the things that a landscape with people has in it. It is unfamiliar, unhomely. When the Enchantment is lifted it becomes homely again. Rhiannon, who has her being in the Otherworld, returns too. In our homely world she validates what we share (and this, I think, is the deeper meaning of the ‘Sovereignty’ theme). But she is also unhomely, uncanny, other – carrying significance from what is under, beyond, though also infused in our familiar world.
To try to make a world without the gods in it is not only to banish the unhomely and uncanny. It is also to banish their opposites. It is to make a world that is soulless, not only in the loose, general sense of being without depth and significance, but also in the more literal sense of losing touch with that which imbues the physical body with a sense of identity and meaning. I thank the gods for my shadow, even at Midday when the Sun takes it from me, for I know he will not keep it and will make it grow long and stretch it out into this mysterious world, mingled with the shadows of the trees, as afternoon leans into evening.
Turning from the Brythonic to the Goidelic, the analogue to the awenydd would be the fili. Such analogues are always in need of qualification and never exact. The Welsh term ‘bard’ covers some aspects of ‘awenydd’ in medieval usage, but is also a more general term that can simply be translated as ‘poet’. So too ‘fili‘. But if the medieval Welsh bards can be seen as descendants of the druids in terms of their function, the process of transition and the change in emphasis of their role is by no means clear and in some senses involves a considerable displacement of context and status. This to some extent explains the need to create a protean identity for the bard as sage and prophet such as was embodied in the figure of Taliesin as indicated in other posts here.
It may seem that in Ireland the process of transition from druid to fili is clearer and the overlap in function between the two better documented. But most scholars are of the opinion that the process, as seen through christian eyes and then re-mythologised in literature and commentary, makes it very difficult to see through the layers of interpretation to an authentic picture of the pagan past. Such early texts as the ‘Cauldron of Poesy’ and the references to the role of the fili in Cormac’s Glossary suggest that they practised visionary and prophetic arts in much the same way as the awenyddion as recorded by Gerald of Wales.
Cormac’s Glossary identifies three essential attributes of a fili:
(a) teinm laedo (illumination of song) which is the mastery of the craft, the realisation of the vision or, possibly simply the knowledge required to be a fili.
(b) imbas forosnai (the manifestation which enlightens) which is inspiration, visionary abilities, divination and prophecy such as attributed to the awenyddion in Wales.
(c) dichetal di chennaib (chanting or incantation) involved with the ability to give voice eloquently and fluently to what is divined. Later simply presentational skill.
The Glossary asserts that St Patrick abolished two of these but left the third in the repertoire of the fili because as it did not involve offerings to demons or the adoption of divine power. Such ascriptions of the attributes of the fili and the objections to them from christian orthodoxy are repeated with variations throughout the medieval period. The effect is both to define a magical and a prophetic practice and at the same time to assert that it has been superseded by the rites of the church. It both describes what is forbidden and salaciously sensationalises it for added effect. In Wales the role was typically shifted onto a poetic alter-ego such as Taliesin. In Ireland it was also projected back onto the mythological hero Finn who was also credited with acquiring the three attributes of the fili after sucking his thumb when cooking the salmon of divine knowledge for his mentor, much as Gwion did with Ceridwen’s brew before he was transformed into Taliesin.
When gods become heroes, when legendary bards become prophets, when druids becomes bards or fili, all sorts of things get lost, mixed up or added in to the new identities. The parallel process of fictional portrayal and clerical excoriation also adds layers of complexity. Consider how things were closer to the end of pagan culture in the Roman Empire. Following the adoption of christianity by the emperor Constantine in 306, continued by his successor Constantius, the emperor Julian attempted to reinstate paganism. Worship of the old gods had not ceased, especially in the west, but the empire was now ruled from Constantinople in the east where christianity had become established. The effect of withdrawal of state support for the temples meant that observations had become lax and Julian, in his exhortations to the temple priests, is on record of requiring them to promote the worship of the gods rather than acting as agents for curses commissioned by individuals. Already, then, the priests of paganism were being denigrated and seen as agents of the dark arts. It is easy to see how, with the reintroduction of official christianity and the eventual suppression of paganism, this limited (but always prominent) aspect of roman paganism became the chief attributes of what were regarded as its remnant practitioners.
Later christian commentators like Gerald and the author of Cormac’s Glossary may never have actually encountered these practices. But they were already the legendary attributes of druids and described as received wisdom rather than from experience. Bards who wished to adopt the aura of such powers as part of their poetic personas, or those who re-told the exploits of Finn and Taliesin out of the remnant mythologies, could recreate the lives of the gods, heroes, sages and otherworld inhabitants either as hero tales, legendary history or in the personas of prophets, bardic oracles and inspired poets and even, in another entry in Cormac’s Glossary, as the embodiment of the Spirit of Poetry.
So do the gods live, transform and re-create themselves in our stories. Do we tell them or do they tell them through our story-telling art which is their gift to us? Whatever is the case it is clear that, however much other mythologised figures such as Patrick might forbid, banish, abolish or attempt to restrict such elements of the visionary arts, it was never effective even in his judgement of it.