Picking Sloes for Gwyn ap Nudd

Prunus spinosa / Blackthorn

There is a folk tradition  that blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas Day, as they then belong to the Devil. The idea behind this is that Michael cast him out of Heaven  on this day and he landed in a tangle of brambles so afterwards the berries were tainted with his blood and not fit to eat. Whether the cut-off date is to be taken as the current 29th September or Old Michaelmas Day on 10th October is presumably dependent on how much of a risk the pickers wish to take!

Blackberries have not been plentiful this year where I live. But we went out on 29th September to pick sloes, which hung in inviting blue-black profusion on the blackthorn trees along the edge of the sunken lane where we usually find them. Sloes can be picked later than blackberries but we gathered them today for Gwyn ap Nudd because we were celebrating the restoration of his feast day (for which see THIS POST on the Brython Blog by Lorna Smithers). It has always been our custom to take the dregs of previous batches of sloe gin we make from them to return to the earth something of what we have taken. We did so again this year, but also took some very drinkable sloe gin from a good vintage to toast our labours and to pour a libation for Gwyn ap Nudd.

These sloes were picked on his feast day and the sloe gin we will make from them will be made for him, so he will be welcome at our winter festivities and in quiet moments or special occasions when it will be savoured.

These dark berries are astringent. The drink they make is powerfully pungent. As such it contains something of his nature. But there is no repugnance or reluctance – such as that associated with the Devil’s Blackberries – felt at the gathering of Gwyn’s sloes to infuse our gin. They can be gathered until Calan Gaeaf, even until Old Calan Gaeaf,  after which they will no longer be at their best and the Cailleach’s withered fingers may claim them. But their spirit will be contained because we gathered them for Gwyn ap Nudd.



Inundations, not temporary floods but the permanent flowing of waters across the land; there are many stories of such flowings from springs or wells to make lakes, or rushing to meet the sea to re-shape the coastline. There are recurrent stories behind these legends, superficially of pride, arrogance, presumption, though this might mask a quest for knowledge and therefore power. Often the consequences are delayed and the flood comes after many generations (time for the otherworld deities is not our time). The legend of the drowning of Tyno Helig near the estuary of the River Conwy in North wales is typical of the theme where a wicked ruler is told that his descendants will be punished for his deeds and so he thinks he has nothing to worry about, but seven generations later his lands are flooded during a feast and only the harper escapes drowning. This latter detail of the harper is also a common element in the stories. John Rhŷs thought that the theme of delayed punishment for evil deeds was a later development in these stories which originally involved something happening at a sacred well which causes it to overflow. Consider for instance, the story of Boann who looks into Nechtan’s Well of Wisdom which should only be visited by Nechtan and his cup-bearers. The well overflows and chases her all the way to the sea, thereby forming the River Boyne. In the story of the drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod, or the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir, Mererid is herself a cup-bearer and a well-maiden, though the oblique nature of the verses which record this (probably originally contained in a prose saga which supplied more detail) means that the context is unclear.

But no matter. For there is more to say. Both the setting for Tyno Helig and that for Cantre’r Gwaelod are also settings for different surviving versions of the story of Taliesin. Think now of that harper who survives (or is re-born from) the flood. The story of Taliesin begins at Llyn Tegid, the location of another inundation legend which explains the formation of the lake near the town of Bala. This is where Gwion stirred Ceridwen’s cauldron. The River Dee (Dyfrdwy) which runs through the lake, has its own mythos naming its waters as sacred (~>). Gwion looked into, and tasted, the waters of this cauldron and there was an inundation. He gained wisdom just as Finn gained wisdom either by tasting the salmon from the Well of Wisdom or, in another story, tasting drops of water from an otherworld well.

Rosmerta And Mercurius - a relief from Gloucester.
Rosmerta And Mercurius – a representation from Gloucester showing her bucket.




In Gaul a god that the Romans called Mercurius – though he may not have had a name before the Romans gave him one – was partnered with Rosmerta, whose name could simply mean ‘The Great Provider’. Rosmerta had a site of devotion at a sacred spring in Gaul and is also commemorated in Bath, the site of the sacred springs of Sulis in Britain. One of her emblems is a bucket (cauldron?) and she is represented with Fortuna on one relief where the bucket could symbolise re-birth. A spring, a cauldron, a brew of otherworld wisdom, welling into our world. A cup-bearer, a well-maiden ~/~ the keeper of the cauldron, a hag. Are these two sides of the same coin, the turning of Fortuna’s wheel? When there is a flow from otherworld streams out of the well or the cauldron, who can catch the essential drops on the tongue, taste the salmon or gather the hazel nuts that have fallen into the the waters of the well?

Think of that harper, the survivor of the flood. Think of Taliesin, re-born from the waters into a weir in which salmon are caught. Think of others whose quest for knowledge transforms them into divine or inspired figures.Then consider that Mercurius, Rosmerta’s partner, may have been known in the lands that overlapped Gaul as Woden, and how a god, taking a different name for a different people, might do things differently, and yet still discover sources of wisdom, of inspiration, and how the mead of poetry from the Cup or Cauldron of Inspiration might be dispensed to the poets, the awenyddion, the drui, from whom the waters of the Cauldron flow as rivers of song.

Speaking to the Ancestors

Tuan  watching “a great fleet rolling as in a giant’s hand”                              (illustration :  J. Fitzpatrick)



Part of the lore of Ireland tells the story of Tuan who was visited by Saint Finian, hearing that he did not observe sundays or saints days, and wishing to know if the stories about him as a magician were true. Here is part of their conversation:

“Mine is a long pedigree,” Tuan murmured.

Finnian received that information with respect and interest.

“I also,” he said, “have an honourable record.”

His host continued: “I am indeed Tuan, the son of Starn, the son of Sera, who was brother to Partholon.”

“But,” said Finnian in bewilderment, “there is an error here, for you have recited two different genealogies.”

“Different genealogies, indeed,” replied Tuan thoughtfully, “but they are my genealogies.”

“I do not understand this,” Finnian declared roundly.

“I am now known as Tuan mac Cairill,” the other replied, “but in the days of old I was known as Tuan mac Starn, mac Sera.”

“The brother of Partholon,” the saint gasped.

“That is my pedigree,” Tuan said.

“But,” Finnian objected in bewilderment, “Partholon came to Ireland not long after the Flood.”

“I came with him,” said Tuan mildly.

The saint pushed his chair back hastily, and sat staring at his host, and as he stared the blood grew chill in his veins, and his hair crept along his scalp and stood on end.

(from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens)

How many generations are the ancestors? Do they include the lost tribes, the ones we displaced too long ago to remember? But the land remembers, and some remnant of them may live among us still, quietly marking the passing ages of the world, nurturing the wisdom they cannot pass on to those who cannot own it. As for those who have faded from view, but whose spirits still inhabit the deep recesses of the landscape, the marginal places we have not built upon or shaped for our own purposes,  do they remain among the living presences of the land or fade gradually but inexorably to the Land of the Dead? Even then,  they may leave behind a trace or echo of what they were, so that we might sense them still, if only as an absence, and so a necessary presence, in the world we inhabit.

Some speak of ghosts, some of other world(s) within, beside or beyond our own, of places that are portals, or in which a presence may be felt that is not accounted for in the species lists of natural history and so does not exist in earth, water, fire or air, but which nonetheless has a being with us (t)here.

If we visit such beings, as Finian did, then how should we speak with them, or inhabit their present? If Tuan were to tell us, as he told Finian, of his incarnations as different creatures on land, in air and in water, and the comings and goings of many different peoples over many aeons of time, would we hear the words, as Finian did, with a shiver and a sense of creeping dread? Can we hold such knowledge within us?

The story of Tuan tells: “No-one knows if he died then, or if he still keeps his fort in Ulster, watching all things …”

But if no-one knows , his voice speaks to us still out of the eddies of time, slipping the knots which tie us to the Ship of Time, sailing to the Land of the Dead.

The Otherworld and the Netherworld


Consider the stories from Greece about Hades and Persephone, which operate at the purely mythic level and Orpheus and Eurydice which enacts the same mythic pattern but sets it as a story about humans rather than gods. In the first Hades snatches Persephone away to his dark realm and her mother Demeter eventually manages to rescue her but only on the basis that she spends half the year in Hades and half in the world we know. This is a story about the gods and the turning of the seasons. Now consider the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. As with many Greek stories about interactions between the worlds, the human characters concerned have some divine ancestry but live as humans in our world. Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies so her husband Orpheus, a musician with divine gifts, one might say inspired by the Awen and so godlike in his nature, goes to the Land of the Dead and plays his music charming Hades into releasing her, though the condition that he must not look back until they are both in the open air introduces a tragic dimension that  is often a feature of the Greek stories. This feature often translates to an ironically comic view of human frailty as in the Roman Ovid’s  re-telling of the tale.

So what we have here is a basic myth of a goddess being snatched away by a god into his realm and her return being allowed for part of the year and a parallel story of a woman being taken into this realm and her release negotiated, though not successfully achieved. The story is different but the mythic pattern is the same. In Ireland this pattern occurs in the story of Midhir and Etain. There are two versions of this story which echo the differences between the two Greek stories. In one they are both inhabitants of Tir na Nog (i.e. both gods) but in another version Etain is human and is carried off by Midhir, a king of the Tuatha de Danaan, after he tricks her husband and wins her in a game of chess. The cultural context here is very different and firmly embedded in the mythical history of Ireland. But, again, the mythic pattern is the same.

Celtic otherworlds may be in caves or under hills, beneath lakes or seas, or on far-away islands. The variety of location and context reveals a multi-layered inheritance in how these worlds are perceived and how they tend to fuse, in later literature, in a more generalised experience of Faery or, more trivially, Fairyland. In both these latter cases most often this is an inaccessible place that may be glimpsed but rarely visited though its inhabitants may well also inhabit our world.  In an article about the Welsh name for the Otherworld, Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas remark that ” the Welsh name Annwfn … suggests an etymological notion of an otherworld” [see bleow*]. Suggested Brythonic origins of the name are *an-dubnos (‘not-world’ or ‘not-deep'[deep-notness?]) or *ande-dubnos (‘underworld’ or ‘under-deep’). Also discussed is a Gaulish word antumnos, used in calling upon Dis or Prosperpine and therefore suggesting a nether world of darkness rather than a paradisal parallel realm.

The probable Greek origin of antumnos also suggests a dark, underworld location. The authors of the article find it unlikely that the supposed Brythonic term *an-dubnos was used without knowledge of its associations with the Greek Underworld. This may imply that its later associations with the ‘Hell’ of Christian tradition is not entirely a later overlay. Rather, as Mees and Nicholas suggest “… the entrance of the term to early Brythonic might even be plausibly connected with the development of the dual nature of the Insular Otherworld and Graeco-Roman influence: paradisaical and ageless on the one hand, sinister and Stygian on the other.”

In this view, it seems that the Brythonic Celts wanted it both ways, not wishing to abandon the idea of a blissful parallel dimension to their own world but also paradoxically seeing it as a dark Underworld where the souls of the dead reside. If the fabric of these alternatives appear to have little in common with each other this may be because, for us, ancestors and other-beings seem to require differently imagined locations. But do they?


In Britain the story exists in various folklore and literary versions including the Shetland ballad ‘King Orfeo’ and the Breton lay ‘Sir Orfeo’. Both conceive of the place into which Orfeo’s wife Heroudis is snatched as a domain of Faery. The confusion between this and the Land of the Dead is expressed ambiguously in these tales. ‘King Orfeo’ has the lines “The King of Faery with his dart/Has pierced your lady through the heart” possibly suggesting death but also, potentially, enchantment.  ‘Sir Orfeo’ portrays the land that Orfeo enters as one where the folk who had been captured were “thoughte dede and nere nought” (seemed dead but were not) but a few lines further on “some dede and some awedde” (some dead and some mad).   I wrote my own concise distillation of these British versions some time ago HERE. Lorna Smithers also discusses ‘Sir Orfeo’ and the nature of the Otherworld in her own inspired exploration linking with some different contextual matter HERE where the overlay between Annwn and the Land of the Dead is also discussed. The mythic pattern of capture and release from the Otherworld may also be seen in the story of Rhiannon in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi tales where it is Manawydan who rescues her. Again the cultural context changes but the pattern remains. The medieval Welsh poem of ‘The Girl in Ogyrfen’s Hall’, discussed recently on this blog,  I think gains much of its power from its concentration on just one aspect of this mythic pattern. The gods live in an Otherworld which is parallel to and connected to our world. The seasons come and go as the gods move between the worlds, life leaving the land and returning in due season. So that land is also the Land of the Dead, where the ancestors dwell, just as they also dwell in the landscape that we know, their embedded actions in shaping and naming the landscape and the memories of their lives, their spirits, their being here with us which is also there in the Otherworld where the cauldron of re-birth gives them new identity.

So the mythic world of the gods is also our world, the legendary world of those semi-divine or heroic figures who have visited that world also inhabit our own world, and so it is there for us too if we would see it. Or it is ‘other’ if we choose it to be so.

  • [*]Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas in  Studia Celtica XLVI (2012) pp.23->
  • See also  Gwilym Morus Baird’s discussion of ‘Dwfn’ in relation to Annwn HERE



There is the story of a well in Ireland
that was abused so then could not be found
by any but the true seeker who would be led
to where it was by one who kept its secrets.

There is the story of a well in Wales
whose guardian was dishonoured so it flooded
and made a great lake, but she would come
from the waters to greet any with the right token.


There are stories of The Well at the World’s End
that many seek for far away, but find
near to home where the Otherworld spring pulses
through in some hidden place in the world we know.

Seek out the source of the crystal waters,
the rising spring that runs into the gathering stream.
Speak out the spells that the well maid waits for
as a salve for her sorrows to wash away her pain.


The Mari Lwyd

The 'Mari Lwyd' welsh new year tradition
January 12 2013 People in Llandre village outside Aberystwyth Wales UK celebrate one of the strangest and oldest of Welsh customs as they take ‘The Mari Lwyd’ to visit homes in the community. The ‘Mari Lwyd’ (‘Grey Mare’ or ‘Gray Mary’ in English) is a Welsh midwinter tradition, possibly to celebrate New Year, although it formerly took place over a period stretching from Christmas to late January. It is a form of visiting wassail, a luck-bringing ritual in which a the participants accompany a person disguised as a horse from house to house including Public house pubs and sing at each door in the hope of gaining admittance and being rewarded with food and drink.

Photo and Caption:© Keith Morris 2013 / http://www.artswebwales.com (used with permission)


The custom of carrying a horse’s head around at New Year is a well established folk tradition in Wales. But how old is it? The example in the picture above from the village where I live is certainly a recent revival, seeking to maintain old customs and cultural survivals, and none the worse for that. Elsewhere in Wales, particularly in Glamorgan, the custom has a longer continuity. The name Mari Lwyd (Grey Mary) has been linked to ceremonies connected with the Virgin Mary, though the folklorist Iorwerth Peate, writing in the 1930s, thought that it should be construed as ‘Grey Mare’ and that it had its origins in pre-christian practices, possibly transferred to Mary in the Middle Ages. More recent folklorists have been reticent to make this connection and its continuity is doubted by Ronald Hutton. Nevertheless the custom has a deep resonance about it that connects with ancestral memories in a way that does not require proof of unbroken continuity.

The poet Vernon Watkins wrote of the custom in his  ‘The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’ in 1941. The whole poem covers more than twenty pages and alternates different voices, together with an ‘announcer’ to convey the New Year custom in Wales of carrying a horse’s head from house to house.

Here is an extract:

Mari  Lwyd , Horse of the Frost, Star-horse and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.


Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.
A knock of the sands on the glass of the grave,
A knock on  the sands of the shore,
A knock of the horse’s head of the wave,
A beggar’s knock on the door.
A knock of a moth and the pane of light,
In the beat of the blood a knock.
Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

The sands in the glass, the shrinking sands,
And the picklock, picklock, picklock, hands.

Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

In the poet’s own note to the poem following its first publication he asserts that it was a well-established custom remembered from his childhood:

“Mari Lwyd – the Grey Mari, the Grey Mare – was a white or grey horse’s head modelled in wood, painted, and hung with ribbons, carried from house to house on the last night of the year.
The carriers were usually a party of singers, wits, and impromptu poets, who, on the pretext of blessing, boasting of the sanctity of what they carried, tried to gain entrance to a house for the sake of obtaining food and drink. The method they used was to challenge those within to a rhyming contest. The inmates would keep them out so long as they were not in want of a rhyme, but when they failed to reply to the challenger the right of entry was gained. The singers would then bring their horse’s head in, lay it on the table, and eat and drink with the losers of the contest.
The singers came every year to my father’s house; and listening to them at midnight, I found myself imagining a skull, a horse’s skull decked with ribbons, followed and surrounded by all kinds of drunken claims and holy deceptions.  I have attempted to bring together those who are separated. The last breath of the year is their threshold, the moment of supreme forgiveness, confusion and understanding, the profane and sacred moment impossible to realize while the clock-hands divide the Living from the Dead.”

*  *

Details of more recent practice of the custom can be found Here and there is You Tube footage with commentary Here.  All of these recent enactments take place around New Year, but is this the right time for the practice? Iorwerth Peate thought that is properly belonged to Samhain and I have always thought of it in this way and many years ago  wrote my own fictional setting for it in this context : Grey Mare of the Night. Its transference to New Year, however, may be significant of the movement from darkness to returning light. Vernon Watkins’ poem is seen from the perspective of those within the houses which are visited by the Mari. Many years later in the 1960s he wrote a sequel to the earlier ballad entitled Ballad of the Outer Dark.   The later ballad in one sense picks up where the earlier one left off, the inmates of the house going out into the night bearing the horse’s head, taking the interpretation of the custom a stage further as if the Dark itself needed to be embraced as the voices move beyond the circle of Light.

Here the experience is not of being within the house but outside as one voice says:

The fire we loved, the hours we lived
Are snatched away by thieves.

and another voice responds:

We are ourselves the shafts of white
Those men of firelight mock.
And we must drift like flakes of snow
That know not where to rest,
So soft upon the night they go
Whom none will take for guest.

But the horse’s head is, in fact, brought in. The ancestors are met with on their own terms and go back to the land of the dead and the light returns for the living. So the later ballad in some ways completes the earlier one in transcending the rejection of the ‘Outer Dark’. This seems a plausible explanation of the custom of carrying the head of the Mari Lwyd  from house to house at New Year though the custom itself seems to be resonant of the whole period from the coming of Winter at Samhain through to New Year Calends and the prospect of returning light at Imbolc.


The Washer at the Ford

beannighe{Arthur Rackham}

Of all the lore concerning the coming of Winter and the transitions (both personal and mythological) which shape the deeper significances of the dark months at the the year’s end, the image of the Washer at the Ford, the Cailleach, the Shadow Woman – call her what you will – is most deeply embedded in my responses to Winterfall. I have written of her elsewhere but I recently came across this interleaving of deep mythos, local folklore and Brythonic legend in a folklore record from North Wales:

“… there is a parish called Llanferrys and Rhyd y Gyfarthfa, ‘Ford of the Barking’, is there, and in olden times the dogs of the country would come there to bark, and no-one would venture to go to see what was there until Urien of Rheged came. He saw nought but a woman washing. And then the dogs stopped barking, and Urien took hold of the woman and had possession of her.”
from T. Gwynn Jones Welsh Folkore and Custom (1930)

The story continues that she is the daughter of the King of Annwn but is destined to have a child fathered by a christian man. She tells him to return at the end of the year and when he returns she presents him with a son and a daughter: Owain and Morfudd.

This is interesting in itself because of the conflation of historical and legendary material from the ‘Old North’ of Welsh tradition with a local tale which itself contains elements of both mythological and folkloric provenance. The coupling of Urien, the sixth century king of the Brythonic territory of Rheged in what is now southern Scotland and north-western England, with the daughter of the King of of the Otherworld (Gwyn ap Nudd) suggests a union between Thisworld and the Otherworld intricate with a sovereignty theme in that a king in Thisworld has to marry and Otherworld woman to validate his power (consider the marriage of Pwyll to Rhiannon in the first of the four Mabinogi tales). At its worse, the tale as related here however portrays the union as little more than a casual rape by a powerful lord of a woman washing her clothes in the river. But identifying the woman as an Otherworld princess shifts the tale to another level. Would such a woman be washing her clothes in the river and would she permit herself to be raped? It seems unlikely on both counts, but Otherworld women are rarely what they seem. The story appears to rationalise her compliance with Urien in that it is her ‘destiny’ to bear his children. But the image of the Washer at the Ford is far too profoundly embedded in the mythos for its appearance here to be taken, as the wording above has it, as “nought but a woman washing”.

In some occurrences of the sovereignty theme in folklore and myth, the king has to be prepared to couple with the goddess of the land both in her winter and her summer aspects, or he has to take her as an old hag so that she may become a young woman again. This is often also a variant in stories about dalliances with Otherworld women who are able to change their form from beautiful to hideous and there is sometimes a suggestion of initiatory processes in this being accepted by the would-be lover. Such an initiatory journey may itself be portrayed in disguised form in story and so find its way into the folklore record. A man may have to be prepared to marry an old crone who becomes a beautiful young woman after he has slept with her, as in stories that made their way into mainstream literature such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tale. A young woman might equally have to become subject to an ogre or, in the classic fairy story, to kiss a frog. It is the confrontation with otherness that is enacted here, being prepared to be tested or to step out of the comfort zone of everyday life. When such stories are embedded in the folk or faërie lore record they tend to reflect in a generalised way personal journeys of quest, change or psychological discovery. At the religious level they are reflective of initiation into the mysteries. Mythologically they embody the personas of the gods through the changing seasons, the changes of history, geology, cosmology. The Washer at the Ford is not to be ‘possessed’ at a whim and it is significant that it has to wait for a great figure like the legendary Urien to approach her.

We have here, then, an impacted record of change. A change of season from Autumn to Winter where the Washer sits at the threshold of the two seasons wailing for the fate of the God of Summer as the leaves fall from the trees all about her. A change of status for one who dares to cross the ford and confront her. A change that also reflects here shifting historical, cultural and religious patterns across the Island of Britain as a momentous leader of an old kingdom in the North turns up in Wales in a story about a place people fear to go to and the barking of the dogs ceases as he appeases the spirit of the place. In such ways are different traditions and older mythologies overlaid, one on the other, interwoven and re-synthesised into stories the significance of which may not always be clear, or even fully discernible, but through which the gods still speak to us as they always have.

The Name of the Well Maiden

John Rhys, in his study Celtic Foklore (1901), discussing a poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen , dealing with the inundation of Cantre’r Gwaelod on the shores of Cardigan Bay, says this:
“The name … Mererid, Margarita, ‘a pearl’ … but what does it here mean? …. the name given to some negligent guardian of a fairy well. It cannot very well be, however, the name belonging to the original form of the legend.”

My own meditation on this question follows, based on my experience of this landscape and its resonant features.

BorthForestThe remains of trees on the beach at Borth, Cardigan Bay

What is the name of the well maiden?
– the one who wept
tears of grief when the seal was broken
so the engulfing waters swept
over the land , drowning the forest that watched the sea?

Was it ‘Pearl’
– a hidden bud
of moisture in the enclosing earth
and stone, its pulse swelling to a flood
rushing down the cairn-strewn hill?

If not Mererid,
then to what hidden name will she answer
to those who seek the source?
Is she kin to Sulis or Coventina,
or to some sea nymph, say Morgana

Dwelling now in Gwyddno’s fort out under
the crashing waves
where the old road runs into the sea
her hair laved by the ebb and flow of the tides,
her wail echoed in the seabird’s plaintive cries.

The Worm of Whispermere


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?

Contemplations by a Holy Well

Ffynnon Sanctaidd Geneu'r Glyn
Ffynnon Sanctaidd Geneu’r Glyn

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.