[This issue, we sit down with Lorna Smithers. In a follow-up to a previous interview, Smithers — Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd — discusses her new book, Gatherer of Souls; Arthurian lore; and her current project, a collection of writings by various awenyddion.]
Eternal Haunted Summer: When last we spoke, you recommended that those interested in Brythonic polytheism look to original source material such as The Mabinogion. Are there any translations which are better than others? And can you recommend any good secondary sources, such as academic texts?
Lorna Smithers: For The Mabinogion I would recommend Patrick Ford’s translation as it contains an informative introduction explaining the mythological background of the stories and how they relate to the Brythonic Gods and Goddesses. Sioned Davies’ translation is also an excellent read as it captures the oral tradition of storytelling and performance. Lady Charlotte Guest’s 1848 translation can be found online (1) and is a good place to start so long as the reader bears in mind that it is dated.
The four main books of bardic poetry (2) were translated by William Skene in 1868 and are also available online as The Four Ancient Books of Wales (3). This is a good starting place to get a taste of the poems but, again, these translations are considered dated. The best translations are Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin translated by Marged Haycock, Aneirin – Gododdin translated by A. O. H. Jarman, and The Black Book of Carmarthen translated by Meirion Pennar.
As for secondary sources, Will Parker’s introduction to The Mabinogion online (4) provides a firm grounding and his The Four Branches of the Mabinogi give an in-depth analysis of the mythic, magical, historical, and political undercurrents. For a more Pagan approach to the Taliesin material, I would recommend Kristoffer Hughes’ From the Cauldron Born, John Matthews’ Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman, and Kevan Manwaring’s The Way of Awen.
EHS: If someone is interested in honoring the Brythonic Deities — or at least seeing if there is a connection — what is the best way to go about reaching out to Them and meeting Them?
LS: If someone felt a Deity was calling or felt called to reach out, I would suggest learning as much as possible about Them from the archaeological and literary records to gain a sense of Their nature and spend some time meditating on whether connecting with them felt right and what the consequences might be.
If everything felt good, the ideal place for a first meeting would be one of the Deity’s sacred sites if it was nearby. If not a suitable spot in the landscape (ie. Brigantia is associated with high hills and Gwyn ap Nudd with woodlands) or a suitably prepared altar space (ie. with a candle with the Deity’s name on it or a drawing of them) in one’s home would be fine. I would advise the person to approach respectfully, speak the Deity’s name, make an offering (ie. food or drink, poetry or song), and spend some time listening carefully for their communications. If nothing clear came through I wouldn’t be put off and would keep an eye out for signs in nature and in dreams.
EHS: You recently released your third book, Gatherer of Souls, which centers around Gwyn ap Nudd. First, congratulations! Second, why an anthology about Him?
LS: Gwyn ap Nudd is my patron God. Soon after I devoted myself to Him I knew I needed to write Him a book. It was several years until I had the confidence to begin. At its core it is an act of service, but it was also born out of a need to share His myths, which are obscure, little-known, and heavily Christianised.
In the medieval stories and later folklore Gwyn’s role as a gatherer of souls and ruler of Annwn was obfuscated and, in the worst cases, he and his spirits were demonised — equated with devils and the Devil himself. Gwyn plays such an important role in guiding the passage of souls to the Otherworld. I believe it is because we have lost the ability to journey between worlds and access mythic wisdom we’re trapped in the metanarrative of capitalism and fear death. Our ability to walk between worlds is something Gwyn can help us reclaim. I wrote the book to wrest His stories from the pens of those who demonised Him in the hope of leading others back to Him and to Annwn and our deepest myths.
Also, whilst much has been written about Gwyn’s connections with Wales and Glastonbury, no-one else has paid any attention to the references connecting Him with the Old North. As someone who lives and first met Gwyn in Lancashire it felt important to reweave His tales back into the northern landscape.
EHS: Gatherer of Souls offers an entirely new and radical interpretation of Arthurian lore. Which story about Arthur do you think best encapsulates what is wrong with that mythology, and how did you go about reworking/reimagining/reweaving?
LS: Oh my Gods don’t get me started on Arthur! I guess my reading of the Arthurian lore seems radical because most people are familiar with the Arthur of romance and not with Arthur’s earliest depictions in Culhwch and Olwen (1090) and Arthur and the Porter (1100). Here he is a Christian warlord, the head of a band of thuggish warriors, who go out about systematically oppressing the Pagan gods and slaughtering the ancient animals, giants, and witches of Britain. He particularly persecutes those associated with Annwn; thus Gwyn, Pen Annwn — ‘Head of the Otherworld’ — is his arch-enemy.
The story which encapsulates everything wrong with Arthurian mythology is Arthur’s raid on Annwn. It is contained in The Spoils of Annwn (14th C) and cross-referenced in other texts.
Arthur raids the Otherworld with ‘three loads’ of men in his battleship, Prydwen, attacking seven fortresses. The conflicts are so terrible only seven men return from each. The ultimate object of his desire is the Cauldron of Pen Annwn, to which He leads the dead back to reborn. A parallel episode in Culhwch and Olwen suggests Arthur slaughters Pen Annwn, who, of course, doesn’t stay dead for long ….
It’s my belief Annwn and its Deities would once have been approached with reverence and respect. There would have been special words to its Gatekeepers, prayers, offerings, and rites, to its Deities. All this lore has been destroyed and replaced by a raid designed by Christians to prove Arthur’s domination of the Otherworld. It’s a travesty. It epitomises Arthur’s oppression of the Other and prepares the way for a whole new genre of knightly adventures in Annwn/Faery where the ‘hero’ slays dragons, hags, monsters, and eventually the ‘big baddie’ — the Lord of the Otherworld himself.
I spent a lot of time meditating on the Arthurian myths, journeying into them, learning the stories of those who Arthur has oppressed and rewriting them from their perspectives rather than in the voices of the oppressors.
EHS: How did you go about writing and compiling the collection? Did you have it all planned out ahead of time, or did inspiration strike as you were working on it?
LS: It simply started as ‘Gwyn’s Book’. In the beginning it was going to be an academic book based on my research into His lost connections with the Old North (5). Gwyn soon made it clear that was not what He wanted. Instead He wanted me, as an awenydd, to go beyond what is known about His myths to recover their ancient roots and to show how their influence continues into the 21st century.
I found my starting point when I recalled that the first time I journeyed with Gwyn He took me back to the Ice Age. Intuitively I knew that was where I needed to begin — with the hunger-gatherer people who venerated Him as a hunter god. Journeying back through the centuries, writing in the voices of the spirit-workers, wild men and women, and witches of Annwn who served Him and whose souls He gathered I slowly developed an Annuvian counter-narrative to the Arthurian mythos.
EHS: Were there any pieces that you could not include it the book? And which were the most satisfying to write?
LS: There were dozens of pieces I could not include. Of all the material I wrote, only a third made it in. I spent a long time working on the individual stories of the ancient animals, giants, and witches whom Arthur killed, whose souls Gwyn gathered, but realised there was too little of Gwyn in them. Ditto several pieces on Arthur’s influence on the Crusades. Gwyn didn’t want Arthur dominating His book!
The stories I was absolutely driven to write were those about the witches of Annwn. Orddu, ‘Very Black’, lived in Pennant Gofid in the Old North and was the last of her lineage. She was slaughtered by Arthur, who drained and bottled her blood. Her story has long haunted me and I retold it in The Broken Cauldron. For Gatherer of Souls, I was guided to journey further back to tell the stories of her ancestors: Snow who followed the reindeer to Britain at the end of the Ice Age; Wind Singer who witnessed the invasion of the Romans and the battling of dragons. Writing at the end of the return of the last drop of Orddu’s blood to Pennant Gofid, thus undoing Arthur’s hegemony over all women who have venerated Gwyn and his spirits and worked Annuvian magic was immensely satisfying.
EHS: What sort of research went into the anthology? Stacks of books, lots of internet research, or long walks in the woods?
LS: I started out doing a lot of research, but soon realised it could only take me so far. Gwyn wanted me to go beyond the limits of academia to re-imagine his stories anew. This involved lots of meditation, lots of journeywork, lots of free writing, using writing as a method of revelation. Slogging through thousands of words of complete rubbish to gain just one spark of an idea. Walking, cycling, and running helped. And the bath. I recall having at least two breakthroughs in the bath after relaxing after a run.
EHS: You are currently co-editing Awen & Awenydd. Can you tell us how that is going, and what you envision for the anthology?
LS: Three of us are editing the anthology — Greg Hill, Lia Hunter, and myself. We are currently receiving and reading submissions. We have asked contributors for two pieces. The first is a piece of writing about how they became an awenydd. As this is the first book specifically about the awenydd path we felt it was important to have a variety of perspectives on how people were called to it and what it means to them to be an awenydd in the 21st century. The second is a piece of inspired writing, which can be poetry, prose, or personal reminiscences based on experiences with the gods and spirits and the living landscape and its inhabitants. Here we want to showcase visionary writing and its use to give voice to encounters with the Other. So far it’s going well. We’ve had some striking and original submissions in poetry and prose and are looking forward to receiving more. The deadline is the Winter Solstice and after that we will be selecting the pieces, editing, and compiling the anthology.
EHS: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
LS: Next year I am going to be running a workshop on honouring Creiddylad as a Brythonic goddess of May at Beltane/Calan Mai at the Space to Emerge camp near Windermere in the Lake District. It’s also possible I will give a talk and help out as a volunteer at the Pagan Federation Conference at Preston Grasshoppers in July. I’m sure there will also be some poetry performances and other talks inbetween.
EHS: What other projects are you working on?
LS: The main project I am working on is called Porth Annwn, ‘Door/Portal of the Otherworld’. Unlike the mainstream religions and other Pagan traditions, we know very little about Annwn and what happens to the soul when it passes to the realm of the dead from the Brythonic lore. On Calan Gaeaf, I committed to spending a year and a day exploring Annwn and bringing back the stories of its people.
I’m also continuing to research and write about how the British myths relate to our current crises. Surprisingly, I’m experiencing a revival of my interest in the Western occult tradition and how this relates to the medieval Welsh texts. It keeps coming through to me that the Brythonic people never lived in a bubble and, of course, were influenced by what was going on throughout Europe and beyond. I’m looking forward to finding out where these new threads of discovery will lead.
(2) The Book of Taliesin, The Black Book of Carmarthen, The Book of Aneurin, The Red Book of Hergest.
(5) This research has been published on my blog – https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/gwyn-ap-nudd/