• The A5 Songline and the Meaning of Hiraeth

    Driving back home I sometimes go around what I think of as ‘the badlands of Birmingham’. I know this is unfair to people who live there and love it. But for me navigating that industrialised, polluted, congested and commercialised M5-M6 intersection is a nightmare. There must be thousands of people nearby but I see none of them. Their heads all face forward, their bodies are trapped in cars, trucks, offices and factories. For them, i imagine, other humans have become headphones or the radio. Nature and the outside world is the Sat-Nav. We're all connected in this digital world, but the price we pay seems to be the stress of speed and rush. It makes me anxious. I feel intimidated, brutalised, alone. The feeling represents for me the dark extremity of urban civilisation. It's what I turned away from a long time ago.

    So branching off the M6 onto the M54 towards Telford comes as a slight relief. The traffic thins, the pressure lifts… a little. As we're still very much in motorwayland it's not obvious that I’m turning onto an ancient road, the one that once went from Dover to Wroxeter (near the Welsh Border), and, some say, all the way through North Wales to Holyhead. Today the route mostly follows the A5. The Romans called it Watling Street, but it goes back long before the Empire. For this direction takes you to Old Gwynedd, wherein lie the sacred mountains of Snowdonia and the holy island of Mon. This was the hub of old Britain and is, to this day, the heartland of Welsh-speaking Wales and the home of the Brythonic Celts, the Cymry. The road could be seen as an ancient songline of Britain, a thread hung with radiant sacred, historical and mythic jewels.

    If you have an affinity for Wales or the Welsh you may have heard the word ‘hiraeth’. It’s often used by Welsh ex-pats and is usually accompanied by the phrase: ‘it can’t be easily translated.’ But generally it’s said to mean something like ‘the sad longing for one’s homeland’. I’ve recently realised that driving home along the A5 is, for me, a layer-by-layer revelation of my hiraeth. The further I go the more it builds, the closer I get to the hiraeth-full heart. I may not have grown up in Wales (apart from holidays) but over the last thirty-one years I have grown into it. I now feel hiraeth for what has become my spiritual home.

    So after passing Telford the next geographic landmark is the two crossings of the Severn River as it winds around the English Marcher town of Shrewsbury. That’s followed by the Old Oswestry Hillfort, a magnificent Iron Age stronghold slumbering in the Shropshire countryside, one of the best-preserved of its type and lived in long ago by the Cornovii tribe of Brythonic Celts.

    Oswestry is borderland. Beyond it the road, train and canal ways are lifted up high over the Chirk Valley. The river that runs far below is the boundary between England and Wales. There is no doubt that you are crossing from one country to another.

    Over the border the landscape changes, becoming hilly, green and lush, paving the way for Llangollen, the elegant home of the International Eisteddfod. Every year people come here from afar bringing their folk traditions of dance, music and poetry. It is Wales’s window to the world. With its steam trains and canals it is also connected to the industrial world of England in the east. But it’s the end of the line. The great, black spider of industrialisation came this far but no further.

    High above the town is Dinas Bran hillfort, known locally as Crow Castle. Bran means 'raven' or 'crow' but could also derive from Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, the giant-god-king of the Second Branch of the Mabinogion. He may well have been an ancient Bronze Age god of Britain.

    Some also say that because of its location - the dramatic ascent and Dee River winding through the valley below - Dinas Bran could have been the Castle of the Grail. Of course really the Grail Castle exists only in the imaginal world. But if it were to be manifested somewhere in our reality then Dinas Bran could be it. It’s a ruin now, a ragged crown on the hill, but the zigzagging path leading to the summit lends it an air of medieval romance.

    Ten miles further into Wales is Corwen, a Welsh market town, plainer and less decorative than Llangollen. But at its hub is a statue of Owain Glyndŵr reminding us of the man who, over six hundred years ago, led an uprising of the Welsh against the English. He was a legendary ‘son of prophecy’, reputed to control the weather and to have the power to be in two places at once. He outwitted English kings – including Henry V – for ten years, making his by far the longest lasting rebellion in Europe at the time. Just before entering Corwen you pass an old Norman motte, now covered in trees, where Glyndŵr and his followers met to launch their first raid. Passing through Corwen peels away layers of modernity and reveals a glimpse of the fierce resistance the Cymry put up to invaders from the east.

    Here and there along the way are signs describing this road as an ‘historic route’. It’s almost as if they’re apologising for it not being a dual carriageway all the way. Perhaps it's as close as we get in Britain to acknowledging something as a 'songline'.

    Continuing west along the A5 (or 'Ah Pim' as the Welsh call it) and you come to Cerrigydrudion, a small moorland village whose name means ‘Stones of the Druids’. Maybe long ago this was a Druid waymarker pointing the way home to those aforementioned sacred mountains of Eryri and the Druid college heartland of Môn.

    A few miles after Cerrig the road enters the Snowdonia National Park, twisting and turning through the infamous Padog Bends then diving a long way down into the upper Conwy Valley. There we come to Betws y Coed, meaning Chapel in the Wood, now a Victorian spa town filled with large shops and grand hotels. There are those who cannot abide the tourist-oriented consumerism of Betws, but because it's in a forest at the foot of the mountains by a fork in the river it has many attractions.

    For me it's the potential association with the story of the Grail that gives Betws its strongest allure. At the beginning of the ‘Le Conte du Graal’ (by the 12th century French poet, Chrétien de Troyes) the boy who becomes Parsifal, the only Arthurian hero to achieve the Grail, is said to be from ‘the foothills of Mount Snowdon’.

    From Betws the road climbs steadily upward, passing Swallow Falls (another big hotel) and then Ty Hŷll, the so-called Ugly House. I worked there many years ago assisting Esmé Kirby, founder of the Snowdonia Society. When I looked into the meaning of Hŷll I found it could also mean ‘rugged’, which seemed much more fitting than ‘ugly’. But I suppose 'Ugly House' catches the attention more than ‘Rugged House’. Don't they say bad publicity is better than no publicity?

    And so to Capel Curig. On a clouded moonlit night it’s possible to see the unmistakeable black silhouette of Moel Siabod against the dark grey sky. Capel Curig is a mountain town with hostels, campsites, pubs and small outdoor shops. It’s a good place from which to go hillwalking, for many paths go from here into the mountains. There’s a weather station here too. Capel Curig is often reported as having the highest rainfall in the country.

    Turn left at the end of Capel and you pass Plas y Brenin, the Palace of the Kings, now a training centre for the mountain skills of climbing, hillwalking, canoeing and skiing. But this must once have been the location for a hunting lodge of the Lords of Gwynedd. For from here as you head southwest you are in the heart of the mountains, Siabod looming to the left, the Glyders brooding on the right, and ahead the mighty Snowdon Horseshoe. By the road must be the lake of dreams for this is one of the most spectacular views, not just in Britain but, arguably, in the whole of northwestern Europe.

    It’s not hard to imagine that long ago this was a pilgrimage route to the sacred peak. There would have been other ways from the south and west, all converging, I believe, on the ‘Eternal Citadel’ of Dinas Emrys at the foot of yr Wyddfa. It was a hollow hill, benign and offering shelter from elements and enemies. it was the place where the Cymry met and took counsel with each other for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is where dragons are said to have slept, woken and risen up from the earth. It’s where Merlin made his first great and still resonant prophecy. it was a sacred gathering place. (For more see the blog post of 23rd March 2017).

    Five miles through this dramatic mountainscape and I come to a junction marked by the Pen y Gwryd Hotel. This is a 'sacred site' too because it was here, in the fifties, that Edmund Hillary trained for the first ascent of Everest. Eryri provides the nursery slopes for the Himalayas.

    I’m still climbing upwards from Pen y Gwryd until at last I shoot through Pen y Pass and am born into the world beyond. From there I drop down, down, ever down as if through the mighty thighs of the goddess. Once I was here on a midwinter night when the sky was starry bright. I stopped lower down the hill and looked back to the Pass, From there i saw, through the thighs of the goddess (the V made by the Pass), streaming up across the night sky the astonishing sight of the Milky Way (Caer Gwydion in Welsh) with a dynamic star-studded Orion leading the way.

    After a few more miles I’m at last through the mountains, past Nant Peris and Llanberis, and into the fertile coastal plain of Arfon. Whereas the mountains are sparsely populated, here are many towns and villages. This is the Welsh heartland. Llanrug, between Llanberis and Caernarfon, has the highest proportion of Welsh speakers anywhere in Wales – the world for that matter. We are getting close to the heart of hiraeth.

    But I still have a little further to go. At the foot of Llyn Padarn I cross the old bridge, look up at cloud-shrouded Snowdon and say hello to some of the oldest rocks in the world, the rounded, pre-Cambrian granite of Fachwen. Then I head up through forest on a narrow winding lane the other side of the valley. After a mile there is a scatter of houses and a sharp turning to the right onto a steep downhill track. Another bumpy half mile and I am literally at the end of the road.

    This is it. Cae Mabon. I’ve recently taken to thinking of it as a Neolithic village with Wi-Fi! Down the hill, just facing the thatched roundhouse, is a woodshed. On the side of the woodshed one word is painted beneath a rainbow: HEARTH. What a word! It contains ‘earth’, ‘ear’, ‘art’ and ‘heart’. All are rich associations with the meaning of the world ‘hearth’, which also, of course, includes fire and cooking and stories and warmth. In Welsh word 'arth' means 'bear' and is the root of the name Arthur. Another rich layer of meaning. What I’ve only just realised is that if I put myself into the word, if I add an ‘i’, then I have all the right letters to make HIRAETH.

    So this is the hub of my ‘hiraeth’. At the end of this journey, this Ah Pim songline so rich in memory and story, is my earth-art-hearth-ear-bear-heart. My hiraeth!

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  • Emerging Mythic Landscape

    For me one of the most exciting recent developments has been the discovery of new land by the river and the gradual emergence of a sacred mythic landscape. For decades much of the riverside land along the Afon Fachwen was overgrown with brambles and impenetrable. But over the last three years we’ve been slowly clearing it and a magical wonderland is emerging. The first place we made, following Angharad’s inspiration, was a Shrine to Modron, Mabon’s Great Mother. Then earlier this year we began building a Treehouse, or Tree Nest, between five trees. It’s a thing of beauty, set above three streams, amazingly the last place in Cae Mabon lit by the setting summer sun. The walls are clad with curved cedar shingles, making them look like dragon scales or owl feathers. In a moment of madness I imagined one day it will look like the ‘Face of God’!

    Nearby is a great flat Stone for Standing On, a Platform for Proclamation. A Spring, emerging from beneath a huge boulder with a Pool, is dedicated to Maiden Goddesses – Goewin, Creirwy, Blodeuwedd, Olwen, Persephone… There’s a Faery Fort that overlooks the entire area; a Fire Pit with Seating facing the Tree Nest/Face of God; a Rope Swing and, long and staggeringly beautiful, Pepper Island. It is an area calling out for archetypal play, mythic theatre, sacred ritual and intimate nature ceremony.

    At the end of the Open Week in August we had a ceremony to consecrate the Tree Nest. We did an invocation, a blessing, told a story and sang a song. But most remarkably the first person to perform in the Tree Nest was Helen Massey, an operatic soprano. To hear such a voice close up was extraordinary for all of us. I’d never have thought opening the Tree Nest with opera!

    More recently we had a ‘Neuromagica’ group staying and dramatically retold the Taliesin story, using the still unfinished mythic landscape as a theatre set. We made prayers to the Great Mother; invoked the Maiden Goddess with poetry and saxophone; gave voice to Afagddu, Utter Darkness, Ceridwen’s piteous son. Around the cauldron John Crow sang his inspired Taliesin song then we had a literal chase through the elements with hound chasing hare across the earth, otter chasing salmon upstream, birds on a rope swing in the air, hen swallowing grain of wheat by the fire. As the ‘baby in the bag’ rocked on the Ocean of Soul, people offered snippets of song and poetry, wisdom for the gestating genius. Finally we heard a couple of songs representing Elffin’s dissolute ways then finished with Shining Brow’s first cosmic ‘I am’ poem.

    It was a splendid sketch of what is possible. Feels like it could be the natural stage for much more – weddings, dramatic retellings of other mythic tales, picnics, children’s playground, who knows what else. For me, after years of hard slog building the Bunkhouse and Trem Eilio, it’s been a pleasure to play.

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  • High Speech

    Earlier this year my friend Dave Luke – who lived at Cae Mabon for six months in 2016 with his wife, author Anna Hope, and their baby Bridget – asked me to talk at the Breaking Convention conference he co-organises. It’s about altered states of consciousness and ways of getting there. I chose to talk about ‘high speech’, ways of talking – poetry, prayer, prophecy, incantation, spells, blessings, preaching, story – which can, in the right context, have the effect of lifting the state of mind of the listener.

    In the opening section of my talk I said:

    ‘High Speech ranges from Pitjantjatjara elders sitting cross-legged on the sand, rattling their boomerangs and singing ancient songs from the Dreaming in a cascading song-chant melody, to Kate Tempest rousing the crowd at Glastonbury just last weekend. It’s not what is spoken in a state of being ‘high’, although it could be. Rather it’s about the kinds of speech that can in some way elevate the minds and beings of the listeners. Usually the language itself is not ordinary. It may use unusual or even archaic forms. It may not even be comprehensible. But the context, often a ritualised performance, gives it power. It can lift the listener into a state of wonder or rapture. It can invoke supernatural presence and great beauty. Certain words spoken at the right time and place to receptive people can evoke sublime feelings and bring about a transcendent state of mind. Inspired utterance can, in short, bring listeners into communion with the sacred.’

    I went on to give examples mostly from Cymric (Welsh) mythology: vivid descriptions, rhetorical runs and incantatory passages from ‘Culhwch and Olwen’; my version of Merlin’s Prophecy, including lines pinched from the Egyptian Book of the Dead; Taliesin’s first inspired poem.

    Despite it being the first time I’d given this talk it went down well enough. Dennis McKenna (brother of the famous Terence), who came on after me, was complimentary. But the best response was from Sam Ross, a contemporary poet in the inspired Taliesin tradition. His ‘review’ was priceless. He said:

    Eric Maddern brought us ‘High Speech’ – not just the stuff you say when you’re high but words that make the soul soar – via the tale of Taliesin, the prophecy of Merlin and more. There is something profoundly moving in how long these stories, in one form or another, have been told - in how vividly Eric brings them to life and how deeply he embodies the language. I would go so far as to say that if you’re not “animystically” inclined Eric is probably the closest you will come to watching a tree or a stone talk! I’ve rarely laughed so hard as the night I saw him, full of little elves, telling the tale of Culhwch and Olwen around a fire in the Roundhouse at Cae Mabon. This ancient story was just so fucking funny on so many levels, from the absurd yet eminently sensible plot to the eye-glinting embellishments upon embellishments, to the fact that we were all so-called “modern people” rolling around on the floor of a reanimated roundhouse, enjoying some of the same kind of fun that most likely entertained our ancestors, and all this in a self-evident yet somehow unbelievable new context.’

    Alas I’m not always so funny. But I’m working on it!

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  • PERFECT WEEK, AUSPICIOUS DAY

    This is the perfect time of year. Bluebells are in their prime. Primroses and violets are in bloom. Plum, pear and apple trees are blossoming. Oak and hazel leaves are unfurling their fresh green innocent selves, reaching like their forebears to the sun. The ferns are spirals of delight. All it takes is a few rays of sun to light up the forest and wildflower meadows of Cae Mabon and this place is utterly enchanting.

    No wonder this has been a sacred moment in the calendar since time immemorial. These days – the end of April, beginning of May – this week, the Festival of Beltane, is the most beautiful week of the year. The Spirit of Spring has been fully released and life is renewing aplenty. It marks the onset of ‘the burgeoning’. Traditionally it’s the end of the Winter half of the year and the beginning of Summer. Beltane Eve is, in truth, Summer’s Eve. It’s a time of light and eros, expansion and fertility. As Life puts on a growth spurt, why not us too!

    In the mythology of these islands (a.k.a. the Island of the Mighty) Beltane Eve was also when strange, powerful, wondrous things happened.

    It was on Beltane Eve every year that screaming, battling dragons rose up from the centre of the island, bringing chaos to the people and wasting the land. The opposite of what should be happening then. Finally on one of those nights Lludd, the leader of his people, using subtle magic (imparted through an ear-trumpet in a bobbing boat on the narrow seas), captured the dragons, drove them on his cart (as piglets in jars) to the mountains of Eryri and threw them into a pool where they were swallowed back into the earth. In that place, Dinas Emrys, they were safely contained for hundreds of years. And the land flourished once more.

    It was on Beltane Eve that the firstborn child of Rhiannon, Horse Goddess and Queen of Annwn, was mysteriously whisked away and exchanged with the foal of a faraway lord who, with his wife, cared for the golden-haired boy. Eventually they recognised the lad as the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon and returned him to his parents. His mother, released from her agonising bonds, named him Pryderi, meaning Care, Concern, Worry. Or perhaps Love. And Pryderi, a divine youth, became the only hero to appear in all Four Branches of The Mabinogion, the foundation stones of Cymric myth.

    It was on Beltane Eve that Elphin, wastrel son of Gwyddno Garanhir, went to the salmon weir for his father’s gift of many fish to discover there were none, only a leather bag snagged on a post. He slit the bag and out stepped a boy with a shining brow. He named him Taliesin, ‘Shining Brow’, and the child immediately began speaking sparkling verse. This was Gwion Bach who’d swallowed three drops of inspiration, been chased by Ceridwen and transformed through the shapes of Hare on the Earth, Salmon in the Water, Sparrow in the Air and Grain of Wheat in the Fire. After being swallowed by Ceridwen as a Hen he was born again, then cast out in a leather bag upon the waters. There, rocking on the oceans of the deep, he absorbed the wisdom of the world. So, Beltane Eve is also a time for the birth of inspiration.

    Last Beltane Eve I walked into the northern hills and curled up in the renowned Maen y Bardd (‘Poet’s Stone’) burial chamber on the ancient trackway through the Pass of the Two Stones. I communed with many of the demigods of these lands that night and returned refreshed and inspired. Tonight I’ll be staying in the place I reckon to have been Caer Dathyl, the home of Math son of Mathonwy, Bear son of Bearlike, Lord of Gwynedd and key figure in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. Let’s see what comes this time.

    It’s always good to visit mythic places at this sacred time of year. But whatever you do be sure to celebrate Beltane and perhaps you will find love, flourishing and inspiration. Make magic happen!

    30th April 2017

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  • STONES WILL SPEAK - Coming Back to Snowdonia

    Coming back to Snowdonia I’m always struck by the awesome splendour of the mountains. They may be small on a world scale but they are dramatic, rugged, beautiful and perfectly formed.

    In Cymraeg (Welsh) the range is called Eryri, meaning ‘Haunt of Eagles’. As the hills gain in height so they grow in grandeur. The highest peak, Snowdon, is the most majestic of them all. In Cymraeg its name is Yr Wyddfa, the Giant’s Tomb. This is a reference to Rhitta, a mighty giant who vanquished all the kings of Britain and beyond, only to be defeated by Arthur. The amusing tale of ‘Rhitta and the Cloak of Beards’, retold by the bards for a thousand years, served to emphasise Arthur’s greatness. When he died, it’s said, Rhitta’s body was carried to the loftiest peak by Arthur’s retinue and buried beneath a cairn of stones. It’s fitting that the highest mountain is associated with the greatest legendary king. And that it is, or was, attended by Eagles.

    Eryri is, in my opinion, the most spectacular mountain range in northwestern Europe. For that reason I believe it was considered sacred when the Celtic tribes held sway across the Isles. Travellers would have come from far and wide to tune in to their power. They wouldn’t have lingered long on Yr Wyddfa’s inhospitable summit. Indeed it may even have been taboo. But, drawn by its wild and natural majesty, they’d have gathered at its foot, in the sanctuary known today as Dinas Emrys, the Immortal Citadel or Eternal Fortress. Set in a valley guarded by mighty mountains at either end this humble hill holds within it a hollow, shaped like a natural amphitheatre, a pool and the remains of a ritual landscape. It’s easy to see how it would have been sacred to our ancestors. It was such a powerful place that, over fifteen hundred years, it became linked with dragons, Merlin and shining prophesy.

    When I’m approaching Snowdonia along the coast from Chester; or from Shrewsbury in the east along old Watling Street, now the A5; or from Machynlleth in the south; I feel I’m travelling along ancient trackways akin to Aboriginal songlines, lines of force across land marked by story. As I get closer to the mountains I sense their raw power and can imagine how they were once seen as an indomitable natural fortress. They were never easy to penetrate. The two main ways through, Bwlch y Ddeufaen (Pass of the Two Stones) in the north and Bwlch Derwen (Oak Pass) in the south, were heavily guarded. Other routes were difficult and dangerous, probably impossible without a local guide. No wonder Eryri was, for the Cymry, a refuge and haven, a place for making last stands.

    But were these mountains also pointing to something beyond? If so, what were they both guarding and signalling? What fertile, mysterious and yet somehow promised land lay beyond their protective embrace?

    The answer is Môn or Mona; Mam Cymru, the Mother of Wales. This large, low-lying, fruitful island at the hub of the British Isles was once regarded as the breadbasket of Cymru, perhaps even the home of the Mother Goddess. But it was not only its agricultural productivity that made it special. It was also once the heartland of the Druids, the high priests of the Celtic peoples.

    The Druids were wizards, bards and sages. They memorised ancestral lineages and the people’s stories. They closely observed the natural world, seasonal cycles and the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars. They knew the healing powers of herbs and the magical uses of mistletoe. They prophesied the future by reading omens. They chanted spells for calming the elements, inducing sleep and bringing victory in battle. They acted as judges to settle disputes. They knew the gods and goddesses, their realms of power, how to commune with and propitiate them. They were skilled in the arts of offering and sacrifice. They knew that the immortal soul can be reborn many times. They faced death without fear.

    People travelled from all over Europe to study at this Druid College with these ‘men and women of high degree’. If they were let in by the border guards they’d go through one of those two, well defended passes. They must have seen the mountains as both a sign saying ‘you’re nearly there’ but also as a barrier staying ‘stop, wait, let’s see your passport!’ Centuries later when the Vikings landed on Mona (it was in the Norwegian Empire for a while) they must have caught echoes of these ancient holy folk – long since tragically decimated by the Romans – for they named it ‘Angle-sea’, the Island of the Angels. Maybe that’s why it was also known as ‘The Isle of the Glory of the Powerful Ones’.

    So, the sacred mountains were, it seems, guarding the sacred isle.

    There are, of course, other sacred places in Britain. But magnificent Snowdonia and fertile Môn have, perhaps more than any other of the luminous landscapes of these Isles, a rich body of associated ancient mythology, tales that we still know and can tell. It’s my belief that most of the demigods of Ancient Britain – Bran, Math, Gwydion, Lleu, Blodeuwedd, Pryderi, Arianrhod, Mabon, Merlin, Taliesin and Arthur – either came from here or came to here. Their stories are a resonant web of mythic songlines woven deeply into the staggering landscape. There are places where it’s still possible to invoke ancient gods.

    I find this endlessly fascinating, which is why I continue to shape and reshape this ancestral material, continue to seek out what it has to say to us today. My current storytelling offering is ‘STONES WILL SPEAK’, a quote from Merlin’s Prophecy. If you’d like me to regale you and your community with the fulsome richness of it all, let me know!

    Eric Maddern

    21 March 2017

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