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!