Annwfn is the name given in early Brythonic (British) myths to the Otherworld. Middle Welsh sources suggest that the term was recognised as meaning ‘the very deep’ or ‘the great deep’ in medieval times. It is neither similar to the Christian notion of heaven nor the underworld of Classical mythology. Instead, it appears from the literature as a realm from which all symbolic, mythic and idealised forms arise. Mortals from our world journey in and out of Annwfn, just as the archetypal beings that populate it move with apparent ease in and out of ours, interacting, teaching and inter-marrying with us mortals.
Without a doubt, Annwfn is a place and perhaps a source of learning, wisdom and growth. Our ancient tales are full of teachings about the consequences of proper or indeed disrespectful interaction with the beings of the otherworld. In the First Branch of the Mabinogi, Pwyll enters Annwfn in order to make good his insult to Arawn, lord of Annwfn. His proper conduct there - in abstaining from sexual relations with Arawn’s queen for a whole year, despite appearing in Arawn’s form and sharing her bed during that time - earns him the friendship of Arawn, and the title Lord of Annwfn. Perhaps, it is also this proper conduct that earns him Rhiannon, the woman who comes from Annwfn to this world upon a white horse later in the tale, and eventually after some trials and tribulations, becomes Pwyll’s wife.
Conversely, It is poor dealings with Gwawl, another figure of Annnwfn who was once betrothed to Rhiannon, that precipitates the mysterious disappearance of Dyfed in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, and Rhiannon, Manawydan, Pryderi (Pwyll’s son) and his wife Cigfa’s long sojourn from their deserted lands. It is also what underlies Pryderi and Rhiannon’s later disappearance from the enchanted fort in a classic case of the sins of the father being met out upon the son.
What is clear, is that we mortals are changed – mostly for the good – through interactions with Annwfn. We learn valuable lessons and grow in wisdom – perhaps indeed, we grow into the full flourishing of our personal potential. What is also clear is there is a close association between Annwfn and Awen – inspiration or the muse. It may well be that Annwfn was considered its source, the metaphoric cauldron from which profound, spiritually inspired creativity flows.
Cynddelw Brydedd Mawr, a court poet of the 12th Century opened his dramatic poem Angar Kyfudawt with:
“Awen a ganaf
Odwfn ys dygaf”
“I sing awen
I bring it forth from the deep”
This is likely to have been a device employed by bards to signal at the beginning of a performance that they were invoking mythical depths, or indeed channeling one of the great master bards such as Taliesin or Aneurin.
Ef ae rin rodes
Saith ygein ogyruen
Yssyd yn awen
Wyth ygein o pop ygein
Euyd yn un
Yn Annwfn y diwyth,
Yn Annwfn y gorwyth,
Yn Annwfn is eluyd,
Yn awyr uch eluyd
He (great spirit / god) with his miracle
Bestowed immeasurable awen
Seven score divisions
There is in awen
And eight score of every score
In each one
In Annwfn he ranged them
In Annwfn he made them
In Annwfn below the earth
In the air above the earth.
In this tract which describes the many divisions of ‘awen’ : divine inspiration, Cynddelw Brydedd Mawr locates awen’s source as being Annwfn, and describes the location of Annwfn as being both below the earth and in the air about us. As with all the poetry of this period, there is an often uneasy tension between what is clearly ancient lore deriving from our pre-Christian pre-history, and the context of the medieval poet’s court and Christian audience. Therefore ‘He’ here relates to the Christian God, however, we might equally read it as ‘He, Arawn, lord of Annwfn’ or simply as ‘great spirit’ in acknowledgment that the lore being described pre dates Christianity in these lands.
While Annwfn may be located both within the land and in the air about us, points of entry to this otherworldly realm are often specific in the mythology, for example, the ford at Coed Cuch in the First Branch of the Mabinogi or Llyn y Fan in the case of the folktale of the maiden of Llyn y Fan. These are both water sources, which seem to have been considered gateways for communing with otherworldly power at least as far back as the Bronze Age when metal objects, and indeed human sacrifices were offered to the depths of lakes and rivers. They are found by archaeologists today as hoards of twisted, bent metal on lake beds, and leathery bodies preserved for thousands of years in peat bogs.
In Preiddeu Annwfn, a cryptic poem of sixty lines in Middle Welsh, found in the Book of Taliesin, Annwfn is described as having an island location. Essentially, it appears as an inner landscape. Each country has its inner landscape, in this land, it’s that place where the dying king or hero retreats to heal his wounds and sleep until the time of need arises, and the bell is rung and he and his warriors will ride out and make all things well once more. It is the place where dragons sleep, where the 13 sacred treasures of Britain linger almost forgotten beneath the hill and where Gwyn ap Nudd and the Tylwyth Teg retreat after dancing within our groves. It is Arawn's realm and Rhiannon's place or origin, it is where we mortals go to be tested and challenged to grow into the best of ourselves. It is our myth-place, our dreaming space, that ephemeral deep place of the subconscious, the upper and lower worlds of journeying. It is within each of us, as much as it is within the land and in the air about us. And while the name Annwfn is specific to the Brythonic tradition, the experience of it seems universal.
During the past three years, I’ve been working with traditional desert musicians from the Manganyiar village communities that border Rajasthan in India and Pakistan. One of these musicians, Dara is one of the few people left who play the Kamaicha, a bowed, stringed instrument, made from a gourd, wood and goat skin which makes a sound that is the very soul-song of the desert. His father, Sekar, now deceased, was considered the Master of this instrument in modern times, while Dara and his brother Ghewar are now recognised as the next generation of masters. I had noticed a peculiarity in both Dara and Ghewar’s performances, that I’d not witnessed among the other Manganyiar musicians I’d met. When either Dara or Ghewar begin to draw the bow across their strings, their eyes glaze over and it’s clear that they enter some kind of altered state. Last month, as Dara and I rehearsed with other musicians for some festival performances together, I asked him where he went to when he played the Kamaicha.
“I go to the deep” he replied. “My father taught Ghewar and I that the world is too full of distractions, and so we must enter the deep in order to draw forth the music. It is not about how I draw the bow across the strings, it is about being as one with the Kamaicha, and drawing the notes, the music from the deep.”
While awen and Annwfn were unfamiliar words to him, the understanding between us was complete, the knowledge of the experience of drawing deep inspiration and truth from the deep, was absolute. Many makers, creators, artists and performers might describe the experience in modern terms as ‘flow’, those who meditate might describe it as being in the presence of ‘source’, the eternal, all creation, the universe.
The human soul is closer to the invisible things than to visible things. Annwfn represents that invisible, yet perceptible realm that is as intricately woven as Celtic knotwork into the fabric of our everyday. It is that place or space that we sense close at numinous thin places in our world, it’s where our extra sensory tentacles reaches for in moments of silence when we connect profoundly with the web of life. It is eternal, it is universal, and in this land it’s ancient name is Annwfn.