Making Masks for the Gods and Goddesses of Eryri
On the autumn equinox, 2021, ten brave souls set out on a pilgrimage along the Nantlle Valley Songline, from the wave-lashed hillfort of Dinas Dinlle, through Drws y Coed (Door to the Wood, Gateway to the Otherworld) over Yr Aran (the High Place with the Long Legs) to Dinas Emrys, once known as the ‘Fort of Fiery Higher Powers’. This route, from the Celtic Sea to the foot of Snowdon, is, I believe, the most mythically rich twenty miles in Britain.
How so? Well the Nantlle Valley was the domain of Math son of Mathonwy, Lord of Old Gwynedd, magician and principle character in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, one of the oldest legends in Britain. In the upper Nantlle Valley was, according to the Stanzas of the Graves, the grave of (and shrine to?) Mabon son of Modron, the Great Son of the Great Mother, whose tale tracks through the Ancient Animals to the Neolithic. Inside Drws y Coed is a mystical realm rich with stories of the Twlwyth Teg (Fairy Folk). The flanks of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) echo with tales of Arthur, from his early victories to his final demise. And Dinas Emrys is where Ceridwen is said to have sought the Recipe for Inspiration which led to the birth of the poet, Taliesin. It was renowned as ‘the strongest place in the land’ and is where the young Merlin released the red and white dragons and uttered an immortal prophecy.
The characters in these stories may appear to be heroes and heroines but in truth they have their roots in ancient myth and are considered ‘gods in decline’, half-human, half-divine. Some call them ‘demigods’. They are the ancestral spirits of this powerful landscape of mountain, island, peninsula and sea. They are the old deities of Eryri.
One of the ‘brave souls’ on our autumn equinox pilgrimage was Yannick Dubois, extraordinary artist, tree whisperer, ceremonial leader and nature visionary. After our pilgrimage, together we dreamed up the idea of making masks for these ancient beings. He came up with stunning designs for nine of the deities we’d ‘encountered’ on our pilgrimage. Later he sourced images for another eight and I came up with half a dozen bullet points to describe each one. Although masks have been used around the world to channel gods and ancestral spirits they had never, as far as we could tell, been used to bring through the demigods and goddesses of these islands. So we were planning to do something very old which had never been done before.
Yannick tapped into his network of talented artists, crafters and makers, many his friends from Devon. I reached out to my motley bunch of interested mates and before long there were eighteen of us, all curious about the old divinities and raring to go. We gathered at Cae Mabon just before the spring equinox, 2022. The deal was people would make a contribution towards food for a week and the rest was exchange – masks in return for a week staying at Cae Mabon.
On the first day we were off, recapping the pilgrimage, visiting the highlights and telling the stories in the places where they happened. It was a powerful opening, in at the deep end. Later more stories were told in the Roundhouse. At the end of the second day we did a divination ceremony to find out who would work with which deity. After opening with an invocation to the directions we named all the beings we’d be working with. Angharad Owen invited the goddesses, I invited the gods. All their names were placed in sealed envelopes on the benches round the circle. Then, at the appointed signal, we launched into a wild song and dance which culminated in a whirling frenzy. At the end, exhausted, we staggered to the nearest seat and there was our deity. After catching our breath we announced ourselves to the group: ‘I have been chosen by…’ Some got exactly who they wanted: Olwen, Branwen, Merlin, Nimue… Ten out of the seventeen were given opposite gender deities: a man was Ceridwen, a woman, Taliesin. Apart from one swap between Goewin and Math, we all went with what we were given. One person didn’t want to make a mask. Another didn’t want to wear one. They worked together on Mabon. Hence 17 masks from 18 people!
There followed three days of intensive mask-making. Yannick had asked everyone to bring tools and materials so we were blessed with an abundance of fabric, feathers, wool, leather, beads, jewellery, paint, bones, scissors and glue… We started working in pairs using plaster bandages to make a foundation mask from our own faces. This base was built upon in numerous creative ways. The Barn was filled with tables. Each person had their own work station but people were frequently giving comments and helping each other. There was an incredible fertile and collaborative atmosphere, rare for those used to working as solo artists. As well as researching their immortal and working on their masks, makers took in the nurturing shelter of forest, river and lake… Slowly, from nothing, seventeen masks emerged. Each one was a work of art.
After the intensity of making we were finally ready to activate the masks. About 4pm on the afternoon of the sixth day, with the wind brisk and the rain spitting, we gathered in the Roundhouse, sitting with our masks. I opened, with drum, quoting one of my favourite pieces of writing from Christopher Fry. It ends:
‘… Thank God our time is now
when wrong comes up to meet us everywhere,
never to leave us until we take
the greatest stride of soul we ever took.
Affairs are now Soul size.
The enterprise is exploration into..’
And here I slightly adapted the words.
‘the gods and goddesses of our land’.
Yannick stood, went with his mask outside, then, after a brief introduction from me, stepped into the circle as Modron, the Great Mother. Modron danced beautifully, in cosmic circles, from the heart, generous, humble, wise. Mabon, divine youth and solar deity, followed, his golden face glittering in the firelight. He looked piercingly round the circle. Then came Olwen, ‘she in whose footprints flowers spring up’. She was channelled by Milly Jackdaw, who‘s been working with her story for five years. ‘Everyone loved me,’ she said, ‘but I couldn’t love anyone back. I was imprisoned by my giant father…’ Later she, embodying the Spirit of Spring, implored us not to forget her love. It was very moving. By now I was astonished to feel the power of these masks brought to life.
Then it was my turn as Math. ‘I’ll just go and see if he’s out there,’ I said. Math had the gruffness of a bear. He said how much he loved this land, his domain, how he held it in his arms. He said how important it was to honour this sacred ground and pay homage to the goddess. ‘Do not forget this‘, his parting words. Then came Goewin, the lap maiden, symbol of sovereignty, her face a green and glowing landscape with a crystal river of tears flowing from one eye. She sang a beautiful song.
Meanwhile, outside the Roundhouse, the birds were singing their evening chorus.
And so it went on. One extraordinary and powerful appearance after another. Gwydion and Arianrhod; Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw; Ceridwen, Afagddu and Taliesin; Bran and Branwen; Merlin and Nimue. Some danced, some made an impassioned, poetic speech with movement, some sang or recited a poem. Merlin, carried by Nellie Shine, pointed at each person around the circle one by one. We’d not asked people to prepare anything for the ‘activation’. But they’d been preparing all week, sinking into their character, creating an intricate mask to represent their being. In the moment of animation the masked presentations were totally spontaneous, unrehearsed divinity. It was not for an audience. It was for us, a ritual of summoning to awaken ancient powers that had slumbered so long. One by one each deity stepped into the room. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly the climax was reached with Taliesin, the inspired poet. Brought forth by Scarlett Rivers, she was inspiration personified. Untrained, totally natural, she danced, transforming from a fish to a bird to a wave, swooping, diving, flying… She added words, passionate, strong and clear. It was pure poetry. Taliesin was fully there! It felt to her afterwards like shamanic possession.
After each deity had been activated one by one, we all donned our masks together and wandered round like at a party, mingling with fellow members of our pantheon. Some encounters were shady, some sad, some celebratory. Eventually this culminated in a photographic climax when each masked demigod and goddesses was photographed with their shining eyes. This was a deliberate bit of high-tech wizardry. After that we closed the circle and went to feast.
TOP LEFT: CERIDWEN TOP MIDDLE: TALIESIN TOP RIGHT: MATH
BOTTOM LEFT: GOEWIN BOTTOM MIDDLE: OLWEN BOTTOM RIGHT: BRANWEN