Awakening The Land
(Madness and the Return of Welsh Gods)
“Around the world, discontent can be heard. The extremists are grinding their knives and moving in as the machine's coughing and stuttering exposes the inadequacies of the political oligarchies who claimed to have everything in hand. Old gods are rearing their heads, and old answers: revolution, war, ethnic strife.”
Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, The Dark Mountain Manifesto
To know a god, you must go mad.
We call it dis-enchantment, this sallow state of existence, the frayed-threads of the tapestry of meaning. Modernity we call it, and freedom, progress and arrival into a future without them.
Once Them. Once us. Them with us. We with them.
Now—cut. Wounds cauterized in the searing heat of machined-mills, branches severed below the fork, roots encased in concrete, veins of memory collapsed.
We are disenchanted, disinherited, dis-tracted, led away, leaden feet sinking into grey dust of barren lands which cannot soak up the water falling from heavy, pregnant skies.
Scrambling up wet scree tumbling down upon iron rails, boots sodden, fingers pricked through upon needle of gorse, I climbed to ask them for help. One loomed far south of me, scraggly hair, unbearded, watching the man far below pretend comfort with heights. Behind and below, across the tracks and further in the snow-melt swollen river, the indifferent guardian waited, waited like water waits.
“Okay,” I shouted, dizzied, guessing how long it'd take my companion to find my broken-necked corpse on the tracks. Would he find me before the train? Or likely find me after, even more mangled.
“Okay. I—uh. I'm actually—I can't climb anymore. Can we talk from here?”
Laughter, amusement, felt through the stone, shaking the rain.
“Ah...good. Sorry. I'm actually a really small person, and I don't think I can reach that rock and—yeah. So.”
Attempts at formality would look more false than my bravado. They already know who I am, why I'm there. If the guardian in the river hadn't told them, the gate-hound would have, and even if they'd held their tongue, they're kin of him I'm there for. And I've no composure for pretense, a hundred-foot drop below my slipping grip.
“I was wondering if you'd help me?”
More laughter. Assent shouted through bone.
“Ah. Okay. Thanks!” It all suddenly seemed easy. Giants are good-natured, after all, even the child-slaying and beard-flaying ones. I almost let go the exposed tree-root which kept me from falling the hundred feet to rails below, so relieved was I.
Their laughter continued. The Fool's often amusing, and I near laughed with them, noticing my predicament. I couldn't get down.
“Stride down like us,” I heard, with voice clearer than through ears. “And give her our gift.”
My boots are wet. I'm wet. Shirtless, covered in mud, hanging by roots and rocks. I am the water pouring down my skin, I'm soaking through myself into the rock and becoming the lake at the source of the river, and he's coming. They're there.
You don't have to go mad to see them, but you must abandon reason to keep them around after the sight. Giants, nymphs, ghosts—they're there, you've seen them maybe once but then looked away and forgot. Shaking off and away the vision, looking again, changing your view so they're not there on the second glance. Dis-enchanted.
We don't do this just with The Other, we do this with ourselves, particularly with desire. The Other is queer, sometimes we are, and like the man denying desire for another man in a world where only women are allowed, The Other is the queer we disallow. Easier to deny different desire when surrounded by others who also deny; easier to disallow god-giants when no-one else admits to them.
To dis-allow is to forbid; to dis-enchant is to de-ny, repudiate, withhold from ourselves what we thought occurred. Self-abnegation, sacrificial poverty of spirit so we can be what we're supposed to be, what is demanded of us. Resist the trembling lust for what your flesh desires and no thing queer enters into the world of self-controlled workers selling time for money.
Money is extracted time, he shouted at me, and I shook. I shook like the time he pushed me back, wouldn't let me pass. I tried, he pushed again. I pushed back. Don't get in a pushing match with a giant.
I shook like the time he was in my head, rummaging there, sifting, sorting. “Who's this?” he said, one of the few times I've heard his voice with my ears.
“Just someone I desired,” I answered, and he shook his head.
We're drunk. I'm drunker, but he's pretty drunk too.
We're naked. We're usually naked when we sleep, and we're usually together when we sleep.
“Brad?” I'm drunk. I forgot who Brad is. There was Brett, a couple of Brians or at least one Brian and one Bryan.
“He must've been damn good.”
I'm drunk and I don't know who he's talking about.
“I—I don't know a Brad.” I'm pretty certain of this. I'm actually pretty certain I've never fucked a Brad.
He looks at me a bit askance, then smiles. “You moan his name when you sleep.”
“Oh,” I say, suddenly laughing, relieved. “You mean Brân?”
“Yeah, that's the name you're saying. Who's he?”
I moan a giant-god's name in my sleep. I guess this is weird. It's definitely queer, but no more than climbing a cliff-face in Snowdon to ask giants for help. Maybe slightly more queer than the giantess another saw straddling over me, wild, mountainous, rough. I was asleep when he saw this, in a tent amongst Alders on another land while a boar rummaged through my belongings; he was in Seattle, part-dreaming, I guess.
“He's mine, don't worry,” she said to him. I wasn't there, or was—sorta. At least thirty birds had shat upon my tent and a few nearby in the morning, the only day that'd happened at that site. The Breton women camping nearby asked if I'd seen the sanglier who'd come from the mountain. I hadn't, nor had I seen the giantess, either. But I had woken to snorting, muttered, 'oh—poor thing's hungry,' and had gone back to sleep.
I moan a giant-god's name in my sleep, but this is hardly all that queer. Not like the things I've seen with my eyes, the few things others have also seen along with me. The companion who asked who the massive figure was, 'leaning into me' like a muse—he saw something. The witch, though—he didn't see anything, not for a little bit, not through the searing pain that doubled him over upon the floor, naked, still erect, shouting useless curses at me. That was pretty queer.
So, too, were the druids who pulled my beard, refusing to let go 'till I pulled theirs back. Queer. Maybe a bit gay.
Welsh king. A giant so large “no house could hold him,” so massive he laid himself down across a river for troops to cross to the slaughter.
But to know more is where you have to go mad.
I'm trying to world in a god most don't know. Who's Brân? Might as well ask who Brad is when you're drunk and naked and trying to remember all the names of the men you've fucked.
Flame like the searing sun and the burning fields magnified in a drop of water falling from a gnarled yew—the dragon, and the giant, and I'm impaled. Him, them, the rock under bare feet, the water raining through him, he's in the world thrust through me.
Brân means Raven in Welsh, or Jackdaw. Jack's a giant killer, climbed a pole of the ancestors to steal back from a giant what'd been stolen. Golden eggs from a goose—there's a druid tale for you, some drunk bards spinning tales of madness because you won't believe what they actually saw.
Raven-men are all over the Welsh lore. Another one, Morfrân, 'Great Crow,' was a warrior in Arthur's court. (We'll get to that giant-killer in a bit.) Morfrân's also called Afagddu (Utter Darkness), making him in other tales the hideous child of Ceridwen for whom she brewed the potion of Awen, stolen by the boy Gwion 'by accident' to become Taliesin. And Afagddu might be a beard-flaying bear.
We know much of this from Taliesin, and Taliesin's a mad liar, awen-drunk poet slipping in and out of time and place to become everything, returning to the 'sane' with his tales. There's at least three of him, probably hundreds. He doesn't stay very well in time. Awen will do that you.
So will Brân.
I woke this morning, remembering being a mountain. I flowed down river to a city and became king of a people who weren't ready for that sort of king yet.
To learn about a god, you must go mad.
You cannot search for them as you would a job or online date. The internet's only good for all the stuff that we used a post office and a library for. But it's neither a post office nor a library—everything's short, summarized, only what someone thought you'd want to read, as opposed to what someone actually wanted to tell you.
Search for Brân and you get some stuff about the fibrous hull of a grain. In this case, it's not much worse for a Welsh giant gate-keeping god of the dead then it is for Greek gods—ask a search-engine if Apollo really exists and you've got to do some scrolling to get past moon-landing conspiracy sites.
But that's what we think we're left with, which is at least part of the reason why the world's disenchanted, the collective symptom of our shared disease, the one that's infected both this world and Others, the ones where They live, the ones where it makes sense to plant legumes to climb a world-vine to meet a giant or to hang a hundred feet above the ground to talk to one.
We place that disenchantment at different times, the moments of the turning where gods who were present—not just through poets and the mad but to everyone—suddenly withdrew. But this makes sense when we remember that all were not disenchanted at the same time; 'uncontacted' tribes in deep forests still see their spirits. Disenchantment followed dis-inheritance, displacement from land and forest into factories and mills and offices—it's hard to see a god when you're staring into machines that maul the hands, deafen the ears and dull the eyes with which we sense The Other.
That spreading plague started on the same island he's from; the laws passed to midwife in this infestation of desolation came not far from where that giant-killer dug up his head. Now, we've the internet and private property and fizzy sugar water and hand-phones but no gods and this is supposed to be better. This is supposed to be sane.
To be a poet, you must go mad, stoke “fire in the head” searing through shining brows and steal from Ceridwen's Cauldron the elixir sought for her son Utter-Darkness.
Brân had a cauldron, a gift from those he sheltered.
But Irish hospitality's a joke, at least if you're a giant. Two giants lived in Ireland and the Irish built them a house made of iron, then set it on fire to kill them. Didn't work, but the giants didn't retaliate, merely moved across the ocean, over to Wales where Brân welcomed them, let them live anywhere they wanted, unharmed. In return, they gave him their cauldron which would raise the fallen war-dead, the Cauldron of Annwn.
And later another Irish king crosses the water with a war-band, and Brân hosts them, marries off his sister Brânwen to them. To be a good host after his brother maims their horses, Brân gifts them the Cauldron of Annwn, and everything falls apart.
Risen dead, voiceless, are the gifts of that coal-black well, unherded by hounds of the underworld, freed from the rock under which they slept, pouring forth to wage battle on behalf of inhospitable peoples, fueling the machinery of war.
Mistreatment of his sister sent Brân over-sea as the 'swineherds' (some readings suggest 'priests') of Ireland saw,
“...a forest on the ocean, where we have never seen a single tree...a great mountain beside the forest, and that was moving; and a soaring ridge on the mountain, and a lake on each side of the ridge.”
Brân the giant-king become the land, or Raven the land become the giant-king.
Brân pounds hard into the side of the head, thrusts there with the trunk of an Alder. He is a god of Alder, the warrior of Alder, the wood of shields. A mad poet knew Brân when he saw him:
“The high sprigs of Alder are on thy shield
Brân are thou called, of the glittering branches”
A spear pierced his ankle though maybe also his thigh (“you dogs of Gwern, beware the pierced-thigh”), and most see him as do I—the Fisher-King, hobbled, waiting for the unasked question in a land of desolation.
Here is a land of desolation.
Here is an unasked question.
In dream, he leads me to the edge of a cavern, to the entrance, the gate wood and iron. “I'm moving in to where you live,” he says, colors that don't exist exploding around me in those days. “I'll be there, waiting for you on the other side. Don't worry—I'm moving in.” And then a druid pulls my beard, hard. And there's the woman I think I recognize but she turns and her face terrifies me. Witches, priests, druids who know something I don't yet know, and then I leave the cavern and he's there, just as he said.
Brân punched a witch pretty hard in the stomach once. He rolled off me, naked, still erect, screaming in pain, holding his abdomen asking what the fuck I'd just done to him. I didn't do a thing, except unconsciously mutter 'thanks' to the giant-king I'd suddenly noticed, rescuing a clueless poet from a horrible event he didn't want to be part of.
Brân punches hard, his crows rip flesh, like the Ravens of The Morrígan, stripping dead flesh from crushed bone. And they're on about similar things, I guess, but also not at all, or not yet, and there's that awful war barely repaired and all those dead running lose upon the land.
War's not madness, though. Poetry is. War is machine and sanity, and the sane have trouble with giants. And some giants have trouble with us.
A king comes down from the mountains of Snowdon, from somewhere near where the dragons fought, near where Ceridwen sought the Awen for Afagddu (utter-dark) or Morfrân (great crow) from ancient Fferyllt (alchemists/metal-workers).
From amongst those giants down-river to Harlech comes a king full of giant blood—and what's giant-blood, anyway, but the water that soaks through the mountains into the soul? And there by that lake I saw the giants, there by the lake I saw shimmering dragon-fire, there by the lake I saw Brân.
Some have trouble with giants, and some giants have trouble with us, particularly [pump]Jack giant-killers.
There was an Arthur, or most likely was. Probably a king in the 5th and 6th century, leading Britons slowly westward as Saxons invaded, leaving finally from Cornwall to Bretagne, what the Romans called Armorica. I saw Brân too in Armorica, by the River called Aulne (Alder), near where a giantess straddled vastly above bird-shit and a wild boar and a drunk dreaming mad poet.
The Welsh translate Satan as Arddu, generally 'great darkness.' There's a witch-cult who knows an Arddu (pronounced Arthee), which they name as Royal Darkness. Some of what I've heard those witches say about Arddu can also be said of Brân, but witches don't tell many tales to the uninitiated. This protects them, perhaps, but also hides the gods, and giants don't hide. But Arddu's also Arth-du, Dark Bear, and there's a giant-killer's got that name, too.
A few British Witch cults know Brân as the “lord of time,” in line with Robert Graves. Mining Graves, though, like mining the dead, still leaves you with silent warriors, efficacious but unspeaking. And unraveling Arthur's a fool's game, except for poets even madder still.
Arthur slayed and subdued giants, like factories slay and subdue forests. Giants preferred the beards of men, of kings; sought them out, sheared them from their faces, slayed the resistant ones. Made clothing from them, capes and cloaks and hats, augmented their own beards. Twenty-six lords of Britain all lost their beards and lives to one, 'till Arthur fought him and kept his. Like Jack, Arthur was a rampant giant-slayer, but there was one already dead whom he couldn't slay. From a Welsh Triad:
The Three Concealments
The Head of Bran Fendigaid, ap Llyr, which was buried in the White Hill in London. and as long as the Head was there in that position, no oppression would ever come to this island
The second: the Bones of Gwerhefyr Fendigaid which were buried in the chief ports of this island
The third: the Dragons which Lludd ap Beli buried in Dinas Emrys in Eryri.
The Three Disclosures
The Bones (for the love of a woman)
The Dragons by Gwrtheyrn the Thin
The Head by Arthur because it did not seem right to him that this island should be defended by the strength of anyone other than him.
Still-speaking heads, dead speaking gods shout 'Orphic' into the spreadsheets of the sane, but here at least I understand why I found Welsh gods on a druid-mountain in France, if Dark-Bear/Utter-Dark/ Great-Crow took the King of Alder's head across a short channel with him as he fled. That Merlin's Grave, Merlin's Step, and Merlin's Well all sit in the Broceliande (la fôret de Paimpont), in central-west Bretagne, then makes a slight bit more sense.
I'm staring across a valley at a verdant hill as stormclouds gather in the gloaming evening, staring at a giant wearing a black cloak. He's as tall as the hill behind him, massive, hooded. I can't see his face or his features, only the rippling black fabric covering his form.
There's no wind, but his cloak shakes and then starts to—to fly away, bits of fabric suddenly not fabric but wings, hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions suddenly flying towards me. They're crows—the sky is black with them, and they head past me as I stare at what's left him.
It's only bone, white pillars where once a giant stood.
Here we have the madness now of the poets, of how you know gods.
Brân's a giant. Brân's a raven, or a jackdaw, or a crow. Brân's the Fisher King, guardian of the bleeding lance, wounded in the thigh, waiting for the knight who will ask 'the unasked question.' The thigh is the groin, the King is barren, his lands in ruins.
In one tale, his name's Bron. In most, Percival doesn't ask, at least not 'till years of further questing to find the 'grail.' In all, the king cannot be healed 'till the question's asked.
Again, that question.
I've had two visions of Brân, both inscrutable. There in the Breton mountains I saw him torn asunder by crows, crows maybe of battle, crows likely of carrion.
And the other, the first, shakes me still, more than the gasping terror as cold fingers clung to the beard of the mountain along a cliff.
I stood alongside one of his bards upon a mountain, looking across to another where settled a people. Grey-black-yellow skies illumined the world below the world as their village was destroyed, flames licking their wood-and-thatch hovels.
And time slipped around us, here in his realm. Settlers survived, built, rebuilt, now with wood and slate that did not withstand another assault. Again, brick, stone, again fire and destruction, each time the few that remained remembering, rebuilding, rebirthing upon that grand hill.
Until the last, the greatest, towering stone walls and glass and steel, the brilliance of the Fferyllt, the height of humans here arrayed in the sunless realm.
And then destruction, and there was no one left to rebuild.
You understand? Asked his bard who wore the features I have come to wear.
There between us stood silent the unasked question as I nodded and stood before the opening gates of the dead.
The Battle of Trees has Brân opposite Taliesin fighting alongside Arawn, King of the Underworld as champion of those armies, and only dis-closing of his identity from that Alder-shield defeats him. But Taliesin is also at Brân's side invading Ireland. He's one of the seven companions left of the armies of Wales, one of the seven who listens to the head of the giant tell tales and prophesy for decades as they sit out-of-time.
So Brân's a lord of time, then, and Taliesin slips out with him after that battle, and later against him. But Taliesin was also the boy Gwion, accidentally stealing the three drops of Awen meant for Morfrân Giant Crow, for Afaggdu Utter-Darkness. And to obliterate finally all sanity from the soil of our soul, Taliesin leads the Dark Bear-King into Annwn to gain there the Cauldron brought by giants.
Here madness takes us if we hope to know Brân, but here sanity should flee us if we hope to survive.
It is perfectly sane to wage out your time in work, to wage war fueled by the coal-black-blood of the unspeaking dead.
It is madness to live free, to love forests, to slip out of time with gods.
From Ceridwen's Cauldron came the Awen, and those who'd drank it became mad. Speaking of the Awenyddion, a traveler in 1194 said:
There are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit.
Giraldus Cambrensis, Description of Wales
I know that madness. It spun through my being while climbing a rock-face to ask giants for help to re-awaken Brân into the world; it rips through my soul in panicked moments when a god's trying to say something my small human brain is too rigid to comprehend, when suddenly you cannot stop writing until every last boiling bit of the Otherworld is wrung out of you.
The madness of the Awen-struck is the madness of the land. Taliesin shifts not only through time but through place and through beings, both in the chase of Ceridwen's rage at the theft of Awen and in the Battle of Trees, where Alder leads in the fray, where Brân is unveiled as the warrior of the Dead.
And then the hostile confederacy:
I have been a course, I have been an eagle.
I have been a coracle in the seas:
I have been compliant in the banquet.
I have been a drop in a shower;
I have been a sword in the grasp of the hand
I have been a shield in battle.
I have been a string in a harp,
Disguised for nine years.
in water, in foam.
The madness of Awen is the becoming of everything, slipping through time, inhabiting place, becoming the spirits of the land and the land itself.
And it was there after the giants, after spirit in the river, after the hound at the gate, I drenched the rain soaking the mountains into giant-blood towards the sea.
The sea is everywhere, the rain soaks everyone, and giants do not sit still.
Brân is a giant, a lord of time, a god of witches, a warrior of the dead, a king in the wastes, and is the dragon of the land.
In Branwen ferch Llŷr, the Irish swineherds see the land itself rise against them, but this no surprise.
We cannot blame the Irish king Matholwch for the war which brought a land against him, but rather his people. All through the tale of Brân, King Matholwch pleads for peace. He first housed the giants who brought Brân the Cauldron of the dead, 'till his people, disgusted, demanded an iron house be built to immolate them. It is the people who demand Brânwen's demeaning in the kitchen, and his people who plot to slaughter the giant in his sleep.
Here, then, the unasked question, as desolation spread outward from the city where laid buried Brâns head, disclosed so that no land-god might be relied upon for protection. From London spread the greatest plague known to us, far more virulent than the pox and Black Death, displacing peoples, disenchanting villages, destroying the forests. Mountains tumble-down upon the lakes to disclose the black-coal dead, pumpjack giant-killers siphon from the earth the blood of Annwn.
And the people cry out to the kings—what need we of gods when we have machines? What need we of a lord of time when we measure it out in hourly wages? What need we of kings when we can kill giants? What need we of madness when sanity is everywhere?
To understand a god, you must become mad. To understand madness, you must become a poet.
And here's where the maddest of them all, that Awen-thief bard slipping out of time and becoming everything, who fought alongside Brân and yet unveiled him, who stole from Ceridwen's cauldron and yet helped win it, who fled from the vengeance of a goddess and yet was birthed from her can unravel one final secret.
Multiple gods-bothered folk have made connections between 'giants' in Celtic and the chthonic powers of the land. It's tempting to ascribe this same connection to Brân, but for a problem—Brân leaves Wales, rising up as trees, mountains and lakes across the Irish Sea to rescue his sister. Brân is not merely the land, but embodies the land and its power; the land comes with and through him.
A god shows up; people see Alder. It is the same with each Welsh god I've seen; Arianrhod is there in the shifting of light through grey-and-blue-and-violet clouds and sky reflected in water, her magic pouring from the land into the soul. In Snowdon, the lake where sought Ceridwen the ritual of Awen soaks her into your boots as you step, as giants shake rain from their shrub-beards.
Here, again, the unasked question of disenchantment. Western European societies stopped seeing the giants shaking their shrub-beards precisely at the time they began extracting the coal from their hearts to power machines to wage time into money and nature into commodity. It became 'sane' and rational to enclose land, build factories, and mete out human time according to the clocks of the Capitalist, and 'madness' to slip between those hedges, sabotage the machines, and slip out-of-time.
At the end of The Battle of Trees are three strange lines; Taliesin is not here to explain them (though on this fact I'd not wage my madness):
I am splendid
And shall be wanton
From the oppression of the metal-workers .
A land rises up through a god through the re-enchantment of a bard against 'the oppression of the metal-workers.' The Welsh is Fferyll, perhaps the Fferyllt who held enchained in words the recipe for Awen. Taliesin's the thief there, but perhaps Ceridwen is too, manifesting from herbs, fire, and water what was locked in words, the secret of enchantment.
It is that secret we need now, awakened forests waging war, trees taking sides against each other while a mad bard dances through time and place; similar somewhat to what Lugh gains from his witches in The Second Battle of Tadgh Mor:
"And ye, O Be-cuile and O Dianann," said Lugh to his two witches,"what power can ye wield in the battle?"
"Not hard to tell," said they. "We will enchant the trees and the stones and the sods of the earth, so that they shall become a host under arms against them, and shall rout them in flight with horror and trembling."
Brân is both the land and the god clothed in land, a giant lumbering in form of forests again against those who've stolen from the dead as in the Battle of the Trees, and the great Alder-shield who, awakened by our poetic madness, leads first amongst the warriors of the land against the oppression of the metal-workers, the giant-killing machines, and the desolation of disenchantment.