Gwyn ap Nudd: horror has a face

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And [Gwyn] captured Pen son of Nethog, and Nwython, and Cyledr Wyllt his son, and he killed Nwython, and forced Cyledr to eat his father’s heart, and because of that Cyledr went mad.
(The Mabinogion, translated by Sioned Davies, p209)

There is a truth that needs to be understood about Gwyn ap Nudd, and it is not a comforting truth.

Gwyn ap Nudd is just. He is not kind.

Gwyn ap Nudd is not a sensitive, introspective, touchy-feely god who cares about our feelings. He is a god of delight in battle, of stacked-up corpses. He revels in the sight of ravens feasting on the bodies of slain warriors.

If Gwyn is a psychopomp, leading the souls of the dead to Annwn, he is not an avuncular undertaker, respectfully guiding the soul on its journey. If Gwyn is a psychopomp, leading souls to Annwn, he has hunted those souls down because they have transgressed. They have broken boundaries, and entered territories forbidden to them, and Gwyn will show them not the slightest flicker of mercy.

Gwyn has no anger or judgement. He has his duty.

BULL of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army,
The ruler of hosts, Indisposed to anger,
Blameless and pure his conduct in protecting life.

Against a hero stout was his advance,
The ruler of hosts, disposer of wrath.
There will be protection for thee since thou askest it.

[…]

I come from battle and conflict
With a shield in my hand;
Broken is the helmet by the pushing of spears.

[…]

I have been in the place where was killed Gwendoleu,
The son of Ceidaw, the pillar of songs,
When the ravens screamed over blood.

I have been in the place where Bran was killed,
The son of Gweryd, of far-extending fame,
When the ravens of the battle-field screamed.

I have been where Llachau was slain,
The son of Arthur, extolled in songs,
When the ravens screamed over blood.

I have been where Meurig was killed,
The son of Carreian, of honourable fame,
When the ravens screamed over flesh.

[…]

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the North;
I am alive, they in their graves!

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the South
I am alive, they in death!

The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd

This series of posts began with the understanding that Gwyn ap Nudd is the son of Lludd Llaw Eraint, once the King of Britain. When the Tylwyth Teg made war on the Britons, Lludd annhilated them. Not one went home to Arabia, whence they came. He preserved the secret of how to do this. When the Fair Folk returned, his son imposed his rule over them, protecting the Britons against them.

Note that Gwyn did not do as his father did. He did not destroy the Shining People. His role was to enforce the boundaries, keeping the three races each in their proper place, protecting each against the others. Who are the three races? The Fair Folk, the humans, and the Wakeful Forest.

To those who respect the boundaries and the rights of the other peoples, Gwyn is just and protective. Those who do not respect the boundaries… Gwyn will blind them with his mist; he will lead them off cliffs; he will draw them into the swamps. He will rejoice over their corpses, he will feed crows with their carrion.

He will drive them mad with horror, as he drove Cyledr mad by cutting out his father’s heart, and forcing him to eat it.

We can see something of Gwyn in these clips:

(Warning: if you have never seen Last of the Mohicans or Apocalypse Now, be aware that these clips contain very disturbing material):

It is Gwyn ap Nudd’s role to maintain balance, and he will do so.  He has the strength to do what is necessary.

For many of us in the West, we have been raised with a Christianised perspective: the general culture is one in which we understand spiritual entities to be either purely good or utterly evil. This does not work if we want to understand the Gods of the Welsh.

Even as Christianity declines in many Western countries, this “good or evil” dichotomy is being reinforced by the media –  Hollywood, TV, or journalism – which increasingly only present the world in Manichaean black or white. As a culture, ambiguity and nuance are things we have become unable to deal with: but ambiguity is something we must deal with, if we deal with the Gods of the Welsh. As we will see in a future set of posts, the Gods are themselves. Good, or evil, is a choice that each of us, individually, must make; the Gods will not necessarily guide us on this.

For us to understand Gwyn properly, I think it’s necessary to look further afield than our usual reference points: to the eastern ends of the cultural corridor that stretches across Eurasia.

Tibetan Buddhism co-opted gods of India, and of the original Tibetan religion, Bon, and turned them into Dharma Protectors, and I think this very much is the model we need in order to understand Gwyn ap Nudd.

The Study Buddhism website explains to us:

My main teacher Serkong Rinpoche, who was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, explained that having a protector is like having a very strong and vicious dog. If you are a strong person, you could go sit and guard your own gate every night to make sure that thieves don’t attack, but usually people wouldn’t do that. It’s not that we don’t have the ability, it’s just: why bother? You could post a dog there instead.

In Tibet, they have huge dogs that are very vicious and can kill people, so to command them you have to be really strong, but you also need to be kind to the dog. You have to make sure you always feed it. But if you don’t feed such dogs every day and you aren’t nice to them or if you are weak, then the dog can attack and hurt you. It’s similar with Dharma protectors in that you don’t take them lightly if you are practicing with them. You make what is called a “damtsig” or close bond with the protectors, whereby you “feed” them and they “protect” you. So it’s a relationship in which they work for us and we are in control. Serkong Rinpoche always emphasized the importance of having command over the protectors, because we mustn’t be afraid of them. But we do have to make offerings to the protectors every day, and so we have protector ceremonies.

I recommend reading the whole article, as it contains a lot of insights even for non-Buddhists, but the quote above contains the key point.

That is: Gwyn ap Nudd is a protective god. He will defend us from external threats: the Tylwyth Teg, and the Wild Wood. However, he is not our slave. He doesn’t exist for our benefit alone. We, humans, are not his only care.

Gwyn ap Nudd cares about the balance. He cares for the forest, and for the Fair Folk just as much as he cares about us. Just as with the Tibetan Dharma Protectors, his protection comes with conditions; it depends on us honouring the relationship, and earning it through our behaviour.

And, unfortunately, we have not upheld our side of the relationship. As I noted in my last post, we have denied the Tylwyth Teg any status, and driven them away from their favourite places. We have destroyed the wild forest, and poisoned the fields. We have done this all over the world, wherever Western values have become dominant.

Worse than that, we have become weak.

But if you don’t feed such dogs every day and you aren’t nice to them or if you are weak, then the dog can attack and hurt you.

I don’t mean this in some kind of Nietzschean ‘superman’ kind of way. I mean that we humans have given up our independent judgement. We accept, uncritically, the narratives and the values that are presented to us. We no longer take personal responsibility for our choices; for our right and wrong actions; for the impact that our lives have on the seen and unseen life-forms that share our planet with us. We have replaced moral choice with sentimentality masking self-interest; we have replaced the numinous awareness of Annwn with material craving.  We have lost the understanding that the Druids had: that our existence depends on our respect for the Others.

So it’s a relationship in which they work for us and we are in control.

And, as a result – like a Tibetan mastiff that has been maltreated – that which was guarding us has now turned upon us. We have lost control. Gwyn ap Nudd, without anger, without judgement, will destroy us – if that is what it takes to restore balance.

How is he doing this?

Cast your mind back my discussion of the mist on Cadair Idris. Gwyn uses misdirection and the confusion of our senses to sow fear in our minds; that gnawing, growing sense that we have lost our bearings, and we don’t know where we are, and all around us there are shapes in the mist that are moving just beyond the range of our vision. We base our lives on abstractions; on imagined stories, and in our fear and anger we more and more turn upon each other.

Panic: Borrowed from Middle French panique, from Ancient Greek πανικός (panikós, “pertaining to Pan”), from Πάν (Pán, “Pan”). Pan is the god of woods and fields who was the source of mysterious sounds that caused contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in people in lonely spots.

We are lost. We have nothing to guide us. And we are now afraid.

In ancient Britain, and in the Wales of the middle ages, Gwyn would lead the careless traveller to drown in marshes or fall to their deaths over unseen precipices. He would place fear in their minds until terror drove them to madness.

[Gwyn ap Nudd] killed Nwython, and forced Cyledr to eat his father’s heart, and because of that Cyledr went mad.

The horror! The horror!

So, quoting Conrad, I’ll add one final clip, the trailer for Johnny Mad Dog, a film about child soldiers in one of Africa’s ongoing bush wars. Watching this always reminds me of  Robert D. Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy which, although dated now, tells us a great deal about the way our planet is going. I’m also not unaware of the way it might be interpreted, that I’m using a clip of Africans – so as you watch, ask yourself: who is funding these bush wars? Who is arming the militias? Who is buying the diamonds, and the oil, and the rare metals from the mines in the territory these militias fight over? Who is paying for the logging of ancient forests, and the slaughter of endangered species in their territories?

You just need to look in the mirror.

Gwyn drove Cyledr mad by forcing him to eat his father’s heart. We; our culture; the values that we have imposed on the world… we have eaten our Mother’s heart, and no-one made us do it. And that is why Gwyn ap Nudd has turned against us.

Image credit: Mahakala and Companions. Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

5 comments

  1. ‘He revels in the sight of ravens feasting on the bodies of slain warriors.’ Really?

    Is

    I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
    From the East to the North;
    I am alive, they in their graves!

    I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
    From the East to the South
    I am alive, they in death!

    not a lament that the soldiers dead and Gwyn lives on as a psychompomp?

    Yes, he did commit the atrocity of killing Nwython and feeding Cyledyr his heart but this might be seen metaphorically as ‘death’ taking Nwython and Gwyn passing on ancestral wisdom. Not nice, I know.

    And I really don’t agree Gwyn, our guide of souls, has turned against us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gwynn has many faces and a way of showing us what’s in the mirror.
    I agree with your statements about justness and balance but not about glorifying in war and death.
    In fact, in making those statements you contradict yourself.
    I wonder if you have a personal relationship with Gwynn.

    Like

    • I get the impression that you have not read this post very carefully, let alone the others in the series. I’ll be honest: this comment comes across to me as arrogant and patronising. There is no contradiction, and the gods are not nice, fluffy, and concerned with making humans feel good. Justness and ferocity can go together – which is one of the main themes of this post, if you’d read it. Out of interest, what is your background in martial arts?

      Like

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