Devotional Poetry

Devotional poetry is defined by the Oxford Reference Library as ‘poetry expressing religious worship or prayer’.

Whereas the mainstream religions possess many centuries of continuous material, within Brythonic polytheism we have no ancient devotional poetry. This is because the Druids and Bards who maintained the religious traditions of Britain and their predecessors did not write anything down.

The names of the Brythonic deities are known only through Romano-British inscriptions and texts and their symbolism through Roman statues. This provides evidence of their worship, yet yields few clues to the poems and stories that might have been performed in their honour.

Between the 4th and 7th centuries the Britons were Christianised. By the time the oral stories of the Brythonic gods and goddesses were penned by Christian scribes in medieval Wales they had been reduced to human-like characters albeit with magical attributes.

However, The Mabinogion and The Four Ancient Books of Wales contain important clues to the myths of our deities. Rigantona appears as Rhiannon, Matrona as Modron, Maponos as Mabon, Nodens as Nudd/Lludd, Vindos as Gwyn ap Nudd, Lugus as Lleu Llaw Gyfes. Although there are no Romano-British inscriptions to them it can be assumed Manawydan, Gwydion, Arianrhod, Arawn, and other magical characters are divine.

By reading, meditating on and journeying with these stories and asking our deities how they would like to be honoured and how they would like their myths to be retold, modern Brythonic polytheists have begun creating a new body of devotional material for the 21st century.

This article provides an overview of the devotional poetry for the Brythonic gods and goddesses that exists today and the forms and techniques that polytheist poets have used.

*

Unfortunately I’m unaware of any devotional poetry written for the Brythonic deities in Welsh. Having listened to Brython members Lee and Greg reading from the Heledd cycle in Welsh in Shrewsbury I’ve got some sense of how powerful it is to tap into the Brythonic language to honour persons from our myths particularly at sites connected with them. As a dysgwr, ‘learner’, I don’t feel capable of writing poetry in Welsh at present, but it’s a long term goal.

In Bard Song (2012), a landmark book on writing poetry in the Celtic traditions, Robin Herne provides an introduction to using basic Welsh forms in English to honour the Brythonic gods and goddesses.

One of the easiest forms Robin covers is the Englyn Milwr, ‘the soldier’s verse’. Each stanza is composed of three lines with seven syllables with identical end rhymes.

######a
######a
######a

Robin’s example is based on the story of Lleu and his bride, Blodeuwedd, who was conjured by his uncle, Gwydion, from the flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet.

‘Lleu’s bride, petal soft beauty,
Spills rich colour before me,
To her scent I am a bee.’

Tawddgyrch cadwnog is more complex. Each stanza is composed of four lines with eight syllables and uses both end rhymes and internal rhyme.

###a###b
###b###c
###a###b
###b###c

Robin uses tawddgyrch cadwnog in his poem ‘Gwynn’s Guest’ where he retells the story of St Collen’s encounter with Gwynn ap Nudd on Glastonbury Tor from Gwynn’s perspective as a way of honouring him at Samhain.

‘Wind tears the Tor, unravels hair
Bound in plaits fair, wild blood yearning
For thunder’s roar, this hill my Chair,
Blessed wolf’s lair, white fire burning.

Tribes rise and fall, dank marsh tides flow,
Poor nuts do grow on such dank soil,
Hazel tree small, to ground crouched low
With pious woe, to “One God” loyal.

On this high land, my leave not sought,
This hermit caught, and summoned twice
Takes not the hand, guest-law counts naught
To saintly thought ~ yet comes at thrice!…’

‘Before the Owl Takes Flight’, a poem written to celebrate Blodeuwedd, ending with her transformation by an owl by Gwydion, is written in Byr a Thoddiad metre.

#######A
#######A
######B/B#C
C####B*

‘When the light is gone, what remains?
Bloodless spectral white, shadow stains
The bower through which the ghostly owl sails,
Wails in the night, pale host.

Cavort with her whilst she is here,
Treasure blossoms like jewels dear,
When all is grey and the white owl swoops low,
Know that the dawn brings light.’

*

Another approach to writing devotional poems is to list a deity’s epithets and roles and end with a statement of praise or petition for help. Pauline Kennedy’s ‘Prayer for Epona Rigantona’, with its repetition of ‘I praise you!’, is beautiful in its simplicity and expression of devotion.

‘Epona of Horses, I praise you!
Rigantona of the Land, I praise you!
Epona of Sovereignty, I praise you!
Rigantona of Journeys, I praise you!
Epona of Stables, I praise you!
Rigantona of the Otherworld, I praise you!
Epona, Great Mother, I praise you!
Rigantona of the singing birds, I praise you!
Epona Rigantona, friend, guardian, guide, and teacher, I praise you!’

The author at the Fieldstones blog has written an extensive body of prayers to the Brythonic deities using a similar format. This excerpt is from ‘To Nodens’.

‘Excellent Nodens, master of the shining sea,
rider of tide and bore, who stands upon green hills,
whose will it is that tribe and village flourish,
fortunate are those you favor, fruitful their fields,
gainful their efforts, successful their battles…
Nodens of ancient name, friend of those who live
in a hard world, I call to you, I ask your blessing.’

Lee Davies also uses this format in his ‘Hymn to Ambactonos’.

Ambactonos; the one who knows the skies,
the stars and heavens and the passing of the seasons.
The one who knows the movements of the chariot of the sun
and the bull sons of Taranis, as well as he knows the furrow
in the soil and the green things which grow.
Ambactonos; he who knows how to till and to sow
to caress the earth and tease life from it…
All of this knowledge and all of this skill, Ambactonos
I ask for a draught.

*

A powerful tool in the writing of devotional poetry is using repetition as this can help to induce a trance state making it easier to connect with a deity.

In ‘Prayer to the Lady of the Birds and Horses’, Ari Kenner uses the repetition of ‘O Rhiannon’ along with rhyme to create the perfect galloping rhythm for praying to the Mare Goddess.

‘May I fly like the lark,
O Rhiannon,
Soaring into the morning,
O Rhiannon,
With a voice and a wing
I will call in the spring,
May I fly like the lark,
O Rhiannon.

May I run like the racehorse,
O Rhiannon,
Swift and sleek toward my goals,
O Rhiannon,
I’ll be fire on the track
With the wind at my back,
May I run like the racehorse,
O Rhiannon.’

In his powerful ‘Hymn to Rigantona at Calan Gaeaf’ Greg Hill masterfully repeats ‘for your going into the Otherworld’ between evocations of the darkening landscape to mark the departure of the Mare Goddess on the first day of Winter as rose petals are strewn on her altar and a vigil is held.

‘Rigantona, we strew rose petals about your altar
for your going into the Otherworld.
In this dark of the moon
I hold vigil here
for your going into the Otherworld
Rigantona – I strew rose petals
about your altar
for your going into the Otherworld
Winter is now upon us
and the darkness

Rigantona – the leaves are strewn
upon the earth
the hawthorn tree is bare
for your going into the Otherworld

The song of your birds is lost
in the sigh of the wind
in the shriek of the wind but I listen still for its echo
with your going into the Otherworld.’

I have used repetition in my poem ‘When You Hunt for Souls in the Winter Rain’, honouring Gwyn ap Nudd on Nos Galan Gaeaf. Lines one and three of verse one are repeated at the beginning of verses two and four, and lines two and four at the beginning of verses three and five.

‘When you hunt for souls in the winter rain
With your snorting horse and hound unleashed
I shall listen in the gaps between towns knowing
Through trembling years you come in many guises.

When you hunt for souls in the winter rain
I shall listen in the gaps between towns knowing
Your face is the night storm of the underworld
And you shall bring terror to end all terror

With your snorting horse and hound unleashed.
Knowing through the years you come in many guises
I shall not only hail you as a warrior or medieval king
On the corpse roads I walk to ancestral graveyards…’

*

More devotional poetry for the Brythonic gods and goddesses can be found on the Dun Brython website, the Fieldstones website, in the Celtic Reconstructionist publications An Leabhar Urnaí, ‘The Prayer Book’ and Air n-Aithesc, ‘Our Message’, and devotionals by Ninth Wave Press which is the publishing arm of the Sisterhood of Avalon.

It’s exciting to be amongst the first generation of Brythonic polytheists creating devotional material for our gods and goddesses that will hopefully be shared and passed on to future generations. If you would like to get involved with Brython’s work please see our submissions page.

*Robin does not explain this metre so this is my rendition based on the poem.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Signposts in the Mist and commented:

    My article on Devotional Poetry in the Brythonic tradition has been published on the Dun Brython blog. I’m going to be running a workshop on devotional poetry on Sunday 23rd July at the Wood Spirit Camp at Humphrey Head Outdoor Centre near Grange-over-Sands. For more information see my events page.

    Like

  2. greg says:

    Thanks for putting together this valuable sampler of devotional verse – may it inspire others to find ways of shaping offerings in words to the gods.

    Like

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