Gwyn ap Nudd is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn. As the Brythonic leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ he gathers the souls of the deceased back to his realm to be united in an otherworldly feast. This repast of the dead can, at certain times of the year, be participated in by the living.
Unfortunately this is a tradition that Christians went to great lengths to bring to an end. This article will introduce the evidence for Gwyn’s Feast, how it was abolished, and how it might be reclaimed by modern polytheists.
In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, as Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Underworld’, Gwyn presides over a feast in Caer Vedwit, ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’. At its centre is the cauldron of Pen Annwn, with its ‘dark trim, and pearls’, which ‘does not boil a coward’s food’: a vessel symbolic of rebirth.
Arthur raids seven Annuvian fortresses, confronting six thousand speechless dead men, inflicting violence on ‘the honoured and fair’ and stealing the Brindled Ox, kidnapping a bard called Gweir, and stealing the cauldron of Pen Annwn before slamming ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut.
I believe Arthur’s raid on Annwn replaced an earlier tradition of the soul’s return to the underworld and journey through seven fortresses (which are faces of the same fort) to Gwyn’s Feast and the Cauldron of Rebirth. Arthur’s defeat of Gwyn and his people and theft of his cauldron represent the triumph of Christianity over the pagan mysteries of death and rebirth.
This story is paralleled in Culhwch and Olwen, where Arthur raids Gwyn’s fortress to rescue Gwyn’s rival, Gwythyr, and his army (who include Graid who might be equated with Gweir), and steals a number of otherworldly treasures including the Brindled Ox and a magical cauldron.
Arthur also usurps Gwyn’s hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, ‘a king and for his sins God changed him into a swine’. This thinly disguises that Arthur takes leadership of Gwyn’s hunt for a human soul in boar-form – ‘the Wild Hunt’ – reducing it to just a boar hunt and again obscuring pagan traditions.
Gwyn is intimately associated with Glastonbury Tor. Excavations have revealed the existence of a building with several hearths dating to the 5th – 7th century. Two north-south aligned graves (not Christian) nearby along with an empty stone cairn and helmeted bronze head with ‘a narrow face’ and ‘slit mouth’ in the ‘long’ Celtic style suggest it may have been a pagan temple.
Bones of cattle, sheep, and pigs, from joints of meat, and Mediterranean amphorae (large jugs for holding wine) suggest feasting took place at this temple on the Tor; a liminal place where thisworld and Annwn and the living and the dead meet in revels presided over by Gwyn.
Several pernicious accounts in saints’ lives record Christian attempts to abolish this tradition. In The Charter of St Patrick, Patrick and his brother Wellias climb the Tor and find ‘an ancient oratory’. There they fast for three months ‘dominating the devils and wild beasts’ and are rewarded with a vision of Jesus telling them to claim the place in his name and invoke Michael.
In The Life of St Collen, Collen, Abbot of Glastonbury, derides Gwyn and his host as ‘Devils’. When Gwyn invites him to the summit of the Tor to feast in ‘the fairest castle he had ever beheld’, Collen refuses to ‘eat the leaves of trees’, says the red of Gwyn’s people’s clothing signifies ‘burning’ and the blue ‘coldness’, then supposedly banishes them with holy water.
Gwyn appears as Melwas* in The Life of Gildas, where he violates Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar, and carries her off to the Tor, which is well fortified by ‘thickets of reed, river, and marsh’. Gildas sides with Arthur and wins Gwenhwyfar back. The tradition of ‘Arthur’s Hunting Path’ from Cadbury to Glastonbury and his burial further illustrate his replacement of Gwyn.
In the 11th century a wooden church dedicated to St Michael was built on Glastonbury Tor. In 1243 Henry III granted permission for an annual fair to be held there for six days around the Feast of St Michael, September 29th. It seems possible St Michael’s Feast replaced Gwyn’s Feast.
The wooden church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. The stone church dedicated to St Michael was built in the 14th century and occupied until the Dissolution, when its last abbot, Richard Whiting, and two of his monks were hung, drawn and quartered within its precincts.
It is significant that Gwyn was supplanted by St Michael (who is not a saint but an archangel). Michael defeated Satan in a war in heaven and is frequently depicted vanquishing ‘that ancient serpent called the devil’. Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd is associated with two dragons and Gwyn’s dog, Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’, has two serpent’s tails. It may be suggested Gwyn too has serpentine associations and might be capable of taking dragon-form.
Michael serves the role of the angel of death, taking souls to heaven, and weighing them. This forms an antithesis to Gwyn’s gathering of souls to Annwn where all are united without moral judgement. On the ruined tower of his church on Glastonbury Tor, Michael is depicted with scales weighted toward him, rather than his opponent, the devil-in-dragon-form.
I’ve been celebrating Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September since 2013. I chose this date as it seemed possible St Michael’s Feast replaced Gwyn’s, and, whether this is the case or not, like a good time to affirm his presence in the place of Michael, who has taken over so many fairy sites.**
What matters most is that when I asked Gwyn if I could celebrate a feast for him on this date, he agreed. Since then I’ve been joined annually by a friend, and last year Lee and Greg of Dun Brython also celebrated Gwyn’s Feast, making four of us. Each of us has celebrated in our own way.
A format I have developed and found Gwyn is happy with*** is cooking him pork with apple sauce and offering him a glass of mead, along with offerings of meat for his hounds and apples for his horses. Afterward I have read prayers, poems, and stories written for him, from myself and other people with a focus on undoing his banishment and affirming his presence in the world and his growing veneration. This year, having made my own drum dedicated to him and my other guides, there will probably be drumming and maybe a journey with him too, or perhaps divination. I’m not very formal and tend to go with what he wants me to do on the night.
So if anybody wants to join us by holding a feast for Gwyn, doing a ritual, making an offering, reading a poem, raising a glass, or simply speaking his name, please do! Let’s undo the abolition of Gwyn’s Feast and show him the veneration deserved by a god of Annwn and guide of souls.
*The identification of Gwyn and Melwas is also backed up by Welsh tradition. In ‘The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar’ Melwas introduces himself: ‘Black is my steed and brave beneath me / No water will make him fear / And no man will make him swerve.’ This is clearly Gwyn’s mount, the legendary water-horse Du y Moroedd, ‘the Black of the Seas’. Other lines suggesting Melwas is Gwyn, referring to his otherworld nature, include, ‘It is I that will ride and will stand, / And walk heavily on the brink of the ebb’, and ‘I would hold against a hundred of myself’.
**John Rhys notes Michael ‘was regarded as par excellence the defender of Christians against the sprites and demons with which the Celtic imagination peopled the shades of night, the gloom of the forest, and even the straggling mist on the tops of hills. Perhaps it would not be rash to suppose that most of the old foundations associated with his name occupy sites of sinister reputation, inherited from the time when paganism prevailed in the land, sites which were considered to be dangerous and to form the haunts of evil spirits.’
Here in Lancashire there is a church dedicated to St Michael in Whitewell, which is named for its white well, which many be connected with Gwyn. It is close to Fairy Holes and Fair Oak. In Beetham St Michael’s is the destination of a coffin path/fairy path which is famous for its Fairy Steps.
***One small word of advice on something he was very unhappy with… avoid eggs at all cost. In 2014 we decided to add boiled eggs to the arranged meal of ham without asking him. Three times we boiled them for the right amount of time and they were completely uncooked!
Anon, ‘The Charter of St Patrick’ http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/chartpat.html
Anon, ‘The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhywfar’ http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/melwas.html
Caradoc of Llancarfan, The Life of Gildas, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/gildas06.html
Charlotte Guest (transl), ‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd’ http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Nicolas R. Mann, The Isle of Avalon, (Green Magic, 2008)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Yuri Leitch, Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and key to the Glastonbury Zodiac, (The Temple Publications, 2007)