Keith and I went on a sort of pilgrimage this Samhain to the island of Anglesey, which has always been an important site for British Druidry. Not only was it the site of the famous Roman slaughter of the Druids (suggesting that it was a stronghold of theirs in the first place) but it was also the location of the first modern Druidic group (albeit a Masonic rather than a spiritual one) back in the 18th Century.
It wasn’t either of these things that had us driving across the breadth of the country, however, but rather to attend the awakening of Mari Mon, the Anglesey Druid Order’s Mari Lwyd, and to attend a workshop, ‘Voices of the Dead’ lead by Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird- a researcher and academic who specialises in Welsh folk law. Check him out on You Tube here.
Due to a number of traffic jams and road closures, which seem to have been the bane of our lives recently, we arrived on Anglesey at dusk, and arrived at our B&B in Aberffraw, once home to Llewellyn the Great, at around 7pm. The landscape is very odd, especially to someone used to the spectacular landscape of the North East. That particular part of Anglesey is very flat, and, at night, very very dark. It consists mostly of seemingly endless sand dunes and scattered villages. The overall effect is of a place that is slightly unnerving, and decidedly liminal. We could imagine just about anything coming at us out of the dark. The immediate problem however, was slightly more prosaic – there was, it turned out, one pub that served food in Aberffraw, and it was booked up. So back into the car we got, and 4 miles up the road to Rhosneigr, where we found the outstanding Sandy Mount House who took excellent care of us. The reason I mention this, is that they did something called ‘kitchen cocktails’ which are recreations of famous cocktails using only ice cream. The dessert menus featured offerings involving mead or champagne flavoured ice creams – you can probably see where this is going. We explained to our waiter that there is a cocktail called Druid’s Ruin that consists of mead and champagne – well his face lit up- being, as he was, well aware of the Druidic connections of the area. So, should you ever find yourself at the Sandy Mount House in Rhosneigr, be sure to ask for a Druid’s Ruin Kitchen Cocktail which is now on the menu. You’re welcome! Then back we went to the Prince Llewellyn B&B, also strongly recommended, for some much-needed sleep.
The next morning we made our way to the village community hub for the workshop. There is not enough space here to cover the whole of the workshop, suffice it to say that was amazing, and gave me a great deal to think about. It also connected deeply to the ideas of words, Bardism, and song, the latter being something that I am exploring in my own Druid practice at the moment. Volunteers swept a space in the centre of our circle of chairs, and placed an altar cloth down. Onto this Gwilym placed a demijohn of water from a local well surrounded with candles. This, he explained, was to be the centre of our love and positive energies throughout the day, achieved mostly by singing and chanting to it. (We drank it at the end of the workshop.)
Several things that were talked about made a real impression on me. One of the ideas that we discussed, based on a reading of some of the ‘Taliesin’ poetry, was that bardic poets in the Medieval Welsh tradition believed that to some extent they embodied the Great Bard of the past, Taliesin, that while retaining their own identity they nonetheless ‘became’ Taliesin, and so were speaking with the voices of the dead.
Even more thought provokingly, we read from a sheet containing Proto Indo-European words for ‘mother’, ‘tree’, ‘deep’… mapped onto their modern English and Welsh equivalents. Gwilym invited us to think on how truly ancient these words were, still recognisably the same words in modern English some six millennia later. He likened them to rocks that have been worn smooth in the river of our words and songs, consonants knocked off here and there but still the same words, existing long before us, and there long after we have gone. He reminded us that we learn to speak by listening to, and imitating our mothers, and the other adults around us; and that they learnt from their mothers, and they from theirs way back into the mists of time. The very physicality of our speech, the way we move our mouths and our tongues, our accents and the idiosyncrasies of the ways we use language are inherited from our ancestors. So when we use language, when we speak or sing, even in modern English, we are quite literally speaking with the voices of our ancestors – with the voices of the dead. We spent some time pronouncing the Proto Indo-European words and meditating that we were literally speaking with the voices of the dead. All of this made me think of one of the ideas that my supervisor has been playing with recently and that I am exploring in my thesis on Druidry and death, that of ‘dividuality’. In its simplest terms, this is the opposite of individuality. It is the idea that our identity is created and comprised in relationship and in relativity. We are only fully ourselves in community and in relationship with the beings around us. In the way that Professor Davies and myself are working with this idea, it describes the way that our dead, and our more distant ancestors live on in us, not just in memory, but in our genes, our mannerisms, and, of course, in the particular modulations of our speech. Certainly much food for thought there. Before we finished, we walked a short distance over the dunes to sing a Welsh chant that Gwilym had composed, blessing the river, which is always there, always the same, and yet always changing. We walked back to the hall in silence – remembering that if speech and song are powerful magic, then surely so is silence.
After a short break while it went dark, and we all had a bit of a snack, we were ready to welcome Mari Mon, the ADO’s Mari Lwyd, back from her summer sleep. It is very difficult to put into words how powerful this was. Her box (coffin?) was placed on a table in the middle of the darkened hall and a Druid with a wooded staff adorned with bells knocked on it to wake her while we took it in turns, co-ordinated by the amazing head of the ADO, Kristoffer Hughes, to recite verses in English and Welsh from the Ballad of the Mari Lwyd by Vernon Watkins. We all joined in for the ‘chorus:
Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari,
A sacred thing through the night we carry.
Betrayed are the Living,
Betrayed are the Dead,
All are confused by a horse’s head.
As the knocks progressed, the locks were slowly taken off the box until at last the lid flew off and clattered across the floor. And then slowly She emerged. The moment when her eyes lighted up was truly magical – we saw her and she saw us.
Once she was safely out of the box, she was escorted around the circle for us all to welcome and greet her.
For the Anglesey Druid Order the Mari Lwyd is Rhiannon, who herself is a manifestation of an ancient horse goddess connected to the sovereignty of the land. The Mari is her winter aspect, representing the sovereignty of the land in winter and of the liminal places between the world of the living and the world of the dead. She is the Bone Mother, and a psychopomp who guides the dead to the Other World, and, at certain times, allows them to return to spend time with their living kin. It is, as they will tell you, a modern myth, with no provable ancient roots, but this in no way stops it from being true now. It is a story that has huge power in today’s world, and that is rapidly gaining relevance and popularity in contemporary folk religion and Paganism. True to style, Keith took the opportunity to say hello to her properly, and yes, he fiddled her ears.
Once the Mari was with us and able to preside over the proceedings we progressed to the Calan Gaeaf ceremony of remembrance for the dead. Everyone present was invited to light a candle to place on the altar, naming their dead, human and non-human if they chose to do so. The sheer number of candles on the altar at the end was moving; a reminder of the ubiquity of death and grief, central as it is to the human condition. At the end, their memories were committed to the keeping of Gwyn ap Nudd and the ceremony drew to a close.
The experience was amazing, and if you ever have the opportunity to participate, I urge you to do so. We certainly felt that we had been in the presence of something truly sacred.
On the way back, we took the opportunity to stop off at the famous passage tomb od Bryn Celli Ddu, just before leaving the island. Bryn Celli Ddu was originally a stone circle and enclosure. A passage tomb was built on the site sometime later.
While it was quite tricky to find (the sign posting could have been better) the atmosphere was quite magical and you really did feel the presence of the Old Ones. It is easy to see how the site fits into a wider sacred landscape. The site is also regularly used as a sacred site by the Anglesey Druid Order and it feels very much alive and active. Having paid our respects to the stones we felt that our pilgrimage was complete, and we headed home, through the traffic jams and the road closures.