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Polly’s Law: a duty of care for the Earth


‘If you care, you can move mountains.’ These were the words of the extraordinary Polly Higgins, who devoted her life to creating a law to criminalise ecological damage, a law to protect the Earth. Polly died on Easter Sunday, taken suddenly by cancer during an extraordinary week in climate history. Across central London and several cities across the world, tens of thousands were taking part in non-violent acts of civil disobedience under the banner of the Extinction Rebellion; student leader of the School Strike for Climate movement got all the political parties at Westminster to sit down together and discuss the climate crisis; and it was Earth Day, celebrated by a billion people worldwide. It was also the day that the Easter Sunday bells of Notre Dame were silent for the first time in 800 years, the day that about 250 people were killed by suicide bombs up and down Sri Lan

Polly Higgins, the Earth’s lawyer

Yes, these are crazy times and sometimes it seems as though the whole world has gone mad. But something else is happening too, something remarkable and precious. We are remembering something wonderful that is deep within us, something we had thought we had lost. We glimpsed it as we silently watched the great spire of Notre Dame burn, the shock plunging us into our hearts. The connection was there for a brief and precious moment – before the babble and the voices started all over again, drowning it out. Nevertheless, it is undeniable. We are collectively waking up, starting to step out of our comfort zones and realise that we are here for the biggest show on Earth. The voices are many, the songs varied but slowly they are harmonising into one refrain. Will humanity, or will humanity not turn the evolutionary corner from treating our planet as a commodity to be bought and sold, to collectively stepping into our roles as guardians and protectors of the fragile and delicate ecosystem on which are lives also depend?

The message is clear and simple, scientists, activists and reformers have been saying it for years. Greenpeace, Noam Chomsky, Secretary-Generals of the UN, the IPCC all tell us that we are facing climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse if we do not limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – now. Their voices were like cries in the wilderness, or if we heard them we chose not to listen. It seems that it would take a sixteen year-old student to do that. ‘We are facing an existential crisis,’ says Greta Thunberg. ‘We must act now to create a shared vision of change, to create a world that is fit for future generations.’ After her meeting with politicians in the House of Commons last week, Michael Gove echoed her demands. ‘The time to act is now, he said. Greta, you have been heard.’

Iceberg’s calving in Iceland (author’s photo)

Indeed it is now imperative we not only hear, but act. As our human population has increased, so has our impact on the natural world. The burning of fossil fuels to power, heat and light our world is the main source of CO2 emissions, but our use of plastics, pesticides and technology is causing pollution and plunder on unprecedented levels. Our impact on biodiversity is causing a mass extinction, our use of plastics is giving rise to a whole new layer in the geological record named the Anthropocene. But it is not too late, there are some simple solutions. We clearly need to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewables, we must manage and protect our oceans, reduce meat and plastic consumption, plant more trees and stop cutting them down to plant palm oil or make cattle farms. To rewild the wild.

The good news is that we have all the information we need, and there are some frameworks in place. Under the Paris Agreement, we are committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, to reach net zero by 2050. According to the IPCC, we have all the tools in our tool box to successfully limit climate change to 1.5 degrees.  We don’t need science to invent a magic machine to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, we can’t buy our way out of it, and we certainly shouldn’t intervene with drastic measures that would upset the delicate homeostasis of the Earth.


But we do need to make different lifestyle choices, and this means changes to our behavioural patterns. This is the rub, what we are resisting. Climate change and consciousness change are linked. We cannot do one without the other, and when we do one the other will happen automatically. And it is already happening, slowly but surely, like a seed planted in the ground, it has taken root and just needs more care and attention to make it grow into the shoot – like the one in the ‘Banksy’ picture. We are waking up to the fact that it is ultimately the future of our own species that is at stake. The Earth will survive, we might not.

We need people who are aligned to a cause, we need Greenpeace activists to highlight our follies, David Attenborough to tell us to halt biodiversity loss and re-wild the wild, Greta to get school children to care about their future, Extinction Rebellion activists demanding that we must act now. And most of all, we need a law to protect the Earth, for we must align our heads with our hearts if we are to change our consciousness.

That is what Polly dedicated her life to. To bring about a law at both national and international level to hold to account perpetrators of long-term severe damage to the environment. In her words, she was ‘realigning human law with natural law to take it back to the sacred trust that we all hold in our hearts.’ It’s not just ‘big corporations’ that need to clean up their act, though it is clear that this needs to happen, it’s down to each one of us too. How we take responsibility for ourselves on a microlevel is important, as this is what ripples out. Each one of us has a duty of care to the planet we call home, to protect the natural world, to protect life. And we need to expand this duty of care to a collective one. Polly has left us a framework to do this, she assures us that it is possible, even straightforward. She has now passed the baton, to Jojo Mehta and the rest of the ‘Ecocide: Change the Laws’ team, and to all of us too. She showed us what is possible when we step out of our comfort zones, she is daring us to be great. And she is assuring us that together, we can make it happen.

Five hundred million years of British history in 12 pictures

Not just backdrops, spectacular rocks! Examples of all the geological ages of Earth can be found in the British Isles. Usually seen at their most spectacular on the coast where weathering and water have both shaped and preserved vast sedimentary and tectonic processes, these images (mainly) from Southern England and Wales capture just a small flavour of the immense grandeur of our Planet. Each grain and fold tells a story that can be read like a book, and is alive on time scales that we find difficult to comprehend but is nevertheless dynamic and fully interactive with other life on Earth. This series of pictures moves through the entire Phanerozoic era (‘visible life’), starting around 542 million years ago.

All pictures taken by author.

The Michael Mary Line Part 4: White Horses and Dragons

A few years ago, we journeyed along the Michael/Mary line beginning in Ogbourne St George, Wiltshire, and headed west to Dartmoor. Sometime later, we returned to the Wessex Downs but this time coming in from the opposite direction (Caln, in the west). As soon as we entered the chalk scarp, we were struck by the huge telluric, geological currents surging through the porous rock, pushing up gentle hillocks and forming combes that looked like nodes in the land. Green fuzz now covers the chalk, which is therefore no longer visible – unless a white horse has been carved in it, that is.

Alton Barnes White Horse (credit Wikipedia)

White horses and hill forts abound in these vales demonstrating how important they once were to the people who loved and lived in them. The White Horse of Alton Barnes gracing the side of Milk Hill is visible from the A4, itself looking out towards the famous White Horse of Pewsey, where a new white horse replaces an older and now faded older version. A gentle walk along the top of the Wansdyke brings the relief of the land into clear focus, and places the white horses firmly in the context of the a broader landscape that undulates across to the Mendips and Cotswolds far into the distance. The Wansdyke itself is an intriguing feature and was probably built by the ancient Britons to keep the Saxon invaders out in a time of invasion and flux.

We continued north passed Windmill Hill and joined up with the Ridgeway. Part of a massive chalk escarpment some four hundred miles long and extending from Dorset to East Anglia, the section between the Sanctuary and the Ivinghoe Beacon in Berkshire is the most famous uninterrupted national walking trail in the country. It is along this pathway that the great dragon energies emerge from the chalk as telluric currents and intermingle with the more precise energies of the Michael/Mary line that we had been dowsing since Dartmoor. Iron Age hill forts, often built over more ancient Neolithic causewayed enclosures, become a stronger feature of the landscape, holding these powerful energies in a way that churches are unable to.

Barbary Castle (credit Wikipedia)

It was exciting and exhilarating to feel the energies swirling through Barbary castle with its three rings and ditch enclosures. Circling and dancing like a coiled snake, the earthworks contained and amplified the energies in an honouring and respectful way. This joyful dance continued along the Ridgeway to Liddington Camp, one of the earliest of the hill forts and dating back to the Late Bronze Age (around 700 BCE). These ‘forts’ were primarily used as places were clans met and feasted, traded goods and worshipped, though some defensive function is also not excluded. Therefore the term ‘fort’ does not do them justice, and neither does the medieval word ‘castle’ that implies a form of conquer and control that was not present in the minds of the people who created these structures.

In the centre of the Liddington earthworks, the energy was particularly intense and demanded some form of acknowledgement. Later, further research revealed the existence of a ritual shaft, used by the ancient Britons who occupied this site to ritually connect more deeply with the land, and harness the protective and abundant energies in a mutually honouring way.

Vale of the White Horse (credit author)

The Ridgeway continues northeast, and is cut across brutally by the M4 motorway, contrasting strongly with the respectful energies we had felt previously. Now we were in Oxfordshire but the underlying chalk knew no such boundaries and the great dragon currents surged towards the most famous vale of all – the Vale of the White Horse. According to Miller and Broadhurst, [1]the Mary current sweeps round the nexus point containing some of the most important sites in the country – The White Horse, Ufffington Castle, Dragon Hill and Wayland’s Smithy – and is anchored at the church of St Mary in Uffington. It is also just north of this area that the Belinus line crosses over the Michael/Mary line, forming a major omphalos (more on this to come). We went into this centre to explore the energies in more detail.

Wayland’s Smithy (credit author)

Just beneath Fox Hill, the Ridgeway now passes through one of the earliest Neolithic long barrows in Britain – Wayland’s Smithy. Set in a secluded grove ringed by trees, a stone burial chambers covered by a huge earth mound are surrounded by an enclosure of sarsen stones. Built during the Neolithic by the mysterious early agriculturalists in two stages, an earlier timber barrow could date back as early as 3590 BC.[2]

 The Saxons were probably the first to link the Germanic smith-god Wayland with this site, a rather ambivalent mythological figure who emerges, often in an unfavourable light, in a range of contexts from the Icelandic Eddas to the exquisitely carved Frank’s Casket, where he is depicted holding a severed head with the aid of tongs in one hand and a goblet in the other. Though the myth has him slaying a king’s son and cutting off his head, plying the same king’s daughter with wine and raping her, he is also associated with making wings from birds feathers that enable him to fly. This could account for why he appears in a variety of places plying his trade of smith, possibly linking this site (mythically at the least) with an early phase of metallurgy in pre-history. In more favourable contexts, Wayland is associated with forging magical swords and also the mail shirt worn by Beowolf in the epic poem of the same name. [3]

White Horse of Uffington (credit Wikipedia)

The White Horse itself is situated on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill, a distinctive undulating steep-sided valley formed by the interplay of land with the repeated freeze-thaw cycles of the last Ice Age. It can only really be appreciated from above or at a distance to see its full extent, emphasising its role as a beacon or orientation point in a sacred landscape. The White Horse itself has been dated to the late Bronze Age (1380 – 550 BC)  as has the (once again misnamed) Uffington castle on top of the hill, a huge square structure surrounded by earthworks. Not much of the original remains but to walk the parameters of the site gives some feel of its scope and scale. As the highest place for miles around, it would have had great ritual (and therefore economic) importance for the ancient Britons who inhabited the area.  

The energies are still palpable in the earthworks but do not have the joyful innocent quality that we had felt previously. These ancient walkways were fed by pilgrims and travellers that kept the energy flowing between nodal points, often represented by barrows and mounds, through a mutual honouring between land and walker. When this is no present, the flow and therefore the energies recede into the background, or indeed stagnate, waiting patiently to be acknowledged and activated once again at some future time.

Dragon Hill (credit author)

The White Horse itself is no longer accessible and when standing in the physical landscape, it is hard to see the horse at all. Indeed, it is now Dragon Hill, a small chalk hill with artificially flattened top siting sitting just below the White Horse, that draws the visitor in both visually and energetically. A large chalk circle marks the eye, said to be the spot where St George killed the dragon, the blood preventing grass from growing on its summit. As ever the myth of dragon slaying going hand in hand with the presence of huge telluric landscape currents, which is one of the reasons that these energies are called dragon energies.

It is significant that both the dragon and horse are present in this landscape. There are many theories as to the meaning of the White Horse. Some see it as a solar horse, whose origins stretch back into the deep past of an Indo-European mythology that perceived the sun carried across the sky by a horse or chariot. [4] Archaeo-astronomical investigations have suggested a link between the horse and the midwinter sun, others discern a connection between the landscape and the constellation of Draco, all of which warrants further investigation.

‘Rhiannon’ by Alan Lee

There are other land based alternatives. To the Celtic and the ancient Britons,  the white horse was the ultimate symbol of Sovereignty, who was both the goddess of the land and the land itself. She bestowed kingship in exchange for protection and when this was honoured, the land was fertile and all life forms were happy. The Brythonic Sovereignty goddesses Rhiannon is closely associated with the white horse, as are the Celtic goddesses Aine and Maeve.

White Horse (credit author)

At this place of great power, we can stand and reconnect with this aspect of the land, take back our own Sovereignty and empowerment and come back into harmony with the energies of the Earth herself, and therefore with the energies of the wider cosmos. That the horse still holds energetic sway here is reflected by the land in the numerous horse racing stables that cluster at the foot of Lambourne Down, serving as training grounds for hundreds of race horses that still gallop through the Vale to this day.


[1] Broadhurst and Miller, (1998) ‘The Sun and the Serpent’

[2] ‘Wayland’s Smithy’ available at http://www.en.m.wikipedia.org

[3] As above

[4] Pollard, J. (2017). ‘The Uffington White Horse geoglyph as sun-horse.’ Antiquity. 91. (326): 406 – 420 (Accessed 10.4.21)

Ragnarok: When one world ends and another begins

We are living in times of great upheaval where the pandemic has triggered the breakdown of our world as we knew it. Daily events can be described as ‘apocalyptic’ in the true sense of the world, for apocalypse literally means the disclosure or revelation of knowledge. In all areas of life from the political, institutional, social, spiritual, economic and ecological, corruption and inequality are coming to the surface, highlighting the flawed premise of separation on which our world view is based. We are drowning in lies and misinformation that fuel the fires of delusion and deception, but in these uncertain times, one thing is certain. Things are changing and the only choice we have is to embrace the chaos and begin to pick out of the wreckage the pieces worth saving and bring them with us into a new world of our making.

This is not the first time that humans have lived through apocalyptic times and our mythologies are replete with stories of breakdown, and breakthrough, that can serve as valuable navigational tools. None is more pertinent for our current situation than the Norse tale of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, originally told in an Icelandic poem dating back to the late tenth century. Just substitute certain humans into the role of the gods and the parallels are obvious, though the final interpretation will depend on your own viewpoint and perspective.

The word Ragnarok means ‘fatal destiny’, implying that the process of breakdown, though excruciating and often deadly, is also inevitable. The golden age of peace would have lasted if only the gods had kept their passions under control! But they could not. The world order, kept in place by oaths sworn in the presence of the powers of the earth herself, had been disregarded and abused. The gods of the Aesir had tortured the envoy from the Vanir (elder gods) in order to extract her gold, they broke their promise to the giants who had built their celestial dwelling, tricking them out of what they owed. Once they greedily broke their sacred promises, the fabric of their world began to unravel, ushering in an era of perjury, violence and warfare.

The Twilight of the Gods however, was long since predicted, for it was known that one day the giants and all those who had been banished to the subterranean regions would rise and overthrow the established order. Heimdall had been appointed to stand guard day and night by the rainbow bridge at the entrance to Asgard (the dwelling place of the gods). The giant wolf, Fenrir, had been bound in chains to stop him bringing about destruction and war, but the fateful day could only be put off, not averted for good.

Inevitably, it was a combination of factors that brought about Ragnarὄk, but of course the archetype of Trickster had to play a major role. Trickster is he who uses misinformation, manipulation, lies and tricks for his own end, but in so doing hold up to the mirror to us all and reveals those places where the shadow has taken control. In Norse mythology it is Loki who plays this part, and because of his own weakness and need to be everyone’s favourite, he committed a heinous crime.

Balder was the favourite of the gods, the son of Odin and Frigg, and was full of light and radiance. His mother loved him so much that she made everything on earth swear an oath never to harm her beautiful son. But his invincibility and popularity aroused the jealousy of Trickster, and Loki conspired not only to kill Balder but to ensure that the gods did not manage to bring him back from the Underworld through their otherworldly powers. His role in the death of their favourite was discovered and the gods bound him in chains, but this only strengthened his hatred and resolve. Though it would inevitably also bring about his own destruction, he broke his chains and joined the side of the demons and giants who hated the gods of the Aesir and were their sworn enemies.

Meanwhile, the situation on middle earth continued to deteriorate. An ancient giantess birthed a whole host of wolves, one of which chased the sun and swallowed it, bringing on hideous winters, storms, famine, pestilence and warfare. Brother slew brother, children no longer respected the ties of blood. Finally, the wolf Fenrir broke free of his chains, making the whole earth tremble and shaking the World Tree Yggdrasil from its roots to its topmost branches. Mountains crumbled and split and the entrances to the subterranean world of the dwarfs was cut off for good. The serpent Midgard stirred up giant waves from the depths of the oceans and the giants, roused from their place of banishment, arrived in ships from the north and the south. There was no turning back, for the shadow had been unleashed on a world that had long since sought to bury it. Heimdall sounded his horn signalling the beginning of Ragnarὄk, summoning the gods to meet with the armies of the giants on a field near Valhalla. It was to be a battle to the death.

In the midst of the fray was the god Odin with his golden helmet and holding his magical spear, Gungnir. He flew round the field like a hurricane, accompanied by the Valkyries on their dazzling chargers, and made for the wolf Fenrir with his sword raised. Alas, the wolf opened his massive jaws and swallowed the father of the gods! One by one they fell – Thor, Heimdall, Tyr, even Loki, all perished on the battlefield that day. Now that mankind had no protectors, they were driven from their hearths and swept off the face of the earth. Easily, just like that.

Then even the earth began to lose shape. Stars came adrift from the sky and fell into the void. Flames spurted from the fissures of rocks and there was the hissing of steam. All living things including plants were blotted out and the waters rose and boiled, covering over the earth and all traces of the place of the final battle. The world had ended. Ragnarὄk had played itself out.

But, gradually, in the midst of chaos and destruction came renewal. The world began to birth itself afresh and solid land emerged from the waves. Mountains rose up and the waters came under control, forming waterfalls and fountains and fertilising barren land so that the fecund green mantle gradually returned. Crops grew, and some animals returned, even a new sun appeared. And with it a new generation of gods. These gods had already been in existence but never shared in the passion and quarrels of the old gods, not committing perjury or violence or other crimes, and the radiant Balder was reborn. Hoenir, Odin’s faithful companion also survived, and he studied the runes and read the secrets of the future.

A small number of humans started to reappear. They had taken shelter in the branches of Yggdrasil, which the conflagration had been unable to consume. Throughout the apocalypse and days of destruction their only food had been the morning dew, the dew from the leaves of Yggdrasil that had once filled the valley with the memory of yesterday. This precious dew was collected by the Norn called Urd, one of the three sisters who tended the World Tree and wove the web of destiny that controlled life itself. In a daily ritual, she carefully poured the precious dew into her well, the Well of Memory, so that it may be used to grow the flowers of the present and assist them to reach out to the future.

If we carefully tend the World Tree and it’s well, taking nourishment from them both, then we too will return after the chaos has subsided. This time we might bring with us a host of new gods that are both within us and without, both imminent and woven into the fabric of the universe itself. Who do not commit perjury or wage warfare or other crimes, but listen to and uphold the rights of the earth, and in doing serve all life forms, both human and other than human.

References: The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology

Images: ‘Then the awful fight began’ by George Wright

‘Heimdall an der Himmelsbrucke’ by unknown

‘Loki’ by Arthur Rackham

December Long Nights Moon: Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel

Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel is one of the most enigmatic of all the Celtic Welsh goddesses, but as Virgin Mother of the Sacred Child and full moon goddess, her story is the perfect one to end the year. Only fragments of this once mighty goddess survive today, but nevertheless she is named as the ‘silver circled daughter of Don and Beli Mawr’ in the Welsh Triads, the primal mother and father gods of the Welsh pantheon, and therefore a first-generation goddess in her own right. Her dwelling place, the Caer Arianrhod was in the magical realm of the north, the Caer Sidi, the land of the dead where souls resided between incarnations. Arianrhod was said to gather the souls of warriors who had fallen in battle and transport them to a realm in the Caer Sidi called Emania, or Moonland,[1] and this has led to her association as a moon goddess.

Arianrhod features in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, where her story is told through the lens of medieval patriarchal Welsh society played out through her uncle and brothers. The story centres round Math Son of Mathonwy, lord of Gwynedd, who when not in battle, had to rest with his feet in the lap of a virgin. Goewin, the fairest maiden of her time, was the one chosen to play this role, but when she is tragically raped by one of Math’s men, she no longer able to fulfil it. There is much more than meets the eye behind this ancient story, but suffice to say for now, Gwydion, the brother of Arianrhod suggests that his sister might like to take over the job. Presumably seeking a marriage alliance with the king, he journeys to Arianrhod’s castle and persuades her to return to court with him.

Virgin goddesses were common in antiquity and were whole unto themselves, not needing a man for either sexual reproduction or validation. However, by medieval times the concept of virginity had taken on a completely different meaning and was perceived not only in terms of chastity, but as something controlled by men. Therefore, upon her arrival at court, Arianrhod is forced to give proof of her virginity, which she does by stepping over a magical rod held out by Math. Again, the symbolism and deeper meaning behind this act warrants further investigation, but sticking to the story for now, we are told that as she steps over the rod, Arianrhod gives birth to twins.  One of these boys is named Dylan, and he flees to the sea and swims away, and the other is scooped up by Gwydion and hidden in a chest. In this way, Arianrhod has fulfilled her role as Virgin mother of sacred twins, but in this medieval version, she is shamed for not being chaste and flees the court in disgrace.

Gwydion now takes over custody of the magical child, who he brings to a wet nurse to wean. He grows rapidly, and when he is eight years old, Gwydion journeys with his nephew to the palace of his mother. Arianrhod, still bitter about her humiliation, lays a tynged on her son, translated as taboo or curse: he shall have no name, unless she gives it to him. In due course, Gwydion disguises the boy as a shoemaker, and they return to Arianrhod’s court to fit her with shoes. She sees the boy killing a wren with a single stone, for Robert Graves symbolic of the new god/king killing the old, and she names him Llew Llaw Gyffes (the fair haired one with the single hand), showing that he has now come of age as sacred child, possibly a sun-hero.[2]

When Gwydion reveals the deception, Arianrhod lays another taboo on him: he will never take arms unless she arms him. Several years later, the uncle nephew pair once again visit her, this time disguised as bards, and after entertaining the court, Gwydion conjures up magical warships to make Arianrhod think they are under attack. Thereupon she is tricked into providing weapons and armour for her son, thus voiding her second curse. She now declares her final taboo: that he will never have a wife from any race that is now upon the Earth.

Arianrhod is often portrayed as a pentulent and spiteful mother who tries to deprive her son of his manhood by withholding his name, preventing him from taking arms, and from taking a wife. However, when we understand that Arianrhod was acting within her rights as not only his mother but as matriarch of the tribe, her actions can be seen in a different light. In this context, it is the uncle and brother who are the usurpers by seeking to withhold and deny her natural rites, which they do by trickery and deception.

Nevertheless, the story continues. Gwydion is undaunted by this final taboo, and together with Math, magically creates from the flowers of oak, broom, and meadow sweet, the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone ever saw, and they named her Blodeuwedd. She is duly wed to their nephew, but this story does not end happily (see of Flower Brides and Green Men above).  In brief, Blodeuwedd takes a lover and with him conspires to kill her husband, who is transformed into an eagle as the blow is struck, then brought back to life again by his uncles, who now transform Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment,’ for the owl was perceived as an evil creature of the night, despised and persecuted by other birds.’ [3]

As for Arianrhod, humiliated and defeated she is said to spend the rest of her days at her palace, Caer Arianrhod, until one day the sea claimed her realm, dragging it down beneath the waves. Today, her earthly island palace can still be glimpsed off the coast of Gwynedd near Llandwrog, where at low tide, an oval shaped reef remains in the shallows.[4]

Though the earthly aspect of the goddess may have had her time, she has been immortalised in the night sky. Her palace in the far north in the rotating realm of the Caer Sidi is linked to the circumpolar realm of the immortals, forever revolving round a central pole star. Arianrhod herself is etymologically linked to the Corona Borealis, for Caer Arianrhod is the Welsh term for the constellation. This could then be the place where  the souls of the dead withdraw to between incarnations. It has also been suggested that the Caer Gwydion has links to the Milky Way and the Lys Don, or Court of Don could refer to constellation of Cassiopeia, demonstrating that a sophisticated cosmology could be at the heart of these stories. [5]

And as above, so below, for while the cosmos offers a celestial aspect to the journey of the soul, the story also portrays the natural cycles of life and death down here on Earth. To Robert Graves, Arianrhod is an incarnation of the White Goddess, or Goddess of Life-in-Death and Death-in-Life who gives birth to the Sacred Child, and who, after dispatching his rival, himself becomes the Sun hero. She then adopts the form of Blodeuwedd, the love goddess who as is customary, destroys her lover, and is herself transformed into the Owl of Wisdom, feeding on his flesh, while his soul is transformed into that of an eagle and lives on.[6] In this way, Arianrhod is truly an aspect of the wheel of karma and reincarnation, of which her Silver Wheel could also be a metaphor, forever weaving and spinning the web of life, death and rebirth.


[1] ‘Arianrhod, Celtic Star Goddess, by Judith Shaw, available at www.feminismandreligion.com

[2] ‘The White Goddess’ by Robert Graves, see p. 94

[3] ‘The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited and translated by Patrick K. Ford, 2019

[4] See Mystical Places of North Wales, available at www.northwalesholidaycottages.co.uk for more details

[5] See ‘Caer Gwydion’ by Mabinogion Astronomy, available at www.mabinigionastronomy.blogspot.com

[6] ‘The White Goddess’ by Robert Graves, see p. 94

Winter Solstice: The World Tree, Saturn and the Sacred Child

Finally after weeks of gathering darkness, the turning point has arrived. For millennia humans have honoured this pivotal event and even constructed monumental architecture, such as the passage tombs at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley and Abu Simbel in Egypt, to celebrate the first rays of the returning sun at the Winter Solstice. And just as in Nature the sun is reborn at the Solstice, so it is in mythology around the world that the Virgin gives birth to a sacred son. Mithra was born in a cave of a Virgin in Persia: in Welsh tradition, Rhiannon gave birth to Pryderi; in Egypt, Isis to Horus and in Christian tradition, Mary to Jesus. In Ancient Greece, the festival of the Wild Women was held at Winter Solstice, when the death and rebirth of the harvest god Dionysus was dramatised

Inevitably, according to cosmic law, rebirth must be accompanied by sacrifice, or the offering of a sacred gift. This balancing of the cosmic scales has often been depicted in myth and legend by the usurping of the father by the son: the old king, Saturn, or Father Time, is overthrown by the new king Jupiter/Zeus, ruler of the ages. Going back further still, Saturn also overthrew his father, Uranus, first a revolutionary then a despot who banished his children to the Underworld. So Saturn conspired with his mother Gaia against his father, castrating him and taking over the governance of the world, an event celebrated at the Winter Solstice in Rome through a week-long celebration called the Saturnalia

In cosmic terms, it is the dance of opposition and conjunctions between the outer visible planets that mirrored above what was going on below, and the most auspicious of these were the great conjunctions between Saturn (ruler of time) and Jupiter (ruler of the ages). Many researchers have pointed out that there was such a conjunction in 7 BCE, and this could have been the famed Star of Bethlehem followed by the wise men to the cave in where Jesus lay.

Our own century was also ushered in with such a great conjunction in May 2000. Nine years later, in 2009, Saturn and Uranus then made a series of powerful oppositions symbolising the clash of visionary idealism and the crystallisation of visions into solid structures and forms. This was followed by the Jupiter and Uranus triple conjunctions of 2010 – 2011, continuing to bring about change and awakening new levels of political, psychological and spiritual awareness. Now in 2020 a year-long dance of the outer planets with Pluto (in Capricorn), energised by fiery Mars in its own sign of Aries, culminates at the Winter Solstice with a line up and grand conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius. And that’s not all. Great conjunctions between the rulers of time and the ages occurs roughly every 20 years, staying in one element for a period of around 200, before moving to the next. This year the Great Mutation will occur in air, the ruler of ideas, collective awareness, and all things Internet-based. So, this Winter Solstice, we have a Great Transformation, a Great Mutation and a Great Conjunction all in the first degree of Aquarius!

Bridging the cosmic and the terrestrial is the symbolic World Tree, the axis mundi that links the three worlds. And houses throughout the land currently have their very own evergreen World Tree, complete with a twinkling star on top. Myths describing this ancient symbol stretches across all ages and cultures, but the Norse version is one of the most beautiful and evocative of them all. Here it is Yggdrasil, the sacred ash, that holds the nine realms of the cosmos within its branches and roots. Each of its three roots ends in different worlds where they draw water form different sources, or well, and the dragon Nidhogg continuously gnaws upon them. A stag feasts on the branches, and from his horns flow the waters that feed all the rivers and wells flow. Three Norns protect and tend to the World Tree, caving magic runes into its trunk and weaving a loom that represents time itself. Every morning the leaves of Yggdrasil form a sweet glimmering dew, our memory of yesterday, and it is the sacred duty of one of the Norns to collect the dew and pour it into her well, the Well of Memory, for it is written that if the past is disregarded the roots will dry up. In the centre of her well are two sacred swans, continually creating love, and there are also said to be serpents. Another Norn presides over the flowers that are fed by the sacred waters, and the third assists the flowers to reach out to the future.

So it is by tending the wisdom and experience of the past that we build the foundations for a rich and soulful future. As the wheel of the year turns this Winter Solstice under a great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter (Star of Bethlehem?) heralding in the Age of Aquarius, this beautiful myth shows us how to collect the sweet glimmering due of the past in order to weave a glorious and joyful future for all of the nine worlds of which we are just one part. And one, which the prophets foretold, will bring peace and good will to all men and women.

Image Credit: the Norns tending the World Tree by Ratatoska.

November Snow Moon: Toadstools, Frogs and Fairy Queens

Around the November full moon, it was customary in Ireland to dress in green in honour of the fairy folk and their most famous queen, Oonagh. Known as the most beautiful goddess of them all, Oonagh was said to fly over the land wearing a gossamer, silver robe bejewelled with dew, her long golden hair sweeping the ground, beguiling all those with whom she came into contact. Though mortal men could not help but fall in love with her, the High King Finvarrva, her husband, seemed oblivious to her glamour and preferred instead to seduce mortal women. Today, the once High Queen of the Daoine Sidhe, or people of the mound, has been relegated to such vague titles as ‘love goddess,’ or ‘protectress of young animals’ and ‘mistress of illusion and glamour,’ but we can still piece together the mere fragments of her story that survive to develop a picture of this elusive queen and the rites that once surrounded her.

According to the Mythological Cycle, the Tuatha De Danann were a pre-historic people who arrived in Ireland ‘on the first of May,’ and engaged in battle with the Fir Bolg, a pre-existing warrior tribe, at Mag Tuireadh. Though the Tuatha were victorious they also had to negotiate with a pre-existing tribe known as the Formorians, who were hostile to them but who they finally defeated years later with the aid of magical weapons at the second battle of Mag Tuireadh. However, they were in turn also destined to be replaced by another incoming tribe, the Milesians, who also arrived on the 1st May, and later converted to Christianity. The characters of the Tuatha became mythologised as gods and retired to the sidhe, the pre-historic burial mounds that peppered the Irish landscape, where they remain to this day.[1] It is widely disputed to what extent this mythological history constitutes actual migrations, or the battles real historical events, but it should always be born in mind that myths emerge out of a relationship between people and places and therefore contain perennial truths and ecological wisdoms with multiple meanings and nuances.

Whether historic figures or not, the Tuatha were said to have magical powers, to be masters of the sidhe, or siddhi, which means in this context, power over the elemental forces and therefore the arts of prophecy, healing and magic. These powers were quite literally regarded as otherworldly – the Otherworld being the realm of archetypal and magical beings (‘Super-nature’) that both permeates and is separate from the world inhabited by humans. Super-nature has an existence that is independent from us, and if we are fortunate, comes forward to us in our imagination and dreams. In fairy lore, this place is sometimes known as the Land of Elphame, where the fairies of Daoine-sidhe, are said to reside. Oonagh as Fairy Queen could access the wisdom of the Elphame, and her colour was green, reflecting the emerald grass, majestic trees and plants abounding in the land of Ireland.

The people of the Daoine-sidhe would have guarded their powers tightly (this could have been the origins of the term green with envy?) and therefore it was not permitted for fairy queens to marry mortals, though they themselves became infatuated with her. It is interesting in the stories that Finvarra is said to indulge quite freely in carnal relationships with mortal women, and this could  be an indication that his offspring would not have been given the same fay status as that of the matrilineal fairy queen. Be that as it may, during later times and under the superstitions and distortions imposed by Christianity, people feared that their own children had been supplanted by ‘malevolent’ changeling fairies who brought about family ills, and designed tests to root out infiltrators that inevitably, and sadly, ended in deforming their own children.

The Fairy Queen though usually beguiling also had a dark side, for it was said that she was bound to pay a tithe to Hel every seven years and it was her mortal lovers who were to pay this price. Men were therefore both fascinated and afraid of her, as reflected in the poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by Keats. The knight in the poem ‘meets a lady in the meads, full beautiful – a faery’s child. Her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild.’ He rides off with the fairy maid and then sees,’ pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death pale were they all. They cried, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci Hath thee in thrall.’

Like Oonagh, the faery being in the poem is said to have long hair and again this is a symbol of both the chastity and unavailability of the fay woman, who even when vulnerable and naked, remains veiled by her hair. This ‘veiling’ is a very ancient symbol of the goddess, or the mysteries, that remain veiled to the uninitiated until the time is right. Indeed, Oonagh’s gossamer dress is more veil than robe-like, as though it appears like sparkling diamonds, it is actually made from dew-drops.

The fairy queen of Elphame has an enduring presence in the popular imagination of the Middle Ages and has survived in numerous pieces of literature and folktale. Edmund Spenser called her Gloriana in his poem the Faerie Queen, and Shakespeare called her Titania in his comedy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ This name was itself derived from Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, who became associated with the fairy realm in the folklore of the Middle Ages on account of her association with woods, forests and fountains.[2]

The social structures of the Tuatha de Danaan were centred on seas of assembly called raths, circular mounds built as ancient burial mounds and therefore considered sacred. They were sometimes known as fairy rings, as were pre-existing stone circles. Fairy rings are also the name given to a type of mushroom – the Mousseron – which appears in early spring-time and grows in circular formations that expand out over large periods of time. This mushroom variety is highly edible, but sometimes growing alongside is another variety called Amanita muscaria, more often called a toadstool on account of its red-topped fungus and warty proturberances. It is classed as highly poisonous, though less so when boiled, and is ingested on account of its hallucinogenic and intoxicating properties.[3] It has long since been used in a ritual context, possible recorded in the Rigveda of India, were it was called ‘soma.’ The uses of ayahuasca and the psilocybin mushrooms as hallucinogens is well known and more than likely used by ancient people in ritual context to bring about spiritual experiences, and aid communication with the archetypal beings of the Otherworld.

Toads are known to have highly toxic chemicals in the nodes under their skin, which they can use as deadly defences in some cases. Most are poisonous, but it has been discovered that the cane toad, amongst others, secretes chemicals with highly hallucinogenic effects.[4] It is therefore interesting to speculate if there is a link between these properties and the fairy tale theme of princesses kissing frogs, which then turn into handsome princes. In a version of the frog prince tale told in the Western Isles of Scotland, it is tempting to see just this. The story begins with a queen who has become ill and can only be healed by water from the well of truth. Her three daughters set out to find the well, but when they approach it, a loathsome frog appears who will only grant them access if one agrees to marry him. The youngest pledges to do so, and the frog permits them access to the water, which is then used to heal the mother queen. But in due course, the frog seeks out the daughter and reminds her of her pledge to marry him. He croaks and croaks, but she resolutely ignores him until he tells her to put an end to his torture and chop off his head! This she duly does, whereupon he turns into a handsome prince and marries the princess.

The fairy story of the frog prince can be interpreted on many other levels worthy of an entire book, but all of which encode a forgotten relationship between humans and the Otherworld inhabited by the people of the sidhe (Super-nature). By having the humility to accept nature in all its forms, beautiful and ugly, and to be open to the Otherworld and its gifts of ‘fairy gold,’ we have the power to transform  our mundane human experience into one of deep connection with the land, and to the life-sustaining nourishment of the mythic imagination from which we are currently so disconnected.

In addition to circular mounds, water was also frequently seen as a boundary between the mortal and the Otherworld, or Land of Elphame, and it was at these water sources that frogs and toads were frequently found, as in the folktale above. Visibly seen to be birthed in pools of water, frogs were considered as representatives of water spirits, particularly healing ones, often associated with the blessings of rain and the purifying and life-giving forces of water. Figurines of frogs with female heads have been found dating back to at least the sixth millennium BCE in Hacilar in Turkey, and also in birthing/life giving poses in the archaeological record of Old Europe.[5] The fact that frogs laid frog spawn (eggs), which is then turn hatch into tadpoles, aquatic creatures with tails, then finally develop into frogs (amphibians that can survive both on land and in water) marks them out as unique manifestations of the goddess as both creatrix and regeneratrix.


[1] ‘The new Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology’ 1959, Hamlyn

[2] See ‘Fairy Queen – Wikepedia’ available at www.en.m.wikepedia.org, accessed 29.11.2020

[3] See ‘Fly Algaric (Amanita muscaria) – Woodland Trust’ available at www.woodlandtrust.org.uk, accessed 29.11.2020

[4] See ‘Psychedilic Toad Venon is the New Trendy Hallucinogenic Addition,’ available at www.addictioncenter.com, accessed 29.11.2020.

[5] ‘The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe,’ by Marija Gimbutas, 1982, Thames and Hudson

Samhain Blue Moon: the Morrigan, Crows and Hel

This year the thirteenth moon of the year, when there are two full moons in a month, auspiciously falls at Samhain, an ancient festival of death and new beginnings. This liminal time becomes quite literally tonight a ‘Time between Worlds’ represented by the twelve months of the solar calendar and the more ancient thirteen moons of the lunar calendar, both of which comprise roughly 365 days. A potent blue moon and time of transformation and magic.

In the Celtic world, Samhain was when the cattle were brought down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered in preparation for the forthcoming winter months. It was a time of great feasting and drinking, a major fire festival when the beacons would be lit across the hill tops to cleanse and purify and re-establish the bond between heaven and earth. Also when the veils between the worlds are thin, bringing us closer to the spirit of the ancestors and the Sidhe. This festival-of-the-dead aspect has been incorporated into the Catholic tradition of All Souls and All Saints day, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, when celebrations still take place all over the world in cemeteries or in the streets. For most people, this is Halloween when children go out trick-or-treating, and even this has deep roots in the past. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, people would go door to door begging for soul cakes, which were then used to feed the souls of the dead.

This is also a time of powerful celestial harbingers. At the beginning of November, Earth passes through the Taurids meteor shower, when great flares of slow moving light streak across the night sky. In the past, this is possibly a time when meteors fell to Earth, making this a time of dangerous potent, but also highly auspicious, linking heaven and earth, life and death. In the Anglo-Saxon period, this was when the goddess Hel was on the loose. Sometimes she is said to ride with Odin across the skies in the Wild Hunt, when the demons of the Underworld maraude in the form of large, ominous, ghostly hordes. This deeply celestial motif could also be linked in folk memory to the vast flocks of migrating birds, particularly geese, that would have filled the skies with awesome flapping of wings and haunting honking sounds as they fly across the backdrop of the Milky Way to winter feeding grounds.

Odin made Hel queen of Niflheim, the Underworld realm of the dead, and she was terrible to behold, one half of her body healthy and the other half rotten and diseased. She received all the dead, except those who had died in battle, and her realm was part a place of rest and peace, part a place where the evil were punished for their terrible deeds. Sound familiar? However, she was also associated with lakes and streams under the name of Holde (in the German speaking world), and with the growing of flax, spinning and the hearth, demonstrating that she was once a multi-faceted goddess who has become demonised by the Church in later times.[1]

In Celtic tradition, it was the great queen, the Morrigan, who came to the fore at Samhain. This ancient phantom queen had three aspects, Badb (the banshee or crow), Macha and Neman. She was a guardian of territory and people, so a Sovereignty goddess, and in this respect was associated with war and fate,  and with prophetic voice, particularly that associated with doom, death or victory in battle. In her death aspect she was seen as an old woman washing the bloody sheets of the dead at the crossroads, the washer at the ford, the archetypal banshee.

In the Mythological Cycles, the Morrigan is listed among the Tuatha de Danaan and appears in many of the old stories. For example, in the Cattle Raid of Cooley she reveals herself to be a shapeshifter par excellence, turning into a series of animals – a crow, woman, eel, wolf, a white red-eared heifer – all of which sustain wounds, then finally an old woman milking a cow but with the wounds gained in animal form still intact. The story then goes on to reveal her healing and regenerative abilities, for she gives the hero milk from her cow three times and in return he blesses her, healing her wounds.

In the Second Battle of Moytura, the Morrigan has a Samhain tryst with the Dagda before he goes into battle with the Fomorians. He is out walking by the river when:

‘He beheld a woman washing herself with one of her two feet to the south of the water, and the other to the north of the water. Nine loosened tresses were on her head. The Dadga conversed with her and they made a union. The bed of the Couple is the name of the place henceforward. The woman that is there mentioned is the Morrigu.’ [2]

She tells him where the Fomorians will land and promises to kill the Fomorian king and bring back two handfuls of his blood as proof. Their union is said to take place every year on the eve of Samhain, which marks the end of the agricultural year and the beginning of a new one, so this coupling between the forces of light and darkness is possibly symbolic of new beginnings, and of rebirth in sexual union.

The primary bird of the triple Morrigan is the hooded crow, and she is sometimes depicted in this form. The tradition of the great goddess as bird is ancient and there is a lot of evidence for her in this form in the Old European Copper Age. [3]This was when the goddess nurtured and generated, destroyed and regenerated again and her beak, claws, wings, vulva and breasts symbolised these transitional stages. Crows are also scavengers and appeared on the battlefield to feed off the flesh of the dead, linking them with the forces of destruction and suffering associated with death in this form, accentuated by their hooded heads, scaly claws and hooked beaks. They also spoke in haunting tones, their caws floating eerily through desolate landscapes, and they were therefore often used in divination, to foretell the death of heroes, and their flight patterns could also be interpreted by druids versed in their meanings. The link between these birds and the life-death-rebirth cycle mediated by the goddess is seen in the ritual of burying crows, or ravens, with outspread wings at the bottom of pits or shafts linking this world with the Underworld. This was the bird goddess as psychopomp, guiding and accompanying the souls of the dead on their journey between the worlds. When death is seen as part of life and not morbidly feared, then regeneration and rebirth emerge as natural parts of the cycle of life/death of which we are all part.


[1] ‘Hel, Norse goddess of the Underworld,’ available at http://www.learnreligions.com

[2] ‘The Second Battle of Moytura,’ Stokes, 1891 available at http://www.sacredtexts.com

[3] See Marija Gimbutas’ work for abundance evidence

Picture credits: ‘Morrigan’ by Irenhorrors, ‘Crow’ and ‘Morrigan’ under public domain licencing

October Blood Moon: Pig, Ivy and the Curse of Macha

As we enter October, named from Octem in the old Roman calendar, we begin our slow descent into the Underworld of winter. The last of the fruits ripen, succulent yellow pears, and the chlorophyl in green leaves dries to produce shades of burnished bronze. Most plants give in gracefully to this Underworld descent, but a few continue to flourish. Foremost amongst these is the virulent ivy, wrapping undeterred its spiralling, waxy leaves around anything standing in its path.

Ivy has been associated with intoxication and poetry in many cultures, with the constellations, and in particular the moon. In the classical world, it was used to enhance the frenzied rituals of the Bacchae, followers of Dionysus, who steeped ivy leaves in wine in order to make it more potent (and the after-effects less so). The Anglo-Saxons also used it to brew beer before the introduction of hops, then known as alehoof, and taverns would display an ivy bush over the door to show they brewed only the best alcohol. [1]This demonstrates that the Celtic world was familiar with the potent intoxicating effects of the plant, and could have used it in ritual contexts to enhance inspiration and bardic ability.

The October full moon was sometimes known as the blood moon because this was when life stock was slaughtered and salted in preparation for the long winter months ahead. Swine herders would drive their pigs throughout autumn to graze on the acorns and beech nuts strewn across the ways and woods, distributing the fat evenly across the body of the creatures through daily exercise. As such the pig, the sow in particular, was often seen as the nourisher, sacred to the goddess in many traditions and held in high regard in the Celtic one. Pigs were herded and consumed in large numbers at clan gatherings and feasts, and also at symbolic Otherworldly feasts where great life-giving cauldrons were said to be endlessly filled with boiled or roasted pork.

Pigs were often used ritualistically in the Celtic world, and at the Iron Age fort on Hayling Island and Cadbury in Somerset, large numbers of pigs have been found deliberately buried, sometimes in avenues.[2] They were also sometimes buried alongside people, whom they presumably continued to nourish in the afterlife, and it was believed that the pigs too would be continually reborn after their slaughter. Whereas the sow was linked with nourishment and life, it was the male boar who was more associated with death and life-taking aspects.

Swine nerds are also mentioned in early Welsh sacred tradition, and the White Ancient One, a sow called Henwen is said to give birth to an eagle, a bee, a kitten and a grain of wheat. This birthing or shapeshifting ability has led some researchers to see links between Henwen and the goddess Ceridwen, who they call the white sow goddess of pigs. Though the evidence for this is thin, there is abundant evidence that the sow was seen as sacred to a life-giving creatrix goddess as far back as early Neolithic times across Europe, and this could be an echo of this belief.

In Celtic tradition, October and the feast of Samhain are often linked with the Morrigan, a triple goddess with one of her aspects taking the form of the intriguing Sovereignty goddess, Macha. She was said to be one of the Tuatha de Danaan, and sometimes considered a triple goddess in her own right, with different persona woven together in the stories to form one multi-faceted person. As a Sovereignty goddess, she is an embodiment of the land, conferring sexual favours on suitable kings selected to step into the role of guardians. As protector of both territory and the people connected with it, she is also both warrior and carer, mediator of fertility and plenty.

One of her most famous stories is told in the Debility of the Ulstermen, where she is strongly connected with the horse, the ultimate symbol of Celtic Sovereignty . Her appearance is sudden and unexpected, for one day she simply shows up at the house of a farmer named Cruinniuc and takes on the role of his wife. ‘She fetched a kneading-trough and a sieve and began to prepare food. As the say drew to an end, she took a vessel and milked the cow, still without speaking.’[3]

 His wealth grew and Cruinniuc prospered with Macha at his side, a sure sign that she was the goddess Sovereignty in human form, and she even becomes pregnant by him. One day he leaves to attend a festival organised by the king of Ulster, and she warns him that he must not speak of her to anyone otherwise she will not stay. However, he breaks the promise and during a chariot race, boasts to the king that his wife can run faster than even his swiftest horse. Cruinnic is ordered on pain of death to prove his claim, and Macha is duly brought before the king. Even though she is heavily pregnant by now, he forces her to run against his horses without mercy.

Sure enough, Macha wins the race, and gives birth at the finishing line to a twin boy and girl before the king’s horses reach their goal. Then, for disrespecting her she utters a curse that is to be in place unto the ninth generation: the men of Ulster will be overcome with weakness in the hour of their greatest need, becoming as weak as a woman in childbirth (or in some accounts, suffer the pain of childbirth) for five days and four nights. The place where she gave birth is known as the Emain Macha, and is today equated with the sacred site of Navan in Co. Armagh. All the men who heard her cry were immediately seized with weakness, and the effects come once more into play in the Cattle Raid of Cooley (see ‘June Mead Moon: Honeysuckle, Maeve and Bees‘ above) when the Ulstermen were unable to resist the invasion of Maeve and her men.

As with the other Sovereignty goddesses such as Aine and Maeve in the Irish cycles, or Rhiannon and Branwen in the  Welsh mythological traditions, we abuse or disrespect the goddess of the land, and therefore the land itself, at our peril. Weak and power hungry kinship, where the king has forgotten his role as guardian or the land or people, is also punished with a withdrawal of abundance and wealth, lessons still as relevant today as the times when they were first spoken and written.


[1] ‘Ivy’ in ‘The Green Man Tree Oracle’ by John Matthews and Will Worthington

[2] ‘Sow’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[3] ‘The Debility of the Ulstermen,’ translated by Mary Jones (online)

Autumn Equinox: Mabon and the Salmon of Wisdom

The Autumn Equinox is the time when the sun crosses the Equator and is positioned above it, exactly between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Now as the nights grow longer and the days shorten, leaves hang golden and burnished on the boughs, and the abundance of summer passes into seed. This is the time of the second harvest, gathering the last of the vegetables, fruits and seeds that will see us through the winter in the form of jams, purees, stews and chutneys. The opportunity to rest comes after the labour of harvest, time to give thanks for the abundance of the Earth’s produce, to reflect on all that one has reaped and sown in the previous months, to bring projects to fruition and to start to let go of all that which is no longer needed. Both the cornucopia, the symbol of plenty, and the apple, symbol of the fruit harvest, are associated with Autumn Equinox, now since the 1970s anyway, commonly known as the feast of Mabon.

In Welsh mythology, the figure of Mabon could be of ancient pedigree, and is certainly both elusive and multi-faceted. His story can be gathered and assembled from references in all four branches of the Mabinogion, and a couple of the medieval Welsh romances, though, as ever, this is disputed by scholars. His main association is as Mabon ap Modron, derived from the Romano-British god Maponus, meaning Great Son, born of the great goddess Modron, or Dea Matrona.[1] The sacred child born of the Earth mother goddess. The Maponus of Celtic tradition was sometimes equated with the Greek Apollo, giving him an association with light and the sun, but it is the divine-mother-son-pair that is the most primal archetype, possibly hinting back to a much more ancient origin.

Mabon ap Modron makes his most famous appearance in the guise of a Magical Hunter[2] in tale of Culhwch and Olwen, a romance probably first written in the 1100s, one of the earlier Arthurian references. The story centres on the romance between, Culhwch, son of King Cilydd, who becomes infatuated because of a curse with Olwen, a giant’s daughter. The giant is reluctant to let Culhwch marry Olwen and sets the love-struck youth a series of impossible tasks that he must fulfil in order to win her hand. Clearing fields, ploughing, sewing and raising a crop in one day, fetching two magical oxen to pull a plough, sowing linseed to produce the white linen wedding veil, producing sweet mead without the aid of bees, procuring a magical hamper that never empties, a harp that plays itself, a magical cauldron, and the comb and shears between the ears of the enchanted wild boar,  the Twrch Trwyth, to dress his hair. This magical beast can only be tracked by the dog Drudwyn, which in turn can only be hunted by Mabon ap Modron, but alas, no one knows where he is or whether he is alive or dead. Culwhch must seek the help of King Arthur and his men to perform these tasks, and most of the tale is given over to describing their exploits.

Mabon, it transpires, was taken from his mother when he was three nights old, as was Pryderi ap Pwyll, in the first branch of the Mabiniogion. This Pryderi was the son of Rhiannon, and it was she was blamed for the disappearance of her son, and his suspected murder, and made to bear those visiting court on her back as punishment (see September Harvest Moon: the Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds above). Pryderi makes an appearance in all four branches of the Mabinogion and this had led some researchers, e.g. W.J. Gruffydd, to suggest that the origin of the word Mabinogion pertains to the god Maponus, himself equated with Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll. Though some of Gruffyd’s ideas are no longer fashionable, recent scholars are now suggesting that this theory could contain at least a kernel of truth.[4] This could also be further evidence for the ancient pedigree of the divine-mother-son origins for the figure of Mabon.

In order to locate Mabon, King Arthur and his men must enlist the help of a series of wise and magical animals, all of whom are more ancient and therefore knowledgeable than any of the human characters in the story. In order to understand these messenger from the Otherworld they need to enlist the help of a man named Gwrhyr, an interpreter of tongues, who they rescue from imprisonment. Thus prepared, they seek out the Blackbird of Cilgwri who tells them that he so old that he had worn away a smith’s anvil with his beak, ‘so that only a nut sized piece remains.’ Even so, he has heard nothing of Mabon and his fate.

He directs them to the Stag of Rhedynfre, who, when he first arrived ‘had only one antler on either side of his head and the only tree was an oak sapling. In the meantime, that tree grew into an oak of a hundred branches and finally tumbled down so that today nothing remains of it but a fed stump,’ yet despite his age, he too knows nothing of Mabon.

The Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the next creature, was so old that his wings were stumps when he first came to his place, had born witness to the growth and destruction of three forests, yet throughout this time has heard nothing of the men they seek. The Eagle of Gwernabwy, older still, once sat on a large stone from where he could peck the stars each night. Now, in the meantime, it has been reduced to the size of a fist, but even he is unable to help. However, he believes that the oldest and wisest creature of them all may be able to: the enormous Salmon of Lyn Llyw.

Indeed, the salmon does have news. He tells Arthur and his men that with each tide he swims up the river until he comes to the walls of a castle in Gloucester, and here he has heard a terrible grieving, the likes of which has never been seen before. He takes Cei and Gwrhyr the interpreter on his back up the river to the castle, and there sure enough, they find the wretched Mabon son of Modron, who has been painfully incarcerated within its walls for years.

With Arthur’s help, Mabon is freed and he helps them procure the dogs needed for the hunt of the enchanted boar, Twrch Trwyth, and the leash that must be held while he hunts. Culwch then goes on, with much assistance and a long and arduous hunt, to retrieve the scissors and comb from between the magical boar’s ears, therefore allowing the giant to complete his grooming in preparation for the marriage of his daughter to her suitor.

Though Mabon’s reference is fleeting in this long and detailed tale, his role as Magical Hunter is paramount for the story. And so is the help of the otherworldly animals, the most important of which is the great Salmon of Lyn Llyw. In both Welsh and Irish tradition, the salmon is the guardian par excellence of wisdom, knowledge, inspiration and prophecy. Another key reference to the salmon is in the Fenian cycles of Irish tradition where the salmon is said to swim in the well of wisdom, the source of all life, that has a physical location at the source of the River Boyne. This well is surrounded by a grove of nine sacred hazel trees, which nourish the salmon and make him wise, giving rise to the red spots on his side.

In the Irish tale, a young man encounters a fisherman who has been fishing for the Salmon of Wisdom for seven years. In a tale similar to that of Gwion Bach (see Summer Solstice: of Taliesin, Ceridwen and magical Cauldrons),  the fish is caught as the boy approaches, and he accidentally touches it’s magical flesh as he is given the task of roasting it over the fire. He instantly becomes endowed with all the knowledge and wisdom of the salmon, and became a great seer and poet.[5] The salmon is indeed a remarkable creature: it will return to the place of its birth to mate, swimming great distances, sometimes upstream, in both salt and freshwater to do so. It’s inbuilt instinct to return to the source of its youth has also led to its association with longevity, and in Druidic tradition, the story of Mabon is linked to the divine child of eternal youth and the salmon the elixir of life, forever sought but not often found.


[1] See ‘Mabon ap Modron,’ en.w.wikipedia.org (accessed 19.9.2020)

[2] ‘The Celtic Myths,’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames and Hudson, 2015

[4] See ‘The Mabiniogion and other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited by Patrick K Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[5] ‘The Celtic Myths,’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames and Hudson, 2015

September Harvest Moon: The Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds

The month of September is named simply from the Latin for seven, as in the seventh month, but what it lacks in name it makes up for in the bounty and splendour of the harvest produce, of the often serene last days of summer, and the emerging spectacle of leaves beginning to turn shades of crimson and amber. As the vibrant summer wild-flowers fade, crysanthamuns of every hue step in to fill the colour void and boughs of apple, pear and quince bend under the weight of their ripening load. In the woodland, mushrooms push their way through the fecund soil and brightly coloured berries abound – sparkling orange rowan, rich indigo elder and of course plump inky blackberries. Their briars and brambles are the stuff of fairy tales, said to grow prolifically around lands lost in the mists of time, and permission should always be sought before picking the berries, which can then be turned into wine and a source of inspiration and intoxication.

At this full moon close to the Equinox and time of balance in the seasonal cycle, it is pertinent to consider Rhiannon, one of the most liminal of goddesses in the Welsh tradition. A leading mythological figure in the Mabinogion, she features in two out of the four Branches. Her memorable appearance in the first Branch leaves us in no doubt that we are dealing with an otherworldly being. Her husband-to-be, Pwyll king of Dyfed, is sitting on a fairy mound when he sees  ‘a woman mounted on a great, majestic pale-white horse, dressed in brilliant gold silk brocade, coming along the main road that ran past the mound. To anyone who saw it the horse appeared to have a slow, steady gait as it came even with the mound.’[1]

Entranced by this the most beautiful maiden in the world, he sends his men in pursuit. However, though the horse appeared to be moving slowly, neither Pwyll’s men nor he himself, mounted on the swiftest horse in the realm, can catch her up. Only when he bids her wait for the sake of the man she loves does she stop. She then reveals that she is trying to flee an undesirable suitor, who she is being forced to marry against her will, and that it is in actual fact Pwyll whom she desires to marry. After outwitting her suitor in a rather unworthy manner through a game called Badger in the Bag, Pwyll and Rhiannon do indeed marry and reign happily over Dyfed, until, a year later, Rhiannon gives birth to a son.

Tragically, on the night of his birth he is kidnapped and the women who were supposed to have kept vigil over him devise a macabre plan to save themselves. They kill a pup, and smear the blood over Rhiannon’s face, incriminating her in the death of her son. She was thus condemned for his murder and her punishment was to sit beside the mounting block at the court in Arberth for seven years, and to carry travellers on her back to court like a horse as a penance.

Rhiannon accepts her punishment gracefully, and meanwhile, her son is brought up by the lord of Brent who found the baby deposited on his doorstep as he tried to save a newly birthed colt. Eventually the lord of Brent realises who the foundling is and Rhiannon’s son is returned to her, and to his birthright, as he inherits the seven cantrefs of Dyfed upon the death of his father.

So Rhiannon, established as a sacred otherworldly being, descends to the mortal realm where she is badly treated, even abused. She appears in connection with a fairy mound, the movement of her horse beyond time and space, passing over the landscape steadily yet always out of reach, like the Moon traversing the night sky. She refuses to be given in marriage against her will, and insists on choosing her own love-mate, though this does not go particularly smoothly.

Above all, she, and indeed her son, are deeply connected with the horse, and for the people of Ancient Britain this was an aspect of Sovereignty, the sacred power of the land itself, intricately linked to power and fertility, and the life-death cycles inherent in this.  The relationship between people and horses is one of the oldest and most primal of all, stretching back deep into the Ice Age, and horse sacrifice played a central role in the proto-Indo-European religion that branched out from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, spreading over western Europe and eventually reaching the British and Irish Isles in the form of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. These people owed their lives and their livelihoods to the horse, and above all able to journey, to move through the countryside exploring new territories and lands. Both the archaeological record and Vedic mythology attests to the paramount nature of horse sacredness, and horse remains have been found in ritual pits and chariot burials over long distances and time.

This memory was retained later in the form of the Celtic horse goddess, Epona, who was worshipped from Britain to Bulgaria, and even the Romans set up shrines dedicated solely to her. Though the archaeological evidence for the worship of Epona in Britain is scanty and therefore her worship sometimes disputed, some remains from the Dubonni tribe in South Wales have been found consisting of coins with horses,  moons and heads on them, an area very much linked to the myths and legends of Rhiannon.[2] Further evidence for the central role of the horse in proto-Celtic times is the White Horse of Uffington located on the fabulous landscape of the Ridgeway in Berkshire, now dated in its original form to sometime between 1380 and 550 BC.[3]

Rhiannon is also famed for her magical birds, the Ader Rhiannon, which are also mentioned in the Mabinogion in two different Branches. These three birds are said to sing a song that can wake the dead and put the living to sleep. When they sing they sound as though they are very close but when you look for them they appear to be across an ocean. Like Rhiannon’s horse, they are otherworldly creatures holding the keys to life and death, possibly acting as psychopomps, or carriers of the soul to another realm.

Though not explicitly stated, it is possible that these were blackbirds, considered one of the oldest of animals in the Welsh tradition. Blackbirds sing harmoniously at twilight, the magical transition time between day and night, when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. They are known as the blacksmith’s bird, and in Gaelic the word for both is ghobadhu. [4] As the blacksmith uses an anvil to forge his metalwork, the blackbird uses rocks to crack open snail’s shells. His jet-black feathers are reminiscent of the blackness of the smith and his metals, forged into beautiful and useful objects by the elements of air, water and fire. As the blacksmith works magic in a practical and elemental way, so the blackbird is the otherworldly smith inviting us onto a journey to the depths of our souls with his melodious song.

Rhiannon has thus mastery over both the horse, the ultimate symbol of super-nature and an aspect of Sovereignty, the power vested in the land itself, and the three blackbirds, who also have powers over life and death through their song. Though she is an otherwordly being herself, Rhiannon shares in the experience of mortal women, at times subject to the powers of men and not exempt from tragedy, betrayal and humiliation. We can therefore identity with her suffering, and feel that she can identify with ours. But her story also stirs up something deeper in us, for she makes us question our relationship with the sacred. In Rhiannon’s story we see an example of the debasing of the sacred feminine, at the hands of mortals. And as Rhiannon is an embodiment of Sovereignty, of the land, what does this say about our relationship with the Earth on which we rely and of which we are also a part?


[1] The Maboniogion and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ Edited and Translated by Patrick K. Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[2] Gwilym Morus-Baird, ‘Is Rhiannon a Goddess?’ Online.

[3] Powell, Eric A (September – October 2017) ‘White Horse of the sun,’ Archaeology, 70 (5): 9-10. Retrieved 31.8.2020

[4] The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm