Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Samhain In Somerset: The Dragonriders

Red Dragon, White Dragon

As Vortigern, King of the Britons, was sitting on the banks of the drained pond, the two dragons, one of which was white, the other red, came forth, and approaching one another, began a terrible fight, and cast forth fire with their breath. But the white dragon had the advantage, and made the other fly to the end of the lake. And he, for grief at his flight, renewed the assault upon his pursuer, and forced him to retire...
   Geoffrey of Monmouth, 'Historia Regum Brittaniae', c. 1130

The red dragon, y ddraig goch, is an integral element of Welsh folklore. The white dragon fails to feature, for reasons which will become evident.

  The site of the draconian bickering described in the passage sampled above is Dinas Emrys, an Iron Age hillfort near Beddgelert in Snowdonia. Many hillforts had their ramparts and fortifications strengthened in the first century, anticipating the Roman invasion ordered by Emperor Claudius in the year 43, but Dinas Emrys bucks this trend; the majority of the defences still traceable at the site date to the early medieval period, post-dating the Roman occupation, and conveniently fall into the time-frame when semi-legendary figures like King Vortigern were exercising their tyrannical power.

18th century depiction of Dinas Emrys

The site today, more heavily wooded. ©Rhion Pritchard

  There is a prose tale, first recorded in the 12-13th centuries, called Lludd and Llefelys. It was included in the 19th century collection called The Mabinogion, and gives an origin story for the location of the dragons at this spot...

  ...Around the year 100BC, when King Lludd ruled Britain, a curious plague struck the country. It took the form of a horrendous screeching which was heard on the eve of successive May Days, creating panic among the populace and causing miscarriage and infertility. Perplexed, Lludd sought the counsel of his brother Llefelys, King of Gaul. Llefelys deduced that the screaming originated from the Red Dragon of the Britons, who only emitted this paralysing sound when being defeated by an invading dragon. Furnished with this information, Lludd waited until the dragons, exhausted by their battle, transformed into pigs(!). He then trapped them in a cauldron of mead at Oxford, and subsequently buried them under a pool at Dinas Emrys.

Ruins at Dinas Emrys mostly post-date the Vortigern period, although the pool certainly exists. ©Aetheling1125

  This origin story is actually a prequel to the Vortigern legend, which was recorded much earlier - in the Historia Brittonum, written around 830.

  In this story, the tyrant Vortigern is trying to construct a tower on Dinas Emrys, only to have it fall down on three successive occasions. His advisors told him that he had to locate a boy born without a father, do him in, then sprinkle his blood on the site. Vortigern  managed to find a youth that fitted the bill, a lad named Ambrosius (a Latin name meaning 'wise', its Welsh equivalent being - yep - Emrys). The boy scolded the advisors for their radical notions regarding curing subsidence, before informing the King that it was caused by a subterranean pool under the prospective site of the tower, a pool which contained two scrapping dragons.

  In later versions of the legend, young Ambrosius became Myrddin Emrys, better known as the sorceror Merlin. He explained that the dragons were symbolic. The red dragon represented the native Britons, the white dragon stood for the invading Anglo-Saxons. Ambrosius/Merlin informed the King that the red dragon would eventually emerge victorious, but until then Vortigern would have to construct his tower elsewhere. The King took his advice, but not before executing his advisors, presumably for advocating human sacrifice when all they really needed to do was relate a decent parable. Y Ddraig Goch continued to wind its serpentine way through Welsh history, and today stands passantly on the country's flag. Its pale counterpart, sadly, has failed to locate an equivalent position in English culture, which seems to prefer lions and unicorns.

When legends prevail

  And what has any of this to do with observing the ancient feast of Samhain in Somerset? Very little but contrivance, really; the legend of the dragons is a small part of the 'Matter Of Britain', that tangled corpus of mythology with a strong Arthurian bias, and Somerset contains many sites that are connected with the Once And Future King. Sites such as Cadbury Castle, the hillfort that the locals once claimed as Camelot, the hillfort Brent Knoll where Arthur fought a giant, and the town of Glastonbury which has been associated with the mystical Isle Of Avalon since the 12th century. In British mythology, Glastonbury Tor is said to be the entrance to the faerie realm of Annwn, presided over by the Winter King, Gwyn Ap Nudd. These discrete elements came together this last Samhain/Hallowe'en to provide a procession and celebration at Glastonbury, an event which also drew inspiration from a more international tradition, that of the Wild Hunt, of which more later.

Glastonbury Tor

The Market Cross

The Samhain 2017 Wild Hunt has been organised by a community group called the Glastonbury Dragons, whose aim is to hold events like this twice a year, the other significant date being Beltane/ May Day ( which we habitually celebrate in a field in Hampshire with a large Wicker Man). Through the use of local and social media, they have cordially invited anyone with an interest to gather at the town's Market Cross for 3pm on Saturday 4th November. The Cross itself is a Grade II listed structure, built by a Benjamin Ferrey in 1846. Constructed with ashlar masonry to a Perpendicular design, it certainly reflects the Victorian zeal for the neo-Gothic.

Market Cross, in sunlight and shadow.

Eldest and I are representing Team Vulpine at this event, and when we arrive at the Market Cross we see that the assemblage is gradually swelling with newcomers, with still an hour to go before the procession begins. A nearby café, the 'Lazy Gecko', offers warmth and hospitality, and we step inside to nourish ourselves before the main event. I order the Gecko Special.

Two poached eggs, smoked salmon, Portobello mushrooms, spinach, sauté potatoes and granary toast. Eldest had a Panini. As I remarked, "We wouldn't want to open the gates to Annwn on an empty stomach."

The Wild Hunt gathers at the Cross

Samhain shenanigans

  We rejoin the gathering. Many have arrived in vibrant and elaborate costumes, ranging from the gruesomely garish to the colourfully comical. My personal favourite was the Centurion who, in a masterpiece of improvisation, used a paintbrush as a crest for his helmet.

'At my signal, unleash hell'

The town's Mayor and his Deputy turn up to give a welcoming speech. The throne of Gwyn Ap Nudd is placed in position, and a call goes up for volunteers to assist in 'motivating' the two dragons, currently languishing in a car park around the corner. We came to the town to witness a Samhain event, hopefully one that will prove as memorable as Samhain events we have attended elsewhere... and now we find ourselves persuaded to actively take part in the parade itself. Just call us 'dragonriders', please. It's a cool word to add to the CV.

Red Dragon

White Dragon

In the belly of the White Dragon

  We crawl into the White Dragon. I take up position as its 'shoulders' while Eldest supports the 'tail', and we shuffle forward, side by side with our crimson counterpart, to join the gathering at the Market Cross. 'Gwyn Ap Nudd' has taken position on his 'throne', and he is borne aloft, and, with a Crier in front of us to clear the way, we embark on our Wild Hunt.

'Go away! I'm not talking to you'
The Wild Hunt

The story of the Wild Hunt can be found, in various incarnations, throughout Europe. At its core is a group of hunters in pursuit, but these hunters do not have to be human - they can be faerie folk, gods, even ghosts. Depending on custom, the leader of the Hunt can be chosen from a wide range of characters, both historic and mythical. He can be Woden, Herne the Hunter, Theodoric the Great, or biblical figures such as Herod, Cain or the Devil.

  The Glastonbury Dragons have chosed Gwyn Ap Nudd to preside over their Wild Hunt. In Welsh/Brittonic mythology, Gwyn is the King of the Tylwyth Teg, the 'fair folk', and rules over the Celtic Otherworld, Annwn, the entrance to which lies at Glastonbury Tor. He, along with various other members of the Ap Nudd family, appear on many occasions in medieval Welsh literature. His earliest appearance appears to be in the Arthurian story Culhwch ac Olwen, one of the tales that was included in the Mabinogion when it was compiled by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th century. The structure of this story suggests that it was originally intended to be orally transmitted by bards, so it may date from as early as the sixth century.

Gathering at the Fair Field

  In Culhwch ac Olwen, Gwyn steals his sister Creiddylad from her husband-to-be, Gwythyr ap Greidawl. The dispute comes to the attention of King Arthur, who gives the order that Gwyn and Gwythyr must do battle every May Day until Judgment Day, when the victor of  that final battle would finally be able to claim her. The story also states that Gwyn was 'placed over the brood of devils in Annwn, lest they should destroy the present race'. It is believed that this represents a contest between the seasons, with Gwyn as the Winter King and Gwythyr as his Summer counterpart... and what better way to mark Samhain, the feast at which Summer gives way to Winter, than to re-enact this symbolic strife at the legendary entrance to Annwn itself?

  It is amusing that we have come a hundred and eighty miles to witness a procession, only to participate in such a way that we cannot see any of it. Shrouded in white canvas, in a line with my son and a handful of other volunteers, I can only see the tarmac beneath my feet and I have to rely mostly upon what my ears are telling me. Drums resonate and horns shriek in the bustling streets of Glastonbury, the mystical 'Ynys Witrin'. The rumble of chattering crowds and growling traffic competes with the carnival melodies, and our guide clears our path with cries of 'Make way for the Dragons!'

Followers of the Red Dragon

 Two sinuous leviathans with the occupied throne of Gwyn Ap Nudd borne aloft behind us, we swerve into a side-street and skirt the walls of  town's venerable Abbey ruins before proceeding uphill towards the Tor. Another turn to the left, and I call a warning to my fellow Dragonriders as we cross a cattle grid, and the tinkle of running water tells me that we are processing between the two famous Springs, the Red and the White, their famous waters reflecting the shades of our Draconian disguises.

  Legends are drawing together. The Wild Hunt, the symbolic skirmish of the seasons, the mythical origin of the world-renowned Springs, all combining for a celebration the origins of which are lost in time. Past the Springs, along the lane, then into a field on the lower slopes of the Tor, the Fair Field where the folk of Glastonbury would gather for revelry in medieval times, now bearing witness to a different kind of gathering. Here, we cast off the canvas, gently settle the dragons onto the lush Autumnal grass, and gather around a cordoned area further into the meadow. The wonderful views add to the grandeur of the Samhain atmosphere. The hulk of the Tor rises directly to our east, some of its continuous flow of pilgrims halting to watch our proceedings. To our west, beyond the smaller bulk of Chalice Hill, we see as far as the Bristol Channel, the Quantock Hills, Exmoor, bathed in a seasonal haze, tinted a warm orange by the descending sun. The outline of the Holy Thorn can be picked out a mile away, on the hogsback called Wearyall Hill, another Glastonbury legend, watching us from a discreet distance.

The throne of Gwyn Ap Nudd

The revels continue. Morris dancers strut their stuff, rituals are enacted, a symbolic fire is lit by two girls, dressed in red and white to represent the dragons. Another blazing brand is added by Gwythyr and, wielding a flaming sword, by Gwyn. With the climbing of the flames, my son and I take our leave and descend from the Fair Field.

  Dusk gathers, and with it come rainclouds from the west. The Tor soars sharply above the fecund sedge moors. Below the dual springheads, the colours swirl to one. On Wearyall Hill, the Holy Thorn leans into the wind. The Abbey stands derelict, its glories faded past... and smoke from the Samhain bonfire swells into the crepuscular sky as the veil between the Worlds grows porous, and the ancient British myth of Annwn stirs from its dormancy, in the midst of a land of legend...

Samhain fires burning

Gwyn Ap Nudd

Previous Samhain-flavoured articles:

Samhain In Ytene

Samhain In Southwark

Season Of The Witch

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