In wintertime Wales, the gates of Annwn are open wide. The origin of the word Annwn, (ah-noon) sometimes found in its older form, Annwfyn, (anoo-vin) is disputed. It may mean ‘the deep,’ for it is often located below the earth or beneath the sea. Or it may derive from ande-dubnos, a common Gallo-Brithonic word that literally meant ‘underworld.’ It might mean the ‘in-world’ or even, the ‘un-world,’ a negative image of the place we call home.
Welsh tales and legends describe Annwn as a classical Celtic otherworld paradise. It is the abode of the goddess Rhiannon with her magical birds, which have the power to wake the dead and lull the living to sleep. A medieval text calls Morgen le Fay ‘Margen, dwywes o annwfyn’ – Morgen, Goddess of Annwn, suggesting Annwn and Avalon are one and the same place. King Arthur and a host of warriors once sailed there in his ship, Prydwen, in search of a wonder-working cauldron guarded by nine maidens. They found a dream-like landscape of faery castles glimmering with beauty and danger. None but seven returned from this voyage through ‘perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.’
Much could be written about Annwn, but in this post I want to share with you a few of the magical places in the Welsh landscape which are traditional entrances to this mysterious realm.
Up on the hills above Cardigan Bay, the great cromlech of Pentre Ifan was once known as the womb of the goddess, Ceridwen. This is holy ground: framed by the pillar stones is Carn Ingli, the sacred Mount of Angels, while below, the dark and ancient woodland closes around the Druid’s Cave. An avenue of stones is thought to have once wound up to the cromlech, which back then would have been covered with earth, a rounded belly within which Druid neophytes, perhaps aided by an intoxicating brew, might have experienced initiation into the depths of Annwn.
Caer Sidi, the ‘Faery Castle,’ one of the citadels of Annwn, has been associated with the small island of Gwales, the archaic name for Grassholm, which lies eight miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Well into the 19th century it was said to be populated by a host of faeries and to have an occasional habit of disappearing beneath the sea. The whole of this coastline is abundant in stories of the ‘Green Meadows of Enchantment’ or ‘Green Islands of the Faeries.’ This may have been because Grassholm is the most westerly point of Wales and also lies opposite the Preseli Hills, where it is believed the bluestones that went to build Stonehenge were quarried in the Neolithic era. Now it is a bird sanctuary on which it is forbidden to land – a temenos set apart for Rhiannon’s charges.
The waterfall and pool of Ffynnone in the Cych Valley, also in Pembrokeshire, is a place where anything might happen – as once it did when Arawn, King of Annwn, irrupted out of the Underworld with his baying pack of red-eared, white hounds, in the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. Pwyll ended up going down to Annwn which he found to be a most delightful place:
“He approached the court and inside he could see sleeping quarters, halls and chambers and the most beautifully ornamented buildings anyone had seen…The hall was set in order and then he could see entering a warband and hosts – the most splendid and best equipped troop that anyone had ever seen; the queen was with them, the fairest woman anyone had ever seen, dressed in glittering gold brocaded garment…And they passed the time in food and drink, with songs and entertainment. Of all the courts he had seen on earth, this was the court best supplied with food and drink, gold vessels and royal treasures.”
Llyn y Fan Fach
A young shepherd met a beautiful faery woman, one of the Gwragedd Annwn, or Ladies of the Lake, who arose from the dark waters of Llyn y Fan Fach in Carmarthenshire. He took her back to his home in the nearby village of Myddfai where they were wed, but she warned him that if he ever struck her three times, she would go back to her underwater kingdom. She bore him three sons, but over the years he thoughtlessly struck her three times, and so she returned forever to Annwn. But when her sons were grown, she taught them the healing powers of herbs, and they grew up to become the celebrated doctors known throughout medieval Wales as the Physicians of Myddfai. Descendants of this renowned family were still practicing medicine in the 18th century and there is at least one herbalist in Dyfed today who claims descent from the famous family.
It’s not often that men of the church spend time in Annwn, but this is what happened to Bishop Elidyr of St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, according to the great medieval chronicler, Gerald of Wales. When the bishop was a little lad, he ran away from the monks who were constantly giving him beatings, and hid in a hollow bank by a stream near Stackpole in the southern part of the county. Before too long, two little men led him through an underground passage into a land of great beauty, yet where no sun or moon ever shone. After spending many seasons of delight here, Elidyr grew homesick and went home to visit his mother. But his mother’s eyes glinted with greed when he told her of the riches there. She asked him to bring her a gift of gold and so Elidyr returned with a golden ball belonging to the king’s son. As he crossed the threshold of his house, his foot stuck fast, and he fell, dropping the ball which was seized by two angry little men. He was never able to return to that land again.
One of the Welsh names for the faeries is Bendith y Mamau, the Blessing of the Mothers. In the green fields bordering the lake of Glas Llyn in North Wales, a shepherd called Meirig was tending his sheep when he came upon a slender faery woman dressing her baby. He saw that she had hardly anything to protect the child from the icy wind blowing over the lake, so he took off his shirt and gave it to her. The woman thanked him and vanished, but every night afterwards, the shepherd found a piece of silver placed in an old clog in his cabin. He became very wealthy, married a lovely girl, and together they enjoyed the nightly gifts of the faeries for the rest of their lives, as ‘Bendith y Mamau was poured down upon the family, and all their descendants.’
The Berwyn Mountains
These deep enfolded hills of northeast Wales are named for Gwyn ap Nudd, a faery King of Annwn. (Ber = bre = hill and Wyn = Gwyn.) Gwyn is a hunter who leads the great cavalcade of spirits through the skies on stormy winter nights to gather up the souls of the dead and lead them to their home beyond this world. Like Arawn, he too is accompanied by the Cwn Annwn, a pack of white hounds with red ears. His palace lies within one of the Berwyns: perhaps underneath the energetically powerful stone circle of Moel Ty Uchaf on a hill above Llandrillo.
Gwyn was invoked by Welsh seers when they wanted to enter the hidden realms of Annwn and consult the spirits for divination. According to a 14th century Latin manuscript against divination, these Welsh “soothsayers,” known as awenyddion would petition him with these words:
“Ad regem Eumenidium et reginam eius: Gwynn ap Nwdd qui es ultra in silvis pro amore concubine tue permitte nos venire domum.”
To the King of Spirits, and to his Queen: Gwyn ap Nudd, you who are yonder in the forest, for love of your mate, permit us to enter your dwelling.
If you would enter the Gates of Annwn, just be sure you know how to safely return!