“I didn’t buy a map; that would have spoilt it, somehow; to see everything plotted out, and named and measured. What I wanted was to feel that I was going where nobody had been before.”
From ‘A Fragment of Life’, by Arthur Machen.
The formidable figure of Gwyn ap Nudd dominates the mythological landscape of Britain, both ancient and modern. He is the Dark Lord of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld; he is the King of the Tylwyth Teg and also the fearsome leader of the Wild Hunt. There is a vast amount of information about him on the internet, so I shall forebear from reproducing it all here; instead, I shall simply refer to those parts that particularly captured my attention while I was studying and pondering this alluring figure.
For those of you who are regular visitors to this site, it will come as no surprise when I begin this post by quoting yet again from Ralph Whitlock’s 1979 book In Search of Lost Gods:
“Against the backdrop of human settlement in Britain, even the Celts were relative newcomers. As warlike invaders they started to arrive in Britain about the middle of the first millennium BC, but before that the island had an unwritten history of at least two thousand years. The Celts came in no great numbers, imposing themselves as an aristocracy on the older races, and it is unlikely that they initiated a great religious upheaval. Rather, their own beliefs were probably grafted on or merged with those of a much older religion.
Thus, in our search for the old gods, we may well find traces of those who had commanded the worship of men in the days when Stonehenge was young….”
It also strikes me as perfectly possible that, when searching for these old gods, we should find evidence of men of flesh and blood, whose reputations and exploits were such that they went on to acquire the standing of gods or demi-gods in the wild tales and legends told by their descendants. It seems likely that Hercules, Theseus, Arthur and others were once historical figures, so it seems no less likely that someone such as Gwyn ap Nudd may have once physically walked and ridden across the mist-shrouded plains and hills of prehistoric Britain. I’m under no illusions that I’ll even come close to proving such a thing, but if this man once existed, he may have left signs of his life and passing that we can discern in certain words and legends, as well as upon the physical landscape in which we live.
There is no shortage of material to consider, but his kingship seems as good a place as any to start. When I read of Gwyn ap Nudd being described as the King of the Tylwyth Teg, my mind immediately wandered to Stonehenge and the possibility that it may have been Caer Sidi, or the Fairy Fortress described in Taliesin’s poem The Spoils of Annwn.
Even if Stonehenge was not the structure mentioned in the poem, it still possesses many attributes that would seem to link it to the Fair Folk, perhaps the most notable being ‘Stonehump’, the recently discovered mound that has apparently always existed on the site, marked below with a blue spot.
I’ve written about the other connections between Stonehenge and the Fair Folk in the link above to the Caer Sidi page. Whether or not these links and associations were ever ‘real’ in the sense that archaeologists and other scientists approve of, I cannot say, but that is not my concern. I’m simply interested in the fact that there’s no shortage of reasons to believe that Stonehenge was once associated with the Fair Folk, or with a belief in them, so as Gwyn ap Nudd was later credited with being the King of these beings, it seems reasonable to me to believe that he was once associated with the monument and its landscape.
As the Lord of Annwn, or the Welsh Otherworld, Gwyn is also identified with Glastonbury, but as the Tor is merely one portal of many to the Otherworld, rather than the Otherworld itself in its entirety, I see no reason why Gwyn should not have been associated with all the other portals or openings to this strange realm; indeed, I would regard it as inevitable. Again, the portal or entrance to the Otherworld that springs most readily to mind is Stonehenge, while I’ve long ago lost track of all the information that’s been presented here that makes the compelling case for this notion.
In this context, I was intrigued to learn that Gwyn’s family or tribe was described, in mediaeval times, as being the “Talaith y Gwynt”, or the “the nation of the wind.” If I’m correct about Vespasian’s Camp once having been the City of Apollo as described by Pytheas of Massilia, then it follows that there were once kings in this place known as Boreades, or sons of Boreas, the ancient Greek god of the North Wind.
It may be that the word ‘Boreades’ derives from a different source, but it’s possible that there are other links between Boreas and Gwyn ap Nudd. Boreas was intimately associated with horses and one of Gwyn’s later manifestations was as the Leader of the Wild Hunt; as for their dispositions, Boreas was depicted as rapacious with dark, straggly hair and was said to be very strong with a violent temper, a description that isn’t a million miles away from that of Gwyn.
I also noted that one Roman term for the North was Septentrio, as used by Pliny, Tacitus and others. The word derived from ‘septem triones’ or ‘seven plough oxen’, a term that was used to describe the constellation of the Great Bear, but I mention this purely on account of the number seven, which will appear again later on in this piece. As Carl Sagan once observed “Imagination takes us to worlds that never were, but without it, we go nowhere,” so it may be that all these links between Gwyn ap Nudd and Stonehenge are illusory, but they make a poetic logic, if nothing else, while they were substantial enough to register on my consciousness and to linger there.
Before we leave Stonehenge, I’ve written in depth about the mountain of evidence linking the Druids to the ruins on the plain, so I won’t go over it again. Nonetheless, it seems completely unavoidable to me that the Druids and their forebears – proto-Druids? Keepers of the Portals? – were intimately associated with the site from the very earliest times, so this made me think of some other possible links between Gwyn and Stonehenge, as well as between Gwyn and the Druids.
As the Lord of Annwn and later as the Leader of the Wild Hunt, Gwyn ap Nudd came to be viewed as a psychopomp, or one who led the souls of men into the Otherworld or afterlife. Pomponius Mela described the Druid belief that souls were eternal and lived on in the infernal regions, or ‘ad inferos’, an idea that’s echoed almost literally in the idea of Annwn, but I shall come to the etymology of ‘Annwn’ in due course.
In his Natural History, Pliny wrote of the Druids: “Therefore we cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial” while in the Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen, Gwyn ap Nudd murdered a nobleman named Nwython, then forced the man’s son to eat his father’s heart. This cruel act may simply have been a form of mental torture, so I may be wrong in seeing it as some form of Druidic communion, but the matter of the consumption of human flesh by Druids and by one of Gwyn’s victims seemed to be worth remarking upon, if nothing else.
There seems little doubt that the name Gwyn means something like ‘fair’, ‘bright’ or ‘white’, while it later acquired associations with holiness or purity. In a multitude of recorded Near Death Experiences, survivors speak of having seen a welcoming figure in white as they made their way through the afterlife, or Annwn, so I naturally wonder about this in connection with Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp and on account of what I see as his Druidic connections, while it’s perhaps worth mentioning once again that Pliny described the Druids as wearing white during one of their more important ceremonies.
Something that took my mind away from the environs of Stonehenge was the matter of Gwyn’s father, Nudd, or Nudd Llaw Eraint, or “Nudd of the Silver Hand.” The business of someone possessing a silver hand has been nagging at the back of my mind ever since I first read about it, many years ago, but the quiet voice has yet to make itself fully heard and understood.
In the meantime, I remembered the discovery of a Roman silver ingot in the Mendips, dated to somewhere around 48 AD, while I also remembered from my previous studies of this region that the ancient Dobunni tribe were noted artisans. In addition to this, their name almost certainly means something like “The People of the Deeps”, while it’s possible that the word ‘annwn’ can be found in the last syllables of the tribe’s name.
As I wrote in my book and elsewhere on this site, the Mendips have many ‘archaeologically attested’ entrances to the Underworld in the form of the strange swallets, or holes in the limestone, while the Neolithic specialist Jodie Lewis has described the area as “a landscape full of special and somewhat mysterious places.” As Gwyn ap Nudd was the Lord of Annwn, then it follows that he would also be associated with the entrances to this dark realm, while in light of his father’s disfigurement, there is something tantalising about the presence of silver and silver mines in this region, not to mention the skill at metalworking of its former inhabitants.
Even now, however, it’s difficult to get away completely from Stonehenge. As Dr Robin Melrose detailed in his book “The Druids and King Arthur“, Queen Aelfthryth founded a Benedictine monastery in Amesbury in AD 979, which was named after Saint Melor and in which his relics were housed. Aside from any other attributes, Melor was highly notable on account of having lost his right hand at the age of seven, when it was replaced by a silver prosthesis that eventually grew to function as well as the original. It is a truly bizarre tale, matched only by that of Gwyn’s father Nudd, so it’s difficult not to see some link between Gwyn ap Nudd and the Stonehenge region when we bear in mind the scarcity of holy men with prosthetic silver hands who lost the originals to acts of violence.
Gwyn’s father Nudd seems to have derived from the Celtic god Nodens, who was often equated with Mars, the Roman war god. Gwyn is described as a great warrior, and while there’s no doubt that there were many such people in ancient Britain, the mention of people who excel in battle immediately brings to mind the fearsome Silures of South Wales, those people upon whom “neither terror nor mercy had the least effect”, according to Tacitus.
Furthermore, I’m struck by the references to Gwyn ap Nudd possessing a blackened face, something that also makes me think of the Silures on account of the way in which they were described as being dark of complexion [coloratus] by Tacitus in his biography of Agricola. The ancient Ethiopians were so-named on account of their burned or blackened faces, while they were patently black all over, so I find myself wondering about Gwyn’s blackened face and its precise meaning, especially as his name means ‘white’ or perhaps ‘holy’.
Whatever the truth of the matter may be, his prowess in battle and his dark face inescapably brings to mind the Silures, so it seems natural to look once again to the north-west of Stonehenge, to the heartland of the strange and ferocious people who defied the Roman legions for so long and with such outstanding success.
I would have looked somewhere to the north-west of Stonehenge in any event, for reasons that I’ve gone into on many occasions before, but the former capital of the Silures tribe seems as good a place as any to look for traces of Gwyn ap Nudd, the mighty warrior with a blackened face.
In the medieval poem The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn’s martial standing is praised, because he is described as “the hope of armies” and “hero of hosts”; as for the place of his origin, he replies to the questioner “I come from battle and conflict.” If, as I suspect, there’s an Iron Age [or even earlier] origin for these tales, then I can think of no better place for Gwyn to have been born and raised than in the heartland of the Silures, who successfully resisted the Romans from around 43 AD to 78 AD, when instead of being vanquished and made extinct, they came to a mysterious agreement or settlement with the otherwise unforgiving invaders.
Be all that as it may, just a brief glance through one of my books on folklore reveals that fairies are reputed to be seen at nearby Trellech, while Master Pwca, or Puck, was said to haunt Trwyn Farm. A black dog, possibly one of the Cwn Annwn, has been seen at Redbrook [an apparition I saw for myself in the early 1990s], while a pack of these creatures have also been seen at Tregare and Penrhos. There is yet another haunted tumulus at Newcastle, while in the same place, fairies and elves were said to congregate at an oak tree, something that I find of great interest on account of the link between the Druids and oaks. I could continue for a long while yet, going through all my books, but it seems certain that this area is more haunted than most in Britain, and not just by ghosts.
All this and more seems reason enough to look closely at Usk, whose Welsh name is Brynbuga, an appellation or title that was first recorded in the 15th century, apparently. The meaning of this name is casually given as “The Hill of the Bogeyman”, but a closer examination reveals that there is a very great deal more to the matter than just that. I suspect that the information becomes more relevant still when we remember that Gwyn ap Nudd was The Lord of Annwn and that according to the poem Culhwch and Olwen, Gwyn was the person “whom God has placed over the brood of devils in Annwn, lest they should destroy the present race.”
Gwyn ap Nudd is an accomplished enough character in any event, but given the details provided about his appointment as Lord of Annwn, he is extremely impressive. Elsewhere, Annwn is thought of as a generally benevolent afterlife, similar to the Elysian Fields when it was ruled by Gwyn’s predecessor Arawn, but Gwyn is described here as [presumably] the only person with the ability to keep in check a host of supernatural monsters that would otherwise destroy Mankind. If Gwyn ap Nudd ever lived, then he must have been a formidable Druid, priest or magician to have acquired such a singular standing, and it is with the idea of this singularity in mind that I return to an examination of the word ‘Brynbuga’.
As I wrote earlier, it is presumed to mean Hill [bryn] of the Bogeyman [buga]. In brief, when we look at the word ‘buga’, we see that it may be related to hobgoblin, Irish bocan, Early Irish boccanach, as well as the Welsh bwg (bwci, Cornish bucca), English bug, bugbear and bogie, as well as Puck, the Anglo-Saxon puca and larbula and boc-sithe, meaning an apparition or ghost.
There is the possibility that Buga may have been a proper name, the name of a giant that once roamed Gwent along with six others of his kind, which made me think of the repeated refrain in The Spoils of Annwn whereby “seven alone rose up…” All this is interesting enough, but I was particularly struck by the observation in a book called The Development of Celtic Linguistics that ‘buga’ might not be a proper name, nor a reference to a ghost or demon, but could instead mean “The Hill of THE Buga”, or in other words, the most fearsome supernatural being of them all.
If the word ‘buga’ is related to the word ‘boggart’, then it refers to an always-malevolent creature whose realm was mainly the north of England. Otherwise, there was the giant Buggane of the Isle of Man, a creature that always dwelt near water, but whichever way we look at it, there is something awe-inspiring about such a strange place name, regardless of its precise or original meaning. The uniqueness of this name fascinates me, so I find it hard to not see some parallel with the singular details of Gwyn ap Nudd’s reign over Annwn, especially when I bear in mind all the other circumstantial evidence I’ve provided above.
Gwyn was described as the Lord of Annwn, who kept a brood of demons in their place, and as the King of the Tylwyth Teg or the Fairies, so when I consider a landscape haunted by ghosts, fairies and the Cwn Annwn, with a place with such an unusual name as Brynbuga at its centre, then some connection between the person and the place becomes unavoidable for me.
I was born and grew up in Usk, living there for 18 years, and for most of that time I lived just a hundred yards or so away from a Puck’s Lane, which skirted a field behind the gaol in which the bodies of executed prisoners had been buried. As a young boy in the late 1960s, I always wandered along to see the large-scale excavations at Usk, then in the early 1970s, due to the generous and enlightened attitude of those in charge, I was allowed to work there myself, something I enjoyed beyond the power of mere words to convey.
As far as I’m aware, the Romans set up a fort at Usk that also contained a cavalry wing, in or around 55AD, then in AD 66 or 67, the legion moved out, leaving behind a caretaker force of auxiliaries until a new legionary fortress was built at nearby Caerleon in AD 75. The reason always given for this relocation of the fort was because of flooding, which makes me wonder how auxiliaries, or native troops, were better able to survive being swamped by water than Roman soldiers. The foundation of this fort in 55 AD also came shortly after the destruction of an entire legion by the Silures, who continued to harass and kill Romans for over twenty years, so I also find myself wondering why the twentieth legion left Usk when it did and why auxiliary troops continued to be stationed in what had been the capital of the Silures.
I’m inclined to believe that something other than occasional floodwater caused these movements and I’m also inclined to believe that this ‘something’ was related to the later name of the place, but I cannot prove it. We know that Caesar’s legions in 55BC were fearful of the mist-shrouded island they were ordered to invade, so I can well imagine that the men who went into south Wales over a century later were at least mildly superstitious about setting up camp in the heart of a tribe that had already caused them so many problems, with many more to come.
I’m sure that others will speedily correct me if I’m wrong and this is something I would welcome, but I also seem to recall that no Roman cemetery was ever found at Usk, despite the fact that the place was occupied for ten years by a legion in the middle of some of the most hostile territory in Britain at the time. Presumably, a good many Romans met violent deaths in or around Usk at the hands of the Silures during the active life of the fortress there, but if this was the case, I don’t know of anyone ever having found the graveyard for this people, which in turns leads me to wonder if they were buried elsewhere and if so, why?
Were the deceased, or those who disposed of them, fearful of ending up in an Otherworld that was hostile and malevolent towards their souls? I do not know, but again, I suspect that the reputation of the place known as The Hill of the Spectre or Demon was in place long before the name Brynbuga was first written down in the Middle Ages.
Long before I ever thought of doing such a thing, a study of the ‘haunted’ landscape around Usk was effectively carried out by the writer Arthur Machen, pictured above at Caerleon. You can read about this man for yourself, of course, but he was and still is regarded as a superlative writer on the subject of supernatural terror in the countryside. Arthur Machen was born in Caerleon, just a few miles away from Brynbuga, or Usk, and while he is perhaps best known as the author of The Bowmen, the tale that played such a prominent part in the story of The Angels of Mons, many of his stories deal with otherworldly creatures that inhabit the countryside of south Wales, while he gathered his information by wandering extensively around the landscape in question.
I’m not aware that Machen ever wrote any non-fiction on this subject, but his chilling body of work reflects the belief in and perhaps the “daimonic reality” of the many supernatural entities, such as malevolent earth spirits, of this locale. It may be that there are other parts of the British Isles that are equally rich in such things, which have nonetheless gone unrecorded through lack of a gifted and insightful author to chronicle them, but the simple fact remains that Machen’s written legacy bears witness to this region being home to some particularly potent supernatural creatures.
When I combine all this with the other available information about giants and suchlike in ancient Gwent that corroborate Machen’s observations, then consider the strange name of Brynbuga and the unique standing of Gwyn ap Nudd, the Dark Lord of Annwn and King of the Tylwyth Teg, then a meaningful pattern begins to make itself known to me that is endlessly fascinating to contemplate.
Machen’s stories do not necessarily constitute ‘proof’ of any kind, but it would be a boring world indeed if we all shared identical values. On the one hand, there are those who will thrill to the latest archaeological revelations concerning Stonehenge, which are based on an apparent anomaly on a geophysics survey and on an unexcavated possible pit, and that’s absolutely fine if that is the kind of objective evidence that either satisfies curiosity or else further provokes it.
Personally speaking, at least as far as a study of Gwyn ap Nudd and Stonehenge is concerned, I’m inclined to place slightly more value on the implications of the written works of a man who influenced and who was praised by H.P. Lovecraft and Aleister Crowley, a man who wrote a story that Stephen King believes to be the best of its kind and a man who played a major part in one of the strangest cultural events of our times, the episode of The Angels of Mons.
There are still many loose ends to tie up, such as the precise origins and meanings of words such as Burrium, Boulaion and Bullaeum, ancient names for Usk that may possibly be related to the ‘buga’ element of Brynbuga. I’ve wondered about Boreas, in this context, but it’s highly doubtful that there’s any connection there, but on the subject of winds, there’s still the question of the proper meaning of the ‘venta’ in the name ‘Venta Silurum’. There’s also the question of the meaning of the word ‘Gwent’ and a host of others that may have some bearing on the distant origins of Gwyn ap Nudd, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
While it stands to reason that many people reading this might regard any link between Brynbuga and Gwyn ap Nudd as ‘unproven’ at best, my contemplation of the Lord of Annwn led me to the pleasing study of an intriguing place name, while it has also reinforced my growing conviction that there is ‘some thing’ hidden in Gwent that was regarded as having immense value by our ancestors.
Wordsworth wrote of it as an insubstantial “something….whose dwelling is the light of setting suns”. There was a time when I thought of it as a physical artefact or idol, but now I’m more inclined to believe that it was some sacred path, dancefloor or place where select people congregated in the belief that their presence in a certain location and at a certain time would confer notable powers upon them, something not too far removed from Machen’s ideas about psychogeography.
And there, for now, the whole matter must rest, but there’s no doubt in my mind that “Somewhere, something wonderful is waiting to be discovered”.
My grateful thanks to Thalia Took, artist, for permission to use her wonderful image of Gwyn ap Nudd at the top of this post. My grateful thanks also to Dr Robin Melrose, Aynslie Hanna and MOJO Productions, to Mark Kirkbride for allowing me to discover for myself what it’s like inside a hill such as Brynbuga, and to all those I met while growing up in Usk in the 1960s and 1970s.