The past was all metaphor, right? Myths just ways of encoding knowledge about nature, something easy to remember and something never more than it appears to be.
Let the metaphor escape its imprisonment and it’ll wreak havoc on the mind, the soul, the world. It’s safer without magic, and gods, the fae and the dead.
Which is why I found myself clinging to the side of a mountain to talk to a giant.
When They Pull Your Beard, They Mean It
Which story do I tell? The story inside my head, the story around me, the story of the places I’ve been, the story of the dead in the dream pulling my beard?
The story you need to hear, the story you want to hear, the story I want to tell you, the story I think I should tell?
There’s no end to the stories already, and I’ve only been in Wales for four days. They’re weaving, threading, pulling, carding out bits and spinning and smoking like the gleaned wool gathered off the fence and offered upon the candle in the trunk of the tree, flames of–
Sorry. I’m not there yet.
I’m here, at a table in a hotel bar, an old stone building not much older than the United States, I fear, sipping coffee (the tea’s terribly weak ’round these parts) trying to figure out what I’m going to tell you about everything I’ve seen which is suddenly making my hands tremble as I type all of this.
I may not make sense, because I’ve given up on metaphor, because metaphor’s exploded all around me and now none of those things you hope can hide in symbol–to stay put there in signification, tied to the safe sigils of our representations–are willing to be put back into the prisons we’ve made for them.
Oh, oh, I know why poets go mad.
Have a photo. It’s mostly safe.
It’s just a tower and a tree on a hill overlooking the Strait of Menai across the way from the city of Caernarfon. Nothing else, no metaphor, no additional meaning except for the part where you couldn’t stop looking at them from the medieval city walls and really, really had to go up there.
But oh! I haven’t told you that I’m in Caernarfon yet, have I? Sorry. I’ve slipped out of…oh, you know.
I boarded a ferry from Dublin to the port of Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesy. The ferry’s a bit more a miniature cruise-ship than what you might consider when you think ferry, and most definitely nothing Stygian, unless Charon decided to install a theatre, cafe, Bureau D’exchange and a small convenience store to distract you from the difficulties of your passage into Hades. Oh, and wireless internet, which did not afford me the opportunity to do any writing on account of my website being blocked through the local filter for “alternative beliefs.”
So I slept, and dreamt a bit until the ferry approached, anticipation jarring me awake. I was going to Wales, you see, and also, well, this guy.:
Best friends are great people and should never be gotten rid of, or forgotten, or let to roam off into foreign lands without an occasional visit or perhaps a jaunt together through the lands of your gods.
Name’s Nick. Taught me how to feed crows, and had dreams of Druid Rhyd long before I got around to even thinking about being a Druid. When you tell a stranger that his glasses make him look like a bike cop, he may punch you in the face, or may, some 12 years later, help you find Caer Arianrhod and Dinas Affaoron and nod when you mutter half-sensical things about the divine figures showing up in your dreams, and the wild colors behind your closed eyelids, and he may even give you cookies.
He moved to Wales more than a year ago; in fact, a week after I left Seattle on my last pilgrimage. And he was waiting for me at Holyhead, once an ancient Druid stronghold, now a ferry-port.
What do you really say to someone after so long when you’re finally standing in front of each other? Not much, really, except “well–you’re here,” and, “hey. You too.” ‘Cause more than that’s just extra words to fill a rather contented silence.
All the other words come later, mostly laughs and grunted assent when he’d hear me gasp and groan and try to hold back nauseated ecstasy staring at the countryside of Anglesy and Gwynedd. Nausea–yes, because it seemed almost my body revolted against the ancient landscape, the way you want to vomit because you’re so in love or want to tear off all your flesh because it’s limiting the movement of your soul, anchoring your spirit a little too heavily to all what is trying to comprehend what it’s seeing.
One moment you’re elsewhere and another moment you’re brutally here and want to break apart, disintegrate, return into the elements from which you were hewn, become tree and grass and bacteria and star and cloud and stone again. Sentience is suddenly a prison as the streams rush past you, the gnarled trees stare back, beckoning you to join them, trees your recognize, trees what are kin.
The Alchemists called this nigredo, the blackening, the moment you are dis-membered, unmade. The mystics called it The Dark Night, where you are left raw, broken and unpieced just before you can be put back together. The Alchemists used alembics, the mystics prayed in cells, and both are much more preferable containers than a train compartment.
Underslept, we napped, woke, roamed the city a bit. It was all a bit much to take in too quickly, castle walls and a nearby holy mount and a gentle rain and the horrid, nagging, impossible-to-shake feeling I’d known this land before.
Standing Stones and Sheep Shit Aren’t Just Symbols
I don’t think I can tell you about the dreams.
I’m certain I can’t describe the colors to you, because they don’t exist: fierce golds hewn of green tinged with copper, violets both blue and white and crimson, browns breaking apart into all the colors which comprise them.
I’d never seen such colors, and they made it a bit hard to sleep.
Also, the voices–a myriad of them all telling me things I needed to know, or what they thought I needed to know, the dead, but a different dead, dead with faces, dead with faces I thought I recognized until I saw their faces and knew I knew them from another time-out-of-time.
I woke, exhausted, the way you wake when you’ve dreamt those dreams where you’re elsewhere, not in bed any longer. Mostly, those dreams come and I do not remember them–but wake exhausted and know I was elsewhere and then someone mentions I was in their dreams.
This often felt a betrayal, my untethered soul roaming widely, unhappy to remain close to the body it went to bed with. I’ve found it much easier to laugh off a lover out with others as I sleep than to find my soul’s been out teaching people to do things I don’t even quite know how to do yet, handing them flowers to eat or warning them about impending trials to which I myself remained utterly ignorant.
I mind a bit less, like one becomes accustomed and even warmed to a lover’s night-rovings, comprehending that he brings back new patterns and ferocity he’d not have learned otherwise.
Souls and lovers go elsewhere–this must be embraced if we’re to have any sanity at all about the world. It was on one of those roving nights I got my name, so I can’t really complain.
Oh. That was here, or there’s a gate here, anyway:
Nick and I took a bus along the coast to the wet moors where, on old British Ordnance maps and on some tourist maps is marked a sunken island, visible only at low tide, called Caer Arianrhod.
Perhaps you do not know the story, and so I will tell you the story.
A wizard-king had an odd geas put upon him: he could only rest when his feet were lain upon the lap of a maiden, lest he always be at war. One of his nephews desired the particular lap-maiden of the king and asked his brother Gwydion to help him gain her. Through trickery, she is “gotten” (actually, brutally raped), and when the king finds out, he compensates the raped woman and turns the two nephews (the rapist and the accomplice) into mated pairs of animals to “get” upon each other for three years.
But the search remained for another maiden for the king to rest his feet upon, and Gwydion, now human again, suggests his half-sister Arianrhod, who lived in a castle upon an island. When the king uses magic to verify her maidenhood, she has two children, one belonging to the sea and the other a misshapen thing which grows quickly into a man.
That man was Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and this was said to be his home:
It’s what’s left of a 2500 year old ring fort, about a third of which now taken by the sea.
To get there, you can take a road. That’s the awfully easy way, and that one poet said something about how glad he was about going the way less traveled and anyway it was pretty, so we didn’t take the road but instead–well.
Okay. Look. When you walk into a field with a standing stone and everything you know and hear is telling you to go up to it and see if it wouldn’t mind if you pass through, don’t do what we did and decide we’d be all mannish and just sort of wave hello at it while all the sheep are staring at us in amazement at our audacity.
In Bretagne a decade ago, a lover and I traipsed merrily up to a really interesting-looking standing stone and then found ourselves running in abject terror for about 20 minutes until we were fully out of its view. I should know better.
So, shin deep in mud and sheep shit and our path blocked in the most intriguingly absurd ways, barriers which seemed to spring from the earth itself and the whim of some rather put-out yet bemused community of who-knows-who, we finally admitted our mistake when about to ford a small stream. The mud went much deeper than it should have, and the plank I offered my friend to help him ford landed as far from his sinking body as possible while still managing to blind him with mud.
It was Nick who remembered the standing stone first, and as he said it we both knew what we’d gotten ourselves into, and there was nothing else to be said.
We said our apologies as sheep stared, unblinking, and returned to the road.
We stopped for coffee and tea at the foot of Dinas Dinlle and my soul started untethering. I write this all now, despite its beauty, with what I can only describe as dread. Not terror, nor fear, not even anxiety, but sacred dread, the moment you know you go to meet gods closer to where they’ve been known, by greater gates than the ones you’ve uncovered or created elsewhere.
It’s one thing, I guess, to meet a god in a tiny woodland or at a shrine you’ve tended, a different thing altogether to go to where many others have found them. Back in Seattle, or in Eugene, or elsewhere in America I could approach them still with the veil of metaphor. No matter how real they are, relics of defensive symbolism still trigger, screening, shaping, and shading them from the full dread of their existence. You can alter a shrine, re-arrange an altar, leave a grove and pretend for a little while that you are untouched.
No matter how thoroughly I’ve convinced myself that they are real, I still ask myself constantly if they are, and here is Njord walking awfully close to me along the shoreline as I go to sit as close as I can in sight of Caer Arianrhod and I’m breaking into pieces even as I find a sea-soaked Alder wand wash up near a stone where I sat and fuck every metaphor I’ve ever held up as a shield against the Other.
You can find the sunken island without looking when you learn to give attention to those things you fear are your imagination. And you can tell yourself it’s just a sunken reef and she was just a character in a Christianized story and you can try to forget everything else you’re seeing as all the images flood in to drown your mind like the opened floodgates of the Isle of Ys.
Or you can just listen and let those waves wash over you, listen to what they’re telling you and not fight them.
This is a good land to learn to do this.
The earth is heavy here, so green and sodden and strong. Sleep is deep here, and the throngs who speak to you as you dream may be brusque, but they’re telling you something you need to know, and it’s all metaphor when your soul goes roaming only because that’s how you speak.
Otters Are Also a Bit Much
I can’t tell you about the dream this day, except that I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I finally slept again.
Know that feeling where someone who doesn’t exist is making love to your soul?
And then he tells you he’ll wait for you, because he knows you’re on your way?
And as you go to find him, there are all these other people who know you, because they were there when you got your name because that’s probably how they all got their names too, and the markings on their faces tell you more than you remember to know about them?
And the man who pulls your beard and so you pull his harder because you know what he’s on about and is speaking without speaking, telling you who you’re gonna have to hang off a cliff-face to talk to?
And you wake and you’ve almost had too much, so you go take photos of trees and towers and watch an otter with your best friend because, fuck, really, it’s all a bit much, isn’t it?
So you go see trees but you’re thinking of that figure who’s waiting for you.
And you take a photo of a raven by a castle wall and remember what you’re on about.
And you try to take a distracting photo of a castle and the city and a hill but it only does good for a little while because that hill reminds you of another hill where you were told stuff to do.
And so you just go to bed, because there’s really no escape but sleep, and he’s there again but this time it’s much easier because you’re starting to guess who he is.
So, I’m hanging off the side of a cliff-face talking to a giant, right? And it’s kinda fucking scary because I’m this puny little man hanging onto the side of a mountain above a slightly-less-than-sheer 100 foot drop, and above me is the stone I’m trying to get to because it’s white and carved and shouldn’t be either of those things and actually, I’m kinda terrified remembering this stuff right now.
You do some crazy stuff when they tell you to, but you know what’s crazier than climbing when you’re no good at climbing and you made clear to your friend you had to do this yourself so you’re all alone? Asking them for help.
And crazier still? Them saying ‘yes.’
We went to Beddgelert, a small and brutally picturesque village in Snowdonia. We’d originally planned on hitting the dark ford path of Snowdon (“Rhyd Ddu”), but a quick Ogham reading made me change my mind.
Beddgelert looks like what Thomas Kinkaid and the maker of every medieval fantasy video game tries to conjure on canvas or screen. In fact, you can play Skyrim, or go to Snowdonia. One’s cheaper and soul deadening, the other gets you a little rainy and wet and has real giants.
If you ever go, the story of Gelert (a dog mistakenly killed by his owner after saving a child from a wolf) is a bit of a ruse. Look underneath you when you go to his grave, and make sure you say hello, ’cause you’ll need their permission.
And then you walk, or we walked, along the river’s course. The wrong direction turns often enough into the correct direction if you’re giving attention.
There’s a nymph there in the water; I don’t know what they’re called in Welsh, but she likes cedar trees from cliff-faces. I’d say, “Fuck with her and I’ll get quite angry,” but she’s hidden by her metaphor, which is how they all hide, yeah?
But if you ever go and want help finding her and are on about the right things, I’d help you find her. But the giant thing?
Oh, the giant thing.
A few months ago I was told what I’m on about. I mean, besides the Anarcho-Anti-Capitalist poetic musings that I thought I was on about. I’m also on about that, you should know, but there’s this other thing that I’ve been on about and I had to ask a giant (well, several, as I suspect word gets around with them quite well) if they’d help me.
They already have, I should say. Last year there was one rummaging through my head; another strode above me and then there were wild boars rummaging through my tent. And then another one punched someone for me. All metaphor, sure, if you need it to be because I don’t need it to be any longer.
And they said yes, which is pretty damn cool of them. Giants are freaking awesome, even as you’re pretty certain you’re gonna lose your grip on the tree you’re hanging on to and fall and then your best friend will find you with a broken neck.
But I didn’t, because I’m writing you.
Have another photo:
This is Llyn Dinas. Nearby is a place called Dinas Emrys, another 2000 year old fort said to be where Merlin released two imprisoned dragons. Another place is rumored to be nearby, the city of the Fferllyt (Druidic alchemists) from whom Ceridwen learned how to brew the potion of Awen.
So, pretty much kinda hardcore magic everywhere.
What I did there will unfold, who I met I’ll get to know, what I carry I’ll learn to use.
But what I’ve seen’s been seared kinda deeply on the soul, like tattoos inked in wyrd. That’s probably a metaphor, but probably not.
And I love you all.
Previous Pilgrimage Journals:
16 thoughts on “Metaphor’s End”
Just to read your accounts, and see your photos, is magical, Rhyd. Thank you for sharing.
I am wondering if you’ve ever read Evangeline Walton’s novel retellings of the Four Branches? Prince of Annwn, etc. I ask only because those novels were my introduction to those stories, long ago when I was a kid.
Yes! Though I was not so lucky to read them as a child. Found them about ten years ago. 🙂
“I’m carrying a cedar tree because I was supposed to, and I gave it to a nymph.”
This line is EVERYTHING.
You should come with me next time.
Oh, crikey…where do we begin?
“Dogs of Gwern, beware of Pierced Thighs”–?!?
There is a whole section of my dissertation on Gelert…
And, perhaps what I send you later will connect into all of this. I’ll be writing and sending it shortly…
Thank you for bringing us with you on this quest. And thank you for the safety of your photos between the words, though I’m not sure they’re quite as safe as you might have thought. 🙂
The landscapes pictured and described here move me so much. My celtic blood is singing to me. The language and dreams and prose that stream out of you are deeply authentic and soulful. I’m envious of how in tune you are with the land, with the gods, with the fates that guide you…But with your words and pictures I feel like I’m right there with you, and they give me this nostalgia as though I too have experienced these lands and spirits in another time. Thank you for sharing your journey.
But with your words and pictures I feel like I’m right there with you, and they give me this nostalgia as though I too have experienced these lands and spirits in another time. Thank you for sharing your journey.
I agree wholeheartedly!
(you know me as Marina at The Wild Hunt)
Thank you for posting this. I have such a love for Wales and your post reminded me of why I love it so much. Are you interested in any other sacred sites from the Mabinogian? Some of my favorites are Bedd Branwen, Llech Ronw and Lynn Tegid/ Lake Bala. If you go to Bala head up to town and check out the bookstore Awen Meirion. The guy that runs it and you might get along, he loves myths and anarchy. Plus he sells books and maps you just can’t buy anywhere else. My favorite place to stay is Trigonos in Nantlle Valley (Lleu’s Valley). They have delicious food and can direct you to the tree the locals say is where Math found Lleu in his rotting eagle form.
Have you read The Owl Service? A wonderful retelling of the Bloduewedd’s myths all retold in the landscape you are in in Snowdon. It’s a young adult book and a quick read.
Small correction: Gwydion (his loyal uncle!) found Lleu, not Math.
You are correct! Sorry, I had a moment there.
So I hit up the website for Beddgerlert and learned that Alfred Bestall, illustrator of the famous Rupert Bear stories lived there. I remember Rupert Bear from my girlhood with his plaid trews.
It was Mary Tourtel who created Rupert Bear; who was a brown bear until cost-saving practices with ink, white-washed him.
These are important things to know about cultural totem animals.
Thank you for sharing them.
Rhyd’s Travel Journal, or “Why I’m suddenly terrified to visit Iceland or Norway, but now I have to go.”
“Do not look there, unless you’d leave….”
Also, you’re welcome. 🙂
The colors I see on my closed eyelids are nowhere near as unearthly as your, but often people look at me oddly when i talk of them. Apparently it’s not all that common. Lovely patterns rather reminiscent of the 1980s screensavers called Mosaic.
As to meeting folks F2F for the first time–or seeing an old friend again: yes, often there are no words needed. We just enjoy each other’s presence for most of a visit, unless some particular activity is why you’re in the same room together.