Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Wild Hunt: A Midwinter Tale

“Right at the South end of South Cadbury Church stands Camelot. This was once a noted town or castle, set on a real peak of a hill, and with marvellously strong natural defences..... Roman coins of gold, silver and copper have been turned up in large quantities during ploughing there, and also in the fields at the foot of the hill, especially on the East side. Many other antiquities have also been found, including at Camelot, within memory, a silver horseshoe.” [John Leland, Itineray] 

Arthur's Hunting Causeway
On Midwinter Night Arthur and his knights are said to ride over the hill fort at South Cadbury, (Cadbury Castle) in Somerset and down through the ancient gateway where their horses drink at a spring beside Sutton Montis church. Whether or not they can be seen, their hoof beats can be heard. Below the hill are traces of an old track running towards Glastonbury, called Arthur's Causeway or Hunting Path, where the din of spectral riders and hounds goes past on winter nights.

This is Arthur leading the Wild Hunt, a folkloric theme common throughout northern Europe, generally described a noisy phantom group of huntsmen on horseback racing through the sky at night accompanied by a pack of spectral hounds. The hunt is said to occur on dark winter nights with a full moon, from Samhain until May Eve, peaking on the night of midwinter, the shortest day of the year.

The hunters may be either faery or the deceased, but the leader is often associated with the Germanic god Woden (Odin). Other leaders of the hunt include such figures as Herne the Hunter, King Herla and Wild Edric.  The Anglo Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 1127 records an apparent sighting of the Wildhunt:

“Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this wild tantivy as near as they could tell.”

A 13th century French version, probably of Breton origin, is known as the Chasse Artu. The French tale records how a woodcutter met the Wild Hunt on a moonlight night near the Mont du Chat, so named from Arthur's fight with a monster cat. The woodcutter was told that the hunting-party was of Arthur's household and his court was nearby.

A similar tradition survives in southwest England where King Arthur is said to lead the Wild Hunt out from Glastonbury Tor along the trackway to South Cadbury. In the 16th century the King's antiquary John Leland recorded a memory of King Arthur and his Knights sleeping under the hill at Cadbury. Another local tradition claims that if one leaves a silver coin with one's horse on the trackway at Cadbury on Midsummer's Eve, the horse will be found to be re-shod in the morning.

The causeway, also known as King Arthur's Hunting Path, links the hill fort at South Cadbury directly to Glastonbury Tor in a straight line, 11 miles distant. Glastonbury Tor is the abode of that other well-known “conductor of souls to the place of the dead”, and leader of the Wild Hunt, Gwyn ap Nudd.

The Wild Hunt
Gwyn the Huntsman
Gwyn son of Nudd is in origin a Celtic deity, his name means “white, bright, shining” commonly associated with reference to Otherworldly, Sacred. He is son of Nudd, cognate with the Celtic deity Nodens, associated with healing, whose adoration in Britain is attested at the temple complex at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire, overlooking the Severn. At Lydney a number of stone or bronze statues of dogs have been found suggesting a connection with hunting. The dog is often found alongside Celtic deities linked with hunting and healing.

Gwyn's association with hunting may have led to his inclusion in Arthur's retinue in Culhwch and Olwen, in which he leads the hunt for the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth.

In the medieval poem The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, from the 13th century compilation known as The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin), Gwyn relates his exploits on the battlefield and his role as a psychopomp who gathers the souls of fallen British warriors:

“I have been where the soldiers of Britain were slain
From the east to the north
I am the escort of the grave.
I have been where the soldiers of Britain were slain.
From the east to the south
I am alive, they in death!”

His role as a psychopomp is paralleled in his role as leader of the Wild Hunt, in which he leads a pack of supernatural hounds known as the Cŵn Annwn to harvest human souls. In Welsh folklore, to hear the baying of Gwyn's hounds was a portent of an imminent death in the family. In The Dialogue poem Gwyn is also accompanied by a hound, named as 'Dormarth of the ruddy nose', and witnessed a conflict before Caer Vandwy, an Otherworldy fortress mentioned in the early Arthurian poem Preiddeu Annwn.

In later tradition Gwyn became known as the king of the Tylwyth Teg, and in The Life of Saint Collen he is again linked to Glastonbury Tor which seems to have been a portal to the Otherworld.

The Cŵn Annwn
In The First Branch of the Mabinogi Pwyll Prince of Dyfed is hunting at Glyn Cuch when he encounters another pack of hunting dogs which are of a colour he has never seen before on a pack of hunting dogs; they were a brilliant shining white, and their ears red; “and as the exceeding whiteness of the dogs glittered, so glittered the exceeding redness of their ears”. Pwyll had come across the dogs of Arawn king of Annwn, these are the Cŵn Annwn.

Another name for this phantasmal canine pack is 'Cŵn Mamau' (Hounds of the Mothers), or 'Cŵn Cyrff' (Corpse-Dogs); the Hounds of Annwn, the white, red-eared hounds of Celtic myth, were death omens, described as chained and led by a black-horned figure. These spectral dogs appeared only at night to foretell death, sent from Annwn to seek out corpses and human souls. Usually heard or seen in midwinter, the hounds are associated with the sounds of migrating wild geese. The howling of these demonic dogs is generally seen as a death portent to anyone who heard them.

In England they are known as the Gabriel Hounds, or 'Gabble Retchets'. These are essentially a regional variation of The Cŵn Annwn, and many others can be found across Northern Europe. In Dartmoor it is said you can hear the baying of the Wisht Hounds as they hunt for un-baptised babies. The legend of the Wisht hound is said to be the inspiration behind Conan Doyle's ‘Hound of the Baskervilles'. In the Parish of St Germans in Cornwall the legend of 'Dando's Dogs' tells how a priest became a demon huntsman.

Dormarth the Gatekeeper
In the poem The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd, Gwyn tells us:

“handsome my dog and round-bodied,
And truly the best of dogs;
Dormach was he, which belonged to Maelgwn.

Dormach with the ruddy nose! what a gazer
Thou art upon me! because I notice
Thy wanderings on Gwibir Vynyd”  

Here the name of Gwyn's dog Dormath (Dormach), means “Death's Door” as such it relates to the ancient belief in dogs as guardians of the gateway to the Otherworld. For example, in Egyptian mythology, Wepwawet, whose name means “opener of the ways”, is often depicted as a wolf standing at the prow of a solar-boat; the basic Indo-European myth, of the dog that keeps watch over the realm of the dead. There are many more throughout the mythologies of the world.

The Glastonbury Zodiac is an envisaged circle, some eleven miles in diameter, of twelve giant effigies present in the Somerset landscape, each representing one of the signs of the zodiac first studied by Katharine Maltwood in the 1920s. Maltwood saw gigantic figures of the zodiac outlined by tracks, field boundaries and the courses of streams and rivers combining natural and man-made features and claimed it was the original of King Arthur's Round Table on which she first published anonymously in the 1930's.

Maltwood was inspired by Sebastian Evans 1898 translation of The High History of the Holy Grail. Originally written in the early 13th century in Old French and intended as a continuation of Chretien de Troyes' unfinished work Perceval, or the Story of the Grail. The author of the work is not recorded but toward the end it states:

“The Latin from whence this history was drawn into Romance was taken in the Isle of Avalon, in a holy house of religion that standeth at the head of the Moors Adventurous, there where King Arthur and Queen Guenievre lie”

From this Maltwood was convinced The High History was written at Glastonbury and  King Arthur's Round Table was a planisphere drawn on the Somerset landscape.

The Girt Dog of Langport (Mary Caine)
Situated outside the circle of the Zodiac, Maltwood saw the shape of a giant dog with its nose situated at Burrow Mump, its ear is at Earlake Moor, near Othery, and its tail at Wagg, with the course of the River Parrett forming the line of its belly. This is the Girt Dog of Langport. The Glastonbury Zodiac remains controversial but the Girt Dog is the most convincing landscape figure of them all.

The earliest reference to the dog is in a folk song sung at wassail time, which was first recorded in 1895 and published by Cecil Sharp in a collection of folk songs in 1909, yet, the Wassail tradition is an ancient one, still practised in Somerset.

Thus, the Girt Dog seemingly guards this star temple, the entrance to the Glastonbury Zodiac and Avalon, like Cerberus of Greek mythology, the watchdog at the entrance to Hades. As guardian to the entrance to Avalon the Girt Dog has been likened to Gwyn ap Nudd's dog Dormath; indeed, as we have seen, “Dormarth” means “Death's Door.

At 24 metres (79 ft) high, Burrow Mump is located where the River Tone and the old course of the River Cary join the River Parrett. In the surrounding low lying land of the Somerset Levels it is a an unusual high spot and has the appearance of being an artificial, man-made sighting point. On top of the mump is ruined chapel, dedicated to St Michael, built in the late 18th century on the site of an earlier church built in the 15th century, in turn thought to have been constructed over an early Saxon chapel.

Indeed, with the ruins of St Michael's Church on top of Burrow Mump it bears all the hallmarks of a miniature Glastonbury Tor, 11 miles distant. The alignment from Burrow Mump to Glastonbury Tor   aligns perfectly with the sunrise on 1st May and by extension, from Cornwall to Norfolk, has been termed the St Michael Line.

There is little doubt that the 'burrow' or 'mump', both words mean 'hill', has been shaped by the hand of man. The A361 road, from Glastonbury to Taunton, runs dead straight past Burrow Wall to circle around the Mump, the dog's nose, before crossing the river Parrett. The 'Mump' is geologically described as a natural outcrop of Triassic sandstone capped with Keuper Marl, typically red in colour.

The definition of “ruddy”, as in the description of Dormath's nose, is "healthy red colour", the same as the red clay of the artificial mound of Burrow Mump. So here we find a gigantic dog, the Girt Dog of Langport, with a red nose guarding the way to Avalon, bearing an uncanny similarity to Gwyn's dog, Dormarth, with the name meaning “Death's Door” also with a red nose.

The Somerset Parallelogram (after Nicholas Mann) - not to scale
Katherine Maltwood wrote that Alfred's fort at Athelney (Burrow Mump) and Camelot Castle of South Cadbury are both equidistant from the Isle of Avalon (Glastonbury), recognising this arrangement formed a closed triangle with two equal sides, 11 miles each. At each point stood a church dedicated to St Michael.

Significantly, the tip of the Girt Dog's, or Dormath's, nose sits at the end of another 11 mile line, exactly parallel to Arthur's Causeway, the line of the Wild Hunt, extending from Burrow Mump to Hamdon Hill near Montecute, and the intersection with the St Michael Line. Nicholas Mann plotted these points within an accuracy of 200 yards, that is within one percent. Linking these sites, Yuri Leitch has extended Maltwood's Triangle to a four-sided geometric pattern he describes as the Somerset Parallelogram. Surely this arrangement of four ancient sites, 11 miles equidistant, designated by a Gatekeeper Dog, is beyond coincidence?

Whether one believes in the Glastonbury Zodiac or not, surely Maltwood was correct when she suggested that “these ancient landmarks should reveal more than one lost secret.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Bruce Lincoln , The Hellhound, in Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology & Practice, 1991
Alby Stone, Hellhounds, Werewolves and the Germanic Underworld, Mercian Mysteries, 1994.
Bob Trubshaw, Black dogs: guardians of the corpseways ,  Mercian Mysteries, 1994.
Yuri Leitch, The Maltwood Triangle in Signs & Secrets of the Glastonbury Zodiac, Avalonian Aeon Publications, 2013, pp.109-118.
Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2008.
Katharine Maltwood, Guide to Glastonbury’s Temple of the Stars, James Clarke & Co, New Edition, 1987. (First published 1935).
Katharine Maltwood, The Enchantments of Britain: King Arthur's Round Table of the Stars, James Clarke & Co, New Edition, 1987. (First published c.1933).
Mary Caine, The Glastonbury Zodiac: Key to the Mysteries of Britain, (self published), 1979.
Jennifer Westwood, Albion: A Guide to the Legendary History of Britain, Grafton, 1985.
Nicholas R Mann, Glastonbury Tor: A Guide to the History and Legends, Triskele, 2nd Edition, 1993.

Edited 22/12/16
Updated 26/12/16

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