[Today, we sit down for a short interview with Greg Hill. A practitioner of the Brythonic tradition, Hill discusses the meanings of awen and awenydd, and the Deities he honors, as well as his work on the new anthology, The Deep Music.]
ev0ke: How do you define your spiritual path? Does your tradition have a name?
Greg Hill: I would define my spiritual path as that of an awenydd. As a named path it goes back to the twelfth century when Gerald of Wales described awenyddion as soothsayers and visionaries inspired by awen, a function going back to the vates of ancient druidic tradition. Awen as a source of poetic inspiration is recorded in a reference to a sixth century bard who was known as ‘Tad Awen’, usually translated as ‘Father of the Muse’. So awen is associated with both poetic inspiration and with prophetic utterance, with the two coming together in references in The Book of Taliesin and in the work of early Welsh bards to the source of awen in the Cauldron of Ceridwen.
As a modern tradition it has, like present-day druidry, two recent lines of development from a common source. Iolo Morgannwg’s revival of druidry at the end of the eighteenth century, and his representation of awen by the sign /|\ was also linked to the revival of writing poems in the metrical technique of cynghanedd, which uses the particular sound patterns of the Welsh language to form intricate chains of verse. In modern Wales, the annual cultural festival of the National Eisteddfod features druidic ceremonies and bardic competitions which directly echo Iolo Morgannwg’s practice. Modern druidic orders which promote druidry as a spiritual path also stem from Iolo’s revival, though they are not linked to the promotion of Welsh-language culture in the way the the Gorsedd of Bards of the National Eisteddfod is. It is also the case that poets writing in Welsh use the term ‘awenydd’ simply as a synonym of ‘bard’ or ‘poet’, and ‘awen’ as the inspiration for writing poetry. So it seems that there is a divorce between the association of awen with modern druidic orders following druidry as a spiritual path, and the continued use of the term within the Welsh language where it relates to cultural and literary matters.
As an inhabitant of Wales inspired by the lore of the early Welsh tradition, as well as an individual whose spiritual life has long been rooted in paganism and Brythonic polytheism, I wanted to fuse these disparate strands and bring together the two aspects of the tradition both as a spiritual path and as an engagement with the roots of the culture and the literary traditions of Wales and early Britain. That is why I now follow this path.
ev0ke: Which Deities or Powers are honored in your tradition?
GH: I acknowledge a range of Brythonic deities and powers inherent in the landscape and the lore of the land. My particular adherence is to Rhiannon, as she is known in the medieval Welsh tales contained in the Mabinogioncollection, or Rigantona as she would have been known in ancient Britain. She is also known as Epona — the Horse Goddess — worshipped widely on the European mainland. I also honour Maponos as a god of inspiration. Rosmerta is another important deity for me. She is shown in ancient imagery holding a vat and I associate her in particular with a well guardian called Mererid featured in the medieval Welsh manuscripts of the Black Book of Carmarthen as the agent of a flood which engulfed an area that is now a large bog near to where I live, and where the remnants of a submerged forest are still visible on a beach between the bog and the sea. I also have a deep relationship with a particular river that runs out of the mountains and down across the bog to this sea shore.
ev0ke: If you could correct one common misconception about polytheism, what would it be?
GH: That all deities are different faces of one deity. It’s true that some deities have more than one identity, and can manifest differently in different cultures and places. But it is my strong intuition that a range of separate deities exist independently of us and that each can be perceived as presences in Nature, but that these deities can take form for us in Culture, each in a number of different guises or identities.
ev0ke: You recently coedited The Deep Music: Offerings for the Awenalongside Lorna Smithers and Lia Hunter. Congratulations! First, how did the project come about? What was the impetus behind it?
GH: The project for the anthology came about as a development from the Awen & Awenydd website. Initially the site was simply an attempt to put on record some historical sources for the awenydd identity, including some of my translations of early Welsh texts, and to begin to define the path as a modern practice. In collaboration with Lorna Smithers, the remit began to widen both in terms of Lorna’s focus on Gwyn ap Nudd and with her desire to include a wider range of views and interpretations. Then, with Lia Hunter in America also involved in the anthology, the focus broadened further.
My own emphasis, originally, had been quite conservative in interpreting the path as a Brythonic tradition which had developed particularly within Welsh culture in association with a sense of the Welsh as the inheritors of ancient British lore. But as the website began to attract other contributions it became clear that we would have to cast our net wider for the anthology. As it has turned out, although some of the contributors either inhabit, or otherwise relate to, Welsh culture, some are more focused on other landscapes and we have a fairly even balance of contributions from both sides of the Atlantic.
ev0ke: What is “awen?”
GH: In addition to what I said in answer to the first question, I would define awen as ‘inspiration’ — that which is ‘breathed in’, to the poet, to the seer, to the worshipper, to the spirit worker, to the seeker who waits to be guided. The description given in the anthology, from the seventeenth century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, of a shepherd lad being possessed by a figure clothed in green leaves and carrying a sheaf of arrows (an image resonant for me of Maponos), so that he becomes inspired by awen and develops into a renowned bard, is an account that has corresponding analogues in other cultures, but here specific to Brythonic lore.
ev0ke: How did you go about assembling the book? Was it an open call for submissions or did you seek out particular contributors? Were you interested in fiction, poetry, essays, a combination?
GH: The book’s structure is that contributors were invited to submit a personal definition of the awenydd path together with some examples of creative expression as an awenydd. The range of definitions surprised me in some ways, with some quite close to my own, others excitingly different, and some even a little diffident about owning the attribution. Certainly the range goes far beyond my original more limited intentions when the website was established. The diversity of identifications with Brythonic, or wider Celtic culture, shading out from close adherence to respectful distance, is, I think, reflective of the range encompassed by the modern awenydd identity.
ev0ke: You contributed several pieces yourself to The Deep Music, including “The Way of the Awenydd” and “Nine Songs for the Awen.” What sort of research went into these pieces? Did you have a stack of books on your desk? Multiple visits to the library? Long walks and meditation?
GH: Stacks of books are a more or less permanent feature of my desk. I am lucky to have access to an excellent research library for Celtic Studies. Long walks and meditations are a regular part of my weekly routine. So all of these!
But the definition and source material for the poems grew out of research and creative exploration over many years. So it arose naturally from assimilated knowledge, as these things must, as well as contemplation and immersion in what for me is a sacred landscape. Certainly some verification from books went into the definition, as I like to ground my spiritual insights in inherited wisdom from the ancestors as far as possible. But as important as good grounding is, the spirit needs to be free to fly. Sound research is an anchor which we leave behind when we soar to the stars.
ev0ke: Where can readers find The Deep Music?
GH: It is available directly from this link at Lulu or indirectly from Amazon.
ev0ke: Which books, websites or other resources would you recommend to those interested in Brythonic polytheism?
There are plenty of online sources for texts, though some of these feature unreliable translations. Good translations can be expensive or hard to get, but any recent translation of The Mabinogion will be reliable and inexpensive. For the awenydd tradition The Book of Taliesin is a major source text, but it is not easy reading. My own websites, together with those of my fellow editors, would also provide a starting point:
As well as the Awenydd Discussion Group.
ev0ke: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
GH: We have nothing planned in the immediate future, but will certainly give this further thought as the conference and festival season gets under way.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
GH: I am working on a sequence of poems, ‘Birds of Rhiannon,’ based upon my own experience of watching birds and also on the enchanted birds which bring a state of timeless suspension in the second Mabinogi : “… three birds came and began to sing a song to them, and all the songs they had ever heard before were unpleasing compared to that song. They had to look far out over the waves to see them but they were so clearly present to them as if they were with them.” Or, as the giant Ysbaddaden in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen says “the Birds of Rhiannon, they that wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and stories can be found there.]