Brythonic Gods and Polytheist Reconnection – Interview with Lee Davies
Lee Davies follows the Brythonic Gods of what we now call the United Kingdom. As there are some gaps in what we do know about those gods he has to try to fill in the gaps to create a modern practice. With others with the same interest he takes part in the website Brython and discussions at Caer Feddwyd.
With development of devotional works to the Brythonic gods, Lee has set up a publishing company, Grey Mare Books. He is seeking submissions and working on putting together their first book. Lee also has his own blog the blog, Cylch Riannon, which goes back several years.
Christopher: What kind of background were you raised in?
Lee: Pretty standard I guess. I grew up in West Wales, so a very rural farming sort of area on the coast. My extended family are mostly farmers and we all come from a farming background so there was a fair amount of time spent on farms growing up. I was also brought up Catholic; church every Sunday, altar boy, Catholic school with nuns – the lot.
Christopher: What started your interest into Paganism?
Lee: By the time I hit 13 I had got bored of church, the whole thing just left me totally uninterested so I had started skipping it and going for a walk around town or the paths on the edge of town near the sea or hills. Then one day a friend brought in a book to school called ‘Vikings: Hammer of the North’ and it was the first time I had seen that there might be other Gods out there so I immediately started going to the local library and getting what I could on different ‘pagan’ cultures and religions. That friend and I started making altars in the woods, having rituals and making offerings. It was exactly what two 13 year olds would do with very little information but a lot of willing (this was back in about 1992 so no internet of course).
Christopher: When and why did you become interested in the Brythonic gods? Which gods are these?
Lee: I don’t remember exactly when it was, probably about 15 or so years ago. I think that growing up in Britain and specifically Wales; it is all too easy to forget that there is that underlying layer of myth and deity. The natural state of things in my landscape was Catholicism, so I never really looked there to find something different. I do remember thinking that there must be something pre-Christian in my homeland, and so with the use of the first PC I had owned and my first forays into the internet (dial-up..click buzz whirrrr) I met the realisation that the stories we read in school about Branwen and Pwyll were actually the echoes of Gods and Heroes who had lived and walked the very soil I had spent my childhood on. It’s in those stories that you can find a later echo of the Brythonic gods; Rhiannon, Teyrnon, Taran, Gwyn ap Nudd, Lleu and a handful of others.
Christopher: What do we have as decent source material about them?
Lee: The most obvious and well known source is the collection of stories known as the Mabinogion, these are 14th to 15th century middle Welsh manuscripts of older tales. That said, it can’t be called a complete mythology as they were committed to parchment almost a millennium after they had existed as living oral traditions.
There are clear and definite remnants of the gods in them though; Rhiannon being the echo of Rigantona, Taran of Taranis. It’s a bit of a forensic effort to some extent digging the gods out from the heroes, the literary inventions and host of other names that stem more from the habit of bardic extravagance rather than mythological heritage. Beside the Mabinogion we have inscription evidence from the Romano-British period and we can also successfully look at comparative survivals in Eire or Gaul.
Christopher: With there being gaps in the information, what can be used as a resource material to help fill in the gaps? Are there any Pagan religions that follow similar types of gods?
Lee: the most obvious ones are Eire and Gaul. These are the closest cousins to the Iron Age Britons. So if we see for instance particular named gods from both of those cultures it is a very safe inference that there was a Brythonic deity of similar name. It isn’t as easy with goddesses as they often vary hugely and are tied more to the landscape, but with gods it is far more straightforward.
For instance there is a blacksmith god across all three cultures; Goibhnu (Eire), Gobannus (Gaul) and of course the Welsh Gofannon or originally Gobannonos of Britain.
Perhaps the biggest revelation for me was when I started looking into the Indo-European cultures and seeing how closely connected those peoples were in terms of language, religion and culture. There is so much potential in there to begin rebuilding and reconnecting with the gods of this land.
Christopher: When and why did you start Cylch Riannon?
Lee: Oh crikey. I had to go check the archive of the blog to find that out, it has been a fair while. July 2007 I did my first blogasm, so 8 years ago. I think at the time I wanted to have a means of charting what I was doing and what I was reading and discovering, because by and large because there was at the time very little out there on the net that could be considered ‘good’. Almost everything that had the words ‘Celtic’ in it in relation to paganism was shite.
Reading back some of the earlier posts makes me cringe a bit too, this has all been a journey and I made some silly steps (hopefully fewer these days) but I would like to think that I have grown and changed and developed a better understanding and a better connection to what I believe rather than something poorly thought out and superficial.
Christopher: I note in your posts you are constantly asking the question of why and how about things. Do you feel too many Pagans never think about why things are done and how they might best be done?
Lee: At times it feels that way. In my experience there certainly was, and may well still be, a large stream of the Pagan community who simply want to follow. Who want to be given X, Y and Z and be shown how to use them. They want spoon feeding and simply won’t or can’t make the steps to going out there and finding it for themselves. Too few people I have encountered across the Pagan scene, online or in London particularly ever questioned, and in some instances this led to groups of people being taken for a ride by someone who was making stuff up and feeding lie after lie.
I have always questioned; I want to know why, how or when. I am a fundamentally nosy person, always wanting to know things. My work is in science so those are fundamentals to what I do and it is probably because I have that deep rooted desire ‘to know’ that it emerges in not only work but my religious practices too.
Christopher: In one post you mentioned that we have lost the understanding of the religo-magical relationship with the land. Why is this important?
Lee: I don’t hold with the notion that there used to be some ‘pagan’ utopia when man lived in harmony with his environment and the gods. We have always been a destructive species and have been changing the land around for millennia – albeit on a different scale to what we can, appallingly, achieve today.
However, I do think that we have lost our connection to the landscape around us and with that our connection to the gods. I believe that the gods and ungods arise out of the land itself as a kind of by-product of a spiritual ecosystem that we are part of and the gods are shaped by our interaction with that spiritual ecosystem.
We are detached from the landscape beyond weekend walks or holidays and so because we have lost that, we have lost our connection to that which comes from the land; the gods and ungods. Perhaps one of the greatest gift my parents gave me was the freedom to go off on my own a lot growing up; I could go watch the sunset on a rocky outcrop up from our house or go out and sit on the distinctive cliffs overlooking the sea. I was given the freedom to disappear for the day and just spend time ‘out there’, so to me it more likely I could find the gods in the sea, the sun, the woodland and rivers than in a church.
No Sunday mass ever gave me that feeling of utter exhilaration or awe I have felt watching winter waves pounding the cliffs or late summer sun filtering across golden barley. If we want to find the gods, it is those moments we have must look for them and into those places we need to put ourselves.
Christopher: How is this tied to the concept of Sovereignty? What does Sovereignty mean used this way?
Lee: I think that in order to live ‘harmoniously’ and successfully we need to live in balance as part of a three-way relationship; people-gods-landscape. If we neglect part of that it all falls apart. If we take the gods out of the balance (you don’t need to be Pagan here, ‘gods’ in this sense can stand in for anything beyond the purely functional or mundane) our relationship with the landscape becomes one of function and potential use and down that road lies environmental degradation and the problems we see today in our environment. We need this balance otherwise we are going to be in deep shit, as we now find ourselves heading towards.
In the past sovereignty was held within the Chief/King/Queen and they embodied the people’s right and relationship to live upon the land itself.
These days we don’t have that kind of sovereign relationship and so what I am trying to figure out is how we can come to embody sovereignty in ourselves and go about living a life in balance with the land and the gods. We need to work out how we embody that relationship and renew it in ritual format; back in the day it would be done at a coronation, so my current line of thinking is something around harvest time which also incorporates the Horse Sacrifice (not an actual horse these days of course) though how we get an assertion from the gods that we have played our proper part in this triumvirate is another matter; divination perhaps or trance possession.
This whole subject is up there on my list of ‘things to ponder’, later this year I am hoping to enact the Horse Sacrifice ritual in a larger group so that will certainly be something to build on.
Christopher: What is the importance of the stories and myths in a religion? If they are lost, is there a way to create new ones for our reconstructed religions? Is there a need to continue to create new myths for religions as time and conditions change?
Lee: Myths are glue. They are glue that binds the people to the gods and to the landscape. They are a way of explaining and expressing things that ‘just are’ in a way that we can relate to and feel comfortable with. If we have lost them, which we have pretty much done with the Brythonic myths; the Mabinogion is a mere shadow of what we can guess as being the original British mythos.
I think we can create new ones. Myself and some others at Brython did just that. I wrote a new creation myth; it has a connection and commonality to Indo-European myths, but with a definite Brythonic slant in that it places the gods into a context which relates to how we view them and their place in the landscape.
A friend, Potia, wrote a myth about Rigantona’s descent into the Otherworld and oddly enough it was only much later that we started finding odd things that she had ‘made up’ which have precedent or actually fit in with historical practice. They aren’t essential but having written one, it is strange how they work their way into your way of thinking and how you view the gods.
Christopher: How long have you been taking part online in Brython and in Caer Feddwyd ? How have you found them useful for anyone interested in the Brythonic gods?
Lee: I joined the Caer Feddwyd discussion boards back in 2005 and was invited to get involved with Brython soon after that. The key thing about the people at Brython is that they are all about starting with the academic; what we can glean from myth, history and archaeology to form a starting point but from there the really important stuff is personal experience and sharing that personal experience.
Taking unverified personal gnosis (UPG) and turning it into shared gnosis; when we start coming forward and sharing the same experiences it gives us confidence that we are doing something right or that the gods are responding favourably to what we are doing. It gives light to our murky knowledge of the past. Then of course there is the sharing of what we do.
From discussions we all tend to work in slightly different ways when it comes to devotional work, but after discussion, we incorporated what we call the triple toast; a shared bit of praxis where we toast the gods of the group, the gods of the season/festival and our own personal gods. It’s good to know that when you are standing outside or at an indoor altar there are other people doing the same thing at the same time and making similar libations. That shared liturgy gives an anchor that binds us together as a disparate but also united group.
Christopher: You had been discussing the need to publish devotional material. What has pushed you to start Grey Mare Books now?
Lee: Rigantona. Over the past year I have been putting together a lot of material from a number of sources into an essay to try to clarify, to myself as much as anything else, what I understand of Her nature. One of the problems of being a polytheist working from a culture that has almost been lost to time is that what remains is fragmentary and unreliable at times and so we have to embark on a fair bit of syncretism.
So personally, I have been syncretising Rigantona and Epona. Now it may be that what I have been doing isn’t that much of a leap, but it still needs gelling together in a sympathetic way and preparing that essay has been part of that process. Then She gave me a shove and it seemed like a fine idea to get an anthology published as a devotional piece from anyone out there who also felt connected to Her.
Christopher: How do you envision the mission of this publishing company? What it is the first project planned?
Lee: Well the plan is to publish the Grey Mare on the Hill anthology this year as a non-profit venture with it being a collection of poems, hymns, prose, devotional art or whatever seems appropriate by people with a connection to the constellation of Horse Goddess – Landscape – Sovereignty. Beyond that I have no set plans; I would like to get the Brython liturgical material published because some of it is simply stunning and I think there is a distinct lack of new liturgy out there particularly, again I think that would have to be non-profit. I like the idea of anthologies on a subject, especially on a specific deity.
One of the greatest things about being involved with Brython is the sharing of experiences and ideas about the gods and what each of us does or prepares when worshiping. Some of us, like me, are crap at poetry but can churn out pretty decent hymns to the gods, and having a means of sharing that material for each of us to make use of is a really valuable thing. If I had to be pinned down on this I would say an anthology each dedicated to Gwyn ap Nudd and Briganti. We shall see.
Christopher: So what do you hope for in the future for these various things that you are involved in?
Lee: Can I be ambitious? I would like to do a handful of these non-profit devotional publications and see thousands and thousands of people get hold of them and know that there are people all over the world finding joy and exhilaration in a shared body of liturgical work to their gods and goddesses; offering the same prayers to Epona or pouring out libations to the Great Queen whilst using the same praise hymns as a thousand other people.
Christopher: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Lee: I cheekily changed the title of these questions when you sent them to me. I hope you don’t mind?! I prefer reconnection-ism rather than reconstruction-ism; we live in the 21st century and we need the gods to be relevant to us now. Reconstructionism is something from the past, it was relevant then. We need to find that connection to the gods and make it relevant to us now in this century and at this time and in the land as it is today. The actions, beliefs and practices of our ancestors are a foundation, but we need to build our own houses upon them.