I was at an OBOD camp back in 1997.
It was a Samhain camp and the evening was cold, crisp and the sky was clear. The camp was on a farm far away from the big towns of the South West so the stars shone bright above. All day we had been preparing for the evening ritual. Some of us would invoke deities associated with the season and the rest would gather in one of the large benders, waiting to be borne out into the cold of the night, the camp being transformed into the Realm of Annwn. There they would travel and encounter, well, whatever they encountered.
Who really knew?
During the day we had each raided a trunk full of clothing, costume, and ritual gear. I had chosen a golden shirt, and had an extremeIy long grey curtain as a cloak. Yes, it sounds odd, I get that, but that’s what I was led to choose.
I had undergone training in the practice of invocation but had never fully opened myself up in such a way before. So, after a last meeting, we each stepped out into the night to speak with the Gods. I walked through the darkness to a grove of Willow trees at the edge of the field. It was here only the night before that, whilst I took part in the Bardic initiations, a Barn Owl had flown in and perched just above our circle, watching us with those Otherworldly eyes. I took that as a good sign that the Spirits of Samhain, in the shape of Blodeuwedd, were with us in that space. I was drawn there. Standing beneath the stars I remember raising my arms within the Grove and speaking words to the God who I would offer my body to for the Journey of the ritual.
I had been called to Arawn, so I called out to him.
Arawn’s story is told in the First Branch of the Mabinogion. He is one of the Kings of Annwn, that Otherworld that exists in almost exactly the same space as our own into which Poets have travelled, through the portal of a standing stone, a cave, waterfall, mountain top, or the deep shadows beneath the brambles out on the Moors, or upon the Downs. He is a hunter whose hounds, the Cwn Annwn, have pure white fur, and red ears. He has been compared with the figure of Death. And yes, I was inviting him in.
I remember the feeling distinctly. At first there was nothing – just the cold of the night, and the darkness. But then I felt my consciousness literally falling back, as something else came forward. Very quickly my vision changed from the fullness of sight, to the equivalent of watching my vision through a square box, like a television. What was on the square box was separate from me. I became an observer.
From far away I heard a horn being blown, and people began to walk out from the bender into their Journey.
The curtain I had around my shoulders was no longer a curtain. It was the night-sky itself, long, and holding upon it every star. I observed people in the field, and occasionally one would approach and talk to me. But it wasn’t me. I watched from within, and heard their questions, but I didn’t speak. I listened to the words being spoken by Arawn. I felt apart from the experience. There was no pain, only the occasional sense of dizziness. Then an older man approached and spoke.
“I’m dying,” he said. “Will I be ok? Will my family be alright?”
At that moment the sense of observation broke. I felt myself fly forward and my own voice, within my head shouted, “You aren’t qualified to answer that!! How can I answer that??” For a moment the connection was broken and I found myself looking into the desperate eyes of this old man.
Trust, I thought. Trust.
Within, I stepped back, the sense of observation returned, and I heard words being spoken. Not my words. I saw the old man smile.
At the end of the ritual I returned to the Willow grove and asked Arawn to take his leave. I’m a mortal human. I can’t contain the power of an ancient Pagan God for long. I knew it would break me. I sang into the night, and slowly I felt me return. Fully. Completely. I thanked Arawn for his blessing, and I knew from that moment, he would never be too far away. As the travellers returned to the bender to share, so we who had invoked also gathered.
Cake. We ate cake. It’s important.
The old man? He came and hugged me the next day, and thanked me. He said he felt completely at peace with what lay ahead. I hugged him back. I couldn’t, and still can’t remember, what was said to him.
So that was my experience with Arawn nearly 20 years ago. I remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday. I have had a deep love of this Pagan God ever since, and was looking forward to talking with him again as I started writing the songs for the first of my Y Mabinogi albums. His was the first song, and I told some of the story of that experience in my last article. As I wrote the final verse for his song I felt him close once more. I smiled at myself that I hadn’t immediately realised that it was his voice that was narrating the song.
Never take anything for granted.
The next song is called Annwn, and will focus on Pwyll’s first experiences as he passes from our world, into the Otherworld, transformed into Arawn’s guise.
A feeling I know and remember from years gone by.