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Spirits of Severn

Spirits of Severn

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Spirits of Severn

458 pagine
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Dec 12, 2019


The River Severn is Britain's longest natural waterway. It rises in mid-Wales, where it is known as the Hafren. Both these names stem from that of a river goddess, known since prehistoric times as Sabrina.

To stop anywhere along Sabrina's course, or on either side of her beautiful estuary, is to risk becoming absorbed and transfixed by her ever-moving, yet timelessly repetitive progress. Throw a net across Sabrina, from side to side, and you might catch a fish, but the body of her stream will pass straight through the mesh.

Can words possibly convey the elusive majesty of her current, or adequately describe its multi-stranded sacred story? In Spirits of Severn, artist and mythographer Michael Dames - whose acclaimed work includes The Silbury Treasure, The Avebury Cycle and Mythic Ireland - brings the river's illusive legacy to the surface, while tracing her progress from her pair of sources to the furthest tips of her Mor Hafren estuary.
Dec 12, 2019

Informazioni sull'autore

Born in 1938, Michael Dames was educated at Aylesbury Grammar School and Birmingham University. He worked in education for much of his career, teaching both Art and History of Art. Between 1976 and 1981 he was Rochdale's Town Artist. He has had one-man exhibitions of his art works in Rochdale, Hull, Manchester, Oxford, Droitwich, Northwich, and London. In 1976, he began a long-term investigation of the mythography of the West of England, Wales and Ireland with The Silbury Treasure (Thames and Hudson, 1976; reprinted 2004) and The Avebury Cycle the following year (Thames and Hudson, 1977; 2nd edition 1992). Both books are now regarded as classics of the genre. Since 1990, he has dedicated himself to writing full-time. His books include: Mythic Ireland (Thames and Hudson, 1992); Ireland, a Sacred Journey (Element Books, 2000); Merlin and Wales (Thames and Hudson, 2002); Taliesin's Travels (Heart of Albion Press, 2006); Silbury, Resolving the Enigma (The History Press, 2010); Pagans Progress (Strange Attractor Press, 2017).

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Spirits of Severn - Michael Dames


About the Author

Born in 1938, Michael Dames was educated at Aylesbury Grammar School and Birmingham University.

He worked in education for much of his career, teaching both Art and History of Art. Between 1976 and 1981 he was Rochdale’s Town Artist. He has had one-man exhibitions of his art works in Rochdale, Hull, Manchester, Oxford, Droitwich, Northwich, and London.

In 1976, he began a long-term investigation of the mythography of the West of England, Wales and Ireland with The Silbury Treasure (Thames and Hudson, 1976; reprinted 2004) and The Avebury Cycle the following year (Thames and Hudson, 1977; 2nd edition 1992). Both books are now regarded as classics of the genre.

Since 1990, he has dedicated himself to writing full-time. His books include: Mythic Ireland (Thames and Hudson, 1992); Ireland, a Sacred Journey (Element Books, 2000); Merlin and Wales (Thames and Hudson, 2002); Taliesin’s Travels (Heart of Albion Press, 2006); Silbury, Resolving the Enigma (The History Press, 2010); Pagans Progress (Strange Attractor Press, 2017).


This book is dedicated to my beloved, ever helpful wife.

Copyright Information ©

Michael Dames (2019)

The right of Michael Dames to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

Any person who commits any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

The publisher and author of this book have made every effort to trace copyright holders for the use of material still in copyright. The publisher apologises for any omissions that still remain and would be grateful to be notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or new editions of this book.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN 9781528919128 (Paperback)

ISBN 9781528962575 (ePub e-book)

First Published (2019)

Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.

25 Canada Square

Canary Wharf


E14 5LQ


The author wishes to acknowledge the substantial help given to him by countless librarians in Wales and in England, and by many members of the public, whose names he does not know, in both countries.

Abbreviations used in this book

ANT Antiquity

AA Archeologia Aelinia

AC Archaeologia Cambrensis

ARCH. J. Archaeological Journal

BAJ Berkshire Archaeological Journal

BAS Birmingham Archaeological Society

BAR British Archaeological Reports

BMQ British Museum Quarterly

CA Current Archaeology

ER Encyclopedia of Religion

FL Folklore

ITS Irish Texts Society

JA Journal of Archaeology

OED Oxford English Dictionary

PRIA Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy

RC Review Celtique

TBGAS Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological Society

VCH Victoria County History

WAM Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine

YGM Y Geiriadur Mawr: The Complete Welsh-English Dictionary


The Pumlumon Sources

Holy Cow

Britain’s longest river, the 220-mile Severn, rises at 2,000 feet above the sea, from beneath a ridge, named in Welsh Fuwch-wen-a-llo, ‘the white cow and calf’, after a pair of quartz-rich white rocks, deposited here by an ice sheet, 14,000 years ago. They were recognised as the primordial ‘white cow and her calf’. (In Welsh, wen, ‘white’, also means ‘holy’.) Thanks to a deep fissure in her head, the white cow-boulder seems to smile perpetually at her calf.¹ No wonder that ‘eloquent poets’ have descanted upon this pair’, as Thomas Harper affirmed in the 17th century. The ridge on which they are sited stands in the Pumlumon mountainous region of mid-Wales.

On this Welsh outpost of widespread Indo-European languages and beliefs, the cow was regarded as a holy milk-giving epitome of nourishing motherhood.² The Severn’s ‘cow rocks’ that overlook the Severn’s main source offer a distant echo of Hindu Indian beliefs, in which the white cow provides a home for all the gods. Along with Brahma, the father of the entire Hindu pantheon, they all nestle inside her. Consequently the white cow was seen as the source of prosperity across two continents.³ Accordingly, the mighty River Severn, engendered by the white cow, emerges from beneath the ridge named in its honour, to become home to the goddess Sabrina, whose name is said to have derived from the Sanskrit word sab,

‘milk’, according to E. Eckwall, a place-name expert.⁴ After spurting from

the White Cow, the sab in Sabrina’s name secures the sanctity of all her water downstream.⁵ Thus imbued with life-giving divinity, thanks to her internationally valid passport, our river was given a good start. Her spirit and substance were combined from the outset.

Yr Fuwch Wen a’r Llo, ‘the White Cow and Calf’ stones. This pair of glacially deposited quartz boulders describe a smiling cow over 6 feet

(1.8m) tall, gazing at her calf. She is ‘Ceridwen’, the ‘dear white one’, an Otherworld creature, adored in Celtic myth. Together, as omens of supernatural prosperity, they stand on, and give their names to the ridge from which the Severn emerges.

Despite receiving heavy rainfall, the Pumlumon district of mid-Wales was often termed ‘The Welsh Desert’ by travellers, due to its lack of

permanent inhabitants and dwellings. Today, a Forestry Commission

plantation covers some of the lower slopes, as seen in the foreground of this photograph.

In Ireland, Boand, the cow deity who gave birth to the river Boyne was originally named Bou-vinda, the ‘Cow-white goddess’.⁶ In ancient Sanskrit, the magic cow was sometimes known as Sabana, ‘the spotted cow of plenty’, alias Kamadhenu, who was often depicted as having a woman’s head and breasts, combined with her cow’s teat-rich body.⁷

The boundary between Sabrina and her mythic cow is as fluid as milk. She can become it, and it may double as her, since mythic and practical truths tend to merge. Until the mid-19th century AD, large herds of white cattle were annually driven on foot from Pembrokeshire and other parts of Wales, to feed along the pastures of the Severn Valley, before their arrival in the London market.

Following Celtic nomenclature, Sabrina, as a river deity, was acknowledged by the Classical writers Tacitus and Ptolemy.⁹ In doing so, they were following the chief feature of Roman religion, the belief that all important processes in the world were divinely activated, with different gods being in charge of particular functions and spheres of activity. Roman religion was concerned with procuring health and happiness by winning the cooperation of the gods. This pax deorum, ‘peace of the gods’, was also sought through the religious founding of the cities established along Sabrina’s course, as vividly described in A. E. Truman’s Geology and Scenery of England and Wales.¹⁰

Even in modern times, Sabrina reappears in several sculpted images, and in the names of bridges thrown across her river.¹¹ Thus the supernatural spirit of our longest natural waterway is widely recalled, while her fruitful estuary, and the Bristol Channel remains Mor Hafren, in Welsh where Hafren is derived from Welsh haf, ‘summer’, the season of abundance, and its sea laps onto both the Welsh and the English shores.

In Welsh, as in Irish folklore, the white cow functioned as the Bos Primigenius, the supernatural maternal beast.¹² She took care of her people and symbolised the divine bounty of more than one river valley. In Wales, her connection with water is emphasised by the legend of Llyn Barfog, close to Aberdovey, in Gwynedd. There, often at dusk, some green-clad elfin women would appear with a herd of milk-white cattle. A farmer captured one of these animals. It yielded him amazing quantities of butter and cheese. However, when he fattened the beast prior to its slaughter, and a butcher was about to deliver the fatal blow, the women called the cow back into its lake, while the farmer’s remaining cattle turned jet black, which is now the colour of most Welsh cows.¹³

One traditional Irish verse declares that ‘There is a white cow on the mountain. A fair white cow; she goes east and she goes west, and my senses have gone for the love of her. She goes with the sun and he forgets to burn. And the moon turns her face with love to her’.¹⁴ In Ireland the white cow’s range ran from the underworld of the fairy hills, up towards the stars. Domesticated cattle arrived in Britain along with agriculture, c. 5,000 BC. In much later Saxon and Norse myth, the original cow was called Audhumla, meaning ‘Nourisher’. She was believed to have fed Ymir, the very first man, with her milk. Her supply was so copious that it also helped to create the world’s first rivers.¹⁵ Audhumla supplied the English with another version of the Indo-European faith in holy streams.

The Severn continues to offer her primitive legacy. She has survived an attempt made in the 12th century to reduce her into a purely historical context. Geoffrey of Monmouth¹⁶ had claimed that the river was named as the outcome of a domestic quarrel. In his fictional account, he described how Locrinus, his imagined first king of England, had fallen in love with a German princess who had been brought to this country by a continental warrior during his invasion of the river Humber.

Estrildis’ drowning is depicted in this bronze life-sized effigy of Sabrina by William Calder Marshall, made in 1880, now in Worcester Art Gallery.

This princess was Estrildis. Her name, both in German and in Old English, derived from the Germanic goddess of spring, Eastre. Bede later claimed that she was also a goddess of the vernal equinox, cognate with the Sanskrit word usra, ‘dawn’.¹⁷ Thus across two continents Estridis heralded the birth of new light and life. Both her beauty and personality matched this vital role. In her German homeland she was este, ‘gracious and beautiful’, while she distributed est, ‘grace, favour and liberality’, in an este-lice, ‘kind, glad, delicate way’.¹⁸

Locrinus carried Estrildis to his London capital and there, since he was already married to Queen Gwendolen of Cornwall, he concealed his new mistress in a chamber beneath the Thames, while claiming to others, during his frequent visits to her, that he was going underground to pray.¹⁹ So placed, Estrildis was engaged in an east-west fight between winter’s darkness and summer’s light, thereby reliving the hild, ‘battle’, that formed the second syllable of her German name. Thus beyond history’s narrow superimposed claim, she remained a goddess who embodied and presided over the annually repeated conflict between the seasons.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century account, the baby Habren was born to her husband’s mistress, Estrildis. Both of them are thrown into the river Severn. The Habren name relates to modern Severn and to the river goddess, Sabrina.

According to Geoffrey, when Queen Gwendolen learned of her husband’s affair, she raised a Cornish army and killed Locrinus on the River Stour, a Worcestershire tributary of the Severn. Then she threw both Estrildis and her new-born daughter, named Habren, into the Severn, drowning them both.²⁰ She thereby confirmed the river’s life-giving quality by means of Estrildis’ vernal essence, while Estridis’ new-born child, Habren, became the Welsh word Haf, meaning ‘summer’ (plus Welsh hab = ‘hap’, ‘chance’). As with the White Cow rocks, placed there by glacial accident, so another ‘happy chance’ played a big part in the Severn’s largely benign personality.

Queen Gwendolen’s army kill her husband, King Locrine, on the River Stour,

Worcestershire, near its confluence with the Severn. His tree stump ‘torso’ reflects on his losses.

River Stour’s confluence with the Severn.

In seasonally functioning terms, both Estildis and Habren readily merged with the prehistoric river deity, Sabrina. In effect, their enforced double plunge reinforced Sabrina’s command of summer, year after year, long after Sabrina’s name gradually changed to become Severn in English. Furthermore, by means of Estrildis’ movement during her lifetime from eastern to western Britain, England’s three major rivers, Humber, Thames and Severn, were linked together into an island-wide unity. Far from demolishing the original mythic intention, Estrildis’ myth-laden form of ‘History’ served to strengthen Sabrina’s underlying supernatural identity.

In the 17th century the puritan poet John Milton gladly invoked her presence in his Severn-centred poem Comus:²¹

She, guiltless damsel, flying the mad pursuit

Of her enragèd stepdame Guendolen,

Commended her fair innocence to the flood

That stayed her flight with his cross-flowing course. The water-nymphs that in the bottom played

Held up their pearlèd wrists, and took her in.

Milton appeals to her:


Sabrina fair,

Listen where thou art sitting

Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave […] Goddess of the silver lake, Listen and save.

(Sabrina then rises attended by her water nymphs and sings)

By the rushy-fringèd bank,

Where grows the willow and the osier dank My sliding chariot stays.

Concerning Britain’s pre-Christian outlook, Professor M. Green writes of ’the widespread belief that spirits dwelt within the natural world, in which water was held to be especially sacred. It was perceived as a healing force, yet was both a creator and a destroyer, encapsulating the entire life-cycle, and therefore usually regarded as a female deity.²² Both poets and their public shared this long-held outlook.

It is this lost ‘normality’, firmly established for thousands of years, which this book attempts to bring into focus again. Sabrina’s river continues to embody the same pattern of cyclical continuity offered by the now-discarded mythic outlook, despite our recent feverish emphasis on a uniquely linear ‘progress’, which has belatedly been recognised as posing a threat to all life on our planet.²³ Given this emergency, a glance at the ‘old’ Severn may remind us of an alternative cyclical kind of progress, promising us a much longer collective future.

The river Severn is, and always has been, a storyteller, fond of contradictions. For instance, she accepts and yet sometimes defies the pull of gravity, as seen when her moon-driven bore wave rushes up her course as far as Gloucester.²⁴ Sabrina also joins winter to summer, mountain top to ocean, earth to water, sunlight to moonlight, salt to sweet waters, vegetables to animals, and floods to droughts. She mingles ordinary life with that of fairies, demons and gods,²⁵ while never ceasing to dig her valley through solid rock, through which she then casually meanders while linking cities to countryside, and rival nations to friendship. Though fundamentally wet, she clutches every beam of available light and its warmth. She smears her clean valley sides and floor with mud, while in the realms of micro-organisms, fish, birds, plants and mammals, including humans, she is the mother of life, death and innumerable rebirths. As if to throw extra light on these connections Sabrina provided a river-side home to Charles Darwin, who has substantially reconnected humanity to the entire natural world.²⁶

Yet this profoundly Pagan Sabrina has been willing to accommodate the Christian mother of god, the Holy Virgin Mary, as the numerous churches dedicated to Our Lady, and built along her banks, indicate.²⁷ At the same time, through a previous course, she still enjoys connections with her northern neighbour, the goddess of the River Dee.²⁸

In her self-created Iron Bridge gorge, Sabrina has given birth to the world’s Industrial Revolution which is now threatening to destroy her sense of balance. She must accept both praise and of blame for that achievement, so clearly sited in a section of her course.²⁹

It is hard to decide whether Sabrina’s unfolding drama is a tragedy or a farce. In her play, many of the leading characters are not superhuman, or even human, but are performed by divinely inspired fish, pigs, cattle, and even by sun-dried hay. She casts them from across the animal and plant kingdoms to act out vital alliances within a shared world.³⁰

Welcome to the realm of a versatile river goddess. She has already provided homes for Palaeolithic, Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Viking and Norman peoples, and her lifespan will probably outlast that of our entire species, before she flows onwards through a world perhaps rendered lifeless by human overpopulation. Whatever her eventual fate, she arouses our curiosity and deserves admiration.

The fertile Severn Valley is clothed with flourishing crops and orchards, while providing drinking water for humanity and livestock. Fish, eels and shellfish abound in her congenial reaches. She has proved immensely useful to us, while below her surface, rival communities of plants, microscopic creatures, insects, and animals compete for food.³¹

As the ultimate female, Sabrina has inspired poets,³¹ and still plays a central role in many beliefs and rituals practised by valley’s farmers, her intimate companions,³² while satisfying other notions of recreation, played along her river by city dwellers. The Severn gladly merges facts with fictions, heresies and dogmas, sciences and arts, into one turbulent flow, where lasting dreams mix with purely commercial voyages.

The Severn’s riverside cliffs have been tunnelled into by medieval hermits,³⁴ while a primaeval Royal Forest still covers much of the West side of the river’s lower reaches.³³ From pre-human to post-modern eras, the river has provided a silver thread of continuity, bringing incompatible outlooks and different ways of life together. She mirrors all our habits, and has accepted artificial regulation imposed by dams, weirs, and the canalisation of many of her tributaries. She has also absorbed huge volumes of human sewage and industrial pollutants.³⁴

Despite these impositions, the river’s virgin personality is still hard at work. She never ceases to carve her own bed and valley, crumb by crumb, and she can set off violent landslips, while also changing her course in response climatic conditions.³⁵ Employing her lunar connection, she regularly pulls in massive tides, laden with ocean sediments, which she deposits along her lower course in unstable banks. The Severn is a gravity-pulled and gravity-defying, muddy, life-generating outflow, and at least a massive land drain.

Meanwhile, her hard-to-grasp personality is truly inside us, contributing as it does as the same water that makes up 66 percent of our body weight. In this sense, Sabrina is our collective mother, upon whom our life utterly depends. Therefore to explore the Severn is to encounter the varied and often hidden depths of the Self.³⁶

The Pumlumon mountain range of mid-Wales was created from sediments laid down during the Ordovician era, more than 443 million years ago.³⁷ They were named by 19th-century geologists after a hammer-throwing tribe, who lived in that part of Wales during the Iron Age, 600-50 BC. The Ordovicians had slaughtered a troop of Roman cavalry early in the first century AD. In turn, they were defeated and pacified by Agricola in 77-78 AD, as Tacitus describes: ‘The Ordivices did not venture to meet him in the plain, so Agricola marched his men into the hills with himself in the van, to lend his courage to the rest, by sharing their peril. Thus he cut to pieces almost the entire fighting force of that nation.’³⁸

Ordovician Era

Ordovician rocks were only accepted as belonging to a distinct geological era after a Geological World Conference, held in 1960, which incidentally reunited the lost tribe with its homeland.³⁹ This 42 million year-long Ordovician period was very hot, averaging 43 degrees centigrade. It suffered from a combination of volcanic dust and severe meteorite bombardment.⁴⁰ The Severn endured a difficult birth. The Ordovician era ended with a drastic plunge in temperatures, resulting in a mass extinction that wiped out numerous aquatic species, and left the seas open for the development of the first fish with jaws.⁴¹

Living Mountain

Prior to the invasion of their country by 19th-century English industrialists, most Welsh people regarded their country as Mam Cymru, literally ‘Mother Wales’, regarded a living entity from top to bottom.⁴² Within this animated being, the Romans introduced Greek female demi-gods, the nymphs, who inhabited and guarded natural phenomena. They were found within mountains, trees, springs, rivers and groves. These supernatural creatures, envisaged as young women, were integrated with native spirits already operating within the landscape.

Pum lumon, Welsh ‘Five Beacons’, suggesting the four cardinal directions around a centre, along with the left side, right side, front and back of the body.

From five beacons to the sea: there the river merges with the Atlantic Ocean. Sabrina is the dominant feature of western Britain and carries the largest volume of water of any British stream. Oceanic tides now penetrate up her course to Gloucester. Prior to the construction of 19th-century weirs, the salty tides reached to Worcester and Bewdley.

By inherited tradition, the Welsh continue to speak of Pumlumon, meaning ‘five beacons’, not as a dead it, or a mineral thing, but as a living presence. To them, ‘he’ is a father of beacon fires, who continually gives birth to daughters, in the shape of the rivers that run in all directions down his rain-soaked sides. It is still claimed that these offspring demonstrate their superhuman vitality by endlessly racing one another to the sea. According to Professor Rhys, the short river Rheiddol always won this contest by three weeks, partly because both the Severn and the Wye dawdled, in order to listen to the birdsong in Powys,⁴³ as Rhys was told this when a boy in west Wales.

Pumlumon is now said to generate only three ‘daughters’, ignoring several other streams that emerge in the same rain-sodden district. The emphasis on three may reflect the old Celtic belief in a triple goddess,⁴⁴ envisaged here in three watery channels.

In the 19th century the critic John Ruskin dismissed all such talk as a Pathetic Fallacy⁴⁵ which involved mistakenly attributing feelings and reactions to inanimate objects. Science insisted that such empathy was foolishly misplaced. By contrast the Romans ‘found Britain enthralled by magic, and obsessed with the elaboration of ritual.’⁴⁶ Traces of their prehistoric attitude have survived to this day. Indeed the Romans themselves believed that while they could defeat tribes such as the Ordivices, the spirit of their place, as

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