The Jagad

Updated: Sep 3

In order to celebrate the first trees planted through a project of mine, I will put here the beginning of Guiwenneth's legend from Robert Holdstock's classic Mythago Wood, and which a great story in itself.

Before that, however, I cannot pass the occasion to repeat the description of English woods in Neil Gaiman's introduction to the book:


English woods are strange things. They do odd things with space and with time. Even the smallest woods seem to remember when the whole of the island was one huge forest, and contain that forest within themselves.

 

They were the first days when the legions from the east were in the land.

Two sisters lived in the fort at Dun Emrys, the daughters of the warlord, Morthid, who was old, weak, and had given in to peace. Each daughter was as fair as the other. Each had been born on the same day, the day before the feast of the sun god, Lug. To tell them apart was almost impossible, save that Dierdrath wore a bloom of heather on her right breast, and Rhiathan the flower of a wild rose on her left. Rhiathan fell in love with a Roman commander at the nearby fort Caerwent. She went to the fort to live, and there was a time of harmony between the invader and the tribe at Dun Emrys. But Rhiathan was barren and her jealousy and hate grew, until her face was like iron.


Dierdrath loved the son of a fierce warrior who had been slain in battle against the Romans. The son’s name was Peredur, and he had been outcast from the tribe because he had opposed Dierdrath’s father. Now he lived, with nine warriors, in the wildwoods, in a stony gorge where not even a hare would dare to run. At night he came to the wildwood edge and called to Dierdrath like a dove. Dierdrath went to him, and in time she carried his child.

When the time came for the birth, the druid, Cathabach, pronounced that she carried a girl, and the name was given: Guiwenneth, which means earth child. But Rhiathan sent soldiers to the Dun, and Dierdrath was taken from her father, and carried against her will to the tents inside the wooden palisade of the Roman fort. Four warriors from the Dun were taken too, and Morthid himself, and he was agreeable that the child, when born, should be fostered by Rhiathan. Dierdrath was too weak to cry out, and Rhiathan swore silently that when the child was born, her sister would die.

Peredur watched from the forest edge, despairing. His nine were with him and none could console him. Twice, during the night, he attacked the fort, but was repulsed by force of arms. Each time he could hear the voice of Dierdrath, crying to him, “Be quick. Save my child.”

Beyond the stone gorge, where the woods were darkest, was a place where the oldest tree was older than the land, as round and high as an earth fort. There, Peredur knew, lived the Jagad, an entity as eternal as the rock across which he scrambled, searching. The Jagad was his only hope, for she alone controlled the ways of things, not just in the woods, but in the seas and in the air. She was from the oldest time, and no invader could come near her. She had known the ways of men from the time of the Watching, when men had no tongues to speak.


This is how Peredur found the Jagad.

He found a glen where wild thistle grew, and no sapling was higher than his ankle. Around him, the forest was tall and silent. No tree had fallen and died to form this glade. Only the Jagad could have made it. The nine warriors with him formed a circle, with their backs to Peredur, who stood between them. They held twigs of hazel, blackthorn and oak. Peredur slew a wolf and spread its blood upon the ground, around the nine. The wolf’s head he placed facing north. He pushed his sword into the earth at the west of the circle. He laid his dagger at the east. He himself stood to the south, inside his ring, and called for the entity.


This is the way that things were worked in the days before the priests, and the most important thing of all was the circle which bound the caller to his own years and land.

Seven times Peredur called the Jagad.


On the first call he saw only the birds fly from the trees (but what birds they were, crows, sparrows and hawks, each as large as a horse).


On the second call, the hares and foxes of the woodland ran around the circle, and fled to the west.


On the third call, wild boar rushed from the thickets. Each was taller than a man, but the circle held them back (though Oswry speared the smallest for food, and would be called to answer for the act in another season).


On the fourth call, the stags came from the spinneys, followed by the does, and each time their hooves touched the ground the woodland trembled and the circle shook. The eyes of the stags glowed in the night. Guillauc tossed a torque on to the antler of one of them, to mark it as his, and at another time he would be called to answer for the deed.


On the fifth call the glade fell silent, though figures moved beyond vision. Then men on horseback emerged from the treeline, and swarmed about the glade. The horses were black as night, each with a dozen great, grey hounds at its feet, and a rider on its back. Cloaks flowed in silent winds, and torches burned, and this wild hunt circled the nine twenty times, their cries growing loud, their eyes bright. These were no men of the lands of Peredur, but hunters from times past and times yet to come, gathered here, and guarding the Jagad.


On the sixth and seventh call the Jagad came, following behind the horsemen and the hounds. The ground opened and the gates to the world below the land parted, and the Jagad stepped through, a tall figure and faceless, her body swathed in dark robes, with silver and iron on her wrists and ankles. The fallen daughter of the earth, the hateful, vengeful child of the Moon, the Jagad stood before Peredur and in the emptiness that was her face a silent smile appeared, and scornful laughter assailed his ears.

But the Jagad could not break the circle of Year and Land, could not drag Peredur far beyond this place and season, and lose him in a wild place, where he would be at her mercy. Three times she walked around the circle, stopping only to look at Oswry and Guillauc, who knew at once that by killing the boar and marking the stag they had doomed themselves. But their time would be for other years, and another tale.


Then Peredur told the Jagad what he needed. He told her of his love for Dierdrath, and the jealousy of the sister, and the threat to his child. He asked for help. “I will have the child, then,” said the Jagad, and Peredur answered that she would not.


“I will have the mother, then,” said the Jagad, and Peredur answered that she would not.

“Then I shall have one of the ten,” said the Jagad, and brought to Peredur and his warriors a basket containing hazel nuts. Each warrior, and Peredur himself, took a nut and ate it, none knowing which would have been bound to the Jagad.

The Jagad said, “You are the hunters of the long night. One of you now is mine, because the magic that I give you must be paid for, and a life is all that can be used. Now break the circle, for the bargaining is done.”


“No,” said Peredur, and the Jagad laughed.


Then the Jagad raised her arms to the dark skies. In the emptiness that was her face Peredur thought he could see the shape of the hag who inhabited the body of the entity. She was older than time itself, and only the wildwoods saved men from her evil glance.


“I will give you your Guiwenneth,” cried the Jagad. “But each man here will answer for her life. I am the huntress of the first woods, and the ice woods, and the stone woods, and the high tracks, and the bleak moors; I am the daughter of Moon and Saturn; sour herbs cure me, bitter juices sustain me, bright silver and cold iron gird me. I have always been in the earth, and the earth shall ever nourish me, for I am the eternal huntress, and when I have need of you, Peredur, and your nine hunters, I shall call upon you, and whoever I call shall go. There is no time so remote that you shall not wander through it, no land too wide or too cold, or too hot, or too lonely for a quest to take you. Be it known, and be it agreed, then, that when the girl has first known love, each and all of you shall be mine … to answer my call, or not, depending on the nature of things.” And Peredur looked grim. But when his friends all gave their consent, he agreed, and so it was done. And thereafter they were known as the Jaguth, which is the night hunt.


On the day of the child’s birth, ten eagles were seen, circling the Roman fort. None knew what to make of the omen, for the bird was a good portent to all concerned, but the number of them was puzzling.

Guiwenneth was born, in a tent, watched only by her aunt and the druid. But as the druid gave thanks with smoke and a small sacrifice, so Rhiathan pressed a cushion to her sister’s face, and killed her. None saw her do this deed, and she wept as loudly as the rest for the death.

Then Rhiathan took the girl child and went out into the fort, and raised the child above her head, proclaiming herself foster mother, and her Roman lover the father.


Above the fort, the ten eagles gathered. The sound of their wings was like a distant storm; they were so large that when they grouped they cut off the sun, and threw a great shade across the fort. From this shadow came one of them, swooping fast from the sky. It beat about the head of Rhiathan, and snatched the child in its great talons, flying up again.


Rhiathan screamed her anger. The eagles dispersed quickly towards the country around, but Roman archers loosed a thousand arrows and made their flying difficult.


The eagle with the child in its talons was slowest of all. There was one among the legion who was renowned for his skill with a bow, and his single shot struck through the heart of the eagle, which let the child fall. The other birds, seeing this, came swiftly back, and one flew below the girl so that her fall was broken upon its back. Two others clasped the dead bird in their talons. With the infant and the dead bird, they flew to the wildwoods, to the stone gorge, and there regained their human shape.


It was Peredur who had dived for the child, Peredur himself, her father. He lay, beautiful and pale in death, the arrow still through his heart. About the gorge, the Jagad’s laughter was like wind. She had promised Peredur that she would give him his Guiwenneth, and for a few moments he had had her.


The Jaguth took Peredur to the bottom of the stony valley, where the wind was strongest, and buried him there, beneath a stone of white marble.