Heart of the Dragon: A living spiritual Herstory festival in rural West Wales

fire dragonHeart of the Dragon came from my heart’s whisperings and deepest political and spiritual beliefs.  If it helps towards our collective understanding of what we Goddessy people are attempting to do and why, then I shall be glad.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.  Oh - you should know: I am a storyteller.

I moved to Carmarthenshire in West Wales fourteen years ago, feeling my Welsh/Irish ancestral blood deeply satisfied at the landscape of rolling hills, forested valleys, gushing streams, waterfalls and rivers. I walk the land where Ceridwen’s Cauldron is a rock face canyon where the sea swirls in and around, where seals bathe with their soulskins on the coastal rocks. Ten minutes’ drive away, Rhiannon’s waterfall cascades the white tail of her horse in a sacred waterhole and I can picnic there with my children.

Alongside my work as a psychotherapist, I am a professional storyteller, and get paid to dress up, sit in front of a fire in a wondrous reconstructed thatched roundhouse at Castell Hennlys, a Celtic Iron Age Fort in Pembrokeshire and tell stories!

Because I am a woman and Priestess of the Goddess, I choose to bring Herstory through the thick layer of heroic warrior stories laid over Her ancient wisdom. It is mythological archaeology work, scraping through the bones and dried dust of lost and found stories.

Holidaymakers, visitors, children and adults find themselves in the spell of listening to Goddess stories and taking part in rituals (without it being advertised as such - or they probably wouldn’t have come!).

At the wonderful Goddess Conferences in Glastonbury I was pleased to be asked to tell Rhiannon’s story in front of the red and gold altar in 2005, and to tell Kathy Jones’ Avalon/Nolava Creation story of the landscape of Glastonbury in 2006.  After that conference (which was at the time of Iraq invasion by America and Britain) I was left holding questions and concerns:

  • How does any of this help contribute towards peace building in the world?
  • Where are the women of colour and black women at this virtually-all-white gathering and where would they find their own image in the tall/slim white goddess paintings? (Beneath those political questions I noticed my deep soul longing to see the Black/Dark Huge Face of Her....)

It is said that a story chooses its teller – well, The Last Dragon of Wales had leapt out of a dusty book of local tales a dozen years ago, and grabbed my heart and throat with its claws, and ignited me with its fiery breath! It has demanded my creative soul’s work in an ever-unfolding way.

Last Dragon of Wales is the legend of Newcastle Emlyn (Castell Newedd Emlyn in Welsh mother tongue) which lies on the border of Carmarthenshire and Ceridigion.  The Last Dragon was killed at the castle of this small, pretty market town, where my children go to school and I do my shopping. We picnic at the castle ruins which stand on a round hill surrounded by a snaking river and white-water weir.

And a new baby Dragon has now been born there!

But I have rushed ahead of myself - let me tell you how it all began.

Are you still sitting comfortably? Then I’ll continue....

The Welsh resistance hero, Owain Glandwr, used a red ‘gwiber’- a winged snake/dragon flag - to lead the Welsh rebellion and to fulfil Merlin’s medieval prophecy of the Red Dragon rising up against the occupying English. A battle was fought at the castle in 1403, during the period of civil war, where Glandwr's army took the castle from the occupiers, but his flag flew for only two weeks before the English retook control, and the flag and its dragon ended in bloodshed and defeat.  The Welsh land, culture and economy are still recovering from many such invasions and from oppression.

Heart of the Dragon is part of that recovery and regeneration, in the only way I know how, as a storyteller - to bring alive and retell mythology in a way that is relevant and nourishing today, adding another, modern-day, chapter.

I noticed The Last Dragon was still written down with the typical ‘hooray, the hero killed the horrid bad dragon’ perspective; the way stories have always been used as political propaganda for those seizing political power.  Even in the Welsh story book:  Hooray, Saint George, patron saint of England killed the Dragon of Wales!  Hooray, Good overcame Evil!  Hooray, Light overcame Dark! Hooray, Man conquered the wild nature forces of the Feminine Dragon!

I don’t think so.  That was not to be my version of the tale I knew to be a tragedy rather than a victory.  I also felt a deep need to move the tragedy to a better place in Herstory.

As a Goddess Storyteller, it is familiar work to unearth and revert mythologies which were turned upside down and back to front when patriarchal religions took hold of them for political, spiritual and psychological power and control.  My own original World Creation Story tells of how the world is made of the still-living body of First Dragon; mountains from Her wings, oceans from Her blood and Her heart as the Fireball Centre which holds us together and around which we are all at an equal distance.

This story intentionally takes Dragon down from flags of war and battles for supremacy (the Romans first appeared in Britain with Dragon shields and Arthur was a Pendragon chief) and places Her firmly back in the Earth, with stardust from her wings in the heavens - Dragon as the female creature of the force of nature.

Long after telling my own Dragon as Earth and Heaven story, well, blow me down with a fiery breath, I discovered Tiamat (or rather She discovered me!) as Ancient Dark Dragon Queen/Goddess, from Mesopotamia/Babylonia. Carved onto seven stones some four thousand years ago, this is one of the oldest stories recorded, at a time when the patriarchy had already begun its mythological takeover by slicing Her in half to separate heaven and earth.

Two thousand years later, the takeover was total and the bible records that the dragon (along with Satan) was thrown out of Heaven and thus became the demonised and sinful earth only.  If mythologies have cycles of two thousand years, my mission became clearer; I began to understand why Last Dragon demanded my life’s creative work.  Locally, to strengthen and bring together a community where there is still much suspicion and division between Welsh and incoming English, nationally, to honour the Red Dragon as Mother of Land and update and fulfil Merlin’s prophecy of peace when the red dragon is restored.  Internationally, to work with dragon mythology from all round the world as global peace building, Mythologically, to create a new chapter where Tiamat is remembered and restored to her rightful place as Queen of both Heaven and Earth.  All in my spare time whilst having two children and earning a living as a psychotherapist!

She makes big demands of our hearts and souls, as all of us who do Her work know. And for good reason....much work needs doing.

First thing first....a new baby dragon needed to be born where the last one was killed.

To tell the story briefly (please buy a CD if you want the full story (in bilingual Welsh/English) and wonderful music and songs by Maggie Nicols, or see our documentary style film on the DVD!):

In 2006, twelve lines appeared, mysteriously scattered in twelve different shop windows along the small high street.  A competition to find the story drew over a hundred people and on Midsummer Eve, the lady mayor gave awards of Protectors of the Dragon’s Nest and Guardians of the Dragon’s Story.  We all stood in a circle at Newcastle Emlyn castle, and called to the Spirit of the Last Dragon (yes, Christians, Buddhists, Baptists, pagan/witches, agnostics - all together stepping into the story).  We asked for a sign from Last Dragon that She would return.

the mysterious eggA call came back and so we all ran down to the cascading white water of the ancient weir behind the castle where we discovered a coracle (ancient basket boat lined with animal skin) floating on the river. A priestess showed us the blood red velvet contained within, on which was a large white dragon’s egg! A sign of rebirth indeed.  (Around a year later I saw pictures of Mary Magdalene holding an egg and heard how she used it as the message of resurrection - so I felt we were in auspicious mythological company!)

The egg was placed in a nest in a shop window on the high street and tenderly guarded by the Protectors and Guardians, while newspaper articles kept the community involved and informed of its growth. It was becoming a giant egg. As the egg grew so did the project.

We gained a small local grant to begin to cover costs and then a five thousand pound grant to run workshops throughout the community. We visited schools, youth clubs, old people’s homes, special needs groups etc, telling the story and facilitating people to draw, paint and then make their own dragons.

A simple tenet of community and environmental groups is “Act Local/Think Global”.  I wanted this project to be both very local and community-based and also relevant globally with international connections.  By chance, I heard of a Dragon festival in Krakow in Poland and after making contact, we were asked to become part of a European Cultural exchange.  Irish and Polish storytellers joined me in Wales to tell their local dragon stories, and the Dragon’s Egg was taken over to St Patrick’s festival where Irish children kept it warm with their hands and their breath.  One child said “If the children look after the dragon sure they won’t kill it this time”.

In Poland, I was a very proud priestess to be carrying Newcastle Emlyn's Dragon’s Egg through Krakow as part of their international festival before tens of thousands, with a live interview on Polish TV to spread the word.  An old, white-haired Polish woman held the egg and wished for wisdom to be born into the world.

I visited the Black Madonna of Czestochowa whilst there, and read on the journey China Galland’s Longing For Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna and of the author’s participation in the pilgrimage which millions make each year to see Her Black Face every year. And of Her importance in the healing of the Polish people after the devastation of the war.  I was also fortunate enough to be able to bypass all the Catholic Priests at Czestochowa, to get to the front of hundreds of worshippers in the black and amber of the Black Madonna chapel in the vast Cathedral, and watch the elderly women walking on their knees around Her picture.  I had a deep need to tell Her I had come from my heart’s yearning, as Her priestess, and what did she want from me? She lifted me up to Her Heart from where I could see the millions of people, and was shown the whole world of people who are all, equally, Her children. It was an extraordinary meeting with She of the Black Face which I will never forget.

If we believe Goddess is everywhere and in everything, then “thinking global” is natural - I believe the “act local” to be the greater challenge.  Local town politics in lovely Newcastle Emlyn meant there was difficult, obstructive and sabotaging energy from a few Welsh men (the mayor and his friends!) who saw me as English and a woman. They were outraged and jealous (and sent a message threatening a town boycott!) when I successfully gained almost fifty thousand pounds from Heritage Lottery funding for ‘Community Celebration and Participation in local Heritage’, to pay for a two-day festival, and the making of a book, a CD and a film. Among the rest of the community feelings ranged from suspicious to real interest and enthusiasm.

Early one morning, just before dawn broke, I awoke to a loud pulsating heartbeat.  It was hard to know if it came from inside or outside me. I went out to my garden and the glorious birdsong began to this Heartbeat of the World.  I knew then how the second day of the festival was to begin.

From a wet, wet summer, a window of sunshine opened for our festival on 7th & 8th July 2007 and over two thousand people participated in the Heart of the Dragon, held at the castle. There was a procession of over twenty dragons along the high street, and the dragons were then welcomed by Tiamat, Ancient and Ever Present Dragon Queen.  Our banners were red green and black to make sure Her Blackness was expressed and seen!

crowds attending the festivalThere were local rural crafts and traders and battle re-enactors, with the story’s tragedy ending in the Death of the Last Dragon on the Saturday evening with a giant dragon fire sculpture, complete with red and green fireworks, accompanied by ancient Celtic poetry and song. Not a dry eye in the house, or rather in the castle. Black veiled priestesses grieved.

Then the Heartbeat of the World began the next morning with a womb circle of drumming priestesses, and a warriors’ sword-arch birth canal.  Children dressed as baby Dragons, a birthday jelly party and learning a bilingual lullaby led to the hatching of the gynormous egg with the most adorable green and gold baby dragon birthed!

We stood and sung Remember She is the Mother of Us All to our red Welsh Dragon (all songs, stories and announcements were in both Welsh and English) and it was all declared a huge success. I was content in fulfilling my purpose, that of people going away loving the Dragon, not as a vengeful, nationalistic retaliation for previous oppression, but as peace-building Mother of Us All).  And one of my friends said to me ‘Lets face it, Pamela, this is a Goddess Festival!’ To which I replied ‘Of course it is.”  And yet it was just slightly veiled with Her as Dragon.

Perhaps while it is often is important to speak the name of the Goddess, is it also sometimes right and true to keep her name veiled so as to make Her accessible to as many as possible in whatever form/name/image She can most easily appear? Adults, children, Welsh, English, male, female, hippies, Baptists, Christians and who-knows-what-else were all happy to sing together in a wonderfully harmonious atmosphere. 

I was totally exhausted after the festival , and a depressing reality check of the ‘bringing together of a community’ through Heart of the Dragon was watching the aforementioned mayor proudly implement his project of CCTV cameras in a town of less than a thousand residents, to sort out the ‘vandalising young people’.  However, time passes; energy returns and the next Lady mayor nominated me for ‘Woman of the Year in Arts and Culture in Carmarthenshire’, and clearly saw the benefit for the town in creating and hosting such a well-attended festival. There was a town showing of the documentary film we made and a summer picnic at the castle this year to launch the CD and for Baby Dragon to make its first appearance and be wished Happy Birthday!

a baby dragon gets a drink

The Dragon story is told regularly at the Celtic Iron Age Fort and Baby made an appearance this summer and will be central to a Solstice event this winter. It seems that enough people are stepping forward to make a festival happen next year, and I am already seeing the next part of the story...a Naming Ball for Baby Dragon, where Tiamat Dragon Queen is the thirteenth uninvited fairy/goddess mother and has quite a lot to say about it (actually, I just want to find a way of making and wearing giant black Dragon Wings!).

And so that is my journey and where it has led me thus far.

In conclusion, regarding current and future Goddess festivals, I would say let’s create our own in our own towns, working with our own land, and especially with our own local legends and myths. Otherwise the festivals could be seen as centralized or imported colonialism that has nothing much to do with the local community.  I didn’t call our project a Goddess Festival (though it was!) because I wanted as many of my local community as possible to enter the story, and begin to own and love Her Story.

I thank Glastonbury/Priestesses of Avalon and Kathy Jones for being the catalyst for the Dragon festival, and my story now ends, but will begin again. Meanwhile, a small community theatre company in Portugal is doing Theatre for Babies, and we are being invited to take our Baby Dragon out to entertain and be entertained next year.  There’s also an idea to visit castles and places with past battles, all around Wales, to carry out peace-building and past-cleansing Dragon Ritual.

And for my inner soul story, I have come to live and love Her as Dark Dragon of the Earth, with Her black wings filled with silver stars as Dragon of the Heavens, in the land where the Red Dragon flies on our national flag.

Thank you for listening. There can only be storytellers where there are story listeners.

©Pamela Gaunt

Heart of the Dragon’s aims are:

  • To create a bi-annual festival to celebrate the return of the Dragon to Newcastle Emlyn
  • To provide participatory space for community connection, celebration and co-creation
  • To offer the community opportunities for learning and responding to our local heritage, mythology and landscape
  • To invite local, national and international involvement toward further understanding of other cultures and spiritual traditions
  • To focus on and celebrate the underlying unity (Heart) of humanity
  • To use drama and ceremony to transform old historical wounds and divisions of war and oppression
  • To combine community empowerment, sustainable business and environmental responsibility
  • To provide training, education and social inclusion for disadvantaged members of the community
  • To ensure Newcastle Emlyn becomes celebrated locally, nationally and internationally for its unique history and mythology.
Pamela Gaunt

Pamela Gaunt

Pamela Gaunt is a mother of two adopted children, a psychotherapist, and professional storyteller. She trained as a Priestess of the Goddess, and also runs courses and retreats in West Wales. The website: www.heartofthedragonwales.org gives more information and you can see/hear or order the CDs and DVD. Also, look at the independent town website: www.newcastle-emlyn.com .Next year’s festival will be on July 4th, please email pamelagaunt@aol.com if you would like to be kept informed, help at the festival or come and step into the story.Pamela is a freelance artistic director and storyteller, so if you want help with how to tell stories and bring alive your own local legend, then please make contact. Also, do let Pamela know if you have a local Dragon story which needs rebalancing or healing with a visit from the new born Baby Dragon.
Pamela Gaunt