Celebrating Welsh Dark Skies Week

The 19th to the 27th February 2022 is the inaugural Welsh Dark Skies Week, a week-long series of events designed to raise awareness of light pollution and how it impacts wildlife, our health and our view of the stars. Wales has one of the largest percentages of protected dark skies in the world. The events this week also recognise the effort undertaken to preserve these protected landscapes for future generations.

In his book Dark Land, Dark Skies, astronomer Martin Griffiths marries the constellations as we know them with ancient Welsh stories from the Mabinogion to create a new perspective on the the night skies. Find out more in this extract.

This cover shows a photo of a black sky filled with stars. The text reads: Dark Land, Dark Skies, Martin Griffiths

In Dark Land, Dark Skies astronomer Martin Griffiths subverts conventional astronomical thought by eschewing the classical naming of constellations. He researches the past use of Welsh heroes from the Mabinogion in the naming of constellations, combining astronomy with a new perspective on Welsh mythology. The result is an informative and provocative guide to star-gazing which will delight amateur and professional astronomers alike. 

Dark Land, Dark Skies

One cannot escape the majesty of the heavens, the overwhelming perception of being a very small part of such a monumental edifice as the starry sky above us. Yet at the same time, one cannot help but feel at one with it. Such is the magnitude and wonder of our universal home that it comes as no surprise that the heavens have been studied from the time that man first walked the Earth. Every ancient civilization looked to the stars, grouped them into constellations and imbued them with a narrative hoping that the wisdom seen in the night sky would have a marked effect upon the course of life they could lead.

The ancient peoples of Britain, and especially the Cymru or the tribes that eventually would live in the land of Wales, also had their own cultural affinity for the sky. Many of the tales they told were shared in oral traditions that have been lost over the centuries. Others were recorded in post-Roman Britain by bards who kept the traditions alive.

In the immortal words of Monty Python: “what have the Romans ever done for us”? Well, they left us an invaluable system of writing and Roman script, so ancient tales began to be recorded by those who could read and write after the Roman system of education. This script was used to create the first poems and stories about Wales that drew upon some earlier oral traditions and tales. The oldest collected tales are from sources in thirteenth century Wales and probably date back to the fifth and sixth centuries, the time of the poets Taliesin and Aneirin. Both feature the lives of the princes of an extended kingdom of Wales: Aneirin was born in Edinburgh and wrote his classic tale of battle and loss Y Gododdin after the Anglo-Saxon invasion of eastern England. He is the first to mention some of the deeds of King Arthur. Conversely, Taliesin probably moved from court to court as his works in the Book of Taliesin praise king Urien of Hen Ogledd (now northern England and southern Scotland) and Brochfael Ysgithrog of Powys amongst others. This shows that Welsh as a language was highly influential in Britain at the time, and was probably the lingua franca of most of the country. So, tales of the great deeds and how they fitted into the sky would be commonplace in Celtic, early English and Pictish culture due to this literary influence.

The majority of old Welsh tales and poetry are known from a few volumes, Hanes Taliesin, the Black Book of Carmarthen, the Red Book of Hergestand the White Book of Rhydderch. Collectively some of these tales, poems and insights became the Mabinogion, the folk tales of Wales which were translated into English and published by Lady Charlotte Guest, albeit in a rather bowdlerized Victorian fashion, as a way to bring these tales to the masses that flooded into Wales during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to work the iron and coal that put the country at the forefront of the industrial revolution. It also raised the language and culture of Wales to a status probably not enjoyed previously and gave Welsh literature, folklore and storytelling a similar status to classical Greek and Roman myths and poetry.

Today the Mabinogion and its related texts are a great resource of academic scholarship and argument. But that is not what I intend to explore here. Instead I will take some of these ancient tales and marry them to the constellations that they pre-figure in the sky or at least are associated with in legends and tales across the Celtic systems of Wales, Ireland and Scotland, including that of some English folk tales that have an origin in Celtic myths. I will do this to show that there is a rich culture of sky lore that ties events, stories and meanings together in a way that is fairly unique to Wales, and which is as important as the classical Greek myths that are usually used to illustrate the night sky.

Also of importance to this book is the fact that the night sky is threatened by increasing light pollution and that the education system that disseminates such myths, in English, Welsh or science classes, is also threatened. Many people in urban areas have never encountered the Milky Way or seen a truly dark sky. Additionally, they have probably not been introduced to the night sky or its store of treasures in a way that ties the wonders of our modern understanding to the cultural roots of the past. This book is intended to redress that balance, not only to show some of the beauty of the night sky, but to marry that beauty to the ancient Celtic landscape and tales of Wales.

The number of dark sky parks and dark sky reserves is now increasing due to the coordinated efforts of the International Dark Sky Association, the Commission for Dark Skies in the UK and other interested bodies globally. The scourge of light pollution and the carbon footprint necessary to generate the power to light up the night sky needlessly is now being recognized by smaller groups and public interest bodies such as local councils and national parks.

Wales is fortunate to have two International Dark Sky Reserves: Brecon Beacons National Park and Snowdonia National Park, areas where the dark night sky is preserved for future generations. These beautiful landscapes and their pristine skies are joined by the Elan Valley Dark Sky Park in mid-Wales and by ongoing work toward ensuring dark sky communities in Anglesey and the Pembroke Coast National Park. Wales may truly be called the first Dark Sky Nation, a fact of which we can all be proud as the heritage of both land and sky are safeguarded for future generations.

Capitalizing on this status it is possible to build and utilize a small observatory for public education and to enhance the experience of the night sky for everyone. The Brecon Beacons International Dark Sky Reserve has such an observatory and a teaching classroom at the National Park Visitor Centre, which has been used extensively for training and for public events since it opened in 2014.

Using such an observatory can be a wonderful experience, especially for urban-based astronomers who don’t have access to very dark skies. Even those who may have portable equipment and have taken advantage of the dark sky status of the National Park enabling them to enhance their viewing will find the facilities at the observatory will allow access to the wonders of the night sky that they cannot reach from light-polluted areas.

In the case of the Brecon Beacons Observatory (BBO), its 30cm f5 reflector on a driven EQ6 mount thrilled over a thousand visitors in its first year of operation. Fitted with a piggybacked 120mm refractor for DSLR imaging or just visual observing and an Atik 314L CCD camera for imaging of objects, this small observatory has added to the experience of tourists and local astronomical societies within the national park and in south Wales generally. The BBO also has the advantage of a classroom at the visitor centre to enable education throughout the year. It is a place where the public can receive astronomy presentations and enjoy the warmth and conviviality of hot drinks on tap!

George Borrow, the nineteenth century Victorian gentleman traveler wrote in his book Wild Wales of the brooding, dark landscapes he encountered as he traversed the country. Those landscapes still exist in the heights of the Snowdonia mountains, the Cambrian range, the wine red hills of the Brecon Beacons, the shaded uplands of Mynydd Preselli and in the moorland landscapes of mid Wales. The mysterious waters of Wales’ lakes, mountain tarns, rivers and seas are at the heart of many tales that tie semi-mythical figures who trod the land with the starry patterns of the sky. That is the landscape and skyscape that I wish to bring to life and share with generations to come: the spectacle, wonder, curiosity and pride aroused in me from these old tales that I first learned as a boy. I hope that I have done them justice.

As so many of these old tales have been passed down orally, many aspects of them have changed over the years. Some of the associations between land, tale and sky are just discernable, whilst others are obvious in their placement with a particular constellation. Others share common themes across many cultures, and tales were probably shared among peoples, evolving and dispersing as their cultures fractured after the Roman withdrawal from Britain and greater Europe. It is not my intention to gerrymander tales into particular groups, but to make those possible connections plain and tell not just the Welsh side of the story but to include the classical interpretations too.

I hope that the reader enjoys this journey through the Welsh mythological landscape. I also hope that knowing some of these tales and their heavenly associations will bring a new interest to the night sky and any stargazing experience they will have.

Martin Griffiths BA BSc MSc FRAS FHEA

Brecon Beacons Observatory

Visit discoveryinthedark.wales for more information about Welsh Dark Skies Week 2022.

Dark Land, Dark Skies is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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