The second sea fortress raided by Arthur, Taliesin and ‘three full loads’ of Prydwen in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’.
Opening the second verse Taliesin says:
‘I’m splendid of fame – song was heard
in the four quarters of the fort, revolving (to face) the four directions.’
Kaer pedryuan, ‘four quarters of the fort’ has also been translated as ‘Four-Cornered Fort’, ‘Four-Pinnacled Fort’, ‘Four-Peaked Fort and ‘Four-Turreted Fort’. The latter suggests it bears relationship with Caer Siddi: ‘around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea’.
The image of a four-quartered, revolving fortress filled with song is fascinating and compelling. So far I have not come across the name Caer Vedwit or revolving fortresses in any other medieval Welsh literature. However fortresses that disappear, recede, or can only be entered under special conditions feature in numerous stories.
A close parallel with Caer Vedwit is found in the Ulster Cycle. In ‘The Feast of Bricriu’, Cú Roí has a fortress which revolves to his chant throughout the night so that nobody can enter:
‘In what airt soever of the globe Curoi should happen to be, every night o’er the fort he chaunted a spell, til the fort revolved as swiftly as a mill-stone. The entrance was never to be found after sunset.’
Caer Vedwit is associated with the Head of Annwn. It seems possible its revolutions are brought about by his spell-song.
The mead-feast is a central feature of medieval stories set in thisworld and Annwn. The status of a lord was judged by his capacity to maintain large groups of warriors feasting and drinking in his hall. The consumption of copious amounts of mead could provide a more prosaic explanation for the songs in Caer Vedwit and its revolutions.
The Cauldron of the Head of Annwn
The purpose of raiding Caer Vedwit is the theft of the cauldron of the Head of Annwn, which no doubt formed the centre of the mead-feast. Taliesin says:
‘My first utterance was spoken concerning the cauldron
kindled by the breath of nine maidens.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
(with its) a dark trim, and pearls?
It does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so;’
A cauldron with similar qualities appears in ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’. It is owned by Dyrnwch the Giant ‘if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in it, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly.’
The cauldron’s special ‘disposition’ of only brewing food for the brave shares similarities with the Irish tradition of the champion’s portion. In ‘The Feast of Bricriu’, Bricriu invites a group of champions to his house to fight for ‘a cauldron full of generous wine with room enough for the three valiant braves of Ulster’ along with a seven-year-old boar and other delicacies.
Cú Chulainn wins but his right to the champion’s portion is not settled until he has defended Cú Roí’s fortress and proved his courage to Cú Roí in the beheading game*.
The Blue Smith and the Cauldron of Rebirth
Haycock says gwrym am y oror a mererit (‘a dark trim and pearls’) refers to a dark substance decorating the rim of the cauldron such as ‘an iron band, or enamel, jet or niello (black sulphide of silver)’. Mererit is borrowed from Latin margarita and means ‘pearl’.
John and Caitlin Matthews translate gwrym am y oror a mererit as ‘Ridged with enamel, rimmed with pearl’ and suggest the cauldron was crafted by Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid (‘Blue Smith who Reforges the Weak’).
In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Llasar emerged from the Lake of the Cauldron in Ireland with the cauldron of rebirth on his back. After he and his wife were driven out of Ireland, he took it to Britain and gifted it to Brân then taught Manawydan the art of enamelling.
Brân gave the cauldron to Matholwch, King of Ireland, as recompense for an insult. Matholwch later used it to bring life to dead Irish warriors who were killed by Brân’s army. The cauldron was shattered when a living man was thrown into it.
We hear nothing else about Llasar except that his son, Llashar, was one of seven men left by Brân to guard Britain. Bryn Saith Marchog ‘The Hill of the Seven Horsemen’ is named after them.
Whether the cauldron of rebirth and the cauldron of the Head of Annwn are the same remains a matter of speculation. Their magical properties and elaborate craftmanship suggest they were forged by an otherworldly being, perhaps a gargantuan blue smith, in Annwn’s depths.
The Head of Annwn
Who is the Head of Annwn? In ‘The First Branch’, Pwyll wins the title Pen Annwn by taking the form and role of Arawn, a King of Annwn, winning his yearly battle and resisting the temptation of sleeping with his wife. It’s my intuition Pwyll’s acquisition of the title is based on his assumption of Arawn’s identity and Arawn was formerly Pen Annwn.
Another candidate for the title is Gwyn ap Nudd. In Culhwch and Olwen, Gwyn is introduced as the deity who contains the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent the destruction of the world and adversary of Arthur.
Arthur sides with Gwyn’s rival, Gwythyr, during their struggle for Creiddylad and binds them in battle for her every May Day. Gwyn and Gwythyr also act as tricksters when Arthur goes to kill Orddu ‘The Very Black Witch’.
In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn refers to witnessing a battle at Caer Vandwy:
‘… I saw a host
shield shattered, spears broken,
violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’
Caer Vandwy is the sixth fortress in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. It seems likely Gwyn refers to the battle between Arthur and the people of Annwn for the Brindled Ox.
In the sixth verse we find a second reference to the Head of Annwn:
‘(those) who don’t know on what day the Head** is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal is it they guard, with his silver head.’
It’s likely the silver-headed animal is the Brindled Ox guarded by the people of Annwn and the ‘Ruler’ is the Head of Annwn. This riddle pertains to his conception and birth. In his Gallic Wars (58-49BC) Julius Caesar said:
‘All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.’
Dis was a Roman god of the underworld who presided over its wealth. Whilst it seems unlikely the Gaulish deity was called Dis this identification suggests he performed a similar role and had deep connections with how people perceived the passage of time and the seasons.
Caesar says the ‘institution’ of the Druids ‘is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it.’
It seems possible Gaulish beliefs about ‘Dis’ derive from the mythos of the Head of Annwn. Arawn and Gwyn both fight yearly battles against opponents associated with summer: Hafgan (haf means ‘summer’) and Gwythyr ap Greidol (‘Victor son of Scorcher’) placing them in the role of the Winter King who must be defeated for summer to come.
In The Death of Cú Roí, Cú Roí carries off a maiden called Blathnat (‘Blossom’) along with a cauldron that is the child of three cows who carry three men/birds on their ears. Cú Chulainn’s army behead Cú Roí and win Blathnat, cattle and treasure.
Parallels with Gwyn’s abduction of Creiddylad, Arthur rescuing her and taking the cauldron and Brindled Ox are obvious. Of course these wintry deities don’t stay ‘dead’ long.
It may be suggested the revolutions of Caer Vedwit, home of the Head of Annwn, are bound up with the passage of day and night and the seasons and the cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.
The Nine Maidens
Taliesin says the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is kindled by the breath of nine maidens. There are numerous references to groups of nine women connected with underworld gods in Gallo-Brythonic tradition.
In 1AD, Pomponius Mela wrote of nine priestesses serving a Gaulish god on the island of Sein. Known as Senes, they could create storms, shift shape, cure illnesses and foretell the future.
A Gaulish tablet from Larzac dated 90AD provides evidence of a coven of nine sorceresses working underworld magic:
– a magical incantation of women,
– their special infernal names,
– the magical incantation of a seeress who fashions this prophecy…
…Below, there they shall be impressed, the prophetic curse of these names of theirs is a magical incantation of a group of practitioners of underworld magic: Banona daughter of Flatucia, Paulla wife of Potitos, Aiia daughter of Adiega, Potitos father of Paulla, Severa daughter of Valens (and) wife of Paullos(?), Adiega mother of Aiia, Pottita wife of Primos daughter of Abesa.’
Here anderna is used to refer to the underworld and andernados to a group of practitioners working underworld magic. A similar tablet from Chamalières invokes andedion ‘underworld gods’ and anderon ‘infernal beings’. These Gaulish terms bear similarities with the Irish Andeé ‘non-gods’ and Brythonic Annwn ‘the deep’ ‘the not-world’.
Superstitions surrounding witchcraft and the underworld no doubt lie behind Arthur’s slaughter of Orddu and the nine witches of Caer Loyw and Cai’s killing of nine witches in Arthur and the Porter.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Life of Merlin, Morgan and her sisters: Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis and Thitis with her lyre, are presented in a more positive light. They inhabit the paradisal island of Avalon. Morgan is a shapeshifter adept in herbalism and the healing arts who tends Arthur’s fatal wound after Camlan.
Bringing Life to the Dead
A man named Morgan Tud appears as Arthur’s physician in Geraint son of Erbin. It’s my suspicion this is Morgan in male guise. Morgan acts as healer to Gwyn’s brother, Edern ap Nudd. Edern is defeated by Geraint in another seasonal battle at Whitsuntide.
Geraint strikes Edern what sounds like a killing blow: ‘he summoned up his strength and struck the knight on the top of his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls on his knees.’
However Edern gets up and ride to Arthur’s court. Upon his arrival the gatekeeper says: ‘no one has ever seen such a terrible sight to gaze upon as he. He is wearing broken armour, in poor condition, with the colour of his blood more conspicuous on it than its own colour.’
Edern’s invincibility indubitably stems from his identity as an Annuvian deity like Gwyn. Morgan is assigned the task of healing Edern, which is analogous to bringing him back to life.
The capacity of women not only to heal but bring life to the dead is shown in Peredur. At the court of the King of Suffering, Peredur sees ‘only women’ then:
‘a horse approaching with a saddle on it, and a corpse in the saddle. One of the women got up and took the corpse from the saddle, and bathed it in a tub of warm water that was by the door, and applied precious ointment to it. The man got up, alive, and went up to Peredur, and greeted him, and made him welcome. Two other corpses entered on their saddles, and the maiden gave those two the same treatment as the previous one.’
Morgan is also associated with the mysteries of death and rebirth represented by the cauldron. It may be suggested the scene where she heals Arthur is based on an older myth wherein she and her sisters tended the Head of Annwn after his seasonal death.
Glastonbury Tor and the Mead-Feast
The sacred complex associated with Caer Vedwit: the cauldron, the Head of Annwn, and the nine maidens came together for me several years ago at Glastonbury Tor.
The isle of Avalon (‘apples’) is frequently identified with Glastonbury in the apple-growing summerlands of the Somerset Levels. Prior to the fall in sea levels, Glastonbury was an island; the area is still prone to flooding. It is easy to see how the story of Arthur being taken to Morgan and her sisters on Avalon by boat emerged from the landscape.
In The Life of St Collen whilst Collen was abbot of Glastonbury he supposedly banished Gwyn and his fairy host whilst they were feasting in the hall of his magical castle on the Tor. It seems likely the cauldron formed the centre of their mead-feast.
My first vision of the otherworld took place at Glastonbury Festival. After thirteen years of searching for an explanation, Gwyn finally appeared in my life and I realised he was my patron. Identifying the nine maidens as Morgan and her sisters and the Head of Annwn as Gwyn led me back to Glastonbury to devote myself him.
When I entered the Well House of the White Spring I could barely believe my eyes. The scene depicted in Caer Vedwit was there before me. In the centre of a subterranean cavern was the cauldron overflowing with thundering water. A dark haired woman in long skirts kindled candles around its rim. In the centre was a shrine to the Lady of Avalon and to the right and left altars for Gwyn and Brigid***.
For one day of my life everything went beautifully to plan. I made my vow to Gwyn beside the candle-lit cauldron as shadows of otherworlds and othertimes circled around me. The world spun around my resolution and my life has never been the same.
However Caer Vedwit has revolved since. Last time I went to Glastonbury the White Spring was barred. Shortly afterward I witnessed a vision where the cauldron lay shattered, its poison streaming throughout the land. I’d tasted the Awen. The time had arrived to look at the consequences of bringing forth Annuvian magic into thisworld.
The theft of the cauldron will be covered in upcoming posts.
* Cú Roí arrives at the Royal Court in Emain and challenges the Ultonians to behead him if he can return the blow. Presuming Cú Roí will die, Fat Neck agrees. Afterward Cú Roí picks up his head and returns the next night for his recompense. Fat Neck refuses. Loigaire and Conall Cernach also play the game but refuse to accept the blow. The only person brave enough to proffer his neck to Cú Roí is Cú Chullain who through his bravery wins the champion’s portion. The beheading game also forms the central plot of Gawain and the Green Knight.
**ny wdant py dyd peridyd Pen is translated by Marged Haycock as ‘(those) who don’t known on what day the Lord is created’ but I’ve chosen the more literal translation of ‘Pen’ as ‘Head’. An alternative used by Sarah Higley and John and Caitlin Matthews is ‘Chief’.
***Some scholars have connected the role of the nine maidens kindling the flames beneath the cauldron with their breath with the work of St Brigid’s flamekeepers at Kildare. In his 12th C The History and Topography of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis ‘it is only lawful for women to blow the fire, fanning it or using bellows only, and not with their breath.’ It seems possible this was a ban on older pagan practices.
Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Geraldus Cambrensis, The History and Topography of Ireland, (Penguin Classics, 1982)
George Henderson (transl.), Fled Bricend (The Feast of Bricriu), (Parentheses Publications, 1999)
John Koch (transl.), ‘The Tablet of Larzac,’ The Celtic Heroic Age (CSP, 2003)
Lady Charlotte Guest, ‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd’
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Maria Tymoczko, Two Death Tales from the Ulster Cycle: The Death of Cu Roi and the Death of Cu Chulainn, (Dolmen Press, 1981)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sarah Higley (transl.), Preiddu Annwn, (Camelot, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
W. A. W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn (transl.), The Works of Julius Caesar, (Sacred Texts, 1869)