The Theft of the Cauldron

In the second verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is stolen in one swift move:

‘Lleog’s flashing sword was thrust into it,
and it was left behind in Lleminog’s hand.

These lines have been interpreted in many different ways. Cledyf means ‘sword’ and lluch ‘flashing’. Lleawc (‘Lleog’) has been taken to mean ‘destroyer’ or ‘death-dealer’.

Lluch Lleawc has been identified with Llen(n)l(l)eawc Wyddel ‘Llenlleog the Irishman’ from Culhwch and Olwen. There is a strong case for this because parallels exist between Lleog’s role in the theft of the Head of Annwn’s cauldron and Llenlleog’s in stealing the cauldron of Diwrnarch Wyddel.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur and his men must attain Diwrnarch’s cauldron to boil food for the guests at Culhwch’s wedding feast. (In an earlier post I mentioned that the cauldrons of Diwrnarch and the Head of Annwn share the quality of only boiling meat for the brave).

Arthur sends a message to Odgar, King of Ireland, to tell Diwrnarch, his steward, to hand the cauldron over. Diwrnarch refuses. Arthur and his men set sail for Ireland and make for Diwrnarch’s house where they eat and drink. After feasting, Arthur asks for the cauldron.

Diwrnach says no again. Bedwyr seizes the cauldron and puts it on the back of Hygwydd, Arthur’s servant. Llenlleog Wyddel grabs Caledfwlch (‘hard breach / cleft’ Arthur’s sword) and by swinging it round kills Diwrnarch Wyddel and all his retinue. They escape with the cauldron filled with Irish treasure.

It seems possible the flash of Lleog’s sword as he thrusts it into the cauldron parallels its death-dealing swing, killing or blinding and incapacitating the Head of Annwn and his company as they feast and drink in Caer Vedwit.

Some scholars equate Lleog with the Irish god Lugh whose name may derive from the Proto-Indo-European *leuk ‘flashing light’. Lugh’s epithets include Lámhfhada ‘long arm’ or ‘long hand’, Lonnbeimnech ‘fierce striker’ and Ildánach ‘skilled in many arts’.

To complicate matters further, Lleog has been identified with Lleminog, in whose hand the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is left. Lleminawc may be translated as ‘leaping (one)’ or ‘leaper’.

In ‘Teithi etmygant’* (‘They admire qualities’) Llyminawc bears the meaning ‘keen, eager, ready.’ It refers to ‘an eager leader of an army’ who is a prophetic figure. Some scholars identify Lleminog with Arthur.

So… the Head of Annwn and his people are defeated by Lleog’s flashing sword and the cauldron is left in the hand of Lleminog (who may be Lleog or Arthur). We don’t find out whether there is further conflict or how Arthur and his men escape with the cauldron.

The next line of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ reads: ‘And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned’.

One assumes the escape has been made, ‘hell’s’ door slammed shut and lamps lit outside it. The word translated as Hell here is Vffern. ‘Uffern’ is borrowed from the Latin inferno and appears frequently in medieval Welsh poetry as a negative appellation for the otherworld.

‘What is the measure of Hell? (translated from Uffern)
how thick its veil,
how wide its mouth,
how big are its baths?’**

‘Madawg…
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Uffern.’***

Doors between the worlds are also a regular feature in Welsh mythology. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, Ynys pybyrdor has been translated as ‘isle of the strong door’ (ynys ‘island’, pybyr ‘strong’ + dor ‘door’). In ‘The Second Branch’ the Assembly of the Noble Head takes place in an otherworldly stasis on the island of Gwales until a forbidden door is opened.

The name of Dormach, the dog of Gwyn ap Nudd, has been translated as ‘death’s door’ by John Rhys (dor ‘door’ and marth ‘death’). Dogs are frequently guardians of the otherworld. There are no dogs in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ but Taliesin speaks of monks congregating and howling like wolves and dogs in the final two verses.

Emphasis is placed on closing the door between the worlds and keeping it shut. The people of Annwn and its spatio-temporal laws must be kept separate. We recall that if Gwyn did not contain the fury of the spirits of Annwn, they would destroy thisworld.

The second verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ ends with the refrain ‘save seven, none returned from the Mead-Feast Fort’. This is repeated after the visit to each fort and conveys the terrible cost of raiding the otherworld. Its repetition suggests the names of seemingly individual fortresses are perhaps names for one fort and the verses refer to different parts of the same journey.

The forces of Annwn are shut out yet the presence of the cauldron represents the destabilising power of Annuvian magic in thisworld. The cauldron of the Head of Annwn has been stolen from the mead feast in Caer Vedwit: the revolving fortress, centre of the mysteries of day and night, the seasons, birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.

Diwrnarch’s cauldron is taken from Ireland to the house of Llwydeu son of Cilcoed in Dyfed where it is remembered by Mesur y Pair (‘the measure of the cauldron’). It is then presumably used to brew food for Culhwch and Olwen’s guests at their wedding feast. Later it is taken by Myrddin to ‘the glass house’ with the other Treasures of the Island of Britain.

What happens to the cauldron of the Head of Annwn after it is stolen next nobody knows. It is never seen again. It may be worth contemplating the question “where is it now?”

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*In Skene’s translation this is the second part of ‘Canu y Cwrwf’ (A Song to Ale’)
**‘The First Address of Taliesin’ (transl. Marged Haycock)
***‘The Death-song of Madawg’ (transl. William Skene)

SOURCES

Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
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)

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3 thoughts on “The Theft of the Cauldron

  1. Is this the same cauldron that Llasar brings from Ireland , or a cognate parallel to it?
    And ‘Where is it now…’ : some random thoughts about this and possible links with your earlier posts:

    Could the imagery of flashing and lights link with the imagery of Lasair, an Irish female saint in the extant stories about her, whose name means ‘flame’ or ‘fire’ and the story about her is that she survived her monastery being set alight without harm though it burnt down around her. This is suspiciously like the story of Llasar, as well as the similarity of the name. Now consider that the location of this monastery on Devenish (Loch Erne). There is also a reference to Loch nGúaile (suggested meaning is ‘Lake of an Abyss’, rationalised as the reference to a vessel large enough to hold enough mead to satisfy the warriors of Conchobar in a single sitting) in Patrick Sims-Williams -:

    http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199588657.003.0009

    who thinks this is the best candidate for the Lake of the Cauldron in Branwen (this from some rough notes I made a while back which are incomplete?) but the cauldron under the lake might give a clue to where it is, or the lake might just be a gateway to the Otherworld. Or, of course, both.

    1. The Lasair / Llasar contrasts are fascinating. So he could have originally have been she… not the first instance I’ve seen of this. The Patrick Sims-Williams book looks really interesting but at over £50 I think will be an order from the library one… And are Llasar’s, Diwrnarch’s, the Head of Annwn’s and Ceridwen’s cauldron ‘the same’ cauldron? I’ve got a personal answer in story for that although I’m sure others will have had completely different revelations 🙂

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