Caer Vandwy and the Theft of the Brindled Ox

A plain of blood where men once stood.
The lights have gone out in Caer Vandwy.
The clashing sea rolls over shield and spear.
The living dead. The dead dead again.

***

The sixth fortress in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Vandwy. This has been translated as ‘Fortress of God’s Peak’ and ‘Fort of the High God’. Marged Haycock uses ‘Mand(d)wy Fort’ but does not explain her re-rendering. It could relate to Manawydan (‘Manawyd’ in ‘Arthur and the Porter’). The connection of a sea-god with an island location seems credible.

In the verse relating to Caer Vandwy, Taliesin again berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of insight into certain mysteries he is knowledgeable about:

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men trailing their shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day God was born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy.’

The second line suggests the existence of a Bardic riddle enumerating mythic and/or historic figures born on certain days. In line three, Haycock reconstitutes Dwy ‘God’ from Cwy. Caitlin and John Matthews prefer Cyw ‘chick’ whereas Sarah Higley sticks with Cwy as a personal name.

Haycock’s choice fits with the translations of Caer Vandwy as a fortress belonging to (a) God. This may not be the Christian God. In the next verse Taliesin refers to the ‘pathetic men’ as ‘(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created’. Lord is translated from Pen ‘Head’. Perhaps this god is Pen Annwn ‘The Head of Annwn’.

Next we come across an unnamed person ‘who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy’. Haycock suggests Defwy is a river-name meaning ‘black’ (from def-/dyf) and poses the question ‘Was this imagined as a river between this world and the next?’

The Matthews link the Meadows of Defwy to Gweir ap Gweirioed ‘Hay son of Grassiness’ (the divine prisoner in verse one) and say ‘we may be looking at Doleu Defwy as an otherworldly meadow’.

This brings to mind the Gwerddonau Llion (translated as ‘green meadows of the sea’ and ‘green islands of the floods’). In a triad* referring to ‘three losses by disappearance of the Isle of Britain’ Gavran is said to have gone to sea in search of the Gwerddonau Llion.

Philip Runngaldier connects the Gwerddonau Llion with the sunken land of Cantre’r Gwaelod ‘The Bottom Hundred’ and says they are inhabited by ‘Gwyllion’: ‘the shades of (Llyn) Llion’ ‘the dead’. Perhaps the one who didn’t go to these mysterious meadows escaped death.

***

Taliesin continues to deride the monks:

‘those who know nothing of the Brindled Ox, with his stout collar,
(and) seven score links in its chain.’

Grazing on the Meadows of Defwy we come across an animal of great fame: Ych Brych ‘The Brindled Ox’. He appears in The Triads as one of ‘Three Principal Oxen of the Island of Britain’:

‘Yellow Spring (‘The One of the yellow of spring’)
and Chestnut, of Gwylwylyd (or ‘a meek and gentle ox),
and the Brindled Ox.’

His capture is amongst the ‘impossible tasks’ Arthur and his men must fulfil on Culhwch’s behalf in Culhwch and Olwen. For food to be grown for Culhwch and Olwen’s wedding feast, a field must be ploughed by the divine ploughman, Amaethon.

The plough must be pulled by a team of six oxen: ‘the two oxen of Gwylwlydd Winau, yoked together’, ‘Melyn Gwanwyn and the Ych Brych yoked together’ and ‘two horned oxen… Nyniaw and Peibiaw.’

Two oxen from the triad: Yellow Spring and the Brindled Ox are placed together and Gwylwylyd appears as the owner of two oxen, presumably Chestnut and an unnamed ox. Intriguingly Nyniaw and Peibiaw are the sons of the king of Archenfield ‘whom God transformed into oxen for their sins.’

John Rhŷs records a folkloric story where Nyniaw and Peibiaw are brother kings. One moonlit night, Nyniaw boasts his field is ‘the whole firmament’. Peibiaw says his sheep and cattle are grazing in his fields: ‘the great host of stars, each of golden brightness, with the moon to shepherd them.’ Nyniaw is furious and a terrible battle ensues which leads to their transformation into oxen by God.

This may be a Christianised explanation of their shapeshifting capacities. In The Tain, the two bulls Finnbennach and Donn Cuailnge are ‘pig-keepers’ ‘practiced in the pagan arts’ who can ‘form themselves into any shape’. Tricked into falling out, they battle against each other as birds of prey, whale and seabeast, stags, warriors, phantoms, and as dragons before becoming maggots, being swallowed by cows and reborn as bulls. It seems likely the Brindled Ox was originally a shapeshifter with the capacity to take human and other forms.

***

In the last lines of the verse Taliesin says:

‘And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none came back from Caer Vandwy*’.

The final line is repeated as a refrain at the end of each verse. Of three full loads of Prydwen who went to Annwn, only seven survivors return. Some catastrophe has taken place. Lines spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir suggest this was a battle at Caer Vandwy:

‘to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Vandwy**.

At Caer Vandwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’

It is my growing intuition the names of individual fortresses are in fact different names for the same fort. In the previous verse Taliesin said six thousand men and an incommunicative watchman were standing on Caer Wydyr’s glass walls. Gwyn is referring to the catastrophic battle against the people of Annwn by which Arthur and his men broke into the fort. After breaking in, they took Gweir, stole the Head of Annwn’s cauldron, and captured the Brindled Ox before slamming ‘Hell’s gate’ shut.

A couple of months ago Brian Taylor drew my attention to a passage in James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld which illustrates the parallels between Arthur’s raid on the Head of Annwn’s fortress and Hercules’ assault on the House of Hades: ‘drawing his sword, wounding Hades in the shoulder, slaughtering cattle, wrestling the herdsman, choking and chaining Cerberos… the Herculean ego does not know how to behave in the underworld’.

As I continue my own journey through ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ where others see a quest for inspiration, I see violence, desecration, the utmost disrespect for the people of Annwn: a trail of atrocities committed by a power-hungry warlord and ambitious bard.

Far from being a model for seekers of Annwn’s mysteries it advocates the selfish pursuit of objects of desire through deceit and brute force. Our stories of journeys to the underworld are reflected in the upperworld and we have still not outgrown this Arthurian/Herculean mindset.

New ways of approaching Annwn based on respectful relationships with its people are required. Perhaps in time these will yield the stories needed to replace Arthur’s hegemony. But first repairs must be made…

*This is referred to in The Cambro Briton but I can’t find a source. It isn’t in The Triads of the Islands of Britain.
**Rather than using Haycock’s unexplained re-rendering of Gaer Vandwy I have stuck with the name in the Welsh text.
***Heron translates kaer wantvy as Caer Fanddwy. I’ve stuck to Caer Vandwy for consistency.

SOURCES

Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’
James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, (CN, 1979)
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Philip Runggaldier, Llyn Llion Theory, (Matador, 2016)
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)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (OUP, 1979)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (Lightning Source, 1880)

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6 thoughts on “Caer Vandwy and the Theft of the Brindled Ox

  1. “a trail of atrocities committed by a power-hungry warlord and ambitious bard”. As you know, I’m no expert on the Brythonic mythos, but your concluding comments are, of course, timely in relation to the publication of the Chilcot report on the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.

    1. Yes… one of the articles I was reading about the Chilcot report linked back to when Arab League chief Amr Moussa warned that a strike against Iraq would “open the gates of hell”. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Arthur and his men managed to close ‘Hell’s gate.’ The UK and US haven’t succeeded after their assault on otherlands…

  2. Your continuing project of the re-assessment of Arthur and his militaristic role is acutely contextualisewd here in the approach to the Annwn and the need for a more respectful way of exploring that realm. The implication of Taliesin too raises interesting questions. Did he ‘go along for the ride’ but in fact have contempt for the soldiers or does he share their exploitatative attitude? My feeling has always been that Arthur is just a means of getting him there and he was not interested in physical treasure , but of course whether his quest for knowledge and inspiration is just as aquisitive is debatable.

    Mand(d)wy, by the way, is just the restoration of the root form in a modern translation : M mutates to V (or f in modern Welsh) after Caer. And d >dd.

    1. I don’t understand Taliesin either. Did he go for the treasure or the adventure? Was he actively involved? How does he always manage to get away scot free? In some senses I wonder if ‘he’ got written stories he wasn’t originally in so the bards telling the story had a standpoint (ie. the Crucifixion) although I do believe he had a real existence too. A 6th century bard who grew into somebody omniscient, deity-like. The more I connect with his stories the more I get a sense of his otherness, like he’s… not human… but not a god either… almost the spirit of transmutation?

      Thanks for the explanation of the Vandwy – Manddwy shift 🙂

  3. G. Beggan, Ph. D.

    ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’ is an English translation of a Welsh translation of an Irish poem by royal poet who was present and helped when a Cistercian monastery was attacked by a Norman horde to procure the legends and poetry of the ‘chief of Annwn’, he being Rory O’Conor king of Connacht. The exact date of the event is known, as is the exact location of the monastery and of the island to which the ‘cauldron’ was taken.

  4. G. Beggan, Ph. D.

    Taliesin was not a 6th century poet; neither was ‘he’ a man. ‘Taliesin’ is a Welsh name given to a book of 56 poems, 11 of which have been dated to the 6th. century. Some poems address religious topics. At least 4 of these poems make a reference to Annwvyn (or its many variations). ‘The land of Annwvyn’ is now a known locality in N.E. Co. Galway. Historically it was an ‘óenach site’ or place of public assembly at a very ancient royal site, pre-dating Ptolemy’s map of Hibernia.
    ‘Annwvyn’ is three Irish words fused phonetically into one Middle Welsh ‘word’, just as ‘Mabinogi’ has precisely the same construction. (One must be mindful that e.g. the Mabinogi, etc. were recorded from oral narration.)
    Prevailing literature has Taliesin hopelessly mixed up with St. Brendan the Navigator (484-577 A.D.), this nomenclature being due to a legend that this saint spent 7 years on a sea voyage(a trip proved possible by Tim Severin).
    The name ‘Brendan’ derives from Ir. ‘braoi an fhinn’, meaning ‘the brow of the fair one’. Apropos this, Elis Gruffydd (1490-1552) whose massive chronicle contains the earliest text of the tale of Taliesin, deemed the name ‘Taliesin’ to mean ‘radiant brow’.
    Brendan is said to have resided for some years with St. Cadoc in Llancarvon in Glamorganshire. He is also said to have visited St. Gildas in Brittany, and to have built a church there. This information is echoed in a manuscript in the hand of the 18th century forger Iolo Morganwg, which, in reference to Taliesin, stated that he (Taliesin) was educated in the school of Cadoc at Llanfeithin in Glamorgan which the historian Gildas also attended.
    ‘Elffin’ – the legendary foster-parent of Taliesin – is the name of a town (spelt Elphin), a parish and a diocese in Connacht, in a region to which St. Brendan is known to have come from his Co. Kerry homeland to do mission work. ‘Elffin’ is Ir. Aill finn, meaning ‘the rock of the fair one’. This was not a geological rock, but a ‘cipher’ for one of very many religious communities founded St. Brendan – one which was the spiritual guide of the gaels of the coastlands of Wales, written about by Bishop Jones (1851), and referred to in legend as ‘Cantref Gwaelod’.
    Since Elphin was a community founded by Brendan which was the foster parent of Taliesin (a book), and since several poems in that book mention Annwvyn, the place of origin of the book Taliesin is not difficult to determine. Given its association with a saint and a monastery, an intellectually honest etymology of ‘Taliesin’ has elsewhere been suggested. ‘Gwyddno Garanhir’ – ‘Taliesin’s ‘father’ – can also be decoded, provided one is familiar with Irish written phonetically.

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