Caer Ochren: The Birth of Pen Annwn and the Silver-Headed Beast

The final fort which Arthur, Taliesin and their party raid in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Ochren. Marged Haycock translates Caer Ochren as ‘Angular Fort’ (from ochr ‘edge’, side’). This name could relate to the fortresses having four corners/quarters/turrets/peaks. Ochr also translates as ‘aspect’ or ‘facet’. My working thesis is we’re looking at seven names for the same fort. Caer Ochren thus encompasses all its facets rolled into one.

Once again Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of certain mysteries:

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men, with no go in them,
(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal it is they guard, with his silver head.’

Haycock draws parallels with Christian tradition. ‘What hour was he (Christ) born? As the prophet says, he came at midnight from his regal thrones’. ‘At what time of the day or night was the world made, and (at what time) will it be destroyed, and (at what time) did the Lord arise from the dead?’

However, this relies on the translation of ‘Lord’ from Pen which literally means ‘Head’. Considering the poem centres on the theft of the cauldron of Pen Annwn (‘Head of Annwn’), it seems more likely he is the subject of the riddles and they refer to the day of his creation and the hour of his birth.

This is the interpretation of Caitlin and John Matthews, who refer to ‘the conception and birth of the Chief (of Annwn)’. In an evocative painting of Caer Ochren*, Meg Falconer depicts the Chief’s face as he awaits birth beneath a snowy mound accompanied by running deer, a triskele, and slither of new moon. The text around the painting reads: ‘Caer Ochran – the cold castle under the stone – the magic beast of the silverhead – day of the kings birth.’ It seems significant the birth of Pen Annwn is linked with the last fort in the poem.

Next we come to the silver-headed animal. ‘Animal’ is translated from vil (mil) by Haycock whereas the Matthews favour ‘beast’. We find the repetition of pen (aryant y pen ‘silver head). Sarah Higley and the Matthews translate Perchen as ‘owner’, which suggests it belongs to Pen Annwn and is guarded by his people. The question of the identity of this beastie has produced a proliferation of divergent conjectures.

Robin Melrose suggests the silver-headed animal/beast is the Brindled Ox from the previous verse. The lines about the Brindled Ox are also preceded by a similar riddle about the birth at mid-day of Dwy, ‘God’ (Pen Annwn?) and it’s possible this verse echoes the one before it. An old ox could certainly be pictured with silver hairs.

An alternative theory is put forward by Marged Haycock. She says ‘Mil is understood as an ‘animal’ guarded by the monks, perhaps a riddling question referring to ‘a silver-headed crozier with a zoomorphic crook bearing a reliquary box.’

The Matthews point out ‘The animal that most commonly has silver hair on its head is an elderly human.’ They suggest this may be a kenning for Henben ‘Old Head’, an epithet of Maelgwn Gwynedd’s chief poet Henin Fardd. Further ‘the real Henben or Old Head is Brân himself.’

The mention of a silver-headed beast puts me in mind of Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. One of his piglets is Grugyn Gwrych Eraint, ‘Grugyn Silver-bristle’; ‘all his bristles were like wings of silver, and one could see the path he took through the woods and over fields by the way his bristles glittered.’ It seems likely Grugyn inherited his silvery bristles from his father.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur leads the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, yet lines stating the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn ap Nudd is found suggest Gwyn was the original leader. Gwyn is a candidate for the title Pen Annwn and it seems possible his people guard the silver-headed beast. An objection is the Twrch is a wild animal unlikely to be owned or guarded.

Another suggestion is the animal owned by Pen Annwn is a dog. Both Gwyn and Arawn are connected with hounds of Annwn. Gwyn owns a dog named Dormach who is ‘fair’, ‘red-nosed’ and pictured with two serpent’s tails. He could possess a few silver hairs. However it’s more likely he’d be doing the guarding than being guarded!

The silver-headed beast slips from grasp like quick-silver and perhaps that’s the key. Many animals in Celtic mythology were shapeshifters and didn’t stay the same for long. Interestingly there is no record of Arthur getting his hands on this evasive beast.

The verse ends with the refrain:

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

The journey of Arthur, Taliesin and the other survivors is complete. It is drawn into connection with the birth of Pen Annwn. In Caer Ochren end and beginning meet. Yet the poem has not finished. Taliesin has plenty of insults left for those monks…

~

Caer Ochren

I am the end and the beginning.
Count my angles. You will never count them all
because I am spinning beyond the terminal velocity
of sight. You will never know what is behind,
beyond the walls unless you come in,
scratch the head of a silver-headed beast,
a hound beside the chair of the one who rules the fort
and has been absent half a year. How he stretches
his great jaws, unrolls himself into a serpent.
Where teeth touch tail the story ends
and begins again.

P1170370

*In King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld. Some of Meg’s paintings can be viewed HERE.

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2 thoughts on “Caer Ochren: The Birth of Pen Annwn and the Silver-Headed Beast

  1. It seems to me that Otherworld forts are quite able – and even likely – to change their appearance or appear to be different at different times and/or different views of them. Your “Count my angles. You will never count them all” potentially catches this aspect too.

    Interpreting ‘Pen’ as ‘Pen Annwn’ seems quite plausible (though Taliesin does boast of his knowledge of biblical legendary history elsewhere). I think the difficulty here is the interpretation of ‘Perchen’ which does, in modern Welsh, mean ‘owner’, but I think gets its meaning from the older usage ’owner of land’ and so ‘ruler’. I don’t read it as referring to the ’Mil’ of the next line, which seems to stand alone (there’s a full stop after ‘Perchen’ in the Welsh text and Marged haycock’s addition of ‘[nor]’ might be misleading here). Although the line seems to stand alone ‘they’ (that guard) must refer to the ‘pathetic men’ (Arthur’s warriors …? … monks?). Maybe ‘animal’ is a false trail here. “Mil’ also means ’thousand’ (… ‘the masses’?) but maybe that is stretching interpretation a bit and it would be a pity to lose your “silver-headed beast … serpent” image as the forts shape-shift through the different angles of vision to end at their beginning.

    A difficult thing in Annwn to choose
    Which meaning to gain and which to lose.

  2. All a bit far-fetched, but interesting. The poem’s author – a conspiring gaelic poet – is not enamoured by either the Cistercian monks/scribes who (it seems possible) they have slaughtered – except for seven – or by his Norman partners-in-arms. The poem makes clear (to me) that he regards these latter as preying chain-mailed and steel-helmeted ‘animals’ and ‘bird of prey’, as the translations of ‘Lleminawc’ and ‘Lleawch’ and the correct interpretation of ‘the brindled ox’ make clear.
    What went wrong? Why did the poet ‘squeal’ in this later poem, and so vividly describe the reality of the places of the event and the persons involved in it? Was he double-crossed?
    I prefer Higley’s on-line translation.

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