Riddles and Howling Monks

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn, after Taliesin has finished narrating Arthur’s raid, he continues to mock the monks (earlier referred to as ‘pathetic men’) because they do not know the answers to certain riddles.

The opening ‘Myneich dychnut val cunin cor / o gyfranc udyd ae gwidanhor’ has been translated ‘Monks congregate like a pack of dogs / because of the clash between masters who know’ and ‘Monks howl like a choir of dogs / from an encounter with lords who know’.

Dychnut may derive from cnut ‘pack of hounds, wolves’ or *dychnudo, an archaism meaning ‘howl’. Cun means ‘pack of dogs’ or ‘lord’. The primary meaning of cor is ‘choir’, but it is also used to refer to groups such as ‘a host of angels’ or ‘a company of bards’. Côr bytheiaid and côr hela  both mean ‘kennel or pack of hounds’. Udyd may be the plural of ud ‘lord’ or relate to udaw ‘howl’.

In these ambiguous, carefully chosen words, dogs/wolves, choirs, lords and howling are cleverly and intricately linked. These intricate connections are unfortunately not conveyed by the English language.

Within Welsh tradition numerous divine ‘lords’ are associated with hounds: Cunomaglus ‘Hound Lord’; Cunobelinus ‘Hound of Belinus’; Nudd who Taliesin refers to as ‘the superior wolf lord’ and his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, who owns a hound called Dormach ‘Death’s Door’ and hunts with the Cwn Annwn. Another is Arawn who, like Gwyn, is a ruler of Annwn and associated with white, red-eared Annuvian hounds. It seems possible Taliesin is comparing the howling monks with their howling hounds.

Cyfranc means ‘clash, contention’ or ‘tale, story’. This brings to mind Taliesin’s clash with the bards of Maelgwn in The Story of Taliesin. Taliesin enters this contest to rescue his master, Elphin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, from Maelgwn’s imprisonment.

Gwidanhor ‘one who knows’ (from gwybod ‘know’) shares a likeness with Gwyddno Garanhir ‘knowing one’. In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyddno converses with Gwyn and meets his hound, Dormach. Gwyn reminds Gwyddno that Dormach ‘was with Maelgwn’. These complex mythic intersections would have been in a medieval Welsh audience’s mind.

Taliesin claims the lords/masters  know, ‘Whether the wind (follows) a single path, whether the sea is all one water, / whether fire – an unstoppable force is all one spark’. In The Story of Taliesin, Taliesin wins the contest with a series of poems including an extended riddle about the wind. He is claiming knowledge of the elements Maelgwn’s bards do not possess.

Taliesin counts himself amongst the ‘knowing ones’ initiated into the mysteries of the universe alongside lords/masters such as Gwyddno and Gwyn. The howling of the monks parodies their otherworldly company.

The next verse continues in a similar vein:

‘Monks congregate like wolves
because of the clash between masters who know.
They (the monks) don’t know how the darkness and light divide,
(nor) the wind’s course, its onrush,
what place it devastates, what land it strikes,
how many saints are in the void, and how many altars.’

The reference to the monks’ lack of knowledge of where darkness and light divide echoes preceding verses where Taliesin mocks them for not knowing the divisions of time nor when Pen Annwn ‘Head of Annwn’ was conceived or born. These questions are intrinsically linked as Pen Annwn is associated with the transitions between night and day, the seasons and the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The line referring to saints and altars being ‘in the void’ is intriguing. This may relate back to the transitional period between paganism and Christianity when the links between Annwn and the dead were severed and Annwn was re-construed as a hellish (hot, cold or empty) place.

In the final lines Taliesin says, ‘I praise the Lord, the great Ruler: / may I not endure sadness: Christ will reward me.’ The ending is undeniably Christian yet in Pendefic mawr, ‘great Ruler’ we find traces of a most un-Christian lord: Pen Annwn.

 So the end of the poem has been reached. Arthur and his men have raided Annwn and slammed its gate shut. As Taliesin returns to his chair in Caer Siddi we’re left contemplating a trail of destruction amongst the howling monks whose choir echoes the howling of the hounds of the Lord(s) of Annwn.

 ***

The monks howl.
We howl with them.
There is no turning back
to when Annwn was unspoilt
before the flashing sword
the stolen cauldron
and trail of death.

No turning back
only howling onwards
into the next chapter
the next myth…

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*The translations of Preiddu Annwn ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ I have used are Marged Haycock’s from Legendary Poems of Taliesin and Sarah Higley’s HERE. With thanks to Heron for notes on cor from The University of Wales Dictionary.

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3 thoughts on “Riddles and Howling Monks

  1. I Think the distinction between bards who know and monks who don’t and the significances woven into the intricacies of bardic language – only fully revealed to the initiated few – is the key to understanding Taliesin’s distinctions between the ministers of the new faith and the bards who still maintain contacts with the older mysteries.

  2. ‘The Spoils of Annwfyn’ is an account of a true event. It is time-specific and place-specific. Both time and places are known, the latter being a Cistercian monastery on mountainside and a pre-historic fort 4.5 km. distant, on a very small island (possibly artificial) on a very small river. ‘Arthur’ is a ‘cipher’ for the leader who was a known Norman invader of Ireland. A gaelic poet connived with the Normans on this raid, as did a son of the ‘chief of Annwfyn’.

  3. Lo! Horror-sight my vision blurs
    as mail-clad ‘Arthur’ and his mob
    At Sleushankuogh – like wolves and curs –
    sack sacred altars, loot and rob.
    From flashing sword of ‘Lleawch’ monks strain
    and all about sheer bedlam reigns,
    And gore of gentle learned men
    flows red and warm from their veins.
    Then ‘Lleminawc’ with eyes aglow
    grasps tight ‘The Spoils of Annwvyn’
    And wine of elder, pear and sloe
    is seized and carried from the slain;
    All withdraw and westward go
    to quaff and revel in their luck
    On isle where jet and water flow,
    and there read from the stolen ‘book’
    Some verses by a gaelic poet
    who helped, then ‘sang’! And hence we know it.
    Let God’s Meadows of Victory
    re-echo throughout Cruffon’s plains
    That “Truth will out! – though history
    by Gruffydd guile be page-wise stained.”
    While scholars throughout Wales now praise
    our poems and tales in academe
    We stand, and laughing glasses raise:
    “A toast to jet and singing stream”!
    To Strata Florida we sip,
    its monks out-witted Gruffydd wile –
    The gaelic names which we decript
    they scibed in ‘code’ in phonic style.

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