In The Triads of the Island of Britain we find two triads referring to ‘the two birds of Gwenddolau’.
The first is Triad 10. W ‘Three Chieftains of Deira and Bernicia, and they were three bards, and three sons of Dissynyndawd, who performed the Three Fortunate Slayings’; ‘Gall son of Dissynyndawd who slew the two birds of Gwenddolau, who were guarding his gold and his silver: two men they used to eat for their dinner, and as much again for their supper.’
The second is Triad 32. ‘Three Men who performed the Three Fortunate Slaughters’. ‘Gall son of Dysgyfawd who slew the two birds of Gwenddolau. And they had a yoke of gold on them. Two corpses of the Cymry they ate for dinner, and two for their supper.’
These birds must have been significant and held a sinister reputation if their deaths are recorded twice amongst the three fortunate slaughters/slayings of the island of Britain.
Who or what were they and why were they so feared so much?
Birds who feast on the corpses of the dead are common in Brythonic tradition. To ‘feed the ravens’ or ‘feed the eagles’ is a common metaphor for death. Gwyn ap Nudd, a death-god, appears with ravens who ‘croak’ on ‘flesh’ and ‘gore’. In the Heledd Cycle the eagle of Eli drinks ‘has swallowed fresh drink, / heart blood of Cyndylan the fair’ and wallows in the blood of ‘fair men’. Similarly the eagle of Pengwern ‘is eager for the flesh of Cyndylan’.
Interestingly August Hunt suggests a possible etymology for Arderydd, where Gwenddolau lived and was killed in battle. ‘Ardd = Hill’, ‘Erydd (= eryr) = Eagle) ‘Eagle-Hill or Eagle-Height’. He backs this up with lines in ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and His Sister, Gwenddydd’, gueith arderyd ac erydon’ ‘The Battle of Arderyd and the Eagles’.
It thus seems likely the two birds of Gwenddolau were eagles. We might enquire further ‘what kind of eagles?’ In the Heledd Cycle the eagle of Eli is clearly a white-tailed eagle (often referred to as a sea-eagle): ‘The eagle of Eli keeps the seas; / He will not course the fish in the Aber. / Let him call, let him look out for the blood of men!’
Ian L. Baxter argues that the white-tailed eagle is the ‘carrion-gulper’ of Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry in which ‘men… gave the eagle food’; ‘Olaf feeds the eagles… the erne* drinks his supper’. He notes the white-tailed eagle is a ‘predator, scavenger and kelptoparasite’ and has a ‘marked preference for carrion… compared with the golden eagle’. Thus I believe Gwenddolau’s birds were white-tailed eagles.
Parallels with Irish stories where pairs of birds bound by gold or silver chains are transformed humans suggest Gwenddolau’s two eagles may be of human origin. Owain Rheged’s army are depicted as ravens who attack Arthur’s army, first carrying off their heads, eyes, ears, and arms, then seizing men into the sky and tearing them apart between each other.
On the Papil Stone we find a fascinating portrayal of two axe-wielding human warriors with bird’s heads and long beaks with a human head between their beaks. It seems possible Gwenddolau’s birds were warriors transformed into white-tailed eagles.
Their ritualised eating of two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and two for supper may symbolise Gwenddolau’s brutality as a warlord who slays four of his Cymric neighbours every day. Or it might refer obliquely to him practicing excarnation – leaving the bodies of his own Cymric people to be eaten by the birds before they were buried. Whatever the case, their corpse-eating certainly inspired a significant amount of fear across the island of Britain.
It is of interest the birds were also seen as guardians of Gwenddolau’s gold and silver. Gwenddolau was renowned for ‘gathering booty from every border’. One of his most treasured possessions was a golden chessboard with silver men who, once set, played by themselves.
How Gall son of Dysgyfawd slew the two birds of Gwenddolau remains unknown. It might be conjectured that they were slain after Gwenddolau was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 and his ‘Faithful War Band’ who ‘continued the battle for a fortnight and month’ were killed.
The death of Gwenddolau and his two birds, like Diffydell Dysgyfawd’s slaying of Gwrgi Garwlwyd, ‘Rough Grey’, who ‘used to make a corpse of one of the Cymry every day, and two on each Saturday so as not to (slay) one on the Sunday’ might be seen to form part of a process of eradicating shapeshifters associated with the pagan world. Gwrgi’s appearance alongside ‘dog-heads’ in ‘Pa Gur’ suggests he was a dog-headed man who feasted on human flesh.
These beings may once have been considered psychopomps by the pre-Christian peoples of Britain, devouring the flesh of the dead and conveying their souls to the Otherworld, who appeared increasingly uncanny and threatening as pagan beliefs were eliminated and replaced by Christian ones.
In the Neolithic Tomb of the Eagles on Orkney the bones of eight white-tailed eagles were found alongside human remains. It is likely they were buried with the humans as guides into the next life. Perhaps the birds’ associations with treasure might be linked to their custodianship of the wealth of the grave and guardianship of grave goods?
No white-tailed eagles soar over Arderydd anymore. White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 as a consequence of their poisoning and shooting by gamekeepers because they were viewed as threat to livestock and gamebirds. The slaughter of the two birds of Gwenddolau forms an unhappy precedent to the white-tailed eagle’s extinction.
However, white-tailed eagles have been reintroduced to the west coast of Scotland. Since their reintroduction in 1975, 140 have returned to the wild. Still they are threatened by those who seek to poison them and to steal their eggs. We have a long way to go to restoring the sense of sanctity surrounding these birds which was clearly in decline around the time of Gwenddolau.
In this poem I attempt to evoke the presence of the two birds of Gwenddolau:
Two warriors fight over the corpse;
two sea-eagles juggling,
a band around the head crushing,
beaks yellow, sharp-tipped,
darting the eyes
tugging out the optic nerve
sucking up the olfactory
clawing into the pit of the heart.
The sticky lungs are stretched between two beaks,
the duodenum unravelled to the stars like a birth cord.
Well-oiled beaks slide between joints
They glean the bones.
The skull shines on the hilltop of the eagles.
As the extracted part flees like a glowing grain
toward the light of the Otherworld
they rattle their chain,
stomp their feathered legs
and laced up talons.
How long until they are free
to circle Arderydd white-tailed on strong brown wings
coursing for fish and skudding clawing feet
across the shining skin of the sea?
*Earn is Anglo-Saxon for white-tailed eagle and erne is Gaelic.
August Hunt, The Mysteries of Avalon, (August Hunt, 2011)
Ian L. Baxter, ‘Eagles in Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems’, https://www.academia.edu/29025802/Eagles_in_Anglo-Saxon_and_Norse_Poems
Kelly A. Kilpatrick, ‘The iconography of the Papil Stone’ http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_141/141_159_205.pdf
Mark Prigg, ‘The return of the sea eagle’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2216152/The-return-Sea-Eagle-Researchers-say-extinct-bird-thriving-Scottish-coast.html
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), ‘The Heledd Cycle’ http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/h16.html