‘The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank: Food for one man would be put in it, and when it was opened, food for a hundred men would be found in it.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain
After the picnic I’m left to clear up the mess:
hundreds of crisp packets,
mixed with debris
washed up on the beach
where it’s said Gwyddno kept
a hamper that would feed one hundred men.
Some say it was a basket others a fish weir.
In it he found a shiny-browed bard.
“I’m no good to eat,”
He slipped away
like a gingerbread child.
As I pick through the bin bags
shiny black and squishy as basking seals
my litter pickers clamp onto a tiny skull
like forceps and pull the foetus out
shrivelled by sea water
he says, “but a poet!
Those idiots threw me away.
A nation starved of poetry will ever hunger!”
A man with long legs and a piercing beak
walks the tidal brink footprints fading
as soil trickles away like sand
through an hourglass.
He will take the hamper on crane-wings
into a sunset red as his crown,
black legs spelling out
Gwyddno Garanhir ‘Long-Legged Crane’ lived during the 6th century. He is the son of Cawdraf and thus part of the Macsen Wledig lineage*. He is associated with ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’ one of the ‘Three Chief Ports of the Island of Britain’. I believe this was Portus Setantiorum, the lost port of the Setantii, which lies north of Fleetwood in Lancashire. Its flooding in 574 may have given rise to the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen where Gwyddno berates Seithenin and Mererid for failing to close the flood gates. This legend is more famously set in Borth and Conwy in Wales.
Gwyddno also appears in ‘The Story of Taliesin’. His land and horses are poisoned when Gwion mistakenly imbibes the Awen thus shattering Ceridwen’s cauldron. Gwion, reborn from Ceridwen’s womb as Taliesin, is found in ‘a coracle or hide-covered basket’ in Gwyddno’s fish weir, which is famed for yielding ten pounds of salmon every Nos Galan Gaeaf. This story is located in Conwy but, as the earliest poems attributed to the historical Taliesin are in praise of the northern warlord, Urien Rheged, it seems likely there were northern variants.
Hampers were introduced to Britain from France in the Norman period by William the Conqueror. As mwys means both ‘hamper’ and basket’ in Welsh and the ancients Britons were renowned for their skill at weaving wicker baskets, I believe it was a beautifully crafted basket. It’s also possible ‘hamper’ was a metaphor for Gwyddno’s abundant fish weir or fertile farmlands before they were drowned.
Getting Gwyddno’s Hamper is amongst the forty impossible tasks Culhwch must fulfil for Ysbaddaden. The giants says: ‘If the whole world were to gather around it, three nines at a time, everyone would find the food that he wanted in it, just to his liking. I want to eat from that the night my daughter sleeps with you. He will not give it willingly to any one, nor can you force him.’ Unfortunately we do not find out how or if Culhwch gets the Hamper. Its magical property is suggestive of Otherworld origins.
Gwyddno’s epithet (garan means ‘crane’ and hir ‘long’) connects him with cranes who, with their black, white, and red colouring, and intricate dance-steps and flight patterns have long-standing associations with Annwn. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn appears to escort Gwyddno back to his realm. I’ve always pictured Gwyddno departing as a crane and flying to the Island of the Dancing Cranes where fish is ever plentiful and from where the basket (woven by a crane-woman?) might have originated.
*According to some versions of Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd. Other genealogies differ.
Gilbert J. French, ‘On the Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol. 15
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)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
‘The History of the Hamper from 1066 to 2016’, Regency Hampers
‘Mwys’, Geriadur Pryfysgol Cymru