The Defwy – A Brythonic River of the Dead

In the sixth verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of the answers to riddles which in his day must have been well known. He says they do not know ‘who made the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’.

The meadows of Defwy are clearly in Annwn. Marged Haycock notes it has been suggested Defwy is a river-name from def-/dyf- ‘black’ ‘as in Dyfi’ and may be ‘a river between this world and the next’. Taliesin also sings of this river in a list of fine things in ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’: ‘Fine it is on the banks of the Dyfwy / when the waters flow’.

Rivers dividing Thisworld and the Otherworld, the realms of the living and the dead, are found in many world cultures. In Greek mythology the Styx ‘Hatred’ divides Thisworld and Hades, the dead must cross the Acheron ‘Woe’ to reach their destination, and surrender their memories to the Lethe ‘forgetfulness’ to be reborn. There are another two rivers: Cocytus ‘Lamentation’ and Phlegyton ‘fire’. All originate from Oceanus ‘Ocean’. Each is a deity. Each flows through both worlds: the Styx is a stream in Arcadia, the Acheron and Cocytus flow through Thesprotia, the Lethe through Boetia, and the Phlegethon near to Avernus.

In Norse mythology eleven rivers called Elvigar ‘Ice Waves’ arise from Hvergelmir ‘Boiling Bubbling Spring’ in Niflheim ‘Mist-World’. Amongst them is Gjǫll, which flows past Hel’s Gate and separates the living from the dead. There are forty-two rivers in total. Some flow into the ‘fields of the gods’. Others ‘go among men’ before falling into Hel. Midgard, Thisworld, is encircled by an impassable ocean where Jörmungandr, the world-serpent, lives.

Unfortunately in Brythonic tradition we possess far less lore about the cartography of Annwn. Whether it was simply lost or actively erased by Christian scribes is impossible to know. Much of what we have is obscured by Taliesin’s riddling. In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ he speaks of:

‘the connected river which flows (around the world)
I know its might,
I know how it ebbs,
I know how it flows,
I know how it courses,
I know how it retreats.
I know how many creatures
are under the sea’

It seems the Britons shared with the Greeks and the Norse a concept of a river/ocean encircling the world. To me this speaks of an intuitive knowledge of the oceanic currents of our ‘global conveyor belt’ which flow through the world’s oceans maintaining its ecosystems.

Another riddle suggests we once possessed knowledge of many rivers thisworldly and otherworldy:

‘how many winds, how many waters,
how many waters, how many winds,
how many coursing rivers,
how many rivers they are’

It’s my intuition that, like the Greek and Norse rivers, the rivers of Annwn flow through Thisworld and the Otherworld too. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn, a ruler of Annwn and gatherer of souls, says he is:

‘Hurrying to battles in Tawe and Nedd.

Not the Tawe here in this land
But the one far away in a distant land
Where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore.’

The Tawe is a river in Thisworld that flows through ‘a distant land’ – Annwn – too. It seems likely the Defwy, which might be identified with the Dyfi, appears in both worlds.

Afon_Dyfi_-_geograph.org.uk_-_242012
Afon Dyfi – the Defwy here in this land?

It is notable that Gwyn speaks to Gwyddno of his ‘sorrow’ at seeing ‘battle at Caer Vandwy’, ‘Shields shattered, spears broken / Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair’. Caer Vandwy ‘The Fortress of God’s Peak’ is mentioned in the same verse as ‘the meadows of Defwy’ with the legendary Ych Brych ‘Brindled Ox’.

Gwyn is speaking of a devastating battle between his people ‘the honoured and fair’ (the dead) and Arthur and his men who Taliesin accompanied on their raid on Annwn to plunder its spoils, which included the Brindled Ox and cauldron of Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn).

Even the impervious Taliesin describes this part of the raid of a ‘sad journey’ and says ‘save seven none returned from Caer Vandwy’. Arthur set out with ‘three loads full of Prydwen’ (his ship).

It seems Gwyn is sorrowful because the dead, who should be free of sorrow, were forced to fight and die again and he had again to gather their souls – a task he performs at battles in both worlds.

On a journey to the Defwy with Gwyn I saw people approaching the river, some to kneel and pray, some to cry, some to pour into it great jugs of tears. He told me that the Defwy is the place where the dead discard their sorrowful memories so they can move on to the lands of joy.

He also said the living can come here to do the same, but discarding one’s sorrows is a dangerous process, a form of death, and that they can never be regained because they flow away into the ocean to be reborn in new shapes walking abroad in forms unrecognisable to us.

In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ Taliesin says in Annwn ‘There is one that knows / what sadness is / better than joy’. I believe this is Gwyn, who knows too well the sorrow of the dead who leave their memories at the Defwy in order to travel onward into his joyful realm.

Taliesin is, of course, ‘the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’, the one who continues to evade death, who claims to know all, remember all, yet in spite of this feels little sorrow, little guilt, for the catastrophes that he has witnessed and played a role in.

Knowing neither sorrow nor death will this mysterious glib-tongued entity, who was created by the magician-gods from fruit, blossoms and flowers, earth and water, ever truly know life or joy?

 

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6 thoughts on “The Defwy – A Brythonic River of the Dead

  1. This resonates strongly with me and reminds me of the Rigantona and the Realm of the Dead myth that I wrote down where Rigantona watches as the dead approach “the black river with the bridge of bronze”.

    I can’t remember now if the black river was something Lee has mentioned in one of his earlier myth fragments or if it was something else.

    1. Yes I recall that the scene where the dead crossed to ‘the land behind the land’ in your myth over the bronze bridge over the black river was very vivid for me. I wonder if the myths and we ourselves are tapping into the same river at different times… if we can speak of time in the otherworld… maybe from different times woulld make more sense?

      1. the black river with the bronze bridge; i *think* that came out of the Brythonic Promethean myth I rote.. i can’t remember of find it now.

  2. Some rich seams here, resonant as the rivers that flow between the worlds. And a familiar theme emerging in the portrayal of Taliesin as the one who doesn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy, who refuses the invitation to the otherworld fortress, constantly evading the destiny that awaits him. Your sense of him being, like Blodeuedd, a creation of Math and Gwydion, (and so without a soul?), provokes the question from your conclusion : what is all his knowledge worth if it does not lnclude sorrow or joy? Truly a question for our scientific age.

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