Signposts to Annwn: Places

Signpost

Sharing this post marks the beginning of my attempt to document the references to Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld, in the core texts of medieval Welsh literature. Its aim is to build a picture of what is known about Annwn; its places, inhabitants, and the bardic lore that surrounds its mysteries. I believe this is important because Annwn is not only a magical place immanent within the British landscape, but the land of the dead. Growing to know Annwn in life could aid our passage into death.

The existing sources provide signposts by which to begin our own explorations. I have included both references that speak of Annwn explicitly and those that do so implicitly. The latter can be identified by markers such as the appearance of guiding animals, spatio-temporal distortion, extremes of beauty or ugliness and feelings of intense joy or terror. It’s worth noting that many places in Thisworld have Otherworld realities and the divisions are not absolute. This project will be ongoing and my developing research will be accessible via my ‘Porth Annwn’ page.

Fortresses

The most common destinations in Annwn are fortresses. Many are associated with the gods and spirits of Annwn who are later known as fairies.

A Hundred Islands A Hundred Citadels

‘I slept on a hundred islands;
I sojourned in a hundred citadels.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Siddi (The Fairy Fort)

‘Harmonious is my song in Caer Siddi;
sickness and age do not afflict those who are there,
as Manawyd and Pryderi know.
Three instruments/organs around a fire play in front of it
and around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea;
and (as for) the fruitful fountain which is above it –
its drink is sweeter than the white wine.’
– The Chair of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘Maintained was Gwair’s prison in Caer Siddi
throughout Pwll and Pryderi’s story.
No-one went there before he did –
into the heavy chain guarding the loyal lad.
And before the spoils/herds of Annwfn he was singing sadly,
and until Doom shall our poetic prayer continue.
Three loads of Prydwen went into it:
save seven, none came back from Caer Siddi.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Vedwit (The Mead-Feast Fort)

‘I’m splendid of fame – song was heard
in the four quarters of the fort, revolving (to face) the four directions.
My first utterance was spoken concerning the cauldron
kindled by the breath of nine maidens.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
(with its) a dark trim, and pearls?
It does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so;
Lleog’s flashing sword was thrust into it,
and it was left in Lleminog’s hand.
And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned
and when we went in with Arthur, famed in tribulation,
save seven, none returned from the Mead-Feast Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Pedryvan (The Four-Cornered Fort)

‘I’m splendid of fame: songs are heard
in the four quarters of the fort, stout defence of the island.’
– – The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Rigor (The Petrifaction Fort)

‘Fresh water and jet are mixed together:
sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion.
Three loads of Prydwen went by sea:
save seven, none came back from the Petrifaction Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Wydyr (The Glass Fort)

‘I don’t rate the pathetic men involved with religious writings,
those who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort:
six thousand men were standing on its wall;
it was hard to communicate with their watchman.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Golud (The Fort of Impediment)

‘Three loads of Prydwen went with Arthur:
save seven, none came back from the Fort of Impediment.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Vandwy (The Fort of God’s Peak)

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men with their trailing shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day was God born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;
those who nothing of the Brindled Ox, with his stout collar,
(and) seven score links in its chain.
And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none returned from Man(d)wy Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘And to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Fanddwy.

At Caer Fanddwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’
– The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Hill transl.)

Caer Ochren (The Angular Fort)

‘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.
When we went with Arthur, sad conflict,
save seven none came back from the Angular Fort.’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Arianrhod

‘Arianrhod, famed for her appearance surpassing the radiance of fair weather,
her terrifying was the greatest shame (to come) from the region of the Britons;
a raging river rushes around her court,
a river with its savage wrath beating against the land:
destructive its snare as it goes round the world.’
– The Chair of Ceridwen, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Gofannon

‘I’ve been with skilful men,
with Math Hen, with Gofannon…
For a year I’ve been in Caer Gofannon,
I’m old, I’m new, I’m Gwion;’
– The First Address of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Caer Arawn

‘He (Pwyll) made his way to the court. He saw sleeping quarters there and halls and rooms and the most beautifully adorned buildings that anyone had seen… The hall was got ready. With that he could see a war-band and retinues coming in, and fairest and best-equipped men that anyone had ever seen, and the queen with them, the most beautiful woman that anyone had seen, wearing a golden garment of brocaded silk… They spent the time eating and drinking, singing and carousing. Of all the courts he had seen on earth, that was the court with the most food and drink and golden vessels and royal jewels.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Gwyn

‘And when he (Collen) came there, he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom…

‘Didst thou ever see men of better equipment than those in red and blue?’ asked the king.
– St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd, The Mabinogion, (Guest transl.)

Caer Llwyd

‘They (Pryderi and Manawydan) followed the boar until they saw a huge, towering, newly built, in a place where they had never been before seen any building at all. The boar was heading quickly for the fort, with the dogs after him…

In spite of the advice he received from Manawaydan, Pryderi approached the fort. When he entered, neither man nor beast, neither boar nor dogs, neither house nor dwelling place could be seen in the fort. But he could see in the middle of the floor, as it were, a well with marble-work around it. At the edge of the well there was a golden bowl fastened to four chains, over a marble slab, and the chains reached up to the sky, and he could see no end to them. He was enraptured by the beauty of the gold and the fine workmanship of the bowl. And he went to the bowl and grabbed it. But as soon as he grabs the bowl, his hands stick to it and his feet stick to the slab on which he is standing, and the power of speech is taken from him so that he could not utter a single word. And there he stood…

She (Rhiannon) found the gate of the fort open – it was ajar – and in she came. As soon as she entered she discovered Pryderi gripping the bowl, and she went up to him.

“My lord,” she said, “what are you doing here?” Then she too grabbed the bowl. As soon as she grabs it, her hands too stick to the bowl and her feet to the slab, so that she too could not utter a single word. Then, as soon as it was night, where was a tumultuous noise above them, and a blanket of mist, and then the fort disappeared and so did they…’
– The Third Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Hyfaidd Hen

Hyfaidd Hen is the father of Rhiannon and presumably a ruler of Annwn.

‘He (Pwyll) set off for the court of Hyfaidd Hen, and he came to the court and they welcomed him, and there was a gathering and rejoicing and great preparations waiting for him, and all the the wealth of the court was placed at his disposal. The hall was prepared, and they went to the tables. This is how they sat: Hyfaidd Hen on one side of Pwyll, and Rhiannon on the other; after that each according to his rank. They ate and caroused and conversed.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Caer Nefenhir

This is a real location in Western Galloway, but had its Otherworld reality.

‘I was in the Fort of Nefenhyr:
herbage and trees were attacking.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

The Fortress of Wonders

‘Suddenly he could see two lads entering the hall, and from the hall they proceeded to a chamber, carrying a spear of huge proportions, with three streams of blood running from its socket to the floor. When everyone saw the lads coming in this way, they all began weeping and wailing sot that it was not easy for anyone to endure it. Yet the man did not interrupt his conversation with Peredur. The man did not explain to Peredur what that was, nor did Peredur ask him about it. After a short silence, suddenly two maidens entered with a large salver between them, and a man’s head on the salver, and much blood around the head. And then they all shrieked and wailed so that it was not easy for anyone to stay in the same building. At last they stopped, and remained sitting as long as it pleased them, and drank.’
– Peredur son of Efrog, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Rivers and Streams

The Defwy

Defwy is likely to refer to a Brythonic river of the dead. According to Hancock the name derives drom def-/dyf– ‘black’ ‘as in Dyfi’ (Dovey).

‘who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Hancock tranl.)

‘Fine it is on the banks of the Dyfwy
when the waters flow’
– The Spoils of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Pennar transl.)

The River which Flows around the World

This likely refers to the ocean which, like Oceanus in Greek mythology, separated Thisworld and Annwn.

‘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’
– The Hostile Confederacy, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

The Other Tawe

The Tawe is a river in Wales but, like the Dovey/Defwy has its Otherworld reality too.

‘The white horse calls this talk to an end
His bridle leads us away
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 Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Hill. transl.)

The Streams of Annwn

‘My two keen spears:
from Heaven did they come.
In the streams of Annwfn
they come ready for battle.’
– The Battle of the Trees, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Wells

The Lady’s Well

‘you will see a great tree, its branches greener than the greenest fir trees. And under that tree is a well, and near that tree is a marble slab, and on that slab is a silver bowl fastened to a silver chain so they cannot be separated. Take the bowl and throw a bowlful of water over the slab. And then you will hear a tumultuous noise, and think that heaven and earth are trembling with the noise. And after the noise there will be a very cold shower – a shower of hailstones – and it will be difficult for you to survive it. And after the shower there will be fine weather. And there will not be one leaf on the tree that the shower will not have carried away. And then a flock of birds will alight on the tree, and you have never heard in your own country such singing as theirs. And when you are enjoying the song most, you will hear a great groaning and moaning coming towards you along the valley. And with that you will see a knight on a pure black horse dressed in brocaded silk of pure black, with a banner of pure black linen on his spear. And he will attack you as quickly as he can. If you flee, he will catch up with you; if you wait for him on horseback he will leave you on foot. And if you do not find trouble there, you will not need to look for it as long as you live.’
– The Lady of the Well, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Meadows

The Meadows of Defwy

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men with their trailing shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day was God born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock tranl.)

Rocks

A Rock Beyond the Wave

‘There is a Rock beyond the wave, according to (God’s) great plan –
(while) the refuge of the enemy is a forlorn place of terror –
the Rock of the foremost Ruler, the supreme judge,
where the intoxication provided by the ruler will pleasure us.’
– The Fold of the Bards, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Trees and Hedges

The Tree of Leaf and Flame

‘He could see a tall tree in the riverbank, and one half of it was burning from its roots to its tip, but the other half had fresh leaves on it.’
– Peredur son of Efrog, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

The Hedge of Mist

‘“Down there,” he said, “is a hedge of mist, and within it there are enchanted games. And no man who has gone there has ever come back…

And no lower was the top of the hedge they could see than the highest point they could see in the sky. And on every stake they could see in the hedge there was a man’s head, except for two stakes. And there were a great many stakes within the hedge and through it…

there was an apple-tree facing the entrance to the pavilion, and on a branch of the apple-tree was a large hunting horn… There was no-one inside the pavilion except for a single maiden, sitting in a golden chair, and an empty chair facing her. Geraint sat in the empty chair.’
– Geraint son of Erbin, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Uffern

The term Uffern, ‘Inferno’, is used synonymously with ‘Annwn’ and is translated as ‘Hell’. It seems to refer to infernal and frightening places that are the destinations of souls..

‘What is the measure of Hell,
how thick is it veil,
how wide its its mouth,
how big are its baths?… (‘presumably the pits or rivers in which souls are tormented’ – Hancock)

The tops of the bare trees –
what forces them to be so bent over,
how many evils
are there (lurking) in their trunks?’
– The First Address of Taliesin, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

‘Madawg…
Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Hell.’
– The Death Song of Madawg, The Book of Taliesin, (Skene transl.)

Pennant Gofid

‘Arthur said, “Are there any of the wonders we have still not obtained?”

One of the men said, “Yes, the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell.”

Arthur set out for the North, and came to where the hag’s cave was.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Liminal Places

Glyn Cuch

‘The part of his realm he (Pwll) wanted to hunt was Glyn Cuch… He set out that night from Arberth, and came as far as Pen Llywn Diarwya, and stayed there that night. And early the next day he got up, and came to Glyn Cuch to unleash his dogs in the forest. And he blew his horn and began to muster the hunt, and went off after the dogs, and became separated from his companions. And as he was listening for the cry of his pack, he heard the cry of another pack… a stag in front of the other pack… a gleaming shining white and their ears were red… he could see a rider coming after the pack on a large dapple-grey horse, with a hunting horn round his neck, and wearing hunting clothes of a light grey material… Arawn, King of Annwfn.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Gorsedd Arberth

‘After the first sitting Pwyll got up to take a walk, and he made for the top of a mound that was above the court, called Gorsedd Arberth.

“Lord”, said one of the court, “the strange thing about the mound is that whatever nobleman sits on it will not leave there without one of two things happening: either he will be wounded or injured, or else he will see something wonderful.”

“I am not afraid to be wounded or injured among such a large company as this. As for something wonderful, I would be glad to see that. I will go and sit on the mound,” he said.

He sat on the mound. And as they were sitting, they could see a woman wearing a shining golden garment of brocaded silk on a big, tall, pale-white horse coming along the highway that ran past the mound. Anyone who saw it would think that the horse had a slow, steady pace, and it was drawing level with the mound.’
– The First Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Glyn Ystun

‘From there he (Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’) went to Glyn Ystun, and then the men and hounds lost him.

Arthur summoned Gwyn son of Nudd to him, and asked him if he knew anything about Twrch Trwyth. He said that he did not.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Harlech

‘Then they (the seven survivors with Bendigeidfran’s head) went to Harlech, and sat down and were regaled with food and drink. As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and began to sing them a song, and all the songs they had heard were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were with them. And they feasted for seven years.’
– The Second Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Gwales

‘There was a pleasant royal dwelling for them there (the seven survivors with Bendigeidfran’s head), above the sea, and there was a large hall, and they went to the hall. They could see two doors open; the third door was closed, the one facing Cornwall.

‘See over there,’ said Manawydan, ‘the door we must not open.’

That night they stayed there contented and lacking nothing. And of all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, they remembered none of it nor of any grief in the world. And there they spent eighty years so that they were not aware of ever having spent a more pleasurable or delightful time. It was no more unpleasant than when they first arrived, nor could anyone tell by looking at the other that he had aged in that time. Having the head there was no more unpleasant than when Bendigeidfran had been alive with them. Because of those eighty years, this was called The Assembly of the Noble Head.’
– The Second Branch, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Oxford

‘Lludd had the length and breadth of the Island measured, and the central point was found to be in Oxford. He had the ground dug up there, and into that hole he put a vat full of the best mead that could be made, and a sheet of brocaded silk on top of it, and he himself kept watch that night. And as he was watching he saw the dragons fighting. When they had grown tired and weary, they landed on top of the sheet and pulled it down with them into the vat. And when they had drunk the mead, they fell asleep.’
– Lludd and Llyfelys, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

Dinas Emrys

‘in the safest place he could find in Eryi he hid them (the dragons) in a stone chest. After that the place was was called Dinas Emrys.’
– Lludd and Llyfelys, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

‘”I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress.” “What is your name?” asked the king: “I am called Ambrose.”’
Historia Britonnum, (transl. J. A. Giles)

Caer Loyw

This is the home of the Witches of Caerloyw and the place of Mabon’s prison.

‘With every flood tide I travel up the river until I come to the bend in the wall of Caerloyw; never before in my life have I found as much wickedness as I found there.’
– Culhwch and Olwen, The Mabinogion, (Davies transl.)

6 thoughts on “Signposts to Annwn: Places

  1. angharadlois says:

    Wonderful work – in all senses of the word. I wonder if the flood tide of Caerloyw is the Severn Bore? Caerloyw (the bright fort) being the Welsh name for Gloucester.

  2. lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m fascinated by Celtic culture and tradition. I’m currently writing a mythic fantasy novel based on Celtic tradition and I’ve drawn heavily from the ”Mabinogion” and ”The Spoils of Annwn”. These days I’m reading Melrose’s ”The Duids and King Arthur” which provides one with some excellent analysis on both the ”Mabinogion” and ”The Spoils of Annwn” as well as other topics related to the Celtic culture.

    Your post has offered me much valuable information. Keep up all the good work!

    • lornasmithers says:

      Thank you – I’m glad it’s of use. It’s good to hear others are re-imagining these myths, hopefully without casting Arthur as the ‘hero’?…

      Yes, Melrose’s book is definitely well-researched – very much on the better side of Arthurian analysis.

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