Gwythyr and the Lame Ant

In Culhwch and Olwen there is an episode which opens with a curious scene. Gwythyr ap Greidol, ‘Victor son of Scorcher’, ‘was travelling over a mountain’ and heard ‘weeping and woeful wailing… terrible to hear.’ The source was a burning anthill. ‘He rushed forward, and as he came there he unsheathed his sword and cut off the anthill at ground level and so saved them from the fire.’

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What to make of this strange opening? Why, on earth, was the anthill on fire? Was Gwythyr having a burning bush moment akin to that of Moses on Mount Sinai? The fire shared a similar revelatory and numinous quality. However, the anthill, unlike the bush, definitely appeared to be burning up.

Did Gwythyr’s scorching feet cause the fire? His patronym suggests that, like his father, he is a god of fire and war. If so, his rescue of the ants shows a softer and more compassionate side to his nature. Or did the anthill catch fire on its own? It’s well known that wood ants orientate their complex homes (which have tunnels, storerooms, bedrooms, nurseries and even a graveyard) south toward the sun as if using solar panels in order to harness the energy for heat. Did it just get too hot?

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Whatever the case, Gwythyr, rescued the ants. The symbolism of this act reveals Gwythyr’s connections with fire, the sun, the South, summer, and the building, heating, and saving of civilisation. These underlie the rest of the episode and his role in the narrative of Culhwch and Olwen.

Following their rescue the ants said to Gwythyr, ‘Take with you God’s blessing and ours, and that which no man can recover, we will come and recover it for you.’ ‘After that’ they ‘brought the nine hestors of flax seed that Ysbaddaden Bencawr had demanded of Culhwch, in full measure, with none missing except for a single flax seed, but the lame ant brought that before nightfall.’

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The retrieval of the flax seed was one of the forty amoethau, ‘impossible tasks’, that the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, set Culhwch to win his daughter, Olwen. The flax seed was sown in ‘tilled red soil’ the day Ysbaddaden first met Olwen’s mother yet had never flowered. Culhwch was told he must resow it in a newly ploughed field to make a veil for Olwen in preparation for their wedding day.

Culhwch and Olwen is rooted in the folk motifs of ‘The Giant’s Daughter’ and ‘Six Go Through the World’. However, in this retelling, Culhwch did not fulfil the tasks with six helpers. Instead, his uncle, Arthur, completed them with aid from six warriors and a retinue of outlandish figures with strange abilities (such as Sgilti Sgafndroed who ‘would travel along the tops of trees’, Osla Gyllellfawr whose dagger could bridge a torrent, and Clust son of Clustfieniad ‘if he were buried seven fathoms in the earth he could hear an ant fifty miles away stirring from its bed in the morning’) and pre-Christian gods including Gwythyr, Amaethon the plough-god, and Gofannon the smith-god.

On the surface this narrative is about the overthrow of the primitive and oppressive reign of Ysbaddaden to bring fertility to the land as symbolised by Culhwch and Olwen’s marriage. The story of Gwythyr and the Lame Ant shows how, through an act of kindness, Gwythyr enlisted the aid of helping insects to perform a task no human could accomplish – crawling into the airy interstices of the soil to retrieve the flax seed. It’s possible to imagine that in longer versions there was far more suspense surrounding whether the flax seed was gained by the giant’s deadline and veritable relief when the lame ant finally appeared, limping valiantly, to add the final flax seed to the measure. The sowing and flowering of the seed demonstrates the fertilisation of a barren landscape.

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This gentle and benign episode is at odds with the violence pervading the rest of Culhwch and Olwen. Giants were mutilated and beheaded. Orddu the witch was cut in half and her blood drained and bottled. Ysgithrwyn was slaughtered for his tusk, Twrch Trwyth’s seven piglets were killed, and the Twrch only just escaped. Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen was twisted by the narrator to demonstrate Arthur’s civilising of the wild and banishment and all-out slaughter and destruction of the Other.

This conflict is embodied in Arthur’s allegiance with Gwythyr against his rival, Gwyn ap Nudd. In other texts we find out that Greidol was one of Arthur’s forty-two counsellors and that Gwythyr was the father of one of Arthur’s three wives (who are all named Gwenhwyfar!). Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn contrastingly associated with wildness, winter, the North, destructive Annuvian spirits, and death.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur went North to intercede in the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr for Creiddylad, a fertility goddess. He rescued Gwythyr and his men from Gwyn’s imprisonment, then bound the rivals in combat every May Day and said neither could take the maiden until Judgement Day. This seems to be a Christianised reworking of a seasonal myth in which Gwythyr, Summer, won Creiddylad on Calan Mai and this was surrounded by fertility rites, then she returned to Annwn with Gwyn, Winter, on Nos Galan Gaeaf, and Gwythyr and the powers of summer were imprisoned.

Once Arthur had defeated Gwyn – the Head of Annwn – and the body of Annwn had fallen, he usurped Gwyn’s leadership of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth and slaughtered Ysbaddaden. When his nephew, Culhwch, married Olwen, his civilising hegemony over the wild and the Otherworld was complete.

Yet it will not last forever. Otherworld gods don’t stay dead for long and dead giants, witches, and monstrous boars, having joined the furious and vengeful spirits of Annwn, will not remain shut out. Arthur is still dependent on the aid of the gods. And the gods of civilisation are dependent on the Other. Gwythyr depends on the help of the ants to traverse the chthonic regions beneath the red soil to rescue the seeds from the underworld, from the clutches of the spirits of Annwn. And one of those ants is lame. This mission is dangerous and touch-and-go. As more and more of our soil blows away, becomes barren and red, it seems less and less likely the Lame Ant will make the deadline.

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12 thoughts on “Gwythyr and the Lame Ant

  1. Robin says:

    It leaves an interesting and powerful image in the mind of this burning ant hill crying out for help and then this apparent mighty warrior god reacting to save them by cutting the ant hill down to the ground. I could see the ant hill perhaps as a symbol of human civillization or culture gripped by an apocalypse type of disaster. Gwyrthyr by rushing out to save the ant hill in time from being consumed entirely in flames is entering into a kind of role like the archangel Michael slaying the dragon thus saving human souls from doom perhaps. The ants are the smallest and most humble creatures also renown in folklore for their industrious nature. They are also fiery creatures with formic acid secreted in them.

  2. Greg says:

    I’ve always thought that lame ant a lovely touch in the story, providing a touching and dramatic twist to the end of this episode. Your use of it as a symbol here sets it in a different context and one which ingeniously broadens the significance in line with your interpretation of the story as a whole. The dramatic twist then becomes all the more striking as we contemplate a future in which a flax seed may never find a suitable soil to be nurtured and to grow.

    • lornasmithers says:

      I think this is one of the few stories that seems truer to a pre-Arthurian animistic world where the ants were guiding animals and allies. I think we need more stories about talking ants and less about men with big weapons!

  3. angharadlois says:

    I love the depth you’ve gone to here, you’re really unearthing something powerful. Reading about the anthill reminded me that ants also appear in the story of Cupid and Psyche, helping Psyche with the impossible task of separating out the different types of seeds in a mixed pile.

    • Greg says:

      Interesting how some of the motifs in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ also occur in Greek stories. Ysbadadden and Olwen are often cited as an example of the international folklore type of the Giant’s (or Magician’s) Daughter where the hero either has to kill the giant or outwit the magician to marry his daughter. In Greek myth the ogreish father is Oenomaus who prefers to sleep with his daughter than let any other man do so. He has killed thirteen suitors and put their heads on poles. Pelops, however, enlists the help of Poseidon and by various devious means kills Oenomaus and marries his daughter Hippodameia. But where that would be the conclusion of the story in other versions, the Greek myth takes the tragic consequences of the way Pelops achieved this forward through several generations to his descendants in Mycenae and the aftermath of the Trojan war. But that, as they say, is another story!

      • lornasmithers says:

        Onemaus makes Ysbaddaden sound like a saint! All he seems to do is throw a couple of poisoned spears… I wonder if he was more ogreish in early retellings? The recurrent theme of beheading is interesting. The consequences of Ysbadden’s death in our time would make an interesting meditation.

    • lornasmithers says:

      That’s really interesting. I’ve seen ants carrying food before, but as far as a I know not seeds. I wonder if there is some basis for this for their behaviour in the natural world? Could they have lived in some kind of symbiotic relationship with early agriculturalists?

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