Henwen – The Birthing and Devouring Sow

gloucester-old-spot-sow-public-domain

I. Henwen – ‘Old White’

In Triad 26. we find the story of a sow called Henwen ‘Old White’. She belongs to Dallwyr Dalben and is kept in Glyn Dallwyr in Cornwall in the care of Coll, son of Collfrewy, one of three ‘Three Powerful Swineherds.’ She becomes pregnant and it is ‘prophesied that the Island of Britain would be the worse for the womb-burden.’ Therefore Arthur and his warriors set out to destroy her.

When Henwen is ready to farrow she goes into the sea at Penrhyn Awstin and is followed by Coll (and, presumably, Arthur and his men). Landing in Wales she begins to give birth to offspring. Surprisingly, they are not piglets! In Gwent she brings forth a grain of wheat and a bee, giving the name to Wheat Field, and in Pembroke barley, ‘therefore, the barley of Llonion is proverbial.’ In these two instances, in South Wales, Henwen’s births are benign and generative, creating crops and pollinators.

When Henwen reaches North Wales, however, she gives birth to wild creatures. At the Hill of Cyferthwch in Arfon she brings forth a wolf-cub and a young eagle. The wolf is given to Bergaed and the eagle to Breat, princes of the North, and they are both ‘the worse for them.’ We find a contrast between the fertile plains of South Wales and the wilder, more rugged regions of North Wales.

‘At Llanfair in Arfon under the Black Rock’ she gives birth to a kitten who is thrown by Coll into the sea. The sons of Palug foster it in Môn (Anglesey) ‘to their own harm’ and it becomes known as Palug’s Cat. In ‘Arthur and the Porter’ we are told that it was eventually ‘pierced’ by Arthur and his men. However, before they managed to kill it, nine score chieftains fell at dawn and it devoured them. Palug’s Cat was one of Three Great Oppressions of Môn along with Daronwy, and Edwin, King of Lloegr.

II. A Sow’s Feast

It believe that Henwen also makes an appearance in ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion. In this story Gwydion is searching for his nephew, Lleu. Gwydion stays at the house of a peasant in Manor Bennard. He learns his learns his host owns a sow who returns every night to feed her piglets. However, nobody knows where she goes during the day ‘any more than if she sank into the earth’. These lines recall Triad 26. where Henwen sinks into the sea, suggesting her otherworldly nature.

Gwydion follows the trail of the sow to a mighty oak which stands between two lakes and is neither wetted by water nor melted by fire. At its roots the sow is feasting hungrily on rotten flesh and maggots. When Gwydion looks up he sees they are falling from Lleu, who is perching in eagle-form in the top-most boughs, pierced by the spear of his rival, Gronw, the gore dripping from his rancid wound.

In the context of this story it seems significant that Gwydion is led to Lleu by this mysterious sow. Earlier Gwydion stole the seven piglets who were given to Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, by Arawn, King of Annwn (along with Coll and Drystan, Pryderi was one of the ‘Three Powerful Swineherds’).

These piglets were special, ‘some kind of creature that has never been in this island before has arrived in the South’. Gwydion’s theft led to a chase from South to North Wales and several devastating battles between his men and Pryderi’s. Pryderi was finally killed by Gwydion in single combat.

It is my intuition Henwen was the Annuvian mother of the seven piglets. Her devouring of Gwydion’s nephew may represent her taking back from him in exchange for what was stolen from her. The chase South to North and trail of devastation are thematically linked with Henwen’s story.

Another point of note is that Daronwy, ‘The Oak of Goronwy’, is referred to as ‘the radiance of the men of Goronwy’ and therefore associated with Lleu’s rival, Gronw Pebr (pebyr mean ‘radiant’). It could be the oak where Lleu perched after being wounded by Gronw’s spear – a scene based on an older initiatory myth. With Henwen’s clawing child, Palug’s Cat, it is included in the Oppressions of Mon. Thus it makes sense to find Henwen devouring the dying Lleu back into Annwn at its roots.

III. Hwcha Ddu Gwta – ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’

In Welsh folklore we find a mysterious verse about Hwch Ddu Gwta ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’:

Black short-tailed sow
On every stile
Spinning and weaving
On Calan Gaeaf night

Get home quick, be the first
The Hwch Ddu Gwta gets the last.

She is said to emerge from the ashes of bonfires on Nos Galan Gaeaf and wait at stiles to prey on people walking home late. It is bad luck to be the last to get home as Hwch Ddu Gwta will eat you.

It seems possible the white Henwen, the birthing mother who provided the harvest, is also the black devourer.

There is a similar legend in southern Sweden. Gloso is a ‘glowing sow’ who appears ‘over the twelve days of Christmas’ with ‘eyes of fire, sparks spring from her bristle, and she travels like a burning flame.’ This recalls Hwch Ddu Gwta’s birth from the embers on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

She is also connected with the harvest. Three blades of wheat are left for her in the field. ‘These are for Gloso: one for Christmas night, one for the night of the new year, one for king’s night.’ This makes me wonder whether similar rituals existed to appease the harvest sow in her darker winter apparel.

IV. Ceridwen – The Old Mother

Greg Hill suggests Hwch Ddu Gwta might be connected with the Ladi Wen ‘White Lady’ who also walks abroad on Nos Galan Gaeaf, and with Ceridwen, the goddess of the cauldron. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, also identified the sow with Ceridwen, ‘the White Lady of Death and Inspiration.’

It is my personal belief that Ceridwen is the Old Mother of the Universe, the Great Goddess from whose crochan, ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’, all life is born and to whom it returns at death. This would certainly fit with the Henwen ‘Old White’ as the mother who births harvests and monsters and swallows the dead.

SOURCES

Charles Lecouteux, Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Dead, (Inner Traditions, 2011)
Greg Hill, ‘Traditional Customs for the Calend of Winter’, Dun Brython
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (Faber & Faber, 1999)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

One thought on “Henwen – The Birthing and Devouring Sow

  1. Greg Hill says:

    That’s an interesting parallel between the movement from South to North of Henwen and that of Pryderi chasing his pigs. Mythic patternings often provide these suggestive echoes even when the narratives seem to be unrelated.

    Henwen .. Ladi Wen ….Ceridwen. … the Cauldron of Rebirth : resonant images and significant echoes of each other, and the deeps of our mythos.

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