I. The Trickster
Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the trickery of the magician-god, Gwydion son of Don, and the trouble he causes within his own family, the House of Don, and to the people of Annwn.
In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, Gwydion and his brother, Gilfaethwy, plot to rape Goewin, the virgin footholder of his uncle, Math. Math cannot live without his feet being in the lap of a virgin except at times of turmoil. Therefore Gwydion steals the pigs gifted to Pryderi by Arawn, King of Annwn, causing a war between Math, ruler of Gwynedd in North Wales and Pryderi, ruler of twenty-one cantrefs in the South. During the conflict Gwydion helps Gilfaethwy to rape Goewin in Math’s bed. Returning to the battle he then kills Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, who is implicitly also Arawn’s son, ‘because of strength and valour, and magic and enchantment’.
Math punishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy by turning them into animals; deer, boar, and wolves, alternately male and female so that, unable to resist their animal desires, they mate with each other and have offspring. They are named as Bleiddwn, Hyddwn, and Hychddwn Hir, ‘Three sons of wicked Gilfaethwy’.
In spite (or perhaps because of) Math’s punishment Gwydion does not cease to cause trouble. When Math voices his need for a new virgin footholder, Gwydion suggests his sister, Arianrhod. Math tests her virginity by breaking his wand and telling her to step over it. From her drops ‘a large, sturdy, yellow-haired boy’ and ‘a small something’ which Gwydion wraps in silk and hides in a ‘chest at the foot of his bed’.
It is clear Gwydion knows his sister is not a virgin. Arianrhod’s anger with him and the heat of their conflict suggests he played a role in her pregnancy. There exists a variant of the tale in which Arianrhod rather than Goewin is Math’s footholder and is raped by Gilfaethewy with Gwydion’s help. This is shown by the following lines from a poem by Lewys Môn, translated by Gwilym Morus-Baird:
My complaint about a maiden is greater
Than that of Old Math son of Mathonwy;
the arm of a chaste one, white-armed and wise,
was his pillow every night,
Arianrhod the same as the snow,
a man could not live without her.
The ‘small something’ grows up to be a boy as sturdy as an eight-year-old at the age of four. When Gwydion takes him to Caer Arianrhod his mother rejects him as a sign of her ‘shame’. She places three destinies upon him – that he will not get a name, weapons, or a wife, and Gwydion wins each of them through a combination of trickery and magic.
The boy’s name is won when he and Gwydion pose as shoe-makers on a boat conjured from dulse and wrack. Arianrhod names him Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair one with the skilfil hand’ when he shoots a wren whilst she is having a shoe fitted. By conjuring an illusion of an army attacking Caer Arianrhod and asking for arms for he and Lleu to defend it, Gwydion win Lleu’s weapons. With Math’s help, Gwydion conjures a wife, Blodeuedd ‘Flowers’, from the blossoms of oak, broom, and meadow sweet for his nephew.
After Lleu has been fatally wounded by Gronw, his rival for the love of Blodeuedd, Gwydion searches from him across Gwynedd and Powys. Finally Gwydion finds Lleu in an oak tree in eagle form, sings him down with a series of englyns, and changes him back to his own form.
Even though his trickery has caused Lleu a great amount of sorrow (Gwydion turns Blodeuedd into Blodeuwedd ‘Flower Face’, an owl, and she deserts him) he doesn’t stop playing tricks. Lines from Peniarth Manuscript 98.B tell us that Cad Godeu ‘The Battle of the Trees’ was brought about ‘because of a white roebuck and a greyhound pup which came from Annwfn and Amathaon vab Don caught them’. Rachel Bromwich suggests that Gwydion, rather than his brother, Amaethon, originally won the dog and roebuck along with the swine belonging to Pryderi from Annwn.
Unsurprisingly the theft of his sacred animals infuriates Arawn, who leads an army of trees, shrubs, and Annuvian monsters against Gwydion and the House of Don. At the head of his army marches the giant, Brân the Blessed, possibly raised with other dead warriors from the Cauldron of Rebirth. Taliesin, the narrator of the poem ‘The Battle of the Trees’ speaks of how Gwydion fashioned ‘majestic trees / a hundred forces into a host’ ‘by means of language and (materials of) the earth’. Lleu, ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ leads Gwydion’s armies against those of Arawn, ‘the vigorous one, / the wealthy battle-dispenser’. Lines from the Myvyrian Archaeology suggest that Gwydion won by guessing Brân’s name*. Perhaps Gwydion’s singing of two englyns and naming of Brân reversed the magic by which Arawn raised the dead.
The impact of the battle was calamitous. Taliesin speaks of his side fighting with ‘the blood of men up to our thighs’ and claims ‘Four hundred men / did I pierce despite their rapacity’ along with piercing three Annuvian monsters: a hundred-headed beast, a black-forked toad, and a speckled crested snake. He compares it to other cataclysmic events: the Flood, Christ’s Crucifixion, and the Day of Judgement. It is also listed as one of ‘Three Futile Battles’ in The Triads of the Island of Britain.
II. Who can understand gwydd?
My feelings about Gwydion are mixed. I find his assistance in the rape of Goewin/Arianrhod deplorable. His stirring of trouble with Annwn, killing of Pryderi, and bringing about two devastating battles fills me with anger. Yet, unlike Arthur, that other opponent of the Annuvian deities who is little more than a numbskull, Gwydion possesses a number of admirable qualities.
He is the ‘best storyteller in the world’. He is a master magician who conjures shields from toadstools, a ship from dulse and wrack, a wife for Lleu from blossoms, and marching trees from language and earthy materials. With Math, from nine elements, he even created Taliesin, the silver-tongued bard whose spirit still inspires the bardic tradition. He is a caring uncle to Lleu, and shows him deep affection.
Whilst many of Gwydion’s actions, like Arthur’s, are unforgivable, I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of deeper meaning to Gwydion’s transgressions of boundaries. Without his breaking of rules, mating with his sister (then, shifting form and gender, thrice with his brother!), crossing into and stealing from Annwn, the action of the Fourth Branch and ‘The Battle of the Trees’ would not have taken place.
That Gwydion possesses a certain kind of knowledge is suggested by the etymology of his name. It derives from the mysterious little word gwydd. Gwydd is linked to gwybod ‘to know’ and has many meanings including ‘knowledge’, ‘tree(s), branches, twigs; forest, woods, shrub(s)’, ‘weaver of songs’. It forms the root of gwyddon, which can refer to a ‘knowledgeable one’ or ‘sage’ and to a ‘giantess, female monster; hag, witch… wizard, sorcerer… satyr, nymph’. These meanings seem significant in relation to Gwydion’s enchantment of trees and knowledge of wild magic.
It also possible that Gwydion had a role in creating the chess-like game of gwyddbwyll ‘wood sense’. In the Irish myths its equivalent, fidchell, was a gift from Lugh, the cognate of Lleu. So it would make sense that the knowledgeable Gwydion and his skilful-handed nephew created the game. Iolo Morganwg’s citations from ‘The Chair of Ceridwen’ ‘Gwydion ap Don – / A rithwys gorwyddawd y ar plagawd’, ‘Gwydion son of Don – / Formed wood knowledge upon plagawd’ suggest that Gwydion also played a role in creating the Coelbren alphabet. Both gwyddbwyll and Coelbren had magical and prophetic functions and were bound up with wood and mystical knowledge.
The contrast between Gwydion as knowledgeable sage and pyschopath is a troubling one, but not one that is unfamiliar in modern culture (take Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs) or within modern society at large. There are a good number of men (and women) who use their knowledge to evil ends, and to the end retain a certain amount of flair and charm, an allure to their victims.
The psychopathic mind continues to fascinate. We continue to ask ‘who can understand Gwydion?’
Gwydd is also the root of gwyddoniaeth ‘science’. Other the last few centuries we have seen a shift from the woodland knowledge of gwydd to the mechanistic principles of gwyddoniaeth.
Whereas, in the medieval stories, Gwydion created a woman from flowers by magic, I detect Gwydion’s hand in the genetic engineering of plants and crops and robotic insects to pollinate them.
Whereas, in the medieval stories, Gwydion sang Lleu down from the tree with englyns and turned him back into his own shape and healed his fatal wound by magic, I was shown a vision of him raising Lleu, the lightning god, from the dead, with electric paddles in a Frankenstein-like scene.
If someone was to ask me ‘where is Gwydion now?’ I would say he is at the heart of the mad science that rapes and strives to change nature against its will, but also that he is still trying to look after the little boy, Lleu, one of the appearances of the Divine Son, the Mabon, who may also be humanity.
To where will his madness lead? To devastation again, certainly, like in the battles of the North and South, like the Battle of the Trees, to the forces of Annwn rising up in rebellion, to another world’s end.
*Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield;
Bran art thou called, of the glittering branches.”
“Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle:
The high sprigs of alder are on thy hand:
Bran by the branch thou bearest
Has Amathaon the good prevailed.
*With thanks to Gwilym Morus-Baird for the translation of the poem by Lewys Môn.
Iolo Morganwg, The Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (Thoth Publications, 2007)
Kristoffer Hughes, The Book of Celtic Magic, (Llewellyn, 2014)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru