Beli Mawr is an important ancestral figure in the medieval Welsh tradition. I believe he was earlier venerated as Bel ‘Shining’*, a god of the sun, fire, and war, here in Britain and across the continent in Gaul, Noricum, and Iberia, by the Celtic-speaking peoples, particularly the Belgae, from perhaps as early as the Neolithic until the Roman-Celtic period. This is evidenced by inscriptions and place-names.
Beli is represented as one of the first of a lineage of god-kings of Britain presiding over a paradisal island. In ‘Kein gyfedwch’, a poem in The Book of Taliesin, ‘Victorious King Beli, / son of King Manogan’ is the ‘rightful ruler’ of ‘the Honey-Isle of Beli’. He resides in ‘an impregnable fortress’, a ‘wondrous retreat’, ‘a well-wrought protection of reinforced stones’. ‘Fair carousing’ takes place around ‘two lakes’ (one is a lake of drink). ‘He with a dragon’s qualities’ watches from above ‘the places of the drinking vessels’ as his people ‘drink in golden horns, golden horns in the hand, a hand (deep in) foam.’
In ‘Glaswawt Taliesin’ we find a reference to Beli wirawt. Marged Haycock notes that the gwirawt ‘alcoholic drink’ (used in conjunction with mead, bragget, and wine) of Beli appears to be a kenning for the sea, ‘Beli’s drink’. This seems linked to the hand (of Beli?) holding the horn deep in foam. The next line refers to a ‘light shield in the depth of night’. Haycock says the yscwyt yscawn ‘light shield’ is ‘collocated with Beli’. Peter Bartrum mentions that in Early Welsh poetry there are ‘several references’ to Beli’s ‘bloody spear’, presenting the image of a warrior.
Thus we can picture Beli above a paradisal isle surrounded by golden seas with a foaming horn of mead in times of peace and, during war, as a shining protector with a light shield and bloody spear. This puts me in mind of Belenus appearing in the air to defend Aquiliea from the Romans in 238 AD.
The most likely location of the Honey-Isle of Beli is the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire, although this name is more commonly taken to mean ‘the isle of eels’ from either the Latin elge or the Anglo-Saxon eilig. Frustratingly I have been unable to find out anything about its prehistory, only that the area was under the control of the Anglo-Saxon Gwyras tribe during the early medieval period, and that Saint Etheldreda founded a monastic community on the hill’s summit in 673 AD, which is now the site of Ely Cathedral. We might conjecture this replaced a Romano-British site that was sacred to Beli.
From the Honey-Isle of Beli the Shining One held reign over Britain some time before the Roman invasions. In ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ Macsen, the Roman Emperor, ‘conquered the island of Britain by force from Beli son of Mynogan, and his two sons, and drove them to the sea.’**
In Lludd ac Llefelys we find another story: ‘Beli the Great, son of Manogan, had three sons, Lludd and Caswallon and Nyniaw. And… Llefelys was a fourth son. And after Beli died, the kingdom of the Island of Britain fell into the hands of Lludd, his eldest son, and Lludd ruled it successfully.’
Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint is the medieval Welsh name of the Romano-British god Nodens. In this story he defends Britain from three plagues, including the Coraniaid, the Romans, with the help of Llefelys.
Nudd/Lludd is associated with Lydney, ‘Lludd’s Isle’. His son, Gwyn ap Nudd or Afallach, who is named as the grandson of Beli in the Harleian Genealogies, presides over Ynys Afallach, the Isle of Avalon.
Like Beli, the descendants of the Shining One also reside over splendid mead-feasts in liminal places, where it is possible for mortals to feast and drink with their gods and their ancestors. In doing so they might be seen to enter Annwn/Faerie, the Otherworld, for a limited period of time.
In ‘Kadeir Taliesin’ the bard speaks of his seat in Caer Siddi ‘The Fairy Fort’: ‘around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea; / and (as for) the fruitful fountain which is above it- / its drink is sweeter than white wine.’
In ‘Preiddu Annwn’ Taliesin reports his raid on seven Annuvian fortresses (which I believe may be seven appearances of the fortress of Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’, Gwyn/Afallach). One is Caer Siddi, another Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’ and another is Caer Rigor ‘The Fort of Hardness’ where ‘sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion.’
The primacy of Beli wirawt ‘Beli’s drink’ suggests alcohol held an important ritual function for our ancestors, effecting the shift in consciousness through which they participated in the feasts of their gods. This remains a reality to this day, when a sip of mead (or more!) and the right rites can take us to the Honey-Isle, Lludd’s Isle, or the Isle of Avalon, or elsewhere, to commune with the Shining Ones.
*This name also takes the forms of Belin, Belinos, Belenos, Belenus.
**This story does not fit well with history as Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus) was not Roman Emperor at the time of the invasions but from 383 until 388 AD after which the imperial presence in Britain and Gaul declined.
Marged Haycock (transl), Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)