In the Summer Solstice 2017 edition of Eternal Haunted Summer, an e-zine publishing ‘pagan songs and tales’, I have been interviewed by editor, Rebecca Buchanan, and Rex Butters has reviewed my book, The Broken Cauldron. Do check out the diverse blend of poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and interviews.
Gwyddbwyll is a Brythonic war game. The name derives from gwydd, ‘wood’, and pwyll, ‘sense’, hence ‘wood sense’. It is played with gwerin, which means both ‘pieces’ and ‘men’.
We find references to gwyddbwyll in a number of medieval Welsh texts. Together these suggest it was played by sovereigns and that the board represented their realm and the gwerin their army and the army of a rival. The board and gwerin are usually carved from gold or silver. The gwerin are anthropomorphic and magically endowed with a life of their own.
In The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the Roman Emperor, Macsen, dreams of a hall in which two lads are playing gwyddbwyll with silver and red gold pieces whilst a grey-haired man sits at a second board carving pieces with steel files from a bar of gold watched over by a beautiful, lavishly dressed maiden who he falls in love with.
Macsen finds out the maiden is Elen Luyddog, ‘Elen of the Hosts’ and her castle is at Aber Saint. He travels from Rome to Elen’s hall where he finds her overlooking the gwyddbwyll boards just as in his dream and marries her. It seems likely the first gwyddbwyll board represents Elen’s old realm and the new one the realm she will rule alongside Macsen.
In Peredur, the protagonist sees a gwyddbwyll board in the Fortress of Wonders. The two sides are playing each other. When the side Peredur supports loses, the other side shouts ‘just as if they were men’. Angry because his side has lost, Peredur takes the pieces in his lap and throws the board into a lake.
A black-haired maiden enters saying, ‘May you not receive God’s welcome. You do evil more than good… You have made the empress lose her board, and she would not wish that for her empire.’ Again we find evidence that the gwyddbwyll board of a sovereign represents her realm.
The Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau is amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’. Gwenddolau ruled Arfderydd and may have been a ‘High King’ of northern Britain during the 6th century. The text states, ‘if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver’. It clearly had magical qualities.
Rhonabwy’s Dream features a gwyddbwyll match between Arthur and Owain Rheged. As they play, messengers arrive reporting that Arthur’s men are harassing then wounding and killing Owain’s ‘ravens’. Arthur refuses to call them off saying, “your move” and they play on.
The tides turn. As Owain’s ravens lift Arthur’s men into the skies and drop them in pieces, Owain refuses to call them off saying, “your move” and they play on. When Arthur finally loses his temper and crushes the golden pieces to dust everything becomes peaceful.
This shows gwyddbwyll was related to real wars via the logic of microcosm – macrocosm and suggests that matches had a divinatory function. Perhaps when the gwerin played by themselves they predicted the outcome of future battles.
Unfortunately we have no archaeological evidence for the existence of gwyddbwyll. This is odd because boards and counters for the Roman Ludus Latrunculorum, ‘The Game of Little Soldiers’, have been found at Housesteads, Vindolanda, and in the grave of a man from Stanway in AD 50 alongside diving rods suggesting it was buried with its owner and served a divinatory purpose.
These boards were wooden (as ‘wood sense’ might suggest) and have not rotted away. If gold and silver gwyddbwyll sets existed, which indeed might have been possible based on examples of Romano-British silversmithing such as the ‘Empress Pepper Pot’, surely they would have been found?
In Ireland we find a parallel game called fidchell, from fid, ‘wood’, and ciall, ‘intelligence’, also ‘wood sense’. Again it belongs to sovereigns, the board and pieces are made of gold and silver, and are anthropomorphic and endowed with their own life (in one instance ‘the queen is asleep’). Games are played for high stakes bound up with the livelihood of the realm. Likewise there is no archaeological evidence for its existence.
According to the Lebor Gabala Erenn, the god Lug brought fidchell to Ireland along with ball-play, horse racing and assembling. It seems possible that gwyddbwyll was also perceived to be of divine origin and introduced by the pan-Celtic god Lugus who is euhemerised in the medieval Welsh texts as Lleu Llaw Gyfes, ‘Lleu of the Skillful Hand’ and Lleog, ‘death-dealer’ or ‘flashing light’.
Although gwyddbwyll is the modern Welsh name for chess they should not be equated. Chess originated in India in the 6th century and spread to Spain via Persia, arriving in Britain with the Normans in the 12th century.
As I’ve conducted this research I’ve been nagged by a constant question, ‘Why the war games?’
The very concept of gwyddbwyll as a game played by sovereigns predicated on perpetual war between players and realms has felt increasingly problematic.
The gwyddbwyll board symbolises the fact that Britain’s sovereigns have always maintained their power through warfare and by positing a mentality of ‘us’ against ‘the enemy’.
It is no coincidence that Arthur, the first warlord to unite Britain, plays gwyddbwyll. Or that when he raids the Otherworld, subdues its deities, and steals its treasures he is aided by Lleog, the bringer of war games, with his deadly flashing sword.
Arthur’s reign is founded on his defending Britain from enemies within (such as giants, monsters, and the deities of the Otherworld) and from enemies without (such as the Anglo-Saxons).
This gwyddbwyll mentality has led to the Crusades, imperialism, colonialism, and to the War on Terror.
Whereas movements for electoral reform and the rights of minority groups have succeeded, anti-war protests and campaigns have consistently been ignored because war lies at the heart of Britain’s political and economic structure and maintains its hierarchies and elites.
We’re trapped on a gwyddbwyll board growing more terrified of attacks whilst the rulers muster their gwerin.
Where does our hope lie?
In breaking their rules, revealing their war games as ‘wood sense’, refusing to ‘play on’?
My article ‘Voicing Place’ has been published on The Druid Network HERE as a result of winning the May content competition. It describes my experiential journey of building a relationship with the deities and spirits of my locality of Penwortham, Lancashire, and the surrounding area, and giving voice to their stories. It is illustrated by samples of my poetry.
The TDN content competition will be taking place every month and the prize is a T-Shirt. TDN are looking for unpublished material of 1-3,000 words on subjects relevant to Druidry for publication on the website. The competition is open to members only. You can join for £10 HERE.
In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn speaks of attending the death of Gwenddolau ap Ceidio:
‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’
Gwenddolau was one of four northern British warlords whose souls Gwyn gathered from the battlefield. The root of his name, ‘Gwen’, like ‘Gwyn’, means ‘White, Blessed, Holy’. His descent from Ceidio places him in the lineage of Coel Hen amongst the ‘Men of the North’.
Gwenddolau’s brother was Nudd Hael/Llawhael, ‘The Generous/Generous Hand’. It seems possible he was named after Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Silver Hand’. Connections have been made between Nudd Hael and a stone in Yarrow Kirk commemorating ‘the illustrious Nudus and Dumongenus… sons of Liberalis’. Nudus is a Latinisation of Nudd.
It may be suggested that Nudd and Gwyn were ancestral deities to the Coeling. The other northern men whose souls Gwyn gathered: Bran ap Ywerydd, Meurig ap Careian, and Gwallog ap Lleenog were also descendants of Coel Hen.
Gwenddolau’s fortress, Caer Gwenddolau, stood on present-day Liddel Strength beside Liddel Water. It is likely his rule extended from there throughout the modern parish of Arthuret, which was then known as Arfderydd, and perhaps more widely.
The nearby Roman settlement Castra Exploratum ‘Fortress of the Scouts’ supplies generous evidence of pagan worship including altars to Roman and British deities and a striking ram-horned head.
In ‘Greetings’ Myrddin speaks of Gwenddolau as ‘a glorious prince, / Gathering booty from every border… Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’ This shows that, like his kinsmen, he was fond of raiding his enemies and endowing wealth on his subjects and bards (hence the epithet ‘pillar of poetry’). He may even have held the position of ‘High King’.
In Triad 6 Gwenddolau is named as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of the Island of Britain. Anne Ross notes Tarw, ‘Bull’, is a ‘title’ for ‘eminent warriors in a society which at one stage likened its tribal god… to a great horned bull.’ Gwyn is addressed by Gwyddno as a ‘Bull of Battle’. Gwenddolau’s title of Bull Protector might derive from his likening to Gwyn. Bulls were held especially sacred by the cattle-raiding kingdoms of the North.
The word used for ‘Protector’ is Caduc. Rachel Bromwich notes it has several meanings: ‘fog, gloom, darkness, covering, armour’ which she links to ‘the battle-fog of the host of Gwenddolau’ (Triad 44) describing it as ‘the rising vapour or cloud of dust or steam which rose from an army under stress of battle’.
This battle-fog may have been caused by combat. Another explanation is that Gwenddolau, like certain Druids, had the ability to summon a protective fog around his host. This could be rooted in his relationship with Gwyn, whose father is Nudd, ‘Mist’. The term nuden refers to a ‘condensed floating white cloud’ said ‘to claw ones vitals’ which serves as a garment for Gwyn.
Gwenddolau was the owner of two birds who ‘had a yoke of gold on them. Two corpses of the Cymry they ate for their dinner, and two for their supper’ (Triad 33). There is a longstanding tradition of corpse-eating birds in Welsh literature. Dead warriors are said to feed the ravens or eagles and Gwyn gathers the souls of the dead accompanied by ravens who ‘croak over gore’.
Gwenddolau’s ownership of these birds could suggest their excarnation of corpses was part of his funerary practice. By ‘the Cymry’ it is unclear whether they eat the corpses of his tribe, his Cymric enemies, (or both!). Birds yoked together in pairs by gold or silver chains appear in Irish literature and are often transformed humans. On the Papil Stone, from West Burra, Shetland, we find the image of two bird-headed figures with a small human head between their beaks. Could Gwenddolau’s birds have been shapeshifting corpse-eaters?
Gwenddolau also possessed a magical chessboard that appears as one of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’. ‘The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play themselves. The board was of gold and the men were of silver’.
In Peredur the protagonist finds a gwyllbwyll board similar to the Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau in the Castle of Wonders. The two sides play each other by themselves. When one side loses the other shout ‘as if they were men’. These chessboards, like the other treasures, are alive, animate, endowed with a life and spirit of their own.
Gwenddolau was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573. This is recorded in The Annales Cambriae: ‘The Battle of Arderydd between the sons of Elifer and Gwenddolau the son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin became mad’.
Triad 84 ‘Three Futile Battles’ refers to ‘the Contest of Arfderyd, which was brought about because of the lark’s nest’*. Robert Vaughan speaks of a tradition wherein the shepherds of Rhydderch of Alt Clut (Strathclyde) and Aeddan of Dal Riada fell out over a lark’s nest and Aeddan sided with Gwenddolau against Rhydderch. The poems attributed to Myrddin/Merlin also suggest Rhydderch fought against Gwenddolau.
It seems possible Gwrgi and Peredur allied with Rhydderch against Gwenddolau and perhaps Aeddan. Gwrgi and Peredur were Gwenddolau’s cousins and ruled Eboracum (York). To add to the confusion they were supported by Dunawd the Stout of Dununtinga (Dent?), Cynfelyn the Leprous (location unknown) and Cynan Garwyn of Powys.
Many warlords had it in for Gwenddolau! This is unsurprising considering his raiding and overlording as ‘Chief of the kings of the North’. It has been suggested that Gwenddolau was targeted because, unlike his Christian kinsmen he maintained his pagan beliefs and practices. Perhaps he was attacked for a mixture of these reasons and more.
Gwenddolau was supported by his nephew Dreon ap Nudd. In Triad 31 he is referred to as Dreon the Brave whose ‘Noble Retinue’ fought at the Dyke of Arfderydd. After Gwenddolau fell, his ‘Faithful Warband’ ‘continued the battle for a fortnight and a month’ (Triad 29).
After the Battle of Arfderydd, Myrddin, a warrior who fought for Gwenddolau, became wyllt, ‘mad’. The Life of St Kentigern records his** vision of a ‘brightness too great for human senses to endure’ with martial battalions in the skies. It seems likely this was Gwyn and his host arriving to gather Gwenddolau’s soul and the souls of the other warriors from the battlefield.
Was Gwenddolau taken by Gwyn to Annwn to be re-united with his ancestors? Or, like other bullish warlords such as Gwidawl, Llyr Marini, and Gyrthmwl Wledig, did he become a ‘Bull Spectre’ (Tarw Ellyll) haunting Arfderydd with his corpse-eating birds and chessmen who go on playing by themselves?…
*This may have been Caer Laverock, ‘The Lark’s Fort’.
**Here he is named Lailoken, deriving from Llallogan, ‘other’.
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
J. Gwengobyrn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Pwllhelli, 1907)
Greg Hill (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, (Sceptre, 1985)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tim Clarke, The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland, (John Donald, 2010)
Tim Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin, (Berlinn, 2016)
She beckons me into the apothecary,
shows me the claw of a cat,
a silver feathered hat,
a goose’s foot.
Argentina Anserina: silverweed.
I go to the wasteland
where it has kneaded itself
into the gravel like a cat,
its nexus of stolons
umbilcaling sons and daughters,
yellow flowers like small fireworks
on the borders of the labyrinth
where soft shoes tread:
the pointed boots of witches
then the man who lived on a square of land
by grinding its roots into bread.
No need for plantage.
My article covering giants in Brythonic mythology has been published on Dun Brython.
‘Brutus! There lies beyond the Gallic bounds
An island which the Western sea surrounds,
By giants once possessed, now few remain
To bar thy entrance or obstruct thy reign’
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Giants appear in many world myths. In Indo-European mythology we find a common theme: they are primordial beings who are killed or restrained, then replaced, by the gods of culture. In the Hindu and Norse myths a giant (Purusa/Ymir) is slain and dismembered by the gods and the world is created from his body. The Titans of Greek mythology are overthrown and imprisoned in Tartarus by the Olympian gods. In Irish mythology, the Formorians (from fo ‘under’ and mór ‘great’ or ‘big’: ‘underworld giants’) are subdued and displaced by the Tuatha Dé Danann.
We find similar narratives in British mythology. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, when Brutus arrives in Albion…
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