Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Bull Protector of Arfderydd

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.

View from Liddel Strength

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)

Gwenddydd: The Dreamer at the End of the World

I have come hither to tell
Of the jurisdiction I have in the North;
Every region’s beauty is known to me.’
The Dialogue of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd

Many people have heard of Merlin and a few of the northern British wildman, Myrddin Wyllt. But what of Gwenddydd, Myrddin’s twin sister, who was also an important prophetic figure from the Old North, whose legacy has been overshadowed by her brother’s?

Gwenddydd and Myrddin lived during the 6th century and their father’s name was Morfryn. From the poems attributed to Myrddin in The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350), we can derive that he was a warrior of Gwenddolau. His deep fondness of his lord suggests the twins grew up at Caer Gwenddolau (Liddel Strength) in Arfderydd (Arthuret).

View from Liddel Strength

Liddel Strength

What kind of upbringing did Gwenddydd have? Gwenddolau was renowned as a ‘Bull-Protector’ and cattle-raiding warlord. Many legends surround him: he owned two birds who ate two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and supper; his gwyddbwyll set played itself; he conjured a mysterious battle-fog; his soul was gathered from the battlefield by Gwyn ap Nudd.

These stories have led scholars such as Nikolai Tolstoy to argue that Gwenddolau was the last of the northern British pagan warlords. Unfortunately this cannot be proven as many of the Christian warlords had magical abilities and, like Gwenddolau, were named as the owners of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, which were in the North’.

Whatever the case, Gwenddolau was a formidable figure. Gwenddydd grew up alongside Myrddin and their four brothers, Morgenau, Cyvrennin, Moryal and Moryen in a male-dominated culture where internecine warfare and cattle-raiding between the kingdoms of the Old North was the norm.

The ethos of the society was ‘heroic’. The warriors who committed the most blood-thirsty deeds in battle and stole the most cattle won immortality in the songs of the Bards. Both pagans and Christians believed that inspiration and prophecy originated from the Awen*; those able to give voice to it (particularly for military purposes) were held in high esteem.

The medieval texts suggest that women played a subordinate role to men as wives and home-keepers. How much this accurately reflects 6th century society and how much the gloss of medieval scribes is open to question. There are suggestions in several texts that Gwenddydd was seen as important, not only due to her upbringing at Caer Gwenddolau, but because of her intelligence and her prophetic abilities.

Gwenddydd eventually married Rhydderch Hael** who ruled Alt Clut from present-day Dumbarton. It is my belief this was a political marriage to cement an alliance between the kingdoms of Arfderydd and Alt Clut. Whether this was arranged by Gwenddolau or initiated by Gwenddydd in accord with her own political aims remains a matter of conjecture.

Dumbarton Rock

Dumbarton Rock

It’s my opinion that Gwenddydd was not just a pawn in the games of the male warlords. In ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd’ from The Red Book of Hergest (1380 – 1410) she speaks of ‘the jurisdiction’ she has ‘in the North. / Every region’s beauty is known to me.’

Gwenddydd was an important co-ruler. Not only did she have ‘jurisdiction’ over Alt Clut and, perhaps, Arfderydd, but the whole of the North. This may have been founded on her prophetic abilities: her capacity to see the unfolding of the fates of all the regions.

The alliance between Arfderydd and Alt Clut lasted for at least as long as it took Gwenddydd and Rhydderch’s son and daughter to grow to fighting age (from around 550 to 573 – a long time in those war-torn days!); it is notable that both Gwenddydd’s son and her daughter became warriors. It then broke down with tragic consequences, leading to the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 (whether Gwenddydd foresaw this battle remains uncertain).

Many reasons have been cited for the Battle of Arfderydd. In The Triads of the Island of Britain (13th C), it is listed as one of three ‘futile battles’ because it was fought over a Lark’s Nest: possibly an allusion to the nearby fortress of Caer Laverock. Another theory is that Rhydderch allied against Gwenddolau with other Christian warlords to bring an end to northern British paganism. Alternatively it may simply have been about land and power.

Rhydderch and his allies, Gwrgi and Peredur, fought against Gwenddolau and his nephew, Dreon ap Nudd. Gwenddolau was killed. Gwenddydd’s son and daughter fought on Rhydderch’s side and were slaughtered by Myrddin. The latter tragedy is referenced in a poem attributed to Myrddin called ‘The Apple Trees’ from The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350):

‘Now Gwenddydd loves me not and does not greet me
– I am hated by Gwasawg, the supporter of Rhydderch –
I have killed her son and her daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?…

Oh Jesus! would that my end had come
Before I was guilty of the death of the son of Gwenddydd.’

These lines show that Gwenddydd was devastated by Myrddin’s slaughter of her children. Understandably, her love of her twin had turned to hatred, and she refused to speak to him. Other poems show that Rhydderch was actively pursuing the killer of his children.

In ‘The Apple Trees’, Myrddin mentions his ‘sweet-apple tree’ has ‘a peculiar power’ which ‘hides it from the lords of Rhydderch’. In ‘The O’s’, which are addressed to a ‘little pig, a happy pig’, he tells it to ‘Burrow in a hidden place in the woodlands / For fear of the hunting-dogs of Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith.’

These poems are attributed to Myrddin during the time he was wyllt (‘wild’ or ‘mad’). Tormented by battle-trauma, guilt, and grief, and haunted by a blinding vision of a martial battalion in the skies***, he wandered the forest of Celyddon ‘for ten and twenty years’ amongst other gwyllon (‘wildmen’ or ‘madman’) speaking poems to the wild creatures. When he emerged, he used the art of prophecy to warn against future bloodshed.

Eventually, Gwenddydd forgave Myrddin. Her reasons for this decision remain mysterious. Did she realise Myrddin’s slaughter of her children resulted from the fatal circumstances of the breakdown of Gwenddolau and Rhydderch’s allegiance and the power-hunger of the northern warlords? Did she sympathise with Myrddin’s suffering? Did she acknowledge his use of prophecy to warn against future wars?

Their reconciliation is evidenced by several texts. In The Life of Merlin (1150) Gwenddydd persuades Rhydderch to send out a messenger with a cither to charm Myrddin back to Rhydderch’s court. When he arrives she kisses him and twines her arms around his neck. However, unable to bear civilised life, Myrddin flees back to the forest, where Gwenddydd builds him a home. After Rhydderch dies, Gwenddydd joins her brother in Celyddon.

We learn ‘She too was at times elevated by the spirit so that she often prophesied to her friends concerning the future of the kingdom.’ Gwenddydd speaks of future conflicts through a blend of cosmic, animal and martial imagery:

‘I see two moons in the air near Winchester and two lions acting with too great ferocity, and one man looking at two and another at the same number, and preparing for battle and standing opposed.  The others rise up and attack the fourth fiercely and savagely but not one of them prevails, for he stands firm and moves his shield and fights back with his weapons and as victor straightway defeats his triple enemy.  Two of them he drives across the frozen regions of the north while he gives to the third the mercy that he asks, so that the stars flee through all portions of the fields…

I see two stars engaging in combat with wild beasts beneath the hill of Urien where the people of Gwent and those of Deira met in the reign of the great Coel.  O with what sweat the men drip and with what blood the ground while wounds are being given to the foreigners!  One star collides with the other and falls into the shadow, hiding its light from the renewed light…’

Finally, Myrddin says, ‘Sister, does the spirit wish you to foretell future things, since he has closed up my mouth and my book? Therefore this task is given to you; rejoice in it, and under my favour devoted to him speak everything’.

In The Story of Myrddin Wyllt (16th C), during the period of his madness, Gwenddydd delivers food and water to her brother’s forest abode. She shares her dreams with Myrddin and he interprets them. Three dreams relate to the unfair distribution of wealth, the fourth concerns an attack by foreigners and in the fifth, in a graveyard, Gwenddydd eerily hears children speaking from their mother’s wombs.

‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd’ takes place when the twins are aged: Myrddin has ‘white hair’. After telling Myrddin of her ‘jurisdiction… in the North’ Gwenddydd asks him a series of questions about who will rule Prydain. The positions of prophet and interpreter are reversed and we can conjecture that the twins habitually swapped roles. With the aid of wyllon mynydd (‘mountain ghosts’) Myrddin  predicts all the rulers of Prydain until:

‘…the time of Cymry suffering
Without help, and failing in their hope–
It is impossible to say who will rule.’

The tone then becomes apocalyptic:

‘When killing becomes the first duty
From sea to sea across all the land–
Say, lady, that the world is at an end…

There will be no portion for priest nor minstrel,
Nor repairing to the altar,
Until the heaven falls to the earth…

Extermination, lady, will be the end…

There will be no more kings!’
Gwenddydd consoles Myrddin:
‘Arise from your rest,
Open the books of Awen without fear.
Hear the discourse of a maid,
Give repose to your dreams.’

It is clear that the twins’ deaths are drawing near. Gwenddydd suggests Myrddin seek communion. Brother and sister finally commend one another to God and ‘the supreme Caer’.

This echoes a story from The Life of St Kentigern (12th C)****. Myrddin predicts his ‘threefold’ death by stoning, being pierced by a stake and drowning and asks for the sacrament from Kentigern. After receiving it he flees to meet his predicted end by being stoned by shepherds and falling onto a stake in the river Tweed.

Nothing is recorded about Gwenddydd’s response to her brother’s death or how she perished. However, from ‘A Fugitive Poem of Myrddin in his Grave’ in The Red Book of Hergest we can infer that Myrddin continues to speak from the afterlife with ‘mountains ghosts’, who ‘come to me / Here in Aber Carav.’ It is thus likely Gwenddydd also possesses the ability to speak her dreams and prophesies with the aid of spirits from her grave: her ‘supreme Caer’.

As our world is threatened by many ends: climate change, mass extinctions, global warfare, what does she dream? Could her story – one of loss, forgiveness and a determination to prophesy against future bloodshed, form a source of inspiration for people seeking alternative narratives to the militant worldviews responsible for her son and daughter’s death, the deaths of millions of others, and our living landscape?

Blog 6. Coille Coire Chuilc

Coile Coire Chulic – one of the last remnants of Celyddon

*Divine inspiration.
**This is depicted in The Life of Merlin (1150), a fictionalised account of Myrddin’s life by Geoffrey of Monmouth based on earlier sources. Myrddin appears as Merlin and Gwenddydd as Ganieda.
***This is recorded in The Life of Merlin and The Life of St Kentigern. I believe Myrddin saw Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn as in The Black Book of Carmarthen, Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death as a gatherer of souls. The spirits who interact with Myrddin and Gwenddydd may be spirits of Annwn.
****Here Myrddin is named Lailoken, which is derived from Llallogan ‘other’.

Gwyn ap Nudd, Meurig ap Careian and Elaeth the Poet

Another warrior whose death Gwyn ap Nudd states his presence at in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ is Meurig ap Careian:

‘I was there when Meurig was slain,
Careian’s son, honoured in praise,
When ravens croaked on flesh.’

To the best of my knowledge, Meurig ap Careian does not appear in any other literature by that name. The patronymic ‘Careian’ may be the result of a scribal error. In Early Welsh Saga Poetry, Jenny Rowlands puts forward a theory about his identity.

Rowlands mentions that in the margin of ‘A Song on Gwallawg ap Lleenawg’ (which precedes ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen) there are two verses which associate Gwallawg with ‘a certain Meurig who is probably to be identified as Meurig m. Idno, his son-in-law.’ Both men are ‘clearly vilified’.

‘No one who would have been famous
went in the plight that Gwallawg did
to the accursed one, to the thorn bushes.

No one who would have been admired
Went in the plight that Meurig did
On the back of his wife bent-in-three.’

Rowland says ‘These stanzas perhaps allude to a scurrilous story in which both men fled ignominiously from battle, and the englyn about Gwallawg could reflect a variant, more shameful, tale about how he lost one eye.’* Gwallawg and Meurig are ‘held up as patterns to avoid.’

Rowland also mentions that Meurig ap Idno may be referred to by Llywarch Hen in ‘Gwahodd Llywarch i Lanfawr’ as Meurgawg marchgawg ‘horseman like Meurig’. This places Meurig alongside Gwallawg and Brân ap Ymellryn as Llywarch Hen’s enemies. Considering that Gwyn states his presence at the deaths of Gwallawg and Brân, these associations could well be correct.

In Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, Meurig ap Idno’s mother is Gwallawg’s sister, Onnengreg, strengthening the case for a connection. It seems possible Careian was an obscure epithet for Meurig’s father, Idno, which got confused with a patronymic.

Many of the Men of the North have epithets such as ‘Mwynfawr’ ‘the wealthy’ and ‘Freichras’ ‘strong arm’. Might Careian derive from cariad, which is Welsh for ‘lover’? There is a tradition of triads celebrating lovers and lover’s horses. The marginal lines about Meurig ‘On the back of his wife bent-in-three’ might parody his epithet.

It is notable that Idno is the son of Meirchion Gul son of Gwrwrst Ledlwm son of Ceneu son of Coel Hen. Gwrwrst Ledlwm was one of the northern men who allied with Gwythyr ap Greidol, Gwyn’s rival for the love of Creiddylad, in Culhwch and Olwen. Gwythyr, Gwrwst and a collection of mythic and historical warriors assaulted Gwyn and were consequently imprisoned by him then rescued by Arthur. Gwyn has a long history of interactions with this family.

Meurig ap Idno also had a brother called Mabon (‘Divine Son’). His naming after the Brythonic god of youth also demonstrates a continuation of pagan influence on Idno’s family. However, this ended with Meurig and Onnengreg’s son, Elaeth, who became St Elaeth Frenin of Anglesey. Frenin derives from brenin King and suggests he succeeded his father, Meurig, as king of a region in the Old North. Where he reigned is debatable.

If we look at the traditional locations of other Coelings: Gwallog was associated with Leeds, Urien Rheged with Carlisle and/or the Solway Firth, Dunod with Dent, it seems possible he was located somewhere in modern-day Cumbria, Yorkshire, or Lancashire. August Hunt’s theory is the town of Moresby in Cumbria derives from ‘Gwas Meurig’ ‘Abode of Meurig’. Guasmoric is mentioned in Historia Brittonum and may be identified with the Gabrosentum fort near Moresby.

Elaeth was driven from his northern lands (whether by Anglo-Saxons or other Britons remains open to question), went to live in a monastery run by St Seiriol at Penmon on Anglesey, and founded St Eleth’s church at Amlwch. He was also associated with a healing well: Fynnon Elaeth. Intriguingly this was used for divination by means of the ‘motions and actions’ of an eel who was kept in it. Inquirers often waited for days for the eel to appear. Elaeth’s feast day is November the 10th.


Elaeth was also a poet and is believed to have composed two of the poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen: ‘The Cynhogion of Elaeth’ and ‘Not To Call Upon God’. This seems significant because The Black Book of Carmarthen was once a much longer prose saga, which may once have contained the details of Meurig’s death and the reasons for Elaeth’s flight.

Most of the men whose souls Gwyn gathers appear in other works in The Black Book of Carmarthen. Some poems document the battles and eulogise the deaths of warriors associated with the Old North. Others, such as those attributed to Myrddin and Llywarch, provide accounts of the devastating effects of war and reflections on the joys and hardships of eking out an existence in the natural world after losing one’s place within civilisation.

Unlike The Book of Taliesin, which provides all-out praise of the ‘heroic’ ethos, The Black Book of Carmarthen documents the after-effects of war, provides a critique of the age in which the Old North was lost and offers solace in nature and religion as a way to recovery.


*‘A Song on Gwallawg ap Lleenawg’ refers to the loss of his eye:

‘Accursed be the tree
Which pulled out his eye in his presence,
Gwallawg ab Lleenawg, the ruler.’

With thanks to Greg at The Way of the Awenydd for information on the pages from Jenny Rowland’s Early Welsh Saga Poetry from The National Library of Wales.


Anna, ‘St Elaeth the Poet
August Hunt, The Arthur of History, (August Hunt, 2012)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir
Jenny Rowland, Early Welsh Saga Poetry, (Cambridge, 1990)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

Gwyn ap Nudd and Brân ap Ywerydd: Five Brâns?

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states his presence at the death of Brân ap Ywerydd:

‘I was there when Brân was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.’

Gwyn recites Brân’s name amongst the names of three famous northern warlords: Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Gwallog ap Llenog and Meurig ap Careian* and also Llachau, Arthur’s son. It is clear Brân was slain in battle and that Gwyn was present as a psychopomp to gather his soul back to Annwn. Brân’s name must have held meaning for Gwyddno Garanhir** and the audience. Who is Brân ap Ywerydd? Scholars have attempted to solve this puzzle by identifying him with a number of mythological and historical figures.

Brân the Blessed


There exists a tradition which identifies Brân ap Ywerydd with Bendigeidfran ‘Blessed Raven’ or ‘Brân the Blessed’ son of Llŷr. Brân is a well known and much loved figure in British mythology who was fatally wounded in a battle against King Matholwch of Ireland. His severed head, buried beneath the Tower of London, served an apotropaic function protecting the Island of Britain until Arthur dug it up.

Scholars such as John Rhŷs and John Koch identify Iwerydd as the mother of Brân the Blessed. Koch says ‘Iwerydd (Atlantic) was a goddess from the Atlantic ocean, from the Western land of Hades, which could have been Ireland (Iwerddon). Iwerydd married Llyr and bore him two children named Brân (Raven) and Branwen (White Raven).’

The birth of Brân, his sister, Branwen, and perhaps their brother Manawydan by Iwerydd and Llŷr Llediaith (Irish Ler ‘the sea’, Welsh Llediaith ‘half-speech) makes sense within the context of Brân’s gargantuan stature and his affairs across the sea in Ireland.

If Brân ap Ywerydd and Brân the Blessed were identified, this would place Gwyn at the near-apocalyptic battle between the armies of Brân and Matholwch where the Irish dead are reborn from the Cauldron of Rebirth before it is broken by Efnysien. Of the Irish only five pregnant women are left alive. Just seven British survivors return with Brân’s head. If Gwyn attended the death of Brân the Blessed it might be suggested he also served as psychopomp to the victims of this terrible clash.

However, there are arguments against the identification of these two Brâns. Elsewhere, Brân the Blessed’s mother is named as Penarddun (‘Chief Beauty’). In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Bendigeidfran is named as a son of Llŷr with Manawydan as his brother and Branwen as his sister. Nysien and Efnysien are sons of Euroswydd by ‘his own mother Penarddun, daughter of Beli.’

In The Triads of Ancient Britain, Llŷr Half-Speech is named as one of ‘Three Exalted (Supreme) Prisoners of the Island of Britain’. He was ‘imprisoned by Euroswydd’. It seems likely Euroswydd conceived Nysien and Efnysien with Penarddun whilst Llŷr was his prisoner.

Although textual evidence provides a stronger case for Penarddun being Brân’s mother than Iwerydd, within mythology we often find multiple genealogies which are equally valid. Iwerydd and Penarddun could also be titles for the same divinity. Therefore the identification of these two Brâns cannot be ruled out.

Brân ap Ymellryn

Grufudd Hiraethog identifies Brân ap Ywerydd with Brân ap Ymellyrn: a historical figure who appears in the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen. These are set after the assassination of Llywarch’s cousin, Urien Rheged, on the order of his jealous rival, Morgan, during a campaign against the Anglo-Saxons on Lindisfarne in 585.

Llywarch bore Urien’s head home. Afterward, Urien’s sons and Llywarch were driven from their lands in the Old North*** by Urien’s enemies who included Dunawd, Morgant, Gwallawg and Brân ap Ymellyrn. In The Death of Urien, Llywarch speaks of his plight (Pasgen and Elphin are Urien’s sons):

‘Dunawd, the chief of the age, would drive onward,
Intent upon making battle,
Against the conflict of Pasgen.

Gwallawg, the horseman of tumult, would drive onward,
Intent upon trying the sharpest edge,
Against the conflict of Elphin.

Brân, the son of Mellyrn, would drive onward,
Collecting men to burn my ovens:
A wolf that looked grimly by the banks of Abers.

Morgant and his men would drive onward,
Collecting a host to burn my lands:
He was a mouse that scratched against a rock.’

Llywarch flees to the court of Cynddylan in Powys. After Cynddylan is killed, he is again left homeless and destitute. A friend advises him to trust neither Brân nor Dunawd and to take refuge in Llanfawr:

‘Trust not Brân, trust not Dunawd;
Consort not with them in hardship.
Herdsman of calves, go to Llanfawr.’

Glyn E. Jones suggests Brân ap Ymellyrn may be identified with Brân ap Dyfnwal (Ymellyrn was his mother and Dyfnwal his father). This places him with Urien, Llywarch and their enemies Gwallawg and Dunawd amongst the descendants of Coel Hen within the lineages of the Old North.

Brân Galed

Hiraethog identifies Brân ab Ywerydd with Brân Galed (‘the Niggard’). He is the keeper of a magical horn that appears amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’: ‘The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.’ Most of the owners of the treasures (who include Gwyddno and Gwenddolau) are ‘Men of the North’ and lived during the 6thC.

In the marginalia of an early list is a story about how Myrddin asked for the treasures from the thirteen owners. They all agreed if Myrddin obtained Brân’s horn, they would hand their treasures over, assuming Brân was so niggardly he would never give his up. Somehow, Myrddin persuaded Brân to give him the horn and he took all the treasures to a glass house where they remain forever.

It has been suggested Taliesin played a role in Brân’s decision. In a poem by Guto’r Glyn ‘Miserly, niggardly Brân they used to call him, who of old was descended from the Men of the North; Taliesin, no mean magician, transformed him into one better than the three generous men.’ In some variants Taliesin is the collector of the treasures. In another, Hercules slays a centaur and obtains Brân’s horn from its head.

Brân at Cynwyd

In The Gododdin we find the line ‘Brân was at Cynwyd’. Jenny Rowlands notes ‘Cynwyd is attested as both a personal and place name’. It may relate to a battle where Pelis, son of Urien fought, or to his leadership of the Cynwydion (named after Cynwyd Cynwydion, another descendent of Coel Hen).

Considering the antipathy between Urien’s sons and Brân ap Ymellyrn, it seems possible Pelis and the Cynwydion fought against Brân ap Ymellyrn and his allies and are commemorated at Cynwyd. Brân may have perished there too. The location remains unconfirmed, although there is a Cynwyd near to Corwen beside the river Dee in Wales.

Five Brâns?

Can we ascertain Brân ap Ywerydd’s identification with any or all of these Brâns? Are we looking at one, two, three, four or five different figures?  I think it’s safe to say that Brân the Blessed and the Brâns of the sixth century are entirely different due to the differences in timescale and mythological and historical context.

Within the context of Brân ap Ywerydd’s appearance in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, I think it most likely, like Gwenddolau, Gwallog and Meurig, he is a northern British figure from the 6thC. Brân ap Ywerydd, Brân ap Ymellyrn, the Brân who was at Cynwyd, and Brân Galed could be the same person.

We can tentatively piece together his story as follows: Brân was the son of Ywerydd and Dyfnawl and lived during the period of intense internecine conflict between the Brythonic kingdoms of the Old North as they fought against the Anglo-Saxons. Brân, Gwallawg, Dunawd and Morgant allied against Urien and Llywarch, arranging Urien’s assassination and driving Llywarch from the North. Brân later fought against Urien’s son, Pelis, at Cynwyd and perished and Gwyn attended his death. Brân was renowned for his niggardly nature and keeping his horn and his drink to himself. Sometime after his death, this fell into the realm of myth and became one of the Thirteen Treasures.

Gwyn’s association with Brân the Blessed cannot, however, be ruled out. As Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead he could well have attended Bendigeidfran’s death too. The croaking ravens in each of the elegaic verses spoken by Gwyn invoke Brân’s presence as a reminder of the futile, destructive and seemingly unending nature of war.

Associations between ravens and the battlefield continue to endure in contemporary poetry. Speaking of the Iraq war in her modern rewriting of the traditional ballad ‘The Two Ravens’, Clare Pollard writes:

‘I watched the ravens feed on war,
and knew I’d watch for evermore.’


*Meurig ap Careian is a famous northern warlord if Careian is a scribal error and he is identified with Meurig ap Idno. I’ll cover this in a later post.
**Another ‘Man of the North’ associated with Porth Wyddno in the North and Borth in Wales.
***Some scholars associate Llywarch with Caerlaverock (Caer Llywarch) on the Solway Firth. Others have conjectured he may have ruled ‘South Rheged’ (Lancashire?) from modern-day Ribchester.


Clare Pollard, ‘There Wasn’t Even a Song in that Desolation: Poetry After a Decade in Iraq
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, (2015)
John Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, (ABC-CLIO, 2006)
John Rhŷs, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (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)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

Din Eidyn and Drunken Catraeth

A few weeks ago I visited Edinburgh. This was partly due to my interest in its history as part of the Old North. During this period it was known as Din Eidyn ‘fort of Eidyn’ (Eidyn’s identity and whether this name refers to a person and/or place remain a mystery).

There is evidence of settlements on Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat from the Bronze and Iron Ages. The earliest fort was known as ‘The Castle of the Maidens’. It may have been established on a pre-Christian site sacred to ‘the nine maidens’ amongst whom was Morgen: a divinity connected with water, shapeshifting, healing and the weather.

During the Iron Age the local tribe were known as the Votadini. It has been argued this name originates from the early Celtic *wo-tādo, which means ‘foundation’ or ‘support’ and that this was the name of an ancestral figure. During the Romano-British period, the Votadini became known as the Gododdin and their kingdom was Manaw Gododdin.

Like many of the northern British peoples, the Gododdin had complex relationships with Wales. Sometime between 380 and 440, Cunedda, a man from Manaw Gododdin, helped defend north Wales from the Irish and played a prominent role in founding the kingdom of Gwynedd, which his offspring ruled.

After the death of Cunedda’s descendant, Maelgwn Gwynedd in 547, Elidyr Mwynfawr, who was married to Maelgwn’s daughter, Eurgain, travelled from Benllech in the North via the sea* to Benllech on Anglesey to contest the claim of Maelgwn’s illegitimate son, Rhun, to the throne of Gwynedd. Elidyr was killed at Arfon.

Afterward, Clydno Eiddyn, who may have ruled Din Eidyn, formed part of a warband alongside other northern rulers; Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael and Rhydderch Hael. Seeking vengeance for Elidyr’s death, they travelled to Wales, set fire to Arfon and were driven back all the way to the river Gwerydd (the Forth).

Clydno was also the keeper of one of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’: ‘The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn, which was fixed to a staple at the foot of his bed: whatever horse he might wish for, he would find in the halter.’


The Gododdin are immortalised in the poem The Gododdin, which has been dated to the 7th century. This takes the form of a series of verses eulogising and elegising the northern Britons who perished in the battle of Catraeth** in 600AD fighting against the Bernician Angles. Prior to the battle, the warriors feasted and drank for a year in the hall of Mynyddog Mwynfawr, ruler of Din Eidyn. The joy of the mead-feast is repeatedly contrasted with the bloodshed of the battle from which ‘of three hundred, save one man, none returned.’

‘Warriors went to Catraeth with the dawn,
Their ardours shortened their lives,
They drank mead, yellow, sweet, ensnaring,
For a year many a minstrel was joyful.
Blood-stained were their swords, may their spears not be cleansed;
White were the shields and square-pointed the spearheads
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mwynfawr.’

Cynon, a son of Clydno Eidyn was amongst the casualties and is the subject of several verses.

‘…generous-hearted Cynon, lord of graces…
Whomever he struck would not be struck again.
Sharp-pointed were his spears,
With shattered shields he tore through armies,
His horses swift racing forward.’

‘He slew the enemy with the sharpest blade,
Like rushes they fell before his hand.
Son of Clydno of enduring fame’

The imagery of The Gododdin is strikingly similar to that of The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir. In The Conversation, Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as a ‘bull of battle’ and says ‘armies fall before the hooves of your horse / As swiftly as cut reeds to the ground’. Gwyn speaks of ‘shields shattered, spears broken’ and states his presence at the deaths of a number of northern warriors ‘where ravens croaked on gore’.

In The Gododdin, two warriors are referred to as ‘bull(s) of battle’, one as ‘bull of an army’ and another as ‘heroic bull’. Men are hewn down ‘like rushes’, there are countless references to ‘shattered’ and ‘splintered’ spears and shields and the dead become ‘food’ for ‘ravens’. This suggests both poems originated from the same milieu. It seems possible Gwyn gathered the souls of the dead after the battle of Catraeth as he did after the battle of Arfderydd in 573.


When I visited Edinburgh Castle, I was struck by the height and impenetrability of the cliff face (Castle Rock was originally a volcano which was later flattened by a glacier) and could see why it has been a defensive location for so long.

Unsurprisingly, after so many centuries, there were few traces of the Gododdin. The castle was built in stone in the 12th century and the current banqueting hall during the 15th. The hall has a prominent hearth fire and is decorated with spears, swords and armoury. It’s possible to imagine Mynyddog Mwynfawr’s hall would have been equipped in a similar manner.

Since Catraeth, Edinburgh’s people have seen countless bloody battles, including the Wars of Independence from 1296 and 1341, the ‘Lang’ siege which lasted from 1571-1573 and the Jacobite Risings from 1688-1746. The castle was later used as a military prison. It is still a barracks and is now home to the Scottish National War Memorial: an extensive ‘shrine to the fallen of two world wars and campaigns since 1945’.


As a metaphor for tragic and ill-conceived warfare, ‘drunken Catraeth’ may be seen to repeat itself throughout history. A. O. H. Jarman notes ‘a veteran of the action of Mametz Wood during the battle of the Somme in 1916 ‘recalled an observer saying what a magnificent sight it was seeing the Welsh battalions moving along in a line without wavering until they fell’… His observation could have translated a couplet of Y Gododdin.

In ‘Elegy for the Welsh Dead in the Falkland Islands, 1982’, Tony Conran draws analogies between Catraeth and the Falklands War:

‘Men went to Catraeth. The luxury liner
For three weeks feasted them…
With the dawn men went. Those forty-three,
Gentlemen all, from the streets and byways of Wales,
Dragons of Aberdare, Denbigh and Neath –
Fragment of Empire, whore’s honour, held them.
Forty-three at Catraeth died for our dregs.’

Beneath Din Eidyn I read my poem, ‘Lamentation for Catraeth’, which is also based on lines from The Gododdin: ‘By fighting they made women widows, / Many a mother with her tear on her eyelid’. Written in the voices of mourning women, it laments ‘drunken Catraeth / the battle that knows no end’.


*This is recorded in the triad of the Horse Burdens where Elidyr and seven-and-a-half men (one holding onto the crupper!) are carried by the legendary water-horse, Du y Moroedd.
**The location of Catraeth is hotly contested. Traditionally it has been identified as Catterick, yet so far no evidence for a full-scale battle has been found. Tim Clarkson notes the identification of Catraeth with Catterick is based on a ‘sounds like’ etymology’ and suggests the conflict was more likely to have taken place on the fringes of Lothian.


John Matthews (ed), The Book of Celtic Verse, (Watkins Publishing, 2007)
Heron (transl), Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, HERE
Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson (transl), The Gododdin, (Edinburgh University Press, 1969)
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)
Stuart McHardy, The Quest for the Nine Maidens, (Luath Press, 2002)
Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland, (John Donald, 2010)
Votadini, ‘The History Files’, HERE

Riddles and Howling Monks

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn, after Taliesin has finished narrating Arthur’s raid, he continues to mock the monks (earlier referred to as ‘pathetic men’) because they do not know the answers to certain riddles.

The opening ‘Myneich dychnut val cunin cor / o gyfranc udyd ae gwidanhor’ has been translated ‘Monks congregate like a pack of dogs / because of the clash between masters who know’ and ‘Monks howl like a choir of dogs / from an encounter with lords who know’.

Dychnut may derive from cnut ‘pack of hounds, wolves’ or *dychnudo, an archaism meaning ‘howl’. Cun means ‘pack of dogs’ or ‘lord’. The primary meaning of cor is ‘choir’, but it is also used to refer to groups such as ‘a host of angels’ or ‘a company of bards’. Côr bytheiaid and côr hela  both mean ‘kennel or pack of hounds’. Udyd may be the plural of ud ‘lord’ or relate to udaw ‘howl’.

In these ambiguous, carefully chosen words, dogs/wolves, choirs, lords and howling are cleverly and intricately linked. These intricate connections are unfortunately not conveyed by the English language.

Within Welsh tradition numerous divine ‘lords’ are associated with hounds: Cunomaglus ‘Hound Lord’; Cunobelinus ‘Hound of Belinus’; Nudd who Taliesin refers to as ‘the superior wolf lord’ and his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, who owns a hound called Dormach ‘Death’s Door’ and hunts with the Cwn Annwn. Another is Arawn who, like Gwyn, is a ruler of Annwn and associated with white, red-eared Annuvian hounds. It seems possible Taliesin is comparing the howling monks with their howling hounds.

Cyfranc means ‘clash, contention’ or ‘tale, story’. This brings to mind Taliesin’s clash with the bards of Maelgwn in The Story of Taliesin. Taliesin enters this contest to rescue his master, Elphin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, from Maelgwn’s imprisonment.

Gwidanhor ‘one who knows’ (from gwybod ‘know’) shares a likeness with Gwyddno Garanhir ‘knowing one’. In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyddno converses with Gwyn and meets his hound, Dormach. Gwyn reminds Gwyddno that Dormach ‘was with Maelgwn’. These complex mythic intersections would have been in a medieval Welsh audience’s mind.

Taliesin claims the lords/masters  know, ‘Whether the wind (follows) a single path, whether the sea is all one water, / whether fire – an unstoppable force is all one spark’. In The Story of Taliesin, Taliesin wins the contest with a series of poems including an extended riddle about the wind. He is claiming knowledge of the elements Maelgwn’s bards do not possess.

Taliesin counts himself amongst the ‘knowing ones’ initiated into the mysteries of the universe alongside lords/masters such as Gwyddno and Gwyn. The howling of the monks parodies their otherworldly company.

The next verse continues in a similar vein:

‘Monks congregate like wolves
because of the clash between masters who know.
They (the monks) don’t know how the darkness and light divide,
(nor) the wind’s course, its onrush,
what place it devastates, what land it strikes,
how many saints are in the void, and how many altars.’

The reference to the monks’ lack of knowledge of where darkness and light divide echoes preceding verses where Taliesin mocks them for not knowing the divisions of time nor when Pen Annwn ‘Head of Annwn’ was conceived or born. These questions are intrinsically linked as Pen Annwn is associated with the transitions between night and day, the seasons and the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The line referring to saints and altars being ‘in the void’ is intriguing. This may relate back to the transitional period between paganism and Christianity when the links between Annwn and the dead were severed and Annwn was re-construed as a hellish (hot, cold or empty) place.

In the final lines Taliesin says, ‘I praise the Lord, the great Ruler: / may I not endure sadness: Christ will reward me.’ The ending is undeniably Christian yet in Pendefic mawr, ‘great Ruler’ we find traces of a most un-Christian lord: Pen Annwn.

 So the end of the poem has been reached. Arthur and his men have raided Annwn and slammed its gate shut. As Taliesin returns to his chair in Caer Siddi we’re left contemplating a trail of destruction amongst the howling monks whose choir echoes the howling of the hounds of the Lord(s) of Annwn.


The monks howl.
We howl with them.
There is no turning back
to when Annwn was unspoilt
before the flashing sword
the stolen cauldron
and trail of death.

No turning back
only howling onwards
into the next chapter
the next myth…

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*The translations of Preiddu Annwn ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ I have used are Marged Haycock’s from Legendary Poems of Taliesin and Sarah Higley’s HERE. With thanks to Heron for notes on cor from The University of Wales Dictionary.

Vindolanda: The Land of White Springs

29 miles east along Hadrian’s Wall from Carlisle lies the ruins of the Roman village of Vindolanda. I was drawn there because the name Vindolanda, usually translated ‘White Fields’ or ‘White Lands’, derives from *Windo ‘fair, white, blessed’ and this is the root of Gwyn ap Nudd’s name. Gwyn may have been known as Vindos in Iron Age Britian. There are no known dedications to Vindos but it seems possible he was venerated at Vindolanda and Vindogladia.

Evidence for the place-name Vindolanda comes from the Vindolanda Altar, which was found at the edge of the settlement. It reads, ‘Pro domu divina et Numinibus Augustorum Volcano sacrum vicani Vindolandesses curam agente…V S L…’ ‘For the Divine House and the Deities of the Emperors, the villagers of Vindolanda (set up) this sacred offering to Volcanus, willingly and deservedly fulfilling their vow, under the charge of…’

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Here we find the name Vindolandesses ‘villagers of Vindolanda’. The altar was set up for Volcanus, Roman god of volcanoes and blacksmithing. As there isn’t any evidence of volcanic activity in the area, I assume the villagers chose Volcanus because iron smelting and forging took place at Vindolanda.

Surprisingly there is no information on display about what was there before the Roman invasion. When I asked a member of staff, she said it was farmland and told me the name Vindolanda derives from the land being coloured white by natural springs running from above the village and Barcombe Hill.

Near the wells and water tanks above the ruins is a notice which mentions ‘many springs and good steams’ and states ‘the most powerful source lay near here’. The stone aqueduct which carried the water into the village is still visible, but its source appears to have run dry.

Adjacent to the wells and tanks stands the remains of a Romano-Celtic temple ‘used by soldiers to celebrate both local and Roman gods’. No individual deities are named. Gwyn is associated with the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor and I’ve experienced his presence at Whitewell here in Lancashire.


It’s my intuition he could have been worshipped as Vindos in this temple beside the source of the white springs. My excitement at potentially discovering one of Vindos/Gwyn’s most ancient sacred sites was tempered with sadness that the springs had run dry.

Below the village near to Chainley Burn is a reconstructed shrine with the painted inscription, ‘NYMPHIS SACRUM VICANI VINDOLANDENSES’ ‘The villagers of Vindolanda (dedicated this temple) sacred to the Nymphs’. This is based on an ornate temple still standing in the 18th century. There is plenty of evidence Vindolanda was a place of water worship.



 Nine forts have existed at Vindolanda, built between 85AD and 370AD. Archaeological evidence suggests it was occupied long into the Dark Ages. It has been the home of soldiers from many different cultures; the 9th cohort of Batavians (Netherlands), the 1st cohort of Tungrians (Belgium), the 4th cohort of Gauls (France), the 2nd cohort of Nervians (Belgium) and Vardullian Cavalry (Spain). These men were removed from their homelands and stationed across the Empire. Defeated Britons were sent to fight for Rome in other countries.


Rows of houses, storehouses, a tavern and mausoleums lie outside the walls of the fort which, when they were built in 211AD, were two storeys high with impressive guard towers (much of the stone has since been stolen). Inside are more houses and stores, bathhouses, workshops, horrea ‘granaries’, the principia ‘headquarters’ (where regimental officers and clerks maintained records) and the praetorium ‘house of the commanding officer’.

One of the buildings was a temple to Jupiter Dolichenus, an ancient weather god from the south-east of modern Turkey, who is depicted holding bolts of lightning whilst standing on a goat. His temple was destroyed then set on fire in 370AD when paganism was replaced with Christianity and a Christian church built within the fort. This is significant as it provides an exact date for the conversion of the people of Vindolanda to Christianity. It seems likely other Roman-ruled populaces on Hadrian’s Wall were converted around the same time.


Within the museum are a large variety of finds perfectly preserved by the peaty soil. 6,000 shoes (but only one pair!) of all shapes and sizes were found in the ditches surrounding the fort, along with armour, weaponry, tents, a drawstring bag, cavalry standard and equipment for horses.

I was particularly impressed by the chamfron; a horse’s ceremonial face-mask made from leather with bronze fittings and protection for the eyes. Gwyn speaks of Carngrwn as a ‘white horse gold-adorned’. I could imagine Carngrwn wearing similar headgear. Could his depiction in The Black Book of Carmarthen have originated from the Land of White Springs and its tradition of elaborately decorated saddlery?


Most famous of all are the Vindolanda tablets. These inscriptions on wood date back to 121AD and provide some fascinating insights into the lives and viewpoints of the soldiers of Vindolanda.

‘…the Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords, nor do the wretched Britons (Brittonculi) mount in order to throw their javelins.’

‘…order (accommodation) to be given to…, but also a lodging where horses are well (looked after). Farewell, brother dearest to me’

‘Tomorrow nice and early in the morning come to Vindolanda, so that (you can join the counting of the census)’

Pieces of writing not on display are summarised on the surrounding walls:

Tranquilius ‘Who supplied some undergarments to the Cerialis household’

Claudius Super ‘A centurion, apologising to Cerialis for failing to attend Sulpicia Lepidina’s birthday celebrations’

Flavius Genialis ‘A predecessor prefect to Cerialis, who appears to have had a nervous breakdown at some point’

Lucius ‘A cavalry troop commander (decurion), receives a letter from a friend reporting on a gift of 50 oysters from a place called Cordonovi

Virrilus ‘A veterinary surgeon (veterinarius), who is reminded by Chrauttius that he hasn’t yet sent the castrating shears that he promised’

There is a small collection of statues and altars of gods and goddesses. These include statues of Priapus, Maponus and statuettes of Venus and Dea Nutrices and altars to the Veteres and an unknown god which frustratingly simply reads ‘Deo’.

They represent only a small portion of the dedications found at Vindolanda. I hoped to find an altar to Mogons ‘great one’ inscribed ‘Mogonti et Genio Loci’, as Vindos may have been viewed as the genius of the place. However, it was not on display.

That’s only a small complaint. The people who work at Vindolanda have done a superb job in their excavations of the Roman forts and preservation of the objects and remains of the people who lived there. No inscriptions to Vindos have been found, but their work is ongoing and no-one knows what might be recovered next…


Vindos god of the Land of White Springs
where the springs flow no longer
yet memories flow from
Annwn’s wells

soldiers from a thousand distant lands
have whispered your name

water holds their peaty memories

I do not wield a stylus on birch
nor chisel on altar

to engrave your greatness here forever

I let my words fall on the wind
spiralling downward
to join
the well-springs

Caer Ochren: The Birth of Pen Annwn and the Silver-Headed Beast

The final fort which Arthur, Taliesin and their party raid in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Ochren. Marged Haycock translates Caer Ochren as ‘Angular Fort’ (from ochr ‘edge’, side’). This name could relate to the fortresses having four corners/quarters/turrets/peaks. Ochr also translates as ‘aspect’ or ‘facet’. My working thesis is we’re looking at seven names for the same fort. Caer Ochren thus encompasses all its facets rolled into one.

Once again Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of certain mysteries:

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men, with no go in them,
(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal it is they guard, with his silver head.’

Haycock draws parallels with Christian tradition. ‘What hour was he (Christ) born? As the prophet says, he came at midnight from his regal thrones’. ‘At what time of the day or night was the world made, and (at what time) will it be destroyed, and (at what time) did the Lord arise from the dead?’

However, this relies on the translation of ‘Lord’ from Pen which literally means ‘Head’. Considering the poem centres on the theft of the cauldron of Pen Annwn (‘Head of Annwn’), it seems more likely he is the subject of the riddles and they refer to the day of his creation and the hour of his birth.

This is the interpretation of Caitlin and John Matthews, who refer to ‘the conception and birth of the Chief (of Annwn)’. In an evocative painting of Caer Ochren*, Meg Falconer depicts the Chief’s face as he awaits birth beneath a snowy mound accompanied by running deer, a triskele, and slither of new moon. The text around the painting reads: ‘Caer Ochran – the cold castle under the stone – the magic beast of the silverhead – day of the kings birth.’ It seems significant the birth of Pen Annwn is linked with the last fort in the poem.

Next we come to the silver-headed animal. ‘Animal’ is translated from vil (mil) by Haycock whereas the Matthews favour ‘beast’. We find the repetition of pen (aryant y pen ‘silver head). Sarah Higley and the Matthews translate Perchen as ‘owner’, which suggests it belongs to Pen Annwn and is guarded by his people. The question of the identity of this beastie has produced a proliferation of divergent conjectures.

Robin Melrose suggests the silver-headed animal/beast is the Brindled Ox from the previous verse. The lines about the Brindled Ox are also preceded by a similar riddle about the birth at mid-day of Dwy, ‘God’ (Pen Annwn?) and it’s possible this verse echoes the one before it. An old ox could certainly be pictured with silver hairs.

An alternative theory is put forward by Marged Haycock. She says ‘Mil is understood as an ‘animal’ guarded by the monks, perhaps a riddling question referring to ‘a silver-headed crozier with a zoomorphic crook bearing a reliquary box.’

The Matthews point out ‘The animal that most commonly has silver hair on its head is an elderly human.’ They suggest this may be a kenning for Henben ‘Old Head’, an epithet of Maelgwn Gwynedd’s chief poet Henin Fardd. Further ‘the real Henben or Old Head is Brân himself.’

The mention of a silver-headed beast puts me in mind of Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. One of his piglets is Grugyn Gwrych Eraint, ‘Grugyn Silver-bristle’; ‘all his bristles were like wings of silver, and one could see the path he took through the woods and over fields by the way his bristles glittered.’ It seems likely Grugyn inherited his silvery bristles from his father.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur leads the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, yet lines stating the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn ap Nudd is found suggest Gwyn was the original leader. Gwyn is a candidate for the title Pen Annwn and it seems possible his people guard the silver-headed beast. An objection is the Twrch is a wild animal unlikely to be owned or guarded.

Another suggestion is the animal owned by Pen Annwn is a dog. Both Gwyn and Arawn are connected with hounds of Annwn. Gwyn owns a dog named Dormach who is ‘fair’, ‘red-nosed’ and pictured with two serpent’s tails. He could possess a few silver hairs. However it’s more likely he’d be doing the guarding than being guarded!

The silver-headed beast slips from grasp like quick-silver and perhaps that’s the key. Many animals in Celtic mythology were shapeshifters and didn’t stay the same for long. Interestingly there is no record of Arthur getting his hands on this evasive beast.

The verse ends with the refrain:

‘And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none came back from Caer Ochren.’

The journey of Arthur, Taliesin and the other survivors is complete. It is drawn into connection with the birth of Pen Annwn. In Caer Ochren end and beginning meet. Yet the poem has not finished. Taliesin has plenty of insults left for those monks…


Caer Ochren

I am the end and the beginning.
Count my angles. You will never count them all
because I am spinning beyond the terminal velocity
of sight. You will never know what is behind,
beyond the walls unless you come in,
scratch the head of a silver-headed beast,
a hound beside the chair of the one who rules the fort
and has been absent half a year. How he stretches
his great jaws, unrolls himself into a serpent.
Where teeth touch tail the story ends
and begins again.


*In King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld. Some of Meg’s paintings can be viewed HERE.

Caer Vandwy and the Theft of the Brindled Ox

A plain of blood where men once stood.
The lights have gone out in Caer Vandwy.
The clashing sea rolls over shield and spear.
The living dead. The dead dead again.


The sixth fortress in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Vandwy. This has been translated as ‘Fortress of God’s Peak’ and ‘Fort of the High God’. Marged Haycock uses ‘Mand(d)wy Fort’ but does not explain her re-rendering. It could relate to Manawydan (‘Manawyd’ in ‘Arthur and the Porter’). The connection of a sea-god with an island location seems credible.

In the verse relating to Caer Vandwy, Taliesin again berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of insight into certain mysteries he is knowledgeable about:

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men trailing their shields,
who don’t know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day God was born,
(nor) who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy.’

The second line suggests the existence of a Bardic riddle enumerating mythic and/or historic figures born on certain days. In line three, Haycock reconstitutes Dwy ‘God’ from Cwy. Caitlin and John Matthews prefer Cyw ‘chick’ whereas Sarah Higley sticks with Cwy as a personal name.

Haycock’s choice fits with the translations of Caer Vandwy as a fortress belonging to (a) God. This may not be the Christian God. In the next verse Taliesin refers to the ‘pathetic men’ as ‘(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created’. Lord is translated from Pen ‘Head’. Perhaps this god is Pen Annwn ‘The Head of Annwn’.

Next we come across an unnamed person ‘who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy’. Haycock suggests Defwy is a river-name meaning ‘black’ (from def-/dyf) and poses the question ‘Was this imagined as a river between this world and the next?’

The Matthews link the Meadows of Defwy to Gweir ap Gweirioed ‘Hay son of Grassiness’ (the divine prisoner in verse one) and say ‘we may be looking at Doleu Defwy as an otherworldly meadow’.

This brings to mind the Gwerddonau Llion (translated as ‘green meadows of the sea’ and ‘green islands of the floods’). In a triad* referring to ‘three losses by disappearance of the Isle of Britain’ Gavran is said to have gone to sea in search of the Gwerddonau Llion.

Philip Runngaldier connects the Gwerddonau Llion with the sunken land of Cantre’r Gwaelod ‘The Bottom Hundred’ and says they are inhabited by ‘Gwyllion’: ‘the shades of (Llyn) Llion’ ‘the dead’. Perhaps the one who didn’t go to these mysterious meadows escaped death.


Taliesin continues to deride the monks:

‘those who know nothing of the Brindled Ox, with his stout collar,
(and) seven score links in its chain.’

Grazing on the Meadows of Defwy we come across an animal of great fame: Ych Brych ‘The Brindled Ox’. He appears in The Triads as one of ‘Three Principal Oxen of the Island of Britain’:

‘Yellow Spring (‘The One of the yellow of spring’)
and Chestnut, of Gwylwylyd (or ‘a meek and gentle ox),
and the Brindled Ox.’

His capture is amongst the ‘impossible tasks’ Arthur and his men must fulfil on Culhwch’s behalf in Culhwch and Olwen. For food to be grown for Culhwch and Olwen’s wedding feast, a field must be ploughed by the divine ploughman, Amaethon.

The plough must be pulled by a team of six oxen: ‘the two oxen of Gwylwlydd Winau, yoked together’, ‘Melyn Gwanwyn and the Ych Brych yoked together’ and ‘two horned oxen… Nyniaw and Peibiaw.’

Two oxen from the triad: Yellow Spring and the Brindled Ox are placed together and Gwylwylyd appears as the owner of two oxen, presumably Chestnut and an unnamed ox. Intriguingly Nyniaw and Peibiaw are the sons of the king of Archenfield ‘whom God transformed into oxen for their sins.’

John Rhŷs records a folkloric story where Nyniaw and Peibiaw are brother kings. One moonlit night, Nyniaw boasts his field is ‘the whole firmament’. Peibiaw says his sheep and cattle are grazing in his fields: ‘the great host of stars, each of golden brightness, with the moon to shepherd them.’ Nyniaw is furious and a terrible battle ensues which leads to their transformation into oxen by God.

This may be a Christianised explanation of their shapeshifting capacities. In The Tain, the two bulls Finnbennach and Donn Cuailnge are ‘pig-keepers’ ‘practiced in the pagan arts’ who can ‘form themselves into any shape’. Tricked into falling out, they battle against each other as birds of prey, whale and seabeast, stags, warriors, phantoms, and as dragons before becoming maggots, being swallowed by cows and reborn as bulls. It seems likely the Brindled Ox was originally a shapeshifter with the capacity to take human and other forms.


In the last lines of the verse Taliesin says:

‘And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none came back from Caer Vandwy*’.

The final line is repeated as a refrain at the end of each verse. Of three full loads of Prydwen who went to Annwn, only seven survivors return. Some catastrophe has taken place. Lines spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir suggest this was a battle at Caer Vandwy:

‘to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Vandwy**.

At Caer Vandwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’

It is my growing intuition the names of individual fortresses are in fact different names for the same fort. In the previous verse Taliesin said six thousand men and an incommunicative watchman were standing on Caer Wydyr’s glass walls. Gwyn is referring to the catastrophic battle against the people of Annwn by which Arthur and his men broke into the fort. After breaking in, they took Gweir, stole the Head of Annwn’s cauldron, and captured the Brindled Ox before slamming ‘Hell’s gate’ shut.

A couple of months ago Brian Taylor drew my attention to a passage in James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld which illustrates the parallels between Arthur’s raid on the Head of Annwn’s fortress and Hercules’ assault on the House of Hades: ‘drawing his sword, wounding Hades in the shoulder, slaughtering cattle, wrestling the herdsman, choking and chaining Cerberos… the Herculean ego does not know how to behave in the underworld’.

As I continue my own journey through ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ where others see a quest for inspiration, I see violence, desecration, the utmost disrespect for the people of Annwn: a trail of atrocities committed by a power-hungry warlord and ambitious bard.

Far from being a model for seekers of Annwn’s mysteries it advocates the selfish pursuit of objects of desire through deceit and brute force. Our stories of journeys to the underworld are reflected in the upperworld and we have still not outgrown this Arthurian/Herculean mindset.

New ways of approaching Annwn based on respectful relationships with its people are required. Perhaps in time these will yield the stories needed to replace Arthur’s hegemony. But first repairs must be made…

*This is referred to in The Cambro Briton but I can’t find a source. It isn’t in The Triads of the Islands of Britain.
**Rather than using Haycock’s unexplained re-rendering of Gaer Vandwy I have stuck with the name in the Welsh text.
***Heron translates kaer wantvy as Caer Fanddwy. I’ve stuck to Caer Vandwy for consistency.


Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’
James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, (CN, 1979)
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Philip Runggaldier, Llyn Llion Theory, (Matador, 2016)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sarah Higley (transl.), ‘Preiddu Annwn’, (Camelot, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (OUP, 1979)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (Lightning Source, 1880)

Caer Golud: The Guts of Annwn

In verse four of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the lines about Caer Wydyr (‘Glass Fort’) are followed by a single reference to Caer Golud (‘Fortress of Impediment’).

‘Three loads of Prydwen went with Arthur:
save seven, none came back from the Fort of Impediment.’

Nothing more is said about Caer Golud. To the best of my knowledge it does not appear in any other literature. Marged Haycock translates golud as ‘impediment’ from goludd. This suggests Caer Golud is another name for the impenetrable Caer Wydyr, which is guarded by six thousand men and an incommunicative watchman.

An alternative translation is from coludd (which mutates from ‘g’): ‘guts’, ‘bowels’ or ‘entrails’ This is a fascinating possibility and fits with links between the Glass Fort and Glastonbury (‘the Glass Island’) as a place the 6thC prophet, Melkin, claims is ‘greedy for the death of pagans, above others in the world.’

Melkin’s words suggest pagan beliefs and practices survived in Glastonbury into the 6thC. The word ‘greedy’ evokes devouring and the digestive processes of the guts. This would certainly tie in with other descriptions of the Brythonic otherworld.

In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ the bard inquires into the width of ‘the mouth’ of Uffern (‘inferno’). ‘Kat Godeu’ refers to ‘a great-scaled beast’ with ‘a fierce battalion / beneath the roof of his tongue’ and ‘A speckled crested snake’ with ‘a hundred souls, on account of (their) sin… tortured in its flesh.’


Public Domain

Both poems are heavily Christianised yet if we remove the punitive connotations resulting from Annwn’s identification with Uffern/Hell and thus sin, it is possible to find traces of a shamanistic standpoint far more visceral than courtly medieval portrayals of the otherworld.

We recall Gwion Bach (as a grain of wheat) was swallowed by Ceridwen (as a black hen). A sow feeds on Lleu Llaw Gyfes’ rotten flesh when, mortally wounded, he takes the form of an eagle. The Hounds of Annwn hunt down and devour souls.

Gwion’s swallowing by Ceridwen leads to his rebirth as Taliesin. In a similar Irish story, Dechtire swallows a small animal whilst drinking a glass of water and is then told she is pregnant by Lugh with the son who will grow up to become Cu Chullain.

It is possible these stories date back to a time people didn’t causally connect sex and pregnancy due to the time lapse. The belly is not only the place of digestion but gestation: eating the ‘dead’ and birthing life were connected with this mysterious place.


In From The Cauldron Born, Kristoffer Hughes notes that in Welsh the word for cauldron is pair or crochan, which resembles croth ‘womb’. Ceridwen’s cauldron, her belly, is where Gwion is devoured and reborn as Taliesin.

Taliesin describes his fate in language evocative of malting and brewing in ‘The Hostile Confederacy’:

‘I was a grain…
A hen got hold of me –
a red-clawed one, a crested enemy;
I spent nine nights
residing in her womb.
I was matured,
I was a drink set before a ruler,
I was dead, I was alive,
a stick went into me;
I was on the lees,
separated from it, I was whole;
and the drinking-vessel stiffened resolve,
(for) the red-clawed one imbued me with passion.’

In ‘Lake of the Cauldron’ Charlotte Hussey glosses lines from The Second Branch where the giant, Llasar, emerges from a lake in Ireland with the Cauldron of Rebirth on his back to depict a similar process.

The cauldron is described as decorated with animals and divinities including a woman with ‘long-breasts’ and a ‘sweaty belly’ stirring it ‘as if it were a pan’. The woman pushes the narrator ‘into the boil’. Llasar watches as

‘…She hacks
shoulder blades, buttocks apart,
scrapes off chunks of flesh,
bones sinking then surging to the rim,
tossed by the churning waters.’

This bears similarities with scenes of initiation from shamanic cultures. Mircea Eliade records that a Samoyed shaman was decapitated and chopped into bits by a blacksmith who boiled him in a cauldron ‘big as half the earth’ then reforged him with magical capacities. In some traditions the initiate is eaten.

In relation to the devouring snake in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ it’s of interest amongst the Negritos there is great snake named Mat Chinoi. Thirty female Chinoi ‘of the utmost beauty’ live in its belly with their ornaments and combs. By passing two ordeals it is possible to enter the snake to find a wife.

It’s noticeable none of the Brythonic texts mention bowels or excrement. This may be because they were penned by Christian scribes in the medieval period. This contrasts with the bawdy toilet humour of the Norse myths and the mythologies of other cultures.

In Dream and the Underworld, James Hillman notes that in a late Orphic hymn the name of ‘the Goddess of the realm of death’ is ‘borborophoba, which was can render in the double-sense of shit-fearing: she who keeps it at bay, and she who makes it flow in panic.’ In the Egyptian Otherworld, where everything is reversed, people defecate through their mouths.

Hillman refers to dreams of diarrhea as ‘radical compelling movements into the underworld or as an underworld that has come to sudden irrepressible life within us, independent of who we are and what we are. Like death, diarrhea strikes when it will and all alike. Shit is the great leveller… Toilet dreams… can be read as underworld initiations.’


Our lack of knowledge of Caer Golud parallels the lack of attention our cerebrally obsessed culture has paid to the gut over the last few centuries. Thankfully over the past few decades scientists have begun to pay attention to this long neglected area.

In the 1960’s Michael Gershon published a ground-breaking book called The Second Brain. He draws attention to the fact that if the major nerve between the brain and gut is cut, the gut continues to work, and can function independently of the central nervous system.

The Enteric Nervous System ‘the brain below’ regulates peristalsis. One of the most important neurostransmitters in this process is serotonin. Serotonin plays an important role in the regulation of mood and 95% lies in the gut.

More recently scientists have been studying the microbiota of the gut as a ‘collective unconscious’, their symbiotic relationship with their host, and their influence on behaviour. Gut microbiota affect memory, sociability, and levels of stress and anxiety.

I’ve suffered from anxiety most of my life and a few months ago got diagnosed with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Finding out these links was a eureka moment. When I get stressed I have bowel problems which upset my gut making me more stressed: it’s a vicious cycle.

Frighteningly 10% of people in the UK suffer from IBS and it’s the second biggest cause of absence from work yet nobody talks about it. As I’ve also done in the past, they just make excuses or take Immodium and pretend it isn’t an issue. I can’t help thinking such a high percentage of people suffering from IBS results from living in such a stressful world.

I can’t see an easy or immediate way out of this cycle. However, I do believe the root cause can be addressed. We need to stop participating in the stressful worlds our guts cannot tolerate and which are indigestible to the deities of Annwn and work toward creating alternatives.

The time has returned to learn to listen again to the forgotten worlds of our guts which are paralleled by Caer Golud and its great-scaled beasts and speckled crested snakes in the realm of our Annuvian borborophoba, Ceridwen.

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Charlotte Hussey, Glossing the Spoils, (Awen Publications, 2012)
Cryan, Dinan, Stilling, Stanton, ‘Collective Unconscious: How Gut Microbes Shape Human Behaviour’, Journal of Psychiatric Research 63, (2015)
James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, (CN, 1979)
Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Michael D. Gershon, The Second Brain, (Harper Collins, 1999)
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, (Princeton, 2004)
Nicolas R. Mann, The Isle of Avalon, (Green Magic, 2001)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (OUP, 1979)