Beli Mawr is an important ancestral figure in the medieval Welsh tradition. I believe he was earlier venerated as Bel ‘Shining’*, a god of the sun, fire, and war, here in Britain and across the continent in Gaul, Noricum, and Iberia, by the Celtic-speaking peoples, particularly the Belgae, from perhaps as early as the Neolithic until the Roman-Celtic period. This is evidenced by inscriptions and place-names.
Beli is represented as one of the first of a lineage of god-kings of Britain presiding over a paradisal island. In ‘Kein gyfedwch’, a poem in The Book of Taliesin, ‘Victorious King Beli, / son of King Manogan’ is the ‘rightful ruler’ of ‘the Honey-Isle of Beli’. He resides in ‘an impregnable fortress’, a ‘wondrous retreat’, ‘a well-wrought protection of reinforced stones’. ‘Fair carousing’ takes place around ‘two lakes’ (one is a lake of drink). ‘He with a dragon’s qualities’ watches from above ‘the places of the drinking vessels’ as his people ‘drink in golden horns, golden horns in the hand, a hand (deep in) foam.’
In ‘Glaswawt Taliesin’ we find a reference to Beli wirawt. Marged Haycock notes that the gwirawt ‘alcoholic drink’ (used in conjunction with mead, bragget, and wine) of Beli appears to be a kenning for the sea, ‘Beli’s drink’. This seems linked to the hand (of Beli?) holding the horn deep in foam. The next line refers to a ‘light shield in the depth of night’. Haycock says the yscwyt yscawn ‘light shield’ is ‘collocated with Beli’. Peter Bartrum mentions that in Early Welsh poetry there are ‘several references’ to Beli’s ‘bloody spear’, presenting the image of a warrior.
Thus we can picture Beli above a paradisal isle surrounded by golden seas with a foaming horn of mead in times of peace and, during war, as a shining protector with a light shield and bloody spear. This puts me in mind of Belenus appearing in the air to defend Aquiliea from the Romans in 238 AD.
The most likely location of the Honey-Isle of Beli is the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire, although this name is more commonly taken to mean ‘the isle of eels’ from either the Latin elge or the Anglo-Saxon eilig. Frustratingly I have been unable to find out anything about its prehistory, only that the area was under the control of the Anglo-Saxon Gwyras tribe during the early medieval period, and that Saint Etheldreda founded a monastic community on the hill’s summit in 673 AD, which is now the site of Ely Cathedral. We might conjecture this replaced a Romano-British site that was sacred to Beli.
From the Honey-Isle of Beli the Shining One held reign over Britain some time before the Roman invasions. In ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ Macsen, the Roman Emperor, ‘conquered the island of Britain by force from Beli son of Mynogan, and his two sons, and drove them to the sea.’**
In Lludd ac Llefelys we find another story: ‘Beli the Great, son of Manogan, had three sons, Lludd and Caswallon and Nyniaw. And… Llefelys was a fourth son. And after Beli died, the kingdom of the Island of Britain fell into the hands of Lludd, his eldest son, and Lludd ruled it successfully.’
Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint is the medieval Welsh name of the Romano-British god Nodens. In this story he defends Britain from three plagues, including the Coraniaid, the Romans, with the help of Llefelys.
Nudd/Lludd is associated with Lydney, ‘Lludd’s Isle’. His son, Gwyn ap Nudd or Afallach, who is named as the grandson of Beli in the Harleian Genealogies, presides over Ynys Afallach, the Isle of Avalon.
Like Beli, the descendants of the Shining One also reside over splendid mead-feasts in liminal places, where it is possible for mortals to feast and drink with their gods and their ancestors. In doing so they might be seen to enter Annwn/Faerie, the Otherworld, for a limited period of time.
In ‘Kadeir Taliesin’ the bard speaks of his seat in Caer Siddi ‘The Fairy Fort’: ‘around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea; / and (as for) the fruitful fountain which is above it- / its drink is sweeter than white wine.’
In ‘Preiddu Annwn’ Taliesin reports his raid on seven Annuvian fortresses (which I believe may be seven appearances of the fortress of Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’, Gwyn/Afallach). One is Caer Siddi, another Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’ and another is Caer Rigor ‘The Fort of Hardness’ where ‘sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion.’
The primacy of Beli wirawt ‘Beli’s drink’ suggests alcohol held an important ritual function for our ancestors, effecting the shift in consciousness through which they participated in the feasts of their gods. This remains a reality to this day, when a sip of mead (or more!) and the right rites can take us to the Honey-Isle, Lludd’s Isle, or the Isle of Avalon, or elsewhere, to commune with the Shining Ones.
*This name also takes the forms of Belin, Belinos, Belenos, Belenus. **This story does not fit well with history as Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus) was not Roman Emperor at the time of the invasions but from 383 until 388 AD after which the imperial presence in Britain and Gaul declined.
Marged Haycock (transl), Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013) Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993) Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014) Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Bel (Belin, Belinos, Belenus) ‘Shining’ is a Celtic god whose worship is attested by inscriptions and place-names here in Britain and on the continent. He was likely the patron god of the Belgae tribes.
The term ‘Belgae’ is linked etymologically to the name Bel and to the Proto-Celtic root *belg- or *bolg which means ‘to swell (with anger or battle fury)’. I believe it might also be connected to a tradition amongst the Celts of numerous tribes coming together for the purpose of war and raiding.
The Belgae or Belgi are named as a confederacy of tribes by Strabo and Caesar in the first century BC. Strabo notes that, of the warlike tribes on the northern coast of Gaul, the Belgi ‘are the best.’ He tell us ‘they are divided into fifteen tribes, and live along the ocean between the Rhine and the Loire.’ The best of these tribes are the Bello(v)aci then the Suessiones. He claims ‘the number of the Belgi of former times that can bear arms amounted to about three hundred thousand.’
Caesar tells us: ‘All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third.’ He cites a report from the Remi: ‘the Bellovaci were the most powerful among them… these could muster 100,000 armed men… The Suessiones were their nearest neighbors and possessed a very extensive and fertile country… they had promised 50,000 armed men… the Nervii… the most warlike among them… [had promised] as many; the Atrebates 15,000; the Ambiani, 10,000; the Morini, 25,000; the Menapii, 9,000; the Caleti, 10,000; the Velocasses and the Veromandui as many; the Aduatuci 19,000; that the Condrusi, the Eburones, the Caeraesi, the Paemani, who are called by the common name of Germans [had promised], they thought, to the number of 40,000.’
My research has led me to believe that the roots of the Belgae, their worship of Bel, and tradition of hosting and raiding might be traced back to at least to the sixth century, through the places the Celts migrated to from Gaul, which map onto inscriptions to Bel, and back to their Gaulish homeland.
II. Bellovesus and the Birds of Bel
Writing in the first century BC Livy notes that, during the sixth century BC, ‘The Celts, who make up one of the three divisions of Gaul, were under the the domination of the Bituriges’. Their king was Ambigatus and, under his rule, Gaul ‘grew so rich in corn and so populous, that it seemed hardly possible to govern so great a multitude.’ The old king ‘wishing to relieve his kingdom of a burdensome throng’ decided to send his sister’s sons, Bellovesus and Segovesus, to find new homes.
Here we find a swelling of Celtic people and a son named Bellovesus, who may have taken that name because Bel was the patron deity of his people. We are told they are sent ‘to find such homes as the gods might assign them by augury… Whereupon to Segovesus were by lot assigned the Hercynian highlands (the Black Forest and Bohemia), but to Bellovesus the gods proposed a far pleasanter road, into Italy. Taking with him the surplus population – Bituriges, Arverni, Senones, Aedui, Ambarri, Carnutes, Aulerci – he set out with a vast host, some mounted, some on foot.’
They passed through the Alps into the Po Valley, defeated the Etruscans near the river Ticinus, and established Mediolanum ‘the settlement in the middle of the plain’ (Milan). This became the centre of Cisalpine Gaul ‘Gaul this side of the Alps’. Pompeius Trogus, a native of south Gaul also writing in the 1st century, notes that other Celtic settlements included Como, Brescia, Verona, Bergamo, Trento, and Vicenza. He numbers the host of Bellovesus at 300,000. He says that some ‘settled in Italy… some led by birds spread through the head of the Adriatic and settled in Pannonia.’
It is of interest that the new homes of the Celtic people were assigned by the gods by augury and that they were led by birds. This suggests that Bellovesus or someone amongst his people was an augur, someone skilled in reading the signs of nature, particularly those of birds, and that it was by following those signs they reached and won their settlements. It is possible certain birds were associated with Bel and they saw the will of their gods in the direction of their flight and their victories.
Bellovesus’ invasion paved the way for the influx of more of the Celtic tribes: the Laevi, Libicci, Insubres, and Cenomani, Ananes, Boii, Lingones, and Senones, into the Po Valley in 400 BC. In 390 the Celts marched on Rome, defeated the Roman army at the Tiber tributary to the Allia and destroyed the city, leaving only the defended capitol, and departed with 1,000 pounds of gold.
The Romans were initially terrified by the swollen hoards of the Celts and their attack. They later moved against the Senones between 295 and 283 BC and retook the Po Valley between 197 and 189 BC.
That Bel was the god who led the Celts into Cisalpine Gaul and was worshipped there by both the Celtic peoples and the Romans is proved by numerous inscriptions. 22 were found in Aquiliea (where Bel famously appeared to defend the city in 238 AD) and 6 in Altinum, Concordia, and Iulium Carnicum.
III. Bohemia and Beyond – the Raids of Bolgios and Brennos
Whilst Bellovesus led his people to Italy, Segovesus led his, likely following the Danube, to Bohemia. From there, in 400 BC, there were further migrations with the Celtic peoples establishing new communities in ‘Moravia, Lower Austria, western Hungary, and south-west Slovakia.’ This could explain the inscriptions to Bel in Noricum where he was worshipped as the national god.
During the early fourth century the Celtic war bands passed through the mountains of Illyria and entered negotiations with the King of Macedonia, Alexander the Great. 50 years later Alexander died, his empire fell, and a Celtic warlord named Bolgios led a Celtic and Thracian force against the Macedonians. Bolgios triumphed, the leader of their enemies was killed, and his head was paraded on a spear.
It is notable that the name Bolgios comes from the same root, *belg- or *bolg, as Belgae. As a war leader he was perhaps seen to embody the swollen might of the tribes and their battle fury. It is notable that Bolgios and his people participated in the Celtic tradition of head hunting – taking the heads of the most prestigious of the enemies and displaying them as a sign of their prowess.
Bolgios opened the way for a thrust to the south-east led by Brennos who went on to sack Delphi in 279. This included a raid on the temple to Apollo and the theft of its treasure, which ended up in Toulose. In some accounts Brennos and his men were driven off by their adversaries and in others Apollo took revenge. The Celts were defeated and Brennos, fatigued and humiliated, committed suicide
In some inscriptions Bel is equated Apollo. One wonders whether this was an attempt to replace one shining god with another. Whatever the case it seems it was not the will of the gods and the raiders suffered.
IV. Bel and the Belgae in Britain
The expansion of the Roman Empire pressed some of the Celts back north to their homeland in Gaul and it seems possible this resulted in the hosting of the Belgae described by Caesar in the first century.
By this time some of the Belgae had moved even further north, across the channel, to Britain. Caesar writes: ‘The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands.’
Once again we find the Belgae associated with war and plunder before they settled down to work the land. Barry Cunliffe places the event ‘in the late second or early first century BC since the memory was still alive in Caesar’s time.’ ‘The simplest explanation is that they landed somewhere on the Solent coast and settled in Hampshire, where the Roman geographers later located the Belgae, their capital being Venta Belgarum (‘the market of the Belgae’), modern Winchester.’
Their king, Cunobelinus, ‘Hound of Belinus’, ruled not only the Belgae but the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes from 9 to 40 AD and styled himself as ‘King of the Britons’. He was recognised by Augustus as a client king. His son, Caratacus, expanded his territory into that of the Atrebates, who were also friendly with Rome. The fleeing of their ruler, Verica, to the Emperor Claudius, was the pretext for the Roman invasion of 43 AD. Thenceforth the people of Bel fought against the Romans.
Inscriptions to Bel at Vindolanda and an at unknown site as well as 28 to Belatucadros near Hadrian’s Wall and the dedication of the Ribble, in Lancashire, to Belisama, show Bel and deities who shared the etymology of his name were not only worshipped on the south coast but in the north. Whether Bel’s worship was borne north by the Belgae or whether he was already popular is unknown.
Bel lives on in the medieval Welsh tradition as Beli Mawr and as the consort of Don/Anna he is the father of the Children of Don and, through his daughter, Penarddun, wife of Llyr, an ancestor of the Children of Llyr. He is also listed as an ancestral figure in the genealogies of the Men of the North.
The son of Beli, Caswallon, usurped the throne of Britain from Caradog, the son of Brân the Blessed, a son of Llyr. Another son of Beli, Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint (who was worshipped in Iron Age and Roman Britain by the earlier name of Nodens) later took the throne as a god-king of Britain. Internicine warfare was characteristic of the Brythonic gods and their people.
V. Bel the Bellicose
In this article I have traced the history of Bel and the Belgae and it has revealed that by name and by act they were a warrior people whose lives and culture were based around war and raiding. Bel, ‘Shining’, was a bellicose god who inspired invasions and raids, with a love of shining treasures.
This is perhaps best reflected by the Belgic coins minted during the reign of Cunobelinus.
Their values are at utter odds with my own and many other polytheists living in the twenty-first century for whom war is a source of horror rather than glory and treasure of corruption rather than prestige. My brief encounters with Bel have revealed that he remains a forceful god who likes shiny things.
Bel is also associated with the sun and fire and the Celtic festival of Beltane (1st of May), during which cattle were driven between two ‘Bel-fires’ to purify them before they were moved to summer grazing places. This shows Bel was important not only as a war god for the warrior elite but for cowherds.
The Irish stories suggest, as a bellicose giant with a burning eye, he was slain by his grandson, Lugus/Lugh/Lleu and this is the foundation of the harvest festival of Lughnasadh (1st of August). Thus he held an important position for the people who worked the land in the cross quarter agricultural calendar used in Gaul in the 1st century BC, later in Ireland, and no doubt in Britain too.
The nature of the rites of Bel and how they were practiced and experienced by the Belgae remains unknown. As a devotee of Vindos/Gwyn, son of Nodens/Nudd, grandson of Bel/Beli Mawr I am just beginning to explore these histories and myths and what they might mean for modern polytheists.
“On an island lives the King of Annwn with a mysterious woman and no-one knows whether she is his sister, his beloved, his wife, his queen, or his daughter.”
These were words gifted to me at the beginning of a drumming journey that I undertook with the guidance of my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faerie, after asking him about the links I have intuited between his sister and beloved, Creiddylad, the mare goddess, Rhiannon, and the mother goddess, Modron.
There is little written about Creiddylad, but we know, like Rhiannon, she is a Queen of Annwn. As I have got to know her Creiddylad has revealed she is also associated with roses and horses. One of her names is ‘First Rose’ and she rides and takes the form of a white winged horse. Parallels exist between Rhiannon giving birth to Pryderi and him disappearing the same night as a foal is captured by a monstrous claw and Modron giving birth to Mabon, who is stolen away when he is three nights old. Whilst Creiddylad and Rhiannon are consorts of the King of Annwn, Modron is his daugher.
My journey resulted in the series of visions recorded in my poem ‘The Baby’s Gone’. My gnosis suggests Creiddylad, Rhiannon, and Modron are the same goddess with shifting identities.
Further, in the ‘Rose Queen Triptych’ I was inspired to draw, Creiddylad, ‘The Rose Maiden’, shifts into Rhiannon, ‘The Rose Queen’, then into the Mari Llwyd, ‘The Bone Mare’.
This didn’t come as a great surprise as I had similar experiences with Gwyn. When I first came to polytheism about ten years ago I regarded myself to be a hard polytheist (someone who believes the gods are real individual persons) as opposed to a soft polytheist (someone who believes the gods are aspects of a single god or goddess or psychological archetypes). I still stand by that belief, however, it has become a lot more fluid.
One of the defining characteristics of the gods across cultures is that individual deities have many names and titles. A prime example is the Norse god, Odin. Over forty of his names are recorded in The Poetic Edda alone and he is known by many more in other texts. The Greek goddess, Demeter, possesses several epithets such as aganippe ‘night mare’ and chloe ‘the green shoot’.
Gwyn first revealed himself to me by that name as the King of Annwn/Faerie in 2012. After our initial meeting I made my main focus the myths in which he is known as Gwyn but swiftly found he lay behind a number of our Fairy King and Wild Huntsman legends in Lancashire and my past experiences with the fay and the faerie realm.
My experience of dedicating myself to Gwyn at the cauldron-like White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor confirmed the links I had made between Gwyn feasting on Glastonbury Tor in The Life of St Collen and Pen Annwn presiding over a mead-feast with his cauldron were correct.
I was far more cautious about equating Gwyn with other Kings of Annwn. However, as I worked with the myths, intuiting the similarities between Gwyn and Arawn, both of whom are huntsmen who preside over otherworldly feasts, have beautiful brides, and fight a seasonal battle against a summer god each year, I found myself inhabiting their overlapping tales.
In one instance, in a dream, I was thrust into the role of Pwyll, who took the identity of Arawn in Annwn and had to fight Arawn’s battle, in Arawn’s form, against his rival, Hafgan. Only, in my dream I was taking the role of Gwyn and was preparing to battle against Gwythyr. This resulted in my poem ‘If I Had To Fight Your Battle’. In another, as I was walking my local landscape in winter, I felt for a moment like Arawn-as-Pwyll making a circuit of a thiswordly kingdom, only my identity became conjoined, instead, with Gwyn’s as Winter’s King. Again, I recorded my experience in a poem: ‘Winter Kingdom’. To me this proves Gwyn ‘White’ and Arawn (whose name a translation has not been agreed on) are names or titles of the same god who has shifting identities across time and place.
Similar experiences from intuiting links in the myths and being gifted with poems and visions have led me to believe the King of Annwn goes by many other names. These include Afallach, the Apple King who presides over Avalon and Melwas who shares similar associations with Glastonbury, Llwyd ‘Grey’ who puts an enchantment on the land and abducts Rhiannon and Pryderi in The Mabinogion, Brenin Llwyd, ‘The Grey King’ who haunts the misty Snowdonian mountains, Ugnach, a figure with ‘white hounds’ and ‘great horns’ whose otherworld feast Taliesin refuses to attend, and Ogyrven the Giant, who presides over the spirits of inspiration.
Additionally, the King of Annwn spoke to me directly of his shifting identities in this poem:
I speak from the infinite joining of the circle as the snake bites its tail
the moment of awen in every always of the universe
the sea behind the sea the land behind the land the sun behind the sun.
I come from many deaths. From many deaths I am reborn.
Dis, Vindonnus, Vindos, Llwyd, Brenin Llwyd, Arawn, Ugnach, Melwas, Ogyrven.
Across the sea I am Finn. For tonight I am Gwyn.
Thus it is unsurprising his consort, the Queen of Annwn, has many shifting identities too.
Interestingly, when I was involved with Dun Brython, it was very much Rhiannon/Rigantona who brought the group together in the beginning and I came later as a devotee of Gwyn. One of the other members also had a strong relationship with Gwyn and it was member Greg Hill’s translations of poems featuring Ogyrven and Ugnach that helped me decipher the aforementioned connections. When Greg and I set up the Awen ac Awenydd group many other Gwyn devotees were drawn to it and the King and Queen of Annwn feel very central to the Brythonic tradition in the modern day.
I see her, the one I love, surrounded by wilted flowers. Her sheets, her dress, are torn, bloody. It’s as if something with a monstrous claw… Do not awake oh innocent one taste the blood on your lips.
“The baby’s gone.”
She’s sitting bolt upright clutching nothing to her breast staring at her bloody hands sharp nails and has she bitten her tongue?
And above the accusations the howling of a stag-hound bitch for her six slaughtered pups.
“The baby’s gone.”
The circles beneath her eyes are dark as the moon that has ceased to ride across the night skies as she crawls on her hands and knees through the long dark tunnels.
Upon her back she carries the world as a theatre acting out a mystery play that begins as a nativity and grows dark.
“The baby’s gone.”
And is that his laughter she hears on the other side of the wall or is it some changeling she follows fingers tracing hieroglyphs?
Has this happened before and did she draw these very pictures to remind herself? Seek not the truth at the heart of the labyrinth dear one.
“The baby’s gone.”
In the play I am evil – on my head there are bull’s horns. They dare not admit I am her father or lover or brother reaching out from behind the curtains to take the son who is mine from where she lay with another.
“The baby’s gone.”
Where did I put him this time?
She’s tracing the outline of an otter and she is splashing through the water on the bank of a river with him trying to catch a silver salmon slipping
through his claws turning to stone –
a cold dead speckled fish and next the dragonfly that landed on the end of her nose and how we laughed…
She did not see the wolf in me.
“The baby’s gone.”
Yet I saw her wild horse.
She’s close to touching the truth. She’s reading the symbols like braille. On her back the bone mare is riding to the stable where the claw lies severed fingers clutching neither boy nor foal but emptiness.
(We cannot hold what we love.)
He is the object of her riddles.
“The baby’s gone.”
I am behind her curtains.
On the stage there is a man beneath her skirts and the time of revelation is drawing nigh.
“The baby’s gone.”
When she reaches the heart of the labyrinth the truth is too terrible to behold the centre unfolds.
She gallops back into not-knowing.
She is waiting outside the stable for the old man leading a colt with a boy upon his back.
Afallach, a Brythonic god whose name is derived from afal ‘apple’, is best known for his associations with Ynys Afallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or the Isle of Avalon. In his Speculum Ecclesiae (1216)Giraldus Cambrensis says: ‘Avallonia is so called either from the British aval which means apple, because that place abounded with apples, or from a certain (A)vallo, lord of that land’.
Giraldus identifies the Isle of Avalon with Glastonbury, in De Instructione Principium (1193 -9): ‘what is now called Glastonia was anciently called Insula Avallonia, for it is like an island, wholly surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in British Inis Avallon, that is the apple-bearing island.’
William of Mamlesbury, in The Antiquities of Glastonbury (1216), follows this tradition. Glastonbury ‘is also well known as by the name of Insula Avalloniae’. He says it may be ‘named after a certain Avalloc who is said to have lived there with his daughters on account of it being a solitary place. (1)
Ynys Afallach is described as a paradisal island by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini (1150). ‘The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.’
Geoffrey names the nine daughters of Afallach as Morgen, ‘Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.’ He notes Morgen ‘is first of them’, ‘skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person’. She knows the properties of herbs, is skilled in healing, and mathematics and has the ability to shift shape.
Giraldus Cambrensis, in De Instructione Principium (1193), also writes of,‘Morganis, a noble matron who was the ruler and patron of these parts… the island which is now called Glastonia.”
II. Afallach – King of Annwn
It is significant that Morgan is referred to as a ‘noble matron’ for in the Triads she is otherwise named as ‘Modron daughter of Afallach’. Modron is a later form of Matrona ‘Mother’. The Mothers or Matrons were worshipped across northwestern Europe during the Romano-British period.
In Peniarth MS. 70 Modron speaks of herself as ‘the daughter of the King of Annwn’. Annwn means ‘the Deep’ and is the medieval Welsh name for the Otherworld which is a paradisal location.
In The Life of St Collen (14th C)we find an account of Collen’s visit to the castle of Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn, on Glastonbury Tor:
‘he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom.’
It seems likely Gwyn and Afallach are the same deity. Both are named as King of Annwn and are associated with Glastonbury/the Island of Avalon. Afallach is named as the grandson of Beli Mawr in the Harleian Genealogies (1100)and we find out that Gwyn is the grandson of Beli Mawr from Lludd ac Llefelys (1225) where his father, Lludd/Nudd, is named as the son of Beli.
Further traces of his mythos can be found in ‘Preideu Annwn’ where Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ is depicted presiding over an otherworldly mead feast and as the owner of countless treasures including a cauldron ‘kindled by the breath of nine maidens’ with ‘a dark trim and pearls’.
Its refusal to ‘boil a coward’s food’ suggests that it is connected with the initiation of bards such as ‘the loyal lad’, Gwair who, in the poem, is singing before the spoils of Annwn in a heavy grey chain.
III. Afallach and Modron in the Old North
In the Triads and Peniarth MS. 70 Afallach’s daughter, Modron, is the mother of the children of Urien. In Triad 70 the second of the ‘Three Fair Womb Burdens’ is the following: ‘Owain, son of Urien and Morfudd his sister who were carried together in the womb of Modron daughter of Afallach’.
In Peniarth MS. 70 we find the full story of the conception of Modron’s children:
‘In Denbighshire there is a parish which is called Llanferes, and there is there Rhyd y Gyfarthfa (the Ford of Barking). In the old days the hounds of the countryside used to come together to the side of that the ford to bark, and nobody dared go to find out what was there until Urien Rheged came. And when he came to the side of the ford he saw nothing except a woman washing. And then the hounds ceased barking, and Urien seized the woman and he had his will of her; and then she said “God’s blessing on the feet which brought thee here.” “Why?” said he. “Because I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy.” And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.’
The setting of this story in Denbighshire is strange because Urien was the king of the northern kingdom of Rheged during the sixth century. Urien’s seat may have been Luguvalium (present-day Carlisle), on the River Eden, and his realm likely extended throughout the Eden Valley and much of Cumbria to the Solway Firth and perhaps included Dumfries and Galloway. (2)
The name ‘Eden’ holds associations with Paradise and thus with Afallach/Gwyn and his brother Edern. (3) When Rheged was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons some of the fleeing Britons may have taken the tale to Wales.
I believe this story has its basis in the pre-Christian tradition of a human king entering a sacred marriage with the goddess of the land. There is plentiful evidence for the cultus of Modron/Matrona and her son, Mabon/Maponos in the form of altars and place names in northwest England and southern Scotland.
Altars and inscriptions to the Mother Goddesses and the Mothers the Fates have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness, Bowness-on-Solway, Ribchester, and Lund. There is an altar to Apollo-Maponus at Ribchester. Lochmaben and the Clochmaben stone are named after him.
In The Harleian Genealogies the kings of Rheged trace their lineage to Coel Hen and ultimately to Afallach and Beli Mawr. This suggests that Beli, Afallach, Modron, and Mabon were their ancestral deities.
The references to Owain as Mabon in the poetry attributed to Urien’s bard, Taliesin, are suggestive not only of his divine birth, but that he possessed the power to invoke and take on the identity of Mabon.
The story from Peniarth MS. 70 demonstrates the turning of the kings of Rheged to Christianity. Here we find Modron depicted as a sinister figure, as the Washer at the Ford, suggesting links with Morgan and possibly with the Irish death-goddess Morrigan, surrounded by equally sinister hounds (who are likely to be the Hounds of Annwn who hunt the souls of the dead with her father). To see a woman washing one’s clothes was a death portent as was hearing or seeing otherwordly hounds.
Urien, a self-proclaimedly Christian King, ignores the portents, seeing ‘nothing but a woman washing’ and rapes Modron. Her words about being fated to wash there until she conceives a son by a Christian have clearly been put into her mouth by a Christian interlocutor to obscure her role as a sovereignty goddess who holds power not over the land and Annwn but fate itself. Following Urien’s abuse it is no surprise he is assassinated and this leads to the fall of Rheged and the Old North.
The connections of Afallach and Modron with the Old North live on in their folkloric associations with the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass). In these areas of Cumbria Afallach is known as Eveling, which is an Anglicised version of his name.
IV. Afallach and Gwallen in North Wales
Afallach’s associations with Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in Denbighshire have been noted. Near the hill fort of Moel-y-Gaer in Flintshire is a hamlet called Caerfallwch which means ‘the Fortress of Afallach’.
From the ‘Hanesyn Tract’ we learn that Afallach had another daughter called Gwallen. She is referred to as ‘Gwalltwen verch Yvallach’ in ‘Digyniad Pendefigaeth Cymru’ and here we learn that she was mistress of Maelgwn, the ruler of Gwynedd during the sixth century, and the mother of Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, who ‘was not acceptable to some as prince, only as a regent.’
The kings of Gwynedd traced their ancestry through Cunedda to Afallach and Beli Mawr. It is possible that, like Modron, Gwallen was perceived as a sovereignty goddess. Her name might be translated as ‘White Hair’ (from gwallt ‘hair’ and gwyn/(g)wen ‘white’) suggesting Annuvian characteristics shared with her father, Afallach/Gwyn. The rejection of her son may be indicative not only of the laws surrounding illegitimacy, but Christian superstitions surrounding her otherworld nature.
Maelgwn’s wife was Sanan ferch Cyngen. They had a daughter called Eurgain who was married to the northern warlord Elidyr Mwynfawr. According to The Black Book of Chirk (1592 – 1667):
‘After the death of Maelgwn… many of the nobility of Cambria disdained to yield subjection to Rhun his son, being a bastard begot upon Gwallten the daughter of Afallach, Maelgwn’s concubine, especially the nobility of Arfon, who privately sent unto Elidyr Mwynfawr aforesaid to come speedily to Cambria, to aid him in recovery of the kingdom in the right of his children by Eurgain the daughter and heir of Maelgwn’.
The voyage of Elidyr and Eurgain and their companions from the Old North to Wales is recorded in Triad 44 ‘Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’. It is memorable because ‘seven and a half’ people are said to have crossed sea on the back of the water horse Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’.
‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr… carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’
Du y Moroedd is the horse Gwyn ap Nudd rides when hunting for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ and likely for the souls of the dead. (4) Elidyr met his end battling against Rhun at Aber Mefydd. Perhaps Du not only carried them to meet their deaths but to the Otherworld afterwards too.
What this story serves to consolidate is that Afallach/Gwyn and his daughter, Gwallen, had strong and longstanding connections with the Brythonic peoples who claimed descent from Beli Mawr.
V. Lugus and the Island of Apples
In the Irish myths we find Emain Ablach ‘The Island of Apples’. In ‘Ar an doirseoir ris an deaghlaoch’ ‘The doorkeeper said to the noble warrior’, a medieval Irish poem based on the arrival of Lugh at the court of the Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, Lugh introduces himself as ‘a poet from Emain Ablach / of swans and yews’ before gaining entry due to his mastery of many skills. This suggests Lugh might have undergone some kind of bardic initiation on Ablach/Afallach’s isle.
Lugh is the son of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethniu, daughter of the Formorian giant, Balor. After hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, Balor locked Eithne away in a tower on Tory Island, but this did not prevent Cian from entering and fathering Lugh. Balor then attempted to stop the child gaining maturity by preventing him from getting a name and a wife.
In ‘Balor of the Evil Eye and Lui Lavada’ Cian takes Lui to Tory Island where numerous apple trees grow. They pose as gardeners. When Lui shows a good deal of skill picking up the apples Balor says: ‘Tog leat Lui Lavada’ ‘take away with you little long hand’ and this is how he receives his name. Lui/Lugh kills Balor with a slingshot or spear through his burning or poisonous eye.
We find a striking parallel in The Mabinogi (1350 – 1410) in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who is cognate with the Irish Lugh. Lleu is the son of Gwydion and Arianrhod, the son and daughter of Beli Mawr and Don. He was likely conceived by magical subterfuge. (5) In this story it is not Lleu’s grandfather, Beli, but his mother, Arianrhod who curses him with three fates: he will never win a name, arms or a wife. This is because of her ‘shame’ at the slight to her virginity caused by Gwydion.
Gwydion helps Lleu win his name by disguising them as shoemakers and luring Arianrhod onto his boat to get a shoe fitted. When she is on board Lleu shoots a wren that lands on the deck ‘in the leg, between the tendon and the bone’ and she exclaims ‘it is with a skilful hand that the fair one has hit it’ and hence he is called Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair-haired one with the skilful hand’.
Instead of killing his grandfather, Beli, with his spear, Lleu kills Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuwedd. Gronw, a hunter who arrives with a pack of hounds chasing a deer and turns up at night to seduce Lleu’s beloved is likely to be the King of Annwn, Arawn, who displayed his shapeshifting abilities earlier in the text, and may be identified with Afallach/Gwyn, his cousin.
The Welsh and the Irish myths contain suggestions of a shared mythos surrounding Beli/Balor, Ablach/Afallach, Eithne/Arianrhod, Cian/Gwydion, and Lleu/Lugh/Lugus (his pan-Celtic name) that was important to the people of the Brythonic kingdoms who claimed descent from Beli. (6)
VI. The Apple King in Peneverdant
The name of my home town, Penwortham, was Peneverdant in the Domesday Book. The first element, pen, ‘head’ is Brythonic and refers to present-day Castle Hill. Like Glastonbury Tor this headland stood on marshland and is an important sacred site for pagans and Christians.
The dedication of the church on its summit and well at its foot (now dried up) to St Mary Virgin and the fairy funeral legend featuring a fairy leader suggest the presence of a mother goddess and fairy king.
I know from personal experience the fairy king is Afallach/Gwyn. I first intuited the goddess to be Gwyn’s mother, Anrhuna, who I know as the Mother of the Marsh, but am now considering that another presence who better fits the image of Mary in the church with her shining son is Modron with Mabon.
I hadn’t considered this possibility because I hadn’t realised Afallach and Gwyn were the same deity. Looking back I should have realised earlier for I spent a considerable amount of time in the Avalon orchards at Glastonbury when I visited at Calan Mai in 2013 and 2015. On the latter occasion this inspired me to plant five apple trees in Greencroft Valley with the Friends group. Three have survived and two, the Epicure and Sowman’s seedling, have borne apples this year.
I have been making connections between Afallach and Gwyn as I have harvested these apples and those from the two apple trees in my parent’s garden. I’ve noticed they’ve come earlier this year for I usually gather the last before Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September and offer an apple to him with pork.
Of course the sweet and juicy apples we eat in Britain today were imported by the Romans. Yet we do have a native apple tree – the crab apple. Although its fruits are too sour to eat raw there is no doubt our ancient ancestors cooked them and served them with meat as a welcome addition to their diet. The fact that apples are harvested at the time of Gwyn’s Feast further consolidates his identity with Afallach. (7)
Another piece of potentially significant information I first heard orally but only found unreferenced online on a website called ‘Ireland Calling’ is the following: ‘The Celts… were said to bury apples in graves as food for the dead, a practice that is shown to date back over 7,000 years to Europe and West Asia where petrified remains of sliced apple have been found in tombs from 5,000BC.’ However, I haven’t been able to find a trustworthy source naming the date or location of these burials.
If it was proved that the Celtic peoples and in particular the Britons buried their dead with apples this might be suggestive of an offering to Afallach/Gwyn in return for taking the souls of the dead to Annwn.
Whatever the case my offering of an apple to the Apple King at his feast this year will have heightened significance and his relationship with Modron and Mabon opens new horizons to explore.
(1) Malmesbury also provides a fascinating alternative foundation story based around apples. ‘Glasteing found his sow under an apple tree near the ancient church, and because apples were rare in those parts when he first arrived there, he called it Insular Avalloniae in his tongue, that is, Isle of Apples’. (2) Urien’s associations with the Eden Valley are suggested by the poems attributed to Taliesin, Urien’s bard, who refers to Urien as the ‘ruler of Llwyfenedd’, the Lyvennet Valley (the Lyvennet flows into the Eden). (3) However this river was known as Ituna ‘water’ or ‘rushing’during the Roman-British period. Urien was also named ‘ruler of Yrechwedd’. Echwedd means ‘flowing water’ and this could be the origin of this appellation. (4) In Culhwch ac Olwen (1190) Twrch Trwyth was allegedly a human chieftain turned into a boar by God on account of his sins. Behind this story lies his abilities as a shapeshifter and the fact Gwyn’s hunt, ‘the Wild Hunt’, was not really for boar but for human souls. (5) Gwydion’s fathering of Lleu is not explicit in the main source for Lleu’s story, the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, but is evidenced in other sources such as a poem by Lewys Môn and Harleian 3859 where Lleu is spoken of as ‘Lou Hen map Guidgen’. (6) The significance of Lugus is supported by his giving his name to Luguvalium (Carlisle) which means ‘Strong in Lugus’ and was ruled by Urien Rheged, to ‘the rock of Lleu’, the seat of the rulers of Gododdin from whom Maelgwn Gwynedd was descended, and to Dinas Lleu in the kingdom of Gwynedd.
In Ireland’s Immortals Mark Williams speaks of Bel as ‘a completely spurious god’ who ‘lingers in popular accounts of Celtic mythology’. When I read these words I sensed the mirth and indignation of Bel, ‘Shining One’, a god I have known for several years whose presence I associate with the sun and its light shining on water. In this article I will argue that Bel is not only not spurious, but is one of our most significant Celtic deities.
The names ‘Bel’, ‘Belino’, ‘Belinos’, ‘Belenus’, are attested on over fifty altars mainly from Gallia Norbenensis, Noricum, and Cisalpine Gaul, showing he was widely worshipped as a continental Celtic god. Belenus was the patron deity of Aquileia and the Historia Augusta (117 – 284 CE) relates that he aided his people in the defence of the city against the Roman armies led by Maximinus.
In Ausonius’ Poems Commemorating the Professors of Bordeaux (395 CE) we find lines about druids serving Belenus:
You are sprung from the Druids of Bayeux, If the report does not lie. To you is a sacred lineage, From the temple of Belenus.
Nor will I forget The old man named Phoebicius, Who through the servant of (the Gaulish god) Belenus Received no profit thereby Sprung, it said, from the Druids Of Armorica (Brittany), He received a chair at Bordeaux Through the help of his son.
Although there are no inscriptions to Bel in Britain the Ptolemy records the estuary of the Ribble as Belisama Aest. in his Geography (150 CE). Belisama means ‘Very Shining One’. She is a Gallo-Brythonic goddess with altars in Vaison-la-Romaine and Saint-Lizier and is perceived as Bel’s consort.
Bel may have been the patron god of the Belgae tribe who inhabited northern Gaul and southern Britain during the Iron Age. Will Parker claims ‘Belinos was a powerful cult figure amongst the Belgic dynasties’ and links him to Beli Mawr ‘the personification of the Belgic peoples’.
Beli was an ancestral deity who fathered Lludd/Nudd who was known as Nodens in Iron Age Britain. Parallels with the Irish Tuatha Dé Danann suggest that, like his Irish cognate, Nuada, Nodens was the ruler of the Children of Don, thus his mother was Don and his father was Beli their other children were the skilled gods Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Arianrhod, Gofannon, and Amaethon. The marriage of Beli and Don may date back to 250 BCE when people from the Danube joined the Belgae.
As the father of Lludd/Nudd, Beli was the grandfather of Gwyn ap Nudd and Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, which has particular meaning to me as Gwyn is my patron. As the father of Arianrhod he was the grandfather of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and this may be connected to the Irish tale of Balor and Lugh.
Another of his daughters, likely with Don, was Penarddun. She was the mother of Brân and Manawydan with Llyr. This shows Beli was an ancestral figure both for the Children of Don and the Children of Llyr.
Beli was also the father of Caswallon/Cassivellaunos whose name means ‘lover (i.e. devotee) of Belinos’. His people were known as the Catuvellauni, ‘the Host of Belinos’ and one of their leaders was called Cunobelinos ‘Hound of Belinus’. In the Second Branch of The Mabinogion when Brân takes his armies overseas he leaves his son, Caradog, and seven men in charge. Caswallon dons an invisibility cloak, kills six of the men, excepting Pendaren Dyfed, and is crowned King of Britain.
Parker argues that Beli and Brân may originate from the Belgic warlords Bolgios* and Brennus who were responsible for expeditions in Macedonia and the sacking of Delphi in 279 BCE. They appear as two rival kings, Belinus and Brennus, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Britains.
Many of the royal houses of Wales and the Old North (Gwynedd, Powys, Rheged, Strathclyde and the Gododdin) trace their ancestry back to Beli and Don (in the genealogies she is called Anna). Beli is listed as the grandfather of Afallach, a King of Annwn and the father of Modron.
Afallach may be another name of Gwyn, a King of Annwn, who we know is the son of Lludd/Nudd through Beli. Gwyn is associated with Avalon, ‘the island of apples’, one of his sacred seats being Glastonbury Tor. Afallach is anglicised as Eveling and is said to dwell with Modron at the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass).
Matrona/Modron is the mother of Maponos/Mabon and they are depicted on altars across Britain particularly in the north. Urien, King of Rheged, raped Modron, and she bore his son and daughter, Owain and Morfydd.
Thus, far from being a spurious god, Bel is a deeply significant ancestral god in the lineages of the Children of Don and Llyr and the Welsh and Northern dynasties.
He lives on in later folklore as a giant charming story about how he gave his name to Belgrave. He claimed he could get from Mountsorrel to Leicester in three leaps, but these proved to be his undoing and death. The association of his deed with local place names is recorded in this rhyme:
Mountsorrel he mounted at Rothley he rode by, At Wanlip he leaped o’er, At Birstall he burst his gall, At Belgrave he was buried at.
Bel also gives his name to Belmont and Belthorn here in Lancashire. I believe his associations with Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, run deep. Nodens/Nudd was venerated in Lancashire and likely Gwyn and there are two altars to the Mothers and one to Maponos on the Ribble. This suggests some kind of cultus surrounded this ‘family’ of deities during the Romano-British period and likely in the Iron Age and even earlier.
Bel is associated with the Irish fire festival of Beltane which in Britain is known as Nos Galan Mai. One of my first encounters with Bel was at a time when I was planning a ritual for my local Pagan society to mark the occasion and, whilst walking by the Ribble I heard the lines: ‘Bel and Belisama / join together / fire and water / sun on the river’. This led to the creation of a rite to Bel and Belisama centring on the mixing of fire and water and jumping over a bowl with a lit candle in it. This, with the backdrop of the Ribble, is still my representation of Bel and Belisama on my altar now.
*Bolgios means ‘to bulge’ and may relate to him being a giant or swelling with battle rage like the distant descendant of Beli, Cú Chulainn: ‘He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant.’ Brân, his grandson in the genealogies, was also depicted as a giant too big to fit in a house large as a mountain with a ridge for a nose and eyes like lakes.
Today is the first day of September. This name originates from the Latin septum ‘seven’ which derives from a time when it was the seventh month because the Roman calendar began with March.
In Wales this month is known as mis Medi. According to Andrew Breeze this name is related to medaf ‘I reap’ and to met ‘cut, harvest’. This seems to be a fitting etymology for the month when the last of the crops are cut down and harvested and the last of the meadows are mown or reaped.
Breeze claims that the name of my local Iron Age tribe, the Setantii, who inhabited the plains of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire between the Mersey and the Wyre may be corrupted from met.
Breeze suggests they were less reapers of crops than of men. To this our archaeology recording the burials of severed heads and the head-hunting depicted in poetry from the Old North bears testimony.
My patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic death-god is a reaper of souls. Some of his worshippers, such as Kristoffer Hughes, see him as death himself, as Britain’s original grim reaper.
Gwyn ap Nudd, helper of hosts, Armies fall before the hooves of your horse As swiftly as cut reeds to the ground.
Interestingly, as the Setantii inhabited my local landscape when it was mainly marshland and mossland and there is scarce evidence for agriculture, it seems likely they would have cut and used reeds (although reed cutting usually takes place from December to April rather than in September).
I first met Gwyn on August the 31st 2012 close to sunset. As, for the Celts, days begin at sundown not sunrise, this would be very close to the beginning of September. Since he came into my life I have been involved with the reaping of local wildflower meadows and how this shares a kinship with Gwyn harvesting souls and cutting down his rival, Gwythyr ap Graidol, a god of summer and seed.
In Cornwall September is known as Gwyngala ‘White Fields’ suggesting associations with Gwyn.
Return of the Reaper
I hear you galloping back your horse’s hooves are like scythes glinting in
the September breeze.
I will pick up the blade again the long-handled rake bend my back with you
reap these armies.
Heads of grass and meadow flowers fall limbs folding. Scattered shields. Bright helms.
A woman weeps.
Your beloved mourns your rival. His headless corpse on the stubble dead again.
Spirits are freed
to join your host mingling in night air in fields of white mist as we stop and drink toast the harvests
Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ appears in the medieval Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen as the rival of Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ for the love of Creiddylad ‘Heart’s Desire’. That he is a fitting opponent for Gwyn and consort for Creiddylad, who are the son and daughter of the ancient British god Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, suggests he is also an important British deity.
Strip away the Christian veneer from Culhwch and Olwen and we have a story in which Gwyn (Winter’s King) and Gwythyr (Summer’s King) battle for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess). On Nos Galan Gaeaf, Winter’s Eve, Gwyn abducts Creiddylad to Annwn* and Gwythyr rides to Annwn and attempts to rescue her and is imprisoned. The abduction of Creiddylad and imprisonment of Gwythyr explain the coming of winter. On Calan Mai, the First Day of Summer, Gwythyr battles Gwyn for Creiddylad, wins, and she returns with him to Thisworld and together they bring fertility to the land. This explains the coming of summer. Gwyn and Gwythyr may earlier have been seen to slay one another on Nos Galan Gaeaf and Calan Mai and take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad, who acted as a powerful sovereignty figure rather than just a maiden to be fought over.
It is clear from this tale that Gwythyr is our ancient British god of summer. In another episode in Culhwch and Olwen we catch a glimpse of Gwythyr’s associations with fire and sunshine. As he is walking over a mountain he hears ‘weeping and wailing’ and sees its source is a burning anthill. He cuts the anthill off at ground level and rescues the ants from the blaze. We do not know what caused the fire. Did their nest, which ants orientate toward the sun, a little like solar panels, in a summer day, absorb too much heat? Or was the fire caused by Gwythyr’s scorching feet? We have seen that one translation of his father’s name, Greidol, is Scorcher, and we know wildfires break out in the summer. Here we see the dangers of fire and the sun and Gwythyr’s attempt at remediation.
The ants go on to help Gwythyr to gather nine hestors of flax seed which was sown in ‘tilled red soil’, in a field that has remained barren, so it can be ploughed into a new field, to provide the linen for Olwen’s veil in preparation for her marriage to Culhwch. It is possible to read Gwythyr’s association with seed being linked to the ‘male’ side of fertility and with doing the groundwork for the arrival of summer for his bride, Creiddylad, might also require a linen veil for her wedding dress.
The ancient Britons used fire to clear the forest to plant hazel trees and wildfires bring about new growth – in Gwythyr’s associations with fire and seed we find these processes.
These stories show that Gwythyr is a god of summer, fire, and generation in Thisworld who is opposed to Gwyn, a god of winter, ice, and the destructive forces of Annwn, the Otherworld. On the surface one is a bringer of life and the other a bringer of death yet their relationship is one of interdependence. It is necessary they take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad as an eternal summer or an endless winter would have equally deadly consequences for both worlds.
As Gwythyr’s story was passed on through the oral tradition he and his father were depicted as allying with Arthur against Gwyn and the ‘demons’ of Annwn and playing a role in their demise. Thus Gwythyr is associated with other culture gods like Amaethon, the Divine Ploughman, and Gofannon, the Divine Smith, who help the Christian king to civilise the wild and shut out the Annuvian.
This process may be traced back to the Neolithic revolution when farming began to replace the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the cultivation of seed hunting and foraging, the grain god (Gwythyr) the hunter (Gwyn). Christians did their best to eliminate the veneration of Gwyn by depicting him and his spirits as demons yet they continued to be loved in folk culture as the fairies and their king.
The stories of Gwythyr, by name, did not survive in the folk tradition, but it possible to find a likeness between him and other grain gods** who die a ritual death at the end of the harvest – when Gwyn, the harvester of souls, reaps down his rival and Gwythyr and the seed return to Annwn.
From the Neolithic period our society as a whole has favoured Gwythyr over Gwyn. We have created an eternal summer with the fire of Gwythyr in the engines of industry creating a society in which the cold and darkness of winter has been eliminated by electric lighting and central heating. Crops grow all year round under artificial lights. This has unsurprisingly led to global heating, to the climate crisis, to the scorching fires on Winter Hill where I perceive Gwythyr battling his rival. Ironically, and tellingly, these two great gods and the great goddess they battle for have been forgotten.
Yet, slowly, the worship of Gwyn and Creiddylad is reviving amongst modern polytheists. I know few who venerate Gwythyr and believe this is because his stories have been subsumed by those of other grain gods. This is a shame, for Gwythyr’s stories contain deep wisdom relating how fire, sun, summer and seed have played a role in the climate crisis from a polytheist perspective.
As a devotee of Gwyn, committed to the otherside, to the Annuvian, to redressing the balance, Gwythyr is a god whose powers I acknowledge through the summer and during the harvest period although I do not worship him. I would be interested to hear how and whether other polytheists relate to Gwythyr at this time.
*Annwn has been translated as ‘the Deep’ and the ‘Not-World’ and is the medieval Welsh Otherworld or Underworld. **Such as Lleu Llaw Gyffes/Lugus and John Barleycorn.