In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn recites the names of a series of northern British warriors* whose deaths he attended ‘when ravens croaked on gore’.
I was there when Gwenddolau was slain, Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry, When ravens croaked on gore.
I was there when Bran was slain, Ywerydd’s son of wide fame, When battle-ravens croaked.
I was there when Llachau was slain Arthur’s son, wondrous in wordcraft, When ravens croaked on gore.
I was* there when Meurig was slain, Careian’s son, honoured in praise, When ravens croaked on flesh.
I was there when Gwallog was slain, From a line of princes, Grief of the Saxons, son of Lleynog.
The repetition of lines featuring croaking battle-ravens at the end of four of the five three line stanzas drives home the devastation wreaked upon the battlefields where these northern men were killed, some in internecine rivalry, some battling against the Anglo-Saxons. It shows few or none of the Britons on their side lived on to bury their dead, who were scorned by their enemies.
The image of battlefield ravens and other carrion birds along with wolves and/or dogs feasting on the corpses of the dead is common throughout the poetry of the ‘heroic age’ across Northern Europe and expresses the gristly reality of conflict and its aftermath, which few of us witness first hand today.
In it we find the expression of attitudes towards heroism, war, death, and the battle-dead. Although most of this poetry was composed after the pre-Christian peoples of Northern Europe had been converted to Christianity it is still possible to find hints of pre-Christian superstitions surrounding ravens and other carrion birds as ‘death-eaters’ who were associated with the death gods and goddesses.
The sense of Gwyn’s omnipresence on the battlefields where these northern British warriors died combined with our knowledge from other sources that he is a ruler of Annwn (‘the Deep’ – the Brythonic Otherworld) suggests he attended their deaths as a psychopomp to gather their souls back to his realm and that, like him and his hounds, the death-eating ravens served a role in their transition.
An examination of the literature surrounding battlefield ravens in the Brythonic and other Northern European cultures suggests they were viewed not only as carrion-eaters associated with the aftermath of battles but as manifestations of the death-gods, those who served them, and the dead.
In the Brythonic tradition there is a great deal of raven imagery in The Gododdin, which relates the tragic Battle of Catraeth, where over three hundred Brythonic warriors died fighting the Anglo-Saxons.Here a battle is referred to as a ‘raven’s feast’ and ‘raven’s gain’. Whilst one of the warriors ‘fed the ravens on the rampart of the fortress’ another became ‘food for ravens’ ‘benefit to the crow’. This reflects a possible heroic adage that the fate of a warrior was either to feed the ravens or become food for them. In ‘The Battles of Gwallog’ ‘there are… many stinking corpses, / and scattered crows’.
The rulers of the northern British kingdom of Rheged were associated with ravens. Three ravens appear on their coat of arms (designed in the Middle Ages) which might have been based on a raven banner**.
Having fed the ravens most of his life Urien Rheged becomes food for ravens after his assassination. Whilst his cousin, Llywarch Hen, rides away with his head, ‘on his white bosom the sable raven gluts.’
In Rhonabwy’s Dream, the warriors of Owain Rheged take the form of ravens and feast on their living enemies. After a defeat by Arthur’s men, the squire ‘raised the banner’, and they took revenge. ‘They carried off the heads of some, the eyes of others, the ears of others, and the arms of others and took them up into the air. There was a great commotion in the sky with the fluttering of jubilant ravens and their croaking, and another great commotion with the screaming of men being attacked’.
In the Irish myths ravens and crows are associated with the battle-goddesses the Badb and the Morrigan. The name Badb means ‘crow’. In ‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’ she appears as ‘a wild, impetuous, precipitate, furious, dark, frightful, voracious, merciless badb, screaming and fluttering over their heads’ with ‘ancient birds’, ‘destroying demons of the air’, and a ‘phantom host’. In The Tain, the Badb is invoked by the war-cry of Cú Chulainn along with ‘fiends of the air’ and it is only when the Morrigan settles as a raven on his shoulder that his enemies know he is dead. In Anglo-Saxon literature the raven is one of three ‘beasts of battle’ with the eagle and wolf, hungry for, and feasting on the corpses of the dead. In ‘Judith’ ‘the dark raven’ is described as ‘a slaughter-greedy bird’. In ‘Elene’ ‘dark and slaughter-fierce’ it ‘rejoiced in its work’. In the Old English Exodus, in a verse that opens with screams of war-birds, it is described as ‘the dark chooser of the slain’.
This is interesting in relation to the lore surrounding ravens in Norse mythology. Two ravens named Huginn ‘thought’ and Muninn ‘memory’ fly across the world to gather information for Odin, the god who receives half the souls of the battle-dead in his hall, Valhalla, who are taken there by his valkyries.
The term valkyrie comes from valr (the battle-slain)and kjósa (to choose) and means ‘chooser of the slain’. Valkyries and ravens were frequently depicted together, such as in ‘Raven Song’, where a valkyrie asks a raven: ‘How is it with ye ravens? Whence are ye come with bloody beak at rithe dawning of the day? Torn flesh is hanging from your talons, and a reek of carrion comes from your mouths. I do not doubt that ye have passed the night amid a scene of carnage’. These companions may have been seen as shapeshifting into one another, as raven-woman figures, like the Badb.
Another intriguing figure, from Danish lore, is the valravn ‘raven of the slain’. These beings are described alternatively as ravens who gain the knowledge and form of men by eating the heart of a fallen king or as restless souls who can only be rid of their animal countenance by drinking the blood or eating the heart of a child. Sometimes they are described as half-raven, half-wolf.
Parallels with other sources suggest ‘the ravens who croak on gore’ who accompany Gwyn may be more than what they seem, that they might be shapeshifters, valkyrie or Babd or Morrigan-like deities.
In relation to this theory it is notable that Gwyn may be identified with Afallach, the father of Morgan. She appears in the Vita Merlini as one of nine sisterswho‘knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on wings’. Morgan and her sisters may be the nine maidens whose breath kindles the fire beneath the Cauldron of the Head of Annwn in a poem attributed to Taliesin called ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. On the surface the names Morgan and Morrigan appear to be similar. However, mor in Welsh means ‘sea’ whereasmór in Irish means ‘great’ and rigan ‘queen’.
Afallach is also the father of Modron, who is raped by Urien Rheged, and bears Owain and Morfudd, in Peniarth MS. 70. Here we find further potential connections between the King of Annwn and the raven-rulers. Whether Morgan and Modron are the same goddess by different names I remain uncertain.
What my research has opened up is the possibility that whilst, on one level, the ravens in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ are physical beings partaking in the visceral reality of feasting on the battle-dead after tragic battles they might also be seen in other ways.
Perhaps they were shapeshifting goddesses who were daughters of Gwyn, valkyrie-like figures who served him, or embodiments of dead or living warriors. These meanings shift and overlap and open new paradigms for understanding the lines about warriors feeding and becoming food for ravens.
Their croaking over gore becomes increasingly sinister in our modern eyes, but may reflect an older worldview in which life feeds on life and the dead on death and to feed the ravens is not an insult but an honour.
* A possible exception being Arthur’s son, Llachau, unless there is an argument for a northern Arthur. ** It seems possible the rulers of Rheged had a raven banner with animistic qualities like those carried by Viking leaders. If the raven flapped its wings there would be victory and if it hung limp, defeat.
The image is ‘The Twa Corbies’, an illustration from Arthur Rackham’s Some British Ballads (2019). Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
I’m back on Idris again at the edge of Llyn Cau alone with the madness of giants surrounded by the battle-fog of Gwenddolau although Arfderydd is distant, Myrddin, the gwyllon, the seven-score men who lapsed into wyllt-ness when battle-rage fled.
The ravens have left and I am alone pondering the edge of a blade lost in my brain-fog, my little Arfderydd, the small traumas etched on my flesh. Battle-scars, battle-madness, the battle- field I thought I’d escaped long ago when you appeared to Myrddin
as the brightness beyond endurance, tore him out of himself and took him to the forest of Celyddon to be healed. When you walked out of the heroic age and took me not like a maiden but like one of your own taught me to fight with Cyledyr, Cynedyr, Cynfelyn,
wilder than beasts of the mountains, to howl with your hounds and exult in the madness of giants bigger than dream. Bull of Battle, Invincible Lord, teach me again the art of turning pain into poetry, to make this battle-fog my strength not my enemy and this edge my blade.
In May I began work on a new mythic book which developed the working title The Dragon’s Tongue. In it I set out on an ambitious project to weave together a narrative about the formation and ordering of the world from a struggle between the Brythonic culture gods against the deities and monsters of Annwn.
It was woven from my personal intuitions about links between Anrhuna, a Brythonic dragon goddess* and the mother with Nodens/Nudd of Vindos/Gwyn and Kraideti/Creiddylad and Tiamat in Enuma Elish and the slaying of Tiamat and her monster-serpents by the culture hero, Marduk, and the battles between the giants and monsters of the otherworld and the Tuatha Dé Danann/Children of Don in ‘The Battle of Moytura’ and ‘The Battle of the Trees’ in the Irish and Welsh myths.
In the first section ‘Anrhuna and Nodens’ I told the story of the creation of the universe from the crochan – cauldron or womb – of Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, and of how Anrhuna slipped into Annwn ‘the Deep’ and gave birth to dragon-children who departed to shape worlds including ours.
The Old Mother birthed Bel and Don and from their union came Nodens, Uidianos/Gwydion, Brigantia, Ambactonos/Amaethon, Gobannos/Gofannon, and Aryanrou/Arianrhod. When these deities desired to bring order to the chaos of our world, ruled by dragons, Nodens went to negotiate with them, fell in love with Anrhuna, and this resulted in the birth of Vindos and Kraideti.
When Nodens failed to return his kindred made war against him and the dragons and Lugus/Lleu, who was begotten on Aryanrou by Uidianos by magic, slew Anrhuna, and her nine heads were bound on the Towers of the Wyrms. This resulted in the weakening and binding of the dragons of the world and the imprisonment of the giants (early children of the Old Mother) in their own fortresses.
In the second section ‘Vindos and Kraideti’ the children watched the defeat of their father and slaughter of their mother from the secret place where Nodens had hidden them and Vindos vowed to take vengeance. The pair rescued their mother’s womb from where it had been taken after her death by the winged serpents at the cost of Kraideti sacrificing her own womb in exchange, leaving her infertile.
From her womb Anrhuna was reborn as Matrona and she married Nodens and they brought life to the world. The rest of this section covered how Kraideti came into her power as a fertility goddess and Vindos as a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn and his battle with Graidos/Gwythyr for Kraideti. This resulted in a strange marriage between the three of them. An added twist was that, whilst Kraideti could not give birth to children in this world, in Annwn her womb gave birth to monsters.
In the third section ‘Lugus the Giant Slayer’ I told of release of the giants from imprisonment in their fortresses after the Ice Age and their alliance with Vindos. Uidianos, Lugus, and their kindred came to battle against the giants and Vindos and the monsters of Annwn who were defeated. Yet Vindos finally gained vengeance on Lugus by seducing his wife and mortally wounding him with a poisoned spear, which led to the scene of his epiphany in eagle form on the oak in the Fourth Branch.
I completed the fourth section ‘The Knowledge of Uidianos’ and the fifth section ‘The Black Dragon’ on the first draft but found there were too many problems with the first three sections to make it worth returning to these on the second draft. Plus… I don’t want to give away all my secrets yet…
My main result, to date, is a second draft of the first three sections that is 50,000 words long. I completed this at the beginning of August and have since been reflecting on it – weighing it both against the existing myths and my personal experiences with the deities whose myths I have retold. I also sent it out to my patrons and have had five sets of feedback, which have been invaluable.
My main problem has been with misfits between the story of Lugus, reconstructed from the stories of Lleu in the Welsh myths and Lugh in the Irish myths, and my version of the slaying of Anrhuna and the giants. Having recently returned to re-read the original sources the meaning at the core of the story of Lugus is that the giant he slays is his grandfather, which is an important element missing from my myth. I believe this can be worked, possibly for the better, by having Lugus opposed to Bel. I’m not sure how this would fit with his slaying of Anrhuna or his rivalry with Vindos yet though.
Whilst I have had positive feedback about the primordial power and significance of Anrhuna as a Dragon Mother, who gives birth not only to dragons and monster-serpents the monsters of Annwn, I don’t feel I’ve got her death scene right yet. I not sure she was really slain by Lugus. Or if she was slain at all. For she is very much alive to me in the here and now (something I got round in the book by having the Spirit of Anrhuna tutor Vindos and raise him to the position of King of Annwn).
Another problem I encountered was in my depiction of Anrhuna giving birth to monsters. There is a fundamental difference between viviparity (live birth) and oviparity (egg laying). If she is a dragon, and hence reptilian, would she not be laying eggs rather than giving birth? However I hazarded this could be set aside as I’m working with myth, which contains births from heads and thighs, not biology.
I also wondered whether my story about Kraideti giving up her womb and it birthing monsters in Annwn was a subconscious reflection of my choice not to have real children but to dedicate my life to creativity. In particular to giving voice to the gods and monsters of Annwn whose stories are untold.
Whilst I was reflecting on this Goya’s painting and its title ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ kept popping into my head and it felt like a fitting phrase summarising my decision when I set out to write the first draft of eschewing critical reflection and allowing the awen to flow wherever it willed at the outset.
I produced a lot of monsters. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It also fits with stories about monstrous births in the Welsh myths. Some are only hinted at. Goleuddydd gives birth to Culhwch ‘Slender Piglet’. Rhiannon, a Queen of Annwn, is punished for suspected cannibalism of her own son who like his mother, the Mare Goddess, may have taken the form of a foal.
Some are more explicit. The brothers Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are forced to shapeshift into male and female animals and together they give birth to a deer, a boar, and a wolf, ‘three hideous sons’. Henwen, the White Sow, births a grain of wheat, a bee, a wolf, an eaglet and the monstrous Cath Palug.
Whilst I am in no way happy with the second draft and am aware I have a lot more reading and reflection ahead I have experienced a number of gains from the process. Firstly I have proved to myself that when I am immersed in something I am capable of working on it almost every hour of the day from when I get up at 5am until I go to bed 9pm and of producing 50,000 words that fit together by their own internal logic within three months.
Secondly, whilst I set out to write a personal myth due to my fears about being unable to write on the Brythonic tradition due to insecurities caused by the debates around cultural appropriation, I’ve found working through the problems with this approach has taken me back to the original sources and deeper. I’ve experienced feelings of acceptance by the family of Bel and Don as I share their stories, this has enlivened my awenydd path, and I’ve started learning Welsh again after a six month hiatus.
Thirdly, my writing of Creiddylad/Kraideti’s story along with personal experiences with her as a goddess of flowers this year in my garden has filled in a black hole in my personal mythos. For a long time I have been aware of the absence of Rhiannon by that name as a horse goddess who I’ve paradoxically felt is very much with me as my white winged mare and the horses who haunt my dreams.
Creiddylad’s revelation of her epithet ‘First Rose’ and her appearance to me riding a white winged mare in association with the moon have suggested she may be identical with Rhiannon. This would fit with both of them being Queens of Annwn who I have perceived giving monstrous births.
This opens the possibility and perhaps the necessity of incorporating material about Gwyn/Arawn and Creiddylad/Rhiannon and their son from the other branches of The Mabinogi into my book. It is implicit that Arawn is the otherworld father of Pryderi in the First Branch and Pryderi’s slaying by Gwydion would certainly provide added meaning to the conflict between Uidianos/Gwydion and Vindos/Gwyn/Arawn.
So this is where I am right now. On the brink of reason, pondering, if not producing monsters. If you would like to hear more about my creative processes, have access to unseen work from my drafts, and play a part in my creations by giving feedback, please consider becoming a patron HERE.
*Anrhuna is not known from existing sources but she has revealed herself to me within my landscape and in the iconography surrounding Nodens/Nudd/Lludd – in a mosaic of sea serpents with intertwined necks from the temple at Lydney and Lludd’s associations with two dragons.
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
‘after the noise an enormous claw comes through the window, and grabs the foal by the mane. Teyrnon draws his sword and cuts off the arm at the elbow… by the door there is a small boy.’ The Second Branch
I’m just reaching out for your foal, for your first-born son. I like to see blood on my claws. I like the taste although I do not eat them.
I just want you to know there is a hole in your reality bigger than the sun.
That nothing is safe.
You are not the only one who feels terror.
I know you long for my blood – to lick it from your blade when you have nailed my arm above your window.
The exchange must be complete.
You try to close the window again.
How long can I go on reaching out when it only ends in pain?
I have recently been revisiting the theory that Sétanta (later Cú Chulainn), a hero and perhaps a deity the Irish myths, was associated with the Iron Age Setantii tribe of northern Britain. Writing in 2CE the Roman geographer, Ptolemy, refers to Portus Setantiorum ‘the Port of the Setantii’, which was located at the mouth of the river Wyre, and also to Seteia, the river Mersey. This suggests the Setantii occupied the lowlands of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire from the Mersey to the Wyre.
The etymology of Setantii is one of much debate. Graham Isaac suggests it is emended from sego ‘strong’ and Andrew Breeze that is corrupted from ‘the Celtic *met “cut, harvest”, as in Welsh medaf “I reap”, Medi “September” (when corn is cut), Middle Irish methel “reaping party”’. Breeze notes these people were not ‘harmless agriculturalists’ and ‘Welsh literature indicates a bloodier sense’. Medel means ‘reaper’ ‘killer, mower down (of enemies in combat)’. The warrior-prince Owain Rheged is referred to by Taliesin as medel galon ‘a reaper of enemies’. Thus Metantii or Setantii is best translated as ‘reapers (of men), cutters down (in battle)’ and Meteia or Seteia as ‘reaper’.
In Celtic and Manx Folklore John Rhys puts forward the theory that Sétanta Beg means ‘the Little Setantian’, which we might translate as ‘reaping one’, and this would certainly fit with his ferocity in battle.
Rhys associates both Sétanta and Seithenin with the lost lands between Ireland and Wales. In Welsh legend Seithenin caused the flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir (1) when he failed to close the flood gates due to his liason with Mererid, the ‘fountain cup-bearer’, whose waters were loosed. Traditionally this story is associated with Cantre’r Gwaelod, ‘the Bottom Hundred’, ‘the shallows of Cardigan Bay’. Yet this area extended ‘northwards… off the coast of Cheshire and Lancashire, and occupied Morecambe Bay with a dense growth of oak, Scotch fir, alder, birch, and hazel’.
Gwyddno had two ports – Porth Wyddno (Borth) in Wales and ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’, one of Three Chief Ports in The Triads of the Island of Britain, which was likely Portus Setantiorum.
Holder theorises that Sétanta derives from Setantios and he was originally a Celtic god. Is it possible his mythos, the best developed of all the Irish deities, originated from the people who occupied the lost lands off the Lancashire coast and were later known as the Setantii?
Sétanta’s Birth and Boyhood
The stories of Sétanta/Cú Chulainn were written down by medieval Irish scribes during the 12th century in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster andare now firmly embedded in the Irish landscape. He is associated with Ulster, the Ulstermen, and their king, Conchobar.
‘The Birth of Cú Chulainn’ is a story with much mythic depth. Conchobar rules Ireland from Emain Macha. The plain is devastated by a flock of magical birds, ‘nine-score’ ‘each pair… linked by a silver chain’. Conchobar, his daughter and charioteer, Deichtine, and nine other charioteers hunt them. A heavy snow falls and they are forced to seek refuge in a storehouse where they are welcomed to feast by its owner. His wife is in labour and Deichtine helps her give birth to a son. At the same time a mare gives birth to two colts outside. Deichtine nurses the boy and he is given the colts.
Afterwards Conchobar and his company find themselves east of the Bruig (Newgrange) ‘no house, no birds, only their horses and the boy and his colts’. Deichtine takes the boy to Emain Macha and continues to nurse him but, to her heart break, he dies. Afterwards she drinks a ‘tiny creature’ from a copper vessel. That evening the god, Lug, appears to her and tells her she is pregnant by him and must call their son Sétanta. Because she is engaged to Sualtam mac Róich and fears he may suspect she slept with Conchobar she aborts the child, then becomes pregnant by Sualtam and bears a son. He is called Sétanta and thus has both thisworldly and otherworldly fathers – Sualtam and Lug. His dual paternity, like that of Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Arawn in the Welsh myths, marks him as a ‘special son’.
Lug is an Irish deity who is descended from Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods, and Eithne, daughter of Balor, one of the monstrous Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’. Sétanta’s descent from a human woman on one side and gods and giants on the other goes a long way to explain his superhuman qualities.
As a mere boy he is described as going to play with the others and fending off fifty javelins with his toy shield, stopping fifty hurling balls with his chest, and warding off fifty hurleys with his one hurley.
Sétanta receives the name Cú Chulainn after being attacked by a hound belonging to Culann the smith. He puts an end to it in a grotesque manner. ‘The lad struck his ball with his hurley so that the ball shot down the throat of the hound and carried its insides out through its backside. Then he grabbed two of its legs and smashed it to pieces against a nearby pillar stone’. As recompense to Culann, he offers to be Culann’s hound and guard Muirthemne Plain until a pup has been raised to take his place. From then he is known as Cú Chulainn – the Hound of Culann.
Training with Scáthach
Cú Chulainn trains with the warrior-woman Scáthach ‘the Shadow’ at Dún Scáith ‘The Fortress of Shadows’ on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. From her he learns the arts of war including ‘the apple-feat, the thunder-feat, the blade-feat, the foen-feat, and the spear-feat, the rope-feat, the body-feat, the cat’s feat, the salmon-feat of a chariot-chief, the throw of the staff, the jump over […], the whirl of a brave chariot-chief, the spear of the bellows, the boi of swiftness, the wheel-feat, the othar-feat, the breath-feat, the brud geme, the hero’s whoop, the blow […], the counter-blow, running up a lance and righting the body on its point, the scythe-chariot, and the hero’s twisting round the points of spears’.
Most fearsome is his use of the barbed spear known as the gae bolga: ‘thrown from the fork of the foot; it made a single wound when it entered a man’s body, whereupon it opened into thirty barbs, and it could not be taken from a man’s body without the flesh being cut away around it’.
During this period Cú Chulainn battles against Scáthach’s rival, another warrior-woman called Aife, defeats her, and offers to spare her life but only on the condition that she bears him a son.
The story of Cú Chulainn’s training with Scáthach shows links with Britain and the existence of a tradition where male warriors were trained by warrior women. This is also found in the Welsh myths where Peredur is trained by the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw and it might be suggested that Orddu, the Very Black Witch, of Pennant Gofid, in the North, fulfilled a similar role.
The Battle Rage of Cú Chulainn
After his training Cú Chulainn’s feats are many and his greatest is defending Ulster and the Brown Bull single handedly against the armies of Connacht whilst the Ulstermen are laid up with the Curse of Macha (1). This is recorded in The Tain. After putting them off by magic, picking them off with guerilla tactics and fighting against them in single combat he defeats them in three great massacres.
Here we witness his ability to cause incredible violence. With ‘his scythed chariot that glittered with iron tangs, blades, hooks, hard prongs and brutal spikes, barbs and sharp nails on every shaft, strut, strap and truss’ he drives into the ranks ‘three times encircling them with great ramparts of their own corpses piled sole to sole and headless neck to headless neck’, slaying ‘seven-score and ten kings’.
When he fights, Cú Chulainn is taken over by a battle rage known as his ‘warp spasm’ or ‘torque’. Its vivid descriptions, no doubt a delight to storytellers, driven to greater exaggerations, are worth citing.
‘The first Torque seized Cú Chulainn and turned him into a contorted thing, unrecognisably horrible and grotesque. Every slab and every sinew of him, joint and muscle, shuddered from head to foot like a tree in a storm or a reed in a stream. His body revolved furiously inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees jumped to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams to the front. The bunched sinews of his calves jumped to the front of his shins, bulging with knots the size of a warrior’s clenched fist. The ropes of his neck rippled from ear to nape in an immense, monstrous, incalculable knobs, each as big as the head of a month-old child.
Then he made a red cauldron of his face and features: he sucked one of his eyes so deep into his head that a wild crane would find it difficult to plumb the depths of his skull to drag that eye back to its socket; the other popped out on to his cheek. His mouth became a terrifying, twisted grin. His cheek peeled back from his jaws so you could see his lungs and liver flapping in his throat… The hero’s light sprang from his forehead… thick, steady, strong as the mast of a tall ship was the straight spout of dark blood that rose up from the fount of his skull to dissolve in an otherworldly mist…’
In his battle fury Cú Chulainn is described as warped and monstrous and these transformations may derive from his Formorian heritage. This is hinted at in a further passage: ‘Cú Chulainn torqued himself a hundredfold. 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 or a deep-sea merman’.
He also displays the ability to call up otherworldly spirits. His ‘roar of a hundred warriors’ is ‘echoed by the goblins and ghouls and sprites of the glen and the fiends of the air, for their howls would resound before him, above him, and around him any time he shed the blood of warriors and heroes’. ‘The clouds that boiled above him in his fury glimmered and flickered with malignant flares and sultry smoke – the torches of the Badb.’ This puts us in mind of the Scream over Annwn.
Even when he displays his ‘true beauty’ he is otherworldly with his hair in three layers, dark, blood-red and yellow, ‘four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, blue and purple. Seven brilliant gems gleamed in each regal eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails or claws or talons of each with the grip of a hawk or griffin… He held nine human heads in one hand, ten in the other’.
Sétanta/Cú Chulainn is depicted a monstrous reaper of men and as a hunter of heads. Head-hunting was common amongst the Celtic peoples, particularly the Setantii, which is evidenced by the large number of severed heads ritually buried across their territories. It has been noted, whilst there is an absence of chariot burials in Ireland, there are many in northern Britain. So there is, at least, an argument that this otherworldly figure, like a giant or merman, originates from the people who once occupied the drowned lands between Britain and Ireland and may have been a Setantian god or hero.
The Tragedies of Cú Chulainn
Amidst the relentless violence endemic to a warrior culture whose greatest aim was winning everlasting fame through battle prowess we find some moving scenes based around Cú Chulainn’s relationships. When Cú Chulainn is badly wounded during his battle against the armies of Connacht his otherworld father, Lug, appears to fight his battle for three nights and days whilst he heals.
Tragically Cú Chulainn kills his son by Aife because he does not know who he is until he sees his ring. In an equally tragic scene Cú Chulainn faces and kills his foster-brother who was also possibly his lover, Fer Diad, with whom he trained with Scáthach. Their relationship is described in poignant verse:
Two hearts that beat as one, we were comrades in the woods, men who shared a bed and the same deep sleep after heavy fighting in strange territories. Apprentices of Scáthach, we would ride out together to explore the dark woods.
After many days of battle with various weapons Cú Chulainn puts an end to Fer Diad with the gae bolga.
His lament is heart wrenching:
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – I wounded and dripping with gore, your chariot standing empty.
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – I leak blood from every pore and you lie dead forever.
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – you dead, I bursting with life. Courage has a brutal core.
It puts me in mind of the lines spoken by Gwyn, our British death-god and gatherer of souls, who is doomed to live on whilst the warriors of Britain perish in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2), which perhaps speaks of a shared origin to these poems.
Cú Chulainn’s love life also contains tragedy. His main lover is Emer but their relationship is put into jeopardy when Cú Chulainn goes to hunt her one of two magical birds ‘coupled with a red-gold chain’. He shoots but does not kill one. They turn out to be fairy women and, when he falls asleep against a stone, they take revenge by beating him with horsewhips until ‘there is no life left in him’.
He takes to his sick bed for a year and learns the only cure is to help one of them, Fand, to battle against her enemies. They fall in love and sleep together yet she is the wife of the sea-god, Manannan. Cú Chulainn returns to Emer but both are heart-broken. Cú Chulainn wanders the mountains neither sleeping nor drinking (3) until Manannan shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand so she is forgotten.
Cú Chulainn’s death is fittingly tragic. His old enemy, Queen Medb of Connacht conspires to kill him with the sons of her enemies. He is tricked into breaking his geis of not eating the meat of his sacred animal, the dog, and by this he is weakened. He is killed by Lugaid, the son of Cú Roí, another otherworldy figure with whom he battles and defeats to win a maiden called Blathnat (4).
With a magical spear destined to kill three ‘kings’, Lugaid kills Láeg, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, Liath Macha, Cú Chulainn’s horse and finally Cú Chulainn himself. Mortally wounded, Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone so he can die on his feet facing his enemies. They remain afraid of him even after his death, not daring to approach until a raven lands on his shoulder. This symbolises he has been beaten by the only opponent worthy of defeating him, the death goddess, the Morrigan (5).
A Hero of the Setantii?
Here I have provided only glimpses into the rich mythos surrounding Sétanta/Cú Chulainn: his birth and dual paternity, his naming as Culann’s Hound, his training with Scáthach, his feats as a warrior, his love life (which features a number of women and possibly a man), and his death.
As we have seen, these stories are now firmly embedded within the Irish landscape. However, we know that many centuries ago Britain and Ireland were near joined together and that the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Children of Don, share many similarities. Nodens/Nuada, the king of the gods, was worshipped on the Lancashire coast and his son, Gwyn, might have conversed here with Gwyddno. Lug(us) was the patron god of Carlisle (Luguvalium) further north. If he was venerated here it would make sense his son, Sétanta/Setantios, was also viewed also an important deity or hero.
The evidence suggests there is at least a possibility the stories of Sétanta originated from the lost lands off the coast of Lancashire where gods and giants gave birth to monsters, that this monstrous and beguiling head-reaping hero was one of the deities of the Setantii, the reapers of men.
(1) After Macha raced against the horses of the king of Ulster and won she gave birth and screamed that for five days and four nights any man who heard her would be afflicted by her labour pains. She then died. Her curse was passed on for nine generations. Macha’s name was given to Emain Macha. (2) I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain From the east to the north; I live on, they are in the grave.
I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain From the east to the south; I live on, they are dead. (3) His state resembles geilt/wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’ in the Welsh and Irish myths where we find Suibhne Geilt and Myrddin Wyllt taking on bird transformations and Cynedyr Wyllt ‘nine times wilder than the wildest beast on the mountain’. (4) ‘The contention of Corroi and Cocholyn’ (Cú Roí and Cú Chulainn) is referred to in the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Death Song of Corroi’ in The Book of Taliesin and the beheading game Cú Chulainn plays with Cú Roí perhaps depicts a conflict with the Head of the Otherworld, here known as Gwyn. (5) The Morrigan appears earlier in the stories as young prophet then fights against him as an eel, a she-wolf, and a hornless red heifer. After the battle she tricks him into healing her when she appears as a one-eyed hag milking a cow with three teats by drinking from each which heals her three wounds.
Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra, and Pen-Y-Ghent, Northern History, XLII: 1, (University of Leeds, 2006) Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008) Eoin Mac Neill, Varia. I, Eriu, Vol. 11, (Royal Irish Academy 1932) Greg Hill, (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/ Jeffrey Ganz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, (Penguin, 1981) John Rhys, Celtic and Manx Folklore: Volume One, (Project Gutenberg, 2017) Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014) Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
With thanks to Wikipedia for the images of Cú Chulainn. The photographs of the former site of Portus Setantiorum near the mouth of the river Wyre and the coast from Rossall Point where the remnants of the forest have been seen are my own.
from Ceunant Coch. I feel like Blaenau Ffestiniog.
No, the mountains above slate hearts torn out.
Where have we hidden it this time in this never ending
shadowplay of shifting guises not knowing whose hand
reaches through the hole in the slate into another world
and drags something back to make us whole?
This poem is based on the battle between Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebyr in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi. In it I believe the King of Annwn takes the guise of Gronw to defeat Lleu. In an additional identity exchange, in this poem, I found myself in the role of Annwn’s king becoming Gronw.
The battle took place on the bank of Afon Cynfal near Bryn Cygergyr ‘the Hill of the Blow’. Llech Ronw ‘the Slate of Gronw’ is a stone found in 1934 on the bank of the Cynfal. It was washed down from Ceunant Coch and now stands on Afon Bryn Saeth. I haven’t visited Llech Ronw. The pictured stone is the replica at Llyn Trawsfynydd and the accompanying photograph is of the mountains above Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Over the harvest period I have been reflecting on the strange birth and death of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the Welsh cognate of the Irish Lugh, who was the instigator of Lughnasadh. Will Parker speculates that a proto-Celtic myth underlies their stories. In this article I am going to focus on the story of Lleu in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi and look at how other medieval Welsh texts and parallels with the Irish Lugh might help us understand his birth and death and elucidate his mythos.
A ‘Virgin Birth’
The Fourth Branch is set in Gwynedd, in North Wales, and concerns the Children of Don. Don is a mother goddess cognate with the Irish Dana, mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Whilst the Tuatha Dé Danann are represented as gods the Children of Don are euhemerised as humans with magical qualities. In this story Math is Don’s brother and her children include Arianrhod, Gwydion, and Gilfaethwy.
At the beginning of the story we are told Math ‘could not live unless his feet were in the lap of a virgin, except when the turmoil of war prevented him’. Gilfaethwy falls in love with his virgin footholder, Goewin, and being unable to sleep with her makes him ill. Gwydion plots with Gilfaethwy to cause a war by stealing pigs from Pryderi, in South Wales. Whilst Math is away fighting, Gwydion helps Gilfaethwy to take Goewin ‘against her will’ in Math’s bed in Caer Dathyl.
When Math finds out he is understandably furious and punishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy by using his wand to turn them into animals – stags, boar and wolves, alternating male and female, who give birth to three sons. Afterwards Math requires a new virgin footholder and Gwydion suggests Arianrhod.
As a test of her virginity Arianrhod is challenged to step over Math’s wand. The wand breaks and she drops a ‘large, sturdy, yellow-haired boy’ and ‘a small something’. Before anyone else sees this strangeness Gwydion wraps it in ‘a sheet of brocaded silk’ and hides it in ‘a small chest at the foot of his bed’.
This pethan, ‘small something’, has placental qualities. It wakes Gwydion with a cry. When he opens the chest it reveals itself as a small boy, waving his arms, throwing away the sheets.
This perhaps represents a second birth, to Gwydion, who raises the boy as a father figure, with the aid of a wet nurse. He grows quickly, sturdy as an eight-year-old at only four years old. On top of his uncanny transformation the boy’s quick growth marks him out as strange and supernatural. Thus is recorded the ‘virgin birth’ of Lleu as a strange something from a virgin who is not a virgin.
It seems implicit Gwydion knows Arianrhod is not a virgin and he knowingly chooses to induce the birth. The reason behind his knowledge is made clearer by lines from a poem by Lewys Môn. He refers to Arianrhod, the ‘chaste one, white-armed and wise’, as the ‘pillow’ of Math, ‘the same as the snow, / a man could not live without her’. This shows a tale exists in which Arianrhod is Math’s footholder. The similarities suggest Gilfaethwy or Gwydion raped her and made her pregnant. If Gwydion fathered Lleu this would explain why he is so keen to smuggle away and raise the boy.
Yet, if Gwydion openly took Arianrhod against her will it seems likely that, even if she was too afraid to name and shame him, she would have made some effort to avoid the virginity test. This raises the possibility that Gwydion may have impregnated Arianrhod some other way without her knowing. As he is well known for his abilities as a magician it seems likely he did it by magic.
John Carey draws parallels between the conception of Lleu and the conception of Setanta (later Cu Chulainn) by Lugh. In the latter, whilst the king, Conchabar, is away from court, his unmarried daughter becomes pregnant by drinking a ‘small creature’ and Lugh appears in a dream to tell her she will give birth to his child. Due to be married, she induces a miscarriage on her wedding night.
It seems possible Gwydion got Arianrhod pregnant in a similar way. When I meditate on the scene I see him putting his wand into a glass of water and the wand seeming to bend due to the refraction of the light rays and this linking imagistically to the broken wand in the later virginity test. Arianrhod’s ‘dropping’ of the boys contrasts with labour and is suggestive of a magically induced miscarriage. The disappearance of the first boy, Dylan of the Wave, to the sea may represent him being washed away.
Gwydion’s magical causation of Lleu’s ‘virgin birth’ is incredibly sinister and ethically suspect. We need to look ahead and to a variety of sources to divine the dark purpose behind his misdoings.
The Three Fates
In response to her ‘shame’ Arianrhod puts three fates on the boy: he will never have a name, weapons, or a wife. Gwydion, through further manipulations, helps the lad to overcome the fates. Disguised as shoemakers they travel to Caer Arianrhod and trick Arianrhod onto the boat to get a shoe fitted. When the boy strikes a wren, who lands on the deck, ‘in the leg, between the tendon and the bone’ 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’. To gain Lleu’s weapons the pair return again to Caer Arianrhod, this time disguised as storytellers, and Gwydion conjures an illusion of attacking ships. This tricks Arianrhod into arming them to help defend the fortress. Gwydion and Math get around the conjunction that Lleu will ‘never have a wife from the race that is on this earth at present’ by conjuring a maiden from the flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet.
These fates are obviously put on Lleu to prevent him from making the transition from boyhood to manhood. Yet it seems unfair Arianrhod chooses to punish the innocent boy rather than Gwydion. One argument may be that she punishes Gwydion by attempting to thwart his plans for the boy. However, in the Fourth Branch, we find out little about the boy’s destiny except his ‘death’ and revenge.
To make better sense of the origin of the fates and Gwydion’s purpose we must turn to the Irish myths. The birth of Lleu’s Irish cognate, Lugh, is equally strange. Lugh is the son of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethniu, daughter of Balor of the Formorians. The Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’ are a race of monstrous giants who oppose the Tuatha Dé Danann. Thus Lugh is part god, part giant.
An Irish folktale from Tory Island relates how Lugh is born. A druid prophecies to Balor that his grandson will kill him, thus he locks his only daughter, Eithne, in the Tór Mór (‘Great Tower’). Cian enters the tower with the aid of a fairy woman called Biróg and seduces Eithne. It seems likely enchantment is involved in entering the tower and the seduction of the giant’s daughter. She gives birth to triplets, who Balor wraps in a sheet and casts into a whirlpool. Two die but one is rescued by Biróg.
Here we find many similarities with the birth of Lleu. Both Arianrhod and Eithne are isolated as virgins and both Gwydion and Cian use magic in some way to bring about a ‘virgin birth’. In both stories one or two children are washed away but the ‘special son’ is kept by the father and a female helper (the wet nurse and Biróg) and a ‘sheet’ is involved, representing a secondary birth.
After his grandson is born Balor attempts to prevent his prophesied death by refusing him a name (to hamper his development) and a wife (Balor is prophesied to be killed on his grandson’s wedding night). Here we find the purpose behind the fates – to stop Lugh from killing his grandfather.
If the three fates on Lleu originally served the same function who, then, is his grandsire? From the Fourth Branch we know Arianrhod’s mother is Don, but the identity of her father is not recorded. It may be suggested he is Beli Mawr because Beli is named as the consort of Don (or Anna) in the Welsh genealogies and Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, whose Irish cognate is Nuada, the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, is the son of Beli Mawr. This suggests the other children of Don were fathered by Beli.
Beli may be a later name of the Celtic god, Belenos, who is also known as Bel and depicted as a giant (he gives his name to places such as Belgrave in Leicester and Belthorn in Lancashire). The name Bel means ‘Shining’ and he is usually seen as a sun-god associated with the fire festival Beltane.
If Beli, the father of the Children of Don, was seen as an oppressive figure to be slain by Lleu, this would place this story in a similar context to the Greek myths in which Uranus is killed by his son, the titan, Cronus, and he by his son, Zeus, resulting in the imprisonment of the titans in Tartarus. The slaying of Balor by Lugh and Beli by Lleu would be our Celtic equivalents of the titanomachy.
This highlights a division between the primitive gods/giants and the skilled culture gods. Having a skill is the defining feature of the Tuatha Dé Danann and constitutes the difference between the dé ‘gods’ and the andé ‘ungods’ who are known in Gaul as the andedion and in Wales as the spirits of Annwn.
Whereas, in the Irish myths, the Formorians are a different race, in the Welsh myths the ‘ungods’ are of the Children of Don. Beli is their grandfather and Gwyn, son of Nudd, is the King of Annwn.
Thus it seems the purpose behind Gwydion’s plotting is to bring into being a ‘special son’ who will kill the primeval forefather of his kindred and establish the hegemony of the culture gods over the Annuvian.
Lleu the Giant Slayer
The prophesied death of Balor at the hands of Lugh is found in a number of the Irish stories. In ‘The Battle of Moytura’ Balor kills Nuada, the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Lugh travels to their court and is granted entry on account of his many skills and offers to fight with them against the Formorians.
Balor has a poisonous eye that is capable of stopping hosts in their thousands from offering ‘resistance to warriors’. The moment four men pull the ring on its lid and open it Lugh fires a slingstone from his slingshot into the eye and kills the giant. In other tales Balor has a burning eye and Lugh throws a spear through the seven or nine shields covering it to slay his grandfather.
I have received the personal gnosis that the sun is ‘the Eye of Bel’. Most of us know from experience that it is impossible to stare into the sun without being near-blinded so I wonder whether this lies behind the conception of the eye of Balor and its power to stop hosts in their thousands.
Whilst the sun is essential to the growth of crops and the harvest too much heat brings drought and famine. The story of Lugh slaying Balor may have arisen in response to such a scenario.
No Brythonic stories exist about Lleu slaying a giant with a single burning or poisonous eye. However, we do find parallels between ‘The Battle of Moytura’ and ‘The Battle of the Trees’. The former is fought between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Formorians and the latter by the Children of Don against giants including Brân the Blessed and the monsters of Annwn. In ‘The Battle of Moytura’ druidesses ‘enchant the trees and sods of the earth’ into ‘a host under arms’ and in ‘The Battle of the Trees’ Gwydion conjures a battalion of trees from ‘language and materials of the earth’. It seems likely that, here, Lleu ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ triumphed over his grandfather, Beli, and fulfilled the prophesy. If so the account has been lost.
After the first Battle of Moytura, Taltiiu, the foster mother of Lugh, cut the trees down, thus clearing the plain for the harvest. When she died Lugh founded the festival of Lughnasadh in her name. After the second Battle of Moytura four harvest festivals are established. It seems possible that after the Battle of the Trees the trees were cut down and a harvest festival began.
The Riddle of Lleu’s Death
A strange set of conditions surrounds the death of Lleu, making him near-impossible to kill. In the Fourth Branch we learn he ‘cannot be killed indoors… nor out of doors… on horseback, nor on foot’. Here we find similarities with other near-invincible heroes such as Achilles, who was dipped in the river Styx by his mother, making him invulnerable except where she held him at his heel.
The origin of these conditions is never explained. My guess is they result from the circumstances of Lleu’s birth or a spell of Gwydion’s and their purpose is to prevent him from being killed in battle. Their riddling quality shares a kinship with the magic that surrounds Brân, who is only defeated by Amaethon in the Battle of the Trees after Gwydion guesses his name from his alder shield.
In the Fourth Branch Lleu not only discloses the riddle of his death to his wife, Blodeuedd, ‘Flower Face’, but unwittingly, naively, dare I say it, stupidly, tells her the answer too. This proves disastrous as Blodeuedd asks the question because she is plotting to kill Lleu with her lover, Gronw.
To provide some background, after Lleu and Blodeuedd marry, he assumes rule of Ardudwy from Mur Castell. Lleu makes the mistake of visiting Math at Caer Dathyl and leaving Blodeuedd alone. Whilst he is away she hears a hunting horn and sees a mysterious huntsman chasing a stag with a hounds and learns he is Gronw Pebr, lord of Penllyn. That night Gronw turns up at the gates of her court.
Blodeuedd invites Gronw in and they feel a mutual attraction: ‘From the moment she looked there was no part of her that was not filled with love for him. And he gazed at her, and the same thought came to him.’ That night they sleep together and, as the nights go on, find it immensely difficult to part. Realising the only way their affair can continue is by killing Lleu they plot to bring about his death.
Thus Bloduedd asks Lleu how he can be killed and he shares not only the riddle of his death, but its answer. Firstly a magical weapon is required: ‘It is not easy to kill me with a blow. You would have to spend a year making the spear that would strike me, working on it only when people were at Mass on Sunday.’
The conditions can only be defeated ‘By making a bath for me on a riverbank, and constructing an arched roof above the tub, and then thatching that well and watertight. And bringing a billy-goat… and standing it beside the tub; and I place one foot on the back of the billy-goat and the other on the edge of the tub. Whoever should strike me in that position should bring about my death’.
The answer to the riddle is stranger than the riddle itself and contains elements of the comedic and parodic. The sense of parody is heightened when Blodeuedd asks Lleu to help her recreate the scene due to her concern about him dying. She builds the bath house, has the goats rounded up, bathes Lleu, and helps him onto the bath tub and the goat. In this position he is struck by Gronw’s spear.
I’m not sure if Lleu’s naivety in being lured to his death is supposed to be tragic or comic or both. I am led to suspect this particular variant of the tale is the work of a Christian interlocutor who aimed to make a mockery of Lleu and the pre-Christian mythos that surrounded him. It seems possible Lleu was represented, a little like Jupiter Dolichenus, standing on a goat holding a spear or bolt of lightning, and the Christians made a mockery this image in order to undermine his majesty.
If this is the case the goat scene may not be the true answer to the riddle. We catch a glimpse of an alternative after Lleu is struck by Gronw’s spear. He does not die but, instead, gives a ‘horrible scream’, flies up in the form of an eagle, and is not seen again by Blodeuedd and Gronw (who seize Ardudwy).
Lleu departs to an oak, dripping rotten flesh and maggots, which are eaten by a hungry sow beneath. In an oak Lleu is neither indoors or outdoors, on horseback or on foot, thus we find another answer.
The Eagle on the Oak
The image of the wounded Lleu-as-Eagle on the oak with the sow eating his flesh is numinously charged. Lleu’s transformation from a man into an eagle as a result of his wounding is suggestive of initiatory death and soul flight. This shares similarities with other initiatory and sacrificial traditions.
Following battle trauma Myrddin Wyllt was torn out of himself and flew (likely as his namesake, the merlin) to the forest of Celyddon where he learnt the arts of poetry and prophecy. Odin pierced his own side with a spear and hung on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine nights sacrificed ‘himself to himself’ to gain knowledge of the runes. We also think of Jesus, wounded by a spear, on the holy rood.
The oak is likely to be Daronwy, ‘the oak of Goronwy’, ‘the radiance of Goronwy’s men’. Goronwy is another name of Gronw. Daronwy appears in the poetry of Taliesin as the tree who holds the greatest of mysteries and the oak’s associations with the druids, ‘oak knowers’ is well known. It may be our Brythonic World Tree. In the Fourth Branch it is described as occupying a liminal position between ‘between two lakes’ and having magical qualities – it cannot be wetted by rain or melted by heat. Lleu’s initiation on this sacred oak may have been central to the druidic tradition. However its meaning and what he experienced on the tree has been lost to centuries of Christianity.
One clue perhaps lies in the identity of the sow. She, like Lleu, has numinous qualities. Gwydion is told by the swineherd (possibly a magical figure himself): ‘Every day when the pen is opened she goes out. No one can grab her, and no one knows where she goes, any more than if she sank into the earth.’
The sow’s ability to evade capture and the reference to her sinking into the earth have an aura of the Annuvian. It may be suggested here we find Henwen, ‘Old White’, the goddess Ceridwen in sow-form. Her eating of Lleu’s flesh and the maggots (who share a resemblance with him as a ‘small something’) represent him being absorbed into her cauldron of rebirth in Annwn and into her womb.
Lleu is rescued by Gwydion, who sings him down from the oak with three englyns, onto his knee. They may represent his descent from soul flight through three worlds. Gwydion refers to Lleu possessing ‘nine attributes’ which may originate from lessons learnt on the tree over nine nights. Gwydion strikes Lleu with his wand to transform him back into his own form. We are told he is ‘wretched’ ‘nothing but skin and bone’. He is taken to Math’s physicians at Caer Dathyl to be healed.
Gwydion’s own familiarity with oak knowledge is suggested by his name. It derives from gwydd which is linked to gwybod ‘to know’ and contains the meanings ‘knowledge’, ‘tree(s), branches, twigs; forest, woods, shrub(s)’, ‘weaver of songs’ and gwyddon refers to a ‘sorcerer or sage’. Its root is *uueid ‘to know’ and this is found in uates ‘seer’ and also in druid ‘oak knower’. We have already seen that he has the ability to conjure trees from ‘language and the materials of the earth’.
It thus seems to be no accident that Gwydion’s plotting leads to the immolation of Lleu on the World Tree. His initiation might be seen as a necessary step on his journey to maturity.
The Death of the King of Annwn
Following his ‘death’ at Gronw’s hands Lleu takes revenge. He demands the chance to throw a spear at Gronw on the spot he was killed, on the bank of the River Cynfael, near the Hill of the Blow. Gronw stands behind a stone, but Lleu’s spear pierces through it to kill his rival. Lleu then takes possession not only of Penllyn but, presumably, Caer Dathyl, for he becomes lord of Gwynedd.
By killing Gronw and winning the lordship of Gwynedd, Lleu comes to maturity. Parallels might be found with Lugh slaying Balor and taking the place of Nuada as the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Behind this battle of euhemerised lords lies a deeper conflict between the Brythonic ‘gods’ and ‘ungods’. Gronw, the mysterious huntsman, who visits Blodeuedd at night and is inexplicably attractive, has all the qualities of the King of Annwn. In the First Branch, Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, accidentally fed his hounds on a stag pulled down by the white red-eared hounds of the Annuvian king, Arawn. As recompense Pwyll exchanged identities with Arawn and fought his yearly battle against his rival, Hafgan, killing him by following Arawn’s instructions to strike only one blow at a ford.
The end of the book mirrors the beginning. Here we find the King of Annwn taking the guise of Gronw to fight what might have been a yearly battle on a river bank in this world against Lleu. We recall Lleu mentioned: ‘It is not easy to kill me with a blow’. Yet with one blow of his magical spear, crafted when people are at Mass, outside Christian rule, in the timelessness of Annwn, he succeeds in bringing about the ‘death’ of Lleu-as-a-man and his transformation into Lleu-as-Eagle. Annwn is traditionally a place of initiation and the King of Annwn an author of initiatory experiences.
It seems the agency of the King of Annwn, as much as that of Gwydion, results in Lleu’s oak knowledge. He appears to challenge Lleu’s claim to his name, his weapons, and his wife. Following his initiation, Lleu wins, killing him, sending him to his death, back to Annwn, from whence he came.
It seems possible stories existed in which Lleu killed the King of Annwn in the Battle of the Trees. This was brought about by Amaethon, another son of Don, who stole a roebuck, a greyhound, and a plover from Annwn, rousing the fury of Arawn who is referred to in the poem as ‘the wealthy battle dispenser’.
Arawn may be another name of Gwyn, who also appears as a giant by the names of Ogyrven and Einnegen, thus Lleu slays his cousin in the Battle of the Trees and likely his grandfather, Beli, too.
Lleu’s story is one of overcoming, with the aid of Gwydion, the monstrous within the Children of Don and within himself (unleashed as eagle by the King of Annwn and reined in by the magician).
Yet our stories show any attempt to repress the Annuvian can never wholly succeed. Annwn’s king wears many guises, fights many battles, dies many deaths, always returns in some form to challenge and initiate.
Conclusion – The Strangeness of Lleu
From his strange birth as a ‘small something’ to his stranger ‘death’ in eagle form on the World Tree, for me, Lleu remains somewhat amorphous, difficult to picture, to relate to, and to empathise with. I don’t know whether this is because of his sheer stupidity in the Fourth Branch or because I’m devoted to his adversary, the King of Annwn, and tend to favour monsters over shining heroes.
If there is an illuminating feature about Lleu for me it is not his triumph over Beli or the King of Annwn with his slingshot or lightning spear but the strangeness within him which he tries to repress.
Edwin Hopper (transl.), ‘The Battle of Moytura’, http://www.edwinhopper.com/03%20The%20Battle%20of%20Moytura.pdf John Carey, ‘A British Myth of Origins?’, History of Religions, Vol.31, No.1 (The University of Chicago Press) Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007) R. A. S. Macalister (transl.), The Book of Invasions, https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/leborgabala.html Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007) Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)