Myrddin’s Museum

Afterthoughts on the Thirteen Treasures of the North

When I set out researching, meditating on, journeying to, and writing about the Thirteen Treasures of the North it was with the aim of assessing their value for the modern world. I aimed to answer the question of whether they are ‘hallows’: holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld or the rich boy’s toys of a forgotten age.

I certain felt a sense of the aura of the numinous about some of the treasures and, unsurprisingly, connected with some better than others. During the process I became aware my reactions to being in their presence were based on my values. I took an instant disliking to the Sword of Rhydderch and the Cloak of Padarn due to their associations with war and the Tyrian purple of the Roman Empire. Yet I was carried away by the Chariot of Morgan, struck by a premonitory shiver by the Chessboard of Gwenddolau, and could happily have joined Rhygenydd drinking from his Vat.

Whilst the only treasure that can authoritatively be connected with a deity is the Cauldron of Dyrnwch, through its parallels with the Cauldron of Pen Annwn, I received hints about the possibilities of their divine origin from my research and experiences and suggestions from readers in the comments. Most of the treasures can tentatively be associated with Brythonic deities:

1. The Sword of Rhydderch – Forged by Gofannon and symbolic of a bond between the kings of Strathclyde and a goddess of the land, most likely Clutha, goddess of the Clyde.
2. The Hamper of Gwyddno – Woven by a goddess-in-crane-form on the Island of the Dancing Cranes. I suspect this might be Ceridwen, who wove the wicker basket in which Taliesin was found in Gwyddno’s fish weir. The basket and hamper could be the same treasure.
3. The Horn of Brân – This may have been taken from an otherworldly bull or ox like the Brindled Ox and may be connected with the bull-god who is known in Gaul as Tarvus Trigaranus, ‘The Bull With Three Cranes’. His image also appears in Romano-British sculptures.
4. The Chariot of Morgan – Forged by Gofannon (Potia’s suggestion) possibly with Amaethon’s help.
5. The Halter of Clydno – My vision of the halter summoning horses from the Plains of Annwn suggests it might be connected with Rhiannon. Alternatively the appearance of halters in Kelpie legends might be suggestive of associations with water-horses such as Du Y Moroedd.
6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd – ???
7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch – Pen Annwn (Gwyn/Arawn/Ogyrven). Brân the Blessed is another keeper and ultimately it is the womb of Ceridwen.
8. The Whetstone of Tudwal – This was possibly created at the same time as the Sword of Rhydderch (both belong together in Strathclyde) but I’m not sure who by.
9. The Cloak of Padarn – ???
10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd – These may have belonged to Rosmerta who is depicted with a vat and straining spoon and holding a dish (suggested by Greg).
12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau – A gift from Lugus.
13. The Mantle of Arthur – ???

Unfortunately we do not know how the Thirteen Treasures came to belong to the Men of the North. The development of the tradition, which might once have been fluid, with the stories changing as the treasures passed through the hands of various owners, ended in the seventh century with the fall of the North.

Thus it seems fitting that a story exists wherein Myrddin managed to procure the Thirteen Treasures and took them to a glass house on Bardsea Island which is often described as a museum. This shows they were removed from use in the post-Roman period when the North fell and became historical objects frozen in time. It also symbolises their removal from the living storytelling tradition to one that was repeated by rote then written down in the 15th century.

Will the Thirteen Treasures of the North remain behind the glass windows of Myrddin’s museum or can they be reclaimed as hallows with the stories of their divine origin shining with relevance for the 21st century? Only time will tell…

The Thirteen Treasures of the North

10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd

The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric: whatever food might be wished for in them, it would be found.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

It’s a secret knowledge
passed down by generations:
the perfection of malt, mash, wort,
the duration of fermentation,
the best flavouring herbs.

Rhygenydd kept the doors
of his brewery shut – the people
of the North imagined him winnowing,
threshing, malting, sparging, boiling,
praying as he added yeast

and closed the lid of the vat.
They wondered if he knelt palms
pressed together in prayer to God
or petitioned pagan grain gods,
for the Vat of Rhygenydd

brewed Britain’s finest food.
Little did they know with one wish
the cleric could summon any ale:
pale, light, malty, dark, bitter
with bog myrtle or sweetened

with heather or meadowsweet,
that behind closed doors he liked
to sample each tipple and could
be found snoring contentedly,
an empty tankard in his hand.

To which monastery did he pass on
his secret and who owns the vat now?
I’m doing a round of the breweries,
comparing pales, IPAs, stouts,
amassing my tasting notes…

The Vat of Rhygenydd

~

If I was a cleric
with a magical dish
would I take it round
the cities of the North:
Liverpool, Manchester,
York, Carlisle, Newcastle,
Glasgow, Edinburgh,
in each square wish up
bread, fruit, stew, soup,
feed all the homeless
or keep it locked up
in a gold-adorned box
opened only on Sundays
and offer one thin wafer
to melt on each tongue?

The Dish of Rhygenydd

~

Rhygenydd Ysgolhaig ‘the Cleric’ does not appear by that name in any other sources. Rachel Bromwich notes the resemblance of the name to Renchidus episocpus who with Elbobdus episcoporum sanctissmus (Saint Elfoddw) gave Nennius the information about the baptism of Edwin of Deira by Rhun ap Urien, which appears in The History of the Britons.

 Nennius notes Edwin seized the kingdom of Elmet from Ceretic (son of Gwallog) and a year later received baptism by Rhun along with twelve thousand of his subjects within forty days. This took place in York in 627. By this time Rheged had been integrated into Northumbria. It seems Rhun maintained a position of power as a bishop. As Rendichus gives such importance to Rhun baptising Edwin it is possible he was connected with former Rheged and supported the taking of Elmet from Ceretic, whose father, Gwallog had turned against Urien and his sons.

Vat is translated from gren, ‘big vat or vessel, tub, pail, pitcher’. I found this somewhat confusing in relation to its property of generating ‘food’ until I realised that, well into the medieval period, ale was seen as a food-like source of nourishment and the vat was likely used for brewing.

People have been brewing in Britain since grain has been cultivated. In Skara Brae on Orkney,  Neolithic buildings were found with a malting floor, kiln flue, pots for mashing, and huge Grooved Ware pots with stone lids for fermentation that contained 30 gallons. ‘Vats’ of this nature have been found near a number of Neolithic henges and stone circles demonstrating the longevity of our tradition of drinking at seasonal rituals.

Although wine was imported into Britain in the Roman period, it was mainly drunk by the ruling classes. Soldiers and non-Romans, particularly the Britons, drank ale. Wine was consumed less in the North because of the difficulties transporting it. One of the tablets from Vindolanda is inscribed with a request to ‘order beer’ for the soldiers and our earliest reference to a brewer: Atrecus cervesarious, is from the Roman town.

When the Roman Empire collapsed it was the monasteries who retained the knowledge of brewing and wine-making. This fits perfectly with Rhygenydd the Cleric owning a magical vat.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when people began eating from wooden plates or dishes because wood rots. One of the earliest examples in Britain comes from the Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm where ‘a number of wooden platters… carved from a single piece of wood’ were preserved due to a fire.

Although people began hand-making pots from clay by the open fire method during the Neolithic period we do not find any earthenware plates. Wheel-made Samian tableware along with silver and pewter dishes were imported by the Romans. One of the best known dishes is the Great Dish, which was made of silver, weighed 8 kilograms, and was decorated with the face of Neptune and other Roman deities including Bacchus, Pan, Silenus, maenads, and nymphs.

Was Rhygenydd’s dish of similar make and proportions, perhaps minus the pagan deities, or was it humbler? Within the Christian tradition bread is served on a ‘paten’, a small plate, usually made of silver or gold’ as part of the mystery of the Eucharist alongside wine.

 ~

SOURCES

Kenneth Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section in Nennius,’ Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border, (Cambridge University Press, 1964)
Michelle of Heavenfield, ‘PW Rhun ap Urien of Rheged, Heavenfield
Merryn Dineley and Graham Dineley, ‘From Grain to Ale: Skara Bra, a Case Study’, Neolithic Orkney in its European Context, (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2000)
Robin Wood, ‘History of the Wooden Plate’
Rupert Millar, ‘Send beer! The Romans in North Britain’, The Drinks Business
Alcohol in the Middle Ages, Dark Ages, or Medieval Period’, Alcohol Problems and Solutions
Dig Diary 25: Wooden Objects’, Must Farm
Gren’, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru
Paten’, Wikipedia
Mildenhall Treasure’, Wikipedia

9. The Coat of Padarn

The coat of Padarn Red-Coat: if a well-born man put it on, it would be the right size for him; if a churl, it would not go upon him.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I don’t want to look at it,
let alone touch it,
try it on.

Padarn’s ‘red coat’
is Tyrian purple:

colour of the Roman Empire;
its emperors, consuls, priests.

If it touched my shoulders
one of us would
shrivel

like bolindus brandaris
boiled in a vat.

At Tyre are mountains
of snail shells –

it took twelve thousand
just to dye the trim.

I’m spitting mucus.

I’d rather go naked
than wear that thing!

~

The Coat of Padarn - drawing - border

~

Padarn (Paternus) Beisrudd ‘Red Coat’ was born around 300 and was the son of Tegid (Tacitus). He was the ruler of Manaw Gododdin, a kingdom that may have centred on present-day Clachmannan ‘stone of Mannan/Manaw’ and perhaps extended to include Din Eidyn. His son, Edern (Aeternus), was the father of Cunedda Wledig, founder of Gwynedd.

The Latin names in Padarn’s pedigree suggest his rulership was subject to Roman authority. John Rhys argues Padarn’s ‘red coat’ was a purple robe worn by Roman officials. This fits with the fact the Tyrian purple symbolic of power in the Roman Empire ranged from red to purple to dried blood.

The dye was made from the mucus of a snail called bolinus brandaris, which was extracted by boiling the creatures in a vat for several days. To make 1.4g – enough to provide pigment for the hem of one robe – took twelve thousand snails. Mountains of their shells have been found in Tyre.

Padarn’s fame and his red coat seem to be bound up with him being held in favour by Rome. The descent of the rulers of Gwynedd from the northern lineage of Padarn is held important in Wales to this day. This is probably the source of the lines about his coat only fitting well born men.

In other lists of the Thirteen Treasures it is stated the coat will fit anyone whether they are well born or a churl or large or small or, obversely, that it will only fit Padarn. An additional property is that it will prevent its wearer from coming to harm. These might stem from older lore about magical garments originating from Annwn.

Curiously, in The Life of St Padarn, Padarn, who lived during the 6th century, is named as the owner of a tunic that Arthur longs for. Padarn refuses to give it to Arthur because it is ‘not fitting for the habit of a malign person, but for the habit of the clerical office’. Arthur storms away and returns levelling the ground with his feet. Padarn asks the earth to swallow Arthur, who he is buried to his chin until he acknowledges his guilt and begs forgiveness. This strange tale perhaps originates from the earlier Padarn’s red coat.

~

SOURCES

Colin Schultz, ‘In Ancient Rome, Purple Dye Was Made From Snails’, Smithsonian
Mark Bradley, ‘The Colour Purple in Ancient Rome’, Issuu
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)
Padarn’, Wikipedia
Tyrian Purple’, Wikipedia

8. The Whetstone of Tudwal

The whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd: if a brave man sharpened his sword on it, if he (then) drew blood from a man, he would die. If a cowardly man (sharpened his sword on it), he (his opponent) would be no worse.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

This is not
a Naniwa 5000
Shapton Glass 8000,
or DMT Diamond Hone.

Cut, sawed, planed, smoothed,
in a factory unknown
to its owner

it is not sandstone, siltstone,
gritstone, quartzite or schist.
Nobody has graded the grit –
the sharpness of the weapon
is dependent on the courage
of its wielder.

If I could sharpen my tongue
on this magical bar,

keening across its smoothness
like a sword,

would my words draw blood
from the villains everyone hates:
the bankers, the frackers, the president
even old ladies long to assassinate?

Would they fall down dead?

Or would my cowardice be proved
by the dullness of my blade
ringing in deaf ears?

~

The Whetstone of Tudwal

~

Tudwal Tudglyd, ‘defender of the people’* was a ruler of Alt Clut. His estimated date of birth is 510. His father is Clynog ap Dynfwal and he is part of the Macsen Wledig lineage. Rhydderch Hael and Morgan Mwynfawr (owners of the Sword and Chariot) are his sons. It seems possible the whetstone was passed on by Tudwal to Rhydderch to keep Dyrnwyn, the Sword, sharp. According to an eighth century poem and The Life of St Ninian Tudwal was blinded by Ninian for his rejection of Christianity then healed by the saint, presumably when he agreed to convert. Nothing else is known about him.

The need for whetstones originated with the invention of metal weapons in the Bronze Age. They were made from sandstone or gritstone. After the stone had been quarried, the slabs were sawed, cut into bars, planed, and smoothed by metal tools. Whetstones held an important place in post-Roman society: without a whetstone a warlord and his warriors could not sharpen their swords and maintain their power. A good whetstone was highly treasured for its magical capacity to sharpen a blade and passed down through generations with its stories.

The skills of a talented furbisher were also valued. This is shown in Culhwch and Olwen. Cai is allowed into the castle of Wrnach/Dyrnwch the Giant (owner of the Cauldron) because he possesses the skill of furbishing swords. Taking a ‘striped whetstone’ he asks Wrnach whether he would prefer his sword ‘white-bladed or dark blue-bladed’. The colour of a sword determines its value**. Cai’s ability to produce either result suggests that, like Tudwal’s whetstone, it is magical. It may even be the same whetstone. Wrnach allows Cai to choose how he furbishes the sword. We might assume that, like other sharp weapons in the tale, it can draw blood from the wind once Cai is done. Cai uses Wrnach’s newly sharpened sword to behead him and claims it for Culhwch in fulfilment of one of the impossible tasks.

*Rachel Bromwich explains her translation: ‘With tud cf. Ir. túath ‘tribe, people’, and the corresponding personal name Tuathal; Tutklyd ‘defender of the people’. Gwâl = ‘leader, ruler; so Tudwal ‘leader of the people’.
**In the law texts it states that a dark blue-bladed sword is worth sixteen pence and a white-bladed sword twenty-four pence. A blue blade is produced by tempering and a white blade by polishing and burnishing.

~

SOURCES

Aurélie Thiébaux, Marc Feller, Bruno Duchêne, Eric Goemaere, ‘Roman whetstone production in northern Gaul’
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Peter Nowlan, ‘The Best Sharpening Stones’
P.F. Whitehead, ‘A pictorial field guide to whetstones and related artefacts in Worcestershire during the past 4000 years’
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant: if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

A warrior-bard rides his motorcycle across the north,
his words like his weapons bold and defiant,
seeking to prove his worth
at the Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant.

Will he lose his defiance with his stuttering rifle,
like a broken mike stammer and stall?
If meat for a coward were put in
it would never boil.

Or will he proclaim his exploits on a megaphone
whilst miming each gun-shot wittily?
If meat for a brave man were put in
it would boil quickly.

Either way in the depths of the cauldron
his youthful flesh will be devoured most thoroughly
(and thus the brave could be distinguished
from the cowardly).

~

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch

~

Dyrnwch the Giant is a legendary figure associated with the Old North. His epithet gawr ‘giant’ poses the question of whether he was a large human or belonged to a mythic race. References to giants such as Brân the Blessed shows they held an important position in Brythonic mythology. More confusingly, human chieftains such as Maelor Gawr, who was killed in a raid on his fortress at Pen Dinas by Gwerthmwl Wledig, were given the epithet ‘giant’.

Dyrnwch appears by the name Diwrnach Wyddel ‘the Irishman’ in Culhwch and Olwen. Here the getting of his cauldron to boil food for his wedding guests is one of the impossible tasks Culhwch must fulfil to win the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, ‘Chief Giant’.

Diwrnach is the steward of Odgar King of Ireland. Arthur fulfils the task for Culhwch. He sails to Ireland on his ship, Prydwen, with his men. Diwrnarch invites them into his house to feast. When Arthur asks Diwrnach for the cauldron he refuses to hand it over. Llenlleog Wyddel, one of Diwrnach’s men, betrays him by grabbing Arthur’s sword, Caledfwlch, and killing Diwrnach and all his retinue. Arthur and his men flee with the cauldron filled with Irish treasure.

In Brythonic mythology Ireland is sometimes a synonym for Annwn, the Otherworld, because it is likewise across the sea. If this is the case, ‘Odgar’ is a name for the ruler of Annwn and Diwrnach is his steward. This reading is backed up by the fact that in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the Head of Annwn owns a cauldron just likes Diwrnach’s with a pearly rim that will not boil a coward’s food, which is again seized by Arthur.

Dyrnwch also appears by the name Wrnach in Culhwch and Olwen. Culhwch is told he must get Wrnach’s sword, which is the only weapon that can kill him. In this story he is most definitely a giant for he owns ‘the largest fort in the world’ and from it comes a ‘a black-haired man, bigger than three men of this world’. Cai fulfils the task for Culhwch by posing as a furbisher of swords and killing Wrnach with his own perfectly honed blade.

‘Arthur and the Porter’ mentions Arthur fought with a hag in Awrnach’s hall. This is another variant on the spelling of Dyrnwch and perhaps associates Dyrnwch with Orddu, ‘Very Black’, a ‘hag’ who dwelled in Pennant Gofid, ‘in the uplands of Hell’. Arthur went to the North to kill her. The boundaries between the North, Ireland, and Annwn blur. All are ‘not here’.

From this proliferation of stories we can conjecture that Dyrnwch was an important figure who guarded the cauldron of the Head of Annwn and died attempting to defend it in a liminal place.

From the Bronze Age, cauldrons literally held a central role in Brythonic culture at the centre of the feast. They were essential for cooking meat, which would have been seen as a magical process. The cauldron’s property of distinguishing the brave from the cowardly seems related to ‘the champion’s portion’ in which the bravest warrior was given first choice and the finest meat.

On a deeper level, in Welsh mythology, the cauldron is associated with death and rebirth. Brân the Blessed was gifted a cauldron which had the power to bring dead warriors back to life. Taliesin was reborn from the crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ of Ceridwen from which the Awen* originates.

It seems likely the magical property of Dyrnwch’s cauldron and the champion’s portion had a deeper origin in an initiatory function wherein only a brave person could be initiated into the mysteries of death and rebirth in the depths of Annwn and thus receive his or her Awen.

*Divine inspiration. In some medieval Welsh poems it is synonymous with one’s destiny.

~

SOURCES

Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
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)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, The Black Book of Carmarthen, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd

The knife of Llawfrodedd the Horseman, which would serve for twenty-four men to eat at table.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

Llawfrodedd the horseman
chooses his own side,
serves no lord but himself,
but will lend his knife
as and when he sees fitting.
Thus it seems ominous
when he sits down at the table
of the Four Kings: Urien,
Rhydderch, Gwallog, Morgan,
and begins carving meat:
pork loin, a topside of beef,
the fat breast of a goose.
Twenty-four men are served
in the blinking of an eye.
The startled diners imagine
their foe thus butchered
and tuck in with added relish.
Llofan can see that blade
sliding quick as the deft needle
of an embroiderer between
the ribs of his target – Urien.
His killing hand is itching
as if bitten by an army of red ants.
The horseman will not part
with his weapon whilst he lives.
The assassin bides his time.
Llawfrodedd’s knife will dance
in a hundred red right hands
and at this carvery slip into mine.

~

The Knife of Llawfrodedd

~

Llawfrodedd the Horseman was born around 490. We have no record of who his ancestors are. In Bonedd y Saint he appears as the father as Gwyddnabi and the grandfather of St. Idloes. Unlike most of the other owners of the treasures he is not included in the northern lineages.

Llaw means ‘Hand’ and frodedd may perhaps derive from cyfrodedd ‘twisting’ or difrodedd ‘devastation’. His epithet ‘the Horseman’ is translated from Farchog. In other texts he is named Farfog ‘the Bearded’.

In Triad 46. ‘Three Principal Cows of Britain’ Llawfrodedd appears as the owner of Cornillo, ‘Little Horn’. He is also listed among the warriors of Arthur’s court in Culhwch and Olwen and Arthur’s forty-two counsellors in Rhonabwy’s Dream. This suggests he was a significant figure in medieval Wales whose stories have unfortunately been lost.

Knives are a longstanding part of the human toolkit. The Oldowan tools show early hominids were using knife-like objects two-and-half million years ago. At Boxgrove in West Sussex, a site dated to 500,000 years ago, flint ‘hand axes’ were used as knives by Homo Heidelbergensis to expertly butcher an array of animals including horses, red deer, giant deer, bison, rhinos, lions, wolves, and hyenas.

Flint knives of various types were used until the Bronze and Iron Ages when they were replaced by metal (although the Beaker people continued to make handled daggers from flint and they were hailed to be ‘the finest flint knives ever produced in Britain’). Knives were commonly found buried with their owner as grave goods and in Bronze and Iron Age hoards.

Everyone owned at least one knife for hunting, butchery, and eating. Until the Middle Ages hosts did not provide knives at the table – people were expected to use their own. A knife was an essential item no-one could live without. The magical properties of Llawfrodedd’s knife show knives were an important part of post-Roman society and skill at carving was held in high regard.

Of course, knives also served a more sinister function – killing other humans. This is famously evidenced by ‘The Night of the Long Knives’ which occurred in the 5th century. According to Nennius at a ‘peace council’ initiated by Hengist, ruler of the Anglo-Saxons, with Vortigern, ruler of the Britons, each of Hengist’s followers was instructed to ‘hide his knife under his foot in the middle of his shoe’ and slaughter the Briton standing beside him on the shout of “Eu nimet saxas”. Three hundred of Vortigern’s elders were killed and the king imprisoned.

Arthur used his knife, Carwennan, ‘White Hilt’, to gruesomely slaughter Orddu, ‘Very Black’, the last witch of Pennant Gofid in the Old North, by cutting her in half so she was ‘like two vats’.

Llawfrodedd’s name, with its implications of a twisting and devastating hand, suggests his knife, with which he showed such skill with carving for twenty-four men, may also have served a deadlier purpose.

~

SOURCES

David Derbyshire, ‘Inside the mind of an ancient axeman’, The Telegraph
Nennius, History of the Britons, (Book Jungle, 2008)
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)
Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru
History of the Knife,’ Knife Crimes.org

5. The Halter of Clydno

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

I twist the wizened leather in my hands:
noseband, headpiece, cheekstrap,
miraculously preserved
by the peat bog,

imagining Clydno Eiddyn
sitting on the end of his bed,
thumbing the horse-head stamp,
incanting the names of horses:

Slender Grey, Strong Grey,
Dun-Grey, Dark Grey of the Grove,
Silver-White, Dappled, Dappled Roan,
Fearless Roan with Wolf’s Tread,
Fierce Black, Black of the Seas…

When I speak their names adding
Red Rum, Desert Orchid, Man O War,
Milton, Charisma, Warrior, Shergar,
the horses of my youth whose plaques
long disappeared from stables doors

I see their ears pricking on a distant plain.
Their muzzles are foamy with sweet grass,
their liquid eyes sparkling with otherlight.

As their ghosts fill the halter and the scent
of damp coats on a dewy morning I desire
to leap on bare-back and ride to their land.

Were they the undoing of Clydno Eiddyn?

I unpick burrs from tails, straighten manes,
let them go again halterless back to Annwn.

~

The Halter of Clydno - drawing - border

~

Clydno Eiddyn was born around 530 and was a ruler of Din Eidyn ‘Edinburgh’ and of the Gododdin. He was the son of Cynfelyn, placing him amongst the Coel Hen lineage. Clydno accompanied Rhydderch and his allies in their attack on Arfon in 547. Nothing more is known about him.

Clydno had a son called Cynon. For some reason the rulership of Din Eidyn fell to Mynyddog Mwynfawr, son of Ysgyrran, rather than to Cynon. Cynon fought and died with Mynyddog’s retinue at Catraeth. Cynon’s love of Urien’s daughter, Morfudd, and friendship with Urien’s son, Owain, suggests Clydno and Cynon were allies of Urien and his descendants.

When horses were domesticated around 2000 BCE it seems likely they would have been introduced to halters before other equipment. Because most tack is made of leather the only surviving parts are metal bits from bridles and fittings from harnesses. No halters seem to have survived.

I have been unable to find any other references to halters in Brythonic mythology. However, they play an important role in the kelpie legends of Scotland. Some kelpies appeared wearing tack to give the appearance of being ready to ride to lure riders to their drowning in pools. If a person took a bridle or halter from a kelpie it gave them control of it. Likewise if a kelpie appeared without tack it could be captured by a special bridle or halter and made to do one’s bidding.

I wonder if these legends have an origin in older myths about magical halters that gave a person the ability to summon horses not only from the fields of thisworld but from the plains of Annwn and its watery depths?

~

SOURCES

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)
Kelpie’, Wikipedia
History of the Horse in Britain,’ Wikipedia

4. The Chariot of Morgan

The chariot of Morgan the Wealthy: if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

Keening wheels and axles grinding thundering hooves across the moors
shining scythes slicing through the fog of space and time
two black horses are approaching with curly manes
and luscious fetlocks trailing
claggy black peat
from 599.

Clattering skulls adorn the chariot of the Red Ravager.
The straining yoke and trembling pole
and plaited reins are flecked
with blood,

so is the face of the driver – a silent unpenitent mute
who carries a whip he cracks at the centuries.
He has never told where he has been
or where he goes.

The heads of the horses are handsome
their nostrils wide and pink
but they are eyeless
as sacks

(they have never seen where they have been or go).

What battlefield has it come from and without its owner?
Where is he? Losing his shield between sword and spear?

I have spears at my back too but they are not so visible.
I am knee deep in mud without a destination.
Got to go somewhere do something…

“Take me anywhere fast as you can.”

~

The Chariot of Morgan

~

Morgan Mwynfawr ‘the Wealthy’ was born around 540 and was the son of Tudwal Tudclyd and brother of Rhydderch. This places him in the Macsen Wledig lineage. Morgan fought with Rhydderch, Urien, and Gwallog against the Angles on Ynys Metcaut. It was on his order that Llofan Llawddifro assassinated Urien. Afterward Morgan drove Llywarch Hen, Urien’s cousin, from his lands.

Morgan was renowned as one of ‘Three Red Reapers’: For a year neither grass nor plants used to come where one of the three would walk.’ It seems likely his savage reputation was based on his assassination of Urien and hounding of Urien’s family.

Horses were domesticated in Britain around 2000BCE and mainly used to pull carts. Chariot burials dating from 500 – 100BCE have been discovered in East and West Yorkshire and Newbridge near Edinburgh. At least one includes a horse. This shows the chariots of Iron Age warriors were essential to their role and viewed as symbols of their status. It also suggests they believed they would journey on their chariots into the afterlife and ride them there.

Chariots were widely used in warfare in ancient Britain. When Julius Caesar invaded in 55BC he noted the Britons terrified their enemies with ‘the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels’. The warriors used throwing weapons to break up the ranks, then leapt from their chariots to engage on foot whilst their charioteers withdrew and waited to pick them up.

At the time of the triumph of Claudius in 43CE the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela claimed the Britons fought from two horse chariots ‘on which they use axles equipped with scythes’. Tacitus notes when Agricola won the a Battle of Mons Grapius against the Caledonians in northern Scotland the plain was filled by noisy charioteers and consequently ‘runaway chariots’.

Excavations in Colchester have uncovered a Roman chariot race track dating to 2CE showing chariot racing had become a source of entertainment in Romano-British times.

I haven’t come across any records of chariots being used in the 6th century. However, this period is poorly recorded in general. It’s possible to imagine Morgan, the Red Reaper, fighting from a chariot that reached its destination quickly and leaving a trail of devastation wherever he went. If he was buried with it the location of his grave remains unknown.

As to who might design and make such a chariot and imbue it with magic? So far I haven’t come across any clues in our Brythonic myths. This is the only text I know of featuring a chariot, although the chariot of Cu Chulainn is prominent in Irish mythology and scholars have associated him with the chariot burials of the Parisii tribe in Yorkshire. Unfortunately there does not appear a story about the origin’s Cu Chulainn’s chariot, which remains a mystery. What we do know is he appears on a phantom chariot after death. Perhaps Morgan does too…

~

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico
Pomponius Mela, De Chorographia Liber Tertius
Nennius, History of the Britons, (Book Jungle, 2008)
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)
Builders find chariot race track’, BBC NEWS
The British War Chariot’, Roman Britain,

3. The Horn of Brân

The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

Imagine taking it to a party:
speak a word and it will be filled
with any beverage you wish.

Mead, wine, bragget, beer…
I wonder if this old faery horn
could conjure Piña Colada,

Cosmopolitan, Margarita.
I’d be the party’s heart and soul,
bubble-headed, champagne-light.

Yet at the end when I’m the only one
still drinking and no fancy cocktail
will satisfy my appetite

I’ll be thinking of miserly Brân
sipping from its rim with slobbery lips,
pork fat greasing his thick black beard,

sitting all alone with a hole in his heart.
Surrounded by treasure he’s slipping
away into the emptiness within.

All the mead in the horn cannot save him.
Only giving it up to a loquacious bard
or prophet can redeem him.

With one last wish I’ll drink to Brân
then put his horn in the twitching hand
of the drunkard snoring on the sofa

and leave like he did through a window
on the wings of a croaking raven
into the dawn mist.

~

The horn of Bran - drawing - border

~

Brân Galed ‘the Niggard’ was the son of Dyfnwal and Ymellyrn (his mother’s name is confusingly also spelt Mellyrn, Emellyr, Ewerydd, Ywerit, and Iwerydd). This places him within the Coel Hen lineage.

Brân was a contemporary of Rhydderch, Urien, Morgan, and Gwallog, and was perhaps present at the battle against the Angles on Ynys Metcaut. After the assassination of Urien, Brân joined Morgan and Gwallog hounding Urien’s cousin, Llywarch Hen, forcing him to flee from the North to Powys, and attacking Urien’s sons.

Brân’s place of origin and whether he ruled a kingdom remain unknown. His appearance alongside Gwallog and Gwenddolau in the list of northern warriors whose souls Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god of the dead, gathers from the battlefield suggests he was important. Brân died in battle at an unknown place called Cynwyd fighting Pelis, Urien’s son.

Horns held a central role in Brythonic drinking culture. Every warlord owned a drinking-horn and shared its contents with his warriors in his feasting hall. In Culhwch and Olwen, getting the horn of Gwlgad Gododdin to pour for Culhwch’s wedding feast is amongst the impossible tasks. Gwlgad is the steward of Mynyddog Mwynfawr, ruler of the Gododdin tribe of Din Eidyn.

In The Gododdin Mynyddog feasted three hundred men for a year on mead and wine before their ill-fated attack on Catraeth. In the individual elegies we find out many of the warriors possessed horns:  ‘Blaen on his feather cushion dispensed / The drinking-horn in his opulent court’; ‘Gwrelling – / His drinking-horn was handsome / in the hall of Eidyn.’

Brân’s epithet suggests that in spite of, or perhaps because of, the magical property of his horn – that it provided whatever drink one wished – he did not share it generously with his warriors.

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

Guto’r Glyn suggests Taliesin played a role in Brân’s decision:  ‘Miserly, niggardly Brân they used to call him, who of old was descended from the Men of the North; Taliesin, no mean magician, transformed him into one better than the three generous men.’ (Rhydderch, Senyllt, and Nudd Hael). In another variant, Hercules slays a centaur and obtains Brân’s horn from its head.

Brân’s horn was obviously significant and we might speculate it was originally the horn of a mythical beast. As real drinking-horns were usually made from the horns of cattle I wonder if it was the horn of an otherworldly bull, akin to the Brindled Ox, who was stolen from Annwn.

~

SOURCES

Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Nennius, History of the Britons, (Book Jungle, 2008)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

2. The Hamper of Gwyddno

‘The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank: Food for one man would be put in it, and when it was opened, food for a hundred men would be found in it.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I.
After the picnic I’m left to clear up the mess:
hundreds of crisp packets,
chocolate wrappers,
beer cans

mixed with debris
washed up on the beach
where it’s said Gwyddno kept
a hamper that would feed one hundred men.

Some say it was a basket others a fish weir.
In it he found a shiny-browed bard.
“I’m no good to eat,”
said Taliesin.

He slipped away
like a gingerbread child.
As I pick through the bin bags
shiny black and squishy as basking seals

my litter pickers clamp onto a tiny skull
like forceps and pull the foetus out
shrivelled by sea water
still kicking.

“Not food,”
he says, “but a poet!
Those idiots threw me away.
A nation starved of poetry will ever hunger!”

II.
A man with long legs and a piercing beak
walks the tidal brink footprints fading
as soil trickles away like sand
through an hourglass.

He will take the hamper on crane-wings
into a sunset red as his crown,
black legs spelling out
our fate.

~

The Hamper of Gwyddno

~

Gwyddno Garanhir ‘Long-Legged Crane’ lived during the 6th century. He is the son of Cawdraf and thus part of the Macsen Wledig lineage*. He is associated with ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’ one of the ‘Three Chief Ports of the Island of Britain’. I believe this was Portus Setantiorum, the lost port of the Setantii, which lies north of Fleetwood in Lancashire. Its flooding in 574 may have given rise to the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen where Gwyddno berates Seithenin and Mererid for failing to close the flood gates. This legend is more famously set in Borth and Conwy in Wales.

Gwyddno also appears in ‘The Story of Taliesin’. His land and horses are poisoned when Gwion mistakenly imbibes the Awen thus shattering Ceridwen’s cauldron. Gwion, reborn from Ceridwen’s womb as Taliesin, is found in ‘a coracle or hide-covered basket’ in Gwyddno’s fish weir, which is famed for yielding ten pounds of salmon every Nos Galan Gaeaf. This story is located in Conwy but, as the earliest poems attributed to the historical Taliesin are in praise of the northern warlord, Urien Rheged, it seems likely there were northern variants.

Hampers were introduced to Britain from France in the Norman period by William the Conqueror. As mwys means both ‘hamper’ and basket’ in Welsh and the ancients Britons were renowned for their skill at weaving wicker baskets, I believe it was a beautifully crafted basket. It’s also possible ‘hamper’ was a metaphor for Gwyddno’s abundant fish weir or fertile farmlands before they were drowned.

Getting Gwyddno’s Hamper is amongst the forty impossible tasks Culhwch must fulfil for Ysbaddaden. The giants says: ‘If the whole world were to gather around it, three nines at a time, everyone would find the food that he wanted in it, just to his liking. I want to eat from that the night my daughter sleeps with you. He will not give it willingly to any one, nor can you force him.’ Unfortunately we do not find out how or if Culhwch gets the Hamper. Its magical property is suggestive of Otherworld origins.

Gwyddno’s epithet (garan means ‘crane’ and hir ‘long’) connects him with cranes who, with their black, white, and red colouring, and intricate dance-steps and flight patterns have long-standing associations with Annwn. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn appears to escort Gwyddno back to his realm. I’ve always pictured Gwyddno departing as a crane and flying to the Island of the Dancing Cranes where fish is ever plentiful and from where the basket (woven by a crane-woman?) might have originated.

*According to some versions of Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd. Other genealogies differ.

~

SOURCES

Gilbert J. French, ‘On the Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol. 15
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)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
The History of the Hamper from 1066 to 2016’, Regency Hampers
Mwys’, Geriadur Pryfysgol Cymru