13. The Mantle of Arthur

The mantle of Arthur in Cornwall: whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everyone.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

We know of the atrocities
he committed when he was visible:
the headless giants, witches with cloven heads,
slaughtered dog-heads and wolves stripped of their furs.

We have seen the desolate battlefields in thisworld and Annwn.

What then of the invisible deeds behind his rise to power?

Some say Arthur walks invisibly amongst us still,
seeing everyone without being seen,
his hand guiding Empire.

Sweeping from his mantle the blade of Caledfwlch falls.


The Mantle of Arthur


Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and Eigr and was a legendary warlord who fought against the giants and witches of ancient Britain and carried out an infamous raid on Annwn. He also led twelve battles against the Anglo-Saxons and died at Camlan in 537. It’s odd to find Arthur’s mantle, here associated with Arthur’s court in Cornwall, in this list of northern treasures.

We find a detailed description of Arthur’s mantle, Gwen ‘White’ or ‘Blessed’, in Rhonabwy’s Dream. It is made of ‘damasced, brocaded silk’ and has ‘a reddish gold apple at each of its corners’. We are told of its attributes: ‘the person wrapped in it could see everyone yet no one could see him. And no colour would ever last on it except its own colour.’

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur’s mantle, along with his ship, sword, spear, shield, and dagger are listed as the only gifts that he refuses to give to Culhwch.

In ‘The Second Branch’ Caswallon, son of Beli Mawr, puts on a magic mantle in order to murder Caradog, son of Brân the Blessed, and six of his men, thus usurping the rulership of Britain. We are told ‘no one could see him killing the men – they could only see his sword.’ It may be suggested this is the same mantle and was associated with sovereignty.

As far as I am aware there are no stories about Arthur using his mantle to make himself invisible and carrying out any kind of deeds or misdeeds whilst under its protection.

Rich mantles, cloaks, and coats make frequent appearances in medieval Welsh mythology.  There is story about Arthur attempting to take Padarn’s Coat and I can’t help wondering whether these treasures are connected or the same. Culhwch wears a ‘purple, four-cornered cloak about him, with a ruby-gold ball at each corner. Each ball was worth a hundred cows.’

It seems possible that, like Padarn’s Coat, Arthur’s mantle and Culhwch’s cloak were dyed with Tyrian Purple and thus symbolic of the wealth and prestige of the Romano-British elites. Although the name of Arthur’s cloak, Gwen, suggests it may be white, I think this alludes to its blessed/magical nature. Without laundrettes and whiteners it would have been impractical to keep a garment white particularly for a warlord regularly up to his elbows in blood. One of the qualities of Tyrian Purple was its ‘resistance to weather and light’. For Arthur it would have been a blessing that his mantle kept its own colour and the countless blood stains didn’t show.



Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tyrian Purple, Wikipedia


‘The bitch Rhymi… in the form of a she-wolf… she goes around with her two whelps. She has killed my livestock many times, and she is down below Aber Daugleddyf in a cave.’
– Culhwch and Olwen

I was in a multitude of shapes before I assumed wolf-form. My keen sense of smell, my canine teeth, the sense of awe surrounding the silence of my feet and my savagery were all conducive to my role as a death-eater.

I was feared and revered by the people of Prydain for thousands of years until they decided their dead: human and animal should not be eaten by wolves.

I’m not sure what brought about this decision – whether it was their abandonment of hunting for farming, their penning in and marking ownership of the herds, the arrival of the sheep or the religion of the sheep with its shepherd-like patriarchs who despised both wolves and women.

Whatever the case, I became reviled. Whenever farmers caught me raising my jaws from a half-eaten carcass, gnawing bones dragged from a freshly dug grave, they sent huntsmen after me with hounds, bows and arrows, knives and spears, to bring back the trophy of my head.

Of course, I knew how to deal with huntsmen. My most ardent pursuer was Deigyr of Caerdydd. When numbers and brute strength did not succeed, he decided to track me by stealth instead. Disguising his scent in fox urine he followed me from kill to kill. Leading him into Caerdydd, I slipped off my wolf-fur and, taking a softer form, allowed him to buy me a flagon of bragget.

We got talking about the art of hunting and the nature of the wolf. The bragget slid down like hot blood. Soon I was back at his house, lounging on a wolf-skin rug, admiring the furs on his walls, the heads of beavers, badgers, foxes, boars, and wolves.

After we slept together I killed Deigyr with his hunter’s knife and devoured his corpse. Many moons later I gave birth to two whelps: Gwyddrud and Gwydden, in a sea-cave beneath Aber Daugleddyf.

Their suckling on the polyps of my teats was interrupted by a ship with a rude white prow carrying hundreds of warriors. As they fired their bows into the water I snapped every arrow with my jaws and rose up, barging and harassing the vessel I recognised as Prydwen to the shore.

An army awaited me with endless rows of spears and shields.

When I showed no fear, Arthur called on God to change me into my own form, grasped my wolf-fur and pulled it off.

The spears dropped to the floor.

The King of Prydain recoiled in dismay, eyes bulging like sea anemones, face pale as coral, “Please God, change her back!”

When his plea went unanswered, Arthur desperately attempted to throw the fur back over me, but it landed limp and useless on the sand.

“Please God, change her back. Please cover her up!”

Rhymi sketch

Orddu, the Very Black Witch

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’
  Walter Benjamin

Orddu has been a powerful presence in my life since I started investigating the story of her death. In the medieval Welsh tale, Culhwch and Olwen (1070AD), she meets a gruesome end. She is cut in twain by Arthur’s knife, then her blood is drained and bottled to dress the beard of the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr.

The murder of Orddu is the penultimate act in a trail of bloody atrocities committed by Arthur and his men so Culhwch can win Olwen. Ancient animals are hunted down, giants butchered, otherworldly treasures stolen, numerous historical and mythical figures subordinated and incorporated into Arthur’s court. Finally, Ysbaddaden is barbered and beheaded.

The civilising rule of Arthur as a champion of Christianity unifying Britain is asserted by his barbaric assault on this land’s divinities and those who interact with them. His reign as a national hero is based on his wiping out not only of the lives, but the stories, of a myriad Others cast into an abyss of ignominy from which few of us hear their screams.

Orddu’s death cry has resounded in my ears for several years now. Sadly she does not appear in any other sources. Nothing is known about her outside Culhwch and Olwen, where she takes to the stage for a brief and brutal battle before her life is snuffed from the page and from history. However, clues to her significance can be gleaned by reading the surface text otherwise, from the perspective of Annwn, ‘the deep’, the ancient British Otherworld.

Orddu is introduced as ‘the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch’ (Orddu means ‘Very Black’ and Orwen ‘Very White’). This is suggestive of a matrilineal tradition of witchcraft passed on from mother to daughter through the generations. Whether Orddu and Orwen are titles, or refer to the witches’ skin colour, hair colour, or the type of magic they practiced remains unclear. Still, these women can be pictured singing spells, passing on plant knowledge, caring less for labels than the flow of magic that runs in their blood and sings in their souls.

When Arthur embarks on his quest to bottle Orddu’s blood he sets out for the North. Northern Britain, with its rough terrain and cold weather, where the influence of Rome struggled harder to maintain its hold, is traditionally viewed as hostile and dangerous in medieval Welsh literature.

Orddu is located in ‘Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell’. Pennant Gofid means ‘Valley of Grief’. This may be viewed simultaneously as a place where people come to grief and a place where they come to grieve. ‘Hell’ is translated from ‘Uffern’, ‘Inferno’, a word used synonymously with ‘Annwn’. The associations with mourning and the Otherworld suggest Pennant Gofid was a valley of the dead and that Orddu was its custodian. As such it would have been viewed as profoundly sacred by local ‘pagans’, but as hellish by Christian intruders with no understanding of their beliefs. I have not managed to locate Pennant Gofid within the physical landscape, but when I journey there in spirit it is steep and stony. A white river with foaming rapids roars through it. Through its ever-present mists hardy stumpy trees can be glimpsed, cairns, dolmens and, occasionally, mountain ghosts.

Orddu is found in a ‘hag’s cave’. This signifies her connection with ancient ancestral traditions which have no place in the civilised world of Arthur. Caves are places of access to Annwn and its mysteries. The bones of Orddu’s ancestors may have been buried in the cave’s recesses. In my journeywork it is half way up the valley; a precarious scramble. Nearby a spring emerges from the rock. There I received the gnosis it is the place Orddu and her kindred grieved for their predecessors and the dead who are buried in the valley. Their salt tears are the source of the white waters of the River of Grief. There I mourned Orddu’s death.

To find Orddu’s cave, Arthur is dependent on the guidance of the pre-Christian deities Gwyn ap Nudd (‘White son of Mist’) and Gwythyr ap Greidol (‘Victor son of Scorcher’). Gwyn is a god of Annwn and ruler of its spirits who are referred to as ‘demons’ in Culhwch and Olwen. In The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350AD) he appears as a gatherer of the souls of the dead.

Gwyn and Gwythyr are deadly rivals for the love of a maiden called Creiddylad. In an earlier episode, Arthur put an end to their conflict by placing a command on them to fight for Creiddylad every May Day until Judgement Day. Their appearance together and as advisors to Arthur seems contrived as a way of demonstrating Arthur’s power.

Read beneath the surface and we see that Gwyn’s presence in Orddu’s story has deeper roots. If Orddu is located on the edge of Annwn, then Gwyn is the deity who must be called upon to part the mists to find her. Orddu’s witchcraft may be rooted in her relationship with Gwyn as a god of Annwn and with the spirits and the dead who he presides over.

Evidence of groups working magic with the deities of the Otherworld has been found in Gaul. The Tablet of Larzac (90AD), from a seeress’s grave, refers to a coven of witches practicing andernados brictom ‘underworld-group magic’. The Tablet of Chamalieres (50AD) evidences a group of men calling on ‘Andedion’ ‘Underworld God(s)’ for aid in battle. ‘Annwn’ and ‘Andedion’ share the same stem. The poet Dafydd ap Gwilym refers to ‘witches of Annwn’ suggesting similar groups existed in Britain.

We also have records of a native tradition of prophesy and spirit-work. In his Description of Wales (1194AD), Giraldus Cambrensis refers to ‘Awenyddion’, ‘people inspired’ who are possessed by spirits and perform oracular trance when consulted on ‘doubtful events’. Orddu can be pictured prophesying with the spirits of Annwn and invoking their aid. Arthur’s subordination of Gwyn represents the negation of her source of magic.

When Arthur and his men approach Orddu’s cave she shows no sign of fear. Arthur hesitates until Gwyn and Gwythyr advise him to send in two of his servants, Hygwydd and Cacamwri. Orddu grabs Hygwydd by the hair and wrestles him to the ground, disarms and thrashes them both and beats them out ‘shrieking and shouting’. When Arthur tries to rush the cave, Gwyn and Gwythyr say, “It is not proper and we do not want to see you wrestling with a hag.” They tell Arthur to send another pair of servants in. We do not hear what Orddu does to Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil (Hir means ‘long’ or ‘tall’ – these are formidable men), only that their fate is ‘far worse’ and the four are so severely incapacitated they cannot escape without being put onto Llamrei, Arthur’s gigantic mare. After this, Arthur loses his temper and strikes Orddu dead.

It is uncertain whether Gwyn and Gwythyr are being presented as stupid or as tricking Arthur to defend Orddu. Whatever the case, in spite of being alone in her cave and outnumbered, Orddu displays considerable skill in hand-to-hand combat and puts up a courageous fight.

Comparisons may be drawn with the witches of Caer Lowy who teach Peredur how to ride a horse and handle weapons. Afterward, Peredur turns on them and slaughters them with Arthur’s aid. Conspicuously he kills one of the witches by striking her on the helmet so her head is split in two. As she dies she tells Peredur he was destined to kill her. It may be conjectured that Orddu belonged to a similar lineage of women who were not only witches but also trained the warriors of the North.

Thus it makes sense that for Arthur’s tasks to be completed this powerful woman must be removed from her position at Pennant Gofid where she teaches the arts of warriorship and utters prophecies from the mouth of Annwn. Her death signals the end of a tradition that may be as old as the ancestral remains in the cave where she abides.

Long has she lain there, her skull split in twain, her bones in two weary piles. Long has her story been forgotten, until now, as the rule of Arthur and the hegemonic brand of Christianity that gave us the Crusades, witch hunts and the British Empire united under ‘One King, One God, One Law’ begins to crumble.

The blood of witches does not stay bottled forever even in the bottles of a dwarf. The glass walls that contain magical women are shattering. Orddu’s call is to win back our powers of prophecy and fighting strength, to rebuild our relationships with Annwn and its gods and spirits. To reach into our caves of potential and fulfil our vocations with courage, remembering how her life was cut short.


*This article was solicited by Kate Large and was first published in Pagan Dawn, No 202, Spring 2017


We have started rebuilding from the ruins.

We are the children you never knew you would have.

We do not see you but we keep on building

the future you made your crossing for.

Gods&Radicals is pleased to announce that the fourth issue of our journal, A Beautiful Resistance, will be released into the world 15 November.

Edited by Lorna Smithers and Lia Hunter, foreworded by Peter Dybing, and yet again featuring the brilliant cover artistry of Li Pallas, A Beautiful Resistance: The Crossing features literary and artistic works from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America, by:

Nina George, Nimue Brown, S. A. O’Hungerdell, Angharad Lois, Nicole Heneveld, Bryan Hewitt, Rex Butters, Rhyd Wildermuth, Lorna Smithers, Dennis Mombauer, Dr. Bones, Boham, Ingi House, Jason Derr, Aicila Lewis, Joe DiCicco, Tahni J. Nikitins, Shane Burley, Innocent Chizaram Ilo, Michael Browne, Nebulosus Severine, Finnchuill, Rune Kjær Rasmussen, Sean Donahue, Sonali Roy, Christine…

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King Arthur of Camelot Wikipedia Commons

ARTHUR and ARTHUR’S WARBAND for the following CRIMES against the PEOPLE OF ANNWFN –

*The murder of Diwrnarch Gawr, by beheading with his own sword, and the theft of his sword and cauldron.
*The murder of Dillus Farfog, by beheading, and the plucking out of his luxuriant red beard to make the leash that near-strangled Drudwyn, Fierce White, a Hound of Annwfn.
*The murder of Rhitta Gawr, by beheading, and the theft of his cloak of his beards.
*The murder of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, by beheading, and his torture – the shaving of his beloved hawthorn beard, the paring of his skin and flesh to the bone, and the slicing off of both his ears.
*The murder of Orddu, Very Black, Witch of Pennant Gofid, by slicing in half with a lightning-like knife and the draining of her blood into the bottles of Gwyddolwyn Gawr to grease Ysbaddaden’s beard.
*The murder of the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw by splitting their heads and helmets in twain.
*The murder of the dog-heads of Din Eidyn and cutting out of their tongues.
*The murder of Gwrgi Garwlwyd, Leader of the Dog-Heads, deviously assassinated, and the theft of his head.
*The harassment of Rhymi the she-wolf and her two whelps, driven from their sea-cave beneath Aber Daugleddyf and forced into human form.
*The harassment of Ysgithrwyn Pen Baedd, hunted across the North, and his torture as his tusk was pulled from his head to barber Ysbaddaden.
*The harassment of Twrch Trwyth, hunted from Eire to Aber Hafren, and the theft of the comb, shears and razor from between his ears to comb, trim, and shave Ysbaddaden’s beard.
*The disinterment and theft of the head of Brân the Blessed.
*The theft of the Cup of Llwyr ap Llwyrion, the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir, the Horn of Gwlgawd Gododdin, the Harp of Teirtu, and the Birds of Rhiannon.
*Breaking and entering into Annwfn and the unlawful docking of one white-prowed ship named Prydwen.
*The murder of the honoured and fair on the plains of Caer Vandwy.
*The theft of the Brindled Ox and his herd.
*The murder of six thousand speechless dead men on the walls of Caer Wydyr.
*The kidnapping of Gweir, Bard of Annwfn, from Caer Siddi.
*The theft of the cauldron of the Head of Annwfn.
*The attempted murder of the Head of Annwfn.



This piece came to me a few days after finding out that the current exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, displaying The Black Book of Carmarthen, The Book of Aneurin, and The White Book of Rhydderch, amongst other texts is titled ‘Arthur and Welsh Mythology’.

My heart sank at the mention of Arthur. How can a warlord who, in early Welsh mythology, murders, tortures, and subdues the giants, witches, ancestral animals, and pre-Christian deities associated with our ancient British underworld, Annwfn, still be revered as a national hero?

 Isn’t it time we started looking instead to the ‘colourful characters’ whose stories Arthur has eclipsed for inspiration and wisdom rooted in the deeper mythos of the pre-Arthurian world?

Gwyddbwyll – Why the War Games?

Gwyddbwyll is a Brythonic war game. The name derives from gwydd, ‘wood’, and pwyll, ‘sense’, hence ‘wood sense’. It is played with gwerin, which means both ‘pieces’ and ‘men’.

We find references to gwyddbwyll in a number of medieval Welsh texts. Together these suggest it was played by sovereigns and that the board represented their realm and the gwerin their army and the army of a rival. The board and gwerin are usually carved from gold or silver. The gwerin are anthropomorphic and magically endowed with a life of their own.

In The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the Roman Emperor, Macsen, dreams of a hall in which two lads are playing gwyddbwyll with silver and red gold pieces whilst a grey-haired man sits at a second board carving pieces with steel files from a bar of gold watched over by a beautiful, lavishly dressed maiden who he falls in love with.

Macsen finds out the maiden is Elen Luyddog, ‘Elen of the Hosts’ and her castle is at Aber Saint. He travels from Rome to Elen’s hall where he finds her overlooking the gwyddbwyll boards just as in his dream and marries her. It seems likely the first gwyddbwyll board represents Elen’s old realm and the new one the realm she will rule alongside Macsen.

In Peredur, the protagonist sees a gwyddbwyll board in the Fortress of Wonders. The two sides are playing each other. When the side Peredur supports loses, the other side shouts ‘just as if they were men’. Angry because his side has lost, Peredur takes the pieces in his lap and throws the board into a lake.

A black-haired maiden enters saying, ‘May you not receive God’s welcome. You do evil more than good… You have made the empress lose her board, and she would not wish that for her empire.’ Again we find evidence that the gwyddbwyll board of a sovereign represents her realm.

The Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau is amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’. Gwenddolau ruled Arfderydd and may have been a ‘High King’ of northern Britain during the 6th century. The text states, ‘if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver’. It clearly had magical qualities.

Rhonabwy’s Dream features a gwyddbwyll match between Arthur and Owain Rheged. As they play, messengers arrive reporting that Arthur’s men are harassing then wounding and killing Owain’s ‘ravens’. Arthur refuses to call them off saying, “your move” and they play on.

The tides turn. As Owain’s ravens lift Arthur’s men into the skies and drop them in pieces, Owain refuses to call them off saying, “your move” and they play on. When Arthur finally loses his temper and crushes the golden pieces to dust everything becomes peaceful.

This shows gwyddbwyll was related to real wars via the logic of microcosm – macrocosm and suggests that matches had a divinatory function. Perhaps when the gwerin played by themselves they predicted the outcome of future battles.


Unfortunately we have no archaeological evidence for the existence of gwyddbwyll. This is odd because boards and counters for the Roman Ludus Latrunculorum, ‘The Game of Little Soldiers’, have been found at Housesteads, Vindolanda, and in the grave of a man from Stanway in AD 50 alongside diving rods suggesting it was buried with its owner and served a divinatory purpose.

Ludus Latrunculorum, modern reconstruction, Museum Quintana, Germany, Wikipedia Commons

Ludus Latrunculorum, modern reconstruction, Museum Quintana, Germany, Wikipedia Commons

These boards were wooden (as ‘wood sense’ might suggest) and have not rotted away. If gold and silver gwyddbwyll sets existed, which indeed might have been possible based on examples of Romano-British silversmithing such as the ‘Empress Pepper Pot’, surely they would have been found?

Empress Pepper Pot, British Museum, Wikipedia Commons

Empress Pepper Pot, British Museum, Wikipedia Commons

In Ireland we find a parallel game called fidchell, from fid, ‘wood’, and ciall, ‘intelligence’, also ‘wood sense’. Again it belongs to sovereigns, the board and pieces are made of gold and silver, and are anthropomorphic and endowed with their own life (in one instance ‘the queen is asleep’). Games are played for high stakes bound up with the livelihood of the realm. Likewise there is no archaeological evidence for its existence.

According to the Lebor Gabala Erenn, the god Lug brought fidchell to Ireland along with ball-play, horse racing and assembling. It seems possible that gwyddbwyll was also perceived to be of divine origin and introduced by the pan-Celtic god Lugus who is euhemerised in the medieval Welsh texts as Lleu Llaw Gyfes, ‘Lleu of the Skillful Hand’ and Lleog, ‘death-dealer’ or ‘flashing light’.

Although gwyddbwyll is the modern Welsh name for chess they should not be equated. Chess originated in India in the 6th century and spread to Spain via Persia, arriving in Britain with the Normans in the 12th century.


As I’ve conducted this research I’ve been nagged by a constant question, ‘Why the war games?’

The very concept of gwyddbwyll as a game played by sovereigns predicated on perpetual war between players and realms has felt increasingly problematic.

The gwyddbwyll board symbolises the fact that Britain’s sovereigns have always maintained their power through warfare and by positing a mentality of ‘us’ against ‘the enemy’.

It is no coincidence that Arthur, the first warlord to unite Britain, plays gwyddbwyll. Or that when he raids the Otherworld, subdues its deities, and steals its treasures he is aided by Lleog, the bringer of war games, with his deadly flashing sword.

Arthur’s reign is founded on his defending Britain from enemies within (such as giants, monsters, and the deities of the Otherworld) and from enemies without (such as the Anglo-Saxons).

This gwyddbwyll mentality has led to the Crusades, imperialism, colonialism, and to the War on Terror.

Whereas movements for electoral reform and the rights of minority groups have succeeded, anti-war protests and campaigns have consistently been ignored because war lies at the heart of Britain’s political and economic structure and maintains its hierarchies and elites.

We’re trapped on a gwyddbwyll board growing more terrified of attacks whilst the rulers muster their gwerin.

Where does our hope lie?

In breaking their rules, revealing their war games as ‘wood sense’, refusing to ‘play on’?

Riddles and Howling Monks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next verse continues in a similar vein:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

P1170785 - Copy

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

Caer Vandwy and the Theft of the Brindled Ox

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Taliesin continues to deride the monks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In the last lines of the verse Taliesin says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Caer Rigor and the Closed Door

In the second verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin, Arthur and his men stole the cauldron of the Head of Annwn, escaped from Caer Vedwit, slammed ‘Hell’s gate’ shut and lit lamps outside. By their flickering light they saw only seven survivors remained.

At the opening of the third verse Taliesin says:

‘I’m splendid of fame: songs are heard
in the four quarters of the fort, stout defence of the island.’

Taliesin’s reference to songs heard ‘in the four quarters of the fort’ echoes the opening of the second verse. Here the fortress is not revolving. Instead, its defensive function is emphasised.

Marged Haycock translates ynys pybyrdor as ‘stout defence of the island’. However, it is more commonly translated as ‘island of the strong door’ (from ynys ‘island’, pybyr ‘strong’ and dor ‘door’).

This suggests it bears relation to the feasting hall on the island of Gwales in ‘The Second Branch’. Taliesin was one of seven survivors from the battle between the armies of Brân (King of Prydain) and Matholwch (King of Ireland). He and his companions feasted with Brân’s head. Beforehand Brân told them:

‘And you will stay for eighty years in Gwales in Penfro. And so long as you do not open the door towards Aber Henfelen, facing Cornwall, you can remain there and the head will not decay. But as soon as you enter that door you can stay no longer.’

After eighty years, Heilyn’s curiosity got the better of him and he opened ‘that door’. When he looked out at Cornwall and Aber Henfelen ‘every loss they had ever suffered, and every kinsman and companion they had lost, and every ill that had befallen them was as clear as if they had encountered it in that very place; and most of all concerning their lord.’

Robin Melrose says ‘The ‘strong door’… seems to be the door between the otherworld and the world of the living – strong because in this case it prevents the dead from regretting all that they have left behind in the world of the living.’

When Taliesin and his companions feasted with Brân’s head, they entered the timeless state of the otherworld host; of the dead. Contrastingly in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ they raid the otherworld, assault its people, steal their treasure then slam ‘the strong door’ shut behind them.

The shift in narrative from participation to raiding, assault and theft is symbolic of how views of Annwn differed between the British Foretime and Arthurian period. In the former, Pwyll and Arawn, a King of Annwn, struck up an honourable alliance. The gargantuan Brân was considered a hero. In the latter, giants and the rulers of Annwn appear as adversaries.

Haycock notes there is scribal confusion between pybyr and pefr. Pefrdor has been translated as ‘radiant door’, ‘shining door’ and ‘flaming door’. Perhaps because of its fiery connotations the door was labelled as ‘porth Vffern’ (Vffern is from Latin inferno) ‘Hell’s gate’.


Flaming Door by Dull Stock on Deviant Art

The closing of the door seems symbolic of the way relationships with Annwn and its deities were shut off during the Arthurian period. Annwn was equated with hell and its people with demons. They later became known as fairies.

In the next lines, Taliesin refers to what is going on in the fortress whilst they stand outside the door listening to the songs:

‘Fresh water and jet are mixed together;
sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion.’

The lines about the otherworldly battalion drinking wine are self-explanatory but what about the mixing of jet and water? Jet is a lignite, like coal formed from trees decaying under extreme pressure, which was used in jewellery during the Bronze Age and late Roman period.

Jet’s chthonic nature links it with the otherworld. It is frequently found in ancient burials. As the dead were buried with jet to wear in the next life, it seems possible some of the otherworld host are wearing jet.

However, this doesn’t explain its mixing with water. A possible source is the Archbishop of Seville’s Etymologiae (600-625): ‘(Jet) is black, flat, smooth, and burns when brought near fire. Dishes cut out of it are not destructible. If burned it puts serpents to flight, betrays those who are possessed by demons, and reveals virginity. It is wonderful that it is set on fire by water and extinguished with oil.’

The main focus is on jet’s combustible nature. Caitlin and John Matthews describe the effect of jet being set on fire by water as ‘like a flambeau’. The term ‘flambeau’ may refer to a burning torch or to a cocktail to which a splash of Grand Mariner is added before it is ignited. This certainly fits with the imagery of the lamps outside ‘Hell’s Gate’ and the drinking party within illuminated by the hallucinatory effect of water and jet mixing.

Haycocks translates muchyd as ‘jet’ and echwyd as ‘fresh water’. She says echwyd could also mean ‘mid-day’, thus contrasting the darkness of jet with the light of the mid-day sun. This fits with the later question of ‘when, at noon, the Ruler (of Annwn?) was born’.

At the end of the verse we find out this fortress is called Caer Rigor. This is from the Latin rigor ‘stiffness, rigidity’ hence Haycock translates Caer Rigor as ‘The Petrifaction Fort’. For me this represents the hardening of the fluidity of the otherworld, the closing of doors and the end of relationship.

Additionally, frigor means ‘cold’ which contrasts with porth Vffern. Annwn is both fiery and icy. This is paralleled in The Life of St Collen where Collen says the garments of the host of the Annuvian King, Gwyn ap Nudd, are ‘red’ to signify ‘burning’ and ‘blue’ to signify ‘coldness’.

In Norse mythology, Muspel: ‘bright and hot’ and Niflheim: source of all things cold and grim, were the first two worlds to come into existence from Ginnungagap ‘the great void before creation’. The fierceness and intensity of fire and ice originated from other worlds. Only under Christianity did these qualities become punitive.

Later in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin poses questions about the nature of the elements:

‘… whether the sea is all one water,
whether fire – an unstoppable force is all one spark.’

The mixing of jet and water may well be connected with the mysteries of creation. In an earlier post, I noted that Caer Vedwit ‘is bound up with the passage of day and night and the seasons and the cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.’

The door to Annwn is now closed yet Taliesin, Arthur and their party possess the cauldron: the vessel of its mysteries. To what use will they put it now they have shut themselves off from the advice of the deities of the otherworld?


Caer Rigor

This is Caer Rigor
(from the Latin rigor:
rigid, stiff, petrified,
frigid, cold).

Rigor mortis has
set in to this dead fort.
This is the body
post mortem.

The revolving fort
does not move.
When it turns
it turns backwards.

The song in its quarters
is sung backward
like a record
on loop.

Caer Rigor is dying
into itself:
a sword blow
to the sacred place,

the desecrated cauldron
borne away.
In the vortex
jet and water mix.

The song of the dead
is deafening.
how will you explain?

How will you craft
your verses
so you are the hero
and no-one hears

Caer Rigor?

The Theft of the Cauldron

In the second verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is stolen in one swift move:

‘Lleog’s flashing sword was thrust into it,
and it was left behind in Lleminog’s hand.

These lines have been interpreted in many different ways. Cledyf means ‘sword’ and lluch ‘flashing’. Lleawc (‘Lleog’) has been taken to mean ‘destroyer’ or ‘death-dealer’.

Lluch Lleawc has been identified with Llen(n)l(l)eawc Wyddel ‘Llenlleog the Irishman’ from Culhwch and Olwen. There is a strong case for this because parallels exist between Lleog’s role in the theft of the Head of Annwn’s cauldron and Llenlleog’s in stealing the cauldron of Diwrnarch Wyddel.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur and his men must attain Diwrnarch’s cauldron to boil food for the guests at Culhwch’s wedding feast. (In an earlier post I mentioned that the cauldrons of Diwrnarch and the Head of Annwn share the quality of only boiling meat for the brave).

Arthur sends a message to Odgar, King of Ireland, to tell Diwrnarch, his steward, to hand the cauldron over. Diwrnarch refuses. Arthur and his men set sail for Ireland and make for Diwrnarch’s house where they eat and drink. After feasting, Arthur asks for the cauldron.

Diwrnach says no again. Bedwyr seizes the cauldron and puts it on the back of Hygwydd, Arthur’s servant. Llenlleog Wyddel grabs Caledfwlch (‘hard breach / cleft’ Arthur’s sword) and by swinging it round kills Diwrnarch Wyddel and all his retinue. They escape with the cauldron filled with Irish treasure.

It seems possible the flash of Lleog’s sword as he thrusts it into the cauldron parallels its death-dealing swing, killing or blinding and incapacitating the Head of Annwn and his company as they feast and drink in Caer Vedwit.

Some scholars equate Lleog with the Irish god Lugh whose name may derive from the Proto-Indo-European *leuk ‘flashing light’. Lugh’s epithets include Lámhfhada ‘long arm’ or ‘long hand’, Lonnbeimnech ‘fierce striker’ and Ildánach ‘skilled in many arts’.

To complicate matters further, Lleog has been identified with Lleminog, in whose hand the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is left. Lleminawc may be translated as ‘leaping (one)’ or ‘leaper’.

In ‘Teithi etmygant’* (‘They admire qualities’) Llyminawc bears the meaning ‘keen, eager, ready.’ It refers to ‘an eager leader of an army’ who is a prophetic figure. Some scholars identify Lleminog with Arthur.

So… the Head of Annwn and his people are defeated by Lleog’s flashing sword and the cauldron is left in the hand of Lleminog (who may be Lleog or Arthur). We don’t find out whether there is further conflict or how Arthur and his men escape with the cauldron.

The next line of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ reads: ‘And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned’.

One assumes the escape has been made, ‘hell’s’ door slammed shut and lamps lit outside it. The word translated as Hell here is Vffern. ‘Uffern’ is borrowed from the Latin inferno and appears frequently in medieval Welsh poetry as a negative appellation for the otherworld.

‘What is the measure of Hell? (translated from Uffern)
how thick its veil,
how wide its mouth,
how big are its baths?’**

Was taken by fierce Erof…
Among the hideous fiends
Even to the bottom of Uffern.’***

Doors between the worlds are also a regular feature in Welsh mythology. In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, Ynys pybyrdor has been translated as ‘isle of the strong door’ (ynys ‘island’, pybyr ‘strong’ + dor ‘door’). In ‘The Second Branch’ the Assembly of the Noble Head takes place in an otherworldly stasis on the island of Gwales until a forbidden door is opened.

The name of Dormach, the dog of Gwyn ap Nudd, has been translated as ‘death’s door’ by John Rhys (dor ‘door’ and marth ‘death’). Dogs are frequently guardians of the otherworld. There are no dogs in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ but Taliesin speaks of monks congregating and howling like wolves and dogs in the final two verses.

Emphasis is placed on closing the door between the worlds and keeping it shut. The people of Annwn and its spatio-temporal laws must be kept separate. We recall that if Gwyn did not contain the fury of the spirits of Annwn, they would destroy thisworld.

The second verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ ends with the refrain ‘save seven, none returned from the Mead-Feast Fort’. This is repeated after the visit to each fort and conveys the terrible cost of raiding the otherworld. Its repetition suggests the names of seemingly individual fortresses are perhaps names for one fort and the verses refer to different parts of the same journey.

The forces of Annwn are shut out yet the presence of the cauldron represents the destabilising power of Annuvian magic in thisworld. The cauldron of the Head of Annwn has been stolen from the mead feast in Caer Vedwit: the revolving fortress, centre of the mysteries of day and night, the seasons, birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.

Diwrnarch’s cauldron is taken from Ireland to the house of Llwydeu son of Cilcoed in Dyfed where it is remembered by Mesur y Pair (‘the measure of the cauldron’). It is then presumably used to brew food for Culhwch and Olwen’s guests at their wedding feast. Later it is taken by Myrddin to ‘the glass house’ with the other Treasures of the Island of Britain.

What happens to the cauldron of the Head of Annwn after it is stolen next nobody knows. It is never seen again. It may be worth contemplating the question “where is it now?”

P1140789 - Copy

*In Skene’s translation this is the second part of ‘Canu y Cwrwf’ (A Song to Ale’)
**‘The First Address of Taliesin’ (transl. Marged Haycock)
***‘The Death-song of Madawg’ (transl. William Skene)


Caitlin and John Matthews, King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld, (Gothic Image, 2008)
Marged Haycock (transl.), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sarah Higley (transl.), ‘Preiddu Annwn’, (Camelot, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)

Caer Vedwit: The Fortress of the Mead-Feast and its Revolutions

The second sea fortress raided by Arthur, Taliesin and ‘three full loads’ of Prydwen in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Vedwit ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’.

Opening the second verse Taliesin says:

‘I’m splendid of fame – song was heard
in the four quarters of the fort, revolving (to face) the four directions.’

Kaer pedryuan, ‘four quarters of the fort’ has also been translated as ‘Four-Cornered Fort’, ‘Four-Pinnacled Fort’, ‘Four-Peaked Fort and ‘Four-Turreted Fort’. The latter suggests it bears relationship with Caer Siddi: ‘around its turrets are the wellsprings of the sea’.

The image of a four-quartered, revolving fortress filled with song is fascinating and compelling. So far I have not come across the name Caer Vedwit or revolving fortresses in any other medieval Welsh literature. However fortresses that disappear, recede, or can only be entered under special conditions feature in numerous stories.

A close parallel with Caer Vedwit is found in the Ulster Cycle. In ‘The Feast of Bricriu’, Cú Roí has a fortress which revolves to his chant throughout the night so that nobody can enter:

‘In what airt soever of the globe Curoi should happen to be, every night o’er the fort he chaunted a spell, til the fort revolved as swiftly as a mill-stone. The entrance was never to be found after sunset.’

Caer Vedwit is associated with the Head of Annwn. It seems possible its revolutions are brought about by his spell-song.

The mead-feast is a central feature of medieval stories set in thisworld and Annwn. The status of a lord was judged by his capacity to maintain large groups of warriors feasting and drinking in his hall. The consumption of copious amounts of mead could provide a more prosaic explanation for the songs in Caer Vedwit and its revolutions.

The Cauldron of the Head of Annwn

The purpose of raiding Caer Vedwit is the theft of the cauldron of the Head of Annwn, which no doubt formed the centre of the mead-feast. Taliesin says:

‘My first utterance was spoken concerning the cauldron
kindled by the breath of nine maidens.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
(with its) a dark trim, and pearls?
It does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so;’

A cauldron with similar qualities appears in ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’. It is owned by 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, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly.’

The cauldron’s special ‘disposition’ of only brewing food for the brave shares similarities with the Irish tradition of the champion’s portion. In ‘The Feast of Bricriu’, Bricriu invites a group of champions to his house to fight for ‘a cauldron full of generous wine with room enough for the three valiant braves of Ulster’ along with a seven-year-old boar and other delicacies.

Cú Chulainn wins but his right to the champion’s portion is not settled until he has defended Cú Roí’s fortress and proved his courage to Cú Roí in the beheading game*.

The Blue Smith and the Cauldron of Rebirth

Haycock says gwrym am y oror a mererit (‘a dark trim and pearls’) refers to a dark substance decorating the rim of the cauldron such as ‘an iron band, or enamel, jet or niello (black sulphide of silver)’. Mererit is borrowed from Latin margarita and means ‘pearl’.

John and Caitlin Matthews translate gwrym am y oror a mererit as ‘Ridged with enamel, rimmed with pearl’ and suggest the cauldron was crafted by Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid (‘Blue Smith who Reforges the Weak’).

In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Llasar emerged from the Lake of the Cauldron in Ireland with the cauldron of rebirth on his back. After he and his wife were driven out of Ireland, he took it to Britain and gifted it to Brân then taught Manawydan the art of enamelling.

Brân gave the cauldron to Matholwch, King of Ireland, as recompense for an insult. Matholwch later used it to bring life to dead Irish warriors who were killed by Brân’s army. The cauldron was shattered when a living man was thrown into it.

We hear nothing else about Llasar except that his son, Llashar, was one of seven men left by Brân to guard Britain. Bryn Saith Marchog ‘The Hill of the Seven Horsemen’ is named after them.

Whether the cauldron of rebirth and the cauldron of the Head of Annwn are the same remains a matter of speculation. Their magical properties and elaborate craftmanship suggest they were forged by an otherworldly being, perhaps a gargantuan blue smith, in Annwn’s depths.

The Head of Annwn

Who is the Head of Annwn? In ‘The First Branch’, Pwyll wins the title Pen Annwn by taking the form and role of Arawn, a King of Annwn, winning his yearly battle and resisting the temptation of sleeping with his wife. It’s my intuition Pwyll’s acquisition of the title is based on his assumption of Arawn’s identity and Arawn was formerly Pen Annwn.

Another candidate for the title is Gwyn ap Nudd. In Culhwch and Olwen, Gwyn is introduced as the deity who contains the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent the destruction of the world and adversary of Arthur.

Arthur sides with Gwyn’s rival, Gwythyr, during their struggle for Creiddylad and binds them in battle for her every May Day. Gwyn and Gwythyr also act as tricksters when Arthur goes to kill Orddu ‘The Very Black Witch’.

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn refers to witnessing a battle at Caer Vandwy:

‘… I saw a host
shield shattered, spears broken,
violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’

Caer Vandwy is the sixth fortress in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. It seems likely Gwyn refers to the battle between Arthur and the people of Annwn for the Brindled Ox.

Seasonal Revolutions

In the sixth verse we find a second reference to the Head of Annwn:

‘(those) who don’t know on what day the Head** is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal is it they guard, with his silver head.’

It’s likely the silver-headed animal is the Brindled Ox guarded by the people of Annwn and the ‘Ruler’ is the Head of Annwn. This riddle pertains to his conception and birth. In his Gallic Wars (58-49BC) Julius Caesar said:

‘All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.’

Dis was a Roman god of the underworld who presided over its wealth. Whilst it seems unlikely the Gaulish deity was called Dis this identification suggests he performed a similar role and had deep connections with how people perceived the passage of time and the seasons.

Caesar says the ‘institution’ of the Druids ‘is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it.’

It seems possible Gaulish beliefs about ‘Dis’ derive from the mythos of the Head of Annwn. Arawn and Gwyn both fight yearly battles against opponents associated with summer: Hafgan (haf means ‘summer’) and Gwythyr ap Greidol (‘Victor son of Scorcher’) placing them in the role of the Winter King who must be defeated for summer to come.

In The Death of Cú Roí, Cú Roí carries off a maiden called Blathnat (‘Blossom’) along with a cauldron that is the child of three cows who carry three men/birds on their ears. Cú Chulainn’s army behead Cú Roí and win Blathnat, cattle and treasure.

Parallels with Gwyn’s abduction of Creiddylad, Arthur rescuing her and taking the cauldron and Brindled Ox are obvious. Of course these wintry deities don’t stay ‘dead’ long.

It may be suggested the revolutions of Caer Vedwit, home of the Head of Annwn, are bound up with the passage of day and night and the seasons and the cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth, time itself.

The Nine Maidens

Taliesin says the cauldron of the Head of Annwn is kindled by the breath of nine maidens. There are numerous references to groups of nine women connected with underworld gods in Gallo-Brythonic tradition.

In 1AD, Pomponius Mela wrote of nine priestesses serving a Gaulish god on the island of Sein. Known as Senes, they could create storms, shift shape, cure illnesses and foretell the future.

A Gaulish tablet from Larzac dated 90AD provides evidence of a coven of nine sorceresses working underworld magic:

– a magical incantation of women,
– their special infernal names,
– the magical incantation of a seeress who fashions this prophecy…

…Below, there they shall be impressed, the prophetic curse of these names of theirs is a magical incantation of a group of practitioners of underworld magic: Banona daughter of Flatucia, Paulla wife of Potitos, Aiia daughter of Adiega, Potitos father of Paulla, Severa daughter of Valens (and) wife of Paullos(?), Adiega mother of Aiia, Pottita wife of Primos daughter of Abesa.’

Here anderna is used to refer to the underworld and andernados to a group of practitioners working underworld magic. A similar tablet from Chamalières invokes andedion ‘underworld gods’ and anderon ‘infernal beings’. These Gaulish terms bear similarities with the Irish Andeé ‘non-gods’ and Brythonic Annwn ‘the deep’ ‘the not-world’.

Superstitions surrounding witchcraft and the underworld no doubt lie behind Arthur’s slaughter of Orddu and the nine witches of Caer Loyw and Cai’s killing of nine witches in Arthur and the Porter.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Life of Merlin, Morgan and her sisters: Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis and Thitis with her lyre, are presented in a more positive light. They inhabit the paradisal island of Avalon. Morgan is a shapeshifter adept in herbalism and the healing arts who tends Arthur’s fatal wound after Camlan.

Bringing Life to the Dead

A man named Morgan Tud appears as Arthur’s physician in Geraint son of Erbin. It’s my suspicion this is Morgan in male guise. Morgan acts as healer to Gwyn’s brother, Edern ap Nudd. Edern is defeated by Geraint in another seasonal battle at Whitsuntide.

Geraint strikes Edern what sounds like a killing blow: ‘he summoned up his strength and struck the knight on the top of his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls on his knees.’

However Edern gets up and ride to Arthur’s court. Upon his arrival the gatekeeper says: ‘no one has ever seen such a terrible sight to gaze upon as he. He is wearing broken armour, in poor condition, with the colour of his blood more conspicuous on it than its own colour.’

Edern’s invincibility indubitably stems from his identity as an Annuvian deity like Gwyn. Morgan is assigned the task of healing Edern, which is analogous to bringing him back to life.

The capacity of women not only to heal but bring life to the dead is shown in Peredur. At the court of the King of Suffering, Peredur sees ‘only women’ then:

‘a horse approaching with a saddle on it, and a corpse in the saddle. One of the women got up and took the corpse from the saddle, and bathed it in a tub of warm water that was by the door, and applied precious ointment to it. The man got up, alive, and went up to Peredur, and greeted him, and made him welcome. Two other corpses entered on their saddles, and the maiden gave those two the same treatment as the previous one.’

E. Wallcousins 'In Caer Pedryvan' (1912) Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

Morgan is also associated with the mysteries of death and rebirth represented by the cauldron. It may be suggested the scene where she heals Arthur is based on an older myth wherein she and her sisters tended the Head of Annwn after his seasonal death.

Glastonbury Tor and the Mead-Feast

The sacred complex associated with Caer Vedwit: the cauldron, the Head of Annwn, and the nine maidens came together for me several years ago at Glastonbury Tor.

The isle of Avalon (‘apples’) is frequently identified with Glastonbury in the apple-growing summerlands of the Somerset Levels. Prior to the fall in sea levels, Glastonbury was an island; the area is still prone to flooding. It is easy to see how the story of Arthur being taken to Morgan and her sisters on Avalon by boat emerged from the landscape.

In The Life of St Collen whilst Collen was abbot of Glastonbury he supposedly banished Gwyn and his fairy host whilst they were feasting in the hall of his magical castle on the Tor. It seems likely the cauldron formed the centre of their mead-feast.

My first vision of the otherworld took place at Glastonbury Festival. After thirteen years of searching for an explanation, Gwyn finally appeared in my life and I realised he was my patron. Identifying the nine maidens as Morgan and her sisters and the Head of Annwn as Gwyn led me back to Glastonbury to devote myself him.

When I entered the Well House of the White Spring I could barely believe my eyes. The scene depicted in Caer Vedwit was there before me. In the centre of a subterranean cavern was the cauldron overflowing with thundering water. A dark haired woman in long skirts kindled candles around its rim. In the centre was a shrine to the Lady of Avalon and to the right and left altars for Gwyn and Brigid***.

For one day of my life everything went beautifully to plan. I made my vow to Gwyn beside the candle-lit cauldron as shadows of otherworlds and othertimes circled around me. The world spun around my resolution and my life has never been the same.

However Caer Vedwit has revolved since. Last time I went to Glastonbury the White Spring was barred. Shortly afterward I witnessed a vision where the cauldron lay shattered, its poison streaming throughout the land. I’d tasted the Awen. The time had arrived to look at the consequences of bringing forth Annuvian magic into thisworld.

The theft of the cauldron will be covered in upcoming posts.

* Cú Roí arrives at the Royal Court in Emain and challenges the Ultonians to behead him if he can return the blow. Presuming Cú Roí will die, Fat Neck agrees. Afterward Cú Roí picks up his head and returns the next night for his recompense. Fat Neck refuses. Loigaire and Conall Cernach also play the game but refuse to accept the blow. The only person brave enough to proffer his neck to Cú Roí is Cú Chullain who through his bravery wins the champion’s portion. The beheading game also forms the central plot of Gawain and the Green Knight.
**ny wdant py dyd peridyd Pen is translated by Marged Haycock as ‘(those) who don’t known on what day the Lord is created’ but I’ve chosen the more literal translation of ‘Pen’ as ‘Head’. An alternative used by Sarah Higley and John and Caitlin Matthews is ‘Chief’.
***Some scholars have connected the role of the nine maidens kindling the flames beneath the cauldron with their breath with the work of St Brigid’s flamekeepers at Kildare. In his 12th C The History and Topography of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis ‘it is only lawful for women to blow the fire, fanning it or using bellows only, and not with their breath.’ It seems possible this was a ban on older pagan practices.


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