The Defwy – A Brythonic River of the Dead

In the sixth verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of the answers to riddles which in his day must have been well known. He says they do not know ‘who made the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’.

The meadows of Defwy are clearly in Annwn. Marged Haycock notes it has been suggested Defwy is a river-name from def-/dyf- ‘black’ ‘as in Dyfi’ and may be ‘a river between this world and the next’. Taliesin also sings of this river in a list of fine things in ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’: ‘Fine it is on the banks of the Dyfwy / when the waters flow’.

Rivers dividing Thisworld and the Otherworld, the realms of the living and the dead, are found in many world cultures. In Greek mythology the Styx ‘Hatred’ divides Thisworld and Hades, the dead must cross the Acheron ‘Woe’ to reach their destination, and surrender their memories to the Lethe ‘forgetfulness’ to be reborn. There are another two rivers: Cocytus ‘Lamentation’ and Phlegyton ‘fire’. All originate from Oceanus ‘Ocean’. Each is a deity. Each flows through both worlds: the Styx is a stream in Arcadia, the Acheron and Cocytus flow through Thesprotia, the Lethe through Boetia, and the Phlegethon near to Avernus.

In Norse mythology eleven rivers called Elvigar ‘Ice Waves’ arise from Hvergelmir ‘Boiling Bubbling Spring’ in Niflheim ‘Mist-World’. Amongst them is Gjǫll, which flows past Hel’s Gate and separates the living from the dead. There are forty-two rivers in total. Some flow into the ‘fields of the gods’. Others ‘go among men’ before falling into Hel. Midgard, Thisworld, is encircled by an impassable ocean where Jörmungandr, the world-serpent, lives.

Unfortunately in Brythonic tradition we possess far less lore about the cartography of Annwn. Whether it was simply lost or actively erased by Christian scribes is impossible to know. Much of what we have is obscured by Taliesin’s riddling. In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ he speaks of:

‘the connected river which flows (around the world)
I know its might,
I know how it ebbs,
I know how it flows,
I know how it courses,
I know how it retreats.
I know how many creatures
are under the sea’

It seems the Britons shared with the Greeks and the Norse a concept of a river/ocean encircling the world. To me this speaks of an intuitive knowledge of the oceanic currents of our ‘global conveyor belt’ which flow through the world’s oceans maintaining its ecosystems.

Another riddle suggests we once possessed knowledge of many rivers thisworldly and otherworldy:

‘how many winds, how many waters,
how many waters, how many winds,
how many coursing rivers,
how many rivers they are’

It’s my intuition that, like the Greek and Norse rivers, the rivers of Annwn flow through Thisworld and the Otherworld too. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn, a ruler of Annwn and gatherer of souls, says he is:

‘Hurrying to battles in Tawe and Nedd.

Not the Tawe here in this land
But the one far away in a distant land
Where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore.’

The Tawe is a river in Thisworld that flows through ‘a distant land’ – Annwn – too. It seems likely the Defwy, which might be identified with the Dyfi, appears in both worlds.

Afon_Dyfi_-_geograph.org.uk_-_242012

Afon Dyfi – the Defwy here in this land?

It is notable that Gwyn speaks to Gwyddno of his ‘sorrow’ at seeing ‘battle at Caer Vandwy’, ‘Shields shattered, spears broken / Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair’. Caer Vandwy ‘The Fortress of God’s Peak’ is mentioned in the same verse as ‘the meadows of Defwy’ with the legendary Ych Brych ‘Brindled Ox’.

Gwyn is speaking of a devastating battle between his people ‘the honoured and fair’ (the dead) and Arthur and his men who Taliesin accompanied on their raid on Annwn to plunder its spoils, which included the Brindled Ox and cauldron of Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn).

Even the impervious Taliesin describes this part of the raid of a ‘sad journey’ and says ‘save seven none returned from Caer Vandwy’. Arthur set out with ‘three loads full of Prydwen’ (his ship).

It seems Gwyn is sorrowful because the dead, who should be free of sorrow, were forced to fight and die again and he had again to gather their souls – a task he performs at battles in both worlds.

On a journey to the Defwy with Gwyn I saw people approaching the river, some to kneel and pray, some to cry, some to pour into it great jugs of tears. He told me that the Defwy is the place where the dead discard their sorrowful memories so they can move on to the lands of joy.

He also said the living can come here to do the same, but discarding one’s sorrows is a dangerous process, a form of death, and that they can never be regained because they flow away into the ocean to be reborn in new shapes walking abroad in forms unrecognisable to us.

In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ Taliesin says in Annwn ‘There is one that knows / what sadness is / better than joy’. I believe this is Gwyn, who knows too well the sorrow of the dead who leave their memories at the Defwy in order to travel onward into his joyful realm.

Taliesin is, of course, ‘the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’, the one who continues to evade death, who claims to know all, remember all, yet in spite of this feels little sorrow, little guilt, for the catastrophes that he has witnessed and played a role in.

Knowing neither sorrow nor death will this mysterious glib-tongued entity, who was created by the magician-gods from fruit, blossoms and flowers, earth and water, ever truly know life or joy?

 

Du y Moroedd

Black horse of wonder
Black horse of terror
Black of the seas
Take me under

Du y Moroedd Devotional Art Benllech Beach

Devotional Art for Du y Moroedd on Benllech beach, Anglesey

Du y Moroedd, ‘Black of the Seas’, is a legendary water-horse in Brythonic tradition. His fame is attested by Taliesin in ‘The Song of the Horses’, ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’.

He is referred to in The Triads of the Islands of Britain in ‘44. Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’:

‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr, who carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’

This passage shows that Du is not only a sea-going water-horse, as his name suggests, but of supernatural size and strength to be able to carry seven-and-a-half people and swim vast distances. He is intimately associated with the sea-lanes between northern Britain and Wales; perhaps sightings of him off the west coast were once common.

Triad 44 is set in the mid-6th century and has a historical basis. According to The Black Book of Chirk, Elidyr made a voyage from his home in the Old North to Wales to press the claim of his wife, Eurgain, to the throne of Gwynedd following the death of Maelgwn in 547, because Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, was illegitimate. Elidyr was slain at Aber Mewdus in Arfon. An army of northern men, including Clyddno Eiddin, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael, and Rhydderch Hael avenged Elidyr by burning Arfon, then were driven back north by Rhun to the river Gweryd.

Morecambe Bay, Lancashire

Morecambe Bay, Lancashire

In Brigantia, Guy Ragland Phillips conjectures that Du might be identified with the Black Horse of Bush Howe in the Howgill Fells in Cumbria. He suggests Elidyr’s northern Benllech was Bush Howe and cites an alignment down Long Rigg Beck valley to Morecambe to Anglesey, saying the horse would be within its line of sight. This might have been the route taken by Du and his riders. ‘Benllech in Mon’ is likely to be present-day Benllech on Anglesey.

Benllech beach, Anglesey

Benllech Beach, Anglesey

Elidyr’s voyage aboard Du with seven-and-a-half or eight people was well known by Welsh poets until the early 16th century. Tudur Aled says ‘Of greater vigour than Du’r Moroedd, such was his strength and daring… for a spree with the cold wind, eight men formerly went upon his back’. Guto’r Glyn speaks of a foal whose ‘mother was a daughter to that horse of Mon who went to carry eight men: Du y Moroedd has grandsons – this one, I know was one of them.’

Another renowned rider of Du is Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic hunter-god and ruler of Annwn. In Culhwch and Olwen it is stated ‘No steed with be of any use to Gwyn in hunting Twrch Trwyth, except Du, the steed of Moro Oerfeddog’ (the latter is a jumbling of Du’s name).

Because he fails to recruit Gwyn, Arthur does not manage to kill Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, who finally escapes into the sea. Only the otherworldly Gwyn can ride Du to hunt the Twrch into the ocean, which might also be identified with Annwn, ‘the Deep’, ‘the Otherworld’.

Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Nodens, is pictured in a chariot pulled by four water-horses. At Vindolanda Nodens is equated with Neptune. Both Neptune (as Neptune Equester) and his Greek counterpart, Poseidon (as Poseidon Hippios) were associated with sea-horses (hippocampi).

Intriguingly we find a story in Irish mythology called ‘The Pursuit of Giolla Deacair’ featuring Gwyn’s cognate, Fionn, wherein fifteen-and-half of Fionn’s men are abducted into the sea by a water-horse.

Giolla Deacair, ‘the Troublesome Slave’ and his horse are taken in by Fionn. Both are described as monstrous. Giolla has a ‘twisted mouth with long pointed teeth projected from it at all angles’ and ‘eyes like black holes in the skull of a corpse’. He drags a large iron club leaving ‘a deep trench in the ground’.

His horse is described as ‘dirty, shaggy hair covered its long, spiny back and the ribs were sticking out through its sides. Its legs and feet were crooked and splayed and a leg that seemed too large for his body dangled awkwardly from a scrawny neck.’

The horse causes trouble amongst the other horses. Feargus tells Conan to jump on its back and ride it across country to break its spirit. However, it will not move until it carries the weight of its rider, Giolla Deacair, which is equal to fifteen men. This shows Giolla and his horse are gigantic. The men pummel and kick the horse yet still it won’t move.

Infuriated by his horse’s mistreatment, Giolla leaves. His horse follows with the men ‘welded’ to him ‘like a sword to its hilt’. Fionn and his remaining warriors follow, but no matter how fast they pursue the horse goes even faster, like the wind, over mountains, rivers, and valleys until reaching the sea. As it shoots into the waves one of Fionn’s warriors grabs onto its tail.

We are told that, as it journeys through the sea, ‘The waves did not touch it nor the fifteen Fianna on its back, nor the unfortunate man clinging to its tail. Instead, the water parted before the animal, so that it travelled on a path of dry land.’ We might imagine Du travelling similarly.

Fionn and his men sail after Giolla and his horse to where the riders are imprisoned in Tír fo Thuinn, ‘The Land Under the Wave’. Giolla reveals he is a magician called Abartach. Fionn’s marriage to Taise persuades Abartach to release his men. As retribution Goll claims fourteen of Abartach’s women to return on the horse’s back and his wife to cling onto the horse’s tail.

This tale suggests Du also originates from the watery regions of the Otherworld. I wonder whether, like Giolla’s horse, Du had an earlier otherworldly owner whose name and stories have been forgotten. Perhaps there was once a story about how Gwyn came to ride Du between worlds.

Du also shares resemblances with the Welsh ceffyl dwr, the northern British dobbie, and the Scottish kelpie. The latter are notorious for luring humans onto their backs then drowning them. Once a rider has mounted, their hand sticks to the kelpie’s neck and they cannot let go.

Du’s stories have fascinated me since I heard his splashing hoofbeats approaching whilst meditating on the Ribble estuary. When I travel to the west coast his presence is always on the edges of my mind: his great arched neck, his oar-like legs, the multitude of riders he has carried. My fingers are caught in his mane and he is forever drawing me toward the Otherworld…

Irish Sea from Morecambe

The Irish Sea from Morecambe Bay

Nodens and the Serpents of the Deep

Nodens is in an ancient British god of hunting/fishing, water, the weather, healing, and dreams. ‘Nodens’ has been translated as ‘the Catcher’ and ‘Cloud-Maker’, and ‘Deus Nodens’ as ‘God of the Abyss’ and ‘God of the Deep’. The latter links him with Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the underworld. The nursery rhyme name for the dreamworld, ‘the Land of Nod’, derives from ‘Nodens’.

Nodens is a god of the subliminal realms beneath the everyday world and their hidden processes. This is suggested by the imagery of his Romano-British dream-temple at Lydney. In the centre was a mosaic depicting two blue and white sea-serpents with intertwined necks and striking red flippers. William Bathurst likens them to the icthyosaurus, ‘fish lizard’, of the late Triassic and early Jurassic whose remains have been found across Europe and Asia.

Mosaic from Nodens' temple

The mosaic also depicts numerous fish, possibly salmon, which would fit with salmon fishing on the river Severn, which the temple overlooks, and the legend of the salmon of Llyn Lliw carrying Arthur’s men up the Severn to Gloucester to rescue Mabon.

An inscription on the mosaic reads: ‘D(eo) N(oenti) T(itus) Flavious Senilis, pr(aepositus) rel(oqiatopmo), ex stipibus possuit o [pus cur]ante Victorio inter[pret]e.’ ‘The god Nodens, Titus Flavious Senilis, officer in charge of the supply-depot of the fleet, laid this pavement out of money offerings; the work being in charge of Victorious, interpreter of the Governor’s staff.’ It has been argued Victorio inter[pret]e, ‘Victorious, interpreter’ was an interpreter of dreams.

Another artefact found in Nodens’ temple was a bronze plaque from a priest’s ceremonial headdress. Nodens rides from the deep on a chariot pulled by four water-horses. He wears a crown, carries a sceptre in his right hand, and a sea-serpent is looped around his left arm. Flanking him are two winged wind-spirits and two icthyocentaurs, ‘fish-centaurs’ or ‘centaur tritons’, with heads and chests of men, front hooves of horses, and tails of fish. They carry hammers and anchors. Beneath is another icthyocentaur with a hammer and chisel and a fisherman with a short tail and gills hooking a fish, which could be a salmon.

Plate XIII Bathurst

All of this imagery is suggestive of the deep: rivers, the sea, and the depths of the dreamworld/underworld where prehistory gives birth to myth and the boundaries between species break down.

Pilgrims came to Lydney for dream-healing. They would arrive at the guesthouse, bathe in the baths, then make offerings to Nodens through a funnel in his temple (which suggests he dwelled below in the deep). They would then retire to a long row of cells to enter a sacred (likely drug-induced) sleep during which they would receive a vision from Nodens. The dream-interpreter would listen to the dream then suggest a method of healing based on Nodens’ message.

Offerings included coins and several beautifully crafted bronze hounds. It is likely dogs were present to lick the wounds of the injured to aid in the healing process. They may also have acted as psychopomps guiding the sleepers through the dreamworld. The son of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn ap Nudd, had a red-nosed dog called Dormach with two serpents’ tails.

***

Nodens’ temple was built on an iron ore mine and he was known as ‘Lord of the Mines’. This may explain the hammers and chisels carried by the icthyocentaurs. Mines are associated with the chthonic depths of the underworld and its riches, which are often guarded by serpents.

Intriguingly a man called Silvianus vowed half the worth of a 12g golden ring to Nodens in exchange for withholding health from its thief, Senicianus, until it was ‘returned to the Temple of Nodens’. The ring was dug up in a field in Silchester in 1785 with a new inscription: Seniciane vivas in deo, ‘Senicianus, may you live in God’. What was originally inscribed on it remains unknown. It seems possible it served a ritual function in Nodens’ temple.

Ring of Silvianus - Wikipedia Commons

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states ‘I have a carved ring, a white horse gold-adorned’. His ring is an important part of his symbology and  might have been a gift from his father. Angelika Rüdiger links its circularity with the ouroboros.

The ouroboros first appears in ‘The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld’ in the ancient Egyptian Funerary text KV62, which focuses on the union of the sun-god Ra with Osiris, god of the underworld. In an illustration two serpents with their tails in their mouths coil around the unified Ra-Osiris. The image represents the beginning and the end of time.

The ouroboros was passed on to the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks who gave it its name. In Greek oura means ‘tail’ and boros ‘eating’, thus ‘tail eater’. The ouroboros appears in most cultures across the world and throughout history.

A pair of sea-serpents are central to Nodens’ temple. He holds a sea-serpent. It seems possible two ouroboros serpents may have been carved on a ring worn by Nodens and passed on to his son, representing their knowledge of the depths of time where beginning and end meet as they bite their tails. Silvianus’ ring may have been a replica of this powerful mythic artefact.

It’s rumoured that Tolkien based his One Ring on the ring from the temple of Nodens and that Nodens, ‘Lord of the Mines’ was a precursor to Sauron, ‘Lord of the Rings’.*

***

In medieval Welsh literature Nodens appears as Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint, ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’. Their linguistic connection is certified by a bronze arm found in the temple of Nodens.

Nobody knows how Lludd lost his arm or how his silver one was made. Parallels might be found with his Irish cognate, Nuada Airgeadlámh, ‘Nuada Silver Arm’, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who lost his arm battling against the Fir Bolg. Because of his physical imperfection Nuada was replaced as king by the tyrant, Bres. After Bres was removed Nuada was restored to sovereignty with a new silver arm made by the healer Dian Cecht.

In the story of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd’s sovereignty is also under threat. Although he is described as ‘a good warrior, and benevolent and bountiful in giving food and drink to all who sought it’ he is unable to defend Britain from three plagues; perhaps this is due to his missing arm.

The first plague is a people called the Coraniaid who cannot be harmed because they can hear all  conversations on the wind. The second is a scream every May eve that causes such terror that men lose their strength, women miscarry, youths go mad, and the land becomes barren. The third is the disappearance of the year’s supply of food and drink from the king’s courts.

This story is set during Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC. The Coraniaid are the Caesariad, ‘Romans’ and the other plagues seem linked to the ill effects of their attacks. Lludd, of course, was not a ‘real’ king at that time but a divine ruler of the underworld who may have been called upon by the Britons for aid against the Romans.

Unable to defeat the plagues himself, Lludd is forced to seek the aid of his brother, Llefelys, ‘king of France’. Llefelys instructs Lludd to poison the Coraniaid with insects crushed into water. He then explains the scream: ‘that is a dragon, and a dragon of another foreign people is fighting it and trying to overthrow it, and because of that your dragon gives out a horrible scream.’

Red and white dragons - from 15th C History of the Kings of Britain - Wikipedia Commons

Lludd’s dragon represents the Britons and the other dragon the Romans. Lludd, again, is connected with two dragons/serpents. Will Parker has likened Lludd’s dragon’s scream to ‘the scream over Annwfn’, a ‘mysterious ritual frenzy’ uttered by a person threatened with losing their claim to inherited land. It may have originated as an invocation of the spirits of Annwfn to bring about madness and barrenness. Likewise Lludd’s dragon screams as its land is lost to the Romans, blighting all who live there. Lludd has lost control of these chthonic forces.

Llefelys teaches Lludd to put an end to the second plague by a complex ritual process. He must measure Britain, length and breadth, and locate its centre. This omphalos, ‘navel’, turns out to be Oxford. It is of interest that the Greek omphalos, Delphi, was formerly known as Pytho and its oracle, the Pythian priestess, spoke with the aid of the whispering python coiled beneath.

Could Oxford have been the location of a dragon (or dragons) who whispered prophecies from the navel of Britain? Dragon Hill lies 50 miles outside Oxford. Its connections with Uther Pendragon and a dragon-slaying by Saint George are suggestive of an older and deeper mythos.

Lludd is instructed to dig a hole at the centre of Britain then place in it a vat of mead with a sheet of brocaded silk over the top. Llefelys says, ‘You will see the dragons fighting in the shape of monstrous animals. But eventually they will rise into the air in the shape of dragons; and finally when they are exhausted after the fierce and frightful fighting, they will fall onto the sheet in the shape of two little pigs, and make the sheet sink down with them, and drag it to the bottom of the vat, and they will drink all the mead, and after that they will fall asleep.’

This scene depicts the return of the escapee dragons to the omphalos of Britain and the deep. It is intriguing that they are not just dragons but are capable of taking many different forms. It is possible to perceive a mythic and perhaps evolutionary development in their shapeshifting from ‘monstrous animals’ beyond description to ‘dragons’ to two seemingly innocent ‘little pigs’.

Finally Llefelys tells Lludd to ‘wrap the sheet around them, and in the strongest place you can find in your kingdom, bury them in a stone chest and hide it in the ground, and as long as they are in that secure place, no plague shall come to the island of Britain from anywhere else.’

Lludd buries the dragons at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The next time they cause trouble is during the reign of Vortigern. Every time he attempts to build a fortress on the hill it falls down. Merlin Emrys reveals to him that the cause is two dragons battling. The red one represents the Welsh and the white one the Anglo-Saxons.

Llefelys informs Lludd that the food and drink are stolen from his court by a magician who uses a sleep spell. He suggests Lludd step in a tub of cold water to keep himself roused. Lludd defeats the magician in combat, all that is lost is restored, and the magician becomes his vassal.

All three plagues are defeated. The chthonic forces of Annwfn are brought back under Lludd’s control. Caesar’s invasion of Britain fails. Lludd and Llefelys depicts the mythic processes beneath this historical period, which the Druids and seers who interacted with the deities of the underworld might have been aware of and perhaps instigated with prayers and invocations.

Lludd reigns ‘until the end of his life’ ‘in peace and prosperity’. One wonders whether Llefelys had a role in creating Lludd’s silver arm…

It seems Lludd’s ‘kingdom’, Annwfn, the deep, is passed on to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, whose role is to contain the spirits of Annwfn to prevent them from bringing about the end of the world.

Does Gwyn’s inheritance include the serpents of the deep: beings who are older than gods, whose ‘battles’ may be less about conflicts between groups of humans than the regenerative processes that shape the earth through the aeons, through the beginnings and endings of each world?

***

*Tolkien advised Sir Mortimer Wheeler on his excavation of Lydney in 1938

SOURCES

Angelika Heike Rüdiger, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: A First and Frame Deity, Temple 13, (Temple Publications)
Caitlin Matthews and Jane Dagger, ‘Temple of Nodens Incubation’ http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/temple-of-nodens-incubation
Elizabeth A. Grey (transl), The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, (Forgotten Books, 2007)
Greg Hill (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Sylvia Victor Linsteadt, ‘The Return of the Snake’ http://theindigovat.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/the-return-of-snake.html
William Hiley Bathurst, Roman Antiquities at Lydney Park, https://archive.org/details/romanantiquitie00bathgoog
‘The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley’s Celts and Romans’ http://www.deanweb.info/history4.html

The Two Birds of Gwenddolau

In The Triads of the Island of Britain we find two triads referring to ‘the two birds of Gwenddolau’.

The first is Triad 10. W ‘Three Chieftains of Deira and Bernicia, and they were three bards, and three sons of Dissynyndawd, who performed the Three Fortunate Slayings’; ‘Gall son of Dissynyndawd who slew the two birds of Gwenddolau, who were guarding his gold and his silver: two men they used to eat for their dinner, and as much again for their supper.’

The second is Triad 32. ‘Three Men who performed the Three Fortunate Slaughters’. ‘Gall son of Dysgyfawd who slew the two birds of Gwenddolau. And they had a yoke of gold on them. Two corpses of the Cymry they ate for dinner, and two for their supper.’

These birds must have been significant and held a sinister reputation if their deaths are recorded twice amongst the three fortunate slaughters/slayings of the island of Britain.

Who or what were they and why were they so feared so much?

Birds who feast on the corpses of the dead are common in Brythonic tradition. To ‘feed the ravens’ or ‘feed the eagles’ is a common metaphor for death. Gwyn ap Nudd, a death-god, appears with ravens who ‘croak’ on ‘flesh’ and ‘gore’. In the Heledd Cycle the eagle of Eli drinks ‘has swallowed fresh drink, / heart blood of Cyndylan the fair’ and wallows in the blood of ‘fair men’. Similarly the eagle of Pengwern ‘is eager for the flesh of Cyndylan’.

Interestingly August Hunt suggests a possible etymology for Arderydd, where Gwenddolau lived and was killed in battle. ‘Ardd = Hill’, ‘Erydd (= eryr) = Eagle) ‘Eagle-Hill or Eagle-Height’. He backs this up with lines in ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and His Sister, Gwenddydd’, gueith arderyd ac erydon’ ‘The Battle of Arderyd and the Eagles’.

It thus seems likely the two birds of Gwenddolau were eagles. We might enquire further ‘what kind of eagles?’ In the Heledd Cycle the eagle of Eli is clearly a white-tailed eagle (often referred to as a sea-eagle): ‘The eagle of Eli keeps the seas; / He will not course the fish in the Aber. / Let him call, let him look out for the blood of men!’

Haliaeetus_albicilla,_Mull_2 Wikipedia Commons

Ian L. Baxter argues that the white-tailed eagle is the ‘carrion-gulper’ of Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry in which ‘men… gave the eagle food’; ‘Olaf feeds the eagles… the erne* drinks his supper’. He notes the white-tailed eagle is a ‘predator, scavenger and kelptoparasite’ and has a ‘marked preference for carrion… compared with the golden eagle’. Thus I believe Gwenddolau’s birds were white-tailed eagles.

Parallels with Irish stories where pairs of birds bound by gold or silver chains are transformed humans suggest Gwenddolau’s two eagles may be of human origin. Owain Rheged’s army are depicted as ravens who attack Arthur’s army, first carrying off their heads, eyes, ears, and arms, then seizing men into the sky and tearing them apart between each other.

On the Papil Stone we find a fascinating portrayal of two axe-wielding human warriors with bird’s heads and long beaks with a human head between their beaks. It seems possible Gwenddolau’s birds were warriors transformed into white-tailed eagles.

Papilstone

Their ritualised eating of two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and two for supper may symbolise Gwenddolau’s brutality as a warlord who slays four of his Cymric neighbours every day. Or it might refer obliquely to him practicing excarnation – leaving the bodies of his own Cymric people to be eaten by the birds before they were buried. Whatever the case, their corpse-eating certainly inspired a significant amount of fear across the island of Britain.

It is of interest the birds were also seen as guardians of Gwenddolau’s gold and silver. Gwenddolau was renowned for ‘gathering booty from every border’. One of his most treasured possessions was a golden chessboard with silver men who, once set, played by themselves.

How Gall son of Dysgyfawd slew the two birds of Gwenddolau remains unknown. It might be conjectured that they were slain after Gwenddolau was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 and his ‘Faithful War Band’ who ‘continued the battle for a fortnight and month’ were killed.

The death of Gwenddolau and his two birds, like Diffydell Dysgyfawd’s slaying of Gwrgi Garwlwyd, ‘Rough Grey’, who ‘used to make a corpse  of one of the Cymry every day, and two on each Saturday so as not to (slay) one on the Sunday’ might be seen to form part of a process of eradicating shapeshifters associated with the pagan world. Gwrgi’s appearance alongside ‘dog-heads’ in ‘Pa Gur’ suggests he was a dog-headed man who feasted on human flesh.

These beings may once have been considered psychopomps by the pre-Christian peoples of Britain, devouring the flesh of the dead and conveying their souls to the Otherworld, who appeared increasingly uncanny and threatening as pagan beliefs were eliminated and replaced by Christian ones.

In the Neolithic Tomb of the Eagles on Orkney the bones of eight white-tailed eagles were found alongside human remains. It is likely they were buried with the humans as guides into the next life. Perhaps the birds’ associations with treasure might be linked to their custodianship of the wealth of the grave and guardianship of grave goods?

No white-tailed eagles soar over Arderydd anymore. White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 as a consequence of their poisoning and shooting by gamekeepers because they were viewed as threat to livestock and gamebirds. The slaughter of the two birds of Gwenddolau forms an unhappy precedent to the white-tailed eagle’s extinction.

However, white-tailed eagles have been reintroduced to the west coast of Scotland. Since their reintroduction in 1975, 140 have returned to the wild. Still they are threatened by those who seek to poison them and to steal their eggs. We have a long way to go to restoring the sense of sanctity surrounding these birds which was clearly in decline around the time of Gwenddolau.

~

In this poem I attempt to evoke the presence of the two birds of Gwenddolau:

Two warriors fight over the corpse;
two sea-eagles juggling,

sun-yellow metatarsals
a band around the head crushing,
beaks yellow, sharp-tipped,
spliced tongues

darting the eyes
tugging out the optic nerve
sucking up the olfactory
clawing into the pit of the heart.
The sticky lungs are stretched between two beaks,
the duodenum unravelled to the stars like a birth cord.
Well-oiled beaks slide between joints
snipping ligaments.

They glean the bones.
The skull shines on the hilltop of the eagles.

As the extracted part flees like a glowing grain
toward the light of the Otherworld
they rattle their chain,

stomp their feathered legs
and laced up talons.

How long until they are free
to circle Arderydd white-tailed on strong brown wings
coursing for fish and skudding clawing feet
across the shining skin of the sea?

~

*Earn is Anglo-Saxon for white-tailed eagle and erne is Gaelic.

SOURCES

August Hunt, The Mysteries of Avalon, (August Hunt, 2011)
Ian L. Baxter, ‘Eagles in Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems’, https://www.academia.edu/29025802/Eagles_in_Anglo-Saxon_and_Norse_Poems
Kelly A. Kilpatrick, ‘The iconography of the Papil Stone’ http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_141/141_159_205.pdf
Mark Prigg, ‘The return of the sea eagle’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2216152/The-return-Sea-Eagle-Researchers-say-extinct-bird-thriving-Scottish-coast.html
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 F. Skene (transl), ‘The Heledd Cycle’ http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/h16.html

Gwenddydd: The Dreamer at the End of the World

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

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

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

View from Liddel Strength

Liddel Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dumbarton Rock

Dumbarton Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tone then becomes apocalyptic:

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

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

Extermination, lady, will be the end…

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

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

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

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

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

Blog 6. Coille Coire Chuilc

Coile Coire Chulic – one of the last remnants of Celyddon

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