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’.
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?
This is Caer Rigor
(from the Latin rigor:
rigid, stiff, petrified,
Rigor mortis has
set in to this dead fort.
This is the body
The revolving fort
does not move.
When it turns
it turns backwards.
The song in its quarters
is sung backward
like a record
Caer Rigor is dying
a sword blow
to the sacred place,
the desecrated cauldron
In the vortex
jet and water mix.
The song of the dead
how will you explain?
How will you craft
so you are the hero
and no-one hears