Gwythyr and the Lame Ant

In Culhwch and Olwen there is an episode which opens with a curious scene. Gwythyr ap Greidol, ‘Victor son of Scorcher’, ‘was travelling over a mountain’ and heard ‘weeping and woeful wailing… terrible to hear.’ The source was a burning anthill. ‘He rushed forward, and as he came there he unsheathed his sword and cut off the anthill at ground level and so saved them from the fire.’

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What to make of this strange opening? Why, on earth, was the anthill on fire? Was Gwythyr having a burning bush moment akin to that of Moses on Mount Sinai? The fire shared a similar revelatory and numinous quality. However, the anthill, unlike the bush, definitely appeared to be burning up.

Did Gwythyr’s scorching feet cause the fire? His patronym suggests that, like his father, he is a god of fire and war. If so, his rescue of the ants shows a softer and more compassionate side to his nature. Or did the anthill catch fire on its own? It’s well known that wood ants orientate their complex homes (which have tunnels, storerooms, bedrooms, nurseries and even a graveyard) south toward the sun as if using solar panels in order to harness the energy for heat. Did it just get too hot?

Wood Ant Nest Coed y Brenin

Whatever the case, Gwythyr, rescued the ants. The symbolism of this act reveals Gwythyr’s connections with fire, the sun, the South, summer, and the building, heating, and saving of civilisation. These underlie the rest of the episode and his role in the narrative of Culhwch and Olwen.

Following their rescue the ants said to Gwythyr, ‘Take with you God’s blessing and ours, and that which no man can recover, we will come and recover it for you.’ ‘After that’ they ‘brought the nine hestors of flax seed that Ysbaddaden Bencawr had demanded of Culhwch, in full measure, with none missing except for a single flax seed, but the lame ant brought that before nightfall.’

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The retrieval of the flax seed was one of the forty amoethau, ‘impossible tasks’, that the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, set Culhwch to win his daughter, Olwen. The flax seed was sown in ‘tilled red soil’ the day Ysbaddaden first met Olwen’s mother yet had never flowered. Culhwch was told he must resow it in a newly ploughed field to make a veil for Olwen in preparation for their wedding day.

Culhwch and Olwen is rooted in the folk motifs of ‘The Giant’s Daughter’ and ‘Six Go Through the World’. However, in this retelling, Culhwch did not fulfil the tasks with six helpers. Instead, his uncle, Arthur, completed them with aid from six warriors and a retinue of outlandish figures with strange abilities (such as Sgilti Sgafndroed who ‘would travel along the tops of trees’, Osla Gyllellfawr whose dagger could bridge a torrent, and Clust son of Clustfieniad ‘if he were buried seven fathoms in the earth he could hear an ant fifty miles away stirring from its bed in the morning’) and pre-Christian gods including Gwythyr, Amaethon the plough-god, and Gofannon the smith-god.

On the surface this narrative is about the overthrow of the primitive and oppressive reign of Ysbaddaden to bring fertility to the land as symbolised by Culhwch and Olwen’s marriage. The story of Gwythyr and the Lame Ant shows how, through an act of kindness, Gwythyr enlisted the aid of helping insects to perform a task no human could accomplish – crawling into the airy interstices of the soil to retrieve the flax seed. It’s possible to imagine that in longer versions there was far more suspense surrounding whether the flax seed was gained by the giant’s deadline and veritable relief when the lame ant finally appeared, limping valiantly, to add the final flax seed to the measure. The sowing and flowering of the seed demonstrates the fertilisation of a barren landscape.

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This gentle and benign episode is at odds with the violence pervading the rest of Culhwch and Olwen. Giants were mutilated and beheaded. Orddu the witch was cut in half and her blood drained and bottled. Ysgithrwyn was slaughtered for his tusk, Twrch Trwyth’s seven piglets were killed, and the Twrch only just escaped. Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen was twisted by the narrator to demonstrate Arthur’s civilising of the wild and banishment and all-out slaughter and destruction of the Other.

This conflict is embodied in Arthur’s allegiance with Gwythyr against his rival, Gwyn ap Nudd. In other texts we find out that Greidol was one of Arthur’s forty-two counsellors and that Gwythyr was the father of one of Arthur’s three wives (who are all named Gwenhwyfar!). Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn contrastingly associated with wildness, winter, the North, destructive Annuvian spirits, and death.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur went North to intercede in the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr for Creiddylad, a fertility goddess. He rescued Gwythyr and his men from Gwyn’s imprisonment, then bound the rivals in combat every May Day and said neither could take the maiden until Judgement Day. This seems to be a Christianised reworking of a seasonal myth in which Gwythyr, Summer, won Creiddylad on Calan Mai and this was surrounded by fertility rites, then she returned to Annwn with Gwyn, Winter, on Nos Galan Gaeaf, and Gwythyr and the powers of summer were imprisoned.

Once Arthur had defeated Gwyn – the Head of Annwn – and the body of Annwn had fallen, he usurped Gwyn’s leadership of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth and slaughtered Ysbaddaden. When his nephew, Culhwch, married Olwen, his civilising hegemony over the wild and the Otherworld was complete.

Yet it will not last forever. Otherworld gods don’t stay dead for long and dead giants, witches, and monstrous boars, having joined the furious and vengeful spirits of Annwn, will not remain shut out. Arthur is still dependent on the aid of the gods. And the gods of civilisation are dependent on the Other. Gwythyr depends on the help of the ants to traverse the chthonic regions beneath the red soil to rescue the seeds from the underworld, from the clutches of the spirits of Annwn. And one of those ants is lame. This mission is dangerous and touch-and-go. As more and more of our soil blows away, becomes barren and red, it seems less and less likely the Lame Ant will make the deadline.

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Rhymi

‘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

Memories of Gwyn’s Hunt in Culhwch and Olwen

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Boar Hunt (from Moniack Sloe Liqueur)

I.
Recovering the Memories

Introduction: The Hunt for Twrch Trwyth and the Impossible Tasks

Within the main narrative of Culhwch and Olwen (1325) lies the story of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’. To win Olwen, Culhwch must fulfil forty impossible tasks. These are set by Olwen’s father Ysbaddaden Bencawr ‘Hawthorn Giant’. The purpose of hunting the Twrch is to take the comb, shears and razor from between his ears so Ysbaddaden’s thorn-bush beard can be untangled, cut and shaved on the day of the wedding feast.

Twrch Trwyth is not just a huge silver, bristly, hoary, old boar but the son of a human chieftain: Taredd Wledig. He was reputedly turned into a boar by God as punishment for his sins. Beneath this Christian veneer lie deeper animistic roots disclosing Twrch Trwyth’s personhood and significance as one of Britain’s ancestral animals.

Irish and Norse myths feature magical boars who are hunted, killed, eaten, then the next day made whole. These could be rooted in tribal perceptions of father and mother animals who generate so long as they are treated respectfully. It is likely similar beliefs were found in Britain. It is of interest to note the Twrch is the father of seven piglets.

The list of impossible tasks contains the names of huntsmen, hounds and horses who are needed to hunt Twrch Trwyth. These include other mythic and numinous figures such as the pre-Christian hunter-deities Gwyn ap Nudd and Mabon mab Modron and a number of legendary hounds and huntsmen. Culhwch does not recruit these personages himself. He enlists the help of Arthur, who gathers and leads the hunt for Twrch Trwyth.

Gwyn’s Leadership of the Hunt

It is my intuition Arthur’s hunt for Twrch Trwyth is based on an older and more primal hunt led by Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White’ or ‘Blessed’ ‘son of Mist’. Gwyn appears as a divine warrior-huntsman with his white stallion, Carngrwn, and white red-nosed hound, Dormach in The Black Book of Carmarthen (1250). Here his role as a gatherer of souls is disclosed.

In later Welsh folklore Gwyn is associated with the Cwn Annwn ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’ and depicted hunting the souls of sinners. Many modern pagans view Gwyn as the Brythonic leader of the pan-European Wild Hunt. The longevity of Gwyn’s lore demonstrates his ongoing significance as a hunter-god and psychopomp within Britain’s consciousness.

Culhwch and Olwen is the only place Gwyn’s associations with the hunt for Twrch Trwyth can be found. However parallels exist within Irish and Norse mythology. Gwyn’s Irish counterpart, Finn ‘Fair’ ‘White’, leads the hunt for the giant destructive boar of Formael. The Norse hunter-warrior god and psychopomp, Odin, feasts on a mythic self-generating boar called Saehrimnir with his host of dead fighters in Valhalla.

Whereas Finn and Odin are central figures in Irish and Norse mythology, Gwyn plays a more marginal role in the British myths. I believe Gwyn may have once possessed a much greater mythos akin to the Fenian Cycle and the body of lore surrounding Odin.

Due to Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn, the Brythonic otherworld or underworld, he and his hunt have been demonised and marginalised through centuries of Christianity. Annwn has been identified with hell, Gwyn and his huntsmen with demons and the Cwn Annwn with hell-hounds.

This process can be traced within Culhwch and Olwen. Reading the narrative ‘otherwise’ to expose its sub-text shows how Gwyn’s mythos has been suppressed and replaced by Arthur’s. From its deeper levels memories of Gwyn’s hunt and the identities of its members can be recovered.

The Spirits of Annwn

Ysbaddaden tells Culhwch ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn ap Nudd is found’. This may refer obtusely to Gwyn’s earlier leadership of the hunt which cannot begin without its divine leader.

Gwyn is impossible to get because ‘God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’ Ysbaddaden’s words hint at Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and containment of its spirits.

Gwyn’s paradoxical nature as a white and blessed protector on the one hand and the ‘dark’ embodiment of the fury of the spirits of Annwn on the other is too much for the dualistic logic of Christianity to handle. Hence it calls for an explanation via the agency of God. This intolerable ambiguity is the source of Gwyn’s marginalisation and suppression of his myths.

The only clue I have found to the identity of the spirits of Annwn is an inscription from Chamalieres invoking the Andedion ‘Underworld Gods’ including ‘Maponos Arvenatis’. Maponos ‘The Son’ was the Gallo-Brythonic name of Mabon; a pre-Christian deity of youth and hunting who also appears in the impossible tasks. Mabon’s mother, Modron, is the daughter of Avallach, a King of Annwn. Mabon’s Annuvian nature is clear.

Thus it seems possible Mabon and other figures found imprisoned or underground in the narrative of Culhwch and Olwen are spirits of Annwn and members of Gwyn’s hunt. It seems significant some are viewed as prisoners of Gwyn and it is Arthur’s task to liberate them. By freeing huntsmen, hounds and horses from imprisonment in the underworld, Arthur removes them from Gwyn’s containment and finally usurps his role as the leader of the hunt.

II.
The Members of Gwyn’s Hunt

Who are the members of Gwyn’s hunt?

It is possible to locate them in the Impossible Tasks in Culhwch and Olwen.

Drudwyn and Graid son of Eri

One of Culhwch’s impossible tasks is to get Drudwyn ‘Fierce White’ who is so fierce and strong no leash can hold him except the leash of Cors Cant Ewin. No collar can hold the leash but the collar of Canhastyr Can Llaw plus… the chain of Cilydd Canhastyr is required to hold the collar along with the leash!

Drudwyn has clear Annuvian qualities. I’m reminded of a later folkloric reference to an ‘Infernal Dog’ which takes the form of a mastiff with a white tail and white snip down its nose and grinning teeth which conjures a fire around it.

Drudwyn is the ‘whelp’ of Graid son of Eri. In the episode of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad, Graid attacks Gwyn with Gwythyr’s army and is resultingly defeated and imprisoned by Gwyn then rescued by Arthur. It seems likely this takes place in Annwn.

This episode is flanked by the opening sentence ‘It is best to seek Drudwyn the whelp of Graid son of Eri’ and the closing words ‘Arthur obtained… the leash of Cors Cant Ewin.’ By rescuing Graid, Arthur also got Drudwyn and his leash. Thus Graid, Drudwyn and his leash may all be seen as brought from Annwn.

Mabon mab Modron

However it is not Graid who is destined to hold Drudwyn on the hunt but Mabon mab Modron. Mabon is an important god of youth and hunting in his own right. I have previously noted his associations with the spirits of Annwn and descent from Modron, daughter of Avallach: A King of Annwn.

In Culhwch and Olwen Mabon is impossible to get because he was stolen from Modron when he was three nights old. Nobody knows where he is or whether he is alive or dead. Arthur’s men find it necessary to consult the oldest animals: the blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Calwyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy and the Salmon of Llyn Lliw.

This tale is of considerable antiquity and may date back to a pre-Arthurian variant where Modron herself was seen as wandering the earth conversing with the animals to find her lost son.

Arthur’s men are guided by the salmon to Caerlowy (Gloucester) where Mabon is found lamenting in a ‘house of stone’. He complains ‘no-one has been so painfully incarcerated in prison as I, neither the prison of Lludd Llaw Eraint nor the prison of Graid son of Eri.’

Arthur and his warriors arrive to defeat Caerlowy’s defenders whilst Cai tears down the wall and takes Mabon on his back. Mabon is borne ‘home’ and made a ‘free man’.

Links between Mabon, Graid and Drudwyn become clearer. They are all prisoners of Annwn released from its unhomeliness and redeemed of their Annuvian natures to join Arthur’s hunt.

Gwyn Myngddwn

Mabon’s designated steed, Gwyn Myngddwn ‘White Dark Mane’, was also got at the same time as Drudwyn’s leash. Gwyn Myngddwn does not belong to Mabon: he is the horse of Gweddw. Gweddw’s horse is listed as one of ‘Three Bestowed Horses of the Islands of Britain’ in The Triads as Myngrwn ‘Arched Mane’.

Gwyn Myngddwn’s white colouring and epithet ‘swift as a wave’ suggest he possesses Annuvian qualities and may be a water-horse. ‘Myngrwn’ is also suggestive of arching waves. Gwyn Myngddwn’s watery nature makes it possible for Mabon to ride him into the Hafren (the river Severn) and snatch the razor from between the Twrch’s ears.

Rhymi and Her Two Whelps

Another impossible task Arthur fulfils is capturing the ‘the two whelps of the bitch Rhymi’. Rhymi is fascinating because she is a shapeshifter who adopts the form of a ‘she-wolf’. It is enlivening to find a powerful female figure in this male-dominated narrative.

And more so when parallels with Irish mythology are considered. Finn owns two beloved hounds called Bran and Sceolang. They are the son and daughter of his aunt who was transformed into a dog whilst she was pregnant. Hence they are his nephews!

Gwyn’s descent from Nudd ‘the superior wolf lord’ suggests like his father he was theriomorphic and able to take canine form. Perhaps Rhymi and her whelps have familial connections with Gwyn.

Rhymi and her offspring dwell at Aber Cleddyf in a cave. The fact that they can live beneath a river underground is another sure indicator of their Annuvian nature.

When Arthur nears Aber Cleddyf he speaks with a farmer called Tringad who says Rhymi and her whelps have been destroying his landscape. Arthur boards Prydwen and leaves some men on the ground. Together they round up and capture the wolfish-hounds and God turns them back into their ‘own shape’.

I assume ‘own shape’ means human form. This contrasts with God fixing Twrch Trwyth in swine-form. Becoming animal is punishment whereas humanisation represents redemption. Rhymi’s whelps appear as hounds again on the hunt so this magic doesn’t last long.

Cynedyr and Cyledyr Wyllt

Rhymi’s whelps can only be held by a leash from the beard of Dillus Farfog. The only huntsman who can hold the leash is Cynedyr Wyllt who ‘is nine times wilder than the wildest beast on the mountain.’ Cynedyr is one of the gwyllon: madmen, wildmen or spectres who have intimate connections with the forest of Celyddon.

Celyddon is the Welsh name for the Caledonian Forest, which has long-standing associations with wildness and death. The 6th century Classical writer Procopius said north of the wall ‘it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even half an hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy their area as their own. And, strangest of all, the inhabitants say that if a man crosses this wall and goes to the other side, he dies straight away… the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place.’

In The Black Book of Carmarthen Myrddin Wyllt speaks of his flight to Celyddon after the Battle of Arfderydd to recover from trauma wandering amongst wild creatures and gwyllon. In The Life of St Kentigern (12th C) (as Lailoken) Myrddin shares his guilt and a vision of an unendurable brightness in the sky and host of warriors. One is described as a ‘demon’ who tore Myrddin out of himself and assigned him to the wild things of the woods.

It seems possible this company was Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Hence they played a role in Myrddin’s retreat to the forest and transition into wyllt-ness but also his recovery and acquisition of the powers of poetry and prophecy.

We know nothing more about Cynedyr Wyllt than his reputation for extreme wildness. Yet we find the story of Cyledyr Wyllt within the episode of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad. Along with Graid son of Eri, his brother, Pen, his father, Nwython, Nwython’s uncle Gwrgwst Ledlwm and Gwrgwst’s father Dyfnarth, Cyledyr accompanied Gwythyr in his attack upon Gwyn.

During their imprisonment, Gwyn killed Nwython and fed his heart to Cyledyr, who went mad. I have no idea whether this gory scene is founded in ancient ancestral rites or superstitions about Gwyn or whether it was invented to demonise him.

It seems significant four generations of Strathclyde Britons are captured and Cyledyr is fed his father’s heart. Could Nwython’s heart be viewed as containing the life-force of his family? Could transgressing the moral bounds of Dark Age society be a form of initiation into Gwyn’s hunt? Consuming his father’s heart clearly makes Cyledyr ‘wyllt’.

Neither human or animal (Myrddin takes the form of a bird and Cynedyr is compared to a mountain beast), living or dead, the gwyllon occupy a liminal position similar to the spirits of Annwn.

Later, Arthur goes north and captures Cyledyr. Alongside Mabon, Cyledyr rides the Twrch into the Hafren and snatches the shears from between his ears.

III.
Gwyn’s Hunt and Impossibility

The Escape of Twrch Trwyth

Arthur’s hunt for Twrch Trwyth begins in Ireland. After the hounds are loosed, the Twrch lays waste to a fifth of the land. Arthur fights the boars for nine days and nights and only kills one piglet.

Twrch Trwyth and his piglets then swim across the sea to Wales. The Twrch kills men and beasts in Daugleddyf then cattle in Cynwas Cwryfagyl. At the river Nyder, he stands at bay. In the first round he kills four of Arthur’s champions. In the second he slaughters Arthur’s son, Gwydre, and several other men. The next day he kills numerous ‘men of the country’ including Arthur’s chief craftsman, three servants of his gatekeeper and the King of France.

Arthur’s men lose the Twrch at Glyn Ystun. At this point Arthur summons Gwyn to him and asks if he knows anything about Twrch Trwyth. Gwyn says he does not. It seems likely the Twrch has fled deep into the wild or taken shelter in Annwn and Gwyn is covering his flight from his adversary.

This makes it painstakingly obvious in spite of Ysbaddaden’s demand all the listed hunters are gathered before the hunt begins, Gwyn has not been got and is not riding with Arthur. There is no evidence of Gwyn’s recruitment in the text nor of the capture of his steed: the famous water-horse Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’.

Following Gwyn’s evasion of revealing the location of Twrch Trwyth, Arthur’s men are forced to hunt his piglets instead. Of the group who take them on none survive except one. When Arthur arrives with men and hounds the Twrch returns to defend his little pigs. Four piglets are killed. Another piglet is slaughtered at Garth Grugyn. After the King of Brittany and Arthur’s uncles meet their end the last piglet is defeated at Ystrad Yw.

Arthur summons Devon and Cornwall and they agree to drive Twrch Trwyth into the Hafren. Arthur and his warriors fall upon the Twrch and souse him in the river. At this point Mabon and Cyledyr flank him and snatch the razor and shears. Two of Arthur’s servants drown.

Afterward Twrch Trwyth escapes to Cornwall. Following a confrontation which makes the preceding trouble look like ‘mere play’ the comb is taken. He is chased from Cornwall into the Cornish sea. It is noteworthy Arthur and his men do not (cannot, dare not?) kill Twrch Trwyth.

Perhaps the rite of killing the Twrch is preserved for Gwyn, his legendary water-horse, Du, and his Annuvian huntsmen alone. Only they possess the knowledge of Nudd / Nodens ‘the catcher’ which is required to hunt and kill this great magical silver-bristled ancestral boar and bear him away to the feast in the deep from which he runs wild again.

Impossibility and the End of the World

Although Arthur does not complete all the impossible tasks, the comb, shears and razor are wrested from between the Twrch’s ears. Ysbaddaden’s beard is untangled, cut and shaved (down to the bone and even his ears are cut off!) and after his decapitation Culhwch marries Olwen.

The Twrch is hunted and the shaving equipment won but at a terrible cost. A fifth of Ireland is decimated along with a good part of Wales. Countless huntsmen lie dead including members of Arthur’s court, his close companions and family, most notably a son.

One recalls Ysbaddaden’s caution: ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn ap Nudd is found’. The reference to Gwyn’s containment of the spirits of Annwn, a task he cannot be spared from in case the world is destroyed, highlights the danger inherit in Arthur’s decision to usurp his role as leader of the hunt and contain it with the help of God. This raises the question of whether the consequences would have been so dire if they worked together.

I don’t believe this is possible. Gwyn’s paradoxical mythos which transgresses the bounds of civilised Christian society is not compatible with Arthur’s worldview. There is not room for two leaders of the hunt. Arthur’s usurpation of Gwyn’s role as a protector of Britain could be the key to his marginalisation.

The central fact about Gwyn’s hunt is it belongs to him and the spirits of Annwn: the not-world, the deep, the realm of impossibility where all boundaries between civilisation and wildness, human and animal, life and death break down.

Attempting to make the impossible possible Arthur contains Gwyn’s hunt in a form palatable to Christian civilisation for a limited amount of time before, like Twrch Trwyth, it slips back into the watery realm of impossibility.

It is my further intuition Gwyn’s hunt is not only bound up with the literal destruction of the world but the end of the worlds we create as people. It is associated with the dissolution of what is possible and the manifestation of the impossible and thereby with radical change at the deepest level.

Nicolas R. Mann writes: ‘Gwyn is not only a guide into Annwn but also mysteriously connected with the end of a world… Gwyn may be seen as a guide into the next human world.’

EPILOGUE

As centuries of disbelief dissolve
they can be seen again
on the misted edges of Celyddon.

Drudwyn’s fierce white face pushing forward.
Graid son of Eri with a tentative hand on his collar.

Bright radiant Mabon holding Drudwyn’s leash,
leading Gwyn Myngddwn arching
his white neck and tossing his dark mane.

Deep in the forest Rhymi shakes
velvety flaps of red ears
as she suckles a litter of soft white pups
who will one day run with young hunters.

Cynedyr and Cyledyr fly
on the wings of birds
traverse mountains
goat-footed.

Standing apart in ruffled white furs
with a steadying hand on Du’s neck
Gwyn listens with Dormach
to the song of the forest
for a sign it is time.

They call to us to take their hands
ride swift mounts steer bellowing hounds
through the gap in the skies
where nothing is impossible.

Should we choose to join them
it is wise to heed
Culhwch and Olwen:
know for better or worse
the fate of the world is at stake.

The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid

I journeyed for weeks
through mist and hunger
to find the split rack of her bones,
bones stripped, flesh burnt
and boiled in the cauldron,
blood drained and bottled in two jars.

I plundered the ashes where the cauldron stood,
sniffed for blood where the jars were filled.
Played maracas with her bones,
made intricate arrangements,
chanted and sung
but could not raise her ghost.

“She is amongst the spirits of Annwn now,”
spoke the god I called instead.

“Lay her bones to rest. In the fire of poetry
console her burning spirit.”

***

I’m laying her bones to rest. The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid. Her name was Orddu. It meant ‘the Very Black Witch’. Whether she had black skin, black hair or used black magic seem irrelevant now. All that is left is her scapula split in twain, her shattered pelvis, two arms, two legs, her broken skull. Jagged shadows in two orbits retrieved from either side of the cavern.

Her bones are still. I am angry and restless. I cannot abide the story of her death. How Arthur came as he always did into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches: sword slung over his shoulder like a sundered lightning bolt, a living knife in his hilt, a shield on his thigh adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary, aboard a huge mare.

Caw of Prydyn behind him a giant with a curling beard and the damned jars like heinous milk bottles on each side of his saddle; half a man in size, well-stoppered, thick-glassed, unbreakable. Then the retinue with spear and shield, tawdry banners and flags.

Following to stragglers’ jeers Hygwydd the servant staggering bow-legged bent-backed beneath the gigantic cauldron that brewed food for the brave. Hygwydd’s brother Cacamwri with Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil dragging ponies piled with saddle-bags of food and weapons.

At Arthur’s right Gwythyr ap Greidol, a gristled war-lord with fire and a hundred bloody campaigns in his eyes. A blazing passion. And to Arthur’s left Gwyn ap Nudd, the guide who tricked and dizzied their quest cloaked in mist summoning his hounds to eat the fallen from the mountainside.

Of the host who went to Pennant Gofid only a fragment reached the cave where Orddu plaited her black hair, blackened her skin with war-paint, fastened down her helmet. Sharpened her sword then set it aside like an afterthought. Cracked her knuckles and flexed her talons.

When Arthur blanched a voice mocked from the mist “if you’re scared, witch-killer, why not send your servants in instead?”

Arthur pointed Hygwydd and Cacamwri toward Orddu beckoning. She grabbed Hygwydd by the hair, dragged him to the floor, threw off Cacamwri’s assault, arrested their weapons, beat them out bloody and bruised. Arthur sent Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil in to be crushed in her wrestling hold, torn by her talons, beaten out with broken bones. Arthur fumbled for his knife.

“Why are you afraid, Christian warlord?” Orddu asked. “Far from home. Far from heaven. Do you remember I trained your northern warriors? Without my wisdom, gifts from our gods, they will be nothing but bickering chieftains with a lust for gold and immortality that will bring Prydain’s downfall?”

Overcome by fury Arthur threw his knife in a wrathful arc that sliced down through Orddu’s helmet through her ribs. Dropped to the floor as she fell aside in two halves screaming “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” as the mist writhed and the hounds of Annwn howled.

When her twitching halves lay still Caw filled the bottles with her blood still warm and jammed down the corks. They stripped her of armour and flesh. Boiled a merry meal. Stole her sword. Left with a cauldron filled with northern treasure whilst her spirit watched aghast in the misted arms of Gwyn ap Nudd.

***

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches with his living knife to put an end to wild recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years.

Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Gave us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Took away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Gave us virginity and chastity belts. Cut us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Not long ago I split the jars. Escaped to another place. Wandered my estate kissing Himalayan Balsam. Watching Ragwort sway with wasps. Mugwort flowering like coral. But this was not enough. Gods and fairies walked to the world of the dead and called me after them. Since then I have seen the dead walk in the bright eye of the sun.

I could not go back to the jars. To glass windows and tower blocks. To numbers on computer screens. The pencil skirts of offices. To fracking rigs threatening to break both worlds.

So I came to Pennant Gofid searching for answers and companionship on my lonely path. Found only Orddu’s bones and the god who took her spirit. Yet found a link in spirit with a companion and a god in the magical tradition of the Old North.

***

So I constructed a fire of poetry and spoke my words of consolation:

“Orddu Last Witch of Pennant Gofid
know you are not the last
to walk these paths
to caves and mountain ranges,
through otherworlds and distant ages,
seeking visions of the present
the future and past.

The rule of Arthur has fallen.
Though Prydain still falls
we have broken the jars.
Our blood is no longer contained
by the tyrants of Arthur’s court.
We are winning back our flesh.
Our magic. Our strength.

Remembering our gods.
Know your life will be remembered
where there are prophecies and hailstorms,
rain and rivers, caves and heresy,
in the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd
where your spirit burns
forevermore.”

Then I took her bones in my rucksack and crawled through to a dark chamber. On a little shelf beside Orwen ‘the Very White Witch’ I laid Orddu’s bones to rest.

Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad: A Story from the Old North

Cherry BlossomCulhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.

Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.

This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because I am based in Lancashire it also of great interest that it originates from the Old North. In this article I summarise the story and introduce its themes and background with the aim of bringing Gwyn’s neglected connections with the north to the fore. In conclusion I discuss its contemporary relevance.

The story begins by stating that Creiddylad ‘went off’ with Gwythyr. Creiddylad is the daughter of Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’ a mythic king of Britain. Earlier in the main narrative we are told she is ‘the most majestic maiden there ever was in the Three Islands of Britain and her Adjacent Three Islands.’ This shows she is deeply connected with the sovereignty of the land. Whilst attempts to trace the etymology of her name have been made such as ‘Craidd’ ‘heart’ and ‘dylan’ ‘water’ no agreement has been reached.

Gwythyr and his father, Greidol, are named in the genealogies of the Men of the North. Greidol is ‘the son of Enfael the son of Deigyr the son of Dyfnwal (Dyfnarth) the son of Ednyfed the son of Maxen (Macsen Guledig)’. Greidol’s name means ‘hot, passionate, fierce’. He was a knight in Arthur’s court and appears in the triads as one of the great architects and enemy-subduers of Britain.

Robert Graves interprets Gwythyr ap Greidol as ‘Victor son of Scorcher’. Gwythyr is the father of Arthur’s wife, Gwenhyfawr. His horse appears alongside Arthur’s in The Songs of the Horses ‘boldly bestowing pain’. In Culhwch and Olwen he wins the friendship of a colony of ants who bring nine hestors of flax seed, one of the items Culhwch must attain. Gwythyr’s resting place is included in The Stanzas of the Graves. These references show the longevity of his connection with Arthur and that he was a significant hero in his own right.

Unfortunately I have not found any references to where Greidol or Gwythyr lived. As other Men of the North in his family such as Nwython ruled in the Strathclyde area, south-west Scotland may be a possibility.

Creiddylad’s status as a maiden and the statement about her going off with Gwythyr suggest he may be her first love. Next we are told ‘before he could sleep with her Gwyn ap Nudd came and took her by force.’ It is likely Gwythyr is waiting to marry Creiddylad before they sleep together. Before they can wed Gwyn takes her away.

In Culhwch and Olwen Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ is introduced as a ruler of Annwn (the Brythonic underworld) who contains the fury of its spirits and prevents their destruction of this-world. This may relate to earlier beliefs about Gwyn’s status as a god of the dead connected with chthonic spirits. Will Parker cites examples of offerings in ritual shafts and pits to propitiate such deities in the Bronze to Romano-British periods.

In The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir Gwyn appears as a gatherer of the battle dead. After offering Gwyddno protection he states his presence at the deaths of a number of warriors; Gwenddolau, a northern British king who perished at the Battle of Arfderydd (north of Carlisle) and Bran who died alongside him, Gwallog ap Llenog ruler of Elmet (Yorkshire), Llachau Arthur’s son and Meurig ap Careian. This provides further confirmation of Gwyn’s role as a god who facilitates the transition from life to death.

In later literature Annwn becomes Fairyland and Gwyn its King. Although Gwyn’s status is reduced from god to fairy (and likewise his people) he remains feared and respected. Our rich heritage of Brythonic fairy lore demonstrates a continuity of relations between the worlds and interactions with spirits. In most of these tales uncanny themes such as glamoury, enchantment, changeling children and abduction take the fore. Fairies are often connected with wild and liminal places. Divisions between the fay and the dead remain blurred.

Gwyn’s abduction of Creiddylad may have its basis in prevalent superstitions. Professor Ronald Hutton notes that Early Welsh literature testifies ‘to the attribution of an especially arcane quality to May Day (‘Calan Mai’) and its eve.’ This was a liminal time when winter gave way to summer and was connected with love, fertility and woodland trysts. It was also a time dangerous spirits were abroad. Marriage was not advised in case one should mistakenly take a fairy lover.

When Gwyn takes Creiddylad by force I assume he abducts her to Annwn and claims her maidenhood. Frustratingly we gain no insight from the text into what Creiddylad thinks or feels. As a ‘maiden’ I imagine she must be terrified when he takes her and they descend. What he says to her and whether their sex is consensual remains uncertain.

Later Gwyn and Creiddylad become lovers. This is shown in The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir where Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn ap Nudd / The lover of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd’. If scholars are correct in identifying Nudd (the Romano-British god Nodens) and Lludd, Gwyn and Creiddylad are brother and sister. Whilst this would make their relationship incestuous in human terms, in many myths gods and goddesses consider it superior to sleep with members of their blood-line.

The 14th century manuscript Speculum Christiani reads ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home’. Gwyn’s love of Creiddylad is central. Whilst he may not always be moved directly by human pleas he can be compelled to answer for love of his partner. This shows Gwyn holds Creiddylad in reverence and esteem. In later stories where Gwyn appears as the King of Fairy he is often accompanied by his Queen who is a respected equal.

Creiddylad’s transition from maiden to Queen of Annwn may be read as a story of coming to maturity. It might also reflect an ‘initiatory’ process whereby her relationship with Gwyn introduces her not only to sexuality but wild nature and the hidden wisdom of the underworld.

In relation to Gwyn and Creiddylad being ‘far in the forest’ it is interesting to note a tradition amongst the Strathclyde Britons of locating Annwn in the forests of the north. The 6th century Byzantine writer Procopius claims the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall were populated with snakes, serpents and other wild creatures. Those who cross the wall die straight away and this area is the destination of the souls of the dead. This fits with Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and dwelling with Creiddylad in a forest abode. A feasible location is Celyddon (the Caledonian forest).

Gwythyr gathers a host and goes to fight against Gwyn. I imagine they ride into the wild depths of Celyddon and thereby enter Annwn to seek out the lovers. Their attack on Gwyn relates to a long tradition of stories depicting raids on the underworld by the armies of this-world.

In this case Gwyn triumphs and captures Gwythyr and a number of his noblemen. The majority are Men of the North and close relations of Gwythyr’s. Gwrgwst Ledlwm is the son of Dynfnarth. Cyledyr and his father, Nwython are also descended, through Guipno, from Dyfnarth. Pen son of Nethog is a corruption of Nwython. Hence Pen is Nwython’s son. If the genealogies are correct, Gwyn captures four generations of northern men (!). The only persons not of northern descent are Graid son of Eri and Glinneu son of Taran.

Gwyn’s slaughter of Nwython, cutting out his heart and feeding it to Cyledyr casts him as a cruel and sinister deity. This is hinted at in the lines about him containing the fury of Annwn’s spirits. However, there is no historical record of Nwython meeting his end this way. Tim Clarkson says that Neithon ap Guipno ‘died peacefully in his bed’. How much of this episode is a result of Gwyn’s demonization by adherents of Christianity and how much reflects his true nature is open to debate.

That Cyledyr becomes ‘Wyllt’ may relate to superstitions connecting Gwyn and his spirits with wildness and madness. Following the Battle of Arfderydd (where Gwyn states his presence at the death of Gwenddolau) Lailoken (Myrddin) sees an unendurable brightness and host of warriors in the sky. Afterward he becomes ‘Wyllt’ living amongst ‘gwyllon’ in Celyddon. The gwyllon hold a similar status to the spirits of Annwn as ancestral presences immanent in wild places. It seems significant they are connected with the forests of the north.

Afterward Arthur ‘comes north’ summons Gwyn to him and releases Gwythyr and his other noblemen from captivity. The source of Arthur’s power over Gwyn is not mentioned nor is it obvious he brings an army. Sense suggests he cannot take on Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn alone, particularly considering that in The Spoils of Annwn only seven return of each three hundred who set sail for the underworld.

Arthur makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by consigning them to battle every May Day for Creiddylad’s hand. An additional condition, which seems rather unfair, is that neither can take her until Judgement Day. Until then she must remain in her father’s house. Creiddylad is presented not only as a puppet tossed between two lovers but at the beck and call of Arthur. It is not explained how Arthur puts this command on Gwyn, Gwythyr or Creiddylad.

It is my intuition Arthur’s intercession is a later addition to an earlier myth inserted for the purpose of integrating it into the narrative of Culhwch and Olwen. Like ‘God’ (who is said to have put the fury of the spirits of Annwn in Gwyn!) Arthur is introduced as a deus ex machina. His agency explains and makes palatable to a Christian audience the rivalry between an underworld god and human (or perhaps semi-divine) hero for the favour of a fertility goddess. Arthur shutting Creiddylad in her father’s house could represent a Christian ban on woodland liaisons.

MayflowerThis story may originate from an earlier seasonal myth where Gwyn and Gwythyr are the forces of winter and summer battling over Creiddylad who embodies new life and spring. In this case their struggle is eternal. On May Day, Gwythyr the Summer King and a hero of this-world triumphs over Gwyn the Winter King and ruler of the underworld.

That such a tradition existed is suggested by ritual combats enacted in Wales in the nineteenth century by representatives of summer and winter. After summer won celebratory dancing was held around a May-pole. Pairs or groups would often fight over the May-pole. Whilst May-pole dancing is still a strong tradition across northern Britain, I haven’t found any battles between summer and winter yet.

If Gwythyr wins Creiddylad’s hand on Calan Mai (May Day) it would make sense that Gwyn takes her back to Annwn on Nos Galan Gaeaf or Calan Gaeaf (the eve or first of November) another time associated with dangerous spirits. If this is the case I know of no stories or traditions based around it.

I find it important to remember this story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad is only one medieval variant set in the Old North. Doubtless it underwent countless re-tellings in other times and places before it was written down and stuck. For me it is imperative to gain a personal understanding of it through lived relationships with its deities on the land where I live in the here and now.

So far I have reached the insights that the forgetting of this story in northern Britain is also the story of our forgetting of our relationship with the passing seasons, the deities associated with them and the sovereignty of the land. Another lesson it discloses is that human ownership of the land is transitory. There is a balance the forces of the wild and the underworld maintain.

In modern times the majority of people walk only within the Arthurian courts of this-world, paying respect to celebrities, pop culture and football heroes. In this era Gwythyr rules. He and the people of the north have forgotten about Creiddylad’s marriage to Gwyn in the wild forests of Annwn.

However, after centuries of forgetting Gwyn is appearing again within our folklore and as a god to his devotees. We’re remembering the seasons. We’re remembering Annwn, wild places, spirits and the dead. And first-most in Gwyn’s eyes we’re remembering Creiddylad and to treat her with reverence and respect.

***

SOURCES

 Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. Culhwch and Olwen (University of Cardiff Press, 1992)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Green, Thomas Concepts of Arthur (Tempus Publishing, 2007)
Gwynn Jones, T. Welsh Folklore and Custom (D. S. Brewer, 1979)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hutton, Ronald The Stations of the Sun (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Parker, Will The Four Branches of the Mabinogi http://www.mabinogi.net/
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
Sikes, Wirt British Goblins (Lightning Source UK, 2011)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Squire, Charles Celtic Myths and Legends (Parragon, 2000)