In Culhwch and Olwen, Du y Moroedd (‘The Black of the Seas’) is introduced as the only horse who can carry Gwyn ap Nudd on the hunt for Twrch Twryth (‘King of Boars’). Du is a water-horse of celebrated fame in the Brythonic tradition. A study of his stories reveals that, like Gwyn, he is intimately connected with the landscapes and peoples of the Old North and Wales. He is also a traveller between worlds and thus a most fitting mount for Annwn’s ruler on his hunt for the greatest of boars.
The most detailed piece of information we possess about Du appears in The Triads of the Islands of Britain. As one of three ‘horse burdens’ he ‘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.’
The historical basis of this triad is Elidyr’s seaward journey from his home in northern Britain to Wales to seize the throne of Gwynedd from Rhun, Maelgwn’s illegitimate son (Elidyr’s claim was based on his marriage to Eurgain). Elidyr was killed at Aber Mewydd near Arfon. Afterward his fellow Men of the North; Clydno Eidyn, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael and Rhydderch Hael took vengeance by burning Arfon. Rhun and all the men of Gwynedd pursued them north to the river Gweryd.
This demonstrates the complex ancestral and political relationships between the people of the north and Wales and exemplifies the internecine strife that eventually led to the fall of the northern Brythonic kingdoms. It also shows that armies travelled between the Old North and Wales by land and sea.
It is of interest the Men of the North who came to avenge Elidyr are all of the ‘Macsen Guledig’ lineage. This places them in the same family as Gwyn’s ally and rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol and his kinsmen who Gwyn battles against and takes captive. Gwyn’s relationship with these northern men as a ruler of Annwn is just as fraught and unstable as relations between human rulers.
That Gwyn rides the same horse as Elidyr strengthens the sense of his familial ties with these Men of the North. That he acts as a psychopomp to several northern warriors suggests he may have been seen as an ancestral god. This is backed up by common usage of the name Nudd: Nudd Hael, Dreon ap Nudd and Nudus (the Latinised form from a memorial stone in Yarrow).
I assume Du is named as the only horse who can carry Gwyn due to his capacity to move between worlds. This is supported by analogy with The Pursuit of Giolla Dheachair where a ‘monstrous horse’ carries fifteen and a half of Finn’s (Gwyn’s Irish counterpart) companions to the Otherworld.
In this context it seems possible the triad depicts the surprise arrival of Elidyr and his party from the blackness of the sea on the darkest of nights as if from (or perhaps literally from!) the Otherworld. After Elidyr’s death one can imagine Gwyn appearing aboard this great water-horse on the bank of the Arfon to escort him to Annwn.
Du’s possession of uncanny and even monstrous qualities is echoed in later water-horse legends. In Brigantia: A Mysteriography Guy Ragland Phillips identifies the Black Horse of Bush Howe (a horse-shaped landscape feature of stone on the Howgill Fells in Cumbria) with Du. 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.
Ragland Phillips also claims a ‘dobbie cult’ centres on the Black Horse. ‘Dobbie’ is the ‘Brigantian’ name for a water-horse and he defines it as ‘a big, black misshapen thing that ‘slips about’. Like dobbin (a term still commonly used in the north for horses who are ploddy or woodenheaded) it ‘may have for its first element the Celtic Dhu, ‘black’.’
David Raven records a recent visit to the site, during which he photographed the Black Horse and stood on its back. Afterward he found out from a local historian that in the 1930’s and 40’s school children used to be allowed a day off to maintain the horse. A village elder said this was a practice undertaken by farmers in the pre-war period on an ‘annual Boon Day’.
This is strongly suggestive of cult activity and a longstanding service to the Black Horse. Jack (the village elder) also told David of a legend about Roman legions using the horse as a landmark on their travels ‘up the Lune valley, from Lancaster to Penrith and Carlisle.’ The Black Horse of Bush Howe is associated with travelling the northern landscape too.
The continuity of Du’s fame in Wales is attested by Welsh poetry. He appears in The Song of the Horses, a poem attributed to Taliesin: ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’. He is frequently used as a standard of comparison. Guto’r Glyn compares a foal with the ‘Son of the Black One of Prydyn’ (Du’s grandson) and Tudur Aled compares another horse with Du saying he is of ‘greater vigour… such was his strength and daring.
Like northern Britain, Wales has a water-horse tradition: the ‘ceffyl dwr’. I haven’t found any water-horse stories connected with Anglesey or Arfon on the internet but this doesn’t eliminate the possibility they exist in Welsh literature or folk memory.
Finally I’d like to return to Gwyn’s partnership with Du on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth in Culhwch and Olwen. Ysbaddaden’s statement to Culhwch that the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn is found hints at his role as a divine huntsmen and former leader of the boar hunt. Culhwch’s central task of assembling an array of renowned huntsmen, hounds and horses to hunt the Twrch is founded on an older and deeper myth.
About its details we can only conjecture. It is my guess it featured Gwyn, huntsmen, horses and hounds pursuing the King of Boars. It may have contained clues to the ‘mysteries’ of hunting: the hunt, the kill and ensuing feast as sacred activities based on an earlier shamanistic perspective.
Further insights may be gained by analogy with Odin’s hunting of the boar Saehrimnir (‘Sooty Sea-Beast’). Odin rides a great black eight-legged horse who can travel between worlds called Sleipnir (‘Slippy’ or ‘Slipper’). After the hunt Saehrimnir is cooked every evening but the next day is whole. Odin’s feast in Valhalla is mirrored by Gwyn’s feast in his otherworldy hall (in The Life of St Collen on Glastonbury Tor). Perhaps Gwyn’s hunt also rides each day to slay the Twrch then magically he is reborn and this reflects the sacred acts of hunting and eating and the procreation of the boar.
In Culhwch and Olwen it is not mentioned whether Gwyn or Du are found. They do not appear on Arthur’s hunt. Gwyn only comes when summoned by Arthur, who asks him if he knows the whereabouts of Twrch Twryth after he disappears at Glyn Ystun. It is implicit Arthur is seeking Gwyn’s knowledge because he suspects the Twrch has fled to Annwn. Gwyn claims he does not know anything about Twrch Trwyth. It is my intuition he is lying to protect the King of Boars and perhaps to cause mischief.
Following a chase across Wales and finally to Cornwall, whereby many of Arthur’s men are injured or killed by the Twrch and his piglets, they finally catch him and remove the comb and shears from between his ears. Afterward he is driven into the sea, which is suggestive of his return to Annwn. It is of interest that, unlike other otherworldly animals he confronts, Arthur does not slay Twrch Trwyth.
In later Welsh folklore Gwyn is depicted as a demon huntsman aboard a monstrous black horse who preys on the souls of sinners. This image derives from and parodies his partnership with Du as a divine huntsmen and his role as a guide of the dead. Whereas he was revered as much as feared by the pagan Britons, in this Christianised guise he solely brings terror (a misguided and one-sided view).
Gwyn and Du’s names disappear from the stories of northern Britain completely after the medieval period. It seems possible their myths lie behind some of our stories of spectral huntsmen and dobbies but due to the complex intermingling of local legends with Brythonic and Germanic lore the origins of these tales cannot be ascertained.
Yet our landscape remembers the travels of Gwyn and Du across the Old North, Wales and beyond by land and sea. On the paths of the hunt and at river-estuaries where tides beat the shore to gull-cries and winds of distant longing they are still here.
Bartrum, Peter A Welsh Classical Dictionary (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Bromwich, Rachel (ed.) The Triads of the Islands of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Ragland Phillips, Guy Brigantia: A Mysteriography (Routledge and Keegan Paul Ltd, 1976)
Raven, David http://davidraven-uk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/black-horse-of-bush-howe.html
Rhys, John Studies in the Arthurian Legend (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Sturluson, Snorri The Prose Edda (Penguin Books, 2005)