Afallach – the Apple King

I. Afallach and the Island of Apples

Afallach, a Brythonic god whose name is derived from afal ‘apple’, is best known for his associations with Ynys Afallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or the Isle of Avalon. In his Speculum Ecclesiae (1216) Giraldus Cambrensis says: ‘Avallonia is so called either from the British aval which means apple, because that place abounded with apples, or from a certain (A)vallo, lord of that land’.

Giraldus identifies the Isle of Avalon with Glastonbury, in De Instructione Principium (1193 -9): ‘what is now called Glastonia was anciently called Insula Avallonia, for it is like an island, wholly surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in British Inis Avallon, that is the apple-bearing island.’

William of Mamlesbury, in The Antiquities of Glastonbury (1216), follows this tradition. Glastonbury ‘is also well known as by the name of Insula Avalloniae’. He says it may be ‘named after a certain Avalloc who is said to have lived there with his daughters on account of it being a solitary place. (1)

Ynys Afallach is described as a paradisal island by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini (1150). ‘The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.’

Geoffrey names the nine daughters of Afallach as Morgen, ‘Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.’ He notes Morgen ‘is first of them’, ‘skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person’. She knows the properties of herbs, is skilled in healing, and mathematics and has the ability to shift shape.

Giraldus Cambrensis, in De Instructione Principium (1193), also writes of,‘Morganis, a noble matron who was the ruler and patron of these parts… the island which is now called Glastonia.”

II. Afallach – King of Annwn

It is significant that Morgan is referred to as a ‘noble matron’ for in the Triads she is otherwise named as ‘Modron daughter of Afallach’. Modron is a later form of Matrona ‘Mother’. The Mothers or Matrons were worshipped across northwestern Europe during the Romano-British period.

In Peniarth MS. 70 Modron speaks of herself as ‘the daughter of the King of Annwn’. Annwn means ‘the Deep’ and is the medieval Welsh name for the Otherworld which is a paradisal location.

In The Life of St Collen (14th C) we find an account of Collen’s visit to the castle of Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn, on Glastonbury Tor:

‘he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom.’

It seems likely Gwyn and Afallach are the same deity. Both are named as King of Annwn and are associated with Glastonbury/the Island of Avalon. Afallach is named as the grandson of Beli Mawr in the Harleian Genealogies (1100) and we find out that Gwyn is the grandson of Beli Mawr from Lludd ac Llefelys (1225) where his father, Lludd/Nudd, is named as the son of Beli.

Further traces of his mythos can be found in ‘Preideu Annwn’ where Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ is depicted presiding over an otherworldly mead feast and as the owner of countless treasures including a cauldron ‘kindled by the breath of nine maidens’ with ‘a dark trim and pearls’.

Its refusal to ‘boil a coward’s food’ suggests that it is connected with the initiation of bards such as ‘the loyal lad’, Gwair who, in the poem, is singing before the spoils of Annwn in a heavy grey chain.

III. Afallach and Modron in the Old North

In the Triads and Peniarth MS. 70 Afallach’s daughter, Modron, is the mother of the children of Urien. In Triad 70 the second of the ‘Three Fair Womb Burdens’ is the following: ‘Owain, son of Urien and Morfudd his sister who were carried together in the womb of Modron daughter of Afallach’.

In Peniarth MS. 70 we find the full story of the conception of Modron’s children:

‘In Denbighshire there is a parish which is called Llanferes, and there is there Rhyd y Gyfarthfa (the Ford of Barking). In the old days the hounds of the countryside used to come together to the side of that the ford to bark, and nobody dared go to find out what was there until Urien Rheged came. And when he came to the side of the ford he saw nothing except a woman washing. And then the hounds ceased barking, and Urien seized the woman and he had his will of her; and then she said “God’s blessing on the feet which brought thee here.” “Why?” said he. “Because I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy.” And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.’

The setting of this story in Denbighshire is strange because Urien was the king of the northern kingdom of Rheged during the sixth century. Urien’s seat may have been Luguvalium (present-day Carlisle), on the River Eden, and his realm likely extended throughout the Eden Valley and much of Cumbria to the Solway Firth and perhaps included Dumfries and Galloway. (2)

The name ‘Eden’ holds associations with Paradise and thus with Afallach/Gwyn and his brother Edern. (3) When Rheged was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons some of the fleeing Britons may have taken the tale to Wales.

I believe this story has its basis in the pre-Christian tradition of a human king entering a sacred marriage with the goddess of the land. There is plentiful evidence for the cultus of Modron/Matrona and her son, Mabon/Maponos in the form of altars and place names in northwest England and southern Scotland.

Altars and inscriptions to the Mother Goddesses and the Mothers the Fates have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness, Bowness-on-Solway, Ribchester, and Lund. There is an altar to Apollo-Maponus at Ribchester. Lochmaben and the Clochmaben stone are named after him.

In The Harleian Genealogies the kings of Rheged trace their lineage to Coel Hen and ultimately to Afallach and Beli Mawr. This suggests that Beli, Afallach, Modron, and Mabon were their ancestral deities.

The references to Owain as Mabon in the poetry attributed to Urien’s bard, Taliesin, are suggestive not only of his divine birth, but that he possessed the power to invoke and take on the identity of Mabon.

The story from Peniarth MS. 70 demonstrates the turning of the kings of Rheged to Christianity. Here we find Modron depicted as a sinister figure, as the Washer at the Ford, suggesting links with Morgan and possibly with the Irish death-goddess Morrigan, surrounded by equally sinister hounds (who are likely to be the Hounds of Annwn who hunt the souls of the dead with her father). To see a woman washing one’s clothes was a death portent as was hearing or seeing otherwordly hounds.

Urien, a self-proclaimedly Christian King, ignores the portents, seeing ‘nothing but a woman washing’ and rapes Modron. Her words about being fated to wash there until she conceives a son by a Christian have clearly been put into her mouth by a Christian interlocutor to obscure her role as a sovereignty goddess who holds power not over the land and Annwn but fate itself. Following Urien’s abuse it is no surprise he is assassinated and this leads to the fall of Rheged and the Old North.

The connections of Afallach and Modron with the Old North live on in their folkloric associations with the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass). In these areas of Cumbria Afallach is known as Eveling, which is an Anglicised version of his name.

IV. Afallach and Gwallen in North Wales

Afallach’s associations with Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in Denbighshire have been noted. Near the hill fort of Moel-y-Gaer in Flintshire is a hamlet called Caerfallwch which means ‘the Fortress of Afallach’.

From the ‘Hanesyn Tract’ we learn that Afallach had another daughter called Gwallen. She is referred to as ‘Gwalltwen verch Yvallach’ in ‘Digyniad Pendefigaeth Cymru’ and here we learn that she was mistress of Maelgwn, the ruler of Gwynedd during the sixth century, and the mother of Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, who ‘was not acceptable to some as prince, only as a regent.’

The kings of Gwynedd traced their ancestry through Cunedda to Afallach and Beli Mawr. It is possible that, like Modron, Gwallen was perceived as a sovereignty goddess. Her name might be translated as ‘White Hair’ (from gwallt ‘hair’ and gwyn/(g)wen ‘white’) suggesting Annuvian characteristics shared with her father, Afallach/Gwyn. The rejection of her son may be indicative not only of the laws surrounding illegitimacy, but Christian superstitions surrounding her otherworld nature.

Maelgwn’s wife was Sanan ferch Cyngen. They had a daughter called Eurgain who was married to the northern warlord Elidyr Mwynfawr. According to The Black Book of Chirk (1592 – 1667):

‘After the death of Maelgwn… many of the nobility of Cambria disdained to yield subjection to Rhun his son, being a bastard begot upon Gwallten the daughter of Afallach, Maelgwn’s concubine, especially the nobility of Arfon, who privately sent unto Elidyr Mwynfawr aforesaid to come speedily to Cambria, to aid him in recovery of the kingdom in the right of his children by Eurgain the daughter and heir of Maelgwn’.

The voyage of Elidyr and Eurgain and their companions from the Old North to Wales is recorded in Triad 44 ‘Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’. It is memorable because ‘seven and a half’ people are said to have crossed sea on the back of the water horse Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’.

‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr… 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.’

Du y Moroedd is the horse Gwyn ap Nudd rides when hunting for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ and likely for the souls of the dead. (4) Elidyr met his end battling against Rhun at Aber Mefydd. Perhaps Du not only carried them to meet their deaths but to the Otherworld afterwards too.

What this story serves to consolidate is that Afallach/Gwyn and his daughter, Gwallen, had strong and longstanding connections with the Brythonic peoples who claimed descent from Beli Mawr.

V. Lugus and the Island of Apples

In the Irish myths we find Emain Ablach ‘The Island of Apples’. In ‘Ar an doirseoir ris an deaghlaoch’ ‘The doorkeeper said to the noble warrior’, a medieval Irish poem based on the arrival of Lugh at the court of the Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, Lugh introduces himself as ‘a poet from Emain Ablach / of swans and yews’ before gaining entry due to his mastery of many skills. This suggests Lugh might have undergone some kind of bardic initiation on Ablach/Afallach’s isle.

Lugh is the son of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethniu, daughter of the Formorian giant, Balor. After hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, Balor locked Eithne away in a tower on Tory Island, but this did not prevent Cian from entering and fathering Lugh. Balor then attempted to stop the child gaining maturity by preventing him from getting a name and a wife.

In ‘Balor of the Evil Eye and Lui Lavada’ Cian takes Lui to Tory Island where numerous apple trees grow. They pose as gardeners. When Lui shows a good deal of skill picking up the apples Balor says: ‘Tog leat Lui Lavada’ ‘take away with you little long hand’ and this is how he receives his name. Lui/Lugh kills Balor with a slingshot or spear through his burning or poisonous eye.

We find a striking parallel in The Mabinogi (1350 – 1410) in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who is cognate with the Irish Lugh. Lleu is the son of Gwydion and Arianrhod, the son and daughter of Beli Mawr and Don. He was likely conceived by magical subterfuge. (5) In this story it is not Lleu’s grandfather, Beli, but his mother, Arianrhod who curses him with three fates: he will never win a name, arms or a wife. This is because of her ‘shame’ at the slight to her virginity caused by Gwydion.

Gwydion helps Lleu win his name by disguising them as shoemakers and luring Arianrhod onto his boat to get a shoe fitted. When she is on board Lleu shoots a wren that lands on the deck ‘in the leg, between the tendon and the bone’ and she exclaims ‘it is with a skilful hand that the fair one has hit it’ and hence he is called Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair-haired one with the skilful hand’.

Instead of killing his grandfather, Beli, with his spear, Lleu kills Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuwedd. Gronw, a hunter who arrives with a pack of hounds chasing a deer and turns up at night to seduce Lleu’s beloved is likely to be the King of Annwn, Arawn, who displayed his shapeshifting abilities earlier in the text, and may be identified with Afallach/Gwyn, his cousin.

The Welsh and the Irish myths contain suggestions of a shared mythos surrounding Beli/Balor, Ablach/Afallach, Eithne/Arianrhod, Cian/Gwydion, and Lleu/Lugh/Lugus (his pan-Celtic name) that was important to the people of the Brythonic kingdoms who claimed descent from Beli. (6)

VI. The Apple King in Peneverdant

The name of my home town, Penwortham, was Peneverdant in the Domesday Book. The first element, pen, ‘head’ is Brythonic and refers to present-day Castle Hill. Like Glastonbury Tor this headland stood on marshland and is an important sacred site for pagans and Christians.

The dedication of the church on its summit and well at its foot (now dried up) to St Mary Virgin and the fairy funeral legend featuring a fairy leader suggest the presence of a mother goddess and fairy king.

I know from personal experience the fairy king is Afallach/Gwyn. I first intuited the goddess to be Gwyn’s mother, Anrhuna, who I know as the Mother of the Marsh, but am now considering that another presence who better fits the image of Mary in the church with her shining son is Modron with Mabon.

I hadn’t considered this possibility because I hadn’t realised Afallach and Gwyn were the same deity. Looking back I should have realised earlier for I spent a considerable amount of time in the Avalon orchards at Glastonbury when I visited at Calan Mai in 2013 and 2015. On the latter occasion this inspired me to plant five apple trees in Greencroft Valley with the Friends group. Three have survived and two, the Epicure and Sowman’s seedling, have borne apples this year.

I have been making connections between Afallach and Gwyn as I have harvested these apples and those from the two apple trees in my parent’s garden. I’ve noticed they’ve come earlier this year for I usually gather the last before Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September and offer an apple to him with pork.

Of course the sweet and juicy apples we eat in Britain today were imported by the Romans. Yet we do have a native apple tree – the crab apple. Although its fruits are too sour to eat raw there is no doubt our ancient ancestors cooked them and served them with meat as a welcome addition to their diet. The fact that apples are harvested at the time of Gwyn’s Feast further consolidates his identity with Afallach. (7)

Another piece of potentially significant information I first heard orally but only found unreferenced online on a website called ‘Ireland Calling’ is the following: ‘The Celts… were said to bury apples in graves as food for the dead, a practice that is shown to date back over 7,000 years to Europe and West Asia where petrified remains of sliced apple have been found in tombs from 5,000BC.’ However, I haven’t been able to find a trustworthy source naming the date or location of these burials.

If it was proved that the Celtic peoples and in particular the Britons buried their dead with apples this might be suggestive of an offering to Afallach/Gwyn in return for taking the souls of the dead to Annwn.

Whatever the case my offering of an apple to the Apple King at his feast this year will have heightened significance and his relationship with Modron and Mabon opens new horizons to explore.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Malmesbury also provides a fascinating alternative foundation story based around apples. ‘Glasteing found his sow under an apple tree near the ancient church, and because apples were rare in those parts when he first arrived there, he called it Insular Avalloniae in his tongue, that is, Isle of Apples’.
(2) Urien’s associations with the Eden Valley are suggested by the poems attributed to Taliesin, Urien’s bard, who refers to Urien as the ‘ruler of Llwyfenedd’, the Lyvennet Valley (the Lyvennet flows into the Eden).
(3) However this river was known as Ituna ‘water’ or ‘rushing’ during the Roman-British period. Urien was also named ‘ruler of Yrechwedd’. Echwedd means ‘flowing water’ and this could be the origin of this appellation.
(4) In Culhwch ac Olwen (1190) Twrch Trwyth was allegedly a human chieftain turned into a boar by God on account of his sins. Behind this story lies his abilities as a shapeshifter and the fact Gwyn’s hunt, ‘the Wild Hunt’, was not really for boar but for human souls.
(5) Gwydion’s fathering of Lleu is not explicit in the main source for Lleu’s story, the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, but is evidenced in other sources such as a poem by Lewys Môn and Harleian 3859 where Lleu is spoken of as ‘Lou Hen map Guidgen’.
(6) The significance of Lugus is supported by his giving his name to Luguvalium (Carlisle) which means ‘Strong in Lugus’ and was ruled by Urien Rheged, to ‘the rock of Lleu’, the seat of the rulers of Gododdin from whom Maelgwn Gwynedd was descended, and to Dinas Lleu in the kingdom of Gwynedd.

SOURCES

Alex Langstone, ‘Pistyll Rhaedr’, http://www.pistyllrhaeadr.co.uk/berwyns.html
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Greg Hill, ‘Lleu Llaw Gyffes – Is that Lugus?’ https://awenydd.cymru/lleu-llaw-gyffes-is-that-lugus/
Jeremiah Curtin, Hero Tales of Ireland, (1894), https://archive.org/details/herotalesofirela00curtuoft/page/308/mode/2up
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
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)
The Apple Tree in Celtic Mythology, Ireland Calling, https://ireland-calling.com/celtic-mythology-apple-tree/
‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ Ancient Texts, https://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/collen.html

You Read of a Smith

who made a pact with the devil
know little of how the story began
or what it implies when he sees the huntsman
galloping out of the fog on a cold dark October night.

You see the sweat dripping from his forehead sizzling
in the flames and are unable to tell what passes
between those dark brows when he sees
the horse he always shoes is lame,
its rider tired, shrouded by desperation,
yet still quiet-spoken when he makes his request
for shoes for running further faster between the worlds
to hunt down something that isn’t dead yet but isn’t living either.

You see the smith shiver as if ice has been dropped down his back
but not waver as he pumps the bellows, heats the furnace,
fires the steel, raises his hammer tries to imagine
what he is shoeing is only a hoof with wall,
toe, sole, tough and sensitive parts,
that this creature might be able to feel,
tries not to count the hooves that keep his forge ablaze all night
as the arched neck towers over him and the eyes flicker and glow.

Instead of counting his heartbeat he counts the beat of his hammer
which steeled his will during his ordeal in the fires that burn
like ice beyond good and evil, where he is working now,
face reddened, straining every muscle, engulfed
in the pain and ecstasy of creation for…
he will only ponder when there is nought but ashes
and hoof prints leading to where he, lame, cannot wander.
To where the stories you have read have come to an end and beyond.

*This poem is a Brythonic retelling of the traditional folkloric tale of a smith shoeing a horse for the devil. It features the smith-god, Gofannon, shoeing Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’ for Gwyn ap Nudd. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn, the Otherworld, and was equated with the devil. He rides out with his hunt to gather the souls of the dead on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

**Image ‘Man Shoeing a Horse’ by Jonathon Bean on Unsplash

The Marsh of the Black Water Horses

Yng Nghors y Ceffylau Dwr Du
mae’r esgyrn yn disgleirio cyn wynned â‘r haul newydd-anedig.

In the Marsh of the Black Water Horses
the bones shine white as the new-born sun.

Pray you do not have to cross it. Pray you do. You might see them oozing, plunging, rising, falling like sea monsters, only vaguely horse-shaped, with shaggy tussocks of manes and huge round hooves.

You may have met one (but you do not know it) stepping out of the rain with a horse’s head and two, four, six, eight, countless legs, a charming long-toothed smile, mounted with ease eight feet up.

You may have felt your hands clasped by the mane and your buttocks gripped to the slippery seat.

You may have been taken from your town across farmlands where cattle churn muddily around troughs, across moorlands stirring up grouse, to peat bogs where hooves slip and sink, to a black marsh where black water horses meet: mares and stallions, foals and colts, sons and daughters of Du.

Then down, down, down beneath the reeds, the marsh grass, the flickering will-o-wisps, to where they keep the bones shining white as the new-born sun and caught a glimpse of the ghostly riders.

You might have seen a face, frightened, charmed, in love with something horselike, like your own.

All you might remember is waking up cold and wet in a ditch and blaming it on one too many drinks.

If this is the case you will remember when you get here. You will feel it in your bones, your shiny white bones. You will know that a part of you never left this place and fears and rejoices in its return.

The Marsh of the Black Water Horses Large*With thanks for the translation into Welsh from Greg Hill.

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

Gwyn ap Nudd and Du y Moroedd: Travelling the Old North, Wales and Beyond

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).

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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.

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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.

Ribble EstuarySOURCES
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)