I’m back on Idris again at the edge of Llyn Cau alone with the madness of giants surrounded by the battle-fog of Gwenddolau although Arfderydd is distant, Myrddin, the gwyllon, the seven-score men who lapsed into wyllt-ness when battle-rage fled.
The ravens have left and I am alone pondering the edge of a blade lost in my brain-fog, my little Arfderydd, the small traumas etched on my flesh. Battle-scars, battle-madness, the battle- field I thought I’d escaped long ago when you appeared to Myrddin
as the brightness beyond endurance, tore him out of himself and took him to the forest of Celyddon to be healed. When you walked out of the heroic age and took me not like a maiden but like one of your own taught me to fight with Cyledyr, Cynedyr, Cynfelyn,
wilder than beasts of the mountains, to howl with your hounds and exult in the madness of giants bigger than dream. Bull of Battle, Invincible Lord, teach me again the art of turning pain into poetry, to make this battle-fog my strength not my enemy and this edge my blade.
Over the harvest period I have been reflecting on the strange birth and death of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the Welsh cognate of the Irish Lugh, who was the instigator of Lughnasadh. Will Parker speculates that a proto-Celtic myth underlies their stories. In this article I am going to focus on the story of Lleu in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi and look at how other medieval Welsh texts and parallels with the Irish Lugh might help us understand his birth and death and elucidate his mythos.
A ‘Virgin Birth’
The Fourth Branch is set in Gwynedd, in North Wales, and concerns the Children of Don. Don is a mother goddess cognate with the Irish Dana, mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Whilst the Tuatha Dé Danann are represented as gods the Children of Don are euhemerised as humans with magical qualities. In this story Math is Don’s brother and her children include Arianrhod, Gwydion, and Gilfaethwy.
At the beginning of the story we are told Math ‘could not live unless his feet were in the lap of a virgin, except when the turmoil of war prevented him’. Gilfaethwy falls in love with his virgin footholder, Goewin, and being unable to sleep with her makes him ill. Gwydion plots with Gilfaethwy to cause a war by stealing pigs from Pryderi, in South Wales. Whilst Math is away fighting, Gwydion helps Gilfaethwy to take Goewin ‘against her will’ in Math’s bed in Caer Dathyl.
When Math finds out he is understandably furious and punishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy by using his wand to turn them into animals – stags, boar and wolves, alternating male and female, who give birth to three sons. Afterwards Math requires a new virgin footholder and Gwydion suggests Arianrhod.
As a test of her virginity Arianrhod is challenged to step over Math’s wand. The wand breaks and she drops a ‘large, sturdy, yellow-haired boy’ and ‘a small something’. Before anyone else sees this strangeness Gwydion wraps it in ‘a sheet of brocaded silk’ and hides it in ‘a small chest at the foot of his bed’.
This pethan, ‘small something’, has placental qualities. It wakes Gwydion with a cry. When he opens the chest it reveals itself as a small boy, waving his arms, throwing away the sheets.
This perhaps represents a second birth, to Gwydion, who raises the boy as a father figure, with the aid of a wet nurse. He grows quickly, sturdy as an eight-year-old at only four years old. On top of his uncanny transformation the boy’s quick growth marks him out as strange and supernatural. Thus is recorded the ‘virgin birth’ of Lleu as a strange something from a virgin who is not a virgin.
It seems implicit Gwydion knows Arianrhod is not a virgin and he knowingly chooses to induce the birth. The reason behind his knowledge is made clearer by lines from a poem by Lewys Môn. He refers to Arianrhod, the ‘chaste one, white-armed and wise’, as the ‘pillow’ of Math, ‘the same as the snow, / a man could not live without her’. This shows a tale exists in which Arianrhod is Math’s footholder. The similarities suggest Gilfaethwy or Gwydion raped her and made her pregnant. If Gwydion fathered Lleu this would explain why he is so keen to smuggle away and raise the boy.
Yet, if Gwydion openly took Arianrhod against her will it seems likely that, even if she was too afraid to name and shame him, she would have made some effort to avoid the virginity test. This raises the possibility that Gwydion may have impregnated Arianrhod some other way without her knowing. As he is well known for his abilities as a magician it seems likely he did it by magic.
John Carey draws parallels between the conception of Lleu and the conception of Setanta (later Cu Chulainn) by Lugh. In the latter, whilst the king, Conchabar, is away from court, his unmarried daughter becomes pregnant by drinking a ‘small creature’ and Lugh appears in a dream to tell her she will give birth to his child. Due to be married, she induces a miscarriage on her wedding night.
It seems possible Gwydion got Arianrhod pregnant in a similar way. When I meditate on the scene I see him putting his wand into a glass of water and the wand seeming to bend due to the refraction of the light rays and this linking imagistically to the broken wand in the later virginity test. Arianrhod’s ‘dropping’ of the boys contrasts with labour and is suggestive of a magically induced miscarriage. The disappearance of the first boy, Dylan of the Wave, to the sea may represent him being washed away.
Gwydion’s magical causation of Lleu’s ‘virgin birth’ is incredibly sinister and ethically suspect. We need to look ahead and to a variety of sources to divine the dark purpose behind his misdoings.
The Three Fates
In response to her ‘shame’ Arianrhod puts three fates on the boy: he will never have a name, weapons, or a wife. Gwydion, through further manipulations, helps the lad to overcome the fates. Disguised as shoemakers they travel to Caer Arianrhod and trick Arianrhod onto the boat to get a shoe fitted. When the boy strikes a wren, who lands on the deck, ‘in the leg, between the tendon and the bone’ 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’. To gain Lleu’s weapons the pair return again to Caer Arianrhod, this time disguised as storytellers, and Gwydion conjures an illusion of attacking ships. This tricks Arianrhod into arming them to help defend the fortress. Gwydion and Math get around the conjunction that Lleu will ‘never have a wife from the race that is on this earth at present’ by conjuring a maiden from the flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet.
These fates are obviously put on Lleu to prevent him from making the transition from boyhood to manhood. Yet it seems unfair Arianrhod chooses to punish the innocent boy rather than Gwydion. One argument may be that she punishes Gwydion by attempting to thwart his plans for the boy. However, in the Fourth Branch, we find out little about the boy’s destiny except his ‘death’ and revenge.
To make better sense of the origin of the fates and Gwydion’s purpose we must turn to the Irish myths. The birth of Lleu’s Irish cognate, Lugh, is equally strange. Lugh is the son of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethniu, daughter of Balor of the Formorians. The Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’ are a race of monstrous giants who oppose the Tuatha Dé Danann. Thus Lugh is part god, part giant.
An Irish folktale from Tory Island relates how Lugh is born. A druid prophecies to Balor that his grandson will kill him, thus he locks his only daughter, Eithne, in the Tór Mór (‘Great Tower’). Cian enters the tower with the aid of a fairy woman called Biróg and seduces Eithne. It seems likely enchantment is involved in entering the tower and the seduction of the giant’s daughter. She gives birth to triplets, who Balor wraps in a sheet and casts into a whirlpool. Two die but one is rescued by Biróg.
Here we find many similarities with the birth of Lleu. Both Arianrhod and Eithne are isolated as virgins and both Gwydion and Cian use magic in some way to bring about a ‘virgin birth’. In both stories one or two children are washed away but the ‘special son’ is kept by the father and a female helper (the wet nurse and Biróg) and a ‘sheet’ is involved, representing a secondary birth.
After his grandson is born Balor attempts to prevent his prophesied death by refusing him a name (to hamper his development) and a wife (Balor is prophesied to be killed on his grandson’s wedding night). Here we find the purpose behind the fates – to stop Lugh from killing his grandfather.
If the three fates on Lleu originally served the same function who, then, is his grandsire? From the Fourth Branch we know Arianrhod’s mother is Don, but the identity of her father is not recorded. It may be suggested he is Beli Mawr because Beli is named as the consort of Don (or Anna) in the Welsh genealogies and Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, whose Irish cognate is Nuada, the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, is the son of Beli Mawr. This suggests the other children of Don were fathered by Beli.
Beli may be a later name of the Celtic god, Belenos, who is also known as Bel and depicted as a giant (he gives his name to places such as Belgrave in Leicester and Belthorn in Lancashire). The name Bel means ‘Shining’ and he is usually seen as a sun-god associated with the fire festival Beltane.
If Beli, the father of the Children of Don, was seen as an oppressive figure to be slain by Lleu, this would place this story in a similar context to the Greek myths in which Uranus is killed by his son, the titan, Cronus, and he by his son, Zeus, resulting in the imprisonment of the titans in Tartarus. The slaying of Balor by Lugh and Beli by Lleu would be our Celtic equivalents of the titanomachy.
This highlights a division between the primitive gods/giants and the skilled culture gods. Having a skill is the defining feature of the Tuatha Dé Danann and constitutes the difference between the dé ‘gods’ and the andé ‘ungods’ who are known in Gaul as the andedion and in Wales as the spirits of Annwn.
Whereas, in the Irish myths, the Formorians are a different race, in the Welsh myths the ‘ungods’ are of the Children of Don. Beli is their grandfather and Gwyn, son of Nudd, is the King of Annwn.
Thus it seems the purpose behind Gwydion’s plotting is to bring into being a ‘special son’ who will kill the primeval forefather of his kindred and establish the hegemony of the culture gods over the Annuvian.
Lleu the Giant Slayer
The prophesied death of Balor at the hands of Lugh is found in a number of the Irish stories. In ‘The Battle of Moytura’ Balor kills Nuada, the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Lugh travels to their court and is granted entry on account of his many skills and offers to fight with them against the Formorians.
Balor has a poisonous eye that is capable of stopping hosts in their thousands from offering ‘resistance to warriors’. The moment four men pull the ring on its lid and open it Lugh fires a slingstone from his slingshot into the eye and kills the giant. In other tales Balor has a burning eye and Lugh throws a spear through the seven or nine shields covering it to slay his grandfather.
I have received the personal gnosis that the sun is ‘the Eye of Bel’. Most of us know from experience that it is impossible to stare into the sun without being near-blinded so I wonder whether this lies behind the conception of the eye of Balor and its power to stop hosts in their thousands.
Whilst the sun is essential to the growth of crops and the harvest too much heat brings drought and famine. The story of Lugh slaying Balor may have arisen in response to such a scenario.
No Brythonic stories exist about Lleu slaying a giant with a single burning or poisonous eye. However, we do find parallels between ‘The Battle of Moytura’ and ‘The Battle of the Trees’. The former is fought between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Formorians and the latter by the Children of Don against giants including Brân the Blessed and the monsters of Annwn. In ‘The Battle of Moytura’ druidesses ‘enchant the trees and sods of the earth’ into ‘a host under arms’ and in ‘The Battle of the Trees’ Gwydion conjures a battalion of trees from ‘language and materials of the earth’. It seems likely that, here, Lleu ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ triumphed over his grandfather, Beli, and fulfilled the prophesy. If so the account has been lost.
After the first Battle of Moytura, Taltiiu, the foster mother of Lugh, cut the trees down, thus clearing the plain for the harvest. When she died Lugh founded the festival of Lughnasadh in her name. After the second Battle of Moytura four harvest festivals are established. It seems possible that after the Battle of the Trees the trees were cut down and a harvest festival began.
The Riddle of Lleu’s Death
A strange set of conditions surrounds the death of Lleu, making him near-impossible to kill. In the Fourth Branch we learn he ‘cannot be killed indoors… nor out of doors… on horseback, nor on foot’. Here we find similarities with other near-invincible heroes such as Achilles, who was dipped in the river Styx by his mother, making him invulnerable except where she held him at his heel.
The origin of these conditions is never explained. My guess is they result from the circumstances of Lleu’s birth or a spell of Gwydion’s and their purpose is to prevent him from being killed in battle. Their riddling quality shares a kinship with the magic that surrounds Brân, who is only defeated by Amaethon in the Battle of the Trees after Gwydion guesses his name from his alder shield.
In the Fourth Branch Lleu not only discloses the riddle of his death to his wife, Blodeuedd, ‘Flower Face’, but unwittingly, naively, dare I say it, stupidly, tells her the answer too. This proves disastrous as Blodeuedd asks the question because she is plotting to kill Lleu with her lover, Gronw.
To provide some background, after Lleu and Blodeuedd marry, he assumes rule of Ardudwy from Mur Castell. Lleu makes the mistake of visiting Math at Caer Dathyl and leaving Blodeuedd alone. Whilst he is away she hears a hunting horn and sees a mysterious huntsman chasing a stag with a hounds and learns he is Gronw Pebr, lord of Penllyn. That night Gronw turns up at the gates of her court.
Blodeuedd invites Gronw in and they feel a mutual attraction: ‘From the moment she looked there was no part of her that was not filled with love for him. And he gazed at her, and the same thought came to him.’ That night they sleep together and, as the nights go on, find it immensely difficult to part. Realising the only way their affair can continue is by killing Lleu they plot to bring about his death.
Thus Bloduedd asks Lleu how he can be killed and he shares not only the riddle of his death, but its answer. Firstly a magical weapon is required: ‘It is not easy to kill me with a blow. You would have to spend a year making the spear that would strike me, working on it only when people were at Mass on Sunday.’
The conditions can only be defeated ‘By making a bath for me on a riverbank, and constructing an arched roof above the tub, and then thatching that well and watertight. And bringing a billy-goat… and standing it beside the tub; and I place one foot on the back of the billy-goat and the other on the edge of the tub. Whoever should strike me in that position should bring about my death’.
The answer to the riddle is stranger than the riddle itself and contains elements of the comedic and parodic. The sense of parody is heightened when Blodeuedd asks Lleu to help her recreate the scene due to her concern about him dying. She builds the bath house, has the goats rounded up, bathes Lleu, and helps him onto the bath tub and the goat. In this position he is struck by Gronw’s spear.
I’m not sure if Lleu’s naivety in being lured to his death is supposed to be tragic or comic or both. I am led to suspect this particular variant of the tale is the work of a Christian interlocutor who aimed to make a mockery of Lleu and the pre-Christian mythos that surrounded him. It seems possible Lleu was represented, a little like Jupiter Dolichenus, standing on a goat holding a spear or bolt of lightning, and the Christians made a mockery this image in order to undermine his majesty.
If this is the case the goat scene may not be the true answer to the riddle. We catch a glimpse of an alternative after Lleu is struck by Gronw’s spear. He does not die but, instead, gives a ‘horrible scream’, flies up in the form of an eagle, and is not seen again by Blodeuedd and Gronw (who seize Ardudwy).
Lleu departs to an oak, dripping rotten flesh and maggots, which are eaten by a hungry sow beneath. In an oak Lleu is neither indoors or outdoors, on horseback or on foot, thus we find another answer.
The Eagle on the Oak
The image of the wounded Lleu-as-Eagle on the oak with the sow eating his flesh is numinously charged. Lleu’s transformation from a man into an eagle as a result of his wounding is suggestive of initiatory death and soul flight. This shares similarities with other initiatory and sacrificial traditions.
Following battle trauma Myrddin Wyllt was torn out of himself and flew (likely as his namesake, the merlin) to the forest of Celyddon where he learnt the arts of poetry and prophecy. Odin pierced his own side with a spear and hung on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine nights sacrificed ‘himself to himself’ to gain knowledge of the runes. We also think of Jesus, wounded by a spear, on the holy rood.
The oak is likely to be Daronwy, ‘the oak of Goronwy’, ‘the radiance of Goronwy’s men’. Goronwy is another name of Gronw. Daronwy appears in the poetry of Taliesin as the tree who holds the greatest of mysteries and the oak’s associations with the druids, ‘oak knowers’ is well known. It may be our Brythonic World Tree. In the Fourth Branch it is described as occupying a liminal position between ‘between two lakes’ and having magical qualities – it cannot be wetted by rain or melted by heat. Lleu’s initiation on this sacred oak may have been central to the druidic tradition. However its meaning and what he experienced on the tree has been lost to centuries of Christianity.
One clue perhaps lies in the identity of the sow. She, like Lleu, has numinous qualities. Gwydion is told by the swineherd (possibly a magical figure himself): ‘Every day when the pen is opened she goes out. No one can grab her, and no one knows where she goes, any more than if she sank into the earth.’
The sow’s ability to evade capture and the reference to her sinking into the earth have an aura of the Annuvian. It may be suggested here we find Henwen, ‘Old White’, the goddess Ceridwen in sow-form. Her eating of Lleu’s flesh and the maggots (who share a resemblance with him as a ‘small something’) represent him being absorbed into her cauldron of rebirth in Annwn and into her womb.
Lleu is rescued by Gwydion, who sings him down from the oak with three englyns, onto his knee. They may represent his descent from soul flight through three worlds. Gwydion refers to Lleu possessing ‘nine attributes’ which may originate from lessons learnt on the tree over nine nights. Gwydion strikes Lleu with his wand to transform him back into his own form. We are told he is ‘wretched’ ‘nothing but skin and bone’. He is taken to Math’s physicians at Caer Dathyl to be healed.
Gwydion’s own familiarity with oak knowledge is suggested by his name. It derives from gwydd which is linked to gwybod ‘to know’ and contains the meanings ‘knowledge’, ‘tree(s), branches, twigs; forest, woods, shrub(s)’, ‘weaver of songs’ and gwyddon refers to a ‘sorcerer or sage’. Its root is *uueid ‘to know’ and this is found in uates ‘seer’ and also in druid ‘oak knower’. We have already seen that he has the ability to conjure trees from ‘language and the materials of the earth’.
It thus seems to be no accident that Gwydion’s plotting leads to the immolation of Lleu on the World Tree. His initiation might be seen as a necessary step on his journey to maturity.
The Death of the King of Annwn
Following his ‘death’ at Gronw’s hands Lleu takes revenge. He demands the chance to throw a spear at Gronw on the spot he was killed, on the bank of the River Cynfael, near the Hill of the Blow. Gronw stands behind a stone, but Lleu’s spear pierces through it to kill his rival. Lleu then takes possession not only of Penllyn but, presumably, Caer Dathyl, for he becomes lord of Gwynedd.
By killing Gronw and winning the lordship of Gwynedd, Lleu comes to maturity. Parallels might be found with Lugh slaying Balor and taking the place of Nuada as the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Behind this battle of euhemerised lords lies a deeper conflict between the Brythonic ‘gods’ and ‘ungods’. Gronw, the mysterious huntsman, who visits Blodeuedd at night and is inexplicably attractive, has all the qualities of the King of Annwn. In the First Branch, Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, accidentally fed his hounds on a stag pulled down by the white red-eared hounds of the Annuvian king, Arawn. As recompense Pwyll exchanged identities with Arawn and fought his yearly battle against his rival, Hafgan, killing him by following Arawn’s instructions to strike only one blow at a ford.
The end of the book mirrors the beginning. Here we find the King of Annwn taking the guise of Gronw to fight what might have been a yearly battle on a river bank in this world against Lleu. We recall Lleu mentioned: ‘It is not easy to kill me with a blow’. Yet with one blow of his magical spear, crafted when people are at Mass, outside Christian rule, in the timelessness of Annwn, he succeeds in bringing about the ‘death’ of Lleu-as-a-man and his transformation into Lleu-as-Eagle. Annwn is traditionally a place of initiation and the King of Annwn an author of initiatory experiences.
It seems the agency of the King of Annwn, as much as that of Gwydion, results in Lleu’s oak knowledge. He appears to challenge Lleu’s claim to his name, his weapons, and his wife. Following his initiation, Lleu wins, killing him, sending him to his death, back to Annwn, from whence he came.
It seems possible stories existed in which Lleu killed the King of Annwn in the Battle of the Trees. This was brought about by Amaethon, another son of Don, who stole a roebuck, a greyhound, and a plover from Annwn, rousing the fury of Arawn who is referred to in the poem as ‘the wealthy battle dispenser’.
Arawn may be another name of Gwyn, who also appears as a giant by the names of Ogyrven and Einnegen, thus Lleu slays his cousin in the Battle of the Trees and likely his grandfather, Beli, too.
Lleu’s story is one of overcoming, with the aid of Gwydion, the monstrous within the Children of Don and within himself (unleashed as eagle by the King of Annwn and reined in by the magician).
Yet our stories show any attempt to repress the Annuvian can never wholly succeed. Annwn’s king wears many guises, fights many battles, dies many deaths, always returns in some form to challenge and initiate.
Conclusion – The Strangeness of Lleu
From his strange birth as a ‘small something’ to his stranger ‘death’ in eagle form on the World Tree, for me, Lleu remains somewhat amorphous, difficult to picture, to relate to, and to empathise with. I don’t know whether this is because of his sheer stupidity in the Fourth Branch or because I’m devoted to his adversary, the King of Annwn, and tend to favour monsters over shining heroes.
If there is an illuminating feature about Lleu for me it is not his triumph over Beli or the King of Annwn with his slingshot or lightning spear but the strangeness within him which he tries to repress.
Edwin Hopper (transl.), ‘The Battle of Moytura’, http://www.edwinhopper.com/03%20The%20Battle%20of%20Moytura.pdf John Carey, ‘A British Myth of Origins?’, History of Religions, Vol.31, No.1 (The University of Chicago Press) Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007) R. A. S. Macalister (transl.), The Book of Invasions, https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/leborgabala.html Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007) Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
In the Irish myths we find a giant named Balor whose name derives from the common Celtic *Boleros ‘the Flashing One’. He is best known for the destructive power of his eye, which burns or poisons.
In ‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuired’ Balor fights on the side of the Formorians ‘underworld giants’, who come from beneath the earth or sea, to fight against the culture gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Balor has ‘a destructive eye’ which is ‘never opened except on the battlefield’ by four men pulling a ring on the lid. We are told that any host which looked into his eye, even if there were thousands, ‘would offer no resistance to warriors’. Its ‘poisonous power’ originates from an accident. When Balor’s father’s druids ‘were brewing magic’ the fumes ‘affected the eye’ and ‘the venomous power of the brew settled in it.’
Balor kills the king and battle leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuadu Silverhand. Yet the moment the lid on his eye is raised Lug Lormanslech (who is elsewhere known as Lug Lámfada ‘of the Long Hand’) kills him by firing a slingstone from his slingshot into his eye and causing him to fall backwards and kill twenty-seven men. Lug later takes the place of Nuada as king of the Tuatha Dé Danann
In ‘Balor on Tory Island’ he has a burning eye which is covered by nine leather shields or seven coverings which he removed one by one: ‘With the first covering the bracken began to wither, with the second the grass became copper-coloured, with the third the woods and timber began to heat, with the fourth smoke came from the trees, with the fifth everything grew red, with the sixth it sparked. With the seventh, they were all set on fire, and the whole countryside was ablaze!’ Balor is killed by Lug, with a a red spear crafted by Gavidin Gow, which pierces through all the coverings.
In this Formorian giant it is possible to find some parallels with the British giants and forces of Annwn ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld or Underworld. Llasar, described as ‘a huge, monstrous man’ with ‘yellow-red hair’ and ‘an evil, ugly look about him’ emerges from ‘the Lake of the Cauldron’. The scream of a dragon causes men to lose their strength and makes the land and its inhabitants barren.
There are also similarities between Battles of Mag Tuired and ‘The Battle of the Trees’. Like the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Children of Don, Lleu (cognate with Lug) ‘radiant his name, strong his hand’, the magician-god, Gwydion, and the plough-god, Amaethon, battle against the forces of the King of Annwn and these include giants such as Bran the Blessed and Annuvian monsters.
However, neither Nodens/Nudd (cognate with Nuada) or Boleros (who would be cognate with Balor) are mentioned. This leaves me wondering whether we had a similar story in which Nodens was killed or injured by Boleros and Lugus/Lleu triumphed over the giant and his destroying eye.
A similar story about how Boleros gained the destructive powers of his eye would certainly fit with narratives in which the cauldron which brews the awen and revives the dead also produces poison.
The tale of Boleros of the Burning Eye is one of the stories I am striving to re-imagine in my new book.
Nine towers of stone. Around each coils a wyrm. No way in – no door, lock, key, but a single row of windows at the top where I think I glimpse the face of a madman. They are old as the grey mountains. I want to claim they were built by the haulers of scree, the wyrms summoned and bound by the might of magicians or that they came of their own free will raising the towers from some secret land underground that has never been seen. Share rumours of a sibylline prophetess who consulted the wyrm’s heads but whose words are not recorded in dusty books in an arcane language eaten by bookworms. But no explanation rings true or exists. I feel like banging my head against the stone demanding an answer from the inexplicable unblinking eyes and long stony tongues silent as the purple
In the Shadows of the Ogres
There is a village in the Shadows of the Ogres – Orius, Oron, Thoronius – whose march through the mountains clubs in hand wading through stone was put to an end to by some unknown magician countless years ago. Now the time is told by their shadows as they loom across the village as the sun moves from east to south to west then sinks back down again and at night they are shadowier still. There is a village fifty miles away in the shadows an ogress. I tend a small garden, growing rosemary and thyme where one by one the clubs fall but no damage is done to the tender leaves.
A Sword in a Stone
I travel as a breath over a land of dark rock until I see something silver glint, sweep down, and see, to my consternation, it is a sword. It’s a tall sword, nearly as tall as me. It’s impossible to know whether someone plunged it into the stone or the living stone claimed it. The pommel is embroidered with a a pair of intertwined serpents and on the blade are runes in the language of an unknown culture. Tied around the hilt there is a lock of hair – the hair of a dead man.
It’s like an adolescent boy’s dream and it makes me uneasy although I’ve never prayed for peace on a full moon. I know what you do with swords stuck in stones and what happens afterwards. I don’t want to be King or Queen and I don’t want to reduce it to a symbol of my own sovereignty. Whereas others would either try what is begging to be done or simply walk away I circle around it like a mill horse, try to philosophise it away, wonder if I can get away with just writing a poem about it.
“If you don’t pull it from the stone another will – you can’t just leave it lying about for another Arthur.”
I don’t know whose voice that is, most likely Temptation’s, that of a secret part of me that wants a sword.
“Ok, whoever you are,” I know if I don’t do it now I’ll be back and utterly furious with myself if it’s gone. Like all the other chances I got that I failed to take, like all those missed opportunities.
A part of me is laughing at myself for assuming that I might be able to pull it out at all. What a relief that would be – another proof that I’m doomed to fail, might as well stop trying, return to the supermarket. Another part has already guessed it will slide out as easily as if from dark magma.
It’s astonishing light, easy to wield, as if I’d wielded it in another life. When I sit down cross legged with it across my knees and run my hands over the runes I realise each marks a life taken and I weep.
The Soul Watcher
A land of stone. A giant’s sword abandoned. A stony citadel lit by cobwebs of pulsing green light. Inside I find a work station with a gigantic swivel chair in the middle. There are billions and billions of monitors, only a quarter of them working, tracking graphs in countless glowing colours. Frequently one flickers out and occasionally another one flickers on. A machine that reminds me of a fruit machine has either broken or been smashed. The screen is shattered and it gapes black behind. At the work station there are databases with flashing figures and I see the names of various species: Acetobacter aurantius, Acinetobacter baumannii, Actinomyces israelii… Lycaena boldenarum, Lycaena epixanthe, Lycaena rauparaha… Vulpes velox, Vulpes vulpes, Vulpes chama, Homo sapiens… for one the figures are rising and most of the rest are rapidly going down. On a stone plinth is a book with a last scrawled note: ‘steep decline… can’t reboot the machine… the well.’ As I depart I notice the green light is fading and know soon the citadel, the sword, we will be gone.
When I went to visit Heron in Borth last year I stayed in Aberystwyth. On my last day I had the chance to climb Pen Dinas (‘Head of the Citadel’). This is the name of the northern summit of the hill overlooking Aberstwyth which lies between the rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol.
When I made my visit, I went with limited knowledge. I’d read on Wikipedia that there was a Bronze Age burial mound on the southern summit. It was the site of two consecutive Iron Age hill-forts, one of which had been raided. The Romans did not occupy the hill, but a 4thC hoard of coins suggested they used it as a shrine.
I also read that Pen Dinas was associated with Maelawr Gawr (‘the giant’) who had three sons called Cornippyn, Crygyn and Babwa. Like in so many British stories he was presented as an adversary. In this case it isn’t clear what he’d done wrong. The crux of the story is that he was captured in Cyfeiliog and sentenced to death.
Maelawr asked his enemies a final request: to blow on his horn three times. The horn was so loud and forceful that on the first blow his hair and beard fell out, on the second his finger and toenails fell off and on the third the horn blasted apart and crumbled into pieces.
Cornippyn heard the horn whilst he was out hunting with horse and hound. He set off to rescue his father so fast he tore the head off his hound. He spurred his horse on in one leap over the Ystwyth and was slain in his attack on Maelor’s captors. Crygyn and Bwba were murdered in their fortresses in Llanilar and Llanbadarn Fawr the same night.
I was drawn up the hill by the magnetism of the Wellington Monument on the northern summit. It felt like a strong place: like the aura of giant wasn’t quite gone nor the feeling of relative safety offered by occupying a high hill.
Looking toward Penparcau I didn’t spot or hear a headless hound but I did see a pair of ravens.
Clouds marched in on a growing wind. I found myself feeling distant from the harbour beneath, Aberystwyth and the cliff railway, not so much in place but time.
I felt Gwyn’s presence and that of others cloaked in cloud and knew he had been there to gather the dead.
That was unexpected and it wasn’t until several months later I found a possible explanation. In The Triads of the Island of Britain I found the fragments of a story set during the Dark Ages.
One of ‘Three Horses who carried the Three Horse Burdens’ is ‘Dappled the horse of the sons of Gwerthmwl Wledig, who carried Gweir and Gleis and Archenad up the hill of Maelawr in Ceredigion to avenge their father.’
‘The hill of Maelawr’ has been identified as Pen Dinas by Owen Jones. In Cymru, he says ‘in the land of Aber Teifi there was in former times before Brutus came to this island, the giant Maylor, and the place where he lives is still called Castell Maylor, built upon a high hill or ridge which is called Y Dinas, beside the river Ystwyth, within the freehold of the town of Aberystwyth.’
It appears that Gwerthmwl led an attack on Maelawr and was defeated hence his three sons rode up Pen Dinas to avenge him. Pen Dinas was the site of two Dark Age battles as well as a raid in the Iron Age. There is no record of whether Gwerthmwl’s sons succeeded.
Further research turned up that Gwerthmwl was an important (albeit now forgotten) figure in British mythology who originated from northern Britain. In Rhonabwy’s Dream he appears as one of forty-two of Arthur’s counsellors.
In the ‘Three Tribal Thrones’ he is listed as ‘Chief Elder’ in ‘Pen Rhionydd in the North’ alongside ‘Arthur as Chief of Princes’ and ‘Cyndeyrn Garthwys’ (St Kentigern) as ‘Chief of Bishops’.
Pen Rhionydd has been identified with Ptolemy’s Rerigonium ‘very royal place’ and may have been located on the Rhinns. One possible location is Port Patrick, which used to be called Portree (from port righ ‘King’s Port’). Another is Penrith. Wherever Pen Rhionydd was, Gwerthmwl’s three sons travelled a long way to avenge their father’s death.
Gwerthmwl also appears in The Triads as one of ‘Three Bull-Spectres’. Epithets such as Bull Chieftain, Bull Protector and Bull of Battle were commonly assigned to Dark Age warriors to illustrate their strength and battle-prowess.
Gwerthmwl’s status as a Bull-Spectre suggests he was as a bull-epitheted warrior who remained as a ghost. Another interpretation is he became wyllt ‘wild’ or ‘mad’ as a result of his battle with Maelawr (the welsh for Bull Spectre is tharw ellyll).
It is notable that Gwyn, who is addressed as a Bull of Battle by Gwyddno Garanhir, has strong associations with warriors with bull-epithets and gwyllon.
The resting place of Gwerthmwl is listed in ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’:
‘The grave of a chieftain from the North
is in the open land of Gwynasedd,
where the Lliw flows into the Llychwr;
at Celli Friafael is the grave of Gyrthmwl.’
Gwerthmwl’s grave is where the Lliw runs into the Llwchwr near Casllwchwr in Gower. He was buried a long way south of Pen Dinas and a long, long way from Pen Rhionydd in the North.
In the story of Maelawr and Gwerthmwl I come across another example of the destructive conflicts between the people of Wales and the North which Gwyn attended as a psychopomp.
What makes this particular story interesting is that Maelawr is most famously remembered as a giant. This raises the question of whether he was always known as a giant or was a human chieftain who literally grew in status after defending his hill from Gwerthmwl.
Could the story of Maelawr’s capture and death be founded on the vengeance of the sons of Gwerthmwl?
The answer lies buried as the giant’s bones, his fallen beard, fingernails, toenails, the broken pieces of his horn which still blasts clouds over the pillar that marks the location of his citadel.
Mike McCarthy, ‘Rheged: An Early Historic Kingdom near the Solway’ in Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 132 (2002),
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)
Wikipedia ‘Pen Dinas’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pen_Dinas