The Strange Birth and Death of Lleu Llaw Gyffes

Introduction – Harvest Reflections

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 ‘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.

SOURCES

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)

Blodeuwedd and the Owl Kind

I.
I’m wandering through a bleak windswept landscape in Annwn and screaming down from the skies come two haggard-looking owl-women who almost look like harpies with shabby feathers, bare breasts, and long claws. At first I’m afraid of them, but less so as I examine their faces, old, wise, grey.

They tell me they are ‘the Owl Kind’ – those who have gone into owls. They watch over families and communities until they stop watching for them. They watch over lands until they become unrecognisable. They watch over the dead and those who go between worlds – their owl eyes are always on them.

They can often be found in graveyards. They show me how they watch over the spirit of a child who is afraid to leave her grave where she thinks she is safe and wants to sleep forever because she died believing there is no life after death and the owlets who sit in a row on the fence who sing her songs.

They tell me the owl kind are becoming less and less as they are leaving the places families and communities have left, where they are forgotten, and fewer know how to or want to go into owls anymore.

They tell me owls watch over my land and to listen for them.

II.
Only once have I met Blodeuwedd, the woman conjured from flowers by Math and Gwydion, then transformed into an owl as a punishment for her part in the plot to murder her husband, Lleu. It was during a journey when I was tricked into Caer Gwydion and she helped me escape, picking me up in her claws and taking me to the Forest at the Back of the World where the Owl Kind dwell. At this point I knew they were connected, that Blodeuwedd was one of the Owl Kind, perhaps the most significant.

This has led me to suspect that when Gwydion and Math conjured Blodeuedd from the blossoms of oak, meadowsweet and broom, when they imbued the blossoms with spirit, that the spirit they unwittingly summoned to animate them was hers – flowers on the surface, owlish huntress and killer beneath. (Thus it’s no wonder she was attracted to the Hunter when he rode into her kingdom).

Perhaps in an older variant of the tale Gwydion did not turn Blodeuwedd into an owl as a punishment but recognised her true nature, that he, the trickster, had been tricked. She couldn’t be confined by his spell.

III.
In modern Britain owls are, rightly, revered as symbolic of wisdom. Yet, appearing wide-eyed and innocent and slightly goofy-looking on bags, pencil cases, cushions, earrings etc. the darker side of their nature (which was emphasised for many centuries in British folklore) has been forgotten.

In a chapter titled ‘Night’s Black Agents’ in The Folklore of Birds Edward A. Armstrong notes that ‘Over Europe and Asia, indeed, most of the world, the owl is, and has long been, a bird of witchcraft, death and doom’. He notes examples of sightings of owls – ‘the trees were covered with owls’ ‘there were a scret (screech) owl on his roof, scretting something horrible’ as precedents of death.

Spenser refers to the owl as ‘death’s dreadful messenger’. Webster writes ‘The Scritch Owle and the whistler shrill / Call upon our dame aloud / And bid her quickly don her shroud.’ Armstrong notes connections between ‘ratchet owls’ and the corpse-eating Gabriel Ratchets and Hounds of Annwn.

In ‘The Owl’ Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of the ‘Crazy Owl’ of Gwyn ap Nudd who ‘incites the hounds of night’ and no doubt flies at the head of his hunt heralding the chase of the souls of the dead.

IV.
In The Witch Ronald Hutton suggests our associations between owls and witchcraft derive from the Classical figure of the strix. These large-eyed, hungry-beaked, grey-white feathered birds of ill-omen dwelled on the outskirts of Tartarus, feasted on flesh and blood and snatched away the bodies of the dead. The term striges was also applied to ‘women who practice witchcraft’ and ‘flying women’.

The striges seem closely linked to harpies ‘snatchers’. They are described both as ‘lovely’ and ‘repulsive’. By Virgil as ‘Bird-bodied, girl-faced things… abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable’. Their names are evocative – Aello ‘storm swift’, Ocypete ‘swift wing’, Celaeno ‘the dark’, Podarge ‘fleet-foot’. Seen as the embodiments of the destructive winds they served as ‘the Hounds of Zeus’ snatching away evil-doers to the Erinyes.

VI.
In Dante’s Inferno harpies are depicted in the seventh circle of Hell in the ‘Wood of Suicides’:

No green here, but discoloured leaves and dark,
No tender shoots, but writhen and gnarled and tough,
No fruit, but poison galls on the withered bark…

Wide-winged like birds and lady-faced are these,
With feathered belly broad and claws of steel;
And there they sit and shriek on strange trees.

Dante is horrified when he realises that the trees are the souls of suicides. Their transformation and their fate of being tortured by the harpies, who feast on the boughs, is described by Augustus:

When the wild soul leaps from the body, which
Its own mad violence forces it to quit,
Minos dispatches it down to the seventh ditch.

It falls in the wood; no place is picked for it,
But as chance carries it, there it falls to be,
And where it falls, it sprouts like a corn of wheat,

And grows to a sapling, and thence to a wild tree;
Then the Harpies feed on its leaves, and the sharp bite
Gives agony, and a vent to agony.

VI.
In ‘The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides’ William Blake provides a vivid depiction of the scene. This partly resonates with my personal vision of the Owl Kind in the Forest at the Back of the World, where the souls of the dead shift into trees, plants, and animals.

800px-The_Wood_of_the_Self-Murderers

Only I do not see the role of the Owl Kind, although they are hunters and devourers of the dead, as punitive. Like the Hounds of Annwn they are simply serving their role hunting down the dead and devouring their dead flesh before bearing their souls back to the otherworldy forest where they can heal.

Perhaps they have always been connected with suicides – teaching them to be tree, plant, flower, blossoming until their bloomy faces are the faces of owls and, like Blodeuwedd, they fly free.

SOURCES

Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover Publications, 1958)
Dorothy I. Sayers, Dante, Hell, (Penguin Classics, 2001)
Rachel Bromwich (transl), Dafydd ap Gwilym, Poems, (Gomer Press, 1982)
Ronald Hutton, The Witch, (Yale University Press, 2018)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Blake, William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations, (Dover Publications, 2008)
Harpy’, Wikipedia
Strix’, Wikipedia

Seeking Blodeuedd

Cherry Blossoms Conti April 2019

I.
I seek you
where the petals
of magnolia fall
and cherry blossom
see you fleeing the ideal
of pale flesh

running into the woods
seeing yourself everywhere
dew beads on bluebells.

Doomed to be beautiful
you want to tear off your face.

II.
You want to sink your talons
into Lleu for whom you were made,

who acts like such a mummy’s boy
even though his mother disowned him,
refused to give him a name, weapons, a wife.
You hate this explanation for your being
and sate your hatred on loving Lleu

who did nothing wrong except be a man
in the wrong time and place.

III.
You do not know who Gronw is
until he brings you the stag’s head,
antlers shadowed on your bedroom wall,
until you wake knowing you have

a soul and weep for the first time.

Seeing clearly you choose your fate –
you will kill to have your own way.

Eyes large and wide honeyed beak:
“Tell me how can you be killed?”

IV.
Every Sunday you help to polish
the shaft of the poisoned spear,
try to restrain hysterical laughter
as you round up the goats by the river,
strip him, sponge him in the bath,
help him into that ludicrous position,
one foot on the goat one on the rim,
stark bollock naked shining like the sun.

When the spear strikes the sun falls
from the sky and flies away as an eagle
and you are left in darkness already
a creature of the night – Flower Face,

petals wilting in your marital bed,
flying free embracing your dark truth.

When Gwydion speaks your true name:
Blodeuwedd he does not know what he
called up, bound, and released.

The Trickery of Gwydion

Gwydion's Wand

I. The Trickster

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the trickery of the magician-god, Gwydion son of Don, and the trouble he causes within his own family, the House of Don, and to the people of Annwn.

In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, Gwydion and his brother, Gilfaethwy, plot to rape Goewin, the virgin footholder of his uncle, Math. Math cannot live without his feet being in the lap of a virgin except at times of turmoil. Therefore Gwydion steals the pigs gifted to Pryderi by Arawn, King of Annwn, causing a war between Math, ruler of Gwynedd in North Wales and Pryderi, ruler of twenty-one cantrefs in the South. During the conflict Gwydion helps Gilfaethwy to rape Goewin in Math’s bed. Returning to the battle he then kills Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, who is implicitly also Arawn’s son, ‘because of strength and valour, and magic and enchantment’.

Math punishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy by turning them into animals; deer, boar, and wolves, alternately male and female so that, unable to resist their animal desires, they mate with each other and have offspring. They are named as Bleiddwn, Hyddwn, and Hychddwn Hir, ‘Three sons of wicked Gilfaethwy’.

In spite (or perhaps because of) Math’s punishment Gwydion does not cease to cause trouble. When Math voices his need for a new virgin footholder, Gwydion suggests his sister, Arianrhod. Math tests her virginity by breaking his wand and telling her to step over it. From her drops ‘a large, sturdy, yellow-haired boy’ and ‘a small something’ which Gwydion wraps in silk and hides in a ‘chest at the foot of his bed’.

It is clear Gwydion knows his sister is not a virgin. Arianrhod’s anger with him and the heat of their conflict suggests he played a role in her pregnancy. There exists a variant of the tale in which Arianrhod rather than Goewin is Math’s footholder and is raped by Gilfaethewy with Gwydion’s help. This is shown by the following lines from a poem by Lewys Môn, translated by Gwilym Morus-Baird:

My complaint about a maiden is greater
Than that of Old Math son of Mathonwy;
the arm of a chaste one, white-armed and wise,
was his pillow every night,
Arianrhod the same as the snow,
a man could not live without her.

The ‘small something’ grows up to be a boy as sturdy as an eight-year-old at the age of four. When Gwydion takes him to Caer Arianrhod his mother rejects him as a sign of her ‘shame’. She places three destinies upon him – that he will not get a name, weapons, or a wife, and Gwydion wins each of them through a combination of trickery and magic.

The boy’s name is won when he and Gwydion pose as shoe-makers on a boat conjured from dulse and wrack. Arianrhod names him Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair one with the skilfil hand’ when he shoots a wren whilst she is having a shoe fitted. By conjuring an illusion of an army attacking Caer Arianrhod and asking for arms for he and Lleu to defend it, Gwydion win Lleu’s weapons. With Math’s help, Gwydion conjures a wife, Blodeuedd ‘Flowers’, from the blossoms of oak, broom, and meadow sweet for his nephew.

After Lleu has been fatally wounded by Gronw, his rival for the love of Blodeuedd, Gwydion searches from him across Gwynedd and Powys. Finally Gwydion finds Lleu in an oak tree in eagle form, sings him down with a series of englyns, and changes him back to his own form.

Even though his trickery has caused Lleu a great amount of sorrow (Gwydion turns Blodeuedd into Blodeuwedd ‘Flower Face’, an owl, and she deserts him) he doesn’t stop playing tricks. Lines from Peniarth Manuscript 98.B tell us that Cad Godeu ‘The Battle of the Trees’ was brought about ‘because of a white roebuck and a greyhound pup which came from Annwfn and Amathaon vab Don caught them’. Rachel Bromwich suggests that Gwydion, rather than his brother, Amaethon, originally won the dog and roebuck along with the swine belonging to Pryderi from Annwn.

Unsurprisingly the theft of his sacred animals infuriates Arawn, who leads an army of trees, shrubs, and Annuvian monsters against Gwydion and the House of Don. At the head of his army marches the giant, Brân the Blessed, possibly raised with other dead warriors from the Cauldron of Rebirth. Taliesin, the narrator of the poem ‘The Battle of the Trees’ speaks of how Gwydion fashioned ‘majestic trees / a hundred forces into a host’ ‘by means of language and (materials of) the earth’. Lleu, ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ leads Gwydion’s armies against those of Arawn, ‘the vigorous one, / the wealthy battle-dispenser’. Lines from the Myvyrian Archaeology suggest that Gwydion won by guessing Brân’s name*. Perhaps Gwydion’s singing of two englyns and naming of Brân reversed the magic by which Arawn raised the dead.

The impact of the battle was calamitous. Taliesin speaks of his side fighting with ‘the blood of men up to our thighs’ and claims ‘Four hundred men / did I pierce despite their rapacity’ along with piercing three Annuvian monsters: a hundred-headed beast, a black-forked toad, and a speckled crested snake. He compares it to other cataclysmic events: the Flood, Christ’s Crucifixion, and the Day of Judgement. It is also listed as one of ‘Three Futile Battles’ in The Triads of the Island of Britain.

II. Who can understand gwydd?

My feelings about Gwydion are mixed. I find his assistance in the rape of Goewin/Arianrhod deplorable. His stirring of trouble with Annwn, killing of Pryderi, and bringing about two devastating battles fills me with anger. Yet, unlike Arthur, that other opponent of the Annuvian deities who is little more than a numbskull, Gwydion possesses a number of admirable qualities.

He is the ‘best storyteller in the world’. He is a master magician who conjures shields from toadstools, a ship from dulse and wrack, a wife for Lleu from blossoms, and marching trees from language and earthy materials. With Math, from nine elements, he even created Taliesin, the silver-tongued bard whose spirit still inspires the bardic tradition. He is a caring uncle to Lleu, and shows him deep affection.

Whilst many of Gwydion’s actions, like Arthur’s, are unforgivable, I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of deeper meaning to Gwydion’s transgressions of boundaries. Without his breaking of rules, mating with his sister (then, shifting form and gender, thrice with his brother!), crossing into and stealing from Annwn, the action of the Fourth Branch and ‘The Battle of the Trees’ would not have taken place.

That Gwydion possesses a certain kind of knowledge is suggested by the etymology of his name. It derives from the mysterious little word gwydd. Gwydd is linked to gwybod ‘to know’ and has many meanings including ‘knowledge’, ‘tree(s), branches, twigs; forest, woods, shrub(s)’, ‘weaver of songs’. It forms the root of gwyddon, which can refer to a ‘knowledgeable one’ or ‘sage’ and to a ‘giantess, female monster; hag, witch… wizard, sorcerer… satyr, nymph’. These meanings seem significant in relation to Gwydion’s enchantment of trees and knowledge of wild magic.

It also possible that Gwydion had a role in creating the chess-like game of gwyddbwyll ‘wood sense’. In the Irish myths its equivalent, fidchell, was a gift from Lugh, the cognate of Lleu. So it would make sense that the knowledgeable Gwydion and his skilful-handed nephew created the game. Iolo Morganwg’s citations from ‘The Chair of Ceridwen’ ‘Gwydion ap Don – / A rithwys gorwyddawd y ar plagawd’, ‘Gwydion son of Don – / Formed wood knowledge upon plagawd’ suggest that Gwydion also played a role in creating the Coelbren alphabet. Both gwyddbwyll and Coelbren had magical and prophetic functions and were bound up with wood and mystical knowledge.

The contrast between Gwydion as knowledgeable sage and pyschopath is a troubling one, but not one that is unfamiliar in modern culture (take Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs) or within modern society at large. There are a good number of men (and women) who use their knowledge to evil ends, and to the end retain a certain amount of flair and charm, an allure to their victims.

The psychopathic mind continues to fascinate. We continue to ask ‘who can understand Gwydion?’

III. Gwyddoniaeth

Gwydd is also the root of gwyddoniaeth ‘science’. Other the last few centuries we have seen a shift from the woodland knowledge of gwydd to the mechanistic principles of gwyddoniaeth.

Whereas, in the medieval stories, Gwydion created a woman from flowers by magic, I detect Gwydion’s hand in the genetic engineering of plants and crops and robotic insects to pollinate them.

Whereas, in the medieval stories, Gwydion sang Lleu down from the tree with englyns and turned him back into his own shape and healed his fatal wound by magic, I was shown a vision of him raising Lleu, the lightning god, from the dead, with electric paddles in a Frankenstein-like scene.

If someone was to ask me ‘where is Gwydion now?’ I would say he is at the heart of the mad science that rapes and strives to change nature against its will, but also that he is still trying to look after the little boy, Lleu, one of the appearances of the Divine Son, the Mabon, who may also be humanity.

To where will his madness lead? To devastation again, certainly, like in the battles of the North and South, like the Battle of the Trees, to the forces of Annwn rising up in rebellion, to another world’s end.

*Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield;
Bran art thou called, of the glittering branches.”

“Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle:
The high sprigs of alder are on thy hand:
Bran by the branch thou bearest
Has Amathaon the good prevailed.

*With thanks to Gwilym Morus-Baird for the translation of the poem by Lewys Môn.

SOURCES

Iolo Morganwg, The Barddas, (Weiser, 2004)
Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (Thoth Publications, 2007)
Kristoffer Hughes, The Book of Celtic Magic, (Llewellyn, 2014)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru

Henwen – The Birthing and Devouring Sow

gloucester-old-spot-sow-public-domain

I. Henwen – ‘Old White’

In Triad 26. we find the story of a sow called Henwen ‘Old White’. She belongs to Dallwyr Dalben and is kept in Glyn Dallwyr in Cornwall in the care of Coll, son of Collfrewy, one of three ‘Three Powerful Swineherds.’ She becomes pregnant and it is ‘prophesied that the Island of Britain would be the worse for the womb-burden.’ Therefore Arthur and his warriors set out to destroy her.

When Henwen is ready to farrow she goes into the sea at Penrhyn Awstin and is followed by Coll (and, presumably, Arthur and his men). Landing in Wales she begins to give birth to offspring. Surprisingly, they are not piglets! In Gwent she brings forth a grain of wheat and a bee, giving the name to Wheat Field, and in Pembroke barley, ‘therefore, the barley of Llonion is proverbial.’ In these two instances, in South Wales, Henwen’s births are benign and generative, creating crops and pollinators.

When Henwen reaches North Wales, however, she gives birth to wild creatures. At the Hill of Cyferthwch in Arfon she brings forth a wolf-cub and a young eagle. The wolf is given to Bergaed and the eagle to Breat, princes of the North, and they are both ‘the worse for them.’ We find a contrast between the fertile plains of South Wales and the wilder, more rugged regions of North Wales.

‘At Llanfair in Arfon under the Black Rock’ she gives birth to a kitten who is thrown by Coll into the sea. The sons of Palug foster it in Môn (Anglesey) ‘to their own harm’ and it becomes known as Palug’s Cat. In ‘Arthur and the Porter’ we are told that it was eventually ‘pierced’ by Arthur and his men. However, before they managed to kill it, nine score chieftains fell at dawn and it devoured them. Palug’s Cat was one of Three Great Oppressions of Môn along with Daronwy, and Edwin, King of Lloegr.

II. A Sow’s Feast

It believe that Henwen also makes an appearance in ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion. In this story Gwydion is searching for his nephew, Lleu. Gwydion stays at the house of a peasant in Manor Bennard. He learns his learns his host owns a sow who returns every night to feed her piglets. However, nobody knows where she goes during the day ‘any more than if she sank into the earth’. These lines recall Triad 26. where Henwen sinks into the sea, suggesting her otherworldly nature.

Gwydion follows the trail of the sow to a mighty oak which stands between two lakes and is neither wetted by water nor melted by fire. At its roots the sow is feasting hungrily on rotten flesh and maggots. When Gwydion looks up he sees they are falling from Lleu, who is perching in eagle-form in the top-most boughs, pierced by the spear of his rival, Gronw, the gore dripping from his rancid wound.

In the context of this story it seems significant that Gwydion is led to Lleu by this mysterious sow. Earlier Gwydion stole the seven piglets who were given to Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, by Arawn, King of Annwn (along with Coll and Drystan, Pryderi was one of the ‘Three Powerful Swineherds’).

These piglets were special, ‘some kind of creature that has never been in this island before has arrived in the South’. Gwydion’s theft led to a chase from South to North Wales and several devastating battles between his men and Pryderi’s. Pryderi was finally killed by Gwydion in single combat.

It is my intuition Henwen was the Annuvian mother of the seven piglets. Her devouring of Gwydion’s nephew may represent her taking back from him in exchange for what was stolen from her. The chase South to North and trail of devastation are thematically linked with Henwen’s story.

Another point of note is that Daronwy, ‘The Oak of Goronwy’, is referred to as ‘the radiance of the men of Goronwy’ and therefore associated with Lleu’s rival, Gronw Pebr (pebyr mean ‘radiant’). It could be the oak where Lleu perched after being wounded by Gronw’s spear – a scene based on an older initiatory myth. With Henwen’s clawing child, Palug’s Cat, it is included in the Oppressions of Mon. Thus it makes sense to find Henwen devouring the dying Lleu back into Annwn at its roots.

III. Hwcha Ddu Gwta – ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’

In Welsh folklore we find a mysterious verse about Hwch Ddu Gwta ‘Black Short-Tailed Sow’:

Black short-tailed sow
On every stile
Spinning and weaving
On Calan Gaeaf night

Get home quick, be the first
The Hwch Ddu Gwta gets the last.

She is said to emerge from the ashes of bonfires on Nos Galan Gaeaf and wait at stiles to prey on people walking home late. It is bad luck to be the last to get home as Hwch Ddu Gwta will eat you.

It seems possible the white Henwen, the birthing mother who provided the harvest, is also the black devourer.

There is a similar legend in southern Sweden. Gloso is a ‘glowing sow’ who appears ‘over the twelve days of Christmas’ with ‘eyes of fire, sparks spring from her bristle, and she travels like a burning flame.’ This recalls Hwch Ddu Gwta’s birth from the embers on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

She is also connected with the harvest. Three blades of wheat are left for her in the field. ‘These are for Gloso: one for Christmas night, one for the night of the new year, one for king’s night.’ This makes me wonder whether similar rituals existed to appease the harvest sow in her darker winter apparel.

IV. Ceridwen – The Old Mother

Greg Hill suggests Hwch Ddu Gwta might be connected with the Ladi Wen ‘White Lady’ who also walks abroad on Nos Galan Gaeaf, and with Ceridwen, the goddess of the cauldron. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, also identified the sow with Ceridwen, ‘the White Lady of Death and Inspiration.’

It is my personal belief that Ceridwen is the Old Mother of the Universe, the Great Goddess from whose crochan, ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’, all life is born and to whom it returns at death. This would certainly fit with the Henwen ‘Old White’ as the mother who births harvests and monsters and swallows the dead.

SOURCES

Charles Lecouteux, Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Dead, (Inner Traditions, 2011)
Greg Hill, ‘Traditional Customs for the Calend of Winter’, Dun Brython
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (Faber & Faber, 1999)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

The Epiphany of Lleu Llaw Gyffes

Lleu

I. The Oak

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
he has pierced us
with his spear

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
ooze drips from our
rancid wounds

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
we are filled with
rot and maggots

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me what
visions we must see
in these leaves

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me what
lessons we have
failed to learn

II. Lleu’s Lament

I am filled with bitterness:
black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood,
yet no theory of the humours
or anatomy of melancholy
explains my sad state

and no letting of blood
or application of leeches can
purge the badness within.

So I am here on this tree
telling the story of how I saw
the sun and it was Fool’s Gold.
My wife was made of flowers.
My armour turned to dust.
My fortress was rubble.

I have lost the meaning of my name.

I have come to doubt I even exist,
yet cannot close my eagle eyes.

Like the Eagle of Gwernabwy
I have watched civilisations rise and fall.
Like the Eagles of Pengwern and Eli
I have sunk my beak into flesh
and tasted rot and maggots.

I have seen the rotting corpses
on the battlefield at the end of the world,
the souls sparkling like iron pyrite
in the veins of the night skies.

I have looked into the abyss
and the bright lights do not console me.

I go with reluctance into Gwydion’s arms.

III. Lleu’s Resurrection

He does not want to live,
this putrid sack of dirty feathers,
bones, rotten flesh, stench,

still I clamp my mouth to his,

massage his reluctant heart
slippery and recalcitrant.

When this does not work
I call upon all the electricity
from Maentwrog Power Station,
take the paddles and recite

the words of a forbidden spell
stolen from the depths of Annwn
to bring life to the newly dead.

An ALMIGHTY FLASH –

his body jerks like frog’s legs
or the monster of Frankenstein.

He breaks the leathery bonds,
shakes off his feathers and rises
like the sun from my stony table
leaving a black charred shape.

A haze of smoke surrounds him.

His eyes are burning his hair aflame!

BEHOLD THE RESURRECTION
OF THE LIGHTNING GOD!

IV. Dinas Lleu

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

woodbine twines the walls
as if in search for a lover

an owl circles overhead
with a hoot is gone.

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

thistles break into the hall
to find an empty hearth

the fire long gone out,
a pile of black char.

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

in the ashes I scrawl
with a feather the outline

of a bird against the sun
unknowing if it is the end

or beginning of a myth.

*I wrote this sequence of poems in a single morning shortly after finding out I’d got an infection following my hernia repair operation. Thankfully it seems to have cleared up now.

Daronwy – The Prophetic Oak

Daronwy Long 300

I. The Oaken Warrior

In The Book of Taliesin there is a prophetic poem titled ‘Daronwy’. Taliesin poses the question ‘Py pren a vo mwy; / No get daronwy?’ ‘What tree is greater / Than he, Daronwy?’

Dar is an alternative form of derw ‘oak’. Thus Daronwy is an oak tree. Pren ‘tree’ or ‘wood’ is also a figurative term for a warrior and its fluidity is the key to understanding Daronwy’s nature. In medieval Welsh literature warriors are often referred to as trees and even plants. In The Gododdin the combatants are called ‘trees of battle’ and ‘battle-leeks’. The army of Brân the Blessed is seen as a marching forest in ‘The Second Branch’ and Gwydion enchants trees to do battle against an army of ‘herbage and trees’ led by Brân  in ‘The Battle of the Trees’. Thus Daronwy is both tree and warrior.

In Triad 26 Daronwy is referred to as ‘one of the Three Great Oppressions of Mon’ along with Palug’s Cat and Edwin, king of Lloegr. This suggests he was located on Anglesey and may have been a tree who local people believed had the capacity to come to life and fight on notable occasions.

He perhaps gave his name to the township and stream Dronwy (formerly Daronwy) in North-East Anglesey. Other place-names derived from Daronwy include Daron in Llyn, Darowen near Machynlleth, and Darwen here in Lancashire. They may all once have had their own Daronwy stories.

II. Thundering Prophecies

Additionally, John Williams notes thaty daran is a ‘servile form’ of taran ‘thunder’. Thus ‘dar’ signifies both ‘oak’ and ‘thunder’. The thundering voice of derw ‘oak’ is mentioned in ‘The Battle of the Trees’: Derw buanwr: / racdaw crynei Nef a llawer.’ ‘Oak swift of shout: / Heaven and Earth trembled before him.’ This fits well with the image of Daronwy as a great oaken warrior.

Another word that derives from dar is darogan ‘prophecy’. This is significant because oaks are linked to thunder gods and their prophets across Western Europe. At Dodona the priestesses of Zeus prophesied by the sounds and movements of the leaves and branches of the sacred oaks. There were oaks on the Alban Mount where Jupiter was worshipped and at Praeneste where he was reverenced with his mother (who is elsewhere seen as his daughter) Fortuna whose oracle prophesied with oak rods. Donar’s Oak, sacred to Thor, in Hesse, was sadly cut down by Saint Boniface in the 8th century.

The term ‘Druid’ originates from derw and gwydd ‘knowledge’, suggesting that the Druids gained wisdom and prophetic insights from their relationships with oak trees. In ‘The Battle of the Trees we find the lines: ‘Derwydon, doethur, / daroganwch y Arthur!’ ‘Druids, wise men, / prophesy Arthur!’

Unfortunately there are no direct references to our Gallo-Brythonic thunder god, Taranis, having a sacred oak. However, in his Natural History (77-79), Pliny speaks of the Gaulish Druids sacrificing two white bulls in an oak grove. Bulls were sacred to Zeus and Jupiter and a white bull was sacrificed to the latter during the feriae in the Capitol. Thus it seems likely this sacrifice was to Taranis and that the Druids, like the prophets of Zeus and Jupiter, practiced dendromancy in oak groves. That they communed with Daronwy whose thundering voice was one with the thunder god’s.

III. The Oak Between Two Lakes

Taliesin goes on to say: ‘Yssit rin yssyd uwy – / gwawr gwyr Goronwy; / odit a’e gwypwy.’ ‘There is a secret which is greater – / the radiance of Goronwy’s men; / it is a rare man who knows it.’ Marged Haycock suggests the name Daronwy may mean the ‘oak tree of Goronwy’. The identity of Goronwy is a question of debate. Possible candidates are Goronwy, who hung Roger de Pulesdon during the Anglesey revolt in 1294, and Goronwy ab Ednyfed, who led king Llywelyn ap Grufudd’s troops to triumph against the Marcher Lords in 1263. I suspect Goronwy may be an older mythic figure.

Haycock says it’s possible the name derives from Gronw Befr. An oak is central to the story of the rivalry between Gronw and Lleu Llaw Gyfes in ‘The Fourth Branch’, yet it is far more intimately connected with Lleu than with Gronw. Gronw is the lover of Lleu’s wife, Blodeuedd. Together they plot to kill Lleu, who can only be killed with a spear crafted for a year every Sunday when people are at mass and ‘cannot be killed indoors nor out of doors… on horseback, nor on foot’. Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into enacting the only position in which his death is possible. Lleu stands with one foot on a billy-goat and the other on a bath tub with an arched roof over it and Gronw strikes with the spear.

The wounded Lleu departs in eagle form to an oak ‘between two lakes’ in ‘a valley’ (Llyn Nantlle Uchaf and Llyn Nantlle Isaf in Nantlle). This tree occupies a liminal position and possesses magical qualities: ‘Rain does not wet it, heat no longer melts it.’ Lleu’s wound turns rancid. As flesh and maggots fall from him they are eaten by a great sow. The sow leads Lleu’s uncle, the magician god, Gwydion, to him. Gwydion sings Lleu down from the oak with a trio of englyns and nurses him back to health.

IV. The Lightning Tree

In Lleu’s story we find two liminal images which may have their origin in pre-Christian traditions. The conditions of Lleu’s death distantly echo the story of the infant Zeus being dangled on a rope from a tree so he was was suspended between earth, sea, and water, thus invisible to his child-eating father, Cronus. It is also of interest that Jupiter Dolichenus, a thunder god worshipped throughout the Roman Empire between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, including here in Britain at Vindolanda, was depicted holding a lightning-rod, standing on a bull, and accompanied by an eagle. The strange, parodic, and slightly pathetic image of Lleu on his billy-goat and roofed bath tub may derive from these.

800px-Dolichenusvotive

Lleu’s ascent in eagle-form to the oak following his spear wound contains echoes of Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree,where an eagle sits in the highest branches, to gain the knowledge of the runes. And the fate of Jesus, pierced by a spear on the holy rood – a wondrous and sentient tree. Lleu’s ritual death and rescue by Gwydion, who sings him down from the heights, to the middle, to the bottom of the oak, contains elements of shamanic initiation.

It also seems significant that Lleu’s ability to kill Gronw with a spear results from his initiatory experience. Lleu is cognate with the Irish Lugh who possesses a lightning-like spear. Oak is renowned for being a tree that attracts lightning and mistletoe was believed to be produced by lightning and thus to contain its magical qualities as a gift from the thunder god. For this reason the cutting of mistletoe from an oak, along with the slaughter of the two white bulls, was part of the Druid ritual shared by Pliny. It seems that Lleu won his lightning-spear and, perhaps, also the lightning-like inspiration of prophesy from the thunder god whilst in bird-form in Daronwy’s branches.

Lleu’s associations with the lightning tree suggest it was not connected with his darker rival, Gronw. It seems the identity and stories of Goronwy, who may be referred to by Taliesin in the lines, ‘now no-one visits me but Goronwy from the water-meadows of Edrywy’, have been lost in the mists of time along with the great secret of the radiance of his men. Perhaps this was the lightning-like battle-skills and prophetic inspiration gained by initiates of the mysteries of Daronwy?

IV. The Fruitful Wand

The following lines, which mention Mathonwy, who is referred to in ‘The Fourth Branch’, add strength to the argument that Daronwy is associated with Lleu’s epiphany:

Hutlath Vathonwy,
ygkoet pan tyfwy,
ffrwytheu rwy kymrwy
ar lan gwyllonwy.

Mathonwy’s magic wand,
when it grows in the wood,
promotes fruits/successes
on the bank of the Gwyllonwy.

Mathonwy is the father of Math, who is the uncle of Gwydion. Math uses his own magic wand to punish Gwydion and his brother, Gilfaethwy, for plotting the rape of his footholder. He turns them into boars, deer, and wolves, alternately male and female, who mate with each other and bear offspring.

Lleu is ‘born’ as a ‘small something’ dropped by Arianrhod after the sturdy yellow-haired boy Dylan when she steps over Math’s wand. He is raised by Gwydion who takes the role of foster-father.

The hutlath ‘wand’ or ‘staff’ is essential to Mathonwy and his descendants for the arts of magic and enchantment. As these lines appear in a poem dedicated to Daronwy it seems likely their wands were made of oak and channelled the lightning of the thunder god. Perhaps by this power Math and Gwydion brought Taliesin and Blodeuedd to life, respectively from the seven elements and the blossoms of oak, broom, and meadowsweet, and Gwydion enchanted the trees to battle against Brân’s army.

The image of the wand growing in a wood is a fascinating one that works on many levels. Here it regains its life as a tree, bearing fruit, both literally and metaphorically. Haycock notes that, in the Christian tradition, ‘Aaron’s rod (sometimes equated with the rod of Moses)… put forth buds, blossoms and ripe almonds… this miraculously flowering staff of Scripture was connected typologically with the incarnation of Christ, and its wood with both the Tree of Life and Christ’s Cross.’

V. The River of Madness

The location of the wand ‘on the bank of the Gwyllonwy’ is also significant. This river-name derives from gwyllt, which means ‘mad’, ‘wild’ and ‘spectre’. Throughout the Celtic tradition there are many instances of people becoming gwyllt or geilt in the Irish language. One of the most famous is Sweeney Geilt, who becomes geilt and takes bird-form after being cursed for murdering a psalmist:

His brain convulsed,
his mind split open…
His fingers stiffened,
his feet scuffled and flurried,
his heart was startled,
his senses were mesmerized,
his sight was bent,
the weapons fell from his hands
and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion
like a bird of the air.

It may be suggested that when Myrddin Wyllt becomes gwyllt after murdering his son and daughter at the Battle of Arferderydd he takes the form of a merlin before retreating to the forest of Celyddon. The experience of becoming gwyllt gives Myrddin his powers of poetry and prophecy.

Suffering trauma, becoming gwyllt, taking the form of a bird and taking to the trees are common motifs in Celtic literature. This is exactly what happens to Lleu. It may thus be suggested that the wand/oak is located ‘on the bank of the Gwyllonwy’ because this river represents the stream of gwyllon, of those who have become gwyllt, living and dead, who have received initiations in the trees.

V. Daronwy – The Brythonic World Tree?

The centrality of Daronwy, the prophetic oak, in the epiphany of Lleu suggests he may have been seen as the Brythonic World Tree. The image of the wounded Lleu in eagle-form receiving lightning-like inspiration from the thunder god in his upper branches whilst down beneath the great sow (who may be the goddess Ceridwen, who takes the guise of a black tailless sow on Nos Galan Gaeaf) devours the rotten flesh and wriggling maggots of his former being is a powerful one.

Perhaps it is because Daronwy was associated with initiatory rites and prophetic wisdom along with sacrifices to the thunder god that he was viewed as an oppression. I wonder whether such rituals were viewed as giving power to the oak, who could be invoked as a warrior for strength in battles, who might come to life with a marching forest of oaken warriors to the aid of his people at times of need?

Daronwy Wide

*With thanks to Greg Hill for passing on Marged Haycock’s translation of ‘Daronwy’, which is cited here.

SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Arthur Bernard Cook, ‘Zeus, Jupiter and the Oak’, The Classical Review, Vol.17, No.3, (1903)
Diego Chapinal Heras, ‘Between the Oak and the Doves: Changes in the Sanctuary of Dodona Over the Centuries’, Simple Twists of Faith, (2017)
James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009)
John Williams, Gomer; or a Brief Analysis of the Language and Knowledge of the Ancient Cymry, (Hughes and Butler, 1854)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Marged Haycock (transl), Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray, (Faber & Faber, 2001)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)

Caer Wydion

I go to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion.’
The Dialogue of Taliesin and Ugnach

I.
Beneath
the mountain
there is a fighter jet

emblazoned with the name GWYDION.

On the passenger seat
there is a single
mushroom.

EAT ME it says.

I’m a sucker for a trick.

A one-way flight to Caer Wydion.

II.
I take one bite.

It’s enough –
the plane dismantles
and the bonds of my atoms break.

Whatever is left is hurtled through space
to a fortress in a woodland
where trees bow down
to only one.

III.
In a giant’s crown
Gwydion holds court
with the eagle-headed Lleu

and his three animal children –

Hyddwn, Hwchddwn, Bleiddwn,
fawn, piglet, snarling wolf-cub
polite in their bibs.

Gilfaethwy sits beside him –
brother and bride and groom
with sow’s ears and a snout.

Gwydion wears polished silver antlers
and a wolf-skin coat studded
with stars on the inside.

He throws down his wand.

At the look on my face his courtiers
laugh until their sides split
and their insides

fall out and roll about the floor
like jellies still trembling
with laughter.

Of course I can’t help but step over
the wand of the enchanter
then watch helpless

as my insides fall out –
an hysterical woman clutching
her wandering womb.

IV.
Two men with pencils
in the pockets of their lab coats
and long silky ass’s ears

take me down to the basement

where homunculi with eyes
in their foreheads are singing
eerie prophecies in glass jars:

a dozen miniature Taliesins
with tiny imperfections like
missing ears, fingers, toes.

V.
Along an endless corridor
are countless doors opening
into rooms where hybrid plants
turn toward fluorescent lights
to the pulse of a water pump.

“Gwydion will never create
the perfect wife for Lleu.”

A feather light voice in my ear
then talons grip my shoulders

and bear me back to my home.

Fly Agaric, Coed Felinrhyd

The Stellar Origins of Taliesin

I.

Taliesin 4am

A premature foetus
with eyelids stretched closed
inner eyes pondering
the universe within

born from the cauldron
of Ceridwen
after the disaster
dancing its stillbirth
like a puppet on the wind

something fay
something alien
something that fell from the stars

II.

The story of the (re)birth of Taliesin is well known. A young man called Gwion Bach stole the Awen from the cauldron of Ceridwen, leaving it shattered and the land poisoned. He fled and was pursued by Ceridwen, each shifting through a series of forms. He was finally swallowed as a piece of grain by Ceridwen as a great black hen. Ceridwen gave birth to him as Taliesin.

Throughout the poetry attributed to Taliesin he repeatedly states this identity is only one of his many forms. For example at the beginning of ‘The Battle of the Trees’ he says ‘I was in a multitude of forms / before I was unfettered’ and lists a number of his transformations:

I was a slender mottled sword
made from the hand.
I was a droplet in the air,
I was the stellar radiance of the stars.
I was a word in writing,
I was a book in my prime.
I was the light of a lantern
for a year and a half.

This way Taliesin consistently denies his origins from Ceridwen’s crochan ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’. It is notable he never refers to her as ‘mother’. In ‘The Battle of the Trees’ he states explicitly: ‘It was not from a mother and father / that I was made’ then he tells an alternative story of his creation:

and my creation was created for me
from nine forms of consistency:
from fruit, from fruits,
from God’s fruit in the beginning;
from primroses and flowers,
from the blossom of trees and shrubs,
from earth, from the sod
was I made,
from nettle blossom,
from the ninth wave’s water.
Math created me
before I was completed.
Gwydion fashioned me –
great enchantment wrought by a magic staff;
by Eurwys, by Euron,
by Euron, by Modron;
by five enchanters –
of a kind like godparents
was I reared.

In ‘The Greater Song of the World’ he says he was made by God from ‘seven consistencies’:

of fire and earth,
and water and air,
and mist and flowers,
and the fruitful wind.

In ‘The Story of Taliesin’ he makes a stranger claim: ‘my original country is the region of the summer stars’. We have already seen Taliesin state he has been ‘the stellar radiance of the stars’. How does this sit with his account of his creation and his (re)birth from Ceridwen’s womb?

III.

Marged Haycock notes Taliesin’s words share similarities with apocryphal Middle Age sources describing the creation of ‘the microcosmic Adam’ not only from dust, but ‘from land and sea, earth, the clouds of the firmament, wind, stones, the light of the world’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’.

There are parallels between the creation of Taliesin as microcosm and the world as macrocosm. Intriguingly we now know our world was born from the stars through the process of stellar nucleosynthesis. The Taliesin poems uncannily predict the theses of modern science. All the elements that make up our planet and the life upon it originate from the stars.

After the Big Bang the stars formed as hydrogen and helium were drawn together by gravity and nuclear fusion began. Hydrogen was burnt first, then helium, which produced carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, argon, calcium, titanium, chromium, and iron. The collapse and explosion of stars in supernovae ejected the elements across the universe.

Our solar system was born from a cloud of interstellar gas and dust composed of hydrogen, helium, and elements from supernovae. As gravity caused it to contract nuclear fusion began in the sun and the planets, including the earth, formed. From the elements came life – microorganisms, plants, trees, fish, birds, animals, then humans and all our creations.

Taliesin is indeed correct that he originates from the stars. The story of the creation of Taliesin by ‘five godparents’: Gwydion, Math, Eurys, Euron, and Modron, is also the story of the creation of the world. It may even be suggested these five deities were once seen to have a role as creator gods, perhaps sharing a similarity with the archons of the Gnostic tradition.

IV.
Taliesin seems to have succeeded in denying his motherhood by Ceridwen. In fact denial of Ceridwen’s status as the Great Goddess of the cauldron, the womb of all life, is a consistent theme throughout the poems attributed to Taliesin and medieval Welsh poetry as a whole.

In ‘The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin’ he says:

I entreat my Lord
that (I may) consider inspiration:
what brought forth (that) necessity
before Ceridfen
at the beginning, in the world
which was in need?

Here he is claiming that awen, inspiration, born from Ceridwen’s cauldron is of earlier origin.

In ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ we find tension between conflicting translations of peir as ‘cauldron’ or ‘Sovereign’ (God). ‘Ban pan doeth o peir / ogyrwen awen teir’; ‘Splendid (was it) when there emanated from the Sovereign/cauldron / the ‘ogyrwen’ of triune inspiration’.

Amongst later bards petitioning Ceridwen for awen is only acceptable when disguised as a metaphor and under the ordinance of God. Cuhelyn Fardd asks God for poetic power akin to ‘the dignity of Ceridfen’s song, of varied inspiration’. Prydydd y Moch requests inspiration from God ‘as from Ceridfen’s cauldron’ and asks God for ‘the words of Ceridfen, the director of poetry’.

However, it cannot be denied that when Gwydion and company create Taliesin they are tapping into the creative processes of the womb of the universe and its old mother herself – Ceridwen.

If the stars were born from that first shattering of Ceridwen’s cauldron, the Big Bang, and Taliesin was born from the stars, then Ceridwen is still his mother and this cannot be denied. She will always be his beginning and his ending and he will never escape her no matter how hard he denies her as the origin of his creation and no matter how fast he shifts form and runs.

SOURCESAndrew Zimmerman Jones, ‘Stellar Nucleosynthesis’, Thought.com, (2017)
August Hunt, ‘Dinas Emrys and the Goddess Euron’, Shadows in the Mist (2017)
Greg Hill, ‘Who was Taliesin?’ Awen ac Awenydd
Marged Haycock, Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)


A Grave for Pryderi

In Aber Gwenoli
Lies the grave of Pryderi
The Stanzas of the Graves

He was buried in Maentwrog, above Y Felenrhyd, and his grave is there
The Fourth Branch

In autumn last year I visited Aber Gwenoli in Coed Felinrhyd, the village of Maentrwog, and the Coedydd Maentwrog. These locations are all part of Snowdonia’s Atlantic oak woodland or temperate rain forest and are associated with the death of Pryderi, ‘Care’ or ‘Worry’, the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon.

Dyffryn Maentwrog Med

Pryderi is the only character who appears in all four branches of The Mabinogion. This has led scholars to speculate he may be the central figure. If this is the case he is a hapless kind of ‘hero’. Although he enjoys success in battle, he is constantly in trouble, sometimes on account of forces beyond his control, at others because of his impetuousness and lack of discernment. He is particularly unskilled at dealing with magic and with the uncanny forces of Annwn and this proves fatal.

On the night of his birth Pryderi mysteriously disappears when his mother and her women fall into an enchanted sleep. He reappears just as mysteriously when Teyrnon cuts off the enormous claw of a monster to save his foal. It’s clear he was stolen by the forces of Annwn, but the reason isn’t stated.

After Pwyll dies, Pryderi becomes the ruler of Dyfed and manages to conquer the three cantrefs of Ystrad Tywi and the four cantrefs of Ceredigion, incorporating them into the seven cantrefs of Seisllwch.

He is named as of one of the seven survivors of the terrible battle between the British and Irish in Ireland where the Irish dead are thrown into the Cauldron of Regeneration and reborn. Whether he survived through his skills in battle, sheer luck, or by cowering in a corner is not revealed.

Pryderi falls victim to Annuvian magic again when he pursues a white boar into a fortress and, enraptured by a golden bowl, gets stuck to it. His mother follows and suffers the same fate. With a ‘tumultous noise’ in a ‘blanket of mist’ they are both whisked away in the enchanted fort. It takes all the wit and persuasion of Manawydan to win them back from the otherwordly enchanter, Llwyd Cil Coed.

It is later revealed Pryderi is the owner of a herd of pigs whose ‘flesh is better than beef’. They were were sent to him by Arawn, a King of Annwn. This gift has its basis in Pwyll’s special relationship with Arawn. Pwyll traded places and identities with Arawn, literally becoming the Annuvian King and ruling in Annwn for a year. He won Arawn’s friendship by defeating his rival, Hafgan, and not sleeping with his wife. Pwyll received the title Pwyll Pen Annwn and they began to exchange horses, hunting dogs, hawks, and other treasures between their kingdoms.

It is possible to conjecture that this relationship has a deeper meaning. If Pwyll ‘is’ Pen ‘Head’ of Annwn, his and Arawn’s roles and identities remain fluid and interchangeable. Pryderi is the son of both Pwyll and Arawn, and thus a semi-Annuvian figure. This might explain why the forces of Annwn snatched him away the night of his birth – perhaps to initiate him into the Otherworld and meet his other father*. It is of interest he and his mother, Rhiannon, who is herself a divinity who originates from Annwn, are captured by the enchanted castle whilst Manawydan and Cigfa remain free.

In Triad 26. Pryderi appears as one of ‘Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain’. In Celtic mythology swineherds are often powerful magicians. The triad tells us Pryderi tends seven swine brought by ‘Pwyll Lord of Annwn’ and given to his foster father, Pendaran Dyfed. He keeps them in Glyn Cuch (the place Pwyll met Arawn). He is called a ‘powerful swineherd’ because no-one can ‘deceive or force him’. This portrait of Pryderi is much at odds with his gullibility in The Mabinogion.

The magician-god, Gwydion, nephew of Math, the ruler of Gwynedd, tricks Pryderi into giving him the pigs. He does this by disguising himself and eleven of his men as poets and conjuring twelve stallions with golden saddles and bridles and twelve hounds from toadstools. Pryderi agrees to exchange them for the pigs.

Fly Agaric, Coed Felinrhyd

A day later, when the enchantment wears off and Pryderi finds only toadstools in his stalls and kennels (a scene sadly left to the imagination of the reader), he raises an army and pursues Gwydion north.

Gwydion’s flight with the Annuvian pigs explains the place names Mochnant, Mochdref, and Creuwrion (moch means ‘pig’ and creu means ‘pen’). Gwydion waits for Pryderi to attack in Arfon, ‘the strongest part of Gwynedd’. A ‘great massacre’ takes place. Gwydion’s army retreats to Nant Call and there is, again, ‘immeasurable slaughter’. At Dol Benmaen Pryderi makes peace by giving twenty-four hostages.

The two armies travel together in peace to Y Traeth Mawr. However, at Y Felenrhyd, ‘The Yellow Ford’, a bank of sand across the river Dwyryd, battle breaks out again because the foot soldiers cannot resist shooting each other.

Y Felinrhyd

To prevent further slaughter Pryderi sends a message requesting Gwydion engage him instead in single combat. Gwydion agrees. ‘Because of strength and valour, and magic and enchantment, Gwydion triumphs and Pryderi is killed.’ Pryderi shows courage in taking on the trickster-god. Yet, surprisingly, his prowess in combat is not described. If he is the central character his swift end is a disappointing climax.

After being stolen away to Annwn on two occasions Pryderi returns there for his third and final sojourn.

We are told ‘he was buried in Maentwrog, above Felenrhyd, and his grave is there.’ A possible place of burial might be the village church where there is a marker stone. However, the church is dedicated to Saint Twrog, who reputedly threw the boulder from the Moelwyn mountains and killed a she-devil. In other accounts a giant threw the stone and destroyed a pagan altar. Aside from the line in The Mabinogion there are no folk memories connecting Pryderi with Maentwrog, ‘Twrog’s Stone’.

Maentwrog

An alternative location for Pryderi’s burial place appears in ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen. ‘In Aber Gwenoli / Lies the grave of Pryderi’. Aber Gwenoli is a stream that runs down from Llyn Tecwyn into the river Prysor, which then joins the Dwyryd at Y Felenrhyd. With help from Greg Hill and another friend I managed to locate it just below Ivy Bridge.

Ivy Bridge

Stream near Pryderi's Grave

Afterwards we completed the circular walk of Coed Felinrhyd, taking in the autumnal colours, the multitude of lichens, mosses and liverworts supported by the rainforest climate.

Lichens

Just before we reached the end we found a ‘story telling chair’, placed there as if it was just for us, and took it in turns to read Pryderi’s story from ‘The Fourth Branch’.

Story Telling Chair

After departing I was not sure of the meaning of this visit. I now have an inkling of understanding. If Pryderi is the son of both Pwyll and Arawn and of Rhiannon he is an Annuvian figure who was killed by Gwydion. Gwydion’s theft of Pryderi’s pigs and slaughter of Pryderi are not the only instances of him stirring up trouble with the Otherworld.

Gwydion also stole a dog, lapwing, and roebuck from Annwn, inciting Arawn, ‘the Wealthy Battle Dispenser’ to lead an army against him. This included enchanted plants, trees, monsters, and giants. Arawn (presumably with the Cauldron of Regeneration) even brought Brân the blessed back from the dead!

Gwydion in turn enchanted 34 different trees and shrubs against Arawn. With help from his nephew, Lleu, ‘radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’ and the warrior-bard Taliesin, Gwydion’s men and the battling trees defeated the forces of Annwn.

For some reason I’m being drawn by the deities of Annwn to look at the damage Gwydion’s trickery has caused. Whether my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, is ‘the same’ deity as Arawn, Llwyd ‘Grey’ and Brenin Grey ‘The Grey King’, who all haunt the mist-soaked oak forests of Snowdonia, is not for me to determine. All I know is I feel ‘his’ influence drawing me back to these stories of the British Foretime and to North Wales where land, language, myth, and the misty breath of the gods are one.

Dyffryn Maentwrog II

*For a detailed discussion of joint fatherhood in Celtic mythology see Will Parker’s The Four Branches of the Mabinogi p167 – 170.

SOURCES

Lorna Smithers and Greg Hill, ‘Y Felenrhyd’, Caer Feddwyd, (2017)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Rachel Dixon, ‘Walking in a Welsh rainforest‘, The Guardian, (2015)
Remy Dean, ‘Welsh Folklore: Significance of the Maentwrog Standing Stone’, Folklore Thursday, (2016)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
The magical swineherds of Irish mythology’, Atlantic Religion, (2015)