Culhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.
Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.
This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because I am based in Lancashire it also of great interest that it originates from the Old North. In this article I summarise the story and introduce its themes and background with the aim of bringing Gwyn’s neglected connections with the north to the fore. In conclusion I discuss its contemporary relevance.
The story begins by stating that Creiddylad ‘went off’ with Gwythyr. Creiddylad is the daughter of Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’ a mythic king of Britain. Earlier in the main narrative we are told she is ‘the most majestic maiden there ever was in the Three Islands of Britain and her Adjacent Three Islands.’ This shows she is deeply connected with the sovereignty of the land. Whilst attempts to trace the etymology of her name have been made such as ‘Craidd’ ‘heart’ and ‘dylan’ ‘water’ no agreement has been reached.
Gwythyr and his father, Greidol, are named in the genealogies of the Men of the North. Greidol is ‘the son of Enfael the son of Deigyr the son of Dyfnwal (Dyfnarth) the son of Ednyfed the son of Maxen (Macsen Guledig)’. Greidol’s name means ‘hot, passionate, fierce’. He was a knight in Arthur’s court and appears in the triads as one of the great architects and enemy-subduers of Britain.
Robert Graves interprets Gwythyr ap Greidol as ‘Victor son of Scorcher’. Gwythyr is the father of Arthur’s wife, Gwenhyfawr. His horse appears alongside Arthur’s in The Songs of the Horses ‘boldly bestowing pain’. In Culhwch and Olwen he wins the friendship of a colony of ants who bring nine hestors of flax seed, one of the items Culhwch must attain. Gwythyr’s resting place is included in The Stanzas of the Graves. These references show the longevity of his connection with Arthur and that he was a significant hero in his own right.
Unfortunately I have not found any references to where Greidol or Gwythyr lived. As other Men of the North in his family such as Nwython ruled in the Strathclyde area, south-west Scotland may be a possibility.
Creiddylad’s status as a maiden and the statement about her going off with Gwythyr suggest he may be her first love. Next we are told ‘before he could sleep with her Gwyn ap Nudd came and took her by force.’ It is likely Gwythyr is waiting to marry Creiddylad before they sleep together. Before they can wed Gwyn takes her away.
In Culhwch and Olwen Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ is introduced as a ruler of Annwn (the Brythonic underworld) who contains the fury of its spirits and prevents their destruction of this-world. This may relate to earlier beliefs about Gwyn’s status as a god of the dead connected with chthonic spirits. Will Parker cites examples of offerings in ritual shafts and pits to propitiate such deities in the Bronze to Romano-British periods.
In The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir Gwyn appears as a gatherer of the battle dead. After offering Gwyddno protection he states his presence at the deaths of a number of warriors; Gwenddolau, a northern British king who perished at the Battle of Arfderydd (north of Carlisle) and Bran who died alongside him, Gwallog ap Llenog ruler of Elmet (Yorkshire), Llachau Arthur’s son and Meurig ap Careian. This provides further confirmation of Gwyn’s role as a god who facilitates the transition from life to death.
In later literature Annwn becomes Fairyland and Gwyn its King. Although Gwyn’s status is reduced from god to fairy (and likewise his people) he remains feared and respected. Our rich heritage of Brythonic fairy lore demonstrates a continuity of relations between the worlds and interactions with spirits. In most of these tales uncanny themes such as glamoury, enchantment, changeling children and abduction take the fore. Fairies are often connected with wild and liminal places. Divisions between the fay and the dead remain blurred.
Gwyn’s abduction of Creiddylad may have its basis in prevalent superstitions. Professor Ronald Hutton notes that Early Welsh literature testifies ‘to the attribution of an especially arcane quality to May Day (‘Calan Mai’) and its eve.’ This was a liminal time when winter gave way to summer and was connected with love, fertility and woodland trysts. It was also a time dangerous spirits were abroad. Marriage was not advised in case one should mistakenly take a fairy lover.
When Gwyn takes Creiddylad by force I assume he abducts her to Annwn and claims her maidenhood. Frustratingly we gain no insight from the text into what Creiddylad thinks or feels. As a ‘maiden’ I imagine she must be terrified when he takes her and they descend. What he says to her and whether their sex is consensual remains uncertain.
Later Gwyn and Creiddylad become lovers. This is shown in The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir where Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn ap Nudd / The lover of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd’. If scholars are correct in identifying Nudd (the Romano-British god Nodens) and Lludd, Gwyn and Creiddylad are brother and sister. Whilst this would make their relationship incestuous in human terms, in many myths gods and goddesses consider it superior to sleep with members of their blood-line.
The 14th century manuscript Speculum Christiani reads ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home’. Gwyn’s love of Creiddylad is central. Whilst he may not always be moved directly by human pleas he can be compelled to answer for love of his partner. This shows Gwyn holds Creiddylad in reverence and esteem. In later stories where Gwyn appears as the King of Fairy he is often accompanied by his Queen who is a respected equal.
Creiddylad’s transition from maiden to Queen of Annwn may be read as a story of coming to maturity. It might also reflect an ‘initiatory’ process whereby her relationship with Gwyn introduces her not only to sexuality but wild nature and the hidden wisdom of the underworld.
In relation to Gwyn and Creiddylad being ‘far in the forest’ it is interesting to note a tradition amongst the Strathclyde Britons of locating Annwn in the forests of the north. The 6th century Byzantine writer Procopius claims the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall were populated with snakes, serpents and other wild creatures. Those who cross the wall die straight away and this area is the destination of the souls of the dead. This fits with Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and dwelling with Creiddylad in a forest abode. A feasible location is Celyddon (the Caledonian forest).
Gwythyr gathers a host and goes to fight against Gwyn. I imagine they ride into the wild depths of Celyddon and thereby enter Annwn to seek out the lovers. Their attack on Gwyn relates to a long tradition of stories depicting raids on the underworld by the armies of this-world.
In this case Gwyn triumphs and captures Gwythyr and a number of his noblemen. The majority are Men of the North and close relations of Gwythyr’s. Gwrgwst Ledlwm is the son of Dynfnarth. Cyledyr and his father, Nwython are also descended, through Guipno, from Dyfnarth. Pen son of Nethog is a corruption of Nwython. Hence Pen is Nwython’s son. If the genealogies are correct, Gwyn captures four generations of northern men (!). The only persons not of northern descent are Graid son of Eri and Glinneu son of Taran.
Gwyn’s slaughter of Nwython, cutting out his heart and feeding it to Cyledyr casts him as a cruel and sinister deity. This is hinted at in the lines about him containing the fury of Annwn’s spirits. However, there is no historical record of Nwython meeting his end this way. Tim Clarkson says that Neithon ap Guipno ‘died peacefully in his bed’. How much of this episode is a result of Gwyn’s demonization by adherents of Christianity and how much reflects his true nature is open to debate.
That Cyledyr becomes ‘Wyllt’ may relate to superstitions connecting Gwyn and his spirits with wildness and madness. Following the Battle of Arfderydd (where Gwyn states his presence at the death of Gwenddolau) Lailoken (Myrddin) sees an unendurable brightness and host of warriors in the sky. Afterward he becomes ‘Wyllt’ living amongst ‘gwyllon’ in Celyddon. The gwyllon hold a similar status to the spirits of Annwn as ancestral presences immanent in wild places. It seems significant they are connected with the forests of the north.
Afterward Arthur ‘comes north’ summons Gwyn to him and releases Gwythyr and his other noblemen from captivity. The source of Arthur’s power over Gwyn is not mentioned nor is it obvious he brings an army. Sense suggests he cannot take on Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn alone, particularly considering that in The Spoils of Annwn only seven return of each three hundred who set sail for the underworld.
Arthur makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by consigning them to battle every May Day for Creiddylad’s hand. An additional condition, which seems rather unfair, is that neither can take her until Judgement Day. Until then she must remain in her father’s house. Creiddylad is presented not only as a puppet tossed between two lovers but at the beck and call of Arthur. It is not explained how Arthur puts this command on Gwyn, Gwythyr or Creiddylad.
It is my intuition Arthur’s intercession is a later addition to an earlier myth inserted for the purpose of integrating it into the narrative of Culhwch and Olwen. Like ‘God’ (who is said to have put the fury of the spirits of Annwn in Gwyn!) Arthur is introduced as a deus ex machina. His agency explains and makes palatable to a Christian audience the rivalry between an underworld god and human (or perhaps semi-divine) hero for the favour of a fertility goddess. Arthur shutting Creiddylad in her father’s house could represent a Christian ban on woodland liaisons.
This story may originate from an earlier seasonal myth where Gwyn and Gwythyr are the forces of winter and summer battling over Creiddylad who embodies new life and spring. In this case their struggle is eternal. On May Day, Gwythyr the Summer King and a hero of this-world triumphs over Gwyn the Winter King and ruler of the underworld.
That such a tradition existed is suggested by ritual combats enacted in Wales in the nineteenth century by representatives of summer and winter. After summer won celebratory dancing was held around a May-pole. Pairs or groups would often fight over the May-pole. Whilst May-pole dancing is still a strong tradition across northern Britain, I haven’t found any battles between summer and winter yet.
If Gwythyr wins Creiddylad’s hand on Calan Mai (May Day) it would make sense that Gwyn takes her back to Annwn on Nos Galan Gaeaf or Calan Gaeaf (the eve or first of November) another time associated with dangerous spirits. If this is the case I know of no stories or traditions based around it.
I find it important to remember this story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad is only one medieval variant set in the Old North. Doubtless it underwent countless re-tellings in other times and places before it was written down and stuck. For me it is imperative to gain a personal understanding of it through lived relationships with its deities on the land where I live in the here and now.
So far I have reached the insights that the forgetting of this story in northern Britain is also the story of our forgetting of our relationship with the passing seasons, the deities associated with them and the sovereignty of the land. Another lesson it discloses is that human ownership of the land is transitory. There is a balance the forces of the wild and the underworld maintain.
In modern times the majority of people walk only within the Arthurian courts of this-world, paying respect to celebrities, pop culture and football heroes. In this era Gwythyr rules. He and the people of the north have forgotten about Creiddylad’s marriage to Gwyn in the wild forests of Annwn.
However, after centuries of forgetting Gwyn is appearing again within our folklore and as a god to his devotees. We’re remembering the seasons. We’re remembering Annwn, wild places, spirits and the dead. And first-most in Gwyn’s eyes we’re remembering Creiddylad and to treat her with reverence and respect.
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