It would be impossible

this May Eve, at this time of pandemic, not to speak of the second plague in the tale of Lludd and Llefelys. Of the dragon’s scream heard this night which ‘pierced people’s hearts and terrified them so much that men lost their colour and their strength, and women miscarried, and young men and maidens lost their senses, and all animals and trees and the earth and the waters were left barren.’

It would be impossible not to recall how Lludd dug a hole in the centre of the Island of Britain, filled it with mead, laid a sheet of brocaded silk on top. How he called down our screaming red dragon, battling with the white dragon, spiralling, spiralling, spiralling down, through the forms of bulls, wolves, boars, into two little pigs who drank the mead and fell asleep before he wrapped them up in the brocaded silk like two little babies and buried them in a stone chest at Dinas Emrys.

It would be impossible not to think of how the image of the serpentine bodies of the dragons intertwining looks like two strands of DNA and one alone like a single strand of RNA and to be reminded of the structure of a virus with its strand or strands carried within the stone chest of its capsid. Of how, like the dragons, viruses shift through a countless series of mutations before they sleep.

It would be impossible not to call to Lludd, to pray to that he, with his serpent-staff propped in the corner of his laboratory as he bends over a microscope, silver as his silver hand, will help us find a vaccine.

It would be impossible not to ask him to bring an end to our being locked up, like Creiddylad in her father’s house, which for some is a dream and for others a nightmare they fear is never going to end.

It would be impossible not to wonder who unlocked the stony chest and set the dragons free. To desire to find some perpetrator, some key, some rational explanation, some meaning to these events. Vengeance by the angry hordes of monstrous animals locked in stone chests or by the gods. The laws of evolution. Science. A balancing act of the Earth as a result of human excess. But it would be impossible.

*The image is from 14. Balance in the Wildwood Tarot.

Nodens Silver Hand

Silver Hand of Nodens Med

Nodens ‘the Catcher’ was worshipped across Britain in the Romano-British period. This is evidenced by his temple at Lydney, an inscription at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, and two silver statuettes found in Lancashire on Cockerham Moss suggesting the existence of a nearby shrine.

In medieval Welsh literature Nodens appears as Lludd Llaw Eraint. Lludd originates from Nudd ‘Mist’ and ‘Llaw Eraint’ means ‘Silver Hand’. A bronze arm found in Nodens’ temple in Lydney supports this link. His iconography and identifications with Mars and Neptune suggest he was a sovereignty figure associated with hunting, fishing, war, mining, healing, water, weather, and dreams. Many of these skills would have depended on his catching hand, which was lost and replaced in silver. Sadly we have no Brythonic stories explaining how Nodens/Nudd/Lludd got his silver hand.

Therefore we must turn to the Irish myths and the story of Nodens’ cognate Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ in The Battle of Moytura. This opens with the Children of Nemed departing from Ireland to escape the oppression of the Formorians, their exile in Greece, and return to Ireland to reclaim their land as the Fir Bolg at the time ‘the children of Israel were leaving Egypt’ (around 1000BCE*).

The Lebor Gabála Érenn informs us that the Children of Nemed split into three groups – the Fir Bolg, one that went to Britain, and one that went North and became the Tuatha Dé Dannan. It is amongst the Tuatha Dé Dannan, ‘People of the Goddess Danu’, that we find Nuada as High King.

In The Battle of Moytura we are told the Tuatha Dé Dannan returned to Ireland from the North to reclaim their share of the land from the Fir Bolg ‘in a cloud of mist and a magic shower’. Nuada made the demand: ‘They must surrender the half of Ireland, and we shall divide the land between us.’

The Fir Bolg refused and this led to a fearsome battle. Nuada played a central role. He ‘was in centre of the fight’ with ‘his princes’, ‘supporting warriors’ and ‘bodyguard’ and took on Sreng, the Fir Bolg’s champion. Sreng ‘struck nine blows on the shield of the High-King Nuada, and Nuada dealt him nine wounds.’ During this combat Nuada lost his hand, which is described dramatically in vivid detail. ‘Sreng dealt a blow with his sword at Nuada, and, cutting away the rim of his shield, severed his right arm at the shoulder; and the king’s arm with a third of his shield fell to the ground.’

Nuada was carried from the battlefield. This is followed by a striking and grotesque scene: ‘His hand was raised in the king’s stead on the fold of valour, a fold of stones surrounding the king, and on it the blood of Nuada’s hand trickled.’ What to make of this? I’ve heard of severed heads put on stakes and revered due to the belief the soul resides in the head, but not of severed limbs raised on folds of stones. Perhaps this represents a tradition where a ruler or warrior’s strength was believed to reside in his sword arm/hand. For this reason the hand/arm received reverence whilst its mutilated owner was seen as lacking in strength (this would explain Nuada’s later demotion).

Afterwards the Tuatha Dé Dannan gained ascendancy. A truce was called and the Fir Bolg were given three options: to leave Ireland, share the land, or continue fighting. Sreng decided to fight and challenged Nuada to single combat. ‘Nuada faced him bravely and boldly as if he had been whole.“If single combat on fair terms be what you seek, fasten your right hand, as I have lost mine; only so can our combat be fair.” This shows Nuada was seen as unwhole yet still acted bravely and fairly.

Sreng refused. Taking counsel, the Tuatha Dé Dannan decided to offer Sreng ‘his choice of the provinces of Ireland’. ‘A compact of peace, goodwill, and friendship’ was made and Sreng chose Connacht.

Because he was not whole Nuada was forced to step down from his position as High King. He was replaced by the half-Formorian half-Dannan prince Bres. Bres oppressed the Tuatha Dé Dannan: ‘their knives were not greased by him… their breaths did not smell of ale; and they did not see their poets nor their bards… nor did they see their warriors proving their skill at arms before the king.’ Ogma was forced to carry fire-wood and the great father-god, the Dagda, served as a rampart-builder.

During this period a silver hand was made for Nuada through the combined efforts of the physician, Dian Cecht, and the brazier, Credne. It seems both an intimate knowledge of human anatomy and skill at silver-work were required for this process. Successfully crafted, it ‘moved as well as any other hand’. This scene is uncannily reminiscent of modern bionic technologies.

What follows is even more uncanny. Credne’s son, Miach, felt an inexplicable disliking for Nuada’s silver hand. We are told ‘he went to the hand’ (here, frustratingly it is not clear if he is speaking to the severed hand or to the silver hand) ‘and said “joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew”; and he healed it in nine days and nights. The first three days he carried it against his side, and it became covered with skin. The second three days he carried it against his chest. The third three days he would cast white wisps of black bulrushes after they had been blackened in a fire.’

Here we find a complex ritual for the regeneration of a flesh-and-blood hand! Again, this seems to predict modern stem cell research; scientists are still struggling with complex processes of decellurisation and recellurisation in order to grow ‘ghost limbs’. Another example of a regenerating hand from the Welsh myths is the monstrous appendage that snatched Pryderi and Teyrnon’s foal and was chopped off by Teyrnon no doubt to reappear the next Calan Mai for more victims.

Similar miraculous healings took place in The Battle of Moytura. Both the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Dannan dug Wells of Healing. The Fir Bolg’s physicians ‘brought healing herbs with them, and crushed and scattered them on the surface of the water in the well, so that the precious healing waters became thick and green. Their wounded were put into the well, and immediately came out whole.’

The Tuatha Dé Dannan’s well was called Slaine. Dian Cecht and his sons Octriul and Miach chanted spells over it ‘to kindle the warriors who were wounded there so that they were more fiery the next day.’ It not only healed the wounded, but the mortally wounded and brought the dead back to life! ‘They would cast their mortally-wounded men into it as they were struck down; and they were alive when they came out.’ It shares qualities with the Cauldron of Regeneration in the Welsh myths.

Returning to the narrative, Bres was deposed. Nuada, with his flesh-and-blood sword hand, now whole, and thus seen as capable of rulership, was returned to his position of High King, now ruler of Ireland. Bres journeyed to the lands of his Formorian father and raised an army, led by Balor of the Piercing Eye.

As they approached, ‘making a single bridge of ships from the Hebrides to Ireland’, ‘terrifying’, ‘dreadful’, ‘a handsome well-built young warrior wearing a king’s diadem’ arrived at the gates of Nuada’s court. Cue the entry of Lug Lormansclech, ‘the son of Cian son of Dian Cecht and of Ethne Daughter of Balor’. Lug was half Danann and half Formorian. ‘Lormanslech’ means ‘Long-Handed’. It was revealed the youth is Samildanach, ‘many-skilled’. Like Nuada, many of his talents, such as building, smithing, fighting, playing a harp, were dependant on his sword-hand.

Nuada welcomed Lug and, perceiving his superior skill in combat, surrendered his kingship to him on the condition he released the Tuatha Dé Dannan from the oppression of the Formori. In the following battle Nuada was defeated and killed by Balor. Lug avenged Nuada by slaughtering Balor, his grandfather, by shooting a stone into his single eye with a sling and became the High King.

This epic story speaks clearly of Nuada’s bravery in combat, the slicing off of his arm and its raising on a fold of stones, the crafting of his silver hand and the magical regeneration of his flesh-and-blood hand, his loss and regaining of his sovereignty, his special friendship with Lug, and his death.

We might expect to discover a parallel mythos in ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion, which tells the story of the House of Dôn, who are cognate with the Tuatha Dé Dannan. Lleu Llaw Gyfes ‘Skilful Hand’ is a central figure and his story shares similarities with his cognate, Lug**. However, Lludd is not mentioned at all. Math is the sovereign of the House of Dôn and the grandfather of Lleu.

Will Parker suggests a parallel with the battle against the Formorians may be found in the ‘The Battle of the Trees’, from The Book of Taliesin, where the House of Dôn took on the forces of Annwn, the Otherworld. According to Triad 84 this ‘Futile Battle’ was initiated when Amaethon stole a lapwing, a dog, and roebuck from Arawn, King of Annwn. Gwydion enchanted the trees*** and Lleu was the battle-leader, ‘Radiant his name, strong his hand, / brilliantly did he direct a host’.

Amongst the enemy were ‘a great-scaled beast’, a ‘black-forked toad’, and ‘speckled crested snake’. Two englyns**** suggest Brân the Blessed, a gigantic son of Llyr previously associated with moving woodlands, now dead, fought amongst the people of Annwn. Once again, frustratingly, Lludd is conspicuous by his absence. If this was the battle where he lost his hand, his story has been lost.

Lludd appears instead in Lludd and Llefelys. He is introduced as Lludd Llaw Eraint, King of Britain. He already has his silver hand. The narrator presupposes the audience know the back story. We are told Lludd was a son of Beli Mawr, the father of Caswallon, who usurped the throne from Caradog, son of Brân, in ‘The Second Branch’. Assuming Lludd’s mother was Dôn this places him in a medial position between the Houses of Dôn and Beli. His power of mediating forms the heart of the tale.

We learn that, with advice from his brother, Llefelys, King of France, Lludd defeated three plagues, which bore some resemblance to the oppressions of Bres and the Formorians. The first was a people called the Coriniaid who were undefeatable because they could hear everything. The second was the scream of a dragon that blighted the land, causing loss of strength, miscarriages, barrenness, and crop failure. The third was a ‘powerful magician’ of ‘enormous stature’ who carried off Lludd’s provisions.

Lludd defeated them, not in epic battles, but through wit and magic. He banished the Coriniaid with a poison made from insects mixed in water. He calmed the two battling dragons by luring them into a well filled with mead, wrapped them in silk, and buried them in a stone chest. He caught the magician, who used a sleep spell, by standing in a tub of cold water to stay awake, defeated him in combat, then made him his vassal. Lludd then ruled Britain ‘in peace and prosperity’ until his death.

This story is set during the time of the Roman invasions. The Coriniaid (or Caesariad) were the army of Caesar who invaded in 55BCE and were driven from Britain by a wintry storm. Lludd’s dragon screamed because it was battling the dragon ‘of a foreign people’. Lludd’s calming of the dragons possibly represents him making peace between the Britons and Romans many years later. These historicised stories, particularly that of the battling dragons who fight again during the Anglo-Saxon invasion, are likely to have a deeper mythic basis. The magician was a purely otherworld figure.

Lludd mediated between threats from other lands and from the Otherworld and made peace with Llefelys’ aid. Their relationship bears similarities to the special friendship between Nuada and Lug.

In Britain Lludd’s role as a peacemaker rather than as a warrior was emphasised. The focus of his temple was not war but healing dreams. It’s my intuition his associations with healing may stem from his wounding, from the loss of his hand, his status as a wounded king. Silver-handed, he is whole-and-not-whole, and occupies a liminal and dreamlike position between Thisworld and the Otherworld.

It is of interest that Nodens/Nudd/Lludd’s son, Gwyn ap Nudd, is a ruler of Annwn. His role is to contain the fury of the spirits of Annwn to prevent their destruction of Thisworld. Gwyn is also a mediator.

Putting the evidence together we can conclude that Nodens lost his hand in a battle against some form of oppressor, possibly an Annuvian giant with a single eye, during ‘the mythic foretime’. His severed hand was raised on a fold of stone or paraded through the land with reverence and solemnity. Somebody, perhaps Gobbanus the smith-god, with the help of a physician, crafted him a silver arm. During this process he lost and regained his sovereignty. In the face of another threat Lugus arrived at his court and, in the ensuing battle, Nodens was killed and Lugus took his place.

Resurrected as King of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion Nodens/Nudd/Lludd worked with Lugus/Llefelys to bring peace to the island. Both deities were revered by the Roman Britons. After their veneration died their stories lived on and form an important part of the text we know as The Mabinogion.

And this was not Lludd’s only rebirth. In the name of King Lud, the eponymous leader of the Luddites, who struggled against the oppression of the Cotton Lords, we find echoes of Lludd’s name.

Again, as we are faced with oppression from right-wing groups and governments, he is invoked: “No King but Lludd!” As the sovereignty of the gods is affirmed against the corrupt rulers of Thisworld a fitting symbol of this time might be a silver hand; dealing blows, healing, bringing peace.

*Scholars have traced the story of the exile of the Israelites to prophets in 700BCE and suggest it may have happened around 1000BCE, although no archaeological evidence has bd een found to support.
** The attempts of Arianrhod, Lleu’s mother, to prevent him from winning a name, arms and a wife share parallels with Balor trying to stop Lug gaining a name and wife in order to prevent his prophesied death. Lleu’s defeat of his rival in love, Balor, with a spear-blow is similar to Lug killing Balor with a sling-shot or, in some cases, an enchanted spear.
***In The Battle of Moytura, Be Chuille and Dianaan, Lug’s ‘two witches’ said: “We will enchant the trees and the stones and the sods of the earth so that they will be a host under arms against them; and they will scatter in flight terrified and trembling.”
****These englyns are found in the Myvyrian Archaeology:

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.

SOURCES

Edwin Hopper (transl), ‘The Battle of Moytura’, Edwin Hopper
John T. Koch (ed), The Celtic Heroic Age, (Celtic Studies Publications, 2003)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, (Faber & Faber, 1999)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
Cad Godau’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

Nodens and the Serpents of the Deep

Nodens is in an ancient British god of hunting/fishing, water, the weather, healing, and dreams. ‘Nodens’ has been translated as ‘the Catcher’ and ‘Cloud-Maker’, and ‘Deus Nodens’ as ‘God of the Abyss’ and ‘God of the Deep’. The latter links him with Annwfn, ‘the Deep’, the underworld. The nursery rhyme name for the dreamworld, ‘the Land of Nod’, derives from ‘Nodens’.

Nodens is a god of the subliminal realms beneath the everyday world and their hidden processes. This is suggested by the imagery of his Romano-British dream-temple at Lydney. In the centre was a mosaic depicting two blue and white sea-serpents with intertwined necks and striking red flippers. William Bathurst likens them to the icthyosaurus, ‘fish lizard’, of the late Triassic and early Jurassic whose remains have been found across Europe and Asia.

Mosaic from Nodens' temple

The mosaic also depicts numerous fish, possibly salmon, which would fit with salmon fishing on the river Severn, which the temple overlooks, and the legend of the salmon of Llyn Lliw carrying Arthur’s men up the Severn to Gloucester to rescue Mabon.

An inscription on the mosaic reads: ‘D(eo) N(oenti) T(itus) Flavious Senilis, pr(aepositus) rel(oqiatopmo), ex stipibus possuit o [pus cur]ante Victorio inter[pret]e.’ ‘The god Nodens, Titus Flavious Senilis, officer in charge of the supply-depot of the fleet, laid this pavement out of money offerings; the work being in charge of Victorious, interpreter of the Governor’s staff.’ It has been argued Victorio inter[pret]e, ‘Victorious, interpreter’ was an interpreter of dreams.

Another artefact found in Nodens’ temple was a bronze plaque from a priest’s ceremonial headdress. Nodens rides from the deep on a chariot pulled by four water-horses. He wears a crown, carries a sceptre in his right hand, and a sea-serpent is looped around his left arm. Flanking him are two winged wind-spirits and two icthyocentaurs, ‘fish-centaurs’ or ‘centaur tritons’, with heads and chests of men, front hooves of horses, and tails of fish. They carry hammers and anchors. Beneath is another icthyocentaur with a hammer and chisel and a fisherman with a short tail and gills hooking a fish, which could be a salmon.

Plate XIII Bathurst

All of this imagery is suggestive of the deep: rivers, the sea, and the depths of the dreamworld/underworld where prehistory gives birth to myth and the boundaries between species break down.

Pilgrims came to Lydney for dream-healing. They would arrive at the guesthouse, bathe in the baths, then make offerings to Nodens through a funnel in his temple (which suggests he dwelled below in the deep). They would then retire to a long row of cells to enter a sacred (likely drug-induced) sleep during which they would receive a vision from Nodens. The dream-interpreter would listen to the dream then suggest a method of healing based on Nodens’ message.

Offerings included coins and several beautifully crafted bronze hounds. It is likely dogs were present to lick the wounds of the injured to aid in the healing process. They may also have acted as psychopomps guiding the sleepers through the dreamworld. The son of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn ap Nudd, had a red-nosed dog called Dormach with two serpents’ tails.

***

Nodens’ temple was built on an iron ore mine and he was known as ‘Lord of the Mines’. This may explain the hammers and chisels carried by the icthyocentaurs. Mines are associated with the chthonic depths of the underworld and its riches, which are often guarded by serpents.

Intriguingly a man called Silvianus vowed half the worth of a 12g golden ring to Nodens in exchange for withholding health from its thief, Senicianus, until it was ‘returned to the Temple of Nodens’. The ring was dug up in a field in Silchester in 1785 with a new inscription: Seniciane vivas in deo, ‘Senicianus, may you live in God’. What was originally inscribed on it remains unknown. It seems possible it served a ritual function in Nodens’ temple.

Ring of Silvianus - Wikipedia Commons

In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states ‘I have a carved ring, a white horse gold-adorned’. His ring is an important part of his symbology and  might have been a gift from his father. Angelika Rüdiger links its circularity with the ouroboros.

The ouroboros first appears in ‘The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld’ in the ancient Egyptian Funerary text KV62, which focuses on the union of the sun-god Ra with Osiris, god of the underworld. In an illustration two serpents with their tails in their mouths coil around the unified Ra-Osiris. The image represents the beginning and the end of time.

The ouroboros was passed on to the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks who gave it its name. In Greek oura means ‘tail’ and boros ‘eating’, thus ‘tail eater’. The ouroboros appears in most cultures across the world and throughout history.

A pair of sea-serpents are central to Nodens’ temple. He holds a sea-serpent. It seems possible two ouroboros serpents may have been carved on a ring worn by Nodens and passed on to his son, representing their knowledge of the depths of time where beginning and end meet as they bite their tails. Silvianus’ ring may have been a replica of this powerful mythic artefact.

It’s rumoured that Tolkien based his One Ring on the ring from the temple of Nodens and that Nodens, ‘Lord of the Mines’ was a precursor to Sauron, ‘Lord of the Rings’.*

***

In medieval Welsh literature Nodens appears as Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint, ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’. Their linguistic connection is certified by a bronze arm found in the temple of Nodens.

Nobody knows how Lludd lost his arm or how his silver one was made. Parallels might be found with his Irish cognate, Nuada Airgeadlámh, ‘Nuada Silver Arm’, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who lost his arm battling against the Fir Bolg. Because of his physical imperfection Nuada was replaced as king by the tyrant, Bres. After Bres was removed Nuada was restored to sovereignty with a new silver arm made by the healer Dian Cecht.

In the story of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd’s sovereignty is also under threat. Although he is described as ‘a good warrior, and benevolent and bountiful in giving food and drink to all who sought it’ he is unable to defend Britain from three plagues; perhaps this is due to his missing arm.

The first plague is a people called the Coraniaid who cannot be harmed because they can hear all  conversations on the wind. The second is a scream every May eve that causes such terror that men lose their strength, women miscarry, youths go mad, and the land becomes barren. The third is the disappearance of the year’s supply of food and drink from the king’s courts.

This story is set during Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC. The Coraniaid are the Caesariad, ‘Romans’ and the other plagues seem linked to the ill effects of their attacks. Lludd, of course, was not a ‘real’ king at that time but a divine ruler of the underworld who may have been called upon by the Britons for aid against the Romans.

Unable to defeat the plagues himself, Lludd is forced to seek the aid of his brother, Llefelys, ‘king of France’. Llefelys instructs Lludd to poison the Coraniaid with insects crushed into water. He then explains the scream: ‘that is a dragon, and a dragon of another foreign people is fighting it and trying to overthrow it, and because of that your dragon gives out a horrible scream.’

Red and white dragons - from 15th C History of the Kings of Britain - Wikipedia Commons

Lludd’s dragon represents the Britons and the other dragon the Romans. Lludd, again, is connected with two dragons/serpents. Will Parker has likened Lludd’s dragon’s scream to ‘the scream over Annwfn’, a ‘mysterious ritual frenzy’ uttered by a person threatened with losing their claim to inherited land. It may have originated as an invocation of the spirits of Annwfn to bring about madness and barrenness. Likewise Lludd’s dragon screams as its land is lost to the Romans, blighting all who live there. Lludd has lost control of these chthonic forces.

Llefelys teaches Lludd to put an end to the second plague by a complex ritual process. He must measure Britain, length and breadth, and locate its centre. This omphalos, ‘navel’, turns out to be Oxford. It is of interest that the Greek omphalos, Delphi, was formerly known as Pytho and its oracle, the Pythian priestess, spoke with the aid of the whispering python coiled beneath.

Could Oxford have been the location of a dragon (or dragons) who whispered prophecies from the navel of Britain? Dragon Hill lies 50 miles outside Oxford. Its connections with Uther Pendragon and a dragon-slaying by Saint George are suggestive of an older and deeper mythos.

Lludd is instructed to dig a hole at the centre of Britain then place in it a vat of mead with a sheet of brocaded silk over the top. Llefelys says, ‘You will see the dragons fighting in the shape of monstrous animals. But eventually they will rise into the air in the shape of dragons; and finally when they are exhausted after the fierce and frightful fighting, they will fall onto the sheet in the shape of two little pigs, and make the sheet sink down with them, and drag it to the bottom of the vat, and they will drink all the mead, and after that they will fall asleep.’

This scene depicts the return of the escapee dragons to the omphalos of Britain and the deep. It is intriguing that they are not just dragons but are capable of taking many different forms. It is possible to perceive a mythic and perhaps evolutionary development in their shapeshifting from ‘monstrous animals’ beyond description to ‘dragons’ to two seemingly innocent ‘little pigs’.

Finally Llefelys tells Lludd to ‘wrap the sheet around them, and in the strongest place you can find in your kingdom, bury them in a stone chest and hide it in the ground, and as long as they are in that secure place, no plague shall come to the island of Britain from anywhere else.’

Lludd buries the dragons at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The next time they cause trouble is during the reign of Vortigern. Every time he attempts to build a fortress on the hill it falls down. Merlin Emrys reveals to him that the cause is two dragons battling. The red one represents the Welsh and the white one the Anglo-Saxons.

Llefelys informs Lludd that the food and drink are stolen from his court by a magician who uses a sleep spell. He suggests Lludd step in a tub of cold water to keep himself roused. Lludd defeats the magician in combat, all that is lost is restored, and the magician becomes his vassal.

All three plagues are defeated. The chthonic forces of Annwfn are brought back under Lludd’s control. Caesar’s invasion of Britain fails. Lludd and Llefelys depicts the mythic processes beneath this historical period, which the Druids and seers who interacted with the deities of the underworld might have been aware of and perhaps instigated with prayers and invocations.

Lludd reigns ‘until the end of his life’ ‘in peace and prosperity’. One wonders whether Llefelys had a role in creating Lludd’s silver arm…

It seems Lludd’s ‘kingdom’, Annwfn, the deep, is passed on to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, whose role is to contain the spirits of Annwfn to prevent them from bringing about the end of the world.

Does Gwyn’s inheritance include the serpents of the deep: beings who are older than gods, whose ‘battles’ may be less about conflicts between groups of humans than the regenerative processes that shape the earth through the aeons, through the beginnings and endings of each world?

***

*Tolkien advised Sir Mortimer Wheeler on his excavation of Lydney in 1938

SOURCES

Angelika Heike Rüdiger, ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: A First and Frame Deity, Temple 13, (Temple Publications)
Caitlin Matthews and Jane Dagger, ‘Temple of Nodens Incubation’ http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/temple-of-nodens-incubation
Elizabeth A. Grey (transl), The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, (Forgotten Books, 2007)
Greg Hill (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Sylvia Victor Linsteadt, ‘The Return of the Snake’ http://theindigovat.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/the-return-of-snake.html
William Hiley Bathurst, Roman Antiquities at Lydney Park, https://archive.org/details/romanantiquitie00bathgoog
‘The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley’s Celts and Romans’ http://www.deanweb.info/history4.html

Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad: A Story from the Old North

Cherry BlossomCulhwch 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.

MayflowerThis 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.

***

SOURCES

 Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. Culhwch and Olwen (University of Cardiff Press, 1992)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Green, Thomas Concepts of Arthur (Tempus Publishing, 2007)
Gwynn Jones, T. Welsh Folklore and Custom (D. S. Brewer, 1979)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hutton, Ronald The Stations of the Sun (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Parker, Will The Four Branches of the Mabinogi http://www.mabinogi.net/
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
Sikes, Wirt British Goblins (Lightning Source UK, 2011)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Squire, Charles Celtic Myths and Legends (Parragon, 2000)