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)