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

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)