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.
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:
ygkoet pan tyfwy,
ffrwytheu rwy kymrwy
ar lan gwyllonwy.
Mathonwy’s magic wand,
when it grows in the wood,
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?
*With thanks to Greg Hill for passing on Marged Haycock’s translation of ‘Daronwy’, which is cited here.
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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)
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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)
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