1. The Sword of Rhydderch

Dyrnwyn (‘White-Hilt), the sword of Rhydderch the Generous: if a well-born man drew it himself, it burst into flame from its hilt to its tip. And everyone who used to ask for it would receive it; but because of this peculiarity everyone used to reject it. And therefore he was called Rhydderch the Generous.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I draw the sword.
It does not burst into flames
when my mongrel hand closes
around the bone-white hilt,
pulls it from its sheath.

It balances uneasily
in my incompetent grip
remembering the death-grip
of kings, its blood-groove
steeped in redness.

My tasteless saliva
dries up as I see blood
pouring from the mouths
of victim after victim,
the fire in their eyes

dimming as the blade
burns brighter and brighter
in the white-knuckled unburnt hands
of Rhydderch the Generous:
defender of the Faith.

I fear it will burn me,
but it remains colder than flesh,
puzzling, inhuman, this thing
drawn from stone forged
by infernal magic.

I wish I had the strength
to break it over my knee
and return the broken halves
to the caves of the underworld
or throw it into the river:

Clutha’s outstretched hand
would souse its flames in the deep,
but its fire has drawn the life from me;
the victims it keeps claiming,
their heads on stakes.

~

Sword of Rhydderch Border

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Rhydderch Hael ‘the Generous’ was the son of Tudwal Tudglyd and a descendant of the Macsen Wledig lineage. He ruled Alt Clut (Strathclyde) from 580 until 614. Rhydderch’s patronage of St Kentigern and epithet ‘defender of the Faith’ show he was Christian. His wife was Gwenddydd*, sister of Myrddin ap Morfran: a warrior of Gwenddolau, ruler of Arfderydd.

Rhydderch was renowned for his generosity and exploits in war. In 547 he was part of a raiding party who burnt Arfon to the ground. With his allies Rhydderch defeated Gwenddolau at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 at a terrible cost: Myrddin killed Rhydderch and Gwenddydd’s only son and daughter. Driven mad by guilt and grief by killing his sister’s children Myrddin fled to the forest of Celyddon where Rhydderch pursued him relentlessly.

Rhydderch fought with other northern rulers: Urien, Gwallog, and Morgan, against the Angles at Ynys Metcaut. His absence from the Battle of Catraeth suggests by 600 he was too old to fight. In 614 he died childless, of old age, and the rulership of Alt Clut went to Nwython ap Gwyddno.

The name of Rhydderch’s sword, Dyrnwyn, ‘White-Hilt’, probably derives from its bone handle. Like many other Celtic long swords it may have been carved with an anthropomorphic figure, perhaps resembling Rhydderch or one of its past owners, with a head for its pommel, a body for its sword-grip, and arms and legs for its crossbars.

Its peculiarity – that it bursts into flame from hilt to tip whenever a well-born man draws it – points to the importance of bloodlines to the Brythonic rulers. Intriguingly the wielder of the sword does not get burnt. Perhaps the condition for wielding the sword was that it set alight without burning the one who drew it and the king was decided by this trial. Prior to Christianity this may have been rooted in proving one’s fitness to the sovereign goddess of the land who, in Alt Clut, was Clutha, goddess of the river Clyde.

Dyrnwyn shares similarities with Arthur’s sword, Caledfwlch, ‘Breach of Battle’, which was engraved with two serpents who spat jets of flame and was so terrifying his adversaries could not look at it. Later known as Excalibur its owner proved himself worthy by drawing it from a stone and it was returned to Morgan, the Lady of the Lake, a goddess of Avalon.

These fiery weapons of Christian warlords may have some basis in the Biblical story of the cherubim placed at the east of Eden with a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. If we wish to look for a pagan origin, perhaps a sword of flame was wielded by the pre-Christian god of summer and fire, Gwythyr ap Greidol, ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ against his rival, Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, a god of winter and ruler of Annwn.

Such weapons may have been forged by the smith-god, Gofannon, who is connected with nearby Govan. Smithing, and particularly the skill needed to make a flaming sword, would have been viewed as magical processes. No doubt there once existed a story about how Dyrnwyn originated and came into the hands of Rhydderch the Generous.

*She is also known as Ganied and Langoureth.

~

SOURCES

Mac Congail, ‘Little Metal Men – Celtic Anthropomorphic Swords’, Balkancelts,
Nennius, History of the Britons, (Book Jungle, 2008)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Gwenddydd: The Dreamer at the End of the World

I have come hither to tell
Of the jurisdiction I have in the North;
Every region’s beauty is known to me.’
The Dialogue of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd

Many people have heard of Merlin and a few of the northern British wildman, Myrddin Wyllt. But what of Gwenddydd, Myrddin’s twin sister, who was also an important prophetic figure from the Old North, whose legacy has been overshadowed by her brother’s?

Gwenddydd and Myrddin lived during the 6th century and their father’s name was Morfryn. From the poems attributed to Myrddin in The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350), we can derive that he was a warrior of Gwenddolau. His deep fondness of his lord suggests the twins grew up at Caer Gwenddolau (Liddel Strength) in Arfderydd (Arthuret).

View from Liddel Strength

Liddel Strength

What kind of upbringing did Gwenddydd have? Gwenddolau was renowned as a ‘Bull-Protector’ and cattle-raiding warlord. Many legends surround him: he owned two birds who ate two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and supper; his gwyddbwyll set played itself; he conjured a mysterious battle-fog; his soul was gathered from the battlefield by Gwyn ap Nudd.

These stories have led scholars such as Nikolai Tolstoy to argue that Gwenddolau was the last of the northern British pagan warlords. Unfortunately this cannot be proven as many of the Christian warlords had magical abilities and, like Gwenddolau, were named as the owners of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, which were in the North’.

Whatever the case, Gwenddolau was a formidable figure. Gwenddydd grew up alongside Myrddin and their four brothers, Morgenau, Cyvrennin, Moryal and Moryen in a male-dominated culture where internecine warfare and cattle-raiding between the kingdoms of the Old North was the norm.

The ethos of the society was ‘heroic’. The warriors who committed the most blood-thirsty deeds in battle and stole the most cattle won immortality in the songs of the Bards. Both pagans and Christians believed that inspiration and prophecy originated from the Awen*; those able to give voice to it (particularly for military purposes) were held in high esteem.

The medieval texts suggest that women played a subordinate role to men as wives and home-keepers. How much this accurately reflects 6th century society and how much the gloss of medieval scribes is open to question. There are suggestions in several texts that Gwenddydd was seen as important, not only due to her upbringing at Caer Gwenddolau, but because of her intelligence and her prophetic abilities.

Gwenddydd eventually married Rhydderch Hael** who ruled Alt Clut from present-day Dumbarton. It is my belief this was a political marriage to cement an alliance between the kingdoms of Arfderydd and Alt Clut. Whether this was arranged by Gwenddolau or initiated by Gwenddydd in accord with her own political aims remains a matter of conjecture.

Dumbarton Rock

Dumbarton Rock

It’s my opinion that Gwenddydd was not just a pawn in the games of the male warlords. In ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd’ from The Red Book of Hergest (1380 – 1410) she speaks of ‘the jurisdiction’ she has ‘in the North. / Every region’s beauty is known to me.’

Gwenddydd was an important co-ruler. Not only did she have ‘jurisdiction’ over Alt Clut and, perhaps, Arfderydd, but the whole of the North. This may have been founded on her prophetic abilities: her capacity to see the unfolding of the fates of all the regions.

The alliance between Arfderydd and Alt Clut lasted for at least as long as it took Gwenddydd and Rhydderch’s son and daughter to grow to fighting age (from around 550 to 573 – a long time in those war-torn days!); it is notable that both Gwenddydd’s son and her daughter became warriors. It then broke down with tragic consequences, leading to the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 (whether Gwenddydd foresaw this battle remains uncertain).

Many reasons have been cited for the Battle of Arfderydd. In The Triads of the Island of Britain (13th C), it is listed as one of three ‘futile battles’ because it was fought over a Lark’s Nest: possibly an allusion to the nearby fortress of Caer Laverock. Another theory is that Rhydderch allied against Gwenddolau with other Christian warlords to bring an end to northern British paganism. Alternatively it may simply have been about land and power.

Rhydderch and his allies, Gwrgi and Peredur, fought against Gwenddolau and his nephew, Dreon ap Nudd. Gwenddolau was killed. Gwenddydd’s son and daughter fought on Rhydderch’s side and were slaughtered by Myrddin. The latter tragedy is referenced in a poem attributed to Myrddin called ‘The Apple Trees’ from The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350):

‘Now Gwenddydd loves me not and does not greet me
– I am hated by Gwasawg, the supporter of Rhydderch –
I have killed her son and her daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?…

Oh Jesus! would that my end had come
Before I was guilty of the death of the son of Gwenddydd.’

These lines show that Gwenddydd was devastated by Myrddin’s slaughter of her children. Understandably, her love of her twin had turned to hatred, and she refused to speak to him. Other poems show that Rhydderch was actively pursuing the killer of his children.

In ‘The Apple Trees’, Myrddin mentions his ‘sweet-apple tree’ has ‘a peculiar power’ which ‘hides it from the lords of Rhydderch’. In ‘The O’s’, which are addressed to a ‘little pig, a happy pig’, he tells it to ‘Burrow in a hidden place in the woodlands / For fear of the hunting-dogs of Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith.’

These poems are attributed to Myrddin during the time he was wyllt (‘wild’ or ‘mad’). Tormented by battle-trauma, guilt, and grief, and haunted by a blinding vision of a martial battalion in the skies***, he wandered the forest of Celyddon ‘for ten and twenty years’ amongst other gwyllon (‘wildmen’ or ‘madman’) speaking poems to the wild creatures. When he emerged, he used the art of prophecy to warn against future bloodshed.

Eventually, Gwenddydd forgave Myrddin. Her reasons for this decision remain mysterious. Did she realise Myrddin’s slaughter of her children resulted from the fatal circumstances of the breakdown of Gwenddolau and Rhydderch’s allegiance and the power-hunger of the northern warlords? Did she sympathise with Myrddin’s suffering? Did she acknowledge his use of prophecy to warn against future wars?

Their reconciliation is evidenced by several texts. In The Life of Merlin (1150) Gwenddydd persuades Rhydderch to send out a messenger with a cither to charm Myrddin back to Rhydderch’s court. When he arrives she kisses him and twines her arms around his neck. However, unable to bear civilised life, Myrddin flees back to the forest, where Gwenddydd builds him a home. After Rhydderch dies, Gwenddydd joins her brother in Celyddon.

We learn ‘She too was at times elevated by the spirit so that she often prophesied to her friends concerning the future of the kingdom.’ Gwenddydd speaks of future conflicts through a blend of cosmic, animal and martial imagery:

‘I see two moons in the air near Winchester and two lions acting with too great ferocity, and one man looking at two and another at the same number, and preparing for battle and standing opposed.  The others rise up and attack the fourth fiercely and savagely but not one of them prevails, for he stands firm and moves his shield and fights back with his weapons and as victor straightway defeats his triple enemy.  Two of them he drives across the frozen regions of the north while he gives to the third the mercy that he asks, so that the stars flee through all portions of the fields…

I see two stars engaging in combat with wild beasts beneath the hill of Urien where the people of Gwent and those of Deira met in the reign of the great Coel.  O with what sweat the men drip and with what blood the ground while wounds are being given to the foreigners!  One star collides with the other and falls into the shadow, hiding its light from the renewed light…’

Finally, Myrddin says, ‘Sister, does the spirit wish you to foretell future things, since he has closed up my mouth and my book? Therefore this task is given to you; rejoice in it, and under my favour devoted to him speak everything’.

In The Story of Myrddin Wyllt (16th C), during the period of his madness, Gwenddydd delivers food and water to her brother’s forest abode. She shares her dreams with Myrddin and he interprets them. Three dreams relate to the unfair distribution of wealth, the fourth concerns an attack by foreigners and in the fifth, in a graveyard, Gwenddydd eerily hears children speaking from their mother’s wombs.

‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd’ takes place when the twins are aged: Myrddin has ‘white hair’. After telling Myrddin of her ‘jurisdiction… in the North’ Gwenddydd asks him a series of questions about who will rule Prydain. The positions of prophet and interpreter are reversed and we can conjecture that the twins habitually swapped roles. With the aid of wyllon mynydd (‘mountain ghosts’) Myrddin  predicts all the rulers of Prydain until:

‘…the time of Cymry suffering
Without help, and failing in their hope–
It is impossible to say who will rule.’

The tone then becomes apocalyptic:

‘When killing becomes the first duty
From sea to sea across all the land–
Say, lady, that the world is at an end…

There will be no portion for priest nor minstrel,
Nor repairing to the altar,
Until the heaven falls to the earth…

Extermination, lady, will be the end…

There will be no more kings!’
Gwenddydd consoles Myrddin:
‘Arise from your rest,
Open the books of Awen without fear.
Hear the discourse of a maid,
Give repose to your dreams.’

It is clear that the twins’ deaths are drawing near. Gwenddydd suggests Myrddin seek communion. Brother and sister finally commend one another to God and ‘the supreme Caer’.

This echoes a story from The Life of St Kentigern (12th C)****. Myrddin predicts his ‘threefold’ death by stoning, being pierced by a stake and drowning and asks for the sacrament from Kentigern. After receiving it he flees to meet his predicted end by being stoned by shepherds and falling onto a stake in the river Tweed.

Nothing is recorded about Gwenddydd’s response to her brother’s death or how she perished. However, from ‘A Fugitive Poem of Myrddin in his Grave’ in The Red Book of Hergest we can infer that Myrddin continues to speak from the afterlife with ‘mountains ghosts’, who ‘come to me / Here in Aber Carav.’ It is thus likely Gwenddydd also possesses the ability to speak her dreams and prophesies with the aid of spirits from her grave: her ‘supreme Caer’.

As our world is threatened by many ends: climate change, mass extinctions, global warfare, what does she dream? Could her story – one of loss, forgiveness and a determination to prophesy against future bloodshed, form a source of inspiration for people seeking alternative narratives to the militant worldviews responsible for her son and daughter’s death, the deaths of millions of others, and our living landscape?

Blog 6. Coille Coire Chuilc

Coile Coire Chulic – one of the last remnants of Celyddon

*Divine inspiration.
**This is depicted in The Life of Merlin (1150), a fictionalised account of Myrddin’s life by Geoffrey of Monmouth based on earlier sources. Myrddin appears as Merlin and Gwenddydd as Ganieda.
***This is recorded in The Life of Merlin and The Life of St Kentigern. I believe Myrddin saw Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn as in The Black Book of Carmarthen, Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death as a gatherer of souls. The spirits who interact with Myrddin and Gwenddydd may be spirits of Annwn.
****Here Myrddin is named Lailoken, which is derived from Llallogan ‘other’.

Glasgow Cathedral and the Stories of Teneu, Kentigern and Lailoken

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One of the last places I visited during my time in Glasgow was the cathedral, which was founded on the site of St Kentigern’s tomb. The first stone was laid in 1136 and the building was consecrated in 1197. During this period, Bishop Jocelin commissioned Jocelyn of Furness to write The Life of St Kentigern (1185) to encourage devotion to the saint.

The story of Kentigern’s birth is a troubling one. His mother, Teneu, was the daughter of Lleuddun, ruler of Gododdin. Teneu was seduced by Owain, ruler of Rheged, in the guise of a woman. Afterward she became pregnant.

When Lleuddun found out, he threw her off Dumpelder (Traplain Law: a hill in Gododdin, which may have been the seat of power prior to Din Eiddyn; Edinburgh). Luckily she survived and washed up in a coracle on the river Forth at Culross. There Kentigern was born.

Teneu is now revered as a saint. A medieval chapel to her once stood on the site of her grave at present-day St Enoch Square. At the ritual to Epona, I was told the well in the cathedral dedicated to Kentigern as Mungo may originally have been to Teneu. This is backed up the nearby street-name Lady Well Street.

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This made me wonder whether Teneu may have been a pre-Christian deity. Owain is often equated with Mabon and his mother is Modron. These names are derived from the pre-Christian deities Maponus ‘the Son’ and Matrona ‘Mother’. In a Welsh romance, Owain courts, acts as a guardian for, and eventually marries ‘The Lady of the Well.’

Combined with her river-journey this suggests Teneu may have been a deity connected with sacred waters. If this is the case, her appalling treatment by both Owain and Lleuddun forms a sad reflection on the transition from a worldview where water-deities were revered and women were treated as equals to patriarchal Christianised society.

Teneu and Kentigern were taken in by Saint Serf, who named the boy Mungo ‘my dear’. Kentigern started preaching when he was twenty-five and built a church where the cathedral now stands. He was then expelled by an anti-Christian movement headed by King Morken, ruler of Strathclyde*.

Kentigern fled to Wales until called back by Strathclyde’s new Christian ruler, Rhydderch Hael, after the Battle of Arfderydd in 573. Rhydderch’s defeat of the pagan ruler, Gwenddolau, formed a precedent for St Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, who were said to have worshipped Woden**. Kentigern then returned to Glasgow.

Whilst praying in the wilderness, Kentigern met Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) who spoke of the source of his ‘madness’: a vision of host of warriors in the sky after the Battle of Arfderydd and being ‘torn out of himself’ by an evil spirit and assigned ‘to the wild things of the woods’.

Afterward, Lailoken followed Kentigern back to Glasgow and took to prophesying from a steep rock above Molendinar Burn (unfortunately covered over in the 1870’s and now beneath Wishart Street) north of the church.

Little heed was paid to his words because they were obscure and unintelligible and he refused to repeat himself. However, some of his ‘apparently idle remarks’ were written down. I wonder whether these lost fragments, passed on orally, could have formed the basis for the prophetic poems attributed to Myrddin in The Black Book of Carmarthen?

Just north of Glasgow Cathedral, Lailoken predicted his ‘three-fold’ death and supposedly begged Kentigern for communion before he met his end.

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Kentigern’s miracles are depicted outside and within the cathedral and on Glasgow’s Coat of Arms: a robin he brought back to life, a hazel tree from which he started a fire, and a bell he brought back from Rome. Most curious is a fish which swallowed a ring, belonging to Rhydderch’s wife, Languoreth. Rhydderch is said to have thrown her ring into water with the purpose of proving she had given it to a lover. By ordering one of his monks to catch the fish, Kentigern saved her from execution.

Perhaps Kentigern’s compassion resulted from knowledge of his mother’s near execution at the hands of his grandfather?

In his old age Kentigern became increasingly debilitated to the point his chin needed to be tied up with a bandage. He is said to have died in the bath on Sunday 13th of January in 614.

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*An alternative king list does not name Morken but Tutagual, Rhydderch Hael’s father as his predecessor to the rulership of Stratchclyde.
**This seems to be an anachronism because the Anglo-Saxons had not arrived in south-west Scotland in the 6th century.

Dumbarton Rock

Consolidating Gwyn ap Nudd’s links with the Strathclyde Britons

In October after the ritual to Epona I stayed overnight with Potia and Red Raven in Glasgow. The next morning, Red Raven kindly took me to visit Dumbarton Rock: Dun Breatann ‘Fortress of the Britons’ to continue my research on Gwyn ap Nudd’s lost connections with the Old North.

Dumbarton Rock stands on the estuary of the river Clyde beside the river Leven, stern, stony, commanding, cloven into two peaks, White Tower Crag and The Beak. Its proximity to an ancient hill fort on Carman Hill and Roman Forts such as Whitemoss guarding the estuary suggest its use as a defensive position from at least the Iron Age and Romano-British periods. Looking up at its vertical cliff face from beneath and climbing its 557 steps provided a distinct impression of how difficult it would have been to attack.

Dunbreatann emerged as the capital of Strathclyde, controlling south-west Scotland after the Romans withdrew from the Antonine Wall, in the 4th century. Later it was known as Alt Clut ‘Clyde Rock’. The first written reference comes from St Patrick from Ireland between 453 and 493AD, reprimanding Coroticus (Ceretic, ruler of Alt Clut) for taking his new Christian converts and selling them as slaves to the Picts.

The majority of its rulers were descendants of Ceretic: notably Dyfnawl Hen, Cinuit, Clinoch, Tutagual then Rhydderch Hael. After Rhydderch’s death in 612, rulership passed to another line stemming from Ceretic: Neithon son of Guipno and his lineage ruled until Dumbarton Rock was taken by the Vikings in 869.

A fragment in The Black Book of Chirk states that following the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd in 547, Elidyr Mwynfawr (first cousin of Tutagual and husband of Eurgain, Maelgwyn’s oldest legitimate daughter) attempted to seize the throne from Maelgwn’s illegitimate son, Rhun. Elidyr was killed at Arfon. This led to Rhydderch Hael, Clydno Eiddin, Nudd Hael and Mordaf Hael burning Arfon in revenge and being pursued north by Rhun’s forces to the river Gweryd.

Elidyr’s journey is recorded in a triad of ‘Horse-Burdens’ where the eponymous water-horse Du y Moroedd (‘The Black One of the Seas’) is said to have carried Elidyr and his party (seven and a half people including a cook hanging onto the crupper- hence the half!) from an unknown Benllech in the north to Benllech on Anglesey. Du is notably the steed ridden by Gwyn ap Nudd in the hunt for Twrch Trwyth (‘King of Boars’).

Rhydderch Hael (‘the Generous’) is the most famous of Strathclyde’s rulers. He was renowned as one of ‘Three Generous Men of Britain’ and owned a sword called Dyrnwyn ‘White Hilt’ which burst into flames when held by a well-born man and was numbered amongst the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.

The extent of Rhydderch’s generosity is hinted at by the third ‘Unrestrained Ravaging’ where Aeddan Fradog (‘the Wily’) came to his court and left no food, drink nor living beast (if Rhydderch was exceedingly generous and Aeddan took everything he must have been greedy and unrestrained indeed: one can sense the shock and disbelief of a contemporaneous audience).

Rhydderch championed Christianity and was the patron of St Kentigern. He came to power in 573, which coincides with the Battle of Arfderydd. Poems attributed to Myrddin Wyllt in The Black Book of Carmarthen suggest Rhydderch played a leading role in the defeat of the pagan ruler, Gwenddolau at Arfderydd and this was a factor in his rise to power.

In The Black Book of Carmarthen Gwyn ap Nudd states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death. Gwyn’s appearance to gather the soul of Gwenddolau and other dead warriors played a role in Myrddin’s madness and flight to Celyddon. The ex-warrior become wild man and prophet was hounded by Rhydderch Hael and supposedly converted to Christianity by St Kentigern.

Rhydderch also played a prominent part fighting against Theodric of Anglo-Saxon Bernicia with his Brythonic allies Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Morcant Bulc. During the campaign, whilst the Anglo-Saxons were successfully blockaded on Lindisfarne, Morcant assassinated Urien; a move which eventually led to the fall of the Old North.

Rhydderch’s successor, Nwython (Neithon) and his family feature prominently in the episode of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad in How Culhwch won Olwen. After Gwyn ‘abducts’ Creiddylad from Gwythyr and takes her to Annwn, Nwython, his sons Cyledyr and Pen, Dyfnarth (Dynfawl?) and his Dyfnarth’s father Gwrgst Ledlwm join Gwythyr in an assault on Gwyn to win her back (four generations of Strathcylde Britons!).

Gwyn defeats Gwythyr and his army and imprisons them. During their imprisonment, Gwyn kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who becomes wyllt (‘wild’ ‘mad’). Arthur then rescues Gwythyr and his men and places a command on Gwyn and Gwythyr to battle for Creiddylad every May Day until Judgement Day.

It is my intuition this story originates from an earlier seasonal myth where a hero (‘the Summer King’) challenged the god of Annwn (‘the Winter King’) for the love of a goddess of fertility and sovereignty who may originally have been revered as a free agent in a sacred marriage.

This episode is only one variant, fixed in 6th C Strathclyde, known because of its incorporation within the narrative of How Culhwch won Olwen (14th C). It is clear Gwyn has lost his status as a god of Annwn and Creiddylad her independence as a fertility goddess. Its fixity may be read to mark the death of a seasonal rite and its transition into story.

No doubt this coincided with the rise of Christianity, which led to Gwyn’s demonisation as the representative and literal embodiment of the ‘demons’ of Annwn and Creiddylad’s demotion to a helpless maiden flung like a ragdoll between two male lovers and finally locked away, powerless, in her father’s house.

The seasonal myth is thus replaced in the 6th century with a story designed for the political purpose of cementing alliances between the Strathclyde Britons, Gwythyr ap Greidol (deified as ‘the Summer King’) and Arthur against a common enemy: the demonised King of Winter and Annwn, Gwyn ap Nudd.

The disturbing sequence of Gwyn’s murder of Nwython and torture of Cyledyr has led me to question whether it has any historical basis. From my research so far there is nothing to suggest Nwython died a sudden or inexplicable death or disappeared during a campaign (often attributed to otherworldly forces).

However this does not mean such stories did not exist. Another explanation is that it was cited by the bards of Christian rulers to highlight the atrocities Gwyn committed against the lineage of Strathclyde to keep paganism at bay. One can only imagine the fear and repulsion of Strathclyde’s people and in particular Nwython’s descendants when it was voiced.

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It seems possible early variants of these stories were told in the fortress on The Beak alongside inaugural poems which would form Y Gododdin and The Black Book of Carmarthen. The existing texts suggest belief in Gwyn as a psychopomp lingered on beside the Christian faith for a long while. As a guide and warrior-protector to some and a cruel, demonic figure to others, he haunted the margins of every recital of battle-tales.

After Dumbarton Rock was taken by the Vikings, the kingdom of Strathclyde re-emerged up-river at Govan and stretched from Glasgow into Penrith in Cumbria. During this transition and, later, when Strathclyde was finally integrated into Scotland in 1034 many Britons went into exile and settled in Wales. In medieval Wales the oral tales about Gwyn ap Nudd and the fall of the Old North were finally penned.

Since then Dumbarton Rock has seen various uses; most notably as a medieval royal castle with its famous Wallace Tower. It is now primarily a tourist attraction within the custodianship of Historic Scotland.

Time passes. History fades into story into myth and even myth is forgotten. Yet the deepest myths are fated to return from the most distant edges of the otherworld like a boomerang.

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Looking out across the Clyde and Leven from the Fortress of the Britons I saw a pair of ravens who have lived forever on that ancient rock flying on the winds from there into poetry to the realm of the gods and back again.

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On that note I’ll thank Red Raven for taking me to Dumbarton Rock and bring this piece to end.

Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

In Jocelyn’s The Life of St Kentigern there is a story about the saint’s recall from Wales to the Old North by Glasgow’s ruler, Rhydderch Hael. Following an angelic vision, Kentigern sets out with 665 disciples and arrives in Hoddom where he is greeted by a multitude of people.

Drawing a cross and invoking the Holy Trinity, Kentigern orders anyone against the word of God to depart. This results in ‘a vast multitude of skeleton-like creatures, horrible in form and aspect’ departing from the assemblage and fleeing from sight.

Reassuring the terrified crowd Kentigern ‘lays bare’ what they believe in. He condemns their idols to the fire and tells them their principal deity ‘Woden’ from whom they claim descent is nothing more than a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is ‘loose in the dust’ whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

As Kentigern preaches faith in Jesus Christ the flat plain of ‘Hodelm’ rises into a hill which remains to this day. The people ‘renounce Satan’ and are washed in the waters of baptism.

This foundation legend explains the association of the site of the church and the graveyard beside the river Annan across from Woodcock Air (the hill) at Hoddom with St Kentigern.

Woodcock Air Hill

The Life of St Kentigern was commissioned by Jocelyn, Bishop of Glasgow, and written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, in the 12th century. As a literary hagiography it was clearly designed to promote the life of Kentigern (who lived in the 6th century) and vilify paganism. As a historical document it should be approached with caution, particularly in light of the anachronism concerning Woden.

Whilst there is archaeological evidence of a Northumbrian monastery based around St Kentigern’s church at Hoddom it was not founded until the 8th century. (This is evidenced by an 8th century letter sent by Alcuin to Wolfhard, Abbott of Hodda Helm). The Anglo-Saxons did not arrive until long after Kentigern died. It seems Jocelyn wove later tales concerning the conversion of Woden’s worshippers into the text.

This leaves us with the question of who the people of Hoddom venerated prior to Kentigern’s arrival. The existence of a local cult is evidenced by a Roman altar stone found in the wall of the church at Hoddom Cross and built into the porch in 1817. Unfortunately when it was found the sides could not be seen and the ‘mouldings of the capital and base’ had been ‘dressed off’. There are no clues who it was dedicated to.

However the surrounding area echoes with pagan memories: the place-names Brydekirk and Lochmaben; an altar to Vitris and a ram’s head at Netherby; the story of Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king, whose soul was gathered by Gwyn ap Nudd after he was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd. Myrddin Wyllt’s flight from Arfderydd in battle-madness to Celyddon.

Intrigued and troubled by the story of Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, wondering whether between the lines and beneath the Hollywood-style Biblical pyrotechnics any ‘truths’ (or at least personal gnoses) about their pagan religion may be intuited from the land, I returned to the area North of the Wall.

Walking from Ecclefechan to Hoddom, the first thing that struck me was the teeming of nature in the Scottish villages and fields. Flocks of spotted starlings on the roofs and telephone wires. Droves of sparrows flitting in and out of the hedgerows. The un-mowed roadsides were alive with flowers and every flower was covered with bees. Slick black slugs wandered through long grasses. I felt an unusual liberty in ‘the right to roam’.

Hoddom CrossMy first stop was at the church at Hoddom Cross. Roofless and derelict due to a fire, ivy climbed its walls and mausoleums. Ferns and wildflowers pushed through the railings to adorn older graves marked by sandstone gravestones. Newer graves with shiny porcelain headstones adorned with freshly wrapped bouquets glimmered in the background.

Something birch-white caught my eye. Going to investigate I found myself blinking in disbelief. In a Christian graveyard a couple of miles from any village I was staring at what to all appearances was a carving of a white dog with a purposively painted red nose. Dormach red-nose! I thought immediately of Gwyn ap Nudd’s famous hound who accompanies him as he guides the dead to the otherworld.

Admittedly it had antler-like twigs for ears and might have been a representation of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. But why carve it white from birch? It looked far more like a dog and a hound of Annwn at that. Too strange a find in a graveyard to be pure coincidence when I was tracing the deity(s) associated with the Roman altar (which I did not see).

River AnnanAfter visiting the ‘new’ church I walked to St Kentigern’s graveyard at Hoddom across the Annan from Woodcock Air. Watched over by a tall fir (or pine?) tree it was blissfully overgrown with ferns, yarrow, willowherb, bee-humming knapweed, decorated by harebells.

St Kentigern's Graveyard

Wandering amongst the gravestones I noticed carved images of skulls and crossbones and remarkable winged souls which a notice recorded as ’18th century folk art’. So here are Kentigern’s skeletons, I thought, unbanished. Symbols of death and our transition to the otherworld living on through years of Christian rule.

From the vantage point on Woodcock Air as I looked down on St Kentigern’s graveyard the sandstone gravestones shifted into brown-clad people. I gained a sense of the slowness of lives decanted by prayer, steady seasonal work in the fields, the slow turning of cart wheels, the satisfaction of self-subsistency and knowing you would die and be buried in your land close to your community.

St Kentigern's Graveyard from Woodcock AirAnd beneath the Northumbrian monastery did I gain a sense of St Kentigern’s church? The scene of conversion? The deity(s) to whom the ‘idols’ were dedicated? The ‘truth’ felt buried deep. Momentarily seeing the raised area where the church stood as a burial mound I thought back to Jocelyn’s words about ‘Woden’ being a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is in the dust whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

Could these words be read obliquitously to refer to a deified ancestor or ancestral deity believed to live on in the brightness of the world beyond this world? Perhaps even to Gwyn who as a psychopomp and leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Woden’s closest Brythonic equivalent?

BrydekirkI also had the opportunity to visit Brydekirk. Intriguingly Ronald Cunliffe Shawe claims Gwenddolau worshipped ‘Woden’ and ‘a fire goddess’. His reference leads to the passage about Woden in The Life of St Kentigern. I can’t find anything mentioning a fire goddess. However Gwenddolau’s worship of such a deity would make perfect sense if Brydekirk is named after Bride or Brigid. Brigid was later venerated as St Brigid and her priestesses tended an eternal flame.

At the church I was told by one of the parishioners it was indeed named after St Brigid of Ireland. I also learnt St Bryde’s Well was a natural spring and was gifted with an indispensable description of its location.

My walk to the well down the Annan then alongside fields was accompanied by a curious herd of cows who followed peeping out through gaps in the hedge. Their strange behaviour led me to recall the story of how St Brigid was raised by a white cow with red ears: another otherworldly animal.

CowsThe area surrounding St Bryde’s Well was hopelessly overgrown with brambles, nettles and Himalayan Balsam. With the guidance of the parishioners I still couldn’t find it. Ready to give up I saw what looked like a pink veil. I first assumed it was a votive offering marking the spring. When I got closer I realised it was a balloon strung with pale gauze. Another extraordinary marker that proved to be no mere coincidence.

Turning round, I noticed a water dispenser and beyond heard running water. Seeing a rivulet at the bottom of a steep bank running into the Annan, I followed its course to find a small stream leading to the natural spring pouring from amongst mosses and ferns into an orangey circular basin: St Bryde’s Well.

Across the river I also visited the remains of St Bryde’s tower. All I found was a single flight of steps climbing upward into the fire of the sun. Could this has have been a stairway walked by Brigid’s priestesses who maintained her eternal flame?

St Bryde's TowerI returned to Penwortham with no clear answers about how or whether St Kentigern converted the people of Hoddom or what they experienced and believed. Such ‘truths’ can only be conjectural and are always determined by our questions, assumptions and  beliefs.

What I gained was a deeper understanding of how our physical and literary landscapes interweave. How sign and signified lead the dance of a journey which is led by the gods who lead us to places where all distinctions break down in the numinosity of their presence.

At Hoddom and Brydekirk I met a myriad inhabitants of a northern land and I met Gwyn and Bride (who I know here in Lancashire as Brigantia) in new ways. I learnt that within the land and its stories and even in the most depredatory of Christian texts the fire of the gods endures.

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
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)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)