The Defwy – A Brythonic River of the Dead

In the sixth verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of the answers to riddles which in his day must have been well known. He says they do not know ‘who made the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’.

The meadows of Defwy are clearly in Annwn. Marged Haycock notes it has been suggested Defwy is a river-name from def-/dyf- ‘black’ ‘as in Dyfi’ and may be ‘a river between this world and the next’. Taliesin also sings of this river in a list of fine things in ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’: ‘Fine it is on the banks of the Dyfwy / when the waters flow’.

Rivers dividing Thisworld and the Otherworld, the realms of the living and the dead, are found in many world cultures. In Greek mythology the Styx ‘Hatred’ divides Thisworld and Hades, the dead must cross the Acheron ‘Woe’ to reach their destination, and surrender their memories to the Lethe ‘forgetfulness’ to be reborn. There are another two rivers: Cocytus ‘Lamentation’ and Phlegyton ‘fire’. All originate from Oceanus ‘Ocean’. Each is a deity. Each flows through both worlds: the Styx is a stream in Arcadia, the Acheron and Cocytus flow through Thesprotia, the Lethe through Boetia, and the Phlegethon near to Avernus.

In Norse mythology eleven rivers called Elvigar ‘Ice Waves’ arise from Hvergelmir ‘Boiling Bubbling Spring’ in Niflheim ‘Mist-World’. Amongst them is Gjǫll, which flows past Hel’s Gate and separates the living from the dead. There are forty-two rivers in total. Some flow into the ‘fields of the gods’. Others ‘go among men’ before falling into Hel. Midgard, Thisworld, is encircled by an impassable ocean where Jörmungandr, the world-serpent, lives.

Unfortunately in Brythonic tradition we possess far less lore about the cartography of Annwn. Whether it was simply lost or actively erased by Christian scribes is impossible to know. Much of what we have is obscured by Taliesin’s riddling. In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ he speaks of:

‘the connected river which flows (around the world)
I know its might,
I know how it ebbs,
I know how it flows,
I know how it courses,
I know how it retreats.
I know how many creatures
are under the sea’

It seems the Britons shared with the Greeks and the Norse a concept of a river/ocean encircling the world. To me this speaks of an intuitive knowledge of the oceanic currents of our ‘global conveyor belt’ which flow through the world’s oceans maintaining its ecosystems.

Another riddle suggests we once possessed knowledge of many rivers thisworldly and otherworldy:

‘how many winds, how many waters,
how many waters, how many winds,
how many coursing rivers,
how many rivers they are’

It’s my intuition that, like the Greek and Norse rivers, the rivers of Annwn flow through Thisworld and the Otherworld too. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn, a ruler of Annwn and gatherer of souls, says he is:

‘Hurrying to battles in Tawe and Nedd.

Not the Tawe here in this land
But the one far away in a distant land
Where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore.’

The Tawe is a river in Thisworld that flows through ‘a distant land’ – Annwn – too. It seems likely the Defwy, which might be identified with the Dyfi, appears in both worlds.

Afon_Dyfi_-_geograph.org.uk_-_242012

Afon Dyfi – the Defwy here in this land?

It is notable that Gwyn speaks to Gwyddno of his ‘sorrow’ at seeing ‘battle at Caer Vandwy’, ‘Shields shattered, spears broken / Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair’. Caer Vandwy ‘The Fortress of God’s Peak’ is mentioned in the same verse as ‘the meadows of Defwy’ with the legendary Ych Brych ‘Brindled Ox’.

Gwyn is speaking of a devastating battle between his people ‘the honoured and fair’ (the dead) and Arthur and his men who Taliesin accompanied on their raid on Annwn to plunder its spoils, which included the Brindled Ox and cauldron of Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn).

Even the impervious Taliesin describes this part of the raid of a ‘sad journey’ and says ‘save seven none returned from Caer Vandwy’. Arthur set out with ‘three loads full of Prydwen’ (his ship).

It seems Gwyn is sorrowful because the dead, who should be free of sorrow, were forced to fight and die again and he had again to gather their souls – a task he performs at battles in both worlds.

On a journey to the Defwy with Gwyn I saw people approaching the river, some to kneel and pray, some to cry, some to pour into it great jugs of tears. He told me that the Defwy is the place where the dead discard their sorrowful memories so they can move on to the lands of joy.

He also said the living can come here to do the same, but discarding one’s sorrows is a dangerous process, a form of death, and that they can never be regained because they flow away into the ocean to be reborn in new shapes walking abroad in forms unrecognisable to us.

In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ Taliesin says in Annwn ‘There is one that knows / what sadness is / better than joy’. I believe this is Gwyn, who knows too well the sorrow of the dead who leave their memories at the Defwy in order to travel onward into his joyful realm.

Taliesin is, of course, ‘the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’, the one who continues to evade death, who claims to know all, remember all, yet in spite of this feels little sorrow, little guilt, for the catastrophes that he has witnessed and played a role in.

Knowing neither sorrow nor death will this mysterious glib-tongued entity, who was created by the magician-gods from fruit, blossoms and flowers, earth and water, ever truly know life or joy?

 

The One Who Didn’t Go To The Meadows of Defwy

In the fifth verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) who do not know ‘who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy’. I have been perplexed for several months by these lines, which pose the questions: Where and what are these mysterious meadows? Who didn’t go? What is the significance of not going? Who is his/her maker?

The Meadows of Defwy

Both my research and spirit-journeys suggest the Meadows of Defwy are in Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld. ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ depicts Arthur’s raid on seven otherworldly fortresses and his plundering of its treasures. Arthur’s adversaries are Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’, and his people.

In the fifth verse, the Meadows of Defwy are connected with the Brindled Ox and Caer Vandwy, ‘the Fortress of God’s Peak’. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn (Pen Annwn) speaks of his ‘sorrow’ at witnessing ‘a battle at Caer Vandwy’ where ‘the honoured and fair’ fought Arthur’s raiding party and lost. This resulted in the theft of the Brindled Ox.

The first time I journeyed to the Meadows of Defwy I walked straight into the aftermath of the Arthur’s battle and recorded what I saw in the following verse:

A plain of blood where men once stood.
The lights have gone out in Caer Vandwy.
The clashing sea rolls over shield and spear.
The living dead. The dead dead again.

The Brindled Ox had been stolen, leaving only the deep trails of his struggling hooves as he was hauled aboard Prydwen, Arthur’s ship. His herd were frightened witnesses who had watched from a distance.

The association of the Brindled Ox with the Meadows of Defwy suggests it is a place where the animals of Annwn graze. This is backed up by the folktale Childe Roland, in which Roland found herds of horses, cows, sheep, goats, swine, and a flock of hens in Fairyland/Annwn. Roland beheaded each of their herders before assaulting the Fairy King’s castle.

wild-flowers-1363733002BId

In more recent journeys I have found myself galloping through the Meadows of Defwy as a horse with the horse-herds. The meadows have appeared as a paradisal place of endless grassy plains alive with meadowflowers, bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets.

It shares a kinship with ‘the Plains of Annwn’, which are written about by modern polytheist Nick Ford:

Broad and wide the plains of Annwn,
Sweet and thick, the grass thereon;
Fragrant with a million flowers,
Where graze the herds of Riganton.

Mild the breeze breathes on the pastures,
Blows the grasses that way, this;
As the horse-herds, like the wind, race
Further than the mind can guess.

The Meadows of Defwy are connected with the mare goddess Rigantona/Rhiannon and seem to bear some resemblance to the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology where the souls of the dead go to lead a blessed and happy afterlife.

Marged Haycock suggests Defwy is a river-name deriving from def-/dyf ‘black’ and may have been viewed as a river of the dead. A river Dyfwy is referred to in ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’: ‘Fine it is on the banks of Dyfwy / when the waters flow’. The Elysian Fields are located by the river of Oceanus, which separates this world from the underworld.

This ties together to suggest the Meadows of Defwy are a liminal place where the dead reside happily alongside the animals of Annwn (unless assaulted by thisworldly raiders!).

The One Who Didn’t Go

 It is my belief the phrase ‘the one who didn’t go the Meadows of Defwy’ does not literally mean someone who has not visited the meadows, but refers figuratively to someone who has escaped death.

Who could that be?

After pondering this question for a long while I received an answer from Greg Hill’s new translation of ‘The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach’. When I first read this poem, which opens: ‘Horseman who rides to the fortress, / With white hounds and great horns’ I had a strong feeling the horseman was Gwyn, but was confused by his revelation of his name as Ugnach.

My confusion was laid to rest by Greg’s explanation that the suffix -ach signifies a supernatural character. It’s therefore likely to be another title of Gwyn/Pen Annwn. Greg added in a discussion that when Ugnach identifies himself he uses the word ‘heno’, a variant on ‘name’, but that ‘heno’ also means ‘tonight’. He might be saying ‘he is Ugnach just for tonight’.

The identification of Ugnach with Gwyn/Pen Annwn makes perfect sense in the context of the poem. Ugnach repeatedly extends his invitation to Taliesin to visit his fortress, promising ‘shining mead’, ‘wine flowing freely’, ‘fine gold for your spear-rest’ and a ‘bed’. Taliesin refuses to be lured by his ‘speech honeyed and fair’ and repeatedly states he does not know Ugnach. Whilst acknowledging Ugnach’s feast he insists he cannot stay.

Taliesin is refusing to stay with Ugnach in the lands of the dead; to accept death; to go to the Meadows of Defwy.

Taliesin is the One Who Didn’t Go To The Meadows of Defwy. Characteristically he is riddling about himself!

Who then is his maker?

Taliesin describes his making in ‘the Battle of the Trees’:

It was not from a mother and a father
that I was made,
and my creation was created for me
from nine forms of consistency:
from fruit, from fruits,
from God’s fruit in the beginning;
from primroses and flowers,
from the blossom of trees and shrubs,
from earth, from the sod
was I made,
from nettle blossom,
from the ninth wave’s water.
Math created me
before I was completed.
Gwydion fashioned me –
great enchantment wrought by a magic staff.

It seems this story refers to his making prior to his incarnation as Gwion Bach and rebirth from the womb of Ceridwen as Taliesin. He believes himself to have been created by the magician gods ‘before the world (was made)’ ‘when the extent of the world was (still) small’.

Thus he places himself above the processes of death and rebirth symbolised by the cauldron of Ceridwen which stands at the centre of the feast of Pen Annwn. Refusing to go to the fortress of Ugnach, Taliesin goes instead to ‘the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion’. Caer Gwydion is located in the Milky Way. There he hopes to reside in eternal life with his makers.

Taliesin escapes the fortress from which he helped steal the cauldron, the meadows where he fought ‘the honoured and fair’, the god of many names he refuses to know, but for how long?…

SOURCES

 Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Way of the Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach’, The Way of the Awenydd
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Nick Ford, ‘The Plains of Annwn’, Association of Polytheist Traditions