13. The Mantle of Arthur

The mantle of Arthur in Cornwall: whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everyone.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

We know of the atrocities
he committed when he was visible:
the headless giants, witches with cloven heads,
slaughtered dog-heads and wolves stripped of their furs.

We have seen the desolate battlefields in thisworld and Annwn.

What then of the invisible deeds behind his rise to power?

Some say Arthur walks invisibly amongst us still,
seeing everyone without being seen,
his hand guiding Empire.

Sweeping from his mantle the blade of Caledfwlch falls.

~

The Mantle of Arthur

~

Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and Eigr and was a legendary warlord who fought against the giants and witches of ancient Britain and carried out an infamous raid on Annwn. He also led twelve battles against the Anglo-Saxons and died at Camlan in 537. It’s odd to find Arthur’s mantle, here associated with Arthur’s court in Cornwall, in this list of northern treasures.

We find a detailed description of Arthur’s mantle, Gwen ‘White’ or ‘Blessed’, in Rhonabwy’s Dream. It is made of ‘damasced, brocaded silk’ and has ‘a reddish gold apple at each of its corners’. We are told of its attributes: ‘the person wrapped in it could see everyone yet no one could see him. And no colour would ever last on it except its own colour.’

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur’s mantle, along with his ship, sword, spear, shield, and dagger are listed as the only gifts that he refuses to give to Culhwch.

In ‘The Second Branch’ Caswallon, son of Beli Mawr, puts on a magic mantle in order to murder Caradog, son of Brân the Blessed, and six of his men, thus usurping the rulership of Britain. We are told ‘no one could see him killing the men – they could only see his sword.’ It may be suggested this is the same mantle and was associated with sovereignty.

As far as I am aware there are no stories about Arthur using his mantle to make himself invisible and carrying out any kind of deeds or misdeeds whilst under its protection.

Rich mantles, cloaks, and coats make frequent appearances in medieval Welsh mythology.  There is story about Arthur attempting to take Padarn’s Coat and I can’t help wondering whether these treasures are connected or the same. Culhwch wears a ‘purple, four-cornered cloak about him, with a ruby-gold ball at each corner. Each ball was worth a hundred cows.’

It seems possible that, like Padarn’s Coat, Arthur’s mantle and Culhwch’s cloak were dyed with Tyrian Purple and thus symbolic of the wealth and prestige of the Romano-British elites. Although the name of Arthur’s cloak, Gwen, suggests it may be white, I think this alludes to its blessed/magical nature. Without laundrettes and whiteners it would have been impractical to keep a garment white particularly for a warlord regularly up to his elbows in blood. One of the qualities of Tyrian Purple was its ‘resistance to weather and light’. For Arthur it would have been a blessing that his mantle kept its own colour and the countless blood stains didn’t show.

~

SOURCES

Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tyrian Purple, Wikipedia

8. The Whetstone of Tudwal

The whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd: if a brave man sharpened his sword on it, if he (then) drew blood from a man, he would die. If a cowardly man (sharpened his sword on it), he (his opponent) would be no worse.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

This is not
a Naniwa 5000
Shapton Glass 8000,
or DMT Diamond Hone.

Cut, sawed, planed, smoothed,
in a factory unknown
to its owner

it is not sandstone, siltstone,
gritstone, quartzite or schist.
Nobody has graded the grit –
the sharpness of the weapon
is dependent on the courage
of its wielder.

If I could sharpen my tongue
on this magical bar,

keening across its smoothness
like a sword,

would my words draw blood
from the villains everyone hates:
the bankers, the frackers, the president
even old ladies long to assassinate?

Would they fall down dead?

Or would my cowardice be proved
by the dullness of my blade
ringing in deaf ears?

~

The Whetstone of Tudwal

~

Tudwal Tudglyd, ‘defender of the people’* was a ruler of Alt Clut. His estimated date of birth is 510. His father is Clynog ap Dynfwal and he is part of the Macsen Wledig lineage. Rhydderch Hael and Morgan Mwynfawr (owners of the Sword and Chariot) are his sons. It seems possible the whetstone was passed on by Tudwal to Rhydderch to keep Dyrnwyn, the Sword, sharp. According to an eighth century poem and The Life of St Ninian Tudwal was blinded by Ninian for his rejection of Christianity then healed by the saint, presumably when he agreed to convert. Nothing else is known about him.

The need for whetstones originated with the invention of metal weapons in the Bronze Age. They were made from sandstone or gritstone. After the stone had been quarried, the slabs were sawed, cut into bars, planed, and smoothed by metal tools. Whetstones held an important place in post-Roman society: without a whetstone a warlord and his warriors could not sharpen their swords and maintain their power. A good whetstone was highly treasured for its magical capacity to sharpen a blade and passed down through generations with its stories.

The skills of a talented furbisher were also valued. This is shown in Culhwch and Olwen. Cai is allowed into the castle of Wrnach/Dyrnwch the Giant (owner of the Cauldron) because he possesses the skill of furbishing swords. Taking a ‘striped whetstone’ he asks Wrnach whether he would prefer his sword ‘white-bladed or dark blue-bladed’. The colour of a sword determines its value**. Cai’s ability to produce either result suggests that, like Tudwal’s whetstone, it is magical. It may even be the same whetstone. Wrnach allows Cai to choose how he furbishes the sword. We might assume that, like other sharp weapons in the tale, it can draw blood from the wind once Cai is done. Cai uses Wrnach’s newly sharpened sword to behead him and claims it for Culhwch in fulfilment of one of the impossible tasks.

*Rachel Bromwich explains her translation: ‘With tud cf. Ir. túath ‘tribe, people’, and the corresponding personal name Tuathal; Tutklyd ‘defender of the people’. Gwâl = ‘leader, ruler; so Tudwal ‘leader of the people’.
**In the law texts it states that a dark blue-bladed sword is worth sixteen pence and a white-bladed sword twenty-four pence. A blue blade is produced by tempering and a white blade by polishing and burnishing.

~

SOURCES

Aurélie Thiébaux, Marc Feller, Bruno Duchêne, Eric Goemaere, ‘Roman whetstone production in northern Gaul’
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Peter Nowlan, ‘The Best Sharpening Stones’
P.F. Whitehead, ‘A pictorial field guide to whetstones and related artefacts in Worcestershire during the past 4000 years’
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant: if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

A warrior-bard rides his motorcycle across the north,
his words like his weapons bold and defiant,
seeking to prove his worth
at the Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant.

Will he lose his defiance with his stuttering rifle,
like a broken mike stammer and stall?
If meat for a coward were put in
it would never boil.

Or will he proclaim his exploits on a megaphone
whilst miming each gun-shot wittily?
If meat for a brave man were put in
it would boil quickly.

Either way in the depths of the cauldron
his youthful flesh will be devoured most thoroughly
(and thus the brave could be distinguished
from the cowardly).

~

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch

~

Dyrnwch the Giant is a legendary figure associated with the Old North. His epithet gawr ‘giant’ poses the question of whether he was a large human or belonged to a mythic race. References to giants such as Brân the Blessed shows they held an important position in Brythonic mythology. More confusingly, human chieftains such as Maelor Gawr, who was killed in a raid on his fortress at Pen Dinas by Gwerthmwl Wledig, were given the epithet ‘giant’.

Dyrnwch appears by the name Diwrnach Wyddel ‘the Irishman’ in Culhwch and Olwen. Here the getting of his cauldron to boil food for his wedding guests is one of the impossible tasks Culhwch must fulfil to win the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, ‘Chief Giant’.

Diwrnach is the steward of Odgar King of Ireland. Arthur fulfils the task for Culhwch. He sails to Ireland on his ship, Prydwen, with his men. Diwrnarch invites them into his house to feast. When Arthur asks Diwrnach for the cauldron he refuses to hand it over. Llenlleog Wyddel, one of Diwrnach’s men, betrays him by grabbing Arthur’s sword, Caledfwlch, and killing Diwrnach and all his retinue. Arthur and his men flee with the cauldron filled with Irish treasure.

In Brythonic mythology Ireland is sometimes a synonym for Annwn, the Otherworld, because it is likewise across the sea. If this is the case, ‘Odgar’ is a name for the ruler of Annwn and Diwrnach is his steward. This reading is backed up by the fact that in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the Head of Annwn owns a cauldron just likes Diwrnach’s with a pearly rim that will not boil a coward’s food, which is again seized by Arthur.

Dyrnwch also appears by the name Wrnach in Culhwch and Olwen. Culhwch is told he must get Wrnach’s sword, which is the only weapon that can kill him. In this story he is most definitely a giant for he owns ‘the largest fort in the world’ and from it comes a ‘a black-haired man, bigger than three men of this world’. Cai fulfils the task for Culhwch by posing as a furbisher of swords and killing Wrnach with his own perfectly honed blade.

‘Arthur and the Porter’ mentions Arthur fought with a hag in Awrnach’s hall. This is another variant on the spelling of Dyrnwch and perhaps associates Dyrnwch with Orddu, ‘Very Black’, a ‘hag’ who dwelled in Pennant Gofid, ‘in the uplands of Hell’. Arthur went to the North to kill her. The boundaries between the North, Ireland, and Annwn blur. All are ‘not here’.

From this proliferation of stories we can conjecture that Dyrnwch was an important figure who guarded the cauldron of the Head of Annwn and died attempting to defend it in a liminal place.

From the Bronze Age, cauldrons literally held a central role in Brythonic culture at the centre of the feast. They were essential for cooking meat, which would have been seen as a magical process. The cauldron’s property of distinguishing the brave from the cowardly seems related to ‘the champion’s portion’ in which the bravest warrior was given first choice and the finest meat.

On a deeper level, in Welsh mythology, the cauldron is associated with death and rebirth. Brân the Blessed was gifted a cauldron which had the power to bring dead warriors back to life. Taliesin was reborn from the crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ of Ceridwen from which the Awen* originates.

It seems likely the magical property of Dyrnwch’s cauldron and the champion’s portion had a deeper origin in an initiatory function wherein only a brave person could be initiated into the mysteries of death and rebirth in the depths of Annwn and thus receive his or her Awen.

*Divine inspiration. In some medieval Welsh poems it is synonymous with one’s destiny.

~

SOURCES

Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 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)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, The Black Book of Carmarthen, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd

The knife of Llawfrodedd the Horseman, which would serve for twenty-four men to eat at table.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

Llawfrodedd the horseman
chooses his own side,
serves no lord but himself,
but will lend his knife
as and when he sees fitting.
Thus it seems ominous
when he sits down at the table
of the Four Kings: Urien,
Rhydderch, Gwallog, Morgan,
and begins carving meat:
pork loin, a topside of beef,
the fat breast of a goose.
Twenty-four men are served
in the blinking of an eye.
The startled diners imagine
their foe thus butchered
and tuck in with added relish.
Llofan can see that blade
sliding quick as the deft needle
of an embroiderer between
the ribs of his target – Urien.
His killing hand is itching
as if bitten by an army of red ants.
The horseman will not part
with his weapon whilst he lives.
The assassin bides his time.
Llawfrodedd’s knife will dance
in a hundred red right hands
and at this carvery slip into mine.

~

The Knife of Llawfrodedd

~

Llawfrodedd the Horseman was born around 490. We have no record of who his ancestors are. In Bonedd y Saint he appears as the father as Gwyddnabi and the grandfather of St. Idloes. Unlike most of the other owners of the treasures he is not included in the northern lineages.

Llaw means ‘Hand’ and frodedd may perhaps derive from cyfrodedd ‘twisting’ or difrodedd ‘devastation’. His epithet ‘the Horseman’ is translated from Farchog. In other texts he is named Farfog ‘the Bearded’.

In Triad 46. ‘Three Principal Cows of Britain’ Llawfrodedd appears as the owner of Cornillo, ‘Little Horn’. He is also listed among the warriors of Arthur’s court in Culhwch and Olwen and Arthur’s forty-two counsellors in Rhonabwy’s Dream. This suggests he was a significant figure in medieval Wales whose stories have unfortunately been lost.

Knives are a longstanding part of the human toolkit. The Oldowan tools show early hominids were using knife-like objects two-and-half million years ago. At Boxgrove in West Sussex, a site dated to 500,000 years ago, flint ‘hand axes’ were used as knives by Homo Heidelbergensis to expertly butcher an array of animals including horses, red deer, giant deer, bison, rhinos, lions, wolves, and hyenas.

Flint knives of various types were used until the Bronze and Iron Ages when they were replaced by metal (although the Beaker people continued to make handled daggers from flint and they were hailed to be ‘the finest flint knives ever produced in Britain’). Knives were commonly found buried with their owner as grave goods and in Bronze and Iron Age hoards.

Everyone owned at least one knife for hunting, butchery, and eating. Until the Middle Ages hosts did not provide knives at the table – people were expected to use their own. A knife was an essential item no-one could live without. The magical properties of Llawfrodedd’s knife show knives were an important part of post-Roman society and skill at carving was held in high regard.

Of course, knives also served a more sinister function – killing other humans. This is famously evidenced by ‘The Night of the Long Knives’ which occurred in the 5th century. According to Nennius at a ‘peace council’ initiated by Hengist, ruler of the Anglo-Saxons, with Vortigern, ruler of the Britons, each of Hengist’s followers was instructed to ‘hide his knife under his foot in the middle of his shoe’ and slaughter the Briton standing beside him on the shout of “Eu nimet saxas”. Three hundred of Vortigern’s elders were killed and the king imprisoned.

Arthur used his knife, Carwennan, ‘White Hilt’, to gruesomely slaughter Orddu, ‘Very Black’, the last witch of Pennant Gofid in the Old North, by cutting her in half so she was ‘like two vats’.

Llawfrodedd’s name, with its implications of a twisting and devastating hand, suggests his knife, with which he showed such skill with carving for twenty-four men, may also have served a deadlier purpose.

~

SOURCES

David Derbyshire, ‘Inside the mind of an ancient axeman’, The Telegraph
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)
Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru
History of the Knife,’ Knife Crimes.org

5. The Halter of Clydno

The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn, which was fixed to a staple at the foot of his bed: whatever horse he might wish for, he would find in the halter.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I twist the wizened leather in my hands:
noseband, headpiece, cheekstrap,
miraculously preserved
by the peat bog,

imagining Clydno Eiddyn
sitting on the end of his bed,
thumbing the horse-head stamp,
incanting the names of horses:

Slender Grey, Strong Grey,
Dun-Grey, Dark Grey of the Grove,
Silver-White, Dappled, Dappled Roan,
Fearless Roan with Wolf’s Tread,
Fierce Black, Black of the Seas…

When I speak their names adding
Red Rum, Desert Orchid, Man O War,
Milton, Charisma, Warrior, Shergar,
the horses of my youth whose plaques
long disappeared from stables doors

I see their ears pricking on a distant plain.
Their muzzles are foamy with sweet grass,
their liquid eyes sparkling with otherlight.

As their ghosts fill the halter and the scent
of damp coats on a dewy morning I desire
to leap on bare-back and ride to their land.

Were they the undoing of Clydno Eiddyn?

I unpick burrs from tails, straighten manes,
let them go again halterless back to Annwn.

~

The Halter of Clydno - drawing - border

~

Clydno Eiddyn was born around 530 and was a ruler of Din Eidyn ‘Edinburgh’ and of the Gododdin. He was the son of Cynfelyn, placing him amongst the Coel Hen lineage. Clydno accompanied Rhydderch and his allies in their attack on Arfon in 547. Nothing more is known about him.

Clydno had a son called Cynon. For some reason the rulership of Din Eidyn fell to Mynyddog Mwynfawr, son of Ysgyrran, rather than to Cynon. Cynon fought and died with Mynyddog’s retinue at Catraeth. Cynon’s love of Urien’s daughter, Morfudd, and friendship with Urien’s son, Owain, suggests Clydno and Cynon were allies of Urien and his descendants.

When horses were domesticated around 2000 BCE it seems likely they would have been introduced to halters before other equipment. Because most tack is made of leather the only surviving parts are metal bits from bridles and fittings from harnesses. No halters seem to have survived.

I have been unable to find any other references to halters in Brythonic mythology. However, they play an important role in the kelpie legends of Scotland. Some kelpies appeared wearing tack to give the appearance of being ready to ride to lure riders to their drowning in pools. If a person took a bridle or halter from a kelpie it gave them control of it. Likewise if a kelpie appeared without tack it could be captured by a special bridle or halter and made to do one’s bidding.

I wonder if these legends have an origin in older myths about magical halters that gave a person the ability to summon horses not only from the fields of thisworld but from the plains of Annwn and its watery depths?

~

SOURCES

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)
Kelpie’, Wikipedia
History of the Horse in Britain,’ Wikipedia

4. The Chariot of Morgan

The chariot of Morgan the Wealthy: if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

Keening wheels and axles grinding thundering hooves across the moors
shining scythes slicing through the fog of space and time
two black horses are approaching with curly manes
and luscious fetlocks trailing
claggy black peat
from 599.

Clattering skulls adorn the chariot of the Red Ravager.
The straining yoke and trembling pole
and plaited reins are flecked
with blood,

so is the face of the driver – a silent unpenitent mute
who carries a whip he cracks at the centuries.
He has never told where he has been
or where he goes.

The heads of the horses are handsome
their nostrils wide and pink
but they are eyeless
as sacks

(they have never seen where they have been or go).

What battlefield has it come from and without its owner?
Where is he? Losing his shield between sword and spear?

I have spears at my back too but they are not so visible.
I am knee deep in mud without a destination.
Got to go somewhere do something…

“Take me anywhere fast as you can.”

~

The Chariot of Morgan

~

Morgan Mwynfawr ‘the Wealthy’ was born around 540 and was the son of Tudwal Tudclyd and brother of Rhydderch. This places him in the Macsen Wledig lineage. Morgan fought with Rhydderch, Urien, and Gwallog against the Angles on Ynys Metcaut. It was on his order that Llofan Llawddifro assassinated Urien. Afterward Morgan drove Llywarch Hen, Urien’s cousin, from his lands.

Morgan was renowned as one of ‘Three Red Reapers’: For a year neither grass nor plants used to come where one of the three would walk.’ It seems likely his savage reputation was based on his assassination of Urien and hounding of Urien’s family.

Horses were domesticated in Britain around 2000BCE and mainly used to pull carts. Chariot burials dating from 500 – 100BCE have been discovered in East and West Yorkshire and Newbridge near Edinburgh. At least one includes a horse. This shows the chariots of Iron Age warriors were essential to their role and viewed as symbols of their status. It also suggests they believed they would journey on their chariots into the afterlife and ride them there.

Chariots were widely used in warfare in ancient Britain. When Julius Caesar invaded in 55BC he noted the Britons terrified their enemies with ‘the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels’. The warriors used throwing weapons to break up the ranks, then leapt from their chariots to engage on foot whilst their charioteers withdrew and waited to pick them up.

At the time of the triumph of Claudius in 43CE the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela claimed the Britons fought from two horse chariots ‘on which they use axles equipped with scythes’. Tacitus notes when Agricola won the a Battle of Mons Grapius against the Caledonians in northern Scotland the plain was filled by noisy charioteers and consequently ‘runaway chariots’.

Excavations in Colchester have uncovered a Roman chariot race track dating to 2CE showing chariot racing had become a source of entertainment in Romano-British times.

I haven’t come across any records of chariots being used in the 6th century. However, this period is poorly recorded in general. It’s possible to imagine Morgan, the Red Reaper, fighting from a chariot that reached its destination quickly and leaving a trail of devastation wherever he went. If he was buried with it the location of his grave remains unknown.

As to who might design and make such a chariot and imbue it with magic? So far I haven’t come across any clues in our Brythonic myths. This is the only text I know of featuring a chariot, although the chariot of Cu Chulainn is prominent in Irish mythology and scholars have associated him with the chariot burials of the Parisii tribe in Yorkshire. Unfortunately there does not appear a story about the origin’s Cu Chulainn’s chariot, which remains a mystery. What we do know is he appears on a phantom chariot after death. Perhaps Morgan does too…

~

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico
Pomponius Mela, De Chorographia Liber Tertius
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)
Builders find chariot race track’, BBC NEWS
The British War Chariot’, Roman Britain,

2. The Hamper of Gwyddno

‘The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank: Food for one man would be put in it, and when it was opened, food for a hundred men would be found in it.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I.
After the picnic I’m left to clear up the mess:
hundreds of crisp packets,
chocolate wrappers,
beer cans

mixed with debris
washed up on the beach
where it’s said Gwyddno kept
a hamper that would feed one hundred men.

Some say it was a basket others a fish weir.
In it he found a shiny-browed bard.
“I’m no good to eat,”
said Taliesin.

He slipped away
like a gingerbread child.
As I pick through the bin bags
shiny black and squishy as basking seals

my litter pickers clamp onto a tiny skull
like forceps and pull the foetus out
shrivelled by sea water
still kicking.

“Not food,”
he says, “but a poet!
Those idiots threw me away.
A nation starved of poetry will ever hunger!”

II.
A man with long legs and a piercing beak
walks the tidal brink footprints fading
as soil trickles away like sand
through an hourglass.

He will take the hamper on crane-wings
into a sunset red as his crown,
black legs spelling out
our fate.

~

The Hamper of Gwyddno

~

Gwyddno Garanhir ‘Long-Legged Crane’ lived during the 6th century. He is the son of Cawdraf and thus part of the Macsen Wledig lineage*. He is associated with ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’ one of the ‘Three Chief Ports of the Island of Britain’. I believe this was Portus Setantiorum, the lost port of the Setantii, which lies north of Fleetwood in Lancashire. Its flooding in 574 may have given rise to the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen where Gwyddno berates Seithenin and Mererid for failing to close the flood gates. This legend is more famously set in Borth and Conwy in Wales.

Gwyddno also appears in ‘The Story of Taliesin’. His land and horses are poisoned when Gwion mistakenly imbibes the Awen thus shattering Ceridwen’s cauldron. Gwion, reborn from Ceridwen’s womb as Taliesin, is found in ‘a coracle or hide-covered basket’ in Gwyddno’s fish weir, which is famed for yielding ten pounds of salmon every Nos Galan Gaeaf. This story is located in Conwy but, as the earliest poems attributed to the historical Taliesin are in praise of the northern warlord, Urien Rheged, it seems likely there were northern variants.

Hampers were introduced to Britain from France in the Norman period by William the Conqueror. As mwys means both ‘hamper’ and basket’ in Welsh and the ancients Britons were renowned for their skill at weaving wicker baskets, I believe it was a beautifully crafted basket. It’s also possible ‘hamper’ was a metaphor for Gwyddno’s abundant fish weir or fertile farmlands before they were drowned.

Getting Gwyddno’s Hamper is amongst the forty impossible tasks Culhwch must fulfil for Ysbaddaden. The giants says: ‘If the whole world were to gather around it, three nines at a time, everyone would find the food that he wanted in it, just to his liking. I want to eat from that the night my daughter sleeps with you. He will not give it willingly to any one, nor can you force him.’ Unfortunately we do not find out how or if Culhwch gets the Hamper. Its magical property is suggestive of Otherworld origins.

Gwyddno’s epithet (garan means ‘crane’ and hir ‘long’) connects him with cranes who, with their black, white, and red colouring, and intricate dance-steps and flight patterns have long-standing associations with Annwn. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn appears to escort Gwyddno back to his realm. I’ve always pictured Gwyddno departing as a crane and flying to the Island of the Dancing Cranes where fish is ever plentiful and from where the basket (woven by a crane-woman?) might have originated.

*According to some versions of Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd. Other genealogies differ.

~

SOURCES

Gilbert J. French, ‘On the Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol. 15
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)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 2008)
The History of the Hamper from 1066 to 2016’, Regency Hampers
Mwys’, Geriadur Pryfysgol Cymru

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

~

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)

The Thirteen Treasures of the North

The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain appear in a number of medieval Welsh manuscripts. The earliest is the autograph of Gwilym Tew in Peniarth Manuscript 51 and is dated to 1460. It introduces the list as ‘The Names of the Thirteen Treasures which were in the North’.

This shows the Thirteen Treasures were intimately associated with the Old North: the Brythonic-speaking kingdoms of northern England and southern Scotland that arose in post-Roman Britain and fell to Anglo-Saxon and Scottish rule between the 6th and 11th centuries. Most of the owners of the treasures are included in the genealogies of the Men of the North.

In later lists, notes were added describing the magical properties of the treasures. The following is a variant in the hand of Rowland Lewis o Fallwyd from Cardiff MSS 17 (16th C) cited by Rachel Bromwich in The Triads of the Island of Britain.

~

THE THIRTEEN TREASURES OF THE ISLAND OF BRITAIN

(The Names of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, which were in the North):

1. 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.

2. The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank: Food for one man would be put in it, and when it was opened, food for a hundred men would be found in it.

3. The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.

4. The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy: if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.

5. The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn, which was fixed to a staple at the foot of his bed: whatever horse he might wish for, he would find in the halter.

6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd the Horseman, which would serve for twenty-four men to eat at table.

7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant: if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).

8. The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd: if a brave man sharpened his sword on it, if he (then) drew blood from a man, he would die. If a cowardly man (sharpened his sword on it), he (his opponent) would be no worse.

9. The Coat of Padarn Red-Coat: if a well-born man put it on, it would be the right size for him; if a churl, it would not go upon him.

10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric: whatever food might be wished for in them, it would be found.

12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver.

13. The Mantle of Arthur in Cornwall: whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everyone.

~

The whereabouts of some of the treasures can be identified through the locations of their owners. The map of the Old North below is taken from Wikipedia and originates from John T. Koch’s Celtic Culture. I have added the numbers of the treasures.

Thirteen Treasures of the North Map

~

It has been suggested that, like the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann from Irish tradition: the Stone of Fál, Spear of Lug, Sword of Nuada, and Cauldron of the Dagda, the Thirteen Treasures of the North are ‘hallows’: holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld.

The magical properties of the Thirteen Treasures, which grant wishes, provide copious amounts of food or drink, and have a testing function, may be suggestive of origins in Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld, which was later known as Faery.

If this is the case, it may be conjectured that stories once existed about how the owners won the treasures. This is supported by the inclusion of the story of the theft of cauldron of Dyrnwch in Culhwch and Olwen, which also mentions the Hamper of Gwyddno and a magical horn.

In the existing lists their magic is less associated with Annwn than with the ruling elites of post-Roman Britain whose hunger for power and internecine rivalry led to the fall of the Old North to the Anglo-Saxons. This world was dominated by male warlords and, for me, as a female awenydd living in the 21st century, is one I find difficult to connect with.

For me the question has arisen of whether the Thirteen Treasures are holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld relevant to today or the rich boy’s toys of a forgotten age. Through research, meditating, journeying, and writing, I have attempted to provide an answer.

Over the next twelve days, as an alternative to the twelve days of Christmas (this works because 10 and 11 are included together), I will be posting original poems based on my experiences with the treasures along with notes documenting my research.

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’.