Afallach – the Apple King

I. Afallach and the Island of Apples

Afallach, a Brythonic god whose name is derived from afal ‘apple’, is best known for his associations with Ynys Afallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or the Isle of Avalon. In his Speculum Ecclesiae (1216) Giraldus Cambrensis says: ‘Avallonia is so called either from the British aval which means apple, because that place abounded with apples, or from a certain (A)vallo, lord of that land’.

Giraldus identifies the Isle of Avalon with Glastonbury, in De Instructione Principium (1193 -9): ‘what is now called Glastonia was anciently called Insula Avallonia, for it is like an island, wholly surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in British Inis Avallon, that is the apple-bearing island.’

William of Mamlesbury, in The Antiquities of Glastonbury (1216), follows this tradition. Glastonbury ‘is also well known as by the name of Insula Avalloniae’. He says it may be ‘named after a certain Avalloc who is said to have lived there with his daughters on account of it being a solitary place. (1)

Ynys Afallach is described as a paradisal island by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini (1150). ‘The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.’

Geoffrey names the nine daughters of Afallach as Morgen, ‘Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.’ He notes Morgen ‘is first of them’, ‘skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person’. She knows the properties of herbs, is skilled in healing, and mathematics and has the ability to shift shape.

Giraldus Cambrensis, in De Instructione Principium (1193), also writes of,‘Morganis, a noble matron who was the ruler and patron of these parts… the island which is now called Glastonia.”

II. Afallach – King of Annwn

It is significant that Morgan is referred to as a ‘noble matron’ for in the Triads she is otherwise named as ‘Modron daughter of Afallach’. Modron is a later form of Matrona ‘Mother’. The Mothers or Matrons were worshipped across northwestern Europe during the Romano-British period.

In Peniarth MS. 70 Modron speaks of herself as ‘the daughter of the King of Annwn’. Annwn means ‘the Deep’ and is the medieval Welsh name for the Otherworld which is a paradisal location.

In The Life of St Collen (14th C) we find an account of Collen’s visit to the castle of Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn, on Glastonbury Tor:

‘he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom.’

It seems likely Gwyn and Afallach are the same deity. Both are named as King of Annwn and are associated with Glastonbury/the Island of Avalon. Afallach is named as the grandson of Beli Mawr in the Harleian Genealogies (1100) and we find out that Gwyn is the grandson of Beli Mawr from Lludd ac Llefelys (1225) where his father, Lludd/Nudd, is named as the son of Beli.

Further traces of his mythos can be found in ‘Preideu Annwn’ where Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ is depicted presiding over an otherworldly mead feast and as the owner of countless treasures including a cauldron ‘kindled by the breath of nine maidens’ with ‘a dark trim and pearls’.

Its refusal to ‘boil a coward’s food’ suggests that it is connected with the initiation of bards such as ‘the loyal lad’, Gwair who, in the poem, is singing before the spoils of Annwn in a heavy grey chain.

III. Afallach and Modron in the Old North

In the Triads and Peniarth MS. 70 Afallach’s daughter, Modron, is the mother of the children of Urien. In Triad 70 the second of the ‘Three Fair Womb Burdens’ is the following: ‘Owain, son of Urien and Morfudd his sister who were carried together in the womb of Modron daughter of Afallach’.

In Peniarth MS. 70 we find the full story of the conception of Modron’s children:

‘In Denbighshire there is a parish which is called Llanferes, and there is there Rhyd y Gyfarthfa (the Ford of Barking). In the old days the hounds of the countryside used to come together to the side of that the ford to bark, and nobody dared go to find out what was there until Urien Rheged came. And when he came to the side of the ford he saw nothing except a woman washing. And then the hounds ceased barking, and Urien seized the woman and he had his will of her; and then she said “God’s blessing on the feet which brought thee here.” “Why?” said he. “Because I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy.” And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.’

The setting of this story in Denbighshire is strange because Urien was the king of the northern kingdom of Rheged during the sixth century. Urien’s seat may have been Luguvalium (present-day Carlisle), on the River Eden, and his realm likely extended throughout the Eden Valley and much of Cumbria to the Solway Firth and perhaps included Dumfries and Galloway. (2)

The name ‘Eden’ holds associations with Paradise and thus with Afallach/Gwyn and his brother Edern. (3) When Rheged was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons some of the fleeing Britons may have taken the tale to Wales.

I believe this story has its basis in the pre-Christian tradition of a human king entering a sacred marriage with the goddess of the land. There is plentiful evidence for the cultus of Modron/Matrona and her son, Mabon/Maponos in the form of altars and place names in northwest England and southern Scotland.

Altars and inscriptions to the Mother Goddesses and the Mothers the Fates have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness, Bowness-on-Solway, Ribchester, and Lund. There is an altar to Apollo-Maponus at Ribchester. Lochmaben and the Clochmaben stone are named after him.

In The Harleian Genealogies the kings of Rheged trace their lineage to Coel Hen and ultimately to Afallach and Beli Mawr. This suggests that Beli, Afallach, Modron, and Mabon were their ancestral deities.

The references to Owain as Mabon in the poetry attributed to Urien’s bard, Taliesin, are suggestive not only of his divine birth, but that he possessed the power to invoke and take on the identity of Mabon.

The story from Peniarth MS. 70 demonstrates the turning of the kings of Rheged to Christianity. Here we find Modron depicted as a sinister figure, as the Washer at the Ford, suggesting links with Morgan and possibly with the Irish death-goddess Morrigan, surrounded by equally sinister hounds (who are likely to be the Hounds of Annwn who hunt the souls of the dead with her father). To see a woman washing one’s clothes was a death portent as was hearing or seeing otherwordly hounds.

Urien, a self-proclaimedly Christian King, ignores the portents, seeing ‘nothing but a woman washing’ and rapes Modron. Her words about being fated to wash there until she conceives a son by a Christian have clearly been put into her mouth by a Christian interlocutor to obscure her role as a sovereignty goddess who holds power not over the land and Annwn but fate itself. Following Urien’s abuse it is no surprise he is assassinated and this leads to the fall of Rheged and the Old North.

The connections of Afallach and Modron with the Old North live on in their folkloric associations with the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass). In these areas of Cumbria Afallach is known as Eveling, which is an Anglicised version of his name.

IV. Afallach and Gwallen in North Wales

Afallach’s associations with Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in Denbighshire have been noted. Near the hill fort of Moel-y-Gaer in Flintshire is a hamlet called Caerfallwch which means ‘the Fortress of Afallach’.

From the ‘Hanesyn Tract’ we learn that Afallach had another daughter called Gwallen. She is referred to as ‘Gwalltwen verch Yvallach’ in ‘Digyniad Pendefigaeth Cymru’ and here we learn that she was mistress of Maelgwn, the ruler of Gwynedd during the sixth century, and the mother of Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, who ‘was not acceptable to some as prince, only as a regent.’

The kings of Gwynedd traced their ancestry through Cunedda to Afallach and Beli Mawr. It is possible that, like Modron, Gwallen was perceived as a sovereignty goddess. Her name might be translated as ‘White Hair’ (from gwallt ‘hair’ and gwyn/(g)wen ‘white’) suggesting Annuvian characteristics shared with her father, Afallach/Gwyn. The rejection of her son may be indicative not only of the laws surrounding illegitimacy, but Christian superstitions surrounding her otherworld nature.

Maelgwn’s wife was Sanan ferch Cyngen. They had a daughter called Eurgain who was married to the northern warlord Elidyr Mwynfawr. According to The Black Book of Chirk (1592 – 1667):

‘After the death of Maelgwn… many of the nobility of Cambria disdained to yield subjection to Rhun his son, being a bastard begot upon Gwallten the daughter of Afallach, Maelgwn’s concubine, especially the nobility of Arfon, who privately sent unto Elidyr Mwynfawr aforesaid to come speedily to Cambria, to aid him in recovery of the kingdom in the right of his children by Eurgain the daughter and heir of Maelgwn’.

The voyage of Elidyr and Eurgain and their companions from the Old North to Wales is recorded in Triad 44 ‘Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’. It is memorable because ‘seven and a half’ people are said to have crossed sea on the back of the water horse Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’.

‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr… carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’

Du y Moroedd is the horse Gwyn ap Nudd rides when hunting for Twrch Trwyth ‘King of Boars’ and likely for the souls of the dead. (4) Elidyr met his end battling against Rhun at Aber Mefydd. Perhaps Du not only carried them to meet their deaths but to the Otherworld afterwards too.

What this story serves to consolidate is that Afallach/Gwyn and his daughter, Gwallen, had strong and longstanding connections with the Brythonic peoples who claimed descent from Beli Mawr.

V. Lugus and the Island of Apples

In the Irish myths we find Emain Ablach ‘The Island of Apples’. In ‘Ar an doirseoir ris an deaghlaoch’ ‘The doorkeeper said to the noble warrior’, a medieval Irish poem based on the arrival of Lugh at the court of the Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, Lugh introduces himself as ‘a poet from Emain Ablach / of swans and yews’ before gaining entry due to his mastery of many skills. This suggests Lugh might have undergone some kind of bardic initiation on Ablach/Afallach’s isle.

Lugh is the son of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethniu, daughter of the Formorian giant, Balor. After hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, Balor locked Eithne away in a tower on Tory Island, but this did not prevent Cian from entering and fathering Lugh. Balor then attempted to stop the child gaining maturity by preventing him from getting a name and a wife.

In ‘Balor of the Evil Eye and Lui Lavada’ Cian takes Lui to Tory Island where numerous apple trees grow. They pose as gardeners. When Lui shows a good deal of skill picking up the apples Balor says: ‘Tog leat Lui Lavada’ ‘take away with you little long hand’ and this is how he receives his name. Lui/Lugh kills Balor with a slingshot or spear through his burning or poisonous eye.

We find a striking parallel in The Mabinogi (1350 – 1410) in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who is cognate with the Irish Lugh. Lleu is the son of Gwydion and Arianrhod, the son and daughter of Beli Mawr and Don. He was likely conceived by magical subterfuge. (5) In this story it is not Lleu’s grandfather, Beli, but his mother, Arianrhod who curses him with three fates: he will never win a name, arms or a wife. This is because of her ‘shame’ at the slight to her virginity caused by Gwydion.

Gwydion helps Lleu win his name by disguising them as shoemakers and luring Arianrhod onto his boat to get a shoe fitted. When she is on board Lleu shoots a wren that lands on the deck ‘in the leg, between the tendon and the bone’ and she exclaims ‘it is with a skilful hand that the fair one has hit it’ and hence he is called Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘the fair-haired one with the skilful hand’.

Instead of killing his grandfather, Beli, with his spear, Lleu kills Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuwedd. Gronw, a hunter who arrives with a pack of hounds chasing a deer and turns up at night to seduce Lleu’s beloved is likely to be the King of Annwn, Arawn, who displayed his shapeshifting abilities earlier in the text, and may be identified with Afallach/Gwyn, his cousin.

The Welsh and the Irish myths contain suggestions of a shared mythos surrounding Beli/Balor, Ablach/Afallach, Eithne/Arianrhod, Cian/Gwydion, and Lleu/Lugh/Lugus (his pan-Celtic name) that was important to the people of the Brythonic kingdoms who claimed descent from Beli. (6)

VI. The Apple King in Peneverdant

The name of my home town, Penwortham, was Peneverdant in the Domesday Book. The first element, pen, ‘head’ is Brythonic and refers to present-day Castle Hill. Like Glastonbury Tor this headland stood on marshland and is an important sacred site for pagans and Christians.

The dedication of the church on its summit and well at its foot (now dried up) to St Mary Virgin and the fairy funeral legend featuring a fairy leader suggest the presence of a mother goddess and fairy king.

I know from personal experience the fairy king is Afallach/Gwyn. I first intuited the goddess to be Gwyn’s mother, Anrhuna, who I know as the Mother of the Marsh, but am now considering that another presence who better fits the image of Mary in the church with her shining son is Modron with Mabon.

I hadn’t considered this possibility because I hadn’t realised Afallach and Gwyn were the same deity. Looking back I should have realised earlier for I spent a considerable amount of time in the Avalon orchards at Glastonbury when I visited at Calan Mai in 2013 and 2015. On the latter occasion this inspired me to plant five apple trees in Greencroft Valley with the Friends group. Three have survived and two, the Epicure and Sowman’s seedling, have borne apples this year.

I have been making connections between Afallach and Gwyn as I have harvested these apples and those from the two apple trees in my parent’s garden. I’ve noticed they’ve come earlier this year for I usually gather the last before Gwyn’s Feast on the 29th of September and offer an apple to him with pork.

Of course the sweet and juicy apples we eat in Britain today were imported by the Romans. Yet we do have a native apple tree – the crab apple. Although its fruits are too sour to eat raw there is no doubt our ancient ancestors cooked them and served them with meat as a welcome addition to their diet. The fact that apples are harvested at the time of Gwyn’s Feast further consolidates his identity with Afallach. (7)

Another piece of potentially significant information I first heard orally but only found unreferenced online on a website called ‘Ireland Calling’ is the following: ‘The Celts… were said to bury apples in graves as food for the dead, a practice that is shown to date back over 7,000 years to Europe and West Asia where petrified remains of sliced apple have been found in tombs from 5,000BC.’ However, I haven’t been able to find a trustworthy source naming the date or location of these burials.

If it was proved that the Celtic peoples and in particular the Britons buried their dead with apples this might be suggestive of an offering to Afallach/Gwyn in return for taking the souls of the dead to Annwn.

Whatever the case my offering of an apple to the Apple King at his feast this year will have heightened significance and his relationship with Modron and Mabon opens new horizons to explore.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Malmesbury also provides a fascinating alternative foundation story based around apples. ‘Glasteing found his sow under an apple tree near the ancient church, and because apples were rare in those parts when he first arrived there, he called it Insular Avalloniae in his tongue, that is, Isle of Apples’.
(2) Urien’s associations with the Eden Valley are suggested by the poems attributed to Taliesin, Urien’s bard, who refers to Urien as the ‘ruler of Llwyfenedd’, the Lyvennet Valley (the Lyvennet flows into the Eden).
(3) However this river was known as Ituna ‘water’ or ‘rushing’ during the Roman-British period. Urien was also named ‘ruler of Yrechwedd’. Echwedd means ‘flowing water’ and this could be the origin of this appellation.
(4) In Culhwch ac Olwen (1190) Twrch Trwyth was allegedly a human chieftain turned into a boar by God on account of his sins. Behind this story lies his abilities as a shapeshifter and the fact Gwyn’s hunt, ‘the Wild Hunt’, was not really for boar but for human souls.
(5) Gwydion’s fathering of Lleu is not explicit in the main source for Lleu’s story, the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi, but is evidenced in other sources such as a poem by Lewys Môn and Harleian 3859 where Lleu is spoken of as ‘Lou Hen map Guidgen’.
(6) The significance of Lugus is supported by his giving his name to Luguvalium (Carlisle) which means ‘Strong in Lugus’ and was ruled by Urien Rheged, to ‘the rock of Lleu’, the seat of the rulers of Gododdin from whom Maelgwn Gwynedd was descended, and to Dinas Lleu in the kingdom of Gwynedd.

SOURCES

Alex Langstone, ‘Pistyll Rhaedr’, http://www.pistyllrhaeadr.co.uk/berwyns.html
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Greg Hill, ‘Lleu Llaw Gyffes – Is that Lugus?’ https://awenydd.cymru/lleu-llaw-gyffes-is-that-lugus/
Jeremiah Curtin, Hero Tales of Ireland, (1894), https://archive.org/details/herotalesofirela00curtuoft/page/308/mode/2up
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
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 Apple Tree in Celtic Mythology, Ireland Calling, https://ireland-calling.com/celtic-mythology-apple-tree/
‘St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ Ancient Texts, https://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/collen.html

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.