Between Texto and Gloss

I. The Glosa

As an awenydd and polytheist writing and sharing poetry is an essential part of my path. Of all the poetic forms I have experimented with, including English, Welsh, Irish, French, and Italian metres, I have found the Spanish glosa the most conducive to religious practice.

The glosa was invented by the Spanish court poets during the Golden Age. It takes the form of four lines of text (texto) from an existing poet and four ten line stanzas of commentary (gloss) written by the glosser with the final line taken consecutively from the quatrain. The conventional rhyme scheme is ABBAACCDDC.

This versatile form was popular in Parisian literary salons during the reign of Louis XVI, in Germany in the Romantic period, and in Latin America throughout the struggles for independence. It was introduced into the English language comparatively recently by the Canadian poet P. K. Page in 1994.

Hologram by P.K.Page

In Hologram, Page used a series of glossae to pay homage to other poets. Her use of a rhyme scheme where the sixth and ninth lines rhyme with the borrowed tenth, and italicisation of the text and its repetitions, has set the form for poetry in English.

Page’s work prepared the ground for Charlotte Hussey, another Canadian poet, who teaches Old Irish and Arthurian literature and studied Celtic Shamanism with Tom Cowan. Her collection of glossae, Glossing the Spoils (2012), glosses the ‘earliest Western European texts’ to ‘mend a break in tradition and time’, thereby reweaving the ancient myths into modernity.

Glossing the Spoils by Charlotte Hussey

In these glossae Hussey opens a visionary space between texto and gloss where it is possible for conversations with mythic personages and experiences of the transformative qualities of ‘the spoils’ to take place. In ‘Lake of the Cauldron’ she glosses lines from ‘Branwen Daughter of Llyr’. After watching a ‘huge man with yellow-red hair’ emerging ‘from the lake with the cauldron on his back’ the narrator is pushed ‘into the boil’ by a woman with ‘dreadlocks’, ‘long breasts’, and ‘a sweaty belly’ who ‘hacks / shoulder blades, buttocks apart, / scrapes off chunks of flesh / bones sinking then surging to the rim’. The ‘great monstrous man’ from the text watches her dismemberment ‘with an evil thieving look about him’.

Many of the poems reveal the subliminal influence of these near-forgotten myths on our time. ‘Trolls’ is based on lines spoken by the Loathly Lady in Parzival. It ends with ‘The knight, lifting his fluted, iron / visor with its narrow sights’ to ‘stare out’ for ‘a crusading convoy / to join, another holocaust to start, / or a melancholic witch to burn’. Glossing Perlesvaus, Hussey draws parallels between the animistic qualities of the ghastly black shield of the knight’s aggressor with its ‘dragon’s head throwing out / fire and flame with a terrible force’ and the atom bomb – a weapon of destruction she notes cannot be contained or exorcised (1).

I read Glossing the Spoils for the first time in 2012. Discovering the glosa and Hussey’s use of it as a gateway to visionary experience has had a profound effect on my spiritual path and my approach to the medieval Welsh texts that are central to my tradition as an awenydd.

II. The Bull of Conflict

I wrote my first glosa in September that year after an initiatory encounter with Gwyn ap Nudd, a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld. Desiring to honour and thank him for pulling me back from the brink of an abyss and to learn more about him, I decided to gloss four lines from ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2).

This poem, from The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350) documents a conversation that takes place in the misty hinterland between the worlds following Gwyddno’s death. Gwyn appears as a ‘bull of conflict’ – a divine warrior and psychopomp – to guide Gwyddno back to Annwn. Set during the fall of northern Britain to the Anglo-Saxons it contains some of the most powerful and poignant lines in Western European literature, ending with Gwyn’s lament:

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the north;
I live on; they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the south;
I live on; they are dead.

Choosing four lines I started by meditating on the first and was taken back to walking the streets of Preston that afternoon in the aftermath of the Preston Guild Festival (4) and the pervading melancholy. Drifting amongst shadow-people I found myself in the Harris Museum surrounded by the spoils of war and face-to-face with Gwyn stepping from the poem.

The Harris

The Harris Museum

In this familiar yet unfamiliar space, between texto and gloss, between poet and god a conversation took place that would change my life. Gwyn’s imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’ gave me a purpose, became the title of my first book, and has guided my path ever since.

The Bull of Conflict

I come from battle and conflict
With a shield in my hand;
Broken is the helmet
By the pushing of spears.
‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’

On an empty day automata drift,
Wending suit shapes through the mist.
Touchless I fade like a symbol unhitched.
The spoils of war quake in the museum.
Piercing the grey wearing horns of a bull
A white warrior blackened and bloodied
Disguises his limp in an infinite gloom,
On his spear leans, softly says:
“My comrades are slain and yet I live,
I come from battle and conflict.”

His dire avowal brings howling winds,
Chill clutch at my shoulders their lament dins
Of hero light fading from mortal skin.
In glass cabinets swords clash savage,
Raging figures thrash on ragged pages
Chanting the desolate past of ravaged war bands.
With war-torn wisdom, sombrely he whispers:
“These gathered memories to you I give.
Gone are the days I crossed this land
With a shield in my hand.”

His barrage of sadness barks in my mind
Like hapless hounds on a winter’s night.
Fierce their madness, dark their plight,
For the perishing souls they collect,
The past’s great spirit protect.
Like thundering wind obligation overwhelms me.
The blade of futility threatens to unfasten me.
“How do I cherish and defend these memories
When like the kingdoms of Rheged and Elmet
Broken is the helmet?”

I ask the Bull of Conflict.
His tears run bright with the passing of time,
Chariots wheeling in multihued light,
Victims reflected in star lit skies.
He says: “this shadow land needs enchantment
To banish the blight of despair.
Nurture the memories with magic
And they’ll sing a blessed new year.
Do not be pressed into fear
By the pushing of spears.”

This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience which led me to devote myself to Gwyn as my patron god. Nothing quite like it has happened since and I have written many glosa, good and bad.

III. The Spoils

Hussey’s title, Glossing the Spoils, works on many levels. By ‘the spoils’ it refers to the spoils of war, the spoils of the distant past gathered in museums, and the spoils of our literary heritage. It also subtly alludes to ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, from The Book of Taliesin (14th C). Taliesin, the narrator, accompanies Arthur and his men on a raid on Annwn to plunder its treasures, including the cauldron of Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn). There a catastrophic battle takes place, which Gwyn later describes to Gwyddno:

And to my sorrow
I saw battle at Caer Fanddwy.

At Caer Fanddwy I saw a host
Shields shattered, spears broken,
Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.

Arthur assaults ‘the honoured and fair’: the fair folk ruled by Gwyn, who are forced to retaliate. In a moment suggestive of both pillage and rape Lleog thrusts his ‘flashing sword’ into the cauldron and it is ‘left behind in Lleminog’s hand’. Arthur escapes from Annwn with the spoils, slamming ‘Hell’s Gate’ shut. Only seven of three ship-loads of his men survive the conflict.

Analogously most of the spoils in our museums have been plundered violently from other lands. The literary heritage of Western Europe is largely based on a history of the victors, mythic and real, crusading, conquering, colonising. As Walter Benjamin says: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

These thoughts were on my mind when I embarked on a quest to explore the contemporary relevance of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain (3). They include the cauldron (which is kept by Dyrnwch the Giant), the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir, vessels for eating and drinking, weapons, items of clothing, and vehicles for transport. It is likely most of them were won or stolen from Annwn by the northern British warlords who own them.

Like the spoils evoked by Hussey the treasures are animate, inspirited, alive, expressing their agency through magical qualities. The cauldron will only brew meat for the brave. Brân’s horn provides any drink one wishes. Morgan’s chariot takes a traveller wherever they wish quickly. Rhydderch’s sword bursts into flames in the hand of any man who is well-born.

The Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau, ‘Chessboard of Gwenddolau’ (4), is made of gold and has silver gwerin, ‘men’, who play by themselves. The men represent Gwenddolau’s army and his enemy and serve a divinatory function – the outcome of the game predicts the result of real battles.

Writing a glosa based on four lines about the chessboard took me on a visionary journey to Gwenddolau’s seat of rule in Arfderydd (modern day Arthuret in Scotland) and gave me a glimpse of its magic outliving Gwenddolau to predict the outcomes of upcoming wars.

View from Liddel Strength

Caer Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau…
if the pieces are set,
they play by themselves.
The board is gold and the men silver
(5).
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I leave my world behind at Carwinley Burn
to follow the feral steps of a girl,
red-haired, torqued, coloured-trousered,
a wild thing with fox’s teeth at her neck
down a fox-hole to the grave
of Gwenddolau.
Beside his bull-horned corpse
stands a table and upon it a golden board.
Round its edges silver dead men lie.
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

has lain here as long as my father,”
she says. “It predicts the outcome of battles.
It played before Arfderydd, Catraeth,
when Britain’s air force clashed
with the Luftwaffe,
on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. As yet
it has never mispredicted an event.
At times of peace it sleeps.
At times of threat
if the pieces are set

they play out every move in the coming conflict.”
As she speaks the eyes of a warrior
jerk open and his spasmodic
hand grips his spear.
A warhorse rises from a tangle of stirrups and mane.
A bishop shakes off his robes and delves
for fireballs and mist in his pockets.
Caers rebuild their ramparts.
Returning to health
they play by themselves

speechless as automata resuming their positions.
Warriors move forward two squares
spearing on the diagonal.
Warhorses leap
over the mounting carnage,
on a fiery blast fall into splinters.
A king drags his queen into a caer.
As the bishops prepare the final spell
I am shaken by a premonitory shiver.
The board is gold and the men silver.

For me this glosa reveals the sad fact that since the war-torn period when Gwenddolau lived and now there has barely been a time when the warriors of Britain have not been at war. The uncanny battles fought between the gwerin, beneath the earth, in Annwn, represent our militant history.

As modern glossers we are faced with a past of ravaging, wounding, spoiling: a world spoilt by Arthurian warlords. How, between texto and gloss, can we enchant its shadows, heal its wounds?

Footnotes

(1) In ‘Glossing Faery
(2) At this point I was working with William Skene’s 1868 translation. I recommend the 2015 translation by Greg Hill. The title and glossed lines are from Skene, but the other two are from Hill.
(3) The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain appear in several medieval Welsh manuscripts. The earliest is the autograph of Gwilym Tew in Peniarth Manuscript 51 (1460).
(4) Gwyddbwyll means ‘wood-sense’. Its translation as ‘Chessboard’ isn’t entirely correct because chess originated in the Arab world and was imported to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century.
(5) Here I took the poetic liberty of changing the form and tense of the original quote.

Sources

Charlotte Hussey, Glossing the Spoils, (Awen Publications, 2012)
Charlotte Hussey, ‘Glossing Faery’, Awen ac Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Awen ac Awenydd,
Keith Ellis, ‘The Glosa: A Genre to be Noticed for its Constructive Values’, Comparative Literature and World Literature, Vol 1. No. 2 (2016)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
P. K. Page, Hologram, (Brick Books, 1995)
Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History‘, Marxists.org
William Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Four Books of Ancient Wales, (Forgotten Books, 2007)

Myrddin’s Museum

Afterthoughts on the Thirteen Treasures of the North

When I set out researching, meditating on, journeying to, and writing about the Thirteen Treasures of the North it was with the aim of assessing their value for the modern world. I aimed to answer the question of whether they are ‘hallows’: holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld or the rich boy’s toys of a forgotten age.

I certain felt a sense of the aura of the numinous about some of the treasures and, unsurprisingly, connected with some better than others. During the process I became aware my reactions to being in their presence were based on my values. I took an instant disliking to the Sword of Rhydderch and the Cloak of Padarn due to their associations with war and the Tyrian purple of the Roman Empire. Yet I was carried away by the Chariot of Morgan, struck by a premonitory shiver by the Chessboard of Gwenddolau, and could happily have joined Rhygenydd drinking from his Vat.

Whilst the only treasure that can authoritatively be connected with a deity is the Cauldron of Dyrnwch, through its parallels with the Cauldron of Pen Annwn, I received hints about the possibilities of their divine origin from my research and experiences and suggestions from readers in the comments. Most of the treasures can tentatively be associated with Brythonic deities:

1. The Sword of Rhydderch – Forged by Gofannon and symbolic of a bond between the kings of Strathclyde and a goddess of the land, most likely Clutha, goddess of the Clyde.
2. The Hamper of Gwyddno – Woven by a goddess-in-crane-form on the Island of the Dancing Cranes. I suspect this might be Ceridwen, who wove the wicker basket in which Taliesin was found in Gwyddno’s fish weir. The basket and hamper could be the same treasure.
3. The Horn of Brân – This may have been taken from an otherworldly bull or ox like the Brindled Ox and may be connected with the bull-god who is known in Gaul as Tarvus Trigaranus, ‘The Bull With Three Cranes’. His image also appears in Romano-British sculptures.
4. The Chariot of Morgan – Forged by Gofannon (Potia’s suggestion) possibly with Amaethon’s help.
5. The Halter of Clydno – My vision of the halter summoning horses from the Plains of Annwn suggests it might be connected with Rhiannon. Alternatively the appearance of halters in Kelpie legends might be suggestive of associations with water-horses such as Du Y Moroedd.
6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd – ???
7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch – Pen Annwn (Gwyn/Arawn/Ogyrven). Brân the Blessed is another keeper and ultimately it is the womb of Ceridwen.
8. The Whetstone of Tudwal – This was possibly created at the same time as the Sword of Rhydderch (both belong together in Strathclyde) but I’m not sure who by.
9. The Cloak of Padarn – ???
10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd – These may have belonged to Rosmerta who is depicted with a vat and straining spoon and holding a dish (suggested by Greg).
12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau – A gift from Lugus.
13. The Mantle of Arthur – ???

Unfortunately we do not know how the Thirteen Treasures came to belong to the Men of the North. The development of the tradition, which might once have been fluid, with the stories changing as the treasures passed through the hands of various owners, ended in the seventh century with the fall of the North.

Thus it seems fitting that a story exists wherein Myrddin managed to procure the Thirteen Treasures and took them to a glass house on Bardsea Island which is often described as a museum. This shows they were removed from use in the post-Roman period when the North fell and became historical objects frozen in time. It also symbolises their removal from the living storytelling tradition to one that was repeated by rote then written down in the 15th century.

Will the Thirteen Treasures of the North remain behind the glass windows of Myrddin’s museum or can they be reclaimed as hallows with the stories of their divine origin shining with relevance for the 21st century? Only time will tell…

The Thirteen Treasures of the North

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

12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

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’.
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I leave my world behind at Carwinley Burn
to follow the feral steps of a girl,
red-haired, torqued, coloured-trousered,
a wild thing with fox’s teeth at her neck
down a fox-hole to the grave
of Gwenddolau.
Beside his bull-horned corpse
stands a table and upon it a golden board.
Round its edges silver dead men lie.
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau.

has lain here as long as my father,”
she says. “It predicts the outcome of battles.
It played before Arfderydd, Catraeth,
when Britain’s air force clashed
with the Luftwaffe,
on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. As yet
it has never mispredicted an event.
At times of peace it sleeps.
At times of threat
if the pieces are set

they play out every move in the coming conflict.”
As she speaks the eyes of a warrior
jerk open and his spasmodic
hand grips his spear.
A warhorse rises from a tangle of stirrups and mane.
A bishop shakes off his robes and delves
for fireballs and mist in his pockets.
Caers rebuild their ramparts.
Returning to health
they play by themselves

speechless as automata resuming their positions.
Warriors move forward two squares
spearing on the diagonal.
Warhorses leap
over the mounting carnage,
on a fiery blast fall into splinters.
A king drags his queen into a caer.
As the bishops prepare the final spell
I am shaken by a premonitory shiver.
The board is gold and the men silver.

~

The Chessboard of Gwenddolaur

~

Gwenddolau was born around 400. He was the son of Ceidio and a descendant of Coel Hen. His fortress, Caer Gwenddolau, stood on present-day Liddel Strength beside Liddel Water north of Carwinley Burn. It is likely Gwenddolau’s rule extended throughout the present-day parish of Arthuret, which was then known as Arfderydd.

Gwenddolau was renowned as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of the Island of Britain and referred to as ‘Chief of the kings of the North’ suggesting he ruled some of the other kingdoms. His ownership of two birds who ate two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and two for supper suggests he practiced excarnation.

In 573 Gwenddolau’s kinsmen: Gwrgi, Peredur, and Dunawd, allied against him with Rhydderch Hael of Alt Clut. In spite of support from his nephew, Dreon ap Nudd, who fought bravely at the Dyke of Arfderydd, and his ability to conjure a mysterious battle-fog, Gwenddolau was killed during the Battle of Arfderydd. Afterward Gwyn ap Nudd gathered his soul.

The Welsh term for ‘chessboard’ is gwyddbwyll. Gwydd means ‘wood’ and pwyll ‘sense’ hence ‘wood sense’. It is translated here as ‘chess’. However it’s important to note that chess originated in the Arab world and was imported into Britain by the Normans in the 11th century. The game played by Gwenddolau would have been quite different to modern chessGwyddbwyll is associated with sovereigns in several medieval Welsh stories. In The Dream of the Emperor Maxen, in the hall of Elen of the Hosts, two lads play with silver and red gold pieces whilst a grey-haired man sits at a second board carving pieces with steel files from a bar of gold.

In Peredur the protagonist finds a board, like Gwenddolau’s, on which the two sides play each other and the losers shout ‘as if they were men’. Peredur is told the side of the Empress has lost and connects this with losing her Empire. This suggests the board represents a ruler’s kingdom.

Arthur and Owain Rheged play gwyddbwyll in Rhonabwy’s dream. The outcome of each game is connected with an ongoing battle between Arthur’s men and Owain’s ravens, suggesting it serves a divinatory function working from the level of microcosm to macrocosm.

One wonders whether Gwenddolau’s silver pieces fell before his death at the Battle of Arfderydd.

~

SOURCES

J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, (Clarendon Press, 1913)
John Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, (ABC-CLIO Ltd, 2006)
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)

10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd

The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric: whatever food might be wished for in them, it would be found.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

It’s a secret knowledge
passed down by generations:
the perfection of malt, mash, wort,
the duration of fermentation,
the best flavouring herbs.

Rhygenydd kept the doors
of his brewery shut – the people
of the North imagined him winnowing,
threshing, malting, sparging, boiling,
praying as he added yeast

and closed the lid of the vat.
They wondered if he knelt palms
pressed together in prayer to God
or petitioned pagan grain gods,
for the Vat of Rhygenydd

brewed Britain’s finest food.
Little did they know with one wish
the cleric could summon any ale:
pale, light, malty, dark, bitter
with bog myrtle or sweetened

with heather or meadowsweet,
that behind closed doors he liked
to sample each tipple and could
be found snoring contentedly,
an empty tankard in his hand.

To which monastery did he pass on
his secret and who owns the vat now?
I’m doing a round of the breweries,
comparing pales, IPAs, stouts,
amassing my tasting notes…

The Vat of Rhygenydd

~

If I was a cleric
with a magical dish
would I take it round
the cities of the North:
Liverpool, Manchester,
York, Carlisle, Newcastle,
Glasgow, Edinburgh,
in each square wish up
bread, fruit, stew, soup,
feed all the homeless
or keep it locked up
in a gold-adorned box
opened only on Sundays
and offer one thin wafer
to melt on each tongue?

The Dish of Rhygenydd

~

Rhygenydd Ysgolhaig ‘the Cleric’ does not appear by that name in any other sources. Rachel Bromwich notes the resemblance of the name to Renchidus episocpus who with Elbobdus episcoporum sanctissmus (Saint Elfoddw) gave Nennius the information about the baptism of Edwin of Deira by Rhun ap Urien, which appears in The History of the Britons.

 Nennius notes Edwin seized the kingdom of Elmet from Ceretic (son of Gwallog) and a year later received baptism by Rhun along with twelve thousand of his subjects within forty days. This took place in York in 627. By this time Rheged had been integrated into Northumbria. It seems Rhun maintained a position of power as a bishop. As Rendichus gives such importance to Rhun baptising Edwin it is possible he was connected with former Rheged and supported the taking of Elmet from Ceretic, whose father, Gwallog had turned against Urien and his sons.

Vat is translated from gren, ‘big vat or vessel, tub, pail, pitcher’. I found this somewhat confusing in relation to its property of generating ‘food’ until I realised that, well into the medieval period, ale was seen as a food-like source of nourishment and the vat was likely used for brewing.

People have been brewing in Britain since grain has been cultivated. In Skara Brae on Orkney,  Neolithic buildings were found with a malting floor, kiln flue, pots for mashing, and huge Grooved Ware pots with stone lids for fermentation that contained 30 gallons. ‘Vats’ of this nature have been found near a number of Neolithic henges and stone circles demonstrating the longevity of our tradition of drinking at seasonal rituals.

Although wine was imported into Britain in the Roman period, it was mainly drunk by the ruling classes. Soldiers and non-Romans, particularly the Britons, drank ale. Wine was consumed less in the North because of the difficulties transporting it. One of the tablets from Vindolanda is inscribed with a request to ‘order beer’ for the soldiers and our earliest reference to a brewer: Atrecus cervesarious, is from the Roman town.

When the Roman Empire collapsed it was the monasteries who retained the knowledge of brewing and wine-making. This fits perfectly with Rhygenydd the Cleric owning a magical vat.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when people began eating from wooden plates or dishes because wood rots. One of the earliest examples in Britain comes from the Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm where ‘a number of wooden platters… carved from a single piece of wood’ were preserved due to a fire.

Although people began hand-making pots from clay by the open fire method during the Neolithic period we do not find any earthenware plates. Wheel-made Samian tableware along with silver and pewter dishes were imported by the Romans. One of the best known dishes is the Great Dish, which was made of silver, weighed 8 kilograms, and was decorated with the face of Neptune and other Roman deities including Bacchus, Pan, Silenus, maenads, and nymphs.

Was Rhygenydd’s dish of similar make and proportions, perhaps minus the pagan deities, or was it humbler? Within the Christian tradition bread is served on a ‘paten’, a small plate, usually made of silver or gold’ as part of the mystery of the Eucharist alongside wine.

 ~

SOURCES

Kenneth Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section in Nennius,’ Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border, (Cambridge University Press, 1964)
Michelle of Heavenfield, ‘PW Rhun ap Urien of Rheged, Heavenfield
Merryn Dineley and Graham Dineley, ‘From Grain to Ale: Skara Bra, a Case Study’, Neolithic Orkney in its European Context, (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2000)
Robin Wood, ‘History of the Wooden Plate’
Rupert Millar, ‘Send beer! The Romans in North Britain’, The Drinks Business
Alcohol in the Middle Ages, Dark Ages, or Medieval Period’, Alcohol Problems and Solutions
Dig Diary 25: Wooden Objects’, Must Farm
Gren’, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru
Paten’, Wikipedia
Mildenhall Treasure’, Wikipedia

9. The Coat of Padarn

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.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I don’t want to look at it,
let alone touch it,
try it on.

Padarn’s ‘red coat’
is Tyrian purple:

colour of the Roman Empire;
its emperors, consuls, priests.

If it touched my shoulders
one of us would
shrivel

like bolindus brandaris
boiled in a vat.

At Tyre are mountains
of snail shells –

it took twelve thousand
just to dye the trim.

I’m spitting mucus.

I’d rather go naked
than wear that thing!

~

The Coat of Padarn - drawing - border

~

Padarn (Paternus) Beisrudd ‘Red Coat’ was born around 300 and was the son of Tegid (Tacitus). He was the ruler of Manaw Gododdin, a kingdom that may have centred on present-day Clachmannan ‘stone of Mannan/Manaw’ and perhaps extended to include Din Eidyn. His son, Edern (Aeternus), was the father of Cunedda Wledig, founder of Gwynedd.

The Latin names in Padarn’s pedigree suggest his rulership was subject to Roman authority. John Rhys argues Padarn’s ‘red coat’ was a purple robe worn by Roman officials. This fits with the fact the Tyrian purple symbolic of power in the Roman Empire ranged from red to purple to dried blood.

The dye was made from the mucus of a snail called bolinus brandaris, which was extracted by boiling the creatures in a vat for several days. To make 1.4g – enough to provide pigment for the hem of one robe – took twelve thousand snails. Mountains of their shells have been found in Tyre.

Padarn’s fame and his red coat seem to be bound up with him being held in favour by Rome. The descent of the rulers of Gwynedd from the northern lineage of Padarn is held important in Wales to this day. This is probably the source of the lines about his coat only fitting well born men.

In other lists of the Thirteen Treasures it is stated the coat will fit anyone whether they are well born or a churl or large or small or, obversely, that it will only fit Padarn. An additional property is that it will prevent its wearer from coming to harm. These might stem from older lore about magical garments originating from Annwn.

Curiously, in The Life of St Padarn, Padarn, who lived during the 6th century, is named as the owner of a tunic that Arthur longs for. Padarn refuses to give it to Arthur because it is ‘not fitting for the habit of a malign person, but for the habit of the clerical office’. Arthur storms away and returns levelling the ground with his feet. Padarn asks the earth to swallow Arthur, who he is buried to his chin until he acknowledges his guilt and begs forgiveness. This strange tale perhaps originates from the earlier Padarn’s red coat.

~

SOURCES

Colin Schultz, ‘In Ancient Rome, Purple Dye Was Made From Snails’, Smithsonian
Mark Bradley, ‘The Colour Purple in Ancient Rome’, Issuu
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)
Padarn’, Wikipedia
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