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,

3. The Horn of Brân

The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

Imagine taking it to a party:
speak a word and it will be filled
with any beverage you wish.

Mead, wine, bragget, beer…
I wonder if this old faery horn
could conjure Piña Colada,

Cosmopolitan, Margarita.
I’d be the party’s heart and soul,
bubble-headed, champagne-light.

Yet at the end when I’m the only one
still drinking and no fancy cocktail
will satisfy my appetite

I’ll be thinking of miserly Brân
sipping from its rim with slobbery lips,
pork fat greasing his thick black beard,

sitting all alone with a hole in his heart.
Surrounded by treasure he’s slipping
away into the emptiness within.

All the mead in the horn cannot save him.
Only giving it up to a loquacious bard
or prophet can redeem him.

With one last wish I’ll drink to Brân
then put his horn in the twitching hand
of the drunkard snoring on the sofa

and leave like he did through a window
on the wings of a croaking raven
into the dawn mist.

~

The horn of Bran - drawing - border

~

Brân Galed ‘the Niggard’ was the son of Dyfnwal and Ymellyrn (his mother’s name is confusingly also spelt Mellyrn, Emellyr, Ewerydd, Ywerit, and Iwerydd). This places him within the Coel Hen lineage.

Brân was a contemporary of Rhydderch, Urien, Morgan, and Gwallog, and was perhaps present at the battle against the Angles on Ynys Metcaut. After the assassination of Urien, Brân joined Morgan and Gwallog hounding Urien’s cousin, Llywarch Hen, forcing him to flee from the North to Powys, and attacking Urien’s sons.

Brân’s place of origin and whether he ruled a kingdom remain unknown. His appearance alongside Gwallog and Gwenddolau in the list of northern warriors whose souls Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god of the dead, gathers from the battlefield suggests he was important. Brân died in battle at an unknown place called Cynwyd fighting Pelis, Urien’s son.

Horns held a central role in Brythonic drinking culture. Every warlord owned a drinking-horn and shared its contents with his warriors in his feasting hall. In Culhwch and Olwen, getting the horn of Gwlgad Gododdin to pour for Culhwch’s wedding feast is amongst the impossible tasks. Gwlgad is the steward of Mynyddog Mwynfawr, ruler of the Gododdin tribe of Din Eidyn.

In The Gododdin Mynyddog feasted three hundred men for a year on mead and wine before their ill-fated attack on Catraeth. In the individual elegies we find out many of the warriors possessed horns:  ‘Blaen on his feather cushion dispensed / The drinking-horn in his opulent court’; ‘Gwrelling – / His drinking-horn was handsome / in the hall of Eidyn.’

Brân’s epithet suggests that in spite of, or perhaps because of, the magical property of his horn – that it provided whatever drink one wished – he did not share it generously with his warriors.

In the marginalia of an early list is a story about how Myrddin gathered the treasures from the thirteen owners. They all agreed to hand their treasures over if Myrddin obtained Brân’s horn, assuming Brân was so niggardly he would never give it up. Somehow, Myrddin persuaded Brân to give him the horn and he took all the treasures to a glass house where they remain forever.

Guto’r Glyn suggests Taliesin played a role in Brân’s decision:  ‘Miserly, niggardly Brân they used to call him, who of old was descended from the Men of the North; Taliesin, no mean magician, transformed him into one better than the three generous men.’ (Rhydderch, Senyllt, and Nudd Hael). In another variant, Hercules slays a centaur and obtains Brân’s horn from its head.

Brân’s horn was obviously significant and we might speculate it was originally the horn of a mythical beast. As real drinking-horns were usually made from the horns of cattle I wonder if it was the horn of an otherworldly bull, akin to the Brindled Ox, who was stolen from Annwn.

~

SOURCES

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

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.