The Magician of the Orme III – Fairy Magic in Wales

Following my visit to the Great Orme I began researching the possibility of the existence of a magician who invoked the spirits of Annwn/fairies, recorded their names in a book, and was executed in 1679.

I found out, in contrast to England and Scotland, the numbers of persecutions for witchcraft in Wales were very low. Between 1568 and 1698 forty-two suspects were prosecuted, eight were found guilty, and five sentenced to death. The earliest and most famous case was Gwen ferch Ellis, who was hung in Denbigh town square in 1594. Most of the suspects were women, but included yeomen.

I did not find any cases of execution for witchcraft in Ruthin in 1679. However, there was a gallows outside the courthouse in Ruthin linked to the gaol. The last hanging took place in 1679 and was a Catholic priest called Father Charles Mahoney, who was shipwrecked trying to make his way home to Ireland from Rome.

Intriguingly, in relation to the name of the magician that came through to me being Hugh, I found a reference to a Hugh Bryghan who was persecuted for using ‘art magic’ in Glamorgan much earlier in 1568. He was a soothsayer who found stolen goods through scrying, with the aid of a helper, in a crystal. He denied using ‘familiar spirits’ or keeping them in a crystal and escaped with a fine.

In Wales a wide variety of names were used to refer to magical practitioners – hudolwyr ‘magician’, rheibwyr ‘wizard’, daroganwyr’ ‘soothsayer, swynwyr or swynwraig ‘charmer’ or ‘cunning man’ or ‘cunning woman’, consuwyr ‘conjuror’. The Welsh word for magic is hud. The term wits ‘witch’ is an English loan-word and both it, and persecutions for witchcraft, seem to be English importations. It may thus be suggested that the Welsh were far more tolerant of their magical practitioners.

shui rhys and the tylwyth teg from British Goblins

Richard Suggett notes that, in Wales, there was a longstanding tradition of magical practitioners gaining their ‘power and knowledge’ from Y Tylwyth Teg ‘the Fair Family’ or ‘fairies’. Because they were not ‘constrained by the ordinary limits of time, space and body… they had access to knowledge ordinarily unavailable to men and women.’ This included ‘knowledge of many hidden things’, ‘how to cure illnesses that were beyond the expertise of physicians and surgeons’ and ‘information on the future as well as the past. Because of these characteristics, some enchanters specialised in trying to obtain knowledge from the fairies. Cunning-folk would deny that they had dealings with devils or familiars, but they might concede – or even boast – that they consulted the fairies.’

Unfortunately the two examples we have of prosecutions of persons who claimed a relationship with fairies were charlatans. In 1636 Harry Lloyd of Llandygai was accused of ‘wicked and unlawful arts’ and ‘familiarity with wicked spirits’. He tricked his victims by saying he would make them rich in ‘gold and silver’, which he received from the fairies when on Tuesday and Thursday nights, if they would give him a few shillings to buy candles. Of course these offerings were never enough to prevail, he asked for more and more more money and the fairy gold and silver never materialised.

Ann Jones claimed to be able to heal with the aid of the fairies through magical ‘dew gathered in the month of May’. To heal the sick daughter of John Lewys she said the fairies needed some money on which the girl had breathed. She took nine shillings and did not return. Likewise she told Griffith ap Owen that to cure his child she needed money to show to the fairies and disappeared with 40 shillings in gold. She was committed to Denbighshire gaol and died during her imprisonment.

More significantly, for this line of research, there is also evidence of fairies being invoked by ritual magicians and their spells for invoking and controlling appearing in books. According to Ronald Hutton ‘Fairies were also directly involved in practical magical operations, as proved by the surviving manuscripts of sorcerers from the period between 1560 and 1640. Five contain directions for their invocation and control.’

Suggett notes that conjurers rose to a position of particular importance during the seventeenth century. ‘The title ‘conjurer’ implied a reputation for conjuration, that is the magical technique of invoking and controlling spirits. This was the ars magna of the conjurer. Some conjurers were believed to keep devils, which permanently resided in their magic books.’

Suggett also speaks about the importance of knowing the names of fairies. ‘The fairies lacked the named individuality of human society or, rather, fairy names were not readily apparent to humans. The discovery of a fairy name was part of the process which integrated them – temporarily – in human society. This seems to be fundamental.’ This might be linked to a magician who learnt the names of the spirits of Annwn/fairies and wrote these down, along with invocations and commands in a book.

Some fascinating examples of conjurer’s books are provided by Suggett:

Conjurers compiled their own manuscript books of recipes, charms and incantations, and a few have survived… The most interesting of these manuscripts is the secret book (‘llyfr cyfrin’) of an unnamed Denbighshire wise-man. This stubby volume has been described by Kate Bosse Griffiths: it has 200 pages but was small enough to fit in the pocket of a great coat. The contents were written in Welsh and English and included several conjuring formulae to summon the spirits called fairies (tylwyth teg); a formula to invocate and converse with spirits of the dead; methods of telling fortunes through astrology; and various charms in English and Welsh, one with the note that these ‘words being spoke with grate revarens and faith has don wonders’…

The most famous conjuring Book in Wales was the chained and padlocked book Cwrtycadno. The appearance of this volume was a piece of pure theatre. The large book secured with three locks was placed on the table during consultation but remained locked; it was rumoured that the conjurer’s devils resided within it.

The latter was part of the library of the famous Welsh conjurers of the Harries family who prospered during the nineteenth century at the end of the which the book mysteriously disappeared.

This shows that magicians/conjurers and books recording the names, invocations, and commands of fairies certainly existed during the seventeenth century. I found no evidence for ‘The Book of the Living Hand’ or the Magician of the Orme yet my research showed their existence was possible.

SOURCES

Ronald Hutton, ‘The Making of the Early Modern British Fairy Tradition’, The Historical Journal, 57, 4, (Cambridge Press, 2014)
Richard Suggett, A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales, (The History Press, 2008)
Richard Suggett, Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Wales, (Attramentous Press, 2018)

Maelawr Gawr and Gwerthmwl Wledig: Pen Dinas in Retrospect

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When I went to visit Heron in Borth last year I stayed in Aberystwyth. On my last day I had the chance to climb Pen Dinas (‘Head of the Citadel’). This is the name of the northern summit of the hill overlooking Aberstwyth which lies between the rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol.

When I made my visit, I went with limited knowledge. I’d read on Wikipedia that there was a Bronze Age burial mound on the southern summit. It was the site of two consecutive Iron Age hill-forts, one of which had been raided. The Romans did not occupy the hill, but a 4thC hoard of coins suggested they used it as a shrine.

I also read that Pen Dinas was associated with Maelawr Gawr (‘the giant’) who had three sons called Cornippyn, Crygyn and Babwa. Like in so many British stories he was presented as an adversary. In this case it isn’t clear what he’d done wrong. The crux of the story is that he was captured in Cyfeiliog and sentenced to death.

Maelawr asked his enemies a final request: to blow on his horn three times. The horn was so loud and forceful that on the first blow his hair and beard fell out, on the second his finger and toenails fell off and on the third the horn blasted apart and crumbled into pieces.

Cornippyn heard the horn whilst he was out hunting with horse and hound. He set off to rescue his father so fast he tore the head off his hound. He spurred his horse on in one leap over the Ystwyth and was slain in his attack on Maelor’s captors. Crygyn and Bwba were murdered in their fortresses in Llanilar and Llanbadarn Fawr the same night.

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I was drawn up the hill by the magnetism of the Wellington Monument on the northern summit. It felt like a strong place: like the aura of giant wasn’t quite gone nor the feeling of relative safety offered by occupying a high hill.

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Looking toward Penparcau I didn’t spot or hear a headless hound but I did see a pair of ravens.

Clouds marched in on a growing wind. I found myself feeling distant from the harbour beneath, Aberystwyth and the cliff railway, not so much in place but time.

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I felt Gwyn’s presence and that of others cloaked in cloud and knew he had been there to gather the dead.

That was unexpected and it wasn’t until several months later I found a possible explanation. In The Triads of the Island of Britain I found the fragments of a story set during the Dark Ages.

One of ‘Three Horses who carried the Three Horse Burdens’ is ‘Dappled the horse of the sons of Gwerthmwl Wledig, who carried Gweir and Gleis and Archenad up the hill of Maelawr in Ceredigion to avenge their father.’

‘The hill of Maelawr’ has been identified as Pen Dinas by Owen Jones. In Cymru, he says ‘in the land of Aber Teifi there was in former times before Brutus came to this island, the giant Maylor, and the place where he lives is still called Castell Maylor, built upon a high hill or ridge which is called Y Dinas, beside the river Ystwyth, within the freehold of the town of Aberystwyth.’

It appears that Gwerthmwl led an attack on Maelawr and was defeated hence his three sons rode up Pen Dinas to avenge him. Pen Dinas was the site of two Dark Age battles as well as a raid in the Iron Age. There is no record of whether Gwerthmwl’s sons succeeded.

Further research turned up that Gwerthmwl was an important (albeit now forgotten) figure in British mythology who originated from northern Britain. In Rhonabwy’s Dream he appears as one of forty-two of Arthur’s counsellors.

In the ‘Three Tribal Thrones’ he is listed as ‘Chief Elder’ in ‘Pen Rhionydd in the North’ alongside ‘Arthur as Chief of Princes’ and ‘Cyndeyrn Garthwys’ (St Kentigern) as ‘Chief of Bishops’.

Pen Rhionydd has been identified with Ptolemy’s Rerigonium ‘very royal place’ and may have been located on the Rhinns. One possible location is Port Patrick, which used to be called Portree (from port righ ‘King’s Port’). Another is Penrith. Wherever Pen Rhionydd was, Gwerthmwl’s three sons travelled a long way to avenge their father’s death.

Gwerthmwl also appears in The Triads as one of ‘Three Bull-Spectres’. Epithets such as Bull Chieftain, Bull Protector and Bull of Battle were commonly assigned to Dark Age warriors to illustrate their strength and battle-prowess.

Gwerthmwl’s status as a Bull-Spectre suggests he was as a bull-epitheted warrior who remained as a ghost. Another interpretation is he became wyllt ‘wild’ or ‘mad’ as a result of his battle with Maelawr (the welsh for Bull Spectre is tharw ellyll).

It is notable that Gwyn, who is addressed as a Bull of Battle by Gwyddno Garanhir, has strong associations with warriors with bull-epithets and gwyllon.

The resting place of Gwerthmwl is listed in ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’:

‘The grave of a chieftain from the North
is in the open land of Gwynasedd,
where the Lliw flows into the Llychwr;
at Celli Friafael is the grave of Gyrthmwl.’

Gwerthmwl’s grave is where the Lliw runs into the Llwchwr near Casllwchwr in Gower. He was buried a long way south of Pen Dinas and a long, long way from Pen Rhionydd in the North.

In the story of Maelawr and Gwerthmwl I come across another example of the destructive conflicts between the people of Wales and the North which Gwyn attended as a psychopomp.

What makes this particular story interesting is that Maelawr is most famously remembered as a giant. This raises the question of whether he was always known as a giant or was a human chieftain who literally grew in status after defending his hill from Gwerthmwl.

Could the story of Maelawr’s capture and death be founded on the vengeance of the sons of Gwerthmwl?

The answer lies buried as the giant’s bones, his fallen beard, fingernails, toenails, the broken pieces of his horn which still blasts clouds over the pillar that marks the location of his citadel.

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SOURCES

Mike McCarthy, ‘Rheged: An Early Historic Kingdom near the Solway’ in Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 132 (2002),
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)
Wikipedia ‘Pen Dinas’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pen_Dinas

Gwyn ap Nudd and Du y Moroedd: Travelling the Old North, Wales and Beyond

In Culhwch and Olwen, Du y Moroedd (‘The Black of the Seas’) is introduced as the only horse who can carry Gwyn ap Nudd on the hunt for Twrch Twryth (‘King of Boars’). Du is a water-horse of celebrated fame in the Brythonic tradition. A study of his stories reveals that, like Gwyn, he is intimately connected with the landscapes and peoples of the Old North and Wales. He is also a traveller between worlds and thus a most fitting mount for Annwn’s ruler on his hunt for the greatest of boars.

The most detailed piece of information we possess about Du appears in The Triads of the Islands of Britain. As one of three ‘horse burdens’ he ‘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.’

The historical basis of this triad is Elidyr’s seaward journey from his home in northern Britain to Wales to seize the throne of Gwynedd from Rhun, Maelgwn’s illegitimate son (Elidyr’s claim was based on his marriage to Eurgain). Elidyr was killed at Aber Mewydd near Arfon. Afterward his fellow Men of the North; Clydno Eidyn, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael and Rhydderch Hael took vengeance by burning Arfon. Rhun and all the men of Gwynedd pursued them north to the river Gweryd.

This demonstrates the complex ancestral and political relationships between the people of the north and Wales and exemplifies the internecine strife that eventually led to the fall of the northern Brythonic kingdoms. It also shows that armies travelled between the Old North and Wales by land and sea.

It is of interest the Men of the North who came to avenge Elidyr are all of the ‘Macsen Guledig’ lineage. This places them in the same family as Gwyn’s ally and rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol and his kinsmen who Gwyn battles against and takes captive. Gwyn’s relationship with these northern men as a ruler of Annwn is just as fraught and unstable as relations between human rulers.

That Gwyn rides the same horse as Elidyr strengthens the sense of his familial ties with these Men of the North. That he acts as a psychopomp to several northern warriors suggests he may have been seen as an ancestral god. This is backed up by common usage of the name Nudd: Nudd Hael, Dreon ap Nudd and Nudus (the Latinised form from a memorial stone in Yarrow).

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I assume Du is named as the only horse who can carry Gwyn due to his capacity to move between worlds. This is supported by analogy with The Pursuit of Giolla Dheachair where a ‘monstrous horse’ carries fifteen and a half of Finn’s (Gwyn’s Irish counterpart) companions to the Otherworld.

In this context it seems possible the triad depicts the surprise arrival of Elidyr and his party from the blackness of the sea on the darkest of nights as if from (or perhaps literally from!) the Otherworld. After Elidyr’s death one can imagine Gwyn appearing aboard this great water-horse on the bank of the Arfon to escort him to Annwn.

Du’s possession of uncanny and even monstrous qualities is echoed in later water-horse legends. In Brigantia: A Mysteriography Guy Ragland Phillips identifies the Black Horse of Bush Howe (a horse-shaped landscape feature of stone on the Howgill Fells in Cumbria) with Du. He suggests Elidyr’s northern Benllech was Bush Howe and cites an alignment down Long Rigg Beck valley to Morecambe to Anglesey saying the horse would be within its line of sight.

Ragland Phillips also claims a ‘dobbie cult’ centres on the Black Horse. ‘Dobbie’ is the ‘Brigantian’ name for a water-horse and he defines it as ‘a big, black misshapen thing that ‘slips about’. Like dobbin (a term still commonly used in the north for horses who are ploddy or woodenheaded) it ‘may have for its first element the Celtic Dhu, ‘black’.’

David Raven records a recent visit to the site, during which he photographed the Black Horse and stood on its back. Afterward he found out from a local historian that in the 1930’s and 40’s school children used to be allowed a day off to maintain the horse. A village elder said this was a practice undertaken by farmers in the pre-war period on an ‘annual Boon Day’.

This is strongly suggestive of cult activity and a longstanding service to the Black Horse. Jack (the village elder) also told David of a legend about Roman legions using the horse as a landmark on their travels ‘up the Lune valley, from Lancaster to Penrith and Carlisle.’ The Black Horse of Bush Howe is associated with travelling the northern landscape too.

The continuity of Du’s fame in Wales is attested by Welsh poetry. He appears in The Song of the Horses, a poem attributed to Taliesin: ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’. He is frequently used as a standard of comparison. Guto’r Glyn compares a foal with the ‘Son of the Black One of Prydyn’ (Du’s grandson) and Tudur Aled compares another horse with Du saying he is of ‘greater vigour… such was his strength and daring.

Like northern Britain, Wales has a water-horse tradition: the ‘ceffyl dwr’. I haven’t found any water-horse stories connected with Anglesey or Arfon on the internet but this doesn’t eliminate the possibility they exist in Welsh literature or folk memory.

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Finally I’d like to return to Gwyn’s partnership with Du on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth in Culhwch and Olwen. Ysbaddaden’s statement to Culhwch that the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn is found hints at his role as a divine huntsmen and former leader of the boar hunt. Culhwch’s central task of assembling an array of renowned huntsmen, hounds and horses to hunt the Twrch is founded on an older and deeper myth.

About its details we can only conjecture. It is my guess it featured Gwyn, huntsmen, horses and hounds pursuing the King of Boars. It may have contained clues to the ‘mysteries’ of hunting: the hunt, the kill and ensuing feast as sacred activities based on an earlier shamanistic perspective.

Further insights may be gained by analogy with Odin’s hunting of the boar Saehrimnir (‘Sooty Sea-Beast’). Odin rides a great black eight-legged horse who can travel between worlds called Sleipnir (‘Slippy’ or ‘Slipper’). After the hunt Saehrimnir is cooked every evening but the next day is whole. Odin’s feast in Valhalla is mirrored by Gwyn’s feast in his otherworldy hall (in The Life of St Collen on Glastonbury Tor). Perhaps Gwyn’s hunt also rides each day to slay the Twrch then magically he is reborn and this reflects the sacred acts of hunting and eating and the procreation of the boar.

In Culhwch and Olwen it is not mentioned whether Gwyn or Du are found. They do not appear on Arthur’s hunt. Gwyn only comes when summoned by Arthur, who asks him if he knows the whereabouts of Twrch Twryth after he disappears at Glyn Ystun. It is implicit Arthur is seeking Gwyn’s knowledge because he suspects the Twrch has fled to Annwn. Gwyn claims he does not know anything about Twrch Trwyth. It is my intuition he is lying to protect the King of Boars and perhaps to cause mischief.

Following a chase across Wales and finally to Cornwall, whereby many of Arthur’s men are injured or killed by the Twrch and his piglets, they finally catch him and remove the comb and shears from between his ears. Afterward he is driven into the sea, which is suggestive of his return to Annwn. It is of interest that, unlike other otherworldly animals he confronts, Arthur does not slay Twrch Trwyth.

In later Welsh folklore Gwyn is depicted as a demon huntsman aboard a monstrous black horse who preys on the souls of sinners. This image derives from and parodies his partnership with Du as a divine huntsmen and his role as a guide of the dead. Whereas he was revered as much as feared by the pagan Britons, in this Christianised guise he solely brings terror (a misguided and one-sided view).

Gwyn and Du’s names disappear from the stories of northern Britain completely after the medieval period. It seems possible their myths lie behind some of our stories of spectral huntsmen and dobbies but due to the complex intermingling of local legends with Brythonic and Germanic lore the origins of these tales cannot be ascertained.

Yet our landscape remembers the travels of Gwyn and Du across the Old North, Wales and beyond by land and sea. On the paths of the hunt and at river-estuaries where tides beat the shore to gull-cries and winds of distant longing they are still here.

Ribble EstuarySOURCES
Bartrum, Peter A Welsh Classical Dictionary (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Bromwich, Rachel (ed.) The Triads of the Islands of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Ragland Phillips, Guy Brigantia: A Mysteriography (Routledge and Keegan Paul Ltd, 1976)
Raven, David http://davidraven-uk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/black-horse-of-bush-howe.html
Rhys, John Studies in the Arthurian Legend (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Sturluson, Snorri The Prose Edda (Penguin Books, 2005)

Teyrnllwg: A Bright Kingdom Slips Away Like Dust

A couple of weeks ago something immensely exciting happened: I received a response to queries on my blog regarding the black hole in the post-Roman history of Lancashire. A Penwortham resident called Ozrico told me the area between the Ribble and the Dee was known as Theyrnllwg. It belonged to the Britons until the Battle of Chester in 613 where its king, Brocmail, took on the Saxon king, Aethelfrith (and lost).

Therynllwg! I thought I had finally found the lost name of the kingdom to which south Lancashire belonged. Not only that, I had the name of its king!

Searching the internet, I found two sources for Theyrnllwg. The first was Charles Onam’s England Before the Norman Conquest (1921). Onam said ‘the lands between the Ribble and the Dee’ were ‘originally known as Therynllwg, of which the later Powys was the surviving remnant. It then extended from the Ribble to the Upper Wye, and from the Clwyd to Cannock Chase, and had been for a century a connecting link between the Britons of the North and those of the West.’

Onam’s words extended the territory of Theyrnllwg into Wales and were doubly exciting because for the first time I had found scholarship stating the area we now know as Lancashire formed a link between Wales and the Old North. This would have meant people had a connecting route (or routes) by which to trade and on their travels would have shared myths and stories. In relation to my on-going quest to uncover Gwyn ap Nudd’s forgotten connections with the Old North, if he was known in Wales and by the Strathclyde Britons this would have made it likely he was known in Lancashire too.

Through a reference in the footnotes, I traced Onam’s words back to William Stubbs’ Origines Celticae (1883) where I found within a list of Welsh names of districts ‘Theyrnllwg from Aerfen to Argoed Derwenydd’ (the river Arfon in Gwynedd and the woodland of the river Derwent in Cumbria?). This extended Theyrnllwg further and led to more sources. Stubbs said the list originated from the ‘Iolo MSS’ and this was ‘taken from a MS belonging to Mr Cobb of Cardiff, and is a mere fragment, a page of the MS having been torn out.’

Having obtained as much information as I could on the internet, I contacted Heron (who lives in Wales and is knowledgeable on such matters) and asked if he knew anything about Theyrnllwg. When I received his answer I was greatly disappointed.

Heron replied saying the name Theyrnllwg derives from Teyrnllwg and sent me an extract from Peter Bartrum’s A Welsh Classical Dictionary (1994). Bartrum stated Teyrnllwg was an ‘imaginary territory’ derived from the name of Cadell Ddyrnllug, a prince of Powys mistakenly taken to be its ruler.

I found out Cadell Ddyrnllug first appeared in Nennius’ History of the Britons (830) as Catel Durnluc, a servant of the tyrannical king of Powys, Benlli. When St Germanus arrived to remonstrate Benlli, Castel offered him hospitality. After Benlli, his city and his subjects had been burned by fire from heaven, Germanus rewarded Castel for his hospitality by making him king. This fulfilled ‘the prophecy of the Psalmist: “He raiseth up the poor from dust, and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill”.’

Bartrum said in modern Welsh Durnluc would take ‘the form Ddyrnlluch or Ddyrnllug, meaning ‘gleaming hilt’, from dwrn, ‘hilt’ and lluch, ‘gleaming’ or llug, ‘bright’. The meaning evidently became obscure very early, and was perhaps interpreted as derived from teyrn, ‘prince’ and llwch, ‘dust’. This may have been the basis of the legend which derived Cadell from a humble origin, the author actually quoting Psalm 113 vv.7.8.’

The name Teyrnllwg was later and erroneously identified as Teyrnllwg’s kingdom. When I looked it up on the internet, I found a pamphlet titled The Fictitious Kingdom of Teyrnllwg (1960) by Melville Richards reprinted for Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society which provided further explanation.

The Fictitious Kingdom of TeyrnllwgIn its two pages Richards criticises an earlier article by Dr. J . D. Bu’Lock which ‘recreates the history of ‘The lost kingdom of Teyrnllwg’’ saying he has been misled by ‘the comparative validity and authenticity of the Welsh material’ (ie. the Iolo MS). ‘Dyrnllug is an epithet which can be readily analysed as dwrn (‘fist’) and llug (‘bright’), referring to some (?) physical characteristic of Cadell… By the fifteenth century Dyrnllug had become Deyrnllug in the genealogical lists.’

Teyrnllwg became accepted as a ‘territorial designation’ firstly because teyrn means ‘king, ruler’ and secondly because -wg was a common territorial suffix (ie. Morgannwg ‘country of Morgan’). Whilst Richards accepted the possible existence of a kingdom in the area of Cheshire and Lancashire he stated adamantly ‘its name was not Teyrnllwg’.

The existence of Teyrnllwg, kingdom of a prince with a bright and gleaming hilt or fist who rose from dust was well and truly refuted. (Although it continues to exist in the gleaming brightness of the name. The glamoury of a bright kingdom slipping away like dust…)

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However a loose end remained to be tied up. If Teyrnllwg was fictitious what about Brocmail, its king? Oman said Brocmail is the son of Cincen, a descendant of Cadell. I discovered this was backed up by the Harleian MS 3859: The Genealogies, where he appears in the lineage of the rulers of Powys ‘[S]elim map Cinan map Brocmayl map Cincen map Maucanu map Pascent map Cattegirn map Catel dunlurc.’

It was also likely Brocmail was present in the Battle of Chester. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (8th C) Brocmail was the guard of 1200 monks from Bangor who had come to pray for the Welsh army. When the Saxon ruler Aethelfrith commanded his army to slaughter them, Brocmail fled, escaping with fifty.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (9th C) stated Scromail (a mis-spelling of Brocmail?) was the leader of the Welsh. After Aethelfrith slew ‘countless Welsh’ and ‘200 priests’ ‘he escaped as one of fifty.’ In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) Brocmail was Earl of Leicester and the battle took place in Leicester. Brocmail made a stand against Aethelfrith, in spite of having less soldiers, and only fled after he had ‘inflicted exceeding great slaughter upon the enemy.’ This version also mentioned ‘one thousand two hundred monks’ were killed.

As Brocmail is listed as a king of Powys, it seems more likely he was a leader in the battle than a guard. Nick Higham notes Bede is unreliable because he is more concerned about writing ‘providential history’ than military reality and is dubious about the slaughter of the monks. This makes it possible Brocmail’s deposition from a British king who faced the Saxons to a cowardly guard reflects his bias. (However it is equally possible Monmouth’s glorification of him as a British king is biased too…).

Archaeological evidence from Heronbridge, near Chester (a group of skeletons with clear signs of violent injury buried in a pit, believed to be the dead of the Saxon victors) demonstrates the battle took place in Chester and not Leicester. From this we can derive that the Battle of Chester really took place, Brocmail took part in it, and at this pivotal point Cheshire, and perhaps south Lancashire, first became subject to Saxon rule.

Brocmail’s involvement in the Battle of Chester also demonstrates these areas had real political links with Powys. This is supported by the fact when the Mercian Saxons took rule, they formed an alliance with the rulers of Gwynedd and Powys to take on Oswald and the Saxons of Northumbria at Maserfelth (Makerfield in Lancashire). It seems likely they were drawing on a pre-existing alliance.

Whilst the kingdom of Terynllwg may be dismissed as fictitious, the name provides important clues to links between rulers of Powys and the Britons of Cheshire and Lancashire.

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A more realistic picture of these post-Roman British territories is drawn by Denise Kenyon in The Origins of Lancashire (1991). Kenyon notes attempts to locate Teyrnllwg in north-west England are not widely accepted. She goes on to suggest that concentrations of British place-names may be used to identify areas of lordship.

She posits three main territories. The first centres around Makerfield and Wigan and extends into the Leyland and Newton hundreds down to the Mersey (I assume its northern limit is the Ribble). The second includes the Fylde and centres on ‘Preese and Preesall, Greater and Little Eccleston and Inskip.’ There are two groups in Greater Manchester; around Manchester itself and ‘on the edge of the Rossendale forest’.

A further possibility is that ‘iuxta Rippel was in origin a small British kingdom or lordship encompassing the west Lancashire lowlands on either side of the Ribble, as far south as Makerfield, and extending into the Pennine foothills above Whalley’. These British lordships would have formed the basis for later Anglo-Saxon territorial units.

Kenyon identifies my home town of Penwortham as a ‘central place’ occupying a nodal position in the communication network on a crossing of the Ribble. She says its name is of interest as a hybrid of British and English: ‘Pen’ is British and means ‘hill’ whilst ‘ham’ is English and means ‘safe place’.

‘Ham’ names are indicative of ‘central places’ connected with ‘Roman military and industrial settlements’ (in Penwortham’s case Walton-le-dale) and are often seats of ancient parishes. The construction of the name reflects the acculturation of an important British ‘central place’ by the English.

Thus we have a picture of post-Roman Penwortham lying either on the northern edge of a British lordship centring around Makerfield or in the midst of iuxta Rippel. Differences between the dialects north and south of the Ribble (ie. ‘chester’ to the south and ‘caster’ to the north) make the former seem more probable. This lordship would have been taken over by the Saxons some time after the Battle of Chester. The ‘wahl’ element of Walton-le-dale suggests a strong British presence remained in this town, adjacent to Penwortham.

Kenyon’s identification of Penwortham as a central place on the communication network re-opens the possibility of it linking Wales and the North. Whilst most historians are dubious about connection by road due to boggy ground, the river Ribble was no doubt used for transport and communication with Penwortham as a look-out point and possible port.

Is there any way of making a case that the Britons of the lordship centring on Makerfield once shared a pagan mythology and told similar stories to those further north and in Wales?

The only evidence of native British pagan worship in the vicinity comes from Romano-British altars, statues and inscriptions to deities such as Deae Matronae (the mother goddesses), Apollo-Maponus (Maponos was a Brythonic god of youth) and Mars-Nodontis (Nodens was a Brythonic god of hunting and healing and is cognate with Nudd, Gwyn’s father). These are not in our Makerfield lordship but north of the Ribble in the Fylde.

That Kenyon believes the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical divisions are likely to have been founded on earlier British ones (drawing on the etymology of Eccles from eglys ‘church’) and monks from Bangor were praying for the Welsh army suggests the Britons had been Christian before the English arrived in 613.

How and when they were converted (or chose to convert) remains a matter for further investigation. Insights in this direction may throw light on how the ancient British gods and goddesses slipped from the consciousness of the people of my locality like the bright dust of Terynllwg.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwn: Remembering the Underworld Gods

I recently came across an article through the Caer Feddwyd Forum (1) called ‘The Underworld Gods’ by medieval scholar, Will Parker. It brought to my awareness the existence of an inscription in Chamalieres in central France, which took the form of a prayer or invocation addressed to an entity or group of entities known in Ancient Gaul as the andedion, ‘the Under-world God(s)’ or ‘Infernal One(s)’ (2).

Parker links the andedion to the Irish andee ‘non-gods’ and suggests a similar group of deities would have been worshipped in Iron Age Britain. Through etymological links between the ‘elements Clt. dio(n) (Ir. dé) ‘god(s)’ and ‘the suffix ande-/an-‘ he connects them to Annwn ‘not world’, Britain’s indigenous otherworld or underworld. Parker goes on to identify the andedion and andee with the spirits of Annwn and their ruler, Gwyn ap Nudd.

This is of interest to me because Gwyn is my patron god. Parker’s insights make it possible to trace a trajectory from Iron Age beliefs concerning underworld gods, through Gwyn’s appearances in medieval literature and later folklore to those who worship him today.

Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ is a Brythonic deity. His veneration dates back, at least, to the Iron Age, where he appears as Vindonnus ‘White or Clear Light,’ in a trio of Gallo-Brythonic inscriptions in Essarois. Here he is equated with Apollo, another hunter deity (3). It is likely he was worshipped across Britain as Vindos ‘White’ (4). It has also been conjectured that Gwyn and his hunting dog, Dormarth ‘Death’s Door’ occupied the astrological positions of Orion and Sirius to the ancient Britons.

Cave, SilverdaleParker suggests Late Bronze Age ‘ritual shafts’ and ‘offering pits’ containing depositions including human and animal bones, grain, pottery and metalwork express a ‘quid-pro-quo’ relationship between the ancient Britons and the underworld gods. If he is correct, it is possible that Vindos / Gwyn, Dormarth and other kindred spirits were involved in these rites.

Gwyn’s first literary appearances are in medieval Welsh texts; ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (11th C) in The Mabinogion and ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’ (13th C) in The Four Ancient Books of Wales. These texts have roots in an older, oral tradition and contain fragments of tales from across Britain that predate Christianity. A significant number of these, including two featuring Gwyn, are from ‘The Old North’ (5). This is important to me because I connect with Gwyn in Lancashire.

Parker argues that superstitions about the underworld gods carry over into The Mabinogion. This is evidenced in the disappearance of livestock, children and crops. Pwyll’s encounter with Arawn, a King of Annwn, is the catalyst for the unfolding drama of the first four Mabinogi. Parker says these stories show the spirits of Annwn could not ‘be simply dismissed or ignored. Instead, a complex narrative had to be constructed in which, through a series of symbolic ritual manoeuvres, their power was drawn out, confronted and finally neutralised.’ The attempts of medieval scholars to disempower these deities can be seen at work in the development of Gwyn’s mythology.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ (6) Gwyn is presented as a divine warrior returning from battle to the Tawe near the vale of Neath. Gwyddno, ruler of Cantre’r Gwaelod, speaks of and addresses him with reverence and respect. ‘Bull of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army, / The ruler of hosts, indisposed to anger, / Blameless and pure was his conduct in protecting life.’ Other epithets Gwyddno uses include ‘hope of armies’ and ‘hero of hosts.’ ‘Host’ may refer to the spirits of Annwn.

Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn, the son of Nud, / The lover of Creurdilad, the daughter of Lud.’ He names his horse as ‘the torment of battle’ and refers to Dormarth as ‘truly the best of dogs,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘round bodied’ and ‘ruddy nosed.’ References to his possession of a ‘polished ring’ and ‘golden saddle’ are also suggestive of his status.

The title ‘Bull of Conflict’ refers to Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp. At the end of the poem he describes his travels across Britain gathering the souls of fallen soldiers. He appears to be berating this task. ‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain, / From the East to the North; / I am alive, they in their graves! / I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain / From the East to the South / I am alive, they in death!’

This poem contains important clues about Gwyn’s identity as a divine warrior and huntsman, whose role was to gather the souls of the dead and take them to Annwn.

In ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion, Gwyn is depicted as a huntsman and advisor to King Arthur. His place in Arthur’s court list and apparent subjection to both Arthur and God may be read as attempts by medieval scholars’ to explain and downgrade his position.

That ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found’ (7) hints at his role as leader of the hunt, and knowledge of otherworldly beings. The Twrch was a king reputedly turned into a swine by God. When Gwyn does not reveal his location it is possible he is defending his own.

The advice of Gwyn and Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor Son of Scorcher’ is also needed by Arthur to find Pennant Gofid in the ‘uplands of hell,’ which Evans and Bromwich say is ‘clearly situated in North Britain’ (8). When they reach this location, Gwyn and Gwythyr advise Arthur in his defeat of the ‘The Hag of Pennant Gofid,’ another otherworldly entity. The parcity of their advice, which leads to several failed attempts by Arthur’s men before the Christian King is forced to step in to slay her, may also suggest that Gwyn and Gwythyr are acting as tricksters.

A pair of lines fundamental to understanding Gwyn’s mythos, and which continue to intrigue and perplex me, are the following; ‘God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ (9).

Taken literally, this seems to mean that at some point during the period of Christianisation God put the spirit of the demons of Annwn ‘in’ Gwyn’s person to prevent the world’s destruction. Or it may mean that he granted Gwyn rulership of them for this purpose. However, it is probable that the agency of God was brought in as a cover to excuse the prevalent belief in the existence of these spirits and their ruler.

Even if we assume God’s agency is a cover for existing beliefs, the notion that Gwyn somehow contains ‘the spirit of the demons of Annwn’ is a fascinating one. In a conversation via e-mail, Heron (10) told me the word ‘spirit,’ in Welsh, is ‘aryal,’ which can mean ‘ferocity,’ ‘essence’ or ‘nature’. He referred me to Evans and Bromwich, who say ‘Gwyn’s partaking of the ‘nature of the devils of Annwfn’ indicates a recognition on the part of the redactor of the tale that Gwyn ap Nudd belonged to a sinister and forbidden mythology’ (11). Within this mythology he may already be seen to embody the nature of these entities, or to hold power over them.

That the destruction of the world is at stake suggests Gwyn’s role was extremely significant. If it is assumed this notion has older roots, some of the offerings of the ancient Britons may be explained as attempts to placate these spirits and their ruler due to their destructive capacity. It is also possible Gwyn was invoked as the only being who could hold them in check.

Fears and superstitions surrounding Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn may lie behind the story of his abduction of Creiddylad. After Creiddylad, who is both Gwyn’s lover and sister, elopes with Gwythyr, Gwyn seizes her back. It might be assumed he takes her to Annwn, and that this suggests an underlying fear of being abducted by Gwyn and his forces.

Gwythyr amasses his armies and attacks Gwyn. Gwyn triumphs and captures a number of Gwythyr’s allies, who are mainly rulers of the Old North. During their captivity Gwyn slaughters Nwython, cuts out his heart and feeds it to his son, Cyledr, who goes mad. This could be read as a clear example of Gwyn’s ferocity and hints at existing superstitions about what goes on in Annwn.

Evans and Bromwich say the concentration of the names of people Gwyn kidnaps suggest ‘that north Britain was the ultimate place of origin for the Creiddylad episode, and that this incident was one of the surviving fragments of tradition emanating from there’ (12). It is therefore likely it originates in earlier beliefs held about Gwyn and his host by the Northern Britons.

Arthur eventually comes North to Gwythyr’s aid and frees his noblemen. Afterward he makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by placing a dihenydd ‘fate’ on them. This dictates that they must fight for Creiddylad’s hand every Calan Mai ‘May Day’. An added condition, which seems particularly unfair, is that Creiddylad must remain in her father’s house, and no matter who wins neither can take her until Judgement Day. It is likely Arthur’s agency was brought in to explain an earlier myth, which was already prevalent in the Old North.

Whilst, on one level, this myth may be about fears of abduction to the underworld, it is more frequently interpreted as a seasonal drama comparable with Hades’ capture of Persephone. In this reading, Creiddylad is a maiden goddess who embodies the powers of spring and fertility. Creiddylad’s abduction by Gwyn may explain the failure of these powers at Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. Gwythyr and Arthur’s rescue of her at Calan Mai, the first day of summer, may explain their resurgence.

Winter Hill

Winter Hill

Gwyn is also seen as the Winter King. It is possible his white, shining qualities relate to snow and cold, associations which could date back to the Ice Age. Elen Sentier links Gwyn with the reindeer goddess Elen of the Ways (13) and the Boreal forest. He may also be connected with the North wind. The 14th C Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilim refers to ‘Tylwyth Gwyn, talaith y gwynt’ ‘the family of Gwyn, the province of the wind’ (14). The pervasiveness of a myth featuring Gwyn in Northern Britain could have a basis in its harsh winters.

In a later text, The Life of St Collen (14th C), Gwyn is referred to as ‘the King of Annwn and the Fairies’ and is supposedly banished by the saint from Glastonbury Tor (15). The transition from belief in Gwyn as a King of Annwn to King of the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ or ‘Fair Folk’ is a significant one. The original natures of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are covered over by their reduction to diminutive form. However, hints at their mythos can still be found in the majority of folktales.

Gwyn retains his status as leader of the Wild Hunt in the folklore of Wales and Somerset. There he is seen to appear on horse back with a pack of white, red-eared hounds, riding out on Nos Calan Gaeaf and through the winter months, chasing down the souls of the dead. To hear his hounds is an omen of death. The other riders are seen often seen as captive souls and may represent the spirits of Annwn.

In the North West of England, however, the hunt is assigned either to the Norse god Odin, or to Christian angels. In Cumbria it is Michael, and in Lancashire and Yorkshire Gabriel is said to lead a pack of black, red-eyed dogs, the Gabriel Ratchetts.

Coincidentally, Preston born writer Francis Thompson is famous for a poem called ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ Anybody who has felt like Gwyn’s hounds are on their tail might find these lines hauntingly familiar; ‘I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears / I hid from him, and under running laughter.’ (16)

More recently, Gwyn’s significance as an ancient god has been attested by contemporary scholars such as Geoffrey Ashe, in King Arthur’s Avalon (2007) and Nicholas R. Mann in The Isle of Avalon (1996) and Glastonbury Tor (2012). He is also the subject of a full length book called Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and Key to the Glastonbury Zodiac (2007) by Yuri Leitch.

This increase in interest suggests we are approaching a time when Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are taken seriously as Brythonic deities again. However, the main focus of these books is Gwyn’s role at Glastonbury, with only a small mention of his place in Wales and other areas of Britain. Disappointingly there is no mention of Gwyn’s activities in the North. In this respect I have only my own experiences and conjectures to go on.

Fairy Lane

Fairy Lane

I first met Gwyn on Fairy Lane in my hometown of Penwortham, where he challenged me to journey with him to Annwn. Since then I have worked with him as a guide to the otherside of my local landscape and its hidden myths. His interest in my locality surprised me at first. However, it seems less surprising when looked at in the context of his role as an ancient underworld god of Britain, particularly in relation to the history and folklore surrounding this site.

Penwortham has been inhabited since 4000BC. The Riversway Dockfinds, a collection of animal bones, 30 human skulls, two dug out canoes and the remains of a timber structure suggest the existence of a lake village on Penwortham Marsh. Nearby is Castle Hill, a point of military and religious importance. There is a church dedicated to St Mary on the summit of Castle Hill, which means it was likely to have been a pre-Christian sacred site.

That the church is dedicated to St Mary and she was also the patron saint of a healing well at the foot of Castle Hill suggest the presence of an earlier female deity with healing powers, who has been Christianised as Mary. Three human skulls found in the wall of the church (17), which may have served an apotraic function suggest superstitious beliefs in chthonic spirits were also once popular but not openly acknowledged.

The survival of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral attests to these superstitions. In the earliest version in Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878), it is set on Church Avenue on Castle Hill. Two men walking home to Longton encounter a procession of fairies carrying a coffin. Robin, one of the men, looks into the coffin and sees his own miniature corpse. Frightened by the sight, they follow the fairies into St Mary’s graveyard. Robin attempts to prevent the burial by reaching out to grab the leader of the fairies. The procession vanishes and Robin, driven mad, topples to his death from a haystack a couple of months later (18). In later versions, this story takes place on Fairy Lane, which runs through Penwortham Wood at the foot of Castle Hill.

This legend may be interpreted to hint at older beliefs in underworld gods. Church ways are often identified with spirit paths. It is possible that prior to Christianity people believed chthonic spirits to have been actively involved in bearing the deceased to the underworld. The ringing of bells to drive them away and superstitions surrounding lych gates are testaments to fear of such entities. The movement of the legend to Fairy Lane may be seen as an attempt to sever their connection with the church. It is also possible it represents a shift in the energy of the area.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn (more frequently referred to as fairies today) are frightening beings. However, they play an essential role in maintaining the relationships between the worlds, the seasons, and the living and the dead. Like death itself and the cold dark of winter they will never go away. Their roles and identities, covered over or ignored for many centuries, can be recovered and understood.

Like Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn, my relationship with Gwyn has changed my life. He guides me to visions in Annwn and the physical world I would not be able to access without him. He teaches me to walk the spirit paths and inspires me to learn the song lines of this land’s ancestral heritage.

As late summer arrives, harvesters take to the fields and leaves begin to fall I sense the spirits of Annwn stirring, the first hint of the breath of winter on the wind. Monday is the date of the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War. When I help lay candles in front of Preston cenotaph for each of the 1956 soldiers who lost their lives I will remember that care of the souls of the battle dead was once believed to be Gwyn’s role.

(1) http://www.caerfeddwyd.co.uk/
(2) http://www.mabinogi.net/sections/Appendix/The_Underworld_Gods.pdf
(3) James MacKilliop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (1998), p375
(4) Robin Herne, Old Gods, New Druids, (2009), p48
(5) A collection of Kingdoms in the North of England and Southern Scotland from 500AD and 800AD.
(6) Transl. William F. Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (2007), p210-211
(7) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(8) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p169
(9) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(10) https://www.blogger.com/profile/02055792516386371373
(11) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p133
(12) Ibid. p150
(13) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), p26-28
(14) Dafydd ap Gwilim, Poems, (1982), p132 – 133
(15) http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html
(16) Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems, (2000), p11
(17) Rev C. Nelson, St Mary’s Church, Penwortham, Lancashire, Archaeological Watching Brief and Explanation, (2011), p48
(18) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL

Many thanks to Heron and Lee at Caer Feddwyd for bringing Will Parker’s article to my attention.