Pengwern and Powys

Clawdd Offa
Offa’s Dyke
          between Mercia and Powys

Following response on the background to the previous Canu Heledd post about verses from a lost saga, here’s a broad sketch of what is known, and not known, about the historical context to the events related in the saga verses.  After the Romans left Britain, Viroconium, the town they established in the territory of the Cornovii, a few miles south of the town of Shrewsbury, continued to be occupied  up to some time early in the sixth century. It’s thought that by this time the sort of warfare being fought made a different sort of defensible site necessary and a new centre was established at Pengwern. There has been some confusion about where Pengwern was. In the twelfth century Gerald of Wales confidently asserted that it was Shrewsbury, but modern commentators generally doubt this. It may have been located on the hill fort known as ‘Berth’ near Baschurch in the marshy area to the north of Shrewsbury or at Dinlleu Vreconnon on the high ground of the Wrekin overlooking Viroconium.

It’s quite possible that the verses recording the destruction of Pengwern have survived because they formed a framework, as sort of memory aid, for the story-teller who would weave the story around them and that the saga itself may never have been written down. These verses are, anyway, not from the seventh century when the incidents they record happened, but two centuries later. It’s not uncommon that Brythonic written material is a lot later than the events described. They liked to remember their ancestors and tell stories about them – and they had very long memories!

In addition to the laments for Cynddylan and for Pengwern itself, these verses also include an address to the eagles that feed on the battlefield. From the fairly precise description they seem to be sea eagles. There are two of them The Eagle of Eli (possibly a river name) and the Eagle of Pengwern (are they, perhaps, some sort of battle spirits?):

The Eagle of Eli, I hear him tonight, bloodstained he is ……
Eagle of Pengwern, grey-crested, tonight his call is a loud screech …
Eagle of Pengwern, grey-crested tonight, his talon is lifted …

The history behind these stories is difficult to unravel as detailed evidence from the seventh century is sketchy, but we know that there had been an alliance between Powys under Cadwallon and Penda of Mercia against the Northumbrians. So it’s a lot more complex than the old ‘celt against saxon’ story suggests. Penda has been described as ‘the last of the great northern pagans’. Was this an issue at the time? Cadwallon was killed in 633 or 634 and the historian John Davies has suggested that the following year “denotes the extinction of the possibility of restoring Brythonic supremacy in Britain”.(*) But the alliance between Powys and Mercia continued and they defeated and killed Oswald of Northumbria at a battle near Oswestry (not far from Pengwern) in 642. The events recorded in the Canu Heledd verses apparently happened some years later following the death of Penda when a raiding party from Northumbria attacked Pengwern and killed all its defenders.

Was Cynddylan a king of Powys? And what was Powys at this time? Borders fluctuated and it seems that part of Powys became merged with Mercia for a while before being regained some time later. During the eighth century Mercia became a great power in central England and Offa of Mercia built the famous dyke separating England from what was becoming Wales. By the 9th century it possible that Powys as an identified area, had ceased to exist, although the Kingdom of Powys did become a powerful and distinct unit again in the 11th and 12th centuries. T.C. Charles-Edwards asserts that it is unlikely that anyone in the re-shaped 11th century Powys had any idea of the actual boundaries of the area in 850. He suggests that the earlier Powys might have formed as the ‘Pagenses’ (rural hinterland) of the urban centre based on Viroconium of the Cornovii, and then referred “primarily to the people rather than to a kingdom”. (**) John Koch elaborates this point, suggesting that there is some question as to whether places such as Pengwern, Eglwysseu Bassa, and Dinlleu Vreconn are names which have come down from earlier Brythonic habitation of the area, but are perhaps “a later Brythonicizing of an already English countryside, in effect a creative fiction”. (***) Alternatively he suggests that Cynddylan may have been a chieftain who ruled a linguistically mixed country in the 7th century which included Anglo-Saxons.

The question of Cynddylan’s status is confused because there appears to be an alternative lineage – the Cadellings – as rulers of Powys, and the verses of Cynddylan’s elegy regard the Cadellings as enemies. By the time of the 9th century Historia Brittonum it seems that only the Cadellings were remembered and the line of Cynddylan from Cyndrwyn was lost. History, creative history, remembrance, saga, poetry .. . , they all went into the ethos of the re-shaping of the Kingdom of Powys in the 11th century as a powerful political unit in medieval Wales. But what were the 9th century poets and story-tellers remembering of what went on the 7th century? Clearly the Cornovii as a distinct tribe did not survive the abandonment of their centre at Viroconium and the scattered people very likely occupied territories with shifting boundaries as alliances we’re formed and abandoned as the peoples of post-Roman Britain found their new identities. As the Normans took over England, Powys became strong again for a while within Wales, then being subsumed into Gwynedd before that fell to the Normans with the death of Llywelyn in 1282.


Bibliography:
(*) John Davies History of Wales (1994)
(**) T.C. Charles-Edwards Wales and the Britons 350-1064 (2013)
(***) John Koch (ed) Historical Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture (2005)

Canu Heledd

Berth
Possible site of Pengwern at Baschurch, Shropshire

Stauell Gyndylan ys tywyll heno,
Heb dan, heb wely.
Wylaf wers; tawaf wedy.

Cynddylan’s Hall is dark tonight,
Without fire, without bed.
I weep a while; then I am silent.

This stanza is from the Canu Heledd sequence associated with lost sagas telling of the destruction of Pengwern in the area of Powys which then extended into parts of what are now the English counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire. Heledd was Cynddylan’s sister and the verses she ostensibly speaks lament the loss of these lands and of her brother. The run of stanzas beginning with the words ‘Stauell Gyndylan …’ have been translated often, perhaps because they are the most poignant and accessible to modern sensibilities, but also, I think, because they are relatively easy to render into English. By contrast, the run of stanzas spoken by Heledd as a lament for her brother are less frequently translated, I think not only because the praise of his military virtues is less accessible today but also because their structure makes it more difficult to render them into  verse that works in modern English. Here is one stanza from this sequence:

Kyndylan gulhwch gynnifiat llew
Bleid dilin disgynnyat.
Nyt atuer twrch tref y dat.

Unlike the Cynddylan’s Hall stanza which which starts with a subject->verb->object structure followed by qualifiers, the sentence in the first two lines here is basically a string of nouns with a single verb. Rendered literally word for word into English these two lines read:

Cynddylan boar[-like?] warrior lion
Wolf following attacker.

Unpacking this into fluent verse is less easy. The third line is only a little less difficult:

Not restore boar place [of] the father.

This could be a general statement that a boar does not return to its place of origin but in context it seems to mean that Cynddylan will never again return to hall he inherited from his father. Calling Cynddylan ‘boar’ is consistent with the animal imagery used to describe him elsewhere in the sequence. So the whole stanza conveys the idea that Cynddylan has the qualities of a boar, a lion and a wolf in pursuing his attacker, but that this did not save him. Is there more?

The word ‘gulhwch’ is suggestive. It looks like the mutated form of the name Culhwch, and it has been suggested that this is deliberate. ‘Hwch’ means pig and Cynddylan has already been described as ‘gwythhwch’ (‘wild pig’, and so ‘boar’) as well as other animals to suggest his ferocity, as was usual for descriptions of warriors at this time. But ‘culhwch’ is more difficult to interpret. The character in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen may take his name from being born in a sty or narrow pig run (‘cul’ means ‘narrow’, though in relation to meat it can mean ‘lean’). Mythological origins of Culhwch as a pig deity have been suggested, though for the purposes of the only tale we have about him he is a typical folklore hero figure who goes on a quest and with Arthur’s help wins the hand of a giant’s daughter. Were there other tales about him which are obliquely referenced in the use of his name in this poem, or should we take the word here as just another synonym for ‘boar’?

That seems the sensible course, but as he is called boar (‘twrch’) in line three of the stanza we might wonder why it has to be repeated. One answer is that the requirements of metre and verbal patterning would have been as much an issue for the poet as the story being told. But then so were the techniques of gnomic reference by which proverbial wisdom or moral maxims could be obliquely included. It could be that there is something about Culhwch that we do not know that is fleetingly included here, lying beneath the surface meaning of ‘boar’. There is also the further possibility of scribal emendation. One suggestion here is that the original word was ‘culwyd’ (‘lord’) which was either accidentally or deliberately changed by the copyist of the manuscript we have.(*) Rejecting this, another commentator thinks it is best seen simply as part of a dense array of animal attributes heaped upon Cynddylan in these verses.(**)

Whatever view we come to in reading this poem, it is clear that translation into an equally concise and multi-referenced English version looks like a vain hope. So let us return to the ‘Cynddylan’s Hall …’ sequence. I have already given the first stanza. Here is the last:

Stauell Gyndylan a’m erwan pob awr
Gwedy mawr ymgyuyrdan
A welais ar dy benntan.

Cynddylan’s Hall I’m rent with rememberance
Of meetings of minds
I beheld on your hearthstone.


(*) Suggested by Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans in their edition of Culhwch ac Olwen (Cardiff, 1997)

(**) Jenny Rowlands in the notes to her Selection of Early Welsh Saga Poems (MHRA. 2014).
I have used this edition as the source of the Welsh texts from which I have translated.

Awen and Intuition

 

In one of the poems from the early Welsh sagas, Llywarch says to his son Gwên (Gwyn):

Neut atwen ar vy awen
Yn hanvot o un achen
*
I recognise by my awen
That we spring from one bloodline

The use of awen here is unusual in that it seems to mean something closer to ‘intuiton’ than the usual ‘poetic inspiration’. Although Llywarch may have written the verses in which this conversation occurs, and so his divination could be said to be related to poetic inspiration, this doesn’t appear to be the primary meaning here. There are very few other instances in early Welsh poetry where awen is used to convey some inner quality of an individual, usually military genius, though these may be metaphorical usages by the poets who employ them. But if the common use of awen was to indicate some external power – the muse – with which an individual was, however briefly, possessed, the lines above might suggest that it could also be used for an inner quality which individuals may possess as part of their nature.

If so, each of us has an awen, an innate sense of how things are and what they might become, a facility to intuit and to shape those intuitions in an interaction with divine inspiration: possessing and being possessed by awen. This is to taste the drops from the Cauldron, or the flesh of the divine Salmon, or the sweet hazel nuts that have fallen into the Well of Wisdom. Then awen flows like a stream from the Source, lifts like a crane or a heron from Water to Air, blazes like Fire and settles once more to Earth as a divinely formed thing, an artefact shaped by awen.

~*~

So I affirm:

Inspired by awen I sing
From the deep wells of my being
Springing without and within

The Gods

Earth Sculpture at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

 

In Nature they are presences;
In Culture they have form.

_*_

So we may sense one – a trace of pheremone
along a river bank, or in a clump of trees,
some redolent place where a streamlet sinks
into sodden leaves – and wonder what has touched
a dormant nerve so that it awakens tentatively
and then retreats slowly back into the web
of neural pathways. Beyond sense.

Or we may match one to a name, a story
one can inhabit, a life that can be lived
vibrantly emerging from sense to sensibility
in our world where meanings are embodied
in aspiration, desire, relationship, things
that can be touched, but are in essence
beyond touch, too deep to be contained by us.

So we claim one, or more, for our tribe,
our land, our story of who or what we are,
and they live with us, finding a form
in the life we give them, growing into identities
or sliding between them as we shape their stories:
becoming familiar they dwell alongside us, companions
to our lives and yet strangers in the shadows of perception.

_ _
*

As we re-construct their past mystery
They are ever-present : never history.


A prose argument developed from this verse can be found on the DUNBRYTHON Blog.

Echoes of Étain

 

 

Midir and Étain , Becoming Swans.

Reflections after a reading of The Wooing of Étain :

Oengus Mac Óc taken from his mother
So his father would not know him
(as Mabon from Modron; Pryderi from Rhiannon)
To be fostered by Midir.

Étain Echraide – (of the horses)
Poured drink for the company;
This was a skill she had, to pour;
A Cup Bearer supreme among many.
It was then that Midir came for her.

Links in a chain of story – beyond time
for time has no part in its telling:
Images and incidents recurring, repeating
the fractured joins of narrative dissolving.
The gods, in their own way, speaking
to us : always now, never history.

Severed Heads and Sovereignty

Three wells of the world – so the Norse myth says
One guarded by Mimir’s head, from which wisdom flows.

Three heads in the well – so the folk tale tells it:

(“Fair maid, white and red,
Comb me smooth and stroke my head;
And every hair a sheave shall be
And every sheave a golden tree.”) *

What they say will be, will be.

Prophetic voices out of wells.
So Febul’s seeress says:
“This sea of grey water was once a fair green land with white flowers.
It was Bran who brought it, the flood that drowns the land”.

It was the Head of Brân who spoke to those who came back across the sea
For bliss to reign until the door is opened – until the seal is broken
Like Branwen’s heart – would that she had spoken and proffered the cup
But she was absent from this company, an echo sundered from a body.

Come back Branwen to our feast, our Otherworld sojourn where you offer
The drink that sustains us from the Cup of Plenty and the Mead of Belonging
So there is no door we must not open, no usurped land we cannot claim
So we may inherit and inhabit the land together in your name.

Notes

According to Ynglinga Saga The Vanir cut off Mimir’s head and sent it back to the Æsir so Odinn preserved it in herbs and placed it by one of the three wells that rise under Yggdrasil. According to Snorri’s Edda “Under the root that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence is hidden there”. In the Seeress’s Prophecy in the Poetic Edda, Odinn hid his eye there which he gave in exchange for wisdom.

Severed heads are a recurring theme in Celtic myth, often discussed in terms of a ‘cult of the head’ as in Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain. But here I see this as a sundering of Brân from Branwen who together embody the sovereignty of Ynys Prydain (see also notes to the previous post).

* Words adapted from by George Peele in his play The Old Wives Tale (1595) ~> from a folk tale ~>

At the end of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Brân’s head is cut off by his own instruction after he is wounded in the foot (in the Welsh tale of Peredur while the lamed King entertained him a severed head on a platter is carried through the room instead of a grail as in the Grail legends). Branwen dies of a broken heart and is buried, so is absent from the sojourn in Gwales over which the head of Brân presides.

Meanwhile the sovereignty of Ynys Prydain has been usurped and cannot be regained, so Manawydan in the Third branch cannot inherit and retreats with Pryderi to Dyfed. There he marries Rhiannon and restores sovereignty – by confronting an Otherworld adversary – on a different plane entirely from that of the secular power usurped by Caswallawn.

Is this now our task?

BRANWEN

Bedd Branwen
Bedd Branwen (Branwen’s Grave) at Aber Alaw.
A Neolithic standing stone here was later covered by a Bronze Age burial mound.

A honno oed tryded prif rieni yn yr ynys hon
(And she was one of the three great progenitors of this Island)

How far back before her story was told
Did she proffer the cup of sovereignty of the Island
Her giant brother – or other self – holding it as a cauldron
Before the spring which pulses beneath Loch Febuil flooded the fair plain
So that the one who plundered and the one who held the treasure became one
Long before the islands of Britain and Ireland were sundered
Before the wolf-grey seas rushed in and so they were separate
Brother and Sister in the legends of the land
(though he would be a bridge between them).
Who then sought sovereignty and where was its source?

Each of them buried deep in the Earth of the Island
Held it in safe keeping : She in a grave at Aber Alaw,
He under the White Mount where Arthur sought him
Taking the sovereignty to hold for his own:
The raid on the White Mount, the raid on Annwfn,
The raid for the Cauldron there and in Ireland
Retelling the story over and over again
(as Culhwch got Olwen and the Giant was vanquished)
Re-living the quest of Bran for the Cauldron
Beneath the spring where Branwen held it.

Notes

In the Welsh of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi Brân – or Bendigeidfran – is a giant and is brother to Branwen and Manawydan, offspring of Llŷr. Brân has a cauldron which came with another giant from under a lake in Ireland and is sent back to Ireland with Matholwch when he marries Branwen.

In the well-known Irish story of Bran Son of Febul he sets off in a ship to sail to the Otherworld and meets Manannan Mac Lir on the sea who directs him on his way.

The lesser known story about Bran Son of Febul is recounted in some verses recording an exchange between Febul’s Prophetess and Bran’s Druid. The druid recounts how he had a vision of treasure hidden under a spring and of Bran’s quest to recover it. The Prophetess tells of how beautiful the plain around the spring was before the treasure was taken and how the land was flooded because Bran’s expedition offended the female guardians of the spring. The resultant flood formed Loch Febuil, now known as Lough Foyle.

Arthur in the Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn, from The Book of Taliesin, sails in his ship Prydwen to raid the Otherworld in search of treasure, in particular a cauldron. One of his men, Lleawc, thrusts his sword into the Cauldron. In the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur sails to Ireland to get a cauldron. One of his men, Llenlleawc, said himself to be an Irishmen, wielding Arthur’s sword, captures the Cauldron.

Brân’s head was buried beneath the White Mount to protect the Island of Britain. In one of the Welsh triads, Arthur is said to have dug up the head because he wanted to be the sole protector of the Island. So the symbol of sovereignty became the Crown.

EPONALIA

 


Awakening from a dream
In the half-light of a winter dawn

The vision of a white horse
Bright against the starkness of the day

The Sun riding low on the saddle
Of a ridge shrouded with mist