Bardic Lore

Awen in the Early Welsh Bards : an Inventory

The opening of ‘Armes Prydain’ with the words “Awen foretells …” in The Book of Taliesin.


“I know the secrets of Ceridwen’s song” –  Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr (1155 – 1200)

There are fifteen occurences of the word awen in The Book of Taliesin as well as several equivalent words or phrases, such as ogyrven which is used both as a division of the awen (‘Seven score ogyrven which are in awen, shaped in Annwfn’) as well as an alternative word for awen itself. The poem ‘Armes Prydain’ (The Prophecies of Britain) begins with the phrase ‘Awen foretells …’, and it is repeated later in the poem. The link between poetic inspiration and divination is implicit in the description of the Awenyddion given by Gerald of Wales in the 12th century and the link between bardic expression and prophecy is a common feature of much early verse in Wales and elsewhere.

Several of the uses of the word awen in The Book of Taliesin are simply boasts , emphasising the skill and the depth of inspiration of the poet compared to lesser practitioners of the art. In one poem awen is specifically conceived of as threefold and having its source in a cauldron, an emphasis which commonly occurs in the references to awen by the early bards, often also linked with Ceridwen as the keeper of the Cauldron. These lines could also contain a reference to the Trinity which was much emphasized in the Christian theology of the time. In one of the few poems in The Book of Taliesin which has been assigned to the historical 6th century bard rather than one of his later imitators or adaptors, the awen is referred to as an ash wand, implying that it is a weapon in the poetic armoury, or perhaps a magical implement. The military metaphor is also implicit in the Llywarch Hen cycle where Llywarch, in his old age, refers to the loss of his awen as his strength and vigour wanes.

A poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen by an unidentified bard, but addressed to Cuhelyn Fardd (1100-1130) asks God to allow the awen to flow so that ‘inspired song from Ceridwen will shape diverse and well-crafted verse’. This anticipates much poetry from identified bards of the Welsh princes between circa 1100-1300 which juggles the competing claims of the Christian religion with the source of the awen in the Cauldron of Ceridwen. It also anticipates them in the complexity of the expression bound up as it is in the woven words and interlocked phrases of cynghanedd and the strict metres of the verse so that it is more or less impossible to translate the combination of form and meaning and the ways they are bound together. This is not only an exercise in creative technique but also close to being a system of coded reference among the bardic elite. Among other things it would enable a formal adherence to Christianity to be subtly balanced against the source of the awen in the Cauldron of Ceridwen and in the inspired utterances of earlier awenyddion.

So Llywarch ap Llywelyn (1173-1220) – also known as ‘Prydydd y Moch’ – can address his patron Llywelyn ap Iorwerth like this:

I greet my lord, bring awen’s great greeting
Words from Ceridwen I compose
Just like Taliesin when he freed Elffin.

The same poet also penned the often quoted lines

The Lord God grant me sweet awen
As from the Cauldron of Ceridwen

Elidr Sais (c. 1195-1246), ‘singing to Christ’, wrote

Brilliant my poetry after Myrddin
Shing forth from the cauldron of awen

while Dafydd Benfras (1220-1258) included both Myrddin (Merlin) and Aneirin in his backward glance:

Full of awen as Myrddin desired
Singing praise as Aneirin before me
when he sang of ‘Gododdin’.

So far all the bards quoted inhabited an independent Wales which looked back to a more extensive homeland which comprised much of western Britain. After the killing of Llywelyn, the last native Prince of Wales in 1282, there was an outpouring of grief from the bards and a sense that an end had come to the world they inhabited, best represented by the ‘Elegy for Llywelyn’ by Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch with lines such as

Not since Camlann has there been such weeping

All Britain is struck down with Nantcoel’s defender

Hearts chilled by a pall of fear
The sun falls and the stars are shrinking
Can you not see our world is ending,
Why does the sea not run over the shore?

As the Norman aristocracy gradually moved into Wales this proved prophetically accurate. There are no surviving further references to awen or the Cauldron of Ceridwen in the poetry for the period after 1300, although much has been lost so we cannot know for certain. The topic does re-emerge in the 15th century, so it is likely that some continuity was maintained. But by then the debate about the source of the awen is framed entirely in Christian terms with the Virgin Mary, rather than Ceridwen, identified and there is no mention of a cauldron. It was not that this had been entirely forgotten. The prose tale of Gwion, Ceridwen and the re-birth of Taliesin dates from this period and includes fragments of the earlier poems. The story was, by the testimony of Elis Gruffydd in the 16th century widespread in popular knowledge in Wales. But it seems that the bards had abandoned it to the folk tradition rather than keeping it as part of their own arcane lore.

I have drawn upon the essay ‘Awen y Cynfeirdd a’r Gogynfeirdd’ by Y Chwaer Bosco in Beirdd a Thywysogion (Cardiff, 1996) for some factual information.
I have also used the editions of the Beirdd y Tywysogion series for quotations from the early bards together with Marged Haycock’s Legendary Poems from The Book of Taliesin (Aberystwyth, 2007) and Prophecies from The Book of Taliesin (Aberystwyth, 2013) and the edition of Armes Prydain by Ifor Williams and Rachel Bromwich (Dublin, 1982).
Translations from the poetry are my own.

Brythonic Lore

Arthur of Britain – questioning his legacy


Do we need to re-assess the status of Arthur in British mythic and legendary history? I am prompted to ask that question after reading Lorna Smithers The Broken Cauldron , although it has for some time been an emerging theme in her blog output and her literary work in the service of her patron god Gwyn ap Nudd in her previous book Enchanting the Shadowlands.

Arthur, according to one of the Welsh Triads, decided to dig up Bran’s head at the White Mount thereby removing the older protector of Ynys Prydain (and his mythological sway) because he wanted none but himself to be the defender of Britain. Lorna’s view of Arthur certainly sees him in this light, but concentrates on the significance of his raid on Annwn and the carrying of of the Cauldron of Rebirth from that place as related in the poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ in The Book of Taliesin. Her reconstruction of early Brythonic material is mythically innovative and inspired. Much of the material containing the Arthurian stories which developed into the romance cycles of the later Middle Ages might be called legendary history, following the narrative of the Historia Brittonum and other sources in Latin such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and detailing how Arthur led the resistance of the romanized Britons to the Saxon invasions. Here Arthur is the Dux Bellorum or leader of the warbands. But Lorna goes back, rather, to the mythic Welsh material where his activities include the raid on the Otherworld to capture the Cauldron and the hunt of a magical boar. What Arthur does here is not simply to act as a legendary hero but as a moving force in changing the mythic life of Britain. What Lorna attempts, then, is nothing less than a reclaiming of that earlier mythic layer with Gwyn ap Nudd rather than Arthur as the central protagonist. To do this she does not simply attempt to re-construct the myths, but to recreate them as part of a personal quest which is initiatory in its intensity. The public expression of that quest is contained in her published work such as the book under review putting it in the public domain and therefore available to enrich the common mythos for other Brythonic polytheists.

Arthur’s raid on Annwn and the act of one of his men, Lleawg, in pushing his sword into the Cauldron can be seen as a defining moment in mythic reconfiguring. The Cauldron is traditionally seen as being in the keeping of Ceridwen. Lorna is an awenydd who finds her awen in the impulse to offer Gwyn ap Nudd the poems, tales and other writings which he inspires in her. The source of the awen is traditionally the Cauldron of Ceridwen as featured in the tale of Taliesin but also as perceived by the earliest Welsh bards as the source of their inspiration. For Lorna Ceridwen is ‘Old Mother Universe’, the divine source of all life which is cyclically re-born from the Cauldron of Rebirth.

In updating this mythic material for our own times Lorna conceives the Cauldron by analogy with various modern artefacts such as the vats producing the chemicals which fuel modern industry. Just as, in the story of Taliesin, inspiration was gained from a few drops of the Cauldron’s brew, the remaining poisonous liquid running off to pollute streams and rivers, so modern chemical and energy production and the destructive environmental effects of this are seen by analogy as a deluge from the Broken Cauldron following Arthur’s raid on Annwn to capture it.

I have singled out one thread of Lorna’s thematic narrative here, but there is much more, including as she does that other mythic deluge from the broken well of Mererid and the tales of drowned lands both in Gwyddno Garanhir’s Borth, where Taliesin was discovered in a weir by Elffin, and the location of it  in her native Lancashire where the submerged harbour of Portus Setantiorum offers another location for the story.

In the final section on nuclear power, Arthur’s legacy of the Broken Cauldron finds its ultimate expression in the image of a leaking reactor and of meltdown of the reactor core. Here the mix of poems, creative prose and factual information combines in what might be taken as an awenydd‘s pessimistic prediction of the future. Does the final image, then, of Old Mother Universe falling asleep indicate an end or a new beginning? The Awenydd‘s words are always open to interpretation. The future lies also in our hands and Lorna’s inspired mythic re-imaginings should also be taken as words of warning. Will they be heeded?

Bardic Lore, Brythonic Lore

Bards who Sing … Bards who Praise

Re-posted from the BRYTHON Blog

Beirdd copy copy


It is the bards of the world who judge men of valour’ – Gododdin

So says Aneirin in the oldest surviving text in the Welsh language. Aneirin was one of the bards mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (1) as having been active in the 6th century:

Talhaern Tat Aguen was then renowned in poetry, and Aneirin and Taliesin and Bluchbard and Cian who was called Gwenith Guaut, were all renowned at this time.

Of these, only Aneirin and Taliesin have surviving poems attributed to them and, in the case of Taliesin, poems continued to be written in his name by bards using him as the mouthpiece of the awen up until the end of the thirteenth century. The language of the Historia is Latin, but the epithets for Talhaearn and Cian are in early Welsh. Talhaearn is described as ‘the father of the Awen’, which could mean that he is the source or the earliest of the poets identified as inspired by the Awen, or perhaps that he was a particularly skilful awenydd and foremost of those practising that art. The epithet applied to Cian is usually translated ‘Wheat of Song’. The word for ‘song’ here (guaut, modern Welsh gwawd) is particularly applied to a song of praise or a prophetic song. Certainly the later bards who adopted the Taliesin persona saw prophetic vision as one of the attributes of the figure who became the chief vehicle for the expression of this role of the bards, variously described by them as derwydd (druid), sywydd (enchanter), dewin (wizard) and daroganfardd (soothsayer).

‘Song’ or ‘sing’ are key word in early Welsh poetry, describing the role of the bards. At the beginning of the manuscript of The Gododdin are the words ‘ ..Aneirin ae kant’ (Aneirin sang this). It was a formula used by many of his successors in identifying themselves as authors. A bard not only wrote poetry but he sang it. We might wonder how to take ‘sing’ in this context. It could relate to delivery, in the way that a singer today sings a song, but it is certainly also to be taken in a wider sense of the nature of bardic composition as significant performance. The Celtic scholar J.E. Caerwyn Williams has examined a number of examples of the stem *kan– in early Welsh verse. (2) Among other observations he points out that it is contained in the word cynghanedd, the term for the complex sound combinations which are part of the strict-metre practices of the bards. Also that it is contained in the word dachanu (to declaim, often with a harp) which has a variant form dychanu (to satirise). One theory of how these terms are related is that the satirical implications developed in response to the over-fulsome praise by the bards of their patrons, as witnessed as early as the 6th century when the monk Gildas criticised the Brythonic kings in general, and Maglocunus (Maelgwn Gwynedd) in particular, for the praise received from what he regarded as their lickspittle bards (3).

But the stem *kan is also contained in other emphases of the practice of singing, e,g. darogan (prophecy) and its associated term gwawd (prophetic song, praise) with its cognate forms in Old Irish fáth and Latin & Gaulish uatēs. Caerwyn Williams is drawn to the conclusion that there is an implication of enchantment in the singing of the bards and that this always had both positive and negative implications: “It is obvious that they sang charms, blessings, curses, predictions and prophecies. They were wizards and soothsayers as well as poets.” He reminds us of the description of the awenyddion as described by Giraldus Cambrensis (4) and suggests that the word awenydd contains all of these magical attributes, such as are frequently claimed in the poems of Taliesin. He also asserts that: “ say that the bards were originally wizards and enchanters is as good as saying that they belonged originally to a priesthood”, by which he understands the druids, citing links between the uatēs and the druidae according to ancient writers (5).

In spite of the more recent sceptical view from Ronald Hutton who asserts that druids and bards should not be confused (6), the testimony of the early bards themselves is rather that they were the inheritors of such a role, re-shaped to meet the needs of changed times and embedded in the grades of the Bardic Order and the arcane matter recorded in the prosodies of the chief poets (7). This is certainly implied by the description of Giraldus of the awenyddion as going into a frenzied state to utter prophecies and of the many references to vaticinatory and related practices in the poems of Taliesin. We might also note a line from the 13th century bard Iorwerth Fychan ‘Gorffwylaf molaf mal awenydd’ (I become frenzied and praise like an awenydd) (8). As J E Caerwyn Williams concludes : “The Celtic bards and their early descendants in Ireland and Wales were inspired (and therefore possessed) by the gods.”

The graphic is from an inscription by David Jones


All quotes from J E Caerwyn Williams are my translation from the work listed in reference 2 below.

1. Historia Brittonum Ch 62

2. ‘Bardus Gallice Cantor Appellatur’ in Beirdd a Thywysogion (GPC, 1996)

3. De Exidio Britanniae Ch 34. These, it might be noted, are the same bards that Taliesin claims to have trounced when he defends Elffin. A typical act of mythic synthesis of Gildas’ criticism of them with his own affirmation of the bardic virtues.

4. Giraldus Cambrensis Descriptio Kambriae Ch 16

5. ‘antiquos poetas vates appellabant‘ – Varro as cited by J E Caerwyn Williams

6. Blood and Mistletoe (Yale, 2009) passim

7. The earliest recorded threefold divisions being Pencerdd (chief singer), Bardd Teulu (household bard), Cerddor (minstrel). Later the divisions were Prydydd (poet), Teuluwr (household man), Clerwr (clerk). Their duties and status are recorded in the various versions of the prosodies brought together as Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid ed. G.J. Williams & E.J. Jones (1934)

8. Gwaith Beirdd y Tywysogion VII (GPC, 1996)



How many miles to Babylon?


Merfyn Peake
Listen to the spirit language
in silence

Is there a voice?
No human voice.

They are unbidden, uncalled for:

All the words in the world
but that we seek
Unwordly, unworldly, unsounded.

To get there
and back again
no need to count the miles
but kindle the flame
which flickers, falters
for a candle space
a candle time.

Listen! - they are timeless,
the smooth words flowing,

Hardening to roughness:
in the runnels
of history.
Archaeology, Awenflight

Reverie in a Museum Gallery


Lewis Chessmen – King



Ranging back —- to origins, finding them
Unfamiliar yet still responsive
Calling across Time from an eternal Present
A chess piece static on a board with shifting squares
Watching movements through the sea passages
Celtic, Norse – distinct identities fusing as the game plays out,
The squares, the circles, the undulant sea roads, the winding pathways of the mountains
All leading on as moves are made
The King waiting expectantly
The Queen taking a long view across the patchwork of the times, the ages, the changes that come through movements that re-arrange even the board, the landscape of the game.

The pieces unrecognisable now but still watching
Dreaming the world we know.

Lewis Chessmen

Lewis Chessmen




Photo by Janet Baxter

The bird cried – and her cry called to me over the waters, the cold mere, the flowing brooks, the banks of willows green against the silver-grey of the lake, the iron-grey of the sky.

Would I follow? My bird-self would, went willingly, winging over the waters with feathered arms splayed out, beating slowly. A fine mist of rain drifted on the air, resolved to other-air, brought me silently there into the other-element of water and air: a mist world that made everything within it glow transparently, suffused with a light that flows like water, like mist, like clouded thistledown – crystallised earthlight, waterlight under a crystal sky.

Here in this self I can be still, stare in a quiet quest for wisdom distilled out of the glassy depths of water, mirror-like until you learn to look through the glinting face of it, behind the reflected eyes of a bird’s stare, the beak’s wand of interrogation pointing out resolving images below. So they come, slowly but surely in the depths of the mirror reflecting what is within from what is without, deep into the crystal caverns where the stillness is, where colours drain to their essence : the white light of absence calling to the other pole of being : the many colours of the world.

Far away from me now, but there, unrealised in this crystal whiteness, seen through it : the world of sense, voluptuous in its variety from the starkness of here – the tang of salt dissolving to the sweetness of sugar only to resolve back again to this. I am salt-blind as I stare, but seeing nonetheless.

Quick as a flash! I’m turning back, wings beating out through the mist, bright sun on water as I glide to the willows, walk on dry land, stepping out of feathers, wings ; back to arms and legs, slowly finding my feet; back to familiarity.

Brythonic Lore

Dreams and Visions


Arthur and Owain play at Gwyddbwyll

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of The Kings of Britain , Brutus has a vision of Britain as the land he is destined to inhabit. After leaving Troy he visits a temple of Diana to ask for guidance:

Powerful Goddess, terror of the chase
And of the woodlands wild, you who journey
Wide over land and sky and down into the depths
Of the nether regions below the earth.
Look upon us here and declare our fate,
Tell us where we are destined to dwell,
Where we shall build  temples for your praise
And maidens will chant for you to the end of days.

He repeated these words nine times, then he walked four times around the altar, pouring wine into the fire, after which he laid himself down upon a hind’s skin, spread before the altar, and he slept. At some time during the night, when his sleep was deepest, the goddess appeared to present herself before him, and foretold his future as follows:

Brutus, there lies beyond the lands of Gaul
An island washed by the western seas,
Once giants lived there, but now the ways
Through the land are open to you and free.
Set sail for that place and raise a second Troy
Fate decrees that you and your descendants
Will found a line of kings that will prosper there,
Whose fame will endure and extend across the earth.

As well as featuring the use of dream to consult the goddess, the episode specifies that the sleep that brings about the dream is taken on an animal skin. There are other examples of sleeping on such skins to gain visions or give prophecies in the Irish tradition. It is also a feature of the Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy from the manuscripts in The Red Book of Hergest and usually included with other medieval Welsh tales in the collection known as The Mabinogion. The tale is set very specifically in Powys in the 12th century in the time of the historical King of Powys Madog ap Maredydd. Rhonabwy sleeps on a heifer skin on a raised platform to avoid the flea-ridden sleeping place assigned to him and his companions. His sleep takes him back to the world of Arthur and there are a number of apparent borrowings from the tale Culhwch and Olwen. Unlike those who seek visionary experiences by sleeping on an animal skin, Rhonabwy’s dream visions seem to be an unintentional consequence of doing so. Dreams are often used in medieval literature as a device for moving the narrative to another place or time. But things generally then proceed as if a realistic story were being narrated. Rhonabwy’s dream, however, is unusual in the surreal quality of actual dream experience. Time seems to be running in reverse and although various events seem about to happen, nothing actually does, except via the game of gwyddbwyll – a board game like chess – that Arthur plays with Owain. Rhonabwy finds it difficult to understand the significance of what is going on, so this has to be explained to him by Iddawg who acts as his guide. Arthur asks Iddawg who he has with him and when he is told he is incredulous that such insignificant beings now defend the Island of Britain. This seems to reflect the view of heroes like Arthur as being of greater stature and bearing than ordinary mortals. Such things are specifically said of the heroes in The Iliad and other texts of the ancient world, many of whom are of mixed human and divine descent.

But The Dream of Rhonabwy does not otherwise give us an heroic view of Arthur, seeming for the most part to undermine such a view. Not only does it begin with a grim account of the miserable sleeping arrangements in the house where the dream occurs (the floor is wet with cow piss and strewn not with dry rushes or bracken, but with incongruous holly twigs), but the world he escapes to in the dream is puzzling and arbitrary in spite of the grandeur of its setting. No significance can be attributed or message brought back from this world. Arthur seems to be a petulant and ineffective figure, though Rhonabwy is warned that to suggest this out loud would lead to his death. When Rhonabwy awakes he is told that he has slept for three days and nights. It is as if he has no control over the visions gained from sleeping on the animal skin. He is not a professional seer or awenydd seeking prophecy or a devotee intentionally seeking guidance from a deity. He wanders into this world unawares and appears to be lost in it.

The tale seems to be a parody of the usual Arthurian romance genre. All the literal conventions of the genre are inverted. Nor does it have the folkloric qualities of tales such as Culhwch and Olwen based on traditional oral elements. An afterword added to the manuscript says that no-one can know the dream “ .. neither bard nor story-teller, without a book”. So it could be simply the account of a dream, without allegory or any other message or elements of traditional lore. But if so it is more or less unique in medieval literature. Certainly the characters in the dream are drawn from traditional stories , and the agency of sleeping on the animal skin is well established. But the dream itself tells no particular story. The time span of three days and nights, set against his experience of one night’s sleep, might suggest that Rhonabwy has been in the Otherworld. But he is unable to interpret the significance of what he sees there. For him it was a just a dream of a world that had long since passed into legend. Just as certain interpretative tools are required to ‘read’ a dream, so too the experiences gained from visits to otherworlds may require to be read properly, because, as the afterword to the tale continues, “of the many colours that were on the horses, and their remarkable variety, both on the arms and on their trappings, on the precious mantles and the magical stones”.  Splendours of this sort are sometimes seen as illusions of mundane objects in the ordinary world as in those stories where someone is put into a comfortable bed with silken sheets in the faërie realm and wakes on a bed of damp moss on a cold moor. Equally they may be regarded as parallel correlates in the two worlds. How such experiences are ‘read’ depends on who is reading them.

Finally, it is worth noting that this tale has been seen as a closure of the traditional heroic view of Arthur. Here he brings the board game with Owain to a close by petulantly crushing the pieces. Though Rhonabwy fails to find any significance in what he witnesses, the author of the “book” , without which we are told no sense can be made of the dream, may be announcing the end of the tradition from which the subject matter of the tale has been drawn. Certainly it provides no clear interpretive key to the events in the tale otherwise. As, for better or for worse, the heroic ages pass into history and legend, those who venture on the spirit paths must seek a different focus for their visions, other ways of engaging with the numinous world that may be encountered by sleeping on an animal skin or other ways of opening the portals of vision.

Archaeology, Awenflight


Temple Wood

Temple Wood Stone Circle, Kilmartin

Wheatears sat on the stones, then bobbed away across the open ground as I approached, their distinctive black and white tail pattern flashing their identity behind them. It was then that I saw it, the hare, going to ground behind the cairn pile. I walked around the pile slowly, attentive and ready to be surprised by its leaping. Where was it? The place where it went to ground came into view: the capstone over the cist lifted at 45˚ and held there by iron supports revealed a small oblong chamber in which a  body had once been buried, arms and legs folded into the foetal position to fit this stone box – back to the crouch before birth. But there was no hare. And yet there was, leaping through a gap somewhere here.


Free-standing stone ….


cup marks

… with cup marks










I looked across at the standing stones in the near distance, at the gap in the alignment between them – the two that stood forward of the small circle beyond them – and saw, though it should have been too far to see, the cup marks carved into them. I didn’t move. The wheatears came back to settle on the stones. I leapt. The hare leapt. We leapt through the gap between the stones, across the wide, flat valley of stones beneath the mountains and above the sea loch. There was a cry of a bird. Not a wheatear. Like a redshank, an oystercatcher, a curlew – or some combination of these mournful cries. A keening as we leapt through the gap across the open ground and into the wood. It was darker here, the green canopy shading out the sunlight; the bracken high, the shadowed path beneath it winding through for a hare path as we ran. The valley, the stones tilting away from us as we ran on ….. and then stopped.

My senses were sharp. I sniffed at a far scent. I heard a far stalk of tall grass bent to the ground. I felt each vibration in the valley. As near as it was to my senses, it was somewhere else, in the world where I was not a hare. Here events happened differently. A leaf touched another as wind passed through the canopy. I felt it. I heard it happen so slowly that it seemed to last forever. Each rustle and turn of wind-touched foliage stretched out in slow-time. But against this the awareness, sharp and quick, of each event in the valley rushed past, clear and precise in rapid motion. Two streams of time ran on at the same even pace when perceived together. But each ran differently, fast and slow, though twisted around each other so hearing them as distinct events was to be aware of  counterpoint at the core of the world-flow.

The hare sensed one, I sensed the other; together we brought them together. So it seems now, recalling the experience. But then, when it was happening, I couldn’t say. It was hare think. It was human think. Each was distinct, and I could sense both of them, but separate just as humans and hares are separate and cannot know each others’ thought.

Back in the valley, I stand staring at an empty cist, watched by the wheatears. There is no hare. But there, in another time, right here, a hare leapt. I was there.

Brythonic Lore

Depicting the Gods


The bronze statue above is of the Gaulish bear goddess Artio. Like statues of Epona which show the goddess as human with an associated horse or horses, this shows both the human form of the goddess and a bear. However, in this case we know that the human form was added later and that the original sculpture just showed the bear and the stylised tree. It has been suggested that the addition was to accommodate Roman taste for the depiction of their gods in human form, the implication being that the Gauls did not feel such a necessity.(*) Tacitus, speaking of the northern European tribes in his Germania, asserts that “they do not think it in keeping with divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.” (**) When Tacitus wrote this the tribes of Gaul were becoming fully Romanised under occupation and the same process was under way in Britain, but the neighbouring tribes of Germany remained independent.

The catalogue text for the recent exhibition ‘Celts : Art & Identity’ organised jointly by The British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, states in relation to a stone carving of Brigantia that she is portrayed as a composite figure seemingly incorporating other goddesses. The carving was commissioned by a Roman soldier and its dedication to Brigantia, it is suggested, has more to do with the Roman habit of placating local gods than it does to portrayal of deities by the native British: “The very idea of giving a god human form is a classical one. Iron Age beliefs did not usually conceive of gods as humans” (*). Other examples are given to make this point, including the statue of Artio. The main issue here, though, is one of representation. Celtic art was not naturalistic in the way that Greek and Roman art was, though it had been absorbing naturalistic elements from those cultures even before conquest. It tended to deal in abstract figures, often of animals, and geometric patterns rather than life-like portrayals of its subjects. So even if the gods were thought of as having human form, their art may not have shown this. A bear goddess, or a horse goddess, may have been depicted (if at all) as a stylised bear or stylised horse

white horse

But if they were given names or titles (locally or more generally across a wider region) this also suggests that they had an identity beyond that of a numinously perceived presence. We don’t have written literature from the pre-Roman period so we can never know in the sense of having evidence from the historical record. And of course things were unlikely to have remained the same through the whole of the early Iron Age, and for all of the various tribes, even if they were likely to have been culturally conservative in their beliefs. Styles of representation varied and became more complex over time, though they also continued to be distinct even after being influenced by Roman art. Many of the surviving representations of Celtic deities were made by people who had become thoroughly Romanised, though they often also retain distinct Celtic features. This is our inheritance.

So what can we say today? Many of the distinct forms of deity that have come down to us in written form are from the Middle Ages. We can still, surely, share the sense of Tacitus’ reference to “hidden presence” as a common form of direct religious experience, and so see them with “the eye of reverence”. What such presences may communicate to us in the way of distinct identities is likely to be mediated by cultural artefacts. The very fact of using language is one such, so if a god whispers a name in our ear, how will we know what we are hearing without also having a way of saying it to others? A name, like a story, is something in human language. Language infiltrated by the gods as they infiltrate our landscape and our mindscape. Those stories, which the gods inhabit, need have no direct line of connection with those statues or inscriptions from the Ancient World with which we associate them. The gods don’t travel in straight lines. They appear here; they appear there. We find them, looking back a little way, a longer way. And we experience their presence back then and also now, here with us.

    • (*) Catalogue of the Exhibition Celts : Art and Identity, British Museum Press (2015)
    • (**) Tacitus Germania (Ch 9)
Brythonic Lore

A Footnote on Inundation Legends



John Rhŷs, speculating on the name Seithennin, wondered if it might have originated in the name of the Sentantii, a tribe which the ancient geographer Ptolemy (c.100-170 c.e.) indicated had occupied an area between the Ribble and the Dee. This was an historical attribution as, in Ptolemy’s time, the area was occupied by the Brigantes in the north and the Cornovii in the south. Rhŷs considers the possibility that:

*There was an inundation of the land of the Sentantii which was remembered in legendary history associated with Gwyddno Garanhir, a ruler of northern Brythonic lands.
*These legends were remembered in later folklore when the lands occupied by the inheritors of these legends were restricted to Wales (I leave out of account here his further speculations concerning a move to Ireland).
* The legend became associated with two areas of Wales where inundations had also taken place: the Conwy estuary in North Wales and Cardigan Bay in West Wales. The legends, respectively, of Tyno Helig and Cantre’r Gwaelod either grew out of the transplanted story or were integrated with it. Seithennin’s name then transferred from the lost tribal name of the Sentantii to a character in the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend.

If the tale had been transferred from the estuary of the Ribble (Belisima) to that of the Dyfi in Cardigan Bay, as well as elsewhere, this indicates a generic inundation myth for the west coast of Britain where sea levels rose and caused inundations in different places over an extended period of time. Rhŷs’s speculations are confined to a few pages and a footnote to Celtic Folklore. As far as I know he never developed them further. Later accounts of inundations do not help either. F J North’s investigations in Sunken Cities are restricted to Wales, though he does conclude that the Cantre’r Gwaelod story concerning Seithennin was earlier than the Tyno Helig story located in the Conwy estuary. Nigel Pennick’s Lost Lands and Sunken Cities , although dealing with inundations in Lancashire, only discusses events in the medieval period.

One of the things that happens when historical and legendary events become absorbed into folklore is that they become universalised, and so take on the potential to become mythological. Certainly the core story of Cantre’r Gwaelod, beneath the succeeding layers of legendary history, seems to contain the proto- mythological theme of a well gushing water from the Otherworld. Whether this is contained in lore as a well, a cauldron or a river rushing from elsewhere to the sea from an otherworld source, this is a good indication of how myth, legend and history become woven together in the tapestry of story. Such stories are many, and all with their own particular characteristics and their own significances in myth and legend.

Do they all spring from the same source? The Indo-European proto-myth of the well from which both life-giving waters and potential disaster both simultaneously flow certainly provides a cosmological background to these stories. And we can readily think of other examples such as the Well of Wisdom in the Irish tradition and the Well of Wyrd in Norse mythology. But we also need to be careful in applying ideas of a common source as encompassing the sole meaning of the legends. Certainly they also contain records of historical shifts between land and sea and the legendary shaping of such memories into folklore, a process which itself re-integrates such tales with the proto-myth. But reading distinctive cultural artefacts as expressions of universal themes, as useful as it is for identifying the way such themes emerge in different forms, is in danger if losing sight of the particular use of the theme in a distinctive cultural setting. One people’s gods may have their ‘equivalents’ in another people’s gods, but they are individual and distinct within each culture.

I have no doubt that, whatever effect the increase or decrease in sea levels over millennia has had on the shape of the coastline, and however that has been described in legendary history and become absorbed into local folklore, the telling of these tales is always informed at a deep level by the unique cultural appropriation of the proto-myth. But I am also convinced that simply referring back to a proto-myth as an abstract source will devalue the expression of it in the culture that has made it distinctive. Rachel Bromwich, for instance, asserts that the stories we have been discussing are not influenced by the Biblical flood story, but are independent Celtic expressions of this theme. Whatever deep source we may identify in the ethology of Indo-European myth, or even in the common deep structure of the human mythological imagination , unless it is here, now, and with us in the way that we tell it, then it lacks coherent form. Streams, from whatever deep source waters they come, flow through particular lands and have their own characteristics when they do so.