Y Dref Wen

Pillar of ElisegVictorian print showing the
Remains of the memorial to Eliseg King of Powys,
dating from the Ninth Century

The sequences of early Welsh poems recording the laments of Heledd date from the Ninth Century, though they record the aftermath of an attack on eastern Powys in the Seventh Century. They are distinctive among the  poetry of the time in that many of them do not record heroic values so much as feelings of woe at a time of constant war and unrest. This is particularly the case with the ‘Dref Wen’ sequence. It is a distinctive feature of these poems that each line begins with a repeated refrain to introduce the stanza. So a phrase such as ‘Stafell Gynddylan …’ (Cynddylan’s Hall) or ‘Eryr Eli …” (Eagle of Eli) will begin the first line of each stanza, producing an emphatic pattern of repetition. The ‘Dref Wen’ sequence directs the attention of listeners to the place of that name, often translated literally as ‘The White Town’. There is some uncertainty about where this place may be, except that ‘Trenn’ , thought to be the River Tern in Shropshire, is named and that the sequence is associated with the ‘Stafell Gynddylan’ sequence located in the general vicinity of Shrewsbury. It is said to be ‘between ‘Trenn and Trafal’ and also between ‘Trenn and Trodwyd’. But these places cannot be identified satisfactorily. It may not be a town at all, as the word ‘tref’, though its modern meaning is ‘town’, could apply to any settlement in early Welsh. In the translations which follow I have preferred to translate it as ‘homestead’ as this seems to make more sense in context and it is clearly used in this way in the ‘Stafell Gynddylan’ stanzas. Similarly, ‘Wen’ (white) also has a range of meanings from ‘fair’ to ‘blessed’, so there is no need to think of a place that is white in colour. The sequence is almost tender in evoking the sense of place and serves as a reminder, if we should need one, of the deprivations caused by constant conflict and a counterpoint to those more common poems which praise the bravery and ferocity of the warriors even when lamenting their deaths.

The Fair Homestead, nestled in woodland –
It is as it always was:
Blood smeared on the land.

The Fair Homestead in the landscape –
Again at the green memorial:
Blood smeared underfoot.

The Fair Homestead in the valley –
Always joyful the prey-bird in battle’s mess
Among the people lying dead.

The Fair Homestead between Tern and Trodwyd –
More likely a broken shield after battle
Than an ox should shelter from the sun.

The Fair Homestead between Tern and Trafal –
More likely blood on the grass
Than the ploughing of land left fallow.

Awen in the Early Welsh Bards : an Inventory



“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.

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: “..to 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)

Of Well Maidens and Cup-Bearers

cup… Disparate things cohere….. from explorations, lore, study, active interpretation of sources, bringing together things from different places, studies of other things held in memory and brought back into focus in new contexts, meditations, inspirations, – rarely sudden revelations – more often slowly forming visions, shapes emerging, patterns forming from the flow, structures of significance …..

So with Mererid , well-maiden and cup-bearer, in a medieval poem attached to a legend of a drowned land on the coast near where I live. She had long been an evocative presence who seemed to have a significance I had not quite fathomed. But as I thought about the legend and discovered the lore associated with it, her identity began to take shape. Floods from springs or wells when their guardians are offended are the legendary origins of many lakes. These guardians are invariably female and it is sometimes stressed, as with the case of Mererid, that she is a maiden. Two words are used to convey this in the poem. In one line she is referred to as ‘morvin’ (simply maiden), but in another line as ‘machteith’ which is also a term indicating a court office. Rachel Bromwich comments that “both interpretations should be borne in mind”. (1)

Many years ago doing quite different research I needed to look at references to protective deities of cities. Ancient cities and other settlements had magical as well as physical walls around them. Gateways through the walls could be physically sealed and locked but magical gateways needed magical seals or keys to open or shut them. The title ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (now inherited by the Pope) originally indicated one who was adept at bridging and sealing protective boundaries. The Vestal Virgins were an institution that was seen to protect Rome, the virginity of the vestals being an essential element in this. In earlier societies this function often inhered in a virgin deity. The virginity of Athene as protectress of Athens was stressed. Studies of the sources for Homer’s Iliad indicate that Troy was seen to be protected in this way and one of these relates that the prophetess Cassandra undid her girdle  as the horse was brought through the city walls in a symbolic breaching of their magical protection. (2)

It seemed to me that the same protective function could apply to well maidens. Wells were often seen as gateways to the Otherworld and if these gateways were not properly protected the steady flow of blessed water might become a deluge, particularly if the guardian of the well ceases to become a virgin either by her own volition or by her violation. But Mererid is also a ‘cup-bearer’. Reading Enright’s elucidations (3) about the role of cup-bearers in Celtic and Germanic cultures and the proposed origins of their functions and identity in the goddess Rosmerta (the ‘great provider’); the ambiguous status of Wealtheow, Hrodgar’s queen and cup-bearer, in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf; the story of the virgin prophetess Veleda in Tacitus’ Germania; all began to bring the picture into focus.

Rosmerta’s emblems are the cup, ladle and bucket. Her cup an emblem of plenty, proffered at the feast; in Gaul she is associated in at least once place with a sacred spring. In her continuing identity in the persons of cup bearers her role becomes differentiated and therefore ambiguous, particularly in later contexts when the religious significance may have been lost but the magical status still remained resonant. A cup bearer might be a maiden and hold an office as such at court but equally there might be an implied sexual element involved in what she represents associated with fertility. Enright says as part of his discussion of these elements, “We may therefore reiterate an argument made constantly in this study – that prophecy, sexuality and the offering of liquor were all part of the same mental construct for Celts and, perhaps, somewhat later, for Germans.” Where her maiden status is associated with protection, the loss of it also implies loss of protection. But it might in other contexts be associated with fertility and so becoming sexually active brings plenty. Her survival into later legends, folklore and story may emphasise only one or the other of these functions exclusively and so appear to be only about a single event such as an inundation or a symbolic offering of plenty by a cup bearer, though often the portrayal of these events retains an aura of something deeper.

What of Mererid? She is a well maiden, whose function is to protect the well. She also bears the cup of plenty. So could her seduction or violation have removed the protection and so caused the flood? And could there be an underlying sense of fertility here too, the release of life-giving waters, but disguised in the story of a catastrophic inundation? Perhaps. It was with such as sense of these possibilities that I moved from undertaking a translation of the poem from The Black Book of Carmarthen, where I felt constrained to at least preserve the narrative and thematic integrity of the original (in spite of also attempting a re-interpretation of the context) to writing my own, freer version of the same poem in an act of imaginative re-casting. Here it is:

Cantre’r Gwaelod

(A free adaptation of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen)


Wake up Seithennin

Can’t you see what’s happening

The wild sea is rushing in.


The well’s cup-bearer,

That girl you had beside you –

You thought it nothing just to take her.


Now she’s gone, the well

She keeps is overflowing

And running to the sea’s swell.


Can you hear her call

Ringing out across the water?

Your fault has brought you to a fall.


Can you hear her berate

The fate that’s brought her

To this end – early or late


She sings her lament

Over Gwyddno’s flooded meadows

The cup of plenty now is spent.


She rides through the flow –

Mererid – on the bay mare’s back

Her song lulling the pull and tow


Of the plaintive waves:

A pearl plucked from its oyster;

Like your bed, empty of its treasure.

There is a single word in the original poem ‘cwyn’ that has been alternatively translated ‘complaint’ and ‘feast’. Did she complain about what had happened to her (as I imply in my translations) or might we suppose that the offering of her cup as a feast has other implications? A mythological reading might include both possibilities simultaneously. Is she here the victim of a violation or an active participant in releasing the flood? You would think as I have translated the poem twice with the same implication, that I was certain about this. But I’m not.


1 Rachel Bromwich  ‘Cantref y Gwaelod and Ker Is’ in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge 1950)

2 Jackson Knight  Epic and Anthropology (London, 1967)

3. M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)

–> Further questions for investigation: What is the connection between the deluge legend and the Taliesin story, given that there are two locations for the Taliesin story and each of them is also associated with a deluge legend?



The Poem about the drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod

from The Black Book of Carmarthen,

translated and re-interpreted:


Stand up Seithennin
Look out at the waves
Crashing over Gwyddno’s realm.

Woe to the maiden,
The aggrieved cup-bearer
Who bore in her cup the sea’s chagrin.

Woe upon her, the daughter
Of the well whose cup of plenty
Covers the contours with featureless water.

Mererid’s outcry from the fortress
Calling to the gods;
It is known: after arrogance is loss.

Mererid’s outcry from the fortress
Appealing to the gods;
It is known : pride has its redress.

Mererid’s outcry is a grief to me tonight
It brings only anguish;
It is known : presumption has its price.

Mererid’s outcry from the bay mare’s back
The gods bring retribution;
It is known : after plenty there is lack.

Mererid’s outcry calls me from my lodging
No bed for me tonight;
It is known : conceit has its ending.



The poem has been translated – and mistranslated – a number of times. The version above follows the original line by line and hopes to convey the sense of each stanza as written in the medieval Welsh. It is a ‘re-interpretation’ because I have made a few contextual shifts away from previous more or less literal translations. The most significant of these is that I have transferred it to a polytheistic context so where the original refers to God I have referred to the gods.

The assumption of most translators has been that the blame for the flood is being directed at Mererid. But the arrogance and presumption (‘traha’) which is said to have brought it about is assigned to Seithennin in a final verse which I have omitted here. This verse also occurs in the ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ and seems not to belong to this poem. But it refers to Seithennin as ‘the presumptious’ and it could just as well be said that the poems implies that he is to blame. Indeed, in the later version of the story he does become the agent of the flood by getting drunk and forgetting to close the sluice gates.

Here I have tried to shift the focus back on Mererid, not as a blameworthy perpetrator but as one whose office as cup bearer and keeper of the well has been violated. There are other legends about well-keepers being upset or offended resulting in the well flooding a large area. These are usually stories of lake origins. But Mererid is also a cup bearer, an office which carried some status but which might set the holder apart from other court officials. In my view of her she functions as a priestess and representative of the water world. So I have interpreted the word ‘emendiceid’ (accursed) referring to her in stanza 2 & 3 not so much as directed at her but as a reflection on her condition. This, admittedly, does involve a creative change of emphasis from the imperative mood (‘boed’) in these two lines.

The poet’s expression is concise especially in the lines where I have used the repeated phrase “It is known …’ . The poem has a single repeated word ‘gnaud’, literally ‘usual’ or ‘natural’ but also ‘what is’ or ‘known’. The latter seems to me to be a better construction in the translation.

Who speaks the poem? Rachel Bromwich considers the possibility that it is Mererid’s voice heard on the wind long after the event. The poem might, after all, be part of a lost prose saga. But I find it conceivable that it is Seithennin himself who speaks, possibly reflecting on his own part in bringing about the inundation. In the opening line, where he is addressed directly, the pronoun ‘you’ in the familiar form is attached to the verb ‘stand’ [up or out] and this happens again in the next line with ‘look’ where the deponent form of the verb could suggest a reflexive sense. The final verse’s reference to the speaker being driven from his lodging links to the opening and reinforces the possibility that it is he who speaks.


The poem is No. 39 in The Black Book of Carmarthen.

The original text with a translation, discussion and notes by Rachel Bromwich appears in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge, 1950). The discussion compares the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod with the Breton legend of Ker-Is.

There is also a translation by Jenny Rowlands in Early Welsh Saga Poetry (Cambridge, 1990).