In that enchantment I became the awen of a note quivering into music, my string resonating with the others as we were plucked. So I learnt the interactions of sound, the waves we sent rippling through the air and I became one with the awen of sound. All of us, each string, all the notes we made singly and in combination, ringing out into the world from the inspired fingers of Maponos who played on the Harp of Time.
Time – the music of the world – striking the chords that measure the days of limited lives. And alongside this : Not-Time, where the nine years passed in an instant and in that condition, while I was with the God who played the Harp, I was in Time and in Not-Time and knew both the passing of the days, the quivering of the strings, and also the fleeting moment as the silence that gives way to sound stretches unheard into Eternity as each note is played.
So there was music. So there was silence. Between the two the God sat at the harp and I was enchanted for nine years, though no time had passed, no breath had passed my lips, as the God played on and on ….
Was I enchanted? Or was I the Enchantment? I was the note and I was the silence ; between the two the God sat, plucking each string, bringing Time out of Not-Time.
On a wall in the Museum in Trier is this relief of Epona
I have long known about it from books, and the fact that it was part of a shrine to Epona in the sacred precinct of the Roman town, where sites of worship are thought to have continued from pre-Roman Gaul. It would then have been in the territory of the Treveri, a tribe who inhabited an area around the Moselle valley west of the Rhine, overlapping current borders between Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. I recently managed to find my way to the town to view the relief for myself. It is located in a room in the Museum dedicated to representations of Roman and Celtic deities. After spending some time with Epona, I turned my attention to some of the other gods depicted here.
Many were Roman and Mercury predominates in the particular way he does in Gaul. On one large stone column he is shown on one face together with a female figure who is much worn away but is identified as Rosmerta. On another face of the same column is the figure of Esus apparently using an axe to cut a (willow?) tree in the crown of which there are three birds (cranes or egrets?) and the head of a bull. Parts of this face of the column are also much worn away so the imagery is not clear, but it has been taken to be the same scene as on another monument in Paris where a bull with three cranes has the inscription ‘Tarvos-Trigaranus’ (‘Bull with Three Cranes’) and where Esus is also represented. These are tantalising survivals of the religious imagery of Gaul filtered through Roman representations but remaining mysterious as to their significance.
Next to this column there is also a statue of Sirona, a goddess with a snake around her arm and pointing to what appear to be two eggs in her other hand, one of them broken open:
This compelled my attention for some time. As Rosmerta is often paired with a god the Romans equated with Mercury (Lugus?), so Sirona is similarly often paired with Apollo (Maponos?). I have often pondered the significance of this transference of male god names to fit Roman ‘equivalents’ while the female gods retain their native names. Sirona is represented alone here and has been identified as a goddess of fertility and of healing because of her iconography and the location of shrines by healing springs. That snake winding around her arm might have those associations but also draws attention to those same mysteries of significance which beckon from behind the veil of romanised representation and the views of modern interpreters.
The pagan shrines in the sacred precinct in Trier continued to be used for some time after the establishment of christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. They were largely destroyed after the suppression of paganism by the emperor Gratian late in the 4th century. But their survival until then suggests a continuing veneration of the native gods by the descendants of the Treveri, and the neighbouring Mediomatrici, in this part of Gaul.
Below is a translation of the central part of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem ‘Y Niwl’ containing the ‘dyfalu’ or conceit around which the framing narrative tells of the poet’s wish to go into the woods for a love tryst, but of not being able to find his way because of the thickness of the mist.
To deceive us is its dark intent
Rising as a rough cloak over the earth
In troublesome high towers; one of the tribe
Of Gwyn*, swathed by the wind
His two cheeks insidiously concealing the land
And the guiding signs with a blanket
Heavy and hideous like a darkness
Blinding the world to betray the bard.
It is as if some fine-spun fabric unravelled,
Threaded rope-like through the air,
A spider-web of fancy French stuff everywhere!
Up on the high point of the moorland
Gwyn* gathers the speckled smoke often seen
Rising like vapour from woodlands in May,
The breath of a bear in which barking dogs lurk,
Otherworld ointment from the witches of Annwn
Creepily anointing with a dew-like wetness:
A leaden coat worn by the cloud-capped land.
* ‘Gwyn’ is Gwyn ap Nudd who is often referred to in Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poetry, though incidentally rather than as a main subject, suggesting that he was too well-known to need explanation. Here he is associated with both wind and mist. In other poems the owl is said to be his particular bird and a bog pool is described as a place through which his otherworld spirits can find their way into our world. In the 14th century the Otherworld was regarded as a sinister place, but one which, though strange, was continually present just a side-step away from the paths we know.
There was a tradition in medieval Wales that Y Mab Darogan (‘The Prophesied Son’) would return to restore the Island of Britain to the Brythons. Various legendary and historical characters were identified with this figure, from Arthur to Henry Tudor. Many bards continuing the tradition of Taliesin and Myrddin wrote verses predicting this outcome, the last of which, in the 15th century, was Dafydd Llwyd ap Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He predicted the revival of Welsh fortunes and the defeat of the English. Legend has it that Henry Tudor stayed with him at Mathafarn in 1485 on his way across Wales to Bosworth in England where he defeated Richard III and so became Henry VII of England. Dafydd Llwyd died not long afterwards thinking that his prophecy had been fulfilled. History proves him both right and wrong. Henry’s first son was called Arthur and the augurs looked good(*). Dafydd Llwyd wrote a prophetic poem welcoming the prince and predicting a glorious life for him. The ‘Mab Darogan’ had arrived and was appropriately named. But Arthur died before becoming king and his younger brother, as Henry VIII, officially joined Wales to England in the Act of Union in 1536. The prophecy, in its fulfilment, transformed itself, as prophecies are apt to do. Wales had to conjure a new future for itself out of its Brythonic past.
On a stll day in Midwinter several years ago I skirted the grounds of Mathafarn. The main house was rebuilt in the eighteenth century but the estate is still intact from his time. It is said that some of the barns and other outbuildings still remain from the original house. But they were hidden from view as we climbed up from the valley of the River Dyfi to the forested hills above. The sun remained low, not far above the trees even at Midday, but the day was bright and cold as high pressure kept the air still and the temperature low. Clearing the conifers of the Dyfi Forest for a while, the open hillside has scattered trees with bare branches to contrast with the drab green of the Douglas Firs and Sitka Spruce of the forestry plantation. Here the twiggy outlines merged to a reddish mist on a distant hillside. In the far distance the distinctive ridge of Cadair Idris dominated the horizon. Such clear, cold weather in December, with the sunlight angled low, gives a particular quality to the light and the perception of colour. Everything seems so pellucid, as if the bright but subdued light is shining through the components of the landscape rather than reflecting off them.
It was easy to imagine the visionary prophet of Mathafarn inhabiting this day with us. Back amongst the enclosed conifer forest the suffused light is more densely poured over – and absorbed by – the green branches. The path winds down steeply through the trees and meets a forest road. Ditches and puddles glistened half way between a frozen and a liquid state. The Sun was behind the hills and the light started to fade. Separate objects began to cohere. We passed a ramshackle farm as we descend further to the valley floor and left the forest behind. A dog barked. Light ebbed away as we passed Mathafarn. It is lost in the dim past. Did Henry Tudor stay there?
An unlikely scrap of verse ascribed to Dafydd suggests he sent him on his way with a blessing:
Harri fu, Harri a fo
Harri sydd, hiroes iddo!
(Henry who was, Henry who will be / Henry who is, long life to him)
But all is now dark.
(*) An astrological chart for Arthur’s birth is given by Mark Williams in Fiery Shapes – Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700-1700 (Oxford, 2010).
This post is developed from a post on my Hills Chronicle blog in 2009 when one of my learned followers appreciated the ‘rare and lovely use of the present subjunctive of the verb bod as a future’ in Dafydd Llwyd’s verse. Quite so.
The most interesting use of Brythonic legendary history for modern fictional purposes is, I think, contained in the later novels of John Cowper Powys. This is done on a grand scale in Porius where the conversations of Taliesin and Myrddin Wyllt are incorporated into a narrative which portrays post-Roman Britain as something of a melting pot of different races and cultures including aboriginal giants. He had drawn upon similar material in his novel Owen Glendower which is a rather more accessibleand and tightly organised work plotted around the historical events of Owain Glyndŵr’s uprising in the 14th century, but no less fictionalised in terms of the personalities of the characters and far from being an ‘historical novel’ in the way the term is often understood. In that novel the aboriginal Brythons are represented by Broch o Meifod in his court at Mathrafal, itself magnifenctly presented as a last bastion of a disappearing world. Broch makes an alliance with Glyndŵr, an alliance between the remnant of the Brythons and the representative of the inheritors of that earlier melting pot who had added to it by inter-marrying with the Norman aristocracy.
In the introduction to Porius, John Cowper Powys had drawn parallels between the 6th and the 20th centuries. He comments that “As the old gods were departing then, so the old gods are departing now”. If, by the time of Owain Glyndŵr, we might think those gods would therefore be in full retreat, they nevertheless haunt the pages of that book too. Owain himself achieves legendary status before disappearing from his Principality of Wales to become a Prince of the Otherworld.
For Powys such material is always evoked as much to portray a personal quest as to illustrate historical, legendary or mythological events. But in the best passages of his works these things come together. At the end of the novel, Owain is cremated by Broch o Meifod and his son Meredith is taking his father’s remains for burial. Here are some edited extracts from the last pages:
“Absolutely motionless – with its head lifted as it sniffed the dawn air – there stood before him on an isolated rock a magnificently-horned stag. …..”
“And now, as the sight of those majestic horns against the dawn brought back memory upon memory, he felt that each one of these images was much more than an owl’s cry, a buzzard’s vigil, a salmon’s leap, a mountain summit above the mist. What were they, what did they have in them, that they could bring such comfort? ……”
“But there came over him now a vision of Arthur’s ship Prydwen sailing between Hell and Heaven, and yet motionless in the depths of a single soul, its great dragon wings reflected in fathomless water….”
“‘What’s that sad-faced man smiling for?’ Cried the oldest winged creature in Edeyrnion the croaking raven of Llangar, to his aged mate, as they swooped down over Meredith’s quickened steps.
‘Nis gwn! I don’t know! Nis gwn!’
croaked the other, and as the pair rose on their heavy-flapping wings and sailed away eastwards, mounting up in huge spiral circles higher and higher as they followed the river’s flow, it seemed to the man watching them as if there were something in that vast broken landscape that echoed that hollow answer in his ears as long as he could remember.”
“But the great birds soared on, heedless of the echoes; soared on till to Meredith’s vision they were dots and specks in the remote distance. He knew not where they were flying. But in his thoughts they were flying over the rocky crest of the Berwyns; they were flying over the fallen roof-tree of Sycharth; they were flying towards the mounded turf and the scattered stones that were all that was left of Mathrafal.”
And so it seems that the old world passes away. But of course, as pervasive as the myth of departing is, it never does. Those old gods, as W P Ker once remarked, even in defeat, “think that defeat no refutation”.
This is edited version of a post that originally appeared on my Gorsedd Arberth (now legacy) blog in 2011.
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.
(*) 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)
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.
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