Legends of Sunken Lands … and the Awenydd who Survives

Diasbad Mererid y ar gwineu kadir

A theme I have returned to many times is that of the connection between inundation legends and that of the bard, harper or minstrel who survives the flood, often the only one to do so. Is it a co-incidence that three places in Wales associated with the story of Taliesin are also the locations of inundation legends? The fish weir in which the re-born infant Gwion is found to become Taliesin is located, in one version of the story, in the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir which is also the location of the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend. In an alternaive version it is located in the Conwy estuary where a legendary flood destroyed the land of Tyno Helig. In that story a harper leaves the feast to go outside and so survives the flood that rushes into the feasting hall. Llyn Tegid, or Bala Lake, is located where Gwion stirred the Cauldron of Ceridwen before the series of metamorphoses by which he eventually became Taliesin. This lake is also said to have been created by an inundation from which the bard attending a feast escaped. A surviving harper also features in legends concerning floods which created lakes at Llynclys and Syfaddon.(1)

In other inundation legends a common theme is that lakes are created by over-flowing wells caused by their misuse or an offence given to the Guardian of the Well. There seems to be a complex of legendary, folkloric and mythical materials combining in varying configurations in these stories.(*) Details vary and there are significant examples of such stories in Ireland as well as in Wales. Lough Foyle is said to have its origin in an inundation from a spring under which treasures were kept. Bran, son of Febul, offended the maidens guarding the spring by stealing the treasures and the spring then drowned the valley to create the Lough. The River Boyne is said to have its origin in the Well of Knowledge which Boand visited, though she should not have done, and it chased her all the way to the sea.

It seems that there are layers of story, or of stories, which metamorphise and may become inter-leaved as they are re-told and re-imagined, just as sedimentary rocks can become ‘metamorphic’ and their layers interfused. I have touched on many of these issues in previous posts (2), but this time such reflections arise from attending a talk on the beach at Borth, where the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend is located, by Martin Bates and Erin Kavanagh of Lampeter University. Standing among the stumps of trees and the remains of the peat bed of a forest floor from between 4000 and 6000 years ago, still visible on the beach, we were able to examines samples of peat layers from different levels down to the underlying clay. Layers of story and ways they are continuing in our own time are also evoked in a video playing in the small museum on Borth Railway Station, which was the starting point for our walk and which also displays the 3000 year-old deer antlers which Martin Bates retrieved when they emerged from beneath the peat.

More about Erin Kavanagh’s project can be found on her website and in the video:

‘Layers in the Landscape’ from Erin Kavanagh on Vimeo.

-*-

Although the best known version of the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend suggests the flood comes from the sea, the early version in a poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen (3) features a ‘fountain cup-bearer’ called Mererid whom the folklorist John Rhys thought was the ‘keeper of a fairy well’, so the possibilty of an overflowing well is also plausible. Is the bard, or harper, absent from this story because he is telling it, because he has been transposed to the story of Taliesin (itself a late prose tale but drawing upon material also found in the earlier Taliesin poems) or because here it is Mererid herself who rides off on a horse to escape the deluge ‘crying out’ her message as she goes?

Diasbad Mererid y ar gwineu kadir


(*) As used here these three terms might be defined as follows:
Legend: An imaginative story about events in the past which may, or may not, be verifiable in the historical record.
Folklore: Stories embedded in common memory concerned primarily with universal human experiences, often presenting typological themes which occur across cultures, but in a culture-specific context.
Myth: Stories which embody fundamental meanings and signifances : often about the gods, but also about origins and the nature of the world and of otherworld(s). Myth may be conveyed in legend and folklore, but not all of this material is mythic.

References:
1. See John Rhys Celtic Folkore p.415
2. e.g. HERE & HERE
3. I have attempted a translation of the poem with discussion HERE

2 thoughts on “Legends of Sunken Lands … and the Awenydd who Survives

  1. I just got round to watching the video. I was fascinated by ‘The King of the Sea Trees’ as an antlered figure. Of course I thought of Gwyn and wondered why Gwyn and Gwyddno’s conversation was not mentioned (or Gwyddno at all) whereas Branwen’s story and Cad Godeu,which have no direct connection to Borth, both were. Lovely combination of layers of landscape, archaeology, song, and art anyhow.

  2. I hadn’t picked up on the harper or bard who escaped the inundation before. Of course someone must live to tell the tale! Maybe the teller of Mererid’s tale was also the teller of the lost narrative of The Black Book of Carmarthen?… Some lost bard?… Unless as you say Mererid cried it out?

    I’d have loved to have been present at the talk on Borth beach. I’ll definitely check out the video when I have a spare 20 mins.

What do you think?