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

Gods and Goddesses of the Treveri

On a wall in the Museum in Trier is this relief of Epona

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.

ESUS

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:

SIRONA

 

 

 


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.

Reverie in a Museum Gallery

king
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
Queen

Kilmartin

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.

stone
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.