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:
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.
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
The character Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi tales, has been associated with the Irish god Lugh and therefore the pan-Celtic god Lugus. Linguistically the name ‘Lleu’ cannot have developed from the Irish ‘Lug(h)’ and can only have developed from Brythonic ‘Lugus’, so if we can indeed associate Lleu with Lugus, this is a direct development from Brythonic and not due to influence from medieval Irish tales. This suggests that any mythos from earlier times also developed separately in the lore and derived literature in each language. Ideally to make the connection with Lugus we would wish to have other evidence as well as the Mabinogi story. One possible source of additional confirmation is the Gododdin. This early Welsh poem is a series of elegies for warriors of the Gododdin tribe, mostly centred around the attack on Catraeth in northern England where many of them were slain. But the whole poem is not a connected narrative of that battle and some elegies concern other conflicts, in particular the part of the poem which is considered the earliest and which preserves most vestiges of Old Welsh in the Middle Welsh into which it was copied. This is also the most difficult part to interpret and is not included in all modern editions, but these three lines occur in the translation by John Koch (1):
The rock of Lleu’s tribe,
the folk of Lleu’s mountain stronghold
at Gododdin’s frontier ….
Unlike the verses which deal with an attack to the south, these lines refer to a defence of the territory on its northern edge facing across the Firth of Forth towards the lands of the Picts. The identification of Lleu here is also supported in a discussion of these lines by T M Charles Edwards (2), but other translations of these lines treat ‘lleu’ as meaning something like ‘open ground’ so, as often with the interpretation of early Welsh poetry, there is a lack of absolute clarity. But if the Gododdin (the Brythonic tribe known by the Romans as the Votadini) did think of themselves as ‘Lleu’s tribe’, then this would supply some confirmation to the identification of Lleu with Lugus in the Mabinogi tale.
If so, what significance does the narrative of that tale have in terms of the mythos of the god Lugus, and is there anywhere else we might look for Lleu?
In Ireland there are many stories about Lugh spanning many centuries. In some of these stories he is a god, in others he is mortal. In different versions of The Tain he is either the father of Cuchulainn or his otherworld persona/protector, even taking on his appearance and fighting for him when he is injured. In one of the earlier stories about him he acts in conjunction with the sovereignty goddess of Ireland to confer authority on a king spirited away to an otherworld fortress. By contrast in Wales there a few references to Lleu and only one extended narrative in which he obviously features. Before looking at the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi tales it is worth noting one other narrative where he might appear. The tale of Lludd and Llefelys included in the ‘Mabinogion’ collection usually appears in translation with the second of those two names spelt, as here, with an ‘f’ to indicate the ‘u’ of the medieval manuscript i.e.: Lleuelys. But the letter ‘u’ can also indicate an ‘ei’ sound (as in Lleu and Lludd). So there is some reason to suggest that the first part of Lleuelys could be Lleu’s name. Both Patrick Ford (3) and John Koch (4) have suggested this on the basis of a comparison by George Dumézil(*) of the tale of Lludd and Lleuelys with the Irish tale of ‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuiredh’ where the equivalent characters are Nuadu and Lugh with the proposed derivation of both sets of names from Nodens and Lugus. In this analysis Brythonic Nodens becomes Welsh Nudd and then Lludd while Lugus becomes Lleu in the Mabinogi tales and Lleuelys in the tale of Lludd and Lleuelys where Lleuelys uses his great skill to ward off the three plagues that are oppressing the Island of Britain.
What of Lleu’s story in the Mabinogi? Here we have a more creatively shaped artefact. Can we extract the mythos of a god from the accidentals of a literary tale? His ‘steady hand’ with a spear, his skill with crafts , the circumstances of his birth and the ability to shape-shift after his ‘death’ all seem to stem from a divine nature. Like Pryderi (and Mabon) he is separated from his mother soon after birth and, also like Pryderi, he soon grows to the stature of a youth many years older than his age. But unlike Pryderi he is not re-united with his mother and has to shape an identity for himself without her help, or even the help of a surrogate mother. His uncle Gwydion aids him by both subterfuge and magical arts. In fact Gwydion might be regarded as much as his father as his uncle. Although his actual paternity is unstated one of the Old Welsh Genealogies mentions “Lou Hen map Guidgen” ( Old Lleu son of Gwydion**). Like the relationship between Cuchulainn and Lugh, the relationship between Lleu and Gwydion is both one of common family and one which spans the borders of the supernatural and the natural worlds.
Lleu has to ‘become’ himself with the aid of Gwydion with whom he shares the characteristics of a shape-shifter. Perhaps we can identify both Gwydion and Lleu as aspects of Lugus, differentiated in the medieval narrative but each an expression of the god in a different guise. In the first part of the tale, before Lleu is born, Gwydion is a powerful wizard who uses his magic negatively to trick Pryderi and help his brother to rape Goewin, but he himself is subject to the magic of Math who transforms the brothers into a series of animals who mate with each other and bear children as punishment for their transgression. Later Math and Gwydion seem to work as one to aid Lleu. Here their use of magic might seem more positive, but if we see Lleu and Gwydion as expressions of one identity, it could also been seen as reflexive magic worked to shape an identity as well as to conjure a wife out of flowers. This is the work of a trickster. Later, when Lleu has been pierced by Gronw’s spear, apparently fulfilling the complicated conditions for his death, he does not actually die but shape-shifts into an eagle, while the sovereignty of his lands passes for a time to Gronw. When Gwydion tracks him down and rescues him he chants a series of englyns which are regarded as older than the tale that contains them, or at least have retained older linguistic features from an earlier version. These are further spells of becoming, bringing Lleu back into the world. Lleu sitting as an eagle in the oak tree with his flesh falling from him is resonant with the sacrifice of Odinn ‘himself to himself’ if we see Gwydion and Lleu as a unified pair. We might, in comparing this tale with Lludd and Lleuelys, see Gwydion and Lleu as Nodens and Lugus. Or should we say, however they are differentiated elsewhere, the locus of each of them in Lugus in this tale is clear? LIeu returns to the human world, like Gwydion before him, after being cast out of it, only to throw the spear from his steady hand to kill Gronw and win back sovereignty of his lands. Here the mytheme of the Summer and the Winter kings seems to be shadowing the plot of the literary narrative. Consider that in the Irish story Lugh takes over from Nuadu in the fight against the Fomorian Balor, the mythological pattern and the story details equally served by the transfer of power in each case.
So there are a number of mythical elements woven into the tale. But it is also a story shaped by a human narrator who creates lives for his characters that engage the human listeners in events that also appear to be about human characters. If the gods are present in such a tale they are so as living presences rather than the formal functions of Dumézil’s analysis. Which is not to say that Dumézil is wrong, just that if the gods are alive for us they cannot be tied down to a schema but must live lives as varied and as arbitrary as our own. They will then appear not as idealised forms but as individuals with characteristics that may range from the honourable to the despicable. They may shape-shift between appearances and appear to us in a variety of guises and their relationships to each other slide from siblings to cousins to parents in different stories about them, though their mythos, which is their defining story, remain the same.
Lleu has a wife that was shaped for him out of flowers. What of her story? Is she a creation of literary narrative or part of the original mythos from which the tale was made? The females of this part of the Mabinogi are all marginal figures unlike those in the other three branches. Goewin is raped by an infatuated Gilfaethwy who can possess her no other way. She therefore loses her status as Math’s maiden foot holder, though she then becomes his wife. Aranrhod seems to chose her own way, apart from the affairs of Math, Gwydion and Lleu, disowning her son but also avoiding the offer of becoming Math’s foot-holder to replace Goewin. Blodeuedd, like Lleu, has no parents to shape her being and nurture her becoming but has to enter the world fully formed with her relationships pre-defined for her. She refuses this and eventually leaves the human world to become an owl. Somewhere among these female characters we may look for Rosmerta, the goddess often paired with Lugus in his identity as the Gaulish Mercury. Will we find her? Perhaps. That is a story I hope to be able to tell.
Notes and References
* For more on Dumézil’s discussion see the Brython website.
** Discussed by Ian Hughes in his edition of Math uab Mathonwy (Cardiff, 2000)
1. John Koch’s translation of The Gododdin is given in The Celtic Heroic Age ed Koch and Carey (Aberystwyth, 2003)
2. T M Charles Edwards. Wales and the Britons, 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013)
3. Patrick K Ford The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales (UCP, 1977)
4. Celtic Culture an Historical Encyclopaedia ed J. Koch (ABC-Clio, 2006).
Gogyfarch Vabon o arall vro -*- Call upon Mabon from the Other Realm
(Book of Taliesin : 38)
Divine Son of Divine Mother, taken at three nights old into the Otherworld but brought back out of the darkness into the light of this world. Playing the Harp of Time ~> he brings the music of the world out of silence into the sights and sounds of Summer. His is the bright step into the eternal present of Now, the act of Being, the vitality of youth grown to manhood. He may come as a hunter decked in leaves with a sheaf of arrows to inspire a bard, as the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan relates (~>).
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen he is Mabon, released from the dungeon of Caer Loyw to join Arthur and his men to hunt Twrch Trwyth. He is simultaneously the Divine Youth, the ever-young, and one whom only the most ancient of the ancient creatures of the world can remember. In the Mabinogi tales he is Pryderi, taken from his mother Rhiannon as a baby and brought back by Teyrnon, then taken again as an adult and brought back by Manawydan. These stories enact on the plane of human narrative the mythology of Maponos moving between Time and Not-Time, between Light and Darkness, between Music and Silence, between Thisworld and Annwn.
He is the Son of the Horse Goddess who plucks the strings the harp or the lyre as he twangs the string of his bow to bring inspiration or show the way for a seeker after the mysteries. As Mabon he takes the razor from between the ears of the boar Twrch Trwyth for the giant Ysbadadden to be shaved so Culhwch can wed Olwen. As Pryderi he hunts a shining white boar which leads him into an otherworld caer. Manawydan – ‘wise of counsel’ – does not follow but finds a way to bring him back. These then reflect the rites of departure and beckoning as we welcome him once more onto the path of discovery, of life, and all its mysteries which are his to reveal.
So he may walk the plains of Summer in our world, bringing it alive with each vibration of the strings of his harp, or he may be sought for through a seer, an awenydd or one who walks the paths between the worlds. An inscription in Gaulish found in a sacred spring at Chamelières calls upon him thus:
Maponos of the Deep, Great God
I come to you with this plea:
Bring the powers of the Otherworld
To inspire those who are before thee.
He may come, once again, into the world to inspire us, to touch the strings of his harp riding the particles of silence behind him as they touch the waves of sound that rush through the world like the song of the Birds of Rhiannon over the waves of the sea and on every zephyr that touches the trees of the world. So we shape these words to call upon him:
Maponos : we sense your call
From the silence of the Deeps beyond our world
Maponos : Matrona remembers her child
Whom we bring to her with this wish for your coming
Maponos : You are the seed of Summer
Dwelling in darkness and springing into light
Maponos : we hear your harp-song
As the Sun rides high in the Midsummer sky.
The Gaulish text of the Chamelières Tablet is given in The Celtic Heroic Age ed. John Koch & John Carey (Aberysywyth, 2003) where a word by word interpretation is also given. The four-line verse above is based on that.
Other References: Culhwch ac Olwen : Rachel Bromwich a Simon Evans (Cardiff, 1997) Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi : Ifor Williams (Cardiff, 1978)
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.
Victorian 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.
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.