A Footnote on Inundation Legends



John Rhŷs, speculating on the name Seithennin, wondered if it might have originated in the name of the Sentantii, a tribe which the ancient geographer Ptolemy (c.100-170 c.e.) indicated had occupied an area between the Ribble and the Dee. This was an historical attribution as, in Ptolemy’s time, the area was occupied by the Brigantes in the north and the Cornovii in the south. Rhŷs considers the possibility that:

*There was an inundation of the land of the Sentantii which was remembered in legendary history associated with Gwyddno Garanhir, a ruler of northern Brythonic lands.
*These legends were remembered in later folklore when the lands occupied by the inheritors of these legends were restricted to Wales (I leave out of account here his further speculations concerning a move to Ireland).
* The legend became associated with two areas of Wales where inundations had also taken place: the Conwy estuary in North Wales and Cardigan Bay in West Wales. The legends, respectively, of Tyno Helig and Cantre’r Gwaelod either grew out of the transplanted story or were integrated with it. Seithennin’s name then transferred from the lost tribal name of the Sentantii to a character in the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend.

If the tale had been transferred from the estuary of the Ribble (Belisima) to that of the Dyfi in Cardigan Bay, as well as elsewhere, this indicates a generic inundation myth for the west coast of Britain where sea levels rose and caused inundations in different places over an extended period of time. Rhŷs’s speculations are confined to a few pages and a footnote to Celtic Folklore. As far as I know he never developed them further. Later accounts of inundations do not help either. F J North’s investigations in Sunken Cities are restricted to Wales, though he does conclude that the Cantre’r Gwaelod story concerning Seithennin was earlier than the Tyno Helig story located in the Conwy estuary. Nigel Pennick’s Lost Lands and Sunken Cities , although dealing with inundations in Lancashire, only discusses events in the medieval period.

One of the things that happens when historical and legendary events become absorbed into folklore is that they become universalised, and so take on the potential to become mythological. Certainly the core story of Cantre’r Gwaelod, beneath the succeeding layers of legendary history, seems to contain the proto- mythological theme of a well gushing water from the Otherworld. Whether this is contained in lore as a well, a cauldron or a river rushing from elsewhere to the sea from an otherworld source, this is a good indication of how myth, legend and history become woven together in the tapestry of story. Such stories are many, and all with their own particular characteristics and their own significances in myth and legend.

Do they all spring from the same source? The Indo-European proto-myth of the well from which both life-giving waters and potential disaster both simultaneously flow certainly provides a cosmological background to these stories. And we can readily think of other examples such as the Well of Wisdom in the Irish tradition and the Well of Wyrd in Norse mythology. But we also need to be careful in applying ideas of a common source as encompassing the sole meaning of the legends. Certainly they also contain records of historical shifts between land and sea and the legendary shaping of such memories into folklore, a process which itself re-integrates such tales with the proto-myth. But reading distinctive cultural artefacts as expressions of universal themes, as useful as it is for identifying the way such themes emerge in different forms, is in danger if losing sight of the particular use of the theme in a distinctive cultural setting. One people’s gods may have their ‘equivalents’ in another people’s gods, but they are individual and distinct within each culture.

I have no doubt that, whatever effect the increase or decrease in sea levels over millennia has had on the shape of the coastline, and however that has been described in legendary history and become absorbed into local folklore, the telling of these tales is always informed at a deep level by the unique cultural appropriation of the proto-myth. But I am also convinced that simply referring back to a proto-myth as an abstract source will devalue the expression of it in the culture that has made it distinctive. Rachel Bromwich, for instance, asserts that the stories we have been discussing are not influenced by the Biblical flood story, but are independent Celtic expressions of this theme. Whatever deep source we may identify in the ethology of Indo-European myth, or even in the common deep structure of the human mythological imagination , unless it is here, now, and with us in the way that we tell it, then it lacks coherent form. Streams, from whatever deep source waters they come, flow through particular lands and have their own characteristics when they do so.