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

DEVOTIONS

MERERID

Water seeps up through Earth,
Pools into a well or
Streams away from the source.

Here is the Chalice of Rosmerta
Never empty as you cup the flow
With generous hands.

It is sweet water
It is fragrant mead
It is all the world’s treasure

For us to taste
But not to hoard
For only in your cup is it held.

~*~

RIGANTONA

A horse glides like cloud
across the land, no sound
but an intake of breath

Held in suspense
of your coming, expectant
for the gift of Summer

Promised on each blossoming bough
of blackthorn  …  apple  …  hawthorn:
the scents of your coming, gathering

Strength each week, each day
of the springing year until
the splendid opening of the Rose.

 

Inundations

Inundations, not temporary floods but the permanent flowing of waters across the land; there are many stories of such flowings from springs or wells to make lakes, or rushing to meet the sea to re-shape the coastline. There are recurrent stories behind these legends, superficially of pride, arrogance, presumption, though this might mask a quest for knowledge and therefore power. Often the consequences are delayed and the flood comes after many generations (time for the otherworld deities is not our time). The legend of the drowning of Tyno Helig near the estuary of the River Conwy in North wales is typical of the theme where a wicked ruler is told that his descendants will be punished for his deeds and so he thinks he has nothing to worry about, but seven generations later his lands are flooded during a feast and only the harper escapes drowning. This latter detail of the harper is also a common element in the stories. John Rhŷs thought that the theme of delayed punishment for evil deeds was a later development in these stories which originally involved something happening at a sacred well which causes it to overflow. Consider for instance, the story of Boann who looks into Nechtan’s Well of Wisdom which should only be visited by Nechtan and his cup-bearers. The well overflows and chases her all the way to the sea, thereby forming the River Boyne. In the story of the drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod, or the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir, Mererid is herself a cup-bearer and a well-maiden, though the oblique nature of the verses which record this (probably originally contained in a prose saga which supplied more detail) means that the context is unclear.

But no matter. For there is more to say. Both the setting for Tyno Helig and that for Cantre’r Gwaelod are also settings for different surviving versions of the story of Taliesin. Think now of that harper who survives (or is re-born from) the flood. The story of Taliesin begins at Llyn Tegid, the location of another inundation legend which explains the formation of the lake near the town of Bala. This is where Gwion stirred Ceridwen’s cauldron. The River Dee (Dyfrdwy) which runs through the lake, has its own mythos naming its waters as sacred (~>). Gwion looked into, and tasted, the waters of this cauldron and there was an inundation. He gained wisdom just as Finn gained wisdom either by tasting the salmon from the Well of Wisdom or, in another story, tasting drops of water from an otherworld well.

Rosmerta And Mercurius - a relief from Gloucester.
Rosmerta And Mercurius – a representation from Gloucester showing her bucket.

 

In Gaul a god that the Romans called Mercurius – though he may not have had a name before the Romans gave him one – was partnered with Rosmerta, whose name could simply mean ‘The Great Provider’. Rosmerta had a site of devotion at a sacred spring in Gaul and is also commemorated in Bath, the site of the sacred springs of Sulis in Britain. One of her emblems is a bucket (cauldron?) and she is represented with Fortuna on one relief where the bucket could symbolise re-birth. A spring, a cauldron, a brew of otherworld wisdom, welling into our world. A cup-bearer, a well-maiden ~/~ the keeper of the cauldron, a hag. Are these two sides of the same coin, the turning of Fortuna’s wheel? When there is a flow from otherworld streams out of the well or the cauldron, who can catch the essential drops on the tongue, taste the salmon or gather the hazel nuts that have fallen into the the waters of the well?

Think of that harper, the survivor of the flood. Think of Taliesin, re-born from the waters into a weir in which salmon are caught. Think of others whose quest for knowledge transforms them into divine or inspired figures.Then consider that Mercurius, Rosmerta’s partner, may have been known in the lands that overlapped Gaul as Woden, and how a god, taking a different name for a different people, might do things differently, and yet still discover sources of wisdom, of inspiration, and how the mead of poetry from the Cup or Cauldron of Inspiration might be dispensed to the poets, the awenyddion, the drui, from whom the waters of the Cauldron flow as rivers of song.

Of Well Maidens and Cup-Bearers

cup… Disparate things cohere….. from explorations, lore, study, active interpretation of sources, bringing together things from different places, studies of other things held in memory and brought back into focus in new contexts, meditations, inspirations, – rarely sudden revelations – more often slowly forming visions, shapes emerging, patterns forming from the flow, structures of significance …..

So with Mererid , well-maiden and cup-bearer, in a medieval poem attached to a legend of a drowned land on the coast near where I live. She had long been an evocative presence who seemed to have a significance I had not quite fathomed. But as I thought about the legend and discovered the lore associated with it, her identity began to take shape. Floods from springs or wells when their guardians are offended are the legendary origins of many lakes. These guardians are invariably female and it is sometimes stressed, as with the case of Mererid, that she is a maiden. Two words are used to convey this in the poem. In one line she is referred to as ‘morvin’ (simply maiden), but in another line as ‘machteith’ which is also a term indicating a court office. Rachel Bromwich comments that “both interpretations should be borne in mind”. (1)

Many years ago doing quite different research I needed to look at references to protective deities of cities. Ancient cities and other settlements had magical as well as physical walls around them. Gateways through the walls could be physically sealed and locked but magical gateways needed magical seals or keys to open or shut them. The title ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (now inherited by the Pope) originally indicated one who was adept at bridging and sealing protective boundaries. The Vestal Virgins were an institution that was seen to protect Rome, the virginity of the vestals being an essential element in this. In earlier societies this function often inhered in a virgin deity. The virginity of Athene as protectress of Athens was stressed. Studies of the sources for Homer’s Iliad indicate that Troy was seen to be protected in this way and one of these relates that the prophetess Cassandra undid her girdle  as the horse was brought through the city walls in a symbolic breaching of their magical protection. (2)

It seemed to me that the same protective function could apply to well maidens. Wells were often seen as gateways to the Otherworld and if these gateways were not properly protected the steady flow of blessed water might become a deluge, particularly if the guardian of the well ceases to become a virgin either by her own volition or by her violation. But Mererid is also a ‘cup-bearer’. Reading Enright’s elucidations (3) about the role of cup-bearers in Celtic and Germanic cultures and the proposed origins of their functions and identity in the goddess Rosmerta (the ‘great provider’); the ambiguous status of Wealtheow, Hrodgar’s queen and cup-bearer, in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf; the story of the virgin prophetess Veleda in Tacitus’ Germania; all began to bring the picture into focus.

Rosmerta’s emblems are the cup, ladle and bucket. Her cup an emblem of plenty, proffered at the feast; in Gaul she is associated in at least once place with a sacred spring. In her continuing identity in the persons of cup bearers her role becomes differentiated and therefore ambiguous, particularly in later contexts when the religious significance may have been lost but the magical status still remained resonant. A cup bearer might be a maiden and hold an office as such at court but equally there might be an implied sexual element involved in what she represents associated with fertility. Enright says as part of his discussion of these elements, “We may therefore reiterate an argument made constantly in this study – that prophecy, sexuality and the offering of liquor were all part of the same mental construct for Celts and, perhaps, somewhat later, for Germans.” Where her maiden status is associated with protection, the loss of it also implies loss of protection. But it might in other contexts be associated with fertility and so becoming sexually active brings plenty. Her survival into later legends, folklore and story may emphasise only one or the other of these functions exclusively and so appear to be only about a single event such as an inundation or a symbolic offering of plenty by a cup bearer, though often the portrayal of these events retains an aura of something deeper.

What of Mererid? She is a well maiden, whose function is to protect the well. She also bears the cup of plenty. So could her seduction or violation have removed the protection and so caused the flood? And could there be an underlying sense of fertility here too, the release of life-giving waters, but disguised in the story of a catastrophic inundation? Perhaps. It was with such as sense of these possibilities that I moved from undertaking a translation of the poem from The Black Book of Carmarthen, where I felt constrained to at least preserve the narrative and thematic integrity of the original (in spite of also attempting a re-interpretation of the context) to writing my own, freer version of the same poem in an act of imaginative re-casting. Here it is:

Cantre’r Gwaelod

(A free adaptation of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen)

 

Wake up Seithennin

Can’t you see what’s happening

The wild sea is rushing in.

 

The well’s cup-bearer,

That girl you had beside you –

You thought it nothing just to take her.

 

Now she’s gone, the well

She keeps is overflowing

And running to the sea’s swell.

 

Can you hear her call

Ringing out across the water?

Your fault has brought you to a fall.

 

Can you hear her berate

The fate that’s brought her

To this end – early or late

 

She sings her lament

Over Gwyddno’s flooded meadows

The cup of plenty now is spent.

 

She rides through the flow –

Mererid – on the bay mare’s back

Her song lulling the pull and tow

 

Of the plaintive waves:

A pearl plucked from its oyster;

Like your bed, empty of its treasure.

There is a single word in the original poem ‘cwyn’ that has been alternatively translated ‘complaint’ and ‘feast’. Did she complain about what had happened to her (as I imply in my translations) or might we suppose that the offering of her cup as a feast has other implications? A mythological reading might include both possibilities simultaneously. Is she here the victim of a violation or an active participant in releasing the flood? You would think as I have translated the poem twice with the same implication, that I was certain about this. But I’m not.

References:

1 Rachel Bromwich  ‘Cantref y Gwaelod and Ker Is’ in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge 1950)

2 Jackson Knight  Epic and Anthropology (London, 1967)

3. M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)


–> Further questions for investigation: What is the connection between the deluge legend and the Taliesin story, given that there are two locations for the Taliesin story and each of them is also associated with a deluge legend?