The Arthurian Realm: The May Day Battle for the Maiden Creiddylad

Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

May Day

The 1st of May is also known as May Day, Beltane or in Wales Calan Mai or Calan Haf.  In Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature it is often linked to the beginning of an adventure or the unfolding of significant events.  More sinisterly, it is also linked with the abduction of a female by a male suitor, a recurring theme in Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature.  Presented here is a brief discussion on the abduction of Creiddylad and the battle by two warring suitors for possession of her, which takes place every May Day until Doomsday, when there must be a final victor.

Gwyn ap Nudd

In Welsh mythology Gwyn ap Nudd  was a ruler of Annwn and the Tylwyth Teg and also associated with Glastonbury Tor.  His name means “white son of Nudd,” though he is often described as having a blackened face.   His father was Ludd, who was also known as Lludd of the Silver Hand and he may have had a sister, or step-sister named Creiddylad, but the relationship, if any, is not clear.  He accompanied King Arthur in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen.

Creiddylad

Creiddylad briefly appears in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.  She has been likened to Persephone, the Greek vegetation goddess associated with spring and fertility who had been abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld.  Her mother, Demeter searched for her neglecting her duties and causing the earth to stop growing. She is eventually found and after the intervention of Zeus is compelled repeatedly to spend half the year in Hades and the other on Earth, representing winter and summer respectively.

Creiddylad was considered the most beautiful maiden in the island of Britain.   She had two suitors; Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidawl. Some scholars regard Creiddylad as the prototype for the legendary Queen Cordeilla of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical, The History of the Kings of Britain.  Later William Shakespear’s character Cordelia from his play King Lear was thought to have been inspired by Geoffrey’s version though not everyone accepts this view.  

Gwythyr ap Greidawl

Gwythyr ap Greidawl was the son of Greidawl Galldonyd, one of King Arthur’s knights.  Gwythyr was also one of Arthur’s knights and a member of his retinue along with Gwyn in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.  

The Abduction and Conflict

Creiddylad and Gwyther were betrothed but before they were married Gwyn ap Nudd forcefully abducted her. Gwythyr raised an army to confront Gwyn and win back his betrothed.   In the ensuing battle Gwyn is victorious taking a number of important prisoners. These included Dyfnarth his son, Glinneu son of Taran, Gwrgwst Ledlwm, Graid son of Eri, Pen son Nethog, Nwython and his son Cyledyr.  In an act of sheer cruelty the Gwyn made Cyledyr eat the heart of his father which drove him mad. From then on the epitaph Wyllt meaning madness was added after his name with him becoming Cyledyr Wyllt.

On hearing of the hostilities, King Arthur intervened setting the prisoners free and making a peace agreement between the two.  This stipulated that Gwyn and Gwythyr would fight for Creiddylad every year on the 1st of May until Doomsday. Whoever won the fight on Doomsday would win Creiddylad for his bride.  Through all this time she would remain unmarried living with her father until the contest had been settled.

Creiddylad as a Goddess

There is an idea that Creiddylad may represent a fertility goddess and the battle between the two rivals is to choose the strongest and most virile to be her husband to ensure the fertility of the earth.Caitlin Mathews in her book, King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land – The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion, explains how certain female characters in the Mabinogion may be seen as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty. The possession of such a female by a male gives the possessor sovereignty over the land. Some times she is called the Flower Bride and considered the spirit of new growth, renewal and fertility.

With both ideas possession is one thing and keeping her is another. In both roles her task is to ensure the fertility of the land. Therefore, he who would be king must be the strongest and most virile. He must also be the steward of the land taking care of it and its inhabitants in return for sovereignty over it. There is an idea that the well being of the land is intimately tied up with the well being of the king. Should the king weaken and fail so will the land. There will never be a shortage of suitors for the goddess or Flower Bride and inevitably she must choose the strongest and the most potent for her consort to ensure the fertility, renewal and well being of the land she bestows. This may look immoral to a patriarchal society but it is her sacred duty to protect and ensure the continuance of life on the land and her morality cannot be judged in such terms.

Birth, Death and Renewal

These abduction stories are also often linked to birth, death and renewal of life and crops and nature.  They may also be connected with the battle of light and dark and the cyclical changing of the seasons but not all scholars accept these ideas.  In Arthurian literature there are several similar examples involving the abductions of Queen Guinevere and other ritualistic duels between two warring males that may also be seen in this light. 

© 06/05/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 6th, 2020 zteve t evans

8 thoughts on “The Arthurian Realm: The May Day Battle for the Maiden Creiddylad

  1. I always enjoy reading the less mainstream Arthurian legends. This tale does have some notable similarities with the Persephone myth. Arthur even plays a role that echoes Zeus. The biggest difference I see is that the conflict with Creiddylad is between two men whereas Persephone’s abduction pits her mother against Hades.

  2. Thanks for sharing this! The episode of Creiddylad is one the many that appear in the tale of Culwch and Olwen. I didn’t pay much attention to it when I first read the Mabinogion, but now I think it’s one of the most intriguing included in the collection. Especially the figure of Arthur and his presence raise some interesting questions. Why was he the one to interfere? And how did he manage to convince the two warriors to settle their differences by fightining every May Day for the possession of the maiden?

    • Good questions and there are many answers and here is one. There is an idea that the main characters such as Arthur represent gods and if you follow this line of thought it presents a completely different picture. Gwythyr appears to represent summer and Gwynn ap Nudd winter. Creiddylad as a Flower Bride represents fertility, renewal and regrowth. Beltane was the beginning of the Celtic or Gaelic summer. It was the annual fight between winter and summer for the fertility of the earth. Arthur as king and the consort of a goddess of sovereignty was also steward of the land and had the overriding power to impose order for the sake of the fertility of the land. If Gwyn had kept Creiddylad fertility would have been imprisoned by winter. The fight was to keep the two seasons in balance so that growth and renewal took place as it should. Hope all that makes sense!

  3. Good point. I hadn’t thought about that. But yes, like Rhiannon, Guinevere is a goddess of sovereignty and therefore, Arthur has gained the right to oversee the prosperity of the land. That could explain why he desires to solve the dispute between Gwyn and Gwythyr.

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