Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns and the Door to the Otherworld in Welsh Folklore

This article was originally posted on the #FolkloreThursday.com as Folklore of the Welsh Lakes: Reflecting on Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns, and the Otherworld by zteve t evans September 28th, 2017.
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Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Welsh Lakes

There are may lakes scattered around Wales, each with their own unique characteristics and history. Many also have the most amazing legends and folklore associated with them, and the purpose of this work is to discuss some of them. This work does not attempt to be academic or scholarly. Instead, it attempts to explore thoughts that are more intuitive and reflective, and hopefully look towards stimulating ideas within the reader to construct their own interpretations of the folk tales and lakes mentioned should they wish to. 

A few things to note: Articles on the following lakes (Lake Bala also known as Llyn Tegid, Llyn Barfog, Kenfig Pool, Llyn Coch or the Red Lake, Llyn Cwm Llwch and Llyn y Fan Fach) all appear on the #FolkloreThursday website and links are placed in this article for easy access to them. The term ‘llyn’ is the Welsh word for ‘lake,’ and they are often used interchangeably. There are also a great many more lakes in Wales than can possibly be mentioned here, and many of them have other folk tales and folklore. Finally, there are many different versions of the same legends, and the ones mentioned here may be different to the ones you know. 

Origin of the Tales

Although only six lakes are discussed, it will be seen that these have a rich heritage in folklore and in some cases share similar stories. In other cases, the stories appear very different though there may be threads that link some together. The age of the tales and folklore is very much open to debate. Many scholars think they date from the Middle Ages but have far older elements built into them. These elements may be of Christian, Celtic, or possibly even older cultures. For example, are the legends of drowned towns and cities distant, faded memories of real towns (or at least settlements) that once existed either alongside or were built over a lake/replaced by a lake in some sudden flooding or disaster? It may that each succeeding human culture altered or added to the stories to reflect their own beliefs and situation, as will be discussed later. There is also a possibility that they were transported to the lakes from outside Wales, perhaps in the early movement of people across Europe from as far away as the Black Sea region.

The Doorway to the Otherworld

The Welsh lakes are often remote and situated on the edge of human society. In some tales they are presented as the doorway to the Otherworld in Welsh folklore, as is the case with the Red Lake, Llyn Cwm Llwch, and Llyn y Fan Fach. The lakes themselves are not the Otherworld, but the portal that is passed through to enter and exit it. The faerie brides, their fathers, and their sisters can pass through and visit earth, and sometimes they bring animals with them. In certain other Welsh fairy tales this occasionally happens to humans, as is the case with Llyn Cwm Llwch where an island of the Otherworld was made available to human visitors every May Day. This privilege was withdrawn after it was abused. For humans who visit the Otherworld or have dealings with it there is often a sad ending. They are often betrayed by their own frailties and, in many ways, it is the human frailties that are explored in the stories referenced here.

The Faerie Bride and the Mirror of Nature

The story of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach also looks at human frailties. In her first appearance at the lakeside, the lady is brushing her long, fair hair with a golden comb and using the lake as a mirror. It is a scene that is reminiscent of descriptions of mermaids on the seashore. Yet she is not half fish as a mermaid is, and is not really human either and this is not by the seashore. Neither is the female in the story of the Bride of the Red Lake. Both are unmistakably not human and appear to be more of a mere-maid, possibly of the Gwragedd Annwn, the female dwellers of the Otherworld of Annwn who according to Welsh folklore also appear from Llyn Barfog.

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A Tale of Three Rivers: The Ystwyth, the Severn and the Wye

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Richard Webb [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many legends and myths that explain how different British rivers originated. Many of these have been influenced by pagan beliefs and the worship of water goddesses, spirits or nymphs and have distinct Celtic connections.   This work looks at a legend that tells how the three British rivers known today as the Ystwyth, Severn and Wye  had their beginnings on the flanks of Mount Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales.   It gives an explanation of how they formed and found their way to the sea to become part of the great rain cycle that brings growth and nourishment to the land and its inhabitants. The work presented here draws from more than one source and owes much to Pollyanna Jones and Bill Gwilliam.

The Sleeping Giant

The story begins on Plynlimon which is a massif that is the highest point in the Cambrian Mountains and the highest point in Mid Wales.  Underneath the massif there was said to be a sleeping giant.  This giant had three daughters who were Niskai in Celtic mythology, sometimes known as water goddesses or nymphs.  There names were Ystwyth, Hafren and Gwy.

Although the giant slept he watched over his daughters in his slumber seeing them grow safely from the rain and the mountain mist that settled upon the mountain sides.  He watched the raindrops form puddles which formed pools which joined together to form little rivulets that trickled gently down the mountain.   In his dreams, he looked upon them and saw the energy that was brimming up inside of them ready to overflow and gush forth and he knew their time had come.

The Giant Awakes

Waking from his slumber he called them to him and told them,  “The time has come when you should fulfill your destiny and join with the sea.” And then he asked, “How will you fulfill your destiny?”

Being water nymphs they greatly desired to visit the ocean and to explore the great and mysterious region of the Celtic Sea and the wonders that lay beyond. It is very often the case with sisters that each will have different personalities and strong characteristics and express their individuality in different ways.  The choice each sister would make for themselves would be an expression of their unique personalities and individuality.

Ystwyth’s Choice

 

Ystwyth, was the smallest and was always in a hurry and made decisions and accomplished tasks in great haste.   As might be expected she quickly made up her mind that she would join the sea by the quickest and shortest route.  Stepping forward  she told her father, “I long to see the sea, to smell the salt air and see the sun rise and set over its wide waters.   I would go west by the shortest and the quickest route I can find to the sea to fulfill my destiny.”

“Then goodbye and go and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”  her father said, kissing and her embracing her.   Saying her goodbyes to her sisters she skipped and danced down the mountainside, drawing strength and speed from the small brooks and streams from her father’s side and flowed westerly, sparkling and shimmering through the land of Wales reaching the sea much faster than her two sisters ever would.  The people who lived in the lands she flowed through called her the River Ystwyth and she arrived at the sea fulfilling her destiny at a place now called Aberystwyth that was named after her.

Hafren’s Choice

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River Severn in Shrewsbury – By The original uploader was Chrisbayley at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Then Hafren stepped forward.  She said she was in no great hurry and wanted to take a good look at the countryside and to see the cities of humans and flow through their kingdoms.  She told her father, “I would choose to roam over the land taking the long way to the sea.  Then I could meet other waters of the land and learn the wisdom of the earth.   I would wander through the great cities, the beautiful towns and the villages of the fair people and learn what I could of their ways before I rendezvous with my sisters in the sea.  I have no need for haste and wish to learn and take my time. On my way, I will water and nourish the meadows of those fair folk but woe betide them should they abuse my good nature.  This is how I want to fulfill my destiny.”

Then her father kissed and embraced her and said, “Then go now and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”

Saying goodbye to her remaining sister,  she did exactly as she said she would.  She took her time and wandered through the landscape visiting some of the wonderful cities, towns, and villages along the way before she eventually joined with the Celtic Sea.  Her flow became known as the River Severn that glides serenely through the land to join the sea in the Bristol Channel.  True to her word those who abused her by setting their buildings and homes too close to her banks, or by invading her water pastures caused her to rise up and inundate them but she fulfills her destiny as she should.

Gwy’s Choice

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Jonathan Billinger [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The giant turned to his last daughter, Gwy as she watched her two sisters go their separate ways saying, “And now it’s your turn.  What direction do you choose for yourself?”

Gwy was not in such a hurry as Ystwyth and unlike Hafren who yearned for knowledge she was more inclined towards beauty.  She decided she would like to visit some of the beautiful countryside before she joined with the sea.  She stepped forward and kissed her father saying, “Ystywyth is in a hurry to join the sea.  Hafren seeks knowledge and experience. Beauty and harmony with nature are what I seek.  I will seek a way to the sea through the valleys and forests and all creatures shall find in my flow a place of peace and fulfillment and a sanctuary where their needs shall be met.  I will bring happiness and tranquility where ever I go.”

Her father smiled kissed and embraced his daughter and said, “Goodbye.  Go and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”

So Gwy flowed down the mountain and happily wandered through the valleys and the forests visiting the prettiest of the countryside before she eventually joined with the sea.  Gwy would become known by the people who lived along her flow as the River Wye and join up with her sister Hafren at a place now known as the Severn Estuary.  No doubt as the two sisters continued their journey through the Bristol Channel they found much to talk about together and to tell their hasty sister Ystwyth when they finally all met up again in the Celtic Sea.

The Giant Sleeps

The giant, although he knew he would miss his daughters, was happy because he knew they were fulfilling their destiny in the great scheme of things.  He had watched for time untold as they had been born from the Welsh mists and rain that often covered the mountainsides forming droplets on plants and rocks which collected together to form puddles. These would eventual gather moss and became pools ready to overflow into brooks and streams that would join together to flow over the land to the sea.

He was not sad because he knew that in the great cycle his daughters would return and visit him riding in the clouds that formed high above the ocean.  They would then be blown across the sea to the land to fall as rain on the mountainside.  They would stay for a time before once again making their way to the sea.  And so the great cycle would continue bringing nourishment and life to the land and all living things that dwell upon it.  Feeling satisfied that all was as it should be the giant went to sleep.

© 14/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 14th, 2018 zteve t evans

Welsh Folklore: Llyn Cwm Llwch, the Invisible Island of the Tylwyth Teg and other Legends

This work was originally posted on the website of #FolkloreThursday 29th June 2017 titled:  Welsh Lake Legends and Folklore: Llyn Cwm Llwch and the Door of the Tylwyth Teg  by zteve t evans

Llyn Cwm Llwch is a small Welsh lake that is situated in the Brecon Beacons of Powys. It is associated with some rather strange legends and folklore, three of which I will discuss. The first of these legends involves a dangerous old woman. The second involves the Tylwyth Teg and an invisible island, and the third tells how an attempt to drain the lake was prevented by some kind of otherworldly guardian who appeared from the lake. He issued a warning, mysteriously invoking the token of the cat as evidence of his powers which told a rather peculiar story about the drowning of an unfortunate feline.

The Old Woman of Llyn Cwm Llwch

The old woman of the lake was said to prey upon those who were weak-minded, or who had a trusting nature and were easily led such as children. The legend tells that she used music to gain the attention of her victims and to lure them into the water where they were drowned. It may be that she was the Welsh equivalent of Jenny Greenteeth, who appears in English folklore as some kind of dangerous water hag. She may also have been and invention to deter children from playing around the edge of the lake. Whatever she was, her evil ways were motivated by her ambition to regain the beauty of her youth and to gain immortality. Apparently this could only be achieved by luring nine hundred victims into the lake to their deaths.

The Door of the Tylwyth Teg

According to local legend, the lake was the abode of the Tylwyth Teg, or the Fair Folk, who had a garden on an invisible island in the lake. On May Day every year, it was said that a doorway would appear in a rock by the lakeside. Those humans who were bold enough could pass through it into a passage, which would take them into an enchanted garden situated on the island in the lake. Although visitors to the island could clearly see the shores of the lake, the island and the garden were not visible from the lake’s shore.

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Welsh Folklore: The Legend of the Drowned Town of Kenfig Pool

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on May 25th, 2017, titled Welsh Lake Legends and Folklore: The Drowned Town of Kenfig by zteve t evans.

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Kenfig Pool by Nigel Homer [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Many Welsh lakes have legends and myths connected to them, and Kenfig Pool is no exception having associations with a legendary drowned town under the lake and a real town buried under sand nearby.  Situated near Porthcawl, Bridgend in Glamorgan, Wales, it is also known as Pwll Cynffig. There has been a human settlement in this area at least since the Bronze Age, and perhaps because of this long history it is steeped in legend and folklore from many ages. One of the most mysterious is the legend of a drowned town under Kenfig Pool and, adding to the mystique and romance, there was also a real town of Kenfig. This town was abandoned after being completely covered by the shifting sands of a massive dune system which once ran along the Welsh shoreline.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the legendary town supposedly submerged under Kenfig Pool. First, a description of the abandoned town of Kenfig which was known to exist will be provided. This will be followed by a discussion of how Kenfig Pool was thought to have formed, and then the legend that tells the story of the drowned town will be presented and the conclusion will offer a few thoughts to ponder.

The Drowning of the Legendary Town of Kenfig

According to local tradition, the lord of Kenfig had a daughter who fell in love with a young local man of low birth and no money. Still, they say love is blind and the couple wanted to marry. Love may be blind, but the girl’s father was not impressed by the lowly social status and lack of money of his daughter’s suitor, so he ruled against the marriage. He told the couple in no uncertain terms that the young man was not a suitable partner.  Filled with despair, the young man decided that the only chance he had of marrying his true love was to leave Kenfig and strike out to another town in the hope of finding or making his fortune. After discussing his plan with his lover, it was reluctantly agreed and he set off alone to find his fortune.

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Merlin and the Giant’s Dance: The Victory of Art over Strength

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By Blaeu, J (Atlas van Loon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in History of the Kings of Britain  Merlin was an advisor, prophet and magician of kings.  One of his greatest feats was to dismantle a huge stone circle known as the Giant’s Dance situated on Mount Killaraus in Ireland and bring it across the Irish Sea to Britain where he installed it for King Aurelius Ambrosius as a monument to the victims of a Saxon massacre of leading Britons.  What follows is a retelling of the story of how and why Merlin brought the Giant’s Dance from Ireland to Britain beginning with the return of Aurelius and his brother, Uther.

The Return of Aurelius Ambrosius

While the usurper King Vortigern had been misruling Britain in violent times, the true heirs to the throne, Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther had been sent to  Armorica by opponents of the king being too young to rule and to protect them from him.As Aurelius grew up  he entered many of the royal tournaments around Europe and fought for Armorica in many of their battles. He gained a fearsome reputation as a formidable warrior and leader of men.

As he and Uther had come of age, with the help of the King of Armorica, they prepared for their return to Britain.  They intended to, wreak vengeance on Vortigern and defeat Hengist and the Saxons and reclaim their rightful inheritance.   They built a great fleet of ships and filled them with warriors and sailed across the sea to disembark their troops at Totnes.  News of their arrival spread like wildfire.  The remaining warlords of the Briton flocked to their cause making Aurelius the King of Britain.  After a series of battles they defeated their enemies killing Vortigern and Hengist and succeeded in driving out the Saxons.

As he had marched to battle King Aurelius had been appalled at the damage and suffering the Saxons had caused.  Now victorious, he called a council of his lords and clergy to discuss and plan the rebuilding of war-ravaged Britain.  He brought back the old laws and returned lands to those that had lost them to the Saxons.  Where there was no living heir he divided these lands among his loyal followers.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

He travelled through many towns and cities and eventually arrived in Winchester. Then he traveled to Kaercaradduc, now known as Salisbury and at the instigation of Bishop Eldad visited the monastery of Ambrius.  This was the place where the murder of the British lords and nobles took place at the instigation of Hengist.  This event had scarred the psyche of the Britons and became known as The Treachery of the Long Knives. Aurelius visited the burial place of the victims and was overcome with emotion with the terrible event that happened there.  He began to think about an appropriate monument to remember and honour the victims by so that Britons should never forget the treachery wrought by Hengist and the Saxons

Seeking inspiration he brought together the best masons, carpenters and artisans in Britain  telling them to design and build a fitting monument.   After much deliberation these worthy men went to King Aurelius and told him despite their skills and craftsmanship they could not between them come up with a fitting design.  Then the archbishop of the City of the Legions, stood up and said,

“If any one living is able to execute your commands, Merlin, the prophet of Vortigern, is the man. In my opinion there is not in all your kingdom a person of a brighter genius, either in predicting future events, or in mechanical contrivances. Order him to come to you, and exercise his skill in the work which you design.” (1)

Merlin had gained fame when he had revealed to Vortigern the  two hidden dragons that  were hidden in a pool that caused building work on a new stronghold to collapse.  He also predicted the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther with an invasion force to take back the crown of Britain.  Merlin also forewarned Vortigern that he saw two deaths for him: one by Aurelius and the other by the Anglo-Saxons.  It so happened that Aurelius reached him first and burnt him to death in his stronghold.  Merlin also predicted there would come a king who would drive out the Anglo-Saxons from Briton and create an empire in Europe and that would be Arthur.

Merlin’s Advice

Hearing what was said, Aurelius sent messengers to find and bring back Merlin.  The messengers traveled to all parts of the country and eventually found him.  The message was given and Merlin was escorted to the court of King Aurelius Ambrosius.  Aurelius welcomed Merlin warmly and made it clear he was very pleased to see him.  He was genuinely curious about him and his prophecies asking many questions concerning them. Then he requested that he make a prophecy there and then.  Merlin declined saying,

“Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it. If I should pretend to utter them for ostentation or diversion, the spirit that instructs me would be silent, and would leave me when I should have occasion for it.” (2)

Others present urged and encouraged him but he flatly refused. Aurelius, respecting Merlin’s answer changed the subject and told him of his idea to built a fitting monument to those who died during The Treachery of the Long Knives.   He explained how the best craftsmen and masons in Britain could not think of a suitable design and requested his opinion  on the matter.  Merlin replied,

“If you are desirous,to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.” (3)

King Aurelius Ambrosius was bemused and laughed out loud thinking he was not serious saying,

“How is it possible to remove such vast stones from so distant a country, as if Britain was not furnished with stones fit for the work?”  (4)

However, Merlin was very serious and told him sternly,

“I entreat your majesty to forbear vain laughter; for what I say is without vanity. They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness.

For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.” (5)

Then Aurelius and all those present fell silent at the words of Merlin.  Aurelius discussed the proposal with those present and it was agreed that such a monument to the dead would be fitting.  The king’s younger brother, Uther was appointed command of an army fifteen thousand strong.  He was to travel to Ireland to Mount Killaraus and bring the stones back to Britain using any means necessary including force.   Merlin was also sent with him as his advisor and to direct the work in uprooting and transporting thèm from the legendary mountain back across the sea to Britain and then to their final destination at Ambrius.  Once there, he would set them up exactly as they had been in Ireland.   A suitable fleet of ships was built to carry the stones and the army under the leadership of Uther, with Merlin as his advisor, set sail for Ireland.

The Taking of the Giant’s Dance

The King of Ireland was a young man named Gillomanius.  When he heard of the landing of an army of Britons  upon the shores of his kingdom be wasted no time in mustering his own warriors to counter the threat.  On being told the motive for their presence he laughed long and loudly.  He poured scorn and derision on them saying,

No wonder a cowardly race of people were able to make so great a devastation in the island of Britain, when the Britons are such brutes and fools. Was ever the like folly heard of? What are the stones of Ireland better than those of Britain, that our kingdom must be put to this disturbance for them? To arms, soldiers, and defend your country; while I have life they shall not take from us the least stone of the Giant’s Dance.” (6)

Gillomanius ordered his army into defensive positions around the stones.  Uther, seeing the Irish intent to defend the Giant’s Dance and with his mission and goal clear commanded the army of the Britons to attack.   The Britons forced the Irish to scatter preventing them from uniting. Gillomanius was routed and forced off Mount Killaraus leaving the stones to the Britons.

When at last they stood on Mount Killaraus before the Giant’s Dance, Uther and the Britons were full of admiration for what they saw and stood in awe looking at them.  Then Merlin came among the army of the Britons and challenged them saying,

“Now try your forces, young men, and see whether strength or art can do the most towards taking down these stones.” (7)

Taking up the challenge the soldiers went to work work trying all sorts of levers and pulleys with great lengths of ropes and cables.  They pulled, pushed and sweated and strained  but no matter how hard they tried they could not move a single stone one inch.

After watching their efforts for some time in quiet amusement Merlin then took command of the project.   He showed them how to construct engines he had designed and under his watchful eye and supervision the stones were taken easily from the ground and transported to the ships and placed safely on board.  When all the stones were loaded the fleet set off under a fair wind to Britain where Merlin supervised their transport to the site prepared at Ambrius.

When messengers brought the news of their arrival in Britain to King Aurelius Ambrosius he was overjoyed.  He summoned all of Britain’s noblemen and clergy to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost at the monastery of Ambrius to formally dedicate the monument to those fallen in The Treachery of the Long Knives.   The celebrations lasted for three days and in front of the whole assembly and with respect to all royal protocol, Aurelius placed the crown of Britain on his head.  Then he sent for his servants and insisted they join with the nobles and clergy in feasting as thanks for their excellent and loyal service.

The Victory of Art over Strength

He then attended to all necessary business matters and appointed bishops to the vacant sees of York and the City of Legions, known today as Caerleon.  He gave York to Sanxo and the City  of Legions to Dubricius.  After he had settled other affairs of his realm he commanded Merlin to reconstruct the Giant’s Dance around the graves of the victims of the Saxon treachery.   Merlin used the same arts and techniques he had used on Mount Killaraus to quickly install the Giant’s Dance on their new site exactly as they had been in Ireland.   Once erected the Giant’s Dance proved to be a most fitting and enduring monument as King Aurelius had intended and answered Merlin’s challenge proving “the victory of art over strength” 

When King Aurelius Ambrosius died he was buried in the Giant’s Dance and his younger brother Uther became King of Britain.  When Uther died through treachery he too was buried there and today the Giant’s Dance still stands as a monument to the victims of treachery and betrayal.

© 21/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 22st, 2017 zteve t evans

Vortigern’s Rule: The Treachery of the Long Knives

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By Noel Sylvestre (1847-1915) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Treachery and Betrayal

The Treachery of the Long Knives was a legendary event that was allegedly inflicted upon the unsuspecting British King Vortigern and his chieftains by the Saxon mercenary leader Hengist in the 5th century.  It was seen as a supreme act of treachery and betrayal by the Britons and is mentioned in the 6th-century work Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius.   Later Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century in his work Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) presents a slightly different version.  The work presented here is drawn from both versions.

Hengist and Horsa

The legend tells how after Vortigern had usurped the crown of Britain he turned to the Saxons led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa for help in fighting the Picts and Gaels who were ravaging his kingdom. The Saxons proved an effective fighting force driving out his enemies.  As a reward for their services he gave them the Isle of Thanet, Kent, as well provisions and gifts in gratitude.

Despite being richly rewarded the Saxons were not satisfied with the land and gifts and had a bigger game plan in their minds which they kept secret from Vortigern. They wanted Britain to rule for themselves and had a plan to get their way.  Hengist and Horsa cleverly manipulated Vortigern into allowing them to bring in more of their people from overseas in the pretense of helping to secure Britain from its enemies. They were hugely successful in battle and in return for their services in securing his kingdom they successfully persuaded Vortigern to grant more land and let them bring in more of their people.

Vortigern had become infatuated with the daughter of Hengist whose name was Rowena. Hengist gave her to him in marriage to curry favor, reinforce his web of deception and to have another hold over Vortigern.  All along he had loftier designs and all the time was planning and plotting to overthrow Vortigern and take control of Britain.  Vortigern allowed more and more Saxons into Britain giving them land in the north of the country to protect the rest of Britain from raids from Scotland, but as their numbers grew so did their power. The growing power of the Saxons and the increasing dependence of Vortigern on them and the favor he showed to them began to concern some of his own warlords including Vortimer his son. With backing from other British nobles and barons, he took the crown and attacked the Saxons finally defeating them after four battles.

Vortimer’s Successes

Vortimer fought the Saxons courageously and successfully while his father remained with Hengist. During one of the battles, Horsa was killed and some accounts say it was by Catigern, another of Vortigern’s sons. Some accounts say they met in battle and fought in a duel killing each other, though it cannot be verified. After Vortimer had successfully driven out Hengist and the Saxon, he was poisoned, allegedly by Rowena, who was now his step-mother, being the wife of Vortigern and the daughter of Hengist. After the death of his son, Vortigern retook the crown of Britain and at Rowena’s request invited her father back to Britain in a private capacity. He gave permission for him to bring a small and limited armed entourage to provide protection for him and his servants. Hengist had feared Vortimer but hearing that he was dead instead of bringing a small entourage assembled an army of three hundred thousand warriors and built a fleet of ships to carry them to Britain.

When the news of such a vast warlike army reached Vortigern and his princes and barons they were angry and vowed to fight and drive them from Britain. Rowena sent a message warning her father that the Briton’s intended to fight and Hengist set about making a new plan. He considered several different approaches and in the end settled for a great show of peace towards Vortigern and the Britons.

He sent envoys to Vortigern with a message of lies claiming that he had not raised such a great army to stay with him or threaten Britain. The reason he claimed to have brought them was that he believed Vortimer still lived and he feared he would be attacked by him. However, now he had received news confirming his death and therefore he proposed that he put himself and his army to the judgment of Vortigern. It would be up to him to decide who and how many should stay and who and how many should return home. He further proposed that if this plan was agreeable to Vortigern that he should decide a time and place where they could meet and discuss the details together.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

Vortigern was pleased with the proposal and accepted. He had been unhappy that Hengist and his people had been driven out by his son and sent a message back with the envoys saying they would meet at the monastery of Ambrius on the kalends of May which were near.  The peace discussions would take place at a banquet where the matters would be discussed peacefully no weapons were to be carried.

With these matters agreed, Hengist invented a new more villainous plan and ordered that all his men were to conceal a long knife in their clothes at the banquet. When the wine was flowing and the Britons suitably relaxed he would shout, “Nemet oure Saxas”. His men would then stab the nearest Briton to them. With this villainy in mind, Hengist and his Saxons attended the conference at the appointed time and place. When he deemed it an appropriate time he shouted his command which the Britons not knowing their language did not understand. His Saxons took out their long knives and stabbed the nearest unarmed and unsuspecting Briton. While this was taking place Hengist took Vortigern prisoner.

Eldol Escapes

The Saxons killed all except one of the unsuspecting and unarmed Britons who had come expecting to talk peace. Nevertheless, although surprised and unarmed they fought bravely and ferociously and succeeded in killing a great number of Saxons before the fell.  Only Eldol, Earl of Gloucester got away having found a wooden stake which he used with deadly effect as a weapon fighting his way to a horse and escaping.  He would later join up with Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther to take revenge on both Vortigern and Hengist. He held Vortigern responsible for bringing in the Saxons and whose foolishness had allowed the massacre.  He hated Hengist the Saxon leader and perpetrator of the bloodbath as enemy of Britain and betrayer of good faith.

According to Nennius three hundred were killed but Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed as many as four hundred and sixty of the ruling barons and nobility of Britain had been killed and these were buried by bishop Eldad who gave them a Christian burial near the monastery of Ambrius near Salisbury. This had been a disaster for the Britons and had a profound effect on the British psyche. It derived them from many of their barons and war leaders making it possible for Hengist to effectively take control of the country virtually unopposed.

Hengist

Hengist now with Vortigern at his mercy demanded that he give to him the strongholds and fortified cities of Britain or be killed. With no other choice, Vortigern gave Hengist everything he demanded. With Britain effectively bereft of leadership, Hengist marched his army to London laying waste the countryside along the way and occupying that city. With London secure, he then took Winchester, York, and Lincoln burning and raising towns and villages along the way.

Vortigern Flees

When Vortigern saw the destruction the Saxons wreaked upon Britain he fled to Cambria having no other idea of what to do knowing he could not stand against them. Calling together his wise men he asks their advice. After consulting together they agreed he should find some strategically defensive place where a strongly fortified tower could be built that would offer him safety, for now, he had no safe place to stay anywhere in Britain. The place he chose was believed to have been Dinas Emrys but it did not prove to be a good choice as the building works kept tumbling down.

The Prophecy of Merlin

It was here Merlin comes to play an important role in the affairs of Britain. Merlin prophesied that there were two dragons, one red and one white, buried in a pool under the foundations which was the reason why the walls fell down. Furthermore, it was here that he prophesied the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther the rightful heirs to the crown of Britain with an invasion force to reclaim the throne from him. With news of their arrival, the surviving war leaders flocked to his banner and Aurelius was made the king.

Significantly, Merlin also prophesied the defeat of the Saxons by the Boar of Cornwall, the symbol of Arthur Pendragon, who would eventually be king. He told Vortigern he needed to find another site for his fort and that he faced two deaths. One from Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther when they caught up with him.  The from the Saxons and Merlin told him he did not know which it would be.  It so happened that Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther, with the help of Eldol, caught up with him first burning him and his wives to death in their stronghold. They would then turn their attention on Hengist and succeeded in defeating the Saxons.

Once Britain was at peace, King Aurelius instructed his brother Uther and his adviser, Merlin to bring him the Giant’s Dance from Mount Killaraus in Ireland. After Uther had defeated the Irish king Merlin transported the Giant’s Dance to Britain and installed it at Ambrius. There it made a fitting monument to the victims of the Treachery of the Long Knives. Both he and Uther were buried there when their time came both and both were killed by treachery and the term became synonymous with betrayal and deceit through the ages.

Nazi Germany

The term was believed to have been adapted to describe a purge that took place in Nazi Germany from 30 June to 2nd July, 1934 and called The Night of the Long Knives. This was a series of extrajudicial killings of leading members of the Nazi’s own paramilitary organization, the Sturmabteilung but also known as the Brownshirts, because of the color of the clothes they wore. Hitler believed the Brownshirts had become a threat to his political power and the purpose of the murders was to strengthen his grip on power in Germany. Such was its power that variations of the term are still used to describe sudden political purges around the world yet there is no proof that the event ever took place.

© 15/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 15th, 2017 zteve t evans

Merlin and the Prophecy of the Star and the Fiery Dragon

waldemar_flaig_stern_von_bethlehem_1920

Waldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Aurelius Ambrosius

The legendary Merlin is one of the best known characters in Arthurian legend and romance and many remarkable feats are attributed to him.  In The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae) written about 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth he was an advisor, magician and prophet of kings.  Presented here is a retelling of one of his prophecies inspired by a comet that reveals the death of the King  of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius.   He predicts his younger brother Uther would take the crown and from him would come a king who would be the hope and inspiration of the Britons and a daughter who would beget a line of kings.  The story begins after Ambrosius had driven out the Saxons and pacified the Picts on the borderlands to establish himself as undisputed King of the Britons after a long hard fight against powerful enemies.

Uther

Even the great and the good can fall sick and Aurelius Ambrosius, the King of the Britons  fell seriously ill.   At this time,  Pascentius, a son of his old enemy Vortigern and Gillomanius the King of Ireland both bore him a grudge and plotted together against him.  Gillomanius hated him for commanding his younger brother Uther and Merlin to bring back the Giant’s Dance from Mount Killaraus in Ireland at any cost.  Consequently Uther fought the Irish king in battle over the stones and defeated.  Then Merlin used his arts to uproot them and transport them to a new site in Britain. Pascentius hated him for killing his father the former king and defeating him in an earlier battle and because he believed he should be king.  They  joined forces and landed with a powerful army at Menevia.  With the king lying in his sick bed, Uther, the younger brother of Aurelius, took it upon himself to defend the kingdom against the invaders and with Merlin to advise him led his troops to meet the foe.

The Star and the Fiery Dragon

On their march to battle, Uther and his army were amazed to see in the heavens a star of such brilliance it not only lit up the night sky, but could be seen plainly in daylight. Never had Uther or any of his men seen anything like it before.  They were astounded by it and also frightened.  From the star there sprang a single ray of light that formed into a shape like that of a fiery dragon. From the dragon’s mouth two rays were emitted.  One stretched out reaching across Britain and across the sea and into Gaul. The other stretched across the Irish Sea and divided into seven smaller rays of equal length.  The whole display could be seen across all of Britain and beyond.  The people were filled with fear and awe not knowing of its meaning and fearing it portended some terrible event and Uther called upon Merlin for an explanation.  Merlin, who had foretold the death of Vortigern the previous king and made the Prophesy of the Two Dragons and other predictions looked upon the spectacle and then cried out,

“O irreparable loss! O distressed people of Britain! Alas! The illustrious prince is departed! The renowned king of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius, is dead! whose death will prove fatal to us all, unless God be our helper. Make haste, therefore, most noble Uther, make haste to engage the enemy: the victory will be yours, and you shall be king of all Britain, For the star, and the fiery dragon under it, signifies yourself, and the ray extending towards the Gallic coast, portends that you shall have a most potent son, to whose power all those kingdoms shall be subject over which the ray reaches. But the other ray signifies a daughter, whose sons and grandsons shall successively enjoy the kingdom of Britain.” (1)

Although Uther was also in awe of the spectacle he doubted Merlin.  He was now within half a day’s march of Menevia and Pascentius and Gillomius and knew he could not return to Winchester and allow them to move inland with such a great army.  Therefore, he decided to confront them as quickly as possible and pressed on.

Uther’s Victory

Pascentius and Gillomanius soon became aware of the approach of Uther and ordered their own troops into battle formation and moved to meet the Britons.  As soon as the two sides met battle commenced. No quarter was asked and none given by the Irish or the Britons and the fighting was bloody and fierce with much loss of life on both sides.  As the day wore on the Britons gained the upper hand killing both Pascentius and Gillomanius.  With the deaths of their leaders the enemy broke and scattered giving Uther absolute victory.  He chased and harried the enemy back to their ships killing any that that were caught.

The Death of Aurelius

With the enemy flying before him Uther rested and savoured his victory but soon there came a messenger from Winchester that brought the sad news of the death of King Aurelius Ambrosius of the Britons.   The messenger told him Aurelius had received a fitting funeral conducted by the most celebrated clergy in the land.  They had deemed it proper that he be buried with all royal ceremony inside the Giant’s Dance.  This had seemed the most fitting burial place for him having been obtained and built at his instigation as an everlasting memorial to commemorate the victims of the The Night of the Long Knives.

Uther is Crowned King

Although Uther had enjoyed his victory, the death of his elder brother grieved him greatly.  This made him more determined to see through the great events they had been through together.  With his brother dead, Uther was now the rightful heir to the kingdom of Britain.  Calling together all the clergy and nobles in the land with their unanimous agreement and support he was crowned King of Britain.

Uther Pendragon

Taking inspiration from the rayed star and the fiery dragon he had seen before the battle and from Merlin’s prophecy he commanded two statuettes of solid gold to be made.  One he gave to Winchester Cathedral, but the second he kept for himself. From that time onward it was carried with him in all of his battles and this is how he came to be called Uther Pendragon, meaning head of the dragon.   From Uther Pendragon would come a son named Arthur Pendragon, who was destined to be the great hope of the Britons and a daughter named Anna.

 

© 08/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 8th, 2017 zteve t evans

(1)  [PDF] History of the Kings of Britain – York University – Page 138

Waldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWaldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons