This article was first published on #FolkoreThursday.com under the title, Exploring the Otherworld of the Celts, on 18 March, 20211, written by zteve t evans.
The concept of a magical, mysterious, “Otherworld” has been a common component in many myths and legends of diverse human cultures all around the world throughout history. The ancient Celtic people also had their own ideas of this enigmatic and ethereal region. Their territories included Ireland, the United Kingdom and a swathe of continental Europe, including areas of the Iberian Peninsula and Anatolia. As such there were variations in philosophies concerning this world and the next from region to region. Presented here is a brief exploration of their idea of the Otherworld and how it appears in different Celtic regions.
The Celtic Otherworld is sometimes presented as the realm where their deities lived, or the place of their dead and sometimes both. Other stories tell of a magical paradise where people enjoyed eternal youth, good health and beauty, living in joy and abundance with all their needs satisfied. It could also be the abode of the fairies, Twylyth Teg, Aos Sí and many other similar magical entities.
Entry to the Otherworld
The Otherworld is usually hidden and difficult to find but certain worthy people manage to reach it through their own efforts. Others may be invited, or escorted by one of its dwellers, or given signs to follow. Sometimes entry is gained through ancient burial mounds or by crossing over, or under, water, such as a river, pool or the sea. There are also special places such as certain lakes, bogs, caves, burial mounds or hills where access to and from the Otherworld can be gained. Another idea is that the Otherworld exists in a different dimension alongside the earthly one as a kind of mirror-world. At certain times of the year, such as Samhain and Beltane, the veil that separates the two grows thin, or withdraws, making entry and exit easier.
This article was first published 11 March 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Shapeshifters from the Celtic World by zteve t evans.
Shapeshifters are found in most mythologies and folk traditions around the world from ancient to modern times. In such traditions, humans change into vampires, werewolves, frogs, insects, and just any about any other creature imaginable and back again. Sometimes the transformation is controlled by the transformer who shifts shape at will. Other times it is an unwelcome event such as a punishment and sometimes it is forced by a magical spell but there are many other reasons besides. Shapeshifters can be good or bad, often moving the story forward in a novel way or have some kind of symbolism that the teller wants to get across to their audience. There are many different kinds of shapeshifting and here we look at different examples from Ireland, Wales and Scotland that provide differing glimpses of shapeshifters in action in the myth, folklore, and tradition of these three Celtic nations.
In Irish mythology, the Morrigan was a shapeshifting war goddess who could transform into a woman of any age and also change into animal or bird form. She had the power of prophecy and as a war goddess would sing her people to victory in battle. Sometimes she could be seen swooping over the battlefield in the form of a raven or crow and devouring the bodies of the slain.
In the story of the “Táin Bó Cúailnge”, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” the Morrigan appears as a crow to warn the bull named Donn Cuailnge that Queen Medb is plotting to abduct him. Queen Medb attacks Ulster after the bull but is resisted single-handedly by the hero Cú Chulainn fighting a series of duels with her champions at a ford. In battle, Cú Chulainn undergoes a spectacular change in his form described as ríastrad or “warp-spasm” that sees him his body twist and contort into the most grotesque and fearsome appearance terrifying his opponents.
Many, many years ago, in the time of King Arthur, when our ruler’s beards were greater than their commonsense, there were two other kings named Nynio and Peibo. Each ruled over a fine and rich kingdom and their subjects enjoyed peace and prosperity. The two kings were friends and liked to go walking in the countryside in the evenings. They would often indulge in friendly banter trying to out do each other bragging about their accomplishments or possessions to one another. Most of the time this was just good-natured teasing but on one occasion things got wildly out of hand. One evening as they were out strolling, as the stars were appearing, Nynio looked about and making an extensive gesture to the sky with his hands said,
“Look above and all around, Peibo, my friend, see what a wonderful and extensive field I possess!”
Peibo looked all around the sky and asked, “Well now, where is it?”
“It is there, above and around as far as eyes can see, the entire sky is my field and mine alone,” boasted Nynio with pride.
“Oh, is that so? answered Peibo.
“It is,” said Nynio.
“Well, now,” said Peibo, not wanting to be out done, “Can you see all of the great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep that are in that field and grazing. Each and every animal is mine and mine alone.”
“I see no herds of cattle, I see no flocks of sheep,” replied Nynio.
“Look harder,” replied Peibo “they are the great swathe of stars that stretch across the sky with smaller herds and flocks scattered here and there.See how each one shines with gold or silvery brightness. See how the moon, their beautiful shepherdess guards and takes care of them for me and me alone!”
“It is my field and they shall not graze in my field,” replied Nynio indignantly.
‘Yes they shall,” replied Peibo firmly.
“They most certainly shall not!” replied Nynio angrily.
Both kings were now becoming very heated and angry with each other and became possessed by a madness.
“Shall!” snapped Peibo.
“Shan’t!” Shouted Nynio.
“‘Tis war!” They both cried together.
In their madness they returned to their kingdoms, mustered their armies and wrought bloody and merciless war on each other. Both kingdoms were laid waste as both armies fought each other in a cruel and merciless war of attrition. The fighting only stopped because of the sheer exhaustion of the two sides. There was no victor save foolishness and what were once two fine and prosperous kingdoms lay in smoking ruins with the people left traumatized and starving.
The King of Wales, a giant named Rhitta Gawr, heard about the madness of the two kings and how they had destroyed their own fair and prosperous kingdoms through their foolishness. He consulted with his wise men and his barons and it was agreed that they should take advantage of the present weakness of these once strong and prosperous kingdoms. Therefore, he mobilized his army and invaded and conquered the two broken kingdoms, capturing the two monarchs and cutting their beards off to teach them a lesson.
News that Rhitta Gawr had invaded and conquered the two warring kingdoms spread throughout the island of Britain and reached the ears of twenty-eight kings. They were appalled at the foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the wanton destruction of the two kingdoms and outraged by the invasion of Rhitta Gawr. However, what really made them angry was the shaving of the royal whiskers of the two mad kings by the giant. They deemed inflicting this humiliation on two monarchs, despite their foolishness, had gone too far. Therefore, to avenge what they saw as a degrading and humiliating act on two of their own status they united their armies and declared war on Rhitta Gawr. The battle was long and bloody and Rhitta Gawr eventually defeated the coalition of kings and had them brought before him.
“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies. All you see is my vast field. All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!” he told them in jubilation. With no further ado or ceremony he ordered the royal whiskers of the defeated kings to be shaved off completely.
News spread beyond Britain of the victory of Rhitta Gawr and how he had shaved the beards of his enemies. The kings of twenty-eight neighboring realms were outraged. Not so much at the initial mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo, or the defeat of the twenty-eight kings. No, it was the shaving of the royal whiskers that outraged them and they merged their armies and attacked Rhitta Gawr. The battle was ferocious and bloody but once again Rhitta Gawr defeated and captured his enemies and once again jubilantly declared,
“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies. All you see is my vast field. All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!”
With no further ceremony he ordered that the beards of the defeated be cut off. When they had all been shaved clean he stood before them and addressing his own troops pointed at the beardless, defeated, kings and declared,
“See, these animals that once grazed here! These are now my pastures and I now drive them out and they shall graze here no more!”
Rhitta Gawr now possessed the beards of a sizeable number of kings which made a sizeable pile of whiskers and somehow, for some reason a very strange idea came into his head. Somehow, the notion grew on him that he would use the pile of royal whiskers to make a fancy mantle to wear around his shoulders. He believed he would look very elegant and magnificent and the cloak being made from the whiskers of kings he had defeated would emphasize his own power and glory.
The more he thought about it the more obsessed he became with the idea while the sheer grossness of it completely escaped him. Therefore he had a mantle made from the king’s whiskers to wear around his broad shoulders that reached down to his heels. Rhitta Gawr was at least twice as large as the largest man so the size of the garment and volume of whiskers he had collected was considerable.
When the mantle was made he tried it on. In his own mad mind he thought he looked very elegant and the height of fashion but realized there was something missing. After considerable contemplation he decided he needed an exceptionally splendid beard to make a collar to finish off the entire magnificent piece. There was only one royal beard that would be magnificent enough to do his mantle justice and that was on the chin of King Arthur, the greatest king of Britain.
He sent a messenger bearing a demand to King Arthur commanding him to shave off his beard without delay and give it to the messenger to bring back to him. He promised out of respect to Arthur his royal whiskers would adorn the most prominent place on his wonderfully elegant new mantle which would be the height of fashion. If he refused to comply he warned he would fight him in a duel to decide the matter.
Unsurprisingly, Arthur was not impressed by the command. He was, however, angry with the mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the defeat and humiliation all the other kings by Rhitta Gawr. Surprisingly, he did not seem the least perturbed at the giant’s taste in mantles but the forced shaving of the beards of all of the vanquished really annoyed him. Furthermore, the very idea that he would willingly offer up his own royal whiskers to the arrogant giant really inflamed him.
Angrily, he informed the messenger that but for the laws of his Court, which even he must obey; he would have slain him there and then for bringing such an offensive suggestion before him. He told him to tell his master this was the most arrogant and insulting demand he had ever heard and for his impudence he would take his head, beard and all. Wasting no time he mobilized his army and marched to Gwynedd in Wales to meet Rhitta Gawr in battle.
The two met face to face, beard to beard and the giant towered above glowering down. Arthur stood his ground and glared back fiercely.
“Give me your whiskers!” demanded Rhitta Gawr.
“Shan’t” replied Arthur angrily.
“Shall!” roared Rhitta Gawr.
“Shan’t! replied Arthur.
“T’is war!” they both cried together and immediately began fighting, trading blow for blow with great ferocity and strength.
Although both received many wounds and were greatly bloodied they fought long and hard neither yielding to the other, each giving as they received. At last Arthur was taken by a fury. He drove forward catching the giant a mighty blow slicing through his helmet and splitting his forehead and quickly followed through with a strike to his heart. Rhitta Gawr died and Arthur kept his royal whiskers.
The giant was placed on top of the highest mountain of that region which was known as Eryi in those days. Arthur ordered the soldiers of both armies to each place a stone over his body raising a cairn to cover him. That place became known as Gwyddfa Rhitta or Rhitta’s Barrow. Today the Welsh call it “Yr Wyddfa” which means “tumulus” and the English call it “Snowdon”, meaning “snow hill,” One consolation for Rhitta Gawr was that at least he did come to adorn a truly magnificent work of nature though judging by his taste in mantles it is doubtful he would have appreciated it.
To think that all this came about through the madness of two kings and the fact that the rulers of Britain had greater beards than their commonsense. Looking around today it is worth noting that few of our rulers wear whiskers and perhaps that speaks for the greatness of their commonsense!
This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.
It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.
The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout the Celtic world with religion, ritual and myth and many practical uses. For the Druids – the Celtic priesthood – it was an integral part of their rituals and was also used as a meeting place. According to the 1st-century geographer Strabo, Druids in Galatia, Asia Minor, met in a sacred grove of oak trees they named Drunemeton, to perform rituals and conduct other Druidic business. In 1 CE, Pliny the Elder, writing in Historia Naturalis, documented how a Druidic fertility rite held on the sixth day of the moon involved a Druid cutting mistletoe from the branches of an oak and the ritual sacrifice of two white bulls.
Oaks also played important parts in Welsh mythology. In the Math fab Mathonwy, the last of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the sorcerers Gwydion and Math create a maiden they named Blodeuwedd or flower-faced from the blossoms of the oak, the broom and meadowsweet. She was created to be the bride of their nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who could not marry a human woman due to a curse placed on him by Arianrhod, his mother. He married Blodeuwedd who never learnt the social conventions never having experienced the learning process of growing up. She had an affair with Gronw Pebyrv and together they plotted to kill Lleu. He was badly wounded by Gronw but turning into an eagle flew into an oak tree to escape being murdered. The oak appeared to be a refuge between the living world and the world of death and he remained there until Gwydion found and cured him.
Barnacle geese are a migratory species of water bird that have a very weird myth of origin attached to them that was once widely believed. During the medieval period there was a belief that barnacle geese were not hatched from eggs but actually grew on trees or spontaneously on pieces of driftwood that floated in the sea. This strange myth was widespread at the time and believed by many eminent people of the day. In this work we will look briefly at the barnacle followed by a look at barnacle geese both of which are real creatures. This will be followed by discussing some of these strange ideas before concluding with our views on them today.
During the months of October through to March, parts of the British Isles and certain parts of Europe played host to flocks of barnacle geese. This puzzled medieval people as they seemed to arrive out of nowhere and leave in the same manner. No one had seen their nests, or their eggs, or their young and no one knew how, or where, they bred giving rise to speculation about their origin.
A strange theory evolved that they actually grew from crustaceans called gooseneck barnacles (Lepas anatifera) that were found on pieces of driftwood around the sea shores. Many people thought that a tuft of brown cirri that protruded from the capitulum of the crustacean looked very similar to the down found on unhatched goslings of other species. This similarity is not obvious to many other people but the barnacles were seen as the result of spontaneous generation from the driftwood which will be briefly discussed later.
Real Barnacle Geese
We know today that real barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) live and breed mainly on the three islands of Greenland, Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the oceans of the far north during the summer months. After a long flight they would suddenly appear at British, Irish and other European sites as fully grown adult geese. People were puzzled because they had seen no signs of a nest, eggs or even goslings but still they would appear at certain times of the year with unerring regularity. To solve this puzzle some very peculiar answers evolved.
The Barnacle Goose Tree
One such answer was the barnacle goose tree. According to this myth young barnacle goslings grew on branches of a tree that overhung water in a similar way to nuts, fruit or berries sometimes do. On becoming ripe, or big enough they drop from the branch safely into the water and are able to swim and float immediately eventually growing to maturity. Those that missed the water and fell on to the ground died.
Sir John Mandeville
In the 14th century the traveller and writer Sir John Mandeville wrote in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, his travel journal,
“I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes, (barnacle geese). For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man’s meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be. (1)
This and similar strange answers to the origin of the barnacle goose was widely accepted especially among the clergy of the day.
Gerald of Wales
Another myth of origin of the barnacle goose tells how it was born from driftwood from the sea. Gerald of Wales, also known as, Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis, was 12th century Welsh bishop who published a book, Topographia Hiberniae after the invasion of parts of Ireland by King John where he mentioned how Irish clergy ate the barnacle goose on fast days which surprised him,
“Nature produces [Bernacae] against Nature in the most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth “ (2)
His observation, although erroneous, gave the myth credence and it spread across Europe. However he took a dim view of the clergy eating them on fasting days saying,
“…Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh … But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.” (3)
Sir E. Ray Lankester
In 1915, Sir E. Ray Lankester, a British zoologist in his book, “Diversions of a Naturalist,” speculated on why this myth may have been popular with medieval clergy especially in Britain and France. He picked up on the practice of the clergy eating them on fasting days for the popularity of the myth among them.To make it an acceptable fasting meal they declared the barnacle goose to be more fish than a fowl and as such acceptable to be consumed on fasting days.
Pope Innocent III was concerned enough about this practice to prohibit the eating of Geese during Lent at the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215. Nevertheless he still seemed to accept the myth of their reproduction but pointed out that they lived and fed in a similar way to ducks and concluded that their nature was the same as other birds.
A Shift in Thinking
The bizarre myth of the reproduction of barnacle geese looks a typical example of superstition, ignorance and imagination run wild, but is it? In the Middle Ages the Church drew moral lessons from nature but a shift in thinking appeared that saw nature as being worthy of studying in its own right. This is where the myth of the origin of the barnacle goose comes in.
A theological idea became tangled up in the debate of whether it was fowl or fish which centered around the idea of spontaneous generation. it was argued that gooseneck barnacles were spontaneously generated from the rotting driftwood. There was a common belief going right back to Aristotle that if the right conditions were present then the spontaneous generation of living organisms could and did occur arising from inorganic or nonliving material. Despite the remarkable nature of the supposed origin of these lifeforms they had an ordinary lifestyle of sorts and manifest in a predictable way without divine intervention. It was the assumption that they lacked parents which led to all sorts of theological arguments among Christians about Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth (which are not the same as each other) and cannot be fully dealt with here.
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily and Jerusalem about 200 years after Gerald of Wales was rather more doubting in his assessment of the spontaneous generation of the barnacle goose. He wrote saying,
“There is also a small species known as the barnacle goose, arrayed in motley plumage …, of whose nesting haunts we have no certain knowledge. There is, however, a curious popular tradition that they spring from dead trees. It is said that in the far north old ships are to be found in whose rotting hulls a worm is born that develops into the barnacle goose. This goose hangs from the dead wood by its beak until it is old and strong enough to fly. We have made prolonged research into the origin and truth of this legend and even sent special envoys to the North with orders to bring back specimens of those mythical timbers for our inspection. When we examined them we did observe shell-like formations clinging to the rotten wood, but these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting place, invented this explanation.” (4)
It had previously been thought that the Barnacle Goose migrated to the British Isles via Scandinavia and the strange transformation occurred in the Norse countries. He was at least right that they did breed in the remote regions of the north that were largely still unknown and not generated from rotting wood.
Morals from Nature
It has long been a practice for Christians to draw moral points from the natural world to reinforce theological ideas. This began in the 2nd century with the Physiologus where nature was seen as the second book of God,until the early 17th century when natural history became better studied and understood. However, as science progressed people became more skeptical about such ideas.
Albert the Great
Around the middle of the 14th century Albert the Great came up with a simple way of testing the spontaneous generation theory by breeding them and noting that they did in fact lay eggs calling the myth,
“altogether absurd as I and many of my friends have seen them pair and lay eggs and hatch chicks”. (5)
Despite this there were still those as late as the 16th century such as Joseph Justus Scaliger who insisted that the spontaneous generation theory was right claiming to have witnessed it.
Belief in the myth, either through self-interest and wanting to dine on meat on fast days, or ignorance, still lingered for a while. Finally, science and reason prevailed and finally managed to explain how barnacle geese really reproduced. It is very easy for us today to look back at certain erroneous absurd beliefs that were held to be true in the past but which were eventually proved false. This itself highlights the frailty of human reason and we cannot help but wonder what people living in future time will make of some of our own beliefs we hold dear in our own times. Let us hope they will not judge us too harshly.
There are many cases in recent times where towns and villages have been deliberately flooded by humans where a change in the landscape was required for purposes such as to form a reservoir for fresh water. These are usually well-documented and their history known though folklore and legends may evolve from them.
All around the world there are also legends of towns, cities and lands that have been destroyed or lost, leaving only rumor and myths of their existence and demise. Many such places were rich and successful, well established and populous, making their loss all the more tragic and mystifying. These legends often tell of a catastrophic natural event such as a flood caused by high tides, storms or perhaps covered by sand or snow. Sometimes it is some geological phenomenon such as an earthquake and sometimes this is combined with a natural event or act of war. The loss of such well-established and prosperous places left a deep impression on following generations. Myths and legends evolved to explain the cataclysmic event and very often these were carefully crafted to provide a warning to following generations of the consequences of breaking God’s laws or their excessive pride or hubris.
Myth of Origin
These places were very often situated on a site that became transformed by a disastrous natural event in t a new feature of the landscape. An inland town situated in a valley may be covered by a watery lake. A town situated by the sea may be flooded and drowned by the waves or covered by sand becoming a massive dune. A town in the mountains may be covered by snow and ice becoming a glacier. The story created to explain the disaster may be mostly fictional but based on some historic cataclysm like a powerful storm, earthquake or other natural disaster that actually happened. Sometimes these myths and legends can help archaeologists and scientists investigate real disasters that happened long ago. In some cases such disasters are well documented from the time but the legends and myths evolve after.
These events when combined with the mysterious origin of some well known feature in the landscape create a compelling story that can have a profound and lingering effect on those it is told to. Especially when the narrator is a local priest or who uses the story to impress upon their audience the consequences of offending the Almighty. Although such myths and legends are often designed to uphold Christianity, other religions and philosophies have also used such techniques for this purpose. In some case it is pagan deities or spirits that have been angered in some way by rulers or citizens. Although warnings may be given they are ignored invoking the wrath of the powerful divinity to wreak some form of divine retribution.
Once divine retribution is invoked the fate of the town is sealed. Often it unfolds as a weather event such a rain, sand or snow storm. Once divine retribution manifests the end is inevitable. All that will remain will be the myths and legends of a once rich and prosperous society that was drowned, buried or destroyed along with most of its population. Perhaps a lake or some other feature of the landscape appears where the town once stood.
From this a talented storyteller can weave a tale that will work quietly among following generations for centuries that impresses and extols the danger of angering the all powerful deity. In this way a naturally occurring catastrophic event such as a storm or earthquake may be transformed into something altogether more sinister and in many ways more dangerous. Very often it becomes the judgement of God that is dispensing retribution for wrongdoing on an immoral and corrupt society. This and similar themes are quite common in these legends. Warnings of impending retribution and vengeance are offered in an attempt to change people’s behaviour but are ignored. Punishment is inflicted often destroying that society in its entirety not just the perpetrators. Sometimes a few are saved but often the innocent perish along with the guilty.
There is a concept of collective guilt that runs through generations until some chosen time when punishment is enacted. Sometimes vengeance is suspended for several generations and the deviant behaviour forgotten by people. Sometimes it becomes part of normal behaviour. Nevertheless, the Almighty works at his own pace and punishment eventually arrives when least expected with devastating consequences. This does seem harsh on those who were not born when the original sin was committed but it seems there is an expectation to strive to recognize and put right the wrongs of the past. The message is that the sins of one, even when committed in the past, must not be tolerated either at the time, or perpetuated in the future. What is sown will eventually be reaped in a time and in a way that suits the Almighty. This obligation to right and discontinue past wrongs does not mean that they be wiped from history or that they should be. It is important to keep records of such wrongs and our attempts to right them to monitor our own evolution and to make sure we do not make the same mistakes again.
The All-Seeing Eye
There is a sense that the individual and collective behaviour of people is being watched by some all-seeing eye. It sees and knows all our deeds and looks into our hearts and minds making judgements upon us. Legends such as these warn that we are always being watched and judged and even our innermost thoughts are known to the Almighty. They emphasize we must remember and obey the laws of God and will be held answerable for any transgressions at anytime in the present or future no matter how long ago the indiscretion. Furthermore, we have a collective responsibility that runs through the past, present and future to keep ourselves and others in society on the straight and narrow. The message is the all-seeing eye sees everything and in a manner and time that suits the Almighty we will reap what we sow and then –
Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”). The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty. He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter. These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children ofLlŷr. They are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brânwas a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him.
One day at Harlech, one of his courts in Wales, he sat with his brother Manawyddan on high cliff looking out over the sea. They were accompanied by Nissien and Efnissyien, his two half brothers from his mother’s side that were of completely different character to one another. Nissien was a good man who always strove to achieve peace and harmony between two opposing forces. Efnissyien, was of a darker character instigating and causing conflict where there was none. These four were accompanied by various nobles ofBrân’s court. As they looked out over the sea they spied a fleet of ships approaching the Welsh coast. One of the ships had taken the lead and displayed upon its side a shield with its point positioned upwards as a token of peace
Matholwch, King of Ireland
Concerned about their intentions in Wales, Brân ordered his warriors to arm themselves and go down to meet them and discover their purpose.This was done and messengers brought back the reply that the ships belonged to King Matholwch of Ireland who came on an important mission in peace and friendship. He came seeking King Brân’s permission to marry his sister Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, fairest maiden in the world and one of the Three High Matriarchs of Britain. Such a marriage would create a powerful and influential alliance between the two kingdoms bringing great benefit to both.
Brân invited the Irish king ashore with all his retinue, servants and all their horses. The next day he and Brân met to discuss the marriage of Branwen. Brân decided in favor of the marriage and with his sister’s agreement the wedding was held the next day at Aberffraw.
The following day the Welsh and Irish guests gathered for the wedding feast. There was no building in existence big enough to hold Brân therefore a massive marquee was used instead.At the feast, the two sons of Llŷr – Brân and his brother Manawyddan – sat on one side. Matholwch, king of Ireland sat next to Branwen, the daughter of Llŷr, on the other. It was a happy occasion and the guests ate and drank their fill in peace and friendship. At last they retired for the night and Branwen became the wife of King Matholwch.
Efnissyen was greatly insulted that he had not been consulted about his half-sister’s marriage. In revenge he cruelly disfigured the horses of the Irish king slicing off their eyelids, lips and ears rendering them unfit for any purpose. When the stable hands discovered the malicious act they immediately informed King Matholwch.Initially, Matholwch was not convinced Brân had anything to do with it. Why would he have willingly given his permission for the wedding to go ahead and then performed such a senseless, cruel and insulting act to his guest and new brother-in-law?
After all, Branwen was the fairest and one of the highest maidens in the land, beloved of her family and people. He could rightfully have refused his marriage to her and offered someone else of lesser status instead. It made no sense at all. The more he thought about it the worse it seemed. His advisors persuaded him that it was intended as an insult and angrily Matholwch made ready to return home taking Branwen with him. On learning of the imminent departure of the Irish with his sister Brân sent a messenger asking why they were leaving without his permission and without even saying goodbye.
Matholwch replied saying had he known of the great insult he would suffer he would never have asked for Branwen’s hand in the first place. He declared his bemusement at why Brân had given him his sister in marriage only to insult him after. Brân answered, insisting the insult was not inflicted by him or his court and as his host his own dishonor was greater. To which Matholwch replied that though this was true the insult and injury he had suffered could not be undone.
Brân, not wanting the Irish to leave with such bad feeling, sent further messages. At last it was agreed reparations should be made to compensate the Irish king for the horses and the insult to his standing that he perceived he had suffered. An agreement was made that Brân replace the mutilated steeds. In further compensation he would also give a staff of silver and a plate of gold equal to the width of his face.Furthermore, the culprit would be named, but he warned that because he was his own half-brother he would be unable to put him to death. He asked Matholwch to accept what was offered and come and meet with him and once again be friends.
The emissaries of Brân gave Matholwch this message and the Irish king consulted with his counselors. Finally it was decided to refuse the reparations, which they considered generous, would bring dishonor on King Brân as well as King Matholwch and also themselves, his loyal subjects. Therefore, they resolved to accept them and meet with Brân.
The two met and in his conversation with the Irish king, Brân realized he was still not fully content. Desiring peace and friendship above all else he generously made him the offer of a magical cauldron known as the Cauldron of Rebirth, which returned the dead to life. At last Matholwch seemed satisfied and they ate and drank for the rest of that day. In the morning he set sail for Ireland taking his bride with him.
The Irish people were delighted at the return of their king accompanied by his bride. When at last he introduced her to his court and all of his nobles there was great joy. As was the custom, Branwen gave each one an expensive gift of royal jewellery which gave great honor to those who received and wore it. In the first year of her arrival in Ireland she was very popular and greatly loved. The Irish lords and ladies praised and lauded her and she enjoyed life very much. To crown it all she gave birth to a son named Gwern. In the second year of her marriage a dark cloud appeared from the past. The dreadful maiming of King Matholwch’s horses that had occurred on her wedding day was reawakened. Some of the Irish nobles seeking to make trouble for the king used this to make mischief for their own purposes.
The chief among them were Matholwch’s foster brothers who re-opened old wounds. They blamed and derided him for accepting an inferior settlement which they claimed was insulting. Stirring up hatred and resentment they turned upon Branwen demanding vengeance, taking out their malice upon her. They pressured and harried the king who eventually gave way to them. She was barred from his chamber and forced to work in the kitchens cooking and carrying out menial tasks for the court. For a woman of Branwen’s royal stature this was a terrible humiliation and indignity. To add insult to injury they ordered that she be given a blow upon her ear each day.
Knowing her King Brân would be wrath at such treatment of his sister they that advised Matholwch ban all travel between Ireland and Britain. This would prevent Brân hearing of the maltreatment of his sister. To further prevent news reaching Brân they imprisoned anyone in Ireland from Brân’s realm
Branwen and the Starling
For three years Branwen suffered this mistreatment. Her once happy life had been turned upside down to become one of humiliation, pain and misery. In desperation she raised and trained a starling. She taught it how to speak and understand human language enough for it to understand what kind of a man her brother was and how to find him.
Writing her troubles down in a letter she tied it to the bird in a way as not to impede its flight. Finally, she set it free bidding it find Brân and give him the message. Flying over the Irish Sea to the island of Britain it found Brân at Caer Seiont in Arvon. Settling on his shoulder the bird ruffled its feathers so as to display the message it bore. Seeing the bird had a degree of domestication and training Brân looked closely and saw the letter and read it. In this way he learnt of his sister’s troubles and grieved greatly for her.
Angrily he ordered a muster of the armed forces of the Island of Britain summoning his vassals and allies to him. He explained to their kings and leaders the mistreatment of Branwen his sister by the Irish and took counsel with them about what should be done.
Bran goes to War
The council agreed that the situation with Branwen was intolerable and decided on invading Ireland to set her free and punish the Irish. Therefore, Brân’s host took to the ships to sail to Ireland to the aid of Branwen. Being too large for any ship to carry Brân strode through the sea before them.
Strange news reached King Matholwch. Witnesses explained they had seen a moving wood approaching the shores of Ireland. Even stranger and more terrifying they had seen a moving mountain besides the wood with a tall ridge which had on each side of it a lake. The wood and the mountain moved together and were approaching Ireland fast. Puzzled by the news Matholwch sent messengers to Branwen to see if she could enlighten him. She told them it was the army of her brother Brân who had come to rescue her.
“What, then, is the great forest we see moving on the sea?” they asked.
“The masts of the ships of the Island of Britain,” she replied.
“What is the mountain that is seen moving before the forest?” they asked.
“That is Brân the Blessed, my brother. No ship can contain him and he needs none,” replied Branwen.
“What is the high ridge with the lake on either side,” they asked.
“Those two lakes are his eyes as he looks upon the island of Ireland. The ridge is his nose and he is angry at the mistreatment of his beloved sister!” replied Branwen.
The messengers returned to Matholwch bearing Branwen’s answer. Fearing to face such a huge army in battle he turned to his nobles for advice. They agreed it was too risky and decided their best option was to retreat over the River Linon, destroying the single bridge across after them. There was no other bridge and Brân would have to march miles out of his way to find another suitable crossing point.
Brân the Bridge
Brân and his army came ashore unimpeded but found the bridge over the river destroyed. Brân’s chieftains went to him saying, “Lord, the river cannot be crossed. The bridge is broken and there is no other crossing point for many miles. What would you have us do?”
Brân replied, “He who would be chief will be the bridge himself,” and laid himself down bridging the river with his body. In this way his host passed over to the other side.
Hearing how Brân had bridged the river worried King Matholwch who sent messengers expressing greetings, goodwill and proposals he hoped would placate him. He proposed that Gwern, his son, be given sovereignty of Ireland for the mistreatment of his sister, Branwen.
Brân replied, “Why should I not take the kingdom myself? I will take counsel. Until I have considered it no other answer will you get. Go tell your king.”
“Indeed, they said, “we shall bear your answer to him. Will you wait for his reply?”
“I will wait, but return quickly,” replied Brân. The messengers returned to their king with Brân’s answer and Matholwch took counsel with his nobles.
House of Betrayal
His counselors unanimously agreed it would be best to avoid direct conflict with the host of Brân fearing certain defeat at the hands of such a powerful army. Therefore a conciliatory approach was decided to appease Brân and put him at ease while quietly enacting a treacherous plot to defeat him. They decided to try to appease him by building a house big enough to hold his own gigantic self. It would also be big enough to hold his warriors and those of Matholwch. In this massive structure they would hold a great feast of friendship and make formal agreements and Matholwch would pay him homage. They hoped this would please and flatter him, making him more amenable to their other proposals. They also reasoned he would be more likely to relax and drop his guard which would leave him open to a deadly betrayal.
Matholwch was not sure Brân would accept the proposals. Therefore, he sent for Branwen for advice telling her nothing of the full scope of his treachery. After listening carefully at what he said she advised that she believed he would accept. Therefore, Matholwch sent messengers to Brân with his proposals. Brân listened and asked his own lords and also sent to his sister for advice. Knowing nothing of the betrayal and for the sake of peace and prevent the laying waste of the country she advised her brother to accept. Brân accepted and a peace was made with the Irish and a massive house was built as agreed. With the structure finished and the final preparations for the feast being made Matholwch pursued further his treacherous plot.
Brass hooks were fixed upon the pillars and a leather bag hung from each bracket. Each leather bag contained a fully armed Irish warrior. At the command of King Matholwch when Brân’s own warriors were in a drunken state they would cut themselves from the bag to assassinate the unsuspecting Britons
The great house of betrayal was quickly built and its interior was prepared for the great feast. Efnissyen, who had mutilated Matholwch’s horses, entered the hall to inspect progress. Seeing the leather bags he asked what was inside. He was told the King of Ireland had made a gift of flour for Brân which was contained in the bags. Efnissyen felt one of the bags and felt a man’s head. He squeezed it until his fingers met in the middle. He did this to each of the leather bags and crushed a man’s head in each one killing two hundred hidden assassins.
The Killing of Gwern
The two kings eventually entered the house with their followers and the proceedings began. The negotiations and agreements were made in a spirit of peace and friendship. Sovereignty of Ireland was conferred upon the young boy Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen and nephew of Brân. After all the talking was over Brân called the boy to him. Gwern went willingly and showed him great affection. From Brân, Gwern went happily to Manawyddan and from one to another showing great affection with each he went to.
Efnissyen looked on and he grew jealous of the boy’s attention to others saying, “Why does the boy not come to me, his uncle? He is the son of my sister and is my nephew but he ignores me when I would be glad to give the boy my love!”
“Let the boy go to you if he wants to,” said Brân.
Gwern happily went to Efnissyen who taken by some dark mood without warning seized the boy by his feet and swung him head first into the roaring fire. Branwen screamed and attempted to leap into the fire after her son. Brân grabbed her hand and with his other hand placed his shield between her and the fire keeping her safe between his body and his shield.
Immediately the great hall was in uproar as the two sides rapidly armed themselves intent on killing one another. All the while Brân kept his sister safe between his shield and his body as the fighting ensued all around.
The Cauldron of Rebirth
The Irish immediately lit a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth that had been part of the compensation Brân gave for the malicious disfigurement of their horses. They placed their dead in the cauldron and they were restored to fully fit fighting men save they had lost the power of speech and hearing.
Efnissyen, seeing the warriors of Brân were slaying the Irish noted they were also being slain. However, unlike the Irish, their dead did not return to the battle and the Irish were gaining the advantage. Feeling remorse and great guilt that he had been the cause of all this murder and mayhem he resolved to save Brân and his warriors. Therefore, he hid among the piles of the Irish dead waiting to be revived in the cauldron until he too was cast in. As soon as he was inside he stretched himself out to his full bodily dimensions causing the cauldron to burst asunder but bursting his own heart in the process. With this advantage removed from the Irish theBritons quickly gained the upper hand.
The Seven Survivors
Although the warriors of Brân eventually triumphed it was a pyrrhic victory costing them dear. Brân was mortally wounded from a wound in his foot from a poisoned spear. Of his army only seven lived and these were Manawyddan, Pryderi, Taliesin the Bard, Grudyen the son of Muryel, Ynawc and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen. Brân had shielded Branwen throughout the battle and she also lived.
Of the Irish people only five pregnant women survived who went and lived in caves. They gave birth to five sons and over time the Island of Ireland was repopulated incestuously.
The Assembly of the Wondrous Head
Knowing he was dying and being too large to bury or take back on a ship Brân ordered the seven surviving warriors to sever his head from his body. He instructed they carry it to the White Hill in London where they were to bury it facing the sea to deter invasion from France. He advised them this task would take many years. In that time they would spend seven years feasting in Harlech while being regaled by the Birds of Rhiannon. They would then travel to Gwales where they would spend a further eighty years and become known as, “The Assembly of the Wondrous Head”. All this time the head would be able to converse with them and keep them company despite it being severed. They would be untouched by time but eventually, the time would come when they would leave Gwales to journey to London where their task would be completed as he had instructed. He then ordered them to “cross over to the other side.” The seven survivors accompanied by Branwen crossed over to the other side (2) of the sea to Wales bearing the head of Brân.
However, as she turned to look back across the sea to Ireland and gazed around her at the Island of Britain she was overwhelmed with grief and anguish. Her heart broke in two and she groaned and collapsed and died of a broken heart. Thus, ended the life of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, Fairest Maiden of Britain. The seven survivors made a four sided grave on the banks of the River Alaw for her internment.
The Seven Survivors discovered the crown of Britain had been usurped by Caswallawn and Brân’s son had died of a broken heart after his companions were killed in an ambush by the usurper. Nevertheless, as Brân had ordered and in the manner he had predicted, his head was finally buried in London to deter any invasion of Britain from France. Here ends the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the story of two of the Seven Survivors, Pryderi and Manawyddan are continued in the Third Branch, known as Manawyddan.
The Hedley Kow was a troublesome, shape-shifting, trickster sprite or spirit that made mischief around the area of Hedley-on-the-Hill, Northumberland. More mischievous than dangerous, it had the ability to turn itself into any animal or item. It delighted in using this talent to play tricks on unsuspecting local people before revealing its true self and vanishing with a resounding peal of mocking laughter (1). Several tales tell of its antics and pranks on local people which result in the victim becoming bewildered or embarrassed. Presented here are a few examples of such encounters followed by a tale of an irrepressible old lady whose attitude is a lesson to us all.
The Dancing Kow
In one tale an old woman went out collecting firewood. As she was searching she came across a long dry stick she considered perfect for kindling a good fire. She picked it up and placed it into her basket and continued her search. As she searched she noticed her basket was getting heavier and heavier and she dropped it spilling the sticks on the ground.
To her surprise the stick she had considered perfect suddenly jumped in the air turning into a large gangly cow. She was even more shocked when it started jigging up and down and swaying from side to side as if it was performing an old-fashioned country dance. It continued to caper up and down and then let out a loud braying laugh as it jigged down the road and out of sight leaving only the mocking echo of its laughter.
Tricked by the Kow
Another tale tells how two young men dressed in their Sunday best clothes intending to meet up with their girlfriends by the River Derwent. The young men set off full of anticipation and excitement of what the liaison might bring. On reaching the river bank they saw their girlfriends ahead walking arm in arm in the opposite direction. They shouted several times trying to attract their attention but the girls did not seem to hear them and carried on walking.
Therefore the young men set off after them and being young and fit expected to catch up with them easily. However, the faster they walked and the harder they tried the more they failed. The girls just continued strolling along unhurriedly but the distance between them did not diminish and they stayed ahead.
This state of affairs continued for sometime but suddenly the two lads found themselves in a bog and up to their knees in mud. As they looked towards the girls they saw their forms slowly dissipate into a wispy mist as a deep mocking laugh echoed back at them. Realizing that they had been tricked by the Kow they scrambled from the bog and ran home with the Kow in close pursuit taunting and mocking them all the way. Once safe inside they told their families of the unnerving experience of their encounter with the Hedley Kow.
Tricks of the Kow
Despite its mischievousness the Kow appeared to possess a degree of compassion. It was never known to trouble people experiencing great sadness or mourning for loss of loved ones. Nevertheless, for unknown reasons it would sometimes make trouble at births. This might take the form of knocking on the door of the residence where a birth was taking place and disappearing when someone opened the door only to be greeted by mocking laughter. Other times it would frighten the horse of servants of the attending midwife whom she might send on errands.
It was also known to mimic voices to sound like someone known to its victim. Tales tell how it could impersonate the voices of the servant girl’s lovers or change into a replica of him to appear at their windows. Sometimes it would mimic the voice of their employers, shouting down corridors for their attendance only for them to find they had been tricked (2).
The Hedley Kow
The following is a retelling of a story collected by Joseph Jacobs in “More English Fairy Tales.” It tells of an encounter with the Kow by an irrepressible old lady who made a sparse living doing cleaning, cooking and washing chores around the village. She was poor and was often paid by being given a good meal and a cup of tea or just a few pennies so she never had much money. Nevertheless, she was always of good cheer and always looked on the bright side. Her demeanor was of someone who had not a care in the world despite her poverty.
Walking home one summer evening after completing all her chores for the day she found a large black pot sitting in the middle of the road. Surprised at the find she looked at it closely wondering who ever could have left it so carelessly in the middle of the road like that. Despite looking all around she could see no one else and it just seemed to have been left there. She thought it was just the thing for her to put a few flowers in from her small garden in so she decided to take it home. Bending her aching back she lifted the lid and looked inside and to her complete astonishment saw inside it was full to the top with gold coins.
“Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!” she said to herself over and over again as she walked around it wondering what to do. It was too heavy for her to lift and the only thing she could think of was to wrap her shawl around it and drag it along the road. She did this and made considerable progress homewards all the time saying to herself, “Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!”
She noticed it was getting dark, but rather than let it disturb her she thought it would stop people seeing her treasure and lessen the risk of theft. She kept thinking to herself how grand she felt and thought upon ways of spending the gold. She fancied, a big house, new clothes and she would sit by the warm fire drinking tea all day, never again go hungry and live like a queen. She thought perhaps she would give the gold to the local priest to look after and he could give her a little at a time to spend when she needed it. Alternatively, she thought she might bury some in the garden and hide some up the chimney and about the house.
All this time she was dragging the heavy pot full of gold along and she grew very tired and her back began to ache. She stopped and rested but could not resist the temptation to lift the lid to look at the gold. To her astonishment it had turned into a great lump of pure shining silver, although earlier, she swore it had been full of gold coins worth a fortune.
Now, silver being worth less than gold you might think she would be upset, but not a bit of it. She reckoned that when she started to buy things using gold coins word would get round and she would become a target for thieves. “Never mind, I shall be better off and safer and still very rich so what does it matter?” she said happily.
Once again she started on her way dragging the pot behind all the time planning on how she would spend the money and live an easy life. After a while her back began to ache and she began to tire so she stopped to have a little rest. Looking back at the pot she was astounded to see that it had turned into a large lump of iron and worth much less than the silver. Now you expect her to be very disappointed but she simply shrugged and said, “Never mind, at least it will be easier to sell and it will still be worth a fair piece and I won’t have to fret about robbers breaking in to steal my fortune! It is still worth more than enough to ease my old age so I am still very lucky!”
Once again she began dragging the lump of iron along the road home until once again her back began to ache and she grew tired. She stopped and looked back but to her astonishment instead of the lump of iron she saw it had turned into a large stone.
She stood staring at and said, “Well I never and who would have thought such things possible! It must have realized I have a great need for a good stone to prop open my door in the summer. Well now isn’t that the most amazing luck! I am so lucky to have such good luck!”
Happily she continued on her way excitedly imagining how the stone would look with her front door propped open by it. At last reaching her front gate and quickly lifted the latch and hauled the stone up to her front door.
Turning around she bent to unwrap her shawl. The stone sat on the path and there was still enough light for to see it plainly. As she unfastened her shawl from around it she had a shock. For a second or two the stone, free of the shawl, sat still and peacefully on the path as you would expect it to. Suddenly it sprang in the air and from it sprouted four long legs, a long neck beset by the head of a cow with horns, two long ears and behind grew a long tail. It was the most ungainly looking creature she had ever seen. It pranced around her two or three times while laughing mockingly at her before dashing off back down the lane.
The old lady stared in disbelief as it ran off. Now you might think after all the disappointments she had experienced she would be very upset. Not a bit of it! She just shook her head and said, “Bless me but I am the lucky one! I have just seen the Hedley Kow and all by myself. Not many people in the whole wide world can say that. Why, I feel special and grand and I think I need a cup of tea to think things over and celebrate!” (4)
If that old lady was alive today she would probably be a world famous guru on the art of positivity with her own YouTube channel and a following of millions!
Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth. They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld. She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are generally considered one work consisting of four parts that tell stories of the gods and heroes from Celtic Welsh mythology. The stories are thought to be older than medieval times but rewritten, probably by monks of that era. The Four Branches along with Culhwch and Olwen and other works are included in the compilation of medieval Welsh literature known as the The Mabinogion, first published in full by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45. The Adar Rhiannon, briefly appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and are mentioned and sought after in the story of Culhwch and Olwen. Although they only appear to play a small role in both stories they possess unique and important properties that lend magical qualities to the tales.
Time and Space
The singing of the birds can awaken the dead while inducing the living to sleep. Their singing also causes time and space to behave differently. They seem to be singing very near while in fact they are far away. Their singing also alters the passing of time making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed and preserve from the effects of time.
These birds are named after and associated with Rhiannon one of the most enigmatic characters in Welsh myth. He first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and Chief of Annwn and their son was Pryderi. She was falsely accused of the murder of her son and eating him but later proved innocent after public humiliation. Her second husband was Manawyddan whom she married after Pwyll’s passing.
Rhiannon also displayed the power to warp time and space, but differently to her birds. This is shown, in the manner of her first appearance on horseback from the Otherworld seeking Pwyll to propose their marriage which he accepts. Secondly, she produces a magical bag that can be filled with any amount of without getting full with enough room for a fully grown human. This is used to trick and trap an unwelcome marriage suitor so that she can marry Pwyll.
From her first appearance it is clear she is no ordinary woman and is someone of special status and importance. She is considered to be a goddess or representative of sovereignty and being strongly associated with horses is usually thought of as a horse deity or derived from one. Therefore, like Rhiannon, her birds are not ordinary birds having the magical qualities mentioned previously.
Culhwch and Olwen
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the birds are given two more magical attributes. The story tells how Culwhch was given a host of impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, a giant and the father of Olwen, who demanded their achievement before he would give permission for his daughter to marry him. The severity of the tasks was possibly because he was doomed to die on her wedding night and he hoped Culwhch would fail that he might live. One of his demands was to be brought the Adar Rhiannon possibly because they would soothe his passing into death. Therefore he asked Culhwch to bring,
“The Birds of Rhiannon: the ones which can wake the dead and put the living to sleep I want to entertain me that night.” (1)
The night he is referring to is his daughter’s wedding night which is the night he is doomed to die if the marriage goes ahead. From this we see they have two other magical attributes. The first is their singing puts the living to sleep and the second is that it wakes the dead. They may have been a useful insurance against death from the giant’s point of view or at least eased his passing.
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
The Adar Rhiannon also appears at the end of the Second Branch which is the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr. Branwen, the sister of the Welsh King Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân the Blessed, had been married to the Irish King Matholwch and lived with him in Ireland. However, it was not a happy marriage and she was subject to physical and psychological abuse. In her unhappiness she trains a starling to take a message back over the sea to her brother King Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and seeking his aid. Enraged and offended by his sister’s treatment Bendigeidfran gathers his army and invades Ireland and a cataclysmic war follows. All the Irish are killed leaving only a five pregnant women in Ireland who took to living in a cave. Each gave birth to a son and eventually incestuously repopulated the island of Ireland.
On the Welsh side there were seven surviving warriors, as well as Branwen. These were Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and Manawyddan, brother of King Bendigeidfran and Rhiannon’s future husband. These were accompanied by Taliesin the great bard, Gluneu Eil Taran, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.
In the conflict King Bendigeidfran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear and knew he would soon die. He ordered the survivors to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London where it was to be buried to protect Britain from invaders. He prophesied they would encounter the singing birds of Rhiannon and remain in one place for seven years spellbound by them,
“And take you my head and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”
Bendigeidfran’s severed head retained the power of speech and continued talking to the survivors as he predicted. Sadley, Branwen died of a broken heart through grief for the dead.
The Adar Rhiannon
Before setting off with the head to London the survivors feasted in Harlech and as also predicted by Bendigeidfran they were visited by the singing birds of Rhiannon,
“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.” (2)
Translation of different texts may vary but it is thought these are the same birds mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and at the end of the Second Branch where, “the singing of the birds of Rhiannon” is referred to which demonstrated time was altered,
“And thus ends this portion of the Mabinogi, concerning the blow given to Branwen, which was the third unhappy blow of this island; and concerning the entertainment of Bran, when the hosts of sevenscore countries and ten went over to Ireland to revenge the blow given to Branwen; and concerning the seven years’ banquet in Harlech, and the singing of the birds of Rhiannon, and the sojourning of the head for the space of fourscore years. (3)
Rhiannon and her singing birds along with King Bendigeidfran, Culhwch and Olwen and the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr are just a few of the strange and magical characters and creatures that dwell in the landscape of Welsh Celtic myth and medieval literature.
According to tradition there has always been a high interest in the magic arts among the dwellers of Longdendale. There is an old saying referring to the people of Longendale as being too bad for Heaven and too clever for Hell. The following is a retelling of a folktale from Legends of Longdendale, a collection of folktales from the area, by Thomas C. Middleton, that allegedly explains its origin.
A Conjuror of High Degree
A rhyme by an unknown author tells a little of one such dweller,
From the verse we see that the dweller was a doctor who was skilled in magic, mysticism and astrology. He was able to predict and understand the mysteries of the movements of the stars and how they would affect us here on Earth. In his day he was someone who possessed great knowledge and power and these attributes are great gifts if used wisely and for the benefit of humanity.
To be fair he did use his skills to the benefit of humankind. However, power corrupts and even those with great knowledge and wisdom there can arise the desire to increase their blessings. This is exactly what happened to our good doctor. He began to yearn for more power and deeper knowledge of the secrets of the universe to enable him to do more good in the world.
To begin with he put aside this desire realizing that there are some things that are best left unknown. However, once the tiniest yearning for power manifests in a person without the utmost care it can grow silently inside until it takes over the reason. Again, this is exactly what happened to our good doctor and it drove him to take a daring chance and make a deal with the Devil.
He had delved into books of ancient lore in search of the secret of increasing his abilities. After many years of long, lonely study and dark and dangerous research he came to the conclusion there was but one way he could achieve his dream. He knew others had tried it and each one failed and forced to suffer the most appalling consequences. Nevertheless, he was hooked and could not put aside the temptation and at last he decided he must take the terrible chance.
The Ultimate Test
Therefore, he prepared himself for the ultimate test of his power and knowledge which would be to raise the Devil. He had thought long and hard about it and put it off time and time again but it was the only way. No one else could give him the power and knowledge he craved. He knew the price Satan would demand but did not want to pay it. Nevertheless, the craving for power made him think he could reach a more amicable agreement with the devil and he decided it was worth a try.Therefore he set about making his preparations. He learnt the right spell. Collected all the materials he required and readied his equipment in preparation.
The Midnight Hour
With everything prepared and the approach of the midnight hour the doctor entered his chamber of magical experimentation. After making special signs and uttering a brief incantation he set up a lamp upon the table and over a flame he hung a small cauldron. Into the cauldron he poured certain liquids of dark properties and dropped various powders and items of dubious qualities. Some of these items were too gruesome to name. The powders and liquids were of undoubtedly odious origin possibly even human but he alone knew the true source of these materials.
Raising the Devil
With his brew bubbling he then uttered further incantations. He continued to repeat the spell over and over while beseeching the powers of darkness for their attention. He continued like this for over an hour with no sign any dark power or spirit had heard. However, he persisted and at last his persistence was rewarded.
The flame beneath the cauldron sprang and flared red then extinguished but the mixture within the cauldron continued to bubble. Soon a vile vapor rose thick and fast and spread rapidly throughout the chamber. In the center of the chamber there hovered a thick and unwholesome fog which was darker and denser than the rest.
The Devil’s Answer
Inside the fog the vapors were whirling and twisting forming a dark terrifying figure. From that form there came a terrible voice that spoke in whispers that cut through the fabric of reality shaking and terrifying the doctor. “Who dares summon Satan from Hell? Step forward and speak. Tell me thy heart’s desire!”
The doctor was almost overcome with fear and awe but managing to master himself stepped boldly forward and said, “It is I that has summoned you for, I would have certain powers that you and only you, can endow.”
The Devil looked into his eyes and knew immediately what powers he yearned for.
“Indeed, I can bestow thee with these powers but you know there is a price to be paid. Are you willing to pay it?” sneered the Devil.
The doctor faltered and quailed for a moment but quickly mastered himself and asked, “Name your price and we shall see!”
“Ha! You know the price!” whispered the Devil, “There is only one price and the terms are not negotiable. Agree that price and I will grant you the powers of your heart’s desire. Be warned I shall return seven years from today and call upon you to deliver up your very soul to me. Do you agree?”
“Surely that is too high a price,” replied the doctor.
“It is the only price and the terms are not negotiable. What do you say?” demanded the Devil.
The doctor hesitated realizing trying to bargain with him was hopeless and said, “Then I must pay that price. I agree to the contract and the price!”
The Devil produced two sheets of paper. With his long, sharp fingernail, he slit the wrist of the doctor causing blood to seep forth. Dipping his quill into the oozing wound he wrote the contract out on both pages using the doctor’s blood for ink. With that same quill and ink the doctor signed. With a look of extreme satisfaction, Satan placed the contract in his cloak and declared, “Thy wish is granted, enjoy to the full what time you have left it will not be long enough. Be sure seven years from now I shall return for my fee!”
There was a peal of thunder and a flash of lightning and the Devil was gone. All that was left behind was the doctor’s copy of the contract written and signed in his own blood and the mocking echo of the Devil’s laughter.
The Devil was true to his word and from the beginning of the agreement the doctor received all the powers he had yearned for. He used them to further his own knowledge and skills but instead of using them to benefit humankind he used it for his own pleasure and leisure. His life was everything he wanted it to be with power, knowledge, riches and great acclaim.
However, time passed and after a couple of years he still thought he had a long time to enjoy his powers. Three years passed and then four and he realized that time was passing too quickly. Five years passed and then six and he was now getting nervous. Despite his power and knowledge he knew he could not hold or alter time. Therefore he began to repent his contract with the Devil realizing he had been foolish and selfish and searched for ways of avoiding paying the price. Seven years passed and he knew he had to come up with something quick but could not think what.
A Crazy Chance
At last he came up with something, it was but a glimmer of a crazy chance yet it was a crazy chance that might just work. He consulted his books on astrology and charted the movement of the stars and came to the conclusion it could work. That afternoon he purchased the fastest and best horse in Longdendale. That evening, as he knew would, Satan appeared before him in his chamber of magic. Satan duly arrived with his usual theatrics but the doctor remained calm as he faced him.
“Are you ready to fulfill the contract,” demanded the Devil.
“Indeed I am, but I am wondering if you are not open to a little wager first?” he asked nonchalantly knowing the Devil loved to gamble.
“Hmm, now just what have you in mind?” asked the Devil his interest aroused.
“I thought maybe a race on horseback to the crossroads. It is one mile to the crossroads and the first to pass the center wins. If you win you take my soul. If I win I keep it and you leave me in peace. But … perhaps, you are not up to such a gamble and I have the fastest horse in Longdendale,” taunted the doctor gently.
Indeed, Satan had a fine black horse that was faster and stronger than any ordinary horse. He loved to race it and he loved to gamble, though it never really was a gamble because he would always win. He would lay any odds on his horse winning against any challenger.
“A race it is, be outside on horseback in 30 minutes and the race will begin!” cried the devil excited at the prospect.
The doctor saddled his new horse and waited on the road. Thirty minutes later the Devil appeared by his side mounted on a magnificent black stallion the like never before had been seen on earth.
“Ah! A truly magnificent steed, but surely you are breaking the spirit of our race by riding an unearthly steed. No earthly horse could surely match one born and bred in your realm, the challenge cannot go ahead. You best take my soul here and now!” said the doctor.
The Devil had been looking forward to the race and was disappointed. He could rightly have taken the doctor’s soul there and then but believed he would have it after the race anyway. He so loved to race and gamble but rarely got the chance and his face dropped.
The doctor, seeing the look of disappointment on his adversary’s face said, “Tell you what! How about if you give me a half mile start?”
To begin with the Devil was not having it. After some very subtle provocation and a play to his vanity from the doctor he accepted.
“You realize, it is not my normal practice to allow the terms of the contract to be changed, especially when I can rightfully claim payment? Never before have I given a single minute’s grace when collecting my payment, let alone listen to further proposals to extend the period in the hope of saving their souls. I have never before accepted any change in terms or payment. Still, today I fancy some sport and will make an exception in this case. Therefore, I accept. Let the race begin as soon as you are ready. The signal shall be a thunderbolt!” said the Devil.
Race With the Devil
So while the Devil remained at the start line the doctor trotted a half mile ahead. As soon as the Devil saw the doctor had reached the half mile he let fly a thunderbolt that flashed and crashed mightily and the race began.
The Devil spurred his mount forward using all speed while the doctor, determined not to be complacent by the half mile start, spurred his own horse on. This was just as well for the Devil set off at unbelievable speed and was fast gaining on the doctor. He reached the half mile point with the doctor not quite making the three quarter of a mile point.
The Devil was now excited and enjoying himself. Uttering wild shouts and cries he spurred his horse forward, second by second gaining on the doctor. His opponent, his face grim and set and ever looking over his shoulder encouraged his own steed forward.
With less than a quarter of a mile to go the Devil was but a few yards behind and whooping wildly while the doctor, casting anxious glances back, continued to press his own steed. He desperately wanted to beat the Devil to the ford where a fast flowing stream of water flowed over the road but the chances of this were now slim.
As the Devil came up fast behind the doctor’s mount he reached forward laughing with glee and grabbed the tail of the doctor’s horse giving it a viscous twist. The terrified horse cried out in shock and pain and surged forward.
The Devil kept a grip on the poor beast’s tail trying with all his might to hold it back. They were approaching the ford where a stream of running water flowed over the road. Had he seen this, things might have turned out different, but the Devil, being intent on holding on to his challenger’s horse’s tail did not see it. The terrified beast surged forward again and its tail broke and the horse free from the Devil’s grip took one mighty leap clear over the running steam of water.
The Laws of Magic
The Devil was forced to pull up abruptly. By the laws of magic and sorcery which even the Devil is obliged to adhere to he could not cross running water in pursuit of a victim. This law applies to all witches, evil spirits and the like and it must be obeyed. The doctor raced on to the crossroads to win the race and keep his soul.
In mockery of the Devil the doctor turned and waved joyously at his adversary who was fuming with rage. He now saw how the doctor had tricked and goaded him into the race with this outcome in mind. He howled with rage at his own gullibility and the doctor’s cleverness.
Too Bad For Heaven, Too Clever For Hell!
Nevertheless, despite his anger there was nothing he could do except ride off on the wings of a storm back to Hell in disgust. He swore an oath that no mortal from Longdendale would ever again be allowed inside his domain for they were too bad for Heaven and too clever for Hell!