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.
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 –
This article was first published January 14, 2021 on FolkloreThursday.com as Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts by zteve t evans
The ancient Celts were believed to practice a form of animism in their religion and belief system that provided a meaningful way for them to experience and make sense of the world they lived in. In this work we will discuss animism and the various aspects of animism that the ancient Celts possibly followed concluding with a short discussion of their belief system.
Rather than a religion, animism is more an expression of the energy connections that are believed to flow through all things connecting each to the other and to the greater consciousness. It is this greater consciousness that is the source of all energy and that endows everything with life and sentience. Many early creeds embraced aspects of animism and it is still found in many modern religions and philosophies.
The Celts were a varied collection of ethnic groups inhabiting a wide swathe of continental Europe from the west coast of Ireland to the Black Sea and other scattered areas. As a group they appear to have been bound together by common aspects of language, culture and religion rather than ethnicity. They worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses which varied from region to region as could the importance and attributes of those divinities. Animism is seen as the one of the threads that connected the beliefs of this vast and diverse group of people together.
In animism there is a belief that all things possessed a spirit and a consciousness that connects everything together. The sky, Earth and underworld were connected along with natural phenomena such as the weather and everything was all part of a greater conscious universe. Furthermore, even certain words objects and images had sentience and were alive and could be used in conjunction with the greater consciousness to benefit humanity. For the Celt, death was the transmigration of the souls while their ancestors were revered and regarded as alive.
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.
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.
In the study of folktales and folklore there is a classification system known as the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU Index) which catalogues folktale types. It is not a perfect system and not not all folklorists recognise it but it can provide some useful insights. Presented here is a discussion of the folkloric motif of The Faithful Hound, classified as Aarne–Thompson-Uther type 178A, that is found in a number of folktales from many different parts of the world.
In this work we will briefly discuss human relationships with animals followed by a look at the main structure of the tale tale type of The Faithful Hound. Three examples of such tales from different countries will be retold before concluding with a few reflections that may offer a deeper insight into the story.
Animals have always been popular characters in folk and fairy tales reflecting the close relationship humans share with them. They have long been an integral part of our daily lives, still are today and undoubtedly will be in the future. We eat them, make clothes and other items from them, use them for many different kinds of work, but best of all welcome them into our homes as pets and companions. Sadly, sometimes we mistreat them. Therefore, it is not surprising they are often featured in our stories, myths, legends, traditions and customs and make wonderful subjects for artists to paint.
The Story Structure
The structure of the tale type of The Faithful Hound is simple and unfolds roughly in the order shown below:
A fairly high-ranking person has a much loved pet and a baby
The baby of the high ranking person is left in the care of a parent or child nurse who negligently leaves the child alone.
A dangerous animal appears and threatens the baby.
The pet heroically defends the baby.
The dangerous animal is killed by the heroic pet
The jubilant pet greets its master/mistress.
A hasty and injudicious judgement is made on the spot.
The pet is killed
The baby is found safe and sound.
The body of a dangerous animal is found.
The parent suffers remorse, sorrow and grief because of their hasty decision and because they loved the pet.
There is a prevailing sense of disappointment and betrayal over the hasty decision by the high ranking person.
The structure of the story remains fairly consistent around the world. The heroic and dangerous creatures differ from place to place to suit local conditions. The human involved usually remains fairly high ranking in that society.
The Earliest Version
Possibly the earliest version comes from India. It is found in the Panchatantra, a book of Sanskrit verse, dated to about 200 BCE and called “The Loyal Mungoose” and later “The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose.” In these versions the heroic animal is a mongoose and the dangerous creature is a snake. There are three humans involved; an infant, a Brahmin and the Brahmin’s wife. In In Hinduism a Brahmin is someone of fairly high status such as a priest, teacher or trader so the story involves quite an important family in Indian society.
A mongoose is a natural enemy of snakes and vermin in the same way cats are enemies of rodents. Therefore, a mongoose may seem like a sensible pet in places where snakes are common. The following is my retelling of that story.
The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose
The wife of a Brahmin had a single son and she also had a pet mongoose that she loved as if it was her second son. She brought the two up together treating both as her babies and they both suckled from her breast.One day as her son is sleeping she tells her husband, the Brahmin, she is going to fetch water from the local well and takes up a heavy stone jar to carry it in. She warns him that he must keep his eye on their son because even though she loves the mongoose she mistrusts it because it is an animal.
After she had gone, her husband became hungry and went off to find food leaving the child completely unprotected.While he was out a venomous snake slithered into the house and made its way towards the helpless child. The mongoose having been closely brought up with the baby boy regarded him as its brother. Therefore in his brother’s defense it attacked the snake, killed it and tore it to pieces. In jubilation at its victory in defense of its brother the mongoose ran to meet the mother with the snake’s blood smeared all over its mouth and face.
On meeting the jubilant mongoose the woman is horrified to see the blood around its mouth and on its face. Hastily she jumps to the conclusion that the mongoose had killed and eaten her baby son. In anger and grief she hits the animal with the heavy stone jar she carries, killing it. Rushing home to her great joy and relief she finds the baby is safe and sound. Close by lies the torn up body of the deadly snake and she realizes her mistake. She is overcome with remorse and shame for her hasty judgement in killing the mongoose whom she had indeed loved as a son.
Eventually, her husband returned bearing food but now the distraught mother turned her anger towards him, “Greedy, foolish man!” She cried, ” All because of your greed and foolishness I must now endure the sorrow of death!”
The most obvious point is the hasty and unjust killing of the mongoose. However, there is also the question of the right and wrongs of loving an animal as much as a human and raising it like a human child. The neglect of the Brahmin is also significant.
The Story’s Journey
The story traveled west towards Europe and east further into Asia with variation of animals and story but keeping similar motifs, themes and structures. A Persian version has a cat as the heroic animal. From Malaysia comes a story of a pet bear that saves the daughter of a Malay hunter from a killer tiger only to be hastily and unjustly killed by the hunter who feared it had killed his daughter. His daughter is found safe leaving the hunter full of shame and regret for his hasty killing of the bear.
In some cases stories such as these may have evolved independently in distant locations without human transmission. This is not as mysterious as it may seem. Although there are many different human cultures and societies we share many of the same needs and values as each other. We also share similar emotions and fears and everyone likes a good story.
Guinefort: A French Version
In Europe, the heroic animal became either a dog or hound and the dangerous animal a snake or a wolf. In France the story also provides an explanation of the origin of the cult of the greyhound folk saint called Guinefort and presented below is a retelling of that story.
The Legend of Guinefort
A knight living in a castle near Lyon in France had a faithful greyhound named Guinefort. The dog had shown a great attachment and affinity with his infant son. Such was his placid nature and gentle disposition the knight trusted him completely to be left alone with the infant whom he loved dearly.
One day the knight and his wife left his son in the company of Guinefort while he went out hunting. Such was his unwavering faith in his dog’s affinity with his son, the knight had no reservations about leaving the sleeping boy with the greyhound lying protectively by his side in the nursery.
After a good day of hunting he returned to find the nursery in disarray with the cot overturned and no sign of his infant son. Guinefort greeted his master with delight jumping and fawning at his feet. The shocked knight, seeing the disarray and the signs of violence, the blood on the dog’s jaws and not seeing his son anywhere, believed that Guinefort had killed the baby. In grief and anger he drew his sword and struck the greyhound down.
As the dog lay dying the knight heard the sound of a baby crying underneath the overturned cot. There, to his relief and joy he found his infant safe and sound. Looking around the scene he saw torn and tattered remains of a great viper that had somehow got into the nursery threatening the life of his son. It then dawned on him as he looked about what had happened. On discovering the threat to the baby, Guinefort had attacked and killed the viper at great risk to himself to defend the infant.
The knight was now ashamed of his killing of the dog. He and his family lowered the body of Guinefort down a well and sealed it with stone. They then planted trees and flowers around it and turned it into a shrine dedicated to the memory of the faithful hound who had suffered such injustice. The shrine of Guinefort became a popular place where local people brought their babies for healing and the greyhound became a folk saint of the people. Furthermore, it is said that God punished the knight by decimating his castle and lands.
The Welsh Version
In Wales, the savior animal was also a faithful dog but the threat came from a wolf. The dog’s name was Gelert and was either a greyhound or wolfhound depending on the versions. He belonged to Prince Llywelyn the Great, one of the most influential nobles in the history of Wales who was married to King John’s daughter, Joan.
The story was used as a selling point by David Prichard, an enterprising Victorian publican of the Goat Inn, Beddgelert, Snowdonia. He used the romantic elements of Gelert’s story to attract customers to his pub which is conveniently close to the supposed grave of the courageous hound. Although the publican may have commercialized and added to the story, the structure is far older than the Victorian era and from much further afield than Wales. The following retelling of the story tells how the prince was a great huntsman and Gelert was his favorite hunting dog.
The Legend of Gelert
One day while out hunting with his wife Prince Llywelyn noticed his best hunting dog named Gelert has gone missing. Feeling concerned about their favorite hound they return home.
The scene that greets them fills them with horror and fear. There is blood all over the floor and the baby’s cradle is lying askew on the ground. The baby’s blankets are bloody and strewn around the room and no sign of the infant can be seen. Stricken with grief and anger Llewelyn draws his sword and plunges it into the dog. As Gelert dies he lets out a cry that is answered by the baby boy lying out of sight behind the fallen cradle.
Llewelyn gently lifts the cradle to discover his baby son safe and unharmed. Lying alongside him was the body of a massive wolf covered in blood with its throat ripped out. Instantly, the Prince understood what had happened. The wolf had entered the lodge while the nurse and servants were out leaving the child unprotected.
Gelert must have had some kind of premonition of the baby’s danger and had returned to the lodge in time to save the child and fight and kill the wolf. Now, it is said the Prince Llywelyn was so distraught from grief and guilt from his hasty deed that he never smiled again. Llywelyn buried Gelert in honor in a nearby meadow and placed stones over the body.” – The legend of Gelert
Points to Consider
It is interesting that the savior animal changed from a humble mongoose in India to a greyhound or wolfhound in Europe. Greyhounds and wolfhounds were once the hunting dogs of the rich and powerful. They were greatly prized and important animals even featuring on the coat-of-arms of many of Europe’s elite.
Both the masters of Gelert and Guinefort were rich and powerful of very high status and seen as exemplars of behaviour as was the Brahmin. At the same time the dangerous animal was a snake with the mongoose story, a viper with Guineforte’s story and a wolf with Gelert.
This type of story is embedded with powerful emotions. We can identify with the love, fear and grief a parent experiences when entering such scenes of carnage and even empathize with their hasty killing of the pet. With the sweet moment the child is found safe and sound comes a bitter twist with the awful realization they have made a terrible mistake. We also identify with the unfortunate pet who we believe has behaved heroically and proved itself loyal and faithful, only to be condemned and killed unjustly in an instant, hasty act of gratuitous revenge.
The tale explores the positive human virtues of love, faith and loyalty that come into conflict with the negative human traits of negligence, selfishness and impetuous and unthinking behaviour. The Brahmin neglects his charge to satisfy his own hunger while the French knight and the Welsh prince leave others in charge of their infant and go out hunting to satisfy their own pleasure.
It is a cautionary tale warning that even the great and the good can make mistakes to the injury of the innocent when acting in haste, or while satisfying their own pleasures. The stories also subtly emphasize the power of life and death the influential characters held over their servants and their responsibility in making just and correct decisions.
In their unjust killing of their pets, the pet owners are seen to have let themselves down by their haste and poor judgement of the event because they failed to properly investigate the situation. This is especially worrying when the innocent are loyal and faithful servants who should have a right to a fair trial and a fair judgement.
The stories highlight a real and important matter that affects everyone because even Brahmins, knights and princes have social codes and morals they are expected to adhere to. In killing their loyal pets in such an unworthy manner the masters revealed their unworthiness and were punished for it. The Brahmin’s wife was forced to endure the sorrow of death, the French knight lost his castle and his land and Prince Llywelyn the Great never smiled again. Are these tales nothing more than stories to tell the children that tug at the heartstrings, or is there something else going on?
Do Not Act In Haste!
The obvious moral of the story is not to act in haste, but if we accept that explanation on the face of it are we not simply acting in haste? For those who wish to take this further they may look at the meaning of haste and hastiness and examine this alongside the model of how their own personal religion or philosophy may place expectations of behavior upon them in such circumstances.
Presented here is a retelling of the story of the time Pwyll of Dyfed spent in Annwfn in the body of Arawn. It is the first part of the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed or Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, which is the First Branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It tells how he and Arawn became friends and of his sojourn in Annwfn.
Pwyll of Dyfed
One day as Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed was out hunting in the region of Glyn Cuch his hounds raised a stag. The stag took off at great speed with the hounds hard on its trail and Pwyll spurred his horse forward in pursuit sounding his hunting horn. The stag was moving fast but the hounds were keeping up and he was keeping up with the hounds. In the speed and excitement of the chase he lost the other members of his party who were left far behind.
Following the sound of his pack he became aware that he could also hear another pack of hounds which sounded very different to his own. Arriving in a glade in the woods he was surprised to see in the middle a large stag holding at bay a pack of strange hounds. As Pwyll looked on they brought the beast to the ground. Although an experienced and accomplished huntsman Pwyll had never seen dogs like these before. They had coats of pure, shining white and the tips of their white ears glowed red. Moving purposely forward he drove the pack of strange dogs off and set his own on the stag.
The Anger of Arawn
No sooner had he done this when he heard the blowing of a hunting horn and the approach of a fast riding horseman. The horseman cut an intimidating figure being tall and well built and dressed in grey hunting clothes. Around his neck hung a hunting horn which he blew notes on heralding his arrival. Reining in his horse he glared coldly upon Pwyll and spoke in a blunt and unfriendly manner, “Chieftain, I know who you are but I will not welcome you!”
“Indeed,” replied Pwyll taking offense at the tone of the address, “you appear lacking of such dignity and manners and it is best you do not do so!”“Indeed,” saidthe stranger, “it is not my dignity and manners that prevent me!”
“Chieftain, what then is it? Am I the one at fault, is it my courtesy and manners that are at fault? Tell me what is the fault that I have committed?” replied Pwyll in anger and bewilderment. Replied the huntsman, “Never have I seen anything so discourteous and bad-mannered! You have driven my dogs away from their kill and set your own upon it. Though I may not gain revenge for the value of the offense, I swear I will bring you more dishonor than the worth of a hundred stags!”
Realizing he was at fault Pwyll said, “Chieftain, I indeed have done wrong. How I can make it up to you and become your friend? You say you know who I am, therefore, tell me who you are?” The other replied, “I am Arawn, a King of Annwfn,” and Pwyll answered, “Then Arawn, a King of Annwfn, I ask how I may redeem myself and win your friendship?”
“I have a neighbor named Hafgan who forever makes trouble and seeks war and is also a King of Annwfn. Rid me of him and gain my undying friendship and amend the wrong you have done me,” replied Arawn. “I will do this, but how?” said Pwyll. Arawn replied,
“Change places with me and live as I have lived as a King of Annwfn. You will have the fairest lady ever seen as your Queen, who is my wife.We must exchange bodies. Your mind and soul will live in my body and my mind and soul will live in yours. I will make it so no one in the world will ever be able to know the difference, not your closest friend, not even my wife. I will know what you know, you will know what I know. We will live like this for a year and a day and in that time you will have accomplished the task. We shall meet on that anniversary in this place and I will return us to our true forms. Only we will know! ”
“I will do this, but how shall I know and find your enemy,” Pwyll asked. “The time and date are already set for us to meet in single combat to the death. One year from today you will find him waiting at the ford. Be there and with one stroke rid me of him and gain my never ending friendship. One word of warning I give! Should he ask you to strike again to bring his life to a quick end you must refuse. Last year I made this mistake after dealing him a fatal blow and he recovered. You must let him die slowly!” advised Arawn. “It is understood and this I will do,” replied Arawn, “but what will happen to my own kingdom while I am away?”
“Fear not for your kingdom. In your own semblance I will rule in your stead and none will ever know the difference,” answered Arawn. “Then, let us begin!” said Pwyl. “Nothing shall hinder you until you come into my lands and then I will guide you to my palace in my kingdom,” said Arawn,” and it shall begin.”
Arawn led Pwyll through the forest to a place close to his palace and said, “Behold, my palace. Here I must leave you to enter alone as I. Have no fear, no one will see anything different and all will accept you as being myself. Furthermore, you will find you have knowledge of all the ways of the court. “
Sojourn in Annwfn
Therefore, Pwyll entered court and it was as Arawn had told him. He was welcomed as their king by the servants and his wife who noticed nothing amiss. Two knights helped to dress him in the finest silks of gold and scarlet and the hall was prepared for feasting and they noticed nothing. He saw that those who joined him were of the most comely and handsome of looks and ways. They all appeared to know him paying him great obeisance. Arawn’s wife entered and sat next to him talking as she had always known him. Just as Arawn had said, she was the fairest woman he had ever seen. She was dressed in scarlet and gold and talked and conversed with him most agreeably throughout the meal. After the feasting there were wonderful stories and songs and Pwyll thought that this must be the most entertaining and courteous of courts on Earth.
The Fight at the Ford
He spent the next year hunting and feasting, enjoying the entertainments of the court and his conversations with the Queen and the courtiers. Eventually the year passed and the time came around when he must meet Hafgan, the enemy of Arawn, at the ford in single combat. The nobles and everyone in the kingdom had been waiting for this time to come and a great throng of warriors assembled to accompany him to the fight at the ford. As he arrived a knight spoke up to address the throng saying, “Lords, this conflict is between two kings who claim ownership of each other’s realm. It is not your battle therefore stand aside and let the kings do battle alone.”
Turning he said the same to those on his side of the Ford and all but the two kings fell back to watch the fight. The two kings approached each other and met in the middle of the ford and without ceremony the fight began. With his first blow Pwyll struck the shield of Hafgan such a mighty blow that it was split in two and Hafgan was knocked to the ground mortally wounded. “Chieftain,” said Hafgan, “I am dying but what right have you to cause my death as I have done you no harm in any of this. As You have dealt me a killing blow I ask of you to strike again and strike fast to end my life quickly.”
“Chieftain,” replied Pwyll, “it may well be that I come to regret the blow I dealt you and the one that I will not deal, but I will give no more blows.” Calling out to his knights Hafgan said, ” I say to my subjects, I shall no longer be able to support you, therefore follow who you will, for I die now.”
Pwyll said, “Let those who have followed Hafgan come over to me without fear and in peace. There can only be one victor and that will be Arawn.” Those nobles on the opposite side of the ford went over to join with him. Next he rode through Hafgan’s kingdom subduing those who would not follow and subjecting the land to Arawn as the undisputed king of all of Annwfn. By noon the next day the two kingdoms were united and Pwyll made his way to keep his tryst with Arawn.
When he arrived Arawn was waiting and the two rejoiced to meet again. Arawn said, “I know the news you bring and I am thankful for your fulfilling the promise. You have my undying friendship and when you return to your own realm you shall see what I did for you in your absence.”
” Whatever that may be,” said Pwyll, “may Heaven reward you.” With that, Arawn reinstated each to their own natural bodies and set off for his home in Annwfn. When he arrived home none of his court or his queen realized he had been away or noticed any difference in him. When the time came for him to go to bed he took his wife with him who seemed both surprised and delighted. She told him she had been grieved that he had not shown any interest in sleeping with her the last long year. Arawn realized the extent of Pwyll’s mastery over himself and was glad but made sure he was fully reconciled with his wife.
Pwyll also went home and none of his nobles or servants appeared to notice any difference. Therefore he asked them their opinions of how his judgements and rule had been over the past year. They told him that he had appeared to have ruled with great justice, wisdom and perception and his kingdom had benefited greatly from this. Pwyll told them about the exchange of places with Arawn and said they should be grateful to him for how he had treated them.
To strengthen the friendship between Annwfn and Dyfed, Arawn sent greyhounds, horses, hawks and such presents he thought would please Pwyll. In turn Pwyll reciprocated in kind. The friendship between Arawn and Pwyll blossomed and grew bringing great prosperity and benefit to both kingdoms. From that time on he also became known as “Pwyll, Pen Annwfn” or “Pwyll, Head of Annwfn“.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 28th November, 2019, as The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd and Oldest Animals in the World, by zteve t evans
The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd
In Welsh legend and myth the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd lived in the woods that once surrounded Llyn Cowlyd. Today the woods are gone but the legends live on in two tales that feature a search for the oldest and wisest animals in the world. In the first the owl is said to be among the oldest animals in the world, whereas in the second the owl is attributed as being the oldest.
Culhwch and Olwen
The first is ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, an action packed hero tale from the Red Book of Hergest, written just after 1382. It was also contained in fragments in the White Book of Rhydderch, written about 1320. Both books were sources for the Mabinogion, a compilation of early Welsh oral stories by Lady Charlotte Guest from which the first of these tales draws.
Culhwch was the son of King Cilydd and his wife, Goleuddydd, who died soon after giving birth to him. Cilydd remarried, but Culhwch became estranged from his step-mother after she tried to persuade him to marry her daughter from another marriage. Culhwch refused and she took offence, casting a spell on him so that the only woman he could marry was Olwen, the beautiful daughter of the dangerous giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, in the belief that it would be impossible.
Despite never having met or even seen Olwen, Culhwch became obsessed and besotted by her. His father told him he would never be able to find her alone and must seek out the assistance of his cousin, King Arthur. Culhwch visited Arthur and was given a band of heroic companions to aid him in his quest. They eventually found Ysbaddaden and Olwen but the giant insisted that to marry his daughter, Culhwch must perform a series of tasks he believed to be impossible.
One of the tasks required him to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron, whose whereabouts was unknown, but was essential to the overall success of the quest. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar, the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth is the hunting dog named Drudwyn, and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place.
The Oldest Animals in the World
In the hope that one of the oldest and wisest animals in the world might know where he was, advice was sought from the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led hem to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd. The owl told them …
According to the Regum Britanniae, orHistory of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern was a 5th century King of the Britons. He was considered one of the most notoriously devious and immoral kings in British history. To be fair he was only doing behaving as his contemporaries behaved. It was a question of dog eat dog in those days with no quarter given or asked for. He was attributed with most of the blame for inviting the Anglo-Saxon war-leaders Hengist and Horsa into Britain as his mercenaries, sowing the seeds for the eventual Anglo-Saxon takeover of much of England and the many years of war and strife that was to come.
This is a retelling of how Vortigern usurped the crown of Britain based on the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although his work was once considered reasonably accurate it is now no longer seen as reliable by modern scholars. Nevertheless his work does provide his own version of the history of Britain and its kings and still has its merits as a cultural product of its times and still wields considerable influence in many Arthurian creations in the modern times. This part of the story of the history of the island of Britain begins with the assassination of King Constantine and the succession of his son Constans. It continues to reveal how Vortigern grabbed power and ends with the threat of war hanging over him and the arrival of Hengist and Horsa.
The Assassination of King Constantine
After King Constantine of Britain had been in power for ten years he was assassinated by a Pict who stabbed him in the back. After his death the crown of Britain was greatly disputed. The legitimate successor to the throne was Contans, the eldest son of Constantine, but his father had placed him in a monastery. Although he was unhappy with the monastic life he was not really interested or suited to being king. The next oldest and second in line was Aurelius Ambrosius his younger brother and the third was the youngest brother whose name was Uther. Some nobles favored Aurelius to rule while others preferred Uther. It was finally agreed that both were too young and all were at a loss as to what to do.
Vortigern Becomes Ambitious
Vortigern had his own ambitions and his own ideas on who should be King of the island of Britain. He preferred Costans knowing that he had little interest in ruling and lacked the necessary qualities and strength of character that a monarch of Britain would need to control and unite the nation. Furthermore, he knew that he had no desire to remain a monk all his life. Vortigern reasoned that if he helped him escape the clutches of the monastery to become king he could easily manipulate him while all the time working towards his ultimate unspoken goal of taking the crown for himself. To further his ends he offered to set the unhappy Constans free from the monastery and make him king if in return he would make him his chief adviser.
Constans: The Puppet King
Constans agreed and left the monastery and Vortigern took him to London to be crowned king. The consent of the nobles or the people was never asked for or obtained. Inconveniently the recent death of Archbishop Guethelin meant there was no one else of sufficient authority and stature in the clergy to fulfill such an important role. Conveniently for Vortigern the only other person with sufficient governmental experience and authority to fulfill such a role was himself and he performed the coronation ceremony.
Constans lacked any knowledge or experience of government and had little or no credibility with the nobles or the people. He relied heavily on the experience and guile of Vortigern for advice making him the effective ruler of Britain in all but name. With many of the more experienced nobles killed in the wars with the Picts there were few alive who could match his statecraft and experience and Vortigern was using these personal assets to further his own ambitions ruthlessly.
The next part of his plan was to remove Constans from the throne and set himself upon it. As always he was patient and bided his time while always seeking ways to consolidate his power at home by clandestine means. At the same time he secretly used his position to increase his influence with nearby countries. He persuaded King Constans to give him control of the Royal Treasure to keep it safe. The inexperienced king at his Chief Advisor’s request also gave him control of all of the fortified towns and cities of the realm after claiming a fictitious threat of foreign invasion was imminent. As soon as he had control of the cities he replaced their rulers and governors with his own men ensuring total control over the major fortified population centres.
He then persuaded King Constans that he was in danger and needed more men in his bodyguard to protect him from assassination. Constans, perhaps bearing in mind what had happened to his father and trusting fully in Vortigern gave his permission to hand pick his personal bodyguard. This made it easy for Vortigern who told the king that he had received word that an alliance of Picts and Dacians were preparing to attack Britain. He also assured him he knew of some trustworthy Picts who were not involved in the plot and he advised they should be offered a place at his court to form his new bodyguard. They would be loyal to Constans and act as spies informing him on what their compatriots were plotting. Despite his father having been assassinated by a Pict such was his trust and reliance on Vortigern that Constans agreed.
Vortigern’s real intention was not to protect the king but replace his loyal bodyguards with men of his own choosing whom he believed he could control. He knew the Picts were quarrelsome and often indulged in heavy drinking and in such a state they were unruly but easily manipulated. He also knew full well that they would have no qualms about assassinating Constans if the seeds of the idea were sown carefully and the right conditions prevailed. Therefore, he was confident that if he set the stage right they would act out the part he planned and take the blame while he looked beyond suspicion and took the crown.
To bring his plan into action he sent messengers to Scotland seeking one hundred Pictish warriors whom he could install as the King’s household guard. When the Picts arrived he made a great show of welcome. He gave them expensive presents and a luxury table for them to dine from and he showed them more respect than he gave the King’s original bodyguard. So pleased were they with his welcome of them they began to see him as their lord and master above King Constans, exactly as Vortigern had planned.
Soon they began to make songs revering Vortigern and belittling Constans. In these they praised Vortigern as king suggesting Constans was unworthy. They sang these songs in the streets in full view of the public pleasing Vortigern greatly. The greater they praised him the more he praised them in return and bestowed greater favor upon them. Soon the next stage of his plan was ready to put into action.
The Killing of King Constans
He waited until one day when the Picts were well and truly drunk and solemnly told them the day was coming when he would leave Britain. Mournfully, he told them he did not want to go but could no longer afford to keep more than fifty men in his retinue. With that he feigned great sorrow and left them drinking to think about it. The Picts were sorry to hear this for Vortigern had been good to them. They began to think about their own position and how that could change and one of them said,
“Why do we suffer this monk to live? Why do not we kill him, that Vortigern may enjoy his crown? Who is so fit to succeed as he? A man so generous to us is worthy to rule, and deserves all the honour and dignity that we can bestow upon him.” (1)
After more drinking and such talk between one another they broke into the King’s bedchamber. They killed him while he slept and then proudly presented his severed head to Vortigern. Putting on a great show of sorrow and tears, while really elated with joy, he ordered the assassins to be bound. Wasting no time he summoned the citizens of London to witness their execution for what he called their terrible crime.
Not all of Britain’s nobles were taken in by Vortigern’s show of false sorrow. Many suspected villainy but with no one left in Britain powerful enough to stop him Vortigern seized the crown. In fear of their own lives and for the safety of the brothers Aurelius and Uther – the true heirs – they fled across the sea to Armorica. The brothers were well treated by King Bude who educated and kept them in a manner befitting their royal blood.
As time passed his treason was at last discovered. The Picts were furious at the execution of their own people and constantly attacked and ravaged the border country. Vortigern was at daily war with them and lost many of his best warriors keeping them at bay.
The Threat of Aurelius
Over the years in Armorica, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther were coming of age and sought revenge for the murder of their father and elder brother. Aurelius, the elder of the two had built himself a formidable reputation on the continent as a war leader and was mustering an army to retake the crown of Britain. He remembered how Vortigern had favoured the Picts and now he knew he had orchestrated their deaths to remove any witnesses. Now with his own star on the rise he was burning to avenge his father and elder brother and reclaim the crown of Britain.
Although Vortigern was now High King of the island of Britain his troubles were just beginning. With the growing threat of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther he began receiving reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army. His spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their inheritance. Therefore an invasion force was expected to land at any time somewhere along the south coast of England.
With the Picts making daily forays in the north of his realm he knew he was in trouble. Taking stock of the situation on both fronts he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom. Despite his military weakness he still had his political guile and ruthlessness which he used to quell any opposition among his own war leaders. Nevertheless, these were dangerous times with the promise of worse to come but things were going to take an unexpected turn that he would at first welcome and then live to regret. As the clouds of war were gathering on the northern and southern edges of his realm there appeared completely unexpectedly off the coast of Britain three long ships carrying a detachment of armed warriors from foreign parts. These warriors were under the command of two brothers named Hengist and Horsa and they came ashore at Kent.
To begin with the presence of these two brothers looked to be a welcome gift in nullifying the brothers Aurelius and Uther and countering the Picts and Vortigern welcomed. However, while he was ruthless and treacherous Hengist would prove to be a master beyond compare of deceit and treachery. Hengist also has had a beautiful daughter name Rowena who Vortigern would become obsessed with and marry. All the time across the sea in Armorica, Aurelius was preparing his revenge.
Llyn Cowlyd is a long and narrow lake almost two miles long and about a third of a mile wide situated in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. It is the deepest lake in northern Wales and has given soundings of 229 feet. Today it is used as a reservoir and its depths have been raised twice from its natural depth and its natural depth was believed to be about 184 feet. Today, it has a bleak, treeless appearance though according to the Red Book of Hergest, written around 1382 from oral tradition it was once forested. According to legend and tradition there were three mythical beasts associated with it; the water horse, the water bull and the Owl of Cowlyd. This work will briefly discuss the myths associated with each of them.
The Legendary Ceffyl Dŵr, the Water Horse
Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain]
According to ancient tradition Llyn Cowlyd is the home of a legendary Ceffyl Dŵr or water horse, which are featured in many legends and folktales. They are said to have been shape-shifters that could also fly and despite their solid appearance could evaporate quickly into a fine mist. Although there were many alleged sightings of water horses during the 18th century no records were made until the 19th century.
According to tradition the water horse has fiery eyes and it is dangerous for humans to look into them. It is said that when a water horse is close a dark and forbidding feeling is experienced and those who work near its known haunts will quickly make themselves scarce. Sabine Baring-Gould in 1903 gave the following warning for anyone who should encounter a water horse,
“Should he see a horse, however quiet and staid, browsing near, let him not venture to mount it, although the beast seems to invite the weary traveller through the heather to take a seat on its back. No sooner is he in his seat than all its want of spirit is at an end. It flies away with its rider towards the lake, plunges in, and will never be seen again. It is the Ceffyl y Dwfr, the Water-horse, a spirit that lives in the depths, with a special taste for human flesh, which it will munch below when it has its victim at the bottom of the blue water.” (1)
The water horse of Llyn Cowlyd was believed to be an evil entity that only appeared at night assuming the shape of a horse and trying to entice unwary people to try and ride it. Once a rider was mounted it would fly into the clouds, perhaps over the mountains or over water and then suddenly dissipate into fine mist leaving the rider to fall to their death. It was said that members of the clergy alone could safely ride the water horse as long as they did not speak a word. Although Llyn Cowlyd had its own water horse another was said to haunt Llyn Crafnant.
Sometimes in Wales, the water horse is associated with the sea and is said to be the bringer of storms. They are believed to change their appearance before and after the storm. Before the storm they would be seen stamping around in the waves their coats a dapple grey or white. After the storm they changed their coats into a chestnut or piebald coloring and were seen trotting along the shore. During long stormy periods their coats became the colour of sea foam.
The Water Bull of Llyn Cowlyd
by George W. Hobbs [Public domain]
Llyn Cowlyd is also the home of another mythical beast called a water bull, which is also found in Scotland. Water bulls are usually seen as being nocturnal and make moorland lakes their homes and also have amphibious and have shape shifting abilities. Water bulls can be dangerous and alarming and are sometimes seen with fiery horns and hoofs with flame spouting from their nostrils. According to tradition, solitary walkers near the lakeside have been known to have been dragged into the water to their deaths.
The Owl of Cowlyd
artist – Miller [Public domain]
The Mabinogion the tale of Culhwch and Olwen mentionsthe Owl of Cowlyd as one of the oldest animals in the world that lived in the cwm, or valley of Cowlyd. Culhwch the protagonist of the story, has to find him in order to complete a series of near impossible tasks as ordained by Ysbaddaden the giant, before he will grant permission for him to marry his beautiful daughter, Olwen. Culhwch recruits the aid of King Arthur who is his cousin. Arthur provides Culhwch with companions to help him on his quest and the adventures begin.
One of the tasks he was set by Ysbaddaden was to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron whose whereabouts were unknown. Mabon was essential to the success of the quest of Culhwch. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar. the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth was the hunting dog named Drudwyn and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place and no one knew where.
It was believed only the oldest and wisest animals in the world may possess the knowledge of the whereabouts of Mabon therefore these were sought out. The questers came to the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led them to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cowlyd, living in the valley surrounding the lake. The owl told them,
“If I knew I would tell you. When first I came hither, the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men came and rooted it up. And there grew there a second wood; and this wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps? Yet all this time, even until to-day, I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, I will be the guide of Arthur’s embassy until you come to the place where is the oldest animal in this world, and the one that has travelled most.” (2)
The Owl of Cowlyd led them to the Eagle of Gwern Abw, who led them to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw who revealed that Modron was being held prisoner and showed them the whereabouts of his prison.
Lesson For The Future
Llyn Cowlyd is associated with some very strange mythical beasts although by its appearances today you would not think it possible but the lake and its valley have not always been as they are now. If we look closely at what the owl says we will see it has changed from a wooded vale into the bleak and treeless place we see today through human activity. Indeed, the lake itself has been altered by humans to serve the needs of humans and we see how humanity changes the landscape and environment for its own needs perhaps providing a lesson for the future, or a warning.