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.
The Vita Merlini, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century, tells the story of Merlin after the Battle of Camlann where he ruled over South Wales, had a wife named Guendoloena and a sister named Ganieda. Unlike many Arthurian stories, instead of glorifying war, it tells of the horrifying effect of war trauma on the individual and their families even one as famous and powerful as Merlin. The work was originally written in Latin and presented here is a retelling of the story from a translation by John Jay Parry (1).
After the Battle of Camlann, Arthur had been taken to Avalon and Britain split into many small kingdoms that fought among themselves. Merlin ruled over the South Welsh giving laws to the people and foretelling the future. When Peredur of North Wales quarreled with Gwenddoleu, the King of Scotland, Merlin and King Rhydderch of Cumbria joined him against the Scots resulting in a savage battle. Alongside Merlin were three brave brothers who had fought beside him in many ferocious conflicts. They stormed through the enemy lines driving the foe back but eventually were overwhelmed by sheer numbers and slain. Seeing his brave brothers-in-arms fall Merlin cried,
“Where can I now find such brother-in-arms who
have stood with me and fought the vicious foe?”
Seeing blood and death all around he wept and lamented for
all the dead and dying but the fighting continued unabated.
The Britons rallied their troops and drove hard against the
Scots forcing them to flee for their lives.
Seeing victory, Merlin called Peredur and Rhydderch to him telling them
to bury the dead with honour, but then grief took him and he began to wail and
cry, mourning the death of his comrades and so many brave warriors.
Madness in the Woods
Peredur and Rhydderch could not console him so great was his
distress so they followed his instructions leaving him alone in his
anguish. As his cries rent the air his
mind was taken by a fury and he fled into the woods where he found joy and
peace in the quiet of the trees and hidden glades. Naked, he hunted animals and
harvested the nuts, fruit, and roots surviving only from the gifts of the woods.
He watched the animals and birds and learned of their ways and studied the
trees and the plants and the natural world about him.
Winter came and food and shelter became hard to find and he
struggled to survive. He often talked
out loud to himself about the problems he faced. One day, while he was hidden among the trees
and thickets, a traveller heard him and stopped to listen to what was being
said. To the surprise of the traveller
when he approached, the wild man fled through the undergrowth faster than any
Ganieda Seeks her Brother
After Merlin had fled to the woods, Queen Ganeida, Merlin’s sister and the wife of King Rhydderch, was greatly worried for his well being. She sent searchers to the woods to look for him in the hope of bringing him back. The traveler had resumed his journey and meeting one these told of his strange encounter with a wild man and gave him directions to the scene of the incident. The searcher thanked him and continued to the scene but Merlin had gone. He searched all the wooded valleys and hidden glades and scoured the mountains searching places where few had ever trod.
At last, he came across a fountain hidden by hazel thickets
and by the gushing water, naked and unkempt, sat the wild man of the woods, who
sat talking to himself. Not wanting to alarm him the searcher hid behind a
bush. He was a good singer and played
the lyre. Gently and softly he played the strings and sang softly of the
mourning of Guendoloena for Merlin, her beloved husband and of the worry of Ganieda,
for her brother.
The music and singing soothed Merlin’s soul and he stood to
see where it came from. Seeing this, the singer slowly stood up still playing
his lyre and repeated the song. The music stirred in Merlin pleasant memories
of his wife and sister and was deeply moved by their love. He remembered who he
was and what he had been and set aside his madness. He asked the searcher to
take him to the court of his old friend King Rhydderch where they both lived.
At the Court of King Rhydderch
As Merlin walked through the city gates, Ganieda and
Guenedolena ran to meet him. They covered him in kisses and hugged him, making
him feel greatly loved and he showed his own love to them. Happily, they led him to the royal court where
King Rhydderch received him with great honour.
Merlin seeing the vast crowd of people present and unaccustomed to human
company, panicked and his madness returned. Desperately, he tried to escape to
the sanctuary of the woods far away from the roaring of voices.
Rhydderch refused to let his old friend go. He ordered him to be restrained and music
played upon the lyre to ease his distress and begged him to stay offering
expensive presents but Merlin told him he preferred the treasures of the
woods. Rhydderch worried about his
safety in the wild and ordered him to be chained and Merlin fell silent and
morose refusing to speak or smile to anyone.
One day, Ganieda came looking for her husband who moved to
embrace and kiss her affectionately.
Noticing a leaf caught in her hair he gently untangled it while lovingly
chatting with her. Merlin saw this,
smiled knowingly and laughed. This
surprised the King and he urged him to say what was funny. Merlin fell silent refusing to answer, but
Rhydderch persisted with his question promising him gifts. Merlin told him the freedom to return to the
woods was the only gift he wanted and if he granted that he would tell him why
he laughed. Knowing he had nothing to give that Merlin would value, Rhydderch
Therefore, Merlin said, “I
laughed when I saw the affection you showed the Queen when you removed the leaf
from her hair, when earlier, she lay under a bush with her lover, which is how
the leaf got there.”
Shocked, Rhydderch looked angrily at his wife. Ganieda tried to conceal her shame by smiling and saying, “Take no notice of a raving madman who cannot tell lies from truth. I will prove his madness!”
She called a young boy over saying, “Now dear brother, show us your powers of prophecy. Tell us how this boy will die!”
Merlin said, “My dear
sister, he shall die in manhood by falling from a cliff.”
Ganieda then told the boy to go and get his long hair cut
short and put on different clothing.
When he returned thus disguised she made him stand before Merlin and
said, “And now dear brother, tell the
King what death you foresee for this boy!”
Merlin replied, “This boy will grow up to meet death in a
tree while his mind has shut out all reason.”
Ganieda turned to her husband and said, “This proves my innocence and my brother’s madness for the same boy
cannot surely have two deaths. I will prove the point further! “
Taking the boy aside she told him to go and put on girl’s
clothing and come back to her dressed in that way. When he returned she presented him to Merlin
saying, “Now, dear brother, tell us how
this girl shall die!”
Merlin replied, “Girl,
or not, death will be in a river!”
Rhydderch laughed at the three different deaths predicted
for the same boy and was sorry he had doubted his wife. Ganieda was greatly relieved, but deep inside
she wept for her brother. Rhydderch
kissed and embraced his wife but inside he grieved for his old friend and
brother-in-arms remembering his greatness.
Return to the Woods
Merlin went down to the city gates but Ganieda appeared and
spreading her arms before him entreated him to stay. He thrust her aside and strode on. Her
servants tried to stop him but he simply glared down on them as if they were
naught but impertinent little imps leaving them shuddering.
Guendoloena came running through the streets and pushing all
aside threw herself before him. She
wailed and wept, begging on her knees for him to stay, that they may live as
man and wife again. Merlin could not
look upon her but Ganeida said, “Have
pity on your wife who loves you and will die for you. Would you have her live out the rest of her
life in sorrowful longing for her husband?
Say the word and she will follow you to the forest and live as you
live. Say the word brother!”
Merlin bowed his head for a moment as if softening but then the madness in him spoke, “I will be free of her, free of you, free of love and its binding chains, therefore it is right that she be allowed her chance of happiness and marry a man of her own choosing, but beware should that man ever come near! On her wedding day, I will come to her and give her my gifts.” His sister and wife watched his departure sorrowfully but marvelled how he could have known about the secret affair of the queen and both were convinced the three different deaths of the boy he had predicted proved his
The boy grew into a young man and one day set off with
friends hunting in the forest. The dogs roused a stag chasing it for many miles
and he alone managed to keep up with the chase.
With the dogs hard on its heels the stag sought refuge in a high and
rocky place. In his excitement, the
young man became oblivious to the dangers and urged his horse forward. Coming suddenly to a high ledge looking down
upon a river, his horse suddenly stopped throwing him over its head and over
the cliff. As he fell his foot caught in
the branch of a tree that overhung the river leaving his body suspended in the
air while his head was submerged in the water drowning him and fulfilling
Guendoloena’s Wedding Gifts
Returning to the woods Merlin lived as the wild beasts
lived. Through the winter he suffered
greatly from the cold, damp and the biting wind but preferred this to the wars
and violence of corrupt kings, rejoicing in the absence of human society.
Years passed and one cold night when the stars were clear
and bright the moon threw down its light to fall upon a high mountain. Silhouetted against the magnificence of the
heavenly vault a lone madman stood staring up at the sky studying the movements
of the heavenly bodies. He saw the
intrigue, murder, the death of kings and all the great events of Britain. From Venus came a double ray of light that
was cut in two. Knowing this told of
Guendoloena’s wedding he set off to take her presents as he had promised.
He came across a stag and by talking soothing words it
allowed him to climb upon its back and he rode through the woods with its does
following in a long line. Arriving at the place of the wedding he made the
beasts stand patiently and obediently while he called out, “Guendoloena! Guendoloena! Guendoloena! I have brought your wedding
presents as I promised!”
Laughing at the sight of him upon the stag with the does in obedient line, she came running, marveling how he managed such a feat.
From a high window, the bridegroom looked down at the scene
and seeing Merlin riding the stag laughed.
Hearing him, Merlin looked up and realizing who he was flew into a
rage. Grasping the antlers of the stag
he wrenched them from their sockets and hurled them at the laughing
bridegroom. The antlers struck with
great force embedding in his skull, killing him outright.
Prophecies of Death
Merlin fled upon the stag chased by servants. The stag outran them until it reached a river which it leaped over, but Merlin slipped from its back into the water. He was caught and taken to Ganieda at the royal court where he sat silent and morose refusing food and drink causing his sister great grief and worry. Rhydderch ordered food be placed before him in the hope of tempting him but to no avail, so he ordered that Merlin should be taken for a walk around the marketplace in the hope seeing people and all the different goods and novelties might cheer him.
In the marketplace, Merlin saw a man of ragged appearance
sitting before a door begging for money to buy new clothes. Merlin stood looking at him, laughed and
walked on. Further on, he saw a man
purchasing a new pair of shoes while also buying patches of leather. Merlin stood and laughed and people
stared. Seeing them stare he refused to
go on and the servants took him back to the palace and reported to the King. Rhydderch, curious to know why Merlin had
laughed offered to free him if he told him.
Merlin told him he had seen a man begging for coins to buy
new clothes when he was sitting on a secret hoard of money. He was laughing at
his audacity and the gullibility of people who gave to him and said, “Dig below where he sits and you will find
Next, he had seen a man buying new shoes and leather to
patch them with when they became worn.
He had laughed at the irony and futility of the act as he was destined
to die by drowning telling him, “He is
now lifeless on the river shore.”
Rhydderch sent servants to search the river banks but went
himself to where the ragged man sat and digging up the ground below him found
his treasure. His servants returned from
searching the river and reported they had found the body of the man who brought
Merlin was freed and made his way the gates where his sister
caught up with him. She still loved him and begged him to at least see out the
winter in comfort with her, but he told her,
“Dear sister, why do
you fight to keep me? Winter will be
hard but not as hard as living among the savagery of people, therefore let me
be. But, if you will then build me a
lodge in the remoteness of the woods where I may watch the movement of the
stars and predict the fate of our people. You can visit me and bring me food
and drink and keep me company.”
He left and Ganieda built a lodge for him and would bring
food and drink and Merlin thanked her for that and for her company. One day he told her she needed to return
quickly to court as her husband was dying, but told her to come back after the
burial with Taliesin who had recently arrived after visiting Gildas in Brittany.
Ganieda returned to court to find to her grief that Merlin
had spoken truly. After her husband’s
funeral, she returned with Taliesin to Merlin’s lodge where she decided to live
out her days. Merlin and Taliesin talked
of many things. Merlin told him how they
had taken the grievously wounded King Arthur to the Isle of Avalon after the
battle of Camlann, leaving him in the care of Morgan le Fay. He told him the story of the Kings of the
Britons from Vortigern to Arthur and then foretold a long period of Saxon
domination which would eventually lead to a return to British rule under
Cadwalader after prolonged and bloody conflict.
The Healing Fountain
As he spoke one of his servants came rushing in excitedly announcing that a new fountain had gushed forth at the foot of the mountain. Merlin and Taliesin followed the servant to see the wonder. Both marveled that it should have appeared so suddenly and sat down watching it flow. Feeling thirsty, Merlin cupped his hands and drank from the fountain and then bathed his brow. As its pure water coursed through his body his madness left him and his reason returned.
Many princes and chieftains came to see the place where the
wonderful waters had cured Merlin of his madness. Seeing him whole and sane again they asked
him to rule and guide them with his wisdom and knowledge. Merlin refused and told them he now preferred
his life in the woods to one in a royal court.
Just as he finished speaking the air was rent by wild howls
and cries and a madman rushed out of the woods towards them. Seeing them he stopped suddenly and then ran
around looking to escape. He was quickly
captured and brought before Merlin, who groaned for he knew the man and his
heart went out to him understanding what he endured and said, “His name is Maeldinus. He was my friend many years ago when he was a
strong and noble knight. Having such friends I thought myself fortunate.”
He told how they had both been among a hunting party and
finding a spring of fresh water they all sat down to rest and quench their
thirst. One of their party found a pile
of apples and Merlin shared them out.
Although there was none left for him he was happy for them to enjoy the
fruits. His friends all declared they were the finest apples they had ever
tasted but their pleasure did not last long.
Soon they were howling wildly and running madly through the woods to
become lost in the forest and that was the last time he had seen them and
He discovered the poison apples were placed there by a woman who had loved him but who he had spurned. She had placed the apples for him to find intending revenge, but luckily he had not eaten one and was spared. Finishing his story, he ordered his servants to make the man drink from the fountain. They obeyed and the wildness fled from his eyes and intelligence and reason shone forth and he recognized Merlin and remembered who he was. Merlin invited him to stay and serve him and Maeldinus was pleased to accept. So Merlin now had his sister Ganieda and Maeldinus as companions and then Talisien spoke and said that he too would remain with him in the lodge.
Ganieda the Prophetess
After the death of her husband, Ganieda lived with her brother and his friends enjoying the closeness of nature and the companionship. Sometimes she became of elevated spirit and would foretell events to come to her companions concerning the destiny of the Britons. One day when the spirit came upon her she made a long prophecy concerning the wellbeing of Britain causing her companions to marvel and wonder. Merlin spoke approvingly and with love telling her that the spirit that spoke to him had fallen silent and the task of foretelling the future was now given to her.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
At this point, Geoffrey brings Vita Merlini to an end
“I have brought this
song to an end. Therefore, ye Britons,
give a wreath to Geoffrey of Monmouth.
He is indeed yours for once he sang of your battles and those of your
chiefs, and he wrote a book called “The Deeds of the Britons” which are
celebrated throughout the world. “(2)
Although the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth are no longer considered
as accurate reference books his influence on British culture cannot be denied
and as cultural products of his time they are priceless and certainly he earns
at least a bouquet.
Offering a Prayer
Instead of a tale of heroism and glory he gave us a very tragic human story concerning one of the most powerful, important and enigmatic characters of Arthurian tradition. It showed the love and dedication of family and friends supporting a sufferer of trauma through dark times. Therefore, perhaps we can offer our own thoughts and prayers to our own divinities to comfort and heal those afflicted by inner anguish, torment or war trauma and offer support where ever we can.
Eerie is the Otherworld and a strange tale to tell. In Welsh folklore and tales those who encounter the dwellers from that place – willing, or otherwise – often do not come out of it too well. This is a retelling of one such story, Einion and the Lady of the Greenwood, from, The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas and has a happier ending than similar tales of such encounters.
Einion and the Lady of the Greenwood
It begins one fine summer day in the green woods of Trefeiler where Einion, the son of Gwalchmai, was out walking. To his surprise he met a lady alone in the woods. She was slim, graceful and her complexion was very fair and she was very beautiful to behold. Looking upon her Einion was interested in who she was and what she was doing out alone in the woods. He put his hand up in a friendly greeting and she readily waved back. From her action and demeanor he concluded she would not mind talking to him.
Therefore, he approached her in a calm and friendly manner and she walked towards him, indicating she was willing to speak to him. As he drew near he cast a glance downwards and was surprised to see that instead of feet she walked on two hooves. Quietly and calmly she approached him and whispered, “Thou wilt follow me wherever I go and wilt do as I bid thee from now until the end.”
Einion stopped dead but it was too late she had him under her spell. He promised he was her slave and would willingly go to the ends of the earth at her bidding. All he asked was that he be allowed to say goodbye to his wife. So sure was she of her power over him the Lady of the Greenwood agreed but said, “You may, but I shall remain with you all the time invisible to all others but you.”
Einion, accompanied by the Lady, went back home to his wife Angharad to say goodbye. They had been very happily married for many years and Einion loved her greatly. Although over the years both had aged he always saw her in his mind as the fair, young maiden he had married in his youth. Indeed, he truly loved her. However, when he got home she appeared before him through the spell of the Lady of the Greenwood to be an old hag. Nevertheless, he could still see the young maiden in her eyes but could not break the bond of the spell although he tried. Sadly he told her, “Love of my life, I fear it is necessary for me to leave you and our home. I do not know how long I shall be or when I will come back, but I have to go.”
The couple wept in each others arms and together broke a gold ring in two. Einion gave Angharad one half and she gave him the other. At last all their goodbyes were said and Einion left with the Lady of the Greenwood. Eerie is the Otherworld and a strange, strange tale to tell and Einion was taken by the Lady to her homeland where nothing is what it seems. The spell she had placed upon him was strong. He could see nothing of any place or person in an earthly form finding himself in a misty, distorted, shifting unfathomable landscape. The only thing that did not change its appearance or form was the half of the gold ring given to him by his beloved Angharad.
Time was not like that on earth and he had no idea of how long he lived in that queer and twisted place, but his grief and sorrow to him seemed eternal. Bound by the Lady’s spell he was at her beck and call for her leisure and her pleasure. All he had that gave him any security was the half of the gold ring he carried that Angharad had given him. Fearing that one day it should be lost or discovered he decided he would hide it behind his eyelid as the safest place he could think of at the time.
As he was doing this he became aware that a man dressed all in white was riding towards him on a pure white horse. In his hand he carried a white staff. The rider approached and and asked him what he was doing. Einion answered truthfully and with longing telling him about the ring and how he and his wife had given each other half. He explained he was placing his half behind his eyelid to keep it safe where he could always see it and cherish the memory of his beloved wife. The rider said, “If that is so you must be willing to endure much pain and torment to keep her memory alive!”
“That I am!” replied Einion.
“Do you desire to see her?” asked the rider.
“That I do, above all other things and pleasures that exist!”
“If that is so, get behind me on this horse,” replied the rider. Einion hesitated. Looking around he could not see anything of the Lady but noticed hoof tracks of huge size striding off northwards. Therefore, he accepted the invitation.
“What kind of enchantment holds thee?” asked the rider.
Einion told the rider everything that had happened with the Lady of the Greenwood and himself as they rode. He listened intently to everything and then said, “Take thee, this white staff in your hand and make a wish for whatever is your greatest desire.”
Einion was still under the spell of the Lady of the Greenwood and he wished to know where she was. To his shock and horror the world about him transformed into a hideously grotesque world of madness. The Lady appeared before him as he had never seen her before like some towering demonic beast, repulsive and terrifying and she pointed at him. He cried out in fear and the rider hearing this threw his white cloak over him and she was gone. No sooner than she had disappeared when they came to the hill of Trefilir where Einion once had his home. There were people about but he did not know them or they him.
After Einion had left home Angharad had spent the years in lonely grief and sorrow pining for her absent husband. The Lady of the Greenwood becoming aware of Einion’s departure had traveled back to his home on the hill so fast she arrived well before him. She transformed herself into a most noble and handsome looking nobleman and placed a letter in the hand of his grieving wife. The letter stated that Einion had died nine years previously in Norway.
The Lady now transformed as the nobleman, cast a spell upon Angharad so that she was bewitched by fair words of love and affection that were poured upon her. He proposed marriage and told her she would become a lady of high standing, rich and prosperous. Completely under the spell Angharad accepted a date set for their marriage. A great wedding feast was prepared and an elegant wedding dress made. Bards and musicians appeared and guests arrived for the ceremony there in her own hall in her own house.
It so happened that Einion’s harp still rested in one corner of the hall. It was very beautiful and it attracted the eye of the bridegroom who wanted to hear it play. Among the guests there were the best harp players in Wales and one by one they attempted to tune it. One by one they failed. As the last gave up Einion entered the house carrying the white staff of the white rider. Immediately another spell was placed upon Angharad and now Einion appeared to her as a bent and enfeebled old man, grey-haired and clad in rags.
Seeing that all the minstrels had failed to tune it he took it up and quickly placed it into tune. He then proceeded to play a melody he had composed just for her. Angharad had loved that tune which he had often played to her before he left. Angharad recognized the tune and marveled at how he should know it.
He told her, “I know it because I wrote it especially for my true love and I often would sing it to her. My name is Einion, the son of Gwalchmai and I am your husband. See here is the half of the gold ring that you gave me when I left.”
He put it in her hand but the enchantment upon her was strong and she said, “I cannot quite remember.“
Seeing she was bewitched he placed the white staff in her hand. Immediately, the bridegroom transformed into a hideous, raging beast and seeing this Angharad fainted in fear and shock. When she came round there was no monster just Einion, the harp and the banquet table laden with food. Great was there joy at their reunion and with the wonderful aromas coming from the banquet table they decided to celebrate by sitting down to eat much relieved at the breaking of the enchantment. Einion and Angharad spent many long years together and he was always careful of who he approached when out alone in the woods after that.
The encounter of Einion with the Lady of the Greenwood brought him grief, sorrow and in the end great happiness. We cannot help but wonder if he had not had that encounter would be have ever reached such happiness. Indeed, eerie, eerie, is the Otherworld and a strange tale to tell. This time in the encounter with the Otherworld there was a happy ending but can we ever know where a story will take us?
Historically, Elen of the Hosts was a real woman who lived in the 4th century, but in British legend and Welsh and Celtic mythology, may go back even further. She appears to have been a woman of many roles that have grown and evolved over the centuries to the present day. Today, Elen is best known for her part as the subject of the affections of the emperor of Rome in strange tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, from the Mabinogion. The story depicts her as a mysterious woman of power who knows how to gets what she wants and appears linked to the giving and taking of sovereignty a very powerful attribute. Presented here is a discussion about who Elen was, and how she has changed and evolved over the centuries, hopefully encouraging the reader to perhaps research and create their own ideas for themselves.
The Dream of Macsen Wledig
Her story begins one day when the emperor of Rome, Macsen Wledig, was out hunting. Feeling tired in the midday sun, he decided to take a nap. As he slept, he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors, “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?”. Although he did not know it at the time, the woman in the dream was named Elen, and it is clear from the dream that she was someone very special, but who was she?
Who was Elen?
Although very little for certain is known today about her, it can be seen from the dream that Elen was not an ordinary woman. Today she is known by many names. She is Elen Luyddog in Welsh or in English, Elen of the Hosts, and also known as Elen of the Ways, Elen of the Roads and Elen Belipotent in reference to her military leadership skills. She also is known as Saint Elen or Helen of Caernarfon, sometimes being named as Helen rather than Elen, and there are still more names. Elen was believed to be the daughter of Eudav, or Eudaf Hen, a Romano-British ruler of the 4th century who became the wife of Macsen Wledig, also known as Magnus Maximus, a Western Roman Emperor from (383-388AD). She was the mother of five children including a son named Constantine who was also known as Cystennin, or Custennin. She introduced into Britain from Gaul a form of Celtic monasticism and founded a number of churches. There are also many holy wells and springs named after her and there still exist roads were named after her such as Sarn Elen.
She was also a warrior queen. According to David Hughes in his book, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, after Macsen was defeated and executed, Elen reigned over the Britons. She led the defence of the country against invading Picts, Irish and Saxons. After a long, hard fight she pushed the invaders out, earning the name Elen Luyddog, or Elen of the Hosts and Elen Belipotent meaning “mighty in war”. In the Welsh Triads, Elen of the Hosts and Macsen Wledig, or in some versions Cynan her brother, lead an army to Llychlyn, which some scholars such as Rachel Bromich see as a corruption of Llydaw, or Armorica which does fit better with what is known.
There is a line of thought that sees characters in the Mabinogion as Christianised versions of far older gods. Some people also see her as being a conflation of several women and ultimately derived from an ancient Celtic goddess of sovereignty. The theme of sovereignty in one form or another does appear in the dream and she appears as the catalyst that can make it happen, or take it away.
From the dream, we learn that she was in the company of her father, Eudav, who was the son of Caradawc and is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons, so she was a lady of considerable importance. This is evidenced by the surroundings in the dream, which matched exactly those she was in when the messengers of Macsen find her. Her response to the messengers is not one from a woman who sees herself as being subordinate to men or emperors, or anyone else no matter who they may be. When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she revealed part of her true power by flatly refusing. Instead she told them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeyed …
Joshua Johnson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
William Elliot Griffis in his book Welsh Fairy Tales, tells a strange story of a widow who had been robbed by a notorious gang of thieves and cutthroats known as the Red Bandits of Montgomery. This is also the title of the story and presented here is a retelling of that tale.
The Red Bandits of Montgomery
There was once an infamous bunch of thieves, robbers and cutthroats known as the Red Bandits of Montgomery who were notorious for climbing down the chimneys of houses and robbing the homeowner. In an attempt to counter this old scythe blades were installed in the chimneys.
The Red Bandits had robbed and killed many people but one of their most heinous acts of lawlessness came when they brutally murdered a man who left behind a widow and a baby boy. For the widow deprived of her husband and the baby boy of his father, the future was not very rosy, in fact it was bleak. The widow had a good cow that provided a surplus of milk which she sold and she worked hard to make a living for her and her son. Money was always short but she always managed to pay the rent money on time which was fortunate because in those days landlords would throw their tenants out leaving them homeless if they could not pay.
Theft in the Night
When he had been alive her husband had provided a good lock on the cowshed to keep the cow from being stolen and had installed scythe blades in the chimney as a deterrent to the Red Bandits, so the widow thought she would be safe.
However, the Red Bandits, not content with murdering her husband and depriving the boy of his father, knew she had a good cow and knew it provide enough milk to sell to pay the rent. They also knew that without her husband she was vulnerable and an easy victim and in their evil greed they decided they would rob the widow of it. Therefore, their foremost expert in climbing down chimneys was selected to enter the house through the chimney, steal the rent money and the key to the lock on the cowshed and run off with the cow in the night.
When the widow awoke she found the rent money gone and dashing out to the cowshed found the cow had gone. Devastated by the double loss she ran back to the kitchen and laying sobbing over the table not knowing how she an her son would survive. As she was weeping for the hardness of the world she heard a knock on the door.
An Unexpected Visitor
Fighting back tears she called, “Why don’t you just come in, everyone else does!” not really caring anymore. Pushing the door open there entered a very old woman with a very kind face. She was dressed in the traditional way of Welsh women with the tall headdress but her clothes were in various shades of green. Her dress had green ruffles and in her right hand she carried a staff and under he cloak she carried a bag.
“Tell me please, why it is you weep?” she asked the widow.
So the widow not knowing what else to do told her how her rent money had been burgled and her cow stolen and that she didn’t know how she was going to feed her baby son, or pay the rent money.
The old woman smiled kindly upon her and opening her bag began tipping out gold coins upon the table and said, “Well now, see here, there is more than enough gold to pay your rent and purchase another good cow!” as the gold formed a heap upon the table. “and it is all yours if you will give me what I ask and at the same time relieve yourself of a huge worry and burden,” and the old woman glanced across the room at the sleeping babe in its cradle.
The widow’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw the big pile of glittering gold coins laying on her kitchen table. She had never seen such huge amount of gold before. She wondered and then nervously glanced across the room at her sleeping son, but said nothing. Then she laughed at the half formed thought. Looking around her kitchen she wondered what she had that the old woman valued so much. Laughing at the poverty she saw around her she said, “Hah! And what do I have of such value that you could possibly want? Tell me and you shall have it!” and then her laughter ceased and she was afraid.
The old lady looked kindly upon her and said, “I can help you. I can give you gold, more than enough to pay your rent, enough to buy a new cow – a herd of cows. I can make you you rich and takes away all of your worries … and your burden.”
“What do you want?” asked the widow fearfully.
“I want to help you. I want to make you rich. I came to take your baby back with me,” said the old woman.
Aghast, the widow realized that the old woman was from the Otherworld and had come for her baby. She begged her frantically not to take her son telling her to take everything else but not her baby. The old woman said, “Take the gold and make yourself rich. Give me the child and relieve yourself of your burden.”
“Surely there is something else I can give, something else I can do for the gold?” begged the widow.
The old woman looked on her kindly and said, “There are two thing that I have to tell you that that may help you decide. The first is that by the laws of my world I cannot take your boy until three days have passed. Then I will return with the gold and you shall keep that and I shall take the boy back to my world with me.”
“That is but one,” said the widow, “tell me the other.”
“The second condition is this. If you can guess my name you win twofold; you keep both the gold and and your baby son.”
Having said that the old woman scooped all of the gold into her bag and walked out the door saying, “I will return in three days for your answer,” and was gone.The widow without her cow and her rent money feared being turned out of her house and spent the night fretting and worrying, not sleeping wink.
After a restless night the widow decided she would visit her relatives who lived several miles away in another village to see if they could help. She asked her neighbor to look after her son while she made the journey on foot to see them. Although they were glad to see her and sorry about the loss of her rent and cow they were so poor they could offer no more than emotional support which the widow needed and understood. Feeling low in spirits she trudged home passing through a wood along the way. In the middle of the wood was a small grassy glade situated just a little way off the path. As the she came near the glade to her surprise she heard someone singing.
Carefully and quietly so as not to disturb them she crept through the trees to the glade to see who it was. Skipping lightly round and round the center of the glade was one of the Otherfolk happily dancing in a circle and singing,
“Ha ha! What a hoot! What’s my name? Silly Doot!”
Round and round the glade she tripped while the widow hid behind a bush listening. Carefully and quietly she left the glade and made her way home as quickly as she could thinking carefully about what she had seen and heard.
On returning home she collected her baby boy from her neighbor, thanking them and set about her daily tasks working as hard as ever. That night she went to bed and slept soundly despite knowing the old woman would return for her baby son in the morning.
The next morning she heard a rap at the door. She opened it and in walked the old woman in green carrying her bag. Wasting no time she sat down at the table and tipped her bag up letting a pile of gold coins fall upon the table, saying, “The time has come. Give me the boy and I will give you the gold, if you want me to help you, or if you guess my name correctly you get to keep both. Are you up for this? Are you ready?”
The widow thought for a moment and then said, “How many guesses can I have and how long have I got?”
“You are allowed as many guesses as you choose and you have all the time there is,” replied the old woman, smiling confidently.
The widow tried name after name, after name, but each time the old woman said, “No!”
The old woman’s eyes began to gleam and she moved her chair nearer the cradle. The widow thought as hard as she could and guessed again and again but each time she was wrong. At last nearing defeat she fell quiet in despair and her mind went back to the previous day to the glade in the wood and the Otherfolk dancing and singing,
“Ha! Ha! What a hoot, what’s my name? Silly Doot!”
“Silly Droot!” cried the widow,
“Your name is Silly Doot!”
The old green woman turned red and then purple with rage, but simultaneously the door flew wide open and a strong gust of wind blew her clean up the chimney and she was gone leaving all of the gold in a big pile upon the table. Whether she was cut to pieces by the scythes in the chimney we do not know but she never came back.
Justice for the Red Bandits
So the widow kept her baby and also the gold. She spent wisely and prudently, buying two good cows, brought a new table and chairs and hid the rest of the coins under the hearth stone. When her baby grew up she gave him a good education and he became one of the judges who hunted down and brought the Red Bandits to justice.