Elen of the Hosts: Goddess of Sovereignty, King Maker, Warrior Queen of the Britons

This article was first published #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: Elen of the Hosts – Saint, Warrior Queen, Goddess of Sovereignty on 21/06/2018 by zteve t evans

Elen of the Dream

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.

Elen’s Power

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 …

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Welsh Folklore: The Widow, the Red Bandits of Montgomery and Silly Doot

woman_and_baby_wearing_green_gloves_joshua_johnson

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 Bargain

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.

Silly Doot

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.

© 02/10/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 2nd, 2018 zteve t evans

Welsh Folktales: The Maiden of the Green Forest

In Wales there are many folktales and legends that tell how humans and people from the Otherworld sometimes fall in love and marry.  Very often it is a man who meets a woman from the other world and they fall in love. The woman or her father, often insists on a marriage contract being agreed by the bride’s groom that must be strictly followed. The groom agrees and the marriage takes place and they live for a time in happiness and then something happens that destroys or breaks the contract and destroys their happy life. There are many variations of this theme and presented here is a retelling  of a Welsh tale taken from Welsh Fairy Tales by William Elliot Griffis.

Prince Benlli

It is said that on the rare occasions when women of the Otherworld consent to marriage with a mortal they will only do so if the prospective husband makes a contract with them that must not be broken and must be strictly adhered to.  This story tells how a prince of Powys named Benlli found this out to his own cost. He had a fanciful notion in his head that to woo a woman all he had to do was say, “Come and be my bride,”  and they would instantly follow him saying “Thank you for asking, of course I will be your bride.” and the two would stroll off to church for the wedding.  At least this in his simplicity was what he thought,

The Maiden from the Green Forest

It so happened that sometime, somehow,  in the past he had been successful with this style of wooing.  He was married to a woman who had once been fair and beautiful but whose beauty and youth had quickly fled after marriage leaving her grey haired and wrinkled. It was probably the thought of a lifetime with her conceited husband that caused this, but Benlli now wanted a young pretty wife with rosy cheeks and long flowing golden hair and hoped to find one to satisfy his vanity.

One day he went hunting in the Green Forest and while his dogs were flushing out a wild boar he was surprised to see a beautiful woman with long golden flowing hair ride out of a cave on a milk-white horse,  She was the loveliest woman he had ever seen and he fell in love with her there and then, but she was gone before he could react. The next day he rode to the same cave in the forest and waited hoping to see her again.  Sure enough, the same beautiful woman came galloping out of the cave into the forest and in an instant had passed him by and was gone.

On the third day Prince Benlli again rode to the cave in the forest and once again the beautiful woman came galloping out on a milk-white steed.  This time he spurred his horse forwards forcing her to stop and as was his style simply told her her to follow him to his palace and be his wife.

The Marriage Contract

The beautiful woman looked at him and said,

“I will will be your wife if you promise to fulfill these three conditions.  First, your present wife must go. Second, you must agree that one night in every seven nights on Fridays I shall be free to leave you and you will not follow me.  Thirdly, you will not ask where I am going, or what I do and you will not spy on me. You must swear to me that you will uphold these conditions and if you keep them my beauty will remain unblemished.  If you break your word the waters shall rise and the pike and the perch shall play between the the bulrushes and the long waving, water reeds shall grow in your hall. Do you agree?”

Without further delay, Benlli, agreed to these conditions and a solemn contract was made between the two and the Maid of the Green Forest became his wife.

As mentioned earlier, Benlli was already married and yet he had just wed the Maid and promised her that his first wife would go so how was he going to manage this situation?  Curiously, when the two arrived at his palace she had gone and never once returned, so that saved him a task.

Marriage

In the days that followed Benlii was very happy with his new wife who, everyday grew prettier and prettier.  They would spend days together chatting in the palace, or they would go horse riding in the Green Forest, or sometimes hunted deer. Indeed, the more her loveliness grew the happier he became. For a wedding present he gave her a ring that was set with a big and beautiful diamond and alone was worth a king’s ransom.  He gave her lavish jewelry of gold and silver and and a diadem studded with rubies and sapphires and loved his beautiful wife so much he would have given her anything. In those early days never once did he ever think of breaking his marriage contract.

However, time flies and in time all things change.  Three times three equals nine and after nine years with his wife disappearing every Friday night he began to grow curious as to what she was up to and where she went.  So much did he begin to dwell on the matter that it began to depress and worry him and became irritable and miserable in the company of others.  All of his servants and friends noticed the change in him but none dared to ask what the problem was.

Wyland the Monk

Then one night he had invited a very learned monk named Wyland to dinner and he had ordered the banqueting hall to be brightly decorated and that the best food and drink should be served.  He hired the best minstrel to provide the best music and entertainment.

Now, Wyland as well as being a monk, was also a man of magic and he knew and saw things that others could not see.  That night at dinner, despite all the finery, glamour and happy entertainment he could see Benlli was deeply unhappy and thoroughly miserable. He did not say anything to begin with but after the banquet was over he went home and decided he would call again in a few days time to see Prince Benlli and find out what was troubling him.  The next time he met Benlli, Wyland sat him down and said, “Tell me my friend, why are you so unhappy and miserable with life?”

Then Benlli related all to Wyland of how he had met and married the Maid of the Green Forest and of the three conditions of their wedding contract and said,

“Every Friday night, there am I with the owls hooting and the nightingales singing and my wife is absent from my bed until the sun rises.  I lay alone there wondering where she can be and what she is doing. Eventually, I fall asleep to wake in the morning finding her by my side.  I am overcome with curiosity and jealousy worrying about who she may be seeing and this is weighing down my soul. Even with all of my wealth, my luxurious palace and all its finery I am unhappier than any beggar in Wales or on the island of Britain!”

As Wyland listened to Benlli’s woes his quick mind realized there was a way he could make money from the prince’s woes and benefit his monastery at the same time.  All he had to do was to cure the troubles of Benlli’s soul and so he said,

“My friend, I have an idea that may help to ease your soul.  If you are but prepared to give the monks of White Minster one tenth of the flocks of sheep in your domain, one tenth of all the riches that flow into your treasury from the rents of the lands, and give the Maiden of the Green Forest to me, I can guarantee your soul will be free of all your troubles and at peace.  What do you say?

Benlli readily agreed and shook hands on the deal.

A Battle of Spells

On the next Friday night Wyland the Monk took his book of spells and went to the cave in the forest which he knew as being an entrance to the Otherworld.  There, he waited under the silvery moonlight. He had not been waiting too long when out of the cave on horseback there galloped a lady dressed in the finest clothes wearing a glittering crown upon her head.  He knew it was Benlli’s wife, the Maiden of the Green Forest and he stepped in front of her holding his book before him calling upon her to stop.  There then followed a battle of spells that saw lightning and fire light up the night as the two hurled spells and counter spells at each other.  Finally, summoning up the spirits of the air Weland told them of his plan to enrich the monastery and called upon them to assist and bind the Maiden of the Green Forest to his will saying,

“Spirits of the air, I call upon you to bind this maiden to me that she will always be at my side.  Bring her to me at the dawn of day to the crossroads before the town of Whiteminster and there I will marry her and she will be my own for all time!”

Waving his hands in the air and uttering special words he cast a spell that would prevent anyone from interfering with this and could not be broken.  Then he made his way to the crossroads to await the arrival of his bride-to-be at dawn. Arriving at the crossroads as the sun rose, to his disgust the first thing he saw was a hideous old hag who cackled and hissed and raised her hand pointing her bony finger at him. Set upon it was the big, beautiful diamond ring that Benlli had given to the lovely Maiden of the Forest when she had become his wife.

The Hag of the Green Forest

“Ha, ha, haaaa!  I hear my love approaching,  Come sweet lover and clasp me to thine bosom!” she shrieked through a mouthful of rotting teeth,

“Look at me, Wyland my love, look deep into my red and burning eyes and know that I am your betrothed.  This foul hag that stands before you was once the beautiful bride of Prince Benlli. When my beauty left me his love left with it but on the seventh night my magic brings back my beauty.  He has broken our wedding contract and I warned him, I said, ‘If you break your word the waters shall rise and the pike and the perch shall play between the the bulrushes and the long, waving, water reeds that shall grow in your hall.’   This promise is now fulfilled and both your spell and mine are complete. From you he has received the freeing of his soul and eternal peace, for he is dead. My promise caused the a rivers and springs to gush and rise into his halls which is now covered in water and perch and pike play among the bulrushes and reeds.   The clashing of our spells means they cannot be undone and no charm or counter spell will avail. Therefore, Wyland my love, come to me and claim me as your reward for we have both kept our promises. Come take me, I am yours!”

So it was that Prince Benlli broke his marriage contract and paid the price as the waters of the land rose drowning him in in own halls. As for  Wyland the Monk – man of God and magic – he reaped what he had sown for himself in the tender loving arms of the Maiden of the Green Forest.

© 04/07/2018 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 4th, 2018 zteve t evans

 

 

The Legend of Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion

This article was originally posted on #FolkloreThursday.com called British Legends: Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion by zteve t evans on 25 January 2018.

According to British legend, Gogmagog was the last survivor of a mythical race of giants that ruled the island of Albion before the arrival of Brutus of Troy and his Trojan followers. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in The Historia Regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’) written about 1136, tells the story of how the Trojans came into conflict with Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. 

Although Geoffrey made it clear where Brutus and the Trojans originated, he revealed nothing of the history of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. Later writers promoted several versions of a story of the origin of the giants. One tells more about Gogmagog and how he returned to haunt the descendants of the Trojans, taking over a ruined hilltop fortress in Wales now known as Dinas Brân. 

This article attempts to tie the threads together to reveal more of the story of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. It begins by briefly recalling the voyage of Brutus of Troy and the prophecy of the goddess Diana, and then the conflict between the Trojans and the giants of Albion. We then move forward in time to later centuries to the time of William the Conqueror, when a Norman knight by the name of Payn Peverel confronts the demonically possessed Gogmagog on Dinas Brân, forcing him to reveal his history and purpose and foretelling the future of Peverel and his descendants. 

Brutus of Troy

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the fall of Troy some of the survivors of the sack of the city, led by the Trojan hero Aeneas, fled to Italy and settled there. Their descendants began building a new civilization. One of the descendants of Aeneas in Italy was a young man who became known as Brutus of Troy. After killing his father in a hunting accident, Brutus was punished by being exiled. He left Italy and making his way to Greece, where he found many descendants of the survivors of Troy still held in slavery by a Greek king. Leading the Trojans in revolt, he won their release and led them on an epic sea voyage searching for new land to settle and rebuild their lives.

While at sea, Brutus came to an abandoned island named Leogecia and found a temple dedicated to Diana, Jupiter, and Mercury, and after performing the appropriate rites he asked the goddess for guidance. Diana appeared to him in a dream and told him of a rich and fertile island populated only by a few giants. She prophesied that he would be the first of a long line of kings that would rule the island and spread across the world. When Brutus finally arrived on the island it was called Albion, and he found it was as Diana had told him. The giants were few in number, and the tallest and most powerful was named Gogmagog.

Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion

After Brutus and the Trojans, arrived they explored the island and found it very much to their liking. Individually, the giants were much bigger and for the most part stronger than the Trojans. Only Corineus, one of the Trojan captains, could match them. However, there were only twenty-four of them and they could not match the Trojan weaponry, armour, and numbers, and the Trojans battled the giants seeking to claim Albion as their own.

One day, Brutus decided to hold a festival of thanksgiving to the gods. During the festival, with many games and events underway, Gogmagog and the giants launched an attack hoping to take the Trojans by surprise. Although the giants at first had the upper hand killing many, Brutus rallied his men and in the battle all of the giants, except their leader Gogmagog, were killed. He was spared by Brutus specifically to fight Corineus, who defeated him. With Albion now free of giants, Brutus shared out the land among his captains and followers as he saw fit. In legend, Brutus became the founder and first king of Britain and Corineus became the founder and first ruler of Cornwall.

Although Gogmagog was killed, he was to return centuries later during the Norman Conquest of Britain by King William the Conqueror. This story is told in the medieval legends or “ancestral romance” of The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, a mixture of legend, romance, and imagination by an unknown author or compiler in about 1325-40.

Dinas Brân

According to this text, Gogmagog reappeared when William the Conqueror was travelling around Britain surveying his new domain. As he travelled in the wild hills and valleys, he came across a prominent hill that was crowned by a ruined town enclosed in wide stone walls that for a long time had lain desolate and empty. Today, the hill is called Dinas Brân and overlooks Llangollen in Wales, but the ruins that crown its top are those of a later castle and not those that intrigued William which had been built many centuries before his arrival.

As the day was drawing to a close, he decided to pitch his tents on a level plain that lay below the imposing ruins. Curious and not a little awed, he asked about the place from a local Briton and was told the following story:

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From the Mabinogion: The Dream of Macsen Wledig

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Public Domain Image  – Source

This was article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com 30/11/2017,  titled British Legends: The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig written by zteve t evans.

British Legends:  The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig

The Dream of Macsen Wledig from the Mabinogion tells the story of how the Emperor of Rome experienced a dream in which he traveled to Wales, then met and became obsessed with a beautiful maiden named Elen. It is a story telling of a mythical past with legendary heroes involved in extraordinary adventures, that many people feel resonates today. The tales were created from traditional and existing works, using both written and oral sources, and were not original works. They were often reworked to reflect current issues, and are seen by many as an interpretation of a mythical past age while also providing an interpretation of the present. Presented here is a retelling of ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ from The Mabinogion Vol. 2 by Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and Lady Charlotte Schreiber. 

Macsen Wledig

Macsen Wledig was an emperor of Rome who had thirty-two vassal kings in his retinue. One day, he proposed that they all join him for a day of hunting. The next day, bright and early, he set off leading the party into the countryside to a beautiful valley that a river flowed through on its way to Rome. It was a hot, sunny morning, and the party hunted throughout the valley until midday. With the sun at its height, Macsen Wledig suddenly began to feel very tired and ordered the party to take a break while he slept by the river.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

His servants made a shelter for him out of shields, made a place on the ground for him to rest his head. Then they left him in peace and he lay down, and as he fell asleep a strange dream came to him. He found himself following the river along the valley, and eventually reaching its source at the foot of a mountain that was as high as the sky. He travelled on over the mountain, and on the other side found himself travelling through a fair country which he deemed the most beautiful in the world. Travelling on, he came across the wellspring of a river and followed it towards the sea where it grew into the widest river he had ever seen.

The City by the Sea

Standing majestically at the mouth of the river was a fair city that was enclosed by the walls of a massive castle. Its tower and turrets reached high into the sky, and many flags and banners of all colours and designs fluttered gaily in the breeze. Below the castle wall in the mouth of the river lay a great fleet of ships. The greatest and fairest of these had planks of gold and silver, and a bridge of white whale bone spanned the distance from the harbour side to the ship. Macsen Wledig found himself walking slowly over the bridge to stand on the ship. As soon as he was on board, the bridge of bone raised itself and the ship set sail towards the distant horizon to an unknown destination. After many days, the ship came to a beautiful island and lay at anchor.

The Fairest Island in the World

In his dream, Macsen Wledig went ashore and explored the island; travelling through its forests and valleys and crossing mountains and moors from coast to coast. Never before had he seen its like, and he thought it the fairest and most beautiful island in the world. Eventually, he came to a place in the mouth of a river where a majestic castle looked out over the sea. He went down to the castle and entered through its gates. Inside, he found the fairest hall he had ever seen. The walls were studded with gems of all kinds that glittered and shimmered in the sun, and the roof was of gold and gleamed gloriously.

Inside the Golden Hall

Stepping inside the hall, Macsen Wledig saw many fine pieces of furniture and rich decorations wherever he looked. On the far side of the hall, he saw two young men engaged in a game of chess on a wonderfully ornate chessboard. Sitting in a chair of ivory by a pillar of stone was a man with a rugged face and wild hair. On his head, he wore a diadem of gold and on his fingers were rings of precious metals set with gemstones. Golden bracelets adorned his wrists and arms, and around his throat he wore a torc of gold. Although the man was seated, it was clear he had a powerful physique and bearing, and he was engaged in the task of carving chess pieces.

Sitting before this strange man on a chair of burnished gold was a maiden whose beauty was more dazzling than the sun, and Macsen Wledig was almost blinded by her radiance. In his dream, she rose from her chair and he rose from his and they threw their arms around each other.  Then they sat down together, and their faces drew closer, and they sat together cheek to cheek and were poised to kiss.

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

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

The Welsh Lakes

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

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

Origin of the Tales

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

The Doorway to the Otherworld

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

The Faerie Bride and the Mirror of Nature

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

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

pumlumon_fawr

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

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

The Sleeping Giant

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

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

The Giant Awakes

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

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

Ystwyth’s Choice

 

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

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

Hafren’s Choice

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

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

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

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

Gwy’s Choice

river_wye_in_a_passing_shower_-_geograph-org-uk_-_1451606

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

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

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

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

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

The Giant Sleeps

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

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

© 14/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 14th, 2018 zteve t evans