Five Trees Featured in Celtic Lore

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This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.

Animists

It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.

Oak Trees

The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout the Celtic world with religion, ritual and myth and many practical uses.  For the Druids – the Celtic priesthood – it was an integral part of their rituals and was also used as a meeting place. According to the 1st-century geographer Strabo, Druids in Galatia, Asia Minor, met in a sacred grove of oak trees they named Drunemeton, to perform rituals and conduct other Druidic businessIn 1 CE, Pliny the Elder, writing in Historia Naturalis, documented how a Druidic fertility rite held on the sixth day of the moon involved a Druid cutting mistletoe from the branches of an oak and the ritual sacrifice of two white bulls.

Oaks also played important parts in Welsh mythology. In the Math fab Mathonwy, the last of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the sorcerers Gwydion and Math create a maiden they named Blodeuwedd or flower-faced from the blossoms of the oak, the broom and meadowsweet. She was created to be the bride of their nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who could not marry a human woman due to a curse placed on him by Arianrhod, his mother.  He married Blodeuwedd who never learnt the social conventions never having experienced the learning process of growing up. She had an affair with Gronw Pebyrv and together they plotted to kill Lleu. He was badly wounded by Gronw but turning into an eagle flew into an oak tree to escape being murdered. The oak appeared to be a refuge between the living world and the world of death and he remained there until Gwydion found and cured him.

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Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts

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This article was first published January 14, 2021 on FolkloreThursday.com as Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts by zteve t evans

Belief System

The ancient Celts were believed to practice a form of animism in their religion and belief system that provided a meaningful way for them to experience and make sense of the world they lived in.  In this work we will discuss animism and the various aspects of animism that the ancient Celts possibly followed concluding with a short discussion of their belief system.

Rather than a religion, animism is more an expression of the energy connections that are believed to flow through all things connecting each to the other and to the greater consciousness.  It is this greater consciousness that is the source of all energy and that endows everything with life and sentience.  Many early creeds embraced aspects of animism and it is still found in many modern religions and philosophies. 

Celtic Identity

The Celts were a varied collection of ethnic groups inhabiting a wide swathe of continental Europe from the west coast of Ireland to the Black Sea and other scattered areas.   As a group they appear to have been bound together by common aspects of language, culture and religion rather than ethnicity.  They worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses which varied from region to region as could the importance and attributes of those divinities. Animism is seen as the one of the threads that connected the beliefs of this vast and diverse group of people together.

Animism

In animism there is a belief that all things possessed a spirit and a consciousness that connects everything together. The sky, Earth and underworld were connected along with natural phenomena such as the weather and everything was all part of a greater conscious universe.  Furthermore, even certain words objects and images had sentience and were alive and could be used in conjunction with the greater consciousness to benefit humanity.  For the Celt, death was the transmigration of the souls while their ancestors were revered and regarded as alive.

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Welsh Celtic Lore: The Mabinogi of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr Retold

Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”).  The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty.  He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter.  These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children of LlŷrThey are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brân was a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him. 

 One day at Harlech, one of his courts in Wales, he sat with his brother Manawyddan  on  high cliff looking out over the sea.   They were accompanied by Nissien and Efnissyien, his two half brothers from his mother’s side that were of completely different character to one another. Nissien was a good man who always strove to achieve peace and harmony between two opposing forces.  Efnissyien, was of a darker character instigating and causing conflict where there was none. These four were accompanied by various nobles of Brân’s court.  As they looked out over the sea they spied a fleet of ships approaching the Welsh coast.  One of the ships had taken the lead and displayed upon its side a shield with its point positioned upwards as a token of peace

Matholwch, King of Ireland

Concerned about their intentions in Wales, Brân ordered his warriors to arm themselves and go down to meet them and discover their purpose.  This was done and messengers brought back the reply that the ships belonged to King Matholwch of Ireland who came on an important mission in peace and friendship. He came seeking King Brân’s permission to marry his sister Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, fairest maiden in the world and one of the Three High Matriarchs of Britain. Such a marriage would create a powerful and influential alliance between the two kingdoms bringing great benefit to both.  

Brân invited the Irish king ashore with all his retinue, servants and all their horses.  The next day he and Brân met to discuss the marriage of Branwen.  Brân decided in favor of the marriage and with his sister’s agreement the wedding was held the next day at Aberffraw.

The following day the Welsh and Irish guests gathered for the wedding feast.  There was no building in existence big enough to hold Brân therefore a massive marquee was used instead.  At the feast, the two sons of Llŷr – Brân and his brother Manawyddan – sat on one side. Matholwch, king of Ireland sat next to Branwen, the daughter of Llŷr, on the other.   It was a happy occasion and the guests ate and drank their fill in peace and friendship.  At last they retired for the night and Branwen became the wife of King Matholwch.

The Insult

Efnissyen was greatly insulted that he had not been consulted about his half-sister’s marriage.  In revenge he cruelly disfigured the horses of the Irish king slicing off their eyelids, lips and ears rendering them unfit for any purpose. When the stable hands discovered the malicious act they immediately informed King Matholwch.  Initially, Matholwch was not convinced Brân had anything to do with it.  Why would he have willingly given his permission for the wedding to go ahead and then performed such a senseless, cruel and insulting act to his guest and new brother-in-law? 

After all, Branwen was the fairest and one of the highest maidens in the land, beloved of her family and people.  He could rightfully have refused his marriage to her and offered someone else of lesser status instead. It made no sense at all.  The more he thought about it the worse it seemed.  His advisors persuaded him that it was intended as an insult and angrily Matholwch made ready to return home taking Branwen with him. On learning of the imminent departure of the Irish with his sister Brân sent a messenger asking why they were leaving without his permission and without even saying goodbye.

Compensation

Matholwch replied saying had he known of the great insult he would suffer he would never have asked for Branwen’s hand in the first place.  He declared his bemusement at why Brân had given him his sister in marriage only to insult him after.  Brân answered, insisting the insult was not inflicted by him or his court and as his host his own dishonor was greater. To which Matholwch replied that though this was  true the insult and injury he had suffered could not be undone.

Brân, not wanting the Irish to leave with such bad feeling, sent further messages.  At last it was agreed reparations should be made to compensate the Irish king for the horses and the insult to his standing that he perceived he had suffered. An agreement was made that Brân replace the mutilated steeds.  In further compensation he would also give a staff of silver and a plate of gold equal to the width of his face.Furthermore, the culprit would be named, but he warned that because he was his own half-brother he would be unable to put him to death. He asked Matholwch to accept what was offered and come and meet with him and once again be friends.

The emissaries of Brân gave Matholwch this message and the Irish king consulted with his counselors.  Finally it was decided to refuse the reparations, which they considered generous, would bring dishonor on King Brân as well as King Matholwch and also themselves, his loyal subjects. Therefore, they resolved to accept them and meet with Brân.

The two met and in his conversation with the Irish king, Brân realized he was still not fully content.  Desiring peace and friendship above all else he generously made him the offer of a magical cauldron known as the Cauldron of Rebirth, which returned the dead to life.  At last Matholwch seemed satisfied and they ate and drank for the rest of that day. In the morning he set sail for Ireland taking his bride with him.

Branwen’s Welcome

The Irish people were delighted at the return of their king accompanied by his bride.   When at last he introduced her to his court and all of his nobles there was great joy. As was the custom, Branwen gave each one an expensive gift of royal jewellery which gave great honor to those who received and wore it. In the first year of her arrival in Ireland she was very popular and greatly loved.  The Irish lords and ladies praised and lauded her and she enjoyed life very much.   To crown it all she gave birth to a son named Gwern. In the second year of her marriage a dark cloud appeared from the past.  The dreadful maiming of King Matholwch’s horses that had occurred on her wedding day was reawakened.  Some of the Irish nobles seeking to make trouble for the king used this to make mischief for their own purposes.  

The chief among them were Matholwch’s foster brothers who re-opened old wounds.  They blamed and derided him for accepting an inferior settlement which they claimed was insulting.  Stirring up hatred and resentment they turned upon Branwen demanding vengeance, taking out their malice upon her. They pressured and harried the king who eventually gave way to them.  She was barred from his chamber and forced to work in the kitchens cooking and carrying out menial tasks for the court.  For a woman of Branwen’s royal stature this was a terrible humiliation and indignity.  To add insult to injury they ordered that she be given a blow upon her ear each day.

Knowing her King Brân would be wrath at such treatment of his sister they that advised Matholwch ban all travel between Ireland and Britain.  This would prevent Brân hearing of the maltreatment of his sister.  To further prevent news reaching Brân they imprisoned anyone in Ireland from Brân’s realm

Branwen and the Starling

For three years Branwen suffered this mistreatment. Her once happy life had been turned upside down to become one of humiliation, pain and misery.  In desperation she raised and trained a starling. She taught it how to speak and understand human language enough for it to understand what kind of a man her brother was and how to find him.

Writing her troubles down in a letter she tied it to the bird in a way as not to impede its flight.  Finally, she set it free bidding it find Brân and give him the message.  Flying over the Irish Sea to the island of Britain it found Brân at Caer Seiont in Arvon. Settling on his shoulder the bird ruffled its feathers so as to display the message it bore. Seeing the bird had a degree of domestication and training Brân looked closely and saw the letter and read it.  In this way he learnt of his sister’s troubles and grieved greatly for her. 

Angrily he ordered a muster of the armed forces of the Island of Britain summoning his vassals and allies to him.  He explained to their kings and leaders the mistreatment of Branwen his sister by the Irish and took counsel with them about what should be done.

Bran goes to War

The council agreed that the situation with Branwen was intolerable and decided on invading Ireland to set her free and punish the Irish.  Therefore, Brân’s host took to the ships to sail to Ireland to the aid of Branwen.  Being too large for any ship to carry Brân strode through the sea before them.  

Strange news reached King Matholwch. Witnesses explained they had seen a moving wood approaching the shores of Ireland. Even stranger and more terrifying they had seen a moving mountain besides the wood with a tall ridge which had on each side of it a lake. The wood and the mountain moved together and were approaching Ireland fast. Puzzled by the news Matholwch sent messengers to Branwen to see if she could enlighten him.  She told them it was the army of her brother Brân who had come to rescue her.

“What, then, is the great forest we see moving on the sea?” they asked.

“The masts of the ships of the Island of Britain,” she replied.

“What is the mountain that is seen moving before the forest?” they asked.

“That is Brân the Blessed, my brother. No ship can contain him and he needs none,” replied Branwen.

“What is the high ridge with the lake on either side,” they asked.

“Those two lakes are his eyes as he looks upon the island of Ireland.  The ridge is his nose and he is angry at the mistreatment of his beloved sister!” replied Branwen.

The messengers returned to Matholwch bearing Branwen’s answer.  Fearing to face such a huge army in battle he turned to his nobles for advice.  They agreed it was too risky and decided their best option was to retreat over the River Linon, destroying the single bridge across after them.   There was no other bridge and Brân would have to march miles out of his way to find another suitable crossing point.

Brân the Bridge

Brân and his army came ashore unimpeded but found the bridge over the river destroyed. Brân’s chieftains went to him saying, “Lord, the river cannot be crossed.  The bridge is broken and there is no other crossing point for many miles.  What would you have us do?”

Brân replied, “He who would be chief will be the bridge himself,” and laid himself down bridging the river with his body.  In this way his host passed over to the other side.  

Hearing how Brân had bridged the river worried King Matholwch who sent messengers expressing greetings, goodwill and proposals he hoped would placate him.  He proposed that Gwern, his son, be given sovereignty of Ireland for the mistreatment of his sister, Branwen.

Brân replied, “Why should I not take the kingdom myself? I will take counsel.  Until I have considered it no other answer will you get.  Go tell your king.”

“Indeed, they said, “we shall bear your answer to him. Will you wait for his reply?”

“I will wait, but return quickly,” replied Brân. The messengers returned to their king with Brân’s answer and Matholwch took counsel with his nobles.

House of Betrayal

His counselors unanimously agreed it would be best to avoid direct conflict with the host of Brân fearing certain defeat at the hands of such a powerful army.  Therefore a conciliatory approach was decided to appease Brân and put him at ease while quietly enacting a treacherous plot to defeat him. They decided to try to appease him by building a house big enough to hold his own gigantic self.   It would also be big enough to hold his warriors and those of Matholwch. In this massive structure they would hold a great feast of friendship and make formal agreements and Matholwch would pay him homage.  They hoped this would please and flatter him, making him more amenable to their other proposals.  They also reasoned he would be more likely to relax and drop his guard which would leave him open to a deadly betrayal.  

Matholwch was not sure Brân would accept the proposals.  Therefore, he sent for Branwen for advice telling her nothing of the full scope of his treachery.  After listening carefully at what he said she advised that she believed he would accept. Therefore, Matholwch sent messengers to Brân with his proposals.  Brân listened and asked his own lords and also sent to his sister for advice.  Knowing nothing of the betrayal and for the sake of peace and prevent the laying waste of the country she advised her brother to accept. Brân accepted and a peace was made with the Irish and a massive house was built as agreed. With the structure finished and the final preparations for the feast being made Matholwch pursued further his treacherous plot.

Brass hooks were fixed upon the pillars and a leather bag hung from each bracket.  Each leather bag contained a fully armed Irish warrior.  At the command of King Matholwch when Brân’s own warriors were in a drunken state they would cut themselves from the bag to assassinate the unsuspecting Britons

Efnissyen

The great house of betrayal was quickly built and its interior was prepared for the great feast.  Efnissyen, who had mutilated Matholwch’s horses, entered the hall to inspect progress.  Seeing the leather bags he asked what was inside.  He was told the King of Ireland had made a gift of flour for Brân which was contained in the bags. Efnissyen felt one of the bags and felt a man’s head.  He squeezed it until his fingers met in the middle.  He did this to each of the leather bags and crushed a man’s head in each one killing two hundred hidden assassins.

The Killing of Gwern

The two kings eventually entered the house with their followers and the proceedings began. The negotiations and agreements were made in a spirit of peace and friendship. Sovereignty of Ireland was conferred upon the young boy Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen and nephew of Brân. After all the talking was over Brân called the boy to him.  Gwern went willingly and showed him great affection.  From Brân, Gwern went happily to Manawyddan and from one to another showing great affection with each he went to.

Efnissyen looked on and he grew jealous of the boy’s attention to others saying,  “Why does the boy not come to me, his uncle?  He is the son of my sister and is my nephew but he ignores me when I would be glad to give the boy my love!”

“Let the boy go to you if he wants to,” said Brân.

Gwern happily went to Efnissyen who taken by some dark mood without warning seized the boy by his feet and swung him head first into the roaring fire. Branwen screamed and attempted to leap into the fire after her son.  Brân grabbed her hand and with his other hand placed his shield between her and the fire keeping her safe between his body and his shield.

Immediately the great hall was in uproar as the two sides rapidly armed themselves intent on killing one another.  All the while Brân kept his sister safe between his shield and his body as the fighting ensued all around.  

The Cauldron of Rebirth

The Irish immediately lit a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth that had been part of the compensation Brân gave for the malicious disfigurement of their horses.  They placed their dead in the cauldron and they were restored to fully fit fighting men save they had lost the power of speech and hearing.

Efnissyen, seeing the warriors of Brân were slaying the Irish noted they were also being slain.  However, unlike the Irish, their dead did not return to the battle and the Irish were gaining the advantage.   Feeling remorse and great guilt that he had been the cause of all this murder and mayhem he resolved to save Brân and his warriors.  Therefore, he hid among the piles of the Irish dead waiting to be revived in the cauldron until he too was cast in.  As soon as he was inside he stretched himself out to his full bodily dimensions causing the cauldron to burst asunder but bursting his own heart in the process.  With this advantage removed from the Irish theBritons quickly gained the upper hand.

The Seven Survivors

Although the warriors of Brân eventually triumphed it was a pyrrhic victory costing them dear.  Brân was mortally wounded from a wound in his foot from a poisoned spear.  Of his army only seven lived and these were Manawyddan, Pryderi, Taliesin the Bard, Grudyen the son of Muryel, Ynawc and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.  Brân had shielded Branwen throughout the battle and she also lived. 

Of the Irish people only five pregnant women survived who went and lived in caves.  They gave birth to five sons and over time the Island of Ireland was repopulated incestuously.

The Assembly of the Wondrous Head

Bran the Blessed – by zteve t evans

Knowing he was dying and being too large to bury or take back on a ship Brân ordered the seven surviving warriors to sever his head from his body. He instructed they carry it to the White Hill in London where they were to bury it facing the sea to deter invasion from France.  He advised them this task would take many years.  In that time they would spend seven years feasting in Harlech while being regaled by the Birds of Rhiannon. They would then travel to Gwales where they would spend a further eighty years and become known as, “The Assembly of the Wondrous Head”.  All this time the head would be able to converse with them and keep them company despite it being severed.  They would be untouched by time but eventually, the time would come when they would leave Gwales to journey to London where their task would be completed as he had instructed.  He then ordered them to “cross over to the other side.” The seven survivors accompanied by Branwen crossed over to the other side (2) of the sea to Wales bearing the head of Brân. 

However, as she turned to look back across the sea to Ireland and gazed around her at the Island of Britain she was overwhelmed with grief and anguish.  Her heart broke in two and she groaned and collapsed and died of a broken heart. Thus, ended the life of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, Fairest Maiden of Britain.  The seven survivors made a four sided grave on the banks of the River Alaw for her internment. 

The Seven Survivors discovered the crown of Britain had been usurped by Caswallawn and Brân’s son had died of a broken heart after his companions were killed in an ambush by the usurper.   Nevertheless, as Brân had ordered and in the manner he had predicted, his head was finally buried in London to deter any invasion of Britain from France.  Here ends the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the story of two of the Seven Survivors, Pryderi and Manawyddan are continued in the Third Branch, known as Manawyddan.

© 03/02/2021 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 2nd, 2021 zteve t evans

Welsh Celtic Lore: The Adar Rhiannon – The Singing Birds of Rhiannon

The Adar Rhiannon – The Singing Birds of Rhiannon by zteve t evans – 18 January 2021

The Birds of Rhiannon

Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth.  They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld.  She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The Second Branch of the Mabinogi.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are generally considered one work consisting of four parts that tell stories of the gods and heroes from Celtic Welsh mythology.  The stories are thought to be older than medieval times but rewritten, probably by monks of that era.  The Four Branches along with Culhwch and Olwen and other works are included in the compilation of medieval Welsh literature known as the The Mabinogion, first published in full by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45. The Adar Rhiannon, briefly appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and are mentioned and sought after in the story of Culhwch and Olwen.  Although they only appear to play a small role in both stories they possess unique and important properties that lend magical qualities to the tales.

Time and Space

The singing of the birds can awaken the dead while inducing the living to sleep.  Their singing also causes time and space to behave differently.  They seem to be singing very near while in fact they are far away.  Their singing also alters the passing of time making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed and preserve from the effects of time.

Rhiannon

These birds are named after and associated with Rhiannon one of the most enigmatic characters in Welsh myth.  He first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and Chief of Annwn and their son was Pryderi. She was falsely accused of the murder of her son and eating him but later proved innocent after public humiliation.  Her second husband was Manawyddan whom she married after Pwyll’s passing.

Rhiannon also displayed the power to warp time and space, but differently to her birds.  This is shown, in the manner of her first appearance on horseback from the Otherworld seeking Pwyll to propose their marriage which he accepts.  Secondly, she produces a magical bag that can be filled with any amount of without getting full with enough room for a fully grown human.  This is used to trick and trap an unwelcome marriage suitor so that she can marry Pwyll.

From her first appearance it is clear she is no ordinary woman and is someone of special status and importance.  She is considered to be a goddess or representative of sovereignty and being strongly associated with horses is usually thought of as a horse deity or derived from one. Therefore, like Rhiannon, her birds are not ordinary birds having the magical qualities mentioned previously.    

Culhwch and Olwen

In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the birds are given two more magical attributes.  The story tells how Culwhch was given a host of impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, a giant and the father of Olwen, who demanded their achievement before he would give permission for his daughter to marry him.  The severity of the tasks was possibly because he was doomed to die on her wedding night and he hoped Culwhch would fail that he might live. One of his demands was to be brought the Adar Rhiannon possibly because they would soothe his passing into death.  Therefore he asked Culhwch to bring,  

“The Birds of Rhiannon: the ones which can wake the dead and put the living to sleep I want to entertain me that night.” (1)

The night he is referring to is his daughter’s wedding night which is the night he is doomed to die if the marriage goes ahead. From this we see they have two other magical attributes.  The first is their singing puts the living to sleep and the second is that it wakes the dead. They may have been a useful insurance against death from the giant’s point of view or at least eased his passing. 

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

The Adar Rhiannon also appears at the end of the Second Branch which is the tale of  Branwen ferch Llŷr.  Branwen, the sister of the Welsh King Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân the Blessed, had been married to the Irish King Matholwch and lived with him in Ireland.  However, it was not a happy marriage and she was subject to physical and psychological abuse.  In her unhappiness she trains a starling to take a message back over the sea to her brother King Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and seeking his aid.  Enraged and offended by his sister’s treatment Bendigeidfran gathers his army and invades Ireland and a cataclysmic war follows.  All the Irish are killed leaving only a five pregnant women in Ireland who took to living in a cave.  Each gave birth to a son and eventually incestuously repopulated the island of Ireland. 

On the Welsh side there were seven surviving warriors, as well as Branwen. These were Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and Manawyddan, brother of King Bendigeidfran and Rhiannon’s future husband.  These were accompanied by Taliesin the great bard, Gluneu Eil Taran, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.

In the conflict King Bendigeidfran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear and knew he would soon die.  He ordered the survivors to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London where it was to be buried to protect Britain from invaders.  He prophesied they would encounter the singing birds of Rhiannon and remain in one place for seven years spellbound by them,

“And take you my head and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France.  And a long time will you be upon the road.  In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while.  And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”

Bendigeidfran’s severed head retained the power of speech and continued talking to the survivors as he predicted.  Sadley, Branwen died of a broken heart through grief for the dead.

The Adar Rhiannon

Before setting off with the head to London the survivors feasted in Harlech and as also predicted by Bendigeidfran they were visited by the singing birds of Rhiannon,

“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.” (2)

Translation of different texts may vary but it is thought these are the same birds mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and at the end of the Second Branch where, “the singing of the birds of Rhiannon” is referred to which demonstrated time was altered,

“And thus ends this portion of the Mabinogi, concerning the blow given to Branwen, which was the third unhappy blow of this island; and concerning the entertainment of Bran, when the hosts of sevenscore countries and ten went over to Ireland to revenge the blow given to Branwen; and concerning the seven years’ banquet in Harlech, and the singing of the birds of Rhiannon, and the sojourning of the head for the space of fourscore years. (3)

Rhiannon and her singing birds along with King Bendigeidfran, Culhwch and Olwen and the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr are just a few of the strange and magical characters and creatures that dwell in the landscape of Welsh Celtic myth and medieval literature.

© 20/01/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 20th, 2021 zteve t evans

Psychopomps in Breton Myths and Folktales: Entering the Afterlife

Breton Folklore

Breton myths and folktales are often a dark blend of Celtic, pagan and Christian influences that result in magic and wonder mixed with the morbid and macabre.  There are many tales, myths and legends concerning everyday and important issues such as  love and death.

For all of us, death is the great unknown and people all around the world throughout history have invented many different ways of thinking about the subject.  One of the most universal ways of representing death  was through the use of personifications.  In simple terms this the giving of human characteristics or form to abstract ideas, inanimate objects or something that is not human. 

Death itself can be personified in many other ways such as the personification known as the Grim Reaper, but there are many other representations, some as dark, others lighter.

Psychopomps

In many societies death needed a servant that would guide or bring the soul of the deceased to the place of the afterlife.  Such servants were called psychopomps and presented here is a brief discussion of two psychopomps from Breton folklore and mythology.  The first is a rather grim and forbidding entity known as the Ankou who was  a collector of souls for his master Death.  The second tells of a fair knight who came back from the dead to guide his betrothed to the afterlife.  In the course of the discussion we also look at a few folkloric motifs present in the examples given.

The Ankou

In Breton mythology and folklore the Ankou can appear in various guises in different regions of Brittany. There are also Welsh, Cornish and Anglo-Norman interpretations of him.  In some versions he is either a tall, gaunt man wearing a long black cloak or a skeleton  carrying a long scythe though earlier traditions say it was an arrow.  He is often mistaken for the Grim Reaper, but they are not the same.  In other versions he appears as an old man accompanying a horse drawn coach or cart. His role is not to judge or punish but to ensure the transition of the soul to the afterlife and will tolerate no interference in this.   

When he stops outside the house of the dying person he may knock on the door, or he may utter a low mournful wail to summon the dead to his cart.  Sometime accompanied by two ghostly assistants he will enter a home and take away the soul of the dead.

He is presented as a very grim and macabre figure and in some places he is the king of the dead.  His subjects move in processions along particular paths to the afterlife.  Some traditions say he is the last man to die in a parish in the  year who will automatically assume the role of the Ankou and the supervision of the souls of the dead.  

Nola and  Gwennolaïk

A very different kind of psychopomp appears in a Breton folktale called The Foster Brother.  This story revolves around a relationship between a young man named Nola and a young woman named Gwennolaïk. The story tells how the two fell in love when Gwennolaïk was eighteen years old after her natural mother and two sisters had passed away.   After her mother’s death her father had remarried twice and she had gained an older foster brother who was not a blood relative.  They had grown to know and love each other deeply spending all their time together.  Their relationship deepened and the two promised that they would wed with each other and no one else.

Strange Dreams

They were very happy in those days thinking and planning their future together but there came a time when Nola grew troubled.  He told Gwennolaïk that he had been experiencing strange dreams telling him he had to leave home and find his fortune.  This broke Gwennolaïk’s heart but not wanting to stand in his way she consented and gave him a ring that had belonged to her mother to remember her by.  

Promising he would return one day to marry her he took a ship to distant shores.  During his absence she missed him terribly, spending many hours pining alone and praying he would soon return to marry her.  This would release her from the awful life of drudgery and misery she now endured, partly because he was gone and partly because her step-mother treated her cruelly.  

The Stepmother

She gave poor Gwennolaïk all the hard and dirty jobs berating her with harsh words and kept her hungry all the time making her wear rags.  Six years passed in this way and Gwennolaïk was getting so run down and tired she believed she would  be better off dead.

The Fair Knight

One day while fetching water from a nearby brook she met a fair knight on horseback waiting by the water. His face was hidden and she could make out none of his features. To her surprise and embarrassment he asked her if she was betrothed.  After telling him she was not the knight reached down and placed in her hand a ring.  He told her to go back and tell her stepmother she was now betrothed to a knight from Nantes.  Furthermore, she was to say that there had been a bloody battle and her betrothed had been badly wounded but would in three days time come and claim her for his wife.

Saying no more he quickly turned and rode off leaving Gwennolaïk staring at the ring too surprised to even move.  As she gazed at the ring she realized it was the same one she had given to Nola when he departed and realized the fair knight was none other than him.

Disappointment

She waited in vain those three days and to her heartbreak and disappointment Nola did not come.  Worse still her stepmother told her she had decided that she would marry and had chosen someone for her.  Gwennolaïk was horrified by the idea and showed her the ring and told her of the knight.  She insisted it was Nola who had returned to marry her.  Her step-mother would not listen and took the ring from her.  

What they did not know was that a knight who had been mortally wounded in the battle at Nantes had been given a Christian burial in the nearby White Chapel.  

Marriage

The husband her stepmother had chosen for her  was the stable lad and to Gwennolaïk’s grief and mortification they were married.  After the marriage there was a banquet but Gwennolaïk was depressed and miserable and unable to face the reception and her guests.   Appalled and driven mad by the thought of being married to anyone other than Nola she ran off into the woods.

Fever

A thorough search of the locality was undertaken but no trace of her could be found.  In fact she had hidden herself deep in a thicket where she lay weeping and shivering in the cold and damp.  As night came black and cold she shivered more and more and weeping and crying for the hardness of the world caught a fever.  In her delirium she thought she heard something moving through the thicket towards her and cried out in fear and alarm.

Nola Returns

A voice told her that it was Nola and that he had come for her.  Disbelieving him at first she looked up and saw  a fair knight approach on a white steed.   Reaching down he easily lifted her up to sit behind.  He told her to hold on tight and he would take her to her mother and sisters in a place where they would all be together forever.  

W. Otway Cannell (Illustrator), Lewis Spence (Author), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Magical Journey

From this point she is close to death and he has appeared from beyond the grave to find her and take her back to join him and her family in the afterlife.   As her life fades he takes her on a magical journey.  They cross the land to the sea and the horse gallops over the top of the waves to a beautiful island where a celebration was being made ready.  He explains it is their wedding celebration that is being prepared.  The two were married and to her joy she was reunited with her dead mother and two sisters .   There was great singing and dancing  and at last Gwennolaïk found peace and happiness in the afterlife.

Meanwhile, as the wedding takes place, back in the earthly realm searchers finally find the expired body of Gwennolaïk and give her a proper Christian burial.

Folkloric Motifs

There are several interesting folkloric motifs in the story.  For example, the loss of Gwennolaïk’s real mother and the wicked stepmother.  There is also the foster brother as the love who goes off to find his fortune and in this case returns to die before the wedding.  The initial and inexplicable failure of Gwennolaïk to recognise Nola on his return is at first puzzling but then becomes clear that something else will happen.  It is a device used in  many fairy and folktales as is the ring given by Gwennolaïk to Nola which he gives back to identify himself. 

Nola, having had a Christian burial and Gwennolaïk a Christian marriage and finally a Christian burial become entwined in pagan and Celtic influences.

The horse he rides is interesting because it takes them on a magical journey over the sea to a magical island.  In many traditions the Celtic Otherworld could be reached by crossing the sea and in several tales such as the Irish tale of Oisin and Naimh of the Goldenhair, a magical horse is used to take them there.

Nola as a Psychopomp

Perhaps the most interesting contrast is how the soul of Gwennolaïk is taken to the afterlife by her beloved Nola who she has waited and yearned for.  Surely a much more welcome and comforting transition to the afterlife than via the macabre Ankou!

Guiding the Soul to the Afterlife

However, in cultures all around the world psychopomps appear in various forms which may be familiar and comforting taking the form of a family member or friend or they may be dark and forbidding.  In whatever form they appear they perform an important task in guiding or helping the soul of the deceased to find their place in the afterlife.

© 19/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

Celtic Warrior Queens: Boudica of the Iceni

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 8th October 2020, titled Celtic Warrior Women: Queen Boudica of the Iceni by zteve t evans.

Queen Boudica

Queen Boudica, ruler of the Iceni people of Britain, was famous for leading a violent uprising against Roman rule. She was married and had two young daughters whose names are unknown. Her husband Prasutagus had ruled as a client-king of Rome and his realm was roughly the area of modern Norfolk. As a client-king he had entered into an alliance with Rome which allowed him to rule and receive Roman patronage in return for recognizing its overall authority and keeping law and order. When he died he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and his two daughters, perhaps hoping to avoid trouble.  Despite this, his kingdom and property was annexed by Rome and his family maltreated, sowing the seeds of rebellion among the Britons. According to Tacitus, Boudica was beaten with rods, her two young daughters raped, and the estates of the Iceni nobles confiscated. This spurred Boudica to lead a bloody rebellion against the might of Rome.

Suffragettes

As a woman, widowed with at least two children, the qualities that people would traditionally call female were plain to see. Yet after the maltreatment inflicted upon her and her young daughters by the Romans, other, less ‘traditionally female’ qualities emerged, transforming her into a powerful, avenging force. Qualities of leadership, intelligence, aggression, courage and assertiveness in a struggle to free her people came to the fore. Such attributes were seen as subversive for women to openly display in a patriarchal society, but were some of the very qualities that the suffragettes were keen to promote as acceptable in women to help and inspire their struggle against the system.

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Celtic Mythology: Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Image by John James Audubon – Public Domain – Source

This article by zteve t evans was first published on FolkloreThursday.com on 30th July, 2020 under the title, Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods in Celtic Mythology

Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Animals played an important part in the everyday life of the ancients Celts. In Celtic mythology the lives of animals, birds, humans and gods are interwoven to provide rich stories alluding to important matters in their society such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. Provided here is a brief review of some of those myths and legends.

The Dream of Aengus

Swans were much admired by the Irish Celts and had some special places in their mythology. One story from Irish mythology called the Dream of Aengus, tells how a young god named Aengus fell in love with a beautiful woman from his dreams. Her name was Caer Ibormeith and she was the goddess of sleep and dreams.

Aengus set out to find her and discovered that she was a real person who had been placed under a spell which transformed her into a swan. Every other Samhain she was able to return to human form for one day beginning at sunset and then revert back to swan form for one year until the following Samhain when the transformation cycle would be repeated.

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Welsh Mythology: Pwyll’s Sojourn in Annwfn

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Presented here is a retelling of the story of the time Pwyll of Dyfed spent in Annwfn in the body of Arawn.  It is the first part of the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed or Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, which is the First Branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It tells how he and Arawn became friends and of his sojourn in Annwfn.

Pwyll of Dyfed

One day as Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed was out hunting in the region of  Glyn Cuch his hounds raised a stag. The stag took off at great speed with the hounds hard on its trail and Pwyll spurred his horse forward in pursuit sounding his hunting horn.  The stag was moving fast but the hounds were keeping up and he was keeping up with the hounds.  In the speed and excitement of the chase he lost the other members of his party who were left far behind.

Following the sound of his pack he became aware that he could also hear another pack of hounds which sounded very different to his own.  Arriving in a glade in the woods he was surprised to see in the middle a large stag holding at bay a pack of strange hounds.  As Pwyll looked on they brought the beast to the ground. Although an experienced and accomplished huntsman Pwyll had never seen dogs like these before. They had coats of pure, shining white and the tips of their white ears glowed red.  Moving purposely forward he drove the pack of strange dogs off and set his own on the stag.

The Anger of Arawn

No sooner had he done this when he heard the blowing of a hunting horn and the approach of a fast riding horseman.  The horseman cut an intimidating figure being tall and well built and dressed in grey hunting clothes.  Around his neck hung a hunting horn which he blew notes on heralding his arrival. Reining in his horse he glared coldly upon Pwyll and spoke in a blunt and unfriendly manner,  “Chieftain, I know who you are but I will not welcome you!

“Indeed,” replied Pwyll taking offense at the tone of the address, “you appear lacking of such dignity and manners and it is best you do not do so!” “Indeed,” said the stranger, “it is not my dignity and manners that prevent me!”

“Chieftain, what then is it? Am I the one at fault, is it my courtesy and manners that are at fault? Tell me what is the fault that I have committed?” replied Pwyll in anger and  bewilderment. Replied the huntsman, “Never have I seen anything so discourteous and bad-mannered!  You have driven my dogs away from their kill and set your own upon it.  Though I may not gain revenge for the value of the offense, I swear I will bring you more dishonor than the worth of a hundred stags!”

Realizing he was at fault Pwyll said, “Chieftain, I indeed have done wrong.  How I can make it up to you and become your friend?  You say you know who I am, therefore, tell me who you are?” The other replied, “I am Arawn, a King of Annwfn,” and Pwyll answered, “Then Arawn, a King of Annwfn, I ask how I may redeem myself and win your friendship?”

Trading Places

“I have a neighbor named Hafgan who forever makes trouble and seeks war and is also a King of Annwfn.  Rid me of him and gain my undying friendship and amend the wrong you have done me,” replied Arawn. “I will do this, but how?” said Pwyll. Arawn replied,

“Change places with me and live as I have lived as a King of Annwfn. You will have the fairest lady ever seen as your Queen, who is my wife. We must exchange bodies.  Your mind and soul will live in my body and my mind and soul will live in yours.  I will make it so no one in the world will ever be able to know the difference, not your closest friend, not even my wife.  I will know what you know, you will know what I know.  We will live like this for a year and a day and in that time you will have accomplished  the task. We shall meet on that anniversary in this place and I will return us to our true forms. Only we will know! ”

“I will do this, but how shall I know and find your enemy,” Pwyll asked. “The time and date are already set for us to meet in single combat to the death.  One year from today you will find him waiting at the ford.  Be there and with one stroke rid me of him and gain my never ending friendship.   One word of warning I give! Should he ask you to strike again to bring his life to a quick end you must refuse.  Last year I made this mistake after dealing him a fatal blow and he recovered.  You must let him die slowly!” advised Arawn. “It is understood and this I will do,” replied Arawn, “but what will happen to my own kingdom while I am away?”

“Fear not for your kingdom. In your own semblance I will rule in your stead and none will ever know the difference,” answered Arawn. “Then, let us begin!” said Pwyl. “Nothing shall hinder you until you come into my lands and then I will guide you to my palace in my kingdom,” said Arawn,” and it shall begin.”

Arawn led Pwyll through the forest to a place close to his palace and said, “Behold, my palace.  Here I must leave you to enter alone as I. Have no fear, no one will see anything different and all will accept you as being myself.   Furthermore, you will find you have knowledge of all the ways of the court. “

Sojourn in Annwfn

Therefore, Pwyll entered court and it was as Arawn had told him.  He was welcomed as their king by the servants and his wife who noticed nothing amiss. Two knights helped to dress him in the finest silks of gold and scarlet and the hall was prepared for feasting and they noticed nothing.   He saw that those who joined him were of the most comely and handsome of looks and  ways.  They all appeared to know him paying him great obeisance.  Arawn’s wife entered and sat next to him talking as she had always known him.  Just as Arawn had said, she was the fairest woman he had ever seen.  She was dressed in scarlet and gold and talked and conversed with him most agreeably throughout the meal.  After the feasting there were wonderful stories and songs and Pwyll thought that this must be the most entertaining and courteous of courts on Earth.

The Fight at the Ford

He spent the next year hunting and feasting, enjoying the entertainments of the court and his conversations with the Queen and the courtiers.  Eventually the year passed and the time came around when he must meet Hafgan, the enemy of Arawn, at the ford in single combat. The nobles and everyone in the kingdom had been waiting for this time to come  and a great throng of warriors assembled to accompany him to the fight at the ford.  As he arrived a knight spoke up to address the throng saying, “Lords, this conflict is between two kings who claim ownership of each other’s realm.  It is not your battle therefore stand aside and let the kings do  battle alone.”  

Turning he said the same to those on his side of the Ford and all but the two kings fell back to watch the fight. The two kings approached each other and met in the middle of the ford and without ceremony the fight began. With his first blow Pwyll struck the shield of Hafgan such a mighty blow that it was split in two and Hafgan was knocked to the ground mortally wounded. “Chieftain,” said Hafgan, “I am dying but what right have you to cause my death as I have done you no harm in any of this.  As You have dealt me a killing blow I ask of you to strike again and strike fast to end my life quickly.”

 “Chieftain,” replied Pwyll, “it may well be that I come to regret the blow I dealt you and the one that I will not deal, but I will give no more blows.” Calling out to his knights Hafgan said, ” I say to my subjects, I shall no longer be able to support you, therefore follow who you will, for I die now.” 

Pwyll said, “Let those who have followed Hafgan come over to me without fear and in peace. There can only be one victor and that will be Arawn.” Those nobles on the opposite side of the ford went over to join with him.  Next he rode through Hafgan’s kingdom subduing those who would not follow and subjecting the land to Arawn as the undisputed king of all of Annwfn. By noon the next day the two kingdoms were united and Pwyll made his way to keep his tryst with Arawn. 

Rendezvous

When he arrived Arawn was waiting and the two rejoiced to meet again. Arawn said, “I know the news you bring and I am thankful for your fulfilling the promise.  You have my undying friendship and when you return to your own realm you shall see what I did for you in your absence.”

” Whatever that may be,” said Pwyll, “may Heaven reward you.” With that, Arawn reinstated each to their own natural bodies and set off for his home in Annwfn.  When he arrived home none of his court or his queen realized he had been away or noticed any difference in him.  When the time came for him to go to bed he took his wife with him who seemed both surprised and delighted. She told him she had been grieved that he had not shown any interest in sleeping with her the last long year.  Arawn realized the extent of Pwyll’s mastery over himself and was glad but made sure he was fully reconciled with his wife.

Home 

Pwyll also went home and none of his nobles or servants appeared to notice any difference.  Therefore he asked them their opinions of how his judgements and rule had been over the past year.  They told him that he had appeared to have ruled with great justice, wisdom and perception and his kingdom had benefited greatly from this. Pwyll told them about the exchange of places with Arawn and said they should be grateful to him for how he had treated them.

To strengthen the friendship between Annwfn and Dyfed, Arawn sent greyhounds, horses, hawks and such presents he thought would please Pwyll.   In turn Pwyll reciprocated in kind.  The friendship between Arawn and Pwyll blossomed and grew bringing great prosperity and benefit to both kingdoms.  From that time on he also became known as “Pwyll, Pen Annwfn” or “Pwyll, Head of Annwfn“.

© 24/06/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 24th, 2020 zteve t evans

Queen Mebd: Wolf-Queen – Goddess of Sovereignty

Queen Mebd: Wolf-Queen

In Irish mythology Queen Mebd is a colorful character –  an archetypal warrior-queen – ambitious and strong-willed, who knew her own mind  and how to get what she wanted.  She was described as a lusty fair haired wolf-queen who was so beautiful men were robbed of two thirds of their valor on seeing her (1).  Probably her best known role is the instigator of the Cattle Raid of Cooley or Táin Bó Cúailnge which she undertook with her husband Aillil during a more congenial time in their relationship. Presented here is a brief glimpse of the roles Mebd filled as wife, queen and goddess of sovereignty, looking her most famous exploit, The Cattle Raid of Cooley and finally her death.

Husbands and Marriage

During the Ulster Cycle in Irish mythology she was a much married queen of Connacht.  Her main consort in the important stories of this period was Ailill mac Máta.  She ruled from Cruachan, now known as Rathcroghan, County Roscommon.  One of her former husbands was the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa who became her enemy. 

There is no doubt that marriage to Mebd was a challenge for any man and needed someone of powerful character to fulfill the role.  Mebd had three demands her husband had to agree to in order to marry her.  First, he must be completely without fear. Second, he must be without meanness.  The third and most important was he must be devoid of all jealousy.  The last was essential for Mebd took many lovers and she was not a woman who could be possessed.   One of these lovers was Fergus mac Róich.  

According to tradition it took seven men to satisfy her sexually but Fergus only once.  Ailill, on learning of the affair, forgot Mebd’s third demand and became jealous of Fergus  and had him killed.  However, such were the intrigues of the Connacht court that when Mebd learnt Ailill was having an affair behind her back she ordered Conall Cernac to kill him.  He gladly took on the task in revenge  for the killing of Fergus but as he was dying Aillil ordered his warriors to kill Conall.

A traditional patriarchal view of Mebd might see her as an immoral sex-predator who lusts for men, but a closer look may reveal a different idea of who she was and what she represented. 

Goddess of Sovereignty

There are several versions and spelling of her name including Maeve, Maev, Mave or Maiv, may have meant the ruler.  Another interpretation is “mead-woman” or “she who intoxicates,” which many see as evidence of her being a goddess of sovereignty or representative of one.  In ancient and medieval  Ireland, mead and its consumption played an important part in the inauguration ceremony of a new king. Her many marriages to kings and  her liberated sexual behaviour are also considered as evidence of her status as a sovereignty goddess. She may have been one and the same with  Medb Lethderg who was the wife or lover of nine kings at Tara.

According to one version of the myth the sovereignty of the land was bestowed upon the king by a goddess of sovereignty, or her representative, on behalf of the Earth Mother.  Her presence by his side as consort signified the approval of the goddess and a powerful public symbol the king was divinely chosen.  The king acted as the steward of the land ensuring its fertility and wellbeing which promoted regrowth and renewal of vegetation and crops.  Traditionally he was expected to be without blemish and if he was sick, injured, or grew old he was replaced by a younger more virile man.

It is the association with the goddess of sovereignty that causes a rethink of her being labelled as merely promiscuous or immoral.  Modern morals should not be used as a yardstick; these were different times with different ways of doing things and different social values.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Mebd was never the subordinate wife and queen.  She believed she had a right to be of equal wealth as her husband.   After taking stock of both their total possessions she realized her husband owned a more powerful and virile stud bull named Finnbennach. This gave him a slight edge which greatly annoyed her.

The only bull in Ireland that could rival Finnbennach was named Donn Cúailnge who was owned by Dáire mac Fiachna,  a vassal of Conchobar’s her former husband.  Mebd decided she must have Donn Cúailnge to make her equal to her husband and she was determined to get him by any means.   

She sent messengers to Dáire requesting him to loan her the bull. In return she offered wealth, land and sexual favours.  Dáire initially agreed to the deal.  However, he changed his mind when one of her messengers in a drunken state foolishly revealed that she would have taken it by force anyway.  On hearing this Dáire reversed his decision.

Mebd was still determined to have the bull and mustered her army and  war bands from all over Ireland rallied to her.  With the support of her husband, Ailill, she launched an invasion of Ulster to take Donn Cúailnge.

The defenders of Ulster were stricken by a curse that rendered them unfit for battle at the time of their greatest need.  This had been inflicted on them as revenge and punishment by the goddess Macha, whom the king of Ulster had forced into a chariot race with while she was heavily pregnant.

The only one left to oppose Mebd’s invasion was the young warrior Cúchulainn who with the help of his charioteer waged a guerrilla war against the invaders.  He used a custom that enabled him to claim single combat against one of Mebd’s champions at each river ford her army needed to cross.  Using this tactic he held up the invasion while the Ulster defenders recuperated. However, despite the hold up, Mebd managed to take Donn Cúailnge. 

Eventually the incapacitated defenders of Ulster recovered and led by King Conchobar rally to the defence of the realm.  After a final battle against Conchobar, Mebd retreated having got what she came for took the bull back to Connacht.  To decide who was the most powerful and valuable bull Donn Cúailnge and Finnbennach were matched in a fight against each other.  Donn Cúailnge killed Finnbennach but also died of his wounds leaving Mebd and her husband Aillil equal in wealth and status.

Death of Mebd

In later years it Mebd’s custom to bathe in a pool on an island named Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery. However, this was to prove to be her undoing. Mebd had previously murdered her sister. Her son Furbaide seeking revenge for his mother’s death waited for Mebd until she came to bathe.  According to tradition, he killed her with a hardened piece of cheese fired from his sling, which was the nearest projectile he could find in a hurry.  Her son Maine Athramail succeeded her to the throne of Connacht.

Her final resting place is uncertain.  She is said to be buried standing upright to face her enemies.  According to one legend she is buried in a 40 foot high stone cairn in the top of Knocknarea in County Sligo.  Another possible site for her burial place is her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon at a place now called ‘Misgaun Medb’.

There is no shortage of colorful and extraordinary characters in Irish mythology and Queen Mebd must surely rate somewhere at the top of the list.

© 03/06/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 3rd, 2020 zteve t evans

The Arthurian Realm: The May Day Battle for the Maiden Creiddylad

Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

May Day

The 1st of May is also known as May Day, Beltane or in Wales Calan Mai or Calan Haf.  In Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature it is often linked to the beginning of an adventure or the unfolding of significant events.  More sinisterly, it is also linked with the abduction of a female by a male suitor, a recurring theme in Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature.  Presented here is a brief discussion on the abduction of Creiddylad and the battle by two warring suitors for possession of her, which takes place every May Day until Doomsday, when there must be a final victor.

Gwyn ap Nudd

In Welsh mythology Gwyn ap Nudd  was a ruler of Annwn and the Tylwyth Teg and also associated with Glastonbury Tor.  His name means “white son of Nudd,” though he is often described as having a blackened face.   His father was Ludd, who was also known as Lludd of the Silver Hand and he may have had a sister, or step-sister named Creiddylad, but the relationship, if any, is not clear.  He accompanied King Arthur in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen.

Creiddylad

Creiddylad briefly appears in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.  She has been likened to Persephone, the Greek vegetation goddess associated with spring and fertility who had been abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld.  Her mother, Demeter searched for her neglecting her duties and causing the earth to stop growing. She is eventually found and after the intervention of Zeus is compelled repeatedly to spend half the year in Hades and the other on Earth, representing winter and summer respectively.

Creiddylad was considered the most beautiful maiden in the island of Britain.   She had two suitors; Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidawl. Some scholars regard Creiddylad as the prototype for the legendary Queen Cordeilla of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical, The History of the Kings of Britain.  Later William Shakespear’s character Cordelia from his play King Lear was thought to have been inspired by Geoffrey’s version though not everyone accepts this view.  

Gwythyr ap Greidawl

Gwythyr ap Greidawl was the son of Greidawl Galldonyd, one of King Arthur’s knights.  Gwythyr was also one of Arthur’s knights and a member of his retinue along with Gwyn in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.  

The Abduction and Conflict

Creiddylad and Gwyther were betrothed but before they were married Gwyn ap Nudd forcefully abducted her. Gwythyr raised an army to confront Gwyn and win back his betrothed.   In the ensuing battle Gwyn is victorious taking a number of important prisoners. These included Dyfnarth his son, Glinneu son of Taran, Gwrgwst Ledlwm, Graid son of Eri, Pen son Nethog, Nwython and his son Cyledyr.  In an act of sheer cruelty the Gwyn made Cyledyr eat the heart of his father which drove him mad. From then on the epitaph Wyllt meaning madness was added after his name with him becoming Cyledyr Wyllt.

On hearing of the hostilities, King Arthur intervened setting the prisoners free and making a peace agreement between the two.  This stipulated that Gwyn and Gwythyr would fight for Creiddylad every year on the 1st of May until Doomsday. Whoever won the fight on Doomsday would win Creiddylad for his bride.  Through all this time she would remain unmarried living with her father until the contest had been settled.

Creiddylad as a Goddess

There is an idea that Creiddylad may represent a fertility goddess and the battle between the two rivals is to choose the strongest and most virile to be her husband to ensure the fertility of the earth.Caitlin Mathews in her book, King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land – The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion, explains how certain female characters in the Mabinogion may be seen as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty. The possession of such a female by a male gives the possessor sovereignty over the land. Some times she is called the Flower Bride and considered the spirit of new growth, renewal and fertility.

With both ideas possession is one thing and keeping her is another. In both roles her task is to ensure the fertility of the land. Therefore, he who would be king must be the strongest and most virile. He must also be the steward of the land taking care of it and its inhabitants in return for sovereignty over it. There is an idea that the well being of the land is intimately tied up with the well being of the king. Should the king weaken and fail so will the land. There will never be a shortage of suitors for the goddess or Flower Bride and inevitably she must choose the strongest and the most potent for her consort to ensure the fertility, renewal and well being of the land she bestows. This may look immoral to a patriarchal society but it is her sacred duty to protect and ensure the continuance of life on the land and her morality cannot be judged in such terms.

Birth, Death and Renewal

These abduction stories are also often linked to birth, death and renewal of life and crops and nature.  They may also be connected with the battle of light and dark and the cyclical changing of the seasons but not all scholars accept these ideas.  In Arthurian literature there are several similar examples involving the abductions of Queen Guinevere and other ritualistic duels between two warring males that may also be seen in this light. 

© 06/05/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 6th, 2020 zteve t evans