Vortigern's Rule: The Assassination of King Constans

Image by by Matthew Paris – Public Domain

Vortigern and the Chaos  of Britain

According to the Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern was a 5th century King of the Britons. He was considered one of the most notoriously devious and immoral kings in British history. To be fair he was only doing behaving as his contemporaries behaved. It was a question of dog eat dog in those days with no quarter given or asked for. He was attributed with most of the blame for inviting the Anglo-Saxon war-leaders Hengist and  Horsa into Britain as his mercenaries, sowing the seeds for the eventual Anglo-Saxon takeover of much of England and the many years of war and strife that was to come.

This is a retelling of how Vortigern usurped the crown of Britain based on the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although his work was once considered reasonably accurate it is now no longer seen as reliable by modern scholars.  Nevertheless his work does provide his own version of the history of Britain and its kings and still has its merits as a cultural product of its times and still wields considerable influence in many Arthurian creations in the modern times. This part of the story of the history of the island of Britain begins with the assassination of King Constantine and the succession of his son Constans.  It continues to reveal how Vortigern grabbed power and ends with the threat of war hanging over him and the arrival of Hengist and Horsa.

The  Assassination of  King Constantine

After King Constantine of Britain had been in power for ten years he was assassinated by a Pict who stabbed him in the back.  After his death the crown of Britain was greatly disputed. The legitimate successor to the throne was Contans, the eldest son of Constantine, but his father had placed him in a monastery.  Although he was unhappy with the monastic life he was not really interested or suited to being king.  The next oldest and second in line was Aurelius Ambrosius his younger brother and the third was the youngest brother whose name was Uther.  Some nobles favored Aurelius to rule while others preferred Uther.  It was finally agreed that both were too young and all were at a loss as to what to do.  

Vortigern Becomes Ambitious

Vortigern had his own ambitions and his own ideas on who should be King of the island of Britain. He preferred Costans knowing that he had little interest in ruling and lacked the necessary qualities and strength of character that a monarch of Britain would need to control and unite the nation. Furthermore, he knew that he had no desire to remain a monk all his life.  Vortigern reasoned that if he helped him escape the clutches of the monastery to become king he could easily manipulate him while all the time working towards his ultimate unspoken goal of taking the crown for himself.  To further his ends he offered to set the unhappy Constans free from the monastery and make him king if in return he would make him his chief adviser. 

Constans: The Puppet King

Constans agreed and left the monastery and  Vortigern took him to London to be crowned king.  The consent of the nobles or the people was never asked for or obtained. Inconveniently the recent death of Archbishop Guethelin meant there was no one else of sufficient authority and stature in the clergy to fulfill such an important role. Conveniently for Vortigern the only other person with sufficient governmental experience and authority to fulfill such a role was himself and he performed the coronation ceremony. 

Constans lacked any knowledge or experience of government and had little or no credibility with the nobles or the people.  He relied heavily on the experience and guile of Vortigern for advice making him the effective ruler of Britain in all but name.  With many of the more experienced nobles killed in the wars with the Picts there were few alive who could match his statecraft and experience and Vortigern was using these personal assets to further his own ambitions ruthlessly.  

The next part of his plan was to remove Constans from the throne and set himself upon it. As always he was patient and bided his time while always seeking ways to consolidate his power at home by clandestine means.  At the same time he secretly used his position to increase his influence with nearby countries. He persuaded King Constans to give him control of the Royal Treasure to keep it safe. The inexperienced king at his Chief Advisor’s request also gave him control of all of the fortified towns and cities of the realm after claiming a fictitious threat of foreign invasion was imminent.  As soon as he had control of the cities he replaced their rulers and governors with his own men ensuring total control over the major fortified population centres.

Vortigern’s Treachery

He then persuaded King Constans that he was in danger and needed more men in his bodyguard to protect him from assassination.  Constans, perhaps bearing in mind what had happened to his father and trusting fully in Vortigern gave his permission to hand pick his personal bodyguard.  This made it easy for Vortigern who told the king that he had received word that an alliance of Picts and Dacians were preparing to attack Britain. He also assured him he knew of some trustworthy Picts who were not involved in the plot and he advised they should be offered a place at his court to form his new bodyguard. They would be loyal to Constans and act as spies informing him on what their compatriots were plotting.  Despite his father having been assassinated by a Pict such was his trust and reliance on Vortigern that Constans agreed.

Vortigern’s real intention was not to protect the king but replace his loyal bodyguards with men of his own choosing whom he believed he could control.  He knew the Picts were quarrelsome and often indulged in heavy drinking and in such a state they were unruly but easily manipulated. He also knew full well that they would have no qualms about assassinating Constans if the seeds of the idea were sown carefully and the right conditions prevailed. Therefore, he was confident that if he set the stage right they would act out the part he planned and take the blame while he looked beyond suspicion and took the crown.

To bring his plan into action he sent messengers to Scotland seeking one hundred Pictish warriors whom he could install as the King’s household guard.  When the Picts arrived he made a great show of welcome.  He gave them expensive presents and a luxury table for them to dine from and he showed them more respect than he gave the King’s original bodyguard.  So pleased were they with his welcome of them they began to see him as their lord and master above King Constans, exactly as Vortigern had planned.

Soon they began to make songs revering Vortigern and belittling Constans.  In these they praised Vortigern as king suggesting Constans was unworthy. They sang these songs in the streets in full view of the public pleasing Vortigern greatly. The greater they praised him the more he praised them in return and bestowed greater favor upon them.  Soon the next stage of his plan was ready to put into action.

The Killing of King Constans

He waited until one day when the Picts were well and truly drunk and solemnly told them the day was coming when he would leave Britain.  Mournfully, he told them he did not want to go but could no longer afford to keep more than fifty men in his retinue. With that he feigned great sorrow and left them drinking to think about it. The Picts were sorry to hear this for Vortigern had been good to them.  They began to think about their own position and how that could change and one of them said,

“Why do we suffer this monk to live? Why do not we kill him, that Vortigern may enjoy his crown? Who is so fit to succeed as he? A man so generous to us is worthy to rule, and deserves all the honour and dignity that we can bestow upon him.” (1) 

After more drinking and such talk between one another they broke into the King’s bedchamber.  They killed him while he slept and then proudly presented his severed head to Vortigern. Putting on a great show of sorrow and tears, while really elated with joy, he ordered the assassins to be bound. Wasting no time he summoned the citizens of London to witness their execution for what he called their terrible crime.

Not all of Britain’s nobles were taken in by Vortigern’s show of false sorrow. Many suspected villainy but with no one left in Britain powerful enough to stop him Vortigern seized the crown.  In fear of their own lives and for the safety of the brothers Aurelius and Uther – the true heirs – they fled across the sea to Armorica.    The brothers were well treated by King Bude who educated and kept them in a manner befitting their royal blood.

As time passed his treason was at last discovered. The Picts were furious at the execution of their own people and constantly attacked and ravaged the border country.  Vortigern was at daily war with them and lost many of his best warriors keeping them at bay. 

The Threat of Aurelius

Over the years in Armorica, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther were coming of age and sought revenge for the murder of their father and elder brother.  Aurelius, the elder of the two had built himself a formidable reputation on the continent as a war leader and was mustering an army to retake the crown of Britain.  He remembered how Vortigern had favoured the Picts and now he knew he had orchestrated their deaths to remove any witnesses. Now with his own star on the rise he was burning to avenge his father and elder brother and reclaim the crown of Britain.

Although Vortigern was now High King of the island of Britain his troubles were just beginning.  With the growing threat of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther he began receiving reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army. His spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their inheritance.  Therefore an invasion force was expected to land at any time somewhere along the south coast of England.  

With the Picts making daily forays in the north of his realm he knew he was in trouble. Taking stock of the situation on both fronts he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom. Despite his military weakness he still had  his political guile and ruthlessness which he used to quell any opposition among his own war leaders. Nevertheless, these were dangerous times with the promise of worse to come but things were going to take an unexpected turn that he would at first welcome and then live to regret.   As the clouds of war were gathering on the northern and southern edges of his realm there appeared completely unexpectedly off the coast of Britain three long ships carrying a detachment of armed warriors from foreign parts. These warriors were under the command of two brothers named Hengist and Horsa and they came ashore at Kent.

To begin with the presence of these two brothers looked to be a welcome gift in nullifying the brothers Aurelius and Uther and countering the Picts and Vortigern welcomed. However, while he was ruthless and treacherous Hengist would prove to be a master beyond compare of deceit and treachery. Hengist also has had a beautiful daughter name Rowena who Vortigern would become obsessed with and marry. All the time across the sea in Armorica, Aurelius was preparing his revenge.

© 12/02/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

Winter Folklore: Traditions and Customs of the Cailleach Bheur

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or the Cailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology  and Gaia, in Greek mythology.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie

The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.  In his book,  Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it.  Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.  

He saw her as a giantess with  a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles.  According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys  of Scotland.  Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch.  Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day. 

As the Cailleach

In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills.  She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys.   She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes. 

The Cailleach and Brigid

Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess.  They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn  to Samhain.

In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward,  in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st.  Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.

Saint Brigid’s Day

According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or  Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter.  If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.  Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man  where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter.  This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days.  When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow. 

Harvest Traditions

There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut.  This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest.  If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned.  This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.

© 06/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

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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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

templars_chess_libro-de-los-juegos_alfons-x

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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Lludd and Llevelys and the Three Plagues of Britain

TwoDragons3

Cropped image of Two Dragons from History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth – Public Domain

King Lludd

King Lludd appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Lludd and Llevelys as King of Britain.  This is a tale that tells how with the help of Llevelys, his younger brother, he overcome the Three Plagues of Britain that had caused his people great anxiety and fear.  It is thought that Geoffrey of Monmouth in the History of the Kings of Britain refers to him as Lud and it may be the case that the Mabinogion tale owes much to Geoffrey.

After the death of his father Beli the Great, as his eldest son, Lludd became King of the Island of Britain.   Lludd was a great and generous king and a mighty warrior and leader of men.  He was generous in giving food and hospitality to any who sought it from him and cared for the welfare of his lords and subjects.  During the reign of Lludd the island of Britain prospered greatly.  Lludd rebuilt the city of London that Brutus the Trojan, the legendary first King of Britain was said to have founded.  He surrounded it with strong walls with many towers to defend its citizens and called upon his subjects to built fine houses within those walls and London became the finest and richest city on the island of Britain.

King Llevelys

According to the Mabinogion, Lludd had three brothers and the youngest named Llevelys was his favourite. He was extremely fond of Llevelys who grew up to be a very wise and discreet man whom he could always trust.   It so happened that when the King of France passed away and having no male heirs to the throne he had left his kingdom to his daughter.  Llevelys sought her hand in marriage and after a successful courtship  married her and became the ruler of France.   He was to prove to be a good and just ruler who governed with great wisdom for many years and had a long and happy life.

The Three Plagues of Britain

The island of Britain ruled by Lludd continued to prosper as did France ruled by Llevelys.  There came a time in Britain when the situation changed for the worse and the people grew fearful and troubled.  Three plagues had descended upon the island of Britain that caused the people great distress and anxiety.   The first of these plagues was a people called the Coranians, the second was an unearthly Shriek heard throughout the land and the third was the theft of Royal provisions.

The Coranians

The Coranians were said to be a race of dwarves who had the power to hear anything and everything the wind touched.  No word could be spoken anywhere without them instantly hearing it.  They could hear every word that was uttered upon the island of Britain and so could never be attacked unprepared.  In some texts they were said to have settled near the Humber and allies themselves with the enemies of Britain.

The Shriek

The second plague came every year on the eve of May Day when without fail the most unearthly and terrifying shriek was heard throughout the land.  It was such an awful and terrifying sound that it would pierce the hearts of the people causing such terror that grown men turned pale and maidens lost their reason and cause animals, trees and the very earth to become barren.

Theft of Provisions

The third plague was baffling and annoying.   However much of the King’s food and drink was prepared in the Royal courts from morning to nightfall the next morning it would be discovered to have vanished overnight without a trace.

Lludd Seeks Counsel

Of these three plagues Lludd had more hope of being cured of the first than the other two because he knew the cause of the first, whereas with the other two the cause was a mystery.  Lludd called together the princes, the nobles and his wise men of his realm to discuss and set out a course of action.  After much debating and arguing they had to admit they were all baffled not knowing the cause so not knowing a remedy.  In the end it was decided by all that Lludd should travel to the court of his youngest brother Llevelys to ask his advice and most  being the wisest person and most trustworthy they knew.  All further preparations for the voyage were done in silence in case the Coranians heard of the venture. So it was that in silence and secrecy a fleet of ships embarked from the island of Britain bound for France to seek out the counsel of Llevelys.

When tidings of the fleet reached Llevelys he was puzzled at the meaning of the ships not knowing his brother’s reason for them.  Llevelys then assembled his own fleet and sailed to meet him.    When Lludd saw his brother’s fleet he immediately ordered all ships save the one that bore him to hold back while he sailed to meet his brother.   On seeing this Llevelys immediately did the same and the two brothers met together and embraced in love,  friendship and joy at their reunion.

Defeating the Coranians

Brass tube of Llevelys

Levely flushes out the Demon – Public Domain

After Lludd had explained the cause of his visit Llevelys said that it was good that he had come and that he could help and advised they go below ship out of the wind lest the Coranians should get word of their meeting.   Llevelys ordered the making of a long brass tube that they could use to talk through to one another without fear of the Coranians hearing.  This was done but when they spoke to each other through the tube the only words the hearer could hear from the speaker were all words of anger and hostility.  Llevelys realised that the horn was possessed by a demon of some kind that was deliberately twisting their words into anger.  He washed it through with wine which because of the goodness of the wine the demon to flee.

When at last Llevelys and Lludd could talk freely and naturally to each other Llevelys told his brother that he would provide him with insects and teach him how to crush these in water to create a mixture that would rid him of the Coranians. He would also teach him how to breed them should the Coralians ever return.  He instructed Lludd that he would need to throw the specially prepared mixture over the Coranians and they would be destroyed but not harm any of the people of Britain that the mixture might fall upon.

The Two Dragons

Two Dragons

The Two Warring Dragons – Public Domain

Then Llevelys turned his attention to the second plague and said,

“The second plague is caused by a dragon within your realm that is fighting a foreign dragon in a life or death battle.  The dragon of your realm is making the fearful shriek and here is what you must do.

When you return home you must have the length and breadth of the island of Britain measured from this you must work out the exact center of the island.  There in the very heart of the island you must have a deep pit dug and place a cauldron filled with the best mead in the land to be placed in the bottom of the pit.  Then, cover the cauldron with a sheet of satin and there you, yourself must remain to watch for the warring beasts which will appear in the form of two terrible animals.  These will fight each other but eventually they will rise into the air and take the form of two dragons.  These will continue to fight furiously in the air until they grow tired and will transform into pigs and drop out of the air into the cauldron onto the satin covering and fall through sinking to the bottom of the cauldron and drink up the mead.  This will cause them to fall asleep and as soon as they are asleep wrap the around in the sheet and then place them in a stone kistvaen and transport them to the strongest place of your kingdom and bury them.  While they remain buried in that place no plague shall again trouble Britain.” (1)

Mighty Man of Magic

Mighty Man of Magic

Mighty Man of Magic Stealing the King;s Provisions – Public Domain

Llevelys then told his brother that the cause of the third plague was a mighty man of magic who was using his magical arts to send everyone to sleep while he stole the food from Lludd’s court.  To prevent this Llevelys advised that it would be necessary for Lludd himself to stay awake to guard the store and confront the thief.  He told him to ensure he stays awake he should keep a cauldron of cold water at his side to splash over his face should he begin to drowse.

Lludd Frees Britain of the Plagues

Thanking his brother Lludd returned to Britain where he summoned the whole of his people along with the Coranians to a great meeting.  He had previously crushed and prepared the insect mixture as his brother had taught him and when all were assembled he threw the concoction over the Coranians killing them but leaving the Britons unharmed.    In this way through the advice of Llevelys the Coranians were defeated and the plague ended.

After this Lludd had his servants measure the length and breadth of Britain to determine the center of the realm and decided this was at a place now known as Oxford.  In that place Lludd had a pit dug and placed a cauldron of mead at its base.  He then covered it with a sheet of satin as his brother had advised.  On the eve of May Day he set himself to watch what events should unfold.

That night he witnessed the appearance of the two warring beasts who immediately set about fighting each other just as his brother had foretold. He saw how they rose into the air and transformed into great fighting dragons.  He watched as they battled each other and eventually overcome with exhaustion fell from the air into the cauldron of mead which they then drank and fell into a deep slumber.   Seizing his chance Lludd wrapped them in the satin sheet and placed them into a stone container and transported them to Dinas Emrys, which was the strongest part of his kingdom at the time.   This action ended the fearful shrieking that had plagued and terrified the entire island of Britain.

After this, Lludd resolved to deal with the mighty man of magic who had been plundering his stores.  He ordered a great banquet to be prepared  and setting himself on watch with a vessel of cold water beside him he awaited the arrival of the thief.  In the dead hours after midnight he heard many wonderful songs and many curious things and found himself sinking into a dreamy slumber.   Rousing himself he splashed his face with old water from the cauldron. He found he needed to do this often battling to stay awake.

As he fought against the slumber he became aware of the appearance of a huge man clad in the armour of a warrior and armed with a sword.  The giant proceed to gather all the food and drink and place it in a huge hamper.  Lludd sat still and watched for a while in wonderment and was further amazed that the hamper never overflowed with all that was being placed inside.  At last he decided enough was enough and jumping up and cried, “Stop! stop! You have insulted me enough!  Stop now or face my sword!

Ludd and the Mghty Man of Magic

Lludd Fights the Mighty Man of Magic – Public Domain

With a mighty roar the giant threw down the hamper and rushed at Lludd with his drawing his sword.  Lludd rushed to meet him and they fell together in deadly combat.  Fire flew from their swords and after a hard fight fortune gave the victory to Lludd.  As he threw down his foe to the ground and had him at the mercy of his sword he asked,  “Should I spare thee for all the wrongs you have done me?”

“Spare me and all that I have taken shall be returned in equal amount and from this day on I will be your faithful servant,” replied the giant. Lludd quickly reflected upon this and accepted and the Mighty Man of Magic served him faithfully and fully as he had promised.

The Two Dragons Reappear

So it was that Lludd rid Britain of the three plagues and from that day on his realm bloomed and prospered in peace and security and so the story of Lludd and Llevelys ended.  However, part of the story was to reappear many centuries later in the time of King Vortigern when the two dragons resurfaced to hinder the construction of a fortress Vortigern was building. This event was to see the emergence of a young Merlin who prophesied the coming of Arthur who would unite Britain under his banner and become King of Britain and drive out the Anglo-Saxon invaders at least for a time.

© 12/07/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright zteve t evans July 12th, 2017

The Stag in Ancient Celtic Culture

Stag on the Watch – By Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) – Public Domain Image

The stag in Celtic mythology is a symbol of the forest. It grows antlers that resemble branches on a tree. It looks as if it carries the forest around with it crowned on its head. The stag is fast, powerful and agile and sexually vigorous. This represents the the energy of nature which is self regenerating. The shedding of its antlers in the autumn and their regrowth in the spring is like the seasonal cycle of the forest trees which shed their leaves each autumn and regrow them each spring.

The Gundestrup Cauldron

Part of Gundestrup Cauldron Depicting Cernunnos – Derivative work: Fuzzypeg – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

One of the finest relics of the Celts is the Gundestrup cauldron. This is a Iron Age silver work cauldron that was found near the Danish village of Gundestrup. The cauldron is ornately decorated with many fine figures of gods, animals and images of nature. Cernunnos, the stag horned god of the Celts is depicted sitting cross legged next to a stag. On another part of the cauldron there is a depiction of a god holding a stag with each hand.

Highly Regarded

The stag appears to be highly regarded in Celtic society and held in reverence over a widespread area. In Luxembourg a depiction of a stag with coins flowing from its mouth has been found.

A carved stone figure found in Rhiems depicts Cernunnos with a stag and a bull that are drinking from a. stream of coins. This is believed to mean that stags are associated with prosperity.

As can be expected, in many areas the stag is associated with hunting. The stag would have played an important part in the economy of the Celtic people. Its flesh provided food, its skin provided clothing and coverings, and its bones provided, tools and weapons such as arrowheads.

In northern Britain, Cocidius, the hunter god, was associated with the stag. In the south of Britain, around Colchester, Silvanus the woodland king, also known as Silvanus Callirius, was associated with the stag.

At a mountain shrine at Le Donon, in the Vosges dedicated to a nature or hunter god. His image was carved in stone showing him wearing the hide of an animal and he had fruit hanging from him. Next to him stands a stag and he has his hand placed on its antlers in what seems to be an act of benediction.

The Celtic Relationship With Nature

Images of hunting and of the forest are shown next to images of prosperity. It shows the relationship and respect the hunter has for the hunted and in doing so reveals much about the Celtic mindset and their relationship with nature.

Burgundy was believed to have been a horse breeding region during Celtic times and a place where the stag horned Cernunnos was revered. A sculpture made by the Aedui tribe shows a “divine couple.” A god and goddess, are shown apparently presiding over the animal kingdom. They are shown in a sitting position next to each other with their feet resting on two stags. Next to the god is a horse that is being offered a drink from a goblet. The goddess is offering a goblet to a horse by her side to drink from, while petting it.

The stag in Celtic terms was a representation of the natural world and the animal kingdom. The antlers are a reminder that nature can be dangerous and violent. It can be violent and harmful, but it can be benign and beneficial. They stag is also a symbol of male fertility, the fertility of the forest and the renewal of nature. As such it played an important role in Celtic society and culture representing the Celtic relationship with nature and the animal kingdom.

References and Attributions

Copyright zteve t evans