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.
Presented here is a retelling of the story of the time Pwyll of Dyfed spent in Annwfn in the body of Arawn. It is the first part of the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed or Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, which is the First Branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It tells how he and Arawn became friends and of his sojourn in Annwfn.
Pwyll of Dyfed
One day as Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed was out hunting in the region of Glyn Cuch his hounds raised a stag. The stag took off at great speed with the hounds hard on its trail and Pwyll spurred his horse forward in pursuit sounding his hunting horn. The stag was moving fast but the hounds were keeping up and he was keeping up with the hounds. In the speed and excitement of the chase he lost the other members of his party who were left far behind.
Following the sound of his pack he became aware that he could also hear another pack of hounds which sounded very different to his own. Arriving in a glade in the woods he was surprised to see in the middle a large stag holding at bay a pack of strange hounds. As Pwyll looked on they brought the beast to the ground. Although an experienced and accomplished huntsman Pwyll had never seen dogs like these before. They had coats of pure, shining white and the tips of their white ears glowed red. Moving purposely forward he drove the pack of strange dogs off and set his own on the stag.
The Anger of Arawn
No sooner had he done this when he heard the blowing of a hunting horn and the approach of a fast riding horseman. The horseman cut an intimidating figure being tall and well built and dressed in grey hunting clothes. Around his neck hung a hunting horn which he blew notes on heralding his arrival. Reining in his horse he glared coldly upon Pwyll and spoke in a blunt and unfriendly manner, “Chieftain, I know who you are but I will not welcome you!”
“Indeed,” replied Pwyll taking offense at the tone of the address, “you appear lacking of such dignity and manners and it is best you do not do so!”“Indeed,” saidthe stranger, “it is not my dignity and manners that prevent me!”
“Chieftain, what then is it? Am I the one at fault, is it my courtesy and manners that are at fault? Tell me what is the fault that I have committed?” replied Pwyll in anger and bewilderment. Replied the huntsman, “Never have I seen anything so discourteous and bad-mannered! You have driven my dogs away from their kill and set your own upon it. Though I may not gain revenge for the value of the offense, I swear I will bring you more dishonor than the worth of a hundred stags!”
Realizing he was at fault Pwyll said, “Chieftain, I indeed have done wrong. How I can make it up to you and become your friend? You say you know who I am, therefore, tell me who you are?” The other replied, “I am Arawn, a King of Annwfn,” and Pwyll answered, “Then Arawn, a King of Annwfn, I ask how I may redeem myself and win your friendship?”
“I have a neighbor named Hafgan who forever makes trouble and seeks war and is also a King of Annwfn. Rid me of him and gain my undying friendship and amend the wrong you have done me,” replied Arawn. “I will do this, but how?” said Pwyll. Arawn replied,
“Change places with me and live as I have lived as a King of Annwfn. You will have the fairest lady ever seen as your Queen, who is my wife.We must exchange bodies. Your mind and soul will live in my body and my mind and soul will live in yours. I will make it so no one in the world will ever be able to know the difference, not your closest friend, not even my wife. I will know what you know, you will know what I know. We will live like this for a year and a day and in that time you will have accomplished the task. We shall meet on that anniversary in this place and I will return us to our true forms. Only we will know! ”
“I will do this, but how shall I know and find your enemy,” Pwyll asked. “The time and date are already set for us to meet in single combat to the death. One year from today you will find him waiting at the ford. Be there and with one stroke rid me of him and gain my never ending friendship. One word of warning I give! Should he ask you to strike again to bring his life to a quick end you must refuse. Last year I made this mistake after dealing him a fatal blow and he recovered. You must let him die slowly!” advised Arawn. “It is understood and this I will do,” replied Arawn, “but what will happen to my own kingdom while I am away?”
“Fear not for your kingdom. In your own semblance I will rule in your stead and none will ever know the difference,” answered Arawn. “Then, let us begin!” said Pwyl. “Nothing shall hinder you until you come into my lands and then I will guide you to my palace in my kingdom,” said Arawn,” and it shall begin.”
Arawn led Pwyll through the forest to a place close to his palace and said, “Behold, my palace. Here I must leave you to enter alone as I. Have no fear, no one will see anything different and all will accept you as being myself. Furthermore, you will find you have knowledge of all the ways of the court. “
Sojourn in Annwfn
Therefore, Pwyll entered court and it was as Arawn had told him. He was welcomed as their king by the servants and his wife who noticed nothing amiss. Two knights helped to dress him in the finest silks of gold and scarlet and the hall was prepared for feasting and they noticed nothing. He saw that those who joined him were of the most comely and handsome of looks and ways. They all appeared to know him paying him great obeisance. Arawn’s wife entered and sat next to him talking as she had always known him. Just as Arawn had said, she was the fairest woman he had ever seen. She was dressed in scarlet and gold and talked and conversed with him most agreeably throughout the meal. After the feasting there were wonderful stories and songs and Pwyll thought that this must be the most entertaining and courteous of courts on Earth.
The Fight at the Ford
He spent the next year hunting and feasting, enjoying the entertainments of the court and his conversations with the Queen and the courtiers. Eventually the year passed and the time came around when he must meet Hafgan, the enemy of Arawn, at the ford in single combat. The nobles and everyone in the kingdom had been waiting for this time to come and a great throng of warriors assembled to accompany him to the fight at the ford. As he arrived a knight spoke up to address the throng saying, “Lords, this conflict is between two kings who claim ownership of each other’s realm. It is not your battle therefore stand aside and let the kings do battle alone.”
Turning he said the same to those on his side of the Ford and all but the two kings fell back to watch the fight. The two kings approached each other and met in the middle of the ford and without ceremony the fight began. With his first blow Pwyll struck the shield of Hafgan such a mighty blow that it was split in two and Hafgan was knocked to the ground mortally wounded. “Chieftain,” said Hafgan, “I am dying but what right have you to cause my death as I have done you no harm in any of this. As You have dealt me a killing blow I ask of you to strike again and strike fast to end my life quickly.”
“Chieftain,” replied Pwyll, “it may well be that I come to regret the blow I dealt you and the one that I will not deal, but I will give no more blows.” Calling out to his knights Hafgan said, ” I say to my subjects, I shall no longer be able to support you, therefore follow who you will, for I die now.”
Pwyll said, “Let those who have followed Hafgan come over to me without fear and in peace. There can only be one victor and that will be Arawn.” Those nobles on the opposite side of the ford went over to join with him. Next he rode through Hafgan’s kingdom subduing those who would not follow and subjecting the land to Arawn as the undisputed king of all of Annwfn. By noon the next day the two kingdoms were united and Pwyll made his way to keep his tryst with Arawn.
When he arrived Arawn was waiting and the two rejoiced to meet again. Arawn said, “I know the news you bring and I am thankful for your fulfilling the promise. You have my undying friendship and when you return to your own realm you shall see what I did for you in your absence.”
” Whatever that may be,” said Pwyll, “may Heaven reward you.” With that, Arawn reinstated each to their own natural bodies and set off for his home in Annwfn. When he arrived home none of his court or his queen realized he had been away or noticed any difference in him. When the time came for him to go to bed he took his wife with him who seemed both surprised and delighted. She told him she had been grieved that he had not shown any interest in sleeping with her the last long year. Arawn realized the extent of Pwyll’s mastery over himself and was glad but made sure he was fully reconciled with his wife.
Pwyll also went home and none of his nobles or servants appeared to notice any difference. Therefore he asked them their opinions of how his judgements and rule had been over the past year. They told him that he had appeared to have ruled with great justice, wisdom and perception and his kingdom had benefited greatly from this. Pwyll told them about the exchange of places with Arawn and said they should be grateful to him for how he had treated them.
To strengthen the friendship between Annwfn and Dyfed, Arawn sent greyhounds, horses, hawks and such presents he thought would please Pwyll. In turn Pwyll reciprocated in kind. The friendship between Arawn and Pwyll blossomed and grew bringing great prosperity and benefit to both kingdoms. From that time on he also became known as “Pwyll, Pen Annwfn” or “Pwyll, Head of Annwfn“.
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.
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 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.
In Irish and Celtic mythology the Tuatha Dé Danann were a supernatural race who were known to interact with and form relationships with humans. They had a reputation for being adept in the sciences, arts, magic and necromancy. Their name translates as the people of the goddess Dana or Danu and they are seen as being the main gods of Ireland before the arrival of Christianity. Along with the Fir Bolg they were the descendents of Nemed, who ruled the third wave of invaders of Ireland and was reputedly descended from the Biblical Noah. They were believed to have come from Falias, Gorias, Murias and Finias which were four cities located somewhere to the north of Ireland. They brought with them four magical treasures; the Dagda’s Cauldron, the Spear of Lugh, The Stone of Fal, and the Sword of Light of Nuada.
Each individual of the Tuatha Dé Danann was seen as being a representation of certain aspects of the natural world and some of them were associated with more than one. Some individuals were also known by other names which may vary from region to region. The Tuatha Dé Danann were the traditional enemies of the Fomorians who appear to represent the dark destructive forces of nature. They were personifications of drought, pestilence, chaos, darkness and death, whereas the Tuatha Dé Danann were gods of civilisation and growth.
It was the Christian monks that recorded and wrote down Irish mythology and in doing so altered and rewrote some of it to a degree. They often saw the Tuath Dé Danann as kings, queens and heroes from a bygone era and credited them with having supernatural powers. Another view was that they were fallen angels being neither good or evil. Other medieval writers saw them as being gods or spirits because some characters are found in tales that are from different times often separated by centuries. This lent to the belief that they were divine or immortal beings. For example, Manannán mac, Aengus, Morrígan and Lugh all appear in tales from different eras which many see as supporting the idea of their immortality.
The Lebor Gabála Érenn
The Lebor Gabála Érenn is a collection of poetry and writing collected in the Middle Ages. It claims to tell the history and origin of the Irish and Ireland up to the time it was written. Many versions exist but the earliest were believed to have been written in the 11th century. According to this work the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland in ships bringing, “dark clouds”. Theyweresaid to have landed on the mountains of Connachta bringing three days and nights of darkness. Another later version says that they burnt their ships on arrival so there was no way they could go back. The smoke from the ships filled the air and was the cause of the dark clouds and darkness.
Their leader was King Nuada who led them in the First Battle of Magh Tuireadh where they defeated the Fir Bolg, the native inhabitants of Ireland. Although they won, King Nuada lost an arm fighting Sreng, the Fir Bolg champion. Despite this Sreng and his three hundred followers were losing the battle and facing defeat vowed to fight to the death. The Tuatha Dé Danann were so impressed with their valor and fighting ability they offered them a one fifth of Ireland if they pulled out of the fight. This was agreed and they chose Connacht and the people there were said to be able to trace their ancestry from Sreng up to the 17th century.
However, Nuada had been badly wounded, losing an arm and this meant that he was no longer unblemished. According to Tuatha Dé Danann tradition this meant he had to relinquish the kingship. Bres, who was half-Fomorian became king and he demanded tribute from the Tuatha Dé and enslaved them.
Dian Cecht, a great healer, replaced the lost arm of Nuada with a fully functioning silver one which allowed him to take back the kingship. Miach, the son of Dian Cecht was not satisfied with the replacement arm of Nuada and cast a spell saying whichmade flesh grow over the artificial silver arm in nine days and nine nights. Jealous at the skill and success of his son Dian Cecht murdered his him.
Bres was forced to hand back the crown to Nuada and consulted with Elatha, his father who would have no part in any scheme to win back the kingship. Instead he advised him to seek help from Balor the king of the Fomorians. Balor agreed to help Bres and from this came the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh where the Tuatha Dé Danann fought the Fomorians led by Balor, who killed Nuada with his poisonous eye. Then the Tuatha Dé, champion, Lugh killed Balor and became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The Invasion of the Milesians
The arrival of invaders to Ireland from what today is known as Galicia in Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula brought further conflict. These invaders were believed to be Goidelic Celts, who were believed to be descendants of Míl Espáine and known as Milesians.
They met three of the Tuatha Dé Danann, goddesses; Ériu, Banba and Fodla who requested them to name the island after them which is where the modern name Éire came from. The husbands of these three goddesses were Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine who were kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann requested a three day truce with the Milesians. During these three days the Milesian fleet would anchor nine waves distance from the coast. They agreed and complied with the truce but the Tuatha Dé Danann using magic summoned up a storm hoping to sink the enemy fleet or drive their ships out to sea.
Tir na nOg
The Milesians called on their poet Amergin for help. He calmed the seas with his poetry and they managed to safely land. This resulted in a battle with the Tuatha Dé Danann at Tailtiu which the Milesians won. Amergin was tasked with dividing the island up between the two sides and in a stroke of genius gave the part above ground to his own folk while allotting the underground part to the Tuatha Dé Danann. According to this tradition this is where the Tuatha Dé Danann took up their residence and is called Tir na nOg, which was a paradisaical place and often an island. It was one of the Celtic Otherworlds that could be reached in several ways including by entering ancient burial mounds or sidhe, going either over or under water, or by traveling through mist. In later times the Tuatha Dé Danann became known as the Aos Si or fairies.
According to the Regum Britanniae, orHistory of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern was a 5th century King of the Britons. He was considered one of the most notoriously devious and immoral kings in British history. To be fair he was only doing behaving as his contemporaries behaved. It was a question of dog eat dog in those days with no quarter given or asked for. He was attributed with most of the blame for inviting the Anglo-Saxon war-leaders Hengist and Horsa into Britain as his mercenaries, sowing the seeds for the eventual Anglo-Saxon takeover of much of England and the many years of war and strife that was to come.
This is a retelling of how Vortigern usurped the crown of Britain based on the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although his work was once considered reasonably accurate it is now no longer seen as reliable by modern scholars. Nevertheless his work does provide his own version of the history of Britain and its kings and still has its merits as a cultural product of its times and still wields considerable influence in many Arthurian creations in the modern times. This part of the story of the history of the island of Britain begins with the assassination of King Constantine and the succession of his son Constans. It continues to reveal how Vortigern grabbed power and ends with the threat of war hanging over him and the arrival of Hengist and Horsa.
The Assassination of King Constantine
After King Constantine of Britain had been in power for ten years he was assassinated by a Pict who stabbed him in the back. After his death the crown of Britain was greatly disputed. The legitimate successor to the throne was Contans, the eldest son of Constantine, but his father had placed him in a monastery. Although he was unhappy with the monastic life he was not really interested or suited to being king. The next oldest and second in line was Aurelius Ambrosius his younger brother and the third was the youngest brother whose name was Uther. Some nobles favored Aurelius to rule while others preferred Uther. It was finally agreed that both were too young and all were at a loss as to what to do.
Vortigern Becomes Ambitious
Vortigern had his own ambitions and his own ideas on who should be King of the island of Britain. He preferred Costans knowing that he had little interest in ruling and lacked the necessary qualities and strength of character that a monarch of Britain would need to control and unite the nation. Furthermore, he knew that he had no desire to remain a monk all his life. Vortigern reasoned that if he helped him escape the clutches of the monastery to become king he could easily manipulate him while all the time working towards his ultimate unspoken goal of taking the crown for himself. To further his ends he offered to set the unhappy Constans free from the monastery and make him king if in return he would make him his chief adviser.
Constans: The Puppet King
Constans agreed and left the monastery and Vortigern took him to London to be crowned king. The consent of the nobles or the people was never asked for or obtained. Inconveniently the recent death of Archbishop Guethelin meant there was no one else of sufficient authority and stature in the clergy to fulfill such an important role. Conveniently for Vortigern the only other person with sufficient governmental experience and authority to fulfill such a role was himself and he performed the coronation ceremony.
Constans lacked any knowledge or experience of government and had little or no credibility with the nobles or the people. He relied heavily on the experience and guile of Vortigern for advice making him the effective ruler of Britain in all but name. With many of the more experienced nobles killed in the wars with the Picts there were few alive who could match his statecraft and experience and Vortigern was using these personal assets to further his own ambitions ruthlessly.
The next part of his plan was to remove Constans from the throne and set himself upon it. As always he was patient and bided his time while always seeking ways to consolidate his power at home by clandestine means. At the same time he secretly used his position to increase his influence with nearby countries. He persuaded King Constans to give him control of the Royal Treasure to keep it safe. The inexperienced king at his Chief Advisor’s request also gave him control of all of the fortified towns and cities of the realm after claiming a fictitious threat of foreign invasion was imminent. As soon as he had control of the cities he replaced their rulers and governors with his own men ensuring total control over the major fortified population centres.
He then persuaded King Constans that he was in danger and needed more men in his bodyguard to protect him from assassination. Constans, perhaps bearing in mind what had happened to his father and trusting fully in Vortigern gave his permission to hand pick his personal bodyguard. This made it easy for Vortigern who told the king that he had received word that an alliance of Picts and Dacians were preparing to attack Britain. He also assured him he knew of some trustworthy Picts who were not involved in the plot and he advised they should be offered a place at his court to form his new bodyguard. They would be loyal to Constans and act as spies informing him on what their compatriots were plotting. Despite his father having been assassinated by a Pict such was his trust and reliance on Vortigern that Constans agreed.
Vortigern’s real intention was not to protect the king but replace his loyal bodyguards with men of his own choosing whom he believed he could control. He knew the Picts were quarrelsome and often indulged in heavy drinking and in such a state they were unruly but easily manipulated. He also knew full well that they would have no qualms about assassinating Constans if the seeds of the idea were sown carefully and the right conditions prevailed. Therefore, he was confident that if he set the stage right they would act out the part he planned and take the blame while he looked beyond suspicion and took the crown.
To bring his plan into action he sent messengers to Scotland seeking one hundred Pictish warriors whom he could install as the King’s household guard. When the Picts arrived he made a great show of welcome. He gave them expensive presents and a luxury table for them to dine from and he showed them more respect than he gave the King’s original bodyguard. So pleased were they with his welcome of them they began to see him as their lord and master above King Constans, exactly as Vortigern had planned.
Soon they began to make songs revering Vortigern and belittling Constans. In these they praised Vortigern as king suggesting Constans was unworthy. They sang these songs in the streets in full view of the public pleasing Vortigern greatly. The greater they praised him the more he praised them in return and bestowed greater favor upon them. Soon the next stage of his plan was ready to put into action.
The Killing of King Constans
He waited until one day when the Picts were well and truly drunk and solemnly told them the day was coming when he would leave Britain. Mournfully, he told them he did not want to go but could no longer afford to keep more than fifty men in his retinue. With that he feigned great sorrow and left them drinking to think about it. The Picts were sorry to hear this for Vortigern had been good to them. They began to think about their own position and how that could change and one of them said,
“Why do we suffer this monk to live? Why do not we kill him, that Vortigern may enjoy his crown? Who is so fit to succeed as he? A man so generous to us is worthy to rule, and deserves all the honour and dignity that we can bestow upon him.” (1)
After more drinking and such talk between one another they broke into the King’s bedchamber. They killed him while he slept and then proudly presented his severed head to Vortigern. Putting on a great show of sorrow and tears, while really elated with joy, he ordered the assassins to be bound. Wasting no time he summoned the citizens of London to witness their execution for what he called their terrible crime.
Not all of Britain’s nobles were taken in by Vortigern’s show of false sorrow. Many suspected villainy but with no one left in Britain powerful enough to stop him Vortigern seized the crown. In fear of their own lives and for the safety of the brothers Aurelius and Uther – the true heirs – they fled across the sea to Armorica. The brothers were well treated by King Bude who educated and kept them in a manner befitting their royal blood.
As time passed his treason was at last discovered. The Picts were furious at the execution of their own people and constantly attacked and ravaged the border country. Vortigern was at daily war with them and lost many of his best warriors keeping them at bay.
The Threat of Aurelius
Over the years in Armorica, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther were coming of age and sought revenge for the murder of their father and elder brother. Aurelius, the elder of the two had built himself a formidable reputation on the continent as a war leader and was mustering an army to retake the crown of Britain. He remembered how Vortigern had favoured the Picts and now he knew he had orchestrated their deaths to remove any witnesses. Now with his own star on the rise he was burning to avenge his father and elder brother and reclaim the crown of Britain.
Although Vortigern was now High King of the island of Britain his troubles were just beginning. With the growing threat of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther he began receiving reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army. His spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their inheritance. Therefore an invasion force was expected to land at any time somewhere along the south coast of England.
With the Picts making daily forays in the north of his realm he knew he was in trouble. Taking stock of the situation on both fronts he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom. Despite his military weakness he still had his political guile and ruthlessness which he used to quell any opposition among his own war leaders. Nevertheless, these were dangerous times with the promise of worse to come but things were going to take an unexpected turn that he would at first welcome and then live to regret. As the clouds of war were gathering on the northern and southern edges of his realm there appeared completely unexpectedly off the coast of Britain three long ships carrying a detachment of armed warriors from foreign parts. These warriors were under the command of two brothers named Hengist and Horsa and they came ashore at Kent.
To begin with the presence of these two brothers looked to be a welcome gift in nullifying the brothers Aurelius and Uther and countering the Picts and Vortigern welcomed. However, while he was ruthless and treacherous Hengist would prove to be a master beyond compare of deceit and treachery. Hengist also has had a beautiful daughter name Rowena who Vortigern would become obsessed with and marry. All the time across the sea in Armorica, Aurelius was preparing his revenge.
In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or theCailleach 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.
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.
Historically, Elen of the Hosts was a real woman who lived in the 4th century, but in British legend and Welsh and Celtic mythology, may go back even further. She appears to have been a woman of many roles that have grown and evolved over the centuries to the present day. Today, Elen is best known for her part as the subject of the affections of the emperor of Rome in strange tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, from the Mabinogion. The story depicts her as a mysterious woman of power who knows how to gets what she wants and appears linked to the giving and taking of sovereignty a very powerful attribute. Presented here is a discussion about who Elen was, and how she has changed and evolved over the centuries, hopefully encouraging the reader to perhaps research and create their own ideas for themselves.
The Dream of Macsen Wledig
Her story begins one day when the emperor of Rome, Macsen Wledig, was out hunting. Feeling tired in the midday sun, he decided to take a nap. As he slept, he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors, “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?”. Although he did not know it at the time, the woman in the dream was named Elen, and it is clear from the dream that she was someone very special, but who was she?
Who was Elen?
Although very little for certain is known today about her, it can be seen from the dream that Elen was not an ordinary woman. Today she is known by many names. She is Elen Luyddog in Welsh or in English, Elen of the Hosts, and also known as Elen of the Ways, Elen of the Roads and Elen Belipotent in reference to her military leadership skills. She also is known as Saint Elen or Helen of Caernarfon, sometimes being named as Helen rather than Elen, and there are still more names. Elen was believed to be the daughter of Eudav, or Eudaf Hen, a Romano-British ruler of the 4th century who became the wife of Macsen Wledig, also known as Magnus Maximus, a Western Roman Emperor from (383-388AD). She was the mother of five children including a son named Constantine who was also known as Cystennin, or Custennin. She introduced into Britain from Gaul a form of Celtic monasticism and founded a number of churches. There are also many holy wells and springs named after her and there still exist roads were named after her such as Sarn Elen.
She was also a warrior queen. According to David Hughes in his book, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, after Macsen was defeated and executed, Elen reigned over the Britons. She led the defence of the country against invading Picts, Irish and Saxons. After a long, hard fight she pushed the invaders out, earning the name Elen Luyddog, or Elen of the Hosts and Elen Belipotent meaning “mighty in war”. In the Welsh Triads, Elen of the Hosts and Macsen Wledig, or in some versions Cynan her brother, lead an army to Llychlyn, which some scholars such as Rachel Bromich see as a corruption of Llydaw, or Armorica which does fit better with what is known.
There is a line of thought that sees characters in the Mabinogion as Christianised versions of far older gods. Some people also see her as being a conflation of several women and ultimately derived from an ancient Celtic goddess of sovereignty. The theme of sovereignty in one form or another does appear in the dream and she appears as the catalyst that can make it happen, or take it away.
From the dream, we learn that she was in the company of her father, Eudav, who was the son of Caradawc and is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons, so she was a lady of considerable importance. This is evidenced by the surroundings in the dream, which matched exactly those she was in when the messengers of Macsen find her. Her response to the messengers is not one from a woman who sees herself as being subordinate to men or emperors, or anyone else no matter who they may be. When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she revealed part of her true power by flatly refusing. Instead she told them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeyed …
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.
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:
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 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.