This article was first published on #FolkoreThursday.com under the title, Exploring the Otherworld of the Celts, on 18 March, 20211, written by zteve t evans.
The concept of a magical, mysterious, “Otherworld” has been a common component in many myths and legends of diverse human cultures all around the world throughout history. The ancient Celtic people also had their own ideas of this enigmatic and ethereal region. Their territories included Ireland, the United Kingdom and a swathe of continental Europe, including areas of the Iberian Peninsula and Anatolia. As such there were variations in philosophies concerning this world and the next from region to region. Presented here is a brief exploration of their idea of the Otherworld and how it appears in different Celtic regions.
The Celtic Otherworld is sometimes presented as the realm where their deities lived, or the place of their dead and sometimes both. Other stories tell of a magical paradise where people enjoyed eternal youth, good health and beauty, living in joy and abundance with all their needs satisfied. It could also be the abode of the fairies, Twylyth Teg, Aos Sí and many other similar magical entities.
Entry to the Otherworld
The Otherworld is usually hidden and difficult to find but certain worthy people manage to reach it through their own efforts. Others may be invited, or escorted by one of its dwellers, or given signs to follow. Sometimes entry is gained through ancient burial mounds or by crossing over, or under, water, such as a river, pool or the sea. There are also special places such as certain lakes, bogs, caves, burial mounds or hills where access to and from the Otherworld can be gained. Another idea is that the Otherworld exists in a different dimension alongside the earthly one as a kind of mirror-world. At certain times of the year, such as Samhain and Beltane, the veil that separates the two grows thin, or withdraws, making entry and exit easier.
This article was first published 11 March 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Shapeshifters from the Celtic World by zteve t evans.
Shapeshifters are found in most mythologies and folk traditions around the world from ancient to modern times. In such traditions, humans change into vampires, werewolves, frogs, insects, and just any about any other creature imaginable and back again. Sometimes the transformation is controlled by the transformer who shifts shape at will. Other times it is an unwelcome event such as a punishment and sometimes it is forced by a magical spell but there are many other reasons besides. Shapeshifters can be good or bad, often moving the story forward in a novel way or have some kind of symbolism that the teller wants to get across to their audience. There are many different kinds of shapeshifting and here we look at different examples from Ireland, Wales and Scotland that provide differing glimpses of shapeshifters in action in the myth, folklore, and tradition of these three Celtic nations.
In Irish mythology, the Morrigan was a shapeshifting war goddess who could transform into a woman of any age and also change into animal or bird form. She had the power of prophecy and as a war goddess would sing her people to victory in battle. Sometimes she could be seen swooping over the battlefield in the form of a raven or crow and devouring the bodies of the slain.
In the story of the “Táin Bó Cúailnge”, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” the Morrigan appears as a crow to warn the bull named Donn Cuailnge that Queen Medb is plotting to abduct him. Queen Medb attacks Ulster after the bull but is resisted single-handedly by the hero Cú Chulainn fighting a series of duels with her champions at a ford. In battle, Cú Chulainn undergoes a spectacular change in his form described as ríastrad or “warp-spasm” that sees him his body twist and contort into the most grotesque and fearsome appearance terrifying his opponents.
Many, many years ago, in the time of King Arthur, when our ruler’s beards were greater than their commonsense, there were two other kings named Nynio and Peibo. Each ruled over a fine and rich kingdom and their subjects enjoyed peace and prosperity. The two kings were friends and liked to go walking in the countryside in the evenings. They would often indulge in friendly banter trying to out do each other bragging about their accomplishments or possessions to one another. Most of the time this was just good-natured teasing but on one occasion things got wildly out of hand. One evening as they were out strolling, as the stars were appearing, Nynio looked about and making an extensive gesture to the sky with his hands said,
“Look above and all around, Peibo, my friend, see what a wonderful and extensive field I possess!”
Peibo looked all around the sky and asked, “Well now, where is it?”
“It is there, above and around as far as eyes can see, the entire sky is my field and mine alone,” boasted Nynio with pride.
“Oh, is that so? answered Peibo.
“It is,” said Nynio.
“Well, now,” said Peibo, not wanting to be out done, “Can you see all of the great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep that are in that field and grazing. Each and every animal is mine and mine alone.”
“I see no herds of cattle, I see no flocks of sheep,” replied Nynio.
“Look harder,” replied Peibo “they are the great swathe of stars that stretch across the sky with smaller herds and flocks scattered here and there.See how each one shines with gold or silvery brightness. See how the moon, their beautiful shepherdess guards and takes care of them for me and me alone!”
“It is my field and they shall not graze in my field,” replied Nynio indignantly.
‘Yes they shall,” replied Peibo firmly.
“They most certainly shall not!” replied Nynio angrily.
Both kings were now becoming very heated and angry with each other and became possessed by a madness.
“Shall!” snapped Peibo.
“Shan’t!” Shouted Nynio.
“‘Tis war!” They both cried together.
In their madness they returned to their kingdoms, mustered their armies and wrought bloody and merciless war on each other. Both kingdoms were laid waste as both armies fought each other in a cruel and merciless war of attrition. The fighting only stopped because of the sheer exhaustion of the two sides. There was no victor save foolishness and what were once two fine and prosperous kingdoms lay in smoking ruins with the people left traumatized and starving.
The King of Wales, a giant named Rhitta Gawr, heard about the madness of the two kings and how they had destroyed their own fair and prosperous kingdoms through their foolishness. He consulted with his wise men and his barons and it was agreed that they should take advantage of the present weakness of these once strong and prosperous kingdoms. Therefore, he mobilized his army and invaded and conquered the two broken kingdoms, capturing the two monarchs and cutting their beards off to teach them a lesson.
News that Rhitta Gawr had invaded and conquered the two warring kingdoms spread throughout the island of Britain and reached the ears of twenty-eight kings. They were appalled at the foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the wanton destruction of the two kingdoms and outraged by the invasion of Rhitta Gawr. However, what really made them angry was the shaving of the royal whiskers of the two mad kings by the giant. They deemed inflicting this humiliation on two monarchs, despite their foolishness, had gone too far. Therefore, to avenge what they saw as a degrading and humiliating act on two of their own status they united their armies and declared war on Rhitta Gawr. The battle was long and bloody and Rhitta Gawr eventually defeated the coalition of kings and had them brought before him.
“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies. All you see is my vast field. All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!” he told them in jubilation. With no further ado or ceremony he ordered the royal whiskers of the defeated kings to be shaved off completely.
News spread beyond Britain of the victory of Rhitta Gawr and how he had shaved the beards of his enemies. The kings of twenty-eight neighboring realms were outraged. Not so much at the initial mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo, or the defeat of the twenty-eight kings. No, it was the shaving of the royal whiskers that outraged them and they merged their armies and attacked Rhitta Gawr. The battle was ferocious and bloody but once again Rhitta Gawr defeated and captured his enemies and once again jubilantly declared,
“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies. All you see is my vast field. All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!”
With no further ceremony he ordered that the beards of the defeated be cut off. When they had all been shaved clean he stood before them and addressing his own troops pointed at the beardless, defeated, kings and declared,
“See, these animals that once grazed here! These are now my pastures and I now drive them out and they shall graze here no more!”
Rhitta Gawr now possessed the beards of a sizeable number of kings which made a sizeable pile of whiskers and somehow, for some reason a very strange idea came into his head. Somehow, the notion grew on him that he would use the pile of royal whiskers to make a fancy mantle to wear around his shoulders. He believed he would look very elegant and magnificent and the cloak being made from the whiskers of kings he had defeated would emphasize his own power and glory.
The more he thought about it the more obsessed he became with the idea while the sheer grossness of it completely escaped him. Therefore he had a mantle made from the king’s whiskers to wear around his broad shoulders that reached down to his heels. Rhitta Gawr was at least twice as large as the largest man so the size of the garment and volume of whiskers he had collected was considerable.
When the mantle was made he tried it on. In his own mad mind he thought he looked very elegant and the height of fashion but realized there was something missing. After considerable contemplation he decided he needed an exceptionally splendid beard to make a collar to finish off the entire magnificent piece. There was only one royal beard that would be magnificent enough to do his mantle justice and that was on the chin of King Arthur, the greatest king of Britain.
He sent a messenger bearing a demand to King Arthur commanding him to shave off his beard without delay and give it to the messenger to bring back to him. He promised out of respect to Arthur his royal whiskers would adorn the most prominent place on his wonderfully elegant new mantle which would be the height of fashion. If he refused to comply he warned he would fight him in a duel to decide the matter.
Unsurprisingly, Arthur was not impressed by the command. He was, however, angry with the mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the defeat and humiliation all the other kings by Rhitta Gawr. Surprisingly, he did not seem the least perturbed at the giant’s taste in mantles but the forced shaving of the beards of all of the vanquished really annoyed him. Furthermore, the very idea that he would willingly offer up his own royal whiskers to the arrogant giant really inflamed him.
Angrily, he informed the messenger that but for the laws of his Court, which even he must obey; he would have slain him there and then for bringing such an offensive suggestion before him. He told him to tell his master this was the most arrogant and insulting demand he had ever heard and for his impudence he would take his head, beard and all. Wasting no time he mobilized his army and marched to Gwynedd in Wales to meet Rhitta Gawr in battle.
The two met face to face, beard to beard and the giant towered above glowering down. Arthur stood his ground and glared back fiercely.
“Give me your whiskers!” demanded Rhitta Gawr.
“Shan’t” replied Arthur angrily.
“Shall!” roared Rhitta Gawr.
“Shan’t! replied Arthur.
“T’is war!” they both cried together and immediately began fighting, trading blow for blow with great ferocity and strength.
Although both received many wounds and were greatly bloodied they fought long and hard neither yielding to the other, each giving as they received. At last Arthur was taken by a fury. He drove forward catching the giant a mighty blow slicing through his helmet and splitting his forehead and quickly followed through with a strike to his heart. Rhitta Gawr died and Arthur kept his royal whiskers.
The giant was placed on top of the highest mountain of that region which was known as Eryi in those days. Arthur ordered the soldiers of both armies to each place a stone over his body raising a cairn to cover him. That place became known as Gwyddfa Rhitta or Rhitta’s Barrow. Today the Welsh call it “Yr Wyddfa” which means “tumulus” and the English call it “Snowdon”, meaning “snow hill,” One consolation for Rhitta Gawr was that at least he did come to adorn a truly magnificent work of nature though judging by his taste in mantles it is doubtful he would have appreciated it.
To think that all this came about through the madness of two kings and the fact that the rulers of Britain had greater beards than their commonsense. Looking around today it is worth noting that few of our rulers wear whiskers and perhaps that speaks for the greatness of their commonsense!
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 11th February 2021, titled , “Ancient Celtic Cauldrons: The Magical, the Mythical, the Real,” by zteve t evans.
In the ancient mythologies of the Welsh and Irish Celts, the cauldron played an important role in some of their most enduring stories and myths. In these, they were often attributed with magical properties but in the everyday life of the Celts, they were also very useful and versatile utensils. Here we take a brief look at the everyday usage of cauldrons followed by a look at five mythical cauldrons. To conclude we will discuss one real, very ancient and very special cauldron found in a bog in Denmark.
The Cauldron of Ceridwen
One of their most famous cauldrons was the cauldron of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth. It belonged to a sorceress named Ceridwen. She used her cauldron to brew a potion that would imbue knowledge and wisdom to whoever drank of it, yet she intended it solely for her son. The concoction had to be boiled and stirred for a year and a day. She tasked a blind man named Morda with the job of feeding the fire, and a boy named Gwion Bach with stirring the brew. Many people see the continuous stirring of the cauldron as blending the attributes of divine wisdom and inspiration with the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth to create the perfect brew of existence.
The Gundestrup Cauldron
The Gundestrup cauldron is most spectacular of real ancient Celtic cauldrons so far recovered, dated to the Iron Age. It is made of silver and beautifully and intricately decorated with many fine images. The silversmiths are unknown, but in those days few craftsmen could produce such craftsmanship in silver. They may not even have been Celts, but the best available craftsmen at the time. However, because of the Celtic iconography, it displays it was thought to have been commissioned by an unknown, high-ranking Celt, probably for purely ceremonial purposes. The imagery was believed to express one or more Celtic myths, and possibly display several deities mixed with other images of a different style.
The Importance of Cauldrons
Many scholars think in Celtic times people came together around a cauldron to engage in the enjoyable, sociable activity of eating. The Gundestrup cauldron, being made of silver, was probably not used for cooking on a fire, but may have held pre-cooked food or drink or was purely ceremonial.
This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.
It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.
The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout the Celtic world with religion, ritual and myth and many practical uses. For the Druids – the Celtic priesthood – it was an integral part of their rituals and was also used as a meeting place. According to the 1st-century geographer Strabo, Druids in Galatia, Asia Minor, met in a sacred grove of oak trees they named Drunemeton, to perform rituals and conduct other Druidic business. In 1 CE, Pliny the Elder, writing in Historia Naturalis, documented how a Druidic fertility rite held on the sixth day of the moon involved a Druid cutting mistletoe from the branches of an oak and the ritual sacrifice of two white bulls.
Oaks also played important parts in Welsh mythology. In the Math fab Mathonwy, the last of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the sorcerers Gwydion and Math create a maiden they named Blodeuwedd or flower-faced from the blossoms of the oak, the broom and meadowsweet. She was created to be the bride of their nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who could not marry a human woman due to a curse placed on him by Arianrhod, his mother. He married Blodeuwedd who never learnt the social conventions never having experienced the learning process of growing up. She had an affair with Gronw Pebyrv and together they plotted to kill Lleu. He was badly wounded by Gronw but turning into an eagle flew into an oak tree to escape being murdered. The oak appeared to be a refuge between the living world and the world of death and he remained there until Gwydion found and cured him.
This article was first published January 14, 2021 on FolkloreThursday.com as Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts by zteve t evans
The ancient Celts were believed to practice a form of animism in their religion and belief system that provided a meaningful way for them to experience and make sense of the world they lived in. In this work we will discuss animism and the various aspects of animism that the ancient Celts possibly followed concluding with a short discussion of their belief system.
Rather than a religion, animism is more an expression of the energy connections that are believed to flow through all things connecting each to the other and to the greater consciousness. It is this greater consciousness that is the source of all energy and that endows everything with life and sentience. Many early creeds embraced aspects of animism and it is still found in many modern religions and philosophies.
The Celts were a varied collection of ethnic groups inhabiting a wide swathe of continental Europe from the west coast of Ireland to the Black Sea and other scattered areas. As a group they appear to have been bound together by common aspects of language, culture and religion rather than ethnicity. They worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses which varied from region to region as could the importance and attributes of those divinities. Animism is seen as the one of the threads that connected the beliefs of this vast and diverse group of people together.
In animism there is a belief that all things possessed a spirit and a consciousness that connects everything together. The sky, Earth and underworld were connected along with natural phenomena such as the weather and everything was all part of a greater conscious universe. Furthermore, even certain words objects and images had sentience and were alive and could be used in conjunction with the greater consciousness to benefit humanity. For the Celt, death was the transmigration of the souls while their ancestors were revered and regarded as alive.
Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”). The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty. He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter. These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children ofLlŷr. They are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brânwas a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him.
One day at Harlech, one of his courts in Wales, he sat with his brother Manawyddan on high cliff looking out over the sea. They were accompanied by Nissien and Efnissyien, his two half brothers from his mother’s side that were of completely different character to one another. Nissien was a good man who always strove to achieve peace and harmony between two opposing forces. Efnissyien, was of a darker character instigating and causing conflict where there was none. These four were accompanied by various nobles ofBrân’s court. As they looked out over the sea they spied a fleet of ships approaching the Welsh coast. One of the ships had taken the lead and displayed upon its side a shield with its point positioned upwards as a token of peace
Matholwch, King of Ireland
Concerned about their intentions in Wales, Brân ordered his warriors to arm themselves and go down to meet them and discover their purpose.This was done and messengers brought back the reply that the ships belonged to King Matholwch of Ireland who came on an important mission in peace and friendship. He came seeking King Brân’s permission to marry his sister Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, fairest maiden in the world and one of the Three High Matriarchs of Britain. Such a marriage would create a powerful and influential alliance between the two kingdoms bringing great benefit to both.
Brân invited the Irish king ashore with all his retinue, servants and all their horses. The next day he and Brân met to discuss the marriage of Branwen. Brân decided in favor of the marriage and with his sister’s agreement the wedding was held the next day at Aberffraw.
The following day the Welsh and Irish guests gathered for the wedding feast. There was no building in existence big enough to hold Brân therefore a massive marquee was used instead.At the feast, the two sons of Llŷr – Brân and his brother Manawyddan – sat on one side. Matholwch, king of Ireland sat next to Branwen, the daughter of Llŷr, on the other. It was a happy occasion and the guests ate and drank their fill in peace and friendship. At last they retired for the night and Branwen became the wife of King Matholwch.
Efnissyen was greatly insulted that he had not been consulted about his half-sister’s marriage. In revenge he cruelly disfigured the horses of the Irish king slicing off their eyelids, lips and ears rendering them unfit for any purpose. When the stable hands discovered the malicious act they immediately informed King Matholwch.Initially, Matholwch was not convinced Brân had anything to do with it. Why would he have willingly given his permission for the wedding to go ahead and then performed such a senseless, cruel and insulting act to his guest and new brother-in-law?
After all, Branwen was the fairest and one of the highest maidens in the land, beloved of her family and people. He could rightfully have refused his marriage to her and offered someone else of lesser status instead. It made no sense at all. The more he thought about it the worse it seemed. His advisors persuaded him that it was intended as an insult and angrily Matholwch made ready to return home taking Branwen with him. On learning of the imminent departure of the Irish with his sister Brân sent a messenger asking why they were leaving without his permission and without even saying goodbye.
Matholwch replied saying had he known of the great insult he would suffer he would never have asked for Branwen’s hand in the first place. He declared his bemusement at why Brân had given him his sister in marriage only to insult him after. Brân answered, insisting the insult was not inflicted by him or his court and as his host his own dishonor was greater. To which Matholwch replied that though this was true the insult and injury he had suffered could not be undone.
Brân, not wanting the Irish to leave with such bad feeling, sent further messages. At last it was agreed reparations should be made to compensate the Irish king for the horses and the insult to his standing that he perceived he had suffered. An agreement was made that Brân replace the mutilated steeds. In further compensation he would also give a staff of silver and a plate of gold equal to the width of his face.Furthermore, the culprit would be named, but he warned that because he was his own half-brother he would be unable to put him to death. He asked Matholwch to accept what was offered and come and meet with him and once again be friends.
The emissaries of Brân gave Matholwch this message and the Irish king consulted with his counselors. Finally it was decided to refuse the reparations, which they considered generous, would bring dishonor on King Brân as well as King Matholwch and also themselves, his loyal subjects. Therefore, they resolved to accept them and meet with Brân.
The two met and in his conversation with the Irish king, Brân realized he was still not fully content. Desiring peace and friendship above all else he generously made him the offer of a magical cauldron known as the Cauldron of Rebirth, which returned the dead to life. At last Matholwch seemed satisfied and they ate and drank for the rest of that day. In the morning he set sail for Ireland taking his bride with him.
The Irish people were delighted at the return of their king accompanied by his bride. When at last he introduced her to his court and all of his nobles there was great joy. As was the custom, Branwen gave each one an expensive gift of royal jewellery which gave great honor to those who received and wore it. In the first year of her arrival in Ireland she was very popular and greatly loved. The Irish lords and ladies praised and lauded her and she enjoyed life very much. To crown it all she gave birth to a son named Gwern. In the second year of her marriage a dark cloud appeared from the past. The dreadful maiming of King Matholwch’s horses that had occurred on her wedding day was reawakened. Some of the Irish nobles seeking to make trouble for the king used this to make mischief for their own purposes.
The chief among them were Matholwch’s foster brothers who re-opened old wounds. They blamed and derided him for accepting an inferior settlement which they claimed was insulting. Stirring up hatred and resentment they turned upon Branwen demanding vengeance, taking out their malice upon her. They pressured and harried the king who eventually gave way to them. She was barred from his chamber and forced to work in the kitchens cooking and carrying out menial tasks for the court. For a woman of Branwen’s royal stature this was a terrible humiliation and indignity. To add insult to injury they ordered that she be given a blow upon her ear each day.
Knowing her King Brân would be wrath at such treatment of his sister they that advised Matholwch ban all travel between Ireland and Britain. This would prevent Brân hearing of the maltreatment of his sister. To further prevent news reaching Brân they imprisoned anyone in Ireland from Brân’s realm
Branwen and the Starling
For three years Branwen suffered this mistreatment. Her once happy life had been turned upside down to become one of humiliation, pain and misery. In desperation she raised and trained a starling. She taught it how to speak and understand human language enough for it to understand what kind of a man her brother was and how to find him.
Writing her troubles down in a letter she tied it to the bird in a way as not to impede its flight. Finally, she set it free bidding it find Brân and give him the message. Flying over the Irish Sea to the island of Britain it found Brân at Caer Seiont in Arvon. Settling on his shoulder the bird ruffled its feathers so as to display the message it bore. Seeing the bird had a degree of domestication and training Brân looked closely and saw the letter and read it. In this way he learnt of his sister’s troubles and grieved greatly for her.
Angrily he ordered a muster of the armed forces of the Island of Britain summoning his vassals and allies to him. He explained to their kings and leaders the mistreatment of Branwen his sister by the Irish and took counsel with them about what should be done.
Bran goes to War
The council agreed that the situation with Branwen was intolerable and decided on invading Ireland to set her free and punish the Irish. Therefore, Brân’s host took to the ships to sail to Ireland to the aid of Branwen. Being too large for any ship to carry Brân strode through the sea before them.
Strange news reached King Matholwch. Witnesses explained they had seen a moving wood approaching the shores of Ireland. Even stranger and more terrifying they had seen a moving mountain besides the wood with a tall ridge which had on each side of it a lake. The wood and the mountain moved together and were approaching Ireland fast. Puzzled by the news Matholwch sent messengers to Branwen to see if she could enlighten him. She told them it was the army of her brother Brân who had come to rescue her.
“What, then, is the great forest we see moving on the sea?” they asked.
“The masts of the ships of the Island of Britain,” she replied.
“What is the mountain that is seen moving before the forest?” they asked.
“That is Brân the Blessed, my brother. No ship can contain him and he needs none,” replied Branwen.
“What is the high ridge with the lake on either side,” they asked.
“Those two lakes are his eyes as he looks upon the island of Ireland. The ridge is his nose and he is angry at the mistreatment of his beloved sister!” replied Branwen.
The messengers returned to Matholwch bearing Branwen’s answer. Fearing to face such a huge army in battle he turned to his nobles for advice. They agreed it was too risky and decided their best option was to retreat over the River Linon, destroying the single bridge across after them. There was no other bridge and Brân would have to march miles out of his way to find another suitable crossing point.
Brân the Bridge
Brân and his army came ashore unimpeded but found the bridge over the river destroyed. Brân’s chieftains went to him saying, “Lord, the river cannot be crossed. The bridge is broken and there is no other crossing point for many miles. What would you have us do?”
Brân replied, “He who would be chief will be the bridge himself,” and laid himself down bridging the river with his body. In this way his host passed over to the other side.
Hearing how Brân had bridged the river worried King Matholwch who sent messengers expressing greetings, goodwill and proposals he hoped would placate him. He proposed that Gwern, his son, be given sovereignty of Ireland for the mistreatment of his sister, Branwen.
Brân replied, “Why should I not take the kingdom myself? I will take counsel. Until I have considered it no other answer will you get. Go tell your king.”
“Indeed, they said, “we shall bear your answer to him. Will you wait for his reply?”
“I will wait, but return quickly,” replied Brân. The messengers returned to their king with Brân’s answer and Matholwch took counsel with his nobles.
House of Betrayal
His counselors unanimously agreed it would be best to avoid direct conflict with the host of Brân fearing certain defeat at the hands of such a powerful army. Therefore a conciliatory approach was decided to appease Brân and put him at ease while quietly enacting a treacherous plot to defeat him. They decided to try to appease him by building a house big enough to hold his own gigantic self. It would also be big enough to hold his warriors and those of Matholwch. In this massive structure they would hold a great feast of friendship and make formal agreements and Matholwch would pay him homage. They hoped this would please and flatter him, making him more amenable to their other proposals. They also reasoned he would be more likely to relax and drop his guard which would leave him open to a deadly betrayal.
Matholwch was not sure Brân would accept the proposals. Therefore, he sent for Branwen for advice telling her nothing of the full scope of his treachery. After listening carefully at what he said she advised that she believed he would accept. Therefore, Matholwch sent messengers to Brân with his proposals. Brân listened and asked his own lords and also sent to his sister for advice. Knowing nothing of the betrayal and for the sake of peace and prevent the laying waste of the country she advised her brother to accept. Brân accepted and a peace was made with the Irish and a massive house was built as agreed. With the structure finished and the final preparations for the feast being made Matholwch pursued further his treacherous plot.
Brass hooks were fixed upon the pillars and a leather bag hung from each bracket. Each leather bag contained a fully armed Irish warrior. At the command of King Matholwch when Brân’s own warriors were in a drunken state they would cut themselves from the bag to assassinate the unsuspecting Britons
The great house of betrayal was quickly built and its interior was prepared for the great feast. Efnissyen, who had mutilated Matholwch’s horses, entered the hall to inspect progress. Seeing the leather bags he asked what was inside. He was told the King of Ireland had made a gift of flour for Brân which was contained in the bags. Efnissyen felt one of the bags and felt a man’s head. He squeezed it until his fingers met in the middle. He did this to each of the leather bags and crushed a man’s head in each one killing two hundred hidden assassins.
The Killing of Gwern
The two kings eventually entered the house with their followers and the proceedings began. The negotiations and agreements were made in a spirit of peace and friendship. Sovereignty of Ireland was conferred upon the young boy Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen and nephew of Brân. After all the talking was over Brân called the boy to him. Gwern went willingly and showed him great affection. From Brân, Gwern went happily to Manawyddan and from one to another showing great affection with each he went to.
Efnissyen looked on and he grew jealous of the boy’s attention to others saying, “Why does the boy not come to me, his uncle? He is the son of my sister and is my nephew but he ignores me when I would be glad to give the boy my love!”
“Let the boy go to you if he wants to,” said Brân.
Gwern happily went to Efnissyen who taken by some dark mood without warning seized the boy by his feet and swung him head first into the roaring fire. Branwen screamed and attempted to leap into the fire after her son. Brân grabbed her hand and with his other hand placed his shield between her and the fire keeping her safe between his body and his shield.
Immediately the great hall was in uproar as the two sides rapidly armed themselves intent on killing one another. All the while Brân kept his sister safe between his shield and his body as the fighting ensued all around.
The Cauldron of Rebirth
The Irish immediately lit a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth that had been part of the compensation Brân gave for the malicious disfigurement of their horses. They placed their dead in the cauldron and they were restored to fully fit fighting men save they had lost the power of speech and hearing.
Efnissyen, seeing the warriors of Brân were slaying the Irish noted they were also being slain. However, unlike the Irish, their dead did not return to the battle and the Irish were gaining the advantage. Feeling remorse and great guilt that he had been the cause of all this murder and mayhem he resolved to save Brân and his warriors. Therefore, he hid among the piles of the Irish dead waiting to be revived in the cauldron until he too was cast in. As soon as he was inside he stretched himself out to his full bodily dimensions causing the cauldron to burst asunder but bursting his own heart in the process. With this advantage removed from the Irish theBritons quickly gained the upper hand.
The Seven Survivors
Although the warriors of Brân eventually triumphed it was a pyrrhic victory costing them dear. Brân was mortally wounded from a wound in his foot from a poisoned spear. Of his army only seven lived and these were Manawyddan, Pryderi, Taliesin the Bard, Grudyen the son of Muryel, Ynawc and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen. Brân had shielded Branwen throughout the battle and she also lived.
Of the Irish people only five pregnant women survived who went and lived in caves. They gave birth to five sons and over time the Island of Ireland was repopulated incestuously.
The Assembly of the Wondrous Head
Knowing he was dying and being too large to bury or take back on a ship Brân ordered the seven surviving warriors to sever his head from his body. He instructed they carry it to the White Hill in London where they were to bury it facing the sea to deter invasion from France. He advised them this task would take many years. In that time they would spend seven years feasting in Harlech while being regaled by the Birds of Rhiannon. They would then travel to Gwales where they would spend a further eighty years and become known as, “The Assembly of the Wondrous Head”. All this time the head would be able to converse with them and keep them company despite it being severed. They would be untouched by time but eventually, the time would come when they would leave Gwales to journey to London where their task would be completed as he had instructed. He then ordered them to “cross over to the other side.” The seven survivors accompanied by Branwen crossed over to the other side (2) of the sea to Wales bearing the head of Brân.
However, as she turned to look back across the sea to Ireland and gazed around her at the Island of Britain she was overwhelmed with grief and anguish. Her heart broke in two and she groaned and collapsed and died of a broken heart. Thus, ended the life of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, Fairest Maiden of Britain. The seven survivors made a four sided grave on the banks of the River Alaw for her internment.
The Seven Survivors discovered the crown of Britain had been usurped by Caswallawn and Brân’s son had died of a broken heart after his companions were killed in an ambush by the usurper. Nevertheless, as Brân had ordered and in the manner he had predicted, his head was finally buried in London to deter any invasion of Britain from France. Here ends the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the story of two of the Seven Survivors, Pryderi and Manawyddan are continued in the Third Branch, known as Manawyddan.
Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth. They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld. She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are generally considered one work consisting of four parts that tell stories of the gods and heroes from Celtic Welsh mythology. The stories are thought to be older than medieval times but rewritten, probably by monks of that era. The Four Branches along with Culhwch and Olwen and other works are included in the compilation of medieval Welsh literature known as the The Mabinogion, first published in full by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45. The Adar Rhiannon, briefly appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and are mentioned and sought after in the story of Culhwch and Olwen. Although they only appear to play a small role in both stories they possess unique and important properties that lend magical qualities to the tales.
Time and Space
The singing of the birds can awaken the dead while inducing the living to sleep. Their singing also causes time and space to behave differently. They seem to be singing very near while in fact they are far away. Their singing also alters the passing of time making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed and preserve from the effects of time.
These birds are named after and associated with Rhiannon one of the most enigmatic characters in Welsh myth. He first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and Chief of Annwn and their son was Pryderi. She was falsely accused of the murder of her son and eating him but later proved innocent after public humiliation. Her second husband was Manawyddan whom she married after Pwyll’s passing.
Rhiannon also displayed the power to warp time and space, but differently to her birds. This is shown, in the manner of her first appearance on horseback from the Otherworld seeking Pwyll to propose their marriage which he accepts. Secondly, she produces a magical bag that can be filled with any amount of without getting full with enough room for a fully grown human. This is used to trick and trap an unwelcome marriage suitor so that she can marry Pwyll.
From her first appearance it is clear she is no ordinary woman and is someone of special status and importance. She is considered to be a goddess or representative of sovereignty and being strongly associated with horses is usually thought of as a horse deity or derived from one. Therefore, like Rhiannon, her birds are not ordinary birds having the magical qualities mentioned previously.
Culhwch and Olwen
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the birds are given two more magical attributes. The story tells how Culwhch was given a host of impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, a giant and the father of Olwen, who demanded their achievement before he would give permission for his daughter to marry him. The severity of the tasks was possibly because he was doomed to die on her wedding night and he hoped Culwhch would fail that he might live. One of his demands was to be brought the Adar Rhiannon possibly because they would soothe his passing into death. Therefore he asked Culhwch to bring,
“The Birds of Rhiannon: the ones which can wake the dead and put the living to sleep I want to entertain me that night.” (1)
The night he is referring to is his daughter’s wedding night which is the night he is doomed to die if the marriage goes ahead. From this we see they have two other magical attributes. The first is their singing puts the living to sleep and the second is that it wakes the dead. They may have been a useful insurance against death from the giant’s point of view or at least eased his passing.
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
The Adar Rhiannon also appears at the end of the Second Branch which is the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr. Branwen, the sister of the Welsh King Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân the Blessed, had been married to the Irish King Matholwch and lived with him in Ireland. However, it was not a happy marriage and she was subject to physical and psychological abuse. In her unhappiness she trains a starling to take a message back over the sea to her brother King Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and seeking his aid. Enraged and offended by his sister’s treatment Bendigeidfran gathers his army and invades Ireland and a cataclysmic war follows. All the Irish are killed leaving only a five pregnant women in Ireland who took to living in a cave. Each gave birth to a son and eventually incestuously repopulated the island of Ireland.
On the Welsh side there were seven surviving warriors, as well as Branwen. These were Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and Manawyddan, brother of King Bendigeidfran and Rhiannon’s future husband. These were accompanied by Taliesin the great bard, Gluneu Eil Taran, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.
In the conflict King Bendigeidfran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear and knew he would soon die. He ordered the survivors to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London where it was to be buried to protect Britain from invaders. He prophesied they would encounter the singing birds of Rhiannon and remain in one place for seven years spellbound by them,
“And take you my head and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”
Bendigeidfran’s severed head retained the power of speech and continued talking to the survivors as he predicted. Sadley, Branwen died of a broken heart through grief for the dead.
The Adar Rhiannon
Before setting off with the head to London the survivors feasted in Harlech and as also predicted by Bendigeidfran they were visited by the singing birds of Rhiannon,
“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.” (2)
Translation of different texts may vary but it is thought these are the same birds mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and at the end of the Second Branch where, “the singing of the birds of Rhiannon” is referred to which demonstrated time was altered,
“And thus ends this portion of the Mabinogi, concerning the blow given to Branwen, which was the third unhappy blow of this island; and concerning the entertainment of Bran, when the hosts of sevenscore countries and ten went over to Ireland to revenge the blow given to Branwen; and concerning the seven years’ banquet in Harlech, and the singing of the birds of Rhiannon, and the sojourning of the head for the space of fourscore years. (3)
Rhiannon and her singing birds along with King Bendigeidfran, Culhwch and Olwen and the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr are just a few of the strange and magical characters and creatures that dwell in the landscape of Welsh Celtic myth and medieval literature.
Breton myths and folktales are often a dark blend of Celtic, pagan and Christian influences that result in magic and wonder mixed with the morbid and macabre. There are many tales, myths and legends concerning everyday and important issues such as love and death.
For all of us, death is the great unknown and people all around the world throughout history have invented many different ways of thinking about the subject. One of the most universal ways of representing death was through the use of personifications. In simple terms this the giving of human characteristics or form to abstract ideas, inanimate objects or something that is not human.
Death itself can be personified in many other ways such as the personification known as the Grim Reaper, but there are many other representations, some as dark, others lighter.
In many societies death needed a servant that would guide or bring the soul of the deceased to the place of the afterlife. Such servants were called psychopomps and presented here is a brief discussion of two psychopomps from Breton folklore and mythology. The first is a rather grim and forbidding entity known as the Ankou who was a collector of souls for his master Death. The second tells of a fair knight who came back from the dead to guide his betrothed to the afterlife. In the course of the discussion we also look at a few folkloric motifs present in the examples given.
In Breton mythology and folklore the Ankou can appear in various guises in different regions of Brittany. There are also Welsh, Cornish and Anglo-Norman interpretations of him. In some versions he is either a tall, gaunt man wearing a long black cloak or a skeleton carrying a long scythe though earlier traditions say it was an arrow. He is often mistaken for the Grim Reaper, but they are not the same. In other versions he appears as an old man accompanying a horse drawn coach or cart. His role is not to judge or punish but to ensure the transition of the soul to the afterlife and will tolerate no interference in this.
When he stops outside the house of the dying person he may knock on the door, or he may utter a low mournful wail to summon the dead to his cart. Sometime accompanied by two ghostly assistants he will enter a home and take away the soul of the dead.
He is presented as a very grim and macabre figure and in some places he is the king of the dead. His subjects move in processions along particular paths to the afterlife. Some traditions say he is the last man to die in a parish in the year who will automatically assume the role of the Ankou and the supervision of the souls of the dead.
Nola and Gwennolaïk
A very different kind of psychopomp appears in a Breton folktale calledThe Foster Brother. This story revolves around a relationship between a young man named Nola and a young woman named Gwennolaïk. The story tells how the two fell in love when Gwennolaïk was eighteen years old after her natural mother and two sisters had passed away. After her mother’s death her father had remarried twice and she had gained an older foster brother who was not a blood relative. They had grown to know and love each other deeply spending all their time together. Their relationship deepened and the two promised that they would wed with each other and no one else.
They were very happy in those days thinking and planning their future together but there came a time when Nola grew troubled. He told Gwennolaïk that he had been experiencing strange dreams telling him he had to leave home and find his fortune. This broke Gwennolaïk’s heart but not wanting to stand in his way she consented and gave him a ring that had belonged to her mother to remember her by.
Promising he would return one day to marry her he took a ship to distant shores. During his absence she missed him terribly, spending many hours pining alone and praying he would soon return to marry her. This would release her from the awful life of drudgery and misery she now endured, partly because he was gone and partly because her step-mother treated her cruelly.
She gave poor Gwennolaïk all the hard and dirty jobs berating her with harsh words and kept her hungry all the time making her wear rags. Six years passed in this way and Gwennolaïk was getting so run down and tired she believed she would be better off dead.
The Fair Knight
One day while fetching water from a nearby brook she met a fair knight on horseback waiting by the water. His face was hidden and she could make out none of his features. To her surprise and embarrassment he asked her if she was betrothed. After telling him she was not the knight reached down and placed in her hand a ring. He told her to go back and tell her stepmother she was now betrothed to a knight from Nantes. Furthermore, she was to say that there had been a bloody battle and her betrothed had been badly wounded but would in three days time come and claim her for his wife.
Saying no more he quickly turned and rode off leaving Gwennolaïk staring at the ring too surprised to even move. As she gazed at the ring she realized it was the same one she had given to Nola when he departed and realized the fair knight was none other than him.
She waited in vain those three days and to her heartbreak and disappointment Nola did not come. Worse still her stepmother told her she had decided that she would marry and had chosen someone for her. Gwennolaïk was horrified by the idea and showed her the ring and told her of the knight. She insisted it was Nola who had returned to marry her. Her step-mother would not listen and took the ring from her.
What they did not know was that a knight who had been mortally wounded in the battle at Nantes had been given a Christian burial in the nearby White Chapel.
The husband her stepmother had chosen for her was the stable lad and to Gwennolaïk’s grief and mortification they were married. After the marriage there was a banquet but Gwennolaïk was depressed and miserable and unable to face the reception and her guests. Appalled and driven mad by the thought of being married to anyone other than Nola she ran off into the woods.
A thorough search of the locality was undertaken but no trace of her could be found. In fact she had hidden herself deep in a thicket where she lay weeping and shivering in the cold and damp. As night came black and cold she shivered more and more and weeping and crying for the hardness of the world caught a fever. In her delirium she thought she heard something moving through the thicket towards her and cried out in fear and alarm.
A voice told her that it was Nola and that he had come for her. Disbelieving him at first she looked up and saw a fair knight approach on a white steed. Reaching down he easily lifted her up to sit behind. He told her to hold on tight and he would take her to her mother and sisters in a place where they would all be together forever.
A Magical Journey
From this point she is close to death and he has appeared from beyond the grave to find her and take her back to join him and her family in the afterlife. As her life fades he takes her on a magical journey. They cross the land to the sea and the horse gallops over the top of the waves to a beautiful island where a celebration was being made ready. He explains it is their wedding celebration that is being prepared. The two were married and to her joy she was reunited with her dead mother and two sisters . There was great singing and dancing and at last Gwennolaïk found peace and happiness in the afterlife.
Meanwhile, as the wedding takes place, back in the earthly realm searchers finally find the expired body of Gwennolaïk and give her a proper Christian burial.
There are several interesting folkloric motifs in the story. For example, the loss of Gwennolaïk’s real mother and the wicked stepmother. There is also the foster brother as the love who goes off to find his fortune and in this case returns to die before the wedding. The initial and inexplicable failure of Gwennolaïk to recognise Nola on his return is at first puzzling but then becomes clear that something else will happen. It is a device used in many fairy and folktales as is thering given by Gwennolaïk to Nola which he gives back to identify himself.
Nola, having had a Christian burial and Gwennolaïk a Christian marriage and finally a Christian burial become entwined in pagan and Celtic influences.
The horse he rides is interesting because it takes them on a magical journey over the sea to a magical island. In many traditions the Celtic Otherworld could be reached by crossing the sea and in several tales such as the Irish tale of Oisin and Naimh of the Goldenhair, a magical horse is used to take them there.
Nola as a Psychopomp
Perhaps the most interesting contrast is how the soul of Gwennolaïk is taken to the afterlife by her beloved Nola who she has waited and yearned for. Surely a much more welcome and comforting transition to the afterlife than via the macabre Ankou!
Guiding the Soul to the Afterlife
However, in cultures all around the world psychopomps appear in various forms which may be familiar and comforting taking the form of a family member or friend or they may be dark and forbidding. In whatever form they appear they perform an important task in guiding or helping the soul of the deceased to find their place in the afterlife.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 8th October 2020, titled Celtic Warrior Women: Queen Boudica of the Iceni by zteve t evans.
Queen Boudica, ruler of the Iceni people of Britain, was famous for leading a violent uprising against Roman rule. She was married and had two young daughters whose names are unknown. Her husband Prasutagus had ruled as a client-king of Rome and his realm was roughly the area of modern Norfolk. As a client-king he had entered into an alliance with Rome which allowed him to rule and receive Roman patronage in return for recognizing its overall authority and keeping law and order. When he died he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and his two daughters, perhaps hoping to avoid trouble. Despite this, his kingdom and property was annexed by Rome and his family maltreated, sowing the seeds of rebellion among the Britons. According to Tacitus, Boudica was beaten with rods, her two young daughters raped, and the estates of the Iceni nobles confiscated. This spurred Boudica to lead a bloody rebellion against the might of Rome.
As a woman, widowed with at least two children, the qualities that people would traditionally call female were plain to see. Yet after the maltreatment inflicted upon her and her young daughters by the Romans, other, less ‘traditionally female’ qualities emerged, transforming her into a powerful, avenging force. Qualities of leadership, intelligence, aggression, courage and assertiveness in a struggle to free her people came to the fore. Such attributes were seen as subversive for women to openly display in a patriarchal society, but were some of the very qualities that the suffragettes were keen to promote as acceptable in women to help and inspire their struggle against the system.