King Arthur, Rhitta Gawr and The King’s Whiskers

© 03/02/2021 zteve t evans

The Mantle of Kings’ Beards

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!

© 05/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 5th, 2021 zteve t evans

Celtic Lore: Cauldrons – The Magical, the Mythical and the Real

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.

Cauldrons

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.

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The Giant and the Geoglyphs of the The Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert – Image by Julian Hacker from Pixabay

The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert (Desierto de Atacama) of Chile, South America, located between the Andes Mountains and the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range is the oldest desert on the planet. However, with an average temperature of 18 C or 63 F it is not the hottest desert in the world but being sandwiched between two mountain ranges creates special atmospheric and weather conditions making it the driest non-polar desert in the world.  The desert landscape is dry and arid with an otherworldly appearance and has been used for simulations of future expeditions to Mars.  The driest part of the desert receives less that a millimeter of rain annually on average though rainstorms do occur on rare occasions which bring rapid but fleeting growths of wildflowers.

Geoglyphic Art

Although the Atacama is a desolate, inhospitable place today there is much evidence of ancient human presence.   There are more that 5,000 prehistoric works of art known as geoglyths that have been situated on or created from the landscape.  A geoglyph is a work of art or construction that is formed on the ground in parts of the landscape.  They are usually 4 meters or more in length and constructed of durable materials found in the locality such as stone, rocks, gravel or earth.  They are considered a type of ancient land art and in some cases rock art and are usually highly visible from a distance.  In some cases such as some of the famous Nasca lines of Peru they appear to have been constructed to be viewed from above though it is not certain that was intended.  The Nazca lines were built between 200-800 BC and about 800 kilometers distant.   However, the Atacama glyphs are believed to have been built between 600 and 1500 AD and although not thought to be as old are more numerous and with varied styles covering a much larger region.

It is believed both sets of geoglyphs had multiple symbolic and ritual purposes and communicated certain information to people who understood their symbolism.   The Atacama geoglyphs are thought to have played an important role in the transportation system and networks that connected the great civilizations of South America in pre-Hispanic times.  They were believed to have been built and improved upon by more than one early South American culture including The Tiwanaku and Inca Empires as well as other groups.  The geoglyphs are formed in many different shapes including human, animal and geometric in about fifty varying types.  Some of these works were placed or created in isolated sites while others appear in panels of figures up to fifty in number.   They are located throughout the Atacama Desert in valleys, or on pampas or hillsides and always close to pre-Hispanic paths or tracks which were the routes of the llama caravans through the arid and desolate landscape connecting the ancient people of the region.

Types and Forms of Geoglyphs

Image by SznegraCC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There were three methods that have been identified that were used to create the geoglyphs.  One method was to scrape away the top layer of the landscape such as soil or sand revealing a contrasting color below.   Another way was to use rocks and stone and other materials to form shapes on the landscape.   They also used a combination of these two methods and sometimes paint to create other geoglyphs.

Geoglyphs in geometric shapes are the most numerous. There are many different types of these including rectangles, circles, concentric circles, arrows, crossed parallel lines, rhomboids and other shapes.  There are also zoomorphic figures especially llamas and alpacas, but also animals such as fox and monkeys, birds such as eagles, flamingos, and seagulls and fishes such as dolphins or sharks.   There are also depictions of amphibians such as lizards, snake and toads which were believed to represent ancient divinities associated with water.  One of the most often repeated depictions are of caravans of llamas with 3 or more ranks of up to 80 animals in lines.   Humans are also depicted engaged in activities such as fishing, hunting, religious ceremonies and sex.

Ancient Signposts

Luis Briones in his paper, “The geoglyphs of the north Chilean desert: an archaeological and artistic perspective”, published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Antiquity discussed the geoglyphs and came up with some interesting ideas. The real function and purpose of the geoglyphs may never be known but Briones believes they may have served several functions.   Their location along the trade routes through the Atacama seems to have been deliberate.  It may be they acted as signposts providing the travelers, who would know their meaning, with certain types of invaluable and useful information.

They may have served as pointers or landmarks perhaps indicating where water or fodder for animals may be found, or warning of difficulties in the landscape and indicating safe paths.   It may be that they are part of an early religion or cult which may have combined commercial traveling with religion.  Following such a path may have been a rite or ritual or perhaps an initiation or pilgrimage.   If they did contain information they may have been an early form of writing.  However, to read their meaning you would have to know what the shapes and the way they were set meant along with how punctuation and syntax was used.  Unfortunately, that knowledge is now lost, if it ever existed and we can only guess.

The trade routes would have been an important part of the economy for any civilization or culture.   The moving or essential items such as corn, potatoes, fish and other food as well as commodities such as turquoise, copper and cotton to distant markets helps bind civilizations and empires together.   Moreover, they transported news and perhaps orders or commands from the government centers.

The Atacama Giant

One of the most spectacular of these geoglyphs is known as the Atacama Giant, a large anthropomorphic figure set on the side of the hill of Cerro Unitas.  It is the largest known prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world being 390 ft (119 m) long and believed to depict a deity of a local population from 1000 – 1400 AD.   It was believed to be an early astronomical calendar that told those who knew how to read it important dates such as crop cycles and seasons in relation to how certain parts of it aligned with the moon.   Anything that might help predict rain or weather would be very useful in the dry, barren regions of the Atacama Desert.  

Hill figures are often thought to have been intended to view from some distance, suggesting the giant may have been strategically placed.  The giant has a stylized unnatural appearance made up of squares, rectangles and parallel lines at varying angles to create a geometric representation of a massive anthropomorphic figure.    It appears to be either wearing a headdress such as one made of feathers or had rays emanating with from its head or from behind it.    How the moon or other astronomical objects related to these lines was believe to give the season and times of the year. 

The Giant and the other geoglyphs provide evidence of the activities of humans in these inhospitable regions. There are many similar examples of such landscape art found all around the world including the Nasca lines, and the White Horse of Uffington and other English hill figures, the Blythe Intaglios of California USA and the Steppe Geoglyphs of Kazakhstan are but a few examples.

© 23/04/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2021 zteve t evans

Five Trees Featured in Celtic Lore

Image by mbll from Pixabay

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

Animists

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

Oak Trees

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

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

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Medieval Lore: The Curious Myth of the Origin Barnacle Geese

Ray Oaks, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myth

Barnacle geese are a migratory species of water bird that have a very weird myth of origin attached to them that was once widely believedDuring the medieval period there was a belief that barnacle geese were not hatched from eggs but actually grew on trees or spontaneously on pieces of driftwood that floated in the sea.  This strange myth was widespread at the time and believed by  many eminent people of the day.   In this work we will look briefly at the barnacle followed by a look at barnacle geese both of which are real creatures.  This will be followed by discussing some of these strange ideas before concluding with our views on them today.

Migration

During the months of October through to March, parts of the British Isles and certain parts of Europe played host to flocks of barnacle geese.  This puzzled medieval people as they seemed to arrive out of nowhere and leave in the same manner.  No one had seen their nests, or  their eggs, or their young and no one knew how, or where, they bred giving rise to speculation about their origin.  

Real Barnacles

A strange theory evolved that they actually grew from crustaceans called gooseneck barnacles (Lepas anatifera) that were found on pieces of driftwood around the sea shores.  Many people thought that a tuft of brown cirri that protruded from the capitulum of the crustacean looked very similar to the down found on unhatched goslings of other species. This similarity is not obvious to many other people but the barnacles were seen as the result of spontaneous generation from the driftwood which will be briefly discussed later.

Real Barnacle Geese

We know today that real barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis)  live and breed mainly on the three islands of Greenland, Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the oceans of the far north during the summer months.  After a long flight they would suddenly appear at British,  Irish and other European sites as fully grown adult geese.  People were puzzled because they had seen no signs of a nest, eggs or even goslings but still they would appear at certain times of the year with unerring regularity.   To solve this puzzle some very peculiar answers evolved. 

The Barnacle Goose Tree

One such answer was the barnacle goose tree.  According to this myth young barnacle goslings grew on branches of a tree that overhung water in a similar way to nuts, fruit or berries sometimes do.  On becoming ripe, or big enough they drop from the branch safely into the water and are able to swim and float immediately eventually growing to maturity.  Those that missed the water and fell on to the ground died.

Sir John Mandeville

In the 14th century the traveller and writer Sir John Mandeville wrote in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, his travel journal,

“I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes, (barnacle geese). For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man’s meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be. (1)

This and similar strange answers  to the origin of the barnacle goose was widely accepted especially among the clergy of the day.  

Gerald of Wales

Another myth of origin of the barnacle goose tells how it was born from driftwood from the sea.  Gerald of Wales,  also known as, Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis, was  12th century Welsh bishop who published a book, Topographia Hiberniae  after the invasion of parts of Ireland by King John where he mentioned how Irish clergy ate the barnacle goose on fast days which surprised him, 

“Nature produces [Bernacae] against Nature in the most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth “ (2) 

His observation, although erroneous, gave the myth credence and it spread across Europe.   However he took a dim view of the clergy eating them on fasting days saying, 

“…Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh … But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.” (3)

Sir E. Ray Lankester  

In 1915, Sir E. Ray Lankester, a British zoologist in his book, “Diversions of a Naturalist,” speculated on why this myth may have been popular with medieval clergy especially in Britain and France.   He picked up on the practice of the clergy eating them on fasting days for the popularity of the myth among them.  To make it an acceptable fasting meal they declared the barnacle goose to be more fish than a fowl and as such acceptable to be consumed on fasting days. 

Pope Innocent III was concerned enough about this practice to prohibit the eating of Geese during Lent at the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215.  Nevertheless he still seemed to accept the myth of their reproduction but pointed out that they lived and fed in a similar way to ducks and concluded that their nature was the same as other birds.

A Shift in Thinking

The bizarre myth of the reproduction of barnacle geese looks a typical example of superstition, ignorance and imagination run wild, but is it?  In the Middle Ages the Church drew moral lessons from nature but a shift in thinking appeared that saw nature as being worthy of studying in its own right.  This is where the myth of the origin of the barnacle goose comes in.

Spontaneous Generation 

A theological idea became  tangled  up in the debate of whether it was fowl or fish  which centered around the idea of spontaneous generation.  it was argued that gooseneck barnacles were spontaneously generated from the rotting driftwood. There was a common belief going right back to Aristotle that if the right conditions were present then the spontaneous generation of living organisms could and did occur arising from inorganic or nonliving material.   Despite the remarkable nature of the supposed origin of these lifeforms they had an ordinary lifestyle of sorts and manifest in a predictable way without divine intervention.  It was the assumption that they lacked parents which led to all sorts of theological arguments among Christians about Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth (which are not the same as each other) and cannot be fully dealt with here.

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily and Jerusalem about 200 years after Gerald of Wales was rather more doubting in his assessment of the spontaneous generation of the barnacle goose.  He wrote  saying, 

“There is also a small species known as the barnacle goose, arrayed in motley plumage …, of whose nesting haunts we have no certain knowledge. There is, however, a curious popular tradition that they spring from dead trees. It is said that in the far north old ships are to be found in whose rotting hulls a worm is born that develops into the barnacle goose. This goose hangs from the dead wood by its beak until it is old and strong enough to fly. We have made prolonged research into the origin and truth of this legend and even sent special envoys to the North with orders to bring back specimens of those mythical timbers for our inspection. When we examined them we did observe shell-like formations clinging to the rotten wood, but these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting place, invented this explanation.” (4)

It had previously been thought that the Barnacle Goose migrated  to the British Isles via Scandinavia and the strange transformation occurred in the Norse countries.  He was at least right that they did breed in the remote regions of the north that were largely still unknown and not generated from rotting wood.

Morals from Nature

It has long been a practice for Christians to draw moral points from the natural world to reinforce theological ideas. This began in the 2nd century  with the Physiologus where nature was seen as the second book of God, until the early 17th century when natural history became better studied and understood.  However, as science progressed people became more skeptical about such ideas.

Albert the Great

Around the middle of the 14th century Albert the Great came up with a simple way of testing the spontaneous generation  theory by breeding them and noting that they did in fact lay eggs calling the myth, 

“altogether absurd as I and many of my friends have seen them pair and lay eggs and hatch chicks”. (5)

Despite this there were still those as late as the 16th century such as  Joseph Justus Scaliger who insisted that the spontaneous generation theory was right claiming to have witnessed it. 

Belief in the myth, either through self-interest and wanting to dine on meat on fast days, or ignorance, still lingered for a while.  Finally, science and reason prevailed and finally managed to explain how barnacle geese really reproduced.  It is very easy for us today to look back at certain erroneous absurd beliefs that were held to be true in the past but which were eventually proved false.   This itself highlights the frailty of human reason and we cannot help but wonder what people living in future time will make of some of our own beliefs we hold dear in our own times.  Let us hope they will not judge us too harshly.

© 25/03/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 25th, 2021 zteve t evans

Tales of the Lost, the Drowned and the All-Seeing Eye – Vengeance Will Come!

Human Activity

There are many cases in recent times where towns and villages have been deliberately flooded by humans where a change in the landscape was required for purposes such as to form a reservoir for fresh water. These are usually well-documented and their history known though folklore and legends may evolve from them.

Legends

All around the world there are also legends of towns, cities and lands that have been destroyed or lost, leaving only rumor and myths of their existence and demise.  Many such places were rich and successful, well established and populous, making their loss all the more tragic and mystifying. These legends often tell of a catastrophic natural event such as a flood caused by high tides, storms or perhaps covered by sand or snow.  Sometimes it is some geological phenomenon such as an earthquake and sometimes this is combined with a natural event or act of war. The loss of such well-established and prosperous places left a deep impression on following generations.  Myths and legends evolved to explain the cataclysmic event and very often these were carefully crafted to provide a warning to following generations of the consequences of breaking God’s laws or their excessive pride or hubris.

Myth of Origin

These places were very often situated on a site that became transformed by a disastrous natural event in t a new feature of the landscape.  An inland town situated in a valley may be covered by a watery lake.   A town situated by the sea may be flooded and drowned by the waves or covered by sand becoming a massive dune.  A town in the mountains may be covered by snow and ice becoming a glacier. The story created to explain the disaster may be mostly fictional but based on some historic cataclysm like a powerful storm, earthquake or other natural disaster that actually happened.  Sometimes these myths and legends can help archaeologists and scientists investigate real disasters that happened long ago.  In some cases such disasters are well documented from the time but the legends and myths evolve after.

Cautionary Tales

These events when combined with the mysterious origin of some well known feature in the landscape create a compelling story that can have a profound and lingering effect on those it is told to.  Especially when the narrator is a local priest or who uses the story to impress upon their audience the consequences of offending the Almighty.  Although such myths and legends are often designed to uphold Christianity, other religions and philosophies have also used such techniques for this purpose. In some case it is pagan deities or spirits that have been angered in some way by rulers or citizens.  Although warnings may be given they are ignored invoking the wrath of the powerful divinity to wreak some form of divine retribution.

Divine Vengeance

Once divine retribution is invoked the fate of the town is sealed. Often it unfolds as a weather event such a rain, sand or snow storm.  Once divine retribution manifests the end is inevitable. All that will remain will be the myths and legends of a once rich and prosperous society that was drowned, buried or destroyed along with most of its population. Perhaps a lake or some other feature of the landscape appears where the town once stood.

From this a talented storyteller can weave a tale that will work quietly among following generations for centuries that impresses and extols the danger of angering the all powerful deity. In this way a naturally occurring catastrophic event such as a storm or earthquake may be transformed into something altogether more sinister and in many ways more dangerous. Very often it becomes the judgement of God that is dispensing retribution for wrongdoing on an immoral and corrupt society. This and similar themes are quite common in these legends. Warnings of impending retribution and vengeance are offered in an attempt to change people’s behaviour but are ignored. Punishment is inflicted often destroying that society in its entirety not just the perpetrators. Sometimes a few are saved but often the innocent perish along with the guilty.

Collective Guilt

There is a concept of collective guilt that runs through generations until some chosen time when punishment is enacted. Sometimes vengeance is suspended for several generations and the deviant behaviour forgotten by people.  Sometimes it becomes part of normal behaviour.  Nevertheless, the Almighty works at his own pace and punishment eventually arrives when least expected with devastating consequences. This does seem harsh on those who were not born when the original sin was committed but it seems there is an expectation to strive to recognize and put right the wrongs of the past. The message is that the sins of one, even when committed in the past, must not be tolerated either at the time, or perpetuated in the future. What is sown will eventually be reaped in a time and in a way that suits the Almighty. This obligation to right and discontinue past wrongs does not mean that they be wiped from history or that they should be.  It is important to keep records of such wrongs and our attempts to right them to monitor our own evolution and to make sure we do not make the same mistakes again.

The All-Seeing Eye

There is a sense that the individual and collective behaviour of people is being watched by some all-seeing eye.  It sees and knows all our deeds and looks into our hearts and minds making judgements upon us. Legends such as these warn that we are always being watched and judged and even our innermost thoughts are known to the Almighty.  They emphasize we must remember and obey the laws of God and will be held answerable for any transgressions at anytime in the present or future no matter how long ago the indiscretion.  Furthermore, we have a collective responsibility that runs through the past, present and future to keep ourselves and others in society on the straight and narrow. The message is the all-seeing eye sees everything and in a manner and time that suits the Almighty we will reap what we sow and then –

“Vengeance will come!”

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Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts

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

Belief System

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

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

Celtic Identity

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

Animism

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

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

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

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

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

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

Matholwch, King of Ireland

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

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

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

The Insult

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

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

Compensation

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

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

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

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

Branwen’s Welcome

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

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

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

Branwen and the Starling

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

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

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

Bran goes to War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brân the Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

House of Betrayal

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

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

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

Efnissyen

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

The Killing of Gwern

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

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

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

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

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

The Cauldron of Rebirth

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

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

The Seven Survivors

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

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

The Assembly of the Wondrous Head

Bran the Blessed – by zteve t evans

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

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

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

© 03/02/2021 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 2nd, 2021 zteve t evans

Northumberland Folklore: Close Encounters With The Hedley Kow

The Hedley Kow – zteve t evans

The Hedley Kow was a troublesome, shape-shifting, trickster sprite or spirit that made mischief around the area of Hedley-on-the-Hill, Northumberland.  More mischievous than dangerous, it had the ability to turn itself into any animal or item. It delighted in using this talent to play tricks on unsuspecting local people before revealing its true self and vanishing with a resounding peal of mocking laughter (1). Several tales tell of its antics and pranks on local people which result in the victim becoming  bewildered or embarrassed.  Presented here are a few examples of such encounters followed by a tale of an irrepressible old lady whose attitude is a lesson to us all. 

The Dancing Kow

In one tale an old woman went out collecting firewood.  As she was searching she came across a long dry stick she considered perfect for kindling a good fire.  She picked it up and placed it into her basket and continued her search.  As she searched she noticed her basket was getting heavier and heavier and she dropped it spilling the sticks on the ground.  

To her surprise the stick she had considered perfect suddenly jumped in the air turning into a large gangly cow. She was even more shocked when it started jigging up and down and swaying from side to side as if it was performing an old-fashioned country dance.  It continued to caper up and down and then let out a loud braying laugh as it jigged down the road and out of sight leaving only the mocking echo of its laughter.

Tricked by the Kow

Another  tale tells how two young men dressed in their Sunday best clothes intending  to meet up with their girlfriends by the River Derwent.   The young men set off full of anticipation and excitement of what the liaison might bring.  On reaching the river bank they saw their girlfriends ahead walking arm in arm in the opposite direction.  They shouted several times trying to attract their attention but the girls did not seem to hear them and carried on walking.  

Therefore the young men set off after them and being young and fit expected to catch up with them easily.  However, the faster they walked and the harder they tried the more they failed.  The girls just continued strolling along unhurriedly but the distance between them did not diminish and they stayed ahead.

This state of affairs continued for sometime but suddenly the two lads found themselves in a bog and up to their knees in mud.  As they looked towards the girls they saw their forms slowly dissipate into a wispy mist as a deep mocking laugh echoed back at them.   Realizing that they had been tricked by the Kow they scrambled from the bog and ran home with the Kow in close pursuit taunting and mocking them all the way.   Once safe inside they told their families of the unnerving experience of their encounter with the Hedley Kow. 

Tricks of the Kow

Despite its mischievousness the Kow appeared to possess a degree of compassion.  It was never known to trouble people experiencing great sadness or mourning for loss of loved ones.  Nevertheless, for unknown reasons it would sometimes make trouble at births.  This might take the form of knocking on the door of the  residence where a birth was taking place and disappearing when someone opened the door only to be greeted by mocking laughter.   Other times it would  frighten the horse of servants of the attending midwife whom she might send on errands.

It was also known to mimic voices to sound like someone known to its victim.  Tales tell how it could impersonate the voices of the servant girl’s lovers or change into a replica of him to appear at their windows.   Sometimes it would mimic the voice of their employers, shouting down corridors for their attendance only for them to find they had been tricked (2).

The Hedley Kow

The following is a retelling of a story collected by Joseph Jacobs in “More English Fairy Tales.”  It tells of an encounter with the Kow by an irrepressible old lady who made a sparse living doing cleaning, cooking and washing chores around the village.  She was poor and was often paid by being given a good meal and a cup of tea or just a few pennies so she never had much money.  Nevertheless, she was always of good cheer and always looked on the bright side.  Her demeanor was of someone who had not a care in the world despite her poverty.

Walking home one summer evening after completing all her chores for the day she found a large black pot sitting in the middle of the road.   Surprised at the find she looked at it closely wondering who ever could have left it so carelessly in the middle of the road like that.  Despite looking all around she could see no one else and it just seemed to have been left there. She thought it was just the thing for her to put a few flowers in from her small garden in so she decided to take it home.   Bending her aching back she lifted the lid and looked inside and to her complete astonishment saw inside it was full to the top with gold coins.

“Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!”  she said to herself over and over again as she walked around it wondering what to do.  It was too heavy for her to lift and the only thing she could think of was to wrap her shawl around it and drag it along the road. She did this and made considerable progress homewards all the time saying to herself, “Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!” 

She noticed it was getting dark, but rather than let it disturb her she thought it would stop people seeing her treasure and lessen the risk of theft.  She kept thinking to herself how grand she felt and thought upon ways of spending the gold.  She fancied, a big house, new clothes and she would sit by the warm fire drinking tea all day, never again go hungry and live like a queen.  She thought perhaps she would give the gold to the local priest to look after and he could give her a little at a time to spend when she needed it.  Alternatively,  she thought she might bury some in the garden and hide some up the chimney and about the house.  

All this time she was dragging the heavy pot full of gold along  and she grew very tired and her back began to ache.   She stopped and rested but could not resist the temptation to lift the lid to look at the gold.  To her astonishment it had turned into a great lump of pure shining silver, although earlier, she swore it had been full of gold coins worth a fortune.  

Now, silver being worth less than gold you might think she would be upset, but not a bit of it.  She reckoned that when she started to buy things using gold coins word would get round and she would become a target for thieves.  “Never mind, I shall be better off and safer and still very rich so what does it matter?” she said happily.

Once again she started on her way dragging the pot behind all the time planning on how she would spend the money and live an easy life.   After a while her back began to ache and  she began to tire so she stopped to have a little rest.  Looking back at the pot she was astounded to see that it had turned into a large lump of iron and worth much less than the silver.  Now you expect her to be very disappointed but she simply shrugged and said,  “Never mind, at least it will be easier to sell and it will still be worth a fair piece and I won’t have to fret about robbers breaking in to steal my fortune! It is still worth more than enough to ease my old age so I am still very lucky!”

Once again she began dragging the lump of iron along the road home until once again her back began to ache and she grew tired.  She stopped and looked back but to her astonishment instead of the lump of iron she saw it had turned into a large stone.

She stood staring at and said, “Well I never and who would have thought such things possible!  It must have realized I have a great need for a good stone to prop open my door in the summer.  Well now isn’t that the most amazing luck!  I am so lucky to have such good luck!”

Happily  she continued on her way excitedly imagining how the stone would look with her front door propped open by it.   At last reaching her front gate and quickly lifted the latch and hauled the stone up to her front door.  

Turning around she bent to unwrap her shawl.  The stone sat on the path and there was still enough light for to see it plainly.  As she unfastened her shawl from around it she had a shock.  For a second or two the stone, free of the shawl, sat still and peacefully on the path as you would expect it to. Suddenly it sprang in the air and from it sprouted four long legs, a long neck beset by the head of a cow with horns, two long ears and behind grew a long tail. It was the most ungainly looking creature she had ever seen.  It pranced around her two or three times while laughing mockingly at her before dashing off back down the lane.

The old lady stared in disbelief as it ran off.  Now you might think after all the disappointments she had experienced she would be very upset. Not a bit of it!  She just shook her head and said, “Bless me but I am the lucky one!  I have just seen the Hedley Kow and all by myself.  Not many people in the whole wide world can say that.  Why, I feel special and grand and I think I need a cup of tea to think things over and celebrate!” (4)

Positivity

If that old lady was alive today she would probably be a world famous guru on the art of positivity with her own YouTube channel and a following of millions!

© 27/01/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 27th, 2021 zteve t evans

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

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

The Birds of Rhiannon

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

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

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

Time and Space

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

Rhiannon

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

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

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

Culhwch and Olwen

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

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

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

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

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

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

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

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

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

The Adar Rhiannon

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

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

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

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

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

© 20/01/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 20th, 2021 zteve t evans