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

Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

May Day

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

Gwyn ap Nudd

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

Creiddylad

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

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

Gwythyr ap Greidawl

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

The Abduction and Conflict

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

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

Creiddylad as a Goddess

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

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

Birth, Death and Renewal

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

© 06/05/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 6th, 2020 zteve t evans

The Legend of Saint Collen of Llangollen

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St.Collen parish church: Stained glass window ( 1986 ) showing Saint Collen – by Wolfgang Sauber – CC BY-SA 3.0

Early life of St Collen

Saint Collen was a 7th century warrior monk who appeared to be more interested in living a life of quiet dedication to his religion, than fighting.  Nevertheless when he was called upon he proved to be a brave and effective warrior.  He gave his name to the Welsh town of Llangollen, with Llan meaning religious settlement, and golen, a derivative of Collen, which means hazel.  He built a church on the south bank of the River Dee which is the only one in Wales dedicated to him.  He is often associated with the 13th century Colan Church which is also known as St Colan Church in the Cornish village of  Colan, and Langolen a small community in Brittany, France.  Not much is known about his early years but he was believed to have been educated in Orleans, Gaul, staying there for about eight years before returning to his homeland to live in Porth Hanwig, which is now known as Southampton in England.

Fighting for the Pope

According to legend a pagan warrior chief from Greece by the name of Bras was ravaging parts of continental Europe with his war-bands.  Bras challenged the Papacy to find a champion who would fight him in single combat.  The losers would have to convert to the religion of the winner.  The Pope took this challenge seriously and possibly through some form of divine intervention was inspired to send emissaries to look for his champion to Porth Hanwig. Collen was the man they found and fortunately he was prepared to take up the challenge.

At the appointed time and venue the duel took place with the Pope and his retinue and the followers of Bras watching. Soon after the fight began Bras dealt Collen a blow which wounded his hand.  Bras offered him the opportunity to surrender and sportingly offered him a jar of magic ointment that would heal his wound.  The ointment was accepted by Collen who applied it and it healed his hand but refused to surrender.  Instead he threw the jar into a nearby river preventing either of them from using it again.  The fight then resumed and Collen managed to defeat Bras and made him beg for mercy.  Collen agreed to spare his adversary but insisted that the original terms of the fight be followed.  Bras agreed and the Pope baptized him there and then.  As was agreed his followers and people were also baptized and became Christians.

In gratitude for his services the Pope gave Collen a miraculous lily which was also a holy relic which was said to have been present at the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Although it had withered it had once flowered again in the presence of doubting pagans who dismissed the possibility of the Virgin Birth. Its miraculous flowering was seen as a divine sign of proof that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. This holy relic was later kept and revered in the cathedral of the city of Worcester in Britain.

Glastonbury Tor

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Glastonbury Tor – Attribution: Alan Simkins – CC BY-SA 2.0

Collen returned to Britain, settling in Colan, near Newquay after spending time at Langolen, Brittany.  Later, he moved to Ynys Witrin which is now known as Glastonbury where he became a monk.  It only took three months before he was promoted to abbot. Life in an abbey did not seem to suit hims and he then spent the next three years traveling around the countryside preaching the Gospel to the local people.  Eventually he returned to the abbey seeming to settle down for five years, but he had become so disillusioned with the society of his time he became a hermit living near a spring at the foot of Glastonbury Tor

Gwyn ap Nudd

One day at this hermitage he overheard two of the followers of Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of Annwyn, or the Otherworld, who was also known as the King of the Faeries. Disgusted with them he angrily admonished the men who lived locally telling them it was wrong to believe in such demons.

The two local men were unrepentant and told Collen that he would be invited to recant his words and would be visited by the messengers of  Gwyn ap Nudd.  Shortly afterwards a messenger of the King of Annwyn’s messengers arrived at Collen’s hermitage summoning him to a meeting with Gwyn on top of Glastonbury Tor.  The messengers were dressed in red and blue which were the colors of Gwyn ap Nudd. Collen refused to go and turned them away.  This happened twice more and he became annoyed with the messenger’s attitude so he bottled some holy water and climbed to the top of the tor.

On the summit, to his surprise, he found a beautiful castle which he had not seen before.  It was manned and guarded by the most strikingly handsome and best presented soldiers he had ever seen.  They were all dressed in the colors of blue and red, which were the colors of Gwyn ap Nudd.  Wonderful music filled the air and beautiful maidens danced and sang.  From the ramparts a herald dressed in blue and red hailed him and blew on a trumpet.  From the castle door an emissary came dressed in blue and red and respectfully escorted Collen into the castle to the hall of the King of Annwyn who sat amid his courtiers on his golden throne.

Gwyn invited Collen to sit and dine with him offering the finest food and drink imaginable.  He clapped his hands and the most wonderful entertainments began and Collen was most graciously treated by the King of Annwyn’s followers.  Gwyn told Collen that if he would stay he would give him anything his heart desired. He asked him if he had ever seen soldiers and followers as fair as those that followed him wearing  his red and blue colors. Despite all these fair folk and the great temptations Collen was not moved or in any way inspired by the promises.  Sternly, he told Gwyn he saw the red as meaning they would all burn in hell and the blue as the coldness of the corpse.  Quickly taking out his holy water he sprinkled it over the King of Annwyn and his folk and instantly Gwyn ap Nudd, the castle and all of his followers disappeared leaving Collen alone on the Tor.

Finding his sanctuary

Despite his victory over the King of the Otherworld, Collen became dismayed by what had happened and he prayed to God asking him for a place where he might live out his life in peace and seclusion.  In his dreams he was told to travel to the east and then to the north until he found a horse that was all alone and waiting for him.  Following the advice of his dream he traveled some one hundred and fifty miles over hill and dale until he found the horse waiting for him at a place known then as Rhysfa Maes Cadfarch, which is known as Llangollen today. He decided to build a sanctuary in the center of an area he could ride around on his horse in one day and was easily placed to help the local people.  Finding a suitable site he built a hermitage and chapel for himself to live a life full of prayer and quiet contemplation and service.   Another legend has his arriving in the area by coracle presumably along the River Dee.

The giantess of Bwlch Rhiwfelen

However his peace was disturbed when he discovered the area was part of the territory of a giantess who ate humans and lived in the high mountain pass of Bwlch Rhiwfelen and brought fear and terror to the local people. He decided he had to do something to help so he went up to the pass with his sword intending to fight and kill the giantess.

The giantess soon took up the fight after exchanging a few sharp words with him.  He called upon the Lord for help and strength and succeeded in cutting off one of his foe’s arms. She tried to cry out to the giant of the Eglwyseg Rocks to come to her aid, but Collen cut off her other arm and killed her before she could summon him.  He washed the blood of the giantess from himself and his sword in a nearby spring now called Ffynnon Gollen.  From then on he lived the peaceful life he seemed to have craved.   He was thought to have died on 21st of May possibly in the 7th century and was buried by the local people in his chapel that was sited to the west of the present day church of St Collen in Llangollen.

© 01/03/2015 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright March 1st, 2016 zteve t evans