The 1st of May is also known as May Day, Beltane or in Wales Calan Mai or Calan Haf. In Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature it is often linked to the beginning of an adventure or the unfolding of significant events. More sinisterly, it is also linked with the abduction of a female by a male suitor, a recurring theme in Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature. Presented here is a brief discussion on the abduction of Creiddylad and the battle by two warring suitors for possession of her, which takes place every May Day until Doomsday, when there must be a final victor.
Gwyn ap Nudd
In Welsh mythology Gwyn ap Nudd was a ruler of Annwn and the Tylwyth Teg and also associated with Glastonbury Tor. His name means “white son of Nudd,” though he is often described as having a blackened face. His father was Ludd, who was also known as Lludd of the Silver Hand and he may have had a sister, or step-sister named Creiddylad, but the relationship, if any, is not clear. He accompanied King Arthur in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen.
Creiddylad briefly appears in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. She has been likened to Persephone, the Greek vegetation goddess associated with spring and fertility who had been abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter searched for her neglecting her duties and causing the earth to stop growing. She is eventually found and after the intervention of Zeus is compelled repeatedly to spend half the year in Hades and the other on Earth, representing winter and summer respectively.
Creiddylad was considered the most beautiful maiden in the island of Britain. She had two suitors; Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidawl. Some scholars regard Creiddylad as the prototype for the legendary Queen Cordeilla of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical, The History of the Kings of Britain. Later William Shakespear’s character Cordelia from his play King Lear was thought to have been inspired by Geoffrey’s version though not everyone accepts this view.
Gwythyr ap Greidawl
Gwythyr ap Greidawl was the son of Greidawl Galldonyd, one of King Arthur’s knights. Gwythyr was also one of Arthur’s knights and a member of his retinue along with Gwyn in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.
The Abduction and Conflict
Creiddylad and Gwyther were betrothed but before they were married Gwyn ap Nudd forcefully abducted her. Gwythyr raised an army to confront Gwyn and win back his betrothed. In the ensuing battle Gwyn is victorious taking a number of important prisoners. These included Dyfnarth his son, Glinneu son of Taran, Gwrgwst Ledlwm, Graid son of Eri, Pen son Nethog, Nwython and his son Cyledyr. In an act of sheer cruelty the Gwyn made Cyledyr eat the heart of his father which drove him mad. From then on the epitaph Wyllt meaning madness was added after his name with him becoming Cyledyr Wyllt.
On hearing of the hostilities, King Arthur intervened setting the prisoners free and making a peace agreement between the two. This stipulated that Gwyn and Gwythyr would fight for Creiddylad every year on the 1st of May until Doomsday. Whoever won the fight on Doomsday would win Creiddylad for his bride. Through all this time she would remain unmarried living with her father until the contest had been settled.
Creiddylad as a Goddess
There is an idea that Creiddylad may represent a fertility goddess and the battle between the two rivals is to choose the strongest and most virile to be her husband to ensure the fertility of the earth.Caitlin Mathews in her book, King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land – The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion, explains how certain female characters in the Mabinogion may be seen as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty. The possession of such a female by a male gives the possessor sovereignty over the land. Some times she is called the Flower Bride and considered the spirit of new growth, renewal and fertility.
With both ideas possession is one thing and keeping her is another. In both roles her task is to ensure the fertility of the land. Therefore, he who would be king must be the strongest and most virile. He must also be the steward of the land taking care of it and its inhabitants in return for sovereignty over it. There is an idea that the well being of the land is intimately tied up with the well being of the king. Should the king weaken and fail so will the land. There will never be a shortage of suitors for the goddess or Flower Bride and inevitably she must choose the strongest and the most potent for her consort to ensure the fertility, renewal and well being of the land she bestows. This may look immoral to a patriarchal society but it is her sacred duty to protect and ensure the continuance of life on the land and her morality cannot be judged in such terms.
Birth, Death and Renewal
These abduction stories are also often linked to birth, death and renewal of life and crops and nature. They may also be connected with the battle of light and dark and the cyclical changing of the seasons but not all scholars accept these ideas. In Arthurian literature there are several similar examples involving the abductions of Queen Guinevere and other ritualistic duels between two warring males that may also be seen in this light.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 28th November, 2019, as The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd and Oldest Animals in the World, by zteve t evans
The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd
In Welsh legend and myth the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd lived in the woods that once surrounded Llyn Cowlyd. Today the woods are gone but the legends live on in two tales that feature a search for the oldest and wisest animals in the world. In the first the owl is said to be among the oldest animals in the world, whereas in the second the owl is attributed as being the oldest.
Culhwch and Olwen
The first is ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, an action packed hero tale from the Red Book of Hergest, written just after 1382. It was also contained in fragments in the White Book of Rhydderch, written about 1320. Both books were sources for the Mabinogion, a compilation of early Welsh oral stories by Lady Charlotte Guest from which the first of these tales draws.
Culhwch was the son of King Cilydd and his wife, Goleuddydd, who died soon after giving birth to him. Cilydd remarried, but Culhwch became estranged from his step-mother after she tried to persuade him to marry her daughter from another marriage. Culhwch refused and she took offence, casting a spell on him so that the only woman he could marry was Olwen, the beautiful daughter of the dangerous giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, in the belief that it would be impossible.
Despite never having met or even seen Olwen, Culhwch became obsessed and besotted by her. His father told him he would never be able to find her alone and must seek out the assistance of his cousin, King Arthur. Culhwch visited Arthur and was given a band of heroic companions to aid him in his quest. They eventually found Ysbaddaden and Olwen but the giant insisted that to marry his daughter, Culhwch must perform a series of tasks he believed to be impossible.
One of the tasks required him to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron, whose whereabouts was unknown, but was essential to the overall success of the quest. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar, the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth is the hunting dog named Drudwyn, and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place.
The Oldest Animals in the World
In the hope that one of the oldest and wisest animals in the world might know where he was, advice was sought from the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led hem to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd. The owl told them …
Llyn Cowlyd is a long and narrow lake almost two miles long and about a third of a mile wide situated in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. It is the deepest lake in northern Wales and has given soundings of 229 feet. Today it is used as a reservoir and its depths have been raised twice from its natural depth and its natural depth was believed to be about 184 feet. Today, it has a bleak, treeless appearance though according to the Red Book of Hergest, written around 1382 from oral tradition it was once forested. According to legend and tradition there were three mythical beasts associated with it; the water horse, the water bull and the Owl of Cowlyd. This work will briefly discuss the myths associated with each of them.
The Legendary Ceffyl Dŵr, the Water Horse
Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain]
According to ancient tradition Llyn Cowlyd is the home of a legendary Ceffyl Dŵr or water horse, which are featured in many legends and folktales. They are said to have been shape-shifters that could also fly and despite their solid appearance could evaporate quickly into a fine mist. Although there were many alleged sightings of water horses during the 18th century no records were made until the 19th century.
According to tradition the water horse has fiery eyes and it is dangerous for humans to look into them. It is said that when a water horse is close a dark and forbidding feeling is experienced and those who work near its known haunts will quickly make themselves scarce. Sabine Baring-Gould in 1903 gave the following warning for anyone who should encounter a water horse,
“Should he see a horse, however quiet and staid, browsing near, let him not venture to mount it, although the beast seems to invite the weary traveller through the heather to take a seat on its back. No sooner is he in his seat than all its want of spirit is at an end. It flies away with its rider towards the lake, plunges in, and will never be seen again. It is the Ceffyl y Dwfr, the Water-horse, a spirit that lives in the depths, with a special taste for human flesh, which it will munch below when it has its victim at the bottom of the blue water.” (1)
The water horse of Llyn Cowlyd was believed to be an evil entity that only appeared at night assuming the shape of a horse and trying to entice unwary people to try and ride it. Once a rider was mounted it would fly into the clouds, perhaps over the mountains or over water and then suddenly dissipate into fine mist leaving the rider to fall to their death. It was said that members of the clergy alone could safely ride the water horse as long as they did not speak a word. Although Llyn Cowlyd had its own water horse another was said to haunt Llyn Crafnant.
Sometimes in Wales, the water horse is associated with the sea and is said to be the bringer of storms. They are believed to change their appearance before and after the storm. Before the storm they would be seen stamping around in the waves their coats a dapple grey or white. After the storm they changed their coats into a chestnut or piebald coloring and were seen trotting along the shore. During long stormy periods their coats became the colour of sea foam.
The Water Bull of Llyn Cowlyd
by George W. Hobbs [Public domain]
Llyn Cowlyd is also the home of another mythical beast called a water bull, which is also found in Scotland. Water bulls are usually seen as being nocturnal and make moorland lakes their homes and also have amphibious and have shape shifting abilities. Water bulls can be dangerous and alarming and are sometimes seen with fiery horns and hoofs with flame spouting from their nostrils. According to tradition, solitary walkers near the lakeside have been known to have been dragged into the water to their deaths.
The Owl of Cowlyd
artist – Miller [Public domain]
The Mabinogion the tale of Culhwch and Olwen mentionsthe Owl of Cowlyd as one of the oldest animals in the world that lived in the cwm, or valley of Cowlyd. Culhwch the protagonist of the story, has to find him in order to complete a series of near impossible tasks as ordained by Ysbaddaden the giant, before he will grant permission for him to marry his beautiful daughter, Olwen. Culhwch recruits the aid of King Arthur who is his cousin. Arthur provides Culhwch with companions to help him on his quest and the adventures begin.
One of the tasks he was set by Ysbaddaden was to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron whose whereabouts were unknown. Mabon was essential to the success of the quest of Culhwch. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar. the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth was the hunting dog named Drudwyn and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place and no one knew where.
It was believed only the oldest and wisest animals in the world may possess the knowledge of the whereabouts of Mabon therefore these were sought out. The questers came to the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led them to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cowlyd, living in the valley surrounding the lake. The owl told them,
“If I knew I would tell you. When first I came hither, the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men came and rooted it up. And there grew there a second wood; and this wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps? Yet all this time, even until to-day, I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, I will be the guide of Arthur’s embassy until you come to the place where is the oldest animal in this world, and the one that has travelled most.” (2)
The Owl of Cowlyd led them to the Eagle of Gwern Abw, who led them to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw who revealed that Modron was being held prisoner and showed them the whereabouts of his prison.
Lesson For The Future
Llyn Cowlyd is associated with some very strange mythical beasts although by its appearances today you would not think it possible but the lake and its valley have not always been as they are now. If we look closely at what the owl says we will see it has changed from a wooded vale into the bleak and treeless place we see today through human activity. Indeed, the lake itself has been altered by humans to serve the needs of humans and we see how humanity changes the landscape and environment for its own needs perhaps providing a lesson for the future, or a warning.
In medieval England tales about the adventures of King Arthur and his knights were popular and were often found in the form of a long poem. These were often read socially as entertainment at events such as celebrations or banquets. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is such a poem and appears as a parody of the Arthurian world with a hidden mix of ancient motifs and themes such as The Loathly Lady, Sovereignty, the annual cycle of the sun, and a little humor blended into the story-line. In many ways it turns Arthurian tradition on its head for in this story unusually the heroic King Arthur is found having to beg a vengeful knight for his life. The knight agrees to put off his execution for one year when he must return to him with the correct answer to a question or die. The question is What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? No wonder Arthur is worried!
With the help of his faithful, but gullible nephew Sir Gawain he searched the world for the answer. He finally came across Dame Ragnelle in Inglewood Forest who gives him the correct answer but only on the condition that Sir Gawain marries her. Dame Ragnelle is the opposite of the beautiful and well-mannered females who populate the Arthurian world. She is repulsively ugly, openly lusty, and course of manners, nevertheless, to save his uncle, Gawain agrees to take her for his wife. Although it appears Gawain is too faithful and gullible for his own good things turn out extremely well for him in the end. Presented here is a retelling of the story.
One fine day King Arthur and a hunting party left his court at Carlisle to go hunting in the nearby forest of Inglewood. For speed in the chase, comfort and practicality he had left his armor off and was lightly armed with bow, arrow and hunting knife. While the hounds were seeking out a quarry Arthur noticed a fine stag standing stock still in a thicket. Ordering the others to stay where they were he carefully stalked the stag. Nevertheless the stag got a scent of him as he crept forward and ran off. Arthur gave chase and letting fly with his bow and arrow managing to wound the animal as the hounds took up the chase. He told his huntsmen to remain where they were while he went after it. He chased for about half a mile and managed to wound it again causing it to stumble and fall. As he finished it off with his hunting knife a stranger appeared who was well armed and dressed in armour and looked a most formidable warrior.
Sir Gromer Somer Joure
The stranger knight stood proudly over Arthur as he knelt over the stag and said, “Well, met King Arthur, well met indeed! All these years you have done me wrong and here I have you unarmed, without armor alone in the wilds. I will have my revenge. You took my lands and gave them to your nephew Sir Gawain. Now I will unleash my anger and hatred upon you. What have you to say now I have you alone in the wild unarmed?“
Arthur stood up realizing he was indeed alone, unarmed and vulnerable against this well armed knight dressed for battle who stood threateningly before him and said, “Well, Sir Knight, perhaps you could tell your name before you slay me?”
Replied the knight, “I am Gromer Somer Joure.”
“Then, Sir Gromer Somer Joure, good knight that you are, you will know slaying me unarmed and not attired for battle will bring you nothing but shame. You will be shunned by knights everywhere you go. Perhaps there is something I can do to amend or alleviate the hurt you accuse me of before I leave? Speak now!” replied Arthur.
“You will not escape me now that I have you. If I let you go you will defy me again.” replied the knight.
“Slay me while I am unarmed and with no armor and you will have eternal shame. Spare my life and perhaps there is something I can do to right the wrong you allege or reward you,” replied Arthur.
“There is nothing that will help you. I do not desire land or riches just you death, but if you agree that …”
“I agree,” interrupted Arthur.
“Listen to my demand! You must swear that you will return in a year with the answer to this quest I am about to ask you. If have the right answer you will live. If you do not have the right answer I will take your head. The question is this. What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? If you agree swear your oath and get gone. If you do not I will take you head now. What say you, King Arthur?”
“Although it is disagreeable to me I swear and being a true king will return in a year and a day with or without the answer to your question and face my fate.” answered Arthur.
“Then get you on your way King Arthur, you have no idea of the troubles that await you. You must keep this secret and don’t even think of betrayal for I could kill you in battle,” said Gromer Somer Joure before mounting his horse and riding off.
Arthur blew his horn and the rest of his party came quickly to him. They found him with the deer but were surprised to see how sad he looked. Telling them he had no further desire to hunt the party went back to Carlisle. Although no one said anything they all knew something strange and serious had happened by the look on his face. Back at Carlisle, Arthur sat alone brooding and clearly unhappy.
At last his nephew, Sir Gawain approached him and asked what ailed him. He replied sadly, “While I was unarmed and alone in the forest I encountered an unknown knight armed and clad in armor, ready for battle. He told me certain things that I must not tell unto others and gave my word. Therefore, I must keep my word or betray it.”
Gawain reassured him that whatever he told him he did so in complete confidence and that he would never pass it on. Therefore Arthur said,
“Today while hunting alone I slew a stag. Afterwards, I met a knight named, Sir Gromer Somer Joure who wanted to slay me. I had no sword or armor and I spoke to him politely and courteously reminding him of the shame and dishonor as a knight that would befall him if slayed and unarmed man. Of course I did not want to die and I swore on oath that I would return to him in one year, clad as I was and unarmed with the answer to this question. What is it that women most desire? I am bound to return and give him the right answer. Should the answer be wrong he takes my head. If I give the right answer I am set free from the oath. If I don’t turn up, unless by death alone, then I am eternally shamed. This, then is the cause of my woe.”
On hearing him Gawain said, “Let me help. You search for the answer in one direction and I will search in the opposite. On our way we will ask everyone we meet the question and write down the answers in a book. At the end of a eleven months we will meet back here in Carlisle and I will give you my book and we will peruse the findings together.”
Arthur could think of no better plan and so agreed and they went off on their separate ways. Each asked everyone they came across the question, “What is it that women most desire of men?” and wrote down the answer. Some said it was money. Some said it was fine clothing. Others said they liked to be courted and wooed, while the other said they liked lusty men who swept them off their feet. By the time they arrived back at the court of Carlisle the both books were full with many different answers.
Eleven months later they met back in Carlisle and looked over each other books. Gawain was confident that one of the answers contained in the books would be right but Arthur was not so sure. There were so many answers so he said, “I still have a month left and there is time to find something more definite. I think I will look around Inglewood Forest for a while in the hope of finding the right answer.”
Gawain was confident that they had the right answer in the books already but said, “As you wish, but I have every confidence the right answer is in the books.”
The next day Arthur rode to Inglewood and spent several hours wandering the many paths in the forest. Eventually he came across and old woman seated upon a horse at a crossroads. She was the most hideous, ugliest and the most repulsive person he had ever seen. In contrast to her the horse she sat was most handsome chestnut mare. Its saddle and bridle were decorated with gold, silver and precious gems. The magnificence of the beast was in stark contrast to the vile appearance of her. She was sat on her horse in the middle of a crossroads seemingly in waiting for him. It was she that spoke first seeming to knew who he was and boldly greeting him thus,
“Well, met King Arthur, well met alone in the woods. I have advice for you if you will listen that will save your life!”
Arthur was utterly repulsed by the loathly lady but politely asked what she had to say. She told him she aware of him and his quest and knew the answer he sought,
“I know the right answer to the secret. I know you found many answers but the ones you have gathered to you are wrong. If I do not tell you then you will die. If you grant me a request I will tell you the answer you seek, Your life is in my hands! Therefore, what say you?”
Arthur was unpleasantly surprised that she appeared to know so much. He looked at her in disgust of her appearance and said, “Lady, I dislike your words, Tell me what you want and if I can I will grant it. Why is my life in your hands?”
The loathly lady cackled at him said, “Whatever else I am, I am not evil. The bargain I would make with you is this. To save your life I must marry Sir Gawain. Think, deeply, think wisely. If you do not agree or if he does not agree the marriage you will die!”
Arthur was aghast at the thought. The more he considered it the least able he thought himself of delivering it. Therefore, he said, “In all truth, fairness and honesty, I cannot promise Sir Gawain will agree to be part of this bargain. It is for he alone to choose a wife, but I will ask his thoughts on the matter, though only because it may save my own life. I would not blame him if he refused, but I will ask and see what happens from there.”
This appeared to satisfy the lady who replied, “Go now and speak to Sir Gawain and speak as fair as you can of me. Yes, I am hideous, but I am as lusty as I am hideous! Go and speak to Gawain and you may yet live. You will find me here when you have your decision.”
“What will I tell him your name is?” asked Arthur.
“You may tell him my name is Dame Ragnelle,” she replied
So Arthur rode back to Carlisle to talk to Gawain. He knew his nephew would probably accept simply because of his own sake. Nevertheless, he really regretted having to ask him with the terrible consequences involved but he had no choice.
The first person Arthur met was Gawain who greeted him happily and asked how he got on with his quest in Inglewood. Arthur looked at Gawain sadly and said, “Everything went exceedingly bad. I may as well kill myself now as I appear to be doomed to die!”
Gawain was shocked and wanted to know why he was so sorely depressed and unhappy. Arthur said, “In Inglewood I met the most disgusting and hideous lady I have ever seen. She has promised me that she will save my life if you will marry her. Gawain, I cannot let you do this, therefore I am doomed!”
Gawain replied, “No matter how foul or hideous I will marry her to save you. You are my uncle, my king and my friend. We have fought side by side in many battles and it is my honour that is at stake if I refuse. I will not dishonor myself or become a coward afraid of a lady, hideous or otherwise. I will marry her!”
Arthur told him how they had met at the crossroads and how she had told him her name was Dame Ragnelle. He reiterated that she was the vilest, ugliest woman he had ever seen. He told Gawain that she had told she knew the answer to the question he sought. She had told him there was only one answer and she was the only one knew. She would only reveal it if you married her.
Gawain was not to be put off and replied, “Have no fear, I will marry her regardless of her vile appearance, for my respect for you is even greater.”
Arthur was pleased by Gawain’s answer and told him, “I cannot thank you enough! You are the best of my knights and I shall love you as long as I am king of this land!”
At the end of the last month, Arthur, accompanied by Gawain went to seek Dame Ragnelle at the crossroads as he had promised. When they reached the forest Arthur told Gawain that here they must part. Gawain told him he would prefer to accompany him but as it was his wish they would separate.
When Arthur reached the crossroads he found Dame Ragnelle sitting as if she had not moved since he had left. She greeted him saying,
“Well met, what is the news. Are to be saved or are you doomed?”
Arthur looked upon her with a mixture of gloom and disgust and said, “I have spoken to Gawain. As there is no other way he has agreed to the marriage. Therefore, Dame, tell me the answer to the question for I must go.”
Dame Ragnelle laughed long and hideously and then said,
“I will tell you what it is that women most desire. Some men say it is beauty and youth we desire that we stay attracted to men and are lusted after. It is not that. Some say women wish to be flattered and feted and wooed, but it is not that either. There are many other wrong things men say about women but now I will tell you what women most desire in all the world of men. It is this. We women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of our self and over men, so that all that is theirs is ours. We will use all our wiles and skills to master the most manly, the fiercest and the most brutal of men and gain sovereignty over them. Now King Arthur, go and tell this to the adversary who would cut off you head and you will be saved. Just remember our bargain!
Wasting no time Arthur rode to the place where he had killed the stag and where he had agreed to rendezvous with Sir Gromer Somer Joure. When he arrived Sir Gromer was already waiting. Arthur showed him the books with the answers he and Gawain had collected, Gromer spent a long time diligently studying them and at last said, “No, the correct answer is not here. Therefore, prepare to die!”
Arthur held up his hand and cried, “Wait! I have one more answer, will you hear it?”
“I will,” said Gromer.
“It is this. Women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of herself and over men so that all that is men’s is theirs,” said Arthur.
This infuriated Gromer who replied angrily, “Curse the woman, I hope she burns in Hell. Clearly you have spoken to the old hag, Dame Ragnelle, who is my sister. If not for her I would have your head here and now! Yes, you have given the right answer, but only thanks to her. Go now Arthur, but never let me catch you alone and unarmed in the forest again, for I will not hesitate a second time!“
Much relieved Arthur replied, “You can be sure I will never again be found at such a disadvantage. From now on I will always be armed and armored to defend myself and defend myself I will. Now I go.”
With that Arthur mounted his horse and rode to the crossroads to meet Dame Ragnelle, leaving Sir Gromer Somer Joure angrily cursing his sister. Although Arthur was glad to be free of the threat of death he now looked forward to his meeting with the loathly lady with disgust and dismay. He was desperately sorrow for what had been lain on Gawain and would have done anything to change it. At the crossroads she was waiting patiently still sat upon her horse. She cackled hideously at his approach and said, “Ha, King Arthur! See it is just as I told you. I have kept my part of the bargain and now you must keep yours. Sir Gawain will be my husband!”
Arthur shuddered, deeply sorry for what he had got his faithful nephew into but said, “I have spoke to Gawain and he has agreed, The marriage will go ahead though I wish for all the world it would not! Therefore if you will have your wish follow my advice. We will go secretly …”
Dame Ragnelle cut him short saying, “We will do nothing in secrecy. I will be married openly in public for all to see. You will not leave me until I am the wife of Sir Gawain, or it will bring shame and dishonor upon you. You will escort me royally to your court and all will see how I have saved your life and the gratitude you owe me! ”
Deeply embarrassed Arthur escorted Dame Ragnelle to court. When they reached Carlisle she waved and smiled gruesomely at all she met lapping up the attention she received. Everyone stared in shock and wonder at the hideous woman King Arthur escorted to his court. On arrival Arthur led her into his hall where she said joyfully, “Now bring to me Sir Gawain and summon your knights, noble and ladies. Send out to all nobles and lords to attend that they may witness our marriage which will take place as soon as all is assembled as witnesses. Fulfill your bargain King Arthur!”
Groaning inwardly, Arthur summoned Gawain and his knights, noble and ladies to meet Dame Ragnelle. When Gawain arrived, Dame Ragnelle declared she was so taking by his handsome appearance she wished she was beautiful for him. To his bemusement and embarrassment she reassured him she was as lusty as she was hideous, digging him in the elbow and winking, while Gawain stared blankly before him.
King Arthur held his head in his hands in despair while all of his knights and noble looked on in shock and bewilderment, The ladies of the court wept at the sight of the handsome, heroic Sir Gawain sitting next to his grotesque fiance. Although Arthur and his queen begged her to have a small private ceremony Dame Ragnelle refused. She declared it was her special day and she would share it openly with everyone. With resignation, Arthur summoned the lords and ladies of his realm to Carlisle to witness the marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.
After a few days everyone had arrived and all was in place and a magnificent wedding banquet prepared for after the ceremony. Although she wore a most beautiful wedding gown the contrast between her and her gown made it all the more surreal.The ceremony took place and Arthur and his lords and ladies looked on in shock and horror as the jubilant Dame Ragnelle wedded Sir Gawain. Although the horror could be seen in his eyes his courage was without fault that day. After the ceremony the banquet began and Sir Gawain led his bride to her chair at the banquet table.
The Marriage Banquet
It was a magnificent banquet but no one was prepared for what happened next. Taking her seat next to her husband at the head of the table. After all the appropriate speeches were rendered and proper protocols observed, Dame Ragnelle wasted no time in tucking in to the banquet.
To the sheer amazement of her new husband and the guests she began eating with amazing speed. She stuffed her mouth full of various kinds of food while swallowing great gulps of beer and wine. Everyone one stared in amazement and horror as plates of meat, pies, bread, sweetmeat and delicacies of all kinds disappeared into her voluminous mouth. As she ate she belched and coughed sending saliva flying across the hall and causing the guests to cover their plates. Greedily she ate whole capons, whole ducks, even whole swans, She ate a boar’s head and body to herself. She ate and she ate and ate and she drank and she drank and she drank.
Everyone looked on in embarrassed astonishment. All the time she chatted away gaily with her mouthful to her new bewildered husband and their equally bewildered guests. Every now and then she would elbow Gawain urging him to up to build up his strength, while giggling coyly. Gawain sat blank faced staring in space before him while Arthur sat holding his head in his hands silently begging Gawain for forgiveness.
At last she was satiated of food and drink and with more than a wink and a nod to her guests carried her new husband off to their bedchamber. Gawain stared forlornly out of the window while his wife prepared herself for her husband. At last she said, “Ah now, since we are now married you must not deny me in bed. I cannot deny that if I were beautiful you would feel and act differently, certainly with more enthusiasm. Nevertheless, do me the honor of turning to face me and kissing me. Show that you honor me!”
Gawain stood staring out of the window and sighing said, “Have no fear, I will kiss you and more.”
The Spell is Broken
Turning to face her he stood dumbfounded in astonishment at what he saw. Stood before him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“What are you?” he asked.
“Husband, I am your wife, Why do act so strange?”
Gawain stood in amazement at the transformation and said, “Forgive me, I am at a loss. I am bemused and well and truly confused. Earlier today at our wedding you were the most hideous and ugliest creature I have ever seen. Now you are transformed into a vision of loveliness. The day began strange and has grown even stranger and I am at a loss to know what to say or do!”
His bride stood before him very much a vision of loveliness and she said, “You must make a choice. My beauty as you see me now will not last. I can only be fair at night or in the day time. That means if you chose me to be fair at night I will be foul during the day. If chose me to be fair in the day then I will be foul at night. Whatever you choose, I will remain, but you must choose one or the other. What will it be?”
Gawain thought for awhile then said, “It is a hard choice to make. To have you beautiful only for myself at night would be a sorrowful thing and I would do you dishonor. To have you beautiful in the daytime would mean I have little reward at night. Truly, I would like to choose the best but I have no idea of what that may be. Therefore, I give you the choice. Please make the choice that you prefer. I promise whatever that may be, my body, all of by possessions, my heart and soul will remain yours to do with as you please, this I promise before God.”
Thus transformed Lady Ragnelle said, “Sir Gawain you have proved to be an honorable and courteous knight and I bless you for the honor you have shown me. Do not be grieved or confused by my sudden transformation. My wicked stepmother cast a spell upon me changing me into the hideous being you first saw. I was to remain in that vile shape until the best and most worthy knight in England married me and gave himself, his body, his soul, all his worldly goods to me to rule and to do as I wished. You have given me sovereignty over myself and also over you. Be sure that I will use that power most wisely and with all love.”
Their wedding night was still young and they made the best of it. When dawn came they laughed and kissed and remained in bed happy in each other’s company. The morning passed and midday arrived and Arthur said to his knights with trepidation, “I think we better go and make sure Gawain has survived the night. I fear the hideous thing may have killed him. Let us go and make sure he is alright.”
He led a party of knights to the newly weds bedchamber and began banging upon the door crying, “Gawain, it is midday. Why are you so long in bed, are you ill?”
Gawain got up and opened the door ajar and said, “My Lord, I would be most grateful if you would leave me be for all is well here and in good health as is my beautiful wife, see …”
And he purposely opened the door fully to reveal Dame Ragnelle standing in a stunning gown with her red hair hanging around her waist looking a vision of beautiful and loveliness.
“Now you can see for yourselves why I am in no rush to rise and meet the day. Meet my wife, Dame Ragnelle who gave you the answer that saved your life.”
He told Arthur of the enchantment she has been under and how now it had been broken. All of Arthur’s knights were greatly relieved at his safety and pleased at the way things had turned out for him. The queen and her ladies were also delighted fearing that the hideous woman had murdered him, but even more pleased that his exemplary behaviour had won a wife of outstanding beauty. There was much relief all around and Arthur told the queen of how he had been forced to swear an oath in the forest of Inglewood to save his life and how Dame Ragnelle had saved him.
Gawain explained how his wife had placed under an enchantment by her stepmother and how his marriage to her and the choice he made to grant her sovereignty over herself and him on his wedding night had broken the spell.
Dame Ragnelle said, “I give my thanks to Gawain for without him I would still be the hideous, vile and misshapen thing. Therefore, although Gawain has recognized my own sovereignty over myself and granted me sovereignty over him I swear I shall never abuse or misuse it. I will be his wife and he my husband as it should be. There will never be discord between us.”
In return Gawain pledged his love and faithfulness, acknowledging the mercy she granted him.
The queen declared to her ladies that Lady Ragnelle was the most beautiful of the all and said, “I give my thanks to you for saving the king for I love him with my life!”
Gawain and Dame Ragnelle settled down and soon she bore him a fine strong son whom they named Gyngolyn, who grew up to be a good knight of the Round Table. It soon became apparent that Gawain loved his wife more than anything in the world. He gave up jousting and competing in tournaments and spent all his time by her side and she was reckoned the fairest lady in England.
Lady Ragnelle, begged Arthur to forgive her brother Sir Gromer Somer Joure for the wrong he had done to him and he reluctantly agreed. If everything appeared happy for a time it was bound to change. Sadly, after five happy years together Lady Ragnelle passed away. Although Gawain remarried he was said to have never loved anyone else like he loved Lady Ragnelle.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on November 29, 2018, titled British Legends: Morgan le Fay – Magical Healer or Renegade Witch? written by zteve t evans
In Arthurian tradition, the elusive sorceress Morgan le Fay becomes one of King Arthur’s most dangerous foes, breaking traditional family bonds and working to undermine and bring down the strict patriarchal system and chivalric order of the Arthurian world. Morgan is an enigma: despite attempting to kill King Arthur and usurp his kingdom, she takes him into her care after he is severely wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, which brings an end to his kingdom. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, and Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, with influences from other texts, and looks at how Morgan’s character changes from benevolent, to malignant and then back to benevolent. To do this, we look at her early life, how she used Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur against him and stole its scabbard, and the disaster this would cause. This is followed by a discussion on two important topics that had a considerable influence on medieval society: the Querelle des Femmes or The Woman Question, and witchcraft, before concluding with Morgan’s return to Avalon.
As Ruler of Avalon
Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Morgan into Arthurian literature in Vita Merlini, as ‘Morgen’, presenting her as the leader of nine benevolent sisters that rule the island of Avalon. She is the most beautiful, the most knowledgeable and the most powerful of the sisters. As well as being a skilled healer, she can fly or transport herself at will from place to place, and she has shape-shifting abilities.
It is not clear whether these ‘sisters’ are family, or members of some kind of religious or mystical order. In the work of some later writers, she becomes either the step-sister or full elder sister of King Arthur, but a radical change happens with her character. As Arthur’s elder sister, she breaks the traditional bond of love between brother and sister and the nurturing role so often associated with the elder sister towards their younger brother. Furthermore, instead of the wise and benevolent sorceress, she evolves into a malign, sexual predator, hating her brother and his wife Queen Guinevere, and forsakes her place at the center of the Arthurian establishment, moving to its periphery and becoming a renegade attacking the established order. She targets the Knights of the Round Table, especially Sir Lancelot, weaving dark spells and plots to trap them. Eventually, she becomes nothing less than an enemy of the state and, arguably, its most dangerous adversary, until Mordred emerges to usurp the crown, resulting in the battle of Camlann.
Morgan’s Early Life
In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Morgan the youngest daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. When the King of the Britons, Uther Pendragon, first set eyes on Igraine, he became wildly infatuated with her. Unable to contain his lust, he attacked Cornwall to take Igraine for himself. Gorlois sent his wife to his safest stronghold of Tintagel while he confronted Uther’s troops in battle. While the military confrontation took place, Merlin, using his magical arts, transformed Uther into the likeness of Gorlois to allow him to gain access to Igraine at Tintagel. The guards, believing it was Gorlois, let him enter the stronghold. Believing he was her husband, Igraine lay with him, and that night Arthur was conceived.
While this was taking place, Gorlois was killed battling Uther’s army. After satisfying his lust, Uther returned to his troops and, on learning of the death of the duke, took Igraine to be his wife. He married her eldest daughter, Morgause, to King Lot of Lothian and the next eldest, Elaine, to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgan was the youngest and he sent her to a nunnery.
Morgan hated Uther because she knew what had happened the night her father died, and deeply resented Arthur as the product of his lust. At the nunnery, she was introduced to astrology, the dark arts of necromancy and the skills of healing, becoming highly adept in this field. As her skill and knowledge grew, people began to call her Morgan le Fay in acknowledgement of her abilities. Eventually, she joined Arthur’s court and became a lady in waiting to Queen Guinevere.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com by zteve t evans, October 11, 2018
In Arthurian romance the mystical, magical quest of the Sangreal is a popular story that has its roots in medieval times, though its seeds may be from much earlier. It uses allegories to blend together pagan motifs, Christian tradition and political and social concerns of the day into a story of spiritual evolution for the main protagonists who must remain true to the quest. The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail which eventually became conflated with the Holy Chalice. There are several other versions of its name and in different stories it has appeared in different forms such as stone or wood, or as a cup or dish. The earliest of these romances was Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes who died before it was finished but was added to later by other poets. Other authors also created versions of the story such as Le Roman du Graal, Joseph d’Arimathe, Merlin, and Perceval by Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, whose authorship is disputed and Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Later, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D’Arthur, blending together Arthurian and grail tradition, and it is from this that the greatly summarised version of the tale below draws the most.
Origin of the Sangreal
In this allegorical story set in the time of King Arthur, the Sangreal was the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the last supper, and the Sacred Spear was the one Longinus, the Roman soldier, used to pierce his side during his crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea brought them to Britain and his descendants, the Grail Kings of Castle Corbenic were granted guardianship on condition that each guardian lived a life of purity in deed and thought, dedicated to Jesus Christ. For many ages, the Sangreal remained a visible, tangible object — alongside the Sacred Spear — that pilgrims came from far and wide to pray before.
Over time, one of its guardians allowed the moral standards that behoved his role to slip, and sought forbidden love. The Sacred Spear punished his weakness, inflicting a wound to his groin that could not be healed, leaving the king maimed and kept alive only by the power of the Sangreal; after this, the Sangreal and Sacred Spear were hidden from the people’s eyes. In those days the fertility of the land was linked to that of the king, and his realm became a barren wasteland until the time came when he would be healed by the purest knight in the world.
At Camelot, Merlin had not been seen for some time and, worried at his absence, King Arthur sent out knights to find him. Sir Gawain went out searching, and while travelling through the forest of Brocéliande he heard the sound of someone groaning. Following the sound, he found a column of dense mist that he could not penetrate. From the mist came the voice of Merlin who revealed that his mistress, Viviane — the Lady of the Lake — had imprisoned him there for all time. He instructed Gawain to return to King Arthur and tell him of his plight. Yet, emphasizing that nothing could be done to save him, he gave an important message to relay:
“Tell Arthur a great event is now unfolding. The knight is born and ready to begin and accomplish this task for the good of the land and its people. Now is the time of the quest of the Sangreal.”
Gawain quickly returned and delivered the message to King Arthur, who grieved for his old friend as he turned over the message in his mind.
Pentecost at Camelot
It was the custom of King Arthur to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with all his knights around the Round Table. Each of the knights had their own seat at the Round Table with their name inscribed upon it, and there was one vacant seat known as the Siege Perilous. As the feast was about to begin a squire brought news that in a nearby river there was a red slab of marble that floated on the water. King Arthur led his knights to the river to investigate. Fixed firmly within this slab, as if it had been driven in, was a sword upon which was inscribed the following words,
“Never shall I be drawn forth except by he who is the perfect knight and at his side, I will hang.”
Sir Gawain tried to draw the sword but failed, as did Sir Percival and many others, but none could free it.
The Quest of the Sangreal
Having investigated, they returned to the Round Table to eat. While they were eating the windows and doors all suddenly slammed shut. The candles flickered, went out and then came back on again, and stood before them appeared a very old holy man accompanied by Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot. The holy man led Galahad to the Siege Perilous and seated him there. They watched in awe as the lettering on the seat changed magically to read, Galahad. King Arthur led Sir Galahad to the floating slab of marble and he easily withdrew the sword to the wonder of all.
Arthur and his knights returned to their feasting and again, the candles suddenly dimmed and there was a peal of thunder. A ray of light shone down and in the middle of the Round Table there appeared the glowing Sangreal veiled in white silk. Inspired by this miraculous event, Sir Gawain declared he would not rest, day or night, for one year and a day, until he saw the Sangreal fully unveiled. Arthur remembered the message of Merlin and was full of disquiet. He knew the others would follow his example and realized there was every chance some would die on that quest, or not return. In the early days of summer, as one hundred and fifty knights rode from Camelot on the quest of the Sangreal, King Arthur wept, knowing the world had changed forever.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: The Tragic Romance of Tristan and Isolde on September 27, 2018 by zteve t evans.
The Romance of Tristan and Isolde
The tale of Tristan and Isolde became a popular Arthurian tale during the 12th century, though it is believed to go back much further, having connections to Celtic legends. It is a tragic romance that tells of the adulterous relationship between Tristan, and Isolde, the wife of Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, making a classic love triangle that sooner or later must be broken by death. In many ways it mirrors the love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere and King Arthur, though it is believed to be older. The spelling of the names and the names of some characters vary and there are many different versions, but all hold to the same basic structure and story-line. Presented here is a shortened version of their story created from the sources below.
Tristan and King Mark
Tristan was the son of the King Meliadus and Queen Isabella of Lyonesse, but sadly, his mother died giving birth to him. Meliadus loved his son greatly but remarried an evil woman who was jealous of his affections and plotted to kill the boy. Tristan had a devoted servant named Gouvernail, who becoming aware of the plot, took him over the sea to the court of the King of France where he was given sanctuary. As the years passed, Gouvernail sought a place where Tristan could complete his education and took him to the court of King Mark of Cornwall. King Mark was Tristan’s uncle and welcomed him and educated him in all of the knightly manners and fighting skills, at which he soon excelled.
Each year King Mark was obliged to pay tribute to King Argius and Queen Isolde, the rulers of Ireland. To collect this payment, they sent their strongest and most feared knight, Moraunt, the brother of Queen Isolde. Tristan went to his uncle, offering to fight Moraunt if he could be fully knighted. King Mark was very fond of Tristan and feared for him, but his nephew persisted until he reluctantly agreed, and Tristan challenged Moraunt to a duel to the death. After being wounded in the thigh, Moraunt told Tristan his sword was smeared with a deadly toxin and the only one who could save him was his sister, Queen Isolde, who was a skilled healer. In reply, Tristan struck a blow to Moraunt’s head, incapacitating him and notching his own sword in the process.
The servants of Moraunt carried him back to his sister but he died on the way. When his body was finally brought home, his sister found a splinter from Tristan’s sword embedded in his skull. Removing it, she studied it carefully and kept it.
Healing in Ireland
For Tristan, the initial wound was not that bad but the poison was now spreading through his body and the best healers could not find a cure. He decided to seek out Queen Isolde hoping she would heal him. Arriving at the Irish court, and aware of the queen’s relationship with Moraunt, he told them his name was Trantis. Not knowing his true identity, Queen Isolde agreed to heal him, and using special herbal baths and potions she gradually began restoring him to health.
The King and Queen of Ireland had a beautiful daughter, who they had named after her mother. She was known as Princess Isolde the Fair. While Tristan was there, they held a tournament and a knight named Sir Palamedes won the honors on the first day. On seeing Princess Isolde for the first time, he was so smitten he could not take his eyes off her, making no secret of his feelings. Seeing this, Tristan grew jealous and decided he would enter the competition the next day despite still not being fully fit.
In every fight he was victorious and when he fought Sir Palamedes he defeated him and was named champion. Despite Tristan’s triumph, the extraordinary physical effort caused his wound to open and he began to bleed profusely. Princess Isolde took over his care and nursed him back to health, growing to love him more and more every day.
One day while cleaning Tristan’s sword, a servant noticed that it was notched. He had been present when Queen Isolde removed the metal splinter from the head of Moraunt and took the sword to her knowing she still had the splinter. On examination, she found it fitted perfectly together and realized that this was the weapon that had killed her brother. She took the sword and the splinter to the King and, telling him of her suspicions, demanded the death penalty for Tristan.
The legendary Uther Pendragon was the father of Arthur Pendragon, who was destined to become the greatest King of the Britons. Arthur would drive out the invading Saxons, bring peace to the country and build an empire in Europe. Uther was usually seen as a strong king and a great warrior but could also be vain, quick tempered, impulsive and ungrateful at times. This impulsiveness and ingratitude came to the fore when he fell passionately in love with Igraine, the young wife of one of his oldest and most loyal nobles, Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall.Gorlois had served the king bravely and faithfully and through his wisdom had turned a likely defeat into a resounding victory for Uther, who may have been expected to show his thanks and gratitude. Nevertheless, when love strikes as it struck Uther, the result can be devastating. Uther’s burning passion for Igraine unleashed a violent and bloody war to win the object of his lust, aided by the subtle arts and magic of Merlin. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gildas and Wace, and brings together the elements of lust, violence, deception and the magic of Merlin. It was from this mix that King Arthur, the great defender and savior of the Britons from the Saxons, would be conceived, and eventually come to power to save his people.
The Prophecy of Merlin
Uther became King of the Britons of the island of Britain after the death of his brother King Aurelius Ambrosius from poisoning. As Aurelius lay seriously ill in Winchester, word came that Pascentius, the son of Vortigern, and Gillomanius the King of Ireland had landed with an invading army. With Aurelius incapacitated, Uther, accompanied by Merlin, led the army of the Britons to meet the invaders, having no idea of the treachery that would befall his brother.
On his way to the battle, Uther saw a most remarkable spectacle in the skies. There appeared a star of such magnitude and brilliance that it was seen both day and night.The star emitted a single ray of light that created a fiery mass resembling the body and head of a dragon. Shining from the mouth of the dragon came two rays of light. One extended out across the skies of Britain and over Gaul. The other extended out over the Irish Sea culminating in seven lesser beams of light. Such was its magnitude, it could be seen all across Britain and beyond, and filled the people with fear and dread not knowing what it might portend.
On seeing it, Uther called Merlin to him and asked its meaning. Merlin looked up at the sky and cried out in sorrow,
“O irreparable loss! O distressed people of Britain! Alas! the illustrious prince is departed! The renowned king of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius, is dead! whose death will prove fatal to us all, unless God be our helper. Make haste, therefore, most noble Uther, make haste to engage the enemy: the victory will be yours, and you shall be king of all Britain, For the star, and the fiery dragon under it, signifies yourself, and the ray extending towards the Gallic coast, portends that you shall have a most potent son, to whose power all those kingdoms shall be subject over which the ray reaches. But the other ray signifies a daughter, whose sons and grandsons shall successively enjoy the kingdom of Britain.” (1)
Uther, although undoubtedly impressed by the heavenly display, doubted Merlin’s interpretation. Maybe he did not want to believe his brother was dead and maybe he did not want to be distracted by thoughts of taking the crown. Maybe the prophecy that his son would build a great empire and from his daughter would come the future Kings of the Britons was too much of a distraction. Whatever the future might bring, the immediate peril lay before him and he was determined not to fail. He was now less than half a day’s march from Pascentius and Gillomanius who presented a real threat that could not be ignored or postponed. Therefore, with great determination, he pushed on to meet them head to head in battle.
The two sides attacked each other on sight, and a furious and bloody fight ensued that raged unchecked throughout the day. Eventually, Uther and the Britons gained the advantage and when Pascentius and Gillomanius were killed, the Irish and Saxons fled the field, making for their ships.Uther gained a stunning victory, confirming the accuracy of the first part of Merlin’s prophecy. The next day, as Uther and his troops were savouring their victory, a messenger arrived from Winchester with the grievous news of the death of his brother, King Aurelius Ambrosius. The messenger told how he had been buried in the Giant’s Dance, the monument he had caused Uther and Merlin to bring to Britain, thus, sadly confirming another part of the prophecy.
In Wales, legends and folklore of King Arthur and the Otherworld are never far away, and lakes are often the settings for such stories. One such lake is Llyn Barfog, which is also known as the ‘Bearded Lake’ or the ‘Bearded One’s Lake,’ and is situated in a remote and lonely spot in Snowdonia. Some say it got its epitaph from the yellow water lilies that float upon its surface, or the reeds that fringe its banks. Another explanation says that it is named after a legendary being called the Bearded One. Who the Bearded One was remains a mystery, but there are two other legends associated with the lake that more are known about and are presented here. The first tells how a poor farmer came across one of the milk white cows owned by the dwellers from the Otherworld, and the second tells of how King Arthur rid the lake of a monster called the Afanc.
In Welsh mythology and tradition, many of the Welsh lakes are regarded as doorways to and from Annwn, or the Otherworld. Many people believed the lakes to be connected to one another by underground rivers or subterranean ways that made them one vast underworld. There are examples of inhabitants of the Otherworld appearing from some of these lakes, such as the faerie brides of Llyn y Fan Fach and Llyn Coch, to spend time on Earth and then return to their own world. Llyn Barfog appears to be one of many such lakes in Welsh folklore, where the dwellers of Annwn have entry and exit to the earthly world.
The Gwragedd Annwn
This legend tells how Llyn Barfog is associated with mythical beings called the Gwragedd Annwn, also known as the Elphin Dames, who were female dwellers of Annwn. At times, these could be seen in the distance on the hills and mountain tops. They were often accompanied by pure white dogs, known as the Cwn Annwn, and were either driving or tending a herd of milk-white cattle known as the Gwartheg Y Llyn. Both the dogs and the cattle were said to have had reddish-coloured ears and white coats.
The local people all knew about them. They had often seen them from afar for fleeting moments before they would vanish, and few had ever seen them up close. They realised they were the Gwragedd Annwn, who lived under the hills and lakes of Wales, and steered clear of them. The males were the Plant Annwn, and were often associated with Gwynn ap Nudd who was their lord.
Vortigern and Merlin and the Two Dragons – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the Arthurian realm of legend and romance destiny and fate play essential parts in many of the legends and stories. The practice of some writers from the Romances back to Geoffrey of Monmouth to link to earlier works and legends often gives a sense that the main characters and events are governed by some supernatural force that shapes destiny and fate. Events that happened many years and sometimes centuries earlier, become linked to important events in later legends and stories returning to the fore after lying dormant. One of these events involved two important players in the Arthurian world, both having played a part in shaping the destiny of Britain before Arthur was even born. These two were Vortigern who usurped the throne of Britain and a young Myrddin Emrys, also known as Myrddin Ambrosius or Merlin. Vortigern gained infamy and a reputation for treachery and weakness and Merlin became the sorcerer, counselor and soothsayer of the kings of Britain in his time.
Fate and destiny combine in strange ways and an event from the distant past resurfaced to cause King Vortigern a problem he could not have foreseen and the only person who could solve this was the then young and unknown Merlin. The two were brought together on Dinas Emrys where Merlin was inspired to make one of his most famous prophecies on the fate of Britain. Sometimes called the Prophecy of the Two Dragons or The Prophecy of Merlin, it reveals the coming of Arthur and the future of Britain, making him the leading soothsayer and sorcerer of his time.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the Treachery of the Long Knives, when the greater part of the nobility and leadership of the Britons had been brutally and treacherously murdered by Hengist and his Saxons, the wise men of King Vortigern, advised him to seek out a place where he might build a fortress as a place of safety to retreat to.
After searching what remained of his realm for a safe and suitable site he finally chose a rocky, wooded, hill about one mile from what is now called Beddgelert in Gwynedd, Wales, that rises to a height of about 250 feet above the valley of the River Glaslyn. This hill was once called Dinas Ffaraon Dandde or fortress of Fiery Pharaoh, and later became known as Dinas Emrys which means fortress of Ambrosius.
Thinking he has found a good site Vortigern gave the command for the work on building the walls of the fortress to commence. His builders worked hard building walls and towers in the daytime but no matter how far they progressed in a day, when they came back the next morning, they would find the previous day’s work in a heap on the ground. Although the builders used all their skills and knowledge and worked as hard as they possibly could during the day, each morning they would return to find the previous day’s work once again in a pile on the ground. This went on for many days until Vortigern was obliged to seek help from his wise men. According to Nennius, a 9th century monk and writer, his wise men informed him that that he would have to seek out a young boy. “not conceived by a mortal man”. who would be sacrificed and his blood sprinkled in the mortar of the stonework in the hope of appeasing what ever dark power was hindering the construction of the fortress.
Vortigern sent his messengers out across the land seeking out such a boy. After many days and much searching, one of the messengers returned with a boy named Myrddin Emrys or Merlin Ambrosius, who was the only boy they could find “not conceived by a mortal man”.
Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, 1137) says that Merlin was believed to have been the the son of an incubus, or demon and his mother was mortal and was a nun. With the incubus representing Satan and the nun representing Jesus Christ, or God, he had been born from two opposing powers. As such he was said to have inherited the wisdom, knowledge and powers of both of these forces. He was brought before Vortigern who told him the fate he intended to inflict upon him. Geoffrey says,
“A meeting took place the next day for the purpose of putting him to death. Then the boy said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me hither?” “That you may be put to death,” replied the king, “and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand, may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it.”
However, according to Geoffrey, Merlin was not intimidated by Vortigern. Instead, he spoke with power and authority, demanding to know where he had got this idea from. He then declared to Vortigern he would reveal the real reason why the construction of the fortress was unsuccessful.
Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern – By Unknown illustrator. Per Nigel Morgan Survey, probably London, 1250 or earlier. Style of Matthew Paris, but not him. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Prophecy of the Two Dragons
Geoffrey of Monmouth then gives the following account of Merlin’s interview with Vorigern and his wise men,
“Who,” said the boy, “instructed you to do this?” “My wise men,” answered the king. “Order them hither,” returned the boy; this being complied with, he thus questioned them: “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were previously sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you;” then turning to the king, “I will soon,” said he, “unfold to you every thing; but I desire to question your wise men, and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden under this pavement:” they acknowledging their ignorance, “there is,” said he, “a pool; come and dig:” they did so, and found the pool. “Now,” continued he, “tell me what is in it;” but they were ashamed, and made no reply. “I,” said the boy, “can discover it to you: there are two vases in the pool;” they examined, and found it so: continuing his questions,” What is in the vases?” they were silent: “there is a tent in them,” said the boy; “separate them, and you shall find it so;” this being done by the king’s command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply, “There are,” said he, “two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;” they obeyed, and two sleeping serpents were discovered; “consider attentively,” said the boy, “what they are doing.” The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king,”
The wise men of Vortigern had no idea of what any these signs meant and could not hide their ignorance. With growing confidence Merlin told them their meaning and then made a famous prophecy about the fate of Britain,
“I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress.”
Merlin then explained that the problems with the construction were actually caused by the two sleeping dragons waking up and fighting each other. He explained the Red Dragon represented the defenders of Britain which although exhausted and appearing defeated would eventually rise up and repulse the White Dragon of the invading Anglo-Saxons. He told of the coming of Arthur who he referred to as the Boar of Cornwall which would be the emblem on his banner and prophesied that six kings descended from Arthur would rule before the Anglo-Saxons returned to rule over Britain.
Then Merlin told Vortigern that he was not destined to build his fortress on this site. He told him that fate had given the ownership of the hill to himself and told Vortigern he must seek elsewhere for a suitable site. Vortigern followed Merlin’s advice and eventually settled on Cair Guorthegirn whom some scholars think may be Craig Gwrtheyrn, Llandysul, Dyfed, but it is not proven and there are several other candidates. This was to be the place Vortigern met his death when it was burned down by Ambrosius and Uther, two brothers who attacked him out of revenge for killing another of their brothers who had been king.
For the defenders of Britain the prophecy of the two dragons was a momentous event, giving hope and inspiration for those who lived in those times to carry on the fight and was an important moment in the destiny of Britain and he went on to make further prophecies concerning the future of Britain beyond Arthur’s time. However, as with many other important events in the Arthurian world the seeds of this event were sown may centuries earlier before even the Romans ruled by a King of Britain named Lludd Llaw Eraint in the Mabinogion who in Geoffrey’s work is believed to be King Lud.
Lludd Llaw Eraint
The tale of Lludd and Llevelys from the Mabinogion reveals how these two dragons came to be placed in the pool on Dinas Emrys centuries earlier to be found later in Vorigern’s time and inspire the prophecy of Merlin. In this tale Lludd and Llevelys are two brothers. Lludd ruled Britain while Llevelys ruled Gaul. There came a time when Britain was afflicted by three terrible plagues. The first plague was that of the Coraniaid. The second was the plague of the two dragons. The third was caused by a giant who would keep stealing the provisions from the royal stores. It is the second plague that explains how the two dragons came to be entombed in the pool on Dinas Emrys.
The Plague of the Two Dragons
According to the tale they were placed there by Lludd acting on the advice of his brother, because they had caused Britain great fear and anxiety. The story goes that every year on the eve of May Day a terrible shrieking scream was heard throughout the length and breadth of the realm which was caused by two dragons fighting each other. One of the dragons was red and the other was white. When the White Dragon fought the Red Dragon it caused it to make the fearful, shrieking cry. It was this terrible scream that was heard throughout the country searing into the very hearts of the people causing great fear and anxiety among them. The scream was so awful it caused strong men to wax pale and fall weak, women would lose their babies, and young men and maidens would become bereft of their senses. Furthermore, all creatures, plants and trees, waters and the earth itself became barren and infertile. The plague was finally defeated when Lludd following the advice of his brother Llevelys set a trap for the dragons capturing and containing them. He then buried them under the pool on Dinas Emrys which at the time was deemed to be the safest part of his kingdom.
His brother had advised Lludd that to capture the dragons he would need to dig a pit in the exact center of his kingdom. After taking measurements from all corners of his realm Lludd determined that the center lay in a place now called Oxford. He placed a cauldron of mead in the bottom of the pit and covered it with a sheet of satin. To begin with the dragons took on the shape of terrifying animals and fell about fighting each other by the side of the pit. Then they transformed into huge winged beast and fought each other in the air. Finally they exhausted themselves and transforming into pigs fell from the air landing on the covering of a satin sheet which gave way and they fell into the cauldron of mead. Drinking the mead they fell into a stupor and fell asleep. Lludd then wrapped them up in the satin sheet and placed them in a stone coffin and took them to Dinas Emrys where they were placed under the pool on the hill.
Destiny and Fate
Centuries later Vortigern, seeking out a site to build a fortress, chose Dinas Emrys. There he encountered problems securing the foundations and sought to remedy this. According to his wise men he needed to sacrifice a boy “not conceived by a mortal man” and sprinkle his blood in the foundations. Vortigern found such a being named Myrddin Emrys who made his famous prophecy and was to prove instrumental in ensuring the destiny of Britain unfolded. This is how destiny and fate often come together to work in strange, unforeseen ways in the legends and romances of King Arthur.