This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.
It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.
The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout the Celtic world with religion, ritual and myth and many practical uses. For the Druids – the Celtic priesthood – it was an integral part of their rituals and was also used as a meeting place. According to the 1st-century geographer Strabo, Druids in Galatia, Asia Minor, met in a sacred grove of oak trees they named Drunemeton, to perform rituals and conduct other Druidic business. In 1 CE, Pliny the Elder, writing in Historia Naturalis, documented how a Druidic fertility rite held on the sixth day of the moon involved a Druid cutting mistletoe from the branches of an oak and the ritual sacrifice of two white bulls.
Oaks also played important parts in Welsh mythology. In the Math fab Mathonwy, the last of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the sorcerers Gwydion and Math create a maiden they named Blodeuwedd or flower-faced from the blossoms of the oak, the broom and meadowsweet. She was created to be the bride of their nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who could not marry a human woman due to a curse placed on him by Arianrhod, his mother. He married Blodeuwedd who never learnt the social conventions never having experienced the learning process of growing up. She had an affair with Gronw Pebyrv and together they plotted to kill Lleu. He was badly wounded by Gronw but turning into an eagle flew into an oak tree to escape being murdered. The oak appeared to be a refuge between the living world and the world of death and he remained there until Gwydion found and cured him.
Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth. They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld. She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are generally considered one work consisting of four parts that tell stories of the gods and heroes from Celtic Welsh mythology. The stories are thought to be older than medieval times but rewritten, probably by monks of that era. The Four Branches along with Culhwch and Olwen and other works are included in the compilation of medieval Welsh literature known as the The Mabinogion, first published in full by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45. The Adar Rhiannon, briefly appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and are mentioned and sought after in the story of Culhwch and Olwen. Although they only appear to play a small role in both stories they possess unique and important properties that lend magical qualities to the tales.
Time and Space
The singing of the birds can awaken the dead while inducing the living to sleep. Their singing also causes time and space to behave differently. They seem to be singing very near while in fact they are far away. Their singing also alters the passing of time making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed and preserve from the effects of time.
These birds are named after and associated with Rhiannon one of the most enigmatic characters in Welsh myth. He first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and Chief of Annwn and their son was Pryderi. She was falsely accused of the murder of her son and eating him but later proved innocent after public humiliation. Her second husband was Manawyddan whom she married after Pwyll’s passing.
Rhiannon also displayed the power to warp time and space, but differently to her birds. This is shown, in the manner of her first appearance on horseback from the Otherworld seeking Pwyll to propose their marriage which he accepts. Secondly, she produces a magical bag that can be filled with any amount of without getting full with enough room for a fully grown human. This is used to trick and trap an unwelcome marriage suitor so that she can marry Pwyll.
From her first appearance it is clear she is no ordinary woman and is someone of special status and importance. She is considered to be a goddess or representative of sovereignty and being strongly associated with horses is usually thought of as a horse deity or derived from one. Therefore, like Rhiannon, her birds are not ordinary birds having the magical qualities mentioned previously.
Culhwch and Olwen
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the birds are given two more magical attributes. The story tells how Culwhch was given a host of impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, a giant and the father of Olwen, who demanded their achievement before he would give permission for his daughter to marry him. The severity of the tasks was possibly because he was doomed to die on her wedding night and he hoped Culwhch would fail that he might live. One of his demands was to be brought the Adar Rhiannon possibly because they would soothe his passing into death. Therefore he asked Culhwch to bring,
“The Birds of Rhiannon: the ones which can wake the dead and put the living to sleep I want to entertain me that night.” (1)
The night he is referring to is his daughter’s wedding night which is the night he is doomed to die if the marriage goes ahead. From this we see they have two other magical attributes. The first is their singing puts the living to sleep and the second is that it wakes the dead. They may have been a useful insurance against death from the giant’s point of view or at least eased his passing.
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
The Adar Rhiannon also appears at the end of the Second Branch which is the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr. Branwen, the sister of the Welsh King Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân the Blessed, had been married to the Irish King Matholwch and lived with him in Ireland. However, it was not a happy marriage and she was subject to physical and psychological abuse. In her unhappiness she trains a starling to take a message back over the sea to her brother King Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and seeking his aid. Enraged and offended by his sister’s treatment Bendigeidfran gathers his army and invades Ireland and a cataclysmic war follows. All the Irish are killed leaving only a five pregnant women in Ireland who took to living in a cave. Each gave birth to a son and eventually incestuously repopulated the island of Ireland.
On the Welsh side there were seven surviving warriors, as well as Branwen. These were Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and Manawyddan, brother of King Bendigeidfran and Rhiannon’s future husband. These were accompanied by Taliesin the great bard, Gluneu Eil Taran, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.
In the conflict King Bendigeidfran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear and knew he would soon die. He ordered the survivors to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London where it was to be buried to protect Britain from invaders. He prophesied they would encounter the singing birds of Rhiannon and remain in one place for seven years spellbound by them,
“And take you my head and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”
Bendigeidfran’s severed head retained the power of speech and continued talking to the survivors as he predicted. Sadley, Branwen died of a broken heart through grief for the dead.
The Adar Rhiannon
Before setting off with the head to London the survivors feasted in Harlech and as also predicted by Bendigeidfran they were visited by the singing birds of Rhiannon,
“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.” (2)
Translation of different texts may vary but it is thought these are the same birds mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and at the end of the Second Branch where, “the singing of the birds of Rhiannon” is referred to which demonstrated time was altered,
“And thus ends this portion of the Mabinogi, concerning the blow given to Branwen, which was the third unhappy blow of this island; and concerning the entertainment of Bran, when the hosts of sevenscore countries and ten went over to Ireland to revenge the blow given to Branwen; and concerning the seven years’ banquet in Harlech, and the singing of the birds of Rhiannon, and the sojourning of the head for the space of fourscore years. (3)
Rhiannon and her singing birds along with King Bendigeidfran, Culhwch and Olwen and the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr are just a few of the strange and magical characters and creatures that dwell in the landscape of Welsh Celtic myth and medieval literature.