The Voyage of The Soul

“…there is an Irish legend as to a priest who came to disbelieve that men had souls. “Who ever saw a soul?” he would say. “If you can show me one I will believe.” All the king’s sons were on his side, but at last a mysterious child comes on the scene and shows him that if we have life though we cannot see it, we may also have a soul though it is invisible.”

Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, by George Henderson, p. 80-81 (1)

The excerpt above comes from a tale collected by Paul Sébillot, an artist and folklorist from Brittany, paraphrased by the author George Henderson in his monumental work attempting to uncover the remnants of ancient Druidic practice in the folk knowledge and customs of the various Celtic nations. The grand scope of his exercise is without question amazing to behold, it is both bold and careful in its conduct, and is a fascinating trip through the beliefs of the British and Irish people. The effectiveness or persuasiveness of his writing is a matter of opinion of course, but with such an ambitious goal he is clearly unable to focus and develop any one point decisively. Nonetheless, it is a formidable case of early Celtic Studies research, and in particular the Sébillot story sticks out for its similarities to other, very old Irish material on the nature of the immortal soul, which shall be the subject of this writing.

“I have come… from lands of strange things, from lands of familiar things… I was a stag, I was a salmon… I ran upon it when I was a wolf…”

So utters the mysterious youth to Saint Columcille in a cryptic text dated to the Old Irish period, perhaps as far back as the seventh century.(2) The tale begins with the Saint and his compatriots encountering the youth; the Saint asks the lad where he is from, and is answered with the enigmatic rejoinder about “strange lands” and “familiar lands” to learn from Columcille “the spot on which died, and the spot on which were born, knowledge and ignorance.” Pressed further about the history of the nearby lake, the youth says he remembers when it was a flowery kingdom; he lived there as various wild beasts, and as a man, concluding with a riddling passage:

I have landed there under three sails: the yellow sail which bears, the blue sail which drowns, the red sail under which flesh [bodies] were conceived. Women have cried out because of me, although father and mother do not know what they bear, with labor for living folk, with a covering for the dead.

At that point the Saint asks the youth for quiet, and the two leave together to have words in private. The Saint returns alone, the youth vanished before the eyes of all, and when his followers ask about what the youth had said, Saint Columcille tells them that he will not utter a word of it, and that “it was better for mortals not to be informed of it.”(3)

What is there to make of this strange text? It bears some resemblance to the folkloric tale collected by Sébillot, in that an adept of the church, while teaching his pupils, is greeted by a mysterious youth who utters something about the everlasting soul. But in the Sébillot story it is about the existence of the soul and in this Old Irish text it seems to suggest not just the presence of the soul but also it’s transmigration from life to life in animal and human form. Professor Carey proposes that the language involving the vessel of three sails is a direct echo of Druidic symbolism: the yellow sail which bears (birth) the blue sail which drowns (death) and the red sail under which bodies were conceived (the soul renewed in a different form.)(4) That is certainly an attention grabbing argument, and it fits in neatly with the rest of the text.(5) He further states that he believes the text’s identification of the youth as the Irish hero Mongán mac Fíachnai is secondary, a belief not totally warranted for reasons discussed below.

So does the text describe reincarnation by means of an allegory of the voyage of the soul? To back up that claim, it should now be mentioned that yet another text, much more famous, bears a striking resemblance to the previous two, though I am not aware that any of them have been compared.

A Story From Which It Is Inferred That Mongon Was Finn Mac Cumhaill

One day Forgall the Poet is entertaining the court of Mongán mac Fíachnai when the two find themselves in disagreement over the historicity of one of the poet’s songs. Forgall states that a certain warrior was slain in battle at a place called Duffry, while Mongán adamantly contradicts this. Forgall is insulted and promises that he will cast spells on the fishing routes, the fruitful trees, and the farming plains so that all will be henceforth barren. Mongán try’s to pacify the poet with rich gifts but Forgall promises he will only relent by being given Mongán’s own wife’s hand. To the queen’s consternation, the king agrees to this after a stipulation that an appointed waiting period must lapse. After the poet has left, he swears to his wife that help is already approaching. When the time has come Forgall arrives to claim the queen, but another enters the hall as well. The stranger is Cailte, a warrior under the leadership of Finn son of Umall from the legendary past. Cailte has apparently survived centuries to now be present in Mongán’s court. At that the king revives the dispute with Forgall, asking the newcomer where he was during the battle in question. Cailte responds with a gesture towards Mongán, proclaiming “We were with thee, Finn.” “Hush!” Cries Mongán, “That is not fair!” “We were with Finn, then,” Cailte modifies before continuing on, saying that the death of the warrior in question occurred by the Larne river, not at Duffry, as Forgall had argued. Mongán therefore wins the dispute, and the text ends:

Mongan, however, was Finn, though he would not let it be told.(6)

Between this legend and the one concerning Columcille, we see both are connected to Mongán, that they deal with a mysterious person who begins to speak on something about the transmigration of the soul, and who is then silenced by the questioner, who states that it is not right to reveal these things for some reason. It appears reasonable to suggest that both, or even all three tales provided here are based on some original source in Celtic pre-Christian belief.(7)

To add to the argument we can also turn to the myths of the Celtic people’s continental neighbors, the Germanic tribes. Discussion about the Germanic people’s belief in reincarnation, documented in their mythic literature more directly than that in Celtic lands, is already a well tread path. Instead of the more well known sagas that include such beliefs, such as Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, attention might be better turned to a more obscure but even more relevant work.

Óláfs þáttr Geirstaðaálfs

Extant in six versions in MS no earlier than the thirteenth century, researcher Anne Heinrichs believes that the story as it is probably took shape around the mid twelfth century. The text centers on Saint Óláfr of Norway, a king who ruled in the early part of the eleventh century. We find that it recounts a particularly supernatural version of the Saint’s birth, where he is swaddled with the ancient royal artifacts of state at the behest of the apparition of his ancestor, the deceased pagan King Óláfr digrbeinn or Geirstaðaálfr. The work continues that the people “believed that Óláfr digrbeinn’s soul had now been born in the body of this Óláfr…,” though the Christian writer of the text scoffs at such an idea. Pressing on, we discover in a later passage:

It is said that one day when King Óláfr passed the barrow of Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr, one of his followers asked him, “When were you buried here?” The king answered, “Never did my soul have two bodies, and never will it have, and not on Resurrection Day.” But the man insisted and said, “Some people have said that when you came to this place before, you stated, ‘Here we were and from here we started!’” The king said, “I never said that and I never will!… The king was deeply disturbed at heart; he pricked his horse and sped from the place as fast as he could.

The Flateyjarbók-version adds another line: Óláfr knew that it is strictly forbidden to men to search out God’s secrets further than Jesus Christ intends to reveal them.

Here we have a character, both Saint and king, who is amongst his people, goaded by a man on the transmigration of the soul, and his hasty termination of the subject, due to, in one survival at least, an impropriety in revealing these secrets. Whether by coincidence or some distant and forgotten myth, the incident in Óláfs þáttr Geirstaðaálfs reflects almost exactly the basic narrative as the older Irish texts.(9) Whatever it is, I think it provides more evidence that Sébillot and Henderson were on the right track in their search to discover the deep Druidic secrets of the soul.

(1) Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, by George Henderson,

Works of Paul Sébillot at Project Gutenberg,

(2) A Single Ray of the Sun, John Carey, p. 3-7

(3) ibid

(4) Ibid

(5) He buttresses his argument with a comparison to another, later Old Irish text regarding Tuan mac Cairill and his time spent in the forms of various beasts.

(6) Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. by Tom P. Cross & Clark Harris Slover. NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1936

(7) There are of course other texts that seem to describe reincarnation.

(8) Anne Heinrichs’ work on the psychology of the text is very informative and contains all the relevant information,

(9) The obvious answer would be that these stories sprang up due to shared Christian anxiety over the late persistence of pagan folk belief; but to that we must consider that the Mongán tale reflects no Christian moral quandary; yet still contains the ‘silencing of the speaker’ motif, and of all the Irish tales it is the most plain in language regarding reincarnation. Therefore that obvious, suitable and very reasonable answer seems somewhat doubtful. Instead, perhaps it is possible that the Saints’ tales are Christian incorporations of myths held over from the pre-Christian era, with the Mongán tale representing our nearest surviving facsimile.

The Antiquity of ‘The Romance of Geraint and Enid’ Part 2 – Some Irish Evidence


(e) Érec et Énide by Chretien de Troyes, 12th century

(g) Geraint ac Enid by anonymous, 14th century

(y) Roman d’Yder by anonymous Anglo-Norman poet of French extraction, 13th century

(f) Tain bo Fraich, by anonymous, 8th century

Starting where we left off in the previous post, “The Antiquity of ‘The Romance of Geraint and Enid’ Part 1 – The British Evidence,” there is reason to ponder if a pre-Christian “original” Welsh myth followed the “hard task” international tale, or something akin to it, wherein a man assigns hard tasks hoping to slay his helper, eventually to gain respect for him. If such a tale type existed in ancient times in Wales as part of a Celtic body of myths, we may then find it attested in other countries sharing Wales’ Celtic heritage. In this light let’s carefully proceed.

Táin Bó Fraích

The Irish legend ‘Táin Bó Fraích’ or ‘The Cattle Rustling of Fraech,’ (f) survives in five manuscripts, mostly agreeing in language except in isolated examples that have been attributed to scribal error.(1)

The text of the (f) has been dated to the early part of the 8th century, with some grammatical forms updated in the Middle Irish period, about the beginning of the 10th century. (2)

Within (f) we find two separate stories concerning the warrior Fráech appended together rather clumsily, creating a remscéla or fore-tale to the celebrated epic ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge.’ As usual, this short summary does not do the legend justice, and should be read in full. (3)

Fráech, the son of Béḃinn, a woman of the Tuatha Dé, appears at the royal rath of the monarchs Ailill and Medb of Connaught where is he welcomed. After weeks of entertainment, he encounters their daughter, the beautiful princess Findabair. He proclaims his love for her and she gives him a ring as her token. Fráech returns to Ailill and Medb and asks for their daughter’s hand in marriage, but is angered by the exorbitant dowry price they demand. He storms off, and the monarchs conclude that he will attempt to take Findabair by force, and so they must kill him.

They locate Fráech and bring him back to the rath. King Ailill, feigning renewed friendship, takes Fráech out on a journey through the wilderness to a body of water. Noting Fráech’s talent as a swimmer, he suggests a swim. While Fráech is occupied, the king rifles through the warrior’s belongings and finds Findabair’s ring. He erroneously believes Findabair has brought shame to Medb and himself. He casts the ring into the water, but Fráech observes this and catches the fish that has swallowed the ring. Ailill requests that the warrior swim to an remote area across the water and retrieve a fruiting branch of rowan, without informing him that a water monster dwells there. The monster attacks as Fráech returns to shore. Findabair leaps into the water and passes the warrior his sword. Furious at his daughter’s intervention, Ailill hurls a spear which nearly strikes her, but is intercepted by Fráech. The duo return to shore but the warrior is dying of wounds inflicted by the monster. A multitude of green clad women of the Tuatha Dé appear and bear Fráech away; he returns some time later with an otherworldly aura, completely healed of his wounds. Medb and Ailill seek reconciliation; however, Findabair must die for bringing shame upon them. Fráech produces the fish and ring and concocts a lie (!) to explain away his possession of the princess’s ring and saves her life.(4) Ailill proclaims Findabair can choose the husband she desires, apparently Fráech. (5)

The tale of (f) is by no means exactly the same as the other tales that concern us. In British tradition the hero fights the critical battle against a number of giants, while in the Irish tale the hero slays a water monster or serpent.

This divergence between Welsh and Irish does not seem to have been produced after Christian conversion. A Scottish variant of the water monster fight of (f) can be found in the Dean of Lismore Book. (6) Also, in the ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’ we find the hero Goidel Glas son of Nuil or Nel, who is found and healed by Moses after battling a serpent while swimming in the Red Sea. (7) Moses’ appearance can be explained by the Biblical story told in Numbers 21:9. (8) Tellingly though, the details of the Goidel Glas story mirror (f) more than they do the Biblical narrative. (9) This evidence suggests that both the ‘giant’ and ‘serpent’ tales were widely disseminated at an early date, and it seems an unlikely prospect that either could be considered more “authentically” pre-Christian than the other. Rather, it appears that we have two culturally specific variants of a mythological narrative.

To argue this point, we should now gather up the various similarities between texts:

1. In both traditions the heroes have mythic parentage. In Welsh, Edern is the son of Nuth, or the deity Nodens of the river Severn, and Fráech is son of the Tuatha Dé of the river Boyne.

2. Both heroes are connected to linguistically similar women. In British tradition and elsewhere, Winlogee, Guinloe, or more innocently Guinevere in (y) while in (f) we have the cognate Findabair.

3. In (e) (g) and (f) the heroine saves her love’s life by disobeying commands.

4. In (e) (g) (y) and (f) as well as the anecdote of William of Malmesbury the hero battles mythological beasts where he suffers dire wounds but is healed by mystic powers.

5. In William of Malmesbury’s account, the location of the fight is Brent Knoll, which was a marshy island during the text’s composition, the fight in (f) similarly centers around water.

6. In (y) and (f) and potentially suggested in William of Malmesbury, the fight is instigated by angry male relatives of an involved female character by feigning friendship with the hero.

7. In (y) and (f) the angered relative seeks reconciliation after the hero’s healing and return.

8. In (e) and (g) and (f) the hero returns immediately after his love is threatened with violence.

9. In (e) and (g) Yder or Edern is connected to sparrow hawks, in (f) the hero has a hawk who travels with him.

The large number of shared essential plot points, minor motifs and names, as distantly as the early 8th century provides strong evidence that the tale type was widely circulated and probably existed in several culturally specific variants as part of the Celtic mythological corpus. The importance of the tale type may be testified in that Carnfree (Fráech’s Carn) was the coronation site of the O’Connor kings in Connaught, where an Ogham inscription in Primitive Irish bears witness to the name of Fráech. (10) Goidel Glas is depicted as an ancestor of all the Celts. It has been argued by the esteemed Rachel Bromwich that Chretien de Troyes plucked the names of Érec and Énide for his telling of (e) from the traditional territorial names of Vannes in Brittany, Bro-Wened becoming Énide and Bro-Ereg Érec. (11) Furthermore, that area was traditionally founded by the hero Caradog Strongarm, who appears in a mythologized form alongside Edern in the Modena Archevolt, indicative that their tales became connected somehow at an early stage of development.

Therefore, propositionally, we can say a part of the myth followed a god or demigod whom, due to some misunderstanding involving a woman, gets provoked by a companion to battle mythological beasts. He overcomes his enemies but is mortally wounded. Due to mystical influence he is rejuvenated and ultimately returns to unite with his love. This demigod was probably considered an ancestor or founding figure. Certain details may have been emphasized, such as the demigod’s love interest’s disregard of commands in order to rescue him, or the guileful companion finding renewed admiration for the demigod after his impossible triumph. Much of this is reflected in Geraint. In fact, after comparing the (g) and the (f) I’ve found myself reversing some of my original opinions on how much influence the French text had in the story. Though Fráech’s companion hawk doesn’t at all mean we should conclude the sparrow hawk competition of (e) and (g) is entirely of Welsh character, it does cast doubt on my prior belief that it was completely a French invention. The same can be said of the central theme of “love overcoming all obstacles” shared by all the texts, and a staple of what is widely considered French “courtly love.” When Findabair gazes longingly at Fráech as he swims with the rowan branch the moment terminates with the lines, “the branch with the red berries between the throat and the white face. It is what Find-abair used to say, that by no means had she seen anything that could come up to him half or third for beauty,” echoing Geraint’s own sentiments for Enid, “the woman he loves best.”

In sum, all of these tales have been a joy to discover. They each have a rich complexity that reflect the unique societies in which they were composed. There is so much more to be said of them, but I’ve found it’s beyond the scope of this particular post, and I will have to get to it later on. And if anyone has read this far, I implore them also to read this delicately thoughtful and well researched piece by the poet Greg Hill on the subject of Geraint and Erec, the original inspiration for this topic. (12)


(2) ibid


(4) The appearance of the ‘Ring in the Fish’ motif is fascinating and deserves more attention.

(5) An excellent overview of this story, as well as others in the Gaelic legendary corpus by the laudable Joseph Nagy can be found here,

(6) The Scottish Dragon slaying story-

(7) Gaidel Glas-

(8) Moses heals serpent bites-

(9) Moses does not heal Gaidel Glas the same way, the hero fights the monster while swimming, there is an emphasis on wearing green. It appears the notion that Moses healed serpent bites echoed the Irish legend enough that a synthesis of the two was created. This deserves more scrutiny.

(10) Carnfree-áech

(11) Vannes and its Breton names-

Also a certain Edern was the legendary founder of the Welsh commote of Edeirnion as well. However, I have not been able to get much information on the antiquity of the name Edeirnion and it’s founding.

(12) Hill’s moving article on Geraint.

The Antiquity of ‘The Romance of Geraint and Enid’ Part 1 – The British Evidence

Chase of the White Stag, Erec et Enide

There has been a significant amount of debate about the origin of the thirteenth or fourteenth century Welsh romance ‘Geraint ac Enid’, and its relation to the French work ‘Erec et Enide’ by Chrétien de Troyes in the later half of the twelfth century. Scholarly opinion generally fall into two camps: that the text of the ‘Geraint’ is based primarily on the ‘Erec’, with perhaps Chrétien adapting his own story from traditional Welsh or Breton material, or that both are derived independently of one another from a common lost Celtic source. (1) With so much ink spilled on the subject, (2) it seems a survey of potentially analogous tales may be helpful in tracing the development of the story as we know it.

Both the ‘Erec’ (e) and ‘Geraint’ (g) begin with King Arthur and his court on the hunt for a magical white stag reported to dwell in a nearby wilderness. While en route to view the chase, Arthur’s queen, Guinevere or Gwenhwyfar, is accosted by a mysterious knight and his dwarf companion. The hero pursues the queen’s attackers until he comes to a town and meets the beautiful Enide(e)/Enid(g). He enters a jousting tournament being held, and discovers the mysterious knight named Yder (e)/Edern (g) is also taking part. He overcomes his opponent and rides back to King Arthur’s court with Enid. Afterwards, the two embark on a series of adventures. Two of these further adventures are of particular note: one in which the hero slays two (e) or three (g) giants, and the other, very strange incident involving a magical garden enclosed within an invisible wall (e) or a hedge of mist (g), ringed by heads on stakes and guarded by an enchanted knight. (3)

The giants episode of both (e) and (g) are almost identical; the hero, after being warned by a crying woman, nearly dies subduing his monstrous opponents and falls unconscious, awakened only by the cry of his true love. The incident is an exemplary tale on the themes of chivalry and courtly love, and certainly of Norman origin, which nonetheless does not prove the incident was entirely a French invention. In Will Parker’s introduction to Geraint he summarizes a tale by the English historian William of Malmesbury (c. 1095-c. 1143):

a certain Yder fis Nuth is described as fighting three giants on the hill of Brentenol (identified with ‘Brent Knoll’ in Somerset), after having been knighted by Arthur… he is described as prevailing in this battle, but falling unconscious as a result of his wounds. The king, racked with guilt at the idea that he may have sent this young nobleman to his death, enlists a battalion of monks to pray for his revival, and when he recovers makes a generous grant of lands to the monastery involved. (4)

Here then we find what is recognizably the giants episode in a form older than the (e), but with a few striking deviations. The first and most prominent of these is that in this older form Yder fis Nuth, Welsh Edern ap Nudd, is the hero of the adventure, in contrast to both (e) and (g) where Edern is a villain acting against the hero who has replaced him in the narrative. Secondly we have the hero’s salvation through the power of prayer, without mention of the courtly love element. The prominence placed in monkish prayer is undoubtedly due to William of Malmesbury himself being an ecclesiastic, but the same argument could be made of Chrétien whose livelihood as a court poet was earned by the weaving tales revolving around courtly love. Third we find, interestingly, King Arthur’s sense of grief and responsibility at the young hero’s possible demise, which we will return to shortly.

Now that we have seen that the oldest tale extant connected to (e) and (g) features Edern ap Nudd as the narrative’s protagonist, let us turn our focus on him.

The Welsh name Edern is derived from the Latin word Aeternus, meaning eternal, (5) which though not particularly elucidating for our inquiry, is evocative at least of Bronze Age mythos. Further, his patronymic Nudd is connected etymologically to the ancient deity Nodens, which supports the argument for (g)‘s origin in Welsh antiquity. (6)

A fragmentary Anglo-Norman text, the ‘Roman d’Yder’ survives in one vellum manuscript from the second half of the thirteenth century. (7) The beginning is missing, and the text suffers from a few lacunae, but the extant material provides some items of interest. (8) After a series of adventures to set the stage, we enter the main plot, where we discover King Arthur furiously jealous of his new knight, Yder son of Nuc (9) after Queen Guinevere admits to Arthur that she finds him attractive. The king takes Yder on an aimless quest, making their way into a forest where they find Yder’s true love Guinloie. She warns them of a pair of giants hard by, dwelling in a castle decorated with heads on stakes. She relates that they possess a certain dagger, and whoever should defeat them and win it shall have her in marriage. King Arthur seizes on this quest as a way to bring about Yder’s death. He sends the young knight out to battle the monsters but contrary to his desires Yder is victorious. Later on Sir Kay, who similarly wants Yder dead, betrays the hero’s trust by giving him poisonous water to drink, which renders him unconscious. King Arthur, believing Yder dead, is now remorseful of his past actions and mourns the hero’s untimely demise. Eventually they depart, but afterwards a pair of Irish knights come across Yder by chance and restore him to health. He returns to Arthur’s court and marries Guinloie.

Adams accordingly finds that the poet of the ‘Roman d’Yder’ (y) was influenced by (e) (10) as well as by Chrétien’s other work, the ‘Conte du Graal’, pointing to Yder’s impoverished upbringing and the incident of the woman crying over a dead knight. While very likely correct, our interest rests on the fact that the hero is not Chrétien’s Erec or even the valiant Geraint but Yder, agreeing with the earlier account given by William of Malmesbury. Similarly, King Arthur’s grief at the demise of Yder and his restoration by wandering knights may indicate that (y) contains incidents that are throwbacks to earlier versions of the tale, presumably closer to the hypothetical Welsh myth.

Adams further contends that the name of Yder’s one true beloved, Guinloie, corresponds to the Winnlogee of the Modena Archivolt, and ponders the relationship of the name to Queen Guinevere, noting a passage from the poem ‘Tristan de Berne’ that mentions the love between Yder and Guinevere. (11) She goes on to speculate about the curiously unwarranted jealousy of King Arthur.

I would add that the narrative elements that appear to be the oldest surviving stratum of the tale resembles the international folktale of the man who sets hard tasks for his helper in a bid to slay him, only to end up admiring him. I don’t believe that this undermines an argument for (g)’s origin in Bronze Age Wales, as the “hard task” tale type is itself very ancient, appearing in the Classical Greek myth of Bellerophon and Iobates. (12) The tale type also appears in various Irish legendary tales which shall be considered in part two.


(2) For an in depth description of the history of the debate, see Arthur in the Celtic Languages, pp. 110-14.

(3) This brief summation does not do justice to either work, which should be enjoyed in full. ‘Erec’






(8) The wonderfully astute editor of ‘Roman d’Yder’ Allison Adams connects the first surviving episode of the text with the fidelity test found in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ which has likewise been connected by Mary Jones to the Mabinogi of Pwyll. Other stories like that of Pwyll can be found in the Scottish ‘Lay of the Great Fool’ and the Irish ‘Finn and the Red Woman’.

(9) Anglo-Norman Nuc is cognate with Welsh Nudd, and the incident of how Yder reunites with his father Nuc in (y) has arresting parallels to the story of Bres and his father Elatha in the Irish text of ‘Cath Mag Tuired’, as well as the magical father and son reunion found in the medieval German tale of Emperor Ortnit. Though as far as I am aware no academic study of legends concerning rings that reunite father and son has been carried out.

(10) Adams agrees with Southward that many of the incidents harken back to Germanic myth, particularly the tale type of the “bear’s son”, pointing to Yder’s battle with the marauding bear and a similar account found in the English legend of Hereward the Wake. I find this argument unconvincing, as the incident of the bear fight does not appear in “bear’s son” tales; indeed the conclusion that at least the bear fight alone is of Germanic origin could be better justified by noting that it mirrors an incident found in the Nibelungenlied.

(11) See note 7, pp. 18

(12) Bellerophon,

The Monarchs of Beasts – The King of Swine

Dieu d’Euffigneix

The generous Mael Brigde of Brigit’s Sparkling Flame is conducting a presentation on pigs in Celtic Legend. She is open to hearing people’s stories and graciously agreed to look into my suggestions on a few pig related texts as well!(1) This has motivated me to gather what I’ve learned and write down my own thoughts on the matter.

Brigid in her mythical personage appears in the first redaction of the Lebor Gabala Erenn as a member of the divine race of Tuatha De Danann, and the possessor of the magical Torc Triath, King of Swine:

Brigid the poetess, daughter of The Dagda, she it is who had Fea and Femen, the two oxen of Dil, from whom are named Mag Fea and Mag Femen. With them was Triath, king of the swine, from whom is Tretherne. Among them were heard three demon voices in Ireland after plunder, to wit, whistling and outcry and groaning (2)

The “demon voices” of course connects this Brigid with Brigid the wife of Bres and mother of Ruadan in the ‘Second Battle of Moytura”.(3)

But what of the mysterious King of Swine? It has been argued that the Triath (elsewhere Torc or Orc Triath) is cognate with the name of the monstrous boar Twrch Trwyth in the Welsh epic ‘Cullwch ac Olwen’.(4) A short summary of the Twrch Trwyth incident goes as follows:

A wicked king and his attendants are transformed into rampaging boars as a punishment by God. The hero Cullwch, desiring the comb and scissors atop the Twrch Trwyth’s head, as one of the requirements to complete fated tasks, is aided by King Arthur in rousing the beast and his farrow from Ireland and into Wales. Afterwards a bloody battle is fought and many die, but the items are wrested from the Twrch Trwyth before he alone amongst the enchanted pigs escape, plunging into the sea. (5)

Will Parker has suggested a connection between this incident and the Irish characters Coelcheis and Fraechan found in the Metrical Dindsenchas.(6) A tale about Duma Selga in which Coelcheis appears can be quickly summarized:

The woman Drebriu, a lover of the mythical figure Mac ind Oc, has as her housemates three warriors and their wives. One day while the three warriors and their wives are in a certain forest, a sorceress, the mother of the wives, transforms them into swine. They take refuge with the gentleman farmer Buchet, but discover that they are to be eaten and flee to Mac ind Oc. They find that they must complete certain tasks, which they apparently achieve, but by now Medb, queen of Connaught, is aware of the havoc that they are causing in the land. She raises an army and a terrible battle ensues, many are killed, and only one enchanted pig escapes the conflict.(7)

A remarkable tale, both for the overall similarities to the famous Welsh epic, and for having a narrative that centers on the enchanted animals as sympathetic protagonists! Could the ‘Selga’ story be the lost myth to Brigid’s [Torc] Triath? An argument on a common mythic origin between the three texts rests on the already mentioned linguistic cognates of the Irish name Torc Triath in the ‘Lebor Gabala Erenn’ and Welsh Twrch Trwyth in ‘Cullwch ac Olwen’, and then the narrative parallels between the Twrch Trwyth episode and the swine of ‘Selga’ from the Metrical Dindsenchas.

We can make a short list of these parallels:

  • The transformation of human figures into swine
  • The transformation is a punishment
  • In ‘Cullwch’ the hero’s initial trouble is caused by his stepmother, in ‘Selga’ the mother in law
  • Both tales involve the hero fated difficult tasks
  • Both contain a transformed pig with a name meaning heather, Welsh Grugyn Gwrych Eraint, “Grug” with a diminutive affixation, and Irish Fraechan, “Fraech” with dim. affixation
  • The transformed pigs cause havoc in the land
  • There is a tremendous battle with great loss of life
  • Only one transformed pig among the group survives

How compelling the argument appears is obviously personal opinion, though it may be worth remembering that other Celtic legends tell of animal companions that were once human. The legend of Finn’s hunting hounds is one example, itself a narrative that has parallels in the ‘Cullwch ac Olwen’ episode of Rhymi and her pups.(8)

Motifs of ‘Culwch ac Olwen’ can also be found in modern Irish folktales, which adds somewhat to the argument that these Irish and Welsh tales share a common heritage.(9)

Finally, it is also said that Brigid has other kingly animal companions. Perhaps an investigation into the possible mythos of these other Kings of Beasts can aid us in our understanding of the mythological Brigid and ancient Celtic myths.


(1) Anyone interested in Brigid and her lore should absolutely check out Mael Brigde’s blog!

(2) Lebor Gabala Erenn, Section VII, Tuatha De Dannan, Macalister trans,

(3) Cath Maige Tuired, Stokes trans,


(5) Cullwch ac Olwen, Parker trans,

(6) I believe it was Will Parker’s suggestion. If that is a misattribution I humbly apologize. That being said, Parker’s websites and books are well worth checking out!

(7) Metrical Dindsenchas, Gwynn trans, pp. 387,

(8) A manuscript version of the origin of Finn’s hounds can be found in Feis Tige Chonain, c. 900 – 1200, Joynt trans,

For Rhymi, see (5)

(9) ‘William of the Tree’, a story collected by Douglas Hyde, begins with a king who cannot marry until “grass grows a foot high” over his deceased wife’s grave. He discovers his daughter has been cutting the grass by night to keep him from marrying again. He then, in a rage, marries the first woman he spots, who turns out to be a wicked witch who causes trouble for the king’s daughter. This echoes the injunction against remarriage and subsequent deception of Cilydd at the start of Cullwch ac Olwen.

Twilight and Darkness Mix

On the face of it, King Arthur’s raid on Annwfn in ‘Preiddiau Annwfn’ appears to be a cautionary tale on the dangers of hubris towards the otherworld. The poem’s refrain, “Except seven, none returned…,” haunts the imagination with impressions of human and spectral figures gripped in tremendous slaughter. The treasures of the Deep sparkle in the dark margins like will o’ the wisps in a cavernous netherworld of graying twilight. The poet chooses words with boldness; he has cast his audience down to hell (Uffern) to writhe in the shadow of a menacing foreign fortress (Caer Sidi) and bear witness to the unfortunate who suffers there in chains.

Dr. Morus-Baird calls attention to similarities in this poem’s motifs to others in early Welsh literature and queries his students if a deeper meaning can be sketched out. A difficult task, but if we limit our scope somewhat, we may find some truly surprising possibilities.

The oddities of ‘Preiddiau Annwfn’ witnessed by King Arthur while sailing in his ship Prydwen immediately calls to mind the wonders of the medieval Irish genre known as Immrama. Scenes of women heating cauldrons with their breath, sentinels unable to converse, and beasts with silver heads fit perfectly with the strange encounters of Bran and Saint Brenden.* The Welsh certainly had parallel tales to the Irish wonder voyages, we even find such strange visions in the Welsh ‘Peredur’ that are identical to those in the Irish ‘Voyage of Máel Dúin.’ It’s interesting that already the veneer of dread is being stripped away and the light of the marvelous Celtic otherworld may dimly be recognized.

Dr. Morus-Baird compares ‘Preiddiau Annwfn’ with two other Welsh stories, the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the Arthurian tale ‘Culwch and Olwen.’

In the case of ‘Culwch,’ the pertinent episode deals with King Arthur’s exploits recovering a magic cauldron from the giant Diwrnach. A similarly named giant, Dyrnwch, appears in ‘The Thirteen Treasures of Britain’ where the cauldron’s properties are described: if meat for a brave man we’re put in it, it would boil. But the meat of a coward would not cook at all. This certainly matches the magic cauldron of the Arthur’s raid against Annwfn.

Let’s turn now to The Second Branch. In the tale we hear of the giant Brân, king of the ‘Isle of the Mighty,’ and his leading of an army of ‘five and seven score districts’ to rescue his sister held captive in Ireland. By the end there are only seven survivors, in a motif matching that of ‘Preiddiau Annwfn.’

Now that we have compared similar story elements between the texts, we must discuss a few of the discrepancies. In ‘Culwch’ King Arthur’s explicit goal is the attainment of a magic cauldron, whereas in ‘Branwen’ the fateful voyage is explicitly the rescue the king’s sister. ‘Branwen’ contains a magic cauldron, but with the property of reviving the dead, in contrast to the cauldrons of Dyrnwch and the ‘Preiddiau Annwfn,’ which are truth-talismans. Also, the Cauldron of Rebirth in ‘Branwen’ is never stated to be an object of interest for Brân’s expedition and it suffers a far different fate than the cauldron of ‘Culwch.’

Further, John Carey calls attention to similarities of the Diwrnach episode and the tale of Dorn’s Vessel in the Old Irish text ‘Di Astud Chirt ocus Dligid.’ In ‘Dorn’ the earthly protagonist, either a man or a woman, peaceably receives a vessel from water women of the Sidhe that acts as a truth telling device. Noting the linguistic connections between “dorn” and “Diwrnach”, Carey suggests a common origin. It’s interesting to compare the peaceful nature of the ‘Dorn’ story with the militant Diwrnach the giant, as well as how both ‘Dorn’ and ‘Preiddiau’ connects the vessel with otherworldly women. How this effects our own discussion?

I propose that the evidence leads the reader to suspect that ‘Preiddiau’ is a composite text. The poet himself may have intended for ‘Preiddiau’ to be recognized by his audience as a pasticcio; the poem’s imagery borrowed from various ancient tales involving otherworld quests and embedded artfully by the writer into the overarching retelling of the Seven Survivors story type.

So now in order to properly ascertain the symbolic meaning behind ‘Preiddiau’ I suggest we focus exclusively on the other Seven Survivors story: ‘Branwen.’

In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi we find the giant King Brân, who has given his sister in marriage to the abusive king of Ireland. Learning of his sister’s misfortune, he heads a tremendously large expedition to Ireland, leading to a battle on an impossible scale, the destruction of the Cauldron of Rebirth, and a strange, almost timeless, feasting on a mysterious island by the seven survivors with Brân’s now oracular decapitated head. When the survivors return home they find that they have been divested of their ancestral lands, and bury Brân’s dead head as a talisman of protection.

The otherworldly feasting may be alluded to in the line, “Bright wine their liquor before their retinue.”

When the two texts are compared, we can get a sense of melancholy for a past lost; if the poet did intend for his work to be a pasticcio, we can picture him as a Welsh Virgil to our Dante, leading us on an excursion of otherworldly mythological scenes. The poem’s refrain acts as foreshadowing to the conclusion of the glorious Heroic Era and the beginning of the world as we know it today. In the final lines of ‘Preiddiau Annwfn’ the poet casts ecclesiastical authority into doubt, unfavorably comparing the learning of monks to the fantastical wisdom of the Arthurian past. But in counterpoint, the bard Taliesin understands the deep wisdom, he proclaims it wherever he may be, and so although the Heroic Era is ended, it is not forgotten.

These posts were written as my answers to the Taliesin Origins course by Dr. Morus-Baird. His website can be accessed here:

The Riddles of the Bards

Dr. Morus-Baird points to the poem ‘Kanu Ygwynt’ and hypothesizes that the subject of the poem, wind, conceals a deeper meaning about Awen.

In a previous lecture, Dr. Morus-Baird signals where he translates “dwfn” differently to Haycock in the poem ‘Angar Cyfundawd.’ Haycock renders the word as “profound,” but Morus-Baird clarifies that “dwfn” also means “deep,” and believes that that is a superior interpretation in the context of the poem. He also cites the name for the Welsh underworld, Annwfn, with the intensifier “an” affixed to “dwfn” as literally “very deep” but also potentially “very profound.”***

A compelling interpretation! In the Mabinogi of Pwyll we find a description of Annwfn and it’s court, richly decorated beyond any seen before, and the queen possessing more splendor than any other. But war and death also exists in this idyllic land. What significance, if any, can we find in that?

Here it should be said that John Carey has pondered the similarity between the surprisingly uniform descriptions of the Irish Sidhe realm with the Christian revelation of Saint Columba:

The mind’s limits being miraculously loosened, they clearly and

most plainly behold the whole of the earth, together with the circuit

of the ocean and the heavens, in one single moment, as if beneath a

single ray of the sun.

(Anderson trans.)

It should be said, however, that G. Brüning notes similar language pertaining to Christian Revelation can be found in the continental ‘Dialogues of Gregory the Great.’

Even as the whole world

followed by a single ray of the sun

  there was gathered, was brought in front of his eyes,

… because it is the light of the

mental folds

Although, to further confound the discussion in academia, Bondarenko calls attention to the textual traditions of the Welsh Taliesin, which contextually concerns non-hagiographic revelation, and its agreement with the Irish sources more so than the ‘Gregory’ text, apparently. Bondarenko also notes the ubiquitous connections in Irish to “knowledge” with the “spear of the sun,” and the sun more generally.

It can also be considered that Ross states that pre-Christian Celtic pottery from Kent also depict sun rays shining from the brow of a figure identified as “Ogmia.”

Now Dr. Morus-Baird can add his contribution to this perplexing mystery. It appears we are no closer to discovering the answer to the riddle.

*** I think Dr. Morus-Baird says this, but I’m having trouble finding it again.


You can find the discussion on the “spear of the sun” here:ÓCHRA_IRISH_SYNTHETIC_HISTORY_REVISITED

Boiling Without Fire

The ancient Celts rarely wrote anything down. Societies that are dependent on oral tradition require a mechanism to safeguard the transmission of knowledge between generations.

In Wales, a bard’s ability to communicate with the dead might have been regarded as a way to vouchsafe the authenticity of the learning and history prior generations hoped to bequeath to their descendants.

Dr. Morus-Baird proposes that lines from the Middle Welsh poem, ‘The Hostile Confederacy,’ highlight this belief:

Until death it will be obscure,

Avagddu’s declamation:

He [Gwion] would bring the dead to life,

Dr. Morus-Baird’s proposal is certainly possible. The belief of the druidical power to commune with the deceased evidently stretched back to ancient times. In the third century CE a Roman named Claudian, in his work ‘Against Rufinus,’ wrote of necromancy on the coast of Gaul:

Often in nocturnal rites have I sought to propitiate the dread ghosts and Hecate, and recalled the shades of buried men to live again by my magic…

I have caused oaks to walk and the thunderbolt to stay his course, aye, and made rivers reverse their course and flow backwards to their fount.

The selected text makes one recollect the power of Gwion (Taliesin) to “bring the dead to life,” as well as, strangely, other works in the Llyfr Taliesin, as well as certain items in the Irish Dindsenchas.

The apparent opposing forces of Avagddu and Taliesin, and their secret necromantic knowledge, may also be echoed in another text. In the credibly seventh century ‘The Cauldron of Poesy,’ we find the duel forces of Éber and Donn, with “full measure” “to make poetry, with many mighty spells.” Interestingly the word ‘ollmarib,’ here translated “mighty spells,” by Henry in Eriu, issue 32, has also been rendered “death-spells” elsewhere. The words of the text are put in the mouth of Amergin, and like Avagddu, there are traditions of physically repellent druids bearing that name.

In ‘The Hostile Confederacy,’ the anonymous Welsh poet continues:

They [Avagddu and Gwion] would make their cauldrons

That were boiling without fire;

What a curious mystery the image conjures up! It is long held in Welsh mythos that cauldrons are the font of Awen, Devine Inspiration, but now we learn of the great chieftains of bardic craft, by some means, generating heat beyond normal combustion.

Maybe the enigma can be guessed at with another comparison to ‘The Cauldron of Poesy.’ The text describes the symbolic cauldron(s) from which Inspiration springs as localized within the body, usually the stomach, hence the illustrative statement, “in bru[dh] i m-berbhter bunad cacha deghfesa” (the womb in which the basis of all good knowledge is boiled). Could the Welsh passage about cauldrons “boiling without fire” be an ingenious allusion to metaphorical ‘cauldrons’ that represent the development of skill a poet sought after? While we only have speculations, it’s a tantalizing thought.

Another fascinating Welsh tale that involves communication with the dead is found in ‘Gwraig Huan.’ In it we discover the wife of Huan (Sun) conspiring to slay her husband. She commits the terrible act, but Huan’s father, Gwydion the king of Gwynedd, creates the Milky Way to ascend to heaven in order to commune with his departed son. In the end Gwydion returns from his starry voyage to transform the faithless wife into a bird. It’s an absolute Shakespearean piece of legend, and the only Celtic text that I’m aware of providing evidence that the Celts believed in a heavenly realm to corroborate Julius Caesar’s statements on the Celtic Jupiter in ‘The Gallic Wars.’ The origins of the Milky Way described in the text certainly is not the orthodox Christian view. It’s also interesting when we consider the connection between inspired poets and their relationship to the dead; the dead man in the Welsh tale is named The Sun (Huan) and in the Irish ‘Fingen’s Nightwatch’ we meet “the spirit of prophecy” who wields “a spear of the sun.”

While all this is mere interpretation and conjecture, it is enjoyable to imagine we are on a track to uncover the lost myth of a deity and the hidden secrets of Bardic Knowledge.

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