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.

(1) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Welsh_Romances

(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’ http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/831

‘Geraint’ https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Mabinogion/Geraint_the_Son_of_Erbin

(4) http://www.mabinogion.info/geraint.htm

(5) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edern_ap_Nudd

(6) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lludd_Llaw_Eraint

(7) https://books.google.com/books?id=uNu7GWgXm-EC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

(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, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

Sources-

(1) Anyone interested in Brigid and her lore should absolutely check out Mael Brigde’s blog! http://brigitssparklingflame.blogspot.com/2020/02/tangential-to-brigit-mael-brigdes.html?m=1

(2) Lebor Gabala Erenn, Section VII, Tuatha De Dannan, Macalister trans, https://sejh.pagesperso-orange.fr/keltia/leborgab/dedannan-r1.html

(3) Cath Maige Tuired, Stokes trans, https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T300011.html

(4) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twrch_Trwyth

(5) Cullwch ac Olwen, Parker trans, http://www.culhwch.info/

(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! http://www.mabinogion.info/

(7) Metrical Dindsenchas, Gwynn trans, pp. 387, https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T106500C.html

(8) A manuscript version of the origin of Finn’s hounds can be found in Feis Tige Chonain, c. 900 – 1200, Joynt trans, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/f12.html

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. https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/btf/btf16.htm

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:

https://gwilmor.com/the-white-deer-blog/

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.

Source:

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

https://www.academia.edu/5295503/FINTAN_MAC_BÓCHRA_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.

Like a Bird on a Cliff…

The Life of Saint David presents the reader with a dramatic cascade of miraculous events, some of which can be likened to the adventures of the wonder poet Taliesin.

The episodes of Saint Gildas’ sudden inability to speak when in the presence of St. David’s pregnant mother, and the storm that saves the life of the Saint in infancy both recall the incidents in Hanes Taliesin where the poet’s formidable mystic power silences the rival harpers, and the storm he raises to the aid of his foster father Elffin ap Gwyddno Long Shanks (lit. crane-long). Do their similarities extend to the watery associations of their nativities as well?

St. David, or Dewi, of the “Aquatic Life,” (Reese) was born and raised along the cliff lined coasts of Caerfai Bay or thereabouts. Taliesin meanwhile dwelled “in the midst of Lake Tegid.” St. Dewi’s title of “Aquatic Life” provokes some comparison to other Celtic Saints. St. Abban, we are told in the Betha Abain, was granted by God “power over the sea such as He never gave to any one before”.

We also find parallels to St. Dewi’s life on the cliffs of the Pembrokeshire coast. In a fragment of an early hymn to Saint Brigit we read: “Victorious Brigit did not love the world: she perched in it like a bird on a cliff” (Diels). In the Eachtrai Chonnlai an invisible woman relates:

Upon a cliff’s edge is Connlai’s seat

Awaiting fearsome death.

Among the impermanent dead

Ever-living living ones summon you.

You are the darling of the folk of Tethra

Who see you every day

In the assemblies of your native place

Among the dear folk who you know. (McCone trans., Carey emendation)

This motif is hardly exclusive to Ireland. In the Welsh Mabinogi of Branwen we can find the same striking image in the introduction of the giant King Brân, seated on the Harlech cliffs overlooking the sea. The Irish examples imply a mystic journey into another world, the promise of eternal Heaven in one case, the paradise of the immortals under the sea in the other. It has also been credibly argued that the tale of the Welsh Brân also contains similar concepts. Could St. Dewi’s early life on the rocky shoreline be intended to evoke the same basic metaphor?

The invocation of Tethra in Chonnlai also poses some answers to our question. Tethra was apparently some sort of sea divinity, mentioned a few times in early Irish manuscripts. It appears that the early Celts believed that Inspiration, Awen in the Welsh tradition, rises from the depths of ‘The Deep Place’. It is the provenance of the invisible people who dwell in the seas and earth.

From here I can’t resist but make a tangential point. In the ‘Lives of the Cambro British Saints’ (Reese) we learn that St. Dewi’s triple animal gifts, a fish, a stag and a hive of bees, represent aspects of his holy relationship to the Devine. In regards to the metaphor of the stag it says that St. Dewi will be, “placed on high, as with the legs of a stag,” to deprive “the ancient serpent of mankind of his power of hurting”. What a potent image of the triumph of good over evil! The Patron Saint’s mastery over the devil can be seen as the salvation of Wales itself. Cogently, Dr. Morus-Baird detects the union of an elemental trinity of water, earth and air in the episode. All this may be mirrored in the Irish ‘Finn and the Man in the Tree’ (8th or conservatively 9th/10th C) where we meet Derg Corra, who “used to go about on shanks of deer for his lightness.” He is later discovered sitting in a tree, in his hand is a jug of water containing a trout, a black bird is perched on his shoulder, and a stag stands below him on the ground. They are all sharing a communal meal. There has been a wealth of speculation on the meaning and origin of Derg Corra’s story. But perhaps the meaning can be detected in the miracle of the Welsh Saint’s sanctity: a wholesome oneness with the elemental landscape and the lives of the animals and people who dwell in it.

Next time: A Trial of Ordeals…

Ceridwen’s role

It’s difficult to untangle the mystery of Ceridwen’s identity and her symbolic role in Welsh legend. The safest path is to examine the early references to her in the Welsh poetry of Cuhelyn and Taliesin, where she is invoked somewhat like an inspiring muse. She can be seen as the bestower, or the very source, of the creativity called Awen.

Although, within the prose story of Taliesin she doesn’t bestow Awen, it was taken from her by Taliesin by accident, and she plays a harshly antagonistic role to Taliesin afterwards. Her antagonistic quality is also displayed in old poetry, “Shall not my chair be defended from the cauldron of Ceridwen?” (Llyfr Taliesin, Song Before the Sons of Llyr)

So could a survey of the historic tradition of Awen help clarify Ceridwen’s symbolic position in Welsh mythos?

Awen as a concept is well represented in historical records. A remarkable tale of a young lad’s acquisition of Awen comes from the collected works of the antiquarian Robert Vaughan from the year 1694. The folktale can be summarized: a young beggar takes up a job herding sheep in an isolated mountain region of the Welsh countryside. One day he falls asleep and dreams of a young man with a crown of foliage upon his his, a bow and quiver over his shoulder and a hawk on his arm. The man lets loose the hawk which straight away flys into the shepherd’s mouth and “inward parts.” The shepherd awakens to find himself inspired with Awen. He leaves his lonely abode and becomes the greatest poet of his day.

This tale is amazing for several reasons, not just for its late survival, but also when compared to another text, in Irish, called “Fingen’s Nightwatch,” (9th or 10th C, Vendryes.) In a manuscript of that text, a tale is related of Fintan, asleep for many centuries in isolation, when a “spirit of prophecy, sent by God,” appears to him. A ray of sunlight pierces his lips (lit. In his mouth a spear of the sun, i n-a béolu di gaí gréine.) the spear pierces to the back of his neck ( co r-raibe tria chlais a dá chúlad.) He has “seven chains” (secht slabraid) on his tongue (for a t[h]engaid iar sin.) Fintan awakens to find himself inspired with poetic (filed) knowledge.

Despite some differences in detail, the two tales are amazingly similar given their separation in age. Another Irish tale, “the Settling of the Manor of Tara,” recounts a man who remembers everything because of a injury to his “back brain.” These stories could relate to a shared Celtic myth regarding a divinely inspired poet. This is all the more interesting because details in “Fingen” also resemble the Roman author Lucian’s account of a Gaulish deity of strength and eloquence named Ogmios.

That said, where does this leave Ceridwen? If she is Bestower of Inspiration, she cannot be the only one. Perhaps a more nuanced, though perhaps heterodox, opinion may be gained examining other Celtic stories similar to the Welsh Taliesin text.

The oldest comparable text that I’m aware of comes from the Senchas Mor, called “Finn and the Man in the Tree,” dated c. 10th or 11th C. (Meyer trans.) In it a hero named Finn slays an invisible attacker at the open entrance to the Sidhe Otherworld. A Sidhe woman appears in the doorway, a dripping vessel in her hand, having just distributed drink within. She shuts up the entrance to the Sidhe hill, but Finn squeezes his thumb inside within a nick of time and afterwards tastes whatever it is on his thumb. He immediately becomes inspired with the gift of poetry and the power of prophecy. The two stories are similar to the extent that Taliesin gains inspiration after tasting the first few drips of magic potion when they land on his thumb, and Finn likewise but with (presumably) the last few drips.

A key takeaway when examining Ceridwen’s Irish analog is that she has been “distributing drink” for the household. The pouring of alcoholic beverages was the sacred duty of upper class women in early Ireland. Examples of this can be found in “Tochmarc Etaine,” where her husband must choose his wife out of her doppelgängers by observing how each distributes drink, while another is “Baile in Scail” where a Sidhe woman referred to as “Sovereignty” pours drink for her mortal guest.

Perhaps this sheds light on Ceridwen’s symbolic relationship to domesticity, ritual kingship, or in sum Social Order. Ceridwen’s motivation is first and foremost a concern for her children, and Taliesin’s accidental theft might be seen as a disruption of the intended social hierarchy.

Admittedly this speculative interpretation of Ceridwen and her symbolic role in the legend of Taliesin is heavily dependent on further interpretations of foreign sources, but that may only be because I know somewhat of Irish texts and little of Welsh. More study of early Welsh society is definitely necessary, and could prove very fruitful.

Source

Taliesin:http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/taliesin.html

Llyfr Taliesin:http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/llyfrtaliesin.html

Awen:https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Awen

Fintan: https://www.academia.edu/5295503/FINTAN_MAC_BÓCHRA_IRISH_SYNTHETIC_HISTORY_REVISITED

Settling of the Manor of Tara:http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/tara.html

Etaine:http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/etain.html

Finn: https://archive.org/details/revueceltique25pari/page/346/mode/2up

Baile in Scaile:http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/phantom.html

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