So… as I read more and more excellent posts by fellow bloggers I get more ideas for topics here, and it’s become something of a heaping backlog; I still need to write about the Irish blacksmith goddess, water horses, Edern ap Nudd, portrayals of the cyclops in Celtic literature, and a host of others things besides.* But I discovered this topic recently and now that it has my attention I’d like to focus on it straightaway.
(I) Geraldus Cambrensis’ Itinerarium Cambriae– 1191 A.D.
(C) Codex Sancti Pauli- 9th century A.D.
In a blog article by Greg Hill we find a story supplied by Giraldus Cambrensis in chapter V of his work Itinerarium Cambriae,(I) composed in the year 1191.(1) The tale centers on the character Melerius and the origins of his prophetic powers.(2) It states that Melerius:
Having, on a certain night… met a damsel whom he had long loved, in a pleasant and convenient place, while he was indulging in her embraces, suddenly, instead of a beautiful girl, he found in his arms a hairy, rough and hideous creature, the sight of which deprived him of his senses, and he became mad.
After suffering from this affliction for a number of years, Melerius is found and restored to sanity by the holy men of the Church of Saint David. Afterwards he finds that he is in possession of occult power, and is able to converse with, as Giraldus Cambrensis puts it, unclean spirits:
The spirits appeared to him usually on foot, equipped as hunters, with horns suspended from their necks, and truly as hunters, not of animals, but of souls.
Hill fitfully identifies a number of mythemes present in the Melerius story, including the “Loathly Lady/Sovereignty” and “wild man” types. To maintain a manageable narrowness of scope for this inquiry I’ll be breaking up my investigation into separate posts.
So in this first outing, what is there to make of Geraldus’ mysterious hunters of souls? An Irish text which has not been previously compared to (I) as far as I am aware, might both corroborate Geraldus and provide a clarified understanding of these hunter spirits.
An Old Irish Curse
The tome dubbed the Codex Sancti Pauli (C) is a mishmash of eclectic items that include: extracts from the Bible, theories on the nature of heavenly beings, Old Irish poetry (including some attributed to Suibne Geilt, and the famous Scholar and His Cat), as well as, in a strange turn, a ninth century curse.
Scholarship on the curse charm has been inconclusive in places as certain words and phrases prove difficult to interpret. But the object of the charm is not in doubt; the reciter asks the “phantoms” for succor in a quest to acquire food. (3)
May a phantom come and meet me
with the grain and milk of whoever it is on whom
I cast it.
The reciter casts the spell on an unlucky individual from which to steal food. The charm continues, asking for a vision to show if the speaker’s entreaties have been accepted or rejected by the spirits:
If it is not destined for me,
let it be wolves and stags and wandering on the
mountain and young warriors
that I see.
The phrase translated by Carey as “young warriors” is Old Irish “óaic féne”, literally translating to something like “young tribesmen” but is otherwise conventionally used to mean the fiann, an historical as well as legendary institution constituted of young, landless men who formed groups together as wilderness-dwelling warrior huntsmen. Carey, McCone and Stokes are all correct to conclude that this is the intended meaning; in context with the theme of wandering and wild places it’s hard to argue otherwise. See the EDIL for some other instances of the phrase signifying fénnidi, fiann warriors. (4) It’s an interesting notion that phantom entities should take on these warrior hunter shapes, and of course recalls the story of Melerius in (I). On the other hand perhaps it should be unsurprising; multiple classical authorities describe the mysticism entrenched in Celtic society. In Celtic social consciousness, those that crossed the liminal space between human world and wilderness could easily be connected to what exists in the beyond. Furthermore there is evidence indicating that much of Celtic society sought to maintain links to the otherworld. (5) In a strange prayer headed Oracio Colum Cille we read:
The feiss of Ireland, moreover, the feiss of Scotland, the feiss of druids, the feiss of sages, the feiss of craftsmen, the feiss of trappers, the feiss of sorcerers, the feiss of deer-hunters, the feiss of every living person who wreaks evil… may their poisons… pour back
The EDIL defines “feiss” as the verbal noun of feminine “foaid”, and could mean specifically coition or more generally nighttime festivities. (6) Carey notes on linguistic grounds that the word here is neuter, and would thus be appropriate as the neuter noun of “fis”, knowledge. In any case it demonstrates that diverse occupational roles and particularly huntsmanship were regarded as bonded to the spiritual realm. It’s also worth pointing out, with some circumspection, that all three definitions for Irish “feiss” echo aspects of the Welsh tale of Melerius.
Gwyn and The Soothsayers
Keeping all this in mind, let’s turn our attention to a Latin text of the 14th century. (7) Written as a polemic on divination, resembling the tone of both (I) and the Irish prayer, the text includes a description of Welsh soothsayers performing a fantastic chant:
to the king of Spirits, and to his queen–
Gwyn ap Nudd,
you who are yonder in the forest,
for love of your mate,
permit us to enter your dwelling.
The Latin word translated here as “spirits” is Eumenidium, the Furies of classical myth, which may or may not signify the dangerous nature of these wilderness entities. Gwyn ap Nudd himself is a shadowy figure, looming large and vague over the landscape of Welsh legend. But allowing for this uncertainty, a few distinct characteristics can be discerned from his portrayal in early texts: Gwyn is a warrior and a hunter, and he has connections to both the remote areas of Glastonbury and to hell. A long standing question in scholarship has been whether he has an Irish analog in Finn mac Umaill, who shares his name etymologically, leads an existence primarily in the wilderness, and is likewise intrinsically a warrior huntsman. (8) Finn is further portrayed as a rígfénnid or “king of the fiann” in Irish tradition, recalling the invocation to the phantom fénnidi of the (C) charm. I would cautiously suggest that Finn in his capacity as rígfénnid together with the spirit fiann warriors provides another plausible parallel to the hunter Gwyn ap Nudd as king of the spirits.
Here in closing, after this brief evaluation of texts concerning the nature of spirits in Celtic belief, I hope there can be found some added facets to Geraldus’ story. I’d also like to thank Greg Hill for his assistance during the process of formulating this writing, and whatever positive statements can be ascribed to the piece are to his credit.
As always, thank you for reading!
*The inspirers of these topics happen to be:
Mael Brigde- http://brigitssparklingflame.blogspot.com/?m=1
Ceridwen Silverhart- https://illuminatingthefoolsmirror.wordpress.com/
Lorna Smithers- https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/blog/
Wonderful people all, be sure to check them out!
(1) Here is Greg Hill’s article: http://gorsedd-arberth.blogspot.com/2014/03/melerius.html?m=1
As well as his new blog: https://greghill.website/
(2) Itinerarium Cambriae, Melerius episode, p. 52-3 https://archive.org/details/itinerarythroug00girauoft/page/52/mode/2up
(3) Carey, 2019, p. 9-13
(4) óaic féne- http://www.dil.ie/21945
(5) Carey, Magic, Metallurgy and Imagination in Medieval Ireland, p. 47-8
(7) Excerpt: https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/gwyn2.html
(8) Murray, The Early Fenian Cycle, p. 145-6
I would like to make another contribution to the discussion by proposing a (new?) parallel between Finn and Gwyn. I had planned to write a full post on this topic, but due to unavoidable time constraints I think that it’s best to just make the case now, and perhaps return to it more thoroughly sometime later. I believe there are various similarities between the 10th century Finn and the Phantoms found in LL and an episode from the 16th century Buchedd Collin known as St. Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd.
1. Both protagonists are invited under threatening circumstances into a magically appearing otherworld abode.
2. Both protagonists refuse the food served to them. Although the meal is shown to be boiled, Finn declares that he will not eat the giant’s “raw meat” while St. Collen, when served various delectables, affirms that he will not eat Gwyn’s “leaves of the trees”.
3. In the LL, a vicious battle under a shroud of darkness breaks out between the warriors and their spectral assailants. When the darkness clears, the other warriors find Finn readying their horses, while all signs of the otherworld abode has vanished. In the Buchedd, St. Collen leaps up bellowing and splashes his host with holy water, causing the otherworldly assembly and palace to disappear without a trace.
I think that the validity of the argument is strengthened when we examine St. Collen himself, a character evidently as enigmatic as his adversary Gwyn. He seems to be viewed with some suspicion by the Catholic Church, probably due to the bizarre accounts of the Buchedd Collin. While the text contains too much material to adequately review here, a short description of the Saint’s lineage highlights its apparent legendary nature. On his father’s side St. Collen is descended from Caradog Freichfras (!) while his mother is Ethni Wyddelis (!!!) daughter of the Irish king Matholwch (!!!!!!) So his pedigree includes a legendary Arthurian knight, an Irish goddess, and a villain from the Mabinogi. It just gets stranger from there. Indeed, I will throw caution aside for the moment to make an audacious claim: it appears possible that your friend and mine, the venerable St. Collen of the Buchedd Collin, may be based on a Brythonic deity himself. Here is Baring-Gould’s account of the Buchedd, p. 157- https://archive.org/details/livesbritishsai04fishgoog/page/n173/mode/2up