The Hunters of Souls Part Two: Saint Vortigern and The Mystery of the Maniac of the Woods

St. Kentigern and Lailoken Merlynum

*** The Hunters of Souls: Part One can be found here: https://theburntthumb.wordpress.com/2020/10/13/the-hunters-of-souls-part-one-an-old-irish-curse/

(I) Giraldus Cambrensis’ Itinerarium Cambriae– 1191 A.D.

(H) Nennius’ Historia Brittonum– Between the 9th-11th centuries

(V) Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini– 12th century

(K) Jocelyn’s Life of St. Kentigern– 12th century

(G) Vita sancta Gurthierni– 12th century

(L) Lailoken and Kentigern– 15th century

(Q) The Quarrel Between Finn and Oisín– 8th century

In The Hunters of Souls: Part One we investigated Giraldus Cambrensis’ claim that spirits appeared as hunters to the prophet Melerius in an anecdote appearing in the author’s work Itinerarium Cambriae (I). (1) In Greg Hill’s treatment of the subject he notes mythemes present in the tale, including the ‘Celtic wild man type’. (2) This will be the focus of Part Two in our effort to better understand the background of Giraldus’ legend.

The plot of the Celtic wild man story goes roughly as follows: during or after a fateful battle a combatant goes insane and flees into the wilderness to live in seclusion. He then finds that he has newfound gifts of poetry and/or precognition.

To my knowledge this story type can be found earliest in a poem within the text dubbed The Quarrel Between Finn and Oisín (Q) dated to the later part of the 8th century. (3) Other characters that fit this outline include the famous Myrddin Wyllt or Merlin Sylvestris in Wales, Lailoken in present day southern Scotland, and the Irish Suibne Geilt. We will take a look at a some of these, but first let us turn to another entry in this genre from Brittany.

Vita sancta Gurthierni

The Vita sancta Gurthierni (G) by a cleric calling himself Gurheden took its current form during the 12th century and is attested in an MS of the cartulary of Quimper. It describes the life of Saint Gurthiern (Welsh Gwrtheyrn, i.e. Vortigern), said to have lived in the 6th century. Gurthiern, the son of a British king, rides to war with his father against their enemies and unknowingly slays his sister’s son. He flees into a valley in the wild, stalked by an angel, where he performs penance for a year before befriending a hunter. The hunter eventually betrays Gurthiern’s whereabouts to his father, who then tries to persuade his son to return. The angel commands the saint instead to remove himself to Brittany to perform miracles and follow a monastic existence.(4) Robert Vermaat argues persuasively that the whole of (G) was lifted from various British sources concerning King Vortigern and the characters Myrddin Emrys/Wyllt/Lailoken, namely: Nennius’ Historia Brittonum (H), Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini (V), and Jocelyn’s Life of St. Kentigern (K). (5) Surprisingly though, the (G) bears some detail not found in the above material, and are in fact only found elsewhere in the most aged stratum of Brythonic mythological literature.

1. The Dead Nephew

An early element of the ‘wild man’ story may have involved the killing of a relative, particularly a nephew.

The Black Book of Carmarthen features a certain poem, Yr Afallenau, which is at least contemporaneous with (I) and (G) and likely older. (6) The poem’s subject is the life of Myrddin Wyllt during his seclusion in the forest. John K. Bollard, in Arthur in The Celtic Languages, p. 37, quotes lines in the poem that he suggests may reference Myrddin’s nephew slaying, either directly or indirectly, paralleling the (G) but absent from (H), (V) and (K):

Now Gwenddydd loves me not and she welcomes me not.

I am hateful to Gwasawg, Rhydderch’s supporter.

I have destroyed her son and her daughter.

Though not explicitly stated in Yr Afallenau, Gwenddydd is portrayed as Myrddin’s sister in Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer and the (V).

Moreover, to argue the point, it would be appropriate to mention here that Suibne Geilt is driven mad during battle due to a curse invoked by Saint Rónán Finn after Suibne kills the saint’s compatriot over a misunderstanding.

2. Touched By An Angel

In the 15th century Lailoken and St. Kentigern (L) we find an exposition on Lailoken who, during battle, has a vision of an angelic host descending upon him from the sky. He goes mad and hides as a fugitive in the wilderness. This somewhat corresponds with the angelic visitations in (G), though (L) is far too late to have served as Gurheden’s inspiration. (7) To further argue an ancient Welsh origin for the heavenly vanguard, we can see this motif in a decidedly non-Christian turn in Táin Bó Cúailnge:

Cú Chulainn saw afar off, over the heads of the four provinces of Ireland, the fiery glitter of the bright gold weapons at the setting of the sun in the clouds of evening… He shook his shield and brandished his spears and waved his sword, and he uttered a hero’s shout deep in his throat. And the goblins and sprites and spectres of the glen and demons of the air gave answer for terror of the shout that he had uttered. (8)

The context of the scene is vastly different from the others that we’ve looked at, and only goes so far as to suggest the motif. There appear to be warriors in the clouds, and the sight of them drives the hero into a bellowing fit of rage which subsequently invokes the supernatural beings of the wild, as is described in one part (L) and the other part (I). This may be another early element of the myth.

Like a Bad Penny

Let’s briefly return to the curse charm of the Codex Sancti Pauli. As alluded to in Part One, two difficult words appear in the first line of the incantation, “allebair” and “arggatbrain”. It has been theorized by Dáibhí Iarla Ó Cróinín that the two words indicate herbs hitherto not testified elsewhere, “allebair” possibly the plant hellebore. (9) The line would then be rendered something like, “I want the wood of hellebore,” as well as whatever herb “arggatbrain” may be. Various species of hellebore are found on the Eurasian continent as well as Britain, and are poisonous. Perhaps, if the reading of hellebore is accurate, trace amounts of toxic hellebore would be consumed by the speaker to assist in producing the desired vision of the wilderness and phantom fénnidi. Hellebore also holds a prominent place in Greek mythology as a cure for insanity. (10) This may be slim further evidence of a Celtic development connecting madness to visions, particularly of fiann-like warrior huntsmen.

We Know in Part, The Other Part We Prophesy

In sum, there is reason to speculate that these parallels reflect the content of a common myth that had once been spread across the Cymric and Cumbric people, if not the whole of Celtica. Although a departure from the tale of Melerius, some of these details would emend the ‘wild man’ story thusly: the protagonist slays a close relative and is accosted by airy beings. Driven insane, he retreats into the wilderness, eventually to recover with a newfound ability to communicate with spirits and foretell the future. In this view, one is reminded of the Greek myth of Orestes, who slays his mother and her lover at the command of Apollo for their involvement in the murder of his father. (11) Losing his mind, he flees while hounded by the Erinyes, the personification of familial order and justice. The gods hold a trial on Orestes’ behalf; he tearfully argues that he was fulfilling the Devine command of Apollo; and the gods, moved to mercy, vote to acquit him of wrongdoing. Lailoken too, when called to account for himself by an angry St. Kentigern, implores that he has only ever carried out the will of Jesus Christ. Humbled, the saint gives him the holy sacrament, and the wild man is freed at last of his demons.

From the outset this investigation could never be conclusive, but it is my deep desire that anyone who reads it will find the half-knowledge within it compelling, while at the same time forgiving the half-prophesizing.

I’d like to thank Greg Hill one last time for his assistance on The Hunters of Souls, and his new blog can be found here: https://greghill.website/

Endnotes:

(1) Itinerarium Cambriae, Melerius episode, p. 52-53 https://archive.org/details/itinerarythroug00girauoft/page/52/mode/2up

(2) 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/

(3) Meyer, Kuno. Fianaigecht, p. 22-27

The Quarrel Between Finn and Oisín is a very enigmatic text deserving of more academic scrutiny. Oisín, son of Finn, has fled into the wilderness. After a yearlong concealment, he is found by his father and they proceed to have a curious poetic argument; the anecdote about the wild man is obvious enough:

Finn: …from a royal host a maniac [Irish geilt] upon trees in the wilderness; from the battle… young men are wont to be on the point of a branch.

The image of the wild man perched on a tree branch is also found in the 13th c tale of Suibne Geilt, and alluded to in early Welsh poetry as well.

(4) Vermaat, Robert. “The text of the Vita sancta Gurthierni.” vortigernstudies.org, http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/gurtex.html

(5) Vermaat, Robert. “St. Gurthiern.” Vortigernstudies.org, http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/gurthiern.htm

(6) John K. Bollard argues against Oliver Padel’s hypothesis that Geoffrey of Monmouth influenced the Welsh ‘Myrddin’ poetry on linguistic grounds. Bollard points to archaic orthography found in Yr Afallenau and Cyfoesi to demonstrate his case. Arthur in The Celtic Languages, p. 44-6

(7) Vermaat theorizes that (H) incorporates the avenging angels in a transmuted form: the scene where St. Germanus and his companions hunt down and destroy the retreating Vortigern. An insightful suggestion, though it goes to show that the writer of (G) did not likely take his inspiration from either (H) or (K). Therefore, there is cause to believe that he also relied on tales that had been current in the Celtic regions of Britain, presumably typified in the early Welsh poetry described above.

(8) Táin Bó Cúailnge, first recession, p. 182-3 https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T301012/index.html

Irish text, p. 64 https://celt.ucc.ie//published/G301012.html

(9) Carey, 2019, p. 9-13

(10) Do NOT eat hellebore. Hellebore Wikipedia article- https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellebore

(11) Orestes Wikipedia article- https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orestes

6 thoughts on “The Hunters of Souls Part Two: Saint Vortigern and The Mystery of the Maniac of the Woods

  1. When, as often, ‘pure’ mythic narratives get re-told and tangled up with legendary and even historical material it can be difficult to untangle the different versions, particularly if they are embedded in different traditions.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Sage words from a sage man. You of course give a sound and astute advisement, but of course you know by now I’m just a crazy rascal out to have some fun. Heh. So be at ease in the knowledge I won’t quit, if I’m not getting in over my head it just isn’t fun, Greg.

      Thanks for the great comment as usual!

      Like

  2. I wasn’t aware of Gurheden’s story so thank you for adding it to this complex of linked stories. Oddly I was looking at a pic of helleborus niger the other day in a gardening book and thinking of getting some for the garden. Maybe a nod from the Hunter?…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. As soon as you described the “wild man” story, I thought of Merlin. I remember reading at least one tale where he is depicted with wild, twig-filled hair riding a deer, though that may have been chronologically later than the incident with his nephew (and niece, it appears). Also, interesting to learn more of the names of Merlin!

    The basic structure of these tales also reminds me of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh doesn’t slay his wild-man friend directly, but Enkidu dies because of Gilgamesh’s defiance of the gods. Gilgamesh then wanders the wilds grieving and becoming wild himself. Later, after failing to achieve either immortality or the return of Enkidu, he has a conversation with his friend’s ghost. Of course, I’ve also seen theories that the ghost scene was presented somewhat out of sequence, but it’s interesting to see similar elements in a Mesopotamian tale.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Good call! The deer incident seems to ultimately come from the Vita Merlini: he rides the animal to the wedding of his wife and her new fiancé, rips off the deer’s antlers and stabs the interloper with them!!! I can’t imagine why audiences didn’t respond to this story with as much enthusiasm as Geoffrey’s other work… heh.

      Yes, mentioning the niece is strange and I stumped trying to find anything more about it.

      Very intriguing comparison with Gilgamesh! I thought the episode with Enkidu and the monster of Pine Mountain had similarities to the Greek tale of Cadmus, and potentially the (Vedic?) incident of Indra and the monstrous Brahmin. Poor suffering Cadmus at least gains immortality in the end…

      Thanks for the thought provoking comment Ceridwen, I’m always eager to get your thoughts on my stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

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