This is the second installment in a review of the book Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins by Dr. Tim Clarkson. Part One can be accessed here: https://theburntthumb.wordpress.com/2020/12/18/scotlands-merlin-a-medieval-legend-and-its-dark-age-origins-book-review/
Dr. Clarkson’s blog can be accessed here: https://senchus.wordpress.com
In chapter 5 of Dr. Tim Clarkson’s tremendous investigation into the background of the literary figure of Merlin, he continues tracing the scholarship on the circumstances that gave rise to the fateful Battle of Arfderydd. Specifically in this chapter he asks: why did the battle occur at all? The reader is then ushered through the various theories seeking to answer that question. One very popular theory that Dr. Clarkson discusses claims that the northern king Gwenddolau was a late pagan holdout to the Christianization of Britain, and that the battle was a kind of crusade headed by Rhydderich of Alt Clut to bring Gwenddolau’s kingdom into the fold of the new faith. As Dr. Clarkson points out, the evidence for this is scanty and requires a loose interpretation of the texts to build the case.
The theory first appeared in the late 19th c in a paper by William F. Skene for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. (1) He proposed that details contained in the Welsh triads relayed factual information that pointed to the historical Gwenddolau as a defender of Celtic polytheism contending against the encroachment of the new religion. The Welsh phrase ‘mygedorth’ in the triad of the Horse-Burdens, literally ‘battlefog’, was envisioned by Skene as Gwenddolau’s ‘sacred fire’. (2) Another triad titled the Three Fortunate Slaughters mentions “the two birds of Gwenddolau. And they had a yoke of gold on them. They ate two corpses of the Cymry for dinner, and two for supper”. (3) This, according to Skene, presented some pre-Christian cult custom of ceremonial significance. Meanwhile Rhydderich was, Skene supposed, leader of the advancing Christian forces who ultimately prevailed over Gwenddolau. Dr. Clarkson notes the impressive influence and longevity of Skene’s theory, and the number of its champions afterwards.
Upon reflection of the facts, Dr. Clarkson concludes:
The man-eating birds frequently seen as alluding to Gwenddolau’s paganism may merely reflect a hostile attitude towards him in later Welsh tradition. This can be contrasted with a more favorable attitude in a triad which praises his war-band as one of the Three Faithful War-Bands of the Island of Britain… the savagery of his birds can be interpreted as storytelling motifs… There is no reason to assume that the birds were meant to indicate his religious affiliations. (4)
He is absolutely correct, in my opinion. There really is little to support the idea that Arfderydd was a clash between Christianity and paganism, and his case that the information found in the triads stem from free-floating traditional lore that became attached to the historical figure of Gwenddolau post facto is quite strong.
Trioedd Ynys Prydein
Rachel Bromwich suggests other references to killer birds in Welsh literature may be relevant to better understanding the triad of the Three Fortunate Slaughters. She highlights a late tale from the 17th c about Drutwas son of Driffin. The text runs as follows:
Drudwas son of Treffin son of the King of Denmark obtained from his wife three griffins, and they would perform whatever their master demanded of them. A field (of battle) was appointed between Arthur and Drudwas, and nobody was to come to the field but the two of them. Drudwas sent his griffins before him and said “Slay the first who may come to the field.” And as Arthur was going, there came the sister of Drudwas who was Arthur’s mistress, and out of good will to both of them she hindered Arthur from going to the field; and in the end Drudwas came to the field, supposing that the griffins had slain Arthur according to his request. And the griffins snatched him up and slew him, and in the firmament of the sky they recognized him and descended to the earth making the most pitiful wailing, because they had slain their master Drudwas. (5)
Bromwich’s suggested link between this legend to the triadic text is reinforced when compared to one of a set of Irish stories involving killer birds.
The Hawk of the Plain
The tale of Séig Mossad, from the Bodleian Dindsenchas translated by Whitley Stokes, retains motifs of both the triadic and Arthurian tracts:
Mossad, son of Maen, son of Flesc Find, found the hawk on Mag Eoin. He fed it and nourished it till it used to eat the herds of horses, and the droves of cattle, and the human beings by twos and threes. And when at last it found nothing to devour, it turned on the plain against its fosterer Mossad, even Mossad son of Maen. Hence Mag Mossad [“Mossad’s Plain”] and Séig Mossad [“Mossad’s Hawk”]. (6)
The narrative approximation of this tale with the Welsh contributes to Dr. Clarkson’s argument above, and offers evidence that such narratives were common across Ireland and Britain.
Dr. Tim Clarkson’s conclusion is very sound. There is ample evidence of a widespread legend about “man-eating” avians, and hostile storytellers could certainly have extracted narrative motifs to embellish the infamy of Gwenddolau as time progressed and history lapsed into legend. Therefore, contrary to Skene’s popular theory, it’s less likely that such stories represent factual details pointing to any supposed paganism on Gwenddolau’s part, specifically.
(1) Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, p. 107
(3) Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, p. 73
(4) Clarkson, p. 117
(5) Bromwich, p. 330
(6) Stokes, The Bodleian Dindshenchas, Folk-Lore, III, p. 491: https://archive.org/details/folklore03folkuoft/page/22/mode/2up
A very similar story also appears in the Yellow Book of Lecan:
Stokes, Thee Prose Tales from the Rennes Dindsenchas, Revue Celtique, p. 162: https://archive.org/details/revueceltique16pari