Scotland’s Merlin Part Two: A Savage Cult

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.

Conclusion

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

(2) ibid.

(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

10 thoughts on “Scotland’s Merlin Part Two: A Savage Cult

      1. That’s exciting! What rich history you have right on hand! It just gave me a thought, perhaps you could blog series on the Saints of Brittany?… Hmm… Hmmhmm… May I humbly suggest the Life of Saint Creirwy as your first subject? I have no ulterior motives for making such a proposition…😈… Lol but honestly that would make for a good series.

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      2. Haha, Her son – another cephalophore – is apparently buried with her. It is quite funny, as right up to WW1 folk from another village would try to physically liberate the shrine which they thought belonged in their church. A great deal of violence was noted by observers at the time 😦
        Saints are on my ‘to-do’ list but with over 700 here, I will likely have to focus and its the form that focus should take that keeps it in the ‘to-do’ pile – healers, single-site saints, dragon slayers, Breton-born as opposed to those that arrived with the early waves of British immigrants? As for Creirwy, I could maybe manage a paragraph only haha 🙂

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  1. Very interesting! I have to say, I almost prefer the term “battlefog” to the interpretation of “sacred fire” for “mygedorth.” Since I don’t know the context of the term, I can’t conjecture whether one is more accurate, but the idea of a battlefog rising from a plain during or before a clash of armies sets a fittingly grim tone.

    I suppose the man-eating birds are different from the carrion crows associated with figures like the Morrigan and Gwyn ap Nudd? That was my first impression, but with the comparison to stories with obviously predatory birds or even griffins, I figured it was a different symbolism. Actually, with the griffins, I can’t help wondering if the two man-eating birds might also have some resonance with the two dragons often associated with the tale of young Merlin and Vortigen. Then again, the number of avian-ish beings varies from 1-3 in these examples, so maybe the fact that there are two birds is not significant.

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    1. Hi Ceridwen! Sorry about the lengthy absence. “Mygedoeth” appears in the triad of the horse burdens. I think the context implies battle-fog rather than sacred fire.
      You pose an interesting question about the Morrígan and Finn and Gwyn. I don’t know if there was ever a connection between the Morrígan and the man eating birds in question, and I’m not familiar with birds attached to the Welsh Gwyn, lol my amateurishness coming out. But there is some sort of vague tradition about Finn and some unnamed birds. In the poetry of the Duanaire Finn certain birds are “Finn’s omen”, that they “sing above the storm clouds”, and that one “shouldn’t believe the superstitions” associated with them. Whatever sort of bird it may be cannot be inferred from the poetry. A mythological King Finnvarra is reputed to control flocks of birds in a 15th c text, as well as the magical underworld blacksmith Olc or Olcan in a c. 1200 Finn text.

      The two dragons/worms is another interesting suggestion. There is stuff like the ‘two dragons’ material in Irish. The ‘quarrel of the two pig keepers’ from the 8th c is too early to be inspired by the Welsh text(s), and features two shapeshifting adversaries, the villain lightly colored and the hero darkly colored, in a very prolonged state of combat. The Welsh dragons who shapeshift into pigs also suggests that whatever shared background the Irish and Welsh tales have in common once emphasized domesticated swine. There’s more on that topic but it would require an entire post. It would be very interesting to read something from you on the matter.

      Thank you so much for the intelligent comment. Let me stress I do appreciate it, and I apologize again for perhaps not showing it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No worries about the absence! I’m just glad you’re ok! With fires and heat waves and other craziness going around, I saw a lot of bloggers seemingly disappear. Thankfully, most of them are returning now. I can only hope most people had minor things to deal with and not anything terrible.

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