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Culhwch ac Olwen, A Cinderella Story: Part One, The Problem and The Hero

Ysbaddaden by John D. Batten (1892)

The tale of Culhwch ac Olwen commands high placement in the pantheon of Arthurian titles. Little else of the broad, surviving corpus of literature can claim to rival the text in magnitude or in antique character. The text’s significance as a source of information concerning Brythonic Arthurian tradition has been described as ‘a fascinating and almost unique glimpse into an Arthurian world that was more or less completely superseded… by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s recreation.’ (1)

A brief account of the plot goes as follows:

Queen Goleuddydd goes mad while pregnant and flees through the countryside. Eventually she collapses at a pig wallow and gives birth to a son, Culhwch. Afterwards, she dies, her last wish is that her husband should not remarry until a twin briar grows from her grave. The baby grows to be a noble youth. Eventually the man who is secretly assigned to pull weeds from the grave forgets his task, a briar grows and so Culhwch’s father remarries. Culhwch’s new stepmother suggests he marry her own daughter from a previous marriage, and when he refuses she spitefully puts a destiny on him; he shall only marry Olwen, daughter of the dreaded giant Ysbaddaden. Culhwch is instructed by his father to seek help from his cousin King Arthur. He rides to his heroic relative’s castle, and after threatening the porter with the magico-legal ‘Diaspad uwch Annwfn’, and meeting Arthur, the fabled leader and his men agree to help him. After encountering Olwen they face her father, who puts a number of seemingly impossible tasks on Culhwch as impediments to marrying Olwen; including the slaying of giants, the hunting of monsters, recovery of magic items, and more. With Arthur and his warriors taking the lead, they succeed in every requisite quest; Culhwch and Olwen are married, and Ysbaddaden is beheaded. (2)

The story has been deconstructed into three distinguishable narratological parts, two of which concern this post: the principal frame-tale which establishes the primary characters and conflict, and a subordinate part consisting of the series of adventures to fulfill Ysbaddaden’s tasks.

The ‘task’ tales have been enthusiastically acknowledged in scholarship to derive from legendary traditions concerning the pre-Galfridian Arthur. As Rodway discusses in Arthur in the Celtic Languages, we find proof in the 9th c mirabilia section of Historia Brittonum, which references Arthur’s hunt for the boar ‘Troynt’, a name which ultimately leads to Twrch Trwyth, the king metamorphosed into a monstrous boar hunted as one of the tasks in Culhwch. Bromwich and Evans, in their edition of Culhwch and Olwen, point to Arthur and company’s giant slaying exploits in Culhwch, an activity attested in numerous other texts and folk traditions: ‘traditions which by their very nature are dateless, but are certainly indigenous.’ (3)

The academic consensus for the frame-tale portion of Culhwch from which the task-tales stem has not been as flattering.

The framework of Culhwch ac Olwen is that of a pre-existing folktale, containing a variety of international themes.

⁃ Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, pg. ix

The frame-tale of Culhwch (CO) has weathered rigorous scrutiny in academia. As observable in the summary, (CO) contains the ‘wicked stepmother’ and the ‘giant’s daughter’, both recognized international folktale motifs. Will Parker describes the basic structure of ‘the giant’s daughter’ plot:

This story characteristically begins with an old king or giant who is fated to die should his daughter ever marry. It becomes the Giant’s goal to do all within his power to prevent such a marriage. In contravention of this oppressive state of affairs, a young hero appears on the scene and falls in love with the daughter. The Giant responds by setting his would-be son-in-law a series of seemingly impossible and lethal tasks… the Hero… acquir[es] on the way a motley band of helpers… [The tale] ends with the successful completion of the [tasks], the marriage of the Hero and the Daughter, and the subsequent death of her father. (4)

Parker affirms that (CO) ‘is clearly derived from this traditional scenario’.

The inclusion of folkloric elements has sparked a debate about the origin of the frame-tale and its value as a resource for pre-Galfredian Brythonic Arthuriana. As the esteemed Greg Hill has related to me, the debate seems to have roughly settled on a consensus that although folktale motifs are usually ancient in character, the way they are utilized in the telling of tales often are not. (CO) is credibly, perhaps even likely, the ingenuity of the anonymous author who employed a generic folktale to supply a novel narrative context inset with Arthurian stories in the form of the giant’s difficult tasks.

I’m not inclined to agree with this outlook, and believe that (CO) is just as legitimate a candidate for ancient Celtic narrative, and indigenous Welsh Arthuriana, as the contingent episodic ‘task’ tales considered above. There is a great deal of Irish evidence that to my knowledge has been hitherto unappraised which supports my assertion. While it does not bring an end to the debate, as I will readily admit, it does I think build a very strong argument that (CO) deserves a second look.

Hanging the Picture Frame: Past Scholarship on the Framework Narrative

Comparisons of (CO) to medieval Irish texts is not a new idea. Sir Idris Foster notes in his pioneering work on Culhwch ac Olwen some symmetry between the Welsh text and the Irish Tochmarc Emire, which survives in 15th/16th c MSS. in Middle Irish language. (5) As Bromwich and Evans describe:

In neither the Welsh nor the Irish tale is the hero in any way daunted by the tasks that the girl’s hostile father imposes on him, and both Culhwch and Cú Chulainn are successful in winning their brides – though it is only with the help of Arthur and a selection of his magically-gifted followers that Culhwch is enabled to do so.

Unfortunately the broad differences between the texts seem to have confounded the issue, and further implicated a probable folktale background in their plots. Another text, on the other hand, might shed some new light on the matter.

Tales of the Elders of Ireland

The Middle Irish Finn Cycle epic Acallam na Senórach, diversely translated as ‘Colloquy’, ‘Dialogue’ or ‘Words of the Elders’, is securely dated some time between the years 1190 and 1230, and has a provenance of four MSS (the ‘Little Dialogue’ would make it five) in fragmentary state. (6) Between the copies, the finale is all that is missing. The text opens with the legendary fénnidi of Finn mac Umaill, who have survived hundreds of years to recount their past exploits. One story found in the Acallam I believe is of great importance concerning the debate over (CO) but has, as far as I am aware, been overlooked.

Cáel and Crédhe (A). It is Cáel Cródha’s fate [cinnedh, l. 774, Stokes] to find and marry the supernatural Crédhe. His otherworldly nursemaid or foster-mother Muirenn has provided him the secret knowledge of the contents of Crédhe’s household; a duan song describing these items is a requirement to marry her. He appears before his kinsman Finn requesting that the warrior chief and his war-band accompany him, and Finn obliges. We are told Cáel faces numerous challenges. They reach the sídhe abode of Crédhe at Dá Chích Anann where they find themselves halted at the entryway. We are told that days pass without progress. Finally Finn and co. perform the musical ‘dórd fiannsa’, which summons up the otherworldly inhabitants. Cáel sings the mysterious song as instructed by Muirenn and wins Crédhe’s hand. (7)

The text of (A) is a prosimetrum, containing two ‘bardic’ poems couched in a prose narrative provided by the Acallam’s author. The plot exhibits a superficial facies with (CO), but does that in itself mean anything of significance? As Rodway pertinently cautions:

While it is easy to spot related features in a sample of texts, it is far harder to determine the nature of the relationship between them. (8)

He’s correct. Promisingly, the pair of texts under consideration seem straightaway to have an especial bond. From what I can gather from the collected scholarship, critical skepticism hinges on the international folkloric qualities of (CO), and whether or not they indicate an ‘inauthentic’ lateness to the Arthurian mythos. (A), another early Celtic language tale, that roughly parallels (CO), observably does not contain the ‘wicked stepmother’ or ‘giant’s daughter’ motifs. This at once suggests that previous studies concentrating on folkloric themes may not give us the wholly informed picture. With Rodway’s admonition in mind, the rest of this investigation will require these considerations:

1. Do these tales demonstrate detailed similarities that make a compelling case for their relationship?

2. Do these details elicit the question of ‘borrowing’? Do these details further confirm the notion of an origin in generic international folktales?

3. Are these details conspicuously ‘Celtic’? Or in other words, do these details set the tales apart from their hypothetical multitudinous counterparts abroad?

4. Do these tales show some trace of cultural resonance to adequately support the idea that they share some traditional background?

Let’s deal with some of the immediate questions concerning the textual background now: it seems unlikely that we have two literary treatments of common folkloric tales because there are no discernible folktale motifs in (A). (A), also, was composed too late to have inspired (CO). (CO) might have influenced (A), but that’s very unlikely; as Roe & Dooley and others point out, influence from the literary Arthurian tradition only begins appearing in Irish texts from the 14th c. onwards. (9)

For the remainder, I have decided to divide the matter up into a series of posts focused on each critical aspect of the story to assess these questions in as felicitous a manner as my limited powers can conjure:

1. The Hero

2. The Heroine

3. The Stepmother

4. The Donor

5. The Giant

6. The Tasks

7. The Helpers

8. The Gatekeeper

9. Conclusion

Before I conclude this introduction I’d like to thank Greg Hill for his patient support, knowledge and advice; if anything of insight can be extracted from this injudicious endeavor, he deserves the credit.

Any mistakes are entirely my own.

1. The Hero

Culhwch… is essentially an untraditional figure.

⁃ Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, p. xxix

The hero in (CO) is Culhwch, “slender pig”, a cognomen with little other attestation. As Bromwich and Evans relate, there is “no satisfactory explanation for the choice of ‘Culhwch’ as the name of the hero”. (Bromwich & Evans, p. xxx)

The text gives Culhwch the folk etymology of ‘pig wallow’, to which Bromwich and Evans further remark:

It is true that Culhwch’s name (‘slender pigling’) retains mythical reverberations which make it probable that his origin lies in the surviving memory of an ancient belief in animal transformations, a belief… so pervasive in Culhwch ac Olwen as to constitute an underlying theme… Culhwch’s birth in a pigsty indicates that the author was at least partially aware of some of the layers of meaning… These pig associations may in themselves have been sufficient to cause the gravitation of Culhwch’s story into the established orbit of Arthur, the great slayer of giants and monsters. (10)

Rodway, meanwhile, asserts that the anonymous author of (CO) quite possibly invented the name ‘Culhwch’ himself. (11)

But in the face of doubt over the traditional persona of Culhwch, there is another body of lore concerning a character defined by the same enigmatic qualities: Cáel Cródha Cétchathach Ua Nemhnainn.

The hero in (A) is Cáel [Ir. slender]. The name is then cognate with the initial element [cul] of the analogous Culhwch. (12)

Although Cáel is not directly linked to swine, some distinctive bestial allusions are made twice in (A):

Beings… too, of the brute kind, which had a life of length equal to his [Cáel’s].

⁃ O’Grady, pg. 24 (13)

This is elucidated later in the poem about his death in battle:

The restless wild creatures die… after sorrowing after him.

⁃ O’Grady, pg. 24

In these comparator texts, both heroes feature near-cognate names and backgrounds that retain the faded shadows of animal attributes; details that have already been pointed out to be seemingly arbitrary and extraneous for the purpose of story.

On the other hand, Carney viewed the poem eulogizing Cáel’s death (and therefore his animal connections) as unoriginal to the story of (A). The patronymic ‘mac Crimthainn’ which appears in the poetic lament has been called into question, and therefore the identity of the poem’s subject isn’t assured. Could Cáel’s connections to wild creatures be coincidental? This seems unlikely. Miles Dillon remains unconvinced, while Ó Coileáin remarks, ‘it is far from certain that the evidence adduced by Carney is sufficient to disestablish the earlier link [between the poetic lament and the prose section of Acallam]’, and Geraldine Parsons rebuts Carney by noting three Finn Cycle texts that Murphy dates earlier than (A) which reference Cáel’s death and burial by the seaside. (14) So the circumstances of his death are founded in tradition, but again, what of the animal characteristics?

In the index of names of Duanaire Finn, v.III, Murphy notes the appearances of Cáol in various Finn Cycle tales, usually with the agnomen of ‘Cródha’ [Ir. brave] as he is in (A), and often identified as C. Ua Nemhnainn and C. mac Crimthann. (Murphy, 349) (15) Murphy points out that Cáel is also given the name Mac Logha, which is corroborated by tales depicting his birth as the son of Lughaidh Lágha and Finn’s aunt Uirne, who had been temporarily transformed into a hound:

Uirrne Uirbel, the daughter of Tadg mac Nuadhot, was the mother of [the hunting hounds] Bran and Sceolang, and Imcad mac Fergusa mic Fheidlimthe meic Fiachach meic Aengusa Goibnenn, king of Dail n-Araide, was their father. In this wise were they born: Imcad asked her of Find, and Find did not give her to him until he obtained a surety from Lugaid Laga that the wife of the king of Dail n-Araide would not injure her; but the wife of the king of Dail n-Araide did not pay heed to that guarantee of safety given by Lugaid Laga, and she struck Uirrne with a rod and put her into the shape of a bitch. It was necessary to put her back again into her own form, but it was not possible to change the two whelps out of their canine form, since they had not been struck.

Then Lugaid went over [to Dail n-Araide] and killed the king of Dail n-Araide to avenge his honor; and he had Uirrne for himself so that she bore three sons to him, namely, Egan Ruad and Sciath Breace mac Dathcháin – for Dathcháin was Uirrne’s name as a bitch – and Cáel Croda. Hence it is that the three sons of Lugaid Laga and Bran and Sceolang were in one womb. (16)

Murphy dates this to about c. 1300. (17)

A version of the same story is also referenced in other texts, including a narrative poem recounting Finn’s cataclysmic hunt of a man transformed into a monstrous boar:

Bran, though a hound was yet no hound, good was her valor, fair was her fame, she was no hound’s offspring, from no hound sprang, and no hunting dog’s offspring was her mother.

Bran never mated with a hound… but with the king’s son of Dâl n-Araidhe. (Duanaire Finn, v I, p. 142)

It appears the zoomorphic backstory formed a traditional aspect of the character. Also suggestively, this descent makes Cáel the matrilineal cousin of Finn, the same relationship shared by Culhwch and Arthur. Parsons, in her study on the literary value of (A), concludes that there was ‘a developed tradition concerning Cáel, which exceeded the information presented in the Acallam.’ (Parsons, 97) I think it is safe to conclude likewise; and more specifically, Cáel and his backstory can be put in the same company as more visible heroes, in what Joseph Nagy calls the, ‘bestial mothers of the Fenian heroes,’ (Varia, 203-204) such as Oisín, who in a 12th c anecdote is said to have been born of a mother metamorphosed into a doe, or Caílte, whose mother, according to an early 12th c poem, was faster than racehorses. (18) On a curious but relevant note, it’s worth mentioning that there is much earlier precedence for the ‘mother-figure transformed into a canid’ narrative in Ireland. In the Bretha Crólige, which Reinhard and Hull ascribe to the 8th c, we find an odd law concerning childcare; certain women merit special nursing payments separate from customary law; this sort of woman includes ‘a sharp-tongued virago, a vagrant woman, a werewolf in wolf’s shape.’ A later glossator clarifies, ‘that is, a woman in wolf’s shape, she who likes to stray in wolf-shapes, such as the I Chon Erca’. (R&H, 53-54) A further gloss questions the wisdom of employing canid nannies. (19)

Unfortunately I don’t know anything else about the I Chon Erca, but it comes as no surprise that such exemplary tales that impress themselves on early legal texts might also be echoed in Finn lore; as has been noted by Baumgarten and others, most of the surviving Finn Cycle tales of the Old Irish period are culled from wisdom literature, used to explain various customs and lawful practices. (20)

I would say, also, that none of this automatically excludes the description of Culhwch’s birth to Goleuddydd as she wanders abroad in a state of frenzy. As cataloged above, the specifics of Cáel’s mother is cited in multiple items outside of (A), Cáel’s animal characterization is continued within (A), and is also paralleled by beliefs culturally significant enough to inform the early law tracts. (A) is also not the only Finn tale in which Cáel takes a leading role.

In sum, the expansive body of evidence in Irish lends itself to the conclusion that the unique traits exhibited by the heroes of (CO) and (A) are not the result of literary reinventions of folktales. As best as I can judge, the material strongly indicates that Culhwch and Cáel spring from some more ancient font of Celtic narrative tradition.

Next time, Part Two: The Heroine

(1) Arthur in the Celtic Languages, p.74

(2) A translation of Culhwch ac Olwen can be found here:

(3) Bromwich, Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, xxviii, reader p.32:

(4) Parker, Culhwch ac Olwen:

(5) Bromwich, Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, p.30:

(6) Murray, The Early Finn Cycle,

(7) Roe, Dooley, Tales of the Elders of Ireland, p.24-28:

(8) Rodway, Arthur in the Celtic Languages, p.72

(9) ‘Arthur of Britain is not evident in medieval Irish tradition until the later fourteenth century.

Roe, Dooley, Tales of the Elders of Ireland, p.226:

(10) Bromwich, Evans, Culhwch and Olwen,

(11) Rodway, Arthur in the Celtic Languages, p.73

(12) Oxford Reference:

(13) O’Grady, Acallam Na Senórach:

(14) Parsons, Acallam Na Senórach as Prosimetrum, p. 92:

(15) Murphy, Duanaire Finn v. III, p. 349:

(16) Reinhard, Hull, Bran and Sceolang, p. 48:

(17) Murphy, Duanaire Finn vol III, p.233:

(18) Baumgarten, Placenames, Etymology, and Structure of Fianaigecht, p. 5:

Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. 49:

(19) Reinhard, Hull, Bran and Sceolang:

(20) Baumgarten, Placenames, Etymology, and Structure of Fianaigecht, p. 16:

Published by Tiege McCian

Just look at this face… does this face really look intelligent and trustworthy to you???

18 thoughts on “Culhwch ac Olwen, A Cinderella Story: Part One, The Problem and The Hero

  1. Good to see this argument beginning to unfold. I’d certainly like to be convinced that Culhwch’s story has its roots in common celtic tradition and that the folktale motifs are simply vehicles for delivering this story. Though the roots of ancient international folktale mythemes may grow out of a common soil with ancient celtic mythemes somewhere/sometime in Indo-European pre-history and back beyond that from who knows where!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this!. I didn’t know of the Irish counterparts, so it was fascinating reading about them. Perhaps, as you pointed out, certain folkloric motifs such as the tasks might have a universal character (Hercule’s twelve labors for instance), but as many scholars have remarked, the evidence points to an ancient, indigenous, Pan-Celtic tradition lost in time.

    In any case, the tale includes many colouful episodes which have inspired my retelling of them in my own mythic fantasy novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and the thoughtful comment! It’s definitely true most folkloric motifs can be traced back to ancient times. It’s a sticky issue with Culhwch, but establishing that the frame-plot has parallels with other Celtic legends builds the case that it’s traditional. I’ll be discussing the motifs more fully in the stepmother, donor, and helper sections.
      I agree that Culhwch is a wonderful tale. Can’t wait to see what you do with your fantasy novel!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Olwen: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (Part I)

    In case you’re interested, here’s a blog post of mine regarding the way religion can be worked into the fantastic genre in general and more specifically the way I’ve incorporated the cult of Olwen as a solar deity into my own narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey, sorry for the late reply.
        To be honest, I haven’t done any profound research regarding Olwen’s origins. So, I have little to offer on the subject. However, thinking about it now, perhaps her fertile feet (which birth some sort of life as her step causes white trefoils to bloom) as well as her kind/gentle nature and her shiny aspect (the colour of her hair, her skin and her garments are all described in the Mabinogion as brilliant/golden/white) might all relate to the solar properties.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No worries at all, I’m guilty of that too!
        That’s an interesting take on solar imagery in Culhwch ac Olwen. Not to spoil a bit of stuff I have for upcoming posts, but as I research these tales I’ve noticed solar connections in names. I’m personally ambivalent about reading abstruse mythological themes based ~solely~ on onomastics, so I doubt I will include it in any finalized posts. But note Culhwch’s mother Goleuddydd (light of day) with the similar 10th/11th c version (not the much later and more famous ‘pursuit’) of Finn and Gráinne, whose name comes from a root meaning ‘to heat’ but in Irish means ‘sun’. Yet another similar tale (12th c?) has ‘Swift-Day son of Sun-Bright’ as the name of the hero. But none of these sun-related characters are analogous between tales, and as far as I’m aware there’s no etymological connection, nor is it obvious that a generalized ‘solar theme’ adds a particularly important dimension to the tale-type. All of these preliminary problems may have adequate explanations that lead one to the possibility of a sun-myth, but it’ll take effort uncovering them. It’s worth investigating though, for sure.
        About the white clovers, I totally agree with you that they add a compelling avenue for inquiry about her character! Scholarship has been skeptical that this fertility aspect has any significance to Olwen as a mythological figure, as similar things are said in separate traditions, including the Virgin Mary and the Welsh Saint Dwynwen. I disagree with the skeptics. First, the Virgin Mary’s footsteps produce flowers and not clovers, so they aren’t exactly a match, while another example of this motif is told of Japanese holy men, which has to be coincidence. Therefore it’s possible that Mary’s flowers and Olwen’s clovers are unrelated happenstance, too. Further, the Stith-Thompson index also lists that the same motif is said of the Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite; it’s not completely impossible then that Olwen’s miraculous clovers are a survival of pan-Indo-European themes in Wales. The late attachment of the motif to St. Dwynwen only shows that it had currency in Welsh. Olwen’s Irish analog Crédhe also bears some vaguely parallel attributes regarding the generation of three and fourfold vegetation; she possesses a magic apple tree that fruits four apples whenever she commands. That could be coincidence too, but it’s something else that links them beyond being the heroines of stories with notable facies. There are more symmetrical details between Irish and Welsh, and I’m almost done with my post concerning Olwen, so hopefully it’ll be out in a few days.
        Btw, I tried checking out your blog again to read more of your articles but it said the blog was deleted?
        Thank you for the wonderful comment, I had fun discussing the matter with you and it also helps me to gather my thoughts for when I write my blogpost scribbles. Take care, hope to read more posts from you as well!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’m glad to have come across someone as passionate as you regarding Celtic mythology and tradition. I hope we continue to discuss further things in the future.
        Well, it appears you’ve are doing a tremendous research on the topic. Half of the things you mentioned, I wasn’t even aware of the.
        Regarding the names you broached, I think linguistics is a marvellous scientic field that may give us a lot of answers about both mythology and history. It remains, though, a sad fact that most of the ancient and later medieval Celtic languages have perished due to repeated conquests. Thus a lot of knowledge has perished along with them. Now, we have to limit ourselves with the few surviving ones and cherish all they can offer us. I myself wish to learn how to speak Welsh.
        As for my blog, here’s the link:

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Thank you! I’m glad to have met someone equally passionate about the topic, and I hope to continue to discuss further with you as well! Sorry I pop in and out of the blogosphere, rl responsibilities get in the way of passions too often.
        You’re correct about the scarcity of actual Celtic sources that have survived, and I agree that those that have are absolutely priceless.
        I really enjoy your blog, I’ve learned a lot, and am going to have to comment on your research posts pronto.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello Professor McCian! I am so happy and proud you’ve published part 1 of this blog series! Most of this is over my head so I’ll be needing assistance during your available office hours. Reading all this, I’m somehow reminded of the time I took a philosophy class.

    I learned new things and Googled the pronunciation of “Culhwch ac Olwen”. I appreciate the short plot summaries followed by analysis. Mostly, I just can’t get over how insane these stories are. Mind blown.

    Liked by 1 person

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