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Culhwch ac Olwen, A Cinderella Story Part 2: The Heroine

‘O Chieftain, I have never heard about the maiden of whom you speak…’

⁃ Parker, Culhwch ac Olwen

Freyja and Svipdag by John Bauer

-(CO) The Frame-Tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. Composed c. 1100. 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.

-(A) Cáel and Crédhe, from Acallam na Senórach. Composed c. 1200. It is Cáel Cródha’s fate 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.

The heroine of Culhwch ac Olwen is as much an enigma as the hero. In the tale Olwen is the gentle daughter of the terrible giant Ysbaddaden, and the bride that Culhwch has been destined to win against all odds. As Jo Goyne remarks, Olwen in the text ‘fairly glows with warmth and wealth.’ (2)

‘The name of Olwen was unknown to the poets before the 15th cent.’

⁃ Bromwich & Evans, p. 118 (3)

To the consternation of academics, references to Olwen cannot be traced earlier than the poetry of the 15th c. outside the Arthurian text. Bromwich and Evans further discuss the etymology of the name ‘Olwen’ that the author gives in the text:

The fanciful explanation of Olwen’s name, as deriving from… ‘track’ and… ‘white’… is not necessarily its original meaning… T. F. O’Rahilly compared Olwen with the girl’s name Euroluyn, ‘Golden Wheel’… [ed. note: more recently Koch seems to advocate for a reading of ‘wheel’ in Olwen as well, (3)] However that may be, there is no doubt as to the meaning of Olwen’s name for the writer of the tale: the ‘four white trefoils’ which grew miraculously from her footsteps are a folklore motif… associated in some sources with the Virgin Mary and with saints… this same miracle was associated in Glamorgan with St. Dwynwen.

⁃ B&E, pp. 117-118 (4)

Olwen is described several times in (CO). When questioned by Culhwch and his companions, the wife of the enormous shepherd Custennin (and Culhwch’s aunt) relates:

[Olwen] comes here every Saturday to wash her hair, and in the vessel in which she washes she leaves all her rings. Neither she nor her messengers ever come back for them.

-Parker, Culhwch ac Olwen

We later find a passage describing her appearance:

Yellower was her hair than the flowers of the broom. Whiter was her flesh than the foam of the wave. Whiter her palms and fingers than the glistening catkins among the fine gravel of a welling spring. Neither the eye of a mewed hawk nor the eye of a thrice-mewed falcon was fairer than hers… Whoever would see her would love her completely. Four white trefoils would grow in her wake wherever she would go. (5)

Goyne sums up Olwen’s characteristics:

Not only does wealth remain behind as Olwen passes – the golden rings – but beauty and fertility as well.

Arthuriana vol. 9, no. 2, p. 8 (6)

In a summary of the recent work by Jean Haudry on the Roman goddess Juno Moneta, Bernhard Woytek discusses contentions that Olwen is the vestigial memory of a goddess of wealth. See: Moneta, Menglöð, et Olwen. (Woytek, 136) (7)

The Heroine in Irish

Olwen has her Irish analogy in Crédhe, the sought-after bride from the Acallam na Senórach.

(A) presents the heroine as a sorceress, a ruler, and the possessor of many magical wonders in her sìd palace at Dá Chích Anann, a pair of mountains in Co. Kerry, while a later redaction places her at another peak. A good deal of information is presented in the text, but nevertheless, she defies an easy interpretation.

During Finn’s interrogation of Cáel, he remarks:

Finn said: ‘knowest thou, Cáel, that of all Ireland’s women she is the arch-she-deceiver? few costly things there are but she has coaxed away to her own mansion and grand dwelling-place.’ (8)

It’s difficult to determine the motivation for this declaration as Crédhe is not presented in a negative light elsewhere. It might be an attempt by the author of the Acallam to explain the horde of riches described in Crédhe’s otherworldly mansion, though it’s a strangely involved explanation when more obvious ones are available.

When Finn and company finally receive an audience at the gate of the otherworldly palace, we read:

Girls… shewed on the balconies of bowers… Crédhe, accompanied by three fifties of women, issued forth to speak with us.

⁃ O’Grady, p. 21

Later, in the first poetic segment dubbed the Turus acam, Crédhe is given added description:

Fair Crédhe, the yellow-haired… Pleasant is the house in which she is… Crédhe for whom the cuckoo calls… A vat there is [and] over the vat stands an apple-tree, with the multitude of its heavy fruit. When Crédhe’s horn is filled with the vat’s potent mead, at one time and with precision four apples fall down into the horn. Yon four that are rehearsed above, they set about dispensing: to four that sit there [are handed] a drink apiece, likewise an apple… Crédhe… by a spearcast’s length excelled all Ireland’s women.

After Crédhe and Cáel Cétchathach are united in matrimony, we are told:

[Crédhe] brought with her vast numbers of cattle [for Finn’s company, and] fed them all… with new milk. In her house too it was that the invalids and sick of the Fianna lay. And even as in lavishing of jewels and of treasure the woman outdid the women of the Fianna.

-O’Grady, p. 23

Later, in the second poetic segment we find Crédhe divining her husband’s death by sea waves :

Since the tale which it (the wave) roared has broken me

⁃ Stokes, p. 280 (9)

The portraits of both heroines exhibit wonderfully florid scribal vigor, and there is some intersecting details, but perhaps of a trivial kind. The vague associations to fourfold greenery could very well be coincidental. On the other hand, their characterizations are thematically exact, and further, an item of interest is revealed by a closer examination.

De Gabáil in t-Sída

The imagery connected to Crédhe is found elsewhere. The 8th c Irish text The Taking of the Hollow Hill gives this description of the otherworld:

There are three trees there perpetually bearing fruit, and an everlasting pig on the hoof and a cooked pig, and a vessel with excellent liquor; and all of this never grows less. (Heroic Age, p.145) (10)

Similar attributes are linked to otherworldly women. In the Immram Brain, Bran is gifted a silvery white apple branch belonging to mysterious woman from the Isle of Women. In Echtra Condla, the hero Connla receives a magic regenerating apple by a woman from across the sea. In Echtrae Tadhg Mac Cein, the eponymous protagonist sails to a miraculous island of women where he discovers a apple tree of regenerating fruit.

The marvelous descriptions of wealth and healing ascribed Crédhe has a certain Celticity, and supernatural female beings are consistently imagined as sources of regenerating vegetation. In a critical comparison of some of these tales with Biblical and international ones, Caroline McGrath concludes, ‘it is apparent… that the regenerating apple is the result of [at least partly] an indigenous motif.’ (McGrath, p.22) (11)

Bromwich and Evans cite the Stith Thompson Motif-Index of Folk Literature when they assert Olwen’s clovers are derived from an international folkloric motif. (12) A2621 includes a reference to varieties of flowers that grow from the tread of the Virgin Mary, but also a myth of plants springing from the footprints of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and, by what must be coincidence, Japanese holy monks in Anesaki. (ST 332) (13) Instead of undermining the possibility of Olwen as a traditional heroine, the late attachment of the miracle to the folk-Saint Dwynwen highlights its usage in Wales outside of (CO). It’s true that Olwen’s clovers are probably related to international parallels, but that relationship is a little more unclear than reported; the motif could have been a facet of an ‘Olwen-like’ figure preexisting the composition of (CO), or a novel inspiration from foreign sources nevertheless predicated on Celtic associations of romantic heroines and triple or quadruple flora.

The criticism could be leveled that in our case these details of wealth and vegetation are drawn randomly from a variety of sources, Celtic or otherwise, purely to suit the author’s creative fancy. Does this comparanda provide credible reason to believe that motifs of wealth and fertility echo traditions of a heroine like we find in (CO)?

Echtra Airt meic Chuind

Copied in 15th c language, Echtra Airt meic Chuind, or The Adventures of Art son of Conn, survives in a single manuscript of the Book of Fermoy.

Echtra Airt meic Chuind, The Adventures of Art son of Conn (B). Art, son of the king of Ireland, is motherless. Eventually his father Conn takes on a new lover, who is supernatural. She had intended on a romantic entanglement with Art, but after entering a relationship with his father, she has the prince banished for a year. Afterwards she lays a fate on Art that he is only to wed the woman Delbchaem. She refuses to give him information about the maiden’s whereabouts. Eventually Art comes to the magical island dwelling of a woman called Créde. She provides him the information needed to find Delbchaem. There is a prophecy that Delbchaem’s mother will die ‘the same hour she is wed’. After many adventures, including a battle with the fearsome porter of the causeway, Art succeeds in finding and marrying Delbchaem, and also in decapitating her monstrous parents, Morgán and Connchen.

The symmetry between (CO) and (B) are notable, particularly some less obvious points, including Art’s mother’s ability to yield thrice-annual crops, and Art’s banishment upon the stepmother’s arrival. Though, the late composition of (B) means that any parallels may be due to knowledge of the Welsh story. As far as I am aware though, the relationship between (B) and (A) has not been explored.

The hero of (B) is Art, the son of Conn Cétchathach [Ir., hundred-battle/r] an epithet that approximates Cétguinech [Ir., hundred-slayer] attributed to Cáel of (A).

But more to the point, there is also a character in (B) bearing the name Créd[h]e. Concerning Créde and her magical island we read:

Lovely was the character of that island, full of wild apples and lovely birds, with little bees ever beautiful on the tops of the flowers. A house, hospitable and noble, in the midst of the island… and within it a company of blooming women, ever beautiful, among them Creide Firalainn daughter of Fidech Foltlebor…. [She had a bower] with its doors of crystal and its inexhaustible vats, for, though everything be emptied out of them, they were ever full again. (14)

The appearance of a character surrounded by women, abundance and wealth named ‘Créde’ in two discrete early Irish sources symmetrical to (CO) gives the impression of a traditional Celtic heroine of the (CO) mode. A couple of questions do arise: first, could Créde of (B) be directly inspired by Crédhe of (A)? Contextual evidence counts against this. The heroines do not share epithets or patronymics, nor do they occupy the same role in the tale; Créde of (B) is not the fated bride, but the otherworldly female introduced early to provide the hero the guidance necessary to attain his goal, and so she is analogous to Muirenn of (A). Their abodes are also very different. It’s not impossible for (B) to have taken its example indirectly from (A), or as one must presume, both (CO) and (A), but nothing that I can detect supports that suggestion.

The second question is whether the imagery of magical bounty and riches is actually significant at all. Those kinds of desirous characteristics can be equally ancient or medieval. Perhaps similar traditional motifs were woven around these figures to elicit a general aura of magic and power? Is there more to support the possibility that it’s an intrinsically antique part of the Olwen-type character?

The Svipdagsmál

Svipdagsmál (S) is the modern designation for two related Icelandic Eddic poems, the Grógaldr and Fjölsvinnsmál. In his work Svipdag’s Long Journey, Einar Sveinsson characterizes the Old Norse poetic texts as ‘a love story, but one with many supernatural motifs’. (p. 298) (15)

A synopsis of Grógaldr goes as follows:

The hero Svipdagr summons the shade of his deceased mother, a sorceress, from her burial mound. Svipdagr has been fated to find and marry the woman Menglöð by ‘the treacherous woman who embraced [his] father’. (Sveinsson, p. 299) He asks his mother’s ghost for aid in this impossible task, and she casts nine spells to protect him against the specific dangers ahead.

The story resumes in Fjölsvinnsmál: the scene opens on a castle at the summit of a mountain. Its entrance is guarded by a fearsome porter. Svipdagr, concealing his identity, engages in a riddling conversation with the porter concerning a wide selection of mythological subjects in a stealthy bid to enter the stronghold. Eventually the porter reveals that only Svipdagr may pass. Svipdagr discloses his true identity, and is united with an overjoyed Menglöð.

There are many similarities in the Svipdagsmál to our bundle of Celtic tales, some of which will be discussed further down while the others in the ‘stepmother’ and ‘donor’ installments. Sveinsson remarks that as early as 1854 Svend Grundtvig drew comparisons to Svipdagsmál and (CO). (Sveinsson, p. 303) Past scholarship has sought to evaluate the mythological underpinnings of Svipdagsmál, the prime difficulty being its apparent synthetic construction. In comparison to other Eddic texts the Svipdagsmál seems to be of a later date, in the 12th c. (Sveinsen, p. 306) Sveinsson believes that it does not ‘appear to be a very Norse type of myth’. (305) He provides a clarification further on, stating that the poet(s) of the lay ‘mixed Northern and Celtic elements.’ (P. 309)

Because there seems to have been little interaction between Wales and Iceland, Sveinsson presumes any Celtic influence would necessarily be transmitted from Ireland. He specifically draws attention to (B). He supports this with a surviving early formal tales list’, possibly from the 10th c., which includes the title Echtra Airt meic Chuind. Unfortunately, only the one 15th c version of (B) survives, and so the specific narrative contents of this earlier text cannot be known.

Sveinsson also warns that there are several disparities between (S), (CO), and (B):

‘In the lay Menglöð is independent, a queen in her own castle,’ (p. 310) But it should be pointed out that this independent streak can be likened to Crédhe in (A), and even to Emer in the lauded Tochmarc Emire, discussed in Part 1, as Lawrence Eson highlights:

It is the female object of the suitor’s attention, Emer herself, who calls upon Cú Chulainn to perform a series of imposing heroic deeds (103) (16)

Sveinsson also states ‘Svipdagsmál can only be partly explained by the story of Art. The combats in the last sections of the latter neither agree with the end of Svipdagsmál… nor with the tasks of Culhwch,’ (314) (A) would bridge the gulf between (CO) and (S), containing an ending like (S) as well as a difficult task required to marry the heroine, excluding the series of final combats.

Sveinsson then focuses his comparisons on Créde of (B): At a first glance one may be tempted to imagine that Creide and the other maidens of the marvelous island in the story of Art had become transferred to the end of the story in Svipdagsmál.’ (318)

Sveinsson’s erudite connection of Menglöð with Créde of (B), without knowledge of the Acallam tale, is impressive. He notes that there are complications with reshuffling (S) to more closely match (B) due to the elaborate details regarding Menglöð and her attendant maidens:

The maidens are nine in number, and helpful to those that make offerings to them… [from descriptions of the magical healing mountain] where the renowned [Menglöð] is in the habit of sitting and where women are healed, and… what is said about the fruits of [the magic tree in her vicinity, possibly the Old Norse world tree], it appears that she and her maidens must be skilled in leechcraft. (318)

Interestingly, in (A), besides the number composing the heroine’s entourage, we have details that neatly correspond to Menglöð. On account of his belief that Goidelic mythological details influenced the composition of (S), Sveinsson presumes that (B) would be the more likely ‘original’ form of the tale. He draws attention to some problems with this stance, but (A) eliminates such problems. What can we make of this situation? Chronologically (A) couldn’t have inspired (S), while the mythological aspects of the heroine of (A) which compliment Menglöð is indeed decidedly Celtic in nature. Olwen of (CO) prefigures both. It is therefore possible then as Sveinsson argues that (S) bears a Celtic influence. As already mentioned, the more elaborate arguments that he advances will be discussed in depth later in the series. Until then let’s examine some of the more speculative aspects of Sveinsson’s article.

There may be considered a certain kinship between [the nine maidens] and the ladies in the Country or Island of Women in the Celtic otherworld. But one is here led to think especially of the fairy Morgan and her eight sisters learned in leechcraft. (318)

He then brings attention to the Roman authority Pomponius Mela, who famously reports on an island off the coast of Brittany, the home of nine priestesses, mistresses of healing and divination, who can change shape into animal form, and control sea waves. He readily admits that this line of scrutiny crosses over into ‘fantasy’, but concludes with an air of optimism:

I believe that, by demonstrating the similarities between the stories of Art, son of Conn, and Svipdagsmál, we have advanced a step. But now it is the turn of the experts of Irish literature, and one ventures to hope that they will be in a position to make new contributions towards the understanding of this remarkable poetry. (Sveinsson, p. 319)

A Strange Love Story

There is good reason to believe that a (CO) type heroine with attributes of wealth, three or fourfold fertility imagery and health springs from traditional Celtic prototypes. At the conclusion of this overview of comparator texts, I believe that it is improbable that the figure of Olwen is the artificial recreation of a generic folktale damsel; the weight of the evidence considered leans towards the probability of genuine Celtic tradition.

So far we have four love stories with comparable narrative facies, heroes, and heroines, three Celtic and one possibly partially Celtic. That’s a fitting basis to begin raising notional concerns about the view that (CO) is a unique literary reproduction of a folktale.

But the crux of the issue lies with the international folktale motifs: the stepmother figure and the winning of the giant’s daughter and magical helpers. As stated in Part 1, while folkloric motifs are used to construct while folktale motifs may be ancient, the resultant stories usually are not. If these early texts descend from an antique Celtic prototype, one would have to expect to find these motifs applied consistently across the MSS evidence. It is my contention that they are.

Next time: The Wicked Stepmother




(4) Bromwich and Evans, ibid

(5) Parker, ibid

(6) Goyne, ibid

(7) Woytek,

(8) O’Grady,

(9) Stokes,









Published by Tiege McCian

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

5 thoughts on “Culhwch ac Olwen, A Cinderella Story Part 2: The Heroine

    1. Hi Micheline! You’re welcome and thank you for reading and commenting, it’s great to get your input! Yes, the ‘Cinderella’ type story can be traced all the way back to the writings of Herodotus. The title of my Culhwch series is a actually an allusion to the donor episode found in the comparators. I just gotta get off my lazy butt and finish the stepmother post first. Lol.

      Liked by 1 person

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