Saturday, 11 April 2009

Wizards and Wildmen: Lleu's Death

Lud’s Church (XIV)
Part One

Pierced by a spear, crushed by a stone,
And drowned in the stream’s waters,
Myrddin died a triple death.
Lleu’s Death

Lleu’s transformation into an eagle at the end of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi has been the subject of much discussion, not least the similarities between Lleu and the Norse god Odin in what is claimed to be a shamanistic initiation ritual. The eagle features in many mythologies around the world, its majestic qualities leading to association with ancient kings throughout history.

The Mabinogi of Math details a strange sequence of conditions required to bring about Lleu’s death. Firstly, he can only be killed with a spear that must have been worked for a year and a day, only on Sunday, during the time of Mass; secondly he cannot be killed inside or outside a house; thirdly he can neither be killed on horseback or on foot.

These conditions are overcome when Lleu emerges from the bath in a gazebo-like bath house, having no walls but a roof, therefore neither “indoors or out”. He places one foot on the back of a buck-goat and the other on the edge of the bath, neither “on land nor on water” or “on horseback or on foot”.

Goronowy Pebyr cast the spear which struck Lleu, he immediately turned into an eagle and took flight to be found later on an oak tree by Gwydion at Nantlle in western Snowdonia. A suggested translation for Goronwy Pebyr has been “shining/radiant, spearman”. “Shining/radiant” has also been suggested as an etymology for the name Lleu which has led to suggestions that he is a sun deity

The conditions required to bring about Lleu’s death bring to mind the 14th Century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, conjectured at being written in the Staffordshire Moorlands, nearby to Lud’s Church. We have already discussed how this medieval tale probably derived originally from the much earlier 8th Century Irish tale Bricriu’s Feast (The Champion’s Bargain or Portion). [2] A shorter, more archaic version of Bricriu’s Feast, called the Yellow or Terror version (sometimes the Uath version), and differs from the Champion’s Bargain in that the warriors must travel to meet the challenger. They meet a man known as Yellow son of Fair, who sends them onto meet a man called Terror son of Great Fear who challenges them to the Beheading Contest beside a lake.

The Beheading Contest always features three strikes, or axe cuts in this tale, which is symbolic of the threefold death reserved for Kings and Deities in Proto-Indo-European mythology holding a particular obsession in Celtic myth. There are essentially two distinct types of threefold death in Indo-European myth, the first being, the death of one individual simultaneously in three ways; hanging from a tree (strangulation); drowning; wounding. The threefold death is foretold, often by the victim himself, and can be considered as retribution for an offence against one, or more, of the three functions of Indo-European society. [3]
The second form of the threefold death is divided into three distinct deaths as sacrifices to three distinct gods of the three functions.

The threefold death as three distinct sacrifices can be found in the epic poem Pharsalia, (also known as De Bello Civili or On the Civil War) telling of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate, written by Lucan in 61-65AD. The poem describes Caesar's conquest of Gaul; he describes three Celtic gods to whom are delivered human sacrifices:

”And those who pacify with blood accursed
Savage Teutates, Hesus' horrid shrines,

And Taranis' altars cruel as were those”

According to a marginal note in a medieval manuscript of the Pharsalia:

“Taranis was propitiated by burning, Teutates by drowning, and Esus by means of suspending his victims from trees and ritually wounding them”.

Book III of the The Pharsalia recounts the Roman vexation at the horror of the Druid groves, giving another life in their affirmation of the transmigration of the soul, which permeated Celtic religion at the time. The following passage paints a macabre scene of the Druid’s forest groves and appears to portray firsthand experience by the poet:

“Now fell the forests far and wide, despoiled
Of all their giant trunks: for as the mound

On earth and brushwood stood, a timber frame

Held firm the soil, lest pressed beneath its towers

The mass might topple down. There stood a grove

Which from the earliest time no hand of man

Had dared to violate; hidden from the sun

Its chill recesses; matted boughs entwined

Prisoned the air within. No sylvan nymphs

Here found a home, nor Pan, but savage rites

And barbarous worship, altars horrible

On massive stones upreared; sacred with blood

Of men was every tree. If faith be given
To ancient myth, no fowl has ever dared

To rest upon those branches, and no beast

Has made his lair beneath: no tempest falls,

Nor lightnings flash upon it from the cloud.

Stagnant the air, unmoving, yet the leaves

Filled with mysterious trembling; dripped the streams
From coal-black fountains; effigies of gods
Rude, scarcely fashioned from some fallen trunk”

Lleu in Y Gododdin
In Part XIII – Gwydion’s Eagle we discussed Y Gododdin the Dark Age poem recalling a raid by the Gododdin, a tribe occupying modern Lothian, on Catraeth, an event usually dated around the end of the 6th Century. The raid was a disaster for the Northern Britons; in one account only the poet Aneirin survives. We noted how there are in existence various renditions of that poem owing to the fact that it survives in the mid-13th Century manuscript in at least three variants, namely A, B1 and B2 texts.
All three texts, and therefore the oldest variant, B2 text, contain the lines “the rock of Lleu’s tribe, the folk of Lleu’s mountain stronghold at Gododdin’s frontier” a reference to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, also known as The Crag or The Rock.

It has been proposed that the youngest variant of Y Gododdin, the A text, moved to Gwynedd following the Battle of Winwaed, recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as 655AD. This variant became enlarged with additions from a Welsh scribe to 88 stanzas and was no doubt influenced by a similar oral tradition as the Mabinogi as it contains references to characters from Culhwch ac Olwen and mentions Twrch Trwyth, the boar hunted by Arthur. The A text contains the reference to “Gwydion’s Eagle” generally accepted as a direct reference to Lleu from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. [6]

The episode of Lleu’s death at the end of the Mabinogi of Math would appear to contain all the details of the threefold death in Celtic society, even transmigration of his soul as an eagle. Significantly, this same stanza also alludes to Myrddin, who also suffered a threefold death.

Myrddin in Y Gododdin
In that same stanza of the A text variant of Y Gododdin mentioning Lleu as Gwydyen’s Eagle there is also an allusion to Myrddin, included in the following lines,

Morien defended,
The fair song of Myrddin and laid the head,

Of a chief in the earth….. [7]

Compare with another translation of the same passage:

Morien defended,
Myrddin’s praise song, and placed the chieftain,

In earth…..

The earlier, B text, version of the poem omits this line, therefore it cannot safely be regarded as part of the original 6th Century poem, and suspiciously looking like a later addition to the A text variant of Y Gododdin, dated to 900-1100 AD, as we have seen above, developed with Gwynedd influence. Although Myrddin does not appear in the Mabinogi, his influence would appear to be from an independent Northern tradition.

The earliest known reference to Myrddin occurs in "Armes Prydein" (the Omen or Prophecy of Britain). The earliest extant manuscript copy of this prophetic poem dates to c.1275 AD, contained within the Book of Taliesin. However, the poem has been dated on linguistic and historic grounds to c.930 AD. The name Myrddin appears only once in the poem, in the opening line of one stanza that reads:

"Dysgogan Myrdin ..." (Myrddin fortells)

We cannot totally dismiss the possibility that the poem experienced later additions in Gwynedd as with Y Gododdin textual variations, and the name Myrddin substituted at some point later than 930 AD, it is generally considered to be original as it safely fits the poem structure as a similar opening formula is used on two other occasions in the poem:

"Dysgogan Awen ..." (poetic inspiration fortells)
"Dysgogan derwydon ..." (wise men fortell)

Myrddin is considered by some commentators to be a genuine historical character from Dark Age Northern Britain, but there would appear to be no evidence to support this. Historically he is an even more elusive than the warrior Arthur. The basic element of the Myrddin legend no doubt has its provenance in Northern Britain and as we have seen with Y Gododdin, became influenced by later Welsh medieval literature.

However, there does appear to be an independent tradition regarding a prophet called Myrddin as we have seen in the Omen of Britain, although we cannot securely date this tradition prior to the 10th Century. The common perception of a wizard in a pointed hat with long white beard as familiar to most people from childhood tales are no more than modern interpretations of the Merlin creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey had to rename him as Merlin as Myrddin sounds too much like merde, excrement to a Norman audience.

Continued in Wizards and Wildmen Part II - Son of an Incubus


1. "Meldred and Lailoken”, British Library manuscript Cotton Titus A. XIX.
2. See Part III – The Hawk of May
3. The Trifunctional Hypothesis is a controversial conjecture proposed by French mythographer Georges Dumézil. The hypothesis states that Indo-European religion has societies and religions divided into three similar roles: warriors, priests, and farmers, as seen in the Welsh story Lludd & Lleuelys, which echoes three elements of the story of Naudu and Lug, in the Irish tale The Second Battle of Mag Tuired.
4. Pharsalia (“On The Civil War"), BOOK I, The Crossing of the Rubicon - Marcus Annaeus Lucanus. The Online Medieval & Classical Library []
5. Pharsalia (“On The Civil War"), BOOK III Massilia, The Online Medieval & Classical Library []
6. John T Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text & Context from Dark Age North Britain, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1997.
7. A O H Jarman, Aneirin: Y Gododdin, Gomer Press 1990, stanza 45, p.30.
8. Joseph P Clancy, Medieval Welsh Poems, Four Courts Press 2003, A text, stanza 40, p.55.

Picture Credits:
Lleu’s Bath House from The Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest
Merlin and Vivien enter the woods. Engraving by Gustave Dore.

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