In Arthurian Celtic mythology this is an important season: it is the time when Gwythyr the son of Greidawl and Gwynn the son of Nudd fight every first of May until doomsday for the hand of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd Llaw Eraint in the Arthurian tale Culwch and Olwen.
See: Ludd's Silver Hand
Gwalchmei, the Celtic origin of Gawain of the Arthurian Romances, is called the 'Hawk of May', no doubt a reference to his strength which was revitalised at noon when the sun reached its peak, but this gradually diminished as each hour past noon.
See: The Hawk of May
It is also the time when plagues are bestowed upon the land; Three Oppressions that came to Britain as recorded in the Triads and the Mabinogion tale of Lludd and Llefelys:
Llefelys said the second plague in his brother Lludd’s kingdom was due to a dragon and another of a foreign race is fighting with it. To overcome this plague, Llefelys told Lludd he would need to measure the length and breadth of the Island to find the centre, there dig a pit and place a cauldron filled with the finest mead, covered over by a satin cloth. They would appear as dragons fighting in the air and then tire and fall in the form of pigs into the cauldron, sink in to the mead, drink it and then fall asleep. Lludd would then need to bury them in the strongest part of the island.
Ludd followed his brother's advice and captured the dragons and wrapped them in the satin cloth covering the cauldron. While they slept he took them to the most secure place on the Island, a place that was then called Dinas Ffaraon, in the mountains of Snowdonia, after that the spot became known as Dinas Emrys, and from then on the May-eve shriek ceased.
The burial of the two dragons kept Britain safe from invasion, as recorded in the Triads as one of the Three Fortunate Concealments, until they were unearthed by Vortigern, one of the Three Unfortuate Disclosures. The tale of the dragons concealed at Dinas Emrys appear to be a significant episode in the early mythology of Britain. These are without doubt the same dragons which appear in 9th Century story of Ambrosius and Vortigern, found in the Historia Brittonum, c.800 CE attributed to Nennius.
See: Ludd's Dragons
The Kalends of May is often associated with abductions throughout Celtic mythology:
Three Abductions of May-Eve
It can be no coincidence that Arthur's Queen Gwenhwyfar was abducted by King Melwas at this time, the account first given in Caradog of Llancarfan's Vita Gildae. The same tale seems to be that told by Chrétien de Troyes in his Le Chevalier de la Charette (The Knight of the Cart) in which Meleagant abducts Arthur's queen, Guenièvre, on 1st May when she and the court have gone a-Maying, and her usually efficient Guard who had rode out unarmed on this occasion. Although we see a similar account in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) when Guanhumara is forced to marry the usurper Modred during Arthur's absence to fight the King of Rome, the same story is depicted on the Modena Archivolt thought to predate Geoffrey's account. The sculpture above the north portal of the Cathedral of Modena in northern Italy, depicts an attack on a fortified tower by a number of knights, all with Arthurian names, on horseback. This would appear to be the same story of the rescue of Guinevere, here called Winlogee, which appears to be a Breton rendering of the name, and told across the romances. The Construction of the cathedral began in 1099, and the sculpture dated to 1120-1140.
Although the Welsh mythos of Caradog Freichfras (Caradoc Strong Arm) and the original tale of how his wife Tegau received the epithet of the 'golden breast' has not survived we find an account in the Breton tale of Caradoc (Le Livre du Caradoc) contained within the First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval or the Story of the Grail, where the maiden Guinier is abducted and rescued by Sir Caradawg Vreichvras. Due to her epithet Tegau is seen as cognate with Guinier.
Tegau Eurfron (Eurvron) of the 'Golden Breast', appears in three Triads where she is listed as one of the 'Three Splendid Maidens' of Arthur's court. In the 'Bonedd y Seint' she is named as the daughter of Nudd Hael (the generous) King of the North, and the wife of Caradog Freichfras (Strong arm). She was associated with three Treasures: a Blade, a Drinking Horn and her Mantle. 'Tegau's Mantle' appears in some later versions of The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain.
She appears in the Breton tales Robert Biket's Lai du Cor (Lay of the Horn), in which the fidelity of the women of Arthur's court, including Gwenhwyfar, is tested, and the related tale of the Lai Du Cort Mantel, the Tale of the Short Mantle, also known as the Ill-cut Mantle, as it was said to only fit a chaste woman, concurring with the Triad in which Tegau is recorded as one of the 'Three Faithful Wives of the Island of Britain.'
In the tale included in the First Continuation of The Story of the Grail, Caradoc undergoes a beheading contest with the enchanter Eliavres, who reveals he is his father after he seduced his mother in a tale reminiscent of Arthur's conception. Caradoc's mother Ysave and her lover had caused a magical serpent to be entwined around his arm, where it remained, sucking the life out of him, till he could find a chaste king's daughter who would gladly offer her own life in his place. Caradoc immersed himself in a bath of vinegar, while Guinier waited in a bath filled with milk with her breasts exposed . The serpent loathing the vinegar leapt towards Guinier. As the flying serpent leaped between the two lovers, Guinier's half-brother, Sir Cador, sliced the serpent in two with his sword, removing part of her breast in the process. Guinier's (Tegau's) breast was replaced by one made of pure gold from the shield boss of Sir Aalardin du Lac, the knight who was once in love with her and had attempted to abduct her on the Kalends of May.
The First Branch of the Mabinogi recounts the story of when Teirnyon lost his colts and found Pryderi on May Eve as part of the classic Celtic abduction mythos :
The First Branch, The Mabinogi of Pwyll tells of Pwyll, the Lord of Dyved, his wife Rhiannon and Teyrnon Twryf Liant, ruler over Gwent-Ys-Coed, in South East Wales. Teyrnon's name seemingly derives from the Celtic *Tigernos 'Great Lord', which is clearly very similar to that of Rhiannon; *Rigantona meaning 'Great Queen'.
A boy is born to Pwyll and his wife Rhiannon at his court in Arbeth. On the night of his birth both Rhiannon and her six ladies-in-waiting set to watch over him but fall into a deep sleep before the midnight hour. By cock crow the following morning the child has disappeared. To avoid the blame, the ladies smear blood from a young deer on Rhiannon while she sleeps. Then they pretend to awake and raise the alarm. Despite Rhiannon's pleading the women will not change their tale and when Pwyll comes to see his son, the six nurses accuse Rhiannon of devouring her own son. She is forced to do penance for a crime she has not committed: she must stay at the court of Arbeth for seven years and is made to sit beside a mounting-block by the gate every day telling anyone coming by the whole story and offering whichever guest and stranger would allow themselves to carried on her back to the court.
Teyrnon had the most beautiful mare in the realm and she would give birth every night at the Kalends of May, yet no-one ever knew what became of her foals. Teyrnon was determined to find out who was taking his colts. He brought the mare brought into the house, and equipped himself with weapons and began his watch for the night.
As night was falling, the mare gave birth to a large, perfectly-formed foal which stood up on the spot. Teyrnon got up to admire the sturdiness of the foal but as he was doing this, he heard a great commotion and then an enormous claw reached through the window and seized the colt by its mane. Teyrnon drew his sword and cut off the arm from the elbow down, so that the bulk of the arm, together with the colt, fell off inside next to him.
At that he heard a further commotion and a scream outside. He ran outside the door in the direction of the affray but could not see anything in the darkness. But he kept on its trail and its pursuit. Teyrnon remembered that he had left the door open, headed back to the house, and on his return found a small child wrapped in a sheet of brocaded silk. He picked up the boy, noticing how strong he was for his age. The child was brought up in the court until he was one year old where he grew rapidly so that before the end of the fourth year the stable lads were allowing him to lead the horses down to water.
When Pendaran Dyfed asked if the boy was named 'Pryderi' because it suits him best: Pryderi son of Pwyll Pen Annwfyn, Rhiannon replied that they had him baptised as Gwri Gwallt Euryn, 'Gwri Golden-Hair'. But Pendaran insisted that his name was to be Pryderi', meaning 'care' 'anxiety' and Pwyll = 'sense' 'thought' 'wisdom', i.e. 'Care son of Wisdom'.
Pendaran appears to have his provenance in the early mythology of Pwyll and Pryderi in which his role seems to have been similar to that of Pwyll Pendevic, i.e. the mortal Demetian ally of Underworld king in the extant version of the Mabinogi. Pendaran seems particularly assertive in the tale, emerging from nowhere, interrupting the conversation between Teyrnon, Rhiannon and Pwyll and dictating what the boy should be named 'Pryderi' rejecting the name given to him by Teyrnon and his wife.
The boy is, of course, none other than the child of Rhiannon and Pwyll who went missing shortly after his birth. The similarity between the original name of the child 'Gwri' and the name of the 'exalted prisoner' Gweir map Geiroedd is surely beyond coincidence and indicates a common theme throughout the Arthurian Mythos as recorded in early Welsh literature: Preiddiau Annwfn (Spoils of Annwfn), in which Arthur attempts to steal a magic cauldron from the Otherworld, with Pryderi as one of only seven survivors, bearing remarkable similarities to the the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, the tale of Branwen Daughter of Llyr; The tale of Culhwch and Olwen also records the retrieval of a magic cauldron and the rescue of the prisoner; and in the Triads, 'The Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain':
Llyr Half- Speech, who was imprisoned by Eurosswydd,
and the second, Mabon son of Modron,
and third, Gwair, son of Geirioedd.
The tales of Pryderi/Mabon/Gwri (Gweir) would all appear to derive from a common origin confirming the suspicion that these figures represent variations of the same Arthurian archetype known as the 'exalted prisoner', but subsequently suffer from considerable confusion in medieval Welsh literature. Indeed, Culhwch invokes four Gweirs in succession calling them "the uncles of Arthur, the brothers of his mother" as well as the sons of Llwch Llawwynnyawc "from beyond the surging/Tyrrhene sea”: Gweir Dathar Wenidawc, Gweir the son of Cadell the son of Talaryant, Gweir Gwrhyd Ennwir, Gweir Paladyr Hir.
It can hardly be further coincidence that the four Gweirs appear in the court list in Culhwch immediately following Gwynn Gotyuron, a companion of Mabon in Pa Gur and only two names below Lluydeu of Kelcoed, who imprisoned Pryderi and Rhiannon in The Third Branch of the Mabinogi. The fact that these characters all with prisoner associations are grouped together in the Culhwch court list is a clear indicator of a lost story of the 'exalted prisoner'.
The Culhwch court list also records Gwrvan Gwallt Avwyn and Gware Gwallt Euryn; both names most likely refer to the child baptised as Gwri Gwallt Euryn, 'Gwri Golden Hair' in the First Branch who turns out to be Rhiannon's son who disappeared after being born and later renamed as Pryderi. We see clear evidence of the confusion in role of the 'prisoner' who was abducted on May-Eve by Gweir's replacement with Mabon in Culhwch and Olwen.
In Culhwch and Olwen, Mabon is the only one who can catch the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth, but he was taken from his mother when only three nights old and must be found before they can complete the quest; his imprisonment and release plays a significant role in the early Arthurian tale:
“Throughout the world there is not a huntsman who can hunt with this dog, except Mabon the son of Modron. He was taken from his mother when three nights old, and it is not known where he now is, nor whether he is living or dead.”
To release Mabon, Arthur first travelled to Castle of Glivi, where Eidoel son of Aer was imprisoned. He is released and leads the hunt for Mabon. They must consult the wisest of animals: Ousel of Cilgwri; Stag of Redynvre; Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd; Eagle of Gwern Abwy and finally the Salmon of Llyn Llyw who tells them that with every tide he swims up he river until he comes to the walls of Gloucester, and there he hears much wailing; he describes Mabon son of Modron as one of the three most unfortunate prisoners along and Llud Silver Hand and Greid mab Eri.
Eidoel returns to Arthur who summons the warriors of the Island, and they journey as far as Gloucester, to the place where Mabon is imprisoned and release him. After that Arthur went into Armorica, with Mabon, now referred to the son of Mellt, ('son of lightning' - the same epithet he bears in the poem Pa Gur), and Gware Gwallt Euryn to seek the two dogs of Glythmyr Ledewic. Mabon goes on to snatch the razor from between the ears of the Twrch Trwyth by the River Severn and they go on to finally catch the boar in Cornwall.
The 'Mabon' in this tale appears to be the Welsh god Mabon ap Modron, the divine son of the divine mother, who's Irish counterpart is Oengus mac ind Og. The figure of Mabon appears to be based on the god Apollo Maponos, a deity popular in northern Britain and parts of Gaul. However, Culhwch and Olwen is not part of the Four Branches, and Mabon is not mentioned in the Mabinogi but Pryderi appears in all Four Branches, tracing his birth through to his death.
Eric Hamp has proposed that in this sense, the term Mabinogi may in fact mean "tales of Mabon" derived from the name the god, Mabon ap Modron, and goes on to suggest that the Four Branches may have originally been an account of the birth, disappearance and restoration of Mabon who is identical with Pryderi. Rejecting Lady Guest's mistitled collection of 'tales of youth', Hamp states that 'mabinogi' has nothing to do with 'youth' or 'boy', but is so-called, he concludes, because it deals with material derived from myths of the earlier Brythonic deities, who are also reflected in the names Rhiannon, 'the Divine Queen,' Teyrnon, 'the Divine King', Gofannon, 'the Divine Smith', and so on. The mabinogi is then material pertaining to the family of Maponos, 'the Divine son'.
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