Monday, 30 May 2011

White Phantom

The Abduction of Guinevere Part IV
Throughout Arthurian Romance  Guinevere is commonly portrayed with two weaknesses; her love affairs with Arthur's best knight, and very susceptible to being abducted.

Arthur's Otherworld Possessions

As we have seen above the abduction of Gwenhwyfar receives a first literary mention in Caradoc of Llancarfan's Vita Gildae, written c.1130. Caradoc's tale is probably following a traditional account as we find a similar abduction motif in the earlier Culhwch ac Olwen,  c.1100 with Gwyn ap Nudd duelling with Gwythyr son of Greidiawl for the maiden Creiddylad.

It is in Culhwch that Gwenhwyfar is first named as Arthur's queen  but this is merely a passing mention in the court list as chief lady along with her sister Gwennhwyach and earlier in the tale in a list of Arthur's possessions that Culhwch is not granted by Arthur. It is significant that here she appears amongst Arthur's companion Kei and Bedwyr, characters from the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend. From this we can hold with reasonable confidence that Gwenhwyfar is not an invention of the later continental writers of Arthurian romance but has her origins in Welsh vernacular tradition.

On arriving at Arthur's court Culhwch seeks the sovereign’s assistance in obtaining Olwen, daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr. Arthur tells him, "Though you do not reside here, chieftain, you shall have the gift your mouth and tongue shall name, as far as the wind dries, as far as the rain soaks, as far as the sun reaches, as far as the sea stretches, as far as the earth extends, except my ship; and my mantle; and Caledfwlch, my sword; and Rhongomyniad, my spear; and Wynebgwrthucher, my shield; and Carnwennan, my dagger; and Gwenhwyvar, my wife.[1]

All Arthur's possessions listed above appear to have originated in the Otherworld as most contain the element (G)wen or Gwyn which can mean 'white, sacred, pure, holy'. The Otherworldly connotations continue with Arthur's mantle of invisibility which is not named in Culhwch but is listed in the later Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain and in Rhonabwy's Dream where it is named 'Gwen'.

In Culhwch Arthur's ship is also named as Prydwen as in the earlier Taliesin poem Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn) in which he carries out a raid on the Otherworld to retrieve a magic cauldron. This tale is echoed in Culhwch, although in the later tale the Otherworld Island is replaced by a raid on Ireland.

The Irish influence on the Arthurian legend is undeniable and many similarities between the cycles have been presented. [2] There is the possibility of an an early tradition of the abduction of Gwenhwyfar reflected in Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Mordred which is closely paralleled by the abduction of Fionn's wife Grainne by his nephew Diarmaid. However, this is dependant upon acceptance of Mordred as Arthur's nephew, a relationship which seems to be the creation of Geoffrey.

Caledfwlch, Arthur's  sword, is rendered into the Latin Cailburnus by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). According to Geoffrey, Arthur's sword was forged in the Isle of Avalon. Geoffrey only mentions Avalon twice in his Historia and not all in his later Vita Merlini, but on both occasions he clearly means an Otherworld Island. Contrary to popular belief Geoffrey does not equate Avalon with Glastonbury, in fact he makes no effort to identify its location.

We find an episode of Arthur's sword in the Otherworld in Culhwch in which Arthur's sword is used to slay Diwrnach the Irishman: “Llenlleog seized Caledfwlch and swung it in a circle, and slew Diwrnach the Irishman and all his host.”

This one sentence describes Llenlleawc's (Llenlleog) only action in Culhwch, an obscure character mentioned twice in the list of people invoked by Culhwch. In the first instance he is referred to as Llenlleawc “from the headland of Gamon”, which has been suggested as Garmon as in Llwch Garmon the Welsh name for Wexford harbour in southern-east Ireland, attested in the 10th century prophetic poem Armes Prydein. [3]

There is considerable debate amongst scholars to Llenlleawc's identity. He has been identified as a manifestation of the Irish deity Lug but it has been argued that any connection with Lug that may be drawn from Llenlleawc is possibly a misreading of Lleu lleawc, “Lleu, the death-dealing”, where Lleu is the Welsh cognate of Irish Lug, but derived from Celtic Lugus and not a borrowing of Lug. Llenlleawc could therefore be seen as a ghost persona who arose from misinterpretation of a problematic line in the Taliesin poem The Spoils of Annwn, [4] where we find  a very similar episode involving the theft of a cauldron from the Otherworld: [5]

“...Neu peir pen annwfyn pwy y vynut
gwrym am yoror amererit     
Ny beirw bwyt llwfyr ny rytyghit
cledyf lluch lleawc idaw rydyrchit    
Ac yn llaw leminawc yd edewit...”

“..The cauldron of the chief of Annwfyn: what is its fashion?
A dark ridge around its border and pearls
It does not boil the food of a coward; it has not been destined.
The flashing sword of Lleawch has been lifted to it
And in the hand of Lleminawc it was left...”

Lluch Lleawc has been seen as a variant of the name of Llwch Llawwynnawc (Lloch Llawwynnyawc) who is also invoked by Culhwch. Llawwynnyawc of Culhwch is often seen as synonymous with Lleminawc of  Preiddeu Annwn, adding further confirmation that the theft of the cauldron from the Otherworld is the same episode.  Llwch Llawwynnawc has been interpreted as 'Lug of the Striking-Hand', or 'Lug of the Windy-Hand', common epithets for the Irish deity.

There is clearly much confusion here and the lines in question in Preiddeu Annwn may contain a garbled version of the name of the weapon, the “sword of Lleawch” (cledyf lluch lleawc); 'lluch lleawc' may be taken to be separate adjectives meaning "flashing" and "death-dealing." Further, the mention of 'llaw leminawc' in the next line of Preiddeu Annwn may derive from a misinterpretation of 'cledyf lluch....llaw leminawc' which could have given rise to the persona of Llwch Llaw Leminawc/Llawwynnawc who became associated with Llwch Garmon, who became confused with the similar character of Llenlleawc emerging from a variant interpretation of the same lines of the poem. [7]

Perhaps it is is possible to untangle this confusion when we consider that the word 'leminawc' is an adjective meaning 'leaper' or 'leaping one' used in reference to an attacker and very aptly may be an epithet for Arthur in this instance. In prophetic poems it can refer to the deliverer. [8] We can offer an alternative interpretation of this passage without the need for the Irish divinity Lug, this is not to say that Arthur was not accompanied on his Otherworld journeys with deities from the Celtic pantheon, but there is no reason not to see this slaying as being executed by Arthur himself with Caledfwlch his own sword: “The flashing sword of death-dealing was thrust into it, and it was left in the hand of the leaping one...” [i.e. the attacker, Arthur].

The literary evidence indicates that Caledfwlch is most likely an Otherworldy weapon and cognate with the Irish sword Caladbolg, probably both derived independently from the generic name for a mythical sacred, death-dealing sword, capable of consuming everything. [9] It was said to be a two-handed sword that made a circle like an arc of rainbow when swung, which is exactly how it is described in Culhwch, “Llenlleog seized Caledfwlch and swung it in a circle, and slew Diwrnach the Irishman and all his host.”  In in the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, Caladbolg is the name of the sword that Fergus mac Róig inherited from the Ulster King Fergus mac Leite who had brought it from the land of the Sidhe, or Otherworld.

Caledfwlch is  a compound word constructed from the elements 'caled' which can have the adjective meaning 'hard' or the noun 'battle'. The second element 'bwlch' means 'breach, gap, notch', and may mean 'hard-notch' or 'battle-notch' suggesting such a sword strong enough make notches or break through enemy lines. It could also mean it is notched through prolonged use in battle, or even deliberately serrated. However, the meaning 'battle-breach' or 'breach of battle' is seen as preferable. [10] The early occurrence of Arthur's ship, Prydwen in Preiddeu Annwn, dated to the 8th century, [11] and its pairing with Arthur's sword Caledfwlch in the later Culwhch attests the weapon's antiquity.

Interestingly, if listed in order of merit Arthur's material possessions appear to take precedence over his wife. Gwenhwyfar's name is generally agreed to mean 'white phantom', indicating her Otherworldly origins, from the first element Gwen or Gwyn meaning 'white, pure, sacred, holy', with the second element meaning 'phantom, spirit, fairy or enchantress', cognate with the Irish 'siabair'. Indeed, Gwenhwyfar corresponds with Findabair daughter of King Ailill and Queen Medb in the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, from the Ulster Cycle.

From the evidence of the earliest Arthurian literature we have it is reasonable to suggest that Arthur brought these possessions, his sword, shield, dagger, mantle, back from a raid on the Otherworld, including his wife, Gwenhwyfar. Indeed it would not seem unreasonable to suggest that Arthur himself has an Otherworld origin; he is often associated with deities who travel with him and seems to be able to journey to the Otherworld and return at will, whereas for his mortal companions it is fraught with danger and but few return.

Yet the retrieval of Gwenhwyfar from the Otherworld is completely compatible with the central motif of the abduction stories of the flower maiden, in which we see the likes of Persephone and Creiddylad carried off to the Otherworld by a supernatural figure such as Haides, or Gwyn ap Nudd.

Where was this Otherworld Island that Caradoc of Llancarfan identified as Ynys Wydrin, the Isle of Glass?

>> Part IV: The Isle of Glass


1. Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 183 “How Culhwch won Olwen”.
2. A. G. Van Hamel, Aspects of Celtic Mythology, Proceedings of the British Academy, 20, 1934.
3. Patrick Sims-Williams, Irish Influence of Medieval Welsh Literature, Oxford University Press, 2011, p.160.
4. Ibid. pp. 160-161.
5. A similar account is told in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
6.  Sarah Higley, Text and Translation, Preiddeu Annwn: "The Spoils of Annwn", online at The Camelot Project, University of Rochester, General Editors: Alan Lupack and Barbara Tepa Lupack,
7.  Sims-Williams, op.cit. pp.162-163.
8.  Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, CMCS, 2007, p.444. See note p.384.
9. Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007, p.156.
10.  Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: An edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales, 1992, pp.64-5.
11.  Kenneth H Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, 1953,  endorsed by John T Koch.

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