Tuesday, 24 May 2011

White, the Winter King

The Abduction of Guinevere Part III

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

Goddess of the Underworld
In Part II: The Modena Archivolt we saw that by permitting a little speculation, it is possible to make a conjectured proposal to the origin of the Abduction of Guinevere story, with the coming together of tales from the cultures from east and west, meeting at the heel of southern Italy at the point of the departure for the First Crusade. The British form of the Persephone story in its Arthurian context, first appears in written form in the Vita Giladae (Life of Gildas)  by Caradoc of Llancarvan, c.1130, roughly contemporary with the sculpture of the Modena Archivolt.

In Caradoc of Llancarvan's Life of Gildas the story goes that after being harassed by pirates from the islands of the Orcades, Gildas embarked on board a small ship and put in to Glastonia, at the time when king Melwas was reigning in the summer country:

“Glastonia, that is, the glassy city, which took its name from glass, is a city that had its name originally in the British tongue. It was besieged by the tyrant Arthur with a countless multitude on account of his wife Gwenhwyfar, whom the aforesaid wicked king had violated and carried off, and brought there for protection, owing to the asylum afforded by the invulnerable position due to the fortifications of thickets of reed, river, and marsh. The rebellious king had searched for the queen throughout the course of one year, and at last heard that she remained there. Thereupon he roused the armies of the whole of Cornubia and Dibneria; war was prepared between the enemies. [1

Gildas, accompanied by the Abbot of Glastonbury, negotiates her release, Melwas restores the ravished Queen to Arthur and a major conflict is avoided. After, the two kings gave the Abbot a gift of many domains, they prayed at the temple of St. Mary and returned reconciled, promising reverently to obey the most venerable Abbot of Glastonia, and never to violate this most sacred of landscapes again.

Caradoc's story is ultimately a Celtic form of the Persephone myth, placed in an Arthurian context; the similarity between Melwas' abduction of Guinevere while she was in the forest 'a-maying', and the ravishing of Persephone by Plouton (Haides), while she was collecting flowers in the fields, is strikingly obvious. Persephone is the daughter of Demeter and before she becomes the goddess of the Underworld and Haides’ wife, she bears the name 'Core', the corn maiden. In the 'Orphic Hymn 29 to Persephone'  (3rd century BC to 2nd century AD) she is heralded as a venerable Goddess, the vernal queen, source of life  and mother of the Erinyes (Eumenides, or Furiae), three netherworld goddesses, servants of Haides and Persephone.

In Statius' Thebaid, the Erinyes are referred to as maidens born of cursed Acheron;

“.... and the sad priest bids there be three altar-fires for Hecate and three for the maidens born of cursed Acheron [i.e. the Erinyes]; for thee, lord of Avernus [Haides], a heap of pinewood though sunk into the ground yet towers high into the air; next to this an altar of lesser bulk is raised to Ceres of the Underworld [Persephone]” [2]

In Greek mythology Acheron is known as the river of pain, the stream and swampy lake of the underworld and its god. In the Homeric poems the Acheron is described as the river of Hades, synonymous with the River Styx, in which the ferryman Charon carried the souls of the dead across its dark waters in his boat. The Styx circles Hades nine times and formed the boundary between the mortal domain and the Underworld. The rivers Styx, Phlegethon, Acheron and Cocytus all converge at the center of Hades on a great marsh. In later tradition the Underworld river is named after the river god Acheron, a son of Helios and either Gaia or Demeter, after he had refreshed the Titans with drink during their contest with Zeus changed into the river bearing his name.

Haides abducts Persephone with the consent of Demeter, but Demeter is so heartbroken that Zeus lets Persephone spend six months of the year with Demeter and six months with Haides. The theme of the abduction of the maiden to the Otherworld is common throughout the cultures around the World. In the Roman version it is Proserpine that is abducted by Pluto, the god of Hades. 

Guinevere, by the Welsh rendering of her name Gwenhwyfar, first appears in Arthurian literature in the 11th century tale of Culhwch and Olwen. However, in this tale she gets merely a passing mention as Arthur's consort. But it is also in  Culhwch and Olwen that we find the ancient Celtic myth of abduction, yet again with parallels to the Persephone myth.

King of Annwn
In Culwhch and Olwen, Gwynn son of Nudd was in love with the maiden Creiddylad. Gwynn became enraged when he learned that Gwythyr son of Greidiawl (Victor son of Scorching) had ran away with her from the home of her father, Lludd Silver Hand. Before Gwythyr had slept with her Gwynn carried her off by force. When Arthur heard of this he went north and intervened, returning Creiddylad to her father making a treaty between Gwythyr and Gwynn. Thereafter, Gwynn and Gwythyr were destined to fight every May Day until Judgment Day and whoever was the victor on that day would have Creiddylad.

As in the abduction myths of Melwas and Persephone, it is significant that the duel between  Gwythyr and Gwynn will take place every May Day, the first day of the Celtic summer. The seasonal symbolism is unmistakeable. The conflict apparently occurs in the north, as this is the direction Arthur must go to prevent the conflict, representing the cold of winter. Gwythyr and Gwynn representing the light and dark halves of the year, the dormant, barren season and the season of growth. Creiddylad represents another version of the flower maiden, symbolising the fertility of the land and crops; the sovereignty of nature.

Persephone's release, by agreement, determines she must spend six months of the year in the underground abode of Hades, symbolising the cold part of the year, the turning wheel of the year, the alternating seasons of fertility and sterility, death and regrowth.

This is  a common concept in Celtic mythology; we see a similar tale in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. While Pwyll Lord of Dyfed is out hunting at Arberth (identified with Narbeth in southern Pembrokeshire, south west Wales) he foolishly tries to bring down another huntsman's quarry who has a pack of dogs of a dazzling bright white with red ears, undoubtedly this is the Cwn Annwn. The owner of the dogs introduced himself to Pwyll as “Arawn, king of Annwn am I.” [3]

To make amends for offending the Lord of Annwn, Arawn has Pwyll switch places and fight his enemy Hafgan who has been troubling his kingdom. They exchange places for a year in each others form; Pwyll becomes Lord of the Otherworld, and Arawn becomes the Lord of Dyfed. During this time Pwyll slays Hafgan and he and Arawn become good friends as neither of them slept with the others wife during their exchange. In return, Arawn gave Pwyll magic swine from the Otherworld, which were later passed down to Pryderi and stolen by Gwydion in the Fourth Branch, an act that ultimately leads to battle between Pryderi and Gwydion.

A short poem found in a late manuscript [4 confirms the fact that the Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu), sometimes referred to as The Battle of Achren, was fought over animals that had been stolen from the Otherworld by the Children of Don. The account describes how Amathaon ab Don brought a white roebuck and a whelp from Annwn and fought with Arawn, King of Annwn.

The meaning of the name Arawn is unclear, suggestions range from “silver-tongue” to “silver-grey”, [5 the first part "ar" meaning "silver" may be correct and may indicate links with Lludd Llaw Ereint, Ludd Silver-hand, father of Creiddylad in Culwhch and Olwen, and cognate with the Irish Nuada Airgetlam, Nuada of the Silver Arm. Nuada appears to possess a relationship with the Irish deity Lugh, similiar to that of the Welsh figures of Lludd and Lleuelys found in the Mabinogion collection of tales and Welsh editions of the Brut. Nudd, also known as the Romano-British god Nodens, a river god associated in particular with the River Severn, as attested by the late Roman temple at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire. John Rhys has demonstrated that Nudd is cognate with the Irish god Ludd. [6  

Arawn shares many similarities with Gwynn, indeed the exchange of places with Hafgan, appears to be of a similar motif to the duel between Gwynn and Gwythyr son of Greidiawl every May day, until  the end of time. As stated above this is undoubtedly symbolic of the seasonal change taking place every year, with summer commencing from the calends of May. This is confirmed by the name Hafgan from the First Branch of the Mabinogi, meaning "Summer White”; by no coincidence Gwynn ap Nudd means “White, son of Mist”.

Gwynn and Gwythyr are representations of the Winter and Summer Kings, lords of the waxing and waning year, seen in the northern hemisphere night sky as the constellations of Orion and Scorpius. Gwynn, as Orion, dominates the winter sky from Samhain to Beltane, May day. From May to November Scorpius and Ophiuchus dominate the summer sky. Like the Summer and Winter kings, these constellations on opposite sides of the Zodiac, divide the light and dark halves of the year. [7]

Creiddylad, as with Persephone, is destined to spend half of the year with each; the growing season with the Summer King Gwythyr and the dormant season with Gwynn, the Winter King, where, as the flower maiden, the goddess of fertility, she notably absent from the Earth.

These are very clearly ancient motifs. At some stage Guinevere replaces the flower maiden, the sovereignty of nature, but the first mention of Arthur's Queen is the 11th century tale  Culhwch and Olwen.

>> Part IV: White Phantom



1. Hugh Williams, trans., Two Lives of Gildas by a monk of Ruys and Caradoc of Llancarfan.  First published in the Cymmrodorion Record Series, 1899.
2.  Persephone Goddess at Theoi Greek Mythology.
3.  Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, suggests that the name of Arawn may conceivably relate to the River Aeron - which rises in uplands of Ceredigion. We might in turn relate this to the River Arun in Southern England. Likewise, there are various Eirean- Aran- place names throughout the Gaelic world, the similarities to the river god Acheron of Greek mythology is obvious.
4. Peniarth MS 98B, 16th century.
5. Mary Jones, Jones' Celtic Encyclopedia.
6.  John Rhys, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, 1888, from the Hibbert Lectures 1886, pp 125 – 129. See: Lud's Church, Part V: Lludd's Silver Hand.
Mary Jones is of the opinion that Lludd is a confusion of the gods Nudd and Llyr. Her reasoning is that the roles of the gods of the Children of Don and of the Children of Llyr overlap, and that a certain amount of confluence may have occurred. For instance, in some legends, Creiddylad is said to be the daughter of Lludd Llaw Ereint, and in some the daughter of Llyr/Lear; Jeffrey Gantz in his translation of Culhwch and Olwen believes her name to be the origin of Cordelia in King Lear.  Jones argues that Lludd is a confluence of the gods Nudd and Llyr, because of two figures who are said to be the son and daughter of Lludd; first Creiddylad/Cordelia, said sometimes to be the daughter of Lludd, sometimes of Llyr/Lear; the second is Manannan/Manawyddan, in Irish called both the son of Lir/Llyr and of Alloid/Lludd. Gwyn ap Nudd is said to be the son of Nudd and the son of Lludd. Mary Jones, Jones' Celtic Encyclopedia.
7. Nicholas Mann & Philippa Glasson, The Star Temple of Avalon, The Temple Publications, 2007.

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