Does Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of the stones of the Giant's Dance transported to Salisbury Plain from Mount Killaraus in Ireland reflect an ancient tradition of the bluestones of Stonehenge coming from Pembrokeshire, south west Wales, via the Irish Sea, or a mythological account of a raid on the Otherworld?
Fact or Mythology?
Roman artefacts found in Ireland are regarded by most archaeologists as evidence of trade with Roman Britain, perhaps some are the spoils from the raiding of British coastal settlements, and not evidence of Roman conquest. It is generally accepted that a Roman invasion force never set foot on Irish soil; current archaeological evidence suggests there were no large scale military incursions and the account is entirely absent from of the works of the Roman historians.
It was not until the late 12th century that Anglo-Norman lords settled in Ireland after a force of Norman, Welsh and Flemish troops landed in Wexford in 1169 and within a short time conquered Leinster. But this was a generation after Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) c.1136 AD, in which he claimed that Merlin brought the stone circle known as the Giant's Dance (Stonehenge) back from Mount Killaraus in Ireland and set them up on Salisbury Plain using his magic. There appears to be no historical record of an invasion of Ireland by the English before Geoffrey's time.
Geoffrey's sources have been the topic of much debate. In the story of the Giant's Dance he is clearly not following a historical Dark Age account; for example, he had no knowledge of the Saxon execution victim buried at the stone circle. But we cannot dismiss the possibility that he clawed into the faintest memories of an ancient tradition extant since the construction of Stonehenge as unlikely as this may seem.
In Celtic mythology we found three accounts of a raid on Ireland, as a euphemised form of the Otherworld. These three tales share the recurrent central theme of the pursuit of a magic cauldron from across the sea. The earliest of these tales, Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn), which survives in the 14th-century manuscript Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin). The archaic text of this obscure poem has been dated to anywhere between the 9th and 12th century, but certainly free of Galfridian influence.1
Preiddeu Annwn is a sea-borne raid on an Otherworld stronghold known by several evocative names, or alternatively several strongholds with various names, by Arthur and his retinue in three full loads of the ship Prydwen. The first stanza mentions “the prison of Gweir in Kaer Sidi, throughout the account of Pwyll and Pryderi.” Gweir is known from the Tryoedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Isle of Britain) as one of three exalted prisoners along with Llyr Lledyeith and Mabon uab Modron.2
The purpose of the mission is to release the exalted prisoner and retrieve the cauldron of the chief of Annwn from the Four-Peaked Fortress: a cauldron with a dark ridge around its border and pearls, kindled by the breath of nine maidens, which will not boil the food of a coward;
“The flashing sword of Lleawch has been lifted to it,
And in the hand of Lleminawc it was left.
And before the door of hell lamps burned.”
Kaer Sidi, the Mound Fortress, is rendered as one of several names for the Otherworld stronghold. The name may come from Old Irish síde, from nominative síd, "gods" or "fairy-folk," or the mound or dwelling place of such folk. The release of Gweir and the theft of the cauldron is a costly adventure; at the end of each stanza, but the last two, the storyteller informs us that except seven, none returned.3
Both Pwyll and Pryderi feature in The First Branch of The Mabinogi. The collection of tales known as the Mabinogion, which includes the Four Branches, four native tales and three romances, was compiled between the 11th and 13th century but contain much older material, as shown by inclusion of the material of the Raid on the Otherworld in the Second Branch.
In the First Branch, Pwyll undergoes a series of magical trials before emerging as the‘Head of Annwn’ and the final section of the Branch sees the birth of the child Pryderi who disappears on the night of his birth. When he is found he is given the name Gwri Wallt Euryn ‘Gwri Golden Hair’ which appears to represent a local variant of the cult of Maponus.4
The Assembly of the Wondrous Head
In the Second Branch of The Mabinogi, Branwen daughter of Llyr, Brân the Blessed (Bendigeidfran) son of Llŷr is substituted for Arthur as the High King of the Island of the Mighty. Brân and his army embark on a campaign to rescue Branwen, his sister, who has been betrothed to Matholwch, King of Ireland. They have a son named Gwern. After humiliating Branwen by forcing her to bake in the court and tearing up meat, after three years of punishment she sends a message to Brân tied to the wing of a starling. Brân receives the message while in Caer Seint (Segontium) and sets off to Ireland. In this tale Brân is clearly of gigantic stature as he wades across the sea to Ireland, crossing the rivers Lli and the Archen, carrying all the minstrels on his back.
The Irish are given a magical cauldron by Brân which has the property of bringing slain warriors back to life; the mysterious Peir Dedani, or Cauldron of Rebirth:
“I will give you this cauldron, and the peculiarity of the cauldron is this: a man who is killed today and thrown in the cauldron, by the next day he will be as good as he was at his best, except he will not be able to talk.”
Brân obtained this cauldron from an Irishman named Llasar Llaes Gyfewid, who had escaped from the white-hot Iron House, he met on top of a tumulus above a lake in Ireland, called "The Lake of the Cauldron". After seeing the carnage of the men of the Island of the Mighty and realising he is the cause, Efnisien, Brân's quarrelsome half brother who started the war by thrusting Branwen's son into the fire, hides amongst the corpses and gets himself thrown into the Cauldron of Rebirth and stretches himself out until the cauldron breaks into four pieces, breaking his heart at the same time.
And after that, victory went to the men of the Island of the Mighty. But the victory saw no more than the escape of just seven men; Pryderi, Manawydan, Glifieu Eil Taran, Taliesin and Ynawg, Gruddieu son of Muriel and Heilyn son of Gwyn the Old. Brân, having been mortally wounded in the foot with a poisoned spear, orders his head to be cut off by his own men. They carry Bran's living head, which continues to talk to them, as they take it to London where it is to be buried in the White Hill. On their journey they partake in ‘The Assembly of the Wondrous Head’ at the island of Gwales where they rest for eighty years in pleasant forgetfulness. Gwales is here synonymous with Kaer Sidi, in the pre-Christian concept of the Island Otherworld.5
The Oldest Arthurian Tale
In Culhwch, Arthur and his warband is presented with forty difficult, or impossible tasks, anoethau, to complete as the price for obtaining the hand of Olwen, the daughter of Ysbaddaden chief-giant, for his nephew Culhwch in marriage. In this tale Mabon is again a prisoner and must be released before Arthur and his band of warriors can hunt the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth. The chief-giant stipulates that Arthur and his huntsmen are required to retrieve “the comb and shears that are between the two ears of Twrch Trwyth son of Taredd Wledig, the only comb and shears in the world wherewith my hair may be dressed, so exceeding stiff it is.” Because of his wickedness Prince Taredd has been turned into a boar, along with seven of his men, who are referred to as his piglets.6
The hunting of the great boar Troynt, a Latinisation of the Welsh Trwyd, by Arthur and his dog Cabal is recorded in the Mirabilia (Wonders of Britain) appended to the 9th century Historia Brittonum. An even earlier reference to the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth is found in the Gorchan of Cynfelyn attached to the epic poem Y Gododdin of Aneirin. This gorchan is indeed ancient and has been dated to the arrival of the Y Gododdin in Gwynedd in the early 7th century.7
“The cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman, the overseer of Odgar son of Aedd king of Ireland, to boil meat for thy wedding guests” is another task set by the chief-giant. A variant of the tale of the raid on the Otherworld (Ireland) first found in Preiddeu Annwn is included in Culhwch to attain the cauldron of the Head of Annwn, Pair Pen Annwn, which Arthur achieves in the later tale with rather more success. This cauldron surely equates with the Peir Dadeni, the Cauldron of Rebirth, from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
In Preiddeu Annwn, above, we have seen the cauldron was grasped in the episode with “the sword of Lluch Lleawch.” It has been suggested that Lluch lleawc may be a muddle of a name.8 There is clearly much confusion here and the lines in question in Preiddeu Annwn may in fact contain a garbled version of the name of the weapon, the “sword of Lleawch” (cledyf lluch lleawc); 'lluch' and 'lleawc' may then 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.9
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.
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. Marged Haycock offers 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,10 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].11
In our stories we see the common theme of a raid on the Otherworld (Ireland) involving a magic cauldron, belonging to a dignitary; King, Head of Annwn or Chief-giant, and the release of an exalted prisoner, with only seven returning in two of the tales. Furthermore, Geoffrey fails to mention Arthur's involvement with the theft of the Giant's Dance from Ireland simply because he had not yet appeared on the scene.
But we should be looking for the theft of a stone circle not a cauldron.
Next: The Giant's Cauldron
Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. John T Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC – Clio, 2006.
2. Rachel Bromwich, ed. trans. Tryoedd Ynys Prydein, (The Triads of the Isle of Britain), University of Wales Press.
3. Sarah Higley, Text and Translation, PREIDDEU ANNWN: “The Spoils of Annwn", The Camelot Project.
4. Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Bardic Press, 2007.
6. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, eds. Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992.
7. Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007.
8. Sarah Higley, op.cit.
9. Patrick Sims-Williams, Irish Influence of Medieval Welsh Literature, Oxford University Press, 2011.
10. In The Black Book of Carmarthen poem 'Pa gur yv y Porthaur?' (What man is the gate-keeper?), or simply 'Pa Gur,' is a dialogue between Arthur, the leader of a war band, and Glewlwyd the gate-keeper, closely parallels Culhwch's attempt to enter Arthur's court, with the listing of Arthur's warriors; Mabon (Maponus), Manawydan, the son of Llŷr, and Llwch Llawynnog (Lugh?). Pa Gur breaks off before the end but it appears to be the original mythological account of Arthur's battles rather than the garbled account included in Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum with historical battles wrongly attributed to Arthur, i.e. Chester and Badon.
11. Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, CMCS, 2007, p.444. See note p.384.
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