Saturday 31 January 2009

The Enchantment of Gwynedd


I make no apology for providing a précis in the previous part of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, named from Math son of Mathonwy, here. It is often described as the most complex of the four branches and is certainly the most mythological, containing shapeshifting in abundance, featuring the Children of Don.
The Enchanters
It has been suggested that The Mabinogi Math is a retelling of the legend of the King and his Prophesised Death and not Celtic in origin, but a universal legend told in Egypt, Greece and the middle East in addition to Ireland and Wales. [1] Recently scholars have suggested that Mabinogi Math maybe an interpretation of a pre-Christian creation myth based on the etymology of the name Don being cognate with Old Irish don = “place, ground, earth”, i.e. Children of the Earth. [2]

Math was the brother of Don and son of Mathonwy, a great and wise king, ruler of Gwynedd, uncle to Gwydion, Gilfaethwy and Arianrhod, and brother of Penarddun. He had the strange gift of hearing everything that was said once the wind took hold of it. This same gift was said to have been possessed by the Coraniaid, a supernatural race listed in the Triads as one of the Three Oppressions and one of the three plagues of Lludd’s reign, as we saw in Lludd’s Dragons (Part VII.) This plague was eradicated by bruising insects that he had obtained from his brother Lleuelys in France, and sprinkling this concoction over the Coraniaid.

The name Math is derived from the Proto-Celtic *matu- meaning "bear”, providing the root of the Gallic god Matunus, a Latin form of the Celtic Matunos, who was known to have been worshipped in Roman Britain from an altar stone dedication at High Rochester dating from AD213. This god clearly indicates a relationship to Artos as the two ancient Celtic words for bear were math or matu and art or artos. We know that there was a bear cult worshipped in ancient times and in Gaul there was a divinized she-bear, called Dea Arti. There were many gods assimilated to the god Mercury; the Bear God ‘Artaius (from which the Celtic god Arthur is ultimately derived) was one such known as Mercury Artaius, and widely worshipped by the continental Celts.

It has been proposed that Math is a corruption of Welsh Mathien, from Irish Mathgen, meaning relative (or kin) of the bear and the epithet Mathonwy an adaptation of the Irish name Mathgamnai, literally ‘bear cub’, and in Gaulish we find matugenos meaning ‘son of the bear’s son,’ therefore a suggested meaning for Math vab Mathonwy would be "Bear-kin, son of the Bear cub".

The setting of the Fourth Branch is Gwynedd in North Wales and portrays Math as the great sorcerer king of Gwynedd, but the main focus is on his nephew the wizard Gwydion. There is some debate whether Mathonwy denotes the name of Math’s mother or father, as Gwydion presumably carries his mother’s name, Gwydion vab Dôn it is probable that it is a matronymic indicating a maternal lineage in the ruling house of Gwynedd.

The Trioedd Ynys Prydain name Math as one of the 'Three Great Enchanters of the Island of Britain' and goes on to say that he taught these enchantments to his nephew Gwydion, the powerful magician, come trickster, of the Fourth Branch who can create horses and hounds from toadstools, shoes from seaweed, illusions of an invading fleet and a woman out of flowers. The Triad states that Math taught these skills to Gwydion:

Three Great Enchantments of the Island of Britain.
The Enchantment of Math son of Mathonwy and he taught it to Gwydion son of Dôn.
And the enchantment of Uther Pendragon and he taught it to Menw son of Teirgwaedd.
And the third was the enchantment of Rudlwm the Dwarf and he taught it to Coll son of Collfrewy his nephew.

The great magician Gwydion’s name contains the form, gwyd- of the verb gwybot ‘to know.’ The word "gwyddion" can mean "trees" or "forest", (which is related to the word “goddeu”), the name could possibly mean "one born of wood," a suggested meaning of his name would be “woodwise”, and implies a man of learning who gained his learning from nature, a druid.
Gwydion may also be derived from *Uidugenos which in archaic Welsh is Guidgen, as found in the Brycheiniog genealogy contained in the Harleian 3859 manuscript; "Lou hen map Guidgen" (Lleu son of Gwydion). *Uidugenos is clearly very similar to Uiducus/Viducus, raising the possibility that Gwydion and Uiducus are essentially the same name. We find Uiducus as the deity Mercury Uiducus, meaning either "Mercury the Woodsman" (uidu- "wood, tree") or "Mercury the Wise" (uid- "see"). This would appear to confirm Gwydion’s divine status. [3]

Battle of the Trees
Gwydion is mentioned in the poems "The Chair of Cerridwen" and "Song Before the Sons of Llyr.” Math and Gwydion also feature as the wizards in the poem The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) also from the 14th Century Book of Taliesin, in which they turn trees and shrubs to form an army. This poem is generally thought by scholars to be the battle from the Arthurian Battle list in Nennius, Chapter 56, Cat Coit Celidon in a mythological context and given a northern location based on the location of Goddeu in Rheged, roughly an expanded modern day Cumbria. This mythological battle is often cited in a contradictory context to locate a historical Arthur.

This poem, The Battle of the Trees, although usually referred to as one of the bard Taliesin’s boasting poems, is clearly recounting Math and Gwydion’s battle with Pryderi son of Pwyll over the pigs stolen from Annwn (Dyfed). It contains sections referring to episodes we see in the The Fourth Branch; the creation of Bloduedd from flowers and mentions Math, Gwydion, Dylan and Goronwy, even a possible allusion to Lleu as an eagle. It would seem to be based on the, now lost, same pagan original tale as the Fourth Branch, centred on Gwynedd and the Lleyn Peninsula in particular, exactly where we find the Children of Don located. [4]

A short poem found in the later manuscript (Peniarth MS 98B) confirms the fact that the Battle of the Trees (sometimes called 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 welp from Annwn and fought with Arawn, King of Annwn. Gwydion sang the two Englyns following:

"Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield;
Bran art thou called, of the glittering branches."

And thus,

"Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle:
The high sprigs of alder are on thy hand:
Bran by the branch thou bearest
Has Amathaon the good prevailed."

The Battle is referred to in the Triads of the Island of Britain:

Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain:
One of them was the Battle of Goddeu: it was brought about by the cause of the bitch, together with the roebuck and the plover;
The second was the Action of Arfderydd, which was brought by the cause of the lark's nest;
And the third was the worst: that was Camlan, which was brought about because of a quarrel between Gwenhwyfar and Gwennhwyfach.

This is why those (Battles) were called Futile: because they were brought about by such a barren cause as that.

The Four Branches were likely based on an original, now lost, tale detailing the conflict between the Children of Don in the North of the Children of Llyr from the South, concluding in the final battle (of the Trees) for the magical creatures stolen from Annwfn, resulting in Pryderi's death, which Gwydion brings about by way of getting Math to leave Caer Dathyl so that Gilfaethwy can have his way with Goewin.

The Battle for the Pigs
In the Fourth Branch Gwydion tells Math that he had heard that a certain type of creature had come into the South, which has never come to this Island before:

'What is their name?' asked Math.
'"Hogs", Lord.'
'What kind of animals are those?'
'Small animals, their meat is better than the meat of oxen. They are small and they are changing names. "Pigs" is what they are called nowadays.'
'To whom do they belong?'
'Pryderi son of Pwyll, sent to him from Annwfn by Arawn king of Annwfn. [5]

In this story, pigs make their first appearance as a gift from Arawn, lord of the Otherworld, to Pwyll, who then passed them on to his son Pryderi. Here we see an indication that pigs had a particular connection to Annwfn, and a special status as a cult animal amongst the Celts.

The story of the seven pigs which Arawn gave to Pwyll, Lord of Annwfn, are now the property of Pryderi, the swineherd and mentioned in the Triads:

Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain:
Pryderi son of Pwyll, Lord of Annwfn, tending the swine of Penndaran Dyfed his foster-father. These swine were the seven animals which Pwyll Lord of Annwfn brought and he gave them to Penndaran Dyfed his foster-father. And this is the place where he used to keep them, in Glyn Cuch in Emlyn. And this is why he was called a powerful swineherd: because no one was able either to deceive or to force him.

And the second was Drystan son of Tallwch, tending the swine of March son of Meirchyawn, while the swineherd went with a message to Essyllt. Arthur and March and Cei and Bedwyr all four were there. But they did not succeed in seizing even one pigling, not by force, nor by deception, nor by stealth...

In the opening lines of the First Branch of the Mabinogi, Pwyll is his chief court at Arberth and decides to go hunting at Glyn Cuch, he set out that evening from Arberth, coming as far Pen Llwyn Diarwya, and spent the night there. The next day he came to Llyn Cuch, and while out hunting when he comes across another pack of hounds bringing down a stag, the dogs have dazzling bright white and with red ears. These are no doubt the hounds of hell, the cwn annwfn, the hounds of the Wild Hunt. Pwyll argues over the stag with the other huntsman, who says he is “From Annwvyn. Arawn, king of Annwfn am I.'”

Arberth has been been identified with Narbeth in Southern Pembrokeshire and the location of Glyn Cuch in Emlyn is almost certainly modern day Newcastle Emlyn, in the Teifi Valley, spanning across the county borders of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire in west Wales. Lying on the River Teifi, Emlyn was one of the seven cantrefs of Dyfed, the name derives from am (around, as on both sides of) and glyn (valley); the valley in question being the Cuch which provided the border of the commotes of Emlyn Is Cuch (to the west) and Emlyn Uwch Cuch (to the east).

After trading the twelve horses, hounds and shields that Gwydion had created by magic from toadstools, they swiftly left as the magic would not last from one day to the next. After leaving Pryderi’s court in Rhuddlan Teifi (near Lampeter in Ceredigion), the trail of the pig drive back to Gwynedd can be traced through the pig (moch) place-names of the text:

Mochdref – probably Nant y Moch in the uplands of Ceredigion.
Mochdref - over Elenid, between Ceri and Arwystli. Southwest of Newtown, Powys
Mochnant - Commote in Powys
Mochdref - near Colwyn Bay, Rhos.
Creuwyon (Cororion), - where a sty was made for the pigs at the highest township of Arllechwedd.

Math's army waited for Pryderi’s forces at Pennardd. Gilfaethwy and Gwydion slipped away to Caer Dathyl that night and Goewin was taken against her will. The two armies faced each other between Maenawr Bennard and Maenawr Coed Alun (Coed Helen). According to local tradition, Gwydion stood on a hill to watch and direct the battle, Bryn Gwydion, is near Clynnog off the A499, South of Caernarfon.

Pryderi’s army retreated, culminating in the final battle, and Pryderi’s death, at Traeth Mawr, (Aberglaslyn was a tidal estuary then, prior to the building of the Cob at Porthmadog). Pryderi was killed in single combat against Gwydion’s magic and buried at Maentwrog.

And so ends the original tales of Pryderi.
However, the Fourth Branch goes on from this point to tell the tale of Lleu.

The Tale of Lleu
As Goewin was no longer a maiden, Math had to find another, and in failing her test Aranhod promptly dropped Dylan and Lleu, the divine twins. Aranrhod appears in the Book of Taliesin and is famed for her beauty. She appears in three Triads, her father mentioned as Beli, and in the Fourth Branch her mother is the goddess Don. She is without doubt a deity, traditionally her name meaning “Silver wheel” which may indicate she was the goddess of the moon. However, Aranrhod’s name is originally and consistently spelled Aranrot, which would mean ‘big, round wheel’ giving astronomical connotations of the zodiac. She fails to recognise Lleu as her son and puts three curses on him. The identity of Lleu’s father is not revealed but Gwydion shows a keen interest in the boy, thus giving the innuendo of incest with his sister Aranhod.

Upon being baptised Dylan Eil Ton meaning “Prince of Wave”, or “Son of Wave” immediately made for the sea. Shape-shifting from human to animal form occurs often in this branch of the mabinogi, it has been suggested that that Dylan changes shape into an unnamed creature when he is baptized, possibly a seal, selkies being well known in Celtic mythology. [6]

Dylan appears in two poems in the Book of Taliesin, giving little away about his story:

From The Battle of the Trees:
I played in the twilight,
I slept in purple;
I was truly in the enchantment
With Dylan, the son of the wave [7]

The Death-song of Dylan, son of the Wave
ONE God Supreme, divine, the wisest, the greatest his habitation,
When he came to the field, who charmed him in the hand of the extremely liberal.
Or sooner than he, who was on peace on the nature of a turn.
An opposing groom, poison made, a wrathful deed,
Piercing Dylan, a mischievous shore, violence freely flowing.
Wave of Iwerdon, and wave of Manau, and wave of the North,
And wave of Prydain, hosts comely in fours.
I will adore the Father God, the. regulator of the country, without refusing.
The Creator of Heaven, may he admit us into mercy. [8]

The Fourth Branch mentions the blow by which his death was caused was cast by Gofannon, his uncle, the divine smith, deemed one of the Three Ill-Fated Blows, however the Triad has not survived. Gofannon son of Don, the divine smith, patron of metalworkers, also appears briefly in Culhwch ac Olwen as a gifted smith; one of the tasks given to Culhwch if he is to win the hand of Olwen is to get Gofannon to sharpen the plough of his brother Amaethon son of Don, the divine ploughman.

Gofannon also appears in the Book of Taliesin:

I have been with skilful men,
With Matheu and Govannon,
With Eunydd and Elestron,
In company with Achwyson,
For a year in Caer Gofannon. [9]

Matheu is clearly Math son of Mathonwy, but Caer Gofannon, the fort of the smith remains elusive and sadly the whole story of Dylan seems to have been lost and denotes a missing, much older mythological cycle.

>> Part XI - The Fair One with a Skillful Hand <<


1. W J Gruffydd, Math vab Mathonwy, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1923.
2. John Carey, Journal of the History of Religions 31, discussed in Celtic Culture by John T. Koch, 2006.
3. Considering that the word Druid (magician, priest) is thought to derive from "drus" meaning oak, it is likely that the word for scientist is derived from forest, i.e. the man of learning gained his knowledge from nature. – Gwydion by Mary Jones [].
4. Places mentioned in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi – The Nantlle Valley website []
5. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Will Parker, Bardic Press, 2005.
6. Keefer, Sarah Larratt. 1989-1990. “The lost tale of Dylan in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi.” in C.W. Sullivan III (ed.) 1996. The Mabinogi: a book of essays. New York & London. 79-97.
7. Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) from The Book of Taliesin VIII, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, W F Skene.
8. The Death-song of Dylan, son of the Wave, from The Book of Taliesin XLIII, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, W F Skene.
9. The First Address of Taliesin, from The Book of Taliesin I, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, W F Skene.

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Sunday 25 January 2009

Math's Tale


Or the tops of its whirling trees?
Who bends them so crooked?
Or what fumes may be
About their stems?
Is it Lleu and Gwydyon
That perform their arts?

The Fourth Branch: The Mabinogi of Math

So the story goes.......

Pryderi son of Pwyll was lord over 21 cantrefs in the South, which included seven of Dyfed, Math son of Mathonwy was lord of Gwynedd in the North, and resided at Caer Dathyl in Arfon. Math needed to rest his feet in the lap of a maiden called Goewin when not at war, or patrolling his lands with his nephews Gilfaethwy and Gwydion sons of Don.

Gilfaethwy had fallen in love with Gowein who was Math’s constant companion at Caer Dathyl, to such a degree that he was wasting away. Gwydion told Gilfaethwy not to speak as Math could hear whatever whisper, however small, that there might be between people, once it was carried on the wind, he said he knew what was on Gilfaethwy’s mind so they would hatch a plot to get Goewin on her own.

So they went to Math and told him that Pryderi son of Pwyll, had some hogs sent to him from Annwfn by Arawn, Lord of the Otherworld. These small animals, now known as pigs, had meat better than the meat of oxen. Gwydion said he would go in a group of twelve, disguised as bards, and ask for the pigs. So Gwydion went, with Gilfaethwy and ten men with them, to Ceredigion to the court of Pryderi, the place nowadays called Rhuddlan Teifi.

They persuaded Pryderi to lend them his magical hogs from Annwfn in return for twelve horses, hounds and shields that Gwydion had created by magic from toadstools, but they had to move swiftly as the magic will not last from one day to the next. By the time they were home in Gwynedd the spell had worn off and Pryderi was in pursuit with an army and Math was on his way to meet him. That night with Math out of the way, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy returned to Caer Dathyl. The maidens were forced out rudely and Goewin was put to sleep with Gilfaethwy against her will. Gwydion returned for the battle at Maenawrs Bennardd and Coed Alun, where Pryderi was forced to retreat. He then challenged Gwydion to single combat and was killed, and buried at Maen Tyriawg.

On Math’s return to Caer Dathyl, Gowein told him of her ravishment by Gilfaethwy. As punishment Math used magic to turn Gwydion and Gilfaethwy into stags, boars and wolves of opposite sexes for a year each. After they had spent three years in the forest mating each other and between them giving birth to one faun, piglet and wolf-cub, which Math then turned into humans called Bleiddwn, Hyddwn & Hychdwn Hir, they were then forgiven.

Math now had to find a new foot maiden, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy suggested their sister Aranrhod daughter of Don, but she failed Math’s virginity test whilst stepping over his magic wand and dropped a curly yellow haired boy, and then dropped a small something as she ran for the door, which Gwydion picked up before anyone could see it and then hid in a chest at the foot of his bed. Math said he would name the curly yellow haired boy Dylan. As soon as the boy was baptized he made for the sea, where he took on the nature of the sea. He could swim as well as the best fish in the sea, and for that reason he was called 'Dylan Prince of the Wave', as no wave ever broke beneath him. The blow by which his death came about was cast by Govannon, his uncle, deemed one of the Three Ill-Fated Blows.

As Gwydion was waking up in his bed one day, he heard a cry in the chest at his feet. Although it wasn't loud, it was loud enough for him to hear it. He quickly got up and opened the chest. As he opened it, he could see a little boy. He took him to a woman in the town who could feed him; he then grew at twice the normal rate.

One day, he followed Gwydion outside for a walk and they made for Caer Aranrhod. Upon his arrival at the court, Aranrhod got up to meet him and make him welcome. When Gwydion introduced the four-year-old to his embarassed mum Aranrhod she cursed him to have no name but one given by her. Next day Gwydion conjured up a ship out of sea-weed and dulse, then he conjured dovan leather in gold. He and the boy then disguised a shoemakers sailed the boat, to Caer Aranrhod. While making shoes for Aranrhod, suddenly, there was a wren alighting on the deck of the boat. The boy took aim and hit it between the sinew and the bone of its leg. Aranrhod laughed, 'God knows,' said she 'the fair one strikes it with a skilful hand’. Gwydion then said ‘he has obtained a name, and the name is good enough "Lleu Skillful Hand" he will be from now on.'

Aranrhod then cursed the boy to never bear arms until equipped by herself. So this time Gwydion disguised them both himself and Lleu as bards to enter her castle and created by magic an illusion of a fleet attacking them. In panic Aranrhod armed them both with weapons, without knowing arming her son herself.

Aranrhod placed a third curse on Lleu that he should never have a wife "of the race that is now on this earth". Gwydion and Math together conjured with their magic to create a woman out of flowers, and named her Blodeuedd. Lleu married her and moved to Cantref Dinoding where he ruled from Mur Castell in region of Ardudwy.

One day while Lleu was away visiting Math at Caer Dathyl, Gronw Pebyr, Lord of Penllyn, was hunting a stag, At the River Cynfael, he caught up with the stag and killed it. He was busy flaying the stag and baiting his hounds until the night closed in on him. And as the sun went down, and the night drew near, he came past the gate of the court and Blodeuedd put him up for the night. They at once fell in love, and planned to kill Lleu so they could be together. When Lleu returned Blodeuedd pretended to be worried if Lleu were to be killed, so she tricked him into telling her how his death may come about. Lleu said he could only be killed with a spear made over a year during Sunday Masses, and he cannot be killed inside a house, nor outside and he cannot be killed on horseback or on foot. Lleu added that this could be achieved by making a bath for him by the side of a river, making a curved, slatted roof over the tub, and thatching well and without any gaps. And bringing a buck, and putting it next to the tub, and him putting one of his feet on the buck's back, and the other one on the side of the tub. Whoever would strike him while he is like that would bring about his death.

As soon as she had the information, Gronw started to make the spear and a year later Blodeuedd persuaded Lleu to give a demonstration by the River Cynfael. Gronw who was in hiding in the shadow of the hill Bryn Kyfegyr jumped oyt when Lleu was in position and cast the poison spear and struck him on the side, with the shaft protruding out of him and the head stuck inside. Lleu, screamed and took flight in the form of an eagle, and after that they lost sight of him. Gronw took Lleu’s lands so that Ardudwy and Penllyn were both under his command.

When Math heard of this, Gwydion said he would never rest until he found his nephew. He searched all Gwynedd and the far reaches of Powys for Lleu, finally coming to a swineherd in Maenawr Benardd in Arfon who had a sow that went out everyday when the sty is opened, it not being possible to get a hold of her, he did not know where she goes.

The next day as the swine-herd saw the light of day, he woke Gwydion, as soon as the swine-herd opened the sty, the sow launched herself out of the sty, she roamed far and wide, with Gwydion following her. She went up-stream, making for a valley and then started grazing beneath a tree.

Gwydion came under the tree, and looked for what the sow was grazing on. He could see the sow was grazing on rotting flesh and maggots. He looked up into the top of the tree, where he could see an eagle in the top of the tree. When the eagle shook himself, worms and rotting flesh fell from him, which the sow was devouring.

It occurred to him that the eagle was Lleu and he sung an englyn:

‘An oak grows between two pools,
Dark-black branches sky and glen
If I do not tell a lie
From the flowers of Lleu this has come!’

The eagle came down until he was in the middle of the tree.
Gwydion sang another englyn:

‘An oak grows upon a high plain
Rain neither wets it, nor drips upon it
Nine-score strikes has it endured
In its top, Lleu Skillful-Hand’

And then the eagle came down to the lowest branch of the tree.
Then Gwydion sang this englyn:

Grows an oak upon a steep
The sanctuary of fair lord
Unless I speak falsely:
Lleu will come down into my lap

The eagle he fell onto Gwydion’s knee; and then Gwydion struck him with his magic wand, and Lleu turned back into his own form. He was nothing but skin and bones. Gwydion took him to Caer Dathyl, where the best doctors that could be found in Gwynedd were brought to nurse Lleu back to health before the end of the year.

Math and Gwydion set about getting justice for Lleu, so they mustered Gwynedd and marched on Mur Castell. On hearing this Blodeuedd and her maidens and made for the mountain, across the River Cynfael, so scared running backwards, they fell into the lake and all drowned except herself.

Gwydion told Blodeuedd that he would not kill her, but even worse, because of the shame that she brought upon Lleu Llaw Gyffes, he would turn her into an owl so that she will not dare to show her face in the light of day ever again, and for all of enmity all other birds will harass her and despise her wherever she may go. And he renamed her “Bloddeuwedd”, meaning owl.
Lleu's punishment for Gronw was to return the spear cast from the same river bank. But his men refused to take the spear for him, because of this his men are called One of The Three Disloyal Warbands. Gronw was permitted to put a stone from the bank of the river between himself and the blow from the spear.

Lleu cast the spear at him; it pierced though the stone, through Gornw and broke his back. Gronw Pebyr died, and there the stone with a hole through it, 'The Stone of Gronw', is still to be seen on the bank of the River Cynfael in Ardudwy

Lleu Skillful Hand regained his land, and according to the tradition, he was lord of Gwynedd thereafter.

Thus ends this branch of the Mabinogi.

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1. The First Address of Taliesin, from The Book of Taliesin I, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, W F Skene.
2. This is not meant as a literal translation of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, more a summary taking into account the various very good modern translations readily available, for example Will Parker, Sioned Davies, John K Bollard and Patrick K Ford.

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