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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