Friday, 28 June 2013

The Giant's Cauldron

Merlin and Stonehenge
Part VI

In the stories of Preiddeu Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen and The Second Branch of the Mabinogion we see the common theme of a raid on the Otherworld (Ireland) involving a magic cauldron and release of an exalted prisoner, with only seven returning in two of the tales. But we are searching for the theft of a stone circle, not a cauldron.

Is Geoffrey's translation of the Latin 'chorea gigantum' as the 'Giant's Dance' correct?
Geoffrey claims to have translated a book from the native British tongue into Latin which had been previously translated from Latin by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. If ever there was a recipe for a literary disaster it was here. It certainly wouldn't be the only occasion that Geoffrey mistranslated a name; did he get the name of the Giant's Dance wrong?

The Welsh name for Stonehenge is 'Cor Y Cewri' which is rendered as 'Chorea gigantum' in Medieval Latin by Geoffrey or literally 'The Giants's Choir' in English. Antiquarians, such as John Wood and John Smith, used the name 'Choir Gaur'. In Stonehenge, A Temple Restor'd to the British Druids, William Stukeley said, "I had rather chuse to think choir gaur in Welsh, truly means, the great church; the cathedral, in our way of speaking." Indeed, poetic licence permits some variation; this is typically translated as the Giants Dance, Round, Circle or Ring. One seems at liberty to take your pick.

Whereas I am certainly no etymologist, and the issue requires an expert opinion, I suggest an alternative name, which would fit with the stories of Preiddeu Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen and The Second Branch of the Mabinogion; is it possible the correct translation of 'the Giant's Dance' should in fact be the 'giants cauldron.'

Before the suggestion is dismissed out of hand, consider that the Middle Irish word for cauldron is "Coiri," with "coire" and "caere" as alternate spellings. Afterall, according to Geoffrey, the stone circle came from Mount Killaraus in Ireland and we can justifiably expect an original Gaelic name for the monument. Let's look at one or two examples.

Pobull Fhìnn
One of the most distinctive features of the Outer Hebrides is the prevalence of the Gaelic language, brought to Scotland by colonists from Ireland towards the days of the end of the Roman Empire in Britain. By 500 AD the Gaels had established their Kingdom of Dàl Riada, centred on what is now Argyll in southwest Scotland which became known as Earra Ghàidheal, "the coastland of the Gael."

Today a stone circle on  Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran, Inner Hedrides, is called Fingal's Cauldron Seat or 'Suidhe Coire Fhionn' in Gaelic. The inner circle, 37.9ft in diameter, is made up of eight stones which is remarkably close to the inner bluestone feature at Stonehenge

The site consists of two concentric rings of eight and fifteen granite boulders and is the largest of the stone circles at the prehistoric ceremonial site of Machrie Moor. During excavation in 1861 an empty cist, probably a robbed burial,was found in the centre of the circles. The name 'Fingal's Cauldron Seat' is said to refer to the legendary warrior and giant Fingal, boiling up his cauldron on the inner circle's stones. A stone within the circle has a hole through it, where Fingal is said to have tethered his dogs Bran and Scaolain, while he ate a meal within the inner ring.

Pobull Fhìnn is a stone circle on the Isle of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The stones are also known as Sòrnach Coir' Fhìnn, or 'the fireplace of Fionn's cauldron.' Near Kensaleyre in Skye we find Sòrnaichean Coir Fhìnn, 'the fireplaces of Fionn's cauldron.' Coire Fhìnn, or 'Fionn's cauldron' was used to cook the deer that he and his fellow hunters had killed.

The legendary Gaelic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, known in English as Finn McCool the hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, also occurs in  Manx and Scottish mythologies. These ancient cooking places in wild areas are known as 'fulachta' and often attributed to Finn and his men. These sites in the Hedrides are immediately reminiscent of  the Arthur dining sites in Wales and south-west England such as Ffynnon Cegin Arthur, ‘The Spring of Arthur’s Kitchen’, in Cardiganshire; Crochan Arthur, Arthur’s Pot or Cauldron near to Arthur’s Table in Carmarthenshire; Arthur's Oven, Dartmoor; ‘Arthur’s Cups and Saucers’ at Tintagel; ‘Arthur’s Troughs’ on Bodmin Moor.

A 'giant's cauldron' fits perfectly with these landscape features associated with mythological characters Arthur and Finn, and also makes sense of the  the stories of Preiddeu Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen and The Second Branch of the Mabinogion as Geoffrey's sources for the raid on Ireland to retrieve the stone circle.

Did Geoffrey get the name of the Giant's Dance right?

Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson

* * *