Monday 20 January 2014

Afanc: Water Demon

According to John Rhys in Celtic Folklore the word Afanc seems to have originally meant simply a dwarf, then it came to be associated with water dwarfs. The original meaning appears to have been forgotten and the word was applied to any water monster. A direct translation of the word 'Afanc' is 'beaver' in modern Welsh.

The Bearded Lake
Situated high above the northern banks of the River Dyfi is Llyn Barfog, the Bearded Lake. It is said that a terrible water demon, the Afanc, lived in the lake, from where it would raid the surrounding countryside. The Afanc would kill anybody who went close to Llyn Barfog where it had made its home. Sometimes it went on the rampage, killing people in the town and causing flood damage as it thrashed around in the lake.

Llyn Barfog (Photograph by James Stringer)
When Arthur came to hear of the strife caused by the water demon at Llyn Barfog he went to the lake and threw a great chain around the Afanc. Using his horse Llamrei to pull the Afanc from the lake, the struggle was so arduous that his steed left a hoof print in a nearby rock overlooking the Dovey Estuary. Today a stone on a hill above Aber-tafol, Merioneth, on the A493, bears a depression that is said to be the hoofprint of Arthur's horse, known locally as Carreg Carn March Arthur (‘Stone of Arthur’s Steed’s Hoof’).

There are however several variations on the Afanc  legend; other tales have a beautiful Welsh maiden luring the Afanc out of the pool with a soothing lullaby. The intention was for her to enchant the creature, while a hunting party chained and hauled it from the lake and sent it on its way to its eternal doom. But there was no happy ending to this tale with the Afanc crushing the maiden to death during the chaotic struggle.

The Lake Of The Green Well
Most lakes in Wales were, however, said to have a had a resident Afanc at one time or another; some were thought to lie sleeping in the depths of a lake, and could sleep for well over a hundred years. A further legend concerning a water demon exists a little further north in a lake on a glacial cwm in Yr Wyddfa, Mount Snowdon. At 1,970 feet above sea level, Llyn Glaslyn, coloured green-blue by the presence of copper, is one of the highest lakes in north Wales, covering an area of some 18 acres. It is said that no bird will fly over it, it is the abode of demons, it is bottomless, it never freezes and that it harbours no ordinary fish. The original name of this sinister lake was Llyn Ffynnon Las, the lake of the green well, or blue fountain.

Glaslyn bears a similar legend to Llyn Barfog in so much as it was the abode of a water demon, a troublesome pest that would cause flooding to the local area by thrashing around in the lake. The Afanc lived in a pool on the Conwy near the Fairy Glen which is still called Llyn-yr-Afanc near Betws-y-Coed roughly twelve miles to the east. The antiquarian Edward Lhuyd recorded the tale in 1693.

When all attempts to kill the beast had failed, it was decided to remove the Afanc  to Llyn Ffynnon Las. The plan was to entice the creature from the pool and relocate it to another lake out of the way. They used a local girl as the bait and made her sing near the lake. When the Afanc left the lake to approach the girl, the local men captured it and immediately bound it in chains. The Afanc was then attached to a pair of oxen to drag it out of its home and taken through the mountains of Dolwyddelan and the pass between Moel Siabod and Cribau, called Bwlch Rhiw yr Ychain (pass of the oxen’s slope). One of the oxen struggled so much that it lost an eye on the western slope, which was then called Gwaub Lygad yr Ych (Field of the Ox’s Eye) and its tears formed a pool – Pwll Lygad yr Ych (Pool of the Ox's Eye), which never dries up although no stream flows into or out of it. The rest of the journey to Llyn Ffynnon Las on the shoulder of Yr Wyddfa had no more incidents, and it is said that upon arrival the Afanc  jumped into the lake where it has remained to this day.

In the early 18th century, a shepherd who claimed to have seen the water demon described it as 'toad-like, with tail and wings'. In the 1930’s, another eyewitness, one Oliver Vaughan, was walking with a friend up the slopes of Yr Wyddfa, when they stopped for lunch they were looking down on Lake Glaslyn. They saw a grey line appear in the lake which they thought it to be a creature rising to the surface. Then a pale coloured, almost white head appeared on the surface. Mr Vaughan said it was not an otter or anything else he was familiar with and remained puzzled as to what it was they had seen.

Stories of the water demon abound in Wales, with further variations recorded in south Wales. One of the earliest descriptions of the Afanc is given by the 15th century poet Lewys Glyn Cothi, who described it as living in Llyn Syfaddon, or Llangorse Lake, in the Brecon Beacons, the largest natural water in South Wales:

The afanc am I, who, sought for, bides
In hiding on the edge of the lake;
Out of the waters of Syfaddon Mere
Was be not drawn, once he got there.
So with me: nor wain nor oxen wont to toil
Me to-day will draw from here forth.

The Grave of the Afanc
Situated south of the B4329 at the village of Brynberian in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, at the centre of a 'U' shaped valley, on a slightly raised oval plateau surrounded by a raised bog, set against the impressive vista of the Preseli hills of Cwcerwyn, Carn Menyn and Foel Drygarn, we find Bedd yr Afanc, (the Afanc 's Grave), or Crug yr Afanc (the Monster's Mound), a tumulus, on a knoll near the stream of the Nevern. The Afanc  was caught in a pool near the bridge of Brynberian, and interred in what is now regarded as its grave.

A North Pembrokeshire legend says that in ancient days the Afanc, dwelling on the Preseli slopes somewhere above Brynberian, ravaged the countryside, so the local people decided to slay him by a trick. They got him to dig a well and when he had dug to a great depth the people above tipped into the hole he had made a big load of white rocks gathered up from the nearby mountain. But next morning they found him still digging, and were informed by him that there had been a rather heavy snowstorm on the previous day. Thus they were unable to do away with him, so he continued as before, eventually dying a natural death, after which he was buried on the hill side in the tumulus we see today.

Dating from the Neolithic period Bedd yr Afanc is the only Gallery Grave in Wales. None of the capstones have survived, the main part of the grave is the passage, with ten pairs of upright stones in two parallel rows, about 35 feet long, leading to a small, circular chamber at the west end of the mound, marked by seven stones of similar size. The site nestles below the Preseli Mountains, not far from the famous cromlech Pentre Ifan, once called Arthur's Quoit.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Robert Jones, Yr Wyddfa: The Complete Guide to Snowdon, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1992.
Jennifer Westwood, Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain, BCA, 1986.
John Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, 1901.

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Sunday 12 January 2014

Bedd Arthur: Arthur's Grave

“....Bedd Arthur is an eerie site, with big question marks hanging over its origin” 1

Translated as 'The Grave of Arthur', Bedd Arthur is another of those prehistoric sites said to have been thrown by Arthur himself, as a giant, on this occasion from  from Dyffryn Circle. 2

Bedd Arthur (Wikipedia Commons)
The enigmatic structure known as Bedd Arthur is situated one thousand feet above sea level on the Preseli ridge in Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales, overlooking the dolerite outcrops of Carn Meyn, identified as a source of the Stonehenge bluestones by Herbert Thomas as long ago as 1923. 3 The relationship with Stonehenge is further encouraged by the oval setting of Bedd Arthur comparing favourably to the inner oval setting of Preseli bluestones erected at Stonehenge. Oval stone settings are a recognised form of monument in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of Britain, but whereas plain circles are common and widespread, ovals remain rare.

In concluding that the Stonehenge Bluestones had indeed come from west Wales, Thomas ignited interest in the tale of the magician Merlin transporting the Giant’s Dance to Salisbury Plain as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. Although often criticised by historians for his wild elaborations, Geoffrey was essentially correct in stating almost eight hundred years before Thomas that stones at Stonehenge had indeed come from the west.

Aubrey Burl avoids Bedd Arthur altogether in his grand opus The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany and argues that the oval/horseshoe arrangement at Stonehenge as seen in the sarsen Trilithons and mirrored in the Bluestone settings has more in common with monuments across the channel on the Atlantic coast region of Brittany. 4 An odd omission from an excellent book; clearly the ever cautious Burl refuses to gamble on the prehistoric origins of Bedd Arthur for the simple reason that no one knows exactly what this enigmatic arrangement, of uncertain date, represents.

So what is Bedd Arthur? The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) records Bedd Arthur as "A subrectangular enclosure...... formed of earthfast stones …... backed by a low bank, surrounding a levlled interior. An explicitly ambiguous monument that has only been compared to the 'Churchyard' on Skomer Island." The “Churchyard” is one of those enigmatic rectilinear monument typically dismissed as a livestock enclosure because we don't really understand its purpose. King Arthur's Hall on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall is another.

The Golden Road
Bedd Arthur appears to have been deliberately levelled on the interior which hints at the mound of a long barrow but the low bank, more visible on the long north side, may indicate a henge. Other suggestions range from an elliptical stone circle with truncated ends, a rectilinear enclosure, a Norse ship burial and even a neo-Druidical prank. And of course it is claimed to be one of the resting places of King Arthur. It has never been excavated and is of uncertain date.

It is apparent that the Bedd Arthur monument once consisted of an oval bank and ditch,  features which are barely visible today, with 13 erect stones, all leaning inwards, with 2  or 3 fallen and partially buried. The stones are all relatively small varying in height from 3 ft to 10 inches. The major axis has been recorded as 59 ft long with a maximum width of 31 ft. The number of stones and the shape seems to vary with each report.

Bedd Arthur has been described as Preseli's most eccentric monument, unlike anything else, situated high on the hills directly across the saddle from Carn Meini. 5 Rectilinear monuments are typically recognised as being associated with ritual and ceremonial sites of the Early Bronze Age, with a possible origin in rectangular Neolithic mounds and may have been a hengiform expression of this. 6

However, Bedd Arthur is very high in the Preselis for a typical henge monument but it stands on the path along the top of the Preseli ridge at the crossing of trackways running east-west and north-south, henges being frequently located close to routeways. The Golden Road for example runs along the entire spine of the Preseli mountains, a route said to be 5,000 years old dating back to the Neolithic period. Bedd Arthur lies below the pathway to the south east. Significant that Preseli was situated on the major prehistoric trade route from Ireland to Wessex, the ridgeways presenting an alternative to the unpredictable coastal route around St David's. Ceremonial battle-axes made of Preseli bluestone have been found far from the source area, as far apart as Devon, Sussex and Suffolk. A Preseli battle-axe was found in a Beaker barrow at Wilsford near Stonehenge demonstrating that transportation of bluestone between the sites was not an uncommon event.7

Illustration from Timothy Darvill, Stonehenge: Biography of a Landscape (2008)
It is apparent that Bedd Arthur belongs to this prehistoric epoch. As noted above oval stone settings are a recognised form of monument in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of Britain and are found at Woodhenge, Stonehenge and recent conjecture 8 suggests the newly discovered stone circle, known as Bluestonehenge, at the terminus of the Stonehenge Avenue on the west bank of the river Avon may also have been oval shaped. All these monuments date to the period 2,500 – 2,300 BC. Bedd Arthur is more of an elongated teardrop than an oval and does not display the same level of symmetry found at the oval settings at Woodhenge, Stonehenge or Bluestonehenge; however its orientation and material used in its construction are the same as the Bluestone oval at Stonehenge. The significance of an oval shape, as opposed to a simple circle, is that it provides an orientation toward a fixed point.

The central stone at Bedd Arthur appears to mimic the shape of Foel Drygarn; many megaliths, such as cromlech capstones, seem to have been deliberately placed to reflect a landscape feature as if to draw one's eye in a certain direction. When viewed from this central stone, the tallest stone currently points towards the peak of Foel Drygarn just off the current position of the midsummer sunrise. It is claimed that during the Neolithic period, c.2,500 BC, the axis of Bedd Arthur would have pointed at the position of the midsummer sunrise, then at about 47 degrees east of north depending on the horizon elevation.9

The alignment is the significant feature; it shares the same orientation as Woodhenge, Stonehenge Bluestone oval and the conjectured oval at Bluestonehenge, toward the midsummer sunrise during the same prehistoric period, thus confirming the prehistoric origins of Bedd Arthur.

© Edward Watson 2014 


Notes & References:
1. N P Figgis, Prehistoric Preseli: A Field Guide, Atelier Productions, 2001.
2. Leslie V Grinsell, Folklore Of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, Thomas & Charles, 1976.
3. Research by the Open University led by Richard Thorpe in the late 1980s pinpointed an area no more than 3 km across centred on Carn Meyn as the source of the dolerite bluestones used in the Bluestone oval/horsheshoe at Stonehenge.
4. Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press; 2nd Revised edition, 2000.
5. Figgis, Prehistoric Preseli.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Henry Rothwell, Bluestonehenge – Oval or Round? Digital Digging website 
9. Robin Heath, Bluestone Magic, Bluestone Press, 2010.

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Sunday 5 January 2014

King Arthur Country

In Company with the Devil
There are almost a hundred places that ‘belong’ to the Devil in Britain, such as the Devil's Punchbowl (Surrey), Devil's Dyke (Sussex and Cambridgeshire) and so on, and that is not including places associated with mischievous supernatural beings such as Hobgoblins, Puck, Brownie and Boggarts, such as Hob's Hurst House, in Monsal Dale in the Derbyshire Peak District. Many of these names are associated with the pre-historic megalithic culture from the Neolithic and Late Bronze Age period including chamber tombs, stone circles and standing stones, round barrows and linear ditches. For example, at the megalithic complex of Avebury in Wilthsire, the largest stone circle in Europe, we find several “Devil” associations; the Devil's Branding Irons, Devil's Quoit, and the Devil's Den.

As Leslie Grinsell points out in Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain many of these “Devil” place-names no doubt came about with the onset of Christianity; the gods of the old religion becoming the devil of the new. In many instances the association with the Devil may indicate that the monuments were constructed by a race unconnected or forgotten by the current inhabitants of the land. There can be little doubt that these “Devil” named monuments were seen as evil is witnessed by the destruction at Avebury which reached its peak during the 17th and 18th centuries, when many stones were broken up in burning pits or buried, before the  antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukeley took an interest in our megalithic heritage.

Sites with “Devil” names, or related traditions, occur mainly in England with fewer numbers in Scotland and Wales. Where “Devil” nomenclature and traditions are largely absent or rare, their place is often taken by figures from the Arthurian cycle. Oddly, after sites with “Devil” place names, Arthurian names and traditions are the most prevalent. As with the “Devil” place names, Arthurian traditions are commonly attached to megalithic sites dating from the Neolithic and Late Bronze Age period, including chamber tombs, stone circles and standing stones.

Stonehenge has been associated with Arthur since at least the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth, c.1136 AD, who called the monument the “Giant's Dance”, according to Merlin after giants had transported the stones from Africa to Ireland. But giant folklore at other stone circles is relatively rare, however the stones at Callanish in the Western Isles of Scotland, are traditionally giants turned to stone for refusing to accept Christianity. If a similar tradition existed at the Giant's Dance on Salisbury Plain it has been lost to us through time and although the stone circle is incomplete there is certainly no record of any destruction of Stonehenge as at Avebury.

After Stonehenge perhaps the most well known Arthurian sites are from the 9th century Historia Brittonum, formerly attributed to a certain monk by the name of Nennius. Dinas Emrys, the fortress of Ambrosius, near Beddgelert in Gwynedd, has been identified as the site of Vortigern's tower and the interned dragons in both the Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth's version of the tale of the prophetic fatherless boy.

Carn Cabal and Wormelow Tump are listed amongst the Wonders of Britain (Mirabilia) in early editions of the  Historia Brittonum.

Prolific in Wales is the name “Arthur's Quoit”, (Coetan Arthur), typically megalithic burial chambers, found in Anglesey, Caernarvonshire, Merionethshire, and Carmarthenshire. Perhaps the most well known quoit is the famous cromlech Pentre Ifan, once known as Arthur's Quoit, in the Preseli Mountains, Pembrokeshire.
In West Glamorgan an ancient burial chamber named Maen Ceti is also known as Arthur's Stone.

Carn March Arthur is a rock overlooking the Dovey Estuary, on a hill above the A493, near Llyn Barfog, the Bearded Lake, which bears a depression that is said to be the hoofprint of Arthur's horse.

Arthur's Table's (Bwrdd Arthur) are found on Anglesey as a hillfort and in Clwyd comprising a circle of holes cut into a hillside. Nearby is the ancient hillfort known as Moel Arthur (Arthur's Hill). Further examples of Round Tables are found as an earthwork at Stirling Castle and Mayburgh in Cumbria. The capstone of some dolmens is often called Arthur's Table.

The Stones of the Sons of Arthur (Cerrig Meibion Arthur) beneath Foel Cwmcerwyn, the highest point in the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, commemorates four of Arthur's four champions, killed here in the pursuit of the supernatural giant boar, Twrch Trwyth, in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen from the Mabinogion.

In Scotland there is Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh and Arthur's O'en, Stirlingshire, first mentioned in 1293 but nothing remains of it today. The Eildon Hills lie to the south-east of Melrose, in southern Scotland. According to one legend, Arthur and his knights lie sleeping in a hidden cavern beneath the hills.

In England at Dorstone, east of Hay-on-Wye, a megalithic burial site of c.3000 BC is named  Arthur's Stone.

Terra Arturi
In 1113 AD a group of canons from Laon paid a visit to England. The event is described in a narrative, De Miraculis Sanctae Mariae Laudensis (The Miracles of St Mary of Laon) by Henri from Laon, written in 1146 AD. From Exeter they journeyed through 'Danavexeria', probably meant to be ancient Dumnonia, roughly modern Devonshire, and here they were told they were entering the very land of the famous King Arthur, 'terra Arturi'. On their journey through Dartmoor they were shown various rock formations in open country such as Arthur's Chair and Arthur's Oven. These, with the Mirabilia, are amongst the earliest documented Arthurian sites.

Further west on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall there is the flat rock outcrop known as Arthur's Bed, and nearby the related King Arthur's Troughs where he is said to have fed his hunting dogs. Nearby there are a pair of stone circles on King Arthur's Downs, and Arthur's Hunting Lodge, or Hunting Seat, evidently this was his hunting ground. Further south on the moor is the enigmatic rectangular enclosure of 56 stones known as King Arthur's Hall of uncertain date but first recorded in the 16th century. On the east side of Bodmin Moor is Trethevy Quoit, another once known as King Arthur's Quoit.

The Lair of the Grey Hound Bitch
Sites listed as quoits include chamber tombs known by their Welsh names for the kennel, or lair, of the grey hound bitch (Cwt, Gwal, Llety or Twlc-y-filiast),whose secondary name is typically Arthur's Quoit. These sites are are said to be connected to the bitch Rhymhi and her two cubs included in the boar hunt from the Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen. More recent tradition has associated these sites with Ceridwen who chased the boy Gwion Bach while in the form of a grey hound in the Tale of Taliesin.

Pentre Ifan - Arthur's Quoit
The word 'quoit' is usually applied to a discus, an object thrown for sport, but in megalithic terminology it usually refers to the capstone of prehistoric structures such as a cromlech or dolmen. The game of quoits is indeed ancient and probably originates from Ancient Greece, throwing a ring or disc, probably originally of stone, slightly convex on the outside, over a distance. It is easy to see how the capstone of a cromlech or dolmen would be seen to look like a giant's quoit. The word is thought to derive from Middle English 'coite' or 'coyte' first known in the 15th century, possibly from the French.

To this list we can add the megalithic sites associated with Merlin, such as Merlin's Mound, Marlborough and Merlin's Chair, Carmarthen. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin is intimately linked with the building of Stonehenge and was born at Carmarthen, the city being named Kaermerdin (Merlin's fortress) after him. An oak tree growing in the centre of the town was called Merlin's Tree.

There are many more, this list is not exhaustive by any means and is not meant as a gazetteer but serves to demonstrate the many prehistoric sites associated with the Arthurian tradition. Although there is no record of Arthurian names for these prehistoric sites or landscape features and usage of words such as 'quoit' until the Late Middle Ages at the earliest we can be certain the process had begun centuries before Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle as attested by the Historia Brittonum and supported by the later pre-Galfridian account of the canons from Laon.

Arthurian Geography
Arthurian geography in the search for a historical Arthur is at odds with these prehistoric landscape sites; here we seem to be dealing with another, often neglected, stratum of the Arthurian legend. The identification of the sites mentioned in Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum, the so-called 'Arthurian Battle List', has evaded even the most avid historical battlefield detective. Chester, Cheshire and Caerleon, South Wales, both serve as contenders for the "City of the Legion" the site of Arthur's ninth battle in the Historia Brittonum, yet, as with the other battle sites, the rivers Glein, Dubglas, Bassa and Tribruit, the fort Guinnion, the hill called Agned, and so on, have defied positive identification. However, it is worth noting that prior to excavation, long after the Romans had been forgotten, the amphitheatre at Caerleon was covered by a grassy mound which was known locally as 'Arthur's Round Table'.

Further evidence of these conflicting traditions is found in the The Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau), found in the 13th-century Black Book of Carmarthen, but based on earlier material, where it is recorded that Arthur's grave is nowhere to be found. This of course concords with Geoffrey's account in the Vita Merlini that states that Arthur, mortally wounded during his last battle, was taken to the Island of Apples, which is called the Fortunate Isle, to be healed by Morgen and her sisters.

Whereas Geoffrey fails to provide a satisfactory end to Arthur's days, perhaps ancient tradition can offer an answer to Arthur's disappearance after his death. Overlooking the source of the Stonehenge Bluestones outcrop of Carn Meini in the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, is an oval or horse-shoe shaped setting comprised of thirteen small standing stones. The site has never been excavated. It is known as Bedd Arthur, 'The Grave of Arthur'.

© Edward Watson 2014

Further Reading:
Leslie V Grinsell, Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, David & Charles, 1976.
Geoffrey Ashe, Arthurian Britain: The Traveller's Guide, Gothic Image, 2002.
F J Snell, King Arthur's Country, Dutton & Co, 1926
Michael D. Reeve (editor) and Neil Wright (translator), The History of the Kings of Britain: An edition and translation of the De gestis Britonum (Historia Regum Brittannie) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Boydell Press, 2009.
Neil Fairbairn, A Traveller's Guide to the Kingdoms of Arthur, Evans Brothers, 1983.

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