Sunday, 27 June 2021

Gwal Y Filiast: The Lair of the She-Wolf

“The whole region is Arthurian country where the part-historical, largely mythical king is said to have hunted. The land is studded with standing stones, burial chambers and cairns, a natural outcrop  known as Carn Arthur, a hilltop cairn called Bedd Arthur, ‘Arthur’s grave’, and five miles south-east of Cwm garw the tomb of his dog, Gwal Y Filiast, ‘the lair of the greyhound bitch’. It is also known as Arthur’s Table. His cauldron lies in the river Taf below.” - Aubrey Burl, From Carnac to Callanish: The Prehistoric Stone Rows and Avenues of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale, 1993.

Raising Stone
It is estimated that there is over 40,000 megalithic structures in Europe, traces of a prehistoric landscape stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to Norway. Recent studies have began to recognise the relationship between these monuments and local landscape. 

Limited dating evidence denies the construction of a solid chronology, however the Portal Dolmens are considered among the oldest megalithic structures in Europe if not the world. A Portal Dolmen (known as “cromlech” in Wales, literally “bent stone”) is is defined as a Neolithic structure consisting of a large flat stone supported horizontally on two or more upright stones (orthostats), the enclosed area thought to have been used as a burial chamber. The whole structure is said to have been covered over with a mound of earth or cairn of stones. Often a forecourt at the entrance would be delineated by other othostats forming a horn-shaped area of the cairn. It remains unclear why these huge stones were raised in this way, the giant capstone of Garn Turne is estimated to weigh  more than 60 tons. 

The location of many of these monuments coincides with evidence for Mesolithic activity, such as coastal flint scatters, suggesting continuing over thousands of years with the portal dolmens emerging in the earliest Neolithic period which may account for the affinity of many monuments with the coast. For example, some monuments can be located within a kilometre of the coast but their careful siting denies visibility of the sea. Indeed the monuments appear to be positioned in such away to point to a specific landscape feature with some capstones seemingly mimicking a mountain profile against the skyline. Surely this makes the suggestion that the capstone was completely covered over by a mound of earth or cairn of stones look absurd. 

No doubt some flat-topped burial chambers, such as Capel Garmon, were covered over but when you look at the carefully selected shape of some of the capstones such as Llech-y-Tribedd mirroring the profile of Mynydd Carningli behind, can there really be any doubt. Furthermore some capstones are covered in cupmarks, such as the destroyed monument at Trefael; is it really conceivable that this highly decorated capstone was covered over? I would also question their primary function as burial chambers which is not supported by the minimal artefacts found within the chamber; the few human remains or grave goods found at these monuments could easily have been placed through gaps in the portal stones as some later time. The shape of the capstone and their careful siting in the landscape suggests a different purpose altogether, although in our modern world in which we are disconnected from the landscape we struggle to understand how.

The monuments of Wales exhibit a unique megalithic architecture, different from other areas of Britain and Europe, influenced by the culture of the Irish Sea zone. Archaeologists have categorised the megalithic chambered tombs of Wales into eight geographical groups: North Wales; Anglesey; Lleyn Peninsula; Harlech; Gower Peninsula; Black Mountains; South-East Wales; and the South-West Wales group.

The largest group is that of South-West Wales, consisting of 50 or so monuments spread across the modern counties of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. Many of these megalithic structures are named after King Arthur, such as Bwrdd Arthur (Arthur’s Table), or Coetan Arthur (Arthur’s Quoit) the capstone often said to have been thrown some distance by the legendary king. 

Gwal Y Filiast (Karen Sawyer: Wikimedia Commons)

One inland cromlech is Gwal Y Filiast, which we are told commonly translates as "Lair of the Greyhound Bitch", also referred to as Dolwilym (William's Meadow?), situated 6km south east of Crymych in Carmarthenshire, south west Wales, a delicately balanced capstone is all that remains of a Neolithic burial chamber, apparently denuded of its mound. This is a very secluded site on a steep wooded ridge overlooking the River Taf, where the sound of roaring water fills the background. 

Four uprights support a large capstone forming a polygonal chamber beneath. In the 19th century a fifth upright was reported facing east down the slope; this may have formed the entrance directed down toward the river Taf. Away from the main structure but seemingly related to it are two monoliths also on the eastern side which may have formed the entrance to a passageway into the main chamber. In the 19th century the structure was apparently covered by a mound and over 30 kerbstones delineated the edge of the mound. However, 150 years later there is little evidence of this mound today. The large capstone points towards the river Taf and the eastern extent of the Preseli Hills but today this view is obscured by the mature Beech trees that form the backdrop to Gwal Y Filiast. 

Below Gwal-y-Filiast the river Taf snakes through a wooded valley but at this point the river changes to a violent torrent over a series of rapids where there is a naturally created hollow called Crochan Arthur (Arthur's pot or cauldron):

“This [feature] is under a cromlech at Dolwillim, on the banks of the Tawe, and in the stream itself when the water is high; it is a circular hole of considerable depth, accurately bored in the stone by the action of the water. This hole is called Arthur's Pot, and according to local belief was made by Merlin for the hero king to cook his dinner in.” - Wirt Sikes 'British Goblins' 1880

Further up and downstream from this point the waters of the river are still. Christopher Tilley makes the observation that “in this connection the importance of rapids in rivers in many systems of mythological thought as constituting doors or openings to the underworld.”

This cromlech is also known as Bwrdd Arthur (‘Arthur’s Table’) but few would agree with Aubrey Burl, quoted above, that it is the tomb of Arthur’s dog. As the “Lair of the Greyhound bitch”, which several cromlech’s in Wales share this designation, Twlc y Filiast, Gwal Y Filiast (St Lythans) and Lletty'r y Filiast (Great Orme), the burial chamber at Gwal Y Filiast has become associated with the witch Ceridwen.

The She-Wolf
An old Welsh tale set during the days of King Arthur tells of Ceridwen’s cauldron and her strange concoction of herbs called Awen which she brewed for a year and a day for her son. The cauldron was tended by a blindman and little Gwion (Gwion Bach). When the brew was ready the three drops of Awen landed on Gwion’s thumb which he stuck in his mouth and he received inspiration. 

A shapeshifting chase ensures in which Gwion turns into a hare and Ceridwen transforms into a greyhound in pursuit down to the river. Eventually Ceridwen as a hen catches Gwion, now a grain of wheat, and she swallows him whole. Now pregnant she vows to kill the child at birth, but when the time comes he is so beautiful she can’t bring herself to do it and instead places him in the sea, or a river depending on the version. When the boy is found he is called Taliesin. So is the Tale of Taliesin, connecting Ceridwen with Arthur that some ask if these 5,000 year old cromlechs could perhaps be associated with the story? 

Ceridwen has had a rough deal by academics ever since the Welsh scholar Sir Ifor Williams translated the story of Taliesin a hundred years ago. Williams said her name meant “bent, crooked” as in a witch, when originally she was a Goddess. Surely the translation of Gwal Y Filiast has also been misinterpreted. In 'Folklore and Folkstories of Wales' (1909)  Marie Trevelyan argued that Ceridwen transformed herself in to a greyhound bitch (milast) in her pursuit of Little Gwion and that these megalithic monuments were named in her honour as a canine symbol.

However it is important to note that Gwal Y Filiast translates as “Lair of the Grey Hound Bitch”; as opposed to “greyhound”, i.e. a breed of racing dog. A grey hound, literally a hound that is grey, is a reference to a wolf in Welsh or more correctly considering the association of these sites with Arthur, a She-wolf. In this context the correct translation should be the “Lair of the She-Wolf”. There is such a tale that connects Arthur with a She-Wolf with Gwal Y Filiast on the route of a boar hunt.

Hunting Twrch Trwyth
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen in order to win her hand in marriage Culhwch must complete forty impossible tasks (anoethau) set by Olwen’s father, Ysbaddaden chief-giant. The formula is well known to folklorists and termed “the Giant’s Daughter” in which the hero sets out to obtain precious objects under great difficulties. In Culhwch the first group of tasks require preparation for the wedding. The second group is to make Ysbaddaden presentable to his guests; to cut his hair and to shave his beard he requires comb, scissors and razor. 

These tonsural items are located between the ears of Twrch Trwyth, a king who has been transformed into a huge boar with poisonous bristles The hunting of this boar cannot be accomplished without obtaining a whelp, a leash, a collar and a chain along with the best hunters in the land, Mabon son of Modron and Gwynn son of Nudd. The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is the pinnacle of the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the oldest Arthurian tale; the boar hunt also appears in the Mirabilia (List of Wonders) attached to the 9th Century Historia Brittonum, and a (possible) 7th Century poem attached to Y Goddodin.

To hunt Twrch Trwyth Arthur’s band must obtain the two whelps of the ‘gast Rhymi’(the Bitch of Rhymi), Gwyddrud and Gwyddneu Astrus, named earlier in the list of names that Culhwch invokes to help him obtain Olwen. The next task is to obtain a leash made from the beard of Dillus the Bearded as nothing else will hold those two whelps. 

Arthur is told that the gast Rhymi is at Aber Deu Gleddyf. Arthur went to the house of Tringad, in Aber Cleddyf, where he is informed she is in the form of She-Wolf with her two cubs where she is in a cave at Aber Cleddyf. This is the mouth of the Afon Cleddau (Sword river) where the Eastern and Western Cleddau rivers converge to form the estuary at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, South-West Wales. So Arthur went in his ship Prydwen by sea, the others by land, and when they surrounded her Rhymi and her cubs were changed into human form. Most explanations for this strange episode suggest she was a human princess turned into a wolf for her sins. Shapeshifting features strongly in Culhwch and Olwen as Twrch Trwyth is the son of Prince Tared who has been turned into swine for his sins.

The hunt for Trwch Trwyth starts in Ireland. Arthur's men find the boar with seven young pigs at Esgeir Oervel (Seiscenn Uarbeóil in Ireland?). The boar and piglets then cross the Irish Sea to cause havoc in South Wales. The boar lands at Porthclais in Dyfed, near St David’s Head, before moving onto Aber Gleddyf, "Mouth of the Sword [River]" (the estuary at Milford Haven) then went in to the Preseli Hills. At Cwm Kerwyn, (Cwmcerwyn in Preseli) Twrch Trwyth made a stand against Arthur’s men. Here Twrch Trwyth slew four of Arthur's champions, and in a second engagement killed Arthur’s son Gwydre. Here stands the Stones of the Sons of Arthur (Cerrig Meibion Arthur).

From here, travelling east, Twrch Trwyth must have crossed the river Taff on route through Sancler (St Clears) on to Abertwyi. The crossing point must have been near Gwal Y Filiast. The story goes that a little further east at Dyffryn Llychwr (Loughor Valley)  the offspring of Twrch Trwyth , Grugyn Gwallt Ereint and Llwydawg Govynnyad slew more of Arthur’s men, then Arthur then let loose all of the dogs upon these two swine but hearing the noise Twrch Trwyth came to their assistance. By the time they got to Dyffryn Amanw (Valley of the Amman), all the piglets that came with Twrch Trwyth from Ireland were now dead  except Grugyn Gwallt Ereint, and Llwydawg Govynnyad.

Arthur’s men chased the boar to Llwch Ewin (Llyn Llech Owain), past the Black Mountain where Arthur overtook and made a stand. And then they went to Llwch Tawy (Llyn y Fan Fawr; Brecon) and to Ewyas Harold. Twrch Trwyth plunged into the Severn at Aber Gwy (mouth of the river Wye) and here in the water they obtained the scissors and razor from between the ears of the boar. Arthur and his men pursued Twrch Trwyth in to Cornwall where they obtained the comb then the boar escaped into the sea.

Gwal Y Filiast must be situated on, or close to, the route of Twrch Trwyth which Arthur and his warband pursued across south Wales. The name, the Lair of the She-Wolf, suggests an association with the whelps of the Bitch Rhymi, required to hunt the supernatural boar. No doubt the positioning of this cromlech above a potential opening to the underworld is significant and possibly related to the hunt of this enchanted swine. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we have lost the local tale.

Margaret Isaac, Arthur and the Twrch Trwyth, APECS Press, 2012.
Idris Llewelyn Foster, Culhwch and Olwen, in R S Loomis ed., Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, (Oxford University Press, 1959), Special edition for Sandpiper Books, 2001.
George Nash, The Architecture of Death: Neolithic Chambered Tombs in Wales, Logaston Press, 2006.
Christopher Tilley,  A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments, Berg, 1994.

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  1. Another excellent post. I recall going on holiday to Ty Dewi (St Davids) in Pembrokeshire. Arthur abounds there, you've got Coetan Arthur itself on St Davids Head and if you go up the coast you've got another dolmen of the same name at Trefdraeth (Newport).

    The Merlin connection is tantalising too, Mike Parker Pearson's theorised original circle (from where the stones were moved to Stonehenge) is in the same area, a weird echo of the legend of Merlin moving the stones from Ireland.

    Can I just add that your blog and articles are highly appreciated by this reader.

    1. Hello Anon., thank you for the positive feedback.
      I don't go much on MPP's theory that a bluestone circle at Waun Mawn shows there was a “grain of truth” in Geoffrey of Monmouth's story of Stonehenge. This guy is too quick to jump to conclusions without sufficient supporting evidence.

      If you deconstruct Geoffrey’s elaborate tale of the Giants Dance [see: Geoffrey and the Giants’ Dance] it becomes quite clear that he did not follow an ancient tradition at all but carefully constructed a story taking inspiration from events in his own time. I came to the unavoidable conclusion that Geoffrey had no idea the bluestones of Stonehenge came from south-west Wales.
      Best wishes