Friday 6 August 2021

On the Trail of the Grey Hound Bitch

 In my previous post I proposed that the portal dolmen, or cromlech, known as Gwal-y-Filiast (Dolwilym, Bwrdd Arthur) usually translated as the “Lair of the Greyhound Bitch” should be interpreted as the 'Lair of the She-Wolf’ with its name associated with the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth in the Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen.

Positioned on a secluded woodland ridge overlooking the River Taf about 3.5 miles south east of Crymych in Carmarthenshire, south-west Wales, it can be argued that this megalithic monument is on the trail of the giant boar Twrch Trwyth as it rampaged through south Wales. As one of the tasks set by Olwen’s father Ysbaddaden chief-giant for Culhwch to win her hand in marriage is to obtain the two whelps of the ‘gast Rhymi’(the Bitch of Rhymi), Gwyddrud and Gwyddneu Astrus. Arthur and his men find the gast Rhymi at Aber Deu Gleddyf where she is in the form of She-Wolf.

Gwal-y-filiast (Dolwilym)

Several cromlech’s in Wales share the "filiast" name, such as Twlc y Filiast, Gwal y Filiast (St Lythans) and Lletty'r y Filiast (Great Orme), but no satisfactory story has survived to explain it. The designation is often explained as an association with the witch Ceridwen who has transformed herself in to a greyhound bitch (milast) in her pursuit of Little Gwion (Bach) which started by Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake) in Gwynedd in the Tale of Taliesin and that these megalithic monuments were named in her honour as a canine symbol. 

Indeed Chris Barber recalls a comment from J Smith Jnr in The Archaeology of the Great Orme’s Head, North Wales (1875) in which he calls Lletty'r y Filiast “a cromlech in which the bones of the mythical hag Keridwen are supposed to be interred”.

Poor old Ceridwen, she really has suffered over the years, turned into an old hag and thrown into a dog’s kennel. This seems a very unlikely explanation, I just can’t see why Ceridwen would be confined in these megalithic kennels; there is certainly no surviving story to justify such a proposition.

My suggested interpretation as the 'Lair of the She-Wolf’ at least for several of the monuments in south Wales in relation the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth as told in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen is surely a more convincing explanation. In support of this it is worth noting that many of these megalithic sites bear a second name usually associated with Arthur, such as Coetan Arthur or Bwrdd Arthur. 

However, there are several sites in North Wales which also attract the “filiast” name, and yet there is no story to suggest the hunting of Twrch Trwyth or Ceridwen’s pursuit of Little Gwion was anywhere near to suggest an association. If not linked to the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth or Ceridwen’s chase could there be another explanation for the appellation of these northern Welsh sites? 

In discussing the cromlech at St Lythans Barber quotes Rev T Rees in A Topographical and Historical Description of South Wales (1815) who called it Lech-y-Filiast and states “that it has been conjected that it derived from the circumstances of the early Christians envincing their contempt for these vestiges of pagan worship by converting them into kennels for their dogs...”

Christian kennels for their dogs? This is another unbelievable explanation; I started to wonder if the greyhound names of these prehistoric burial chambers is the result of a totally random exercise - or is there some other reason?

Twlc y filiast

Other Lairs?
In addition to the burial chamber of Gwal y Filiast (Dolwilym, Bwrdd Arthur) near Crymych, previously discussed, there is another monument named as Twlc y Filiast, but also known as Arthur's Table or Ebenezer, sited near Carmarthen. As with the previous cromlech this is sited amongst trees by a babbling stream, which flows down to join the Afon Taf. Glynn Daniel describes three orthostats partially supporting the slipped capstone which now touches the ground which would have formerly enclosed a small rectangular chamber. He adds there are no traces of a mound at this site but later investigation by Hubert Savory found evidence of a 55ft long mound aligned to the axis of the valley with one sided now eroded by the stream. Savory suggested that a fallen slab had once formed an ante-chamber and located a series of ritual pits. Nothing was found in the chamber except a dark brown earth deposit and charcoal. In addition a flint scraper, a stone pendant and some unidentifiable pottery were found within the cairn. The stone pendant has been been said to be representative of a metal axe suggesting a possible Early Bronze Age date. Nash noted about seven stones that he considered may delineate a narrow passage and forecourt area, suggesting the ante-chamber could actually be part of the passage.

Moving east, at Mynydd Llangynderyrn, near Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire, there are twin burial chambers known as Gwal-y-Filiast and Bwrdd Arthur. Jointly these burial chambers are referred to as Bwrdd Arthur but individually the western chamber is known as Gwal-y-Filiast. These are the remains of two partially destroyed burial chambers imagined as a monument perhaps similar to the twin chambers of Dyffryn Ardudwy, but there is such a jumble of rock here they can be difficult to identify. The western group consists of a large capstone with a number of collapsed orthostats beneath. The eastern group is in worse condition yet Daniel is of little doubt they represent an authentic burial chamber, however George Nash remains silent and fails to mention the site, perhaps an indication that he views the authenticity of the site with some suspicion. 

St Lythans

Moving south-east from here into Glamorgan, near Barry there is the burial chamber known as St Lythans or Maes-y-Felin which also carries the alternative name of Gwal-y-Filiast. Maes-y-Felin seems to be a reference to the field in which this cromlech stands which is said to be known as the “Accursed Field” as it is claimed nothing will grow there. Three large orthostats supported a rectangular capstone measuring 14ft by 10ft which would have been covered over by a 50ft long mound orientated east-west, with the chamber set at the east end. There is a hole in the western slab said to release the spirts of the departed interred within. This monument is very similar in shape and design to those found in south-west England classified as the Cotswold-Severn type. As noted above, a local tale claims this was apparently where Christians kept their dogs.


The cromlech at St Lythans is often confused with Tinkinswood less than a mile away in the adjacent parish of St Nicholas. Tinkinswood is variously called Llech-y-Filiast, Maes-y-Filiast or Gwal-y-Filiast and well known for enclosing its burial chamber with the largest capstone in Wales, measuring 22ft in length and 3ft thick, estimated to weigh around 40 tons. According to Daniel this was covered by a 130ft long mound orientated east-west. Excavations during restoration in the early 20th century revealed the remains of at least 50 people in the chamber. Neolithic pottery from this site was typical to that uncovered at other  Cotswold-Severn type monuments. Artefacts dating to the Early Iron Age, Romano-British and medieval periods suggests that the monument may have been used a shelter during these periods. Nash observes that the monuments of Tinkinswood and Maes-y-Felin (St Lythans) are intervisible, i.e. each can be seen from the other.

Continuing on our travels in an easterly direction across South Wales we come to an 8 ft high standing stone that bears the name of Gwal y Filiast, also known as the Druidstone, at Risca, north-east of Cardiff. This appears to be a single standing stone (monolith) not part of another structure such as a burial chamber or a ruined stone circle. According to Leslie Grinsell (Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain), when the cock crows at night the stone goes down to the River Rhymney to bathe. The Afon Rhymni cuts the Rhymney Valley between Monmouthshire and Glamorgan and the Twrch Trwyth must have crossed this waterway at some point before plunging into the Severn. In attracting the “filiast” name does this stone mark the route of Arthur’s boar hunt or is it simply a boundary marker with an odd name?

Llety'r Filiast

Moving on to the very top of North Wales we find Llety'r Filiast burial chamber on the Great Orme’s Head, Llandudno. Daniel writes that this was once an 85ft long barrow orientated east-west which incorporates a natural rock outcrop. All that remains today is a small polygonal chamber at the east end in very poor condition with a broken capstone that has collapsed at some point. The burial chamber is located very close to the famous Bronze Age Great Orme copper mine sitting in a marshy depression with restricted views which Frances Lynch sees a similarity with portal dolmens in Ireland. Vicki Cummings notes that owing to the massive alterations to the landscape here and the addition of modern housing it is difficult to determine the original landscape setting, however views to the north and south west are restricted with visibility limited to Great Orme’s Head to the north west and Llangernyw valley area to the east. As we have seen above, this was apparently the tomb of Ceridwen.

Moving further inland we find the cromlech of Cwrt y Filiast (Maen-y-Bardd) near the village of Ro-wen looking out over the wide valley of Afon Conwy on the north side of Caernarfon at an altitude of 1,000ft on an exposed plateau. Daniel records this monument as a simple chamber with four orthostats supporting a distinctive large capstone. It's a beauty. He found no traces of a mound of any sort. This monument is situated by Bronze Age and Roman routes leading to Tal-y-fan and the coast beyond.


Nash sees some significance in the close siting of this monument, within 2 miles, of the Graig Lwyd Neolithic axe factory, which appears to have some association with later funerary activity in the area.  Graig Lwyd was the third largest prehistoric axe quarry in Britain, whose products have been found across England and Wales. Polished stone axes have often been discovered in burial chambers and two plaques made of stone from the Neolithic axe factory at Mynydd Rhiw were found within the burial chambers at Dyffryn Ardudwy.

Cummings writes of the impressive landscape setting of Maen-y-Bardd that is just 100yds from the monument of Ro-Wen East. Views to the east focus on the Afon Conwy and where it reaches the sea. Looking out from the chamber entrance there is a spectacular view across the Conwy valley to the left and mountains to the right. Cwrt y Filiast is placed in a very impressive setting, well worth the effort to get here. Which makes us realise that we don't really understand the true purpose of these megalithic structures in the Neolithic minds.

Alas, there is nothing here to link the two North Wales sites Llety'r Filiast and Cwrt y Filiast (Maen-y-Bardd) with the boar hunt as told in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen which may explain the association of the southern tombs with the She-Wolf, ‘gast Rhymi’. Furthermore,  I find the suggestion that these were used as dog kennels in their remote locations absurd. And there is no surviving story to link Ceridwen with these monuments. 

However, in North Wales there are two ancient hill top cairns which do appear to have been named after a Greyhound; these are not burial chambers or megalithic monuments as such but one is claimed to be a Bronze Age cairn.

1. Carnedd-y-Filiast (Glyderau) is 2694 ft high, the top identified by the small cairn. The highest point is known as Y Fronllwyd, also as Carnedd-y-Filiast North Top, overlooking Nant Ffrancon, the A5 pass though the mountains. This is an isolated mountain towards the Elidir Fawr end of the Glyder Ridge overlooking Bethesda and Anglesey to the north. Carnedd-y-Filiast is well known to climbers for the 'Atlantic Slab', a distinctively marked bedding plane of Cambrian Sandstone. The eyesore of Penrhyn Quarry can be seen from the summit, once the World’s largest quarry. Yet no story survives for why this summit cairn should be named after a greyhound.

Carned-y-Filiast (Cerrigydrudion)

2. Carnedd-y-Filiast (Cerrigydrudion) is a hill top cairn set upon the 2,195ft summit of part of the Arenig mountain range to the north of Llyn Celyn reservoir, circumscribed on its north side by the A4212 road from Bala to Trawsfynydd. This Bronze Age cairn at the summit is another prehistoric monument to have legendary associations with a greyhound, in this case, according to Archaeologia Cambrensis, (1887), a beast belonging to St Helen.

Elen and the Greyhound
The antiquarian Harold Bayley wrote of Elen in his book The Lost Language of London (1935). He said Elen was a lost goddess of London, claiming that the capital city was named for her. In his book Bayley claimed Elen was the patron goddess of the capital city based on the importance of the Helen in London legend and the prominence of the Priory and Church of St Helen in its early Christian history. In the late 16th century John Stow alluded to the tradition that Helen was responsible for encircling London with its first wall, which perhaps inspired Bayley to seek out Elen as the Goddess of London.

Bayley saw Elen as an ancient British deity associated with animals of the hunter-goddess, similar to Diana, such as the greyhound and the deer. Bayley saw her origin in Nouhalennia, or Nehalennia, a goddess found all over Europe, and in coastal areas of Britain including Lands End and the Scilly Isles.

Bayley cites four shrines or tablets illustrated to Nehalennia in which she is depicted undoubtedly with a dog, which he positively identifies as a greyhound. He then refers to a “table stone”, as he calls it, in North Wales that he says is known locally as “Llety-y-filiast or stone of the greyhound bitch”. He is certainly referring to the remains of the burial chamber on the Great Orme’s Head as discussed above.

Bayley sees the name of the burial chamber as an allusion to the British Cerres or Keridwen who was symbolized as the greyhound bitch. He argues that an animal which is unmistakeably a greyhound bitch appears on pre-Roman British coins and was probably a national emblem. According to Bayley it is therefore possible that Nehalennia of the Greyhound was a pre-Celtic Goddess, stating that the greyhound was not only a tribal emblem but also a Royal appendage not only in England but also in Ireland. He quotes the Celtic scholar Sir John Rhys who, owing to its persistence, surmised the dog was once a totem of the country.

The case for Elen/Helen seems remarkably confused; in early British legend Elen is said to be the daughter of King Cole and associated with road building along with Dunwal Molmutius and his son Belinus, which has led to her association with Ley Lines as identified by Alfred Watkins and the New Age earth mysteries movement instigated by John Michell.

The association with road building in straight lines from one end of the country to another is a clear echo from the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Mascen Wledig (Magnus Maximus, the 4th-Century Roman emperor) in which she appears as Elen Luyddog, Elen of the Hosts, remembered as a saint in Wales as St Helen of Caernarfon, feast day 22 May. The Roman road known as Sarn Helen running through Wales is named in her honour.

English chroniclers of the Middle Ages linked Elen to Helena of Constantinople, the mother of Constantine the Great, the lady said to have discovered the True Cross, claiming she was of British noble descent but there is no historical basis to support this. 

However, a Roman inscription from Holland clearly portrays Nehalennia as protectress of those travelling by sea. This would explain why she is often found in coastal areas across Europe and a far cry from a goddess of high places; an association with a greyhound does not necessarily define a hunter-goddess of the hill tops.

Although Bayley does not cite a reference for Elen of London as a hunter goddess we can discount him as the inventor of this story because the legend of (H)Elen and her greyhound was in circulation in the late 19th century at least.

The 1887 edition of The Journal of The Cambrian Archaeological Association states:

"Tradition, indeed, in the Hiraethog, still speaks of the Llwybr Elen (the road of the Empress Helen, mother of Constantine) as passing over the Carnedd y Filiast, where her favourite greyhound died, and where a great carnedd exist to this day to its memory..."

Here we finally have an explanation for the hill top burial cairn on Carnedd-y-filiast being named after the Greyhound Bitch. But this is one site only and there is no evidence that Sarn Helen or one of branches passed over this summit. However, by a strange coincidence this hill is not far from Bala where the story of Ceridwen and Gwion Bach is set. Perhaps we have come full circle? But one thing is certain; the origins of Elen requires further study.

Christopher Thomas Barker, The Chambered Tombs of South-West Wales, Oxbow Monograph 14, 1992.
Chris Barber and John Godfrey Williams, The Ancient Stones of Wales, Blorenge Books, 1989.
Vicki Cummings and Alasdair Whittle, Places of Special Virtue: Megaliths in the Neollithic Landscapes of Wales, Oxbow Books, 2004.
Glynn E Daniel, The Prehistoric Chamber Tombs of England and Wales, Cambridge University Press 1950 (first paperback edition 2013).
George Nash, The Architecture of Death: Neolithic Chambered Tombs in Wales, Logaston Press, 2006.
George Nash and George Children, Neolithic Sites of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire & Pembrokeshire, Logaston Press, 2002.
Harold Bayley, Great St Helen, in John Matthews and Chesca Potter, editors, The Aquarian Guide to Legendary London, The Aquarian Press, 1990.
Caroline Wise, editor, Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways, Eala Press, 2015.

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