LIFE ON THE FRINGE - 7: Cymru, Heroes and Demons

A Land Fit For Heroes - And Villains

Snowdonia, majesty of mountains and home of gods - a land fit for heroes
Snowdonia, majesty of mountains and home of gods - a land fit for heroes | Source
Arawn king of Annwn, the Otherworld. As punishment for interfering with his hunting hounds, Arawn made Pwyll take his place for a year
Arawn king of Annwn, the Otherworld. As punishment for interfering with his hunting hounds, Arawn made Pwyll take his place for a year | Source

A land fit for heroes - and some not so heroic

ARAWN was ruler of Annw, the Otherworld realm. He features in an early Welsh poem, 'Preiddeu Annw', which describes a journey to Annw to take a magic cauldron. The tale is thought to have brought about a quest for the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend. Arawn is best known in legend for his confrontation with Pwyll, lord of Dyfed. One day Pwyll was hunting when he saw an odd-looking pack of hounds, apparently with no master leading them, taking on a stag. He chased off the hounds and set his own hounds on the stag.

Arawn appeared from nowhere and told Pwyll he had done him a great disfavour by chasing off his hounds and demanded compensation of some form or another. They agreed that to atone for the insult Pwyll would take the shape of Arawn for a year and dwell in Annw for a year beforehand whilst Arawn took Pwyll's place, holding court at Arbeth, the king's main lodging place in Dyfed;.

ARANRHOD was sister to Gwydion fab Don. When their brother - and possibly also Gwydion - taped Goewin, foot-holder of Math fab Mathonwy, Gwidion put forward his sister for the position (virgins only were considered for this exalted status) even though Aranrhod herself was no longer a virgin. As she took the virginity test, Aranrhod dropped two bundles. One was Dylan who immediately leapt into the sea. The other was also a boy. Gwydion was able to pick him up and hid him from Math. The boy later became known as Llhu Llaw Gyffes;

BENDIGEID VRAN or BENDIGEIDFRAN, son of Llyr was widely known as Bran the Blessed. Llyr was a brother of Branwen and Manawydan and half-brother of Efnisien and Nisien. Bran was best known for the raid he led on Erin (Ireland) to rescue his sister Branwen from King Matholwych. Bran had agreed to Branwen's marriage but when Matholwych was at Benigeid's court to escort Branwen across the sea the mischief-maker Efnisien mutilated the Gaelic king's horses, a prank taken as a grievous insult.

Matholwych returned to his kingdom, taking with him a magic cauldron given by his Welsh host - either as a wedding gift or as compensation for Efnisien's wrongdoing. It was thought that the cauldron could bring the wounded back to health and the dead back to life.

On reaching his kingdom Matholwych began to mistreat Branwen on account of Efnisien's insult. When word reached him Bran decided to rescue his sister and teach Matholwych a lesson. At first peace offers were made, however, and it was suggested Gwern - son of Branwen by Matholwych - should take over his father's kingdom for a while. Efnisien's mischievous ways gained the upper hand again and he maliciously tossed the boy into a blazing fire.

In a great battle Matholwych seemed at first to be winning - due to his possession of the magic cauldron - but Efnisien destroyed the cauldron and Bran began to win. both sides suffered heavily and it was said of the Gaels that only five pregnant women survived because they had taken shelter in a cave. Bran lay dying and asked his few surviving followers to behead him and take his head home for burial in the White Mount (said to be where part of London is now). The Celts believed a man's soul stayed within the head and it could live independent of the torso. Bran's head is said to have gone on talking, even eating. For the long time it took his surviving men - seven it is said, including Pryderi and Taliesin - to return home Branwen was so grief-stricken at all the bloodshed she thought she had caused that she died heartbroken and was buried on Ynys Mon (Anglesey)

CERRIDWEN or CARRIDWEN was the mother of a very ugly son Afagddu and a beautiful daughter Crearwy. To make up her son's highly off-putting looks Cerridwen set out to give him at least the gifts of wisdom, inspiration and a wide knowledge. To achieve this she made a herb potion and put the said potion into a cauldron to brew. She chose Gwion Bach - son of Gwreang and the reincarnation of Gwion - to stir the potion for a year and a day, following which time dree drops of the potion would give Afagddu the benefit of her spell. She chose also a blind man named Morda to stoke the fire on which the cauldron bubbled.

There was a hitch - as so often there would be in legend. As Gwion stirred the potion almost at the time it would become effective, three drops splashed onto a finger of his right hand and he licked off it to cool the finger. By doing this he was given the benefit of the potion's spell. The cauldron, having fulfilled its purpose, split and spilled out the now poisonous concoction onto the floor. It was all Gwion Bach could do to get out of the way!

He became rightly afraid and fled the scene. On learning of the mishap Cerridwen was enraged to find her son would not enjoy the fruits of her endeavours, whereupon she set out after Gwion Bach, having first chastised the blind Mordar. She took the shape of a smoke-blackened black-clad hag and almost caught up with the lad when he took the form of a hare. To catch him she became a greyhound and he took the shape of a salmon when he came upon a river. Seeing him vanish into the dark waters Cerridwen became an otter. Startled to see her gain on him, Gwion Bach took the shape of a bird and Cerridwen now took off after him as a hawk. Desperate, Gwion Bach landed on a threshing floor and became a grain to try to elude her. Thinking himself safe amongst all the other grains, Cerridwen swallowed him, having become a hen.

With that she thought the matter at an end. On becoming herself again she knew she was with child. When the child was born he was very beautiful and she could not bring herself to kill him, the seemingly reborn Gwion. She put him into a leather bag and threw it into a nearby river, where it lodged in a fish weir belonging to the father of Elffin. It was Elffin who found the bag, and upon opening the bag remarked on the beauty of the child within. She was particularly taken by his 'radiant brow', and thus named him Taliesin.

Cerridwen is said to have been the keeper of the cauldron in the Otherworld. This was the cauldron in which knowledge and inspiration were said to have been 'brewed'. She was also linked with the sow, the Celts' symbol of fertility;

The powerful, shape-changing Cerridwen with her cauldron, putting a spell on the contents to make her ugly son Afagdu at least wise and erudite. Thereby hangs more than a tail...
The powerful, shape-changing Cerridwen with her cauldron, putting a spell on the contents to make her ugly son Afagdu at least wise and erudite. Thereby hangs more than a tail... | Source

Here's your opportunity to familiarise yourself with the legend of Arthur with its heroes and villains, demons, Merlin and monsters of Welsh legend. A meaty tale to get your teeth into, early derring-do to set your heart a-flutter!

The ill-fated Blodeuwedd - made from non-human sources for Lleu, turned into an owl and banished for betraying him
The ill-fated Blodeuwedd - made from non-human sources for Lleu, turned into an owl and banished for betraying him | Source

BLODEUWEDD

...a fair maid whose name would read in modern English as 'Face of a flower'. She was fashioned from oak, broom and meadowsweet by Gwydion and Math to be the bride of Lleu Llaw Gyffes to bypass the curse put on him by Aranrhod his mother. The curse was that he should never wed a mortal woman until she herself found him a bride - which she never meant to do anyway. However, Blodeuwedd was unfaithful to Lleu with Gronw Pebyr. They plotted to do away with Lleu but he could only be slain in certain odd circumstances. She learned from Lleu in an unguarded moment what the circumstances might be - and especially how he was supposed to stand - that slaying him could be achieved. Gronw tried killing Lleu with a spear but was only able to wound him. Lleu then slew Gronw. As a consequence of her infidelity Blodeuwedd was turned into an owl and was cast out of Lleu's household

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Caradwc and Efnisien

CARADAWC (Caradoc) was a son of Benigeid Vran. When his father set out across the sea to challenge Branwen's husband Matholwch over his mistreatment of her, he left Caradawc with six companions to guard the kingdom. Caswallan ousted Caradawc and assumed kingship, killing Benigeid's son and his companions;

EFNISIEN, brother of Nisien, half-brother of Benigeid Vran, Branwen and the other offspring of Llyr. Known as a mischief-maker (Celtic version of Loki) and his brother Nisien was his opposite - see the tale of Benigeid Vran/Bran

What Bran's tale doesn't mention id that on reaching Erin Matholwch's underlings made a show of welcome and installed him in a grand hall. A hundred warriors were hidden inside provision bags - ready to steal out and attack the Welsh at the right time. Efnisien, cunning as he was, guessed at what was set to happen and crushed the heads of the still-bagged warriors. In the ensuing battle the Welsh were being beaten badly, the Gaels using the magic cauldron given their king at his betrothal to Branwen. With the cauldron they were able to restore their dead and wounded to fight again, so Efnisien destroyed the cauldron and was slain doing so.

Mabinogion - source of Cymraeg (Welsh) lore

The Mabinogion - source of Cymraeg (Welsh) lore, dark myths and heroic legend
The Mabinogion - source of Cymraeg (Welsh) lore, dark myths and heroic legend | Source

CULHWCH

Son of Glydd and Goleuddydd in Welsh myth - when his mother died his father married again, despite his wife having begged him not to. Culhwch's stepmother wished him to marry her daughter. When he spurned the offer of her daughter, the stepmother lay a curse on him, that he could only wed Olwen, daughter of the giant Yspaddaden. Culhwch had to find Olwen first and he gathered a few men - each chosen for a particular skill - to help him in his task.

After divers exploits they met Culhwch's aunt, who agreed to broker a meeting between him and Olwen. On meeting, she agreed to wed Culhwch but pointed out that he would have to ask her father for her hand, and that Yspaddaden would set conditions before agreeing to their marriage.

She was right, but Culhwch still had to meet her father's terms. Three days he and his companions went to the giant's castle - one day after another - only to be told to come back the day after. Each time, as they turned to leave the giant threw a poisoned spear after them. each time Culhwch and his companions caught the spear in mid-flight and hurled them back.

[In one telling of the legend the poisoned point hit Yspaddaden on the chest and eye]

On the fourth day Yspaddaden agreed to the wedding but set Culhwch several hard tasks. These he and his companions were only able to fulfil with supernatural help and the giant kept imposing conditions. Culhwch finally grew angry with the giant and gathered an army to storm Yspaddaden's castle. The giant was finally overcome and Culhwch was able to wed Olwen.


Culhwch and his companians go onto the offensive
Culhwch and his companians go onto the offensive | Source

FERREX

A son of Carboduc and Judon in British Celtic mythology, he was the brother of Porrex and the two fell out over the succession. Porrex plotted an ambush on his brother, who learned about the plot and fled to Gaul to raise an army. Porrex killed him when he arrived back in Britain, destroying Ferrex's Gaulish allies. Judon went mad when she heard of her other son's slaying. She hacked Porrex to death on his return to the household, thus depriving the kingdom of an heir to Gorboduc. On the death of the king no-one was left of the bloodline of Brutus

Porrex siezes on the moment, defeating his brother Ferrex and his Gaulish army
Porrex siezes on the moment, defeating his brother Ferrex and his Gaulish army | Source

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2 comments

old albion profile image

old albion 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Alan. Your research is incredible. As usual you write with authority of one who knows. If you will forgive the frivolity, I used to live in Prestatyn but it was never like this. First class as usual.

voted up and all.

Graham.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Glad you like it, Graham. There's more to come - watch this space.

I think what there is left of the Welsh legends must be worth at least another two. then there's the Irish/Gaelic. (More guttural noises).

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