By J. A. MacCulloch.
Our knowledge of the gods of the Britons, i.e. as far as Wales is concerned, is derived, apart from inscriptions, from the Mabinogion, which, though found in a fourteenth century MS., was composed much earlier, and contains elements from a remote past. Besides this, the Triads, probably of twelfth-century origin, the Taliesin, and other poems, though obscure and artificial, the work of many a “confused bard driveling” (to cite the words of one of them), preserve echoes of the old mythology. Some of the gods may lurk behind the personages of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Britonum and of the Arthurian cycle, though here great caution is required. The divinities have become heroes and heroines, kings and princesses, and if some of the episodes are based on ancient myths, they are treated in a romantic spirit. Other episodes are mere Maerchen formulae. Like the wreckage of some rich galleon, the debris of the old mythology has been used to construct a new fabric, and the old divinities have even less of the god-like traits of the personages of the Irish texts.
Some of the personages bear similar names to the Irish divinities, and in some cases there is a certain similarity of incidents to those of the Irish tales. Are, then, the gods dimly revealed in Welsh literature as much Goidelic as Britonic? Analyzing the incidents of the Mabinogion, Professor Anwyl has shown that they have an entirely local character, and are mainly associated with the districts of Dyfed and Gwent, of Anglesey, and of Gwynedd, of which Pryderi, Branwen, and Gwydion are respectively the heroic characters. These are the districts where a strong Goidelic element prevailed, whether these Goidels were the original inhabitants of Britain, driven there by Britons, or tribes who had settled there from Ireland, or perhaps a mixture of both. In any case they had been conquered by Britons and had become Britonic in speech from the fifth century onwards. On account of this Goidelic element, it has been claimed that the personages of the Mabinogion are purely Goidelic. But examination proves that only a few are directly parallel in name with Irish divinities, and while here there are fundamental likenesses, the incidents with Irish parallels may be due to mere superficial borrowings, to that interchange of Maerchen and mythical donnees which has everywhere occurred. Many incidents have no Irish parallels, and most of the characters are entirely different in name from Irish divinities. Hence any theory which would account for the likenesses, must also account for the differences, and must explain why, if the Mabinogion is due to Irish Goidels, there should have been few or no borrowings in Welsh literature from the popular Cuchulainn and Ossianic sagas, and why, at a time when Britonic elements were uppermost, such care should have been taken to preserve Goidelic myths. If the tales emanated from native Welsh Goidels, the explanation might be that they, the kindred of the Irish Goidels, must have had a certain community with them in divine names and myths, while others of their gods, more local in character, would differ in name. Or if they are Britonic, the likenesses might be accounted for by an early community in myth and cult among the common ancestors of Britons and Goidels. But as the date of the composition of the Mabinogion is comparatively late, at a time when Britons had overrun these Goidelic districts, more probably the tales contain a mingling of Goidelic (Irish or Welsh) and Britonic divinities, though some of these may be survivals of the common Celtic heritage. Celtic divinities were mainly of a local, tribal character. Hence some would be local Goidelic divinities, others, classed with these, local Britonic divinities. This would explain the absence of divinities and heroes of other local Britonic groups, e.g. Arthur, from the Mabinogion. But with the growing importance of these, they attracted to their legend the folk of the Mabinogion and other tales. These are associated with Arthur in Kulhwych, and the Don group mingles with that of Taliesin in the Taliesin poems. Hence Welsh literature, as far as concerns the old religion, may be regarded as including both local Goidelic and Britonic divinities, of whom the more purely Britonic are Arthur, Gwynn, Taliesin, etc. They are regarded as kings and queens, or as fairies, or they have magical powers. They are mortal and die, and the place of their burial is pointed out, or existing tumuli are associated with them, All this is parallel to the history of the Tuatha De Danann, and shows how the same process of degradation had been at work in Wales as in Ireland.
The story of the Llyr group is told in the Mabinogion of Branwen and of Manawyddan. They are associated with the Pwyll group, and apparently opposed to that of Don. Branwen is married to Matholwych, king of Ireland, but is ill-treated by him on account of the insults of the mischievous Evnissyen, in spite of the fact that Bran had atoned for the insult by many gifts, including that of a cauldron of regeneration. Now he crosses with an army to Ireland, where Evnissyen throws Branwen’s child, to whom the kingdom is given, on the fire. A fight ensues; the dead Irish warriors are resuscitated in the cauldron, but Evnissyen, at the cost of his life, destroys it. Bran is slain, and by his directions his head is cut off and carried first to Harlech, then to Gwales, where it will entertain its bearers for eighty years. At the end of that time it is to be taken to London and buried. Branwen, departing with the bearers, dies of a broken heart at Anglesey, and meanwhile Caswallyn, son of Beli, seizes the kingdom. Two of the bearers of the head are Manawyddan and Pryderi, whose fortunes we follow in the Mabinogi of the former. Pryderi gives his mother Rhiannon to Manawyddan as his wife, along with some land which by magic art is made barren. After following different crafts, they are led by a boar to a strange castle, where Rhiannon and Pryderi disappear along with the building. Manawyddan, with Pryderi’s wife Kieva, set out as shoemakers, but are forced to abandon this craft on account of the envy of the craftsmen. Finally, we learn how Manawyddan overcame the enchanter Llwyt, who, because of an insult offered by Pryderi’s father to his friend Gwawl, had made Rhiannon and Pryderi disappear. They are now restored, and Llwyt seeks no further revenge.
The story of Branwen is similar to a tale of which there are variants in Teutonic and Scandinavian sagas, but the resemblance is closer to the latter. Possibly a similar story with their respective divinities or heroes for its characters existed among Celts, Teutons, and Norsemen, but more likely it was borrowed from Norsemen who occupied both sides of the Irish Sea in the ninth and tenth century, and then naturalized by furnishing it with Celtic characters. But into this framework many native elements were set, and we may therefore scrutinize the story for Celtic mythical elements utilized by its redactor, who probably did not strip its Celtic personages of their earlier divine attributes. In the two Mabinogi these personages are Llyr, his sons Bran and Manawyddan, his daughter Branwen, their half-brothers Nissyen and Evnissyen, sons of Llyr’s wife Penardim, daughter of Beli, by a previous marriage with Eurosswyd.
Llyr is the equivalent of the Irish Ler, the sea-god, but two other Llyrs, probably duplicates of himself, are known to Welsh story—Llyr Marini, and the Llyr, father of Cordelia, of the chroniclers. He is constantly confused with Lludd Llawereint, e.g. both are described as one of three notable prisoners of Britain, and both are called fathers of Cordelia or Creiddylad. Perhaps the two were once identical, for Manannan is sometimes called son of Alloid (= Lludd), in Irish texts, as well as son of Ler. But the confusion may be accidental, nor is it certain that Nodons or Lludd was a sea-god. Llyr’s prison was that of Eurosswyd, whose wife he may have abducted and hence suffered imprisonment. In the Black Book of Caermarthen Bran is called son of Y Werydd or “Ocean,” according to M. Loth’s interpretation of the name, which would thus point to Llyr’s position as a sea-god. But this is contested by Professor Rhys who makes Ywerit wife of Llyr, the name being in his view a form of the Welsh word for Ireland. In Geoffrey and the chroniclers Llyr becomes a king of Britain whose history and that of his daughters was immortalised by Shakespeare. Geoffrey also refers to Llyr’s burial in a vault built in honour of Janus. On this Professor Rhys builds a theory that Llyr was a form of the Celtic Dis with two faces and ruler of a world of darkness. But there is no evidence that the Celtic Dispater was lord of a gloomy underworld, and it is best to regard Llyr as a sea-divinity.
Manawyddan is not god-like in these tales in the sense in which the majestic Manannan of Irish story is, though elsewhere we learn that “deep was his counsel.” Though not a magician, he baffles one of the great wizards of Welsh story, and he is also a master craftsman, who instructs Pryderi in the arts of shoe-making, shield-making, and saddlery. In this he is akin to Manannan, the teacher of Diarmaid. Incidents of his career are reflected in the Triads, and his union with Rhiannon may point to an old myth in which they were from the first a divine pair, parents of Pryderi. This would give point to his deliverance of Pryderi and Rhiannon from the hostile magician. Rhiannon resembles the Irish Elysium goddesses, and Manawyddan, like Manannan, is lord of Elysium in a Taliesin poem. He is a craftsman and follows agriculture, perhaps a reminiscence of the old belief that fertility and culture come from the god’s land. Manawyddan, like other divinities, was drawn into the Arthurian cycle, and is one of those who capture the famous boar, the Twrch Trwyth.
Bran, or Bendigeit Vran (“Bran the Blessed”), probably an old pagan title which appropriately enough denotes one who figured later in Christian hagiology, is so huge that no house or ship can hold him. Hence he wades over to Ireland, and as he draws near is thought to be a mountain. This may be an archaic method of expressing his divinity—a gigantic non-natural man like some of the Tuatha Dea and Ossianic heroes. But Bran also appears as the Urdawl Ben, or “Noble Head,” which makes time pass to its bearers like a dream, and when buried protects the land from invasion. Both as a giant squatting on a rock and as a head, Bran is equated by Professor Rhys with Cernunnos, the squatting god, represented also as a head, and also with the Welsh Urien whose attribute was a raven, the supposed meaning of Bran’s name. He further equates him with Uthr Ben, “Wonderful Head,” the superior bard, harper and piper of a Taliesin poem. Urien, Bran, and Uthr are three forms of a god worshipped by bards, and a “dark” divinity, whose wading over to Ireland signifies crossing to Hades, of which he, like Yama, who first crossed the rapid waters to the land of death, is the ruler. But Bran is not a “dark” god in the sense implied here. Cernunnos is god of a happy underworld, and there is nothing dark or evil in him or in Bran and his congeners. Professor Rhys’s “dark” divinities are sometimes, in his view, “light” gods, but they cannot be both. The Celtic lords of the dead had no “dark” character, and as gods of fertility they were, so to speak, in league with the sun-god, the slayer of Bran, according to Professor Rhys’s ingenious theory. And although to distracted Irish secretaries Ireland may be Hades, its introduction into this Mabinogi merely points to the interpretation of a mythico-historic connection between Wales and Ireland. Thus if Bran is Cernunnos, this is because he is a lord of the underworld of fertility, the counterpart of which is the distant Elysium, to which Bran seems rather to belong. Thus, in presence of his head, time passes as a dream in feasting and joy. This is a true Elysian note, and the tabued door of the story is also suggestive of the tabus of Elysium, which when broken rob men of happiness. As to the power of the head in protecting the land, this points to actual custom and belief regarding the relics of the dead and the power of divine images or sculptured heads. The god Bran has become a king and law-giver in the Mabinogion and the Triads, while Geoffrey of Monmouth describes how Belinus and Brennus, in the Welsh version Beli and Bran, dispute the crown of Britain, are reconciled, and finally conquer Gaul and Rome. The mythic Bran is confused with Brennus, leader of the Gauls against Rome in 390 B.C., and Belinus may be the god Belenos, as well as Beli, father of Lludd and Caswallawn. But Bran also figures as a Christian missionary. He is described as hostage at Rome for his son Caradawc, returning thence as preacher of Christianity to the Cymry—a legend arising out of a misunderstanding of his epithet “Blessed” and a confusing of his son with the historic Caractacus. Hence Bran’s family is spoken of as one of the three saintly families of Prydein, and he is ancestor of many saints.
Branwen, “White Bosom,” daughter of a sea-god, may be a sea-goddess, “Venus of the northern sea,” unless with Mr. Nutt we connect her with the cauldron described in her legend, symbol of an orgiastic cult, and regard her as a goddess of fertility. But the connection is not clear in the story, though in some earlier myth the cauldron may have been her property. As Brangwaine, she reappears in romance, giving a love-potion to Tristram—perhaps a reminiscence of her former functions as a goddess of love, or earlier of fertility. In the Mabinogion she is buried in Anglesey at Ynys Bronwen, where a cairn with bones discovered in 1813 was held to be the grave and remains of Branwen.
The children of Don, the equivalent of Danu, and probably like her, a goddess of fertility, are Gwydion, Gilvaethwy, Amaethon, Govannon, and Arianrhod, with her sons, Dylan and Llew. These correspond, therefore, in part to the Tuatha Dea, though the only members of the group who bear names similar to the Irish gods are Govannon (= Goibniu) and possibly Llew (= Lug). Gwydion as a culture-god corresponds to Ogma. In the Triads Beli is called father of Arianrhod, and assuming that this Arianrhod is identical with the daughter of Don, Professor Rhys regards Beli as husband of Don. But the identification is far from certain, and the theory built upon it that Beli is one with the Irish Bile, and that both are lords of a dark underworld, has already been found precarious. In later belief Don was associated with the stars, the constellation Cassiopeia being called her court. She is described as “wise” in a Taliesin poem.
This group of divinities is met with mainly in the Mabinogi of Math, which turns upon Gilvaethwy’s illicit love of Math’s “foot-holder” Goewin. To assist him in his amour, Gwydion, by a magical trick, procures for Math from the court of Pryderi certain swine sent him by Arawn, king of Annwfn. In the battle which follows when the trick is discovered, Gwydion slays Pryderi by enchantment. Math now discovers that Gilvaethwy has seduced Goewin, and transforms him and Gwydion successively into deer, swine, and wolves. Restored to human form, Gwydion proposes that Arianrhod should be Math’s foot-holder, but Math by a magic test discovers that she is not a virgin. She bears two sons, Dylan, fostered by Math, and another whom Gwydion nurtures and for whom he afterwards by a trick obtains a name from Arianrhod, who had sworn never to name him. The name is Llew Llaw Gyffes, “Lion of the Sure Hand.” By magic, Math and Gwydion form a wife for Llew out of flowers. She is called Blodeuwedd, and later, at the instigation of a lover, Gronw, she discovers how Llew can be killed. Gronw attacks and wounds him, and he flies off as an eagle. Gwydion seeks for Llew, discovers him, and retransforms him to human shape. Then he changes Blodeuwedd into an owl, and slays Gronw. Several independent tales have gone to the formation of this Mabinogi, but we are concerned here merely with the light it may throw on the divine characters who figure in it.
Math or Math Hen, “the Ancient,” is probably an old divinity of Gwyned, of which he is called lord. He is a king and a magician, pre-eminent in wizardry, which he teaches to Gwydion, and in a Triad he is called one of the great men of magic and metamorphosis of Britain. More important are his traits of goodness to the suffering, and justice with no trace of vengeance to the wrong-doer. Whether these are derived from his character as a god or from the Celtic kingly ideal, it is impossible to say, though the former is by no means unlikely. Possibly his supreme magical powers make him the equivalent of the Irish “god of Druidism,” but this is uncertain, since all gods were more or less dowered with these.
Gwydion’s magical powers are abundantly illustrated in the tale. At Pryderi’s court he changes fungus into horses and dogs, and afterwards slays Pryderi by power of enchantments; he produces a fleet by magic before Arianrhod’s castle; with Math’s help he forms Blodeuwedd out of flowers; he gives Llew his natural shape when he finds him as a wasted eagle on a tree, his flesh and the worms breeding in it dropping from him; he transforms the faithless Blodeuwedd into an owl. Some of these and other deeds are referred to in the Taliesin poems, while Taliesin describes himself as enchanted by Gwydion. In the Triads he is one of the three great astrologers of Prydein, and this emphasis laid on his powers of divination is significant when it is considered that his name may be derived from a root vet, giving words meaning “saying” or “poetry,” while cognate words are Irish faith, “a prophet” or “poet,” German wuth, “rage,” and the name of Odinn. The name is suggestive of the ecstasy of inspiration producing prophetic and poetic utterance. In the Mabinogion he is a mighty bard, and in a poem, he, under the name of Gweir, is imprisoned in the Other-world, and there becomes a bard, thus receiving inspiration from the gods’ land. He is the ideal faith--diviner, prophet, and poet, and thus the god of those professing these arts. Strabo describes how the Celtic vates (faith) was also a philosopher, and this character is given in a poem to Seon (probably = Gwydion), whose artists are poets and magicians. But he is also a culture-god, bringing swine to men from the gods’ land. For though Pryderi is described as a mortal who has himself received the swine from Annwfn (Elysium), there is no doubt that he himself was a lord of Annwfn, and it was probably on account of Gwydion’s theft from Annwfn that he, as Gweir, was imprisoned there “through the messenger of Pwyll and Pryderi.” A raid is here made directly on the god’s land for the benefit of men, and it is unsuccessful, but in the Mabinogi a different version of the raid is told. Perhaps Gwydion also brought kine from Annwfn, since he is called one of the three herds of Britain, while he himself may once have been an animal god, then an anthropomorphic deity associated with animals. Thus in the Mabinogi, when Gwydion flees with the swine, he rests each night at a place one of the syllables of which is Moch, “swine”—an aetiological myth explaining why places which were once sites of the cult of a swine-god, afterwards worshipped as Gwydion, were so called.
Gwydion has also a tricky, fraudulent character in the Mabinogi, and although “in his life there was counsel,” yet he had a “vicious muse.” It is also implied that he is lover of his sister Arianrhod and father of Dylan and Llew—the mythic reflections of a time when such unions, perhaps only in royal houses, were permissible. Instances occur in Irish tales, and Arthur was also his sister’s lover. In later belief Gwydion was associated with the stars; and the Milky Way was called Caer Gwydion. Across it he had chased the faithless Blodeuwedd. Professor Rhys equates him with Odinn, and regards both as representing an older Celto-Teutonic hero, though many of the alleged similarities in their respective mythologies are not too obvious.
Amaethon the good is described in Kulhwych as the only husbandman who could till or dress a certain piece of land, though Kulhwych will not be able to force him or to make him follow him. This, together with the name Amaethon, from Cymric amaeth, “labourer” or “ploughman,” throws some light on his functions. He was a god associated with agriculture, either as one who made waste places fruitful, or possibly as an anthropomorphic corn divinity. But elsewhere his taking a roebuck and a whelp, and in a Triad, a lapwing from Arawn, king of Annwfn, led to the battle of Godeu, in which he fought Arawn, aided by Gwydion, who vanquished one of Arawn’s warriors, Bran, by discovering his name. Amaethon, who brings useful animals from the gods’ land, plays the same part as Gwydion, bringer of the swine. The dog and deer are frequent representatives of the corn-spirit, of which Amaethon may have been an anthropomorphic form, or they, with the lapwing, may have been earlier worshipful animals, associated with Amaethon as his symbols, while later myth told how he had procured them from Annwfn.
The divine functions of Llew Llaw Gyffes are hardly apparent in the Mabinogi. The incident of Blodeuwedd’s unfaithfulness is simply that of the Maerchen formula of the treacherous wife who discovers the secret of her husband’s life, and thus puts him at her lover’s mercy. But since Llew is not slain, but changes to eagle form, this unusual ending may mean that he was once a bird divinity, the eagle later becoming his symbol. Some myth must have told of his death, or he was afterwards regarded as a mortal who died, for a poem mentions his tomb, and adds, “he was a man who never gave justice to any one.” Dr. Skene suggests that truth, not justice, is here meant, and finds in this a reference to Llew’s disguises. Professor Rhys, for reasons not held convincing by M. Loth, holds that Llew, “lion,” was a misapprehension for his true name Lleu, interpreted by him “light.” This meaning he also gives to Lug, equating Lug and Llew, and regarding both as sun-gods. He also equates Llaw Gyffes, “steady or strong hand,” with Lug’s epithet Lam fada, “long hand,” suggesting that gyffes may have meant “long,” although it was Llew’s steadiness of hand in shooting which earned him the title. Again, Llew’s rapid growth need not make him the sun, for this was a privilege of many heroes who had no connection with the sun. Llew’s unfortunate matrimonial affairs are also regarded as a sun myth. Blodeuwedd is a dawn goddess dividing her love between the sun-god and the prince of darkness. Llew as the sun is overcome by the latter, but is restored by the culture-hero Gwydion, who slays the dark rival. The transformation of Blodeuwedd into an owl means that the Dawn has become the Dusk. As we have seen, all this is a Maerchen formula with no mythical significance. Evidence of the precariousness of such an interpretation is furnished from the similar interpretation of the story of Curoi’s wife, Blathnat, whose lover Cuchulainn slew Curoi. Here a supposed sun-god is the treacherous villain who kills a dark divinity, husband of a dawn goddess.
If Llew is a sun-god, the equivalent of Lug, it is curious that he is never connected with the August festival in Wales which corresponds to Lugnasad in Ireland. There may be some support to the theory which makes him a sun-god in a Triad where he is one of the three ruddroawc who cause a year’s sterility wherever they set their feet, though in this Arthur excels them, for he causes seven years’ sterility! Does this point to the scorching of vegetation by the summer sun? The mythologists have not made use of this incident. On the whole the evidence for Llew as a sun-god is not convincing. The strongest reason for identifying him with Lug rests on the fact that both have uncles who are smiths and have similar names—Govannon and Gavida (Goibniu). Like Amaethon, Govannon, the artificer or smith (gof, “smith”), is mentioned in Kulhwych as one whose help must be gained to wait at the end of the furrows to cleanse the iron of the plough. Here he is brought into connection with the plough, but the myth to which the words refer is lost. A Taliesin poem associates him with Math—“I have been with artificers, with the old Math and with Govannon,” and refers to his Caer or castle.
Arianrhod, “silver wheel,” has a twofold character. She pretends to be a virgin, and disclaims all knowledge of her son Llew, yet she is mistress of Gwydion. In the Triads she appears as one of the three blessed (or white) ladies of Britain. Perhaps these two aspects of her character may point to a divergence between religion and mythology, the cult of a virgin goddess of whom myth told discreditable things. More likely she was an old Earth-goddess, at once a virgin and a fruitful mother, like Artemis, the virgin goddess, yet neither chaste nor fair, or like a Babylonian goddess addressed as at once “mother, wife, and maid.” Arianrhod, “beauty famed beyond summer’s dawn,” is mentioned in a Taliesin poem, and she was later associated with the constellation Corona Borealis. Possibly her real name was forgotten, and that of Arianrhod derived from a place-name, “Caer Arianrhod,” associated with her. The interpretation which makes her a dawn goddess, mother of light, Lleu, and darkness, Dylan, is far from obvious. Dylan, after his baptism, rushed into the sea, the nature of which became his. No wave ever broke under him; he swam like a fish; and hence was called Dylan Eil Ton or “son of the wave.” Govannon, his uncle, slew him, an incident interpreted as the defeat of darkness, which “hies away to lurk in the sea.” Dylan, however, has no dark traits and is described as a blonde. The waves lament his death, and, as they dash against the shore, seek to avenge it. His grave is “where the wave makes a sullen sound,” but popular belief identifies him with the waves, and their noise as they press into the Conway is his dying groan. Not only is he Eil Ton, “son of the wave,” but also Eil Mor, “son of the sea.” He is thus a local sea-god, and like Manannan identified with the waves, and yet separate from them, since they mourn his death. The Mabinogi gives us the debris of myths explaining how an anthropomorphic sea-god was connected with the goddess Arianrhod and slain by a god Govannon.
Another Mabinogion group is that of Pwyll, prince of Dyved, his wife Rhiannon, and their son Pryderi. Pwyll agrees with Arawn, king of Annwfn (Elysium), to reign over his kingdom for a year. At the end of that time he slays Arawn’s rival Havgan. Arawn sends him gifts, and Pwyll is now known as Pen or Head of Annwfn, a title showing that he was once a god, belonging to the gods’ land, later identified with the Christian Hades. Pwyll now agrees with Rhiannon, who appears mysteriously on a magic hillock, and whom he captures, to rid her of an unwelcome suitor Gwawl. He imprisons him in a magical bag, and Rhiannon weds Pwyll. The story thus resolves itself into the formula of the Fairy Bride, but it paves the way for the vengeance taken on Pryderi and Rhiannon by Gwawl’s friend Llwyt. Rhiannon has a son who is stolen as soon as born. She is accused of slaying him and is degraded, but Teyrnon recovers the child from its super-human robber and calls him Gwri. As he grows up, Teyrnon notices his resemblance to Pwyll, and takes him to his court. Rhiannon is reinstated, and because she cries that her anguish (pryderi) is gone, the boy is now called Pryderi. Here, again, we have Maerchen incidents, which also appear in the Fionn saga.
Though there is little that is mythological here, it is evident that Pwyll is a god and Rhiannon a goddess, whose early importance, like that of other Celtic goddesses, appears from her name, a corruption of Rigantona, “great queen.” Elsewhere we hear of her magic birds whose song charmed Bran’s companions for seven years, and of her marriage to Manawyddan—an old myth in which Manawyddan may have been Pryderi’s father, while possibly in some other myth Pryderi may have been child of Rigantona and Teyrnon (=Tigernonos, “king”). We may postulate an old Rhiannon saga, fragments of which are to be found in the Mabinogi, and there may have been more than one goddess called Rigantona, later fused into one. But in the tales she is merely a queen of old romance.
Pryderi, as has been seen, was despoiled of his swine by Gwydion. They were the gift of Arawn, but in the Triads they seem to have been brought from Annwfn by Pwyll, while Pryderi acted as swineherd. Both Pwyll and Pryderi are thus connected with those myths which told of the bringing of domestic animals from the gods’ land. But since they are certainly gods, associated with the gods’ land, this is perhaps the result of misunderstanding. A poem speaks of the magic cauldron of Pen Annwfn, i.e. Pwyll, and this points to a myth explaining his connection with Annwfn in a different way from the account in the Mabinogi. The poem also tells how Gweir was imprisoned in Caer Sidi (=Annwfn) “through the messenger of Pwyll and Pryderi.” They are thus lords of Annwfn, whose swine Gweir (Gwydion) tries to steal. Elsewhere Caer Sidi is associated with Manawyddan and Pryderi, perhaps a reference to their connection as father and son. Thus Pryderi and Pwyll belong to the bright Elysium, and may once have been gods of fertility associated with the under-earth region, which was by no means a world of darkness. Whatever be the meaning of the death of Pryderi at the hands of Gwydion, it is connected with later references to his grave.
A fourth group is that of Beli and his sons, referred to in the Mabinogi of Branwen, where one of them, Caswallawn, usurps the throne, and thus makes Manawyddan, like MacGregor, landless. In the Dream of Maxen, the sons of Beli are Lludd, Caswallawn, Nynnyaw, and Llevelys. Geoffrey calls Beli Heli, and speaks of an earlier king Belinus, at enmity with his brother Brennius. But probably Beli or Heli and Belinus are one and the same, and both represent the earlier god Belenos. Caswellawn becomes Cassivellaunus, opponent of Caesar, but in the Mabinogi he is hostile to the race of Llyr, and this may be connected with whatever underlies Geoffrey’s account of the hostility of Belinus and Brennius (=Bran, son of Llyr), perhaps, like the enmity of the race of D'^o]n to Pryderi, a reminiscence of the strife of rival tribes or of Goidel and Brython. As has been seen, the evidence for regarding Beli as D'o]n’s consort or the equivalent of Bile is slender. Nor, if he is Belenos, the equivalent of Apollo, is he in any sense a “dark” god. He is regarded as a victorious champion, preserver of his “honey isle” and of the stability of his kingdom, in a Taliesin poem and in the Triads.
The personality of Casswallawn is lost in that of the historic Cassivellaunus, but in a reference to him in the Triads where, with Caradawc and Gweirydd, he bears the title “war king,” we may see a glimpse of his divine character, that of a god of war, invisibly leading on armies to battle, and as such embodied in great chiefs who bore his name. Nynnyaw appears in Geoffrey’s pages as Nennius, who dies of wounds inflicted by Caesar, to the great grief of Cassivellaunus.
The theory that Lludd Llaw Ereint or Lodens Lamargentios represents Nodens (Nuada) L[=a]margentios, the change being the result of alliteration, has been contested, while if the Welsh Lludd and Nudd were identical it is strange that they should have become distinct personalities, Gwyn, son of Nudd, being the lover of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, unless in some earlier myth their love was that of brother and sister. Lludd is also confused or is identical with Llyr, just as the Irish Ler is with Alloid. He is probably the son of Beli who, in the tale of Lludd and Llevelys, by the advice of Llevelys rids his country of three plagues. These are, first, the Coranians who hear every whisper, and whom he destroys by throwing over them water in which certain insects given him by Levelys have been bruised. The second is a shriek on May-eve which makes land and water barren, and is caused by a dragon which attacks the dragon of the land. These Lludd captures and imprisons at Dinas Emreis, where they afterwards cause trouble to Vortigern at the building of his castle. The third is that of the disappearance of a year’s supply of food by a magician, who lulls every one to sleep and who is captured by Lludd. Though the Coranians appear in the Triads as a hostile tribe, they may have been a supernatural folk, since their name is perhaps derived from cor, “dwarf,” and they are now regarded as mischievous fairies. They may thus be analogous to the Fomorians, and their story, like that of the dragon and the magician who produce blight and loss of food, may be based on older myth or ritual embodying the belief in powers hostile to fertility, though it is not clear why those powers should be most active on May-day. But this may be a misunderstanding, and the dragons are overcome on May-eve. The references in the tale to Lludd’s generosity and liberality in giving food may reflect his function as a god of growth, but, like other euhemerised gods, he is also called a mighty warrior, and is said to have rebuilt the walls of Caer Ludd (London), his name still surviving in “Ludgate Hill,” where he was buried. This legend doubtless points to some ancient cult of Lludd at this spot.
Nudd already discussed under his title Nodons, is less prominent than his son Gwyn, whose fight with Gwthur we have explained as a mythic explanation of ritual combats for the increase of fertility. He also appears as a hunter and as a great warrior, “the hope of armies,” and thus he may be a god of fertility who became a god of war and the chase. But legend associated him with Annwfn, and regarded him, like the Tuatha Dea, as a king of fairyland. In the legend of S. Collen, the saint tells two men, whom he overhears speaking of Gwyn and the fairies, that these are demons. “Thou shalt receive a reproof from Gwyn,” said one of them, and soon after Collen was summoned to meet the king of Annwfn on Glastonbury Tor. He climbed the hill with a flask of holy water, and saw on its top a splendid castle, with crowds of beautiful and youthful folk, while the air resounded with music. He was brought to Gwyn, who politely offered him food, but “I will not eat of the leaves of the tree,” cried the saint; and when he was asked to admire the dresses of the crowd, all he would say was that the red signified burning, the blue coldness. Then he threw the holy water over them, and nothing was left but the bare hillside. Though Gwyn’s court on Glastonbury is a local Celtic Elysium, which was actually located there, the story marks the hostility of the Church to the cult of Gwyn, perhaps practised on hilltops, and this is further seen in the belief that he hunts souls of the wicked and is connected with Annwfn in its later sense of hell. But a mediant view is found in Kulhwych, where it is said of him that he restrains the demons of hell lest they should destroy the people of this world. In the Triads he is, like other gods, a great magician and astrologer.
Another group, unknown to the Mabinogion, save that Taliesin is one of the bearers of Bran’s head, is found in the Book of Taliesin and in the late story of Taliesin. These, like the Arthur cycle, often refer to personages of the Mabinogion; hence we gather that local groups of gods, originally distinct, were later mingled in story, the references in the poems reflecting this mingling. Late as is the Hanes Taliesin or story of Taliesin, and expressed as much of it is in a Maerchen formula, it is based on old myths about Cerridwen and Taliesin of which its compiler made use, following an old tradition already stereotyped in one of the poems in the Maerchen formula of the Transformation Combat. But the mythical fragments are also mingled with traditions regarding the sixth century poet Taliesin. The older saga was perhaps developed in a district south of the Dyfi estuary. In Lake Tegid dwell Tegid Voel, Cerridwen, and their children—the fair maiden Creirwy, Morvran, and the ugly Avagddu. To give Avagddu knowledge, his mother prepares a cauldron of inspiration from which three drops of inspiration will be produced. These fall on the finger of Gwion, whom she set to stir it. He put the finger in his mouth, and thus acquired the inspiration. He fled, and Cerridwen pursued, the rest of the story being accommodated to the Transformation Combat formula. Finally, Cerridwen as a hen swallows Gwion as a grain of wheat, and bears him as a child, whom she throws into the sea. Elphin, who rescues him, calls him Taliesin, and brings him up as a bard.
The water-world of Tegid is a submarine Elysium with the customary cauldron of inspiration, regeneration, and fertility, like the cauldron associated with a water-world in the Mabinogion. “Shall not my chair be defended from the cauldron of Cerridwen,” runs a line in a Taliesin poem, while another speaks of her chair, which was probably in Elysium like that of Taliesin himself in Caer Sidi. Further references to her connection with poetry show that she may have been worshipped by bards, her cauldron being the source of their inspiration. Her anger at Gwion may point to some form of the Celtic myth of the theft of the elements of culture from the gods’ land. But the cauldron was first of all associated with a fertility cult, and Cerridwen must therefore once have been a goddess of fertility, who, like Brigit, was later worshipped by bards. She may also have been a corn-goddess, since she is called a goddess of grain, and tradition associates the pig—a common embodiment of the corn-spirit—with her. If the tradition is correct, this would be an instance, like that of Demeter and the pig, of an animal embodiment of the corn-spirit being connected with a later anthropomorphic corn-goddess.
Taliesin was probably an old god of poetic inspiration confused with the sixth century poet of the same name, perhaps because this boastful poet identified himself or was identified by other bards with the gods. He speaks of his “splendid chair, inspiration of fluent and urgent song” in Caer Sidi or Elysium, and, speaking in the god’s name or identifying himself with him, describes his presence with Llew, Bran, Gwydion, and others, as well as his creation and his enchantment before he became immortal. He was present with Arthur when a cauldron was stolen from Aunwfn, and basing his verses on the mythic transformations and rebirths of the gods, recounts in highly inflated language his own numerous forms and rebirths. His claims resemble those of the Shaman who has the entree of the spirit-world and can transform himself at will. Taliesin’s rebirth is connected with his acquiring of inspiration. These incidents appear separately in the story of Fionn, who acquired his inspiration by an accident, and was also said to have been reborn as Mongan. They are myths common to various branches of the Celtic people, and applied in different combinations to outstanding gods or heroes. The Taliesin poems show that there may have been two gods or two mythic aspects of one god, later combined together. He is the son of the goddess and dwells in the divine land, but he is also a culture-hero stealing from the divine land. Perhaps the myths reflect the encroachment of the cult of a god on that of a goddess, his worshippers regarding him as her son, her worshippers reflecting their hostility to the new god in a myth of her enmity to him. Finally, the legend of the rescue of Taliesin the poet from the waves became a myth of the divine outcast child rescued by Elphin, and proving himself a bard when normal infants are merely babbling.
The occasional and obscure references to the other members of this group throw little light on their functions, save that Morvran, “sea-crow,” is described in Kulhwych as so ugly and terrible that no one would strike him at the battle of Camlan. He may have been a war-god, like the scald-crow goddesses of Ireland, and he is also spoken of in the Triads as an “obstructor of slaughter” or “support of battle.”
Ingenuity and speculation have busied themselves with trying to prove that the personages of the Arthurian cycle are the old gods of the Brythons, and the incidents of the romances fragments of the old mythology. While some of these personages—those already present in genuinely old Welsh tales and poems or in Geoffrey’s History--are reminiscent of the old gods, the romantic presentment of them in the cycle itself is so largely imaginative, that nothing certain can be gained from it for the understanding of the old mythology, much less the old religion. Incidents which are the common stock of real life as well as of romance are interpreted mythologically, and it is never quite obvious why the slaying of one hero by another should signify the conquest of a dark divinity by a solar hero, or why the capture of a heroine by one knight when she is beloved of another, should make her a dawn-goddess sharing her favours, now with the sun-god, now with a “dark” divinity. Or, even granting the truth of this method, what light does it throw on Celtic religion?
We may postulate a local Arthur saga fusing an old Brythonic god with the historic sixth century Arthur. From this or from Geoffrey’s handling of it sprang the great romantic cycle. In the ninth century Nennius Arthur is the historic war-chief, possibly Count of Britain, but in the reference to his hunting the Porcus Troit (the Twrch Trwyth) the mythic Arthur momentarily appears. Geoffrey’s Arthur differs from the later Arthur of romance, and he may have partially rationalised the saga, which was either of recent formation or else local and obscure, since there is no reference to Arthur in the Mabinogion--a fact which shows that “in the legends of Gwynedd and Dyfedd he had no place whatever,” and also that Arthur the god or mythic hero was also purely local. In Geoffrey Arthur is the fruit of Igerna’s amour with Uther, to whom Merlin has given her husband’s shape. Arthur conquers many hosts as well as giants, and his court is the resort of all valorous persons. But he is at last wounded by his wife’s seducer, and carried to the Isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, and nothing more is ever heard of him. Some of these incidents occur also in the stories of Fionn and Mongan, and those of the mysterious begetting of a wonder child and his final disappearance into fairyland are local forms of a tale common to all branches of the Celts. This was fitted to the history of the local god or hero Arthur, giving rise to the local saga, to which was afterwards added events from the life of the historic Arthur. This complex saga must then have acquired a wider fame long before the romantic cycle took its place, as is suggested by the purely Welsh tales of Kulhwych and the Dream of Rhonabwy, in the former of which the personages (gods) of the Mabinogion figure in Arthur’s train, though he is far from being the Arthur of the romances. Sporadic references to Arthur occur also in Welsh literature, and to the earlier saga belongs the Arthur who spoils Elysium of its cauldron in a Taliesin poem. In the Triads there is a mingling of the historic, the saga, and the later romance Arthur, but probably as a result of the growing popularity of the saga Arthur he is added to many Triads as a more remarkable person than the three whom they describe. Arthurian place-names over the Brythonic area are more probably the result of the popularity of the saga than that of the later romantic cycle, a parallel instance being found in the extent of Ossianic place-names over the Goidelic area as a result of the spread of the Fionn saga.
The character of the romance Arthur—the flower of knighthood and a great warrior—and the blending of the historic war-leader Arthur with the mythic Arthur, suggest that the latter was the ideal hero of certain Brythonic groups, as Fionn and Cuchulainn of certain Goidelic groups. He may have been the object of a cult as these heroes perhaps were, or he may have been a god more and more idealised as a hero. If the earlier form of his name was Artor, “a ploughman,” but perhaps with a wider significance, and having an equivalent in Artaius, a Gaulish god equated with Mercury, he may have been a god of agriculture who became a war-god. But he was also regarded as a culture-hero, stealing a cauldron and also swine from the gods’ land, the last incident euhemerised into the tale of an unsuccessful theft from March, son of Meirchion, while, like other culture-heroes, he is a bard. To his story was easily fitted that of the wonder-child, who, having finally disappeared into Elysium (later located at Glastonbury), would reappear one day, like Fionn, as the Saviour of his people. The local Arthur finally attained a fame far exceeding that of any Brythonic god or hero.
Merlin, or Myrddin, appears in the romances as a great magician who is finally overcome by the Lady of the Lake, and is in Geoffrey son of a mysterious invisible personage who visits a woman, and, finally taking human shape, begets Merlin. As a son who never had a father he is chosen as the foundation sacrifice for Vortigern’s tower by his magicians, but he confutes them and shows why the tower can never be built, namely, because of the dragons in the pool beneath it. Then follow his prophecies regarding the dragons and the future of the country, and the story of his removal of the Giant’s Dance, or Stonehenge, from Ireland to its present site—an aetiological myth explaining the origin of the great stone circle. His description of how the giants used the water with which they washed the stones for the cure of sickness or wounds, probably points to some ritual for healing in connection with these megaliths. Finally, we hear of his transformation of the lovelorn Uther and of his confidant Ulfin, as well as of himself. Here he appears as little more than an ideal magician, possibly an old god, like the Irish “god of Druidism,” to whose legend had been attached a story of supernatural conception. Professor Rhys regards him as a Celtic Zeus or as the sun, because late legends tell of his disappearance in a glass house into the sea. The glass house is the expanse of light travelling with the sun (Merlin), while the Lady of the Lake who comes daily to solace Merlin in his enchanted prison is a dawn-goddess. Stonehenge was probably a temple of this Celtic Zeus “whose late legendary self we have in Merlin.” Such late romantic episodes and an aetiological myth can hardly be regarded as affording safe basis for these views, and their mythological interpretation is more than doubtful. The sun is never prisoner of the dawn as Merlin is of Viviane. Merlin and his glass house disappear for ever, but the sun reappears every morning. Even the most poetic mythology must conform in some degree to actual phenomena, but this cannot be said of the systems of mythological interpretation. If Merlin belongs to the pagan period at all, he was probably an ideal magician or god of magicians, prominent, perhaps, in the Arthur saga as in the later romances, and credited with a mysterious origin and an equally mysterious ending, the latter described in many different ways.
The boastful Kei of the romances appears already in Kulhwych, while in Geoffrey he is Arthur’s seneschal. Nobler traits are his in later Welsh poetry; he is a mighty warrior, fighting even against a hundred, though his powers as a toper are also great. Here, too, his death is lamented. He may thus have been a god of war, and his battle-fury may be poetically described in a curious passage referring to him in Kulhwych: “His breath lasted nine days and nine nights under water. He could remain without sleep for the same period. No physician could heal a wound inflicted by his sword. When he pleased he could make himself as tall as the tallest tree in the wood. And when it rained hardest, whatever he carried remained dry above and below his hand to the distance of a handbreadth, so great was his natural heat. When it was coldest he was as glowing fuel to his companions.” This almost exactly resembles Cuchulainn’s aspect in his battle-fury. In a curious poem Gwenhyvar (Guinevere) extols his prowess as a warrior above that of Arthur, and in Kulhwych and elsewhere there is enmity between the two. This may point to Kei’s having been a god of tribes hostile to those of whom Arthur was hero.
Mabon, one of Arthur’s heroes in Kulhwych and the Dream of Rhonabwy, whose name, from mab (map), means “a youth,” may be one with the god Maponos equated with Apollo in Britain and Gaul, perhaps as a god of healing springs. His mother’s name, Modron, is a local form of Matrona, a river-goddess and probably one of the mother-goddesses as her name implies. In the Triads Mabon is one of the three eminent prisoners of Prydein. To obtain his help in hunting the magic boar his prison must be found, and this is done by animals, in accordance with a Maerchen formula, while the words spoken by them show the immense duration of his imprisonment—perhaps a hint of his immortality. But he was also said to have died and been buried at Nantlle, which, like Gloucester, the place of his prison, may have been a site of his widely extended cult.
* * * * *
Taken as a whole the various gods and heroes of the Brythons, so far as they are known to us, just as they resemble the Irish divinities in having been later regarded as mortals, magicians, and fairies, so they resemble them in their functions, dimly as these are perceived. They are associated with Elysium, they are lords of fertility and growth, of the sea, of the arts of culture and of war. The prominent position of certain goddesses may point to what has already been discovered of them in Gaul and Ireland—their pre-eminence and independence. But, like the divinities of Gaul and Ireland, those of Wales were mainly local in character, and only in a few cases attained a wider popularity and cult.
Certain British gods mentioned on inscriptions may be identified with some of those just considered—Nodons with Nudd or Lludd, Belenos with Belinus or Beli, Maponos with Mabon, Taranos (in continental inscriptions only), with a Taran mentioned in Kulhwych. Others are referred to in classical writings—Andrasta, a goddess of victory, to whom Boudicca prayed; Sul, a goddess of hot springs, equated with Minerva at Bath. Inscriptions also mention Epona, the horse-goddess; Brigantia, perhaps a form of Brigit; Belisama (the Mersey in Ptolemy), a goddess in Gaulish inscriptions. Others refer to the group goddesses, the Matres. Some gods are equated with Mars—Camulos, known also on the Continent and perhaps the same as Cumal, father of Fionn; Belatucadros, “comely in slaughter”; Cocidius, Corotiacus, Barrex, and Totatis (perhaps Lucan’s Teutates). Others are equated with Apollo in his character as a god of healing—Anextiomarus, Grannos (at Musselburgh and in many continental inscriptions), Arvalus, Mogons, etc. Most of these and many others found on isolated inscriptions were probably local in character, though some, occurring also on the Continent, had attained a wider popularity. But some of the inscriptions referring to the latter may be due to Gaulish soldiers quartered in Britain.
COMPARATIVE TABLE OF DIVINITIES WITH SIMILAR NAMES IN IRELAND, BRITAIN, AND GAUL.
Italics denote names found in Inscriptions.
IRELAND. BRITAIN. GAUL.
Anu Anna (?) Anoniredi, “chariot of Anu”
Beli, Belinus Belenos
Brigit Brigantia Brigindu
Bron Bran Brennus (?)
Cumal Camulos Camulos
Lug Llew or Lleu (?) Lugus, Lugores
Mabon, Maponos Maponos
Mider Medros (?)
Modron Matrona (?)
Nuada Nodons, Nudd
Hael, Lludd (?)
Totatis, Tutatis Teutates
Copyright © World Spirituality · All Rights Reserved