The character Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi tales, has been associated with the Irish god Lugh and therefore the pan-Celtic god Lugus. Linguistically the name ‘Lleu’ cannot have developed from the Irish ‘Lug(h)’ and can only have developed from Brythonic ‘Lugus’, so if we can indeed associate Lleu with Lugus, this is a direct development from Brythonic and not due to influence from medieval Irish tales. This suggests that any mythos from earlier times also developed separately in the lore and derived literature in each language. Ideally to make the connection with Lugus we would wish to have other evidence as well as the Mabinogi story. One possible source of additional confirmation is the Gododdin. This early Welsh poem is a series of elegies for warriors of the Gododdin tribe, mostly centred around the attack on Catraeth in northern England where many of them were slain. But the whole poem is not a connected narrative of that battle and some elegies concern other conflicts, in particular the part of the poem which is considered the earliest and which preserves most vestiges of Old Welsh in the Middle Welsh into which it was copied. This is also the most difficult part to interpret and is not included in all modern editions, but these three lines occur in the translation by John Koch (1):
The rock of Lleu’s tribe,
the folk of Lleu’s mountain stronghold
at Gododdin’s frontier ….
Unlike the verses which deal with an attack to the south, these lines refer to a defence of the territory on its northern edge facing across the Firth of Forth towards the lands of the Picts. The identification of Lleu here is also supported in a discussion of these lines by T M Charles Edwards (2), but other translations of these lines treat ‘lleu’ as meaning something like ‘open ground’ so, as often with the interpretation of early Welsh poetry, there is a lack of absolute clarity. But if the Gododdin (the Brythonic tribe known by the Romans as the Votadini) did think of themselves as ‘Lleu’s tribe’, then this would supply some confirmation to the identification of Lleu with Lugus in the Mabinogi tale.
If so, what significance does the narrative of that tale have in terms of the mythos of the god Lugus, and is there anywhere else we might look for Lleu?
In Ireland there are many stories about Lugh spanning many centuries. In some of these stories he is a god, in others he is mortal. In different versions of The Tain he is either the father of Cuchulainn or his otherworld persona/protector, even taking on his appearance and fighting for him when he is injured. In one of the earlier stories about him he acts in conjunction with the sovereignty goddess of Ireland to confer authority on a king spirited away to an otherworld fortress. By contrast in Wales there a few references to Lleu and only one extended narrative in which he obviously features. Before looking at the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi tales it is worth noting one other narrative where he might appear. The tale of Lludd and Llefelys included in the ‘Mabinogion’ collection usually appears in translation with the second of those two names spelt, as here, with an ‘f’ to indicate the ‘u’ of the medieval manuscript i.e.: Lleuelys. But the letter ‘u’ can also indicate an ‘ei’ sound (as in Lleu and Lludd). So there is some reason to suggest that the first part of Lleuelys could be Lleu’s name. Both Patrick Ford (3) and John Koch (4) have suggested this on the basis of a comparison by George Dumézil of the tale of Lludd and Lleuelys with the Irish tale of ‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuiredh’ where the equivalent characters are Nuadu and Lugh with the proposed derivation of both sets of names from Nodens and Lugus. In this analysis Brythonic Nodens becomes Welsh Nudd and then Lludd while Lugus becomes Lleu in the Mabinogi tales and Lleuelys in the tale of Lludd and Lleuelys where Lleuelys uses his great skill to ward off the three plagues that are oppressing the Island of Britain.
What of Lleu’s story in the Mabinogi? Here we have a more creatively shaped artefact. Can we extract the mythos of a god from the accidentals of a literary tale? His ‘steady hand’ with a spear, his skill with crafts , the circumstances of his birth and the ability to shape-shift after his ‘death’ all seem to stem from a divine nature. Like Pryderi (and Mabon) he is separated from his mother soon after birth and, also like Pryderi, he soon grows to the stature of a youth many years older than his age. But unlike Pryderi he is not re-united with his mother and has to shape an identity for himself without her help, or even the help of a surrogate mother. His uncle Gwydion aids him by both subterfuge and magical arts. In fact Gwydion might be regarded as much as his father as his uncle. Although his actual paternity is unstated one of the Old Welsh Genealogies mentions “Lou Hen map Guidgen” ( Old Lleu son of Gwydion) (5). Like the relationship between Cuchulainn and Lugh, the relationship between Lleu and Gwydion is both one of common family and one which spans the borders of the supernatural and the natural worlds.
Lleu has to ‘become’ himself with the aid of Gwydion with whom he shares the characteristics of a shape-shifter. Perhaps we can identify both Gwydion and Lleu as aspects of Lugus, differentiated in the medieval narrative but each an expression of the god in a different guise. In the first part of the tale, before Lleu is born, Gwydion is a powerful wizard who uses his magic negatively to trick Pryderi and help his brother to rape Goewin, but he himself is subject to the magic of Math who transforms the brothers into a series of animals who mate with each other and bear children as punishment for their transgression. Later Math and Gwydion seem to work as one to aid Lleu. Here their use of magic might seem more positive, but if we see Lleu and Gwydion as expressions of one identity, it could also been seen as reflexive magic worked to shape an identity as well as to conjure a wife out of flowers. This is the work of a trickster. Later, when Lleu has been pierced by Gronw’s spear, apparently fulfilling the complicated conditions for his death, he does not actually die but shape-shifts into an eagle, while the sovereignty of his lands passes for a time to Gronw. When Gwydion tracks him down and rescues him he chants a series of englyns which are regarded as older than the tale that contains them, or at least have retained older linguistic features from an earlier version. These are further spells of becoming, bringing Lleu back into the world. Lleu sitting as an eagle in the oak tree with his flesh falling from him is resonant with the sacrifice of Odinn ‘himself to himself’ if we see Gwydion and Lleu as a unified pair. We might, in comparing this tale with Lludd and Lleuelys, see Gwydion and Lleu as Nodens and Lugus. Or should we say, however they are differentiated elsewhere, the locus of each of them in Lugus in this tale is clear? LIeu returns to the human world, like Gwydion before him, after being cast out of it, only to throw the spear from his steady hand to kill Gronw and win back sovereignty of his lands. Here the mytheme of the Summer and the Winter kings seems to be shadowing the plot of the literary narrative. Consider that in the Irish story Lugh takes over from Nuadu in the fight against the Fomorian Balor, the mythological pattern and the story details equally served by the transfer of power in each case.
So there are a number of mythical elements woven into the tale. But it is also a story shaped by a human narrator who creates lives for his characters that engage the human listeners in events that also appear to be about human characters. If the gods are present in such a tale they are so as living presences rather than the formal functions of Dumézil’s analysis. Which is not to say that Dumézil is wrong, just that if the gods are alive for us they cannot be tied down to a schema but must live lives as varied and as arbitrary as our own. They will then appear not as idealised forms but as individuals with characteristics that may range from the honourable to the despicable. They may shape-shift between appearances and appear to us in a variety of guises and their relationships to each other slide from siblings to cousins to parents in different stories about them, though their mythos, which is their defining story, remain the same.
In Celtic Heritage Alwyn and Brinley Rees discuss the births of gods and semi-divine heroes(6). They note that in early societies births usually occur within carefully arranged marriages to ensure either material gain or the promotion of dynastic alliances. In contrast, the births of gods and heroes are often the result of impulsive liaisons, obsessive attractions, incest, trickery, coercion or rape. They cite a number of examples. The Irish god Oengus mac Oc was conceived as the result of an extra-marital liaison between the Dagda and Boand. The Dagda then suspended time so the nine months of Boand’s pregnancy passed in a day and the child was secretly fostered only to be acknowledged later. There are different stories about the way Conchobar was fathered on Ness by Cathbad the Druid, in one of which he addresses the child as both his son and his grandson. Conchobar himself decides to marry Deidrui while she is still in the womb of the wife of Feidlimid, his storyteller. In one version of the birth of Cuchulainn there was a triple conception causing Deichtine to become pregnant by Lug. Another version is less complicated but does include a flock of birds, who also feature in the first version, and which turn into fifty maidens attendant on the birth. Cuchulainn, like many such heroes, grows unusually swiftly to maturity. Later he kills his own son who was the result of a liaison with the Scottish warrior woman Aife. He also kills the father of Emer when he goes to claim her for his bride, just as heroes often have to kill giants when they wish to marry their daughters. These are just a few of many such examples in the Irish tradition.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth Arthur is born as the result of a liaison between Uther Pendragon and Ygerna arranged by Merlin who disguises Uther so that he looks like her husband. The later story of Arthur being hidden away until he is older is also a common theme in many of these begettings. Pryderi is brought up by Teyrnon and his wife, growing unusually quickly to maturity, until being returned to Pwyll and Rhiannon. Pwyll had married Rhiannon after her sudden mysterious appearance, though not without first having to contend with trickery from a rival and respond with trickery of his own to ensure his marriage. Culhwch falls in love with Olwen, a giant’s daughter, at the very mention of her name without even seeing her. In the fourth Mabinogi Math marries Goewin, his maiden foot-holder, after her rape by his nephew. We apparently hear no more of the results of this marriage as the tale then takes a different turn. Or does it? Might the strange births of Lleu and Dylan from Aranrhod be linked to the supposedly unrelated events in the earlier part of the tale? Aranrhod claims she is a virgin and the father of the children is not identified. Gwydion, Lleu’s uncle, takes on the role of a father to him. But as we have seen, an alternative source suggests that Gwydion is actually his father. Furthermore, two separate references by medieval bards(7) indicate an alternative tradition that Aranrhod was the maiden foot-holder of Math rather than Goewin who is otherwise unknown in Welsh tradition. This may be because they knew a variant of the oral tale which the author of the Mabinogi used as a source for the written stories, or because the author of the written work did not maintain every detail from the oral tradition. In the written story, Gwydion helps his brother Gilfaethwy, who is infatuated with Goewin, to rape her. But if Gwydion is Lleu’s father, and it is Math’s niece Aranrod who is his foot-holder, then it must be Gwydion who fathers the child upon her. This could explain his later relationship with Lleu and also Aranrhod’s unwillingness to have anything to do with either of them.
Gwydion is Aranrhod’s brother and although, in the genealogy of this tale, she is one of the children of Dôn, in another genealogy(8), she is the daughter of the ancestor god Beli. So there is the not uncommon tangle of relationships between gods and other characters in mythic narratives. But there is, here, also the basis for an emerging myth of origins. In an essay on this topic(9) John Carey suggests that the motif of Goewin as a virgin in whose lap Math rests his feet, represents the transition from a ‘Golden Age’ before sexual procreation, but her rape in the story and the fact that Math subsequently marries her represents the transition to sexual procreation. I found this unconvincing when I read it originally, particularly as Goewin was not a sufficiently prominent character to carry such a significant role. But such an interpretation begins to make more sense if it is Aranrhod who does so. Lleu would then be the result of an incestuous liaison between two of the children of Dôn, created within a family of divinities, so also divine. That he should later be married to a woman of flowers and have to contend for her with a rival also introduces a mytheme that places him as a god of the turning year, though this may be a case of bringing together different mythic elements into the same tale.
But his conception could also represent a transition within the divine family to sexual procreation. The conflict between suitors that this potentially introduces, and the possibilty of an introduction of a partner from outside the divine family, brings further implications into play. Having discovered otherness the desire for a particular other becomes paramount regardless of the consequences. The gods, in mixing with humans, not only blur the boundaries between their world and ours, and in so doing come closer to us, but also bring about liminal identities for characters that seem to inhabit both worlds. Lug appears in some stories as a god but in others as human. The character, behaviour and allegiances of such characters may sometimes be suspect. Characters like Gwydion in the fourth Mabinogi do not adhere to restraints on their behaviour that would be required for humans though in the story he is punished by Math for the rape of Goewin. Gods may be amoral but may still be represented in tales as humans whose moral behaviour has to be accounted for. The nature of Lleu’s birth, the complicated conditions necessary for his death and the fact that he is able to be re-born after taking the shape of an eagle all imply a divine rather than a human identity. Gods, when they appear in stories, can take many forms, sometimes as direct human expressions of a god’s nature, sometimes as a character possessed by a god and sometimes as a god in disguise. So for us the god is in the story though the god remains elsewhere.
Notes and References
1. John Koch’s translation of The Gododdin is given in The Celtic Heroic Age ed Koch and Carey (Aberystwyth, 2003)
2. T M Charles Edwards. Wales and the Britons, 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013)
3. Patrick K Ford The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales (UCP, 1977)
4. Celtic Culture an Historical Encyclopaedia ed J. Koch (ABC-Clio, 2006).
5. Harleian MS 3859, see Ian Hughes Math uab Mathonwy (Cardiff, 2000)
6. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees Celtic Heritage (Thames & Hudson, 1961)
7. Lewys Mȏn (1465-1527) & Tudur Aled (1465-1525) See Rachel Bromwich Trioedd Ynys Prydain ( Cardiff, 2006) p.285.
8. Triad 35, Bromwich, as above p.81
9. John Carey A British Myth of Origins (Historyof Religions, Vol 31, 1991)