The semi-fossilised remains of trees on the beach near Borth.
Maes Gwyddno lies under the sea, west of the Cambrian Mountains and around the estuary of the River Dyfi. Some of it is still open to the air: sand dunes, salt marsh, peat bog and water meadows reclaimed from the bog and the marsh. Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Longshanks’) whose land it was, spoke with Gwyn ap Nudd, and was the father of Elffin who found the infant Taliesin in a salmon weir on the land called Maes Gwyddno , better known as Cantre’r Gwaelod, the lost land under the waves. So much myth, legend and Brythonic lore implicate him in the unfolding of their stories. The intersections of legend, geology and history are enmeshed here too as this is a factually drowned land as the semi-fossilised trees uncovered on the beach at low tide confirm. Most of these can be seen near the village of Borth, originally surmised to be Porth Gwyddno. To the south and to the north of this area causeways run out into the sea and they too are uncovered at low tide like roads running into an undersea domain. At the end of one of these, known as Sarn Cynfelyn, is a rocky outcrop marked on the maps as Caer Wyddno (“Gwyddno’s Fort’). According to the Taliesin story the salmon weir in which he was found by Elffin was in sight of Gwyddno’s fortress and so, knowing the stretch of coast as intimately as I do, I wonder which of the rivers running into the sea across the level land between the cliffs either side is the one on which the weir was placed. Was it Eleri, as at least one re-telling in Welsh claims? Was it Clarach? – though this seems too far south. Or was it one of the other streams that run into these rivers, or like Clettwr into the Dyfi estuary, but which might once have run directly to the sea?
It is difficult to know as the land is submerged and the coastline is not now where it was. The well-known story is that a character called Seithennin did not close the sluice gates when the tide came in because he was drunk. But this story is a recent one. The older story, recorded in verses in The Black Book of Carmarthen which are thought once to have been part of a prose saga, tells of a woman called Mererid who has caused the flood. She is referred to by the title ‘Machteith’ which means ‘maiden’ but was also an official title indicating an office at court, often the attendant of the Queen. As she is also called a “fountain cup bearer” she clearly had some responsibility for a well or spring. John Rhŷs identifies a number of legends from Wales according to which lakes have their origins in the overflowing of sacred wells when they have been neglected or because the well guardian is offended in some way. This is part of Rhŷs’s general survey of the importance of water as a portal to the Otherworld[*].
So the drowned land was submerged because Mererid allowed the well to overflow. But who was she? We might suppose she had the office of guardian or priestess of the well. As such her story can be re-imagined as it is HERE. Her name is the equivalent of Margaret or ‘Pearl’. John Rhŷs felt that this could hardly have been her original name and other, more recent, scholars have agreed. One analysis of the structure of the verses finds the lines containing her name to be metrically too long.[**] So a shorter name would be a better fit. Elsewhere John Rhŷs suggests that the name Morgan or Morgen (‘sea-born’) would have been attached to female water spirits who inhabited wells or springs as well as to mermaids. So was Gwyddno’s land flooded in the same way that lakes like Llyn Llech Owen were created by the overflowing of a spring, and did a Morgan, a nereid or water deity, cause the land to be engulfed by water from the Otherworld?
If we retreat from the flat land and climb to higher ground, to where the old Roman road called Sarn Elen runs along a ridge, we will find a Bronze Age chambered tomb known as Bedd Taliesin (‘Taliesin’s Grave’) just above the ridge and below a track running off from Sarn Elen, to an area of higher ground called Cae’r Arglwyddes (‘The Lady’s Field’) which is scattered with the remains of what look like many broken cairns. Even higher, sitting in its own rocky bowl above this, is a lake called Moel Y Llyn. From one side of the lake streams run off to form the River Clettwr which runs directly down the wooded slopes to join the estuary of the River Dyfi, and on the other side streams run off to form the River Ceulan which flows on into the River Eleri. But none of these streams run directly from the lake as the following piece of local folklore, translated here directly from Welsh, indicates:
“There are a number of unexplained mysteries linked with the lake. No crystal shines brighter than its waters though they are heavy with peat. No drop of water runs into it nor from it. The lake is self-sufficient and unchanging. I saw it in the Winter of 1936 and it was full, but a friend who accompanied me said he had seen it in the middle of the dry summer and it was no different and was equally full then. Summer and Winter – wet or dry – the lake is the same.
According to tradition the lake is guarded by a supernatural power. The following story was told by Mr Richard Griffiths [… references to the reliability and family connections of the source …]. One summer when there had been no rain for several weeks the River Ceulan dried up and the owner of the water mill decided to release the waters of the lake into the river to get the mill working again. He went with others up to the lake on a clear summer’s day and began digging a ditch towards the lake. As they were working heavy clouds formed and began to descend and a gloom came over the mountain above them. Thunder and lightning followed as a violent storm developed. The men fled in fear for their lives. The ditch can still be seen at the lakeside. Mr Griffiths estimated that this had happened about 120 years before.” [***]
Imagine then if the ‘supernatural power’ of this lake was unleashed. Something worse than the digging of a ditch by the miller must have been involved to offend such a spirit and cause the lake to overflow. But if it did then the waters rushing down the hill would fill the narrow rivers running down to the sea and overflow onto the steep slopes to drown the flat land of Gwyddno’s domain below allowing the sea to wash over them. Might this have been the original story that is reflected in the verses about Mererid? She is said to cry out from the ramparts of the fortress and from the back of a bay horse. The refrain “after presumption there is loss .. after presumption there is repentance .. after excess is want” seems to indicate regret. Seithennin here is addressed in the first verse and in the final verse he is referred to as “Seithennin the presumptuous” in his grave. We can only guess at what story was told in a lost saga relating the events leading to the flood. Flood legends are common. But Rachel Bromwich observed that the story was “not to be sought in the Bible tale; here we have an ancient story-theme common to the Celtic nations” [****].
What links, if any, can be made to the other stories about Maes Gwyddno? ‘Taliesin’s Grave’ some way below the lake has been dated to the Bronze Age. There is a ‘Gwion’s Hill’ (Bronwion) just over the ridge above the Einon Valley. It is said in the tale of Taliesin that the contents of Cerridwen’s cauldron spilt into the river and poisoned Gwyddno’s horse so its estuary was afterwards referred to ‘’Gwenwynfeirch Gwyddno’ (Gwyddno’s Horse-poison). Gwilym Morus has outlined his own theories about links between this landscape and the Taliesin story HERE. But any attempt to link it with the inundation would place the origins of the legend a lot further back in time than the sixth century. The common denominator in all this is Gwyddno Garanhir. Rachel Bromwich says of him that “It would seem that the historical Gwyddno of the North either took over some of the attributes of an earlier mythological character , or that there were two persons of the same name known to tradition.” [****] Either way he seems to be a key figure in the mythological, the legendary and the imaginative life of the Brythonic cultural ethos so it is hardly surprising that we also have a record of him conversing with Gwyn ap Nudd.
[*] John Rhŷs Celtic Folklore (1901)
[**] Jenny Rowland Early Welsh Saga Poetry (1990)
[***] Evan Isaac Coelion Cymru (1938)
[****] Rachel Bromwich ‘Cantref y Gwaelod and Ker Is’ chapter in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe eds. C Fox & B Dickens (1950)
7 thoughts on “Maes Gwyddno and the Waters of the Otherworld”
I think it’s fascinating that the land as well as the myths speak so deeply of this legend – ‘intersections of legend, geology and history…. semi-fossilised trees’.
I’d agree there’s lots of evidence linking Celtic water spirits to holding powers over the waters they ‘govern'(?) and / or ‘are'(?). Here Mererid floods the land due to human presumptuousness.
In my home town of Penwortham, the holy wells dry up due to a shattered aquifer and the receding of the water spirits. During the Jacobite rebellions in 1715 the waters of the Ribble (Belisama) run dry. Coincidentally, it is three hundred years since this Preston based battle this year (2015)…
I think I’ve seen written Seithenin is etymologically linked with the Setantii – ‘the dwellers in the water country,’ a subset of the Brigantes tribe. Any ideas about this?
Rachel Bromwich gives ‘Saturninus’ as the etymological origin of Seithennin. But no particular significance is suggested – perhaps a general implication of excess?
Very interesting. Cletwr / Clettwr could be read as ‘dŵr caled’, not so much as in ‘hard water’ as in ‘severe water’ similar in meaning to ‘tywydd caled’ or ‘hard weather’. Unsure as to whether this helps but it may add to the possibilities. On the Black Road way from Gwion’s Hill to Taliesin’s Grave, Moel y Llyn would be well positioned as a symbolic cauldron. It has been a fruitful source of inspiration here. The quartz capped cairn that marks Moel y Llyn is echoed north across the estuary on the mountain above Llyn Barfog, the only other similar cairn in the area. John Rhys records a folktale identifying that water as a gateway to Annwfn also. We should all go and have a look!
@ Gwilym -: Moel y Llyn as a symbolic cauldron sounds just right! And yes, we should go and have a look at the one above Llyn Barfog.
I come from Whalley in Lancs originally, and have been hoping to find information on the sixth century flood that reshaped Morecambe Bay, so far with no success.
Your posts are fascinating, thank you. If only a bardic
tradition had survived in Lancashire!
Good luck with your research Corrine!