Lleu Llaw Gyffes …. is that Lugus?
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 ‘Lugos’, 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 in the Mabinogi tale with Lugus. 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 are 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 ). 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.
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, (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. Discussed by Ian Hughes in his edition of Math uab Mathonwy (Cardiff, 2000)