Waiting for the first rose
And the summer
After the rush of bluebells,
The too-transient apple-blossom
After the late spring squalls
And now the springing leaves
That green the woods
With deepening summer shade
Still I wait for the garden rose –
Its bud swelling to ripeness –
To open and to offer
The grace of long summer days
And balmy summer nights
At her dedicated space
Once again to her as always
As the season blooms
Around her altar.
Photo by Carole Raddato
The worship of the goddess EPONA is generally thought of as being centred on Gaul though there are a few records of dedications in Roman Britain. There is a single example of a bronze statuette of EPONA from Britain which is now in The British Museum. It was purchased by a French collector somewhere in England, possibly Wiltshire, and came to The British Museum as part of a collection purchased in Paris in 1868. The statuette is about 7.5 centimetres high and features her sitting, but not on a horse as is most common, or on any other identifiable support,though she holds a yoke to identify her connection with horses and also some ears of corn which is another common feature of her depiction. On either side of her are ponies, a mare on her left and a stallion on her right, each face the corn sheaf. The statuette is thought by the Museum to have been part of a chariot fitting.
Although associated with horses Epona was a goddess of fertility and of the journey through life. Miranda Green also suggests that some depictions of her holding a key indicate her function in guiding the passage to the Otherworld. So where does the connection with horses come into this? It has been pointed out that the area of Gaul where her worship is most strongly attested is also an area where horse breeding was prevalent and so a goddess of fertility would therefore be associated with the fertility of horses. This may be so but it is an argument about social economics rather than the essential nature of a goddess. Looking at her wider provenance it is also significant that she was worshipped by calvary officers in the Roman army and there is the incidental reference in Apuleius which tells us that bouquets of roses were offered to her in stables. These are all sources from the Roman period when we know she was one of the array of deities acknowledged in the late empire with a feast day of 18th December assigned to her.
What would be interesting to know is the nature of her worship before it was incorporated into the Roman world. There is also the question of RIGANTONA as one of her manifestations in Britain, resulting in the medieval form of her name RHIANNON in the medieval Welsh tales in the Four Branches of Y Mabinogi. We know that several Brythonic tribes featured horses on their coinage and such archaeological evidence as the well-known white horse at Uffington suggests that horses featured in Iron Age devotional practice. But we don’t know if we can take the names Epona or Rigantona back that far, or even if these earlier Iron Age peoples specifically regarded the horse as a goddess. But by the Roman period it is clear that Epona is not seen as a horse but, rather, always depicted in association with horses, either riding one (usually side-saddle) or having some equine trappings about her. The corn sheaf is an equally common feature of her depiction. Her survival into medieval folklore and romance sets her astride her horse and stresses her Otherworldly nature making her not so much a devotional subject as an active player in the cycle of fertility and the traffic between Thisworld and the Otherworld. So are the stories of the gods told in literature in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages.
Going back to that statuette, it does seem to embody the idea that she takes human form while the appearance of horses of either sex facing each other across the corn sheaf on her lap encompasses both aspects of fertility and abundance. She has a yoke on one side of her (or is it, as Anne Ross suggests, a snake?) and a patera for offerings on the other. And yet her name is formed from the Brythonic word for horse – ‘epos’ together with the suffix ‘-ona’ signifying divinity. Clearly she is not, literally, to be thought of as a horse. But her horse nature is more than a simple matter of association. This is attested both by historical and personal testimony. It is yet another example of the need to merge the frames of the literal the perceptual and the mythical in order to find a language (visually or in words) to address or speak of the gods. It’s something we now find very difficult to do. ‘A horse -v- Not a horse’ gets us nowhere. To be able to hold both propositions at once approaches a necessary way of seeing. But it is at some axis across this one that we really need to be envisioning our perceptions of divinity.
A distant sense of Aengus Óg
No more than knowledge of this god
Is brought to bear upon my mind
And yet I hear a nearer sound:
A harp elusive on the wind
So close that I can hear the strings
Could it be for me they sing
Like birds in the early summer dawn
Or the sigh of wind through bending grasses,
Or do I merely hear what passes
On the breeze for others to perceive?
Perhaps, but then a listening ear
Is also there, a curious stare
Wondering who might be hovering
At the edges of the whispered speech
And so I wait a turn to speak
And, if invited, say my piece
As yet unsure how to approach this god.
It is often said that faërie and folk tales contain remnant myths, the significance having been forgotten while the form remains. This is sometimes true, but I think not always. When such tales contain mythic material it is often quite apparent rather than obscure. But folk tales are as likely to contain elements of everyday wisdom, old social customs and, perhaps more significantly, insights into our inner lives. It is in the latter case that the distinction between mythic and non-mythic becomes difficult to discern.
While some of the tales that have come down to us originate in collected oral lore, many more have undergone a process of literary production and changed through a series of written adaptations. Where these are simply people recording versions of traditional tales it might be that this is no different from the changes or nuances oral tellers might introduce for particular audiences or to suit changing times. Basic story elements and motifs were often linked together to allow open-ended adaptations and tales of varying length. But the practice of weaving different stories together into a longer literary production was widespread during the Middle Ages and is not entirely absent from later literature. Here, even if the original tales remain intact, their context and the effects of shaping by more sophisticated literary devices integrate and overlap what had previously been kept distinct and linked only with connectives.
In the First Branch of the Mabinogi tales there is an episode where Rhiannon is falsely accused of murdering her own son who has in fact been snatched away in the night. The women who were supposed to be watching him smear Rhiannon with blood from a puppy while she sleeps and leave the bones about her as evidence that she has devoured her own child. Like other episodes in these tales, this one has parallels elsewhere in folk and faërie narratives as well as in more obvious mythic material. Mabon, Son of Modron, is said to have been taken from his mother “when he was three nights old” in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. Reading the implications across to the closely related Mabinogi tales, this contextualises the relationship between Rhiannon and her son with that between Modron and Mabon, whose names are later versions of Matrona and Maponos. The mythic context of a divine son of a divine mother is therefore unmistakable. But the broader setting in this tale of a wife who is falsely accused of murdering her child occurs more widely in folk narratives and in the content of faërie tales even when its mythic context is less obvious. Not only does the woman lose her child, but she is maligned and has to undergo humiliation or punishment before her child is eventually returned to her.
We can construe this in mythic terms too, but underlying the symbolism of the seasonal cycle this is one of the deeply embedded themes of folk narrative across many cultures which take on significance in different ways when told within particular cultures. Then they take on resonance and power, as if their significance is potential and dormant until they are enacted with other elements of universal folk narratives and the potential is realised. Like the gods they inhabit psychic space but manifest themselves in physical space in particular forms in particular places and take on identity in the stories we tell.
So as well as embodying mythic themes the universal motifs of folk narratives also contain elements of deep soul stuff, keys to personal journeys, initiatory experiences and perceptions of otherness. Sometimes they are simply agencies for other significant events in the story. So with Rhiannon’s ‘humiliation’ at the horse block and the eventual restoration of her son by Teyrnon all of which follows from this accusation, supporting the mythic content and opening the way to it.
Consider, too, how the same theme is used incidentally in this way in Grimm’s tale of the Six Swans ( and its variants such as the Seven Ravens). Here six brothers have been turned into swans and the only way their sister can restore them to human form is to sew a shirt for each of them out of Star Flowers (Stitchwort?).
But she must also remain silent for the six years it will take her to do this. While undertaking this work she is discovered alone in the forest by a young king who marries her in spite of her unwillingness to say a word to anybody. She, too, then has her children snatched away and is falsely accused of killing them but cannot defend herself so is condemned to death. The tale concludes as follows:
When the time had elapsed, and the sentence was to be carried out, it happened that the very day had come round when her dear brothers should be set free; the six shirts were also ready, all but the last, which yet wanted the left sleeve. As she was led to the scaffold, she placed the shirts upon her arm, and just as she had mounted it, and the fire was about to be kindled, she looked around, and saw six swans come flying through the air. Her heart leapt for joy as she perceived her deliverers approaching, and soon the Swans, flying towards her, alighted so near that she was enabled to throw over them the shirts, and as soon as she had done so, their feathers fell off and the brothers stood up alive and well; but the youngest was without his left arm, instead of which he had a swan’s wing. They embraced and kissed each other, and the Queen, going to the King, who was thunderstruck, began to say, “Now may I speak, my dear husband, and prove to you that I am innocent and falsely accused;” and then she told him how the wicked woman had stolen away and hidden her three children. When she had concluded, the King was overcome with joy, and the wicked stepmother was led to the scaffold and bound to the stake and burnt to ashes.
The episode has differences of detail but a clear similarity of form with the Rhiannon story. If the mythic significance of this is less obvious it does touch something deep in its references to transformation across species and the working out of a number of folk tale motifs, including that of the falsely accused wife which is simply the last of a series of adversities which are resolved in the final scene.
So, too, with Rhiannon when her son, now named Pryderi (‘care’, ‘anxiety’) is restored to her and she is restored to her proper place in the court. But here is a difference. In the mythic tale it is necessary that the restoration is complete:
Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, was raised with care as was proper, until he became the most gallant youth and the handsomest and the best skilled in all worthy pursuits of any in those lands.
But in the folktale the human dimension of incomplete resolution prevails. The little touch of one unfinished shirt resulting in one brother retaining a swan’s wing instead of an arm suggests that, for us, it never quite works out so neatly. As with the gods, so with us; but imperfectly so.
The river runs from a spring beneath a peaty pool on a wild mountain also gathering waters draining through the peat from a small lake on the hill above. In a few miles it cascades over the rocks of a waterfall known as Blaenhafren. From here the stream becomes a river flowing down the forested slopes through small towns and then larger towns in Mid Wales and on into England where it turns southwards to run more or less in parallel with the border through larger towns and cities of Shrewsbury, Worcester, Gloucester, and then to the sea.The Romans called this river – and the goddess of the river – Sabrina . It was a name they took from the Brythonic, though in the earlier Welsh texts it was already in transition to its later form ‘Habren’. The Saxons called it Sæfern. So the modern name of the river in Welsh is ‘Hafren’ and in English ‘Severn’. How did this come about? There is an established pattern of sound change in early Welsh where the initial ’S’ becomes ‘H’ (perhaps via an intermediate ‘Sh’) which explains how Sabrēna becomes Habrēna. Another is that the ‘b’ in the middle of the word softens to a ‘v’ sound (represented by ‘f’ in modern Welsh). Losing the ‘a’ ending indicates a loss of the feminine deity name to that of a simple river name. So it is easy to see how the Roman Sabrina became the Welsh Hafren. But what about Severn? Clearly the saxons borrowed the name before the initial ’S’ shifted to ‘H’, but after the ‘b’ shifted to ‘f’ or ‘v’, which allows the adaptation to be dated to the end of the 6th century. Names here reflect historical as well as linguistic change.
So it is with the river itself, beginning in the Welsh heartland of Elenydd, running off the mountain of Pumlummon which Alwyn and Brinley Rees, in their book Celtic Heritage identified as the centre, comparable to Uisnech in Ireland, and where both the Severn and the River Wye have their source. The land between these two rivers, which run in different directions off the mountain before meeting again in their common estuary, stretches east across the Cambrian Mountains towards the borderlands. Between Severn and Wye is often an ambiguous terrain, where the lost sagas about the destruction of Pengwern are remembered only in fragments of verse, here from the Canu Heledd,
The Hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight
With no fire, no bed.
I weep a while, then I am silent.
It is the land where subsequently Offa’s Dyke marked the demarcation between Welsh and Mercians and later the territories of Norman ‘Marcher Lords’ pushed the border further west as they carved out their own domains between England and Wales; or the Forest of Dean, an enclave bounded by the two rivers on the western side of which the Temple of Nodens looks down over the tidal Severn from the lands of Teÿrnon Twrf Liant.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story about the displaced princess Habren being drowned in the river is clearly a rationalisation of the River Goddess. But his statement that “right down to our own times this river is called Habren in the British language, although by a corruption of speech is called Sabrina in the other tongue” does record confusion about the change. It also reflects shifting dynastic changes and ‘corruption’ in the line of inheritance that were still being played out in Geoffrey’s time. His King Arthur was a warrior in that conflict, while the earlier Welsh tales told of him wrestling with the great boar Twrch Trwyth as he escaped into the Severn Sea.
Much later John Milton invoked her as “Sabrina Fair” and envisaged her as “sitting, under the cool translucent wave”. Here she is the tutelar goddess of the Severn Valley in a masque performed at Ludlow Castle, an aery spirit who sets “… printless feet/ O’er the cowslip’s velvet head/That bends not as I tread”.
This is a long way – both in miles and in sentiment – from where the waters trickle from the peat of the mountains. The way to the source of the Severn is well-marked, unlike that of the Wye which is hard to locate precisely. But these are lonely places where it can often be difficult to say which is the main stream and which are the tributary streams. The goddess, though, is featured on the waymarkers of the Sarn Sabrina, a footpath following the river along the upper reaches to the source. This has more recently been incorporated into a longer path called the Severn Way with a waymarker displaying the symbol of a sailing boat instead.
Every picture tells a story.
Last Autumn I published a story called ‘The Hidden Path’ which ended with Gareth and Gwenno walking away from each other through the woods. What happened to them? I thought it was time to find out. So here goes …..
‘Light is another story’ So it was when Gareth and Gwenno separately followed the Hidden Path into the Darkness and found Nothing… Or Nothing found them and because they were there Nothing bided her time, which was the first thing they brought to her, so when they left she was no longer alone. What did they remember – either of them – of what they found there? Nothing. And yet there was something of the trace they left behind them that each carried away, a perception of each other though neither knew it, and also of an absence that – it seemed to each of them – was now a presence. But if you asked either of them all that could be said was that Gareth wandered off his usual path and was lost for a while or that Gwenno wandered off her usual path and was lost for a while.
So each of them wandered home troubled, but also quietly elated. Each aware of a change in their lives as the darkness of Winter followed from the fading light of Autumn. Nothing had happened to them and they would never be the same again. So Winter passed. The Solstice came and went. Imbolc brought the first stirrings of Spring. There was a sense of something waiting in the woods. They always seemed so empty in Winter, without the green depths and hidden promise of Summer. But now there was a presence – something held in reserve but nearing its time. So Gwenno felt. So Gareth felt. And also a sense of something other as well as someone other. Who? Neither could say.
Gwenno went out into the woods to find the first snowdrops, the first celandines, and the green leaves that would bring the scent of bluebells to the woods. But not yet, though her thoughts strayed that way and something stirred within her.
Gareth went out out into the woods and saw the buds on the trees swelling towards the coming Summer and the blackthorn flowers preceding the leaves and he thought of the hawthorn flowers too that would follow the leaves with the warmer weather. But not yet, though his thoughts strayed that way and something stirred within him.
And Nothing? What did Nothing do? Nothing. For she was not there. But there was … Something. Something called and Gwenno heard the call and walked through the woods towards it. Something called and Gareth heard the call and walked through the woods towards it. The path was clear and led them into a glade in the forest where they met. Gareth looked at Gwenno and recognised her though he was sure they had never met before. Gwenno looked at Gareth and recognised him though she was sure they had never met before. So their meeting was tentative. Something had brought them together. A call. An echo of Nothing. And this place was familiar, though neither thought that they had been there before. They had been lost …. But now they were not lost. There had been Nothing. Now there was Something.
Sunlight filtered down into the glade as they spoke to each other for the first time and remembered what they didn’t know, felt what they couldn’t recall; and a story began to take shape around them. It would take time to unfold it. Time. That was what they had brought to this place a season ago. That was what was given to them now. Nothing was on the far side of the Ford of Forgetting. On this side the Well of Memory made a shape of the day and the stream that ran from it flowed into the world. Something was now Everything.
A pact they made then as a shadow moved across the Sun and passed, as the light of day and the dark of night met at a point of perfect balance, at the Dark of the Moon when new light waits in shadow – at this time they made a tryst to meet in the glade when the buds had opened and the leaves would be on the trees, when blossom would be on the boughs, when Spring would burst into Summer and the light lie long on the land. Summer would be theirs and they would be the Summer.
The Three Reluctant Brides of Ynys Prydain:
Rhiannon, who refused her father’s choice of Gwawl chose Pwyll for herself;
Ffraid, who came from Ireland for refuge in Wales;
Melangell, who hid a hare beneath her skirt from the huntsman.
There is no such triad in the traditional lists, though there might have been. Each of these significant women are specifically said to have refused husbands chosen for them by their fathers. The stories about Ffraid and Melangell bear some similarities to each other in that they both came to Wales from Ireland to avoid an arranged marriage and then lived unmarried. This allowed them to be co-opted by Christianity as holy virgins. But Rhiannon’s story is very different as she came from the Otherworld to claim a husband she wanted for herself rather than the one her father had arranged for her. (We might also note that arranged marriages in the medieval Welsh tales – such as those between Matholwch and Branwen or between Lleu and Blodeuwedd – do not go well).
In the case of the wooing of Pwyll by Rhiannon the refusal of an obedient role goes further. The story-teller makes a point of telling us that she “drew back the part of her head dress that should cover her face and fixed her gaze upon him”. That is, she should keep her face covered by a veil but ignores this convention to speak directly to Pwyll and make a proposal of marriage to him. In societies where women are expected to maintain a standard of modesty this would be considered wanton behaviour. Rhiannon’s subsequent arranging of events during the wedding feast and the defeat of her unwanted spouse Gwawl similarly sees her taking charge of proceedings. In spite of choosing Pwyll as her husband she is quite able to tell him “never has man been more stupid than you” after Gwawl has tricked him.
Later in the tale, after the birth of her son who is spirited away in the night, she is apparently less able to direct affairs. But rather than challenge the lies of the attendants who accuse her of killing the child, she chooses to accept the penance of offering to carry visitors from the horse block. She retains here, in spite of being ‘punished’ a stubborn independence until her son is restored to her by Teyrnon. There is a parallel to this in the third of the four Mabinogi tales where she re-appears as an older woman and this time it is her son Pryderi who suggests to Manawydan, following their return from Ireland and from the enchanted island of Gwales, that he should marry Rhiannon. This time she agrees to her son’s proposal. But things soon go wrong. The consequences of her earlier manipulation of events now bring about the revenge of a spell cast over the land of Dyfed. At this point a review of a sequence of events in the two stories so far will be useful:
Pwyll, then unmarried, was lord of Dyfed. He meets Arawn while out hunting and swops places with him as Lord of Annwn for a year. Following his return to Dyfed Rhiannon comes for him and they are eventually married.
After Pwyll’s death , Rhiannon marries Manawydan but as a result of the spell cast over Dyfed both she and Pryderi are taken back into Annwn and must remain there until Manawydan takes control of events and gets them released and the spell over Dyfed lifted.
The question here is why does Rhiannon, who proved herself so assertive and resourceful in the first tale, allow herself to be married to Manawydan and then captured by going into the enchanted fort in spite of Manawydan’s advice that she should not go into it? There seems to be a set of contraries here. Pwyll has established himself as Lord of Annwn when he sits on the hill of Gorsedd Arberth. The gates of the Otherworld are open to him and Rhiannon rides through them on her pale white steed. She brings the Otherworld into Thisworld. In the later tale, although there is a spell on the land, it can be regarded as being disenchanted. The land has become as it was before it was settled. A blanket of mist falls and when it clears “where they had once seen flocks and herds and dwelling places, they could now see nothing at all.” The land has become “desolate, uninhabited, without people … only the four of them remained.” Once Rhiannon and Pryderi have also been spirited away, only Manawydan and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa remain. Rhiannon came out of the Otherworld and has now returned to it. In the first tale she was temporarily removed from events by the penance of the horse block. In the later tale she is removed from Dyfed into captivity and must wear an ass’s collar.
If she is to return it is up to Manawydan to bring her back just as Teyrnon brought her back from the horse block penance. Manawydan does this by capturing a creature from Annwn (a pregnant woman who has shape-shifted into a mouse) and skilfully negotiating with disguised emissaries. So Rhiannon returns and the land is restored to its former state, re-shaped as a settled land which people can inhabit again. In both cases her return restores things to how they should be. When she is absent there is disruption, discord, vacancy. If in that first lifting of her veil she broke a taboo, once she was in the world it was not complete without her.
The Severn Bore
In the First Branch of Y Mabinogi it is said that Teyrnon Twrf Liant is Lord over Gwent Is-goed (Gwent Below the Forest). This forest stretched across the south-eastern corner of Wales to the River Severn. The remaining woodlands of Wentwood above the town of Newport and near to the remains of the Roman fortress of Caerleon – or the Arthurian court of Caer Llion – are a remnant of this forest. There are also large tracts of forested land along the valley of the River Wye either side of the present border between England and Wales. On the eastern side of the Wye the Forest of Dean stretches across to the River Severn. Most of this latter forest is now in the English county of Gloucestershire, though it has always seemed to me to be an extended border enclave between the two lands, such is its liminal quality. Certainly it would have been part of the territory of Teyrnon whose name ‘Twrf Liant'(Roar of the Flood Tide?) has been linked to the phenomenon of the Severn Bore.
I have witnessed the Bore a number of times. It is caused because of the huge width of the extensive estuary of the river. At particular high tides this causes a sudden rush of water into the tidal stretch where the river narrows nearly as far up as the city of Gloucester (Glevum or Caer Loyw in the ancient tales). Standing expectantly watching the waters flow steadily towards the sea, watchers are suddenly confronted by a huge wave rushing up-river. As it rushes upwards the downward flow of the current is reversed and the river continues to rise for some time until it eventually subsides and begins to sink down again as its usual direction of flow is restored.
‘Teyrnon’ is a modernised form of ‘Tigernonos’ (Great Lord). In the medieval tale he is the foster father of Pryderi, son of Rhiannon or Rigantona (Great Queen). Pryderi was snatched from his mother soon after birth. So too was Mabon son of Modron, or Maponos son of Matrona who was imprisoned in the dungeon at Caer Loyw. It is often the case that typological motifs are paired or doubled, indicating mythological origins. These characters continue their psychic presence in stories making their own ways through the world. So here, in these woods, I can imagine the boyhood of the Divine Son whose father resides by the roaring waters of the River Goddess Habren, or Sabrina.
Once, following links between the names Nudd and Lludd as reflexes of Nodens I wondered about the river after which Lydney – the site of an ancient temple of Nodens -is named. Is this Nudd’s or Lludd’s river? I followed the course of the Lyd, the small river that runs down through Lydney to the Severn, as part of an exploration of the Forest of Dean. It is called ‘Lyd’, only from the point where it emerges from the forest and runs down through Lydney itself. Several streams run together at this point but the main one is called ‘Cannop Brook’ and runs in a deep valley right across the forest for about ten miles or so from a source area where several springs are marked on the detailed map above the village of Lydbrook on the banks of the River Wye. So there is another ‘Lyd’ place name on the other side of the forest but no obvious association, as far as I know, with Nodens here, though the site was inhabited in Roman times. A stream also runs from this area of springs towards Lydbrook itself but in spite of the name of the village the brook running through it is not ‘Lydbrook’ but ‘Greathough Brook’. At least it is now, but apparently it was known in medieval times as ‘Lyd Brook’ or ‘Lud Brook’, explained in local records as ‘Loud Brook’ (Old English ‘hlud’) because of its rushing down the steep slope to the river, though this may be a later explanation. The stream can be followed back to two sources in the forest. One is a spring and the other a well. These two sources (‘Little Hough Brook’ and ‘Great Hough Brook’) run together under a bridge, which carries a forest road over the stream. “Hough’ (‘hock’) is puzzling. But it might have been ‘how’ (‘hill’) or ‘howe’ (‘hollow’).
The track back to the spring from this bridge is about a mile along the road running by the side of the stream, but the place from which it emerges is inaccessible and is part of the grounds of a large house. Back at the confluence, the other stream flows down through the forest and can be followed along a delightful winding path. Here is pure enchantment. For much of its course the stream is hidden in a narrow channel. But to wander along the steep-sided valley with its wooded slopes listening to the waters rushing through the green valley floor is to enter an enchanted place. The valley sings its numen song in its tinkling waters. Even when a brief shower fell I felt blessed by the drops of rain falling on my face. I slowed my pace. At one point the stream was easily reached from the path and I knelt and touched some of the water to my forehead and spoke a blessing
I was beginning to feel this walk should last forever. But the path did have an end and I emerged from the trees onto a lane turning away from the stream now rushing swiftly down the slope from a point above where the well is marked on the map. I found it, sadly neglected, with a padlocked gate across it. It was a wonderful day. It had been a search for Lludd between two rivers and the streams of Lyd sang to me and still flow within me. The well was in some ways a sad conclusion to the trek through the forest but as I turned back from the sinuous Wye to the wider waters of the Severn across the domain of Teyrnon Twrf Liant and towards the temple of Nudd I knew that I had touched a deep spring that continues to rise in the well of the imagination. From such deep waters do the gods make themselves known to us.
The padlocked well
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)