Evidence from Mediaeval Celtic Literature - Welsh Material

 

The Welsh material.
The early Welsh literary texts that deal in some way with mythological material are much less extensive than the Irish ones. Of central importance are the eleven prose tales found in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest and collected in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest under the title _The Mabinogion_. They are evidently just the tip of the iceberg, a small sample of what was once a rich and inventive storytelling tradition, much of which is now lost to us, but additional fragments of which can be gleaned from other sources.

The relevant Welsh material can be divided into the following categories:

1. _Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi_ (The Four Branches of the Mabinogi).
These are four interconnected tales (or one long tale designed to be told in four sections) probably composed in the early twelfth century. The first, _Pwyll pendeuic Dyuet_, tells of how Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed in south-west Wales, makes an alliance with an Otherworld ruler and eventually marries Rhiannon, a woman he sees in a vision at a magical site. After losing Rhiannon and having to win her back, he also loses and regains the son he has by her, Pryderi (the central character whose life story extends over all four branches). The second branch, _Branwen uerch Llyr_, focuses on the five children of Llyr -- one of whom, Branwen, is given by her giant brother Bran in marriage to the king of Ireland, who mistreats her, occasioning the apocalyptic battle of Morddwyd Tyllion, in which most of the warriors of both islands die. The lone survivor of Llyr's family, Manawyddan (after whom the third branch, _Manawydan uab Llyr, is named), is welcomed by Pryderi and allowed to marry the now-widowed Rhiannon. But an Otherworld curse falls upon Dyfed, first causing all of its inhabitants to vanish, and then leading Rhiannon and Pryderi to be taken prisoner in a fairy fort. Manawyddan is left alone with Pryderi's wife Cigfa to outwit the Otherworld beings who initiated the curse -- which he does when he comes upon them in the form of mice. The final branch, _Math uab Mathonuy_, takes us to Gwynedd in North Wales, where the magician-king Math rules in the name of his sister
Dôn, and is under a ritual taboo to have his feet held in a virgin's lap. In order to satisfy the lusts of his brother Gilfaethwy -- who has his eye on the virgin foot-holder -- Math's nephew Gwydion (a powerful magician himself) mounts a diversion that leads to war between Gwynedd and Dyfed, and to the death of Pryderi. Gilfaethwy's lust is satisfied, but the two brothers are punished and Math is left without his ritual foot-holder. When Gwydion's sister Arianrhod is offered as a substitute, despite her presumed virgin status she gives birth to two sons, one of whom is Lleu Llaw Gyffes (whose name is a cognate of Irish _Lugh_ and Gallo-Brittonic _Lugus_) who is at once taken under the wing of his uncle Gwydion. In her humiliation Arianrhod places a threefold curse on Lleu, but its effects are reversed by Gwydion's trickery. Lleu is given a wife magically created out of flowers who eventually betrays him to another lover. After a long search Gwydion is able to find his nephew's spirit and return him to life, allowing him to avenge himself on both his flower-wife and his rival. The entire sequence of tales is imagined to take place in the first century BCE, around the time of Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain.

 


There are striking resemblances between episodes in the Four Branches and events described in the Irish "Mythological" Cycle, and the Plant
Dôn who are the main focus of the fourth story appear to be cognates of the Tuatha De Danann, suggesting that the Mabinogi has its source in the same materials that were used in the first-function mythology of Ireland. The threefold curse placed on Lleu has a clear trifunctional structure which ties it to ancient Indo-European tradition; and the treacherous flower-bride Blodeuwedd (Flower-Face) is obviously a cognate of Bl
áthnat (Little Flower) who betrays Ro’ to Chulainn in the Ulster Cycle.

2. The Independent Native Tales.
Four stories in the "Mabinogion" collection represent native traditions that are independent of the Arthurian romance themes that began spreading from the British-Celtic world to the literatures of the Continent in the twelfth century. They are:

 


a. _Cyfranc Llud a Lleuelys_ (The Conversation of Lludd and Llefelys). Lludd (who is a cognate of the figure called Nuadu in Irish tradition) rules Britain from London as an ideal king until three supernatural tribulations (_gormesau_) threaten the welfare of his people. He goes to seek the advice of his wise brother Llefelys (who rules over France) and learns from him how to put an end to all three plagues. The _gormesau_ are trifunctional in character, suggesting an origin as a pre-Christian teaching story; and the name of Lludd's brother, although conventionally rendered as _Llefelys_ in modern Welsh, is thought to have actually been _Lleuelys_ and contained the element _Lleu_, indicating that the character was originally intended to be a form of the god Lugus, whose trans-functional competence is demonstrated by his role in the story.

 

 

 

b. _Culhwch ac Olwen_. Compelled by a ritual taboo to seek the hand of Olwen, the daughter of the Hawthorn Giant, the hero Culhwch is set a long series of seemingly impossible tasks, culminating in a hunt for the giant boar Trwyth, who was once a human king. He succeeds through the help of numerous companions with supernatural abilities. Although Arthur's court appears in the story, this is not a conventional Arthurian romance: its imagery points rather to a mythology underpinning the rituals associated with Bealtaine/Calan Mai and its Roman equivalent, the Floralia.

 


c. _Breudwyt Macsen Wledic_ (The Dream of the Emperor Maximus). Macsen (Maximus) -- based on the historical figure who tried to make himself emperor of the West near the end of the fourth century CE -- sees a beautiful woman in a dream and journeys to Britain in the hope of finding her in real life. She turns out to be Elen, a British princess. The "true dream" motif is reminiscent of the Irish tale _Aisling Oengusso_, where Oengus, the son of the Dagda, similarly becomes enamoured of Caer when he encounters her in a dream-vision.

 

 

 

d. _Breudwyt Rhonabwy_ (The Dream of Rhonabwy). Rhonabwy, a Welsh soldier in the wars of the later Middle Ages, has a dream in which he witnesses a conflict between Arthur and the hero Owain. This is a very late tale which is in many ways a parody of Arthurian storytelling, but it contains interesting elements that seem to come from earlier native tradition.

3. The _Tair Rhamant_ (Three Romances)
These three tales in the "Mabinogion" collection are clearly influenced by the French Arthurian romances of Chr
étien de Troyes (who, in the twelfth century, was the first major populariser of Arthurian material outside the Celtic world), although the authors were definitely aware of the native associations of the characters. _Owein_ is based on _Yvain_, _Geraint ac Enid_ on _Érec et Énide_, and _Peredur_ on _Perceval le Gallois_. _Peredur_ is the most interesting of these, as it incorporates some elements not found in the French romance and seems to view the story from a different perspective, more consonant with its origins in a Celtic culture. This is the core narrative from which the Grail Quest romances of the later Middle Ages developed: its imagery offers some striking parallels with the Irish _immrama_.

4. _Trioedd Ynys Prydein_ (The Triads of the Island of Britain).
This twelfth-century compilation (expanded later) was intended to serve as a mnemonic aid for _cyfarwyddiaid_ or professional storytellers. Characters and incidents in traditional stories are listed in groups of three, each triad defined by a common characteristic. Ninety-six such triads are included. Although the plots of the tales are alluded to in only the sketchiest fashion, most of these stories are otherwise unknown in written form, making these triads a precious indicator of the real range of the Welsh storytelling tradition in the Middle Ages.

5. Mythological Allusions in Poetry.
Some poems in Welsh manuscript collections contain allusions to stories that are otherwise unknown. The cycle of poems attributed to Llywarch Hen, for example, seems to have been designed to fit into a connected narrative in which the speaker, now elderly and alone, lost every one of his many sons to death in battle. This would thus have been a second-function saga told from an ironic or fatalistic perspective. Another group of poems is placed in the mouth of Myrddin, a "wild man" gifted with prophetic vision, who addresses a herd of piglets in the forest. The background story is known from the twelfth-century Latin writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as well as the Life of St Kentigern: having become insane after witnessing a particularly gory and futile battle, Myrddin (who served as one of the models for the Arthurian figure Merlin) runs away into the wilderness where, separated from the norms of human culture, he gains powers of prophecy. Apparently related to this story is another one alluded to in a poem from the _Llyfr Du_ about Yscolan, a figure cursed and exiled because of his desecration of a holy book. This story has survived in Brittany in the form of the ballad of "Skolvan" or "Yann Skolan", but it is also clearly related to the Irish story _Buile Shuibhne_ (The Madness of Suibhne), which is generally acknowledged to be an Irish imitation of the Myrddin story.

The richest and most enigmatic mythological material is to be found in Peniarth MS 2, usually called the "Book of Taliesin". While Taliesin was a historical 7th-century North British poet, some of whose genuine work has been preserved, many of the poems in this collection date from the later Middle Ages and refer to a tradition in which he was a twice-born figure with Otherworldly knowledge. Two of the best-known and strangest of these poems are "Preiddeu Annwn" (the Spoils of the Otherworld), which tells of an expedition by Arthur to gain a magical cauldron; and "
Cad
Goddeu" (the Battle of the Trees), in which many species of trees are named as warriors on a battlefield. Without a clear context to explain their argument, both poems are tantalizingly obscure.

6. Syncretic History.
Like the Irish intellectuals who put together the _
Lebor Gabála Érenn_ to serve as a new syncretistic account of Irish history, British Celtic literati during the same period worked on a parallel project in order to provide their island with an account of the past compatible with both Biblical and Classical views of history. No early Welsh-language version of this history has survived, but we have Latin versions in Nennius' ninth-century _Historia Regum Britanniae_ and Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century _Historia Britanniae_. The Britons are made to be descended from the Trojan exile Brutus, and the kings following him exhibit the traits of mythological kings in a variety of Indo-European traditions. This narrative also includes the earliest version of the story of Arthur. A later Welsh-language synthesis of this material is _Brut y Brenhinoedd_ (The Chronicle of the Kings).

7. _Ystoria Taliesin_.
Although it was included by Lady Guest in her original edition of _The Mabinogion_, the story of Taliesin does not come from the same body of manuscript sources as the other tales: it is much later, the first full version of it being found in Elis Gruffydd's 16th century "Chronicle of the Six Ages of the World". However, it was evidently known at a much earlier date, since some aspects of it are implicit in the mysterious "Taliesin" poems mentioned above. It tells of how the hag Cerridwen proposed to make a potion that would endow her ugly son Afagddu with infinite knowledge, but the power of the potion accidentally passed into the dwarf Gwion, who had been set to watch the cauldron. After a shapeshifting contest Gwion was devoured by Cerridwen, and was reborn as her son Taliesin, but was cast adrift by her in a bag. Discovered by the prince Elphin, Taliesin revealed his supernatural knowledge and used it in the service of his new-found patron.


There is an evident parallel here with the _
Fiannaíocht_ story of how Fionn Mac Cumhaill received his own Otherworldly knowledge (and the name _Gwion_ is a cognate of _Fionn_). It may have been a "secret" initiatory story used by the Welsh bards in their proceedings as an occupational guild, which could explain why it was committed to writing only at a very late date, when the power of the bards as an organized institution was waning.