The Mabinogion Mapped Out
The Mabinogion was a collection of eleven (twelve) tales from the Welsh myths. The tales of the Mabinogion were preserved in two manuscripts, White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400). Though the Rydderch manuscript was the earlier of the two, the tales of Lludd, Culhwch and Owein survived only in fragments, while the Dream of Rhonabwy was completely lost. Only the Hergest manuscript contained all eleven tales.
The Mabinogion was first translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest. It was Lady Charlotte who gave the title of “Mabinogion” to this collection of tales. Also, Lady Charlotte had included a twelfth tale, called Hanes Taliesin (“Tale of Taliesin”), belonging to the Independent group. However, the Hanes Taliesin was not found in the two early manuscripts, so some of the later translations of the Mabinogion do not include the story of Taliesin.
The tales from the Mabinogion can be divided into three categories. The first four tales belonged to the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (“Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi”). The next four (or five, if including Taliesin) were the Independent tales, two tales of which Arthur appeared in the scene. While the last three tales falls into a category known as the Welsh romances, similar to those of the French romances written by Chretien de Troyes.
What were the four Branches of the Mabinogi? These four tales were told in the correct order, with Pryderi appearing in all four tales, but who only played minor role in each of the tale. It began in Pwyll Lord of Dyved, with his birth, and then it ended with Peredur’s death in the fourth tale, Math Son of Mathonwy.
With the independent tales, The Dream of Maxen involved an emperor marrying a maiden he saw in his dream, while in Lludd and Llevelys, the story involved with Britain suffering three strange plagues. Two other tales involved Arthur and his companions (not from the Round Table). The most important of these two, was written in 1100, called Culhwch and Olwen. The other was called the Dream of Rhonabwy.
The Welsh romances were similar to the popular French Arthurian romances written by Chrétien de Troyes (fl. 1165-1190). Since these three romances belonged to the mainstream Arthurian literature, I have only briefly summarised Peredur, and used Chrétien’s tales instead of Owein and Geraint from the Mabinogion.
|Four Branches of Mabinogi||Three Welsh Romances|
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi) were four Welsh tales of the Mabinogion proper. These tales were told in the sequence.
What is interesting is that Pryderi, the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, appeared in all four tales, from his birth in the first tale, to his death in the last of the Branches. Yet, he was never the main character in any of the tales.
The first and third tale centred on the kingdom of Dyved ruled by Pwyll and Pryderi, to the south in Wales, while the second tale was set in Britain (England, ruled by Bran) and Ireland. The last tale was concentrated around the Gwynedd, the northern kingdom of Wales, ruled by Math, brother of Don.
|Pwyll Lord of Dyved|
|Branwen Daughter of Llyr|
|Manawyddan Son of Llyr|
|Math Son of Mathonwy|
Genealogy: House of Don and House of Llyr
Related pages: Welsh Deities
|Pwyll Lord of Dyved was the first of the Branches of the Mabinogion. The tale recounts his adventure in the Otherworld Annwvyn, how he wooed his wife Rhiannon and the unfair punishment of Rhiannon over the mysterious disappearance of their son.
Pwyll ruled Dyved in his court mainly at Arberth. He controlled seven districts known as “cantrevs”, in southern Wales.
Pwyll was a chieftain of Dyved, the land in the south-west of Wales. He went hunting at Glynn Cuch. When another set of hound outran his own and killed a stag, he chased the other hounds off and set his own hounds upon the dead stag. However, another lord saw this, told Pwyll that the game was rightfully his. Pwyll admitted wrongdoing, wished to make amend with the lord. The other lord agreed.
The lord told Pwyll that he was Arawn, king of Annwvyn (the Otherworld Annwn), and he wished to Pwyll’s place for one year, while Pwyll posed as him. The idea was let Pwyll ruled his kingdom, without anyone knowing he was imposter, and defeat in combat, Havgtan, who was also the king of Annwvyn.
At the end of the year, they would meet at the same spot. Pwyll agreed. With his magic, Arawn transformed Pwyll to look exactly like him and sent him to his realm, while Arawn took Pwyll’s place in Dyved.
No one in Annwfn (Annwvyn) suspected that Pwyll was an impostor, even Arawn’s lovely wife. Everyday he went hunting with his men, while at night he enjoyed the feast. When it was time for bed, each night, Pwyll would sleep with his back towards Arawn’s wife. Though Arawn had implied (when they made the agreement) that Pwyll could sleep with his wife, Pwyll never had sex with her.
When the time came for the single combat between Pwyll and Havgan, the hero defeated and mortally wounded the other king. Pwyll refused to kill Havgan despite his pleas.
When the year ended, Pwyll arrived at his appointment where he first met Arawn. Arawn transformed themselves back to normal forms. Pwyll returned to Dyved, to find that he had prospered under Arawn’s leadership.
Arawn returned to his own kingdom to find that Pwyll had ruled his kingdom with understanding, fairness and justice. What took Arawn by surprise was that every night though Pwyll had slept in bed with Arawn’s beautiful wife, yet the hero had never once made love to her.
For such loyal friendship, Arawn rewarded the hero by making Pwyll’s kingdom even richer. Pwyll was not just called Lord of Dyved; he was now known as Lord of Annwfn.
One day while Pwyll took a walk outside of his court at Arberth, he saw a beautiful maiden riding a pale horse. She rode along the highway at a seemingly slow but steady pace. None of his men knew who she was. Pwyll sent one of his men on foot to ask for her name. But the woman rode past Pwyll’s servant. No matter how fast the servant ran, he could not catch up with her. This was surprising, since her horse had not increased its pace.
The next day, Pwyll saw the woman again, and sent another servant, this time on horseback, to ask for her identity. Again, the woman’s horse moved at a slow pace, yet as fast his servant rode his horse, the further he was left behind.
The next day, Pwyll was still determined to find out who she was, and asked one of his men to bring his fastest horse. Though she rode by at the same pace as she did yesterday, even his fastest horse could not catch up with her. His servant was not able to ask her any question.
Pwyll was determined that he himself would go after her with his fastest horse, the following afternoon. However, he failed to catch up with her. The faster he set the pace, the further he was left behind.
In desperation, Pwyll called out to her to stop. The woman reined in and halted her horse because Pwyll had asked her to. She introduced herself as Rhiannon, the daughter of Heveydd the Old. She knew who Pwyll was. She came to Pwyll’s land in the hope that he would marry her before one of her suitors, named Gwawl, the son of Clud, could press further his claim upon her.
They were to be married within a year. Before the wedding could take place, a youth came before them, requesting a favour from Pwyll. Pwyll foolishly agreed with out hearing it first. The youth desired to sleep with Pwyll’s new bride. Pwyll realised that the youth was Gwawl. Since Pwyll had given his words he could not take it back without breaking it.
Rhiannon advised Pwyll to ask Gwawl for a year respite. Her plan was to trick into a game of Badger in a Bag. Rhiannon gave Pwyll a bottomless bag. Pwyll was pretending to be a suppliant and beggar. Gwawl filled his sack with endless amount of food. Pwyll then told them that bag would only be full, if a nobleman pushes the food down with both feet. Rhiannon persuaded Gwawl to put both feet in the bag. Once Gwawl had both feet in the bag, Pwyll pull the bag over Gwawl’s head and tied it closed.
Pwyll’s men began kicking Gwawl while he was in the bag, claiming there was a badger in the sack. Gwawl begged for mercy. Pwyll only released Gwawl when the youth promised not to sleep with Rhiannon, and that he would not take any reprisal against either Pwyll or Rhiannon.
Pwyll and Rhiannon were happily married for two years. However, in the third year, the men of Dyved were concerned that Rhiannon may be barren. His men wanted Pwyll to have an heir as soon as possible, and should divorce Rhiannon and find another wife, who was more fertile. Pwyll persuaded his men to wait for another year.
Fortunately, Rhiannon fell pregnant almost at the end of the third year of marriage. When Rhiannon gave birth to their son, six women were to look after the infant.
That night, someone (her former suitor Gwawl) abducted the infant when the six women unexpectedly fell asleep, while Rhiannon was also asleep. When the six nurses discovered that infant had been abducted, they realised that they would be blamed for disappearance of Pwyll’s son.
They treacherously smeared blood from a deer upon Rhiannon, and caused bruises on their own face. When Pwyll came to see his son, the six nurses accused Rhiannon of devouring her own son. They claimed they tried to protect the infant, but were helpless when the mad-driven mother attacked them.
Rhiannon told her husband that the six nurses were lying, but she was powerless to refute their claims. Pwyll seeing the evidence on Rhiannon (the blood) believed the nurses’ accusation.
Pwyll punished Rhiannon by making his wife sit outside the gate of his palace for seven years. Whenever someone arrived at the gate, Rhiannon must tell the person, who did not know about the tragedy, that she had murdered her own son. She must carry any guest or stranger on her back.
Few nights later after the abduction, Teirnon Twrvliant, the lord of Gwent Ys Coed, was attending the birthing of a colt. Suddenly a claw from unknown creature (Gwawl, again) broke through the window, trying to steal the colt. Teirnon drew his sword and off the creature’s arm. Teirnon was telling his wife what was happening when they heard a cry at their front door.
Teirnon went to investigate and discovered an infant. He realised that the creature must have left it behind. Teirnon and his wife have been trying to have a child for years, so they decided to adopt and raise the infant as their own. They named the boy, Gwri Gwallt-Euryn (“Golden Hair”).
Almost a year later, Teirnon and his wife heard news of Rhiannon’s punishment for killing her son. Teirnon realised that the creature must have abducted their son and left Gwri at their doorstep. His wife heartbreakingly agreed with him that the child belonged to Pwyll, and that Rhiannon was unjustly punished for a crime she did not commit.
Teirnon went to Pwyll’s home, ended Rhiannon’s punishment and returned their son to them. Pwyll named the boy Pryderi (which means “relief from her anxiety”). Pwyll was reunited with his wife.
Pwyll rewarded Teirnon, by allowing Teirnon’s wife to continue rearing Pryderi as a foster parent. Pwyll also gave them land.
Pwyll ruled the land until his death. Pryderi inherited all the land from his father. Pryderi married Kigva, daughter of Gwynn the Splendid, the son of Gloyw Wide Hair son of the ruler of Casnar.
Pryderi conquered seven other cantrevs – three cantrevs from Ystrad Tywi (east of Dyved), four from Keredigyawn (northeast of Dyved).
|Branwen Daughter of Llyr was the second Branch of the Mabinogi. The story tells of how the war began between Wales and Ireland. The tale actually centred on Branwen’s brother Bran and her husband Mallolwch, the king of Ireland.
Bran the Blessed (Bendigeidfran), the son of Llyr and Penarddun, daughter of Beli son of Mynogan, was ruler of Britain. Bran was the brother of Manawyddan and Branwen (Bronwen), and the half-brother of Nissyen and Evnissyen.
Mallolwch (Matholwch), the king of Ireland came to Wales, seeking a wife. Bran offered his beautiful sister, Branwen, to Mallolwch. Bran’s half-brother Evnissyen (Efnisien) was offended that they had not asked him for consent before Bran decided to marry their sister to a foreign king.
Evnissyen attacked and lamed the king’s horses. When Mallolwch found out about the incident, the Irish king was offended by this outrage, decided to leave. Bran had to humiliate himself by appeasing the king by offering to replace Mallolwch with his own fine breed of horses as well as a magic cauldron that could bring a man back to life.
Mallolwch accepted Bran’s apology and married Branwen. When Mallolwch left Wales, he took his new wife with him to his kingdom in Ireland.
At first, Mallolwch and Branwen were happy; she bore the king a healthy son, whom they named Gwern. Branwen was known as a generous queen, who always gave each female guest a small gift.
However, some of his nobles, including his foster-brothers, were not happy that Mallolwch did not receive more from Bran for the insult. Mallolwch agreed and decided to punish Branwen.
Branwen was forced to work in the kitchen like a common servant. They refused all ships from Britain to enter their shore so Bran did not know what Mallolwch had done to his sister.
However, Branwen was resourceful and taught a starling how to deliver a message to her brothers in Britain. It took Branwen three years, to teach the bird what to do.
When the bird arrived at the court of Caer Seint yn Arvon, Bran found his sister’s message tied to the bird’s leg. Now Bran was offended by the Irish king’s treatment of his sister.
Bran mustered a large force from Wales and England and set out for Ireland. Among those in the army was his brother Manawyddan, and Pryderi, the chieftain of Dyved, the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon. Bran left his son Caradawg and six other chieftains behind, to look after his kingdom during his absence.
Bran, who was a giant, could not a ship large enough to carry him. Like Orion in the Greek mythology, Bran waded across the deep sea, with only his head sticking out of the water.
Mallolwch was alarmed by the news of a large fleet heading towards his kingdom, decided to retreat further west in Ireland. They crossed the river Liffey and destroyed the bridge, to prevent the Britons from crossing. Bran lay down across the river, so that the Britons could use him as a bridge to cross the Liffey.
More news arrived to Mallolwch that Bran was travelling through the forest. Only Bran could be seen, since he was taller than the tallest tree in Ireland.
Mallolwch decided to make peace with Bran, by sending a messenger to Bran. The messenger informed Bran of Mallolwch’s proposal, to step down from the throne in favour of his and Branwen’s son, Gwern, Bran’s nephew. Mallolwch would also make up any wrong and injury to Branwen.
Mallolwch had ordered the erection a house or tent large enough to shelter Bran. However, this was a trap to kill Bran. Mallolwch had two hundred men hiding in the house, each of his men hiding in the bags that hang on every pillars of the house.
Evnissyen went into the house first and was told these bags contained flour. Evnissyen squeeze each bag, killing all 200 men.
In the house, Bran and Mallolwch met, to witness the investment of kingship upon Gwern, son of Branwen. All except Evnissyen were happy to see Gwern crowned king. When Gwern stood before his uncle, Evnissyen took the boy by his feet and thrust Gwern into a fire. Branwen tried to save her son, but Bran prevented her, and protected his sister with his shield, because fighting broke out between the Britons and the Irish.
Those Irish warriors, who were killed by Evnissyen in the leather bags, were thrown into magic cauldron of rebirth. The dead warriors were resurrected. As the Irish warriors were killed in the fighting, they were also brought back to life by the cauldron of rebirth.
Fierce battle was fought in and outside of the house. The battle began to turn in favour of Mallolwch’s warriors, because those who died was brought back to life.
Evnissyen realised that his arrogance had brought destruction on his family and the men of Britain. It was he who had caused strife between the two islands. Evnissyen managed to reach the cauldron of rebirth. The Irishmen found him among the dead Irish warriors, so they threw Evnissyen into the cauldron. Evnissyen stretched himself in the cauldron, so that it broke in four pieces. However this also broke Evnissyen’s heart.
With the cauldron of rebirth destroyed, the Briton managed to snatch victory from the Irishmen. Every single Irishmen were killed in the war, including Mallolwch and Gwern, Branwen’s son. Most of the Irish women and children were all killed except five pregnant women, who escaped the massacre, by hiding in the cave.
The causalities among the Bran’s army were also extremely high. Only seven men survived the war, including Manawyddan and Pryderi. Bran received a mortal wound on his foot from the poisoned spear.
Bran told his brother to cut off his head, since it would be impossible to gigantic-size body back to Britain for burial. His head would keep company with the seven survivors. Bran’s head would be able to talk to them and entertain them in the hall of Gwales. Bran also foretold they would remain in Gwales until someone open the doors facing Cornwall, eighty years later. After this they must bury his head in White Hill in London. So they cut off Bran’s head.
The seven survivors and Branwen returned to Britain, landing at Aber Alaw in Tal Ebolyon. Branwen’s heart was heavy, because so many lives were lost in the war. Branwen died in sorrow. They buried her on the bank of Alaw.
Manawyddan and the other survivors arrived at Harddlech. Here, they found news that Casswallawn, son of Beli, had seized power in Britain during Bran’s absence. Casswallawn had murdered six of the chieftains. Casswallawn was invisible because he worn a magic cloak. Casswallawn didn’t harm his nephew, but Caradawg, the son of Bran, had died in sorrow at the death of his six companions.
The seven survivors spent seven years in Harddlech, enjoying the food and entertainment from the singing of the Birds of Rhiannon. After this they left Harddlech for Gwales in Penvro.
The house of Gwales had a royal hall with three doors. Two doors were opened, while the third door, facing Cornwall, was kept closed. The head of Bran had told them that as long as the third door remained closed, the seven could remain in Gwales.
The seven men came to Gwales (possibly in Cornwall), which was something like an Otherworld, where they forgot about their grief and loss, as long as they didn’t open the forbidden door in the great hall. They lived in Gwales with Bran’s head, so that the hall became known as the Assembly of the Wondrous Head.
They lived there for eighty years, until one of the men (Heilyn son of Gwynn) decided to open the forbidden door. All the memories of sorrow and loss returned to them.
They left Gwales with Bran’s head, and went to London, where they buried Bran’s head at White Hill.
|Manawyddan Son of Llyr was the third Branch of the Mabinogi. The following story took place straight after Manawyddan buried Bran’s head in White Hill, London.
The Third Branch of Mabinogi tells of how Manawyddan lived with Pryderi and his mother and wife were beset with enchantments from Pryderi’s enemies.
After burying Bran’s head in White Hill, Manawyddan was depressed that he had no home any more, since his cousin Casswallawn, son of Beli, had taken over the kingdom. Pryderi offered Manawyddan land of his own in Dyved and his mother’s hand in marriage. Manawyddan readily agreed with Pryderi, since Rhiannon was still a very beautiful woman.
They lived happily together with Pryderi’s wife Kigva (Cigfa), until one morning they discovered the people of Dyved had mysteriously vanished. Manawyddan and Rhiannon, Pryderi and Kigva were the only people in Pryderi’s home.
Realising they could not possibly survive without civilization, they moved to Hereford in England and took on a trade of saddlemaking. They were becoming so skilled and rich, that their rivals became jealous. They soon found out that a mob conspired to set about lynching the two couples.
Pryderi was set about defending themselves, but Manawyddan insisted that they should leave Hereford in peace and find another town to practise a different trade.
They decided to take up the trade of shield making. Again they were driven out of this town, because everyone was buying their shields, and none of their competitors’ shields. Rather than fight with the mobs, they left the town.
But the same thing happened in the next town, when they decided to manufacture shoes. They decided to return to Dyved.
When Manawyddan, Pryderi and their wives arrived in Dyved, they still found the land deserted, but they discovered mysterious palace that was never there when they left. Pryderi wanted to investigate, but he did not return. Rhiannon fearing for her son decided to find him, against Manawyddan’s advice that it was dangerous.
Rhiannon found her son frozen in place, holding a golden bowl. When Rhiannon touched the bowl, she was also frozen in place, like a statue. Then the building with them in it, vanished.
Kigva was distressed, but Manawyddan assured her that he would take care of her. They decided to return to England.
They took up shoe making trade in England until they were driven out. Manawyddan decided to return to Dyved. This time Manawyddan and Kigva took up farming in Arberth.
When it was time to harvest the wheat, he found that one of the crops was stripped bare, leaving only naked stalks. He checked the second crop and decided to reap it the next day. However this crop was also stripped. Manawyddan realised someone was trying to ruin him, decided to guard the last crop.
That night, he witnessed large horde of mice stripped the croft. Manawyddan only managed to capture one fat mouse. Manawyddan returned to Kigva and told her what had happened. Manawyddan decided to hang the little thief in the morning. Kigva thought Manawyddan had lost his mind, thinking to hang a mouse.
In the morning, Manawyddan was preparing to hang the mouse. Kigva thought that it was unfitting for a lord to perform such deed; she told him she would kill the mouse herself. Manawyddan insisted that the mouse deserved hanging, like a common thief. Kigva decided it was futile to argue with her Manawyddan any further.
Manawyddan took the mouse with him to the hill in Gorsedd Arberth. A scholar wandered towards Manawyddan, asking what he was doing. Manawyddan told him that he was going to hang one of the thieves who had destroyed his crop. The scholar at first tried to persuade him to let the mouse go; Manawyddan refused. Then the scholar tried to buy the mouse for one pound. Again, Manawyddan refused. So the scholar left.
As Manawyddan continued with his preparation to hang the mouse, he met a priest who asked him what was doing. Manawyddan told the priest the same thing as he told the scholar. The priest told him that this strange act was rather degrading for one of Manawyddan’s station. The priest also tried to persuade Manawyddan to release the mouse or let him buy the mouse, offering three pounds. Manawyddan refused the priest as he did with the scholar. So the priest departed.
Next, Manawyddan encountered the archbishop. Manawyddan told archbishop the same thing that he had told the scholar and priest. The archbishop also offered to buy the mouse’s freedom, at first seven pounds, then twenty-four pounds. Manawyddan told the archbishop that he would execute the mouse, regardless what the price was. The archbishop then offered all the horses in his land. Still Manawyddan refused.
Then the archbishop asked what he would accept to free the mouse. Manawyddan told the archbishop, he would accept nothing less than the return of Rhiannon and her son Pryderi, along with removing the enchantment on the land of Dyved.
Manawyddan also learned that the mouse was the archbishop’s wife. The archbishop was actually Llywd, the son of Kil Coed, and friend of Gwawl. The same Gwawl who was punished by Pwyll, who tricked Llywd’s friend into playing the Badger in the Bag game. Llywd decided to avenge Gwawl upon Pryderi. During Pryderi and his mother’s disappearance, they were transformed into donkeys and forced to work in Llywd’s land.
When Llywd’s wife and followers found out that Manawyddan and Kigva were living in Dyved, they asked him (Llywd) to transform them into mice, so that they could destroy Manawyddan’s crop.
Manawyddan told Llywd he would not release his wife, until Llywd promised no further revenge upon them. Llywd had no choice but to accept Manawyddan’s peace proposal to end the feud.
Manawyddan released the mouse to Llywd when he was reunited with Rhiannon and Pryderi. The enchantment on the land was lifted. The people, who vanished years ago, were returned to Dyved.
|Math Son of Mathonwy was the last Branch of the Mabinogi. Much of the tale, centred on Math’s nephew Gwydyon. Gwydyon first helped his brother Gilvaethwy seduced a maiden, and later helped Lleu, his nephew, to overcome successive curses by Lleu’s own mother. The last part of the tale was about Lleu’s unhappy marriage with Blodeuedd.
In the north of Wales, there was the lord of Gwynedd named Math. Math was the son of Mathonwy, and brother of Dôn. Math was a powerful sorcerer, who liked to rest his feet in the laps of a virgin maiden named Goewin, the daughter of Pebin from Dol Bebin in Arvon. He remained in Caer Dathal, unless there was tumult in his kingdom. Otherwise, his nephews – Gwydyon and Gilvaethwy, the sons of his sister Don, who were his main advisers, oversee the rest of his kingdom.
Gilvaethwy was in love with Goewin but realised he could not possibly have her, since she was devoted to her duties to his uncle. Gwydyon knew of his brother’s problem, devised a plan to distract their uncle.
Gwydyon advised Math that there were animals known as pigs in Dyved, given to Pryderi’s father, Pwyll, who had developed friendship with the ruler of the Otherworld Annwvyn.
Math sent his two nephews and ten other men to see if they could buy the pigs from Pryderi, who was the current ruler of Dyved. These pigs came from Arawn, lord of the otherworldly Annwfn, who was a friend of Pryderi’s father. Gwydyon tricked Pryderi into exchanging the pigs for twelve magnificent horses and twelve greyhounds, which were only illusions.
Gwydyon and his companions fled with the pigs, before the illusions wore out at the end of the day. When Pryderi realised the deception, raised his army and followed Gwydyon to Gwynedd.
Gwydyon told his uncle that Pryderi had mustered a force against them. Math had to take his part in the war as the ruler of Gwynedd, left Goewin behind. During Math’s absence, his nephew Gilvaethwy raped Goewin.
The war favoured the Math’s army, who had driven Pryderi’s forces back. Rather than risk any more lives in battle, Pryderi challenged Gwydyon in single combat. Gwydyon killed Pryderi, using his skills with sword and magic to overcome the chieftain of Dyved.
When Math returned to Caer Dathal, he learned that Goewin was no longer a virgin and that Gilvaethwy had forced himself upon her. Math need to find another virgin to rest his feet. Math decided to marry Goewin, despite the fact that his nephew had sullied her.
Math punished both Gwydyon and Gilvaethwy by striking them with his magic wand. Gwydyon was transformed into a stag, while Gilvaethwy had turned into a hind. Math told them to go into the forest to mate, and return a year from now with their young.
A year later, a stag and hind returned to Caer Dathal with a fawn. Math transformed the fawn to human form, and named his nephews’ son, Hyddwn. Math transformed Gilvaethwy into a wild boar, while his other nephew became a wild sow. They were again told to mate and return a year from now.
A year later, Gwydyon and his brother returned with a young pig, which Math transformed into a boy. Math called the boy Hychdwn. Then Math transformed Gwydyon into a wolf while the other brother was turned into a she-wolf.
They returned a year later, with a wolf pup, whom Math named Bleiddwn, and his nephews’ third son to a fosterage. Math said that they were punished enough, and turned his nephews back to human forms.
With Gwydyon regaining his human shape, he was allowed to resume his role as Math’s adviser. Math asked his nephew which virgin will now take over Goewin’s former duty. Gwydyon suggested his own beautiful sister Aranrhod.
Math tested if his niece was a virgin, by making Aranrhod stepped his magic wand. Immediately a male infant dropped out of Aranrhod’s virgin womb. Math took the child and named him Dylan. However, a second child was born, whom Gwydyon hid in a chest.
Gwydyon brought up the second son of Aranrhod, who grew rapidly, like Volsung and Sigurd in the Norse mythology. At the age of four, the boy grew as large as boy of eight.
When Gwydyon brought the child before Aranrhod for the first time, Aranrhod became upset and angry when she learned that the boy was her own son.
Aranrhod learned that Gwydyon haven’t given the boy a name. Rather than give blessing to her son, Aranrhod gave Lleu three curses. Gwydyon helped Lleu overcome each curse. The first curse was that her son would receive no name until she gave him a name. Gwydyon tricked Aranrhod into giving her son a name, since she did not recognise him. Her son became known as Lleu of the Skilful Hand.
Aranrhod told Gwydyon that Lleu would not receive any armour and weapon unless she gave them to him. One day, Gwydyon used magic to disguise himself and his nephew. Gwydyon told Aranrhod that there was fleet of raiders about to invader her land. Aranrhod who did not recognised her son or brother, armed Lleu with armour and weapon. Immediately the illusion of raiding fleet conjured up by Gwydyon vanished.
Then Aranrhod angrily cursed her son that so that he could not have any wife from any race of people. This curse proved almost impossible to overcome, so Gwydyon asked Math to help the young man find a wife.
Taking pity on Lleu, Math used his magic wand to create the loveliest woman out of flowers. She was named Blodeuedd. Math had Blodeuedd marry Lleu, and gave him the cantrev of Dinoding to live in.
The marriage did not last, because during Lleu’s absence, Blodeuedd met a hunter named Goronwy the Staunch, lord of Penllyn. Blodeuedd fell in love with Goronwy. Together they plotted to rid of Lleu.
Blodeuedd learned from her husband that he could only be killed by a spear that took a whole year to make, and only if he had one foot on a goat’s back and one foot in a tub full of water. Blodeuedd treacherously gave this information to her lover. Goronwy immediately set about making the spear.
On that fateful day, Blodeuedd persuaded her husband to take a bath on the bank of the river. When Lleu had one of feet on a goat while the other was still in the tub, Goronwy hurled a spear at Lleu’s back. Instead of killing Lleu, he was transformed into an eagle.
Goronwy and Blodeuedd took over Lleu’s domain, conquering Ardudwy and Penllyn. Gwydyon and Math were upset over Lleu’s disappearance, so Math sent his nephew to find Lleu.
After a year of searching for his nephew, Gwydyon found a weak eagle on top of a dead tree. Gwydyon sang a song, to entice the eagle to come down the tree. Gwydyon used the wand on the eagle so that Lleu resumed his own form. Gwydyon found that his nephew was seriously injured and almost starved to death.
Gwydyon nursed Lleu to full health. Lleu was given an army to avenge his injury. When Blodeuedd heard news of her husband recovery, she fled from Mur Castell. Gwydyon caught up with her, transforming her into an owl called Blodeuwedd.
Goronwy the Staunch tried to make amend and peace with Lleu. Lleu refused to accept any compensation from Goronwy unless he agreed to place himself in the same situation when Goronwy wounded him.
Goronwy had no choice but to accept his punishment. It was Lleu who now wielded the spear, while Goronwy stood on a goat and the tub of water. Goronwy asked it he could place a rock between the spear and where he stood. Lleu agreed to the term.
However the rock was no protection for Goronwy. Lleu’s spear pierced through the rock and killed Goronwy.
After this, Lleu won back his home, and lived there until he became king of Gwynedd when Math died or abdicated.
There are four tales that are independent from the Mabinogion proper and the Welsh Arthurian romances.
Though two of the tales, “Culhwch” and “Rhonabwy” has Arthur and his men in the scene, these tales were not found in the mainstream Arthurian legend. Meaning, they were uniquely Welsh in characteristic and theme.
Note that in Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, there was a fifth independent tales, called the Tale of Taliesin or Taliesin, which does not appear in the early manuscripts on the Mabinogion. Yet, I thought you may enjoy this story.
|The Dream of Maxen|
|Ludd and Llevelys|
|Culhwch and Olwen|
|The Dream of Rhonabwy|
|Maxen was the emperor of Rome, possibly related to the historical Maxentius, reign AD 306-312.
Maxen decided to go on a hunting trip, until at noon, when he grew tired and decided to sleep. In his dream, he travelled on a boat, through rivers and sea, until he arrived in Britain. There he saw a castle, which he entered, and saw two young men playing a board game, while a white-haired man carving golden chess-pieces for the board game called gwyddbwyll. Maxen also saw the most beautiful maiden he had ever seen, sitting on a golden chair.
Maxen became depressed the moment he woke up. He had fallen in love with the girl he saw in his dream. After awhile, his chamberlain became concern for his emperor’s well being, and discovered that Maxen was suffering from longing and desire for the girl in his dream. The chamberlain and his advisers suggested that they would try to find the girl for their emperor.
For a whole year they tried to find the girl without success, so they asked the emperor where the dream began. The emperor took his followers to a riverbank of where the dream began. His followers followed the river until they came to a ship. Seeing that Maxen’s dream was true, they boarded the ship, and sailed along the river, then out to the sea. They came to Britain, where they discovered the castle in Maxen’s dream. They found the man carving gwyddbwyll pieces and the woman whom they had been searching for.
Maxen’s followers greeted the maiden by hailing her empress of Rome. The girl thought they were mocking her, until they her of their emperor’s dream. She agreed to only marry Maxen if he came to her.
Maxen arrived to find the girl of his dream. The maiden was named Elen, daughter of Eudav. Her brothers were Kynan and Avaon, who were playing gwyddbwyll. Elen agreed to the marriage if Maxen would give her father the Birtish Isles to rule. She also wanted three strongholds in Britain – Arvon, Caer Llion (Caerleon on Usk) and Caer Vryddin (Carmarthen).
Maxen spent seven years living in Britain, when a pretender took Rome, and proclaimed himself as Emperor of Rome. Maxen decided to reclaim his throne in Rome, and set out with a small British force. Maxen lay siege to Rome, but experienced difficulty in capturing the Roman capital.
Elen’s brothers devised a plan to capture Rome. They constructed a siege ladder to scale the wall, while the new emperor was having his midday meal. Kynan and Avaon killed the new emperor, and Rome surrendering to Maxen after three days of heavy fighting in the city.
Maxen rewarded Elen’s brothers with command of the army. They conquered Brittany, killing all the men, while they cut off all the women’s tongues, to prevent contamination of the British language. The people of Brittany became known as Bryttanyeid.
|Britain was ruled by a king, named Beli the Great, the son of Mynogan. Beli had four sons Lludd (Nudd), Casswallan, Nynnyaw and Llevelys (Llefelys). When Beli died, Lludd being the eldest became king of Britain.
Lludd had rebuilt the wall of London, which at the time was called Caer Lludd (Caer Llundein or Lwndrwys). Lludd was a great warrior, renowned for courage and skills in fighting, but he loved his youngest brother, because Llevelys was wise. Llevelys became the king of France, when he married the late king’s (unnamed) daughter.
One day, Lludd discovered Britain was suffering from three different plagues. The first place was the arrival of people known as the Corannyeid. Lludd could not get rid of them, because they could hear every conversation in Britain. The second plague was a scream that can be heard at every May Eve. The scream could cause miscarriages among pregnant women, rendered young children unconscious, and make animals, trees and soil to become barren. The third plague was just as puzzling. No mattered how much provision was prepared in Lludd’s capital, the food and wine would disappear.
Lludd could not figure a way to rid of the plagues, so he secretly arranged to visit his brother in France. The two brothers met, Llevelys knew the solutions to his oldest brother’s problems.
Following his wise brother’s advice, Lludd gathered a large assembly of people. He crushed and mixed some bugs that his brother had given him, with water. Lludd then threw the mixtures upon everyone assembled, killing all of the Corannyeid, without harming his people.
The second plagues were two dragons fighting; a foreign dragon was attacking the native dragon, which was causing that scream that could be heard at every May Eve. Llevelys suggested that his brother to find the exact centre of the isle (Oxford), dig a pit at that centre, filling it with a vat of mead, and covering the pit with a sheet.
The dragons would fight until they were weary. The dragons were transformed into two pigs as they fall into the vat. Once they drank the mead, they would fall asleep. Lludd had to confine the two dragons into a stone chest, before the king could bury the chest at Dinas Emreis (previously known as Dinas Ffaraon Dandde).
Then Lludd was ready for the task of removing the third plague. It was a mighty magician (giant), who was stealing all the food. The magician caused everyone at the feast to fall asleep. To overcome drowsiness, Llevelys advised his brother to prepare and dip himself into a vat of cold water, whenever he felt sleepy.
When everyone was overcome by the sleep spell, Lludd had immersed in a vat of cold water, which kept him awake and alert. He saw the magician stuffing enormous amount of food into a small magic bag. Lludd confronted and fought the giant before he could escape. Lludd spared the giant-magician only when the magician swore fealty to the king.
So Lludd ended the three plagues in Britain.
|There is a great deal of interest to the scholars in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, because it was composed probably in c. 1100. These interests lay in the fact that it was composed before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote Historia regum Britanniae, in 1137, which was the first full account of the life of King Arthur.
Arthur appeared with some of the figures that would later play parts in the Arthurian legend in Geoffrey’s works and other works of later writers. These characters included Kei (Kay) and his constant companion Bedwyr (Bedivere), and Gwalchmei (Gawain). Arthur’s wife Guinevere also appeared for the first time, as the queen, Gwenhwyvar, in the Culhwch.
What was just as interesting was the mention of the Battle of Camlann. Reference of Camlann, was also made in the Dream of Rhonabwy.
In the Annales Cambriae, written in 10th century, say that “The year of the battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell…” The last part of the statement was rather ambiguous. For it doesn’t state the nature their relationship, nor did it say whether they fought along side by side or against each other.
But in the Culhwch and the Rhonabwy, the battle was already fought, and Arthur was still alive. Not only that Saint Kynwyl was one of three men to escape Camlann, and was the last man to leave Arthur (not Bedwyr or Bedivere). The other two were Morvran son of Tegid, and Sanddev Angel Face. Unless the battle of Camlann happened after Culhwch, then the writer was talking about the future.
Finally in the Dream of Rhonabwy, Arthur fought against Medrawd, better known as Medraut in the Annales Cambriae or Mordred in the Arthurian legend. Medrawd was nephew and foster-son of Arthur.
If you are interested the Welsh version of the family tree of Arthur, see the House of Arthur and Culhwch.
Culhwch (Kulhwch) was the son of King Kilydd of Kelyddon and Goleuddydd, daughter of the ruler Amlawdd. His name Culhwch was given because Goleuddydd gave birth in front of a swineherd, and the infant dropped into a pig’s run.
Goleuddydd fell in ill, made her husband not to take another wife until a two-headed thorn grew before her gravestone. So for seven years, Kilydd remained a widower. Kilydd took another wife, who was daughter of King Doged.
When the new queen found out she had a stepson, she wanted to marry him to her daughter. When Culhwch told her he was still too young to marry, she told Culhwch that he could never have a woman until he married Olwen, daughter of the giant named Ysbaddaden Pencawr (Pencawr or Bencawr means “King of Giants”). Kilydd told his son that to win Olwen he must gain the help of his cousin, King Arthur.
Culhwch arrived at Arthur’s palace, and like Lugh, he was refused entry to court by the doorman. It seemed to be a custom of the Celts, to refuse entry to a home at night or during supper. Unlike Lugh, instead of listing his skill to take service with the king as Lugh had done, Culhwch threatened to place a curse upon Arthur and his entire household.
Arthur told the doorman to allow the youth to enter; though Kei (Kay) advised against breaking the custom.
Culhwch told Arthur of his request that the king couldn’t refuse; Culhwch told Arthur that he want to win the hand of Ysbaddaden’s daughter, Olwen. Culhwch proceeded to list the men who should help them. They included Kei and Bedwyr (Bedivere), the bard Taliesin, as well as some Irish heroes from the Red Branch. The men in this long list had some unique skills. There some two hundred heroes in the list (really quite tedious). When Arthur learned that Culhwch was his cousin, Arthur agreed to help.
Arthur and Culhwch set out to find Ysbaddaden’s home. Culhwch learned of where the giant lived, when he met a shepherd named Custenhin (Custennin), who was the husband of Goleuddydd’s sister. He was told that no one left Ysbaddaden’s domain alive. Culhwch gave the shepherd, a ring as a reward for the information. Custenhin gave the ring to his wife and told her that he had met his nephew. Custenhin’s wife was sorrowful that her nephew was going to his death.
They invited their noble guests, where Culhwch met the couple’s last son, named Goreu, who was hiding in the chest near the hearth. Ysbaddaden had killed the other twenty-three sons. Kei asked her to let Goreu to become his companion in the quest for Olwen.
Culhwch wanted to meet Olwen, so his aunt made arrangement. Culhwch fell in love with Olwen when she arrived at his aunt’s house. Olwen refused to marry him unless her father agreed. Olwen knew that when she marries her father would die. Olwen advised Culhwch that he must go to his father and ask for her hand in marriage. Culwch must do everything Ysbaddaden ask for, if he hoped to marry her.
Culhwch and his companions arrived at Ysbaddaden’s fortress, killing nine gatekeeper and nine mastiffs, until they stood before Ysbaddaden. When Ysbaddaden heard what they wanted, he asked his servants to lift his eyelids with a fork, so he could see his prospective son-in-law. Ysbaddaden told them to return tomorrow.
As they turned back to leave. Ysbaddaden hurled one of his three-poisoned spears at them. Bedywr caught the spear and threw it back at the giant. Ysbaddaden received a wound to his knee. Ysbaddaden cried out that he would have trouble walking up hill.
They returned in the morning, demanding to allow Culhwch to marry the giant’s daughter. Ysbaddaden told them he must consult Olwen grandparents first. As Culhwch’s company leave to have breakfast, Ysbaddaden threw another spear at the group. This time Menw, son of Teirwaedd caught the spear, before hurling back at Ysbaddaden. The spear pierced Ysbaddaden’s chest. Ysbaddaden complained that he would suffer from chest pain and stomach ache.
Culhwch and his companions returned from their meal, again making their demand. Ysbaddaden’s eyelids had drooped over his eyes. Once it was pushed up, the giant threw his last spear. This time it was Culhwch who caught the spear and threw it back at Ysbaddaden. The spear struck one of his eyes. The giant moaned that his eye would water whenever the wind blows, and he will suffer from dizziness and headache as a result of this latest injury.
It was then that Ysbaddaden started making demand from Culhwch. Culhwch promised Ysbaddaden he would fetch everything that the giant wanted. Ysbaddaden told Culhwch he must complete over forty impossible tasks. Some tasks can’t be completed until he performs one or more task that was necessary for success. Some of these tasks were also preparation for his daughter’s marriage.
Each task seemed to be short, yet it took at least seven pages for Ysbaddaden to list all his requirements. I don’t think I will go through here. However, I will try to recount some of the most important tasks that Culhwch and his companions needed to complete.
One of the items that they had to fetch was the sword from Wrnach the Giant. Kei pretending to be a craftsman said he was a burnisher of swords. Kei polished Wrnach’s sword before killing the giant with his own sword.
Next they had to find and release from prisoner, a man or youth named Mabon, the son of the goddess Modron. Culhwch needed Mabon to control Drudwyn, the hound of Greid, to hunt the boar (Twrch Trwyth). Fetching and the leash (Cors Hundred Claws) and the collar (Canhastyr Hundred Hands), as well as the hound (Drudwyn), were three other conditions that Culhwch needs fulfilling.
Gwrhyr, Arthur’s interpreter, could speak the language of the animal. To find out where Mabon was held captive, Gwrhyr must talk to one animal after another. Each animal was older than the previous. First Gwrhyr talked to Ousel of Kilgwri, who did not know of Mabon, but thought that the Stag of Rhedenvre might know. The stag did not know, but the beast told him to find the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd. The owl guided them to the Eagle of Gwernbwy, who in turn told them to speak to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw. The salmon was the oldest and the wisest of the animals. The salmon took Kei and Bedywr to Gloucester, where they found Mabon’s prison. They freed Mabon, who in gratitude joined Culhwch’s company.
Another important task, needed before Arthur and his men could hunt for the wild boar, is that Gwynn ap Nudd and Gwythyr fab Greidawl needed to join him. Both men had fallen in love with Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd Llaw Ereint. Creiddylad was one of the three most beautiful women ever to live.
Apparently Gwythyr had married Creiddylad, but before he could sleep with her, Gwynn forced his way in their chamber, and abducted Creiddylad. Neither man would give her up, so both sides collected an army. There was constant fighting between them. Gwynn managed to capture many prominent nobles of Gwythyr; among the captives were Nwython and his son Kyledyr. Gwynn ruthlessly killed Nwython in front of his son, cutting out Nwython’s heart, before forcing Kyledyr to eat his father’s heart. The unfortunate Kyledyr went mad from Gwynn’s monstrous act.
Arthur really needed Gwynn and his hounds, so Arthur decided to intervene. He placed a curse, sort of like the Irish geis, upon Gwynn and Gwythyr to reconcile, freeing the nobles that Gwynn held as prisoners. Gwynn and Gwythyr would fight a duel, each year on May Day (Calan Mai), until Judgement Day. In the meantime, Creiddylad would remain forever young with her father, until one of them wins the duel. With this, Gwynn and Gwythyr made peace and joined Arthur in the most perilous task.
They hunted the wild boar called Twrch Trwyth. The boar had a razor, scissors and comb that Ysbaddaden required, to prepare him for his daughter’s wedding. No other items were strong enough to allow Ysbaddaden to shave, cut or comb his hair.
Twrch Trwyth was originally human but had been transformed into a wild boar. Twrch Trwyth had seven young pigs. As Arthur and his company hunted, they were led in a merry chase from Ireland to Wales, then Brittany and lastly Cornwall. These wild boars caused death and mayhem. Many of Arthur’s men fell in the hunt, including his own son Gwydre.
Mabon took the razor and Kyledyr the Wild took the scissor from Twrch Trwyth, in the river Havren. Arthur managed to take the comb from Twrch Trwyth in Cornwall, before they drove it out to sea.
The final task required Arthur to gain the blood of the Black Hag, daughter of the White Hag from the Valley of Distress. The blood was needed to untangle Ysbaddaden’s hair. At the cave of the hag, the hag defeated four of Arthur’s companions before Arthur defeated her and took her blood.
When Culhwch brought all the items that Ysbaddaden requested, before the youth was allowed to marry Olwen. After shaving Ysbaddaden, Goreu, the son of the shepherd Custenhin, beheaded Ysbaddaden, thereby avenging the death of his brothers.
Culhwch married Olwen and slept with her, living in Ysbaddaden’s fortress. After the celebration was over Arthur and his men went home.
|Like Culhwch and Olwen, the Dream of Rhonabwy was an independent tale of Arthur, which has no influence from outside of Wales.
Madawg, the son of Maredudd, ruled Powys, a northern kingdom in Wales. His brother, Iorwerth was distressed and envied his brother’s power, yet refused to accept any office and honour his brother. Iorwerth took his armed followers in a series of raiding campaigns throughout England. Madawg set out men to find his brother.
In Didlystwn, a tiny town in Rhychdir, a group of Madawg’s men sought shelter at the house of Heilyn the Red, the son of Cadwgawn son of Iddon. These men were Rhonabwy, Kynwrig the Red Freckles from Mawddwy, and Cadwgawn the Stout from Moelvre in Kynlleith.
The house of Heilyn the Red was run down and filthy. The famous Celtic hospitality was not in evidence, for their host reluctantly welcomed his guests, almost to the point of being rude. Rhonabwy and his companions ate joyless meal, before retiring for the night. While his two companions slept uncomfortably filthy, flea-ridden pallets, Rhonabwy decided to sleep on the yellow ox-skin on a platform.
Once Rhonabwy fell asleep, he dreamt of crossing the plain of Argyngrog with his companions, when they encountered a rider in green and yellow outfit, armed with a sword. The rider had curly hair and neatly trimmed beard, and rode on a yellow horse. When they saw his countenance, Rhonabwy and his companions fled in fear, but the strange and fearsome rider overtook them. They pleaded for mercy, which the rider granted.
The rider’s name was Iddawg son of Mynyo, but he was known as Iddawg the Churn of Britain. He received the name when he delivered messages for Arthur to his nephew Medrawd (Mordred) during the Battle of Camlann; instead of repeating Arthur’s words in gentle and kind manner to Medrawd, Iddawg told repeated the message in the rudest possible way. Iddawg was punished and had to penance at Y Llech Las in Scotland.
Iddawg acted as a guide to Rhonabwy and his companions. Iddawg identified for Rhonabwy other riders in outlandish outfits and armed forces from various kingdoms with colourful uniforms and strange banners. Among the men they met in Rhonabwy’s strange dream was Emperor Arthur. Arthur was saddened that Britain was defended by puny men, like Rhonabwy and his companions. Some of characters Rhonabwy met or seen, can be identified with knights in mainstream Arthurian legend – such as Kei with Sir Kay, the most handsomest man in Britain; Cadwr Earl of Cornwall with Duke Cador of Cornwall, Arthur’s sword-bearer, and Owein son of Uryen with Sir Yvain.
Arthur and his men were preparing for the Battle of Baddon (Mon Badon), against Osla Big Knife. Yet Arthur seemed to be involved in a strange encounter with Owein. Owein agreed to play a board game with Arthur, called gwyddbwyll. While they played gwyddbwyll, a messenger, in strange armour and outfit, arrived for Owein, saying that Arthur’s squires and pages were fighting and killing Owein’s ravens. Owein asked Arthur to call his men off, but Arthur would only reply “Your move.” They would shortly finished a game of gwyddbwyll, and begin a new game.
Twice more, two different messengers would deliver a message on how the ravens were badly faring, Owein would ask Arthur to call off his men, but Arthur would only give the same reply to Owein – “It’s your move.” – before beginning a new game. With the last message, Owein told his third messenger to raise a standard where the fighting was fiercest.
The tide of the strange battle between Owein’s ravens and Arthur’s squires and pages, began to turn in Owein’s favour. This time, the ravens were winning: killing and molesting the Arthur’s squires and pages. This time, messengers came for Arthur about the news that the ravens were defeating his men. Now it was Arthur who asked Owein to withdraw his ravens, and it was Owein who told his gwyddbwyll opponent: “It’s your move, my lord.” They would continue with the game of gwyddbwyll.
With Arthur’s third message, the king told Owein to call off his ravens, and Arthur ended the game by grinding the gwyddbwyll gold men into dust. Only then, did Owein ask his banner to be lowered, ending the fight between the men and ravens. Iddawg identified the six messengers for Rhonabwy who appeared during the gwyddbwyll games.
Then Osla Big Knife arrived with 24 knights, asking for a truce from Arthur. Arthur sought advice from his advisers; among them were Gwalchmei (Gawain) son of Gwyar, Drystan (Tristan) son of Tallwch, Howel (Hoel) son of Emphyr from Brittany, and other warriors found in the tales of Culhwch and Olwen. Arthur granted Osla Big Knife a truce for a month and a fortnight.
Then Rhonabwy woke and found out that he and his companions had slept for three day and three nights.
|Taliesin is the name that appeared frequently in Welsh myth and legend, as a master bard. Yet Taliesin could also possibly be a historical figure who lived in sixth century AD, as mentioned by Nennius, a 9th century historian. Here, you will find the mythical Taliesin as well some note about the historical Taliesin.
The following story about Taliesin does not appear in the early manuscripts that contained the tales of the Mabinogion (the White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400)).
It was Lady Charlotte Guest who included the Hanes Taliesin (Tale of Taliesin) in her translation of the Mabinogion. The Hanes Taliesin appeared to be a late addition to the Mabinogion; it was probably written by Llywelyn Siôn (c. 1615). Other translations of the Mabinogion often don’t contain the story of Taliesin.
In Lake Tegid, there was a man named Tegil Voel, who lived with his wife Ceridwen, the goddess or great sorceress. They had a beautiful daughter, named Creirwy, the fairest woman on earth. Ceridwen was also the mother of a son, named Morfran ab Tegil (or Morvran, “great raven”), who would later become one of Arthur’s warriors in the story of Culwch and Olwen, and was a companion in Culwch’s quest to win Olwen.
Ceridwen also had a third son, named Afagddu or Avagddu (“utter darkness”). Afagddu was so hideously ugly, that she feared that he would never be admitted among men of noble birth, unless he became a great bard.
See Genealogy: Family of Ceridwen and Taliesin (genealogy).
Ceridwen decided to use her magic to make Afagddu the greatest bard of all time. From the books of the Fferyllt, she set about to boil a Cauldron of Inspiration, known as Amen. Her son would gain the knowledge of poetry and science from only three drops of Inspiration. The rest of the liquid would be poisonous.
However, to make the brew of Inspiration, the cauldron needed to boil and stir for a whole year and a day. While Ceridwen gathered herbs for the necessary ingredient, she charged a blind man, named Morda, to keep the fire perpetually lit. While another man named Gwyon Bach (or Gwion Bach), the son of Gwerang of Llanfair in Caereinion (Powys), had to stir the cauldron.
On the final day, while Ceridwen gathered the last of her herbs, three drops from the cauldron flew out on to Gwyon’s finger. His normal reaction to being scalded by the boiling liquid was to place his finger into his mouth. Immediately, Gwyon gained all the knowledge and poetry in the world from the charmed drops. Gwyon Bach also knew that Ceridwen would kill him in anger, he fled.
The cauldron shattered when Gwyon had stopped stirring the brew, poisoning the horses of Gwyddno Garanhir. Ceridwen returned to the cauldron to find that her year-long work were in ruin. The goddess struck Morda on the head with a billet of wood, until one of his eyes fell out. Morda pleaded to Ceridwen that he was innocence. Realising that Morda spoke the truth, Ceridwen immediately set out to hunt Gwyon Bach down and kill him.
When Gwyon Bach saw Ceridwen pursuing him, with his new found knowledge, Gwyon changed into a hare. Ceridwen, who also had the ability of shape-shifting; she changed into a greyhound and pursued her prey. Realising that he could not outlast the hound (Ceridwen), Gwyon transformed himself into a fish when he jumped into the river; but Ceridwen swam after him in the form of otter. When he felt that he was going to faint from exhaustion, Gwyon flew out of the water as bird; while Ceridwen pursued him as a hawk.
Ceridwen had almost caught him, when he thought he would escape by transforming himself into a grain of wheat, falling among the heap of wheat in a barn. However, he could not outsmart Ceridwen, who immediately transformed herself into a high-crested back hen.
Once she found the grain (Gwyon), Ceridwen immediately swallowed poor Gwyon Bach. But the great goddess Ceridwen became pregnant as the result of swallowing Gwyon.
Nine months later, Ceridwen gave birth to a son. Before she was going to kill the newborn infant (probably because he was actually an incarnation of Gwyon Bach), but found that he was so beautiful, Ceridwen did not have the heart to kill her son. So she put her son in a leather bag and threw him into the sea, on the 29th of April.
For nine days and nights, the bag floated until it was caught in the weir of Gwyddno Garanhir, a chieftain or lord. That day, Elffin (Elphin), the unlucky son of Gwyddno Garanhir, hoped to catch some fishes, but instead found the leather bag. It seemed that the bag had damaged the weir.
Hoping that the bag contained gold, Elffin opened the bag, and he marvelled to find a beautiful infant with a radiant brow, so Elffin called the child Taliesin (“radiant brow”).
Elffin was upset that he had not could any fishes from the weir, nor found gold in the bag, but the baby comfort him by singing a poem, called Consolation, before singing about his ordeals with Ceridwen, which he reveal he was really Gwyon Bach (see Ceridwen and Gwyon Bach).
Elffin brought the infant with him back to his father’s home. Gwyddno asked his son if he had brought any fish back from the weir, Elffin only reply that he got something better: a bard. When Gwyddno thought that his son was again unlucky, Taliesin told the Gwyddno that Elffin would have more to gain from him than the weir. Gwyddno was astonished that the baby could talk, and Taliesin sang for Gwyddno and his court.
After the song, Elffin took Taliesin home.
Taliesin lived with Elffin (Elphin) and his wife, who became his foster parents. Taliesin’s wisdom helped Elffin increase his wealth.
When Taliesin was thirteen, Elffin was invited to his uncle’s Christmas celebration at the castle of Dyganwy. Elffin’s uncle was Maelgwn Gwynedd, the king of Wales.
At Dyganwy, Maelgwn Gwynedd was lavished with high praises from his people, such as that his wife was beautiful and virtuous than any woman in the kingdom; that his horses and greyhounds were the swiftest; and that his bards were the wisest and most skilful.
Problems arise, when Elffin, who was probably drunk from wines or ales, claimed that if rank or nobility did not matter, then his own wife was more fair and virtuous than the king’s wife. Elffin also said that his horses and hounds were swifter than Maelgwn’s, and that his bard was wiser and more inspiring than the king’s bards.
When Maelgwn Gwynedd heard this boast, the king had his nephew thrown into prison, and chained with golden fetters. Maelgwn also sent his son Rhun, to investigate Elffin’s claim about the beauty and virtues of his nephew’s wife.
In Elffin’s home, Taliesin knew what had taken place in Dyganwy, and warned Elffin’s wife of Rhun arrival to test her virtue. Taliesin advised her to let one of her maids to take her place, pretending to be the lady of the house. Taliesin had also cleverly made the maid wear his foster-mother’s signet ring.
Rhun unsuspectingly seduced the maid and made her intoxicated with wine. As the maid slept, Rhun cut off her finger, taking the ring as proof to his father. Maelgwn finding that his son had succeeded in his task had Elffin brought before him.
Maelgwn proclaimed that Elffin’s wife was not so virtuous since he has her finger and ring, as proof. Though, Elffin admitted that the ring belonged to his wife, but the finger was not his wife’s, because the nail was longer than his wife was. And furthermore, it belonged to someone who was used to working in the kitchen.
Elffin’s counter claims angered Maelgwn, so the king had him thrown into prison again.
Meanwhile, back at Elffin’s home, Taliesin told his foster mother that he would go to Dyganwy, and have the king release Elffin, by proving all of Elffin’s claims.
In Maelgwn’s court, Taliesin used his power to make the king’s twenty-four bards speechless. The bards could only muttered “Blerwm, blerwn”, like drunks or dumb imbeciles. Maelgwn thought that all his bards were drunk. The king became so irritated that he ordered his squire to strike at Heinin Vardd, Maelgwn’s chief bard.
The squire struck Heinin in the head with a broom, and the bard immediately regain his sense and his ability to speak. Heinin told his king that he and his colleagues were not drunk, but a spell was cast upon them by a boy standing behind the column.
Taliesin was brought to Maelgwn’s presence, and he explained in a song, why he had come – to release his master and foster father, Elffin, from prison and fetters. Taliesin also introduced himself, as Taliesin, the “chief of the bards of the West”. Taliesin also told the king he had another name, like Merddin (Myrddin, the Welsh form of Merlin) and Gwyon Bach (this suggested that Taliesin was reincarnation of Gwyon). Taliesin also told them that he had many lives that had existed since the beginning of time (Adam and Eve), and throughout history.
Maelgwn was awe-struck with young boy’s ability in poetry. Taliesin challenged Heinin and the other bards in the skills of song and poetry, but the bards were still struck dumb, and only answered with “Blerwm, blerwn”.
In a song, Taliesin warned the king that he could call upon the weather to disrupt his kingdom, if Maelgwn refused to free Elffin. This poem ended with the sudden and violent stormy winds outside that should the entire palace. Maelgwn fearing that the storm would cause his entire to collapse, so the king ordered for Elffin’s immediate release. So Taliesin stopped the strong winds from blowing.
Taliesin went on with a couple more songs, before bring Elffin’s wife to castle, to prove that she had no missing finger, as well as proving that she was the fairest and most virtuous in the entire kingdom.
Taliesin also went on to prove that Elffin had a swifter horse than the king’s did. At the end of the horse race, Elffin’s horse had easily won. At Taliesin’s advice, the jockey dropped his cap after the race. A hole was dug up where the cap had fallen, and cauldron of gold was found.
Maelgwn was so impressed with Taliesin’s wisdom and knowledge that he asked to sing another song to them, this time about the Creation (Adam and Eve). The story ended with this last song.
The last three tales in the Mabinogion were Welsh romances, known as Tair Rhamant, similar to those written by the French poet, Chretien de Troyes, who flourished in the second half of the twelfth century.
The Mabinogion’s Gereint Son of Erbin or Geraint and Enid bears striking resemble to Chretien’s Erec and Enide. The Lady (or Countess) of the Fountain paralleled with that of Chretien’s Knight of the Lion (Yvain).
The link between Peredur and Conte du Graal (or Perceval) was similar but has less close in relation than the other tales. Instead of Peredur seeing the grail at his uncle’s castle (like in Perceval), he see a severed head in a platter!
In fact, the three romances were most definitely written after Chretien de Troyes and were influenced by the French writer. These three romances showed that they were also influenced by courtly manners and knighthood. The heroes were undoubtedly knights, which were absence from the other tales.
I have omitted the last three tales in the Mabinogion for two reasons.
These tales were more entwined with the Arthurian legend and the similarities between the French and Welsh versions give me some justification of not wasting any more time spend on them.
The second reason why I preferred the French version was because Chretien added more details and life to the characters and scenes than the Welsh versions. The Welsh romances were less refined than Chretien’s romances.
So I have the French versions of these romances that can be found in the Arthurian Legends.
Below is the links to the three links from the Arthurian romances:
|Geraint and Enid (See Erec and Enide)|
|The Lady of the Fountain (See Yvain and the Lady of the Fountain)|
|Peredur Son of Evrawg (See Perceval’s Tradition for a brief summary of Peredur)|
If you are interested the Welsh version of the family tree of Arthur, see the House of Arthur and Culhwch.