Welsh mythology

Welsh mythology

Welsh mythology, the remnants of the mythology of the pre Christian Britons, has come down to us in much altered form in medieval Welsh manuscripts such as the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, the Book of Aneirin and the Book of Taliesin.

The prose stories from the White and Red Books are known as the "Mabinogion", a title given to them by their first translator, Lady Charlotte Guest, and also used by subsequent translators. Poems such as "Cad Goddeu" (The Battle of the Trees) and mnemonic list-texts like the "Welsh Triads" and the "Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain", also contain mythological material. These texts also include the earliest forms of the Arthurian legend and the traditional history of post-Roman Britain.

Other sources include the 9th century Latin historical compilation "Historia Britonum" (the History of the Britons) and Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century Latin chronicle "Historia Regum Britanniae" (the History of the Kings of Britain), as well as later folklore, such as "The Welsh Fairy Book" by W. Jenkyn Thomas [1908] .

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

The most mythological stories contained in the "Mabinogion" collection are collectively titled "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi". The common thread running through the four Branches is the life of the hero Pryderi. He is conceived, born and named in the first Branch, fights for Bendigeidfran in Ireland in the second, loses and regains his kingdom in the third, and dies in the fourth. He was probably originally central to all four Branches, and remains so in the first and third, but is reduced to a passing mention in the second and fourth, which concentrate on the children of Llyr and the children of Dôn, two clans of characters who were probably once gods.

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

The first branch tells of how Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, exchanges places for a year with Arawn, the ruler of Annwn (the underworld), defeats Arawn's enemy Hafgan, and on his return encounters Rhiannon, a beautiful maiden whose horse cannot be caught up with. He manages to win her hand at the expense of Gwawl, to whom she is betrothed, and she bears him a son, but the child disappears soon after his birth. Rhiannon is accused of killing him and forced to carry guests on her back as punishment. The child has been taken by a monster, and is rescued by Teyrnon and his wife, who bring him up as their own, calling him Gwri of the Golden hair, until his resemblance to Pwyll becomes apparent. They return him to his real parents, Rhiannon is released from her punishment, and the boy is renamed Pryderi.

Branwen, Daughter of Llyr

In the second branch, Branwen, sister of Bendigeidfran (aka Bran the Blessed), king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Branwen's half-brother Efnisien insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses, but Bendigeidfran gives him new horses and treasure, including a magical cauldron which can restore the dead to life, in compensation. Matholwch and Branwen have a son, Gwern, but Matholwch proceeds to mistreat Branwen, beating her and making her a drudge. Branwen trains a starling to take a message to Bendigeidfran, who goes to war against Matholwch. His army crosses the Irish Sea in ships, but Bendigeidfran is so huge he wades across. The Irish offer to make peace, and build a house big enough to entertain Bendigeidfran, but inside they hang a hundred bags, telling Efnisien they contain flour, when in fact they conceal armed warriors. Efnisien kills the warriors by squeezing the bags. Later, at the feast, Efnisien throws Gwern on the fire and fighting breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, Efnisien hides among the corpses and destroys the cauldron, although the effort costs him his life. Only seven men, all Welsh, survive the battle, including Pryderi, Manawyddan and Bendigeidfran, who is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Bendigeidfran asks his companions to cut off his head and take it back to Britain. Branwen dies of grief on returning home. Five pregnant women survive to repopulate Ireland.

Manawyddan, son of Llyr

Pryderi and Manawyddan return to Dyfed, where Pryderi marries Cigfa and Manawyddan marries Rhiannon. However a mist descends on the land, leaving it empty and desolate. The four support themselves by hunting at first, then move to England where they make a living making saddles, shields and shoes of such quality that the local craftsmen cannot compete, and drive them from town to town. Eventually they return to Dyfed and become hunters again. While hunting, a white boar leads them to a mysterious castle. Pryderi, against Manawyddan's advice, goes inside, but does not return. Rhiannon goes to investigate and finds him clinging to a bowl, unable to speak. The same fate befalls her, and the castle disappears. Manawyddan and Cigfa return to England as shoemakers, but once again the locals drive them out and they return to Dyfed. They sow three fields of wheat, but the first field is destroyed before it can be harvested. The next night the second field is destroyed. Manawyddan keeps watch over the third field, and when he sees it destroyed by mice he catches their leader and decides to hang it. A scholar, a priest and a bishop in turn offer him gifts if he will spare the mouse, but he refuses. When asked what he wants in return for the mouse's life, he demands the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon and the lifting of the enchantment over Dyfed. The bishop agrees, because the mouse is in fact his wife. He has been waging magical war against Dyfed because he is a friend of Gwawl, whom Pwyll, Pryderi's father humiliated.

Math, son of Mathonwy

While Pryderi rules Dyfed in south Wales, Gwynedd in north Wales is ruled by Math, son of Mathonwy. His feet must be held by a virgin, except while he is at war. Math's nephew Gilfaethwy is in love with Goewin, his current footholder, and Gilfaethwy's brother Gwydion tricks Math into going to war against Pryderi so Gilfaethwy can have access to her. Gwydion kills Pryderi in single combat, and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math marries Goewin to save her from disgrace, and banishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, transforming them into a breeding pair of deer, then pigs, then wolves. After three years they are restored to human form and return.

Math needs a new foot-holder, and Gwydion suggests his sister, Arianrhod, but when Math magically tests her virginity, she gives birth to two sons. One, Dylan, immediately takes to the sea. The other child is raised by Gwydion, but Arianrhod tells him he will never have a name or arms unless she gives them to him, and refuses to do so. But Gwydion tricks her into naming him Llew Llaw Gyffes and giving him arms. She then tells him he will never have a wife of any race living on earth, so Gwydion and Math make him a wife from flowers, called Blodeuwedd. But Blodeuwedd falls in love with a hunter called Gronw Pebyr, and they plot to kill Llew. Blodeuwedd tricks Llew into revealing the means by which he can be killed, but when Gronw attempts to do the deed, Llew escapes, transformed into an eagle.

Gwydion finds Llew and transforms him back into human form, and turns Blodeuwedd into an owl. Gronw offers to compensate Llew, but Llew denies and insists on returning the blow that was struck against him. Gronw pleads to hide behind a rock when he attempts to kill him. Llew agrees. He kills Gronw with his spear, which is thrown so hard it pierces him through the stone he is hiding behind.

Lludd and Llefelys

Another mythological story included in the "Mabinogion" collection is the tale of "Lludd and Llefelys". Lludd is king of Britain, and his brother, Llefelys, is king of France. Lludd's kingdom is beset by three menaces: the Coraniaid, a demonic people who can hear everything; a terrible scream that is heard every May Eve that terrifies the people; and the continual disappearance of the provisions of the king's court. Lludd asks Llefelys for help, speaking to him through a brass tube so the Coraniaid can't hear. Llefelys creates a potion of crushed insects in water which destroys the Coraniaid when sprinkled on them. The scream, he discovers, comes from two dragons fighting. He gets the dragons drunk on mead and buries them in the centre of Britain. He then overcomes the wizard who is stealing all of Lludd's provisions and makes him serve Lludd.

Culhwch and Olwen

While "Culhwch and Olwen", also found in the "Mabinogion" collection, is primarily an Arthurian tale, in which the hero Culhwch enlists Arthur's aid in winning the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden the Giant, it is packed with background detail, much of it mythological in nature. Characters such as Amaethon, the divine ploughman, Mabon ap Modron, the divine son, and the psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd make appearances, the latter in an endless seasonal battle with Gwythr ap Greidawl for the hand of Creiddylad. The conditions placed on Culhwch by his mother are similar to those placed on Llew Llaw Gyffes by Arianrhod, and Culhwch's arrival at Arthur's court is reminiscent of the Irish god Lug's arrival at the court of king Nuada in "Cath Maige Tuireadh".


The Welsh had been Christian for many centuries before their former mythology was written down, and their gods had long been transformed into kings and heroes of the past. Many of the characters who exhibit divine characteristics fall into two rival families, the "Plant Dôn" (Children of Dôn) and the "Plant Llyr" (Children of Llyr).

The children of Dôn

Dôn, daughter of Mathonwy, was the matriarch of one family. Her husband is usually given as Beli. Her children include:

* Arianrhod
* Gwydion
* Gilfaethwy
* Gofannon
* Amaethon

This family also includes Arianrhod's sons Dylan and Llew Llaw Gyffes. Caswallawn (the historical Cassivellaunus), Lludd, Nyniaw, Llefelys, and Penarddun are named as children of Beli Mawr, who is sometimes viewed as the husband of Dôn.

The children of Llŷr

Llŷr, the patriarch of the other family, is possibly a borrowing of the Irish sea-god Lír. A foreign origin is further suggested by his epithet "Llediaith" ("half-speech"). His wife is usually given as Penarddun, and their children include:

* Manawydan
* Bendigeidfran (Bran the Blessed)
* Branwen

Penarddun also had two sons, Nisien and Efnisien, by Eurosswydd. Caradawg (the historical Caratacus) is named as a son of Bendigeidfran.

Other probable deities

*Gwenn Teir Bronn
*Gwyn ap Nudd
*Lludd Llaw Eraint
*Mabon ap Modron

Other characters

*Math ap Mathonwy

Arthurian characters

*Ambrosius (Ambrosius Aurelianus)
*Arthur (King Arthur)
*Bedwyr (Bedivere)
*Cai (Kay)
*Cadwr (Cador)
*Caradog Freichfras (Caradoc)
*Trystan (Tristan)
*Essyllt (Iseult)
*Gwalchmai (Gawain)
*Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern)
*Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere)
*Mabon and Modron
*Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus)
*Myrddin Emrys and Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin)
*Owain (Ywain)
*Peredur (Perceval)
*Uther Pendragon


Variations in the spelling of names are due to the fact that many English translations use the original Middle Welsh orthography of the texts instead of Modern Welsh orthography for their spelling.

ee also

*Celtic mythology

External links

* [http://www.mabinogi.net/ English translation of "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi"]
* [http://www.pretanicworld.com/Pantheons.html Pretanic World - Pantheons]

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