As one of the more important texts in the study of Welsh mythology, Culhwch and Olwen contains elements drawn from the ancient body of oral lore that the Welsh inherited from their Celtic ancestors. One such element is Arthur’s hunting of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth.
As early as the ninth century, this hunt was part of popular folklore, having found its way into the Mirabilia, the list of British wonders that was attached to the Historia Brittonum. The tale itself is very similar to others found in the Welsh and Irish traditions, another sign of its ancient roots. All of these variations involve magical boars or pigs and their journey through a landscape, usually being hunted or followed.
The Twrch Trwyth himself is a man transformed into the shape of a giant boar, a version of another common motif. Some of the better known transformations of humans into animals (and vice versa) are found in Irish myth, such as the transformations of Conaire’s bird-kin in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, and the hunting of Diarmaid’s foster brother in the form of a boar in Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinn. In Welsh myth we have the many animal transformations of the Fourth Branch, including Lleu’s transmigration when he becomes an eagle at the moment of death; in this branch we also find the animal transformations that were punishments for Gwydion, Gilfaethwy and Blodeuwedd. The transformations of Taliesin are another prominent example.
Common to many of these transformations is the theme of the journey of the soul. In the Fourth Branch, we could interpret the eagle as a symbol for Lleu’s soul; the young nobleman was found in this form atop an otherworldly oak tree by his uncle, Gwydion. This discovery is achieved after Gwydion follows a sow through the countryside to the in-between-place where Lleu is perched. This episode echoes the hunting of Twrch Trwyth in several ways, and they could be different symbolic interpretations of the same concept.
To draw out the symbolic connotations of both events, we first need to understand what’s going on in both tales. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen describes how Ysbaddaden the Chief of Giants, requires the young hero Culhwch to complete a series of impossible tasks before he can marry Ysbaddaden’s beautiful daughter, Olwen. Many of these tasks involve cutting and washing Ysbaddaden’s hair and beard; so tangled and matted is he that many strange and magical items are required to prepare the chief giant for his daughter’s wedding.
We can compare this with the very beginning of the tale, when Culhwch complains of his curse to his father:
‘My stepmother has sworn that I may never have a wife until I get Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr.’
‘It is easy for you to get that son,’ said his father to him. ‘Arthur is your cousin. Go to Arthur to have your hair trimmed, and ask him for that as your gift.’
After reaching Arthur’s court and accepting his cousin’s welcome, Culhwch makes his request:
‘I want to have my hair trimmed.’
‘You shall have that.’
Arthur took a golden comb, and shears with loops of silver, and combed his hair, and asked who he was.
Arthur said, ‘My heart warms towards you. I know you are of my blood. Tell me who you are.’
As Sioned Davies explains in her edition of the Mabinogion “the cutting of hair was a symbolic act by means of which a blood-relationship was recognised and accepted.” (note to p.180). It is in these terms that we should consider Ysbaddaden’s request to have his own hair and beard combed and cut.
The significance of this kind of kinship ritual may best be understood as an expression of matrilineality and the early concept of sovereignty. As well as Culhwch’s destiny that he may marry none but Olwen, according to the tale Ysbaddaden is also destined to die should his daughter ever be wed. One explanation for both these destinies is that the tale preserves an echo of an ancient practice where political power and wealth were transferred through the wedding dowry of a chieftain’s daughter. Such practices were known in many cultures across the ancient world, and are found in many mythologies including the Greek (see the above link to the Wikipedia article on matrilineality).
This is connected to another ancient idea that a land’s sovereignty, its inherent rights as an independent territory, is embodied in the figure of a woman, a goddess figure, and that her marriage confers those sovereign rights upon her new husband making him the sovereign chieftain. This also means that the new husband effectively takes the place of his bride’s father, the old chieftain, stripping him of those same rights. As the embodiment of the old male power, Ysbaddaden must necessarily die before Culhwch can take his place, claiming Ysbaddaden’s rights as the new chieftain. No wonder Ysbaddaden continuously refers to Culhwch as his ‘cursed, savage son-in-law’.
In light of this, Ysbaddaden’s request that his hair and beard be ritually combed and cut takes on a particular symbolic meaning. Arthur is the king of Britain, overlord of all regional chiefs, and Culhwch is formally acknowledged as a member of his family and court through the ritual combing and cutting of his hair. Should Culhwch and Olwen wed, as father of the bride Ysbaddaden would also become a member of this extended family and absorbed into the hierarchy of Arthur’s court. In these terms, when Ysbaddaden joins the same family through marriage he may well have to go through the same ritual of having his hair and beard combed and cut; this will also be the event of his death as the old chieftain.
Culhwch and Olwen is not only the tale of how a young hero fulfils his destiny by marrying the love of his life, its also a story about sovereignty and the trials and tribulations of those who would claim it, a theme that echoes in the depths of other Celtic myths, including the Four Branches. It’s in this context that we can interpret the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth, between whose ears are to be found the only comb and shears in the world that can dress Ysbaddaden’s beard, a matter I’ll be discussing in the next few posts.