The Hunting of Twrch Trwyth, Part 2

The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is a tale within a tale, a floating narrative that came to rest in the written version of Culhwch and Olwen. It’s quite likely that it was often told alone as well as being used as part of larger narratives. The boar hunt was deemed an important part of Culhwch’s story, and as we shall see, it sits well with the other mythological elements of the tale.

Some of the themes of the boar hunt are related to the kinship ritual of dressing and cutting hair described in the first part of this series. One such theme is that of nobility: the Twrch Trwyth is a prince of noble birth incarnated as a magical boar; it’s his special scissors and comb that are ultimately used to carry out a ritual of ennoblement that also marks Ysbaddaden’s death, in turn the event of Culhwch’s ascension to sovereign power. The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is an essential step in Culhwch’s growth in nobility.

culhwch_1900

 

There is another aspect to the boar’s relationship to the young hero. Twrch Trwyth is a young nobleman incarnated as wild swine, and he is hunted for the benefit of another young nobleman whose incarnation is also deeply entwined with swine:

And from the hour [Culhwch’s mother] became pregnant she went mad, and did not go near any dwelling. When her time came, her senses returned to her. This happened in a place where a swineherd was tending a herd of pigs. And out of fear of the pigs the queen gave birth. And the swineherd took the boy until he came to court. And the boy was baptised, and was named Culhwch because he was found in a pig-run.

Culhwch’s name commemorates this association with swine, roughly translating as ‘pig-run’. Twrch Trwyth and Culhwch could be considered kindred spirits, young noblemen who’s natures are entwined with similar mythological animals. Yet there isn’t a perfect symmetry between the two either: boars and pigs are different kinds of swine. One is portrayed as wild and destructive whilst the other is domesticated and civil. Twrch Trwyth was the beast that laid waste to southern Ireland, while Culhwch is all nobility in pursuit of love.

Hallein_Keltenmuseum_-_Lure.jpg

A Celtic carnyx, the boar headed war-trumpet.

But we shouldn’t automatically assign a negative value to the Twrch, particularly as aggression and violence weren’t frowned upon in medieval Welsh culture. Far from it, they were celebrated as the defining features of great and worthy heroes. The warrior ideology that’s personified in figures such as Arthur, Urien, Owain and others is one of the hall marks of aristocratic praise poetry. At times, the Welsh bards compared their warrior patrons with boars, and sometimes even the Twrch Trwyth himself was used as a praise-worthy comparison. In light of this it may be better to see both swine-heroes as complementary, rather than antagonistic. The Twrch, suffering the fate of hunted beasts and warriors alike, faces violence for the further the ennoblement of his more civil brother.

It’s wiser to consider Culhwch and the Twrch Trwyth as representative of the same aristocratic values, with the former embodying the values of civility, love and sovereignty, and the latter war, martial prowess and wild violence. All of these values were ancient aspects of Welsh nobility, and in combination both Culhwch and the Twrch illustrate all of them through their actions. It’s also fitting in many ways that violence itself is finally sacrificed for the benefit of civility, the hunted animal nourishing the nobility that pursues it.

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Illustration by Alan Lee

The early Arthurian myth of the Welsh, of which Culhwch and Olwen is one of the main examples, is preoccupied with the ideals of violence, civility and nobility, those very elements of Celtic culture that informed the later medieval concepts of chivalry. Culhwch’s quest in literal terms is to marry the woman he was destined to love, but in mythological terms it also describes his ritualised initiation into nobility. Conflating an initiation into nobility with the pursuit of love is clearly a winning strategy if the intention is to sell such high-minded ideals to your young people, particularly the boys. Coupled with this idea of nobility as love is the idea of the new replacing the old, and that the nobility of the past (whether that be personified in a brutish giant or a magic boar) can be reclaimed by new generations, especially in their pursuit of love as a road to sovereignty.

In the next post I’ll take a look at how this symbolic sequence corresponds to Lleu’s transformation as an eagle in the Fourth Branch.

Shakespeare’s Horns

Tonight is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Wales, and is an ysbrydnos, or ‘spirit night’ when the dead walk abroad under the starry skies. Halloween is the most recent tradition associated with this night, known at one time as ‘All Hallows Eve’, but there were traditions that came before it, such as the old Celtic festivities of harvest time. As with Samhain in Ireland, and indeed for many of the early peoples of Europe in general, this was the time when the ripened fruits and crops of late summer and autumn were celebrated as the abundant wealth of the land. Alongside such celebration there would have naturally been a time of reflection, particularly as this fulfilment of life’s fruition also marks the moment when the seasons turn and all growing life prepares itself to pass through the death of winter. This is the natural time to acknowledge mortality and consider what may come after the cold season.

Its probably for this reason that tonight is also the time when Gwyn ap Nudd hunts the land, when even the living can be taken up as souls to join in his eternal hunt, urging on the magical hounds as they chase through the darkness. This happened to one Ned Pugh, a famous Welsh fiddler whose mournful refrains were heard one Nos Galan Gaeaf transforming into the bright call of a huntsman’s bugle. Having entered a cave on that particular Halloween, he wandered deep into the belly of the earth from which he was never to return alive, but was instead taken up as chief huntsman to Gwyn ap Nudd, exchanging his fiddle for a horn.

A similar account could be given of Arawn from the First Branch of the Mabinogi. One of the very few allusions to Arawn in Welsh folklore concerns a ghost that was often heard declaiming Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn, a little verse that roughly translates as ‘Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the wait for Arawn.’ Was this the soul of someone long dead still waiting to be called by Arawn to join the otherworldly hunt? We shall never know for certain, but the other similarities between Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd would lead us to think so.

Lord_Arawn

If anyone knows who made this image please let me know.

One of those similarities is the connection both these figures have to the instincts of physical desire, all those visceral and carnal urges that are fired by the hunt. Arawn was the one who tempted Pwyll with his beautiful wife, and Gwyn was a dangerously jealous lover of Creiddylad according to the medieval redactors of Culhwch ac Olwen. Gwyn was also responsible for tempting Collen with illusory food when the saint visited his phantom palace atop Glastonbury Tor. All of these temptations are echoed in an English version of the Magical Huntsman, a figure of superstition that Shakespeare found so intriguing he brought him to life, quite ridiculously, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.

“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Some time a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You’ve heard of such spirit; and well you know
The superstitious idol headed old
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for the truth.”

Despite the paucity of material concerning Herne, Shakespeare’s use of him in the play chimes with much of what we already know of Herne’s Welsh cousins, all three being hunters with supernatural qualities that are associated with fairies and the dead. Not unlike the spirits and sprites of many lands it appears that Herne can cause disease amongst cattle, and his moaning and clanking of chains is not unlike the restless behaviour of the souls of the dead.

But it may also be worthwhile considering Shakespeare’s actual use of Herne in the play. To cut a rather long story short, Falstaff, a lecherous wastrel with expensive tastes, attempts to seduce two married women by employing various deceptions. After realising his unsavoury intentions, both women take their revenge by tricking him into dressing up as Herne the Hunter for a promised night of pleasure. While waiting under the Windsor Oak sporting a pair of horns, Falstaff works himself up to a froth waiting for the two wanton wives to come and ravish him. But instead of his anticipated satisfaction he is accosted by a gang of children and adults in fairy costume whom he believes to be real spirits of the otherworld come to punish his mortal trespass (he obviously went for the trick, not the treat). These cruel fairies and sprites ridicule him and eventually put him in his place, all of which Falstaff accepts with rather good grace.

James Stephanoff 'Falstaff at Herne's Oak'

James Stephanoff, ‘Falstaff at Herne’s Oak’ 1832

Lechery and excessive desires in general are a theme that Shakespeare explores throughout the play, with Falstaff being the embodiment of aristocratic excess. In contrast to Falstaff’s debauched appetites, through various mentions and allusions, Shakespeare subtly evokes the Order of the Garter, a royal order of nobles chosen by Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own patron. This order was supposedly one of high-minded restraint and discipline, as stated in their motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, which literally translates as ‘Evil be to him who thinks evil.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor could well have been written to feature in an event held at the royal estate of Windsor attended by Queen Elizabeth and her Order of the Garter. This would explain why Falstaff’s fate in the play appears to be a realisation of the order’s motto. His bad intentions result in a bad outcome where he finds himself dressed in the guise of none other than Herne the Hunter.

There are several hints in The Merry Wives of Windsor of folk traditions concerning the unfortunate figure of the cuckold. When a man’s wife had been unfaithful, some communities would ridicule the couple and in particular the husband by placing horns on his head, thus marking him out as a cuckold, a man who shares his wife with other men. In this way the wearing of horns was associated with a lack of fidelity. But whereas these later traditions have the cuckold as a figure of derision, Shakespeare, in his own magical way, may well have been evoking a much older idea concerning the horned hunter.

There are several points of comparison between Shakespeare’s Herne and Arawn from the Mabinogi. Both figures are party to an exchange of places, Falstaff with Herne and Pwyll with Arawn, both mortals become the god and both gods are the magical huntsmen in their respective regions. Having taken on the external form of the god, both mortals come to meet the fairies of the otherworld, an experience that went better for Pwyll than it did for Falstaff. Pwyll showed restraint and self-control in the bed of Arawn’s fairy queen, where Falstaff was seen for the lecherous toff he was and punished by the ‘fairies.’ One succeeded in wearing the mantle of the otherworld, while the other didn’t. Pwyll was learning his lesson, as was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although in a markedly different way.

If this was Shakespeare’s understanding, and who could deny one of the greatest bards of the English language such an insight, this horned figure was far from the object of ridicule and derision that he appeared to be on the surface. Falstaff’s failure was to be deaf to what the Huntsman had to say about the sowing and reaping of one’s desires. Pwyll, on the other hand, was listening well, as his name suggests.

The Hunting of Twrch Trwyth, Part 1

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.

Illustration by Margaret Jones.

Illustration by Margaret Jones.

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.

'Lleu' by the Welsh sulptor John Meirion Morris, see www.johnmeirionmorris.org

‘Lleu’ by the Welsh sculptor John Meirion Morris, see http://www.johnmeirionmorris.org

Kinship Rituals

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).

'Queen Guinevere’s Maying' by John Maler Collier (1900). Guinevere (or Gwenhwyfar in the original Welsh), is one of the most famous figures of sovereignty in medieval culture.

‘Queen Guinevere’s Maying’ by John Maler Collier (1900). Guinevere (or Gwenhwyfar in her initially Welsh incarnation), is one of the most famous figures of sovereignty in medieval culture.

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.

Songs for the Leri

I’ve been busy this last month or so with a music commission that may be of interest to some of you. Its part of a wider project of commissioned arts called Cymerau (Welsh for ‘river confluence’). Its aim is to inspire engagement with water and what it means to us as communities and people living in a particular landscape.

My own project, Penillion i’r Leri (‘Songs for the Leri’), is an opportunity for local folks to write folk lyrics for me to sing. In Wales, the folk tradition of ballads and old songs remains a prominent part of culture, and some folks will write folk lyrics in the traditional style, usually for nothing more than their own pleasure, but sometimes for friends, family and other locals. They are almost always on a local theme, and often mention local history or events prominent at the time.

I’ve been asking locals who live along the River Leri to compose penillion (‘folk lyrics’) on the topic of the river as she meanders her way from the high ground around Pumlumon down to the Dyfi estuary. Below is (probably a bad) translation of one recent contribution from Bleddyn Huws of Talybont (sorry Bleddyn if I’ve maimed it too much), followed by a test recording of myself performing it. Enjoy!

The River Leri

What’s the sound in River Leri
rushing on towards the sea?
What kind of chords are in her waters
swelling into one encore?

Is it the mournful sound of days long gone,
old melodies of congregations
roaring wild in her boiling waves
between the hills as she pours on?

Is it the sound of voices from the past
stirring me by night and day
that echo along her shores,
sometimes merry, sometimes sad?

Some say its the sound of her tears
heard endlessly every day
above the bracken in Braichgarw,
weather it be fine or rain.

I hear a song thats older than history
as she rushes to the sea,
the timeless song of vast centuries
drowning the brief moments of my hearing.

And here’s the first draft (which will change for the better as my sister joins me for harmony):

The Triads of Poetic Craft

Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid* (‘The Grammars of the Chief Bards’) are a family of texts found in various manuscripts from about the 14th to the 16th centuries, although its quite likely the basic material they contain is much older. They would have been used as teaching tools in the bardic schools and reference works for those wealthy enough to have copies made. At one time, much of this material would have been memorised and transmitted orally.

These bardic grammars contain, as one would imagine, the basic rules of Welsh grammar. They also contain long sequences of triads on poetic craft known as the trioedd cerdd. The bards were very fond of the three-fold form. We find it not only in the structure of prose tales, but in the oldest kinds of poetry – the three-line englyn remains one of the most popular types of stanza to this day. The story triads (edited by Rachel Bromwich in Trioedd Ynys Prydein) were once valued sources of knowledge in Welsh medieval culture.

The triads of poetic craft are a little window onto the life of the court bards. They reveal how a guild of poets taught and practiced their oral craft of poetry. As expected, we find the different aspects of performance to be very important to them. They also continue to be sound advice to anyone wishing to take up poetry, and the performance of poetry in particular. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

Three things that make a poem strong:
depth of meaning, regularity of Welsh, and excellence of imagination.

Three things that make a poem weak:
vulgar imagination, shallow meaning, and a lack of Welsh.

Three things a poem likes:
clear declamation, skilful construction, and the authority of the bard.

Three things a poem does not like:
feeble declamation, vulgar imagination, and the dishonour of the bard.

Three things that make awen for a bard:
genius, and practice, and art.

Three things that impoverish a bard’s awen:
drunkenness, lustfulness, and criticism.

Three essentials for a bard:
liveliness of speech when declaiming a poem, and meditating upon poetic art to ensure it is not faulty, and the boldness of his answer to what he is asked.

Three things that make a bard consistent:
the telling of tales, and poetry, and the old poetry (hengerdd).

Three things that give honour to a bard:
dress, authority, and boldness.

Three things that cause a bard to be loved and praised:
generosity, making merry, and praising good men.

Three things that cause a bard to be hated:
miserliness, insipidness, and satirising good men.

* The standard edition is by G.J. Williams, Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid (UWP 1934). These are my translations.

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New course at Siop Cynfelyn, Tre’r Ddol 24.6.15

A 4 week course held every Wednesday evening at Siop Cynfelyn, Tre’r Ddol, SY20 8PN. Starts June 24th at 7:30. Please get in touch to book your place.

The course will focus on the medieval Welsh prose classic The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a thousand year old text that was derived from an earlier, oral storytelling tradition. It will trace the lineage of certain figures and motifs back into pre-history, and suggest what the tales may have meant to a medieval audience.

“I can’t recommend this course highly enough. . . . I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to delve deeper into these most magical stories. Gwilym was a generous and thoughtful guide who lead us through the dense and multilayered foliage of the Mabiongi with great enthusiasm and spirit!”  – Sophie Mkeand, poet

“These tales were not created for entertainment, . . . They are the remnants of the mythology of the Britons, their belief about the other world – Annwfn – and about the dealings of gods and men; the heroes of the Four Branches are characters from the pantheon of the Celtic religion of Britain . . . ” – Brynley F. Roberts

Four Branches Flier

The Birth of Taliesin

Most versions of Taliesin’s tale (but not all) locate his birth from the sea on the coast of northern Ceredigion. Elffin finds him as an infant, washed up in a skin bag, caught in Gwyddno Garanhir’s fish weir. For example, an incomplete version of the tale recorded by Llywelyn Siôn, probably copied sometime before 1561, has this to say about the location of the fish weir:

Ag ynyr amser hwnnw i ddoedd kored i Wyddno Garanhir ar y traeth rwng Dyvi ag ystwyth geyr llaw i gastell i hvn ag yny gored honno i kaid gwerth kanpynt bob nos glamai.

And in that time Gwyddno Garanhir had a fish weir on the beach between [the rivers] Dyfi and Ystwyth beside his own castle, and in that fish weir was had a hundred pounds [of fish] every May eve.

This agrees almost exactly with another version copied by John Jones of Gellilyfdy in 1607:

Ag yn yr amser hwnnw yr oedd gored Wyddno yn y traeth rrwng Dyfi ag Aberystwyth garllaw ei gastell ehûn ag yn y goret honno y kaid kywerthyd kan punt bob nos kalan Mai.

And in that time Gwyddno’s fish weir was on the beach between Dyfi and Aberystwyth beside his own castle and in that fish weir [a catch] to the value of a hundred pounds was had every May eve.

Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin (UWP 1992), 135 (my translations).

Between Aberystwyth and the Dyfi, the only beach is to be found at Borth, a name derived from the much earlier Porth Wyddno, or ‘Gwyddno’s Port’:

X marks the spot

In 2012, the sea breached the defences at Borth, causing much flooding. Soon after, the work of building new sea defences was undertaken on the beach. As always, the building contractors were obliged to have a team of archaeologists investigating anything of interest dug up during the course of their work.

Sometime in 2014, such a team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Roderick Bale from Lampeter University, did come across something of interest. In a recent email I received from Dr Bale, he said:

“What we found and recovered . . . was a closely spaced line (around 30cm between each) of radially split oak stakes (around 80 in total) and one non oak roundwood post. The line (in some places a double line) ran east west pretty much opposite the final house in Borth . . . . The posts continued seaward beyond the limit of the sea defence construction zone but had been buried by sand last time I was in Borth a couple of months ago.

Age and function is (as yet) uncertain though the stakes preserve tool marks made with a flat bladed metal axe and of the few I have looked at in detail are sourced from fairly slow grown oak trees. It could certainly be part of some kind of fish weir, the rest of which may be buried under sand or has been removed in the past. . . . the structure is similar to other [fish traps] found on the Welsh coast, . . . .”

Dr Bale intends to do more work on pieces of the fish weir that he recovered, so a date could be forthcoming soon.

Although the fish weir has been buried under the sand since the excavation, a few weeks back, while taking in the calm sea air, I noticed that some of the stakes had been uncovered by the tide. Seizing the opportunity I dashed home and grabbed my wife’s camera:

The tops of four stakes from the fish weir found by Dr Bale.

The fish weir next to a petrified tree stump.

The sea defence boulders on the left were placed over part of the fish weir. The tide marker is just to its right.

Is this the spot where Taliesin was symbolically born from the sea?

As I’ve described in earlier posts, the whole area surrounding Cors Fochno and the Dyfi estuary sounds with echoes of Taliesin’s myth. If Patrick Ford’s arguments in Ytsoria Taliesin (UWP 1992) are to be taken seriously, then the early hero Cynfelyn may have been Taliesin’s teacher and initiator. Cynfelyn, as is typical of some of these early figures, became a saint who’s church is only a few miles away inland at Llangynfelyn (see map above).

In Elis Gruffydd‘s version of the tale, Taliesin recounts:

Myfi a fum yn y gwynfryn
yn llys Cynfelyn,
mewn cyff a gefyn
un dydd a blwyddyn; . . .

I was in the blessed hill
in the court of Cynfelyn,
in a shackle and chain
for a year and a day; . . .

Ibid, 78.

This may refer to Taliesin’s own initiation, bound and placed in a ‘blessed hill’ or mound (Bedd Taliesin?) at the court of Cynfelyn. Elsewhere in the same version of the tale Taliesin states:

y bardd ni’m gosdeco
gosdeg ni chaffo
oni êl mewn gortho,
dan raean a gro; . . .

the bard that fails to silence me [in a bardic contest]
will never have peace
unless he goes into a grave
under soil and shale; . . .

Ibid, 81.

According to Ford, Taliesin is alluding here to how a bard must experience the same symbolic death before he is accepted into the bardic guild. This symbolic death may have been followed by a symbolic birth, perhaps marked in ritual on Borth beach at an ancient fish weir.

We shall never know if any of these theories add up to historical fact, but the clues scattered across this old landscape and amongst the pages of manuscript hint at the symbolic acts of the medieval Welsh bards.

A short note on translation . . .

The vast majority of those with an interest in Welsh myth will only ever read source texts in translation and with no prior exposure to Welsh language or culture. This is important to bare in mind because on occasion the more subtle ideas contained in a text can be mangled beyond recognition by the translating process. Meaning can become fuzzy as sentences are deconstructed, broken down and then rebuilt in the language of a very different culture and world view. No matter how accurately individual words are translated, all of the meanings implied in a sentence won’t necessarily make it through to the other side.

This is why translation is as much art as it is technique; it should never be a simple process of referring to dictionary definitions (even though that’s where it inevitably begins). Doubtless this is why we trust only cherished poets and accomplished scholars to attempt this most difficult of diplomacies. The translation of one nation’s ancient treasures into the language of another is a great responsibility. Its an attempt to report accurately what is often only half-heard across the crackling wireless of the ages. To fail in that task, to misunderstand another’s words and instead hear nothing but our own assumptions about what is said is a constant danger. It is also, regrettably, unavoidable at times.

Through the focussed lens of one individual’s translation, others may attempt to understand the essence of a whole culture. Those of us who find ourselves attempting to build bridges across such divides, not only linguistic but also historical, are intimately aware of the limitations of that process, so much so that to ignore those limitations and not draw attention to them would be in many ways to betray the trust of those reliant upon our work. That is why the best translations always come with copious notes and commentary, this being the only way to reliably fill in the gaps in meaning. If a translation you’re reading doesn’t give an account of its reasoning, you must take it at face value. You must ask yourself whether you trust the translator or not. Even the best of translators and editors will make sweeping, unilateral decisions regarding context and meaning, for that is the nature of their work; that is the responsibility they have taken on.

Thankfully, by today we have some very good translations of Welsh texts, but even those will not always reflect the meaning of the original, sometimes because the original meaning can no longer be grasped, never mind translated.

W.J. Gruffydd a’r Pedair Cainc

Yn ystod hanner cyntaf yr 20fed ganrif roedd ysgolheigion yn credu mai gweddillion dryslyd hen fytholeg oedd y Pedair Cainc. Doedd Syr Ifor Williams, un o gewri’r cyfnod, ddim gwahanol yn hynny chwaith. Tybiodd mai straeon am Pryderi oedd y Pedair Cainc yn wreiddiol, yr unig gymeriad i ymddangos ym mhob cainc. Yn ei ragymadrodd i’w olygiad o destun Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, dangosodd mai un o ystyron canoloesol y term mabinogi oedd ‘campau ieuenctid’. Os felly, efallai mai chwedlau’n cofnodi campau ieuenctid Pryderi oedd y ceinciau gwreiddiol, ond dros amser, wrth i’r chwedlau gael eu trosglwyddo o genhedlaeth i genhedlaeth, cawsant eu cymysgu gyda chwedlau eraill o du allan i gylch gwreiddiol Pryderi. Mae’n ddamcaniaeth ddeniadol, ond efallai nad ydyw’n rhoi’r darlun cyflawn i ni.

W.J. Gruffydd

W.J. Gruffydd

Roedd nifer o gyfoeswyr Ifor Williams yn coleddu’r un farn ag ef, er enghraifft yr ysgolhaig a’r bardd W.J. Gruffydd. Yn ystod ei yrfa hir cyhoeddodd W.J. Gruffydd nifer o astudiaethau manwl ar y Pedair Cainc gan geisio olrhain esblygiad y chwedlau yn ôl i’w ffynonellau yn y traddodiad llafar. Daeth o hyd i fotiffau tebyg mewn chwedlau canoloesol eraill, a rhai Gwyddelig yn arbennig, oedd yn awgrymu llinach posibl i’r ceinciau ysgrifenedig. Yn fras, roedd W.J. Gruffydd yn ceisio ail-lunio mytholeg goll. Ymysg gweddillion hen adfail, chwiliodd am gynllun y deml wreiddiol. Ceisiodd ddirnad rhesymeg wreiddiol y naratif, yr hen ystyr a ddifethwyd gan ymyrraeth cenedlaethau o gyfarwyddiaid a chopïwyr anwybodus.

Erbyn ail hanner yr 20fed ganrif roedd y consensws academaidd wedi troi yn erbyn W.J. Gruffydd. Er bod llawer o’i dystiolaeth yn ddefnyddiol, gwelodd llawer o feirniaid nad oedd ei gasgliadau’n llawer gwell na rhagdybiaethau. Yng ngeiriau Brynley F. Roberts:

“Llwyddodd dadansoddiad Gruffydd i ddangos yn eglur pa ddefnyddiau sydd yn y Pedair Cainc, ond rhaid amau a fodolai’r adeiledd mawreddog cywrain a gynigiai y tu allan i’w feddwl ei hun.” Brynley F. Roberts, Rhagymadrodd, Y Mabinogion, Dafydd a Rhiannon Ifans, xviii

Yn ddiweddarach, dywedodd Sioned Davies rhywbeth tebyg

“. . . , y farn gyffredinol bellach yw bod dychymyg Gruffydd wedi mynd yn rhemp ac nad oes sail gadarn i’w ddamcaniaethau.” Sioned Davies, Crefft y Cyfarwydd, 49.

Ond dim ond un ochr i’r stori ydi hon, ac er mor andwyol oedd i’w yrfa academaidd, yn y pen draw efallai mai ei ddychymyg oedd un o’i ddoniau mwyaf. Ynghyd â bod yn ddarlithydd prifysgol, roedd Gruffydd hefyd yn fardd, ac nid rhyw rigymwr dibwys chwaith. Os tanseiliwyd ei wrthrychedd academaidd gan ei ddychymyg bywiog, rhoddodd iddo awen rymus. Gadawodd ar ei ôl rhai o gerddi gorau’r 20fed ganrif, nid y peth hawsaf yn y byd i’w gyflawni wrth ystyried pa mor niferus mae beirdd o athrylith ymysg y Cymry. Mae un o’i gerddi gorau, Y Tlawd Hwn, yn dweud llawer am ei berthynas gyda chwedloniaeth Gymreig:

Y Tlawd Hwn

Am fod rhyw anesmwythyd yn y gwynt,                                                                              A sŵn hen wylo yng nghuriadau’r glaw,                                                                               Ac eco’r lleddf adfydus odlau gynt                                                                                      Yn tiwnio drwy ei enaid yn ddi-daw,                                                                                    A thrymru cefnfor pell ar noson lonydd                                                                                Yn traethu rhin y cenedlaethau coll,                                                                                       A thrydar yr afonydd                                                                                                           Yn deffro ing y dioddefiannau oll, –                                                                                    Aeth hwn fel mudan i ryw rith dawelwch,                                                                               a chiliodd ei gymrodyr un ac un,                                                                                          A’i adel yntau yn ei fawr ddirgelwch                                                                                      I wrando’r lleisiau dieithr wrtho’i hun.

Gwelodd hwn harddwch lle bu’i frodyr ef                                                                            Yn galw melltith Duw ar aflan fyd;                                                                            Gwrthododd hwn eu llwybrau hwy i nef                                                                             Am atsain ansylweddol bibau hud                                                                                        A murmur gwenyn Arawn o winllannau                                                                                Yn drwm dan wlith y mêl ar lawr y glyn,                                                                                 A neithdar cudd drigfannau                                                                                     Magwyrydd aur Caer Siddi ar y bryn.                                                                                    A chyn cael bedd, cadd eistedd wrth y gwleddoedd                                                             A llesmair wrando anweledig gôr                                                                                     Adar Rhiannon yn y perl gynteddoedd                                                                                   Sy’n agor ar yr hen anghofus fôr.

Clywir yma Gruffydd yn disgrifio’i berthynas gyda’i chwedloniaeth frodorol. Iddo ef mae’n dirwedd elfennol a chysegredig, cyfrin a diamser. Mae’n fyd arall sy’n cyffwrdd rhywsut â’r byd hwn. Mae’n amlwg cafodd Gruffydd ei gyfareddu gan chwedlau ei draddodiad brodorol, i’r fath raddau fel iddo bortreadu ei hun yn encilio i fyw yn y byd arall hwnnw. Drwy astudio testunau canoloesol fel rhan o’i ymchwil academaidd, cafodd ei drwytho yn y testunau hynafol hyn; rhoddwyd cyfle iddo yfed yn ddwfn o ffynhonnau’r arallfyd rhyfeddol hwnnw a etifeddodd drwy ei iaith a’i ddiwylliant. Credaf fod profiad W.J. Gruffydd yn dadlennu un o nodweddion pwysicaf ein chwedloniaeth a’n traddodiad barddol.

Os ydi barddoniaeth orau Gruffydd yn enghraifft o beth sy’n digwydd pan mae dychymyg bardd yn cael ei danio gan ei fytholeg frodorol, nid rhyfedd fod beirdd Cymraeg yr Oesoedd Canol wedi cael eu denu’n gyson at yr un deunydd. Roedd yr ysgolion barddol Cymreig yn gyfrifol am greu catalogau hirfaith o chwedlau brodorol o’r enw’r trioedd, ac mae’n debyg ei bod hi wedi bod yn ofynnol i brentisiaid barddol ddysgu nid yn unig y trioedd eu hunain, ond y chwedlau y cyfeirient atynt hefyd. Byddai nifer o feirdd yn sicr wedi mynd cam ymhellach, gan eu hadrodd neu eu darllen yn gyhoeddus. Byddai nifer o’r rheiny a drwythwyd yn eu chwedlau brodorol wedi cael eu symbylu yn yr un modd â Gruffydd. Fel sbardun creadigol, mae’n amlwg pa fath o effaith byddai’r deunydd yma’n ei gael ar fardd parod a galluog. Er na allwn ni dderbyn ei gasgliadau academaidd, mae’n eironig mai yng ngwaith creadigol W.J. Gruffydd y cawn un o’r arwyddion egluraf o effaith y chwedlau hyn.