Pwyll Prince of Dyfed – Celtic Archetypes in the Mabinogi

Every so often I like to take a break from reading fiction to enjoy some primary sources. This isn’t just for research. I like the primary sources, especially those in the Celtic and Arthurian realm.

Some of my favourite sources are the medieval Welsh tales assembled in what is known as the Mabinogi (or, Mabinogion), translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid-19th century.

Lady Charlotte Guest

Some of the stories in the Mabinogi are retellings of the later medieval romances. However, some of the earlier tales, those known as the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’, are believed to be more ancient tales from the days of the Celtic heroic age.

These ‘Four Branches’ are the most interesting to me and are a true escape into a world of magical beasts and enchanted realms. They are also believed to have been teaching texts for young Welsh princes of the day, intended to show them the characteristics of good, kingly rule and behaviour.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which are tied together by the character of Pryderi, include the following tales:

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

Branwen, Daughter of Llyr

Manawydan, Son of Llyr

Math, Son of Mathonwy

Pwyll – by Alan Lee

Of the four branches, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed is my absolute favourite. I have never tired of reading it since I first studied it in university. Not only is it full of magic, love, battles, monsters, and tales of honour and betrayal, but it’s also a perfect illustration of Celtic archetypes. We’ll go over a few of these, but first, here is the story in brief:

Pwyll, a mortal man, is a Prince of Dyfed who comes into contact with Arawn, King of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld. The two become friends and switch places for a year so that Pwyll can help Arawn defeat a foe in his own world. Pwyll succeeds and becomes ‘Head of Annwn’. While he was away, Arawn ruled justly and fairly in his place, and Pwyll’s subjects ask him to continue the good rule, which he does.

Then, one day while Pwyll is out with his men, he is sitting on a magical hill when he sees a woman on a magical horse that cannot be caught up to. This is Rhiannon, a maiden from the Otherworld. On a third attempt to catch up to her, she stops for Pwyll whom she has been seeking. They are to marry, but their marriage is delayed by another suitor to Rhiannon, Gwawl, who tricks Pwyll into giving Rhiannon to him. But Rhiannon saves Pwyll from himself by giving him a magic bag which he uses to capture Gwawl.

Arawn’s Hounds

Pwyll and Rhiannon are married, and after a while, they finally have a son. But on the night of his birth, the boy is taken from them. The frightened servants conspire to blame Rhiannon, and accuse her of eating her child. Pwyll, as a ruler, must assign a punishment to his wife for this, and orders her to carry visitors to the castle upon her back while telling them what she did. The land suffers after this.

Luckily, Teirnon, a man loyal to Pwyll, finds the child when the monstrous hand that is taking his horses also leaves a baby. Teirnon slays the hand and saves the baby whom he and his wife foster. After some years, Teirnon realizes that the child resembles his lord, Pwyll, and so he and his wife take the child back to his parents, thus redeeming Rhiannon, giving Pwyll back his heir, and restoring the land once more.

This is a highly abbreviated version of the story, and if it does spark some interest, you should definitely read it. Pwyll makes a good read while curled up next to your hearth fire.

Of all the tales in the Mabinogi, this one feels like the neatest, if that makes sense. It has three sections – Pwyll in Annwn; Pwyll and Rhiannon; and the disappearance of Pwyll and Rhiannon’s son, Pryderi.

The number three and the occurrence of things in threes is a strong archetype in Celtic tradition.

Patterns of the number three occur in the number of Arawn’s dogs, and the number of times Rhiannon appears to Pwyll before she stops, for instance.

Magical animals are also common in Celtic tales; Arawn has three white hounds with red-tipped ears, and Rhiannon rides a magical white horse that cannot be caught. She is also followed by magical birds wherever she goes.

Rhiannon – by Alan Lee

The character of Rhiannon is one of my favourite things in Pwyll – her magic, her beauty, her strength. I also love her portrayal as the goddess Epona, who also rode a white horse, was accompanied by birds, or foals, and carried a magical bag that symbolized her role as a fertility goddess.

The theme of contact between the natural world and the Celtic Otherworld is also strong.

Pwyll meets Arawn in the forest, meets with Rhiannon who is from the Otherworld, and then there is the otherworldly monster that steals their child. There is a constant fluidity between the two worlds in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

The archetype of the magical hill is one that is strong in Celtic myth. Pwyll is sitting on a magical hill when Rhiannon appears to him. Hills were said to be gateways to the Otherworld. This reminds me of Glastonbury Tor which was believed to be a gateway to Annwn.

Glastonbury Tor

In the second part of Pwyll, we see the themes of the feast and the rival suitor where Pwyll’s judgement is tested. With the help of Rhiannon and her magical bag, another archetype, the marriage of the mortal and otherworldly being comes to fruition. This too is a common theme.

But there are more trials in the form of the demonization of Rhiannon which symbolizes the loss of the goddess’ power and the subsequent weakening of the land as Pwyll remains powerless to do anything but punish his wife in the face of the loss of their son.

Teirnon slaying the Monster – by Alan Lee

The finding and fostering of the lost child is also common to Celtic literature, and when Teirnon returns the child to Pwyll, Rhiannon is released from her bondage and the land blossoms once again.

Those of you with an Arthurian bent like me will spot the similarities right away in the fostering of Arthur with Sir Ector, and his teaching by Merlin. And when Guinevere is demonized in Arthurian tradition, Arthur falls into despair and the land suffers.

What is interesting in this tale is that Pwyll’s deficiencies are repaired by his contact with, and subsequent learning from, stronger figures than himself, namely Arawn, Rhiannon, and his loyal subject Teirnon. As the story progresses, we are witness to Pwyll’s growth in wisdom, courtesy and generosity – the things that make a king truly great.

Arthur

The Celtic archetypes in this tale and others help to bridge the gap between the natural world and Otherworld, to educate the hero, and light the hero’s way to effective sovereignty.

If you have never done so, I recommend that you read the tales contained in the Mabinogi, especially Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. Let them envelop and transport you to that time long ago when goddesses emerged from the woods and Fairy lords befriended their mortal counterparts.

I hope you find these tales as entertaining and educational as I have.

Thank you for reading.

You can download a FREE electronic version (all formats) of the Mabinogi at the Project Gutenberg website by clicking HERE.

You can also read a bit more about the Mabinogi on the Camelot Project web pages.

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Samhain at the Gates of Annwn

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It’s the end of October, and as it is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain I thought it would be a good idea to look a place that is both mysterious and iconic: Glastonbury Tor.

To most, the mere mention of Glastonbury will likely conjure images of wild, scantily clad or naked youths and aged hippies. You’ll think of thousands of people covered in mud as they wend their way, higher than the Hindu Kush, among the tent rows to see their favourite artists rock the Pyramid Stage.

It’s a great party, but to me that’s not the real Glastonbury.

This small town in southwest Britain is an ancient place. The real Glastonbury is a place of mystery, lore and legend. It is a place that was sacred to the Celts, pagan and Christian alike, Saxons, and Normans. For many it is the heart of Arthurian tradition, and for some it is the resting place of the Holy Grail.

Today, Glastonbury is a place where those seeking spiritual enlightenment are drawn. The New Age movement is going strong there, yet another layer of belief to cloak the place.

I lived in the countryside outside of the town for about 3 years and I never tired of walking around Glastonbury and exploring the many sites that make it truly unique.

From where I lived on the other side of the peat moors, I awoke every morning to see Glastonbury’s majestic Tor shrouded in mist.

My morning view of the Tor across the Somerset levels

My morning view of the Tor across the Somerset levels

Tor is a word of Celtic origin referring to ‘belly’ in Welsh or a ‘bulging hill’ in Gaelic. Glastonbury Tor thrusts up from the Somerset levels like a beacon for miles around. Every angle is interesting. On the top is the tower of what was the church of St. Michael, a remnant of the 14th century. Before that, there was a monastery that dated to about the 9th century A.D.

However, habitation of this place goes much farther back in time with some evidence for people in the area around 3000 B.C. But it was not always a religious centre. In the Dark Ages, the Tor served a more militaristic purpose and there are remains from this period.

In Arthurian lore, the Isle of Avalon is a sort of mist-shrouded world that is surrounded by water and can only be reached by boat or secret path. In fact, during the Dark Ages and into later centuries, until the drainage dykes were built, the Somerset levels were prone to flooding. This flooding made Glastonbury Tor and the smaller hills around it true islands. With the early morning mist that covers the levels, this watery land would have been a relatively safe refuge for the Druids, and early Christians, Dark Age warlords and late medieval monks.

The Tor surrounded by flooded levels - Avalon!

The Tor surrounded by flooded levels – Avalon!

In Celtic myth, Glastonbury Tor is said to be the home of Gwynn ap Nudd, the Faery King and Lord of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld.

Gwynn ap Nudd is the Guardian of the Gates of Annwn. He is an Underworld god. It is at Samhain that the gates of Annwn open. This was also the place where the soul of a Celt awaited rebirth. (Quick hint: We delve into this in the upcoming Eagles and Dragons novel, Warriors of Epona!)

If you are on the Tor at Samhain, you may hear the sound of hounds and hunting horns as the lord of Annwn emerges for the Wild Hunt of legend.

The Wild Hunt 1872 by Peter Nicolai Arbo

The Wild Hunt 1872 by Peter Nicolai Arbo

In Arthurian romance, there is a tradition of the wicked Melwas imprisoning Guinevere on the Tor. Arthur rides to the rescue, attacks Melwas and saves Guinevere. This particular story mirrors an episode in Culhwch ac Olwen, one part of the Welsh Mabinogion, in which Gwythyr ap Greidawl attempts to save Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, whom he is supposed to marry, from Gwynn ap Nudd himself.

Another even more fascinating Arthurian connection can be found in a pre-Christian version of the ‘Quest of the Holy Grail’, called the ‘Spoils of Annwn’ which was found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’. In this tale, Arthur and his companions enter Annwn to bring back a magical cauldron of plenty. In this, some say that ‘Corbenic Castle’ (the ‘Grail Castle’) is actually Glastonbury Tor. It isn’t just Herakles and Odysseus who journeyed to the Underworld!

Glastonbury Tor is not only associated with Celtic religion, myth and legend. It is also said by some to be a place of power or a sort of vortex in the land that lies along some of the key ley-lines, including what is called the St. Michael ley-line. The majority of sites associated with St. Michael, the slayer of Satan, along the ley-line were indeed places of power and belief of the old religion.

But this is nothing new. Christians built on top of sites sacred to the pagans they were eager to overcome. What better way to symbolize your ‘victory’ than to build right on top of a site and make it yours.

‘Gates of Annwn and Gwynn ap Nudd? Let’s build a church of St. Michael on top of it! That’ll show ‘em!’

Artist impression of Gwynn ap Nudd at the hunt

Artist impression of Gwynn ap Nudd at the hunt

But myth and legend persist through story and place, and the Tor is a prime example of how successive traditions do not overcome each other, but rather combine to make up the various aspects of that place.

If you ever get to Glastonbury, the Tor is a definite must. Walk to the top and sit awhile. Look out over the landscape and watch the crows and magpies dive in the wind around the steep slopes. Close your eyes and listen. While you’re there, you can decide whether you are sitting on a natural formation, a ceremonial labyrinth, a hill fort, a sleeping dragon, the mound where Arthur sleeps until he is needed once more, or the doorstep of the Gates of Annwn itself! The Tor is all of these things and more.

However, no matter what you believe, one thing is certain: Glastonbury Tor remains a site of extreme beauty and mystery that is well worth a visit, even if it is just to watch the sun sink in the West.

Have a safe and happy Samhain.

samhain-bonfire

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