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Welsh mythology consists of both folk traditions developed in Wales, and traditions developed by the Celtic Britons elsewhere before the end of the first millennium. As in most of the predominantly oral societies of prehistoric Britain, Welsh mythology and history were recorded orally by specialists such as druids (Welsh: derwyddon). This oral record has been lost or altered as a result of outside contact and invasion over the years. Much of this altered mythology and history is preserved in medieval Welsh manuscripts, which include the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, the Book of Aneirin and the Book of Taliesin. Other works connected to Welsh mythology include the ninth-century Latin historical compilation Historia Brittonum ("History of the Britons") and Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century Latin chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), as well as later folklore, such as the materials collected in The Welsh Fairy Book by William Jenkyn Thomas (1908).
Four of the mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion are collectively known as The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. They concentrate largely on the exploits of various British deities who have been Christianised into kings and heroes. The only character who appears in every branch is Pryderi fab Pwyll, the king of Dyfed, who is born in the first Branch, is killed in the fourth, and is probably a reflex of the Celtic god Maponos. The only other recurring characters are Pryderi's mother Rhiannon, associated with the peaceful British prince Manawydan, who later becomes her second husband. Manawyadan and his siblings Brân the Blessed (Welsh: Bendigeidfran or Brân Fendigaidd "Blessed Crow"), Branwen and Efnysien are the key players of the second branch, while the fourth branch concerns itself with the exploits of the family of Dôn, which includes the wizard Gwydion, his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and his sister, Arianrhod.
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.
In the second branch Branwen, sister of Brân the Blessed, king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Branwen's half-brother Efnysien insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses, and in compensation Brân gives Matholwch new horses and treasure, including a magical cauldron that can restore the dead to life. 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 Bran, who goes to war against Matholwch. His army crosses the Irish Sea in ships, but Brân is so huge that he wades across. The Irish offer to make peace, and build a house big enough to entertain Bran, but inside they hang a hundred bags, telling Efnysien they contain flour, when in fact they conceal armed warriors. Efnysien kills the warriors by squeezing the bags. Later, at the feast, Efnysien throws Gwern on the fire and fighting breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, Efnysien hides among the corpses and destroys the cauldron, although the effort costs him his life. Only seven men, all Britons, survive the battle, including Pryderi, Manawyddan and Bran, who is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Brân 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.
Pryderi and Manawydan return to Dyfed, where Pryderi marries Cigfa and Manawydan 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 by making, successively, saddles, shields and shoes. Each time their products are of such quality that local craftsmen cannot compete, and drive them from town to town. Eventually they return to Dyfed and become hunters again. A white boar leads them to a mysterious castle. Against Manawydan's advice, Pryderi 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. Manawydan 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. Manawydan 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.
While Pryderi rules Dyfed, in the south of Wales, Gwynedd in the north of 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 footholder, 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. Gwydion tricks her into naming him Lleu Llaw Gyffes ("Bright, of deft hand"), 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 (possibly "Flower face", though other etymologies have been suggested). Blodeuwedd falls in love with a hunter, Gronw Pebr, and they plot to kill Lleu. Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing the means by which he can be killed, but when Gronw attempts to do the deed Lleu escapes, transformed into an eagle. Gwydion finds Lleu and transforms him back into human form, and turns Blodeuwedd into an owl, renaming her Blodeuwedd and cursing her. Gronw offers to compensate Lleu, but Lleu insists on returning the blow that was struck against him. Gronw pleads to be allowed to hide behind a rock when he attempts to kill him. Lleu agrees. He kills Gronw with his spear, which is thrown so hard it pierces him through the stone he is hiding behind.
A large tradition seems to have once surrounded the Battle of the Trees, a mythological conflict fought between the sons of Dôn and the forces of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, and seemingly connected to the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Amaethon, one of the sons of Don, steals a white roebuck and a whelp from Arawn, king of the otherworld, leading to a great battle.
Gwydion fights alongside his brother and, assisted by Lleu, enchants the "elementary trees and sedges" to rise up as warriors against Arawn's forces. The alder leads the attack, while the aspen falls in battle, and heaven and earth tremble before the oak, a "valiant door keeper against the enemy". The bluebells combine and cause a "consternation" but the hero is the holly, tinted with green.
A warrior fighting alongside Arawn cannot be vanquished unless his enemies can guess his name. Gwydion guesses the warrior's name, identifying him from the sprigs of alder on his shield, and sings two englyns:
This account is so different from Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Maximian (as Geoffrey calls him) in Historia regum Britanniae that scholars agree that the Dream cannot be based purely on Geoffrey's version. The Dream's account also seems to accord better with details in the Triads, so it perhaps reflects an earlier tradition.
Macsen Wledig, the Emperor of Rome, dreams one night of a lovely maiden in a wonderful, far-off land. Awakening, he sends his men all over the earth in search of her. With much difficulty they find her in a rich castle in Britain, daughter of a chieftain based at Segontium (Caernarfon), and lead the Emperor to her. Everything he finds is exactly as in his dream. The maiden, whose name is Helen or Elen, accepts and loves him. Because Elen is found a virgin, Macsen gives her father sovereignty over the island of Britain and orders three castles built for his bride. In Macsen's absence, a new emperor seizes power and warns him not to return. With the help of men from Britain led by Elen's brother Conanus (Welsh: Kynan Meriadec, French: Conan Meriadoc), Macsen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Macsen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that becomes known as Brittany.
Another mythological story included in the Mabinogion 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 Dinas Emrys in what is now North Wales. He then overcomes the wizard who is stealing all of Lludd's provisions and makes him serve Lludd.
Guest included Hanes Taliesin in her translation of the Mabinogion, despite the absence of this tale from the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Subsequent scholarship has identified the tale as post-medieval and it is left out of most modern editions of the Mabinogion. Still, elements of the tale predate this presentation. The tale is distinct from the Book of Taliesin, which is a collection of poems attributed to Taliesin.
According to the story, Taliesin began life as Gwion Bach, a servant to the enchantress Ceridwen. Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and a horribly ugly son named Avagddu (elsewhere known as Morfran). Ceridwen determines to help her son by brewing a magic potion, the first three drops of which will give him the gift of wisdom and inspiration (awen). The potion has to be cooked for a year and a day, so Ceridwen enlists a blind man named Morda to tend the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stirs. Three hot drops spill onto Gwion's thumb as he stirred, and he instinctively puts his thumb in his mouth, instantly gaining wisdom and knowledge. The first thought that occurs to him is that Ceridwen will kill him, so he runs away.
Soon enough Ceridwen engages Gwion in a transformation chase in which they turn themselves into various animals – a hare and a greyhound, a fish and an otter, and a bird and a hawk. Exhausted, Gwion finally turns himself into a single grain of corn, but Ceridwen becomes a hen and eats him. Ceridwen becomes pregnant, and when she gives birth she throws the child into the ocean in a leather bag. The bag is found by Elffin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, who sees the boy's beautiful white brow and exclaims "dyma dal iesin" ("this is a radiant brow") Taliesin, thus named, begins to recite beautiful poetry.
Elffin raises Taliesin as his son, and the two become involved in several adventures. In the presence of Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, Elffin claims that his wife is as virtuous as the king's wife, and that Taliesin is a better bard than the king's. Maelgwn locks Elffin up and sends his boorish son Rhun to defile Elffin's wife and steal her ring as evidence. However, Taliesin has Elffin's wife replaced with a kitchen maid, thus preserving Elffin's claim. Taliesin then humiliates Maelgwn's bards with his skill, and frees his foster-father.
While Culhwch and Olwen, also found in the Mabinogion, 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 full of 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 Gwythyr ap Greidawl for the hand of Creiddylad. The conditions placed on Culhwch by his mother are similar to those placed on Lleu 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 Nuada Airgetlám in Cath Maige Tuired.
The hero of Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain, is based on the historical figure Owain mab Urien. He appears as Ywain in later continental tradition. The romance consists of a hero marrying his love, the Lady of the Fountain, but losing her when he neglects her for knightly exploits. With the aid of a lion he saves from a serpent, he finds a balance between his marital and social duties and rejoins his wife. The narrative is related to Chrétien de Troyes' French romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion.
The narrative corresponds to Chrétien's romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail, although, as with the other Welsh romances, scholars still debate the work's exact relationship to Chrétien's poem. It is possible that this romance preserves some of the material found in Chrétien's source. The sequence of some events is altered and many original episodes appear, including the hero's 14-year sojourn in Constantinople reigning with the Empress, which contains remnants of a sovereignty tale. The Holy Grail is replaced with a severed head on a platter. Despite the differences, however, the influence of the French romance cannot be discounted, particularly as its first part hardly matches the second.
The hero's father dies when he is young, and his mother takes him into the woods and raises him in isolation. Eventually he meets a group of knights and determines to become like them, so he travels to King Arthur's court. There he is ridiculed by Cei and sets out on further adventures, promising to avenge Cei's insults to himself and those who defended him. While travelling he meets two of his uncles, the first plays the role of Percival's Gornemant and educates him in arms and warns him not to ask the significance of what he sees. The second replaces Chrétien's Fisher King, but instead of showing Peredur the Holy Grail he reveals a salver containing a man's severed head. The young knight does not ask about this and proceeds to further adventure, including a stay with the Nine Witches of Gloucester and the encounter with the woman who was to be his true love, Angharad Golden-Hand. Peredur returns to Arthur's court, but soon embarks on another series of adventures that do not correspond to material in Percival (Gawain's exploits take up this section of the French work.) Eventually the hero learns the severed head at his uncle's court belonged to his cousin, who had been killed by the Nine Witches of Gloucester. Peredur avenges his family, and is celebrated as a hero.
This narrative corresponds to Chrétien's Erec and Enide, in which the hero is Erec. The romance concerns the love of Geraint, one of King Arthur's men, and the beautiful Enid. The couple marry and settle down together, but rumors spread that Geraint has gone soft. Upset about this, Enid cries to herself that she is not a true wife for keeping her husband from his chivalric duties, but Geraint misunderstands her comment to mean she has been unfaithful to him. He makes her join him on a long and dangerous trip and commands her not to speak to him. Enid disregards this command several times to warn her husband of danger. Several adventures follow that prove Enid's love and Geraint's fighting ability. The couple is happily reconciled in the end, and Geraint inherits his father's kingdom.
The Spoils of Annwfn is a cryptic early medieval poem of sixty lines found in the Book of Taliesin. The text recounts an expedition to the Otherworld, led by King Arthur, to retrieve a magical cauldron. The speaker relates how he journeyed with Arthur and three boatloads of men into Annwfn, but only seven returned. Annwfn is apparently referred to by several names, including "Mound Fortress," "Four-Peaked Fortress," and "Glass Fortress", though it is possible the poet intended these to be distinct places. Within the Mound Fort's walls Gweir, one of the "Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain" known from the Welsh Triads, is imprisoned in chains. The narrator then describes the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn; it is finished with pearl and will not boil a coward's food. Whatever tragedy ultimately killed all but seven of them is not clearly explained. The poem continues with an excoriation of "little men" and monks, who lack in various forms of knowledge possessed by the poet.
The Welsh had been Christian for several 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 Llŷr ("Children of Llŷr").
Dôn, daughter of Mathonwy, was the matriarch of one family. Her husband is never specifically named.
Other figures associated with the Children of Dôn include:
Llŷr, the patriarch of the other family, is possibly a borrowing of the Irish sea-god Ler. A foreign origin is further suggested by his epithet Llediaith ("half-speech"). His wife was Penarddun. According to the Mabinogion she was the mother of his three children, plus two others by Euroswydd. The Mabinogi name her as a daughter of Beli Mawr, though this may be an error for sister. Penarddun and Llŷr's children include:
Other figures associated with the Children of Llŷr include:
Beli Mawr is an ancestor figure mentioned in various sources. Though obscure as a character, several of the many descendants attributed to him figure strongly in Welsh tradition. Works derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae name him as a King of Britain. The Second Branch of the Mabinogi name Beli as the father of Penarddun, though this may be a mistake for brother. Beli's more prominent children include:
While Arthurian literature grew to become a broadly European phenomenon, the Welsh can claim the earliest appearances of Arthur. Before Arthur became an international figure, writings and oral tales concerning him were more or less restricted to the Brythonic nations of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. These tales in turn are divided roughly into Pre-Galfridian Traditions and those of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Wales also contributed to the Arthur of the Romance Tradition after the titular heir became an international sensation.
Each of these tales are contained within the modern Mabinogion collection, and are likely based on the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (though it is possible that they may have had a common Celtic source). See the above section on "The Three Romances" in The Mabinogion for details on these tales.
Includes folk tales, legends, traditions and anecdotes. The cyfarwyddiaid (singular: cyfarwydd, "storyteller"), were members of the bardic order in Wales. The only historical cyfarwydd known by name is Bledri ap Cydifor ('Bledericus Walensis', 'Bleherus').
The cyfawyddiaid were considered a learned class with duties and an education that exceeded that of a common poet. They were court officials with extensive training in their art, and often had a close relationship with their lord. Their duties extended to the traditions involved in praising, celebrating and mourning their lord. Welsh folklore includes a number of tales that were preserved and told by the cyfarwyddiaid, who were also tasked with conserving the traditional historical material, the accepted myth of the Welsh past, and sharing the corresponding stories, being considered as historians themselves. Besides storytelling, the cyfarwyddiaid also had the task of protecting the genealogies of the powerful families.
The tales of Welsh lore were shared as proverbs and songs, in addition to simple spoken stories. The historical tales were told along with the non-historical fables, without significant distinction. This allowed culture and history to be explored and taught through the poetics of the time. In earlier periods, the penceirddiaid are believed to have narrated stories in the courts of princes and nobles. Later, the stories were told by the cyfarwyddiaid for audiences other than nobility.
The writing of medieval folklore had adopted and explored a set of rules and themes. It relied on the poetic triads of the time, poetics, old verse and knowledge of histories, which enabled the conception of well-crafted stories about the historical truths of the population. Additionally, regions would adopt their own guidelines in storymaking, such as the Triads of the Island of Britain, which led tales to be based on mythological, historical and heroic themes. The writing also followed structure, having a chronological series of events in short episodes, known as features, which reflect the oral origins of the tales for easy story-telling to the audiences.
Welsh folklore was often compared to Irish literature of similar value. They both consisted of similar structure and aimed to inform about the past, rather than to target the mistakes of their ancestry with satire. The form of these tales also mimicked that of early Irish sagas, being prose sprinkled with poetry. Moreover, the conservation of Irish tales was also performed by a class of gentry, much like the cyfarwyddiaid of Wales. However, even with other similar duties, the Irish bards were not story-tellers. That role was saved for the poets in Ireland.
This type of storytelling, in both Ireland and Wales, was believed to have arisen through spiritual inspiration. The poets spoke ‘through’ great knowledge, which was sometimes thought to be acquired only by the practice of divination, a concept known as ái in Irish, and awen in Welsh. The Welsh cyfarwyddiaid were thus considered awenyddion, able to deliver prophetic speech in a possessed state of awen. This is not the only ritual practice that evolved around Welsh folklore, as other customs have originated from the tales themselves.
Folk tales and legends have also survived through retellings by common people. Storytelling could and does occur in many different forms: "gossip, games, dancing, and the reciting of riddles, tongue-twisters, nursery-rhymes, harp-stanzas, folk-songs and ballads." Common occasions for telling folk narratives were the nosweithiau llawen (or "merry evenings," similar to a céilidh), nosweithiau gwau ("knitting nights"), and Calan Gaeaf (Winter's Eve).
The most famous of these are the tales concerning the "Oldest Animals," in which a character gathers information from different animals until the oldest animal is located. Culhwch and Olwen lists the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy, and the Salmon of Llyn Llyw. The Triad "The Three Elders of the World" lists several of the oldest birds.
Including cumulative tales and stories without end.
Includes White Lie Tales, which are obviously and intentionally untrue. Common elements include the narrator's experiences in America, adventures while being carried on wings of a large bird, growing enormous vegetables, prowess at shooting around corners, ability to see over great distances. Famous recent authors in this genre are James Wade (Shemi Wad), Daniel Thomas (Daniel y Pant), Gruffydd Jones (Y Deryn Mawr) and John Pritchard (Siôn Ceryn Bach).
Includes Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy, a group of bandits who lived in Merioneth in the 16th century, mentioned in Thomas Pennant's Tours of Wales and other sources.
Includes onomastic lore, which explains place-names. One notable example comes from the Historia Britonum, in which the name 'Carn Cafal' is shown to come from a carn (or pile of stones) which mark the footprint of Arthur's dog Cafal.
While the following works are considered histories, they recount what would become a common myth of origin for the Welsh.