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Aengus Óc

Also given as Aongas-Og, Oenghus, Angus Mac Ind Oc along with other variations. It translates as Aengus the Young.

Aengus is the child of the Dagda and Boand. Boand lived with her husband Elcmar in the mound of Newgrange (Brugh na Boinne). The Dagda used magic to ensure Elcmar's absence, using the time to seduce Boand. Aengus was conceived and born on the same day, hence his name 'Aengus the Young'.

Aengus plays a part in the stories of the Fianna. He was foster father to Dairmuid Ui Duibhne, and protected him after his elopement with Grainne. He is popularly thought of as a 'God of Love', he is handsome, gentle and a master of the harp.

"And he was a beautiful young man," he said, "with high looks, and his appearance was more beautiful than all beauty, and there were ornaments of gold on his dress; in his hand he held a silver harp with strings of red gold, and the sound of its strings was sweeter than all music under the sky; and over the harp were two birds that seemed to be playing on it. He sat beside me pleasantly and played his sweet music to me, and in the end he foretold things that put drunkenness on my wits."

Aengus is also possessed of the cunning of his father. He took Brugh na Boinne away from the Dagda with the help of Manannan Mac Lir: "For Manannan bade him to ask his father for it for the length of a day and a night, and that he by his art would take away his power of refusing. So Angus asked for the Brugh, and his father gave it to him for a day and a night. But when he asked it back again, it is what Angus said, that it had been given to him for ever, for the whole of life and time is made up of a day and a night, one following after the other."

Quotes are from Lady Gregory's 'Gods and Fighting Men'.

More information and stories about Aengus can be found on the Shee-Eire site

 

Aneirin

Brythonic poet, composer of the Canu Aneirin, that includes the Gododdin, the famous account of the Battle of Catraeth. The Gododdin is a series of elegies for friends who fell in the battle, which was fought in around 600CE. According to his poems, he was the only survivor. He seems to have been an onlooker at the battle, and the poems tell us that he was taken captive afterwards and subsequently rescued.

Aneirin appears enygmatically in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Welsh Triads):

Three Unfortunate Assassinations of the Island of Britain:

Heidyn son of Enygan, who slew Aneirin of Flowing Verse, prince of poets,
And Llawgad Trwm Bargod Eidyn who slew Afaon son of Taliesin,
And Llofan Llaw Ddifo who slew Urien son of Cynfarch.

Three Unfortunate Hatchet Blows of the Island of Britain:

The Blow of Eidyn on the Head of Aneirin
And the Blow on the Head of Golydan the Poet,
And the Blow on the Head of Iago son of Beli.

Sadly, we know nothing else of these tales.

It seems that his name may be a title. The prefix 'an' or 'n' signifies a negative, and the suffix 'in' is a noun suffix, relating a person to a thing. 'Eir' or 'aer', as it is sometimes given, usually means 'warrior'. So Aneirin could mean 'he who is not a warrior'.

Griffen speculates that Aneirin was actually a Christian priest - the poet relates how he was saved from the battle by his 'holy song'. Popularly of course, all these ancient poems are thought to be pagan in origin, with a Christian overlay being added later. However, by 600CE, the Brythons had already been Christian for several hundred years. Thus Aneirin's eulogies are an act of ecclesiastical responsibility, as he says: "May there be for their souls after battle/A welcome in the lands of heaven, the home of plenty."

Reference: Names From the Dawn of British Legend, TD Griffin, Llanerch 1994 isbn 1-897853-65-3

 

Arianrhod (Aranrhod)

Daughter of Don and Beli Mawr, sister to Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. Her tale is told within the myth of Math ap Mathonwy. This tells how she fails a virginity test, giving birth to twins. One twin is a baby, the other appears to be an unformed blob. Gwydion takes the second child and incubates it in a chest, later becoming responsible for raising the boy. Arianrhod, furious and ashamed, vows to deny the child a name, arms and a wife - thus preventing him from becoming a full man. The boy becomes a source of torment to Arianrhod, as Gwydion tricks her into bestowing these three things upon him. The child is named Lleu Llaw Gyffes - Fair Deft Hand.

Arianrhod is also mentioned twice in the Triads. Firstly as being one of the Three Fair Maidens of the Island of Britain, the other two being Creirwy fab Ceridwen and Gwen fab Cywryd ap Crydon.Secondly, in Triad 35, which concerns her sons, Gwenwynwyn and Gwanar. Here we learn that she is married to Lliaws ap Nwyfre, a husband who does add weight to the idea that Arianrhod was originally a celestial goddess.

Her name probably means 'silver wheel', hence she is often interpreted as a moon goddess. However, there is an alternate possibility that her name means 'silver fortress', which is interesting that she is strongly linked with her dwelling, Caer Arianrhod. This fortress is seen as being the constellation Corona Borealis and is also said by Rhys to be a rocky outcrop situated near Dinas Dinlle, a burial mound near the Menai Straits.

 

 

Augeries of the Year

These are found in the White Book of Rhydderch:

If the Calends fall on a Sunday, the winter will be good and the spring windy and the summer dry, and vineyards thriving and sheep prospering, and abundance of honey; and the old women will die, and there will be peace.

If it is a Monday there will be a variable winter and good spring and windy and tempestuous summer; the vineyards will not be good; and men may expect to thrive; and there will be disease among the bees. And it was God gave these signs to men.

If the Calends are a Tuesday, there will be a showery winter and a windy spring and a rainy summer, and disease among the women, and the ships in peril on the sea, and the kings will die, and there will be much produce in the vineyards.

If the Calends are on Wednesday, there will be a hard wild winter and a bad spring and a good summer, and the vineyards will be good, and the women will die and many people will be sick; and there will be honey.

If it is a Thursday, there will be a good winter and a windy spring and a good summer, and abundance of good things in that year, and peace between the chiefs.

If it is a Friday, there will be a changeable winter and a good spring and a good summer, and pain in the eyes, and the vineyards will flourish, and the sheep and the bees will die, and there will be plenty of corn­crops and the old folk will die.

If the Calends are on a Saturday, there will be a disturbed winter and a bad windy spring, and a good summer and abundant produce, and the sheep will die and houses will often be burned.

These signs are true, if the sun appears upon the earth.

 

Awenyddion

The Awenyddion are only mentioned in one source, that of Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) who was writing in the late 12th century. From the brief and tantalising description, it seems that the Awenyddion were practicing a kind of oracular seership. It seems that they were able to go into trance states at will. It is interesting to compare this to the Scandinavian practice of Seidr. But unfortunately, we have too little information about the Awenyddion to do anything more than make educated guesses about what their practices may have been like, or in what context they worked.

Gerald says:

"among the Welsh there are certain individuals called Awenyddion who behave as if they are possessed... When you consult them about some problem, they immediately go into a trance and lose control of their senses... They do not answer the question put to them in a logical way. Words stream from their mouths, incoherently and apparently meaningless and lacking any sense at all, but all the same well expressed: and if you listen carefully to what they say you will receive the solution to your problem. When it is all over, they will recover from their trance, as if they were ordinary people waking from a heavy sleep, but you have to give them a good shake before they regain control of themselves... and when they do return to their senses they can remember nothing of what they have said in the interval... They seem to receive this gift of divination through visions which they see in their dreams. Some of them have the impression that honey or sugary milk is being smeared on their mouths; others say that a sheet of paper with words written on it is pressed against their lips. As soon as they are roused from their trance and have come round from their prophesying, that is what they say has happened...

For more information on the Awenyddion and the awen in Brythonic and Neo-Druidic tradition, see Greywolf's article Awen

 
 

Barddas

The title given to the collected writings of Iolo Morganwg Doubtless, some of the material contained within is genuine, collected during Morganwg's travels around Wales. However, much of the writings are the product of his own inspired imagination and it is almost impossible to extricate one from the other.

Barddas was first published in 1862, edited by John Williams ab Ithel, a Welsh antiquarian. The writings were massively influential in the development of modern druidry, noteably that practiced by OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids).

Barddas can be found online here

 

Black Book of Carmarthen

The Black Book is said to have been produced by monks of the Augustinian Priory of St John's in Carmarthen. The book is named for the colour of its cover. Dating is difficult but it was probably written in the 1250's. Some of the writings are obviously from the thirteenth century, but other pieces are earlier.

Much of the book concernes Myrddin - it includes the famous dialogue between Myrddin and Taliesin, and the poem concerning the aftermath of the battle of Arderydd, and Myrddin's life within the Caledonian Forest.

Reference: The Black Book of Carmarthen, trans M Pennar, Llanerch 1989 isbn0-947992-31-6
The manuscript can be viewed online at the National Library of Wales site here

 

Boudica

Famous war leader of the Iceni, who led the uprising against the Roman government of Britain in 60CE. Much has been written about Boudica,but surprisingly the facts about her life are few, and come from the commentaries of Tactitus and Dio Cassius.

After the death of her husband Prasutagus, Boudica took the leadership of the Iceni, illegally in Roman eyes. He had been a client-king, which means that he kept pretty much independent leadership, but agreed to keep his tribe peaceful and co-operative towards the Roman government. In his will, he had left the leadership jointly to the Roman Emperor (Nero) and his two daughters.

It seems that Catus, the procurator who came to make an inventory of the Iceni property, acted in an insenstive and inflammatory manner. As a result of this, Boudica proclaimed herself ruler and challenged Roman authority. She was flogged, her daughters raped, and Iceni property was confiscated.

The Iceni and the Trinovantes rose up together and amassed a huge army. They sacked Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium (Colchester, London and St Albans) before being defeated by Paulinius. The ultimate fate of Boudica is not known. Some say that she fled, others that she took poison rather than be captured.

What is certain is that she captured the imagination of the public, remaining one of our most popular figures to this day.

Information from: 'Celtic Goddesses', Miranda Green, British Museum Press 1997 isbn 0-7141-2312-9

 
 

Calan Gaeaf

The Calends of Winter, celebrated on November Eve. Also known as Hollantide and Gwyl y Meirw. In Cornwall, the festival is sometimes known as Allantide, and in Brittany as Kala Goañv.

For most modern Brythonic pagans, celebrations are akin to that of the Irish Samhain - the emphasis on ancestors, remembering and honouring the dead. Divination, feasting and hospitality. For our ancestors too, this was a time of uncertainty, a time when protection from malign spirits was necessary. Bonfires which were lit in Wales up into the 19th century served this purpose, providing protection against horrors such as the Hwch Ddu Gwta - Bobtailed Black Sow - or Y Ladi Wen - the White Lady. Those who were to die in the coming year could be seen by peeping through the church keyhole on November Eve.

As in Ireland and Scotland, it is customary to lay out food for the dead, perhaps setting an extra place at the table. In Wales, this is known as 'bwyd cennad y meirw' - food for the embassy of the dead - and in Brittany as 'boued gouel an Anaon' - food for the feast of the dead.

However, there is a parallel custom of 'cennad y meirw' - deaths messenger. Cenhadon y Meirw, often made up of the poor folk of the community, go from door to door, chanting rhymes and begging for 'pice rhanna' - soul cakes. The Cenhadon ate the cakes as representatives of the dead of each family.

Another Calan Gaeaf custom is for young folk in Wales to dress up in clothes belonging to the opposite gender. These are called 'gwrachod' - hags/witches. The custom seems typical of the role reversals and cross dressing which is associated with this time and with Twelfth Night - both periods in which the natural order of things is turned on its head during a time-between-times.

A traditional Calan Gaeaf dinner is 'stwmp naw rhyw' - mash of nine kinds. As might be guessed, this has nine ingredients, potato, carrot, turnip, peas, parsnip, leeks, salt, pepper and milk. Often, this dinner would be used for divinatory purposes - a wedding ring would be hidden within. A similar custom was recorded in Dyfed by Owen in 1959: "nine girls used to make a pancake with nine ingredients in it..." again, this was used for marriage divination. Another lovers divination recorded is the belief that young people sewing hemp at a crossroads at night at Calan Gaeaf could receive a vision of their future sweetheart.

Sourced from:

Celtic Rituals, A. Kondratiev. New Celtic Publishing 1996, p. 109 - 113.

Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, MacKillop. OUP 1998, p. 236 - 7.

 

Cesair

According to the Leabhar Gabhala, Cesair was the leader of the first group of settlers to arrive in Ireland. At the time of the Biblical flood, she set sail with a boatload of fifty women and three men. After arriving in Ireland, two of the men died, leaving Fintan to serve the needs of all the women. He fled and soon afterwards, Ireland was submerged in a deluge. All the women, including Cesair, drowned. Fintan survived by turning himself into a salmon.

Source - Celtic Women, P Berresford Ellis, Constable 1995

 

Coelbren

Means something like 'wood memorial' or 'wood learning'. The Coelbren is allegedly an ancient alphabet akin to the Irish ogham. Indeed, it may well be, but unfortunately no source earlier than Iolo Morgannwg can be found and it is likely that the Coelbren was one of his inventions, or at least, that it came out of the same period of Druidic revival.

There are forty characters presently in the Coelbren alphabet. In appearance, they are similar to runic characters, mostly being formed of lines coming off a vertical stem. Like the ogham alphabet, these have a system of kennings attached to them, which include tree names.

Despite the dubious origins of the Coelbren, the system is not without value. Though considered a forger, Iolo Morgannwg was a man who demonstrated great insight into the ancient Bardic traditions and his 'forgeries' are very much in the spirit of the old lore. And should the Coelbren not predate him, then at the very least, we have a system that has been in use for over three hundred years.

For more information see the forum thread on divination and the Coelbren article at the OBOD site.
See an example of a 'wooden book' of Coelbren here: Peithynen

 
 

Dewi Sant

Amusingly, Dewi Sant is now being acclaimed in some places on the internet as a pagan god. In fact, he was of course, St David, now the patron saint of Wales. He lived in the 6th century and was at one time Archbishop of Wales. The stories of his life were not written until the 11th century and are probably fictitious, being the standard tales of frugal living and miracles. The City of St Davids in Pembrokeshire bears his name; he is said to have been born nearby and to have founded the city in 550CE.

For lots more information on Dewi Sant, see BBC Wales

 

Druid

Druids were the intelligensia of Ancient Celtic society. They seem to have fulfilled various roles such as priest, lawyer, advisor and doctor. Strabo (Geographica lV, 4, 197-8) tells us that 'There were three classes to whom special honour is paid, viz., the Bards, Uatis and the Druids'. In practice, it seems that these classes were somewhat interchangeable and that there was a close relationship between the three. However, there would not have been a progressive training through the three classes, as per the courses of some modern Druid orders.

There have been many Druid revivals down the ages, noteably in the 18th century by the likes of Iolo Morgannwg, who revived the Eistedfoddau in 1792. The Ancient Order of Druids was founded in 1781. In the main, these revivalists were Christian men, interested in the discoveries of the antiquarians. However curious and incorrect their theories were, we owe them a great debt, for their early efforts paved the way for the next generation of Druids and scholars.

In modern times, 'Druidry' has become immensely popular. In some cases, it is as far from the practices of the Ancient Celts as were those of the 18th century and it draws from a wide range of influences and generic neo-pagan practices. These days, a Druid may be a polytheist, working with local Gods and spirits, digging deeply into the lore and myth of the ancient Celts. Or at the other end of the spectrum, a Druid might be a Christian, taking 'Druidic teachings' as a philosophic starting point for exploring their own faith more deeply.

 
 

Elen Luyddog

Elen of the Hosts. She appears in the tale Breuddwyd Macsen - The Dream of Macsen Wledig. Macsen sees her in a dream and falls hopelessly in love with her. "No more than it would be easy to look on the sun when it is brightest, no easier would it be than to look on her by reason of her excelling beauty." (Mabinogion, Jones and Jones)

The tale goes on to tell us "Thereafter Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made. And for that reason they are called the Roads of Elen of the Hosts..." These roads, named Sarn Helen, do exist, being surviving Roman roads. However, 'Helen' is more likely to derive from the word 'elin', meaning elbow or corner, as these roads are not straight. This confusion has helped to give rise to the neo-pagan goddess 'Elen of the Ways'.

There is a suggestion that Elen Luyddog may have a historical reality. MacKillop suggests that she is based upon Elen fab Eudaf, Eudaf being a British chieftain who held Segontium. She has also been confused with (H)Elen, mother to the Emperor Constantine, who entered Brythonic lore as the daughter of Coel Hen.

 

Elffin (Elphin)

The hapless son of King Gwyddno Garanhir. Gwyddno despaired of his son ever making anything of himself and as a last resort, granted Elffin the annual takings from their bountiful weir. Elffin's luck seemed to have run badly again, for instead of the usual abundance of fish, the only thing dredged up was a tattered leather bag. But Elffin looked inside and found a beautiful child. Elffin cried out: 'behold, a radiant brow!'. And so the child was known by this name, Taliesin, ever after. Taliesin prophecied great fame and honour for Elffin in poems such as 'The Consolation of Elffin and Taliesin himself was responsible in great part for securing this future for Elffin.

The full story can be found in the Hanes Taliesin which is online here

 
 

Ffynnon Cegin Arthur

(The Well of Arthur's Kitchen) One of five wells in Wales names after Arthur, this one is at Llanddeiniolen in Caernarfon. The well is said to have an oily substance floating on top, and this was supposed to be the grease left behind after Arthur's washing up had been done. The well is a Chalybeate spring and in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became popular as a spa, with ruins of the spa house still visible. See this photograph at Geograph. Sadly, the lovely tale of greasy washing up doesn't appear to be the original meaning of the name - in this instance is seems that 'Cegin' refers to the ridge close to the well.

See Wells in Depth by Tristan Gray Hulse for a fascinating article on this and other holy wells.

 
 

Glámdichenn

An elaborate method of satire. A description has come down to us from the Book of Ballymote, where it is used to satirise a King who refuses the proper reward for a poem. It was a crime to prevent the satire after this reward had been denied.

1. Fasting took place on the land of the King. (This was common procedure when enforcing a claim or making known a grievance.)

2. The proceedings are sanctioned by a council made up of thirty laymen, thirty bishops and thirty poets.

3. The Ollamh, (in this instance, the initial poem had been made by this Ollamh. It is not clear whether the Ollamh would always take this role) along with six other poets on whom the Six Degrees of poetry had been conferred, went at sunrise to a hilltop on the boundary of seven lands.

4. Each faced towards his own land, with the face of the Ollamh towards the land of the King that he was to satirise. Their backs were to be to a hawthorn tree that should be growing atop the hill.

5. The wind had to be coming from the North.

6. A slingstone and a thorn from the tree were held in the hand of each poet. Each poet sang a stave in a prescribed metre into the stone and thorn, beginning with the Ollamh.

7. The stones and the thorns were placed at the base of the tree.

8. If the poets were in the wrong, the earth would swallow them up.

9. If the King was in the wrong, he would be swallowed up, along with his wife, his son, his horses, his arms, his hound and his dress.
The curse of the Mac Fuírmed* fell on the hound
The curse of the Fochloc on the dress
The curse of the Doss upon the arms
The curse of the Cano on the wife
The curse of the Cli upon the son
The curse of the Anradh on the land
And the curse of the Ollamh on the King himself.

*These following are the names of the various bardic degrees.

From 'Satirists and Enchanters in Early Irish Literature' by FN Robinson. From 'Studies in the History of Religion', reprinted in 'The Bardic Sourcebook' ed. John Matthews, pub Blandford 1998 isbn 0-7137-2664-4

 

Guest, Lady Charlotte

Lady Charlotte Guest was a remarkable woman who lead a fascinating life. A short biography is online at Data Wales . Her Mabinogion collection was first published in 1838, produced with the help of bards such as John Jones and Thomas Price, who translated the Medieval texts into Modern Welsh to enable Lady Guest's translation into English. The problems with her text are mostly due to the sensibilities of the time in which she wrote. Sexual references in particular, have been ironed out, as gloriously shown at the Digital Medievalist . Regardless of these problems, her contribution was hugely important. She was the first to bring the tales, in accessible form, into the English language, at a time when the Welsh culture was highly fashionable among the educated classes in England. She is also responsible for the name 'Mabinogion', which she had understood, wrongly, to be the plural of 'mabinogi'. Her translation is still the best known and has been reprinted countless times, noteably in a beautiful edition with illustrations by Alan Lee.

 

Gwydion ap Don

The nephew of Math ap Mathonwy, the brother of Gilfaethwy and Arianrhod. In the story 'Math ap Mathonwy', Gwydion is a magician, getting the upper hand through cunning and trickery. He is responsible for bringing up Lleu, the son of Arianrhod and for performing the rites of passage necessary for Lleu to become a man. He tricks Arianrhod into bestowing a name and weapons upon Lleu and creates for him a wife of flowers, Bloddeuwedd. This episode is also recounted in the poem 'Cad Goddeu', during which Gwydion also enchants the trees so that they become warriors.

He and Gilfaethwy are punished by Math for the rape of his footholder Goewin. Math turns the brothers into a stag and hind, a boar and sow, and a wolf and she-wolf. Three children are produced from this union, Bleiddwn, Hychdwn Hir and Hyddwnn.

Sources - Cad Goddeu and Math ap Mathonwy.

 
Gwyl y Meirw - see Calan Gaeaf
 
 
Hollantide - see Calan Gaeaf
 
 

Iolo Morganwg

One of the most infamous names of the 18th century druid revival, Iolo Morganwg's name is guaranteed to provoke reaction whenever mentioned. You will find a mixture of admiration, gratitude and total frustration. Gratitude because before him, the old Welsh literature and lore was not valued and much was being lost, mouldering away in forgotten manuscripts. Without his interest and dedication, we would have far less surviving. He also rekindled the pride of the Brythonic folk in their own traditions. This, among other things (such as the collections of folk songs which started to be made), led to all things Welsh being en vogue in high society for a time.

Admiration because he was so well versed and skilled in Brythonic poetry and traditions that his... additions... (being polite!) are indistinguishable from the 'real' thing. Perhaps in making his additions, he was following a practice that was common among bards. We know that he did visit private libraries and make notes from manuscripts that were dropping to pieces, so it is conceivable that some of the stuff for which there is no other evidence is genuine. But there is no way of telling in some cases. And total frustration because of all of the above. On the one hand, we wouldn't have much of this information if he hadn't collected it. But on the other, it is almost impossible to disentangle his additions from the older material, making his notes almost useless for anyone seeking the 'genuine' bardic traditions.

Iolo Morganwg was born Edward Williams in 1794 at Pennon in Glamorgan. He grew up with Welsh as his second language, and was taught Early and Middle Welsh by John Walters. This inspired his love of the early bardic material, which he began to incorporate into his own poetry. He spent much of his time walking throughout Wales, collecting letters and manuscripts that would become the Barddas collection. He also sent some of his own poetry to the London Welsh, a group of exiled Welsh authors. He claimed that these were the work of Dafydd ap Gwilim. Their 'discovery' made Iolo famous and they were only uncovered as forgeries in the 20th century.

Aside from the collection entitled 'Barddas', which has continued to inspire modern druid traditions to this day, he is most famous for his creation of the Gorsedd of Bards. The The 'Gorsedd Prayer' was composed by him (Grant O God, Thy protection etc.) and is still used in OBOD and other neo-Druid ceremonies. The first Gorsedd was held on Primrose Hill in London during 1792. The official language of the Gorsedd was English; however, there was later a split between those who wanted the ceremonies to remain in English and those who wished to move towards Cymraeg. The Gorsedd of Bards later became intrinsically linked with the Welsh Eisteddfod competitions.

 
 

Joseph of Arimathea

Popularly supposed to have come to Britain, where he planted his staff atop a hill. The staff took root, becoming a thorn tree. The hill became the place of the first Christian church in Britain, Glastonbury. The current Glastonbury Thorn is a child of the original tree. Another legend says that Joseph also brought the Chalice of the Last Supper to Glastonbury and buried it beneath the Chalice Well, hence the waters run red with the blood of Christ.

This legend seems to date back to the eighteenth century, a time that saw the Druid revivals, a period in which Britain was keen to find a native spirituality within the Christian tradition.

For more information, see The Book of Druidry, Ross Nichols. Thorsons 1992

 
 

St Kentigern

A very interesting character and the patron saint of Glasgow. He is also known as St Mungo (a nickname meaning 'dear friend'). He lived from c.518 to 612, a time when Christianity was establishing itself in Britain. Kentigern was a very interesting character, said by some to be the great-nephew of King Arthur and merged by others into the Myrddin tales. He is said to have been the illegitamate child of of Owein, King of North Rheged, and Thaney, a princess of Gododdin.

While a young boy, Kentigern was left in charge of the sacred fires at Saint Serf's monastery. Kentigern was unpopular with the other boys and while he slept, they secretly put the fires out. Kentigern woke in the morning and was horrified to see the fires cold. He had no means to kindle another flame, but he went outside and plucked a hazel branch. He prayed for help and the little branch burst into flames, so he was able to rekindle the sacred fires.

This miracle, among others attributed to Kentigern, made up the imagery for Glasgow's coat of arms (here, the hazel has become an oak, presumably for artistic reasons) and is commemorated in a rhyme taught to school children:

It is the bird that never flew
It is the tree that never grew
It is the bell that never rang
It is the fish that never swam .

It is also said:

"For that hazel tree, from which the little branch was separated, received a blessing from Saint Kentigern, and afterwards it began to grow wild into a little grove. Indeed, as the country people say, if from that hazel grove even the greenest little branch is taken, it kindles as the most driest wood when fire licks at it up to this day, and being struck by a small breath, through the merit of the saint, it scatters from itself sparks of flame."

There is a short biography of Kentigern at Early British Kingdoms and an indepth look at his legends by Cynthia Whidden Green at the Medieval Sourcebook

 
 

Lindow Man

Lindow Man, nicknamed Pete Marsh by the British media, is one of the most famous bog bodies in the world. This is not because his preservation is particularly unusual - he is one of 236 bog bodies from various periods that have been found in Britain. Lindow Man achieved instant fame due to the seemingly unusual and brutal death that he suffered. He appears to have been struck on the back of the head, garotted and his throat cut. It has been claimed by some, such as Anne Ross in her book 'The Life and Death of a Druid Prince', that Lindow Man underwent a 'triple death', and that this, among other evidence, showed him to have been a human sacrifice. However, her theories are speculative to say the least, and many academics have not been convinced. Some claim that the 'garotte' is actually a necklace that has shrunk and tightened over time. Others, that his injuries could easily have been post mortem.

For more information on Lindow Man, see:
Mummy from the Bog
Hi, My Name's Fox? (PDF)
Lindow Man was a Simple Murder Victim
The Bodies in the Bog - A Reading List

 
 

Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is a collection of old British tales. The stories are drawn from two Welsh manuscripts, the Llyfr Coch Hergest (Red Book of Hergest) and the Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (White Book of Rhydderch). The Red Book dates from around 1375 - 1425 CE, the White Book from 1300 - 1325 CE. Some of the tales are also found in another manuscript that dates from about a century before the White Book.

'Mabinogion' itself is a modern title, used by Lady Charlotte Guest for her translations from the Red Book and the Hanes Taliesin. She had understood the word to be the pural form of 'Mabinogi' (which means something like 'youth', later taking the meaning of a tale of youth or heroics). However, the name is now too well established and convenient for it to be worth correction.

The Mabinogion consists of The Four Branches of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math. Two short pieces - 'The Dream of Macsen Wledig' and 'Lludd and Llefelys'. The Dream of Rhonabwy, a nostalgic and humourous tale, Culhwch and Olwen, which has rightly been described as "incomparable and unclassifiable" and finally, three later Arthurian romances.

Information from Gwyn Jones' introductory notes to The Mabinogion, Jones and Jones, Everyman 1989. isbn 0-460-87066-1

 

Mabon ap Modron

The main source concerning Mabon ap Modron is the tale Culhwch and Olwen. In order to win the hand of Olwen, Culhwch and his cousin Arthur must fulfill a series of near impossible tasks, including getting the comb and shears which are between the ears of the fearsome boar Twrch Trwth. In order to hunt the only dog which can catch the boar, they must rescue Mabon ap Modron, "who was taken away when three nights old from his mother. Where he is is unknown, or what his state is, whether alive or dead." The Five Elders of the World lead the company to Mabon ap Modron, who has been imprisoned in Caer Loyw near Gloucester.

Mabon is often portrayed in modern pagan texts as an innocent child. But Culhwch ac Olwen makes it clear that he is in fact a grown man, and the most skilled hunter in Britain, the only man who can hunt with the hound Drudwen. He is also a fearless fighter, retrieving the shears from the ears of Twrch Trwth himself. His glory is second only to that of Arthur.

His name literally means 'Divine Son, son of the Divine Mother' (the -on suffix usually denotes divinity) and thus is clearly a title. Whether Mabon had other names is now unknown. However, the title is accepted to be cognate with that of the god Maponos, to whom shrines are found in both Britain and Gaul. MacKillop says that there is a possible inscription at Chamalieres in France and there is a shrine to 'Deo Mapono' at Chesterholm in Northumberland. There are also mentions of 'Apollo Maponus', and according to MacKillop, (though this isn't referenced), Maponus was "often linked with the Gaulish Apollo, especially Apollo Citharoedus."

Some suggest that Modron be equated with Rhiannon and thus Pryderi with Mabon. Indeed, there is a similar theme of a son stolen from his mother, though of course, Pryderi is not imprisoned, and I am not sure what this theory is based upon, aside from the 'lost son' similarity to the tale. It is also suggested that Mabon is one and the same as Aengus Oc (Mac ind Oc).

There is another reference to Mabon in the poem Pa Gur. This text is particularly interesting for the mention of two Mabons - Mabon ap Modron and Mabon ap Mellt. (Mabon son of Lightning) It has been suggested that the text may have become confused, and that these two Mabons are the same person. Mellt could be the father of Mabon, making a comparison between Mabon and Apollo, who was sired by Zeus of the thunderbolts, but this is purely speculation.

Mabon ap Modron is also mentioned in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, in which he is one of the Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain. (The others being Llyr Half-Speech, Gwair ap Geirioedd and Arthur. As in all the best triads, there are four of them.)

Sources:
Mabinogion, Jones and Jones. Everyman 1989.
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, MacKillop. OUP 1998.
Trioedd Ynys Prydein, online here

 

Macsen Wledig

Appears in the Mabinogion tale 'Breuddwyd Macsen' as the Emperor of Rome. He dreams of the beautiful maiden Elen and he travels to Britain in search of her. He remains there with Elen for seven years, whereupon Rome elects herself a new Emperor. Macsen is furious and sets out for Rome, conquering France and Burgundy before laying siege to Rome, eventually taking the city with the help of Elen's brothers Cynan ap Eudaf and Gadeon ap Eudaf.

There is some evidence to suggest that Macsen was a historical person, the Spaniard Maximus Clemens who was Emperor of Rome between 383-8CE. He was held as a hero by the British for helping them to overthrow Gratian in 383CE. He is mentioned by both Gildas and Nennius and is claimed as an ancestor by many noble and ecclesiastical families. Maximus was indeed married to Elen Luyddog.

Sources:
Mabinogion, Jones and Jones. Everyman 1989.
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, MacKillop. OUP 1998.

 

Myrddin

A very complex character who sits between myth and history. Each age has seen his re-invention. For most people, he is the archetypal wizard, now inextricably linked with King Arthur. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who gave us the name 'Merlin', in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) which was published c.1138. He later published the 'Vita Merlini', expanding and sometimes contradicting his earlier writings. The Vita Merlini is online here

Some believe that Myrddin is a historical figure, a sixth century bard. But even here, the threads of myth and fact are woven so tight, that it is hard to know where one begins and another ends. The 'historical' Myrddin was said to live wild in the Caledonian Forest, having gone mad after seeing his nephew slain at the battle of Arfderydd (c. 573CE). But identical legends are told of a man named Lailoken, and it might be that these tales were attached to Myrddin at a much later date.

In addition, some have suggested that Myrddin is the mythical founder of Caer Fyrddin - (modern Carmarthen) and as such, is purely a figure made up to explain the place name. Indeed, the harder one looks for Myrddin, the more he disappears into shadows. Yet, he is still one of the most important figures within the Brythonic traditions.

There are several poems attributed to Myrddin, three of which are found within the Black Book of Carmarthen and two of which are included within our Bardic section: Birches and The Lament of Myrddin in his Grave

Also of interest are the following links: Myrddin which gives a good summary of the Myrddin lore, and Concerning the Name Myrddin which explores the Caer Fyrddin link.

 
 

Nennius

A ninth century chronicler famous for writing the 'Historia Brittonum', a history of Britain from earliest times. And that simple statement hides a wealth of complexity. First of all, we have no idea who 'Nennius' was, or if he even existed. Secondly, he may not have written the Historia Brittonum. There are many different versions of the text (roughly eleven main sources which form five major groupings). The earliest of these is dated c.900, while the latest are from the 13th century. The author is not named in all of these. Whoever did write the original text seems to have compiled a huge amount of old sources, and it's speculated that some of these might date back to the 5th century. However, the compilation is completely indiscriminate and is a huge mess of contradiction, inaccuracy and fable, rather than being a history as we would understand it today.

The Historia Brittonum is one of the earliest texts to speak of King Arthur, listing his twelve battles against the Saxon invaders. It speaks of the ill fated Vortigern, the British King who hired Saxons to fight for him against Picts and other enemies, but who betrayed him and began the Germanic invasions. It is Nennius who describes the boy Ambrosius revealing the fighting dragons beneath Vortigern's fort. These tales are an important part of British mythology, regardless of whether we regard them as factual or legendary.

For a discussion on the different versions, see the excellent Vortigern Studies site
For the Historia Brittonum text, see the Medieval Sourcebook

 
 

Ogham

(Pron o'am)

Ogham is an ancient Irish alphabet, which like the runes, is now often used as a system of divination. The earliest Ogham inscriptions appear c. 4CE. The ogham alphabet is based on the Latin and consists of twenty letters divided into four groups. The bulk of the ogham inscriptions are found in Ireland, though they also appear throughout Britain, predominantly in Wales, where there were sizeable Irish settlements. Most of the inscriptions are carved into stone and are boundary markers or memorials. It is likely that ogham was also inscribed upon less permanent materials that have not come down to us.

Popularly thought of as the 'Tree Alphabet', ogham is actually a complex system of correspondences and kennings. This probably allowed conversation in veiled terms that would have sounded like gibberish to the those without knowledge of the system. Robert Graves used his highly individual interpretation of the ogham to develop the Tree Calender, his own invention. Although his ideas on the ogham owe more to fantasy than scholarly research, he remains one of the primary influences on ogham lore in modern times.

For a good overview and bibliography, see the Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, J McKillop, OUP 1998 isbn 0-19-869157-2

 

Owain

Historial figure who features in several British myths. The historical Owain was the son of Urien of Rheged, as attested in the poetry of the 6th century Taliesin.

In mythology, Owain appears in several Mabinogion tales - 'Peredur', 'Rhonabwy's Dream' and is the hero of 'The Lady of the Fountain'. He also appears seven times in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein and was clearly a figure of importance in medieval British mythology. We can only suppose

 
 

Palug's Cat

Palug's Cat is found in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein , where it appears in Triad 26, Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain. Both versions of the triad (from Peniarth MS. 16, the earlier source, and the White Book of Rhydderch) are lengthy and relate the womb burden of the magical sow Henwen. The Peniarth MS reads:

"And from thence she went to the Black Stone in Llanfair in Arfon, and there she brought forth a kitten; and Coll son of Collfrewy threw that kitten into the Menai. And she was afterwards Palug's Cat."

The White Books tells us more of the tale:

"And at Llanfair in Arfon under the Black Rock she brought forth a kitten, and the Powerful Swineherd (ie. Coll) threw it from the rock into the sea. And the sons of Palug fostered it in Mon, to their own harm: and that was Palug's Cat, and it was one of the Three Great Oppressions of Mon, nurtured therein. The second was Daronwy and the third was Edwin, king of Lloegr."

Palug's Cat also appears in the poem Pa Gur, from the Black Book of Carmarthen which is tantalisingly incomplete. It breaks off at the point where Cai is fighting Cath Palug:

"Cai the fair went to Mona,
To devastate Llewon.

His shield was ready
Against Cath Palug
When people welcomed him.

Who pierced the Cath Palug?
Nine score before dawn
Would fall for its food.
Nine score chieftains..."

The rest of the text can be found online here

 
 

Q-Celtic

The Goidelic Celtic languages, which in modern times are Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. The Q branch of the Celtic languages (as opposed to the 'P' branch) is the older of the two types and refers to the 'q' sound retained at the start of words such as the Irish 'ceann', as compared to the Welsh 'pen' both meaning 'head'. The letter 'q' itself is not found in Celtic languages, existing only in borrowed words.

Source - 'Dictionary of Celtic Mythology' J McKillop, OUP 1998 isbn 0-19-869157-2

 
 
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Tain Bo Cuailnge

Regarded as the centre-piece of the Irish Ulster Cycle. It is the story of a cattle raid carried out by Medb of Connaught. She invades Ulster in her attempt to capture Donn Cualigne - the Brown Bull of Cualigne - so that her possessions will not be outdone by her husband, who owns the great white bull Finnbennach. Opposing them is the great hero CuChulainn, who singlehandedly drives back the armies of Ulster.

The story of the Tain survived in two main manuscripts, the Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) which was compiled in the twelfth century, and the Yellow Book of Lecan which dates from the fourteenth. However, the language of the story seems to place it in the eighth century and some scholars think that some of the passages may date to two centuries before that.

Notes from the Introduction of Thomas Kinsella's translation of The Tain, OUP 1969.

 

Taliesin

One of the best known of the Brythonic bards. His poetry survives in two main manuscripts, both of which are kept in the National Library of Wales. These are the Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin) and the Hanes (or Ystoria) Taliesin (History or Story of Taliesin).

The Llyfr Taliesin is a 14th century manuscript of what seems to be authentic 6th century poetry. The Hanes Taliesin is a collection of manuscripts that seem to have been brought together in the 16th century, and it is in this collection that the more 'mystical' stuff is found. Academics think that much of this was written much later and attributed to Taliesin - or that there were two bards of the same name. The Hanes Taliesin is the source for the famous story of Cerridwen and her cauldron, which some have suggested is a mythical account of bardic initiation.

The 6th century Taliesin may have originally been from Powys, suggested by his poem to Cynan Garwyn, a lord of that place. But the bulk of his writings are praise poems for Urien of Rheged, (which stretched from modern Cumbria up to Ayr and possibly across to Catterick) There are also poems for Urien's son Owain and for Gwallawg, lord of Elfed (close to what is now the city of Leeds)

Source - Pennar, M. Taliesin Poems, Llanerch 1988
Also see Llyfr Taliesin and Who Was Taliesin

 

Tir na nÓg

Literally 'The Land of Youth'. The best known of the Irish Otherworlds.

It is one of the places said to have been populated by the Tuatha de Danaan after their defeat by the Sons of Mil. It appears in various poems and stories, including 'Laoi Oisín i dTír na nÓg' (The Lay of Oisín in the Land of Youth) and the Imram Brain (Voyage of Bran).

It is often thought of as being situated to the west of Ireland, and referred to as 'The Land Beyond the West'. There are other places said to be its entrance, including Liscannor Bay , Rathlin Island and a cave on Knockadoon Island.

Information from 'Dictionary of Celtic Mythology' J McKillop, OUP 1998 isbn 0-19-869157-2

 
 

Ulster Cycle

One of the four branches of Irish mythology. (The others being the 'Mythological Cycle', the 'Fenian Cycle' and the 'Historical Cycle')

The tales of the Ulster Cycle centre around the warriors of King Conchobar of Ulster, with Cuchulainn being the foremost of these. The tales are primarily heroic. They feature warriors, tests of skill, honour and prestige. The background to many of the tales is the rivalry between Ulster and Connaught, typified in the most well known tale of this cycle, the Tain Bo Cualgne.

Other tales are 'The Pig of Mac Dathó' and 'The Feast of Bricriu'.

For more information, see Celtic Heritage, A&B Rees. Pub Thames and Hudson 1961 isbn 0-500-27039-2

 
 
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Washer at the Ford

A common theme in Celtic mythologies. The Washer may be beautiful or ugly, and is seen washing bloody linen. To see her is unlucky, portending battle, or a death in the community, usually of the person who has witnessed her. In the Irish stories, the Morrigan sometimes takes on the role, washing the weapons of the heroes who were about to die.

Source - Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, J. MacKillop, OUP 1998

 
 
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