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welsh mythology, caer sidi, battle of the trees, lapwing bird

Gwydion and the Battle of the Trees

Author: John Patrick Parle

Copyright © 2001

One of the common themes in Welsh
mythology involves raids into the Underworld. This nether land realm
is called by different sources Annwn, Achren, Caer Sidi, or by
modern English references: Hades or the Otherworld. The images of the
Welsh Underworld were similar to the Irish Celts and their portrayal
of the Fomor under-demons who lived beneath the sea. The Welsh gods
made forays into the Underworld to gain precious commodities for
themselves and mankind.

The god Gwydion once invaded the Underworld, but was captured
by Pwyll and Pryderi. The jail where he was lodged was known in
legend to make its captive either inspired or mad after a single
night. Gwydion escaped after a stay there, and emerged as the gifted
bard of the gods. His ordeal did not prevent him from making other
raids into the Welsh Underworld.

The beings of the nether land realm had three possessions
that Gwydion felt should be made available to mankind: the dog, the
deer, and the lapwing bird. Gwydion made a boon request for these
creatures, but King Arawn of the Underworld refused, and was held
strong in this position with the help of Brân. Gwydion enlisted
the help of his brother Amaethon, the god of agriculture, and Lleu to
lead a battle march on King Arawn's dominion.

The footsoldiers in this invasion of the Underworld were a
battalion of trees, brought to life by Gwydion's magic. Each of the
types of trees had strengths or weaknesses in this army. For
instance, the oak trees caused the heaven and earth to tremble in
their advance forward; the birch fought courageously; the holly and
hawthorns defended themselves with their spikes; the willows and
rowans arrived as reinforcements; and so on.

This Battle of the Trees saw a formidable opponent guarding
the gates of the Underworld--a terrifying one hundred-headed beast!
But magic carried the day. It was determined that the gods and the
battalion of trees could not win the battle unless they guessed by
name one of the ferocious fighters of the Underworld army. Gwydion
was on the mark--he named Brân. Thus the powers of darkness lost
the battle, and dogs, deer, and the lapwing birds became available to

Another raid of the Underworld by Gwydion made available yet
another precious commodity--pork. Celtic expert Georges Dottin
claims that the ancient Celts had roasted pigs and swine as their
favorite meat. Indeed, the pig and boar are frequent figures in
Celtic metalwork art. It is not surprising that the Celts invented a
myth to account for the beginnings of the cooking of pork among them.

As the story goes, Gwydion heard that a strange new beast had
become popular in Dyfed, a Welsh territory connected with the
Underworld. King Arawn of the nether land had given animals
named "pigs" to Pryderi of Dyfed. The flesh of the pig was considered
to be better and sweeter than the flesh of oxen.

Gwydion wished to obtain some of these pigs and received
consent for a boon journey from god Mâth, himself residing in
Caer Dathyl. Gwydion, in myth "the best teller of tales in the world,"
led a group of eleven other bards to Pryderi's palace in Dyfed.
Magnificent story-telling was given to the court of Pryderi. In return,
Gwydion made a boon request for these wonderful new animals--the pigs.
Pryderi refused though, saying that he had promised King Arawn that he
would neither sell nor give away the pigs.

Through magic and chicanery Gwydion was able to obtain some
of the pigs and made his way back to Caer Dathyl. According to
Charles Squire, even to this day there are many place names in Wales
between Dyfed and Caer Dathyl that contain the word "pig," in
commemoration of this journey.

Pryderi of course was enraged. He pursued Gwydion and two
battles were fought over the pigs. Finally, Gwydion and Pryderi
engaged in single combat. In this Pryderi was slain, and Gwydion and
the forces of light became the ultimate victors.

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