King Arthur and the Cymry Heroes
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The Celtic Britons called themselves the Cymry, which meant "fellow
countrymen" in their Celtic tongue. Once Roman rule ended in Britain in
about 410 A.D., a power vacuum developed, leading to the onslaught of
Germanic invasions by Angles and Saxons, then the retreat of the Cymry
Celts into the northern and western areas of the isle. The
Celtic-speaking areas thus became Scotland (which was largely a Gaelic
territory), as well as the Brythonic regions consisting of Wales (called
Cymru by the Celtic peoples), Cornwall, and Cumbria (another land of the
Cymry in what is now northwestern England). The Anglo-Saxons called the
Celts a different word--"wealas," which in their language meant
"foreigners." Over time wealas formed into the English words Wales and
The sagas of the struggles between the Celtic Britons and the
Anglo-Saxons is well preserved in Celtic mythology, and legendary figures
arise from the pages. These stories are preserved in the Welsh language, a
Celtic tongue, but are also found in the works of contemporary scholars
writing in Latin: Gildas (died circa 570), Nennius (c. 800), and Geoffrey
of Monmouth (d. 1155).
The heroes of the Cymry Celtic myths do have some elements of reality
under their belts, but the borders between history and legend are often
blurred. The word "euhemerism" refers to situations were the gods or
demigods of mythology were really deified human beings, whose stories
gained a massive status. Also there is the notion that myths can
sometimes be traditional accounts of real people and events, which over
time have gained in immensity. The Briton heroes do have a euhemeristic
side, and looking back, we don't always know which stories represent
literal reality and which don't.
Two Welsh Bards: Taliesin and Aneurin
Bards were Celtic poets and
lyric storytellers. They held high position in Celtic society, and their
words inspired fear and awe. As the Greek writer Diodorus Siculus noted
in the first century B.C.: "Among the Celts are composers of melodies,
called Bards, who sing to instruments like lyres...and in such reverence
are they held, that when two armies, prepared for battle, have cast their
darts and drawn their swords, on the arrival and intervention of the
Bards, the army immediately desists. Thus, even among the rude
barbarians, wrath gives place to wisdom, and Mars to Muses."
According to the Dark Ages scholar Nennius, there were five major Welsh
bards of the sixth century: Taliesin, Aneurin, Blwchfardd, Cian, and
Talhaern Tad. Other sources say that Llywarch the Aged and Myrddin were
also important bards of this period. In the next several centuries
Morfran, Meugan, Arofan, and Afan Ferddig were notable Welsh bards.
Taliesin and Aneurin are of particular interest because major works of
Welsh literature are named after them. They might well be considered
Celtic literary heroes.
Taliesin, as we described earlier, played a key role in the legend of
Ceridwen, but there is more. In the myth, Taliesin becomes the bard for
the court of Elphin, who gives him his name--Taliesin meaning "shining
brow" (for a light shone from his face). When Elphin is captured by King
Maelgwn of Gwynedd, in northern Wales, Taliesin appears at Maelgwn's court
and challenges his bards to a contest. Taliesin is eloquent, and through a
mysterious power, he renders Maelgwn's bards incapable of speech. Then by
the magic of his words, Taliesin frees Elphin from his chains.
This, of course, is a mythical image of Taliesin. In reality, he was
probably born in Powys, central Wales, and was the court bard of King
Urien of Rheged, a region near the present southwestern Scotland and
Cumbria. Perhaps a dozen of authentic poems of Taliesin still exist, all
of them praise poems and elegies. His poems, according to one modern
critic, have ambitious metric patterns, both internal and end rhyme, and
alliteration, though not so obvious in English translations.
Taliesin's poetry is considered more complex than much of the Anglo-Saxon
poetry. Taliesin emphasizes the loss of a way of life with the coming of
the Saxons invaders, and his poems "celebrate the gaiety of court life,
the personal triumph and generosity of a royal patron, and the ties
between poet and patron." In his old age, Taliesin is said to have
returned to Wales to die, and legend has it that he is buried at
Tre-Taliesin, a village named for him.
Aneurin was a north Briton of the sixth century, and an existing poem of
his is considered by many to be the oldest piece of Welsh literature (the
"Y Gododdin"). Aneurin was the court bard of the Manaw Gododdin people,
whose Celtic king was Mynyddawg Mwynfawr. This was a realm near the
southeastern borderlands of what is now Scotland and England. Aneurin is
a Welsh bard in that he wrote in Cymraeg, what became the Welsh language.
The dilemma facing Aneurin's people was the common problem of the day for
most Briton Celts--the Saxons were encroaching on Celtic territories. In
the Y Gododdin, Aneurin writes that the Saxons have taken over the old
Roman town of Catterick (called Cattraeth in the poem), a key spot in
neighboring Northumbria. So sometime around 600 A.D., King Mynyddawg
assembles 300 Celtic warriors, and treats them to a feast at his court in
Edinburgh. This is a preparatory meal before a great battle. The problem
is that the Celtic warriors drink far too much mead and wine, and when
they finally attack the Saxons at Cattraeth, they are not sound at battle
and the Saxons easily defeat them. Only three of the Gododdin Celts
survive: Aeron, Conan, and Aneurin himself.
To get a sense of what the longer poem sounds like, below is a short
excerpt of Y Gododdin, as translated from the sixth century Welsh into
English by Thomas Gray.
--by Aneurin, circa 600
"To Cattraeth's vale, in glittering row,
Thrice one hundred warriors go;
Every warrior's manly neck
Chains of regal honor deck,
Wreathed in many a golden link;
>From the golden cup they drink
Nectar that the bees produce,
Or the grape's exalted juice.
Flushed with mirth and hope they burn,
But none from Cattraeth's vale return,
Save Aeron brave, and Conan strong,
Bursting through the mighty throng,
And I, the meanest of them all,
That live to weep, and sing their fall."
The Celtic Arthur
King Arthur of Camelot is a personage who comes to
our attention in three forms. First is the Arthur of Celtic myth, his
shape that is least known. Here Arthur is described in the Welsh language,
and is sometimes full of rustic flavor, and other times almost deified.
Then there is the Arthur of popular myth, known to about every schoolboy.
This image was created by Norman-English and French writers of medieval
times, and is full of stories of the Table Round, Lancelot, and the Holy
Grail. Finally there is the real Arthur, the historical person. Celtic
expert Simon James describes the historical Arthur in this way:
It is widely accepted that Arthur probably was a real person, but beyond
that there is little agreement about who he was, what he did, or even
where or when he lived. None of the early sources call him king. He is
described as dux bellorum, "leader of battles," perhaps a successful
supra-tribal war-leader in the spirit of Vercingetorix and Caratacus,
leading the combined forces of British kingdoms against the invading
Saxons. Variously seen as a Celtic war-chief, or a Romanized cavalry
commander, Arthur could still also have been a petty king in his own right.
Nennius describes the twelve great battles that Arthur fought against the
Saxons, culminating in the Battle of Mt. Badon, after which Saxon
encroachments into Celtic territories were slowed for a generation. Some
experts suggest that Mt. Badon was near the English city of Bath, and that
the battle took place around the year 516. Although, understandably, the
Anglo-Saxons were not enthused about Arthur, his fame spread in Celtic
areas, including Brittany. These Breton minstrels introduced the stories
of Arthur in Norman courts, who were then responsible for spreading these
stories throughout Europe, and back to England with William of Conqueror
and the Norman invasion in 1066.
In the early 1100s, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his famous history of
Britain, describing King Arthur as victor against the Saxons, the Scots,
the Norsemen, the French, and finally the Romans. Although this was a
lightly-taken fabrication, Geoffrey launched the European literary
movement of viewing Arthur as a sort of medieval superstar, and the
legends grew in grand fashion. King Arthur took his place in the popular
imagination for centuries to come.
All the while this was happening, there were still the old Celtic myths
of Arthur, known to relatively few, but cherished by those wishing to
protect the memory of the original Celtic Arthur. Not that the mythic
events were historically true, for often Arthur conquered realms that did
not exist on the map. In the Welsh story, "The Spoiling of Annwn," Arthur
leads an expedition to the Celtic underworld, and captures the magic
cauldron of inspiration and poetry.
Some experts see this cauldron quest as the Celtic origin of the Holy
Grail story. There are other Celtic origins of the popular Arthurian
legends. For instance the sword Excalibur; this is a reminder of the
Celtic magic swords in the myths of Nuada and Manannán, who also named
their swords. Some experts suggest that Camelot had earlier versions,
Squire thinking its origins were at Cadbury in Somerset, and Sidney Lanier
reporting that it was in Winchester in south England. Many of the
principal names in the popular Arthurian legends began as characters in
the Welsh Arthur stories, such as, Lady Guinevere (originally Gwynhwyvar
in Welsh), Merlin (Myrddin), Mordred (Medrawt), Sir Kay (Kai), Sir
Bedivere (Bedwyr), and Sir Tristrem (Trystan).
One important story of the Celtic Arthur is called "The Dream of
Rhonabwy." Here, a Welsh man-at-arms named Rhonabwy lies down upon a
yellow calf-skin, and sleeps three days and three nights, having a most
wonderful dream. In his dream, Rhonabwy and his companions are traveling
toward the River Severn in Wales, and they meet the Celtic warrior Iddawc
the Agitator. Iddawc gained his name because Arthur had sent him on a
diplomatic mission to Medrawt with many fair sayings. But Iddawc loved
war, and translated these messages into extremely harsh words,
precipitating the Battle of Camlan. However, Iddawc had done seven year's
penance, and having been forgiven, was now traveling to Arthur's camp.
Iddawc insists that Rhonabwy and his companions come with him.
When they arrive, Arthur is conversing with Bedwini the Bishop of
Gwarthegyd. Arthur casts his eye on Rhonabwy and comments on the latter's
small stature. But, Rhonabwy is told to be quiet and watch what is about
to happen. It is an important day, for Arthur and his warriors are
gathering to fight the Battle of Mt. Badon against the Saxons. Rhonabwy
watches in amazement as each of Arthur's champions and warriors rides by
him. The dream, as portrayed by the unknown author of old, seems to be an
effort to catalogue the most important of Arthur's followers.
"Kulhwch and Olwen" and the Treasures of Britain
As in the popular
Arthurian legends, Welsh myths often focus on a secondary character and
then Arthur's eminence emerges from the background. In the case of the
story of "Kulhwch and Olwen," Arthur and his mighty men arise to win the
Kulhwch, according to the myth, was the son of a petty king who married a
widow with a daughter. Kulhwch's stepmother urged him to marry her
daughter, and when he politely refused, the stepmother "laid a destiny"
on him that he would marry a different maiden, the fair Olwen, or nobody
Olwen was the most beautiful young woman of the realm, but her father was
the wicked Hawthorn, the Chief of the Giants. Hawthorn was monstrous in
size and shape, and he had enormous eyebrows, which were so heavy over his
eyes, in order to see he needed forks to lift the eyebrows up. Hawthorn
would allow no man to marry Olwen, because he had a premonition that he
would die upon her marriage.
When Kulhwch asked for Olwen's hand, Hawthorn commanded a bride's price
so high that the giant just knew that Kulhwch could never secure the
demand. Hawthorn required that the man to marry Olwen provide him with
the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. These treasures were the cornucopia of
Gwysddneu, the magic chalice of Llwyr, the cauldron of Diwrnach the Gael,
the sword of Gwrnach the Giant, the drinking horn of Gwlgawd Gododin, the
harp of Teirtu, the tusk of White-tooth the Boar, the blood of the Black
Sorceress, the preservative bottles of Gyddolwyn Gorr, and the milk
bottles of Rhinnon Rhin Barnawd. The final three treasures would be the
hardest to obtain: a comb, razor, and scissors which lay between the ears
of Twrch Trwyth, a king who had been transformed by magic into the most
fierce of wild boars.
With this, Kulhwch was in dismay and had no idea what to do, for these
Treasures of Britain were virtually unobtainable. Kulhwch's father then
recommended that he seek the assistance of Arthur, for they were blood
relatives. So Kulhwch traveled to the court of Arthur, who agreed to help
in the quest for securing the Treasures of Britain. Arthur would be
accompanied by his most able warriors--Kai, Bedwyr, Kynddelig, Gwrhyr,
Gwalchmei, and Menw. And in this story, Arthur is assisted by warriors who
were once viewed as Welsh gods--Mabon and Manawyddan.
As the story progresses, Arthur and his mighty men do great deeds to
acquire each of the first ten of the treasures. What lay ahead would be
the most difficult task of obtaining the comb, razor, and scissors from
the boar Twrch Trwyth. The boar was now with seven young pigs in Ireland.
Arthur and his men go there and fight Twrch Trwyth for nine days and
nights, but not even one of the little pigs succumbs.
Twrch Trwyth then proclaims that he and his pigs will lay waste to
Arthur's country, and the eight pigs cross the sea to Wales. Arthur
follows on his ship "Prydwen," and chases the boar and pigs throughout
South Wales. One by one each of the little pigs are felled, and Arthur
loses many of his company as well. Finally, Twrch Trwyth is alone at the
estuary of the River Severn. He is in a awkward position and Arthur's men
are able to get the scissors and razor, but not the comb. The boar then
escapes and travels to Cornwall. There Arthur is met with many troubles,
but is eventually able to defeat Twrch Trwyth and obtain the comb.
Arthur now has all thirteen of the Treasures of Britain, and Kulhwch
presents them to Hawthorn the Giant. Olwen would now be the bride of
Kulhwch, and in his last words, Hawthorn says to the groom: "My daughter
is yours, but you need not thank me for it, but Arthur, who has
The Red Dragon
We might wish to close this discussion of Welsh
mythology with the legend of the Red Dragon. According to the myth, the
White Dragon of the Saxons was attacking the land of the Celtic Britons.
To meet the monster in battle was the Red Dragon of the Britain, a Celtic
symbol. The two dragons fought in fierce fashion in the sky with mighty
shrieks. But the mythic Lludd was able to capture the dragons, and he
buried them in the Snowdon district of Wales. Five hundred years later,
Merlin dug up the dragons, the fighting renewed, and the Red Dragon forced
the White Dragon of the Saxons out of Britain. This myth might have been a
form of wishful thinking among the Welsh in the early Dark Ages, as Saxons
gained more and more of their territory.
The current Welsh flag and coat of arms feature prominently a red dragon
against a background of white and green. In 1999, the Welsh gained a
significant boost in their national identity as a Welsh parliament met for
the first time in centuries. Although the Red Dragon will not likely drive
the White Dragon out, one can easily bet that the Red Dragon of Britain is
here to stay.
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