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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 47

This group of divinities is met with mainly in the Mabinogi of Math, which turns upon Gilvæthwy's illicit love of Math's "foot-holder" Goewin. To assist him in his amour, Gwydion, by a magical trick, procures for Math from the court of Pryderi certain swine sent him by Arawn, king of Annwfn. In the battle which follows when the trick is discovered, Gwydion slays Pryderi by enchantment. Math now discovers that Gilvæthwy has seduced Goewin, and transforms him and Gwydion successively into deer, swine, and wolves. Restored to human form, Gwydion proposes that Arianrhod should be Math's foot-holder, but Math by a magic test discovers that she is not a virgin. She bears two sons, Dylan, fostered by Math, and another whom Gwydion nurtures and for whom he afterwards by a trick obtains a name from Arianrhod, who had sworn never to name him. The name is Llew Llaw Gyffes, "Lion of the Sure Hand." By magic, Math and Gwydion form a wife for Llew out of flowers. She is called Blodeuwedd, and later, at the instigation of a lover, Gronw, she discovers how Llew can be killed. Gronw attacks and wounds him, and he flies off as an eagle. Gwydion seeks for Llew, discovers him, and retransforms him to human shape. Then he changes Blodeuwedd into an owl, and slays Gronw.366 Several independent tales have gone to the formation of this Mabinogi, but we are concerned here merely with the light it may throw on the divine characters who figure in it.

Math or Math Hen, "the Ancient," is probably an old {105} divinity of Gwyned, of which he is called lord. He is a king and a magician, pre-eminent in wizardry, which he teaches to Gwydion, and in a Triad he is called one of the great men of magic and metamorphosis of Britain.368 More important are his traits of goodness to the suffering, and justice with no trace of vengeance to the wrong-doer. Whether these are derived from his character as a god or from the Celtic kingly ideal, it is impossible to say, though the former is by no means unlikely. Possibly his supreme magical powers make him the equivalent of the Irish "god of Druidism," but this is uncertain, since all gods were more or less dowered with these.

Gwydion's magical powers are abundantly illustrated in the tale. At Pryderi's court he changes fungus into horses and dogs, and afterwards slays Pryderi by power of enchantments; he produces a fleet by magic before Arianrhod's castle; with Math's help he forms Blodeuwedd out of flowers; he gives Llew his natural shape when he finds him as a wasted eagle on a tree, his flesh and the worms breeding in it dropping from him; he transforms the faithless Blodeuwedd into an owl. Some of these and other deeds are referred to in the Taliesin poems, while Taliesin describes himself as enchanted by Gwydion. In the Triads he is one of the three great astrologers of Prydein, and this emphasis laid on his powers of divination is significant when it is considered that his name may be derived from a root vet, giving words meaning "saying" or "poetry," while cognate words are Irish fáith, "a prophet" or "poet," German wuth, "rage," and the name of Odinn.370 The name is suggestive of the ecstasy of inspiration producing prophetic and poetic utterance. In the Mabinogion he is a mighty bard, and in a poem, he, under the name of {106} Gweir, is imprisoned in the Other-world, and there becomes a bard, thus receiving inspiration from the gods' land.371 He is the ideal fáith—diviner, prophet, and poet, and thus the god of those professing these arts. Strabo describes how the Celtic vates (fáith) was also a philosopher, and this character is given in a poem to Seon (probably = Gwydion), whose artists are poets and magicians. But he is also a culture-god, bringing swine to men from the gods' land. For though Pryderi is described as a mortal who has himself received the swine from Annwfn (Elysium), there is no doubt that he himself was a lord of Annwfn, and it was probably on account of Gwydion's theft from Annwfn that he, as Gweir, was imprisoned there "through the messenger of Pwyll and Pryderi." A raid is here made directly on the god's land for the benefit of men, and it is unsuccessful, but in the Mabinogi a different version of the raid is told. Perhaps Gwydion also brought kine from Annwfn, since he is called one of the three herds of Britain,374 while he himself may once have been an animal god, then an anthropomorphic deity associated with animals. Thus in the Mabinogi, when Gwydion flees with the swine, he rests each night at a place one of the syllables of which is Moch, "swine"—an ætiological myth explaining why places which were once sites of the cult of a swine-god, afterwards worshipped as Gwydion, were so called.

Gwydion has also a tricky, fraudulent character in the Mabinogi, and although "in his life there was counsel," yet he had a "vicious muse." It is also implied that he is lover of his sister Arianrhod and father of Dylan and Llew—the mythic reflections of a time when such unions, perhaps only in royal houses, were permissible. Instances occur in Irish tales, {107} and Arthur was also his sister's lover.376 In later belief Gwydion was associated with the stars; and the Milky Way was called Caer Gwydion. Across it he had chased the faithless Blodeuwedd.377 Professor Rh[^y]s equates him with Odinn, and regards both as representing an older Celto-Teutonic hero, though many of the alleged similarities in their respective mythologies are not too obvious.378


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