The Religion of the Ancient Celts

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391 Perhaps these two aspects of her character may point to a divergence between religion and mythology, the cult of a virgin {110} goddess of whom myth told discreditable things. More likely she was an old Earth-goddess, at once a virgin and a fruitful mother, like Artemis, the virgin goddess, yet neither chaste nor fair, or like a Babylonian goddess addressed as at once "mother, wife, and maid." Arianrhod, "beauty famed beyond summer's dawn," is mentioned in a Taliesin poem, and she was later associated with the constellation Corona Borealis.392 Possibly her real name was forgotten, and that of Arianrhod derived from a place-name, "Caer Arianrhod," associated with her. The interpretation which makes her a dawn goddess, mother of light, Lleu, and darkness, Dylan, is far from obvious. Dylan, after his baptism, rushed into the sea, the nature of which became his. No wave ever broke under him; he swam like a fish; and hence was called Dylan Eil Ton or "son of the wave." Govannon, his uncle, slew him, an incident interpreted as the defeat of darkness, which "hies away to lurk in the sea." Dylan, however, has no dark traits and is described as a blonde. The waves lament his death, and, as they dash against the shore, seek to avenge it. His grave is "where the wave makes a sullen sound," but popular belief identifies him with the waves, and their noise as they press into the Conway is his dying groan. Not only is he Eil Ton, "son of the wave," but also Eil Mor, "son of the sea."394 He is thus a local sea-god, and like Manannan identified with the waves, and yet separate from them, since they mourn his death. The Mabinogi gives us the débris of myths explaining how an anthropomorphic sea-god was connected with the goddess Arianrhod and slain by a god Govannon.

Another Mabinogion group is that of Pwyll, prince of Dyved, his wife Rhiannon, and their son Pryderi.395 Pwyll {111} agrees with Arawn, king of Annwfn (Elysium), to reign over his kingdom for a year. At the end of that time he slays Arawn's rival Havgan. Arawn sends him gifts, and Pwyll is now known as Pen or Head of Annwfn, a title showing that he was once a god, belonging to the gods' land, later identified with the Christian Hades. Pwyll now agrees with Rhiannon, who appears mysteriously on a magic hillock, and whom he captures, to rid her of an unwelcome suitor Gwawl. He imprisons him in a magical bag, and Rhiannon weds Pwyll. The story thus resolves itself into the formula of the Fairy Bride, but it paves the way for the vengeance taken on Pryderi and Rhiannon by Gwawl's friend Llwyt. Rhiannon has a son who is stolen as soon as born. She is accused of slaying him and is degraded, but Teyrnon recovers the child from its super-human robber and calls him Gwri. As he grows up, Teyrnon notices his resemblance to Pwyll, and takes him to his court. Rhiannon is reinstated, and because she cries that her anguish (pryderi) is gone, the boy is now called Pryderi. Here, again, we have Märchen incidents, which also appear in the Fionn saga.

Though there is little that is mythological here, it is evident that Pwyll is a god and Rhiannon a goddess, whose early importance, like that of other Celtic goddesses, appears from her name, a corruption of Rigantona, "great queen." Elsewhere we hear of her magic birds whose song charmed Bran's companions for seven years, and of her marriage to Manawyddan—an old myth in which Manawyddan may have been Pryderi's father, while possibly in some other myth Pryderi may have been child of Rigantona and Teyrnon (=Tigernonos, "king"). We may postulate an old Rhiannon saga, fragments of which {112} are to be found in the Mabinogi, and there may have been more than one goddess called Rigantona, later fused into one. But in the tales she is merely a queen of old romance.

Pryderi, as has been seen, was despoiled of his swine by Gwydion. They were the gift of Arawn, but in the Triads they seem to have been brought from Annwfn by Pwyll, while Pryderi acted as swineherd. Both Pwyll and Pryderi are thus connected with those myths which told of the bringing of domestic animals from the gods' land. But since they are certainly gods, associated with the gods' land, this is perhaps the result of misunderstanding. A poem speaks of the magic cauldron of Pen Annwfn, i.e. Pwyll, and this points to a myth explaining his connection with Annwfn in a different way from the account in the Mabinogi. The poem also tells how Gweir was imprisoned in Caer Sidi (=Annwfn) "through the messenger of Pwyll and Pryderi." They are thus lords of Annwfn, whose swine Gweir (Gwydion) tries to steal. Elsewhere Caer Sidi is associated with Manawyddan and Pryderi, perhaps a reference to their connection as father and son.401 Thus Pryderi and Pwyll belong to the bright Elysium, and may once have been gods of fertility associated with the under-earth region, which was by no means a world of darkness. Whatever be the meaning of the death of Pryderi at the hands of Gwydion, it is connected with later references to his grave.402

A fourth group is that of Beli and his sons, referred to in the Mabinogi of Branwen, where one of them, Caswallawn, usurps the throne, and thus makes Manawyddan, like MacGregor, landless. In the Dream of Maxen, the sons of Beli are Lludd, Caswallawn, Nynnyaw, and Llevelys. Geoffrey calls Beli Heli, and speaks of an earlier king Belinus, at enmity with his brother Brennius. But probably Beli or Heli and {113} Belinus are one and the same, and both represent the earlier god Belenos. Caswellawn becomes Cassivellaunus, opponent of Cæsar, but in the Mabinogi he is hostile to the race of Llyr, and this may be connected with whatever underlies Geoffrey's account of the hostility of Belinus and Brennius (=Bran, son of Llyr), perhaps, like the enmity of the race of D[^o]n to Pryderi, a reminiscence of the strife of rival tribes or of Goidel and Brython. As has been seen, the evidence for regarding Beli as D[^o]n's consort or the equivalent of Bile is slender. Nor, if he is Belenos, the equivalent of Apollo, is he in any sense a "dark" god. He is regarded as a victorious champion, preserver of his "honey isle" and of the stability of his kingdom, in a Taliesin poem and in the Triads.

The personality of Casswallawn is lost in that of the historic Cassivellaunus, but in a reference to him in the Triads where, with Caradawc and Gweirydd, he bears the title "war king," we may see a glimpse of his divine character, that of a god of war, invisibly leading on armies to battle, and as such embodied in great chiefs who bore his name. Nynnyaw appears in Geoffrey's pages as Nennius, who dies of wounds inflicted by Cæsar, to the great grief of Cassivellaunus.

The theory that Lludd Llaw Ereint or Lodens Lamargentios represents Nodens (Nuada) L[=a]margentios, the change being the result of alliteration, has been contested,409 while if the Welsh Lludd and Nudd were identical it is strange that they should have become distinct personalities, Gwyn, son of Nudd, being the lover of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, unless in some earlier myth their love was that of brother and sister. Lludd is {114} also confused or is identical with Llyr, just as the Irish Ler is with Alloid. He is probably the son of Beli who, in the tale of Lludd and Llevelys, by the advice of Llevelys rids his country of three plagues.411 These are, first, the Coranians who hear every whisper, and whom he destroys by throwing over them water in which certain insects given him by Levelys have been bruised. The second is a shriek on May-eve which makes land and water barren, and is caused by a dragon which attacks the dragon of the land. These Lludd captures and imprisons at Dinas Emreis, where they afterwards cause trouble to Vortigern at the building of his castle. The third is that of the disappearance of a year's supply of food by a magician, who lulls every one to sleep and who is captured by Lludd. Though the Coranians appear in the Triads as a hostile tribe, they may have been a supernatural folk, since their name is perhaps derived from còr, "dwarf," and they are now regarded as mischievous fairies. They may thus be analogous to the Fomorians, and their story, like that of the dragon and the magician who produce blight and loss of food, may be based on older myth or ritual embodying the belief in powers hostile to fertility, though it is not clear why those powers should be most active on May-day. But this may be a misunderstanding, and the dragons are overcome on May-eve. The references in the tale to Lludd's generosity and liberality in giving food may reflect his function as a god of growth, but, like other euhemerised gods, he is also called a mighty warrior, and is said to have rebuilt the walls of Caer Ludd (London), his name still surviving in "Ludgate Hill," where he was buried.414 This legend doubtless points to some ancient cult of Lludd at this spot.


Nudd already discussed under his title Nodons, is less prominent than his son Gwyn, whose fight with Gwthur we have explained as a mythic explanation of ritual combats for the increase of fertility. He also appears as a hunter and as a great warrior,415 "the hope of armies," and thus he may be a god of fertility who became a god of war and the chase. But legend associated him with Annwfn, and regarded him, like the Tuatha Déa, as a king of fairyland. In the legend of S. Collen, the saint tells two men, whom he overhears speaking of Gwyn and the fairies, that these are demons. "Thou shalt receive a reproof from Gwyn," said one of them, and soon after Collen was summoned to meet the king of Annwfn on Glastonbury Tor. He climbed the hill with a flask of holy water, and saw on its top a splendid castle, with crowds of beautiful and youthful folk, while the air resounded with music. He was brought to Gwyn, who politely offered him food, but "I will not eat of the leaves of the tree," cried the saint; and when he was asked to admire the dresses of the crowd, all he would say was that the red signified burning, the blue coldness. Then he threw the holy water over them, and nothing was left but the bare hillside.417 Though Gwyn's court on Glastonbury is a local Celtic Elysium, which was actually located there, the story marks the hostility of the Church to the cult of Gwyn, perhaps practised on hilltops, and this is further seen in the belief that he hunts souls of the wicked and is connected with Annwfn in its later sense of hell. But a mediant view is found in Kulhwych, where it is said of him that he restrains the demons of hell lest they should destroy the people of this world. In the Triads he is, like other gods, a great magician and astrologer.

Another group, unknown to the Mabinogion, save that {116} Taliesin is one of the bearers of Bran's head, is found in the Book of Taliesin and in the late story of Taliesin. These, like the Arthur cycle, often refer to personages of the Mabinogion; hence we gather that local groups of gods, originally distinct, were later mingled in story, the references in the poems reflecting this mingling. Late as is the Hanes Taliesin or story of Taliesin, and expressed as much of it is in a Märchen formula, it is based on old myths about Cerridwen and Taliesin of which its compiler made use, following an old tradition already stereotyped in one of the poems in the Märchen formula of the Transformation Combat.419 But the mythical fragments are also mingled with traditions regarding the sixth century poet Taliesin. The older saga was perhaps developed in a district south of the Dyfi estuary. In Lake Tegid dwell Tegid Voel, Cerridwen, and their children—the fair maiden Creirwy, Morvran, and the ugly Avagddu. To give Avagddu knowledge, his mother prepares a cauldron of inspiration from which three drops of inspiration will be produced. These fall on the finger of Gwion, whom she set to stir it. He put the finger in his mouth, and thus acquired the inspiration. He fled, and Cerridwen pursued, the rest of the story being accommodated to the Transformation Combat formula. Finally, Cerridwen as a hen swallows Gwion as a grain of wheat, and bears him as a child, whom she throws into the sea. Elphin, who rescues him, calls him Taliesin, and brings him up as a bard.421

The water-world of Tegid is a submarine Elysium with the customary cauldron of inspiration, regeneration, and fertility, like the cauldron associated with a water-world in the Mabinogion. "Shall not my chair be defended from the {117} cauldron of Cerridwen," runs a line in a Taliesin poem, while another speaks of her chair, which was probably in Elysium like that of Taliesin himself in Caer Sidi.422 Further references to her connection with poetry show that she may have been worshipped by bards, her cauldron being the source of their inspiration.423 Her anger at Gwion may point to some form of the Celtic myth of the theft of the elements of culture from the gods' land. But the cauldron was first of all associated with a fertility cult, and Cerridwen must therefore once have been a goddess of fertility, who, like Brigit, was later worshipped by bards. She may also have been a corn-goddess, since she is called a goddess of grain, and tradition associates the pig—a common embodiment of the corn-spirit—with her. If the tradition is correct, this would be an instance, like that of Demeter and the pig, of an animal embodiment of the corn-spirit being connected with a later anthropomorphic corn-goddess.

Taliesin was probably an old god of poetic inspiration confused with the sixth century poet of the same name, perhaps because this boastful poet identified himself or was identified by other bards with the gods. He speaks of his "splendid chair, inspiration of fluent and urgent song" in Caer Sidi or Elysium, and, speaking in the god's name or identifying himself with him, describes his presence with Llew, Bran, Gwydion, and others, as well as his creation and his enchantment before he became immortal.426 He was present with Arthur when a cauldron was stolen from Aunwfn, and basing his verses on the mythic transformations and rebirths of the gods, recounts in highly inflated {118} language his own numerous forms and rebirths.427 His claims resemble those of the Shaman who has the entree of the spirit-world and can transform himself at will. Taliesin's rebirth is connected with his acquiring of inspiration. These incidents appear separately in the story of Fionn, who acquired his inspiration by an accident, and was also said to have been reborn as Mongan. They are myths common to various branches of the Celtic people, and applied in different combinations to outstanding gods or heroes. The Taliesin poems show that there may have been two gods or two mythic aspects of one god, later combined together. He is the son of the goddess and dwells in the divine land, but he is also a culture-hero stealing from the divine land. Perhaps the myths reflect the encroachment of the cult of a god on that of a goddess, his worshippers regarding him as her son, her worshippers reflecting their hostility to the new god in a myth of her enmity to him. Finally, the legend of the rescue of Taliesin the poet from the waves became a myth of the divine outcast child rescued by Elphin, and proving himself a bard when normal infants are merely babbling.

The occasional and obscure references to the other members of this group throw little light on their functions, save that Morvran, "sea-crow," is described in Kulhwych as so ugly and terrible that no one would strike him at the battle of Camlan. He may have been a war-god, like the scald-crow goddesses of Ireland, and he is also spoken of in the Triads as an "obstructor of slaughter" or "support of battle."

Ingenuity and speculation have busied themselves with {119} trying to prove that the personages of the Arthurian cycle are the old gods of the Brythons, and the incidents of the romances fragments of the old mythology. While some of these personages—those already present in genuinely old Welsh tales and poems or in Geoffrey's History—are reminiscent of the old gods, the romantic presentment of them in the cycle itself is so largely imaginative, that nothing certain can be gained from it for the understanding of the old mythology, much less the old religion. Incidents which are the common stock of real life as well as of romance are interpreted mythologically, and it is never quite obvious why the slaying of one hero by another should signify the conquest of a dark divinity by a solar hero, or why the capture of a heroine by one knight when she is beloved of another, should make her a dawn-goddess sharing her favours, now with the sun-god, now with a "dark" divinity. Or, even granting the truth of this method, what light does it throw on Celtic religion?

We may postulate a local Arthur saga fusing an old Brythonic god with the historic sixth century Arthur. From this or from Geoffrey's handling of it sprang the great romantic cycle. In the ninth century Nennius Arthur is the historic war-chief, possibly Count of Britain, but in the reference to his hunting the Porcus Troit (the Twrch Trwyth) the mythic Arthur momentarily appears.430 Geoffrey's Arthur differs from the later Arthur of romance, and he may have partially rationalised the saga, which was either of recent formation or else local and obscure, since there is no reference to Arthur in the Mabinogion—a fact which shows that "in the legends of Gwynedd and Dyfedd he had no place whatever," and also that Arthur the god or mythic hero was also purely local. In Geoffrey Arthur is the fruit {120} of Igerna's amour with Uther, to whom Merlin has given her husband's shape. Arthur conquers many hosts as well as giants, and his court is the resort of all valorous persons. But he is at last wounded by his wife's seducer, and carried to the Isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, and nothing more is ever heard of him.432 Some of these incidents occur also in the stories of Fionn and Mongan, and those of the mysterious begetting of a wonder child and his final disappearance into fairyland are local forms of a tale common to all branches of the Celts.433 This was fitted to the history of the local god or hero Arthur, giving rise to the local saga, to which was afterwards added events from the life of the historic Arthur. This complex saga must then have acquired a wider fame long before the romantic cycle took its place, as is suggested by the purely Welsh tales of Kulhwych and the Dream of Rhonabwy, in the former of which the personages (gods) of the Mabinogion figure in Arthur's train, though he is far from being the Arthur of the romances. Sporadic references to Arthur occur also in Welsh literature, and to the earlier saga belongs the Arthur who spoils Elysium of its cauldron in a Taliesin poem.434 In the Triads there is a mingling of the historic, the saga, and the later romance Arthur, but probably as a result of the growing popularity of the saga Arthur he is added to many Triads as a more remarkable person than the three whom they describe. Arthurian place-names over the Brythonic area are more probably the result of the popularity of the saga than that of the later romantic cycle, a parallel instance being found in the extent of Ossianic place-names over the Goidelic area as a result of the spread of the Fionn saga.

The character of the romance Arthur—the flower of {121} knighthood and a great warrior—and the blending of the historic war-leader Arthur with the mythic Arthur, suggest that the latter was the ideal hero of certain Brythonic groups, as Fionn and Cúchulainn of certain Goidelic groups. He may have been the object of a cult as these heroes perhaps were, or he may have been a god more and more idealised as a hero. If the earlier form of his name was Artor, "a ploughman," but perhaps with a wider significance, and having an equivalent in Artaius, a Gaulish god equated with Mercury,436 he may have been a god of agriculture who became a war-god. But he was also regarded as a culture-hero, stealing a cauldron and also swine from the gods' land, the last incident euhemerised into the tale of an unsuccessful theft from March, son of Meirchion,437 while, like other culture-heroes, he is a bard. To his story was easily fitted that of the wonder-child, who, having finally disappeared into Elysium (later located at Glastonbury), would reappear one day, like Fionn, as the Saviour of his people. The local Arthur finally attained a fame far exceeding that of any Brythonic god or hero.