Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 164

“Mabinogi,” or tale, entitled “Māth Son of Māthonwy.” The name of this character is given as Llew Llaw Gyffes, which the Welsh fabulist interprets as “The Lion of the Sure Hand,” and a tale, which we shall recount later on, is told to account for the name. But when we find that this hero exhibits characteristics which point to his being a solar deity, such as an amazingly rapid growth from childhood into manhood, and when we are told, moreover, by Professor Rhys that Gyffes originally meant, not “steady” or “sure,” but “long,” it becomes evident that we have here a dim and broken reminiscence of the deity whom the Gaels called Lugh [pg 348] of the Long Arm, Lugh Lamh Fada. The misunderstood name survived, and round the misunderstanding legendary matter floating in the popular mind crystallised itself in a new story.

These correspondences might be pursued in much further detail. It is enough here to point to their existence as evidence of the original community of Gaelic and Cymric mythology. We are, in each literature, in the same circle of mythological ideas. In Wales, however, these ideas are harder to discern; the figures and their relationships in the Welsh Olympus are less accurately defined and more fluctuating. It would seem as if a number of different tribes embodied what were fundamentally the same conceptions under different names and wove different legends about them. The bardic literature, as we have it now, bears evidence sometimes of the prominence of one of these tribal cults, sometimes of another. To reduce these varying accounts to unity is altogether impossible. Still, we can do something to afford the reader a clue to the maze.

The Houses of Dōn and of Llyr

Two great divine houses or families are discernible—that of Dōn, a mother-goddess (representing the Gaelic Dana), whose husband is Beli, the Irish Bilé, god of Death, and whose descendants are the Children of Light; and the House of Llyr, the Gaelic Lir, who here represents, not a Danaan deity, but something more like the Irish Fomorians. As in the case of the Irish myth, the [pg 349] two families are allied by intermarriage—Penardun, a daughter of Dōn, is wedded to Llyr. Dōn herself has a brother, Māth, whose name signifies wealth or treasure (cf. Greek Pluton, ploutos), and they descend from a figure indistinctly characterised, called Māthonwy.

The House of Arthur

Into the pantheon of deities represented in the four ancient Mabinogi there came, at a later time, from some other tribal source, another group headed by Arthur, the god Artaius. He takes the place of Gwydion son of Dōn, and the other deities of his circle fall more or less accurately into the places of others of the earlier circle. The accompanying genealogical plans are intended to help the reader to a general view of the relationships and attributes of these personages. It must be borne in mind, however, that these tabular arrangements necessarily involve an appearance of precision and consistency which is not reflected in the fluctuating character of the actual myths taken as a whole. Still, as a sketch-map of a very intricate and obscure region, they may help the reader who enters it for the first time to find his bearings in it, and that is the only purpose they propose to serve.

Gwyn ap Nudd

The deity named Gwyn ap Nudd is said, like Finn in Gaelic legend, to have impressed himself more deeply and lastingly on the Welsh popular imagination than any of the other divinities. A mighty warrior and huntsman, he glories in the crash of breaking spears, and, like Odin, assembles the souls of dead heroes in his shadowy kingdom, for although he belongs [pg 353] to the kindred of the Light-gods, Hades is his special domain. The combat between him and Gwythur ap Greidawl (Victor, son of Scorcher) for Creudylad, daughter of Lludd, which is to be renewed every May-day till time shall end, represents evidently the contest between winter and summer for the flowery and fertile earth. “Later,” writes Mr. Charles Squire, “he came to be considered as King of the Tylwyth Teg, the Welsh fairies, and his name as such has hardly yet died out of his last haunt, the romantic vale of Neath.... He is the Wild Huntsman of Wales and the West of England, and it is his pack which is sometimes heard at chase in waste places by night.” He figures as a god of war and death in a wonderful poem from the “Black Book of Caermarthen,” where he is represented as discoursing with a prince named Gwyddneu Garanhir, who had come to ask his protection. I quote a few stanzas: the poem will be found in full in Mr. Squire's excellent volume:

“I come from battle and conflict
With a shield in my hand;
Broken is my helmet by the thrusting of spears.
“Round-hoofed is my horse, the torment of battle,
Fairy am I called, Gwyn the son of Nudd,
The lover of Crewrdilad, the daughter of Lludd
“I have been in the place where Gwendolen was slain,
The son of Ceidaw, the pillar of song,
Where the ravens screamed over blood.
“I have been in the place where Bran was killed,
The son of Iweridd, of far-extending fame,
Where the ravens of the battlefield screamed.
[pg 354]
“I have been where Llacheu was slain,
The son of Arthur, extolled in songs,
When the ravens screamed over blood.
“I have been where Mewrig was killed,
The son of Carreian, of honourable fame,
When the ravens screamed over flesh.
“I have been where Gwallawg was killed,
The son of Goholeth, the accomplished,
The resister of Lloegyr, the son of Lleynawg.
“I have been where the soldiers of Britain were slain,
From the east to the north:
I am the escort of the grave.
“I have been where the soldiers of Britain were slain,
From the east to the south:
I am alive, they in death.”

Myrddin, or Merlin

A deity named Myrddin holds in Arthur's mythological cycle the place of the Sky- and Sun-god, Nudd. One of the Welsh Triads tells us that Britain, before it was inhabited, was called Clas Myrddin, Myrddin's Enclosure. One is reminded of the Irish fashion of calling any favoured spot a “cattle-fold of the sun”—the name is applied by Deirdre to her beloved Scottish home in Glen Etive. Professor Rhys suggests that Myrddin was the deity specially worshipped at Stonehenge, which, according to British tradition as reported by Geoffrey of Monmouth, was erected by “Merlin,” the enchanter who represents the form into which Myrddin had dwindled under Christian influences. We are told that the abode of Merlin was a house of glass, or a bush of whitethorn laden with bloom, or a sort of smoke or mist in the air, or “a close neither of iron nor steel nor timber nor of stone, but of the air [pg 355] without any other thing, by enchantment so strong that it may never be undone while the world endureth.” Finally he descended upon Bardsey Island, “off the extreme westernmost point of Carnarvonshire ... into it he went with nine attendant bards, taking with him the 'Thirteen Treasures of Britain,' thenceforth lost to men.” Professor Rhys points out that a Greek traveller named Demetrius, who is described as having visited Britain in the first century A.D., mentions an island in the west where “Kronos” was supposed to be imprisoned with his attendant deities, and Briareus keeping watch over him as he slept, “for sleep was the bond forged for him.” Doubtless we have here a version, Hellenised as was the wont of classical writers on barbaric myths, of a British story of the descent of the Sun-god into the western sea, and his imprisonment there by the powers of darkness, with the possessions and magical potencies belonging to Light and Life.

Nynniaw and Peibaw