Gwyn ap Nudd and the Forest



In my post about Gwyn ap Nudd and the Burning Tree, I explained why the members of Gwyn’s court wear clothes of red and forest-green.

The red represents the people of light; the fire people – the Tylwyth Teg, and the realm of Annwn.

The green represents the forest, which is also his realm.

The forest is the home of the tree people: who we now know to be intelligent, bonded in communities, helping one another, actively trying to respond to threats.

The forests, in Druidic times, were also a complex, Serengeti-like, ecosystem; supporting, and shaped by, many species of animals – and, of course, human communities.

It would be easy for us to reduce this to a Disney-like utopia, a Garden of Eden. Of course, that wouldn’t be accurate. For people before the industrial revolution, the forest was a source of sustenance, or a place of refuge, but it was also a deeply scary place.

Humans could travel through the forest; they could go into it for its resources, either hunting animals, or to gather wood for fuel or tool-making, but these activities were risky.

The animals maintained the health of the forest in many ways, and they also looked out for their own interests. The hunter might find himself being targeted by a wild bull, or a stag, or a stallion, protecting the herd, and any of these are capable of taking a rider off his horse – or, indeed, of taking down the horse. The traveller might get between a wild boar sow and her piglets, and be attacked – and in that case, being mounted would be no defence, because boar run faster than horses; their tusks are designed to disembowel, and their bite is poisonous. The wood-gatherer might encounter hungry bear, or wolves. There were many inhabitants of the forest that were quite capable of killing humans.

There’s also the trees, and the landscape itself, to be considered, because one thing forests do very well is create mist. Gwyn ap Nudd’s name can be read as “Whiteness, the son of mist”, and this is an important element of his role.

Along with Glastonbury Tor in Somerset (Gwlad yr Haf, “The Summer Country” in Welsh), Gwyn ap Nudd is closely associated with Cadair Idris, the great mountain in Meirionydd. As it happens, I know Cadair Idris very well: I used to live in nearby Aberystwyth, and I have walked up Cadair Idris alone on many occasions: in summer sunshine, in the pounding Welsh rain, and in deep snow.

On one memorable occasion, I reached the summit on a fine spring morning. While I ate my sandwiches, though, a dense mist cloaked the mountain, reducing visibility to a few feet. I was well-prepared: I had warm, waterproof clothes; a walking stick, map and compass, and as I’ve said, I knew the mountain well. I began my descent, knowing that there was a sheer drop to the left of the path.

As I continued, though, something was wrong: the path seemed steeper than it should, and narrower. Suddenly, I had to stop: the path led straight into a gully and then to a precipice. I had somehow been led from the path, and had been following a sheep track. I turned to retrace my steps, but the path which had seemed so clear was now only a faint line amongst the tough, springy grass – grass so slick and slippery with the mist that even with the help of my stick, I didn’t have the strength to go back up the hillside. I tried; I tried very hard – but I just got weaker and more tired. Worse, the fine mist was gradually soaking through my rain-clothes, and I was starting to get cold in the wind.

So, I took stock. On the map, I identified the last point where I knew for sure that I had been on the right path. From there, I was able to identify the point where I had gone wrong, and from that, where I was. After that, I was able to plot a new path, and made it to a road. It was a long walk back to where I’d left my car, but it was safe enough.

The point is: even with all the right protective gear, with an accurate map and a compass, on clear, mostly well-drained ground… a mist led me to the edge of a precipice, and I suddenly found myself cold, wet, and tired. Imagine now, the ancient Briton or mediaeval Welsh traveller – lost, tired, wet and cold – in a landscape of trees, long grass, marsh, and scrub; a landscape full of predators and extremely lethal wildlife that could appear at any moment.

And this is also Gwyn ap Nudd.

As Brynley F. Roberts notes in Mediaeval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends,Tales, Beliefs, and Customs:

late-mediaeval poets and later folklore stress the fairy aspects of Gwynn’s legendry, focusing on the stories of his leading unwary travelers into his marshes and pools, and causing them to lose their way on the misty hills

That, of course, was after Christianity had been adopted, so Gwyn’s role as a deity had been suppressed (though not forgotten, I suspect). Even so, travellers would invoke Gwyn’s love for his Queen, and ask for his forbearance while they traversed his domain.

As Roberts also notes:

Culhwch and Olwen likewise assigns a special place to Gwynn as a huntsman, and there are other references to his horsemanship and hunting skills. He later appears in Welsh folklore as the leader of cwn Annwn (hounds of Annwfn), the devil’s pack hunting the souls of doomed mortals.

I didn’t hear them, but the Cŵn Annwn were on my trail that day on Cadair Idris. On that occasion, I escaped them – because I was well prepared, and because I kept my head, and because I respected the mountain.

And this is something important for the image of Gwyn that is taking shape in this exploration. Gwyn is a door-keeper. He enforces boundaries, and makes demands of those who wish to cross them; those who do cross, put themselves in peril,

We have already seen that Gwyn protects the human race from the Tylwyth Teg. Compared to them, we are as Neanderthals compared to modern humans. The Neanderthals had communities; they had culture. They had rites for their dead. They used tools. Perhaps they had art, and music, and religion; we don’t know. We don’t know, because they are all dead now; out-competed by a similar race – a race similar enough for interbreeding to occur – but one with superior intelligence and capabilities. Just so are the Tylwyth Teg: close enough to interbreed, but superior in very many ways. They would do to us what we did to the Neanderthals – if Gwyn ap Nudd did not hold them back.

Even so, the human who wishes to interact with the Tylwyth Teg needs to be very cautious indeed, and to prepare very carefully…

In exactly the same way, I suggest that Gwyn also guards the boundary between the forest and the world of humans; he protects the trees from us as he protects us from the Fair Folk.  If you enter the woods carelessly… Gwyn’s mist will appear, and Gwyn will kill you. In recent centuries, of course, the balance has been undone; I believe that this was foreseen, and warned about, in Câd Goddeu, the Battle of the Trees, but I have a lot of material that needs to be covered before we get to that discussion.

In later times, Gwyn was spoken of still as a huntsman, chasing down the souls of the dead. For all that has been written about him as a psychopomp, guiding souls to the afterlife, this seems to be to be a distorted, Christianised view of his role. For most of human history, to be out in the forest at night was to leave the human realm and enter that of the trees. You didn’t belong there.

Of course, in the mist, or in the night-time forest, the prime human faculty of sight becomes useless. We are forced to use other senses, including those we usually deny, and have little vocabulary for. We start to sense the Wood Wide Web; we sense the trees identifying us, discussing us, wondering if we’re a threat… and we hear the hounds of the trees’ guardian: Gwyn ap Nudd. The hounds are on our trail. They will discover whether we prepared; whether we are bold; whether we respect the forest… and if not… they will take us to Annwn… to be reborn…

Thus, Gwyn is lord of the forest. His domain is rich, and alive, and aware. Humans may use its resources, and travel through it, but they must treat it with respect. If not, Gwyn’s cloak of mist will fall…

Once again, and now with more context, watch the mist over Cadair Idris:

 Image credits: Meute by Philippe Rouzet on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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