Thoughts on the Battle of the Trees

The Cad Goddeu, in English The Battle of the Trees, is a prophetic poem amongst the works of Taliesin.

Prophecy in poetry is like divination with the I Ching: it does not have one definitive meaning and application. It is a reflection in the great Cauldron of Annwn: its obscure text and poetic imagery hold meaning, but that meaning only emerges when we interpret the poem’s symbolism in the context of our own time and our own situation.

The Cad Goddeu tells us of a war between the Great Families of Welsh myth.

On one side are the Plant Dôn: Dôn’s Children, the amoral social systems, sciences, and technologies which emerged from the void of eternity to make human society and culture possible.

On the other side is an alliance of the Plant Annwn and the Plant Llŷr. The former are our guides on our individual journeys of the soul, from Annwn, through Abred, to Gwynfyd. The latter are our guides to self-mastery in a social context; to the rule of ourselves and the management of others, so that all may live in peace, with honour.

These lines of battle are a warning for our own age. It tells us of the threat we face, and of why Gwyn ap Nudd is at war with human society.

We are told that the war is precipitated when Amaethon, the god of agriculture and food production, steals three animals from Arawn, the King of the Summerland, Lord of Annwn.  These animals are a lapwing, a white roebuck and a whelp.

What is the significance of these animals? Why would they provoke war between the gods?

The whelp, or young dog, is perhaps the easiest to interpret. The Hounds of Annwn are white with red ears. Their voices seem loud when they are far away; as they grow closer to the hearer, their calls seem quieter.  They pursue the souls of the dead. As well as hunting, hounds guard the homes of their owner, giving warning when strangers approach.

The roebuck is a little more obscure, but the meaning becomes clearer with a little digging. That the buck is white is significant: this means that it, too, is a creature of the Otherworld. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, suggests that the stag represents the human soul, citing both the Irish legend of Oisin, and the Welsh tale of Pwyll Pen Annwn in the First Branch of the Mabinogi as examples. Furthermore, roe deer bark like a dog when they spot a threat.

What, though, of the lapwing? The lapwing is not white in nature; nor is the roe deer, and yet we are specifically told that the stag is white. No such statement is made about the lapwing, though; the bird is not an Otherworldy creature. I think the meaning is not hard to find.

The lapwing nests, and lays its eggs, in small scrapes in the ground. When a predator approaches, the lapwing will try to draw it away, by making alarm calls from the opposite direction, attempting to fool the threat into chasing her there. If the egg-thief continues to draw closer to the nest, the lapwing will come closer, fluttering around on the ground and pretending to be injured – easy prey. Hopefully, this will draw the predator away from the nest, and the lapwing can fly away to safety at the last moment.

What the ancient Britons knew, but is less well-known in our more urban times, with wildlife in decline, is that hares also sleep in scrapes in the ground – sometimes even sharing them with the lapwing and her eggs. This is the source of the connection between eggs and hares at Easter; it is a very old connection indeed, and rooted in nature. The hare, of course, is a creature of the Otherworld. It was believed that witches could turn into hares. A threatened hare screams like a woman. Hares are linked with the moon, and can move between the worlds like the Fair Folk. They are symbols of fertility.

Here is the link with the Otherworld. As in the real world, the hare is lying still; hiding, unseen by us, while the lapwing distracts us and draws our attention in the wrong direction. The lapwing is the hare’s guardian.

So why these animals? Why would Amaethon steal them? Why would the Plant Annwn and the Plant Llŷr join together in war to avenge the theft?

It is worth recalling here the roles of the three families:

  • The Plant Annwn represent the generation of the spirit, and the journey of the spirit from unthinking reaction, through the experience of all things, to fully-aware and fully in command of flesh. Each individual must experience this for itself, learning its own lessons, so the Plant Annwn teach us about individual learning, and the individual’s response to experience, which is the foundation of creativity.
  • The Plant Dôn represent the foundations of human society: agriculture, technology, magic, and social organisation. They are the experience and knowledge of tribes and nations, not of individuals. They represent the forces that are greater than individuals, but without which society cannot exist.
  • The Plant Llŷr are the family of rulers and kings. They guide us in finding a harmonious balance between the other families. If the Plant Annwn grow too strong, society crumbles as individualism dominates fellow-feeling.  If the Plant Dôn are too strong, then the institutions of society crush the individual.

Here lies the prophecy of the Cad Goddeu for our time.

Amaethon has stolen the guardians of the soul. The hound, the roebuck, and the lapwing between them give warning of, and protection against, threats. Without them, the spirits on the journey to Gwynfyd are weakened, and unable to detect, and defend themselves, against threats. Amaethon’s theft leaves the Plant Annwn and the Plant Llŷr weakened, and unable to fulfil their proper roles. This is why they unite against the Plant Dôn…

…but they fail. In their mystical battle, Gwydion, the Magician, guesses the true name of Brân, and the alliance is defeated. The Plant Dôn are triumphant.

Look around at our world. Is it not obvious that systems and vast, inhuman, forces control us, and are using us for their own satisfaction, as Gilfaethwy used Goewin? Big Agra despoils the earth for profit. Big Pharma forces us to use more and more medication at an ever-greater price, holding our health to ransom. Big Tech learns everything about us, and sells our data for profit. Big Media accumulates all news and entertainment into an ever-smaller number of hands; it tells us what to think and how to behave, and grows ever less tolerant of alternatives. I could go on, of course, but you can continue the list yourselves.

At the same time, I see more and more Druids refusing to work together, rejecting any organisation or unity. Individualism is praised over cooperation. More broadly, action in society is insufficient; people say they want change, but will not change their way of living – because no-one wants to be the first to give up their individual comforts.

The three families are out of balance. The Plant Annwn and the Plant Llŷr must be restored. Gwyn ap Nudd has been roused; he will restore the balance by destroying us if necessary. Inspiration and guidance are necessary. This is the role and the privilege and the duty of the Druids. What are we doing?

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Battle of the Trees

  1. Interesting interpretation of the Cad Goddeu, I very much enjoyed reading your theory behind the text! I have to look around for more articles where you delve into mythological stories. Any suggestions on who’s soul the white Roebuck represents?

    Also, do you know anything about the character Achren? I’m still becoming aquatinted with Welsh literature (an unending process, lol) and it’s interesting that she’s a female warrior.

    Not that it helps to understand the Cad Goddeu, but I wondered about a connection in the motif of the guessing game with the trick that Cú Chulainn plays on Aífe, so uncharacteristically of him. While both tales involve warrior women, the similarity ends there of course, and wouldn’t suggest any more connection than that. Just a thought I wanted to share, any ideas?

    Druids are growing less likely to cooperate and organize, beings corrupted by the world?

    Thanks for the read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My understanding is that the roebuck is symbolic of the soul in general, rather than that of one particular individual. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Achren, and likewise not much about the Irish corpus of myth! We Druids today are creatures of our time, and we reflect the society we have come from; I’m trying to learn from the lessons of the past, particularly Iolo Morganwg, who genuinely took action to promote peace and justice at a time when that was not the popular thing to do. He paid the price for it, but his example can inspire us today.

      Liked by 1 person

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