The bull of battle, the son of mist, stargazing prince of the summits

Glastonbury Tor

Gwynn ap Nudd, King of the Otherworld, King of the Underworld, Lord of Annwn, Lord of the Land of the Dead, Leader of the Wild Hunt, Dark Lord of Winter, Lord of Light, Lord of the Living, Keeper of the Doors Between the Worlds, Master of Time, King of the Faery, King of the Tylwyth Teg (the Fair Folk/Faery), Prince of all Mischief, psychopomp, astronomer, knight of the court of King Arthur.
Can Gwynn really have been all of these?

The question is asked by Margaret Beasley, in a paper she recently uploaded to the academia.edu website. The answer is, of course, ‘yes’, and it made me think that it would be worth exploring how Gwyn ap Nudd appeared to the Welsh, and their ancestors the Britons.

The ancient Welsh, and their ancestors, the tribes of the Island of Britain, knew the land, and the world of nature, intimately. To discuss Gwyn, or the other Gods of the Welsh, without properly knowing or understanding the references made to them in the Welsh lore that has come down to us, is to discuss the Gods without proper knowledge.

In this post, I want to use a lot of video, since that conveys a more visceral understanding of what the poems and legends are trying to convey to us.

The Bull of Battle

Our starting point has to be The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd, a poem preserved in The Black Book of Carmarthen. This gives us our visual image of Gwyn.

I have seen people portraying Gwyn with a stag’s antlers, and I want to show why this is a mistake. What does the Dialogue tell us?

BULL of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army,
The ruler of hosts, Indisposed to anger,
Blameless and pure his conduct in protecting life.

Against a hero stout was his advance,
The ruler of hosts, disposer of wrath.

[…]

I come from battle and conflict
With a shield in my hand;
Broken is the helmet by the pushing of spears.

[…]

Before Caer Vandwy a host I saw,
Shields were shattered and ribs broken
Rcnowned and splendid was he who made the assault.

Gwyn ab Nud, the hope of armies,
Sooner would legions fall before the hoofs
Of thy horses, than broken rushes to the ground.

[…]
When the ravens screamed over blood.

[…]
When the ravens of the battle-field screamed.

[…]
When the ravens screamed over blood.

[…]
When the ravens screamed over flesh.

[…]
I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the North;
I am alive, they in their graves!

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the South
I am alive, they in death!

This tells us a lot. First: Gwyn is described as a bull in battle. The Britons, and the Welsh, knew what that meant. Watch (1’56”):

A bull in battle is a mass of power, seeking to sweep away, to gore and trample that which is before it. It seeks to overturn, to toss in the air. Ferocious, it meets its opponent head-on, it will seek to outflank, and it does not stop. To be faced with a bull in battle is to be faced with vast, relentless, physical power that gives no time to think or respond.

The Britons, and the Welsh, also referred to warriors in reference to other animals: the stag, the boar, the bear and the wolf. That they chose the bull for Gwyn, and not the others, has meaning.

Stags, for example, are regal, but compare the two bulls in combat in the last clip to two stags (1’53”):

The two stags lock antlers as the bulls locked horns, but the energy is very different. The stags push, but then stand and rest before engaging again. It’s a much slower, more restrained contest. A stag will charge, and then stop to consider. It will prefer to flee from a threat rather than engage, if it can. This is not Gwyn ap Nudd.

A boar, in contrast, is blind rage in battle. It will charge its opponent, faster than a horse can run; it will seek to disembowel with its razor-sharp tusks. A boar, though, is consumed by its fury: if a hunter spears a boar, the boar will try to push its body up the shaft of the spear to reach, and to kill, the man, so that hunter and hunted are joined in death. This is why boar spears traditionally had a cross-shaft:

Boar_spear_head_of_Frederick_IV_of_the_Tyrol,_c._1430

We can imagine how warriors, heroes of their tribes, could exhibit this kind of ferocity in battle, but this is not Gwyn ap Nudd. Likewise the bear, and the wolf: they have their virtues worthy of warriors, but their characteristics are not those of Gwyn ap Nudd.

We can get a sense of this from contemporary Wales. In the early 1990s, before the professionalization of Rugby Union, the Welsh player Emyr Lewis was popularly nicknamed ‘Tarw’ (“Bull”) for his size, and attacking power. Unfortunately, I can’t find suitable video of him in his prime, but the opening few seconds (16″) of this recent interview will show you that even in his 50s he remains a potent physical presence; in his 20s, as a trained, muscular, athlete, he was even more so. When the Welsh describe someone as a bull, they mean a bull: not a stag, not a wolf, not a boar.

And when the ancient Welsh describe Gwyn as “active in dispersing an arrayed army“, they also knew exactly what they meant. Watch the crowd trying to escape a bull in this clip, and see in your mind’s eye ranks of armed warriors breaking before Gwyn’s assault:

WARNING: SOME MAY FIND THIS DISTURBING

So we get a first view of Gwyn: a bull of a figure – physically massive, focused power, agile, relentless in combat, he can set armed and armoured warriors to panic-stricken flight.

The son of mist

There are two locations particularly associated with Gwyn: Cadair Idris, the mountain in mid-Wales, and Glastonbury Tor, the hill in the former marshlands of Somerset. To understand Gwyn better, it will help to know the places where he can be found.

Firstly, Cadair Idris. I know this mountain well. I have walked up it alone and with friends, in the height of summer, and when the winter snow lay deep on the slopes. I’ve seen it in fair weather and foul and, friends, this is not a mountain to be approached without thorough preparation and respect. Firstly, here’s a sense of the physical character of the mountain.

Now here’s a sense of what it’s like to be on Cadair Idris in fog and rain.

I have walked on Cadair Idris in worse weather than that – though it was far better when I began my ascent – and I barely survived it. I’ll talk about that below..

Let’s move to Glastonbury. Glastonbury Tor rises out of a flat plain that was once marsh: covered in reeds, passable only by manmade trackways. Though in the Roman period, climatic conditions and drainage reduced the extent of the marsh, the Celts of both the pre-Roman Druidic era, and the post-Roman Dark Ages, lived in times when the Tor would seem to rise from water towards the skies.

This will give you a sense of the Somerset levels:

What the two locations have in common is danger – and the danger of mist in particular.

Mist causes even the wary traveller to lose their sense of direction; it prevents them from identifying the safe path. When mist descends, the traveller loses their way, wandering deeper and deeper into danger. Once the understanding sinks in that they are lost, panic can descend. They rush around, trying to retrace their steps… but where are they? Is this the way they came? In the mist, everything looks the same… They begin to curse, they hate themselves, they bitterly regret the choices they made that brought them to this situation, but there is no escape. Fear, madness, and self-hate descend upon them, as they did upon Cyledr son of Nwython when Gwyn forced him to eat Nwython’s heart.

The mist distorts sound. Gwyn’s hounds cry loudest when they are far away; the calls are quieter as they grow near; so too the cries of the hunted. Gwyn now leads the hunt; his hounds gather up the souls of the lost. On Cadair Idris, they unwarily walk off a precipice, to be dashed to pieces on the rocks below. Or, they get wetter, and colder, until life shivers away. Beneath the Tor, they wander from the safe path and fall into deep pools, or get stuck in mud, and if anyone hears their desperate calls for help, they cannot work out where the cries are coming from.

Gwyn brings death to the unprepared, and the careless. A psychopomp he is – for those who did not prepare well for the hazards they engaged with; for those without proper preparation or knowledge.

I know Cadair Idris well, but even I lost my bearings when the mist came down. I followed what I thought was the true path down steep slopes, until the ground dropped away in front of me and I found myself standing at the edge of a high cliff. The stiff, wiry grass was so slippery that I could not walk back the way I came; it was too steep, too lacking in friction. But I survived. I was prepared. I had map and compass, proper clothing, and a flask of hot, sweet coffee. I passed Gwyn’s test, just. He is not to be taken lightly. A stern god, a ferocious god, but fair.

It was the same for the Welsh travellers of the Middle Ages: they understood Gwyn’s nature. To enter his domain, to go into the Greenwood, was perilous in the extreme. They prayed to Creuddylad, his love, to pacify him. One must prepare thoroughly, and show respect, to pass through Gwyn’s realm safely.

Hilltop prince

Cadair Idris, and the Tor on the Levels, have another feature in common. Sometimes they are covered in mist, but at other times the mist settles in the low lands around them, and their summits emerge into clear air above the white cloak that shrouds the mundane world.

To stand on the summit of the Tor, or on the peak of a mountain on the western edge of Wales, is to be immersed in the three Druidic elements: land, sky, and sea. To be in a high place is to be taken out of our ordinary reality. Our daily life is revealed as insignificant; the world of nature and its workings is shown to be vast and sublime. Here, the Otherworld becomes apparent; the Veil between our world and Annwn becomes very thin indeed. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful place; it can be a lethally dangerous place. Here we experience the nature of the Otherworld, and of the Fair Folk who inhabit it. We understand just why Gwyn ap Nudd is the lord of the Tylwyth Teg.

On the summits, Gwyn holds his court. Here, he is surrounded by the best, and most beautiful, of all things. Here we see that Gwyn ap Nudd is not only a warrior and huntsman. He is a lord who values excellence, skill, and talent. The God who demands that travellers in his land show respect and proper preparation is also a God who demands excellence in the arts and the sciences. Those who have studied, and made progress, will be shown favour. Those who have not… will not.

Gwyn ap Nudd is a prince; he demands due respect. Woe to those who do not show it. This is the message of the legend of Collen, summoned to account for his rudeness. As a man of learning, he was nevertheless offered hospitality… but he rejected it, and was expelled from Gwyn’s perilous court.

Astonomer and diviner

Gwyn’s court is on the high peaks and summits. Above him turn the stars and planets in their eternal courses. Who better to have learned, over the ages, the secrets that they hold, and the systems that foretell the future?

The three sublime astronomers of the Isle of Britain – Idris Gawr, Gwydion the son of  Dôn, and Gwyn the son of Nudd. So great was their knowledge of the stars, and of their nature and situation, that they could foretell whatever might be desired to be known, to the day of doom.

Here is the view from Gwyn’s court, filmed in the Brecon Beacons, slightly south-east of Cadair Idris:

 

We see now Gwyn ap Nudd. He upholds boundaries; he crosses the line that separates World from Otherworld. His realm is the high places and the liminal spaces of the Earth. He tests those who enter his domains. The foolish, the unprepared, the arrogant: these he will leave dead, or mad. Those who are prepared, those who have made appropriate effort and shown suitable respect, he will raise to the ranks of the Bards.

There are other elements of the paper which I need to respond to; I’ll do that separately.

 

Image credits:

Somerset by Stewart Black on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Boar spear by Unknown, Southern Germany, c. 1430. – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

 

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