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As the seas rise, look to your bards – and Gwyddno Garanhir

I’ve been thinking about climate change: there have been several articles recently about the areas of Wales that will be lost to rising seas over coming decades. This is going to cause major social and economic upheaval. It’s going to demand that our society direct huge amounts of resources to defending ourselves from the sea – which means that those resources won’t be available for other social programmes that many people depend on. Large numbers of people may be forced to leave their homes and communities for ever. This is inevitably going to be traumatic. This is where we will need our bards. In Wales, the figure of Gwyddno Garanhir tells us that this has happened before, and we survived. If we did it before, we can do it again. Gwyddno connects the tales of Taliesin and of Gwyn ap Nudd: the tales of poetic inspiration, and of deadly challenges.

As the academic Harry Triandis noted, “Culture is to society what memory is to the person“*. I’ve written previously that I believe the Welsh myths (and tales derived from them such as those of Geoffrey of Monmouth) contained genuine and authentic folk memories of events dating back thousands of years. To my great satisfaction, I’ve recently learned that there is serious academic support for this idea: Patrick Nunn, who has researched folk tales of sea level rise in Australia and Celtic north-west Europe concludes that they preserve memories of events that happened up to ten thousand years ago**. (I read the journal paper cited below, but he’s expanded his ideas into a book, The Edge of Memory, which I hope to read soon; details and excerpts here. The significance of these two population groups is that they are extremely rare in having maintained cultural continuity in the same lands over thousands of years).

Ten thousand years! Here in the British Isles, sea levels in the past were very different; when we consider the historical and mythical past, we need to consider how different the environment was. It seems that the lands that formed Cantre’r Gwaelod – the drowned areas of Cardigan Bay – may have been lost several thousand years ago, but areas near Cornwall associated with Lyonesse were not submerged until the post-Roman period. Off Brittany, there are legends of another low-lying city, Kêr Ys, similarly lost to the seas. All of these, according to the emerging research, are probably memories of places that really existed. (As an aside, when the bluestones of Stonehenge were originally raised in Pwyll’s kingdom, in the Preseli hills… I wonder what the area of that kingdom was? How much of its territory has since been lost to the waves? When those stones were subsequently moved to Stonehenge, what was the sea level in what is now the Bristol Channel? How much more dry land was there?)

This brings me to the figure of Gwyddno Garanhir. His kingdom, around the Dyfi estuary in mid-Wales suffered numerous calamities. He lost his low-lying territories (Cantre’r Gwaelod) when the keeper of the sea-gates, which would have kept out the in-rushing tide, got drunk, leaving them open for the waves to storm through. In his upland territories, he suffered the loss of his horses when the poisonous residue of Ceridwen’s potion flowed downstream from her shattered cauldron. His son, Elffin, suffered misfortune in everything he did. Significantly, it is Gwyddno who is featured in conversation with Gwyn ap Nudd, the god who challenges and tests us, and whom I believe is bringing Tower Time and the downfall of our society – to which the rise in sea levels will be a major contributing factor. The pattern repeats itself.

For us Welsh, the tale of Gwyddno gives us a lot of cultural and emotional support as we face the coming storm. As I wrote a while ago in Monsters, it gives us a way to understand that wisdom is the outcome of our errors; a person who has not made mistakes has little to reflect on. Unfortunately, it often means others were hurt – this is part of what it means to be in abred. The relationship of Elffin and Taliesin – Taliesin, who was the beneficiary of the poisoning of the river – allows us to contemplate that bardism, and poetry, and myth, are a potent cultural resource. Together, they remind us that we can develop new stories, new maps of meaning, which allow us to make sense of our new environment, and to make these an extension of the stories of the past. They allow us to bind our past, our present, and our future as a part of Arianrhod’s cycle – and so to make sense of what is happening to us. Gwyddno’s relationship with Gwyn ap Nudd reminds us that challenges can be merciless, and that only those who are well-prepared pass safely through the mists of fear. Myths, and shared culture, and stories of our past, give us the strength to face the fear, and to find our way through darkness. We can endure the loss; we can have hope that the mist will rise, and that we will emerge on the other side of the wildwood – because our myths tell us of how our ancestors did the same.

Myth and history are, after all, different things with different purposes and, of the two, myth is more powerful. History gives us a partial understanding of what the people of the past experienced; myth tells us how they understood and processed those experiences as part of their emotional and cultural landscape. A myth survives as it adapts to the present, presenting the experiences of our ancestors in a way that helps us make sense of today; if it does not adapt, it dies, becoming a lifeless thing of interest only to academics. This is why myths don’t need to be historically accurate: it’s the lessons they contain which are important, not the ‘facts’.

The advantage we have in Wales is that those of our myths that have survived have remained vital and relevant to a living community, with great depths of meaning to be explored. For readers who are not Welsh – who are your bards? Which are the myths and legends that will sustain your community? Think hard about this – it may well be that you will soon need them.

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*Triandis, H. (1989) The Self and Social Behavior in Differing Cultural Contexts, Psychological Review 96 (3), 506-520.

** Nunn, P.D. (2020) In Anticipation of Extirpation: How Ancient Peoples Rationalized and Responded to Postglacial Sea Level Rise, Environmental Humanities 12 (1), 113-131.

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