John Rhys.

Celtic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) online

. (page 13 of 29)
Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) → online text (page 13 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

it may represent an early lerio-s from lero-s (see p. 549 below), and our
ILyr may possibly be this and not the Irish genitive Lir retained as ILyr.
That, however, seems to me improbable on the whole.

N n 2


the ILyr family in Welsh legend were Goidelic before
they put on a Brythonic garb.

As to the Mabinogion generally, one may say that
they are devoted to the fortunes chiefly of three power-
ful houses or groups, the children of Don, the children
of ILyr, and Pwytt's family. This last is brought into
contact with the ILyr group, which takes practically the
position of superiority. Pwytt's family belonged chiefly
to Dyfed ; but the power and influence of the sons of
ILyr had a far wider range : we find them in Anglesey,
at Harlech, in Gwales or the Isle of Grasholm off
Pembrokeshire, at Aber Henvelen somewhere south of
the Severn Sea, and in Ireland. But the expedition to
Ireland under Bran, usually called Bcndigeituran, ' Bran 1
the Blessed,' proved so disastrous that the ILyr group,
as a whole, disappears, making way for the children of
Don. These last came into collision with Pwytt's son,
Pryderi, in whose country Manawydan, son of ILyr, had
ended his days. Pryderi, in consequence of Gwydion's
deceit (pp. 69, 501, 525), makes war on Math and the
children of Don : he falls in it, and his army gives
hostages to Math. Thus after the disappearance of the
sons of ILyr, the children of Don are found in power in
their stead in North Wales 2 , and that state of things
corresponds closely enough to the relation between the
Tuatha De Danann and the Lir family in Irish legend.
There Lir and his family are reckoned in the number

1 Here it is relevant to direct the reader's attention to Nutt's Legend of
the Holy Grail, p. 28, where, in giving an abstract of the Petit saint Graal, he
speaks of the Bran of that romance, in French Bron, nominative Brons, as
having the keeping of the Grail and dwelling ' in these isles of Ireland.'

1 The Don and ILyr groups are not brought into conflict or even placed in
contact with one another ; and the reason seems to be that the story-teller
wanted to introduce the sons of Beli as supreme in Britain after the death of
Bran. Beli and his sons are also represented in Maxen's Dream as ruling
over Britain when the Roman conqueror arrives. What is to be made of
Beli may be learnt from The Welsh People, pp. 41-3.



of the Tuatha De Danann, but within that community
Lir was so powerful that it was considered but natural
that he should resent a rival candidate being elected
king in preference to him. So the Tuatha De took
pains to conciliate Lir, as did also their king, who gave
his daughter to Lir to wife, and when she died he gave
him another of his daughters l ; and with the treatment
of her stepchildren by that deceased wife's sister begins
one of the three Sorrowful Tales of Erin, known to
English readers as the Fate of the Children of Lir.
But the reader should observe the relative position :
the Tuatha De remain in power, while the children of
Lir belong to the past, which is also the sequence in
the Mabinogion. Possibly this is not to be considered
as having any significance, but it is to be borne in mind
that the Lir-ILyr group is strikingly elemental in its
patronymic Lir, ILyr. The nominative, as already
stated, was ler, ' sea,' and so Cormac renders mac Lir
\yy jilius mart's. How far we may venture to consider
the sea to have been personified in this context, and
how early, it is impossible to say. In any case it is
deserving of notice that one group of Goidels to this
day do not say mac Lir, ' son of Lir/ filium man's, but
always 'son of the lir* : I allude to the Gaels of the
Isle of Man, in whose language Mananndn mac Lir is
always Mannanan mac y Lir, or as they spell it, Lear ;
that is to say ' Mannanan, son of the ler.' Manxmen
have been used to consider Manannan their eponymous
hero, and first king of their island : they call him more
familiarly Mannanan beg mac y Lear, 'Little Mannanan,
son of the ler' This we may, though no Manxman of

1 These things one learns about Lir from the story mentioned in the text
as the ' Fate of the Children of Lir,' as to which it is right, however, to say
that no ancient manuscript version is known : see M. d'Arbois de Jubain-
ville's Essai d'un Catalogue de la Literature clique de Flrlande, p. 8.


the present day attaches any meaning to the word lir
or tear, interpret as ' Little Mannanan, son of the Sea.'
The wanderings at large of the children of Lir before
being eclipsed by the Danann-Don group, remind one
of the story of the labours of Hercules, where it relates
that hero's adventures on his return from robbing Geryon
of his cattle. Pomponius Mela, ii. 5 (p. 50), makes
Hercules on that journey fight in the neighbourhood of
Aries with two sons of Poseidon or Neptune, whom he
calls (in the accusative) Albiona and Bergyon. To us,
with our more adequate knowledge of geography, the
locality and the men cannot appear the most congruous,
but there can hardly be any mistake as to the two
personal names being echoes of those of Albion and
Iverion, Britain and Ireland.

The whole cycle of the Mabinogion must have ap-
peared strange to the story-teller and the poet of
medieval Wales, and far removed from the world in
which they lived. We have possibly a trace of this
feeling in the epithet hen, ' old, ancient/ given to Math
in a poem in the Red Book of Hergest, where we meet
with the line T :

Gan uath hen gan gouannon.

With Math the ancient, with Gofannon.

Similarly in the confused list of heroes which the story-

1 See Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales, ii. 303, also 108-9, where
the fragment of the poem as given in the Book of Taliessin is printed. The
line here quoted has been rendered in vol. i. 286, 'With Matheu and
Govannon,' which places the old pagan Gofannon in rather unexpected
company. A few lines later in the poem mention is made of a Kaer Go-
fannon : where was that ? Skene, in a note on it (ii. 453), says that < In an
Old list of the churches of Linlithgow, printed by Theiner, appears Vicaria
de Gumanyn. The place meant is probably Dalmeny, on the Firth of Forth,
formerly called Dumanyn.' This is interesting only as showing that Gu-
manyn^ probably to be construed Dumanyn, and that Dalmeny represents
Mai lClen ! M DM " Ma>ia in a neighbourhood where one already has Clack
not" es ^ S J O ~ of 1 Man '' and SKabk Manann, ' Mountain of Manau,'

Clackmannan and Slamannan ' in what


teller of the Kulhwch (Mabinogion, p. 108) was able to
put together, we seem to have Gofannon, Math's rela-
tive, referred to under the designation of Gouynyon
Hen, ' Gofynion the Ancient.' To these might be
added others, such as Gwrbothu Hen, mentioned above,
p. 531, and from another source ILeu Hen \ ' ILew the
Ancient.' So strange, probably, and so obscure did some
of the contents of the stories themselves seem to the
story-tellers, that they may be now and then suspected
of having effaced some of the features which it would
have interested us to find preserved. This state of
things brings back to my mind words of Matthew
Arnold's, to which I had the pleasure of listening more
years ago than I care to remember. He was lecturing
at Oxford on Celtic literature, and observing ' how evi-
dently the mediaeval story-teller is pillaging an antiquity
of which he does not fully possess the secret ; he is like
a peasant,' Matthew Arnold went on to say, ' building his
hut on the site of Halicarnassus or Ephesus ; he builds,
but what he builds is full of materials of which he knows
not the history, or knows by a glimmering tradition
merely stones "not of this building," but of an older
architecture, greater, cunninger, more majestical. In
the mediaeval stories of no Latin or Teutonic people
does this strike one as in those of the Welsh.' This
becomes intelligible only on the theory of the stories
having been in Goidelic before they put on a Welsh

When saying that the Mabinogion and some of the

1 This occurred unrecognized and, therefore, unaltered by the scribe
of the Nennian Pedigree no. xvi in the Cymmrodot, ix. 176, as he found it
written in an old spelling, Louhen. map. Guid gen. map. Caratauc. map. Citi-
belin, where Caradog is made father of Gwydion ; for in Gnid-gen we seem
to have the compound name which suggested Gwydion. This agrees with
the fact that the Mabinogi of Math treats Gwydion as the lather of Lew
ILawgyffes ; but the pedigree itself seems to have been strangely put


stories contained in the Kulhwch, such as the Hunting
of Twrch Trwyth, were Goidelic before they became
Brythonic, I wish to be understood to use the word
Goidelic in a qualified sense. For till the Brythons
came, the Goidels were, I take it, the ruling race in
most of the southern half of Britain, with the natives
as their subjects, except in so far as that statement
has to be limited by the fact, that we do not know
how far they and the natives had been amalgamating
together. In any case, the hostile advent of another
race, the Brythons, would probably tend to hasten the
process of amalgamation. That being so, the stories
which I have loosely called Goidelic may have been
largely aboriginal in point of origin, and by that I mean
native, pre-Celtic and non-Aryan. It comes to this,
then : we cannot say for certain whose creation Bran,
for instance, should be considered to have been that
of Goidels or of non-Aryan natives. He sat, as the
Mabinogi of Branwen describes him, on the rock of
Harlech, a figure too colossal for any house to contain
or any ship to carry. This would seem to challenge
comparison with Cernunnos, the squatting god of
ancient Gaul, around whom the other gods appear as
mere striplings, as proved by the monumental repre-
sentations in point. In these 1 he sometimes appears
antlered like a stag; sometimes he is provided either
with three normal heads or with one head furnished
with three faces ; and sometimes he is reduced to a
head provided with no body, which reminds one of
Bran, who, when he had been rid of his body in conse-
quence of a poisoned wound inflicted on him in his
foot in the slaughter of the Meal-bag Pavilion, was
reduced to the Urcfawl Ben, 'Venerable or Dignified

See Bertrand's Religion des Gaulois, pp. 314-9, 343-5, and especially
the plates.



Head/ mentioned in the Mabinogi of Branwen 1 . The
Mabinogi goes on to relate how Bran's companions
began to enjoy, subject to certain conditions, his ' Ven-
erable Head's' society, which involved banquets of
a fabulous duration and of a nature not readily to be
surpassed by those around the Holy Grail. In fact
here we have beyond all doubt one of the heathen
originals of which the Grail is a Christian version.
But the multiplicity of faces or heads of the Gaulish
divinity find their analogues in a direction hitherto
unnoticed as far as I know, namely, among the Letto-
Slavic peoples of the Baltic sea-board. Thus the image
of Svatovit in the island of Riigen is said to have had
four faces 2 ; and the life of Otto of Bamberg relates 3
how that high-handed evangelist proceeded to convert
the ancient Prussians to Christianity. Among other
things we are told how he found at Stettin an idol
called Triglaus, a word referring to the three heads
for which the god was remarkable. The saint took
possession of the image and hewed away the body,
reserving for himself the three heads, which are repre-
sented adhering together, forming one piece. This he
sent as a trophy to Rome, and in Rome it may be still.
Were it perchance to be found, it might be expected to
show a close resemblance to the tricephal of the Gaulish
altar found at Beaune in Burgundy.

Before closing this chapter a word may be permitted
as to the Goidelic element in the history of Wales : it
will come again before the reader in a later chapter,

1 The Oxford Mabinogion, pp. 40-3 ; Guest's Mabinogion, iii. 124-8.

2 See Louis Leger's Cyrille et Mtthode (.Paris, 1868), p. 22.

3 See Pertz, Monumenta Germanics Historica ScHptomm, xii. 794. The
whole passage is worth quoting ; it runs thus : Emt untcm siinnlnrnoi:
triceps, quod in vno corpore tria capita habens Triglaus vocabalut ; ////<></ sofinn
accifiens, ipsa capitella sibi coharentia, corpore coniniin;i/<>. *irni in<tf </"">'
pro tropheo aspoiiavit, et posted Romam pro argnntc>ito convtrsiotlis illornin


but what has already been advanced or implied con-
cerning it may here be recapitulated as follows :

It has been suggested that the hereditary dislike
of the Brython for the Goidel argues their having
formerly lived in close proximity to one another : see
p. 473 above.

The tradition that the cave treasures of the Snow-
don district belong by right to the Goidels, means
that they were formerly supposed to have hidden
them away when hard pressed by the Brythons : see
pp. 471-2 above.

The sundry instances of a pair of names for a
single person or place, one Goidelic (Brythonicized)
still in use, and the other Brythonic (suggested by the
Goidelic one), literary mostly and obsolete, go to prove
that the Goidels were not expelled, but allowed to
remain to adopt Brythonic speech.

Evidence of the indebtedness of story-tellers in
Wales to their brethren of the same profession in Ire-
land is comparatively scarce ; and almost in every
instance of recent research establishing a connexion
between topics or incidents in the Arthurian romances
and the native literature of Ireland, the direct contact
may be assumed to have been with the folklore and
legend of the Goidelic inhabitants of Wales, whether
before or after their change of language.

Probably the folklore and mythology of the Goidels
of Wales and of Ireland were in the mass much the
same, though in some instances they reach us in
different stages of development : thus in such a case
as that of Don and Danu (genitive Dananri) the Welsh
allusions in point refer to Don at a conspicuously
earlier stage of her role than that represented by the
Irish literature touching the Tuatha De Danann \

1 See The Welsh People, pp. 56-7.


The common point of view from which our ances-
tors liked to look at the scenery around them is well
illustrated by the fondness of the Goidel, in Wales and
Ireland alike, for incidents to explain his place-names.
He required the topography indeed he requires it
still, and hence the activity of the local etymologist to
connote story or history : he must have something that
will impart the cold light of physical nature, river and
lake, moor and mountain, a warmer tint, a dash of the
pathetic element, a touch of the human, borrowed from
the light and shade of the world of imagination and
fancy in which he lives and dreams.



For priests, with prayers and other godly gear,
Have made the merry goblins disappear ;
And, where they played their merry pranks before,
Have sprinkled holy water on the floor. DRYDEN.

THE attitude of the Kymry towards folklore and
popular superstitions varies according to their training
and religious views ; and I distinguish two classes of
them in this respect. First of all, there are those who
appear to regret the ebb of the tide of ancient beliefs.
They maintain that people must have been far more
interesting when they believed in the fairies ; and they
rave against Sunday schools and all other schools for
having undermined the ancient superstitions of the
peasantry : it all comes, they say, of over-educating the
working classes. Of course one may occasionally wish
servant maids still believed that they might get pre-
sents from the fairies for being neat and tidy ; and that,
in the contrary case of their being sluts, they would
be pinched black and blue during their sleep by the
little people : there may have been some utility in
beliefs of that kind. But, if one takes an impartial
view of the surroundings in which this kind of mental
condition was possible, no sane man could say that the
superstitious beliefs of our ancestors conduced on the
whole to their happiness. Fancy a state of mind in
which this sort of thing is possible : A member of


the family is absent, let us say, from home in the
evening an hour later than usual, and the whole house-
hold is thrown into a panic because they imagine that
he has strayed on fairy ground, and has been spirited
away to the land of fairy twilight, whence he may
never return ; or at any rate only to visit his home
years, or maybe ages, afterwards, and then only to
fall into a heap of dust just as he has found out that
nobody expects or even knows him. Or take another
instance : A man sets out in the morning on an im-
portant journey, but he happens to sneeze, or he sees an
ill-omened bird, or some other dreaded creature, crossing
his path : he expects nothing that day but misfortune,
and the feeling of alarm possibly makes him turn back
home, allowing the object of his journey to be sacri-
ficed. That was not a satisfactory state of things or
a happy one, and the unhappiness might be wholly pro-
duced by causes over which the patient had absolutely
no control, so long at any rate as the birds of the air
have wings, and so long as sneezing does not belong
to the category of voluntary actions. Then I might
point to the terrors of magic ; but I take it to be un-
necessary to dwell on such things, as most people have
heard about them or read of them in books. On the
whole it is but charitable to suppose that those who
regret the passing away of the ages of belief and
credulity have not seriously attempted to analyse the
notions which they are pleased to cherish.

Now, as to the other class of people, namely, those
who object to folklore in every shape and form, they
may be roughly distinguished into different groups,
such as those to whom folklore is an abomination,
because they hold that it is opposed to the Bible, and
those who regard it as too trivial to demand the atten-
tion of any serious person. I have no occasion for


many words with the former, since nearly everything
that is harmful in popular superstition has ceased in
Wales to be a living force influencing one's conduct ;
or if this be not already the case, it is fast becoming so.
Those therefore who condemn superstitions have really
no reason to set their faces against the student of
folklore : it would be just as if historians were to be
boycotted because they have, in writing history fre-
quently, the more the pity to deal with dark intrigues,
cruel murders, and sanguinary wars. Besides, those
who study folklore do not thereby help to strengthen the
hold of superstition on the people. I have noticed that
any local peculiarity of fashion, the moment it becomes
known to attract the attention of strangers, is, one may
say, doomed : a Celt, like anybody else, does not like
to be photographed in a light which may perchance
show him at a disadvantage. It is much the same,
I think, with him as the subject of the studies of the
folklorist : hence the latter has to proceed with his
work very quietly and very warily. If, then, I pre-
tended to be a folklorist, which I can hardly claim to be,
I should say that I had absolutely no quarrel with
him who condemns superstition on principle. On the
other hand, I should not consider it fair of him to
regard me as opposed to the progress of the race in
happiness and civilization, just because I am curious to
understand its history.

With regard to him, however, who looks at the
collecting and the studying of folklore as trivial work
and a waste of time, I should gather that he regards
it so on account, first perhaps, of his forgetting the
reality their superstitions were to those who believed
in them ; and secondly, on account of his ignorance
of their meaning. As a reality to those who believed
in them, the superstitions of our ancestors form an


integral part of their history. However, I need not
follow that topic further by trying to show how 'the
proper study of mankind is man/ and how it is a mark
of an uncultured people not to know or care to know
about the history of the race. So the ancient Roman
historian, Tacitus, evidently thought; for, when com-
plaining how little was known as to the original peopling
of Britain, he adds the suggestive words lit inter bar-
baros, ' as usual among barbarians.' Conversely, I take
it for granted that no liberally educated man or woman
of the present day requires to be instructed as to the
value of the study of history in all its aspects, or to
be told that folklore cannot be justly called trivial,
seeing that it has to do with the history of the race-
in a wider sense, I may say with the history of the
human mind and the record of its development.

As history has been mentioned, it may be here
pointed out that one of the greatest of the folklorist's
difficulties is that of drawing the line between story
and history. Nor is that the worst of it ; for the ques-
tion as between fact and fiction, hard as it is in itself,
is apt to be further complicated by questions of ethno-
logy. This may be illustrated by reference to a group
of legends which project a vanishing distinction be-
tween the two kindred races of Brythons and Goidels
in Wales ; and into the story of some of them Arthur
is introduced playing a principal role. They seem to
point to a time when the Goidels had as yet wholly
lost neither their own language nor their own institu-
tions in North Wales : for the legends belong chiefly
to Gwyned, and cluster especially around Snowdon,
where the characteristics of the Goidel as the earlier
Celt may well have lingered latest, thanks to the
comparatively inaccessible nature of the country. One
of these legends has already been summarized as repre-


senting Arthur marching up the side of Snowdon
towards Bwlch y Saethau, where he falls and is buried
under a cairn named from him Carried 'Arthur : see p. 473.
We are not told who his enemies were ; but with this
question has usually been associated the late Triad,
iii. 20, which alludes to Arthur meeting in Nanhwynain
with Medrawd or Medrod (Modred) and Idawc Corn
Prydain, and to his being betrayed, for the benefit and
security of the Saxons in the island. An earlier
reference to the same story occurs in the Dream of
Rhonabwy in the Red Book of Hergest 1 , in which
Idawc describes himself as Idawc son of Mynio, and as
nicknamed Idawc Corct Prydain which means ' Idawc
the Churn-staff of Prydain ' in reference presumably
to his activity in creating dissension. He confesses
to having falsified the friendly messages of Arthur to
Medrod, and to succeeding thereby in bringing on
the fatal battle of Camlan, from which Idawc himself
escaped to do penance for seven years on the ILech
Las, l Grey Stone V in Prydain or Pictland.

Another story brings Arthur and the giant Rhita into
collision, the latter of whom has already been mentioned
as having, according to local tradition, his grave on the
top of Snowdon : see pp. 474-9. The story is a very wild
one. Two kings who were brothers, Nyniaw or Nynio
and Peibiaw or Peibio, quarrelled thus : one moonlight
night, as they were together in the open air, Nynio said
to Peibio, ' See, what a fine extensive field I possess.'
' Where is it ? ' asked Peibio. ' There it is,' said Nynio,
'the whole firmament.' 'See,' said Peibio, 'what

1 The Oxford Mabinogion, p. 147 ; Guest's Mabinogion, ii. 398.

' This may have meant the ' Blue Slate or Flagstone ' ; but there is no
telling so long as the place is not identified. It may have been in the
Pictish district of Galloway, or else somewhere beyond the Forth. Query
whether it was the same place as ILech Gelyclon in Prydyn, mentioned in
Bonetfy Saint : see the Myvyrian Archaiology, ii. 49.


innumerable herds of cattle and sheep I have grazing in
thy field.' ' Where are they ? ' asked Nynio. ' There
they are/ said Peibio, ' the whole host of stars that thou
seest, each of golden brightness, with the moon shep-
herding them.' ' They shall not graze in my field/ said
Nynio. ' But they shall/ said Peibio ; and the two
kings got so enraged with one another, that they began

Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) → online text (page 13 of 29)