John Rhys.

Celtic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) online

. (page 18 of 29)
Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) → online text (page 18 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

When the Mabinogion were edited in their present
form in a later atmosphere, this sort of phraseology
was not natural to the editor, and he shows it when he
comes to relate how Gwydion punished Blodeuwed, as
follows : Gwydion, having overtaken her in her flight,
is made to say, ' I shall not kill thee (Ny ladaf i di] :
I shall do what is worse for thee, and that is to let thee
go in the form of a bird.' He let her go in fact in the
form of an owl. According to the analogy of the other
part of the story this meant his having killed her : it
was her death, and the words ' I shall not kill thee ' are
presumably not to be regarded as belonging to the
original story. To come back to the eagle, later Welsh
literature, re-echoing probably an ancient notion, speaks
of a nephew of Arthur, called Eliwlod, appearing to
Arthur as an eagle seated likewise among the branches
of an oak. He claims acquaintance and kinship with
Arthur, but he has to explain to him that he has died :
they have a dialogue 1 in the course of which the eagle
gives Arthur some serious Christian advice. But we

1 One version of it is given in the Myvyrian Archaiology, i. 176-8 ; and
two other versions are to be found in the Cymmrodor, viii. 177-89, where it
is suggested that the author was lolo Goch, who flourished in the fourteenth
pentury. See also my Arthurian Legend, pp. 57-8.


have in this sort of idea doubtless the kind of origin to
which one might expect to trace the prophesying eagle,
such as Geoffrey mentions more than once : see his
Historia, ii. 9 and xii. i8 l . Add to these instances of
transformation the belief prevalent in Cornwall almost
to our own day, that Arthur himself, instead of dying,
was merely changed by magic into a raven, a form in
which he still goes about ; so that a Cornishman will
not wittingly fire at a raven 2 . This sort of transforma-
tion is not to be severed from instances supplied by
Irish literature, such as the story of Tuan mac Cairill,
related in the Book of the Dun Cow, fo. I5 a -i6 h . Tuan
relates to St. Finnen of Magbile, in the sixth century,
the early history of Ireland from the time of Partholan
down, which he was enabled to do because he had lived
through it all, passing from one form to another without
losing his memory. First of all he was a man, and
when old age had come upon him he was transformed
into a stag of the forest. For a while he was youthful
and vigorous ; but again old age overtook him, and he
next became a wild boar. When old age and decrepi-
tude overcame him next he was renewed in the form of
a powerful bird, called in the original seig. The next
renewal was in the form of a salmon : here the manu-
script fails us. The form of a salmon was also the one
taken by the woman Liban when she was overwhelmed
by the flood, which became the body of water known as
Lough Neagh : her handmaid at the same time became
an otter (fo. 4O b ). There was an ancient belief that the soul
leaves the body like a bird flying out of the mouth of the
man or woman dying, and this maybe said to approach the

1 See also the notes on these passages, given in San-Marte's edition H
Geoffrey, pp. 219, 463-5, and his Bcitnigc snr bictonisclifii tout
germanischen HMensage (Quedlinburg and Leipsic, 1847), p. 81.

2 See Choice Notes, pp. 69-70.

R r 2


favourite Celtic notion illustrated by the transformations
here instanced, to which may be added the case of the
Children of Lir, pp. 93, 549, changed by the stroke of their
wicked stepmother's wand into swans, on Lough Erne.
The story has, in the course of ages, modified itself into
a belief that the swans haunting that beautiful water
at all seasons of the year, are the souls of holy women
who fell victims to the repeated visitations of the pagan
Norsemen, when Ireland was at their cruel mercy l .
The Christian form which the Irish peasant has given
the legend does not touch its relevancy here. Perhaps
one might venture to generalize, that in these islands
great men and women were believed to continue their
existence in the form of eagles, hawks or ravens, swans
or owls. But what became of the souls of the obscurer
majority of the people ? For an answer to this perhaps
we can only fall back on the Psyche butterfly, which
may here be illustrated by the fact that Cornish tradition
applies the term ' pisky ' both to the fairies and to moths,
believed in Cornwall by many to be departed souls a . So
in Ireland : a certain reverend gentleman named Joseph
Ferguson, writing in 1810 a statistical account of the
parish of Ballymoyer, in the county of Armagh, states
that one day a girl chasing a butterfly was chid by
her companions, who said to her : ' That may be the
soul of your grandmother 3 .' This idea, to survive, has
modified itself into a belief less objectionably pagan, that
a butterfly hovering near a corpse is a sign of its ever-
lasting happiness.

The shape-shifting is sometimes complicated by
taking place on the lines of rebirth : as cases in point

1 See Wood-Martin's Pagan Ireland (London, 1895), p. 140.

1 See Choice Notes, p. 61, where it is also stated that the country people
in Yorkshire used to give the name of souls to certain night-flying white
moths. See also the Athenaeum, No. 1041, Oct. 9, 1847.

3 For this also I am indebted to Wood-Martin's book, p. 140.


may be mentioned Lug, reborn as Cuchulainn ', and |
repeated births of Etain. This was rendered possible
in the case of Cuchulainn, for instance, by Lug taking
the form of an insect which was unwittingly swallowed
by Dechtere, who thereby became Cuchulainn's moth
and so in the case of Etain 2 and her last recorded
mother, the queen of Etar king of Eochraidhe. On
Welsh ground we have a combination of transformation -
and rebirth in the history of Gwion Bach in the story
of Taliessin. Gwion was in the service of the witch
Ceridwen ; but having learned too much of her arts, he
became the object of her lasting hatred; and the inci-
dent is translated as follows in Lady Charlotte Gut
Mabinogion, iii. 358-9: 'And she went forth after
him, running. And he saw her, and changed himself
into a hare and fled. But she changed herself into a
greyhound and turned him. And he ran toward-
river, and became a fish. And she in the form of an
otter-bitch chased him under the water, until he \
fain to turn himself into a bird of the air. Then she,
a hawk, followed him and gave him no rest in the sky.
And just as she was about to swoop upon him, and
he was in fear of death, he espied a heap of winnowed
wheat on the floor of a barn, and he dropped amongst
the wheat, and turned himself into one of the grains.
Then she transformed herself into a high-crested black
hen, and went to the wheat and scratched it with her
feet, and found him out and swallowed him. And.
the story says, she bore him nine months, and when she
was delivered of him, she could not find it in her In-art

1 See the Book of the Dun Cozv, fo. 128, and \Vimli>i-li's A
pp. 136-45. An abstract of the story will be found in the llil>l>,->: .
on Celtic Heathendom, p. 502.

2 See the Book of the Dun Cow, fo. i29"-i32" ; Wimlisili\ In-.:-., l<*u.
pp. 117-33, raore especially pp. 127-31; also my ./

PP- 29-33-


to kill him, by reason of his beauty. So she wrapped
him in a leathern bag, and cast him into the sea to the
mercy of God on the twenty-ninth day of April. And at
that time the weir of Gwychio was on the strand between
Dyvi and Aberystwyth, near to his own castle, and the
value of an hundred pounds was taken in that weir every
May eve.' The story goes on to relate how Gwycfno's
son, Elphin, found in the weir the leathern bag contain-
ing the baby, who grew up to be the bard Taliessin.
But the fourteenth century manuscript called after the
name of Taliessin teems with such transformations as
the above, except that they are by no means confined
to the range of the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
I heard an amusing suggestion of metempsychosis the
other day : it is related of a learned German, who was
sitting at table, let us say, in an Oxford hotel, with most
of his dinner in front of him. Being, however, a man
of immediate foresight, and anxious to accustom himself
to fine English, he was not to be restrained by scruples
as to any possible discrepancy between words like bekoni-
tnen and become. So to the astonishment of everybody
he gravely called out to the waiter, ' Hereafter I vish to
become a Velsh rabbit.' This would have done admirably
for the author of certain poems in the Book of Taliessin,
where the bard's changes are dwelt upon. From them
it appears that the transformation might be into anything
that the mind of man could in any way individualize.
Thus Taliessin claims to have been, some time or other,
not only a stag or a salmon, but also an axe, a sword,
and even a book in a priest's hand, or a word in writing.
On the whole, however, his history as a grain of corn
has most interest here, as it differs from that which has
just been given : the passage T is sadly obscure, but

See the Book of Taliessin, poem vii, in Skene's Four Ancient Books of
Wales, ii. 136-7 ; also poem viii, p. 137 et seq.



I understand it to say that the grain was duly sown
on a hill, that it was reaped and finally brought on th-
hearth, where the ears of corn were emptied of t;
grains by the ancient method of dexterously applying
a flame to them 1 . But while the light was bein- appli,-!
the grain which was Taliessin, falling from the opera!
hand, was quickly received and swallowed b v a hostile
hen, in whose interior it remained nine nights ; but
though this seemingly makes Taliessin's mother a bird,
he speaks of himself, without mentioning any int. r-
vening transformation, as agwas or young man. Such
an origin was perhaps never meant to be other than
incomprehensible. Lastly as to rebirth, I may say that
it has often struck me that the Welsh habit, especially
common in Carnarvonshire and Anglesey, of one child
in a family being named, partially or wholly, alter a
grandparent, is to be regarded as a trace of the survival
from early times of a belief in such atavism as ha- bee i
suggested above 2 .

The belief in transformations or transmigrations, such
as have been mentioned, must have lent itself to various
developments, and two at least of them are deserving of
some notice here. First may be mentioned one which
connects itself intimately with the druid or magician : he
is master of his own transformations, as in the case of
Ceridwen and Gwion, for he had acquired his ma
by tasting of the contents of Ceridwen's Cauldron l
Sciences, and he retained his memory continuously
through his shape-shiftings, as is best illustrated, per-
haps, by the case of Tuan mac Cairill. The next Si
was for him to realize his changes, not as matters ,.t the

1 Some account of this process will be found in F.ltn'
History (London, 1882), p. 33, where he has drawn on M..rtm\
of the Western Islands of Scotland, publi.->h<-.l in 170.1: Mfl pi'

'-' For one or two instances of the nomenclature in .|iii->ii"ii.


past but as present and possible ; in fact, to lay claim to
being anybody or anything he likes at any moment.
Of this we have a remarkable instance in the case of
Amairgen, seer and judge of the Milesians or Sons of
Mil, in the story of their conquest of Ireland, as told in
the Book of Leinster, fo. i2 b . As he first sets his right
foot on the land of Erin he sings a lay in which he
says, that he is a boar, a bull, and a salmon, together
with other things also, such as the sea-breeze, the
rolling wave, the roar of the billows, and a lake on the
plain. Nor does he forget to pretend to wisdom and
science beyond other men, and to hint that he is the
divinity that gives them knowledge and sense. The
similarity between this passage and others in the Book
of Taliessin has attracted the attention of scholars : see
M. d'Arbois de Jubainville's Cycle mythologique irlandais,
pp. 242 et seq. On the whole, Taliessin revels most in
the side of the picture devoted to his knowledge and
science : he has passed through so many scenes and
changes that he has been an eye-witness to all kinds of
events in Celtic story. Thus he was with Bran on his
expedition to Ireland, and saw when Mordwyt Tyttion
was slain in the great slaughter of the Meal-bag
Pavilion. This, however, was not all ; he represents
himself as also a sywedyct 1 , ' vates or prophet, astrologer

1 SywedyCt is probably a word of Goidelic origin: compare Irish sui,
' a sage,' genitive si'iad, and derivative suithe, ' wisdom.' Stokes suggests
the derivation sit-vet, in which case sui = su-vi, for su-viss = su-vet-s, and
su-ithe = suvetla, while the Welsh sywedyd is formally su-vetips or su-vetiios.
Welsh has also syw, from sui, like dryw, 'a druid,' from Goidelic dn'ti. Syw,
it is true, now only means elegant, tidy ; but Dr. Davies of Mattwyd believed
its original signification to have been ' sapiens, doctns,peritus.' The root vet
is most probably to be identified with the wet of Med. Welsh gwet-id, ' a
saying,' dy-wawt, ' dixit,' whence it appears that the bases were vet and vat,
with the latter of which Irish faith, 'a poet or prophet/ Latin vates, agrees,
as also the Welsh gwawd, ' poetry, sarcasm,' and in Mod. Welsh, ' any kind of
derision.' In the Book of Taliessin syw has, besides the plurals sywyon and
sywydon (Skene, ii. 142, 152), possibly an older plural, sywet (p. 155) = stt-


i '

and astronomer,' a sage who boasts his kno\vli-.l-,-
the physical world and propounds questions which
challenges his rivals to answer concerning earth and
sea, day and night, sun and moon. He is not only
Taliessin, but also Gwion, and hence one in NTS his
magical powers to have been derived. If he n -anU
anybody as his equal or superior, that seems to have
been Talhaiarn, to whom he ascribes the great
science. Talhaiarn is usually thought of only as a
great bard by Welsh writers, but it is his science and
wisdom that Taliessin admires 1 , whereby one is t<>
understand, doubtless, that Talhaiarn, like Taliessin, v.
a great magician. To this day Welsh bards and bard ism
have not been quite dissociated from magic, in so far as
the witch Ceridwen is regarded as their patroness.

The boasts of Amairgen are characteri/ed by
M. d'Arbois de Jubainville as a sort of pantheism, and
he detects traces of the same doctrine, among other
places, in the teaching of the Irishman, known as Scotus
Erigena, at the court of Charles the Bald in the ninth
century: see the Cycle mythologiquc, p. 248. In any
case, one is prepared by such utterances as those of
Amairgen to understand the charge recorded in the
Senchus Mo'r, i. 23, as made against the Irish dm id-
magicians of his time by a certain Connla Cainbhreth-
ach, one of the remarkable judges of Erin, conjectured
by O'Curry on what grounds I do not know to have
lived in the first century of our era. The statnnent
there made is to the following effect :- After her came
Connla Cainbhrethach, chief doctor of Connaii^ht ;
excelled the men of Erin in wisdom, for he

vet-es, while for suithe = su-vetia we seem to liav,- ywyd or ,
152, 193, ; but all the passages in point an more

the Book of Talicssin, in Skcnc's Four Ami** /
130-1, 134, J 4 2 > I 5 I - 2 > J 55-



with the grace of the Holy Ghost; he used to contend
with the druids, who said that it was they that made
heaven and earth, and the sea, &c., and the sun and
moon, &c.' This view of the pretensions of the druids
is corroborated by the fact that magic, especially the
power of shape-shifting at will, was regarded as power
par excellence 1 , and by the old formula of wishing one
well, which ran thus : Bendacht dee ocus andee fort, ' the
blessing of gods and not-gods upon thee ! ' The term
' gods ' in this context is explained to have meant persons
of power 2 , and the term ' not-gods ' farmers or those
connected with the land, probably all those whose lives
were directly dependent on farming and the cultivation
of the soil, as distinguished from professional men such
as druids and smiths. This may be further illustrated
by a passage from the account of the second battle of
Moytura, published by Stokes with a translation, in the
Revue Celtique, xii. 52-130. See more especially pp. 74-6,
where we find Lug offering his services to the king,
Nuada of the Silver Hand. Among other qualifications
which Lug possessed, he named that of being a
sorcerer, to which the porter at once replied : ' We
need thee not ; we have sorcerers already. Many are
our wizards and our folk of might ' that is, those of our

1 As, for instance, in the account given of Uath mac Imomain in Fled
Bricrenn: see the Book of the Dun Cow, fo. no b , and Windisch's Irische
Texte, p. 293.

2 The Book of the Dun Cow, fo. 77*, and the Book of Leinster, fo. 75'' :
compare also the story of Tuan mac Cairill in the Book of the Dim Cow,
fo. i6 b , where the Tuatha De Danann are represented as Titatha Dee ocus
Andcj ' the tribes of gods and not-gods,' to whom one of the manuscripts
adds a people of legendary Ireland called the Galiiiin. See the story as
recently edited by Professor Kuno Meyer in Null's Voyage of Bran, ii. 291-
300, where, however, Ihe sense of 12 wilh its allusion to the fall of Lucifer
is missed in the translalion. It should read, I think, somewhat as follows :
'Of these are the Tuatha Dee and Ande, whose origin is unknown to the
learned, except lhat they Ihink it probable, judging from the intelligence of
the Tuatha and their superiority in knowledge, that they belong to the
exiles who came from heaven.'


people who possess power - lucht cumachtm. \Vi/ a . -,U
(druith] and /we/// cumachtai came, it is observed, alik.-
under the more general designation of sor

One seems to come upon traces of the same clavsiti-
cation of a community into professionals and non-
professionals, for that is what it comes to, in an obscure
Welsh term, Teidu Oeth ac Anocth, which may be con-
jectured to have meant 'the Household of Oeth and An-
oeth' in the sense of Power and Not-power 1 . I lowever

1 See Evans' Black Book of Carmarthen, fo. 33''; also the .!/
pp. 104, 306. The Irish lucht cumachtai would be in Welsh literally rcn<
tiuyth cyfoeth, 'the cyfoeth tribe or host,' as it were. Tor cyfoeth. in M", -,\.\\,
meant power or dominion, whence cyfoethog, 'powerful,' and h-'
almighty ' ; but in Mod. Welsh cyfoeth and cyfoethog have 1"
mean ' riches 'and 'rich' respectively. Now if we dropped the prefix nun
from the Irish cumachtai, and its equivalent cyf from the Welsh g
should have luchl cumachtai reduced to an approximate analogy to //
Oeth, ' the Oeth tribe,' for which we have the attested equivalent Tfulu
Oeth, 'the Oeth household or family.' Oct/i, however, seems to I
meant powerful rather than power, and this seems to have been its force in
Gwalchmai's poetry of the twelfth century, where I find it twi- e : the
Myvyrian Arch., i. icj6 b , 203*. In the former passage we have o<ti.
o dybwyf ryd, ' I shall be powerful if I be free,' and in the latter
itthrwyd, ' mightily was I astonished or dismayed.' An-oeth was the n
live of oeth, and meant weak, feeble, frivolous : so we find its plural. >i
applied in the story of Kulhwch to the strange quests on which Kulhuxh
had to engage himself and his friends, before he could hope to obtain Ol
to be his wife. This has its parallel in the use of the aili< . '.. .ik,'

in the following instance among them : Arthur and his men \vn read
set out in search of Mabon son of Modron, who was said to hav<- IXVM k
napped, when only three nights old, from between his mother M^ln-n
the wall ; and though this had happened a fabulously long tim - 1
was born, nothing had ever been since heard of iMahon's fat'-. N"\v Art!
men said that they would set out in search of him, but they con^
Arthur should not accompany them on feeble quests of the kind : th.-ir \>
were (p. 128), ny etti di uynet ath In y g,-i*xa6 p>th i, u.m <n >,< /nun.
canst not go with thy army to seek a thing so will- .^ ti
have uan as the synonym of an-octh ; but Oeth <ic . //<-./ |>i ..N.iMy I
phrase which was seldom analysed or understood : SO w.- h.iv.- besi
Oeth ac Anoeth, a Cacr Oeth ac Anocth, or fortres, of ". -""I
Carchar Caer Oeth^ac Anocth, or the Prison of Cacr O. and A . ssi;
shortly designated also Carchar Ocih ac Anocth, or the Pi
A late account of the building of that strange pn
Manawydan is given in the lolo MSS., pp. 185 6, aoj. and


that may be, the professional class of men who were
treated as persons of power and gods seem to have
attained to their position by virtue of the magic of which
they claimed to be masters, and especially of their
supposed faculty of shape-shifting at will. In other
words, the druidic pantheism l which Erigena was able
to dress in the garb of a fairly respectable philosophy
proves to have been, in point of genesis, but a few
removes from a primitive kind of savage folklore.

None of these stories of shape-shifting, and of being
born again, make any allusion to a soul. To revert, for
instance, to ILew ILawgyffes, it is evident that the eagle
cannot be regarded as his soul. The decayed state of
the eagle's body seems to imply that it was somehow
the same body as that of ILew at the time when he was
wounded by Gronw's poisoned spear : the festering of
the eagle's flesh looks as if considered a continuation of
the wound. It is above all things, however, to be noted
that none of the stories in point, whether Irish or
Welsh, contain any suggestion of the hero's life coming
to an end, or in any way perishing ; ILew lives on to
be transformed, under the stroke of Gwydion's wand,
from being an eagle to be a man again ; and Tuan mac

point out that Manawydan, son of ILyr, was no other than the Manannan mac
Lir of Irish literature, the greatest wizard among the Tuatha De or Tuatha
De Danann ; for the practical equivalence of those names is proved by the
Book of the Dun Cow, fo. i6 b . For further details about Oeth and Anoeth,
Silvan Evans' Geiriadur may be consulted, s. v. Anoeth, where instances are
cited of the application of those terms to tilled land and wild or uncultivated
land. Here the words seem to have the secondary meanings of profitable
and unprofitable lands, respectively : compare a somewhat analogous use of
gryw, ' strength, force,' in a passage relating to the mutilated horses of
Matholwch hyt nad oed rym a ettit ar meirch, ' so that no use was possible
in the case of the horses,' meaning that they were of no use whatever, or
that they had been done for : see the Oxford Mabinogion, p. 29, and Lady
Charlotte Guest's, iii. 107, where the translation ' and rendered them useless '
is barely strong enough.

1 It is right, however, to state that M. d'A. de Jubainville's account of
the views of Erigena is challenged by Mr. Nutt, ii. 105.


Cairill persists in various forms till he meets St Finn.-n
in the sixth century. Then in the case of Ktam, we are
told in the Book of the Dun Coio, fo. 129", that h, T H^t-
mentioned birth and the next one were scparat.-d l.v
more than a thousand years. So practically we may
say that these stories implied that men and w,,m.-n
were imperishable, that they had no end necessarily to
their existence. This sort of notion may be cU-t - .-t.-d in
ILew's words when he says, ' Unless God kill me ... it
is not easy to kill me.' The reference to the Almighty
may probably be regarded as a comparatively late inter-
polation due to Christian teaching. A similar instance
seems to occur in a poem in the Block Book of 'Carmar-
then, fos. 47 b -8 h , where Arthur loudly sings the praiM-s
of his friend Cai. The couplet in point runs thus :-

Ny bei duv ae digonhei.
Oet diheit aghev kei.

Unless it were God that wrought it,
Hard to effect were the death of Cai.

I am not sure, however, of the meaning; for, am.ui-
other things, diheit, which I am inclined to interpret as
'hard to reach' or 'not easy to effect/ has been remit-
otherwise by others 1 . In any case, the other instar
seems to imply that at one time the heroes of IL<-\v'-
world were not necessarily expected to die at all ; and
when they happened to do so, it was probably ivgan!

Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) → online text (page 18 of 29)