Picking Sloes for Gwyn ap Nudd

blackthorn
Prunus spinosa / Blackthorn

There is a folk tradition  that blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas Day, as they then belong to the Devil. The idea behind this is that Michael cast him out of Heaven  on this day and he landed in a tangle of brambles so afterwards the berries were tainted with his blood and not fit to eat. Whether the cut-off date is to be taken as the current 29th September or Old Michaelmas Day on 10th October is presumably dependent on how much of a risk the pickers wish to take!

Blackberries have not been plentiful this year where I live. But we went out on 29th September to pick sloes, which hung in inviting blue-black profusion on the blackthorn trees along the edge of the sunken lane where we usually find them. Sloes can be picked later than blackberries but we gathered them today for Gwyn ap Nudd because we were celebrating the restoration of his feast day (for which see THIS POST on the Brython Blog by Lorna Smithers). It has always been our custom to take the dregs of previous batches of sloe gin we make from them to return to the earth something of what we have taken. We did so again this year, but also took some very drinkable sloe gin from a good vintage to toast our labours and to pour a libation for Gwyn ap Nudd.

These sloes were picked on his feast day and the sloe gin we will make from them will be made for him, so he will be welcome at our winter festivities and in quiet moments or special occasions when it will be savoured.

These dark berries are astringent. The drink they make is powerfully pungent. As such it contains something of his nature. But there is no repugnance or reluctance – such as that associated with the Devil’s Blackberries – felt at the gathering of Gwyn’s sloes to infuse our gin. They can be gathered until Calan Gaeaf, even until Old Calan Gaeaf,  after which they will no longer be at their best and the Cailleach’s withered fingers may claim them. But their spirit will be contained because we gathered them for Gwyn ap Nudd.

 

Advertisements

The Grail

Nanteos Cup
The Nanteos Cup – currently on display at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth

The earliest surviving specific tale of the Grail is the unfinished 12th century story of Perceval (Conte de Graal) by the French Romance writer Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien simply spoke of ‘a grail’; another french writer, Robert de Boron, later christianised this as ‘The Holy Grail’. Seeing the Grail as a Christian symbol led to it being identified as the communion cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Such is the story attached to the wooden bowl also known as the Nanteos Cup, after a mansion in West Wales where it was kept for many years, though it had previously been the property of the nearby medieval abbey of Strata Florida. The cup has more recently been in the news after it was stolen but, since recovered, it is now in the possession of the National Library of Wales, where it is currently on display. I went to see it, though very little is left of it. It is easy to see how, in the later Middle Ages, such a cup should have attained this status as holy relics were the stock in trade of medieval monasteries and cathedrals, far more of them than could possibly be genuine. The relic itself is a symbol, metonymically representing the thing it purports to be or, perhaps, actually is.

But the communion cup, the dish of plenty, the cauldron of mystery have a far older lineage. Consider the words of Glenys Goetink who, in her study of the Welsh grail stories, asserts that, behind the Christian relic, the Grail “derives from one of the talismans found in the dwelling of the Otherworld god; it was of great significance in the ritual of conferring sovereignty upon the hero on the occasion of his visit to the Otherworld.” (*) This is certainly the implication of the story as told by Chrétien and in the parallel Welsh Romance Peredur. The Grail in Chrétien’s story is a dish held by a maiden in an episode in which the questing hero comes across a castle in a remote place. A bleeding lance is also carried through the room where he sits conversing with the lamed Fisher King. In the parallel scene in the Welsh story of Peredur the dish is a platter on which sits a severed head. In both cases Perceval/Peredur does not ask the meaning of the objects carried into the room. In Chrétien’s story Perceval awakes the next morning to find the castle empty and with only one way open for him to leave. After he has left he can’t go back and cannot find the castle again. In both stories the hero is later rebuked for not asking the question which would have healed the king, and then sets off to find the castle again. Chrétien’s tale is unfinished so we never know if Perceval eventually finds the castle. Peredur does find it after a random series of adventures which culminate in the killing, with Arthur’s help, of The Nine Witches of Gloucester.

There has been much speculation from different scholars about influences. It is likely that later medieval writers took the story from the French of Chrétien or his successors. Did Chrétien get his story from Brittany, from the same source as the anonymous Welsh author of Peredur, or were there different sources available to both of them? One certainly earlier possible source is the Irish story Baile in Scáil which several scholars have noticed contains parallel scenes to the episode of the visit to the Grail Castle. ‘Baile’ (modern Irish ‘buile’) means ‘frenzy’, though it is sometimes translated ‘ecstasy’ as in terms of the baile stories it describes the ecstatic frenzy which druids, female seers and other gifted people go into to gain visions or make prophecies, much as Giraldus Cambrensis describes the awenyddion in Wales. John Carey provides an extensive analysis of this tale and its possible links with the Grail stories. Here the frenzied visionary state is entered by a ‘phantom’ who turns out to be Lug, and a woman with a crown of gold who asks ‘to whom shall this cup be given?’. Carey says the following about the similarities between the two stories:

“In both, the protagonist comes upon a rich and mysterious stronghold, which is at first concealed from him. He is lavishly entertained by a gracious host, who seems to be identical with a figure who has acted as a guide earlier in the tale. A central part in the feast is played by a young woman who serves as custodian of a extra-ordinary golden vessel; and the apparition of the vessel is associated with the protagonist being served roasted meat. The question as to who it is whom this vessel serves is the pivot of both stories. After the feast, everything disappears: Perceval falls asleep, then wakes in an empty castle which he is unable to find again after he has left it; Conn passes ‘into the shadow’ of Lug, and is suddenly back in Tara.” (**).

Conn, unlike Perceval, is not found wanting and so his sovereignty, and that of his line backwards and forwards, is confirmed  and no further searching, such as that undertaken in the later stories, is necessary. In the Welsh tale the situation is eventually resolved, though the significance of the episode gets lost in the series of other adventures it is mixed up with. In the French tale, and even more so in those that came after it, the quest of the Grail becomes an end in itself. That is it becomes a tale of sin and redemption in the best Christian tradition of the Middle Ages. It also becomes a symbol of purity, or the virtuousness of those who seek it. But what was the original cup of sovereignty that seems still to be fulfilling that function in the Irish story? Carey is suggestive in linking it with the role of the cup bearer as identified by Michael Enright (***) and so, possibly back to Rosmerta. Proinsias Mac Cana also refers to this story and identifies the cup bearer as ‘the Sovereignty of Ireland’, the personification of the land itself, who, coupled with Lug, “can scarcely be dissociated from the Gaulish monuments to Mercury and Rosmerta”.(****)

References
* Glenys Goetink Peredur : A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends (Cardiff, 1975)
** John Carey Ireland and The Grail (Aberystwyth, 2007)
*** M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)
**** Proinsias Mac Cana Celtic Mythology (Hamlyn, 1983)

Branwen

Bedd Branwen
Bedd Branwen (Branwen’s Grave) at Aber Alaw.
A Neolithic standing stone here was later covered by a Bronze Age burial mound.

A honno oed tryded prif rieni yn yr ynys hon
(And she was one of the three great progenitors of this Island)

How far back before her story was told
Did she proffer the cup of sovereignty of the Island
Her giant brother – or other self – holding it as a cauldron
Before the spring which pulses beneath Loch Febuil flooded the fair plain
So that the one who plundered and the one who held the treasure became one
Long before the islands of Britain and Ireland were sundered
Before the wolf-grey seas rushed in and so they were separate
Brother and Sister in the legends of the land
(though he would be a bridge between them).
Who then sought sovereignty and where was its source?

Each of them buried deep in the Earth of the Island
Held it in safe keeping : She in a grave at Aber Alaw,
He under the White Mount where Arthur sought him
Taking the sovereignty to hold for his own:
The raid on the White Mount, the raid on Annwfn,
The raid for the Cauldron there and in Ireland
Retelling the story over and over again
(as Culhwch got Olwen and the Giant was vanquished)
Re-living the quest of Bran for the Cauldron
Beneath the spring where Branwen held it.

Notes

In the Welsh of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi Brân – or Bendigeidfran – is a giant and is brother to Branwen and Manawydan, offspring of Llŷr. Brân has a cauldron which came with another giant from under a lake in Ireland and is sent back to Ireland with Matholwch when he marries Branwen.

In the well-known Irish story of Bran Son of Febul he sets off in a ship to sail to the Otherworld and meets Manannan Mac Lir on the sea who directs him on his way.

The lesser known story about Bran Son of Febul is recounted in some verses recording an exchange between Febul’s Prophetess and Bran’s Druid. The druid recounts how he had a vision of treasure hidden under a spring and of Bran’s quest to recover it. The Prophetess tells of how beautiful the plain around the spring was before the treasure was taken and how the land was flooded because Bran’s expedition offended the female guardians of the spring. The resultant flood formed Loch Febuil, now known as Lough Foyle.

Arthur in the Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn, from The Book of Taliesin, sails in his ship Prydwen to raid the Otherworld in search of treasure, in particular a cauldron. One of his men, Lleawc, thrusts his sword into the Cauldron. In the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur sails to Ireland to get a cauldron. One of his men, Llenlleawc, said himself to be an Irishmen, wielding Arthur’s sword, captures the Cauldron.

Brân’s head was buried beneath the White Mount to protect the Island of Britain. In one of the Welsh triads, Arthur is said to have dug up the head because he wanted to be the sole protector of the Island. So the symbol of sovereignty became the Crown.

Echoes of Etain

 

 

Midir and Étain , Becoming Swans.

Reflections after a reading of The Wooing of Étain :

Oengus Mac Óc taken from his mother
So his father would not know him
(as Mabon from Modron; Pryderi from Rhiannon)
To be fostered by Midir.

Étain Echraide – (of the horses)
Poured drink for the company;
This was a skill she had, to pour;
A Cup Bearer supreme among many.
It was then that Midir came for her.

Links in a chain of story – beyond time
for time has no part in its telling:
Images and incidents recurring, repeating
the fractured joins of narrative dissolving.
The gods, in their own way, speaking
to us : always now, never history.

The Gods

Earth Sculpture at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

 

In Nature they are presences;
In Culture they have form.

_*_

So we may sense one – a trace of pheremone
along a river bank, or in a clump of trees,
some redolent place where a streamlet sinks
into sodden leaves – and wonder what has touched
a dormant nerve so that it awakens tentatively
and then retreats slowly back into the web
of neural pathways. Beyond sense.

Or we may match one to a name, a story
one can inhabit, a life that can be lived
vibrantly emerging from sense to sensibility
in our world where meanings are embodied
in aspiration, desire, relationship, things
that can be touched, but are in essence
beyond touch, too deep to be contained by us.

So we claim one, or more, for our tribe,
our land, our story of who or what we are,
and they live with us, finding a form
in the life we give them, growing into identities
or sliding between them as we shape their stories:
becoming familiar they dwell alongside us, companions
to our lives and yet strangers in the shadows of perception.

_ _
*

As we re-construct their past mystery
They are ever-present : never history.


A prose argument developed from this verse can be found on the DUNBRYTHON Blog.

Devotions

MERERID

Water seeps up through Earth,
Pools into a well or
Streams away from the source.

Here is the Chalice of Rosmerta
Never empty as you cup the flow
With generous hands.

It is sweet water
It is fragrant mead
It is all the world’s treasure

For us to taste
But not to hoard
For only in your cup is it held.

~*~

RIGANTONA

A horse glides like cloud
across the land, no sound
but an intake of breath

 

Held in suspense\par
of your coming, expectant
for the gift of Summer

Promised on each blossoming bough\par
of blackthorn … apple … hawthorn:
the scents of your coming, gathering

Strength each week, each day
of the springing year until
the splendid opening of the Rose.

 

Gods and Goddesses of the Treveri

On a wall in the Museum in Trier is this relief of Epona

Epona

I have long known about it from books, and the fact that it was part of a shrine to Epona in the sacred precinct of the Roman town, where sites of worship are thought to have continued from pre-Roman Gaul. It would then have been in the territory of the Treveri, a tribe who inhabited an area around the Moselle valley west of the Rhine, overlapping current borders between Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. I managed to find my way to the town to view the relief for myself. It is located in a room in the Museum dedicated to representations of Roman and Celtic deities. After spending some time with Epona, I turned my attention to some of the other gods depicted here.


Many were Roman and Mercury predominates in the particular way he does in Gaul. On one large stone column he is shown on one face together with a female figure who is much worn away but is identified as Rosmerta. On another face of the same column is the figure of Esus apparently using an axe to cut a (willow?) tree in the crown of which there are three birds (cranes or egrets?) and the head of a bull. Parts of this face of the column are also much worn away so the imagery is not clear, but it has been taken to be the same scene as on another monument in Paris where a bull with three cranes has the inscription ‘Tarvos-Trigaranus’ (‘Bull with Three Cranes’) and where Esus is also represented. These are tantalising survivals of the religious imagery of Gaul filtered through Roman representations but remaining mysterious as to their significance.

ESUS

Next to this column there is also a statue of Sirona, a goddess with a snake around her arm and pointing to what appear to be two eggs in her other hand, one of them broken open:

SIRONA

 

 

 


This compelled my attention for some time. As Rosmerta is often paired with a god the Romans equated with Mercury (Lugus?), so Sirona is similarly often paired with Apollo (Maponos?). I have often pondered the significance of this transference of male god names to fit Roman ‘equivalents’ while the female gods retain their native names. Sirona is represented alone here and has been identified as a goddess of fertility and of healing because of her iconography and the location of shrines by healing springs. That snake winding around her arm might have those associations but also draws attention to those same mysteries of significance which beckon from behind the veil of romanised representation and the views of modern interpreters.

The pagan shrines in the sacred precinct in Trier continued to be used for some time after the establishment of christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. They were largely destroyed after the suppression of paganism by the emperor Gratian late in the 4th century. But their survival until then suggests a continuing veneration of the native gods by the descendants of the Treveri, and the neighbouring Mediomatrici, in this part of Gaul.

Kilmartin

Temple Wood
Temple Wood Stone Circle, Kilmartin

Wheatears sat on the stones, then bobbed away across the open ground as I approached, their distinctive black and white tail pattern flashing their identity behind them. It was then that I saw it, the hare, going to ground behind the cairn pile. I walked around the pile slowly, attentive and ready to be surprised by its leaping. Where was it? The place where it went to ground came into view: the capstone over the cist lifted at 45˚ and held there by iron supports revealed a small oblong chamber in which a body had once been buried, arms and legs folded into the foetal position to fit this stone box – back to the crouch before birth. But there was no hare. And yet there was, leaping through a gap somewhere here.

stone
Free-standing stone ….

cup marks
… with cup marks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I looked across at the standing stones in the near distance, at the gap in the alignment between them – the two that stood forward of the small circle beyond them – and saw, though it should have been too far to see, the cup marks carved into them. I didn’t move. The wheatears came back to settle on the stones. I leapt. The hare leapt. We leapt through the gap between the stones, across the wide, flat valley of stones beneath the mountains and above the sea loch. There was a cry of a bird. Not a wheatear. Like a redshank, an oystercatcher, a curlew – or some combination of these mournful cries. A keening as we leapt through the gap across the open ground and into the wood. It was darker here, the green canopy shading out the sunlight; the bracken high, the shadowed path beneath it winding through for a hare path as we ran. The valley, the stones tilting away from us as we ran on ….. and then stopped.

My senses were sharp. I sniffed at a far scent. I heard a far stalk of tall grass bent to the ground. I felt each vibration in the valley. As near as it was to my senses, it was somewhere else, in the world where I was not a hare. Here events happened differently. A leaf touched another as wind passed through the canopy. I felt it. I heard it happen so slowly that it seemed to last forever. Each rustle and turn of wind-touched foliage stretched out in slow-time. But against this the awareness, sharp and quick, of each event in the valley rushed past, clear and precise in rapid motion. Two streams of time ran on at the same even pace when perceived together. But each ran differently, fast and slow, though twisted around each other so hearing them as distinct events was to be aware of counterpoint at the core of the world-flow.

The hare sensed one, I sensed the other; together we brought them together. So it seems now, recalling the experience. But then, when it was happening, I couldn’t say. It was hare think. It was human think. Each was distinct, and I could sense both of them, but separate just as humans and hares are separate and cannot know each others’ thought.

Back in the valley, I stand staring at an empty cist, watched by the wheatears. There is no hare. But there, in another time, right here, a hare leapt. I was there.

Inundations

Inundations, not temporary floods but the permanent flowing of waters across the land; there are many stories of such flowings from springs or wells to make lakes, or rushing to meet the sea to re-shape the coastline. There are recurrent stories behind these legends, superficially of pride, arrogance, presumption, though this might mask a quest for knowledge and therefore power. Often the consequences are delayed and the flood comes after many generations (time for the otherworld deities is not our time). The legend of the drowning of Tyno Helig near the estuary of the River Conwy in North wales is typical of the theme where a wicked ruler is told that his descendants will be punished for his deeds and so he thinks he has nothing to worry about, but seven generations later his lands are flooded during a feast and only the harper escapes drowning. This latter detail of the harper is also a common element in the stories. John Rhŷs thought that the theme of delayed punishment for evil deeds was a later development in these stories which originally involved something happening at a sacred well which causes it to overflow. Consider for instance, the story of Boann who looks into Nechtan’s Well of Wisdom which should only be visited by Nechtan and his cup-bearers. The well overflows and chases her all the way to the sea, thereby forming the River Boyne. In the story of the drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod, or the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir, Mererid is herself a cup-bearer and a well-maiden, though the oblique nature of the verses which record this (probably originally contained in a prose saga which supplied more detail) means that the context is unclear.

But no matter. For there is more to say. Both the setting for Tyno Helig and that for Cantre’r Gwaelod are also settings for different surviving versions of the story of Taliesin. Think now of that harper who survives (or is re-born from) the flood. The story of Taliesin begins at Llyn Tegid, the location of another inundation legend which explains the formation of the lake near the town of Bala. This is where Gwion stirred Ceridwen’s cauldron. The River Dee (Dyfrdwy) which runs through the lake, has its own mythos naming its waters as sacred (~>). Gwion looked into, and tasted, the waters of this cauldron and there was an inundation. He gained wisdom just as Finn gained wisdom either by tasting the salmon from the Well of Wisdom or, in another story, tasting drops of water from an otherworld well.

Rosmerta And Mercurius - a relief from Gloucester.
Rosmerta And Mercurius – a representation from Gloucester showing her bucket.

 

 

 

In Gaul a god that the Romans called Mercurius – though he may not have had a name before the Romans gave him one – was partnered with Rosmerta, whose name could simply mean ‘The Great Provider’. Rosmerta had a site of devotion at a sacred spring in Gaul and is also commemorated in Bath, the site of the sacred springs of Sulis in Britain. One of her emblems is a bucket (cauldron?) and she is represented with Fortuna on one relief where the bucket could symbolise re-birth. A spring, a cauldron, a brew of otherworld wisdom, welling into our world. A cup-bearer, a well-maiden ~/~ the keeper of the cauldron, a hag. Are these two sides of the same coin, the turning of Fortuna’s wheel? When there is a flow from otherworld streams out of the well or the cauldron, who can catch the essential drops on the tongue, taste the salmon or gather the hazel nuts that have fallen into the the waters of the well?

Think of that harper, the survivor of the flood. Think of Taliesin, re-born from the waters into a weir in which salmon are caught. Think of others whose quest for knowledge transforms them into divine or inspired figures.Then consider that Mercurius, Rosmerta’s partner, may have been known in the lands that overlapped Gaul as Woden, and how a god, taking a different name for a different people, might do things differently, and yet still discover sources of wisdom, of inspiration, and how the mead of poetry from the Cup or Cauldron of Inspiration might be dispensed to the poets, the awenyddion, the drui, from whom the waters of the Cauldron flow as rivers of song.

Cantre’r Gwaelod : The story of MERERID from the Black Book of Carmarthen

 

Stand up Seithennin
Look out at the waves
Crashing over Gwyddno’s realm.

Woe to the maiden,
The aggrieved cup-bearer
Who bore in her cup the sea’s chagrin.

Woe upon her, the daughter
Of the well whose cup of plenty
Covers the contours with featureless water.

Mererid’s outcry from the fortress
Calling to the gods;
It is known: after arrogance is loss.

Mererid’s outcry from the fortress
Appealing to the gods;
It is known : pride has its redress.

Mererid’s outcry is a grief to me tonight
It brings only anguish;
It is known : presumption has its price.

Mererid’s outcry from the bay mare’s back
The gods bring retribution;
It is known : after plenty there is lack.

Mererid’s outcry calls me from my lodging
No bed for me tonight;
It is known : conceit has its ending.


Interpretation

The poem has been translated – and mistranslated – a number of times. The version above follows the original line by line and hopes to convey the sense of each stanza as written in the medieval Welsh. It is a ‘re-interpretation’ because I have made a few contextual shifts away from previous more or less literal translations. The most significant of these is that I have transferred it to a polytheistic context so where the original refers to God I have referred to the gods.

The assumption of most translators has been that the blame for the flood is being directed at Mererid. But the arrogance and presumption (‘traha’) which is said to have brought it about is assigned to Seithennin in a final verse which I have omitted here. This verse also occurs in the ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ and seems not to belong to this poem. But it refers to Seithennin as ‘the presumptious’ and it could just as well be said that the poems implies that he is to blame. Indeed, in the later version of the story he does become the agent of the flood by getting drunk and forgetting to close the sluice gates.

Here I have tried to shift the focus back on Mererid, not as a blameworthy perpetrator but as one whose office as cup bearer and keeper of the well has been violated. There are other legends about well-keepers being upset or offended resulting in the well flooding a large area. These are usually stories of lake origins. But Mererid is also a cup bearer, an office which carried some status but which might set the holder apart from other court officials. In my view of her she functions as a priestess and representative of the water world. So I have interpreted the word ‘emendiceid’ (accursed) referring to her in stanza 2 & 3 not so much as directed at her but as a reflection on her condition. This, admittedly, does involve a creative change of emphasis from the imperative mood (‘boed’) in these two lines.

The poet’s expression is concise especially in the lines where I have used the repeated phrase “It is known …’ . The poem has a single repeated word ‘gnaud’, literally ‘usual’ or ‘natural’ but also ‘what is’ or ‘known’. The latter seems to me to be a better construction in the translation.

Who speaks the poem? Rachel Bromwich considers the possibility that it is Mererid’s voice heard on the wind long after the event. The poem might, after all, be part of a lost prose saga. But I find it conceivable that it is Seithennin himself who speaks, possibly reflecting on his own part in bringing about the inundation. In the opening line, where he is addressed directly, the pronoun ‘you’ in the familiar form is attached to the verb ‘stand’ [up or out] and this happens again in the next line with ‘look’ where the deponent form of the verb could suggest a reflexive sense. The final verse’s reference to the speaker being driven from his lodging links to the opening and reinforces the possibility that it is he who speaks.

So with Mererid , well-maiden and cup-bearer, in a medieval poem attached to a legend of a drowned land on the coast near where I live. She had long been an evocative presence who seemed to have a significance I had not quite fathomed. But as I thought about the legend and discovered the lore associated with it, her identity began to take shape. Floods from springs or wells when their guardians are offended are the legendary origins of many lakes. These guardians are invariably female and it is sometimes stressed, as with the case of Mererid, that she is a maiden. Two words are used to convey this in the poem. In one line she is referred to as ‘morvin’ (simply maiden), but in another line as ‘machteith’ which is also a term indicating a court office. Rachel Bromwich comments that “both interpretations should be borne in mind”.

Many years ago doing quite different research I needed to look at references to protective deities of cities. Ancient cities and other settlements had magical as well as physical walls around them. Gateways through the walls could be physically sealed and locked but magical gateways needed magical seals or keys to open or shut them. The title ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (now inherited by the Pope) originally indicated one who was adept at bridging and sealing protective boundaries. The Vestal Virgins were an institution that was seen to protect Rome, the virginity of the vestals being an essential element in this. In earlier societies this function often inhered in a virgin deity. The virginity of Athene as protectress of Athens was stressed. Studies of the sources for Homer’s Iliad indicate that Troy was seen to be protected in this way and one of these relates that the prophetess Cassandra undid her girdle  as the horse was brought through the city walls in a symbolic breaching of their magical protection.

It seemed to me that the same protective function could apply to well maidens. Wells were often seen as gateways to the Otherworld and if these gateways were not properly protected the steady flow of blessed water might become a deluge, particularly if the guardian of the well ceases to become a virgin either by her own volition or by her violation. But Mererid is also a ‘cup-bearer’. Reading Enright’s elucidations (3) about the role of cup-bearers in Celtic and Germanic cultures and the proposed origins of their functions and identity in the goddess Rosmerta (the ‘great provider’); the ambiguous status of Wealtheow, Hrodgar’s queen and cup-bearer, in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf; the story of the virgin prophetess Veleda in Tacitus’ Germania; all began to bring the picture into focus.

Rosmerta’s emblems are the cup, ladle and bucket. Her cup an emblem of plenty, proffered at the feast; in Gaul she is associated in at least once place with a sacred spring. In her continuing identity in the persons of cup bearers her role becomes differentiated and therefore ambiguous, particularly in later contexts when the religious significance may have been lost but the magical status still remained resonant. A cup bearer might be a maiden and hold an office as such at court but equally there might be an implied sexual element involved in what she represents associated with fertility. Enright says as part of his discussion of these elements, “We may therefore reiterate an argument made constantly in this study – that prophecy, sexuality and the offering of liquor were all part of the same mental construct for Celts and, perhaps, somewhat later, for Germans.” Where her maiden status is associated with protection, the loss of it also implies loss of protection. But it might in other contexts be associated with fertility and so becoming sexually active brings plenty. Her survival into later legends, folklore and story may emphasise only one or the other of these functions exclusively and so appear to be only about a single event such as an inundation or a symbolic offering of plenty by a cup bearer, though often the portrayal of these events retains an aura of something deeper.

What of Mererid? She is a well maiden, whose function is to protect the well. She also bears the cup of plenty. So could her seduction or violation have removed the protection and so caused the flood? And could there be an underlying sense of fertility here too, the release of life-giving waters, but disguised in the story of a catastrophic inundation? Perhaps. It was with such as sense of these possibilities that I moved from undertaking a translation of the poem from The Black Book of Carmarthen, where I felt constrained to at least preserve the narrative and thematic integrity of the original (in spite of also attempting a re-interpretation of the context) to writing my own, freer version of the same poem in an act of imaginative re-casting. Here it is:

Cantre’r Gwaelod

(A free adaptation of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen)

 

Wake up Seithennin

Can’t you see what’s happening

The wild sea is rushing in.

 

The well’s cup-bearer,

That girl you had beside you –

You thought it nothing just to take her.

 

Now she’s gone, the well

She keeps is overflowing

And running to the sea’s swell.

 

Can you hear her call

Ringing out across the water?

Your fault has brought you to a fall.

 

Can you hear her berate

The fate that’s brought her

To this end – early or late

 

She sings her lament

Over Gwyddno’s flooded meadows

The cup of plenty now is spent.

 

She rides through the flow –

Mererid – on the bay mare’s back

Her song lulling the pull and tow

 

Of the plaintive waves:

A pearl plucked from its oyster;

Like your bed, empty of its treasure.

There is a single word in the original poem ‘cwyn’ that has been alternatively translated ‘complaint’ and ‘feast’. Did she complain about what had happened to her (as I imply in my translations) or might we suppose that the offering of her cup as a feast has other implications? A mythological reading might include both possibilities simultaneously. Is she here the victim of a violation or an active participant in releasing the flood? You would think as I have translated the poem twice with the same implication, that I was certain about this. But I’m not.

References:

Jackson Knight  Epic and Anthropology (London, 1967)

M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)

The poem is No. 39 in The Black Book of Carmarthen.

The original text with a translation, discussion and notes by Rachel Bromwich appears in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge, 1950). The discussion compares the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod with the Breton legend of Ker-Is.

There is also a translation by Jenny Rowlands in Early Welsh Saga Poetry (Cambridge, 1990).