‘dyuot tri aderyn, a dechrau canu udunt ….. uch ben y weilgi allan’ (*) Branwen Uerch Lyr
Birds of Rhiannon, sing for the dying
Over the waves of the wolf-grey sea;
Gather them with you, those who are leaving
Behind them the world’s sweet harmony.
Birds of Rhiannon, call to the dead
Over the waves of the wolf-grey sea;
Bid them witness the echoes fading
Out of the world’s sweet harmony.
(*) ‘three birds came and began singing to them ….. far out over the sea’.
The word for ‘sea’ here is ‘[g]weilgi’. Gweilgi indicates a ‘howling wolf’ and is often used in medieval Welsh texts, rather than ‘môr’ to mean ‘sea’. The 20th century Welsh poet Gwenallt used the words ‘y weilgi werdd‘ (‘the green sea’) to write of ‘Adar Rhiannon‘ and his poem has influenced the shape of the above verses.
One of the most intriguing of the ‘conversation’ poems in early Welsh is that between Taliesin and Ugnach. Two separate manuscripts of the poem have survived, one in The Black Book of Carmarthen and another in a separate manuscript also kept in The National Library of Wales. The poem has been interpreted in a number of ways and a few ambiguous words in one of its englyns have given rise to much speculation about the context for the poem. I will discuss these matters after giving my translation. I should make it clear here that I read it as a straight-forward encounter with an Otherworld character whose identity I will also suggest below. A remarkable feature of the poem, if it is viewed in this way, is that Taliesin is reluctant to accept the invitation offered to him, given the apparently fearless forays into the Otherworld which are a feature of some of the poems attributed to him.
Who is Ugnach that Taliesin should be so deferential to him and yet refuse his offer of hospitality? In the poem he says that he is ‘Ugnach, Son of Mydno’ but Taliesin claims not to know him and there are no references to this character elsewhere unless we can equate him with the ‘Mugnach’ mentioned in the Triads as the father of Fflur who is beloved of Caswallawn. There he is named with the additional appellation ‘Gorr’ which is usually presumed to be an abbreviation for ‘Corrach’ (dwarf) but it might also be a scribal mistake or variant of ‘cawr’ (giant). Names ending in ‘-ach’ tend to signify supernatural characters such as ‘Wrnach’, a giant and Diwrnach, the Irish owner of a magical cauldron, both of whom feature in Culhwch and Olwen. Attaching the suffix -‘ach’ to the Welsh word ‘gwraig’ (woman) gives ‘gwrach’ (witch). So it might be that the name’s significance is as much in its suffix as in any genealogy.
Following the conventional exchange when two horsemen meet each other, Ugnach is immediately insistent that Taliesin should accept his hospitality – ‘You cannot refuse’ – but Taliesin, as politely as possible, does refuse. He says he is on his way to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion (presumably Dinas Dinlleu in Gwynedd, a location which is the setting for part of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi ?) When asked where he is coming from he says ‘Caer Seon’, a place that has a number of possible locations.
Why will Taliesin not go with Ugnach? It may be that he really is in a hurry, but there is a certain tension in the exchange between them that suggests an evasiveness on Taliesin’s part and an insistent lure on the part of Ugnach. It has something of the atmosphere of the exchanges between the boy and the crone or ‘false knight’ in the folk ballad ‘The False Knight on the Road’ and its variants. Here, though, Taliesin does not try to cleverly outwit Ugnach but, in accordance with convention, to politely but firmly decline his offer. Does Taliesin fear the consequences of going with Ugnach, perhaps thinking he may never return? This suggests a skilled mediator with Otherworld beings who is wary of what this one wants with him.
The poem is written in the form of a series of three-line englyns with each of the three lines featuring end-rhyme, something not achievable in the translation but which, along with the syllabic requirements of the englyn form, may have a bearing on the particular choice of words and therefore may be a factor in the issues discussed below.
Horseman who rides to the fortress
With white hounds and great horns
I see you but I do not know you.
Horseman who rides to the estuary
On a steed strong and steadfast
Come with me, you cannot refuse.
I cannot go there now
I have no time to delay
Blessings go with you from above and below.
Warrior who is not seen here often
With the look of one who is fortunate
Where do you go and from where do you come?
I come from Cael Seon,
From contesting with strangers;
I go to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion.
Come with me to my fortress
For shining mead
And fine gold for your spear-rest.
I do not know you bold warrior
Who promises mead and a bed,
Your speech honeyed and fair.
Come to my domain
For wine flowing freely.
Ugnach am I, named son of Mydno.
Ugnach, blessings to your Gorsedd,
May you have favour and honour.
Taliesin am I and I’ll acknowledge your feast.
Taliesin, greatest of men,
Most accomplished in bardic contest,
Stay with me until Wednesday.
Ugnach, most richly endowed,
Grace to your great land;
No censure on me that I cannot stay.
On the face of it this seems to be an encounter with a character from the Otherworld, a character who bears a striking resemblance to Gwyn ap Nudd with his pack of white hounds. This is how I read it so this has had a bearing on how I have translated it. But other contexts have been argued for, mainly centring on the interpretation of the fifth englyn. There Taliesin says he comes from ‘Caer Seon’ where, in the second line of the englyn, he says he has been ‘ymlit ac itewon’. On the face of it these words seem to mean ‘fighting (or disputing) with jews’. Taking the word ‘itewon’ to be the earliest example of the modern Welsh word ‘iddewon’ (jews) would certainly give such a meaning for the line. This has led to one interpretation of the poem as an account of Taliesin returning from the Crusades, making ‘Caer Seon’ Jerusalem and ‘jews’ a generic term for those being attacked there . A much more likely word, in that case, would be ‘saracens’ but there are several examples in medieval literature in English as well as Welsh of such words being mixed up or having a general application to refer to ‘others’. Elsewhere, saracens were even conflated with saxons, and the precise identity of peoples from other cultures would not necessarily be distinguished and the word for one could serve as the word for others, particularly if they were all ‘enemies’  For this reason I have preferred to translate ‘itewon’ (which end-rhymes with ‘seon’ and ‘gwidion’) as ‘strangers’. There is, of course, no need to opt for the ‘crusade’ theory even if ‘itewon’ is retained as ‘jews’. There are possible locations for ‘Caer Seon’ on the island of Anglesey and near Conwy on the coast of North Wales. Taliesin could have been engaging in theological disputes or bardic contests (rather than fighting) with jews in either of these places, though it seems unlikely. Or he could have been coming from Arthur’s court at Caerleon, where such a contest is a little more possible.
Some scholars have suggested that ‘itewon’ might be a mistake for ‘cerddorion’, and that Taliesin was therefore engaging in expected bardic contests with other poets, especially if Caer Seon is taken to be a court of Maelgwn Gwynedd at Deganwy near Conwy. Similarly ‘itewon’ has been taken as a developed form of the place name ‘Iudeu’ , thought to be on the Firth of Forth, which would mean that Taliesin had journeyed from the Old North, possibly to North Wales or possibly to another destination in the Old North. But all of this is a distraction from the encounter with Ugnach. It seems clear that Taliesin is being invited to an Otherworld caer and that he refuses the invitation. If we may take Ugnach to be Gwyn ap Nudd two possibilities may be considered. One is that Taliesin’s boastful expeditions to the Otherworld, such as that described in Preiddeu Annwn, are conducted as raids either for treasure or for poetic inspiration. Here he is invited to visit as a guest, or perhaps is being lured there to account for himself. Clearly he is not prepared to go on these terms. The other possibility, suggested by at least one scholar  is that he is dead and that Ugnach is bidding him come to the ‘great land’ as he acknowledges it, and that he is either not yet ready to go, or he is going elsewhere. If so Ugnach may well be Gwyn ap Nudd, in another guise. The fact that Taliesin says he journeys to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion has been seen as a possible reference to the Milky Way (Caer Gwydion), that is, he has his sights on a higher destination. The possibility that this would mean ‘Heaven’ in a christian sense, or an alternative Otherworld location of which Gwydion is the ruler – imponderable though that may be – is also worth pondering.
Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ed. A O H Jarman (Cardiff, 1982)
‘Rhai Cerddi Ymddidan’ Brinley F. Roberts in Astudiaethau ar Y Hengerdd ed. Rache Bromwich & R. Brinley Jones (Cardiff 1978)
Alexander Falileyev ‘Why Jews? Why Caer Seon? Towards Interpretations of Ymddidan Taliesin ac Ugnach’ in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No. 64 Winter 2012
 By Graham Isaac in an article discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).
 As suggested by Marged Haycock in her notes to the poem ‘Kadeir TeŸrnon’ Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin (CMCS, 2007) p.310
 Also proposed by Graham Isaac and discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).
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.
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”.(****)
* 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
On a wall in the Museum in Trier is this relief of 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.