Mererid

Dyfi ynyslas
‘Maes Gwyddno’ : Dyfi Estuary at Yny Las

Mererid

Cup-bearer at the court
of Gwyddno Garanhir
she proffered the mead of prophecy,

Fore-telling the overwelling
of pride, predicting the flood
but not pre-empting the flow

From the poisoned cup of plenty
held by the plaintive stranger,
her presence inviolate.

But respect for her expected
honour waned and without it
she was unprotected.

So was the land. The waters
washed over the fetlocks of horses,
their grazing a gathering place

For dolphins, and she now diving
with them under the waves
that lap at the liminal marshland endlessly


Notes:

The office of cup bearer had its origins in an older custom and was therefore seen as both integral to the court but also an echo of something other, so its holder could be regarded as equally an insider and an outsider as an officer of the court.

Although the principal role of male cup-bearers was as poison tasters, female cup-bearers in Germanic and Celtic tribes were identified with provision and also with prophecy. The office may have had its origins in the goddess Rosmerta, the element ‘smert’  in her name means ‘provider’ , her emblems being the bucket, ladle, cup and the patera – symbols of life-giving food and drink.

The flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir are recorded in the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod. The older of the extant legends blames Mererid (‘Pearl’) – variously identified as a cup-bearer, a well maiden, the lover of one of Gwyddno’s men who had been killed in battle – as the responsible agent of the flood. The story is confused.

Mererid is portrayed as riding through the flood on a horse.

Gwyddno Garanhir’s horse was said to have been poisoned by the waters rushing down through his lands from the spilling of Ceridwen’s cauldron.

*

Cup bearers are discussed by M J Enright in Lady With a Mead Cup (Four Courts Press, 1995) 

Mererid’s story is contained in a poem in the Welsh medieval manuscript of
The Black Book of Carmarthen

The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir

In an earlier post on this blog I published a translation of the conversation between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir from the medieval Welsh manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen. I was impelled to do this as part of my own exploration of the relationship between Gwyn and Gwyddno in terms of the mythical significance of the landscape in which I live. But my intention in publishing it was to make the text available to others who might be inspired by it. One that I thought would be interested was Lorna Smithers who has since made her own use of the translation the result of which is published below. Lorna has taken this material under the mantle of an awenydd in re-imagining it and interweaving the translation with her account of the passing of Gwyddno in her own words. Her researches into the meaning of Gwyddno’s cognomen ‘Garanhir’ (usually translated ‘longshanks’ but literally indicating long legs like a crane, from the Welsh word garan=crane) are put to inspired use in her portrayal of Gwyddno’s re-adoption of his crane nature as he is guided to the halls of the dead by Gwyn ap Nudd as psychopomp.

Lorna showed me an earlier draft of this piece and I spoke of my feeling of the background of Borth Bog as a place that might have been haunted by cranes. The bog stretches down to the beach where the remains of a sunken forest can be seen at low tide, often taken to be the location the drowned land of Cantre’r Gwaelod where the legendary Gwyddno lived in his fort now beneath the waves at the end of a lost road under the sea. I have since been able to share the experience of walking along the bog with Lorna on her recent visit when we also undertook a powerful joint reading of ’The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir’ by the sea’s edge at Borth. It was a privilege to be able to work with Lorna on this and for her to be contributing her tale of Gwyddno’s crossing here:

Borth beach

Mist drowns the beach at Borth. Not this-Borth or the other-Borth but somewhere inbetween. An old man, grey-skinned, crane-legged, picks his way along the pebbled edge of his drowned land, spumes of tidal foam spilling over his feet.

He recalls days of watching cranes from the estuary; wide white winged, red and black masked, knowing every step of their dancing legs and its meaning. Words and letters are now slipping away like the patterns of that intricate black-legged dance.

Images wash against him: a drunken sloth, a dishevelled maid, between them a broken cup. Breached floodgates and the sea washing in scarred by lightning bolts beneath a sky of storm.

The madness of a leaping coracle. A face white as sea-foam. A cold hand sliding from his grasp as with a swirl of blonde she was gone.

A youth stirring a cauldron spilling three careless drops. Cracking black iron. A deluge of poison. His beloved horses drinking, rolling, burning, searing, tossing their necks, lips spuming froth.

His son finding that youth sewn into a weathered crane-skin bag instead of salmon in the abundant weir. Unpicking the stitches. The flashing needle speaking its letters. The immortal speech of the radiant-browed one stepping uncanny from the dark unfolding womb.

How that child-bard freed his son from the dragon’s castle. His grey-eyed worry and irregular beating of his heart.

Cors FochnoThe old man can no longer remember any names. He believes this is because the cranes are gone. They upped on white wings on the day of the storm, dark legs carving ominous signs across the skies. Settled in new wetlands. Visited estuaries until the poison spilled, their trembling legs gave way and their wings sunk under the boiling muddy brew (as she sunk years ago).

He will never see each red and black face he knew by name. She will never don her mask. They will never dance, elegant, long-legged at court or knee-deep wading through wetlands.

He will never match faces to names. He will never remember his kinsmen who died fighting in the north as he lay in his chamber afloat on despair and old age lifted only by imagined cries of cranes returning. He can no longer remember his name.

He picks his way along the edge of his drowned land, white tidal spumes tugging at his feet, face grey and weathered like a bag of crane-skin on tall and unsteady legs. His twitching shoulders remind him of wings carrying him to this beach where he drowns in mist and nameless sorrow.

Borth Beach IIBeginning to fear he cannot bear his sadness anymore, he looks west. The sky is lit by a mysterious brightness. Breaking the pall like lightning, a white warrior steps from the mist with a horned helmet, upright shield and spear, leading a white horse streaming from its bridle followed by a white dog with a tail of clouds whose red nose is the setting sun.

The old man sees a thousand battles; shattered shields, broken helmets, heads pierced by spears, in his furious gaze. His ears fill with battle-cries; death-cries.

He sways in awe and terror before this fierce bull of battle, who seems to carry the very dead within his person, yet addresses him in the traditional manner and asks with dignity for protection.

“You who ask shall have protection.” The warrior’s kindness is disarming.

The old man trembles with relief. “Who are you? Where do you come from?”

“I come from many battles. Many deaths.”

Death-scenes flash before the old man’s eyes. Blood drenched armour. Men bent on spears. Words wrenched from agony. Flesh torn by ravens. He sees faces but cannot remember their names although he shares their pain and tears drench his cheeks. A wild whinny shakes him.

“My horse is Carngrwn; terror of the field,” says the warrior. “My name is Gwyn ap Nudd, lover of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd.”

When the old man hears those names his inner crane-knowing awakens. He remembers his mother’s stories about Gwyn ap Nudd: the warrior-huntsman who haunts wildernesses and places of the dead and may be invoked or placated for love of his partner, Creiddylad. He remembers her crane-tales. How she lifted him from a crane-bag and gifted him with a name.

“My name is… garan…” he stumbles in reply… “Gwyddno… Garanhir.” As he recalls being taken into his mother’s white, feathery wings, other memories flood back to him: the names of his wife Ystradwen, his son Elffin, the child-bard Taliesin, Seithenin and Mererid who broke the flood gates.

Gwyddno speaks his rush of memories to Gwyn, who listens patiently until Carngrwn paws the tides and pulls away from the bridle, chomping foam from his golden bit.

“The white horse calls this talk to an end,” Gwyn speaks abruptly. “We must depart to further bloodshed in Tawe and Nedd, not this Tawe but the one far away where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore. To my sorrow I attended a battle at Caer Fanddwy…”

Gwyddno shivers at Gwyn’s words of another Tawe and the name of a fortress that is not of thisworld. He recalls stories about Gwyn riding forth from the otherworld to gather the souls of the dead. An awful knowing washes over him like tidal waters, beginning from his toes.

The white hound draws closer ruddy-nosed. “His name is Dormach,” says Gwyn. “Do not fear him. He was with Maelgwn and has accompanied many of the other men of your lineage to protection within my realm.”

Gwyddno’s vision swims. Dormach shifts into mist to dog again his nose to sun to nose. The death-hound’s gaze remains constant, inescapable.

“I was there at the deaths of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio,” Gwyn says, “Bran son of Ywerydd, Llachau son of Arthur, Meurig son of Careian and Gwallog son of Llenog. I helped them cross. They will be waiting for you on the otherside.”

As the names of long forgotten kinsmen return to match their war-torn faces, Gwyddno yearns to be re-united. His crane-wings stir.

Yet the gatherer of souls has not finished his speech. Gwyn cries:

“I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain,
from the east to the north;
I live on; they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain,
from the east to the south;
I live on; they are dead.”

Gwyn mounts his rearing white horse and they depart in a fury of sea foam into clouds of unendurable brightness.

Borth Beach IVThe mist lifts and Gwyddno sees his lost land illuminated within a boat’s reach by the light of the setting sun. Yet he does not need a boat and oars to follow where Dormach leads.

Gwyddno Garanhir hears the call of cranes bellowing, aching, sees their white wings, recognises every face, knows it is time to return to the flock. He spreads his wings. Puts on his red-black mask. His legs spell his crossing in black letters across blue-bright skies as he joins his kindred, finally touching feathers with his wife, promising later they will dance their names.

This crossing was not his final one. He may be found at Borth when the mist descends, white winged, crane-legged, a wise old man unsewing a crane bag, speaking of salmon, whispering to horses of sea-foam, a teacher of words and letters, telling often (as his mother did) the stories of Gwyn ap Nudd.

The Name of the Well Maiden

John Rhys, in his study Celtic Foklore (1901), discussing a poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen , dealing with the inundation of Cantre’r Gwaelod on the shores of Cardigan Bay, says this:
“The name … Mererid, Margarita, ‘a pearl’ … but what does it here mean? …. the name given to some negligent guardian of a fairy well. It cannot very well be, however, the name belonging to the original form of the legend.”

My own meditation on this question follows, based on my experience of this landscape and its resonant features.

BorthForestThe remains of trees on the beach at Borth, Cardigan Bay

What is the name of the well maiden?
– the one who wept
tears of grief when the seal was broken
so the engulfing waters swept
over the land , drowning the forest that watched the sea?

Was it ‘Pearl’
– a hidden bud
of moisture in the enclosing earth
and stone, its pulse swelling to a flood
rushing down the cairn-strewn hill?

If not Mererid,
then to what hidden name will she answer
to those who seek the source?
Is she kin to Sulis or Coventina,
or to some sea nymph, say Morgana

Dwelling now in Gwyddno’s fort out under
the crashing waves
where the old road runs into the sea
her hair laved by the ebb and flow of the tides,
her wail echoed in the seabird’s plaintive cries.

Maes Gwyddno and the Waters of the Otherworld

DSC00375
The semi-fossilised remains of trees on the beach near Borth.

Maes Gwyddno lies under the sea, west of the Cambrian Mountains and around the estuary of the River Dyfi. Some of it is still open to the air: sand dunes, salt marsh, peat bog and water meadows reclaimed from the bog and the marsh. Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Longshanks’) whose land it was, spoke with Gwyn ap Nudd, and was the father of Elffin who found the infant Taliesin in a salmon weir on the land called Maes Gwyddno , better known as Cantre’r Gwaelod, the lost land under the waves. So much myth, legend and Brythonic lore implicate him in the unfolding of their stories. The intersections of legend, geology and history are enmeshed here too as this is a factually drowned land as the semi-fossilised trees uncovered on the beach at low tide confirm. Most of these can be seen near the village of Borth, originally surmised to be Porth Gwyddno. To the south and to the north of this area causeways run out into the sea and they too are uncovered at low tide like roads running into an undersea domain. At the end of one of these, known as Sarn Cynfelyn, is a rocky outcrop marked on the maps as Caer Wyddno (“Gwyddno’s Fort’). According to the Taliesin story the salmon weir in which he was found by Elffin was in sight of Gwyddno’s fortress and so, knowing the stretch of coast as intimately as I do, I wonder which of the rivers running into the sea across the level land between the cliffs either side is the one on which the weir was placed. Was it Eleri, as at least one re-telling in Welsh claims? Was it Clarach? – though this seems too far south. Or was it one of the other streams that run into these rivers, or like Clettwr into the Dyfi estuary, but which might once have run directly to the sea?

It is difficult to know as the land is submerged and the coastline is not now where it was. The well-known story is that a character called Seithennin did not close the sluice gates when the tide came in because he was drunk. But this story is a recent one. The older story, recorded in verses in The Black Book of Carmarthen which are thought once to have been part of a prose saga, tells of a woman called Mererid who has caused the flood. She is referred to by the title ‘Machteith’ which means ‘maiden’ but was also an official title indicating an office at court, often the attendant of the Queen. As she is also called a “fountain cup bearer” she clearly had some responsibility for a well or spring. John Rhŷs identifies a number of legends from Wales according to which lakes have their origins in the overflowing of sacred wells when they have been neglected or because the well guardian is offended in some way. This is part of Rhŷs’s general survey of the importance of water as a portal to the Otherworld[*].

So the drowned land was submerged because Mererid allowed the well to overflow. But who was she? We might suppose she had the office of guardian or priestess of the well. As such her story can be re-imagined as it is HERE. Her name is the equivalent of Margaret or ‘Pearl’. John Rhŷs felt that this could hardly have been her original name and other, more recent, scholars have agreed. One analysis of the structure of the verses finds the lines containing her name to be metrically too long.[**] So a shorter name would be a better fit. Elsewhere John Rhŷs suggests that the name Morgan or Morgen (‘sea-born’) would have been attached to female water spirits who inhabited wells or springs as well as to mermaids. So was Gwyddno’s land flooded in the same way that lakes like Llyn Llech Owen were created by the overflowing of a spring, and did a Morgan, a nereid or water deity, cause the land to be engulfed by water from the Otherworld?

If we retreat from the flat land and climb to higher ground, to where the old Roman road called Sarn Elen runs along a ridge, we will find a Bronze Age chambered tomb known as Bedd Taliesin (‘Taliesin’s Grave’) just above the ridge and below a track running off from Sarn Elen, to an area of higher ground called Cae’r Arglwyddes (‘The Lady’s Field’) which is scattered with the remains of what look like many broken cairns. Even higher, sitting in its own rocky bowl above this, is a lake called Moel Y Llyn. From one side of the lake streams run off to form the River Clettwr which runs directly down the wooded slopes to join the estuary of the River Dyfi, and on the other side streams run off to form the River Ceulan which flows on into the River Eleri. But none of these streams run directly from the lake as the following piece of local folklore, translated here directly from Welsh, indicates:


“There are a number of unexplained mysteries linked with the lake. No crystal shines brighter than its waters though they are heavy with peat. No drop of water runs into it nor from it. The lake is self-sufficient and unchanging. I saw it in the Winter of 1936 and it was full, but a friend who accompanied me said he had seen it in the middle of the dry summer and it was no different and was equally full then. Summer and Winter – wet or dry – the lake is the same.

According to tradition the lake is guarded by a supernatural power. The following story was told by Mr Richard Griffiths [… references to the reliability and family connections of the source …]. One summer when there had been no rain for several weeks the River Ceulan dried up and the owner of the water mill decided to release the waters of the lake into the river to get the mill working again. He went with others up to the lake on a clear summer’s day and began digging a ditch towards the lake. As they were working heavy clouds formed and began to descend and a gloom came over the mountain above them. Thunder and lightning followed as a violent storm developed. The men fled in fear for their lives. The ditch can still be seen at the lakeside. Mr Griffiths estimated that this had happened about 120 years before.” [***]


Imagine then if the ‘supernatural power’ of this lake was unleashed. Something worse than the digging of a ditch by the miller must have been involved to offend such a spirit and cause the lake to overflow. But if it did then the waters rushing down the hill would fill the narrow rivers running down to the sea and overflow onto the steep slopes to drown the flat land of Gwyddno’s domain below allowing the sea to wash over them. Might this have been the original story that is reflected in the verses about Mererid? She is said to cry out from the ramparts of the fortress and from the back of a bay horse. The refrain “after presumption there is loss .. after presumption there is repentance .. after excess is want” seems to indicate regret. Seithennin here is addressed in the first verse and in the final verse he is referred to as “Seithennin the presumptuous” in his grave. We can only guess at what story was told in a lost saga relating the events leading to the flood. Flood legends are common. But Rachel Bromwich observed that the story was “not to be sought in the Bible tale; here we have an ancient story-theme common to the Celtic nations” [****].

What links, if any, can be made to the other stories about Maes Gwyddno? ‘Taliesin’s Grave’ some way below the lake has been dated to the Bronze Age. There is a ‘Gwion’s Hill’ (Bronwion) just over the ridge above the Einon Valley. It is said in the tale of Taliesin that the contents of Cerridwen’s cauldron spilt into the river and poisoned Gwyddno’s horse so its estuary was afterwards referred to ‘’Gwenwynfeirch Gwyddno’ (Gwyddno’s Horse-poison). Gwilym Morus has outlined his own theories about links between this landscape and the Taliesin story HERE. But any attempt to link it with the inundation would place the origins of the legend a lot further back in time than the sixth century. The common denominator in all this is Gwyddno Garanhir. Rachel Bromwich says of him that “It would seem that the historical Gwyddno of the North either took over some of the attributes of an earlier mythological character , or that there were two persons of the same name known to tradition.” [****] Either way he seems to be a key figure in the mythological, the legendary and the imaginative life of the Brythonic cultural ethos so it is hardly surprising that we also have a record of him conversing with Gwyn ap Nudd.

[*] John Rhŷs Celtic Folklore (1901)
[**] Jenny Rowland Early Welsh Saga Poetry (1990)
[***] Evan Isaac Coelion Cymru (1938)
[****] Rachel Bromwich ‘Cantref y Gwaelod and Ker Is’ chapter in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe eds. C Fox & B Dickens (1950)