Welsh mythology

Last updated

Welsh mythology consists of both folk traditions developed in Wales, and traditions developed by the Celtic Britons elsewhere before the end of the first millennium. As in most of the predominantly oral societies Celtic mythology and history were recorded orally by specialists such as druids (Welsh : derwyddon). This oral record has been lost or altered as a result of outside contact and invasion over the years. Much of this altered mythology and history is preserved in medieval Welsh manuscripts, which include the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, the Book of Aneirin and the Book of Taliesin. Other works connected to Welsh mythology include the ninth-century Latin historical compilation Historia Brittonum ("History of the Britons") and Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century Latin chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), as well as later folklore, such as the materials collected in The Welsh Fairy Book by William Jenkyn Thomas (1908).



The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

The Two Kings (sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, 1984) near Harlech Castle, Wales. Bran the Blessed carries the body of his nephew Gwern. Harlech Statue The Two Kings.jpg
The Two Kings (sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, 1984) near Harlech Castle, Wales. Brân the Blessed carries the body of his nephew Gwern.

Four of the mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion are collectively known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. They concentrate largely on the exploits of various British deities who have been Christianized into kings and heroes. The only character who appears in every branch is Pryderi fab Pwyll, the king of Dyfed, who is born in the first Branch, is killed in the fourth, and is probably a reflex of the Celtic god Maponos. [1] The only other recurring characters are Pryderi's mother Rhiannon, associated with the peaceful British prince Manawydan, who later becomes her second husband. Manawydan and his siblings Brân the Blessed (Welsh : Bendigeidfran or Brân Fendigaidd "Blessed Crow"), Branwen and Efnysien are the key players of the second branch, while the fourth branch concerns itself with the exploits of the family of Dôn, which includes the wizard Gwydion, his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and his sister, Arianrhod.

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

The first branch tells of how Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, exchanges places for a year with Arawn, the ruler of Annwn (the otherworld), defeats Arawn's enemy Hafgan, and on his return encounters Rhiannon, a beautiful maiden whose horse cannot be caught up with. He manages to win her hand at the expense of Gwawl, to whom she is betrothed, and she bears him a son, but the child disappears soon after his birth. Rhiannon is accused of killing him and forced to carry guests on her back as punishment. The child has been taken by a monster, and is rescued by Teyrnon and his wife, who bring him up as their own, calling him Gwri of the Golden hair, until his resemblance to Pwyll becomes apparent. They return him to his real parents, Rhiannon is released from her punishment, and the boy is renamed Pryderi.

Branwen ferch Llŷr

In the second branch Branwen, sister of Brân the Blessed, king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Branwen's half-brother Efnysien insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses, and in compensation Brân gives Matholwch new horses and treasure, including a magical cauldron that can restore the dead to life. Matholwch and Branwen have a son, Gwern, but Matholwch proceeds to mistreat Branwen, beating her and making her a drudge. Branwen trains a starling to take a message to Brân, who goes to war against Matholwch. His army crosses the Irish Sea in ships, but Brân is so huge that he wades across. The Irish offer to make peace, and build a house big enough to entertain Bran, but inside they hang a hundred bags, telling Efnysien they contain flour, when in fact they conceal armed warriors. Efnysien kills the warriors by squeezing the bags. Later, at the feast, Efnysien throws Gwern on the fire and fighting breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, Efnysien hides among the corpses and destroys the cauldron, although the effort costs him his life. Only seven men, all Britons, survive the battle, including Pryderi, Manawydan and Bran, who is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Brân asks his companions to cut off his head and take it back to Britain. Branwen dies of grief on returning home. Five pregnant women survive to repopulate Ireland.

Manawydan fab Llŷr

Pryderi and Manawydan return to Dyfed, where Pryderi marries Cigfa and Manawydan marries Rhiannon. However, a mist descends on the land, leaving it empty and desolate. The four support themselves by hunting at first, then move to England, where they make a living by making, successively, saddles, shields and shoes. Each time their products are of such quality that local craftsmen cannot compete, and drive them from town to town. Eventually they return to Dyfed and become hunters again. A white boar leads them to a mysterious castle. Against Manawydan's advice, Pryderi goes inside, but does not return. Rhiannon goes to investigate and finds him clinging to a bowl, unable to speak. The same fate befalls her, and the castle disappears. Manawydan and Cigfa return to England as shoemakers, but once again the locals drive them out and they return to Dyfed. They sow three fields of wheat, but the first field is destroyed before it can be harvested. The next night the second field is destroyed. Manawydan keeps watch over the third field, and when he sees it destroyed by mice he catches their leader and decides to hang it. A scholar, a priest and a bishop in turn offer him gifts if he will spare the mouse, but he refuses. When asked what he wants in return for the mouse's life, he demands the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon, and the lifting of the enchantment over Dyfed. The bishop agrees, because the mouse is in fact his wife. He has been waging magical war against Dyfed because he is a friend of Gwawl, whom Pwyll, Pryderi's father, humiliated.

Math fab Mathonwy

While Pryderi rules Dyfed, in the south of Wales, Gwynedd in the north of Wales is ruled by Math, son of Mathonwy. His feet must be held by a virgin except while he is at war. Math's nephew, Gilfaethwy, is in love with Goewin, his current footholder, and Gilfaethwy's brother Gwydion tricks Math into going to war against Pryderi so Gilfaethwy can have access to her. Gwydion kills Pryderi in single combat, and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math marries Goewin to save her from disgrace, and banishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, transforming them into a breeding pair of deer, then pigs, then wolves. After three years they are restored to human form and return.

Math needs a new footholder, and Gwydion suggests his sister, Arianrhod, but when Math magically tests her virginity she gives birth to two sons. One, Dylan, immediately takes to the sea. The other child is raised by Gwydion, but Arianrhod tells him he will never have a name or arms unless she gives them to him, and refuses to do so. Gwydion tricks her into naming him Lleu Llaw Gyffes ("Bright, of deft hand"), and giving him arms. She then tells him he will never have a wife of any race living on Earth, so Gwydion and Math make him a wife from flowers, called Blodeuwedd (possibly "Flower face", though other etymologies have been suggested). Blodeuwedd falls in love with a hunter, Gronw Pebr, and they plot to kill Lleu. Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing the means by which he can be killed, but when Gronw attempts to do the deed Lleu escapes, transformed into an eagle. Gwydion finds Lleu and transforms him back into human form, and turns Blodeuwedd into an owl, renaming her Blodeuwedd and cursing her. Gronw offers to compensate Lleu, but Lleu insists on returning the blow that was struck against him. Gronw pleads to be allowed to hide behind a rock when he attempts to kill him. Lleu agrees. He kills Gronw with his spear, which is thrown so hard it pierces him through the stone he is hiding behind.

Cad Goddeu

A large tradition seems to have once surrounded the Battle of the Trees, a mythological conflict fought between the sons of Dôn and the forces of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, and seemingly connected to the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Amaethon, one of the sons of Dôn, steals a white roebuck and a whelp from Arawn, king of the otherworld, leading to a great battle.

Gwydion fights alongside his brother and, assisted by Lleu, enchants the "elementary trees and sedges" to rise up as warriors against Arawn's forces. The alder leads the attack, while the aspen falls in battle, and heaven and earth tremble before the oak, a "valiant door keeper against the enemy". The bluebells combine and cause a "consternation" but the hero is the holly, tinted with green.

A warrior fighting alongside Arawn cannot be vanquished unless his enemies can guess his name. Gwydion guesses the warrior's name, identifying him from the sprigs of alder on his shield, and sings two englyns:

"Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield

Native tales

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Beginning of The Dream of Macsen Wledig from the White Book of Rhydderch, f.45.r Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch f. 45 r. Beginning of Macsen Wledig.png
Beginning of The Dream of Macsen Wledig from the White Book of Rhydderch, f.45.r

This account is so different from Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Maximian (as Geoffrey calls him) in Historia regum Britanniae that scholars agree that the Dream cannot be based purely on Geoffrey's version. The Dream's account also seems to accord better with details in the Triads, so it perhaps reflects an earlier tradition.

Macsen Wledig, the Emperor of Rome, dreams one night of a lovely maiden in a wonderful, far-off land. Awakening, he sends his men all over the earth in search of her. With much difficulty they find her in a rich castle in Britain, daughter of a chieftain based at Segontium (Caernarfon), and lead the Emperor to her. Everything he finds is exactly as in his dream. The maiden, whose name is Helen or Elen, accepts and loves him. Because Elen is found a virgin, Macsen gives her father sovereignty over the island of Britain and orders three castles built for his bride. [2] In Macsen's absence, a new emperor seizes power and warns him not to return. With the help of men from Britain led by Elen's brother Conanus (Welsh: Kynan Meriadec, French: Conan Meriadoc), Macsen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Macsen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that becomes known as Brittany.

Lludd and Llefelys

The opening lines of Lludd and Llefelys (Bodleian Library's manuscript) Jesus-College-MS-111 00347 174r (cropped) Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys.jpg
The opening lines of Lludd and Llefelys (Bodleian Library's manuscript)

Another mythological story included in the Mabinogion is the tale of Lludd and Llefelys . Lludd is king of Britain, and his brother, Llefelys, is king of France. Lludd's kingdom is beset by three menaces: the Coraniaid, a demonic people who can hear everything; a terrible scream that is heard every May Eve that terrifies the people; and the continual disappearance of the provisions of the king's court. Lludd asks Llefelys for help, speaking to him through a brass tube so the Coraniaid can't hear. Llefelys creates a potion of crushed insects in water which destroys the Coraniaid when sprinkled on them. The scream, he discovers, comes from two dragons fighting. He gets the dragons drunk on mead and buries them in Dinas Emrys in what is now North Wales. He then overcomes the wizard who is stealing all of Lludd's provisions and makes him serve Lludd.

Hanes Taliesin

Guest included Hanes Taliesin in her translation of the Mabinogion, despite the absence of this tale from the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Subsequent scholarship has identified the tale as post-medieval and it is left out of most modern editions of the Mabinogion. Still, elements of the tale predate this presentation. The tale is distinct from the Book of Taliesin, which is a collection of poems attributed to Taliesin.

According to the story, Taliesin began life as Gwion Bach, a servant to the enchantress Ceridwen. Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and a horribly ugly son named Avagddu (elsewhere known as Morfran). Ceridwen determines to help her son by brewing a magic potion, the first three drops of which will give him the gift of wisdom and inspiration (awen). The potion has to be cooked for a year and a day, so Ceridwen enlists a blind man named Morda to tend the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stirs. Three hot drops spill onto Gwion's thumb as he stirred, and he instinctively puts his thumb in his mouth, instantly gaining wisdom and knowledge. The first thought that occurs to him is that Ceridwen will kill him, so he runs away.

Soon enough Ceridwen engages Gwion in a transformation chase in which they turn themselves into various animals – a hare and a greyhound, a fish and an otter, and a bird and a hawk. Exhausted, Gwion finally turns himself into a single grain of corn, but Ceridwen becomes a hen and eats him. Ceridwen becomes pregnant, and when she gives birth she throws the child into the ocean in a leather bag. The bag is found by Elffin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, who sees the boy's beautiful white brow and exclaims "dyma dal iesin" ("this is a radiant brow") Taliesin, thus named, begins to recite beautiful poetry.

Elffin raises Taliesin as his son, and the two become involved in several adventures. In the presence of Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, Elffin claims that his wife is as virtuous as the king's wife, and that Taliesin is a better bard than the king's. Maelgwn locks Elffin up and sends his boorish son Rhun to defile Elffin's wife and steal her ring as evidence. However, Taliesin has Elffin's wife replaced with a kitchen maid, thus preserving Elffin's claim. Taliesin then humiliates Maelgwn's bards with his skill, and frees his foster-father.

Arthurian Tales

History of the Kings (f.75.v) King Arthur History of the Kings (f.75.v) King Arthur.jpg
History of the Kings (f.75.v) King Arthur

Culhwch and Olwen

The opening lines of Culhwch and Olwen, from the Red Book of Hergest Jesus-College-MS-111 00400 200v (cropped) Culhwch ac Olwen.jpg
The opening lines of Culhwch and Olwen, from the Red Book of Hergest

While Culhwch and Olwen , also found in the Mabinogion, is primarily an Arthurian tale, in which the hero Culhwch enlists Arthur's aid in winning the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden the Giant, it is full of background detail, much of it mythological in nature. Characters such as Amaethon, the divine ploughman, Mabon ap Modron, the divine son, and the psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd make appearances, the latter in an endless seasonal battle with Gwythyr ap Greidawl for the hand of Creiddylad. The conditions placed on Culhwch by his mother are similar to those placed on Lleu Llaw Gyffes by Arianrhod, and Culhwch's arrival at Arthur's court is reminiscent of the Irish god Lug's arrival at the court of Nuada Airgetlám in Cath Maige Tuired .

Owain, or The Lady of the Fountain

The hero of Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain , is based on the historical figure Owain mab Urien. He appears as Ywain in later continental tradition. The romance consists of a hero marrying his love, the Lady of the Fountain, but losing her when he neglects her for knightly exploits. With the aid of a lion he saves from a serpent, he finds a balance between his marital and social duties and rejoins his wife. The narrative is related to Chrétien de Troyes' French romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion .

Peredur son of Efrawg

The narrative corresponds to Chrétien's romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail , although, as with the other Welsh romances, scholars still debate the work's exact relationship to Chrétien's poem. It is possible that this romance preserves some of the material found in Chrétien's source. The sequence of some events is altered and many original episodes appear, including the hero's 14-year sojourn in Constantinople reigning with the Empress, which contains remnants of a sovereignty tale. The Holy Grail is replaced with a severed head on a platter. Despite the differences, however, the influence of the French romance cannot be discounted, particularly as its first part hardly matches the second.

The hero's father dies when he is young, and his mother takes him into the woods and raises him in isolation. Eventually he meets a group of knights and determines to become like them, so he travels to King Arthur's court. There he is ridiculed by Cei and sets out on further adventures, promising to avenge Cei's insults to himself and those who defended him. While travelling he meets two of his uncles, the first plays the role of Percival's Gornemant and educates him in arms and warns him not to ask the significance of what he sees. The second replaces Chrétien's Fisher King, but instead of showing Peredur the Holy Grail he reveals a salver containing a man's severed head. The young knight does not ask about this and proceeds to further adventure, including a stay with the Nine Witches of Gloucester and the encounter with the woman who was to be his true love, Angharad Golden-Hand. Peredur returns to Arthur's court, but soon embarks on another series of adventures that do not correspond to material in Percival (Gawain's exploits take up this section of the French work.) Eventually the hero learns the severed head at his uncle's court belonged to his cousin, who had been killed by the Nine Witches of Gloucester. Peredur avenges his family, and is celebrated as a hero.

Geraint son of Erbin

This narrative corresponds to Chrétien's Erec and Enide , in which the hero is Erec. The romance concerns the love of Geraint, one of King Arthur's men, and the beautiful Enid. The couple marry and settle down together, but rumors spread that Geraint has gone soft. Upset about this, Enid cries to herself that she is not a true wife for keeping her husband from his chivalric duties, but Geraint misunderstands her comment to mean she has been unfaithful to him. He makes her join him on a long and dangerous trip and commands her not to speak to him. Enid disregards this command several times to warn her husband of danger. Several adventures follow that prove Enid's love and Geraint's fighting ability. The couple is happily reconciled in the end, and Geraint inherits his father's kingdom.

Preiddeu Annwfn

The Spoils of Annwfn is a cryptic early medieval poem of sixty lines found in the Book of Taliesin. The text recounts an expedition to the Otherworld, led by King Arthur, to retrieve a magical cauldron. The speaker relates how he journeyed with Arthur and three boatloads of men into Annwfn, but only seven returned. Annwfn is apparently referred to by several names, including "Mound Fortress," "Four-Peaked Fortress," and "Glass Fortress", though it is possible the poet intended these to be distinct places. Within the Mound Fort's walls Gweir, one of the "Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain" known from the Welsh Triads, [3] is imprisoned in chains. The narrator then describes the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn; it is finished with pearl and will not boil a coward's food. Whatever tragedy ultimately killed all but seven of them is not clearly explained. The poem continues with an excoriation of "little men" and monks, who lack in various forms of knowledge possessed by the poet.


The Welsh had been Christian for several centuries before their former mythology was written down, and their gods had long been transformed into kings and heroes of the past. Many of the characters who exhibit divine characteristics fall into two rival families, the Plant Dôn ("Children of Dôn") and the Plant Llŷr ("Children of Llŷr").

Children of Dôn

Gronw and Blodeuwedd Blodeuwedd and Gronw.jpeg
Gronw and Blodeuwedd

Dôn, daughter of Mathonwy, was the matriarch of one family. Her husband is never specifically named.

Other figures associated with the Children of Dôn include:

Efnysien's self-sacrifice (image by T. Prytherch) Efnysien.jpeg
Efnysien's self-sacrifice (image by T. Prytherch)

Children of Llŷr

Llŷr, the patriarch of the other family, is possibly a borrowing of the Irish sea-god Ler. A foreign origin is further suggested by his epithet Llediaith ("half-speech"). His wife was Penarddun. According to the Mabinogion she was the mother of his three children, plus two others by Euroswydd. The Mabinogi name her as a daughter of Beli Mawr, though this may be an error for sister. Penarddun and Llŷr's children include:

Other figures associated with the Children of Llŷr include:

Kingdom of Dyfed

Rhiannon and Pryderi Pryderi and Rhiannon.jpg
Rhiannon and Pryderi

Family of Beli Mawr

Beli Mawr is an ancestor figure mentioned in various sources. Though obscure as a character, several of the many descendants attributed to him figure strongly in Welsh tradition. Works derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae name him as a King of Britain. The Second Branch of the Mabinogi name Beli as the father of Penarddun, though this may be a mistake for brother. [5] Beli's more prominent children include:


Arthurian characters

King Arthur

While Arthurian literature grew to become a broadly European phenomenon, the Welsh can claim the earliest appearances of Arthur. Before Arthur became an international figure, writings and oral tales concerning him were more or less restricted to the Brythonic nations of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. These tales in turn are divided roughly into Pre-Galfridian Traditions and those of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Wales also contributed to the Arthur of the Romance Tradition after the titular heir became an international sensation.

Pre-Galfridian texts

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Welsh Arthurian romance

Each of these tales are contained within the modern Mabinogion collection, and are likely based on the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (though it is possible that they may have had a common Celtic source). See the above section on "The Three Romances" in The Mabinogion for details on these tales.


Mythical creatures

Folk narrative

Includes folk tales, legends, traditions and anecdotes. The cyfarwyddiaid (singular: cyfarwydd, "storyteller"), were members of the bardic order in Wales. The only historical cyfarwydd known by name is Bledri ap Cydifor ('Bledericus Walensis', 'Bleherus').

The cyfawyddiaid were considered a learned class with duties and an education that exceeded that of a common poet. They were court officials with extensive training in their art, and often had a close relationship with their lord. Their duties extended to the traditions involved in praising, celebrating and mourning their lord. Welsh folklore includes a number of tales that were preserved and told by the cyfarwyddiaid, who were also tasked with conserving the traditional historical material, the accepted myth of the Welsh past, and sharing the corresponding stories, being considered as historians themselves. Besides storytelling, the cyfarwyddiaid also had the task of protecting the genealogies of the powerful families. [13]

The tales of Welsh lore were shared as proverbs and songs, in addition to simple spoken stories. The historical tales were told along with the non-historical fables, without significant distinction. This allowed culture and history to be explored and taught through the poetics of the time. [13] In earlier periods, the penceirddiaid are believed to have narrated stories in the courts of princes and nobles. Later, the stories were told by the cyfarwyddiaid for audiences other than nobility. [14]

The writing of medieval folklore had adopted and explored a set of rules and themes. It relied on the poetic triads of the time, poetics, old verse and knowledge of histories, which enabled the conception of well-crafted stories about the historical truths of the population. Additionally, regions would adopt their own guidelines in storymaking, such as the Triads of the Island of Britain, which led tales to be based on mythological, historical and heroic themes. [13] The writing also followed structure, having a chronological series of events in short episodes, known as features, which reflect the oral origins of the tales for easy story-telling to the audiences. [15]

Welsh folklore was often compared to Irish literature of similar value. They both consisted of similar structure and aimed to inform about the past, rather than to target the mistakes of their ancestry with satire. [15] The form of these tales also mimicked that of early Irish sagas, being prose sprinkled with poetry. [14] Moreover, the conservation of Irish tales was also performed by a class of gentry, much like the cyfarwyddiaid of Wales. [15] However, even with other similar duties, the Irish bards were not story-tellers. That role was saved for the poets in Ireland. [14]

This type of storytelling, in both Ireland and Wales, was believed to have arisen through spiritual inspiration. The poets spoke ‘through’ great knowledge, which was sometimes thought to be acquired only by the practice of divination, a concept known as ái in Irish, and awen in Welsh. The Welsh cyfarwyddiaid were thus considered awenyddion, able to deliver prophetic speech in a possessed state of awen. [14] This is not the only ritual practice that evolved around Welsh folklore, as other customs have originated from the tales themselves. [16]

Folk tales and legends have also survived through retellings by common people. Storytelling could and does occur in many different forms: "gossip, games, dancing, and the reciting of riddles, tongue-twisters, nursery-rhymes, harp-stanzas, folk-songs and ballads." [17] Common occasions for telling folk narratives were the nosweithiau llawen (or "merry evenings," similar to a céilidh), nosweithiau gwau ("knitting nights"), and Calan Gaeaf (Winter's Eve).

Tales about animals with human characteristics

The most famous of these are the tales concerning the "Oldest Animals," in which a character gathers information from different animals until the oldest animal is located. Culhwch and Olwen lists the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy, and the Salmon of Llyn Llyw. The Triad "The Three Elders of the World" lists several of the oldest birds.

Formula tales

Including cumulative tales and stories without end.

Humour about actual persons or types

Includes White Lie Tales, which are obviously and intentionally untrue. Common elements include the narrator's experiences in America, adventures while being carried on wings of a large bird, growing enormous vegetables, prowess at shooting around corners, ability to see over great distances, buying a hare’s egg at Pwllheli Fair. Famous recent authors in this genre are James Wade (Shemi Wad), Daniel Thomas (Daniel y Pant), Gruffydd Jones (Y Deryn Mawr) and John Pritchard (Siôn Ceryn Bach).

(Pseudo-)histories of notable figures

  • Arthur (see separate section above)
  • Twm Siôn Cati, often called the Welsh Robin Hood
  • The Lives of Saints, originally written in Latin, and usually stressing a male saint's conception, birth and childhood, while emphasizing a female saint's adolescence, virginity and sexual conflict (fleeing marriage or rape). These include the Life of St. David by Rhygyfarch, and the Life of Cadog by Lifris of Llancarfan. The MSS Cotton Vespasian Axiv, written around 1200, collects the lives of numerous saints. Another important collection is The Book of the Anchorite of Llanddewibrefi.

Local legends of historical or pseudo-historical figures

Includes Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy, a group of bandits who lived in Merioneth in the 16th century, mentioned in Thomas Pennant's Tours of Wales and other sources.

Also includes the legend of Gelert, the namesake of the town of Beddgelert (whose name means "Gelert's Grave") in the Gwynedd area of Wales. The folktale is said to take place in the 13th century, and acts as a moral story about making hasty and rash decisions. In the legend, Llywelyn the Great, then-Prince of North Wales returned from hunting to find his baby missing, the cradle overturned, and his faithful hound Gelert with blood-stained fur and teeth. Believing the dog had killed his child and heir, Llywelyn drew his sword and killed Gelert. After the dog's dying yelp, Llywelyn heard the cries of his baby, unharmed and behind the cradle, along with a dead wolf which had attacked the child and been killed by Gelert. Llywelyn is overcome with sorrow and buries the dog, traumatised from its dying yelp. After that day, Llywelyn was said to never smile again. [18]

Place-name or topography tales

Includes onomastic lore, which explains place-names. One notable example comes from the Historia Britonum, in which the name 'Carn Cafal' is shown to come from a carn (or pile of stones) which mark the footprint of Arthur's dog Cafal.

Collectors of folk tales

  • Poet-Scholars: Rhys Meurig (Rice Merrick), George Owen of Henllys.
  • Antiquarians: Edward Lhuyd, the Morris Brothers of Anglesey, Iolo Morganwg.
  • Folklorists: Daniel Silvan Evans (Y Brython, 1858), Peter Roberts (Cambrian Popular Antiquities, 1815), W. Howells (Cambrian Superstitions, 1831), Isaac Foulkes (Cymru Fu, 1862), Wirt Sikes (British Goblins, 1880), Daniel Silvan Evans, John Jones and others (Ysten Sioned), Elias Owen (Welsh Folklore, 1896), Marie Trevelyan (Folklore and Folk Stories of Wales, 1909), J. Ceredig Davies (Folk-Lore of West and Mid-Wales, 1911). [19]

Voyage tales


Gerald of Wales mentions numerous aspects of current Welsh mythology and folklore in his books Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) and Descriptio Cambriae (1194)

National histories

While the following works are considered histories, they recount what would become a common myth of origin for the Welsh.

Legacy of Welsh mythology in English literature

See also

Related Research Articles

Manawydan fab Llŷr is a figure of Welsh mythology, the son of Llŷr and the brother of Brân the Blessed and Brânwen. The first element in his name is cognate with the stem of the name of the Irish sea god Manannán mac Lir, and likely originated from the same Celtic deity as Manannán. Unlike Manannán, however, no surviving material connects him with the sea in any way except for his patronymic. Manawydan's most important appearances occur in the Second and Third Branches of the Mabinogi, but he is also referenced frequently in medieval poetry and the Welsh Triads.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gwydion</span> Character from Welsh mythology

Gwydion fab Dôn is a magician, hero and trickster of Welsh mythology, appearing most prominently in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, which focuses largely on his relationship with his young nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. He also appears prominently in the Welsh Triads, the Book of Taliesin and the Stanzas of the Graves.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pryderi</span> Character of Welsh mythology

Pryderi fab Pwyll is a prominent figure in Welsh mythology, the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, and king of Dyfed after his father's death. He is the only character to appear in all Four Branches of the Mabinogi, although the size of his role varies from tale to tale. He is often equated with the divine son figure of Mabon ap Modron, while Jeffrey Gantz compares him to Peredur fab Efrawg, who is himself associated with the continental figure of Sir Percival de Galles.

Arianrhod is a figure in Welsh mythology who plays her most important role in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. She is the daughter of Dôn and the sister of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy; the Welsh Triads give her father as Beli Mawr. In the Mabinogi her uncle Math ap Mathonwy is the King of Gwynedd, and during the course of the story she gives birth to two sons, Dylan ail Don and Lleu Llaw Gyffes, through magical means.

Lleu Llaw Gyffes is a hero of Welsh mythology. He appears most prominently in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, the tale of Math fab Mathonwy, which tells the tale of his birth, his marriage, his death, his resurrection and his accession to the throne of Gwynedd. He is a warrior and magician, invariably associated with his uncle Gwydion.

Annwn, Annwfn, or Annwfyn is the Otherworld in Welsh mythology. Ruled by Arawn, it was essentially a world of delights and eternal youth where disease was absent and food was ever-abundant.

In Welsh mythology, Arawn was the king of the otherworld realm of Annwn who appears prominently in the first branch of the Mabinogi, and alluded to in the fourth. In later tradition, the role of the king of Annwn was largely attributed to the Welsh psychopomp, Gwyn ap Nudd - meaning "white" a possible kenning for his true name. However, Arawn's memory is retained in a traditional saying found in an old Cardigan folktale:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rhiannon</span> Figure in Welsh mythology

Rhiannon is a major figure in Welsh mythology, appearing in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, and again in the Third Branch. Ronald Hutton called her "one of the great female personalities in World literature", adding that "there is in fact, nobody quite like her in previous human literature". In the Mabinogi, Rhiannon is a strong-minded Otherworld woman, who chooses Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, as her consort, in preference to another man to whom she has already been betrothed. She is intelligent, politically strategic, beautiful, and famed for her wealth and generosity. With Pwyll she has a son, the hero Pryderi, who later inherits the lordship of Dyfed. She endures tragedy when her newborn child is abducted, and she is accused of infanticide. As a widow she marries Manawydan of the British royal family, and has further adventures involving enchantments.

In Welsh tradition, Teyrnon Twryf Lliant is the lord of the Kingdom of Gwent and the foster father of the divine son, Pryderi. He appears most prominently in Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, the first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, but also features briefly in the early tale on the Matter of Britain, Culhwch and Olwen, as a knight of King Arthur. The name Teyrnon is widely acknowledged as deriving from the Common Brittonic *tigernonos, "great lord".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Efnysien</span> Anti-hero in Welsh mythology

Efnisien fab Euroswydd is a sadistic anti-hero in Welsh mythology, appearing prominently in the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr, the second branch of the Mabinogi. Described by Will Parker as "a study in the psychopathic personality" and an "embodiment of the forces of anti-social disruption," he is the catalyst of the tale's ultimate tragedy, and is largely responsible for the destruction of both Ireland and the Island of the Mighty. He is the son of Euroswydd and Penarddun, twin brother to Nisien, and half-brother to Brân the Blessed, Manawydan, and Branwen. The Welsh Triads call Llŷr one of the Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain for his captivity at Euroswydd's hands; this is likely to a lost tradition of the birth of Penarddun's younger sons.

Gwern is a minor figure in Welsh tradition. He is the son of Matholwch, king of Ireland, and Branwen, sister to the king of Britain. He appears in the tale of Branwen, daughter of Llŷr, in which his murder at the hands of his sadistic uncle Efnysien sparks a mutually destructive battle between Britain and Ireland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brân the Blessed</span> Giant and king in Welsh mythology (18-70)

Brân the Blessed is a giant and king of Britain in Welsh mythology. He appears in several of the Welsh Triads, but his most significant role is in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen ferch Llŷr. He is a son of Llŷr and Penarddun, and the brother of Brânwen, Manawydan, Nisien and Efnysien. The name "Brân" in Welsh is usually translated as crow or raven.

<i>Mabinogion</i> Earliest Welsh prose stories

The Mabinogion are the earliest Welsh prose stories, and belong to the Matter of Britain. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. There are two main source manuscripts, created c. 1350–1410, as well as a few earlier fragments. The title covers a collection of eleven prose stories of widely different types, offering drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy and humour, and created by various narrators over time. There is a classic hero quest, "Culhwch and Olwen"; a historic legend in "Lludd and Llefelys", complete with glimpses of a far off age; and other tales portray a very different King Arthur from the later popular versions. The highly sophisticated complexity of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi defies categorisation. The stories are so diverse that it has been argued that they are not even a true collection.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi or Pedair Cainc Y Mabinogi are the earliest prose stories in the literature of Britain. Originally written in Wales in Middle Welsh, but widely available in translations, the Mabinogi is generally agreed to be a single work in four parts, or "branches." The interrelated tales can be read as mythology, political themes, romances, or magical fantasies. They appeal to a wide range of readers, from young children to the most sophisticated adult. The tales are popular today in book format, as storytelling or theatre performances; they appear in recordings and on film, and continue to inspire many reinterpretations in artwork and modern fiction.

<i>Preiddeu Annwfn</i> Medieval Welsh poem

Preiddeu Annwfn or Preiddeu Annwn is a cryptic poem of sixty lines in Middle Welsh, found in the Book of Taliesin. The text recounts an expedition with King Arthur to Annwfn or Annwn, the Otherworld in Welsh.

Caradog ap Bran is the son of the British king Bran the Blessed in Welsh mythology and literature, who appears most prominently in the second branch of the Mabinogi, the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr. He is further mentioned in the Welsh Triads and in certain medieval Welsh genealogies. Caradog is the grandson of the sea god Llŷr, the nephew of Manawydan, Branwen, Efnisien and Nisien.

<i>Music for the Mabinogi</i> 1983 soundtrack album by Robin Williamson

Music for the Mabinogi is a folk soundtrack album released in 1983 by Robin Williamson. The soundtrack was created for a 1983 bi-lingual theatrical production of the Mabinogion which, during live performance runs in both Caernafon Castle and Cardiff Castle, was filmed and subsequently broadcast on the Welsh language television channel S4C and on Channel 4. The play was produced by the Cardiff based Moving Being theatre company.

<i>Branwen ferch Llŷr</i> Legendary tale in medieval Welsh literature

Branwen ferch Llŷr; "Branwen, daughter of Llŷr" is a legendary tale from medieval Welsh literature and the second of the four branches of the Mabinogi. It concerns the children of Llŷr; Bendigeidfran, high king of Britain, and his siblings Manawydan and Branwen, and deals with the latter's marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Matholwch's mistreatment of the British princess leads to a mutually destructive war between the two islands, the deaths of most of the principal characters, and the ascension of Caswallon fab Beli to the British throne. Along with the other branches, the tale can be found in the medieval Red Book of Hergest and White Book of Rhydderch. It is followed directly by the third branch, Manawydan fab Llŷr.

<i>Manawydan fab Llŷr</i>

Manawydan fab Llŷr; "Manawydan, the son of Llŷr" is a legendary tale from medieval Welsh literature and the third of the four branches of the Mabinogi. It is a direct sequel to the second branch, Branwen ferch Llŷr, and deals with the aftermath of Bran's invasion of Ireland and the horrific enchantment that transforms Dyfed into a wasteland. The chief characters of the tale are Manawydan, rightful king of Britain, his friend Pryderi, the king of Dyfed and their respective wives Rhiannon and Cigfa. Along with the other branches, the tale can be found the medieval Red Book of Hergest and White Book of Rhydderch. Allusions to the tale can be found in two old triads retained in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein.

<i>Math fab Mathonwy</i> (branch)

Math fab Mathonwy, "Math, the son of Mathonwy" is a legendary tale from medieval Welsh literature and the final of the four branches of the Mabinogi. It tells of a vicious war between the north and the south, of the birth of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Dylan ail Don, of the tyngedau of Arianrhod, and of the creation of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers. The chief characters of the tale are Math, king of Gwynedd, his nephew Gwydion, a magician, warrior and trickster, and Gwydion's own nephew, Lleu, cursed by his mother Arianrhod.


  1. Gruffydd, W. J. Rhiannon: An Inquiry into the Origins of the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi.
  2. In reality, coins of Maximus' son Flavius Victor sometimes depict a tower on the reverse, but whether this inspired the legend about the castles his father built is unknown.Coin of Flavius Victor
  3. Triad 52. Rachel Bromwich associates the Gwair of this triad with the Gweir of Preiddeu, see Trioedd Ynys Prydein pp. 146–147 and 373–374.
  4. Hutton, Ronald (2014). Pagan Britain. Yale University Press. p. 366. ISBN   978-0300197716.
  5. Gantz, Jeffrey (translator) (1987). The Mabinogion, p. 87. New York: Penguin. ISBN   0-14-044322-3.
  6. Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, pp. 284–285. University Of Wales Press. ISBN   0-7083-1386-8.
  7. Owen, Elias (1887). Welsh Folklore. Woodall, Minshall & Co. p. 2.
  8. Eberhart, George M. (2002). Mysterious Creatures A Guide to Cryptozoology. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 68. ISBN   1576077640.
  9. Sikes (1880), pp. 30–31.
  10. Rhys, John (1901). Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (Vol. 2). Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 593–6.
  11. Sikes, Wirt (1880). British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington. p. 34.
  12. Bane, Theresa (2013-08-28). Encyclopedia of fairies in world folklore and mythology. Jefferson, North Carolina. p. 218. ISBN   978-1476612423. OCLC   857489871.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. 1 2 3 Roberts, Brynley F. (1976). "Geoffrey of Monmouth and Welsh Historical Tradition". Nottingham Medieval Studies. 20: 29–40. doi:10.1484/j.nms.3.74.
  14. 1 2 3 4 Ford, Patrick (Jan 1, 1975). "The Poet as "Cyfarwydd" in Early Welsh Tradition" . Studia Celtica . 10: 152. ProQuest   1297884980 via ProQuest Periodicals Archive Online.
  15. 1 2 3 Haycock, Marged (1989). "Early and Medieval Literature". The Year's Work in Modern Language Studies . 51: 549–552. doi:10.1163/22224297-90003046. JSTOR   20868237.
  16. Frazer, J. G.; Hoggan, Frances (1893). "Notes on Welsh Folk-Lore". Folklore. 4 (1): 122–123. JSTOR   1253223.
  17. Meic Stephens, The New Companion to the Literature of Wales, pp. 250.
  18. "The Legend of Gelert the Dog".
  19. Meic Stephens, The New Companion to the Literature of Wales.
  20. Mackail 1901, pp. 280–288; Thompson 1955, pp. 151–153; MacCarthy 1994, pp. 323–324.
  21. Issued 24 January 1941. Dante Thomas A Bibliography of the Principal Writings of John Cowper Powys
  22. See index of Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory, for this.