Cantre’r Gwaelod: The Origins of the Legend of the Sunken Kingdom (Part I)

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Submerged forest exposed at low tide on Borth sands near Ynyslas, Ceredigion, Wales. It extends along the Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire coast. The stumps are only exposed in a few places at low tide, in places such as Borth and Ynyslas. At Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire, they are only visible at very low tides.

Many are the legends all over the world that recount tales of lost islands and glorious cities, once thriving on the surface of the earth, now submerged underground or within lakes or even the sea. The Celts have not excluded themselves from such a rich mythological tradition, their poetry and literature featuring a host of such fabled lands. The most known Cantre’r Gwaelod in Wales, Lyonesse in Cornwall and Ys in Brittany.

In my own mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, I’ve drawn extensive material from the stories contained in the Mabinogion and the lush Welsh tradition in general. In my attempt to conceive a singular divinity which my mortal characters could worship, I thought fit to avail myself of a world that would harken back to a mythical past in all its dreamy and otherwordly atmopshere, whose tone and symbolism would work in favour of and enhance my initial narrative.

My reserach led me to discover the fascinating myth of Cantre’r Gwaelod and all the exquisite history that surrounds it. So let’s explore the origins of said myth, shall we?

Cantre’r Gwaelod, also bearing the name of Cantref Gwaelod or Cantref y Gwaelod (translated in English as The Lowland Hundred), is a legendary ancient sunken kingdom purported to have occupied a patch of a rich, fertile land between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales.

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Sarn Gynfelyn explosed by low tide

There are several versions that explain how the kingdom ended up sinking beneath the waves. Amongst the earliest is the one thought to pop up in the Black Book of Carmarthen, in which the land bears the name of Maes Gwyddno, which in English is translated as the Plain of Gwyddno. In this version we read that the land was swallowed by floods when Mererid, the well-maiden, neglected her duties and allowed the well to overflow.

The most popular form of the legend that has reached us today is thought to have taken shape around the 17th century. Cantre’r Gwaelod is presented as a low-lying land fortified against the sea by a dyke called Sarn Badrig (“Saint Patrick’s causeway”), with a series of sluice gates opened only at low tide to drain the land.

Caer Wyddno was said to be the capital of Cantre’r Gwaelod, known as the seat of the ruler Gwyddno Garanhir (”Long-shank) who was the owner of a magical humper (mwys) which multiplied whatever food one placed in it. A guardian named Seithenyn held charge over the dyke. In one version Seithenyn is portrayed as a notorious drunkard and carouser. One day, due to his drunkeness, he neglected his duties and as a result the sea swept through the open floodgates, leaving the city in ruins.

Sunken as it is, though, the city’s church bells are said to still ring out, warning the terrestrial denizens of imminent danger.

Parallelisms can be drawn with other tales similar in content and form. British scholar Rachel Bromwich focused on a story bearing much resemblance to the one of Cantre’r Gawelod: that of the submergence of the kingdom of Helig ap Glanawg in the Conwy estuary. As with Cantre’r Gwaelod, there are accounts of visible remains of the sunken kingdom (Llys Helig). Bromwich held the conviction that the two tales influenced each other, and that “The widespread parallels to this inundation theme would suggest that the two stories are in fact one in origin, and were localized separately in Cardiganshire and in the Conway estuary, around two traditional figures of the sixth century”.

She also called attention to the fact that the Halliwell Manuscript gives Helig the title “Lord of Cantre’r Gwaelod”. Antone Minard in the book New Directions In Celtic Studies explained that “The Welsh legends of Cantre’r Gwaelod and Llys Helig (Helig’s Court) contain the same details of audible bells beneath the waves and ruins which are visible at the equinoctial tides, which are the anchors of credulity in the story”.

A host of Celtic myths offer plenty of descriptions of a submerged kingdom near Brittany and Cornwall and even in other areas in Wales as well. What are we, modern readers that we are, to do with such yarns? Are we to enjoy them, at best, or dismiss them, at worst, as the fruit of the colourful Celtic imagined reality that was always ready to conjure up otherwordly dimensions in the twinkling of an eye? Or is there behind the fable a social, political or historical context that could provide a solid, veritable basis for a credible explanation?

The myth, like many others, may cloak a folk memory of gradually rising sea levels at the end of the ice age. The visible physical remains of Sarn Badrig and of the preserved sunken forest at Borth could be an indication of some calamity, of some great tragedy a community had suffered there thousands of years ago, and so the myth may have risen from such a natural disaster.

 

Protected: The Fruit of Passion: Chapter 21 – Part VI

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Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad: A Story from the Old North

From the tales contained in the Mabinogion—the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions—that of Culhwch and Olwen is one of the most fascinating, its complexity, symbolism and various metaphors revealing it to be much more than a common folktale, elevating it to a rich work of art. This post focuses on a particulat episode recounted in the story, analyzing its themes and exploring the truth behind the powerful myth as well as its relevance to our life in the present.

From Peneverdant

Cherry BlossomCulhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.

Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.

This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because…

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The Perils of Fairy Food

Many have been the tales throughout the centuries regarding food and drink found in otherwordly domains. Various myths have offered narrations about the dangers of consuming sweets, fruits and other edible stuff either in the Underworld or some other supernatural realm. This post explores in detail the consequences humans have faced for both having eaten and having refused fairy food.

British Fairies

iro- f banquet Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Fairy foodstuffs are mysterious.  Eating or drinking within fairyland is widely accepted to be a way of ensuring that you cannot escape back to your home: you take fairy nature within yourself- and therefore you must abstain from meals whilst visiting.  Sometimes, a wise friend might warn a person of the risks before they go- as was the case with a Ross-shire midwife called to a delivery in the knoll at Big Strath; sometimes the help comes from someone already there in Faerie.  In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a girl working as a servant for the green (fairy) woman is warned by fish in a well where she draws water not to eat the household’s food.

What is odd, though, is that the converse of this rule is that, if you encounter fairy food and drink in the human world, refusing to eat it…

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Cernunnos: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (Part II)

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The “Cernunnos” type antlered figure or “horned god”, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display, at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

In my essay Olwen: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (https://lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred.wordpress.com/2019/12/28/olwen-myth-and-religion-in-the-fantastic/) I focused on the topic of forging a religiοus faith ab ovo based on mythology within a fantastic narrative. I especially touched on the mortal aspect of my mythic fantasy novel and explored the worship pertaining to my human characters.

As I’ve previously explained, Celtic motifs and perceptions abound in my work, so my cast of characters is quite miscellaneous. Therefore a number of races parade through the pages, bringing with them their own distinct beliefs and customs. I’ve essentially divided them into two groups: humans and otherwordly folk, the latter counting a cluster of kindred yet distinct nations.

The one that features prominently in my novel are the fairies or more specifically the faes as I’ve taken to calling them. Portrayed as wild and unpredictable but, also, passionate and instinctual, they are characterized by an immense joie de vivre, celebrating strength, nature, and the mysteries of life.

Keeping this psychological profile of theirs in mind, I wanted their divine cult to reflect all these qualities. And what deity could encapsulate them better than the Gaulish one named Cernunnos? For my human characters, I resorted to the Mabinogion (https://lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred.wordpress.com/2017/11/24/book-review-the-mabinogion) and the figure of Olwen, upgrading her status from a maiden with magical abilities to a divinity. However, for my fae characters there was no need to proceed likewise and fabricate a supreme being from scratch because the vision of the god I had conceived had already enjoyed once a real-life, historical basis.

But who is this fascinating deity and which are his origins?

In Celtic studies, Cernunnos is the conventional name ascribed to depictions of the horned god of Celtic polytheism. Predominantly worshipped amongst the Celtic tribes of Gaul and the Iberian peninsula, multiple examples of his imagery have been found, dating from the Gallo-Romam period. His illustrations typically present him with a pair of antlers, seated cross-legged and holding a torc or wearing it around his throat. His companions are often stags, horned serpents, dogs, bulls and rats, with the first two the most frequent.

Unfortunately, due to lack of surviving literary sources, not much is known about his name, worshippers or his significance in Celtic religion. However, Cernunnos is mostly associated with animals, nature and fertility.

His mame is spotted only on a Gallo-Roman monument, Pillar of the Boatmen, dating to the early 1st century CE.  The Proto-Celtic form of the theonym is reconstructed as either *Cerno-on-os or *Carno-on-os. The augmentative -on- is characteristic of theonyms, as in Maponos, Epona, Matronae, and Sirona. The etymology of Cernunnos is unclear, but seems to be rooted in the Celtic word for “horn” or “antler” (as in Carnonos).

The Gaulish word karnon “horn” is cognate with Latin cornu and Germanic *hurnaz, English horn, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *k̑r̥no-. The etymon karn- “horn” appears in both Gaulish and Galatian branches of Continental Celtic. Hesychius of Alexandria glosses the Galatian word karnon (κάρνον) as “Gallic trumpet”, that is, the Celtic military horn known as the carnyx (κάρνυξ) by Eustathius of Thessalonica, who notes the instrument’s animal-shaped bell. The root also appears in the names of Celtic polities, most prominent among them the Carnutes, its meaning akin to “the Horned Ones”.

A comparison has, also, been drawn to a divine epithet Carnonos in a Celtic inscription written in Greek characters at Montagnac, Hérault (as καρνονου, karnonou, in the dative case) along with a Gallo-Latin adjective carnuātus that has, also, been found.

Now displayed in the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris, the Pillar of the Boatmen monument was discovered in 1710 within the foundations of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, site of ancient Lutetia, the civitas capital of the Celtic Parisii. A strong hypothesis suggests it was originally constructed by Gaulish sailors in 14 CE.

The singular stone pillar holds a significant position as monument in the Gallo-Roman religion. Roman deities such as Jupiter, Vulcan, Castor and Pollux along with Gallic deities such as Esus, Smertrios, Tavros and Triganarus are depicted and labelled by name on its low reliefs. The name Cernunnos can be read clearly on 18th century drawings of the inscriptions, but the initial letter has been obscured since, so that today only a reading [_]ernunnos can be verified.

The god identified as Cernunnos in this monument is depicted with stag’s antlers, both having torcs hanging from them. The lower part of the relief is now lost to us, but the dimensions imply that the god was sitting cross-legged,  a direct parallel to the antlered figure crafted on the Gundestrup cauldron.

Due to the Gundestrup Cauldron, some scholars describe Cernunnos as the “Lord of the Animals” or the “Lord of Wild Things”, with Miranda Green describing him as a “peaceful god of nature and fruitfulness”, his stance suggesting  traditional shamans often depicted surrounded by animals.

Through the Pillar of Boatmen, Cerunnos is associated with sailors and commence, an obvious link to material wealth, something supported by the the coin pouch from the Cernunnos of Rheims (Marne, Champagne, France)—in antiquity, Durocortorum, the civitas capital of the Remi tribe—and the stag vomiting coins from Niedercorn-Turbelslach (Luxembourg) in the lands of the Treveri. The god may have symbolized the fecundity of the stag-inhabited forest.

Horned or antlered figures feature amongst the Celtiberians, too. For example,  there’s a “Janus-like” god from Candelario (Salamanca) with two faces and two small horns,  a horned god from the hills of Ríotinto (Huelva); and a possible representation of the deity Vestius Aloniecus near his altars in Lourizán (Pontevedra). The horns are thought to symbolize “aggressive power, genetic vigor and fecundity.”

Attempts have been made to link Cernunnos to Conall Cernach, the foster brother of the Irish hero Cuchulainn in the Ulster Cycle by virtue of the cern root in his name.  Cernach is taken as an epithet with a wide semantic field—”angular; victorious; bearing a prominent growth”—and Conall is seen as “the same figure” as the ancient deity of Cernunnos.

However, there exists more evidence than merely their etymological connection. In a passage in the  eighth-century story entitled Táin Bó Fraích (“The Cattle Raid on Fraech”) Conall Cernach is portrayed as a hero and mighty warrior who assists the protagonist, Fraech, in rescuing his wife and son, and in reclaiming for Fraech his cattle. The fort that Conall must penetrate is guarded by a formidable serpent. The tale, however, ends on an anti-climatic note when the fearsome serpent, instead of attacking Conall, darts to Conall’s waist and girdles him as a belt. Rather than slaying the serpent, Conall allows it to live, and then proceeds to attack and rob the fort of its great treasures the serpent previously protected.

By virtue of interpretatio romana, Cernunnos is seen as the Gaulish manifestation of the Roman Dis Pater, sharing the latter’s responsibility of ruling over the hidden treasures of the underworld. Treasures located underground were associated with the serpent in Medieval Bestiaries that guarded the otherworld and all its treasures and mysteries.

Cernunnos is depicted on a stone statue from a well in Sommerécourt, Haute-Marne, France, and on a bronze figurine from Autun. Both statue and figurine portray Cernunnos with the two ram-headed serpents encircling his waist. It’s no accident then that the serpent that guarded the treasure of the fort in Táin Bó Fraích yielded to Conall Cernach and became his actual, living belt. The anti-climax of the Táin Bó Fraích‘s end sheds light on the link between a horned or antler-bearing deity, warrior, or progenitor, and the chthonic dwelling, treasure-guarding serpent that girdled the waist of the one it chose to protect.

Some of Cernunnos’ qualties are reflected on the life of Saint Ciarán of Saighir, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who, upon the construction of his cell, accepted his first disciple and monk in the form of a boar that had been rendered gentle by God, the beast later joined by a fox, badger, wolf and stag.

Whether a god of fertility and the primordial call of the wild, a representation of material wealth and prosperity or the sacred keeper of the underworld, Cernunnos surely remains a fascinating and alluring figure, the mysteries of his cult now echoing in mythic narrations, patiently waiting to be unveiled and studied by those willing to dig deep enough to find the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry: what makes my skin so bright

MY VALIANT SOUL

I chop a slice of moon
of an excellent shard from a mirror,
I take a dip in a splintering winter well,
the well of charm & despair,
the evening air does the rest of the job
the apricots stitched onto my lips
my lips forbid to tell your secrets
there,
there is nothing inside the gateway to chivalry,
a half-eaten fruit
a half-read poetry
a half- kissed muse

There it is
I can feel it freely
a gallop of a hysteric wave,
a sunrise, so distant

you need the recipe?

see my knuckles, the hard egg shaled nails,
a fever running through my belly,
they all bow to my cheekbones,
my cheeks ingest your lies too.
How about it?

Will it be a part of the regime too?

and a salt-glazed cup
of electric moon

it didn’t take long,
to be like this.
i wept also.
I wept and…

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Protected: The Fruit of Passion: Chapter 21 – Part II

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