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.
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.