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

800px-Submerged_forest_at_Ynyslas,_Ceredigion

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.

Low_tide_at_Sarn_Gynfelyn_-_geograph.org.uk_-_845252

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

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Olwen: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (Part I)

Ysbaddaden

Culhwch at Ysbaddaden’s court. An illustration by E. Wallcousins in Celtic Myth and Legend, Charles Squire, 1920

In my mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, I’ve drawn extensive inspiration from various sources of Celtic myth and legend and incorporated many events and episodes of fabulous origin into my main narrative.

However, Celtic tradition is divided into several branches. Of particular interest to me is the rich and wonderful material pertaining to the Welsh, namely the Mabinogion (the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions) and The Spoils of Annwn (Preiddeu Annwfn), a cryptic poem of sixty lines in Middle Welsh, found in the Book of Taliesin and  recounting an expedition with King Arthur to Annwn, the Welsh name for the Celtic Otherworld.

The stories contained in the Mabinogion are highly entertaining, providing a wide panorama of fantasy, romance, drama, philosophy, tragedy and humour. Beasts and giants, magic and illusions, kings and noble ladies, knights and fair maidens, quests and lasting friendships, battles and deceptions, mercy and valour are only a small sample of what one will encounter in the pages of this book.

Set in the dual worlds between the valleys and forests of Wales and the mysterious, shadowy realms of the Otherworld, many of the tales move within a dreamlike atmosphere that weaves a web of seduction all over the reader.

And I was seduced in the twinkling of an eye. It was love at first sight for me. As soon as I finished reading the first page, I was bewitched. Deeply moved by the tales, I thought to transfer many of their motifs, themes, episodes, characters and general ambience into my own novel in an attempt to infuse my own work with the Celtic mentality and worldview, keeping as close to the original source but doing so in my own way so as to create a distinction between my narrative and the Mabinogion.

It’s my personal view that the creation of a new religion is one of the most intriguing and fascinating aspects of world-building in a work of fiction. Immediately, we writers are called to answer the question of how we can go about crafting a new system of divine faith. Do we rely upon preexisting religions? If yes, do we borrow elements and doctrines from one or are we to consider multiple at the same time? Do we blend facets of one familiar to us with made-up dogmas and creeds our imagination conjures? Or are we to give complete and free reign to our fancy and see where this path leads us?

I believe there’s no definite, clear-cut reply to that as the most important thing in fiction that eclipses all other ”rules” and ”regulations” is to write and incorporate that which best serves our narrative and story arc.

With that in mind, my own approach was to combine a few attitudes already found in a religion familiar to me with those found in paganism. So, I kept some Christian tenets like those of love, benevolence, truth and forgiveness and aimed for an amalgam with the concepts and tropes that abound in one of the stories in the Mabinogion, namely that of Culhwch and Olwen.

One of the most complex and celebrated stories in the collection, Culhwch and Olwen recounts the trials and tribulations the titular character face in order to enjoy their happily ever after.

After a difficult childbirth, King Cilydd, son of Celyddon, loses his wife, Goleuddydd. When he remarries, his son, the young Culhwch, rejects his stepmother’s attempt to pair him with his new stepsister. Offended, the new queen puts a curse on him so that he can marry no one besides the beautiful Olwen, the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Though he has never seen her, Culhwch becomes enamoured of her at the sound of her name, but his father warns him that he will never find her without the aid of his famous cousin, Arthur.

Culhwch sets off and finds him at his court in Celliwig in Cornwall. Arthur consents to aid him, and sends a number of his finest warriors to join Culhwch in his search for Olwen. The group meets some relatives of Culhwch’s that know Olwen and agree to arrange a meeting. Olwen is receptive to Culhwch’s attraction, but she cannot marry him unless her father agrees, and he, unable to survive past his daughter’s wedding, will not consent until Culhwch completes a series of about forty impossible-sounding tasks. The tasks completed, the giant is killed, and the lovers are free to marry.

Although the titular characters do not feature prominently in the tale, the challenges Culhwch undergoes in order to earn his happy end with his beloved are beyond fascinating. So Culhwch’s determination and Olwen’s limitless patience operated as a canvass for me in order to work on their personalities and make them both fully-fledged individuals.

My novel being highly character-driven, I couldn’t relegate these two into shadowy presences at the fringes of the narrative. I transformed them into characters of cunning and action and strength, motivated by their goals and desires. Populating my novel with a series of female characters of undeniable agency, I thought to add one more in the form of Olwen.

Assigning to her a much more active role than the one she enjoyed in the Mabinogion, I conceived her as an otherwordly maiden to be courted not by Culhwch this time, but by a strong warrior named Sil, the son of an eastern enchantress forced to flee her natal land and seek refuge in the isles of the North: thus bringing into the mix the legend of the ancient king Sil who is rumoured to be buried atop his horse with his golden armour in the mound of Silbury).

When Sil completes the tasks requested by Olwen’s father, King Pen, the couple marries and they flee with some of the maiden’s kin to the mortal realm, to the fictional island of Rumia where Sil and his kniswomen live. Now populated, the island begins to thrive and due to her innate kindness and her magical abilities associated with fertility, Olwen is venerated by the islanders and at her death, she acquires divine status and is worshipped as the goddess of the sun.

Etymologically speaking, Olwen means white footprint. In the Mabinogion, she was so gentle and fragile that white trefoils would grow beneath her feet. Something which I changed in my novel, opting for white lilies instead. Some authorities consider her to have been originally a solar goddess, based on the etymology of her name and light-related attributes. And that is the line I’ ve followed in my own novel.

Below follows an excerpt from the story of Culhwch and Olwen where the latter is described in exquisite, vivid detail.

The maiden was clothed in a robe of flame−coloured silk, and about her neck was a collar of ruddy gold, on which were precious emeralds and rubies. More yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. The eye of the trained hawk, the glance of the three−mewed falcon was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek was redder than the reddest roses. Whoso beheld her was filled with her love. Four white trefoils sprung up wherever she trod. And therefore was she called Olwen.