Yr Hen Ogledd: The Kingdoms of the Old North (Part II)

In the first part of my essay, Yr Hen Ogledd: The kingdoms of the Old North (Part I), I explored the backstory and historical frame of the kingdoms of the region known as the Old North. I focused on their historical evolution and the colourful and volatile relationships maintained by the various tribes who inhabited them. Additionaly, I delved into the social regulations that ran through them and their judicial system and concluded with the language spoken and its characteristics.

In the second part of my essay, I’ll point out the reasons the Old North shares a particular bond with Wales, bring together the host of sources from which all our knowledge originates and wrap up with a list of the significant as well as the lesser kingoms that comprised its vast territory.

Wales and the Old North: Affinity

In the collective Welsh memory of history and myth, the figure of Cunedda holds a distinctive place. Tradition attributes the creation of Wales to him and his sons and has bestowed upon them the title of ‘’Men of the North.’’ Regarded as the progenitor of the royal dynasty of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, one that loomed large amogst the medieval Welsh kingdoms, Cunedda constituted a major player in the shaping of the Old North.

A particular tale presents him as a descendant of one of Maximus’ generals called Paternus, appointed by the emperor himself as commander of Alt Clut. Of course, much more than this ties Wales and the Old North, giving birth to the self-perception the Welsh and the Men of the North are one and the same.

The term Cymry is a modern Welsh one, owing its roots to this ancient relationship. In actuality, it doesn’t refer to a particular culture or ethnic group; nowadays, it encompasses only the Welsh of Wales and the Brittonic-speaking Men of the North.

Examining further the etymology, we spot the reflex of old in the world kombrogoi, translated as ‘’fellow-countrymen, Celts’’. Comparatively, its Breton counterpart kenvroiz still retains the original meaning ‘’compatiots’’.

The word itself ended up as an endonym, employed by the northern Britons themselves during the early 7th century or even earlier and throughout the Middle Ages to refer both to the Kingdom of Strathclyde and the region of western Englad north of the Ribble Estuary (in a nutshell, North and South Cumbria).

Another term Brythoniaid enjoyed popularity before this and for various centuries later, evoking a past where all Celts in the island presented a unified brotherhood. The word Cymry hasn’t fallen out of use; it survives in the native name of Wales, Cymru, the land of Cymry, and in the ceremonial and non-metropolitan country in North West England called Cumbria, meaning both ‘’homeland’’ and ‘’mother country’’.

The majority of the traditional wellhead of information pertaining to the Old North is held to gush from the Old North, flowing down all the way to Wales; bardic figures such as the author of Y Gododdin, Aneirin, are believed to have lived as poets in the courts of the Old North. The long and sort of it, these stories and bards are considered no less Welsh than the stories and bards who originated in Wales.

A Slew of Sources

The surviving sources we have in our possession can be divided into three distinct categories: literary, historical and place names.

The literary include

  • The poetry of fabled bards like Taliesin, Aeirin and Llywarch Hen.
  • The Harleian genealogies, the genealogies of Jesus College MS 20 and the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd.
  • The Triads of the Isle of Britain (though it should be taken into account they ultimately proved to be the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg and therefore much doubt has been cast on their validity).
  • Elegies (marwnadau), songs of praise (canu mawl) and certain extant mythological tales.

We should bear in mind stories composed by bards with the intent of praising a patron and complimenting with flattering words genealogies are certainly not without bias, nor can we accept them as absolute and precise fountains of accurate historical information.

On the other hand, it’s important to note that while they are prone to exaggerations, they do not alter or distort the historical facts known to the bard’s listeners because that would dishonour and denigrate both the bards and their patrons.

What’s more, the accounts of defeat and tragedy as well as victory on the battlefield render such tales useful as historical sources and boost their value even more as they provide us with information about a span of British history where very little can be reliably gleaned.

The historical include

  • The Historia Brittonum by Nennius
  • The Annales Cambriae 
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  • The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede
  • The Annals of Tigernach

The aforementioned sources cannot be said to present an impartial historical frame. The authors as well as later transcribers displayed their preconceptions and prejudices with the aim of promoting their own interests, presenting their motivations as leaning always towards the service of justice and truth. Anything that hindered or opposed that was omitted and apocryphal entries surged instead.

Bede himself was a Northumbrian partisan and turned with bias against the Native Britons. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is generally considered a commendable effort of writing down history with accuracy, based on a variety of creditable sources.

Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae confirms early people and places found in the literary and historical sources. However, the work wasn’t meant to function as a historical account but as tool to proselytize the author’s contemporaries to Christianity.

Place names

Place names in the Cumbric dialect in Scotland south of the Forth and Clyde and in Culberland and neighbouring countries suggest regions of the Old North inhabited by Britons in the early Middle Ages.

Place names of Old English and Old Norse origin point, too, to isolated locations of later British presence. In Yorkshire, from the Old English term walas (Britons or Welshmen) derive the names of Walden, Walton and Walburn, indicative of British presence encountered by the Anglo-Saxons. Last, the name of Birkby, coming from the Old Norse Breta, ‘’Britons’’, implies a place where the Vikings crossd path with Britons.

Major Kingdoms

  • Alt Clut or Ystrad Clud: a kingdom that once stood in modern Dumbarton in Scotland. It was later known as the Kingdom of Strathclyde, having flourished best amongst those of the Old North. It was, also, the ‘’last of the Mohicans’, the only one to survive and function as an independent realm into the 11th century until its final absorption into the Kingdom of Scotland.
  • Elmet: situated in western Yorkshire in northern England. Located south of the other northern British kingdoms, and well east of modern Wales, it survived into the early 7th century.
  • Gododdin: a kingdom in present-day southeastern Scotland and northeastern England, the area previously inhabited by the Celtic tribe of the Votadini. The bard Aneirin composed the poem Y Gododdin to extol their bravery and virtue ad mourn the loss of this illustrious kingdom during the terrible class between a miscellaneous group of Celtic elite warriors and the Angles of Bernicia.
  • Rheged: its entire scope is unknown, though it included parts of modern Cumbria. Its king, Urien, is a well-known figure in Welsh history and myth.

Minor Kingdoms

  • Aeron: a minor kingdom described in texts such as the poem Y Gododdin. We cannot tell with certainty where it lay, but some scholars have proposed it was located in the Ayrshire region in southwest Scotland. Probably a part of Urien Rheged’s realm, often associated with him.
  • Calchfynydd (“Chalkmountain”): save for one of its rulers, Cadrawd Calchfynydd, numbered amongst the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd, the only thing we know is that it formed part of the Old North.
  • Eidyn: known as Din Eidyn, Fort of Eidyn, it was located around the present-day city of Edinburgh, bearing a close relation to the kingdom of Gododdin. The place name today is spotted in toponyms such as Edinburgh, Dunedin and Carriden, fifteen miles to the west of the country. The Angles besieged Din Eidyn in 638 and kept it under their control for the three subsequent centuries.
  • Manaw Gododdin: the coastal area south of the Firth of Forth and, as its name shows, part of the region of Gododdin. Today, the name survives in Slamannan Moor and the village of Slamannan in Stirlingshire (derived from Sliabh Manann, the ‘’Moor of Mannan’’). Its root is, also, found in Dalmeny, five miles northwest of the capital of Edinburgh, formely known as Dumanyn, probably derived from Dun Manann. Another source is the north of the Forth in Pictish Manaw in the burgh of Clackmannan and the eponymous country of Clackmannanshire, which comes from Clach Manann, the ‘’stone of Manann’’, which describes a monument stone there.
  • Novant: another kingdom amonsst the verses of Y Gododdin. It could probably be associated with the Iron Age Celtic tribe of Novantae in southwest Scotland.
  • Regio Dununtinga: located in Northern Yorkshire and mentioned in the hagiographic text the Life of Wilfrid. Possibly took its name from a ruler Dunaut (could be Dunaut ap Pabo) whose existence is confirmed in the genealogies. Its name survives in the present-day town of Dent in Cumbria.

A trio of kingdoms that didn’t form part of the Old North but feature prominently in its history include:

  • Dál Riata : a Gaelic kingdom. The family of Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata claims a place in the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd.
  • Northumbria and its predecessor Anglo-Saxon couple states, Bernicia and Deira.
  • Pictish kingdom

Conclusion

So, in the end, what’s the perception of the Old North if we’re to sweep through the available sources of historical and literary nature? I think, as it happens in every corner of the world and in every age, we can tesellate a reality no less variable and intricate, no less beautiful and terrible than the one we live in nowadays.

Yr Hen Ogledd was a land of exalted kingdoms and glorious courts but, also, a land of backstabbing, treachery and political intrigue. A land of mighty kings of distibguished lines and fierce, valiant warriors but, also, a land of desperate alliances and savage, intercine struggles. A land of blooming arts and dreamy magic but, also, a land where the warhorns and bardic elegies sounded its own death knell.

And, if the kingdoms of the Old North eventually fell to the Anglo-Saxon siege, the gigantic stature of their untamed, high-spirited and valourous Celtic defendants still looms large not only in the Welsh collective memory but in the collective memory of all humanity, reminding us that fighting for our dignity and freedom is a worthy cause, even if we don’t emerge victorious in the end.

 

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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Fragments of Annwn – Depths

Fellow blogger, poet, author, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, Lorna Smithers presents through the following fragments her own personal vision of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld housing the dead and the fairies. Haunting, mysterious and melancholic, these fragments of fiction and poetry excel at transporting the reader to a parallel dimension full of strange charm and sublime truths.

From Peneverdant

No-One Knows

the extent of the marshland of Annwn. Some cross it in a day. For others it goes on forever like the mist that obscures the musical birds, the shriekers of the mournful shrieks, the droners of the ancient drone, the players of the carnyxes that gurgle beneath the waters. You never know what is splashing behind on countless feet until it is too late. Sometimes you get lost following the will-o-wisps like lost hopes to where all hope fails. Sometimes you make sacrifices or become the sacrifice see your bog body your ghost flying free like a lonely bird. You become an inspirer or a guide only to bring doom to the unwary. When you think you know the way you slip. When you think you have found the awen you find it escapes words, that the sigh of its name is already escaping your lungs, that breath…

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Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

αρχείο λήψης

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath

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“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

Thomas Dylan: And Death Shall Have no Dominion

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And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Book Review: Sir Orfeo

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Sir Orfeo is an anonymous middle English narrative poem that retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The earliest Middle English version is found among other tales in the Auchinleck manuscript, which dates from about 1330-1340, Geoffrey Chaucer its possible owner. Sir Orfeo appears to have been written  during the second half of the 13th century, and its chief version consists of 602 short lines of rhyming couplets.

In the poem, the reader is exposed to the romance of King Orfeo, a harp player without equal and his fair wife, Heurodis. At the beginning of May, King Orfeo’s wife falls into a deep sleep under an imp, or grafted, tree and dreams she is abducted by the fairy King, shown his fantastic kingdom, and told that, come tomorrow, she will be kept there forever. To thwart the realization of the dream, Orfeo has hundreds of knights guard Heurodis, but they prove ineffective as the fairy King uses enchantment to take her away effortlessly.

Distraught, Orfeo abandons his kingdom to the charge of his steward and takes to the woods barefoot, his only possessions his cloak and harp. Living off nuts, roots, and bark for more than ten years, Orfeo wanders aimlessly. His only respite from grief comes from playing his harp, which soothes him and enchants all the woodland creatures.  One day, he chances upon his wife among a group of ladies from the fairy kingdom. Although Orfeo’s appearance shows the effect of a decade in the wilderness, and his hair is rough and hangs to his waist, Heurodis recognizes him instantly. Overcome with emotion, neither can speak to the other.

Orfeo follows her through a rock and below ground to the fairy kingdom. He gains permission from the porter to enter the castle and, although the fairy King reproaches him for entering his domain without invitation, he listens to Orfeo as he plays his harp. Impressed by his skills, he offers Orfeo whatever his heart desires. Orfeo demands Heurodis and, although the fairy King hesitates to give her to him because the couple seem so mismatched, he honors his word and relinquishes her. Orfeo returns to his kingdom but does not reveal his identity until he tests his steward’s loyalty. The steward passes the test, Orfeo makes his true identity known, and Orfeo and Heurodis are newly crowned. They live and rule in peace until their deaths, upon which, the steward becomes king.

The story contains a mixture of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with Celtic mythology. However, there are many notable differences between the two tales. In Sir Orfeo the main resolution occurs in Fairyland instead of Hades, and the ending is a happy one. But what truly sets Sir Orfeo apart is the fact that the poem is characterized by the complete abandonment of the ancient Greek spirit and worldview that coloured the original myth. Instead, it is steeped in the Celtic spirit and all its sublime beauty.

The Celtic imagined reality is haunted by the idea of the dreamy Otherworld, a parallel dimension where the fairies and the dead reside. In the poem, proof of that is the presence of the fairies who spirit Heroudis away. The fairy land is conceived as a parallel dimension to the everyday world rather than the Land of the Dead as in the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In contrast to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, the underworld is not a world of the dead, but rather a world of people who have been taken away when on the point of death. In “The Faery World of Sir Orfeo“, Bruce Mitchell views the passage as an interpolation. On the other hand, in the article “The Dead and the Taken” D. Allen points out that the theme of another world of people who are taken at the point of death (while not dead yet) is a well-established element in folklore, and therefore shows the complete folklorisation of the Orpheus story.

Ruth Evans considers the lay of Sir Orfeo not merely a medieval retelling of Orpheus, but  a work heavily influenced by the politics of the time; Orfeo has been criticized as a rex inutilis. The medieval literary motif  of the useless king links Orfeo with several late thirteenth and early fourteenth-century sovereigns, including Edward II. Moreover,  in his role as a harpist, as a type of David, Orfeo becomes the royal figure upon whom many medieval kings modeled themselves.

As an outcast from society, Orfeo presents the figure of the king as an isolated man. He leaves his kingdom in the hands of his steward, upsetting the order of things. Orfeo himself is upset when his wife his taken, and Evans claims in her essay that the poem’s narrative syntax, by doubling social order with the classic romance structure of exile, risk and then reintegration suggests an emotional link to the loss and recovery of a wife with the loss and recovery of a kingdom. Therefore, the figure of the queen stands for political stability and prosperity of the kingdom and the land itself. 

In her essay Sparagmos: Orpheus Among the Christians, Patricia Vicari rejects the idea of the christianization of the myth. In Sir Orfeo the hero is very Celticized, and the fate of Queen Heurodis is similar to the fates of other Celtic heroines. Sir Orfeo remains faithful to a rather pantheistic view, where the fairy king of Celtic literature rules over the Otherworld as a force of nature, neither good nor bad – as opposed to J. Friedman, who argues that Christian undertones relate Heurodis to Eve taken away by Satan in the form of a fairy king. This Christian reading doesn’t hold much merit. The Otherworld is presented as both alluring and menacing and the fairy King is not cast in the role of the villain. What’s more Heurodis is not being punished for any kind of sin or transgression, nor is she necessarily the victim of a targeted attack, but was merely a hapless victim in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But beneath all the symbolism and ambiguity, Sir Orfeo reads as a tale of loyalty and devotion. An exemplary fruit of the Celtic worldview, the poem involves spells and enchantment, a King who loses everything only to regain it after years of suffering, fidelity to spouse and to lord, love, and the all-powerful, magical properties of music.

And so beguiling is the atmosphere that permeates the whole poem, that so many centuries after its composition it still has the ability to mesmerize the reader and invite many more interpretations, as is the case with all fine artistic creations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The King of Thule

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The King of Thule, painting by Pierre Jean Van der Ouderaa

There was a king in Thule,
Was faithful till the grave,
To whom his mistress, dying,
A golden goblet gave.

Nought was to him more precious;
He drained it at every bout;
His eyes with tears ran over,
As oft as he drank thereout.

When came his time of dying,
The towns in his land he told,
Nought else to his heir denying
Except the goblet of gold.

He sat at the royal banquet
With his knights of high degree,
In the lofty hall of his fathers
In the castle by the sea.

There stood the old carouser,
And drank the last life-glow;
And hurled the hallowed goblet
Into the tide below.

He saw it plunging and filling,
And sinking deep in the sea:
Then fell his eyelids for ever,
And never more drank he!

Edgar Allan Poe: A Dream Within A Dream

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Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow–
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand–
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep–while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?