Cantre’r Gwaelod: Masculine vs Feminine (Part II)


Cantre’r y Gwaelod, illustration by Alan Lee

In my previous post, Cantre’r Gwaelod: The Origins of the Legend of the Sunken Kingdom, I delved into a certain aspect of Celtic culture and mythology that revolves around legendary cities and islands that once prospered on land and later sank underground, within lakes or the sea. I specifically focused on the kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod, purported to have occupied the bountiful territory between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales.

I explored the origins of the myth as well as the symbolism and meaning behind it. As usually, many fables narrate various versions of a main episode. That is also the case with the sunken kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod. Two are the most salient versions that refer to it; the first focuses on the male figure of Seithenyn while the second on the female figure of Mererid.

While both share a few common motifs and elements as well as the same denouement, each version holds its own symbolism and ramifications, reflecting distinct perspectives within the same culture. So, let’s compare and contrast the two variants, shall we?

The most well-known form of the legend presents Cantre’r Gwaelod 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.

The ruler Gwyddno Garanhir (”Long-shank), owner of a magical humper (mwys) which multiplied whatever food one placed in it, was said to have his seat in Caer Wyddno, the capital of Cantre’r Gwaelod. A guardian by the name of Seithenyn was in charge of the dyke. An infamous drunkand and carouser, one day he neglected his duties. Having forgotten all about the dyke, the sea swept through the open floodgates, ruining the entire city.

However, amongst the earliest forms is the one contained in the Black Book of Carmarthen, in which the land bears the name of Maes Gwyddno, translated in English as the Plain of GwyddnoIn this version Mererid, the well-maiden, negligent of her charge, allowed the well to overflow, which resulted in the land being swallowed by floods.

Said version refers to the following poem included in the Black Book of Carmarthen. By reading closely its verses (I’ve presented both the Welsh original and its English translation), it becomes patently clear how the attitudes diverge regarding Seithenyn and Mererid.

Seithenhin sawde allan.
Ac edrychuirde varanres
Mor. maes guitnev rytoes.
Boed emendiceid y morvin
Aehellygaut guydi cvin.
Finaun wenestir mor terruin.
Boed emendiceid y vachteith.
Ae. golligaut guydi gueith.
Finaun wenestir mor diffeith
Diaspad vererid y ar vann caer.
Hid ar duu y dodir.
Gnaud guydi traha trangc hir.
Diaspad mererid. y ar van kaer
Hetiv. hid ar duu y dadoluch.
Gnaud guydi traha attreguch.
Diaspad mererid am gorchiut
Heno. ac nihaut gorllut
G. g. traha tramguit.
Diaspad mererid y ar gwinev
Kadir keadaul duv ae gorev.
Gnaud guydi gormot eissev.
Diaspad mererid. am kymhell
Heno y urth nyistauell.
Gnaud guydi traha trangc pell.
Bet seithenhin synhuir vann
Rug kaer kenedir a glan.
Mor maurhidic a kinran.


Seithenhin, stand thou forth,
And behold the billowy rows;
The sea has covered the plain of Gwydneu.

Accursed be the damsel,
Who, after the wailing,
Let loose the Fountain of Venus, the raging deep.

Accursed be the maiden,
Who, after the conflict, let loose
The fountain of Venus, the desolating sea.

A great cry from the roaring sea arises above the summit of the rampart,
To-day even to God does the supplication come!
Common after excess there ensues restraint.

A cry from the roaring sea overpowers me this night,
And it is not easy to relieve me;
Common after excess succeeds adversity.

A cry from the roaring sea comes upon the winds;
The mighty and beneficent God has caused it!
Common after excess is want.

A cry from the roaring sea
Impels me from my resting-place this night;
Common after excess is far-extending destruction.

The grave of Seithenhin the weak-minded
Between Caer Cenedir and the shore
Of the great sea and Cinran.

Upon reading the poem, one is easily led to the assumption that Mererid is the cause behind the flood that swept over the kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod. However, such an assumption is subverted in the last stanza where the blame shifts entirely to Seithenyn who’s critisized as weak-minded.

But if the male figure paints a negative picture as an incompetent, careless boozer, then what exactly is the role assigned to the female figure? Mererid, (whose name means ”pearl”) the poem concludes, isn’t a blameworthy offender but a lady whose office as cup-bearer and keeper of the well has been violated. A recurring motif in many Celtic tales is that pertaining to wells that flood a large patch of land due to an offence committed against the well-keeper.

The guardians of these wells are unfailingly female. In the poem, emphasis is placed on that fact that Mererid is a maiden (morvin) and on another verse she’s referred to as ”machteih”, which means she holds an important position in the royal court.

The notion of maidenhead or virginity and the role of protectress has born a close association in many cultures. Ancient cities and kingdoms often enjoyed the safety of boundaries, both through physical and magical means. Egresses and gateways through walls needed to be physically sealed tight. However, magical entrances required magic in order to open and shut.

The one bearing the title of ”Pontifex Maximus” initially suggested someone skilled at guarding and sealing protective boundaries. The purpose of the institution of the Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome was the city’s protection and welfare, the role of a virgin deity assigned to these priestesses. The same concept can actually be traced in the ancient Greek world. The virgin Athene offered her divine protection to the city of Athens. The city of Troy is seen to be protected in a similar fashion in Homer’s Iliad. As the huge wooden horse enters the city, the seer Cassandra loosens her girdle in a gesture symbolic of the disruption of the city’s magical protection.

It appears that in Celtic tradition similar protective powers were bestowed upon the well maidens. In the Celtic imagined reality, and not only, wells, lakes, rivers and various bodies of water were regarded as portals leading to the Otherwold. If the portals were neglected, the steady flow of the life-giving waters would be disturbed and lead to a deluge. The loss of virginity of the well-maiden, either though the maiden’s own choice or through her violation, would yield the same results.

However, Mererid also holds the office of cup-bearer, just like the goddess Rosmerta and the virgin Veleda who prophesized for her Germanic tribe, the Bucteri.

Three are Rosmerta’s emblems: the cup, the ladle and the bucket. The first functions as a symbol of cornucopia, indicating the richness of the feast. The Gauls had her figure associated with at least one sacred spring. While the religious element might have been relegated to the point of oblivion, there’s another element that slams to the forefront.

The cup-bearing and office-holding maiden is a figure intimately linked to water. Water can turn out to have both positive and negative connotations. It can both signify destruction and fertility. The fertility of the land and the fertility of the woman is a theme frequently found in Celtic tradition as is the case with characters like Guinevere and Rhiannon.

If maidenhead implies protection, the loss of it leads to the absence of protection. On the other hand, sexual awakening carries the possibility of ferility, therefore the well-maiden taking on an active sexual role becomes a woman who brings forth plenty. Something which is further emphasized by the existence of the cup as a symbol of copiousness.

But how do all these apply to Mererid? As a well-maiden, she’s been assigned to guard the flow of the well, but it is also her responsibility to hold the cup of plenty. We cannot know for certain whether Mererid had an active role in her sexual initiation or whether she suffered a physical violation. Whatever the case, though, the loss of her protection brought forth the deluge.

However, there lies the possibility of another, more positive interpretation: the overflow of the blessed waters resulting in the fertility of the land, and all that cloaked under the guise of a disastrous inundation. In the poem, the meaning of the word ”cwyn” has been presented as both ”feast” and ”complaint”. How are we to interpret the word’s polysemy? Are we supposed to believe Mererid expressed her complaints over her violation or are we to believe her proffered cup as a feast carries other implications, associated with free sexual choice and fertility? Was she a victim of rape or did she choose to give away her virginity and willingly release the flood?

Arriving to a certain conclusion seems an impossibility as the poem states nothing in an open manner. One might wonder as to whom belongs the voice that narrates the events leading to the inundation. In the first stanza, the narrator is addressing Seithenyn, calling to him to stand forth and inspect the destruction of the kingdom. Could this be the voice of Mererid, castigating Seithenyn for the disaster his actions have wreaked? While a definite answer cannot be provided, such thought shouldn’t be excluded from the realm of possibility.

The following stanzas, however, present a shift in the narrator who is possibly Seithenyn himself, pondering on his own role in the kingdom’s submersion and accepting his own responsibility for this outcome.

What I, as a reader, find most remarkable in the poem is the way the figures of Seithenyn and Mererid are portrayed: the first as a lousy guard, totally devoid of substance and depth and the second as a larger than life character, an intermediate between human and goddess, full of compexities.

Could the underlying theme of the poem be the dichotomy between death/impotence as espoused by the male and life/sexual agency as espoused by the female? Could Seithenyn’s inebriation function as a metaphor for male weakness and sterility while Mererid’s conscious release of the torrents function as metaphor for female potency and erotic volition?

Whatever the poem’s intended message, I regard Mererid as an empowering model for women. A maiden in possession of great power who awakens to it through the relishing of her own sacred sexuality in order to bring forth life and prosperity.










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


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  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 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.








“Little they slept that night”- fairy love and fairy passion

British Fairies


James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine, 1905

I return to a subject that has an abiding fashion for many visitors to the blog- and apparently me too: fairy sexuality and sensuality.

Fae lovers

From the very earliest times, it seems, the idea of Faery was synonymous with irresistible beauty.  Elf-women were called ‘shining’ by the Anglo-Saxons (aelfsceone) and this idea by no means ended with the arrival of the Normans and of the fairy women of romance.  English writer Layamon in his history of Britain, The Brut, described the queen of Avalon, Argante, as the fairest of all maidens,  “alven swithe sceone” (an elf most fair).  The concept of radiant beauty persisted: the fairy queen who met Thomas the Rhymer at Huntlie bank was “a ladye bright” and, as late as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the faes’ royal lady is still “radiant” (Act V, scene 5).

Great beauty…

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