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 Gwyddno. In 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.