The Cauldron of Inspiration by E. Wallcousin, 1912.
Preiddeu Annwfn or The Spoils of Annwn is a cryptic poem of sixty lines composed in Middle Welsh and found in the Book of Taliesin. The poem narrates King Arthur’s storming of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, and all the wonders he encounters there. It is attributed to Taliesin, one of the five British poets of renown and a figure of mythic proportions in Welsh tradition.
One of the best known Medieval British poems, its interpretation remains elusive until today due to its haunting allusions and enigmatic references which prove difficult to decode. The date of the poem’s composition is problematic to pin down. Various suggestions have been put forth, from the time of the bard Taliesin in the late 6th century to 1000 AD.
The poem’s first and last stanza begins and ends with two lines of praise to the Lord, generally taken to be Christian. In the last couplet of each stanza except the last, the speaker mentions a dangerous journey into Annwn with Arthur and three boats full of men, of whom only seven return, presumably with the spoils from Annwn. The tragedy that befalls all these men is never explained.
The poem refers to various locations or islands within Annwn’s domain such as the ”Glass Fortress” and the ”Four-Peaked Fortress”. It also refers to famous objects and figures of the Welsh mythology such as the cauldron of inspiration bedecked with pearls which doesn’t boil the food of the coward, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, who enters into a lasting friendship and alliance with Arawn, the king of Annwn and the prisoner Gweir.
The Spoils of Annwn is often read as a military expedition. Proof of the matter can be found when we look for similarities between the poem and Bran’s expedition to Ireland in the Second Branch of the Mabinogion. There are only seven survivors, we have the pivotal presence of the cauldron and the uncommunicative sentinel.
Sir John Rhys drew a connection between these campaigns in Ireland with the symbolic “western isles” featuring in the Celtic otherworld. In this sense, The Spoils of Annwn may be associated with the maritime adventure of Immram and Echtra. Rhys also remarked that the Isle of Lundy was once known as Ynys Wair, and was once attributed to be Gweir’s place of imprisonment.
The tale of Culhwch and Olwen also narrates Arthur’s nearby rescue of another of the three famous prisoners, and gives details of another ruler of Annwn, Gwynn ap Nudd, king of the Tylwyth Teg, the fairies in Welsh lore, “whom God has placed over the brood of devils in Annwn lest they should destroy the present race”. Gwynn is also amongst Arthur’s retinue.
In the First Branch of the Mabinogion Pwyll marries an Otherwordly woman, Rhiannon, and their son Pryderi receives a gift of pigs from Arawn. He later enters a mysterious tower where he is trapped by a beautiful golden bowl in an enchanted “blanket of mist” and temporarily vanishes with Rhiannon and the tower itself. This motif has also been compared with that of Gweir/Gwair’s imprisonment.
Roger Sherman Loomis remarks that The Book of Invasions and Historia Britonum both recount a story from Irish mythology in which the Milesians, ancestors of the Irish, come across a glass tower in the middle of the ocean, inhabited by people who don’t speak with them, just like in The Spoils of Annwn where the Glass Fortress is defended by 6.000 men who don’t address Arthur’s crew. The Milesians storm the castle with mortal consequences.
Another fortress, “Caer Sidi”, is often associated because of its name with the Irish fairyland, home of the Tuatha Dé Danann, whom the Milesians eventually conquer.
Sarah Higley claims that Annwn is the land of the old gods and they can bestow on mortals gifts like the gift of poetry. In a poem called “Angar Kyfyndawt”, we read that Annwn is in the deeps below the earth, and that “It is Awen I sing, / from the deep I bring it”. The great ox which is mentioned in The Spoils of Annwn has “seven score links on his collar” while in “Angar Kyfyndawt” awen has “seven score ogyruen“.
In another poem, “Kadeir Teyrnon”, three “awens” come from the ogyruen, just as in the tale regarding Taliesin’s birth, the titular bard receives inspiration in three drops from the cauldron of Ceridwen, the enchantress who gives birth to him.
Some translators and scholars have suggested a connection between The Spoils of Annwn along with the Bran tale and the later stories regarding the Holy Grail. Similarities can be encountered between Bran the Blessed and the keeper of the Holy Grail, the Fisher King. Both receive wounds in their legs and both dwell in a castle of wonders where time doesn’t seem to flow. In Chrétien de Troyes’ s Perceval, the Story of the Grail, the graal shares similar qualities with Bran’s cauldron, and, as in The Spoils of Annwn, the Grail romances conclude with much tragedy and loss of life.
From all the interpretations set on the table and from having some familiarity with the workings of the minds of bards and generally those immersed in the art of poetry, on a deeper reading I stand with those scholars and critics who claim that the poem is about the poet’s vaunting of knowledge and ultimately about the spoils of poetic composition, as has been suggested by Haycock and Higley. All great poets have on various degrees exalted their own genius. Why should the poet of The Spoils of Annwn be an exception?
Last, of particular interest, is Robin Melrose’s interpretation in the The Druids and King Arthur. Melrose cites the Scottish journalist, folklorist and scholar of the occult, Lewis Spencer. Spencer, in The Mysteries of Britain, writes that ”the poem is on the same line as ”The Harrying of Hell”, the descent into the gulf, to cow its evil denizens and carry away its secrets and treasures. It is, indeed, part of the ritual of the candidate for adeptship into the British mysteries.”
With this in mind, Melrose views The Spoils of Annwn as a symbolic voyage, a real or metaphorical initiation into Druidic knowledge and the rituals/mysteries of British religion. The first stop of this symbolic voyage is Caer Sidi, the Mound-Fortress. Caer Sidi has been considered a burial mound, but is actually much more than that. In the Song Before the Sons of Llyr we read that ”around its borders are the streams of the ocean./And the fruitful fountain is above it.” This is an indication of a location that can be both at sea or even in heaven.
If Caer Sidi is both an earthy and a celestial abode, then we can draw some intriguing conclusions about The Spoils of Annwn. The Druids have long been linked to Pythagoras and his doctrines which in turn bear resemblances to Orphism. Orphism was a mystical religion, therefore very little is known about it. However, a few texts do survive including the Petalia tablet. Written on a thin, gold leaf, the tablet reads:
You will find in the halls of Hades a spring on the left,
and standing by it, a glowing white cypress tree;
Do not approach this spring at all.
You will find another, from the lake of Memory
refreshing water flowing forth. But guardians are nearby.
Say: “I am the child of Earth and starry Heaven;
But my race is heavenly; and this you know yourselves.
I am parched with thirst and I perish; but give me quickly
refreshing water flowing forth from the lake of Memory.”
And then they will give you to drink from the divine spring,
And then you will celebrate? [rites? with the other] heroes.
The Caer Sidi, both earthly and celestial embodies one or more of the opposites espoused by the Pythagoreans and refers to the possibility of the kind of rebirth mentioned in the Petalia tablet.
Melrose goes on to talk about Gweir’s imprisonment linking it to that of Pryderi and Rhiannon in the Third Branch of the Mabinogion. The Canadian psychoanalyst Dan Merkur proposes that Gweir’s imprisonment is of a psychological nature, the result of some addiction to a psychedelic substance. Mead is mentioned in the poem and we do know that henbane was a hallucinogenic substance used by the Celts. Consequently, Caer Sidi could very well be a place where one could experience both heaven and hell.
The second stop of the voyage is Caer Pedryuan, the Four-Peaked Fortress. The cauldron there is kindled by the breath of nine maidens, figures who reappear frequently in Celtic tradition. Their connection to the fire may link them to the Irish goddess, Brigit. Her British counterpart is Brigantia, the goddess of the Brigantes tribe. Giraldus informs us that at Kindare there’s a fire that never dies, tended by nineteen nuns, who take turns to watch over the fire for the duration of nineteen nights; Brigit takes her turn every twentienth night. Encircled by a hedge, the fire is made of stakes and brushwood and forms a circle into which no man can step. Only the women have the right to blow the fire, fanning it or using only bellows and not their breaths, unlike the nine maidens we encounter in the verses of The Spoils of Annwn.
Brigit was the goddess of poetry and prophecy. It is possible that here we’re talking about the cauldron of inspiration. A cauldron which doesn’t boil the food of the coward. This suggests that the poet must undertake a perilous, symbolic voyage into the very depths of the Otherworld and partake from the cauldron of regeneration before he can eat or drink from the cauldron of inspiration. Indeed, if the Four-Peaked Fortress is the high point of the voyage, then one needs to have the courage to brave a descent into the depths.
The voyage itself begins at the stop of Caer Vedwit, the Fortress of Mead-Drunkeness. The poet tells us of a state of euphoria, possibly a trance as we’re transported back to the Four-Peaked Fortress, the isle of the ”strong door” which is the gateway to a higher knowledge and the blending of opposites like the water with the jet.
The next stop is Caer Rigor, the Fortress of Hardness. Rigor, among its translations gives us ”hardness” but also ”the stiffness produced by cold”. It’s a possibility that here the poet is talking about the stiffness and coldness that follows a trance.
At this point, the poem shifts thematically. The poet laments because of the existence of ”little men”. The poet is at Caer Wydyr, the Glass Fortress. Communication fails either because the poet has drifted into a trance or because he is symbolically like a small child who cannot talk. Next stop is Caer Golud, the Fortress of Hindrance, which perhaps adds to the problem of communication that has been mentioned.
The poet’s fixation with the little men keeps strong as he continues complaining about them. However, he reaches the last two stops: Caer Vandwy, the Fortress of God’s Peak, and Caer Ochren, the Fortress of Sloping Hill. Has the poet completed his journey? We cannot tell with certainty, but judging from some verses where monks ”howl like a choir of dogs” or ”pack together like young wolves” and others where the poet expresses his sadness, we can surmise that this isn’t the case.
One, reading The Spoils of Annwn for the first time, might consider the poem to be about a military expedition. However, on a deeper level it is the account of a symbolic voyage. The quest revolves around a metaphorical rebirth through the union of the dark forces of Caer Sidi, the Mound Fortress, and the forces of light of Caer Pedryuan, the Four-Cornered Fortress. The voyage, though, doesn’t end happily. It fails just as it failed for Gweir, now incarcerated in the Otherworld.
And what is the reason behind this failure? Here the poet’s fixation with the little men provides the explanation. All the traditions, all this vast wealth of oral poetry and storytelling, all this dreamy culture whose ultimate prize is a mystical cauldron are being ignored and dismissed by ”little men” (later in the poem they are revealed to be monks) who no longer appreciate the cauldron’s value and who have allowed from their memory to languish all the knowledge which has been accumulated throughout the centuries and has been passed down from generation to generation.
The poem’s penultimate verses have their own significance as they provide further explanation regarding the poet’s sadness, though they prove difficult to translate. Sarah Hingley has proposed various alternatives:
The grave of the saint is vanishing, both grave and ground.
The grave of the saint is hidden, both grave and champion.
How many saints in the Otherworld, and how many on earth?
How many saints lost, and how many altars?
How many saints in the void, and how many on earth?
Whatever the meaning, Higley claims that “diuant is a gloomy concept, and the sense expressed here is of sadness and loss, which is confirmed by the last line of the poem (‘that I be not sad’).” The poet is melancholic because those intimate with the old religion (the knowledge of the Druid, the world view of Celtic religion) are perishing and the spiritual legacy is dying.
Melrose concludes that The Spoils of Annwn is ”the closest we will ever get to a Druid text, a glimpse into a vast and ancient tradition gone beyond recall.” If that guess is true, then who was the poem’s creator? As I said in the beginning, the poem is attributed to Taliesin. However, most critics and scholars agree that the poem was composed centuries later, after Taliesin’s birth. Was the poet the historical Taliesin or was he another using the famous bard’s name?
We will probably never know, though we can keep speculating. And if the poem itself is a text about Druidic knowledge and Druidic mysteries, then could Taliesin himself have been a Druid? Melrose claims that this is a possibility. The fact that the poet refers to ”the Lord” and concludes the poem with the verse ”Christ endows me” makes it clear that the poem was composed in a society where the old religion coexisted with the new Christian religion.
The Romans hated the Druids with great passion and took measures to suppress them. The Druids found themselves on the receiving end of a crippling blow. However, they weren’t wiped out. Those who survived probably learnt to hide themselves and moved in secrecy. Melrose tells us that the Druids ”probably survived as an underground movement, and made a comeback when Roman power in Britain declined and paganism was restored in the late 4th century.”
Furthermore, he makes a guess about Taliesin’s identity, telling us that ”he lived perhaps in Gwent around A.D. 700, but grew up listening to stories of the nine maidens of Gloucestershire and their magic cauldron, and of heroic exploits in the underworld. His
family may have been Christians, and he himself may nominally have been a Christian, but his heart was with the old religion and the mysteries of that land called Annwn.”
I’m no scholar myself, but I believe that Melrose’s conjectures make sense and his arguments, based on linguistic evidence, oral tradition, mythology, history and archaeology, sound convincing. If he is right about Taliesin being a Druid and The Spoils of Annwn being about Druidic initiation and mysteries, then that makes me wonder why Taliesin felt the need to commit all this knowledge, albeit in an enigmatic manner, to paper.
We know very little about those mysterious folks called Druids. One of the few things we do know, though, through Julius Ceasar’s accounts is that they didn’t write down their knowledge. Instead, they passed it from generation to generation through oral storytelling, from the Druid’s mouth to the disciple’s ears.
Having that in mind, I cannot help but be curious as to Taliesin’s motives regarding this unusual move. Could it be that Taliesin acted this way out of an acute sense of loss, a desperate act to save and preserve a mystical doctrine that was at its twilight? Perhaps, deep down he knew with certainty that the ways of the old religion were long past their golden era and that soon they would be relegated to a relic of the past, if not altogether forgotten.
Either way, the Druids knew very well how to guard their secrets and, if Taliesin, was, indeed, one of them, he made sure even in writing down the poem, to remain faithful to the teachings and habits of his predecessors.
Art and especially poetry can be interpreted in various ways. The Spoils of Annwn remains a fascinating poem that even today hasn’t yielded to us its secrets. And if, indeed, the poem talks about the mysteries of the Druids (a doctrine about which we possess a scant amount of information), then that is one more reason to study it and do everything in our power to pass this literary legacy to the next generations as well.