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.

 

Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad: A Story from the Old North

From the tales contained in the Mabinogion—the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions—that of Culhwch and Olwen is one of the most fascinating, its complexity, symbolism and various metaphors revealing it to be much more than a common folktale, elevating it to a rich work of art. This post focuses on a particulat episode recounted in the story, analyzing its themes and exploring the truth behind the powerful myth as well as its relevance to our life in the present.

From Peneverdant

Cherry BlossomCulhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.

Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.

This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because…

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

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The Fruit of Passion: Chapter 16 – Part III

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Sil eased onto the marble slab next to Olwen, taking further courage when she didn’t shy away from him or order him away. ‘’The lost lands of ages and ages I braved to fulfill my own yearnings. What are yours, Lady Olwen? And why did you choose me to fulfill them?’’

‘’Because I sensed your strength in the arts, and it called out to me from the moment you turned yourself a wanderer amongst the lost lands. I can count on my fingers all the otherwordly denizens whose awen has roused and fused with mine. That you, a mortal, stand on equal ground, if not higher, than them is a thing of wonder and delight for me.’’

Her words had an intoxicating effect on Sil who swelled with pride at his powers and sent his silent gratitude to his kinswomen, for without their guidance his gifts would be wasted on him. ‘’Many thanks, Lady Olwen. It is an honour to receive such heartfelt praise from a creature like you.’’

Olwen slightly lifted her feet off the ground for a moment, and a cluster of three white lilies sprung up at the spot. Her soul must be as pure as the fires that burn in a sacred temple, Sil thought, for his mother had told him tales of rare people who were so detached from

malice and perfect strangers to vice that every step of theirs was so fertile it brought life and breath to the world.

‘’Tell me more of your mother.’’ Olwen slid closer to him, their knees almost brushing against each other. ‘’You said she’s called Cordelia. She must be very potent in the arts.’’

‘’Of a truth,’’ replied Sil and related it to her all the troubles and sorrows his mother and aunt had suffered from the moment they fled their homeland in the east until they were shipwrecked and beached on Rumia. Then he lost himself in vivid narrations filled with tenderness about Rumia’s High Priestesses and their many teachings as he left his childhood behind and grew into manhood. Then concluded with the tynged they had placed upon him and later their aid in ushering him to the lost lands when he kept his word.

‘’So we’re both orphaned, it appears. Fated to live under the shadow of a parent’s absence. The paternal figure has remained a mystery to you, just like the maternal figure has forever eluded me.’’ Her eyes glazed as if she sought for her lost mother in faraway worlds hidden beyond veils of mist or others residing only in dreams.

Such was her concentration and so deep the longing etched on the countours of her face, Sil feared she might sprout wings and fly away in search of the woman who gave birth to her and then forsook her. Whatever emotions plagued her, Sil felt them burrow themselves within his own heart–as if an invisible string bound their ribs together.

For, even though, the path of his thoughts didn’t veer often to his father, when it did, Sil couldn’t easily shake off the restlessness that assailed him for days and made him roam as if a wild beast in the woods and streams and hills of Rumia.

Tentatively, Sil laced his fingers with Olwen’s. ‘’The past is often pregnant with unfortunate memories, and no good thing comes from dwelling on it. Though you may call me a liar, for that is a piece of advice I don’t always follow with success. Like you, I think of what could have been. But I’ve been taken care of and loved and taught precious lessons that have led me to be the man I am. And I believe you’ve wanted for nothing. Hasn’t King Pen raised you as if you were a child taken shape from his own seed?’’

An excerpt from my mythic fantasy novel currently titled The Fruit of Passion.

Please, share your views! All constructive feedback is always welcome. 

 

The Trickery of Gwydion

Here’s a post from fellow blogger Lorna Smithers about the trickster and anti-hero Gwydion who appears in one of the tales, Math the son of Mathonwy, in the Mabinogion, the earliest collection of prose tales of the literature of Britain that revolve around Welsh mythology and tradition.

From Peneverdant

Gwydion's Wand

I. The Trickster

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the trickery of the magician-god, Gwydion son of Don, and the trouble he causes within his own family, the House of Don, and to the people of Annwn.

In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi,Gwydion and his brother, Gilfaethwy, plot to rape Goewin, the virgin footholder of his uncle, Math. Math cannot live without his feet being in the lap of a virgin except at times of turmoil. Therefore Gwydion steals the pigs gifted to Pryderi by Arawn, King of Annwn, causing a war between Math, ruler of Gwynedd in North Wales and Pryderi, ruler of twenty-one cantrefs in the South. During the conflict Gwydion helps Gilfaethwy to rape Goewin in Math’s bed. Returning to the battle he then kills Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, who is implicitly also Arawn’s son, ‘because of strength…

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