Vist Wales have chosen 2017 to be the Year of Legend. Wales is steeped in legends, both past and present and none show this more than the tales on the Mabinogion…
The tales of the Mabinogion are over 1000 years old, they are the first reference to King Arthur and the earliest recorded British prose. It wasn’t until the 14th century that they were penned to paper; the origins being based upon story telling. They not only told tales of love, betrayal, mythology, politics and magical fantasies, but they promoted friendship and a code of moral conduct passed down from generation to generation.
The 11 original tales have been compiled into 4 sections known as branches named: Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math. Whilst the stories are bizzare, psychedelic and complicated, the key parts for each branch go something like this…
PWYLL, PRINCE OF DYFED
Pwyll, whilst sitting on a mound which he has been told will either wound him or bring him something wonderful, sees Rhiannon riding over the hill on a white horse. Rhiannon has chosen for him to be her husband, dispite being betrothed to another. Through a cunning strategy using her magic bag, which can never be filled, she traps her betrothed in the bag where he is beaten by Pwyll’s men until he agrees to let her free.
Rhiannon bare’s Pwyll a son and heir, but the child disappears the night he is born. Rhiannon is accused of killing and eating her own baby and for seven years, she sits at the castle gate every day telling her terrible tale to strangers. The child is rescued from his abductor and adopted by a kind couple. As he grows, the child’s resemblance to his father, the prince is seen by his adoptive father and therefore is returned to his kingdom. Pwyll and Rhiannon are cleared of their misdoings and their son eventually takes his rightful seat as the ruler of Dyfed.
BRANWEN, DAUGHTER OF LLYR
Branwen, the King of Britain’s sister, is given in marriage to the King of Ireland. In an act of revenge for not being consulted on the marriage, Branwen’s other brother mutilates all The king Of Ireland’s horses. In order to restore relations, The King of Britain sends gifts to Branwen’s husband, including a magical cauldron that restores the dead to life.
Influenced by others, The King of Ireland cannot forgive the act and Branwen is cast away to work as a maid. Whilst held captive, Branwen trains a starling to take a message to her brother, the King telling him of her plight. On receipt of this message, the King who is so huge, walks across the Irish Sea with his ships beside him to save his sister.
War breaks out. Only 5 pregnant women (to repopulate Ireland) and 7 Britons survive, including Branwen. The king of Britain who is mortally wounded demands his head is cut off, taken to London and put in the white tower facing France so it can help ward off further sea invasions.
MANAWYDAN, SON OF LLYR
Pryderi of Dyfed returns from War to his wife and mother with his friend Manawydan, heir to the kingdom of Britain. Manawydan’s claim as the British heir is challenged and he concedes. Pryderi instead makes him Lord of Dyfed and gives him his mothers hand in marriage.
One night, after a clap of thunder and a bright light, a magical mist descends destroying all life on Dyfed, except wild animals and the 4 characters; Pryderi, his wife, mother and friend, Manawydan.
One day, the two men follow a shining white boar to a strange castle. Pryderi, enters inside where he is trapped by a golden bowl; the same fate is bestowed upon his mother when she tries to save him. Pryderi’s wife and Manawydan begin to farm 3 fields from which they receive failed crops. Manawydan believes a mouse is responsible and just as he is about to kill the mouse, he is visited by a bishop. The mouse is not a mouse but a shape-shifter of a person of consequence. Manawydan is therefore able to bargain with the bishop to release his wife and Pryderi and lift the curse of Dyfed.
MATH, SON OF MATHONWY
Gwynedd is ruled by King Math. His feet must be held by a virgin at all times except while he is at war. Math’s nephew, Gilfaethwy is in love with the royal maiden foot holder; so much so that he and his magician brother instigate a war to take the king away. Whilst Math is away at battle, Gilfaethwy has his wicked way with the foot holder. On return from war, Math marries the foot holder to protect her honour and takes revenge on his nephews by turning them into animal pairs who must mate and bear young; first deer, then boars, then wolves. The sons they bear become Math’s foster sons, and after three years, Math releases his nephews from thier punishment.
Gilfaethwy’s sister, Arianrhod is appointed as the new foot holder. Math magically tests her virginity. On failing the test, She immediately gives birth to a son Dylan. She also drops a scrap of life of which Gilfaethwy takes and incubates. Another son, Lleu is created of which Arianrhod wants no attachment, instead bestowing him 3 curses: no name, no warrior arms and not to marry a human woman unless she, his mother says so. With the support of Gilfaethwy, Lleu gained a name and warrior arms through tricking his mother.
To conquer the third curse, a beautiful wife is constructed out of flowers. This wife falls for another and so she and her love find out a way to kill Lleu. The method is complicated, but Lleu is hit by a spear. His uncle sings him back to life with a magical poem. The ‘other love’ in a moment of remorse, offers Lleu to return the blow of a spear. He is a coward and as the spear is thrown, he pulls a stone in front of him for protection. The spear pierces the stone and he is killed. The stone with the hole can still be seen today.
Images courtesy of Margret Jones From the book ‘Tales From The Mabinogion’ by Gwyn Thomas and Kevin Crossley-Holland