Introducing a new feature… folklore Fridays, hopefully a lighthearted or whimsical way to spend your Friday. I’ll be blogging up to and through the holidays but if you’ll be off line through the holidays, have a Merry Christmas!
Since we are getting ready to celebrate a special birth next week, I’m going to start off with another otherworldly birth that comes up in Welsh Arthurian and ‘Men of the North’ lore (and in a mix-n-match sort of way in Marie de France).
Triad 70: The Three Blessed Womb-fuls of the Isle of Britain.
- Urien and Eurddel, twins of Cynfarch the Old and Nevyn daughter of Brychan
- Owain son of Urien and his sister Morwyd, twins of Modron daughter of Avallach
- Gwrgi and Peredur and Ceindrech Wing-head, children of Eliffer of the Great Retinue and Eurddel daughter of Cynfarch. (Koch, p. 349)
So here we have a paraphrase of triad 70 that outlines the family of Urien Rheged — his sister and parents, his children, and his nephews and niece. Eliffer of the Great Retinue is associated with the city of York under British rule. The pregnancies are signaled as unusual by the three sets of twins, each of a boy and a girl. The last triplets are really more like twins because “Peredur and Gwrgi” are always together in Welsh lore. The Arthurian figure Perceval is linked to this Peredur.
Urien Rheged’s children are the product of a Loathy Lady motif, though she isn’t said to be ugly and its been relocated to Wales.
“In Denbighshire [North Wales] there is a parish called Llanverrys, and it is there that one will fine Ryd-y-gyfarthfa [Ford of the Barking]. And in former times, the dogs from the whole country used to come to that ford to bark, and no what dared to go to see what was the matter until Urien Reged came. And when he came to the bank of the ford, he saw nothing but a young woman washing. And then the dogs ceased their barking. And Urien grabbed hold of the girl, and he had sexual intercourse with her [this may be meant as rape, but the verb is somewhat ambiguous].
And then she said, ‘God’s blessing on the feet that brought you here.’
‘Why?’ said he.
‘Because I was fated to wash here until I get a son by a Christian. And I am the daughter of the king of Annwvyn [the Un-world] . Come here at the end of the year and you will get the boy.’
And so he came and he got the son and a daughter, none other than Owein son of Urien and Morfyd daughter of Urien.” (Koch, p. 348-349)
Koch notes that Urien’s mother Nevyn is the Old Welsh form of the Irish war-goddess Nemhain. Modron is the Celtic mother goddess who has a similar meeting with the future king ‘Parisi of Gaul’ 2400 years ago (Koch, p. 348). Modron is familiar Celtic goddess in northern Britain; Roman era altars to her have been found along Hadrian’s Wall. What is really important here is that Modron is usually said to be the mother of the Celtic divine son, Mabon, who is directly associated with Owain ap Urien in Welsh poetry. (See Mary Jones excellent encyclopedia on Mabon).
From the Book of Taliesin, ‘Tidings Have Come to Me from Kalchvynd*”:
“When [the army of] Erechwyd returned from the country of Cludwys [Strathclyde], no cow lowed for its calf. The [?] manifestation of Mabon from the other realm, [in] the battle where Owein fought for the cattle of his country. …
Whoever saw Mabon on his white-flanked ardent [steed], as men mingled, contending for Reget’s cattle, unless it were by means of wings that they flew, only as corpses, would they go from Mabon.
Of encounter, descent, and onset of battle in the realm of Mabon, the inexorable cleaver; when Owein fought to defend his father’s cattle, which washed shields of waxen hawthorn burst forth….
When the king, leader of chieftains [lit. ‘dragons’], ordered battle…cattle for Mabon. In the encounter of [?]heroes, there were stiff red corpses, it was a joy which came to carrion crows. Men tell of it, after the [?] uproar of battle, no one escaped the shield of Owein. The broken shield of a fighter in the adversity of combat; he would not drive cattle without reddening faces….
…battle before great Owein, whose giving is great. Early in the morning, men fell fighting for land. Where Owein attacked for the sake of Erechwyd [part of Rheged] blessed land, he [?] secured his father’s battle-gains.” (Koch trans, p. 350-351).
The whole flowering of folklore may well come from the association of Owain ap Urien with the Celtic god Mabon. Owain’s father Urien died during the reign of Theodoric of Bernicia, who king lists place in the mid-570s. Owain’s brother Rhun is mentioned several times in the Historia Brittonum and may be related in some way to the baptism of Edwin of Deira in the 620s. Rhun’s granddaughter is believed to have been the first wife of King Oswiu of Bernicia/Northumbria. In general, Owain’s family was involved in fighting the establishment of the English kingdom of Bernicia and eventually marry into it.
*Kalchvynyd is a lost British kingdom mentioned several times in Old Welsh literature. It’s name means chalk or limestone mountain and is generally localized around the area of the Cotswolds or Chilterns in southern England. Here the poet is contrasting the ill tidings from battles in the south with their successes in the north.
John T Koch (in collaboration with John Carey) The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales. Celtic Studies Publications, 1995.