Lands of Legend: Yggdrasill

Yggdrasill, known in Old Norse as Mimameidr, was the World Tree, a towering ash that held up the universe. It grew from the corpse of Ymir, who was oldest of all the giants and killed by the sons of the first god. His blood became the saltwater of the oceans; from his bones rose mountains. His flesh turned to earth and his skull was the sky, with his brains for the clouds. Even the maggots on his corpse were repurposed in this cosmic disembowelment. They transformed into dwarves that held up the sky.

And there was war between the Norse gods and the giants pretty much forever after.

In early Norse legend there were said to be nine worlds growing on the world tree. The realm of mortals was called Midgard. Ygdrasill had three vast roots, each drawing strength from different waters. One reached into Asgard, home of the gods, where it was tended by the goddesses known as the Norns. They were guardians of Urdarbrunnr, the Well of Fate.

The way between Asgard and Midgard was across the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. The gods lived on the other side of it within a fortress that was built on trickery, broken oaths and murder. The builder of its colossal walls was promised as payment the sun, the moon and the beautiful goddess Freyja, if he could finish his work by the end of a single winter – but when he came too near to earning the gods’ treasures, the gods (well, specifically Loki) sabotaged him so that they would not have to pay up. The builder revealed himself to be a very angry giant, upon which discovery the gods felt their oaths were null and void and Thor smashed his head open.

Within Asgard was the hall of Valhalla, where fallen heroes went to feast in the company of Odin. They ate the meat of the boar Schrimnir, who returned to life each day only to be killed and eaten again, and drank mead milked from the goat Heidrum, who fed on the leaves of Yggdrasill.

The second of Yggdrasill’s roots led to Jotunheim, realm of the giants, and it was watered by the well Mimisbrunnr, a source of wisdom so powerful that Odin gave up an eye to drink from it. In Jotunheim was the city of Utgard, ruled by Utgardloki, a king of giants. He once tricked Thor, Loki and their friend Thialfi into a series of impossible tasks. Thialfi was set against a giant called Hugi in a foot race, but was really trying and failing to outrun Thought itself. Loki was equally unlucky in his eating contest against Logi, who was Fire. Thor was asked to drain a horn that was full of the world’s oceans, to lift a cat that was in fact Jormungand the World Serpent, and wrestle an old woman who was Old Age, implacable even to gods.

It’s fun little get-togethers like this, by the way, that lead howling battles and a lot of dead giants and all the way to Ragnarok, that being the end of the world. Thank you, performative masculinity.

The third root of Yggdrasill plunged into the dark and cold underworld of Niflheim, where it drew water from the well of Hvergelmir but was constantly gnawed upon by the serpent Nidhogge. The Kingfisher Book of Mythology calls it an ‘evil dragon-monster’ but I feel that’s unnecessarily judgy, just because Nidhogge liked to snack on dead people too. Niflheim was one of the first places to ever exist, the other being its counterbalance, the raging fires of Muspell. The land of the dead could be found in Niflheim, ruled over by Loki’s daughter Hel, as could Nastrond, the shore of corpses. Which, incidentally, is where Nidhogge liked to hang out.

The four winds ran across Yggrasill’s branches in the shape of deer, feeding off its buds, and a squirrel darted along the trunk, passing insults from the eagle that lived in the uppermost branches to the serpent at its roots, then back again. I cannot find an origin for that feud but I would really love to know more. Meanwhile, beneath the roots of the universe lay Ymir, shifting uneasily in his death from time to time, causing the tree and the worlds it carried to sway.

Yggdrasill survived Ragnarok. What, though, might happen if Ymir ever woke up all the way?

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References:, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from around the World – ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherin Headlam (Kingfisher Publications, 1998), Bulfinch’s Mythology – Thomas Bulfinch (Gramercy Books, 2003)


Lands of Legend: The Drowned Lands

There have always been stories about a flood coming down to wash the wicked world away.

In mythology, this tends to happen when the gods nope out of a situation. Excess and the very debatable concept of sin are the usual grounds for this sort of divine spring-cleaning. If legendary lands are on a spectrum, the utopian islands would probably be at one end and the drowned lands would be at the other. These are the cautionary tales. There are very few survivors.

Let’s start in Ker-Ys. According to Breton legend, this was a wealthy city-state on the coast of south-west Brittany, under what is now the Bay of of Douarnenez. It was protected from both its enemies and the rapacious sea by an enormous dike. Ker-Ys was ruled by Gradlon Meur, a pious Christian prince, but he lived in a beautiful marble palace decorated with cedar and gold and the city itself was a place of art and beauty and excess – no doubt the influence of Gradlon’s only child, a princess who was known for anything but piety.

Her name varies between versions of the legend – Ahès, Ahè, Dahud, Dahut – and her personality varies even more. Depending on the telling, she was either

a) a careless girl who threw a private party for her lover and drowned the city in a drunken prank gone wrong, or

b) a full-on serial killer who seduced boys then had her servants strangle them and chuck their bodies into a gorge, ultimately bewitching a young man into opening the dike for her. Ahès is described as having made ‘a crown of her vices and…taken as pages the seven deadly sins’, which frankly sounds a lot more awesome than I imagine it was intended to.

Whatever her motivation, the destruction of Ker-Ys is laid squarely at the princess’s door. The king was warned in time to escape and took his daughter with him, but the waters caught up with their horse and the king was told to throw off the ‘she-devil’. Ahès fell into the sea. The king survived, but the city was lost.

Ahès survived too, becoming a spirit of the sea and luring sailors to the deaths. So really, apart from an amphibious lifestyle, not that much changed for her.

The story of Lyonesse is quite similar. According to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it was neighbour to Cornwall and the birthplace of the knight Tristan. The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson made Lyonesse the setting for King Arthur’s final battle, describing it evocatively in The Idylls of the King:

Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse—
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.

The landscape of Lyonesse received another loving description in Alan Seeger’s 1917 poem ‘Lyonesse’, quoted below:

In Lyonesse was beauty enough, men say:
Long Summer loaded the orchards to excess,
And fertile lowlands lengthening far away,
In Lyonesse.

Came a term to that land’s old favoredness:
Past the sea-walls, crumbled in thundering spray,
Rolled the green waves, ravening, merciless.

Through bearded boughs immobile in cool decay,
Where sea-bloom covers corroding palaces,
The mermaid glides with a curious glance to-day,
In Lyonesse.

How exactly Lyonesse came to sink beneath the sea is something of a mystery. None of the sources I have to hand go into any detail at all. This sort of thing just happens sometimes.

It happened, for instance, in Wales. Cantre’r Gwaelod, also known as Maes Gwyddno, is a lost land in Welsh legend, underneath what is now Cardigan Bay. This was part of the kingdom of Meirionnydd, with Caer Wyddno was its capital. In one early version of the legend, the land was drowned when a maiden named Mererid allowed her well to overflow; in another version, two princes were charged with the management of the sluice gates that protected their land. One was called Seithenyn and due to his drunken negligence, the gate was left open, allowing the sea to pour through. Folklore has it that the church bells still ring in times of trouble.

It has been suggested that this story shares origins with another drowned land in Wales, known as Llys Helig. Rumoured to be under what is now Conwy Bay, it was ruled by Helig ap Glannawg. Once again, the blame for the downfall of the kingdom is laid at the feet of a wicked princess: Helig’s daughter Gwendud. A beautiful girl with freezing arrogance, she told her suitor Tathal that she would not marry him unless he wore a nobleman’s golden torque. Tathal then went out and promptly killed a nobleman for his torque, and told Gwendud that he had won it in a duel with an outlaw. Which, I’d like to point out was a hundred percent his own decision, and a terrible decision it was too, because the nobleman’s ghost rocked up and cursed the entire family. Four generations later, the curse finally came to fruition as the sea came welling up under the castle and swallowed Llys Helig whole.

The moral of the story seems to be, if disaster is lapping at your heels, find a woman to blame for it. And if that is blame you’re willing to take, go forth and make your crown of vices.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: The Enchanted World: Fabled Lands by Time-Life Books (Time-Life Books, 1986),,,,,,, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), Tennyson: Poems and Plays by Lord Alfred Tennyson, ed. T. Herbert Warren (Oxford Paperbacks, 1975)

Lands of Legend: The Garden of the Hesperides

This month, we’re touring into Greek mythology to visit the Garden of the Hesperides, which was the perfect secluded getaway until the notorious hero Hercules got tasked with raiding the place.

Before we get to the garden, let’s start with the Hesperides themselves. As with many lesser gods in mythology, these nymphs are credited with a great many different parents. Contenders include Nyx, goddess of night, and Atlas, the Titan tasked with holding up the sky. The sisters were Aegle, Erythraea and Hespera, all names that reference different stages of sunset. They were goddesses of the evening, which now that I type it sounds rather like a euphemism, and guardians of the Garden’s arboreal treasure: the golden apples of immortality.

The tree – or, depending on the version, grove – was a wedding gift from the earth goddess Gaia to the queen of the Pantheon, Hera. The apples also had the protection of a hundred-headed dragon, clearly Hera knew her family well enough to be prepared, but its best defence was the fact the Garden was so fiendishly difficult to find. When Hercules was assigned his eleventh Labour and told to steal apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, it was only by utilising his semi-divine might to capture and bully the sea god Nereus that he learned how to reach the Garden, and only with the support of the sun god Helios, who lent Hercules his own enormous golden cup in which to sail across the sea, that he actually got there.

And once he did get there, Hercules was smart enough not to do his own dirty work. He offered Atlas an opportunity that he could not resist; what wouldn’t Atlas agree to, in order to unload his terrible burden for a short time? Hercules would hold up the sky while Atlas stole the apples. Of course, after he had collected the prize, Atlas saw no reason to return to his servitude, but Hercules insisted he needed to settle the weight of the sky properly, with a cushion to soften the load, and he absolutely would if Atlas would only take hold of it for a minute…Obviously, as soon as Atlas was back in place, Hercules grabbed the apples and was gone. Apparently Athena later returned the apples, which makes the whole endeavour entirely pointless, but that’s divine intervention for you.

The Atlas mountain range passes through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, so based on the implied proximity in this myth, it seems likely that the Garden of the Hesperides was intended to be somewhere in North Africa. Another possible location is in southwestern Europe, in the Iberian peninsula, this being favoured by the poet Stesichorus and the geographer Strabo.

Golden apples are a recurring image in Greek mythology. The goddess of discord, Eris, set off a chain reaction that started with a spiteful beauty contest and ended in the destruction of Troy by producing a golden apple ‘for the fairest’ of the Pantheon. The famed athlete Atalanta was slowed in the race that would decide her marriage by the distraction of three golden apples, gifts to her suitor from Aphrodite. The connection might be tenuous, but after all, even the strangest of fruit has to grow somewhere. So perhaps it’s rather lucky that Athena put those beautiful apples back, before they could take root anywhere else.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002),,, Greek Mythology – Sofia Souli (Editions Michalis Toubis, 1995), Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills

Lands of Legend: Hildaland and Hether-Blether

Two weeks late and it’s not actually May any more, but look, at least I wasn’t kidnapped by Finfolk and whisked away to a disappearing island.

The Finfolk are a nomadic shapeshifting people from Orkney myth and legend. In the winter, they lived in the underwater stronghold of Finfolkaheem: a crystal castle lit by glowing sea creatures, complete with extensive seaweed gardens. Hildaland was their summer home, an island only visible to a rare few and only then when it happened to appear above water. The name, appropriately enough, means ‘Hidden Land’, and may have originally referred to a group of islands as opposed to one. Travellers would pass through a fog and find themselves transported from their own world to the realm of the Finfolk, which was honestly not a great place for humans to be.

While Hildaland was very beautiful, in the grand tradition of paradise islands – rich green pastures, lush fields of bountiful crops – it was also a prison. The Finfolk had a habit of stealing mortal spouses. Stealing mortal anything, in fact, precious metals were good too, but in what sounds like a classic case of folklore misogyny, a Finwife was said to lose her beauty if she married a Finman so they preferred to take their chances with a human bride instead and Finwives tended to pick human men. Methods of abduction varied from seductive singing to posing as floating debris until they got close enough for a snatch and grab. The end result was a life sentence for the human unlucky enough to catch a Finfolk eye.

Eventually, however, the practice backfired badly. A newlywed farmer called Thorodale lost his wife to one such abduction and took it hard; the wife lost her freedom and took it harder. She managed to get word to him of where he might find vengeance for them both. After hearing the advice of the wise woman of Hoy, Thorodale performed a ritual of nines around the Odin Stone at Stenness – circling the stone nine times on his knees for nine full moons, until he had something of its power of clear sight. Then he packed for a heist and took his three full-grown sons to go avenge their stepmother. The Finfolk tried to repel the human invaders, first with illusions, then with mermaid charm, then with physical force, but Thorodale would not be turned aside and reached the shore of Hildaland. He and his sons sowed the land with nine rings of salt and cut nine crosses into the earth, claiming it for their own. He did not succeed in rescuing his wife, because the story really doesn’t care about her.

This version of events ties Hildaland to the entirely factual island of Eynhallow, which lies between Rousay and the Orkney mainland. Rousay is also linked to a story of Hether-Blether. A girl from Rousay went missing and for years there was no trace of her, until one day her father and brothers were lost in a fog and washed up on an unknown island. The girl greeted them there, ensconced in her new life: a happily married mother of three, a rare success story from the Finfolk marriage market. She refused to come home with her family, but offered them a piece of iron – in one version a stake, in another a knife – that would allow them to find her again. They didn’t even make it away from the island before dropping the wretched thing into the water, and Hether-Blether sank beneath the sea at once. Given what happened to Hildaland, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002),,,,,

Lands of Legend: Tir-nan-õg

If myth is an ocean, there is practically an archipelago of paradisal islands out there, and among them is an idyllic Otherworld inhabited by the ancient Irish gods. It has been known by many titles: the‘Land of Promise’ (Tir Tairngiré), the ‘Plain of Happiness’ (Mag Mell), the ‘Land of the Living’ (Tir-nam-beo), but the best known name is the ‘Land of the Young’ (‘Tir-nan-õg).

Charles Squire calls it as ‘a paradise overseas…some unknown, and, except for favoured mortals, unknowable island of the west, the counterpart in Gaelic myth to the British Avalon…a land of perpetual pleasure and feasting’. It has also been paralleled with Elysium and Hy Brasil. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies describes it as ‘breathtakingly beautiful, alive with birds, colour and music, and where love was always fresh and new. Its inhabitants were blessed with eternal youth, oblivious to such concepts as time, rules, or work’. In The Lay of Oisin in the Land of Youth, translated by Brian O’Looney, Tir-nan-õg is said to be ‘the most delightful country to be found/ Of greatest repute under the sun;/Trees drooping with fruit and blossom,/…Abundant, there, are honey and wine,/And everything that eye has beheld, There will not come decline on thee with lapse of time./Death or decay thou wilt not see.’ It was said to always be spring in Tir-nan-õg – the people there did not age or grow sick, they did not die – labour was unnecessary because the land itself provided in easy abundance. Warriors could fight one another to the ground and rise up again in the morning.

Of the gods who left Ireland for Tir-nan-õg, Manannán son of Lêr was the most powerful. His daughter, Niamh of the Golden Hair, took a trip back to the mother country to claim the husband of her choice, a man she had literally only ever heard about in stories and decided, based on that, would be her perfect life partner. Not that his decision-making process was any better than hers. When she rose out of Lough Leane, a lake in Killarney, to seduce him, Oisin was only too happy to follow where she led. Even his father Fionn mac Cumhaill, a legendary warrior and leader of the Fianna, was unable to convince Oisin to stay.

With her mortal lover swung up on the back of her horse, Niamh returned home, riding across the waves of the sea because roads are apparently for losers. As they travelled, white palaces rose above the water and Niamh stopped at one of these for Oisin to prove himself with a spot of heroism. A woman of the Tuatha De Danann had been captured by a Formor and held in this palace; Oisin did indeed prove himself by setting the prisoner free. As the lovers journeyed on together, Oisin saw a fawn running across the waves, pursued by a white hound with red ears. This may have been particularly significant due to Oisin’s own unusual origins – his mother Sadhbh was cursed to become a deer while she was pregnant with him, and he was born a fawn before transforming into a human boy.

Oisin stayed with Niamh for three hundred years. That is a pretty solid marriage by most people’s standards, but eventually a surge of homesickness came over Oisin and he asked Niamh for leave to see Ireland again. She gave him a horse and in return he gave her a promise: he would not touch earthly soil. In due time he reached Ireland, but it had changed almost beyond his recognition, his friends and family now no more than names in history books. People no longer possessed the powers that had been common in Oisin’s youth. He watched three hundred men try and fail to lift a marble slab, then rode up and raised it one-handed.

The effort, slight as it may have been to him, broke his saddle-girth and his foot touched the ground. Instantly, the horse vanished and the years caught up to Oisin with a vengeance. There are ballads in which the blinded and dying Oisin, withered by unnatural age, was taken in by Saint Patrick – yes, that Saint Patrick – who tried to convert him to Christianity. Oisin, having listened to all of the saint’s arguments, refused to believe that any heaven would be closed to his friends if they chose to go there, or that any god would not claim friendship with his father. Oisin declared that he would go to the Fianna, his beloved companions, in whatever afterlife he found them – and died true to his word.

There are other fairy islands in Irish myth and legend. One is Tir Inna mBan, the Isle of Women, which was supported on four bronze pillars and – as you may have guessed based on the name – was inhabited entirely by women, a kind of Celtic Themiscyra. Manannan once summoned the hero Bran and his warriors to this island, where they were entertained for a year. Much as Niamh did, the women of Tir Inna mBan warned their departing guests not to set foot on Irish soil. As their ship neared land, Bran’s men called out to the people on the shore, telling of their adventures…only to learn that they had been gone far longer than they had realised, long enough to fade into the stuff of old stories. One sailor was so alarmed that he leapt off the ship and swam to land, but as soon as he reached it, he was reduced to dust. Bran and his warriors turned their ship around and sailed away, back into the unknowable mists from which they had come, and were not seen again.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975),, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003)

Lands of Legend: Camelot

On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro’ the field the road runs by

To many-tower’d Camelot

– Lord Alfred Tennyson, ‘The Lady of Shalott’

This is Tennyson’s Camelot, glowing and glorious, seen from afar by a doomed woman who could reach it only in death. If I’m honest, it is this poem – with all its lush tapestry of imagery, the reflection of a vibrant city glimpsed in a mirror – that played the biggest part in shaping my own vision of Camelot, and now I find it impossible to believe in anything else. But there are as many Camelots as there are King Arthurs, so I’m going to try.

Camelot, of course, is now inextricable from the story of Arthur – his city, the seat of his power, where his knights gathered around the famed Round Table – but one of the earliest named locations given for Arthur’s court, in the Welsh Triads, is in fact at Celliwig in Cerniw. Camelot does not get a mention. Many medieval texts place Arthur at Caerleon. In fact, the first time the name of Camelot appears is in Chrétien de Troyes’s poem Lancelot, and the tradition of Camelot being Arthur’s great city began in the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle.

In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, while the young Arthur was battling rival kings for his throne, he called a council: ‘all lords, knights, and gentlemen of arms, should draw unto a castle called Camelot in those days’. Later in the story, Arthur’s wedding to Guinevere also took place in Camelot, at the church of St Stephen’s. He held court in other places, including Caerleon and London, but Camelot was his principal city. As in Tennyson’s evocative poem, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle placed Camelot downstream of the town of Astolat, overlooking the river. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight, describes a scene of revelry in Camelot:

There tourneyed many a time the trusty knights,

and jousted full joyously these gentle lords;

then to the court they came at carols to play.

For there the feast was unfailing full fifteen days,

with all meats and all mirth that men could devise,

such gladness and gaiety as was glorious to hear,

din of voices by day, and dancing by night;

all happiness at the highest in hall and in bowers

had the lords and the ladies, such as they loved most dearly.

The poem’s description of Arthur’s hall includes a high table on a lavish dais, surrounded by beautiful tapestries, and below that the long tables where lesser lords were seated. Not quite in the spirit of the Round Table, where no one was placed higher than anyone else, but very much in keeping with the medieval glamour that infuses Arthurian legend.

But of course, the days of feasting and tournaments did not last forever. Arthur died; the fellowship of the Round Table was broken. In a fragmented romance called the Palamedes, King Mark of Cornwall marched on Camelot after Arthur fell at Camlann and razed the city to the ground. It was as if Camelot was an extension of Arthur himself, and could not outlive him.

So, was there a real Camelot once upon a time? It’s a question that rather relies on what you think of the evidence that Arthur himself was a historical figure. According to Malory, the site of Camelot later became the city of Winchester. Caerleon is another obvious candidate. Cadbury Castle in Somerset has been proposed as the true Camelot since 1542 and archaelogical exploration has confirmed that there was once a large fortress there, heavily refortified in the late fifth or early sixth century.

Perhaps one of these places really was King Arthur’s city – as close to it as history will allow, anyway. Or perhaps Camelot is somewhere else, a little way downriver, under a summer sky. A myth wrapped in the shimmering haze of once and future.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two – Sir Thomas Malory (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485), The King Who Was and Will Be: The World of King Arthur and His Knights – Kevin Crossley-Holland (Orion, 1998),,,,, Exploring King Arthur’s Britain – Denise Stobie (Collins&Brown Ltd., 1999), Worlds of Arthur: King Arthur in History, Legend and Culture – Fran and Geoff Doel, Terry Lloyd (Tempus, 2005), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo – J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins, 1995)

Lands of Legend: Annwn

Trigger warning: references to incest, cannibalism

Welcome to this month’s Land of Legend: Annwn, the Welsh Underworld, where human souls were said to travel after death and errant nobility got press-ganged into impersonating the reigning monarch. In Annwn, the fountains ran with wine instead of water, old age was unknown and life – or afterlife! – was an endless round of feasting and revelry. The cauldron of inspiration was guarded here, along with the Three Birds of Rhiannon, which could sing the dead to life and the living into a sleep of death. No wonder it’s where the Wild Hunt hung out when they were not rampaging around the mortal realm.

In early legends, Annwn was ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh god of battle and the dead. In his later incarnation, he became leader of the Wild Hunt. Gwyn is credited with two probable brothers, Edern and Owain. He features in the ancient Arthurian story of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, as the suitor and then the abductor of a maiden named Creiddylad – who was all set to marry someone else, and may have been Gwyn’s own sister. Creiddylad’s betrothed, Gwythyr son of Greidwal, went with his warriors to get her back, but failed desperately. Of the prisoners he took from among Gwythyr’s allies, Gwyn killed a man named Nwython, cut out his heart and forced his son Kyledyr to eat it, which unsurprisingly sent the boy mad. Eventually King Arthur stepped in. He compelled Gwyn to free his prisoners, and arranged a conditional peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr. Under its terms, Creiddylad would be returned to her father’s house and stay there, and each year on the first of May the two would-be husbands would fight one another for her hand. This contest would continue until the Day of Judgement, when the final victor would claim his bride.

Which implies a whole lot of immortality and a spectacular amount of patience all around, but it kept the warriors busy and Creiddylad was well shot of the pair, so honestly I think it’s one of the best calls Arthur made as a king. It worked out well for him personally, too, because later in the events of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, he called both Gwyn and Gwythyr to his aid in hunting the fearsome boar Twrch Trwyth and battling the witch Orddu (though they do not appear to have been tremendously useful in either encounter).

In the medieval poem ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’, Gwyn played a less brutal role, offering his protection to a king he met while travelling. As they introduced themselves, Gwyn’s description of his origins was blunt: ‘I come from battle and conflict’. This implies that he was a psychopomp, guiding the souls of the dead to the Underworld. Through the poem, he described appearing on many battlefields, including one outside of a fortress called Caer Vandwy. The same fortress is also mentioned in the Preiddu Annwn, a poem taken from the Llyfr Taliesin, which is a fourteenth century Middle Welsh manuscript. In this poem, King Arthur went to war against Gwyn’s realm. Preiddu Annwn references the prison of a man called Gweir ap Geirioed and a number of other fortresses through which Arthur’s warriors pass on their way, including the Fortress of the Mound, the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness, The Fortress of Four Peaks, The Fortress of Hardness, The Glass Fortress, the Fortress of Hindrance, the Fortress of God’s Peak and the Fortress of Enclosedness.

Another king of Annwn was Arawn, a Welsh god of the Underworld. His name means ‘Silver-Tongue’ and he, too, was a hunter, accompanied by a pack of white dogs with red ears. His rival for leadership of the divided kingdom was Havgan (whose name means ‘Summer-White’). Arawn kept losing ground to him. When by chance a mortal fell into his debt – Pwyll, Lord of Arberth, prince of Dyfed, and very competitive hunter who couldn’t recognise when a kill belonged to someone else – Arawn seized the opportunity to trick his enemy. Pwyll was obliged to take Arawn’s place on the throne in Annwn for one year, disguised with Arawn’s face. At the end of that time, he had to fight Havgan himself. Arawn warned him to strike the rival king only once – if struck twice, Havgan would recover, which presumably is what kept happening when Arawn fought him. It does seem to be the kind of thing you find out the hard way. While all this was happening, Arawn would slum it in the mortal realm, ensuring that Pwyll’s own lands did not go to rack and ruin in his absence.

The really astonishing thing is that this plan worked. Pwyll defeated Havgan and won Arawn’s friendship not just for conquering Havgan’s kingdom, but also for not sleeping with Arawn’s extremely beautiful, elegant wife when he had every opportunity to do so. Incidentally, do you think anyone let her in on the secret? No. No, they did not. The first she knew of it was when her real husband rocked up and wanted sex for the first time in a year.

Anyway. Pwyll later married an actual goddess called Rhiannon, whom he treated very badly. They had a son, Pryderi, and Arawn’s friendship not only extended to him, it extended to Rhiannon’s second husband Manawyddan too – both he and Pryderi being credited as the co-rulers of the Underworld and guardians of its treasures.

Arawn did not have such a great relationship with other leaders. In the medieval Welsh poem Cad Goddeu (which translates to ‘the Battle of the Trees’), war broke out between Arawn and the enchanter Gwydion after Gwydion’s brother Amatheon stole a dog, a lapwing and a roebuck from the Lord of Annwn. Gwydion roused the forest with his magic to fight on his side and eventually won the battle by guessing the name of Bran, one of Arawn’s men. The same enchanter tricked a herd of pigs out of Pryderi – pigs that had been a gift from Arawn and could never be sold – then, when the sordid business came to a battle, killed Pryderi in single combat. Gwydion was a real charmer.

What is so interesting about Annwn is its sense of place. This is no nebulous, unchanging realm of the dead that can only be reached by gods and their chosen heroes; when war breaks out, there are consequences. Keeping the throne of Annwn is a fierce struggle for all of its kings, however powerful they may be. It’s a land of secrets and splendour, horror and treasure, vulnerable to the greed of its enemies…but watch out if the birds ever start singing.

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), The Celts – Frank Delaney (HarperCollins, 1993),,, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975),,,,

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!