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), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cad_Goddeu, http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/preiddeu-annwn, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/culhwch.html, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/bbc33.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwyn_ap_Nudd, http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/pwyll.html
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!