Preiddeu Annwn: Get in Loser, We’re Fighting the Otherworld

So, how are we all feeling about March? Are you enjoying the experience being part of a global historical event? No, me neither. Thus far 2020 in Australia has been a rollercoaster of drought, bushfires, floods and Coronavirus. Frankly I think we should all get our money back or have 2020 traded in for a year in better condition. It’s been hard to keep up my motivation with the current project, but who else is going to bring you opinions about esoteric Arthuriana in this time of crisis?

Preiddeu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn is a poem from the fourteenth century Welsh text Llyfr Taliesin. I am using Sarah Higley’s translation from the University of Rochester’s Camelot Project and given the obscurity of the poem’s phrasing, I am also leaning on her analysis of what it is all about. I understand there is another, incomplete translation by Robert Graves in The White Goddess, so you may have encountered this poem before in one incarnation or another.

To clarify: Annwn is the Welsh Otherworld, ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd in Arthurian tradition. The poem also references Pwyll and Pryderi, who are father and son, kings of Dyfed. Pwyll makes a cameo in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’, where he is a member of Arthur’s court. He is as terrible a husband as I imagine Culhwch probably was but is also a close ally to Arawn, the other king of the Otherworld in Welsh mythology. Pryderi is Pwyll’s son. He is killed by the vicious scheming of the magician Gwydion, who is responsible for a lot of things that are wrong with the world, such as that one time he created a woman out of flowers because his beloved nephew needed a bespoke wife and was shocked and appalled when the woman in question showed a mind of her own.

There are a lot of men in mythology that we could all do without, honestly.

Preiddeu Annwn begins by praising the Lord (pretty safe to assume this is the Christian God) whose sovereignty extends across the world. We then take a sharp detour to the Mound Fortress, prison of Gweir ‘throughout the account of Pwyll and Pryderi’. Gweir is described as singing bitterly ‘before the spoils of Annwfyn’ – presumably a reference to great treasures. The poem then continues ‘Three fullnesses of Prydwen/ we went into it/ Except seven/ none rose up/ from the Fortress of the Mound’. It sounds like this is referring to a raid or battle, one that cost many lives.

The poem then diverges into a little self-congratulatory wonder at its own brilliance. “I was honoured in praise./ Song was heard/ in the Four-Peaked Fortress…My poetry/ from the cauldron/ it was uttered./ From the breath of nine maidens/ it was kindled,” the poet declares. The cauldron, though, is a fairly potent symbol in Welsh mythology, and the poem is quick to tie literary allusion to mythology. ‘The cauldron of the chief of Annwfyn,’ we are told, ‘what is its fashion?/ A dark ridge around its border and pearls./ It does not boil the food of a coward,/ it has not been destined.’ Does that sound familiar? It should. Arthur stole a cauldron with the same properties in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’, only it belonged to Diwrnach Wyddel in that story. We are told that the ‘sword of Lleawch’ has been lifted against it (meaning, I assume, that it was seized by Lleawch) and that it was left in the keeping of Lleminawe. And we are told, once again, that only seven returned from ‘the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness’. It would seem that this battle went quite differently from the one in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’.

I am honoured in praise,’ the poem continues, ‘song is heard/ in the Fortress of Four-Peaks,/ isle of the strong door…Three fullness of Prydwen/ we went on the sea./ Except seven none rose up/ from the Fortress of Hardness.’ For all these different names, it sounds like the same fortress, maybe on a remote island. There is a history of Otherworldly islands in Celtic mythology.

From here the poet starts taking things more personally:‘I merit not the Lord’s/ little men of letters./ Beyond the Glass Fortress they did not see/ the valor of Arthur,’ and the poem continues to say that six thousand men stood upon the wall. But only seven rose up ‘from the Fortress of Guts’. Well, that’s explicit.

Little men’ are referenced again. The footnotes to the translation clarifies this as a reference, and quite obviously an attack upon, a group of monks. The footnotes also theorise that the poem isn’t really about Arthur at all, instead being an intricate metaphor about poetic composition. Given the number of verses dedicated to other people’s perceived failings, this seems a reasonable stance – the final verses don’t reference Arthur at all, descending into a somewhat vitriolic tirade against monks who ‘pack together like young wolves’ and who ‘do not know when midnight and dawn divide’.

Over and over again, though, the poem circles back around to Arthur’s men and the seven who survived out of six thousand. There is something rather dreadful about that repetition, that consistent reminder of a battle so vicious that only seven warriors made it out alive. As with so many Arthurian legends, the power of it is in the obscurity, something great and terrible half-seen as if through a mist.

Arthur brought a battle against the Otherworld, and it seems he won, but – again, as with so many of the legends – only just. That lucky streak will run out on him one of these days.

Take care everyone, wherever you are in the world, as we head into the unknown of April. Come chat if you want to. We live in very strange times, but that’s no reason to face this alone.


4 thoughts on “Preiddeu Annwn: Get in Loser, We’re Fighting the Otherworld

  1. I do not understand it either! It’s worth a read though, if cranky medieval poetry is your jam. I like looking at Arthuriana from different angles – so many storytellers invested in the same myth, it’s a strange and lovely continuity.

    Gwydion and his family are indeed one nightmare after another, even by mythic standards. Team Blodeuwedd all the way!

  2. It would be an undisguised blessing and an honourable contribution to academia if the reiterated promulgation of this type of nonsense about Preiddeu Annwn and “Taliesin” would cease. The poem is about the attack by Welsh Normans on a monastery at a place now called Monasternalea (Irish: Mainistir na Liath) in North-East Co. Galway, Ireland, in 1177, and the seizure therefrom of manuscripts belonging to the ‘Chief of Annwfyn’ who was Rory O’Conor, king of Connacht and High King of Ireland. The monastery was built within an enormous pre-historic fort which was the Regia Altera of Ptolemy’s map of Hibernia. Built for community living, its structure contrasted with the arrangement of early Irish monasteries, these being a multitude of separate cells, arranged in streets in the vicinity of the monastery church. In consequence of its fortified location, its ‘modern’ structure and the severity of the rules followed by its monks, it was dubbed “The Fortress of God’s Peak”. “The Glass Fortress”, “The Fortress of Hindrance”, “The Fortress of Hardship”, etc.
    This monastic site corresponds in topographical details to the Caer Siddi of a number of Middle Welsh poems. Its alternative name Caer Ochren (alias Caer Achren) still lives on in a local woodland place-name variously spelt Aghrane and Aughrane, a name which arises also in the Middle Welsh poem Cad Goddeu. As this poem closes with a very obscure mention of metal workers, it ought be of interest that ‘smelting/refining cells’ existed close by, and are mentioned in a marginal note in the Leabhar Breac, scribed c.1407. [This marginal note was reproduced by Tomás Ó Concheanainn in his article ‘The Scribe of the Leabhar Breac’ published in Ériu 24 (1973), pp. 64–79.]
    Note: Annwfyn (alias Annwn, Annwfn, etc.) is Irish “An Ubh Éin” written phonetically, as was usual with Irish place-names written in another language e.g. in Latin or in English. It means “The Bird-egg”, and referred to a famous extant pre-historic La Tène egg-like stone which generated the now obsolete Irish place-name ‘Bealach Fhearta Tír Uibhe’ – meaning ‘the road to the tomb in the land of the egg’. The place-name reference seems to be to an extant barrow grave lying about 2km from the above-mentioned abbey site. ‘Tír Uibhe’ and ‘the land of Annwn’ are one and the same place. [For further information see Section 2 of the free downloadable eBook “Reclaiming the Spoils of Annwfyn – Regia Altera and the Landscape of the Mabinogi”.

    • I appreciate you sharing this perspective! The sources I used had a different take on the poem and as my focus lies with Arthurian legend for this project, my research was mostly centred there. Also, I am not any kind of expert in medieval history or Arthuriana! Everything I write in this project is very subjective and completely following my own interests in the legends. I learn new things with each post, which I love. Thank you for including the references, I’ll have to give those a read!

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