It is with the family of Pwyll, deities connected with the south-west corner of Wales, called by the Romans Demetia, and by the Britons Dyfed, and, roughly speaking, identical with the modern county of Pembrokeshire, that the earliest consecutive accounts of the British gods begin. The first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi tell us how "Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed", gained the right to be called Pen Annwn, the "Head of Hades". Indeed, it almost seems as if it had been deliberately written to explain how the same person could be at once a mere mortal prince, however legendary, and a ruler in the mystic Other World, and so to reconcile two conflicting traditions. 1 But to an earlier age than that in which the legend was put into a literary shape, such forced reconciliation would not have been needed; for the two legends would not have been considered to conflict. When Pwyll, head of Annwn, was a mythic person whose tradition was still alive, the unexplored, rugged, and savage country of Dyfed, populated by the aboriginal Iberians whom the Celt had driven into such remote districts, appeared to those who dwelt upon the
eastern side of its dividing river, the Tawë, at least a dependency of Annwn, if not that weird realm itself. But, as men grew bolder, the frontier was crossed, and Dyfed entered and traversed, and found to be not so unlike other countries. Its inhabitants, if not of Celtic race, were yet of flesh and blood. So that, though the province still continued to bear to a late date the names of the "Land of Illusion" and the "Realm of Glamour", 1 it was no longer deemed to be Hades itself. That fitful and shadowy country had folded its tents, and departed over or under seas.
The story of "Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed", 2 tells us how there was war in Annwn between its two kings--or between two, perhaps, of its many chieftains. Arawn ("Silver-Tongue") and Havgan ("Summer-White") each coveted the dominions of the other. In the continual contests between them, Arawn was worsted, and in despair he visited the upper earth to seek for a mortal ally.
At this time Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, held his court at Narberth. He had, however, left his capital upon a hunting expedition to Glyn Cûch, known to-day as a valley upon the borders of the two counties of Pembroke and Carmarthen. Like so many kings of European and Oriental romance, when an adventure is at hand, he became separated from his party, and was, in modern parlance, "thrown out". He could, however, still hear the music of his hounds, and was listening to them, when he also
distinguished the cry of another pack coming towards him. As he watched and listened, a stag came into view; and the strange hounds pulled it down almost at his feet. At first Pwyll hardly looked at the stag, he was so taken up with gazing at the hounds, for "of all the hounds that he had seen in the world, he had never seen any that were like unto these. For their hair was of a brilliant shining white, and their ears were red; and as the whiteness of their bodies shone, so did the redness of their ears glisten." They were, indeed, though Pwyll does not seem to have known it, of the true Hades breed--the snow-white, red-eared hounds we meet in Gaelic legends, and which are still said to be sometimes heard and seen scouring the hills of Wales by night. Seeing no rider with the hounds, Pwyll drove them away from the dead stag, and called up his own pack to it.
While he was doing this, a man "upon a large, light-gray steed, with a hunting-horn round his neck, and clad in garments of gray woollen in the fashion of a hunting garb" appeared, and rated Pwyll for his unsportsmanlike conduct. "Greater discourtesy," said he, "I never saw than your driving away my dogs after they had killed the stag, and calling your own to it. And though I may not be revenged upon you for this, I swear that I will do you more damage than the value of a hundred stags."
Pwyll expressed his contrition, and, asking the new-comer's name and rank, offered to atone for his fault. The stranger told his name--Arawn, a king of Annwn--and said that Pwyll could gain his forgiveness only in one way, by going to Annwn
instead of him, and fighting for him with Havgan. Pwyll agreed to do this, and the King of Hades put his own semblance upon the mortal prince, so that not a person in Annwn--not even Arawn's own wife--would know that he was not that king. He led him by a secret path into Annwn, and left him before his castle, charging him to return to the place where they had first met, at the end of a year from that day. On the other hand, Arawn took on Pwyll's shape, and went to Narberth.
No one in Annwn suspected Pwyll of being anyone else than their king. He spent the year in ruling the realm, in hunting, minstrelsy, and feasting. Both by day and night, he had the company of Arawn's wife, the most beautiful woman he had ever yet seen, but he refrained from taking advantage of the trust placed in him. At last the day came when he was to meet Havgan in single combat. One blow settled it; for Pwyll, Havgan's destined conqueror, thrust his antagonist an arm's and a spear's length over the crupper of his horse, breaking his shield and armour, and mortally wounding him. Havgan was carried away to die, and Pwyll, in the guise of Arawn, received the submission of the dead king's subjects, and annexed his realm. Then he went back to Glyn Cûch, to keep his tryst with Arawn.
They retook their own shapes, and each returned to his own kingdom. Pwyll learned that Dyfed had never been ruled so well, or been so prosperous, as during the year just passed. As for the King of Hades, he found his enemy gone, and his domains
extended. And when he caressed his wife, she asked him why he did so now, after the lapse of a whole year. So he told her the truth, and they both agreed that they had indeed got a true friend in Pwyll.
After this, the kings of Annwn and Dyfed made their friendship strong between them. From that time forward, says the story, Pwyll was no longer called Prince of Dyfed, but Pen Annwn, "the Head of Hades".
The second mythological incident in the Mabinogi of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, tells how the Head of Hades won his wife, Rhiannon, thought by Professor Rhys to have been a goddess either of the dawn or of the moon. 1 There was a mound outside Pwyll's palace at Narberth which had a magical quality. To anyone who sat upon it there happened one of two things: either he received wounds and blows, or else he saw a wonder. One day, it occurred to Pwyll that he would like to try the experience of the mound. So he went and sat upon it.
No unseen blows assailed Pwyll, but he had not been sitting long upon the mound before he saw, coming towards him, "a lady on a pure-white horse of large size, with a garment of shining gold around her", riding very quietly. He sent a man on foot to ask her who she was, but, though she seemed to be moving so slowly, the man could not come up to her. He failed utterly to overtake her, and she passed on out of sight.
The next day, Pwyll went again to the mound.
[paragraph continues] The lady appeared, and, this time, Pwyll sent a horseman. At first, the horseman only ambled along at about the same pace at which the lady seemed to be going; then, failing to get near her, he urged his horse into a gallop. But, whether he rode slow or fast, he could come no closer to the lady than before, although she seemed to the eyes of those who watched to have been going only at a foot's pace.
The day after that, Pwyll determined to accost the lady himself. She came at the same gentle walk, and Pwyll at first rode easily, and then at his horse's topmost speed, but with the same result, or lack of it. At last, in despair, he called to the mysterious damsel to stop. "I will stop gladly," said she, "and it would have been better for your horse if you had asked me before." She told him that her name was Rhiannon, daughter of Heveydd the Ancient. The nobles of her realm had determined to give her in marriage against her will, so she had come to seek out Pwyll, who was the man of her choice. Pwyll was delighted to hear this, for he thought that she was the most beautiful lady he had ever seen. Before they parted, they had plighted troth, and Pwyll had promised to appear on that day twelvemonth at the palace of her father, Heveydd. Then she vanished, and Pwyll returned to Narberth.
At the appointed time, Pwyll went to visit Heveydd the Ancient, with a hundred followers. He was received with much welcome, and the disposition of the feast put under his command, as the Celts seem to have done to especially honoured
guests. As they sat at meat, with Pwyll between Rhiannon and her father, a tall auburn-haired youth came into the hall, greeted Pwyll, and asked a boon of him. "Whatever boon you may ask of me," said Pwyll thoughtlessly, "if it is in my power, you shall have it." Then the suitor threw off all disguise, called the guests to witness Pwyll's promise, and claimed Rhiannon as his bride. Pwyll was dumb. "Be silent as long as you will," said the masterful Rhiannon; "never did a man make worse use of his wits than you have done." "Lady," replied the amazed Pwyll, "I knew not who he was." "He is the man to whom they would have given me against my will," she answered, "Gwawl, the son of Clûd. You must bestow me upon him now, lest shame befall you." "Never will I do that," said Pwyll. "Bestow me upon him," she insisted, "and I will cause that I shall never be his." So Pwyll promised Gwawl that he would make a feast that day year, at which he would resign Rhiannon to him.
The next year, the feast was made, and Rhiannon sat by the side of her unwelcome bridegroom. But Pwyll was waiting outside the palace, with a hundred men in ambush. When the banquet was at its height, he came into the hall, dressed in coarse, ragged garments, shod with clumsy old shoes, and carrying a leather bag. But the bag was a magic one, which Rhiannon had given to her lover, with directions as to its use. Its quality was that, however much was put into it, it could never be filled. "I crave a boon," he said to Gwawl. "What is
it?" Gwawl replied. "I am a poor man, and all I ask is to have this bag filled with meat." Gwawl granted what he said was "a request within reason", and ordered his followers to fill the bag. But the more they put into it, the more room in it there seemed to be. Gwawl was astonished, and asked why this was. Pwyll replied that it was a bag that could never be filled until someone possessed of lands and riches should tread the food down with both his feet. "Do this for the man," said Rhiannon to Gwawl. "Gladly I will," replied he, and put both his feet into the bag. But no sooner had he done so than Pwyll slipped the bag over Gwawl's head, and tied it up at the mouth. He blew his horn, and all his followers came in. "What have you got in the bag?" asked each one in turn. "A badger," replied Pwyll. Then each, as he received Pwyll's answer, kicked the bag, or hit it with a stick. "Then," says the story, "was the game of 'Badger in the Bag' first played."
Gwawl, however, fared better than we suspect that the badger usually did; for Heveydd the Ancient interceded for him. Pwyll willingly released him, on condition that he promised to give up all claim to Rhiannon, and renounced all projects of revenge. Gwawl consented, and gave sureties, and went away to his own country to have his bruises healed.
This country of Gwawl's was, no doubt, the sky; for he was evidently a sun-god. His name bewrays him; for the meaning of "Gwawl" is "light". 1 It
was one of the hours of victory for the dark powers, such as were celebrated in the Celtic calendar by the Feast of Samhain, or Summer End.
There was no hindrance now to the marriage of Pwyll and Rhiannon. She became his bride, and returned with him to Dyfed.
For three years, they were without an heir, and the nobles of Dyfed became discontented. They petitioned Pwyll to take another wife instead of Rhiannon. He asked for a year's delay. This was granted, and, before the end of the year, a son was born. But, on the night of his birth, the six women set to keep watch over Rhiannon all fell asleep at once; and when they woke up, the boy had vanished. Fearful lest their lives should be forfeited for their neglect, they agreed to swear that Rhiannon had eaten her child. They killed a litter of puppies, and smeared some of the blood on Rhiannon's face and hands, and put some of the bones by her side. Then they awoke her with a great outcry, and accused her. She swore that she knew nothing of the death of her son, but the women persisted that they had seen her devour him, and had been unable to prevent it. The druids of that day were not sufficiently practical anatomists to be able to tell the bones of a child from those of a dog, so they condemned Rhiannon upon the evidence of the women. But, even now, Pwyll would not put her away; so she was assigned a penance. For seven years, she was to sit by a horse-block outside the gate, and offer to carry visitors into the palace upon her back. "But it rarely happened,"
says the Mabinogi, "that any would permit her to do so."
Exactly what had become of Rhiannon's child seems to have been a mystery even to the writer of the Mabinogi. It was, at any rate, in some way connected with the equally mysterious disappearance on every night of the first of May--Beltaine, the Celtic sun-festival--of the colts foaled by a beautiful mare belonging to Teirnyon Twryv Vliant, one of Pwyll's vassals. Every May-day night, the mare foaled, but no one knew what became of the colt. Teirnyon decided to find out. He caused the mare to be taken into a house, and there he watched it, fully armed. Early in the night, the colt was born. Then there was a great noise, and an arm with claws came through the window, and gripped the colt's mane. Teirnyon hacked at the arm with his sword, and cut it off. Then he heard wailing, and opened the door, and found a baby in swaddling clothes, wrapped in a satin mantle. He took it up and brought it to his wife, and they decided to adopt it. They called the boy Gwri Wallt Euryn, that is "Gwri of the Golden Hair".
The older the boy grew, the more it seemed to Teirnyon that he became like Pwyll. Then he remembered that he had found him upon the very night that Rhiannon lost her child. So he consulted with his wife, and they both agreed that the baby they had so mysteriously found must be the same that Rhiannon had so mysteriously lost. And they decided that it would not be right for them to keep the son of another, while
so good a lady as Rhiannon was being punished wrongfully.
So, the very next day, Teirnyon set out for Narberth, taking the boy with him. They found Rhiannon sitting, as usual, by the gate, but they would not allow her to carry them into the palace on her back. Pwyll welcomed them; and that evening, as they sat at supper, Teirnyon told his hosts the story from beginning to end. And he presented her son to Rhiannon.
As soon as everyone in the palace saw the boy, they admitted that he must be Pwyll's son. So they adopted him with delight; and Pendaran Dyfed, the head druid of the kingdom, gave him a new name. He called him "Pryderi 1", meaning "trouble", from the first word that his mother had uttered when he was restored to her. For she had said: "Trouble is, indeed, at an end for me, if this be true".
278:1 Rhys. Studies in the Arthurian Legend, p. 282.
279:1 It is constantly so-called by the fourteenth-century Welsh poet, Dafydd ab Gwilym, so much admired by George Borrow.
279:2 This chapter is retold from Lady Guest's translation of the Mabinogi of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed.
282:1 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, p. 678.
285:1 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, p. 123 and note. Clûd was probably the goddess of the River Clyde. See Rhys: Arthurian Legend, p. 294.
288:1 Pronounced Pridairy.