Saturday, 28 September 2013

Cacamwri, Osla Big-Knife and Llyn LLiwan.

Cacamwri, Osla Big-Knife and Llyn LLiwan.
 Serpens wrestling Ophiuchus along the celestial equator.

Orion the Hunter with his short-broad knife in its sheath and one foot in Zalos the 'Whirlpool' in the River Eridanus.

In Culhwch and Olwen during the frenzied events in the Severn estuary Cacamwri, the half brother of Hygwydd, is described as being dragged 'into the depths by two millstones', while his comrade Osla Big-knife is also dragged 'into the depths' by his sheath 'being full of water'.
Of all the harm that was got from seeking those treasures from him (Twrch Trwyth), worse was got trying to save the two men from drowning. Cacamwri, as he was being pulled up – two grindstones pulled him into the depths. As Osla Big-knife was running after the boar, his knife fell out of its sheath and he lost it; and his sheath thereafter being full of water, as he was dragged forth, it dragged him back into the depths.
In the 'catalogue of the court' the author prepared the way for this curious couplet full of loaded imagery by firstly associating Cacamwri's physical strength with the destructive power of an iron threshing flail:
Cacamwri, Arthur's servant – show him a barn, though there would be in it the work of fifty ploughs, he would thrash away with an iron flail until the boards, the rafters, and the side beams would be no better off than the fine oats in the heap of corn-sheaves at the bottom of the barn.
and secondly by describing Osla's big knife and sheath as being as big and as useful as a bridge:
Osla Big-Knife, who carried Bronllafn Ferylldan, ('Short-Broad-Breast-Blade'). When Arthur would come with his hosts to the edge of a torrent, a narrow place over the water would be sought, and the knife would be placed in its sheath across the torrent. Enough of a bridge would it be for the hosts of the Three Islands of Britain and its Three Adjacent Islands and their spoils.
The episode, then, has the feel of a previously rehearsed set piece; the author has carefully fed his readers a couple of lines in the 'catalogue' and the punchlines duly appear here in the 'achievements'. Cacamwri's propensity for extreme violence, compared in the 'catalogue' to the destructive power of an iron flail upon the threshing barn itself - until it was 'no better off than the fine oats in the heap of corn-sheaves at the bottom of the barn' - is now, ironically, the cause of his own undoing, for it is the weight of millstones, the instruments subsequently required to grind the oats and corn to flour, which drag him to the depths. Likewise Osla's vast knife and sheath, previously of great beneficial value as a bridge over water, are now the cause of his demise, as it is the sheath which drags him into the water.
It is possible to construe in this some sort of wisdom tale, however ironic, and if this were indeed true, then logic would lead us to believe that at this point in the tale both characters ought to have drowned, which is what the text appears to say, but this turns out not to be the case certainly as far as Cacamwri goes, for we will meet him again a little further on very much alive and, significantly, in a wrestling match. Osla Big-Knife, on the other hand, is not mentioned again, at least in this tale and it is therefore apparent that Cacamwri was successfully dragged up from the depths, despite the impression to the contrary, and that Osla was not.
There are instances of millstones in association with the sea or 'the depths' and with punishments in the New Testament, this from Mathew 18.5
And whoso shall receive onesuch little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
The British hagiographical legend of St. Perran appears to draw on this when it is said that Irish pagans tied him to a mill-stone and pushed him over a cliff-edge into the storm-tossed sea, which of course became instantly calm as the saint floated safely and righteously away to eventually land in Cornwall. A further reference comes from Revelations 18.21
    And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, 'Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all'.
Whether any of this has anything to do with Cacamwri and Osla Big-Knife being dragged into the depths of the Severn is difficult to assess, although it would be hard to argue that the author of Culhwch, a man of considerable ecclestiastical learning, was not familiar with these biblical passages, he may even have known the St Perran legend judging by his evident familiarity with the Vitae of Welsh, Irish and Cornish saints (see below).
However that may be, there is another possible explanation for the presence, here, of these millstones. In their controversial book 'Hamlet's Mill' Heartha von Dechend and Giorgio de Santillana believe that they have identified a very widespread and apparantly very old tradition attested in many myths and legends throughout the world which suggests that mythic millwheels have to do with the slow eastwards motion of the vernal equinox through the ecliptic, (the path of the sun and the planets) at its junction with the celestial equator and known as the precession of the equinoxes. These tales consistently tell of the destruction of a Mill which sinks to the bottom of the sea and von Dechend and de Santillana have argued that this odd but persistent image stands for the dragging into the southern celestial hemisphere - 'The Depths' - of a succession of zodiacal constellations which have marked the sun's rising at the Vernal equinox through a series of 'World Ages'. A characteristic of these 'precessional myths' is that the destruction of this Mill, whoever the owner is at the time, marks the 'World's End' and the beginning of a new 'World Age'. These 'precessional myths' also relate that the sinking of this mill, with its millwheels, causes a whirlpool to come into existence at the place where it becomes submerged. Martin Bulgerin explains the idea in clear language:
Two very common mythic motifs concerning precession are the Whirlpool and the Millstone. The daily rotation of the Earth was viewed as the entire cosmos rotating about our heads, much like the rotating millstones used to grind grain. These cosmic millstones were not only a symbol of regularity and order in the universe, but were revered as the mills that ground out the fates of men and gods. The axis of this mill was the north pole itself, the creative center that represented divine power. Unfortunately, due to precession, the cosmic millstone sometimes broke its axle and fell into disrepair. Quite often, this broken mill fell into the ocean... disappearing into a giant whirlpool to the center of the earth. The whirlpool could be either pre-existing or caused by the falling millstone itself.
It seems remarkable then that the pulling of Cacamwri by two millstones into the depths occurs 'betwixt Aber Gwy and Llyn Lliwan', a miraculous lake which is described in the Mirabilia appended to the Historia Brittonom as a 'whirlpool'. Earlier in the tale, during the search for Mabon son of Modron, the Eagle of Gwernaby relates how he too was drawn 'down into the depths' by the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, just as Cacamwri and Osla were, which is again all very suggestive of whirlpools. It would be well to try to find the location of Llyn Lliwan with its whirlpool and its millwheels, though it has hitherto proved illusive.
The text of Culhwch regarding Twrch Trwyth's route to Llyn Lliwan is a little vague and several interpretations are possible, this has led, perhaps not surprisingly, to much confusion amongst all commentators of Culhwch as to the whereabouts of Llyn Lliwan. For instance, Bromwich and Evans thought that 'Evidently it was a lake or pool which over flowed into the Severn Estuary', maybe on the 'English shoreline in Gloucestershire', but most likely 'on the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary'...probably 'between the mouth of the Wye and Gloucester', but their map shows it at the mouth of the Usk! Bollard suggests tentatively, in his map, that Llyn Lliwan is about midway between Aber Gwy and Caer Loyw (Gloucester), whilst Jones & Jones have it midway between Aber Gwy and the mouth of the Usk. Tatlock suggested 'somewhere on the Llymon Brook which flows from Cross Ash in the middle of Gwent until it joins the River Trothy at Court Farm, but the etymology of Oper Lin Liuan makes this unlikely and Llyn Lliwan remains a mystery.'i In recent years The Caerwent Historic Trust has focussed attention on the Whirly Holes on the Neddern Brook near Caerwent, but even this promising theory suffers from the fact that these inland 'whirlpools' are far from the Mouth of the Wye and the waters of the Severn.
As mentioned, the site of Llyn Lliwan is described in the Mirabilia, in obscure and confusing language, and Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to closely paraphrase this in the Historia Regum Britaniae. One thing, however, is clear – the major inference in both texts is to the creation of the Severn Bore by a whirlpool in a 'bottomless pit' at the Mouth of the Severn. The two passages run as follows:
There is another wonder, which is Oper Linn Liuan. The mouth of this river flows into the Severn and when the Severn is flooded at high tide, and the sea likewise floods in the mouth of the aforesaid river and is received in the waters of the estuary like a whirlpool, and the sea does not rush up; there is a shore beside the river, and whenever the Severn is flooded at high tide this shore is not covered, and when the sea and the Severn recede, then lake Liuan throws up everything swallowed from the sea and that shore is covered, and like a mountain in one wave it throws up and breaks.
Arthur also told Hoel that there was a ... pool in the parts of Wales which are near the Severn. The local people call it Lin Ligua. When the sea flows into this pool, it is swallowed up as though in a bottomless pit; and as the pool swallows the waters, it is never filled in such a way as to overflow the edges of its banks. When the tide ebbs away, however, the pool belches forth the waters which it has swallowed, as high in the air as a mountain, and with them it then splashes and floods its banks. (Lewis Thorpe)
When, in Culhwch, the Eagle of Gwernabwy and Arthur's men visit the Salmon of Llyn Llyw at 'the place where he was', which must mean Llyn Llyw, it is implied there that the lake is to be found in the Severn itself, in the Salmon's assertion that 'With every tide I go up along the river until I come to the bend of the wall of Caer Loyw'. This makes best sense if we envisage this conversation as occurring in the Severn. Indeed, one doesn't have to look further than the banks of the river to find a 'lake', as the Severn itself contains many pools and lakes, for example: Salmon Pool, Count Lake, Plython Lake and Oldbury Lake are all within 4 miles up river from Aber Gwy, as are the suggestive Sturch Pill and Pighole Pill, both nearby inlets on the west bank of Severn. The description in the Mirabilia is also clear that the whirlpool is actually in the River Severn at the place where the incoming tide (the Bore) meets the river in full spate.

From Porth Clais to Beachley Point
With all this in mind it is worth now considering the route, as described in Culhwch, which leads to Llyn Lliwann and there is one interpretation which, it seems to me, fits the evidence contained in all of these texts whilst supplying a fitting denouement to the chase. It is also one which displays a general's, or at least an expert hunter's, grasp of the terrain, indeed I suspect that the author of Culhwch may have had access to a reasonably accurate map with which he worked out the entire route and especially the climax to the chase. ii
Arthur's plan is a clever one, he uses his (the author's) knowledge of the lie of the land to trap the Boar and force him into the Severn in a classic ambush:
Twrch Trwyth went from there to between Tawy and Euyas, and Arthur summoned all Cornwall and Devon unto him, to the estuary of the Severn, and he said to the warriors of this Island, "Twrch Trwyth has slain many of my men, but, by the valour of warriors, while I live he shall not go into Cornwall. And I will not follow him any longer, but I will oppose him life to life. Do ye as ye will." And he resolved that he would send a body of knights, with the dogs of the Island, as far as Euyas, who should return thence to the Severn, and that tried warriors should traverse the Island, and force him into the Severn.(Jones & Jones)
The strategy appears to have been to catch up with the Boar in Ewyas and then to chase him across the Wye into the toungue of land between there and the Severn, they then pressed him southwards through the Forest of Dean and towards the west bank of the Severn where the land narrows dramatically into the Beachley peninsula. He now has nowhere to go but into the Severn itself, he cannot attempt to cross the Wye because presumably Arthur and the rest of his men are lining the opposite bank, waiting in ambush, perhaps the men of Devon and Cornwall line the east bank of the Severn also.
According to the Welsh tale the place where the Twrch Trwyth was driven into the Severn is 'betwixt Llin Lliwan and Aber Gwy', and Bromwich and Evans note that in the Brut Dingestow the 'location of the tidal pool is here given as near the Welsh border'. They then assume that the border referred to is the old border, which Humphrey Lhwyd and later Camden insisted upon, of the Severn itself, which eventually led them to insinuate that the tidal reach of the Severn at Gloucester was somehow also in the frame. But this seems to be a mistake because there are two other Welsh borders to take into consideration. In 928AD king Aethelstan defeated the Welsh and established the River Wye as the border and about 150 years earlier in the latter half of the 8th century Offa of Mercia built the southern section of his famous dyke, which began near Slimeroad Pill, someway below Sturch and Pighole Pills, and from there crossed the mile or so over to the Wye, effectively isolating the Beachley peninsula. It seems reasonable then that we should concentrate our search for Llyn Llywan, the tidal whirlpool, in this restricted area, namely somewhere off the Beachley peninsula south of Offa's Dyke, (which obviously contains the ancient Severn border but also these more recently established borders of Wales), and upstream of Aber Gwy.
And it is obvious from this that the large river pool known as 'Whirls End' is the place which the author of Culhwch thought of as the location of Llyn Llywaniii. Whirls End! The word 'Llywan' means 'Rudder' giving 'The Lake of the Rudder' and as any local boatman will tell you this is the one thing that is required in this most turbulent part of the Severn Estuary. The mystery is: why has nobody suggested this before?

Whirls End - Llyn Llywan
As mentioned Cacamwri is described in the 'catalogue of the court' as destroying a 'barn' which contains the work of 50 ploughs and the connection with millstones or quernstones is obvious and later explicit. One is reminded of the 50 tridents in the back of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw (the same as Llyn Lliwan), who we meet in that portion of Culhwch known as the Oldest Animals, an international popular tale which recounts the quest of a hero or heroes who visits a succession of animals, each one vastly older than the previous one, until finally he meets the oldest creature ever created. Now, whilst this may not be a theory of the precession of the equinoxes it is a surprisingly good description of one; the Hero may be seen as the Sun moving through the Zodiac i.e. 'The Circle of Animals', in this case the Ousel, the Stag, the Owl, the Eagle and the Salmon
I showed earlier that there are very strong reasons for believing that the author of Culhwch wanted Hygwyyd to represent the serpent constellation Hydra, (pseudo Eratosthenes being the most likely source) perhaps this is a clue to a celestial identity for his (half) brother Cacamwri; might he also be a serpent constellation? There are, besides Hydra, two other serpents anciently depicted in the sky, Serpens and Draco, (a fourth, Hydrus the Little Water Snake, was added in the late 16th century). Circumpolar Draco, 'the serpent of the Hesperides' is in fact said to be the brother of Hydra, their parents being Typhon and Echidna, (Hesiod, Hyginus &c.), but Draco, being circumpolar, is never dragged to the 'Depths', never even sets below the horizon, and it is therefore clear to me that in the Welsh author's scheme it is the constellation Serpens, (often confused with Draco) the great Serpent winding along the celestial equator which Ophiuchus wrestles, that Cacamwri is supposed to correspond with. This 'long and slender' Serpent poised above Virgo as if ready to strike at her, is traditionally drawn looped around either the torso or one of the legs of Ophiuchus who holds the Head Kaput in his left hand and the Tail Cauda in his right, in an eternal wrestling match.
What of Osla Big-Knife, what constellation, if any, did the author have in mind for this character? It has been stated that the historical origins of Osla most likely lie with the 8th century Mercian king Offa, whose name was occasionally spelt Ossa, and in Bonedd y Saint it is given as Offa Kyllellvawr vrenin Lloegr – 'Offa Great Knife, king of England'. Others have suggested the saxon Octha son of Hengist 'of the long knives' and this idea seems to be reinforced by the portrayal of Osla as the enemy of Arthur at Badon in the later (but related) medieval tale The Dream of Rhonabwy. So it is notewothy that in Culhwch, the earlier tale, Osla is depicted as a fully integrated member of Arthur's warband and any historical associations with enemy Saxon kings have been entirely suppressed, instead he is presented here as a mythical giant huntsman who is the owner of a vast knife and sheath capable of forming 'enough of a bridge' to cross 'a narrow place over the water'. In this tale Osla Big Knife is explicitly a giant, a warrior and a hunter, and there can be no doubt that we have here a perfect description of the constellation figure of Orion (Osiris) 'the Giant, the Warrior and the Hunter' (Allen, Star Names), the owner of the three stars known as The Belt of Orion from which hangs the asterism called The Sword of Orion. This celestial, short-broad blade appears to form a bridge in the sky over the narrows of the river constellation Eridanus.
There is another important element to the myth of the Millwheels and the Whirlpool and it is to do with the celestial location of the Whirlpool. Orion's left foot is in the River Eridanus and is marked by the star Rigel, apparently known as the 'whirlpool star', and it is true to say of both Osla and (Osiris) Orion that during the hunt, as he was 'running after the boar' the giant was dragged into the Depths, I might as well add 'at the Western verge'. This is how Brady, following Hamlet's Milliv, descibes the situation:
'Whatever the story, and there are many, the Golden Mill fell to earth, landed in the Oceans of the sky, and created a whirlpool. ...The whirlpool was located at the tip of the constellation Orion, at the point occupied by the fixed star Rigel, the foot of Orion, the point which slipped into the great starry ocean.'
Now if Cacamwri – Serpens,, (in his wrestling match with Ophiuchus) is being pulled up from the Depths in the east, (in spite of the two 'millwheels' which are tring to drag him down), then Osla Big-Knife – Orion, on the opposite side of the sky in the west, is being dragged down into the whirling Depths because his huge sheath is filling with water. This is strikingly similar to the astronomical tale, mentioned earlier, which Aratus tells for the rising of Scorpius and the setting of Orion, in the Phaenomena, except Scorpius, which was sometimes depicted as a serpent, has here been actually substituted by the constellation figure of Serpens, which is more truly on the opposite side of the sky from Orion.

One hour before the first appearance of SN1006. Serpens rose on the eastern horizon, 'was dragged up from the Depths' as Orion the Hunter set beneath the western horizon, 'was dragged into the Depths'.


iTatlock, J. S. P., (1950), The Legendary History of Britain, p.76.
iiAs an aside, it is noteworthy that, following the crossing of the Irish Sea, Twrch Trwyth comes to land at a port, why does a monstrous boar need to come in at a port? The next time that he has to cross a major body of water he finds himself at Aber Towy, where from very ancient times a ferry has operated between Llanstephan and Ferryside, why does a monstrous boar need to catch a ferry? And again, the point where Twrch Trwyth crosses the Severn is also the site of an ancient ferry crossing between Wales and England. Curious.
iii The Blaenau Gwent County Council website reports in the section on Arthurian Gwent: 'Ewyas was originally one of the comotes of Ergyng and covered the eastern area of the Black Mountains. It is now split between Wales and Herefordshire, but the name survives in the Herefordshire village of Ewias Harold. Dyffryn Ewias ("The Vale of Ewias") is where Llanthony Priory now stands. Aber Gwy ("The Mouth of the Wye") speaks for itself, perhaps Beachley Point under the Welsh end of the old Severn Bridge is the spot referred to in the tale'.

iv“That there is a whirlpool in the sky is well known; it is most probably the essential one, and it is precisely placed. It is a group of stars so named (zalos) at the foot of Orion, close to Rigel (beta Orionis, Rigel being the Arabic word for ‘foot’), the degree of which was called ‘death,’ according to Hermes Trismegistos, whereas the Maori claim outright that Rigel marked the way to Hades (Castor indicating the primordial homeland). Antiochus the astrologer enumerates the whirl among the stars as Taurus. Franz Boll takes sharp exception to the adequacy of his description, but he concludes that the zalos must, indeed, be Eridanus ‘which flows from the foot of Orion.’” (Giorgio Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth (Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 1998, 1969), p. 210)

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Perseus

Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Perseus

Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Lleu of the Skilful Hand), the ‘Hero’ of The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi or Math Vab Mathonwy is almost certainly cognate with one of the principal heroes of medieval Irish literature, namely the semi-divine Lugh Samildanach (The Many Skilled), also styled Lugh Lamfhada (of the Long Arm).i Besides the obvious linguistic relationship in the names of Lleu and Lugh and their similar respective epithets, many scholars, most notably W. J. Gruffydd, have pointed out that the basis for each of their stories is the ‘international popular tale’ known as The King and his Prophesied Death, the best known version of which is the Greek legend of Acrisius and Perseus. In turn, these two insular heroes, Lleu and Lugh, are regarded as being literary survivals with a common mythological heritage which can be traced to the pan-European god Lugus, or in the (often triplicate) plural form, Lugoves, a god known from dedications, statuary, place-names and tribal names from across what were once the Celtic speaking areas of mainland Europe. It is widely held that this Lugus is the god whom Caesar meant when he said in ‘The Conquest of Gaul’, ‘The god they (the Gauls) reverence most is Mercury. They have very many images of him, and regard him as inventor of all arts, the god who directs men upon their journeys, and their most powerful helper in trading and getting money’. This equivalence seems to have struck a chord with the Gauls so much so that even the name Lugus dropped out of usage and was replaced by that of Mercury. A similar transition occurred in sculptural representations of the god as earlier native tricelaphic images of a clothed figure holding a bag of money and a staff were replaced by classical images of Mercury, who also holds a bag of money and a staff, but now the figure is naked or semi-naked except for winged sandals and a winged hat .

                       Lugus                                                                           Lugus/Mercury ('or Perseus?')

There is a strong connection between these images of Lugus/Mercury and the classical images of Perseus in paintings, in both bronze and stone statuary and as found on planispheric constellation charts. Both figures appear naked or half naked except for winged sandals and a winged hat and this is no coincidence since according to some versions of the myth it was Mercury who loaned the winged sandals and cap to Perseus. That is, they are depicted wearing the same sandals and cap. Both figures carry a bag, Lugus/Mercury’s is full of money or gold and Perseus’ bag, his kybisis, contains the head of the gorgon Medusa. Mercury wields his twinned serpent staff while Perseus has his scimitar. There is no denying that it would be very easy to confuse the figures of Mercury/Lugus and Perseus.


Whilst all this may seem circumstantial, I think that the evidence for Lugus' association with the constellation Perseus has been preserved elsewhere in a slightly encrypted form, I believe that it has been transferred on to the hagiographical material regarding the martyrdom of the great Roman Catholic saint Lawrence.

Throughout northern Europe and particularly in that area which was once known as Gaul, the Perseid meteor shower is called 'The Shining Tears of St. Lawrence'. St. Lawrence is one of the most revered of all Catholic saints, ranking only below saints Peter & Paul, his feast day is August 10th and this seems to be the historically accurate date for his death in 258 and though modern scholars generally agree that he was beheaded the tale that his opportunistic hagiographers would have us believe is quite different. The manner of his invented death, his traditional accoutrements, his status as the third member of the triune of the great saints along with Peter and Paul, his association with the Perseids and even the coincidence of the similarity of his name- Lawrence with Lugos, Llew Llaw and Lugh indicate that he was deliberately being compared with the pan-European demi-god. Moreover, these Christian mythographers seemed to have been aware that Lugus was known in Romano-Celtic Gaul to be represented in the night sky, and in images of the same, as the constellation Perseus. According to both the poet Prudentius and St. Ambrose of Milan writing in the 4th century, St. Lawrence was roasted alive on a gridiron over hot coals. His famous last words, they say, were "Turn me over, this side is done." He is often depicted carrying a bag of money or treasure which is empty for the rich but full for the poor, and great emphasis is placed on his (moral) victory over his tyrant persecutor the Emperor Valerian. It is also to be noted that St. Lawrence was accredited with rescuing what later became known as the Holy Chalice of Valencia, the chalice said to have been present at the Last Supper. It seems clear that these details emerged because of a deliberate attempt by the Catholic Church to replace the popular image of Lugus/Mercury with that of Lawrence. However, in doing so they also revealed a desire to identify Lawrence with the constellation Perseus.

Firstly, I suggest that the idea for this image of a naked man on a fiery grid who wants to be turned over, has been influenced with reference to images of Perseus on the celestial co-ordinate grid, perhaps the glowing coals stood for stars, remember this is a made up episode, so why did his chroniclers choose this particular method of martyrdom?. The image of a naked man on a grid , who is reversible, probably came about because his hagiographers had in there possession two conflicting star charts, one showing the constellation Perseus from God's eye-view the other being geocentric. That is, the constellations are reversible, like Lawrence... like Perseus. Furthermore, This 'grid' turns up, in slightly altered yet unmistakable, forms in the two versions of the death stance of Lleu Llaw Gyffes which have come down to us in Welsh literature, but more on this shortly.

Mercator’s Perseus from God’s point of view

St. Lawrence. “Turn me over, This side is done”.

Second, the bag of money traditionally held by St. Lawrence has this peculiarity; It is empty for the rich but full for the poor. Compare this to the bag of money Lugus is sometimes shown carrying, indicating his function as a god of financial transactions. More recognisably, recall the 'Crane bag' owned by Irish Lugh which is empty of treasure at low tide but full when the tide is in. Perseus also has a bag, the Kybisis, in which he carries the head of Medusa. In the constellation Perseus this is represented as the asterism Caput Medusae, The Head of Medusa, the left eye of which is the famous star Algol, The Demon star, which is actually an eclipsing binary. Every two to three days the smaller of the two stars in the system passes in front of the larger and the 'star' appears to fluctuate dramatically by a full magnitude of brightness. The connection between these concepts seems obvious to me, the fluctuating contents of these bags – Lugus’s bag of money, Mercury's bag of money, Lawrence’s bag of money and Lugh's bag of treasure are all ultimately allusions to the apparent oscillations of the 'star' Algol, the blinking Eye of the Gorgon contained in the bag of the constellation Perseus.
Third, the traditional date for the martyrdom of Lawrence on August 10th happens to coincide, to within a few days, with the height of the Perseid meteor shower. The Perseid meteor shower is the most intense of all the meteor showers which bombard the upper atmosphere throughout the year. Beginning in mid July it reaches a peak in the hours before dawn on the 12th of August, sending anything up to a 150 bright streaks across the night sky every hour. The Perseids are so called because the radiant, the point in the sky from which they appear to emerge, is centred on the constellation of Perseus. That the Perseids are called 'The Shinining Tears of St. Lawrence' implicitly connects the saint to the constellation, reminding us that in Ireland the Perseids are the Games of (shining) Lugh. Irish tradition refers to the Perseid Meteor Shower as the 'Games of Lugh' and it seems likely that this is predicated upon this very same reason, i.e. they radiate from the constellation which they thought of as Lugh of the Long Arm. The respective mythologies of Perseus and Lugh, as has been mentioned, are so similar that they are often grouped together as 'Perseus Type Tales' or 'The King and his Prophesied Death'. These narrative parallels between Lugh and Perseus combined with the fact that the Irish regarded the Perseid meteor shower as 'belonging' to Lugh - I.e. The Games of Lugh - and that they radiate from the head of the constellation Perseus ought to alert us to the possibility that the constellation Perseus was known, at least to the Irish, as the constellation of Lugh Lamfhada - Lugh of the Long Hand or Lugh Lonnbeimnech -'Fierce Striker'. It is also good evidence that Lawrence was being equated with both Lugus and the constellation Perseus.

Fourth, it is tempting to see in the emphasis placed on Lawrence’s prophesied (moral) defeat of the tyrant Valerian one of the central motifs belonging to all ‘Perseus type tales’ including the life of Lugh. This is ‘The Prophesied Death of the (tyrant) King’ scenario being played out in the context of the Roman Catholic Church’s stated aim of grafting the identities of its divine heroes, its Saints and Angels, onto the pre-existing pantheon of the pagans they were intent on converting to Christianity.

There are a few further points worth making which appear to hint at a deliberate campaign by the early Church which aimed to replace Lugus with Lawrence. Saint Lawrence is the third member of the trinity of principal Catholic saints Peter, Paul and Lawrence which seems to me to correspond with the (also alliterating) Gaulish triune of principal divinities Teutatis, Taranis and Esus described by Lucan. Many scholars agree that Esus and Lugus are one and the same. Finally, Lawrence’s reputation as the saviour of the original Holy Chalice of the Last Supper - the wine bearing cup symbolised in the rite of the Holy Eucharist - is highly reminiscent of the Chalice associated with Lugus/Mercury and Rosmerta in the continental iconography and with Lugh and the Maiden of Sovereignty in the later Irish literature.

There are then good reasons to at least suppose that Lleu's Irish and Continental counterparts, Lugh and Lugus, were historically associated with both the mythical figure of Perseus and the constellation figure of Perseus or The Hero. Are there any indications in Math which might show that this astronomical association persisted into the Welsh tradition?ii I hope to show that the set pieces in the part of the tale involving Llew Llaw Gyffes; his mysterious conception, his birth, his second gestation at the foot of Gwydion’s bed and subsequent second birth, his suckling at the breast of ‘the lady in the town’, his naming, his arming, his death stance, his transformation into an eagle, his position in the topmost branches of the oak (world) tree, his return to human form and finally his revenge upon Gronw Pebyr may all be interpreted as references to the traditional figure of the Ptolemaic constellation Perseus, or the The Hero, and the positions this constellation takes in the yearly round. There are also, I will argue, clear references to other northern hemisphere constellations particularly those known as the ‘Royal Family’, these being Cassiepeia, Cepheus and Andromeda but also to Cygnus, Bootes, Corona Borealis, Lyra and Auriga or rather its asterisms - Capella (The She-Goat) and The Kids. There are, I suggest, further references to Hercules, Sagitta and Aquila, others too. Also encoded within this part of the text I find references to several southern hemisphere constellations, these include Cetus, Corvus and Argo Navis. The Milky Way and the equinoctial colure ,at the First Point of Aries, have also been cleverly woven into the tale.

The evidence points to an intimate knowledge on the part of the author of charts or planispheres depicting the constellations of both celestial hemispheres, of the kind which frequently accompanied manuscript copies of the various translations of the astronomical poem Phenomena by Aratus of Soli, such as that by Germanicus in the oldest scientific manuscript in the National Library of Wales (NLW MS 735C). In this manuscript the Phenomena is accompanied by other astronomy based texts including Macrobius’ commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, these comprise the first 27 folios of the manuscript, designated part ’A’, which according to P. McGurk was produced early in the 11th century in the Limoges area of France. In McGurks view this part of the MS arrived in Britain later in the 11th century where part ’B’, Hyginius’s Astronomica accompanied by illustrations of the constellations and consisting of 21 folios, was appended, ’Perhaps produced to complete A in a Welsh centre‘. This is precisely the period of time when, most experts agree, The Four Branches was written down - in a Welsh centre. I am not suggesting that this particular manuscript was involved in the production of the Mabinogi, but it as an ‘illustrated witness from Wales‘ of the kind of astronomical material available to the author of the Mabinogi tales. There is however, another manuscript which may very well have had a part to play in the writing of the Mabinogi, it is known as the 'Macrobius Manuscript' MS Cotton Faustina C 1.iii Alison Pedden has identified this MS. as a product of Llanbadarn Fawr and the family of Sulien and his sons Rhygyfarch and Ieaun, considered by many to be the most likely authors of the Mabinogi, (but more on this in a seperate post on likely authorship). Certain passages within Math reveal familiarity with other classical texts which have to do with the origins of the constellations. These works are, The Library of Greek Mythology by pseudo Apollodorus and the Catasterismi by pseudo Eratosthenes, and the Poeticon Astronomicon of Hyginus which often circulated in various forms alongside the Phenomena

The Conception and Birth Of Llew Llaw Gyffes


The respective conceptions and births of Lugh and Perseus are just two of the many parallels which have allowed scholars to identify these figures with the Hero of the international popular tale The King and his Prophesied Death. In both the Irish and Greek versions it is prophesied that a certain king will be killed by his grandson, and so the king imprisons his daughter in a tower, to guard against any risk of pregnancy, thus avoiding the fulfilment of the prophecy. In the Greek version Zeus easily overcomes this obstacle by transforming himself into a shower of gold raining through the ceiling of Danae's cell and so entering her womb.There are several versions of the conception of Lugh in the Irish tradition, the main gist being that the father, usually one Cian, gains access to the princess in the tower with the magical help of a Druid. The result is the same in both tales -the daughter becomes pregnant and the first part of the prophecy -that the daughter will have a son - has come true.

In Math the role of the daughter is played, in the first instance, by Goewin the king's virgin footholder, whose chastity is ensured by the imposition of Math's feet upon her 'womb', (see The Astronomy of Math (part)1). The role of the (potential) father is played by Gilvaethwy, the king's nephew, who has become ill with lust for Goewin. This situation is overcome when Gwydion, Gilvaethwy's brother disguised as a Pencerdd or chief poet, engineers a war between Gwynedd and and the twenty-one cantrefs of the South thus obliging Math to leave his stronghold of Caer Dathyl so he may attend to the war. Gwydion then aids Gilfaethwy to gain access to the unprotected Goewin. The result is, of course, that Goewin becomes pregnant. 

Only no son ensues.

The conception (and birth) of Lleu in Math vab Mathonwy is problematical and its relationship to the Perseus type tale seems more than a little obscure, notwithstanding W.J. Gruffydd's painstaking analysis. The first set of problems are these:

  1. There is no prophecy stating that the king will die by the hand of his grandson.
  2. There is no grandfather. There is no daughter. There is no son.
  3. Instead, the king's (unrelated) virginal footholder Goewin is raped by the king's nephew.
  4. The pregnant Goewin then becomes the wife of the king and is given power over his realm.
  5. No mention is ever made of the resultant offspring and Goewin drops out of the story, seemingly eternally pregnant.

We pick up the tale immediately following Gwydion's stunning announcement that 'A sty has been  made for them (the swine) in the other cantref below':

And that night Gwydyon son of Don and Gilfaethwy his brother returned to Caer Dathyl, and Gilfaethwy and Goewin daughter of Pebin were put to sleep together in Math the son of Mahonwy's bed; and the maidens were roughly forced out, and she was lain with against her will that night.

There then follows the series of battles between north and south Wales which culminates in the defeat of Pryderi (by strength and by magic) at the hands of Gwydion. Thus Math returns victorious to Caer Dathyl.

Math went to his chamber and bade a place be prepared for him to recline, so that he might put his feet in the fold of the maiden's lap. 'Lord,' said Goewin ' seek now a maiden to be under thy feet. I am woman.' 'How is that?' 'An assault was made upon me, lord, committed upon my person, and that openly. Nor did I bear it in quiet; There was none in this court did not know of it. They who came were thy nephews, lord, thy sister's sons, Gwydion son of Don and Gilfaethwy son of Don. And they wrought rape upon me and upon thee dishonour. And I was lain with, and that in thy chamber and thy bed.' 'Aye,' said he 'What I can, I will do: redress for thee first, and then I too will seek redress. As for thee,' he said, 'I will take thee to wife, and the authority over my realm will I give into thy hands.'

There is no further mention of the 'brave' and 'most beautiful' Goewin.

This dead end represents the most serious departure from the expected run of events as they usually occur in The King and his Prophesied Death. But what if our expectations are wrong? What if the author of Math had some other agenda in mind? In 'The Astronomy of Math vab Mathonwy (part 1)' I proposed that the virginal (i.e. small) Goewin was to be identified with the northernmost constellation Ursa Minor (the Small Bear). Could it be that, in the elevation by Math of the now pregnant (i.e. big) Goewin to rulership over the realm, the author is indicating her transformation or transference into the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Bear)? If this seems like an odd idea, it will be instructive to examine the origin legends of the two Bear constellations to see what, if any, light might be thrown on the 'cul de sac' figure, as Gruffydd calls her, of Goewin.

The author of Math would have known several different versions from classical sources which tell of the origin of the Bears. Aratus, Hyginus, Ps. Erastothenes, Ovid and Ps. Apollodorus (writers, whose works were familiar to, say, Rhygyfarch and Iaeun the sons of Sulien; if not the authors of the the Four Branches, then direct contemporaries.) all record a variety of traditions concerning the Bears. i And, to digress only slightly, Aratus' version in the Phaenomena is interesting because it demonstrates an ancient author bringing two different traditions together to make a new 'myth':

...Two bears surround this pole
...if the tale is true,
Zeus the Almighty stellified these two
Because, near Ida, in his infancy,
They found him lying on Dicte's dittany
And picked him up and housed him in their den.
One year they nursed him while the elder men
Of Crete distracted Cronos from his son.

As Aaron Poochigian, translator of the Phaenomena, has noticed Aratus has here combined two seperate tales: “(1) That of Callisto, an Arcadian maiden, and follower of Artemis,” a virgin who was raped by Zeus, then turned into a bear and eventually into the constellation Ursa Major; and (2) that of the Goat Amalthea, “who is said to have nursed the infant Zeus.” As regards this Amaltheia, Theony Condos noted that “According to Hyginus, while Cronos was searching for Zeus, Amalthea placed the infant in a cradle which she hung from the branch of a tree, so that Zeus was not to be found either in the sky or on land or in the sea.” Zeus placed the figure of a goat among the stars, so that she would be remembered, this goat is marked by the bright star Capella 'The She-Goat' in Auriga, which figure is always drawn on consellation charts in full and being carried, awkwardly, by the Charioteer (Auriga). I will have more to say about this goat when I come to discuss the 'death stance' of Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

The most widely told tales of the Bears are those which relate to Callisto (The name Kallisto comes from the Greek Καλλίστη, which means "most beautiful". Compare with Goewin... She was the “most beautiful” woman known) to Ursa Major and Phoenice to Ursa Minor, in this tradition 'the story of Ursa Major is transferred to Ursa Minor and the latter is identified with a maiden who suffers the same fate as Callisto'. In other words both Bears represent the same figure of Callisto, 'the most beautiful' virgin who was raped, transformed into a bear and finally raised to the very top of the sky. As we have seen Goewin's story does not sit at all well within the scheme of The King and his Prophecied Death despite superficial resemblances, instead we have a tale which is singularly alike with that of Callisto/Phoenice; it tells of a 'brave' and 'most beautiful' woman whose station in life requires her to be a virgin, but she is raped and can no longer function in her previous role (beneath the king's feet). Subseqeuntly the king elevates her to a position of great authority over his realm.

Ursa Major - Callisto - The Most Beautiful

Next 'The Birth of Llew'. (P.S. More notes, references etc. to follow)  


i Other characters in the Mabinogi who have counterparts in Irish literature are: Don - Danu, Gofannon - Goban, Llyr - Lyr, Manawyddan - Mannanan mac Lyr
iiSchaubach's charts are very useful here in that they contain none of the modern constellations. This chart was compiled around 1780 but it is faithful to traditions described by Eratosthenes and Ptolemy. Also very useful is the Philips Planisphere for 51.5 degrees North, this allows you to track the movements of the constellations over time as they appear to an observer in Wales.

iii See Science and Phlosophy in Wales at the Time of the Norman Conquest; A Macrobius Manuscript from Llanbadarn. Alison Peden. (Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 2 (Winter 1981)). Ed. Patrick Simms Williams.