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'.
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)