Category Archives for General Comment

Shakespeare’s Horns

Tonight is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Wales, and is an ysbrydnos, or ‘spirit night’ when the dead walk abroad under the starry skies. Halloween is the most recent tradition associated with this night, known at one time as ‘All Hallows Eve’, but there were traditions that came before it, such as the old Celtic festivities of harvest time. As with Samhain in Ireland, and indeed for many of the early peoples of Europe in general, this was the time when the ripened fruits and crops of late summer and autumn were celebrated as the abundant wealth of the land. Alongside such celebration there would have naturally been a time of reflection, particularly as this fulfilment of life’s fruition also marks the moment when the seasons turn and all growing life prepares itself to pass through the death of winter. This is the natural time to acknowledge mortality and consider what may come after the cold season.

Its probably for this reason that tonight is also the time when Gwyn ap Nudd hunts the land, when even the living can be taken up as souls to join in his eternal hunt, urging on the magical hounds as they chase through the darkness. This happened to one Ned Pugh, a famous Welsh fiddler whose mournful refrains were heard one Nos Galan Gaeaf transforming into the bright call of a huntsman’s bugle. Having entered a cave on that particular Halloween, he wandered deep into the belly of the earth from which he was never to return alive, but was instead taken up as chief huntsman to Gwyn ap Nudd, exchanging his fiddle for a horn.

A similar account could be given of Arawn from the First Branch of the Mabinogi. One of the very few allusions to Arawn in Welsh folklore concerns a ghost that was often heard declaiming Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn, a little verse that roughly translates as ‘Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the wait for Arawn.’ Was this the soul of someone long dead still waiting to be called by Arawn to join the otherworldly hunt? We shall never know for certain, but the other similarities between Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd would lead us to think so.


If anyone knows who made this image please let me know.

One of those similarities is the connection both these figures have to the instincts of physical desire, all those visceral and carnal urges that are fired by the hunt. Arawn was the one who tempted Pwyll with his beautiful wife, and Gwyn was a dangerously jealous lover of Creiddylad according to the medieval redactors of Culhwch ac Olwen. Gwyn was also responsible for tempting Collen with illusory food when the saint visited his phantom palace atop Glastonbury Tor. All of these temptations are echoed in an English version of the Magical Huntsman, a figure of superstition that Shakespeare found so intriguing he brought him to life, quite ridiculously, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.

“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Some time a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You’ve heard of such spirit; and well you know
The superstitious idol headed old
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for the truth.”

Despite the paucity of material concerning Herne, Shakespeare’s use of him in the play chimes with much of what we already know of Herne’s Welsh cousins, all three being hunters with supernatural qualities that are associated with fairies and the dead. Not unlike the spirits and sprites of many lands it appears that Herne can cause disease amongst cattle, and his moaning and clanking of chains is not unlike the restless behaviour of the souls of the dead.

But it may also be worthwhile considering Shakespeare’s actual use of Herne in the play. To cut a rather long story short, Falstaff, a lecherous wastrel with expensive tastes, attempts to seduce two married women by employing various deceptions. After realising his unsavoury intentions, both women take their revenge by tricking him into dressing up as Herne the Hunter for a promised night of pleasure. While waiting under the Windsor Oak sporting a pair of horns, Falstaff works himself up to a froth waiting for the two wanton wives to come and ravish him. But instead of his anticipated satisfaction he is accosted by a gang of children and adults in fairy costume whom he believes to be real spirits of the otherworld come to punish his mortal trespass (he obviously went for the trick, not the treat). These cruel fairies and sprites ridicule him and eventually put him in his place, all of which Falstaff accepts with rather good grace.

James Stephanoff 'Falstaff at Herne's Oak'

James Stephanoff, ‘Falstaff at Herne’s Oak’ 1832

Lechery and excessive desires in general are a theme that Shakespeare explores throughout the play, with Falstaff being the embodiment of aristocratic excess. In contrast to Falstaff’s debauched appetites, through various mentions and allusions, Shakespeare subtly evokes the Order of the Garter, a royal order of nobles chosen by Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own patron. This order was supposedly one of high-minded restraint and discipline, as stated in their motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, which literally translates as ‘Evil be to him who thinks evil.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor could well have been written to feature in an event held at the royal estate of Windsor attended by Queen Elizabeth and her Order of the Garter. This would explain why Falstaff’s fate in the play appears to be a realisation of the order’s motto. His bad intentions result in a bad outcome where he finds himself dressed in the guise of none other than Herne the Hunter.

There are several hints in The Merry Wives of Windsor of folk traditions concerning the unfortunate figure of the cuckold. When a man’s wife had been unfaithful, some communities would ridicule the couple and in particular the husband by placing horns on his head, thus marking him out as a cuckold, a man who shares his wife with other men. In this way the wearing of horns was associated with a lack of fidelity. But whereas these later traditions have the cuckold as a figure of derision, Shakespeare, in his own magical way, may well have been evoking a much older idea concerning the horned hunter.

There are several points of comparison between Shakespeare’s Herne and Arawn from the Mabinogi. Both figures are party to an exchange of places, Falstaff with Herne and Pwyll with Arawn, both mortals become the god and both gods are the magical huntsmen in their respective regions. Having taken on the external form of the god, both mortals come to meet the fairies of the otherworld, an experience that went better for Pwyll than it did for Falstaff. Pwyll showed restraint and self-control in the bed of Arawn’s fairy queen, where Falstaff was seen for the lecherous toff he was and punished by the ‘fairies.’ One succeeded in wearing the mantle of the otherworld, while the other didn’t. Pwyll was learning his lesson, as was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although in a markedly different way.

If this was Shakespeare’s understanding, and who could deny one of the greatest bards of the English language such an insight, this horned figure was far from the object of ridicule and derision that he appeared to be on the surface. Falstaff’s failure was to be deaf to what the Huntsman had to say about the sowing and reaping of one’s desires. Pwyll, on the other hand, was listening well, as his name suggests.

Songs for the Leri

I’ve been busy this last month or so with a music commission that may be of interest to some of you. Its part of a wider project of commissioned arts called Cymerau (Welsh for ‘river confluence’). Its aim is to inspire engagement with water and what it means to us as communities and people living in a particular landscape.

My own project, Penillion i’r Leri (‘Songs for the Leri’), is an opportunity for local folks to write folk lyrics for me to sing. In Wales, the folk tradition of ballads and old songs remains a prominent part of culture, and some folks will write folk lyrics in the traditional style, usually for nothing more than their own pleasure, but sometimes for friends, family and other locals. They are almost always on a local theme, and often mention local history or events prominent at the time.

I’ve been asking locals who live along the River Leri to compose penillion (‘folk lyrics’) on the topic of the river as she meanders her way from the high ground around Pumlumon down to the Dyfi estuary. Below is (probably a bad) translation of one recent contribution from Bleddyn Huws of Talybont (sorry Bleddyn if I’ve maimed it too much), followed by a test recording of myself performing it. Enjoy!

The River Leri

What’s the sound in River Leri
rushing on towards the sea?
What kind of chords are in her waters
swelling into one encore?

Is it the mournful sound of days long gone,
old melodies of congregations
roaring wild in her boiling waves
between the hills as she pours on?

Is it the sound of voices from the past
stirring me by night and day
that echo along her shores,
sometimes merry, sometimes sad?

Some say its the sound of her tears
heard endlessly every day
above the bracken in Braichgarw,
weather it be fine or rain.

I hear a song thats older than history
as she rushes to the sea,
the timeless song of vast centuries
drowning the brief moments of my hearing.

And here’s the first draft (which will change for the better as my sister joins me for harmony):

W.J. Gruffydd a’r Pedair Cainc

Yn ystod hanner cyntaf yr 20fed ganrif roedd ysgolheigion yn credu mai gweddillion dryslyd hen fytholeg oedd y Pedair Cainc. Doedd Syr Ifor Williams, un o gewri’r cyfnod, ddim gwahanol yn hynny chwaith. Tybiodd mai straeon am Pryderi oedd y Pedair Cainc yn wreiddiol, yr unig gymeriad i ymddangos ym mhob cainc. Yn ei ragymadrodd i’w olygiad o destun Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, dangosodd mai un o ystyron canoloesol y term mabinogi oedd ‘campau ieuenctid’. Os felly, efallai mai chwedlau’n cofnodi campau ieuenctid Pryderi oedd y ceinciau gwreiddiol, ond dros amser, wrth i’r chwedlau gael eu trosglwyddo o genhedlaeth i genhedlaeth, cawsant eu cymysgu gyda chwedlau eraill o du allan i gylch gwreiddiol Pryderi. Mae’n ddamcaniaeth ddeniadol, ond efallai nad ydyw’n rhoi’r darlun cyflawn i ni.

W.J. Gruffydd

W.J. Gruffydd

Roedd nifer o gyfoeswyr Ifor Williams yn coleddu’r un farn ag ef, er enghraifft yr ysgolhaig a’r bardd W.J. Gruffydd. Yn ystod ei yrfa hir cyhoeddodd W.J. Gruffydd nifer o astudiaethau manwl ar y Pedair Cainc gan geisio olrhain esblygiad y chwedlau yn ôl i’w ffynonellau yn y traddodiad llafar. Daeth o hyd i fotiffau tebyg mewn chwedlau canoloesol eraill, a rhai Gwyddelig yn arbennig, oedd yn awgrymu llinach posibl i’r ceinciau ysgrifenedig. Yn fras, roedd W.J. Gruffydd yn ceisio ail-lunio mytholeg goll. Ymysg gweddillion hen adfail, chwiliodd am gynllun y deml wreiddiol. Ceisiodd ddirnad rhesymeg wreiddiol y naratif, yr hen ystyr a ddifethwyd gan ymyrraeth cenedlaethau o gyfarwyddiaid a chopïwyr anwybodus.

Erbyn ail hanner yr 20fed ganrif roedd y consensws academaidd wedi troi yn erbyn W.J. Gruffydd. Er bod llawer o’i dystiolaeth yn ddefnyddiol, gwelodd llawer o feirniaid nad oedd ei gasgliadau’n llawer gwell na rhagdybiaethau. Yng ngeiriau Brynley F. Roberts:

“Llwyddodd dadansoddiad Gruffydd i ddangos yn eglur pa ddefnyddiau sydd yn y Pedair Cainc, ond rhaid amau a fodolai’r adeiledd mawreddog cywrain a gynigiai y tu allan i’w feddwl ei hun.” Brynley F. Roberts, Rhagymadrodd, Y Mabinogion, Dafydd a Rhiannon Ifans, xviii

Yn ddiweddarach, dywedodd Sioned Davies rhywbeth tebyg

“. . . , y farn gyffredinol bellach yw bod dychymyg Gruffydd wedi mynd yn rhemp ac nad oes sail gadarn i’w ddamcaniaethau.” Sioned Davies, Crefft y Cyfarwydd, 49.

Ond dim ond un ochr i’r stori ydi hon, ac er mor andwyol oedd i’w yrfa academaidd, yn y pen draw efallai mai ei ddychymyg oedd un o’i ddoniau mwyaf. Ynghyd â bod yn ddarlithydd prifysgol, roedd Gruffydd hefyd yn fardd, ac nid rhyw rigymwr dibwys chwaith. Os tanseiliwyd ei wrthrychedd academaidd gan ei ddychymyg bywiog, rhoddodd iddo awen rymus. Gadawodd ar ei ôl rhai o gerddi gorau’r 20fed ganrif, nid y peth hawsaf yn y byd i’w gyflawni wrth ystyried pa mor niferus mae beirdd o athrylith ymysg y Cymry. Mae un o’i gerddi gorau, Y Tlawd Hwn, yn dweud llawer am ei berthynas gyda chwedloniaeth Gymreig:

Y Tlawd Hwn

Am fod rhyw anesmwythyd yn y gwynt,                                                                              A sŵn hen wylo yng nghuriadau’r glaw,                                                                               Ac eco’r lleddf adfydus odlau gynt                                                                                      Yn tiwnio drwy ei enaid yn ddi-daw,                                                                                    A thrymru cefnfor pell ar noson lonydd                                                                                Yn traethu rhin y cenedlaethau coll,                                                                                       A thrydar yr afonydd                                                                                                           Yn deffro ing y dioddefiannau oll, –                                                                                    Aeth hwn fel mudan i ryw rith dawelwch,                                                                               a chiliodd ei gymrodyr un ac un,                                                                                          A’i adel yntau yn ei fawr ddirgelwch                                                                                      I wrando’r lleisiau dieithr wrtho’i hun.

Gwelodd hwn harddwch lle bu’i frodyr ef                                                                            Yn galw melltith Duw ar aflan fyd;                                                                            Gwrthododd hwn eu llwybrau hwy i nef                                                                             Am atsain ansylweddol bibau hud                                                                                        A murmur gwenyn Arawn o winllannau                                                                                Yn drwm dan wlith y mêl ar lawr y glyn,                                                                                 A neithdar cudd drigfannau                                                                                     Magwyrydd aur Caer Siddi ar y bryn.                                                                                    A chyn cael bedd, cadd eistedd wrth y gwleddoedd                                                             A llesmair wrando anweledig gôr                                                                                     Adar Rhiannon yn y perl gynteddoedd                                                                                   Sy’n agor ar yr hen anghofus fôr.

Clywir yma Gruffydd yn disgrifio’i berthynas gyda’i chwedloniaeth frodorol. Iddo ef mae’n dirwedd elfennol a chysegredig, cyfrin a diamser. Mae’n fyd arall sy’n cyffwrdd rhywsut â’r byd hwn. Mae’n amlwg cafodd Gruffydd ei gyfareddu gan chwedlau ei draddodiad brodorol, i’r fath raddau fel iddo bortreadu ei hun yn encilio i fyw yn y byd arall hwnnw. Drwy astudio testunau canoloesol fel rhan o’i ymchwil academaidd, cafodd ei drwytho yn y testunau hynafol hyn; rhoddwyd cyfle iddo yfed yn ddwfn o ffynhonnau’r arallfyd rhyfeddol hwnnw a etifeddodd drwy ei iaith a’i ddiwylliant. Credaf fod profiad W.J. Gruffydd yn dadlennu un o nodweddion pwysicaf ein chwedloniaeth a’n traddodiad barddol.

Os ydi barddoniaeth orau Gruffydd yn enghraifft o beth sy’n digwydd pan mae dychymyg bardd yn cael ei danio gan ei fytholeg frodorol, nid rhyfedd fod beirdd Cymraeg yr Oesoedd Canol wedi cael eu denu’n gyson at yr un deunydd. Roedd yr ysgolion barddol Cymreig yn gyfrifol am greu catalogau hirfaith o chwedlau brodorol o’r enw’r trioedd, ac mae’n debyg ei bod hi wedi bod yn ofynnol i brentisiaid barddol ddysgu nid yn unig y trioedd eu hunain, ond y chwedlau y cyfeirient atynt hefyd. Byddai nifer o feirdd yn sicr wedi mynd cam ymhellach, gan eu hadrodd neu eu darllen yn gyhoeddus. Byddai nifer o’r rheiny a drwythwyd yn eu chwedlau brodorol wedi cael eu symbylu yn yr un modd â Gruffydd. Fel sbardun creadigol, mae’n amlwg pa fath o effaith byddai’r deunydd yma’n ei gael ar fardd parod a galluog. Er na allwn ni dderbyn ei gasgliadau academaidd, mae’n eironig mai yng ngwaith creadigol W.J. Gruffydd y cawn un o’r arwyddion egluraf o effaith y chwedlau hyn.

The Bosworth Prophet

I’ve put a new resources page together, including some useful websites as well as a collection of pronunciation guides I recorded for a student some time ago. I’ve also included a link to a page I put together back in 2009 on a research project I took part in looking at medieval Welsh bardic declamation.

The bardic declamation project resulted in series of videos, some of which were filmed at the Voicing the Verse conference in Bangor University. The one I’ve included bellow is a reconstructed declamation of the poem Pawb at Dewi by the prophecy poet Dafydd Llwyd, probably composed in 1485. When Henry Tudor was making his way through Wales gathering support and troops for his forthcoming battle with Richard III at Bosworth, he stopped off at Mathafarn Hall just outside of Machynlleth to visit Dafydd Llwyd, one of the better known prophecy poets of the time. Dafydd Llwyd was a trained Welsh bard that practiced the ancient art of political prophecy, a genre of bardic poetry associated with the myth of the mab darogan, the son of prophecy.

Henry Tudor, needing the support of his relations amongst the Welsh nobility, knew that a proclamation of support by the famous Dafydd Llwyd would aid his cause. According to folk tradition, having spent the evening with Dafydd and his wife, Henry asked the bard straight out “So who do you think will win the battle at Bosworth? Me or Richard?” Being caught unawares, Dafydd replied he would meditate upon the question that night and give Henry the answer next morning. Later on that evening, with the young Henry and his companions tucked up in bed, Dafydd was pacing up and down his bedchamber pulling at his beard. His wife, trying to sleep, asked him “Dafydd, what’s wrong, come to bed and let us sleep!”, to which Dafydd replied “But what shall I tell him? He could be king in a few weeks time; I must get it right.” To which his wife replied “Just tell him he’s going to win. If he does, he’ll look favourably upon you. If he looses, well it doesn’t matter because he won’t be around to complain about it. Now come to bed!” So that’s what Dafydd told him and the rest, as they say, is history.

The poem we’re performing in the video bellow was probably composed by Dafydd Llwyd to be declaimed before the Welsh troops just before going into battle at Bosworth. Its a rousing call-and-response between the bard and the troops, stirring them to action and calling for the blessings of St David for those about to go to war. Its led by Twm Morys, a well regarded chaired bard, and based on the research of Peter Greenhill (first on the left of the group) who also provided the research and interpretation for Paul Dooley‘s album of music from the ‘ap Huw’ harp manuscript.

The first part of the Welsh Mythology audio course will soon be available to download, hopefully by next week.

Academia, Iolo Morgannwg and interpreting Welsh texts.

Over the last century more accurate editions of historic Welsh poetry and prose have become available, largely due to the growth of Welsh language university departments, sometimes with whole teams of post-graduate editors and researchers devoted to revealing and understanding medieval texts. Even greats such as Dafydd ap Gwilym have found themselves caught up in the flurry of new editions repackaging masterpieces of medieval European literature for new audiences. Only a hundred years ago – a relatively short period in the history of some of our older texts – many of the Welsh classics were only available to the wider Welsh speaking public in confused English translations. In comparison we are living in a time of plenty when it comes to the availability of editions of our native Welsh literature.

But we have so much text available to us now, and so much still being edited and re-edited, I believe an aspect of critical interpretation has been somewhat left behind, specifically assessing the Celtic and pre-Celtic roots of medieval Welsh literature. This is for many reasons, the main one perhaps being that there is more money in turning out hard copies of texts than there is in talking about them. The general tendency has been to view interpretation as a byproduct of editing, not the primary focus. Cash strapped university departments will always have to make hard choices from within shrinking budgets, and over time the financial conditioning of research results in the development of attitudes and skills that leaves less financially profitable academic work neglected.

Coupled with that is the reticence about making any reference to anything too mystical sounding or druidic. Druidic in this sense is a catchall term that refers to several strands of culture, some historic, some pertaining to the present. Historically, there have been occasions when the Welsh have gotten themselves a bit drunk on their own myth-making; a dangerous habit, but we have been indulging in it for millennia so it comes quite easily to us. On one particular occasion, towards the end of the second half of the 18th century, the debauched mead-feast was lead by the then master of ceremonies, Iolo Morgannwg (who had a habit of mixing his myth-making with opiates). Iolo was in fact a talented scholar and poet, but he found his real calling was to repackage the mythic past of the Welsh nation. This re-dreaming of the past enabled him to develop and fabricate tenuous links between the ancient British druids and the Welsh bards of his present day, the consequence of which was the forming of a bardic guild dressed up as a mystery school. In his wake came many druid enthusiasts primed by antiquarianism, desperate for any justification to get up in their splendid ceremonial outfits.

Iolo provided them with that justification, thereby giving us the modern druid order of Wales, or Gorsedd y Beirdd, and their outfits were so fetching that the English got a bit jealous and appropriated the look for their own version of neo-druidry, the heirs of which we see today in venerable organisations such as OBOD who have succeeded in turning the older English antiquarianism into a large and popular modern-day spiritual movement. But for all this poking fun at poor old Iolo, at the end of the day he was a great visionary and a truly inspired nationalist. His ceremonial interpretation of his native bardic arts has given the Welsh durable vessels that seem to sustain our public culture from decade to decade: proof enough of his genius, no matter how peculiarly it was expressed.

But the snake-oil peddling fakery of some of his antics has left latter scholars with a degree of reticence when it comes to actually following through on his main claim, that being that there is an historic connection between medieval bardic culture and the earlier druidic culture that preceded it. In other words, for all the pomp and ceremony that the Gorsedd provides, not many people involved in modern Welsh academia can actually take the idea of druidry seriously, at least in public, never mind speculating about its historic position on philosophical and metaphysical matters and how they evolved in the professional bardic orders of medieval Wales.

If we consider that much of the fabricated evidence that Iolo presented was swallowed hook, line and sinker by many renowned scholars for almost a century, its not difficult to understand the over-cautious attitude that modern Welsh academics tend to take in view of the foolish mistakes made by some of their predecessors. New professors usually get the job when they have proven they can appear relevant while not being too controversial within their fields (a safe pair of hands). Putting on the donkey ears of druidry doesn’t make for an appealing professorial candidate. Further to that, no one wants to earn a reputation that could haunt them well beyond the end of their careers. A debunked theory doesn’t make for a great epitaph to ones life work. With Iolo clanking his chains in the background, Welsh academics understand better than most the power of memory and the durable nature of the written word.

This is not to say that there is no discussion at all of the historic link between druids and later bards, but generally it is editors themselves that try to provide the reader with a little clarity, not only offering explanations for archaic words and common sense corrections for miss-copied or damaged text, but providing contextual information to help elucidate meaning. But what is needed is a much wider, much more eclectic comparative study the takes the genuinely interesting medieval Welsh material and places it in an objective, useable anthropological context. The material is all there, waiting in the abundance of new editions sitting on the library shelves, we only need the right perspective to see it for what it is.