In ascending order of antiquity, the five ancient animals and birds whose advice is sought are: the Blackbird (referred to in other translations as the ousel or ouzel); the Stag of Rhedynfre; the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd; the Eagle of Gwernabwy; and the salmon of Llyn Lliw.
In contemporary Welsh, Cilgwri is the name given to the Wirral Peninsula in northwest England, situated between the estuaries of the River Dee and the River Mersey. Rhedynfre (‘Fern hill’) is the old Welsh name for the village of Farndon in Cheshire. The situation regarding Cwm Cawlwyd is less clear: Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of The Mabinogion notes ‘there is a place of this name in Caernarvonshire, and another in Carmarthenshire’, but it has also been suggested that Cwm Cawlwyd is the Strathclyde area of Scotland. The location of Gwernabwy and Llyn Lliw are also unclear; one suggestion is that the first has some connection with Bodernabwy on the Llŷn peninsula in northwest Wales, and that the second is somewhere in the estuary of the River Severn.
Another ‘ancient animal’, the Toad of Cors Fochno, is referred to in the story ‘The Ancients of the World’ in William Jenkyn Thomas's collection of fairy stories, and in R.S. Thomas’s poem ‘The Ancients of the World’:
The ousel singing in the woods of Cilgwri
Tirelessly as a stream over the mossed stones
Is not as old as the toad of Cors Fochno
Who feels the cold skin sagging round his bones.
Translated literally, Aber Daugleddyf means ‘the Mouth of the Two swords’. It refers to the two Pembrokeshire rivers known as the Eastern Cleddau (not Cleddyf) and the Western Cleddau. They unite at Picton Point to form the River Cleddau, which enters the sea at Milford Haven. The name for Milford Haven in modern Welsh is Aberdaugleddau.
Pumlumon (‘five peaks’) is a group of mountains in northern Ceredigion. It is known in English as Plynlimon. As its name suggests, it consists of five peaks, the highest being Pen Pumlumon Fawr. Another of its peaks is called Y Garn, but there is no record of the specific name Garn Gwylathr.
Madog son of Maredudd (Madog ap Maredudd) was ruler of the Welsh kingdom of Powys between 1132 and his death in 1160. He was the last Welsh ruler to have the whole of Powys under his control. The geographical position of Powys meant that it was vulnerable to attack from the powerful kingdom of Gwynedd and from England. It is probably for this reason that Madog made sure he kept on good terms with the English King and members of the English nobility.
There are several descriptions in literature of people experiencing dreams and visions whilst sleeping on animal skins. For example, in Book 7 of Virgil’s Aeneid, there is reference to visions stimulated by sleeping on the hides of slaughtered sheep, and in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Brutus hears the goddess Diana speak whilst sleeping on the skin of a hind. There is also reference in the Irish tradition to dreams and prophetic visions being stimulated by sleeping on ox-hides, as well as to the tarb feis (‘bull sleep’) where consuming the meat of a bull was said to induce visionary sleep.
Maelgwn Gwynedd, who died in 547, was ruler of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in the second quarter of the 6th century. His court is said to have been at Deganwy, at the mouth of the River Conwy in North Wales.
His son, Rhun Hir ap Maelgwn (‘Tall Rhun, son of Maelgwn’), ruled Gwynedd between 547 and 586. An elegy to him, under the title Marwnad Rhun (‘Elegy for Rhun’), was thought to have been written by the 6th century court poet Taliesin (although this is now disputed).
The earliest recorded poems in Welsh* are those of Aneirin and Taliesin, dating from the 6thcentury. Welsh medieval poets are generally divided into three groups. The first group, who composed poetry between the 6th and 11th century, were known as the Cynfeirdd. The second group, known as Beirdd y Tywysogion (‘The Poets of the Princes’), were court poets active between the end of the 11th century and the conquest of Wales by Edward I in 1282. The third group were known as Beirdd yr Uchelwyr (‘The Poets of the Noblemen/landed gentry’) and were active from the end of the 13th century until the decline of the Welsh bardic tradition in the 16th century. It is believed that early Welsh poetry was performed to the accompaniment of a harp, crwth, or the rhythmic pounding of a stave.
(* A version of Welsh was spoken in parts of Northern England and Southern Scotland during the period of Aneirin and Taliesin)
The comment above about the poets who came to perform for Arthur is a satirical one. ‘Rhonabwy’s Dream’ is thought to have been written during the 13th century, so the remark is probably directed at ‘The Poets of the Princes’. The implication is that their work is obtuse, and that they have lost touch with their audience.
Click here to read about some experimental work on the link between poetry and music in medieval Wales.