The Mabinogion was the name given by Lady Charlotte Guest to a collection of Welsh-language tales which she translated into English, and which were first published in three volumes between 1838 and 1849. The original stories were to be found mainly in two collections of medieval manuscripts known as the White Book of Rhydderch (c.1350) and the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400).
Included in Lady Guest’s translation were the following stories: The Lady of the Fountain; Peredur the son of Evrawc; Geraint the son of Erbin; Kilhwch and Olwen; The Dream of Rhonabwy; Pwyll Prince of Dyfed; Branwen the Daughter of Llyr; Manawyddan the son of Llyr; Math the son of Mathonwy; The Dream of Maxen Wledig; Lludd and Llevelys; and Taliesin.
Later on, new translations of these tales (excluding Taliesin) were made, and the title The Mabinogion was retained for the collection as a whole. Two examples are the translations by T.P. Ellis and John Lloyd (1929), and by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (1948). Joseph Loth, whose translation of the tales into French first appeared in 1889, also followed Lady Guest with his title Les Mabinogion.
Click here to read Lady Guest's translation online.
This is the story which Lady Guest called Pwyll Prince of Dyfed. This First Branch is followed by a Second Branch, Third Branch and Fourth Branch, which Lady Guest called Branwen the Daughter of Llyr; Manawyddan the son of Llyr; and Math the son of Mathonwy.
The description of each of these stories as ‘a branch of the Mabinogi’ is to be found at the end of the original Welsh versions. A branch means a section, and mabinogi is an archaic Welsh word, similar to the Latin infantia or the French enfance. In different contexts, it may have four meanings: a period of youth; a story about a period of youth; a story about a hero; or, simply, a story. Here, it is thought that the stories may relate to the period of youth of the character known as Pryderi, even though his role is an extremely peripheral one in the Second and Fourth Branch.
At the end of one of the original Welsh versions of the First Branch, the word mabinogi is incorrectly written as mabynnogyon (or mabinogion in modern spelling). Lady Charlotte Guest did not realise this was an error. She assumed that mabinogion was the plural of mabinogi and chose to adopt it as her title for the collection as a whole. In fact, the word mabinogion does not intentionally appear in any of the stories. Moreover, the word mabinogi is, strictly speaking, only relevant to the first four stories known as the ‘Branches of the Mabinogi’. Its adoption by Lady Guest in a so-called plural form and as a title suitable for the twelve stories in her collection was, therefore, based on a misconception. However, because the name Mabinogion has become so strongly identified in English with the collection as a whole, it has been retained by translators, literary critics and readers.
Pwyll means care or caution in Welsh.
Dyfed, along with Gwynedd, Powys, Ceredigion, Brycheiniog, Gwent and Glywysing (later, Morgannwg), was one of the many petty kingdoms which came into existence in Wales during the post-Roman period. It contained modern-day Pembrokeshire and parts of modern-day Carmarthenshire. However, in 920, during the reign of Hywel Dda, it was amalgamated with Seisyllwg to form Deheubarth.
The name Dyfed was resurrected in 1974 as the collective name for the counties of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, but was withdrawn again in 1996 following further boundary reorganisation.
The cantref was one of the land divisions of Medieval Wales. Traditionally, it contained one hundred (cant) small settlements, each one of which was known as a tref. The cantref was further subdivided into smaller units known as commotes (cymydau) which were themselves divided into smaller units. The cantref has many of the characteristics of the English hundred. Following the Acts of Union of England and Wales, Wales was divided into 90 hundreds, some of which retained the boundaries of the cantrefs.
The seven cantrefs of Dyfed were Cantref Gwarthaf, Cemais, Daugleddau, Emlyn, Pebidiog, Penfro and Rhos. On the map above, several other cantrefs referred to in The Mabinogion can be seen, including Aberffraw, Arllechwydd (sometimes referred to as a commote), Arwystli, Dunoding, Gwent Is coed and Penllyn.
Glyn Cuch (or Cwm Cuch) is the attractive wooded valley of the River Cuch, one of the tributaries of the River Teifi. For most of its course, the River Cuch marks the boundary between present-day Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. Is Cuch and Uwch Cuch (Upper and Lower Cuch) were two of the commotes (cymydau) of Medieval Wales.
The River Cuch:
Annwfn or Annwn is the Welsh name for the Celtic Otherworld. Following the advent of Christianity it was also used as a word for hell. Annwfn/Annwn may be translated either as ‘non-world’ or ‘inner-world’. However, the exact nature of the concept, and the imagined location of the Otherworld, is not entirely clear, either in the Welsh, or other Celtic traditions.
An early medieval Welsh poem known as Preiddiau Annwfn ('The Spoils of Annwfn') describes a visit by King Arthur and his men to various Otherworld 'fortresses', but their significance remains obscure. The Celtic Otherworld is sometimes described as being situated on an island, often the Isle of Avalon (Ynys Afallon, in Welsh). Various real places have been suggested as the location of Avalon, ranging from Glastonbury and Bardsey Island to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. In the Irish tradition, the Otherworld has been given the names Tír na n-Óg ('The Land of the Young'); Tir Tairngire ('The Land of Promise') and Tir na t-Samhraidh ('The Land of Summer').
Shapeshifting is a common theme in many mythologies, including Celtic mythology.
It refers to an individual’s magical ability to transform herself/himself into someone or something else, or the ability to transform others.
Aside from Arawn’s ability to transform Pwyll into an image of himself, there are several other examples of shapeshifting in The Mabinogi. These include the transformation of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy into animals, of Lleu into an eagle, and Blodeuwedd into an owl. All of these transformations occur in the ‘Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’.
Arberth (which is also referred to in the opening lines of ‘The First Branch’) is generally assumed to be Arberth in southeast Pembrokeshire, the English name of which is Narberth. In modern Welsh, gorsedd means throne, but it is also an archaic term for the type of mound known as a barrow or tumulus.
Barrows are mounds of earth or stone, constructed from the prehistoric period up until about 800 AD. On excavation, they have often been found to contain stone artifacts, pottery, and animal or human bones. Burial of the dead was generally believed to be their main function, but it is now accepted that their role may have been more complex.
It is believed that many of the characters in The Mabinogion represent the Celtic deities of the pre-Christian era. As the scribes of the manuscripts were probably monks or other religious men, it has been suggested that they were reluctant to portray the exploits of pagan gods and goddesses, and consequently they downgraded their status to that of heroes and heroines.
Rhiannon has been linked to: Rigantona, a shadowy Celtic goddess; to Epona, protector of horses and goddess of fertility; and to Dea Matrona, goddess of the River Marne in Gaul, who is sometimes referred to as ‘The Great Mother’. Rhiannon's links with horses are emphasised in this First Branch of the Mabinogi by her magical riding prowess and by the fact that, as part of her punishment, she is forced to carry people on her back as if she were herself a horse.
This is the first of several references to the concept of fostering and to foster-brothers in The Mabinogion. Sending both male and female children to live with foster-parents was believed to have been common practice in early medieval Ireland. It was seen as a way of teaching the children further skills, and of reinforcing the bonds between families. The position regarding fostering in the Welsh situation seems to be less clear.
However, there does appear to be evidence of a tradition in medieval Wales whereby boys of noble birth were expected to master a range of skills known as the pedair camp ar hugain ('the twenty four accomplishments'), and these may well have been acquired whilst a boy was living as a foster-son. The 24 skills included various feats of strength, wrestling, swimming, archery, swordsmanship, falconry, heraldry, and declaiming poetry to the accompaniment of the harp.
The inner circle of Stonehenge in Wiltshire is made of bluestone identical to that found in the Preseli Hills. This led to the theory that stone was transported from the Preseli Hills to Wiltshire, although it was acknowledged that this would have been a Herculean enterprise. Other theories suggest that bluestone was at some point deposited in the area of Stonehenge through glacial activity.
Preseli is also one of the areas visited by the Twrch Trwyth in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’.
An article by Juliette Wood entitled, 'The Calumniated Wife in Medieval Welsh Literature' appears in the book The Mabinogi: A Book of Essays (edited by Charles William Sullivan),
An e-version of the article may be found here.
Gwent Is Coed is one of the Medieval Welsh cantrefs. It may be seen in the southeast corner of the map in the bookmark for page 3.
May Day has traditionally been highly significant in many European cultures. The Celtic year was divided into two parts: one began on May 1st, the other on November 1st. In the Welsh tradition these are given the names Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf, and in the Irish tradition, Beltane (sometimes, Beltaine, Beltine or Beltene) and Samhain. At these points of transition, the boundary between the ordinary world and the Otherworld was thought to be weakened. We see a hint of the possible significance of Beltane in the story of 'Lludd and Llefelys', in which it is said that hearing the screams of the dragons fighting on ‘May eve' might lead to infertility. There is also a reference to May 1st in 'How Culhwch won Olwen', where two men become part of an agreement to fight for a maiden every ‘May day’ until ‘Judgement Day’*.
The name Bendigeidfran means ‘Blessed Raven’ (or Crow). He is also sometimes known in English as Brân the Blessed. It has been suggested that the portrayal of Bendigeidfran may be an example of euhemerism, whereby a real historical person with heroic qualities is retrospectively attributed with the qualities of a god. This, of course, is exactly the opposite to the idea put forward in the bookmark for page 11, which discussed the concept of gods/goddesses being downgraded to the role of heroes/heroines.
Bran (Bran mac Feabhail/mac Febail ) is also the name of a mythological Irish hero, and there is some controversy as to whether there is any connection between this Bran and Bendigeidfran.
Ardudwy was a commote (cwmwd) in medieval Wales. It can be seen on the map of the cymydau in the bookmark for page 3, on the northern coast of Cardigan Bay. It was divided into upper and lower regions, called Uwch Artro and Is Artro.
Harlech, situated in present-day Gwynedd, is a coastal town that has played a significant part in Welsh history. It is the site of an imposing 13th century castle built by Edward I following his conquest of Wales, and it was briefly occupied by Owain Glyndŵr during the 15th century Welsh uprising.
There are many references throughout the stories of The Mabinogion to groups of three, as well as instances where repeating something three times is used as a linguistic/literary device. For example, in ‘The Dream of the Emperor Macsen’, the same journey is described on three separate occasions. It seems that grouping in threes had a special significance in early Welsh Literature, as evidenced by a series of medieval Welsh manuscripts known as 'The Welsh Triads' (Trioedd Ynys Prydein). Many of the examples given in The Mabinogion appear in the Triads.
The Three Chief Maidens is an example of a triad in The Mabinogion. Others include the Three Undemanding Chieftains and the Three Golden Shoemakers (Third Branch); The Three Disloyal Retinues (Fourth Branch), and the Three Adjacent Islands (‘The Dream of the Emperor Maxen').
Aberffraw (‘the mouth of the River Ffraw’) was one of the medieval Welsh cantrefs* of the Island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) and is today the name of a village on the island. Between 860 and 1170, it was the site of the main court of the Kings and Princes of Gwynedd.
*see bookmark for page 3
The cauldron seems to have been of great importance within ancient Celtic cultures. One highly significant artifact is the Gundestrup cauldron, a richly-ornate Iron Age silver vessel, found in a peat bog in Denmark in 1891. Amongst its carved figures is one that appears to represent Cernunnos, the horned Celtic deity. More intriguingly still, another carving shows a line of upright men being tipped into a cauldron and re-emerging on horseback, a situation which bears a striking resemblance to that involving the ‘Cauldron of Rebirth’ in 'The Second Branch of the
Material that appeared in late medieval Welsh manuscripts (but which stems from a much earlier period) also features cauldrons. For example, the Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant is listed amongst 'The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain' (Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain), and Ceridwen’s cauldron is central to the story of the poet Taliesin. In the Irish tradition, a cauldron known as the Dagda’s Cauldron is one of the four treasures of the mythological people known as the Tuatha Dé Danann.