This map plots the settings and references in The Mabinogion
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The stories of The Mabinogion are set in a number of different locations in Wales (Cymru), part of the United Kingdom. In particular, there are numerous references to places in the former kingdom of Gwynedd in northwest Wales, and to the former kingdom of Dyfed in southwest Wales. The majority of the territory of Gwynedd later became the counties of Anglesey, Caernarvonshire, Merionethshire and Denbighshire. The name Gwynedd was re-instated as a county name in 1974. The territory of the kingdom of Dyfed later became primarily the counties of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. The name Dyfed was also resurrected in 1974, but then withdrawn in 1996.
In the post-Roman period, Wales consisted of a number of different kingdoms whose rulers were engaged in a perpetual struggle to maintain and extend the boundaries of their territories. During the 12th and 13th centuries two princes of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn Fawr or Llywelyn the Great) and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf or Llywelyn the Last), came close to gaining overall control of Wales and unifying it under one leader. However, when Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and his forces were defeated by the English in 1282, Wales became essentially a colony of England. Its freedoms were further eroded during the reign of Henry VIII with the passing of the Laws in Wales Acts, generally known in Wales as the Acts of Union. These laws ensured that Wales was governed entirely according to English legal and administrative structures. They had a highly detrimental effect on the Welsh language as they contained a clause which forbade the use of Welsh by anyone in public office.
Today, Wales is a nation of 3 million people. Just over 20% of the population are able to speak Welsh, and there is a lively and productive Welsh-language literary and musical culture. Welsh can now be used in the law courts and legal system, and the provision of Welsh-medium education has substantially improved. In 1997, a measure of autonomy was achieved when the Welsh people voted in favour of the establishment of a Welsh Assembly (y Cynulliad). The Assembly meets in Cardiff in a purpose-built building known as the Senedd (Parliament).
Click here for the website of the Welsh Government/Llywodraeth Cymru.
In the ‘Second Branch of the Mabinogi’ and in ‘Lludd and Llefelys’, there is reference to 'this island' and to the ‘Island of Britain’ (Ynys Prydain) with London as a focal point. In the first of these, Britain is also referred to as ‘The Island of the Strong’ (Ynys y Cedyrn). There are also references to ‘The Island of Britain’ at other points in The Mabinogion. This reflects the importance of Britain for the Welsh, who saw themselves as descendents of the Celtic Britons who inhabited Britain before its invasion by a series of newcomers: Romans, Jutes, Angles and Saxons.
Based mainly on the portrayal of history (or pseudohistory) in the works of writers such as Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, the notion was fostered amongst the Welsh that they had once had, and would at some point have again, a central role in the Island of Britain (Ynys Prydain). This idea became incorporated into medieval Welsh mythology and literature, as seen in ‘The Second Branch of the Mabinogi’ and ‘Lludd and Llefelys’.
It is, of course, difficult to know what concept of ‘Britain’ existed amongst the diverse Celtic tribes that occupied the British Isles prior to the Roman invasion. The Romans gave the areas they conquered in Britain the collective name Britannia, and Londinium (now London) developed into one of their major trading centres. It is likely, therefore, that it was the Romans who were responsible for creating the idea of Britain as an entity, with London as a focal point.
After the Romans finally withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, the areas designated Britannia were invaded by the Jutes, Angles and Saxons. As a result, the Celtic people of Britain (that is, those who spoke languages derived from Brythonic: notably Welsh, Cumbric and Cornish) became confined to southwest England, Wales, northwest England, and parts of northern England and southern Scotland. It is presumably from this position of loss and retreat that the concept of regaining the Island of Britain became an attractive one.
Confusingly, in The Mabinogi the name Prydain or Prydyn is also sometimes used for Pictland, the archaic name for Northern Scotland. Pictland was not part of Roman Britannia.
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:
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.
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’.
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.
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
Talybolion was a medieval Welsh commote (cwmwd)* in the northwest of the Island of Anglesey. The name sounds similar to Talebolion as it appears in the text. Broken down into its two components, tâl (payment) and ebolion (colts), Talebolion could mean ‘payment of colts’. However, Talybolion would translate as the ‘end of the chasms’ or ‘end of the ridges’, indicating a quite different origin to the place-name from the one suggested in the story.
* see bookmark for page 3
Location of the former commote of Talybolion:
Arfon was one of the Welsh medieval cantrefs (see bookmark for page 3). It was situated in the northwestern part of Wales, opposite the Isle of Anglesey. The name is still used for one of the administrative areas of the county of Gwynedd.
Caer Saint is an old name for the town of Caernarfon in present-day Gwynedd. Caer means fort, and Saint is a version of Seiont, the river which enters the Menai Strait at Caernarfon. During the Roman occupation of Britain Caernarfon was the site of a Roman fort called Segontium, and later Edward I built a castle there. In the story 'The Dream of the Emperor Maxen', an alternative name for Caernarfon is Aber Saint ('the mouth of the River Seiont').
Edeirnion is one of the medieval Welsh commotes (cymydau) situated in the Corwen area of Northeast Wales. It may be seen on the map in bookmark p.3, to the west of Nanheudwy and to the east of Penlynn Is Treweryn.
Bryn Saith Marchog (‘The Hill of the Seven Horesemen/Knights') is a small rural village situated between Rhuthun and Corwen in present-day Denbighshire.
The Liffey (Irish: Abhainn na Life) is an Irish river that rises in the Wicklow Mountains and reaches the Irish sea at Dublin Bay. It runs through Dublin, the capital of Ireland.
In Gwyn Jones' and Thomas Jones' 1948 translation of The Mabinogion, the Welsh name Llinon is translated not as Liffey but as Shannon (Irish: Abhain na Sionainne).
The Gwynfryn (‘the White Mound’) is the name given to a burial mound said to lie under the White Tower of the Tower of London, the 11th century royal fortress in Central London. Legend has it that not only is Bendigeidfran’s head buried there, but that the head was dug up by King Arthur in order to challenge Bendigeidfran’s claim to be the protector of the kingdom.
There is a long tradition of keeping ravens at the Tower of London, a practice which has been associated with the fact that Bendigeidfran means ‘Blessed Raven’. Even today, at least six ravens are kept permanently at the Tower, and it is claimed that should the ravens ever leave, the White Tower will crumble and a terrible disaster will befall Britain.
Gwales (sometimes Ynys Gwales) is the Island of Grassholm which lies about 8 miles off the southwest coast of Pembrokeshire.
In his 1901 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Sir John Rhŷs, first Professor of Celtic at the University of Oxford, refers to the belief that there is a submerged island near Grassholm, which intermittently rises to the surface. Indeed, one of Sir John’s sources claimed to have met an eye-witness to this event!
Today, Grassholm is a gannet sanctuary owned by the RSPB.
Aber Henfelen is probably the Bristol Channel, which separates South Wales from Somerset, Devon and Cornwall in southwest England. It extends from the estuary of the River Severn to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Alaw is a river on the Island of Anglesey which reaches the sea at Aber Alaw (‘the mouth of the Alaw’), not far from Holyhead. In 1813 a farmer removing stones from a cairn near the village of Elim on the banks of the Alaw came across a stone burial chest (in an area which had always been known as Ynys Bronwen), in which was a pottery urn containing ashes and bone fragments. This was then believed to be the 'four-sided' grave described in the 'Second Branch of the Mabinogi' and given the name Bedd Branwen (Branwen's Grave). Further excavations carried out in the 1960s led to the discovery of other urns containing bones and human ashes, which have been dated to the early Bronze Age period (c.1800-1600 BCE). Some of the urns and accompanying grave goods may be seen at the Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery in Bangor.
Click here to see a photo of Bedd Branwen.
Click here to see photos of the urns found at Bedd Branwen.
Corodovan leather (also known as cordwain) was high-quality leather which came from Cordoba, a city and province in southern Spain, where it was originally manufactured by the Moors. It was used especially for making shoes, which is why a superior type of shoemaker came to be known as a cordwainer. Cordwainers were different from cobblers, who merely repaired shoes. Leather manufactured according to the original methods of the Moors is still known as cordovan or shell cordovan.
Gwynedd was one of the petty kingdoms which came into existence in post-Roman Britain (see map for bookmark, page 3). Due to the nature of its terrain, which included the whole of Snowdonia, it was difficult to attack and it became one of the most powerful Welsh kingdoms.
During the 12th century, Gwynedd evolved into a principality. Its rulers included Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn the Last), who was proclaimed overall Prince of Wales in 1258. Llywelyn ap Iorwerth was responsible for building the native (as distinct from Anglo-Norman) Welsh castles to be found at Dolbadarn, Dolwyddelan and Cricieth.
Following the local government boundary re-organisation of 1974, the name Gwynedd was revived for a county containing five areas: Môn (Anglesey), Arfon, Aberconwy, Dwyfor and Meirionnydd. However, following further boundary changes in 1996, Môn became a separate county and Aberconwy became part of the county borough of Conwy. Today, therefore, Gwynedd consists of three areas: Arfon, Dwyfor and Meirionnydd.
Y Traeth Mawr (‘the great stretch of sand’) was the name given to an area of sand and salt marshland separating the old Merionethshire from the old Caernarvonshire (or, in Mabinogi terms, the commotes of Ardudwy and Eifionydd). Situated at the estuary of the River Glaslyn, it was regularly flooded by the sea and was notoriously dangerous to cross. Between 1808 and 1812, at the instigation of William Alexander Madocks, an embankment, known locally as ‘the Cob’, was built to exclude the sea from a large portion of the Traeth Mawr. Today the Cob carries the A497 from Porthmadog to Minffordd, a cycle path and the Ffestiniog railway.
On the North Wales coast between Aberdesach and Pontllyfni is a headland called Trwyn Maen Dylan (‘the Headland of Dylan’s stone’), and on the beach below is a large stone (sometimes submerged) known as Maen Dylan (‘Dylan’s Stone’). This stone has become associated with Dylan Eil Ton (‘Dylan Son of Wave’), as it is situated very close to that part of the old cantref of Arfon where some of the events of ‘The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’ are believed to be set.
Dylan was not a well-known boy’s name in Wales until popularised by the poet Dylan Thomas. It is generally assumed that his well-educated father, David John Thomas, took it from his reading of The Mabinogion.
Caer Aranrhod (generally known as Caer Arianrhod) is the name given to a group of rocks in the sea about a mile off the coast of Dinas Dinlle, a village on the North Wales coast about six miles from Caernarfon. The rocks are visible only at low tide.
Dinas Dinlle, the site of an Iron-Age fort, is referred to later on in the story as Dinas Dinlleu, spelt in such a way as to suggest a connection with Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Arianrhod’s rejected son.
Caer Arianrhod is also the name given in Welsh to the constellation of the northern sky known as Corona Borealis. This constellation has also been associated with the Greek goddess Ariadne.
Mur Castell (‘Castle Wall’), now known as Tomen y Mur (‘The Mound of the Wall’), is situated near Trawsfynydd in Gwynedd. Originally the site of a Roman fort, it later became the location of a medieval castle, possibly built by William Rufus in the eleventh century. The castle was of the typical motte-and-bailey variety, the motte (or mound) being built within the enclosure of the original Roman walls.
Here we have another example of a placename supposedly linked to Lleu (see also Dinas Dinlleu in the bookmark for page 55). Today, we speak of the Nantlle valley (Dyffryn Nantlle), which is situated to the east of Penygroes and Talysarn in Gwynedd. One of the villages in Dyffryn Nantlle is called Nantlle. It is the location of a lake known as Llyn Nantlle Uchaf (‘Upper Nantlle lake'), there having once also been a Llyn Nantlle isaf (‘Lower Nantlle lake'). During the 19th and early 20th centuries, slate was mined in the Nantlle valley, and the scars left by the industry are still to be seen on the landscape.
There is a lake about three miles from Tomen y Mur (see bookmark for page 59), to the east of the village of Ffestiniog, known as Llyn y Morynion (‘the Lake of the Maidens’).
Click here for more information on Llyn y Morynion (Welsh-language webpage).
The stone known as Llech Gronw (‘Gronw’s Stone’) can be found today on the land of a farmstead called ‘Bryn Saeth’ (‘The Hill of the Arrow’) in Cwm Cynfal (The Cynfal Valley), not far from Blaenau Ffestiniog in Gwynedd. It is said that it was found lying on the banks of the Bryn Saeth River, a tributary of the River Cynfal. It is also said that a small mound on the land belonging to a house called ‘Llech Goronwy’ is the grave of Gronw Pebr.
Read more about Gronw Pebr's grave here (Welsh-language webpage).
Click here to see a picture of 'Llech Gronw'.
As we learn later in this story, ‘Arthur’s court’ is based in Caerllion ar Wysg (Caerleon on Usk), situated on the River Usk in southeast Wales, not far from Newport. In the more ancient story, 'How Culhwch Won Olwen', King Arthur's Court is said to be at Celli Wig ('Forest Grove') in Cornwall. We are therefore seeing the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain', translated into Welsh under the title Brut y Brenhinedd), which named Caerleon as Arthur’s court.
Caerloyw (‘Bright fort’) is the Welsh name for Gloucester in southwest England.
The Welsh word ‘myrddin’, meaning ‘host’, is a component of Caerfyrddin (the Welsh name for Carmarthen in southwest Wales). It has also been suggested that the name Caerfyrddin is linked to the wizard Merlin who is known as Myrddin in Welsh. Generally, however, it is believed that both these suggestions are wrong and that the name Caerfyrddin derives from Maridunum or Moridunum, a Roman fort which stood on the site of present-day Carmarthen.
Llydaw is the Welsh name for Brittany. The implication is that it is composed of the two elements, lled (partly) and taw (silence).
The description of the ‘second plague’ is very similar to a story told by Nennius in Historia Brittonum (History of Britain, c.830), and by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, c.1138).
In Nennius’ version, the British warlord Vortigern is unable to build a castle at Dinas Emrys (‘Fortress of Ambrosius’) near Beddgelert in Gwynedd because of an underground battle being fought between a red dragon (symbolising the native Britons/Welsh) and a white dragon (symbolising the Saxons). It is foretold by Ambrosius that the white dragon will reign supreme for a long time, but that he will eventually be defeated by the red dragon. In Geoffrey’s version, the story is essentially the same, except that the outcome of the battle is prophesied by Merlin. The telling of the story in ‘Lludd and Llefelys’ is used as the opportunity to explain the place-name Dinas Emrys.
Today, the red dragon is the central feature of the Welsh national flag.
In the late Middle Ages, Burgundy was one of the largest producers of wool in Europe. The Duchy of Burgundy had control of the flourishing cloth trade in Flanders, and their courts at Bruges, Lille and Brussels were considered to be at the forefront of aristocratic fashion.
Gascony was one of the ancient dukedoms of southwest France. Its boundaries are not clearly defined, however it is generally accepted as being the area southeast of Bordeaux, with the département of Gers (in the Midi-Pyrénées region) as its centrepoint.
Click here to read more about horses in the Middle Ages.
Caerdydd (Cardiff) in southeast Wales is now the Welsh capital. The original Caerdydd (‘the fort on the River Taff’) was a Roman fort, but little is known of the area’s history between the departure of the Romans and the Norman conquest. Following the conquest, Cardiff developed into a small anglicized town which by the end of the 13th century had a population of about 2,000. One of the city’s landmarks is the medieval castle, which was converted into a gothic-revival mansion during the Victorian period.
In the ‘three romances’ of The Mabinogion (in contrast to many of the other tales) the geographical settings are generally vague and nameless, so the specific reference to Caerdydd is rather striking.
Hafren is the Welsh name for the River Severn, the longest river in Great Britain. It rises in Plynlimon (Pumlumon - see map) and drains into the Bristol Channel. The cities of Worcester and Gloucester, and the town of Shrewsbury are all situated on the Severn.
The Battle of Camlan is said to be the final battle of the legendary King Arthur, in which he was either killed or fatally wounded. It is referred to in the medieval Annales Cambriae and in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. There are also several references to it in The Mabinogion’s ‘Rhonabwy’s Dream’ (often translated as ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’).
There has been much speculation about the location of the battle. Suggestions include: the village of Queen Camel in Somerset; the Roman fort of Camboglanna (Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall, Camelon near Falkirk in Scotland; and the Camlan Valley (Cwm Camlan) near Ganllwyd, north of Dolgellau in North Wales (the River Camlan is a tributary of the Mawddach).
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.
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).