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 The name Dyfed was also resurrected in 1974, but then withdrawn in 1996.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.
The Celts is the collective name given to diverse groups that inhabited parts of Western and Central Europe during the Iron Age and the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD. Their languages all derived from a common source-language known as Proto-Celtic. They also had certain common features in relation to art and religious practices.
The term Celtic is used in several different ways. Firstly, it describes the culture of the early European Celts. A distinction is made between two cultural periods known as Hallstatt (800-450BC), named after a village in Austria, and La Tène (450-100BC), named after a village in Switzerland. Excavations at these sites revealed a large number of artifacts which are viewed as broadly typical of the Celtic culture in the two time periods concerned.
Secondly, Celtic refers to those areas where languages derived from Celtic (notably Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Manx, and Cornish) are still spoken or have only become extinct as living languages during the last few centuries. The term is also used to describe the art, literature and music of these areas.
Thirdly, Celtic is sometimes used very loosely to refer to spiritual or mystical aspects of the distant past which imply a reverence for the natural world. It has, therefore, become associated with modern spiritual movements such as the New Age movement and Neopaganism.
Proto-Celtic was an Indo-European language which spawned a range of languages including Gaulish, Lepontic, Brythonic and Archaic Irish (one of the Goidelic group of languages). The first two are long-since extinct, but the second pair evolved into other languages: Brythonic into Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric; Archaic Irish into Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Of these, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Breton have survived as living languages. Cornish and Manx (spoken in the Isle of Man) died out during the 19th and 20th centuries respectively, but are now undergoing a revival. Cumbric is now extinct, but is believed to have been spoken in parts of what is now Cumbria up until the 12th century.
Listen here to 'The Lord's Prayer' in Proto-Celtic, Ancient British and Brythonic
Listen here to some poems being recited in Cornish
Listen here to Breton
Listen here to Irish
Listen here to Scottish Gaelic
(I can't vouch for the authenticity of all of the above!)
Listen here to Welsh
As previously mentioned, the cultural life of the Celtic period is divided into the Hallstatt period and the La Tène period. Particularly important artifacts of the Hallstatt period have been found in burial tombs. These include numerous iron and bronze items such as chariots, equipment for horses, helmets, shields, daggers and jewellery, as well as clay items. Important items of the La Tène period include intricately-worked iron, bronze, silver and gold metal work, amongst which are various types of swords, shields, spearheads, vessels, tools, jewellery, mirrors, sculptures and items associated with horsemanship. In both periods the Celtic artwork is notable for its complexity and sophistication, and the nature and manner of its decoration suggests significant underlying symbolic meaning.
Later Celtic artwork includes that of the Insular Celts (the Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland) during the early medieval period. Particularly notable are the examples of religious art found in illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.
Some of the earliest accounts of Celtic religious beliefs are found in Julius Caesar’s ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’ written during the first century BC. He tended to stress the connections between Celtic deities and Roman ones, which could be misleading. It is also thought that Roman reports of Celtic religious practices may have over-emphasised certain violent or unpleasant practices such as human sacrifice for which, it is claimed, there is little real evidence.
Drawing mainly on inscriptions, some sources have listed as many as four hundred Celtic deities, many of them only mentioned once. It is believed that some of these were local gods and goddesses known only within certain areas, but other deities were more widely recognized across the Celtic world. The wider-known deities include Teutatis, Taranus, Lugus, Epona and Dea Matrona. Most of the Celtic pantheon appear to be earth gods and goddesses associated with particular sites where there was water or woodland. Certain deities, such as Cernunnos, the horned god, continue to be important today in various forms of Celtic neo-Paganism.
In terms of religious ritual, it has been suggested that one devotional practice of the Celts was to throw metal items, such as swords, shields, spears, chariot wheels, horse equipment, cauldrons and jewellery into rivers and lakes. Evidence for this comes from a large number of sites. Within Britain these include the rivers Witham (in Lincolnshire) and Thames; the lakes Llyn Cerrig Bach (Anglesey), Llyn Fawr (mid-Glamorgan) and Carlingwark Loch (Dumfries and Galloway); and the area known as Flag Fen (Cambridgeshire). This ritual is probably the basis of the legend that recounts Sir Bedivere returning King Arthur’s sword Excalibur to the ‘Lady of the Lake’.
In some Greek and Roman writings there is also reference to the existence in Britain, Ireland and Gaul of a Celtic priest-group known as druids, although little is known of their practices. In the 18th and 19th century there was a revival of interest in druidism which was given the name Neo-Druidism. One of the more colourful figures of this movement was the Welshman Edward Williams (Iolo Morgannwg) who established a society of poets, musicians and others known as Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain ('The Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain'). He claimed that it was an ancient druidical institution, but it is now known that he fabricated evidence to support his claim. However, the Gorsedd remains a central feature of the Welsh cultural festival known as the National Eisteddfod of Wales. There is also a contemporary Neo-druidic movement quite separate from the Welsh Eisteddfodic tradition.
Between the 5th and 8th centuries, Christianity became widespread in Europe. In areas where Celtic languages were spoken, it developed under the leadership of saints such as Patrick, Columba and Brigid of Ireland; David, Illtud and Deiniol of Wales; and Ninian and Mungo (Kentigern) of Scotland. It has been suggested that this early Celtic Church had many distinctive features, some of which derived from the spiritual beliefs of the pre-Christian Celts. However, others question whether it is appropriate to view the Celtic Church as a distinct entity.