Professor Ronald Hutton’s fifth lecture in the Gresham College series on early Pagan history in Britain (1) is called Finding Lost Gods in Wales. Hutton’s main focus is on medieval Welsh literature. This language is a 5th/6th century CE mutation of the Brythonic speech once used throughout Britain, further developed for literary purposes by court bards in the 6/7th century. Hutton describes it as “made for poetry” because of the concentration of meaning in the words. He gives as an example in a literal English translation:
‘Colour light waves spread boiling billows
‘Flood-tide river mouth on sea where nothing waits.’
He contrasts this with an English translation for English ears, demanding more words whilst sacrificing impact and immediacy.
‘Bright as the light that falls on the waves, where the boiling billows spread
That flashes a moment from the meeting of river flood and sea.’
This language was the public voice of a consciously dispossessed people, creating a new sense of Welsh Celtic nationhood in the 9th and 10th centuries, when the English, Scottish Gaels and Vikings had reduced their territory to less that 10% of Britain. It led to a flowering of Bardic culture throughout the medieval period.
Taliesin was celebrated as Wales’ greatest Bard. There is no certainty that he existed, though poems surviving from the 6th century have been attributed to him. There are no recorded statements of his pre-eminence before the 10th century. Later poets inspired by him continued to write in his name for a further 300 years. However his link with Awen as the source of inspiration reveals the mystical roots of the whole Bardic tradition. But for instances or echoes of specifically Pagan motifs we are largely reliant on a small group of texts from the 11th -13th centuries: The Black Book of Carmarthen, The White Book of Rhydderch, the Red Book of Hergest, the Book of Taliesin and the Mabinogion, a collection of prose stories. (The full prose Hanes Taliesin is from a much later date.)
In contrast to Irish medieval literature, we do not find Goddesses, Gods or explicitly Pagan characters in these Welsh texts, even in the four branches of the Mabinogi, though these do seem to be set in Pagan times. Several characters have superhuman abilities, without being presented as Gods. However, we do have Annwn, an otherworldly realm of human-like beings who interact with ordinary humans. We also find shape-shifting abilities – people change into animal forms and back again; humans change their appearance; objects change their form.
There is certainly magic and magical poetry, as in the Preiddeu Annwn (The Lute of the Otherworld). This poem, though hostile to monks and their pretensions to scholarship, is overtly Christian. According to Hutton, poems of this kind delight in being difficult, allusive and packed with metaphor, references and wordplay. No one now can say with any certainty what they were originally intended to mean. But this, suggests Hutton, is a gift and invitation to the poets, story tellers and artists of later generations including our own.
On the specific question of deity, Hutton discusses Rhiannon, Cerridwen, Gwyn ap Nudd, and Arianrhod. None is described in this literature as divine and, according to Hutton, we do not find them in that role in Celtic antiquity.
Rhiannon is superhuman and comes from an enchanted world to find a husband of her own choosing. She stays the course despite horrible experiences. She has been thought of as a horse goddess, but this is not suggested in the Mabinogion and there is no indication of a horse Goddess in the archaeology of Iron Age Britain or in Romano-British inscriptions. She has also been seen as a Goddess of Sovereignty, but she does not confer sovereignty on either of her husbands, and there is no record of any sovereignty Goddess in Europe outside Ireland.
Cerridwen begins as a mother skilled in sorcery trying to empower her son but actually empowering a lowly servant boy instead. By the 13th century she has, through her association with Awen, become the muse of the Bards, giver of power and the laws of poetry. In 1809 the scholar Edward Davies made her the great Goddess of ancient Britain and many people have Iolo seen her in that light ever since.
In 11th and 12th century texts Gwyn ap Nudd was one of King Arthur’s warriors, imbued with a degree of magic power. By the 14th century, poets are making him a mighty power of darkness, enchantment and deception. In the 1880’s the scholar Sir John Rhys made him the Celtic God of the dead and leader of the Wild Hunt. This is largely how he is seen today.
In the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, Arianrhod is a powerful, beautiful and selfish enchantress with the capacity to make unbreakable curses. By the 13th and 14th centuries her magical powers are much increased. She can cast a rainbow about a court, and the Corona Borealis is called the Fortress or Arianrhod. In the 20th century she began to be seen as a Star Goddess.
Professor Hutton’s lecture includes a discussion of the Welsh Bardic revival at the end of the eighteenth century, inspired largely by Iolo Morgannwg, here presented as a mixed blessing given his willingness to forge ‘ancient’ documents to advance his cause. Hutton ends with a section on the legend placing Glastonbury as the site of King Arthur’s final refuge and eventual burial, and also the place in which the Holy Grail was buried. Both of these were concocted by the later medieval monks of Glastonbury Abbey as a potential source of patronage and a pilgrimage income. At the same time, post holes linked to a neolithic structure have recently been found near Chalice Well – which may well be a numinous site of great antiquity. Artefacts have also been recently found in the area, including the Abbey itself, from the early post-Roman period in which Arthur’s career has been set. We weave our stories from a mixture of fact, fiction, speculation and deep intuition. Being conscious of this circumstance may make them all the richer.
See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/26/ for my review of Cerridwen Celtic Goddess of Inspiration by Kristoffer Hughes as an in-depth account of the Goddess and her evolution. He also discusses the Welsh Bardic tradition and the later work of Iolo Morgannwg