The Semi-Mythical Maelgwn Gwynedd Pt 4

by JoHarrington

St Gildas certainly thought that Maelgwn Gwynedd had turned his back on God. But was the saint actually saying that the 6th century Welsh chieftain was a Druid?

North Wales was a Catholic region during the reign of Maelgwn Gwynedd. But the Welsh have long memories.

Just over 400 years previously, his own heartland of Ynys Mon (Anglesey) held a very special place in the Druidic world. It was to Druidism what Vatican City is to Catholics today. An island filled with groves and schools devoted to teaching the Three Branches of the Druid faith.

Which was why the Romans smashed it.

While Boudicca's uprising was laying waste to Roman cities across the south, its legion was marching across hostile Britain, fighting all the way, in order to reach and destroy Ynys Mon. It was made a priority over everything else, because the Druids were inspiring Celtic mercenaries to join in the battle to stop the Roman conquest of Gaul.

They were supposed to be gone now. The Druids and their Celtic deities were nominally wiped from the face of Wales. But if they aren't lost in the 21st century, what on Earth makes anyone think they weren't there in the 6th?

The question of course being - to what extent did Maelgwn Gwynedd embrace the Old Ways?

Does Gildas Tell Us about Maelgwn Gwynedd's Paganism?

Whatever else we may say about Gildas kicking off, we do know that it's an historically verifiable source. Subjective opinion maybe, but based in fact.

We may never know whether Maelgwn Gwynedd was devoutly Catholic, completely Druidic or somewhere in between.

However, something had St Gildas worked up and the list of 'crimes' and 'sins' reads more like symptoms than the cause. The saint launched into a condemnation of adultery and murder almost as an after-thought, as examples of how far Maelgwn had sunk.

The usual interpretation is that Gildas never actually gets round to mentioning his main issue. It was presumably explicit to his contemporary readership.

But to my mind, Gildas's point was blatantly made. While other historians have read into his words a rambling preamble - gearing up for the main event - I think it might be the actual crux of the matter.

Maelgwn Gwynedd was consorting with bards, and this was deemed a greater evil than the dual murders and immoral marriages. Why?

What Stopped Maelgwn Gwynedd Being a Monk?

We know this, because St Gildas spelled it out for us. It served as a lament in the build up to the great condemnation.

Image: St GildasOn The Ruin of Britain is the foremost historical document detailing Maelgwn Gwynedd's life, therefore it's worth dissecting precisely what the saint said.

It's obviously written in a great deal of anger, outrage and self-righteous pomp, but nevertheless it's a contemporary primary source. The saint wrote it knowing that not only Maelgwn, but every other literate Briton would probably read it too.

Naming and shaming as an open letter was pretty much the impetus here. It had to contain some recognizable facts, or else it would have been exposed as lies from the start, thus failing in its purpose.

Even though Maelgwn had killed his uncle, in Gildas's mindset all was well once the young man took a vow to become a monk. Repentance in a monastery wiped clean the sins of the past.

So we'll begin there. The blemish-free character of Maelgwn Hir the Monk was such that he resisted all temptation to break his oath to God. Or, as Gildas waffled it:

... having burst through those toils in which such great beasts as thyself were used to become entangled, whether it were love of rule, of gold, or silver, or, what is stronger still, the fancies of thy own heart. And didst thou not, as a dove which cleaves the yielding air with its pinions, and by its rapid turns escapes the furious hawk, safely return to the cells where the saints repose, as a most certain place of refuge?

In other words, Maelgwn was steadfast against wealth, power and romance/carnal desires. Some hawkish influence (friends? family?) was trying to entice him out of the monastery, but nothing that they offered could sway him.

In fact, the devoutly Catholic Maelgwn actively avoided their clutches. He was where he wanted and needed to be. So what changed?

Oh what great rewards in the kingdom of Christ would have been laid up for thy soul against the day of judgment, if that crafty wolf had not caught thee, who of a wolf wast now become a lamb (not much against thine own will) out of the fold of our Lord, and made thee of a lamb, a wolf like unto himself, again? Oh how great a joy would the preservation of thy salvation have been to God the Father of all saints had not the devil, the father of all castaways, as an eagle of monstrous wings and claws, carried thee captive away against all right and reason, to the unhappy band of his children?

Apparently a wolf and an eagle 'abducted' Maelgwn and led him into bad ways. Or sprung him from the monastery anyway, considering that St Gildas is not at all convinced that Maelgwn wasn't an accomplice in his own removal. (Words emboldened by me, not Gildas.)

So who were the 'crafty wolf' and monstrously winged eagle?

Eagle and Wolf Poster by Gary Ampel

The Wolf and the Eagle Behind Maelgwn's Fall from Grace

Just to get it over with - we're almost certainly not talking about a real wolf and eagle.

Usually when St Gildas cited animals, birds and legendary creatures, he was referring to the standards of the individuals in question.

Hence Constantine is called 'the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia', because his tribe had a lion on their shields. Cuneglasse is 'thou bear', as that creature was the emblem of Rhos. And so on.

Therefore the most obvious explanation would be that two individuals, respectively bearing a wolf and an eagle on their banners, busted Maelgwn out of the monastery.

But that doesn't entirely make sense. The only warriors presumably interested in dislodging Maelgwn from his holy caves would be those wishing to install him as their chieftain. It follows that they would be part of the same tribe, and therefore have matching emblems on their shields.

St Gildas mentioned wolves before. When he hurtled through the history of Britain, he referred to the Saxons as being invited 'like wolves into the sheepfold', then later described more 'wolf-cubs' coming to join them.

Maelgwn could technically have been persuaded by Saxons to leave his monastery, but it seems highly unlikely. Particularly when Gildas's earlier references weren't about the standards of any Saxon leader. It was more allegoric. The Pagans were loose amongst the lambs of God.

Gildas also discussed the legend of Britain's foremost Christian martyr St Alban. After the saint performed a miracle en route to his death, his executioner was struck with awe and converted to Christianity. Or, as Gildas put it, 'from a wolf became a lamb'.

It seems to me that, in Gildas's parlance, 'wolf' means Paganism and 'lamb' signifies Christianity.

With this symbolism in mind, it's quite easy to read what the saint is saying about Maelgwn here:

'...who of a wolf wast now become a lamb... out of the fold of our Lord, and made thee of a lamb, a wolf like unto himself, again?'

Maelgwn had been decidedly Pagan. He converted to Christianity, became a monk, then was converted back into Paganism. So there was the wolf, what about the eagle?

Gildas only referred to eagles on one other occasion. Also in his historical section, he had been describing attacks upon the British by Picts and Scotti. Suddenly he switched to a discussion of invaders from beyond the sea - which could possibly still be the Scotti, as they originated in Ireland. They would later over-run Alba renaming it Scotland. These were dismissed merely as 'wolves', who took plunder home, while leaving ruined lives, settlements and crops behind.

Envoys from Britain met with representatives from the recently departed Roman Empire. A legion was sent to help the British, supported by mariners and cavalry. It only happened once, but the Romans won the day. Their cavalry was 'like a flight of eagles'.

That's it. That's the mention. But the context is all wrong. Those eagles had 'compassion' and 'human nature'. Maelgwn's eagle is a monster and a castaway. No more clues in Gildas then.

Fortunately Welsh legend provides us with both an eagle and a wolf as castaways, and they were deposited just up the road.

Books about Celtic Christianity in Maelgwn Gwynedd's Time

He went to school in Llanwit Major, hence I've included that book here too.

Coll ab Collfrewi and the Sow of Dallweir Dallben

Coll was the son of Collfrewi and he worked as a swineherd in Cornwall's Dallwyr Valley. His story became one of the Arthurian legends.

As a child, Maelgwn Hir is said to have studied under St Illtyd at his school in Llantwit Major, Glamorgan. It was half the British chieftains seem to have sent their sons, a kind of early Medieval Eton then.

As an adult monk, Maelgwn appears to have taken his oath and settled down in Llanelltyd. Now a tiny village just north of Dolgellau, in religious terms it was eclipsed in the 12th century by the nearby Cymer Abbey.

I've been amusing myself with the notion (totally unproved and utterly speculative) that St Illtyd only founded this llan to quickly house Maelgwn. Close enough to Gwynedd (and now in it) that he could be ordained and cloistered before he had time to change his mind.

Seeing as most attempts to historically date a real Arthur locate him as a contemporary of Maelgwn Gwynedd, then the young monk must have been perfectly placed to witness this next bit of drama.

The swineherd Coll ap Collfrewi (Loss son of Loser) was stunned at the size of the sow. He looked after the pigs of Dallweir Dallben (Holder Chief Keeper), in the Dallwyr (Catcher) Valley.

The sow was called Henwen (Old White) and it was enormous.

So huge in fact that she worried Arthur, who gathered a war-band to kill her. But Henwen saw them coming and burrowed under the earth, until she came up at Penrhyn Austin and dived into the Bristol Channel.

Her faithful Coll did not let her go alone. He'd held onto her bristles from the outset, and he was still with her as she reached the shores of Aberdarogi, in Gwent-Is-Coed. In her panic, she charged across Wales, dragging the hapless swineherd with her.

Yet part of the reason for her great size was that she was pregnant. In Gwent, she gave birth to three grain and three bees. The former was the best wheat ever known to Britain, and the latter produced its greatest honey.  In Dyfed, she bore barley and a little pig, which went on to sire more. Best barley and pigs ever.  On the Llyn Peninsula, Henwen birthed grains of rye, henceforth the Llyn grows the most wonderful rye.

Then, beneath the slopes opposite (Rhiwgyverthwch), the sow went into labor again. This time delivering a wolf-cub and an eagle. They went to Brynach Wyddel (Irishman of the Hill) of Dinas Affaraon (now Dinas Emrys) and Benwaedd (Great Shout, Loud Cry), Ruler of Arllechwedd (region of Gwynedd from Conwy to Caernafon).

Finally Henwen reached Arfon (of Caernafon fame), where she gave birth to a cat. Coll ap Collfrewi, who had held on all this time, threw the moggy into the Menai Straits, where it swam to Ynys Mon. There the Palug (ap Lugh? Sons of Lugh) brothers found and raised it.

The story doesn't tell what happened to Coll and his sow Henwen from this point on.

But the Cath Palug (Palug's cat) grew to a monstrous size, terrorized the island and consumed nine chieftains. Arthur's right hand man Cai killed it with nine spears piercing its side at Llewon.

Progress of Henwen and Coll ap Collfrewi

M marks the spot where Maelgwn Gwynedd should have been, if this legend described real life. The rest mark the stopping points of the pig.

I do hope that you realized, somewhere along the way, that Henwen wasn't a real sow. Some analysts have concluded that she was a ship, with Coll her captain, bringing exotic goods from afar. Others are modern day Druids, and they have not.

What appears to be happening here - after much nifty cross-referencing with symbolism and references from other Welsh legends - is the progress of a Pagan revival during the time of Arthur.

Coll existed way before this period. He's elsewhere named alongside Celtic Gods like Math ap Mathonwy and Gwydion ap Don. As one of the divine founders of Druidry, he must have made that journey once before, possibly minus Arthur's involvement. Swineherd is a euphemism for Druid.

The sow is the Goddess Cerridwen, well known for her transformations, and who is elsewhere named as the mother of Cath Palug. She can equally be the Muse of Poetry, the Goddess of the Underworld, and a fertility avatar complete with cornucopia. She ticked just about all of those boxes here.

Brynach Wyddel is usually placed in the vicinity of Beddgelert (Grave of Gelert), which is famous for its wolf legend. In the area around are plenty more references too. Towering over all is Dinas Emrys, which is where the story places him. This is the hill now associated with Merlin. It's also where the Red Dragon and the White Dragon battle it out for the Sovereignty of Britain.

Elsewhere Brynach Wyddel is called Eiddilig Gorr (Tiny the Dwarf), a dead giveaway for the God Beli Mawr, aka Irish Balor. In whatever guise, Beli generally turns up when there's a Sovereignty tale to tell. As does the loud shriek apparently emitting from Gwynedd.

Learn More about the Druidic Context for Coll ap Collfrewi

These books tell the story of Coll ap Collfrewi and provide more background on all that I've been writing here. Though the translations above are all my own.

Is the Coll ap Collfrewi Story All About Maelgwn?

I doubt that it was originally, and in its current form Maelgwn Gwynedd is not mentioned at all. Nevertheless, I think there's a possibility it's all about him now.

Let's put this all together. St Gildas referenced the wolf and the eagle luring Maelgwn Hir away from the monastery, shortly before he became chieftain of the Votadini, aka Maelgwn Gwynedd.

A Welsh legend, laced with Pagan symbolism and nominally set within the right time-frame, suggests one of the founding Gods of Druidry held fast to the Goddess Cerridwen, as She spread gifts all over Gwent, Dyfed, Llyn, Eifionydd and finally Gwynedd.

They included a wolf and an eagle, both in Gwynedd.

Meanwhile said Gwynedd is crying out for a chieftain. Literally - Benwaedd, Lord of Arllechwedd - Piercing Cry of Maelgwn's own heartland, coupled with Beli Mawr accepting the wolf in his care.

Is this a good time to point out that Maelgwn translates as Warrior Hound, or Princely Dog (feel free to mix and match the adjectives)? Amongst the canine breeds, the wolf really does reign supreme.

And the eagle is a Druidic totem indicating wisdom, intelligence, the wide overview, keen sight and spiritual truths. It's often used as a stand in for the Druidic faith itself.

There is only one moment, during the proposed Arthurian period, when the throne of Gwynedd is empty. That is between the death of Cadwallon Hir and the ascension of his son Maelgwn Gwynedd. It has long been seen as the impetus for Maelgwn leaving the monastery, but this legend, and Gildas's referencing of the wolf and the eagle in his condemnation, fill in the blanks.

Maelgwn did go home, and he accepted the metaphorical gift of an eagle.  He embraced Druidry. He took as his emblem the Red Dragon, linked so keenly with Dinas Emrys, where the father God Beli held the wolf.

As for the Cath Palug, could that be the rise of Druidism as a minor force to be reckoned with upon Ynys Môn again?  Or a euphemism for Maelgwn and his Bards, who Gildas most definitely thought were caterwauling?

Ynys Môn: Maelgwn's Homeland

Anglesey lies off the Gwynedd coastline of North Wales. Its ancient credentials, as the headquarters for Celtic Druids, lives on in its Christianized landmarks.

Maelgwn's Initiation Hidden in Another Legend?

What happened to the Celtic Gods and Goddesses after coming of Christianity? Some staggered on in fairy tales, others were lost and a few were incorporated.

Books about Y Cath Palug

In truth I've not yet fully mused upon what might be meant by Cath Palug (it could still simply be a real leopard loose on Anglesey). Join in the quest for truths here.

The Sins of Maelgwn Gwynedd According to St Gildas

Gildas may or may not have been alluding to Coll's legend, when he said that the wolf and eagle had Maelgwn in their grasp. But what, or who, did?

The story so far: Maelgwn killed his uncle, but that's ok because he became a monk. He resisted all temptations of wealth, power and sex, but got nabbed by the crafty wolf and monstrously winged eagle.

Over to Gildas:

'And to be short, thy conversion to righteousness gave as great joy to heaven and earth, as now thy detestable return, like a dog to his vomit, breedeth grief and lamentation: which being done, "the members which should have been busily employed, as the armor of justice for the Lord, are now become the armor of iniquity for sin and the devil"...'

I've left the preamble in because, if you've never read Gildas, then you need to see a sample. He goes on for pages like this!  Not here. That's relatively short. But after he finishes listing Maelgwn's specific crimes, the rest of the sermon is like the above.

Finally St Gildas gets to the main charge against Maelgwn Gwynedd. This is what he prioritizes above everything else. Adultery with Sannon; the murder of Nesta and Sannon's husband; marrying again, or at all, when he's taken vows as a monk; none of that takes precedence over this:

'... for now thou dost not listen to the praises of God sweetly sounded forth by the pleasant voices of Christ's soldiers, nor the instruments of ecclesiastical melody, but thy own praises (which are nothing) rung out after the fashion of the giddy rout of Bacchus by the mouths of thy villainous followers, accompanied with lies and malice, to the utter destruction of the neighbor, so that the vessel prepared for the service of God, is now turned to a vessel of dirt, and what was once reputed worthy of heavenly honor, is now cast as it deserves into the bottomless pit of hell.'

In short, Maelgwn's got Bards in his court. The saint doesn't like them, because they flatter Maelgwn, thus encouraging him in this behavior.

And in case you found that a little ambiguous, St Gildas hammers home the point later on:

'The harp, and the lyre, and the tabor, and the pipe, and wine are in your banquets, and the work of our Lord ye respect not, neither yet consider ye the works of his hands.'

And again:

'"They shall lament all of them who now in heart rejoice, the delight of the timbrels hath ceased, the sound of the gladsome shall be silent, the sweetness of the harp shall be hushed, they shall not with singing drink their wine, bitter shall be the potion to the drinkers thereof.'

And again:

'Their cow hath not been abortive, their great with young hath brought forth her young ones and not missed, but remaineth as an eternal breed; and their children rejoice, and taking the psaltery and harp, have finished their days in felicity and fallen peaceably asleep down into hell."'

And again:

'Let not, therefore, our wicked transgressors (while they do not openly sacrifice to the gods of the Gentiles) flatter themselves that they are not idolaters, whilst they tread like swine the most precious pearls of Christ under their feet.'

And again:

'Receive ye the true and public avoucher, witnessing, without any falsehood or flattery, the reward of your good and evil, not like the soothing humble lips of your parasites, which whisper poisons into your ears.'

I'm not going to go on, though Gildas did. The above are merely a selection from many pages worth of attacking Maelgwn on the issue, whilst also broadening the scope to condemn Britain's priests for letting it happen.

The matter of harps in Maelgwn's court was clearly of some concern. But why?

Not mentioned, but implicit, is that Bards came from the Druid religion. They constituted its whole second branch. They sing about the old ways, British legends and history. They're passing on the British oral tradition, instead of devoting their lives to singing praise to God. We know this because the Bards are precisely the people who retained that information, so that we can access it today.

Maelgwn did listen. He instructed his Bards that they had to perform a Christian song before they launched into their main repertoire. We know this because Taliesin whinged about how universally bad at it they were.

Presumably by then even God wanted to kick Gildas hard for causing Him to have to sit through it!

Welsh National Eisteddfod: Song for the Bard

Gildas's condemnation was so utterly unsuccessful that we're still having Eisteddfodiau today, populated by Druids and Bards. Singer Shan Cothi is one.

More Harp Music from the Welsh Bards

If you are a Christian, please don't listen to any of these before you've read everything that St Gildas has to say. Then you'll deserve to hear the music.

So was Maelgwn as Pagan as Gildas seems to imply?

In the fifth and final part of this Maelgwn Gwynedd series, we'll explore the evidence from his clashes with the Welsh bards. Starting here by my drawing your attention to there being bards present to actually provide it. Their tradition being one of the three branches of Druidism and all.

Check back soon to read it.

The Maelgwn Gwynedd Series on Wizzley

Occasionally a name leaps out of the annals of history with such force, that you just have to run with it. Maelgwn, ruler of Gwynedd, tested the patience of two saints.
In the tumultuous, blood-thirsty Age of Arthur, Maelgwn Hir still stood out as the wild boy of the Celtic nobility. Then, as Maelgwn Gwynedd, he rose to power.
Maelgwn the Great, Pendragon of Gwynedd, was possibly THE most powerful ruler in 6th century Celtic Britain. Only priests and bards dared rile him, and they did.
Updated: 06/02/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/10/2014

I think I've ended every single Maelgwn article so far with the next one will be the final installment. Then I find more and more stories about him. That's the upside of bringing so many bards into your court, they all write songs name-checking you!

Ember on 05/10/2014

Eh, hem "In the fifth and final part of this Maelgwn Gwynedd series" ... Is this a 'for now' sort of thing, or am I meant to believe you here? :| (And also not including the relating side articles). Anyways, am excited for it!

JoHarrington on 05/10/2014

Do I get a prize? :)

frankbeswick on 05/10/2014

Three times: so your karma is paid up!

JoHarrington on 05/10/2014

I reckon those of us who've read Gildas from start to finish most definitely deserve the harp music. I read him for Uni back in the early 90s and promised I'd never do that to myself again. I've read him start to finish THREE TIMES for these articles. Wizzley is absolutely not paying me enough for that.

You can have an exemption. Anyone who's already been there don't need to trigger their trauma again. Enjoy the music!

frankbeswick on 05/10/2014

I have a collection of cds of Celtic harp music, [mainly Scots and Irish] but now you have shown me some that I have not heard before, so thanks.The harp is my favourite instrument, as you might have guessed. I know that you want Christians to read [suffer] Gildas ere they listen to the cds, but I've been suffering him for years, so do I get an exemption?

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