The First Branch, or The Mabinogi of Pwyll is set in Dyfed, the southwestern part of Wales, an area which was felt to have the strongest connection with the magical underworld known as Annwn (pronounced ‘Annoon’ or ‘Annooven’). In the First Branch, these connections are affirmed and explored, as is the connection of that area with Rhiannon ‘The Great Queen’ – a semi-divine figure who might be seen as a composite medieval recollection of two Gallo-Brittonic goddess, Matrona and Epona respectively. The hero of this branch, Pwyll Pendevic Dyfed, undergoes a series of magical trials before emerging as the ‘Head of Annwfn’. After this he becomes the consort of the consort of the Great Queen, before the latter gives birth to the hero Pryderi. The final section of the Branch sees the birth of their child, the boy Pryderi. Pryderi disappears on the night of his birth, and the nurses-maids responsible for his care panic and accuse his mother Rhiannon of killing and cannibalising the infant. The punishment endured by the innocent Rhiannon, the rediscovery of the boy at the house of Teyrnon Twryf Lliant, and his eventual restoration to the court at Dyfed represent the main stages of this final section, which is concluded with a short account of the youth and early career of Pryderi. This Branch, like all the others in the Mabinogi, draws on a mixture of pagan mystery tale and traditional tribal history, all of which will be considered below. After this, we will consider how this story fits into the wider schema of the Mabinogi – including the dynastic-political significance it would have carried for its medieval audience.
It was W. J. Gruffydd who first proposed that the second and third sections of the First Branch represented a medieval recollection of the sacred stories of Maponus and Matronai. Eric P. Hamp developed this theory further by suggesting that these sacred stories represented the core of the Mabinogi tradition as a whole.ii Maponus ‘The Divine Son’ and Matrona ‘The Divine Mother’ were Gallo-Brittonic deities the memory of whom survives in various forms on both sides of the channel. Matrona gives her name to the great river Marne, as well as a number of place names in Wales and Cornwall (Madrun, Garth Madrun etc.), where we occasionally find memories of her fecund, maternal persona preserved in local landscape lore.iii The name of Maponus is preserved in the name of a well in the Rhône region of southeast France, as well as in numerous place names in the northwest of England and the Scottish borders, where a popular cult of the deity seems to have thrived in the Romano-British era. More tentative speculation links him to the Irish Mac Óc, another son of riverine goddess, who (like his Welsh counterpart Mabon) disappeared on the third night after his birth.
Maponus and Matrona, then, belong to that handful of pan-Celtic divinities who seem to have transcended local, tribal boundaries and enjoyed widespread recognition throughout the Gallo-Brittonic and Gaelic world. Despite this fact, there is little we can say for certain about the cults or sacred tales associated with either Maponus or Matrona. Matrona might be identified with the Matres or Matronae, groups of mother goddesses (usually a trio) who were well represented in Gallo-Roman iconography, with a particularly strong presence in the Rhine Valley area. Matrona is clearly remembered in Welsh tradition as Modron daughter of Afallwch, the supernatural mother of Owain son Urien of Rheged (she is represented in one late folktale in the role of the ‘Washer by the Ford’ – a somewhat sinister otherworld figure). Maponus was remembered as Mabon vab Modron, and some of the early bardic poetry would appear to suggest had a magical relationship between this being and with the rulers of the House of Rheged (in whose territory, significantly, the Romano-British cult of Apollo-Maponus seems to have been centred).
Maponus also appears in a number of Continental Arthurian sources, in which he is represented as a powerful and dangerous otherworld being. In these stories he typically resides in a glass castle or a similar kind of enchanted space, abiding in a kind of ageless temporal stasis as a prisoner-cum-gaoler. (We will be considering the case of Chrétien’s Mabonagrain in his castle of air in the discussion of Geraint ap Erbrin further on). This theme of incarceration also seems to have been remembered in the Welsh triadic tradition, where Mabon vab Modron is numbered as one of ‘the Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain’. This is elaborated upon in the tale of Culwch ac Olwen, where rescuing Mabon from his underground prison becomes one of the anoethau or ‘difficult things’ listed for the heroes to accomplish. By consulting a series of ancient animals, they eventually locate his prison in a rocky chamber under the walls of Gloucester, accessible only via a tidal river. It is revealed that he has been in this miserable confinement since the earliest days, having been taken from his mother ‘when he was just three nights old’. This is a significant detail, which allows us to make with rather more certainty the connection between the mythology of Maponus and the content of the medieval Mabinogi.
There is a group of names that appear in Medieval Welsh sources which appear to represent a local variant of the cult of Maponus. Gwri Wallt Euryn ‘Gwri Golden Hair’ is the name given to Pryderi when he is discovered, as a newly born infant, at the household of Teyrnon. According to Gruffydd,iv this Gwri is to be identified with another mythic figure from the bardic literature of Wales: Gweir (or Gware) ap Geiryoed, another one of the ‘Exalted Prisoners’ listed in 52nd triad alongside Mabon and Llŷr Lledieth (about whom we will say more in due course). This Gweir also gets significant mention in one of the key texts from the Book of Taliesin, the eleventh century Preiddeu Annwfn ‘The Booty of Annwfn’, where he is described as enduring a magical imprisonment ‘through the epistle [ebostl] of Pwyll and Pryderi’. Whatever the precise interpretation of this rather esoteric formulation, it remains a strong possibility that Gwair/Gware/Gwri Wallt Euryn represents, as Gruffydd suggests, a local by-name for the divine Maponus, with an emphasis on his role as the Magical Prisoner.
The part of Matrona, the bereft mother of Maponus, is played in the First Branch by Rhiannon, the main heroine of the First and Third Branches. Her name *Rigantona means ‘The Great Queen’, which may have been one of the many local titles of the Gallo-Brittonic mother goddess. The etymology of this name strongly suggests a link with *Tigernos, ‘The Great Lord’, who appears in the First Branch as the Gwentian nobleman Teyrnon Twryf Lliant who, as we have seen, may have once been a god in his own right. These connections led Gruffydd and others to reconstruct various theoretical genealogies of the ‘original’ family Maponus. Despite these efforts, we will probably never know any more than the broadest details of the pre-Christian component of these medieval traditions: whether Gwri and Maponus were originally entirely separate figures, related members from the same family of divinities, or merely by-names of the same original god-form, is not a question we are equipped to answer on the basis of the available evidence.
The picture is complicated further by the fact that Rhiannon, in the First Branch in particular, displays significant equine affinities, not least in her extraordinary ritual penance discussed in the previous section. This has led W. J. Gruffydd and a number of other scholars to suspect the influence of another well-attested Gallo-Brittonic cult: that of the horse goddess Epona. Epona had a widespread following in ancient times, not just in the Gallo-Brittonic world but throughout the Roman Empire as a whole. Shrines to her have been found as far apart as Hadrien’s Wall and Macedonia, and was considered the patron goddess of the Caballari, the (predominantly Celtic) horse-borne element in the Roman army. We do not know the details of Epona’s cult legend, but her mysterious appearance on the plain beside the hill of Arberth, ‘riding at a leisurely pace’ recalls the iconography of Epona in Gallo-Roman art – where she is characteristically represented riding side-saddle on a horse in the ambling passant posture. Her concern for the well-being of Pwyll’s horse (not a characteristic medieval sympathy) may reflect the traditional protective sphere of Rhiannon in her role of the equine goddess.
Some scholars have pointed to parallels with the Irish traditional tales of the ‘Lady of the Horse’. Notable among these is the tale of Mesca Ulaid ‘The Birth Pangs of Ulster’, in which the arrival of a mysterious female at the household of a rather foolish Ulster farmer eventually leads to a curse being placed on the entire tribe, as a result of their mistreatment of this otherworldly guest. A notable episode in this tales sees the otherworld visitor forced, like Rhiannon, to play the part of a horse – this time running alongside actual horses in a race at a country fair. A further connection has also been made to the eponymous heroine of the Old Irish tale Tochmarc Étain ‘The Wooing of Étain’. The full name of this character is Etain Echraide ‘Etain the Horserider’, suggests a possible link to the cult of Epona.
Both of these Irish stories also show signs of the influence of the mythology of the ‘faery bride’ (a well-known scenario in Welsh and Irish legend), which also strongly informs the role Rhiannon plays in the second section of the First Branch. In short, this is the story of a mysterious female who suddenly appears in the life of the hero one day (in some versions, after emerging from a lake or some other otherworld location). She initiates a relationship with the mortal hero, and eventually becomes his wife. Her presence in the house brings considerable good fortune (which sometimes takes the form of faery cattle joining the hero’s herds). The hero, however, is specifically constrained from certain actions (for example, touching her with any metal object). These taboos are inevitably broken and the story usually ends with the bride departing, taking her wealth away with her as she does so, or leaving some misfortune on her erstwhile hosts.
Not all of these elements are represented in the story of Rhiannon, but the influence of this tradition is certainly noticeable in the second and third sections of the First Branch. One occasional sub-plot in the faerie bride story involves jealousy and/or suspicion towards the faery bride from certain members of the hero’s community. We see clear evidence of this in the final section, when Rhiannon is accused of cannibalistic infanticide (the archetypal crime of the outcast Other). The ‘love triangle’ variant of the Faery Bride tale, in which the hero must deal with jealous rivals from the otherworld, also features strongly in the middle section of the Branch – in which Pwyll and Rhiannon conspire to outmanoeuvre Gwawl, Rhiannon’s unwanted suitor.
Otherworld relationships of another kind feature of the first section of this Branch, in which the hero Pwyll changes places with Arawn, a king from the faery underworld of Annwfn. Again, this taps into another traditional scenario from Celtic faery lore – in which the hero is persuaded (often by magic or trickery) to spend a period of time in the Otherworld, to satisfy the desire of an amorous faery mistress and/or to lend support to the faery king in a feat of arms. In the case of Pwyll, the influence of this particular fantasy structure is apparent, but its sexual elements are decisively repressed, and indeed replaced altogether with a rather pious feudal tale of chastity and brotherhood. (Here, the influence of the Anglo-Norman tale of Ami et Amile is very clearly apparent – reminding us that the Mabinogi tradition remained open to contemporary as well as traditional influences)v.
On a tribal-historic level, the aim of the First Branch seems to have been to explain (and reinforce) the affinity that was felt to exist between Dyfed and the South of Wales with what we might call the ‘Indigenous Underworld’. This was a mysterious underground realm, inhabited by a magical race usually known as the Sídhe in Ireland. (In Wales they were known under a variety of names including Tylwyth Teg ‘The Beautiful Folk’). An implicit association existed between these mound-dwelling people and the pre-Celtic population of the islands, which been reinforced by the idea that tumuli and other megalithic earthworks were traditionally held to be the portals to their otherworld domains. For a variety of geo-historic reasons (too complex to explore in any detail here) there was also a tendency to associate these peoples with the southern territories of Mumu (Munster) in Ireland, and Dyfed, Gwent, Somerset and Cornwall on the other side of Irish Sea. The First Branch seeks to explain these regional links between ‘the Ancient South’ and the Indigenous Underworld through the standard tribal-historic tracing these back to the activities (alliances, liaisons, conflicts and resolutions) of a certain key ancestral figures.
It should be mentioned at this point that ‘Pwyll Pendevic Dyfed’ does not appear to have been a particularly well-established figure in the Celtic tradition as such. An older version of the story, found in the Triadic corpus, has him cast in the role of Pwyll Pen Annwfn, an otherworld king of a similar type to Arawn. In this version it is Pendaran Dyfed, rather than Pwyll, who plays the role of the ‘mortal’ king, adopting the son of the otherworld king (named as Pryderi) as a fosterling, and thus performing the crucial tribal-historic role of forging the links between the Ancient South and the Indigenous Underworld. The names of ‘Pwyll’ and ‘Pryderi’ also appear in the Book of Taliesin (significantly perhaps) in connection with the imprisonment of Gweir. It was perhaps around this time that these rather emblematic figures (Pwyll = lit. ‘wisdom’; Pryderi = ‘anxiety’) first became grafted onto the mythology of Maponus, the Horse Goddess and the Indigenous Underworld. As we have mentioned above, the names and surface details of this tradition appear to have fluctuated considerably over the generations, even if the underlying roles and character-types remained much the same.
In the broader scheme of the Mabinogi (or at least the version which has survived to us today) the First Branch introduces a number of themes which play themselves out in the Branches to come. Notably, the alliance with Annwfn resurfaces fatefully in the Fourth Branch, leading indirectly to a war with the north and the death of Pryderi. The ill-treatment of Rhiannon is echoed in Second Branch with the abuse of the British princess Branwen in the household of her Irish husband. The ‘badger-in-the-bag’ incident – by which Pwyll and Rhiannon dispose of an unwanted rival – returns to haunt the House of Dyfed in the Third Branch. Even the circumstances of Pwyll’s chivalrous act of sexual restraint towards Arawn’s wife are replayed in the Fourth Branch, with the desire in this case being indulged rather than repressed. The sense in the First Branch is one of knots being tied, moral debts being accumulated, emotional energy being held back and stored. In the Branches to come, this energy is unleashed in various ways – often violently and with destructive consequences. But, in mimetic imitation of the organic patterns of nature, with this destruction comes the promise of new growth. The Fourth Branch ends as the First Branch begins – with an unmarried king at the start of his career. A new cycle is about to commence.
As with the other three Branches, one gets the distinct impression that these stories were not merely being used by their medieval redactors as inert repositories of inherited lore, but also as a means to assert a particular view of contemporary political events. Significantly, the Branch concludes with Pwyll’s son Pryderi establishing dominion over the entirety of the south of Wales – the area known as Deheubarth in the central middle ages. Controlling and unifying this fractious region had been a geo-political goal of Welsh princes from the time of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (d.1064), all of whom had tried, with varying degrees of success, to bring the petty chieftains of the South to heel. It was therefore not without significance that the concept of a unified southern kingdom was shown in the Mabinogi to have mythic and tribal-historic precedent. Pwyll’s initial alliance with Arawn, and subsequent assumption of the mystical role of Pen Annwfn hints at an esoteric sovereignty of the Ancient South (with its roots in the Indigenous Underworld) the legitimate inheritors of which were the kings of Dyfed. Such a paradigm, we might observe, would have suited the agenda of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who would have based his claim to the region on his descent from Hywel Dda, king of Dyfed and Ceredigion – in relation to whom Pwyll might be seen as a significant antitype. Likewise, it is emphasised in the First Branch, that Teyrnon of Gwent ‘had once been a vassal (gwr)’ of Pwyll’s – a pseudo-historical fact which would have also suited the hegemonic agenda Gruffydd and the other dynasts of the House of Rhodri Mawr. All of this would suggest that elements of the First Branch in its present form may have been taking shape in the mid-eleventh century, or even earlier still during the tenth-century reign of Hywel Dda.
A complete, annotated translation of the Mabinogi of Pwyll is available at http://www.mabinogi.net/pwyll.htm.
The inter-related concepts of the Indigenous Underworld and the Ancient South have been discussed more fully in Chapter 2 of my study of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. They represent a cumulative geo-historical complex which came to defined the 'aura' of the native southern dynasties of South Wales (the Ancient South), through association with the myth of an 'indigenous underworld' (a feature of insular Celtic mythology which may owe its origin to various demographic circumstances in the prehistoric past. I have discussed the possibility that memories of the Roman civilisation may have contributed to the complex of the Ancient South, and helped define the exotic character of Annwfn in the bardic imagination.
This theory is discussed in considerable detail in Gruffydd, W. J. Rhiannon: An Inquiry into the Origins of the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1953)
ii Hamp, Eric. ‘Mabinogi and Archaism’ Celtica 23 (1999) pp. 107 ff.
iii The parish of Madron in the granity hills of Cornwall is distinguished by an enormous circular standing stone with a hole at its centre. From what we can ascertain of the iconography of megalithic monuments, this stone would seem to represent the female genitalia: an appropriate icon of the Great Goddess in her reproductive aspect. Up until fairly recently, there was a local custom that would see a naked child pass nine times through this stone – ostensibly as a cure for scrofula, but more likely as a remnant of a pre-Christian ritual designed to stimulate the energies of this powerful fertility symbol.
iv Gruffydd (1953) p.13 ff.
v Hemming, Jessica. ‘Ami and Amile: A Partial Source for Pwyll’ Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 32, Winter 1996, p.57 ff.