First Branch of the Mabinogi: Pwyll Pendifig Dyfed
Pwyll Prince of Dyfed recounts a chilling sequence of tales about a legendary leader of the ancient past and his adventures with the gods, setting the stage for an epic literary work known as the Mabinogion.
Written down in the Red Book of Rhydderch (around 1350) and the White Book of Hergest (1382), many of the characters mentioned within likely descend from central figures of Welsh mythology as remnants of a Pagan religion. Celtic bards, ovates, and druids kept these stories alive through oral tradition during Roman occupation and English invasion until medieval scribes wrote them down. By then, many of their elements changed in a millennia-long game of telephone. Considering how these books were composed by Christian monks, much of what remained from mythological sources was buried under euphemisms.
Although first transcribed during the so-called Middle Ages, these works describe a time when Britain still had a Celtic King before the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invasions. Among the various English translations, perhaps the most poetic and well-known remains the Victorian-era perspective of Lady Charlotte Guest. Oxford University Press released a more accurate translation by Sioned Davies in 2007.
Arawn, King of Annwn
In the opening scene, Pwyll and his companions go off hunting in the wilderness where they encounter Arawn, King of the Otherworld, along with his spectral white hounds. After their dogs chase away the other pack and start feeding on a fallen stag, Arawn takes offense and demands retribution from the prince with a life-changing proposition. For the next year, they would swap bodies so that Pwyll could defeat his enemy Hafgan back in the realm of Annwn (or Annwfn, meaning the In-world). In return, Arawn would look after the seven cantrefs of Dyfed with wisdom and respect.
For pronunciation of these names and more insight into their meaning, listen to native Welsh speakers like the brilliant swynraig Mhara Starling.
Over the following months, nobody suspected the two had swapped places, even though both refused to sleep with their wives. On the scheduled date, Pwyll followed the instructions given by Arawn to kill Hafgan with only a single strike. When the prince returned home to Dyfed, his nobles all described a prosperous reign and Pwyll revealed the wondrous truth about the last year to his companions.
Given his association with stags and hunting, Arawn likely originates from the Celtic deity known as Cernunnos who lives on through legends such as Herne the Hunter. As depicted on the pre-Christian Gundestrup Cauldron, the horned god watches over creatures the wild. With an identity somewhere between human and animal, Cernunnos represents the potential for magical transformation and crossing between worlds. Arawn and Pwyll guide readers of the Mabinogi to a timeless land of fairies, magick, adventure, and sorrow. Despite their human qualities, many of these characters have divine relatives in the mythologies of other Celtic people beyond the realm of Welsh literature.
Rhiannon, Divine Queen
Each section of the First Branch sprouts into the next, as the following episode recounts the events before and after the marriage of Pwyll and Rhiannon.
Pwyll heard that if he were to wait on the fabled mound of Gorsedd Arberth, he would either leave injured or in awe. One day he went up that hill with his companions, until the otherworldly figure of Rhiannon rode through astride a white horse. She passed by without giving them any attention, moving so fast that none of them could follow. Pwyll chased after her, asking if she would stop, and after their conversation she came back to live with him in Dyfed.
Linguists speculate that Rhiannon derives from the Brittonic name Rigantona (Divine Queen). Given her association with horses, many people connect Rhiannon with the Gaulish goddess Epona whose worship spread across Roman society before the rise of Christianity. Plate F of the Gundestrup Cauldron might depict another version of the same deity wearing a torc and interacting with birds, also symbolic of Rhiannon, despite the absence of equine imagery.
Made well over a thousand years before the first transcriptions of the Mabinogi, the Gundestrup Cauldron shows a mix of Celtic mythology and other cultures, possibly made on the Balkan Peninsula. Around the same time, Romans had invaded the Celtic heartland from the Alpine Mountains into Gaul and forever changed the identities of the people living there. Cauldrons appear frequently in Celtic myths and Welsh literature, especially in association with Cerridwen from the Tale of Taliesin.
As with Arawn, Rhiannon almost certainly descends from a lost Welsh pantheon with animist correspondences; however, deer and horses convey much different meanings to people. Both animals are native to Britain where the Mabinogion takes place, but deer typically symbolize the wilderness whereas horses carry their human riders across realms. Neither of them oppose the other, but they each embody different aspects of Pagan mythology.
Another chapter in the meandering plot bursts open as the conniving Gwawl fab Clud (Gwawl son of Clud) shows up at the court of Pwyll and Rhiannon. Gwawl took advantage of the prince and his kind manners by tricking him into giving away Rhiannon. Pwyll was stupefied and offended, but Rhiannon left with a plan of her own. Before her departure, she gave the prince a magical bag that can never be filled completely, and instructed him to return with it after one year so that Gwawl could trap himself inside. For another twelve months the prince waited, returning to his court in disguise with the sac. Gwawl became irritated when Pwyll took all the food from the banquet, so Pwyll told him the only way the bag can be filled is if Gwawl jumped inside. So he did, and Pwyll reclaimed his place alongside Rhiannon.
Stevie Nicks singing "Rhiannon" with Fleetwood Mac, from their 1975 self-titled album.
Pryderi, son of Pyll
After some time, Rhiannon gave birth to a child. In a gruesome series of events, her maidservants somehow lost the divine baby; their disturbing solution was to kill a puppy and smear its blood over Rhiannon while she slept to frame her for murder. For seven years she lived in psychological torment as everyone around her, except Pwyll, assumed she ate her own child. In reality, another couple who found the yet unnamed child raised it as their own. Teyrnon Twrf Lliant and his wife called the child Gwri Wallt Euryn. Given his divine ancestry, the changeling grew unnaturally fast until the day when Teyrnon realized how much his adopted child resembled the grieving Rhiannon and her husband Pwyll. Upon his return home, Rhiannon finally names her son Pryderi (meaning Loss), heir to the Prince of Dyfed.
Unlike the happily ever after endings in more recent fairy tales, the First Branch of the Mabinogi concludes with loose threads and tragedy. Rhiannon and Pwyll both appear in other sections of the Mabinogion, but Arawn acts like a psychopomp at the beginning to lead the storyteller and the audience into a realm of forgotten gods.