The Spoils of Annwn

The “Spoils of Annwn” is a cryptic early mediaeval Welsh poem of sixty lines, apparently written by the poet Taliesin. The poem is reproduced below, but as it is such a complex work, allowing for so many different interpretations, it is well worth reading this text and translation by Sarah Higley.

Some of us believe that this poem mentions Stonehenge, so this static page, with provision for contributions, is for an examination and discussion of the likelihood of Stonehenge appearing in a 6th century poem, many centuries before the first apparent mention of the ruins in a deed of 937. Anyone interested in this subject might also be interested in reading the various posts on the another cryptic mediaeval poem The Ruin, but this page is for an enquiry into “The Spoils of Annwn”, below.

I praise the Lord, Prince of the realm and King!
His rule extends across the whole wide world.
Gweir was penned beneath the fortress mound,
As tell the tales of Pwyll and Pryderi.
None before him passed into the prison,
With a heavy chain a faithful servant bound.
Bitter before the spoils of Annwn he sang,
And until Doomsday lasts our bardic prayer.
Three companies of warriors we went in –
Seven alone rose up from Elfs-castle.

Song rang out, honoring me with praise
In the four-peaked fortress, four its mighty turnings.
My verses from within the cauldron uttered,
By breath of maidens ninefold they were kindled.
The lord of Annwn’s cauldron: how is it made?
A dark ridge on its border, crusted pearls.
Its fate is not to boil the meat of cowards,
The deadly flashing sword is lifted to it,
And in the hand of the Leaper it was left.
Before the doors of hell the lamps were burning.
When we went in with Arthur, blinding trouble –
Seven alone rose up from Meads-castle.

Song rang out, honoring me with praise
In the four-peaked fortress, isle of the strong door.
Flowing water and shining jet are mingled,
They drink the sparkling wine before their followers.
Three companies of warriors sailed the sea –
Seven alone rose up from Hard-castle.

I do not deserve to be put with poetasters:
Beyond the fort they missed the valor of Arthur.
Six thousand men stood on the glass wall,
Their sentinel was difficult to speak with.
Three companies of warriors went with Arthur –
Seven alone rose up from Guts-castle.

I do not deserve the mean men, slack their shield straps.
They do not know the day of our creation,
Nor what time of day the One was born.
Who made him who strayed far from Defwy meadows?
They do not know the ox, his thick headband,
Full sevenscore links upon his chained collar.
And when we went with Arthur, woeful visit –
Seven alone rose up from Gods-castle.

I do not deserve these men — slack their will.
They do not know which day the chief was sired,
Nor what hour of day the lord was born,
Nor what beasts are kept, their heads of silver.
When we went in with Arthur, sorrowful strife –
Seven alone rose up from Box-castle.

Monks are a pack together — a choir of dogs –
They shrink away from meeting the lords who know:
Is there one course of wind? One course of water?
Is there one spark of fire? Of fierce tumult?

Monks are a pack together, like youngling wolves
They shrink away from meeting the lords who know:
They do not know when night and dawn divide,
Nor wind, what is its course, nor what its onrush,
What place it ravages, nor where it strikes.
The grave of the saint vanishes, grave and ground.
I praise the Lord, great Prince of the whole world,
And so I am not sad, for Christ endows me.

{ 76 comments… read them below or add one }

Dennis April 16, 2010 at 12:28 am

I’ll have to wait to hear from Robin about the significance of Belin, but it looks very interesting, certainly, especially in light of our discussions of the Belgae.

Otherwise, I found a Pelican book from 1945 in my study a few days ago, called “Britain under the Romans” by S. E. Wimbolt. Of course it’s out of date, but there’s some fascinating material there, not least the apology at the start for large numbers of the book not being printed due to wartime shortages of materials.

A quote at the end of the ‘Agriculture’ chapter caught my eye, which is why I asked Aynslie about dogs…”divisa Britannia mittit veloces, nostrique orbis venatibus aptos”. This tranlsates as something like “Distant Britain sends us swift hounds, which are useful for hunting in our region..”

This, I think, was written by Marcus Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus, who lived in the 3rd century, so I just mention it for what it’s worth.

JohnWitts April 16, 2010 at 5:44 am

With regard to Stonehenge I found this interesting:

Michael Senior “Myths of Britain” (pp 45-6) says ” Pentre Ifan (chamber tomb) lies on the North slopes of the foothills of the Presili Mountains and here again in the area where we have found Pwyll and Rhiannon and the Otherworld breaking through into their rural lives, we find a direct contact with the earliest religious forms in Britain”

He explains the connection as the bluestones sourced from Preseli and taken to Stonehenge. He goes on “it seems like a capture, or at least a transference, of sacredness: a temple already in existence near to its source of material being removed wholesale and incorporated in another one. If that were so, the Presili mountains must have been of unrivalled holiness to the extent that stones themselves were sacred”.

Dennis April 16, 2010 at 1:33 pm

A few months ago, I asked people for their impressions of Preseli and there was a good reason for this. Once again, when I get the time, I’ll write and publish a detailed post explaining precisely why I asked, but in the meantime, the quote and reference you’ve kindly supplied is very interesting and possibly relevant.

Robin Melrose April 17, 2010 at 4:29 am

Hi Dennis and John,

I suppose Belin is Belenus, whose name may be related to Belgae if they both have something to do with ‘light’ (Belenus may also mean ‘henbane’). I’m not sure about ‘The British Kymry’ – it quotes figures like Hu Gadarn, a creation of the celebrated literary forger Iolo Morganwg, whose work makes the study of Welsh mythology rather frustrating at times.

Cheers,
Robin

Aynslie April 17, 2010 at 2:50 pm

I agree with Robin regarding anything by Iolo Morganwg. His works are highly suspect. I view him somewhat like Tolkien, creating a national mythology that didn’t exist. Unfortunately, whereas everyone knows Tolkien’s was pure fiction (and intended that way), there are people who think Morganwg’s creations are legitimately ancient.

JohnWitts April 18, 2010 at 11:04 am

The case against Iolo Morganwg is not as cut and dried as suggested.

“Brian Davies a qualified historian and librarian has managed to track down some of the original documents Iolo is accused of forging. Some of them are now in Cardiff library itself, some in Oxford and others are still in private hands. There can be no question of forgery now he has verified that these documents were written centuries before Iolo lived”

Holy Kingdom (Adrian Gilbert – Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett) pp 71

I believe this is the same Brian Davies: Curator of Pontypridd Cultural and Heritage Centre) http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/southeast/sites/pontypridd/pages/bridge.shtml

Aynslie April 18, 2010 at 1:00 pm

If the verification of Iolo’s works turns out to be valid, I couldn’t be happier. Now if he (or someone) could just do the same for Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Dennis April 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm

I think you might be in for a very pleasant surprise, Aynslie – it probably won’t happen overnight, but I’m sure there are people ‘out there’ with a lot more to tell you about Iolo and Geoffrey. When I get the time, I’ll make my contribution, but I’m still tied up.

JohnWitts April 22, 2010 at 9:00 pm

I have been fascinated by the many internet sites dealing with this, although so far none have directly connected Stonehenge with the poem. It does seem the Isle of Lundy is the favourite for the location, although I recall that it was mentioned as one aspect of a triangle of which Stonehenge was another?

Aynslie April 23, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Another not-so-direct connection between Annwn and Stonehenge from The Mabinogion: Pwyll, Head of Annwn, when he had been married to Rhiannon for some time but had failed to produce an heir, was summoned by his nobles to meeting where they pressured him to replace his wife. The meeting place? Preseli.

JohnWitts April 24, 2010 at 3:31 pm

And another is that Lundy got mentioned in Tanith II http://www.eternalidol.com/?p=2761 whilst that thread made reference to this site http://cura.free.fr/decem/06heath.html.

Angie Lake April 26, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I was born in N.Devon, virtually on that E – W line from Stonehenge to Lundy. The island was visible from most nearby areas, as Braunton was [is!] only 3 miles from the Atlantic coast. We used to say, “If you can see Lundy clearly it is going to rain” .. and.. “If you can’t see Lundy it is already raining!” ;-)
I still visit the area regularly from my home in S.Devon and, after all these years, still wonder what it is like on the island!

Dennis May 27, 2010 at 12:03 am

I don’t have time right now to do it justice, but in Robert Graves’ superb book The White Goddess, which I wrote about briefly in a recent post, he looks into The Spoils of Annwn in great detail. I’m currently only one-third of the way through the book, so there may well be more to come.

Aynslie July 25, 2010 at 1:57 pm

After reading all the news about the newest henge discovery and the speculation that more “sister” henges are out there just waiting to be found, it’s tantalizing to wonder if, in the end, there will end up being a total of 6 significant satellite henges discovered in the SH vicinity.

Al July 25, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Dennis: don’t bother with The White Goddess, seriously. You’re just muddying the waters by reading it.

this is a better translation than above (with decent notes)

http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/annwn.htm

of course, better off getting Marged Haycocks “Legendary Poems From The Book Of Talisesin”.

Aynslie July 25, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Al’s right. That is by far the superior translation, and you can even listen to how beautiful it sounds.

Al July 29, 2010 at 5:45 pm

I don’t think it’s lots of castles either, just the one. The poem is a kind of..erm… ok, modernish (and silly) version:

“Three coachloads went to the match
in the Stadium of Wembley.

There was much drunkenness and
only seven returned
from the stadium of intoxication

Some took off their clothes and ran on the pitch
only seven returned
from that stadium of stupidity

We didn’t win the match anyway
only seven returned
from that stadium of loss

We all hid our scarves on the way out
only seven returned
from that stadium of shame

We could only find one bus
so only seven returned
from that stadium of confusion

etc etc

get the idea? :)

Dennis July 29, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Yes, Al, I certainly get the idea and I think it’s a very good one, as well! Thanks for sending it in, and when I get some time (scratched record) I’ll get back to you concerning Mr Graves the The White Goddess.

Very good poem and very good idea, in my opinion – thanks again!

Al July 30, 2010 at 8:18 am

heheh no rush, time is money.

The key to interpretation is in how you approach it. You can’t approach it with an “English” mindset. Take Beowulf – that is an “English” poem, in that it is very descriptive – literal – a novel, in modern context. It’s very much in the Germanic european tradition that extends through Hans Anderson etc. :

“On board they climbed,
warriors ready; waves were churning
sea with sand; the sailors bore
on the breast of the bark their bright array,
their mail and weapons: the men pushed off,
on its willing way, the well-braced craft.
Then moved o’er the waters by might of the wind”

now, fact is that Welsh/Brythonic poetry and storytelling didn’t operate like that. If you were a medieval bard and you came out with something like that Beowulf stuff at court then you simply wouldn’t get paid! Welsh poetry operated in metaphor, you allude to the thing, you paint verbal pictures through feeling, through simile.

So, you wouldn’t say:

“There is an old pine forest. We walked along a path until we came to a ramshackle old house. Inside someone had lit a fire and was cooking stew in a pot”

that is far too Germanic! The Welsh Bard would say:

“Dark sinewy fingers scratching at us
as we travelled the road
after three days, dwelling of stone and wood
within, smoky darkness
a cauldron would be our feast
though uninvited were we”

So never take it literally. Think of what it could be alluding to. Why that particular word or phrase? What does it put you in mind of?

The problem is with translators is some of them tend to approach the poetry literally, as you would with Beowulf. Doesn’t work, I’m afraid. Which is why a good translation is very important. And read/hear it in Welsh! Some phrases are just in there to make it rhyme!

“I once had a dog
Sat and croaked like a frog
Then when it barked
It would scare the Skylarks!”

There is nothing mystical about frogs or skylarks, I just put that in to make it rhyme ;)

or somesuch.

Al July 30, 2010 at 8:32 am

btw I’m hardly an expert, so maybe you SHOULD take this material at face value. Dunno. Earlier stuff like Y Gododdin was more descriptive, although you could see the flowery turn of phrase even then.

“Three hounds, three hundred: three stallions of war from golden Eidin,
Three mail-clad war-bands, three gold-collared kings.
Three savage stallions, three peers in battle,
Three leaping as one, they crushed foes fiercely,
Three in hard fighting, three lions hewed foes,
Gold in close combat, three monarchs of men”

three kings on horses, who had three dogs and three lions? what? heheh… only makes sense if you take the whole thing, if you understand what “gold-collared” means (yeah, torcs – turns up again in “Gold in close combat”)

Aynslie August 4, 2010 at 7:27 pm

The site that Al most recently suggested has a page with very informative notes on the Welsh and its translation: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/preideu2.html

Angelo Siqueira November 25, 2010 at 8:56 pm

I think the poem is clearly talking about an initiation into a secret society of mysteries such as the Eleusinian Mysteries or the Orphic mysteries. Arthur represents the same role as many Greek heroes did in many myths about descents to the underworld. I also notice a great match between the Spoils of Annwn and the Tibetan book of the dead – Bardo Todol – that describes the after-life in Steps in which the soul has to pass through many probations due to Karma laws on their way to the next life: this journey to the next life would take 49 days.

In the poem seven men survived to seven castles 7 x 7 = 49. The Tibetan and Egyptian books of dead describe specific routs in the after-life that allow the human spirit to reach spiritual kingdoms such as Hades for the Greeks, Aaru for the Egyptians, hell and paradise for the Christians. Most of these kingdoms would be inhabited by members of specific secret societies or specific religious groups that, through the study of the bardo ( book of dead ), would travel in safety to those kingdoms instead of being carried by the wind, fire, water and earth of dissolution and being born again in a non-desirable place. It fits so perfectly with Greek-Roman religion that it makes me think whether the Spoils of Annwn are really Celtic or already a Latin influenced post Roman conquest. Does anybody know anything about it to tell me? I’m convinced it is a book of dead.

Aynslie Hanna November 26, 2010 at 7:00 pm

That’s an interesting idea, Angelo. Annwn does share a few similarities with the classical Underworld, but I think the most significant difference is that Annwn was never viewed as a land of the dead. It was more of what we might now refer to as an alternate universe/reality. In Celtic stories, none of the inhabitants of Annwn were once living but now dead humans, nor were they souls in transition. They lived there and had always lived there. They lived lives, loved, spoke (something the dead typically can’t do), fought and even died, just as earthly humans do.

Dennis November 26, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Yes, Angelo, this is very interesting indeed, so thank you for sending it in and I’d like to look into more. Otherwise, the subject of the dead speaking is something I could easily start a whole new site on, but it’ll have to wait.

Angelo Siqueira December 2, 2010 at 3:06 am

Thanks Hanna for your explanation about the difference between Annwn and the underworld, that’s an important difference! I’m researching about underworlds in many cultures trying to track where this idea came up for the first time since it is present in different cultures all over the world. I’m wondering if it came up in a specific place and time and from there it spread with human migration coming from Africa, but probably not cause this kind of myth seems to be more typical of the bronze age, in farming cultures when humans were already spread, then how this myth could have traveled from Africa where it is present passing for Asia, Egypt, Europe and Americas in times where communication between continents were not possible or very difficult? Maybe it’s a manifestation of human collective unconscious or a real thing we brought from before the born and many civilizations with their ancient knowledge knew those things??? I’ll keep searching so….
Sorry about my English, my wife is not here to correct me.
Thanks Dennis and congratulations for the site.

John Witts May 11, 2011 at 7:02 am

http://www.mabinogion.info/index.html

I have just started reading what seems a very interesting site. I have learnt a lot from the first half of the introductuon which mentions the transfer from oral tradition to a literate one. I immediately linked this with writing being a taboo for the Druids and thought that might go part of the way explaining what clearly seems a second section to the poem?

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