Caer Sidi

In Taliesin’s poem “The Spoils of Annwn“, the structure that Arthur, the narrator and three companies of men enter is originally referred to as “Caer Sidi”, which is translated (by some) at first as “The Fortress of the Mound”, then as “Elf’s Castle”.

This is because the word ‘caer’ means a fortification or castle of some kind, while the word ‘sidi’ was a prehistoric mound, barrow or tumulus, or a place where the Fairy Folk were believed to dwell. Some translations speak of ‘Caer Sidi’ as “The Fortress of the Zodiac” on the reasoning that the modern Welsh word for zodiac is ‘sidydd’, but there is apparently some doubt that the word was in use roughly 1,000 years ago, when The Spoils of Annwn may have been written. As I understand it, the word ‘zodiac’ is Greek and means ‘the circle of life’ or ‘the circle of animals’, whereas one Latin word for star is ‘sidus’, which may be the origin of the Welsh ‘sidydd’, although I’m uncertain about this.

On balance, it seems highly unlikely to me that ‘Caer Sidi’ meant ‘Fortress of the Zodiac’ in the mind of the original poet, but if it did, then one particular location springs to mind, and that place is Stonehenge. The astronomical aspects of Stonehenge have been written about and discussed at great length here on Eternal Idol, as have the ancient astronomer-priests who used the monument and also their descendants the Druids, who had such a well-documented fascination with celestial bodies. I’ve also written extensively about the Druid links and connections with Stonehenge, so then we have to ask if the notion of Stonehenge as some kind of “Fortress of the Zodiac” could possibly have been known to a bard such as Taliesin.

At the risk of repeating myself, it’s clear that Geoffrey of Monmouth was intimately familiar with details of the construction of Stonehenge, something that occurred at least 3,500 years before he wrote his famous account, so as Geoffrey was a churchman, it doesn’t seem remotely unlikely to me that a bard such as Taliesin would have heard of Stonehenge as a place connected with a study of the stars.

But what of the ‘fortress’ part? In his diary entry of 22 July, 1654, the diarist John Evelyn recorded “Now we were arrived at Stonehenge, indeed a stupendous monument, appearing at a distance like a castle…”, but we need not rely on the written word alone. The picture below shows Stonehenge with outsize trilithons that bring to mind the ramparts of a castle, probably on account of the impression the scene made upon the artist…

…while this picture, in a similar vein, exaggerates the size of the stones, to give the impression of ruined watchtowers or ramparts.

Stranger still, the picture below shows, what is to the very best of my knowledge, a castle in the background that never existed…

…while there’s still another that shows a non-existent castle in the proximity of Stonehenge. Artistic licence? Almost certainly, but it demonstrates that something about the make-up of Stonehenge led diarists and artists to conceive of it as a fortification or castle, while some artists even went so far as to place a castle or other fortification in the landscape.

It wasn’t only diarists and artists that thought of Stonehenge in such a way, because the initial impression of Colonel Hawley or Professor Atkinson (I forget which) was that Stonehenge was some kind of fortified camp. Whoever it was later changed their mind, but the fact remains that the ruins impressed themselves upon a professional observer as a fortified place of some kind, so it would not surprise me if this were a lasting impression that a mediaeval bard formed of Stonehenge, while this view would have been reinforced if they had been aware of Stonehenge’s connection with kings, as detailed by the aforementioned Geoffrey of Monmouth.

So, it is not at all difficult to perceive Stonehenge as the “Fortress of the Zodiac”, but the question remains as to whether this is how a mediaeval bard would have viewed the site. For my part, I don’t subscribe to the idea that ‘Caer Sidi’ actually means “Fortress of the Zodiac”, so I’ll move on to the concept that ‘Caer Sidi’ simultaneously meant “Fortress of the Mound” and/or “Fortress of the Fairy Folk”.

The fortress part is self-explanatory, so what of a mound? Earlier this year, it transpired that a large mound did indeed once exist at Stonehenge, most probably before the stone structure came into being, while this mound is marked on the diagram below as a large blue dot.

Not only did a mound exist there, but it appears to have predated the earth and wooden monuments on the site, while the later sarsens appear to have been built into the mound. The photograph below shows the 2008 excavation as carried out by Professors Darvill and Wainwright; from Alex Down’s estimation, their trench was virtually in the centre of the now-flattened mound, so we can see modern equipment where once stood a truly ancient hummock or knoll. The word ‘sidi’ seems to mean ‘mound’ and ‘fairy folk’ at one and the same time, so as ‘Stonehump’ or the mound as marked by the blue dot on the diagram above was and remains an integral part of the site, then Stonehenge seems to qualify as “Caer Sidi” or “The Fortress of the Mound” to perfection.

Even though a mound and the fairy folk are synonymous in the words ‘sidi’ and ‘gorsedd’, there is still more material to suggest that a mediaeval bard may have viewed Stonehenge as a haunted by the entities that we would call fairies, while they doubtless had an even greater hold over the minds of our ancestors than they do even today.

A 2003 feature in the ever-sober and highly academic publication British Archaeology carried a suggestion that the axe engravings at Stonehenge may have represented mushrooms, while one of the observations goes even further towards suggesting (in a highly veiled an cautious manner, of course) that Stonehenge was “Caer Sidi” or a “Fairy Fortress” – “One of many other theories suggests that the carvings, and Stonehenge itself, represent sacred or ceremonial mushrooms, reminiscent of a fairy ring.” Ah, to be able to refer to such a strange notion being aired in such a scholarly journal makes me proud to be British, but there’s more to the matter than that.

Would a mediaeval bard have seen the axe carvings at Stonehenge and discerned them as the mushrooms of a fairy ring? Well, I personally don’t see them in this way, but through the eyes of someone who was already looking at a “Fortress of the Mound” around a thousand years ago, it’s not at all difficult to see how the axes could easily have been perceived as mushrooms, but there may well have been even more tangible proof of the Fairy Folk at Stonehenge.

I don’t have the figures to hand for the amount of flint arrowheads found at Stonehenge itself over the years, but they’ve been discovered in large numbers in recent times on the excavations at Durrington Walls and we know of at least one man pierced by such weapons when Stonehenge was being built. In mediaeval times, these weapons were known as elf-bolts or elf-arrows, which were used to by the Fairy Folk to attack cattle and sometimes humans.


In a previous post entitled Strange Maps of Hell, there was much discussion of agricultural practises in the Stonehenge landscape, so it seems a certainty that these flint arrowheads would have come to light on a regular basis around Stonehenge in mediaeval times, as well as in the monument itself as a result of burrowing animals and stones being dislodged, perhaps. I suggest that everything about Stonehenge – from the notions of fortresses, mounds, fairy folk and mushrooms to elf-bolts being scattered in the immediate vicinity – identifies it with “Caer Sidi”, while it’s not unthinkable that it was also the “Fortress of the Zodiac”.

And with that, M’lud, I conclude my case for Stonehenge being the “Caer Sidi” mentioned in Taliesin’s poem “The Spoils of Annwn”, so I would invite my Learned Friends to call witnesses for the Defence and Prosecution, so to speak, (all under the terms of the CDA).

My warm and grateful thanks to Hugo Jenks for the still from his video, to Alex Down for the photographs and to Juris Ozols of MOJO for the Stonehenge and Stonehump diagrams.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Aynslie April 4, 2010 at 5:12 pm

I would like to add that the word “caer” is also used to denote a Seat (of an important personage), and in Ireland it’s frequently a circular fort (as opposed to fortress, which can be much grander and cover a larger area.

Robin Melrose April 4, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Hi Dennis,

Even if Caer Sidi is terrestrial, there’s always the second fortress mentioned – and I think they’re all one name for the same place. The Four-Peaked or Four-Cornered Fortress with its four revolutions sounds celestial and also could be interpreted as Stonehenge. The Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness suggests that intoxicating substances (mushrooms? henbane?) were used at Stonehenge. Some of the other fortresses are also compatible with SH (I’m using Higley’s translation here) – Hardness, Hindrance, God’s Peak and Enclosedness. I must admit that Glass doesn’t go with SH, though I suppose Blue Fortress might if the text has become corrupted.


Dennis April 4, 2010 at 10:05 pm

I’m inclined to think that they’re all one name for the same place, but would this include Annwn? Are they all manifestations of Annwn? In any event, I intend to put up separate pages for each so that we can deal with them all.

As others have mentioned on the “Spoils of Annwn” post, glass seems to be extraordinarily unlikely as a material for a castle, or as something that a mediaeval bard would envisage in such huge quantities. It seems a major problem in & of itself before we even think of trying to apply it to Stonehenge.

Aynslie April 4, 2010 at 10:57 pm

I suspect that “glass” has some symbolic value and isn’t to be taken literally, any more than I think the other names of the Caers are meant literally. I’ve come to consider them as representative of specific challenges that were meant to be met. I’m not sure if I agree with all the Caers being one and the same. I’ve wondered if they’re parts of the whole, though. If this “test” or “initiation” took place at Stonehenge, I wonder if perhaps these Caers are different points along a ritual journey through the landscape.

From the other instances of glass structures in Celtic mythology, I would suggest that glass (or crystal) might have been considered an Otherworldly building material, rather than an Earthly one. Traveling to the Otherworld or Annwn, one would not expect to see everyday, mundane objects or materials, just as one would not expect to see the living when traveling among the dead.

And I also think that the terms “castle” or “fortress” conjure up images of medieval structures that did not exist in the Bronze Age, when–I am all but convinced–these poetic images from the earliest grail quest, “The Spoils of Annwn”, first came into being. No such structures existed then or before. When I consider the text of the poem and, in my mind’s eye superimpose the action in it onto the Stonehenge landscape, a very tantalizing picture takes shape.

Dennis April 4, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Glass might well be symbolic, but I find it very hard to envisage or make sense of at all, I must admit. I was just using “castle” and “fortress” as a convenient shorthand, while it’s easy enough to envisage hillforts, henges or Stonehenge itself as a “caer”. In which case, the obvious thing that sprang to mind was glass as ice in a ditch or on a moat, but I might be taking liberties here. If you feel inclined to enlarge upon your mention of a tantalising picture, please feel free!

Robin Melrose April 5, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Hi Dennis,

I’ve been trying to get my head around the idea of a Glass Fortress, and in my wanderings through the internet, I discovered that the Glass Mountain is common in Germanic and Slavic mythology as an abode of the dead. I discovered an intriguing link I’m not sure what the connection is between the glass mountain and the axe cult, but what Ellis Peterson says is close in some ways to what I think the Glass Fortress might be.


Aynslie April 5, 2010 at 9:24 pm

That’s just it–it’s tantalizing and elusive, like glimpsing something out of the corner of your eye but when you look at it straight on it’s not there. Or is it?

I personally can’t buy into things like intuition or channeling or even — forgive me, Angie — dowsing when it comes to collecting plausible information about activities in the distant past. It’s too subjective. We simply weren’t there and can’t help but project our present day attitudes and biases–no matter how unintentional–onto theories. What I picture in my mind is just an imagining, based solely on what came to my mind when I first considered the core activity within “The Spoils of Annwn”. It began to develop shortly after I first saw a map showing the various earthworks (barrows, cursuses, etc) surrounding Stonehenge. I had just been reading the Arthurian story about the “Perilous Cemetery”, where the protagonist must enter the cemetery by night, braving a few challenges and obstacles very similar to those facing the characters in Annwn. Like the Annwn story, the protagonist had to successfully retrieve something from the cemetery.

What was it all about? A test? An initiation? A ritual? A challenge? A filter to cull the unworthy? A hero maker? A journey to the Underworld, such as that undertaken by Inanna, with guardians/gatekeepers to get past in order to progress to the next level? A Bronze or Neolithic version of The Stations of the Cross? I couldn’t help wondering how the landscape around Stonehenge might be used for such a thing. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey always ends with the hero returning with the “prize”, himself transformed by the experience.

To my mind that’s what the journey to Annwn was all about. The tantalizing picture that forms in my mind is of Stonehenge and its surrounding features being used for something exactly the same.

Angie Lake April 5, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Another link with Glass Fort and Glastonbury here – [quote followed by link to website]:

“It is interesting that the Welsh “Spoils of Annwn” poem has the god Lugh (Llwch) raise Arthur’s sword to a magical cauldron in Caer Siddi, the “Fairy Fort”, while Caladbolg in Irish tradition is said to come from the elf or fairy mounds. Caer Siddi is also called Caer Wydr or “Glass Fort”, a name later connected with Glastonbury. For this reason, Glastonbury came to be identified with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Avalon, where the sword Caliburn or Caledbwlch had been forged.”

Dennis April 5, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Hi Robin,

I’ve been reading the works of Nostradamus, one and off, for about 30 years, but his work is crystal-clear compared to “The Spoils of Annwn.” Of course, the part about axes leapt out on account of their presence at Stonehenge, but I’m not really any the wiser for this, although your Viking reference to a Glass Mountain as a place of the dead was fascinating.

Aynslie wrote about these ideas being instantly recognisable to people of the age, just as many Shakespearean quotes are to us today. I’ve just remembered that there was a brilliant episode of Star Trek – The Next Generation, where Picard found himself on an fearful planet facing a monster in the company of the captain of an alien ship. This scenario had been engineered by the captain of the alien ship, because his people spoke only in metaphors and were thus unable to make themselves understood by others.

As Data astutely observed during this episode, the mention of “Juliet on the balcony” instantly conjures up a picture with real meanings to anyone remotely familiar with Shakespeare, but it would be meaningless to others who were not. Having said all that, the idea of a glass fortress or anything made of glass larger than a window is hard to conceive of – it’s a bit like mediaeval science fiction.

While I accept that this Glass Fortress may have been an ‘Otherwordly’ thing, I can’t help wondering about physical structures such as ice on a moat or ditch, which would be particularly noteworthy around somewhere like Glastonbury, obviously, or Silbury Hill. There appear to have been remains of a mediaeval ‘defensive’ structure found at the top of Silbury Hill during the excavations/emergency repairs (take your pick) in 2007, and Silbury Hill had a vast moat around it which would have iced over in winter producing something not a million miles away from a “Glass Fortress”….

I’m also reminded of Pytheas’s encounter with drift ice, which he apparently described as a ‘marine lung’, so again, I’m wondering about a physical thing of glass or possibly ice that was familiar to people when the poem was composed. On balance, Silbury Hill sounds like a reasonable contender, but I’m open to other ideas.

Dennis April 5, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Ah, I knew it! Something’s been nagging at me for a long time and it’s finally made itself clear – there certainly was a real “Glass Fort” around when the “Spoils of Annwn” was written, and not just the one, either. They are vitrified forts, mostly in Scotland from what I can see, which would also explain why the sentinel was hard to understand.

I’m not knocking the contributions of others, while something about Aynslie’s “Stations of the Cross” at Stonehenge strikes a definite chord, but just a minute or so ago, I was feeling pleased with myself about Silbury Hill with its moat and mediaeval defensive work, which is incidentally pretty much in the Stonehenge landscape as well, being only 20 miles or so away from Stonehenge.

However, as there was certainly a real Glass Fort around at the time, and more than one as well, it’s thrown me. But that’s what thinking is all about…

Robin Melrose April 5, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Hi Dennis,

Yes, I also wondered about physical structures such as the ones you mention. One problem of course is that we don’t know what glass meant to someone around 800AD. Was it the blue-green glass of the Romans, was it glass beads or jewellery such as the Celts had, or was it something like amber? In other words, what was the picture in their heads when they heard the words “Glass Fortress”? Incidentally some people say that the Glass Mountain was originally Shining Mountain (the words in German are similar), which would make more sense in a pre-glass world.The Welsh idea could have come from Belgic settlers in Late Iron Age times, who were obviously influenced by Germanic ideas.


Aynslie April 5, 2010 at 10:33 pm

In Celtic lore, glass structures are always either surrounded by water (because they’re on an island), submerged in water or reached by boat. It’s possible that stories of them may have originally come back with people who had voyaged far out into the north Atlantic.

Then again, I’ve always fancied Silbury in winter with a frozen moat to be the setting for the fairytale about the glass mountain.

Aynslie April 5, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Glass was not unknown to the ancient Celts:

Angie Lake April 7, 2010 at 10:59 am

See the ‘Spoils of Annwn’ thread for my comment on Glas!
(Realised too late when posting it, I had placed it under the wrong thread.)

Angie Lake April 7, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Just been watching ‘The Minoans’ on More 4. I believe it was in 1450BC that a lot of the palaces on Crete were burned down.
One of these was featured by the female presenter, who explained that it appeared that its vast stores of pothoi containing oil were sabotaged and set alight, causing an inferno akin to a present-day refinery fire. Consequently the stones of the floors became vitrified.

I wonder if your idea of the “glass” being ‘vitrified forts’ has any link here Dennis?

Apologies if I’ve spelled, or remembered, anything incorrectly!

Angie Lake April 8, 2010 at 8:49 am

Sorry – ‘Pithoi’ was the correct word for those huge Cretan oil container jars!

Dennis May 27, 2010 at 12:04 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 and Caer Sidi in great detail. I’m currently only one-third of the way through the book, so there may well be more to come, but there’s also a truly fascinating suggestion about the precise nature of the “Glass Castles.”

Al July 30, 2010 at 9:27 am

Glass castle. OK, get in your Tardis and let’s go back to 900ad. The beautiful green roman-type glass has long since vanished. Glass (in everyday use) is browny green, barely transparent, dirty recycled. So the castle is browny with a hint of sheen?

Well no. During the period the Taliesin poems were written down, stained-glass windows were just coming into fashion and being installed in cathedrals and churches that could afford them. If you had walked into one of these, it was something you’d never seen before: the whole room lit up with dozens of colours streaming in through the windows. The whole thing was magical, mystical (which was the general intention). So when the poet is describing this “glass castle”, he wants to put you in mind of the inside of a church, the light glinting off all the colours.

How would you describe an otherworldly castle? Made of stone, turf, wood? Mah, far too boring and ordinary, people live in those. But what about if the castle was made of glass? what if it shone in the distance with a myriad of colours, a rainbow on the horizon. Remember that these people are very limited in their experience. You could talk about pyramids, grand temples, but people can’t picture that because they’ve never seen it. What is the most fantastic thing people of 1000-1100 have seen? I mean a wonderous sight: we’re going beyond churches and castles, even Stonehenge here.

So when you think “glass castle” don’t think a Cinderella palace made out of Waterford Crystal. Think something that shines, glows, shimmers, a multitude of prismic colours. Kind of like a hologram on the horizon. A fairy castle, in the otherworld. Transparent, yet tangible. Mystical. Magical. But not actually made of glass. Because that would be silly ;)

treeclimber December 7, 2010 at 11:24 pm


It is always going to be a difficult problem identifying what was meant when your mind is using Anglo Saxon words to translate from ancient Welsh (British). To give an example, the word used to describe ‘been free from another’s control’ was ‘dance’.. what you have to do is throw out all the Anglo Saxon meanings, the Norman word meanings and the ‘Latin’ Romanesque meanings and interpretations,(i.e: the functional words) – life was simple and so was the language, but simple in that it expressed the soul of nature and the people…

As ‘new things were ‘built’ – ‘invented’ .. old words were used to describe them, but as I understand it, when the era of stone circles started, people were not building forts, castles and I can’t remember any defensive works that were started 5000 years ago? Or am I wrong, so if they had never built them, why would the language have words that described them?

Some of the original Taliesin stories have been placed as far back as perhaps the Mesolithic era; the fact they were repeated verbally for thousands of years before been written down does not distract from their original placement in time.

Some great original work has been done by Baram Blackett and Alan Wilson, as well as their collaborative book with Adrian Gilbert; does anyone have a view on their discoveries?

Peace and Love

Al December 8, 2010 at 11:26 am

What, you mean that the Brythonic peoples were one of the lost tribes of Israel and descended from Brutus?

Dennis December 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm

I’m not at all convinced by any of the ‘Lost Tribe’ material, I must admit, but I’m inclined to think there’s far more than just a grain of truth in what Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about Brutus. I’ve corresponded with Dr Robin Melrose about this, so yet again, when I find time, I’ll happily expound on this idea.

Aynslie Hanna December 8, 2010 at 11:17 pm

The problem with those lost tribes is that they didn’t get lost early enough. Stonehenge was really, really ancient already by the time those tribes supposedly got themselves lost. The Trojan War (if it really happened) had already ended roughly 500 (half a thousand!) years before they got lost. What other peoples in history (let alone “tribes”) disappeared completely off the face of the earth that long ago and still managed to resurface whole and intact and recognizably a cohesive culture centuries down the line?

treeclimber December 8, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Yes, it is difficult to accept that displaced people from a place far away could or would want to come to a chilly cold island.. we know that tin was traded with the Middle East from Cornwall in the Bronze Age, in fact I am sure I have read several times that British tin powered the Bronze Age supplying at one point a large percentage of all the tin used in the near and middle east.

Trebha Cooper March 1, 2011 at 12:44 pm

It is a shame I cannot submit a photograph, as I have placed the map of Stonehenge over the stone circle of Rennes-les-Bains and it is a perfect fit…even down to the Heel stone being in perfect alignment with a stone here…..The interpretation of Caer Sidi as stronghold\fortress of the zodiac is very interesting as here is the first observatory, one of the local mountains being called Casopie and the observatory being created to literally square the circle of the Sun and Moon, i.e when inside it appears the Sun and Moon move at 90 degree angles so squaring the circle……Also having lived in Ireland and visited numerous “Faery Forts” this Caer Sidi here in France being a circle within a circle could also be interpreted as a ” Faery Fort..”

Robin Melrose March 8, 2011 at 7:58 am

I expect somebody has said this before, but I’ve just been pondering over the Bush Barrow lozenge. If Wikipedia’s diagram is accurate, then it is not difficult to see in the lozenge these lines from The Spoils of Annwn (Higley’s translation):

I am honored in praise. Song was heard
in the Four-Peaked Fortress (Caer Pedryuan), four its revolutions.
My poetry, from the cauldron it was uttered.
From the breath of nine maidens it was kindled.

Unless I’m completely deluded (always a possibility!) these lines refer to the lozenge and most likely to ceremonies that went on at Stonehenge involving processions, circles and some mystery in the centre of Stonehenge. The central lozenge is divided into nine equal parts, and the chap at Bush barrow probably took it to the grave with him as a reminder of how to get to the Otherworld and what awaited him there, as the initiates of the Orphic mysteries did. Dennis and Aynslie, do you think this is possible, or am I on the wrong track?

Dennis March 9, 2011 at 1:03 am

I don’t think you’re on the wrong track at all, Robin; numbers can be a minefield, but we discussed the number 9 at some length a little while back and it was intriguing stuff. I immediately found this Science Frontiers link from a 1991 edition, while I’m guessing that others have analysed it since, most notably Anthony Johnson.

By pure coincidence, I was speaking to Juris earlier tonight about something very similar, so I’ll write more about this just as soon as I have time and meanwhile, thank you very much indeed once more for thinking out loud on these pages.

Aynslie Hanna March 9, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I had to ponder this for a couple of days, but I believe I agree with Dennis in saying that you might be onto something. It’s not unknown for directions to have been provided for the dead’s journey to the Otherworld. It occurred in many cultures and in many forms, so I don’t see why not in this case. I’ve always been fascinated by the design on that lozenge and felt it must have some symbolic meaning rather than just being decorative.

It struck me earlier today that the lozenge pattern is very similar to the design on a Nine Men’s Morris game board. This game is supposedly at least as old as the Bronze Age. I’m wondering if there’s some connection between the lozenge and the game board design, as well.

Robin Melrose March 10, 2011 at 6:36 am

That’s fascinating about Nine Men Morris, Aynslie. As you say, there must be a connection between the lozenge and Nine Men Morris – all we have to do is find out what it is.

Rhisiart ap Morgan March 10, 2011 at 11:02 am

Shwmae paub, hello all; Caer Sidi or Sidydd the other world fortress is first mentioned in the book of Taliesin, the 6th century Welsh warrior poet.
It was he and Aneirin that wrote the 300 verse poem called the ‘Gododdin’.
In the song of Llyr Welsh aire God and character in the Mabinogi, his song goes:
Complete is my chair in Caer Sidi,,
No one afflicted disease and with old age that may be in it.
It is known to Manawyd and Pryderi.
Three utterances around the fire will he sing before it ,
Cofion Rhisiart

Claire M Jordan June 20, 2011 at 3:08 am

I don’t see how Stonehenge could possibly be Caer Sidi, for the simple reason that Caer Sidi is accessible by ship (Arthur sends warships against it) and is described as “…around its borders are the streams of the ocean // And the fruitful fountain is above it”, also as having four towers.

For rather complicated reasons I have a theory that Caer Sidi might be the Iron Age hill fort now called Sudbrook Camp, but probably originally called something like Caer Sudd.

The rescue of Gweir from Caer Sidi in the Llyfr Taliesin and the rescue of the Mabon from Gloucester in Culhwch ac Olwen are so similar that they are probably versions of the same story. Caer Sidi is called the Fortress of Glass and Gloucester was called Shining Fortress, which explains how they could have got mixed up.

Of the two locations for the prisoner, Caer Sidi is to be preferred because Gloucester makes no sense – and even if the story is pure fiction, the storyteller would need the location to seem credible to his or her audience. Mabon is said to be able to be clearly heard both crying and speaking through the walls of his prison, to have been there for many centuries and yet nobody except the Salmon of Llyn Llyw knows he is there – which makes no sense if he was being held in a populous city. Hence, the version where he is in the more remote and other-wordly Caer Sidi is probably the original.

Putting the two together we have Caer Sidi as the original prison in Culhwch ac Olwen. We know that this prison could be reached by water from Llyn Llyw (the salmon swims to it daily) and that Gloucester could apparently be reached by water from Llyn Llyw (otherwise Gloucester couldn’t have got mixed up in the story *at all*), hence, Caer Sidi is on roughly the same stretch of water as Gloucester, hence it was on the Severn or the Wye.

Llyn Llyw in Culhwch ac Olwen is probably the same lake as Llyn Liuan in the Historia Brittanum, and Llyn Liuan has been identified with a very high degree of probability as a sizeable lake which used to exist between Caerwent and Caldicot, although a combination of progressive silting-up and the diverting of a major spring in the late 19th C has mostly dried it up. This lake had its outfall at Sudbrook Camp (probably once called Caer Sudd).

Sudbrook Camp fulfills many of the physical requirements for Caer Sidi, as well as the name. It was accessible by water from Llyn Llyw and also on the sea – the Severn Estuary, anyway. It had a “fountain” – an upwelling whirlpool which disgorged water from an underground system – just upstream. It’s hard to tell what shape it was when it was whole because more than half of it has collapsed into the Severn, but it at least looks as if it probably had four corners, hence it would be natural for a Dark Age storyteller to look at it and visualise it as having once had four towers.

If Sidi means “mound” it fits that – it sits on a promontory. If it means “spiral” it fits that too – it has terraced flanks which when it was complete must have given it a vaguely spiral appearance.

Dennis June 20, 2011 at 7:38 am

Thank you very much indeed for taking the time and trouble to send this in, Claire. It’s detailed, fascinating material that I wasn’t aware of involving language and legend, and exactly the kind of thing that I like to see, while I’m sure that many others will as well. I’ll have a good read again later, but thank you once more for adding to the subject of Caer Sidi and please feel to write in about anything else as well.

Claire M Jordan June 21, 2011 at 1:51 am

Thanks. Sudbrook Camp gets very little attention because so much of it has collapsed and what’s left has been turned into a football pitch, so it isn’t at all picturesque. Yet, it was very large – about 200 yards square, almost a small town rather than a fort – and when it was more complete it must have been very impressive, and easily otherwordly-looking enough to inspire stories about it having been battered down by Arthur’s warships.

I note incidentally that the Llyfr Taliesin says that the liquor of the fountain above Caer Sidi was sweeter than white wine, while the spring just upstream from Sudbrook Camp is known for its exceptionally pure water. Unfortunately the whole thing got killed off when they drove the Severn Tunnel through in the late 19th C and the spring has been diverted and culverted, but the pure water is still used to make beer.

I’m actually working on a memorial piece about the friend who identified the almost-certain location of Llyn Llyw, and who died in March. It has an appendix which explains his reasons for identifying Llyn Llyw as the lost lake at Caldicot, and about Sudbrook and also why Caerwent – which is now a tiny village but in the late Roman period was a small but very well-appointed walled city – is probably most of Camelot (really). When it’s finished and posted I’ll give you the link and then you can see all the pretty diagrams.

There are some suggestions that Caer Arianrhod and Caer Sidi were the same – mainly, that the home of Arianhod is described as being used as a prison – but it’s not very strong. If they *aren’t* the same, and given the association of Arianrhod with wheels and the moon, Caer Arianrhod might very well have been a stone circle. There’s at least one good probably-astronomical stone circle in north Wales, at Penbedw, and a bizarre cairn surrounded by an outwards-projecting ring of stones at Bryn Cader Faner. Or given the amount of traffic up and down the west coast, it could have been Callanish. Callanish is weird and spectacular enough to inspire any number of legends.

Dennis June 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Claire, I was intimately acquainted with the beer of south Wales for a long time and a very enjoyable experience it was, too. My mother used to live in Caerwent, so while I’m not an expert on the place by any means, I’m familiar with it and it’s been written about at some length before now, when Dr Robin Melrose and myself were looking into the names of Silurian war gods.

There’s a lot of material here on Eternal Idol about the Romans, mainly in connection with Stonehenge, but there’s also a lot of information and material on the Silures. In short, Caerwent is of more than passing interest to me, so please by all means feel free to post what you like about the place, as well as the other material you’ve sent in.

This isn’t really an Arthurian site, but it’s impossible not to be interested in the man, while I’m certain that there are many Arthurian links with Stonehenge in addition to what Geoffrey of Monmouth had to say about the place. I look forward to reading your memorial piece about your friend, so please write in and post a link when you’ve finished it, while I’m also interested in any folklore or information about this neck of the woods as it’s something I’ve written about myself before now, and I intend to write more. Thank you again.

Aynslie Hanna June 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm

In “The Spoils of Annwn”, Arthur’s ship is called Prydwen (“Fair-face”). Strange name for a ship. However, Arthur’s shield was also called Prydwen. Supposedly it had the image of a woman on it. I’m not sure if this is significant, but suppose the “sea voyage” wasn’t an actual, physical trip out to sea? There are comparable Celtic stories of “sea voyages” to the Otherworld. The earliest recorded one that I know of is “The Voyage of Bran” (not Bran of the famous head), which precedes the others by several centuries. In this story, Bran goes to sea and encounters Manannan riding his chariot over the waves. When Bran marvels at this, he’s told by Manannan that it isn’t really the sea they’re on but a vast plain. Which would mean the islands Bran encounters aren’t really islands as we define them.

Just something to ponder.

Claire M Jordan June 24, 2011 at 3:18 pm

The idea of an ocean which is really a plain sounds to me like a slightly muddled version of the story about drowned lands off the coast. And there undoubtedly *were* inhabited lands which were lost under the ocean about 11,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, although nobody knows if they contained marvellous ancient civilisations or three mud huts and a goat.

Dennis June 24, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Thank you for presenting yet another fascinating notion to contemplate, Claire. You’re quite right, of course, about our lack of knowledge of precisely what these ‘lost lands’ contained, but I understand that more and more is coming to light as a result of exploring our coastlines and the North Sea in particular. There’s this obvious link about Lyonesse, but I’m certain that I remember reading – somewhere – of people being able to hear bells tolling beneath the sea or somesuch, in connection with these places. My point is that what’s actually there is far less important than what was deemed to be there by our ancestors, so because we still get occasional glimpses of a petrified forest off Penzance, for example, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to learn of legends of lost lands containing other wonders, whether natural, ‘magical’ or manmade.

JohnWitts June 24, 2011 at 4:59 pm

If there is one thing apparent about the the Otherworld, it is seemingly “all around”, although it does seem to belong to another dimension (i.e time passes much more slowly). I did think that perhaps the descriptions of Caer Sidi in the Spoils of Annwn may relate to Long Barrows/Chambered Tombs; my impression now is the poem is not attempting a geographical description, but detailing the attributes of the Otherworld. This world, it would seem, was still very much terrestrial even in recent centuries.

Leave a Comment