Being a small nation, Welsh myths and legends, despite their magnitude, often go unheard. It may surprise you to know that the first reference to the legendary King Arthur appears in the Welsh mythological chronicles, y Mabinogion. With its tradition of oral literature , the tales of the Mabinogion (in their written form) date back to the 14th century. It has been said that Tolkienin penned the Lord of the Rings having been inspired by these tales. Many other tales have developed throughout the centuries, and here are some of those Welsh myths and legends to rival any Hollywood production.
1. Santes Dwynwen
One of the most celebrated Welsh myths and legends is the tale of the Welsh patron saint of love. Every year, on the 25th of January, Welsh couples celebrate their love in remembrance of this great tale which goes as follows: The beautiful Dwynwen lived in the 5th Century and was the daughter of King Brychan Brycheiniog. Dwynwen fell in love with a young prince named Maelon Dafodrill. Dwynwen approached her father to ask his consent to wed her love, when he revealed that she was in fact betrothed to another. Distressed, she fled to her lover to tell him of her betrothal. In his wrath, Maelon was said to have raped her and she fled, heartbroken to the forest. She prayed for relief from her pain, and as she drifted to sleep she was visited by an angel who gave her a potion to relieve her. Upon drinking the potion, Maelon is turned into a block of ice. Dwynwen then receives three wishes. Her first wish is that Maelon be thawed; the second that God would ensure the wishes of all those in love; the third that she never marry. Her wishes were granted and to thank God she dedicated her life to him and the lovers of Wales. She established a church and to this day it is said if couples gaze into the well at this old location, that they can predict their future – if bubbles appear in the well, their love with be everlasting!
2. Llywelyn Fawr and Gelert
One of the greatest princes of Wales from the 13th century, Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great) is the focus of this myth. Llywelyn, his baby son Dafydd and his trusted dog Gelert had set up camp in a village now known as Beddgelert. Having to hunt to provide for his family, Llywelyn left his trusted dog to protect his young son. In his absence, a wolf lurked into the tent with the intention of devouring the child. Gelert, ever faithful to his master protected the young prince and faced the wolf in a battle to the death! Llywelyn returned to find the crib of his young son upside down, the tent in disarray and his dog covered in blood. His heart broke as he could not see or hear his son. He turned to the blood-stained dog, and convinced of his guilt, he killed him with a spear. As his dog and loyal friend lay dying he heard the cries of his young son. As he searched for his son, concealed under the downturned crib he saw the wolf lay dead by the crib and the young boy unharmed. Devastation overcame the prince as he realised that his loyal dog had in fact protected the baby from the vicious wolf. Heartbroken by his mistake, Llywelyn erected an ornate tomb for his dog and buried him with honours. The name Beddgelert, directly translated means “Gelert's Grave” and the tomb, although nothing more than a tourist attraction, can still be seen today.
3. Cantre’r Gwaelod
The legend of Cantre’r gwaelod (known in English as the lost hundred or the bottom hundredth) is one that has inspired literature and music for generations. Legend has it, that Cantre’r Gwaelod was a coastal area protected by a large dam. The dam had doors which opened to let out the waters drained from the land and closed to protect those lands when the tide changed. There are many variations of this myth, but all agree on one point: the area met its demise due to the carelessness of its gatekeeper, Seithennin. As the king held a lavish banquet, Seithennin drank heavily and slept as storm clouds gathered over the Irish seas. As the tide changed and thrashed the cost, Seithennin slept on as the waters crashed upon Cantre’r Gwaelod. He eventually woke and sounded the alarm, allowing the king and some of his subjects to escape. He, however, along with over half the population of the area perished in the waters and the land, towns and villages were submerged and destroyed.
4. Rhys and Meinir
Another heart-breaking (are you sensing a common theme?!) Welsh myth is that of a young couple, Rhys and Meinir. Having fallen madly in love, Rhys decided to propose to his beautiful girlfriend Meinir overlooking the stunning setting of Nant Gwytheyrn. Meinir, who loved him greatly agreed and both were thrilled. to mark the celebration, Rhys engraved both their names on a tree by where he proposed. Meinir, however, warned him not to do so and became increasingly concerned, as this was deemed to be unlucky. On the day of the wedding the couple indulged in a traditional game where the bride to be would hide and the groomsmen would find her and bring her to the ceremony. Many hours went by and Meinir was yet to be found and Rhys became increasingly concerned that his love may have been harmed. Many months went by and Meinir was never found. Rhys searched for his betrothed every day and his heart continued to break. One day, a wizard advised that Meinir would be found when light filled the sky. After spending another day searching Rhys sat wearily beneath the tree where their initials were carved and slept. As he slumbered, storm clouds gathered. Lightning filled the sky and struck the tree where he lay. The hollow tree split and there inside lay Meinir’s bridal skeleton, having fallen into the tree on her wedding day. Upon discovering his love, Rhys’ heart broke and he lay dead next to the corpse of his love.
5. Macsen’s Dream
Macsen was a highly respected Emporer of Rome. He and his fellow royals decided to venture on a hunting expedition. During his trip, Macsen became tired and decided to take a sleep. Protected by his guards he slumbered and dreamt a dream that took him on a fateful journey. As he slept, he dreamt that he followed a river to its origin, climbing the highest peaks and the most beautiful lands. Having crossed a bridge of whale bone and sailed ships across the seas until Macsen came to fertile and beautiful shores. He eventually came to the walls of a city, with a dignified, grey haired gentleman. Before the gentleman, sat a beautiful woman. Macsen reached for her as he fell in love, but upon touching her he was woken. Macsen awoke, love sick and heartbroken having not met the woman of his dreams. He described his journey to his men and sent them to find the maiden he had seen. They too went on the same journey, until finding the distinguished grey haired gentleman. Before him was the same beautiful maiden. The men told her of Macsen and his love for her and she demanded that Macsen, if his love was so strong, come find her himself. Macsen did as advised by his men upon their return and found the beautiful maiden, Elen, who he later wed. Elen asked Macsen to build her 3 fortresses in North Wales, which he did, all with connecting roads to London. Both were happy until Macsen received a message from the new Roman Emperor demanding his return under the pain of death. The couple were forced to return, leaving their happy home. On their way, Macsen conquered France and with the aid of Elen’s brothers defeated the Roman Emperor and claimed Rome once again. Elen and Macsen now ruled the Roman Empire.
6. March’s Ears
This story is quite silly, but fun none the less! March was a lord who was feared and adored. One day,his barber died and March was forced to allow a new barber to cut his hair. This may not seem unusual, but March had a grave secret – he had horse’s ears! Upon discovering March’s secret, the barber was not-surprisingly shocked! In his wrath, March threatened the barber, if he shared the secret, he would be beheaded! The barber returned home and was desperate to share the secret. Concealing the secret made him ill, and his wife called for the doctor. The doctor advised the barber that if he was unable to share the secret, to whisper it to the earth and be done with it. The barber did as advised and whispered in the ground by the local lake. Shortly later, March held a banquet. To entertain his guests, March requested the services of a very talented piper. On his journey, the piper stopped by the lake and decided to forge a new pipe from the reeds that grew there. However, unknown to the piper or the barber, the lands by the lake had been enchanted long ago. Upon arriving at the party, the piper began to play the new pipe, and to everyone’s surprise, the tune from the pipe sang “March has horse’s ears!” Horrified by what he heard, March flew into a rage. The piper pleaded that he said so such thing and the barber swore he only whispered the secret to the earth. March grabbed the pipe and played it himself, and the tune continued to sing “March has horses’ ears”. March, although enraged, turned to the crowd and admitted that the song told the truth. Despite expecting jeers and taunts, the crowd rose to their feet and cheered for March’s mercifulness.
The best has been saved for last, and I’m reluctant to summarise the story in fear of ruining it for you. Branwen was one of the 3 most beautiful women in Wales, the sister of the giant and king, Bendigeidfran. When looking over the seas, they saw the King of Ireland, Matholwch, coming over to ask for Branwen’s hand in marriage. Bendigeidfran agreed and the two were wed. As the nations celebrated the union of Wales and Ireland, Efnisien, Branwen’s vengeful half-brother returned from hunting to see that his sister had wed without his consent. In his rage he mutilated Matholwch’s horses! Matholwg was enraged and was determined to return to Ireland. Bendigeidfran, desperate to improve the tensions gave the Irish king many gifts including Y Pair Dadeni (the cauldron of rebirth). This cauldron allowed any fallen soldier placed within to rise again, as good as alive, apart from having lost their ability to speak. The tensions eased and Branwen returned to Ireland with her new husband. They lived happily for a year and she soon gave birth to a baby boy. However, whispers soon emerged of how the Welsh had humiliated the King and Branwen should be punished. Matholwch was humiliated by the whispers and forced Branwen to work in the palace kitchen, and to be slapped daily by the butcher’s blood-stained hand. Lonely and heartbroken Branwen befriended a starling who she taught to speak. She sent the bird to Bendigeidfran to ask for help. Both countries were soon at war. The Irish soldiers, fearing invasion, cut the bridges crossing dangerous waters. Bendigeidrfan, wishing to lead his army, lay himself over the canyon providing a bridge for his men. A truce was called and a banquet held to discuss the conflict. A tent large enough to shelter the giant King of Wales was erected. However, Efnisien was suspicious and found Irish soldiers, armed and ready to attack hidden within the tent. He crushed the skulls of these soldiers with his bare hands. Enraged by the potential betrayal, during the banquet, Efnisien held his nephew and threw him into the fire, to destroy the bond between the countries! Branwen was held back from the flames as she desperately grasped for her infant son. War broke out once more but Ireland's soldiers were hard to defeat as they had the magical cauldron. Realising his guilt, Efnisien placed himself in the cauldron and pushed with all his might to smash it. His heart broke under the pressure and he too, died. The war raged on and the Welsh were eventually victorious. However, only a few returned - Branwen, a few soldiers and the amputated head of Bendigeidfran (who had been struck by a poisoned spear.)
Branwen, upon returning to Wales, gazed over to Ireland. She saw the death and destruction of two nations and all those she loved, overcome by guilt, her heart broke and she fell dead on the shore.
Now, I know this was a very long article, and to those of you who made it to the end, I hope you enjoyed it! These Welsh myths have survived centuries and are yet to be known throughout the world, which is such a shame! Had you heard any of these myths before? Were there any you enjoyed? How about your cultural heritage, any stories to share?