How much do you know about the Mabinogion?

Published: Friday 15th Jan 2016

Written by: Ginnie James

Myths and Legends always fascinate me. On the surface some of the older stories might seem quite incomprehensible and bizarre but they are wonderful all the same. Probably the most well-known collection of Welsh myths is the Mabinogian, which I have written about before here in more general terms, but now I’m going to look into some of the stories in more detail.

Originally the term ‘Mabinogi’ referred to four tales which are all branches of one main story. These are the oldest stories and seem of purely Celtic and pre-Christian origin and with being passed through centuries of oral tradition before being committed to paper a lot of their sense of context has been weaved into the fantastical nature of the tale. See what you make of the first branch!

The first branch focuses on Pwyll, Price of Dyfed with three separate tales. Out hunting one day Pwyll came across a stag brought down by another huntsmen’s hounds and allowed his dogs to claim the stag. When this other huntsmen, Arawn, a king of Annwn (the underworld) came upon the scene he declared a great discourtesy and Pwyll asked how he could regain his friendship. It was decided that they would swap bodies and that Pwyll would live as a King of Annwn for a year and unite the warring kingdoms of the underworld by defeating his rival King Hafgan. Pwyll is victorious and returns to his kingdom.

Pwyll was at his main residence in Narberth and out for a walk one day he saw a beautiful lady riding on a white horse. He sent his men to bring her to him but whenever they thought they were close she would appear to be further away. After a couple of days Pwyll decided to go after her himself but again she always seemed far away and in desperation he called for her to stop. Rhiannon stops and it is love at first sight. Rhiannon, daughter of Heveydd Hen, is running from an arranged marriage to Gwawl. A complicated plot was conceived which resulted in Gwawl being tricked into getting into a sack which could never be filled. Pwyll quickly tied the top and took it to a prison where he told his knights there was a badger in the bag and they beat the bag with sticks. To escape from the bag Gwawl relinquished his hold on Rhiannon who went on to marry Pwyll.

A number of years passed without an heir but when Pwyll and Rhiannon returned to Narberth lo and behold a son was born. Six women spent the night after the birth in the bedchamber with Rhiannon and her son but all fell asleep and in the morning it was discovered the baby had gone. Fearful of reprisals the women decided to frame Rhiannon for the murder of the boy by smearing her with blood before she woke. As penance for her alleged crime Rhiannon must sit outside Narberth Castle for seven years, telling of her crime to passers-by and carrying visitors to the court into the palace on her back! Meanwhile, a child had been discovered on the doorstep of Teirnon Twryv Vliant, Lord of Gwent Is Coed, who had been busy fighting off a monster stealing his new foals. As time passed the resemblance of the boy to Pwyll became too noticeable to ignore and the boy was restored to Pwyll and Rhiannon who was released from her punishment.

So, is there a moral to these tales? How much of the original story is based on facts? The dark age world was so removed from our own it is very difficult to understand what message the storytellers were hoping to convey, if indeed there was a deeper meaning other than just a story to engross audiences!


Ginnie James
Ginnie James



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