WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part I
Updated: Mar 18
OUR MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR BEGINS in my home county of Gwynedd, at a place known to and often frequented by most, if not all, of the locals; Dinas Dinlle. I could see the long, sandy beach with its lonely hillfort from my bedroom window growing up, and I have many fond memories of the place, from running across the sand and learning how to ride a bike as a child to when my friends and I would go there in the night as teenagers; back when those lucky enough to have cars would take the rest of us to all sorts of exotic places to drink our Carling! Now I’m driving other people there myself, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so for many years to come, as long as the place isn’t completely engulfed by the sea, that is…
Some 77.9% of the population of Dinas Dinlle (most of whom live in small houses along the beachfront) speaks Welsh, but the place is popular with locals and tourists alike. It’s a huge, sandy beach (with plenty of rocks and pebbles, mind!) that offers views of the Llŷn Peninsula, the Irish Sea and the mouth of the Menai Strait, where you’ll find Ynys Llanddwyn, which featured in WHERE THE FOLK is the “Welsh Valentine’s Day” from?. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, like many places on this blog.
Here you will also find Caernarfon Airport, an old WWII airbase which now offers flying lessons and pleasure flights, but you won’t be jetting off anywhere from there any time soon. There’s also a caravan park down the road.
Now, they have a real issue with erosion here at the moment. My own parents can testify to how much land has been claimed (or “reclaimed”, rather) by the sea in recent decades. A groyne was built here in 1994 to combat the problem, but by all accounts, it only made things worse. In 2013, the height was lowered and the large boulders removed, but from what I can see here today, the Irish Sea is still kicking our arses!
But I’m not here for the beach nor to drink a crate of Carling- I’m here for that lonely hillfort I mentioned; Boncan Dinas. A lot of the old Iron Age hillfort has been lost to the sea, and there is only one double semi-circular rampart remaining. Coins and pottery found at the site in 2019 suggests that the place was occupied by the Romans in the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE. There might have been a Roman lighthouse here at one point, and here lies one of the biggest stone roundhouses ever found in Wales.
But what the folk am I here for, really? Well, Boncan Dinas is rumoured to have been the home of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and his dangerously-dysfunctional family from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Some say Dinas Dinlle is named after him (Din”lleu”).
Just offshore, if conditions are right as the tide goes out, you may also be able to catch a glimpse of Caer Arianrhod, a reef rumoured to be the remains of a stone structure built for Arianrhod, Lleu’s “mother”, who puts a curse on him which ultimately leads to the creation of Blodeuwedd, the famous “Flower-Faced Girl”.
But others say that the reef is actually linked to a different story, when a town called “Trearanrhag” and its people were drowned for their sins and only three women survived. Furthermore, others claim that Caer Arianrhod was the original Welsh name for the Milky Way, and that perhaps you could once see it from here. Sticking with the space theme, others say that the star constellation Corona Borealis is named after Caer Arianrhod.
Mind you, Dinas Dinlle and Caer Arianrhod are just the tip of the iceberg when considering places in Wales which owe their names to characters and events from the Mabinogion. In fact, this is what partly inspired me to write this blog in the first place, and I briefly discussed the influence the Mabinogion have had on Welsh place-names in my very first post, WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Hungover Ghost?.
As such, I knew that I would eventually have to cover the tales in more detail and that I would need to discuss each one separately, but even then, I was ignorant to just how influential these tales truly were and of how many locations are further mentioned in each tale. In fact, you could probably write a whole book on each one and its featured locations! Indeed, very early on, I realized that I had opened Pandora’s Box and that I had a very long journey ahead of me…
The Mabinogion have had a huge influence not only on Welsh place-names, but also on Welsh culture in general, from individual names to popular narratives, traditions and iconography. They are profoundly important pieces of literature and feature some of the earliest British prose tales.
They come from the Matter of Britain, being a collection of medieval literature and oral legends associated with Brittany and the UK which featured many legendary kings, heroes and knights, such as King Arthur to name but one. It was one of “the three great Western story cycles” that were popular at the time, along with the Matter of France and the Matter of Rome.
The ‘Mabinogi’, as they were known at the time, were written in Middle Welsh between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but the stories derived from old oral tales that had already been passed down by generations of storytellers, or ‘storiwr’, in Welsh. There are two main manuscripts; the White Book of Rhydderch, dated c.1350 (currently kept in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth) and the Red Book of Hergest (found in the Bodleian Library at the MS Jesus College in Oxford), dated between 1382 and c.1410.
They cover eleven stories in total, the order of which differs with each translation. Each tale is so different that some earlier scholars argued that they aren’t a “collection” at all! There’s drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy, comedy and political spoof all in, well, two books.
From the 18th Century right up to the 1970s, most scholars thought of them simply as pre-Christian tales from Celtic mythology. However, in recent times, they are believed to be far more complicated than that- more of a combination of those Celtic tales and Anglo-French narratives, full of political undertones. Basically, old Celtic tales re-written to suit the social, political and religious environment of the time. Indeed, even the first edition of the Mabinogion was a “modernised” version!
Whilst the majority of the tales don’t follow a single narrative as such, there are four that do; the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Essentially, although each tale focuses on different characters in different locations, the four ‘branches’ span the lifetime of one ‘Pryderi’- from his birth in the first branch to his death in the fourth. Although, he doesn’t feature heavily in the second nor fourth branches.
The tales reverted back to their oral roots following their first publication, and it wasn’t until 1795, 1821 and 1829 that they appeared in print again, existing as English translations by William Owen Pughe. But it was Lady Charlotte Guest (between 1838 and 1845) who first published the entire collection in a single book (bilingually, in both English and Welsh) and those romantic Victorians loved it! The book was quickly translated into French then German and a newfound interest in Celtic literature swept across the globe.
Many people mistakenly believed at the time that Lady Charlotte Guest had actually coined the term ‘Mabinogion’, claiming that it was the plural form of ‘Mabinogi’, but this was not the case- the term had actually been in standard use by those acquainted with the tales since the 18th Century. It is actually believed to have been a scribal error of the word ‘Mabinogi’, which is derived from the Welsh word ‘mab’ for ‘son’ or ‘boy’. Due to this, many have suggested that the term ‘mabinogi’ meant ‘a tale or story for a boy’, or perhaps one that was told by a young male apprentice storyteller. Today however, scholars reckon that the word either originally meant ‘youth’ or ‘story of youth’, or simply ‘tale’ or ‘story’. Basically, they haven’t got a clue!
Regardless, since then, the “Mabinogion”, as most people know them, have featured in popular culture the world over, and many of the tales are even taught in Welsh primary schools. They have become, or rather, always have been, an integral part of our culture, and, keeping to tradition, we are still reinventing them to fit in with modern times to this day!
Math fab Mathonwy, otherwise known as the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, is a great tale that features many characters and huge events that take place across North, Mid and South Wales, although most of it is based up north. Now, I would be wise you warn you that the following synopsis features themes that many of you may find upsetting or offensive, for the main plot of the final branch of the Mabinogion includes themes like rape, incest, murder and abuse. Indeed, you’ll be forgiven to think that I’m giving you a synopsis of a Game of Thrones episode!
It tells the tale Math fab Mathonwy, the magician king of Gwynedd, his family and their encounter with Pryderi, the only character who features in every branch of the Mabinogion. Math believed that his feet must be continually held by a virgin whenever he was at war, and his nephew Gilfaethwy was infatuated with Goewin, his latest virginal “royal maiden foot-holder”. Gwydion, Gilfaethwy’s older brother, decides to help him out, and comes up with quite a nasty plan…
Using magic, he tricks Pryderi, Prince of Dyfed, into giving him his beloved pigs (which were a gift given to his father in the First Branch of the Mabinogi by Arawn, king of the Welsh Otherworld of Annwn/Annwfn) in exchange for horses and dogs that turned out to be nothing more than an illusion. Pryderi declares war and Math travels to South Wales to try and sort it out. This leaves Goewin unattended, and the two brothers rape her.
When Pryderi and their uncle return to tell them off about the pigs, a fight ensues that ends in Pryderi’s demise at the hands of Gwydion. But he doesn’t escape the wrath of his sorcerer uncle, who punishes the two brothers in the most sexually-inventive and deprived way possible- he turns them into animal pairs (beginning with deer, then boars, then wolves) and forces them to mate together. This goes on for three whole years, until Gwydion eventually offers him his sister Arianrhod as his new virginal footholder, and Math accepts. The sons that the brothers had became Math’s foster sons. Math also marries Goewin in compensation for the rape.
But Math decides to test Arianrhod’s virginity first and gets her to step over his magic wand in order to do so. This causes her to immediately give birth to a son, Dylan ail Don (or “Dylan the Second Wave”), whom, when baptised, falls into the sea and becomes at one with the ocean, changing in form (some say a sea creature, others the form of the ocean itself) and takes to the seas.
Now, Dylan has a very interesting backstory, himself… some interpret him as the Welsh God of the Sea, others say that he represents Darkness whilst his brother, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, represents Light. The sound of the sea rushing up Afon Conwy was once referred to as “Dylan’s death-groan”. He also features in the Black Book of Carmarthen, being the earliest surviving manuscript written solely in Welsh, which dates back to early-or-mid-13th Century.
Dylan was accidentally killed by his uncle Gofannon in the end, and his grave is said to be found near the location of Dylan’s Rock, just offshore from St Beuno’s Church at Clynnog Fawr, discussed in WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to Hide? Part II. Gofannon was another Welsh deity and was worshipped by the Celts. He was said to have killed his nephew for not knowing who he was. He also gave Culhwch a hand in the great tale, How Culhwch won Olwen- more on that in a future post!
Lleu grew from a strange lump of life that also fell out of Arianrhod that day. Gwydion spotted him and incubated him in a chest in his bedroom. When he grew up, he presented him to Arianrhod, whom is immediately repulsed and ashamed, and rejects him. She is so disgusted, in fact, that she casts a curse on Lleu which said that he would never have a name (he was nameless at that point), that he would never have any warriors unless she gave them to him, and that he would never marry a human woman.
Being the good Samaritan that he was, Gwydion decided to help his nephew out. He used his shapeshifting abilities to trick his sister into naming the boy “Lleu Llaw Gyffes” (meaning “Bright, Skilful Hand) and into thinking that they were under attack by a foreign army. All that was left was to find young Lleu a missus. For this, Gwydion turned to his own uncle for help.
Using flowers from oak, broom and meadowsweet, along with a little bit of magic, they create a gorgeous wife for him whom they name Blodeuwedd, meaning “Flower-Face”. But Lleu turns out not to be Blodeuwedd’s true love- her true love is a man named Gronw Pebr. Gronw and Blodeuwedd end up having an affair, and the pair come up with a plot to murder Lleu.
The trouble was, Lleu was protected by magic and was therefore very hard to kill. They needed to know how to defeat him, and Blodeuwedd got it out of him in bed one night, saying that she needed to know so as to be able to protect him from his “enemies”. It wasn’t going to be easy. Turns out, he couldn’t be killed during day or night, indoors nor outdoors, whilst riding nor walking, not naked nor clothed, nor by any weapon that had been lawfully crafted. The only way to kill him was at dusk, wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and the other on a goat, and the only weapon that would kill him was a spear forged over the course of a year only when everyone else was at mass.
Most people would have given up right then and there, but the two lovers prevailed, and they somehow tricked the gullible Lleu into getting into that most ridiculous position. But even after all that, he transforms into an eagle, leaving his human body behind, and flies away! Gronw and Blodeuwedd leg it, and Gwydion sets out on a quest to find his nephew, using a pig he finds munching on maggots in Lleu’s rotting body. Singing a magic poem, he turns Lleu back into a human and the two set off after Gronw and Blodeuwedd.
Gronw apologizes and offers to compensate him, but Lleu insists that he has a pop at him with a spear, which seems fair. Gronw hides behind a stone, but the spear pierces it and kills him. Gwydion then turns his attention to his creation, the beautiful Blodeuwedd, whom he turns into an owl as punishment. She flies off into the night, never to be seen again…
I told you it was a weird one! The elaborate scene needed to be set up in order to kill Lleu I find particularly weird, along with the gullibility of the man! But it’s a well-known tale from the Mabinogion, and Blodeuwedd, in particular, has featured heavily in Welsh popular culture ever since. A lot of Welsh people are familiar with her name, however, they may not have known the full brutal tale she was part of. Nevertheless, she is something of a Welsh icon, to say the least.
But where the folk did this story take place, then? In a lot of places, let me tell you! The old Welsh kingdoms and Cantrefi mentioned in the story include Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth. Pryderi’s Kingdom reigned from Dyfed to Morgannwg, Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi. Math’s court, or ‘llys’, was found at Dol Bebin in Arfon, where a housing estate now stands.
Caer Dathyl, being a golden fortress built by Math and resided in by Gwydion, is also mentioned. It is the location most mentioned in the whole of the Mabinogion, but no one has a clue as to where it’s true location lies. It is so widely debated, in fact, that some scholars and historians think it’s a made-up place! Proposed locations include Caernarfon, Pendinas, Bryn/Caer Engan, Craig-y-Ddinas and Y Foel.
Then you’ve got Rhuddlan Teifi, being Pryderi’s court near Lampeter, Mochdref and Mochnant (as well as Arllechwedd, where a sty was made for Pryderi’s pigs). Caer Dathyl is also mentioned, with some scholars believing it could be Tre’r Ceiri, also mentioned in WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to hide? Part II.
The “fight” between Gwydion and Pryderi that I mentioned was also a little more than a little scrap, as was the “sorting out” of the matter of the pigs between Pryderi and Math. Instead, think of a war fought by sword and magic that involved an army of walking trees!
Math’s army went to Pennardd the night Goewin was raped, and the two armies met half-way between Maenawr Bennard and Maenawr Coed Alun (being Coed Helen, in my hometown of Caernarfon). Some reckon this might have been the Glynllifon Estate.
Gwydion watched and directed a battle from Bryn Gwydion. Eventually, Pryderi’s army retreated to Nant Call/Nantcyll, where they were slaughtered. Further hostages were taken at Dolbenmaen. Then another battle took place at Traeth Mawr near Porthmadog, at a time when the sea reached much further inland. Pryderi was defeated and killed in the woods of Y Felenrhyd and buried at Maen Tyriawg (Maentwrog).
As always, Ardudwy is mentioned, along with Mur-y-Castell (Tomen-y-Mur), Cantref Dinoding, Penllyn, Cynfael and Bryn Cyfegyr. I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that Lleu lived at Dinas Dinlle after he married Blodeuwedd, but others argue that they lived at Mur-y-Castell/Tomen-y-Mur.
You’ve also got Nant Lleu (Nantlle Valley), Llyn-y-Morwynion (though not directly mentioned) and Llech Ronw, the stone through which the spear pierced when Lleu killed Gronw Pebr. Caer Loda (the “Field of Limbs”) is where some say Lleu was dismembered, though there isn’t any mention of this in the Mabinogi themselves.
Now, I’m sure you can appreciate that I can’t visit all of these places for this blog- you could write a book about the places linked to this tale, alone! But I have got time to visit a good selection of them, in a journey that will take me from sunny Dinas Dinlle into the snow-capped mountains of Snowdonia and to a genuine Celtic rainforest… come and join me on the ultimate magical mystery tour!
Thanks for reading.
I’m interested to see if you can guess where we’re going next; it’s a valley that was once home to a pair of singing brothers, a floating island and a certain oak tree linked to the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi… can you tell me where the folk we’re going?!
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATION:
Black Book of Carmarthen, mid-13th Century (currently kept by the National Library of Wales, catalogued as NLW Peniarth MS 1)
Dinas Dinlle beach erosion plan unveiled, BBC News, February 2013
^ "Aerial photograph of Dinas Dinlle Iron Age hillfort". Gathering The Jewels. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007.
^ Royal Commission of the Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales Dinas Dinlle Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine (site 95309)
^ Megalithic Portal Dinas Dinlle
^ "Buried secrets revealed at Dinas Dinlle coastal fort". Current Archaeology (356). 17 September 2019.
^ Dinas Dinlle dig uncovers Iron Age roundhouse and Roman coinsbeach erosion plan unveiled (BBC News, 20 August 2019)
^ Archaeology at the edge! CHERISH Project continues to unearth the secrets of Dinas Dinlle coastal fort (CHERISH website
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^ S Davies trans, Mabinogion (Oxford 2007) p. 239
^ Carl Phelpstead, Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity, pp60
Canney, Maurice Arthur (1921). An Encyclopaedia of Religions. G. Routledge & sons, Ltd. p. 167.
^ Václav Blažek, “Celtic ‘smith’ and his colleagues”, in Evidence and Counter-Evidence: Festschrift for F. Kortlandt 1, eds. Alexander Lubotsky, Jos Schaeken & Jeroen Wiedenhof, Amsterdam–New York: Rodopi, 2008, pp. 35-53.
^ Fee, Christopher R. (2001). Gods, Heroes & Kings. Oxford University Press US. p. 68. ISBN 0-19-517403-8.
^ Koch, John T. (2005). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 862. ISBN 1-85109-440-7.
Guest, Lady Charlotte (1838-1845) The Mabinogion
Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Jesus College III), 1382-1410
White Book of Rhydderch (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 4-5), 1350