The Tale of Lleu, Chapter IX: Yule
Long ago, before Gwydion had tricked his sister Arianrhod for the first time, before the birth of Lleu and Dylan, Math the Ancient was King in Gwynedd. As had been prophesied, while Gwynedd was at peace, King Math could only live so long as he had a maiden to hold his feet in her lap while he sat upon the throne. Never could his feet rest upon the earth, or he should surely perish.
The footholder of King Math at the time had been Goewin, with whom Gwydion’s brother, Gilfaethwy, another son of Don, was secretly in love. He had set his heart upon the maiden, and loved her so much, that there was nothing he could do because of her.
His color, his face, and his demeanor were wasting away from his love of her, until he could hardly be recognized. But the footholder of the King must ever remain a maiden, and so it seemed that she would forever be out of Gilfaethwy’s reach. In order to help his brother in this plight, Gwydion devised a plan to make Goewin available to him.
Gwydion went before the King, and told him of a new sort of animal that had come into the south of their land, a beast whose meat was sweeter by far than that of the oxen they had become accustomed to eating. Pigs, they were called, and they had been a gift to the kings of Dyved from Arawn, the Grey Lord of Annwn.
In order to secure the pigs, Gwydion travelled in disguise to the land of Dyved, and met with the King there, Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon. But Pryderi refused to give him the pigs.
For, he said “The pigs were a gift to my father from the Grey Lord of Annwn, and I must honor their agreement. I may neither give them freely, nor may I sell them for any money, until they have bred twice their number. Such was the pact between our lands.”
But Gwydion was already steps ahead of the less cunning King of Dyved.
He told the King, “Lord, I can free you from this bargain. Do not give me the pigs tonight, but do not refuse them to me either. On the morrow I shall show you a wonder far better, that you might exchange them for.”
That night, Gwydion performed his arts, and began to make his magick in secret. From a multitude of toadstools, he conjured forth twelve great dappled steeds with golden saddles and golden bridles, and twelve wondrous greyhounds, with twelve golden collars and twelve braided gold leashes. Indeed, wherever there should have been iron on the animals, there was gold. And with the horses, there were yet twelve golden lances and twelve golden shields.
In the morn, Pryderi could naught but accept Gwydion’s offer, for this was truly a fantastic wonderment before him. Truly, he could exchange the pigs for something far greater in value. And so did Gwydion trick Pryderi into trading away the prized boars of Annwn that Arawn had given as a gift to his father Pwyll. Gwydion made great haste back to the fastness of Gwynedd, for not but a day later, all the treasures had turned back to mushrooms and fungus.
As a result of Gwydion’s trickery, the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Dyved were soon embroiled in war, leaving a great many dead. The realm no longer at peace, King Math no longer needed his footmaiden, and while he was away at war, Gilfaethwy violated her.
During the war, Pryderi, the King of Dyved, fell to Gwydion in single combat, a noble duel to end the war and prevent more slaughter. But of course, Gwydion did not fight fair. He used all his wiles of trickery and magick to win the day. As he lay dying on the field of battle, Pryderi’s last breath was a curse that would haunt Gwydion for the rest of his days.
“By the Mother, I curse you, Gwydion, son of Don. I curse you, blood, and flesh, and spirit! May your flesh be eaten by the very swine that you have stolen! May you suffer by your own treacherous deeds!”
And with those words on his lips, the King of Dyved was no more. The war at an end, Math returned to Gwynedd and soon discovered what had become of his footholder.
Goewin said to him, “Lord, you must seek another maiden’s lap to go under your feet, for I am no longer.”
“What is the explanation of this?” said the King.
And she explained to him what had been done to her by Gwydion and Gilfaethwy.
“Aye,” said the King, “This is what I shall do. First I shall get justice for you, and that done, I shall get justice for myself,” he continued. “And as for you, Lady, I shall take you as my wife, if you will have me, and I shall give all the power of my country into your hands.”
And so it was done, that King Math was married to Goewin straightaway. When this was done, he summoned his nephews to his castle. For their crimes against Goewin and the King, and for the war that they had started, Gwydion and his brother suffered three long years of punishments.
King Math struck the brothers with his staff, and Gwydion transformed into a stag, while Gilfaethwy turned into a hind. He told them to return in a year, and so they did.
At the end of the year, both stag and hind returned to the King, with a young fawn trailing behind them. The King touched the fawn with his staff, and it turned into a boy.
Again Math struck his nephews with his staff, and Gwydion transformed into a sow, while Gilfaethwy turned into a wild boar. He told them to return in a year, and so they did.
At the end of the year, both sow and boar returned to the King, with a young piglet trailing behind them. The King touched the piglet with his staff, and it turned into a boy.
Again Math struck his nephews with his staff, and this time Gwydion transformed into a wolf, while Gilfaethwy turned into a she-wolf. He told them to return in a year, and so they did.
At the end of the year, both wolf and she-wolf returned to the King, this time with a young wolf cub trailing behind them. The King touched the wolf cub with his staff, and it turned into a boy.
Math the Ancient said, “These three boys are yours. Three sons of Gilfaethwy and Gwydion the False, Three Warriors True.”
Again Math struck his nephews with his staff, and both Gwydion and Gilfaethwy returned to their natural forms. King Math looked at the two of them, and declared “You two have suffered enough for your insult to Goewin and myself. Now, go take a bath and wash this filth from yourselves.”
King Math would straight away require a new footmaiden, and Gwydion would soon be up to his old tricks by recommending his sister Arianrhod. But, my friends, this is not the tale you’ve come to hear, for you’ve already heard this one. You want to know what has become of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and you shall hear of it.
Now is the time for a different tale…
When Lleu disappeared, Gwydion could tell that Gronw Pebr had taken the appearance and place of Lleu. But despite their combined magicks, neither Gwydion nor Math could find Lleu anywhere. For Lleu was no longer a man, but had become an eagle, and flown off when pierced by the magic spear cast by Gronw. His mind had become that of the eagle. But Gwydion did not yet know this.
To search for Lleu, Gwydion travelled in the guise of a minstrel or bard, as he had done before when he wished to travel the land freely, and without being recognized. This provided a number of advantages, for it was an unwritten Law of the Ancient Harmonies that travelling musicians be given food and shelter wherever they go. In exchange, the host would receive entertainment, and news of events and fashions from the places the musicians had travelled.
Gwydion searched the lands of Gwynedd and Powys, through the Autumn, to Midwinter. His search was slow, for he left no stone unturned. No bush was too small to be searched by his druidsight. He paid special attention to the birds, and other flying creatures, for the Druids of that day taught that the souls of the departed often took the form of flying things, to aid in their travels on the winds.
One night, Gwydion stayed at a farm near Maenor Penardd, the place of the battle between the peoples of Gwynedd and Dyved for the Pigs of Pryderi, which Gwydion had stolen so long ago. This farm had on it a great black sow that would not eat with the other animals. Rather, it would run away each morning to return at sunset. Yet, she and her piglets seemed well fed.
In the wee hours of the morning, before the darkest night of the year had yet ended, Gwydion followed the sow to the base of an old oak tree, where she began to eat.
It was by the River Cynfael, the same stream where Pryderi had died by Gwydion’s hand. The last words of that fallen King of Dyved echoed in his mind, and the vengeance of that dying curse was hard upon Gwydion; for high in the oak, perched an eagle, looking not at all well. Pieces of its decaying flesh dropped to the ground, and became the pig’s meal.
This, Gwydion now realized, was the true cost of the Pigs of Pryderi, and of twisting the Skein of Fate that Arianrhod had woven for her son. None may escape the weft and the warp of her designs, neither by trickery, nor by magick.
No punishment of Math, no count of years in the form of a stag, a sow, or a wolf, could possibly compare to the anguish that Gwydion now felt, at seeing that hungry sow beneath the oak, Pryderi’s curse come home to roost; all so his brother could pursue the fool’s errand of Goewin’s bed. All magick has its cost, and this was too much for him to bear.
When Gwydion had at last overcome his grief, he began to sing an englyn to the bird on high, that he knew was Lleu.
|Derwen a dyf rhhwng dau lyn
Yn cysgodi’n dywyll awyr a glyn
Oni ddywedaf i gelwydd
O flodau Lleu y mae hyn
|Oak that grows between two wells
You darken the sky, you shade the dells
Unless I speak not the truth, here lies the harm
The scattered flesh of Lleu
…The bird was drawn to the sound of his father’s voice, and it flew down to a lower branch…
|Derwen a dyf mewn maes uchhel
Nis gwlychh glaw, nis tawdd gwres
Cynhaliodd ugain dawn
Ar ei brif, Lleu Llaw Gyffes
|Oak that grows on a lofty plain
Unburnt by fire, unwet by rain
Nourished by storms with twenty charms
…hearing the sound of that name stirred forgotten memories in the bird, and he flew down to the lowest branch of the tree…
|Derwen a dyf dan lechwedd
Noddfa tywysog hardd
Oni ddywedaf i gelwydd
Fe ddaw Lleu i’m hharffed
|Oak that grows beneath the steep
Noblest of the princes keep
Unless I speak not the truth, then from your arms
And into mine, will fall Lleu
…and as Gwydion finished singing the last verse of his spell, the eagle fell as a stone from the tree, and into the arms of his father. Gwydion’s tears fell like rivers upon the bird, washing away the eagle’s blood onto the snow.
Arianrhod, who had long been watching Gwydion’s search, finally found love and acceptance for her son, and she blessed all the moons of his life.
“I now name you, of my own will, Lleu Llaw Gyffes,” she said, and she reached her hand down, and placed a cold blue star from the winter sky upon the eagle’s brow. Before them, the bird transformed back into the wounded body of their son, and the spear blade, which had remained in Lleu’s body since Gronw struck his terrible blow, fell from the wound and shattered upon the icy ground.
Together they returned to Math’s castle at Caer Dathyl. Their trek was slow, for the snow was deep, and Lleu’s wounds pained him deeply. When they arrived, Lleu retired to his bedchamber, and the druids were summoned to heal him. To comfort Lleu as he recovered through the cold and dark nights ahead, Gwydion gathered from the forest Nine Woods, and he built a fire in the hearth to warm him.
The light of the world had been reborn, but even with the combined magicks of Math and Gwydion, the healing was long, for the wounds were grievous, and it was some time before Lleu Llaw Gyffes would be fit to retake his throne, or to take his vengeance upon the Winter King.
But that is another tale, for another time.
(A great deal of this Chapter was derived and inspired from Hugin the Bard’s song “An Oak Grows,” from his album Bardic Tales from the Mabinogion, which is unfortunately out of print and unavailable. Lyrics of Gwydion’s englyn are from “Gwydion’s Song to Lleu,” by Arthur Hinds of Emerald Rose, from their album Archives of Ages to Come, which is thankfully NOT out of print, and available in its entirety on iTunes.)