Strife on the Borders

A translation from the Classical Chinese
by Dafydd Hughes Lewis


A Metric Translation of Aneirin’s Gododdin
by Steffan Balsom


A Cathayan Catraeth

‘Hymn to the Fallen’
(Attributed to Ch’u Yuan (late 4th century-early 3rd century BCE).
From the anthology Chiuge / ‘The Nine Songs’).

The poem has its origin in the state of Chu along southern China’s Yangtze River during the tumultuous Warring States Period (c.475 – 221 BCE). The Chu state bordered four of the six other states striving to secure their positions or suzerainty; along with the state of Ch’in to its west, Chu was one of the largest and more powerful of the seven. The poet would have been at work during the reign of King Huai (329-299 BCE), one of the last rulers of Chu before it fell to neighboring Ch’in, which went on to engulf all the other states and form the first unified Chinese Empire. Above, it says that the poem is ‘attributed’ to Ch’u Yuan: this is because while in long exile from the Chu court he is said to have travelled the state’s territory collecting whatever existing folk-tales, poems and songs he could find; so he was very much their editor than their composer, although his individual input is clearly evident in the longest and most studied in the collection. The picture of both Ch’u Yuan and his anthology is also complicated by the impressions of these works as they were considered under the later intellectual climate of the Han, and their provenance and their ritualistic nature has proved problematic to scholars both ancient and modern. ’Hymn to the Fallen’, though fitting nicely by its title and content into the ‘Warring States’ background, seems something of an anomaly among the others in ‘The Nine Songs’, which are essentially shamanistic. Howsoever, by itself it stands as a striking portrayal of the shock of battle, and as a ‘collected’ item, may well refer to some considerably earlier conflict.

With trusty spears held by us,
coats of rhino hide upon us,
with our chariot axles touching
our short-sword blades did meet them.
Their standards blocked the sunlight
as they rolled like clouds among us;
with their arrows falling thickly
their warriors pressed toward us.
Our line was torn asunder
and they broke our ranks completely – 
now my left-hand horse falls, slaughtered;
my right one too falls wounded.
Wheels lock around their bodies,
and my chariot stops, immobile,
so on high I raise jade drumsticks
and beat the drum-roll loudly.
But Heaven’s Powers are wrathful,
and the gods decree us fallen – 
all our men lie dead about us;
the plain is strewn with corpses.
They went, but found no ingress;
ventured forth without returning.
And the plain is wide and empty,
and the way back home so lengthy.
Their long-swords lie beside them
and their bows are still gripped firmly.
Though their heads were cloven from them,
they never could be daunted.
They fought the battle bravely,
still are warriors, though death took them;
to the end were proud and steadfast,
and never knew dishonour.
Their bodies perished fighting
but their spirits live on, deathless – 
they will lead the ghost battalions
as captains and as heroes.

Note: Line 2. Rhinoceros hide armour is known to have been used by armies of earlier and later periods – from the Bronze Age chariot-driving warrior elite of the Shang (c.1600-1050 BCE) to at least the formidable Han (206 BCE-220 CE). Its later rarity, due to cooler climatic conditions and habitat destruction as well as hunting to extinction, is thought to be connected by way of folk-memory with the mythical Chinese ‘unicorn’ – the ch’i-lin.

The metre I’ve chosen for this poem is the strident one of Thomas Love Peacock’s well-known ‘The War Song of Dinas Vawr’ which we all learned at school back in the day. Remember? ‘The mountain sheep are sweeter, / But the valley sheep are fatter; / We therefore deemed it meeter / To carry off the latter’. And further on, more in line with the battle-spirit with which we are concerned:

‘We made a mighty sally,
To furnish our carousing.
Fierce warriors rushed to meet us;
We met them, and o’erthrew them:’

Which serves to bring us closer, also, to the Welsh / Catraeth connection. What of this ‘Catraeth’, then? What is it? Why the heading ‘A Cathayan Catraeth’? Well, in answer, it is the name of a battle fought a world away from China’s state of Chu, but one which holds out a remarkable comparison.

In the case of Cathayan Chu, a great battle is fought, but its name is not given; That may be through the vagaries of transmission or transcription over time; we do not know. Catraeth, on the other hand, is a name which has survived such vagaries – if only by the merest chance. With  a thousand years or more between their respective compositions, the similarities of the poems’ coming into being and their content may still be marked – as of course, may their differences. Their greatest similarity lies in the fact that both were born of a period of great contention, with a patchwork of kingdoms or states striving to establish, or re-establish, or protect, their territorial sovereignty; in the ‘do or die, death before dishonour’ spirit evident in all their words; and in the tribute they pay to those fallen. Their main difference lies in the brevity of the one (the Chinese has just 36 lines) and the completeness of the other (the Brythonic / Welsh has over 100 verses). In the Chinese poem, the fallen warriors are nameless, as is the time and location; in the Brythonic / Welsh poem, we know where and when the conflict took place; a great number of its heroes are named, along with a description of their deeds. And ‘Catraeth’ is a name which should be held firm in the mind of every Welsh person the world over who purposes to be conversant with their country’s history and literature. For anyone, anywhere, to whom the word ‘Catraeth’ has no meaning, here is an outline of what gave rise to that heroic conflict.

The setting is Northern Britain at around the year 600 CE; that is, about one hundred and fifty years after the Roman withdrawal from the island and during a prolonged period of jostling for ascendancy between rival native and invader ‘successor states’. In the south-east, the two richest  and most populated of the Roman Provinces have been overrun by Saxon invaders from the European mainland, and the heartland of what was to become ‘England’ established there (a region referred to in Welsh as ‘Lloegr’, or ‘Loegria’ as a sort of Latinisation. It remains very much the English heartland to this day). Further afield, in the north and west, lay at least two other Provinces, and these, unlike those of the south-east, were always subject to Roman military rule (The location and nomenclature of these Provinces which together formed the Diocese of Britannia is in some respects uncertain and a subject of dispute among historians of the period. It’s a picture somewhat too complicated and a little beyond our scope to thoroughly look at here, and is best left to be dealt with more fully at another time). Anyway, in the west lay the post-Roman patchwork of Celtic / Brythonic kingdoms comprising what is today Wales, together with the ‘West Country’, while to the north lay all the country east and west of the Pennine chain, and beyond that the region of present-day Lowland Scotland. These are all regions which had been at some time subject to a Roman military presence; they were ‘The Frontier’. The country each side of the Pennines (the large territory of former pre-Roman ‘Brigantia’ had been swallowed whole into the Provincial pattern, while  the Celtic / Brythonic tribal entities occupying the now Lowland Scotland (‘the land between the Walls’, i.e., the well-known Hadrian’s Wall and the more northerly and lesser-known Antonine Wall) had become, over a long period of interaction with the Imperial order, consolidated into a well-defined group of kingdoms. (This pattern of consolidation had always been a feature of Roman cross-frontier influence resulting, for example, in the merging of such 1st century BCE Germanic tribes as the Cherusci, Chauci, and others to emerge later as larger groupings under other names – which is precisely how the Saxones first appeared on the scene).

So what we have, on the whole, is a patchwork of Saxon-held kingdoms in the south-east, a patchwork of Brythonic kingdoms in the west, a patchwork of Brythonic kingdoms ‘between the Walls’, and a large, Brythonic populated cross-Pennine region. It should be added that the borders and extent of all these kingdoms was fluctuational and is still sparsely understood. And now, into this, enter the Anglians. These were the northern arm of those previously-mentioned Saxons, and were, like them, transmarine intruders greedy for the leftovers of Empire who made their appearance, at around the same time, up along the north-eastern seaboard of Roman-vacated Britain, taking over Brythonic Deifr and Brynaich and establishing their two kingdoms of ‘Deira’ and ‘Bernicia’. The Anglian push northwards into Lowland Scotland and inland into the territory east of the Pennines brought them on a collision course with the Gododdin, the easternmost of the Brythonic peoples between the Walls, whose authority reached south into allied Brythonic territory. In this inland region lay the town of Catraeth, which these Bernician Anglians had taken forcibly for their own. The do-or-die mission of a Brythonic army to retake that town – the story of the Battle for Catraeth – is the subject of the epic poem which follows below. ‘The Gododdin’ of Aneirin is one of the earliest and most celebrated of all Welsh poems, Here it is fully introduced, in its received Middle Welsh text, with an English metrical translation, lists, capsule biographies, and notes, by poet and essayist Steffan Balsom. Steffan’s first anthology, The East Wind and the Crow (Austin Macaulay) was published in 2019. He is a multi-linguist with specialist knowledge of the Celtic languages; the excerpts of his metric paraphrase / translation of Aneirin’s Gododdin  are in some cases published here for the first time.


The following few paragraphs are taken from my introduction to the Gododdin:

These verses are my attempt at a metric translation (more strictly, metric paraphrase) of the ancient Welsh poem, Gododdin (from Llyfr Aneirin, the Book of Aneirin, NLW Cardiff MS 2. 81). For anyone who is unfamiliar with the poem, I will give a very brief outline of the subject matter with which it deals. Just over a hundred verses, it is an elegy for (ostensibly) six or seven hundred Brythonic (British Celtic or ‘Ancient British’) warriors, led by the Gododdin of what is today Lothian, who gave their lives in an unsuccessful effort (circa 600 A.D.) to wrest control of the town of Catraeth (Brythonic Cataractonion – generally, though not unanimously, identified with modern Catterick, north Yorkshire), back from the invading ‘English’ or Angles (specifically, the Anglic kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, modern Durham and Northumberland).

From these few and carefully circumscribed facts, it is immediately clear that this poem speaks of a formative time in the history of this island. I have referred to the Gododdin as an ancient Welsh poem, one of the oldest of all, and yet the reader may be surprised by the setting, and some of the terminology I am using here. Is it, s/he might ask, a Welsh poem or an ‘Ancient British’ poem, and when was Yorkshire ever part of Wales?! 

The shortest possible answer would be, to the first question, it is both, and to the second, Yorkshire was never part of Wales, but it was once Welsh (Brythonic), along with the rest of this island – and was still on the front line in 600 A.D. The north of England was still not solidly English (Saxon) when the Normans arrived, although by then the ‘Old North’, that is the Celtic/Brythonic North, was (politically) lost forever.

To those conversant with Welsh history, I apologise for such obvious statements; to the general reader, I must explain myself more clearly.

The terms ‘Brythonic’ (or ‘Brittonic’), ‘Gallo-Brythonic’, ‘Ancient British’, ‘British Celtic’ (or ‘Romano-Celtic’) and ‘(early) Welsh/Pictish’ are essentially synonymous. ‘Welsh’ (Welisc) is the name the invading Anglo-Saxons (early ‘English’ raiders and settlers) gave to all Celtic-speaking inhabitants of this island – initially, therefore, the whole population. (Other Teutonic tribes gave similar names to other Celtic or ‘Roman’/Latin peoples they encountered – for instance, the Walloons of Belgium)1. Whilst it is well enough known that the Welsh and Cornish (the West Welsh as they were sometimes called) tend to consider themselves the only truly indigenous population of Britain, it is not always remembered what a slow and incremental process was the ‘conquest’ of what we today call England.

Here, I present a few stanzas (from the 103 which comprise the text):

1 (I)

A man for strength, a youth in years,
Valour on the field of tears,
Long-maned mounts and cavaliers:
A fair-formed youth among them steers

A broad-brimmed shield
his crupper bears,
Swift and slight the racing mares,
Gold about his waist he wears:
His blade new-made, the grave he dares

Hateful was his martial fate,
His praise in verse inviolate:
His life bled out before he married,
Sooner food for crows than buried

Ywain, friend of highest worth,
A sin he should lay in the earth
I wonder such a deed were done:
Slain was Marro’s only son

(I: Original Text)

G redyf gwr oed gwas
gwrhyt am dias.
meirch mwth myngvras.
a dan vordwyt megyrwas.
ysgwyt ysgauyn lledan
ar bedrein mein vuan.
kledyuawr glas glan
ethy eur aphan.
ny bi ef a vi
cas e rof a thi.
Gwell gwneif a thi
ar wawt dy uoli.
kynt y waet e lawr
nogyt y neithyawr.
kynt y vwyt y vrein
noc y argyurein.
ku kyueillt ewein.
kwl y uot a dan vrein.
marth ym pa vro
llad vn mab marro.

15 (XV)

For Catraeth’s lands, as often told,
Our greatest died and ne’er grew old:

Through endless wars, defending lands
That else fell in Godebog’s hands
Trailing biers bore trunks bled dry,
Our loathsome fate – betrothed to die

Tudfwlch swore, and Cyfwlch Hir,
And we drank poison bright and clear,
By candlelight it tasted well:
The finest curses brewed in hell!

(XV: Original Text)

O vreithyell gatraeth pan adrodir.
maon dychiorant eu hoet bu hir.
edyrn diedyrn amygyn dir.
a meibyon godebawc gwerin enwir.
dyforthynt lynwyssawr gelorawr hir.
bu tru a dynghetven anghen gywir.
a dyngwt y dutvwlch a chyvwlch hir.
ket yvem ved gloyw wrth leu babir
ket vei da e vlas y gas bu hir.

30 (XXX)

When Caradog flew to war
The wild wood boar slew thirty
Or a bull in battle, war-hosts wasting,
Shredding foes, bare hands assisting

Ywain Ab Eulad will testify
Nor Gwrien nor Gwynn deny
At Catt’rick what catastrophe
He caused Bryn Hyddwn’s loss to be:

He cradled once the shining mead,
But Gwriad and Gwrien and Gwynn
Were left in loss and need

(XXX: Original Text)

P an gryssyei garadawc y gat;
mal baed coet trychwn trychyat.
tarw bedin en trin gomynyat;
ef llithyei wydgwn oe anghat.
ys vyn tyst ewein vab eulat.
a gwryen. A gwynn a gwryat.
o gatraeth o gymynyat.
o vrynn hydwn cynn caffat.
gwedy med gloew ar anghat
ny weles vrun e dat.

55 (LV A)

Gododdin, for thy sake I sing
From the valleys to Trum Essyd2
Money he valued – as nothing
From Dwywai’s son his valour springs

Nor came such things of mean advice:
The fires blazed from dusk till dawn,
Then torches gave the paths their sight
So pilgrims, even those
who wore the purple,
Might yet see the light

Slain at last, our dearest one,
Lain to rest, our finest son,
And yet not so, he has no choice:
Aneirin lives through this his voice!

(LV A: Original Text)

G ododin gomynaf dy blegyt.
tynoeu dra thrumein drum essyth.
gwas chwant y aryant heb emwyt.
o gussyl mab dwywei dy wrhyt.
nyt oed gynghor wann. wael y rac tan veithin.
o lychwr y lychwr luch bin.
luch dor y borfor beryerin.
llad gwaws. gwan maws mur trin
anysgarat vu y nat ac aneirin.

An outstanding feature of Aneirin’s Gododdin is the cumulative effect of the verses, each one (asides from a small amount of extraneous material, which was later added by successive generations of monks, who re-copied the manuscripts) being an elegy for warriors the poet had known personally. I have often described the text itself, therefore, as ‘a sonic churchyard’. ‘Churchyard’ because it is a series of tributes to the fallen, and ‘sonic’ because – asides from the beauty of the words themselves, which we may appreciate as fully today as we might have done in 600 A.D. – it was originally sung to the accompaniment of the crwth (a type of harp or lyre). There is something to be gained, therefore, from taking the verses one by one, and noting the recurrence of Aneirin’s comrades in some of the later Welsh literature. (Not least since ‘later Welsh literature’ equates to almost ‘all Welsh literature’ – and of course, for that matter, all British literature).

As discussed in the end-notes to my own translation:

In a few cases, the characters named in the Gododdin are known from other sources: the Welsh Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydain, from the White Book of Rhydderch, Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, and Red Book of Hergest, Llyfr Coch Hergest), the ‘Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’, (Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain, again found in the Red and White Books), the ‘Lineage of the Men of the North’ (Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, from the manuscript known as Peniarth MS. 45, now in the National Library of Wales), the Mabinogion (again from the Red and White Books) etc.

The following are the warriors described in the poem (1-103), and some further notes on their later occurrences in Welsh literature and mythology (taken one by one below).

Warriors Named:

1. Ywain Ab Marro (I) (Ywain [LXII], Ywain Ab Eulad [XXX])

2. MadogII (II) (XXXI) (LXIX) (Madog Elfed, [XCVI])

3. CadfannanIII (III) (XLII) (LXII)

4. Mab Ysgyrran (‘Sgyrran’s son’) (IV)

5. Hyfaidd Hir (V)

6. Mab Bodgad (‘Bodgad’s son’) (VI)

7. Rheithfyw (VII)

9. Mab Cian (‘Cian’s son’) (IX)

10. Mynyddog MwynfawrX (X) (XI) (XXXI) (XXXII) (XLI) (LX) (LXI) (LXVI) (LXVIII) (LXXVII) (C)

12. Gorau (XII)

13. Tudfwlch Ab Cilydd (XIII)

14. Erthgi (XIV)

15. Cyfwlch, ‘Cyfwlch Hir’ (XV)

16. Blaen (XVI)

17. Gwrfelling (XVII)

18. CynonXVIII Fab ClydnoXXI, Cynri, Cynrain (XVIII). Cynon: (XVIII) (XII) (XXI) (XXXIV) (XXXVI) (XXXVII) (LXVI) (XCVII)

19. Cydwal Ab Syfno, Athrwys/Arthwys, Affrai (XIX)

20. Breichiol (XX)

21. Aeron (XXI)

22. Llifiau (XXII)

23. Graid Fab Hoywgir (XXIII)

24. Buddfan Fab Bleiddfan (XXIV)

25. Gwenabwy Fab Gwên (XXV) (Gwenabwy, [XLIII])

26. Cadlew, Marchlew (XXVI)

27. Isag Ab Gwyddnau (XXVII)

28. Ceredig (XXVIII)

30. Caradog, Ywain Ab Eulad, Gwriad, Gwrien, Gwên (XXX)

31. Pyll, Ieuan, Gwgan, Gwion, Cynfan, Peredur, Gwawrddur, Aeddan (XXXI). (Gwawrddur, [CII]).

32. Gwlgod Gododdin (Gwlyged Gododdin) (XXXII)

33. Rhufon Hir (XXXIII)

34. MorienXXXIV Fab FferogXXXV, Gwid Fab Peithan (XXXIV). Morien: (XXXIV) (XXXV) (XLIII) (LIV).

38. ElffinXXXVIII Fab Bodduadaf XL (XXXVIII) (XXXIX A) (XL)

43. Gwydien, and Bradwen (XLIII). Bradwen is also mentioned in (XLIV).

45. Cynhafal (XLV)

46. Rhydderch (XLVI)

47. Cyni/Cynau XLVII Fab Llywarch XLIX* The two verses concerning Cyni/Cynau Fab Llywarch appear to have an extrinsic origin, being as I.W. picturesquely puts it ‘stray sheep from the Llywarch Hen cycle’. As with the verse concerning Dyfnwal Frych/Domhnall Breac and Nwython/Nechtán (see below), it may either be that there was indeed an (unrelated) Cyni/Cynau present, or the verses may simply be here through association, since Llywarch was said (probably much later) to have lost all of his sons at Catraeth. There is a contradiction within a contradiction, in this regard, because the second of the two verses dealing with Cynau have him rescuing Aneirin from a dungeon, presumably some time after the battle – in which, according to the Llywarch poems, he had died! (Aneirin himself, not to be out-done, describes his own funeral in verse 55 [LV A]). (XLVII) (XLIX).

50. Senyllt, Heilyn (L)

51. Grugyn (LI)

52. Rhys Frych (LII)

53. Cynwal (LIII)

54. Addonwy (LIV)

55. (Deiniol) Mab Dwywai*. Not among the army: Saint Deiniol is mentioned here as an ancestor of Aneirin (LV).

56. Morial (LVI)

57. Eidol Ynial (‘Eidol the Wild’) (LVII)

63. Merin Ap Madian (LXIII)

64. Cibno (LXIV), Cibno Fab Gwengad (CIII)

65. Gwaednerth Ab Llywri (LXV)

67. Cynddylig Aeron (LXVII), (LXXX)

68. Merch Eudaf Hir (LXVIII)

72. Ywain (LXXII)

74. Cadafwy Gwynedd (LXXIV)

75. Fflamddur (LXXV)

76. Blaenwyd (LXXVI)

78. Moried (LXXVIII)

79. Nwython, Dyfnwal Brych*. This verse is anomalous here, though, since Dyfnwal Brych/Domhnall Breac was a King of Dal Ríada who died in 642. It may have been included because of the reference to Nwython/Nechtán, and Naif Ab Nwython in verse (XCVIII). (LXXIX).

81. Mab Ceidio (LXXXI)

83. Tafloyw (LXXXIII)

84. Gorwylam (LXXXIV)

85. Geraint (of Argoed) (LXXXV)

86. Eiddef (LXXXVI)

87. Garthwys Hir (of Rhufoniog) (LXXXVII)

88. Gwair Hir Ab Fferfach (LXXXVIII)

92. Bleiddig Ab Eli (XCII)

96. Madog Elfed (XCVI)

98. Naif Ab Nwython (XCVIII)

99. Bufon (XCIX)

100. Urfai Ab Golystan (C)

101. Edar (CI)

(1). Ywain Ab Marro – Ewein/Ywein, or Owain in modern Welsh orthography, for which I have compromised on Ywain in the translation. Ywain Ab Marro was a horseman in the north-Brythonic forces. All we can surmise from the text is that he was a young man, approaching marriageable age and fell in battle ‘before his altar-vows were said’ (nogyt y neithiawr). There are at least two Ywains mentioned in the text: Ywain Ab Marro, verse (I), and Ywain Ab Eulad, verse 30 (XXX). Verse 62 (LXII) also refers to an individual named Ywain, who is likely to be one of these two. (It is possible, though unlikely, that the other Ywain is Owain Ab Urien: Owain Ab Urien died in battle circa 595 A.D., probably a few years before the Battle of Catraeth).

(2). Madog/Madog Elfed (Madog of Elmet, West Yorkshire). Madog is mentioned in three verses, and a Madog Elfed is mentioned in verse 94 (XCVI). Madog Elfed would likely have been among the Gododdin’s most important local allies, assuming the attack was indeed against the ford at Catterick, North Yorkshire. He would have been able to organise reinforcements and supply lines during a battle which, according to verse 103 (CIII), lasted at least three days.

(3). Cadfannan. His rank is uncertain, although Caeawc cynhorawc (‘torqued and foremost’) suggests that this was a fighter who had made a name for himself in previous campaigns. The name recurs in later verses. (42 [XLII] and 62 [LXII]).

(10). Mynyddog Mwynfawr. Ostensibly, the Chieftain of the Gododdin, although entirely unknown from other sources. Almost all we can gather from the poem is that the Gododdin were sent to war ar neges Mynyddog Mwynfawr, ‘at the behest of Mynyddog Mwynfawr’. Mynyddog is mentioned in eleven different verses.

Aneirin, incidentally, may have been a descendant of Pabo Post Prydain, through Deiniol and Dwywai, cf. verse (LV A). Interestingly, Irish sources say that Pabo’s son (Sawyl Pen Uchel, Gaelicised as Samhuel Ceann-Íseal) married Deichter, the daughter of a king of Ulster named Muireadach Muindearg, a name which could quite easily be garbled into something like Mynyddog Mwynfawr.

Conceivably, a Cymricised form of the name Muireadach arose, and was handed down, because of the dynastic ties of Brythonic York (Efrog) and Gaelic Ulster? A remote but nicely pan-Celtic possibility.

There is also the reference to a Morgan Mwynfawr in the ‘Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’, which is strongly associated with the Old North. Morgan Mwynfawr’s Chariot was said to convey its passengers to any destination instantaneously. Morgan Mwynfawr’s Chariot (Car Mynyddog Mwynfawr)is immediately followed in the lists by Clydno Eiddyn’s Halter (Cebystr Clydno Eiddyn, see below). Obviously, it is difficult to know what to make of all this (!) The reference to a chariot is interesting in itself. This was of course the ancient Brythonic and Gaulish way of fighting. War-chariots are not mentioned in the Gododdin, however, only cavalry. It seems likely that the war-chariot became obsolete in the middle and later first millennium, since its use in battle suited the (lost) lowlands. The chariot of a Chieftain of the North, magical or otherwise, might well be a suitable object for nostalgia therefore. (It also happens that Brythonic Efrog coincides partly with the territory of the earlier Parisiī tribe, and a high concentration of chariot-burials).

(18). Cynon Ab Clydno. Mentioned more often than anyone except Mynyddog (eight verses in total). Cynon was apparently the son of Clydno Eiddyn, cited in Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Peniarth MS. 45) and the Welsh Triads. Clydno Eiddyn is remembered, perhaps oddly given his honorific, not as a King of Lothian but of neighbouring Strathclyde, and a descendant of Coel Hen. Whilst Clydno later acquired mythological assets, specifically a magical halter, Cebystr Clydno Eiddyn (the peculiarity of which was that Clydno could find, harnessed in it, any horse he had need of), Cynon Ab Clydno turns up in the Mabinogion tale of ‘Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain’, wherein we find him swapping tales with Arthur and Cei, and Owain Ab Urien. We find him very much at home, for that matter, since they are all relaxing and – what else? – drinking mead! Cynon goes on to recite one of the more memorable tales of (even) the Mabinogion, concerning a forest which is home to a black giant, wielding an iron club, by means of which he controls the wild animals, and a knight in black armour, summoned by means of pouring water onto a stone. The Black Knight’s appearance is accompanied by a storm of thunder and hail so powerful that it cuts the flesh, stopping only at the bone.

The story of the Black Knight is remarkably similar to a Breton tradition concerning Barenton in Brekilien/Brocéliande (or Paimpont). The Mabinogion tale is also similar to Chretien De Troyes’ Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, which also locates the magical spring in Brocéliande. As for which came first, we will probably never know. Either way, Cynon Ab Clydno of the Gododdin found his way into the highest echelons of later Brythonic legend and its Anglicised and Latinised/Francised retellings.

(25). Gwenabwy Fab Gwên. We gather from verse 25 (XXV) that Gwenabwy owned substantial lands (in Lothian?), which he left unattended while on campaign (probably meaning that his tenants also left their lands to fight). The reference to ei lys, ‘his court’, strongly suggests that Gwenabwy was not merely a land-owner but a Chieftain.Little more can be gleaned from verse 43 (XLIII), only that Gwenabwy was ‘as good as’ (or slew) twelve men. (The same line in the B text is more modest in its claims, stating merely that Gwenabwy was deheueg, ‘dextrous, skilful’).

(32). Gwlgod (or Gwlgawd or Gwlyged) Gododdin. All the poem itself tells us is that ‘Gwlgod Gododdin was swift in opposition’ and ‘Mynyddog’s feast made him famous’. Somehow, between Gwlgod’s brief mention in the Gododdin and the early second millennium A.D., he became a legendary figure. He – or more precisely his drinking horn – is the subject of one of Culhwch’s quests in the Mabinogion tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. It may be significant that Gwlgod’s name-check in the Gododdin is in the context of the year-long feasting before the battle, since the magical object attributed to him in the Culhwch story is a self-replenishing mead-horn, Corn Gwlgawd Gododdin.

(34). Morien Fab Fferog. Morien is referenced in four verses. We gather from the text that Morien was the son of Fferog, and a descendant of Caradog: 35 (XXXV). Verse 34 (XXXIV) describes Morien’s hall (and hearth) as the most generous the Gododdin knew. 35 (XXXV) refers to him as mynawg, ‘chieftain’, and clearly places him amongst the leaders of the Gododdin’s cavalry: fer y law faglei fowys varchawc, ‘his fierce hand set fire to fleeing horsemen’ (presumably figurative: ‘…made them flee as if set on fire’). 43 (XLIII A) tells us, rather cryptically, that: amuc moryen/ gwenwawt mirdyn. a chyvrannv penn/ prif eg weryt. ac an nerth ac am hen, ‘Morien fulfilled/ The prophesy of Myrddin, and strew the heads/ Of [Anglic] chieftains upon the earth, strong and ancient alike’. Finally, 54 (LIV A) which is for Bradwen, mentions Morien in passing: wenn heli bratwen. gwnelut. lladut. llosgut./ no moryen ny waeth wnelut., ‘As he did, so did Bradwen. You slew, and burned/ You did no less (‘no worse’) than Morien’. The mention of fire once again is intriguing: whilst it seems unlikely that Morien actually set horses on fire (!), as verse 35 (XXXV) suggests, the repeated allusions – ‘fire/hearth… set ablaze… burned’ – do suggest that Morien used fire as a weapon of war. There are a handful of (oblique) references elsewhere to the use of fire, e.g. 70 (LXX A): bu bwlch bu twlch tandde, ‘there was a breach [and then] there was a house on fire’.

(38). Elffin Fab Bodduadaf. Elffin is mentioned in three verses. It is clear that he was among the cavalry, from the phrase arderchauc varchauc, ‘excellent horseman’. Otherwise, the three consecutive verses are fairly formulaic: ‘wall of warfare, bull of battle… worthy of his mead’ et cetera. In the third of the three, we learn his full name, Elffin Fab Bodduadaf. His father’s name, Bodduadaf, seems to signify either ‘Hand of Victory’ (bodd/budd+adaf)or ‘Claw-Hand’ (boddw+adaf).

(67). Cynddylig Aeron. Cynddylig (of Ayrshire?) Aeron is unlikely to refer to the river Aeron in Ceredigion, since the Gododdin’s Walian-Welsh allies (so to speak) were the men of Gwynedd (geographically, Gwynedd and Clwyd), not, as far as we know, Deheubarth (the south-west), Powys or Glywysing (Gwent/Glamorgan). Aeron probably refers to the river Ayr in Strathclyde, and the surrounding or adjacent regions: perhaps the part of Strathclyde north of the Ayr? In 67 (LXVII), it is not entirely clear whether Aeron is to be taken with Cynddylig, or means ‘the men of Aeron/Ayrshire’. In 80 (LXXX), however, it is certainly being used as an honorific: Cynddylig Aeron, cynnan lew, ‘Cynddylig Aeron, thunderous, bold’… His host or battalion is described as ‘huge’ (goruawr y lu), from which it seems self-evident that Cynddylig was an experienced war-leader and was in command of one of the army’s largest divisions. The terms llogell in 67 (LXVII) and more especially lleithig in 80 (LXXX), ‘hall’ and ‘(lordly) seat, throne’ also leave little doubt that Cynddylig was a Chieftain as well as a war-leader.


1 Voltaire once gave a rather surprising title to an essay in which he addresses the French people – Discourse Aux Welches! Here he is using the word very much as a fifth century Saxon or Frank seems to have used it – any kind of Celtic or Latin people.

2 tynoeu: tyno, ‘valley, hollow’ cf. (Middle) Breton tnou. dra thrumein trum essyth: trum is ‘ridge’ so it seems fair to take this as the name of a high hill or mountain. Trumain, if valid, is simply unknown. It could be an adjective on the same basis as milain (‘beastly’: mil ‘beast’+ain), so trum+ain ‘spiky, having many ridges’. Essyth almost has to be Esyd to chime with blegyd, ymwyd (emwyt) and (g)wrhyd (wrhyt). ‘The valleys of (very) ridge-b­­acked Trum Essyd’ or ‘[from] the valleys to ridge-backed Trum Essyd’.
‘Dwywai’s son’, incidentally, is Saint Deiniol, regarded (along with his two brothers) as the founder of Bangor-Is-Coed abbey, whose father was Dunawd and his mother, Dwywai. This may mean Aneirin had a royal connection, since Dunawd was the son of Pabo Post Prydain, a ‘prince of the North’ in the mid-400s, i.e. probably the kingdom of Efrog (Celtic York), or a tributary kingdom of Efrog, before its disintegration.

5 thoughts on “Strife on the Borders

  1. The reference to Rhinoceros-hide armour will stay with me forever, I think. ‘He’s got the hide of a Rhinoceros’. ‘Yes, and a sword and a war-bow as well’. ‘Don’t mess, right?’ Lovely stuff. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Jacydo! Yes, both Steffan and I have tried to capture the ‘rhythm of battle’. And metrical versions of such ancient poems are most certainly required if their essence is to be recaptured. It’s a bit unfortunate that modern renderings of poems such as these are almost exclusively provided by historians of literature who are just that; they are first and foremost translators – translators and commentators, nothing more. They are vested with neither the art nor ‘awen’ of the poet.

      Liked by 1 person

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