This tale is the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, part of the Mythology of Ancient Britain. It is adapted from the translation of Lady Charlotte Guest. In adapting it I have attempted to keep very close to the original, but using more modern language.
Math the son of Mathonwy was the lord of Gwynedd. He didn't travel around his land, but always remained at his home in Caer Dathyl. This was because he was bound, except in time of war, to live with his feet cushioned in the lap of a virgin.
At this time Goewin, the fairest maiden in Gwynedd, kept Math's feet warm in her lap, and the land was at peace. All was well until Math's nephew Gilvaethwy fell in love with Goewin. Gilvaethwy knew that Math would not release Goewin from her task, and would be angry even to hear of his desires towards her. Gilvaethwy's hopeless love was making him ill. His older brother Gwydion noticed the change in Gilvaethwy's manner, and asked him what was wrong. "Brother," Gilvaethwy answered, "it won't do either of us any good to tell you what's wrong. You know that Math has the ability to know whatever is said, even if it is whispered most quietly." Gwydion guessed at once what the situation was, and he decided to help his brother obtain the lovely Goewin.
After some thought, Gwydion took Gilvaethwy with him to see Math. Gwydion told Math about some animals that Pryderi, the lord of South Wales, had recently obtained from Arawn, King of Annwn. "These animals have never before been seen in our island, and their flesh is very sweet, I hear. They are called pigs or swine." Math was very interested by this and asked Gwydion how some of these swine could be obtained. "I have a plan for this," Gwydion replied, "I will go with a company, disguised as bards to seek the swine for you".
So Gwydion and Gilvaethwy set out with ten men, and they were received joyfully by Pryderi, who was looking forward to hearing tales from this impressive band of bards. Now Gwydion was the best story-teller in the world, and he entertained and charmed everyone at Pryderi's court that night. At the end of the evening, Gwydion raised the matter he had come to discuss. Pryderi was eager to please this eloquent bard but, he said, "There is a covenant between me and my land, that I may not sell or give away the swine until they have produced double their number."
"Very well," said Gwydion, "let us leave this matter open for tonight, and tomorrow I shall show you a way around this obstacle."
That night Gwydion worked a magic charm, fashioning twelve richly clad horses, twelve greyhounds and twelve gold shields. The next morning he took them to Pryderi, and offered them in exchange for the swine. "You cannot sell or give the swine away, Lord, but you can exchange them for something better. In this way, you are released from your word." After consulting his men, Pryderi agreed to the exchange, and Gwydion set off with the swine as soon as he could, because he knew that the charm he had worked would only last a day.
When Gwydion's company arrived home at Caer Dathyl, they found that Math was preparing for war. Pryderi had found them out and was marching on Gywnedd. Gwydion and his men had only a few hours to rest before Math called them to join him in meeting Pryderi's army.
That night Math's army made camp at Penardd, and Gwydion called his brother to him. "See how I help you, Gilvaethwy," he said, "Math is at war, and Goewin sits alone back at Caer Dathyl. Would you like to visit her?" The two brothers set off and found Goewin in Math's room, sitting with the other court ladies. Gilvaethwy sat himself in Math's couch, and turned out the other women, but would not let Goewin leave with them.
At dawn, the brothers went back to the army's camp, and took up positions for the battle. Pryderi attacked and there was great slaughter, but in the end the men of the South were forced to flee, pursued by the men of Gwynedd. Pryderi made a number of stands against Math's army, but each time he was forced to retreat again, and so eventually he decided to seek peace. He sent a messenger to Math, asking him to restrain his armies and challenging Gwydion to single handed combat to resolve the dispute, since Gwydion had been the cause of it.
After consulting Gwydion, Math agreed to this and Gwydion came forth to meet Pryderi alone on the battlefield. Gwydion used his strength and fierceness, his magic and charms, and he killed Pryderi. The men of the South went home grieving, and Math returned to Caer Dathyl in triumph.
As Math came into his room at Caer Dathyl, Goewin approached him, and told him how Gilvaethwy had taken her against her will, with Gwydion's support. Math was very angry at this dishonour to himself and to Goewin. In order to make amends to Geowin, Math made her his wife. He then waited for his two nephews to return and face his judgement.
Gilvaethwy and Gwydion had not returned directly from the battle with Pryderi. Aware of what was likely to happen, they avoided Caer Dathyl, travelling around Gwynedd instead. Finally Math forbade anyone to give them food or lodging, and they were forced to return to Caer Dathyl and to accept Math's punishment.
Taking his magic wand, Math struck Gilvaethwy and Gwydion, turning them into deers. He turned them out to survive as they could in their new form, and to return to him in twelve months time.
A year later, two deer and a fawn appeared outside the castle. Math's anger had not yet died, and lifting his wand, he turned the two deer into wild hogs for another year. The fawn he transformed into a young boy, calling him Hydwn.
Another year passed, and two wild hogs appeared outside the castle, accompanied by a well-grown young one. Math transformed the young hog into a fine youth, calling him Hychdwn, but his anger against Gilvaethwy and Gwydion was not yet exhausted, and he made them wolves for the next year.
At the appointed time, the two wolves returned, a strong cub with them. "This one I will take," said Math, transforming the cub into a youth, "and his name will be Bleiddwn. Such are these three:"
"The three sons on Gilvaethwy the false, The three faithful combatants, Bleiddwn, Hydwn, and Hychdwn the Tall"
Then he struck Gilvaethwy and Gwydion with his wand, and restored them to their original form, saying, "You have had sufficient punishment and dishonour for the wrong you did me. We are now at peace."
Having made his peace with the two brothers, Math now sought another maiden to hold his feet, and he asked Gwydion for his advice. Gwydion suggested Arianrod, his sister, and brought her before Math. Math asked her if she was a virgin, and Arianrod answered only that she believed so. Math gave her a test, making her step over his wand to see if she was indeed a virgin, and as she did so there appeared a fine, fair yellow-haired boy. At the crying of the boy, she turned to leave, and a small form appeared, but Gwydion bundled it away in his scarf before anyone could see it, and then hid it in the chest at the bottom of his bed.
Math named the yellow-haired boy Dylan, and baptized him in the sea. But as soon as he entered the sea he took it's nature and swam away like a fish. For this reason he was called Dylan, the son of the wave.
One morning Gwydion heard a soft crying coming from the chest at the bottom of his bed, and opening it, he found an infant boy within. Gwydion put the infant out to nurse, and he grew quickly, so that at two years old he came to court, and he and Gwydion became friendly. When he was four, he was as big as an eight year old, and Gwydion decided to take the boy to see his mother, Arianrod.
Arianrod welcomed Gwydion when he arrived at her castle, and she asked him who the boy was that followed him. When Gwydion told her that the boy was her son she became angry. "Why do you remind me of the shame and dishonour of that day, bringing with you the proof that I was no virgin?" She brooded awhile, and then asked what the boy's name was. Gwydion replied that he had no name yet, and Arianrod replied, "Well, I lay this destiny on him, that he shall never have a name until I give him one." Gwydion was angry at this, and told Arianrod that she was wicked to deprive the child of his name because of her own feelings of shame. "But the boy shall have a name, no matter how displeasing to you!" he said, leaving Arianrod.
Gwydion and the boy returned to Caer Dathyl, and the next day they set out to the sea-shore. Gwydion took some sedges and seaweed and turned them into a boat, and out of dry sticks and sedges he made some fine coloured leather. Loading the leather onto the boat, they set sail for the port by Arianrod's castle. Arriving there, Gwydion disguised himself and the boy, and set about making beautiful shoes from the leather. Before long Arianrod noticed them working, and asked her attendants to find out what they were doing. When she heard of the lovely shoes they were making, she told her messenger to take the measure of her foot and to have them make a pair of shoes for her.
Gwydion made a pair of shoes, but made them larger than the measure Arianrod had sent, so that they did not fit. She then sent for him to make some smaller, but he made them too small to fit. When she sent back again, he told the messenger that he would not make any more shoes for her until he saw her foot for himself. By this ruse, he drew Arianrod out of her castle to visit them by their boat. As she was with them a wren alighted on the deck of the boat, and the boy shot at it, hitting it in the leg between sinew and bone. Arianrod smiled, "The lion aimed with a steady hand!", she exclaimed. Gwydion let out a yell of triumph, "Despite yourself, he has a name, and a good one: Llew Llaw Gyffes he shall be called, the lion with the steady hand!" With that, his illusions faded, their work disappeared in sea weed and sedges, and Arianrod saw who they were.
Arianrod berated Gwydion for his trickery, and then pronounced a further curse on the boy, that he would not get arms and armour except from her own hand. Gwydion swore to her that no matter her malice, Llew should have his arms.
Gwydion continued to bring up Llew Llaw Gyffes, until the youth was full grown, perfect in features, strength and stature. He taught him how to ride horses, and to fight with arms. Then Gwydion saw how Llew was downcast because he had no arms of his own, so he decided to tackle Arianrod again.
They set off to the Castle of Arianrod, and Gwydion changed their forms so that they appeared as two youths unrecognisable to any. They announced themselves as bards from Glamorgan, and Arianrod welcomed them in. Gwydion entertained them that night with tales and stories, and they all went happily to bed. In the half light of dawn, Gwydion rose early and called to himself his magic and his power, and by the time the sun had risen, the castle resounded with trumpets and shouting.
Arianrod came knocking at their door, "Help us," she begged, "for a large fleet of ships is about to land and attack." Gwydion agreed to help, but pointed out that they would need arms. Arianrod thanked them and rushed away, returning shortly with sets of arms for the two men. At Gwydion's request Arianrod armed Llew, whilst her serving maid helped Gwydion. When they had finished, Gwydion paused, and then began to take his arms off again. "Why are you taking off you arms, when the army still stands around the castle?", Arianrod asked. "There is no army," Gwydion responded, "It was only an illusion to break your prophecy. And now the lad has got his arms, without any thanks to you!" At this Arianrod recognised the two, and became very angry, "Many a man might have lost his life today due to your trickery! Now I will lay a further destiny on this youth - he shall never have a wife of the race that now inhabits the earth!"
"You were always a malicious woman," Gwydion responded, "but he will have a wife despite what you say!"
Gwydion went straight to Math and complained bitterly of Arianrod's malice, telling how he had obtained arms for Llew and how Arianrod had then denied the boy a wife. Math pondered for a while and then decided that he and Gwydion should form a wife for Llew by charms and illusion. So they took the blossoms of oak, broom and meadowsweet, and produced from them a fair and graceful maiden, who they baptized Blodeuwedd, or Flower-face.
At their marriage feast, Math gave to Llew the Cantrev of Dinodig, and they went to live in a palace at Mur y Castell. For many years, Llew and Blodeuwedd lived happily there, loved by their people.
One day, when Llew was away visiting Math, Blodeuwedd heard the sounds of a hunt nearby the castle, and she asked to find out who the huntsman was. Gronw Pebyr, Lord of Penllynn, came the reply. Gronw was chasing a stag, and finally overtook it and killed it near the river. It took him the rest of the day to flay it, and in the evening he came up to the castle gate. Blodeuwedd invited him in to eat, and from the moment she set eyes on him she was filled with love for him. He also fell in love with her, and could not conceal his feelings. He stayed with her that night and the next two, but was anxious about her lord returning. They thought of how they could be together always, and Gronw advised Blodeuwedd to trick Llew into revealing how he could be killed.
Accordingly, when Llew returned, Blodeuwedd pretended great concern for him, saying that she was so worried he might be taken from her by death. "Don't worry," he said, "I cannot be slain except by a wound, and the spear that makes the wound must have been a year in the making, being worked on only during the sacrifice on Sundays. And I cannot be slain in a house, or outside, nor on horseback or on foot." Blodeuwedd expressed her surprise, asking how could he possibly be killed? "Only in one way," he replied, "by making a bath for me by the side of a river, and by putting a roof over the cauldron, and putting a buck beside the cauldron. Then if I put one foot on the buck's back, and the other on the cauldron's edge, whoever strikes me can kill."
At the first opportunity, Blodeuwedd called for Gronw and explained what Llew had said. Gronw immediately set to work on a spear, and a year later it was complete, ready for wounding Llew. That very day, Blodeuwedd approached Llew and said how she had been thinking about what he had told her a year ago, and that she did not understand how it would be possible to stand on a buck and a cauldron at the same time. Could he not show her? Trustful Llew agreed, and she ordered the bath with a roof prepared by the river. Meanwhile, she sent word to Gronw to wait in ambush on the hill above the river, and had a herd of goats brought near.
The next day she accompanied Llew down to the bath, and getting into it, he told her to fetch a buck alongside. When it drew near, he rose out of the bath and placed one foot on it's edge, and the other on the buck's back. At the fatal moment, Gronw stood up from his hiding place and threw his carefully prepared spear. It struck Llew in the side, and immediately he was transformed into an eagle which flew up into the sky with a fearful scream.
Gronw and Blodeuwedd returned to the castle, and Gronw set about taking possession of the land from the departed Llew.
When Math and Gwydion heard what had happened they were greatly grieved, for they both loved Llew, and Gwydion set out in search of him. He travelled all over the land, until he came to the house of a vassal in Maenawr Penardd, where he encountered a mystery. The man's sow would run off each day and would disappear until evening. Gwydion was curious and followed the sow next morning, until she arrived at a brook now called Nant y Llew, where began feeding under a tree. Gwydion approached and saw that the sow was feeding on putrid flesh and vermin. Looking up, he saw an eagle perched in the tree, dropping vermin and putrid flesh when it shook. It seemed to Gwydion that the eagle was Llew, and he sang to it until the eagle came down and settled on his knee. He struck the eagle with his wand and indeed it was transformed back to Llew, but in a piteous wasted state.
Gwydion took Llew back to Caer Dathyl and put him in the care of the doctors, so that within a year he was quite healed. Llew's thoughts turned to vengeance, and with Math's support he gathered the hosts of Gwynedd and set forth to Mur y Castell.
When she heard of their approach, Blodeuwedd fled into the mountains with her women. They were so afraid that they fell down into a lake and all the women except Blodeuwedd drowned. Then Gwydion overtook her and pronounced her punishment, "I will not kill you, but do worse than that. I will transform you into a hateful bird. Because of the harm you have done to Llew you will never show your face in the light of day, for all other birds will hate and attack you. You shall keep your name, but henceforth Blodeuwedd shall mean Owl."
Meanwhile Gronw Pebyr withdrew to his castle at Pennllyn, and sent embassies to Llew asking if he would take compensation for the injury Gronw had done to him. Llew refused all recompense and demanded that Gronw return to the spot where Llew was wounded and stand there while Llew threw a spear at him. Gronw was unwilling to do this, but his tribe would not support him, and so in the end he complied, and went to the place on the river Cynvael where Llew had stood that fateful day, whilst Llew took up his own place. Gronw asked Llew for mercy, saying that he had only attacked Llew because of the woman's wiles, and asking if Llew would not allow him to place a boulder between the two of them. Llew agreed, but when he flung his spear, it pierced the boulder and went on through Gronw's body. Thus was Gronw Pebyr killed, and the slab of stone with the hole driven through it still stands by the river Cynvael in Ardudwy.
This page, and all contents, are Copyright (C) 1995 by Saros. The material may be used freely providing the source is acknowledged.