Sunday, 1 May 2011

May Day and the Faerie King

I couldn't let May Day pass without sharing a story of the Faerie King, Gwyn Ap Nudd, and his place in mythology and in the changing of the seasons.

Gwyn presides over the demons of Annwn (the Otherworld of Welsh mythology) in one of the oldest of Welsh tales, that of Culhwch and Olwen. In short, it is a magical story of a young man's quest to win his true love, and how he overcomes the many obstacles posed by her father, who happens to be a giant, with the help of King Arthur. 

It is an extremely complex story,  but within it we also meet Creiddylad who, it was said, was the 'most splendid woman in the three Islands of the Mighty, and in the three islands adjacent'. (The Mabinogion.) She is betrothed to another man, whose name is Gwythyr, but is taken by force by Gwyn before the couple could consumate their union. A battle then ensues between the two men, with Gwyn the victor. However, when word of these events gets to King Arthur he orders that both Gwyn and Gwythyr are brought to him. He then rules that the argument be settled by means of a battle to be held each May Day until the end of time. Creiddylad would go to the victor. That settled, both were recruited to help Arthur and Culhwch in their quest.

A similar 'battle' used to be enacted between villages in Wales, though in this case it was over the possession of the May Pole. The fame of the village rested on their ability to prevent their May Pole from being stolen by their neighbours. While in Defynnog,  in  the Brecon Beacons, a procession was held in which two boys, who played the roles of Summer and Winter, were carried through the streets while beer and money was collected along the way. The larger portion being given to the boy who played Summer, of course. 

A final note. Welsh May Poles were traditionally made of birch, not hawthorn as we might expect. However, the conclusion of 'Culhwch and Olwen' sees hawthorn being cut and set on top of a pole - or at least that's how i read  it. The story actually ends with the beheading of Olwen's father whose head is then set on top of a stake. His name is 'Ysbaddaden', Welsh for 'Hawthorn'.

Happy May Day everyone.