The Fourth Branch - The Mabinogi of Math

The Fourth Branch is the most complex and in many respects the most fascinating of all the Branches of the Mabinogi. Its central events are the birth, death and rebirth of Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘Lleu Skillful Hand’, the consummate hero-god of the Celtic world. Cognate with the Irish Lugh Lamfada and the Gaulish Lugus, the hero of the Fourth Branch is the one character in the Mabinogi for whom we have definitive evidence of a pre-Christian cult. Lleu is literally a druidic god in medieval clothing: and this twelfth-century rendition of his life and death lacks none of the grandeur, drama or esoteric insight we might expect from such an enduring and adaptable magico-mythical structure.

The aura of pagan magic also clings to a number of the other protagonists of the Mabinogi of Math, in particular the members of that colourful dynasty often referred to as the Children of Dôn. There is little doubt that this group is ultimately identical to that magical race from the Irish tradition known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, ‘Peoples of the Goddess Danu’. What is being preserved at the core of this final tale of the Mabinogi is a reflex of one of the most significant magico-religious traditions of pre-Christian Europe, which arguably predates the emergence of Celtic as a distinct language group between 3000 and 1000 BC. For this reason, we might understand the Fourth Branch as a medieval rendition of proto-Celtic lore: a stratum of magico-religious tradition which appears to have been firmly established across the large areas of North and West Europe by 1000 BC.

Gender and Inheritance in the Fourth Branch

During the third and second millennia before the common era, groups of warrior-farmers were spreading westwards over the area we now call Europe, gaining control over the herds, pastures, fields and sacred landscapes established by earlier Neolithic populations. The presence of these new populations are indicated by the appearance of solitary barrow-burial mounds, often containing distinctive axe-like ritual objects, which were linked by an earlier generation of archaeologists to the cult of the Indo-European sky god. Whether or not this was the case, there is little doubt that with the arrival of these ‘Battle Axe people’, northern Europe was moving into a new – more emphatically patriarchal – era of warrior priest-kings; replacing the more gynocentric cultures of the early Neolithic farmers. A representation of the process by which the goddess was usurped – through a series of patriarchal acts including a rape, an act of warfare and a succession of magical deceptions – constitutes the narrative deep structure of the Fourth Branch.

As the author of the Four Branches would have no doubt understood, the historical trajectory mapped out in the Mabinogi of Math was an ongoing dynamic process, re-enacted in a series of incremental developments over the generations. The rise of the patriarchal hegemony might have begun with the arrival of the Battle Axe people on the plains of Northern Europe in the fourth millennium BC, but it was still playing itself out four thousand years later in the courts of the medieval Welsh princes. One issue at stake was the rules of inheritance, and the significance of the female line. The traditional Welsh inheritance system – like that of the Pictish cultures of Early Medieval Scotland – has been described as ‘a network of staggered kindreds in which links to the female line were highly significant.’ i Recognition of the maternal line allowed figures such as Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and Maredudd ap Owain (d.999) a command a far wider sphere than their patrilineal claims alone would have allowed. Likewise, the involvement of this ‘staggered network of kindreds’ opened the kingship to a wider field of potential candidates than would have emerged through the much narrower Anglo-Norman system of primogeniture. ii In theory, this would favour the strongest and most suitable contender, rather than designating automatic inheritance to the firstborn son of the existing incumbent.

However, the traditional Celtic system had its drawbacks, as the violent dynastic politics of Early Medieval Wales attest only too clearly. Such a loosely-defined inheritance system will always have a tendency towards internecine conflict, and by the late twelfth century it was becoming clear that this habit of domestic infighting was undermining the ability of the native Welsh to mount an effective resistance to their more orderly and united Anglo-Norman rivals. The dynastic crises of the early twelfth century, which had led in one year (1125) to the deaths of at least five members of the Welsh royal families at the hands of their own kinsmen, seem to have forced a profound re-evaluation of the traditional Celtic social dynamic over the course of the twelfth century. Evidence from the Book of Iorwerth, which was probably developed around the same time the Fourth Branch was being composed, suggests that some Welsh jurists were considering a move towards a system of Anglo-Norman style primogeniture, while others favoured retaining a streamlined version of the older clan-based tradition.iii Taken alongside the tightening up of incest laws alluded to in our discussion of Manawydan, these developments might be seen as a consummate ‘modernisation’ of the traditional cultural system of marriage, inheritance and internecine relations. The Four Branches in general, and the Mabinogi of Math in particular, might be seen as a mythological answer to the socio-cultural questions posed by the medieval Welsh jurists in the late twelfth century

The Fourth Branch opens with a scene of matrilineal malaise. The old king Math uab Mathonwy abides in a condition of partial withdrawal, with the active functions of state abrogated to his uterine nephews – sons of his sister Dôn. These nephews, it might be noted, are referred to by the matronymic – the identity of their father is never disclosed. The old king, for his part, is obliged by a magical or personal quirk (that is never fully explained), to remain with his feet ‘enfolded in the lap of a virgin’, unless roused by the turmoil of war. His virginal footholder is a certain Goewin daughter of Pebin Dôl, whose beauty excites the coveteous desire of his nephew, Gilfaethwy son of Dôn. This desire, which eventually results in a rape, sets in motion the complex narrative dynamics of the Branch.

As the work of Andrew Welsh and Katherine Millersdaughter has revealed, there are distinctly Freudian circumstances surrounding the rape of Goewin by the sons of Dôn. Redolent not so much of the better-known Oedipus complex, the situation depicted here is the altogether more primitive scenario of the primal horde – a violent appropriation of sexual privilege by the younger members of the kindred. When Math regains control of the situation, the punishment meted out to the brothers is extreme and humiliating: they are magically transformed into a succession of animal forms, and forced to mate with each other and bear each other’s offspring. Whatever other associations this lurid confluence of incest, bestiality and inter-generational violence might have provoked, there can be little doubt that the whole of this first section of the Fourth Branch would have symbolised the most hateful and primitive excesses of the Welsh tribal system – perhaps something of the kind alluded to by Gerald of Wales when he was describing the dynastic civil war which was taking place in Gwynedd as the Fourth Branch was being composed. Something of the same combination of violent and endogamous clannishness is also apparent in the behaviour of certain members of the Houses of Mathrafal and Dinefwr, as we have seen elsewhere.

The Pig Wars

Before we go on to consider the curious solution proposed in the Fourth Branch to this inherited cultural malaise, we need to focus on what might otherwise be regarded as a tangential circumstance – the theft of the pigs of Annwfn, and the resulting war with the men of the south. In terms of the narrative logic of the Fourth Branch, the importance of this event is that it serves as a means of creating the ‘turmoil of war’ which separates Math from his footholder, thus allowing creating an opportunity for the rape of Goewin. However, in the wider context of the Four Branches as a whole it creates a vital link with earlier events in the Mabinogi of Pwyll, and also situates these particular events in the wider tribal-historic tradition.

We have already seen how events from relatively remote reaches of history and prehistory seem to have been preserved (in mythic form) in the cultural memory of the Welsh tradition. An example of this would be the great hosting of Brennus and the sack of Delphi (279 BC), which we have suggested seems to have formed part of the origin mythology of the Belgic people, aspects of which appear to have been preserved the medieval tradition of ‘the Assembly of Brân’. We have also suggested that the Third Branch may be contain elements of the origin myth of the Deisi people – an immigrant Irish tribe which arrived in Dyfed in the sub-Roman period. Other elements, including a putative third century expedition into Ireland under the rather shadowy Benne Brit, also seem to have fed into to the complex fusion of Gaelic and British material that constitutes the second and third Branches of the Mabinogi.

The pig wars of the Fourth Branch, if we have understood them correctly, may refer to events from considerably further back into remote prehistory and might even represent a mythographic record of the process by which the lands, herds and magical centres of the island were wrested from its indigenous inhabitants by the earliest proto-Celtic speakers in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. Some traces of a tradition of this kind are dimly apparent in the obscure eleventh century poem Cad Goddau ‘The Battle of the Trees’ from the Book of Taliesin, in which Gwydion and the other sons of Dôn appear to do battle with the forces of Annwfn for control of the sovereignty of Britain. The obscurity of this poem prevents any but the most tenuous speculations on its meaning or significance, but there are a number of reasons for believing that it may reflect a Brythonic analogue to the events surrounding the seizure and consolidation of power by the Tuatha Dé Danaan in Ireland, as recorded in the Lebor Gabala (‘The Book of Invasions’) and the Second Battle of Mag Tuired.

The arrival of Indo-European, proto-Celtic speakers into the island of Britain remains something of an unsolved archaeological problem, but the balance of opinion tends to favour the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age as the most probable context for the beginning of this process of Celticisation. The proto-Celtic languages (representing the earliest of the surviving Indo-European languages to penetrate into western Europe) may well have been used as a kind of lingua franca throughout the trading routes which spread throughout Atlantic Europe during the third millennium BC. These networks are associated with the so-called Bell-Beaker people, whom we might loosely associate with the Tuatha Dé Danaan/Children of Dôn of the native tradition.v

Britain during this period (3000-2000 BC) supported a rich, megalithic culture which had grown out of the indigenous ‘long barrow’ culture of the Early Neolithic, modified by some important new innovations in sacred architecture, the source of which can be traced back to the northern islands of Orkney (again, the northern origin of Tuatha Dé Danaan may be relevant here). The end result was the great sacred landscapes of Avebury, New Grange and Stonehenge. Significantly, perhaps, archaeologists have identified pork and pig-rearing as key aspect of the agricultural and ritual economy of this megalithic society (known to archaeologists as the ‘Grooved Ware’ culture).

When the Bell-Beaker seafarers first made contact with this pig-farming megalith-building civilisation (whether through trading or raiding or, most likely, a mixture of the two), they at first kept their distance – with Beaker settlements tending to remain separate and distinct from their indigenous neighbours. However, by the end of the third of the third millennium BC, Beaker culture had been fully absorbed by into the surrounding megalithic landscape. The latter phases of development in the Stonehenge precinct, including the majestic Sarcen stone trilathons, and finally Bush Barrow and the other ‘rich burials’, were conducted under the patronage of wealthy merchant-kings, who were almost certainly the descendents of the original Bell-Beaker arrivistes.

There are some grounds for believing that this complex episode of prehistory was represented in mythographical shorthand in the medieval tradition of Gwydion ‘bring up the pigs of Annwfn from the south’. In terms of the larger superstructure of the Four Branches as a whole, a link is also made at this point with the early events in the Mabinogi of Pwyll – specifically the alliance with Annwfn, which we might regard as a partial merging of identities between the ancient royal houses of the South (as represented by Hywel’s wife Elen) and the mythical indigenous underworld. But as well as its tribal-historic associations, the arrival of the pig (a symbol of this magical underworld) from Annwfn into the South, and thence into the pastures of Gwynedd might be regarded as representing the encroachment of de-stabilising otherworld energies throughout the land and body-politic of Wales. The exorcism of this dangerous chthonic element – which reaches its climax with the hero Lleu’s apotheosis on the ‘upland oak’ towards the end of the Fourth branch – might be said to represent the central magical problem of the Mabinogi.

The King and his Prophesied Death

In the Fourth Branch itself, this and other problems (notably the inheritance issue referred to above) are dealt with through a modified version of the ‘King and his Prophesied Death’ scenario, the roots of which go back to the ritual dramas of the ancient world. In its most basic form, this tale-type involves a giant or tyrannical king whose death at the hands of his grandson has been predicted years in advance of the latter’s birth. In a futile attempt to avoid this fate, the king attempts to protect his daughter’s virginity – by secreting her in a tower or some other protected location. These attempts are thwarted, and the daughter becomes pregnant (sometimes by a god, or a shape-shifting hero). The king attempts to have the child killed – often by casting him adrift on a basket of reeds. The infant nonetheless survives, and returns in adulthood and (often by accident) brings about the death of his grandfather the king.

This basic scenario appears with remarkable frequency in the origin legends and heroic biographies of the world. It is to be found underlying the classical stories of Astyages and Cyrus, Acrisius and Perseus and Gargoris and Habidis, to name but a few. Traces of the same mythic paradigm are also evident within the Egyptian and Babylonian traditions (e.g. the birth of King Sargon), and biblical accounts of the births of Moses and even Jesus of Nazareth. While no two of these accounts are precisely the same, they share between them enough common features for us to recognise a perennial theme.

There are reasons, as we have already suggested, for suspecting that ritual or magico-religious foundations may underlie this basic mythical structure. It finds an echo in the mimetic, seasonal dramas commonly found within pre-industrial, agrarian societies from a variety of contexts. Within these dramas, the Old King represented the Old Year in its tyrannical aspect: which might be Mid-Winter in Europe, or the harsh Dry Season in more southerly latitudes. The celebration of the Young Hero’s victory was the affirmation of the forthcoming Spring, or the return of life and fertility to the earth following the rains. Enjoyment of this seasonal drama was an act of mystic participation, an affirmation of the cyclic process of cosmic ebb and flow, which extended to the human as well as the natural world, as these audiences would have recognised. This ritual coup de theatre would have been accompanied by more generalised festivities aimed at synchronising the emotions of the community with the perennial rhythms of the year. Thus it represented not just the passage of the seasons, but also the eternal conflict – between darkness and light, sorrow and joy, age and youth and thanatos and libido – in which the tribal community, through its ritual-dramatic affirmations, was playing an instrumental part.

The variant of this ritual practiced in northern and western Europe in the first millennium BC has left its impression on the later medieval mythologies recorded in Gaelic Ireland and Scandinavian Iceland as well as Brythonic Wales. The discernable similarities in both plot structural and the nomenclature of the primary protagonists in these north western Prophesied Death tales strongly suggest common pre-historic origins. Both the Irish and Scandinavian variants represent a figure with a name like Balor or Baldr killed with a spear thrown by a figure with a name like Lugh or Loki. In both cases, the Balor/Baldr figure has pronounced solar affinities; while Lugh/Loki has associations with lightning or fire. We might assume that this mythology might have its roots in the seasonal dramas of the early Indo-European farmer-pastoralists (a comparison might be made here with the overthrowing of the Drought Bull by the hero Gilgamesh in the Babylonian epic of that name), but it is interesting to observe that in Scandinavian north climate seems to have influenced mythology in that the sun god has become a tender and cherished youth, rather than a monstrous cyclopsian giant. Here, the lightning god Loki becomes the villain of the piece – striking down the solar prince with his mistletoe spear, and precipitating the start of Ragnorok, the doom of the gods. In the Irish myth of Lugh and Balor, the original character of the protoganists has been preserved to a greater degree – Balor’s baleful single eye withering all that lies before it, like the ancient desert sun.

There were a number of other elements involved in this ancient seasonal drama, many of which have also been preserved in the medieval texts extant. This include the role of a trickster figure, sometimes associated with the wind or the sea, who comes to the aid of the lightning god. The original name of this figure – which c.1000 BC may have had a form like *Uuidianos – survives in the Welsh tradition of Gwydion and in the German mythology as Othin, Woden or Wotan. Pigs or other livestock seem to have played an instrumental part in this account, which seems to have become associated at quite an early stage with tribal-historical accounts of the seizure of power from the aboriginal tribes, as discussed above. Another curious feature which appears in various forms in all three traditions (Irish, Welsh and Icelandic) involves aquatic figures with ability to transform themselves into seals, or (as did Loki’s twin brother Dylan) to dive into the sea and ‘undertake its nature’.

In the Fourth Branch rendition, this body of mythological lore has been significantly re-arranged, to the extent to which the original structure is only discernable through rigorous analysis of its cognate This rearrangement, however, is not accidental and is entirely appropriate to the purpose of the text. The figure of Lleu’s great-uncle Math, for example, displays many of the characteristics of the doomed old king of the Prophesied Death scenario, though his original role within the story may well have been more like that of the shaman-helper figure (a cognate figure, Mathgen the Druid, plays this role in the Irish tradition). But with his curious combination of omniscience and magical vulnerability, Math is the obvious candidate for the role of the fated Old King. However, although he is ultimately replaced as king of Gwynedd by the youthful Lleu, there is no sense of any hostility between these protagonists in the Fourth Branch. On more than one occasion Math lends magical or political assistance to Gwydion’s efforts to protect and advance the interests of the young Venedotian hero.

Equally curious is the role of Lleu himself in the events of the Fourth Branch. According to the usual Prophesied Death framework, the young hero would have occupied the role of patricidal liberator: killing his tyrannical grandfather, as Lugh did Balor, with a magical spear or similar projectile (e.g. the mistletoe spear of the Baldur myth). However, in the Fourth Branch it is Lleu himself who is struck by this spear – under circumstances that distinctly resemble the fated, taboo-breaking conditions of the Prophesied Death scenario. The Branch is concluded with Lleu himself wielding the spear, and thereby acting out the traditional role of the hero of this myth – but only after he has himself been struck in the same way. In other words, Lleu is the victim as well as the hero of the Fourth Branch – just as Math exhibits characteristics both of the doomed king and the shaman-helper.

Finally, Lleu’s adversary Gronw can also be seen as a rather more complex figure than the tradition would normally allow. He is represented as a peer, rather than a senior of Lleu’s, and a rival in love, rather than an oppressive patriarch. His role in the story is heavily influenced by certain narrative conventions that were commonplace within the Celtic world, notably the tragic Love Triangle scenario (a well-known variant of which is represented by the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere). But within the context of the Prophesied Death tradition, it is Gronw who first wields the enchanted spear and breaks through the magical protection of his adversary – which are unambiguously the feats of the hero within the conventional version of the tale. So, mirroring the position of his opponent and rival, Gronw takes on characteristics of both the hero/conqueror and the villain/victim. Moral ambiguity of this kind, as we have seen, is entirely typical of the Mabinogi as a whole.

The figure of Math, whom we shall shortly encounter in the text of the Fourth Branch itself, is an interesting example of how certain elements of the Prophesied Death scenario have been appropriated and recombined to express contemporary political concerns as well as more perennial intuitive complexes. Math is portrayed as superhuman in his magical power, and almost godlike in his omniscience and judiciousness. His sporadic interventions serve to punish inequity and reward the just, fitting the ideal of a medieval king. Yet, for all this, there is a curious detachment about this figure – almost indifferent in his meditative withdrawal from the mundane world. His ‘peculiarity’ – requiring him to ‘rest his feet in the lap of a virgin’ – has obvious sexual connotations, but also implies a kind of regression, a re-absorption into a pre-natal state. This abnormal condition prevents him from touring the circuit of his courts – and forces him to delegate this vital aspect of Medieval Celtic kingship to his younger kinsmen: Gwydion and Gilfaethwy son of Dôn. It is perhaps this abrogation of his kingly responsibilities that suggests, more than anything else, that the sovereignty of Math was understood as fundamentally incomplete, disabled or flawed. Again there are echoes in the contemporary situation of Medieval Wales, and the Kingdom of Gwynedd in particular – in which the failure of the old king Owain Gwynedd to nominate an appropriate heir led to a decade of bloody civil war, as his sons and nephews ‘violated all bonds of brotherhood’ (in the words of one contemporary observer) in their struggle for control of the lordship.

Medieval Typologies: The Fourth Branch and the Reconstitution of Wales 1208-1282

The Fourth Branch was an attempt to offer a new paradigm for the constitution and inheritance of power in native medieval Wales. The assistance and support lent to the nascent hero Lleu by his older male relatives in the Fourth Branch contrasts markedly with the actualities of dynastic political life in Wales throughout the twelfth century – where internecine conflicts regularly set uncle against nephew, brother against brother, and even father against son. Their support of their younger relative – who is being effectively reared for the future lordship of the region – Math and Gwydion are effectively enacting the idealised principle of the ethling as defined by the modernising element in the native Welsh judiciary. That is to say, Lleu is identified as the heir apparent before the death of the reigning king. So clear and unambiguous is this designation that his maternal uncle Gwydion – who might have been a dangerous rival contender under the old, clan-based system – recognises his legitimacy and directs his energies to fostering and developing this princeling, rather than seeking to thwart him as a younger rival. The advantages of this new system, in terms of unity and stability, need no further explanation.

Something like a form of primogeniture was adopted in Gwynedd in thirteenth century, with the clear designation of an heir-apparent atheling leading to a period of unprecedented power and stability for the northern kingdom. This was the Age of the Llywelyns, in which the princes of Gwynedd became the de facto leaders of native Wales as a whole – another development that was mythically encoded into the Four Branches, which offered implicit support to the line of Anarawd, the typological correlate of Caswallawn son of Beli Mawr. In this respect, the Mabinogi in its extant form might be understood as an intensely political document, a mythical underwriting of the new constitution of Wales under the primogenitive headship of the Princes of Gwynedd.

This re-negotiation of the traditional rights and prerogatives of medieval Wales was a complex matter, and required clear demonstration of magical and mythical precedent to legitimise the new constitution. Thus the events of projected back into the foretime – establishing the sense that what might seem like a constitutional revolution was in fact merely a confirmation of the mythically established natural order. Thus, the fractious element in the political life of Wales was strongly identified with the Irish, the people of the south – with its ultimate origin in the dubious riches of Annwfn. These elements are finally exorcised from the Dyfed by the patient cunning of Manawydan the ‘humble chieftain’, but the second and third Branches make clear the marginal position of the House of the Llŷr that since the death of Brân. As if to reinforce the point, the southern king Pryderi is defeated in the field by the lords of Gwynedd – albeit under morally compromising circumstances, which include an act of internecine rape and the theft of the pigs of Annwfn. The Fourth Branch deals with this troublesome legacy, reconfiguring the behaviour of the ruling kindred of the north into an ideal that it would eventually assume in the thirteenth century.

The brutality and fractiousness demonstrated at various intervals in first three Branches undermine the legitimacy of the ‘staggered networks’ of power which characterised Welsh political life prior to the Age of the Llywelyns. In the first and second Branches, the fractious influence of foster-brothers and other members of the wider court community is clearly identified – making the case for a narrowing of power away from these traditional tribal influences. The second and third Branches, in various different ways, identify the close association between incest/endogamy and internecine violence – these tendencies being most vividly represented by the savagely psychopathic Efnisien, whose primitive jealousy towards his own sister is expressed in a murderous hostility to her husband and his offspring.

The one remaining aspect of the traditional Welsh legal and political system to be reformed by the changes brought about in Gwynedd in the early thirteenth century was a discrediting of the value traditionally ascribed to the matrilineal line in traditional Brythonic custom. The move towards father-to-son primogeniture might be characterised, in short, as a purgation of the remnants of matriliny. As well as an attack on Llywelyn’s dynastic rivals through their typological counterparts, we might also expect to see some evidence of this patrilineal agenda in the Four Branches. Indeed, folklorist C.W. Sullivan has advanced some powerful arguments to the effect that this was the central purpose of the Fourth Branch:

Math is about lordship … bound up in a matrilineal-to-patrilineal inheritance shift in which Gwydion and Aranrhod are the primary antagonists and in which Gwydion is the pivotal figure between Math, who inherits matrilineally, and Lleu, who inherits patrilineally… vii

Sullivan suggests that the Four Branches might understood as a series of ‘patriarchal acts’ (beginning with a rape), which sees the will of the female protagonists being repeatedly overwhelmed or thwarted by Gwydion, – more often by cunning and magic than unleavened brute force. Perhaps the strangest but also most significant of these magical moves sees Gwydion nurture the boy Lleu, and ease his passage into manhood, against the wishes of his mother Aranrhod. In doing so, Gwydion appropriates many of the functions of motherhood: incubating the aborted foetus in a box at the end of his bed; deploying his power and influence to organise a wet-nurse to suckle the infant; and finally tricking Aranrhod out of the maternal prerogatives of naming, arming and bestowing the boy in marriage. Though not what one would typically think of as a ‘patriarchal act’, Sullivan argues that by gaining control over these maternal functions, Gwydion succeeds in gaining control over its political correlate, i.e. the matrilineal power-structure. Thus masculine magic (symbolised by the wand and the englyn) prevails over that of the female (symbolised by the curse and the magical bag) – signalling the end of the matrilineal era.

This mythic scenario finds its parallel in the exoteric events of the time. We have seen how a constitutional revolution seems to have been under way, which clearly had its epicentre in the kingdom of Gwynedd. Alongside the changes to the inheritance of property and sovereignty outlined above, historians have also noted the emergence in thirteenth-century Wales of what might be described as the trappings of the proto-modern civilisation: an embryonic government bureaucracy; the growing importance of the monetary economy and a burgeoning urban population. As the century progressed, the increasingly centralised medieval principality of Wales was assuming the identity of a conventional European High Medieval state, with its own papal legate and ambassadorial representatives on the international stage. Gwynedd, and indeed Wales as a whole, had come along way from the clannish feuding of the 1170s and 80s – the world into which Llywelyn ap Iorwerth had been born. Central to this accelerated development was a process of internal change within Gwynedd itself, cultural as well as constitutional and political. It is this process of change that was being obliquely signified by the sequence of events in the Fourth Branch.

Like any process of fundamental internal change, this dynamic would inevitably be met by what psychoanalysis would term ‘resistance’. The matrilineal system, and the cultural complex it represented, remained a powerful force in the minds of the late twelfth-century Welsh. It could not be banished with anything as simple as a casual swipe of the patriarchal wand. If the Fourth Branch is read as a magical narrative, the bizarre sequence of shape-changes, strange impregnations and gender-role reversals might be said to reflect a complex psychic process which was evidently required to neutralise this lingering matriarchal power. It is as if the audience of the Mabinogi needed to be assured that the rights of patriliny had been properly won by Gwydion in the Foretime. Nothing short of an involved magical sequence would satisfy them that this was the case. Something akin to matricidal guilt is evident beneath the structure of this final Branch.

What is particularly interesting about this symbolic negation of matrilineal authority is that, like so much else within the Mabinogi, it succinctly defines a long-term tribal-historic trajectory, as well as relating to the more specific circumstances of the late-twelfth century. The ‘modernisation’ of the Welsh constitution, enacted by the House of Aberffraw during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is perhaps best understood as the latest stage in an ongoing kulturkampf between rival systems of power and social organisation – the conflict between the indigenous, local and matrifocal on the one hand and the expansive, hegemonistic and patriarchal on the other.

Recalling the tribal-historic developments discussed earlier on in this section, we might remember that this process seems to have begun around the start of the third millennium BC, when the so-called Battle Axe culture began to spread out across the Pontic steppes, and thence into Alpine Europe and the West. The bearers of this late Neolithic culture have been identified as a hierarchical, warrior society – widely associated with the spread of Indo-European languages across Northern Europe during the third and second millennia BC. Their primary advantage lay in their ability to exploit wider networks of power and commodity exchange than the smaller-scale, indigenous communities they came to dominate. The key tension here, repeated at various later junctures in the prehistory of the British Isles, is between insularity and hegemony. But equally important (on a symbolic level at least) was the gendering of these social forms: the celebration of the female in the religious iconography of the earliest farming societies in prehistoric Europe versus the increasing emphasis on patriarchal power in the social organisation and burial rites of later prehistoric cultures.

The Children of Dôn

The people of Dôn, or the Tuatha Dé Danann (as they were known in the Irish tradition) were recognised by medieval tribal-historians as occupying a medial position between the earliest indigenous inhabitants on one hand, and the final wave of colonists – known as the Sons of Beli Mawr in the Welsh tradition – from whom the medieval ruling dynasties claimed direct descent. We have seen how they seem to represent a tribal-historical memory composed of elements of several different prehistoric groupings. The name of the Tuatha Dé Danann / the Children of Dôn would appear to derive from a great Indo-European river-goddess (c.f. Vedic Danu; and the river names Danube, Don, Dneiper etc.), a cult figure who may even owe her origins to the proto-neolithic matriarchal religion speculatively reconstructed by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. By tracing the origins of the Tuatha Dé Danann to the ‘Islands of the North’, and associating them with the megalithic sacred landscapes of New Grange and the Boyne valley, the Irish tribal-historians and mythographers would also appear to be preserving a memory of the bearers of the so-called Grooved Ware culture, whose tombs and sacred architecture are also suggestive of a goddess-centric magico-religious universe. But as we have suggested, the strongest impression left by the People of Dôn, as represented in medieval Celtic tribal-history, was their association with the arts, crafts and material riches, surely associating them with the mercantile Bell-Beaker people, who archaeologists believe dominated the western seaways of Europe in the Early Bronze Age. Both archaeology and medieval tradition would suggest that this people formed a complex series of relationships with the earlier, matrifocal groups – and in many respects ended up becoming absorbed into what we defined in earlier chapters as ‘the Indigenous Underworld’. But it was also clear that the Bell-Beaker people of the archaeological record and the people of Dôn/Danann in the medieval Celtic tradition both belong comfortably within a socio-cultural era we might reasonably describe as the Heroic Age of Britain, characterised by a dominant patriarchal elite, exploiting widening military and commercial networks.

It is therefore particularly interesting that the author of the Mabinogi (or the tradition in which he was working) had identified the People of Dôn as the focus of this showdown between the magic powers of the Male and Female, the Hegemon and the Indigene. We have discussed the possibility that a key thematic concern of the Fourth Branch is the transition from a tradition of matrilineal inheritance, to a system of power based on father-to-son succession. It could be argued that a similar pattern is evident in the Irish traditions of the Tuatha Dé Danann.viii There were, as we argued above, particular contemporary circumstances which made these ancient narratives particularly apposite in the late-twelfth century. But the use of this particular tribal-historic tradition did more than simply highlight an ironic typological equation with events in the High Middle Ages: it connected these events with a more profound, long-term cultural-historic process.

A complete, annotated translation of the Mabinogi of Math is available at

iK. L. Maund ‘Ireland, Wales and England’ (Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 1991) p.98
iiGruffydd ap Llewelyn’s father appears to have had fairly obscure origins, rather like those of Rhodri Fawr’s father Merfyn Frych. Likewise, it was through matrilneal connections with the ancient royal dynasty of the south that the House of Dinefwr would have received its legitimacy among many in the kingdoms of Dyfed, Seisyllwch and Ystrad Tywi. These later connections, as we have seen, were explored typologically in the First and Third Branches through the family of Pwyll and Rhiannon, the latter being mythological anti-types of Hywel Dda and Elen.
iiiThe Book of Iorwerth devotes considerable attention to the novel concept of the ethling, or next in line to the sovereignty (the term is imported, significantly enough, from Anglo-Saxon nomenclature). It is clear that legal opinion is divided on whether all the king’s immediate and extended family should be considered ethlings (a slightly restricted variant of the traditional Celtic derbfine clan system), or whether the ethling should be a single individual designated as such by the current king – a move towards a kind of quasi-primogeniture, or a more orderly, less contentious system of succession.
vThe name ‘Danaan/Dôn/Donwy’ > Pr Clt. *Danuuia has it cognates in a number of river names throughout the central and eastern Europe, suggesting that this culture probably had its roots the Crimean heartlands of the Battle Axe/Corded ware culture. The Bell-Beaker complex represents a later outgrowth of this culture, fused with various Atlantic, Mediterranean and Western Neolithic elements. The Bell-Beaker trading networks included an impressive bronze- and gold-working society based in the Danish peninsula, with demonstrable links to early Bronze Age Britain and Ireland. Interestingly, Medieval Irish tradition attributes a Scandinavian origin to the Tuatha Dé Danaan.
viThe fullest analysis of the evolution of the Four Branch, and its analogues in the Welsh and Irish traditions has been set out in W. J. Gruffydd’s 1928 classic, Math vab Mathonwy (Cardiff: University of Wales Press)
viiSullivan (1996) p. 353
viiiCath Maige Tuired, the text which represents one of the earliest Irish accounts of the myth of Lugh and the Prophesied Death, describes a conflict between the Tuatha Dé Danann and an underworld race known as the Fomoiri. The champions of each side are both half-Fomorian and half-Danann, but in Lug’s case the connection to the Tuatha Dé is through his father. This arguably suggests a triumphing of the patrilineal principle over the matrilineal, as well as a triumph of the Tuatha Dé over the Fomoiri.