Species mentioned: Two bloodthirsty white tailed (sea) eagles (H. albicilla).
Source: ‘Canu Heledd’, a depressing but beautiful Welsh cycle of poetry.
Date of Source: Most likely c.850-900 A.D. but uncertain. Manuscript date: 1250.
Highlights: eagles eat the carrion of dead soldiers. Two eagles in particular seem to embody the genius loci (spirit of the place) where they live. They are seen in coastal woods, eating carrion and fish like real life sea eagles.
The ‘Early Welsh Saga Poetry’ is not known to most academics studying the natural world. That’s a shame, because if you can ignore the dating difficulties, the poetry contains good references to many species of flora and fauna.
The authoritative edition and translation of this material is the Early Welsh Saga Poetry by Jenny Rowland (1990). The book contains hundreds of pages of notes, and full editions and translations of all the extant saga englynion.
There are three major early Welsh saga cycles. ‘Canu Llywarch Hen’ (the singing of Old Llywarch); ‘Canu Urien’ (the singing of Urien) and ‘Canu Heledd’ (the singing of Heledd). Each of these cycles contains multiple poems, and may well have been contributed to by multiple authors over the centuries. There are also several stand-alone poems like ‘Claf Abercuawg’ and some of the poems associated with Taliesin like ‘Mi a wum’ and ‘Taliesin and Ugnach’.
Scholarly opinion about this source has not significantly changed over the last 24 years. There are two reasons for this. (i) The book itself was exhaustively researched and caused a revelation in the field when it was published. (ii) Very few scholars are actively researching the saga englynion today. Part of this is due to the contentious dating issues described below.
Complexities of Language and Date
Each poem within each cycle is made up of a series of ‘englyn’-type verses. The englyn (plural: englynion) is a kind of poetry unique to Welsh literature. It normally has three lines and is written in a very terse style which makes literal translation hard. Each verse incorporates authorial flourishes called ‘ornamentation’. The use of ornamentation was strictly regulated and is indicative of experienced professional authorship. The fact the englynion are so ornamented may also suggest that the genre of ‘saga englynion’ was mature when the author wrote.
The date of this material is difficult to establish. The syntax and orthography seems to be mid-late Old Welsh (Rowland, 1990, p.383). The historical context seems to suggest a late eighth – 10th century date for the texts (ibid, p. 389). However these arguments are not certain and would not be accepted without caveat by most medieval scholars. Medieval Welsh academia is currently going through a dating crisis and there is no general consensus about the dates of these texts.
There are two problems preventing the general acceptance of these texts as early. First, later medieval scribes were more than capable of using older forms of their language and relating poetry to ancient history. This has led to the re-dating of several of the traditional ‘Poems of Taliesin’ for example (Isaac, 1998). Second, although the ‘Juvencus englynion’ are found in a ninth century manuscript (Cambridge MS Ff. 4.42), the earliest manuscript for the main saga poetry is twelfth century (The Black Book of Carmarthen). This leads most modern scholars to be cautious of the dates, although the 8-10th century is still the most accepted period.
EAGLES IN CANU HELEDD
‘Canu Heledd’ uses the ‘beasts of battle’ topos throughout to describe how the narrator’s settlement was destroyed by war. The beasts of battle topos was described in this material by Klausner (1993), but has been known in Old English literature for more than a century. It concerns the descriptions of eagles, ravens (C. corvus) and wolves (C. lupus). These species were believed to eat dead soldiers. At the time they were ascribed semi-mystical powers to predict violence, so that seeing carrion birds or wolves gather was supposed to be an omen of bloodshed.
Folklorists report that seeing ravens was still a sign of death in some areas up until modern times. The folklore may have also rubbed off on the magpie (Pica pica) which is still treated with suspicion today. On the other hand, in Welsh panegyric poetry, great warriors were said to have ‘fed the wolf/raven/eagle’. This was a more positive portrayal of the animals by association with the glorious heroes.
Eagles in particular are the preferred beast of battle in ‘Canu Heledd’. Two poems are dedicated to them, ‘Eryr Eli’ and Eryr Pengwern’. Here is ‘Eryr Eli’ from Rowland (1990, p.486):
- The eagle of Eli – high his cry tonight
- He has drunk a bloody drink:
- The heart blood of Cynddylan Wyn. [Heledd’s brother]
- The eagle of Eli has cried out loudly tonight.
- He has wallowed in the blood of warriors.
- He is in the wood; sorrow is heavy for me.
- It is the eagle of Eli I hear tonight.
- He is gory – I do not defy him.
- He is in the wood; sorrow is heavy upon me
- The eagle of Eli – how grievous tonight
- Is the fine valley of Meisir
- The land of Brochfael has been long afflicted.
- The eagle of Eli watches over the seas:
- Fish do not penetrate into the estuaries
- He calls, ?he feasts on the blood of warriors.
- The eagle of Eli travels through the woods tonight.
- His feasting is to his fill.
- The violence of he who indulges him succeeds.
It should be noted that it is possible that the ‘eagle of Eli’ is supposed to be a warrior rather than an eagle. Warriors were often compared to eagles in battle in early Welsh poetry.
However, whether the bird in the text is an actual bird or just a hero described in metaphor, the species of eagle intended here can be securely identified based diet and habitat. The text’s eagle is three times described as being in the woods, three times as feasting on humans and once as potentially preventing fish from penetrating into the estuaries. Unlike golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), white tailed or sea eagles prefer lowland woodland habitat, and their diet includes much more fish and carrion (Forrester, 2007, pp.451-2).
White tailed eagles are probably the animals normally intended in descriptions of the beasts of battle, although they are frequently forgotten by historians because they were driven to extinction in Britain in the post-medieval period.
The most authoritative analysis of the historical extent of white-tailed eagles in Britain is Evans et al.’s (2012) place-name study. According to this study, although the birds were common in Shropshire c.500 A.D., they were rare in Powys. However this has to be taken in light of the comparative deficiency in place-name studies from early Wales. Unlike England, Wales does not have a dedicated place-name society. On the other hand, since estuaries are mentioned in the poems, and the kingdom of Powys was landlocked, it is possible that the eagles are looking over the Merseyside estuary and are further north than usually considered.
Evans et al. (2012) date the disappearance of both white-tailed and golden eagles from south Britain to c.500-1800. In this light it is comforting to see a description of sea eagles in the area in a text supposedly c.850-900 A.D.
Given the importance of eagles as beasts of battle in texts of this period, it is possible that the author of the text had never seen an actual physical eagle and only knew eagles from heroic poetry. However seems unlikely based on the detailed knowledge of sea eagle ecology shown in the poem.
© Lee Raye, 2014
Evans, Richard. et al. (2012) ‘History of Eagles in Britain and Ireland’, Bird Study 59:335-349.
Isaac, G. (1998), ‘Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the Northern Heroic Age of the Sixth century’ Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies: 36: 61-70.
Klausner, D. (1993) ‘The Topos of the Beasts of Battle in Early Welsh Poetry’, in: Taylor, R.A et al. The Centre and its Compass, (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo): 247-263
Rowland, J. (1990), Early Welsh Saga Poetry, (D.S. Brewer, Cambridge)
How about you. Any questions or comments? Do you think the poem describes a real eagle or a hero? Does any folklore about ravens or magpies survive where you live? If so I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.