Species: ‘Swallow’ (Hirunda sp.); ‘Sea-swallow’ (=tern, Sterna sp.)
Source: ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’, the earliest Welsh prose tale.
Date: c.1100 A.D., but from the oldest-seeing part of a story with a known ninth century version.
Highlights: Our story pauses mid-way through to admire the figure of Culhwch, boy-hero. He’s so fly, even the mud off his horse’s hooves come out like swallows, and his hounds are as agile as terns.
We can imagine the Welsh story, ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’, as a British version of the ‘Labours of Hercules’. Just like ‘Hercules’, ‘Culhwch’ is the story of how a rich young protagonist accomplishes a series of impossible challenges. The main differences are that unlike in the ‘Hercules’, the reason Culhwch needs to complete these challenges is so that he could afford to buy a wife (Olwen). He was madly in love with her despite never having met her.
Culhwch also had some help, unlike Hercules. He made King Arthur give him a series of super-powered assistants so he didn’t have to do any of the work himself. Culhwch’s own main strength is that he was born rich and noble. Other than those very minor stylistic differences, ‘Culhwch’ is like ‘Hercules’ all the way, I swear.
I previously discussed this text when looking at the Oldest Animals episode. This is the part of the text where Culhwch sends one of the super-friends to talk to various very old animals (especially an eagle and a salmon). At that time I was struck by the naturalistic style of the episode, and how it makes more sense with some ecological knowledge. Today I’d like to talk about a different episode.
First some background: ‘Culhwch’ is usually thought to be the oldest prose story (not poetry) in the Welsh language. The form of the text we have can most probably be dated to c.1100 A.D. (Roberts, 1991, p.73; Rodway, 2007, p.70). However, the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth, one of the most important elements of the story is mentioned in the ‘De Mirabilia’ section of ‘Historia Brittonum’ (c.828 A.D.) With those dates we’re talking one of the oldest surviving stories from Britain.
Although the whole text is very old, there are certain parts of the text which we could pretentiously call ‘the most antique’ (Bromwich & Evans, 1997: xxi).These are a series of semi-poetic descriptions scattered through the text. They use archaic words and sentence structures and have been identified as ‘runs’ (bits which sound extra-good read out-loud). These appear to be the oldest parts of the text. Early scholars suggested they probably draw on traditional material like old-fashioned phrases, and might hearken back to the oral original of the stories (Bromwich & Evans, 1997: xciv-xcvi). Ifor Williams even suggested that the prose parts of Welsh stories might be based on the verse parts (Williams, 1970: 28). However, in Ireland, runs are also found in sixteenth century stories and they could equally have been invented by an especially clever scribe (McCone, 2000: 40-45).
The part of the text we are most interested in comes early on. Culhwch has just been pressured by his step-mother to go wife-hunting. No seriously, her exact words are:
‘Gwreicca yssyd da iti, a mab.’ (It’s a wife-ing that you need, son – Bromwich & Evans, 1997: 2)
At this stage Culhwch is advised to go get Arthur’s help. He gets on his horse and we suddenly get a freeze-frame description:
The boy went off on a steed with a gleaming grey head, four winters old, well-jointed stride, shell-like hoofs, and tubular gold bridle-bit in its mouth, with a precious gold saddle beneath him, and two sharp spears of silver in his hand. He had a battle-axe in his hand, the length of the forearm of a full-grown man from ridge to edge. It would draw blood from the wind, it would be swifter than the swiftest dewdrop from the stalk to the ground when the dew is heaviest in the month of June. He had a gold-hilted sword on his thigh and its blade of gold, with a gold-chased shield, the colour of heaven’s lightning, and its rim of ivory.
And there were two spotted, white-breasted greyhounds in front of him, with a collar of red-gold around the neck of each from shoulder-swell to ear. The one on the left side would run to the right side, and the one on the right side would run to his left side, like two sea-swallows swooping around him. His steed’s four hoofs would cut out four clods, like four swallows in the air above him, sometimes in front of him, sometimes behind him.
He had a purple, four-cornered cloak about him, with a ruby-gold ball at each corner. Each ball was worth one hundred cows. Not even the tip of a hair on him was stirred, so light was his steed’s canter beneath him on his way to the gate of Arthur’s court. (Davies, 2008, 180-81)
Davies’ Mabinogion is expressly designed to be modern and colloquial and to give the texts some of the power they might have originally had. Not even she can do much to help us with this part of ‘Culhwch’ though. The mind-numbing minuteness of this passage makes a sharp contrast to the anecdotal narrative style of the story before it. Davies points out in a footnote that the description of the horse has a rhythm like hoof-beats, and that parts of this extract may even foreshadow a description of Olwen later in the text (Davies, 2008: 60).
The part of the extract we are interested in is the second paragraph and most importantly the comparison of the greyhounds to sea-swallows, and the clods of earth to ordinary swallows. Davies (2008: 60) gives two suggestions about the origin of these metaphors: (i) the swallows (gwennawl) could have been suggested by word-play with the main female character (Olwen). (ii) the same word is used in the sixteenth century to refer to the hollow in the hooves of a horse, so if the word was used when ‘Culhwch’ was written, it might have been influenced by this.
Of Davies’ two origin options the second seems relatively convincing. However, the more interesting question is not what inspired the description but what it actually means.
The Modern Welsh term ‘gwennol’ most usually refers to the swallow (Hirundo rustica) but can refer to any swallow, martin or swift (Hirunda; Apus) (Hayman & Hume, 2005: 156-57, 171-73; Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru). These birds eat on the wing and are ‘highly aerial’ (Hume, 2002: 322). They fly fast, quietly and close to the ground (swallows especially), so this metaphor echoes the description of the horse’s supernaturally light gait.
The ‘sea-swallow’ is another species again. In Welsh this term has occasionally been used to refer to the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) or sand-martin (Riparia riparia). However, the word ‘morwennol’ most usually refers to species of tern (Sterna sp.) (Hayman & Hume, 2005: 132-35; Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru). The tern is more like a sea-gull than a swallow, but it is called a sea-swallow in English as well as Welsh (See: Oxford English Dictionary, 2a) presumably for its buoyant flight and the slight fork in its tail. If Culhwch’s hounds are moving around him like two terns, this means they are energetically and effortlessly bounding around him. They don’t get in each other’s way, they just merge around each other like a flock.
There are three main reasons to be interested in the sea-swallows of Culhwch:
- Species History: Culhwch is written in a southern Welsh dialect (Rodway, 2007: 60), but no tern species is commonly seen inland in south Wales today, and none nest on the coasts (Hume, 2002: 228-35). This incongruity can be most easily explained in two different ways. It is possible terns were once more common in Wales, or, alternatively that ‘Culhwch’ was originally written in North Wales or Yr Hen Ogledd.
- Ecosensitive History: Because most scholars are not focussed on the environment in texts, the fact that a tern is mentioned in ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ around 1100 A.D. is no well known. This lack of interest makes the medieval period artificially seem even more hostile to wildlife and compounds the wrong idea that medieval people were only interested in animals as a source of food.
- Literary Interest: It makes a difference to know that the ‘sea-swallow’ is not a made-up species but a real one, and helps confirm our reading of the passage as referring to how smooth, powerful and elegant Culhwch looks as he rides towards Arthur.
Bromwich R & Evans DS (1997) Culhwch ac Olwen. University of Wales Press, Cardiff.
Davies S (2008) The Mabinogion. Oxford University Press.
Hayman P & Hume R (2005) Llyfr Adar Iolo Williams. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst.
Hume R (2002) Complete Birds of Britain and Europe. DK, London.
McCone K (2000) The Pagan Past and the Christian Present in Early Irish Literature. University of Ireland Press, Maynooth.
Rodway S (2007) The Where, Who, When and Why of Medieval Welsh Prose Texts. Studia Celtica. 41:47-90.
Williams I (1970) Lectures on Early Welsh Poetry. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.