Tag Archives: mabinogion

What is a sea swallow? (morwennawl, morwennol)

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.

Common tern (Stena hirundo) photographed by Tony Hisgett.

Common tern (Stena hirundo) photographed by Tony Hisgett.

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Speaking Starlings

Here are three things you should know about starlings: (i) They have cool little stars all over their feathers. (ii) Boring people get very excited watching them gather together in clouds. (iii) They can learn to speak medieval Welsh, unlike most undergrads.

Species: The common but surprisingly cool starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Source: ‘Branwen’, second of the ‘Mabinogi’ stories.

Date: 1000-1250 A.D.

Highlights: If you are ever a victim of domestic abuse, our text suggests that your best option is to train a starling to talk, and send it to your brother with orders to summon his army and invade.

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Salmon, Sea Eagles and the earliest Welsh story

Atlantic Salmon photo

Atlantic Salmon (S. salar) photographed by Hans-Petter Fjeld, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Species: Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) AT WAR.

Source: ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ the oldest native (not imported) Welsh prose story.

Date: The version we have most probably c.1100 A.D., but some plot lines of the story also found mentioned in text from 828 A.D.

Highlights: The supposedly pointless oldest animals episode in Culhwch actually makes perfect sense, if you read it like a medieval person, with a knowledge of the species being discussed.

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The Owl (Strix aluco?) in the ‘Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’ (Math)

Tawny Owl

Tawny owl, photographed by K.-M. Hansche and edited by Arad. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Species Mentioned:  One owl, probably a tawny owl (S. aluco). Hated by all other birds.

Source: ‘Math’ fourth of the ‘Four Branches of the ‘Mabinogi’, the most important epics of medieval Welsh literature.

Date of Source: c.1000-1250 A.D.

Highlights: This source is symptomatic of the suspicion and low esteem owls were considered with in medieval Britain.

Blodeuedd, the most beautiful woman in the world plots to murder her oh-so-boring demi-god husband. She nearly succeeds but her husband turns into an eagle and flies away. Blodeuedd is then hunted down and permanently changed into an owl, the most ignoble of all birds. Said husband is changed back into a human with no lasting damage. Don’t worry, it’s totally fair.

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The harvest mice (Micromys Minutus) in ‘Manawydan’ (the ‘Third Branch of the Mabinogi’)


Harvest mouse nest by kind courtesy of Derek Crawly from the Mammal Society.

Harvest mouse nest by kind courtesy of Derek Crawley from the Mammal Society.

Species mentioned: A swarm of very hungry harvest mice.

Source: ‘Manawydan’ the ‘Third Branch of the Mabinogi’.

Date of Source: c.1000-1250.

Highlights: An angry sorcerer takes revenge by turning his whole family into harvest mice to try and eat his enemy’s crops. Amazingly this doesn’t work out as he planned, and one harvest mouse is sentenced to be hanged as a thief.

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