G is for Gwyn ap Nudd

Published April 8, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


In the land of Annwn, the Otherworld of the Tylwyth Teg, ruled Gwyn, a powerful warrior with a dark face.  He was often to be found out riding through the woods of his own realm or that of the mortals, on a wild hunt with frenzied followers.

Perhaps it was on one of these rides that he first spotted Creiddylad.  She was a beautiful girl — no, the most beautiful girl! — and the daughter of Lludd of the Silver Hand, a powerful and important king in his own right.  Creiddylad was staying at the court of King Arthur as a guest when her father decided to betroth her to Gwythyr ap Greidawl, one of Arthur’s knights.

For such a beautiful woman, the daughter of a king, to marry a mere knight was an outrage to Gwyn — though, in truth, the idea of her marrying anyone other than himself would have outraged him just as much, even if her intended had been a king among kings.  Rather than see her married to man unworthy of her, Gwyn set out to save her from that fate.  He and his men rode up and snatched her away from Gwythyr, taking her back to Annwn where Gwyn could make her his own bride, proud of himself for having thus rescued her.

Of course, Gwythyr told the tale not as a rescue, but as an abduction.

He told all his kin, and raised a great army to set out and rescue his purloined bride.

But what could an army of men do against the fey?  They were defeated, captured, tortured…it was a brutal and horrifying bloodbath, and it had done nothing to make Creiddylad desire to become Gwyn’s queen.

With no other recourse, Gwythyr turned to King Arthur for help.  After all, even Gwyn ap Nudd respected Arthur’s crown!

The king did not make his feelings known on the bitter contest between the two rivals for Creiddylad’s hand.  (If he had dared to do so, who knows what he might have done or said:  he might have sighed in disgust and told them both to go to the devil!  He had to deal with this sort of thing all too often, after all…)

What he did make clear was that he didn’t want to see this sort of behavior taking place in his kingdom.

They would have to come to an arrangement that everyone could agree to, and until that time, Creiddylad would be returned to her father.

So, that May Day, Gwyn and Gwythyr fought a duel over Creiddylad.

But Gwyn wasn’t using any of his powers as King of Annwn, only the skills of his blade, so he was unable to defeat his opponent.  And yet his opponent was unable to defeat him.

The duel inconclusive, the girl remained in her father’s castle, and the rivals agreed to fight again the following May Day.

But that, too, turned out in a draw.

As did the next duel.

Every year on May Day, until Judgement Day itself, Gwyn and Gwythyr will renew their battle in their desire to wed the beautiful Creiddylad.  Only then, when the final trumpets have sounded, will one of them finally manage to defeat the other, and make her his bride.

Yup, the comparison is just screaming out:  Gwyn is Hermes!

Okay, no, that’s not it.  (But I did see a bit in one of my sources that said Gwyn ap Nudd can act as the Welsh psychopomp, so that does make him Hermes as well as Hades.)

The problem, of course, with this being an Arthurian tale is that it’s hard to say how much contamination there is.  The Arthurian stories — no matter when they originated — were first being written down in the Middle Ages.  And while classical Greek and Roman myths were largely repressed, they were never fully forgotten, as the bastardized Medieval Ovid texts prove quite handily.  (That, among other reasons, is why I would have preferred to avoid Arthurian myths for these purposes.  But this one was just too beautiful a comparison to pass up!)

So, someone had to assemble and write these stories down.  Did that person know the tale of Hades/Pluto stealing away Persephone/Proserpine in order to make her his wife?

It’s not really a question that can be handily answered.  (Unless one has a time machine.  So if there’s any time travelers out there, let me know!)

I think there’s a good chance, however, that it’s not all late influence.  There may be some late influence, but the basic idea of an embodiment of warmth and growth that constantly passes underground and comes back out again is to be found in a lot of different cultures across the world (though often it’s a male figure who’s dying and being revived), including some that pre-date the Greeks, so…I’d call it a pretty basic motif of human civilization.

Macedonian tomb fresco, Vergina. Wikimedia Commons.

Hades abducting Persephone.  Macedonian tomb fresco, Vergina. Wikimedia Commons.

There is one additional note here, and that’s incest.  My sources are not sure if Nudd and Lludd might be the same person; apparently the name Nudd is an archaic version of Lludd.  If they are the same person, then Gwyn and Creiddylad are brother and sister, in much the way that Hades and Persephone are uncle and niece.  (Though she’s his double-niece, so she might as well be his sister.  Or his daughter.  Actually, it’s kind of disgusting.)  In both cases, any consanguinity seems entirely ignored as irrelevant, perhaps because as one of the fair folk, Gwyn is not entirely a creature of flesh and blood, just as the Greek gods were not ruled by blood the same way human beings are.

However, it’s very possible that the conflation of Nudd and Lludd is the late interpretation:  just because the one has an archaic version of the other’s name, that doesn’t make them the same person!  (I can name lots of Greek mythic characters whose names were also used for very different people.)  It seems to me that modern interpreters of the myth may actually want Gwyn and Creiddylad to be siblings, to increase the strength of the comparison to Hades and Persephone.

And I’m editing this almost ten days later because I just found another great parallel.  (And yes, I should have found it sooner.  Actually, I should have found it soon enough to do something else for G, and go with this other one, but…)

Among the Iroquois people, there’s a tale of the corn goddess Onatah goes like this:

Onatah, daughter of Eithinoha, Mother Earth, was out gathering dew on one beautiful morning when she was suddenly seized by the ruler of the underworld, and carried off to his underground realm.  Her mother searched and searched for her, and during her frantic search, nothing could grow and the world became cold.  Eventually, the sun figured out what had happened to Onatah, and rescued her by splitting the ground open.  With Onatah’s return, Eithinoha rejoiced, warmth returned, and plants began to grow once more.  But the spirits of the underworld pined for Onatah as much as her mother had during her absence, and so they waited until the sun fell asleep in the autumn, and stole her away again.  The people had to perform many ceremonies each year to re-awaken the sun so that he could once more rescue Onatah.

That one’s so like Hades and Persephone (aside from the fact that there’s no mention of marriage) that it’s even the sun who finds the missing maiden.  (Although, in truth, it’s not always Helios who tells Demeter where Persephone is.  Sometimes it’s Hecate.)  In theory, it’s possible there could be some corruption by European influence, since Native American tales weren’t written down until the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, but it seems unlikely, unless the corruption was literally added in the process of being written down.

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