When a Legend is Not a Legend, Legendarily So - The Myth of Cantre'r Gwaelod
This year, 2017, Wales is held in thrall by the Year of the Legend. A brilliant idea, a means by which stories can be brought to the fore and historic sites reanimated through their telling, it has brought forth a gamult of activities, events and conversations country wide. For a geomyth scholar, such as myself, it is proving fascinating seeing how this concept of local legends is being interpreted, including how little the term ‘legend’ itself is actually understood. We’ve had all sorts so far, from Disneyfied Dragons to intellectualised Arthur, from rugby to Cantre’r Gwaelod.
Contrary to popular belief though, Cantre'r Gwaelod (CG) is not a legend. It is a relatively modern spin off from a medieval praise poem in the Black Book of Carmarthen, which you can see translated by Diarmuid Johnson in the Borth’s Lost Legends exhibition this summer.
A legend, see, is tale that is told as true; it therefore has to have some sort of factual basis. Eg: with the rugby, the sport really did begin its Welsh life in Lampeter, 151 years ago. Players such as Carwyn James really did exist, although the antics and achievements accredited may have received some embellishment since. However, as far as has been discovered to date, CG has no such factual basis in Ceredigion.
Extensive geoscientific research into Cardigan Bay has revealed no lost hundred, no settlements or weirs, no bell towers or gates drowned by encroaching waves. What have often been taken to be sluice gates are, in fact, long fingers of glacial moraines, left behind by the ice as it was dragged melting into what is now the Irish Sea more than 15,000 years ago (Patton et al, 2013). These are known as Sarnau, three in number; and are fascinating in their own right - not least because the great mythological King, Bendigeidfran, may have once walked along Sarn Badrig out amongst drowned trees, wading in the waves on an expedition to Ireland (see Of Myth and Man and Y Bont in the main body of this website).
The initial flooding of Cardigan Bay is taken to be around 8 to 10 thousand years ago (Haynes et al, 1977; Si & Lamb, 1991). With the exception of peats at Llanaber, all the submerged forests in the area date to the late Mesolithic or Neolithic (Stafford, 2013). Borth is a little different, in that here we have a patchwork of scrubland around/on top of/in the forest up until the Bronze Age (Godwin and Newton,1938). These are all substantially earlier than the Early Medieval period in which modern settings of CG are set. Bates, Bates & Bates, along with Nayling & Bale, have published nothing to digress from these statements based upon their recent and ongoing work along the coast; although again, further evidence to support it is forthcoming.
Regarding the story itself, there are nearly as many versions of it told in the county as there are pubs to tell it in, eg: Waun Primary Bethan and Philip Jones. Most, like these, stem not from the earliest alleged source but rather from a a nineteenth century poem by J.J.Williams called The Bells of Cantre'r Gwaelod, which is a lot less morally problematic reinvention than other tellings. For that, I refer readers to the esteemed Rachel Bromwich’s study in Early Culture in North West Europe (Bromwich, 1950). Here she undergoes a thorough examination of what is actually said in the earliest version, and also of just why CG cannot be, or ever have been, set in Ceredigion. See also, shortly, Kavanagh & Bates 2017, in which we take a closer look at how these deluge myths hang together around the Celtic Seaboard.
Put all of this together, and quite frankly, supporting notions of CG in Ceredigion is somewhat ridiculous. That people have persisted in retelling the story of an elusive land lost long ago, despite no evidence, is not in itself surprising. Its pattern appears to be a world-wide phenomena, deluge myths lurk in the culture of many countries, beginning perhaps with the ever wonderful Gilgamesh. The lure of mystery piques imagination and the habit of a familiar yarn passed down along generations is also easily entrenched even today, into a society that still trades expressively in stories. What is curious, is that when there is evidence which contradicts the tale, substantially so, people still shut their eyes and ears and hang resolutely on to the alternative facts held within a story of rape and disaster, loss and drunkeness. That the submerged forest at Borth is taken to be the tangible remains of an old kingdom is also curious, for we have other such forests all along the Welsh coast who do not have such karmic weight attached to their ancient trunks. A forest does not a kingdom make.
This combination of thoughts led me to explore how a myth (a story which is told as being fantastic, 'supernatural', not as being scientifically true) can be created. Of how it can be done ethically, without knowingly propagating false information. Thus, drawing upon the idea of a forest as a kingdom, of forgotten realms and fragments of physical 'evidence' being enough to validate a prospective narrative, the result was 'King of the Sea Trees'.
This King (KST, for ease), is unashamedly based of course, on Herne the Hunter; with elements of Puck and Pan, Cernunnos and dryads. His story, or stories, tie in all of the science I could uncover for the area, along with the folktales and literature, ballads, shanties and the work of many poets over many centuries into a canon of extended references, as well as one epic, which begins 125,000 years ago. I think I lost count at thirty macallaí (after echoes), from Aneurin to Zagajewski, including the Thomas's R.S., Dylan and Edward. Unlike Cantre'r Gwaelod, the KST’s (fictitious) history is well founded in fact. Nothing that could be proven, can be proven to be false. He has worn a set of antlers, which were discovered by Sharon and Julien in 2016. He leaves cloven hoofprints behind, which have been spotted by locals and geoscientists alike (see pic). His shadow can be found in other tales, such as that of Plant Rhys Ddwfn (https://vimeo.com/120976967) and the recent account of a stag being sighted outside The Friendship Inn one night, about ten years ago (ask George or Jo at Borth Station Museum, they'll give you an eye witness account!). He is the spirit of place, a genius loci. Like Taliesin, he has been and continues to be everything that ever was and ever will be; and as such he has witnessed 2.5 million years’ worth of climate change. He knows that Cantre'r Gwaelod never happened in Cardigan Bay - but he also knows Mererid the Morgan, a mermaid of many echoes. The chestnut horses of a stormy sea are his friends.
If you go to Borth Station Museum this summer, you will see hanging there, his crown of antlers, you will hear his voice through Dafydd of Three Legg'd Mare, you can read some of his story and see some of the science that supports his existence. You can watch a film about how all of this came to be. Then go out onto the beach, take a look at the shoreline and think to yourself - which tale do you want to tell your children? One where a woman is overpowered, raped and blamed for the destruction of a ludicrously wealthy kingdom? Or a tale about the changing climate, a kindly guardian who asks for your help to protect the sea and our settlements from future storms. Did I write this? I don't think so, I think he was already there, waiting for people to listen to the seagulls, to touch the sand and peat with bare feet, to dress reality and to take their responsibility to one another and the land seriously. To look into themselves and decide - which narrative do we really want to leave behind?
Bromwich, R. 1950. "Cantre'r Gwaelod and Ker-Is". In Cyril Fox, Bruce Dickins. The Early Cultures of North-West Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 231.
Godwin, H. and Newton, L. 1938 The submerged forest at Borth and Ynyslas, Cardiganshire. New Phytologist 37, 333 – 344.
Haynes, J.R., Kiteley, R.J. Whatley, R.C. Wilks, P.J.1977 Microfaunas, microfloras and the environmental stratigraphy of the late glacial and Holocene in Cardigan Bay. Geological Journal 12, 129 – 158.
Kavanagh, K.E. & Bates, M.R. 2017. Semantics of the Sea. Forthcoming.
Patton, H., Hubbard, A., Bradwell, T., Glasser, N.F., Hambrey, M.J., Clark, C.D. 2013. Rapid marine deglaciation: Asynchronous retreat dynamics between the Irish Sea Ice Stream and terrestrial outlet glaciers. Earth Surface Dynamics 1 (1) pp. 53-65.
Shi, Z and Lamb, H.F. 1991 Post-glacial Sedimentary Evolution of a Micro-tidal Estuary, Dyfi Estuary, West Wales, UK. Sedimentary Geology 73, 227-246.
Strafford. L. 2013 A study of the submerged forests and intertidal peats of Wales. Unpublished MA thesis. University of Wales Trinity Saint David: Lampeter.