Shakespeare’s Horns

Tonight is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Wales, and is an ysbrydnos, or ‘spirit night’ when the dead walk abroad under the starry skies. Halloween is the most recent tradition associated with this night, known at one time as ‘All Hallows Eve’, but there were traditions that came before it, such as the old Celtic festivities of harvest time. As with Samhain in Ireland, and indeed for many of the early peoples of Europe in general, this was the time when the ripened fruits and crops of late summer and autumn were celebrated as the abundant wealth of the land. Alongside such celebration there would have naturally been a time of reflection, particularly as this fulfilment of life’s fruition also marks the moment when the seasons turn and all growing life prepares itself to pass through the death of winter. This is the natural time to acknowledge mortality and consider what may come after the cold season.

Its probably for this reason that tonight is also the time when Gwyn ap Nudd hunts the land, when even the living can be taken up as souls to join in his eternal hunt, urging on the magical hounds as they chase through the darkness. This happened to one Ned Pugh, a famous Welsh fiddler whose mournful refrains were heard one Nos Galan Gaeaf transforming into the bright call of a huntsman’s bugle. Having entered a cave on that particular Halloween, he wandered deep into the belly of the earth from which he was never to return alive, but was instead taken up as chief huntsman to Gwyn ap Nudd, exchanging his fiddle for a horn.

A similar account could be given of Arawn from the First Branch of the Mabinogi. One of the very few allusions to Arawn in Welsh folklore concerns a ghost that was often heard declaiming Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn, a little verse that roughly translates as ‘Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the wait for Arawn.’ Was this the soul of someone long dead still waiting to be called by Arawn to join the otherworldly hunt? We shall never know for certain, but the other similarities between Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd would lead us to think so.


If anyone knows who made this image please let me know.

One of those similarities is the connection both these figures have to the instincts of physical desire, all those visceral and carnal urges that are fired by the hunt. Arawn was the one who tempted Pwyll with his beautiful wife, and Gwyn was a dangerously jealous lover of Creiddylad according to the medieval redactors of Culhwch ac Olwen. Gwyn was also responsible for tempting Collen with illusory food when the saint visited his phantom palace atop Glastonbury Tor. All of these temptations are echoed in an English version of the Magical Huntsman, a figure of superstition that Shakespeare found so intriguing he brought him to life, quite ridiculously, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.

“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Some time a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You’ve heard of such spirit; and well you know
The superstitious idol headed old
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for the truth.”

Despite the paucity of material concerning Herne, Shakespeare’s use of him in the play chimes with much of what we already know of Herne’s Welsh cousins, all three being hunters with supernatural qualities that are associated with fairies and the dead. Not unlike the spirits and sprites of many lands it appears that Herne can cause disease amongst cattle, and his moaning and clanking of chains is not unlike the restless behaviour of the souls of the dead.

But it may also be worthwhile considering Shakespeare’s actual use of Herne in the play. To cut a rather long story short, Falstaff, a lecherous wastrel with expensive tastes, attempts to seduce two married women by employing various deceptions. After realising his unsavoury intentions, both women take their revenge by tricking him into dressing up as Herne the Hunter for a promised night of pleasure. While waiting under the Windsor Oak sporting a pair of horns, Falstaff works himself up to a froth waiting for the two wanton wives to come and ravish him. But instead of his anticipated satisfaction he is accosted by a gang of children and adults in fairy costume whom he believes to be real spirits of the otherworld come to punish his mortal trespass (he obviously went for the trick, not the treat). These cruel fairies and sprites ridicule him and eventually put him in his place, all of which Falstaff accepts with rather good grace.

James Stephanoff 'Falstaff at Herne's Oak'

James Stephanoff, ‘Falstaff at Herne’s Oak’ 1832

Lechery and excessive desires in general are a theme that Shakespeare explores throughout the play, with Falstaff being the embodiment of aristocratic excess. In contrast to Falstaff’s debauched appetites, through various mentions and allusions, Shakespeare subtly evokes the Order of the Garter, a royal order of nobles chosen by Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own patron. This order was supposedly one of high-minded restraint and discipline, as stated in their motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, which literally translates as ‘Evil be to him who thinks evil.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor could well have been written to feature in an event held at the royal estate of Windsor attended by Queen Elizabeth and her Order of the Garter. This would explain why Falstaff’s fate in the play appears to be a realisation of the order’s motto. His bad intentions result in a bad outcome where he finds himself dressed in the guise of none other than Herne the Hunter.

There are several hints in The Merry Wives of Windsor of folk traditions concerning the unfortunate figure of the cuckold. When a man’s wife had been unfaithful, some communities would ridicule the couple and in particular the husband by placing horns on his head, thus marking him out as a cuckold, a man who shares his wife with other men. In this way the wearing of horns was associated with a lack of fidelity. But whereas these later traditions have the cuckold as a figure of derision, Shakespeare, in his own magical way, may well have been evoking a much older idea concerning the horned hunter.

There are several points of comparison between Shakespeare’s Herne and Arawn from the Mabinogi. Both figures are party to an exchange of places, Falstaff with Herne and Pwyll with Arawn, both mortals become the god and both gods are the magical huntsmen in their respective regions. Having taken on the external form of the god, both mortals come to meet the fairies of the otherworld, an experience that went better for Pwyll than it did for Falstaff. Pwyll showed restraint and self-control in the bed of Arawn’s fairy queen, where Falstaff was seen for the lecherous toff he was and punished by the ‘fairies.’ One succeeded in wearing the mantle of the otherworld, while the other didn’t. Pwyll was learning his lesson, as was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although in a markedly different way.

If this was Shakespeare’s understanding, and who could deny one of the greatest bards of the English language such an insight, this horned figure was far from the object of ridicule and derision that he appeared to be on the surface. Falstaff’s failure was to be deaf to what the Huntsman had to say about the sowing and reaping of one’s desires. Pwyll, on the other hand, was listening well, as his name suggests.

Alternative interpretations of ‘dwfn’ in Gogynfeirdd poetry, part 4

According to Marged Haycock, the Book of Taliesin poem ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ could very well have been written by Llywarch ap Llywelyn (for a full explanation see her introduction to her edition of The Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin). The similarites between Llywarch’s more formal court poetry and a number of poems in the Book at least place him closer to the text than any other bard of his period. Although Marged Haycock largely makes the association based on similarities in vocabulary and word combinations, there is also the suggestion of a conceptual similarity, not only with Llywarch, but also with his old master, Cynddelw. This conceptual similarity is of course with regards to the use of dwfn and its counterpart Annwfn as signifying a mythical dimension implied within mundane reality.

As with the majority of the other legendary poems, ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ is a dramatic piece that was likely to have been performed in the voice and persona of the mythical Taliesin; before uttering a word, this in itself would signal that the performer was evoking the mythical depths. The explicit references to ‘the deep’ largely corroborate what’s already been covered in previous posts, such as . . .

Awen a ganaf,
o dwfyn ys dygaf.

I sing awen,
I bring it forth from the depth.
(LPBT 4.179-80)

Another section describes in detail what is only suggested in other poems:

Ef a’e rin rodes
awen anghymes:
seith vgein ogyruen
yssyd yn awen;
wyth vgein o pop vgein
euyd yn vn.
Yn Annwyfn y diwyth,
yn Annwfyn y gorwyth,
yn Annwfyn is eluyd,
yn awyr uch eluyd.

He [God] with his miracle
bestowed immeasurable awen;
seven score ogyrfen
there is in awen,
and eight score of every score
in each one.
In Annwfn he ranged them,
in Annwfn he made them,
in Annwfn below the earth,
in the air above the earth.
(LPBT 4.75-84)

Here the legendary Taliesin describes how God created the immeasurable aspects or divisions (ogyrfen) of awen and set them out in Annwfn. The poet unambiguously names Annwfn as the place where awen is created, set out in all its varieties, and more importantly where it is found, the depth from which it rises. This makes sense if we again define Annwfn as the mythical realm, that is the place from which all symbolic, mythic and idealised forms arise. In the Four Branches, Annwfn is the realm that is somehow within Dyfed, and is the place where Pwyll experiences ideal or perfected forms of behaviour.

This also suggests a possible interpretation for the difficult last line in the above excerpt, ‘in the air above the earth’. There are two possible interpretations: first of all that the poem here refers back to awen, and that awen is also found in the air above the earth as well as being arranged by God in the depths; a possible interpretation considering the etymological link between awen and breath / air.

The second interpretation is that the whole sequence is talking about Annwfn and therefore Annwfn is here described as not only being in the earth bellow but also in the air above. It would be reasonable to assume that this is a metaphorical way of saying ‘in all places, above and bellow’ just as Llywarch uses dwfn a bais in the previous post. This interpretation suggests Annwfn is in all things, latent in the whole of God’s creation, not just bellow the earth. In this regard, the meaning of the name Annwfn shouldn’t be taken literally but symbolically; describing it as being bellow ground is simply a storybook metaphor for the more nuanced concept of ‘the world within the world’.

But these are not the only references to ‘the deep’ that we find in ‘Angar Kyfundawt’. If anything, the whole poem is laced with references to this concept, usually implied in double meaning, or ‘meanings within meanings’ which as a feature itself seems to symbolise ‘the world within the world’. In the next few posts I’ll take a more detailed look at these other examples.

Alternative interpretations of ‘dwfn’ in Gogynfeirdd poetry, part 3

It has been suggested that Llywarch ap Llywelyn (fl. 1173-1220), or Prydydd y Moch as he is more commonly known, spent at least part of his apprenticeship under the tutelage of Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr. If this is true then we would expect to find some similarity in their work, and indeed such similarities can be seen in some instances. These include similar alliterations and rhymes, as well as common concepts, one of which is the concept of dwfn as initially outlined in the previous posts.

The first example from Llywarch’s work is in reference to himself:

Crist fab Mair a’m pair o’m pedwar — defnydd
Dofn awen ddiarchar.

Christ son of Mary caused me from my four materials,
Deep, powerful awen.

As usual, there are different meanings implied here, the most obvious being the double meaning of the second line, which signifies not only that Christ caused Llywarch to have a deep, powerful awen, but also that this act of miraculous creation testifies to Christ’s own deep and powerful awen.

Using the feminine form of dwfn as an adjective to describe awen is one of many similarities that Llywarch shares with Cynddelw, and Llywarch’s use offers us further insights into this concept. Again the interpretations presented here are based on alternative readings of the manuscript text. In preparing modern editions of these poems, it is an editor’s prerogative to punctuate the text according to the meaning they interpret. In the Beirdd y Tywysogion series the editors have chosen to punctuate a line by Llywarch in the following way:

Llyw bydoedd lled byd, dwfn a bas, . . .

. . . which then gives the following in translation . . .

Leader of hosts across the world, in deep and shallow seas, . . .

But removing the comma in the second third of the line and instead opting for the more basic meaning of dwfn, that is simply ‘depth’, gives the following in translation . . .

Leader of hosts across the world, deep and shallow . . .

. . . that is treating deep and shallow as adjectives that describe the world. This reading implies Llywarch considered the world to have deep and shallow aspects, just as the concepts of Annwfn and deep awen imply in Cynddelw’s work.

We find the same coupling of deep and shallow in another of Llywarch’s poems:

Gallas arglwyddwas, aerglais – Lywelyn,
Lewenydd dwfn a bais,
Gwenddydd amrywdud Emrais,
Gwynedd adrysedd, i drais.

The young lord took, Llywelyn who wounds in battle,
Deep and shallow joy,
The blessed land of the numerous people of Emrys,
The wonder of Gwynedd, through might.

If we follow the editor’s punctation it is the joy of Llywelyn’s victorious nature that has deep and shallow aspects.

Regardless of which punctuation we choose to follow in the above example, the second line will remain ambiguous unless we provide a better interpretation of what deep and shallow mean. It appears that at least in Llywarch’s work he uses both words together to imply ‘on all levels’, that is on both profound and mundane levels: in the mysterious, mythic depths and in the day-to-day shallows.

Alternative interpretations of ‘dwfn’ in Gogynfeirdd poetry, part 2

Sometimes in Gogynfeirdd poetry the word dwfn is used to describe awen, the sacred breath of bardic inspiration; when dwfn is used as an adjective in this way modern editors usually give it the meaning ‘profound’. But as in the previous post, it mustn’t be forgotten that dwfn also means ‘deep’. For example, in a poem by Cynddelw we find the following line:

Yn ail awen ddofn o ddwfn gofiain, . . .

. . . which modern editors interpret as meaning

[The patron] is a reflection of the profound awen of profound thoughts, . . .

. . . but could quite as easily be interpreted as meaning

[The patron] is a reflection of the deep awen of deep thoughts, . . .

So what’s the real difference between these two interpretations?

First of all we need to unpack the line a little. As with most heroic poetry, the Gogynfeirdd almost always depicted their patrons as the perfect, ideal hero; in fact any personal characteristics were largely ignored in favour of more general, heroic ones. The patron became a vehicle for the heroic ideals that the bardic tradition wished to promote.

This means that the awen of the Gogynfeirdd was that of heroic poetry – a worthy patron inspired them to express the heroic ideals that were so central to their way of life. It was this particular awen that the patron was reflecting in this instance.

But what does ‘deep’ mean in this context? Why is the patron a reflection of deep awen? There is the surface meaning of ‘profound’, but once again here we have a suggestion of this otherworldly dwfn, a hint of Annwfn. One thing that we can assume from the above quote is that Cynddelw believed this deeper dimension of inspiration was the space in which the perfect heroic ideal was found, a concept not a million miles away from a symbolic interpretation of the first branch of the Mabinogi.

In the third part of the line (‘. . . of deep thoughts’) there is a clear association made between this otherworldly dwfn and ‘deep’ thoughts. Its easy to associate deep inspiration with deep thinking and again ‘profound’ fits nicely as a surface meaning. But carrying through the subtext of this otherworldly dwfn, Cynddelw may also be suggesting this deeper dimension to be at least partly synonymous with the mind.

All this can either be taken as purely metaphorical or as a suggestion of the kind of metaphysical framework Cynddelw worked in as a chief bard. In another of his poems, Cynddelw states that his song, his awen, comes from this deep place:

. . . canwyf o ddwfn, o ddofn awen, . . .

. . . I sing from the depth, from the deep awen, . . .

Again, what is being stressed here is the accessibility of this deep space. Annwfn may not be so otherworldly as to be inaccessible. Awen connects this surface realm with the ideal depths of reality, providing the bard not only with a source of inspiration but, in the context of praise singing, also a source of wisdom and judgment.

Cynddelw’s multilayered use of dwfn, not only as an adjective and a noun but also as a concept, fits in with what we already know about the Welsh bardic tradition’s conception of divine inspiration. Cynddelw suggests that Annwfn and the synonymous dwfn offers a deepening of this world’s perspectives, and that awen arises from this place carrying with it the impressions of ideal forms.

In the next few posts I’ll examine the work of other Gogynfeirdd poets to further expand our understanding of what they meant by Annwfn, dwfn and awen.

Alternative interpretations of ‘dwfn’ in Gogynfeirdd poetry, part 1

In the Beirdd y Tywysogion series, the editors have interpreted a line by Cynddelw in the following way:

In Annwfn, in the world, in the sea – . . .

This is a reasonable interpretation, but there are alternatives that could suggest a lot more to us about what court bards such as Cynddelw thought about Annwfn, the traditional Welsh otherworld. The actual line in the original Welsh reads . . .

Yn Annwfn, yn nwfn, yn nyfnder – . . .

If we begin with the second part of the line, the word dwfn (mutated here to ‘yn nwfn’) means ‘world’, the meaning given in the first quoted line above; but dwfn also meant ‘deep’ in middle Welsh. This is important and not to be overlooked; as we shall see there are many uses of dwfn in this sense, some of which relate directly to the concept of Annwfn and awen (see further posts on this). The second element in Annwfn is of course this very same dwfn, and rhyming both words was no accident – a master craftsman such as Cynddelw would have been very aware of the many connotations he was putting into play with such ornamentation.

In the third part of the line, dyfnder also means something similar to dwfn, literally ‘depth’, and is often used as a name for the depths of the sea. Again, Cynddelw would have understood the connection between Annwfn, dwfn and dyfnder, and as well as creating a cynghanedd sain, these three words also chime in meaning, conveying the sense of a deep, profound space. Annwfn in later folk lore is understood as being under the earth, a metaphorical description that retained a hint of this original meaning.

If we reinterpret the line stressing the other meanings implied it gives a whole new reading to this section of Cynddelw’s poem:

Hydr yd gerdd fy ngherdd yng nghyflawnder
I gyflawn foli rhi rhwy dirper,
Yn urddiant foliant fal yd glywer,
Yn awen barawd awdl burwawd bêr;
Yn Annwfn, yn nwfn, yn nyfnder – yd farn,
Nid beirdd a’i dadfarn, bardd a’i dadfer.

Powerfully does my song go forth in completeness
To praise fully the king that deserves it,
In renowned praise full of dignity,
With ready awen in an ode of fair, pure poetry;
In Annwfn, in the deep, in the depth, it judges,
Other bards do not impoverish it, it is this bard that declaims it!

Cynddelw’s song judges the patron, and does so in Annwfn, which, according to my alternative reading is ‘the deep’, and ‘the depth’. This supports the idea that Annwfn is a deep place, and gives us another piece of information about Cynddelw’s conception of Annwfn, that being it is from this deep place that the bard’s judgment arises. This lawful or ethical aspect of Annwfn is also seen in the first part of the first branch of the Mabinogi, and Cynddelw is very likely referring to the same idea here. With this association in place, we can now expand on some of the other occurrences of dwfn in Gogynfeirdd poetry.