Of all the players that feature in the pages of the Mabinogi perhaps none possess the subterfuge, the brutality or the mystery of Caswallawn. Introduced late into the second branch, Caswallawn uses a cloak of invisibility to slay the six stewards entrusted by King Bran to protect his kingdom, and in the process accidently kills his own nephew Caradog, who dies of a broken heart after witnessing the murder of his comrades. Caswallawn takes seven lives with six strikes and snatches the throne from the children of Llyr.
From this point onwards Caswallawn’s shadow looms long and dark over the narrative of the third branch, Pryderi heads to london to pay tribute to the new King in place of Manawydan, who out of fear refuses to be in the presence of Caswallawn, a fear that later causes him to stay his hand when he, Rhiannon, Pryderi and Kigva are attacked by townsfolk, lest the news of their fighting reach the new King.
What we see of Caswallawn within the pages of the Mabinogi paints a picture of of a murderer and a tyrant, a man who kills without mercy or remorse… but there is more to this dark usurper then first meets the eye, Caswallawn’s tale is one of brutality, betrayal, love and sacrifice that instigates the rise and fall of the House of Beli Mawr.
The Etymology of Caswallawn – Where Myth And History Meet
When researching Caswallawn’s story it quickly becomes apparent that a large portion of the lore relating to him was lost at some point in time before the four branches of the Mabinogi where recorded. This is sadly not an isolated event in Welsh Mythology, and the footprints of several other now-forgotten tales can be seen in the Mabinogi, The Native Tales and in particular the Triads, all of which allude to forgotten sagas such as the imprisonment of Llyr, the adventures of the hero Llemenig and the death of Dylan Ail Ton, to name but a few.
Fortunately there is still a few scraps of narrative information we can use to gain insight into his nature, including the origin of his name.
The etymology of Caswallawn is a complex one, the name itself is a Welsh adaption of the Common Brittonic name Cassiuellauanos, a compound word consisting of Kassi, meaning “love, hate, passion” or alternatively “bronze”, and *uelna-mon meaning “leader, sovereign, king”. From this we can decipher some possible translations of Caswallawn’s name:
However, the largest problem faced when trying to explore the name and narrative of Caswallawn comes with his confusion with the historical figure of Cassivellaunus.
Cassivellaunus was a British prince of the Catuvellauni tribe who fought the Romans in the defence of Britain in 54ad. He utilised brutal war tactics and hit-and-run combat utilising chariots to fend off Caesars forces, but was ultimately betrayed by the Trinovantes tribe of what is now modern Essex, who held a long term grudge against the Prince after he killed their King. The Trinovantes revealed the location of Cassivellaunus’s stronghold to Caesar’s forces in exchange for Roman protection, and Cassivellaunus, cornered and desperate, ended up suing for peace to prevent further bloodshed, which Caesar, conscious of wasting resources, accepted.
At some point the historical Cassivellaunus and a mythological figure became conflated, gaining the name Caswallawn, the welsh equivalent of Cassivellaunus’s name. Rather than being a mythologised retelling of the Caesar-Cassivellaunus conflict, the tale of Caswallawn itself seems to have at one point been a pre-existing narrative, with the names of key characters altered to reflect historical events, as we know that many of the stories featuring his key narrative existed before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, which solidified the connection between the two. This was possibly done to add an air of “historical validity” to aspects of the Mabinogi, and was attempted with several other characters in the second branch including Manawyddan and Caradog, who are identified with the historical figures of Mandubracius and Caractus respectively, creating a frustrating snarl of history, myth and speculation.
A possible original name for the mythical figure of Caswallawn could have been Cadwallon, a Welsh name derived from *Katuwellaunos, a proto-Celtic compound word with the elements Katu – “Battle”, Welna – Leader and Mnos “One”, giving us a possible etymology of “The One Who Leads Battle”, which interestingly enough is a variation of the name of the Catuvellauni tribe the historical Cassivellaunus was the leader of. Both Katuwellaunos – Catuvellaunus and Kađđiwellaunos – Cassivellaunus give the form Kaswallon in the Kernewek language, which adds to the confusion.
This difficulty is compounded by the fact that unlike the majority of his brothers and sisters there is no direct parallel to Caswallawn in the Gaulish Pantheon, and finding a corresponding god is near impossible due to the confusion surrounding the original name and identity of Caswallawn. There are two Gaulish Deities who share naming conventions and qualities with Caswallawn, Caturix and Magiorix, who may have developed into the figure of Caswallawn at some time:
Caturix was a Deity whose name translates as “battle-lord”. He was worshipped by the Helvetii tribe and had a central temple in Aventicum, he was associated with the Roman Deity Mars.
Magiorix was a God associated with Apollo by the Romans, his name can be translated as “The Great King”.
This is purely conjecture, and at the moment there is no way we can tell for certain whether either of these Deities served as the inspiration for the figure of Caswallawn, he may in fact be a Spirit unique to the Welsh landscape, a curious blend of the mythological, historical and folkloric.
With no concrete comparative framework to explore Caswallawns characteristics and qualities, we must instead turn to other elements of Welsh legend to further our understanding of his nature.
Beyond The Mabinogi – Exploring The Triads
Outside of the narrative of the Mabinogi Casswallawn is mentioned in six Triads:
TYP38, which refers to Caswallawns Horse Meinlas, which can be translated as “slender grey”, the triad describes the horse as one of the “three bestowed horses” and “three lively steeds” of the Isle of Prydain.
TYP59 refers to Caswallawn and his nephew Afarwy ap Llud, who’s malicious advice to accept Meinlas from “Ceaser” in exchange for placing the forefeet of his horses on the shore of Prydain is called “one of the three unfortunate counsels”, while related Triad TYP51 delves deeper into the ruinous rivalry between the uncle and nephew
TYP71, names Caswallawn as “one of the three lovers of Ynys Prydain” due to his star-crossed romance with the flower maiden Fflur ferch Mugnach Gor.
TYP67 names him a “Golden Shoemaker” alongside his cousin Manawyddan and nephew Lleu, after Caswallawn disguises himself as a cobbler to rescue his beloved Fflur, who had been kidnapped by Caesar.
TYP94 praises Caswallawn for holding one of the “Three Immense Feasts” of the Isle of Prydain in London, where a staggering number of animals were slaughtered to feed his guests: twenty thousand cattle, a hundred thousand sheep, fifty thousand geese and capons, along with countless domestic birds.
Finally, TYP35 names “The Three Silver Hosts” who left the isle of Prydain, never to return again. Caswallawn, his Sister Aranrot and her Sons Gwenwynwyn and Gwanar, along with their soldiers and riches, sail from the Island in search of Fflur and seemingly vanish without a trace.
Various genealogical tracts list a son of Caswallawn named Meirchion meaning “Horses”, though it does not state whether Fflur was the childs mother.
From these Triads we can begin to piece together a more complete narrative of Caswallawns tale:
“Caswallawn, eldest Son of Beli Mawr, heard news of Brans departure from the Isle of The Mighty to rescue Branwen, and hatched a malicious plot to claim the throne for himself. Donning a cloak of invisibility and taking up his sword, Caswallawn sneaked into Bran’s camp and murdered six of the seven men entrusted by the giant to protect his kingdom. Cawallawn planned to spare the life of the seventh man Caradog, owing to the fact he was his sisters grandchild, however upon seeing the murder of his friends and the disembodied sword of Caswallawn, Caradog dies of bewilderment. The only survivor of the massacre was a young man named Pendaran, who fled into the woods to escape Caswallawns blade.
Caswallawn, having usurped the throne from the house of Llyr and announced himself the new King of Prydain, commenced the tour of his kingdom. Many feasts were held and nobility throughout the land came to pay homage to their new King, including Pryderi, who was secretly hiding Manawyddan, the last surviving child of Llyr.
at some point during his tour of the land Caswallawn met a beautiful flower maiden named Fflur ferch Mugnach Gor, and fell deeply in love with her. He started courting the maiden and for a time Prydain is peaceful and prosperous under its new king.
That time of peace was never meant to last however, and worrying reports soon reached Caswallawn of a fleet of warships moored just off the shore of the island. Concerned of a possible invasion Caswallawn sent his nephew and most valued advisor Afarwy ap Llud to meet with the newcomers and discern the threat they pose.
Afarwy traveled to where the war-fleet is moored and spoke to its leader, a man who called himself “Caesar”. he requested that Afarwy return to Caswallawn with a curious proposition: he will offer the King a rare and beautiful horse called Meinlas, in exchange for Caesar being able to rest the fore-hoofs of his men’s horses on the shore of Prydain. Listening to Afarwys advice Caswallawn accepted the terms of the deal and the two leaders striked an uneasy accord.
That changed when Caesar first laid eyes on Fflur, driven mad with desire for the maiden he planed to kidnap her and with the help of the treacherous Afarwy, who secretly had his own designs on the throne, Caesar dragged Fflur to his ship and set sail back to his homeland.
Upon hearing of his beloved’s abduction Caswallawn set out on a desperate search for Fflur, using magic of illusion to disguise himself as a shoemaker in order to infiltrate Caesars stronghold.
His mission ends in failure, and desperate and dejected, he returns to Prydain to seek assistance from his sister Aranrot, a woman of formidable magical power. Feeling for her brothers plight, Aranrot lends her support to his cause, providing him with her assistance, soldiers, wealth, and the support of her two sons Gwenwynwyn and Gwanar. With their combined forces Caswallawn set sail with his silver host in search of his fair maiden Ffur… and sadly this is where our story ends, Caswallawns warfleet never touches the shores of this world again, instead vanishing into the mists, never to be seen.
And thus ends the tale of Caswallawn.
Even within the rudimentary narrative we can piece together, we can begin to see a number of key elements to the story that enables us to gain insight into the players involved in Caswallawns tale. We will take a brief look at each key point:
Llen Arthur – The Cloak
Caswallawn uses a cloak of invisibility to kill the seven stewards, though how he managed to come into possession of such a powerful artefact is never mentioned in the surviving material. A mantle with very similar properties is mentioned among the Thirteen Treasures of Britain as being in the possession of King Arthur.
Llen Arthur, specifically named Gwenn in The Dream Of Rhonabwy, is stated to render its wearer invisible, and is considered one of Arthur’s most prized possessions, so much so that is among the handful of artifacts he will not give to his cousin Culhwch in order to rescue the maiden Olwen. As with many of the other items among Arthurs collection its name originates in the Welsh word Gwynn meaning “white”, denoting an Otherworldly origin for the mantle.
There are no other references to cloaks of invisibility outside of Arthur and Caswallawn, indeed it seems likely that it is a unique artefact passed between the two Kings at some point, though the specifics of how and when it changed hands between Caswallawn and Arthur or vice-versa have now been lost.
Caradawg And The Seven Horsemen
Caradawg’s name can be translated as “Beloved”, he is the son of Bran, and therefore great-nephew of Caswallawn through his sister penardun. Caswallawn doesn’t kill Caradawg due to this association, but Caradawg dies “of bewilderment” after witnessing his comrades being murdered by an unseen assailant, mirroring his aunt Branwen’s own death in the same story. Caradawg’s tragic death sets in motion the a chain of events that result in his granddaughter Elen, along with her husband the emperor Maxen, overthrowing the Children of Beli and reinstating Llyr’s bloodline on the throne.
Of the six men that Caswallawn kills, two are seemingly related to other characters directly referenced in this or other stories in the four branches:
Llassar fab Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid is the son of the supernatural lake giants Cymidei Cymeinfoll and Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid, the original owners of the ill-fated cauldron of Rebirth featured in the second branch. His name can be translated as Azure, and while his father’s name Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid is complex, it can be taken to mean something along the lines of “free-flowing flame”, with Llasar perhaps representing the fire needed to boil the Cauldron itself. The name could be a reference to the practice of enamelling shields which would render a translation of “free-flowing azure falls” referring to the process of pouring liquid enamel onto a shield, in the third branch Manawyddan reveals he learned how to decorate saddles in this manner through watching Llasar work his craft.
The second man, Heffeyd Hir, seemingly appears in a number of guises throughout the Mabinogi, such as Heffeyd Hen, Rhiannon’s father and royalty of the Otherworld in the first branch, and Eufeydd in the fourth branch as the brother of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. His name is a heavy corruption Eufydd, itself a corruption of Ogimos, the name of the Gaulish god of eloquence, which developed from the Indo-European Hek. The root word Hek can be variously translated as “stone, vault, sharp” or alternatively “path, guide, trail”. His epithet Hir can be taken to mean “tall”, but also has connotations of distance and time, and can mean “far-reaching” or “long lived”. He is one of the many characters in the Mabinogi who doesn’t adhere to the logic of our world, he seemingly ages backwards, dying in the second branch only to return in the fourth.
The other four men killed by caswallawn are named as Unic Glew Yscwydd, Idic son of Anarawc Walltgrwn, Ffodor son of Eruyll and Wlch Minasgwrn. These men don’t appear to be connected to any other events or characters in Welsh literature, and their first names seem conspicuously absent of any significant origin, while many of their epithets merely contain descriptions of their appearance or characteristics.
Pendaran is a genuinely confusing figure. The foster father of Pryderi in the first branch, he appears in the second as a young squire, and the only survivor of Caswallawns killing spree. Pendaran’s name is a compound word stemming from Pen “Head, Chief, Apex” and either taran “thunder” or dar “oak-tree” giving a handful of possible etymologies:
“Chief of Thunder”
“Giant Oak Tree”
“Pinnacle of Thunder”
Pendaran flees deep into the forest when Caswallawn attacks the seven defenders, there seems to be an implication here that Caswallawn couldn’t find the boy once he entered the woods, perhaps owing to the fact that the deep forest is Pendaran’s “home turf”, or that he has an affinity for trees and woodland.
Fflur Ferch Mugnach Gor – Flower Of The Otherworld
On the surface Fflur is a continuation of a long line of fecundity and sovereignty Goddesses in Welsh mythology, her name translates into modern English as “Flower”, and her relationship with Caswallawn is very reminiscent of the ritualised “marrying of the land” that took place upon the crowning of a new King. with this in mind Caswallawns love for Fflur and her subsequent abduction by an invading ruler who desires her for himself can be interpreted in a number of ways.
The central conflict can be seen as a metaphor of war and invasion: the invading ruler stealing the land from its rightful King, and along with it, its riches and abundance for himself. This mythic event can be seen in the fourth branch of the mabinogi, where in order to give Gilfaethwy a window of opportunity to rape the maiden Goewin, Gwydion must fabricate a war with Pryderi in order to distract his Uncle Math. Here a physical rape of a Goddess figure can only happen in conjunction with a symbolic rape of the land through war.
The conflict between Caswallawn and Caesar is also very reminiscent of another theme running through the Mabinogi, that of rivalries and conflicts between the Spirits of our world and the Otherworldly domain of Annwn.
We will explore the possible nature of Caesar as a renamed Otherworld entity in a later section, however Fflur herself is seemingly the daughter of an Otherworld spirit.
Fflur’s father is named as Mugnarch Gor, a compound name that contains several elements. Gor can be interpreted as a corruption of either Corrach “Dwarf” or Cawr“Giant”, while his first name, variously spelt as Mugnach, Mygnach or Ugnach, contains the suffix -ach, denoteing his nature as a supernatural being or phantom, as can be seen in the names of other mythological figures such as the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn or “Hag Of The Mist”.
His primary appearance is in the poem The Conversation of Taliesin and Ugnarch, where he appears as an imposing and sinister figure, surrounded by his white hunting hounds and “with great horns”. He attempts to entice Taliesin back to his fortress with the promise of “shining mead” and “gold for his spear-rest”.
Taliesin, seemingly caught in an unusual moment of unease, refuses as politely as he can, stating that he does not even know the name of the strange man, and is in a hurry to reach the court of Gwydion and Lleu. making his excuses Taliesin leaves this mysterious figure with haste. Why does Taliesin seemingly fear this man, after all his wilful trespasses into the Otherworld?
Naturally there are some obvious themes here, it could very well be that Taliesin is wary of accepting hospitality from an otherworld entity. The belief that consuming food offered by the Fay somehow “binds” a person to the Otherworld is a relatively well known occurrence in myth and can be seen in wider Welsh folklore and beyond, such as the refusal of St Collen to eat the food of Gwyn ap Nudd, or the Greek tale of Persephone eating pomegranate seeds from the underworld.
Ugnach himself appears as a spirit of the Otherworld in a similar vein to Gwyn and Arawn, a huntsman who shepherds lost souls to his fortress in Annwn, though serving in a seemingly more sinister capacity. Could it be that Fflur is a daughter of Otherworld royalty, as Rhiannon, Gwenhwyfar and a number of other sovereignty Goddesses seemingly are?
Gaius Julius Caesar invaded in 43ad, instigating a conflict that took over 40 years and resulted in the deaths of over 70’000 people. It was a brutal conflict, one that forever changed the face of Prydain. It seems only natural then that we would see reflections of Caesar and his Empire recorded in folktales and stories, however the true role of Caesar in Welsh mythology is a deeply complex one, incorporating a number of elements that imply a supernatural quality to the “Caesar” that appears in Welsh legend and lore.
Caesar’s appearance and actions in the triads are very suspect, he and his army sail in from across the sea and offer a very strange deal to Caswallawn: a prized, almost supernaturally nimble horse called Meinlas “slender gray”, in exchange for Caesars forces being able to place the fore-hoofs of their horses on the land. This is a delicious piece of mythological doublespeak, one that helps us to uncover who or what “Ceaser” really is in this tale.
Caesar doesn’t ask for safe harbour, or even temporary sanctuary on the shore, just the front two legs of his horses to touch land. This isn’t the first time that placing feet on the ground has been an issue for someone in Welsh lore. Math ap Mathonwy, the powerful magician of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, cannot place his feet directly on the earth or he will die, instead he must rest them in the lap of a virgin or be engaged in constant battle to stave off the curse he suffers from. Math is so indicative of the Otherworld that he physically cannot touch our realm, could it be that this “Ceaser” is also bound by a similar embargo, one that can only be broken by the Kings permission to touch Sovereign soil?
His abduction of Fflur is also an indication of his nature as an Otherworld being, the kidnap or entrapment of a Goddess by the denizens of Annwn and their subsequent rescue can be seen multiple times in Welsh Myth such as Llwyd Cil Coed’s entrapment of Rhiannon and Pryderi in the third branch of the Mabinogi and Gwyns kidnap of his sister Creiddylad.
There are the remains of a second Welsh myth that involves a battle between Caesar and another child of Beli named Nyniaw, a version of which is recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.
In this story Ceaser wields a powerful sword named Angau Coch, or “Red Death” (the Latin translation of this story instead gives the name Crocea Mors meaning “yellow Death”). The blade has the power to instantly decapitate anyone who is struck by it, or otherwise inflict injuries so grievous that death is inevitable. There is no other reference to a special sword being owned by Caesar in any other historical manuscript, meaning that it is highly likely that Crocea Mors is unique to Welsh mythology, its attribute of instant decapitation can be tied to the symbolic significance of the cult of the head in Celtic culture, once again reinforcing the mythological hallmarks of the Welsh Ceaser.
Just as it seems likely that at some point the archaic myth of Caswallawn was fused with the historical King Cassivellaunus, so too was his rival Ceaser fused with a character from Welsh myth, an Otherworld warlord armed with a legendary death-dealing sword.
The horse that Caesar offers Caswallawn is named in TYP38 as Meinlas, meaning “Slender Gray”.
A “gray” horse has a pale coat that ranges from pure white to silver, but tends to have dark skin underneath that usually shows through the ears and snout where the hair is thinner, as opposed to a “white” horse which would have pale skin beneath their coat and therefore a more uniform appearance. A white animal with noticeably different colouring on its ears and nose should prove instantly recognisable for anyone with a knowledge of Celtic mythology, Meinlas has all the hallmarks of an Otherworld creature. This is made all the more interesting by the fact that horses were revered by the Celts as embodiment’s of Royal Sovereignty, so Meinlas itself could perhaps represent an accord between Caswallawn’s rule of Prydein and the Otherworldly Kingdom held by “Ceaser”, one that is broken when he kidnaps Fflur.
The Golden Shoemaker
Upon learning of Fflurs abduction Caswallawn abandons his throne to search for her, using his powers of illusion to disguise himself as a shoemaker.
“The Golden Shoemakers” Caswallawn, Manawydan and LLeu (by proxy of Gwydion, who provides the magic), are not only representative of each of the three houses of Welsh lore, they are also three of the premier magicians of their respective families. The extent and importance of this title is something of a mystery, though the Gaulish equivalent to Lleu, named Lugos, was seen as a tutelary god of craftsmen and shoemakers, heavily implying a connection between these three figures and skill in craftsmanship, reinforced by Manawydan’s talents in various crafts in the third branch. The “golden” element could also be a reference to the perfection of a craft, the ability to take something as mundane as leather shoes and transmute them into something beautiful through an act of magic and skill.
Having failed in his first attempt to rescue Fflur, Caswallawn returns to Prydain and seeks out the assistance of his sister Aranrot. Better known in modern times by the name Arianrhod, Aranrot is a deeply complex and often misunderstood figure, who merits her own exploration.
TYP35 gives a fascinating insight into brother and sister, not only does it demonstrate Aranrots wealth and martial power, but the fact that Caswallawn turns to her in his hour of need over his other siblings is telling, presenting her as one of the more competent members of her family. This also seems to continue the recurring “pairing” of Beli’s children, as seen with Nyniaw-Pebiaw and Llud-Llefelys, impling a deeper symbolic connection between Caswallawn and Aranrot then first meets the eye.
Aranrot’s sons Gwenwynwyn and Gwanar accompany their mother and uncle on their mission to save Fflur. There are various etymologies for their names, though the most likely are that Gwenwynwyn means “Thrice Holy/Blessed/White”, though it is a real possibility that it is in fact a corruption of Gwanwyngwyn, giving the meaning “White Spring”, perhaps alluding to his function as a snow or melt-water spirit. Gwanar can be translated as “moving forward, leading, trailblazing” or alternatively “Warfare”.
Together they function as both expressions of Aranrot’s power – Gwanar as warfare, Gwanwynwyn as an embodiment of winter and desolation, (“Aranrot of laudable aspect, pale as the snow”), and also as the mythic repercussion of Fflurs abduction, with the spring Goddess of Sovereignty kidnapped, warfare and winter consume the land. The desolation caused by Caswallawns single-minded pursuit of Fflur is reinforced by TYP35, which names the combined forces of Caswallawn and Aranrot as on of the three “Tri Aryanllu” or “Silver Hosts” of prydain, so named because of the riches and men they took away from Prydain, never to return.
The Journey Onwards
This is all we can gain from Caswallawn by working with the historical and mythological evidence we have left on him, but as Awenydd there are skills we can utilise to delve deeper into his mysteries and form a powerful spiritual relationship with this enigmatic spirit, though it will be far from easy. Cawallawn is a difficult and complex being, one that defies simple categorisation or easy worship. Throughout Welsh legend he embodies many uncomfortable and contradictory roles, individual to each of us: the usurper and kin-slayer, the benevolent King, devoted lover, ruthless warlord, and desperate man… Caswallawn speaks to the deepest, darkest heart within us all, and asks a piercing question:
What would you be willing to inflict on others to achieve your hearts desire? And are you willing to surrender it all, everything you have and all you are, for the person you love?
Davies, Trefor Rendall – A Book of Welsh Names
Bromwich, Rachel – trioedd ynys prydein
Davies, Sinoed – The Mabinogi
Bartrum, Peter Clement – A Welsh Classical Dictionary