Though a surprisingly large body of work has survived the centuries since the first vellum parchments where marked with tales of our Gods, it is also sadly apparent that we have lost a great deal, with entire mythological narratives now only existing as passing references in other stories.
Rhun and Pennardun have seemingly fallen into obscurity, their deeds and accomplishments lost to the ravages of history, or more optimistically stowed away in a library and museum collections, awaiting the day their stories will be told once again. That doesn’t mean these stories have fallen silent indefinitely however, as Awenydd we can use our knowledge of legend and lore along with the gift of Awen to tease out some precious strands of insight into these obscure children of Beli
Peerless Beauty – Penarddun Ferch Beli Mawr
Penarddun is referenced only once in the scope of Welsh lore, within the second branch of the Mabinogi, where she is named as the mother of five children: Bran, Branwen and Manawydan by her first consort Llyr Llediaith “Sea Half-Speech”, and Nysien and Efnysian, fathered by the obscure entity Euroswydd “Golden Adversary”.
The exact nature surrounding the conception of Nysien and Efnysien has been largely lost, however we can find clues through the Triads. TYP52 lists Llyr as one of the “three exalted prisoners” of Britain, having been jailed by Euroswydd Wledig. We can start to piece together a rudimentary narrative from this triad in which penardun is married to Llyr, giving birth to her first three children Bran, Branwen and Manawyddan. Llyr is then imprisoned by his rival Euroswydd, who steals Llyrs kingdom and marries, or at least conceives, his twin children with Penardun. Though the nature of Pennarduns role in the narrative has been lost, and we can no longer tell if she was a victim of Euroswydd lust or actively plotted with her new lover to imprison her husband, the events that surround her character indicate a similar pattern of upheaval and chaos that her brothers and sister tend to personify.
There seems to be confusion in the narrative as to whether Pennardun herself is a Daughter of, or Sister to Beli Mawr. this is due to references in the second and third branch that refer to Caswallawn ap Beli Mawr as Manawyddan ap Llyrs Uncle or cousin respectively. This could have been a translation error however and her name is referenced in the second branch as Penarddun Ferch Beli Mawr seeming to confirm her status as a Daughter of Beli and sister of Caswallawn et al.
The name Penarddun is a compound word, combining the elements pen “head, apex, chief” and arrdun “sublime, beautiful” from this compound we can see a couple of possible variations:
There is a fascinating parallel here between Penarddun and the Brythonic deity Belisama, whose compound name comes from Bel, meaning “bright, fair, shining”, with the superlative element -isama, that can be translated as something along the lines of “brightest one” or “most fair”. She was worshipped throughout Gaul and her influence spread to Britain where she was considered the Spirit of the river Ribble. Associated by the Romans with their Goddess Minerva, Belisama seems to have been considered a Spirit of light, water, arts and craftsmen.
Belisama herself was often venerated along side Belenus in Gaul, the two seemed to be intrinsically linked through their naming, worship and qualities. It is compelling to think that Penarddun “the Chief Beauty” of Welsh mythology and the Deity Belisama “the most fair”, both linked with Belenus/Beli Mawr in fact share a common origin.
We can speculate and theorise on Penarddun, try to understand her nature, the role she played in these stories we love. But she is elusive, like sunlight dancing on the surface of water she flits just beyond the grasp of our understanding.
Red Ravager – Rhun Ap Beli Mawr
Finding references to Rhun and his nature is no mean feat, this is only compounded by the seeming over popularity of the name among historical Kings of the early Christian period and the subsequent confusing of myth and history by later scholars such as Geoffrey of Monmouth. However there are a small handful of clues that when pieced together gives us a tantalising glimpse of this lost figure.
Rhun is mentioned four times with the Welsh literary tradition, in TYP31 he is referred to as one of three “blood soaked ones” of the isle of Britain alongside Morgan the Courteous and Arthur, this triad goes on to state that “when they marched to war no one could remain at home, so greatly where they loved, they were victorious in every war and battle that did not involve ambush or deception. Their armies obtained soldiers wherever they marched.”
TYP20 names Rhun as a Red ravager alongside his nephew Lleu and the seemingly otherworldly warrior Morgant, it is stated in the triad that “neither grass or plants would grow for a year where these men had walked”, their destructive power was only surpassed by Arthur himself who could render a land barren for seven years after setting foot on it.
An alternative version of TYP13 mentions him as the father of Gwyddar, a “Chief officer” of Britain.
He is also referred to in a poem penned by the thirteenth century Bard Hywel Foel Ap Griffi, who writing on the imprisonment of Owain Goch ap Gruffudd states:
“If he where a free man, like Rhun Ap Beli,
He would not let Lloegr burn his borders”
These references begin to present a very compelling picture of a charismatic and brutal war god, loyal to this men and his land yet merciless when facing his adversaries, destroying all who oppose him.
The exact etymology of the name Rhun is tricky to decipher, however it contains the element Rhu, which means “shout” or “bellow”. Another possible etymology for his name is that it originates in the proto-celtic roinos which can be translated as “route, road or landmark”. From this we can deduce a handful of possible names for him:
“One who bellows”
The possible etymologies add a different flavour to his character, giving either the impression of a powerful warrior unleashing his battlecry, or a man who clears a path through the battlefield, both rather fitting for a blood-soaked red ravager.
It’s interesting here to contrast Rhun with the two other established warriors in his family, Caswallawn and Nyniaw. While all three of them are incredible powerful combatants the techniques they use in battle are very different. Caswallawn uses subterfuge and powers of illusion to ambush his enemies, Nyniaw strikes in a self-destructive and devastating rage while Rhun uses charismatic leadership and a salted-earth tactics to decimate his opposition. These three Spirits of war give us an intriguing insight into the Celtic peoples paradoxical view on conflict and violence, a people that would often fight naked and with no regard for their own lives in battle, but who also cared deeply for their fellow tribe members, chose their battlefields with careful and deliberate tactics in mind and who would use ambush and hit-and-run tactics to devastating effect.
As with his brothers and sisters Rhun defies simple categorisation as a god of war, he is also a charismatic leader who can harbour such devotion in his men that they will leave all they know to follow him, a man of such destructive nature that he is a literal walking wasteland, yet also the father of a wise and noble leader… and perhaps in a sense that is the essence of Rhun. he is charisma, that je ne sais quoi that great men and women sometimes possess, an ability to draw people to their cause, and to change the world…. For better, or for worse.
Though sometimes it may seem that the stories of the past are lost to us, they never really die, not as long as there are people who love and cherish them. Penarddun, Rhun and countless other Spirits still call to their people through the mists of time, ready to shine a new light on age-old mysteries.