Monday, 30 March 2015

Mythical Creatures: Giants of Wales - Part One

Welsh legend and folklore is full of giants.  Most are bad tempered and cruel, some are black, and some are even ghostly apparitions of giants long dead.  But all are eventually defeated, sometimes through some kind of heavenly intervention and often by the mythical King Arthur who is so popular in Welsh tales.  Over the next two posts we will learn about these giants of Wales and their stories, along with their eventual defeat.

Culhwch (or Kilhwch) and Olwen, often referred to as ‘the Oldest Arthurian tale’, was written in c1090 and is the oldest and the longest to appear in the Welsh Mabinogion.  Set in the court of Arthur, the story tells of the feats which the hero, Culhwch, must accomplish in order to win Olwen, whose father is Ysbaddaden, the Chief Giant, whose eyes are so heavy that they need to be propped up with forks or spears.  Another giant to play a minor role within the tale is Gwrnach, whose sword is needed to complete one of the tasks set by Ysbaddaden.    As the original tale is a good 19 pages long, I’ll give you one version here, but if you want to read the original in its entirety you can find it here.


Culhwch was the son of Cilydid and Goleuddydd and the cousin of the famous King Arthur.  When Goleuddydd died, Cilydid took another wife.  The new wife thought Culhwch would make a good husband to her own daughter.  When Culhwch refused her request, she became very angry.  She laid a curse on him that the only woman he could ever marry was Olwen, daughter of the fearsome giant Yspaddaden Pencawr.  Yspaddaden would not allow any man to marry his daughter because an ancient curse promised he would die on the wedding day.
Even so, Culhwch blushed at the sound of Olwen’s name.  He fell in love with the very idea of her and went to his father to ask how he could win her.  Cilydid reminded his son that he was King Arthur’s cousin.  He suggested he go to Arthur’s court and ask for Olwen as a favour.
After a long journey, Culhwch arrived at the gates of Arthur’s palace.  It was late and the gates had been closed for the night.  The gatekeeper explained that it was Arthur’s custom to keep the gates locked until morning.  Culhwch flatly refused this response.  He demanded to be allowed in.  He swore that if he were not, he would let out a shriek so loud and so shrill that it would cause every pregnant woman in the land to miscarry her child.  The gatekeeper brought this news to Arthur.  Although several of his knights advised him against doing so, Arthur went against custom and allowed Culhwch to enter.
After greeting each other, Arthur offered his cousin food and drink.  Culhwch explained that he was there for a much greater purpose and that he had a favour to ask.  Arthur promised to grant him whatever he asked.  Hearing this Culhwch replied, ‘Then I ask for Olwen daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden, and I invoke her in the name of your warriors.’
Neither Arthur nor any of his knights had heard of Olwen, but they promised to help Culhwch find her nonetheless.  Arthur ordered his most skilled warriors to accompany Culhwch on his journey.  Among the men who went along were Kai, who could hold his breath for nine days and go without sleep for nine nights.  With Kai came his constant companion Bedwyr, who was as fast with a sword as he was beautiful.  The party was rounded out by Gwrhyr, who could speak the language of any man or animal, Gwalchmei, who could leave no adventure unachieved, and Menw, who could make himself and his companions invisible.
Culhwch and Olwen by Alan Lee
The party travelled together until they saw a huge fortress on an open plain.  Feeding on the plain was a seemingly endless number of sheep.  They were watched over by a hulking shepherd and his huge dog.  Menw put a spell on the dog so that they could approach the shepherd without harm.  The party asked the shepherd his name and whose fortress it was.  He replied that he was Custennin.  The fortress belonged to Ysbaddaden, who Custennin and his wife hated.  The evil giant had killed all but one of their twenty-four sons.  They kept the only survivor hidden in a stone chest to keep him from harm.  Kai offered to take the boy under his wing and train him as a knight.  In return for his generous offer Custennin’s wife offered to secure a secret meeting between Olwen and Culhwch.
Messengers were dispatched and Olwen came down to the plain to wash her hair.  According to the poets of old:

Her hair was yellower than broom, her skin whiter than sea-foam…  Neither the eye of a mewer hawk nor the eye of a thrice-mewed falcon was fairer than hers; her [skin was] whiter than the breast of a white swan, her cheeks were redder than the reddest foxgloves, and anyone who saw her would fall deeply in love.

Culhwch and Olwen talked together at Custennin’s house and quickly fell in love.  As Olwen stood up to return home, she told Culhwch to ask her father for her hand in marriage and not to deny anything he might ask of him.  In return, she promised to spend the rest of her days with him.
The next day, the party made for Ysbaddaden’s castle.  They killed the nine gatekeepers and made their was straight to the giant’s chambers.  The giant glared at them.  He said he would think about the request and give them an answer the next day.  As they turned to go, he grabbed a poisoned spear and threw it at them.  But Bedwyr, quick as lightning, caught it and hurled it back, wounding the giant’s knee.
Culhwch at Ysbadadden's court by E. Wallcousins
The next day the same thing happened.  Ysbaddaden told them to return and threw a second spear as they left.  Menw caught the spear and this time pierced the giant’s chest.  The third day they repeated the ritual once more.  This time, Culhwch caught the spear and threw it back so hard that it went through Ysbaddaden’s eye and came out the other side.  The giant finally agreed to sit down with Culhwch and his party to discuss his daughter’s marriage.
Ysbaddaden agreed to let Culhwch marry Olwen, but only after he had completed several tasks.  The giant then listed thirty-nine tasks, each more impossible than the last.  For example, Culhwch was to plow a vast hill in one day’s time, which could only be achieved if they captured two magic oxen to lead the plow, which could only be driven by a certain plowman, and so on.  After Ysbaddaden named each feat to be completed or item to be brought back, Culhwch simply responded, ‘It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise.’
Culhwch and his party made their way back to Arthur’s court.  On the way, Kai fulfilled one of the trials by tricking a giant named Gwrnach into giving him his sword.  When they arrived at court, they explained to the king what they must do.  Arthur immediately promised his help and resources.  The group set out to accomplish the tasks.  They realized that the most dangerous one would be obtaining the comb and shears that rested between the ears of Twrch Trwyth, a king transformed into a monstrous boar.
On their way to find the boar king, Arthur and his companions attempted to fulfil another of their tasks – to find Mabon, the son of Modron who had been kidnapped when he was only three days old.  Arthur instructed Gwyhyr to ask an ancient Blackbird if he knew of Mabon’s whereabouts.  The Blackbird answered that while he had been sitting in that spot long enough to peck an anvil to the size of a nut, he had never heard anyone speak of the boy.  The bird suggested that they ask a beast older than he, the Stag of Rhedenwre.  The Stag could not help them, nor could an old Owl nor an ancient Eagle.  Finally, though, they were directed toward the Salmon of Lake Llyw who was said to have been the oldest living creature in the world.  The Salmon indeed knew where Mabon lived.  He even offered to take Kai and Gwrhyr there on his shoulders.  Together they made their way to a stone house, where they heard a terrible wailing.  It was Mabon, begging for his freedom.  Kai and Gwyhyr released Mabon, who then helped them fulfil many of their tasks.
After much time, Arthur decided he and his men were ready to take on Twrch.  They advanced to the castle where the boar king lived with his seven young pig sons.  The companions fought Twrch for three days with little results.

The End of the Quest by Lelek1980
Finally, Arthur sent Gwrhyr in the shape of a bird to speak with Twrch.  Gwrhyr begged the board king to give up his comb and scissors in order to put an end to all the fighting.  Twrch not only refused, he promised to do even more damaged to the land and Arthur’s men.Enraged, Twrch and his pigs swarmed across the sea into Wales.  Arthur and his men followed.  They made their way all over Britain chasing Twrch, encountering many adventures and even fulfilling other tasks in the process.  Over a long period of time, the pig sons were killed one by one until Twrch alone remained.  Finally, they cornered the king and were able to grab the comb and scissors – but not without great effort and cost on their part.  Twrch managed to escape before Arthur had a chance to kill him.
With the comb in hand, Arthur had succeeded in helping Culhwch fulfil his trials as promised.  They made their way back to Ysbaddaden, bringing him every treasure he had required.  The gifts he had demanded turned out to be his death wish.  When Culhwch asked if Olwen was his, Ysbaddaden replied, ‘She is.  And you need not thank me, rather Arthur, who won her for you; of my own will you would have never got her.  Now it is time for you to kill me.’
With that, one of Arthur’s men grabbed the giant and beheaded him.  Ysbaddaden’s head was placed on a pole in the wall.  Arthur seized the fortress and all the treasures.  Culhwch, of course, took Olwen and the couple was soon married.

Our next giant, Rhitta Gawr, was alluded to by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote:
‘On the ridge cold and vast,
There the giant Ricca lies.’
Rhitta Gawr, sometimes referred to as Rhita Gawr, Rhitta Cawr, Rhicca, Ricca, or Rhicca Gawr, was a ‘monstrous aggressive giant who… terrorized the countryside of Yr Wyddfa Fawr, the Snowdon Mountain range, and challenged chieftains and kings to do battle with him.’  The giant seemed to have something of a fetish for the beards of rulers, turning them into a mantle for himself.  The tale below also contains King Arthur and tells of a cairn built for the defeated giant, called ‘Rhita’s Cairn,’ which was, unfortunately destroyed some time ago to make way for a hotel on the summit of the mountain.


There were formerly two kings in Britain named Nynio and Peibio.  One moonlit night, as they were walking the fields, ‘See,’ said Nynio, ‘what a beautiful and extensive field I possess.’  ‘Where is it?’ said Peibio.  ‘There it is,’ said Nynio, ‘the whole sky, as far as vision can extend.’  ‘And does thou see,’ said Peibio, ‘what countless herds and flocks of cattle and sheep I have grazing in thy field?’  ‘Where are they?’ said Nynio.  ‘There they are,’ said Peibio, ‘the whole host of stars which thou seest, each of golden brightness, with the Moon for their shepherdess, to look after their wanderings.’  ‘They shall not graze in my pasture,’ said Nynio.  ‘They shall,’ said Peibio.  ‘They shall not,’ said the one.  ‘They shall,’ said the other.  From contention it came to furious war, and the armies and subjects of both the kings were nearly all destroyed.
Rhitta Gawr, King of Wales, hearing of the desolation wrought by these mad monarchs, determined to attack them.  Having previously consulted the laws and his people, he marched against them, vanquished them and cut off their beards.  When the other Kings of Britain, twenty-eight in number, heard of this, they combined all their legions to avenge the degradation committed on the two disbearded kings, and made a fierce onset on Rhitta the Giant and his forces, and furiously bold was the engagement.  But Rhitta won the day.  ‘This is my extensive field,’ said he then, and he shaved the beards of these kings also, so that he now had the beards of thirty Kings of Britain.
Arthur and Rhitta Gawr - artist unknown

When the kings of the surrounding countries heard of the disgrace inflicted on all these disbearded kings, they armed themselves against Rhitta and his men, and tremendous was the conflict.  But Rhitta achieved a decisive victory, and then exclaimed, ‘This is my immense field,’ and at once ordered his men to shave off the beards of the kings.  Then pointing to them, ‘These,’ said he, ‘are the animals that grazed my field, but I have driven them out: they shall no longer depasture there.’  After that he took up all the beards and trimmed with them a mantle for himself that extended from head to heel: and Rhitta was twice as large as any other person ever seen.
Then Rhitta sent a messenger to the Court of King Arthur to say that he had trimmed a mantle with kings’ beards, and to command Arthur carefully to flay off his beard and send it to him.  Out of respect to his pre-eminence over other kings his beard should have the honour of the principal place.  But if he refused to do it, he challenged him to a duel, with this offer, that the conqueror should have the mantle and the beard of the vanquished.  Then was Arthur furiously wroth and said:
‘Were it permitted to slay a messenger, thou shouldest not go back to thy lord alive, for this is the most arrogant and villainous message that ever man sent to a king.  By the faith of my body, Rhitta shall lose his head.’
Arthur gathered his host and marched into Gwynedd and encountered Rhitta.  The twain fought on foot, and they gave one another blows so fierce, so frequent and so powerful, that their helmets were pierced and their skullcaps were broken and their arms were shattered and the light of their eyes was darkened by sweat and blood.  At the last Arthur became enraged, and he called to him all his strength: and boldly angry and swiftly resolute and furiously determined, he lifted up his sword and struck Rhitta on the crown of the head a blow so fiercely-wounding, severely-venomous and sternly-smiting that it cut through all his head armour and his skin and his flesh and clove him in twain.  And Rhitta gave up the ghost, and was buried on the top of the highest mountain of Eryri, and each of his soldiers placed a stone on his tomb.  The place was afterwards known as Gwyddfa Rhitta, Rhitta’s Barrow, but the English call it Snowdon.

Garwed the Giant terrorized Craig-y-Ddinas
Our next tale concerns Garwed the Giant, who spent his time praying on the local cattle, leaving the people so distraught that they sought the help of King Arthur to rid them of the giant.

Arthur and Garwed the Giant

The tale of another of Arthur’s giant-killing episode is directly linked to the various episodes linking Arthur to Craig-y-Ddinas near Pontneddfechan in the Vale of Neath which according to some legends is Arthur’s final resting place.
The tale itself relates to Garwed the Giant who was terrorizing the neighbourhood around Craig-y-Ddinas.  He was praying on the local cattle herds and when the cattle were moved away or he had consumed them all he terrorized the local people to supply him with live bullocks and heifers.  Matters had become so desperate that envoys were sent to Arthur’s court in Caerllion to request assistance.  It just so happened that the envoys arrived when Arthur was holding court at Caerllion and the Great Leader heard their petition himself.  On hearing of their troubles he personally vowed to rid their land of the marauding giant.
The following morning Arthur arrayed himself in his armour and mounting his favourite charger he rode out with Bedwyr and Cei at his side.
The horsemen reached the outskirts of Pontneddfechan  Something whistled through the air above them and the riders immediately halted their steeds; and only just in time as a huge, damp, clod of earth thwacked wetly onto the path just ahead of them.  Moments later and all three riders spurred their steeds off the path and into the nearby woods as wattle fences, crumbling sheets of daub, hunks of thatch and tree-trunk posts – now shredded to little more than cordwood – darkened the skies and rained down upon them.
Barking an order, Arthur, undaunted, led him compatriots onwards through the wooded verge of the track and towards the source of the destruction.  For a while the thudding of their horses’ hooves and the whipping of the branches about them almost covered the sounds of roaring and pounding ahead of them.  But soon enough, as they veered from the tree verge and back onto the path the pounding became so pronounced that the very ground beneath them began to shake.
King of the Britons by theDURRRRIAN*
Within instants they had broken through into a clearing, coming upon what had once been a farmstead – but which was now little more than a ruined wreck.  In the midst of the ruination there was a giant squatting upon his haunches within a crater of his own creation.  His hands wrapped around a byre which he held up to the sky and rattled even as one roving eye peered within.  Every now and then he would raise his hands to rattle the byre, sending clouds of clay and whitewash drifting to the ground by his feet.  Then he would tilt the building upwards so that he could peer within once more.
Arthur and his teulu reached within striking distance of the giant just as he crushed the byre in his hands and hurled it spear-like into the air.  Halting his steed, Arthur dismounted and handed the reins to Bedwyr before calmly walking towards the giant figure before him.  Tilting his head upwards Arthur addressed the giant, saying: ‘I am Arthur, protector of this realm – to whom am I addressing?’
'Puny mannikin,' replied the giant, inclining his head to look at the small figure before him, 'I am Garwed and these are my feeding grounds. If you truly are the protector of this realm, bring me kine before I start feeding on your people.'
Arthur gathered himself to his full height and suddenly he seemed to grow in both stature and majesty. 'Garwed,' he said, addressing the giant, 'you have consumed all the fair beasts of the regions hereabouts...'
The giant roared at this and raised his hand as if to swat Arthur away. But Arthur raised his own hand as if in a sign of appeasement. 'But...', he continued, '...there is a realm close to this that is overflowing with fine white cattle.'
'SHOW ME,' thundered the giant.
Instead of replying Arthur simply mounted his steed and with a wave of his hand indicated that Garwed should follow the three mounted men. As they turned their steeds' heads and cantered westwards the giant loped behind them, each footfall shaking the ground as it impacted with the earth. They rode quietly for a good half hour even as the giant's grumblings grew louder and louder behind them until they eventually emerged into a clearing beside a river. Before them stood a single imposing crag, rough inposing and shaped like a lopsided triangle. Arthur simply slowed his steed, pointed at the crag and of Craig y Ddinas and began to slowly ease his steed along the riverbank.
Giant by jjpeabodyB
Eventually they veered from the riverbank and began heading immediately towards the crag of Craig y Dinas and Arthur urged his steed into a canter and then a gallop, forcing the giant to enter into a long-legged lope to keep up with them. Within moments they were passing an ancient gnarled hazel tree at the base of Craig y Ddinas, heading for the outcrop itself. At the lower slope Arthur dismounted from his steed and motioned his companions to do likewise. Then all three warriors waited for the giant to catch-up with them.

Reaching level with Arthur and his men, the giant towered over them and roared down at them 'Where are my Kine?'.
'Through there', replied Aathur, pointing at the rock face of Craig-y-Ddinas. Beyond that lies the gateway to the Summer Realm and there there are magical kine, the fattest and most succulent that anyone has ever seen.
'Hmph...' harrumphed the giant... 'But where?'
Simply dig where I indicate, Arthur replied, and you will gain the Summer Realm.
The giant viewed the three small humans with dubious uncertainty, but he turned to face the mountain and began to tear at the soil and the rocks with his hands, sending great chunks of mountainside arcing into the air over their heads. Deeper and deeper the giant dug, until his head and then his shoulders and then almost his entire torso vanished into the hole he was forming.
Fallen Giant by Batatalion
At that point, Arthur shouted 'Now!' and he and his companions took up their spears and rushed the giant. Still half-stuck in the hole he had digged, Garwed struggled to back out, but he was wedged stuck and the three spears struck him deeply. So mighty was Arthur's strike that his spear went through the giant's back, straight into his heart and kept on going deep into the mountain. Indeed, it caused a fissure from which emerged a spring, that spring which now feeds the river which bears the giant's name, Afon Garwed.
The giant's heartblood was spilled and it trickled down the mountain side to the roots of the gnarled hazel tree at its base.
Arthur turned to his men and said to them: 'This is an enchanted place now, here, one day we shall sleep the sleep of the ages.'
Many years passed, and the giant's body decayed and merged with the tunnel he had dug to form a cave, a cave that the giant's blood enchanted to make it invisible from the gaze of mortal men.

Sion Dafydd Rhys, writing around c.1600, detailed several Welsh giants in his ‘The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings.’  These included Maylor, or Maelor Gawr and his sons Cornippin Gawn, Crygyn Gawr and Bwba Gawr, and told of the capture of Maylor Gawr.

'Dinas Maelor' or 'Maelor's Fort', Wales
The Capture of Maylor Gawr

And in the country of Aberteifi, before the coming of Brutus to this island, there formerly lived Maylor Gawr, and the place where he lived is still called Castell Maylor which was built on a high hill or high ridge called Y Dinas on the one side of the river Ystwyth within the boundary of the town of Aber Yystwhyth.
To this Maylor Gawr were three sons, namely, Cornippin Gawr, and Crygyn Gawr, and Bwba Gawr.  Corpinnin Gawr dwelt in a castle which is still called after his own name, namely Castell Cornippin opposite the parish of Llan Ychaiam within the commote of Meifienydd.  And it came to pass that Maylor Gawr was taken prisoner in a place called Cyfeilog, about twelve miles from his own castle: and when on the point of being put to death, he begged of his enemies to permit him to blow his horn three times before suffering death, which thing was allowed to him.  And then he blew his horn the first time until the hair on his head and beard fell.  And on the second blast of his horn, so great was the strength and force of the sounding that all his finger and toe-nails fell off completely.  And on the third blast of his horn the intensity of the force of the sound caused the horn to be broken into small pieces.  And then when his son Cornippin was hunting, as he rode on his huge horse and leading his hound by hand, and hearing the sound of his father’s horn, he saddened greatly, and he longed beyond measure for his father: and that place, to this present day is called
Ystwyth river by Matt Davies
Cefn Hiraethog.  And then he began to return towards his father in seeking to help him: and in riding with such haste and swiftness, he tore the head of his hound off its body, until there only remained in the leash the head and mouth of the dog.  And that place is still called to this day, The Pass of the Dog’s Muzzle.  And when he saw that, he spurred his steed until the horse leapt at one bound over the Ystwyth River so that it was a great wonder to see such a length of leap, is called to this hour Ol Carn y March.  And in that manner Cornippin came up to his father, where after fighting he also was killed.

And Crygyn Gawr dwelt in Castell Grygyn within the parish of Llan Hilar, and in the same commote.
Bwba Gawr lived in the castle which still bears his name, namely, Castell Bwba, in the parish of Llan Bodam Fawr in the middle commote.
These giants lived in Wales before Brutus came to this island, and their custom while they lived was to kill whatever men should come to lodge within their strongholds until at last the same man came and killed them both the same night by cunning.

Another giant found within Sion’s writings is Cribwr Gawr, with the writing detailing the death of his sisters at the hands of Arthur.  This tale bears some resemblance to the tale of Odysseus and Polyphemus, in which Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is Nobody – a trick which enabled Odysseus to both blind and escape Polyphemus.

In the country of Morgannwg was Cribwr Gawr in Castell Cefn Cribwr by Llan Gewydd.  Arthur killed three sisters of Cribwr by treachery.  Because Arthur nicknamed him(self) Hot Pottage to the first sister, and Warm Porridge to the second sister (so the tale runs), and a Morsel of Bread to the third, and when the first sister called for help against Hot Pottage Cribwr answered: Wench, let him cool; and in the same manner he answered the second sister, when she sought assistance against Warm Porridge.  And the third sister called out that the Morsel of Bread was choking her, and to this he answered, Wench, take a smaller piece.  And when Cribwr reproached Arthur for killing his sisters Arthur replied by an englyn milwr in this manner:

And cease with currish anger
If I get a real chance – surely
What they have had, thou shalt have too.

No one could kill the three sisters together, so great was their strength, but singly by stealth Arthur killed them.
And the place is still called after his name Cribarth, namely, Garth Cribwr Gawr.

That's all for today.  Tomorrow we will cover the rest of the giants of Wales, including Benlli Gawr, the Giant of Wales, and the black ghost giants of Welsh folklore and the Mabinogion.

Useful Resources

Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth by CarolRose
The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English by Ian Ousby
Celtic Mythology Rocks! By Catherine Bernard
The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas
The Giants of Wales and their Dwellings by Sion Dafydd Rhys