Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Land Under Wave

‘When waves crashed on the sea-shore
with thunder in its wake
The bells of Cantre'r Gwaelod
are silent 'neath the wave’
(from Clychau Cantre'r Gwaelod JJ Williams (1869–1954))

I am sure I have said something before how everything seems to come together at some point and scream “Look At Me!” and the only reasonable thing to do is to pay attention.

Recently I bought a copy of Gordon White’s Star.Ships. I won’t go into a full review here because it has been done  better  elsewhere, suffice to say the take home messages from it that strike a chord with me are;

1.    Human ‘civilisation’ is a lot older than we think and prehistoric man was every bit as complex as we are today and capable of great feats

2.      Ancient history – we are talking ice age levels of prehistory here - can be and is remembered in myth. The notable one here is the flood myth, which White makes a compelling case for being a remembrance of the post Ice Age sea level rises.

It is the post Ice Age flooding which stands out to me here. Britain is well known to have been connected to mainland Europe curing the Ice Age and it was only as the sea levels rose that the landmass known as Doggerland for instance, sank beneath the waves. There is an increasing collection of remains and artefacts – human and other animal – displaying the sorts of ecosystems that have been lost. Also, at the same time, Wales was connected to Ireland by a landmass now beneath the Irish Sea.

There has been a recent spate of news items about submerged objects being exposed by storms in the Cardigan Bay area; 4000 year old stag antlers for instance, plus the semi-regular occurrence of submerged prehistoric forests being exposed by low tides or storms.

Lorna and Crychydd have been blogging over the past few months about Cantre Gwaelod; the 'legendary' story about a settlement whihc was lost beneath the waves. There are a couple of versions of the story, but the most compelling is about Mereid; a cup bearer and well maiden who neglected her duties and caused the well to overflow thus drowning the land for ever (or at least until the next big storm).

The version I learned at school was that there was a great party and the guards at the gate who were responsible for closing the gates against the incoming tide, had gotten drunk and fallen asleep.

What stands out with the Mereid story is that it has all manner of echoes of the remnant practice of cup bearing women who were of huge and significant importance to ruling bodies. They were representations of sovereignty, oracular and seemingly human stand-in for the goddess of sovereignty such as Rosmerta in Gaul and probably Rigantona in Britain. This story also has echoes of the Irish Boand too and similar stories involving inundations from Italy.

So, what are we to make of this?

Well, Mereid bears some striking resemblance to the cupbearer discussed in Michael Enright’s ‘Lady With a Mead Cup’, with her association with sovereignty and its inevitable loss as the lands are sunk it may be that we have the older remembered historical event of the Cardigan Bay area sinking beneath the sea tied up with stories of sovereignty and the people’s place in the landscape and the possibility for that place to be lost.
Lorna discussed the events of the story of Taliesin and the cauldron of Cerridwen poisoning the landscape after it split open, and how this too might relate to an historical mining disaster in the area. It occurred to me that another possibility is that the inundation of the land would also ‘poison’ it over the years as such a process occurred. It is unlikely to have been a one day flooding of Hollywood scale, more a creeping loss of pasture and home to the waves.

Either way, what is important here is that real world events have been remembered and passed on in myth. The things we think of as myths tend to have a general feel as being ‘not real but carrying something important’, like Aesop’s fables, we don’t think a crow got busy with stones and a jug of water (though knowing corvids, it is entirely possible) but the message being conveyed is what we should be focussing on. These stories of Cantre Gwaelod and Gwyddno Garanhir (and Gwyn of course!) need another looking at, as do other similar stories because we could quite literally be missing some important information hidden in plain sight under the guise of ‘just a myth’.


Lorna Smithers said...

I know exactly what you mean about the 'Look at me!' I wonder why this particular myth and am currently trying to figure out why it has a meaning for me in Lancashire... hopefully together we can piece it together!

Lee said...

I am quite keen to get up to Borth this autumn/winter now and see if these areas are exposed. Been trying to do some research on when this area was inundated and what we know about the palaeoecology of it prior to inundation.

I suspect there will be more to come :)