The earliest Welsh poems transport us to a world of strife and battle capturing
the pain and glory of the last Celtic resistance to the Anglo-Saxon expansion in the British
North. The poems of Taliesin, Aneirin, Myrddin and Llywarch Hen were spoken 'praise' or
eulogy recantation that give us glimpses of the intense pressure facing the Gwyr y Gogledd,
or Men of the North, at the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh centuries. They
speak of the intertribal warfare among the various Celtic kingdoms in the west and north of Britain,
of warfare against the Picts from the northern area of modern Scotland, the
Dal Riadic Irish from
the west, and of warfare against the Anglo-Saxons, who by this period controlled not only the
entire Southeast of Britain, but also the two regions north of the Humber known as Deira and
Bernicia. If we gather together what is said of Aneirin, himself, then he appears to have been
the nephew of the Gwallawg, who was praised by Taliesin, and the brother of St Deinioel, who
founded the cathedral at Bangor. After surviving the battle, the Triads report him as slain by
a blow to the head in one of the Three Unfortunate Assassinations.
Aneirin's poems culminate the end of the period that I date from 573-604CE.
Much is still unclear but we know that there was continued British resistance to the growth
of Northumbrian expansion throughout the latter part of the sixth century and devastating
inter-tribal power plays. The death of Gwenddolau at Arderydd in 573CE seemed to spark the
changes that led to the Yorkish defeat and death of Peredur in 580CE and allowed Urien Rheged
and his sons to play a dominant but tragic role in the struggle that almost succeeded. But this
resistance was weakened by frequent struggles among the Celtic leaders, leading to Urien's
assassination around 589CE. The Gododdin eulogizes the last-ditch attempt to stop the invaders
made by Mynyddog, king of Gododdin, who sent a picked force of mounted warriors south from Eidin
(Edinburgh) to the crossroads fortress at Catraeth sometime around 598CE (modern Catterick in
Yorkshire). The expedition ended in the deaths of almost all of the force. Within a few years,
Aethelfrith the king of Bernicia was able to declare himself king of united Northumbria.
The difficulty of determining the nature of the original poetry is illustrated by
the Gododdin manuscript itself which contains two different but overlapping sets of verses in differing
orthography and copied by at least two scribes from two or possibly three different sources.
These are normally referred to as the A text and the B text. The B text is considered the more
archaic form and preserves features which point to an Old Welsh exemplar. The A text may be older
but is believed to be a copy of a later version of the original poem. The differences between the
texts indicate that they existed as separate versions for a significant timeframe before they
were copied into the Aneirin manuscript. The book of Aneirin is dated to approximately 1265CE.
The manuscript is now in the Cardiff Library (Cardiff MS 1).
In The Gododdin, attributed to Aneirin, the poem exhibit a form sometimes
called the 'radial' structure, circling about, repeating, and elaborating on the central
theme, following the same never ending circular patterns of the Celtic icons. This often gives
the reader unaccustomed to this form a feeling of bewilderment. For the new reader, The Gododdin
should be read not as a single poem but as a collection of eulogies and praises of the warriors
that were killed in the battle.
The interesting item in this poem, besides its insight into the Welsh mind, is
the mention of Arthur (the first on record, but only in one of the variant texts). It is believed based on the structure and language
that the poem was composed at or near the time of the actual event but there are some indications
that pieces or phrases were modified. The question is, does the poem refer to the King Arthur of
the legends? There are two prime possibilities.
The poem could indeed refer to Arthur, remembering his great prowess in battle.
There should have been a number of praise poems in the bardic repertoire that sang of Arthur.
The particular warrior's name, Gwawrddur, is similar in structure to the name Arthur.
poem could refer to another Arthur. There are recorded names of a number of Arthurs in the
period of the late sixth century, including an Arthur, son of Aedan. The latter seems unlikely
as Aedan was in the prime of his own kingship during this period and his sons were still young
men. The one possible support would be an addition to the poem in the early seventh century
when Aedan's sons were grown and Aneirin needed to compare the warrior to someone familiar
to his audience. There are three translations on this site: the first translation is excerpted from The Earliest Welsh Poetry by
Joseph Clancy. I hope that he does not mind its use here in my efforts to provide documentation
of the Arthurian period. An alternative translation by AOH Jarman is also provided with facing
Welsh text that is different in both tone and structure. The reader may also
read the version of William F Skene from his Four Ancient Books of Wales.
Aneirin Poetry Section
Book of Aneurin