A Celtic Festival Celebrating Winter: Calan Gaeaf

Ceridwen, the Witch

Ceridwen, the Witch, illustration by Ioan Einion, Y Lolfa, © Alys Einion

On October 31, All Hallows’ Eve has been celebrated across the Christian World since the formation of a structured church. Calan Gaeaf (Kal-ahn GEYE-ahv), as it is known in Wales, celebrates the start of winter and has been a festival since earliest pagan Celtic times. In Ireland, the festival is known as Samhain (SOW-en), celebrating the decay of life and is derived from an ancient cult of the dead.

Like all the seasonal pagan festivals, Calan Gaeaf is an attempt to appease the forces of nature of which our distant ancestors had no true understanding. In other words, a superstition. All of the Celtic countries have folk traditions that commemorate the turns of the seasons. In Cymru, horns frightened away evil spirits.

The coelcerth (bonfire) was the focal point of the night’s festivities. The celebrants ran back and forth in the smoke, daring to go as close as possible. The closer the runners went, the more fortunate their prospects for the coming year. Villagers threw stones into the fire and searched for them the following morning. A stone that was not found was a portend of bad news to come, perhaps even death. As the last embers faded, all of the onlookers ran screaming from the site to escape Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta (the black tailless sow). They took handfuls of ash home to spread good luck.

Gwydion, the Wizard

Gwydion, the Wizard, illustration by Ioan Einion, Y Lolfa, © Alys Einion

The Cymry believed that their wishes expressed on this night, if made in good faith, would come true. Storytelling was the favored entertainment of the night. Ghosts might be seen at the camfa (stile) and prevent travellers from crossing. Since the dead were at play and roaming free on Calan Gaeaf, young children were kept indoors. Bwyd cennad y meirw (food to speak to the dead) was set outside and the hearth was readied before the household went to bed.

On this night, those who had died by drowning rose to the surface of the sea and rode the waves as white horses (ceffylau gwyn) on the white waves (tonnau gwyn). Gwrachod (witches) did not harm anyone on Calan Gaeaf while the church bells rang. Sabbats were once held near Penmaenmawr, Gwynedd at the Druid’s Circle but this activity ceased when the standing stones spoke aloud to object and two of the attending witches went mad.

Other stones in Morgannwg grant wishes on this night and wishes expresses near a tomb in Dyffryn, De Morgannwg are said to come true. The Derby Stone was disgusted by foul language and leaned to hit anyone who cursed nearby.

Source: The Celtic Calendar, Brian Day, Saffron Walden, 2003

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Medieval Music for Inspiration

Tintern Abbey RuinsAt Hearts Through History’s blog, Seduced by History, this month (September 2014), Ruth A. Casie has written a post about the medieval wandering poets.

My favorite version of Carl Orff’s oratorio, Carmina Burana, that made these poems famous in our time is with Thomas Allen and Sheila Armstrong singing the leads of Blanziflor and Helena, with the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by André Previn.

During the time I was working on the Pendyffryn: The Conquerors series, I listened to CARMINA BURANA continuously, in the original Latin and Early German. For passion and romance, there is no more evocative secular Oratorio, except for the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym. “O Fortuna” was also used as part of the musical score for the film, The General’s Daughter.

Thank you for this lesson in the poetry’s origins, Ruth.

Though I have sung this oratorio with a choir and “In Trutina” is one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever attempted, I’m most fond of listening to Orff’s work in its entirety. I return to listening whenever I want passionate musical inspiration.

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The Mystery of Owain Glyndwr

owainglyndwrOn September 16, 1400 (Medi 16), leaders from all areas of Cymru came together in Glyndyfrdwy to ask Owain  Glyndwr to become Tywysog Cymru (Prince of Wales), as well as to lead them in a war of independence against the English king, Henry IV (Hotspur of Shakespeare’s  history play).

This was more than 100 years since Edward I of England declared his own son prince. Although there were Welsh princes who led their country against the descendants of the Norman invader, William, Edward’s ambition and excesses of violence and cruelty exceeded any English ruler before him.

Thereafter, no true prince of Wales was crowned until Owain. He followed in the legacy of Llewelyn II, Ein Llyw Olaf (Our Last Leader) who was ambushed and beheaded at Cilmeri, near Llanymddyfri, Powys, in December 1282, giving Edward the opportunity to replace the Welsh ‘aristocracy’ with his son. Llewelyn’s daughter, then two years old, was imprisoner in a nunnery and his brother, Dafydd, was tortured, drawn and quartered (ripped apart by four horses).

Owain Glyndwr was born into a prominent family (pendefigion) about sixty years later, c1354. He had made a place for himself in Welsh history in earlier years but was considered elderly in 1400, when he was asked to lead the country against the English. For years, he led the Cymry against the English strongholds, harassing the towns on the eastern border and destroying the Norman castle in Caerfyrddin in 1404. The remains of the castle form part of the foundation of the County Hall of Dyfed, now split into the counties of Sir Gâr, Ceredigion and Penfro.

At the time, the English Parliament reported: “Owain Glyndwr and others have newly made insurrection and have gathered together in the marches of Carmarthenshire. They conspire to invade the realm and destroy the English.” (Seiri Cenedl, Gwynfor Evans, Gwasg Gomer, 1986, pg. 119)

A few years earlier, Charles VI of France had sent an emissary on Glyndwr’s behalf  to Robert, the king of Scotland. Dafydd ap Ieuan was captured and imprisoned by the English but Glyndwr continued to succeed without any external support. In Mai 1404, in the presence of representatives from France, Spain and Scotland, Owain Glyndwr was crowned Tywysog Cymru with the blessing of Pope Avignon.

In 1409, Henry V ruled England. The war for independence continued. Glyndwr’s wife, Marged, two daughters and three grand-daughters were captured and taken to London as prisoners. Glyndwr led his final effort against English tyranny in 1410. Several of his supporters were taken as prisoners and he was labeled a traitor. By 1412, Glyndwr was a hunted man, as were his friends and supporters, ‘Gwerin Owain,’ but his son, Maredudd ap Owain continued the rebellion against English tyranny until 1421 with the support of Scotland and the districts of Arfon and Meirion.

Efforts in Cymru’s cause continued in Europe as late as 1415 with France declaring the Cymru was an independent nation although the English insisted Cymru was a part of England. After 1415, no mention of any kind was made of Owain Glyndwr. He simply and quietly disappeared from the pages of history. Some say he retired from the battle to live in his daughter’s home in the border Marshes of Powys. Although there was a price on his head, no one betray him to the English. No mention has ever been made of his death and he has no burial place that anyone has found. Some say Owain Glyndwr lives still.

Certainly, the spirit of Glyndwr endures to this day. The Cymry have never succumbed to the temptation to become English nor even, ‘British Welsh.’ Patriots of freedom for Cymru fly Glyndwr’s banner along with the Draig Goch (Red Dragon). And no true Tywysog Cymru has been crowned since Glyndwr’s disappearance.

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Diwrnod i’w Gofio: Clifford McLucas

1 Medi 2002: Bu farw Clifford McLucas – yn dawel am ddeg y bore yn Ysbyty Singleton ar ôl sbel hir o salwch.

Rwy’n ddiolchgar fy mod i oedd wedi cael y cyfle i’w ‘nabod.

Diolch am ei fywyd a’i waith. Diolch e fod e wedi cyffwrdd â fy mywyd i.

Diolch hefyd ei fod e oedd wedi marw’n yn dawel ac mor fuan rhag dioddef mewn poen.

Crëodd Cliff rai o’r perfformiadau a gweithiau celfyddydol mwyaf cyffrous a phwysig rhyngwladol yn y canrifoedd 20fed ac yn y 21ain cynnar, yn cynnwys Draw, Draw yn… — perfformiadau drama a dawns yn ystod y cyfnod a weithiais i gyda fe.


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Yr Wythnos Hyn yng Nghymru/This Week in Cymru

10 Awst/August: Marks the day that St. Lorens, the patron saint of bakers and cooks, was burned at the stake in Rome.

“Gŵyl San Lorens heb gymylau, Llond gwlad o ffrwythau.”
Feast of St. Lorens without clouds, a land full of fruit.

12 Awst 1805: Ann Griffiths, the hymn-writer from Dolwar Fach, Llanfihangel-yng Ngwynfa, was buried. Her hymns were kept by Ruth Evans, Ann’s maid, and through her we have Ann Griffiths’ work:

“Wele’n sefyll rhwyng y myrtwydd
Wrthych teilwng o’n holl fryd:
Er mai o ran yr wy’n adnabod
Ei fod uwchlaw gwrthrychau’n byd:
Henffych fore
 Y caf ei weled fel y mae.”

Dic Penderyn accused.

Dic Penderyn accused.

13 Awst 1831: Dic Penderyn was executed by hanging in Cardiff following his participation the in the workers’ revolt in Merthyr Tudful. He was a 23 year old miner and was the first martyr of the working class in Cymru. Accused of injuring a soldier in the revolt, his last words were “O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd.” (Oh Lord, here is a false step.) Forty years later, a man in America confessed to the crime on his deathbed.

14 Awst 1888: T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) was born in Tremadog, gogledd Cymru.




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