A Cymric Arthurian Heroine and Goddess: Blessed Spirit
Gwenhwyfar is a Cymric (Welsh) heroine and goddess known from the Mabinogi of Culhwch ac Olwen where she is named as Arthur’s wife. Her father is given as (G)Ogfran Gawr and she is the ‘great queen’ of Britain. In Normanized form she is known as Arthur’s consort, Guinevere.
The name of Gwenhwyfar (or at least its Anglicized form of ‘Guinevere’) is known to anyone who has heard of the Arthurian romances. However, the Cymric Gwenhwyfar is quite different from the Guinevere of the later romances. The earliest mention of Gwenhwyfar occurs in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen where she is first mentioned as Arthur’s wife.
In the same tale Gwenhwyfar’s attendants are given as Elidyr Gyfarwydd and Yscyrdaw the Yscudydd whose feet were as swift as their thoughts when bearing a message. In this tale Gwenhwyfar and her sister Gwenhwyfach are described as the ‘two golden-chained daughters of this island.’
The Trioedd Ynys Prydein sheds more light on the ralationship between Gwenhwyfach and her sister Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere). Triad 53 describes the ‘Three Harmful Blows’ of the Island of Britain where Gwenhwyfach strikes Gwenhwyfar and by this causes the Action of the Battle of Camlann. It has been suggested that Medrawd should be substituted for the name of Gwenhwyfach in this poem. However, the enmity between Medrawd and Arthur comes out of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian works and earlier native tradition does not point towards this enmity. The case for retaining Gwenhwyfach’s name here is supported by tirad 84 which describes the ‘Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’; the worst of these being the battle of Camlan which was caused by a dispute between Gwenhwyfar and Gwenhwyfach. These poems would suggest that in the original tradition Arthur’s final battle at Camlan occurred because of a dispute between Arthur’s women; which would fit with an older matrilineal tradition.
Gwenhwyfar is also named in Caradog of Llancarfan’s Vita Gildae which states: ‘He [Gildas] arrived at Glastonbury during the time that king Melwas reigned in the summer country …it was beseiged by the tyrant, Arthur, with an innumerable host on account that his wife, Gwenhwyfar, whom the aforesaid wicked king [Melwas] had violated and carried off, bringing her there for protection, owing to the invulnerable position’s protection due to the thicketed fortifications of reeds, rivers and marshes. The rebellious king had searched for his queen throughout the course of one year and at last heard that she resided there. Whereupon he roused the armies of the whole of Cornwall and Devon and war was prepared between the enemies. When he heard this the abbot of Glastonbury, attended by the clergy and Gildas the Wise, stepped-in between the contending armies and peacefully advised his king, Melwas, to restore the ravished lady. And so, she who was to be restored was restored in peace and good will. When these things had been done, the two kings gave to the abbot the gift of many domains.’ This tale seems to be the same one as told by Chrétien de Troyes in his Le Chevalier de la Charette in which Meleagant abducts Arthur’s queen, Guenièvre, wounding Keu (Cei) in the process. Evidence for a native Cymric tale of the abduction of Gwenhwyfar by Melwas is found from two fragmentary poems included in the Wynnstay I and Llanstephan 122 another version is also known from the Myvyrian Archaiology. Though all the manuscripts are of late origin the language in them points to an eleventh or twelfth century origin. These poems are generally referred to as the Ymddiddan Melwas a Gwenhwyfar (The dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar) [though the editor of the Myvyrian Archaiology called it Ymddiddan Arthur a Gwenhwyfar]. The opem is a poetic narrative in the form of a dialogue. Most of the action is between Melwas and Gwenhwyfar though Cei appears at the end of the verses. Arthur himself is only briefly mentioned in the Llanstephan 122 manuscript, though it may be that he is intended as one of the speakers in the Myvyrian Archaiology version. Thus it seems that the tale of Gwenhwyfar’s abduction by Melwas was known prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the later romances. This traditions was also known to the Gogynfeirdd (early bards) and Dafydd ap Gwilym refers to the abduction of Gwenhwyfar, daughter of Ogfran Gawr by Melwas in his poem ‘Rwyf Wenhwyfar’.
Gwenhwyfar’s parentage (as the daughter of (G)ogfran Gawr in triad 56 of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein. Gogfran’s descriptive indicates that he is a giant and Gwenhwyfar herself appears as a giantess in Cymric folklore (cf the old rhyme: Gwenhwyfar, ferch Ogrfan Gawr / Drwg yn fechan, gwaeth yn fawr: Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran Gawr; bad when little, worse when tall.) Which is only fitting when considering that Artur himself was a member of the Plant Llŷr and considered to be a giant himself.
The same triad, triad 56 also protrays Gwenhwyfar as a triplicity within and of herse. For, accoroding to the triad, Arthur’s ‘three great queens’ were Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwryd Gwent, Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr fab Greidawl and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran Gawr. This may well be an instance of a pagan triplicity of a mother goddess surviving into Christianized literature for, as Rachel Bromwich discusses in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein there were true an false Guineveres in the Vulgate Merlin and Lancelot. This may have bearing on Gwenhwyfar’s origins, for her name can be reduced to Gwen-hwyfar (literally white/blessed spirit). Essentially she represents the spirit of the ‘Island of Britain’ and her marriage to Arthur represents the mystical union between the earth and the sky. Gwenhwyfar provides the authority by which Arthur rules and this is the reason she is kidnapped by Melwas; for in capturing Gwenhwyfar he captures the thorne of Britain. The other triads concerning Gwenhwyfar are later and fit-in with the romances rather that the native tradition. Thus we have a Gwenhwyfar who is a giantess and the spiritual representation of the realm of Britain. Whomever posesses her posesses the right to rule the land. Her status as a mother-goddess archetype (effectively the mother of the land itself) is revealed by her triplicity.