Cymric Hero of the Mabinogion: Little Pig

Culhwch is Cymric divine hero known from the Mabinogi of Culhwch ac Olwen where he is the eponymous hero and it is his quest to seek the hand of Olwen. In this he must seek the aid of Arthur in fulfiling the quests set him by Olwen’s father, Ysbaddaden (and in eventually slaying the giant).

Culhwch is the eponymous hero of the 11th Century Cymric Arthurian romance Culhwch ac Olwen. This tale is of particular interest as the earliest surviving insular Arthurian tale, one deviod of later Norman and French influence.

The tale begins with Culhwch’s father, Cilydd fab Celyddon Wledig (Prince Celyddon) who desired a wife. He chose Goleuddydd as his mate who became pregnant with his son. During the pregnancy Goleuddydd became mad and wandered aimlessly about the land. However, when the time of birth came close she came to a mountain realm where a swineherd kept his pigs. Through fear of the sows the lady was delivered of a son whom the swineherd brought to the palace. He was christened Culhwch (Sow’s sty) for the place of this birth and as he was of noble lineage and a nephew of Arthur he was put to a wet-nurse. Shortly after, Goleuddydd daughter of prince Anlawdd became ill and called her husband, telling him that she would die of the illness and that he would eventually take another wife, but that he must not do so until he beheld a briar bearing two flowers upon her grave. Secretly she bids her monk tend the grave, that nothing may grow upon it. Though Cilydd sends a servant to observe the grave every day, it is not until seven years have passed, and the monk has grown forgetful that the plant is seen on Goleuddydd’s grave. Immediately Cilydd sets out, and in respinse to the advice of a counsellor he kills Lord Doged and takes his wife, and her daughter to be his own. One day, as the Lady was making her way through the land she encountered a crone (henwrach) and came to ask her why her new husband had no children, for she was anxious to secure her own dynsaty. She was informed that Cilydd did, indeed, have a son. Returning home, she asked her husband why he had concealed his son from her, whereupon Culhwch was summoned back to court. The Lady offered her own daughter to Culhwch as a wife, but Culhwch declined, saying he was too young to wed. Enraged, the Lady placed a tynged (a fate) upon Culhwch, that he would not wed until he obtained the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden chief of the Giants. Instantly, on hearing Olwen’s name Culhwch fell madly in love with her and as he made his way from the Llys his father spied him and asked him why he was so downcast. Culhwch related what had befallen and Cilydd counselled him to go to his uncle, Arthur’s court. Whereupon his long hair of youth would be cut and on entering adulthood he could ask the great Lord a boon.

Thus Cilhwch journeyed to the gate of Arthur’s great court where he encounters the porter, Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr who, at first, will not allow him to enter ‘for the knife is in the meat and the mead is in the horn’. However, Culhwch is arrayed as a hero and he brandishes his battle-axe, a weapon that can draw blood from the very air itself. He warns Glewlwyd that if he is not allowed admission then he will shout three times, cries that will cause pregnant women to abort and other women to become barren. Thus Culhwch, desite Cei’s entreaties to the contrary gains entry to Arthur’s court whereupon Arthur decides to grant his boon, though he had not heard of Olwen or of her kin. Thus he sent out his teulu, the members of his court, to seek-out news of Olwen. Which is how Culhwch, Cei, Bedwyr and Gwrhyr found themselves in the house of Custennin the brother of Yspadadden and his wife. She, on hearing whom Culhwch is feels both joy that her nephew, the son of her sister has returned to her and sorrow that any man questing the hand of Olwen is fated to die. But she tells the travellers that Olwen comes every Saturday to wash her hair and they contrive to get a message to the fair maiden, who responds by coming to them. Culhwch pledges his love to Olwen when she arrives and they make their way to Yspadadden’s court, slaying the nine watchmen and the nine watchdogs on the way. This way Culhwch comes into the presence of Yspadadden and asks for Olwen’s hand. Which cannot be gained until a series of seemingly-impossible tasks have been achieved, including the finding of the world’s oldest prisoner, Mabon and the slaying of the Twrch Trwyth. All of which, with the aid of Arthur and his men, are achieved. Ysbaddaden is slain and Culhwch gains the hand of fair Olwen.

Like all the Arthurian heroes Culhwch is far from mortal and a member of the giant race of Plant Llŷr a reflection of the heroic age of the Brython. In some respects this reflects a mythological truth; though it also reflects an age where heroes were far more that the mere mortals that their race eventually degenerated to.

Culhwch’s mame is typically thought to be derived from ‘cil’ (sty) and ‘hwch’ (sow), thus rendered as ‘sow’s sty’, depicting where he was born. But it’s more likely to be derived from ‘cul’ (narrow, thin, young) and ‘hwch’ (pig) thus Culhwch is ‘little pig’ and as the tale is full of men turned into boars and pigs this may hint at a lost element of the tale referring to Culhwch’s own porcine ancestry, only a fragment of which remains in his being born in a sty.