March mab Meirchyawn

March mab Meirchyawn (King Mark) is a Cymric (Welsh) hero and folkloric figure known from a single folk tale and a number of fragmentary medieva sources. In the tale of Drystan and Esyllt (Tritand and Isolde), Drystan steals Esyllt from March. But it is in the tale of Castellmarch and March’s horse ears that hie is most well known.

From the number of literary references March mab Meirchyawn was probably one of the more famous mediaeval characters. Unfortunately only one folk tale and a number of fragments of his mythos have survived.

One of the main sources for tales regarding March lies within the Trioedd Ynys Prydein where March’s name occurs in four of the triads. The first occurence of the name is in Triad 14 where March mab Meirchyawn is mentioned as one of the ‘Three Seafarers of the Island of Britain’. This seems to have been a feature for which March was famous in the middle ages and it probably accounts for the description of him in the Mabinogion of Breuddwyd Rhonabwy as the leader ofo the men of Llychlyn (Scandinavians) who, from the 9th century onwards had come to be considered as the seafarers par excellence. The description of March as a Llynghesawg (man of fleets) may also relate to the contact maintained between south-western Britain and Brittany (In this case between March’s likely kingdom of Glywysing [Morgannwg] and Brittany) and probably explains why an aspect of the legend of March is known in that land.

The next two triads, Triads 26 and 71 both relate to the tale of Drystan and Esyllt and the tale of how Drystan mab Tallwch stole fair Esyllt from March. The first of these triads, Triad 26, names Drystan as one of the ‘Three powerful swineherds of the Island of Britain’ and tells of how Drystan protected March’s swine from Arthur even as he persuades the usual swineherd to organize a tryst between himself and Esyllt. These swine were probably the same magical swine from Annwfn as given by Arawn to Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed and suggests a lost tale of how March gained the swine. Triad 71 names Drystan as one of the ‘Tree Lovers of the Island of Britain’ because of his love for Esyllt the wife of March, his uncle. The next triad, Triad 73 names March as ‘One of the Three Peers of Arthur’s Court’. Interestingly, both Math and Drystan are named as Arthur’s advisers in the Mabinogion of Breuddwyd Rhonabwy though in this tale no connection is made between the two men.

Of course, one of the most important texts mentioning March is the fragment of the original romance of Drystan ac Esyllt found in the tale of Ystoria Trystan. This is recorded in full and extended to what I hope is something like the original tale here. In this tale Drystan has spirited Esyllt away and March implores Arthur to aid him for he is Arthur’s cousin whilst March is only a son of one of Arthur’s other cousins. Arthur sends Cei to broker peace between Drystan and March, which his done. But neither was willing to live without Esyllt. Thus Arthur judged that she should dwell with one man whilst there were leaves on the trees and would dwell with the other when the trees were bare of leaves; with her rightful husband to have the choice. March chose the season when the leaves were not on the wood, for the nights were longer during that year-half. Arthur announced this to Esyllt and she rejoiced because three trees: holly, ivy and yew, never lose their leaves. Thus Drystan gained fair Esyllt.

There are references to a ‘March’ who iss probably March ap Meirchyawn in the Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin. The first of these is found in the Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves) which says that there is ‘a grave for March, a grave for Gwythyr and a grave for Gwgawn of the Red Sword but it is a wonder that there is no grave for Arthur’. The second mention comes from the second of the two fragmentary poems known as Dau Ddarn o Chwedl Trystan (Two Fragnemts of Trystan’s legends): om parth guertheiss e march irod (For my part I sold the gifts of March) and though a part of the original tale of Drystan ac Esyllt the interpretatoin of these fragments have been lost.

The final part of Math’s mythos is a folk-tale linking him to the old manor house of Castellmarch on the Llŷn Peninsula. The full tale can be read here but the gist of a story is that March Amheirchion had horses’ ears and the only preson who knew of this was his barber. The man was sworn to secrecy on pain of death, but so worried did he become at this that he bacame ill and had to tell someone of March’s affliction. So he wanders to the most desolate place he can find and whispers the secret to the earth. Reeds grow on that spot and the following summer March invites all the nobles of the Brython to his llys and he invites the best players of the realm to play for his guests. They see the reeds and cut them, making pipes. Pipes which are played at the feast. But the only notes the pipes play are the words: Mae clustiau ceffyl gan Farch (March has horses’ ears). March threatens to kill the pipers and his barber but his hand is stayed and he pardons them. Instead of laughing at him the nobles applaud his nobility of spirit.

March’s name is derived from the reconstructed proto-Celtic root *marko- (horse) which yields the modern Cymric word march. Thus March is quite literally ‘horse’ or ‘steed’. The name is probably why the folk tale of March’s ears grew around his name. Interestingly the story of March’s equine ears and even his eipthet of Llynghesawg are echoed in the tales told about the 6th century BCE king of Ireland, Labraid Loingsech, also known as Labraid Lorc the Loingsech part of his name meaning ‘sea-farer, pirate, exile’. He was supposed to bear horses’ ears and had a barber who would cut his hair once a year. A druid told the barber to go and tell his story to a tree at a nearby crossroads. But the tree is felled and made into a harp which would only play ‘Labraid Lorc has horse’s ears’. As a result Labraid repented of all the barbers he had put to death and admitted his secret.