Owein Urien

A Cymric Hero of the Old North, also known as Owain, Ewein, Ywain, Eugenius: Well-born son of Urien

Owein (Owain, Ewein, Ywain, Eugenius) is a Cymric (Welsh) hero of the Old North known from the earliest Welsh poetry and genealogies. Originally he was a battle-leader in the Old North, hero of Taliesin’s poetry, but later he became a semi-mythical figure immortalized in the tale of Owein (also know as the ‘Lady of the Fountain’).

Owein fab Urien is arguably the most famous of the various Cymric heroes known by the name of Owein. He is also an oddity in being just about the only Cymric hero to be incorporated virtually unchanged into the French Arthurian romances.

Owein is mentioned in some of the very earliest of the Cymric poems and there can be little doubt that he and his father, Urien are true historic figures. Warriors and heroes of the Old North, rulers of the kingdom of Rheged (those regions now represented by north-western England and south-western Scotland). The earliest mentions of Owein are to be found in the the collection of praise poetry within the Llyfr Taliesin and which allude to the battles fought by Owain and Urien in the old north. Many of these prose pieces are held to be the authentic works of the sixth-century bard, Taliesin. Amongst this collection we also have the poem entitled Marwnat owain ap uryen (The Eulogy of Owain ap Urien). Independent historical confirmation of the veracity of these poems comes from the Saxon Genealogies that are appended to Historia Brittonum which names Urien and states that he and his sons fought bravely against the English during the time of the successors of Ida of Bernicia. Though Owein is not named directly, it can be assumed that he was numbered amongst the sons of Urien. The era of Owein and Urien can be fixed from Aneirin’s poem Y Gododdin which neither mentions Urien nor any of his sons. The battle of Catraeth mentioned in the Gododdin was fought c 600CE and from this it can be surmised that Urien and the first generation of his descendants were dead at the time of the Gododdin.

Most of the genealogies, however (Harleian MSS and Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd) carry the pedigree of the Rhedeg line (the lineage of Cynfarch) no further than the name of Urien himself so we have to turn to other sources for the names and lineages of Urien’s children. From the poems in the Llyfr Taliesin and several triads on the Trioedd Ynys Prydein Urien’s sons can be identified as: Rhiwallon, Rhun, Pascen, Elffin and Owein. The only other source for Owein’s genealogy is to be found in the Bonedd y Seint (the Saints’ Lives) where Owein is named as the father of Cynderyn (St Kentigern). A later, sixteenth-century, genealogy is given in the Peniarth 127 manuscript which names the children of Urien as: Ywain ap Urien, Rhun ap Urien, Rhiwallon ap Urien, Elffin ap Urien, Pasgen ap Urien, Cadfael ap Urien ap Cynfarch ap Meirchion ap Gorwst ap Ceneu ap Coel. Much of the tradition of Urien and his sons originates in Powys and is documented in the englynion originating from there. The same may also be true of Owein’s most notable feature in the Mabinogion romances, his branhes (flight of ravens). These are described most notably in the Mabinogion of Breuddwyd Rhonabwy where Owein is described as Arthur’s penteulu (head of household) and as Arthur and Owein play several games of gwyddbwyll Arthur’s men and Owein’s ravens do battle wit the ravens initially gaining the upper hand and Arthur’s men then turning the tides of battle. Eventually Owein is persuaded to raise a banner and combat ceases. The forces unite and both men head off to their next battle. This aspect of the tale is unusual and may represent internal strife within Britain during Arthur’s time. It may also represent the practise of bringing the great heroes of the Old North into Arthur’s orbit. In these and the other romances he is given as Arthur’s cousin, the son of one of Arthur’s sisters. As such he would have a special place in Arthur’s teulu and the position of ‘head of household’ would effectively be his by right. It has also been proposed that Owein represents Arthur himself in the guise of his true persona, though unlikely cannot be entirely dismissed as the timings do overlap.

The origin of Owein’s branhes is given in the Mabinogion of Iarlles y Ffynawn where Kynfarch bequeaths him with his three hundred swords and his branhes. Three-hundred men is the traditional measure of a teulu and the equating of the ‘swords’ with the branhes would indicate that they were one and the same. Indeed, the term brân used to be used for a warrior as well as a corvid. Thus the branhes may originally have been Owein’s warriors but later confusion rendered them as ravens. Apart from this final part of the tale, Iarlles y Ffynawn (also known as Owein) corresponds to the French poem Yvain by Chrétien de Troyes. Though the French poem ante-dates the Cymric version of the tale, and the main outline of events are virtually identical it is still a matter of conjecture as to which represents the original version of the tale. Especially as the main events of the tale: the series of adventures (mostly supernatural) that result in Owein’s overthrow of a knight guarding a magic fountain, the subsequent marriage of Owein to the knight’s wife and his desertion of her are linked to the events of St Kentigern’s birth. The fragmentary life of the saint is twelfth century in its composition but it would indicate that the three versions of the story had some kind of common progenitor that may have been north British in origin. This supposition is borne out by the appearance of Owein in Chrétien’s earliest romance, Erec where he is given as Yvains le fiz Urieen this form of the name is almost identical to the Old Cymric from of Owein’s name, Yvain mab Urien. However, the two names sound nothing alike when spoken in their respective languages (The Old Cymric Y would sound like and English ‘E’ or ‘O’ and the Old Cymric U could be approximated by and English ‘I’ and the Cymric v represents the w vowel whereas the French ‘v’ is equivalent to the same sound in English). This is a very strong indication that Chrétien obtained his Yvains from a written source which was copied almost letter for letter and this is why both Owein’s name and his patronymic have been preserved in the French.

In the context of Owein’s Arthurian connection it should be noted that Owein is not mentioned amongst Arthur’s warriors in the oldest of the native Arthurian tales, the Mabinogi of Culhwch ac Olwen. Which would indicate that Owein was only brought into the orbit of Arthur subsequent to the conception of Culhwch ac Olwen originally Owein may well have held centre stage in his own cycle of stories, most of which have either been lost or which survive only in fragmented form. (For an explanation of the etymology of the name Owein see the entry on Owein mab Macsen.)

Of the various poetical sources that name Owein fab Urien, the poem Gweith Argoed Llwyfain (The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain) from the Llyfr Taliesin tells of Owain’s part in a battle between the men of Rheged under Urien’s command and the men of Bernicia under the command of Fflamddwyn (Flamebearer) who is probably the Anglian king, Theodoric. When Fflamddwyn demands hostages, Owein shouts defiance and inspires the men of Rheged to fight rather than give tribute to the English. The poem Marwnat owain ap uryen (The Eulogy of Owain ap Urien) it is said that Owein slew Fflamddwyn. He is also named in no fewer than seven Triads of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein. The first of these, Triad 3 names Owein as one of the ‘Three Fair Princes of the Island of Britain’. Triad 11 names Dygynnelw, Owein’s bard as one of the ‘Three Red-speared Bards of the Island of Britain’. Triad 40 names Owein’s horse, Carnaflawg (Cloven-hoof) as one of the ‘Three Plundered Horses of the Island of Britain’. The next ‘Owein’ triad, Triad 70 is of special note for it names Modron as the mother wife of Urien of Rheged and the mother of the twins Owein and his sister Morfudd and the twins are named as one of the ‘Three Fair Womb-burdens of the Island of Britain’. Triad 80 gives the three daughters of Kulfanwyd and names Penarwan as the faithless wife of Owein. The next poem, appendix III of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein names the 13 treasures of the Island of Britain, one of which being the ring and stone given by Luned to Owein the the tale of the Iarlles y Ffynawn which grants its wearer the gift on invisibility. Appendix IV names Owein as one of the ‘Twenty-four Knights of Arthur’s Court’ and names him as one of the ‘Three Knights of Battle’.

Of the Gogynfeirdd, the Powys bard, Cynddelw knew of Owein’s ravens and refers to their combat against the men of Berenicia. It would seem that oral tradition about Owein survived in Powys at lest into the thirteenth century and quite possibly later and in another poem he describes Owein as the ‘defender of the tribe of Cynfael’. Finally, Owein’s grave is referred to in the Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves) which, though garbled, tells us that Owein’s grave lies in a four-square tomb under the sod of Llanforfael in Llan Heledd. Though the site has not been identified, it does seem that a location in Wales rather than the Old North is intended, an indication that after the collapse of the Old North to the Saxons the tales of Owein became freshly localized to eastern Wales.