Pistyll Rhaeadr


  Arthurian Legend
  in the Berwyn Mountains



Waterfall Pictures


Arthurian Legend

Celtic Mythology

The Llanrhaeadr Dragon!

If you are interested in Arthur, then please detach yourself from the politics of the Norman kings, who sought to justify their right to rule after the Conquest in 1066, by co-opting the Arthurian legends.

The romantic tales we are all so familiar with were commissioned by Robert of Gloucester, bastard brother of William the Conqueror, himself a bastard child, French by birth but of Viking ancestry. The family was desperate to copy the great French king Charlemagne and his heroic knight Roland, of whom many chivalrous stories were told.

The Arthur we are to talk about was a Celt, a strong warlord, not above having a few mistresses dotted around the place, with more than five children acknowledged, a wife, friends and relatives not averse to robbing to obtain extra land and pushing out boundaries, having castles built and leading a fairly robust and energetic life in this region.

Berwyn Mountains

Read 'The Spoils of Annwn' from the Mabinogion, where Arthur fearlessly enters the Otherworld of the Spirits to steal a diamond-encrusted cauldron.

In another story from the Mabinogion called 'Culhwch and Olwen', we are told that God had set the spirits to Annwn in the care of Gwyn Ap Nudd, the King of the Otherworld, in case the world should be destroyed.

This king also leads the hounds called Cwn Bendith Y Mamau (the Hounds of the Mothers / Faeries), sent out at night to hunt for the souls of the dead. Later writers tell us that Morgan le Fay, who had nine sisters (a magic number) was a goddess of Annwn. They appear in the ancient Book of Taliesin as the nine virgins whose breath kindled the cauldron of the head of Annwn.

So what has this to do with the Berwyns?

As the Roman writer Procopius wrote in the 6th century AD, beyond the Wall of Severus (Offas Dyke) to the west of the land of Britainnia, lies a land full of vipers, serpents and other wild beasts, where the souls of men are always brought.

This is the Berwyns, the southern boundary of a mythical and magical landscape. Vipers, serpents and wild beasts? Why not: in the tarns and lakes, some extremely deep, who is to say what still lurks there? Well wild boar were hunted here for many years by the princes of Powys, who lived at Henvachau in the slopes of LIanrhaeadr ym Mochant - indeed Moccus is Celtic for pig.

Still very dangerous to the unwary tourist are the blanket bogs into which you can sink to chest height, without a moment's notice. It is no accident that the land above Pistyll Rhaeadr is called Rhos y Beddau (the moor of the graves).

The gateway to Arthur's ancient lands and the kingdom of the Celtic Otherworld is represented by Pistyll Rhaeadr. Walking up the south face of the Berwyns and traversing east along the ridge as far as possible leads to a place called Bwrrd Arthur (Arthur's Table). Here, had you been Arthur, you could have stood with pride and viewed your lands stretching from the mountain top to the sea.

Whether you are a lover of mythology, history, geography, ornithology, or just seeking the thrill of walking the mountains, then you will find an experience satisfying all these interests when you step onto the Berwyn Mountains in northern Powys.

In the words of Prof Loomis in Wales and Arthurian Legend, (Pub Unit of Wales, 1956): "In Arthur's time and before that, the people of South Wales regarded North Wales as pre-eminently the land of the faerie. In the popular imagination, that distant country was the abode of giants, monsters, magicians and all the creatures of enchantment. Out of it came the fairies, on their visits to the sunny lands of the south"

To appreciate the ancient sacredness of the landscape needs a few moments to enter the mind of the Celt. Arthur was not only an ancient Briton living in Britannia (North Wales), but he was also of Celtic stock and belief. This place is home to the majority of legends to be found in that ancient book of Wales, the Mabinogion.

Gwynedd and northern Powys were the geographical location of the Celtic Otherworld, the place of divinities, gods and the dead, a place of shapeshifting palaces, faeries, an Elysian isle. This was the realm of Annwfn (Annwn) a Celtic paradise and a pagan one, established long before the birth of Christ.

It was the establishment of Christianity that turned Annwfn the paradise, into Uffren, hell. Hades and the Underworld.

So what was it the Celts believed? That in the shadows of the ancient past lived the Great Mother called Mathonwy and often referred to as Madron. Her children were a daughter who became the mother goddess called Don or Dana, the life-giver, linked to birds and children, fertility and plenty, with a brother Math, whose name represented great wealth.

Her husband Beli was the god of death and war. Their children were called the Children of Light of the House of Lyr. Intermarriages give us the god Bran, the giant god of Hades, and his sister Bronwen, goddess of love, and a half-brother Manawyddan the enchanter and god of the sea. It is Manawyddan's descendants who become Lords of Annwn.

To the Celt, the head, the place wherein the spirit dwelt, was sacred. They emphasized the head by the wearing of golden and silver torques round their necks. A victorious war leader would collect the heads of their respected enemies, in order that their wisdom should become theirs. There are so many legends and stories; far too many to tell here.

Tales of the children of the gods, of Ariandrod and her brother Gwydion, of Math and Pryderi, of the blessed Bran, whose head kept in the cauldron made sure his people were never short of food and drink and which, when buried at Ludlow, was to protect Britannia from invasion. Who dug it up? Arthur of course. Thinking himself equal to the gods.

The ancient books of Wales are full of these wonderful tales, half-myth. half-legend, but as all folktales, with a grain of memory coming from the shades of the very distant past. Every culture, in every timeframe, constructs a sacred place where it buries its dead, then creating special markers which show respect for their wisdom and continued spirit influence.

The Berwyn Mountains above Pistyll Rhaeadr are very special in this respect, as they are the physical and geographical location of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, the place of the spirits of the dead in the land of the ancient Britons.

The Otherworld is a kingdom in which is a palace ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd (said 'Guin ap Nith') king of the fairy or spirit folk and of the land of the dead. He and his people live in a wonderful palace full of light, laughter, food, warmth.

Travellers on the moors of the Berwyns will sometimes suddenly be presented with this wonderful apparition and invited to join in the feasting and dancing. Alas, anyone who chooses to do so remains in the halls of Gwyn ap Nudd. The only way to escape is to resist temptation, refusing to eat or drink.

There are many stories about local people who went missing for up to seven years, after a night on the moor. Not least of which is the tale of St Collen of Llangollen fame, who walked onto the Berwyns to confront Gwyn ap Nudd, armed only with a bottle of holy water. Challenged to step into the great halls of the dead, he accepted. He debated long and hard with the pagan god, refusing all offers of food and drink, and eventually the halls faded away into the mist and he returned safely to build his church. He also became the patron saint of the small church in Llangedwyn in the Tanat valley.

If you use the OS map Explorer 255, there are many references on the Berwyns to Gwyn ap Nudd. Just above the waterfall is Post Gwyn (the standing stone of Gwyn at 049295, at a height of 665m, and next to it the pass BwIch Gwyn, and nearby a valley, Nant Gwyn. Above the standing stone are the crags called respectively Cadair Berwyn, at 072328, the seat or throne of Gwyn's hall, at 827m, dropping slightly to Cadair Bronwen at 077347, at a height of 770m. Branwen is the mistreated sister and princess whose story can be read in the ancient tales of the Mabiniogon.

The route between the crags is marked by a series of cairns. We don't know whether these were route markers, as the track here was a drovers' road leading down past Llyn Llucaws, but the whole of these mountains are punctuated with tumuli from the Bronze Age and single or multiple graves called beddau. The whole area of land above the waterfall is called Rhos y Beddau, the moor of the graves, and you can find graves, piles of stone, single stones and references to the 'old people' and to old times in the number of places, mountains and farms starting with Hen.

The village below the waterfall, Llanrhaeadr, has its very own mountain called Moel Henvachau, 'the bare-topped hill of the old people'. What has this to do with Arthur? At Cadair Bronwen you will find a point marked Bwrdd Arthur, the board or table of Arthur.

The view northwards from this point will enable you to see the ancient Britons' 'mother of all rivers', the Dee, as we call her today, and Devos, or Mother Goddess, as she was called by the Celts, or Deva by the Romans, referring to her as a sacred river. In modern Welsh, she is called Dyfrdwy, 'the waters of the goddess'.

From this viewpoint you can see, as Arthur would have seen, almost from the source of the River Dee in the mountains to the west of lake Bala, with Snowdon behind on the horizon, to the waters of the north coast of Wales and the estuary of the Dee near Afallach (marked on the map now as Rhosesmor, just north of Mold, at the foot of the Halkyn Mountains). There on its Iron Age fort and in deep underground mines, it is now thought to represent the Avalon of the stories of Arthur.

The veils between this world and the old kingdoms can be very thin at the waterfall. Whether this is a gateway into the mountains or caused by the properties of the moisture-heavy air, or just by the stillness of the place, there are indicators of past times and peoples, a special feeling to the waterfall and its surroundings, experienced by most visitors.

Since time began it has always been known that running water creates dragon lines of energy, altering the earth's magnetic field. This can be tested by dowsers (rods can be purchased in the village craftshop) and the negative ions of the water create a feeling of wellbeing.

Myth and legend we may call it, but science also has had its finger in the pie, trying to explain things. Acknowledgement of its sacredness and its special place in the land of Wales has been made by the designation of the waterfall and the Berwyn Mountains as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), under the protection of the Countryside Council for Wales.

NEXT: Celtic Mythology

Pistyll Rhaeadr

Tan-y-Pistyll, Waterfall Lane, Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, Powys SY10 0BZ, Wales

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