Ancient British myths, and a question of names…

Hello all. I wanted to share some thoughts, and also a poser that’s been nagging at me recently. It’s a technical hurdle I’ve set myself…:

I’m doing a session soon at my daughter’s school, on ancient British myths – they do “The Celts” every year so I thought I’d offer my services. It’s kind of a big deal for me too: possibly my first step into the world of being a storyteller was finding a book of the Mabinogion in my school library in Year 7: I still remember the sense of awe at realising that, while yes, I knew about Greek myths and they’re great, and Norse myths too, this was something from this very land, this specific accidental sea-girt geography, where I happen to come from – a comparable body of mythology from our OWN place. I might have lived in the suburban Thames Valley, but it still mattered that these stories were an old part of culture from Britain (and it helped that they were set in Wales, where I have family and have loved all my life). It was something of a huge revelation, and met a need I didn’t even realise at that stage, to identify and understand my own sense of identity in place. It’s not overstating to say that, in some way, I’ve been following that path ever since: the history and stories I’ve studied, the tales I most like to tell now; there’s almost always been a theme of finding the connection between past and landscape and WHO WE ARE.

But, because I’m slightly perfectionist and CERTAINLY a huge pedant, I’m not just going to go into a school and tell them the Mabinogion. Because I’ve learned a lot more than I knew when I was 11, and I know that: a) the Mabinogion is a product of the Welsh middle ages, and speaks of that particular corner of place and time at least as much as any underlying older ideas; and b) whatever we might wish for, we actually know very little about that pre-Roman British mythology. I’m trying really hard these days not to be dry and dogmatic about that, but I’ve always had the default position that if we respect this material, we have to be honest about what it IS, not allow ourselves to impose our 21st-century wishes upon it. (I also know now how near-impossible that is – but it’s an ideal to strive for.)

So, in a fevered moment of monumental hubris, early this summer I set myself the task of trying to reconstruct some actual pre-Roman British myths. Better scholars than me have tried and failed. And to borrow a phrase from the geneticist Steve Jones (on a telly programme when I was young), you can’t just cut the cake – in our case, digging out the bits of the stories that LOOK old and isolating them; you have to unbake the cake: assess how the stories might have changed over all the intervening centuries, note the various influences, and imagine what they might have been like in an original, pre-baked state. I’ve scaled down my ambitions a bit (for the sake of my own sanity as much as anything) – but I’m still going to try to find a way of telling some of the probably-prehistoric myths hinted at in mediaeval Welsh literature, in a way that might resemble the pre-baked cake. So there’ll be a lot of educated guesswork, and comparative mythology (Ireland and Gaul will really help) – and yes, subjective speculation and making things up to fill the blanks. But I’m going to be totally honest about that, and I’ll share with the kids some steps of the process and why we know so little about these myths in the first place. And in approximating the stories, I’d like to think I’ll give some 21st Century British kids something valuable to think about.

A lot of questions to be answered when doing this. But one that I’ve stumbled across which I wouldn’t have expected is: what names do I use?

It’s a difficult one. Just as characters’ appearances and stories have changed over many centuries, so too have their names. Which of the many options should I stick with? Take, for example, one of the central characters of my reconstructed British creation myth (because I THINK he probably once was, and because I love his tale): Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the solar hero of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. If we can indeed assume that he was the pre-Roman sky god who brought the light of day and drove back the hostile elemental forces that assailed us, then in other places and times he was:

  • in Roman Gaul – Lugus
  • in early mediaeval Irish texts – Lugh
  • in more recent Irish folklore – Lui
  • and in Roman Britain he may well have been something like all of these, judging by place names such as Luguvalium (modern Carlisle, apparently meaning “city of Luguvalos”, a personal name meaning “Lugus-strong”)

Or, similarly, try Lludd, king of Britain. He’s held to be the same as:

  • The King Lud of mediaeval pseudo-histories, legendary founder of London
  • Lludd Llaw Eraint (Lludd Silver Hand), a figure only referred to once in extant Welsh texts
  • The Irish figure Nuadu Argatlámh (Nuadu Silver Arm), a divine king who lost an arm, to have it replaced with the silver one that gave his name
  • The Romano-British god Nodens, associated with healing
  • The “Nudd” in Gwyn son of Nudd, king of the Welsh Otherworld, whose name survived alongside “Lludd” into the mediaeval period

(I’ve yet to find any evidence for a link with Ned Ludd, the mythical leader of machine-breakers in nineteenth century northern England, but I live in hope.)

Now, if I’m trying to distil the stories back to some possible pre-Roman antecedent, should I use possible pre-Roman names? As I write this, it sounds like such an easy step, but it somehow doesn’t sit comfortably: I may essentially be telling sections of the Mabinogion, and so changing the names of the characters would take something out of these stories that is part of their central identity for me. Also, it’d be great to think that some of the kids might look further into these old stories, and might one day discover the Mabinogion themselves – so would they wonder why the characters all have different names, and which are the “proper” ones? And would they then doubt the value of the stories as I told them at school?

On the other hand, I know from experience that some Welsh names can be quite confusing to English audiences. That’s not a reason to change them in itself – I often quite enjoy thinking, “Nope, this is the story, so tough: we’re going to broaden your mind!” But when the central hero of your drama has a name that sounds as unusual as Lleu (it’s almost impossible to spell phonetically in English: it’s definitely not “Lee-oo”, we’re almost getting there with “Hghluh-eye”) – as a basic storytelling principle, it’s a bit of a problem. I’ve seen it happen – kids who weren’t expecting all these odd names and weren’t that fussed about being there anyway, they start to drift off and their eyes glaze over by the time you get to the middle of the tale. You can at times overcome it with your delivery, but to be fair, if they can’t understand or remember the main character’s name, wouldn’t they already lose something of the story? And I’m trying to give these kids something they can feel belongs to them, so I want to draw them in, make it as easy as possible for them to relate to it. Lludd (“Hghleethe”) is a little better, but still not that accessible (and although it may have later been anglicised to Lud, I sort of think that for a mythical king of all Britain, that sounds a bit… duff.)

Another fly in the ointment is that there are some characters who are ONLY known in mediaeval Welsh texts. The wizardly trickster Gwydion, for example, doesn’t have any antecedent as clear as those of Lleu and Lludd – but mediaeval texts suggest that his partnership with Lleu in some sort of founding myth was pretty damn vital. (This is confirmed in general by comparative mythology, too, in this really good piece here.) His siblings might be important, too: for example, Gofannon the smith, whose parallels might figure in some versions of the birth of Lugh; Amaethon, who may have brought farming to the land (it’s POSSIBLE that Welsh literature contains something like the Irish myth of the gods wresting the secret of crops from their primeval rivals); and Arianrhod, Lleu’s mother – although sadly, linguistic analysis of the earliest spellings of her name suggests she might NOT be the moon to Lleu’s sun. Fortunately, the names of this probable family of gods carry across to English audiences pretty well – they sound fantastical and interesting, but are relatively easy to get your jaws around. But if I went with a mix of Welsh names and borrowings from elsewhere (Gwydion and Lugus, Amaethon and Lud) would I lose a sense of consistent identity? Would the names jar, even if imperceptibly, and so make it harder to believe the world as a whole?

These might well sound like very rarified concerns indeed – and completely reasonably so. But they still matter to me. If this job is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly; and as it’s such a personal quest, I want to be as true to the material as I possibly can. But I’ve been turning it over and over in my head, and I still don’t know what to do!

I’ll have to come up with something, I suppose. And ultimately, I can take some reassurance from that fact that for all I want to be historically accurate, there’s a lot of leeway to focus also on making it simple, engaging and fun. It’s an age-old tug of war for me, the historian versus the storyteller: but I’ve come to understand more and more as I’ve got older that unless you can make the story entertaining, there are some people who won’t stay for the history. It’s more the sort of metaphorical, symbolic communication that shaped a lot of these old myths in the first place: communicate the meaning, the spirit, the unspoken emotional content of the tales, rather than just the practical facts. But I still want to get it right as much as possible. If anyone’s got any ideas for how I can answer this particular question of names, I’d be glad to chat about it!







3 thoughts on “Ancient British myths, and a question of names…

  1. Hi Jon,

    Very interesting post and here, for what its worth, is my take on it. The names are the names and there you are, you’re kind of stuck with it. They are the stories of the Island of Britain but have only comparatively recently come to anything resembling the mainstream so there has been no time for the names to be develop anglicized versions as the Greek and Roman names have. They’re not hard to pronounce, just awkward to render into English orthography, but since storytelling is an oral art, that’s not a problem. The easy solution, as far as I can see, is to copy Homer and use a tag (Owl-eyed Athene, Wily Odysseus, etc) so that would give you ‘Benigeidfran the giant king’ or ‘Gwydion the storyteller and magician’ etc.

    Personally, I find comparative mythology interesting and sometimes illuminating but, for me, it is just a step too far back from the real ‘stuff’ of storytelling to get my storytelling juices flowing, and is more an attempt at information than experience (which is the medium of storytelling). I had to do some work on stories from the Jewish Bible a few years ago and I was greatly helped by a comment made by Robert Alter in his book ‘The Art of Biblical Narrative’ where he said that when you are dealing with this stuff it is time to forget all the ‘-ologies’ and just acknowledge that, a very long time ago, people decided to put this stuff down in a book which at the time would have been a huge investment of time, money and resources so it would make sense to take the point of view that they meant it – inconsistencies, plot holes, weirdnesses and all. Actually I think it is a reflection of how sophisticated our ancestors were since it seems to be a much more accurate reflection of the way the world is than a lot of the stuff you see on the telly.

    I am currently touring Dreaming the Night Field with Adverse Camber and we use a lot of parallel texts from contemporary Welsh literature to make the material more resonant (The Song of the Soul from the Black Book of Carmarthen, Englynion y Beddau etc) and almost all the music is in Welsh. The other thing to bear in mind is that, in spite of the massive blind spot in British culture for Welshness in any informed way, Welsh speaking people are everywhere. We have yet to do a performance of Hunting the Giant’s Daughter or Dreaming the Night Field (almost all in England) that didn’t have some Welsh speakers in the audience so it is probably a good idea to get the names right.

    Hope this helps in some way. Good luck!


    1. Hi Michael! Thanks very much for your comment! I’ve seen publicity for Dreaming the Night Field online and I thought it looked amazing – do you have any plans to tour near Brighton? I’d love to see it!

      You’ve given me some very interesting things to think about, but most of all I very much appreciate the encouragement to just get on and enjoy it. You’re right, it’s often more appropriate and also more fun to just relax into the story and tell it on that level. As I say, I always have a tug-of-war going on between my academic interests and basically just telling the story, but while I think some good stuff can come out of that, it is indeed sometimes best to simply tell the story – often when I’ve tried to be clever in how I frame a story, I’ve found that the more I think about it, the closer I get back to the shape it had in the first place.

      Thanks a lot for your suggestions, though, they’re some very helpful ideas. All the best, and good luck with the rest of your tour!



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