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Monday 25 April 2011

The inundation of Cardigan Bay -- the oldest story in Wales?

Upper Image:  Andrew David (click to enlarge)
Lower Image:  David Thorpe

The story told below (which I published in my book called "Pembrokeshire Folk Tales") is thought to have elements within it which date back to the Iron Age -- and it's certainly older than the better-known version of the story of Cantre'r Gwaelod which is associated with Seithennin the Immortal Drunkard.  Whichever story we go for, the essential feature is a folk memory of a time when Cardigan Bay was dry land -- and according to the legend a place of rich settlements and fertile farmland.  The legend as no doubt kept alive over the centuries by frequent sightings of the submerged forest around the coasts of Cardigan Bay -- these submerged woodlands contained tree stumps, branches, roots and even peat beds and layers of hazel nuts.  Here and there the trees all appear to have been felled as. a result of some catastrophe -- the trunks all lie parallel to one another in the peat.  Another thing contributing to the story is the occurrence of long ridges in the bay which are only exposed at extreme spring low tides.  They are still referred to as "causeways" in the local folklore tradition -- but they are in fact long ridges of lateral moraine, left by the last valley glaciers to flow out of the North Wales valleys into the lowland later to become Cardigan Bay.

This is of course another confirmation that during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic relative sea-level was substantially lower than it is today, and that it rose gradually towards its present position, as outlined on a number of previous posts on this blog.

 Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin..........

Mererid, the Guardian of the Sacred Well        

Once upon a time,  very long ago, there was a fine fertile kingdom which later came to be called Cantre'r Gwaelod or the Lowland Hundred, to the north of Dewisland and Cemais. However, the land was known to its people and to neighbouring peoples as Maes Gwyddno.  As one might expect from the name, it belonged to a king called Gwyddno, and there were many fine palaces, and many princes and warriors who lived there in those far-off times.

There were four particularly famous warriors, named Mor, Kynran, Kenedyr, and Seithennin.  The mightiest and wisest of these was Mor, who was nicknamed Mor the Grand because of his feats in battle. Kynran was thought by many to be weak in the head. He was valiant in battle, but he was liable to strange utterances, predicting over and over again that the waters were going to burst forth, that the land would be lost beneath a great flood, and that the people should build boats in order to save themselves. Nobody took his seriously, for the sea was far away, and between Gwyddno's kingdom and the far-off land of Ireland there was a fertile plain with two slow and gentle rivers flowing to the south-western ocean. Kenedyr trusted nobody and was always prepared for war; he built himself a fine fort, called in Welsh Caer Kenedyr, to protect himself and his clan at times of trouble. And Seithennin, the last of the four, was himself a son of a king of Dyfed called Plaws Hen. He was honest and faithful to King Gwyddno, but he was over-fond of wine and mead and was of somewhat feeble mind.

In the kingdom of Gwyddno there was a magic well, whose secrets were entrusted to a damsel called Mererid.  She did not herself know these secrets, for they were tabu to all but the high priests. Mererid knew only that the well contained the mysteries of wisdom, and inspiration, and poetry; and she knew that nobody was allowed to gaze into its depths. Only she was allowed to take the sacred water from the well while averting her eyes, and only she could serve it in golden goblets to the king and his nobles.  It was also her duty to keep the well covered with a flat stone to contain its secrets and to keep it from overflowing. She was a mysterious and very beautiful young woman, well versed in the ways of the spirits. Like the priests of the kingdom, she was given to wierd incantations and strange behaviour which the common people did not understand. Indeed, Mererid was herself a sort of priestess, and even the king, while thinking her very comely, was slightly in awe of her.

Now it happened that the king had been at war with one of the kings of Ireland who had coveted his territory; but he had won a mighty victory and returned to Maes Gwyddno bearing with him the severed head of the Irish king. Flanked by his heroes Mor, Kenedyr, Kynran and Seithennin he rode through the gates of his fortified town to a tumultuous welcome from the people. The king and his people rejoiced. There was singing and dancing in the streets, the priests offered thanks to the gods, and in the king's palace a great feast was prepared.

The feasting and celebrations went on far into the night, with music and entertainments of the most lavish kind. The wine flowed freely, and everybody drank too much. Mererid was invited to the party, and temporarily forgot her sacred duties to join in the jollification.  She became a centre of attention, because she had never before been seen to let her hair down; and she too drank too much wine......

In the early hours Mererid returned to her well, none too steady on her feet and singing to herself in the moonlit velvet darkness. She thought that all was well with the world. Then she had an idea.  No harm would be done, she thought, if she was to remove the stone cover from the sacred well and to take just a little peep inside. Perhaps she could obtain a glimpse of its secrets. Perhaps she  would discover something of its wisdom and inspiration, and maybe write a poem or two to celebrate the king's victory in battle. And, so, feeling a trifle afraid but giggling to herself nonetheless, she moved the heavy stone aside and gazed into the depths of the well.

Immediately a great flood of water burst out of the well and threatened to overwhelm Mererid. She screamed and attempted to replace the stone cover, but the torrent continued, and in her drunken state her struggles with the heavy stone were clumsy and to no avail.  At last she gave up the fight and fled from the well, shouting out warning at the top of her voice.  But nobody heard her, for the common people were all deeply asleep following their celebrations, and the king and his family and nobles were still making merry in the palace. Inexorably the water poured out of the well and followed Mererid in a great tidal wave, flooding the town and the wide fertile plains of the kingdom. She struggled up to the highest rocky crag in the town and there, as she watched the water rising higher and higher, she threw her arms wide open and cried and pleaded and offered prayers to her gods for deliverance and forgiveness.

But those were hard times, and the gods would not be denied their retribution. As the waters rose many hundreds of townspeople, and many hundreds more in the countryside of Maes Gwyddno, were drowned. The floods swept through the palace, carrying away King Gwyddno, his wife and his nobles.  And Mererid, on the summit crag, was the last to drown, weeping bitterly as the flood waters closed over her.

Only three men survived the drowning of the Lowland Hundred. One of them was called Kynran, who had prophesied that one day this disaster would happen.  And he it was that had prepared a boat for which others had ridiculed him, and in which he floated away to the higher lands of Cemais. Another survivor was a bard who later composed a lament for the lost land and for the drowned king and his heroic warriors.The lament was remembered and repeated thousands of times by generation after generation of bards. And at last it was written down and included as one of the ancient manuscripts which came to be known collectively as the Black Book of Carmarthen. Mererid is still remembered as the bringer of catastrophe, through trying to know that which should remain unknown; and the well still holds its secret to this day, deep down beneath the grey silty waters of Cardigan Bay.

Date: c 200 BC?                                   Source: Rhys, p. 383


Bob said...

Nice fairy tale!

Talking about myths your graph shows North Wales 'sea level' is almost 10m higher than the sea level at Bristol 5000BC (7000 BP) - how can that happen? Or should the graph say 'relative' for accuracy?

The most interesting aspect of these 'folk tales' is the probability that the tales relate to the same time period that 'doggerland' disappeared (5000BC)under similar circumstances.

The question theses graphs (or Geologists) have failed to successfully answer is 'where did all this additional water come from?' As the ice caps stopped melting around 9000BC BUT the rate of increase continued for another 4000 years after the ice had gone -as the Mesolithic dated flooding has shown here and in doggerland.


Constantinos Ragazas said...


I really enjoyed the folklore! I come from a strong tradition of folk tales myself. My grandmother was renowned in the entire region as a wonderful story teller. I have always felt these stories were true at some level and metaphorically seek to teach us deeper values. This attitude shows often in my excessive use of metaphor to communicate ideas.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Robert -- of course the accuracy of sea-level graphs is relative. Field evidence is often limited in scope and extent (and type) and all field workers can do is attempt to interpret what they find as honestly as possible. We have tactonics, isostatic responses, peat compression etc to bring into the frame. Better that than trying to fit a curve to some preconceived shape! Then it's down to the rest of us to find common themes and similarities.

It's a common tactic for people like yourself to say "there isn't 100% agreement in the data, and therefore the conventional science is all wrong!" That's rather sad.

Who said that the ice-sheets and ice caps stopped melting around 9000BC? You may say that, but the consensus is that melting continued (after the first catastrophic melt) until about 2000 years ago -- and that it has continued on a relatively smaller scale until the present day. Remember that meltwater does not just come from the Laurentide, Scandinavian and Cordilleran ice sheets, but from many other sources as well.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

How do you explain the name of one of the four famous warriers being 'Kenedyr'? I note that their king fought against the King of Ireland.
Is this anything to do with the fact that parts of Pembrokeshire (and perhaps elsewhere in Wales?) the Irish had settled, and so 'Kenedyr' may be a memory of these immigrations?
Forgive me, I am but a mere Yorkshireman and am unfamiliar with these things.

Bob said...

"The global warming in climate that began at the beginning of the present interglacial around 10 ka BP is recorded in a wide range of marine and terrestrial evidence., Data from the deep ocean floor, for example, suggest that by 9 ka BP, polar waters had retreated to the north-west of Iceland, and that relatively warm surface waters (temperatures above 14 °C) were once more firmly established around the coasts of western Europe. A mean warming rate for this time period of < 1 °C per century has been inferred for winter sea surface temperatures in the mid-latitude areas of the eastern North Atlantic."

According to these guys the ice caps would have melted by 7000BC and completely by 6000BC!!

That is not shown in your chart and probably does not reflect the shoreline dates you have for Cardigan Bay either!!


BRIAN JOHN said...

There's a great mixing up of names in the early Welsh stories -- and a lot of Irish influence in the tales of The Mabinogion, for instance. In fact there doesn't seem to have been much differentiation between wales and Ireland as we know them today. Irish chieftains and their armies moved about quite freely in West Wales in particular and in some of the tales from the Age of the saints (around 400 - 500 AD) there are confrontations between the early Christian communities and the pagan Irish marauding bands. One of the Iron Age hill forts near Newport (Carn Ffoi) is reputed to have been a base for one of these Irish tribes.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Robert, I don't know what you are on about here -- whoever these guys are (some school teachers synthesising Holocene climatic trends?), they say nothing at all about ice caps melting away by 6000 BC. WHICH ice caps are you talking about? Do you mean the mid-latitude ice sheets? If so, they actually melted away some time after 7,000 BP, but there were plenty of other glaciers left, and they have waxed and waned ever since.

There is no inconsistency, and no conspiracy to shape the evidence to fit a story which you obviously fond deeply upsetting!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps an Open University course in Geomorphology or Historical Climate Change would enable Monsieur Stonehenge Enigma to better understand the subject in which he professes to specialise? Quite a few similar characters turn up at Avebury Museum with all the answers.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Anon, I agree. Robert, I'm not publishing any more of your posts on the matter of your great inundation -- we have covered it too much already, and it's apparent that you are just not prepared to recognize the integrity and competence of the thousands of scientists whose published evidence is not "convenient." That is disrespectful, and it is bad science. So I have blocked two of your posts -- and it's best that you continue to promote your ideas on your own blog. I'm moving on...