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Celtic Symbolism: "The Triads of the Island of Britain"

Number 3 has gained a very important place within celtic symbolism, most of which I have already spoken on the previous blog post "The Trinity of Number 3" , and for sure has always alured celtic scholars and traditions. According to Celtic myth, the number connoted three goddesses; there were many different groups of three goddesses for varying situations represented differing deities. I have already discussed it's relevance on "The Triads of Ireland",
let's now refer to the "Welsh Triads"

The Welsh Triads (Welsh: Trioedd Ynys Prydein, literally "Triads of the Island of Britain") are a series of sayings written in three consecutive lines. The phrases serve to depict people, events, and places from Medieval Britain.

The triads are both a source of pride for the British people and are a semi-reliable source of historical information on the British Isles. The three-line writing form is thought to have been a mnemonic device for Bards; the prevalent heraldic tradition required a better method for recall.

The earliest triads date from pre-Saxon invasion literature.

The earliest surviving collection of the Welsh Triads is bound in the manuscript Peniarth 16, now at the National Library of Wales, which has been dated to the third quarter of the 13th century and containing 46 of the 86 triads edited by Rachel Bromwich.

Other important manuscripts include Peniarth 45 (written about 1275), and the pair White Book of Rhydderch (Welsh: Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) and Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest), which share a common version of the Mabinogion clearly different from the version behind the collections in the Peniarth manuscripts.

The White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) and the Red Book of Hergest hold the most complete and elaborate selection of the Welsh Triads. Further, it is widely held to be the earliest grouping of Welsh prose texts. The text today is divided into three texts: Peniarth MS 4- known as The Mabinogion,[11] and an incomplete one in the White Book of Rhydderch, ca. 1325. The Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) Paramount Welsh manuscript that dates from about 1382-1410. The work currently resides in the Bodleian Library. The manuscript is ultimately divided in twain: The initial is dominated by prose (which includes the Mabinogion and other myths) and the ever-present triads, and the latter portion is poetic. Also, the story of Culhwch and Olwen exists in its entirety in the manuscript. I will discuss about these books on detailed further posts

A range of characters, mythic and historical, appear in the Triads:
Mythic figures such as Bran the Blessed, undeniably historical personages such as Alan IV, Duke of Brittany (who is called Alan Fyrgan) and even Iron Age characters like Caswallawn (Cassivellaunus) and Caradoc (Caratacus). The Medieval Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, see below, has many triads embedded in its narrative.

Arthurian triads

These are the oldest written tales concerning King Arthur. "On the evidence of the orthography and certain linguistic features of the text, it has been estimated that the tale took more or less its present shape sometime shortly before the eleventh century. It is therefore perhaps the earliest extant vernacular prose text from Wales." Arthurian legend is very primitive in the triads. Further, he is glossed as a lesser hero. For example, it is suggested that rather than chivalrous battles Arthur engaged in guerilla warfare or solo missions against adversaries. "He is seldom portrayed as a mighty war leader against the Saxons".That fact aside, the heroic age is still prevalent and well-connected with its’ pre-Roman roots. In one legend, Julius Caesar's opponent Cassivellaunus surfaces as does the god Beli - the purported father of Arthur.The round table knight Tristan (dubbed Drystan), is introduced as a noble pig-herder in the Arthurian tales.

The Dream of Rhonabwy is considered another great source of Arthurian legend. Culwch and Olwen and Rhonabwy date back earlier than the 11th century but were not added to the White Book of Rhydderch until the 14th century.

Culwch and Olwen

Culhwch and Olwen, an important Welsh Arthurian tale, is extant in two manuscripts: a complete copy in the Red Book of Hergest, ca. 1400, and an incomplete one in the White Book of Rhydderch, ca. 1325. On the evidence of the orthography and certain linguistic features of the text, it has been estimated that the tale took more or less its present shape sometime shortly before the eleventh century. It is therefore perhaps the earliest extant vernacular prose text from Wales. It contains the oldest written form of Arthur. Culhwch and Olwen, an important Welsh Arthurian tale extant in two manuscripts: a complete copy in the red book of hergest, ca. 1400 Culhwch and Olwen is the oldest Welsh literature and shows the most primal form of Arthurian legend. The story is about the knight Culhwch who is cursed by his step mother to woo Olwen, the daughter of a giant. Culhwch finds his way to the court of Arthur and we get the first view of the classic Arthurian court hospitality. There Arthur and his knights set out on a series of adventures. There is a huge separation between the language used in Culhwch and Olwen and the language found in the more formal Mabinogion. Culhwch and Olwen is a prime example of Old Welsh language while the Mabinogion displaces Middle Welsh.

The Mabinogion

The Mabinogion: 'The Four Branches of the Mabinogi', 'Culhwch and Olwen', 'The Dream of Macsen Wledig', 'Lludd and Llefelys', 'Peredur', 'Owain', and 'Geraint and Enid'. The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven Welsh "tales of youth". It was translated by Lady Charlotte Guest (1838–1839) and contains four tales from The Red Book of Hergest as well as fragments from the White Book of Rydderch. The tales were composed during the 11th and 12th centuries, and began full compilation by 1200. () Mabinogi refers to a group of four of the tales known as "Pedair Cainc y Mabinogoni". The word is derived from the Welsh mab meaning 'boy' or 'youth'. In addition to these four tales, the Mabinogion contains the texts of Culhwch and Olwen, the Dream of Maxen, Lludd and Llevelys, The Dream of Rhonabwy, The Lady of the Fountain, Son of Evrawg, and Gereint and Enid. Arthur appears in many of these tales. The four main branches of the tale include the tales of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, and Math. All of these are stories on Celtic myths. The tales take place in a pre-Norman past, creating a strong sense of 11th century Welsh society and early Norman influence on the material life of the nobility. Within these four branches are other loosely-related stories, which adhere to Norman history. These serve as important histories as they were written before Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, thus they are novus originae of Arthurian Legend tradition. For example, Culhwch ac Olwen, antedates the Norman Conquest. This story takes place in King Arthur's court, and it describes a sequence of challenges in which Culhwch must accomplish to win the daughter of the gaint Ysbaddaden. These Welsh romances correspond to 12th century French Romances of Yvain, Perceval, Erec and Enide leading scholars to believe that these French or Breton tales derive from Welsh materials. The Mabinogion also inspired several modern English texts such as The Virgin and the Swine by Evangaline Walton.

Resurgence and contributions

Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams), the 18th century Welsh antiquarian, compiled a collection of triads, which he claimed to have taken from his own collection of manuscripts. Some of his triads are similar to those found in the medieval manuscripts, but some are unique to Morganwg, and are widely believed to have been of his own invention. "Writers like Morganwg in the late 18th and early 19th centuries created a ‘pedigree’ of bardic activity". One example of Morganwg's contributions is the story of Dwynwen: the 5th or 6th century Welsh patron saint of lovers. Her story is depicted in three Latin prayers originally though, Morganwg conjured a fanciful tale to enrich the triad and make the story more mystical. Among his many contributions to Welsh culture, he also founded the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain, "The Gorsedd of Bards of the Island of Britain". A group that celebrates Welsh culture and still exists today.


For a complete edition, translation and commentary, see Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein. The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1961. A second edition appeared in 1978, and the third edition has just appeared; click here to read about this new edition on the University of Wales Press site.

See Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (the White Book of Rhydderch) online at the National Library of Wales

See Llyfr Coch Hergest (the Red Book of Hergest) online from the Early Manuscripts at Oxford project

See Mary Jones's Welsh Texts site, with translations of the Triads from both the White and Red books

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