Todays 12 Days of Christmas fibre is inspired by Dream of Emperor Maxen. If you're reading along in The Mab, it's the story Follow the Dream. The Romans conquered Wales along with England, though many of the Welsh tribes carried on being rather troublesome, hence the large numbers of Roman Forts found over much of Wales. Many of the few straight roads in the hillier areas of the country follow the routes of the roads originally built by the Romans.
The image above is a representation of Segontium Fort, just outside modern Caernarfon (you can still visit the ruins today). It was built nearly 2000 years ago, and was occupied for around 300 years. Built by Agricola in AD77 in order to suppress a Ordovician rebellion, around 1000 infantry men lived here, guarding access to fertile Anglesey and also providing a defence against Irish pirates.
This is the fortress that becomes known as Caer Aber Seint (the fort at the mouth of the Saint river), and appears in the Dream of Macsen Wledig in the Mabinogion. You can read an English version of the story online here.
A note on spelling, in English the Emperor would be Maxen, Cymraeg has no x so instead forms the same letter sound by using cs. Emperor Maxen is a real life figure from history. He was Roman Empower of the Western Roman Empire from 383 to 388, and his rule marks the end of Roman occupation of Britain. This is the story of the Dream of Emperor Maxen, a retelling the transition of power from Roman rule back in to the hands of local nobility. Maxen falls in love with Elen, a Welsh princess, and as part of her dowry hands over control of several Roman fortresses and lands to her father.
In the story Maxen looses his throne due to being absent from Rome for so long, but, with the help of Elen's brother, Maxen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. As a reward Maxen awards Elen's brother Cynan Meriadoc a portion of Gaul that is now modern day Brittany (Breton language is very similar to Welsh).
What about Elen? Abandoned by her husband she was left behind in Wales. She declared "croes awr i mi yw hon" "a cross hour for me is this", and died of grief in a village called Croesor in Eryri (Snowdnia) beneath the mountain Cnicht.
So important is the tale of Macsen, and the way he left Wales that it's stlll being sung about today. If any of you followed the recent World Cup you may have heard Welsh football fans singing Yma O Hyd. This is a contemporary Welsh folk song written by Dafydd Iwan. It was a song designed to raise spirits and to encourage people to keep the Welsh language alive.
There's lots of Macsen available in the shop right now if you either missed out on the 12 Days of Christmas parcels, or if you had one and decide you need more of this beautiful aqua colour.
Todays tale is one of the Three Welsh Romances that are included in The Mabinogion. They bear certain resemblances to the Arthurian legends found in the work of Chrétien de Troyes a French poet who wrote some of the most famous Medieval literature. It's not know who wrote the stories first... were these romances a retelling of his work in the Welsh language or did de Troyes use a more ancient Celtic legend as the basis for his tales. Either way, this story may seem familiar because it's not dissimilar to the tale of Perceval and the story of the Grail.
In my modern retelling in The Mab, this is the story of Peredur, the Monster and the Serpent of the Cairn. The legendary King Arthur appears for the first time in our stories. Arthur probably did exist, he was likely to be a Romano-British warlord who fought against Saxon invaders in the 5th century, our first written reference to him are Welsh, but he wasn't necessarily Welsh, as he pops up in battles all over modern day Britain.
The Battle of Camlan was supposedly Arthurs final fight, where he was defeated by Mordred. Camlan still exists as a place in three different parts of Wales. One of them is just down the road from me, take a look around the suggested sites of the battle on this rather charming website.
If you want to read the original tale then you can read a copy of the Lady Charlotte Guest text here. Sadly I can't even begin to find a decent online reading of this story... it seems to be one of the less popular tales.
The fibre today is inspired by the serpent that Peredur kill in one of his many adventures. There's not a lot spare of this vibrant green, but both Green Woodpecker, and Ivy are very very similar in colour, and you can find them all in the shop.
"With bewitching words Gwydion conjured flowers from thin air and soon floral perfumes of broom and gorse, cherry blossoms and bluebells, oak and meadowsweet swirled around and their petals scattered the landscape. As the spell settled, a woman made of flowers appeared. Her hair drifted like a field of wildflowers in a gentle breeze. Her eyes sparkled the green of new shoots in spring and the heady scents of a thousand blooms kissed the air around her."
The Mab, Meadowsweet and Magic by Eloise Williams
This the story of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. This video is a modern retelling, with a beautiful painting being created along with the story.
If you'd rather read a summary of this story, you can find one here. If you enjoy exploring Welsh landscapes then this is a delightful look at the places where this complex tale is set.
This video is a more traditional retelling
One of the intriguing things about old Welsh law is that it granted far greater rights to women. Under the Laws of Hywel, before the final conquest by England a Welsh woman had much different legal standing than an Anglo-Norman woman. If a woman husband cheated on her she was entitled to compensation, the first occasion it was set at six score pence (half a pound), the second occasion a full pound, and on the third occasion she was entitled to divorce him. Women could still be beaten by their husbands, but only for three specific acts, giving away property that she was not entitled to give away, infidelity, or for wishing a blemish on her husbands bears. Again, if she was hit for any other reason the man would have to pay her a fine.
Alas poor Blodeuwedd wasn't really counted as a person as she was created by magic, so many of these laws wouldn't have applied to her, but I do find it interesting how many of these old stories feature women as more than just side characters.
There's lots of this fibre available in the shop, if like me you would enjoy a promise of spring flowers.
Today we have moved on to the tale of the Third Branch of the Mabinogion, in The Mab it's known as Happily Ever After, or in Cymraeg, Hapus am Byth (u is pronounced with sound closer to i, so this would be said Hapis). This, after all, is the traditional end of fairy tales, or at least the ones that have been sanitised to not give children nightmares. In this case though there really is a happy ending. You can find a retelling and further discussion of the story online here.
As part of this story our protagonists, Manawydan, Rhiannon, Pryderi and Cigfa had to leave Wales, and earn a living in England. They take up numerous crafts, and every time are forced out of business by the existing local craftsmen. This was quite typical of the time, you couldn't just turn up and set up in business. At the time of the Mabinogion the Guild structure was well established in British towns, Guilds controlled who could and couldn't trade, and effectively operated a price control system and quality control system.
One of the crafts that Manawydan and Pryderi try to practise is saddle making. The story is incredibly specific about the kind of saddles that they were making, Manawydan created pommels decorated using blue enamel, a skill he had learned from Llasar Llaesgynwyd. After they were forced to leave the town they then set themselves up as shield makers, again using the beautiful blue enamel. Predictably, when that also led to them being ran out of town they set themselves up a further time as shoe makers. This time abandoning the blue enamel, and instead using the best Cordovan leather and using gold filigree buckles.
This might well be how they made these shoes.
There's lots of this beautiful orange called Hapus in the shop should you feel the need to top up your 12 Days Sample, or just fall in love with the colour.
As many of you may know we live in an old Welsh cottage, it definitely dates back to 1840, but a bit of research we've done recently suggests it's probably older... A key feature of many of these older Welsh dwellings is the central chimney and fireplace. Running up the middle of the building the huge stone chimney effectively acts as a giant slow release heater, once they are warm they carry on radiating heat keeping the building pleasantly warm. In the central hearth would have been a large open fire, this would have been the source of heat and where all the cooking was done, a giant cauldron would have hung over the fire and provided a rotating variation of stew and soup with various meats and vegetables being added for every meal.
Our fibre for todays 12 Days of Christmas is called Cauldron, and is inspired by the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, in my companion book, The Mab, this is the story of Branwen and the Cauldron of Rebirth.
If you'd like to listen to this story you can watch a telling of it here-
If you'd rather read a copy then you can find a version of the text here.
This tale features a magic cauldron, one that can bring the dead back to life. It is used by Matholwch, King of Ireland to try and defeat King Bendegeidfran, his brother-in-law. Bendegeidfran gifted the cauldron as a wedding gift when Matholwch married Branwen, his sister. The story tells the tale of her abusive marriage, the defeat of the powers of the cauldron, and her eventual return to Wales, where she turns in to a flock of starlings, along with her son Gwern who was mortally wounded in the battle.
For the colour I've chosen a rusted iron shade, as most household cauldrons would have been made from that material. Cauldrons were important status symbols however and could be made form far more precious materials and heavily decorated. You can read more about cauldrons in Celtic households and myths here.
This is the Gundestrup Cauldron, it's just over 2000 years old and is made from 9 separate panels of silver and gold, weighing over 9kg. It was found in Denmark just over 100 years ago. It's exceptional, but archaeologists believe that others of this style and size probably existed in Celtic cultures, what makes this one unique is that it survived, most others would have been melted down and turned in to other precious objects by our less sentimental ancestors!
I love this colour, so got hold of a big batch of it, so if you fall in love with it you can find it in the shop with all the other colours of Superfine Merino & Silk.
Today we're going to start to really dig in to the stored of The Mabinogion, at a rate of 1 each day, as very helpfully there are 11 stories, to accompany our 11 special colours of Superfine Merino and Silk.
This is the First Branch of the Mabinogi, in my companion book, The Mab it goes by the name Rhiannon, Pwyll and the Hideous Claw.
Here's a retelling if you would like to hear how to pronounce Pwyll...
If you'd like a bit of audio background and some explanation this podcast does a good job... though I think the pronunciation of some of the names is a little bit dodgy.
If you'd rather read the story for yourself there's an online version here.
The fibre todays is called Pryderi, which means care, and that rather gives away the ending of our story. The narrative is one of the classic changeling child. Pwyll falls in love with Rhiannon, and she gives birth to a baby boy. That night the baby is snatched away, and her serving women blame the hound sleeping in the corner of the bed chamber (there are certain resemblances to the legend of Gelert in this story.) In reality the monster that snatches the baby actually ends up leaving him at a different household. They raise him as their own, until they hear the tale of what happened Rhiannon and Pwyll, when he's returned to them they change his name from Gwri to Pryderi.
The 12 Days of Christmas parcels were so popular this year that I don't have much spare of some of the colours of fibre... what tiny amount there is left is now in the online shop. If you miss that and want something with a similar feel Flamingo features streaks of grey and brown but is a cooler shade of pink, or Shell is a very similar shade of pink/peach but with no variegation.
Welcome to the first of our Twelve Days of Christmas Posts. Every day there will be a new post introducing you to the fibre at the inspiration behind it. Each day was inspired by a different story from the Mabinogion, so I thought today was a good time to let you discover what The Mabinogion is.
I like to listen to things in the background, so I thought we'd start withe the BBC Radio programme In Our Time, and covers the information pretty well, though unfortunately the main presenter makes a bit of a mess at pronouncing some of the Welsh names. This is available globally.
The history of the Mabinogion is as oral stories, told by bards without the need for them to ever be written down. They are a record of a way of thinking and living that predate the Norman conquest of Britain, with the tales in the form we know them now dating to the late 11th and 12th centuries.
Our main source manuscripts date from 1350-1410, making these probably oldest written-down stories in the British Isles. The two main sources are Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (the White Book of Rhydderch) held by the National Library of Wales and Llyfr Coch Hergest (Red Book of Hergest) held by the Bodleian Library. Digitised versions of both books are available.
The stories themselves are hugely different, sometimes funny, sometimes romance, sometimes scary, sometimes tragic. They philosophise, and also fantasise. There's no one individual author, and characters and versions of stories vary in the differing surviving manuscripts. It's also worth pointing out that this narrative is all in cymraeg, that is to say Welsh, which would actually be closest to the language spoken by most of Britains population before the Norman conquest.
The first translations were done by William Owen Pughe who split the tales in to several episodes in journals in 1795, 1821, and 1829. The first full translation was authored by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45 bilingually in Welsh and English.
I'm using a modern retelling called The Mab as my guide. Like Lady Charlotte Guests original publication it's bilingual, but doesn't take itself too seriously, aiming to bring introduce the stories as being the sorts of tales you could tell to children, without dumbing them down, and occasionally changing them slightly to make them more pleasant for our modern ears. These stories were never set in stone and would have evolved over many years of oral storytelling, so I see no problem with them continuing to evolve. Each day will feature a different story.
The stories themselves are split in to 2 different groups. The first are a series of 4 tales called branches. A character called Pryderi appears in all 4 stories, though not always as the central character.
Four Branches of the Mabinogi
Today we don't have a Mabinogi tale, but one in the same narrative style introduces this kind of traditional story nicely, and is set in an area very local to me, so I thought it would be a nice thing to listen to on Christmas Day.
If you're in South Wales then Pontypridd Town Council have a children's activity trail that travels through the towns open places inspired by my main companion book, the Mab.
The fibre today was a hand dyed braid of Superfine Merino, Yak and Tussah Silk, and for the first time this year I've dyed up some semi-solid companion braids, using the same colours that are in the fibre. You've also got a drinks coaster handprinted here in Wales showing the Hounds of Annwn, these spectral dogs belong to King Arawn, who features in the First Branch of the Mabinogi tomorrow. If you want some companion braids, just head to the shop and you'll spot them... each day the limited edition blend of Superfine Merino & Silk will also be available.