Mabon ap Modron
"Divine Son son of Divine Mother"
mabon > mab: youth, son, young man, man.; -on: divine
ap: son (decendant of) (also mab, map, fab, ap, vab, ab)
modron: believed to be cognate with the Gaulic "Matrona"--mother, matron
Mabon ap Modron is the Welsh personification of youth. He is almost always depicted as a prisoner, such as in the story of "Culhwch ac Olwen" in the Mabinogion, where he is set free by Cei and Bedwyr to capture the boar Twrch Trwyth. He derives from the Gallo-Brittonic god Maponos.
"Mabon" may also refer to an area in Cumbria or southern Scotland, which was a center of worship for Maponos.
Trioedd Ynys Prydein
According to the Triads, Mabon is one of the Three Exalted Prisoners along with Llyr Llediath and Gwair ap Geirioedd. This is do doubt routed in the story, told in "Culhwch ac Olwen", about how he was stolen from his mother Modron when three nights old, and has not been seen from since.
A poem in the Black Book of Carmarthen mentions a "mabon am mydron", who is called a servant of Uther Pendragon, and a "mabon am melld", who "spotted the grass with blood". Interestingly, Mabon ap Mellt is mentioned just after Manawyddan ap Llyr, which may be a clue to his association with Pryderi.
Poems in the Book of Taliesin
In poem XI, there is a list of battles in which it is written:
A battle in the presence of Mabon.
He will not mention the contradiction of the saved.
Here, Mabon may refer to the god, or to a place where a battle was held. This isn't the only poem where the use of the name "Mabon" is ambiguous: poem XVIII also seems to refer to Mabon as a place, in particular one tied to Owain ap Urien, and thus Rheged:
Nyt efrefwys buch wrth y llo.
Gogyfarch vabon o arall vro
Kat. pan amuc Owain biw y vro.
Kat yn ryt alclut. kat ynygwen.
Kat yg gossulwyt abann udun.
Kat rac rodawys cirwyn drych.
Gwaywawr a du a lleullenyn.
Kat tuman llachar derlyw derlin.
Yscwydawr yn llaw garthan yggryn.
A welei vabon ar ranwen reidawl.
Rac biw reget y kymyscyn.
Ony bei ac adaned yd ehettyn.
Rac mabon heb galaned vy nyt eyn.
O gyfarfot discyn a chychwyn kat.
Gwlat vabon gwehenyt anoleithat.
Ban disgynnwys Owain rac biw y tat.
Tardei galch achwyr ac yspydat.
* * *
Ban berit kat ri rwyf dragon.
Billt na owillt biw rac mabon.
O gyfaruat gwrgun.
The cow did not low to her calf.
Will greet Mabon from another country,
A battle, when Owain defends the cattle of his country.
A battle in the ford of Alclud, a battle in the Gwen,
A battle, in conjunction of tumult to them.
A battle against Rodawys of snowy-white aspect,
Brandishing of spears and black, and bright sheets,
A battle on this side of the gleaming guiding heart of oak.
A shield in hand, the camp trembling,
Saw Mabon on the fair portion of Reidol.
Against the kine of Reged they engaged,
If they had wings they would have flown.
Against Mabon without corpses they would not go.
Meeting, they descend and commence the battle.
The country of Mabon is pierced with destructive slaughter.
When Owain descends for the kine of his father,
There broke out lime, and wax, and hawthorn.
* * *
When was caused the battle of the king, sovereign, prince,
Very wild will the kine be before Mabon.
From the meeting of Gwrgun.1
Again, the meaning of "mabon" is disputed. Does it refer to a place? Or to Owain himself? The connection between Owain and Mabon is made even further in a story from Peniarth MS 147, mentioned below.
Another poem, "Lath Moesson", mentions Mabon:
Nudris ny widyn llarychwel gẏelet mabon.
However, the meaning is obscure. The poem deals with biblical themes, particularly the Tree of Jesse, and "Mabon" may actually be used as a name for Jesus.
Culhwch ac Olwen
The story says that Mabon ap Modron is the best huntsman in the world, but stolen from his mother when he was three nights old; it isn't known if he is living or dead. Arthur and his knights must find Mabon, so that he can hunt Twrch Trwyth, an evil man turned into a murderous boar, and then present the boar to Yspaddaden Penkawr, father of Olwen, who refuses to allow Culhwch to marry her until the boar is caught.
His prison is Caer Loyw--Gloucester, but also thought to mean "City of Light", lowy from gloyw. He can only be found by consulting the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, the oldest animal in the world.2 Cei and Bedwyr ride the salmon to the prison; on being set free, Cei carries Mabon on his back to King Arthur's court. From there, they hunt the boar, Mabon gaining the comb and shears behind its ear, and then driving it off a cliff into the sea around Cornwall.
Continental Arthurian Texts
Erec et Enide
Most prominent is Chretien de Troyes' poem Erec et Enide, where Mabon, under the name Mabonagrain, is the prisoner and warden in the Joy of the Court. Both the name and his imprisonment makes the identification of Mabonagrain and Mabon almost certain.
In the poem Lanzelet, Mabon appears as Mabuz, the son of the Lady of the Lake and fosterbrother to Lancelot. Like Mabon (and presumably Maponos), Mabuz is the son of a water spirit. Here, though Mabuz is lord of Schatel le Mort--"Castle of Death"--where he imprisons knights and makes them cowards like himself. This continues until Lancelot agrees to defeat Mabuz's enemy Iweret.
La Bel Inconnu & Libeaus Disconu
In this poem and its English counterpart Libeaus Disconu, two prisoner/magicians are Maboun and Eurayn. Helaine Newstead connected Eurayn (as well as other figures) to Bran, though Eurayn may also be Owain, who, as noted below, is (in a sense) Mabon's brother.
The Post-Vulgate and the Prose Tristan
In these two texts, Mabon appears as Nabon le Noir, an enchanter and student of Merlin. He captures Bors, enchants him, and sends him to battle with Erec, but loses. He also fought with Gawain over the woman Marisque. In Tristan, he fights with his friend Mennonas over the woman Grysinde; he sends a ship called the Nef de Joie to bring Tristan to battle Mennonas and win the woman for him. Though the name is written Nabon, scholars generally agree that Mabon is intended (Darrah, 140); his role as an enchanter, imprisoner, his relationship with water, the ship named Joy, and his enmity with Erec strengthens this argument, showing as it does influence from both Erec et Enide and La Bel Inconnu.
Finally, there is a lost lai of Rey Mabun mentioned in Shrewsbury MS VII (Bromwich, 428). It may be the lost Lay of Joy mentioned by Chretien in Erec et Enid. "King Mabon" may be reflected in the Welsh version of Erec--that is, Gereint son of Erbin--where Mabonagrain is only known as Brenhin Bychan, that is, "Little King".
It's important to note that most of these cases, the Mabon-derived figure shares his theme of imprisonment and water. If, as Helane Newstead said, the imprisonment of Mabon is related to "a common Welsh source in which Bran's island was regarded as a prison for a famous captive" (148), it has interesting implications for Y Mabinogi and Mabon's relationship to Pryderi, for Pryderi--the nephew of Bran--was one of the Seven Survivors and was a type of captive on the isle of Gwales.
There are a few locations associated with the name Mabon or Maponos; the seventh century Ravenna Cosmography mentions a "Locus Maponi"; this is assumed to be in the north of Britain, and might be either modern Lochmaben (Dumfriesshire) or the megalith Clochmabenstaen (outside Gretna), both in southern Scotland.
Bromwich also notes the record (ca. 1030?) in Savigny, RhŰne (France) of a sacred spring--de Mabono fonte. It was likely a sacred spring to the god Maponos since the time of the Gauls; it's also interesting to note that the shift of "p" to "b" on the continent as in Britain; whether this is a Breton influence, I don't know.
Then there is the land of Mabon, which as we've seen is associated with Rheged, modern Cumbria, in the poems of Taliesin. Again, this is the north of Britain, and there have been found inscriptions mentioning Maponos in Chesterholm and Brampton (outside Carlisle), Corbridge, and Ribchester (Lancastershire). All of these are in the north and at least three of these--Brampton, Chesterholm and Ribchester--are within the old kingdom of Rheged.
And of course there is Caer Lowy--Gloucester. The association here may be more symbolic than literal; Caer Lowy was not only the prison of Mabon, but the home of the nine witches who antagonized Peredur's family.
”engus mac ind Og
Mabon is often equated with the Irish god Oengus mac ind Og, "”engus the Young Son,"--like Mabon, meaning a divine youth--ruler of Tir na nOg (the Land of Youth) and of Newgrange, the megalithic mound oriented to the winter solstice sunrise. ”engus is born on Samhain, son of the Dagda and Boann; like Mabon's parents Modron (the River Marne) and Mellt (lightning), ”engus' parents are a river (the Boyne) and a storm god (the Dagda, who is sometimes called Aed--fire). He is the god of love and music.
Pryderi ap Pwyll
There are several connections between Mabon and Pryderi. The most obvious is that both were stolen from their mothers as infants. Unlike Mabon, Pryderi is later found and returned to Rhiannon after four years. However, there is a second imprisonment of Pryderi in the Mabinogi, when he touches an enchanted bowl. Here he has to be rescued from the enemies of his mother Rhiannon by his step-father Manawyddan. It could be that the second episode is a double for the first.
His mother Rhiannon is thought to be a reflex of the Celtic horse goddess, who also acts as a sovereignty goddess; there is little doubt that Modron--a river goddess--acts as a sovereignty goddess in the story from Peniarth 147 (see below). While a horse goddess and a river goddess are two seperate things, there may have been a conflation of two types of goddesses in the figure of Rhiannon.
Finally, one can't speak of Pryderi and Mabon without discussing the word mabinogi. It is generally assumed today that mabinogi refers to Mabon. W. J. Gruffudd believed that Mabon was at least in part the origin of the hero Pryderi, and that Y Mabinogi is an epic about Pryderi that has come down to us in a garbled form, which would account for the lack of Pryderi's role in the second and fourth branches.
There is some debate as to whether or not one can say that Pryderi is Mabon; they do have several traits in common, such as the disappearance and imprisonment. Moreover, there is the issue of the word mabinogi, which Eric Hamp has argued persuasively is derived from "pretaining to Mabon".
Owain ap Urien
In Peniarth 147, there is a story that says Urien of Rheged was at Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in North Wales, when he came upon Modron, and sired Owain and his sister Morfudd on the goddess, as was prophecied. This, and a related triad (triad 70), are the only places which names Owain's mother, and they both agree that it is Modron, daughter of Afallach.
The story, of course, is a familiar Celtic motif, namely the marriage of the king and the goddess of sovereignty. It is entirely possible that Matrona, as a goddess of the Parisii, held a similar role in the Parisii's descendants in Northern Britain, particularly Rheged. Given the number of dedications to Mabon, and both Mabon and Modron's association with Rheged, it seems fairly logical. Could it then be that the king's son was seen, at least in pre-Christian times, as an incarnation of Mabon? Unknown, but the clues do point to a close connection between Mabon son of Modron and Owain son of Modron.
It is possible that Mabon and Owain were seen as brothers in the manner of the Dioskouri--the divine twins common to Indo-European mythology. One of the features of the Dioskouri is that one brother is divine while the other is mortal: we see this with Castor and Pollux and Lleu and Dylan. Occasionally one of the brothers is replaced by a horse, emphasizing the twins' association with horses.
As Mabon appears in the romance Lanzelet as his foster-brother, it is not surprising that there are connections between the two figures. In the Prose Lancelot, the titular hero is stolen from his mother while an infant, and amongst horses. He is raised by the Lady of the Lake--a water goddess like Modron. Like Pryderi, he grows at four times the normal rate. Like Perceval and the Fair Unknown, he is ignorant of his real name and history.
The action of Culhwch ac Olwen takes place at January 1, which in Wales was the New Year (as opposed to England, which celebrated the New Year on March 25), falling near the time of the winter solstice and, more importantly, Christmas. Whether the winter solstice--or the New Year--is significant to the story is difficult to say, but Mabon's release from prison at the time of either holiday may point to some lost beliefs regarding the Young Son. By the fourteenth century, mabinogi had been applied to an apocryphal gospel about the childhood of Christ, and as mabinogi has been shown by Professor Hamp to refer specifically to Mabon, there may have been some confluence of Mabon and Christ in Welsh myth, thus leading to January 1 or the solstice being emphasized. Again, as shown above in the thirteenth century manuscript Llyfr Taliesin, "Lath Moesson" makes mention of Jesus, (perhaps) calling him Mabon.
1.Another interesting feature of this poem is that in the John Koch translation, the third line Da aryd y leu is translated as "He will give to Lleu" and not Skene's "he will give to a lion". If Koch is right, this would be a second connection between Mabon and Lleu, coming some 600-900 years after the Chamalieres tablet which mentions both Maponos and Lugus--provided that tablet is actually refering to Lugus, and not the word for "oath".
2. Salmon often represents wisdom; cf. Fionn Mac Cumhail. It's possible that the salmon replaces the Indo-European serpent as a symbol of guarding wisdom, as Ireland has always been devoid of snakes. This idea would then have traveled to Wales and been incorporated into the story "Culhwch ac Olwen", which has several features evident of Irish influence.
Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006.
Chestre, Thomas. Libeaus Desconnus. trans. Jessie Weston.
Collingwood, R.G., and R.P. Wright. The Roman inscriptions of Britain. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1965.
Darrah, John. Paganism in Arthurian Romance. NY: Boydell & Brewer, 1994.
LŰseth, E. Le Roman en Prose de Tristan. Paris: …mile Boullion, 1890.
Maier, Berhard. Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture. trans. Cyril Edwards. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 1997.
Mallory, J.P., and D.Q. Adams Encyclopedia of Indo-European culture. London ; Chicago : Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.
Newstead, Helane. Bran the Blessed in Arthurian Literature. NY: Columbia University Press.
"Mabon" Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ed. by John T. Koch. ABC-Clio, 2005.
"Maponus" Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ed. by John T. Koch. ABC-Clio, 2005.
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Mary Jones © 2007