Pwyll Pendeuc Dyfed: First Branch of the Mabinogi
Pwyll, lord of Dyfed, offends Arawn, lord of Annwfn, and is forced to battle Hafgan in Arawn's place. He succeeds, and returns to Dyfed, having secured a friendship with Arawn.
Later, Pwyll sees Rhiannon, an otherworld woman, and succeeds in wooing her. His wedding is interrupted by Rhiannon's former suitor, Clwyd, who Pwyll and Rhiannon conspire against to outsmart. Rhiannon marries Pwyll, but is unable to concieve.
Upon finally concieving, her son is stolen, and she is blamed for killing and eating the missing child. The boy is found in another part of the country in a stable, and is raised away from Pwyll and his identitiy is unknown. The foster father goes to Pwyll for another matter, then realizes the mysterious boy is the lost son of Pwyll and Rhiannon. The boy is reunited with his family, and his name is changed from Gwri to Pryderi.
Pwyll exchanges places with Arawn, lord of Annwfn; presumably the author assumes that the audience is familiar with this realm, which is analogous to the various Irish otherworlds; it also was conflated with the Underworld, which in the Christian context is Hell, as annwfn's etymology ultimately goes back to "deep[under] world".
The nature of this shapeshifting episode is closely analogous to the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so much so that they likely have a common origin if Gawain isn't derived from Pwyll--Pwyll and Gawain employed by an otherwordly figure to engage in a fight, and Pwyll and Gawain are sexually tempted by his host's wife but successfully resists.
The Mound at Arberth in this story acts similarly to that of Temhair in the Irish story Baile in Scail--both are hills where this world and the Otherworld interact. Gorsedd Arberth appears here as the location where Pwyll is able to first see Rhiannon; it appears again in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi where Pryderi's treading upon the land causes a spell to descend and
Rhiannon is often found to have characteristics associated with horses: she arrives on a horse that can't be caught; her stolen newborn son is found in a stable; and she is falsely punished for infanticide by being forced to act like a horse and give people rides, a punishment that isn't explained. Her name is ultimately derived from a Brittonic reconstruction *Rigantona, meaning "divine queen", while the Gallo-Brittonic (and later Roman) goddess Epona--"divine horse"--is given the epithet Regina--queen--in some inscriptions associated with the Roman imperial cult.
It's also important to remember the Irish kingship ritual described by Gerald of Wales, wherein the coronation ceremony involved the new king mating with a white horse, which is then sacrificed, and the king bathes in a stew made of the same horse's flesh.
Rhiannon's inability to concieve, followed by her offspring being stolen, shows Pwyll's kingdom to be unstable. Even when the boy is returned, the kingdom is constantly under threat by otherworld forces, such as in the Third Branch.
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Mary Jones © 2014