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Y Gododdin: The First Text to Mention King Arthur

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Y Gododdin is an Early Welsh Poem on the Battle of Catraeth. It is the earliest surviving Welsh/Brythonic/Brittonic poem. 

The poem is attributed to a Welsh Bard named Aneirin, and the manuscript includes a rubric (a heading on the document) which translates “This is Y Gododdin: Aneirin sang it”.

Name and Location

The name Gododdin is the Modern Welsh form of the name as it appears in Old Welsh: Guotoðin (Guotodin), and is said to derive from the tribal name Votadini (as recorded in Greek and Roman sources).

The Gododdin were a Brythonic/Brittonic people of north-eastern Britannia, the area known as the Hen Ogledd (Old North) in what is now modern south-east Scotland and north-east England, during the sub-Roman period (AD 410 to AD 590). They are descendants of the Votadini.

Author, Attitude, and Description of Poem

Aneirin, the 6th century Welsh bard, is reputed to have been one of a handful of survivors from the Battle of Catraeth (occurring c AD 600, in what is now Catterick, North Yorkshire).  This battle inspired his epic poem, Y Gododdin

The tale covers the heroic defeat of the Britons against the “Saxons” (specifically, the Angles of Deira and Bernicia).

Text from Y Gododdin
Text from Y Gododdin

One of the early consequences of that battle was the cutting off of the kingdoms in the north from those in the south-west.

This poem seems to report on a failed attempt to regain some of that lost ground; thereby making it a series of elegies to the men of the Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin and to its allies (all of those who died in the battle).

Aneirin is critical in some places of the rash behaviour of the soldiers; in other places, he mentions knights familiar to us from Arthur’s court: Peredur (Perceval), Owain (Yvain), and Taliesin. 

In fact, this text marks the first known reference to Arthur, not a king at this time, but as a mighty warrior of the recent past.

Traditional Authorship

Aneirin was a contemporary of Taliesin (who flourished during the 6th century AD) and Myrddin (the son of Morkin, born c AD 540).  He was the son of Caw, lord of Cwm Cawlwyd, or Cowllwg, a region in the North, which, as we learn from a Life of Gildas in the monastery of Fleury (published by Johannes a Bosco), this encompassed Arecluta or Strathclyde.

The alternate parentage for Aneirin has Dynod Bwr as his father.  This may point to two Aneirins, or it may not.  Genealogies of that era are sometimes confused, at best.

Aneirin is believed to have been a bard or court poet in one of the Cumbric kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd, probably that of Gododdin itself. 

He is specifically said to be a poet in Urien’s court (Urien being typically of Rheged, although still of the Old North; Rheged itself was just south of the Guotoðin). 

Though he was no Arthur

Nennius (in his Historia Brittonum, written c AD 828) mentions Aneirin under the name “Neirin” (in a section which also names the poet Taliesin), and from the 17th century onward, Aneirin’s name was often incorrectly spelled “Aneurin”.

Where do we get the text? Y Gododdin is traditionally ascribed to Aneirin, and survives only in one manuscript, the Llyfr Aneirin (Book of Aneirin).  While this manuscript dates to the 13th century, it is generally agreed that it preserves a much older text.

Original or Earliest Date of the Poem

The distance between the manuscript and the supposed period of composition means caution is important.

The earliest or original date of Y Gododdin has been the subject of debate among scholars since the early 19th century AD. 

If the poem was composed soon after the battle, it must predate AD 638, when the fall of Din Eidyn (modern-day Edinburgh) was recorded in the reign of Oswy king of Bernicia, an event which is thought to have meant the collapse of the kingdom of the Gododdin. 

If it is a later composition, the poem is usually considered to be that of the 9th or 10th centuries AD, although some scholars consider that it could be from the 11th century AD.

The Arthur Connection

Y Gododdin tells how a force of 300 (or 363) chosen warriors were assembled, some from as far afield as Pictland and Gwynedd.  After a year of feasting at Din Eidyn they attacked Catraeth.

After several days of fighting against overwhelming odds, nearly all the warriors are killed.  Many personal names are given, but only two are recorded in other sources:

  • One of the warriors was Cynon ap Clydno Eiddin who is mentioned in old pedigrees. 
  • Another personal name that is recorded in other sources is Arthur

If this mention of Arthur formed part of the original poem, this could be the earliest reference to Arthur as a paragon of bravery.  In stanza 99, the poet praises one of the warriors, Gwawrddur:

He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress

Though he was no Arthur

Among the powerful ones in battle

In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade

Here is an earlier 1988 translation of that passage:

He fed black ravens on the wall of the fortress,

although he was not Arthur.

Among those powerful in feats

In the front rank, a pallisade, Gwawrddur.

Conclusions about Arthur?

There seems to be a close agreement in these and other translations. 

Gwawrddur slew many and did heroic deeds, so that he was second only to Arthur as a commendable example of martial valour.  Arthur is treated here as a famous historical chief. 

Aneirin might easily have known old men personally who had met an Arthur figure in their boyhood. That is assuming the generally accepted dates for Aneirin’s life are correct (born AD 525 in what is now Dumbarton).

Unfortunately, there are interpolations in Y Gododdin, and it is impossible to prove that this is not one of them.  If this reference was in Gododdin when Aneirin first recited it, then Arthur was already celebrated as a hero by AD 600.

But it is always possible that the phrase “although he was not Arthur” was inserted when the poem came to be written down in the 9th or 10th century (and copied, only to end up in the 13th century Llyfr Aneirin).  Otherwise, the historicity of Arthur would be established beyond doubt.  Thus being the crowning glory and epitome of the universal celebration of the ideal hero, Arthur, “The Once and Future King”.