Sunday, 9 January 2011
Mererid and the Deluge
The popular version of the legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod, the sunken land beneath the sea in Cardigan Bay, West Wales, is that a character called Seithenyn got drunk and failed to close the sluice gates before the tide came in, and so the sea drowned the land. This version is comparatively recent, though it allows one of Iolo Morganwg's phony triads featuring Seithenyn as one of the three great drunkards of Ynys Prydain. In the older story Seithenyn was not the culpable drunkard but the king of Maes Gwyddno. The story is told in verses in the Black Book of Carmarthen of a young woman called Mererid who removes a vital stone to allow the water in becuase she is distraught at the death of her lover who has been killed in battle on behalf of Seithenyn. The verse accuses her of pride ('traha') and suggests that she cries to God in remorse for what she has done . It has been suggested that one of the verses may have been responsible for the later 'drunkard' story:
Diaspad mererid y ar gwineu kadir
kedaul duu ae goreu
gnaud guydi gormot eisseu
translated originally as
Meredid's cry over strong wines
bounteous God has wrought it:
after excess comes privation.
However, the words 'gwineu kadir' do not in the opinion of recent scholars mean 'strong wines' but refer to the chesnut coloured horse Mererid rides (gwineu = 'reddish-brown).
But is the tale of Mererid herself a rationalisation of an even earlier story? John Rhŷs suggests that there are parallels with well legends in which the guardian of the well or spring might, if violated or offended, release the cap on the conduit from a vast deposit of water - perhaps from the Other World - which then inundates the area around the spring. This Rhŷs suggests, is the origin of several lake legends such as that of Llyn Llech Owen, and Llyn y Fan from which, as is well known, an Other World woman came through to our world carrying her own taboo of violation.
If the story of Mererid ('pearl') is such a rationalisation then we must regard the legend as a fluid(!) story, changing according to the predelictions of different ages, and decide if this particular restructuring of the 'original' has meaning for us; if the return of the water world speaks to our condition in the 21st century. If so the significance it carries of lands inundated because the guardian of the gateway to the waterworld has been angered is potentially greater than the playful interaction with legend. However deeply embedded in archetypal imagery of the deluge, it may become a dynamic image of our own experience of a deluge that flows through legendary gateways into our own dry comfort zone. Then we may think:
The oyster containing Mererid's pearl
Is no mermaid's tale or
Cultured setting of disaster:
Intact it seals our future.