Cantre’r Gwaelod – The Drowned Lands

The following poem appears in the medieval Welsh manuscripts known by their binding as The Black Book of Carmarthen. Mererid features in it as a “fountain cup bearer”, a description which is analysed on another page. Gwyddno was the ruler of the low-lying coastal lands known as ‘Cantre’r Gwaelod’. This is the story of their inundation.

Stand up Seithennin
Look out at the waves
Crashing over Gwyddno’s realm.

Woe to the maiden,
The aggrieved cup-bearer
Who bore in her cup the sea’s chagrin.

Woe upon her, the daughter
Of the well whose cup of plenty
Covers the contours with featureless water.

Mererid’s outcry from the fortress
Calling to the gods;
It is known: after arrogance is loss.

Mererid’s outcry from the fortress
Appealing to the gods;
It is known : pride has its redress.

Mererid’s outcry is a grief to me tonight
It brings only anguish;
It is known : presumption has its price.

Mererid’s outcry from the bay mare’s back
The gods bring retribution;
It is known : after plenty there is lack.

Mererid’s outcry calls me from my lodging
No bed for me tonight;
It is known : conceit has its ending.

 

Interpretation

The poem has been translated – and mistranslated – a number of times. The version above follows the original line by line and hopes to convey the sense of each stanza as written in the medieval Welsh. It is a ‘re-interpretation’ because I have made a few contextual shifts away from previous more or less literal translations. The most significant of these is that I have transferred it to a polytheistic context so where the original refers to God I have referred to the gods.

The assumption of most translators has been that the blame for the flood is being directed at Mererid. But the arrogance and presumption (‘traha’) which is said to have brought it about is assigned to Seithennin in a final verse which I have omitted here. This verse also occurs in the ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ and seems not to belong to this poem. But it refers to Seithennin as ‘the presumptious’ and it could just as well be said that the poem implies that he is to blame. Indeed, in the later version of the story he does become the agent of the flood by getting drunk and forgetting to close the sluice gates.

Here I have tried to shift the focus back on Mererid, not as a blameworthy perpetrator but as one whose office as cup bearer and keeper of the well has been violated. There are other legends about well-keepers being upset or offended resulting in the well flooding a large area. These are usually stories of lake origins. But Mererid is also a cup bearer, an office which carried some status but which might set the holder apart from other court officials. In my view of her she functions as a priestess and representative of the water world. So I have interpreted the word ‘emendiceid’ (accursed) referring to her in stanza 2 & 3 not so much as directed at her but as a reflection on her condition. This, admittedly, does involve a creative change of emphasis from the imperative mood (‘boed’) in these two lines.

The poet’s expression is concise especially in the lines where I have used the repeated phrase “It is known …’ . The poem has a single repeated word ‘gnaud’, literally ‘usual’ or ‘natural’ but also ‘what is’ or ‘known’. The latter seems to me to be a better construction in the translation.

Who speaks the poem? Rachel Bromwich considers the possibility that it is Mererid’s voice heard on the wind long after the event. The poem might, after all, be part of a lost prose saga. But I find it conceivable that it is Seithennin himself who speaks, possibly reflecting on his own part in bringing about the inundation. In the opening line, where he is addressed directly, the pronoun ‘you’ in the familiar form is attached to the verb ‘stand’ [up or out] and this happens again in the next line with ‘look’ where the deponent form of the verb could suggest a reflexive sense. The final verse’s reference to the speaker being driven from his lodging links to the opening and reinforces the possibility that it is he who speaks.

References:

The poem is No. 39 in The Black Book of Carmarthen.

The original text with a translation, discussion and notes by Rachel Bromwich appears in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge, 1950). The discussion compares the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod with the Breton legend of Ker-Is.

There is also a translation by Jenny Rowlands in Early Welsh Saga Poetry (Cambridge, 1990).