Annwn, the Welsh Underworld - Sarah Woodbury

Annwn, the Welsh Underworld

Annwn, or Annuvin in the Chronicles of Prydein by Lloyd Alexander, is an ‘other’ world, from the one that mortals live in.  It is the realm of the gods, or of the dead, depending upon the source.

This site states:  “The Welsh word annwn, annwfyn is traditionally translated “otherworld,” and is akin to some of the Irish worlds of the gods (Tír na mBéo, “Land of the Living,” etc.) One will recall that in the First Branch of The Mabinogi, Pwyll exchanges place and shape with Arawn, king of Annwn, whose realm is there depicted as co-existent with Pwyll’s Dyfed. In another poem from The Book of Taliesin ( Angar Kyfyndawt, 18.26-23.8) the speaker declares annwfyn to be underground:

yn annwfyn ydiwyth, in Annwfyn the peacefulness,
yn annwfyn ygorwyth in Annwfyn the wrath,
yn annwfyn is eluyd in Annwfyn below the earth…

It can be subaqueous, as it seems to be here in this poem. Annwn is popularly associated with the land of the old gods who can bestow gifts, including the gift of poetry (awen): awen aganaf / odwfyn ys dygaf, “It is Awen I sing, / from the deep I bring it”; AK). Semantically and conceptually the term is ambiguous. The MW prefix an- can negate as well as intensify (as in Latin in-) so that the word yields either or both an + dwfyn, “un-world,” “very-deep,” possibly “extreme world.” It is not a Celtic “underworld,” per se, although mention of “hell,” (vffern, suggests that associations between Annwn (“very deep”?) and the land of the dead were vivid to whoever committed this text to writing.”

As Wales became more Christian, ‘Annwn’ became associated with the Christian ‘hell’, but it appears to be more akin to the Greek sense of the ‘Underworld’–yes, it is a place of the dead, but it is for all people, not just bad ones and it is possible to move back and forth from our world to Annwn under the right circumstances, such as Arthur does in the Spoils of Annwn.

Both Arawn at times, and Gwyn ap Nudd at others, rule Annwn.  Arawn fought in the Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) with Bran against Amathaon and Gwyddion. Arawn, like Gwyn ap Nudd, was a master hunter who rode a pale horse and rode with a pack of white hounds with red ears. The archetypal purpose of the hunt was to gather souls for the Otherworld if the quarry was not smart enough to evade the chase.  Arawn possessed a black cauldron (perhaps also associated with Cerridwen), which Arthur tried to steal.

Gwyn ap Nudd appears to be a very similar deity, leading one to think it is a different, later, name for the same god/ruler.  Like Arawn, he is the leader of the Wild Hunt and associated with Arthur, but didn’t seem to take his full shape until the late Middle Ages.

All of these gods/characters play a role in my book, The Last Pendragon, with it’s emphasis on Welsh myth and mythology.

3 Replies to “Annwn, the Welsh Underworld”

  1. Welsh scholars have decided to make ‘Annwfyn’ the Welsh Underworld. In fact ‘the Land of Annwfyn’ is ‘The Land of An Ubh Éin’ written phonetically. An Ubh Éin (‘the bird-egg’ in Irish) is a reference to the famous Castlestrange La Tene egg-stone which belonged to Regia Altera in Connacht, Ireland; This circular fort (i.e. Regia Altera) became the site of two medieval abbeys consecutively. Referred to as ‘gwenrod’ in a MW poem, a ‘cauldron’ of poetry and legends belonging to King Rory O’Conor, ‘Chief of Annwfyn’, was forcefully taken from monks at this place by Welsh Normans in 1177. Three shipfulls of attackers (in fact 540 men) were led by Milo De Cogan.

  2. I love to have a copy of the Last Pendragon and witnessed its magical tales that I’m pretty sure a lot would love to know what will happen underneath the underworld. [ heir to the underworld dot com ]

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