Tag Archives: Arthurian Literature

Owain and the Giant Herdsman – Identifying Celtic Mythology in the Mabinogion

The tale Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain, Knight of the Lion) is simultaneously one of the most famous of the Arthurian romances, and one of the more bizarre. In essence the hero marries the ‘Lady of the Fountain,’ a somewhat awkward situation given that he was also the man who killed her previous husband. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Yvain falls prey to the ‘knight errant’ trope, and subsequently loses his wife when he favours the life of an adventuring warrior. He mopes, he finds a lion, he undertakes heroic tasks with lion in tow, he regains the hand of said Lady of the Fountain. This tale as it comes to us in written form is 12th c., composed by Chrétien of Troy. However, this French version of the romance is not the only extant version with, for example, Norse, Swedish, and German versions of the tale. Interestingly though, in these divergent traditions can be identified – those based on Chrétien’s Yvain, and those adapted from the tale Owain found in the Welsh collection known as the Mabinogion. It is this version of the tale I want to focus on today, examining what, if anything, is preserved of Celtic mythology within the Welsh romances (using Owain as a case-study).

The tales of the Mabinogion, though Welsh, are not implicitly so. When comparing our focus text Owain as found in the Mabinogion with Chrétien’s Yvain, questions arise as to the source of the written Welsh version. While we can say with some certainty that, as an oral saga, the story is Welsh in origin, the written version has some notably French attributes and style in comparison with the rest of the tales of the Mabinogion. While the relationship between Owain and Yvain can be difficult to assess because of their inconsistencies, it can be said without doubt that they both draw on native Celtic materials, and thematically, Owain does not differ greatly from other tales in the Mabinogion. However, along with Peredur and Gereint, the other two romances of the Mabinogion, Owein appears more genteel than the earlier tales, overlaid with continental notions of chivalry. At which point it is worth looking at some parallel passages, and I have specifically selected the introduction of ‘the black man’ (or Giant Herdsman), as it allows us some interesting speculation around the transmission and sources of ideas within Celtic mythology.

…on that mound you will see a great black man, no smaller than two men of this world. He has one foot, and one eye in the middle of his forehead, and he carries and iron spear that would be a burden for any two men. Though ugly, he is not an unpleasant man. He is the keeper of the forest, and you will see a thousand wild animals grazing around him.

(Owain, The Mabinogion)

…a churl, who looks like a Moor, tall and hideous beyond measure (so passing ugly a creature no mouth could describe) I saw him sitting on a stump, a great club in his hand … His hair was in tufts … He was clad in a garment so strange, for he had neither linen nor wool, but fastened to his neck two hides newly flayed from two bulls … He was seventeen feet in height. He declared that he was master of the beasts.

(Chrétien of Troy, Yvain)

It is Kynon (the knight who introduces ‘the Black Knight’ into Arthurian lore) who furnishes this description. And it is probably worth acknowledging that Kynon’s description of the Giant Herdsman in relating this tale to Owain and Kei identifies a figure closely resembling that of Odin in Norse mythology. I’ll return to that point, but it does raise further speculation as to the story’s inspirations. Likewise, that all our written sources for the Mabinogion date to after the Christianisation of the Britons should make us pause to question what can be found in these texts that actually pertain to pre-textual Celtic traditions and mythology.

The extant Norse and Swedish accounts of Owain appear to be versions of the Welsh tale adapted to their cultures. In his 1968 edition of Owain, RL Thomson compares the French Yvain with the Welsh tale as well as the Norse tale, which is known to draw upon Chrétien’s work (though not necessarily directly). Thomson arrived at the conclusion that while Owain is in fact a copy of Yvain (though the idea of it being a ‘copy’ is no longer held to be true so much as it being a Welsh reworking of Yvain), the Norse account drew upon the Welsh tale. The suggestion then is that the original version crossed the France as an oral narrative, changing and adapting over time until it arrived at Chrétien, who rewrote it further. From this point the story progressed to other regions such as Germany, as well as returning to the British Isles, from where it was in turn re-transmitted to regions such as Scandinavia. It is a complicated transmission history, however the important thing to note here is that, as a result of this progression, the Welsh tale as we know it has come to us via a French medium.

However, the evolution of the Owain narrative should not be attributed solely to the transition from oral to written source across cultures. The nature of the tale, and specifically the folkloric elements within it, were undoubtedly altered by the Christianisation of the Celtic world through the first millennium undoubtedly changed. While the Giant Herdsman appears to be a figure drawn straight from mythology with no clear Christian analogue, just prior to describing him, Kynon makes mention of ‘Christmas or Easter at Mass’ – evidence of the overall Christian milieu of this Celtic tale. Yet, regardless if these issues, certain important motifs appear to have remained consistent over time, and one such is the image of the Giant Herdsman.

So what of pre-Christian belief can possibly reside in a 14th c. Welsh Christian version of a French romance? Well there is some suggestion that the Giant Herdsman is a very important figure in Celtic mythology with his effigy appearing numerous times throughout the Celtic world, and that he may in fact be a protean god. Moreover, it is not difficult to find analogous figures in other mythological worlds. Perhaps most interesting is the correlation between the one-legged, one-eyed, spear-wielding giant with tales and descriptions we have of both the Scandinavian god Odin, and his Tuatha De Danann equivalent, Lug.

Although there may be some corresponding background between Nordic and Celtic religious cults, which would explain the relation between Lug and Odin as similar non-classical figures as heads of their pantheons, most scholars agree that this Giant Herdsman has no relation to Odin. It is not unusual to find similar gods across pantheons as cultures inter-mingled, adopting and adapting elements of other belief-systems. Most interesting to us here is the parallel with Lug in the description that he ‘sang this chant below, as he went around the men of Erin, on one foot and with one eye.’ While Lug was perfect in every physical feature, this contrasting rather markedly from the ugly Herdsman, in the description of his strange behaviour, he is portrayed as acting in a manner very much like the Herdsman. The parallel of the weapon is also notable; the Giant Herdsman has an iron spear, a weapon he shares with Lug, whose magical spear never misses its target. Within Celtic mythology the spear is not an everyday weapon (at least an iron spear is not), it is a weapon of nobility. Which raises further questions as to the nature of this Giant Herdsman.

The motifs of the one eye and one leg have been given some scholarly consideration and are believed to have meaning other than a simple grotesque description of the Herdsman. Let’s start with the single eye. Lug, in the battle of Mag Tuireadh takes out the one of Balor (the Fomorian champion).  This is often thought to represent the replacement of one form of solar worship with that of the radiant Lug, who as previously mentioned, is described in one aspect as having a in a single eye form. We can take this thought one step further if we bring in the Arthurian tale of Kilhwch in which one of Arthur’s companions, Sol, had the peculiar ability to stand on one foot all day long. The fact that the author used the name Sol, meaning sun, rather than the more common name of Sul, seems to indicate again a sun motif. Furthermore, another of the Great Herdsmen of Celtic mythology is found in the tale The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. Fer Caille is described as a great black man bearing an iron spear. He is of surpassing size and ugliness, with but one eye and one leg and he, like the giant in Owain, is master of the animals in his domain. This Giant Herdsman, who so closely parallels that found in Owain, makes his stand in Da Derga’s Hostel in front of the fire. The motifs associated with these Giant Herdsmen seem to demonstrate an affiliation with fire and the sun throughout the corpus of Celtic literature, and there is an argument to be made that the Herdsman of Owain was a widespread Celtic conception of the anthropomorphised sun.

Such a theory of the Giant Herdsman makes redundant the idea that these tales lost all connection to the ancient Celtic peoples. Though the text progressed from Celtic oral tradition to Frankish literature and ultimately back to Wales where it was further adapted, certain core realities of the text remained the same. Not the least of these is the image of the Giant Herdsman, this significant figure in Celtic mythology and core character in the story of Owain did not lose its fundamental significance, despite its journey toward literature. It is also important to mention that a one-eyed, one-legged, and often one-handed monster survives in modern Irish and Gaelic folklore under the name of Fachan. Thus, the concept of the Giant Herdsman found in Celtic mythology and in Owain continues through to modern folklore. Whether or not the theory that it is a representation of a sun god is correct, the image of the Giant Herdsman has definite meaning behind it and is an important motif as we seek to explore and understand Celtic mythology.

Owain’s Giant Herdsman may or may not be the anthropomorphised sun, he may or may not be an aspect of the god Lug – these are theories very much still open to debate. Yet the fact remains that the one-legged, one-eyed image repeats itself so often through Celtic mythology that it points to an underlying conceptual importance. Despite any criticism of the validity of Owain and the other romances of The Mabinogion as artefacts of pre-Christian Celtic beliefs (due to the trans-cultural and trans-religious nature of their transmission), it seems certain they preserve cultural motifs that represent ideas held to be important by the ancient Celts.

Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Manuscript image of Owain and the lion greeting his lady, unknown manuscript.
  2. John Carey, A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland, Celtic Studies Publications, Aberystwyth, 1999.
  1. J. Gruffydd, Folklore and Myth in the Mabinogion, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1958.
  2. Gwyn Jones and Arthur Jones (trans.), The Mabinogion, JM Dent and Sons, London 1949.
  3. Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Constable & co., London 1926.
  4. L. Thomson, Owein, Institiúid Árd-Léinn Bhaile Átha Cliath, Dublin, 1968.

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