A myth is a traditional or legendary story, collection or study. It is derived from the Greek word mythos (μῦθος), which simply means "story". Mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. A myth also can be a story to explain why something exists.
Human cultures usually include a cosmogonical or creation myth, concerning the origins of the world, or how the world came to exist. The active beings in myths are generally gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, or animals and plants. Most myths are set in a timeless past before recorded time or beginning of the critical history. A myth can be a story involving symbols that are capable of multiple meanings.
A myth is a sacred narrative because it holds religious or spiritual significance for those who tell it. Myths also contribute to and express a culture's systems of thought and values.
The term is common in the academic fields of mythology, mythography or folkloristics. Use of the term by scholars has no implication for the truth or falsity of the myth. While popular usage interchangeably employs the terms legend, fiction, fairy tale, folklore, fable and urban legend, each has a distinct meaning in academia.
In popular use, a myth can be a collectively held belief that has no basis in fact. This usage, which is often pejorative, arose from labeling the religious myths and beliefs of other cultures as incorrect, but it has spread to cover non-religious beliefs as well. Because of this popular and subjective word usage, many people take offense when the narratives they believe to be true are called myths.
To the source culture a myth by definition is "true", in that it embodies beliefs, concepts and ways of questioning to make sense of the world.
The Dream of Macsen Wledig
Magnus Maximus was a usurper against the Romans in the fourth century.
Also known as Macsen Wledig, the historical figure Magnus Macsenus or Magnus Maximus became the basis for a number of Welsh and English legends. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth he was king of the Britons following the death of Octavius, during the reign of Emperor Constantine I.
The Mabinogion tells of Macsen Wledig marrying the daughter of a Caernarfon-based chieftain. Although fictionalised, the story has a degree of basis in fact.
The tale begins with Macsen Wledig, emperor of Rome, falling into a deep sleep after going hunting. He dreams of journeys of rivers, mountains and valleys. Eventually he finds a great city with a vast castle, and a huge fleet of ships.
He boards the largest ship, which sets sails along the seas and oceans before arriving at wondrous lands. He comes to a castle with a hall covered in gold, silver and precious stones. Seated are two youths playing chess, dressed in jet black satin.
Elsewhere in the hall is a man sitting in an ivory chair, and a maiden of great beauty. The maiden rises from her chair, and the man embraces her. Emperor Macsen Wledig awakes at this point.
Consumed by love for the maiden seen in his dream, Macsen Wledig mounts his horse and goes forth to Rome. On his arrival he is withdrawn, choosing to sleep rather than engage in the people of the household. In each of his dreams he sees the beautiful maiden.
One day the page of his chamber tells Macsen Wledig that the people are turning against him, because they get neither message nor answer from him. The wise men of Rome are brought before the emperor, and he tells them of his dream. The wise men instruct Macsen to send messengers for three years to the three parts of the world to seek the beautiful maiden.
After a year the messengers return with no news, leaving the emperor sorrowful. The king of the Romans says to him to go and hunt where he did before the dream. From there 13 messengers journey to a high mountain, at the top of which they see the land of the emperor's dream.
Eventually they come to the vast city and its castle. They cross the sea in the giant ship, which takes them to Britain. They ride until they come to Snowdon. "Behold," said they, "the rugged land that our master saw." They continue to Anglesey and Arvon.
At Aber Sain they find a castle at the mouth of the river. They go inside and into the hall from the dream. They see the two youths playing chess, the man carving chess pieces and the maiden in the chair of gold.
The messengers proclaim the maiden empress of Rome. She tells them she will not go with them to Rome; if Macsen Wledig loves her, he must come to her.
They return to Rome and tell the emperor of their findings. With his guides, Macsen Wledig goes to Britain and finds Aber Sain, the castle of his dream. He sees Kynan and Adeon playing chess, and their father Eudav son of Caradawc, carving chessmen. Then he spies the maiden, named Helen Luyddawc, from his dream.
"Empress of Rome," he says, "all hail!" And the emperor throws his arms about her neck, and that night she becomes his bride. The following day she asks for Britain for her father, and three chief castles made for her, the largest in Arvon. The emperor grants this; the other castles are built in Caerleon and Carmarthen.
The emperor remains for seven years, building castles and roads throughout Britain. The length of time spent away from Rome means he is banished from returning, and he loses his high office.
The new emperor threatens Macsen in a letter. The deposed emperor sets off for Rome with his army, vanquishing France and Burgundy on the way. However, he spends a year outside Rome without become near to recapturing it. Eventually he is joined by Helen and her warrior brothers, and Kynan and Adeon, sons of Eudav.
Kynan and Adeon construct a ladder for every four men of their party. While the warring emperors break their fighting to eat, the Britons breach the city walls.
The new emperor, unable to arm himself in time, is slain along with many others. For three days and nights the Britons fight to retake the castle and city, unbeknown to Macsen Wledig.
Macsen complains to Helen that her brothers have been unable to conquer the city. She replies that "the wisest youths in the world are my brothers. Go thou thither and ask the city of them, and if it be in their possession thou shalt have it gladly."
The gates of the city of Rome are opened, and the emperor Macsen Wledig once again is seated on the throne, with all the men of Rome submitted themselves unto him.
The emperor gives Kynan and Adeon leave to vanquish any region in the world they may desire to rule. The brothers conquer lands, castles and cities in the Amorica region of Gaul, which contains the Brittany peninsula, slaying men and sparing women. After many years of this Adeon returns to Britain, leaving Kynan to rule over the rest.
Kynon and his men then cut the tongues out of the women, to prevent them from having their speech corrupted. Because of the silence of the Amorican women, the men of the region became known as Britons.
Prince Llywelyn of Gwynedd's favourite dog is Gelert, a fearless hunting dog and loyal friend and companion who was said to have been a gift from King John of England.
Llywelyn leaves his baby son with a nurse and a servant while he embarks on a hunting trip with his wife. The nurse and the servant go for a walk in the mountains leaving the baby alone and unprotected.
After a while Llywelyn notices that Gelert isn't with the hunting pack. Reasoning that the only place Gelert would go is back to the lodge, he calls off the hunt and heads back home.
As the party is dismounting, Gelert comes running out of the lodge towards his master, covered in blood and wagging his tail. The princess, calling her child's name, faints. Llewelyn rushes in to find the cradle overturned, the bloodstained bedclothes thrown all over the floor, and no sign of his son.
Filled with anger and grief he draws his sword against the dog. As Gelert dies, he whimpers and his cries are answered by the sound of a baby crying from behind the overturned cradle. Llewelyn pulls aside the cradle to find his son unharmed and the bloody body of a huge wolf next to him. Gelert had killed the wolf as it tried to attack Llewelyn's son.
From that day onwards Llewelyn never speaks again. Filled with remorse, he buries Gelert in a meadow nearby and marks the grave with a cairn of stones, though he could still hear its dying cries.
The village of Beddgelert (Gelert's grave) in North West Wales is thought to owe its name to the legend, although there is no evidence of the story having a historical basis.
Lludd and Llefelys
In early Welsh mythology, Llefelys was wise king of France whose brother Lludd ruled Britain. When Lludd's kingdom was beset by a number of menaces he enlisted the help of his brother.
Three things were plaguing Lludd: a demonic tribe called the Coraniaid; vanishing provisions from the king's court; and a recurring scream which struck fear into Lludd's people, causing women to miscarry and making animals and plants barren.
Llefelys decreed that a potion of crushed insects and water would destroy the Coraniaid. The wizard who had been stealing provisions was overcome and became subservient to Lludd. The scream was revealed to be the sound of two dragons fighting.
Llefelys told Lludd to dig a pit in the centre of Britain, fill it with mead and cover it with cloth. Lludd did this, and the dragons were imprisoned, wrapped in the cloth, underground at Dinas Emrys in North West Wales.
Culhwch and Olwen
A complete version of the tale was found in the Red Book of Hergest and a fragmented one in the White Book of Rhydderch.
The tale was popularised by Lady Charlotte Guest in her translation of the Mabinogion. Culhwch and Olwen is believed to be the earliest Arthurian romance, and is one of Wales' earliest existing prose texts.
The tale has a simple plot but an often complex cast of characters. It begins with Cylidd Wledig (King Kilydd), son of Celyddon, who marries Goleuddydd. She becomes pregnant, but loses her sanity before the birth.
Their son, Culhwch, is born in a pig-run, and is raised in secret by a swineherd until he comes of age.
Goleuddydd dies soon after Culhwch's birth. When looking for another wife, Cilydd kills King Doged, taking his widow, daughter and land as his own.
Cilydd's new queen is unhappy that he doesn't have a direct heir, but calls Culhwch to court when she learns of his existence. She suggests that Culhwch should marry her daughter, guaranteeing succession.
Culhwch refuses, offending the queen. Enraged, she puts a curse on him for foiling her plans: he will marry no-one but the beautiful Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Pencawr, king of giants.
Although yet to see her, Culhwch becomes infatuated with Olwen, but his father warns that he will never find her without the help of his famous cousin King Arthur. Culhwch sets off to Arthur's court in Celliwig, Cornwall - one of the first known instances of the court being given a specific location.
Arthur sends scouts to find Olwen. They search for a year but find no sign of her, so Culhwch's friend Cei (known in later literature as Sir Kay) suggests they go looking for Olwen themselves.
Arthur picks six of his finest men to join Culhwch on the search, including Cai, Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere) and Gwalchmei (Sir Gawain, Arthur's nephew).
The group reaches the house of a shepherd, whose wife - the sister of Culhwch's mother - tries to discourage Culhwch from searching for Olwen. She explains that all men who look for her are never seen again.
Unable to dissuade Culhwch, the shepherd's wife tells him that every Saturday Olwen comes to their house to wash her hair.
When Olwen arrives, white flowers spring up in her footprints wherever she walks - hence her name, meaning 'white track'. Culhwch is stunned by her beauty and falls instantly in love.
Although she is receptive to Culhwch, Olwen explains that Ysbaddaden is fated to die whenever his daughter marries, and will only give his consent if Culhwch completes a series of immensely difficult tasks.
Culhwch and his men follow Olwen back to the castle to see her father. The following day he gives Culhwch a huge list of tasks to do before he can marry Olwen, which include cutting Ysbaddaden's hair and shaving his beard.
The first task is to find Wrnach the giant, whose sword is needed to kill Twrch Trwyth, an Irish king who has been turned into a boar. When they find Wrnach, Cei persuades him that his sword needs sharpening. As the giant hands over the weapon, Cei beheads him.
Next they search for Mabon ap Modron, who is imprisoned in a watery Gloucester dungeon. Mabon is the only man able to handle Drudwyn the hound, who is needed to catch Twrch Trwyth. The men enlist the help of Arthur, whose army attacks Gloucester and frees Mabon.
They then hunt down and kill Ysgithyrwyn, the wildest boar in the land. The warriors take its tusk, the only thing sharp enough to complete their task. They then follow Twrch Trwyth to Ireland, but he escapes to Preseli in North Wales.
After a cross-country chase in which Arthur loses many men, the men trap Twrch Trwyth on the banks of the River Severn. They take the shears, comb and razor that lie between his ears, and Twrch is driven into the sea and drowned.
Finally, Arthur himself kills the Black Witch, taking her blood to soften the beard of Ysbaddaden. Culhwch heads back and cuts Ysbaddaden's hair and shaves his beard to the bone.
Ysbaddaden dies, allowing Culhwch and Olwen to get married.
Also known as Hu the Mighty, Hu Gadarn was said to have brought the Welsh to Britain from Deffrobani (the Summer Country). There he taught them to plough, and invented the medium of song to aid memory.
After he became king of the first Britons there were said to have been a series of great floods caused by an afanc (water-dwelling monster). Hu's oxen drew the afanc from its domain, enabling it to be defeated and halting the floods.
Hu Gadarn originated in a series of Triads popularised by Iolo Morganwg in the 18th century. Unfortunately the Triads are considered a forgery, and there is little to establish it as an authentic tradition prior to this time.
Although a Huw was mentioned in the Book of Taliesin, there is little to connect the two figures. The name Huw Gadarn does feature in a number of medieval Welsh manuscripts, including the Red Book of Hergest and White Book of Rhydderch, where he was depicted as the emperor of Constantinople, though the tales were adapted from a French romantic tale.
In the 20th century Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, identified Hu with the horned god Cernunnos. Other sources have aligned him with the Celtic god Esus, and on occasion he was known as Hu Hesus, through which Romantics identified him with Jesus.
A lake monster from Welsh mythology, the afanc can also be traced through references in British and Celtic folklore.
Sometimes described as taking the form of a crocodile, giant beaver or dwarf, it is also said to be a demonic creature. The afanc was said to attack and devour anyone who entered its waters.
Various versions of the tale are known to have existed. Iolo Morgannwg, who revived Welsh bardic traditions during the 18th and 19th centuries, popularised a version of the myth that had Hu Gadarn's two long-horned oxen drag the afanc from the lake, enabling it to be killed. An earlier variation on this had the oxen cast the afanc into Llyn Ffynnon Las (lake of the blue fountain), where it was unable to breach its rocky banks to escape.
In one telling the wild thrashings of the afanc caused flooding which drowned all the people of Britain, save two, Dwyfan and Dwyfach. Another has a maiden who tamed the afanc by letting it sleep in her lap, which allowed her fellow villagers to capture it. When the afanc awoke its struggles crushed the maiden.
Later legends had King Arthur or Peredur slaying the monster. Near Llyn Barfog is a rock with a hoof print carved into it, along with the words Carn March Arthur (stone of Arthur's horse), supposedly made when his steed, Llamrai, dragged the afanc from the deep.
The afanc has been variously known as the addanc, adanc, addane, avanc, abhac and abac. Several sites lay claim to its domain, among them Llyn Llion, Llyn Barfog ad Llyn-yr-Afanc (the Afanc Pool), a lake in Betws-y-Coed.