By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
When classicists think of epic poems, the Iliad or the Aeneid are often the first that come to mind. The Greeks and Romans have contributed a number of jewels to world literature, but we shouldn’t overlook the poetry produced by other great civilizations. It’s time that classics departments throughout the world started giving these works the attention they deserve.
Today I will be talking about a great poem in the Old Welsh language called Y Gododdin. Have you heard of it? I hadn’t either until I took a trip to Edinburgh in 2016 and there heard the tale of the Gododdin, who feasted for a year in Edinburgh Castle before they set out to wage war against the Angles.
Who Were the Gododdin?
The Gododdin were called Votadini by the Romans and were one of the nine tribes which inhabited Ancient Scotland before the Roman invasion. They dwelled in southeast Scotland and northeast England, extending from the Firth of Forth and around modern Stirling to the River Tyne, including at its peak what are now the Falkirk, Lothian and Borders regions and Northumberland. They were among the British peoples who forged an alliance with the Romans in order to fight rival tribes. During the Roman occupation, they formed what is known as a “client kingdom”, which likely had a certain autonomy while remaining obedient to Rome.
Y Gododdin: an Epic Poem of Medieval Britain
The Romans and Greeks usually saw all foreigners as barbarians, even their own allies. But could barbarians write such powerful poetry?
The poem is attributed to a bard named Aneirin. Welsh sources, like The Welsh Triads, describe him as a “prince of bards” and “of flowing verse”, and the chronicler Nennius, author of the Historia Brittonum, often praises his work.
Y Gododdin is a collection of tales celebrating Welsh heroes and their allies. In about 600 A.D, an expedition of Welsh warriors assembled in Edinburgh Castle and enjoyed a year of feasting before setting off to fight against the Angles. At the beginning of the poem, Aneirin describes the warriors as confident of victory, as we can see in the Engish translation below (sadly I can’t read Old Welsh yet):
“Never was there such a host
From the fort of Eidin
That would scatter abroad the mounted rangers”
However, fate would have it that the campaign was a total failure, and the Gododdin were slaughtered almost to a man. So the poem becomes more like a series of eulogies for their fallen heroes:
“In might a man, a youth in years,
Of boisterous valour,
Swift long-maned steeds
Under the thigh of a handsome youth …
Quicker to a field of blood
Than to a wedding
Quicker to the ravens’ feast
Than to a burial,
A beloved friend was Ywain,
It is wrong that he is beneath a cairn.”
(Trans. from The Four Ancient Books of Wales, ed. by William F. Skene. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1868.
A few decades later, the Votadini were conquered by the Angles, led by King Oswald of Bernicia. All that remains of the Votadini are few archeological finds, like a decorated bone comb and a few spearheads. Their culture died out, and now it’s up to scholars to make sure that the only epic poem that bears testimony to their existence will be studied with diligence for generations to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.