Culhwch and Olwen is a Welsh tale which dates to the 11th or 12th century. It makes up one of the sections of the Mabinogion, a collection of some of the oldest existing Welsh literature. The story follows Culhwch, a cousin of King Arthur, who falls in love with a woman named Olwen. Her father will only let her marry if Culwhch completes impossible tasks and brings him a series of marvelous gifts. For help, Culhwch turns to King Arthur and his warriors.
This story provides one of the earliest looks at the mythology of King Arthur. There are all sorts of things that never made it into the later Arthurian mythos. One thing that always intrigued me was the mention of Rhymhi and her pups, Gwyddrud and Gwydden Astrus (or Gwydrut and Gwyddneu Astrus).
First off, the cubs are listed among Arthur's warriors. Later, however, finding Rhymhi and her pups is one of the tasks Arthur's warriors must complete.
Said Arthur, "Which of the marvels will it be best for us now to seek first?" "It will be best to seek for the two cubs of Gast Rhymhi." "Is it known," asked Arthur, "where she is?" "She is in Aber Deu Cleddyf," said one.
Then Arthur went to the house of Tringad, in Aber Cleddyf, and he inquired of him whether he had heard of her there. "In what form may she be?" "She is in the form of a she-wolf," said he; "and with her there are two cubs." "She has often slain my herds, and she is there below in a cave in Aber Cleddyf."
So Arthur went in his ship Prydwen by sea, and the others went by land, to hunt her. And they surrounded her and her two cubs, and God did change them again for Arthur into their own form.
This raises a ton of questions. Has Arthur just picked up a family of werewolves?
The tale is full of redundancies as well as spots where scenes have apparently been placed in the wrong order. Some of the warriors mentioned in Arthur’s court are only collected much later in the tale. Finding the two whelps of Rhymhi was probably one of the impossible quests demanded by Olwen’s father, as resources for an evil-giant-pig hunt. However, it seems their names were left out of the actual list of quests. Olwen’s father does mention that the heroes need the beard of Dissull Varvawc to make a leash for “those two cubs,” and the huntsman Kynedyr Wyllt to hold them. This is presumably where Rhymhi’s cubs would have originally fit into the list.
The beard-leash is later claimed for a different dog, Drudwyn, even though Drudwyn’s leash was supposed to be a completely different quest. It’s very confusing. Maybe they didn’t need the leash because God transformed Rhymhi’s pups into their own form? On the other hand, other pairs of dogs are mentioned, so Rhymhi's cubs might not have been the intended recipients of the beard-leash after all.
Best to start at the beginning. Who is Rhymhi? Her true shape is never specified. Neither do we know why she was in wolf form. The only information we get is that Arthur had to specifically ask what form she had taken - so was she a shapeshifter? Finally, divine intervention is required to restore her to her real self.
The meaning of her name is unclear. It looks similar to the Rhymni or Rhymney, a river which flows through Cardiff. That word may come from "rhymp" for a bore, as the river bores through the land.
Most of the explanations floating around indicate that she was a human princess punished by God for her sins. This apparently stems from Archaeologia Cambrensis, Volume 2 (1856): “On the Names of Cromlechau” by T. Stephens. The author lists a number of cromlechau (stone structures) with names all having to do with female greyhounds and wolves. Seeking the “vilast” or “milast” mentioned in so many titles, the author seizes on Gast Rhymhi, who was a “bleiddast” or she-wolf. Another cromlech was known as Llech y Gamress, the stone of the princess or giantess. All that’s known about Rhymhi was that she was female, possibly of some importance, and God restored her from her wolf form to her true form. Stephens suggests that this indicates the “princess” of Llech y Gamress was Rhymhi in her human form, and draws a connection to other mythical animal transformations, especially the legend of Melusine. Milast connects to Melusine. The words fleiddast and ast connect to bleiddast. Rhymhi has two cubs, and Melusine (in some versions) has two sons with her husband Raymond. Therefore Gast Rhymhi is the she-wolf of Raymond, and that’s how all those cromlechau got their names.
This is a significant leap depending mainly on similar names - a dangerous path for reconstructing myths. Melusine has any number of children depending on the myth. More importantly, she's not connected to wolves in the slightest. She turns into a half-serpent creature.
However, Stephens' conclusion may have something to it. If Rhymhi is like most of the transformed animals in the Mabinogion, it seems likely that she was originally a human woman and possibly royalty. Human-to-animal transmogrification is a huge theme in these stories - sometimes through intentional shapeshifting, but more often for revenge and punishment. Specifically within Culhwch and Olwen, the kings Nynniaw and Pebiaw are turned into oxen. Another king, Twrch Trwyth, becomes a monstrous boar. All are receiving divine punishment for their sins.
Like Rhymhi, Twrch has children - seven little pigs - who share his curse. One of Arthur's knights who can speak all languages communicates with the pigs, who mention being "turned . . . into this form." This indicates that they are also men being punished for wrongdoing.
Again, animal transformations are common in the Mabinogion and in Welsh and Irish literature. In the Mabinogion, you have Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, another set of brothers with alliterative names. For the crime of rape, they are temporarily transformed into a mated pair of deer, then pigs, then finally wolves, before they and their animal offspring are restored to humanity. (Gwydion is a scheming, tricksterish figure. His name is from the same root word as Gwydden. Could here be a connection to Gwydden Astrus, “Cunning Gwydden”?)
“Gwyddien Astrus” also appears in the genealogical tract Bonedd yr Arwyr, as the son of Deigr.
Outside the Mabinogion, Bran and Sceolan were the hounds of the Irish hero Finn. They were also his cousins, born in several versions while his aunt was turned into a dog by a jealous rival.
There are other tales connecting King Arthur to werewolves, such as Melion or Arthur and Gorlagon. Phillip A. Berhardt-House suggested there might be an older corpus of tales where Arthur goes seeking a family of werewolves for help in a hunt.
Finally, there is one other occurrence of Rhymhi's story - probably. The poet Iolo Goch (c. 1320 – c. 1398) wrote an ode to Saint David, or Dewi, of Wales. Here there appear two brothers, Gwydre Astrus and Odrud (or Gwydro Astrus and Godrud). For some unspecified sin, God has turned them into wolves. Their mother has also been cursed. St. David miraculously frees them from their wolf forms.
God transformed, harsh angry rage,
two wolves of devilish nature,
two old men who were from the land of magic,
Gwydre Astrus and Odrud,
for committing, evil exploit long ago,
some sin which they willed;
and their mother – why should she be? -
was a she-wolf, a curse on her;
and good David released them
from their long suffering in their exile. (Translation source: Seintiau)
This myth does not appear anywhere else in connection to St. David, but plenty of scholars have spotted the similarity to the Mabinogion and Rhymhi's cubs.
The Lives of the British Saints suggests that “wolf” is a metaphor for outlaw, and that there is a rationalist explanation - St. David simply forgave these men’s crimes and accepted them back into society. However, I think Iolo Goch and the writer of Culhwch and Olwen drew on the same now-forgotten myth. A mother and her two sons are turned into ravenous wolves for some transgression, and God restores them via the main character (King Arthur or St. David).
Although there seems to be a connection to stories like Bran and Sceolan, there is a problem with that theory. It is not clear whether Rhymhi gave birth in wolf form. And if she is parallel to the other transformed monsters which Arthur hunts, she was probably transformed for a crime, not because a jealous fae cursed her. In the story of St. David, the focus is on the two wolf-brothers, who are "old men" cursed for their sins, not simply born under a curse. To me, it seems more likely that Rhymhi's cubs were, like Twrch Trwyth's piglets, originally human.
There is still plenty of room for interpretation; as Bernhardt-House says, "it is unclear . . . whether Rhymhi was a transformed human . . . a magical person of some sort who could change shapes, a famous hound, or some combination of all of these." (p. 219) I loved Lorna Smither’s story "Rhymi," which takes full advantage of that ambiguity.
The Search for the Magic Lake
I read this tale years and years ago and started looking for it about six years back. All I could remember was a handful of details. Then, recently, I came across it by accident. So technically I had the “Search for the Search for the Magic Lake.”
The story begins with an emperor whose son is dying. The emperor is desperate for a cure but can’t find one, until a disembodied voice tells him that his son can be cured by water from the magic lake at the end of the world.
Many people search without success. Two sons of a poor farmer decide to try their luck, but like everyone else, they can’t find the magic lake. They decide to bring back some normal water – surely no one will be able to tell the difference! Shockingly, people can tell the difference and the emperor has them thrown into prison. This is a huge blow for the farmer and his family. However, they have one more child, a little girl named Súmac. In order to free her brothers, she decides to go in search of the lake herself.
Along the way, she gives some of her food to some birds. The grateful birds each give her a feather, which she fashions into a fan. When she waves it, a great wind carries her all the way to the magic lake. It’s guarded by monsters, but she waves the fan again and they fall into a deep slumber. She has nothing to carry the water in, but at that moment, a mysterious golden flask appears. With another beat of the fan, she’s off to the palace. A few sips of water cure the prince instantly. The royal family is incredibly grateful and even asks Súmac to stay with them. All she asks for, however, is to free her brothers, return the feathers to the birds, and finally more land and livestock for her family. She returns home and her family lives happily in prosperity for the rest of their days.
Genevieve Barlow studied Latin American culture and traveled widely. She heard this story in Quito, Ecuador, from the Inca Indians, during her travels. She doesn't give any further specifics. The heroine's name, Súmac, is probably from sumaq, the Quechua word for beautiful or good.
It's a fairly unique tale, but there are many familiar motifs. For instance, the older brothers fail in their quest, but the youngest child wins the day - partly because of their kindness to animals. Often the youngest sibling is a boy, but there are variants with a little sister. As a child, I read one such story in an edition of the Arabian Nights: "The Two Sisters Who Were Jealous of Their Cadette." In the second half of the tale, two brothers and a sister embark one by one on a quest to find "The Talking Birds, the Singing Tree, and the Golden Water." The brothers are turned to stone, but youngest sister Periezade saves everyone. This is one of my favorite stories from that collection, but it's one of the dubious 18th-century additions by Antoine Galland. These additions include such famous tales as "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," which never actually appeared in the original Nights! Instead, Galland heard them from a Syrian man named Hanna Diab. They may have been influenced by European tales. Periezade's story fits perfectly into Aarne Thompson type 707, The Bird of Truth, a story already popular before Galland's work.
Some examples of this type:
"The Magic Lake" doesn't fully fit into this type. It lacks the setup with the persecuted queen whose children are stolen. However, the plot of the two brothers who fail and the younger sister who saves them is the same. Talking birds frequently aid the heroine in this tale type. One of the goals of the quest is a spring or lake with magical healing properties.
The other main part of "The Magic Lake" is the quest to save a dying prince. This, too, is a popular theme. For instance, "The Three Sisters" from Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone (1634) follows a heroine who slays ogres to heal a dying prince. (She has villainous older siblings, too.) "Kate Crackernuts" rescues a prince as well as her sister.
Elements of the Ecuadorian story could have originated from European tales. However, it's a unique and memorable tale all on its own.
Rumpelstiltskin's First Draft
In the Grimms' original 1810 draft of Rumpelstiltskin, the introduction is rather different.
A girl is supposed to spin some flax into yarn, but instead, whatever she spins turns into golden thread! Finally, a little man ("Rumpenstünzchen") finds her trying to spin, and tells her that he can get her out of it. He'll arrange for a prince to take her away and marry her. The price: her firstborn child.
In the published editions, the Grimms used a different version, where the little man named Rumpelstilzchen offers to spin thread into gold for her. It seems they collected more versions (at least four in Hesse) and decided to use those as a basis for the published version. I feel like this was probably a good decision, because the original version is extremely short and raises a ton of questions like why is she spinning gold in the first place? They mentioned the older version in their notes as an unusual variant.
Rumpelstiltskin is a weird story. There are so many questions - one of the most striking being "Why does he want her baby?"
Looking at other versions of the story from around the world, in many cases, the strange little man doesn't want to take the girl's child - he wants to take her. In "Mistress Beautiful," a woman sells herself to the devil for a dowry and then escapes by guessing his name. In "Doubleturk," "Hoppetinken," "Kugerl," and others, a wealthy dwarf tries to force a girl into marrying him.
Also, he doesn't always spin straw into gold. Sometimes he just does her mundane spinning for her - like the more benevolent Three Spinners, Three Aunts, or Habetrot. These female beings may be ugly, but they help the girl and ask no reward other than an invitation to her wedding.
In Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys, Ruth Bottigheimer went into the treatment of spinning in the Grimms' tales. Traditionally, spinning was a feminine task. All women spun. Goddesses like Athena and Holda were patronesses of weavers or spinners, and the distaff was a historical symbol of women. In popular culture, spinning became part of a homey, idyllic scene - i.e. Grandma spinning and telling stories by the fire. However, in fairytales told by women, like "Hateful Flax Spinning," you have heroines who try to get out of spinning by whatever means necessary.
In editing his stories, Wilhelm Grimm added positive descriptors (beautiful, nimble, clever) for characters who worked hard at spinning. He added negative descriptors (lazy, hateful, nasty) for characters who avoided it. In “The Lazy Spinner” (no. 128) a woman tricks her husband so she doesn’t have to spin. Wilhelm’s later editions add a final line “But you yourself must own she was an odious woman!”
He tried to put a good face on spinning and add in morals about hard work earning rewards. “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle” (no. 188) makes spinning look like an easy, uninvolved pastime which practically does itself. Still, you'll find details that peek through his narratives and morals. Briar Rose is cursed via spindle. The Three Spinners become hideous from years of spinning. In Rumpenstünzchen, spinning normal thread is literally impossible.
And heroines in these tales are so frustrated by impossible tasks of spinning that they would even accept help from a creature which wants to steal them away or take their children. They usually get the best of this creature in the end - and by that time, they have often ascended in rank, or successfully convinced their family that they shouldn't have to spin anymore.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.