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.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.