Wednesday, November 29, 2017

'Pa Gur Yv Y Porthaur' and the Ruling Center of Uther Pendragon

Dinas Powys Hillfort, Glamorgan, Wales

The 'Pa Gur' poem is one of the earliest Welsh Arthurian poems (10th-11th century for its original composition).  While it already betrays heavy mythologization of the hero and his band of warriors, it is, nevertheless, an extremely important source for those studying the pre-Galfridian king.

Many years ago I set out to identify the sites mentioned in the 'Pa Gur.'  The results of this research was published in my first book THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY.  For the sake of convenience, here is the relevant material, pasted into this blog entry:
The Pa Gur Battle Sites

The Arthur presented to us in the early Welsh poem Pa Gur is a very different personage from the one we find in the battle list of Nennius' HB. In Pa Gur, Arthur numbers among his men the mythological Manawyd(an) son of Llyr. He and his men fight monsters and witches. We have clearly departed from history and have embraced the realm of the fantastic.

While the Pa Gur is, alas, a fragmentary poem, the following battles or locations are listed in the order in which they occur.



Din Eidyn


Afarnach's hall

Dwellings of Dissethach

Din Eidyn

Shore of Tryfrwyd

Upland of Ystawingun


Elei is known to be the Ely River in southern Wales.  

I have proposed above that Traeth Tryfrwyd is the shore of the trajectus at Queensferry west of Edinburgh.  

Din Eidyn, as is well known, is Edinburgh. Arthur’s opponents in this battle are the Cynbyn or ‘Dog-heads’, whom I believe to be an echo of the Venicones tribe.

Afarnach’s hall may be a reference to the Pictish capital of Abernethy. Watson discussed the etymology of Abernethy as follows:

"Thus Abur-nethige of the Pictish Chronicle, now Abernethy near Perth, has as its second part the Genitive of a nominative Nethech or Neitheach (fem.), which is Gaelicized either from Neithon directly, or from a British river name from the same root."

Witches Hole is a small cave in a rocky face on the north side of the Castle Law fort at Abernethy.  It is supposed to have been the residence of some of the Witches of Abernethy (

I would add that Neithon comes from an original Nechtan or Neachtan, which appears to be cognate with L. Neptune.

Abernethy is on the border region between the Pictish kingdoms of Fortriu and Circenn. We have seen above that the Dalriadan Arthur is said to have fought in Circenn, and the Abernethy/Afarnach battle may well be a traditional memory of the Circenn conflict. 

If Afarnach is Abernethy, we may presume that Celli, the ‘Grove’, was to be found somewhere in the region that stretched between Edinburgh and Abernethy. Unfortunately, there are many Gaelic grove place-names (coille and variants) as well as English place-name elements with similar meanings in this part of central Scotland, so it may well prove impossible to locate the Celli where Cai is said to have fought. As its being lost is emphasized in the poem (Pan colled kelli, ‘when lost was Celli’), we must assume it was a place of some importance.

I would very tentatively put forward a connection between Celli, ‘Grove’, and the Medionemeton or ‘Middle Sacred Grove’ mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography. The Ravenna Cosmography situates the Medionemeton between the entries for the ‘Camelon’ Roman fort and the Ardoch Roman fort, and this would accord well with a Celli between Edinburgh and Abernethy. To date, two proposed identifications for the nemeton have been offered: Cairnpapple in West Lothian and the Arthur's Oven shrine which once stood near Larbert, a town across the Carron River from Camelon. Arthur's Oven is almost certainly the structure mentioned in the HB of Nennius:

Chapter 23: "The Emperor Carausius rebuilt it [the Antonine Wall] later, and fortified it with seven forts, between the two estuaries, and a Round House of polished stone, on the banks of the river Carron..."

Dissethach, where Arthur’s opponent is Pen Palach, looks like Tig Scathach, ‘House of Scathach’, and Beinn na Caillich (allowing for the difference between P- and Q- Celtic), ‘Hill of the Witch’. Dunsgiath or Dun Scathach, the ‘Fort of Scathach’, and Beinn na Caillich, are both in the southeast of the Isle of Skye. From Beatrix Faerber, CELT project manager, we learn that there is a reference in Tochmarc Emire, which incorporates the story of Cu Chulainn’s training at arms with Scathach. In this case, Scathach’s house is tig Scathgi (= Schathaigi).

The upland of (Y)stawingun, where nine witches are slain by Cei, is quite possibly Stanton Moor in Derbyshire, where we find the stone circle called the Nine Ladies. The ‘lord of Emrys’ mentioned in the poem just prior to (Y)stawingun is a known periphrasis for Gwynedd, as Ambrosius/Emrys was the traditional lord of that land. Emrys in this context may actually be a reference to the Amber river, which lies just east of Stanton Moor.

The –gun, if from an earlier –cun, could have come about by mistaking in MS. an original t for c. The middle –w- may represent a u, such as is found in Staunton, a known variant of Stanton.

Much later story substitutes the hero Peredur and transplants the witches to Gloucester, presumably because of the presence in Gloucestershire of towns named Stanton and Staunton.

There is no mystery regarding Mon, as this is the common Welsh name for the Isle of Anglesey in northwest Wales. Welsh tradition insists that Cath Palug or Cath Palug, which Cai battles on Mon, is the cat of a person called Palug. Modern scholars prefer to view palug as perhaps meaning ‘scratching’ or ‘clawing’, hence Cath Palug as the Clawing Cat.

Cath Palug is linked in line 82 of the poem to ‘lleuon’, i.e. lions. The association of lions with Arfon (where the cat is born) and Mon may have to do with the simple confusion of llew, ‘lion’, for lleu, the god who is the Lord of Gwynedd in Welsh tradition. The letters u and w readily substitute for each other.


I had discussed Elei in the possible context of Elleti (a discussion I will be revising considerably here in the near future).  But what I neglected was the fairly obvious point made by the poem's placement of the 'vythneint' ("predatory birds", a metaphor for warriors) at Elei.  Why might this placement be so important?

Because one of them, viz. Mabon son of Modron, is called the servant (guas/gwas) of Uther Pendragon.

There is an implied sense in this passage that I failed to pick up on in the past.  Simply put, if Mabon is of Elei and he is the servant of Uther, then might we not infer that Elei belonged to Uther?  In other words, Mabon was the servant of Uther at Elei.  If this is not what is meant, then it if difficult to explain why it was felt necessary to tell us that Mabon was Uther's servant.

So what, exactly, is in Elei?  Well, there is the impressive Caerau hillfort (, an oppidum of the Silures tribe.  Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this site continued to be inhabited after the Roman invasion and consolidation of the region.

However, just south of Caerau and only a couple of kilometers from the Ely River is the Dinas Powys hillfort.  The story here is completely different.  We have ample evidence for early medieval use (  It "may have been established as late as the Roman period."

Now, of course, we have to be careful here.  Mabon is a god - not a human servant.  And the 'Pa Gur' is replete with battles against monsters and supernatural entities.  These contests range all over Britain, and so are quite fabulous in nature.  And it may well be that Uther himself is a fiction. What weight, therefore, can we place on an oblique reference pertaining to Uther's residing at Dinas Powys in Ely?

There is nothing in and of itself that is marvelous about Dinas Powys - other than the fact that it was occupied during the Arthurian period.  The real question becomes "Why would the poet have placed Uther there?"

One possible reason might be that the Cadoxton River runs at the eastern foot of the hillfort.  This stream bears the name of St. Cadog, whose late 11th century (?) VITA includes a story about Arthur.  Still, Arthur is nowhere in the Life said to be related to Cadog.  

It would appear the only thing that can be said about Uther at Dinas Powys is that at the time of the composing of the 'Pa Gur' a tradition many have existed which knew of this hillfort as the fortress of Arthur's father.  If this tradition is historically sound, then the 'Pa Gur' preserves the only extant notice of Uther's geographical whereabouts.

For a nice summary of the excavations at and theories regarding Dinas Powys, see

Dinas Powis has the same name as the medieval kingdom of Powys, the Roman-period Cornovia.  Should Arthur belong to Dinas Powis, this could account for the insistence in Welsh tradition that he belonged to Cornwall (Kernyw), as Cornovia (and the tribal name Cornovii) contains the same Kernyw.  More probably, Dinas Powis means simply 'Fort of the Pagans'.

In a recent article, I hinted at the possibility that Eliwlad son of Madog son of Uther could be from Elei-wlad, 'Prince of Elei.'  Right now I'm checking with the language experts to see if this is allowable from the linguistic perspective.  

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