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January 23, 2003

The Gododdin

The Gododdin were a Brythonic tribe living in the region of what is now Edinburgh remembered chiefly for a disastrous cavalry raid to Catraeth (Catterick) around the year A.D. 600. Their glorious defeat - a recurring Celtic trope - was recorded in an epic poem by Aneirin, perhaps the only survivor of the raid.

I first came across Gododdin more than ten years ago through Brith Gof and Test Department, two performance-art ensembles who staged a musical interpretation of the poem in an abandoned car factory in Cardiff. I came across this performance again through Theatre/Archaeology, a book by Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks. Shanks is an archaeologist whose work incorporates interesting ideas about photography and landscape while Pearson was a member of Brith Gof who is currently a professor of performance studies but trained as an archaeologist.

The poem found its way to me again this morning when I came across Kenneth Jackson's 1969 translation and interpretation. This appears to be the edition used by Test Department and Brith Gof to stage the piece:

"The uprising of warriors, they gathered together, together with single purpose they attacked; short were their lives, long the grief for them among their kinsmen; they slew seven times as many of the English. In battle they made women widows, and many a mother with tears at her eyelids."

Jackson's translation is sub-titled: "the oldest Scottish poem," a claim he defends by pointing out it was probably first written in a region which is part of contemporary Scotland. The Gododdin were, however, speakers of a form of proto-Welsh and it is in Wales that the epic poem has been preserved. Muddled claims to "ownership" of mythical figures are common. I had to turn off Disney's version of the Arthur story when the film claimed the rightful owner of Excalibur (Calinburn to the Welsh) would be "king of all of England." This irritated me even more than Kevin Costner's on-again, off-again American accent as Robin Hood. Regardless of the mythic or historic truth of the Arthur legends he was a Brythonic war-leader attempting to fight off the invading English. Disney's error may be the simple conflation of England with Britain or reflect an underlying appropriation of the hero by the conquerors. The same phenomenon later happens to the English (in their proto-English manifestation as Angles, Saxons and Jutes) when their resistance-leader Robin Hood is appropriated in the romances popular with the descendants of Norman aristocracy.

Even so, there is a factor which makes it hard to knit-pick over this sort of detail: the historical accuracy of the Gododdin epic. The poem makes much of the personal valour of the participants in the massacre at Catraeth but does little to place the conflict in context.

"Three hundred men hastened forth, wearing gold torques, defending the land - and there was slaughter. Though they were slain they slew, and they shall be honoured till the end of the world; and of all us kinsmen who went, alas, but for one man none escaped."

I can readily imagine my anscestors getting liquored up and charging off to fight 600 against 100,000 in certain knowledge of defeat. The idea of there being a sole-surviving poet, however, strikes me as meeting the technical anthropological criteria of "bullshit." Aneirin probably never had to buy another beer in has life after his glorious failure. A Welsh friend of mine once imagined a scenario where each of us would have tried the same beer-related bardic strategy only to run across each other in some dark ages pub. "You're the last survivor of Catraeth? That guy over there said he was the only survivor of Catraeth..." Some quick thinking would ensue: "Hey buddy! I had no idea you made it!"

Posted by Ghost of a flea at January 23, 2003 02:28 PM