Primal beings of the landscape; monsters, allies and Kings of Britain. Giants and giant figures populate the stories of Britain from the oldest of times.
The Giants With Us by Lorna
‘Brutus! There lies beyond the Gallic bounds An island which the Western sea surrounds, By giants once possessed, now few remain To bar thy entrance or obstruct thy reign’ Geoffrey of Monmouth
Giants appear in many world myths. In Indo-European mythology we find a common theme: they are primordial beings who are killed or restrained, then replaced, by the gods of culture. In the Hindu and Norse myths a giant (Purusa/Ymir) is slain and dismembered by the gods and the world is created from his body. The Titans of Greek mythology are overthrown and imprisoned in Tartarus by the Olympian gods. In Irish mythology, the Formorians (from fo ‘under’ and mór ‘great’ or ‘big’: ‘underworld giants’) are subdued and displaced by the Tuatha Dé Danann.
We find similar narratives in British mythology. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, when Brutus arrives in Albion (Britain) it is ‘inhabited by none but a few giants’. Brutus and his company force the giants into mountain caves so they can till the ground and build houses. The giants unsurprisingly rebel. Led by Goemagot (a giant ‘in stature twelve cubits, and of such prodigious strength that at one shake he pulled up an oak as if it had been a hazel wand’) twenty giants make a ‘dreadful slaughter’ of Brutus and his company. The Britons in turn massacre all the giants but Goemagot, who is kept alive to wrestle Corineus. After the giant has broken three of Corineus’ ribs, the warrior snatches the giant onto his shoulders, runs with him, and hurls him into the sea where his body is torn apart on craggy rocks. The place where he fell is called Lam Goemagot, ‘Goemagot’s Leap’.
Albion is the oldest name for Britain. It is attested by Classical writers such as Pliny the Elder (1AD) and Ptolemy (2AD). In the writings of William Blake, Albion appears as a giant personifying Britain whose fall results in the division of the Four Zoas: Urizen (head/air), Luvah (heart/fire), Tharmas (water/the body), and Urthona (earth/the loins). I have often wondered whether Blake, as a visionary poet, tapped into an ancient British creation myth similar to the dismemberment of the primordial giant underlying Albion being inhabited by giants.
In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion the central characters are giants: Brân, ‘Blessed Raven’, and his sister, Branwen, ‘White Raven’. Brân and Branwen are the children of the sea-god Llyr and their mother is either Penarddun, ‘Chief Beauty’, or Iwerydd, ‘Atlantic’. Brân is King of Britain and Branwen marries Matholwch, King of Ireland, showing their connections with sovereignty.
We know Brân is a giant because he ‘has never been able to fit inside a house’. From this we might infer that Branwen is a giantess. However, her marriage to Matholwch, during which she is forced to work in his scullery, suggests she is not as large as Brân. When Brân goes to war with Matholwch for mistreating Branwen we receive further intimations of his size. Crossing the Irish sea he is described as ‘a huge mountain... moving... a very high ridge on the side of the mountain, and a lake on each side of the ridge’. Brân is the mountain, the ridge his nose, and the lakes his eyes. He is tall enough for his body to form a bridge across the river Liffey.
Another important pair of characters are also giants: Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymidei Cymeinfoll. Llasar is described as ‘a large man with yellow red hair... huge, monstrous... with an evil look about him’. Cymidei is ‘twice his size’. They emerge from a lake in Ireland, Llasar carrying a cauldron on his back. Matholwch takes them in. Because of their prodigious production of offspring (a fully armed warrior each month and a fortnight!) who insult, harass, and torment the nobles, the Irish people devise a way of killing them. They build an iron chamber, lure the giants in with food and drink, then set fire to charcoal incinerating all except Llasar and Cymidei. The pair escape to Britain where they are welcomed by Brân. Brân allows them to populate the British landscape. This might be seen as a foundation legend for the numerous landmarks associated with giants known today.
Llasar and Cymidei gives the cauldron and Brân. Brân gives it to Matholwch who ironically uses it during the battle against the Britons to resurrect his dead Irish soldiers. Brân triumphs narrowly over the speechless ranks, but is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear in his foot. He asks the seven survivors of his army to cut off his head and bear it back to Britain where they bury it under White Hill to protect the island. Branwen dies of a broken heart and is buried in a ‘four-sided grave... on the banks of the Alaw’. Bedd Branwen, ‘Branwen’s Grave’ can be found at Llanddeusant beside the Alaw on Anglesey. Whilst Brân is away fighting, his son, Caradog, is murdered by Caswallon ap Beli who seizes the throne, which is later passed on to his brother, Lludd. This story shows the descendants of Beli (culture gods) replacing the descendants of Llyr (primordial giants/gods of the sea) as rulers of Britain.
Later Arthur digs up Brân’s head because he cannot not bear the thought of any other being defending Britain except for him. Arthur is Britain’s giant slayer par excellence. He slaughters the giant of St Michael’s Mount and Rhitta Gawr, and orders his men to kill Diwrnarch Gawr, Dillus Farfog, and Ysbaddaden Bencawr. His son, Llachau/Lohot, kills a giant called Logrin. These stories form part of the destructive process through which Arthur and his supporters kill and subordinate the primal and otherworldly deities of Britain and assert his rulership as a human culture hero and king.
Unfortunately many of our giant sites are associated with stories of how their gargantuan inhabitants meet their end. An example is Maelor Gawr, whose abode is Pen Dinas, ‘Head of the Citadel’, or Dinas Maelor, ‘Maelor’s Citadel’, an Iron Age hill fort site south of Aberystwyth. For reasons unknown Maelor is captured in Cyfeiliog and sentenced to death. He asks his enemies a final request: to blow on his horn three times. The horn is so loud and forceful that on the first blow his hair and beard fall out, on the second his finger and toenails fall off, and on the third the horn blasts apart and crumbles into pieces. Maelor’s son, Cornippyn, hears the horn whilst hunting. He sets off to rescue his father so fast he tears the head off his hound. He spurs his horse on in one leap over the river Ystwyth and is slain during his attack on Maelor’s captors. His headless hound still haunts the locality...
St Collen slaughtered a giantess named Cares y Bwlch (‘Girlfriend of the Gap/Pass’) at Bwlch Rhiwfelen. Cares was a flesh-eating giant who lived in the pass and terrorised the people of Rhysfa Maes Cadfarch. Collen went there with his sword at the ready and demanded she appear to him. During their battle he sliced off her right arm and the unfazed giantess picked it back up and beat him with it (!). Collen then managed to slice off her left arm and kill her. Afterward he washed his sword in the well now dedicated to him. Rhysfa Maes Cadfarch became known as Llangollen.
Landmarks associated with giants can be found across Britain particularly in hilly and mountainous locations. Cadair Idris is named after the giant Idris who holds his seat on this haunting and formidable mountaintop. The giantess Melangell sleeps on a ‘Giant’s Bed’ at Pennant Melangell. The Rhuddgaer stones crossing Afon Braint are known as ‘Giant’s Stepping Stones’. The ‘Giant’s Stone’ in Turton was thrown by a giant from Winter Hill. Stonehenge was built by giants and is known as ‘The Giants’ Dance’. Prehistoric burial chambers are frequently identified as ‘Giant’s Graves’. Ancient fortresses, such as Dinas Maelor and Caer Eini, are the abodes of giants. Giants may be killed, but they cannot be erased from living memory. From the depths of the dreaming land they speak to us as world shapers emerging from the underworld and dying into their graves. Giants are with us, living and dead. From the beginning of the world they have been here as the shifting forces of its primordial geology and they will still be here watching over the world from their mountainous seats when our culture has vanished.
The Sleeping Giant of Cribarth by Rod
This summer I went to visit some sites in the upper Tawe Valley in South Wales. I was interested in following up some hints left by a druid about the Valley of the Ancients – “the most holy pagan site in Wales” . The valley entrance is guarded by the rather amazing sleeping giant of Cribarth (from the middle of the A4067).
If you can’t immediately see the figure, he is lying on his back along the hill top, his head (darkened by cloud) to the left and body sloping down to the right. I could have passed it a hundred times without seeing it, but now I can never miss it. The power of the landscape! According to local folklore, the giant will awaken from his slumber and come to the aid of his people in their time of greatest need.  The druid who wrote about it says that the giant is called Yscydion, and he lies sleeping waiting for the call of King Arthur’s return. But there also seems to be a competing claim, that the giant was called Cribwr.
Both giants are mentioned in the 17th Century book by Sion Dafydd Rhys, The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings . The story of Yscydion is short, and seems to indicate that he was located in North Wales near Dolgellau:
“…in the same parish (Dolgelly) is a mountain called Moel Yscydion. And in this mountain was the abode of a great giant called Yscydion Gawr and from his name that hill was called Moel Yscydion.”
The tale of Cribwr is more interesting: “In the country of Morgannwg was Cribwr Grawr in Castell Cefn Cribwr by Llan Gewydd. Arthur killed three sisters of Cribwr by treachery. Because Arthur nicknamed him(self) Hot Pottage to the first sister, and Warm Porridge to the second sister (so the tale runs), and a Morsel of Bread to the third, and when the first sister called for help against Hot Pottage Cribwr answered: Wench, let him cool; and in the same manner he answered the second sister, when she sought assistance against Warm Porridge. And the third sister called out that the Morsel of Bread was choking her; and to this he answered, Wench, take a smaller piece. And when Cribwr reproached Arthur for killing his sisters Arthur replied by an englyn milwr in this manner;
Cribwr take thy combs And cease with currish anger If I get a real chance—surely What they have had, thou shalt have too. No one could kill the three sisters together, so great was their strength, but singly by stealth Arthur killed them. And the place is still called after his name Cribarth, namely, Garth Cribwr Gawr.”
It seems that Cribwr is located in the right part of the country, although “Castell Cefn Cribwr by Llan Gewydd” looks to be someway south of Cribarth, in Bridgend. Whichever giant it is, the place is worth a visit, as is the valley of the ancients.
First posted on Singing Head, December 2nd 2015 About Rod: I’m working in the druid tradition, in a way that I hope is relevant to modern life. I respect our ancestors and the scholars who seek to understand their way of life, but I refuse to be bound by them: I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s. I believe that we can stand between tradition and necessity, at the centre of creation.
Two Giantesses: Moll and Melangell by Gwenno
ey say that Britain was once inhabited by giants . They were supposed to have gone away somewhere before people settled here. But I think they are still here. Sometimes there are stories about them as ogres or in the Mabinogion stories they are characters with names like Bran who has a brother and sister who are not giants as the story is told. Or Ysbadadden who is called ‘chief giant’ but has a daughter called Olwen who is not called a giant. Lots of giant stories have beautiful daughters in them. I think that these stories hide the fact that not all giants are big and nasty. And not all of them are male. Some are not big at all or can’t be seen. But they are there keeping to themselves. That’s my feeling. I can’t prove it so I won’t try to present any evidence for that here. But I will write about two female giants who do have stories recorded about them and who I have tried to find out about and who I have felt to be around when I have been out and about in their territory.
Moll is a giant of the Welsh borders. There was a standing stone in the village of Llowes in Radnorshire called ‘Moll Wallbee’s Stone’ after her. It’s now in the church in Painscastle and a cross has been carved on it , maybe to banish her. Not far away in Hay on Wye is a small castle which she built in one night according to legend. But now she is about on the hills further north, west of the border up as far as Radnor Forest. She is an outcast and doesn’t want anything to do with humans. But up on the hilltops it’s still quiet and she is at home, keeping herself to herself. Back in the days when she built the castle she was more sociable and had a husband who was also a giant, but it seems he lived further up in Painscastle. I got a bit of a whiff of him when I visited the old earthen banks of the ruin there. They say he carried off young women and he was killed when one was being rescued from his castle . But maybe that’s the sort of thing they say about anyone they think is uncivilized. Anyway he doesn’t seem to be around any more, unlike Moll up on the hills.
The story of Melangell and the hare was one I knew when I was small. But I didn’t think much more about until I heard she might have been a giant too. I took up the suggestion that I should visit the valley in North Wales where she hid away and where she was supposed to have hidden a hare under her frock from a hunter. A one-track road goes up the valley from the village and there are high cliffs on both sides. The road only goes to the old church of St Melangell and after that it’s just a path to more cliffs so you can’t get through. There is a circle of ancient yew trees all around it and some Bronze Age remains.
Inside the church there is a large rib which might be from a whale but it is called ‘the giant’s rib’. Outside there is a stone like a big flat bowl called ‘the giant’s bed’. I think the story making her a saint must be a recent one. She has been in that valley for a long time and you can still feel her there. The folklore that a female giant lived in the valley and the story of Melangell living there just seem to be the same story except that one is more of a story while the other one is about someone or something living in the valley. Lots of things have been written and there may be something in them. But I just listened and heard her. Not speaking to me directly because I don’t think giants speak to humans. But she was there. Keeping herself to herself.
CARES Y BWLCH by Lorna
They say I ate the flesh of men, cursed me although they eat the flesh of my land. Although they grind its bones to make their bread, they denied and cursed my millstones.
They were so terrified of disappearing into the gap of my mouth they stopped riding through the pass and called for a saint.
Collen puffed up with the wind of the Holy Ghost fancying he’d banished Gwyn ap Nudd came with Bible, holy water and sword up hillock past stones and sheep
voice made big with conceit demanding I take some human-like form like the image in which he’d fixed his God. So I loomed earth-flesh tall, a single unblinking eye,
confronted him with little human-like words: rocks bouncing down a precipice, rolling against the teeth of the gap.
Collen had a comeback for each. Swollen with self-importance he threw his inflated robed form (stale with odours) into the assault. Such saintly glee
as he severed the right arm of an unarmed giantess in a flesh slicing, tendon snagging, bone splitting blow. I retrieved the limb hand gripping wrist.
Hand gripping wrist. (My living body will not be dismembered). I beat him bloody wanted to drown him in woman-knowledge. He surfaced from the red sea with a thank you
that slashed off my left arm. Then he cut off my head and left my torso standing on two knees sunken into stone. His triumph was short-lived.
Trembling within four walls of his chapel he could not escape my breath, the knowledge his time to pass through the gap
of my mouth would come. When they lowered him into his grave I wrapped my arms around him. My fingers gripped his throat.
In a post on the Brython blog, Robin Herne shared his poem, ‘Gwynn’s Guest’, which retells the story of the supposed banishing of the Fairy King from Glastonbury Tor by St Collen. Robin later suggested I retell Collen’s later slaughter of the giantess, Cares y Bwlch (‘Girlfriend of the Gap’). This poem resulted.
As a bit of background: after leaving Glastonbury, Collen travelled to North-East Wales, where he learnt that Cares y Bwlch, the flesh-eating giantess of the mountain pass, Bwlch Rhiwfelen, was terrorising local people. Collen commanded Cares to appear to him, battled against her and sliced off her right arm. The dauntless giantess, unfazed, picked it up and beat the ‘saint’ with it. He then sliced off her left arm and slaughtered her. Afterward, he washed his sword in St Collen’s Well, making it holy (Robin pointed out it was holy beforehand…). Collen died in Llangollen, which was named after him.