Annwn: The British Underworld

Updated on April 4, 2017
Chris Pinard profile image

My primary interests center around the folklore, customs, history, and mythology of the Celts, the Germanic speaking peoples, and the Slavs.

Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed

Annwn is known as the Welsh or British underworld. It is the abode of the dead that features most notably in the stories of the Mabinogion. Within the first branch of this prose tale (Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed), Annwn is given the most attention. Far from being a hellish residence, this world's appearance was strikingly similar to the world of the living. It featured castles, kings, and a landscape not unlike that of Wales of the period.

The plot of Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed begins with a hunting scene wherein Pwyll (King of Dyfed) unwittingly stumbles upon a deer slain by Arawn (Ruler of Annwn); however, he (Arawn) was not within sight. Pwyll only saw the otherworldly hounds next to the deer, and in haste, he made offence to Arawn by claiming the kill. In atonement for this deed, Pwyll was tasked with defeating the enemy of Arawn. This was completed with assistance by magical means, where Arawn and Pwyll exchange appearance, taking the form of the other. They looked so much alike that they assumed the lives of the other party for a year. At the end of this year, Pwyll defeated Arawn’s enemy through battle. During the year where they were transformed into each other’s likeness, Pwyll remained chaste. This earned Pwyll a debt of gratitude from Arawn. This part of the tale bears a striking similarity to the chasteness of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Within this tale, Gawain beheads an otherworldly man, not unlike the task appointed to Pwyll. It is possible that the Green Chapel of the tale might represent a Fairy Mound and entrance to the otherworld.

Pwyll Hunting
Pwyll Hunting

Brandon Daughter of Llyr

In Branwen Daughter of Llyr (Another branch of the Mabinogion), the British survivors of a battle in Ireland try to forget their sorrows by remaining in the otherworld. Here they stayed for years, letting the severed head of Bran the Blessed entertain them.

Etymologically speaking, the word Annwn is thought to mean “Un-world.” Annwn, also spelled Annwfn is thought to derive from the word dfwn, which means “deep.” So it is also possible that it means “deep place” which may be a figurative way of alluding to placing the dead “deep” into the ground. Scholars such as John Koch have noted that it is likely that the Gaulish phrase Andounnabo “To the underworld spirits” is referencing Annwn.

Spoils of Annwn

Annwn also features prominently within Arthurian Legend, most notably in the Preiddiau Annwfn (Spoils of Annwn). Within this tale, Arthur makes a seaborne raid against the Caer Sidi, otherwise known as the fairy fortress. This quest was conducted in search of a magical cauldron that would quickly boil the food of a brave man, but would never boil the food of a coward. A similar cauldron can be located within the Second Branch of the Mabinogi (Culhwch and Olwen).

The Welsh epic poem Cad Goddeu also makes mention of Annwn. This poem details the battle between the forces of Annwn (led by Arawn) and those of Gwynedd. The war began due to an offence made by Amaethon. He stole a dog, bird, and deer from Annwn. A whole host of beings are led out of Annwn who are characterized as being enormous and multi-headed with hundreds of claws. This army is repelled largely due to the efforts of Gwydion (a Welsh magician). After giving the trees the mobility to fight, they make gains against the ghoulish army. Eventually, Gwydion guessed the name of the hero of the opposing forces correctly, thus ending the battle.

Gwyn Ap Nudd

In later times it appears that the leadership of Annwn was transferred to another figure who went by the name of Gwyn Ap Nudd. He was known as the ruler of the Tylwth Teg (Fair Folk) and was the king of Annwn. His name translates to “White Son of Nudd.” White was a common otherworldly color that can be located in the earlier referenced Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed. It was the primary color of the hounds of Annwn. Gwyn is also known for leading the British version of the Wild Hunt. In other areas of Europe other psychopompic figures such as Odin lead this march. Gwyn is featured in The Life of Saint Collen, wherein he is banished from the Glastonbury Tor by the saint. This tad bit of information is intriguing. Glastonbury is also associated with the otherworldly location of Avalon. Within the genealogy of the Welsh Gods, Gwyn falls into the House of Don, as the grandson of Beli through his father Nudd (also likely named Lludd). Being that no genealogical information is provided for Arawn in the Mabinogion, it is possible that Gwyn Ap Nudd is an epithet of Arawn?

The island location of the land of the dead fits in nicely with what we know of Celtic beliefs from the classical sources. Procopius of Caesarea states that the Celtic land of the dead lay to the west of Britain. Anatole Le Braz only further evidences this fact when he makes mention to modern folk belief where the souls of the departed make their way to the western shores of Brittany to begin their journey to the lands of the dead.

Avalon

Avalon may also be thought of as a later reflection of Annwn. Like Avalon, Annwn was thought at times to be an island. It was titled “Isle of Apples” or “Isle of the Blessed. Sources indicate that Arthur was taken to Avalon to heal. Although with the Celtic concept of transmigration of the soul, it is possible that this really may have been a reference to his soul moving to a new body. In the 12th century Gerald of Wales directly associated Avalon with the Glastonbury Tor.

Possible further evidence of this Avalonian connection comes from William of Malmesbury who happens to mention that Avalloc was the ruler of Avalon and lived there with his nine daughters. He is also mentioned in Arthurian lore as being the father of the Modron (A celtic goddess). This not only links this Arthurian lore with preexisting Celtic mythology. The Harleian MS 3958 further strengthens these mythological origins by tracing the genealogy of Afallach to Beli Mawr. However, Afallach was also noted as being a historical figure who ruled around 45BC. His land was given the title Ynys Afallach or “The island of Afallach/Avalon. This does not directly correspond to the area of north Wales where he was said to rule, as no islands are featured in the area. From what can be surmised from mythological lore, it is possible that he was the son of Lludd or Beli. If this is indeed the case, we have even further connection to Gwynn Ap Nudd and theoretically Arawn. However, this connection is debatable.

Concluding Thoughts

While welsh mythology and legend speak favorably of Annwn in early texts, as time passed on and Christianity began to further become cemented in the minds of the common folk, references to this otherworld become fewer and darker in tone. Thankfully this lore has been preserved and it remains a testament to the legacy of the Celts.

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