Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aneurin

ANEURIN (fl. 603?) was a Welsh poet, about whose life little is known, and whose very date has been a matter of dispute. The few data which can be relied upon are found mainly in his poem of the 'Gododin,' the longest and most important composition in early Welsh literature, and even these have been very differently interpreted, generally with the object of supporting some preconceived theory of Welsh history.

The generally received account of Aneurins life is shortly as follows: He was the son of Caw ab Geraint, lord of Cwm Cawlwyd, a chief of the Otadini or Gododin, a tribe occupying the sea coast south of the Firth of Forth, lying between the walls of Septimius Severus and Antoninus Pius. Caw is represented as the father of a large family, variously given from ten to twenty-one sons, among whose names appears that of Gildas; but in those manuscripts in which the name of Gildas appears, that of Aneurin does not, and conversely when Aneurin's name is given Gildas's is not, and this circumstance has given rise to the theory that Aneurin and Gildas, the British historian, were identical. The integral evidence of the 'Gododin' and of the writings of Gildas seems sufficiently to refute this supposition. To quote Mr. Stephens: 'Gildas was a preacher of the Gospel: Aneurin was an odd compound of Christianity and paganism. … The one was a virulent and bigoted monk, who delighted in reviling his countrymen; the other, without palliating the drunkenness which led to their defeat at Cattraeth, extols the bravery which half redeems their character. … The one makes no allusion to the battle of Cattraeth, though it was one of the turning-points in the life of the other.’ Mr. Stephens then proceeds to propose the theory that Aneurin was the son of Gildas. His arguments may be shortly stated as follows: Gildas is sometimes called Euryn y Coed Aur; now Euryn and Gildas are words of similar meaning, being connected respectively with aurum and gold, and Gildas was probably intended as a translation of Euryn. Again, the prefix An is a patronymic, and Aneurin thus means ‘the son of Euryn,’ that is of Gildas. Further, Gildas states that he was born in the year of the battle of the Mons Badonicus, A.D. 516, and thus might well have had a son present at Cattraeth, in A.D. 603. Mr. Stephens supports his theory with characteristic thoroughness and minute care, but it may perhaps be doubted whether the data at our command are sufficient to enable us to form any such theories with any degree of confidence. Aneurin appears to have been educated at St. Cadoc's College at Llancarvan, and afterwards to have entered the bardic order. From his own statements in the ‘Gododin’ he seems to have been present at Cattraeth both as bard and as priest. He fled from the battle, but was taken prisoner, and in his poem he describes the hardships he underwent when in captivity; but he appears to have been soon released by Ceneu, the son of Llywarch Hen, whom he gratefully commemorates. Aneurin now returned to Wales and went again to Llancarvan, where it probably was that he made the acquaintance and secured the friendship of Taliesin, a friendship commemorated by both poets. In his old age he revisited the north, and lived with his brother Nwython in Galloway. Aneurin's death is mentioned in the Triads as one of the ‘three accursed hatchet-strokes of the isle of Britain,’ he having been murdered by Eidyn ab Einygan, of whom nothing else is known.

The ‘Gododin’ may be described as an epic poem relating the defeat of the Britons of Strathclyde by the Saxons at the battle of Cattraeth; a defeat ascribed by Aneurin to drunkenness on the part of the British troops:—

    The heroes marched to Cattraeth, loquacious was the host;
    Blue mead was their drink and proved their poison, &c.

In its present form the ‘Gododin’ contains more than 900 lines, but is obviously not a complete whole, and is probably interpolated. The language is very obscure, and many passages lend themselves to various interpretations. It is impossible to construct from its vague and poetical diction a consistent or satisfactory narrative of the British defeat, and it may perhaps be doubted whether the subject of the poem is not in truth a compression into a single battle of the long and disastrous struggle of the British inhabitants of the island with their more powerful invaders.

Edward Davies, in his ‘Mythology and Rites of the British Druids,’ broached the theory that the subject of the ‘Gododin’ is the massacre of the Britons at Stonehenge, A.D. 472, asserting that Cattraeth is not the name of a place, but a contraction of Cadeiriaeth, ‘the language of the chair’ of bardism, figuratively used for the temple at Stonehenge, and that Gododin is a compound of Godo, ‘a partial covering,’ and din, ‘a fortification,’ and further that Aneurin uses Gododin and Cattraeth as convertible terms; but this theory is capable of easy refutation and has found no supporters, and does not call for further discussion here.

The late Mr. Thomas Stephens, after an elaborate examination of the poem, assigns the battle of Cattraeth to the year 603, identifying it with the battle of Degsastan or Degstan, recorded in that year in the Saxon Chronicle. Degstan he assumes to be the same as Sigstan, a place to the west of Catterick, which he identifies with Cattraeth.

Besides the ‘Gododin’ Aneurin is also the reputed author of a poem in twelve stanzas, entitled ‘Englynion y Misoedd,’ or ‘Stanzas on the Months.’

The ‘Gododin’ was first printed entire in the ‘Myvyrian Archaiology’ of Owen Jones, but a few stanzas had been given, with a Latin translation, in Evan Evans's ‘Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards,’ 1764, and again in Edward Jones's ‘Relics of the Welsh Bards,’ 1784. In 1852 the Rev. John Williams ab Ithel published the whole poem, with an English version and notes; and in 1866 the Welsh text, with a translation by the Rev. D. Silvan Evans, was printed in Mr. W. F. Skene's ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales.’ The Cymmrodorion Society are now publishing a new edition of the ‘Gododin,’ with introductions, translation, and notes, by the late Mr. Thomas Stephens of Merthyr-Tydfil.

[Parry's Cambrian Plutarch; Sharon Turner's Vindication of the Genuineness of the Ancient British Poems; Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales; Stephens's edition of the Gododin.]

A. M.