all right, fellow newts, axolotls, mud-puppies and salamanders, i’ve been splodging about in the mud and stirring up the muck and what i haven’t found there is nobody’s business. but i specially wanted to bring up today was the rhonabwy issue, in which we question deeply the assumption that the romans civilised the celts by taking education to them.
the story briefly is as follows (but i recommend you read it for yourself, as i’m only giving it to you in a nutshell, and i do contend that they haven’t the foggiest notion how old the story is, and i lay pounds to sardines it’s pre-roman and you’ll see why as the tale unfolds):
madawg ruled powys, which annoyed his brother iorwerth, who flounced off in a fit of pique to ravage england. madawg sent men after him and among these was a lad named rhonabwy who, with a few companions went to the house of heilyn which was an ivied courtyard and house with cows and an old hag tending a smoky fire inside, and a yellow ox-skin on a platform at one end. other residents came and went.
the food was indifferent and the beds abysmal, and during the night rhonabwy gets up and goes to sleep on the ox-skin. this being a magic ox-skin, he dreamed of seeing and hearing and walking and talking with the great heroes of the past, all brought to life again for him by the magic of the ox-skin.
look there’s mobs more – it was a very intricate dream, and included descriptions of the colours and accoutrements of the heroes too rich in fine detail for anyone to remember unaided. but the bit i want to talk about is the bit in italics up there, in particular, this house of heilyn and what went on there.
but first, what possessed several members of a military unit with commands from the king to scamper off to spend a night there? well, you’ll be relieved to know that they didn’t. most of them weren’t even part of that outfit, in fact only rhonabwy was, and this fine upstanding welshmen slept with his comrades at arms just as you’d expect in true military style, whatever that was back then.
what we’re witnessing here is a device commonly used in very ancient tales (helping to confirm that it is very old) of announcing noble characters with a brief or lengthy aside on their lineage and/or up-bringing, or at least excerpts therefrom.
in those days, everyone expected it so it wasn’t necessary to give warning, but these days the bit that says:
these men were quartered in didlystwn… and one of their number was rhonabwy. rhonabwy and (friends) came to seek shelter at the house of heilyn…
these men were quartered in didlystwn… and one of their number was rhonabwy*. they sought iorwerth…
and so on to the end of the account of their search for iorwerth. but the rest of that is missing, as far as i know. only the bit in unannounced parentheses is left
so to reconstruct it, you have only that among the soldiers on a mission the outcome of which is not recorded, was a man named rhonabwy, of whom is remembered the following: that once (we’re not told when) with several companions he went to the house of heilyn.
heilyn isn’t a name, but means a hellene – no errol, not the greek sort; there were hellenes all over the world, like frogs round a pond, as they said themselves, and also in wales, and anyway, maybe this story didn’t originate in wales, it might have just fetched up there after wandering all over france, spane, denmark or anywhere, all the way to hell and back, (good lord, lad, there are helsinkis, helvetias, helgas and helmuts and some of them are places and some of them are people and think, boy, think girl, use your brains, you have perfectly good ones, you won’t wear them out by using them!!!!) – a person in charge of or associated with a hell, called a hall in english. this was an iron-age boarding school. that’s a bulky sentence, a bit run-on in places, but wrestle with it, earthlings, you’ll work it out.
how do i know that, elizabeth, that it was a boarding school? not hard! read the description of the food and conditions. awful food, dreadful beds, cows in the courtyard and slimy dung and cow-piss up to your ankles, and now and then someone wet the bed or worse and you had to put up with the stink till you could rub his face in it next morning, damn his eyes and a pox upon him!!!!! you’d expect to see molesworth himself there, and his brother, and fotheringham thomas and all.
get hermeneutic, ye swabs!
this particular heilyn was an elderly educated woman, in possession of a yellow ox-skin (parchment) book. rhonabwy did not lie down upon this book, he leaned over it; and he did not dream as one asleep, but as he learned to read over the course of the years of his boyhood education, he learned to picture in his mind as if in a dream the things described in the writing within it.
then follows snippets of what rhonabwy learnt from that book – just what the teller could recall of course – the details are missing, and rhonabwy is walking around within the landscape depicted in the book as if somewhere, and it’s not clear where, it is forgotten that it was a book, and the myth(take) arises that it was a dream magically produced by sleeping on the skin of an ox.
accounts of animal skins being consulted on matters of history and genealogy can be found in classical, biblical and celtic texts and histories, and all of them can be clearly seen to be accounts of ancient reading. and yes, even the romans could read and write. they make no secret of the fact that they employed celts to educate their youth.
á propos of which, let’s finish with a word from ms mólodji, our word-beast. etty, dear…?
oh, yes, ahem, thank you hermie.
edda. ode (remember to pronounce both syllables). –oides, idea. things like that – you’ll think of a few more i’m sure.
now here’s an interesting one: oideachas. it’s irish, and means education. i see traces of an old oide with the plural ending –acha attached, and then the –s added that makes it a noun.
now, if you took this wordto rome, how would they spell it? educas. well, no, EDUCAS, rather, because they used roman letters. not uncials (an + cials/cells/kells – the colonies of the celts).
but they would soon give it latin endings and it would become educare, which is the verb for to educate, and of course they’ve got it terribly confused with educere, which means to lead out or away, and have had to invent that terrible metaphor to explain it, when all they have to do is admit they got it, along with the thing it denotes, from the goidelics, although there’s no reason to assume they were living in ireland at the time…
* of rhonabwy it was recorded he as a lad and (friends) went to the house of heilyn…and the whole rest of the surviving tale all the way to when he woke up.