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Triads and the Mabinogi

Triad, plur. Trioedd. A set of three items, usually people or events, briefly listed in three lines, to aid the memory of a poet in making a poem.

MAIN SOURCE 'TYP' Bromwich, Rachel, Trioedd Ynys Prydain: The Welsh Triads, Y Traddodiad Rhyddiaith Yn Yr Oesau Canol, 2nd edn (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006 [1961])
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These Triads contain names of Mabinogi characters. Numbers on left are from TYP.

# 8 Manawydan ‘lledyf’ (Humble Chieftains) Early verson, TYP pp. 15-16.
# 13 Caradawc (Stewards) Early verson, TYP pp. 25 -27.
# 16 Not Mab. though names a Pryderi Early verson, TYP p.31 p.31.
# 26 Pryderi, Pendaran (swine; Henwen parallels) Early verson, TYP pp. 50-58.
# 27 Math (Enchanter) Early verson, TYP pp. 59-60.
# 28 Math, Gwydion ((Enchantment) Early verson, TYP pp. 61-62.
# 30 Goronwy (Disloyal warband) Early verson, TYP pp. 66-69.
# 35 Arianrhod, Caswallawn (Levies) Early verson, TYP pp. 81-89.
# 37 Bendigeidfran (Concealments) Early verson, TYP pp. 94-102.
# 38 Caswallawn (Horse owner) Early verson, TYP pp. 103-104.
# 52 Mabon (Prisoner) Ll. Gwyn, Coch MSS TYP pp. 146-49.
# 53 Branwen (Blows) Ll. Gwyn, Coch MSS, TYP pp. 146-49.
# 67 Manawydan, Lleu (Gold/noble shoemakers) Ll. Gwyn, Coch MSS, TYP pp. 185-88.
# 78 Arianrhod (Fair royal ladies) Later MSS, TYP p. 208.
# Implicit ‘rieni’ Branwen (Arianrhod, Rhiannon) Not in TYP. pp. 161-62 under Triad 56.
# 95 Branwen (Broken hearts) Later MSS, TYP p. 242.

CHARACTERS LIST Arianrhod (35, 78), Bendigeidfran (37), Branwen (Implicit, 53, 95), Caradawc (13), Caswallawn (35, 38), Goronwy (30), Gwydion (28), Lleu (67), (Mabon, 52), Manawydan (8, 67), Math (27, 28), Pendaran (26), Pryderi (26), Pwyll (26).

In the account below numbers in [square brackets] refer to a Branch, e.g. [1] = First Branch.


What has survived is a mixed bag only partly matching prominent characters of the Mabinogi.

Pryderi [4] seems a good match as Triad 26 is the ‘longest and most informative’, just as Pryderi is the most persistent Mabinogi character through all four Branches. However this Triad relates only to Pryderi’s death episode, while not actually referring to it, only the pigs at the heart of it. There is no mention of Pryderi’s birth, childhood [1], his fame as a war leader [1, 2] and his captivity [3], though these narratives may have appeared in Triads not extant.
The Triad makes the gift of Annwfn pigs to Pryderi’s stepfather Pendaran. This is not a time clash as the relationship would have lasted into Pryderi’s adult life (cf. Teyrnon and his wife’s expectations [1] that their hopes as foster parents would too). One version of the Triad adds there were seven pigs, a number not given in the Mabinogi.
Pryderi does of course refer to Triad 8 in [3], see below under Manawydan.
There is a detailed tale in this Triad about Henwen, a mythic nomadic sow who travels across South Wales and up to Gwynedd. She traces Pryderi’s childhood journey from Gwent to Dyfed as he returns to his birth family. The Triad points up the Pryderi link via the valuable nature of pigs. Henwen leaves gifts for each region with bounty but her fruitful, positive gifts are to the two Southern realms while the North receives only predators. Pryderi is also a great hero of the South, suggesting a southern bias by this Triad lorekeeper.
Interestingly, Henwen and her human companion Coll, were originally the primary part of the Triad, later dislodged by the Pryderi section moving up.
Pwyll [1] who is such a sustained Mabinogi protagonist is not present except in Pryderi’s patronymic in Triad 26.
Rhiannon has no explicit Triad presence at all. She may be there as an archaic background. Branwen is twice acclaimed as trydydd prif rieni yn yr ynys hon (PKM 31.1) marking three elite queens of Britain. The other two are not named, but may well be Rhiannon and Arianrhod, as Ifor Willaims suggested. (PKM p. 26). Branwen’s accolade thus looks like a lost Triad, and Bromwich aligns it as an older version of Triad 56 which survives in Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch. That Triad 56 lists three ‘Gwenhwyfars’ which may mean three sisters or even a polygamous Arthur. But it could be a later substitution for tri rieni. Bromwich favours rieni as riein, ‘queen’ not ‘ancestress’.
Manawydan [3] has a matching presence Triad 8 as in the Mabinogi he decides not to pursue his claims to the British throne. The term lledyf is trans. ‘humble’, ‘ungrasping’, and also means ‘prone’ as in lying down, so it has a connotation of not ‘standing up to’ something. It might helpfully be translated ‘unambitious’. An apparent anachronism critique that Pryderi seems to refer to the Triad reputation of his friend can be explained. They have by now spent many years in retreat since the Irish War ended, giving plenty of time for Manawydan’s lack of challenge to his usurper to be known as his reputation, just as Pryderi says it is.
Manawydan also appears as a shoemaker in Triad 67, as in the Mabinogi further underlining his loss of status. The translation of eur, ‘golden’ has been linked to the materials used to make the shoes, or metaphorically to mean nobility.
Branwen [2] appears as a strong match. Triad 53 notes the ‘blows’ she receives as critically ‘unfortunate’ for Britain as seen in her Mabinogi tale where her appeal to her kingly brother sparks genocidal war. Triad 95 marks her broken heart, when she returns to Britain, grieves at her pivotal role in causing the war, and dies of that grief. She is also twice acclaimed by the implicit rieini Triad, described above under Rhiannon.
Bendigeidfran [2] her brother matches well in Triad 37, but only the episode of his post-mortem life as a wondrous Head. This episode is independent of the rest of the Branch, though it integrates well as the essential background to [3], both as postwar aftermath, and Pryderi’s friendship with Manawydan. Bendigeidfran’s main Mabinogi drama of leading the British forces is however not noted in the Triads we have.
His son Caradawc is featured as an important Steward or regent of Britain [2] Triad 13.
Math and Gwydion [4] are present as enchanters: Triad 17 Math alone; Triad 28 as Gwydion’s mentor in enchantment. There is no mention in what we have of Gwydion’s titanic struggle with Arianrhod, with his failed and fateful attempt to evade her ruling about her rejected son and his marriage.
Arianrhod [4] appears as an outstanding royal beauty in Triad 78. Another Triad 35 records a tradition not in the Mabinogi, where Arianrhod accompanies Caswallawn abroad against Caesar’s Romans. Possibly the wealth in silver ‘aran’ which the armies took away, identifies her with the expedition. Again, her epic power play with Gwydion is not in evidence.

The other three Triad connections are not very significant. Triad 30 accords with heroic values in condemning Goronwy’s warband [4] for not dying in place of their lord. Triad 67, the Golden Shoemakers, includes Lleu as well as Manawydan. Like Manawydan Lleu [4] was a noble who adopted shoemaking temporarily, though in his case it was a deception played on Arianrhod. The remaining Triad 52 refers to Mabon, not named in the Mabinogi, but found in Culhwch. Mabon has been linked with Pryderi as both were noble prisoners.


As noted at the start of this summary, the Triads listed above, while they do relate to Mabinogi characters, do not match them very closely. The lack of parallels for Pryderi’s detailed Mabinogi life story is notable as only his final death episode is in a Triad. Even then it is only the pigs which doomed him which feature, not his death story itself. The apparent omission of Pwyll and Rhiannon, and most of Bendigeidran’s and Arianrhod’s stories, is striking.
This might all be explained by historical accident. The Triads developed through oral tradition, ‘lore’, and much may have been lost before it could be written down. Against that we must recall the purpose of the Triads, which was precisely to help the bards remember lists of people and events. They trained heavily in such arts of memory, so transmission to writing need not have been so piecemeal.
What else might account for the only partial overlap, and some decided difference in attitude, may be revealed by looking at the nature of relevant Triad information which does survive.

The Triads are much concerned with warfare, and its gloried heroes. There are a lot of these fighting heroes in them, and even their horses are commemorated. Goronwy’s warband is condemned as unheroic, where in the Mabinogi their refusal to die for him seems a moral judgement on a cowardly man, and it enables Lleu’s righteous revenge. Other male Mabinogi protagonists Manawydan, Math, Gwydion and Lleu are in Triads as non-combatants. Manawydan especially is noted as lacking in the essential urge of the nobleman, to acquire territory. Math and Gwydion are magicians. Manawydan, Gwydion and Lleu become shoemakers. Yet all of these men are also active fighters in the Mabinogi. The Triads seem unable to view males as both heroic, and otherwise. The Mabinogi by contrast does present them as both fighters and other roles. Its narrative can easily be seen as offering an anti-war theme, much concerned with legal controls and diplomacy which averts violence.
Triad treatment of Mabinogi women is weak. Branwen, significantly, is the most clearly present, for she is the least forceful and active of the main Mabinogi women. Rhiannon, a highly successful and formidable woman working the system for her own ambitions, is not in the Triads at all, unless lost in an archaic shadow. Arianrhod’s political power struggle which broke her dynasty, is also absent though her looks are praised, and possibly her wealth noted.
All together the Triads seem to present a different worldview, one centred on the glories of war, fighting male heroes, and beauteous heroines. This fits with the bardic class who held highly paid positions in the royal courts with many privileges. Their profession was expressly about producing public relations poetry for their princes and their ladies. The Triads gave them useful memory lists to quickly make admiring parallels between their patron and historic or legendary events.
The Mabinogi by contrast centres on the politics of kindreds and enchanters, stories which only twice give rise to war, both times making it clear this is greatly deplored. Otherwise war is avoided through skilled negotiations. Violence is never glorified. Women figure not much for their looks but as advisers, active negotiators, or opponents. The stories do not make comparisons with historic heroes as bardic poetry and the Triads do. Mabinogi presentation lets a hero or heroine’s actions speak for themselves. Its cyfarwydd, storyteller, does not comment directly with praise or contempt, and uses few description words.

Evidently the bards and the cyfarwyddiaid, prose storytellers, were two distinct cultures, and most likely two distinct classes of people. The courtly bards appear to be male heroics centred, which fits well with their paid professionalism to extol princely warmakers. They were named professionals, so they could be paid their stipend and perquisites. The Triads were skilful tools of their professional showmanship to aid fast, modular composition of new pieces.
The cyfarwyddiaid, storytellers, were concerned with negotiations and diplomacy which could avoid war, with hidden manipulators (enchanters), and much more inclusive of women as agents of drama,. Gwydion’s strategy of adopting the role of a cyfarwydd [4] indicates a nomadic, freelancer craft, with leaders at least educated in court graces enough to converse with princes. They were warmly welcomed at courts but lacked the official status in the Laws which bards had. They were paid by piecework, not a regular ‘wage’(cf. Rhiannon calls for the 'minstrels' to be paid off the morning of her wedding. [1]) They transmitted traditional stories rather than authored new ones, so while some may have been popular presenters (like folk singers) their names did not survive into long term records.

The Triads certainly overlap in places with Mabinogi people and events, suggesting some exchange between the two classes of bard and cyfnarwydd. But the Triads have only a small amount to add to what is already there in the Mabinogi itself, while the Mabinogi offers a wealth of information about the same characters. It therefore seems to be an independent work of art by a composer who was not a bard, not established at any one court, but a freelancer of this other interestingly mobile craft, who moved between the courts of Gwent, Dyfed, Gwynedd, and elsewhere. They seem to know something of the bardic techniques of Triads (and englyn poetry [2, 4]) which they show off just a little, but this is very far from their main concern.

The key Mabinogi theme is about peace and diplomacy between kindreds, complexities very different to the elite, male bards and their warring princes. The bards, attached to a fixed 'side' for their living and their honour, understandably take a polarised vuew.

Shan Morgain © 4/02/2017

triads.txt · Last modified: 2018/02/04 19:40 by admin