In the First Branch, Rhiannon gives her chosen suitor Pwyll, a ‘small bag.’ This enchanted bag is crucial to their plot to force Gwawl to withdraw from his existing betrothal with Rhiannon, to free her to marry Pwyll.
Pwyll attends the wedding feast of Rhiannon and Gwawl as a supplicant. This mirrors the earlier occasion when he was the man in the place of honour beside Rhiannon, and Gwawl arrived as a supplicant.
Gwawl is cautious about granting his request but a mere appeal for food appears safe to grant.
The bag is described as small, making it sound unimportant to undercut Gwawl’s vigilance. Its magical nature means that all the food which is put in it cannot fill it until a man of noble birth steps into it and declares it to be full.
Gwawl is persuaded by Rhiannon to do so. As soon as he does Pwyll draws up the bag to trap him, and calls to his men who wait outside in the orchard.
Gwawl is then treated violently as a football, struck by Pwyll’s men in turn in the first event of the badger-in the-bag game.
Rhiannon’s father intervenes to save Gwawl’s life. Gwawl is then forced to relinquish Rhiannon to regain his freedom, and to forego vengeance as well.
Since the ‘small bag’ is the gift of Rhiannon, a powerful female, often seen as a goddess, its symbolism is logical as a magical or sacred womb, a fertile container. However this is not as clearcut in Welsh as in English, as ‘bag’ is slang for testicles in Welsh.
The image of abundance is clear, since the ‘small bag’ paradoxically can contain any amounts of food. Bearing in mind the insecurity of food supply in former times, this image of abundance resonated far more then than it does now.
The ‘small bag’ is apparently innocuous, small, needing only some food. It then becomes a trap so dangerous as to threaten death. Various different interpretations can be derived from this: a foetus, birth death polarity, vagina dentata, the horrors of hunger and famine beyond human control.
Its gendering is not simple as it comes from a female, but is then used in power play between two males. More males use it to demonstrate control and threat, until a final male acts as a judge to free its prisoner.
The class nature of the bag is nobility for its enchantment is clear that only a noble man can declare the bag to be full.
(First published 25/08/2014: Shan Morgain)
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