Stalked by Oxen – on the trail of the Ychain Bannog

by michaelharvey in Folktales, Mabinogi, Mythology, Storytelling

I had decided to  spring clean my hard drive the other day. Suddenly, I found an old article I had written over fifteen years ago about storytelling and the Welsh landscape. I was about to drag and drop it into the bin when I changed my mind and opened it. It was good to see that my younger self made some kind of sense and I thought I would share a shortened version of it with you here…

llyn llydaw

Llyn Llydaw from yr Wyddfa/Snowdon

One day I got a call from Newport Borough Council (now City Council) asking me to tell a story as part of an unveiling ceremony in the centre of town. They had commissioned a sculptor to create a big bronze statue of an ox that was linked with Gwynllyw, the city’s patron saint. They wanted to tell the story of Gwynllyw and the Ox, which goes like this…

ych gwynllyw

Gwynllyw’s Ox in Newport City Centre

Gwynllyw’s Story

Once there was a thoroughly bad man who lived in Gwent in south-east Wales. His name was Gwynllyw and he had abducted a woman called Gwladus to be his wife. Her father was a man called Brychan Brycheiniog who had thirty-five other children. Almost all of them, including Gwladus, were saints. She tried in vain to reform her husband but he was too busy causing misery and mayhem by robbing ships in the Severn Estuary.

One night, Gwynllyw had a dream. In his dream he saw a large, white ox with a black star on its forehead. Later that day, he woke up and came face to face with the ox he had seen in his dream. This time, in real life. He immediately renounced his piracy, became a saint and founded the cathedral in Newport.

What kind of story was that? I had taken the work and couldn’t back out. This story would last about forty-five second and I was pretty sure that the mayor, and other important people who would be there to unveil the statue, were expecting longer. What was I going to do?

Click here for more blog posts about Welsh mythology, Pig Boy and much else besides…

Back to the research! After burrowing around in various sources and talking to other storytellers, I discovered that this was no lone ox. There were many of them that cropped up in various Welsh stories, myths and legends. They are the Ychain Bannog that the hero Hu Gadarn used to drag the terrible Afanc out of its hideout in the lake Llyn Llion. These creatures are the two oxen in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen (or Pig Boy in my version) who must be reunited after years of separation. They are the oxen that pulled the foundation stone of Dewi Sant’s (St David’s) church in Llanddewi Brefi into place. One of the oxen died in the process and the other lowed so loudly in mourning that the mountain above the valley was split.

buwch dinefwr

One of the white cattle from Parc Dinefwr, near Llandeilo.  A descendant of the Ychain Bannog

Cosmic Cattle

Then it dawned on me that the ox the Gwynllyw had seen was one of the Ychain Bannog. Gwynllwy would have known all the stories. When one of those creatures met both his unconscious and conscious self he knew the game was up. He needed to change and go from someone who plunders the innocent to some one who protects them. He went from being an unprincipled and violent chancer to a man of leadership and principle who put others first. If you ask me, I think we could do with a few more Ychain Bannog wandering around the place!

I was in Newport only a few months ago and I went to find my old friend, the statue of Gwynllyw’s ox. I found it, but not how I expected. I’ll tell you more about that another day…

llyn y fan

The shores of Llyn y Fan Fach, Carmarthenshire. Note the channel in the cliff side scored by Tarw Gwyn o Lys y Brenin (the white bull from the king’s court) when it dragged the plough back into the lake when called by his mistress.



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