Pwyll, Head of Hades

Pwyll was ruler of Dyfed, located in the southwest corner of what is now Wales. One day, Pwyll left his capital with a group of his men to go hunting in a far-off region called Glynn Cuch. Pwyll blew his horn and released his hounds to begin the hunt. In a short time, he got separated from his companions.

The lord followed the sound of his hounds. As he did so, he heard another pack of hounds, not his own, advancing toward him. At a clearing in the forest, Pwyll saw his hounds chasing the other pack, who were in turn running after a mighty stag. The strange hounds overtook the stag and brought it to the ground.

As he took a closer look at the hounds, Pwyll noticed that they were like none he had ever seen before. They were dazzling white with brilliant red ears. These hounds came from the underworld, although Pwyll did not know it at the time.

As he approached, he drove the red-eared hounds away from the stag. Pwyll saw no other human being nearby, so he decided to claim the killed stag as his own.

While Pwyll was tending to the stag, a stranger rode up on a great gray horse. The stranger told Pwyll that he had never met a more dishonorable person. “In no man,” said the stranger, “have I seen greater discourtesy than driving away the pack which has killed a stag and baiting one’s own pack upon it.”

Pwyll apologized sincerely for his mistake. He offered to do anything the stranger asked to make up for his fault. The man on the gray horse was Arawn, a king of Annwn, the underworld.

Arawn explained that a rival king of the underworld, Hafgan, was constantly raging war on him. The only way for Pwyll to make up for his sin was to defeat Hafgan in a battle, which was scheduled to take place a year and a day from then.

Pwyll agreed to take on Hafgan, but asked how he would do it. Arawn cast a spell that switched the two men’s likenesses. Pwyll would go to the underworld and rule in Arawn’s place, while Arawn would return to Dyfed. No one would be able to tell the difference. After Pwyll had defeated Hafgan, the two men would return to their own shapes and lives.

Just as Arawn had said, no one in Annwn suspected Pwyll was anyone other than their king. As he returned from his hunt, he was greeted with a great feast. He dined on the best food and wine that he had ever had. At the feast, Pwyll sat next to Arawn’s wife, who was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

That night, the queen led Pwyll to bed. Pwyll, however, would not say a word to her. He slept with his back to her and would not touch her at all. For every day over the next year, they spent their time talking, dining, and celebrating. But every night, no matter how affectionate they were during the day, Pwyll would not lay a hand on the queen.

At last the day came when Pwyll was to fight Hafgan. With one blow, Pwyll shattered Hafgan’s armor and shield, killing him almost instantly. Hafgan’s men pledged their allegiance to the victor. In Arawn’s place, Pwyll had managed to double the size of the kingdom.

The next day, Pwyll and Arawn met at Glynn Cuch. They restored their shapes and returned to their rightful lands.

Arawn was happy to return to his home and his people. Of course, they knew nothing of his absence. He spent the day dining and celebrating, just as Pwyll had done in his place. That night, as he got into bed with his wife, he spoke softly to her and held her lovingly in his arms. The queen stopped Arawn.

She asked why he was caressing her all of a sudden after ignoring her for a full year. Arawn realized what a good friend he had found in Pwyll. He told his wife the truth about what had happened over the last year. She agreed that Pwyll was an uncommonly chivalrous man not to take advantage of another man’s wife.

Meanwhile, in Dyfed, Pwyll asked his nobles how the past year had compared to previous ones. The men replied that it had been a particularly wonderful year. Pwyll admitted that he could not accept the credit. He let his people know of the switch. They all exclaimed how lucky Pwyll was to have found such a good friend.

Pwyll and Arawn continued to be good friends for life. Each sent the other horses, hounds, or whatever other treasures he thought his friend would enjoy. And because Pwyll had ruled Annwn and expanded its boundaries, Arawn even granted him the title Head of the Underworld.

Even with his new title, Pwyll continued to rule in Dyfed. Outside his palace was a hill said to have magical properties. One of Pwyll’s men told him that when a man of royal blood sits upon it, he is either struck down by mighty blows, or he beholds a wonder. Pwyll did not think he would be struck down and he wanted very much to see a wonder, so he sat on the mound.

As Pwyll sat there, a beautiful woman dressed in dazzling gold appeared riding on horseback. Anyone who looked at her would have said she was riding at a very slow pace. But when Pwyll sent a man on foot to find out her name, he could not catch her. Soon, she disappeared over the horizon.

The next day, Pwyll sat on the mound again. This time, he had his man ready on horseback to ride after her. But again, once she appeared, he was unable to catch her although she appeared to move slowly. On the third day, Pwyll decided to overtake her himself.

He sat on the hill and waited for the mysterious woman to arrive. As she rode by, Pwyll mounted his horse. Ride as he might, he was unable to catch her. He pushed his horse as fast as it could go, but still could not overtake the woman.

In desperation, Pwyll called out to the woman to stop. “I will, gladly,” she said, “and it would have been better for your horse had you asked me that earlier.” She told Pwyll that her name was Rhiannon, daughter of Heveydd the Old. Rhiannon had been promised in marriage to a man she did not love.

She had come to find Pwyll to help her, because he was the man of her dreams. Pwyll was very happy to hear this because he, too, was falling in love. The pair worked out a plan whereby they would meet a year and day from then at Heveydd’s court.

On the appointed date, Pwyll and ninety-nine of his companions arrived at the old man’s court. As Rhiannon had promised, a great feast was waiting for Pwyll and his men. Everyone sat down together to dine. Pwyll sat between Rhiannon and her father.

As they were eating, a tall young man approached. He asked Pwyll for a favor. Pwyll promised to grant whatever the young man might ask. Rhiannon looked terrified of this response. She knew that by the rules of chivalry, a man must never go back on a favor he has agreed to.

Rhiannon’s instinct proved correct when the young man asked for her hand in marriage. He was none other than Gwawl, the man she had been promised to, but did not want to wed.

Pwyll apologized to Rhiannon, telling her that he had not known who the man was. Rhiannon replied that he had no choice but to honor himself and thus grant Gwawl his favor. Pwyll refused, saying he could never part from her.

Rhiannon told him to do as he must, but that she would find a way to prevent the marriage from ever taking place. Pwyll trusted her and told Gwawl to return in one year’s time. At that date, Pwyll would have a great feast prepared and would grant Gwawl Rhiannon’s hand in marriage.

The next year, the feast was made ready. Rhiannon sat next to her unwanted suitor. Pwyll waited outside with ninety-nine men. While the men stood outside, Pwyll entered the feast, disguised as an old beggar.

He held in his hand a magic bag that Rhiannon had given him a year earlier. No matter how much was put in the bag, it would never be filled.

Just as Gwawl had a year earlier, Pwyll requested a favor. He told Gwawl that he was but a poor beggar and asked that his little bag be filled with food. Gwawl agreed and ordered his men to fill the bag with meat.

They brought serving after serving, but the bag remained nearly empty. Finally, Gwawl asked Pwyll if it would ever be filled. Pwyll responded that it would not be filled unless a nobleman of rich possessions pressed the food down with both his feet.

Gwawl agreed and stepped into the bag. As soon as both feet were inside, Pwyll tipped the sack over and tied it shut. Then he blew on his horn as a signal for his men to attack the court.

As each man entered the court, he hit the sack with a stick and asked “What is this?” “A badger” was always the reply. This was the first playing of a game called “Badger in the Bag,” a less brutal version of which continues to be played by British children.

Rhiannon and her father asked Pwyll to stop beating Gwawl. They suggested Pwyll release him on the condition that he would offer gifts and promise never to seek vengeance. Gwawl gladly agreed. He departed for his own country to heal the many bruises he had received while in the bag.

Once Gwawl had left, the hall was once more made ready for a wedding. This time, of course, the couple to be wed was Pwyll and Rhiannon. They feasted and celebrated all night. When the wedding was over, the couple returned to Dyfed to rule the country.

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