The Giant’s Cairn

James Lloyd visits the summit of Mount Snowdon to recall the story of how the highest mountain in Wales was formed.

In the days of Arthur, High King of Britain, there dwelt two mighty lords in the sub-kingdom of Gwynedd. Their names were Nynniaw and Peibiaw. Both men were arrogant and vain, each always determined to outdo the other in everything. Eventually, to settle the dispute of which was the greater lord, Nynniaw suggested that they meet on the gentle slopes of the hills of Gwynedd at midnight, where he offered to show Peibiaw a field more glorious and more fertile than any that his rival owned.

The hour of deepest darkness arrived and the two lords met under the glittering stars. “Here I am, Nynniaw,” Peibiaw greeted his friend and enemy. “Where is your field?”

“Look above you,” Nynniaw invited him. “There is my field. See the stars sparkling on the deep blue firmament. Have you a field better than this?”

Peibiaw smiled a crooked smile. He was not to be outwitted like this. “It is an impressive field,” he conceded, “but my flock of sheep and goats is better still.”

“Oh?” Nynniaw started. “And where, pray tell, is it?”

Peibiaw pointed upwards. “Can you not see the Milky Way, Lord Nynniaw? That is my flock, tended by a shepherdess more beautiful than any you can imagine.”

“Where is she?”

“Behold her!” Peibiaw pointed to the moon.

Nynniaw sighed. Clearly, his attempt to outwit Peibiaw by means of cunning repartee had failed. They would have to settle this the old fashioned way. They challenged each other to battle.

After the due period of preparation, the day of the battle arrived and both men met again on the gentle hills of Gwynedd with their respective retinues. Just as they charged towards each other, however, they heard another, much larger army marching against them. Rhitta the Great, the King of Gwynedd and a man of abnormally vast size, had heard of their duel and, determined that no one should be allowed to claim the right to graze the heavens but himself, had decided to suppress their feud. Nynniaw and Peibiaw forgot their own enmity as this mightier foe fell upon them but even a combination of their forces could not stop the power of King Rhitta. They were defeated and in humiliation Rhitta had their beards shaved and wove a cap from the hairs. He popped it on his head and marched back to his own castle in triumph.

The humiliation of Nynniaw and Peibiaw was reported throughout Wales and alarmed that county’s other kings. If Rhitta could do that to lords as powerful of Nynniaw and Peibiaw, then the honour of none of them was safe. The kings gathered their own armies and pre-empted any advances against them by Rhitta by declaring war on him first. Once again, the armies met on the hills of Gwynedd. Once again it was Rhitta who had the victory and celebrated by shaving the beards of the kings of Wales and weaving them into a coat.

The news of this latest battle reached the ears of the twenty-seven kings of Britain. Would no one stop Rhitta of Gwynedd? The giant was walking around wearing the beards of their peers! He had to be sanctioned for this. They formed an alliance and marched on Gwynedd but they too were defeated by the mighty sovereign of the hills. Every man of them was shorn and their beards were woven into a cloak.

Yet there was one king who had escaped the general degradation. The High King of Britain, Arthur, had not participated in the wars against Rhitta. Why should he bother? What had he to prove? His absence, however, had not escaped Rhitta’s attention. Having taken the beard of every other king in Britain, he thought he might as well complete his collection. He marched to Arthur’s castle and knocked on the door.

“Come out, King Arthur,” he demanded. “There is a hole in my cloak and your beard shall fill it.”

With a huff of exasperation, Arthur agreed to fight with Rhitta the following morning. In the event, however, their armies proved to be equally matched and both kings agreed to call a truce between their respective forces and to settle the matter between themselves in single combat. Rhitta imagined that he could easily crush the little Arthur. Why, he barely had to fall on him to make powder of his bones.

His hubris was ill-founded. Arthur fought him long and hard. He fought him all the way back to Gwynedd, all the way to the gentle slopes of the hill country, where, with Rhitta finally tiring and on his knees, Arthur lifted his sword above the giant’s heard and smote him upon the helm. The blade passed through the helmet, flesh, skull and brains of King Rhitta, down through his jaw, through his neck, through his chest and stomach to emerge between his legs. The left half of the giant fell to one side and his right half fell to the other.

The victorious Arthur returned home but the people of Gwynedd went into mourning. He may have been a terror to the other kings of Britain but the giant had been a good ruler to his own people. Each of his subjects placed a stone over the fallen king’s corpses, eventually building up a huge mountain. The mountain is called in Welsh “Yr Wyddfa Rhita” the Cairn of Rhitta, or usually just “Yr Wyddfa”. The English, who would conquer Gwynedd many hundreds of years later, called it the snowy hill, or “Snowdon”.

Wales is full of stories of giants and there may be a simple, etymological reason for this. These giants, like Rhitta, are usually surnamed Gawr, related to “fawr”, meaning great but this was also anciently used as a title for chieftains. After a few centuries, these great men were remembered as giant men and the tumulus of a chieftain became the grave of a giant. The dominant figure of Arthur became a magnet for other heroes’ exploits and all other giant-slayers were merged into one. The shaving of a defeated enemy’s beard was a symbolic form of emasculation and also appears in the eleventh-century legend of Culhwch and Olwen.

The nucleus of the preceding legend is a brief episode recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, in which Arthur, in a flashback, recalls slaying a giant called Retho, who had wanted to add Arthur’s beard to complete his cloak, on Mount Aravius. Aravius is a Latinization of Eryri, an alternative Welsh name for Snowdon, meaning “eagles’ eyrie”, though variations on the legend have located it in other places in Wales, to explain the origin of other mountains. The many subsequent generations of story-tellers who elaborated Arthur’s biography added supplemental elements to the Retho episode to create the story as it is told now, just another little interlude in the lengthy and valorous career of Britain’s greatest, albeit non-existent, hero.

Photo credits: A walk up the Pyf track – Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa in view (John S Turner) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The summit of Yr Wyddfa (Euan Nelson) / CC BY-SA 2.0