Cylch Blodeuwedd

Druidic Grove in North-West Wales

Where the dragons slept – Dinas Emrys

by Oak King - October 18th, 2010.
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I am somewhat ashamed to have to admit that there is a very special and magical place not much more than 10 miles away from where I live and yet, until recently, I had not taken much notice of it, let alone grasped its relevance in full or experienced the powerful energies prevailing there. How is it that so often we tend to be drawn to far flung places and countries and at the same time can not see what treasures lie practically on our doorstep? In the case of Dinas Emrys, well, I knew it was there for years but it was not until early this spring when a young bard from Germany, who had chosen to call himself Emrys, spend a weekend with our family and so I could not possibly let him go home without making the pilgrimage to that ancient site of ‘his’ name.

Best known is Dinas Emrys through the ancient folk tale associated with the British King Vortigern, who is in fact a historical figure from the fifth century and often charged with inviting the Saxons into Britain. If we believe legend, then he was eventually forced to flee from his enemies and arrived in Wales. In some historical sources we find him as King of Powys but, according to Nennius’ 9th century Historia Brittonum, it was in Eryri (Snowdonia) where he eventually found the ideal place for a stronghold. On the plateau of a pudding-basin shaped hill, some 76 metres above the floor of the Nantgwynant valley and only accessible via a narrow ridge from the north-east, he ordered the building of a fortress. To his utter consternation, all the walls would mysteriously collapse over night, and this occurred night after night after night. His wise men eventually recommended that he should sacrifice a ‘fatherless boy’ and sprinkle his blood over the foundations. That boy is found in Caer Myrddin in South Wales (now Carmarthen) and brought before the king. In fear of his life, he proved to be a prophet and told Vortigern what caused the collapse of the walls and which his Druids obviously were unable to see. Below the foundation of the tower they would find a pool, under which two dragons, one red and the other white, lay sleeping. After much digging the two dragons are indeed uncovered and resume their fighting. After initial advances for the white dragon it was the red one who in the end won the fight. Impressed with the accuracy of the boy’s prophesy, Vortigern then assigns the fort to him which to this day bears his name, Dinas Emrys – the fortress of Emrys, the Welsh form if the Roman name Ambrose. Vortigern himself is, at least in Welsh folk tradition, seen as having left for a small secret valley on the north cost of the nearby Lleyn peninsula, giving it it’s name Nant Gwrtheyrn where he is said to have died in a fire. In later writings, especially those of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Emrys/Ambrose’s name changes to Merlin and the white dragon is seen as the symbol of the Saxon intruders while the red dragon comes to represent the native British (Welsh) people and ends up as ‘Y Ddraig Goch’ on the national flag of Wales.

But hang on a minute! Looking at the Mabinogi we find clues that myths connected with dragons or winged serpents were in circulation long before the first Saxon landed on a British shore. The tale of Lludd and Llefelys informs us how the dragons came to be buried at Dinas Emrys in the first place. During the reign of Lludd, son of Beli Mawr (historical overlord of Britain in the 1st c. BC), three plagues befell Britain, one of which was a mighty scream that on each May-eve was raised over every hearth in the land and struck such terror into people that men would lose their strength, women their offspring and young folks their senses. Not knowing where else to turn, Lludd went to seek advise from his brother Llefelys who by then had become King of France. There he learnt that the scream was caused by a dragon fighting with a dragon of a foreign nation, trying to overcome it. To rid the land form the plague, he had to measure the length and width of his realm and dig a large pit right in the middle of it. With two large containers of best mead placed in the bottom and a silky cover over it, the fighting dragons would eventually tire and end up on the cover and fall into the pit. There they would drink all the mead and fall asleep. That way Lludd could tie them up and place in strong stone coffers to be buried in the safest place in the kingdom. That place proved to be – you might have guessed it – Dinas Emrys. This deed is described in the Welsh Triads as one of the Three Concealments of the Island of Britain and can therefore be seen as ranked equal to the burial of the head of Brân under the White Hill of London, confirming it as an alternative capital of Britain.

Knowing that archaeologists are rather unsentimental fact finders one could fear that excavations might shatter our dream of a paradisal place where Merlin’s breath still rustles in the leaves of native oak trees, where the gates to inner realms are open to us and, if we remain still for long enough, reveal mysteries of ancient lore not bound by time and place. I find it astonishing just to what extent the two 20th century excavations have proven many of the details of the original legend. The crest of Dinas Emrys is defined by a dry-stone wall barely 3 feet high but almost 10 feet thick which connects several rocky outcrops to shelter a central summit area, about 50 metres (164 feet) in diameter. It is here that we find the mysterious pool of dark age legend, today not more than a hollow. About 30 metres to the north-east, on the highest point of the hill, stands the most prominent structure, the base of a rectangular tower of 32 x 23 feet, it’s construction likely to fall into the reign of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (d.1240). Both Welsh and Norman kings were known to erect their strongholds on the foundations of much older fortifications. The first recorded exploration of Dinas Emrys in 1910 by Major C E Breeze concentrated on the base of the tower where 12 gold-plated bronze studs and a gold-plated bronze bar where found. Perhaps more interstingly, recovered from the pool area were one part of and one complete bronze coated iron buckle of 1st century AD type. So we see that Dinas Emrys is an old place indeed. More thorough excavations were undertaken by Dr H.N. Savory in 1954-56 who interprets this pool as a cistern of the 5th to 6th centuries AD. With steep, artificially dug sides and a rectangular floor (39 x 33 feet) lined with yellow clay, it was dug to provide water for cattle or sheep within a chieftain’s stronghold. This does by no means diminish it’s magical dimension as out of magic emerges all utility. Laying hidden under peat for centuries, Savory discovered a stone platform of over 16 feet in diameter, overlapping the pool or cistern on it’s north-eastern side. The extraordinary nature of this platform suggests that it might not only have been used for easy bucket filling or watering livestock, but also for ritual purposes. Myth based ancient society would surely have given the divine pre-dominance over functionality. Going back even further, before the cistern was artificially shaped a wooden platform had overhung the swamp, supported on thirty-three timber posts carrying a circular dais of about 19 feet in diameter. This structure was most likely of early Iron Ages origin dating back to about 500 BC, a millennium before Vortigern. At the north edge of the pool an Iron Age pit of oval shape (5 x 4 feet) was found, it’s sides carefully lined with clay-set stone cobbles. Is it possible that here we are actually looking into the very stone coffer which Lludd buried at Dinas Emrys? Sherds of prehistoric pottery may confirm the pit’s date, but not it’s purpose. Savory suggests it’s use as a kitchen water tank or meat boiling pot. Here again, as food storage and preparation is of immense importance in any religion, the pit’s mythical dimension is not contradicted but rather supported. Furthermore, the fact that amongst the finds were East Mediterranean wine amphorae and Phoenician red slip dishes makes it clear that this was the residence of a chieftain of some importance. Place names nearby further support the site as the setting of this magical legend. Looking down from its western ramparts one sees a flat meadow, marked as Maes Llifio (Flood field) on 6 inch OS maps. There, a mere 300 metre away from the pool, is the site called Beddau Dewiniaid (The Graves of the Diviners), Vortigern’s seers driven into oblivion by Emrys/Merlin’s arrival.

Today Dinas Emrys is well known by name, yet rarely visited. Each year thousands of tourists drive past below it’s steep slopes without even noticing it. Perhaps not a bad thing because of it’s great antiquity this national shrine is rather fragile and vulnerable so visitors are advised to contact the National Trust warden at the nearby Craflwyn estate beforehand which is where the path starts. Although much of Welsh landscape is steeped deeply in ancient mythology, places like Dinas Emrys show us just how thin the veil between the outer and inner worlds can be.

Sources/further reading:

Merlin – A Magician’s Landscape, Michael Dames,

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