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The Grave of Gelert

Just south of Snowdon, in the grey-stoned village of Beddgelert set among the wild mountains of Wales, is the Grave of Gelert. Here, in a beautiful meadow below Cerrig Llan, is a large stone slab lying on its side with two upright slabs which owes its fame to the legend of Prince Llewelyn ap Iorwerth and his faithful hound.

Llewelyn (1173-1240 CE) was very fond of hunting and in the summer he lived in a hunting lodge at the foot of Mt.Snowdon. Although he had many dogs, his favourite was the brave Gelert, his great Irish Wolfhound, not only a dog fearless in the hunt, but a loyal friend and companion at the fireside.

One fateful day on the hunt, Gelert refused to accompany his master further, but instead he ran howling back to the Lodge. When Llewellyn returned he was met by his dog, bounding to meet him, but splashed with blood around his muzzle. On entering his living quarters, Llewellyn found a scene of confusion with rooms disordered and articles scattered in heaps. Now Llewelyn had a son, barely a year old, and as the prince recalled how Gelert and his little boy used to play together, a terrible thought came to his mind !

He rushed to the nursery only to find the the cradle was overturned, the bed clothes bloody and though he looked frantically for his son, the child could not be found.

Turning to Gelert, whose muzzle was still wet with blood, Llewelyn came into a great rage and cried, "Thou hast killed my only son!", and drew his sword and drove it into the heart of the hound.

Then - as all was silent but for the steady drip of blood onto the stone flag floor, the wail of a baby could be heard. On searching further Llewellen found his son safe and well, lying next to the body of a large grey wolf.

It was plain to see what had happened !

Gelert had killed the wolf whilst defending the baby from attack. Overcome with grief at his hasty action, Llewellyn buried Gelert with all honour and raised a memorial over his grave.

From then on the settlement was known as Beddgelert, meaning "Gelert's Grave" and this is the traditional tale still told today.

Where do these tales come from ? It's possible that the village of Beddgelert received its name from an Irish Wolf Hound given to Llewellyn as a gift by his father-in-law, King John of England.

Irish Wolfhounds were known and admired in Rome as early as 391 C.E. when the first mention of the breed was written by the Roman Consul Quintus Aurelius, who had received seven of them as a gift which "all Rome viewed with wonder."

The story of a dog slain in error after killing a wolf seems to have been attached to Llewellyn about 1793-4 by a local inn-keeper. A common enough occurrence along the same lines of hotels and taverns placing signs like "Ye Olde Inne" to attract more custom. William Spencer visited Beddgelert and, on hearing the tale, wrote his popular ballad about the faithful Gelert and so the story grew into the speech and hearsay of Wales

However, the legend behind all this folklore is extremely old, though the animals involved originally were neither wolves nor dogs.

A mongoose who saved a Brahmin's son from a snake is found in the Indian Panchatantra. It was written in Sanskrit sometime in the third century C.E and later translated into Persian and Arabic. We find it in the Book of Sindibad and thence our own Arabian Nights

The mongoose wasn't known in the Arab world, so it became a weasel, and then a dog. The snake remained. A version of this story reached Wales and was recorded in the 14th century in the Red Book of Hergest.

In Welsh folktales the snake is replaced by a wolf probably because it was a more likely attacker and already had a fearsome reputation

So in this tale we see how time, folklore and story-telling around the fire has fused together traditions from many sources and created them into a legend still honoured at Gelert's Grave.

Susanna Duffy is a Civil Celebrant, grief counsellor and mythologist. She creates ceremonies and Rites of Passage for individual and civic functions, and specialises in celebrations for women. http://celebrant.yarralink.com

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