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Snowdon: Names and Legends

The highest mountain in Wales

This post gives some lore and facts about the highest peak in the UK outside of Scotland. There are six official routes for walking to the top of Snowdon, which are described in other posts (links at the bottom of this post). They vary in difficulty, so with the right choice, this mountain can offer the desired level of challenge to most walkers. For those not able to make the ascent on foot, it is also possible to reach the summit of Snowdon using the mountain train, details of which are given below.

Sunrise over Snowdon By Sebholland (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0] [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunrise over Snowdon
By Sebholland (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Names and legends

Like many places in Wales, Snowdon has associations with the Arthurian legends. Some variants of these stories have Arthur disappearing into the mist wreathing the mountain after being mortally wounded by an arrow at the Bwlch y Saethau (Pass of Arrows).

Arthur’s knights are said to be sleeping in a cave somewhere there, waiting the return of their king, when they will ride out to save the land. Another legend says that Bedwyr (Bedivere) threw Arthur’s sword Excalibur into Llyn Lladaw, a lake below the mountain.

The current Welsh name for Snowdon is Yr Wyddfa (the tomb). In the past, it was also known as Yr Wyddfa Fawr (the great tomb) and Carnedd y Cawr (the cairn of the giant). The tomb and cairn in question are said to mark the grave of the fierce giant Rhita Gawr (or Fawr), who made himself a cloak from the beards of the kings he had killed. He was finally killed by Arthur.

Eryri

Eryri is mainly used to refer to the Snowdonia region, but has also been used as a name for Yr Wyddfa itself.. One interpretation of the name is “abode of eagles”, although some Welsh scholars claim it merely means “highland”.

The name dates back many centuries and can be found in story below.

The boy Merlin

In the 9th century, Nennius in his Historia Brittonum wrote that the Welsh king Gwrtheryn (= Vortigern) built a great citadel on the summit of one of the mountains of Heremus (in montibus Hereri), from where he defied the Saxons. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written in the 12th century, retells the story, changing the name of the location to Mount Erir.

The story tells how each day’s building work was destroyed overnight. Gwrtheryn’s advisers told him that in order to solve the problem he needed to sacrifice a child who had been born of no father and use its blood to mix the mortar. Such a child was found, whose mother had conceived by a demon. His name was Myrddin, and he would later become Arthur’s most trusted mentor and be known more widely as Merlin.

Locked in this cell and waiting execution, Merlin slept and dreamed, and in his dream he learned the answer. He told Gwrtheryn that the problem was due to a great fight taking place each night between two dragons in an underground pool. Gwrtheryn ordered the foundations dug up and all was as Myrddin had said. By following Myrddin’s instructions on how to get the dragons drunk on mead the following night, Gwrtheryn was able to remove them and build his citadel with no need for child sacrifice (although he did kill the advisers who had misled him!).

Myrddin also explained that of the two dragons, the white one represented the Saxons and the red one the Welsh. In the fight they had witnessed, the white dragon seemed to win at first, but was finally defeated by the red one. Myrddin told Gwrtheryn this meant that while the Saxons would gain power for a while, there would come a time when the Welsh would be free once more.

Oer yw’r Eira ar Eryri

The name Eryri is used in the following tongue-twisting poem written in the traditional Welsh englyn fixed verse form. It is combined with similar sounding words such oer (cold),eira (snow) awyr (air). George Borrow (1803-1881), author of Wild Wales, used to declaim it to show his command of Welsh.

Oer yw’r Eira ar Eryri, -o’ryw            Cold is the snow on Snowdon’s brow
Ar awyr i rewi;                                It makes the air so chill;
Oer yw’r ia ar riw’r ri,                      For cold, I trow, there is no snow
A’r Eira oer yw ‘Ryri                       Like that of Snowdon’s hill.

O Ri y’Ryri yw’r oera, -o’r ar,           A hill most chill is Snowdon’s hill
Ar oror wir arwa;                            and wintry is his brow;
O’r awyr a yr Eira                          From Snowdon’s hill the breezes chill
O’i ryw i roi rew a’r ia                     Can freeze the very snow

The Snowdon Mountain Train

Snowdon_train_near_summit

Snowdon train near summit
By Andrew Farquhar [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Anyone can reach the summit of Snowdon regardless of fitness. A railway, built between 1894 and 1896, takes passengers to the summit from May to October. There they can visit the newly rebuilt cafe and visitor center before traveling back. The railway also provides an option for walkers who feel a one-way walk to the summit is sufficient (although single tickets for the downward journey may not always be available). Because of the train, the summit can be very crowded at times in summer. However, this does not detract from the magic felt as one walks up this imposing mountain.The first trains used were open and many of the Victorian passengers would lose their hats to the winds. When local people wanted a new hat, they would go into the Cwm Glas Bach (little blue valley) below the railway line. There they would choose one to their taste from those the wind had blown in. For this reason, the valley is also called Cwm Hetiau (valley of the hats).

Resources

Snowdon Ranger and the Llanberis Path are generally considered to be the easiest routes to the summit of Snowdon.

Below are books about Snowdonia that may be of interest. All come from The Book Depository, which offers bargain prices and free delivery worldwide:

Snowdonia and North Wales by Richard Sale (Collins Rambler Guides) – 30 walks for all abilities, beautiful color photos and descriptions of landmarks, history, geology and wildlife.

An Illustrated History of the Snowdon Mountain Railway by Peter Johnson – for rail enthusiasts everywhere as well as visitors to Snowdonia

A Year in the Life of Snowdonia by Bill Birkett – a collection of stunning photo essays by a prize-winning photographer, with bilingual English and Welsh text

If you are thinking of a walking holiday in Wales, you might also like to check out routes to the top of Pen y Fan and Cadair Idris. If you are not an experienced hill walker, please read some tips on how to stay safe in the mountains.