Saturday, 19 June 2010

Ys - a timeless fable

Lyonesse, Ker-Ys (or Ys/Is), and Cantre'r Gwaelod are names of mythical cities from Celtic legends in Cornwall/Scilly, Brittany and Wales. The legends overlap, and recall a city that is now under the sea. Ys was said to be the most beautiful and impressive city in the world, but quickly became a city of sin under the influence of Dahut. She organized orgies and had the habit of killing her lovers when morning broke.

There are many variations of era and detail, but a common theme is that "good" King Gradion trusted his "feckless" daughter Dahut with the key to the gate of the dyke that kept the sea out of the city at high tide. But she was tempted to handover the key by men, or the devil, causing the city to flood, the people to drown and just the king to escape. He had to sacrifice his daughter to the waves and she became a mermaid. Yes, women are to blame for the downfall of civilisation.

The Brittany picture shows The Bay of Trespasses in the Bay of Douarnenez, one of the possible locations for the drowned city. We visited this bay last December; it's near Finisterre, and it is a most unsettling feeling watching the sea from this beach. There's something about the topography of the headlands or seabed that makes it look like the waves out at sea, only fifty metres away, are much higher than the beach, and that a big wave will rear up and swamp us tiny creatures on the beach. Maybe it's an echo of a folk memory, maybe it's a romantic thought from an overly suggestible mind, but it was very creepy. We watched the waves for half an hour, listening for the echo of the tolling of the city's bells, and thinking back to the Druid culture that is still hanging in there at the north west corner of Europe. And by a chance encounter with a wonderful Celtic harpist from Norfolk playing in Colchester I have discovered Joanna Newsom's take on the Ys legend. It has pushed itself so deep into my psyche, I can't stop singing it (only in my head!), as I marvel first at Joanna's wonderful storytelling, then the melodies and composition, her harp playing and her beautiful and quirky singing. On top of all that there's the wonderful orchestration by Van Dyke Parks. A quick look at the web confirms that it has stirred many listeners, and it appears in many lists of favourite albums of the year, decade and ever.

Of course, it's a more modern take on the legend, as the narration richly and earthily explores the themes. And don't get too judgemental of the people of Ys. King Gradion set up inland at nearby Quimper, and Paris took over as the new city of sin. But when Paris ("Par-is" means "simliar to Ys" in Breton) falls under the weight of its moral turpitude, Ys will rise from the sea. I hope I'm back there to see it......


  1. I knew women were to blame Swifty, I just KNEW it!!!

    Um, not that I'll ever let the lovely G know that of course!

    Nice post. Thank you.......Al.

  2. Brilliant post Swifty! you beat me to it ;) Although, I may still do one, I want to include some of Alan Lee's illustrations of Ys as well.

    Oh, and thanks for kind mention of me :)
    All the best!



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