The tale of the “Very Black Witch” is a story within a story. The story itself is found within the medieval tale of “How Culhwch Won Olwen,” a part of the Welsh Mabinogion. In “Culwhch and Olwen,” King Arthur agrees to help his cousin complete a series of seemingly impossible tasks to win the hand of Olwen. Arthur’s knights are managing quite nicely until a question is asked and the story takes another detour. Arthur says, “Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained.” The answer comes, “There is the blood of the witch Orddu (that is, the word black in Welsh) …” The focus is now on Arthur’s battle with the Very Black Witch in an effort to obtain her blood.
Here is the story as first translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1894.
Said Arthur, “Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained?” Said one of his men, “There is—the blood of the witch Orddu, the daughter of the witch Orwen, of Pen Nant Govid, on the confines of Hell.” Arthur set forth towards the North, and came to the place where was the witch’s cave. And Gwyn ab Nudd, and Gwythyr the son of Greidawl, counselled him to send Kacmwri, and Hygwyd his brother, to fight with the witch. And as they entered the cave, the witch seized upon them, and she caught Hygwyd by the hair of his head, and threw him on the floor beneath her. And Kacmwri caught her by the hair of her head, and dragged her to the earth from off Hygwyd, but she turned again upon them both, and drove them both out with kicks and with cuffs.
And Arthur was wroth at seeing his two attendants almost slain, and he sought to enter the cave; but Gwyn and Gwythyr said unto him, “It would not be fitting or seemly for us to see thee squabbling with a hag. Let Hiramreu and Hireidil go to the cave.” So they went. But if great was the trouble of the first two that went, much greater was that of these two. And Heaven knows that not one of the four could move from the spot, until they placed them all upon Llamrei, Arthur’s mare. And then Arthur rushed to the door of the cave, and at the door he struck at the witch, with Carnwennan his dagger, and clove her in twain, so that she fell in two parts. And Kaw, of North Britain, took the blood of the witch and kept it.
Women in medieval Welsh literature are not warriors. They do not engage in battle or fighting. Instead they passively await their knights’ return or cry in a survivor’s lament. In the Mabinogion, however, witches prove to be the exception. The witches in these stories are strong, and skilled in fighting. They instill fear in men. In “How Culhwch Won Olwen,” the Very Black Witch is identified with her mother, the Very White Witch. As in many folktales, she lacks definition - whether she’s beautiful or hideous is unknown. The only important trait is her strength and fighting ability. Fiona Winward contends, “Within the patriarchal society, strength is regarded as a negative trait in a woman since it necessarily threatens gender definitions.”
The Very Black Witch lives alone in an isolated region described as “the head of the Valley of Grief in the uplands of hell.” Arthur was seeking a “wonder not yet attained.” One of his men suggests acquiring the blood of the Very Black Witch. It is unknown why she was hunted, what harm she caused, or whether her blood contains magical properties. There was a belief in the Middle Ages that it was impossible to draw blood from a witch. Doing so, therefore, might be considered a marvel or a wonder.
Surprisingly, the knights find the location easily. Arthur sends two men into her cave to fight her. As soon as they enter, the Witch grabs one by the hair and throws him to the ground. When the other man attacks her, the Witch retaliates. She thrashes them both, disarms them, and then sends them out shrieking and shouting. Arthur agrees to send more men into the battle. These men received an even greater beating. All in total, the Very Black Witch fought and defeated four of Arthur’s men. Although she does not kill them, their injuries are substantial. The Very Black Witch’s strength is unlikely: her barbaric way of fighting, more humorous than skilled. Arthur ultimately defeats her, but not by engaging her. He throws his knife from the entrance, cleaves her head in two, and gathers her blood.
Angela Robinson claims the Very Black Witch is the perfect example of the “other.” She lives alone. “[L]iving near the border of the world and hell, she resists initial attacks but is defeated by a superior male, and she is then turned into a commodity. Her attachment only to her mother also indicates that she is outside of the society created by Arthur.” As the “other,” she is the exception. The qualities of strength, and fighting ability make her an “unlikely female” character.
While the story of “Culhwch and Olwen” is a literary tale, it, like most of the Mabinogion, is influenced heavily by folklore. Nevertheless, the tale of the “Very Black Witch” feels as if a common folktale has been dropped into a literary story. Perhaps the medieval audience of this story (which was more often told than read) knew more about the Very Black Witch than the modern reader does.
And so, if I were to craft a variant of this story; one that might fill in some of those blanks yet still reference the genre, the story would go something like this.
Arthur and his knights continued to find the items the old giant requested. As Culhwch said “it was easy for me to get that, though you may think it’s not easy.” That was especially true since Culhwch ne’er did anything at all. How he became the hero of this tale, this teller doesn’t know.
Arthur said, “Is there anything else left undone? Any wonder to seek? Any marvel to find?” “Yes, Arthur,” was the reply, “There is one wonder remaining. We must acquire the blood of the Very Black Witch.” They traveled to the north. Together they all made haste and soon found themselves before a cave in the Valley of Grief in the uplands of hell. As you might imagine, this was not a place in which anyone would wish to linger.
Soon the knights began to argue among themselves. What was the best way to get the Very Black Witch’s blood? Do they simply wait until she leaves the cave? Does someone go in to talk to her? Should they storm the cave to defeat her? Arthur thought Merlin had warned him about this witch, but he couldn’t remember any specifics. That’s why it was decided that Arthur’s two attendants (who were brothers) would first enter the cave. They would ask the Very Black Witch for a cup of her blood. If she agreed they would leave her undisturbed. It was safer that way.
The old witch was waiting inside for the young men. When they asked for her blood she said, “If you can answer my question, I will give you my blood. If you can’t, I will give you a thrashing.” The brothers looked at each other and laughed. “This old woman could be defeated by a child,” they thought. She smiled and said, “What crawls on the earth, flies in the air and swims in the sea? You must know the answer, it’s the stuff of your master’s dreams.” The eldest brother stepped forward and spoke confidently. “A goose,” he said.
The Very Black Witch gave no reply. Instead she caught him by his hair and threw him on the ground. A fight then ensued, with clothes, hair and skin flying. After a bit the two were tossed from the cave. Dazed and bleeding they said nothing to Arthur about what had happened inside.
Arthur was angry. He was determined to go into the cave himself, but his advisors convinced him that it wasn’t a fitting activity for a king. This time he sent two knights inside. The old witch was waiting for them when they entered. When the knights asked for her blood she said, “If you can answer my question, I will give you my blood. If you can’t, I will give you a thrashing.” The knights looked at each other and laughed. “This crone is so frail she could be tossed by the wind,” they thought. She smiled and said, “What crawls on the earth, flies in the air and swims in the sea? You must know the answer, it’s the stuff of your master’s dreams.” One knight stepped forward and spoke confidently. “A swan,” he said.
The Very Black Crone screeched and attacked the pair. An even greater battle left the two knights bloodied and injured. She threw them out of the cave as if they were sacks of floor. Arthur found his two attendants and two knights sitting at the entrance to the cave, sad and defeated. Unable to move, they were hoisted onto Arthur’s mare.
Arthur looked aghast at the men strapped to his mare. “How could this happen?” he thought. “I don’t care what Merlin said. I’m getting that witch’s blood.” In anger he ran to the cave, pulled out his dagger and threw it inside. All was silent for a long time. When he thought it was safe, Arthur sent an attendant in to gather her blood. He found that Arthur’s dagger had cleaved her body into two parts. She was lying bleeding on the ground. The attendant filled a cup with her blood. But before he could even retrieve the dagger, the Very Black Witch disappeared. In her place was a white raven, glittering and shinning brightly in the darkness. The bird flew quickly out of the cave and landed at Arthur’s feet. “Caw,” the bird squawked. “The end is near,” it said, before flying away.
Arthur asked his knights. “What did that old hag ask you in the cave?” “It was a silly riddle with no answer,” one replied. “Tell me,” Arthur implored. “What crawls on the earth, flies in the air and swims in the sea? You must know the answer, it’s the stuff of your master’s dreams,” another one responded. Arthur stopped his horse. He held his head in his hands and a tear fell from one eye. “I’ve been having dreams,” he said “of snakes and dragons and all manner of water beasts. But how did she know?” He pondered and thought until sunset. Everyone waited quietly for him to resume the journey. “Ahh, now I recall what Merlin told me about the Very Black Witch,” was all he said. Even though many asked he would say nothing more. He only looked at them sadly and pointed to the white crow flying home to Nimue.