Fantastic Beasts & where to… 3 13

Palug’s Cat

Palug’s Cat (from adapted sources: Andruss)

The North Wales holiday island of Anglesey seems a funny place for an ABC to roam.

ABC: Alien Big Cat.

Not one that came down in a flying saucer; although believe me people claim to see all sorts. And it must be said, Anglesey does have a nuclear power plant so I suppose anything is possible. No, the cat is alien in the sense it shouldn’t be there in the first place… like a leopard or a lion

The story of Cath Palug or Palug’s cat is known from fragments of ancient British myth found in the earliest Welsh manuscripts, written between 1200 and 1400. Called after the colour of their bindings, and where they were kept, they are: the Black Book of Carmarthen, White book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest.

The story starts when King Arthur hears the magical sow Hen Wen’s three offspring will each cause a calamity and goes to hunt her down. Hen Wen, who may be the sow aspect of the ancient White Goddess, was under the care of one of the three powerful Swineherds of Britain named Coll: meaning hazel and wisdom.

In Celtic myth swineherds are powerful magicians. When Hen Wen gives birth to a kitten under a black rock, Coll throws it into the sea. The creature survived and was found by the sons of Palug, washed up in Anglesey where it grew to a great size and ravaged the island, killing and devouring nine score warriors.

It was killed by Arthur’s foster-brother Sir Kay, using Arthur’s mirrored shield. Seeing its reflection in the mirrored surface the cat attacked the shield with such ferocity its claws stuck fast, allowing Kay to kill the trapped beast. This late story, dating to the 1200s, may actually retain an original Celtic myth.

The early Welsh poem ‘What Man is the Porter’ says Kay went to Anglesey to destroy lions with his polished shield. Sir Kay (or Cai in Welsh) originally might have been a solar hero like Heracles- who killed the Nemean Lion in the first of his twelve labours.

It was claimed Cai had the ability to go nine days and nine nights without the need to breathe or sleep, and if he chose could grow as tall as the tallest tree in the forest. He could radiate such heat that even in a thunderstorm his companions would stay warm and dry.

If Cai was a solar hero his mirrored shield was, of course, the sun disk. This makes perfect sense if Hen Wen (Old White) is the White Goddess and Cai is her consort: the dying and resurrected sun. The Greek philosopher Porphyry stated Hercules’ twelve labours represented the sun’s annual passage through the houses of the Zodiac – the Nemean lion being Leo, the height of summer. However Palug’s cat might not be entirely myth, but based on an element of truth.

Lions and leopards have always been potent symbols of monarchy and nations. From the 1200s Kings of England kept a menagerie in the Tower of London; after the Holy Roman Emperor gifted three leopards when he married the king’s sister. In 2005 skulls of medieval lions and leopards were unearthed from the Tower of London’s moat, where the animals had been dumped after they died.

Exotic cats were certainly known in Dark Age Britain even if they were rarely seen. In his ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’, a rant against five British Kings in Wales, the British monk Gildas refers to one as a lioness’s whelp, another as a lion’s whelp and a third as a leopard.

Shortly after Arthur was supposed to have lived and died, the Anglo-Saxons conquered South East and Central Britain and drove the British into Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria. Wales continued as independent British kingdoms for almost another thousand years.

Around 500 AD the powerful North Wales kingdom of Gwynedd was ruled from Anglesey. Its king Maelgwn (died of the Justinian plague in 547) was the Pendragon or High King. As a descendant of Romano-British nobility, Maelgwn was probably as eager to foster ties with the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople as Justinian was with the old territories of the western empire.

Britain was no backwater. Rich in cattle and wheat, it had once provisioned the Roman army or at least its European legions, and provided tin, lead, gold and highly valued freshwater twisted black pearls (not so prized today). At this time the Western Empire was collapsing. German generals ran puppet emperors in Rome. It must be said they were doing very well too, until Justinian’s long war to win back the Italian peninsula weakened the stability of both the Western and his own empire.

There is abundant archaeological evidence of trade with Byzantium such as remains of wine amphora and pottery found from Cornwall to the North Wales coast beyond Anglesey. There is a church in South Wales dedicated to St Stinian… the Emperor Justinian; a golden altarpiece on the Isle of Man; a Byzantine gold incense censer; Byzantine brass bowls, and an Irish translation of the Illiad from a time when Homer was forgotten in Western Europe.

The contemporary Greek historian Procopius said Justinian sent gifts to the kings of Britain, and a Byzantine jewel was discovered in a grave on Anglesey. It may be possible Palug’s cat was one or more exotic pets the Emperor sent to the king of Gwynedd that somehow escaped. Or, sinisterly, did not escape, but were used in beast hunts: hence the nine score warriors killed.

Although Roman gladiatorial games were abandoned with Christianity, wild beast hunts continued to be popular entertainment across the Empire. The father of Justinian’s wife, Empress Theodora, was the wild beast keeper in the Hippodrome.  In Constantinople they were still condemning criminals to be torn apart by wild beasts as public entertainment in 582; meaning beast hunts were still the rage.

It is not such a stretch of the imagination to think Maelgwn, a Romano-British self-styled Emperor with thoroughly Roman tastes would like to watch such savage Imperial entertainment.

Fantastic Beasts 1

Fantastic Beasts 2


13 thoughts on “Fantastic Beasts & where to… 3

  1. Reply patriciaruthsusan Aug 10,2017 5:48 am

    This is an interesting and entertaining post, Paul. 🙂 — Suzanne

  2. Reply Lyn Horner Aug 9,2017 4:46 pm

    Fascinating myth and facts itmight be based on! Thank you for sharing, Paul.

  3. Reply Robbie Cheadle Aug 9,2017 4:23 pm

    Ah, the great cats, Paul. I never got to see any cats when I was last in the Kruger National Park which was most disappointing. They are truly magnificent animals and worthy of being the subjects of myths and folktales.

    • Reply Paul Aug 10,2017 12:04 am

      I know Robbie it is amazing how they feature in the legends of places they were never supposed to have been seen. It makes you think. And sorry you never got to see any of these Elusive beasts in Kruger National Park

  4. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Fantastic Beasts and where to…. (Three) by Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  5. Reply D. Wallace Peach Aug 7,2017 8:31 pm

    Fascinating history, Paul. I always find it interesting when reading research like this how the legends, histories, and theologies all across Europe became so entwined, embellished, and regionalized through the centuries. Particularly how Christianity usurped many of the older myths and traditions.

    I don’t doubt that a few big cats were carted off to or delivered to non-native lands. We still do that today (with slightly greater skill). The beast hunts are pretty gruesome would have been in keeping with some of the other bloody entertainments of the day. Thanks for the less bloody but entertaining post. 😀

    • Reply Paul Aug 8,2017 12:01 am

      Thanks Diana, I think you have it spot on. We think of legends frozen in time but they are not. They were reinvented and retold much the same way we seem to release franchise reboots of movies every few years. I suppose they had to make them relevant to their modern audience in the the same way we have to and again you are right Christianity either absorbed or neutralised into fairy stories so much of the old relgions.

  6. Reply sally cronin Aug 7,2017 12:29 pm

    Brilliant Paul and with increasingly more sightings of big cats in various parts of the country that seem to elude capture, it is very topical. Angelsey is a wonderful part of Wales and its history is fascinating. Thanks again for entertaining and informing.. xxxx

  7. Reply Shehanne Moore Aug 6,2017 4:44 pm

    Wow, Paul, great post. Them hamster dudes would love to meet some of these beasts. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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