The Mythical Thermos

The Mabinogion are a collection of medieval Welsh folk tales. They are a collection of old tales of derring-do and are really good fun, but there’s one bit in particular I’d like to draw your attention to.

Prince Culhwch wants to marry Olwen. I mean, his stepmother curses him so that he can marry no one else, and she’s the daughter of a giant. And he’s never met her.

But he really want to marry her and even gets King Arthur to lend him a few knights so he can find her. Eventually they end up at the right castle and fight the giant until he agrees to the wedding but he insists that Culhwch completes some challenges first. It’s a really, really long list of challenges, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

For example, he wants to shave his beard for his daughter’s wedding and he can’t do that unless he untangles it first. The 12th century Welsh equivalent of beard oil?

The blood of the Black Hag, daughter of the White Hag, from the headland of the Valley of Distress in the highlands of Hell.

But then the giant adds an extra detail, which I think is my favourite part of the whole book:

The blood will not be effective unless you get it while it is still warm, and no vessel anywhere will keep liquid warm save the bottles of Gwydolwyn the Dwarf: these retain the heat of that which is poured in the east until one reaches the west.

Yep, the tales of the Mabinogion predicted the invention of the themos, which didn’t actually come to pass until 1892. Never forget, that which we take for granted today was once literally the stuff of legend.

If you want to read The Mabinogion, I’d recommend this version translated by Jeffrey Gantz. It was translated and brought to public attention in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest and her version is still available, but I prefer Gantz’s personally.

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4 thoughts on “The Mythical Thermos

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