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Exploring the Goddess Arianrhod
Article ID: 14471
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Author: Helena Domenic [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: June 12th. 2011
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As I worked on research for this article, I was reminded that Arianrhod does not always come off in a great way in the Welsh stories about her that have survived. She seems a harsh, aloof and self-centered Goddess, one who does not care for her own children, and is interested only in her own welfare and pride. I have always suspected that there were earlier stories about her which were never written down, which showed a different face of the Goddess, one who is proud, for sure, but also strong and defiant and protective and nurturing of the souls who come into her care. In this article, I will share with you what I was able to learn from my research about this fascinating Goddess.
According to Ronald Hutton, Arianrhod appears first in the story of Math of Mathonwy, where she is a powerful, beautiful and self-centered woman capable of working unbreakable curses. In this story, she is the daughter of the great Celtic Goddess Don and Her consort Beli, and also sister to Gwydion and niece to Math. The story that is most widely known is the least flattering, so I’d like to begin there and suggest possible interpretations of the tale.
Math was a great king whose kingdom could only be at peace while his feet lay in the lap of a virgin. (I don’t quite get that either, although scholars have interpreted that to mean all kinds of strange things) . Math’s nephews Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy get into all kinds of trouble in the Mabinogian – very unsavory trouble. The start of the story involving Arianrhod begins when Gilfaethwy decides he must have Goewin, Math’s current footholder. The two of them concoct a scheme to distract Math so that Gilfaethwy can rape Goewin. When Math returns, he discovers Goewin’s shame, and to spare her further shame, he marries her. He is now, however, without his virgin footholder. He turns Gwydion and Gilfaethwy into a series of animals as punishment, and then seeks Gwydion’s advice for who should be his new footholder. Gwydion suggests his sister Arianrhod – he thinks she will be perfect for the job!
Arianrhod does not want the job, but is forced to undergo a magickal test in which she must step over Math’s magickal staff to prove her virginity. As she steps over her staff, two children she has conceived but has been unaware of topple out of her. One of them is an unformed blob. The other is named Dylan, who is a sea creature of some sort. He runs off to the sea and swims away. (In some stories he is drowned, sometimes by Arianrhod herself, sometimes by Gwydion) . Arianrhod in her shame runs away, leaving behind the blob that is snatched up by Gwydion.
Gwydion takes the blob to his chambers where he places it in a chest. Shortly thereafter, he hears screaming coming from the chest, and he opens it to find a magickal baby boy, who matures at an alarming rate. Gwydion determines to raise him as his own.
Gwydion eventually presents the child to Arianrhod, who, still angry at being shamed at court, refuses to acknowledge him. She even goes so far as to place a tynged, or geis, upon him – three curses, in fact. Each of these three curses is a thing that would have fallen within the domain of a Welsh woman to give to her son. Arianrhod rejects them all – first, she will not name the child, and states that he shall have no name. Secondly, she will not arm him – also the right of a Welsh mother – and finally, she curses him that he will not have any mortal woman as his wife.
Gwydion was furious with his sister and determined to break the curses she had laid upon her son. He and the boy came to Arianrhod in disguise – as cobblers. While Gwydion was fitting Arianrhod for shoes, the boy hit a bird with a stone. Arianrhod commented that the boy had a skillful hand. Gwydion triumphantly announced that she had just named her son – Lleu Llaw Gyffes, which means, “The Shining Skillful Hand.” Arianrhod was very angry and went back to her castle.
In order to break the second cruse, Gwydion once again disguised himself and Lleu as travelers seeking refuge at Caer Arianrhod. A powerful magician, Gwydion created the illusion of an army invading Caer Arianrhod. Arianrhod opened her armory and allowed Gwydion and Lleu to arm themselves. Gwydion then informed her of what she had done, and that there was no army advancing, so that she might as well take back Lleu’s arms. Again, Arianrhod was defeated.
Finally, in order to break the final curse, Gwydion and Math got together and with magick created a woman made entirely of flowers – Blodeuwedd, meaning “Flower Face.” Blodeuwedd married Lleu, and one would think that all was well for him. Sadly, being a creature not of the mortal world, Blodeuwedd was fickle, had an affair, with disastrous consequences.
The end of the story – in some people’s eyes – was that Arianrhod went back to Caer Arianrhod, her home, where she later drowned when the sea reclaimed the land.
As you can see, this telling of the tale does not paint Arianrhod in a good light. She is clearly not a good little virgin, she was betrayed by her brother and forsaken and humiliated by her father. She refuses to acknowledge her own son, and cared not that one of her sons had swum away upon being born. Still, reading the tale carefully, one can see a woman placed into a position she clearly did not want, and having all of her choices taken away. The Mabinogian was written down sometime between 1060 and 1250, presumably long after Christianity had come to the British Isles. One has to think that perhaps someone with a very large bias was writing down these stories of the ancient Gods.
Ronald Hutton refers to Gogynfeirdd, meaning ‘fairly early poets, ’ who were active from 1080 – 1350. They were writing in response to the Norman invasion and were considered bards. They were entirely Christian and had difficulty translating the early Welsh texts. They essentially created an entirely new mythology in which they elevated human and some human characters to deity status and among theses were Cerridwen, Gwynn Ap Nudd, and Arianrhod. Hutton says of Arianrhod, “Her talent for enchantment was inflated, so that in Kadair Kerritwen (Cauldron of Cerridwen) she is both the ‘greatest disgrace of the Britons’ and of splendid appearance, ‘dawn of serenity, ’ capable of casting a rainbow around a court to protect it.” (Hutton, 1991, p. 322) . She went on to become one of the great sorceresses of legend, becoming associated with Morgan le Fay.
Other details that we have about Arianrhod are that she rules Caer Sidi in the North. The constellation known as the Corona Borealis is named Caer Arianrhod – meaning Castle Arianrhod – in the Welsh. Her name itself means Silver Wheel – and she may be related to the Greek Ariadne, a weaver Goddess. Some descriptions of Arianrhod also describe her as a weaver.
If Arianrhod is the daughter of the great Goddess Don Herself, how can she have come to such a fate? Feminist scholars have suggested that Arianrhod represents the rejection of male domination, in this case represented by Math and Gwydion. Some might suggest that she represents the old Pagan religions, being overthrown by Christianity. I realize that here I am heading into pure conjecture, but still – the timing in which these stories were written down makes me question their writers’ intent.
Arianrhod is also said to have been the personification of the Wheel of the Year. Indeed, the Corona Borealis as Caer Arianrhod, and the constellation of Cassiopeia as the Court of Don seem to suggest that she is not only a celestial Goddess, but also one who somehow governs time. She is said to live in her realm with nine attendants and to decide the fate of the dead.
In the old sense of the word, virgin meant a woman who was not attached to a man, a woman who was in charge of her own life. It may be that Arianrhod was a virgin in that sense of the word, however – the name of her consort survives – Nwyvre. His name means the sky, space, or the firmament. Andrei Kondratiev, in his excellent book, The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual points out that Arianrhod is one of several Goddesses who unsuspectingly give birth to children of light. (Kondratiev, 2003) . Arianrhod’s myth does not tell us how her children were conceived, and Arianrhod retains her Celtic independence.
In Ladies of the Lake, Caitlin Matthews speaks of how the bard Taliesin enters the mysteries of Caer Sidi and is possessed of the secrets of the Goddess Arianrhod. What are these celestial realms that these Children of Don inhabit? According to the Morien Institute, the Milky Way was Gwydion’s castle, the Corona Borealis was Arianrhod’s castle, and the constellation of Cassiopeia was the location of the Court of Don. There are other places mentioned in Welsh myth which are believed to correlate to constellations, many of which have been since lost. Caer Sidi is thought to represent the galaxy, and Arianrhod’s Castle is ever revolving – the Silver Wheel.
Robert Graves in The White Goddess also speaks of Arianrhod. Arianrhod’s wheel is also known as the Oar Wheel, which carried the dead to Emania – the Celtic Moon Land of death. Caer Arianrhod is in the circumpolar stars, where souls are said to go between incarnations, and so Arianrhod has also been identified as a Goddess of reincarnation.
There are many who will not go by Graves’ mythology – I do think he made things up – but on the other hand, he is doing what so many before him have done - enlarging on an existing story and weaving a larger web. I know there are many who object strenuously to such things – however – if the Early Welsh poets were enlarging on existing stories – which are now often accepted as The Correct Way to Read Welsh Mythology – then how can we throw stones at Graves for doing the same thing?
But I digress.
The Celts made their calendars, such as the Coligny calendar, not by the sun, but by the moon. The Celts counted time not by days, but by nights. Celtic astrologers took their observations from the position of the moon and its progress in relation to the stars – the starry wheel of Arianrhod. Arianrhod’s castle was also known as the Spiral castle, and the Corona Borealis was the circle of stars around the pole star, the star that never set. This conception of Arianrhod helped me to see her as I feel she truly is.
My personal position on Arianrhod has come to be one that focuses upon her as a woman who will not be dominated by men or by structures that would have women dominated by men. Her message for us is to look deeper than that which appears on the surface and to seek the mysteries that lie beneath.
Elsbeth, M. and Johnson, K. (1997) . The Silver Wheel: Women’s Myths and Mysteries in the Celtic Tradition. Llewellyn Publications: St. Paul, MN.
Hutton, R. (1991) . The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Their Legacy. Blackwell Publishers: Cambridge, MA
Kondratiev, A. (2003) . The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. Citadel Press: New York City.
Matthews, C. and J. (1992) . Ladies of the Lake. Aquarian Press: San Francisco, CA.
Copyright: Helena Domenic, 2011
Location: Exton, Pennsylvania
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