The Sisterhood of Avalon
Remembering, Reclaiming, Renewing

Welsh Goddesses and the Avalonian Tradition

In the Sisterhood of Avalon, our main pantheon is a reflection of the Five-fold mysteries of the Apple, as we honor five Goddesses from Welsh Tradition: Ceridwen, Rhiannon, Blodeuwedd, Arianrhod, and Branwen. Here is a bit of information about each.

CERIDWEN

Painting of Ceridwen in front of Llyn Tegid

Ceridwen – From The Avalonian Oracle, art by Emily Brunner

Holy Ceridwen, Lady of the Cauldron, fill us with your Streams of Illumination that we may find the depth of our vessels and test the true nature of our mettle. Holy Song, teach us the art of transformation that we may come to embrace the changes that bring us ever back into your womb to be reborn again

– ever in pursuit of the Awen, always on the path into wisdom.

Sacred Muse, inspire us to peer into the Utter Darkness of our limitations that we may find the Fairest ones of all – the Divine Potential of our Souls.

Sacred Site: Llyn Tegid/Lake Bala

Mythological Source: Ystoria Taliesin, several poems in Llyfr Taliesin

Ceridwen is an enigmatic figure for whom we have very little traditional lore, but who has, nevertheless, captured the imagination of modern Pagans to become one of the most well-known and widely-honored Celtic divinities. Today, she is predominantly considered a Goddess of magic, but to the bards of medieval Wales, she was their primary Muse; from her cauldron she bestowed upon them the gifts of Awen (divine inspiration), and these bards considered themselves the children of Ceridwen – the Cerddorion. Although Ceridwen is mentioned in many medieval poems, chiefly in her role as muse and mother to Taliesin — considered the greatest of all Welsh bards — the only tale we have about her is found in the Ystoria Taliesin (The Story of Taliesin) which is sometimes given as Hanes Taliesin (The History of Taliesin). Although the earliest extant version we have of the tale comes from a 16th century manuscript, linguistic analysis of the story has determined that it dates back to the 9th century, at least in its written form.

 

The meaning of Ceridwen’s name is not entirely clear, in part because of all of the variant spellings of her name in early Welsh poetry, which leave us with several potential etymologies. Some possible meanings of her name include: “Holy Song”, “Crooked Woman”, or “Bent White One”. “Holy Song” is clearly in alignment with Ceridwen’s role as muse, with “cerdd” meaning “song, poetry”, while “Crooked Woman” has connotations perhaps of a bent-backed crone, or one who is stooped over to gather herbs. Interestingly, the Welsh “cwrr” which means hooked or crooked has a common root with the Irish word “corrán” which means “hook” or “sickle” — the sickle being a tool used for the harvesting of herbs. Lastly, the meaning of “Bent White One”, which is similar in energy to “Crooked Woman” also suggests the shape of the crescent moon, leading some to believe that she may have been a Goddess with lunar associations. However, in Ystoria Taliesin, Ceridwen is not identified as a Goddess at all, but rather as a sorceress or a witch. Yet, the etymology of her name and the description of her nature can play an important role in reclaiming the divinity of Ceridwen. In this case, the presence of the feminine terminal deific “-wen”, which means “bright, shining, holy” makes for a strong argument that this shape-shifting woman — who dwelt on an island in, or perhaps under, a lake, with the power to brew elixirs of wisdom, and dispense Awen from her cauldron — had likely once been somewhat more than a sorceress.

BLODEUWEDD

Blodeuwedd seated upon a throne with a barn owl flying above

Blodeuwedd – From The Avalonian Oracle, art by Emily Brunner

Holy Blodeuwedd, Lady of Flowers, fill us with your blessings of renewal and the joy of empowered flight.

Flower Faced One, teach us the power of our choices that we may embrace our authentic selves, even in the face of others’ expectations.

Keen-eyed Hunter in the Night, help us to see past the illusion-shrouded darkness that our eyes may stay focused on that which is the essence of our being, our sharp talons never losing their grip upon the path of Truth.

Sacred Sites: Tomen y Mur (Mur y Castell), Llyn Morwynion, Cynfael River

Mythological Source: Fourth Branch of Y Mabinogi

There are few female characters in Welsh Mythology who present as great a moral challenge to modern readers as Blodeuwedd, who appears in the Fourth Branch of Y Mabinogi. A face-value reading of her tale paints her as a shallow and faithless woman originally made of flowers, an adulteress who plots with her lover to murder her husband, and a fleeing woman who is ultimately punished for her crimes by being transformed into an owl for all eternity. How could she be anything but a villain? Who would look up to this wicked woman, much less honor her as a Goddess? Clearly, there is more going on in her story than meets the eye, and the key to understanding requires some context from medieval Welsh culture, as well as the inherent symbolism of the story with roots that go back further still.

Magically created from the flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet she is first called “Blodeuedd”, which simply means, “flowers.” Later, when she is transformed into an owl, her name also changes, becoming “Blodeuwedd” – “flower face” – which describes the flower-like face of the owl that she has become. Blodeuedd is created for one purpose: the be the bride of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who has had a destiny lain upon him that prevented him from marrying a human woman. Soon after they are wed, for the first time acting with any agency in the tale, Blodeuedd falls in love with Gronw Pebryr, the lord of a neighboring land, and the resulting love triangle that unfolds in the story is deeply symbolic. Lleu, whose name potentially may mean “Light” and who shares many symbolic associations with other European Sky Gods, can be seen as the Solar Hero, who represents the Light Half of the Year; while Gronw, who we meet as a hunter, is associated with chthonic symbols that hint at his status as the Otherworldly Champion who represents the Dark Half of the Year. The two faces of Blodeuwedd underscore this polarity; she is an owl when she is mated with the Otherworldly Champion, and a Flower Bride when wed to the Solar Hero.

There is potential, therefore, that the tale of Blodeuwedd in the Fourth Branch is a medieval Welsh resonance of an international folk motif which depicts a symbolic reenactment of the endless struggle between light and dark, or between summer and winter. It is significant that Blodeuwedd is the pivot around which the balance shifts. This may be an indication of her former status as a tutelary deity – a Goddess of the land – and indeed, she is literally made of nature. Further, by extension, she may well have been a Sovereignty Goddess of the seasonal variety. As such, she has the right to choose her mate, and who she chooses becomes king. This may be why she could not simply have run away with Gronw, as only one king can reign at a time.

Whether she is simply a legendary figure from medieval Welsh lore, or is in truth a Sovereignty Goddess once worshiped in Celtic Britain, there is no doubt that Blodeuwedd is celebrated and honored in modern times as a divinity in her own right. After dwelling for centuries in darkness, flying on owl wings along the liminal boundary that straddles superstition and sacred symbol – this world and the Otherworld,  archetype and Divinity – the essence of all that is Blodeuwedd is venturing once more into the light of consciousness. Simultaneously Flower Bride and Owl of Wisdom, Unfaithful Wife and Lady of Sovereignty, this complex figure holds many lessons for those who seek to know her, and through her, learn to shed the fragile petals of illusion wrought by the expectations of others, in order to birth the authentic self that is able to see truth with owl-wise eyes.

RHIANNON

Rhiannon sitting on a throne, holding a silver branch

Rhiannon – From The Avalonian Oracle, art by Emily Brunner

Holy Rhiannon, Lady of the Otherworld, fill us with your boundless love and endless compassion.

Great Queen, teach us to ask for that which we most need, and to endure the trials set before us on the path to obtaining that which we most desire.

Nurturing Mother, help us to bear our burdens with strength and grace so that, empowered and empowering, we may in turn serve others.

Sacred Sites: Castlle Narberth, Goresedd Narberth

Mythological Sources: First and Third Branches of Y Mabinogi

Of the five Welsh Goddesses honored in the Avalonian Tradition, we probably know the most about Rhiannon. Appearing in both the First and Third Branches of Y Mabinogi, and with a brief mention in the Second Branch, she is generally accepted to have once been a Sovereignty Goddess based upon the content of her tales, the meaning of her name (“Divine Queen”), and her frequent association with horses in her stories — a well-established symbol of sovereignty for the Celts. She has analogues in the Gaulish horse Goddess Epona as well as the equine Goddess Macha, who is a face of the the triple-aspected Irish Goddess, the Mórrígan. Rhiannon’s name is etymologically connected to The Mórrígan through the reconstructed Common Celtic *Rīgantona, whose names share the meaning “Divine Queen” and who are Sovereignty goddesses in their own right.

Sovereignty figures are an international folk motif that is found predominantly in the stories and legends arising from Celtic cultures. There are several variations on this theme, depending on the time period and culture in question, but in general, a Goddess of Sovereignty (or a woman acting as her representative) tests the fitness of potential kings or chieftains, and if they are found worthy, enters into a sexual union with the king on behalf of the land. This sacred marriage ties the fate of the land to that of the ruler Sovereignty has thus empowered; as he prospers, so does the land. Should a king grow to be unrighteous, or else become infirm or maimed, the land is similarly afflicted and a new ruler must be found lest the country become a Wasteland, suffering from famine, disease, and war. 

By the time the story of the Goddess we have come to know as Rhiannon was written down in the 12th or 13th century, her tale had evolved over centuries of transmission in oral tradition to where both her divine and Sovereign natures had become subtextual rather than overt, although her role as one who tests the worthiness of kings is no less present.

From her very first appearance, Rhiannon is depicted with all of the trappings of the Otherworld; she is described as being arrayed in the same golden brocade associated with mythic figures who hail from Annwn. She is shown emerging from the Gorsedd Arberth, described, as with many mounds in Celtic myth, as a place to connect with the Otherworld – a place that will either render a person mad or witness to a wonder. Finally, she is associated with animals having Otherworldly characteristics – a slow-walking white mare that moves farther away the faster it is pursued, and the Adar Rhiannon – the Birds of Rhiannon – whose song is so beautiful, it is able to soothe the souls of the living and awaken the souls of the dead.

ARIANRHOD

Arianrhod sitting on a throne, holding a silver thread

Arianrhod – From The Avalonian Oracle, art by Emily Brunner

Holy Arianrhod, Lady of Destiny, fill us with your strength of purpose and ability to catalyze change.

Silver Wheel, teach us to honor the ebb and flow of our unfolding lives, and to become able to recognize the gifts that lie at the heart of life’s most difficult lessons.

Northern Crown, help us to weave the tapestry of our souls anew, as we walk the cyclic labyrinth leading us to your Sacred Presence.

Sacred Sites: Caer Arianrhod, near Dinas Dinlle

Mythological Source: Fourth Branch of Y Mabinogi

Of all of the female characters in the Four Branches, it is only Arianrhod who maintains her personal power and autonomy throughout the narrative; indeed, if there are remnants of past social orders to be found in the tales of Y Mabinogi, it is most strongly evidenced in the Fourth Branch, especially as it concerns Arianrhod in whom we see a woman in complete control over her life and her destiny.

Dwelling on an island fortress set apart from the rest of Gwynedd, she is ruler of her own court, and lives by her own rules. Not only do we see Arianrhod buck convention with her rejection of the role of motherhood, but we see her go unpunished for her unorthodox behavior. According to scholars, it is this rejection of the roles of wife and mother that allow Arianrhod to continue to operate with the power and privileges of a single woman. We see her competently performing the duties of a lord: she is concerned with the well-being of her people, is well-versed in courtly behavior, and is clearly well-educated.

These circumstances would have been unusual for contemporary Welsh women, and may have been a narrative survival from a different time, perhaps originating in pre-Christian Celtic Britain and preserved in orality before being written down; it is a general contrivance of myth and legend that they tend to reflect the sociocultural context which birthed the tale, and when it does not, it may reflect on an older order. We do know that pre-Christian Celtic women enjoyed more autonomy, rights, and privileges than their medieval peers, so — as with the matrilineal inheritance paradigm which seems to feature in the Fourth Branch — a woman who rules in her own right and appears to answer to no man may be a reflection of that earlier cultural norm, and may have been preserved and included in the Fourth Branch as part of depicting Arianrhod as “other.”

Arianrhod’s Otherworldly status is not explicit in the narrative, aside from her heritage as the daughter of Don, the Divine Ancestress of a powerful lineage – a lineage which includes Arianrhod’s magic-using uncle Math and brother Gwydion . It is worthy of note that the land Arianrhod rules over is named after her, a convention which scholars associate with “powerful goddesses who give their names to the lands with which they are connected.” Perhaps then, this, more than anything, marks Arianrhod as a representative of Sovereignty as often these are tutelary divinities, like Eriu, goddess of Ireland.

Most directly, Arianrhod’s claiming of Mother Right, and the struggle of Gwydion against it, is an extension of the subversion we’ve seen throughout the Fourth Branch. It is also significant to note that, regardless of Math’s kingship and the magical abilities possessed by both he and Gwydion, they are powerless to break the destinies lain by Arianrhod upon her son. The most these powerful men can do is to find a way around Arianrhod’s pronouncements.

Symbolically, Arianrhod may be seen as an initiator, the Terrible Mother archetype who sets up challenges before her son, the Solar Hero, through which he earns his manhood/kingship and/or comes to actualize his godhood. As the daughter of Dôn and Beli, both of whom have analogues in Irish myth as the divinities Danu and Bel, it is likely that Arianrhod was also originally divine. Her name means “Silver Wheel”, which appears to connect her to the moon and its phases; alternatively Aranrhod (the Middle Welsh version of her name) may mean “Circular Mound” . The motif implied here, as well as the connection of the wheel with the seasons, coupled with her laying of destinies, makes an argument for Arianrhod as a personification of fate. Further, it is this kind of testing of a potential king which is one of the hallmarks of the classic Sovereignty motif.

BRANWEN

Branswen holding a mirror in one hand, while a white raven perches upon her right shoulder.

Branwen – From The Avalonian Oracle, art by Emily Brunner

Holy Branwen, Lady of Two Islands, fill us with your steadfast grace and nobility of service, as you embody the work of the Peaceweaver.

White Raven, teach us to listen to the voice within, that we may move through our challenges and bridge the divide between sorrow and healing – between pain and wholeness .

Sovereign Queen, may every heartbeat fill us with the unshakable knowledge that you are within us, and we within you; we need but listen within the depths of all silences to hear the starling’s call – and awaken.

Sacred Sites: Harlech, Bedd Branwen

Mythological Source: Fourth Branch of Y Mabinogi

Branwen, whose name means “White Raven” or “Holy Raven”, is featured in the eponymous tale “Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr ”, the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi. It is tempting to read something into the fact that the Second Branch is the only one named for a woman, signifying the great importance of Branwen ferch Llŷr . However, this naming convention does not appear in the original manuscript; it was Lady Charlotte Guest who adopted the standard of naming the Four Branches after characters in the narrative when she translated the work into English.

Nevertheless, Branwen emerges from the narrative of the Second Branch bearing some of the hallmarks of a Goddess of Sovereignty. She is the sister of Bendigeidfran (Bran the Blessed), who is the king of Britain, and she is called one of Three Chief Maidens of the Isle of the Mighty. When Branwen consents to wed Matholwch, the king of Ireland who comes to Bran’s court seeking her hand, she enters into a sacred marriage to confer sovereignty onto the Irish king ,while also taking on the role of the Peace Weaver — one who lays down her body to serve as a bridge that unites two nations. During the wedding feast, Branwen’s half-brother Efnysien mutilates the horses of the Irish contingent, angry because he hadn’t been consulted about the marriage. This was an enormous insult to Matholwch as the horse is a symbol of sovereignty in Celtic tradition. As part of the compensation for Efnysien’s actions, Bran gifts Matholwch with the Cauldron of Regeneration, a magical vessel which could bring back to life any dead warrior placed within it.

Of all the figures from Welsh myth that we’ve discussed, Branwen is the one who most exemplifies the proper behavior of a woman within the medieval Welsh social order. In every way, she is depicted as the perfect wife and queen – gracious, noble, compliant, and beautiful. A paragon of right action, fulfilling her duty as wife and queen and bearing Matholwch a son, Branwen is made to suffer unjustly after several years have passed in their marriage. Her queenship is revoked, and she is banished to work in the kitchen where she is beaten by the butcher every day. Although she obeys her husband and follows his directive with characteristic grace, Branwen takes action to redress the wrong and dishonor being done to her.  She trains a starling to bring a message to Bran, revealing her mistreatment, and he gathers a war band to rescue her.

Yet in the end, Branwen’s story is a tragic one. Even as she is able to broker peace between the two kingdoms, Efnysien strikes once more – throwing her son Gwern into the fire and reigniting the flames of war. It is a destructive battle, and ultimately leads to the decimation of the Irish population, and only seven of Bran’s retinue return to Britain. Bran has been mortally wounded, and Branwen herself dies of a broken heart because of all of the devastation that has occurred in her name.

Branwen’s status as a Goddess has been renewed in modern Pagan practice, where she is honored by those whose spiritual paths are inspired by Celtic British or Brythonic traditions. Since her legend was not written down by those who worshiped her as a Goddess, we do not have a traditional depiction of Branwen as a fully-realized deity. Instead, the rawness of her story makes Branwen an emotionally accessible Goddess; because she has experienced suffering, she is an overflowing vessel of compassion for those who have been unjustly punished, have lived through domestic violence, and who have endured enormous loss.

Branwen’s story teaches us that we have the power to remain sovereign within ourselves no matter what may be going on around us, and by listening to our inner needs and using it to set change in motion outside of us, the Universe will answer our call. Rather than a tale of a tragic woman abandoned to the cruelties of fate, Branwen’s myth teaches that the path to divinity can be found when we seek harmony between the Shadow and Sovereign aspects of the self. When we learn to bridge What Is with What We Desire – even if a part of us must die – we find the path which leads us back to Source.

~   © Jhenah Telyndru 2010. All rights reserved.