December Long Nights Moon: Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel

Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel is one of the most enigmatic of all the Celtic Welsh goddesses, but as Virgin Mother of the Sacred Child and full moon goddess, her story is the perfect one to end the year. Only fragments of this once mighty goddess survive today, but nevertheless she is named as the ‘silver circled daughter of Don and Beli Mawr’ in the Welsh Triads, the primal mother and father gods of the Welsh pantheon, and therefore a first-generation goddess in her own right. Her dwelling place, the Caer Arianrhod was in the magical realm of the north, the Caer Sidi, the land of the dead where souls resided between incarnations. Arianrhod was said to gather the souls of warriors who had fallen in battle and transport them to a realm in the Caer Sidi called Emania, or Moonland,[1] and this has led to her association as a moon goddess.

Arianrhod features in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, where her story is told through the lens of medieval patriarchal Welsh society played out through her uncle and brothers. The story centres round Math Son of Mathonwy, lord of Gwynedd, who when not in battle, had to rest with his feet in the lap of a virgin. Goewin, the fairest maiden of her time, was the one chosen to play this role, but when she is tragically raped by one of Math’s men, she no longer able to fulfil it. There is much more than meets the eye behind this ancient story, but suffice to say for now, Gwydion, the brother of Arianrhod suggests that his sister might like to take over the job. Presumably seeking a marriage alliance with the king, he journeys to Arianrhod’s castle and persuades her to return to court with him.

Virgin goddesses were common in antiquity and were whole unto themselves, not needing a man for either sexual reproduction or validation. However, by medieval times the concept of virginity had taken on a completely different meaning and was perceived not only in terms of chastity, but as something controlled by men. Therefore, upon her arrival at court, Arianrhod is forced to give proof of her virginity, which she does by stepping over a magical rod held out by Math. Again, the symbolism and deeper meaning behind this act warrants further investigation, but sticking to the story for now, we are told that as she steps over the rod, Arianrhod gives birth to twins.  One of these boys is named Dylan, and he flees to the sea and swims away, and the other is scooped up by Gwydion and hidden in a chest. In this way, Arianrhod has fulfilled her role as Virgin mother of sacred twins, but in this medieval version, she is shamed for not being chaste and flees the court in disgrace.

Gwydion now takes over custody of the magical child, who he brings to a wet nurse to wean. He grows rapidly, and when he is eight years old, Gwydion journeys with his nephew to the palace of his mother. Arianrhod, still bitter about her humiliation, lays a tynged on her son, translated as taboo or curse: he shall have no name, unless she gives it to him. In due course, Gwydion disguises the boy as a shoemaker, and they return to Arianrhod’s court to fit her with shoes. She sees the boy killing a wren with a single stone, for Robert Graves symbolic of the new god/king killing the old, and she names him Llew Llaw Gyffes (the fair haired one with the single hand), showing that he has now come of age as sacred child, possibly a sun-hero.[2]

When Gwydion reveals the deception, Arianrhod lays another taboo on him: he will never take arms unless she arms him. Several years later, the uncle nephew pair once again visit her, this time disguised as bards, and after entertaining the court, Gwydion conjures up magical warships to make Arianrhod think they are under attack. Thereupon she is tricked into providing weapons and armour for her son, thus voiding her second curse. She now declares her final taboo: that he will never have a wife from any race that is now upon the Earth.

Arianrhod is often portrayed as a pentulent and spiteful mother who tries to deprive her son of his manhood by withholding his name, preventing him from taking arms, and from taking a wife. However, when we understand that Arianrhod was acting within her rights as not only his mother but as matriarch of the tribe, her actions can be seen in a different light. In this context, it is the uncle and brother who are the usurpers by seeking to withhold and deny her natural rites, which they do by trickery and deception.

Nevertheless, the story continues. Gwydion is undaunted by this final taboo, and together with Math, magically creates from the flowers of oak, broom, and meadow sweet, the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone ever saw, and they named her Blodeuwedd. She is duly wed to their nephew, but this story does not end happily (see of Flower Brides and Green Men above).  In brief, Blodeuwedd takes a lover and with him conspires to kill her husband, who is transformed into an eagle as the blow is struck, then brought back to life again by his uncles, who now transform Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment,’ for the owl was perceived as an evil creature of the night, despised and persecuted by other birds.’ [3]

As for Arianrhod, humiliated and defeated she is said to spend the rest of her days at her palace, Caer Arianrhod, until one day the sea claimed her realm, dragging it down beneath the waves. Today, her earthly island palace can still be glimpsed off the coast of Gwynedd near Llandwrog, where at low tide, an oval shaped reef remains in the shallows.[4]

Though the earthly aspect of the goddess may have had her time, she has been immortalised in the night sky. Her palace in the far north in the rotating realm of the Caer Sidi is linked to the circumpolar realm of the immortals, forever revolving round a central pole star. Arianrhod herself is etymologically linked to the Corona Borealis, for Caer Arianrhod is the Welsh term for the constellation. This could then be the place where  the souls of the dead withdraw to between incarnations. It has also been suggested that the Caer Gwydion has links to the Milky Way and the Lys Don, or Court of Don could refer to constellation of Cassiopeia, demonstrating that a sophisticated cosmology could be at the heart of these stories. [5]

And as above, so below, for while the cosmos offers a celestial aspect to the journey of the soul, the story also portrays the natural cycles of life and death down here on Earth. To Robert Graves, Arianrhod is an incarnation of the White Goddess, or Goddess of Life-in-Death and Death-in-Life who gives birth to the Sacred Child, and who, after dispatching his rival, himself becomes the Sun hero. She then adopts the form of Blodeuwedd, the love goddess who as is customary, destroys her lover, and is herself transformed into the Owl of Wisdom, feeding on his flesh, while his soul is transformed into that of an eagle and lives on.[6] In this way, Arianrhod is truly an aspect of the wheel of karma and reincarnation, of which her Silver Wheel could also be a metaphor, forever weaving and spinning the web of life, death and rebirth.


[1] ‘Arianrhod, Celtic Star Goddess, by Judith Shaw, available at www.feminismandreligion.com

[2] ‘The White Goddess’ by Robert Graves, see p. 94

[3] ‘The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited and translated by Patrick K. Ford, 2019

[4] See Mystical Places of North Wales, available at www.northwalesholidaycottages.co.uk for more details

[5] See ‘Caer Gwydion’ by Mabinogion Astronomy, available at www.mabinigionastronomy.blogspot.com

[6] ‘The White Goddess’ by Robert Graves, see p. 94

Winter Solstice: The World Tree, Saturn and the Sacred Child

Finally after weeks of gathering darkness, the turning point has arrived. For millennia humans have honoured this pivotal event and even constructed monumental architecture, such as the passage tombs at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley and Abu Simbel in Egypt, to celebrate the first rays of the returning sun at the Winter Solstice. And just as in Nature the sun is reborn at the Solstice, so it is in mythology around the world that the Virgin gives birth to a sacred son. Mithra was born in a cave of a Virgin in Persia: in Welsh tradition, Rhiannon gave birth to Pryderi; in Egypt, Isis to Horus and in Christian tradition, Mary to Jesus. In Ancient Greece, the festival of the Wild Women was held at Winter Solstice, when the death and rebirth of the harvest god Dionysus was dramatised

Inevitably, according to cosmic law, rebirth must be accompanied by sacrifice, or the offering of a sacred gift. This balancing of the cosmic scales has often been depicted in myth and legend by the usurping of the father by the son: the old king, Saturn, or Father Time, is overthrown by the new king Jupiter/Zeus, ruler of the ages. Going back further still, Saturn also overthrew his father, Uranus, first a revolutionary then a despot who banished his children to the Underworld. So Saturn conspired with his mother Gaia against his father, castrating him and taking over the governance of the world, an event celebrated at the Winter Solstice in Rome through a week-long celebration called the Saturnalia

In cosmic terms, it is the dance of opposition and conjunctions between the outer visible planets that mirrored above what was going on below, and the most auspicious of these were the great conjunctions between Saturn (ruler of time) and Jupiter (ruler of the ages). Many researchers have pointed out that there was such a conjunction in 7 BCE, and this could have been the famed Star of Bethlehem followed by the wise men to the cave in where Jesus lay.

Our own century was also ushered in with such a great conjunction in May 2000. Nine years later, in 2009, Saturn and Uranus then made a series of powerful oppositions symbolising the clash of visionary idealism and the crystallisation of visions into solid structures and forms. This was followed by the Jupiter and Uranus triple conjunctions of 2010 – 2011, continuing to bring about change and awakening new levels of political, psychological and spiritual awareness. Now in 2020 a year-long dance of the outer planets with Pluto (in Capricorn), energised by fiery Mars in its own sign of Aries, culminates at the Winter Solstice with a line up and grand conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius. And that’s not all. Great conjunctions between the rulers of time and the ages occurs roughly every 20 years, staying in one element for a period of around 200, before moving to the next. This year the Great Mutation will occur in air, the ruler of ideas, collective awareness, and all things Internet-based. So, this Winter Solstice, we have a Great Transformation, a Great Mutation and a Great Conjunction all in the first degree of Aquarius!

Bridging the cosmic and the terrestrial is the symbolic World Tree, the axis mundi that links the three worlds. And houses throughout the land currently have their very own evergreen World Tree, complete with a twinkling star on top. Myths describing this ancient symbol stretches across all ages and cultures, but the Norse version is one of the most beautiful and evocative of them all. Here it is Yggdrasil, the sacred ash, that holds the nine realms of the cosmos within its branches and roots. Each of its three roots ends in different worlds where they draw water form different sources, or well, and the dragon Nidhogg continuously gnaws upon them. A stag feasts on the branches, and from his horns flow the waters that feed all the rivers and wells flow. Three Norns protect and tend to the World Tree, caving magic runes into its trunk and weaving a loom that represents time itself. Every morning the leaves of Yggdrasil form a sweet glimmering dew, our memory of yesterday, and it is the sacred duty of one of the Norns to collect the dew and pour it into her well, the Well of Memory, for it is written that if the past is disregarded the roots will dry up. In the centre of her well are two sacred swans, continually creating love, and there are also said to be serpents. Another Norn presides over the flowers that are fed by the sacred waters, and the third assists the flowers to reach out to the future.

So it is by tending the wisdom and experience of the past that we build the foundations for a rich and soulful future. As the wheel of the year turns this Winter Solstice under a great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter (Star of Bethlehem?) heralding in the Age of Aquarius, this beautiful myth shows us how to collect the sweet glimmering due of the past in order to weave a glorious and joyful future for all of the nine worlds of which we are just one part. And one, which the prophets foretold, will bring peace and good will to all men and women.

Image Credit: the Norns tending the World Tree by Ratatoska.

November Snow Moon: Toadstools, Frogs and Fairy Queens

Around the November full moon, it was customary in Ireland to dress in green in honour of the fairy folk and their most famous queen, Oonagh. Known as the most beautiful goddess of them all, Oonagh was said to fly over the land wearing a gossamer, silver robe bejewelled with dew, her long golden hair sweeping the ground, beguiling all those with whom she came into contact. Though mortal men could not help but fall in love with her, the High King Finvarrva, her husband, seemed oblivious to her glamour and preferred instead to seduce mortal women. Today, the once High Queen of the Daoine Sidhe, or people of the mound, has been relegated to such vague titles as ‘love goddess,’ or ‘protectress of young animals’ and ‘mistress of illusion and glamour,’ but we can still piece together the mere fragments of her story that survive to develop a picture of this elusive queen and the rites that once surrounded her.

According to the Mythological Cycle, the Tuatha De Danann were a pre-historic people who arrived in Ireland ‘on the first of May,’ and engaged in battle with the Fir Bolg, a pre-existing warrior tribe, at Mag Tuireadh. Though the Tuatha were victorious they also had to negotiate with a pre-existing tribe known as the Formorians, who were hostile to them but who they finally defeated years later with the aid of magical weapons at the second battle of Mag Tuireadh. However, they were in turn also destined to be replaced by another incoming tribe, the Milesians, who also arrived on the 1st May, and later converted to Christianity. The characters of the Tuatha became mythologised as gods and retired to the sidhe, the pre-historic burial mounds that peppered the Irish landscape, where they remain to this day.[1] It is widely disputed to what extent this mythological history constitutes actual migrations, or the battles real historical events, but it should always be born in mind that myths emerge out of a relationship between people and places and therefore contain perennial truths and ecological wisdoms with multiple meanings and nuances.

Whether historic figures or not, the Tuatha were said to have magical powers, to be masters of the sidhe, or siddhi, which means in this context, power over the elemental forces and therefore the arts of prophecy, healing and magic. These powers were quite literally regarded as otherworldly – the Otherworld being the realm of archetypal and magical beings (‘Super-nature’) that both permeates and is separate from the world inhabited by humans. Super-nature has an existence that is independent from us, and if we are fortunate, comes forward to us in our imagination and dreams. In fairy lore, this place is sometimes known as the Land of Elphame, where the fairies of Daoine-sidhe, are said to reside. Oonagh as Fairy Queen could access the wisdom of the Elphame, and her colour was green, reflecting the emerald grass, majestic trees and plants abounding in the land of Ireland.

The people of the Daoine-sidhe would have guarded their powers tightly (this could have been the origins of the term green with envy?) and therefore it was not permitted for fairy queens to marry mortals, though they themselves became infatuated with her. It is interesting in the stories that Finvarra is said to indulge quite freely in carnal relationships with mortal women, and this could  be an indication that his offspring would not have been given the same fay status as that of the matrilineal fairy queen. Be that as it may, during later times and under the superstitions and distortions imposed by Christianity, people feared that their own children had been supplanted by ‘malevolent’ changeling fairies who brought about family ills, and designed tests to root out infiltrators that inevitably, and sadly, ended in deforming their own children.

The Fairy Queen though usually beguiling also had a dark side, for it was said that she was bound to pay a tithe to Hel every seven years and it was her mortal lovers who were to pay this price. Men were therefore both fascinated and afraid of her, as reflected in the poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by Keats. The knight in the poem ‘meets a lady in the meads, full beautiful – a faery’s child. Her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild.’ He rides off with the fairy maid and then sees,’ pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death pale were they all. They cried, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci Hath thee in thrall.’

Like Oonagh, the faery being in the poem is said to have long hair and again this is a symbol of both the chastity and unavailability of the fay woman, who even when vulnerable and naked, remains veiled by her hair. This ‘veiling’ is a very ancient symbol of the goddess, or the mysteries, that remain veiled to the uninitiated until the time is right. Indeed, Oonagh’s gossamer dress is more veil than robe-like, as though it appears like sparkling diamonds, it is actually made from dew-drops.

The fairy queen of Elphame has an enduring presence in the popular imagination of the Middle Ages and has survived in numerous pieces of literature and folktale. Edmund Spenser called her Gloriana in his poem the Faerie Queen, and Shakespeare called her Titania in his comedy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ This name was itself derived from Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, who became associated with the fairy realm in the folklore of the Middle Ages on account of her association with woods, forests and fountains.[2]

The social structures of the Tuatha de Danaan were centred on seas of assembly called raths, circular mounds built as ancient burial mounds and therefore considered sacred. They were sometimes known as fairy rings, as were pre-existing stone circles. Fairy rings are also the name given to a type of mushroom – the Mousseron – which appears in early spring-time and grows in circular formations that expand out over large periods of time. This mushroom variety is highly edible, but sometimes growing alongside is another variety called Amanita muscaria, more often called a toadstool on account of its red-topped fungus and warty proturberances. It is classed as highly poisonous, though less so when boiled, and is ingested on account of its hallucinogenic and intoxicating properties.[3] It has long since been used in a ritual context, possible recorded in the Rigveda of India, were it was called ‘soma.’ The uses of ayahuasca and the psilocybin mushrooms as hallucinogens is well known and more than likely used by ancient people in ritual context to bring about spiritual experiences, and aid communication with the archetypal beings of the Otherworld.

Toads are known to have highly toxic chemicals in the nodes under their skin, which they can use as deadly defences in some cases. Most are poisonous, but it has been discovered that the cane toad, amongst others, secretes chemicals with highly hallucinogenic effects.[4] It is therefore interesting to speculate if there is a link between these properties and the fairy tale theme of princesses kissing frogs, which then turn into handsome princes. In a version of the frog prince tale told in the Western Isles of Scotland, it is tempting to see just this. The story begins with a queen who has become ill and can only be healed by water from the well of truth. Her three daughters set out to find the well, but when they approach it, a loathsome frog appears who will only grant them access if one agrees to marry him. The youngest pledges to do so, and the frog permits them access to the water, which is then used to heal the mother queen. But in due course, the frog seeks out the daughter and reminds her of her pledge to marry him. He croaks and croaks, but she resolutely ignores him until he tells her to put an end to his torture and chop off his head! This she duly does, whereupon he turns into a handsome prince and marries the princess.

The fairy story of the frog prince can be interpreted on many other levels worthy of an entire book, but all of which encode a forgotten relationship between humans and the Otherworld inhabited by the people of the sidhe (Super-nature). By having the humility to accept nature in all its forms, beautiful and ugly, and to be open to the Otherworld and its gifts of ‘fairy gold,’ we have the power to transform  our mundane human experience into one of deep connection with the land, and to the life-sustaining nourishment of the mythic imagination from which we are currently so disconnected.

In addition to circular mounds, water was also frequently seen as a boundary between the mortal and the Otherworld, or Land of Elphame, and it was at these water sources that frogs and toads were frequently found, as in the folktale above. Visibly seen to be birthed in pools of water, frogs were considered as representatives of water spirits, particularly healing ones, often associated with the blessings of rain and the purifying and life-giving forces of water. Figurines of frogs with female heads have been found dating back to at least the sixth millennium BCE in Hacilar in Turkey, and also in birthing/life giving poses in the archaeological record of Old Europe.[5] The fact that frogs laid frog spawn (eggs), which is then turn hatch into tadpoles, aquatic creatures with tails, then finally develop into frogs (amphibians that can survive both on land and in water) marks them out as unique manifestations of the goddess as both creatrix and regeneratrix.


[1] ‘The new Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology’ 1959, Hamlyn

[2] See ‘Fairy Queen – Wikepedia’ available at www.en.m.wikepedia.org, accessed 29.11.2020

[3] See ‘Fly Algaric (Amanita muscaria) – Woodland Trust’ available at www.woodlandtrust.org.uk, accessed 29.11.2020

[4] See ‘Psychedilic Toad Venon is the New Trendy Hallucinogenic Addition,’ available at www.addictioncenter.com, accessed 29.11.2020.

[5] ‘The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe,’ by Marija Gimbutas, 1982, Thames and Hudson

Samhain Blue Moon: the Morrigan, Crows and Hel

This year the thirteenth moon of the year, when there are two full moons in a month, auspiciously falls at Samhain, an ancient festival of death and new beginnings. This liminal time becomes quite literally tonight a ‘Time between Worlds’ represented by the twelve months of the solar calendar and the more ancient thirteen moons of the lunar calendar, both of which comprise roughly 365 days. A potent blue moon and time of transformation and magic.

In the Celtic world, Samhain was when the cattle were brought down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered in preparation for the forthcoming winter months. It was a time of great feasting and drinking, a major fire festival when the beacons would be lit across the hill tops to cleanse and purify and re-establish the bond between heaven and earth. Also when the veils between the worlds are thin, bringing us closer to the spirit of the ancestors and the Sidhe. This festival-of-the-dead aspect has been incorporated into the Catholic tradition of All Souls and All Saints day, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, when celebrations still take place all over the world in cemeteries or in the streets. For most people, this is Halloween when children go out trick-or-treating, and even this has deep roots in the past. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, people would go door to door begging for soul cakes, which were then used to feed the souls of the dead.

This is also a time of powerful celestial harbingers. At the beginning of November, Earth passes through the Taurids meteor shower, when great flares of slow moving light streak across the night sky. In the past, this is possibly a time when meteors fell to Earth, making this a time of dangerous potent, but also highly auspicious, linking heaven and earth, life and death. In the Anglo-Saxon period, this was when the goddess Hel was on the loose. Sometimes she is said to ride with Odin across the skies in the Wild Hunt, when the demons of the Underworld maraude in the form of large, ominous, ghostly hordes. This deeply celestial motif could also be linked in folk memory to the vast flocks of migrating birds, particularly geese, that would have filled the skies with awesome flapping of wings and haunting honking sounds as they fly across the backdrop of the Milky Way to winter feeding grounds.

Odin made Hel queen of Niflheim, the Underworld realm of the dead, and she was terrible to behold, one half of her body healthy and the other half rotten and diseased. She received all the dead, except those who had died in battle, and her realm was part a place of rest and peace, part a place where the evil were punished for their terrible deeds. Sound familiar? However, she was also associated with lakes and streams under the name of Holde (in the German speaking world), and with the growing of flax, spinning and the hearth, demonstrating that she was once a multi-faceted goddess who has become demonised by the Church in later times.[1]

In Celtic tradition, it was the great queen, the Morrigan, who came to the fore at Samhain. This ancient phantom queen had three aspects, Badb (the banshee or crow), Macha and Neman. She was a guardian of territory and people, so a Sovereignty goddess, and in this respect was associated with war and fate,  and with prophetic voice, particularly that associated with doom, death or victory in battle. In her death aspect she was seen as an old woman washing the bloody sheets of the dead at the crossroads, the washer at the ford, the archetypal banshee.

In the Mythological Cycles, the Morrigan is listed among the Tuatha de Danaan and appears in many of the old stories. For example, in the Cattle Raid of Cooley she reveals herself to be a shapeshifter par excellence, turning into a series of animals – a crow, woman, eel, wolf, a white red-eared heifer – all of which sustain wounds, then finally an old woman milking a cow but with the wounds gained in animal form still intact. The story then goes on to reveal her healing and regenerative abilities, for she gives the hero milk from her cow three times and in return he blesses her, healing her wounds.

In the Second Battle of Moytura, the Morrigan has a Samhain tryst with the Dagda before he goes into battle with the Fomorians. He is out walking by the river when:

‘He beheld a woman washing herself with one of her two feet to the south of the water, and the other to the north of the water. Nine loosened tresses were on her head. The Dadga conversed with her and they made a union. The bed of the Couple is the name of the place henceforward. The woman that is there mentioned is the Morrigu.’ [2]

She tells him where the Fomorians will land and promises to kill the Fomorian king and bring back two handfuls of his blood as proof. Their union is said to take place every year on the eve of Samhain, which marks the end of the agricultural year and the beginning of a new one, so this coupling between the forces of light and darkness is possibly symbolic of new beginnings, and of rebirth in sexual union.

The primary bird of the triple Morrigan is the hooded crow, and she is sometimes depicted in this form. The tradition of the great goddess as bird is ancient and there is a lot of evidence for her in this form in the Old European Copper Age. [3]This was when the goddess nurtured and generated, destroyed and regenerated again and her beak, claws, wings, vulva and breasts symbolised these transitional stages. Crows are also scavengers and appeared on the battlefield to feed off the flesh of the dead, linking them with the forces of destruction and suffering associated with death in this form, accentuated by their hooded heads, scaly claws and hooked beaks. They also spoke in haunting tones, their caws floating eerily through desolate landscapes, and they were therefore often used in divination, to foretell the death of heroes, and their flight patterns could also be interpreted by druids versed in their meanings. The link between these birds and the life-death-rebirth cycle mediated by the goddess is seen in the ritual of burying crows, or ravens, with outspread wings at the bottom of pits or shafts linking this world with the Underworld. This was the bird goddess as psychopomp, guiding and accompanying the souls of the dead on their journey between the worlds. When death is seen as part of life and not morbidly feared, then regeneration and rebirth emerge as natural parts of the cycle of life/death of which we are all part.


[1] ‘Hel, Norse goddess of the Underworld,’ available at http://www.learnreligions.com

[2] ‘The Second Battle of Moytura,’ Stokes, 1891 available at http://www.sacredtexts.com

[3] See Marija Gimbutas’ work for abundance evidence

Picture credits: ‘Morrigan’ by Irenhorrors, ‘Crow’ and ‘Morrigan’ under public domain licencing

October Blood Moon: Pig, Ivy and the Curse of Macha

As we enter October, named from Octem in the old Roman calendar, we begin our slow descent into the Underworld of winter. The last of the fruits ripen, succulent yellow pears, and the chlorophyl in green leaves dries to produce shades of burnished bronze. Most plants give in gracefully to this Underworld descent, but a few continue to flourish. Foremost amongst these is the virulent ivy, wrapping undeterred its spiralling, waxy leaves around anything standing in its path.

Ivy has been associated with intoxication and poetry in many cultures, with the constellations, and in particular the moon. In the classical world, it was used to enhance the frenzied rituals of the Bacchae, followers of Dionysus, who steeped ivy leaves in wine in order to make it more potent (and the after-effects less so). The Anglo-Saxons also used it to brew beer before the introduction of hops, then known as alehoof, and taverns would display an ivy bush over the door to show they brewed only the best alcohol. [1]This demonstrates that the Celtic world was familiar with the potent intoxicating effects of the plant, and could have used it in ritual contexts to enhance inspiration and bardic ability.

The October full moon was sometimes known as the blood moon because this was when life stock was slaughtered and salted in preparation for the long winter months ahead. Swine herders would drive their pigs throughout autumn to graze on the acorns and beech nuts strewn across the ways and woods, distributing the fat evenly across the body of the creatures through daily exercise. As such the pig, the sow in particular, was often seen as the nourisher, sacred to the goddess in many traditions and held in high regard in the Celtic one. Pigs were herded and consumed in large numbers at clan gatherings and feasts, and also at symbolic Otherworldly feasts where great life-giving cauldrons were said to be endlessly filled with boiled or roasted pork.

Pigs were often used ritualistically in the Celtic world, and at the Iron Age fort on Hayling Island and Cadbury in Somerset, large numbers of pigs have been found deliberately buried, sometimes in avenues.[2] They were also sometimes buried alongside people, whom they presumably continued to nourish in the afterlife, and it was believed that the pigs too would be continually reborn after their slaughter. Whereas the sow was linked with nourishment and life, it was the male boar who was more associated with death and life-taking aspects.

Swine nerds are also mentioned in early Welsh sacred tradition, and the White Ancient One, a sow called Henwen is said to give birth to an eagle, a bee, a kitten and a grain of wheat. This birthing or shapeshifting ability has led some researchers to see links between Henwen and the goddess Ceridwen, who they call the white sow goddess of pigs. Though the evidence for this is thin, there is abundant evidence that the sow was seen as sacred to a life-giving creatrix goddess as far back as early Neolithic times across Europe, and this could be an echo of this belief.

In Celtic tradition, October and the feast of Samhain are often linked with the Morrigan, a triple goddess with one of her aspects taking the form of the intriguing Sovereignty goddess, Macha. She was said to be one of the Tuatha de Danaan, and sometimes considered a triple goddess in her own right, with different persona woven together in the stories to form one multi-faceted person. As a Sovereignty goddess, she is an embodiment of the land, conferring sexual favours on suitable kings selected to step into the role of guardians. As protector of both territory and the people connected with it, she is also both warrior and carer, mediator of fertility and plenty.

One of her most famous stories is told in the Debility of the Ulstermen, where she is strongly connected with the horse, the ultimate symbol of Celtic Sovereignty . Her appearance is sudden and unexpected, for one day she simply shows up at the house of a farmer named Cruinniuc and takes on the role of his wife. ‘She fetched a kneading-trough and a sieve and began to prepare food. As the say drew to an end, she took a vessel and milked the cow, still without speaking.’[3]

 His wealth grew and Cruinniuc prospered with Macha at his side, a sure sign that she was the goddess Sovereignty in human form, and she even becomes pregnant by him. One day he leaves to attend a festival organised by the king of Ulster, and she warns him that he must not speak of her to anyone otherwise she will not stay. However, he breaks the promise and during a chariot race, boasts to the king that his wife can run faster than even his swiftest horse. Cruinnic is ordered on pain of death to prove his claim, and Macha is duly brought before the king. Even though she is heavily pregnant by now, he forces her to run against his horses without mercy.

Sure enough, Macha wins the race, and gives birth at the finishing line to a twin boy and girl before the king’s horses reach their goal. Then, for disrespecting her she utters a curse that is to be in place unto the ninth generation: the men of Ulster will be overcome with weakness in the hour of their greatest need, becoming as weak as a woman in childbirth (or in some accounts, suffer the pain of childbirth) for five days and four nights. The place where she gave birth is known as the Emain Macha, and is today equated with the sacred site of Navan in Co. Armagh. All the men who heard her cry were immediately seized with weakness, and the effects come once more into play in the Cattle Raid of Cooley (see ‘June Mead Moon: Honeysuckle, Maeve and Bees‘ above) when the Ulstermen were unable to resist the invasion of Maeve and her men.

As with the other Sovereignty goddesses such as Aine and Maeve in the Irish cycles, or Rhiannon and Branwen in the  Welsh mythological traditions, we abuse or disrespect the goddess of the land, and therefore the land itself, at our peril. Weak and power hungry kinship, where the king has forgotten his role as guardian or the land or people, is also punished with a withdrawal of abundance and wealth, lessons still as relevant today as the times when they were first spoken and written.


[1] ‘Ivy’ in ‘The Green Man Tree Oracle’ by John Matthews and Will Worthington

[2] ‘Sow’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[3] ‘The Debility of the Ulstermen,’ translated by Mary Jones (online)

Autumn Equinox: Mabon and the Salmon of Wisdom

The Autumn Equinox is the time when the sun crosses the Equator and is positioned above it, exactly between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Now as the nights grow longer and the days shorten, leaves hang golden and burnished on the boughs, and the abundance of summer passes into seed. This is the time of the second harvest, gathering the last of the vegetables, fruits and seeds that will see us through the winter in the form of jams, purees, stews and chutneys. The opportunity to rest comes after the labour of harvest, time to give thanks for the abundance of the Earth’s produce, to reflect on all that one has reaped and sown in the previous months, to bring projects to fruition and to start to let go of all that which is no longer needed. Both the cornucopia, the symbol of plenty, and the apple, symbol of the fruit harvest, are associated with Autumn Equinox, now since the 1970s anyway, commonly known as the feast of Mabon.

In Welsh mythology, the figure of Mabon could be of ancient pedigree, and is certainly both elusive and multi-faceted. His story can be gathered and assembled from references in all four branches of the Mabinogion, and a couple of the medieval Welsh romances, though, as ever, this is disputed by scholars. His main association is as Mabon ap Modron, derived from the Romano-British god Maponus, meaning Great Son, born of the great goddess Modron, or Dea Matrona.[1] The sacred child born of the Earth mother goddess. The Maponus of Celtic tradition was sometimes equated with the Greek Apollo, giving him an association with light and the sun, but it is the divine-mother-son-pair that is the most primal archetype, possibly hinting back to a much more ancient origin.

Mabon ap Modron makes his most famous appearance in the guise of a Magical Hunter[2] in tale of Culhwch and Olwen, a romance probably first written in the 1100s, one of the earlier Arthurian references. The story centres on the romance between, Culhwch, son of King Cilydd, who becomes infatuated because of a curse with Olwen, a giant’s daughter. The giant is reluctant to let Culhwch marry Olwen and sets the love-struck youth a series of impossible tasks that he must fulfil in order to win her hand. Clearing fields, ploughing, sewing and raising a crop in one day, fetching two magical oxen to pull a plough, sowing linseed to produce the white linen wedding veil, producing sweet mead without the aid of bees, procuring a magical hamper that never empties, a harp that plays itself, a magical cauldron, and the comb and shears between the ears of the enchanted wild boar,  the Twrch Trwyth, to dress his hair. This magical beast can only be tracked by the dog Drudwyn, which in turn can only be hunted by Mabon ap Modron, but alas, no one knows where he is or whether he is alive or dead. Culwhch must seek the help of King Arthur and his men to perform these tasks, and most of the tale is given over to describing their exploits.

Mabon, it transpires, was taken from his mother when he was three nights old, as was Pryderi ap Pwyll, in the first branch of the Mabiniogion. This Pryderi was the son of Rhiannon, and it was she was blamed for the disappearance of her son, and his suspected murder, and made to bear those visiting court on her back as punishment (see September Harvest Moon: the Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds above). Pryderi makes an appearance in all four branches of the Mabinogion and this had led some researchers, e.g. W.J. Gruffydd, to suggest that the origin of the word Mabinogion pertains to the god Maponus, himself equated with Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll. Though some of Gruffyd’s ideas are no longer fashionable, recent scholars are now suggesting that this theory could contain at least a kernel of truth.[4] This could also be further evidence for the ancient pedigree of the divine-mother-son origins for the figure of Mabon.

In order to locate Mabon, King Arthur and his men must enlist the help of a series of wise and magical animals, all of whom are more ancient and therefore knowledgeable than any of the human characters in the story. In order to understand these messenger from the Otherworld they need to enlist the help of a man named Gwrhyr, an interpreter of tongues, who they rescue from imprisonment. Thus prepared, they seek out the Blackbird of Cilgwri who tells them that he so old that he had worn away a smith’s anvil with his beak, ‘so that only a nut sized piece remains.’ Even so, he has heard nothing of Mabon and his fate.

He directs them to the Stag of Rhedynfre, who, when he first arrived ‘had only one antler on either side of his head and the only tree was an oak sapling. In the meantime, that tree grew into an oak of a hundred branches and finally tumbled down so that today nothing remains of it but a fed stump,’ yet despite his age, he too knows nothing of Mabon.

The Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the next creature, was so old that his wings were stumps when he first came to his place, had born witness to the growth and destruction of three forests, yet throughout this time has heard nothing of the men they seek. The Eagle of Gwernabwy, older still, once sat on a large stone from where he could peck the stars each night. Now, in the meantime, it has been reduced to the size of a fist, but even he is unable to help. However, he believes that the oldest and wisest creature of them all may be able to: the enormous Salmon of Lyn Llyw.

Indeed, the salmon does have news. He tells Arthur and his men that with each tide he swims up the river until he comes to the walls of a castle in Gloucester, and here he has heard a terrible grieving, the likes of which has never been seen before. He takes Cei and Gwrhyr the interpreter on his back up the river to the castle, and there sure enough, they find the wretched Mabon son of Modron, who has been painfully incarcerated within its walls for years.

With Arthur’s help, Mabon is freed and he helps them procure the dogs needed for the hunt of the enchanted boar, Twrch Trwyth, and the leash that must be held while he hunts. Culwch then goes on, with much assistance and a long and arduous hunt, to retrieve the scissors and comb from between the magical boar’s ears, therefore allowing the giant to complete his grooming in preparation for the marriage of his daughter to her suitor.

Though Mabon’s reference is fleeting in this long and detailed tale, his role as Magical Hunter is paramount for the story. And so is the help of the otherworldly animals, the most important of which is the great Salmon of Lyn Llyw. In both Welsh and Irish tradition, the salmon is the guardian par excellence of wisdom, knowledge, inspiration and prophecy. Another key reference to the salmon is in the Fenian cycles of Irish tradition where the salmon is said to swim in the well of wisdom, the source of all life, that has a physical location at the source of the River Boyne. This well is surrounded by a grove of nine sacred hazel trees, which nourish the salmon and make him wise, giving rise to the red spots on his side.

In the Irish tale, a young man encounters a fisherman who has been fishing for the Salmon of Wisdom for seven years. In a tale similar to that of Gwion Bach (see Summer Solstice: of Taliesin, Ceridwen and magical Cauldrons),  the fish is caught as the boy approaches, and he accidentally touches it’s magical flesh as he is given the task of roasting it over the fire. He instantly becomes endowed with all the knowledge and wisdom of the salmon, and became a great seer and poet.[5] The salmon is indeed a remarkable creature: it will return to the place of its birth to mate, swimming great distances, sometimes upstream, in both salt and freshwater to do so. It’s inbuilt instinct to return to the source of its youth has also led to its association with longevity, and in Druidic tradition, the story of Mabon is linked to the divine child of eternal youth and the salmon the elixir of life, forever sought but not often found.


[1] See ‘Mabon ap Modron,’ en.w.wikipedia.org (accessed 19.9.2020)

[2] ‘The Celtic Myths,’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames and Hudson, 2015

[4] See ‘The Mabiniogion and other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited by Patrick K Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[5] ‘The Celtic Myths,’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames and Hudson, 2015

September Harvest Moon: The Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds

The month of September is named simply from the Latin for seven, as in the seventh month, but what it lacks in name it makes up for in the bounty and splendour of the harvest produce, of the often serene last days of summer, and the emerging spectacle of leaves beginning to turn shades of crimson and amber. As the vibrant summer wild-flowers fade, crysanthamuns of every hue step in to fill the colour void and boughs of apple, pear and quince bend under the weight of their ripening load. In the woodland, mushrooms push their way through the fecund soil and brightly coloured berries abound – sparkling orange rowan, rich indigo elder and of course plump inky blackberries. Their briars and brambles are the stuff of fairy tales, said to grow prolifically around lands lost in the mists of time, and permission should always be sought before picking the berries, which can then be turned into wine and a source of inspiration and intoxication.

At this full moon close to the Equinox and time of balance in the seasonal cycle, it is pertinent to consider Rhiannon, one of the most liminal of goddesses in the Welsh tradition. A leading mythological figure in the Mabinogion, she features in two out of the four Branches. Her memorable appearance in the first Branch leaves us in no doubt that we are dealing with an otherworldly being. Her husband-to-be, Pwyll king of Dyfed, is sitting on a fairy mound when he sees  ‘a woman mounted on a great, majestic pale-white horse, dressed in brilliant gold silk brocade, coming along the main road that ran past the mound. To anyone who saw it the horse appeared to have a slow, steady gait as it came even with the mound.’[1]

Entranced by this the most beautiful maiden in the world, he sends his men in pursuit. However, though the horse appeared to be moving slowly, neither Pwyll’s men nor he himself, mounted on the swiftest horse in the realm, can catch her up. Only when he bids her wait for the sake of the man she loves does she stop. She then reveals that she is trying to flee an undesirable suitor, who she is being forced to marry against her will, and that it is in actual fact Pwyll whom she desires to marry. After outwitting her suitor in a rather unworthy manner through a game called Badger in the Bag, Pwyll and Rhiannon do indeed marry and reign happily over Dyfed, until, a year later, Rhiannon gives birth to a son.

Tragically, on the night of his birth he is kidnapped and the women who were supposed to have kept vigil over him devise a macabre plan to save themselves. They kill a pup, and smear the blood over Rhiannon’s face, incriminating her in the death of her son. She was thus condemned for his murder and her punishment was to sit beside the mounting block at the court in Arberth for seven years, and to carry travellers on her back to court like a horse as a penance.

Rhiannon accepts her punishment gracefully, and meanwhile, her son is brought up by the lord of Brent who found the baby deposited on his doorstep as he tried to save a newly birthed colt. Eventually the lord of Brent realises who the foundling is and Rhiannon’s son is returned to her, and to his birthright, as he inherits the seven cantrefs of Dyfed upon the death of his father.

So Rhiannon, established as a sacred otherworldly being, descends to the mortal realm where she is badly treated, even abused. She appears in connection with a fairy mound, the movement of her horse beyond time and space, passing over the landscape steadily yet always out of reach, like the Moon traversing the night sky. She refuses to be given in marriage against her will, and insists on choosing her own love-mate, though this does not go particularly smoothly.

Above all, she, and indeed her son, are deeply connected with the horse, and for the people of Ancient Britain this was an aspect of Sovereignty, the sacred power of the land itself, intricately linked to power and fertility, and the life-death cycles inherent in this.  The relationship between people and horses is one of the oldest and most primal of all, stretching back deep into the Ice Age, and horse sacrifice played a central role in the proto-Indo-European religion that branched out from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, spreading over western Europe and eventually reaching the British and Irish Isles in the form of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. These people owed their lives and their livelihoods to the horse, and above all able to journey, to move through the countryside exploring new territories and lands. Both the archaeological record and Vedic mythology attests to the paramount nature of horse sacredness, and horse remains have been found in ritual pits and chariot burials over long distances and time.

This memory was retained later in the form of the Celtic horse goddess, Epona, who was worshipped from Britain to Bulgaria, and even the Romans set up shrines dedicated solely to her. Though the archaeological evidence for the worship of Epona in Britain is scanty and therefore her worship sometimes disputed, some remains from the Dubonni tribe in South Wales have been found consisting of coins with horses,  moons and heads on them, an area very much linked to the myths and legends of Rhiannon.[2] Further evidence for the central role of the horse in proto-Celtic times is the White Horse of Uffington located on the fabulous landscape of the Ridgeway in Berkshire, now dated in its original form to sometime between 1380 and 550 BC.[3]

Rhiannon is also famed for her magical birds, the Ader Rhiannon, which are also mentioned in the Mabinogion in two different Branches. These three birds are said to sing a song that can wake the dead and put the living to sleep. When they sing they sound as though they are very close but when you look for them they appear to be across an ocean. Like Rhiannon’s horse, they are otherworldly creatures holding the keys to life and death, possibly acting as psychopomps, or carriers of the soul to another realm.

Though not explicitly stated, it is possible that these were blackbirds, considered one of the oldest of animals in the Welsh tradition. Blackbirds sing harmoniously at twilight, the magical transition time between day and night, when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. They are known as the blacksmith’s bird, and in Gaelic the word for both is ghobadhu. [4] As the blacksmith uses an anvil to forge his metalwork, the blackbird uses rocks to crack open snail’s shells. His jet-black feathers are reminiscent of the blackness of the smith and his metals, forged into beautiful and useful objects by the elements of air, water and fire. As the blacksmith works magic in a practical and elemental way, so the blackbird is the otherworldly smith inviting us onto a journey to the depths of our souls with his melodious song.

Rhiannon has thus mastery over both the horse, the ultimate symbol of super-nature and an aspect of Sovereignty, the power vested in the land itself, and the three blackbirds, who also have powers over life and death through their song. Though she is an otherwordly being herself, Rhiannon shares in the experience of mortal women, at times subject to the powers of men and not exempt from tragedy, betrayal and humiliation. We can therefore identity with her suffering, and feel that she can identify with ours. But her story also stirs up something deeper in us, for she makes us question our relationship with the sacred. In Rhiannon’s story we see an example of the debasing of the sacred feminine, at the hands of mortals. And as Rhiannon is an embodiment of Sovereignty, of the land, what does this say about our relationship with the Earth on which we rely and of which we are also a part?


[1] The Maboniogion and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ Edited and Translated by Patrick K. Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[2] Gwilym Morus-Baird, ‘Is Rhiannon a Goddess?’ Online.

[3] Powell, Eric A (September – October 2017) ‘White Horse of the sun,’ Archaeology, 70 (5): 9-10. Retrieved 31.8.2020

[4] The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

Lammas: Tales of Tailtiu and Lugh the Shining One

August is the time of the first grain harvest, when the golden corn now packed with the nourishing energy of sunlight is ripe and ready for winnowing, and round lush berries start to sweeten on the stem. In Anglo Saxon tradition this festival was known as the ‘feast of the first fruits,’ or ‘loaf mass’ from whence comes the word Lammas. Bread was baked and shared to celebrate the harvest that would ensure survival throughout the winter, and a huge cartwheel was lit and rolled down a hillside to symbolise the beginning of the descent down into the underworld of autumn. [1] The holly king who had defeated the oak king at Summer Solstice now takes on the guise of the sacrificial corn king and effigies of John Barleycorn are burnt on the Lammas fires to symbolise the winnowing, and therefore sacrifice, of the wheat and barley crops. As the wheel of the year turns, birth, life, death and rebirth cycles were experienced as man and nature intimately intertwined.

In Celtic tradition, the festival was named Lughnasa after one of the most well known gods in the Irish pantheon – Lugh the Bright and Shining one. His story and origins are complex and he appears at first glance to have much in common with the other patriarchal gods of the Iron Age such as Zeus, Yahweh and Apollo, all of whom were frequently worshipped on high places and have been associated with the sun and its light giving, logical and guiding qualities. Yet Lugh was never a sun god per se. His most prominent epithet is ‘Samildanach’ which means ‘many skills,’ emphasising the importance placed on the mastery of arts and crafts in the Celtic world, and he was also the owner of magical objects, including the spear that never missed its goal. The stories of his origins tell of a mixing and mingling of lineages and traditions both historical and mythical: he was the son of the Formorian princess Ethne, daughter of the feared giant Balor, and a man named Kian of the Tuatha De Danaan, the rival tribe. Lugh himself decided to fight for the Tuatha De Danaan, who were being unfairly governed by king Balor, his maternal grandfather.

One day appears one day at the palace of king Nuada while the company are feasting and asks to be admitted. The gatekeeper challenges him to name a craft over which he has mastery before he can enter. He says he is a carpenter, then a smith, a warrior, poet, harpist, scientist, physician, sorcerer, sculptor, all in turn, but is met with the answer that his services are not needed as there was already somebody at court who could name each of these skills as their own. However, Lugh’s unique selling point is that nobody but him has mastery over all of them, and it is on this basis he is allowed entry into court.  In due course he became the king of the Tuatha when Nuada lost his hand in battle then died, and the father or patron of many houses in Celtic legend. In the second and final Battle of Mag Tuired, he fulfilled an old prophecy and killed his grandfather by piercing him through his evil eye with a sling shot before cutting off his head. He himself would eventually meet his end at the hill of Uisneach, the naval of Ireland, at the hands of a triad of gods.

Lugh is was said to have instigated the festival of Lughnasa in honour of his foster mother Tialtiu, and it is in her that we meet the personage of the ancient goddess of the land, Sovereignity. Lugh has royal pedigree through his parents, but he is also associated with the mythical realms through his foster parents, Tailtiu, the Earth goddess, and Manannan mac Lir, the Sea god, both said to be older than the Tuatha de Danaan. According to the Book of Invasions, Tailtiu was daughter or Mag Mor, the king of Spain, and she was married to Eochaid mac Eiric of the Fir Bolg.  After their defeat at the hands of the Tuatha de Danaan, she was put into bondage and presumably this is when she became Lugh’s foster mother. However, as a result of the invasion, the crops failed and famine brought misery and death. Tailtiu took action to save the people and taking up an axe, she set about clearing the forest, in some accounts the wood of Cuan, which enabled cultivation and grain planting to take place.[2] She succeeded in bringing the life giving force back to the land, but the burden was too much and she died of exhaustion as a result. In honour of his foster mother and her sacrifice, Lugh instigated the Tailtiu games, similar in scale and importance to the Olympic games of Greece. This was a time when a truce was declared and the people came together in peace and harmony to pass laws, celebrate handfastings and show off their sporting prowess. The festival would last around two weeks and there would be feasting, bull sacrifice, and much dancing.

However, according to more ancient accounts it was Tailtiu alone, whose name means ‘The Great One of the Earth’, who mediated and embodied the authority of the land. After clearing the forest, and once again on her death-bed, she pre-selected her burial spot, today associated with Teltown in County Meath, and decreed herself that funeral games should be held annually here in her honour. There is also evidence that the harvest festival was originally been called Bron Trogain meaning ‘the pains of childbirth,’ as it is through the birthing powers of the land that the harvest is enabled, and to this end the month of August was known known as the month of sorrows.[3] This speaks of a deeply seated sense of grief felt by the clans, and the Earth itself as there was no separation, for the act of cutting down the crops that had been so carefully nurtured and tended in order that they themselves might be nourished. This is of course reflected in the story of Tailtiu, in whom resides the ancient power of the land, or Sovereignity, who sacrifices herself so that her people might be fed. It is only in later versions of the story that the festival of Earth’s sorrow becomes linked to Lugh the Shining One through Lughnasa, when dominance and mastery over the land becomes a much more prominent theme.


[1] See ‘Lammas’ available at http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk

[2] See ‘Goddess Tailtiu’ available at http://www.journeyingtothegoddess.com

[3] See ‘Tailtiu, Primal Earth Goddess for this season by Deanne Quarrie,’ available at http://www.feminismandreligion.com

July Hay Moon: Nemetona, Eagle and Oak

July is the time that the harvests begin, the first gathering in of the bounteous crops ripening over the land, the time for hay making. Wild-flowers abound in this month, meadows now full of poppy, ox-eye daisy, red campion and teasel, and butterflies gather nectar from dangling horns of violet buddleia. In Anglo-Saxon tradition, this full moon was known as the Wort moon, when the wyrt, or medicinal herbs were gathered to be dried and stored, or also Buck moon as July was the month when deer began to grow their velvet covered antlers.

All northern hemisphere agricultural societies associated the energy impetuous needed to ripen the crop with male energy in its most potent form. The month was named by the Romans for their most famous of kings, Julius Caesar, and in a Greece the Olympia, or early Olympic games, when men would come from all over Greece to demonstrate their prowess in competitions in athletics, drama and music, was presided over by Zeus. In Celtic tradition, the eagle and the oak are associated with this time of year, and the eagle was known as the king of the birds and the oak the king of the trees, both powerful images of strength and mastery.

According to legend, two great eagles guard the burial place of Arthur in Snowdonia, in Welsh called Eryri, or the nest of the eagles. It was also said that druids shapeshift into these eagles and create the whirlwinds of stormy cloud that sweep so frequently across Snowdonia with its mercurial weather patterns. The eagle is often also linked to the power of the sun, the source of heat and light on Earth, and in Gaelic it is known as Suil-na-Greine, eye of the sun. As such clan leaders and kings would wear plumes of eagle feathers to symbolise enlightenment.

In the Welsh tradition, the eagle is one of the four sacred birds and named as one of the five oldest animals. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, it is the Eagle of Gwernaby who leads them to the salmon, the oldest and most revered animal of them all, and who is able to free Mabon. The eagle rules over the domain of air, of intellect and clarity of thought. The salmon, a creature of the waters, symbolises emotion and the unconscious. This story reminds us that it only through the union of the two that we gain wisdom.

The oak is the tallest and mightiest tree in any grove, the roosting place of oracular birds, and as such it was the central tree to the druids. In Celtic tradition it was the sacred tree of the Dagda the king of the gods, and in Norse mythology to Thor, god of thunder and lighting. The month of July has particularly strong associations with thunder and lightning in most cultures and these natural phenomena was seen as the tool of gods (e.g. Zeus was also often depicted with a lightning bolt.) Here we see an echo of father sky culture, where the male gods were seen to preside over lofty (heavenly) weather patterns, but also a reminder that for the crops to grow successfully, copious amounts of rain was also needed, which at this time of warm surface temperatures, would frequently come in the form of storms. This aspect of the male life force was seen as a necessary complementary energy to the nourishing fecundity of the bounteous energy bringing forth the crop from the earth. An oak tree was especially revered if it had been struck by lightning, a living symbol of the fusing of the two complementary energies of heaven and earth.

The pre-Roman peoples of Britain and Ireland did not build temples, but for thousands of years worshipped outside in nature, in particular in the sacred groves. These were natural clearings in areas of trees, deemed sacred on account of their position near water or other landmarks, and due to the particular mix of trees that prevailed. Oak groves were particularly sacred to the druids. These groves were made into sanctuaries, or sanctified, by evoking the presence of Nemetona, the guardian presence of the sacred place, which were themselves known as nemetons. Hawthorn was her most sacred tree, but mixed groves of hawthorn, oak and ash was deemed to be especially sacred.

This most elusive of goddesses has left virtually no trace in the written record, yet her presence would have endured for thousands of years as the guardian of consecrated and sacred enclosures in woods and forests, probably surrounding a central altar. In Roman times, she did have a shrine in Bath where she was depicted seated on a throne holding a sceptre, surrounded by three hooded figures and a ram. She was sometimes also associated with Rigonemetis, the king of the sacred grove whom the Romans associated with Mars. The ram figuring at the shrine was another symbol of potent male fire energy, again preserving this sacred connection between trees and lightning. In Celtic times however Nemetona would not have had a consort, as it was her presence alone that was needed to sanctify a grove. The circular nature of many nemetons could have been linked to later stone circles that also had the function of making an area of land sacred, and therefore able to function as a bond between heaven and earth.

Summer Solstice: Taliesin, Ceridwen and Magical Cauldrons

With the sun at its zenith and the Earth at the peak of her abundant glory, this is the time for manifestation, for flowering and empowering, for achieving the full potential offered by those long daylight hours. Male drones swarm about the queen bee, who will choose carefully with whom she will mate, and the hues of purple and white heather brushing the hillside are alive with their potent hum. In ancient times, as the drone must give up his life after coupling with the queen, so too the king in his role as guardian of the land must also give up his, for as the wheel of the year turns, the power of the Sun must wane as that of the darkness waxes. Now more usually it is the Green Man and Faery Queen who preside at the Solstice, reminding us that connection with the Otherworld is just behind the veil.

In Britain, Summer Solstice was once dedicated to Ceridwen, keeper of the Sacred Cauldron, the goddess whose story is mentioned in the medieval Tale of Taliesin and with whom she is intricately bound. Though this folktale is of relatively recent provenance, it is clear that this goddess of transformation, magic, shapeshifting and rebirth has a much more ancient pedigree, the energy of which can be felt at the ancient cromlech of Pentre Ifan near Nevern in Pembrokeshire. Ceridwen is also a dark moon goddess, and as this Solstice falls at the dark moon, it seems particularly relevant to recount her story now.

Drinking from her magical cauldron was said to confer inspiration (Awen), prophetic gifts and the art of storytelling, so Ceridwen has an intimate connection with welsh poets and bards  who call themselves sons of Ceridwen. This tradition is enshrined in folklore through the character of Taliesin, the sixth century bard of the Brythonic chieftan called Urien, and a legendary figure of other traditions, including the Arthurian. Here is their story:

Taliesin began life as a boy called Gwion Bach. One day, he found himself on an island on Lake Bala in North Wales where the giant Tegid Foel lived with his wife Ceridwen. Together they had two children, a beautiful girl and a boy called Morfan who was said to be very ugly. In order to compensate for his lack of good fortune,  Ceridwen decided to brew a potion in her wondrous cauldron that would bestow wisdom and knowledge on her son. She sought special herbs from the Earth, gathered on certain days and hours, and made from them a magic brew that needed to be kept at constant temperature. She had a blind  man tend the flames, and to Gwion Bach was given the job of tending, for this potion needed to be stirred for a year and a day.

Eventually, just as the allocated time arrived, Ceridwen fell asleep and alas! three drops sprang from the cauldron and landed on Gwion Bach, who had shoved Morfan out of the way. But not just any three drops, for only the first three contained any magical properties, the rest of the potion was poisonous. Gwion instantly attains the gifts of prophecy and wisdom – and knowing he was in grave danger, he takes flight.[1]

With Ceridwen in hot pursuit, Gwion magically shape shifts into a series of creatures in order to keep ahead of her. First he transforms into a hare, and Ceridwen gives chase in the form of a black greyhound. Then he turns himself into a fish, and she an otter. He then turns into a bird, and she a hawk. Finally, he ends up cornered in a barn and there transmutes into a single grain of corn.  Ceridwen became a high crested black hen – and gobbles him up!

She immediately becomes pregnant, and knowing that is Gwion that she carries, vows to get rid of him when he is born. In the time honoured manner reserved for magical characters of divine birth and many founding heroes, the child is spared, instead placed into a containing object, in this case a leather bag, or a coracle, and set adrift out at sea. Within time he is washed up on the shore of the Conway, where he is found by one Prince Elffin ap Gwyddno, who happened to be out salmon fishing. The prince cuts open the coracle and upon seeing the forehead of the baby says, ‘behold the radiant forehead!’ (in Welsh tal iesin), to which the child replied, ‘Tal-iesin he is!’ So thus named, Prince Elffin saddled the coracle onto his horse, the child reciting stanzas all the while, and takes him home to his wife. They raised the boy as their own and found themselves in receipt of riches and wealth as a result.

Taliesin goes on to goes have an illustrious career as a bard and rescues his step father from imprisonment on several occasions through his clever use of riddles and prophecy. King Maelgwn Gwynedd, to whom Elffin was in service, was so impressed with his poetic ability that he asks him who he was and where he had come from. His reply is the enigmatic Song of Taliesin as follows:

‘I was with my lord in the heavens when Lucifer fell into the depths of hell;

I carried a banner before Alexander; I know the stars names from the North to the South.

I was in the fort of Gwydion, in the Tetragrammaton;

I was in the canon when Absalon was killed;

I brought seed down to the vale of Hebron;

I was in the court of Don before the birth of Gwydion;

I was patriarch to Elijah and Enoch;

I was head keeper on the work of Nimrod’s tower;

I was atop the cross of the merciful son of God;

I was three times in the prison of Arianrhod;

I was in the ark with Noah and the Alpha;

I witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah…

I got poetic inspiration from the cauldron of Ceridwen..

And I shall remain until doomsday upon the face of the earth.

And no one knows what my flesh is – whether meat or fish.’ [2]

Many, including Robert Graves, have tried to demystify this riddle (more on this another time) and together with other poetic utterings contained in the Book of Taliesin, it ensured that the historical Taliesin entered into the realm of legend. In this way he becomes the enduring embodiment of the inspired poet/bard archetype who has had many incarnations, including a later, possibly more famous one, in the form of Merlin at the court of King Arthur.

It was however through Ceridwen that he ultimately gained his inspiration (anwyn) and this was achieved through the medium of her magical cauldron, as he says. That cauldrons were considered both wondrous and practical by the Indo-European then Celtic people is not in doubt, and cauldrons were at the centre of the Celtic Mystery traditions. There were said to be three, the cauldrons of rebirth, inspiration and transformation. Ceridwen’s cauldron seems to bestow all three powers, and therefore it is she, as Mistress of the Cauldron, who holds the mysteries of transformation, as her shapeshifting abilities in the tale show; inspiration, as demonstrated in the bardic and prophetic insights its potion bestowed; and rebirth, as the character of Taliesin demonstrated.

Symbolically we know that through life experiences we are transformed and grow as we shed old ways and take on new forms, but there is also another ecological aspect to this story. It is through a deep connection with the other than human world, mediated through the prophetic and inspirational properties of certain plants, and the deep wisdom embodied in animal lore that shape shifts throughout the seasons, that we become more in harmony with the natural world, with the land. From this connection emerges a deeper knowledge of the Otherworld, which both is of and permeates the physical world, and it is in this liminal space that deep insight and wisdom is found. This mystical understanding is one of the great gifts of the Grail tradition, with which stories of wondrous cauldrons and also later intertwined.


[1] ‘The Tale of Gwion Bach’ from ‘The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited and translated by Patrick K. Ford, 1997, 2019

[2] ‘The tale of Taliesin’ from ‘The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited and translated by Patrick K Ford, 1997, 2019

Picture credits: ‘Ceridwen’ by Christopher Williams (1910), ‘Ceridwen and Gwion Bach’ by Tim Rossiter