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