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

Beltane: Of Flower Brides and Green Men

The ancient festival of Beltane is celebrated at the beginning of May when the sexuality of life and the Earth itself is at its peak and now turns to conception and the initiation of a new life force. This is when the Greenwood marriage was celebrated, the union between the May Queen, or the Flower Bride, and the Green Man, the young oak king or the Jack-in-the-Green. Even today this ritual is still re-enacted in villages around the country, where a May Queen decked in flowers weaves the ribbon of the male pole, symbolising the fertility of the god, in a dance that follows the spiral of life.

Traditionally Beltane began when the hawthorn blossomed, drenching trees, hedges and paths with scented petals like the scattered confetti of a bridal feast. The blossom was taken into the house and used together with mead and cake in handfasting ceremonies, where a couple tied hands with a red chord bound in a figure of eight and pledged to stay together for a year and a day. It was also the time when everyone went to the fields and celebrated the Greenwood marriage; children born to these couplings nine months later were considered sacred.

Beltane is above all a fire ceremony when bonfires are lit to honour the sun and its role in bringing forth life on Earth. It was probably named from the god Bel, a complex composite god originally belonging to the Sumerian/Babylonian (Bel = Baal = Lord) pantheon, and then adopted by the Celts as their sun god. This was when a special fire was lit called the Tein-eigen (‘teine = fire in Gaelic)[1] and everyone would gather together and jump over it to purify, cleanse and bring fertility. Cattle were also driven through the smoke to protect them from disease. Afterwards everyone would take a spark of this original fire with them to rekindle the home hearth. There is also some evidence that bonfires were lit along special places that were aligned to rising sun at Beltane, giving rise to some huge scale alignments such as the Michael Mary line. [2]The fires were lit on top of mounds and aligned Heaven and Earth, drawing down and harmonising energies, renewing the sacred bond afresh each year with this sacred act.

There are two stories about Flower Brides, or May Queens, and they are both told in the Mabinogion. In keeping with the prevailing Welsh culture of the early Middle Ages, the stories are told from a male perspective and the female protagonists appear somewhat lacking in their own authority. However, as ever there are deeper thread discernible just below the surface.

The first story is about Creiddylad, the beautiful daughter of Lludd Silverhand. She was fought over by two men, ‘carried off by one before the other had slept with her.’ Acts of revenge were carried out between the two parties, until King Arthur himself heard tell of it and came north to settle the dispute. He decreed that ’the maiden should remain in her father’s house, unmolested by either side,’ and there should be battle between the two ‘suitors’ each Beltane ‘for ever and ever, from that day till doomsday.’

So Creiddylad in this way, remained the eternal May Queen around which the seasons revolved, fought over by the holly and the oak king, or the powers of the waxing and waning sun, locked in a continuous battle for supremacy as a result of the yearly seasonal cycle.

The May Queen in the second story also has two male suitors, but of quite a different form. This is the tale of Bloueuwedd, the flower bride, created for the son of the goddess Arianrhod (more on her later) by his uncles to thwart his mother who declared he would not marry a mortal woman. Together they ‘took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they called forth the very fairest and best endowed maiden that mortal ever saw.’ [3]She was duly presented in marriage to Arianrhod’s son, who changes his name throughout the story, but here is called Llew Llaw.

After they have been married a while, he leaves her alone in the castle and goes to visit his uncles who have promised him some land. However, in the meantime a hunting party arrives and Blodeuwedd invites the leader of the party into the castle. They immediately fall in love and ‘she knew great joy at heart, and their talk that night was of the affection and love that they had conceived for the other.’ [4]Losing no time, they plot to kill her husband on his return.

Showing a degree of cunning that has earned her a reputation for betrayal, Blodeuwedd tells her husband that she fears for his untimely demise. He tries to reassure that this would not be easy for in order to die, he must be killed with a spear that was a year in the making. Not only that, but the manner of the death is very specific. ‘By making a bath for me on a river bank, and making a vaulted frame over the tub, and thatching it well and snugly too thereafter, and bringing a he-goat and setting it beside the tub and myself placing one foot on the back of the he-goat and the other on the edge of the bath. Whoever should smite me so, he would bring about my death.’[5]

Bloudeuwedd listens demurely. ‘Why’ she replies, ‘I thank god for that. That can be avoided easily.’

Armed with this information, her lover gets to work and fashions the spear needed to kill his rival. A year later, once they have their plan in place, Blodeuwedd once gain feins concern and asks her unsuspecting husband to demonstrate how he might meet his untimely death. This he dutifully does and as he stands precariously with one foot on the bath tub and the other on the back of a he-goat,  her lover jumps out and stabs him with the spear. Llew Llaw flies up in the form of an eagle and gives a horrid scream, and after that he was seen no more.

But that is not the end of the story. Llew’s aggrieved uncles once again come to his rescue and set out to find him. Eventually they find a maggot covered eagle and sing him out of a tree, changing him back into the form of a man with the tap of a magic wand. Llew Llaw is in a pitiful state and it takes him a year to get his strength back. But then he comes back to the castle where his wife and her lover are ensconced to seek revenge. Blodeuwedd’s maidens are all drowned in a lake whilst trying to escape, but she herself survives. For her is reserved the fate of being turned into an owl ‘so that she may never show her face in the light of day, and that there be enmity between thee and all the birds and that it be their nature to mob and moles thee wherever they may find thee.’[6]

So, it could be said that the flower maiden, made as the perfect wife to serve her husband, falls in love and thereby empowers herself. This enables her to take the sort of ruthless action that those  deprived of choice must take. But she must take responsibility for her action as she matures, symbolised by the owl, an ancient symbol of wisdom and cronehood. She also achieves independence and self-determination in the end (the owl), and like Creiddlydd, remains connected to the cycle of nature for ever more. Her suitors also face each other in combat, but unlike in Creiddlydd’s story, her lover is killed, though only after he has served as the king, or consort for allocated time (the timings are very precise in this story). So in this way, the story may be perceived in terms of the May Queen, goddess of the land (Sovereignty) and her two suitors, the holly king and the oak king, or the Green Men, who act as consort to the goddess, forever locked in an eternal cycle of waxing and waning, linked to the seasonal power of the sun.

[1] http://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk

[2] ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller

[3] The Mabinogion, ‘Math Son of Mathonwy,’ 1991, Everyman

[4] As above

[5] As above

[6] As above