Arianrhod is a popular goddess in neo-paganism, perhaps too popular for her own good. She has enraptured the hearts and minds of devotees ranging from Wiccans and Druids to Goddess worshippers and Occultists, she is praised as the “Lady Of The Silver Wheel”, Welsh Goddess of the moon and stars, fate and destiny. But look below the silver gilding of her stories and you begin to find a very different, and much darker entity….
From The Fourth Branch – The Tale Of Arianrhod
Arianrhod is introduced to us in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, just as her Uncle Math faces a terrible predicament. Math suffers a strange curse, his feet can never touch the ground unless he is in battle, if he ever makes contact with the earth during peacetime he will surely die. The only place he can rest his feet is in the lap of a virgin, a role that is filled by the maiden Goewin.
Unbeknownst to All, Math’s Nephew Gilfaethwy was obsessed with Goewin, and with the help of his brother Gwydion, tricked Math into going to war so he could rape the poor maiden.
Goewin, battered and bruised but unbroken by her cruel ordeal tells Math what had happened to her at the hands of the two brothers, and appalled by what they had done, Math vows to make Goewin his Queen as compensation for her ordeal, swiftly followed by hunting down and punishing Gilfaethwy and Gwydion in the way only a master magician can.
Unfortunately this now leaves Math with a serious problem: he needs a maiden footholder or he will soon die, Goewin, no longer a virgin, cannot fulfill this role any longer. Gwydion, perhaps hoping to get back into Math’s good books, suggests Arianrhod for the role, and she is soon summoned to the court. Math asks Arianrhod if she is a virgin, and when she cagily answers yes, he asks her to prove it to him.
Math bends his wand, and placing it on the floor, asks Arianrhod to step over it. She does so and immediately gives birth to a young boy. Humiliated, she turns to run from the court but suddenly gives birth a second time to a formless mass that is quickly spirited away by Gwydion. Math names the first boy Dylan, who immediately takes to the ocean, swimming like a fish, while the afterbirth Gwydion stole soon develops into a second child.
Gwydion takes this boy to meet his mother, but Arianrhod is mortified by the news she has a second unwanted son, and angrily places a curse on the boy: he will never have a name unless it is Arianrhod herself who gives it to him, something she has no intention of ever doing.
Luckily Gwydion is every bit as cunning as his sister, disguising himself and the boy as shoemakers, and luring his sister in with the promise of golden shoes, gets her to unwittingly spend time with the child, during which she names him Lleu Llaw Gyffes “the fair on with the skillful hand” after watching him kill a wren with a stone. Much to her disgust she realises that her first curse has been broken and places a second on him, that he will never wield a sword unless it is given by her.
Gwydion solves this by simply using a variation of his first trick, dressing himself and Lleu as bards and gaining entry to her court. Using his powers of illusion Gwydion summons a spectral army, and Arianrhod, fearful of attack, arms everyone in the court…. Including Lleu.
By this point Arianrhod has had more than enough of Gwydion and Lleu, and places one final, nigh-unbreakable curse on her son: He will never have a mortal wife. While Gwydion and Uncle Math combine forces to break this final curse, Arianrhod returns to her castle, feeling confident her magic cannot be bested…
Exploring the Myth
The fourth branch of the mabinogi gives us several insights into the nature of Arianrhod.
Arianrhod is a Goddess remarked as being exquisitely beautiful even among the other fair maidens of the Mabinogi, described with a complexion “as pale as the snow”, Arianrhod appears to hold a great deal of sted by her image, even down to the perceived status of her virginity. This is so important to her that she is even prepared to lie to Math about her maidenhood even though his very life depends on her honesty, and when her deception is revealed before the court she flees in shame, without so much as a second thought for her newborn son Dylan.
When Gwydion arrives at court one day with her second son, Arianrhod is enraged by the sight of the child, and demonstrating both her vindictiveness and her exceptional talent as a magician, places a Tynged on the boy.
A Tynged meaning “Destiny”, “Doom” or “Fate”, equivalent to the Irish concept of a Geas, is effectively a binding spell that forces a person to be obligated to, or prohibited from, a particular action.
It takes all of Gwydion’s cunning to break the first two tyngeds, and even then he has to turn to his Uncle Math for assistance overcoming the third one, triggering a chain of event that almost lead to Lleu’s death.
The formidable magical power of Arianrhod is expanded on further in the poem The Chair Of Cerridwen, in which the Goddess Cerridwen, speaking through Taliesin, stands in awe of an enchantment performed by Arianrhod, in which she casts a protective rainbow around her court, a feat that held in the same esteem by Cerridwen as Math and Gwydion’s creation of Blodeuwed from flowers, something seemingly considered the magnum opus of magical workings in welsh lore.
So formidable is Arianrhod’s knowledge and resources that in TYP35 caswallawn asks her above all their siblings for her assistance in the rescue of the kidnapped maiden Fflur. Caswallawn is an accomplished magician in his own right, as are many of his brothers, the fact that he would turn to Arianrhod for help first and foremost is another demonstration of her renown for the arcane arts.
Though her shaming in Math’s court is mainly born from her brother Gwydion’s meddling, Arianrhods use of Tyngedhedau against Lleu shows an astounding degree of antagonism against her own child. One explanation for her intense hatred of her son could be that Lleu serves as a reminder of her shamining in Math’s Court. Sadly there is very little left of the tales surrounding Arianrhods second son Dylan, save a few scattered references to his accidental death at the hands of his own Uncle, the smith god Gofannon, so we are unable to ascertain whether he was spared Arianrhods wrath, however it may be simple proximity to Gwydion that made Lleu a target of her ire.
The version of the fourth branch preserved in the Mabinogi may not be the only version of the tale, there are hints scattered throughout Welsh lore that point to a very different story, one that casts Arianrhod in a much more sympathetic light.
The 15th century poet Lewys Mon seems to have been aware of a different version of this tale, one in which Arianrhod is Math’s footholder:
“Old Math son of Mathony: the arms of a chaste, white-armed wise one was his pillow each night. Arianrhod, none was like her, Math would not live without her.”
This reference is not exclusive to the work of Lewys Mon it seems that this version of the story was well established even during the 16th century. These narrative scraps, combined with the incredible degree of parental affection demonstrated by Gwydion towards his nephew Lleu, alongside Arianrhods intense hatred of her own child, have led some scholars to propose a different narrative of the fourth branch.
In this amended version it was Arianrhod, not Goewin, who was violated by Gilfeathwy and Gwydion. Deeply shamed, Arianrhod hides her ordeal from the court until she is forced into a test of chastity by Gwydions meddling, and in doing so she gives birth to Dylan and Lleu, the offspring of an incestous rape. Horrified and enraged Arianrhod flees the court, and in time will place her curses upon her and Gwydion’s son.
We cannot know for certain if this simply an alternative version of the story popular during the 15th century, or the original narrative of branch four, but it is an interesting fragment of lore regarding Arianrhod.
The search for the father of Arianrhods twins is further compounded by the genealogical tract Bonedd yr Arwyr, which list the family lines of Don and Math, the tract lists Blodeuwed, Lleu and Dylan as the three direct descendants of Math. Blodeuwedd was constructed by Gwydion and Math from the flowers of oak broom and meadowsweet, literally being her creator, Math is effectively also her father, and earlier in the fourth branch he adopts Bleiddwn, Hyddwn and Hychdwn Hir, the three offspring of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, who conceived them in animal form during their punishment for Goewin’s rape.
is it also possible that he orchestrated the birth of Dylan and Lleu as well? The virginity test he subjects Arianrhod to is loaded with sexual imagery, not least his asking her to step over his bent “wand”. It seems a distinct possibility that her sudden pregnancy was magically instigated by Math himself towards some end, possibly to acquire an heir to the throne, a role Lleu later fulfills.
With these sources taken into mind the fourth branch of the mabinogi offers a great deal of possible directions to explore Arianrhods nature, but what more can we find about her beyond the pages of the Mabinogi?
Myth In The Landscape – Caer Arianrhod
The location of Arianrhod’s mythical Court exists as a physical part of the Welsh landscape. If you cast your eyes across the sea from the coast of Gwynedd during the spring low tide you may see a small rocky outcrop just peaking above the waves, according to legend the beautiful glass fortress of Caer Arianrhod once stood here, the waves crashing at its foundations.
Caer Arianrhod is mentioned multiple times in Welsh lore, in the fourth branch of the mabinogi it is the place she retires too after her humiliation, Gwydion and Lleu must disguise themselves as Bards in order to gain access to the fortress and break the second Tynged.
Caer Arianrhod’s nature is further expanded upon in poetry attributed to the legendary bard Taliesin:
From The Chair Of Cerridwen: “A raging river rushes around her court, a river with its savage wrath beating against the land, destructive its snare as it goes around the world”
From The Tale Of Taliesin: “ I have been three times in the prison of Arianrhod”
From The Rebuke Of The Bards: “My darling is below. ‘Neath the fetters of Aranrhod, you certainly do not know the meaning of what i sing”
These three fragments of poetry unveil a whole new aspect to explore, not just relating to Caer Arianrhod, but also to the very nature of Arianrhod as a Goddess.
The theme of entrapment is explicit in each of these references, the raging ocean beats against the rocky outcrop of Caer Arianrhod before encircling the earth in a “snare”. Taliesin laments his imprisonment in the fortress, a place where his beloved still resides, caught in her fetters. The choice of words used in the poetry, of snares and fetters, is instantly evocative of the nature of the Tynghedau she places on Lleu, reinforcing her nature as an antagonistic agent of obstruction and entrapment, a Goddess whose glass fortress is as much a prison as it is a palace.
Something that becomes instantly apparent when reading these passages is the similarity to the language used to describe the otherworld fortress of Caer Siddi in the poem The Spoils Of Annwn:
“In order was the prison of Gweir in Caer Siddi, Through the course of the tale of Pwyll and Pryderi. None before him went into it, by the heavy blue chain that held the loyal lad, And before the spoils of Annwn, bitterly he sang.”
The imprisonment of the divine youth Taliesin by Arianrhod is not only reminiscent of Gweir’s incarceration but also parallels events surrounding the characters of Pryderi and Mabon who are all trapped in otherworldly fortresses. When compared to the fate of Lleu, bound by his mother through the use of magic never to become a man, and the parallels become undeniable.
In the Rebuke Of The Bards Taliesin claims “My darling is below. ‘Neath the fetters of Aranrhod, you certainly do not know the meaning of what I sing”. That someone sings during their entrapment is yet another recurring theme we have seen repeated, Gweir “sings bitterly” before the Spoils of Annwn, and in Culhwch and Olwen the youth Mabon is compelled to sing a lamentation to his fate during his imprisonment in Caerloyw.
The recurring nature of this event, the youthful poet trapped and lamenting his fate, can be contrasted effectively with the events of the fourth branch, in which Gwydion and Lleu disguise themselves as Bards in order to gain access to Caer Arianrhod.
Could this repeating scenario be symbolic of some form of bardic initiation, where the young student must go through an ordeal to find his voice? Or perhaps this is itself an analogy, a mythic explanation of the “tortured artist” who can only be sing because deep down s/he is trapped by the very gift of creativity?
Regardless of how we choose to interpret this, the insight it gives into the true nature of Arianrhod is invaluable, her nature appears to be intimately tied up with concepts of entrapment and obstruction, a far cry from her modern interpretation as a moon Goddess.
While there is no real connection between the Goddess and the moon in Welsh lore, there is a link between Arianrhods castle and the nights sky. The Welsh name for the constellation of the Corona Borealis is Caer Arianrhod, the Corona Borealis is a collection of eight stars which can be seen high in the sky during the summer months, before falling back below the horizon later in the year. This gives us a beautiful symmetry with the terrestrial rock formation of Caer Arianrhod, as it emerges from the waves at the spring low tide before being reclaimed by the sea.
There is a piece of local folklore from the anglesey area that reiterates the cyclical rising and sinking of Caer Arianrhod, telling the story of the flooding of the court:
“Caer Arianrhod was a beautiful fortress that brought a sense of awe to all who saw it, but its inhabitants were cruel and wicked people. Their heartlessness was soon fittingly rewarded, and the great castle was swallowed by the sea, its inhabitants and its shining towers pulled into the murky depths. Only three people survived its destruction: Three of Arianrhod’s sisters by the names of Gwennan, Elan and Maelan bi Don. They where gathering supplies at Cae’r Aelodau on that fateful day, when they looked back towards Caer Arianrhod they were shocked to see it being pulled beneath the waters. Frightened and homeless the three women fled to different parts of the island that now bare their name: Gwennan to Bedd Gwennan which in time would become her last resting place, Elan to Elans holding and Maelan to Mealan’s Moor.”
The folktale itself shares many obvious similarities with the flooding of another “wicked” Court, that of Prince Tegid, the husband of Cerridwen. In both tales a Otherworldly fortress that rest in a body of water is seemingly flooded due to the supposed cruelty of its inhabitants. It seems more then likely that these two stories are both closely related, perhaps a product of the christianisation of Wales. These tales no doubt exaggerate the brutality of Arianrhod and Tegid, two powerful Deities that could potentially be a threat to the new religion. If these stories where adaptations of earlier myths, could the inundation of these two fortresses imply something else entirely?
Tegid Himself appears to be an Andedion, a Deity that is not native to our world, instead existing in the Otherworld realm of Annwn. Unlike Caer Arianrhod, Tegids Court could never have physically existed in Llyn Tegid due to the fact that the lake exists in a glacial cleft over a mile deep. It seems that to the Bards of old, Llyn tegid is a liminal place, where Tegid was able to pull his otherworldly fortress through the waters that partition our two realities for a time, before returning to his own realm of Annwn.
This feat is achieved by the Andedion enchanter Llwyd ap Cil Coed in the Third Branch, he summons a tower from the Otherworld in order to trap Pryderi and Rhiannon.
Tying this together with the previously stated similarities between Caer Arianrhod and Caer Siddi, it becomes apparent that Arianrhod has a much deeper connection with the Otherworld and its Andedion inhabitants then it first appears.
The Etymology of Arianrhod – Aranrot, the Great Wheel
The key to understanding the confusion many people seem to have regarding Arianrhod comes down to a simple mistranslation of her name. The commonly accepted etymology of Arianrhod’s name is that it consists of the elements Aryan, meaning “silver”, and Rhot “wheel”, creating the translation of “silver wheel”. Many people have taken this to indicate Arianrhods association with the moon, evoking the image of a powerful lunar goddess.
However the earliest iteration of the name was not Arianrhod but Aranrot, this is spelling that used throughout the earliest recorded versions of the fourth branch of the mabinogi.
This variation of the name retains the “wheel” element of Rhot, but alters the first element of her name from Aryan “silver”, to Aran, “Huge”, “Round” or “Humped”. The mutation of Aranrot into Arianrhod seems to have originated in a scribal error, likely due the similarities between the words Aryan and Aran, coupled with her role as a patroness of one of the Tri Aryanllu or “Silver Hosts” detailed in TYP35. In the triad she loans her wealth and forces to her brother Caswallawn, and along with him sets forth on a quest rescue the kidnapped maiden Fflur. Thus the association was made between Aranrot and silver, in time leading to the mutation of her name.
There are a number of different interpretations of Aranrot. A literal translation offer a small number of possible variations:
While at first these translations may seem odd, even nonsensical, by looking at the recurring themes surrounding Aranrot we can begin to explore her nature.
The “Great Humped Wheel”, Aranrot is the very embodiment of the cycles and repetitions that define our lives and the world in which we live. The seasons turn, the Corona Borealis sinks below the waves only to rise again and again into the sky, just as its rocky counterpart is swallowed by the sea before emerging once more. Her role in legend reflect her function, Lleu and Gwydion break one curse only to be hit by another and then another, Taliesin escapes her prisons only to find himself trapped once again. She seems to be a Spirit of compulsion and fate. Beautiful in her countenance… and terrible in her rage.
The Family Of Arianrhod – Mist, Battle And Poison
Aranrot’s mother is identified as Don in the Fourth branch, and she is counted among her fourteen children in the genealogical tract Bonedd yr Arwyr. Don and her Irish counterpart Danu are theorised by scholars to be linked through the existence of a theoretical Indo-Europian Goddess *dʰenh₂, “Fluvial Waters”, a Deity associated with freshwater, fertility and the land, who later would be remembered in both Welsh and Irish legend as the mother of the Gods.
The identity of her father is presented to us in TYP35 where she is named as the daughter to Beli Mawr, an ancient ancestral Deity with links to the Gaulish Solar god Belenus.
She is the only definite child of their union, as the father or fathers of Don’s thirteen other children, and the mother or mothers of Beli Mawr’s countless offspring are never officially named in text. Aranrot has both a position in the Court of Don and a mythic function as a daughter of Beli Mawr, effectively making her a nexus point between the realms of land and sky.
She also seems to be intimately connected to the realm of the sea, her fortress lies in the ocean where the waves that pass create a “snare around the world”, eventually inundating her court.
Her first two children, Dylan and Lleu, also have an intimate connection with the realm of sea. Dylan and Lleu are complex and fascinating figures, with a rich mythological significance of their own right.
After the twins are born via Aranrot stepping over Math’s bent wand, Dylan is reject by his birth mother but taken in by Math, who baptises the boy “in the custom of the time”. Dylan takes to the sea immediately after this, “taking the nature of the wave”. He is accidentally killed at a later date by his uncle Gofannon, and later poetry by Taliesin claims that the sea beats against the shore, seeking to avenge Dylans death.
Her second child Lleu overcame the curses placed on him by his mother, becoming a king and warlord “who gave right to nobody”. Supposedly killed in combat his grave is located “under the sea flood” according to the document Englynion Y Beddau.
The final fates of her two children once again reiterate Aranrot’s connection to the sea and conflict, functioning as a bridge between the three realms of land sea and sky.
Aranrot married at some point after the events of the fourth branch, TYP35 names her husband as Lliaws ap Nwyfre, whose name translates as “multitude”, while his father Nwyfre’s name can be translated as “firmament”, together they give us an impression of a vast and powerful sky Deity. There are two mentions of Lliaws in wider Welsh literature: Englynion Y Clyweid describes him as an “agreeable soldier”, while the 12th century poet Prydydd Y Moch calls him “pleasant Lliaws”. This together with his name casts Lliaws as a benevolent entity, in stark contrast to the more sinister portrayal of Aranrot.
Aranrot has two children by Lliaws, named in TYP35 as Gwenwynwyn and Gwanar. There are various etymologies for their names, the most likely are that Gwenwynwyn means “Thrice Holy/Blessed/White”, though it is a real possibility that it is in fact a corruption of Gwanwyngwyn, giving the meaning “White Spring”, perhaps alluding to his function as a snow or melt-water spirit. Gwanar can be translated as “moving forward, leading, trailblazing” or alternatively “Warfare”. They accompany Aranrot and Caswallawn on their uncles quest to rescue the maiden Fflur, and together function as expressions of Aranrots power, reinforcing the martial qualities of both Lliaws and Caswallawn.
The Journey Onwards
If we look beyond the depiction of Aranrot in modern neo-paganism we find a wealth of fascinating information regarding a complex and powerful entity. As Awenydd we can delve deeper into the mysteries of Aranrot and form a close reciprocal connection with the Goddess of the great wheel.
Aranrot’s story is full of contradictions and complexities, as we form a personal connection with her we venture deeper into the crystalline bowles of Caer Arianrhod… and discover the chains we place on ourselves.