The second in our series looking at the nine children of the Welsh sky god Beli Mawr will explore Arianrhod. The Daughter of Beli Mawr and the Land Goddess Don, Arianrhod is an exceptional beauty, a powerful magician, and a terrible, terrible mother. But what can we discover of her nature, and how can we win the favour of the Lady Of The Wheel?
Arianrhod is… popular. Her name is widely known in Neopagan circles and she by is far the most famous of her siblings and even more renowned in modern practice then her father Beli. 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. Or is that just what she want you to think?
The Tale Of Arianrhod (Short Version!)
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, Maths 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 appalled by what has happend Math vows to marry Goewin as compensation for her ordeal, he then sets about hunting down and punishing Gilfaethwy and Gwydion the way only a master magician can.
However this now leaves Math with a serious problem: he needs a foothold or he will soon die, Goewin, no longer a virgin, cannot fulfill this role any longer. Gwydion, perhaps hoping to get back into Maths 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 took soon develops into a second child.
Gwydion takes the 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 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”. 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 simply uses 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, so 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 magic cannot be so easily bested…
Exploring The Myth
From her role in the fourth branch we can deduce several things about the nature of Arianrhod.
Arianrhod is described as being exquisitely beautiful even among the other fair maidens of the Mabinogi, described as being “pale as the snow”, and she seems to hold a great deal of stead by the (perceived) status of her virginity. A Goddess who is very concerned with image and appearance, she lies about her status as a virgin to her Uncle despite the fact his life literally depends on her honesty, and when she is revealed before the court flees in shame, without a second thought for the newborn Dylan.
A possible explanation for her antagonism towards Lleu, could be that he serves as a reminder of her shame, sadly there is almost nothing left of Dylans tale outside of veiled references to his accidental murder at the hands of his Uncle, the smith god Gofannon, so we cannot tell if he was spared her ire. Her use of magic to bind her own son shows the degree of hostility she has for anything that risks her carefully curated facade. Even Gwydion is shocked and appalled by her ruthlessness.
The animosity Arianrhod shows towards both Lleu and her brother Gwydion has led people to believe that there may be more her anger then first meets the eye. There is another version of this story, in which Arianrhod passes her test of Virginity and replaces Geowin as Maths footholder. The 15th century poet Lewys Mon makes a reference to this narrative in one of his poems”
“Old Math son of Mathony: the arm of a chaste, white-armed wise one was his pillow each night. Arianrhod, none was like her, Math would not live without her.”
This is not the only reference to this version of the story being told during the 15th and 16th centuries, this seems to be a well established version of the tale. This fact, along with the incredible paternal affection showed by Gwydion towards Lleu, have led some researchers to believe that in an earlier version of the tale Gwydion was the biological father of Arianrhods children. This is a compelling theory, one that explains Arianrhods hatred of Lleu if he was the constant reminder of an insestious union with her brother, however the genealogical tract Bonedd yr Arwyr, which list the family lines of Don and Math, throws this into serious doubt.
Bonedd yr Arwyr lists Blodeuwed, Lleu and Dylan as the three direct descendants of Math. Blodeuwed was constructed by math from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet, as her creator he is effectively her father, and earlier in the fourth branch he adopts the three offspring of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, conceived in animal form during their punishment as his own, is it also possible that he orchestrated the birth of Dylan and Lleu as well? The virginity test he subject Arianrhod two is loaded with sexual imagery, not least asking her to step over his bent “wand”, It’s a very real possibility that her sudden pregnancy was instigated by Math himself towards some end possibly to acquire an heir, a role Lleu later fulfills.
It also becomes quickly apparent that Arianrhod is an exceptionally powerful magician. In the fourth branch of the Mabinogi it takes all of Gwydion’s cunning a magical talent to break her first two tyngeds, or curses, and even then he has to turn to his Uncle Math for assistance with the third. This is further reinforced by the poem The Chair Of Cerridwen, in which Cerridwen, speaking through Taliesin, speaks in awe of an act of magic performed by Arianrhod in which she casts a protective rainbow around her court, a feat that held in the same regard as Math and Gwydion’s creation of Blodeuwed from flowers. It is also interesting to note that in Triad TYP 35 she is the person that Caswallawn turns to for help in rescuing his love Fflur, who has been kidnapped by Caesar. Caswallawn is an accomplished magician in his own right, it says a great deal that he would look to his sister for assistance before the rest of his family.
But what more can we find about Arianrhod beyond the pages of the Mabinogi?
Beyond The Mabinogi – The Fort In The Ocean
Caer Arianrhod is a physical part of the Welsh landscape. Look from the coast of Gwynedd during the spring low tide and 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 taring at its foundations.
Caer Arianrhod is mentioned multiple times in Welsh lore, in the fourth branch of the mabinogi it is the location of her court and the place Gwydion and Lleu must disguise themselves as Bards to enter. There are three other references to Arianrhods Court in the poetry of 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”
Each of these three references contain a whole wealth of information, not just on Caer Arianrhod, but the very nature of the Goddess Herself. Each poem enforces concepts of entrapment, the raging waters beat against the shore of her court before encircling the earth in a “snare”, Taliesin himself recalls his imprisonment in Caer Arianrhod, a place where his beloved still resides, caught in her fetters. When placed alongside her use of binding spells on her son Lleu, we begin to open up to a new side of Arianrhod as a Goddess of obstruction and entrapment, who’s fortress is a prison as much as it is a palace.
Something that becomes instantly apparent when reading these passages is the similarity to the language used to describe 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.”
Not only does this passage share the theme of the imprisonment of the “divine youth” in the form of Gweir, something that we have seen repeatedly in the tales of Pryderi, Mabon and now Taliesin in Caer Arianrhod, but also that he sing bitterly during his imprisonment there, something that is resonates deeply with the imprisonment of Mabon in Caerloyw, during which he “sings a lamentation to his fate”. Within the 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”.
From the context of his poem we can find Taliesin sitting in the fort of Caer Siddi, bitterly singing in longing for his love. The recurring nature of this event, the youthful poet trapped and lamenting his fate can be compared to 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 act be some form of initiation into the Bardic arts, or maybe the fort is a physical representation of the old saying “all good art comes from suffering”?
Caer Arianrhod is also the name given to the Corona Borealis, or the northern crown, a collection of eight stars that 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 physical rock formation of Caer Arianrhod, as it emerges from the waves at the spring low tide before being reclaimed by the sea. A piece of folklore from the Anglesey area solidifies this connection, telling the story of Caer Arianrhod’s destruction:
“Caer Arianrhod was a beautiful fortress that brought a sense of awe to all who saw it, but its inhabitants where 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, Gwennan, Elan and Maelan bi Don, three sisters of Arianrhod. They where gathering supplies at Cae’r Aelodau on that fateful day, when they looked back towards their sisters Court they were shocked to see its destruction. 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.”
This scrap of folklore is fascinating as it mirrors not just the physical outcropping of Caer Arianrhod but also the progression of the Corona Borealis as it fall back below the horizon, the geology of the land and the stars of the heavens continuously retelling the tale of Caer Arianrhods destruction. The folktale itself shares many obvious similarities with the flooding of another “wicked” Court, that of Prince Tegid, the husband of Cerridwen. Both have court that sits in water and both are flooded due to the supposed cruelty of their inhabitants. These two tales have obviously been influenced by Christianisation, which has no doubt exaggerated the brutality of Arianrhod and Tegid, two powerful Deities that could potentially be a threat to the new religion. Could the inundation of these two fortresses imply something else entirely? Tegid seems to be an Andedion, A Deity that is alien to our world and originating in Annwn, perhaps he was somehow able to bring his fortress through the waters that separate our two dimensions for a time, before returning it to his own realm. This is a feat that is proven to be possible in Welsh myth, in the third branch the Andedion enchanter Llwyd traps Pryderi and Rhiannon in a tower he summoned from the Otherworld, perhaps Arianrhod can also perform this feat of magic, if so does that mean her connection with the Otherworld run deeper then we first thought?
What’s In The Name? – Wheels, Precious Metals And Mistranslations
The key point of confusion regarding the nature of Arianrhod is based on a mistranslation of her name. The commonly accepted emptymology of Arianrhod is that it stems from a combination of the Welsh words Aryan meaning “silver” and Rhot meaning “wheel”, evoking the image of a powerful Lunar Goddess. However the earliest iteration of the name seems to have been Aranrhot, the version of her name that is used throughout the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. This variation of the name still contains the “wheel” element of Rot, however the first component is Aran, which can be translated as “Huge”, “Round” or “Humped”. The “Arianrhod” mistranslation seems to have stemmed mainly from a combination of the similarity between the two words coupled with her association with the Tri Aryanllu or “Three Silver Hosts” mentioned in Welsh Triad TYP35. She contributes of one of the three hosts, and entrusts her army, along with her two sons, to her brother Caswallawn so that can rescue his kidnapped love Fflur. (more on Caswallawn here). While there could be a countless number of possibilities as to the meaning behind her strange title, we can look to what we have already learned about this Goddess to explore. Her name “huge round wheel” is evocative of cycles and repetitions that define her stories: 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 stories and legends reflect this, Lleu and Gwydion break one curse only to be hit by another and then another, Taliesin escapes her castle only to find himself there once again. She is history repeating itself, the old mistakes to rise to haunt us, the ebb and the flow of life itself. Arianrhod and her court are the hub of the world, the shining glass axel around which reality, chance and fate revolve.
The Family Of Arianrhod – Mist, Battle And Poison
Arianrhods parents are the sky god Beli Mawr and the Goddess of the land, rivers and fields Don. she is the only definite child of their union as the mother of Beli’s other eight children and the father of Dons thirteen offspring are never named. Arianrhod is listed as both a member of Dons Court and a Child Of Beli, effectively making her both a land and sky Goddess. Her mythology also seems to connect her with the realm of the sea, her son Dylan Eil Ton, “Son Of The Wave” instantly takes to the ocean after his naming, and the Court of Arianrhod sits far out to sea, where the waves crash against it, eventually inundating the Court. This sets her in a unique position in Welsh lore, a Goddess who sits between the three realms of Land, Sea and Sky.
While Arianrhod was famed as a false virgin in the Mabinogi she later married, 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 figure who was perhaps once seen as a benevolent sky Deity who bestows fair weather on his worshippers, or perhaps a God petitioned by men going to war, the “agreeable soldier” who would assist them during battle.
Together Arianrhod and Lliaws had two children, Gwanar and Gwenwynwyn, whose names mean “battle” and “poison”. They are mentioned once in TYP 35, where it is said they leave with their mother to take part in Caswallawn’s ill-fated attempt to rescue the maiden Fflur, their names only reinforces the martial qualities demonstrated by Arianrhod, Lliaws and Caswallawn.
Arianrhods final two sons, born though stepping over the wand of Math, are the twins Dylan and Lleu. While we will explore these two in greater detail in the next entry in this series, which will focus on Arianrhods brother Llefelys, needless to say they both reinforce aspects of Arianrhods essential nature. Dylan is heavily associated with the sea, a realm his mother is also intimately connected with, while Lleu, whose grave is said to be “under the shade of the sea”, was known as a destructive and ruthless fighter, “who spared no one”, once again reflecting the skills of warfare embraced by his extended family.
Working With Arianrhod – Fetters and Chains
Much like her brother Caswallawn, there is hardly anything we can use to base our veneration of Arianrhod on, therefore once again we must channel the Awen in order to connect with her. In my own practice I have found offerings of flowers, candles and incense such a lavender to be appreciated by her, offerings of sea glass and shells are other effective gifts to earn her affection.
Writing a prayer to the Goddess can also win her favour, providing you do not invoke her ire with false pleasantries. If you are feeling really adventurous you could try your hand at an englyn, a very difficult from of Welsh poetry you can learn more about here.
Arianrhod is a complex and powerful Goddess, who can lend her power and wisdom to a wide number of different magical pursuits, including protection of the home, calling on the three realms of Land, Sea and Sky during ritual, and in general magical workings such as sigil charging and incantation. She is also naturally, a formidable agent of curses, and acts of magic using representations of her chains as the focus can be very effective in acts of binding and obstructing people, projects and events.
One area in which Arianrhods help is very beneficial is that of inner exploration and shadow work. We are all held prisoner by something at some point in our lives, be it addiction, poisonous relationships, physical or mental illness, or even just a twist of fate. By using visualization and journeywork we can travel to Caer Arianrhod and see for ourselves the chains that hold us down in the same old destructive cycles, lamenting our fate. With time and dedication we may come to find that some of these chains we can break free from ourselves, while others are too much for us to bare on our own, we need to reach out for help and guidance if we are to escape the fetters of Arianrhod. Her lessons may be harsh and unforgiving, but the reward is freedom from the wheel you have bound yourself to.
Two down, eight to go. next time we will explore Llefelys, a man of knowledge and learning, who uses his smarts to overcome any obstacle. He is also one third of a triple Deity, hows that for a hook?
Yours in the Grove,