Arianrhod, great cosmic mother
You create from yourself alone
Spinning the stars upon your silver wheel,
Spiral goddess of the whirling galaxies,
Weaving your web from the threads of time,
All that is, all that was, and all that shall be
Endlessly becoming, spinning life into being. [i]
You are the sacred strand in all things,
Weaver of wisdom, weave us closer to you.
Arianrhod is the queen of the spiral castle, the swirling galaxy of stars. She is the goddess who spins the cosmos, the mistress of time and the seasons. She is the goddess who challenges. She is the divine initiator. Hers is not an easy path.
In Welsh myth Arianrhod is the daughter of the chief goddess Dôn, from whom all the Welsh gods descended and the god Beli Mawr (‘Beli the Great’). Beli is cognate with the continental Belenos or the Irish Bel, the sun god called the Fair Shining One, or The Shining God, a pan-Celtic deity associated with Beltane, the horse and the wheel. Arianrhod’s maternal uncle was Math the magician, and her siblings included Gwydion, a magician-poet and Math’s heir, and Govannon, god of the forge.
Though she is mentioned in the Welsh Triads, the only full tale of Arianrhod still in existence is found in the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh stories recorded by Christian monks in the mediaeval period.
The Story of Arianrhod
King Math ruled Gwynedd, but was under a taboo that his feet should always rest his feet in the lap of a virgin during peacetime. Sadly, his nephew Gilvaethwy lusted after the footholder, Goewin. He confided his secret to his brother Gwydion and, as they knew that Math was released from the taboo in time of war, by some clever machinations, provoked a war with their neighbour King Pryderi. Math was forced to go off to battle, leaving his footholder behind. Gilvaethwy seized the opportunity and raped Goewin.
Naturally, Math was furious when he returned, punishing his nephews severely by turning them into a series of mated pairs of animals.
In an attempt to regain Math’s favour, Gwydion suggested his sister Arianrhod for the position of footholder. When Arianrhod was asked if she was a virgin, she replied that she was morwyn, a word that means ‘little girl’ [ii] and might be construed as implying an unmarried state.
However, a magical trial of her status was required – to test her purity she had to step over Math’s wand, but as soon as she had done so, she gave birth to a golden-haired boy called Dylan (which means ‘Son of the Second Wave’), who immediately jumped into the sea and swam away. Arianrhod indignantly walked out of the door.
No one but Gwydion saw her drop a bundle, an unformed lump of boy-flesh.
Gwydion secretly raised the child himself. His growth was rapid; when he was four years old, he was as tall as a boy of eight.
When Gwydion took the boy to her castle, Arianrhod refused to recognise him as her son, saying that he should never have a name until she gave him one. This was a serious thing as to be without a name was to be nothing, in this world or the next.
Gwydion came up with a plan to trick Arianrhod into naming her son. By magic he formed a boat from seaweed and rushes and some beautiful leather from sedge. Disguised as shoemakers, Gwydion and Llew sailed up to Arianrhod’s castle and began to sew the leather. Arianrhod looked down from her balcony and thought that she would like some new shoes, so she sent her maid down to the shore with her measurements. Gwydion knew that he must force her to come out and first made some shoes too big, then some to small, though both pairs were exquisite. Eventually Arianrhod went down to the boat to be fitted in person.
While Gwydion was fitting the shoes a wren came and perched on the boat. The boy took out his bow and shot the wren through the leg. Arianrhod was impressed. “Truly,” she said “the fair-haired one (“lleu”) has a skilful hand (“llaw gyffes”)!” “Thank you,” Gwydion said, “the boy now has his name – Llew Llaw Gyffes!”
Angry at being tricked, she declared that the boy should never have arms unless she should bestow them.
Nevertheless, Gwydion took Llew home to Dinas Dinllev and brought him up as a warrior. When he was ready, the two returned to Caer Arianrhod, this time disguised as bards. The goddess received them kindly, pleased to hear their songs and stories.
The next morning Gwydion cast a powerful spell that made it appear as though a vast army was descending on the castle. The air rang with shouts and trumpets and the bay seemed full of enemy ships. Arianrhod became afraid and asked Gwydion what she should do. “Give us arms,” he replied, “and we will defend you.” While her maidens armed Gwydion, Arianrhod herself strapped armour onto Llew. Instantly the glamour ended, and it was seen that no army threatened.
Realizing that she had been tricked again, Arianrhod laid a further taboo on Llew – that he should never marry a woman born of the race of men.
Gwydion and his fellow magician Math ap Mathonwy gathered the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet to fashion a lovely maiden as a bride for Llew. She was called Blodeuwedd (‘Flower Face’).
Llew and his flower bride lived happily until one day Llew was away and a hunting party arrived, led by Gronw Pebyr. Gronw and Blodeuwedd immediately fell in love and plotted to rid themselves of her husband.
The problem was that he could be killed neither by day nor by night, indoors or out of doors, clothed or naked, riding or walking, nor by any lawfully made weapon. Blodeuwedd tricked Llew into revealing to her that he could only be killed at twilight when on the bank of a river with one foot on the back of a he-goat and the other on the rim of a bath, under a canopy. The spear needed to kill him would take a year to make, working only on Sundays. Armed with this information, Gronw set about making preparations.
When all was ready Blodeuwedd asked Llew to show her how he could balance on a goat and bath at the same time. Llew was more than ready to indulge his young wife’s curiosity and took up his position with one foot on the rim of a bath, the other on the he-goat.
As he teetered there Gronw emerged from the trees and hurled the magical javelin at him, wounding him in the thigh. However, instead of dying, Llew turned into an eagle and flew away.
When Gwydion learned what had happened he set off to find his poor nephew. He searched far and wide until one day he discovered a sow behaving very strangely. It was devouring the maggots and gobbets of flesh that fell from an eagle perched in an oak tree. Gwydion immediately recognized that the eagle was the mortally wounded Llew. Using his magical powers he transformed his nephew back into human shape and took him home to nurse him back to health.
When news of Llew’s recovery reached Blodeuwedd and Gronw they realized that all was up and took flight. With her servants Blodeuwedd tried to cross the river, but her maids were in such a panic they all drowned in the swift flowing waters.
Left alone, the Flower Maiden was soon discovered by Gwydion, who revenged his nephew by changing her into an owl, the most hated of all birds.
Gronw tried to treat with Llew and offered him land and money in reparation. This Llew refused and demanded that Gronw meet him in the place of his treacherous act and allow him to return the favour under the exact same circumstances. The two came to the bank of the river and Gronw took up his position on the goat and cauldron, but pleaded with Llew that since he had come to this pass through the wiles of a woman, Llew should allow him the boon of placing a stone between himself and the blow. This Llew granted, but when he hurled his spear it pierced through the stone and through Gronw too, breaking his back. The stone still lies on the banks of the river Cynfael, with the hole through it, and it is called Llech Gronw or ‘Gronw’s Stone’.
How are we to interpret the myth?
While Arianrhod claims to be a virgin, she gives birth to twin sons.
The story of a birth of a god from a virgin mother is a common one in myth. She is the goddess who creates without needing any external agency. The divine son of a virgin mother is usually a seasonal death and resurrection god, as here Llew clearly is. Many goddesses were called ‘virgin’ despite being married or having lovers.
Twin sons are also fairly common in myth and represent polarities such as the light and dark or summer and winter who fight for rulership of the year. Dylan is the ‘son of the wave’ and Gronw Pebyr is ‘lord of the lake’, another metaphorical twin and rival of Llew in the seasonal battle for the love of the goddess Blodeuwedd, or nature.
Why did Arianrhod seem so harsh? Why did she seem to be denying her son his rights? And why is she so powerful that Gwydion has to work so hard to outwit her?
Arianrhod the Initiatrix
In myths the hero meets a supernatural figure, perhaps a god or goddess, who sets them upon the path to their destiny. Often they are associated with a spindle or a wheel, representing fate, and with riddling or testing. Arianrhod gave young Llew his fate when she laid on him three taboos. Her pronouncements are not curses; what she actually says is: “I swear a destiny upon the boy”.
Arianrhod challenged and pushed her son through the path of becoming a man, gaining a name, arms and a bride. She didn’t hand these things to him on a plate, but made him strive for them. He had to accept the will of the Goddess, but he did not surrender, did not give in, but worked within the challenges she set him in order to triumph.
The famous poem of the Welsh bard Taliesin states that he was three times in the castle of Arianrhod, or in other words, he travelled in spirit three times to the mystery at the heart of the universe to gain poetic inspiration directly from its source, the Goddess.
In the court of Ceridwen I did penance,
Pursued by a smiling black hag;
I fled with vigour, I have fled as a frog,
I have fled in the semblance of a crow,
I have fled as a roe into an entangled thicket
I have fled as a wolf cub,
I have fled as iron in a glowing fire,
I have fled as a spear-head,
I have fled as a bristly boar in a ravine,
I have fled as a white grain of pure wheat.
Into a dark leather bag I was thrown,
And on a boundless sea I was sent adrift.
I have been on the galaxy at the throne of the Distributor;
I was in the court of Don before the birth of Gwydion.
I have been three periods in the fort of Arianrhod,
Then I was for nine months
In the womb of the hag Ceridwen.
I was originally little Gwion,
And at length I am Taliesin. [iii]
Like Ceridwen in the story of Gwion who became Taliesin, Arianrhod is a challenging goddess who pushes the hero into wisdom and greatness.
Arianrhod is the initiator, the goddess who challenges the candidate and pushes them to achieve the next step.
The Three Taboos
The first taboo Arianrhod imposes on her son is that he will have no name until she gives him one. She doesn’t say that she is denying him a name.
In earlier times, and today in tribal societies, the naming of a thing or person was a great responsibility. The true name of something encapsulates its essential nature. Even today a child is named in a solemn ceremony and there is a belief that the name chosen will affect the child, in some way shaping its character. Often a child is not felt to be a person at all – or to have its own individual identity – until it is formally named. A person may take a new name with a change of status; for example a boy will assume a new name when he comes to manhood, a woman when she marries, a priest when he is ordained, and a witch when initiated. Taking a new name means taking on a new role and new identity.
Guided by his experienced magician uncle, Llew uses cunning, magic and skill to gain a name from the goddess. Arianrhod sees him hit a wren with his sling, and then names him ‘The One of the Skilful Hand’. With this, he becomes an adult – the child he was, with only the concerns of a child, is left behind.
The shooting of the wren is significant – it is the bird of the sacred king, and it foreshadows his own wounding later in the story. The wren is, in fact, himself. In ancient Welsh tradition the wren is the King of the Birds, triumphing over the Eagle, so this is an act of sacrificial kingship. The wren is hunted and killed at the winter solstice. In stories, kings are often wounded in the leg or groin prior to their demise. When he shoots it, and accepts his name, he assumes the role of the king who must serve the Goddess and sacrifice himself for the land.
Like Llew, the neophytes, guided by magician elders, must learn skill, cunning and magic in order to present themselves to the Goddess for initiation. The first degree initiation changes the status of a member of the coven – with it, they become a priest or priestess. With it, they accept the path of service, just as Llew does, when he shoots the wren. The initiate takes a new Craft name to denote that they have died and been reborn as a priest or priestess.
The second taboo which Arianrhod pronounces is that he shall have no weapons until she arms him herself. This is very clearly an initiation test, a simple case of “you will receive arms when you have demonstrated your courage and earned the right to them”. The arms he gains will be used to defend his people.
In the second degree, the candidate is summoned to the edge of the circle and asked what they seek within this degree. Whereas in the first degree the candidate replied that they seek knowledge, in this degree the candidate responds that they seek “to better serve the Lord and Lady”. The first degree is about seeking knowledge, about learning, including the difficult job of learning about the self. In the second degree, this must have progressed to the point where the desire has become to serve – not because it makes the priest feel good, or makes people admire him, but because service to others is the way of the priest.
The third test pronounced by Arianrhod is that Llew shall never marry a mortal women. It seems cruel, but we must remember that he is a god and a sacred king. The primary relationship of the Celtic sacred king was with the land. Woven throughout the stories and myths of Celtic heroes and gods is the concept of Sovereignty, the right and authority to rule the land. This right and authority is derived not from the right of inheritance or brute force, but a woman/goddess who represents the land. By denying him marriage with an ordinary woman, Arianrhod ensured that he would marry the sovereign goddess. Again, Llew could have given up or despaired at being denied a bride, but he sought the help of his uncles, Gwydion and Math, who created a bride out of flowers – oak, broom and meadowsweet – in other words, out of nature itself.
The story of Llew illustrates that the king must only take power in order to serve the land. The third degree initiate takes the grade only in order to serve others more fully. The person who takes it must not do so for his own glory, and must function in an unselfish way, putting the needs of the group or community first.
The Silver Wheel
But there are deeper mysteries here. Arianrhod’s name may derive from the Welsh words arian ‘silver’ + rhod ‘wheel, though her name is also given as Aranrhod from aran meaning ‘immense’ or ’round’ + rhod, meaning ‘wheel’.
Many Celtic gods are depicted with wheels, indicating movement and the passing of time and the seasons.
In Welsh folklore, the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis, is called Caer Arianrhod, meaning Arianrhod’s Castle. It is near the Pole Star, but not so near that it does not rise and set.
The names of the various castles in Welsh myth relate to the celestial – the Milky Way was Gwydion’s castle, the Corona Borealis was Arianrhod’s castle, and the constellation of Cassiopeia was the location of the Court of Don. Caer Sidi, the revolving castle, is the Pole Star, the still point around which the stars spin, revolving through the seasons.
From our point of view, the stars revolve around the sky, and throughout the year the sun passes through each constellation of the zodiac, which is itself seen as a wheel that weaves our fates.
Arianrhod’s wheel spins the cosmos, weaving the silver threads of the stars and galaxies, and therefore time, the seasons, and fate. She controls the maelstrom of creative forces at the heart of the cosmos.
The Goddess of the Labyrinth
Another goddess associated with the constellation of the Corona Borealis is the Greek goddess Ariadne, who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth at Knossos by means of a thread she gave him to lay a trail to the passage through the labyrinth. The jewelled crown he gave her was placed in the stars after her death as the constellation. One name for the Minotaur was Asterion, meaning ‘Starry’, implying a connection of the turns of the labyrinth and the motions of the stars.
In order to win a name, Gwydion and Llew come to the goddess disguised as shoemakers. Both the Irish and Welsh Llew pose as a shoemaker to gain access to a highborn girl or queen. In myth, there is a mysterious connection between sacred kings, shoemakers and labyrinths. In Poland a traditional shoemakers’ dance was connected with a labyrinth. In England the Patriotic Company of Shoemakers had their own turf maze at Kingland near Shrewsbury.
The spiral labyrinth reflects the arms of the Milky Way. The spiral shape, which is the basis of the spider’s web, is an ancient and almost universal symbol of regeneration and rebirth. Spirals are marked on many ancient tombs, coins, floors, and cave walls. They represent the path of the Sun throughout the year, from birth to death and rebirth (the same journey promised to the human soul), the labyrinth that the soul travels into death and the underworld and outward to rebirth. Taliesin wrote that he had been three times in the castle of Arianrhod, indicating a three-fold initiation, treading the path of that labyrinth.
The spinning goddesses of fate are often associated with the stars. In Viking mythology, Frygg’s spindle is said to be the stars of the belt of Orion. Spinning was the province of women and goddesses only, a magical act as the movements imitated the spinning of the cosmos. Spinning goddesses were once considered to be the most powerful deities of all, and they appear in many mythologies.
Arianrhod’s husband is Nwyvre (pronounced NOOiv-ruh). His myths have been lost, and there are only a few mentions of him in the Triads remaining. His name comes from nwyf, which means ‘vivacity’, ‘vigour’ or ‘energy’ and rhe, ‘a swift motion’, so his name means something like ‘swiftly moving energy’.
Nwyvre is thought of as the life force that infuses and animates all things, similar to the concept of prana or chi, [iv] giving them health and vitality. Those things that lack nwyvre are dead.
Arianrhod is the active principle, spinning starry matter with threads of magic from the heart of the Cosmos, the source of the divine spark of inspiration. In this regard, Arianrhod and Nwyvre might be compared to Shakti and Shiva in Hindu mythology.
Between the Mabinogion and the Triads, Arianrhod and Nwyvre are said to have four sons:
These can be seen as representing the four elements, with the two great forces of the universe coming together to bring all things into being.
Arianrhod, great mother,
Your womb is the dark void of space
Which holds the seed of all potentials
You are the wheel of life,
You are the beginning and the end and the beginning once again
Yours is the spiral castle of the stars,
Where we are remade.
May we glimpse eternity,
And know your light.
© Anna Franklin 2020
[ii] Jean Markale, Women of the Celts, Inner Traditions International, Vermont, 1986
[iii] Abridged from the original
[iv] The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, Vol. I., ed. by J. Williams Ab Ithel, , at sacred-texts.com p. 372 p. 373