ARIANRHOD, MOON GODDESS OF THE SILVER WHEEL
Celtic goddess of moon Arianrhod on a Bosnian stecak
Arianhod is known under several names: “High Fruitful Mother”, “Silver Wheel”, “Silver Circle”, “Sky Goddess”, etc. In etymology it is considered that her name comes from the Welsh word “silver” or “ariawyn” – “silver woman”. The origin of the name is also brought into connection with Ariadne or Aradia, Greek lunar goddess, which is connected to the cult of the growing moon. Ariana, whose meaning is “one very holly”, is a familiar Illyrian name and is very present today on the territory of Albania, Kosovo and BiH. Other variations of this name are also in use such as Ilirijana or Ilirija.
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Arianrhod is the Celtic Goddess of the Moon, the Stars and the Sky. She has also been known by such other names, as Margawse or Morgause, and by such titles as the Goddess of Childbirth, Magick, Justice and the Night. In Wales, Arianrhod takes on other attributes as well, when she becomes the Goddess of the Wheel of the Year and the Goddess of the Full Moon, Destiny, Fertility, Death and Reincarnation. What is extremely important is the fact that Arianrhod is also the Goddess of Feminine Power, an integral part of the Divine Feminine.
Legend tells us that Arianrhod was the most powerful of all the children born to the great Mother Goddess Don and her consort Beli; and that she was extremely beautiful, with very pale skin. She was also believed to have been both sister and wife to Gwydion, and the mother of the twins: Llew, a Sun God, and Dylan, a God of the Sea.
Arianrhod was also a Magician Goddess, and she was considered by most to be a Maiden Goddess as well, living her life in much the same manner as the Greek Goddesses Artemis and Athena; surrounded only by women. In reality, however, Arianrhod actually lived a much wilder and freer life, frequently enjoying herself sexually and having a distinct preference for mermen. Arianrhod’s symbols are the cauldron and the white sow. The cauldron was an important symbol of feminine power, in the pre-Christian, Pagan world, while the white sow indicates that she had a strong connection to the Underworld. Arianrhod is also believed to have a powerful association with the sea.
In Irish tradition, a prophacy existed stating that a Goddess among them would manifest herself as a weaver. Arianrhod has the perfect qualities necessary to be that weaver. She has great strength and independence, and those qualities would be extremely important to whomever, indeed, would manifest themselves in that role. If Arianrhod actually is that weaver, then she might be compared to the Greek Fates, or to the Norns or Disir of the Norse and Teutonic pantheons. The suggestion that Arianrhod might possibly be that weaver follows a strand, which connects many different cultures, and it is well known that these weavers have, perhaps the greatest power of all, because as they weave they control the lives of both men and Gods alike.
The name Arianrhod means “Silver Wheel,” or “Silver Circle,” which name is indicative of her role as a Goddess of the Full Moon, and in her role as the Mother in a typical Welsh Triple Goddess Trinity. She has also been known as the “Virgin White Goddess of Birth, Initiation, Death and Rebirth,” and the “Silver Wheel that Descends into the Sea.” Her palace, or spiral tower in the sky, is known as Caer Arianrhod, or the “Castle of the Silver Wheel,” although it may be better known, to some, as the Aurora Borealis or the Milky Way, which constellation has also been associated with the Goddess Ariadne, Arianrhod’s Greek Counterpart.
Arianrhod was the Mistress of Caer Sidi, the Otherworld Tower of Initiation. When people died, they were taken to Caer Sidi where they would spend the time that they had between their incarnations. It has been said that it was at Caer Sidi that poets learned the wisdom of the stars. When warriors died in battle, it was Arianrhod’s role to gather up their souls, put them aboard her ship, known as Oar Wheel, and then transport them to Emania, which was also known as Moonland. It was then, when they finally arrived at Moonland, that Arianrhod initiated the Otherworld souls into their new lives at Caer Sidi.
Arianrhod also takes on the role of the Mother in a Welsh Triple Goddess trinity, in which Blodeuwedd is the Maiden, and Cerridwen the Crone. It was Arianrhod’s face, as well, that appeared as one of the faces of the Mother Goddess, who was worshipped by the Sisterhood of Nine in Avalon.
Arianrhod plays a major role in the tale known as Math, the Son of Mathonwy, which appears in the Welsh collection of stories, known as The Mabinogion. Although The Mabinogion was written between the second half of the 11th Century and the end of the 13th Century, C.E., it was not until 1849 that Lady Charlotte Guest translated the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400) into English. The Red Book of Herges is a manuscript that contains four major sections that make up the main body of The Maginogion, as well as eleven anonymous tales which appear to be taken from Welsh mythology and folklore, dealing primarily with Arthurian legend.
The name, The Mabinogion, was taken by Lady Guest from the final line in each of the four main sections of the work, which state: “Here endeth the First Branch of the Mabinogion,” or the “Second Branch,” or the “Third,” and then on through the “Fourth.” Math the Son of Mathonwy comprises the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, and includes within it a tale regarding the Goddess Arianrhod, as well as a continuation of that tale, dealing with the flowerfaced Goddess Blodeuwedd. In The Mabinogion, Arianrhod was cast as the daughter of the Goddess Don, the sister of Gwydion, and the niece of the magician Math. Stories, however, are frequently not what they appear to be on the surface, and it sometimes might be necessary, for you to look a great deal deeper if you wish to discover the truth.
In The Mabinogion’s version of this myth, Math was a Magician King who, as a part of retaining that Kingship, was required to have his feet placed in the lap of a maiden (a virgin) whenever he was not engaged in battle. The fair and lovely Goewin was Math’s footholder, and as such she was the source of both his sovereignty and his power.
One day, Arianrhod’s brother, Gwydion, came upon their younger brother, Gilvaethwy, who appeared to be extremely depressed. When Gwydion inquired as to why his brother seemed that way, Gilvaethwy confided in him, telling him of his desire for the maiden Goewin. Goewin, however, was their uncle’s footholder, and as such she was constantly by their uncle’s side, thereby making it impossible for Gilvaethwy to ever be alone with her. No other way existed, other then by Math going to war, for Gilvaethwy to be alone with Goewin so that he might tell her of his feelings. The thought that Goewin would continue being Math’s footholder, and as such, always remain a virgin, did not sit well with Gilvaethwy either. Not at all well.
Then, through deceit, lies and a magickal spell, Gwydion was able to create a war, which Math went off to fight leaving Goewin behind, waiting at Caer Dathyl for his return. With a slight feeling of smugness about him, Gilvaethwy knew quite well that Gwydion had created the perfect ruse by using his magick to create a war, thereby allowing him the time he needed to make Goewin aware of how great his love for her truly was.
When Math went off to war a great battle ensued, and what had begun as a lie and a magickal spell, ended up as a bloodbath. Many worthy men were killed in that war, and among them was King Pryderi, the son of the mortal King Pwyll, and the Goddess Rhiannon.
Once Math had left to go and fight in the war, Gilvaethwy went directly into Math’s castle. He then sat down, exactly where Math always sat, whenever soon the sundown his feet were resting in the lap of the fair Goewin. Quite rudely, Gilvaethwy proceeded to order everyone in the court to quickly leave him, except for the maiden Goewin, who he forced to stay there with him, completely against her will. It was there and then, upon Math’s own couch, that Gilvaethwy raped the maiden Goewin, and when he had finished, that which he had begun, he left the maiden Goewin a maiden no more.
Since Goewin had lost her maidenhood, she was no longer able to act as Math’s footholder, since it had been her virginity which had given her the ability to grant Math the sovereignty of his kingship and kinship with his land.
When the battle had ended, and King Pryderi had been buried, Math returned to Caer Dathyl, immediately inquiring as to where the maiden Goewin might be. It was then that Goewin appeared before him and, with tears running down her cheeks, she explained to Math that she could no longer act as his footholder, since her virginity had been taken from her against her will, by his nephew Gilvaethwy, through the plotting and treachery of Gilvaethwy’s brother, Gwydion.
Shortly thereafter, Math discovered that the war had actually been created by one of Gwydion’s magickal spells, and that the war that was, was a war that should never have been. It became extremely clear to Math that Gwydion had created the war, so that Gilvaethwy could be alone with Goewin. However, instead of acting like a gentleman in love, Gilvaethwy had acted brutally, and the way in which he had shown his love was by the violent act of raping Goewin.
Math was deeply concerned for Goewin, not only because she was the source of his power and his sovereignty, but also because she was extremely dear to him. Obviously upset by what he had just learned, Math told Goewin that he would compensate her for everything that had been done to her, and as a part of that compensation, he would take her hand in marriage. Then he contiued by telling her that he would give to her everything that was his to give.
The great scope of all that had happened suddenly appeared before Math like a brightly shining light, and it became known to him in that moment of clarity, that it was Gwydion who had masterminded the entire ruse. Not only had Gwydion used his magick to cause the war, but he also was responsible for the death of several hundred men, including, among them, the noble King Pryderi. The men who had died in the war, had not done so because of honor, nor had they done so because of valor. Rather, they had lost their lives solely because of a selfish plot to remove Math from his footholder, thereby giving Gilvaethwy the opportunity he needed, to deflower the maiden Goewin. That event also caused other problems for Math, since he needed to find a maiden to act as his footholder.
When Math finally caught up with Gwydion and Gilvaethwy, he advised them that they were going to be punished. He was not punishing them for causing the war, which was for what they had expected the punishment to be. Rather, they were being punished because of the way in which they had harmed Goewin.
To begin their punishment, Math took his magick wand and struck both Gilvaethwy and Gwydion with it, turning them into a mated pair of deer. It was then that he told them to go out into the world, and to act in the same manner as the animals they had become. He then added that when an entire year had passed, they should return to Caer Dathyl to see him.
When Gilvaethwy and Gwydion returned after one turn of the Wheel of the Year, it was not the two of them that returned. Rather, there were actually three. Math went down to greet them, and he could easily see that a young fawn was standing there with them. He told them, that he would be taking the fawn and that he would baptize it, giving it the name of Hydwn.
Then Math took out his magick wand, and once again touched each of them. However, when he touched them that second time, they were not changed back into men. Instead, they had been changed into a mated pair of wild hogs. Math told them, once again, to go out in the world and live in the same manner that the wild hogs did, and to then return to him after one full turn of the Wheel of the Year.
When they returned to Caer Dathyl after yet another year’s time, there appeared with them a strong, young wild hog. Math struck the young hog with his magick wand and there, before him, stood a fine, fair, auburn-haired youth. Once again, Math informed his nephews that he would take the young man and baptize him, thereby giving him the name of Hychdwn.
Math then touched his nephews with his magick wand. Gilvaethwy and Gwydion had both believed that their punishment would finally be over. That, however, was not the case. Instead, when Math once again touched each of them with his magick wand, this time they were changed into a mated pair of wolves, and when they finally did return to Caer Dathyl after one year’s time, there appeared with them a young wolf cub. As before, Math said that he would take the young cub, so that he might baptize it, and that he was giving it the name of Bleiddwn.
This time, however, when Math struck Gwydion and Gilvaethwy with his magick wand, each of them were returned to his own natural form. Then Math told the two of them that they had, indeed, been punished for dishonoring the Lady Goewin, for when they had dishonored her, they had also brought dishonor upon him.
After Math had observed Gwydion and Gilvaethwy for a while, he informed them that he could see that they had finally obtained some peace within themselves, and it was because of that that he would also give them his friendship, and that good old boy form of friendship continued to grow.
Once all had been said and done, Math asked the two of them who they would suggest to become his new footholder. Almost immediately the words seemed to fly out of Gwydion’s mouth, as he said quite emphatically that his sister Arianrhod, who was the daughter of Don and the niece of Math, would be the perfect choice for that role. Immediately thereafter, Gwydion sent word to Arianrhod, advising her that she should immediately come to Court. (One can only assume that the person or persons who wrote the Fourth Branch of the Maginogion was/were using poetic license, since it appears that Math had gone for three full years without having a footholder, while still retaining both his sovereignty and his land.)
When Arianrhod arrived at Caer Dathyl Math explained to her the specific requirements necessary for the role of being his footholder. He also stressed that only a virgin would be considered for that role. Arianrhod was slightly taken aback by that requirement because it seemed to be a rather strange request, but she fully believed that it would not present a problem since she believed that a virgin was an independent woman who was answerable only unto herself.
Math then asked Arianrhod if she truly was a virgin, and she replied to him: “I know not, lord, other than that I am.” Unfortunately for Arianrhod, Math’s definition of a virgin was a rather different then her own since he believed that a virgin was a woman who had never had sex.
In order to verify that Arianrhod was indeed a virgin, Math informed her that she would have to pass a special test of virginity, which was a magickal test that he and Gwydion had devised and which required Arianrhod to step over his magick wand. Then it happened, and it took Arianrhod completely by surprise, because as soon as she stepped over the magick wand she immediately gave birth to twin boys. The first child, Dylan, slipped quietly away to the sea where he swam away like a fish across the waves, while the second child, who would eventually be named Llew Llaw Gyffes, was hidden away and then adopted by Gwydion, who chose to raise the child as his own.
Arianrhod was furious with Gwydion and Math, once she realized that they had purposely plotted to shame her by exposing her lack of virtue for the whole court to see and, in her enormous rage, she cursed her remaining son, swearing that the child would never have a name, never bear a sword, and never marry a woman of this Earth.
Many of you might look upon the curse that Arianrhod placed upon her infant son as being unthinkable. Yet it was, indeed, a mother’s right to do exactly what Arianrhod did during that particular period in Wales. Eventually, however, through deception and lies, Gwydion was able to trick Arianrhod into both naming and arming Llew, but it was only through Math’s magickal creation of Blodeuwedd that Llew was finally able to have a wife.
You might then argue that Arianrhod’s treatment of her infant son was totally uncalled for. It might be wise, however, before you make any final judgment, to get a better picture of the story and, in order to discover what actually may have occurred, it might be helpful if you were to read between the lines.
When you read between the lines a plethora of possibilities appear, including the possibility that Arianrhod’s children may have been forcibly, or even incestuously, conceived with either her brother Gwydion or Uncle Math. Another view, which might fall very easily within the story line, and one that might, in all likelihood, seem much closer to the truth, is the fact that Arianrhod had never been pregnant, and that the birth of the twins had been accomplished solely through the scheming and plotting of Gwydion and Math’s magick. They had set Arianrhod up so that they could expose her lack of virtue for the whole court to see and, at the same time, they had made her seem a fool. If Arianrhod’s actions are viewed in this light, then it is easily understandable why she may have acted as she did, and it might be fitting for her critics to reconsider their condemnations.
After all has been said and done, if there are those among you who still wish to judge Arianrhod, let them take a closer look at this unique and complex Goddess. Not only was Arianrhod the Goddess of the Moon, the Sky and the Stars, she was also the Goddess who guided the dead along the pathway which brought them to their next stop on the Wheel of Reincarnation. Arianrhod was a very strong and independent Goddess, representative of many admirable and intelligent, women and Goddesses alike, who are prime examples of the Divine Feminine, and who are so secure within themselves, that they feel no need to have a man in their lives solely for the purpose of making them feel whole. Indeed, they are confidant and purposeful women, that lesser men have been known to fear.
That may very well have been the reason behind Gwydion and Math’s attempt at shaming Arianrhod, as well as their attempt at making her seem a fool. Since Arianrhod was the most powerful child of the Great Mother Goddess Don, and a female child at that, these two male magicians may have felt that Arianrhod was a threat to their “masculinity,” which can easily be seen as just another term for “power.” If that truly was the case, then Gwydion and Math’s actions proved to be nothing more then an unsuccessful attempt at enforcing patriarchal rule, and the admonitions that have been raised against Arianrhod should immediately be withdrawn.
There are several other myths as well which had been put into written form during the period when the Christian Church gained great power and control in Britain and there are other Goddesses as well including Blodeuwedd, Branwen, and Rhiannon, whose myths also appeared in written form, together with that of Arianrhod, in The Mabinogion.
However, before these tales had ever been set down into written form, they had been told and re-told for centuries in the ancient oral tradition of the bards. Every time that a bard told a tale, he would add something unique to his particular version of the tale. That was why the tales of the bards were so wonderful and alive. That is also why, when you read the written tales, the truth may just be hidden between the lines.
By the time that The Mabinogion was written, the Christian Church had already established a strong foothold in Britain, and once the oral tales had been set down into written form, the Church could easily control them, and the Church did whatever it had to do to hide the stories of Gods and Goddesses and powerful matriarchal rule deep within The Mabinogion. Realizing exactly what had to be done, the Church acted quickly and quietly as it re-wrote the tales in such a manner that they reflected its strong patriarchal mores.
Many of the characters in The Mabinogion were based upon a variety of Pagan Gods and Goddesses who were then used by the Church as vehicles to spread its anti-Pagan, anti-Goddess rhetoric to the people. The Church strongly supported a conservative form of conduct which it believed should be seen as a standard or ideal for people to follow in their daily lives.
The recurring themes that exist throughout The Mabinogion, particularly the ones regarding the Goddess Blodeuwedd, make it extremely clear just how large a role the Church actually played in the collection’s creation. The Church’s goal was quite obvious, and it made its views quite clear, that if people acted upon their uncontrolled sexual desires, which the Church believed were the evil ways of the Goddess, then terrible consequences would occur.
In reality, however, even though the Church’s influence appears to have been ever present in The Mabinogion, if people are willing to look beneath the surface, they might be very surprised by what they will find. These tales are wonderful, magickal tales of the Goddess, yet they were also the same exact tales that the Church appeared to be so anxious to hide.
Hopefully, you will be able to see these tales as more then just the written word. Close your eyes, open your minds, and envision these tales as though you were hearing them for the very first time from a bard. You might be wonderfully surprised by what you will find. All you have to do is read between the lines.
The next evening that you happen to step outside, stop for a moment, relax, look up at the evening sky, and gaze around at its amazing beauty.
You just might see Arianrhod sitting there, high upon her cosmic throne, surrounded by the magnificence of the Aurora Borealis. One can only wonder what goes on in Arianrhod’s mind as she continues to weave the tapestry of life, deciding the future of men and Gods alike, with only a few turns of her wheel. Is it a wheel of fortune, or is it one of despair? That is all in the stars.
Hymn to Arianrhod
Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel By all the names men give thee – We, thy hidden children, humbly kneel Thy truth to hear, thy countenance to see. Here in the circle cast upon the Earth Yet open to the stars – unseen, yet real – Within our hearts give understanding birth, Our wounds of loss and loneliness to heal. Isis unveiled and Isis veiled, thou art; The Earth below our feet, the Moon on high. In thee these two shall never be apart – The magick of the Earth and Sky.