Nevern: Sacred site of Ceridwen

by Becky Thomas

Nevern ChurchIn the little Pembrokeshire village of Nevern you will find a small church which was founded by Brynach, who is identified as a 6th century Welsh saint originating from Ireland. However as in the story of many saints, in Brynach’s tale there are hints of a much older history. Perhaps Brynach was a hero figure or even a God of our Pagan Welsh ancestors.

The true story of Brynach may be lost but there are hints of his origin to be found if you look for it. There is a brief mention in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, “"Triads of the Island of Britain" of Brynach Wyddel (translated as Brynach the Irishman), of Dinas Affaraon who was given the gift of a wolf by Henwen the sow of Dallweir Dallpen though sadly the rest of this tale has been lost.  However, even in the Christian telling of the life of Saint Brynach there are clear indications that he may have been something other than a mortal man for it tells of Brynach, the man who tamed beasts and who was master of two magical stags, a cow which produced a limitless supply of milk and a tame wolf.

In his story Brynach travelled to Wales from Ireland, having been wounded in love. He lived the life of a hermit for forty years on the magical mountain Carn Ingli, which means “Hill of Angels”, in Newport, Pembrokeshire. It is said that Brynach communed here with the angels, never taking any sustenance except for the water which bubbled up from the earth in the form of a holy spring. Carn Ingli is a special place. Here the earth’s magnetic field is reversed and many people today undertake a pilgrimage to the hill of angels to commune with the spirits and to receive visions. There are some today who consider Carn Ingli to be the physical manifestation of the Goddess in the Welsh landscape.

After forty years Brynach was told by the angels to leave the mountain. In the Christian telling of Brynach’s story the angels instructed him to walk until he found a place where he was to build a church, but perhaps there is something beyond the simple Christian telling of the tale here for the angels told Brynach that he would know the place when he came to it for he would find there a Great White Sow. The white sow is long known to be a symbol of the Welsh Goddess Ceridwen. As white sow she is guardian of the underworld, keeper of souls. So Brynach left the hill of angels and walked until he came to a beautiful river valley. Here as promised by the angels Brynach came upon Ceridwen the Great White Sow and built his church where she guided.

In common with many Welsh churches, it is thought that the church at Nevern sits upon a much older holy place. It is surrounded by ancient yews, sacred trees of the Dark Goddess. One of these trees is known as the ‘bleeding yew’. Whilst at times sap flows from all yew trees, the flow from the bleeding yew has continued for as long as can be remembered. This beautiful tree is sacred to the Crone. Those interested in the paranormal would tell you that the substance flowing from this tree has failed to have been identified by scientific investigation. I know this substance to be the very lifeblood of the Goddess, underworld guardian rising and flowing endlessly letting all who would know and love her come to this place to honour her at one of her underworld entranceways. The sap from this yew tree looks, feels, smells and tastes like blood.

Following the avenue of yew trees up to the church it is possible to see the remains of a figure on the outer church wall. It is clearly a female figure with the typical broad forehead, wide eyes and pointed nose that is common with Sheela-na-gig images, however it has been weathered or damaged over the years and the remaining features are lost. I believe this to be a representation of the Goddess built into the church that stands on a site that was previously sacred to her. I imagine those people building here in the 6th century wishing to ensure that something of their Goddess be retained in the Christianised site, that the great Goddess be remembered.

That Brynach was directed by the angels on the mountain to seek out Ceridwen and to build his church in her sacred place leads me to believe that much of this story has been lost in the retelling. Clearly there is something of the supernatural about Brynach’s life, he had no need for food for survival and was master of beasts. The tale of his forty years communing with spirits on the mountain of angels sustained only by holy spring water suggests an underworld journey with the Dark Goddess, of his time spent in Ceridwen’s cauldron of inspiration and transformation.

I have had many wonderful visits to Nevern and many transformational moments spent communing with Ceridwen in this holy place. Memories of this place as sacred to the dark Goddess may have been lost long ago but I have always suspected that this place and much of Pembrokeshire was once perhaps a centre of devotion to Ceridwen, great Dark Mother Goddess. In seeking to find out whether there is any historical basis for my suspicions I have looked to the oldest tales we have here in Wales and the historical documents which are available, such as the Red Book of Hergest, dated from 1382, and the White Book of Rhydderch, from 1350. Although these documents reflect the culture and values of the time clues began to emerge in the studying of ancient tales which undoubtedly reflect historical events which were passed from generation to generation orally prior to them being written down for the first time.

I began to see the repeated references to a great boar or sow. Most of the stories told of the battle to catch, tame and defeat the great wild beast, to steal its gifts, always magical in nature. To gather and harness the great power of the creature. Sometimes the animal in the story is referred to in the masculine but often in the feminine and where a masculinised reference exists it is questionable since the animal itself appears as guardian of its offspring. It seems likely therefore that masculinising the adversary of the story is a means of spicing up the tale for the retelling but that the animal in the tale, the wild boar, the great sow is feminine, a representation of the divine Goddess, great mother, queen, guardian of the underworld, keeper of the cauldron of inspiration. Perhaps some time long ago Ceridwen, great white sow, was afforded a position of great import, far exceeding the limited understanding of her that it is possible to glean from what remains of her story today.

One such story in which Ceridwen appears in her sow form is the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. This is one of the earliest documented Welsh prose tales but is not as well known as many of its counterparts. It is clearly of great importance, however, since it is recorded in both the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch and an earlier version of the tale appeared in the 9th century manuscript Historia Britonum (the History of the Britons) authored by the Welsh monk Nennius, who was thought to have access to 5th century texts in compiling his Historia. The Historia Britonum is in fact the first documentary evidence of an historical figure named Arthur and the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen is considered to be the earliest vernacular Arthurian text.

The earlier, 9th century, version of the tale conveyed by Nennius told of Arthur’s hunt for the wild boar named Troynt and it would seem that the later name Twrch Trwyth which appears in the more recent Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch is a later development of the earlier Troynt.

Although the subject of the story of Culhwch ac Olwen is the quest of Culhwch to gain the hand of Olwen in marriage, the story is dominated by of the saga of the pursuit of the Twrch Trwyth by King Arthur across Wales. What is interesting is the topographical nature of the tale which specifies the locations Arthur visited and battled the Twrch Trwyth. These included Nevern, site of the famous bleeding yew, sacred tree of the Dark Goddess and location of an early Christian monastery founded by Brynach as well as Menevia, “Way of the Moon” or “The Lunar Paradise”, according to Monica Sjöö, the ancient name for the area renamed St Davids after its conversion to Christianity and Whitland on the border of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, site of an early ecclesiastical centre sponsored by the Princes of Wales.

It may be no coincidence that the locations mentioned are linked to the conversion of Wales to the new religion and this led me to wondering who Arthur was and what the tale of Culhwch and Olwen was telling us. Perhaps the tale of Arthur’s pursuit of the Twrch Trwyth tells of the downfall of the Goddess in her sacred places throughout Wales as Christianity took hold of the country and maybe the tale marks the birth of the great Welsh male hero figures arguably dominated by Arthurian legend but reflected throughout medieval Welsh culture and tradition. The demise of the Goddess Ceridwen was ensured as the monks of the new religion recreated the great Welsh oral traditions. She, along with other great Welsh and Celtic Goddesses such as Dôn, Rhiannon, Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd, were reduced to secondary characters in the stories of their male counterparts.

What did Arthur seek to gain from pursuing the Twrch Trwyth so ceaselessly? Was Arthur committed to the conversion of the Welsh to Christianity or was he otherwise motivated?  Whilst it is impossible to be sure it may be of interest to note that the translated meaning of Troynt, the 9th century name for the boar that Arthur would pursue across the country is “decoction” or "brew". Could it be that Arthur sought to defeat Ceridwen in order to taste her elixir? Could he have been motivated by the desire to claim the wisdom of the Underworld Goddess for himself? To drink from her cauldron of knowledge and capture the power of the feminine, the power of womankind itself.  Perhaps this is the source of the grail that is so famous and so elusive in the Arthurian legends.

The historical figure of King Arthur may have been a great leader, hero, and king to his people but perhaps Arthur also had a now forgotten role to play in the demise of the Goddess in Wales. The Holy Grail may have eluded him, but perhaps Ceridwen stirs her cauldron still, guarding her secret elixir against those who would seek to win her secrets without love for her in their hearts. She sits and stirs in her sacred places one of which is the small river valley Nevern in West Wales waiting as once more the Goddess people of Wales reawaken!

©Text and images - Becky Thomas

Becky Thomas

Becky Thomas

Becky Thomas lives in West Wales with her partner and children where she works as a midwife and holistic therapist. Becky is passionate about reclaiming birth as a sacred women's mystery experience and was recently shortlisted for a PhD fellowship in normal birth. Becky has walked a pagan path for many years and is currently training as a Priestess of Avalon. In her spare time she enjoys sacred dance, drumming, chant, writing and enjoying the beauty of her local Welsh landscape.
Becky Thomas