by Becky Thomas
At the Winter Solstice or Yule the wheel of Britannia turns toward the north. At this time we honour Danu, ancestral goddess of the Tuatha De Danann. As a group the Tuatha De Danann looked over all human activity as original ancestral beings who came to these lands from far in the north.
Danu is the mother goddess of the Tuatha De Danann and in Ireland is considered to be the mother of all the Irish gods; however she is recognised throughout the British Isles. Here in Wales we honour Welsh mother goddess Dôn who has over time been masculinised into Don. Dôn is the Welsh equivalent of Danu, and they are really one and the same goddess. She is our ancestral mother, who came from beyond the north winds, from the ancestral lands that is the home of the beings of fire and ice from whom we are all descended.
Danu/Dôn is Queen of the North, Mother of Air and she is guardian of ancestral memory. Danu/Dôn can be honoured in the bare winter landscapes that remind us so clearly that nature itself has turned inwards. As ancestral goddess it is to her that we return in death. She is the stillness of death, the stillness of the time between death and rebirth. We return to her to process the lessons we have learned in our time on earth. She guides us to our ancestral home, where we can gather the wisdom and rest for a time before being born to our next incarnation to take the next step on our journey.
At Yule we also honour the Cailleach who is the Divine Hag, the Old Woman of Winter, Stone Woman, Bone Woman. The Cailleach is death itself. She strips the flesh from the bones, the bark from the trees, and in the bare winter landscape we can see her skeletal figure all around. In Scotland the Cailleach is also known as the storm hag, the personification of the elemental powers of nature, particularly the destructive forces and it is perhaps for this reason that she also has strong associations with water in fishing communities where the destructive water forces are attributed to her.
The Cailleach is sometimes remembered as the Cailleach Bheare in Ireland where she is considered to be the shaper of the land and mountains. She is evident too in the mountainous landscapes in many areas throughout Britannia’s land and in Scotland she is the Cailleach na Montaigne, the Old Woman of the Mountains, the Cailleach na Mointeach, Bera, Queen of Winter, Carline or Mag-Moullach. The ancient Cailleach was said to have strode across the landscape forming mountains as she dropped rocks from her apron to act as her stepping stones. She also possessed a mighty hammer with which she chiselled mountains and craggy outcrops. Thus the Cailleach was at some time considered a giantess, perhaps of an ancient race of earthly inhabitants. The Cailleach is thought to have once been a sovereign earth mother goddess and although she is now generally associated with Ireland and Scotland it seems that her cult was brought here from the continent with the Celtic migration. D’Este and Rankine (2009) propose that there are similarities between the Cailleach and the Maltese giantess Sansuna who was accredited with creating the Neolithic Ggantija temples on Gozo which are possibly the oldest religious structures in the world. If so then this speaks of the extremely ancient origin of this goddess.
The Cailleach is sometimes seen as a partner goddess to Brìghde with the Cailleach ruling over the months between Samhain and Beltane and Brìghde ruling over the months between Beltane and Samhain. When Brìghde takes over her reign the Cailleach is said to turn to stone.
The name Cailleach means ‘old woman’ and derives from the old Irish Cailleach meaning ‘veiled one’. She is goddess of death, bringing as she does the coldness of winter as she smites the earth with her black rod. She is also goddess of creation, the earth formations themselves being created at her hand. She teaches us about the stillness of mid-winter when all is seemingly dead at her touch but at once she is credited with the creation of mighty storms on land and sea. The Cailleach then chooses how she approaches us and what lessons we have to learn from her.
At Yule we also greet Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel. In the Mabinogion she appears in what is probably only a remnant of her true story in the Romance of Math ap Mathonwy. Arianrhod is the daughter of Dôn and although she does not appear in the Irish family of Danu there is evidence that the descending line from Danu and Dôn are one and the same. Arianrhod’s Irish equivalent is Eithne and they both go on to have sons whose names mean “skilled”. Arianrhod and Eithne are the daughters of Dôn and Danu respectively. Arianrhod births a child, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, ‘Lleu Skilful-hand’ whilst Eithne’s son is Lugh Samhioldanach, ‘Lugh Equally Skilled in all Arts’. This examination of the genealogy of the Irish and Welsh pantheon clearly demonstrates the ancient origin of the tale of Arianrhod which pre-dates the separation of the Gaelic and Cymric mythologies.
In the Romance of Math ap Mathonwy we learn that King Math of Gwynedd, ancient tribal king, could only retain his seat on the throne whilst his feet rested in the lap of a virgin. By the time this oral tale was committed to writing by medieval monks, ‘virgin’ had come to mean a woman of sexual purity and therefore the written tale reflects this misunderstanding. However the story stems from a time when the king required the support of a virgin in the older sense of the word, a woman who was complete unto herself. This woman may or may not have been sexually active and if she were so then the men she would take would be of her own choosing and on her own terms. Her personal choices around her sexuality bore no relevance to the title ‘virgin’.
In these early matrilineal times the virgin was a priestess who ritually became the embodiment of the Goddess in order for the king to ceremonially pledge his allegiance to the Goddess-Sovereign. Without her he could not remain king, so when Goewin the priestess who previously took on this role married, the king was required to ritually seek the approval of her successor priestess. However the patriarchal religion of Christianity was also beginning to take hold of the land and the Math now not only had to consider his age-old duty to the Goddess to ensure his success as king but also the sensibilities of the new Christian priesthood who demanded that the virgin footholder be ‘virgo intacta’. One of Math’s courtiers, Gwydion suggested his sister Arianrhod, a priestess of the Goddess, and she was brought to the court of the king where she was asked to declare whether or not she was a virgin. Arianrhod replied with a shrug “I do not know but that I am”. Arianrhod was not here referring to her sexual purity. Here she was saying “Here I am, woman, priestess, whole unto myself, belonging to no man. Make of that what you will”.
This was not enough for Math who needed the approval not only of the Goddess but also of the Christian priesthood. He laid down his wand and tricked Arianrhod into stepping over it. As she did so a dark skinned boy dropped from her womb, and enraged at his trickery Arianrhod made for the door and as she did so a second child fell at her feet. The first boy child was taken up by Math who baptised him Dylan ail Don. Immediately the baptismal water touched the infant’s brow the child made for the sea. Dylan represented the powers of darkness and was himself an ancient god of the Celts. The Celts considered the sea and its unfathomable depths to be the natural element of darkness. Eventually Dylan met his death at the hands of his uncle and it is said that the crashing of the waves on the shore is the expression of the sea’s longing to avenge its son. In Wales the sound of the rushing sea water into the mouth of the river Conwy is still known as ‘Dylan’s death groan’.
The second infant was gathered up and hidden by his uncle Gwydion. He was as fair as his twin brother had been dark and he represented the powers of light. Gwydion cared for the child until he was grown into a youth whereupon he took the boy to his mother Arianrhod. Arianrhod refused to acknowledge the child born of Math’s trickery. However these were matrilineal times and Gwydion knew that the boy could not be accepted among the people as rightful heir of the royal line of the mother-goddess Dôn unless his mother bestowed upon him the gift of a name. Gwydion had to find a means of assuring Arianrhod named the boy so the next day he used his magical arts, disguising himself and the young man as cobblers, and enticed Arianrhod to visit them to order some shoes to be made. Whilst Arianrhod was being measured for shoes by the disguised Gwydion, she watched as the boy took up a stone and with one shot felled a wren. Arianrhod said “Why, it is with skilful hand that the fair-haired one shot down that bird”. At that Gwydion revealed himself to Arianrhod as her brother crying “Lleu Llaw Gyffes, ‘the fair-haired one with the skilful hand’ is now his name!”. Realising the trickery Arianrhod shrieked “He shall have no weapons until I arm him myself!”. Gwydion thought upon Arianrhod’s curse and once again used the magical arts to deceive Arianrhod and cause her to arm her son. Furious, once again Arianrhod vowed “He shall have no wife of the race that now inhabits the earth!”. However Gwydion was once again able to thwart Arianrhod and created a woman of the blossoms of oak, broom and meadowsweet and named her Blodeuwedd, meaning ‘flower-face’. Lleu and Blodeuwedd indeed married, however the tale ended in tragedy for it is impossible for woman to be tamed in such a way at the hands of men. Arianrhod’s prediction in the end won out and Blodeuwedd herself was a goddess of sovereignty and no mere mortal.
From this tale we can glean something of Arianrhod’s original role as goddess although it was written in the middle ages by Christian monks. She is perhaps originally a primordial goddess, one of the first with only her mother Dôn coming before her. She gives birth to both the darkness and the light and she is complete unto herself needing no man to father her children. She is goddess of initiation since she must name the son she bore, arm him as a warrior and predicts his ritual marriage to Blodeuwedd to authenticate his kingship.
The Welsh bard Taliesin, son of Keridwen the Crone, said “I have been three periods in the Caer Arianrhod”. Caer Arianrhod is the ‘castle of the silver wheel’ in Welsh. Caer Arianrhod is also known as the Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. The Corona Borealis appears in the northern sky as the crown of Arianrhod or a spiralling silver wheel. Our ancestors perhaps carried with them inherited memories of the ancient beings coming to earth from this place beyond the north. Caer Sidydd is the magical realm at the centre of the silver spiral from which we originate and to which we return at the end of our incarnation for rest and renewal. It is the home of our ancestors and the place we will eventually journey to be reunited with them and it is ruled over by Arianrhod. The ancient Welsh also considered Caer Sidydd to have a physical earthly location which has been suggested to be Ynys Gwales, a small island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in West Wales. Ynys Gwales appears throughout the Mabinogion as the blessed isle, the castle at which the dead rest in blissful forgetfulness.
Arianrhod is then in some ways a paradox. She is goddess of death ruling as she does Caer Sidydd, the castle to which we travel upon death but she is also a goddess of birth. She brought forth her sons of darkness and light and she brings forth our rebirth when we have rested a while in Caer Sidydd or sat through the cold months of winter. Arianrhod teaches us of stillness. She is the still point at the centre of the spiral and the stillness of winter. She teaches us to look inwards, to discover the centre of ourselves, our true soul’s desire. When we look past fear, past ego, past the expectations of others and peer deep into our souls we can discover the lessons of Arianrhod, what we wish to bring forth from ourselves, the initiation we must experience and what must be let go as a small death in order to fulfil our soul’s potential.
One of the totem animals of the Mother of Air is the owl and perhaps it is for this reason that the owl has long been held in trepidation as a bringer of death across many cultures. Perhaps we remember this bird as sacred to the Goddess of the north, the ancestral realms. In Persia the owl was called ‘the angel of death’ whilst in Rome the sighting of an owl would herald a ritual cleansing of the city with sulphur and water. In Greek mythology the owl was associated with the Sirens who lured sailors to their deaths with their songs. The owl is a bird of wisdom and in the Mabinogion appears as one of the five oldest beasts of earth and therefore carries with it great ancient knowledge.
The eagle is also associated with the Mother of Air. In Britain the eagle is a rare sight and those which come to us arrive from the north, the realm of the Mother of Air. The eagle is long associated with royalty and appears on many royal crests and standards. It is perhaps then not surprising that it is associated with the Mother of Air as ancestral deity. The Romans and Greeks thought that the eagle was the only bird to accompany the gods in the heavens. In Norse mythology the eagle sits at the top of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, representing the peak of spiritual achievement.
The Mother of Air carries three tools. The first is the feather fan created from the wings of her sacred birds which come to us from her airy sphere. The second is the sceptre of sovereignty which she holds to remind us that she reigns over the ancestral realms and that she comes to us as Danu or Dôn, Queen of our lineage. The third tool she holds is the sword of truth. With this magical weapon we can cut through the undergrowth that crosses our path, preventing us from reaching our spiritual potential. With the dross struck away it is possible to seek the spiritual truth of our soul enabling us to reach toward that potential.
At Yule all has become still. The world around us is turned barren and bare by the Cailleach and the land is touched with white and silver. We experience just a few hours of daylight and wish to scurry home to the heat of the hearth and the warmth and love of the hearts of our families as we sit through the cold winter months and the long nights of darkness. We are encouraged to experience the stillness of the world around us and to travel Arianrhod’s silver wheel to look deep into our souls at what is hibernating there ready to be awakened anew in the coming spring. At other times we are battered by the Cailleach’s storms and the mighty winds of the Mother of Air and are impelled to fly with her or to bend to her will. She blows through our lives, clearing that which no longer serves us and leaving behind a cleansed space ready to be filled with those things that will arise within us just as the spring buds appear tentatively among the bleakness. The Mother of Air offers us the opportunity for rest and rejuvenation and she whispers to us, to those of us who would hear her:
“Hark to my ancient mysteries. Listen to the wisdom of your grandmothers. Know that I offer you the wisdom of ages, the knowledge of the ancestors. Mine are the gifts of spirit”.
D’Este, S., Rankine, D. (2009) Visions of the Cailleach. UK : Avalonia
Latest posts by Becky Thomas (see all)
- Reclaiming Nonna: Forgotten Goddess - 17th August 2015
- From Beyond the North Winds: Discovering the wisdom of the Mother of Air - 2nd January 2012
- Nevern: Sacred site of Ceridwen - 5th December 2010