Reclaiming Nonna: Forgotten Goddess

by Becky Thomas

Nonna's WellOn the cliff-top peninsula just outside St Davids lies the ruined chapel of St Non. Here, at this wind-swept sacred place, the sense of the goddess is strong and it was at this place that I began to hear Nonna whisper to me, began to sense her calling me to dream her alive and reclaim her once again from the mists of time in which she has been lost for a thousand years and more. Here I will tell her story.

The coastal area of Pembrokeshire, the county in which St Non’s Chapel is found, was part of the pre-Roman tribal area called Demetia. This remote western region of Wales was never fully settled by the Romans and was difficult to defend from the constant bombardment of attacks coming from the sea so Magnus Maximus, Emperor of Britannia, shrewdly invited the Irish Deisi tribe to settle the region and to defend it on behalf of Rome. The Deisi claimed direct descent from the sun god Beli Mawr, who according to the early Welsh Christians was the spouse of Anna “The Prophetess”, who was said to be either the daughter of the Virgin Mary, a cousin of Mary or daughter of Joseph of Arimathea by his first wife. However the pagan population considered Beli Mawr to be the consort to the Welsh mother goddess Dôn who is one and the same as the Irish mother goddess Danu. The Deisi brought with them the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish pantheon which would eventually amalgamate with the native belief system.

It is often proposed that both David and Non were historical figures who took on attributes of earlier pagan deities. There is some suggestion that Saint David is the Christianised form of Dewi the Welsh sea serpent God from whom the emblem of the red dragon of Wales is thought to be derived. The historical woman who has become known as Non is thought to have live in the 6th century however the accounts of Non’s life come largely from the various versions of the life of St David, which were not recorded until around 500 years after his birth. It is therefore likely that when early Christian monks began to document the oral traditions of the land they will have ensured that the divine feminine was largely lost in the interpretations of the newly prevailing patriarchal system. What remains of Non’s story was also documented in the context of frequent population change and numerous cultural influences with this coastal region having been home to native Britons, hosts to the Romans, settled by the Deisi of Ireland, plundered by the Danes, conquered by the Normans and further settled by the Flemings. The extensive influence of this movement into West Wales is still very much in evidence today in Pembrokeshire buildings, place names and family names. For example, the Scandinavian influence is striking with dozens of place names derived from the Norse such as Freystrop named after Freya, Goddess of fertility.

Most of Non’s story was told by Rhygyfarch, the eleventh-century son of Sulien, Bishop of St David, and was told in the context of these frequent cultural shifts. It was written in Latin around 1095 with a preserved copy of the text dating from 1200. Non was said to be a great beauty of noble birth whose father was a chieftain of Dyfed, Cynyr Ceinfarfog ‘the fair bearded’, who is more famously known as Sir Ector, foster father of King Arthur in the Arthurian legends. Non was therefore sister of Cei (Sir Kay) and the foster sister of King Arthur.  Her mother was Anna, who according to differing accounts was either a relation of Joseph of Arimathea, daughter of the warrior king Vortimer, son of Vortigern, the High King of Britain, who is remembered for handing Britain into the hands of the Saxons; or the daughter of Uther Pendragon who was given the title of Pendragon whilst taking part in a battle on the coast of Pembrokeshire. Rhygyfarch’s account tells us that Non conceived a child as a result of being raped by Sannde, a prince of the neighbouring area of Ceredigion. When it came time to give birth Non found herself caught in a mighty storm, exposed to the elements on a cliff edge. Gripped by labour pain Non grasped on to a rock there. Her pain was so great that Non’s fingers indented the stone and as her body shuddered with birth throes the rock she grasped broke into two pieces, one landing at her head and the other at her feet. As birth pains tore through Non she was also pelted by the fierce wind-driven rain, but as the time for birth neared a great calm surrounded her. The wind dropped and the rain subsided and she was encircled by a bright golden sunlight. All around the storm continued to rage but at that place on the very edge of the peninsula in West Wales Non gave birth to her son under a clear sky. Beyond this account little else is known about the life of Non. It is said that in later life she became a nun, travelling to Cornwall and later to Brittany where she saw out her days.

Non is unusual in hagiography in that she is an example of a raped virgin saint. Virginity is a common theme among female saints, however there are only rare examples of saints whose purity is ever brought into question (Cartwright, 2007). It is sometimes suggested that “Non” derives from “Nun” and the Christian accounts claim Non as a nun of that religion however Non may have been a priestess of the old order and Walker (1983) equates Non with the temple virgins who gave birth to the ancient gods. If this is so then the meaning of virgin in Non’s story may have been misconstrued and rather than it referring to a woman who is sexually pure it may be more accurate to claim that Non was a woman entire in herself, independent and having no need of a man to complete her (Jones, 1990). To take this a step further recent academics have suggested the possibility of divine birth whereby temple priestesses sought to conceive a child as a form of spiritual devotion (Rigoglioso, 2009). A further possibility is that the sexual union between Non and Sannde was a holy act, perhaps a ritual blessing to ensure the fertility of the local land or the wellbeing of the tribe, or it may have been a ritual union between priestess and chieftain to ensure the success of the royal line. However the attribution of the conception of David to an act of violence was perhaps inevitable. Since Non never married, the birth of Saint David, patron of the early Christian conversion in Wales, had to be explained in some way which would be acceptable to the new religion.

Non’s father Cynyr Ceinfarfog, her brother Cei and her foster brother Arthur are sometimes referred to as being members of a Cymric race of giants known as Plant Llŷr therefore Non herself can be assumed to have held her own place in this indigenous pantheon. Plant Llŷr, ‘the family of Llŷr’ were thought to be a pre-Celtic indigenous family of gods who were venerated in this land prior to the arrival of the Irish who brought with them their gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who were to be amalgamated into Welsh lore as Plant Dôn, the family of the Goddess Dôn. Undoubtedly Plant Dôn became the primary pantheon of the Welsh, usurping Plant Llŷr who survive largely in tales of war, death and tragedy, probably serving as a reminder that just as the Irish gods assumed ascendancy so too did the Irish seize control over the native tribes and their indigenous tribal structures with the coming of the Deisi tribe. Non’s mother Anna, suggested by the Christians to be a relation of Joseph of Arimathea, is often equated with the goddess Ana, the Queen of Heaven, the original cosmic mother goddess who is found across cultures in various guises, for example as Ana-Nin, Nana or Inanna (Sumerian), Anatha (Syrian), Anat (Canaan), Anah (Old Testament), Diana (Semitic), Anna (Pelasgian Greek), Nanna (Danish), Anu, Dana and Danu (Irish) and Anna Perenna (Roman). In his examination of Welsh saints, Breverton (2000) proposes that St Non herself has the attributes of the Celtic mother goddess and that it is probable that she was a Celtic ancestress who was later Christianised.

Chapel viewThe ruined chapel of St Non, which sits picturesquely on the cliff near St Davids, has no distinguishing feature to accurately date it but it was first mentioned in a document in 1335. However, the ruins actually sit inside what may be a Bronze Age stone circle. Such stone circles are ancient sacred sites, places at which the goddess may be honoured as the earth rises up in the stones to meet the heavens. It may be that this was a holy place where people came to honour the goddess Nonna before the site hosted the later Christian chapel. The sacredness of this place seems to be thinly disguised in the Christian account of the stones falling at her head and feet as Non was gripped by birthing pains. Perhaps we should remember instead Nonna, giantess of Plant Llŷr in her birth throes becoming one with the earth itself, the waves of her convulsing womb causing the earth to reach up to the heavens in a circle of stone as the earth convulsed in the moment of bringing forth life.

Just outside the boundary of the stone circle is St Non’s Well which was said to have sprung up from the earth when Non gave birth. This natural spring, which today retains its long reputation for healing, is still a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Pagans alike. Water is a primordial element often considered to be the source of all life. As Jones (2001) points out, these special places are long held sacred to the goddess being considered the yoni of her body, the source of the spring the sacred womb, the spring water her very life blood. It is sometimes suggested the Non derives her name from ‘nun’ and Walker (1983) suggests that ‘Nun’ was the Egyptian word for the primal ocean which was the source of all life, the original womb from which we all came. Clearly Nonna is a goddess of the sacred springs and a creatrix, goddess of childbirth. It also seems likely that given the long association of this spring with healing properties she is a goddess of the healing arts.

Non is also known as Nonna, Nonnita and less commonly as Melari (O‘Hanlon, 1875) or Melaria (Baring-Gould and Fisher, 1913). Butler (1999) notes that Non is referred to as “Non the blessed” and Cartwright (2007) notes the existence of five short readings for the feast of St Non held at the British Library which refers to Non as “our mother”. The little known titles Melaria and Melari may stem from the name of a river on Ceredigion, the county bordering Pembrokeshire which itself claims Non as its own daughter, or it may be derived from ‘Alar’ meaning ‘full or overflowing’. In either case the etymology of her name reminds us of her watery association. Various authors have suggested that Non may be linked to ‘nun’ or ‘nonne’ and Sjõõ (no date) proposed that in antiquity this referred to women of the priestesshood who were practitioners of the healing arts.

Non is often known as Nonna, which has been suggested as a variant of Nona, one of the Roman Parcae: Nona, Decima and Morta, who were the triple goddesses of fate, the personifications of destiny who measured and severed human life at their spinning wheel. Nona was the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Clotho. She sat at the wheel spinning the thread of life from her distaff on to her spindle. Nona means “ninth” since she appeared in the ninth month of a woman’s pregnancy and she would be called upon by women prior to their birthing. The saint who took on this name retained this association with childbirth though she seems to have lost the association as a spinner of fate. Her sister goddess, Decima, measured the thread of life with her rod whilst Morta chose the manner of a person’s death and severed the thread of life. One of Saint Non’s symbols is the trinity knot, the relevance of which is insufficiently explained away as the symbol for the connectedness of God the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer. It would seem a much better explanation that the trinity knot remembers that Nonna was once one of a triplicity of goddesses.

Just above the spring on a raised area of the cliff a new chapel dedicated to Non was built in 1934, which sits alongside a Catholic retreat centre. The Chapel of Our Lady and St Non is a beautiful little stone building with stained glass windows depicting Non and Brigid, two deities turned saints, well-known to have associations with wells and springs, and a third, Gwenhudw (Christianised as St Winifred) who Jones (1954) identified as a water deity thinly disguised as a saint to conceal her true origin as the goddess. Inside the chapel there is also a cast of the mother goddess in the guise of Mary. The chapel of Our Lady and St Non is no longer used for services but remains open to pilgrims.

Solar cross stoneThe original ruined chapel of St Non in the field below is aligned to the astronomical or local noon, the point when the sun is at its zenith, and there appears to be a window in the ruins of the chapel wall through which this sunlight would have lit up the building. A larger standing stone stands outside the boundary of the stone circle,  which seems to share this alignment. Inside the chapel ruins there is a stone slab propped against the wall. The stone is inscribed with one of the symbols attributed to Saint Non, a sun wheel, a symbol found repeatedly since the middle Neolithic period in rock art, jewellery, pottery and ritual items across Europe and which was in continuous use well into the Christian period. The sun wheel or solar cross is linked to the astronomical movement of the sun reflected in seasonal cycles. That it is a symbol of Non implies that the goddess whose attributes the saint adopted was a solar deity. This may account for the story of Non giving birth in bright sunlight despite the storm going on around her. We now have a picture of Nonna the Goddess as a solar and water deity which is not unusual. The goddess Brigid had both of these attributes and like Nonna is a goddess of healing and childbirth.  The goddesses Sulis and Arnemetia both possessed solar and water attributes and whilst today it is common to think of the sun as masculine it was previously thought to have feminine life-giving qualities. The solar wheel as a symbol of Nonna may also be considered to form a sacred axis, with the vertical line representing the union between earth and the heavens which is also remembered in her sacred circle of stones.

In Wales, Non’s feast day is in early March, whilst elsewhere is at midsummer. There are many sites in Cornwall dedicated to her including villages and towns such as Alternun (Non’s Altar), Pelynt (derived from Plou Nent which means ‘parish of Non) as well as churches and healing wells. She is also remembered in Brittany at Dirinon. There, her statue is in a niche behind her sacred well. In Dirinon a mystery play dedicated to Non entitled ‘Buhez Santez Nonn’ was performed for centuries.

Calling in Nonna

I call upon you Nonna, goddess of the healing spring,
Goddess of childbirth, spinner of fate.
Come bring us your gifts of water.
May we find healing at your well,
May our brow be blessed by your sacred waters.
May your pure waters flow abundant upon the earth
And nourish our bodies.
May the heat of the noonday sun fill us with passion
And give us courage to walk our paths.
May we honour you as we stand in your circle of stones
Where the earth rises up to meet the sky,
Where your lifeblood flows from your primal womb
Arising from your earth yoni in blessing.
Hail and return Nonna.
Blessed be.

References

Baring-Gould, S., Fisher, J (1913) The Lives of the British Saints: the saints of Wales and Cornwall and such Irish saints as have dedications in Britain. London: Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.

Breverton, T. (2000) The Book of Welsh Saints. St Tathan: Glyndwr Publishing.

Butler, A. (1999) Butler’s Lives of the Saints: New Full Edition, Great Britain: Burns and Oates.

Cartwright, J.  (2007)  The Cult of St. Non: Rape, Sanctity, and Motherhood in Welsh and Breton Hagiography, in Wyn Evans, J., Wooding, J.M. (eds.) St. David of Wales: Cult, Church, and Nation, Woodbridge: Boyden and Brewer.

Jones, F. (1954) The Holy Wells of Wales, Wales: University of Wales Press.

Jones, K. (1990) The Goddess in Glastonbury, Glastonbury: Ariadne Publications.

Jones, K. (2001) The Ancient British Goddess, Glastonbury: Ariadne Publications.

O’Hanlon, J. (1875) Lives of the Irish Saints with special festivals, and the commemorations of holy persons, compiled from calandars, martyrologies, and various sources, relating to the ancient church history of Ireland, London: Duffy and Sons.

Rigoglioso, M. (2009) The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, USA: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sjõõ, M. (no date) St Non’s Well, Pembrokeshire. Available from: http://monicasjoo.org/artic/stnons.htm (Accessed 01/06/11).

Walker, B. (1983) The Woman's Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets, USA: Harper & Row.

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