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Arianrhod – Bad Mother or Mythic Goddess?

by Claire Hamilton

"Arianrhod", by Geraldine McCarthyArianrhod was a Welsh Goddess who lived on an island off the west coast of Wales. At the centre of her castle was a turning glass tower, which contained the mystical Seat of Poetic Inspiration.

Her name Arianrhod means ‘starry wheel’. She is obviously a very powerful Celtic Goddess even though she apparently completely disgraces herself as a mother within her story.

Let us go to the bones of the story. A virgin births a child, apparently miraculously. The child grows up, is betrayed, killed, hangs on a tree in agony, then is resurrected by his uncle/father’s magic. Sounds vaguely familiar? Here we have the prototype of the

central Christian story, the story of the Virgin Mary and the boy Jesus. And of course behind that story lies the Mother/Son duo, the Mother Goddess and the King Child, most anciently portrayed of course by Isis and Horus. So it seems we are dealing here with far more than would at first appear. For here we have the heart of the great mystical Mother/Son relationship. This should certainly give us pause for thought and make us look closely at the apparent strange behaviour of Arianrhod.

Arianrhod, as we have noted, is a very powerful Goddess, guardian of the Seat of Poetic Inspiration and linked with the sea, the moon and the stars. She is also the prototype of the Virgin Mary. There are many depictions of the Virgin Mary with a wheel of stars about her head, and she is also often portrayed standing on a new moon, and at other times with the sea all around her. We are looking here at the ancient figure of Arianrhod, her feet on the new moon of Virginity; the wheel of stars, which is her name, circling her head; and the sea, which her tower commands, stretching away from her island castle.

So let’s look at some of the difficult questions arising out of her story. If Arianrhod really is the great mother of the Sacred King child, then why does she seem so vindictive? What are these so-called curses about? Why does 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?

In addressing these questions, we should first bear in mind the strong possibility that by the time her tale was written down by the Welsh monks, they had spotted her pagan power and decided to deliberately slander her name. There are three injunctions that she pronounces, a mystical number,and they represent her power over her son. They therefore have all the hallmarks of magic about them.

The first thing to notice is that her pronouncements are not curses at all. What she actually says (translated from the Welsh) is: “I swear a fate, a destiny, upon the boy”. This is very suggestive, very magical, and her words in themselves are not even particularly contentious – it is only the reaction of Gwydion that makes them appear so. In the first injunction, on discovering that her boy hasn’t yet been named, she says that he will have no name until she gives him one, not that she is denying him a name. In ancient times, a name was a very magical thing, and in native American cultures names are often not given until the inner nature of the child is understood. Arianrhod sees him hit a wren with extreme accuracy with his sling, and then names him ‘Lleu of the Skilful Hand’ He grows up to become the Welsh sun-God, counterpart of the Irish Lugh. He has killed a wren, in ancient Welsh tradition the King of the Birds, triumphing over the Eagle, so this is an act of sacrificial kingship. We have here on Arianrhod’s part not an act of wilfull withholding but the vestiges of an ancient female rite of Naming.

If we now turn to the second injunction or fate which Arianrhod pronounces, this is more straightforward. She says that he shall have no weapons until she arms him herself. Gwydion replies that this springs from her wickedness and vows that the boy shall be armed. But in fact he is armed by Arianrhod at the point where his defence of the castle is most needed. It seems to me that 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 – which the boy does.

And now to the third test – the destiny pronounced by Arianrhod that Lleu shall never marry a mortal women. This relates to the role of the king in Celtic times. The primary relationship of the Celtic king was with the land – in fact, he had to serve the land. And who was the embodiment of the land? It was the Goddess. So, by denying her son marriage with an ordinary mortal woman, what was Arianrhod ensuring? That he would marry the land itself. And how did this come about in the story? Because of her injunction, the two magicians, Gwydion and Math, got together and created a wife out of flowers – out of oak, broom and meadowsweet – in other words, out of nature itself. For Lleu had to marry the Land in the form of the Goddess!

So what emerges from this story? What are we left with? Well, it seems Arianrhod’s three injunctions are the vestiges of ancient matriarchal initiatory powers which, at that time, still had to be honoured at some level, even though clearly the new patriarchal thinking had trouble understanding the deeper wisdom attached to them. First, Arianrhod waited until the boy demonstrated his inner self and destiny, in order to give him his true name. Then she waited until he demonstrated his courage before giving him arms, and lastly she made surethat as the sacred king child, he followed the ancient ways of the Goddess by marrying the land itself, in the person of Blodeuwedd.

The fact that these three fates or destinies she placed on him seemed harsh and even ‘wicked’ to the men in the story, is instructive – and particularly instructive to us today. For Arianrhod was using the power of the Challenger, the power of the Initiator, which of course is the power of the Crone. But here she was using it to underpin her mothering role.

I should say at this point that I no longer think the three roles, Maiden, Mother and Crone are progressive. The female model is not a linear one (as in the masculine paradigm), it is cyclical and circular and thus integrative. When I wrote my book Maiden, Mother, Crone [O Books, 2005] it came to me that the Crones are not necessarily old or even older women, they are simply women with power. I discovered this because the four Goddesses whose tales I tell in the Crone section of the book are all still sexually active – in fact, some of my best sex scenes are in the Crone section, because they seem to be more into it than the Virgins and Mothers! At the same time, they are all women with power. And I believe that power is meant to be integrated with the other two roles – that of Maiden and Mother. Yet, it is this power of women – the Challenging power – that is so feared by man. It has been down the ages and it still is today.

So, Arianrhod is indeed an ancient prototype of the Virgin Mary, but the important distinction is that she is not only Maiden and Mother, but Crone as well. The figure of the Virgin Mary suffers from having her dark side split off.

Because of this she is denied the power of autonomy, of challenge, and of course, of sexuality. But symbolically, our present culture is very much imbued with her image, and, as a result, our view of Motherhood today is much too milky and feeble, based on the model of the meek and disempowered Virgin Mother. So now the question is: what, as mothers, can we learn instead from the original Divine Mother, from Arianrhod herself?

Well, I think we can be bolder. Like Arianrhod, we understand the unique nature of our children more than anyone else. So we can help them develop their destinies according to their true potential. And for that we need to use our feminine intuition and insight.

Secondly, we must be prepared to act as their Challenger – and, if we fail in this role, then we fail to help their development.

But – and this is very important, such challenging must always be linked with wisdom, the wisdom that comes from understanding your child’s nature. Utilizing Crone power in mothering is not a mandate for harsh and unreasonable disciplining. The modern mother must know when to be gentle and compassionate and when to be the Challenger, and this requires great awareness. To manage it she must connect with her Inner Knowing, with the place within her where the Goddess resides, and where she can commune with Her.

Then she must use that inner understanding to direct her child.  And, in doing so, of course she will fulfil Arianrhod’s third injunction – she will be fostering the sacred relationship between her child and Nature. For that is the primary relationship, the relationship between our children and the Goddess – including Her dark side – which must of course be properly integrated.

So, to sum up, I believe that Arianrhod can be seen not as a furious and vindictive woman, but as a powerful and wise matriarch.  A mother who truly understood the needs of her son, and the sacred requirements of her maternal role, and who was not afraid to use her Crone power to secure them. And for these reasons, I believe that the wonderful Goddess Arianrhod, the beautiful woman whose feet rest on the crescent moon, and whose head is ringed with stars, is a hugely important figure in Welsh myth, and a deeply inspirational model for all mothers today.

Arianrhod's Story

While residing at her Castle, Arianrhod was one day visited by her brother Gwydion, a very powerful and wily magician and shapeshifter. Gwydion was sent on a mission by his uncle Math to ask Arianrhod to become the replacement for Math's Virgin Footholder (Math had to have his feet at all times cradled in the lap of a Virgin), who had been raped by Arianrhod's other brother. Arianrhod agrees to this proposition, but as soon as she arrives at Math's court she is made to undergo a test to prove her virginity. Math takes out his wand, bends it and orders Arianrhod to step over it in full view of the Court. As she does so, she suddenly gives birth to a baby boy and a small scrap as well. She runs away in disgrace, and the baby boy escapes to the sea at his baptism, and no more is heard of him. The scrap however is placed in a chest by Gwydion and brought to full term.

Arianrhod flees back to her Castle and there remains for four years, until suddenly one day Gwydion, who has been bringing the boy up at court, arrives with him. Arianrhod flies into a rage and demands to know the boy's name. On hearing he has not been named she declares that he shall have no name unless he obtains one from her. Gwydion then plans to outwit her. He goes off and magically disguises himself and the boy as a cobbler and his apprentice. They come back to the island in a boat, and send up to the castle a pair of beautiful shoes. Arianrhod comes down to the boat for a fitting, during which the boy aims a slingshot at a little wren and hit it. She calls him Lleu Llaw Gyffes - 'he of the skilful hand', whereupon they both reveal who they really are. Arianrhod is furious that she has been tricked into naming him, and pronounces the next 'curse' on her son - that he shall have no arms or weapons until she arms him herself.

A few years later Gwydion arrives at Arianrhod's island disguised as a travelling bard with his apprentice. They entertain the court that evening, but overnight while the boy is asleep, Gwydion goes out and conjures a fleet of ships around the island. Next morning he offers to help defend the castle from the impending attack and asks Arianrhod to arm the boy so that he can help too. Once she has done so, their disguise vanishes and the ships disappear. Once again Arianrhod has been tricked and now she pronounces the third and final injunctioin -  the boy shall have no wife of the race of men.

To outwit her this time, Gwydion teams up with his uncle Math for a double dose of magic. They create a woman out of flowers as a bride for Lleu, and name her Blodeuwedd, a bride not from the human race. Blodeuwedd marries Lleu but is not happy and commits adultery with a young hunter and plots with him to kill her husband. Lleu is slain by a spear, but is transformed into an eagle who hangs on a tree in a state of near death until he is eventually revived by Gwydion. As a 'punishment' for her crime, Blodeuwedd is transformed into an owl. At this point Arianrhod fades from the story.