The Goddess in the Landscape of Wales
by Cheryl Straffon
Welsh myth and legend is replete with Goddess figures. As recorded in The Mabinogi and other early Welsh texts, the stories of Rhiannon, Branwen/ Bronwen, Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd and Cerridwen have echoed down through the ages, and their tales are just as relevant today [see for example ‘Arianrhod – bad mother or mythic Goddess?’ by Claire Hamilton in GA12]. Given their importance to the early Celts in Wales it would not be surprising to find traces of them in the Welsh landscape, where a number of natural features are named after them. Arianrhod can be found at Caer Arianrhod, a rock 1.2km/¾mile off the west coast of North Wales. It is all that remains of the land where the Goddess and her women attendants dwelt in a story from the Fourth branch of The Mabinogi. Her son was called Dylan, who became a sea God, and in Claire’s words, she was “a very powerful Goddess, guardian of the Seat of Poetic Inspiration and linked with the sea, the moon and the stars”. Her land was eventually inundated and all the inhabitants were drowned, but this may be later patriarchal disapproval of a free and independent Goddess-woman who shared her land with other women and had powerful magic powers.
Another Goddess-woman who appears in the landscape is Bronwen, who has given her name to Cadair Bronwen, a mountain peak in the Berwyn range in Denbeighshire. Bronwen was the earlier name of Branwen, who appears in the Second branch of The Mabinogi as Bran’s sister, and who may have been a Goddess in her own right. The fact that the mountain is named Bronwen, her earlier incarnation, indicates that it has been called after her.
With its nipple-like cairn, the mountain peak is very prominent, especially from the cairn circle of Moel-ty-Uchaf, which is beautifully positioned to align with the mountain in a SE direction, denoting the midwinter solstice sunrise. Cadair Bronwen may well have been an early Bronze Age sacred mountain of the Earth Goddess, later given the name of a Celtic Mother Goddess archetype.
Branwen is also remembered at Bedd Branwen, her traditional burial place on the banks of the river Alaw in Anglesey. The site consists of a Bronze Age barrow with a large standing stone protruding from the centre of the mound. It stands on the floor of a valley in the centre of a slight natural rise in the bend of a river, again a sacred site in the land.
The land was considered sacred to the Celtic peoples. In the story of Rhiannon in the First branch of The Mabinogi, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, goes to sit on the Mound of Arberth, a place of assembly for the people of Dyfed that is also a gateway between the worlds. Here he mets the otherworldly horse-Goddess Rhiannon, whom he pursues & marries.
Like her counterpart the Cailleach, the crone Goddess of Welsh myth Cerridwen also has her places in the landscape. She takes centre stage in the text The Tale of Taliesen where she is the keeper of the Cauldron of Inspiration, which she keeps boiling for a year and a day and into which she prepares herbs and plants that bestow the gift of prophetic insight and secret knowledge. Her home was Lake Bala [Llyn Tegid], a legendary lake surrounded by green hills and mountains in North Wales.
The Irish cauldron described in The Tale of Branwen also came from a lake, and there is abundant archaeological evidence for the ritual deposition of cauldrons in lakes and marshes during the last millennium BCE. The lake was evidently thought of as a liminal place between the worlds, and there is a link with the Goddess Aine in Ireland, who made her home below Lough Gur.
Cerridwen is also remembered at Pentre Ifan, the remains of a Neolithic dolmen in Pembrokeshire. The site was known as The Womb of Cerridwen, and folk legend says it was the place where initiates would pass into the dark chamber within, and the spirits of the dead used to be seen dancing around the site in the guise of fairy folk.
Pentre Ifan looks towards the Preseli Hills, from where the bluestones at Stonehenge are thought to have been transported. One of the outlying hills Carn Ingli also has a landcape figure that seems to be a pregnant Goddess, similar to that of the Old Woman on Lewis [see The Goddess in the Landscape of Scotland in this issue]. Carn Ingli, literally ‘Hill of Angels’, was known as a place where, if you spent the night, you would become a poet, a lover or a madman. Perhaps all of this is a memory of the sacredness of the hill as a place of visionary experiences.
From the Goddess-women of The Mabinogi and other early texts, we turn now to some of the Celtic saints of Wales, whose names or stories may hark back to earlier pagan times. Many of the stories of the Saints contain fabulous or supernatural elements that appear to be merely a thin veneer disguising a pre-Christian matrix. The tale of St. Winefride (Gwenfrewi in Welsh) tells of how she was beheaded by a spurned suitor. Where the head fell, a holy well sprung up – now the famous well at Holywell, west of Chester in north Wales, that is still a place of Catholic pilgrimage that attracts thousands of people every year. The legend tells that for three days after her death the well gave forth milk, a memory perhaps of the pre-Christian Mother Goddess worshipped there. The date of her beheading was 22nd June, the time of the summer solstice, so Gwenfrewi/Winefride may be a Christianisation of a pagan Sun Goddess whose rites were celebrated at this spot before it became Christianised.
Another Saint with Goddess associations is Melangell, who has a remote church at the end of a track near Lake Bala. She was the daughter of an Irish king, and she fled here to avoid marriage, a similar motif to that of Winefride. Melangell’s legend tells of how she shielded a hare who was being hunted, and so she became the matron saint of hares, who were considered sacred, and in the area were called ‘Melangell’s little lambs’. We know that hares were considered magical other-worldly creatures to many cultures, including the Anglo- Saxons, whose Goddess Oestre had a totem animal of a hare. The legend is depicted on carvings on the rood screen in the little church, which also incorporates a reconstructed twelfth-century shrine to Melangell, and an inner sanctum positioned behind the altar, which houses her eighth-century grave. The whole foundation stands within a circular churchyard, which was originally a Bronze Age site, and is at the foot of a beautiful breast-shaped hill, also indicative of its pre-Christian status. Altogether, it is an incredibly peaceful and sacred place, redolent with echoes of an original Goddess sanctuary.
The parish next to Melangell’s is dedicated to St. Ffraed, which is the Welsh form of St. Bridget, and an indication that this whole area may have have originally been a Goddess-celebrating part of Celtic Wales, that was subsequently Christianised by converting the pagan Goddess names into Christian saints.
St. Ffraed, or Bridget, is one of the best-loved and most widely celebrated Christian saints in Ireland (from where she may originally have come), Scotland and England. Here in Wales, her name is remembered in many places in the landscape. In South Wales there is St. Bride’s Bay, which forms a great sweep along the coast. At the southern end is St. Bride’s Haven and the village and church of St. Brides, built on the site of a 6thC monastry. Its name comes from the Celtic Goddess/Saint, and is most probably the place where early Irish immigrants landed, bringing Bride with them.
Bridget gave her name to several St. Ffraed wells in Wales. Among these are one near Llansanffraid Church (St. Bridget’s Church) in Denbighshire; a St. Freid’s Well near Skenfrith in Monmouthshire; another Brideswell in Monmouthshire in Llanuaches parish, which brides would visit on their wedding day; St. Frides Well south-west of Ystradmeurig near Treffynnon in Cardiganshire; and Pistyll San Ffred (St. Bridget’s Well) near Henllys in Nevern parish in Pembrokeshire. This latter well stands in a field called Pont San Ffraid (St. Bridget’s Hollow), a delightful little well with a spring issuing out of the edge of the field. All these wells were probably pre-Christian places where people would go to honour the Goddess and her life-giving waters, and were subsequently Christianised with name of Bridget. Full details and photos of all the Bridget churches in Wales can be found at: www.brighid.org.uk/wales.html.
North of St. Bride’s Bay at the south-west tip of Pembrokeshire lies St. Non’s Bay. Inland from here is St. David’s Cathedral, David being the patron saint of Wales, and bringer of Christianity. However, it is on this ocean’s edge that we can find traces of the pre-Christian Goddess, for St. Non was David’s mother, and legend says that she came here in a raging storm, but found sunlight and blue skies within a prehistoric stone circle there. Remains of the stone circle can still be found, and nearby there are the ruins of a Chapel, a shrine and a holy well. The water from the well was considered to have healing and miraculous powers and was famous for curing eye afflictions. The site was a centre of pilgrimage for people from all over Europe in the Middle Ages and today continues to be well cared for, with a statue of ‘Our Lady’ in a niche next to the well.
The ruins of the old Chapel can be seen on the site, and nearby a new Chapel was built in 1934 from old stones gathered from ruined cottages originally built from the ruins of the Priory and Chapel of Whitwell which stood on the road nearby. This new Chapel was dedicated to Our Lady and St. Non, and has a number of stained glass windows, one of which depicts St. Bridget releasing seven fishes into some green rushes. This may be a reference to the fishes that were supposed to inhabit the River Alum that flows through St. Davids by the cathedral. This river takes its name from the river Goddess Alauna, also found in the Breton river Alaunus.
It was said that the fish in this sacred stream would occasionally come to the banks and regard human beings without fear, and would also ‘wink’ at married women! It has been suggested that such fishes were regarded as water spirits associated with fertility, healing and divination. The location of the cathedral would also seem to suggest that it was built near to an existing sacred Goddess river in an area already infused with Goddess associations.
This article has looked at just a few of the Goddess stories, legends and myths associated with sites, both natural and constructed, in the land of Wales, a country wiith a long history of Celtic occupation, and before that Bronze Age and Neolithic peoples who remembered and celebrated the Goddess in the land.
All photos by Cheryl Straffon except the one of St. Bridget’s Church which is by Helen Anthony.