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IN THIS CYLCH: CELTIC SPIRIT (homepage) * DUWIES CYMRU: or, Goddess Wales?

Duwies Cymru?  or, Goddess Wales?

by Shan Morgain, priestess and ‘Celtic Guest.’


There are certainly goddesses in Wales, most of them recorded in the famous Mabinogi.

These were tales set in four branches but not written down until the twelfth century. They are generally agreed to record far older traditions passed by word of mouth. 


What modern people call ‘Celtic’* cultures did not originally favour a written literature any more than they permitted images of their deities. Stories were shared through spoken forms of poetry by highly trained bards, a tradition revived and flourishing today through the annual Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru /National Eisteddfod of Wales.

Trained Bardic memory was justly famed for its capacity to hold huge amounts of literature. But by the twelfth century the local traditions were being lost under Christian onslaught. Paradoxically it was Christian monks who wrote the tales down, so they survived.

Yet there was still a long period of obscurity when the Mabinogi were relatively unknown until the 19th century. A Saesnes /Englishwoman, Charlotte Guest, who had married in, had the stories translated and published in English, also promoting them as an important literature. It was her version which was named “The Mabinogion.”


In the Mabinogi we do find goddesses, or more accurately, female myths. Mediaeval monks were hardly going to babble about goddesses for a start! Nor do goddesses and gods appear in ‘Celtic’ mythos just like goddesses and gods in the scholarship of Greece and Rome which was part of a “good classical education” for centuries.

Greece and Rome operated as empires with central governments, both mirrored and supported by theologies of a central god or central gods on high governing us all. Reading the Iliad of Homer for example, as all schoolboys not so long ago still had to, we find puppeteering deities exercising remote control over human lives. The gods can live among us, but we cannot live among them.


‘Celtic’ deities are not like that. They may warn us of our fate as the Morrigan does Cuchulain before his last fight. They may bargain with us which Arawn does with Pwyll, as two powerful lords hunting the forest. Pwyll recognises Arawn outranks him but so might another human lord. Pwyll then visits Arawn’s own land to live there for a year. Later Rhiannon comes to Pwyll’ own country to live with him.


There is then an interchange here, an exchange, a companion or colleague relationship. It may not always be friendly – you do not mess with the Tylwyth if they are in the mood for fun any more than you’d mess with the local gang in gangland streets. (Caution about the Tylwyth shows up in the warning custom of Wales: never giving their name in full, not even the nickname.)

Humans have great difficulty outwitting the awesome cunning of powerful Others, so that stories of those who do are noted and applauded like Thomas, Janet, and the Queen of Faerie.


Even when friendly, guiding and supportive the ‘Celtic’ divinity can rebuke their human companion harshly, as Rhiannon does Pwyll, twice. She charges him once for being inconsiderate of his horse, and later she says cuttingly “ never has a man made worse use of his wits than you,” for his hasty words put their wedding at risk.




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But ‘Celtic’ Others do not destroy whole cities like Sodom and Gomorrah. They do not demand we sacrifice a beloved child to them to show obedience, as Abram was required to do to Isaac. They do not manipulate whole battles so that hundreds or thousands die as the gods did at Troy.

They do not command us: they advise us, trick us, trade with us, laugh, eat, fuck, fight and sing with us. It is therefore no surprise that stories of the goddesses in the Mabinogi do not present them as awesome beings of terrifying majesty. They are powerful, resourceful, beautiful, wise, but not dominators as the gods of other cultures are.


In the Mabinogi we meet five main goddesses:

Rhiannon, Branwen, Blodeuedd, Arianrhod, Cerridwen.

There is arguably a sixth main goddess of Wales, Morgan, or Morgain(e) not found in the Mabinogi.

A seventh, Brigit, Brigid, Bridget, Brid(e), Brighde was not originally of Wales, but is found here in local legends, wells and churches, because her cult spread very successfully outside Eire, her homeland.


These Goddesses are widely venerated in modern times not only across Wales, but in Eire, the whole of Britain, across Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia and anywhere that modern Goddessing, Paganism, New Age or distinctively women’s spirituality  flourishes with a ‘Celtic’ interest.

Books, teachers and the internet have made them part of an international mixture of Goddessing.


Many devotees of this modern spiritual diaspora do not have much accurate knowledge about their chosen Goddess or goddesses, which of course does not invalidate their personal devotions in the least. However teachers and writers, priestesses and priests carry a greater responsibility to pass on accurate information.


Looking at our five (or six) main goddesses of Wales, we find that each is identified with her own part of Wales. None of the Mabinogi are pan-Welsh stories or traditions. This is because Wales did not exist at the time of the Mabinogi development or its first recording in writing.

Wales was created much later, a little over 500 years ago by Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. Since then Wales has operated as a colonial subordinate of England, most recently gaining its own Assembly, which however, does not have the power of a Parliament.

Under this extremely political story though, the old kingdoms, or even the ancient tribal territories, still exist. There are five clearly recognisable regions whicjh speak markedly different kinds of Cymraeg (Welsh), with very different traditions, and who typically see their first loyalty as local, not “Welsh.” It can still raise hackles that “Welsh” is an imposed English name for foreigner!


Rhiannon and Branwen are of West Wales, specifically Dyfed or Pembrokeshire.

Blodeuedd  and Arianrhod are of North Wales, specifically Gwynedd.

Cerridwen is of Mid-Wales, around Bala and Machynlleth.

Morgan or Morgain, Morgaine is of South Wales. She locates with the ancient kingdom of Morgannwg, and the immensely influential Gwent family Morgan.


While their names and stories are quite well known across Wales no Welsh person would ever see them as simply “Welsh.” That would be seen as an English incomer view, and one arising out of laziness, or worse, English arrogance.

In “Three Things There Are ” John Davies years ago challenged just such English /American arrogance and sloppiness. “ if you come to Wales (as I fear you may), wearing beads, and funny hats adorned with feathers and pieces of stick; if you come following an expensive workshop leader who can't even pronounce, let alone speak, any Welsh; whose only qualifications are a set of distinctly cranky ideas, assembled from fragments torn loose from our heritage and a hotpotch of others; plus, of course, a fast line in chat to convince you that this system offers instant enlightenment at a price (the fast-food version of spirituality); then you will be obvious for the fool you are.” (Davies J. "Three Things There Are" 1993, p.1)


John’s is a searing anger at those who misuse his heritage. He is not alone as a native Welshman who detests the spiritual tourist who pops in physically or virtually, to pick and mix as they prefer with very little effort to honour those whose Guest they are. The Guest is a respected position in tribal society.  Welsh people especially of the South and West, uphold its code with great generosity. But it does carry duties of respect in return, to the host.

Incidentally you could do worse than look up where John’s title "Three Things There Are" comes from. It’s the first line of a Triad.



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Those who love ‘Celtic’ traditions could understandably feel defensive here. They are offering an honest love and devotion as best they can, after all. But are they really offering the best they can?

John points out that few even try to learn how to pronounce Welsh names, or try to grasp what they mean, for as in most tribal cultures, names carry important meanings. Do you like it when someone chews your name up in a gobbled mumble out of laziness?


There are also many ‘Celtic’ devotees who see the old mythos as being part of a world culture, rather like a spiritual internet, free to share. The ‘Celtic’ stories are fitted neatly into collections alongside other chapters on Greece, Rome, Sumer etc. Unless there is a strong explanation as well on how ‘Celtic’ divinity is very different to these others (see above) this insults and distorts the ‘Celtic’ ancestors and their mythos. Such packaging into a free download without careful help to understand, deserves John’s contempt as “ assembled from fragments torn loose from our heritage


It is true that ‘Celtic’ mythos is peculiarly vulnerable to exploitation like this. It does not have a wrathful deity to guard it by jealously demanding our subjugation. In fact ‘Celtic’ spirituality positively encourages independent thinking and feeling. No pope or national council ever laid down its law in detail in terms of beliefs. The tradition of soul friend (annam-cara in the Gaelic of Eire) counsels us to work with a spiritual companion for mutual support.

Equality and autonomy in the ‘Celtic’ spirit is part of its magnetism, but that same equality and autonomy nurtures endless interpretation without preventing sloppiness or arrogance.


‘Celtic’ mythos does not teach by forbidding things much. It loves life too much for that.

Nor does it insist on knife-like rational understanding. While happy to include the most cogent philosophy ‘Celtic’ spirituality just as warmly embraces those who dislike analysis, or cannnot do it.


Further, the intricacy of art forms, symbols, and double, even triple meanings, are so very ‘Celtic.’ Far from being tied to precise meanings we are actually invited to play, to find new ones by rearranging, or by looking in a different way on another occasion. Shapeshifting.


It is therefore understandable that some cry out against any tie, saying ‘But this is MY interpretation! and I’m entitled.’  As indeed we all are. But while freely allowed to take and reshape what comes from another culture, that does not authorise us to claim that ‘MY interpretation’ is how it is, the original thing. Especially teachers.


It is so easy to do just by saying “Rhiannon is ” or “Llew represents ”

Instead we need to say “To me Rhiannon is ” or perhaps “To my temple Rhiannon is ” or “To my community Rhiannon is ”

Alternatively a line at the bottom of the webpage, or the first page of a chapter, or article, can state honestly “The views of gods, goddesses, and ‘Celtic’ lore given here include my personal interpretations. I am much influenced by [teacher/ group] in my work.”


Celtic Guests can and I believe should, learn to pronounce names properly, learn a few words of a ‘Celtic’ language, acknowledge they are reshaping myths to suit their needs as described, and try not to trample cluckfootedly over the basics of a given ‘Celtic’ culture such as Cymry /Wales. If Celtic Guests try this much I believe even the fiery John Davies might grin and accept them – as his Guests.


One of these basics that should not be trampled is how our goddesses can be “of Wales” but not “Welsh.” To speak of “Welsh Goddesses” is insulting and nonsensical, immediately betraying a silly outsider voice. To say a goddess comes from Wales or is of Wales, is fine. Though it would be better still to say ‘of West Wales’ and so on, as well as pronouncing her name properly!


These are small things to do in return for the mighty gifts the peoples of Wales offer. A tussle with pronunciation, a  few words of honesty and courtesy make a Celtic Guest, instead of a dippy tourist without manners.

Those few words can make all the difference – like saying  diolch /thank you.



Celtic is given as ‘Celtic’ - in quotes, to counter the all too common assumption that there was a single, centralised Celtic culture comparable to Rome. No one we now call ‘Celtic’ would have called themselves a Celt. It was a foreign Greek word, meaning stone. Its imposition is rather like the English words ‘Wales /Welsh’ meaning ‘foreigner.’ (Back to top)

I am perhaps a little more sensitive to these issues than some, as I am  London born and bred I honour my own city yet I am dedicated to the traditions of the Cymru.
Prophetically given a Welsh name at birth, I was drawn romantically to ‘the Celts” (of Wales) for many years before being honoured by handfasting a native Welshman,  John Davies, who I quote above.

I owe my Sion a great debt for his education of my ignorance of his heritage over 20 years as I have shared his life in Wales. We have a Welsh son and I am ploddingly learning Welsh; apparently I am told, with a strong South Welsh accent!

Shan Morgain, Yule 2008.

Triskele symbol, a three way image beloved by the Celts
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