|Aranrhod with Gwydion and Lleu|
Some time ago I posted on awenydd.cymru a consideration of the evidence for associating the character Lleu in the fourth of the medieval Welsh Mabinogi tales with Lug in the Irish tales and the identity of both with the pan-Celtic god Lugus. I went on to attach to the original post an extension discussing the role of Goewin, Aranrhod and Blodeuedd in the tale as possible expressions of the goddess Rosmerta, though I regarded the argument here as far more speculative. I have now reconsidered that second section and have deleted it for further consideration as a separate post. Instead I have replaced it with a more focused development of the first part of the post, covering some of the same ground but reconsidering my conclusions somewhat. I give the new extension as a stand-alone post below.
In Celtic Heritage Alwyn and Brinley Rees discuss the births of gods and semi-divine heroes(1). They note that in early societies births usually occur within carefully arranged marriages to ensure either material gain or the promotion of dynastic alliances. In contrast, the births of gods and heroes are often the result of impulsive liaisons, obsessive attractions, incest, trickery, coercion or rape. They cite a number of examples. The Irish god Oengus mac Oc was conceived as the result of an extra-marital liaison between the Dagda and Boand. The Dagda then suspended time so the nine months of Boand’s pregnancy passed in a day and the child was secretly fostered only to be acknowledged later. There are different stories about the way Conchobar was fathered on Ness by Cathbad the Druid, in one of which he addresses the child as both his son and his grandson. Conchobar himself decides to marry Deidrui while she is still in the womb of the wife of Feidlimid, his storyteller. In one version of the birth of Cuchulainn there was a triple conception causing Deichtine to become pregnant by Lug. Another version is less complicated but does include a flock of birds, who also feature in the first version, and which turn into fifty maidens attendant on the birth. Cuchulainn, like many such heroes, grows unusually swiftly to maturity. Later he kills his own son who was the result of a liaison with the Scottish warrior woman Aife. He also kills the father of Emer when he goes to claim her for his bride, just as heroes often have to kill giants when they wish to marry their daughters. These are just a few of many such examples in the Irish tradition.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth Arthur is born as the result of a liaison between Uther Pendragon and Ygerna arranged by Merlin who disguises Uther so that he looks like her husband. The later story of Arthur being hidden away until he is older is also a common theme in many of these begettings. Pryderi is brought up by Teyrnon and his wife, growing unusually quickly to maturity, until being returned to Pwyll and Rhiannon. Pwyll had married Rhiannon after her sudden mysterious appearance, though not without first having to contend with trickery from a rival and respond with trickery of his own to ensure his marriage. Culhwch falls in love with Olwen, a giant’s daughter, at the very mention of her name without even seeing her. In the fourth Mabinogi Math marries Goewin, his maiden foot-holder, after her rape by his nephew. We apparently hear no more of the results of this marriage as the tale then takes a different turn. Or does it? Might the strange births of Lleu and Dylan from Aranrhod be linked to the supposedly unrelated events in the earlier part of the tale? Aranrhod claims she is a virgin and the father of the children is not identified. Gwydion, Lleu’s uncle, takes on the role of a father to him. But an alternative source(2) suggests that Gwydion is actually his father. Furthermore, two separate references by medieval bards(3) indicate an alternative tradition that Aranrhod was the maiden foot-holder of Math rather than Goewin who is otherwise unknown in Welsh tradition. This may be because they knew a variant of the oral tale which the author of the Mabinogi used as a source for the written stories, or because the author of the written work did not maintain every detail from the oral tradition. In the written story, Gwydion helps his brother Gilfaethwy, who is infatuated with Goewin, to rape her. But if Gwydion is Lleu’s father, and it is Math’s niece Aranrod who is his foot-holder, then it must be Gwydion who fathers the child upon her. This could explain his later relationship with Lleu and also Aranrhod’s unwillingness to have anything to do with either of them.
Gwydion is Aranrhod’s brother and although, in the genealogy of this tale, she is one of the children of Dôn, in another genealogy(4), she is the daughter of the ancestor god Beli. So there is the not uncommon tangle of relationships between gods and other characters in mythic narratives. But there is, here, also the basis for an emerging myth of origins. In an essay on this topic(5) John Carey suggests that the motif of Goewin as a virgin in whose lap Math rests his feet, represents the transition from a ‘Golden Age’ before sexual procreation, but her rape in the story and the fact that Math subsequently marries her represents the transition to sexual procreation. I found this unconvincing when I read it originally, particularly as Goewin was not a sufficiently prominent character to carry such a significant role. But such an interpretation begins to make more sense if it is Aranrhod who does so. Lleu would then be the result of an incestuous liaison between two of the children of Dôn, created within a family of divinities, so also divine. That he should later be married to a woman of flowers and have to contend for her with a rival also introduces a mytheme that places him as a god of the turning year, though this may be a case of bringing together different mythic elements into the same tale.
But his conception could also represent a transition within the divine family to sexual procreation. The conflict between suitors that this potentially introduces, and the possibilty of an introduction of a partner from outside the divine family, brings further implications into play. Having discovered otherness the desire for a particular other becomes paramount regardless of the consequences. The gods, in mixing with humans, not only blur the boundaries between their world and ours, and in so doing come closer to us, but also bring about liminal identities for characters that seem to inhabit both worlds. Lug appears in some stories as a god but in others as human. The character, behaviour and allegiances of such characters may sometimes be suspect. Characters like Gwydion in the fourth Mabinogi do not adhere to restraints on their behaviour that would be required for humans though in the story he is punished by Math for the rape of Goewin. Gods may be amoral but may still be represented in tales as humans whose moral behaviour has to be accounted for. The nature of Lleu’s birth, the complicated conditions necessary for his death and the fact that he is able to be re-born after taking the shape of an eagle all imply a divine rather than a human identity. Gods, when they appear in stories, can take many forms, sometimes as direct human expressions of a god’s nature, sometimes as a character possessed by a god and sometimes as a god in disguise. So for us the god is in the story though the god remains elsewhere.
1. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees Celtic Heritage (Thames & Hudson, 1961)
2. Harleian MS 3859 see Ian Hughes Math uab Mathonwy (Cardiff, 2000)
3. Lewys Mȏn (1465-1527) & Tudur Aled (1465-1525) See Rachel Bromwich Trioedd Ynys Prydain (Cardiff, 2006) p.285.
4. Triad 35, Bromwich, as above p.81
5. John Carey A British Myth of Origins (History of Religions, Vol 31, 1991)