A Year of Goddesses: Arianrhod

Something I thought that I’d try for this coming year in this space is giving some conscious consideration of various goddesses.

One of the most exciting things as a woman raised in an Abrahamic faith finds when engaging with pagan spirituality is the ability to connect to the Divine Feminine. In traditional neopagan and Wiccan cosmology we talk a lot about The Lord and The Lady, the God and the Goddess, who embody divinity as Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine. This is a stark contrast to the Abrahamic faiths, which feature a God, who is usually conceptualized as masculine. Women in the Abrahamic faiths are usually presented as helpers, as secondary, and even in some sects as being spiritually deficient, even a source of evil. It’s exciting to be able to engage with goddesses as fully realized and empowered versions of the Divine Feminine, on equal footing with her male counterpart.

Again, with the Rule of 100 in full effect in pagan communities, the cis-gendered presentation of spirituality as Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine may be the tradition, but it’s not the only way to represent deity and gender. There has been vibrant exploration of divinity from non-heterosexual, non-gender-binary, and non-cisgender viewpoints that is exciting and which adds a lot of understanding of what it means to engage with divinity in the form of gods and goddesses. My choice to focus on goddesses and the traditional Divine Feminine in this series is not intended to diminish this important work. Deity takes form in everyone’s image, and everyone deserves to see themselves reflected among their gods.

With all of that fully explained, we can begin. And we begin with the Welsh moon goddess, Arianrhod.

Arianrhod is a widely misunderstood goddess, in part because the information about her is scarce, and largely derived from non-contemporaneous and non-pagan sources. This is a common problem with information around pagan gods and practices, but particularly with goddesses. Many pagan cultures were largely oral cultures as opposed to literate cultures, meaning that their primary mode for communicating information was through the spoken word. Many writing system in pre-Christian cultures were rudimentary, and used for highly practically purposes, like correspondence over distance, not necessarily memorializing spiritual practice. It’s important when you’re doing your research on who a god or a goddess is, to pay careful attention to source material, and especially ask who wrote it, and for what purpose.

The most widely cited tale of Arianrhod is from the Welsh tome the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales collected in the Medieval period in Welsh and later translated. Some of the tales were transcriptions from bardic tales allegedly dated from the 4th century, told by bards called Mabinogi, a term denoting a certain level of training and rank within the professional bardic community of the era which meant that their tale-telling had a certain amount of verification to it. The tale of King Math, which is the one that features Arianrhod, is one of these tales. So it’s a fair bet that the tale is as it was recited in the Medieval period. That said, the Medieval period is a Christianized period, and one should expect that the tale bears some of the patriarchal flavor of the period.

In the tale, Math, a mighty sorcerer who is the brother of Arainrhod’s mother, the goddess Don, cannot exist unless he is either at war, or his feet are held in the lap of a maiden. (It’s important to note that a maiden is slightly different from a virgin. Virginity has more to do with sexual purity, while the term maiden in most instances means merely unwed.) Through a variety of events that matter little here, King Math loses his footholder, and asks Gwydion to recommend a replacement (a strange request, given that Gwyidion is responsible for arranging for Math to lose the prior maiden.) He recommends Math take on Arianrhod for the job.

Math asks Arianrhod whether or not she is a maiden, and she replies, “I know not other than that I am.” This is apparently not enough for King Math, who bends his magic wand and asks Arianrhod to step over it, as a purity test. When she does, two “children” drop out. The first is a fully formed golden haired child, who Math immediately seized for himself, saying he would baptize him and name him Dylan. When Dylan is later baptized by dunking in the sea, he immediately took on the nature of the sea and swam away.

The second baby is apparently not quite fully formed, but nonetheless, Gwydion, who is also a powerful magician, makes off with the child, and hides him in a box until he can come back and arrange for the child to be brought up as his own. When he brings the child to Arianrhod at her castle (Which is often considered a gateway to the realm of the dead), Arianrhod places a curse on him: He will have no name unless she gives it to him, he will not bear arms unless she gives him a weapon, and he will not marry except to a woman not of any race currently on the earth. Gwydion eventually through trickery acquires a name for the boy (Llew) and arms for him, and eventually together they create a wife for him, Bloudewedd. In the Mabinogian, Arianrhod is furious at her curse being bested, and she retreats to her caer in shame.

Arianrhod is considered the Lady of the Silver Wheel which descends upon the sea, and that is taken to be the moon. But she is more than that. She is the goddess of cycles. Thus she is involved in anything that turns the wheel — birth, death, the womb.

But because of the way she treated Llew, she is frequently painted as heartless, having none of the finer feelings of motherhood. But this is viewing the story through a medieval and highly patriarchal lens. Consider it from Arianrhod’s point of view. Rather than accept Arianrhod’s answer regarding her maidenhood, Math forces her to prove herself with a test that ends up forcing her to reproduce without her consent. And then, to add insult to injury, the children that are created are stolen from her, to be raised by the men who tricked her into birthing them. Her demands of Llew, that he look to her for things like a name and the right to bear arms are her claiming her due as a mother, which had been denied her by Math and Gwydion.

She is not a cold, heartless goddess, who does not love her own children. She is not vindictive. She has been wronged by others and seeks justice. As a goddess of cycles, she is the ultimate proponent of the principle of “what goes around, comes around.” She is the mistress of Caer Sidi, sometimes called Caer Arianrhod, which is closely associated with stars and transitions and initiations such as birth and death and the place where souls withdraw between lives to learn. She is frequently associated with owls, and with spinning wheels.

Use colors like silver and white, and crystals associated with the moon like selenite in rituals evoking Arianrhod. One thing I like to do is burn a silver candle as I reach out to her. Turn to Arianrhod to find courage as changes happen in your life, to figure out how to manage the Wheel as it spins.

Hail, Arianrhod, Lady of the Silver Wheel!

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