One of the deities that I work with is the Lady Arianerhod. She appears in the Welsh tales of the Mabinogion, where she plays the part of an independent noble woman, who lays a Geas on her son, that he won’t have a name until she herself gives it to him, nor will he have arms till she herself gives them to him, nor will he have a mortal wife. A geas is a bit like a curse, but is not necessarily a bad thing. More like a fateful obligation or necessary observance to keep the favour of the Gods. In some ways, a geas is also like a prophecy, as the geas usually indicates that some disaster will befall when the geas is broken. A Geas is typically pronounced at birth, or some other important occasion by a druid or sorceress.
Arianerhod’s son is being brought up by his uncle. In my reading of the story it represents at one level the historical struggle between the patriarchal new order and the matriarchal old order, with the crafty Gwydion, the main character in the story, outwitting his Sister Arianerhod, representing the old matriarchal order. In this reading, Arianerhod appears (from Gwydion’s point of view) as ungracious and ill-wishing, thinking first and foremost of her own social standing instead of the child’s welfare. However digging a little deeper, we may see on a personal level that Gwydion wants to hurry the natural order and processes of growth, and in his haste and pride deprives the Goddess of her rightful influence in the development of the child, and later young man. The consequence is tragic. Thus the story may be read as a warning against human pride and hubris that seeks to outwit fate, or the Gods.
In any case, we can use this story as a signpost to the qualities and attributes of the Goddess, even though in the story, those attributes are given a negative expression by Gwydion. For example, when first Gwydion and the boy encounter the Lady Arianerhod, she doesn’t recognise the boy as her own. When Gwydion insists that she is his mother, she declares that he will never get a name until she herself gives it to him.
While Gwydion interprets this as a denial, it is no more than Arianerhod’s insistence on her right to name the boy – in her own time, a right that both Gwydion and Arianerhod accept without question. So rather than naming the boy himself, Gwydion asserts his power and independence by resorting to trickery to extract a name out of the Goddess. He and the boy visit her keep in the guise of shoe makers. By a series of ruses, Gwydion causes Arianerhod to board their boat. There she sees the boy shoot a wren, so that the arrow pierces between the sinew and the bone of the leg. The shooting of the wren is a symbol of divine kingship, associated with yearly battle between the dark and bright lords, an association further underlined by the wound being to the leg, a symbol also associated with Kingship. Indeed, the resonance here is with the wounded king, and this is a clue that the boy is destined to become the wounded king, around which develops the wasteland. Arianerhod remarks that the boy is possessed of a skilful hand, and this becomes his name, Llew Law Gyffes. When Gwydion reveals the deception, Arianerhod is annoyed, and angrily pronounces a Geas that the boy shall have no arms, until she herself grants them to him.
The story, as recorded from Gwydion’s point of view, appears to be the story of a proud and curmudgeonly women who refuses to acknowledge her offspring, and Gwydion’s attempts to outwit her. However we may equally read it as the story of a proud and treacherous man who refuses to acknowledge the prerogative of the Goddess, and tries to rush the natural order of things through his trickery and devices, thinking he knows better than the Goddess. The angry Goddess, on a superficial reading appears to curse the newly named boy, however, on a deeper reading she is but asserting her prerogative once again. In spite of having been tricked out of her rightful name-giving, she now asserts her right of arms-giving, or presiding over the boys coming of age.
Once again, we are invited to interpret this, with Gwydion, as a curse by the Lady, with the expected outcome that no arms will be granted. But if this was the intended effect, why not deliver the curse directly? A similar episode follows, where Gwydion and Llew Law Gyffes go disguised to Arianerhod’s castle, and Gwydion conjures a fleet of invaders to appear in the harbour. Gwydion and Llew Law Gyffes promise to help defend the castle, and to do so, Arianerhod provides them both with arms. At this point the enchantment is lifted, and Gwydion declares that the boy has been armed, in spite of Arianerhod’s ill disposition towards him.
Arianerhod is furious. In the story, we are invited to suppose it is because she wished the boy to remain un-armed. However another possible reading is that she is furious because the arms were given inappropriately, without due ceremony, and therefore the occasion has been robbed of its numinous potential for conferring both power and wisdom, and deepening the connection with the spiritual source. The power of wielding arms, the personal power associated with personal combat, was once, at least in the old tales, taught by sorceress/priestesses, and the arms giving was an initiation into personal power. By tricking Arianerhod into giving arms, Gwydion actually robbed Llew Law Gyffes of this experience, which is not valued by the emerging patriarchal order. The story is one in which the role of the numinous, and the Goddess, is devalued, and replaced by man’s hubris, pride, and confidence in his own power and abilities.
In her anger, Arianerhod, pronounces that the boy shall now never have a women from the races who now inhabit the world, for a wife. In the story, we are invited to read this as an angry curse by a vindictive women. However a deeper reading is possible. Rather than a curse, it is a lament. It acknowledges that in bypassing his initiation at the hands of the matriarchy, hence foregoing his connection with the numinous, but claiming his adult role regardless, he is not a fit husband for any women. Women will see and know his shallowness, his hollowness, and turn him down. He is a man of violence and force, untamed and un-mastered by feminine guidance, and so can’t be trusted.
In spite of this final Geas, Gwydion and his Uncle contrive to create a wife, Bloduwedd, for Llew Law Gyffes by the enchantment of spring flowers – oak blossoms, broom, and meadowsweet. This however turns to tragedy, as we will see. Reading more deeply, we see a symmetry in this part of the story. As Bloduwedd is a contrived women, so also is Llew Law Gyffes a contrived man – both taking their form, in different ways, from the contrivances of Gwydion. Just as the wren was a mirror showing Llew Law Gyffe’s destiny, Bloduwedd is also a mirror for Llew Law Gyffes. As both are contrived, the match between these two beings is doomed to failure. Neither has the skill or maturity to allow love to flower. While Llew Law is away at the masculine court, occupying his mind with manly affairs unbalanced by the numinous, his beautiful wife is left at home, untended, and uncared for. She has an affair with a noble who ventures passed on a stag hunt. Once again, we have a resonance with Llew Law Gyffes, as the Stag represents the sacred King, and to kill him is to take his place. Thus the killing of the stag resonates with the illicit love that follows, and the plot to kill Llew Law Gyffes himself. Through trickery, Bloduwedd discovers how Llew may be killed, and passes the information on to her lover, who carries it out. Llew, grievously wounded, flies off as an eagle, and is discovered by Gwydion, roosting in a tree, where rotting flesh drops away from him, and is being eaten by a sow.
The sow is symbolic of the Goddess, and we may read this as the initiation of the Goddess – the dead flesh dripping away being the pride, arrogance and hubris which is devoured by the Sow, the Goddess, in this devouring form. Thus the initiation into the numinous that was ignored in Llew’s boy hood and youth, cannot be over-looked forever. It is a necessary transformation. In the end, the bitter circumstances of life will contrive to bring him to a numinous understanding of himself, or he will find death and/or despair.
Bloduwedd is banished to become an owl, a creature of the night, to be picked upon by the other birds.
So we can read this story in the Mabinogion as a tale that warns against the pride and hubris that causes men to usurp the rights and perogatives of the Goddess, and the old ways. It shows the consequence of such hubris – failed relationships, war, and bloodshed. And it is a pointer to the role of the Lady Arianerhod – as name giver, arms giver, and initiator. Three initiations are mentioned specifically – the giving of a name, the giving of arms, and the taking of a wife. A fourth initiation, that of bitter circumstances is a result of arrogantly refusing the first three. The Goddess cannot be refused. She is the mentor, the judge, she who bears the gift of contact with the numinous feminine. These pointers show how we may work with the Lady Arianerhod today. She may help with the seeking of the true name. She will mentor someone in the bearing of arms for a just cause. She will provide guidance in the conduct of love relationships, which respect the individuality and personal integrity of each party. She is concerned with coming of age ceremonies and life transitions, and may be invoked for her help in these matters. She may preside over such ceremonies, and provide the means for numinous contact with the true self.
While the story in the Mabinogion revolves the central character of Llew Law Gyffes, it provides a skeleton for contemplating on the spiritual journey, and the ever present danger of thinking that we know better than the Goddess. To put it in more psycho-spriritual terms, The rationo-centric sense of self, believing itself superior to the numinous collective consciousness, repudiates the role of the greater organism in the nurturing of the child of promise. Instead, it seeks to assert its own cleverness, its own agenda, forgetting that it is a servant of the whole. However this results in a person who is cut off from the numinous, the greater organism, and the best part of themselves. Their relationships and whatever they manifest must suffer. The wasteland grows around them. They trust the wrong people. They may suffer and be betrayed, or betray others. If they are to rise to their destiny, then life must intervene to bring them back in touch with the numinous – often this is through bitter circumstances which may as likely bring someone to personal and psychological ruin.
In the end, the rationcentric and the greater sense of the numinous must work together in a balance and harmony. Just as reason alone is barren, intuition can’t work in a vacuum. Both are needed in order to be whole. The balance of the individual and the greater consciousness. This is my reading of the tale, and I trust that it will make your reading deeper and more rewarding – though I don’t expect that all will agree with me! Whether it’s the intention of the original authors, I cannot say – however what we make of the story today is as important for us as what was originally meant. In the end, there is a sacred marriage here as well. The authors of antiquity have created a matrix, into which we project our our meaning, guided, however, by the symbols and narrative that have come down to us, and our own touch of the numinous.
The story of Math, son of Mathonwy, which contains the tale of Gwdion, Arianerhod, and Llew Law Gyffes, is one of the four branches of the Mabinogi. Links to online texts are available from the wikipedia entry.