Lore concerning Arianrhod is primarily found in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, entitled “Math the Son of Mathonwy” (or similar forms thereof.) Much that has been written about this lore seems insensible and distorted. One might even suspect that Gwydion continues to conjure illusions. Such illusion may be dispelled by means of the simplicity recommended by Ockham’s razor, though. It is necessary to dispel illusions to truly understand lost ancient wisdom.
Those not familiar with this lore should read it first. Two available versions are:
The latter version may be an easier read, but the former is recommended.
An example of an interpretation:
This interpretation is particularly interesting due to its apparent scholarly form.
The form of the story is a little uncommon compared to modern story structure. The title character is not the lead character. If made into a movie, the actor cast as Gwydion would be considered the leading man. The title character is simply the starting place of the story. In the manner of the above interpretation, the story flows with power from Math, through Gwydion and Arianrhod, and finally to Llew.
There is an obvious element of patriarchal dominance in the story. In the very beginning, there is no consideration given to how Goewin might feel about Gilfaethwy’s obsessive desire for her. There is no indication that Arianrhod was asked how she felt about becoming Goewin’s replacement, either. Furthermore, Gwydion belittles and dismisses Arianrhod’s feelings of shame after her rape. The story is absolutely void of any regard for the self-determination of women, much less their feelings.
Any speculation that the culture was in the process of shifting from matriarchal to patriarchal in the period of the tale is incredulous. Such societal change tends to be gradual, except in cases of invasion. There is no indication of invasion in the narrative, particularly in light of familial relationship between the male and female characters of the story. The extreme nature of the male dominance depicted indicates a culture that is well beyond any transitional period.
Speculation of a transition from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal one may stem from Gwydion’s insistence that the boy’s mother, Arianrhod, name and arm him. This is reportedly a custom in matriarchal societies. However, Arianrhod bore two sons, and Math did not hesitate to name the first one Dylan without consulting Arianrhod. There are subtle nuances to this story that are missed by such interpretations.
The problem of historical interpretations being colored by the contemporary perceptions of the interpretors is well-known among historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. The example interpretation provided above admits that mythic lore was being used to promote change in Welsh society. However, such interpretations are not supported when making the fewest assumptions (applying Ockham’s razor) about the written narrative.
Some more obscure interpretations suggest that, when Math inquired about Arianrhod’s maidenhood (or virginity,) her answer was based on an older matriarchal definition of the word. This is convenient for portraying Arianrhod as a feminine activist, but it also implies that she was a fool.
It is not credible that Arianrhod was not aware of (1) her uncle’s limitation, (2) the threat to his life, (3) the loss of his previous foot-maiden, or (4) what she was being asked. Let’s not forget that a state of war existed between her uncle and brothers for three years prior to this interview. Arianrhod must have known what was at stake and what she was being asked. A mentally-challenged goddess would also be a poor icon for feminine activism.
Math is the most powerful, so he ruled. This remains a common principle, even in modern democracies. Math’s greatest strength was in the magical arts. He could transform Gwydion and Gilfaethwy into creatures of the wild. Gwydion sought Math’s aid to conjure a wife for Llew from flowers.
The most powerful Math had a mysterious limitation, though. He could not exist unless his feet were in the lap of a virgin, except when he had to rise to the occasion of a state of war. For this reason, he depended on the help of family to rule his kingdom during times of peace. Lacking family of his own, Math relied on his nephews to the make rounds of his kingdom in his place.
Gwydion was Math’s nephew and trusted right-hand. Gwydion was well-trained in the magical arts, but he lacked Math’s power. Gwydion could mesmerize with bardic skill, and he could cast illusions, but the illusions did not last. Gwydion is considered a Trickster by some, as this was the common purpose of his illusions.
The only transformation attributed to Gwydion was that of Blodeuwedd into an owl near the end of the tale. Math’s contribution to the creation of Blodeuwedd may have enabled Gwydion in this transformation, though. His feelings about what was done to Llew may have also provided some impetus.
Gilfaethwy appears to be firmly rooted in the physical realm. He was overcome by physical desire (lust) for Goewin. Once his lust was sated, Gilfaethwy seems to lose interest in Goewin. Of course, he spent a lot of time running from, and being transformed by Math. There is no evidence of magical talent, however.
Llew (Llaw Gyffes) had talent and was being trained by Gwydion, but he is more like a pawn in everyone else’s game. He was clearly the object of their attention, though.
Goewin’s virginal lap sustained Math’s life. Virginity is a condition of sexual organs, and the lap is as close as one can get to those organs without having actual intercourse. Math’s life was sustained by the creative, life-giving power of Goewin’s untapped womb… until it was desecrated by Gilfaethwy.
Arianrhod’s creative power was much greater than Goewin’s. Math’s test of her virginity resulted in another instance an immaculate conception, a theme that is not exclusive to Christianity. Attempts to explain this part of the lore as a metaphor for actual incestual rape lacks sense because Math’s life depends on finding a replacement for Goewin. However, potent male energy focused by a phallic symbol and directed toward a pure, fertile womb resulting in a creative event is consistent with the magical elements of this lore. The assumption that Goewin was subjected to the same test leads to concluding that Arianrhod had greater creative power.
The magical pattern of an immaculate conception is consistent with other elements of the story. When Arianrhod stepped over Math’s wand, she was closer to the more powerful magician of the two. The first child produced was fully formed. Math caused this one to be baptized and named Dylan.
As Arianrhod ran for the door of the room, a second child appeared, but it was not fully formed. Gwydion, the less powerful magician, grabbed the second child and hid it away in a chest in his room. The child remained in Gwydion’s chest until it was fully formed, then Gwydion attended to its care.
The incubation of a fetus in a chest at the foot of Gwydion’s bed relates well to the magical threads of this lore. The correspondence between the two children and the two magicians hardly seems coincidental. Attempts to explain away mythic lore with behavior common to mundane people of questionable character lacks maturity and sophistication.
It is easy for the modern reader to assume that the appearance of children upon stepping over the wand is a sign that Arianrhod was not a virgin. However, Math did not say how stepping over his wand would reveal truth in this matter. Since a loss of virginity does not automatically imply pregnancy, it seems reasonable to suspect that the sign Math expected in the event of a non-virgin was not the one that he got. Unfortunately, this simple assumption by modern readers also blinds them to elements of the story that refute it.
A key feature of patriarchy is assurance that a man’s legacy is passed down along his legitimate bloodline. The question of “legitimacy” is strictly a male concern. However, both Math and Gwydion readily accept Arianrhod’s offspring, and following Dylan’s death, there appears to be no question concerning the legitimacy of Llew’s inheritance.
Arianrhod’s shame has nothing to do with her being dishonest or slatternly, with the possible exception of misinterpretation by future generations. It should be noted that Gwydion tries to convince Arianrhod that she has little to be ashamed of when he first visits her afterward. This attempt to downplay the event could also be explained by the embarrassment of two highly respected mages who failed to understand the forces they were playing with.
Although Math’s life is sustained by his feet being placed in the lap of a virgin, there is no cause to assume this connection is understood. It was more likely viewed as a crippling limitation that would have cost Math his kingship if not for his great magical strength. Recall the very beginning of this tale when Gilfaethwy resisted revealing his trouble to Gwydion for fear that Math would hear his voice carried upon the wind. Does Math realize that the creative feminine force that sustains his life is also what he draws upon for his superior magic, though?
Gwydion’s effort to minimize Arianrhod’s shame only results in belittling her. Gwydion seems to correctly identify Arianrhod’s shame as she is no longer a damsel or maiden, but he fails to understand how she feels about being violated in this manner. This results in a family feud.
Math and Gwydion’s mastery over their respective talents indicates understanding of magical arts, but this tale reflects their ignorance of the feminine mysteries. Once Gwydion provokes Arianrhod, we are treated with a most impressive display of the power of the Divine Feminine. The display is hidden behind a patriarchal illusion sufficient to blind the Christian scribes commonly credited with committing the tale into the written form. That illusion appears to have preserved the lore, but let the illusion now fall. Read the story for what it actually tells us.
We are not told why Gwydion did not name his charge, as Math named Dylan. Nor are we told Gwydion’s purpose for visiting Arianrhod with the lad in tow. The meeting seemed to begin in a civil manner until Arianrhod inquired about the boy. After a discussion about her disgrace, Arianrhod then asked Gwydion what the child’s name was. When Gwydion revealed that the boy had not yet been named, Arianrhod placed a destiny (swore an oath) upon the boy that he would have no name unless he received it from her.
Gwydion then goes to elaborate lengths to trick Arianrhod into naming Llew (Lleu.) It may be for this reason that some readers assume that Gwydion’s purpose in visiting Arianrhod was to get her to name the lad. However, Gwydion’s purpose was not given, and Arianrhod raised the subject of the boy’s name… not Gwydion. Closely examine the illusion Gwydion created, also.
Arianrhod placed a destiny (oath) upon the boy. Gwydion created an elaborate illusion to trick Arianrhod into fulfilling that destiny. In other words, he tricked the “prophet” into fulfilling her “prophecy.” What did Gwydion accomplish other than attest to Arianrhod’s authority and power?
Arianrhod then goads Gwydion into another performance by placing another destiny upon Llew. She declared that Llew will not have arms or armour unless she gives it to him. Once again, Gwydion put great effort into tricking the prophet into fulfilling her prophecy. The illusion of male dominance is so thick that Gwydion completely fails to see the reality of his actions.
Three is a mystical number and what Welsh tale would be complete without its triads? Once more Arianrhod placed a destiny upon Llew, but this one was a bit different. Gwydion couldn’t simply trick Arianrhod in this matter. Arianrhod declared that Llew would have no wife of the race that now inhabits this earth. Gwydion had to seek Math’s help with this destiny.
Math and Gwydion conspired to provide Llew with a wife created from flowers. This might be viewed as fulfilling the third destiny placed upon Llew, because a wife created from flowers is technically not human. On the other hand, the transformation made her human, so it violated the destiny placed upon Llew. Nevertheless, the efforts of both mages to thwart Arianrhod’s pronouncement almost killed Llew. It almost killed Llew despite elaborate protections cast upon him. The combined efforts of both powerful mages were unable to overcome Arianrhod’s will.
Gwydion healed/resurrected Llew. The wife of flowers, Blodeuwedd, was transformed into an owl and dismissed by Gwydion. Llew dismissed her treacherous lover. The tale ends simply with Llew taking possession of the land a second time.
THE WISDOM OF THE EARTH
The theme of a sovereign being bound or married to the land is a familiar one. Llew was not to have a wife of the “race” that inhabits the earth, because he was to be wed/bound to the earth/land itself. The people of the land also prosper when a rightful ruler reigns, and the Guest/Sacred-texts version adds at the end, “…and prosperously did he govern it.” The “rightful” ruler also being the one who derives authority/power from the earth/land.
The Earth is generally attributed with being feminine, hence the name “Mother Earth.” The Earth is the womb from which all known life is born, and the source of that life’s sustenance. The power attributed to different ruling [human] factions of this planet through history usually concern the control of resources. Oil and uranium being two sources of power most are familiar with today. We continue to derive power and authority from the Earth even now.
Math’s life was sustained placing his feet in the lap of a virgin. The feet represent our connection with Earth. The lap is the location of a woman’s womb, and the virginal attribute indicates a pure resource that has not been depleted in the least by any other use. It is not clear whether Math understood how this related to his exceptional magical powers, but his attempt to compensate Goewin for the acts of the brothers might be seen as a positive indicator.
Arianrhod is the Divine Feminine, as indicated by her exceptional fertility. (Imagine what Math might have accomplished with his feet planted in her lap.) She seemed happy to remain aloof from the illusions of humankind, until they forced themselves upon her. When she finally acted, no power or illusion could stand against her.
Gwydion fostered and influenced Llew, but Gwydion was a man of illusion and deceit. Arianrhod deftly brought Llew to a place of understanding, despite Gwydion’s twisted sense of reality, by simply placing three destinies upon him. It is for these skilfull acts that Arianrhod is known as a goddess of Destiny.
Arianrhod demonstrated an understanding that transcends patriarchy, matriarchy, politics or any other human illusion for that matter. She is found in a reality that escapes many, at least based on some interpretations of this lore. Since the metaphysical element for physical reality is Earth, and due to the substance of this lore, it seems quite reasonable and sensible to also attribute Arianrhod with the Wisdom of the Earth.