Lee Davies 2007
First published in Pentacle Magazine
The children of Don are the most numerous and better known of the Cymric deities. Many are particularly well known names such as Gwydion or Arianrhod (more correctly, Aranrot) whilst others such as Amaethon or Afallwch are more nebulous, mentioned less in the literature and therefore don't really make it into the "how to be a Welsh Celtic Druid Shaman" books out there. This is a particular damn shame.
What is particularly useful when it comes to studying the children of Don is that Don equates very nicely with the Irish Danu, so much so that we could transpose the name the Tuatha de Dannan with the plant Don and think we were looking at the family of gods and goddesses. The same themes and occurrences happen on both sides of the Irish sea and this is a fantastic occurrence when it come to interpreting and pulling the mythos out of the sole branch of the mabinogion which deals with this family; Math son of Mathonwy. The seminal study of this myth was by W.J Gruffydd and is widely regarded as the key piece of work to read by anyone wishing to look deeper into this myth. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, if only so that the reader can come to realise that every character we come across in the welsh mythos is not necessarily a deity but was a later addition used to flesh out the story many centuries after it was being passed on as part of an oral tradition. Below is a picture of the family tree of the Plant Don, amongst the well known names are those which may not be so familiar such as Caswallawn or Gilvaethwy - it is names such as these which can be removed from the tree as being later additions or inclusions of quasi-historic figures. Caswallawn for instance is based upon a real British chieftain from the 1st century A.D; Cassivellaunus. His name added in as a descendant of the patriarchal Beli Mawr in the way royalty since the dawn of humanity has claimed divine descent.
At the core of this family unit we can include with some confidence a number of deities: Don, Beli Mawr, Gwydion, Amaethon, Gofannon, Aranrot, Penarddun, Lludd/Nudd and his son Gwynn, Avallwch and Modron. Math has been relegated to the sidelines by Gruffydd who believes that he has usurped Beli from his role in the original myth, originally Math was the 'helpful' druid of the tale who assisted Gwydion and Lleu overcome the curse placed upon him by his mother. It is Gwydion who has filled the place left by Math as an arch magician, possibly because he has shown himself to adept in these arts in other parts of this myth and other myths and poems elsewhere
As I have already touched upon in earlier articles in this series, the Plant Don are clearly a new dynasty that usurped the Plant Llyr during the 1st century B.C.E and the 1st century A.D, this is something we can have a fair guess at based upon the inclusion of the historical Cassivellaunus. The historical figure of Cunobelinus 'hound of Beli(nus) who lived from the late 1st C B.C to 40 A.D also helps place the takeover by this dynasty within a historical timeline. Whether this family were brought in by migrating peoples from Ireland or whether this family is a parallel Brythonic development from a much earlier shared mythology and pantheon is a mater for debate. Fortunately I won't be debating it here.
Amaethon's very name tells us about him, his name meaning 'ploughman'. He is referred to in the legend of Culhwch and Olwen; "No husbandman can till or prepare this land, so wild is it, except Amaethon the son of Don". He also features in the epic poem, the Cad Goddeu with his brother Gwydion as the one who went into Annwfyn and stole a roebuck, a hound and a lapwing. It was Gwydion who stole the otherworldy pigs from the kingdom of Dyfed in the south, placing them as something like promethean deities in the way they steal from the otherworld and return to 'this world' with their prizes.
Gofannon is the smith god of the Cymric pantheons. There is no member of the plant Llyr who we can begin to equate with him in terms of his role as the master smith, certainly we could have a craftsman god such as the skilled Manawyddan, but a specific blacksmith deity is lacking. Now, it could be going to fat with this little information, but we could surmise from this lack of a smith god that perhaps the Children of Llyr predate smithcraft in this country, belonging to the much older stone and Bronze Age cultures with the Children of Don representing the dawning Iron Age culture which developed form about 500 BC. In the poem 'The First Address of Taliesin', he mentions that:
Math was supposedly a skilled magician so are we to suppose that Gofannon was also regarded as such, it seems odd that a bard such as Taliesin would spend time with a blacksmith, so perhaps we can also see Gofannon as a magician in his own right, certainly the blacksmiths craft has been seen as magical throughout human history. Another interesting occurrence within the Welsh mythos is that it mentions Gofannon as the slayer of his own nephew Dylan Eil Ton the sea god. His killing was not deliberate but accidental. Gruffydd sets out a case for Gofannon being the foster father of Dylan by taking parallels from Irish myths. A reconstruction of the original myth surrounding this family of gods would have Gofannon helping his brother Gwydion fulfil Lleu's destiny by making him the mighty spear with which he would kill Beli Mawr. Perhaps it was with this spear that Gofannon accidentally struck and killed his nephew, whether he was testing it by the sea or possibly because such a weapon had to be quenched in the blood of a living thing and Dylan was the first to walk through the smithy door rather then a pre-arranged man or beast.
Beli Mawr is the father of the Plant Don. Though references to him as the father are limited they do occur in the triads and genealogies. As to his name, Mawr means 'great' and Beli has been translated into a number of forms; it is seen as a derivation of 'wild beast' or even derive from belu 'to kill'. Both seem plausible as references to Beli in welsh literature show him as both:
So, we have 'Great Beast' or even 'Lord of the Kill/Battle'. Either name suggests a formidable deity indeed. Whether Beli is related to Belenos is a matter of debate. If however he is then this links him also to Apollo - a connection made by the Romans. This is further strengthened as the word for henbane (a psychoactive) is 'belisa', Apollo of course had the drug toting oracle at Delphi. This links are tenuous and may prove to be incorrect, but it gives food for thought.
Gruffydd equates him with the Irish formorian Balor who was slain by his grandson Lugh. For this reason Gruffydd concluded that the original myth surrounding the Plant Don had Beli as the central role which math has now taken and that the myth was concerning his death at the hands of Lleu who first overcame a series of destinies placed upon him.
Lludd/Nudd and Gwyn ap Nudd are an interesting pair. Nudd is derived from the older British god Nodens. He is a hunter/fisher deity who is associated with healing and as such had a temple to him at Lydney on the banks of the Severn. It would seem that hounds are sacred to him, there were found nine individual offerings of hound statues and also the décor of the temple featured a lot of hound imagery. The name Nudd means 'fog' or 'mist' in modern Welsh. An interesting character from welsh legend is the Brenin Llwyd, the 'Grey King' also called the Brenin Nudd or 'Mist King'. In folklore he haunts the mountains in Snowdonia and was used as a bogeyman to scare children and also to steal away mountain travellers after confounding them in mists and fog. Nudd's son Gwyn is of course much better known, he is the leader of a wild hunt and a ruler of Annwfyn. Much of the welsh literature in which he features places him as a great warrior and huntsman. His original role was something of a psychopomp, gathering the dead into Annwfyn, where he ruled. He is mentioned as having the role of stopping the 'demons' escaping from Annwfyn, this seems to be a later alteration of Annwfyn as an otherworld paradise into Annwfyn as hell. His role became later diminished to the ruler of the land of faery, when he was met by St Collen who banished him and his court from Glastonbury Tor by sprinkling them with holy water. How rude. What we can recreate of Gwyn is that he was the ruler or guardian of Annwfyn much in the same way that Arawn was in western Wales, like Arawn he led a wild hunt of white pelted and red eared hounds. Not only was he a skilled lord of battle, but also gathered up the battle slain and took them to the afterlife. Gwyn survived into the 14th century in a diminished form as king of the land of faery, a 14th C Latin inscription reads:
Avallwch is also known as Afallach. He is mentioned as a son of Beli Mawr in the Welsh genealogies and a son of Nudd in the Triads. His name is derived from the word for apple 'afall' or the word for orchard. He is the ruler of Ynys Afallon, 'Orchard Isle', the isle of Avalon, the paradisiacal otherworld. He is the father of Modron, the mother goddess and of nice other maiden goddesses. These nine maidens also feature elsewhere in welsh myths as tending one of the great otherworld cauldrons. His name is clearly a title rather then a proper name, so it may be that our Avallwch is a title given to another deity whom we have already come across, perhaps Nudd or more likely Gwyn, who is also a son of Nudd and has already been shown to be an otherworld ruler.
come to Arianrhod, or more correctly Aranrot. Her name only appears as
Aranrot in the myths. She is the daughter of Beli Mawr, sister to Gwydion
and mother to Lleu and Dylan. As Arianrhod her name is taken to be 'silver
wheel' and so she is called a moon goddess. Silver wheel in Welsh would
usually be Rhod yr Arian though this 'rule' is sometimes broken when it
comes to personal names, the moon is rarely a disc and so is not really
a 'wheel' and there is nothing about her that is stellar apart from folklore
calling the Corona Borealis 'Caer Arianrhod', there is conflicting folklore
that Caer Arianrhod sank beneath the waves.. So it seems Arianrhod has
been misrepresented. Let us turn to Aranrot; the name possibly translates
as 'Round Hill or Mound'. If this is the case she is much more an earth
goddess or Queen of the Mound and therefore has connections to Annwfyn
rather than the stellar goddess people usually take her for. I get the
feeling she may also be something of a sovereignty goddess and be associated
with destiny. In later Arthurian romances she survives as Argante who
is closely associated with healing and as such further studies of her
in this 'evolved' state may lead us to her truer nature. A full treatment
of her is beyond the scope of this article and is best left to a later
R. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. (3rd ed.)
University of Wales Press 2006