On the cover of Greg Hill’s poetry collection, Creatures, is an image of a sculpture by Fidelma Massey called ‘Water Mother’. The first ekphrastic poem bears the same name. Rivers flow through the book with rain and turning tides.
When I reviewed Creatures in November 2014 I didn’t think I’d ever meet a mother goddess; I decided not to have children at an early age and don’t have a nurturing bone in my body.
However I’ve long been drawn to local rivers, streams and wells, above ground and those unseen, been haunted by the songs of their spirits whether rippling in sunshine, hurtling through darkness, rattling against culverts or running free.
I’ve seen a water dragon shrink and die because we shattered her aquifer, heard the screams of her daughters, stood before the empty greyness of her ghost.
In retrospect it’s not that surprising I should meet a water mother: the primal source from whom every river flows and returns. The fountainhead of all water. She who gives and draws back into the abyss.
Her name is Dôn. I met her last October in a vision where I was surrounded by hills filled with people. Somehow the hills became the folds of my coat and I was privileged with custodianship of these people whilst together we witnessed a primordial creation scene.
A dark orb appeared, then pupil-like, placenta-like, emerged the diaphanous form of a goddess. After her appearance the orb came to life: amoeba, green moving swards of vegetation, trees, people, marching through a labyrinthine kingdom back into the void carrying houses and entire civilisations.
Sometimes people get stuck, I heard them knocking, felt they wanted to shout out through me. From a huge crow watching above I received the gnosis my patron, Gwyn, carries the lost ones under his wings, that I too bear some responsibility for them; albeit by carrying their stories.
At the end the goddess’s name rang through the hills, from the spiralling abyss of the deep, echoing in the minds of her people, in the vow I’d made to Gwyn who flies between them: Dôn Dôn Dôn. I had the feeling of being part of her family.
Little is known about Dôn from Brythonic tradition. The rivers Don in south Yorkshire and Aberdeenshire bear her name suggesting she is a water goddess. In The Mabinogion we find her children: Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Arianrhod, Gofannon, Amaethon, Eufydd and Elestron.
To learn more it is necessary to turn to Irish parallels and Danu, mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danaan (‘Tribe of the Goddess Danu’). Danu derives from proto-Celtic *Dānu ‘fluvial water’ and is associated with the ‘Indo-European heartland’ of the river Danube. Liz Greene says her ‘dark face was Domnu, which means “abyss” or “deep sea”.
The Tuatha Dé Danaan arrived in dark clouds from islands in the north and took the kingship of Ireland from the Fir Bolg. In turn they were defeated by the sons of Míl Espáne who took the surface whereas the Tuatha were forced underground into the sídhe (‘mounds’) becoming the aos sí (‘people of the mounds’).
Will Parker suggests the Tuatha’s arrival from the north is based on a migratory route from Greece via Scandinavia and says Neolithic Grooved Ware and Bronze Age Bell Beaker cultures show Indo-European influence.
There are no records of how the Children of Don arrived. In the Fourth Branch, Dôn has fallen into the background and her son, Gwydion, is lord of Gwynedd. Similarly we find out little about Beli, grandfather of Brân and father of Caswallon and Lludd, who become rulers of Britain.
In contrast with the Irish myths, the sons of Beli do not defeat the children of Dôn. Instead, Dôn and Beli marry and their children are seen as one family belonging to the House of Dôn.
After the death of Nudd / Lludd Llaw Eraint (‘Lludd of the Silver Arm’), like the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the Children of Dôn retreat into the Brythonic ‘underworld’ Annwn (‘not-world’ ‘the deep’). Gwyn ap Nudd appears as Annwn’s ruler and later as a Fairy King.
I’ve been devoted to Gwyn for three years and have gradually been getting to know him and Annwn. My explorations have led me through the deep memories of the landscape to his realm where history and myth blur and are never wholly separate
My initial work (which remains important) involved recovering the memories of my locality. Now I am being led deeper into the underworld where Nudd / Nodens, keeps the matter of dream and Dôn presides over the waters of creation and destruction.
Although earlier worlds and their children have sunk into Annwn they remain in our sacred landscape: in the hollow hills, in deep lakes and the sea, in our flowing rivers and their names.
Although barrow mounds have been ploughed over, rivers culverted, lakes drained, they are still with us in Annwn’s memory which will not let us forget their presence and what we’ve done.
Old bonds split and severed by centuries of Christianity, industrialisation, commodification, hyper-rationalism can be reknit and renewed by swimming back down the labyrinthine ways to where we’re unified with our ancestors, the old gods, their primal source: the water mother Dôn.
Liz Greene, The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption, (Weiser, 1996)
Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn, (Dublin University Press, 1937)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)