Dôn and Returning to the Source

Creatures by Greg Hill

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.

SOURCES

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)

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8 thoughts on “Dôn and Returning to the Source

  1. Inspired stuff – as usual – and wonderful to see it flow from your reference to Creatures into new streams of vision.

    The one instance where the sons of Beli do take over is the usurpation of Caswallawn and the retreat of Manawydan to Dyfed after the burial of Bran’s head. Though this is strictly a ‘family affair’ Dyfed here does feel like a hidden place to which Manawydan retires to marry Rhiannon and pursue his own endeavours while the business of state goes on in Lloegr.
    A sort of parallel to the Irish stories?

    1. That is one way to look at it, isn’t it? I find it strange how Bran is supposedly Beli Mawr’s grandson yet is an older ruler than Caswallon and Lludd who are Beli’s sons. Which suggest Bran’s incorporation into the House of Don is later and the result of usurpation, making the House of Llyr earlier.

      What confuses me is that there are lots of archaeological references to Beli’s offspring such as Lludd / Nodens, Mabon / Maponos, Modron / Matrona but I don’t know of any to that perhaps older lineage of deities – Manawydan, Rhiannon, Bran. Do you think this is because they were usurped by the descendants of Beli perhaps when Caswallawn took rule?

      1. Yes it’s confusing as not all references to the genealogies are fully compatible. As far the the Mabinogi texts go, if we try to rationalise the relationships, Caswallawn is brother to Llŷr and so uncle to Bran, Branwen and Manawydan. As Bran’s son Cradawg has died from broken heart when Caswallawn kills his associates while invisible, Manawydan should inherit. It could be argued that he does inherit by virtue of his marriage to Rhiannon who validates his sovereignty but over a domain that is not the material one that Caswallawn has usurped.

        Rhiannon herself does not have an identified genealogy save that she is the daughter of an Otherworld father as she is the Divine Queen and source of sovereignty.

        The children of Dôn in the Fourth Branch seem to have no connection with the characters in the other three branches. But by the parallels you identify with Danu (and the fact that Dôn herself has children but no identified husband though she must be the sister of Math as they are both offspring of Mathonwy) she is another manifestation of the Divine Queen.Your ‘fluvial water’ reference is resonant here as I have an altar to a water deity to one side of my main altar to Rhiannon and I have increasingly felt that she ‘owns’ this too. So maybe she does.

    2. The notion that Manawydan loses his realm to Caswallawn but inherits a domain that is not the material one Caswallawn usurps through his marriage Rhiannon is *very* interesting and of course links to his strange pereginations in the 3rd Branch, which I recall you discussed in your article in The Grey Mare anthology. Lots to contemplate here.

  2. I’ve just happened upon this quote from Herodotus, in which Isis says “I am everything which existed, which is now and ever will be, no mortal has ever disclosed my robe”. Carolyn Merchant (in Earthcare; Women and the Environment) citing George Sarton ‘founding father of the history of science’, for whom Isis was ‘symbolic of nature’, her robe concealing nature’s secrets. Isis, of course, was linked with the annual flooding of the Nile.

  3. Heather Awen

    Truly beautiful. I don’t know if we can never understand the family dynamics of gods and goddesses , I think they transcend human categories and they overlap with each other in incestuous ways . Danu is considered to be a native European name of that is not Indo-European because of worshiping the land where you are is easier when you just pay attention to the indigenous inhabitants . So all of the versions of her name and all of those rivers , they are very very old , older than the Indo-Europeans and maybe that’s why they’re so shadowy . Also a place god or goddess usually doesn’t have as much mythology as a functional god or goddess . The river mother of your watershed you experience at the river . Or through your own water of your blood back to her womb . With a God that is a psychopomp or a blacksmith we need stories to help understand . I also never felt a connection to any mother goddess until i connected to the lady of the marsh . It’s an amazing feeling, so visceral and the feeling of belonging and being connected to the land and to the universe , the constant cycle of creation and destruction and renewal all in very physical terms. I noticed this with Modorn and the Matronas too once I connected with the lady of the marsh . They told me to start with the lady of the marsh because it’s more direct for me , not to think it all about Modron’s mythology and luckily we don’t have any stories to go with the three mothers because we know who they are deep inside . As one more cerebral end spiritual as visionaries I find it really soothing to connect to these mother goddesses of primal life and the eternal cycle because there’s no thinking only experiencing .

    1. I’d definitely say I have a more immediate relationship with the Lady of the Marsh through my locality. Matrona I only really know through her altars and Modron through her stories. I ‘see’ them enough to be able to tell their stories but have never felt they particularly want to interact with me. Don I’m beginning to feel as those fluvial waters at the back of everything. Her calling seems to be to honour her children – be they deities or watersources.

      1. Heather Awen

        I love hearing when a Deity calls a human! It feels like we should throw the Deity and human a party. I’m really happy for you!

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