Don – the Mother of Primordial Waters

Don is a Brythonic goddess who is best known as the mother of ‘the Children of Don’. In ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogi she is named as the sister of Math ap Mathonwy (this shows Mathonwy was her father), and her children are named as Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, and Arianrhod. In the Bonedd yr Arwyr they are listed as Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Gofannon, Efydd, Amaethon, Hunawg, Idwel, Elestron, Digant, Kynnan, Hedd, Addien, Elawg, and Arianrhod.

In Triad 35. Beli Mawr is named as the father of Arianrhod and this may suggest Beli fathered some or all of her other children. Beli is also named as the father of Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint, Caswallon, Nyniaw, and Llefelys in Lludd ac Llefelys and it is possible they too are Children of Don.

Don is likely to be identical with Anna, the consort of Beli, in the Harleian Genealogies, and is thus the grandmother of Afallach (Gwyn ap Nudd), who is the father of Modron and the grandfather of Mabon. Don and Anna are named as the forebears of the lineages of many of the kings of the North and Wales.

Parallels exist between the Children of Don and the Tuatha Dé Danann ‘the Children of Danu’. Unfortunately we know nothing about Danu from inscriptions, place-names, or Irish literature. The nominative *Danu is a hypothetical reconstruction from the genitive ‘Danann’.

However, there are strong parallels between some of their children. Nuada and Nudd/Lludd are both warrior-kings with silver arms, Gofannon and Goibnu are both divine smiths, and Lugh and Lleu (more distant descendants of Danu and Don) are many-skilled gods who wield deadly spears.

I was highly excited when, online, I found claims for links between Don and Bel and Danu and Bile. I was disappointed to find out these are based on a loose claim about ‘British analogies’ from Charles Squire in Celtic Myths and Legends (1905) and there are no etymological or textual grounds for Danu and Bile having been consorts or parents of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Nothing more is known about Don from medieval Welsh literature or from inscriptions but she gives her name to the rivers Don in Yorkshire and Aberdeen and perhaps to the river Dee. This forms part of the boundary between the the Wirral and Wales and is known is Wales as the Afon Dyfrdwy. This might derive from Dyfrdonwy with Donwy being an earlier name of the goddess Don.

It is possible that there might be connections between the Irish Danu, the Brythonic Don, and the Hindu goddess Danu rooted in a shared Indo-European tradition. Her name may derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *dʰenh₂- ‘to run, to flow’ and be the source of the river-name Danube.

In The Rig Veda Danu is named as the mother of the 100 Danavas – demonic beings known as asuras. One of these is a dragon called Vritra who holds back the water of the world’s rivers. Vritra is slain by the thunderbolt of Indra and the river-water is released. Vritra then attacks and defeats Danu. This suggests Danu and her descendants are associated with primal waters and rivers.

This is of deep interest to me as it suggests parallels between Danu as the mother of the dragon, Vritra, who is slain by Indra, and Don as the mother of the dragon-goddess Anrhuna, who is slain by Lugus. (Anrhuna is not known in any Brythonic sources but she revealed herself to me as the consort of Nodens/Nudd and the mother of Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd. I was inspired to write a story about how she was killed by Lugus. I hadn’t guessed that Don might be her mother until now. In my story it was not Don who birthed hundreds of demons but Anrhuna who birthed monster-serpents).

The notion that, like Danu, Don is the mother of primordial waters, is one that has long accorded with my intuitions. Several years back I had a vision of Don as the source of generation and I associated her with Fidelma Massey’s ‘Water Mother’ sculpture on the cover of Greg Hill’s Creatures.

The possibility that Don did not only birth the ‘culture gods’ but the dragon-goddess Anrhuna and maybe other dragons and demon-like beings associated with water is one that speaks deeply to me.

As I have been writing this essay the words an dubno have repeatedly come into my mind. When I looked them up I recalled that several years ago I came across the proto-Celtic root *dubno or *dumno meaning ‘the deep’ or ‘dark and gloomy’ and Liz Greene’s claim Danu’s ‘dark face was Dumno’.

An means ‘not’ or ‘very’. The term an dubno thus shares its meaning with Annwn, ‘Very Deep’, the Otherworld. Perhaps this is telling me that Don was originally an Annuvian goddess who proceeded Anrhuna as the Mother of Annwn. In my story both Don and Anrhuna were amongst the oldest children of Old Mother Universe but I am now considering that Anrhuna may be the daughter of Don. This opens new possibilities for when the time returns to resume work on my mythic book.

SOURCES

Alexei Kondratiev, ‘Danu and Bile: The Primordial Parents’, The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism, Vol. 1, No. 4, (1998)Asterope, ‘Danu/Don’, Deity of the Week, (2011), http://deity-of-the-week.blogspot.com/2011/11/danudon.html
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sarah E. Zeiser, ‘Performing a Literary Paternity Test: Bonedd yr Arwyr and the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colliqiuim, Vol. 28, (2008)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

*Updated 15/11/2020 to include the river Don in Aberdeen following a comment from angharadlois.

10 thoughts on “Don – the Mother of Primordial Waters

  1. Ogden Fahey says:

    Interesting for me, I always thought the names of rivers in the UK are some of the best preserved of older languages and traditions – my local river growing up was the Great Ouse in Bedfordshire, its name is said to be pre-celtic, slow flowing water, which it certainly is! “Ouse” certainly doesn’t sound like any modern English word!

  2. Tiege McCian says:

    Riveting piece and such a fun topic! It’s informative to see the process of your writing too.

    And well said about how the name Danu exists only as a hypothetical, in fact the earliest references to the mythological race in Ireland only call them the Tuath[a] Dé or Fer Dé. But in regards to your survey of Welsh genealogies on the Children of Don, maybe a ~comparable~ tradition of a mother goddess can be found in the figure of Eithliu, who in the second recension of Lebor Gabala Erenn is said to have seven sons: the Dagda, Dian Cecht, Creidne, Luichne, Nuadu Argatlam, Lug mac Cein, and Goibniu. This information clashes with other pedigrees, and I wouldn’t say that Eithliu = Don, but some of those Irish names are equivalent and even presumed cognates with the Children of Don. Eithliu/Ethniu also gave her name to the river Inny. Just a small bit of evidence for a genuine tradition.

    Thanks for writing this great post!

      • Tiege McCian says:

        She’s most noted as the daughter of Balor and mother of Lugh in the early texts; but if I recall correctly nothing of much detail about her own story survives in Irish outside of 19th c folktales. In fact, coming from the 15th c., the oldest backstory for Eithliu/Eithniu is actually Welsh in the Buchedd Collen.

        Great chatting!

  3. Greg Hill says:

    Another river that you “Dub-“ references conjures up is your local Douglas (Dubhlas – ‘Blackwater). That Water Mother statue is powerful, as are Fidelma Massey’s other sculptures.

    More on the ‘Bonedd …’ anon

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