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.

Anrhuna – The Dragon Mother

In previous posts I have spoken about how I’ve come to know Anrhuna ‘the Lady of Peneverdant’ or ‘the Mother of the Marsh’ as the ancient British mother goddess associated with marshlands and healing waters who was replaced by Saint Mary the Virgin at the well and church on Castle Hill in Penwortham.

As the mother of Vindos/Gwyn (a ruler of Faerie/Annwn whose presence at Castle Hill may be attested by a local fairy funeral legend) by Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, I have more recently been getting to know her as ‘the Mother of Annwn’ and in this guise she appears to me as a nine-headed dragon.

This is an image I have never come across in Brythonic mythology. However, stories of dragons abound across Britain and Nodens/Nudd/Lludd and Vindos/Gwyn are associated with them. In the Temple of Nodens at Lydney is a mosaic of two sea serpents and Nodens is depicted on a mural crown with ‘icthyocentaurs’ with serpent tails. Plus, as Lludd, he stops the battle of two dragons. Gwyn’s dog, Dormach, is depicted with two serpent tails and Robert Graves calls Gwyn ‘the Serpent Son’.

At the Temple of Nodens, who is surrounded by the watery subliminal imagery of the dream world and where sick people received healing dreams, a statue of a mother goddess holding a cornucopia was found. Pilgrims offered her pins for aid in childbirth. This may be a representation of Anrhuna. Maybe, just maybe, the two sea serpents are Anrhuna and Nodens in more primordial forms. In this context the appearance of Anrhuna, Mother of Annwn ‘the Deep’, as a dragon makes more sense.

Yet her myths are lost. I have recently returned to the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, which features a dragon-goddess called Tiamat, who shares similarities with Anrhuna, to look for clues. Tiamat is a goddess of the salt sea. Her name may be cognate with the semitic tehom (‘the deep’ or ‘the abyss’) and she appears as a dragon or sea serpent. After she gives birth to the gods they turn on her. Against them she births an army of monster-serpents and puts her son, Kingu in the lead. Following a primal battle she is slain by the storm god, Marduk, and the world is created from her remains.

I’ve long found the following lines about Tiamat’s birthing of monsters beautiful and awe-inspiring:

Ummu-Hubur [Tiamat] who formed all things,
Made in addition weapons invincible; she spawned monster-serpents,
Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;
With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.
Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,cc
With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature.
Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,
Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack.
She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu,
And hurricanes, and raging hounds, and scorpion-men,
And mighty tempests, and fish-men, and rams;
They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight.
Her commands were mighty, none could resist them;
After this fashion, huge of stature, she made eleven [kinds of] monsters.
Among the gods who were her sons, inasmuch as he had given her support,
She exalted Kingu; in their midst she raised him to power.

I’ve wondered whether we once had a story in which Anrhuna gave birth to Monsters of Annwn such as the Great Scaled Beast, the Black Forked Toad, and the Speckled Crested Snake who feature in ‘The Battle of the Trees’. This depicts a conflict between the forces of Annwn and the Children of Don and perhaps records a primordial battle between monsters and culture gods that shaped the world. The parallels suggest Anrhuna gave the kingship of Annwn to her son and made him leader of her armies.

I am currently exploring these ideas in early drafts of my next book ‘The Gods of Peneverdant’. You can find out more about what is going on behind the scenes in my monthly newsletter and see unseen work by supporting me on Patreon HERE.

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)