Arianrhod, mermen, and sunken islands

“It was said that she lived a wanton life, mating with mermen on the beach near her castle and casting her magic inside its walls.”

When I was researching Arianrhod for a recent post, I kept turning up variants on the quote above. In fact, the sentence: “She enjoyed herself sexually, with a distinct preference for mermen,” cropped up frequently without any variation whatsoever. Obviously a lot of copying was going on, but what did the original say? Finally, I went back to my books, and found the “wanton life” quote in The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. It does not have footnotes, or even references at the end of its entries, and I have been unsuccessful in tracking this comment back to a source. (Anyone?)

I don’t feel too bad about this, as another blog, Red Menace, says she couldn’t find a source anywhere either. The internet sometimes resembles a giant echo chamber, in which certain “facts” get repeated until you’ve seen them so often they seem true.

But who fathered her children?

Like a great deal of modern mythology (and no doubt some of the old stuff) this idea has arisen because of a mystery in the Mabinogion: who is the father of Lleu and Dylan? The text gives no clues, although the two strongest candidates among scholars are her brother, Gwydion, and her uncle Math.

Gwydion is the most commonly suggested father, and he does adopt Lleu after his rather unusual birth. (See my earlier post or here for the story.) A paper by Sarah E. Zeiser, however, suggests the king, Math, as their father, based on an alternative genealogy that says Dylan and Lleu are Math’s sons. (This is Bonedd yr Arwyr, which appears in several medieval stories as a genealogy of heroes.)

Whether Math had sex with Arianrhod, or just considered it, the symbolic act of stepping over his magic wand brought forth two children. (The Mabinogion adds the intriguing detail that Math “bent” his wand before she stepped over it – was it a more phallic shape afterwards, or was he, as someone alleged of Bill Clinton, “kinked”?)

A detail frequently ignored is that Arianrhod drops (the text’s word) one child, Dylan, as she steps over the wand, and the other as she crosses the threshold on her way out. That second son is Lleu, a mere “form” at this point, almost as if he was premature or aborted. Math names the first child, showing avuncular if not paternal feeling. (I can imagine the reader suggesting that the children have a father each, since Math names one child and Gwydion adopts the other. Welsh myth meets Greek, I guess.)

To give Dylan a name Math has him baptized, which is ironic because as soon as Dylan touches water he flees to the sea. Lleu usually gets the attention, because the rest of the story follows his career and how Gwydion gets around the taboos that Arianrhod puts on her son. This post will focus on Dylan, since his aquatic nature leads us to the mermen.


So why mermen?

Unlike his “premature” brother, Dylan was born a sturdy, yellow-haired boy. His uncle Math names him and has him baptized, but Dylan does not take up this introduction to human society. Instead, he makes straight for the sea:

And there and then, as soon as he came to the sea, he took on the sea’s nature and swam as well as the best fish in the sea. Because of that he was called Dylan Eil Ton – no wave ever broke beneath him. The blow which killed him was struck by Gofannon, his uncle. And that was one of the Three Unfortunate Blows. (Davis: Loc, 1685)

You can see why someone might think his father was a merman. And of course, we’ll never know one way or the other. Another hypothesis, which I think is worth looking at, comes from John MacCulloch (99). He sees Dylan as the local sea-god, a northern Welsh answer to Manannan mac Lir, or Manannan son of the sea. Dylan’s other title was Eil Mor, son of the sea, which fits.

All the Irish sea-gods are sons of older gods, as if they replace each other. So far from being the son of a random merman, Dylan would be the son of the sea itself, which would explain his mastery of it. MacCulloch (99) notes that in the poem Marwnad Dylan Ail Don waves mourn Dylan’s death:

An opposing groom, poison made, a wrathful deed, Piercing Dylan a mischievous shore, violence freely flowing Wave of Iwerdon, and wave of Manau, and wave of the North, And wave of Prydain, hosts comely in fours.

In folklore, the roar of the sea, especially around Afon Conwy (the Conwy River), was called “Dylan’s death groan”. Awesome-Waves-Wallpaper-Widescreen-81235-1024x640

The Legend of Ys

I can’t help but think that Arianrhod has somehow been confused in people’s minds with Queen Dahut of Ys, who destroyed the city because of her lust, or drunkenness. She too was a magician, and a princess, but her story ends with her being dumped into the sea by her father, where she becomes a mermaid.

She has a complicated but interesting story, which I will attempt to summarize, because it bears on later ideas about Arianrhod.

Her father, King Gradlon of Cornwall, was constantly at war, until finally his subjects rebelled. However, a woman appeared to him at sea, who turned out to be Queen Malgven of the north, who proposed that he marry her as her husband was old and “his sword is rusty”. They killed the old king, and went to sea for a year on Malgven’s magical horse.

She gave birth to a daughter while they were on the ocean, and died. The king returned to Cornwall, but refused to go out among people. His daughter grew up and grew more and more like her mother. King Gradlon liked to caress her golden curls. Dahut asked him to build her a castle on the sea-shore.

He did her proud, building a large castle with a high, secure wall to protect against the seas. It had one entrance, with a key, which the king alone held. Dahut, according to folklore, liked to sit on the beach and comb her hair, while singing to the Ocean, which she addressed like a lover.

Meanwhile, her realm was becoming very popular with sailors, who found a perpetual Mardi Gras there. The Queen chose a new lover each day, with whom she would feast and dance. She had a mask for him to wear, which fit him until morning, when at the first signs of daybreak it would tighten until the man was strangled. Then his body would be dumped in the ocean.

Finally one day a stranger in red appeared, and although he ignored the Queen, she did not ignore him. Finally she lured him to her side, but as the storm began to rage outside, he told her to get the key from her father’s bedside, and she did.

Instantly a huge wave took her, and she cried to her father to fetch the magical horse. A voice from the sky called out to the King to save the kingdom by throwing Dahut into the ocean, and he finally did. Dahut then became a mermaid, combing her hair on the sea-side and luring sailors.When the sea is quiet the bells of the drowned city can be heard.

The parallels with Arianrhod’s story, as it comes down to us, are clear. Arianrhod supposedly slept around quite freely, including with mermen. We know from her ability to curse her son that she had magical powers. (The battle of wits with Gwydion would have no point if she were not his equal, or at least a worthy opponent.)

The physical Caer Arianrhod is a sunken reef that sometimes reappears above the waves. The parallel with Ys is clear, as well as Atlantis and other sunken kingdoms. It didn’t take Christianity to point a moral, either. Plato and other Greek authors said that loose living did for the magical kingdom of Atlantis.

The Legend of Atlantis

The legend of Atlantis is more promising, because Poseidon was the god of Atlantis, and he installed his mortal lover Cleito there. He built her a home in the center, on a high hill, with five rings of earth and water for protection. There she gave birth to twin boys. (Or five sets of twins.)

Over time, the citizens became corrupted by greed and power, perhaps because Atlantis was a major trade center. Finally Zeus and the Olympians agreed that it had to be destroyed, and Atlantis sank beneath the waves. You can see where Arianrhod’s story coud be a dim reflection of the Atlantis myth, with the two boys, the island, and the (supposed) loose living.

There is a long tradition of sunken island stories that could easily attach themselves to the Welsh story. However, the Atlantis myth could supply one bit of the story that is missing. Who was their father? The sea-god himself, a fitting partner for a moon-goddess.

MacCulloch, John 2012: Celtic Mythology, Courier Corporation. (Google eBook)
MacLeod, Sharon Paice 2012: Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Poems, Prayers and Songs, McFarland and Co. (Kindle)
Zeiser, Sarah E., “Performing a Literary Paternity Test: ‘Bonedd y Arwyr’ and the Fourth Branch of ‘Mabinogi’,”Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 28 (2008), pp. 200-215.

Arianrhod, Celtic Star Goddess

Queen Dahut:


If you like the image at the top, click here.


4 thoughts on “Arianrhod, mermen, and sunken islands

  1. Pingback: Arianrhod: Silver Wheel – We Are Star Stuff

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  3. G. Beggan, Ph.D.

    The name ‘Dylan Eil Ton’ mentioned in this article is Irish written phonetically. The Irish words are Díleann Aill Tonn, and they mean “Ocean’s Cliff of Waves”. Son of Arianrhod and Gwydion, he could swim like a fish and no wave ever broke beneath him.

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