Monday, March 13, 2006

Rhiannon, Goddess of the Moon and of Inspiration

I've been waiting to post this for awhile. It never seemed to be the right time, bbbuuuttt, where I've fallen recently under the Moon's spell and have heeded her call...tonight seems appropriate.

Let me introduce you to Rhiannon, the Welsh goddess of the moon and of inspiration. Her name means "Divine Queen" of the faeries. Although she is fey and a goddess, she is every bit a Celtic lass through and through. She is proud and defiant, loyal and loving, passionate and intelligent. She creates and dances to her own tune and remains steadfast. She is a goddess of movement and change. Rhiannon's story is one of healing power, of humor, of tears and forgiveness. I present it to you now:

Rhiannon was promised in marriage to an older man she found repugnant. Defying her family's wishes that she, like other Celtic goddesses who married their "own kind," marry this man, Rhiannon chose instead the mortal Prince Pwyll (pronounced Poo-ul or translated as Paul) as her future husband.

She appeared to him one afternoon while he stood with his companions on a great grass-covered mound in the deep forest surrounding his castle. These mounds, called "Tors," were thought to be magical places, perhaps covering the entrance to the otherworld beneath the earth. It was thought that those who stood upon them would become enchanted, so most people avoided them. So it is no surprise that the young prince was enchanted by the vision of the beautiful young goddess Rhiannon, who was dressed in glittering gold as she galloped by on her powerful white steed. She rode on by without sparing him even a glance. Prince Pwyll was intrigued and enraptured, and his companions were understandably concerned.

Ignoring the protest of his friends, the prince sent his servant off riding his swiftest horse to catch her and ask her to return with him to meet His Highness. But the servant soon returned and reported that she had ridden so swiftly it seemed as if her horse's hooves scarcely touched the ground and that he had not been able to follow her to learn where she went.

The next day, ignoring his friends' advice, Pwyll returned alone to the mound and, once more, the Celtic goddess appeared. Mounted on his horse, Pwyll pursued her but could not overtake her. Although his horse ran even faster than Rhiannon's, the distance between them always remained the same. Finally, after his horse began to tremble with exhaustion he stopped and called out for her to wait. And Rhiannon did.

When Pwyll drew close she teased him gently, telling him that it would have been much kinder to his horse had he simply called out instead of chasing her. The goddess Rhiannon then let him know that she had come to find him, seeking his love.

The prince welcomed this for the very sight of the beautiful Celtic goddess had tugged at his heart, and he reached for her reins to guide her to his kingdom. But Rhiannon smiled tenderly and shook her head, telling him that they must wait a year and that then she would marry him. In the next moment, she simply disappeared from him into the deep forest.

Rhiannon returned one year later, dressed as before, to greet Pwyll on the Tor. He was accompanied by a troop of his own men, as befitted a prince on his wedding day. Speaking no words, Rhiannon turned her horse and gestured for the men to follow her into the tangled woods. Although fearful, they complied. As they rode the trees suddenly parted before them, clearing a path, then closing in behind them when they passed.

Soon they entered a clearing and were joined by a flock of small songbirds that swooped playfully in the air around Rhiannon's head. At the sound of their beautiful caroling all fear and worry left the men. Before long they arrived at her father's palace, a stunning site that was surrounded by a lake. The castle, unlike any they had ever seen, was built not of wood or stone, but of silvery crystal. Its spires soared into the heavens.

After the wedding a great feast was held to celebrate the marriage of the goddess. Rhiannon's family and people were both welcoming and merry, but a quarrel broke out at the festivities. It was said that the man she'd once been promised to marry was making a scene, arguing that she should not be allowed to marry outside her own people.

The goddess slipped away from her new husband's side to deal with the situation as discreetly as she could... Using a bit of magic, she turned the persistent suitor into a badger and caught him in a bag which she tied close and threw into the lake. Unfortunately, he managed to escape and later returned to cause great havoc in Rhiannon's life.

The next day Rhiannon left with Prince Pwyll and his men to go to Wales as his princess. When they emerged from the forest and the trees closed behind them, Rhiannon took a moment to glance nostalgically behind her. She knew that the entrance to the fairy kingdom was now closed to her and that she could never return to her childhood home. But she didn't pause for long and felt little regret.

The Celtic goddess was welcomed by her husband's people and admired for her great beauty and her lovely singing. However, when two full years had passed without her becoming pregnant with an heir to the throne, the question of her bloodline, her "fitness" to be queen began to arise.

Fortunately, in the next year she delivered a fine and healthy son. This baby, however, was to become the source of great sorrow for Rhiannon and Pwyll.

As was the custom then, six women servants had been assigned to stay with Rhiannon in her lying-in quarters to help her care for the infant. Although the servants were supposed to work in shifts tending to the baby throughout the night so that the Princess Rhiannon could sleep and regain her strength after having given birth, one evening they all fell asleep on the job.

When they woke it was to find the cradle empty, and they were fearful they would be punished severely for their carelessness. They devised a plan to cast the blame on the innocent Rhiannon, who was, after all, an outsider, not really one of their own people. Killing a puppy, they smeared its blood on the sleeping goddess and scattered its bones around her bed. Sounding the alarm, they accused Rhiannon of eating her own child.

Although Rhiannon swore her innocence, Pwyll, suffering from his own shock and grief and faced with the anger of his advisers and people, did not come strongly to his wife's defense, saying only that he would not divorce her and asked only that her life be spared.

Rhiannon's punishment was announced. For the next seven years she was to sit by the castle gate, bent under the heavy weight of a horse collar, greeting guests with the story of her crime and offering to carry them on her back into the castle.

Rhiannon bore her humiliating punishment without complaint. Through the bitter cold of winters and the dusty heat of four summers, she endured with quiet acceptance. Her courage was such that few accepted her offer to transport them into the castle. Respect for her began to spread throughout the country as travelers talked of the wretched punishment and the dignity with which the princess Rhiannon bore her suffering.

In the fall of the fourth year three strangers appeared at the gate—a well-dressed nobleman, his wife, and a young boy. Rhiannon rose to greet them saying, "Lord, I am here to carry each of you into the prince's court, for I have killed my only child and this is my punishment." The man, his wife and the child dismounted. While the man lifted the surprised Rhiannon onto his horse, the boy handed her a piece of an infant's gown. Rhiannon saw that it was cloth that had been woven by her own hands. The boy then smiled at her, and she recognized that he had the eyes of his father, Pwyll.

Soon the story was told. Four years earlier, during a great storm, the nobleman had been called to the field to help a mare in labor, when he heard the infant's cries and found him lying abandoned. He and his wife took the baby in, raising him as if he were their own. When the rumors of the princess' fate had reached his ears, he realized what had happened and set out at once to return the child to his parents. (Most versions suggest that the enraged suitor Rhiannon had rejected and who had escaped had taken his revenge by kidnapping Rhiannon and her prince's infant son.)

Pwyll and his people quickly recognized the boy for his and Rhiannon's son. The goddess was restored to her honor and her place beside her husband. Although she had suffered immensely at their hands, Rhiannon, goddess of noble traits, saw that they were ashamed and was filled with forgiveness and understanding.

In some versions of the legend, Rhiannon was the Celtic goddess who later became Vivienne, best known as the Lady of the Lake. She was the Celtic goddess who gave Arthur the sword Excalibur, empowering him to become King in the legends of Camelot.

Rhiannon (Vivienne)
by Jessica Galbreth


illustration by aletta mes, 2006

The harder I struggle the more the ropes seem to tighten, and yet I have to. After what seems like hours the chafing on my wrists has delivered rivulets of scarlet blood which I can feel making their way down my hands to my fingertips where the warm thick liquid drips in heavy drops to the gnarled roots of this old tree.

I cannot clearly see what lies ahead of me, but I can sense that it is dark and consuming. I can smell the decaying underbrush which lightly fogs the paths around the trees now that the day is turning colder, it is a strangely comforting smell, the smell of life coming and going, just as it should, just as it always has. Just the same I have no desire to become part of this great compost heap, not at all. So I struggle again against the binding ropes. Why? Let's just agree that for me this is also a natural state, I fight the inevitable, it is my way, it is who I am.

As awkward as it is to be tied up with my arms outstretched and bound around the tree's broad trunk I do manage to find a degree of comfort now and again. There is the one position with my butt pressed against the trunk and the weight of my upper body pulled forward and my head dropped.. I can even nod off in this odd position. The other is pulling my entire body forward pressing my weight into the soles of my feet. Either way my wrists are taking most of the punishment.

I am thrilled that whatever lurks out there has chosen not to finish me off just yet. I sense at times that it, whatever "it" is has gone, there is a murky smell both disgusting and sweet that hangs around, when it come close enough I can also hear breathing. Slightly laboured breathing. What the creature is doing and what it's intentions are I have no idea. I know that when I try to think about it a tear of panic pours down my face, i've bitten my lip raw concentrating on the struggle to break free. I'd have bitten through the ropes of my wrists if the position would have allowed it. I cannot bite anything, at least not anything useful.

Wrestling with wanting to scream, but if I do it might set off a series of events very much unwanted. Perhaps it would be best if I remain quiet, and perhaps he will forget, or escape and leave me, or even grow fond of me and let me live. So I don't scream even when it's smell disgusts me and feeling it's breath on my skin raises goose bumps from head to foot, I gag very quietly, and in my mind it repeat, "please, please, leave".

It was daylight still, when I found myself here, tied up, among these great old trees. I've no idea where I am, even less how I got here. Nothing I see or smell or hear is anything familiar. These are not even the bird sounds I am accustomed to. My last memory was of going to bed. I must not have actually got into bed, because I am still dressed in my jeans and a shirt, no shoes, but for me that is not unusual, I dislike footwear at home. I am disinclined to wearing even socks at home unless it is very cold. It was not cold that night. The night I last remember before waking here.

Nothing remarkable in my memories of that night. I did a little reading and washed out a few clothes which I hung to dry. I sat watching television with my favourite cat on my lap. That is my last memory, being home, with my cat.

I feel as though my arms have stretched beyond their ability and yet they do not come apart. It helps to envision my situation, a way to avoid the actual experience, which I assure you is painful, and terribly frightening.

I cringe because the ground shakes a little, and I assume the creature, whatever it is must be near. If I could just see the thing and make eye contact, then I could read if it is reasonable, and I could bargain for my life. If it is not reasonable, then, then...i could scream. I feel my hunger and wonder if I can hold the urine long enough that I will be found without added embarrassment. Does that make any sense? Why should I care that I pee my pants? Then again what if it makes the creature irate, or amorous? That's typical of me, making jokes when there really is nothing funny. It made a few seconds more bearable.

I try to think of positive outcomes. The creature might die and leave me here untouched other than by insects crawling up my pants leg. In the dark shadows I swear I can see the reaper, calmly, patiently waiting. It makes me angry, terribly angry. The reaper could take me now, why does he just stand there? Perhaps he is not even there. Hours have passed and it would not be strange right now to be seeing things.

On inspecting my legs and what I can see of myself there has not been any damage done, no blood stains no torn clothing. Small mercies. Somehow it matter that I leave a fairly nice looking body behind. Thoughts right now just happen, pulled from the ether, mostly as amusements to pass time, and more time, and ---please can something just happen? The boredom on it's own is deadly. Unrelenting pain and boredom. I found myself thinking of all possible endings to this story of mine, unlikely rescues, or I might wake up, or be eaten alive by some creature. A werewolf maybe?

Again I chuckled. A werewolf? Ha! No, my luck it is a mindless bumbling but hairy woodsman with a penchant for collecting city women with intent to have them trained as his housekeeper. Ok, also bizarre and unlikely. Somehow all of my endings were benign and I found some temporary solace there. It was very dark now and I could see nothing at all. Probably a starless sky tonight. The fog was creeping higher and higher. I was so cold that I stopped feeling pain.

The cold was killing me, one pain replaced by another. I could not even fight the ropes any more.. The presence of what I thought my be the reaper was now a comfort, and I made eye contact and was no longer afraid of the reaper. I was fighting for remaining awake. Obviously comfort was not a requirement for falling asleep, or out of consciousness. by now I was too tired to fight. Whatever the outcome of this life altering event would be, I would not know it. I took a last glance around. Just as my grip on this world was letting go I spotted an enormous claw, and without having a moment to react, or do a proper review of my life, I was gone.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Epona has always galloped across sky and earth with her beloved horses. Not horses alone, but all creatures. They are her kindred and her kind. It is for them she provides fields and forests for browsing, nourishes the fruit trees, planted the herbs. She leads the herds unfailingly to clear waters. Her hands aid the birthing of every living thing, singing joyfully over each new life.

Perhaps it was the familiarity with Epona that animals came to be tamed by mortals. It was certainly the association of animals with humans that drew Epona’s interest to them. Their care of her creatures warmed her heart, endearing them to her like any mother watching the kindness given her children. In return, Epona extended her largess to man.

Unlike creatures, mortals could not see her, save little children and mothers dying in childbirth. In the final anguish before Epona bore a mother’s soul to the otherworld, Epona was visible to her. Often the last words of the woman would be, “My Lady!” Mortals began to sense her love for them. As they began to love Epona, they began to glimpse through her glamour to see her. To some she was a dazzling white mare, to some a terrifying black one, to others a long legged woman running with horses. They showed their reverence by creating shrines to their vision of her, leaving offerings of apples, grain and roses.

Only one ever saw her truly, face to face, and he a soldier in the heat of battle.

As men stole ascendancy from women, wars began. Creatures died in countless numbers. Epona knew every one from their birth. On the battlefield her heart wrung in pity for soldiers dying, men she had cradled in her lap as tiny babes. She screamed in fury with the screams of dying horses, each one a foal she had danced with in spring. With the rain she wept over the rotting corpses strewn across her lands. Gently, she bore the souls of horse and man to the otherworld. Epona flew through battles an angry wind, weeping in rage and futility. The eyes of the dying beheld her and cried out, “Mother!”

Though she brought forth life from the womb and returned it to the otherworld, she could not interfere with destiny.

Except once, for a man’s love of his horse. For her love of that man.

His name was Equinnus. For many generations past, his family bred the finest warhorses in the Empire - stallions of exceptional strength and speed, fearless in battle, trained to slash with hooves as its master slashed with sword. To Equinnus war was the dance of manhood, a glorious rondele of muscle and might. He never felt as truly alive as when battle raged around him, Death nipping at him. Those that fell beneath his sword into Death’s maw were simply enemies. Equinnus never thought about what enemy meant. It was his life or that of a stranger, a meaningless entity from his point of view. He was bred to be a soldier as his horse, Cicero, was bred to do battle.

Cicero, the best of the best. The Caesar had wanted Cicero for his own son’s battle mount. But Cicero had thrown the young man time and time again, making it clear his heart’s loyalty lay with Equinnus alone. Equinnus had raised him from foal to the magnificent fighter he was. Together they were legends.

Though it is not for battle they are remembered.

With his last strength, a dying soldier impaled Cicero on his sword. Equinnus was thrown. Cicero’s gushing wound poured blood over his master. The battle frenzy left Equinnus as suddenly as swordstroke. He saw only Cicero. Disbelief paralyzed Equinnus. He struggled to the side of his beloved companion as the battle clamored around them. Disbelief turned to despair, Equinnus buried his face in the blood drenched side of Cicero and wept.

Equinnus’s grief made him an easy target for a Gaul swordstroke. But Epona plucked the sword from the air. The Gaul saw a dark horse-woman grasping it by the blade. Fire poured from her hand as if blood. He turned and fled, leaving Epona standing over Equinnus. One by one the soldiers became aware of her. Their weapons dropped as they stood gaping at her. She turned slowly, towering above the battlefield, raising the sword above her head fire streaming down her arms. As her eyes met those of the mortals, they fell prostrate. The horses nickered recognition, the men fainted in terror. She hurled the sword into the sky. It disappeared with a thunderous crack.


Epona knelt by Equinnus, gently turning his face until her eyes met his. Equinnus did not see the fierce eyes of a giant horse-woman. He looked into the deep eyes of a slight, pale maiden. Epona turned her gaze to the fatal gash in Cicero’s side. Equinnus watched her lay her hands over the wound. The flesh melted together under her slim fingers. Cicero jerked, snorted, rose to his feet. He curled a foreleg back, pulling back in a bow to Epona, nuzzling her hand, the hand fragrant with his blood. She stoked his cheek, and turned her gaze back to Equinnus.

Epona knew Equinnus from birth. She knew him as the youth training horses, his face alight with exuberance. She knew him as soldier. Now she saw him as a man. Not a handsome man, but one whose heart was knitted with his horse. She who had loved as mother, now felt the love of woman.

Equinnus raised her hand to his lips and kissed her palm. “My Lady,” he murmured.

Epona‘s mouth blossomed into a gentle smile. “My Love.”

Their lips met in Epona’s first kiss. Equinnus knew nothing more than the woman before him

Hands clasped they walked through the thunderstruck battlefield, Cicero following, his head held proudly. The eyes of battle-horse and soldier followed as the three walked into the sky.

Background notes:
The legendary facts about Epona are few. There are no records of mother, spouse or child of Epona. Her sculpted images have three usual forms: a woman riding a horse, a woman sitting with horses or foals on either side, a woman feeding horses from a cornucopia. Dogs and birds are sometimes included in her images. Whips, harnesses and keys are also symbols found in her shrine images. The name Epona is from the Celtic language Gaulish, the root being 'epa' or 'mare'. She was sometimes addressed in the plural, Eponabus. She was adopted by the Roman calvary as patron goddess. Almost all stables in the Roman Empire had a shrine to Epona. She was given offerings of grain, apples and roses. She is traditionally the protectress of horses, particularly mares and foals, animals, riders and stables. Rhiannon of Wales, Macha of Ireland, the Divine White Mare, and Edain are manifestations of Epona.

Assumptions are more numerous. The lack of family associations and being referred to in the plural suggests she is a Mother goddess, the three fold goddess, a goddess of fertility. Horses, more than any other domesticated animal, are associated with wealth and status. Horses were valued as animals of transport, war, power, and prestige. The patron deity of horses would rank high in the celestial pantheon. In ancient Rome only the very rich or nobility sacrificed a horse. The cornucopia is the horn of sacred cow, overspilling abundance. It appears in fairy tales where the hero removes a horn from cow or bull which feeds the hero with fine foods. This cornucopia associates Epona with the sacred cow image of the goddess common in other cultures. The addition of birds and dogs gives her additional deeper meaning.

Birds fly and therefore symbolize many forms of spirituality: the departed soul, messengers of heaven, givers of omens and enlightenment, carriers of secrets. Birds and feathers symbolize the air element, air the home of invisible souls, gods of winds, air is the essence of the Supreme deity. Bird language is a Buddhist metaphor for enlightenment, flying a metaphor for holy trance. The Latin word 'aves' means both bird and ancestral spirit. Angels and fairies have wings. Vultures and ravens take the dead to the otherworld, doves carry souls to be born. Birds suggest Epona guides souls to the otherworld to be reborn.

Dogs have mythical symbolism as well. They are companion to Diana, Roman goddess of the moon, the Goddess in crone form. Also companions to goddesses in Babylon, Greece, Persia, and Scandinavia. In Hebrew dogs alone can see the angel of death, they howl at the moon when death approaches. Dogs/wolves share tales of nursing human children who often have divine powers, like Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who founded Rome. Sirius is the dog star, and dogs have the constellations of Canis major and minor. Dogs further connect Epona to being a goddess of death and dying, or goddess as crone.

Grain, apples and roses give still more layers of meaning.

The 'Ancient Corn Mother' of Europe is mother of all grain. Grains are the sons of the Earth Mother who, for the sake of humanity, die at harvest, descend into the otherworld (planting), and are reborn to give people life when their flesh is eaten. Egyptians called the moment of death a 'grain, which falls to earth in order to draw from her (Earth) bosom a new life." A similar analogy is found in John 12:24. In Egypt wheat was the grain of truth. Bread was placed in tombs. Grain links Epona to being Earth Mother.

Apples are symbolic of the goddess, a pentacle within a circle is in the center of an apple, which is the symbol for Venus and the Egyptian symbol for the underworld and womb; the apple blossom has five petals, like the rose which is also sacred to Venus and the Virgin Mary - which is why both are wedding flowers. The apple symbolizes the goddess in all her 3 forms blossom = virgin, fruit = mother, pip = crone. The Norse believed apples carried the souls of men from one life to another, symbolized the heart (similar shape) and were buried with the dead as symbols of the souls resurrection. The Norse goddess Idun kept the gods alive with her magic apples, as did Hera nourish the gods of Olympus with apples from the Tree of Life. The Irish hero Connla was given an apple of immortality from a woman of the other world. The mortally wounded Arthur was borne to the Apple- Land, or Avalon, by a woman from the other world. Cutting and eating an apple was part of Gypsy marriage rite. A girl chose her groom by tossing an apple at him. Apple pips are poisonous (they contain cyanide), from whence comes the poison apple of fairy tales.

Apples connect Epona to the mother aspect Three-fold Goddess, as the rose connects her to the virgin becoming lover aspect.

The rose is the flower of many goddesses from Venus to the Virgin Mary. The image of Cybele was carried in procession through Rome covered in roses. Gnostics claim roses sprang into being from the menstrual blood of Psyche when she became enamored with Eros. The Arabian Gulistan or 'Rose Garden' is a paradise centered on a 'rose of love', a motif of magic, sexual, secret gardens or trysting places. Rose buds resemble male genitalia and the full bloom resembles female. The slang 'rose of love' has referred to sex from ancient Arab poets to French troubadours. "La Rose' is still slang for female genitals. Apple blossoms symbolize Eve, and five petaled roses the Virgin Mary or the reincarnation of Eve.

Put it all together and Epona becomes much more than just a horse deity.

Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, by Barbara C Wallace
Women's dictionary of Signs and Symbols, by Barbara C Wallace