Exploring Celtic Spirituality                                           

A Series of Classes and Ceremonies Celebrating the Celtic Wheel of the Year
with Edie Stone, MA
2027 Broadway, Suite H, Boulder, Colorado 80302     

Article The Strange Love Story of St. Dwynwen (c) 2010-2015 by Edie Stone.
Use with permission and website citation.


Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh Patron Saint of Lovers

by Edie Stone

Saints and Lovers and Druids ... Oh, My!

Saint Dwynwen's Day in Denver, January 24, 2015 - Dydd Santes Dwynwen

Note: Edie Stone helps produce an evening of folk traditions for the Colorado Welsh Society every year on a Saturday near St. Dwynwen's Day. This year, because I am recovering from hip surgery, I have turned over production of the event to CWS volunteers and druids. It will be fun.

Where will you find a saucy wassailing horse skull, folk dancers, ancient myths and recent ballads, a Welsh nun who is a patron saint of lovers, storytelling, apples stuck with ribbons, a mythic Druid mummers play, and a potluck?  Only at Dwynwen’s Day Welsh Fest.Mari Lwyd begs food at a
      Colorado Welsh Society potluck

Learn about Dwynwen, the unlikely Welsh matron saint of lovers, and Mari Lwyd, the mysterious Grey Mare. And of course, drink some good hot tea.

The Colorado Welsh Society (CWS) presents this mini-festival of Welsh culture on Saturday, January 24, 2015, in celebration of St. Dwynwen’s Day. Welsh folk traditions will be shared in a fun, participatory program.

The Welsh Fest will be held at The Kirk of Bonnie Brae, 1201 South Steele Street, Denver, 80210. Doors open at 5:30, potluck at 6:00, followed by the program at about 7 pm. Free and open to the public. People from all backgrounds are welcome.
Donations gratefully accepted to support CWS, a non-profit organization.
A calennig apple in
      the New Year's afterglow. Photo by Edie Stone ©2011

We will learn about Calennig, a Welsh New Year's custom of decorating apples and going wassailing. You will be able to make a calennig apple if you wish. Bring bits of ribbon, lacy edging, or little bells, if you have some.

G.R. Grove,
      storyteller, author, and poet. She also teaches Welsh language
      classes for CWS
Rowan Grove and G.R. Grove will delight listeners with storytelling and poetry.

The CWS Folk Dancers will teach the audience an easy dance.

The Mari Lwyd will join the party, fresh from wassailing in South Wales.

And we welcome back, for a special performance this year, The Front Range Druid Players and members of CWS Language Classes. They will mime a mythic mummers play. The play is written by Gwernin, author, poet, and resident bard, from tales in the Mabinogion.

Reservations not necessary, but for more information contact Elis Owens, 303-427-7188 or elism42@mindspring.com and put Dwynwen? in the subject line.

Visit the Colorado Welsh Society on Facebook for more about Welsh activities in Colorado.

The Colorado Welsh Society is a state-wide, non-profit 501c3 organization, dedicated to promoting an appreciation of Welsh culture and heritage, and to providing educational opportunities to learn about Welsh culture, history, and language.  The next event will be a St. David’s Day program, in early March.

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The Strange Love Story of St. Dwynwen

by Edie Stone

(Apologies for all the little diamond question marks - the Sea Monkey program hasn't learned how to handle apostrophes and some other punctuation.)
Dwynwen Day Card by Draenog Design from Slate Valley
      Museum. Cariad means love.
St. Dwynwen, as a patron saint of lovers, is the Welsh equivalent of St. Valentine.  January 25, her feast day, is celebrated with cards, flowers, and poetry.  In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in her legend. (Image: A St. Dwynwen card by Draenog Design on Slate Valley Museum blog. Cariad means love.)

Dwynwen in Castle. Author unknownSt. Dwynwen was the daughter of 5th century Welsh saint and king, Brychan Brycheiniog.  She was in love with Prince Maelon Dafodrill, but her father refused this match and promised her to another.  Some say that Dwynwen fled to the woods in grief, others say that Maelon chased her and tried to seduce or rape her.

Maelon on Ice. Author unknown.

Dwynwen, in anguish, begged God to help her forget Maelon.  In a dream or vision, an angel came to her and gave her a potion which eased her heartache.  It also had the surprising effect of turning Maelon into a statue of ice.
Images: Dwynwen in Castle and Maelon on Ice. Child artist unknown.

Dwynwen was also given three wishes. First, she wished that Maelon be thawed.  She also wished that she never fall in love again or marry, and that God would answer all her prayers on behalf of lovers.  Lovers who invoked her either found true love or were cured of their lovesickness.

Llanddwyn Island off the south coast of Angelsey. Image by
      Wellhopper Llanddwyn by WellHopper 2012
Dwynwen's Well above the sea. Image by Wellhopper
Dwynwen became a nun and established a convent on Llanddwyn Island, a small jut of land off the coast of Anglesey in north-west Wales.  Her holy well became a site of pilgrimage and divination for hopeful or forlorn lovers. The movements of an eel would reveal the lovers’ future relationship, and if the water moved a lot, they would be particularly lucky. 
Dwynwen's Well above the sea. Image by WellHopper 2012.

One pilgrim to St. Dwynwen’s island was the renowned medieval Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym.  He invoked her aid in helping him to seduce a married woman, surely an odd role for a saint.  Dangos o'th radau dawngoeth / Nad wyd fursen, Ddwynwen ddoeth. “Prove, by your gifts of splendid grace that you are no prim virgin, prudent Dwynwen,” he wrote. [See my new article, The Saint and the Seducer, about Dafydd and Dwynwen below]

St. Dwynwen also gained a reputation for healing sick animals, a tradition which has survived in parts of Wales to the present time.

Gifts from grateful lovers and pilgrims made Llanddwyn a rich area, and in the Tudor era a lovely chapel was built on the site of the original chapel.  It now stands in ruins.

The Reformation suppressed but did not eliminate many of the traditions of the saints.  The legend of St. Dwynwen was revived in the late 18th Century by Iolo Morgannwg, who probably elaborated details.  But there was a continuity of the folk tradition throughout the centuries. Because of the remoteness of the area, local customs of divination persisted on Llanddwyn, and there was a “woman of the well” giving readings even in the 19th Century. 

The current interest in St. Dwynwen is part of a growing revival of interest in Welsh culture, language, and folk traditions.
St Dwynwen's Church
      on Llanddwyn, 2007
Ruins of St. Dwynwen's Church on Llanddwyn Island, 2007.
Image from Wikipedia Creative Commons, by User:Noel.morgan2000

Older roots? Celtic Goddesses and Healing Wells

There are aspects of the legend of Dwynwen that may point to an even earlier layer of Celtic mythology.  Throughout the British Isles, there are sacred springs, holy wells, and other sacred sites that are dedicated to female saints.  In many cases, there was a goddess associated with these locations in the centuries before the Christian era.

St. Brigid is the most famous figure whose imagery and symbolism arise from the mythology of a St.
        Brigid's Well at Kildare.goddess and are carried forward and integrated into the life and legends of a saint.  Brigid was the step-daughter of a Druid, a friend of St. Patrick, and the founder of a monastery in Kildare, Ireland.  Both goddess and saint were renowned as healers, and the water of Brigid’s sacred well attracts many pilgrims and visitors every year.  Like St. Dwynwen, St. Brigid was known as a protector and healer of livestock.  Brigid, both as goddess and saint, had a special role in women’s lives as the patron of midwives and protector of childbirth.  (Perhaps St. Brigid’s services were more needed after lovers’ prayers to St. Dwynwen were answered?)  Well of St. Brigid at Kildare. Source: Megalithic Ireland.

St. Brigid is San Ffraid in Welsh.  She was honored with several churches in Wales named Llansanffraid.  Her feast day is February 1, which was the old Celtic festival of Imbolc.  This is so close to St. Dwynwen’s day of January 25, that one can only wonder if there is a connection.

St. Dwynwen was not the only early Celtic saint to experience difficulties from an ardent suitor.  Brigid as a young woman was nearly forced into a marriage -- she blinded herself in one eye so as not to be attractive.  She later miraculously healed herself.  (Many Celtic holy wells are associated with eye cures.)  

Winifred's Well near Woolston, Oswestry, Shropshire
The soft, green, healing energy of the feminine is embodied in St. Winifred's Well near Woolston in Shropshire. Photo by Edie Stone (c) 2008.

When St. Winifred (Gwenfrewi in Welsh) refused to marry a prince named Caradoc, he pursued her and cut off her head.  A fountain burst forth when her head touched the earth. Fortunately, her uncle St. Beuno was able to bring her back to life.  She founded a convent at Holywell, near Whitford.  Pilgrims and tourists still visit her sacred waters.  

The image of the severed head may harken back to ancient Celtic traditions in which skulls and heads held prophetic and healing powers.  Even in the Christian era, skulls, usually the relic of a saint or hero, were often kept at holy wells for use by pilgrims as drinking cups.
Non and Her Well
        by the late Monica Sjoo
St. Non, the mother of the patron saint of Wales, Saint David (Dewi in Welsh), was also attacked by a suitor.  She was raped by Sant, King of Ceredigion.  She gave birth near a spring about a mile from the present site of St. David’s Cathedral on the west coast of Wales.  Her holy well has been revered for centuries.  Again, the waters were famous for curing eye diseases.
Non and Her Well. Painting by the late Monica Sjoo.
Visit http://www.monicasjoo.com to keep her legacy alive.

There are other aspects to Dwynwen’s legend that suggest similarities to classical mythology.  Like the Roman goddess Diana, Dwynwen’s symbol was the crescent moon, and she carried a bow of destiny.  Also like Diana, she had to struggle to maintain her chastity.  But on the other hand, Dwynwen’s magic belt or girdle was similar to the Cestus of Venus.  Celtic deities often embodied contradictory qualities.  Whether there was a Celtic goddess who embodied these images, or whether these are elements added by Iolo Morgannwg, I don’t know.  

There is a pattern in ancient Greek mythology of goddesses who were raped or seduced by male gods.  This pattern arose in the era when matriarchal, earth-centered cultures and their goddess shrines were overrun and conquered by the patriarchal, Indo-European sky god culture.  Elements of the power of the goddesses survived in local healing sites, springs, shrines, and legends.

Saints Dwynwen, Brigid, Winifred, and Non bear an archetypal similarity to the earlier goddesses.  The saints resisted the patriarchal power of father or king, and were threatened or overcome by their aggressive suitors.  But each in their own way triumphed over this disempowerment, maintained their integrity, and founded communities.  Their healing power and presence survive in the healing qualities of their sacred wells.

Saint Who? Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh Patron Saint of Lovers ©2010-2015 by Edie Stone.
Use with permission and website citation: http://www.ediestone.com/dwynwen-article.html
Mari Lwyd Begs for Food photo ©2010 by Edie Stone
Calennig Apple photo ©2011 by Edie Stone

See the Colorado Welsh Society's Facebook page for more about Welsh activities in Colorado.

Return to Celtic Spirituality page: http://www.ediestone.com/exploringcelticspirituality.html
Return to Edie Stone's main page

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What’s this about a horse crashing the party??

Mari Lwyd, the Grey Mare, an ancient wassailing custom of South Wales

by Edie Stone
A traditional Mari Lwyd from the town of Llantrisant,
Mari Lwyd is a wassailing custom which was common in the villages of South Wales during Christmas, New Years, or Twelfth Night.  It nearly died out in the mid-twentieth century, but has been revived by folk clubs and the Museum of Welsh Life, St. Fagan’s.

The custom of Mari Lwyd embodies images of death and rebirth, old bones and fertility, hunger and plenty, begging and generosity.  It takes place at the turning of the year, when hope and new light are reborn from midwinter darkness.

Mari Lwyd visits the Colorado Welsh Society at the
      Highland Festival in Elizabeth, ColoradoThe Mari Lwyd is a horse’s head, of bone, wood, or paper mache, which is set on a pole, covered with a white sheet, and decorated with ribbons.  It was worn by a man and accompanied by a group of singers (sometimes also in costumes, similar to a mummers play).  They would sing at the door of pubs or homes, demanding entry.  The folks inside would reply with verses of their own, in a fun and often insulting battle of wits.  Once admitted, the Mari Lwyd would bite and tease the inhabitants, demand food and drink, and create much merriment.  A visit from the Mari Lwyd was believed to bring fertility and prosperity to the inhabitants.

There is much speculation about the history and symbolism of this strange custom.  Some suggest that it originated in the Middle Ages as a pageant in honor of Mary.  (But why would anyone honor Mary with a horse’s skull?) 

Others believe that the Mari Lwyd is a remnant of an ancient Celtic fertility custom.  There is a similar white mare in Irish legend, the Láir Bhán, [or Lair Bhan, with accents that may not display in your browser] which appeared at Samhuin at the end of harvest.  (Samhuin marked the turning of the old year in the ancient Celtic calendar, and evolved into Halloween).  On the Isle of Man, the Laare Vane appeared at harvest and Twelfth Night.  Other aspects of an ancient horse goddess appear in legends of Macha in Ireland and Rhiannon in Wales, and in figures of Epona from Gaul. 

There are similar hooded horses and “Hoodening” customs in Kent during the Christmas season.  A white horse also appears in the Soul Caking customs of Cheshire at Halloween.  Both Hoodening and Soul Caking contain themes of death and resurrection.
The Mari Lwyd looking for a dance partner
So at least at the symbolic level, and perhaps at the historic level, there is a common thread of imagery at this time of darkness in mid-winter: wandering white horses, bones and rebirth, hunger and plenty, exclusion and welcome, a crossing of the bounds of propriety and a renewal of community.  The mysterious custom of Mari Lwyd itself nearly died, but has been reborn ... just another turning of the wheel.

Mari Lwyd, the Grey Mare, an Ancient Wassailing Custom of South Wales ©2010-2014 by Edie Stone.
Use with permission and website citation: http://www.ediestone.com/dwynwen.html

B&W Mari is from Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Mari in the woods is from the CSW camp at the Elizabeth, Colorado, Celtic Festival. She looks like she has gotten into the ale. The CWS Folk Dancers perform there most summers. Photo by Elis Owens.

Mari in the red and green ribbons is visiting the CWS Christmas Tea. Photo by Edie Stone.

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The Saint and the Seducer: Dafydd ap Gwilym's Prayer to St. Dwynwen

A thousand broken hearts her power invoked.

Dafydd ap Gwilym was one of the great poets of the Middle Ages. An older contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, he lived in the mid-1300s. His poetry is still read, and he is revered as the foremost poet of Wales.

While he wrote many poems of praise for Welsh princes and patrons, Dafydd ap Gwilym is most remembered for his love poetry and descriptions of nature. You can visualize him like the troubadours and their poems of courtly love, but more personal, passionate, and bucolic. He expresses that Celtic sense of the presence of Spirit in nature, along with youthful longing or hiraeth, and a charming mixture of seductive arrogance and laughter at himself.

Dwynwen's Chapel. Image by Wellhopper

The Chapel of St. Dwynwen, by Wellhopper, 2012

Sometime in the mid-14th Century, Dafydd visited the Abbey of St. Dwynwen on Llandwyn Island/Peninsula. He was struck by the beauty of a golden stature of Dwynwen, and wrote this poem, petitioning the saintly nun to help him seduce Morfudd (pronounced More-veeth, the subject of desire in several of Dafydd's poems).

In addition to petitioning Dwynwen to be a love messenger for a year, he asks her to hold back Morfudd's husband's anger. He also asks Dwynwen to heal the agony of his own swollen ... bosom ... so that his life will not be futile.

The poet is well aware of the irony of petitioning a saint to help him seduce a married woman. So he goes to great length to assure Dwynwen that because of her own chastity, devotion, and prudence, she won't be harmed or cast from heaven for aiding him in his deliverance from love-agony. What nerve! What complexity of thought and language! What seductive sweetness! No wonder the Welsh still love this poet.

I have just discovered a wonderfyl resource, http://www.dafyddapgwilym.net/, which has a complete collection of Dafydd ap Gwilym's poetry, in Cymraeg and English, with other resources including audio of the spoken Welsh, and MS images.

Galw ar Ddwynwen

(do not worry, the translation is below)A Victorian version
        of Dafydd ap Gwilym - Frontispiece of John Parry's The Welsh

Dwynwen deigr arien degwch,
Da y gwyr o gor fflamgwyr fflwch
Dy ddelw aur diddoluriaw
Digion druain ddynion draw.
Dyn a wylio, gloywdro glan,
Yn dy gor, Indeg eirian,
Nid oes glefyd na bryd brwyn
A el ynddo o Landdwyn.

Dy laesblaid yw dy lwysblwyf,
Dolurus ofalus wyf.
Y fron hon o hoed gordderch
Y sydd yn unchwydd o serch,
Hirwayw o sail gofeiliaint,
Herwydd y gwn, hwn yw haint,
Oni chaf, o byddaf byw,
Forfudd, llyna oferfyw.
Gwna fi yn iach, wiwiach wawd,
O'm anwychder a'm nychdawd.
Cymysg lateirwydd flwyddyn
A rhadau Duw rhod a dyn.
Nid rhaid, ddelw euraid ddilyth,
Yt ofn pechawd fethlgnawd fyth.
Nid adwna, da ei dangnef,
Duw a wnaeth, nid ai o nef.
Ni'th wyl mursen eleni
Yn hustyng yn yng a ni.
Ni rydd Eiddig ddig ddygnbwyll
War ffon i ti, wyry ei phwyll.
Tyn, o'th obr, taw, ni thybir
Wrthyd, wyry gymhlegyd hir,
O Landdwyn, dir gynired,
I Gwm-y-gro, gem o Gred.

Duw ni'th omeddawdd, hawdd hedd,
Dawn iaith aml, dyn ni'th omedd.
Diamau weddiau waith,
Duw a'th eilw, du ei thalaith.
Delid Duw, dy letywr,
Del i gof, dwylaw y gwr,
Traws oedd y neb a'i treisiai,
Tra ddel i'm ol trwy ddail Mai.
Dwynwen, pes parud unwaith
Dan wydd Mai a hirddydd maith,
Dawn ei bardd, da, wen, y bych;
Dwynwen, nid oeddud anwych.
Dangos o'th radau dawngoeth
Nad wyd fursen, Ddwynwen ddoeth.

Er a wnaethost yn ddawnbwys
O benyd y byd a'i bwys;
Er y crefydd, ffydd ffyrfryw,
A wnaethost tra fuost fyw;
Er yr eirian leianaeth
A gwyrdawd y coethgnawd caeth;
Er enaid, be rhaid yrhawg,
Brychan Yrth, breichiau nerthawg;
Eiriol er dy greuol gred,
Yr em wyry, roi ymwared.

English Translation: Poem 48 - Galw ar Ddwynwen
Appealing to Dwynwen

Dwynwen, whose beauty is like hoar-frost tears,sculpture of
        Dafydd ap Gwilym
from a chancel filled with blazing candles
well does your golden image know how to cure
grievous, wretched men yonder.
Whoever keeps vigil (a fair, radiant respite)
in your chancel, dazzling Indeg,
there is no sickness or heavy mind
which he'll bear within him from Llanddwyn.

Your humble flock is your holy parish,
I am sorrowful and full of care.
Because of longing for a lover
this bosom's all swollen with passion,
a long agony whose base is anxiety,
since I know (a true affliction)
that if I can't have Morfudd
(if I remain alive), my living will be futile.
Heal me (praise of a worthy lineage)
of my infirmity and feebleness.
For one year combine the role of love–messenger
to the girl with God's graces.
Unfailing golden image,
you need never fear sinful, ensnaring carnal desire.
God, whose peace is good, will not undo
what He has done, you won't leave heaven.
No strumpet will see you this year
whispering with us in adversity.
The angry, cruel-minded Jealous One
will not beat you with a stick, chaste–minded maid.
Go forth -- because of your worthiness (keep silent)
no one will suspect you, virgin of a great host --
from Llanddwyn (a sure journey)
to Cwm-y-gro, gem of Christendom.

God did not reject you (an easy peace) --
boon to a whole nation -- nor will man reject you.
Prayers' unerring work,
God will call you, maid with the black wimple.
May God, your host
(let that be borne in mind), restrain the husband's hands --
anyone who might seek to ravish her would be cruel --
as she follows me through the leaves of May.
Dwynwen, if you caused her to come once
under the boughs of May, and ensured a long summer day
(her poet's boon), good on you, fair maid;
Dwynwen, you were never wretched.
Show with your splendidly endowed graces
that you're no strumpet, prudent Dwynwen.

For all the earthly penance and its burden
that you did, replete with grace;
for the devotion (steadfast faith)
that you displayed whilst you were alive;
for the resplendent maidenhood
and the chastity of the fair captive flesh;
for the sake of the soul (if need be now)
of Brychan Yrth of mighty arms;
intercede, by your bleeding faith,
chaste darling, for my deliverance.


Great gratitude to

There is also an audio of the spoken Welsh at

B&W image of statue of Dafydd ap Gwilym from a wonderful blog on the Measures of Welsh Poetry, Warwick blogs, by Zoe Brigley Thompson, 
Dafydd deeply developed the Cywydd form.

The very Victorian image of Dafydd ap Gwilym is the frontspiece of John Parry's The Welsh Harper.

Ian Taylor's site, Well Hopper: Exploring the ancient holy well and healing wells of North Wales is at
http://wellhopper.wordpress.com/tag/healing-wells/  - Gorgeous photography and informative descriptions.

The blog at http://slatevalleymuseum.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/calan-calon-and-cariad discusses Dwynwen's Day and other customs. They have a couple of nice videos of the song Calon Lan, including a lovely American version from Green Mountain College Choir.

Manuscript of Dafydd ap Gwilwym's Prayer to Dwynwen

From http://www.dafyddapgwilym.net/images/man/Screen/daf05096.gif

This just in ... you can view a livelier, more poetic version, that gets to the gist of the matter, by Giles Watson at http://www.flickr.com/photos/29320962@N07/6727731449/in/photostream/