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Edie Stone
01/11/12 09:45:14AM
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SAINT WHO? Introducing St. Dwynwen

General Discussions ( Anything Goes )

From an article I wrote for the Colorado Welsh Society:

The Strange Love Story of St. Dwynwen

by Edie Stone

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. The official date for celebrating St. Dwynwen is January 25.

St. 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.

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.

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.

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.

One pilgrim to St. Dwynwens 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.

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.

For info about the Jan. 21 Dwynwen Welsh Fest in Denver, see: More on Dwynwen Welsh Fest

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 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 Brigids 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 womens lives as the patron of midwives and protector of childbirth. (Perhaps St. Brigids services were more needed after lovers prayers to St. Dwynwen were answered?)

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. Dwynwens 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.)

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.

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. Davids Cathedral on the west coast of Wales. Her holy well has been revered for centuries. Again, the waters were famous for curing eye diseases.

There are other aspects to Dwynwens legend that suggest similarities to classical mythology. Like the Roman goddess Diana, Dwynwens 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, Dwynwens 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 dont 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.

Join us Jan. 21, 2012, in Denver

For more about the Colorado Welsh Society:

updated by @edie-stone: 11/11/15 10:38:09PM