Lleu Llaw Gyffes


Looking at Lleu Llaw Gyffes through the sun-god archetype and exploring his story from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi in context of pagan Celtic and Indo-European culture--as well as how he ties into the Midwinter Festival/Yule.

Associations: sun, wren, oak, golden eagle, warriorship, kingship

Although his tale is found specifically in Welsh mythology (the Mabinogi), it is hard to say that Lleu is a character solely unique to his part of the world. In his own way, Lleu is a wonderful manifestation of the sun-god energies (similar to the Irish Lugh, Persian Mithras, and Jewish Messiah Jeshua/Jesus). Upon first glance at the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Lleu's "sun-god" status might not be so evident, but there are clear marks of his status when delved deeper.

Names in all ancient cultures were of upmost importance, as tribal peoples believed that your true name held your essence or power. As was often the case in Celtic culture though, it was respectful and safer not to use an energy's true name (I use the word "energy" as it covers deity in a more animistic light), therefore people used euphemistic names that were more like epithets or descriptive compact phrases. By examining these descriptions, you get a very good idea--not so much of what the deity or energy was like--but rather, how the people perceived the energy to be, and let's face it, as Wordsworth said, reality is half based on the imagination and the other half on our subjective perceptions.

Before getting into what Lleu's names meant, we have to backtrack to his beginnings. His mother was Arianrhod (most commonly translated as "silver wheel"), from which her name can be inferred that she might have been a fate goddess and a spider goddess. She was specifically associated with the Corona Borealis and both Ursa constellations (the Bears) as well, a very northern connotation, and it was to her rotating palace (aka at the North Star, the star around which all the stars appear to rotate from the earth's axis-the "silver wheel") that privileged souls might go between death and rebirth. Arianrhod is confirmed, per se, as a fate goddess, in the sense that she knows her son's fate and sets geisas or tynghed (prohibitions) upon him, as her way of preventing him to fulfill his deadly fate. Most interpretations of this by modern scholars suggest in some sick way that Arianrhod was a "bad mother" or was too embarrassed because of how her son was begotten (there are hints that Gwydion, her brother, was the father--thus incest) ... but Celtic tales of this age seem to strike me as being much more allegorical than at a shallow emotional (and sorry to say, anthropomorphic) level that fills most modern literature. Instead, if Arianrhod knew her son's fate and that he was destined to die, she would logically do everything in her power to prevent this. It was for this reason that I prefer to think that she declared that she would never give her son a name, the right to bear weapons, or a wife (all duties of a mother in the early Welsh culture).

Of course, Lleu's uncle (Arianrhod's brother, obviously) gets around all three of these through his craftiness, but it is interesting to note how Lleu received his name. Gwydion was the great magician/druid of his time, and he magically disguised himself and Lleu and visited Arianrhod as peddlers. A wren flew by and Lleu threw a stone at it, hitting its leg, an amazing feat considering the small size of the bird. For this reason, Arianrhod exclaimed and described Lleu as the "golden haired one with the skillful hand" (literally "Lleu Llaw Gyffes") and this is how he received his name. But in so doing so, this leaves valuable clues as to who exactly Lleu would have been in Welsh tradition. First consider the ancient Welsh custom of wren-hunting, where boys or men would go out hunting a wren around Yule or the New Year, and once killing one, would build a byre for it and parade it round the village or farmsteads. In this way, the wren was a Yule symbol for the dying or sacrificial Oak King archetype in much of Pagan lore, and it is the wren that appears here in association with Lleu. Then, by comparing Lleu's name with that of his Irish counterpart Lugh(who is widely accepted as a sun-god, more specifically, a sun-beam god) ... the idea of a brilliant fair haired strong lad with spear or skill at weapons--that's a direct link to the Celtic archetype of the Sun God.

On another note about his name, supposedly, Lleu's name doesn't quite exactly translate--and if you take it back hypothetically to its Proto-Celtic roots (is that possible?), the presented name of *φlū-wgū-s pops up, giving a semi-accurate translation of "flowing vigour". What a lovely description of sunlight!--or the Welsh "Awen" for that matter!

Now while Lleu is strongly associated with light and golden things, his brother Dylan is associated with the sea. In Indo-European myths all over, the archetype of the Twins stands out. One son/brother died and became Lord of the Underworld or Otherworld (represented by darkness), while the other lived or was transformed repeatedly and became ruler of this Middleworld or Humanity (represented by the sun and light). Dylan upon birth was instantly transformed into a seal (though that is debatable) and slid off to his "death" into the great waters below him. Seals (which can still be seen bathing on Bardsey Island, just off the Llyn Peninsula not too far from where the Fourth Mabinogi tale takes place) were considered as sacred to the Otherworld, just like the Gaelic idea of "selkies". They were "between" creatures and could pass between our world and the world of "other" easily and quickly. Also, the great dark abyss of water somehow vaguely reminds of a whirlpool or cauldron, both symbols of the otherworld/underworld (which were hardly distinguishable in Welsh myths). There is another version where Dylan is killed by one of his uncles (with a spear--like both Lleu and Gronw) and the sea mourned for him and to this day mimics Dylan's death goan. And in another story, he doesn't die at all ... the point though it that this child instantly returns to the primordial depths. For Dylan to disappear to his death into deep, violent waters suggests that he takes on the role of the Otherworld King, while his left behind brother of Lleu could easily slide into the role of Sun King.

The fact that Lleu was taken under a magician's preserving wing (conveniently his uncle), echoes forward in time to the more popular tales of Arthur (a form of the sun-king himself) and his surrogate father, Merlin/Myrddan. In fact, long before Merlin's name was ever heard upon Welsh lips, Gwydion was spoken of as Arthur's surrogate father (how interesting!) ... and it's little wonder that Arthur, etymologically, is related to "bear" (aka Arianrhod and Ursa Major/Minor). Also, Arthur was called Pendragon, but it's no wonder that the Welsh totem is a dragon ... and on top of that, a red or golden dragon represented the Sun in ancient times.

Gwydion himself is an unusual character. His name is doubly connected to "gwyddoniaeth"-firstly, as in present and older Welsh, this word could be translated as "science" (the older equivalent of "magic"). Gwydion nicely translates thus as "Great Magician" or "scientist" (I think "scientist" is much more apt considering how he genetically crafts--in so many words--Blodeuedd, for Lleu). At the same time, the mage (meaning that he manipulated energies) and the scientist (meaning that he manipulated matter) were not just enough to describe him, though both very well chosen in meaning! Of older origin, "gwydd" was at one time Welsh for "tree"-roots of it still survive in Welsh vocabulary like "uchelwydd" (mistletoe, literally "high in a tree"). To be a gwyddion, was to be a druid, in the literal sense of the word-a tree-revering priest and shaman. Therefore, considering the druids considered it one of their duties (in the Agricultural Age) to help provide and ensure fertility of land (and thus the surety of the sun), it's no wonder that a druid takes the Sun-King under his wing to make sure that he fulfills his fate of being killed and then reborn again at Yule. Do not forget that when viewing the horizon through our human eyes, the sun appears to be swallowed up by the earth every night--and at the Midwinter Solstice, what a difficult and dangerous time it must be, if the sun didn't continue rising! Also, it is only through Gwydion's magical abilities to get around Arianrhod's curses/foretellings (like the druid managing to get around the laws of nature so that the Sun can be reborn and the balance of Light and Dark maintained), that Lleu actually is able to fulfill his destiny. Of course that destiny kills him, which Arianrhod was trying to avoid, but Lleu himself was immortal, so his death was merely just a transformation to another form.

Lleu would have been fine if Gwydion hadn't made him a wife. After Arianrhod flat out refused to provide her son with a wife, therefore a means to beget a line of posterity, Gwydion teams up with Math (the king who may have managed to get Arianrhod pregnant in the first place and bring such shame to her) to magically (or scientifically) create a wife for poor Lleu. They, as men would do, made her as sexually delicious and desirable as possible, completing overlooking that this elemental they had formed was made for one reason only-sex. Unfortunately, Lleu isn't always home, which generates problems of course.

This sex-creature was made out of nine different types of plants, mostly flowers, from which she was given the name Blodeuedd ("face of flowers"). Silly magicians!!! Here they took the fecund, powerful, life-sustaining (and destroying) energies of Mother Earth and condensed her down into a finite form, into an elemental with no experience in the matters of humanity's tribal systems or laws, with no idea of what it means to be human, and little idea of what it means to be a woman, unless that is to be fertile, and rampantly so. Blodeuedd was the wildness of the wilderness, forced into a supposed tame form. In this way though, Blodeuedd is given to Lleu in marriage at Midsummer (Summer Solstice) which was the traditionally pagan time when earth/land goddesses mated or married with the Sun-gods or Tribal Kings. This establishes Blod in the position of the earth goddess. In Celtic mythology, for the king or ruler of people to actually be "fit" to be in that position, it was mandatory that the earth herself chose him. This is where the roots of Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone comes from .. as well as the famous Irish monument at Tara, the Lia Faile. For the earth to chose the man as king, she had to initiate him.

Initiation of the king was a very tough process, one that mimicked the shaman's journey into his position as well. Both shaman and king have to be first of all, called, but secondly, must "die" or prove themselves fit for such important status. The Irish tales are stock-full of initiation-myths, which seem to dominate as one of the greatest pagan themes in Irish mythological cycles. A common example involves the Irish land-sovereignty goddess Maeve or Medb. She too, like Blodeuedd (and most all land goddesses) was sexually insatiable, but the lovers she chose, she either killed or turned them into the greatest men of their times. There are more than one accounts of Maeve/Medb appearing as a crone and demanding sexual favours of warriors and to-be kings. If they respect her, she protects them or ensures their success. If they deny her, she kills them. In this way, we get a very dark, testy, and yet feminine side of nature, one that is not so "Mother Earth"ish as you would think. The Gaelic peoples called this kind of earth-goddess, a "cailleach", which really was basically a dreadful hag or crone who either gave you fantastic inspirations, beauty, and power, or struck you dead with her hail and thunder and other natural disasters. I think Blodeuedd tunes into the "Maevish" energies ... she is a dark female force that really is not "evil"-but very necessary in order for the man to become king ... or better yet, for the sun to be reborn.

So while Lleu is gone away from home, from his sexual bliss, Blodeuedd twiddles her thumbs (and perhaps other things!) waiting for some form of masculinity to come along for her to satisfy. Of course, by fate, it does. His name is Gronw, who has been connected to Ceridwen, as he himself being a ruler of the Otherworld/Underworld. Here is positioned Lleu's anti-type, a tall, dark, and handsome kind of fellow who has this amazing ability to satisfy Blodeuedd's near-insatiable sexual appetite (they supposedly had very long sessions!)... remember about Dylan being the darker twin of Lleu. With Dylan out of the plot of the story, his archetype reappears as Gronw, to threaten Lleu's "manhood". Cuckolding a man has always been quite insulting, but it especially would have been in tribal times when honour and bloodline were held in such high regard. In a sense, Gronw is really asking for retribution, if Lleu were to find out. It is then that the "comic" (yet ironically, most tragic) part of the myth unfolds, where Gronw and Blodeuedd set about to kill her husband, via ridiculous means.

Because Lleu is the son of gods and also protected by a druid/god of magicians, there are so many ways that he cannot be killed that the probability of all these riddles coming together at once, so that he could be killed-very close to impossible. Of course, Blodeuedd, being coy and wily as womanhood is archetypically known to be, manages to coax it out of him, on pretense of wanting to protect him. In order to soothe her, Lleu sets up the scene for his own death, and Gronw spears him on the spot. Lleu transforms (or transmigrates, like the soul?) into a Golden Eagle, one of the foremost welsh symbols for the sun, reborn. It is on Yule or Winter Solstice (how convenient!) that this conspiracy takes place.

There are a couple different versions of how Lleu can be killed, but the demands in all versions are that he must stand with one foot in water, one foot on a goat (neither in water or on land), positioned between a house half-built (neither in a house nor outside a house). Interestingly enough, the constellation of Perseus is positioned so that he has one foot on the back of a goat (the constellation Capella) and one foot in liquid (the Milky Way), while the stars around form a strange sort of half-formed thatched roof around his figure.

If at Yule, the Earth Goddess manages to kill the Sun-God with the help of her dark lover (whom many pagans would name as the Holly King), it is then by the power of the druid or magician that the Sun-God is brought back ... though more accurately, it is by the power of what is the true essence of nature of the Sun, to return. Lleu, as a Golden Eagle, flies off to nurse his wounds in an oak tree (connecting Lleu to the Oak King who Wiccans say is killed at Yule by the Holly King), which acts as a version of the World Tree. At its roots snuffles a sow and in its branches, rests Lleu, as eagle. It is up to Gwydion to find Lleu and bring him back from eagle form to man form. The world tree represents the magician/shaman's journey into the Otherworld/Underworld ("Annwn") to find the Sun ... or in deeper metaphorical language, to find divine consciousness. Of course, Gwydion finds Lleu and the story tells how the uncle really has to convince the poor fellow to come back to the world, but Lleu does eventually. It is when Lleu, maimed, rotting, a decaying carcass, allows himself (overcomes ego or other blocks) to be taken under Gwydion's care, that then he is made as Gwydion's now real son, second born into the world, and this time better than ever. He is fit to be king, having gone through the initiation that Blodeuedd started, and it is by Gwydion's love and sacrifice that he is assisted with this transformation.

Now justice is served. Balance is redressed. Lleu, as conquering king, comes back and challenges Gronw, the Holly King, the Otherworld King, to face the same death that he himself endured. Gronw, being mortality itself, will of course die, be banished and shown to be weaker in the face of this mighty Warrior-Ruler, wimps out. Gronw asks to hide behind a stone, as a shield ... this could be taken that the Darkness retreats behind the earth, to protect itself from the power and reach of Light, but of course, the rays of light still pierce it, still manage to fertilize and affect the crone of earth. Gronw is shot straight through the stone with the same spear that he wielded against Lleu ... he is made sexually un-appealing (for the time being) and Lleu sexually virulant. Thus, at this time, this is why Yule is so important, because now Lleu, now the Sun can begin to grow and work with the earth, so that fertility and life can continue.

In turn, Blodeuedd is transformed into an owl by Gwydion, to show her true nature as crone-figure ... a night-creature that now must shrink away from the brilliant face of light. She becomes Blodeuwedd (the welsh word for "owl").

And of course, the cycle will forever continue, as the Sun lives, dies and is reborn year after year after year. But that is why the tale of Lleu, Blodeuedd, and Gronw is so important. It embodies the very elements of nature that propel or represent the forces that propel life and motion ever forward ... they work together so that Lleu may truly fulfill his Proto-Celtic name, as "flowing vigour".

Lleu, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, sun god, Yule, Celtic god, Welsh mythology, Mabinogi, Mabinogion, Blodeuwedd, Arianrhod, Gwydion
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Interesting, will comment soon...

Eadha Deora an excellent contribution to the knowledge base, I look forward to reading additional works in the near future!

The story in the Mabinogi was the last or latest oral stage it had reached in the tales development when recorded. Indeed this is one way in which Llue could be considered within the Welsh tradition, relative to an entity or mythological label used to eloquently explain a natural phenomena; such as the annual movement of the Sun. In turn, it’s a magical way of passing on knowledge too!