GWENHWYFAR (Guinevere)If you are part of an English-speaking culture, you have possibly known the stories of noble King Arthur and his beautiful Queen Guinevere since you were a child. But before the morphing of the Goddess Gwenhwyfar into the character of the mortal queen Guinevere in the Arthurian legends, She was the powerful Mermaid Goddess of the Sea who was “believed to have existed for as long as the surf has pounded the rocky shores” of Wales.
She is a complex and ancient Celtic Goddess who has triple form and without whom no man could be king in the British Isles. She was the Goddess of Sovereignty, and the Land, and without Her taking the man in consummation, he would not be king.
The name Gwenhwyfar has various translations – The White One,White Shadow, White Phantom, White Sprite, White Waves, White Cloud or Shining Cloud. The “white” in all these refers to the ancient definition of the virgin or maiden – a woman or Goddess who is “One-in-herself”, complete in and of herself, needing no male counterpart or mate.
The other components of Her name give us direction as to the various realms of Her power:“White Phantom” tells us She is associated with the Otherworld. She is sometimes referred to similarly as Gwyn Ap Nuad, the God of the Wild Hunt, as being Goddess of the Wild Hunt – the Wild Hunt being the time of the gathering of all spirits of those who have died in the year to lead them to the afterlife at Samhain, the end of the year in the old Celtic calendar.
“The White One” and “White Sprite” connect Her to the Realms of the Fae. “The White One” is a Faery Queen, whose powers are otherworldly. As the White Sprite, She is depicted as a mischievous shapeshifter who from time to time could not resist the urge to be born of woman into this mundane world and insert herself into human affairs, often causing havoc.
As the Shining Cloud or White Cloud, She reveals Herself to us a very fair-skinned woman of preternatural beauty.“White Waves” in Welsh mythology are said to be the sheep of the Mermaid Sea Queen, again connecting Gwenhwyfar to the Sea and to what the sea symbolizes – Eternal Regeneration.
In German Her name is “Cunneware“, meaning “Female Wisdom”. But She is also Goddess of the Land, the Flower Maiden who bestows Love, Growth, and Fertility, and therefore is also Earth Goddess.
She is the Green Woman who actually IS the land personified.
Although Gwenhwyfar was first written about in the Welsh book of poems and myths called The Mabinogion (circa 1100), there is not much about her there, Her origins being older, but many clues to who Gwenhwyfar is are found in the Arthurian legends, even though the authors of these legends have made her into a mortal woman, Guinevere.
She is King Arthur’s Queen and as such bestows upon him the power to rule the land. She brings with her to the marriage, as part of her dowry, a great Round Table, the brilliant key of the Circle to keep there from being warring factions in the country because in a circle there is equality, no hierarchy.
This wedding gift enables Arthur to rule in peace for many years. The land is fertile and the people enjoy peace and prosperity in his kingdom Camelot.
Lancelot is Arthur’s strongest and most devoted knight. He was prophesied by Merlin, the magus, to come and make the Round Table of knights even greater. Not surprisingly, he falls in love with Guinevere who returns his desires. After all, She is the Goddess of the Land, Goddess of Sovereignty. In fact She is desired by many men in these tales. She is extremely beautiful, magical, intelligent, and obviously, powerful. She determines who rules.
She and Arthur are childless and so She remains concentrated in Her power. Her passionate relationship with Lancelot and the conflict which ensues of adultery, factions, and the splitting of the Round Table, the war of Arthur’s knights with the knights led by Lancelot as he leads the fight to rescue Guinevere from the penalty of treason, death, illustrates the war of the Holly King (the old king) and the Oak King (the panist or new king).
And it also illustrates the sovereignty of Guinevere who is at every turn, the mover, the pivot point, the Creator and the Destroyer; it is She who determines the outcome.
Christianized, She is the villainess sin-bearer of these stories, the adulterer who deserves to be burned at the stake, but as Goddess, Gwenhwywar is She who determines the destinies of humans. She is a Fate Goddess, a Destiny Goddess, and rules the Great Cycles of human Peace and Chaos, of Creation and Destruction, Joy and Despair, Contentment and Restlessness.
Guinevere in these stories is shapeshifter. Her powers span all facets of love and of life: homemaker – home wrecker, true love -infidelity, self-centered – self-sacrificing, victim – victor, pawn of politics – bestower of sovereignty. It’s hard to get more complex than that.
In these Arthurian legends, She perfectly illustrates The Matronae, the Celtic Triplet Goddesses – not what you might think of as maiden/mother/crone, but the Trinity of the Divine Feminine, “The Three Mothers.”
Gwenhwywar is the May Queen, the Flower Maiden who brings the blessings of fertility, fruits, and vegetation. She is the Sustainer who oversees her people and brings inspiration to mortals for reaching a higher level of spirituality, to unify them, and to encourage them to reach for goals they once thought were impossible. And She is Destroyer, Goddess who teaches those who become complacent the values which come forth with hierarchy and war.
In the oldest telling of these legends, King Arthur had 3 wives, all from different parents, but all named Gwenhwyfar. It’s easy to conclude that this is another illustration of the triple aspect of this Goddess. And in some versions of Her stories, She has a sister born of a different mother named Gwenhwyfach, as dark and brunette as She was fair and white.
To me this is a depiction of the embracing of both the Bright and Dark of the Goddess, as does Her personality in all these stories and legends.
In the Welsh versions of the Arthur legends, Arthur is born not of Igraine, conceived by deception with magic by Uther Pendragon that he was her husband in a night of wild passion, but instead, Arthur is born of the Goddess of the Sea on the Ninth Wave. And he is returned to the sea in death by Gwenhwywar in Her role of Leader of the Wild Hunt, as She sings his death song.
In Welsh such eerie songs are called marswygafen – “giving back to the Sea Mother”.
So, who is Gwynhwyfar?
Far, far more than a queen to a noble and idealistic king, She is Mermaid Goddess of the Sea, Faery Queen, Goddess of the Wild Hunt, Goddess of the Land, Bestower of Sovereignty, Goddess of the May, Fertility, Fruits, Vegetation, Earth Goddess.
She is Goddess of Love and Desire. She is Goddess of Destiny, Determiner of the Fates of humans. She is Goddess of Creation, Sustenance, and Dark Mother of Destruction. She is Trickster, and the Compassionate Lover of your soul.
Only the determined power of crushing patriarchal Christianity could have turned this Powerful Goddess into a simpering, helpless adulteress who after ruining a great kingdom needed to be rescued by men and finally become utterly celibate as a nun.
But don’t be fooled. That picture is concocted, temporary, and seen through a glass darkly.
She is here still.
She has existed as long as the surf has pounded the rocky shores, and She always will.
All Hails, Gwenhwyfar~!
c. Diane Horton artist painting on the left William Waterhouseartist painting on the right I could not find.