Awen – The Holy Spirit of Druidry
This symbol is the BDO Awen logo, based on an original design by the 18th-19th century Druid revivalist, Iolo Morganwg. It represents three rays of light emanating from three points of light and symbolises, among other things, the triple nature of the Druid path, incorporating the paths of Bard, Ovate and Druid.
What follows is an edited version of a much longer article about Awen published in the BDO book, Druidry: Re-Kindling the Sacred Fire copyright BDO, 1999, reprinted 2002. Earlier versions of it appeared on BDO websites. It has subsequently popped up, often uncredited, on various other websites and has become a ‘go-to’ reference for Awen as understood both historically and in modern Druidry. The now widespread translation of Awen as ‘the flowing spirit’ derives from Greywolf’s researches for the first version of this piece, written in about 1991. This translation in now widely used by Druids and others worldwide.
The Quest for Awen
The quest for Awen is a quest for the spirit of Druidry itself, and, as such, it brings together many paths. We may pursue the quest as historian, linguist, poet, philosopher, priest, magician, shaman, and in many other guises. Each, in its own way, helps us to gain understanding and, as we walk the Druid path, one of the things we discover is that in understanding lies strength.
The first recorded reference to Awen occurs in Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, a Latin text of circa 796 CE, based on earlier writings by the Welsh monk, Gildas. After referring to King Ida of Northumbria, who reigned from 547 to 559, Nennius says that:
Tad means ‘father’, so Talhearn is the Father of Awen. This doesn’t tell us much about what Awen is, but, if we accept Nennius as a reliable source, it does show that Awen existed as a concept at a time when Diarmait mac Cerbaill still reigned as the last semi-pagan High King of Ireland, and only a century or so after St. Patrick’s mission to convert the Irish to Christianity. The last pagan Romano-British shrines had only fallen into disuse over the previous two or three generations; St. Columba, himself the great-grandson of a pagan High King, had yet to found his monastery on Iona, from which he set out to convert the pagan Picts, and St. Augustine’s mission to the pagan Angles would not start for another fifty years. Our first reference to Awen, then, dates from a period when Britain and Ireland were still in transition from paganism to Christianity. This, along with other evidence set out below, points to Awen being a concept carried over from pagan Druidry into Christian Bardic tradition.
To discover what Awen is, we should first look at what the word means. The feminine noun, Awen, has been variously translated as ‘inspiration’, ‘muse’, ‘genius’, or even ‘poetic frenzy’. According to a 19th century Welsh dictionary, the word itself is formed by combining the two words, aw, meaning ‘a fluid, a flowing’, and en, meaning ‘a living principle, a being, a spirit, essential’. So Awen may be rendered literally as ‘a fluid essence’, or ‘flowing spirit’. However, more recent dictionaries do not support this interpretation. The next stage of our quest takes us to the surviving works of the Bards of medieval Britain, who were both the inheritors and the medium of transmission of remnants of pagan Druid tradition.
The so-called Four Ancient Books of Wales; the White Book of Rhydderch, the Red Book of Hergest, the Black Book of Caermarthen, and especially the 13th century Book of Taliesin, contain a number of poems which refer to Awen. These vary widely in date. Some may be as old as the era of the Cynfeirdd, or ‘Early Bards,’ which began in the 6th century, while most are much later, composed shortly before the compilation of the manuscripts in which they are found. In seeking to establish what medieval Bards understood by the term Awen, we are hampered by the fact that their poetic style is often enigmatic and allusive. There are, however, clues to be found. The 12th century poet, Llywarch ap Llywelyn (c.1173-1220), also known by his splendid Bardic name, Prydydd y Moch, the ‘Poet of the Pigs’ says:
Ceridwen and Taliesin: the Goddess and the Bard
Here, although the Bard identifies Awen as a gift from God, he states that it is given “as from the cauldron of Ceridwen”. Who then, is Ceridwen? Elsewhere, Prydydd y Moch refers to her as “the ruler of Bards (rvyf bardoni)”, a title accredited to her by others. Our most extensive single source of information about her comes from a late prose tale entitled Chwedl [the Story of] Taliesin. A ‘historical’ Bard named Taliesin has been identified as having lived in the late 6th century, although, of the 77 surviving poems attributed to him, including those which comprise the Book of Taliesin, most were composed much later. The earliest surviving version of Chwedl Taliesin is found in a 16th century manuscript which evidently contains much older material since it refers to motifs found in poems dated as early as the 9th century.
In the story, Ceridwen (right) and her husband, Tegid Moel (‘Beautiful Bald One’), have three children: Morfran (‘Cormorant’); Creirwy (‘Crystal Egg’), the most beautiful maiden in the world; and Afagddu (‘Utter Darkness’), the most ill-favoured man. To compensate Afagddu for his ugliness, Ceridwen decides to make him all-wise by brewing him a magical cauldron of Inspiration (i.e. Awen) “according to the arts of the Fferyllt (‘Alchemists, or Metal-workers’)”. The cauldron must brew for a year and a day, and Ceridwen sets two people to tend it while she goes out gathering herbs; a blind man called Morda (‘Good Sea’ or ‘Great Good’), and a child named Gwion Bach (‘Little Innocent’). On the last day, three drops of liquid fly out from the cauldron and burn Gwion’s finger. He puts it to his mouth and gains the three gifts of poetic inspiration, prophecy, and shape-shifting. With his gift of prophecy, Gwion knows that Ceridwen will try to kill him, so uses his shape-shifting ability to flee in the shape of a hare. Ceridwen pursues him in the form of a greyhound bitch, so he turns into a fish. She transforms into an otter bitch. He becomes a bird; she a hawk. He becomes a grain of wheat and hides on a threshing floor, but Ceridwen becomes a black hen and swallows him. ‘The Hostile Confederacy’, a poem from the Book of Taliesin, refers to this part of the tale as follows:
After nine months, Gwion is reborn from the womb of Ceridwen, who cannot bear to kill him “by reason of his great beauty”, so she ties him in a leather bag and throws him into the sea on the eve of May Eve. On May Day morning, the bag is pulled from a weir and opened. The first person to look upon the beautiful baby says, “Behold, a radiant brow!” And so the child takes the name Taliesin, which, in Welsh, means ‘Radiant Brow’. Taliesin is immediately able to compose perfect impromptu verse by virtue of the Awen received from Ceridwen’s cauldron. He goes on to achieve fame as Primary Chief Bard of Britain.
This tale parallels others in British and Irish literature and folklore, where individuals receive gifts of wisdom, power, or poetic inspiration from Otherworld women. The role of Ceridwen in this story, coupled with references to her in Bardic poetry, have led most commentators to conclude that she is a pagan Goddess.
The Cauldron of Inspiration
It is tempting to interpret the whole story as an instruction manual for Bardic initiation. Gwion encounters three receptacles of transformation: the cauldron, the womb, and the leather bag from which he finally emerges as Taliesin. He encounters each through the actions of Ceridwen, who acts as initiatrix throughout. We could further speculate that the three receptacles represent a series of initiations as Bard, Ovate, and Druid: the drink from the cauldron opens the mind of the Bard to the gift of Awen; the sojourn in the womb of the Goddess gives the Ovate wisdom to understand it; the ordeal of being cast into the sea in the leather bag (perhaps a coracle?) enables the Druid to conquer the ultimate fear: the fear of death.
It is also tempting to envisage the cauldron as containing some intoxicating drink. In support of this, there are various references to mead in the Taliesin poems, notably ‘The Chair of Taliesin’, which refers to aspects of the brewing process as well as to a variety of herbs, and ends with the lines:
North European traditions contain many instances of spiritual or magical gifts being conferred by drinking mead. The Norse God Odin drinks the magic mead, Kvasir, from a cauldron called Odhroerir, ‘Inspiration’. Irish mythology presents us with a Goddess, Meadhbh, whose name is the same as that of the drink. Our ancestors had a very different relationship with alcohol; beer and mead being their staple drinks due to the fact that the brewing process killed off the bacteria which infected water supplies. Even so, it is more likely that Bards used drinking from the cauldron of Ceridwen as a metaphor.
Chanting the word Awen three times is one of the methods employed by some Druid groups for opening the individual spirit to the spirit of inspiration. The chant takes the form of a long, low, vibratory mantra, similar to the Hindu Om, or Aum. That Awen was sung, or chanted, in the past is clear from a number of medieval poems, including ‘The Hostile Confederacy’, where the Bard says:
Awen is here referred to as a river, apparently drawn from the sea by the poet’s singing. The ‘sea’ may be taken as a reference to the all-encompassing spirit that surrounds us, the ‘river’ being that portion of it which the Bard draws to himself through his invocation.
The folklore surrounding certain megalithic chambered tombs in Wales tells how spending the night inside them will render one either mad or an inspired poet (though some would question whether there is a difference). Irish literary tradition contains many stories of people sleeping on prehistoric burial mounds, referred to as sidhe or Faery mounds, and being visited by Otherworld women who bestow poetic inspiration or wisdom on them. It is possible that such tales reflect a distant echo of rites carried out by the builders of these tombs, 5000 years ago, for archaeology has shown that their use was as much ritual as funereal. Massive stone chambers with covering earthen mounds would certainly have been effective in depriving the senses of sight and hearing. Both archaeology and tradition suggest that these ancient mounds were places where the living might contact ancestral spirits to gain power, wisdom, or inspiration. Perhaps, then, the Bards of Britain and Ireland, lying in their dark cells in the 17th century, were enacting a rite whose origins lay with priest-magicians of the Neolithic period.
A Bardic Vision
An extraordinary account of the descent of Awen in the form of a hawk is given in a letter to the 17th century antiquary, John Aubrey, from the Welsh poet, Henry Vaughan (left, 1621-1695), who writes:
This account is reminiscent of the spirit or vision quest, or journey to obtain power, undertaken by medicine men and women in many cultures. Such quests frequently involve journeys into mountains, or remote wilderness areas, where initiatory dreams are experienced, as well as encounters with power animals, or spirit helpers who appear in animal form. These, like Vaughan’s hawk, sometimes enter the body of the shaman. A hawk was, of course, one of the shapes assumed by Ceridwen in her pursuit of Taliesin.
Divine inspiration appearing in the form of a bird is a not uncommon theme in European paganism. An oracular shrine at Dodona was founded after the God Zeus, in the form of a dove, spoke from the branches of an oak tree. The priestesses who interpreted the voice of the God at this shrine (from the rustling leaves of the sacred oak) were known as Peliai, ‘Doves’.
The poetic genius of Taliesin, obtained from the cauldron of the Goddess, was held in great respect by generations of Bards, who, over a period of several centuries, continued to attribute poetry to him, and to view him as the pre-eminent master of their craft.
Prophetic Poetry of the Awenyddion
The second gift of the cauldron is prophecy, and prophecy by means of Awen, as practised among a specialist group of diviners, is described by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Description of Wales (trans. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, 1978, p.246ff.), written in the late 12th century. Giraldus says that:
Giraldus equates the gift of Awen inspiring these trance mediums with “the spirit of God”. It would appear from his description that Awenyddion were able to enter prophetic trance states at will, without the use of rhythmic drumming, singing, dancing, or psycho-active plants resorted to in other traditions. Inspired prophets such as those described by Giraldus were widely known throughout the pagan Graeco-Roman world. Their prophecies were usually delivered in poetic form, sometimes being worked on by professional Bards retained for the purpose at oracular shrines. The prophets themselves could be either male or female. In Greece, women were frequently considered to receive their inspiration from the God Apollo, men from the Muses, Apollo’s handmaidens.
Taliesin’s prophetic gifts are celebrated in a number of poems, where he rehearses events since the creation and predicts the fate of the British until the end of time, as in ‘The Four Pillars of Song’, where he sings of the Saxon conquest of Britain:
This reminds us that knowledge of the future is both a gift and a burden, for the future holds both joy and sorrow. With knowledge of the future, the gift of Awen also brings memory of the past, and Taliesin not only claims knowledge of past events, but also to have been present at them, as in the following verse in which he recalls events from the Bible, from classical antiquity, and from British myth and legend:
This poem may be read as a series of incarnations through which the poet has passed. Such a reading brings to mind Julius Caesar’s comment that:
"I Have Been in Many Shapes"
Other poems recall non-human transformations, as in the most famous of all the works attributed to Taliesin; Cad Godeu, ‘The Battle of the Trees’, where the Bard says:
Alwyn and Brinley Rees (Celtic Heritage, p.230) have pointed out that “Taliesin is everything, and it is a fair inference that among the Celts, as in India and other lands, there existed alongside the belief in individual reincarnation, a doctrine that there is essentially only One Transmigrant”. In other words, Taliesin, through contact with Awen, discovers his identity with the divine, becoming, in effect, a supreme, all-wise, and omnipresent god. There are clear parallels here with Hindu spiritual traditions, where one way of attaining enlightenment is to merge one’s identity with that of a chosen deity.
Hinduism has a goddess-spirit which parallels Awen in many ways. In its universal aspect, this spirit is called Shakti, and is represented as a Goddess who is the active, creative spirit of deity, partnered and directed by the wisdom of the god, Shiva. The power of Shakti manifests in many, or all, other goddesses, including the awesome Kali, with her rosary of human skulls, and the beautiful river goddess, Sarasvati, patroness of music and learning. In Tantric tradition women identify themselves with Shakti, men with Shiva, and ultimate spiritual fulfilment is to be found in union between the two. This doctrine was formulated during the same centuries which saw the composition of the Taliesin poems. In Bardic tradition, individual women can become incarnations of Awen, or the goddess as muse. In the ‘Dialogue Between Myrddin and Gwendydd’, the Bard and his muse refer to each other in reverential terms:
The poems quoted above suggest that Bards sought to identify themselves with the divine, and some may have done so by identifying themselves with Taliesin as the archetypal Awen-inspired Bard. His role in relation to Ceridwen seems to indicate that Taliesin should also be regarded as a pagan deity, or at least as semi-divine. Ceridwen herself is seen as the giver of Awen, the divine creative energy, and, therefore, as initiatrix and muse. Her role is echoed in that of many women in Celtic mythology who cause, drive, or inspire the actions undertaken by the male heroes, whom they also suckle, nurture and often teach. Men in the legends frequently seek power and knowledge, which are often either embodied by, or under the control of, women. Female Bards would presumably have sought to identify themselves with the goddess, either directly, or perhaps through devotion to Taliesin, much as Hindu women might approach deity through devotion to Shiva, perhaps in his incarnation as the divine lover, Krishna. Such quests for realisation of the self as one with the divine make sense of the statement in the medieval Irish text, Senchus Mor, that:
Such a level of personal identification with deity is not part of mainstream Christian tradition in the West, although the Eastern Orthodox church has always embraced the concept of theosis, or the divinization of self. In the century during which the Book of Taliesin was compiled, there was a monastery at Mount Athos in northern Greece where the monks used physical means, including breath control, to attain higher states of consciousness, culminating in a vision of divine light, and total union of the self with God. Similar ideas were current in the West through the teachings of mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux (1115-1153), who taught that the summation of the mystical life lay in consciousness of the divine within.
This aspect of Bardic tradition may not, then, be regarded as completely heretical in 13th century terms. What remains problematic is how Bards in the Christian Britain of the period could have reconciled an apparent reverence for the pagan goddess Ceridwen with their professed faith in Christ. It has been suggested that bardic references to Ceridwen demonstrate no more than an antiquarian interest in their own traditions. My own feeling is that the references are so strange, and so tied in with the occult and mystical concept of Awen, that they can only represent a genuine pagan survival, or rather, a remarkable semi-pagan synthesis, based partly on the Celtic past, but merged with spiritual ideas current in other traditions of the period.
The Bardic Goddess
The Goddess most associated with the Bardic Order in Ireland, however, is Brighid, whose name means ‘Maiden’, or ‘Fair Woman’, although it can also be interpreted to mean ‘the Power of Fate’. According to the 9th century Irish manuscript, Cormac’s Glossary, Brighid was Goddess of filidecht (i.e. ‘Bardism’), healing, and smithcraft. The same source refers to her as:
With the coming of Christianity, the pagan Irish Goddess was replaced by a saint bearing the same name.
The power of Shakti, which we have likened to Awen, is identified, in its microcosmic form, with the goddess Kundalini, whose serpent energy sleeps in the lowest of the body’s subtle centres until awakened by the practice of Kundalini yoga. Neiddred, ‘Adders, or Snakes’, has long been an alternative name for Druids, and in the Taliesin poem, ‘The Cattle-fold of the Bards’, the poet identifies himself both as Druid and serpent:
We have seen that one of the primary attributes of Brighid’s British counterpart, Ceridwen, is her Cauldron of Inspiration. In Irish myth the primary deity associated with a similar magical cauldron is Brighid’s father, the Dagda (‘Good God’), called in one text the ‘God of Druidry’.
What then have we learned about Awen? We know that it is a flowing spirit, a kind of life essence, a source of spiritual strength, prophetic insight and poetic inspiration associated with deities called Ceridwen and Taliesin in Britain, and Brighid and the Dagda in Ireland, all of whom are associated with magic cauldrons and intoxicating liquors. It is quite likely that individual tribal groups had their own deities associated with the `flowing spirit.’ Meadhbh and Dana have already been mentioned, and it seems not unreasonable to suggest that our Druid ancestors regarded all deities as sources of, or conduits for, Awen. We have seen that Awen can manifest in a variety of forms such as liquid, a hawk, a woman, or the taste of honey on the lips. We also know that it can be contacted by drinking from the cauldron of the Goddess, by singing or chanting, by controlled trance induction, by vision quest, or by sensory deprivation. Modern Druid groups also use various forms of meditation, visualisation and ritual.
The ways in which we have envisaged Awen have, perhaps, made it seem occult and mysterious, and so it is, yet its inspiring energy is all around us if we can but learn to sense its presence and open ourselves to its gifts. It may be experienced in the thrill of standing on a windswept hilltop, or walking through a moonlit wood, or by the sea-shore, or being out in an electrical storm, or performing ceremonies at ancient sacred places, where it accumulates like water running into a hollow. It is sensed in that strange, tingling thrill that comes on first hearing an inspired piece of music, or a poem, or on seeing a magnificent painting. It is a response to the inspiring spirit channelled into a work of art by its creator. The poet Robert Graves has described it as a prickling sensation on the back of the neck. Some experience it as a tingling in the palms of their hands, like contacting a static charge, or as a glowing warmth in the region of the solar plexus. It leaves one feeling uplifted and energised.
One summer afternoon, I stood in a wood with about a dozen Druids. We joined hands and asked Spirit for guidance. A great silver bowl, about eight feet in diameter, appeared above our circle. Above the bowl a woman’s hand, pale and slender, emerged from the air. From her fingers ran a stream of silver liquid that quickly filled the shallow bowl, which overflowed, sending streams of silver down upon the heads of those gathered in the circle. Such was my vision of Awen on this occasion. But this vision was personal to me. It is for each individual to discover the way, or ways, in which Awen manifests for them, just as we must find our own creative talents through which to make manifest its gift of inspiration, and must each find our own relationship with Deity. And so we see that Awen lies at the heart of the Druid tradition, for it is Awen, the Holy Spirit of Druidry, that provides our true link, not only with the past, but with the deeper reality of the present, and with the infinite possibilities of the future, and which gives as its ultimate gift the recognition of our own divinity.