Dwynwen: “She who leads a blessed life”: Imbolc 2022
Dwynwen’s Chapel Ruins, Ynys Llanddwyn
Who needs St Valentine when we have our own British matron saint of lovers? Not only do we have the fascinating story of Dwynwen but also her breathtaking island, Ynys Llanddwyn, to visit on pilgrimage, as people have done for hundreds—if not thousands—of years.
Said to have been the most beautiful of King Brychan Brycheiniog’s two dozen daughters, Dwynwen was also considered both good and dutiful. Some people say that she fell in love with a young prince, Maelon Dyfodrull, but was forced to reject his advances as her father wanted her to marry another. Others say that although she loved Maelon she really wanted to be a nun and remain chaste. In either case, she prayed for release from her unhappy love and while dreaming was given a potion, but this turned Maelon into a block of ice. Dwynwen prayed more and was granted three wishes, which she used first to thaw out Maelon and then to ask that all true lovers should find happiness but that she herself should never again wish to marry. After this she retreated to her lovely island to live as a nun, or hermit. She also studied the healing qualities of local herbs and cured both people and animals who were taken to her. Her name is said to mean “she who leads a blessed life.”
As Dwynwen’s fame spread, pilgrimages were made to her island, and women would test the faithfulness of a lover by the movement of a fish or eel that lived in her sacred well, scattering breadcrumbs on the surface and then laying her handkerchief over them. If the handkerchief was disturbed by the creatures then her lover would be faithful. Unfortunately it is difficult today to tell exactly where her holy well was located, there are several springs on the island today but nothing is certain.
Dwynwen died in 465 CE and her shrine became so popular it was the richest place of pilgrimage in the area in Tudor times and the chapel, of which we see only ruins today, was built to house her statue, said to have been made of gold, with candles burning around it 24 hours a day. Even after the Reformation people continued to visit. But her cult must have begun far earlier, as we know thanks the great Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwyilym, who lived from around 1320 to 1380. Even in translation Dafydd’s “A Prayer to Dwynwen” is beautiful, although at least a tad naughty, as the poet is asking Dwynwen to be his “llatai” or love messenger so that he can meet his married lover, Morfudd, in the woods without being discovered by her husband. Dafydd goes so far as to promise Dwynwen that she won’t lose her place in heaven by helping him in this way:
No need, unfailing gold image,
To fear sinful flesh’s snare,
God won’t undo, good his peace,
What he’s done: you’ll not leave heaven.
Dwynwen’s island retreat has an indefinable mystical beauty and I can’t wait to visit again. If you plan your own pilgrimage please don’t forget to check tide tables first, unless you don’t mind wading waist-deep back to the mainland or waiting several hours for dry land to reappear! The island is now part of the Newborough Nature Reserve, where you can find plenty of parking and some other amenities. It’s a bit of a trek out to the isle, but so worth it, lots of little cove beaches and amazing views over to Snowdonia and the Lleyn Peninsula and even as far as the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland, not to mention interesting geology to explore.
Dwynwen’s story is reminiscent of Melangell’s in some ways: the wish to remain virgin and the ability to heal both people and animals, and of course both remind me of Brigit, Goddess of healing and poetic inspiration among other things. The connections with sexuality are also barely hidden behind symbols: hares and rabbits under a skirt, eels and fish nibbling under a handkerchief. Women have made cloth for thousands of years, creatures seeking to find a way beneath the clothes an obvious metaphor. Perhaps both Dwynwen and Melangell are both part of what remains of spring or solar Virgin Goddess cults?
25 January 2022 – Dwynwen’s Feast Day
Clancy, J., 2016. The Poems of Dafydd ap gwilym. Bath: Brown Dog Books.
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