I’ve written here and here about the cultural appropriation of Welsh myth and culture by those who do not respect the Welsh roots of what they’re using, or the living culture from which they took it. A recent exchange in an OBOD-related forum has made me wonder if there’s a further element to be worried about.
The conversation arose over the meaning of antlered figures in tarot decks, and a couple of people referred to Gwyn ap Nudd and Elen of the Ways. Well, these are figures from the Welsh tradition – and in the Welsh tradition, there is no concept whatsoever of either Gwyn or Elen being antlered.
Elen, as I discussed here, is an Empress – the Romano-British wife of Macsen Wledig, the General declared Emperor by his legions. Elen is connected with military roads, and the defence of the realm, of travellers, and those in dire need of aid. She’s not antlered (and why would a Celtic goddess have antlers anyway? The Welsh, and the Celts more generally, know full well that antlers are not a female characteristic in nature – at least, in the territories inhabited by Celtic cultures).
As for Gwyn, the association made with him is of a bull, not a stag. I’ve discussed this in depth here.
The Welsh traditions never refer to Gwyn as antlered. I think that what’s happening is that the people portraying him in this way are taking Gwyn’s name, and his association with hunting the souls of the dead, and transposing his name onto the characteristics of Herne the Hunter, who *is* traditionally antlered – but Gwyn and Herne are not the same; there is much more in Gwyn’s legends which doesn’t apply to Herne.
So far, this is repeating what I’ve already said here. In both cases, what’s essentially happening is that English-speakers have discovered names and titles (“Elen of the Ways”) and, rather than work with the original Welsh myths and characteristics, have basically developed a fan-fiction version which is completely unrelated to the actual Welsh original.
Now, I grant you that these might be considered as examples of syncretic religion – but I suspect that they’re too different from their original sources to be able to tap into the egregore of thousands of years of Welsh belief.
The new insight that I received from the discussion, though, is a troubling one.
One of my interlocutors, defending the misrepresentation of Gwyn as antlered, referred to him as “lord of Annwyn”, and I realised that I’ve seen this before – not just in discussions of Gwyn, but in other places where neo-pagans have appropriated Welsh culture without understanding it.
This is important, because Gwyn is connected with ‘Annwfn”, also spelled “Annwn”. Not “Annwyn”.
“Annwn” is not a random string of letters. In Welsh, it means ‘depthless” in the sense of a sea so deep its depth cannot be measured: the profound depths of the waters of creation, the Otherworld, the source from which we emerge and to which we return, like the clouds from the sea.
If neo-pagans are using “Annwyn”, that’s quite a different word in Welsh. Again, this is just not a random string of letters to play around with because “Annwyn” sounds cooler; it has profoundly changed the meaning in Welsh.
‘Gwyn’ isn’t a name without meaning: it has a meaning and the meaning is “White’, with the further meaning (depending on context) of “bright”, “sacred”, “holy” or “Otherworldly” – as in the name of Branwen – the White Crow, or the Holy Crow – Brân meaning ‘crow’, ‘gwen’ (the feminine form of ‘gwyn’) meaning holy.
By the rules of Welsh grammar, the adjective loses its initial consonant when used as a post-modifying suffix: ‘gwen’ > ‘wen’. Similarly, ‘an’ is a pre-modifying prefix, which causes transformation of the initial consonant in the following noun. Thus ‘Dwfn’ (deep) > ‘annwfn’ (depthless).
You may see where I’m going with this. If neo-pagans are calling on Gwyn, lord of Annwyn, they are calling on “Gwyn, lord of the the land without Gwyn” – or, using the extended meaning, “Gwyn, lord of the land without holiness or illumination”.
Yikes. Happy Halloween.