Myths & Legends

Santes Dwynwen: 25th January / 25 Ionawr

Santes Dwynwen, illustration by Margaret Jones

Around the world, the 25th of January is known as Burns Night, even in Wales. Robert Burns’s many enthusiasts gather in clubs, pubs and halls to revel in the magic of his timeless verse. There is another reason for celebration on this cold, sometimes dreary day. To Welsh lovers, it is a day for chocolate, flowers and love spoons, candlelit meals and stolen kisses.

January 25th is Dydd Santes Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers. A fortnight after the Old New Year – Yr Hen Galan (still celebrated in parts of Wales in the traditional way) – we celebrate love and romance. And here is why:

Dwynwen, the daughter of Brychan Brycheiniog, a chieftain of Powys, fell in love with a youth by the name of Maelon. Although she loved this young man, she rejected his amorous attentions. According to legend, God appeared to Dwynwen and offered her a sweet drink. When she drank it, her love for Maelon was dispelled.

When Maelon also drank the sweet liquid, he was turned to ice. The injustice of his fate – for no other crime than his love for her – evoked Dwynwen’s pity and she asked for God’s mercy. The youth was revived but Dwynwen had embraced her choice to remain chaste. In sympathy with those, like Maelon, whose love is unrequited, she became the patron saint of lovers and never married.

Dwynwen is known in Cornwall as Adwen – another a daughter of Brychan, one of his twenty-four children.

Dydd Santes Dwynwen has always been celebrated in Wales but, in recent years, greater emphasis has been placed on the 25th of January as a Welsh occasion for lovers. While St. Valentine’s Day still holds firm, Dwynwen has regained her place – an additional opportunity for couples to declare their love with gifts and romantic evenings.

Another version of the legend of Dwynwen and Maelon is that Brychan had made a contract with a suitor for his daughter but Dwynwen and Maelon had fallen in love. When she could not marry Maelon she prayed for deliverance from the arranged marriage and, to spare Maelon the pain of losing her, she gave him a potion which, as above, turned him to ice. God released Maelon from this fate and in thanks, Dwynwen prayed never to marry, dedicating her life to the relief of suffering, especially that of unrequited lovers.

The above article first appeared in  Celtic Queens  in January 2011.

Tristan ac Esyllt | Tristan & Isolde

An illustration from the MabinogionThis tale from the Mabinogion was my first contribution to the Celtic Queens blog in June 2010:

Like many, I grew up on Disney, Lerner and Lowe, T H White and a host of other interpreters of myth and legend. Taking the opportunity to read closer to the source, I discovered another way of seeing some of the most beloved of the Arthurian legends. One of these is the story of Trystan and Esyllt (Isolde in the Wagnerian opera).  We most often see this as a tragedy of great love, akin to Romeo and Juliet – a 19th century romanticized interpretation of one story from the Mabinogion and as far from the original tale as is Camelot.

The source legend is Welsh Celtic and more life-affirming than the penchant of the Romantics for suffering and death. This telling is from Welsh Legend and Folk-Tales, by Gwyn Jones, (1955, Oxford University Press):

News reached Arthur that Trystan and Esyllt were wandering together as outlaws in the oakwoods. Esyllt’s husband, March, Arthur’s nephew, came to the court to demand vengeance, claiming that his kinship to Arthur made his case of higher merit. Trystan was only the son of one of Arthur’s cousins. Arthur agreed that he would hear the case.

March and his warband surrounded the oakwoods. Esyllt was frightened but Trystan hid her in the hollow of an oak, concealed by ivy, holly and a nearby yew tree, telling her that his destiny would prevent harm to him. March knew that any man who drew blood from Trystan would die so he sent his men to bring Trystan out, but the men refused to do what their war-lord would not.

March complained again to Arthur who sent harpists and poets to placate Trystan so that he could be draw into discussion. Both men refused to give up Esyllt and Arthur pronounced that she would be shared: with one when the leaves were full on the trees and with the other when the trees were bare. Her husband was given the first choice and claimed his wife when the winter nights seemed longer than all the days of summer.

Arthur went with his warband to tell Esyllt of the decision. She interpreted the pronouncement as best suited her and rejoiced in his judgment, singing:

“Three trees there are, both good and true: Holly and ivy and yew are they: They keep their leaves the whole year through, And Trystan shall have me for ever and aye.”

And that is the Welsh legend of how Trystan won Esyllt and how they lived happily ever after.

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