Libertas – Freedom in Service

For every blessing there’s a burden, and devotional relationships are no exception. The latest over at Gangleri’s Grove talks about some of the highs and lows in a devotional life, and I personally found that it resonated quite a bit. Check it out!

I was reading a novel a few days ago and came across a line from Seneca “deo parere libertas est” – to serve/devote oneself to a God is freedom. I was so intensely struck by the sentiment that I’ve been mulling it over since I first read it. Certainly, it is a sentiment that I […]

via Libertas — Gangleri’s Grove

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Survivor? Or Pioneer?

*Note: I am specifically speaking about polytheisms centered around PIE religion and the descendant IE faiths. There are other polytheisms out there, of course, but they’re both a) not nearly as commonly practiced by those identifying as “Pagan” or “polytheist”, and b) far beyond the scope of this post AND this blog. I’m also American, so writing primarily for that audience. Thanks for understanding.

My deepening study of Proto-Indo-European religion is resonating through my life in some interesting ways. I’m constantly finding new bits of info or perspectives that challenge what I thought I knew.

It was through that study that I was suddenly able to see a perspective so ingrained in modern Paganism/polytheism that I didn’t even know it was there until I had an alternative for comparison.

It boils down to this: When we practice our faiths, do we see ourselves as Survivors? Or Pioneers?

The Survivors

When it comes to modern PIE-descended polytheism, Survivors see the world like this:

The Survivor Scenario.

At one point in history Proto-Indo-European religion ruled the day, at least for a specific part of the world. It was a polytheistic faith, and it established the ground rules for all the derivatives and variations that came after. 

Over time different descendant groups developed distinctly different playbooks, but they were all still for the game established by the PIEs. The Romans and the Celts and the Norse were all different from each other, but they retained their polytheistic roots and were built on that original Proto-Indo-European framework.

Then Monotheism came in like an atomic bomb, blowing all of those beautiful, distinctly different polytheistic faiths to smithereens. BAM! PIE-descended polytheism (with the exception of the Vedic, which took a completely different route) disappeared from the world entirely, leaving us unmoored and adrift from the traditions that came before.

It was a polytheistic apocalypse, and those of us claiming polytheism today are the last survivors. Like the folks in Mad Max or Waterworld, we scavenge the ruins of once-great civilizations for whatever glimpses of authentic meaning still remain amongst the wreckage, because however tattered those remnants are they’re still better and/or more authentic than anything existing in the here-and-now.

Gathered around a campfire in a blown-out hellscape.

“Back before the world ended, people came from all over for training in the Great Mysteries! How amazing would that have been?” “Right? SO much. I was born too late, dammit!” *tosses another stick on the fire, brooding as the sparks fly*

This view – the Survivor Scenario – is why so many Pagans enter their practice with a sense that they’re either reliving or attempting to revive a bygone era. They believe, consciously or not, that the Golden Age of polytheism has passed us by. For Survivors, modern polytheisms will always be fundamentally inferior to ancient polytheisms, and our efforts will at best get us within shouting distance of what our ancestors once had. We often despair of doing even that.

It’s a view of polytheism that forever looks back and never ahead.

The Pioneers

I’ll admit, the Survivor Scenario is the one I’ve been working with for years now. It permeates modern polytheism so strongly that I didn’t even know it was there until I started getting more into my studies. Once I saw it, though, I was able to see an alternative to the Survivor Scenario. I call it the Pioneer Scenario.

Pioneer Scenario

Most of us who claim polytheism today rarely go back to the original PIE culture (at least as far as I’ve seen), instead focusing on individual hearth cultures that came from it. Even worse, we tend to look at the entire body of knowledge belonging to each culture as monolithic. It’s like we think these cultures sprang fully-formed from the ground and didn’t have any growing pains at the beginning, that they didn’t have centuries to develop, that they didn’t have to start somewhere.

We never consider that the original Proto-Indo-Europeans were a migratory people, and every time they reached a new place to settle they were again faced with the task of adapting their practices to fit the circumstances of their new home.

When we see that, though, we begin to see Modern America as simply one more culture in a long line of them. We’re attempting to do the exact same thing with our polytheism our predecessors did – plant it in a new homeland and grow it into a faith that’s rooted in tradition but relevant to the here-and-now.

Like any of the other groups we’ve got a mixed bag of challenges and blessings that will shape how our particular polytheism grows, but to make anything lasting we’ve got to ditch this idea that our culture is inherently inferior. It’s different, to be sure, but it’s not deficient.

Once we accept that, we can venture beyond merely copying what worked for the other PIE cultures. Doing so won’t work, not in the long term, because it’s not ours that way. We have to seize the opportunity to create new traditions that both honor our PIE heritage and this new cultural landscape in which we find ourselves. Just as our ancestors did before. Otherwise we really will be the last polytheists standing.

Lewis_Clark

“What new adventures lie thataway?” “I don’t know – let’s go find out!”

Our challenges and blessings are both significant, though, and we’ll need to keep both in mind if we’re going to succeed in establishing a uniquely American polytheism.

As far as challenges go, our ancestors had the benefit of living in a world where polytheism was the norm. We don’t. It’s also true that we no longer have an unbroken chain of inherited knowledge for any hearth culture. I can’t go to my local Druid, spend 20 years learning the lore, and practice Druidry the same way ancient Druids did. That opportunity is long past. Only a tiny portion of all the writings that once were have survived the passage of time, too, and a huge swath of oral history is forever lost. These losses are truly tragic.

Instead of dwelling on the losses like the Survivors, though, the Pioneer asks “What unique blessings can this new cultural landscape bring to the PIE table?”.

And there we have quite the list.

We in the modern era have archaeology and psychology and sociology, biology and chemistry and physics, to deepen our understanding of our world far beyond what our ancestors had. We can use that to fuel our polytheism. We can share information between continents, in real time. I’m sharing this blog post using a system containing information that rivals the most celebrated libraries of the ancients, and almost 90% of our population can read it. We’re not just locked into studying one hearth culture to the exclusion of the others by virtue of our physical location alone – we’re in the enviable position of being able to study all of them, simultaneously, from the comfort of our own homes, and we can use that knowledge to inform our practices.  We may not have the depth of information our ancestors did, but I’m betting we’ve got way more breadth, and that information is available to damn near everyone regardless of class or family lineage. And while social progress can be debated, I am thrilled to live at a time when it’s more acceptable to challenge traditional gender roles, or openly live as LGBT+, or to hold any number of other individual perspectives that can enhance our collective experiences.

Personally, I think focusing too much on the Survivor Scenario hampers our ability to adapt, and it impedes our ability to appreciate where we are as much as where we’ve come from. Which makes it harder for us to build something that will carry us into the future.

I’m doing my best to reject the Survivor Scenario entirely. It doesn’t serve anyone. I’m consciously choosing instead to focus on what modern America has to offer as we take our place with the other hearth cultures at polytheism’s table. I’m excited to see what this branch of the PIE family tree will one day grow into, and I’m eager to do what I can to help.

What about you?

The Virtue of Courage

In the wake of #Charlottesville my Facebook feed has been overflowing with folks shocked and outraged by both the eruption of violence (although anyone surprised hasn’t been paying attention) and the fact that Nazis are once again an active public force in 2017.


Don’t think it was straight-up Nazis, or don’t know what went down? Here’s an on-the-ground look. Disturbing footage – you have been warned. 

I’m assuming that everyone reading this post is firmly in the “Nazis are Bad” camp, so I’m not going to belabor that point. I also don’t want to overtalk the POC and Jewish folks who need the floor right now.

However, I would like to discuss a tangential issue that keeps coming up: the guilt many are feeling because they’re not out on the front lines clashing with Nazis face-to-face, shedding blood for the cause.

Examples abound. “I wish I could protest, but I’m not able-bodied and wouldn’t be able to physically protect myself.” Or, “I would be out there, but I have two young children and can’t leave them without a parent if I’m arrested/injured/murdered.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I can’t get off of work to protest without losing my job!” It’s like they feel lacking in some way, like they’re not being courageous enough, and they’re apologizing for it.

Let’s unpack that.

What is courage, anyway? 

Courage is a virtue honored by every Pagan/polytheist path I can name. Even beyond that, though, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and when the chips are down we picture ourselves as heroes. Or even superheroes. And if – when – we fall short of being the heroes we think we should be we beat ourselves up for it.

A poster from the Wonder Woman movie with the tagline

Hero: One person, or a member of a very small group, advancing relentlessly in the face of an overwhelming force, armed with the strength of their convictions and protected by the blessings of the Gods.

It wasn’t always like that, though. Ancient polytheists valued courage too. Thing is, they defined courage differently than we tend to, and that naturally manifested in a different view of heroes.

Here, this says it better than I can:

“Aristotle describes each virtue as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness on the other.

“To be courageous is neither to shrink from your best action on account of fear, nor to foolishly go into danger when no good is likely to come from your doing so. This means that what is courageous for one person may actually be cowardly for another, and rash for a third, depending on the abilities and situations of the individuals. For a small seven-year-old to fight a large eight-year-old bully may be courageous, when it would be cowardly for an adult to act in the same manner, and rash for a four-year-old to do so.

“The key to determining the mean in the case of courage is deliberation about what good is threatened, what options one has to protect that good, and what the likely outcome will be using the different options. The course of action which does not sacrifice the good to fear, when one has a likelihood of protecting it by taking action, is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and rashness, and hence is the courageous one.”

Deborah Kest, Right Action – A Pagan Perspective, ADF

By those standards, Wonder Woman was courageous. As a superhero, her charge could conceivably make a real difference and she didn’t let fear stop her from making the attempt. Anyone attempting to emulate her would be considered rash, though, because they would have immediately died on the field without accomplishing anything. That doesn’t make everyone not Wonder Woman a failure, it just makes them human.

Ancient heroes were often blessed in some way, demigods or magical or whatever. They could do things beyond the human. That’s what made them heroes. Those of us without those blessings could never hope to measure up. Which is fine – we weren’t expected to.

In the ancient world, heroic deeds were inspirational benchmarks, not standards to be met.

Most of us are more prone to caution than recklessness, right? Were I somewhere with bullets flying I’d be way more likely to hunker in my bunker than charge screaming across a battlefield. Thinking of Wonder Woman might be the inspiration I needed to act instead of being paralyzed by fear.

On the other hand, if I were prone to being reckless? To not thinking things through? Those in the bunker would be inspirational, because that extreme would be the harder one for me to reach.

True courage lies between hunkering down and brazenly charging down the throat of a stronger foe. Hitting either extreme means we’re missing the mark. Courage is the sweet spot in the middle.

Nazis win if we quietly keep to our bunkers. They also win if all those protesting them die in the doing. No matter which extreme we’re talking about we wind up with no one kicking Nazi ass. And who wants that?

Courageous Responses to Nazis

Each of us has our own mean, our own courage sweet spot, based on our own individual circumstances. We simply have to find it.

It can be hard to find that sweet spot in the moment, though. If we’re hardwired to hide we’ll do that by default until we have time and space to process. If we’re more prone to lash out we’ll do that until we can rein it in. Our instinctive responses will happen before our brains can catch up.

Martial artists are familiar with this phenomenon. That’s why they practice the same moves over and over until they become instinctual. They’re deliberately rewiring their brains so that the training overrides their instincts.

We can do the same thing when it comes to courageous action. While most of us don’t want to live a life where crisis becomes routine, it does help to work out our logic trees in advance of a crisis. When it comes to Us vs. Nazis, we’re better off if we’ve at least grappled with the theory a little before we go about putting ourselves in harm’s way.

So let’s grapple with Aristotle.

1. What “good” is being threatened? What are we protecting?

Bam.

An image of people throwing the Hitler salute on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other. The caption is

I can’t make it any plainer.

Nazis directly and violently threaten our communities, our friends and neighbors, our families, and ourselves. They’re fascist, racist, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and homophobic. Many of the homegrown version are theocratic, too. I don’t know about you, but damn near everyone I know falls somewhere on their hit list. All of those targeted groups need to be protected.

On a greater level, the Nazi threat radiates beyond our communities onto the world stage, especially considering the power America wields. Imagine the might of the US military in the hands of Steve Bannon and his fanboys.

With courageous action against Nazis we can help protect every citizen on earth. That’s a pretty important thing to do!

2. What are our options? What can we do to protect what we value against Nazis?

There’s a whole wide range of responses we could make here, from deciding to “focus on happier things than politics” to “drawing and quartering every Nazi we find”. I don’t find either of these options to be ethical (and I hope my readers don’t either!), so I’m not going to discuss them. That said, what are some ethical things we can do?

  • Show up ready and willing to physically throw down with Nazis in public protests.
  • Serve as support for those physically protesting (supply bottled water and food, disperse information for planned protests, host planning meetings, offer crash space for those coming in from out of town, offer transportation, offer a safe retreat option if things go south, help protestors network, etc.).
  • Take classes in de-escalation tactics and first aid and/or help other people get trained.
  • Learn self-defense and/or teach it to others.
  • Help protesters and targeted groups with self-care or networking.
  • Step in when witnessing a one-on-one case of Nazis harassment, or call the cops if stepping in isn’t advisable for whatever reason.
  • Show up to speak out against Nazis in public forums, knowing violence is unlikely but possible.
  • Speak out against Nazis in face-to-face situations unlikely to lead to violence, such as with family and friends, knowing you’re risking those relationships.
  • Actively amplify the voices of those targeted by Nazis.
  • Cut ties to those who espouse Nazi views, letting them know why you’re cutting those ties.
  • Make your anti-Nazi stance knows to employers, both your own and those with whom you do business.
  • Make your anti-Nazi stance known to the employers of known Nazis and the companies with whom they do business (hotels, web servers, gyms, restaurants, etc).
  • Write letters to your government representatives linking your anti-Nazi stance to recent events.
  • Speak out against Nazis online, knowing that doxxing and other types of reprisals are possible.
  • Speak out against Nazis online anonymously.
  • Refuse to let Nazis rebrand themselves, or apologists to do it for them. Call out Nazis where you find them as Nazis, without using whatever more palatable term they come up with. (Notice how many times I specifically say “Nazi” in this post? There’s a reason for that.)
  • Write, sing, dance, paint, and put on theatrical productions that show how bad Nazis are – there’s certainly PLENTY to work with!
  • Recommend those creative works to others and support the creators.
  • Form a book club to collectively read and discuss pertinent works (The Diary of Anne Frank, The Hiding Place, and Number the Stars are all classic options).
  • Prepare hidden rooms in your home or on your property to hide victims of potential purges without posting that shit online! (An extreme, I know, but it is an option for any upcoming dystopian hellscape… ).
  • Get passports for you and yours in case you need to leave the country as a result of doing any of the above.
  • Leave the country to ensure the safety of yourself and your dependents while continuing to speak out against Nazis from the outside.

Please notice that these options aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s also not an exhaustive list.

3. What are the likely outcomes/consequences of taking these options? What are the likely rewards?  

There’s no hard and fast answer to this because every person’s circumstances are different. Publicly stating anti-Nazi views in cosmopolitan New York has a very different range of likely consequences and rewards than doing the same in, say, Middle-of-Nowhere Oregon!

Keep in mind that the key word of this whole step is “likely”. Sure, we could catch Ebola tomorrow, but it’s not a likely scenario and we shouldn’t plan our lives around the possibility. However, that means that part of being courageous is staying informed. How do we know if something’s likely or not if we refuse to see what’s really happening around us? Information is power, always, and in this case information helps us make the best choices possible.

By confining our options to “likely” we improve our chances of finding that happy spot between “letting fear guide our steps” and “being reckless with our health and safety”.

Consider too that Nazis are making the same decisions we are, with the same consequence/reward balance. Factoring that in helps us more accurately judge a given action’s effectiveness. Besides, discouraging Nazis from being Nazis is its own reward.

4. What is the best action I could take when protesting Nazis? Which option demonstrates true courage?  

Something I find fascinating about Aristotle’s breakdown is that, by his standards, our feelings about it don’t really matter. We can feel scared or cocky or anything in between, and that’s fine. Courage relies on what we do, not how we feel about that choice. That’s why the article quoted above is titled “Right Action” instead of “Right Feeling”.

A courageous act is one that is the best choice available for the greatest good possible from a given set of options, regardless of our fear or lack thereof. It’s less berserker and more chess master.

And that leaves room for all of us to courageously protest Nazis to the best of our abilities and circumstances, with the only shame being the refusal to try.

May we all try our best.

To the Resistance!

Ladies of the Fourth Branch: Goewin

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

CW: Rape. It’s fairly light in the “Goewin in the Fourth Branch” section, but much more graphic in the “Beyond the Text” section. Reader discretion is advised. 

The Mabinogi are a series of Welsh stories written in the 12th and 13th centuries. Their actual origin is much older than that, though, because the stories were based on the centuries of oral tradition that came before.

By the time the Welsh got around to writing these stories down they were firmly Christianized, and that Christian worldview was laid over the traditional stories to make them more palatable to the audience of the time. Luckily for us that Christian overlay is mighty thin in some places, and with some work we can pull it off the rest of the story too. When it’s gone we see that the entire thing is a sprawling saga rooted in Welsh polytheism.

My Lady is Welsh, so studying the Mabinogi is important to my personal practice. Her story appears in the book’s last section, the Fourth Branch, and combined with UPG gives me some important insights into Her motivations and character.

She’s not alone in that story, though. There are two other women in there too, each contributing Her own piece to the whole. Together Goewin, Arianrhod, and Blodeuwedd are the women of the Fourth Branch, and they’re connected by far more than a mere narrative.

But who are They? And how do They relate?

Let’s start at the beginning and find out.

Goewin in the Fourth Branch

The Fourth Branch opens at the court of Math son of Mathonwy. According to the story, Math could only live while his feet rested in the lap of a virgin. The only exception was when he marched to do battle, at which point he could go take care of business before putting his feet back up. In the first paragraph, we learn that the virgin serving Math was named Goewin (GOH-win), “the fairest of all the maidens that were known in her time”. Because of course she was.

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

The life of the king and the stability of the kingdom both rested, like the king’s feet, on Goewin and her chastity. A threat to her chastity was both an attempt on the king’s life and an act of treason. She was the most untouchable woman in the whole kingdom.

So of course, of course, that means some bastard had to take relieving Goewin of her virginity as a personal challenge. Enter the king’s nephew, Gilfaethwy. He went beyond infatuation with Goewin into full-on obsession. He couldn’t seduce her without bringing all kinds of hell down on himself, so he just heaved a lot of heavy sighs, refused to eat, and presumably wrote bad poetry in her honor while artistically crying into his wine.

Eventually, his brother Gwydion noticed Gilfaethwy’s distraction and called him on it. Once Gilfaethwy confessed his unquenchable thirst for Goewin to his brother, Gwydion decided to “fix” it.

I guess Gwydion’s solution was obvious once you remove all honor from the equation. King won’t leave the target – sorry, girl – unprotected unless there’s a war? Well, why not instigate a war then?

So they did.

Gwydion masterminded the whole thing, with Gilfaethwy riding his coattails (which honestly seems to be the usual way things went down with those two). The first step of the plan was picking a fight with a neighboring king. Once that was accomplished the two brothers sold their uncle Math on their version of events. Math, being a dutiful king who trusted his nephews, left his Court and went to win the war.

Leaving Goewin defenseless.

While the king was occupied, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion snuck back to the castle and together raped Goewin repeatedly in the king’s own bed. The next morning they went back to the battle like nothing had happened. The abused and defiled Goewin was left behind, a broken toy with which they were no longer interested in playing.

Many men on both sides died during the fight the brothers instigated (the Mabinogi calls it a “massacre”), including the other king to Math’s own blade, but Math’s forces were declared victorious.

Math son of Mathonwy fighting in the battle Gwydion orchestrated to rape Goewin. Art by Alan Lee.

Math son of Mathonwy fighting in the battle Gwydion orchestrated to rape Goewin. Art by Alan Lee.

Once it all wrapped up the king returned to his castle, eager to put his feet up again and get back to his regular routine. That’s when Goewin had to tell Math that she couldn’t be his foot bearer anymore because his nephews had raped her and shamed him in the doing.

She made it very clear that the whole thing was against her will, that she fought and screamed so that the whole Court heard it, but no one stepped in to save her. There was no one left in the castle who could. Anyone who could have prevented it was in battle with the king.

The king was shocked and, rare for both the time and a man of his rank, supportive. As her chastity had been stolen while under his protection he immediately married her, to both show that he still valued her and to reassure her that she should bear no shame for what had happened.

Then he magically punished her rapists, causing them to shift into three animal shapes over the course of three years and mate with each other like the animals they had proven themselves to be. They switched sexes during those three years too, so that each would know what it was like to be raped.

Once the sentence was served Math forgave them and welcomed them back into the Court, restoring them to their previous position and embracing them as kinsmen once more.

Math changing the brothers from wolves back into men.

Math changing the brothers from wolves back into men. Available here.

Beyond the Text

After the king says he’ll marry her Goewin is never mentioned again. We don’t know what became of her or what her life was like after that. Honestly, we don’t really know a lot about what it was like before! We can, however, infer quite a lot.

Goewin wasn’t born a foot bearer. Math had to find her. We learn later in the story that, when the king needed a foot bearer, he asked his courtiers for recommendations and then summoned potential candidates to the castle.

This tells us two things. One, to be recommended for the position Goewin had to have already been favorably known by a courtier in Math’s court. Two, replacing a foot bearer was common enough to have a system in place to do it.

The likeliest reason for Goewin to have already been known is that she was being dangled as marriage-bait by her parents. Aristocratic girls were married off pretty early in those days, as early as 12, so she would have been a very young woman when her name came to Math’s attention.

I can just picture a young Goewin preparing to leave her home to serve her king – who she may have never met – in a position of such importance. Was she excited? A little nervous? Terrified? Overwhelmed? And what did she do upon meeting the king to have him choose her from among the other candidates?

It states in the story that Goewin was “the fairest of all the maidens known in her time”, but I doubt that alone would have been enough to endear her to a king. After all, Math knew before he chose her that’s he’d wind up spending every waking moment with his foot bearer, and we all know a pretty face isn’t enough to make up for a slow wit or an irritating personality. Not for any significant length of time, anyway!

I can’t imagine anyone, especially a king, voluntarily saddling himself with a shadow who wasn’t at minimum intelligent, a good conversationalist, and kind. They spent too much time together for them to dislike each other.

Goewin was already in service by the time the story opens, so we’re not sure how their dynamic was at the beginning. Math would have been her official guardian, but how that manifested is up for grabs. Did Goewin see Math as a father figure? An uncle? An older brother? A friend or colleague? A star-crossed lover barred from her by chastity and magic? And how did he see her?

Regardless of how it started, by the time Math returned from the war Goewin trusted him enough to call out his kinsmen as her rapists, and Math valued her enough to marry her in apology. Neither of those is a trivial act.

Her time as a foot bearer would have been limited, though, and both of them would have known that going in. Foot bearers did eventually marry. That’s why they had to be periodically replaced.

I’m sure canny families with daughters who’d chastely served their king leveraged that into securing more favorable marriage contracts. It would likely be the only reason parents accepted their daughter’s serving at all. Additional exposure in the Court introduced maidens to many men of high rank. Being a close confidant of the king was definitely something a potential bride could bring to the bargaining table. And in addition to everything else, there would likely be a significant financial contribution from the king towards the maiden’s dowry when she “retired”. All of that together would allow her to marry (and her family to gain entry) into the highest levels of society.

That just adds to the horror of Goewin’s story, though, because those high social levels would have included Gilfaethwy.

It’s easy to overlook because they behaved with such depravity, but neither brother was an untried youth. Math physically couldn’t travel from place to place, for the same reasons he required a foot bearer to start with. Travel was customary for kings of the time, though, so he sent Gwydion and Gilfaethwy to represent him instead. They were trained and trusted diplomats, handling all the negotiations Math couldn’t physically attend and carrying news from their travels back to Math. They were trusted enough by the king to act in his name and held high in his esteem.

If Gilfaethwy had wanted Goewin for more than a night – or even wanted to honorably have her once – he could have asked for her hand in marriage. And he’d have likely gotten it! Nephew of the king, highest position it was possible to have in the government, a well-known diplomat … it’s unlikely Geowin would have found a better match short of the king himself. Sure he would have had to wait until Math found a replacement, but that’s a small price to pay to claim the object of your obsession. The story is very clear in stating that Gilfaethwy was pining away for want of Goewin – did honorable marriage never enter his mind?

Such a desire certainly never entered the story. Gilfaethwy instead helped his brother engineer a massacre and kill a neighboring king simply so he could rape the one woman he couldn’t immediately have. And somehow I doubt Goewin was the first woman either brother had raped, separately or together. She was simply the woman who had enough influence to have them called on it.

And not even having the ear of the king saved her from the pair of them.

Can you imagine what that night was like for her? I picture Goewin relaxing with the other women of Math’s court while the men were off at war. It was an extremely rare chance for her to spend time with other women without having a man’s feet in her lap. Maybe she danced, or walked the gardens, or simply sat around chattering the way young women do when there aren’t men around to listen in. The women would have been looking for ways to distract themselves from the battle they knew the men were off fighting, and what better way to do that than with the medieval version of a slumber party?

Into this serene female space came two men who weren’t supposed to be there. Goewin knew them, of course. They might even have been friendly. I’m sure the brothers had quite a bit of business with the king, and Goewin would have been there for all of it.

I have to wonder – did her inevitable closeness to Math color her feelings towards his nephews? Did she view them as extended family, or friends, or colleagues? Did they treat her like a little sister or an extension of Math or a piece of furniture? Did their attack on her feel like even more of a betrayal because she’d trusted them as Math did?

Whatever she felt for them, she couldn’t have known that Gilfaethwy had been lusting after her. He’d successfully hidden it from Math. Goewin wouldn’t have seen it coming either.

When the brothers banished all the other women except her from their presence she would have been confused, perhaps even concerned. It wouldn’t have been until Gilfaethwy grabbed her and started dragging her to the king’s bed that she would have known exactly what was happening. That’s when she would have started fighting, yelling and screaming and sobbing, but she had to have known it was futile from the start. There was no way an untrained teenager could have fought off one trained warrior, let alone two, and there was no one left in the castle with the authority or the strength of arm to stop them.

When they reached the king’s chambers it would have been Gilfaethwy stripping Goewin down, glorying in finally slaking his lust in her body despite her struggles. Maybe her struggles even spurred him on. Gwydion would have sprawled in a chair and smirked as he watched his brother rape a woman they’d literally created a war to get their hands on, a predatory cat waiting for his turn with the mouse.

The story doesn’t say when Gwydion decided to participate in Goewin’s rape. Maybe it was his plan all along. Maybe he saw raping her as his due, a prize he was owed for arranging things for his brother. Maybe raping women together was a regular brotherly bonding experience, their version of a beer and a game. Or maybe it wasn’t until his brother was finished taking her the first time, when she was naked and sobbing and bruised. She’d have been too exhausted and sore at that point to fight back much – maybe that’s what finally turned Gwydion’s crank.

The whys don’t really matter, I suppose. He did decide to participate, and by the time he was finished raping her Gilfaethwy would have been ready to go again. And so it went until the sky began to lighten beyond the windows. They could take their time and be as loud as they wanted. No one was there to stop them.

When they finished both men got dressed and went back to the battle they’d instigated. Mission accomplished.

The story doesn’t tell us what happened to Goewin in the immediate aftermath of her rape. Did anyone comfort her after her rapists had left, or tend her wounds? How many apologies did she hear from people who knew she was being attacked but didn’t try to stop it? Did she accept those apologies or find the words stuck in her throat? How many women commiserated with her pain? Were what men were left in the Court able to look her in the eyes when next she walked the halls? Was she able to meet their gazes? Did she feel vengeful and angry, or shamed and small? Was there anywhere in the castle she felt safe?

The next we hear of her is her telling Math why she could no longer be his foot bearer. To his credit Math is horrified by the news, immediately promising to make Goewin his queen. It was more than many rulers would have done in his place, no matter how much he valued Goewin and her service. Then he turned around and punished the two rapists in a rather elegant way, which is again more than Goewin might have expected.

When that punishment was served Math declared all forgiven and welcomed them into his home. Into Goewin’s home.

I have to wonder if Goewin was as forgiving as her husband. Somehow I don’t think so. No matter how well adjusted she was, it had to be difficult to be duty-bound to treat her rapists as beloved family and tend their needs.

Did she try to smile at them? I’m sure she had to. Were her smiles from her heart, or brittle? When she spoke words of welcome were they sincere or like acid on her tongue? Was she able to eat in their presence without feeling threatened, or sick, or fantasizing about killing them in their sleep? Did she pray for them to ignore her, or fend off their lustful looks or dismissive sneers when Math wasn’t looking? Did she see Math’s forgiveness of their crimes as a dismissal of her pain or did she eventually find her own peace with everything that had transpired?

Her rape forced her out of an honored position and shunted her into another vastly different role, with no notice and against any wishes she might have had to the contrary. Did she find it to be an equitable trade? How did it feel to see another woman sitting at her king’s feet, doing the job she was no longer allowed to do? Did she miss being a foot bearer and resent her replacement, or do what she could to take the next maiden under her wing? Did she long for the days of being included in all the king’s meetings and negotiations, or was she relieved by her exclusion and the freedom it brought?

Was her marriage night scary for her, or awkward? How did she and Math handle the abrupt adjustment to their relationship dynamic? Did it change at all, growing into a content marriage, or did it forever feel like something forced upon her? It’s likely that she slept with the king in the same room where she’d been raped, perhaps even on the same bed. Was she ever able to rewrite the bad memories with good ones? Did Math’s presence make her feel safe, or was even that safety taken from her?

Did she ever get a chance to flirt and tease, to be courted with music and sonnets, to blush over a man’s compliments and wonder if he meant them? Or did she obediently pass from young maiden to chaste foot bearer to devoted wife, continuously serving her king as her duty required without ever being allowed the freedom to grow into herself?

Above all, though, I wonder how she felt watching what happened to the next women to interact with Math and Gwydion, the women who came after her. Did their stories resonate with her own? Did she feel a kinship with them that went deeper than blood and duty? Did she envy their choices or scorn them?

What advice would she have given to Math, if he’d thought to ask?

Honoring Goewin

It both surprises and saddens me that there are three women in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, all with damn near equal page time, but only the latter two are commonly honored on Celtic altars. That’s even more upsetting when we realize that Goewin’s story set the stage for both Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd’s tales.

Thalia Took's image of Goewin.

Thalia Took’s image of Goewin. Available here.

In my practice, Goewin is the Lady of Duty and Honor. She represents sacrificing our wants and needs for the greater good, doing what’s necessary because it’s necessary and finding fulfillment in that.

She helps us understand the personal fulfillment that can come from fulfilling our duties and meeting our obligations. We pay bills because it’s a demonstration of our integrity. We call our parents even when we’re tired because it’s not always about us. We go to work and clean our homes and take the car in for maintenance and donate to charity and vote because it’s these actions that provide a foundation for everything else, just as Goewin’s lap was the foundation that allowed Math to rule.

It’s Goewin I turn to for steadfast resolve, for slogging through difficult times, for faithfulness in the face of despair, for trusting despite heartache. Sometimes the only way forward is through, and She understands that better than most.

Goewin shows us how to love others through service. She shows us that careful attention and devotion supports those around us, lifting them high without stealing their thunder. She shows us the value of grace and kindness and gentle wit when it comes to being a friend, the potentials of intimacy without and beyond sexuality, and how helping others creates support systems that in turn support us when we need them.

And She does all of these things while still sticking up for Herself when necessary and claiming Her due.

Goewin is ideal to call on for help with interpersonal relations and politics. She learned to negotiate and govern at the feet of a king and learned to influence the Powers That Be even when She officially didn’t have a voice. She understands etiquette and decorum, modesty and small talk, veiling our thoughts to keep the peace. She knows how to mingle, and persuade, and be the sounding board that provides clarity with the phrasing of a single question.

She also shows us that there is life after trauma. She shows us that things might be different, and might be hard, but better times do lie ahead even if they’re not what we originally imagined them to be.

Goewin is foot bearer and queen, maiden and wife, woman and Goddess. And She is the first of the triad within the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi.