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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.