Who Was Arawn in Welsh Mythology?
Many world religions believe that more than one world exists. In addition the the land of the living, where we reside, there were lands for the dead, for the gods, and sometimes for other intelligent races.
In the Celtic world, one of these places was the Otherworld. Known in Wales as Annwn and in Ireland as Tir na Nog, the Otherworld was a place of perpetual youth, beauty, and joy.
In Welsh legends, Annwn is ruled by a figure known as Arawn. Despite the beauty of his land, however, Arawn was a hunter who fought frequent wars.
The legends we have today show Arawn and his land as both beautiful and dangerous. It’s impossible to know, however, just how much of this description was original to the Welsh religion.
While the Otherworld is well-known in many Celtic cultures, the way Arawn and his land are portrayed can be much different than the idyllic land usually described. Later Christian influences are so stong in Welsh legends that, according to some historians, even Arawn’s name might not have been an original part of his story.
In the mythology of Wales, Arawn was the king of the Otherworld.
His realm, Annwn, was thought to be either a faraway island or a land deep within the earth. Despite being below ground, however, Annwn was not the same kind of Underworld that existed in other cultures.
Instead of being a place of death and punishment, the Otherworld was a paradise. Its residents, who were eternally young and healthy, enjoyed endless food and spent their time on entertainment rather than toil.
The Otherworld is a concept that appears in many Celtic traditions. In Ireland, for example, it was known as Tir na Nog.
In the story of Branwen, the heroes end their adventures with a feast in Annwn. Not only do they experience no hardship in the Otherworld, but they entirely forget what sorrow and suffering even are. They no longer care about the passage of time and are content to feast in Annwn forever.
While Arawn’s realm was a place of great beauty, it could also be dangerous to mortals. Those who tried to access Annwn without being invited by its king, or those who offended him, could find great hardship there.
One human king, for example, found out that the Otherworld had its own wars and enemies when he offended its ruler.
Arawn had a pack of hunting dogs, the Cwn Annwn. One day, they brought down a mighty stag in the Welsh forest.
Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, was out hunting that day as well. When he saw the stag he sent his own hounds to chase off the Cwn Annwn so he could claim the kill for himself.
Arawn appeared and told Pwyll that he would have to atone for his crime. They would trade places for a year; Arawn would rule the Welsh kingdom and Pwyll would be sent to the Otherworld.
Ruling over the beautiful Otherworld was not too great of a punishment, but Arawn had an enemy at the time. Annwn was divided into two kingdoms at the time and the neighboring king, Hargan, had declared war on Arawn.
Arawn commanded Pwyll to make amends by killing Hafgan with no more than a single stroke of his sword. In their first battle, Pwyll struck him twice and Hafgan was immediately cured instead of killed.
Just before the year was up, Pwyll met Hafgan again in battle. This time, he refused to strike him a second time so Arawn’s enemy was finally defeated.
Pwyll had also been in disguise as Arawn, so Hafgan’s forces believed that they had been defeated by the proper king. They swore that the Otherworld would never have any ruler beside Arawn.
The Celtic Otherworld can seem very different based on what story it appears in. While it is a beautiful and bountiful land, some stories also claim that it is inhabited by monsters, giants, and demons.
The sometimes contradictory ideas of the Otherworld are largely due to the fact that the myths of Celtic cultures, including that of Wales, were not written until the early Middle Ages. The men who wrote the stories down were generally Christian monks rather than believers in the pagan faith.
Many of the stories that have survived, therefore, try to frame the Otherworld in a Christian context.
While many pagan religions believed there were meany realms or worlds, Christianity taught that there was only one world inhabited by the living. Other than this world, the only other places were Heaven and Hell.
The Otherworld was interpreted as a version of both by different Christian-era writers.
Its beauty and pleasures made it easy to associate with the Christian version of Heaven. Some Christian writers, however, found this analogy dangerous because it created a link between the gods of a pagan realm and the divinity they believed lied only in a single god.
Instead, it was much more common to associate Annwn with Hell. Arawn became a more dangerous and menacing figure.
It was common to associate pagan gods and spirits with demons in Christian folklore. Annwn became a more menacing place and Arawn and his hounds were associated with the Wild Hunt.
In the poem Cad Goddeu, written in the 14th century, Arawn leads the forces of Annwn against the kingdom of Gwynedd. The hero Gwydion defeats an army that includes a beast with a hundred heads and a host beneath each tongue and a serpent with a thousand tortured souls imprisoned in its flesh.
Another poem describes Annwn as one of the lands visited by King Arthur in his jouneys. Although the details of his trip are not recorded, the poem does say that Annwn was so dangerous that three boatloads of men set out to find it and only seven individuals survived.
Eventually, Arawn became conflated with another hunter god, Gwyn ap Nudd, who may have been the Welsh personification of winter. Gwyn was a psychopomp, or guide of the dead, and as the Otherworld became more associated with the afterlife he was recast as the lord of that realm.
In some later stories, including many Arthurian legends, Gwyn ap Nudd is the commander of Annwn’s demonic forces. He takes Arawn’s place as the master of the Cwn Annwn, the Hell Hounds, and the Wild Hunt.
One story even claimed that Saint Collen had to use holy water to forcefully expel Gwyn’s court from Glastonbury Tor. The people of Annwn were demonic, a far cry from earlier tales of their beautiful and peaceful land.
Some memory of Arawn as a more positive figure may have remained, however, in his name.
It had been proposed that the name Arawn was not a native Welsh word. Instead, it was imported in the early Christian era as a variation of Aaron.
In the Old Testament, Aaron was the brother of Moses. While the prophet was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of his sins, Aaron took the people into Israel after forty years of wandering the desert and became their first king after captivity.
Arawn’s name, therefore, contained the memory of the Otherworld as a promised land, rather than a version of Hell.
In Welsh mythology, Arawn was the king of Annwn. This was the Otherworld, a land of eternal youth and happiness that is a common element in Celtic myths.
Despite its idyllic nature, however, the legends often show Annwn as a dangerous place. In one well-known story, the land was divided in two and Arawn was at war with his neighbor.
Some stories show Arawn and Annwn as even more dangerous. The people are described as demonic and Arawn, whose hunting dogs were a typical part of his stories, was cast as the leader of the Wild Hunt.
These stories are likely due to Christian influence. Because most Welsh legends were not recorded until the Middle Ages, they were viewed through the lens of the Christian faith instead of the original beliefs.
It was common for Christian writers to interpret the Otherworld as an evil place at odds with their own religion. To discourage worship, gods associated with the Otherworld were often recast as demonic and frightening.
Thus, in Arthurian legend Arawn’s realm is a dangerous place that few survive. Arawn himself was so terrible, according to some Christian writers, that a saint had to expell him with holy water to protect the region.
Arawn’s name, however, suggests that even with these later influences some memory remained of Annwn as a paradise. Some scholars have suggested that it was the Welsh version of Aaron the brother of Moses who led their people into the Promised Land.