The goddess Aine and St Winifred

Time and again we see the myths of paganism subsumed into the narratives of hagiography in the early centuries of the Christian church in northern Europe. Another prime example of this can be found in the stories about ‘St Winifred’ – an early Welsh saint with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name, whose life is ascribed to the 7thC CE.

Winifred is interesting because her life, legends and veneration are full of the indicators of a pagan origin hinting at the Gaelic great goddess, known as Brigit or Aine. She is local to north Wales in the tribal areas of the Deceangli, known by medieval times known as Tegeingl – modern Flintshire. The Deceangli were a Celtic tribal polity of the late Iron Age whose origins are supposed to lie in part in Ireland. Winifred’s father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, is supposed to have been a chieftain among these peoples.

Although relating her floruit to the 7thC CE, the earliest hagiographies (surviving in the Laud and Cottonian manuscript collections) must stem from at least the 12thC, as the work of Giraldus Cambrensis (‘An Itinerary through Wales’) from that century makes no mention of Winifred’s Well and its supposedly famous shrine. The 12thC was an important period for clerical writers who were busily remodelling the more ancient and often syncretic traditions of the past in order to suit the anti-heretical world of new Christian piety, modelled around the example of the Cistercians. The recent Christianisation of Scandinavia (whose settlers had peopled Ireland and Britain) demanded such a modern narrative in order to disguise more overt pagan themes underpinning Christian piety from the eyes of the aware.

Winifred’s tale begins, suitably, with a tale of death and rebirth: An only daughter, she decides from an early age to dedicate her life to Christ, and convinces her father to allow her holy maternal uncle, Beuno, to build a church upon his land. One day while preparing for mass, a huntsman (Caradoc, son of a local prince) emerges from the woods and attempts to rape her or convince her to marry him, but being devoted to Christ she escapes and spurns him. In a fit of rage Caradoc pursues her to the threshold of Beuno’s oratory or church and decapitates her. The head rolls down a hill, and where it comes to rest a miraculous spring bubbles up from the ground. Luckily for her, Beuno arrives, kills Caradoc (his body melts into the ground) and contrives to magically join the maiden’s head back to her body, restoring her to life in god’s name. Beuno then his benediction, proclaiming that pilgrims who honoured the well would be healed of their ailments. Winifred takes holy orders, and Beuno says he must go, but instructs her to annually place a cape of her own fashioning upon a rock in the middle of the river issuing from the spring, and it would be conveyed, dry, with the rock to where Beuno would be staying (either Wales or Ireland depending on the tradition). The spring well supposed to have been created by Winifred’s decapitation is known as St Winifred’s Well at Holywell, and was an important location for pilgrimage in the later middle ages, during which time (up until the Reformation) such sites were of great economic importance to the church.

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

The Christian legend about Winifred and Beuno seems wholly designed to replace a pagan narrative associated with a holy well: a typical site of Celtic worship. As such the details of the story, fantastical and grotesque as they seem, offer us a fascinating chance to understand what it was the Christians were trying to replace.

The Head: The apparent decapitation of Winifred is used here to explain the creation of the spring. That Beuno undoes the discombobulation is a narrative theme of negation typical of early Christian hagiographies – it is an act contrary to an underlying pagan narrative. This would imply that a head or something representing a head was once associated with the well, and would be removed occasionally. Similarly, the spring obviously predated Winifred’s supposed floruit, yet the narrative wishes it to start with her, rather than linking it to a pagan past.

The head was a potent symbol in the Iron Age Celtic world, depicted time and again in Celtic art and in accounts of Celtic warriors treasuring the heads of their enemies. Numerous examples of male and female carved stone heads from the Celtic era have been found throughout Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and sometimes in association with spring wells in an archaeological context.

Decapitated heads played an important part in the mythology of the Mabinogion (the head of Bendigeidfran, for instance). In the ‘Arthurian’ poem of Gawain and the Green Knight, the decapitated head of the tale’s eponymous adversary (Bertilak) – like that of Bran the Blessed – has an active life after its separation from the Knight’s body, indicating a supernatural provenance. This potent and pertinent theme of ancient Atlantic spirituality also occurs in the Ulster Cycle Irish tale Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast) in which three contesting heroes have to submit to a trial by beheading with the disguised Manannan hypostasis – Cu Roi. The idea of a beheaded female, however, is largely absent from the mythological corpus.

Mobile Stones: The idea of a moveable holy stone associated with a river and the sea in this cultural region is hinted at in a number of medieval legendary and apocryphal tales. One of these can be found in the Irish version of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ of the monk Nennius, which discusses certain wonders to be found in the Isle of Man during the early medieval period:

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

The second is a ford which is far from the sea, and which fills when the tide flows, and decreases when the tide ebbs.

The third is a stone which moves at night in Glenn Cindenn, and though it should be cast into the sea, or into a cataract, it would be found on the margin of the same valley…”

The name ‘Cindenn’ contains an element which appears to represent the Gaelic word for ‘head’, which is ‘Cin’ or in modern Manx ‘Kione’ and in Irish, ‘Ceann’. The implication might be that in the Isle of Man during the period of the text’s writing, a stone (head?) was taken from a location near to a water source in a glen (valley) and placed in the sea before being returned to its location. The name Cindenn has not survived in the modern Isle of Man, so the location is unknown. However, most tantalising and curious reference is from an ancient Manx ballad, ‘Berrey Dhone’, which makes allusions to a magical female character who steals cattle and hides out on the high mountains within rocks referred to as ‘doors’. The ballad refers to her having ‘stone of/for her head’ (the Manx phrase in the song is ‘As y lhiack er e kione’). ‘Berrey’ is pronounced ‘Beara’, leaving no doubt that the ballad is referring to the ancient ‘Cailleach’ herself.

Holy Cloaks: The curious reference in the Winifred tale to an annual gift of a cloak (at midsummer) is another tantalising glimpse of a lost pagan tradition. The ‘cloak’ or ‘veil’ is, of course, an attribute of the eponymous Cailleach, whose name (we might speculate) might mean ‘covered stone’.

Death and Rebirth at the Holy Well: Winifred’s story starts with her martyrdom – something of a change to the usual story of Christian saints. However, she is promptly brought back to life by a male saint, an aspect of the story seeming to deliberately emphasise the power of the masculine over the feminine.  Rivers had female personifications in the Celtic world, with many legends associating them with magical females who stand guard over their sources – typically spring wells, which were deemed holy. It was believed that the life-giving waters of these springs flowed both to and (mystically) back from the Otherworld. I discuss this in some detail here.

Interestingly, the ‘decollation’ of St Winifride was celebrated on the summer  solstice – 22nd of June, which was her original festival day before it was moved to the 3rd November (Samhain) later in the middle ages, a date more suited to ‘witches’. Proof enough that ‘Winifred’ was a reaction to goddess worship…

Gifts to the Otherworld: The idea of a former pagan belief in an Otherworld river arising from Winifred’s Well is made explicit in the part of the narrative which has Beuno advising the saint to annually express her gratitude to him by casting a gift into the stream arising from the spring, safe in the knowledge that it will mystically travel to him in Ireland. One wonders if Beuno himself as well as Winifred was a Christian hypostasis of a pagan theme, rather than solely a male Christian character imposed upon a pagan female narrative. It was once a practice (according to an 18thC account by Thomas Pennant) to dedicate calves and lambs born bearing a special mark on their ear (a slit or nick called ‘Nôd Beuno’) to the saint at his church and supposed tomb at Clynnog in north Wales.

The Irish connection:

Being in the same region as the diocese of St Asaph, Winifred’s legend and the themes of her hagiographic narrative must in some way be culturally linked to that of the water-loving St Kentigern, also called ‘Mungo’. The Glaswegian saint’s legend mentions him sojourning in North Wales with Asaph during his spiritual questing in ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ (‘The Old North’ Celtic polity of sub-Roman Britain during the early Anglo-Saxon pagan era): Northwest Britain, Southwest Scotland and North Wales were once part of a purer Celtish cultural polity connected to Ireland after the collapse of continental Roman administration.

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

The prefix of the name Winifred (‘Wini-‘) calls to mind the Celtic words for river: Abhain (Irish), Awin (manx) and Afon (Welsh) – all generally pronounced in a similar manner, and the ‘saint’ herself is strongly connected with the source of rivers. It has been suggested that the Irish goddess name Áine (pronounced ‘Awynya’ or ‘Awnya’) might also be connected to the word for ‘river’, as it also signifies a circle or cycle, as does the Latin word Annus, from which the goddess of the seasons, Anna Perenna was named.

Indeed, the Manx use of the name ‘Jinny the Winny’ and ‘Jinny the Witch’ (Jinny is pronounced either ‘djinny’ or ‘yinny’) for the supernatural female associated with Samhain (in Manx called ‘Hop-tu-Naa’ or Sowin) persists to this day, providing linguistic evidence of a connection between Winifred and the pagan goddess of the Gaels.

Another interesting link comes from the term ‘Awen’, familiar to students of neo-druidry and those with an interest in Welsh celtic reconstructionism. This is usually described as meaning ‘poetic inspiration’ and is indeed related to the previously mentioned Celtic word for river: it implies a flow of inspiration. If Cormac’s 10thC ‘Glossary’ is to be trusted, the triform Brigit was the pagan goddess of poetry among the Irish and she and Áine appear to be different aspects of a triple goddess of the annual cycle, represented by the Maiden (Brigit, goddess of spring), the Mother (Aine, goddess of summer) and the Crone (the Cailleach who represents winter). The multi-dimensional mystery of this triple formed goddess and her triple-formed consort must have been a core spiritual tenet of the druidic religion, now lost, but seemingly within grasping distance for us once again…







Gods and Robbers: ‘Twm Siôn Cati’

The Welsh answer to England’s ‘Robin Hood’ legend is that of ‘Twm Siôn Cati’ (pron. ‘Toum Shon Catti’), whose legend has in modern times been popularly located (like that of Scotland’s Sawney Bean and Ireland’s Caher Roe) in the fractious 16th century during the period of unrest following the Protestant Reformation. Modern authors have attempted to give historicity to the character, giving him an air of political legitimacy, not in the least because – unlike Sawney – Twm was a ‘good fellow’.

A ‘historical’ Twm?

The usual modern tale told of the euhemerised ‘historical Twm’  is that he was born Thomas Jones, illegitimate son of Catherine ‘Cati’ Jones of Tregaron and the more regally connected Siôn ap Dafydd ap Madog ap Hywel ‘Moetheu’ (?Matthew) of Porth-y-Ffin (also described as ‘John Wynne of Gwydir’ in some texts), circa 1530. Why this has come to be so often-repeated is solely due to the desire to fix ‘Twm’ with a provenance, either (as in the case of Robin Hood) out of civic pride or to suit the romantic prejudices of authors with theories on the subject, of which there have been a not inconsiderable number. The modern tale seemingly derives from ‘The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti’ by patriotic Welsh romanticist-antiquarian T J Llewelyn Prichard (Pub. Cox, Aberystwyth 1828) and has been enlarged upon to form the current ‘tourist’ myth. However, like with ‘Sawney Bean’ its origins as historical are in dispute: For instance, a play ‘Twm Shon Catty, or, The Welsh Rob Roy’ reviewed in the 1823 edition of the ‘The Drama‘ magazine places Twm as a knight and lord during the reign of Henry IV (d.1413). Evidently, the desire to establish provenance in the confused political landscape following the reformation was again to blame for the metamorphosis of the popular narrative. Thomas Pennant noted in his ‘A Tour in Wales, 1770’ (Vol.2 p.137) that the legend of outlawry associated with the seat of the influential 16thC Wynnes of Gwydir was ascribed to an earlier character, Hoel ap Evan ap Rhys Gethin. The historic Thomas Jones (Hoel’s later ancestor) does not get a mention by Pennant, who evidently had access to Welsh pedigrees when writing this work, again pushing the legend back over the medieval ‘event horizon’ and therefore into the world of legendary historical fantasy where kingship was believed derived either from god, or the blessings of fairies, or both, and sleeping saviours would return to fight the usurpers of the land. This was, of course, the world of the early 15thC and the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr against English hegemony – a time when Welsh monarchs and gentry became ‘outlaws’ and ‘bandits’ in English polemic tradition. Curiously, the legendary exploits of Twm and Owain seem similar.

The legendary Twm:

The flesh of Twm’s legendary narrative portrays him – like Robin Hood – as a nobleman or popular yeoman-class commoner being consigned to outlawry by malice, misfortune or turn of politics. His outlawry, although  overtly criminal, is tacitly for the common good, and his clever japes, tricks and skillful demonstrations of feats keep him one step ahead of both death and the law. Like in the other ‘outlaw’ myths he inhabits a cave in the wilderness with a female partner where he conducts his heroics (or crimes) until eventually re-entering society to claim his deserved rewards. He therefore fits the character of the ‘legendary wildman’ whose guise in British and Irish folklore frequently crosses over with that of giants in a number of legends (for example, Wade and his wife from Eskdale in North Yorkshire, the Cailleach and her husband from Scotland, Mann and Ireland).

Twm’s supposed cave (‘Ystafell Twm Siôn Cati’) is a popular haunt of tourists seeking after his legend, and is to be found on Dinas Hill on the RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas Reserve, near Ystradffin in upper Carmarthenshire, not far from Llandovery. The hill and cave overlooks the confluence of the rivers Towy (Tywi) and Pysgotwr, so in the Atlantic system of paganism before the Christian era, would undoubtedly have had great significance, the River Towy being one of the largest in Wales, being full of the protean and migratory Sea Trout and draining into Carmarthen bay.

Twm's 'cave'? I've been there - its more like a grotto than a cave...  Image ©Paul Edwards 2011,

Twm’s ‘cave’? I’ve been there – its more like a grotto than a cave…
Image ©Paul Edwards 2011,

Ystradffin and its environs are connected to the Marian cult which supplanted paganism in the middle ages, and the nearby hilltop church of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn (St Mary on the Hill) bears witness to this. This was a region once deemed important enough by the Romans to have built a road and fort there, perhaps marking it as an older hotspot of banditry than the medieval and early-modern ‘Twm’ legends give credit for. It was, after all, the frontier with the last part of southern Britain to have maintained an indigenous Celtic social structure and religion, making it a breeding ground for early Christianity.

This brings us to the name, ‘Twm Siôn Cati’. Obviously it is reasonable to suggest it is an indigenous mode of naming common to the Celtic world and its love of genealogies and foreshortened nick-names – ‘Tom, son of John and Catherine. Let’s analyse the name:


The name ‘Twm’ (Tom) is a Christian name of a legendary early acolyte and proselyte of the Hebrew sage Jesus of Nazareth – Thomas the Twin. Coincidentally Thomas shares his feast day (6th Novemeber) with the Welsh saint Illtyd (Illtud) who was credited with founding one of the first and most vital Christian schools at Llanilltud Fawr (Lantwit Major) during the 6th century. This school has been linked to many of the early Christian missionaries of Britain and Ireland during the sub-Roman period, including Patrick. Thomas the missionary served as a popular saint by which to name children. He is most venerated in Southeast Asia for this reason, and is referred to as the ‘Apostle of the Indians’.


The element Siôn, Sion or Shon is usually supposed to represent the Welsh version of the name ‘John’. However, the phonetic ‘shon’ might also relate to Celtic words for ‘old’ – Welsh=(S)hen, Manx=Shenn, Irish=Sean. It also lies in the phonetic scope of celtic words for ‘blessed’ – Irish= séant, Manx=sheaynt,


Although linked in modern legends to a woman called ‘Catherine’ the name ‘Cati’ has a much more interesting past with distinct links in the insular celtic folklore and legends with both rebel-bandits (Scots/Gaelic: Cathair, giving the Irish bandit-name Caher Roe) and a bevy of mysterious magical females going by the name of Caitlin, Cathaleen etc who gave their names to a number of places, not the least of which is Enniskillen, where Caitlin is believed to have once have been a pagan goddess with a sanctuary on the island there. ‘Cathaleen’ is the the female temptress overcome in legends about St Kevin of Glendalough on a lakeside crag (for more information on her, see my other posts on the matter).

This interpretation might imply that legendary Old Twm, the helpful outlaw, was originally believed to have been the son of ‘Cati’, the ‘sitting one’ who presided over ancient shrines on crags overlooking water…