In one of the more curious instances of holidays reclaimed from obscurity, Wales has resurrected St Dwynwen’s Day on January 25th. St Dwynwen was a fifth century princess, the loveliest of King Brychan Brycheiniog’s twenty-four daughters, and the Welsh patron saint of lovers. Her day in the Welsh calendar has steadily grown in popularity since her reintroduction in the 1960s, with sweethearts sending St Dwynwen Day cards and giving each other gifts of spoons. But, rather like that other patron saint of lovers, the story of Dwynwen casts a dubious light on love.
Dwynwen was a maiden who apparently wanted to stay a maiden. But pretty maids are seldom left to their own devices, and her father arranged for her to be married forthwith. Meanwhile a young prince named Maelon Dafodrill (whose name means “prince daffodil”… or “prince narcissist”, as it were) began to court Dwynwen. In some tales she also falls in deeply love with him and is distraught because they can’t marry, she being betrothed. In other tales she spurns his advances, but her heart is still drawn to him. Still other versions say she is horrified when Maelon tries to seduce her and she then spurns him, after which he flies off in a violent rage and abandons her. But in all the stories, she prays fervently that God would make her forget Maelon.
That night she is visited in her dreams by an angel who spoon-feeds her a potion of forgetting and tells her that Maelon has been turned to ice. This last goes a bit beyond her desire, but luckily the angel also says that God has granted her three wishes. So her first wish is to defrost Maelon. Her second is that God always unite true lovers and that he peacefully cool the ardor of all those who are not truly united. Her third is that she remain a maiden for life.
God granted all three wishes. Though, to my mind, he’s sort of slacking off on the second. Still Maelon was no longer an icicle, and Dwynwen went off to a rock in the middle of the sea and devoted herself to God rather than any man. Two out of three ain’t bad…
Dwynwen founded a convent on Llanddwyn, an island off the west coast of Anglesey, though it is also said that she remained an anchoress for the rest of her days. After her death, the well at Llanddwyn, which means “Dwynwen’s church,” became a place of pilgrimage. It is believed that the sinuous dances of the sacred fish and eels that live in the well foretell the fate of lovers. You can still visit the remains of Dwynwen’s church today and ask the eels to show you your heart’s true desire.
Dwynwen undoubtedly had much more of an impact on her part of the world than if she’d been married, either to Maelon or to her nameless betrothed. (We know her name, for example…) She also very likely lived a happier life than an average Queen consort. But I can’t help but think that this isn’t a story about the triumph of true love. It’s more a rather clever scuppering of all entanglement.
Dwynwen didn’t even try to salvage her love, if indeed she felt any (though she didn’t necessarily want to put her lover on ice); and she definitely wanted nothing to do with matrimony. And while she did inveigle that second wish, she herself didn’t do much for others in love. She didn’t even bless their unions like Valentine did a couple hundred years earlier. As soon as she could, she ran off to a rocky island for a happily ever after in contemplative solitude.
I’m not sure what this story says about the Welsh idea of love, but I rather admire Dwynwen. Caught between the competing wants of men, she manages, by invoking her God who trumps the will of mankind, to escape. And then… she becomes a saint — because she escaped! Not many stories of young women end so well.
But true love? Well, ask Maelon on that one… I’m betting he and the eels would say: “Nope, not a bit of it.”
The Moon Meets Jupiter
Jupiter and the waxing crescent moon are together in southwestern skies tonight after sunset. If you have clear skies, you really can’t miss this pairing. Jupiter was at opposition last September. While it is already dimming, it is still brighter than any stars. The two will remain close tomorrow, but tonight is the better show.
Unfortunately, here in Vermont, we seem to be trying to make up for all of January’s truant snow in this, the last week. So this will be another moon and planet meet-up that northern New England will largely miss.
But the snow is sorely needed, so I’ll not complain too much.
The word for this week is
Here are the poems that have been added so far to the January Wednesday Word contest.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023