Arawn: The Joyous King of the Otherworld in Celtic Mythology

Irish and Welsh mythology is full of mysterious and entrancing figures. Unfortunately, many of their stories are lost to time due to oral retelling and tales passed down from generation to generation.

But hold up, there is one that partially survived this violent advance by the ravages of time and it’s about Arawn, the king of the Otherworld in Celtic and Welsh mythology.

An intriguing ruler with an even more fascinating story, the tale of Arawn persisted due to his somewhat subliminal role in Welsh legends and timeless folklore.

What is Arawn the God Of?

king-arawn

Okay, here’s the catch. Even though he is dubbed one of the pagan gods in many oral stories, Arawn is not exactly a god of anything in Celtic mythology. In fact, he was a king dispatched to look over Annwn, one of the many shadowy realms of the Otherworld.

Arawn is quite prominent in Welsh folklore. He is primarily attributed to justice and fairness and is often said to rule Annwn with an iron fist, punishing anyone who dared rebel against his office.

Though Arawn’s stories have somewhat become obscure over time, his existence amongst the hearts who put faith in his divinity was forever immortalized in a sentence from Cardigan’s beliefs:

“Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn.” 

This roughly translates to: 

“Long is the day, and long is the night,

And long is the waiting of Arawn.”

The saying implies that time seems to drag on endlessly as if one were waiting in the Otherworld with Arawn, where time passes differently than in the mortal world.

The phrase could’ve been used poetically to express the idea of time passing slowly or to describe a sense of enduring waiting.

In the Name: What Does Arawn Mean?

The etymology of Arawn is reasonably disputed, but of course, that won’t stop us from theorizing where his name came from.

As you may know, the name “Aaron” is pretty common in modern times. In Hellenized Hebrew, it literally means “exalted,” and naming your child that feels pretty badass.

However, does this mean that the ancient Celts shared similar roots to the ancient Arab world? Here’s some more food for thought.

The name “Arawn” could’ve also come from the ancient Egyptian word “aha rw,” which translates to “warrior lion.” 

Let’s take this one step further.

“Arawn” could have also sprung from the Aaru,” or the “Field of Reeds,”; the Egyptian mythology version of heaven. Ruled by Osiris, Aaru was said to be a heavenly paradise for souls to be judged after their death.

READ MORE: 35 Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses

This shares similar characteristics to Annwn, where the spirits of the dead resided in eternal delirium and euphoria.

We are not saying that Egyptian mythology might have distant roots in Welsh folklore, but hey, it’s definitely something to think about.

aaru
Fields of Reeds – Scene from the tomb of Ramses III

Meet the Family

When it comes to Arawn’s family tree, the details are about as clear as a foggy Welsh morning.

While Welsh mythology only gives us a few specifics, some versions of the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, mention that Arawn had an unnamed queen as his wife. She was told to have deep respect and fascination for her husband in some tales.

But in others (rarely), she is portrayed as a villainous figure wanting to overthrow Arawn and rule in his stead. Though, the latter is a tale that changes the entire dynamic of Arawn’s lore.

Oh, and did we mention Arawn might have had a sister, according to other stories? 

Her name’s Gwyneth, and she’s married to another Welsh mythological figure, Gwydion. How do the family dynamics work out? Are they close, or do they only see each other at holiday gatherings? – but it’s still pretty interesting to think about.

All in all, Arawn’s family may be a bit of a mystery, but imagining the magical hijinks they might get up to is fun.

Arawn’s Symbols 

Arawn’s memory could’ve been immortalized in Welsh tradition through symbols that acted as the harbinger of his will.

Though we won’t ever be able to find Arawn’s actual symbols and motifs, we can most certainly whip out a ballpark list of what they could’ve been, taking his counterparts in other mythologies into account.

  • Hounds: Hounds or dogs have been associated with various symbolic meanings in different cultures, including death. In the context of Welsh mythology, the hounds of Annwn, which were associated with Arawn, were believed to have a connection to death and the afterlife.

One possible reason for this association is the fact that dogs were often used in ancient times for hunting, including the hunting of wild animals and even humans. This may have led to the idea that dogs were hunters of souls or could track down those who had passed into the afterlife.

  • Stags: The antlered stag is a symbol that could’ve been associated with Arawn. It can represent his connection to nature and role as a protector, his shapeshifting abilities and adaptability, or the soul’s hunt and journey.

With its various interpretations, this powerful symbol adds depth and mystery to the stories of Arawn and the Welsh Otherworld.

  • The Underworld: Just like Hades in Greek Mythology, the concept of an underworld was enough to invoke both awe and fear in the believers of Welsh folklore. The Otherworld is seen as a place of mystery and wonder, where the natural laws of the physical world do not always apply. It is often associated with transformation, renewal, and the mysteries of life and death.

READ MORE: 41 Greek Gods and Goddesses: Family Tree and Fun Facts

As a result, any mention of the Otherworld or damned souls in Welsh traditions would most certainly invoke the symbolic representation of Arawn in its entirety.

a-stag

Annwn, the Otherworld

When talking about Arawn, we simply have to talk about the land that he resides in.

As mentioned earlier, Arawn’s realm is called Annwn, a place in the Otherworld where euphoria is abundant. It was said to be full of eternal bliss and joy, with fruits being abundant and disease being non-existent.

Arawn’s land of wonders was said to be located either deep underneath the Earth’s surface or on an island surrounded by a vast expanse of ocean. In fact, this is precisely where Annwn, which could be traced back to the words “very deep,” might get its literal meaning from.

Annwn’s rather intriguing nature was a perfect fit for authors wanting to venture into writing about the surreal. So much so that J.R.R. Tolkien used a modified version of Annwn (anuun) in his fantasy mythology.

Nonetheless, Annwn plays a considerable role in liminal Welsh Mythology, particularly in the Branches of the Mabinogi, where most of Arawn’s known lore originates.

Arawn in the Branches of the Mabinogi 

Welsh stories are generally disseminated from the Mabinogion, a collection of prose and stories from the 12th-13th centuries. Even though the collection was compiled during that time, the stories might go back to ancient times.

The Mabinogion can be further separated into four different branches, each showcasing various stories. And, of course, one of them revolves around our charming main character, Arawn.

This is his story, as narrated through Welsh myths.

Pwyll Stumbles Into Annwn

Arawn’s mythological arc begins when Pwyll, the Lord of the Kingdom of Dyfed, accidentally stumbles into Annwn.

Pwyll finds himself in a forest populated by hounds the color of snow and red ears scavenging what seems like the decaying carrion of a stag.

He unleashes his inner anger and runs after the poor hounds to ensure they feel his rage. What he didn’t know, however, was the fact that the hounds belonged to none other than Arawn himself.

When word got to Arawn that someone had disturbed the lunchtime of his beloved hounds, it is safe to say that he wasn’t all too amused.

Angered, Arawn summoned Pwyll to his halls, preparing to put him on trial for his crimes.

Pwyll
Pwyll Prince of Dyfed hunting with his hounds

Arawn’s Pact

The Lord of lost souls decided to spare Pwyll’s life and offered him a treaty to bring victory to both sides.

Moved by his composure, Arawn offered Pwyll to trade places with him for one year and one day so the latter could defeat Arawn’s rival. This particular rival, namely Hafgan, was pestering Arawn for a long time, and the King of Annwn deemed him too powerful of an opponent he could defeat by himself.

Intrigued by Arawn’s story and the promise of battle, Pwyll accepted to trade places and take Hafgan down for him. And also as compensation for scaring Arawn’s hounds away because, hey, pissing off the apparent god of the underworld wasn’t something you would particularly look forward to. 

There was a catch, though. While Pwyll wore Arawn’s shape, Arawn would take Pwyll’s place in the Kingdom of Dyfed and sit where he once sat.

This was a sacrifice Pwyll was more than happy to make. And as Pwyll reigned supreme over the land of eternal youth, Arawn retreated back to Dyfed; where he would watch his “counterpart” prepare to fight against Hafgan.

Arawn’s Warning and Pwyll’s Victory

After the grand trade was over, Pwyll, disguised as Arawn, immediately gathered the forces of Annwn and led them to the battlefield where Hafgan had landed.

Before all that, though, Arawn had warned Pwyll to not let Hafgan survive in any way, as that would jeopardize his kingship in the future.

Turns out that defeating Hafgan was a task that didn’t require much effort as Pwyll cut through his forces like a hot knife through butter. Pwyll managed to bring Hafgan down to his knees and hold him at knifepoint after an epic single combat that shook the roots of the Otherworld.

What happened next puts Pwyll at the helm of Arawn’s story. It is said that even though Pwyll had Hafgan at his mercy, he chose not to dish out the final blow as Arawn had warned him. Instead, he left Hafgan vulnerable in front of his lords.

Despite Arawn’s insecurity, this was a far better move than merely slaying him, as Hafgan’s lords saw him at his weakest and decided to abandon ship. Seeing how Arawn (Pwyll) had given Hafgan the reality check of a lifetime, the lords bowed down and declared him to be the one and only king of Annwn.

Regardless of how it was achieved, the end result pleased Arawn like nothing else. And thus began the friendship of a lifetime.

Best Friends Forever?

Saying Arawn and Pwyll were good friends would be an understatement.

Since both of them switched bodies, they had grown incredibly attached to their surroundings. Arawn was reaping the benefits of being a human prince. Pwyll was quenching his thirst for violence by bringing doom upon all who dared defy him.

But they might’ve taken their eternal friendship further than they should have.

Pwyll started to have an affair with Arawn’s wife. For some reason that might signify cuckoldry; Arawn actually loved it. In fact, he loved it so much that it actually strengthened the bond between the two friends.

Strange, but let’s not judge mythology; Zeus did far more terrible things.

arawn-and-pwylls-wife

Arawn Disappears From the Mabinogi

Unfortunately, it is here where the story of Arawn officially ends in the First Branch of the Mabinogi.

It might be because a huge chunk of the original Mabinogion where Arawn might’ve been mentioned was lost. While some experts believe that is the reason, others believe that Arawn’s story was merely a reinforcer to highlight Pwyll’s journey.

Regardless of the reason, his myth, unfortunately, remains limited in the Mabinogi after the First Branch, that is, until he makes an epic comeback in the Fourth Branch.

Arawn in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi 

Arawn briefly appears in the tale of Pwyll’s son Pryderi, where he sends the latter a gift of magical pigs to Dyfed to express his love and friendship for him. The catch was that the Pryderi couldn’t give the pigs away to anyone.

But these poor pigs would soon be robbed by a Gwyneddian trickster Gwydion Ab Don, who swindled them from Pryderi by convincing him to strike a trade. Technically, this didn’t mean Pryderi was giving the pigs away; after all, he was gaining something from it.

READ MORE: 11 Trickster Gods From Around The World

As Gwydion dissipated into the night with the pigs from the Otherworld tucked away in his fanny pack, Pryderi realized too late that the damage had already been done.

What followed was an all-out war that saw the kingdom of Dyfed unleash brute force against Gwynedd. Alas, Pryderi’s duel against Gwydion was futile.

The trickster defeats Pryderi in single combat and proceeds to kill him, ending the line of Pwyll and invoking the immediate surrender of the Dyfed forces.

As Arawn spectated Pryderi’s invasion and the two realms tearing themselves apart in the ensuing war, he must’ve wondered where it all went wrong.

Arawn: The Joyous King of the Otherworld in Celtic Mythology 2
The Panel of the Mabinogi by George Sheringham

The Hounds of Arawn

There Is a belief that the Cŵn Annwn, also called the “Hounds of Annwn,” soar through the cool skies during the winter and autumn.

The dogs’ distinctive howls are said to sound like the eerie cries of migrating birds, and they are known to pursue wandering spirits relentlessly toward Annwn. Interestingly, the ancient stories do not mention Arawn, the king of Annwn, himself.

Over time, the legend of the Cŵn Annwn evolved to include Christian beliefs. They were portrayed as captors of human souls and relentless chasers of the damned, with Annwn taking on the role of Christian “Hell.” 

This merging of beliefs led to the transformation of the Cŵn Annwn from mythical hunting dogs to agents of punishment in the afterlife, solidifying their position as a significant symbol of Arawn.

Arawn’s Role in Mythology

When we look closer at it, Arawn’s role in Welsh mythology actually catalyzes Pwyll’s story.

He takes what is known as a “backseat role.”

Arawn is a supporting character who takes the backseat, playing a small yet vital role in the grand scheme.

Characters of his caliber may not take center stage, but their presence adds layers of intricacy to the tale, allowing for a deeper understanding of the narrative, in this case, the later branches of the Mabinogi.

Legacy of Arawn

Arawn appears in Lloyd Alexander’s children’s high-fantasy work “The Chronicles of Prydain,” where a more antagonistic side of him is showcased.

The name Arawn also appears in other texts where the Otherworld is extensively mentioned or where the first and fourth branches of the Mabinogi are explored.

Besides literature, Arawn’s name has been forever immortalized as a Trans-Neptunian Object, known to move in a strange orbit and occasionally occult stars.

Conclusion 

While many associate Arawn with being the Celtic god of the underworld or the Welsh god of death, he is far beyond all those epithets.

He is a king and a ruler of the wild. The lord of every lost breath beyond the mortal plains. And though his name may scare many wandering spirits, his grace remains.

References

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. “Some popular motifs in early Welsh tradition.” Etudes celtiques 11.1 (1964): 83-99.

Ford, Patrick K. “Prolegomena to a Reading of the Mabinogi:‘Pwyll’and ‘Manawydan’.” The Mabinogi. Routledge, 2020. 197-216.

Ford, P. (2008). The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (p. 205). Oakland: University of California Press.

Rachel Bromwich, The Welsh Triads, 2nd Edition.

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