Awen is a word you all hear us use quite a lot. We’ve had a lot of questions as to what it actually is, and about how it fits into modern Paganism, or even a Christian/Pagan worldview. So, here are some answers…..
Awen is the Welsh equivalent of imbas forosnai: the fire of inspiration, believed to rest in the head, which was held in great esteem by the Celts of Ireland. The two actually share a linguistic root, which is something only encountered rarely, as Welsh “Gaelic” isn’t actually what would be defined as true Gaelic at all, but actually Brythonic (it’s often referred to in linguistic circles as p-Gaelic, as opposed to the Irish and Scotts q-Gaelic). As with Ireland’s imbas forosnai, it is what drives the poet and the musician (sacred inspiration), but also the priest, for in Celtic faith, more often than not, the priest is almost always also poet.
Since the culture of the Celts was an oral one (hardly anything was ever written down), the earliest written record of the use of the term Awen comes to us from the 8th century AD (796, to be exact): Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, a Latin text based partially on earlier writings by a Scottish monk named Gildas (aka St. Gildas). Many sources actually cite Gildas as Welsh, but as far as we know, he was actually born in Scotland, and educated at a monastery in Wales. The symbol for Awen used in most modern Druidic circles–three downward rays, often with three dots above the rays and sometimes with three circles around them–was a much later invention by Iolo Morganwg, an 18th century bard, antiquarian, and (some contest) literary forger. In short, in many (some might contend in most) ways, Iolo Morganwg was a Romantic Druid, rather than a Historical Reconstructionist one.
So, what’s the difference between a Romantic Druid and a Historical Reconstructionist Druid, why do we care, and what does any of this have to do with Awen? Romantic Druidry, often referred to as Neo-Druidry, stems from the 18th century Romanticist Movement in Britain (which gave us such wonderful painters as Waterhouse, William Blake, and Burne-Jones), and is based largely on the idea of what the actual historical druids might have done, with very little historical basis in fact. While it does have veneration and respect for nature and a general respect for all beings in common with Historical Reconstructionist Druidry, that’s about as far as a comparison can really go. Romantic Druidry tends to be highly eclectic, and relies heavily on a basis in Freemasonry for its ritual observances (not unlike modern Wicca’s reliance on the ritual observances of Hermeticism, which is also a root of the Masonic Rites). Historical Reconstructionist Druidry, on the other hand, attempts wherever possible to source ritual observances, “doctrine/dogma”, and the general structure of its belief system from actual historical records of the Celts, coming down to us from sources such as archaeological sites. One might go so far as to say that it is “one part anthropology, and one part religion”. So, why do we care? What does it matter if one is a Romantic Druid or an Historical Reconstructionist Druid? Well, that depends on whether one wants to practice a faith that is actually rooted in the “Old Ways”, or whether one is perfectly content with a contrived religion that was spawned out of the idealistic notions of the 18th century. That may sound rather harsh, but I really don’t mean for it to. What I mean to imply is simply that there is a vast difference between following a faith that is “reasonably old” (i.e., hailing from the 18th century), versus following a faith that is actually pre-Christian in its origins, and what it all ultimately comes down to is “whatever floats your boat”. Following a truly ancient path happens to float ours; being able to say that we follow the “Old Ways”, and actually have conviction in that assertion based on historical fact is important to us. It may or may not be to any of you reading this. Which brings me to what any of that has to do with Awen….
Being an Historical Reconstructionist Druid on a Welsh Path is hard! Pure and simple. Most of our extant sources of literature, on which our mythology and even much of our general overarching belief system (such as the concept of Awen, and the stories detailing where it came from, insofar as the Welsh pantheon), date from only as far back as the 8th century AD, and, in the case of The Mabinogion (which is sort of like the “Bible of Welsh Mythology”) and the Hanes Taliesin (which is our greatest source of information regarding Awen, as it relates to the story of Cerridwen and Gwionn Bach), the 12th and 13th centuries. Our other primary symbology for the concept (the depiction of the three rays) comes straight from the aforementioned Romanticist Movement, and that paragon of the foundation of Welsh Romantic Druidry, Iolo Morganwg (aka, Edward Williams). All of that makes claiming Awen as a truly ancient concept, backed by historical fact, a bit of an issue, to say the least!
That linguistic root between Awen and imbas forosnai, however, gives us a true basis in the “Old Ways” of the Celts. You see, somewhere around 350 B.C., a group of Irish Celts migrated to and settled in northwestern Wales (Gwynedd). These Irish Celts established the ancient druidic center at Anglesey, and it is likely that they are, at least in part, responsible for the foundations of the bardic arts still celebrated at the modern Eisteddfods and Gorsedds in Wales. They would have brought with them their deities, and also, the concept of imbas forosnai, which was seen not only as poetic inspiration, but also a form of almost shamanic mediumship: Spirit speaking to and through the people. The term imbas forosnai is Old Irish, and literally translates to “illuminated inspiration” (read: “divine inspiration”). Depictions of the practices associated with it are given in Cormac’s Glossary (also a late medieval manuscript, dating from somewhere between the 10th and 15th centuries, though its numerous appearances–copies–in disparate texts suggest a definite earlier, pre-Christian, origin), and in the mythology surrounding Fionn Mac Cumhaill (the earliest written sources for which date to the 7th century AD, but, again, are clearly pre-Christian in origin).
In Welsh Mythology, we are told that Awen was first “gifted to” (although one might more appropriately use the term “stolen by”) Gwionn Bach, by the Goddess Cerridwen, when he mistakenly stuck his thumb in his mouth to heal a burn, while stirring the greal of Awen in her sacred cauldron. This has much in common with how imbas forosnai came to be “gifted to” Fionn Mac Cumhaill in the Fenian Cycle: Fionn likewise received sacred inspiration first by sticking his thumb in his mouth to heal a burn, and, like Gwionn Bach, in many ways, it was more “stolen” than “gifted”. You see, both boys had been forbidden to eat the food they were tending, and yet, accidentally, they came to receive divine inspiration by accidentally burning themselves. In the story of Fionn, it is not a goddess who sets him to tending the cookfire–in this case, he is cooking the legendary Salmon of Knowledge, which it took his Master seven years to catch–but instead a leprechaun-like druid named Finnegas. In the Cerridwen-Gwionn version of this story (the Welsh version), Gwionn actually imbibes three drops of this “inspiring fluid”, which gives us the three rays of Awen. That emphasis on three isn’t accidental: ancient Celtic cosmology centered around Three Worlds, with Humanity standing at their center. Those Three Worlds are Land, Sea, and Sky, representing The Ancestors (and Revered/Beloved Dead), The Sidhe (The Faeries; The Otherworld), and Deity (The Shining Ones), respectively. Given that, Awen becomes not only the divine inspiration given by Deity (as one would expect, coming from a post-Christian perspective), but also of The Ancestors and The Otherworld. It’s the spark of The All, so to speak.
Which makes Awen more or less the soul of Druidry, whether you’re also a practicing bardic poet, or not. (Although, if you are a practicing modern Druid, you are almost necessarily also a practicing bardic poet, because we have to write/compose our own rituals, prayers, blessings, incantations, and virtually everything else for ritual use, after all.) Awen is literally understood as Spirit–All of Spirit (Ancestors, Otherworld Guides and Benefactors, and Deity)–moving and speaking through us, in very much the same manner as the Holy Spirit is regarded in modern Christianity. Awen–because divine inspiration=Ultimate Wisdom–is also the source of the Nine Welsh Virtues, which were previously touched upon in this post. So it not only serves as the conduit for the Voice(s) of the Sacred Three, but also as the source of our Ethical Base. Therefore, in our Druidic Rituals, we begin by invoking the Sacred Three, and follow that with an invocation of Awen, so that we stand not only surrounded by All that we hold Sacred, but also on a firm ethical base which, hopefully, will inspire all that we do in our practices:
Mam, anrhegu nyni ysbrydiaeth;
Anrhegu nyni Awen,
Hwnnw nyni dichon canmol chi!
Mother, give us inspiration;
Give us Awen,
That we may praise Thee! ~Taliesin Emrys (aka, The Mystic)
The “Thee” in that invocation is understood not only to mean Mother Cerridwen (or any Mother Goddess, for that matter), but also the entirety of the Sacred Three. It calls us not only to be inspired in our speech, but also righteous: that everything done thereafter be in accordance with our Ethical Base. In short, it “keeps us Honest”; it keeps us, hopefully, in accordance with the Truth. Which is why that invocation is followed by the speaking of the Welsh words Y Gwyr Erbyn Y Byd (“The Truth Against The World”) by all in attendance, almost like some sort of “bardic warcry”. We call ourselves to speak up and act for Justice (Ultimate Right–not as defined by some person or another’s personal moral code, but as understood as Universal Right, going above, beyond, and far deeper than anything defined by Humanity), not only within the context of the ritual being observed, but also as a reminder to do so every single day of our lives, as we are out in the world, interacting with others.
As you can hopefully see, Awen is as important in the practice of Druidry as the Holy Spirit is to an understanding and practice of Christianity, and in our practice, we treat it very much the same way. It drives us, and in turn is fostered and driven out into the world by us in a symbiotic cycle. So if you find you are encountering the term quite often as we teach and share herein and elsewhere, that would be why! ~The Professor