Spheres Of Light

~ Gwenhwyfar ~

(Information provided by Jenny)

"Queen Guinevere" - William Morris
Oil on canvas 1858 Tate Gallery, London.

Variously portrayed in literature, Queen Guinevere (Born c.AD 490), is called the daughter of King Leodegrance (Lleudd-Ogrfan) of Cameliard by Malory, the daughter of King Ogrfan Gawr (the Giant) of Castell y Cnwclas (Knucklas Castle) by Welsh Tradition, the daughter of King Garlin of Galore by Germanic tradition, the daughter of a Roman noble by Geoffrey of Monmouth and wife of King Arthur by everyone. Her name is spelled differently depending on where you look. It can be either the traditional Guinevere, or Guenevere, or Guenievre, or Guenhumare or Ginevra. In Welsh, she is Gwenhwyfar; in Cornish, Jenefer.

The name Gwenhwyfar means "white sprite or phantom," a reference to the otherworld. Alternatively her name means "white waves," white being the traditional color of the virgin. Here "virgin" means "One-in- Herself" referring to a woman or goddess who is complete in and of herself. Waves associate Guinevere with the regenerative power of the sea. It has also been recognized that the name Gwenhwyfar corresponds to the Irish Findabair, the name of Queen Medb's daughter. As queen, Gwenhwyfar is the eternal feminine principle of strength and order in a peaceful universe.

From very early times, the Great Goddess has been a trinity. Her three faces are typically virgin, mother, and crone. Guinevere/Gwenhyfar is the ancient Welsh Triple Goddess, the goddess of dawn and spring. Her ancient role is echoed in the version of the Arthurian legends in which King Arthur marries three women, each named Guinevere, and in the Celtic tradition that in order to be king a man must marry the goddess. Guinevere is the Goddess of the Land, and by marrying her Arthur became King and sovereign over Britain. She is listed along with Arthur's otherworld weapons as boons that Culhwch could not request in Culhwch and Olwen, suggesting that she comes from the otherworld also and reinforcing her role in Arthur's sovereignty.

In all the different versions of her stories she is surpassingly beautiful and desirable. She is either forced into or conceives and engineers an extra-marital relationship with Lancelot and is either condemned, according to law, or forgiven outright for her sins. She either was a willing accomplice to Mordred's treachery against Arthur, as suggested in Wace and Layamon, or was forced into it against her will as stated in John Hardyng's "Chronicle" (1457). Early mentions of Guinevere, in the Triads of the Island of Britain, give tantalising glimpses of her original relationship with Mordred: he is shown forcing his way into Arthur's Court, dragging the Queen from her throne and striking her, but the reasons why are unknown. The incident may have been related to quarrels between Guinevere and her sister, Mordred's wife, Gwenhwyfach, which are said to have been the eventual cause of the Battle of Camlann. According to Patrick Sims-Williams, in Welsh the "termination of -ach evokes unpleasantness". Therefore, Gwenhwyfar's sister Gwenhwyfach, found in the Welsh triads and Culhwch and Olwen, may represent an unpleasant or evil form of Gwenhwyfar herself. Camlann being caused by a battle between two forms or personalities of Gwenhwyfar alludes back to the mythical symbolism of the triple goddess.

Guinevere is frequently abducted in Romance, sometimes by King Melwas of Somerset, sometimes by Mordred and sometimes by the marauding tribes from the north. She meets her end sometimes in a convent at Amesbury or Caerleon and sometimes she dies at the vengeful hand of Lancelot. Gwenhwyfar embodies the land, and union with her gives Kings their right of rule. Her two lovers, Arthur and Lancelot, represent two aspects of the divine ruler--the old, impotent King (also seen as the Winter God or Holly King) and his young tanist, or replacement (the Oak King). As a sovereignty figure, Guinevere is forever being seized by one knight or other with his eye on the throne. The evil Mordred, in Arthur's absence, claims his Kingship. He does this not as the son of Arthur, but as husband of Guinevere, who he attempts to force into marriage with him. Scottish stories, recorded by Boece, indicate she died as a prisoner of Mordred's followers at Barry Hill in Strathmore. She was buried at Meigle where her memorial can still be seen. Despite this, her bones either were or were not found by the monks of Glastonbury when they discovered the grave of Arthur in 1191, depending upon which version of the burial cross inscription you read.

Giraldus Cambrensis says the cross claimed Guinevere as Arthur's "second wife". This appears to echo the story of the False Guinevere of French Romance: an identical half-sister of the Queen fathered on the same night who persuaded Arthur that she was his true wife. For two and a half years, the King was separated from the real Guinevere until the deception was uncovered. There is also an ancient Triad of the Island of Britain which records Arthur's "Three Chief Queens": Gwenhwyfar daughter of Cywryd, Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr ap Greidiol and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Ogrfan Gawr. This may further indicate the confusion over the lady's parentage as already alluded to. Alternatively, the three Guineveres could show a common Triple-Goddess motif at the root of many later Celtic characters.

Queen Guinevere's maying, by John Collier, 1900

As previously mentioned, in the various legends Guinevere is sought by Lancelot, Mordred and many others, for she is the Goddess of the land and with that comes sovereignty over the land. However, it is said that Guinevere has many other roles as Goddess. One of these roles is Flower Maid a Faery Goddess of Love, growth and fertility whose high holiday is Beltaine and whose sacred tree is the hawthorn. Add to this role the White One, which is another name for a Faery Goddess, and Guinevere begins to come into focus as a Goddess of the Old Ones, A Faery. As the White One she creates havoc in the world of men, for she brings the energy and powers of the Otherworld into the world of humans. However, as Queen of the Round Table she inspires humans to unify and rise up to heights they thought were unobtainable. Guinevere is also a Celtic Triple Goddess. Her role as Flower Maiden where the fertility is brought so the Earth can have growth, bear fruit and harvest this fruit is added to by her Mother Goddess role as she overlooks the court and inspires the Round Table Knights to greater and greater heights. Rounding out this triplicity is her role as Crone in her actions bringing down the round table.

The popular novel The Mists of Avalon stresses Arthurian legend's Celtic roots, playing upon this triad, and upon Guinevere's association with the Goddess, although Guinevere herself is not Celtic in the novel.

While researching Gwenhwyfar I came across a very interesting essay about archetypes and Guinevere's (and Morgaine's) portrayal in the The Mists of Avalon which I have now added to our Articles and Essays section. Click on the link below...

Information gathered by Jenny from:

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