By Joanna van der Hoeven
The awen symbol is based on an original design by the 18th-19th century Druid revivalist, Iolo Morganwg. It consists of three lines falling to the right, centre and left. Modern Druidry incorporates the original source point of three dots, which can either be seen as points of light or drops from the cauldron of the goddess Ceridwen. The awen symbol represents, among other things, the triple nature of the Druid path, incorporating the paths of Bard, Ovate and Druid. It is not an ancient symbol, but a modern Druid symbol, used widely by Druids the world over, regardless of their opinion on Iolo and his work.
The first recorded reference to Awen occurs in Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, a Latin text of circa 796 CE. “Talhearn Tad Awen won renown in poetry” is where we first see the word, and it tells us that Talhearn is the ‘father of Awen” in this instance. Sadly, this source tells us nothing more about Talhearn as being the “father of awen”, but perhaps later research may discover more clues about this reference.
A common translation of the Welsh word awen is “flowing inspiration” or “flowing poetry/poetic insight”. Awake to our own energy, and stretching out towards the energy of nature around us, we begin to see just what is the awen. It is an opening of one’s self, of one’s spirit or soul, in order to truly and very deeply see and connect to all life around us. When we are open, we can receive that divine gift, the inspiration that flows, whether it is from a deity, nature, or whatever it is that you choose to focus on.
For awen to exist, there must be a relationship. We cannot be inspired unless we are open, and we cannot be open unless we have established a relationship, whether that is with the thunder, the blackbird or a god. It is cyclical in nature; we open and give of ourselves and in doing so we receive, and vice versa. Letting go, releasing into that flow of awen allows it to flow ever more freely, and we find ourselves inspired not only in fits and bursts of enlightenment or inspiration but all the time, carrying that essence of connection and wonder with us at all times. There is, of course, a line to be drawn, for we can’t be off our heads in ecstatic relationship with everything all the time. As with all language, a literal translation can be far too limiting. It’s good to have a context and some sort of description to relate the concept, but when confined to literalism we get stuck and are unable to see the bigger picture. Awen does mean flowing inspiration, but what is inspiration?
A really good idea, a bolt from the blue is one interpretation. However, there are many others. Inspiration is not just something that happens to us. It is something that we can cultivate, in a true relationship. We are not subject to the whims of inspiration, but rather can access that inspiration on a daily basis through deep relationship. Indeed, awen is all about relationship, more than it being “a really good idea”. When we literally translate awen into inspiration, we can lose that context of relationship. With a good relationship, we will have good ideas.
When soul touches soul, there is an energy; a source of inspiration. When we are aware of our soul interacting with other souls, we can harness that inspiration and see it in everything that we do. It doesn’t just happen every now and then, like a bolt out of the blue, but rather is in everything that we do. It requires a willingness for deep relationship, and a desire to be mindful in all our relationships.
You will find that the Avalonian path, like Druidry, has much in common with many other Earth-based religions the world over, as well as many philosophies, both ancient and modern. We can be inspired by these and let them help us to change our perception, our way of seeing the world, from a self-centred point of view to a more holistic worldview, from a less human-centred perspective to one that is more integrated. In that, we are living the awen.
Awen is that spark set off by interaction, by integration. We do not exist in a bubble. We are surrounded by the world at all times, by the seen and the unseen. When we live integrated, we see the meaning that each relationship has, and that inspires us to live our lives accordingly. That inspiration is the heart and soul of Druidry.
Inspiration: to inspire, from the Latin inspirare, the act of breathing.
Indeed, it has many connotations to the breath and breathing. Awen can connect us to the world through the very act of breathing. All living things breathe in some form on this planet. The human species share this breath, breathing in the oxygen created on this planet and exhaling it into the twilight. The air that we breathe has been recycled by plants and creatures for billions of years. The breath is the gateway to the ancestors, and to a deep understanding of the nature of awen. Awen is also shared inspiration, for we share this planet with everything else on it. Everything that we do has an impact, every breath we take, every action that we make. Breath links us to everything else.
When we remember that deep connection to everything else, we cannot help but be inspired. And we hope to inspire in return, much as our own exhalation is valuable to trees and plants who take in the carbon dioxide, turning it to oxygen for our own breath. Inspiration and expiration, inhalation and exhalation are all words for the act of breathing. Remembering the shared breath of the world, we come home to ourselves and rediscover the wonder and awe of existence. Then, we are truly inspired.
So where does the flowing inspiration, the awen come from then? And what is the difference between awen and the energy that is in all life?
In Welsh, we can trace it back to the 19th century, where aw means flowing or fluidity, and wenis spirit, or a being. We can more easily trace the concept and word back to medieval texts retelling the tale of Ceridwen and Taliesin.
The goddess Ceridwen was brewing a special potion for her son, Afagddu, tended by Gwion Bach. Some of the brew bubbled over and three drops scalded Gwion as he stirred the pot, and he put his thumb into his mouth to ease the soreness, taking in the magic of the brew meant for Afagddu. Ceridwen was enraged, and chased him, eventually eating him and then giving birth to him again. After she gives birth to him, she sets him on a boat and he was discovered alive and well later, and renamed Taliesin for his radiant brow. He becomes the most famous Bard of Britain.
The awen can be seen as being achieved through a deep connection to every aspect of the land, in whatever shape or form. We can undergo a kind of initiation into the awen much as Gwion Bach did, through the goddess Ceridwen and her special brew. We can drink from the cauldron of inspiration, but with that comes great trials and tribulations that go hand in hand with awareness and enlightenment.
The awen is also related to water and rivers, and not just the liquid brewed in Ceridwen’s cauldron. In the medieval poem “Hostile Confederacy” from the Book of Taliesin, it states:
“The Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it,
A river while it flows,
I know its extent;
I know when it disappears;
I know when it fills;
I know when it overflows;
I know when it shrinks;
I know what base
There is beneath the sea.”
The awen relates to water on so many levels. The flowing spirit of water and the flowing spirit of awen share many similarities. Both are fluid, able to be contained and yet have their own freedom in their inherent sense of being. They follow their own currents and can be beneficial when used with respect. When we follow the currents of life, the inter-connectedness of all things, we share that flow of awen and then come to know the fathomless depths that it can bring.
We also have the shamanic diviners in the Welsh tradition known as Awenyddion. There is also awen involved in divination and the quest for relationship with the divine. The awen is a vast subject that requires much study, but more to the point is requires experience. We can research the similarities between awen and the Hindu aspects of shakti, for example, or the Dao in Chinese philosophy. But we must feel the awen with every atom of our being in order the truly understand it.
But what is the difference between awen and the energy of life, or the life force? I would say that awen is the thread that connects us to that life force. When we connect in good relationship to the world around us, those threads shimmer with awen, with inspiration. We know that we are a part of the web, wholly and utterly connected. When we feel that connection with other beings, soul to soul, and our sense of self lessens, we are inspired by that connection. We then think of ourselves less, and our perception opens out to a wider perspective on the world, one that is more inclusive rather than just our own self-centred point of view. We become a thread in the web.
Awen helps us to see beyond ourselves, and perhaps paradoxically to allow us to see ourselves in everything. The poet Amergin described this beautifully what is now known as the “Song of Amergin”. When we see that we are a part of a whole, then we are inspired. When we lessen the sense of self, we are able to perceive so much more. When we have expanded our worlds to include everything within it, we become the awen.
“I am the wind on the sea;
I am the wave of the sea;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock
I am a flash from the sun;
I am the most beautiful of plants;
I am a strong wild boar;
I am a salmon in the water;
I am a lake in the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the head of the spear in battle;
I am the god that puts fire in the head;
Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?
Who can tell the ages of the moon?
Who can tell the place where the sun rests?”
(from The Essential Lady Gregory)
Many Druid rituals begin or end with singing or chanting the awen. When doing so, the word is stretched to three syllables, sounding like ah-oo-wen. It is a lovely sound, which opens up the heart and soul. Sung/chanted together, or in rounds, it simply flows, as its namesake determines. Our hearts can open if we let them when chanting or singing the awen.
Yet I am sure that the awen is different for each and every person. The connection, and the resulting expression of that connection, the Druid’s own creativity, can be so vast and diverse. It is what is so delicious about it; we inhale the awen and exhale our own creativity in song, in dance, in books, in protest marches. The possibilities are endless, as is the awen itself.
We are never born, and we can never die: we are simply manifest for a while in one form, and then we manifest again in another when the conditions are right. For me, this represents reincarnation, the nitty gritty basics of it and the science behind reincarnation. The threads that bind this together are the awen.
Lady Gregory, The Essential Lady Gregory Collection, Google Books, accessed January 13, 2018. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=fx0tOGYDZXQC&dq
Mary Jones, “The Hostile Confederacy” from the Book of Taliesin, The Celtic Literature Collective, accessed January 12, 2018. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/t07.html
Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, Witch and a best-selling author. She is also a member of the Sisterhood of Avalon, having a deep love of Arthurian myth and a fascination with the enclaves of women in Celtic society who worked apart, but still for, their community. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion. www.joannavanderhoeven.com
Image Credit: “Awen symbol final” used with permission from Wikimedia Commons