In Wales, Dwnywen (pronounce “doo-in-wen” — the “doo-in” bit pronounced so quickly that it almost sounds like “dwin”) is considered the “Welsh St. Valentine,” and people increasingly mark St Dwynwen’s as well as — sometimes instead of — Valentine’s day.
Naturally, she has also become the Welsh patron saint of lovers.
Like Valentine, she’s a saint of very shadowy roots.
The legend says she lived in the fifth century, one of the many daughters of the legendary Brychan Brycheiniog — a man who, according to the myths, has more saintly children under his belt than most of us have hot dinners.
There are many versions of her tale, but in essence, she fell in love with a young man called Maelon, but would not marry him, either because her father forbade it or because she had sworn herself to a life of saintly celibacy.
She prayed for a solution — and an angel appeared with a magic potion to give to Maelon.
She gave it to him — and it turned him into a block of ice, thus saving him the sorrow of pining away for her, and to remove him from her temptation.
In some versions, she then asks for three requests — that Maelon be released, that she never marry, and that she could become the patron of true loves.
Not exactly happy-ever-after, but at least there’s no beheading!
The centre of Dwynwen’s cult was originally on a small island off the coast of Anglesey called Llanddwyn Island, which preserves another form of her name within its — Dwyn.
She is also known as Donwen, and Donwenna — all of which hint strongly at what may well be her true origin, the ancient Cymric Goddess Dôn.
Her name is almost certainly a combination of Dôn with gwyn. This is a familiar ending in Welsh names — featuring as Gwyn and Gwen at the start of names, and -wyn and -wen at the end (in Welsh, -wyn is always masculine, and -wen is feminine).
It’s basic meaning is “white,” but it also carries the sense of “pure” and “blessed.”
Dôn is the Welsh equivalent of the Irish Goddess Danu. In Welsh myth, she is the mother of the Plant Dôn—the “Children of Dôn”— a number of major Welsh deities, including Gwydion and Arianrhod.
As a very ancient Goddess, unraveling her name is difficult, and there are a number of options. One is the Common Celtic *dƒnu- “gift.”
However, she is associated with a number of rivers. There are four called Don in the British Isles, plus others that are related: the Dane in Cheshire,
two Devons (one English, one Scottish), and possibly the Teign, Tone, and Tyne too. Then there are the great European rivers deriving from the same root: the Danube, the Dneiper, and the Donetz.
Moreover, in the early medieval period, Dôn may also have been known as Donwy. An old name for the River Dee, which flows through Chester, is the Dwfrdonwy (dwfr is a Middle Welsh word meaning “water” + Donwy), while the Welsh name for the Danube is Afon Donwy—i.e. “River Donwy.” Donwy is also found in the name of yet another Welsh river, the Trydonwy, known in English as the Roden.
All this makes it quite likely that the name’s roots lie far, far back with the Proto-Indo-European *dānus “river.”
But there’s a further twist to this tale. What if this Goddess’s associations with rivers is so ancient that instead of her gaining the name “river,” the word *dānus derived from her name?
This would explain why there does not seem to be any vestige of *dānus with the meaning “river” in any of the living Celtic languages, despite the large number of rivers in the British isles which seem to derive from it.
But there is a further option for its etymology.
A clue lies with Deva, a Celtic name by which the Romans knew the River Dee. It points firmly towards the Proto-Indo-European *deyw-o- “a divine being,” combined with the suffix -ono- (often indicative of the name of a Deity).
Originally, *deyw-o-, seems to have carried connotations of relating to a sky God; it litters the Indo-European languages in words meaning “a god”, as well as names of individual Gods and Goddesses themselves, such as Zeus and Diana.
Despite her popularity in modern Wales, Dwynwen is a rarity. But it’s a pretty name, and whatever the truth that lies at its roots, no-one can dispute that it has history and positive associations in abundance.
Dydd Santes Dwynwen Hapus!