Awen – Origins and Symbolism

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The Awen is an important symbol in Celtic culture, as a symbol of creativity, imagination, and aesthetic sensibility. Awen means essence or poetic inspiration in the Celtic language. While seemingly simple in appearance, the Awen holds deep symbolic meaning.

In this article, we will be exploring the origins of Awen, its significance in religions, characteristics of the symbol, its symbolic meanings, and contemporary usage.   

Origins of the Awen

Awen symbol

The Awen as a concept has existed in Celtic lore for centuries, but its representation as a symbol is much more recent. The symbol is quite basic, featuring three rays leading up to three dots, surrounded by three circles.

The origins of Awen can be traced back to the Celtic myth of Goddess Cedridwen and Gwion Bach. In this tale, Cedridwen brews a magical potion for her son and entrusts it to Gwion Bach, her helper. Gwion accidentally drinks the potion, and faces the wrath of Cedridwen, who eats him as punishment. However, Gwion is reborn and lives on to become a great poet. Celts believe that the magical potion of Cedridwen is none other than Awen, a transformative liquid that induces imagination and creativity in the one who consumes it.

The idea of Awen was largely kept alive through oral traditions. The concept appears in written texts only from the 9th century.  The first ever written text to mention Awen is the Historia Brittonum, a Latin book authored by Nennius. Recent historical discoveries have also found references to the symbol in the Four Ancient Books of Wales.

Awen and Religion

Solid Gold Awen Symbol Necklace
Solid gold Awen necklace by Evangelos Jewels. See it here.

Awen was an important concept in early Pagan beliefs.  In Celtic society, the skills of artists and creative writers was attributed to Awen, a muse like figure that appeared in dreams. The creative artists who were inspired by Awen were known as Awenydd, and acted like they were possessed, enchanted, or in a trance.

Even after the emergence of Christianity, the concept of Awen held ground for several years. Awen was carried forth from pagan beliefs into Christian Bardic traditions during the period of religious transformation in Britain and Ireland.

The idea of Awen was revived by the Neo-Druids, a spiritual group who strived to bring back ancient Celtic practices. Neo-Druids are deeply influenced by the Romantic movement and seek a spiritual connection with the environment. They are pantheists who believe that god is present everywhere in nature. Druids believe in the ability of the Awen to spark creative inspiration and aesthetic powers among artists, and call the Awen the flowing spirit, because it awakens energy from the environment and transfers it into the mind, body, and soul.

The Welsh poet, Iolo Morgannwg, belonged to the Neo- Druids, and revived the concept of Awen. He transformed Awen from an abstract idea, into a concrete concept, by giving it a diagrammatic form. The Awen as a symbol was invented by Iolo Morgannwg.   

Symbolic Meanings of Awen

Awen symbol meaning for tattoo

The Awen is a highly symbolic concept, with many interpretations associated with it. One of its main associations is with the number 3., which is sacred in Celtic cultures. The three rays of the Awen can have different meanings and interpretations depending on the cultural context. Some of the prevalent meanings are:

  1. The three ages of humankind – infancy, adulthood and old age
  2. Knowledge, truth, and experience
  3. Heaven, hell, and earth
  4. Love, truth, and wisdom
  5. Mind, body and spirit
  6. Earth, sea and sky

Some other popular interpretations of the Awen include:

  • Symbol of Harmony: The three lines of Awen is said to represent unity and harmony between the two genders. The lines on the left and right reflect masculine and feminine energies. The line in the middle is a ray of equilibrium which balances the energies on both sides. Due to its ability to create a stable and harmonious environment, the Awen has been called the Celtic Yin Yang.
  • Symbol of Inspiration: For thousands of years, the Awen has been a source of inspiration to writers, poets, musicians and artists. Awen is believed to assume the form of a muse and instigate creativity and imagination amongst artists. The three dots within the Awen symbol are thought to be drops of Cedridwen’s potion that was consumed by Gwion Bach.
  • Symbol of Eternity: The three circles surrounding the Awen symbol represent an eternal flow of time. They also indicate the eternal qualities of the rays that are within the circle. Neo-Druid followers also believe that the loops reflect the three circles of creation.
  • Symbol of Earth, Sky, Sea: The Awen is thought to be a symbol of the earth. The rays within the Awen reflect land, sky and sea, which represent air, water, and soil, the most important elements on earth, without which life would not be possible. The symbol is used as a representation of the earth and its living beings.
  • Symbol of Mind, Body, and Spirit: The rays in the midst of the circle represent the unity between mind, body, and spirit. The Neo-Druids and Neo-Paganists believe that the unification of the mind, body, and spirit are essential for human existence and experiences. 
  • Symbol of the Triple Deity: According to the Neo- Druids, the three points within the Awen symbol reflect the Triple Goddess. The triple deity is prevalent in many neo-pagan beliefs and each ray within the Awen reflects the different characteristics of the goddess. 

Modern Use of the Awen

The Awen has become a popular design for tattoos, and has gained universal recognition in jewelry, and artwork.

The Awen is also used in the Welsh national anthem and held as a symbol of honor by the U.S. Veterans Administration.

The symbol has been adopted by Neo-Druids which has made it popular and brought it back into the spotlight.

In Brief

The Awen has become a universally famous symbol after its revival by the Neo- Druids. It continues to influence and be the inspiration for various creative artists. The Awen is one of the most powerful symbols of Celtic culture and heritage.