A Short History of the Awen – an article by Angela Grant
On expressing doubt about the significance of the Awen symbol, Bobcat (not unsurprisingly) asked me to provide my own explanation. Agreeing, I suggested I should also write something on the word Awen itself. I said I would go away and check my books and come back to her. I suppose you’ve heard the phrase before that ‘it’s not quite so simple as that’.
I could say that the symbol was invented by that lovely old rascal Iolo Morgannwg as the basis and root of the system of Coelbren, that it was explained in The Iolo Manuscripts in the 1840s and finally drawn as a symbol in Barddas in the 1860s (despite J Williams ab Ithel’s protestations in Barddas that Iolo did not invent the system.) I could also say that the symbol was very Christian in its origins and this is clearly explained in both The Iolo Manuscripts and in Barddas. However, it’s not quite so simple as that.
I came across a manuscript in my researches that may have given Iolo the idea, his mind always being unable, under the influence of laudanum, to distinguish between what he found in manuscripts and what came from his own awen. That manuscript (now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford) describes how the historian Nennius, on being challenged by an English scholar that the Welsh had no alphabet of their own, produced for his challenger an alphabet that bears a considerable resemblance to Coelbren, though more complex. It also contains an awen symbol (joined at the top) as one of its letters. This does not represent an individual letter but the Latin word ‘ego’ is ascribed to it : ‘I am that I am …’ A further complication arises in that a very similar symbol is to be found in Greek Orthodox Icons showing divine inspiration coming from the feet of God and resting on three meditating divines below.
Pondering on these points whilst driving one day I saw the rays of the sun filtering through cloud in a perfect awen sign. Three rays from heaven to earth. It would not surprise me at all if a similar sight had not similarly inspired Iolo and Nennius and those early Icon painters. Thinking of the cloudless skies of Egypt where there is nothing to filter the rays of the sun I am reminded of the sun disk with its multiple rays each ending in a hand as used by the heretical Pharoah Akenaten.
Nothing is ever quite so simple as it seems….
And nor is the word itself, which clearly has ancient origins. I could say, and be right in doing so, that the ‘flowing spirit’ idea was invented by a contemporary of Iolo’s, William Owen(-Pughe), who decided it came from two ancient words ‘aw’ and ‘en’, one meaning flow and the other spirit. Neither word, of course, ever existed in actuality. The word’s first written appearance is in one version (in the British Library Harleian manuscripts) of the Historia Brittonum (at one time also attributed to Nennius) where the poet Talhearn is decribed as ‘tat aguen’, the father of inspiration. The word comes from a proto-Brittonic root for breath and breathing connecting well with the same sense in the English word inspiration. In the Middle Ages bardic scholars held that ‘awen’ came directly from God, from Ysbryd Glân, the Holy Spirit.
For those interested:
The Iolo Manuscripts was published in 1848.
Barddas was published in two volumes in 1862 and 1874. J Williams ab Ithel wrote his protestations as to the genuineness of the Coelbren in Vol 1 pp.164-7.
Reference for the Bodleian manuscript is Auct.F.4.32, f20r.
Reference for the British Library manuscript is Harleian MS 3859 fol.188b.