What is Awen?

December 9, 2021 8:58 pm Published by

Have you wondered what Awen is? Perhaps it’s a word you’re familiar with, but I also recognize that my podcast title, Awen Guided by Spirit, may have been your first acquaintance with the word. I feel like I owe you a bit of an explanation about what Awen is and why it’s included in the title of my podcast. I also feel like it’s important to breathe some life into Awen here in this space.

In this post, you’ll learn what Awen is, where the word came from, how it’s used, and my connection to it. Wrapped up in this share, I also want to begin a larger conversation about titles and how we identify ourselves in the spiritual community. 

Listen to the full episode here.

How do you identify yourself in the spiritual community?

If you’re here, it’s possible that, like myself, you feel unsure of what to call yourself. I find myself often simply identifying as “spiritual.” Which is so non-specific that I think it has very little meaning, even though I know that the spiritual practices I adhere to are significant, real, and valid, as are yours. Maybe this isn’t something you’ve pondered. If you don’t, great, haha! However, I’ve personally grappled with this throughout my spiritual journey. 

Maybe, like me, you’ve asked yourself, “am I a witch, a pagan, a Druid, a Shamanic practitioner?” I don’t fully resonate with any of these terms. In my opinion, most of these words have, to some extent, been misunderstood and misused. My unwillingness to claim these words often gives me a sense of feeling misplaced or apart from rather than a part of. Perhaps, you can relate, or maybe you feel very at home with some of these identifiers. Cultural heritage and where you live play a significant role here too.

For me, there’s an energetic weight to some of these identifiers that I don’t want to carry. For example, the need I feel to explain what being a witch means to me is something I don’t want to untangle for people. The word witch often brings up a vast array of preconceived ideas for people. Yes, it can be empowering to identify as a witch. It can be powerful to reclaim that word. But, that word has also picked up so many correlations that do not fit who and what a witch is, believes, and does. Many people have a very fraught relationship with the word witch. 

I practice witchcraft, but I do not claim the title of witch more often than not. I know many of you feel very at home with this word, and that’s beautiful. This is a bigger topic that I’m just scratching the surface of here. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to email or DM me on Instagram. Perhaps, it’s my Aquarius Sun, just trying to be different, haha! But, I don’t doubt that some of you feel similarly. There’s a lot of grey area and nuance to this topic, much of which I won’t get into today.

My connection to Awen

Let’s get back to the point of this share, which is to discuss Awen. Why then the slight detour? In my ever-evolving quest to find words and titles that I truly resonate with, I came to the word Awenydd in 2019 while reading a book by Elen Sentier. I often wonder if it was a deep soul whispering of a word I once knew and identified with lifetimes ago. Perhaps! Upon reading about the Awenyddion in the British Isles, I began a quest to read and learn all that I could about Awen and Awenyddion. 

For me, there’s something about the word Awen that feels a little lighter, like it hasn’t been subjected to the same weight that the word witch has. Instead, it feels very special, like a secret. Energetically, it feels like the essence of the unique spiritual path that I choose to walk. This is why I named this podcast Awen. I also believed that calling this podcast Awen would allow me to do what I’m doing now, to put this word and its essence on a bit of a pedestal. If it is a new word to you, too, I’ll be excited to hear if its meaning rings as true for you as it did for me. Let’s explore Awen. 

What is Awen?

So, what does Awen mean? Awen is a Welsh and Breton word that loosely translates as “flowing inspiration” or “poetic inspiration.” Some describe it as the “holy spirit” of Celtic Spirituality and Druidry. I’ll share my understanding of Awen, descriptions from others, and I’ll end with a bit of historical context for this word. 

I think Awen is something we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives. Awen is available to everyone from any path. I think many experience Awen and simply call it a different name. Can you remember a time when you became fully consumed with an art project, playing an instrument, performing a ritual, dancing, writing, or simply being in awe of nature? Those moments of feeling wholly absorbed, present, and even experiencing a loss of time are Awen. Awen is something many of us brush up against while engaging with creative acts, but it can also be cultivated. 

As an artist and someone who started meditating at a young age, I’m quite familiar with what this sensation feels like. In art school, I remember being in awe of how I’d become fully engrossed in a painting to the point that I didn’t feel like it was I who had control over the brush but something outside of myself. I would sometimes spend an entire day engrossed in a painting or drawing, and it felt like no time had passed at all. I can also remember my early meditation experiences, feeling like my body had become one with my surroundings. As I’ve grown older, this energy of Awen is something I’ve learned to tap into both through meditation, creativity, and being outside. Today, I recognize that it is through connecting with the energy of Awen I perform energy work, write my books, create my art, and more. It is not I am alone. It is me choosing to be in a relationship with the flowing energy of Awen. It is a co-creative and reciprocal relationship. 

Awen is something that anyone can tap into, it’s always here, therefore it’s for everyone. 

The word Awen can be used in many ways, it can refer to the essence of creative inspiration or spirit, but it can also be used to describe a person. Someone living in the space of connection with Awen may be referred to as an Awenydd. I’ll start by sharing an excerpt from Elen Sentier’s book Following The Deer Trods, where she uses the phrase Awenydd

Awenydd means spirit-keeper and comes from the word awen, which means spirit. 

Awenyddion (the plural of awenydd) have served the British tribes for hundreds of thousands of years, as long as there have been humans living in our land. We call this path walking the deer trods … We still do this work now, in the 21st century, for everything that lives on the Earth and the Earth herself, the seen and unseen, the human and not-human. We journey to bring wisdom and enable healing for creatures, people, plants and the land herself. 

We awenyddion honour the spirit of the Earth and work with the spirit of the land. For me, this involves all sorts of things from growing my own veg to politics as well as spirit walking, journeying and healing. For each awenydd the form of the path is different, but the purpose is always the same … working for Mother Earth and all the life that lives and breathes and has its movement therein. 

Elen Sentier, Following The Deer Trods

One of my favorite books on the topic is The Awen Alone by Joanna Van Der Hoeven. Here’s an excerpt from this book that I adore and find that she beautifully captures Awen’s essence.

For awen to exist, there must be 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. Awen is cyclical in nature; we open and give ourselves and in doing so we receive in a continuous cycle. Letting go, releasing ourselves into the flow of awen allows it to flow ever more freely. We find ourselves inspired not only in the fits and bursts of enlightenment or inspiration, but at all times, carrying that essence of connection and wonder with us in our everyday lives. 

But just what is awen? It is an awareness, not just on a physical and mental level, but also on a soul-deep level of the entirety of existence, of life itself. It is seeing the threads that connect us all. It is the deep well of inspiration that we drink from, to nurture our souls and our world and to give back in joy, in reverence, in a wild abandon, and in solemn ceremony. 

Joanna Van Der Hoeven, The Awen Alone

Finally, I’ll share an excerpt from the book, The Path of Druidry by Penny Billington. The word Awen is often associated with Druidry. However, those working outside of Druidry also use this word, as depicted above by Elen Sentier. 

As with the walks that put Druids in the way of the magical current so becoming absorbed in the moment—whatever the activity—and engaging fully with what is happening puts us in the way of creative flow. That mysterious, elusive thread of our magical current, inspiration, is the key to creativity. Artists who experience a creative block suffer greatly—and this means all of us. We were born to be creative, and finding how to express that is our bardic challenge…

Druids have a word for this spirit of inspiration. We call it Awen

Penny Billington, The Path of Druidry

I love how Penny Billington refers to Awen as a “magical current” and think it rings so true to the feeling of being in flow with Awen. 

As you can see from each of these excerpts, and my offering, what Awen means to people has subtle fluctuations. Just as the literal translation Awen suggests, Awen is fluid and not something we will be able to “nail down” or define perfectly. There’s a certain amount of mystery to the word, which I believe makes it more alluring.

Now for a bit of history. 

History of the word Awen

The first written use of this word comes from Historia Brittonum in approximately 828. There’s also mention of Awenyddions in the Description of Wales by Gerald of Wales in 1194. He compares them to soothsayers (aka diviners) and talks about their ecstatic poetry that appears to pour forth from a trans-like state. Here’s a funny little excerpt from Description of Wales by Gerald of Wales.

There are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves,and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a connected manner; but the person who skilfully observes them, will find, after many preambles, and many nugatory and incoherent, though ornamented speeches, the desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: they are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep,

Gerald of Wales, Description of Wales

There’s also a beautiful reference to Awen concerning spirit and inspiration that lives in the Book of Taliesin. The Book of Taliesin debuted in the early 14th century. However, like so many things in this sphere, many of the stories with the Book of Taliesin were likely orally passed down much earlier. There’s still much debate about when the stories within the Book of Taliesin were written and who wrote them. 

One of the most striking lines about Awen from the Book of Taliesin translates to,

“The three elements of inspiration (Awen) that came, splendid, out of the cauldron.” 

The book of taliesin

I love that this early written reference of Awen mentions the cauldron and the three rays, which connect with the modern-day symbol associated with Awen.

The symbol for Awen was created in the 18th century by a Welsh poet named Iolo Morganwg. Within a circle, it depicts three dots with three rays radiating outward below the three dots.

Though I found this word to resonate with me in profound ways, it is a relatively new word to me. Upon writing this, it’s only been about three years, which is a tiny amount of time. If it resonates with you too, I encourage you to do your own explorations into Awen and the Awenyddion. I’m learning just as you are, and even on topics I have been studying for longer, ultimately, you are your own sounding board. Until next time, I hope you feel the flow of Awen within you, around you, and through you.

In love and gratitude, Cassie

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About Cassie

Cassie Uhl is the author of five books and two card decks, an artist, intuitive energy healer, and death doula. Her lineage and practices are rooted in pagan earth-based spiritual practices of Northern Europe. She approaches her work and clients with trauma-informed support through all phases of life. She currently resides on the land of the Myaamia people in so-called Indiana of the US.