Olwen, a character in Welsh mythology, is most famously known as the heroine of the story “Culhwch and Olwen” in the Mabinogion. She is the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden and the cousin of Goreu. Her father is doomed to die if she ever marries, which creates a significant obstacle when Culhwch (also spelled Kilhwch), her suitor, comes to court her. Culhwch is set a series of nearly impossible tasks that he must complete to win Olwen’s hand. With the aid of his cousin, King Arthur, Culhwch manages to complete these tasks, leading to the death of Ysbaddaden and the subsequent marriage to Olwen.

In the tale, Olwen is described as stunningly beautiful.

The maiden was clothed in a robe of flame-coloured silk, and about her neck was a collar of ruddy gold, on which were precious emeralds and rubies. More yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. The eye of the trained hawk, the glance of the three-mewed falcon was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek was redder than the reddest roses. Whoso beheld her was filled with her love. Four white trefoils sprung up wherever she trod. And therefore was she called Olwen.

Culhwch and Olwen

The character of Olwen reappears in other Welsh tales, including the non-Arthurian folktale “Einion and Olwen,” where she is a character in a story about a sheep herder who ventures into the Otherworld to marry her. They later have a son named Taliesin. This story, collected at the turn of the 20th century, bears a connection to “Culhwch and Olwen.”

Olwen also became the subject of later Welsh poetry, with poets like Dafydd ap Gwilym and Sion Brwynog composing works about her. For instance, Brwynog begins a poem with the verse “Olwen gulael lan galon” (“Olwen of slender eyebrow, pure of heart”).

The etymology of the name “Olwen” means “white footprint” or “white track.” This is linked to the legend of her gentleness and fragility, where white trefoils are said to grow in her footprints. Some scholars speculate that Olwen may have originally been a solar goddess, based on her name’s etymology and her association with attributes of light.