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Cerridwen: Mother, Magician, and Crone from Old Welsh Mythology

Cerridwen: Mother, Magician, and Crone from Old Welsh Mythology

An enchantress from Welsh mythology, Cerridwen is regarded as a woman of incredible power and magic.  She pervades Welsh and Irish culture as an emblem of wisdom and rebirth, remaining today as a Wiccan goddess of the pair, as well as of inspiration.  As a woman of fierce magical talent, Cerridwen's story is interestingly less about herself and more about the children she bore.

Seen by many as a Mother Crone, Cerridwen is driven in the Welsh tales by a desire for her son's success in life.  Also the mother of a beautiful young daughter named Creirwy with Tegid Foel, her boy Morfran is known for his immense physical hideousness.  Gaining him a promising future means counteracting this ugliness, so she does so by using her advanced magic to brew him a concoction of mental and spiritual intellect.

The owner of a magical cauldron is called Awen, directly translated as "inspiration". Cerridwen decides to create a brew that would give her outwardly unlucky son brilliance beyond all measure.  It is a very particular potion, however, and has to boil for a year and a day for the drinker to achieve its full effects.  To protect her secret and the potion, Cerridwen ensures its fire is tended only by a blind man and that it is stirred only by a young boy named Gwion Bach.  Gwion, as many myths of such peculiar circumstances would have it, turns out to be the potion's ultimate undoing.

The boy Gwion attends to the Cauldron of Ceridwen

The boy Gwion attends to the Cauldron of Ceridwen ( Wikimedia Commons )

In stirring the cauldron one day, Gwion accidentally splashes three drops on his thumb.  Burning with the heat of the liquid, Gwion sucks on his thumb to ease the pain, inadvertently sipping the potion.  Unknown to him, the potion is only good for those first three drops—the rest of the potion immediately becomes a deadly poison.  Nonetheless, Gwion realizes his mistake when he suddenly becomes wise, and he flees the scene in an attempt to escape Cerridwen's wrath.  But the enchantress cannot be fooled.

Cerridwen’s cauldron contained a potion that was brewed for a year and a day in order to reach its full potency.

Cerridwen’s cauldron contained a potion that was brewed for a year and a day in order to reach its full potency. ( Wikimedia Commons)

Cerridwen chases Gwion across all forms of land and in all shapes of being.  Gwion, now possessing the powers of immense wisdom, innately knows how to transform himself and first tries to escape the witch as a hare.  Cerridwen immediately counters by becoming a greyhound.  Gwion next becomes a fish, but Cerridwen knows that's an otter's favorite meal.  Then he changes into a bird, but hawks, of course, are much faster and more aggressive.  At last, Gwion becomes a solitary piece of corn, easily discovered and devoured by a witch in the form of a hen.

And again, as seen in numerous other tales—such as "The Wooing of Étaín"—in swallowing her enemy, Cerridwen unintentionally becomes pregnant with him.  Angry and resentful, the sorceress resolves to kill the baby once it's born, to rid herself once and for all of the terrible boy who ruined her son Morfran's life.  But Gwion's new form is uncannily beautiful, and not even a murderous witch can bring herself to destroy such a thing.  Instead, she wraps the babe in cloth and throws him into the sea, where the tale claims that he was picked up by a prince named Elffin who adopts him and renames him as the mythical bard Taliesin.

There are many mythological and literary scholars who believe the tale of Cerridwen, the cauldron Awen, and Taliesin heavily influenced legends of King Arthur and the hunt for the Holy Grail.  The cauldron of rebirth and inspiration, for instance, seems to be of a similar type as the Holy Grail itself—both the grail and cauldron are represented by objects associated with the element of water, and both offer the user glorious benefits.  Taliesin is often seen as a precursor to Merlin, as he is recorded in the Mabinogion, the earliest written prose in Britain, as attending the court of King Arthur.  Known for his wisdom, his skill with words, and his fantastical powers, it is easy to see where this transition comes from.

Did the tale of Cerridwen inspire legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail? ‘Galahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail’. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co.

Did the tale of Cerridwen inspire legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail? ‘Galahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail’. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Cerridwen herself, however, translates more as a mother figure, in some cases even another Lady of the Lake.  Though she ruthlessly hunted Gwion down, it was her motherly drive and motives that propelled her to such actions, and that later made her such a pertinent figure in modern day Wicca.  To the past listeners and future readers, Cerridwen represents motherly dedication, divine inspiration, and an unyielding search for knowledge.

Featured Image: Ceridwen by Christopher Williams, 1910 ( Wikimedia Commons )

References

Bartlett, Sarah. The Mythology Bible (Sterling: New York, 2009.)

Castleden, Rodney. The Element Encyclopedia of the Celts (HarperCollins: United Kingdom, 2012.)

Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas (Penguin Classics: London, 1981.)

Gantz, Jeffrey. The Mabinogion (Pengiun: New York, 1987.)

Green, M.  Gods of the Celts (Sutton Publishing Limited: United Kingdom, 1986.)

Wigington, Patty. "Cerridwen: Keeper of the Cauldron." Pagan Wicca from About.com.

Accessed May 20, 2015. http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/godsandgoddesses/p/Cerridwen.htm

By Ryan Stone

Comments

Justbod's picture

Fascinating tale of transformation – the gaining of wisdom by Gwion has a similarity to the Salmon of Knowledge tale, where Finn MacCool gains wisdom by sucking his burnt thumb whilst cooking the fish. Thank you for the article :)

 

 

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

It’s also like the story of Sigurd the dragon slayer, from the Vulsunga saga. He has to roast the Dragaon heart for Regin. “When the juice foamed out of it, Sigurd tested it with his finger to see if it was done, then put his finger into his mouth. As soon as the serpent's blood touched his tongue he could understand the language of birds.”  He discovered that Regin was trying to kill him.

 

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