In Welsh medieval legend, Ceridwen (ˈkɛrɪdwɨn/ kair-id-wən), also spelled Cerridwen, was an enchantress, mother of Morfran and a beautiful daughter Creirwy. Her husband was Tegid Foel, and they lived near Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid) in north Wales. Medieval Welsh poetry refers to her as possessing the cauldron of Poetic Inspiration (Awen) and the Tale of Taliesin recounts her swallowing her servant Gwion Bach who is then reborn through her as the poet Taliesin. Ceridwen is regarded by modern Wiccans as the Celtic goddess of rebirth, transformation, and inspiration.
There are several possible interpretations of the name 'Ceridwen'. The earliest recorded form, found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, is Cyrridven. This was interpreted by Sir Ifor Williams as "crooked woman" (cyrrid < cwrr "crooked or bent"? + ben "woman, female"), although the precise meaning of cyrrid is uncertain. Another possible meaning for the second element, based on the much more common form 'Ceridwen', is "fair, beloved" or "blessed, sacred" (gwen, mutated here to -wen, is a common element in female saints' names, e.g. Dwynwen).
According to the late medieval Tale of Taliesin, included in some modern editions of the Mabinogion, Morfran (also called Afagddu) was hideously ugly, so Ceridwen sought to make him wise. She had a magical cauldron that could make a potion granting the gift of wisdom and poetic inspiration. The mixture had to be boiled for a year and a day. Morda, a blind man, tended the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach, a young boy, stirred the concoction. The first three drops of liquid from this cauldron gave wisdom; the rest was a fatal poison. Three hot drops spilled onto Gwion's thumb as he stirred, burning him. He instinctively put his thumb in his mouth, and instantly gained great wisdom and knowledge.
Ceridwen chased Gwion. He turned himself into a hare. She became a greyhound. He became a fish and jumped into a river. She turned into an otter. He turned into a bird; she became a hawk. Finally, he turned into a single grain of corn. She then became a hen and ate him. When Ceridwen became pregnant, she knew it was Gwion and resolved to kill the child when he was born. However, when he was born, he was so beautiful that she couldn't do it. She threw him in the ocean instead, sewing him inside a leather-skin bag. The child did not die, but was rescued on a Welsh shore - near Aberdyfi according to most versions of the tale - by a prince named Elffin ap Gwyddno; the reborn infant grew to became the legendary bard Taliesin.
Ronald Hutton suggests that Ceridwen first appeared as a simple sorceress character in the Tale of Taliesin, of which the earliest surviving text dates to the mid-16th century, but which appears from its language to be 9th-century in composition, according to Hutton. References to Ceridwen and her cauldron found in the work of the 12th-century Gogynfeirdd or Poets of the Princes (such as Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr) he thus considers later, derivative works. In them, according to Hutton, Ceridwen is transformed from a sorceress into a goddess of poetry. Citing this and a couple of other examples, Hutton proposes that the Gogynfeirdd substantially created a new mythology not reflective of earlier paganism. Nonetheless, references to Ceridwen's cauldron (pair Ceridwen) are also to be found in some of the early mythological poems attributed to the legendary Taliesin in the Book of Taliesin.
The Victorian poet Thomas Love Peacock also wrote a poem entitled the Cauldren of Ceridwen. Later writers identified her as having originally been a pagan goddess, speculating on her role in a supposed Celtic pantheon. John Rhys in 1878 referred to the Solar Myth theory of Max Müller according to which "Gwenhwyfar and Ceridwen are dawn goddesses." Charles Isaac Elton in 1882 referred to her as a "white fairy". Robert Graves later fitted her into his concept of the Threefold Goddess, in which she was interpreted as a form of the destructive side of the goddess.
Graves' theory was appropriated by Wicca, in which Ceridwen plays a role as a goddess, her cauldron symbolising the feminine principle.
Finn MacCool and the legend of the Salmon of Knowledge
From Isle-of-Skye.org's Encyclopaedia of the Celts:
- 628: (Ker ID wen) The Welsh crone, or goddess of dark prophetic powers, is represented by Cerridwen. Her totem animal is the sow, representing the fecundity of the Underworld, and the terrible strenght of the Mother. Like many Celtic goddesses, she had two children representing dark and light aspects emerging from the One Goddess her daughter Crearwy being light and beautiful, and her son Afagddu being dark and ugly. Cerridwen is keeper of the Cauldron of the Underworld, in which inspiration and divine knowledge are brewed. She brews for her son, and sets little Gwion to guard the cauldron; but three drops fall out upon his finger, and he absorbs the potency of the brew. The goddess then pursues Gwion through a cycle of changing shapes, which correspond both to totem animals and to the turning of the seasons; this theme is related to that of Mabon and Merlin, in which a divine youth is associated with the orders and creatures of Creation. The Welsh legend, however, has a significant ending, for Cerridwen, in the guise of a hen, swallows Gwion, in the guise of an ear of corn. Nine months pass, and she gives birth to a radiant child, known as Taliesin, a title attached to the greatest of Welsh poets. # 156: This story seems far older than the period of the historical Taliesin. It is similar to a tale told about the Irish hero, Finn mac Cumhal, and may enshrine a Celtic divinatory practice involving thumb chewing. This practice was known in early Ireland as Imbas Forosnai and seems to have rested on the notion that chewing the raw flesh of the thumb imparted sagacity.
- 156 - 272 - 628 p 88 ff
A Cymric Goddess of the Ystoria Taliesin, also known as Ceridwen, Caridwen: Blessed Poet or Beloved
Ceridwen (Ceridwen, Caridwen) is a Cymric (Welsh) goddess known from the tale of the Ystoria Taliesyn as the mother of Afagddu who brews the potion of inspiration that Taliesin accidentally imbibes. The interpretation of her name hints at her role in providing divine inspiration.
Synonyms: Ceridwen, Caridwen
Cym: Blessed Poet or Beloved
Cerridwen's tale occurs in the mediaeval Ystoria Taliesyn (the tale of Taliesyn) and tells of how the bard came to be born. During the early days of Arthur's reign there lived in the region of Penllyn, by Llyn Tegid, Bala a man called Tegid Foel and his wife, Cerridwen. Between them they had a daughter, Creirwy, the fairest maiden in the world and a son, Morfrân, who because of his dark skin and hideous aspect was also known as Afagddu.
Morfrân was the least favoured of all men and to compensate for his looks Cerridwen, who was versed in all three of the magical arts: mage-arts, witchcraft and sorcery, decided to create a special brew in her Cauldron of Inspiraton so that her son would gain clear sight, poetic majesty and knowledge of the future.
Such a powerful brew required careful tending as the potion had to seep for a year and a day. As a result Cerridwen appointed the blind man, Morda, to tend the fire whilst Gwion Bach was set to stir the brew. After a year and a day of tedious stirring and Gwion approached exhausion, Cerridwen placed Morfrân next to the cauldron in readiness and prepared herself for sleep. Annoyed that Morfrân was in his shadow Gwion shoved him out of the way and as he did so three drops of the brew accidentally flew from the cauldron and fell on Gwion’s finger, scalding him. Instinctively he placed his finger in his mouth to suck at the burn and immediately he gained the knowledge of all things and the potion remaining in the cauldron was converted to poison. With seething toxin within, the cauldron immediately burst and Afagddu had to remain ill-favoured.
Hearing the cauldron burst Cerridwen awoke as if from a trance. Touched by the potion's power Gwion immediately saw the dangers that would befall him and he immediately feld to his own lands where he tried to hide himself against Cerridwen's wiles. Cerridwen now came across the scene of the shattered cauldron. With some difficulty she managed to persuade Morfrân to tell herwhat had happened. Flying into a rage she chased after Gwion He quickly used the powers gained from the brew and changed himself into a hare and hopped off as quickly as his legs would carry him. Cerridwen took the form of a greyhound and followed in swift pursuit. But just as She was about to catch him, he changed into a fish and slipped into a river. Cerridwen quickly became an otter and continued after Gwion. About to be caught again, he once more changed his form, this time into a bird and flew off into the sky, only discovering the Cerridwen was close behind, having taken the shape of a hawk. Fearing for his life, Gwion noticed a pile of wheat on the land below and changing himself into the tiniest of grains, dropped into the pile. Cerridwen's sharp eyes saw what he had done and taking the form of a black crested hen, She pecked at the grain until She found and ate the seed that had been Gwion. But the tiny seed took root within her womb and began to grow. For nine months, Cerridwen proclaimed that on the day that Gwion would be reborn She would destroy him, but when that day arrived She relented. She placed him in a leather sack and threw him into the raging waters of the river, this just two days before the first of May.
Many interpretations have been made of the meaning of Cerridwen's name based on the roots caru (to love) cerdd (poem) caer (fortress) and cerru (cauldron). This last interpretation I found most dubious and the frotress interpretation doesn't make much sense either, given Cerridwen's properties. In poems of the Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin Cerridwen is invoked in several poems as the patronness of inspriation. Hence I would plump for the root of her name being derived from the Cymric word for poem or song. The feminine termination wen literally means white but in the names of deities it usually connotes 'sacred'. Thus her name probably means 'Blessed Poet' or 'Blessed of the Verse'. Cerridwen, as the guardian of the cauldron of inspiration and the awen (muse) she may be have been a Muse figure ab=nd this may be her original mythos.
In later folklore Cerridwen became the Hag figure with some of her attributes similar to the Irish and Scottish Cailleach. This may have been because she was seen as a sorcerer and therefore became demonized. In local folklore the wheat-straw was considered sacred to Cerridwen and used for the process of divination.
A Companion to Arthurian and Celtic Myths and Legends,
Welsh and Arthurian
The Corn Goddess and wife of Tegid Voel. She is usually represented as a crone, the goddess of dark, prophetic powers, whose totem animal is the sow, which represents the fecundity of the Otherworld. She is the keeper of the cauldron of the Otherworld, in which inspiration and divine knowledge are brewed, and it is this aspect that features most prominently in her story.
Like many Celtic goddesses, Cerridwen had two opposing children. One was the maiden Crearwy, the most beautiful girl ever to have been born, her very person radiating light and warmth. The other was the boy Afagddu, the ugliest boy to have lived, whose soul was dark and cold. A second son is also sometimes added to the list of Cerridwen's children. Named Morfran ab Tegid, he is said by some to be none other than Afagddu, for Afagddu may possibly be a derisive nickname for Morfran ab Tegid. Others say that they are two separate children, but no source gives any indication of Morfran ab Tegid's attributes. It seems most likely that Afagddu and Morfran ab Tegid are one and the same, for mythology tends to follow set patterns, and it would be extremely unlikely for a goddess such as Cerridwen to have more than two children representing opposing forces.
To compensate her son for this misfortune, Cerridwen decided to brew a potion that would empower him with the gifts of inspiration and knowledge and would give him the ability to know all things past, present and future. Collecting together the magical herbs required, she placed them in her cauldron and set Gwion Bach, the young son of Gwreang, to stir the potion for the required year and a day and the blind man Morda to stoke the fire. At the end of the allotted time three drops of the hot liquid splashed onto Gwion Bach's thumb. As the little boy sucked his thumb to cool it, he was filled with the potency of the brew. Having now given up its essence, the remainder of the potion became poisonous, the cauldron split asunder and the contents poisoned the local waterways and killed the horses of Gwyddno Garanhir, which drank the contaminated water. The sucking of the thumb by Gwion Bach may enshrine an ancient divinatory practice that involved chewing the thumb. The practice was known in early Ireland as Imbas Forosnai, and seems to have relied on the notion that chewing the raw flesh of the thumb imparted sagacity.
Gwion Bach immediately knew that his life was in danger and fled the site. When Cerridwen found the cauldron in pieces, she flew into a rage and beat Morda so cruelly about the head with a billet of wood that one of his eyes fell out onto his cheek. Realizing that it was Gwion Bach that was responsible for the loss of her potion, Cerridwen dashed off after the boy in the guise of a fearful black hag and soon started to gain on him. Seeing Cerridwen gaining, Gwion Bach used his new-found powers to change himself into a hare so that he might run faster, but Cerridwen countered by changing herself into a greyhound. Gwion Bach saw Cerridwen gaining again and lept into a river, changing into a fish as he did so. Cerridwen dived in after him and became an otter. Gwion Bach left the river and flew up into the air as a bird, with Cerridwen following as a hawk. Finally Gwion Bach saw a barn and, dropping onto the threshing floor, turned himself into a grain of wheat, thinking that he would be safe among the thousands of other grains that lay scattered all around. Cerridwen changed herself into a hen and, scratching around the floor, swallowed the hapless Gwion Bach.
Resuming her human form, Cerridwen discovered that she was pregnant. Nine months later she gave birth to Gwion Bach as a boy so beautiful that she could not bring herself to kill him. Instead she sewed him up inside a leather bag and threw him into a river. The bag caught on the fish weir of Gwyddno Garanhir, whose son Elphin found it and opened it. The first thing he saw was the forehead of the child and immediately exclaimed 'Radiant Brow', thus naming Taliesin, for the name Taliesin means 'Radiant Brow'.
Cerridwen, whose name means 'White Grain', was also known as Hên Wen, or 'old white one', the sow that supposedly gave birth to several monstrous offspring, one of which was the Cath Palug, although this animal has another tale of its birth (see below). She was also the patroness of poetry, a just connection considering that the birth of the great bard Taliesin is part of her story. She was, through her totem animal, connected with the sow goddess, as well as with Albine, the eponym of Albion. Cerridwen lived at Caer Siddi, also known as Caer Feddwidd, an Otherworldly kingdom that was represented in the stars, although this realm is also sometimes associated with Arionrhod.
Not content with all these attributes and associations, Cerridwen was also said to have been given a kitten that grew up to become the Cath Palug. This connection led to Cerridwen being associated with a cat cult, although, quite perversely, she also had connections with wolves and was said, by some, to have been the centre of a Neolithic cult.
The Story of Taliesin
A certain Keridwen asks Gwyon Bach to tend a cauldron whose contents are intended for her son; it consists of a magic potion of wisdom, knowledge, and inspiration. Three drops of the liquid are absorbed by Gwyon, who is endowed instantaneously with perfect knowledge of the past and the future. The enraged Keridwen pursues Gwyon, who flees, changing himself in various animals. As Keridwen chases him, she also metamorphoses herself. In the end, Gwyon takes the form of a grain of corn and Keridwen the form of a hen: she swallows the grain of corn. But she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy before the first of May, puts him in a leather sack and casts him into the sea. The sack is retrieved by Elffin, son of King Gwyddno, a young man for whom nothing turns out well. He discovers the child and names him Taliesin.
If Merlin has been conceived of a devil and a pious young girl, Taliesin <i>conceives himeself</i> in the body of Keridwen, image of the mother goddess, she who initiates and dispenses. In any case Taliesin and Merlin share a common ground: they are fatherless children.
 The date is important as it is the festival of Beltaine, one of the four great seasonal holidays of the pagan Celts.