Summer Solstice: Taliesin, Ceridwen and Magical Cauldrons

With the sun at its zenith and the Earth at the peak of her abundant glory, this is the time for manifestation, for flowering and empowering, for achieving the full potential offered by those long daylight hours. Male drones swarm about the queen bee, who will choose carefully with whom she will mate, and the hues of purple and white heather brushing the hillside are alive with their potent hum. In ancient times, as the drone must give up his life after coupling with the queen, so too the king in his role as guardian of the land must also give up his, for as the wheel of the year turns, the power of the Sun must wane as that of the darkness waxes. Now more usually it is the Green Man and Faery Queen who preside at the Solstice, reminding us that connection with the Otherworld is just behind the veil.

In Britain, Summer Solstice was once dedicated to Ceridwen, keeper of the Sacred Cauldron, the goddess whose story is mentioned in the medieval Tale of Taliesin and with whom she is intricately bound. Though this folktale is of relatively recent provenance, it is clear that this goddess of transformation, magic, shapeshifting and rebirth has a much more ancient pedigree, the energy of which can be felt at the ancient cromlech of Pentre Ifan near Nevern in Pembrokeshire. Ceridwen is also a dark moon goddess, and as this Solstice falls at the dark moon, it seems particularly relevant to recount her story now.

Drinking from her magical cauldron was said to confer inspiration (Awen), prophetic gifts and the art of storytelling, so Ceridwen has an intimate connection with welsh poets and bards  who call themselves sons of Ceridwen. This tradition is enshrined in folklore through the character of Taliesin, the sixth century bard of the Brythonic chieftan called Urien, and a legendary figure of other traditions, including the Arthurian. Here is their story:

Taliesin began life as a boy called Gwion Bach. One day, he found himself on an island on Lake Bala in North Wales where the giant Tegid Foel lived with his wife Ceridwen. Together they had two children, a beautiful girl and a boy called Morfan who was said to be very ugly. In order to compensate for his lack of good fortune,  Ceridwen decided to brew a potion in her wondrous cauldron that would bestow wisdom and knowledge on her son. She sought special herbs from the Earth, gathered on certain days and hours, and made from them a magic brew that needed to be kept at constant temperature. She had a blind  man tend the flames, and to Gwion Bach was given the job of tending, for this potion needed to be stirred for a year and a day.

Eventually, just as the allocated time arrived, Ceridwen fell asleep and alas! three drops sprang from the cauldron and landed on Gwion Bach, who had shoved Morfan out of the way. But not just any three drops, for only the first three contained any magical properties, the rest of the potion was poisonous. Gwion instantly attains the gifts of prophecy and wisdom – and knowing he was in grave danger, he takes flight.[1]

With Ceridwen in hot pursuit, Gwion magically shape shifts into a series of creatures in order to keep ahead of her. First he transforms into a hare, and Ceridwen gives chase in the form of a black greyhound. Then he turns himself into a fish, and she an otter. He then turns into a bird, and she a hawk. Finally, he ends up cornered in a barn and there transmutes into a single grain of corn.  Ceridwen became a high crested black hen – and gobbles him up!

She immediately becomes pregnant, and knowing that is Gwion that she carries, vows to get rid of him when he is born. In the time honoured manner reserved for magical characters of divine birth and many founding heroes, the child is spared, instead placed into a containing object, in this case a leather bag, or a coracle, and set adrift out at sea. Within time he is washed up on the shore of the Conway, where he is found by one Prince Elffin ap Gwyddno, who happened to be out salmon fishing. The prince cuts open the coracle and upon seeing the forehead of the baby says, ‘behold the radiant forehead!’ (in Welsh tal iesin), to which the child replied, ‘Tal-iesin he is!’ So thus named, Prince Elffin saddled the coracle onto his horse, the child reciting stanzas all the while, and takes him home to his wife. They raised the boy as their own and found themselves in receipt of riches and wealth as a result.

Taliesin goes on to goes have an illustrious career as a bard and rescues his step father from imprisonment on several occasions through his clever use of riddles and prophecy. King Maelgwn Gwynedd, to whom Elffin was in service, was so impressed with his poetic ability that he asks him who he was and where he had come from. His reply is the enigmatic Song of Taliesin as follows:

‘I was with my lord in the heavens when Lucifer fell into the depths of hell;

I carried a banner before Alexander; I know the stars names from the North to the South.

I was in the fort of Gwydion, in the Tetragrammaton;

I was in the canon when Absalon was killed;

I brought seed down to the vale of Hebron;

I was in the court of Don before the birth of Gwydion;

I was patriarch to Elijah and Enoch;

I was head keeper on the work of Nimrod’s tower;

I was atop the cross of the merciful son of God;

I was three times in the prison of Arianrhod;

I was in the ark with Noah and the Alpha;

I witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah…

I got poetic inspiration from the cauldron of Ceridwen..

And I shall remain until doomsday upon the face of the earth.

And no one knows what my flesh is – whether meat or fish.’ [2]

Many, including Robert Graves, have tried to demystify this riddle (more on this another time) and together with other poetic utterings contained in the Book of Taliesin, it ensured that the historical Taliesin entered into the realm of legend. In this way he becomes the enduring embodiment of the inspired poet/bard archetype who has had many incarnations, including a later, possibly more famous one, in the form of Merlin at the court of King Arthur.

It was however through Ceridwen that he ultimately gained his inspiration (anwyn) and this was achieved through the medium of her magical cauldron, as he says. That cauldrons were considered both wondrous and practical by the Indo-European then Celtic people is not in doubt, and cauldrons were at the centre of the Celtic Mystery traditions. There were said to be three, the cauldrons of rebirth, inspiration and transformation. Ceridwen’s cauldron seems to bestow all three powers, and therefore it is she, as Mistress of the Cauldron, who holds the mysteries of transformation, as her shapeshifting abilities in the tale show; inspiration, as demonstrated in the bardic and prophetic insights its potion bestowed; and rebirth, as the character of Taliesin demonstrated.

Symbolically we know that through life experiences we are transformed and grow as we shed old ways and take on new forms, but there is also another ecological aspect to this story. It is through a deep connection with the other than human world, mediated through the prophetic and inspirational properties of certain plants, and the deep wisdom embodied in animal lore that shape shifts throughout the seasons, that we become more in harmony with the natural world, with the land. From this connection emerges a deeper knowledge of the Otherworld, which both is of and permeates the physical world, and it is in this liminal space that deep insight and wisdom is found. This mystical understanding is one of the great gifts of the Grail tradition, with which stories of wondrous cauldrons and also later intertwined.


[1] ‘The Tale of Gwion Bach’ from ‘The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited and translated by Patrick K. Ford, 1997, 2019

[2] ‘The tale of Taliesin’ from ‘The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited and translated by Patrick K Ford, 1997, 2019

Picture credits: ‘Ceridwen’ by Christopher Williams (1910), ‘Ceridwen and Gwion Bach’ by Tim Rossiter

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