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

Sardinia: the Ziggurat and the Omphalos

With the discovery of copper, life for the Mediterranean Neolithic farming communities changed profoundly. The sacred art of metallurgy was seen as the ultimate gift of the Goddess and the blacksmith as the alchemist who could transform the precious stuff that came from deep within the Earth into something useful. In Sardinia, this cross over time from Neolithic farming to metallurgy brought with it a remarkable and unique development not seen anywhere else in the Mediterranean. The enigmatic sanctuary at Monte d’Accordi.

Menhir at Li Lolghi, Sardinia

Near modern day Porto Torres, close to a spring and surrounded by distant mountain peaks on the south side, an ancient terraced site resembling a ziggurat rises out of the Nurra plain. This area had long since been regarded as sacred, most likely due to its setting and vantage point, and menhirs and stellae decorated with symbols were previously laid out here. The use of menhirs, or baetyl, proliferated during the Ozieri period, reflecting a wider tradition that had started in the Levant (or possibly Egypt) thousands of year earlier and migrated all the way across to the British Isles.

Baetyls were considered to be the house of god/goddess. They at once embodied the sacred and marked a sacred site, so they were the earliest form of altars. Their erection and libation could have been part of an ancient ritual whereby new territory was made sacred, and that which was previously foreign and ‘outside of’ became part of the acceptable realm of operation.

Ziggurat at Monte d’Accoddi

Then in around 3000 BCE, at around the same time that ziggurats began to occur in Mesopotamia, a terraced altar was built with walls made from stones and filled in with earth. On top, which could only be accessed via a ramp, a rectangular temple made from limestone slabs was erected, and the floors of the temple were painted red with ochre so as to resemble menstrual blood. For this reason the structure has been named the Red Temple.

Later, a second layer was added and again truncated like a ziggurat, enlarging the structure and bringing the Red Temple closer to the sky and presumably making it even more sacred. On one side of the ramp is an altar made from a large sheet of granite with circular holes cut into the sides, and on the other a large free standing menhir that could predate the site. To the north of the ziggurat are a farther three small chapels used for votive offerings and another menhir with strange carvings possibly depicting the goddess.

Goddess stellae at Monte d’Accoddi

It has been suggested that the four corners of the ziggurat are aligned to the four carnival points. That and the fact that the views of the horizon are conveniently punctuated by distant mountains suggests that at least one of the functions of this extraordinary place was an astronomical observatory. A small incised stone found at the site is suggestive of tally marks and could record planetary or stellar movements.

The ziggurat is part of a larger cult centre surrounded by partially unexcavated smaller huts. One could have belonged to the shaman or high priestess of the sanctuary as a vase full of shells was found here. It is speculated that these were used as amulets with magical significance.

‘Omphalos’

Most intriguing of all is a large carved stone omphalos, a navel stone depicting a special type of sacred place considered to be at the very bond between heaven and earth. The stone is egg shaped and has been cut through deliberately with a curved line so that it resembles a crack. This strongly suggests that this omphalos could also be a primordial egg, a place of origin from which all things emerge, the equivalent to the Place of the First Time in Egyptian mythology.

‘Bond between Heaven and Earth’

All these elements suggest that Monte d’Accoddi was a place of supreme importance to the earliest Chalcolithic cultures of northern Sardinia, indeed that t his cult site could have once been considered to be the dwelling place of the Goddess herself. Statuettes with perforated arms and breasts have been found at the site, attributing to prevalence of a female deity. The power of the place stayed with me for days afterwards, and my dreams connected me with an ancient time now long since forgotten. I can only speculate as to the immense power of the site when used and activated in the way for which it was intended.

Aphrodite: love, Cyprus and copper

On Valentine’s Day our thoughts turn to love, mainly of a sexual nature, and to beauty and pleasure. We have been bombarded with an array of pink paraphanalia, chocolates, roses and red love hearts, tempting us to buy and demonstrate the depth our feelings. What this has to do with St Valentine, a third century martyr and a pries, I do not know, but way before him this week in February was linked with the greatest of all goddesses, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, of erotic pleasure and beauty. And in turn, Aphrodite has long been associated with the island of Cyprus, with copper and a unique geological feature called an ophiolite.

According to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born of the sea, birthed from white foam that floated on the waves. She came forth fully formed and stepped onto land in Cyprus when all beneath her feet ‘blossomed and came into bloom.’ The foam, however, wasn’t just any old foam, but the products of the genetalia of her dismembered father (Uranus), chopped off by his son Chronus after the union of heaven and earth ended in tragedy. According to the myth, ‘Heaven came bringing on night and longing for love and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her.’ Their coupling was messy and chaotic, and by putting an end to it, Chronus (time) was seen to bring order to chaos. And Aphrodite, though born of this heavenly chaos, was also associated with a more complex approach to procreation, one that included joy, desire, pleasure and love. [1]

As her birthplace and main cult centre for her worship, Cyprus has been intimately linked to Aphrodite since at least the 12th century BC. However, archaeological evidence for her worship as goddess of pleasure, joy and life can be traced back to thousands of years earlier, when copper was first mined on the island. We have an abundance of evidence, [2] mainly associated with the chalcolithic cultures of Old Europe, to know something of the beliefs of these early Neolithic societies. Their primary deity was the creatrix, the birth giver whose creation was seen in the seasonal cycles of nature, in the miracle of birth and cyclic destruction, in the regeneration of life and in the abundance of nature from which all life originated and returned. Copper, as a gift of the Earth was considered to be of her body, a sacred part of creatrix, gifted to humans to work with. It was the smith, or metallurgist who knew how to extract the metal from the ore and create from it something useful, and he was thus considered to be a worker of sacred magic. On Cyprus, it was Aphrodite who became associated with the life affirming creatrix, and her husband Hephaestus, the smith who knew how to work with her gifts. And the reason for this – the presence of a copper bearing ophiolite.

But what is an ophiolite and how is it formed? About 80 million years ago, an ancient ocean named the Tethys Ocean began to close, forming the Mediterranean Sea and pushing up a piece of crust that came to be known as Cyprus. As the Tethys ocean disappeared and the dense ocean crust was pulled down at a destructive plate margin, something unusual occurred: a sliver of this oceanic lithosphere was pushed up and preserved in a terrane now called the Troodos Terrane. So the Troodos mountains are actually an ophiolite, or preserved piece of oceanic crust. Hydrothermal activity on the ocean floor typically result in the formation of sulphide deposits and in the case of the Troodos mountains, these sulphides were very rich in zinc, gold – and copper.

The cultic centres of Aphrodite at Paphos, Kition and Amathus are all linked originally to copper mining. Indeed we are told by Pliny the elder that it was king Kinyras who established her most famous sanctuary at Paphos also built the first copper mines and invented metallurgy, though both were clearly in existence way before him. [3]

Intriguingly Aphrodite was originally worshipped at Paphos in the shape of a sacred stone, or betyl. Today the sacred stone that stands in the sanctuary is a dark gabbro, a piece of the type of oceanic crust found in the Troodos ophiolite. This practice of worshipping sacred stones, either of meteoric or other geologically significant origin, is very ancient and prevalent over the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The stone would have been venerated and offered libations in the form of milk, honey, olive oil or wine, all products of Nature’s bounty. At Amathus, the second of her major sanctuaries, a slab carved with small round cavities was found in the oldest part, most probably used for libations of oil, honey, wine, salt, showing that this very ancient practice was still carried out at this date.

Throughout the Bronze Age as our relationship with nature started to change, we see a change in the way that Aphrodite was worshipped. The third great temple on the island was at Kition near Larnaca. This city was founded by the Phoenicians, the great merchants of the Bronze Age. They brought with them the worship of the love and fertility goddess Ishtar or Astarte, in turn descended from the much older Sumerian Inanna. All became blended into one, with shared characteristics but different names and the goddess started to change from a creatrix embodying the cyles of life with all its abundance, into the anthromorphic form of a beautiful (but flawed) woman. And with this split came a split in our relationship with love and pleasure with which the goddess was so firmly associated. One aspect of Aphrodite was said to be called Ourania, or heavenly, and the other Aphrodite, Pandemos, or common to all people.

As described earlier, in her original form, Aphrodite was associated with the creation of the universe, the product of the union between the mating of heaven and earth itself (Ourania). Later she became the unfaithful wife of Hephaestus, now depicted as wounded and vengeful, snared in a net by him whilst coupling with none other than Ares, the god of war (Pandemos).

Aphrodite and her myths clearly embody this split between higher and lower love, between love of the universal heart (agape) and love of the human heart. What is more surprising is that the island of Cyprus itself seems to embody this schism. Since 1972 the island has been divided between north and south, with checkpoints and barbed wire separating the two halves. The two ancient civilisations who gave so much to humanity, the Greeks and the Turks, are now energetically holding these aspects. Perhaps the origin of this schism stems back to the Trojan war, when the Greeks and the Trojans fought from the place of the lower self and ownership of a woman, Helen of Troy. Maybe we have focussed so long on our personal hearts and dramas (Pandemos), that we have forgotten our connection to the universal heart and heavenly love (Ourania). So, this ‘Valentine’s day’ is a great opportunity to re-integrate them both and really make it Aphrodite’s day, in her healed and whole aspect.  


[1]‘ Kypris, the Aphrodite of Cyprus’ by Jacqueline Karageorghis

[2] ‘The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe’ by Marija Gimbutas

‘[3] Kypris, the Aphrodite of Cyprus’ by Jacqueline Karageorghis