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

Beltane: Of Flower Brides and Green Men

The ancient festival of Beltane is celebrated at the beginning of May when the sexuality of life and the Earth itself is at its peak and now turns to conception and the initiation of a new life force. This is when the Greenwood marriage was celebrated, the union between the May Queen, or the Flower Bride, and the Green Man, the young oak king or the Jack-in-the-Green. Even today this ritual is still re-enacted in villages around the country, where a May Queen decked in flowers weaves the ribbon of the male pole, symbolising the fertility of the god, in a dance that follows the spiral of life.

Traditionally Beltane began when the hawthorn blossomed, drenching trees, hedges and paths with scented petals like the scattered confetti of a bridal feast. The blossom was taken into the house and used together with mead and cake in handfasting ceremonies, where a couple tied hands with a red chord bound in a figure of eight and pledged to stay together for a year and a day. It was also the time when everyone went to the fields and celebrated the Greenwood marriage; children born to these couplings nine months later were considered sacred.

Beltane is above all a fire ceremony when bonfires are lit to honour the sun and its role in bringing forth life on Earth. It was probably named from the god Bel, a complex composite god originally belonging to the Sumerian/Babylonian (Bel = Baal = Lord) pantheon, and then adopted by the Celts as their sun god. This was when a special fire was lit called the Tein-eigen (‘teine = fire in Gaelic)[1] and everyone would gather together and jump over it to purify, cleanse and bring fertility. Cattle were also driven through the smoke to protect them from disease. Afterwards everyone would take a spark of this original fire with them to rekindle the home hearth. There is also some evidence that bonfires were lit along special places that were aligned to rising sun at Beltane, giving rise to some huge scale alignments such as the Michael Mary line. [2]The fires were lit on top of mounds and aligned Heaven and Earth, drawing down and harmonising energies, renewing the sacred bond afresh each year with this sacred act.

There are two stories about Flower Brides, or May Queens, and they are both told in the Mabinogion. In keeping with the prevailing Welsh culture of the early Middle Ages, the stories are told from a male perspective and the female protagonists appear somewhat lacking in their own authority. However, as ever there are deeper thread discernible just below the surface.

The first story is about Creiddylad, the beautiful daughter of Lludd Silverhand. She was fought over by two men, ‘carried off by one before the other had slept with her.’ Acts of revenge were carried out between the two parties, until King Arthur himself heard tell of it and came north to settle the dispute. He decreed that ’the maiden should remain in her father’s house, unmolested by either side,’ and there should be battle between the two ‘suitors’ each Beltane ‘for ever and ever, from that day till doomsday.’

So Creiddylad in this way, remained the eternal May Queen around which the seasons revolved, fought over by the holly and the oak king, or the powers of the waxing and waning sun, locked in a continuous battle for supremacy as a result of the yearly seasonal cycle.

The May Queen in the second story also has two male suitors, but of quite a different form. This is the tale of Bloueuwedd, the flower bride, created for the son of the goddess Arianrhod (more on her later) by his uncles to thwart his mother who declared he would not marry a mortal woman. Together they ‘took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they called forth the very fairest and best endowed maiden that mortal ever saw.’ [3]She was duly presented in marriage to Arianrhod’s son, who changes his name throughout the story, but here is called Llew Llaw.

After they have been married a while, he leaves her alone in the castle and goes to visit his uncles who have promised him some land. However, in the meantime a hunting party arrives and Blodeuwedd invites the leader of the party into the castle. They immediately fall in love and ‘she knew great joy at heart, and their talk that night was of the affection and love that they had conceived for the other.’ [4]Losing no time, they plot to kill her husband on his return.

Showing a degree of cunning that has earned her a reputation for betrayal, Blodeuwedd tells her husband that she fears for his untimely demise. He tries to reassure that this would not be easy for in order to die, he must be killed with a spear that was a year in the making. Not only that, but the manner of the death is very specific. ‘By making a bath for me on a river bank, and making a vaulted frame over the tub, and thatching it well and snugly too thereafter, and bringing a he-goat and setting it beside the tub and myself placing one foot on the back of the he-goat and the other on the edge of the bath. Whoever should smite me so, he would bring about my death.’[5]

Bloudeuwedd listens demurely. ‘Why’ she replies, ‘I thank god for that. That can be avoided easily.’

Armed with this information, her lover gets to work and fashions the spear needed to kill his rival. A year later, once they have their plan in place, Blodeuwedd once gain feins concern and asks her unsuspecting husband to demonstrate how he might meet his untimely death. This he dutifully does and as he stands precariously with one foot on the bath tub and the other on the back of a he-goat,  her lover jumps out and stabs him with the spear. Llew Llaw flies up in the form of an eagle and gives a horrid scream, and after that he was seen no more.

But that is not the end of the story. Llew’s aggrieved uncles once again come to his rescue and set out to find him. Eventually they find a maggot covered eagle and sing him out of a tree, changing him back into the form of a man with the tap of a magic wand. Llew Llaw is in a pitiful state and it takes him a year to get his strength back. But then he comes back to the castle where his wife and her lover are ensconced to seek revenge. Blodeuwedd’s maidens are all drowned in a lake whilst trying to escape, but she herself survives. For her is reserved the fate of being turned into an owl ‘so that she may never show her face in the light of day, and that there be enmity between thee and all the birds and that it be their nature to mob and moles thee wherever they may find thee.’[6]

So, it could be said that the flower maiden, made as the perfect wife to serve her husband, falls in love and thereby empowers herself. This enables her to take the sort of ruthless action that those  deprived of choice must take. But she must take responsibility for her action as she matures, symbolised by the owl, an ancient symbol of wisdom and cronehood. She also achieves independence and self-determination in the end (the owl), and like Creiddlydd, remains connected to the cycle of nature for ever more. Her suitors also face each other in combat, but unlike in Creiddlydd’s story, her lover is killed, though only after he has served as the king, or consort for allocated time (the timings are very precise in this story). So in this way, the story may be perceived in terms of the May Queen, goddess of the land (Sovereignty) and her two suitors, the holly king and the oak king, or the Green Men, who act as consort to the goddess, forever locked in an eternal cycle of waxing and waning, linked to the seasonal power of the sun.

[1] http://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk

[2] ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller

[3] The Mabinogion, ‘Math Son of Mathonwy,’ 1991, Everyman

[4] As above

[5] As above

[6] As above