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

Venus Retrograde in a time of Lockdown

The planet Venus, associated with love and beauty and all that governs relationships, reached her highest point in the night sky on March 24th and has been descending ever since, mirroring precisely the descent of the world into Coronavirus lockdown. On May 13th she will turn retrograde in the next stage of a complex series of motions during which she will set as an evening star, disappear from view, perform an interior conjunction with the Sun, then rise as the morning star before turning direct again just after Summer Solstice. For millennia human beings have tracked the movements of Venus and correlated them happenings on Earth, but the timing this year seem particular poignant as we contemplate love, loss and all that we value in a time of lockdown.

Inanna/Lilith, British Museum (author’s photo)

In Ancient Sumeria the planet Venus was worshipped as a personification of the goddess Inanna, queen of heaven and earth. The story Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld is the oldest epic poem in world literature (written down around 1700 BC), and, remarkably, it can be interpreted as an allegory of the visible movements of the planet. Thus when we weave together the story of Inanna’s descent with the planetary movements of Venus, linking both with events in our personal and collective lives, we renew afresh the sacred bond between heaven and Earth. And on a personal level, Inanna’s story is a poignant description of the maturing of the soul through relationship, with love, loss and reflection on all that we value, with a powerful message for us all.

In the ancient Sumerian version of the story of her descent, pieced painstakingly together from 13 fragments,  ‘Inanna, from the great above, set her mind toward the great below, abandoning both heaven and earth to descend to the netherworld.’ [1]Before beginning her mythic descent, she was careful to don all her accoutrements of power, and to instruct her messenger Ninshubur to get help if she does not return after three days. This preparation period and initial descent began on March 24th when the planet reached the highest point, and correlates to when lockdown began in ernest. We too had to seek out our power objects and prepare practically, psychologically and materially to go deep into the uncertainties created by pandemic.

On 28th April, Venus attained maximum brilliance, a breath-taking site in the night sky just after sunset and right next to the silver sliver of the crescent moon. Now entering the second stage of lockdown, we watched anxiously to see if the peak of the pandemic has really been reached, and to calibrate our own lives to the restrictions imposed.

Venus at maximum brilliance, 28th April (author’s photo)

Finally, after approximately seven weeks, Inanna, in full regalia, arrives at the gateway of the underworld. This corresponds to the time when the planet starts its retrograde motion, May 13th. For us, as we go into a potential easing of lockdown, we must be particularly vigilant and reflect on all we have lost and gained throughout this time, of the gifts and sacrifices we have received and endured. As Melanie Reinhart says, ‘We are ‘given the opportunity to plumb the depths of our relationships, finish unfinished business, release the past and renew our capacity for love.’ [2]The myth offers us very clear guidance on how can we can do this, for now Inanna must descend through each of the seven gates, and as she does so she is asked to surrender all the carefully collected symbols of her worldly power, just as we have been forced to surrender ours. The following could be used as a journey through the chakras, or as a contemplation of what the different power symbols mean to us, and how they relate to our own personal losses during the Coronavirus pandemic.

At the first gate, she must surrender her crown.

At the second, her rod of lapis lazuli was removed.

At the third, the lapis lazuli stones from around her neck.

At the fourth the sparkling stones of her breast,

The fifth the golden ring of her hand,

At the sixth the breastplate of her breast,

And finally at the seventh, she must surrender her robe.

For it is decreed that she must enter the Underworld naked.

Each time she asks the gatekeeper, ‘Why pray is this?’ And each time he replies, ‘Extraordinarily O Inanna, have the decrees of the netherworld been perfected, O Inanna do not question the rites of the nether world.’[3] This is a reminder that what is demanded of us now is nothing short of unconditional surrender to the situation we collectively found ourselves in, to remain willingly present in the liminal zone, perched somewhere between a world of fact and of illusion. We must enter this stripped bare, peeled away so that only our inner essence remains. This time period lasts 40 days, the length of the retrograde cycle, the proverbial time for mediation and reflection also incorporated into later traditions, including Lent.

Planet Venus (Wikepedia Commons)

On the May 28th Venus will set as the evening star one last time before disappearing from view. This is the time of the greatest danger for Inanna, who now naked and vulnerable, comes face to face with her sister, the dark goddess Erishkigal, seated on a throne next to the Annunaki, or the seven judges. As she stands before them, they pronounce judgement on her. This symbolises on a personal level the confrontation with our shadow, our inner self, that which we keep cloaked. What inner reserves have we discovered, what has emerged for us once the ego has been laid bare?

June 3rd is the interior conjunction between Venus and the Sun, the time period when the planet is behind the Sun and no longer visible. This is the time when Inanna, now turned to a corpse, is hung from a stake for three days and three nights. This is the time to bear witness to not only our own soul, but the World Soul, the most poignant moment of all. We are required to sit with ourselves and engage as little as possible with external relationships, to listen to the inner voice and the voice of the Earth herself. There is the potential for unresolved grief to surface, that which has not been processed, all that has been denied and suppressed.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Three days have passed and Inanna has not returned, so the faithful Ninshabur, as instructed, and goes out to sound the alarm. He turns first to the god Enlil, who refuses to help, then next to Nanna, who also does nothing. Finally he goes to Enki, the ruler of the abyss and the waters, who is so troubled on Inanna’s behalf that he fashions beings called kurgarru and kalatuttu from dirt and gives to them the food and water of life. They find the corpse of Inanna, and ‘sixty times the food of life, sixty times the water of life they sprinkle upon it, and Inanna rose.’ [4]

After three days and three nights of being hung on a stake, Inanna rises again (note, this myth predates Christianity by about 2,000 years!) This reminds us that during a liminal period, times of great change and flux, we should take special care to nourish both body and soul with good food and allow tears, the waters of life, to gently dissolve the grief and mend the wounds of the psyche, to console that which was previously not consoled.

Akkadian Inanna (Ishtar)

Thus brought back to life, Inanna prepares to leave the underworld. This is marked by the heliacal rising of Venus as the morning star on June 10th. But beware, the danger is not yet passed. In the original Sumerian tale, when Inanna returns she brings with her a whole army of demons, who cause havoc wherever they go. This fragment of the poem breaks before it ends, so we need to look at another text, the ‘Dream of Dummuzi’ to find out how we can safely exit the underworld without unleashing our demons.

In the Akkadian version, Inanna is only allowed to return when she has sent a substitute in her place, in keeping with the laws of the netherworld. She ponders who this could be, and when eventually she sees that her consort Dummuzi has been occupying her throne in her absence, oblivious to her suffering, she fixes her eye of death on him.

A great wail of mourning goes out, let by his sister (Geshtinanna) and this touches Inanna’s heart, who now feels the grief of her consort’s death – by her own hand. Now softened, she decrees that Dummuzi will spend half the year in the Underworld, going down when called, and alternating with his sister, who will go down for the other half. The natural order has been restored, breaking the cycle of destruction, ushering in forgiveness and seeds for new potential. This coincides with the time that Venus turns direct (also in Gemini) on the 25th June, just after the Summer Solstice.

This year, a solar eclipse occurs on the exact day of the Solstice (21st June), which is also on a dark moon. This extremely fiery and powerful combination seems set to melt even the most frozen of areas, especially as Jupiter makes another conjunction with Pluto around this time. At the lunar eclipse in January, the Saturn/Pluto conjunction ushered in the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdown in China. As Jupiter tentatively enters the dance again (Jupiter will come into full conjunction in December), this could be time of great upheaval, maybe as lockdown fatigue really takes hold. Only if we take the opportunities offered for reflection, for release and for taking personal responsibility will this be the breakthrough that we are hoping it could be. Working with the retrograde cycle could then really have collective as well as personal impact.

Pattern made by orbit of Venus

The orbit of Venus is highly regular with eight Venusian orbits round the sun corresponding to five of those of Earth’s. This means that every eight years, the retrograde cycle will repeat at the same place in the zodiac. So the last time Venus went retrograde in Gemini, the esoteric ruler of Venus, was in 2012, when a very rare transit of Venus across the sun was also seen. [5]If we look back to what we were doing exactly eight years ago, we gain a deep perspective on the nature of our soul journey, and of the potential for any unfinished business from that time that may need addressing. It seems significant that the much talked about prophecies around 2012 never seemed to materialise. But maybe something was set in motion then which is starting to come to fruition now?


[1] Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld’ in ‘Sumerian Mythology’ by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972

[2] Melanie Reinhart, ‘Venus: Queen of Heaven and Earth,’ (2009) at http://www.melaniereinhart.com

[3] ibid Samuel Noah Kramer

[4] As above

[5] See Melanie Reinhart at http://www.melaniereinhart.com