In the middle of a deep, dark lake, Ceridwen, gifted enchantress & devoted mother, set to work to brew a potion for Her disfigured son, Afagddu, in the hopes that the wisdom & talents the mixture would give him would make up for his unfortunate appearance and still grant him a successful life. While She gathered ingredients, mixed & measured, She employed a young boy from the nearby village named Gwion Bach to stir Her cauldron.
For a year & a day, She devoted Herself to the creation of this elixir of Awen; of divine inspiration & understanding. When the final ingredients were added, She sat back to rest as the potion bubbled. She closed Her tired eyes, but only for a moment. She was awoken suddenly when She heard a thunderous cracking noise. Leaping to Her feet, She surveyed the scene– broken cauldron, dross oozing everywhere, Her son off to one side, & in the center of the mess, Gwion Bach, alight with the radiant power of those three precious drops of Awen.
Gwion did what any sensible kid would do in such a situation. He ran for his life. And so begins the initiatory chase as he & Ceridwen transform themselves through the elements becoming hare & greyhound, salmon & otter, wren & hawk, and finally a kernel of grain & a devouring hen. Ceridwen consumes Gwion as seed & falls pregnant with him, facilitating his rebirth as Taliesin, legendary Welsh bard & he of the Radiant Brow.
In the Sisterhood of Avalon, this is our last of four moons to work with Ceridwen, this Cycle. Working with Ceridwen deepens my understanding & experience of the foraging, brewing & distillation processes that takes place during the Station of Confrontation in order to create my very own Graal of Wisdom. Working with Her, I gather up all the little bits & bobs I need to examine by foraging in my own history. These give me the ingredients I need to surrender to Ceridwen’s Cauldron. All the ingredients collected from this dark corner of my inner forest to that dim shoreline of my own lake within– petals of memory, seeds of discontent, branches of my family tree, the bones of the creatures I have been at different points along my timeline– are what I need to give over to Her to be dissolved, devoured by the steaming hot brew in order to distill the wisdom I will need to imbibe for the chase.
I used to always view myself as Gwion Bach when the chase commenced. But over the years, I can now see myself as Ceridwen, as well. (I wrote a piece earlier this winter about this here.) I’ve also come to understand Self as Ceridwen, with Gwion Bach acting as the external personification of my Sovereignty. The chase is what I commit to when I go after the task of internalizing & manifesting my Sovereignty just that much more every year; of reigniting that fire in my head that leads me to my true work in this world.
What’s been most instructive & connective this Station are the songs & poetry Her mythic presence has inspired from early Welsh literature and Llyfr Taliesin to the romantic Mesodruidic movement, all the way down to modern Neopagan musicians & poets like Damh the Bard and Sharon Knight. What strikes me most at this moment in my work with Her is the undeniable observation that Her regenerative, creative impact is incredibly sustainable throughout the ages. She continues to be a powerful inspiration for those of us who see ourselves as Her children, as from the Cauldron born.
The earliest surviving textual references to Her appear in the Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (the Black Book of Carmarthen/Peniarth MS 1) which is believed to have been produced prior to 1250 CE & predates the major surviving texts that contain the bulk of the Mabinogi tales of the SOA’s other Ladies by about a century. In all, there are about a dozen medieval Welsh manuscripts from the mid 13th century through the mid 16th that record the tale of Gwion Bach & the poetry of Taliesin. The most complete, most extensive version of Ceridwen’s story is found in Elis Gruffudd’s Chronicle of the History of the World. This is the version that Patrick K. Ford translated for his work, The Mabinogi & Other Medieval Welsh Tales. In the text, it is quite obvious that Gruffudd did not think much of Ceridwen, Her precious brew, Gwion Bach, or their ritualistic chase. His tone is skeptical & condescending, as if chronicling the tale rather annoyed him. But other, more poetic versions survived thanks to John Jones of Gellilyfdy (Peniarth MS 111) & Llewelyn Sion (NLW 13075b) which both Lady Charlotte Guest & Iolo Morganwg would later draw on.
The major contextual difference between Gruffudd’s record of the tale and the later, more romantic versions is the circumstances surrounding Gwion Bach’s ingestion of the three drops from the Cauldron. In Gruffudd’s version, Gwion Bach shoves Afagddu out of the way at the last second & robbs Ceridwen’s son of the potion. While in Jones’ manuscript, the drops fly out of the Cauldron landing on Gwion’s thumb, causing him to put it in his mouth instinctively & accidentally ingest them. Both versions still weave their own paths through assorted modern retellings, just as they probably did in ancient oral tradition, as well.
Within the context of the Avalonian Tradition, I find it useful to explore both possibilities. As first glance, if Gwion Bach did indeed commit such treachery in pursuit of the potion, why is he deserving of the wisdom it brings him? But if we take a moment to reframe Afagddu– the whose name means “utter darkness”– as our own Shadow, then perhaps we can see Gwion Bach’s actions in the Gruffudd text as encouragement not to let our Shadows stand in the way of receiving the wisdom that is our inheritance as Ceridwen’s children. Afagddu, originally born with the name Morfran, is mentioned in later texts & triads as a mighty (albeit scary ugly) warrior. By proving ourselves brave enough to take on the darkness that is Shadow, to not allow our fears, insecurities, & wounds to keep us from reaching the rim of the Cauldron, perhaps we prove ourselves worthy of beginning Ceridwen’s initiatory, transformative chase.
On the other hand, the Jones version still bears consideration. Again placing ourselves in Gwion’s shoes, we have agreed to stir the Cauldron, to accept the ingredients shown to us & added to the brew under our charge during previous iterations of Cycle. We stir. We dream. We imagine what the brew might bring us & others in our lives when it is complete. But up until the moment we are set aflame by the searing heat of Awen’s essence & begin to react to the changes that follow, we do not know in our bones what will come next.
Once Gwion has that fire of inspiration flowing through his veins, he knows that Ceridwen is coming for him. Kristoffer Hughes writes in his work with Ceridwen that he feels She requires of Her devotees, a reciprocal relationship. I am inclined to agree with him. In the context of the chase, an allegory for initiation through the Realms, I feel this is demonstrated by the ability to step into this portion of Her story from both polarities– Hunter, as well as, Hunted. I feel a strong need to honor both perspectives by giving myself over to all aspects of the chase in order to receive Her gifts. I gain valuable insight into the power of this tale when I am willing to experience the chase as both Gwion Bach and as Ceridwen, Herself. When I allow the energetic of the five transformations to flow in multiple directions. I am the Hunted, driven by that which pursues me. I am the child, the novice, the initiate, pushed deeper into the Mysteries by this Great Goddess. I am also the Hunter, driving my prey on, reaching out to seize my Sovereignty across Realms. And I am the Great Mother, always shifting my shape to meet the needs of my child, my own young initiate into the mysteries of the world around him.
Ceridwen’s tale is so inherently sustainable because of its depth & the bottomless nature of the Cauldron Mysteries that feed us all aplenty. So be brave. Dare to brew your own Graal of Wisdom & ignite your own Radiant Brow.
Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a somewhat nomadic American, homeschooling her children with the world as their classroom. She holds a BA from Tulane University, where she studied Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. Kate is a presenter for Red Tents & women’s retreats. She also hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitates labyrinth rituals, and leads workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. During 2016, she will be presenting at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology Conference in Boston, MA & at the inaugural Ninefold Festival in Orange, CT.