Ceridwen is one of the central figures in the Welsh myth of Taliesin the Bard. Her name, I am told, comes from Welsh cerydd+wen meaning 'fair chiding love'. The story goes that Ceridwen, wife of Tegid Foel, mother of a beautiful daughter called Creirwy and sons called Morfran and Afagddu (in some tellings Morfran and Afagddu are considered to be the same person), one an expert hunter, handsome and strong, the other hideously ugly and stupid.
Ceridwen's cauldron is a familiar concept in many Pagan faiths, not always limited to those of Celtic origin. It is considered to be the traditional source of inspiration, or awen, and modern Pagans do make reference to her cauldron as the holder of all the secrets of the universe and the place where wisdom is brewed. The concept of a womb can also be applied to the cauldron, where life, wisdom and beauty are allowed to grow, similarly to the way a baby (considered to be lively, beautiful and potentially wise at a future date) grows inside its mother.
The cauldron is an important part of the myth of Taliesin the Bard. In her cauldron, Ceridwen brews a potion to help her son, Afagddu, by bestowing him with the innovation, wit and wisdom of bardhood when he swallows the first three drops of the potion. She employs the young Gwion Bach to stir the concoction in her cauldron and ensure that it does not spoil as it is made. The tale takes a sudden turn when Gwion Bach is injured, burning his hand with a splash of the potion and sucking three drops of the potion off his scalded hand. Instantly he is endowed with the bardic wisdom and knowledge destined for Afagddu.
In rage, Ceridwen set out to kill Gwion Bach for stealing the wisdom meant for her son, but he was now extremely wise, so he took off ahead of her. In their chase, the two shape-shifted into different pairs of animals; When Gwion Bach became a hare, Ceridwen chased him as a greyhound; when Gwion Bach became a salmon, Ceridwen chased him as an otter; when Gwion Bach became a bird, Ceridwen chased him as a hawk; when Gwion Bach became a seed, Ceridwen became a hen and ate him, becoming pregnant with a child she knew to be the reincarnation of Gwion Bach.
We think of Ceridwen as a crone looking very much like the Granny-Weatherwax-type stereotypical witch, long grey hair, occasionally a hooked nose, clad all in black, perhaps a few warts…however…perhaps this is not actually the case. She is primarily a mother in the tale of Taliesin, the mother of two (occasionally three) children and then the mother of Taliesin by magical means, Ceridwen embodies the protective, warrior spirit of archetypical mother, rather than the archetypical crone. We've seen that she knew Afagddu to be ugly and stupid and wanted to make his lot in life better by trying to give him the skills of a bard, it is understandable then that perhaps she would be enraged that Gwion Bach stole the potion that would change her son's life.
Christy Taylor, however, suggests that the crone aspect is correct too, equating Ceridwen with death
Taylor's equation of the fluid shapeshifting with seamless reincarnation from one species to another is attractive, as is her description of Ceridwen as Goddess of Death, not as a Goddess to be feared, but as a Goddess to be respected, considered and consulted. Taylor suggests we should respect the power of death as a force for change, but within that respect there should not be any fear, as we have the example of Gwion Bach's shapeshifting as proof of our cyclical birth-life-death-rebirth nature. She also believes that,Christy Taylor wrote:chasing the soul in a continual serious of death and rebirth. The soul seeks to escape the chase by moving from one species to another, but all species are involved in the same cycles of death and rebirth. Note how fluidly the boy switched from one creature to the next. This, I think, is a reminder that all animals walk the same circle of death and rebirth.
I believe this to be a very valid point. Gwion Bach being accepted into Ceridwen's very body and then reborn into the eminent bard, Taliesin, indicates a setting aside of the ego and allowing the self to be reborn into the world through the process of 'death as change', which is very different from 'death as an ending'. Gwion Bach actively became a seed, knowing with his new wisdom that Ceridwen would become a hen and swallow him. He set aside his self, the part that is afraid of change and embraced being reborn into the world through the power of death.Christy Taylor wrote:If Ceridwen represents death then the soul is liberated from the chase by being accepted into Death and reborn of Death. Could this myth be saying that it is through rebirth we gain the knowledge needed to liberate ourselves from the cycles of life and death?
Death is not usually considered an aspect of mother-archetype goddesses, however, as I said before, Ceridwen embodies the mother aspect through her cauldron (womb), through her potion (her ambition for her son) and through her rage (intense protective feelings for Afagddu). As Taylor has indicated though, the death aspect along with her association with knowledge and wisdom does mark Ceridwen as a crone; there have been many goddesses of death and goddesses of wisdom, but generally speaking the goddesses combining the two aspects are depicted as crones, although that is not always a hard and fast rule.
In doing my research for this week's goddess, I have become torn about where she fits in the archetype structure. She is definitely not a wide-eyed young maid, pure as driven snow, she is a mother of a flawed son eager to ease his flaws and to make his path a little easier. She is also associated with death and the bringer of change, as many crone goddesses are. In Taylor's page, Ceridwen is treated as a goddess of death; through the power of her cauldron, she brings the dead back to life, rebirthing them into this world...however the rebirth aspect brings me back to her mothering aspect! I'm a little tied in knots now, I've gone from perceiving Ceridwen as a crone goddess to actually beginning to perceive her as a mother, with all the motherly attributes of typical mother goddesses such as Danu or Isis, they are the primary carers of their children, in Isis' case, similarly to Ceridwen, she was willing to do whatever it takes to support her son and ensure his future...but that's another story
Well, thank you for reading and I look forward to reading next week's goddess article Please feel free to ask any questions or pick apart my arguments