The Cauldron of Inspiration
Retold by Starhawk and WITW Weavers
Cerridwen lived on an island in the middle of Lake Tegid with Her two children – a daughter named Creidwy who was beautiful and dark and a son named Afagddu (Morfan) who was ugly and bright. Even in Her role as mother, Cerridwen ruled both the light and the dark. But like all mothers She wished only the best for Her children. She was determined to use the powers of Her magical cauldron to improve the life of Her afflicted son.
Thus She prepared the Cauldron, known as Awen, the Cauldron of the Deep, from which She planned to give him three drops of the liquid which would provide him with those powers, which were his birthright.
Into it She poured the waters of prophecy and inspiration and, carefully observing the movements of the Moon and the Sun and each and every star, She was able to add each herb, each root, even the foam of the ocean, all at the proper times. As the Cauldron brew began to boil, She arranged for a blind old man to keep the fire burning, and for a young lad named Gwion to stir the contents of Her Cauldron.
For a year they faithfully kept the cauldron boiling, day and night, whatever the weather or changes of the moon. But one day, toward the very end of the year, three drops of the magic brew flew up out of the cauldron and landed on Gwion’s finger. Some say he did it on purpose, some say it was a mistake. But they burned his tender skin, and he put his finger in his mouth to cool it. But all the magic of the cauldron had gone into those three drops.
Suddenly the whole world changed for little Gwion. The birds were singing in the trees, and now he could understand their conversations as they gossiped. The branches of the trees whispered in the breeze, and he could understand the secrets they passed back and forth. All the world came alive and spoke to him, and all time swirled together and became one. Past and present and future were braided together like three twined strands of a rope, and he could see what was to come as clearly as he knew what had been. And one thing he knew for certain--he had better get out of there fast before Cerridwen came back. For Cerridwen was a mother of all inspiration and transformation--but she had a temper like a raging storm. Gwion turned and ran as fast as he could. Behind him the cauldron burst into pieces, and all the remaining brew spilled into the stream.
Cerridwen returned and saw the ruin of her whole year’s work. She flew into a rage and ran after Gwion.
Gwion, running through the woods, saw Cerridwen chasing after him. Already he was getting tired and breathless. “What can I do? What can I do?” he cried to himself. “If only I could run like a hare, leaping and bounding along.”
Instantly he was changed into a leaping hare. His weariness vanished, and he jumped and bounded so high he nearly seemed to fly. “She’ll never catch me now,” he exulted, but then he looked behind him. Cerridwen had changed herself into a greyhound, and she was running along the ground so fast, she would soon catch up with him.
“What can I do? What can I do?” He cried to himself. Ahead of him was a broad river. “If only I could hide beneath that water, she’d never find me there.” He leaped up into the air, and when he landed in the river, he became a fish. Quickly he swam away.
“I’m surely safe now,” he told himself, but then he looked behind him. Cerridwen had changed herself into an otter, and she was swimming after him.
“What can I do? What can I do?” he cried again. “If only I had the wings of a bird, I could fly away from her.” He made a mighty leap and hurled himself up on the riverbank. Instantly he became a swift bird and took wing.
Far and fast he flew, out over the sea. “At last I’ve escaped,” he sighed, but then he looked behind him. There she was, changed into a soaring hawk. He wheeled and turned back toward the land, and she followed close behind.
“What can I do? What can I do? I’ll never escape her!” for she was high above him now, and as he glanced up she folded her wings and began to drop like a stone, for the kill.
“I’ve got to find a place to hide! He cried. Below him was a barn, and inside was a huge pile of wheat. Recklessly he zoomed into the barn as the hawk wheeled and dipped to follow him. He dove into the wheat pile and changed himself into a single grain of wheat.
“At last I’m safe,” he thought. But Cerridwen changed herself into a big black hen. Scratch, Scratch, Scratch she went, turning over the wheat in the pile with her big black claws, testing each grain with her big red beak. At last she found the grain that was little Gwion, and she swallowed him up.
No sooner did she swallow little Gwion than she felt life stirring inside her. She changed back into the form of the Goddess, and allowed her womb to swell. Bigger and bigger and bigger she grew, until nine months later she gave birth to a beautiful boy child with a shining brow.
Cerridwen was still angry, but she didn’t have the heart to kill him. So she wrapped him in a leather bag, took him down to the sea, and let the waves take him away to meet his destiny.
Now in those days there was a king in that part of the country, named Gwyddno. He had a special fish weir--a big fence of wicker set across the river--that trapped the salmon as they swam upstream. Every May Eve, many fish were caught in that weir.
Gwyddno also had a son named Elphin. He sent him down to the weir on May Eve to gather the fish that never failed to come, hoping that the sacred salmon would be a blessing for him.
But when Elphin came to the weir, there were no fish to be found. All that lay trapped in the weir was a strange, bulging leather bag.
He drew the bag out and opened it up. A pearly gleaming light shone from the bag, and he looked in and saw the forehead of a baby.
“What a radiant brow!” he exclaimed, and so the reborn Gwion was given a new name--Taliesin which means “shining brow.” He drew the baby up and held it in his arms, and instantly felt comforted and strangely happy.
“Well, you are not a load of fish of great value, but you are something wonderful after all,” Elphin said. He took the boy home to his father, and when Gwyddno asked who he was, whether human or spirit, and where he came from, he replied in a poem.
Cradled on the breast of the rolling sea,
Part of all being can I be,
I have been a frog, a chain, a crow,
A wolf, a cub, a fox, a roe.
A thrush, a martin, the antler of a deer,
A squirrel, a bull, a boar, a spear.
I have been a grain of pure white wheat,
I am anyone that you might meet.
Cradled on the breast of the rolling sea,
Part of all being can I be,
The seen and the unseen I can see,
All lives can speak to me.
So Taliesin was reared in the court of Gwyddno, as the adopted child of Elphin. From that day on, Elphin’s luck turned, until he was admired and respected by all. And Taliesin became the great poet of ancient Wales.
And Cerridwen? She continues to tend the cauldron of wisdom, knowledge, and divine inspiration, guiding us through the transformations of our lives.
Other versions of the story: