We are visiting Wales this week and dipping into the mythology of the ancient Britons who, prior to the Roman invasion, made their homes in the British Isles, Cornwall, Ireland and the Scottish Isles. I found it interesting to learn that the Welsh are able to trace their DNA back about 10,000 years ago, to the period following the last ice age. Because of the terrain, invaders rarely attempted to conquer the area, so subsequently, there wasn’t a foreign blending of the gene pool like there was in some other areas of Britain. The Welsh still retain their own unique language, culture, mythology and traditions that evolved from the pre-Christian settlers of the land.
There are surviving texts of pre-Christian mythology which I haven’t personally read, but will reference below. I found references to these texts in a lovely blog www.folkrealmstudies.weebly.com, and for anyone interested in mythology and legend from that part of the world, this site might be a great place to start. Before the Romans came, much of the early mythology wasn’t written down, but repeated orally by Celtic Druids. Over time, Christianity influenced the myth and legend, and the stories evolved. It is believed that the stories of today’s Goddess, Cerridwen, were the basis for the Authurian legends think of today. I’m excited to meet this Goddess! Let’s dive in to Origins, Myths and Cerridwen’s ties to Witchcraft!
Origins of Cerridwen
I came across several spellings of Cerridwen’s name: Ceridwen, Cerrydwen, Kerrydwen, as well as Keridwen. There are also references of her as being a Goddess, sorceress or simply a white witch. Part of the confusion on her origins could result from the nature of her orally relayed history. By the time her stories were recorded, centuries later by the monks who supported the religious conversion, the tales most likely were adapted to suit a primarily Christian audience. Unlike the Goddesses Circe and Hecate who had godly Titan ties, it seems that Cerridwen had a little more humble beginning. Although, there are some that would say her story and her powers, run much deeper than most realize.
There was no doubt that no matter her title, Cerridwen was a powerful witch, blessed by the gift of prophecy, inspiration and spellworking. She had a magical cauldron where she brewed potions to help others. Once the intended purpose for the potion was transferred, however, the balance of the potion turned to poison. It could be that she was given a more “hagish” appearance as a way to deter her followers. You know, the whole old-woman-stirring-a-boiling-cauldron-of-bad-stuff type thing. Definitely not the same seductive image as we have seen with some of the other goddesses, although with the above image of her I would beg to differ!
Anyway, she was also known to have the ability to shape-shift, and could take any number of forms, which she did often in the tales told about her. There is a reference to her coming to Ireland disguised as a giantess named Kymideu Kymeinvoll and given Otherworld ties in Celtic mythology. Her cauldron was seen as having power over transformation, rebirth and inspiration, and as Cerridwen is the keeper, she represents the wheel of life.
As with most of the witches we have met so far, she rules the realms of fertility, magic, knowledge, and death. She is seen as a powerful Underworld Goddess, but not necessarily by assisting the dead with their transition from this world to the next. She has a divine knowledge of the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and applies the same cycle to natural world around her. Because of this, she is seen as the keeper of the seasons and symbolizes transformation. She is seen as a patron Goddess of witches and is often described as a crone goddess, as part of the Maiden, Mother, Crone mythology.
Myths & Legends of Cerridwen
The most referenced legend of Cerridwen I could find, was that of a potion gone wrong. According to legend, Cerridwen was married and had two children, a boy, Morfan (Avagdu) and a girl, Creirwy (Crerwy). The girl was said to be the most beautiful girl in the world, and her brother… well let’s just say that he was the polar opposite. Kind of a yin to her yang. Now, Cerridwen was a good mom and wanted the best for her children. She decided to brew a special potion for her not-so-nice-looking son giving him wisdom and insight in order to give him a better chance at life. These potions took a year and a day to brew and she couldn’t be bothered standing there the entire time stirring it. So she had her servant boy, Gwion, take charge of the mixture while she handled her other sorceress duties.
When the potion was ready, Gwion accidentally spilled three drops on his finger and put the burning digit straight into his mouth. Wouldn’t you know, the potion was only as good as the first three drops, which made the rest of the cauldron’s contents poisonous. Ultimately, Gwion realizes what has happened because he has been given the gifts of knowledge and power intended for Cerridwen’s son. Not wanting to stick around for the witch’s wrath, he changes himself into a rabbit and takes flight. After finding out what he did, Cerridwen morphs into a greyhound and gives chase. When he changed to a fish, she jumped into the river as an otter, and when he turned into a bird and took flight, she followed as a hawk. Eventually, for some strange reason, Gwion changed into a grain of corn, and was gobbled up by the Goddess who had changed into a hen.
Now the plot twist! Not only is Cerridwen’s son no better off, but he is also soon to become an older brother. Cerridwen is dismayed to find that she is pregnant and knows, for a fact, that the baby is Gwion. On a bit of a dark turn, she decides to kill the baby after he is born. However, another plot twist, when he is born, he is the most beautiful baby she has ever seen and she can’t bring herself to kill him. She can, however, bring herself to put him in a leather sack and toss him in the sea. So much for being a good Mom. Eventually, the bag was found in the nets of some fishers, and presented to Prince Elffin. When he discovered the baby inside, it was said that the foundling was a prodigy, and started reciting poetry and making predictions how Elffin would now defeat all of his enemies. The Prince’s luck changed that day, and the baby, named Taliesin, eventually became the most famous bard in Britain.
Cerridwen’s ties to Witchcraft
The goddess Cerridwen represents transformation and represents the examination and release of things in your life that no longer serve a purpose. Much like the Tower Card in Tarot, her insight helps to face changes in life with strength and purpose. It is with the realization that the only way to make room for the new, is to blow apart the old, that this change can occur.
The dark moon (waning crescent moon) and the cauldron are associated with this Goddess, as are hawks, hens and corn. She has also been known to transform into a white sow to address her people, although her powers allow her to pretty much transform into anything. That makes this goddess adaptable, something that probably accounts for her longevity in the Welsh and Celtic cultures.
I have included some clips below as well as some other links that will give you more information on Cerridwen should you be interested. As always, feel free to link to more resources or fact check me in your comments below. I’m learning these Goddesses as I go, so welcome input if I get something wrong!
In the meantime, stay tuned for future segments! We will be travelling to other places around the globe to check out Goddesses of Witchcraft in other cultures. To make it easy, I have started an index of my #MythicalCreatureMonday posts which you can link to here. Happy reading! XO
Quick Guide to Goddess Cerridwen
Ceridwen & The Cauldron of Knowledge
Resources and References:
Book of Taliesin – National Library of Wales
Book of Aneirin – National Library of Wales
White Book of Rhydderch – National Library of Wales