By Bala Lake, Morda tends the fire. He is blind but the heat guides him and he replenishes the flames whenever they falter.
It is Gwion Bach’s job to stir the contents of the cauldron. He is just a young boy. His mistress has gathered plants from far and wide; mystical plants that will make a miraculous potion provided that Morda keeps the fire burning and that Gwion Bach carries out his duties exactly as she has instructed him.
The potion is for Morfran, their mistress’s son. He is said to be so hideous that the only way for him to survive in the world is to achieve great wisdom and become a poet. The potion has to brew for a year and a day, then Morfran will be given the first three drops and achieve all that his mother wishes for him. The rest of the potion must be thrown away because it will be a fatal poison once these three drops have been used.
So Morda feeds the flames and Gwion Bach protects the potion. They do not know why they have been asked to do this or what the potion is for; only that they are in great fear of their mistress because she has great powers of her own.
The day comes when the potion is ready but Gwion Bach does not know this. As he stirs the cauldron’s contents three small drops splash onto his thumb, and from instinct he puts his thumb into his mouth to ease the burning pain of the hot liquid.
At that instant Gwion Bach achieves great wisdom and learns the reason for the potion. He knows that his mistress will be angry with him, and fearing her wrath he runs away.
His mistress comes to the cauldron and finds it empty and the fire extinguished. Morda cries in confusion because he knows he is alone now, and that his mistress is greatly angered. She chases after Gwion Bach, determined to harm him for the damage he has done to her son and his future.
Using the powers he has gained from the potion to turn himself into a hare, Gwion Bach runs as fast as he can but his mistress has turned herself into a greyhound and catches up with him.
Nearing the river, he transforms himself into a fish and swims away from her, but she becomes an otter and dives into the water after him.
At the last moment, Gwion Bach flies into the air in the form of a sparrow. He is pursued by his mistress who has become a sparrow hawk and advances on him with her cruel claws outstretched.
In desperation, he hides in a pile of corn, hoping that his mistress will not be able to distinguish the single corn grain that he has become from the hundreds of others in the pile. She is too clever for him however, and in the guise of a chicken she consumes the corn and Gwion Bach with it.
Gwion Bach does not die. The magical potion is so strong that it causes him to become a new being inside his mistress, and in the fullness of time she gives birth to a baby boy.
Her anger at Gwion Bach is such that she wants to kill the child that he has become, but at the sight of the baby’s incredible beauty, she wraps him in a leather bag, sews it up tightly and casts it into the sea, leaving him to whatever fate may befall him.
She goes home to mourn for the ugly son that she cannot save and for the beautiful and gifted son that she has abandoned.
The leather bundle washes up on the shore and the baby is rescued from by Prince Elffin ap Gwyddo; he is named Taliesin or Shining Brow, and grows to be a poet and seer of legend.
His birth mother’s name was Ceridwen; the goddess of inspiration, of rebirth and of transformation.
For some she is a dark force; a pagan enchantress. Some called her an evil sorceress; others declared her to be the goddess of the dawn, and of poetry because Taliesin inherited her gifts as well as those gained from the magical potion she brewed.
The following is a poem very loosely based on Ceridwen’s story. Poetic licence.
Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)
The Cauldron of Ceridwen
The sage Ceridwen was the wife Of Tegid Voël, of Pemble Mere: Two children blest their wedded life, Morvran and Creirwy,fair and dear: Morvran, a son of peerless worth, And Creirwy, loveliest nymph of earth: But one more son Ceridwen bare, As foul as they before were fair. She strove to make Avagddu wise; She knew he never could be fair: And, studying magic mysteries, She gathered plants of virtue rare: She placed the gifted plants to steep Within the magic cauldron deep, Where they a year and day must boil, Till three drops crown the matron’s toil. Nine damsels raised the mystic flame; Gwion the Little near it stood: The while for simples roved the dame Through tangled dell and pathless wood. And, when the year and day had past, The dame within the cauldron cast The consummating chaplet wild, While Gwion held the hideous child. But from the cauldron rose a smoke That filled with darkness all the air: When through its folds, the torchlight broke, Nor Gwion, nor the boy, was there. The fire was dead, the cauldron cold, And in it lay, in sleep uprolled, Fair as the morning-star, a child, That woke, and stretched its arms, and smiled. What chanced her labours to destroy, She never knew; and sought in vain If ’twere her own mis-shapen boy, Or little Gwion, born again: And, vext with doubt, the babe she rolled In cloth of purple and of gold, And in a coracle consigned Its fortunes to the sea and wind. The summer night was still and bright, The summer moon was large and clear, The frail bark, on the spring-tide’s height, Was floated into Elphin’s weir. The baby in his arms he raised: His lovely spouse stood by, and gazed, And, blessing it with gentle vow, Cried ‘TALIESIN!’ ‘Radiant brow!’ And I am he: and well I know Ceridwen’s power protects me still; And hence o’er hill and vale I go, And sing, unharmed, whate’er I will. She has for me Time’s veil withdrawn: The images of things long gone, The shadows of the coming days, Are present to my visioned gaze. And I have heard the words of power, By Ceirion’s solitary lake, That bid, at midnight’s thrilling hour, Eryri’s hundred echoes wake. I to Diganwy’s towers have sped, And now Caer Lleon’s halls I tread, Demanding justice, now, as then, From Maelgon, most unjust of men. 1829 (From The Poems of Thomas Love Peacock. Ed. Brimley Johnson. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1907)