Tag Archives: Celtic gods

Drops from the Cauldron: On Inspiration and the Myth of Taliesin

Why do fiction writers write? Where do the stories come from?

I expect humans have been telling stories for about as long as we’ve had language. As I first learned from reading Joseph Campbell 1 , stories in the form of myths have always told us who we are, why we’re here, and how the world came to be.

But where does the inspiration for stories come from?

The Bard with the Radiant Brow

A myth I’m particularly fond of provides some answers. It is the tale of Taliesin, a legendary bard of Medieval Wales. His story, Hanes Taliesin , first appears in 16th Century collections of tales. It was later included in Lady Charlotte Guest’s 19th Century version of The Mabinogion 2which you can read at sacred-texts.com.

Here is an edited version of Lady Charlotte’s text:

In times past there lived a man of gentle lineage named Tegid Voeland and his wife, called Ceridwen, who was a sorceress. They had two children, a beautiful daughter named Creirwy, and a son named Morvran ab Tegid, who was the most ill-favoured man in the world. Now Ceridwen thought that he was not likely to be admitted among men of noble birth, by reason of his ugliness, unless he had some exalted merits or knowledge.

So she resolved, according to her arts, to boil a cauldron of Inspiration and Science for her son, that his reception might be honourable because of his knowledge of the mysteries of the future state of the world.

Then she began to boil the cauldron, which from the beginning of its boiling might not cease to boil for a year and a day, until three blessed drops were obtained of the grace of Inspiration.

And she put Gwion Bach (a young boy) to stir the cauldron, and a blind man named Morda to kindle the fire beneath it, and she charged them that they should not suffer it to cease boiling for the space of a year and a day. And she herself, according to the books of the astronomers, and in planetary hours, gathered every day of all charm-bearing herbs.

But one day, towards the end of the year, as Ceridwen was culling plants and making incantations, it chanced that three drops of the charmed liquor flew out of the cauldron and fell upon the thumb of Gwion Bach. And by reason of their great heat he put his thumb to his mouth, and that instant, he foresaw everything that was to come, and perceived that his chief care must be to guard against the wiles of Ceridwen, for vast was her skill. So, in very great fear, he fled towards his own land.

When Ceridwen came in and saw all the toil of the whole year was lost, she went forth after Gwion Bach, running.

He saw her, and changed himself into a hare and fled. But she changed herself into a greyhound and chased him.

He ran towards a river, and became a fish. But she, in the form of an otter, chased him under the water,

He turned himself into a bird. But she, as a hawk, followed him and gave him no rest in the sky.

Just as she was about to stoop upon him, and he was in fear of death, he spied a heap of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn. He dropped among the wheat and turned himself into one of the grains. But she transformed herself into a high-crested black hen, and went to the wheat and scratched it with her feet, and found him out and swallowed him.

Ceridwen bore him nine months, and when she was delivered of him, she could not find it in her heart to kill him, by reason of his beauty. So she wrapped him in a leather bag, and cast him into the sea.

The story goes on to tell how Gwion Bach was rescued from the sea and, because of the great light he had taken into himself, was named Taliesin (“Radiant Brow.”) And he grew up to become the foremost Bard in land.

Unpacking the Myth

For an in-depth analysis of the myth and its many sources, I highly recommend Taliesin, The Last Celtic Shaman. 3 This wonderful book by scholar John Matthews links the legend to both the Celtic bardic traditions and the worldwide phenomena of shamanism.

But what does the myth have to say to us modern storytellers?. Let me trot out a few ideas…

Inspiration comes from a magical brew produced by a witch (or goddess in some traditions). The brew is intended to provide all knowledge and wisdom to a chosen one. But the drops do not go to the person intended. By accident, a young and lowly servant is gifted with the magic.

You might say inspiration is a gift, unlooked for and unexpected. Storytellers (fiction writers, poets, songwriters) don’t necessarily choose to become storytellers. Rather, this crazy path chooses them. I have heard so many writers say: “I couldn’t do anything else.” Or, again, “The only good reason to become a writer is because you can’t not be a writer.”

Because he now sees visions, the boy knows at once that the sorceress is angry and means him no good. He flees. And because of the magic in those drops, he is now a shapeshifter, able to transform himself into many different creatures.

Just so, storytellers transform themselves into many shapes to imagine their fictions, placing themselves into the heads of their characters, envisioning many points of view.

And what about that ending? The angry goddess swallows the boy in the form of a seed. But that’s not the end. After gestation, the boy is born again, a radiant child that the goddess cannot now bring herself to harm. So she casts him onto the waters (like Moses), where he will be found again, and a grand destiny awaits him.

Who is this Ceridwin anyway? The sorceress, the hag, who might also be called a goddess? I interpret her as Destiny, the imperative that all of us face to follow our Fates. Again, storytellers don’t choose this path, it chooses them. I also think she can be seen as the Great Goddess who both devours us and gives us birth—in other words, the Universe.

Another Story

Some time back, inspiration came to me. The Tale of Taliesin magically merged in my mind with childhood memories, specifically in relation to a young cousin of mine who grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. I wrote out the story, tinkered with it a bit, and will publish it soon on my Substack.

Three more drops and one more song

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a different version of the story, written and performed by my all time favorite Celtic Folk-Rock Band, Emerald Rose.
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1 See especially, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, (C)1949

2 The Mabinogian Translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. The story of Taliesin is at https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/mab32.htm

3 Taliesin, the Last Celtic Shaman by John Matthews. (C)1991, 2002

 

The Mystical Themes of Groundhog Day

Happy February!

The start of this month is marked by many holidays and festivities, depending on what mythology you follow or what country and century you happen to live in.

In Canada and the United States, February 2nd is of course Groundhog Day . If that rodent in Pennsylvania comes out of his hole and sees his shadow, then it’s more Winter for you.

Themes of note: Emerging from the Underworld, seeing our shadows, projecting ahead.

Standing Groundhog
Standing Groundhog By Marumari at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1779877

Some Christian churches celebrate February 2nd as Candlemas (also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.) The holy day is observed by blessing candles for the year ahead.

Themes: New light for the year ahead; purification.

Source: https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2011/12/question-for-our-readers-rorate-masses.html

 

It is believed that the roots of both Groundhog Day and Candlemas go back to earlier times. Way earlier times.

Candlemas has been linked with Lupercalia, a festival of purification held in mid February in ancient Rome.  Lupercalia was also called dies Februatus, after the instruments of purification called februa, which gave February (Februarius) its name. The name Lupercalia, however, likely derives from lupus (wolf) and this suggests association with an even older festival celebrating wild creatures and the worship of nature gods.

Themes: purification, wild nature.

Bronze Wolf's Head
Bronze wolf’s head, 1st century AD. Source; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupercalia

 

In Celtic countries, meanwhile, February 1st is celebrated as St. Brighid’s Day, which derives from an older pagan holiday known as Imbolc.  This holiday (located midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox) celebrates the return of the sun with the lengthening of days. The name Imbolc may derive either from “ewes’ milk” or “budding.”

Imbolc is strongly associated with St. Brighid, as it was with her earlier incarnation as a Gaelic Goddess of the same name. To quote the Wikipedia article:

“On Imbolc Eve, Brigid was said to visit virtuous households and bless the inhabitants. As Brigid represented the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence was very important at this time of year.”

Brigid’s Crosses, woven of grass or rushes, were hung over the door to welcome the goddess.

Brighids Cross. By Culnacreann – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3500722

Themes: Spring, light returning from the darkness.

Imbolc is also a sacred holiday in some neopagan traditions. The coming of Spring is seen as the awakening of the Earth, the Great Goddess. Like Brigid, she comes bringing the light. Like the groundhog, she emerges from her sleep in the Underworld.

To summarize the many threads, we have traditions associated with light for the year ahead, purification, reawakening, rebirth.

On a personal level, of course, none of these come without struggle. These are all good ideas to contemplate, as we reflect on the year past and envision the year ahead.

With some of this in mind, I wrote this little poem about the holiday a while back.

Brighid’s Day

Bloody footprints mar the snow,
A crust of fragile glass on the river.
But the sun is lamping our way again;
Milk for the lambs is quickening.

She appears every year around this time
From somewhere in the forest.
Some say there’s a cave at the base of the mountain,
But no one’s ever found it.

Her red hair hangs wild from too much sleep,
Her eyes half-shut, her cheeks silver.
But she’s a strong maiden, straight as a pine:
Her white cape lined in green.

Most who glimpse her through the twilight
Whirl and rush away in fear.
But if you stay and bow as she passes,
Your dreams will be more real this year.

************************************

 

Herne at Yule

Now it is Yule Time. The Solstice is just past, the light starting to grow again, and Herne the Hunter is stirring in the depths of the forest.

Herne is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor as a local ghost who haunts Windsor Wood. But Margaret Murray, in her 1931 book God of the Witches, posits that Herne is a manifestation of a much older being, Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god. (For more on this, see here).

Source///http://www.houseofwinterspells.com/1675/attributes-of-the-horned-god-during-the-dark-night-of-the-soul/

Herne/Cernunnos is the God of Nature, Lord of the Forest and of wild creatures. Because it is Nature that feeds us, he is the provider of food and therefore of life. I think of him as the embodiment of Desire with a capital D—the fire in the belly that drives us all to live.

Herne
The spirit worlds are deep and high,
In firelight and smoky air,
In sparkling stream and cave and sky,
And Herne is there.

The forest seethes in emerald light,
In tusk of boar and snout of deer;
A shaman dances in the night,
And Herne is near.

And cities race on wheels and fumes,
Computer screens where data burns,
Workers scurry through the rooms:
So many Hernes.

The human world leafs from the Tree
Because we hunters chase and yearn;
Our hunger makes the world to be,
And so lives Herne.

Happy Yule to you all, and good hunting!