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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The legend of Taliesin and the Cauldron of Ceridwen

This is probably the most profound of old Welsh legends. There is a 6th century parchment containing one of Taliesin's poems , "Y Gododdin" at Jesus college Oxford. There is no doubt that a Poet by the name of Taliesin existed. His story is allegorical. A careful reading reveals the training that a Bard went through, here at the hands of a Welsh Goddess, before being transformed from Gwion Bach (Lttle Innocent) to Taliesin (Radiant Brow) Poetry is described as having a "Fire in the head"
The following is taken from the original Welsh with frequent reference to English translators to make sure I was getting it right.

Gwion Bach

In the early days of the reign of Arthur, there lived a man of noble birth called Tegid Foel. He lived with his wife Ceridwen on an island on the lake that is still named for him today, Llyn Tegid. They had two children, a daughter Creirwy, fairest maid in all the land and a son Morfran. As Creirwy was fair, he was foul. The ugliest man in the world, he was known as Afagddu (Utter Darkness) for only in the darkest part of night could he be looked upon. His mother despaired that he would ever find favor in the noble courts of men unless he had some merit to counter his ugliness.

So Ceridwen bore herself to the hidden city of glass and there consulted with the Fferyllt and from their wisdom and arts she returned home and at the edge of the lake she began to boil a cauldron of inspiration for her son. She found a young boy, Gwion Bach, to stir the cauldron and fetch the wood for the fire and an old blind man, Morda, to keep the fire kindled. She instructed them that they were to keep it boiling for a year and a day, during which time she, according to the phases of the moon and the alignment of the stars, gathered herbs to put in the cauldron at their appointed times.

One day, towards the end of the year, as Ceridwen was making incantations, three drops of the charmed liquor flew out and landed on the hand of Gwion Bach. Because of the great heat he instinctively put his hand to his mouth. In the instant that he did so he foresaw all that was to come and he knew that his greatest danger lay in the wrath of Ceridwen. Gwion fled.

When Ceridwen saw that her labor of the year was lost and that Gwion Bach now had the blessings of the potion, she chased after him to kill him. When Gwion saw Ceridwen chasing him he turned himself into a Hare. For the cauldron, among many other things, had given him the power of Fith Fath, the shape changer. Ceridwen changed herself into a Greyhound and was almost upon him when he leaped into a river and turned himself into a Salmon. Ceridwen turned herself into an Otter and was almost upon him again when he jumped out of the river and became a wren. Ceridwen followed as a Hawk and gave him no rest. Just as she was about to swoop down on him he saw a barn with a pile of wheat on the floor. He dived in and transformed himself into a grain of wheat and hid from her. Ceridwen turned herself into a red crested black hen and pecked at the wheat until she found Gwion and she ate him.

When she returned to human form Ceridwen discovered that she was pregnant and for nine months she bore Gwion in her womb. When she delivered him she found she was unable to kill him because of his great beauty. So she wrapped him in a leather bag and cast him into the sea. This was on the 29th day of April.


In those days, between Dyfi and Aberystwyth lay the weir of Gwyddno Garanhir. Gwyddno had an only son named Elphin. Elphin was the most unlucky of men. It grieved his father for it seemed that Elphin was born in an evil hour. Everything that Elphin attempted came to naught and good fortune was never with him.

That year Gwyddno allowed his son alone to draw from the weir. For the weir had never given less than one hundred pounds of fish at that time of year. In so doing Gwyddno hoped to turn around his son's bad fortune. The next day when Elphin went to look there was nothing in the weir. He was about to turn away when he saw a black bag caught in the nets. With the aid of the weir guards he drew the bag out and within was a child whose brow was shining with a radiant light. Then one of the weir guards exclaimed "Gweled y Daliesin" (Behold the radiant brow) Elphin replied "Then Taliesin (Radiant brow) he shall be named." Then Elphin carried the boy in his arms and carefully rode with him back to his house. All the way lamenting that he still had no good fortune and nothing to show but an abandoned child.

Then did Taliesin speak for the first time and foretold honor for Elphin and the first words he spoke were a poem called "Y Dyhuddiant" (The consolation)

"Fair Elphin, cease to lament let no one be dissatisfied with his own,
To despair will bring no advantage. No man sees what supports him;
The prayers of Cynllo will not be in vain God will not violate his promise
Never in Gwyddno's weir was there such good luck as this night
Fair Elphin, dry thy cheeks, being too sad will not avail
Although thou thinkest thou hast no gain, too much grief will bring thee no good.
Nor doubt the miracles of the Gods
Although I am little I am highly gifted
From seas and from mountains and from the depths of rivers
The Gods bring wealth to the fortunate man.
Elphin of lively qualities, thy resolution is unmanly.
Thou must not be ever sorrowful, better to trust in the Gods than to forbode ill.
Weak and small as I am, on the foaming beach of the ocean,
In the day of trouble I shall be of more service to thee than three hundred salmon.
Elphin of notable qualities be not displeased at thy misfortune
Although reclined thus, weak in my bag, there lies a virtue in my tongue.
While I continue thy protector thou hast not much to fear.
Remembering the names of the Gods, none shall be able to harm thee."

And from that time forth Elphin had good fortune and was of good cheer wherever he went.

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