Resources: The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, The Fairy Bible (Godsfield Press, 2008) by Teresa Moorey, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creirwy
Welcome back to Ladies of Legend, a blog series exploring the identities of mythic women. Kicking off 2017 is Cerridwen (also spelled Caridwen or Keridwen), a Welsh goddess of the Underworld turned Arthurian-era witch.
She’s described as dark-haired and stocky with pale skin and black eyes. Legend has it that she lived in a mansion in the middle of Lake Tegid in Penllyn, Wales, with her husband Tegid Voel and their three children. The eldest son, Morvran, went on to be an advisor at King Arthur’s court; the middle child, Creirwy, grew into a reknown beauty; but the third child, Avagddu, worried Cerridwen immensely. He was apparently ‘the ugliest man in the world’, which is a subjective title if ever I heard one and also a really bad basis for judging a person’s future prospects. Some versions of the legend have the brothers as one and the same person, just to add to the general confusion in the family.
Anyway, Cerridwen was afraid that her son’s looks would preclude him from success at court, so she decided to gift him with such overwhelming intelligence that he would leave everyone who met him in awe. To this end she searched through her spellbooks and began work on a potion called Greal, to bestow inspiration and knowledge on its drinker.
It was a fiendishly difficult concoction to make. For one thing, it would have to be kept boiling for a year and a day exactly. Cerridwen’s time was much too valuable to slave over a potion for that long so she brought in a blind man called Morda to tend the fire and kidnapped a child called Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron. That left Cerridwen with the task of collecting all the (many) necessary herbs. These were not ingredients that you could stock up on in advance, oh no, this was the recipe from your worst nightmare. Everything had to be harvested under the correct astrological influence. No wonder there were not magically-imbued geniuses wandering all over the place.
One day while Cerridwen was out and Gwion was stirring the potion, three scalding drops spat out and landed on his hand. He instinctively sucked his burned finger and therefore accidentally imbibed the inspiration and knowledge intended for Avagddu. Spell complete, the cauldron cracked in half and the now-poisonous potion spilled into the nearby river, ending the lives of a lot of innocent horses.
Gwion was gifted with a flash of blinding insight, but it really shouldn’t have taken a magic potion to realise that Cerridwen would be really, really pissed off at him. Sensibly, he fled. Cerridwen took her rage out on poor Morda first, whacking him hard enough to pop out one of his eyes, but she quickly accepted that it was all Gwion’s fault and went after him instead. Having been granted a brand new skill set of sorcerous powers by his taste of the potion, Gwion tried to escape by changing his shape. First he became a hare, then a trout, then a bird – but Cerridwen was quick to follow as a bigger, fiercer predator. In desperation, Gwion became a grain of wheat amidst many other grains of wheat, clearly hoping for a ‘needle in a haystack’ situation. No such luck. Cerridwen turned herself into a hen and ate him up.
That was not the end of it. Cerridwen fell pregnant and in time Gwion was reborn as the beautiful, golden-haired Taliesin. Her original intention was to kill him, thereby reclaiming the potion, but once the baby was born Cerridwen could not bring herself to go through with it. She just…wrapped him in leather and threw him into the sea instead. Which is totally not the same thing as trying to kill him! Being a hero of legend, he of course survived, was taken in at the court of King Gwyddno Garanhir, and became a very famous bard.
I cannot, in any of the sources I have read, find out what happened to Cerridwen after Taliesin’s birth; the legend switches allegiances to him and leaves her in shadow. Cerridwen is associated with the sow (there being a longstanding Celtic tradition of pigs symbolising the Otherworld) and is said to travel on the back of a giant crow. Some sources parallel her to the Irish fire goddess Brighid (later Christianised as Saint Brigit) who is the patroness of poets, but she’s also compared to the Roman harvest goddess Ceres, which casts Creirwy as ‘the British Proserpine’. For all that, though, Cerridwen is still a woman – a witch, sorceress, goddess – of the Underworld. Her daughter must come by a little darkness naturally.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!