The days are getting short and winter is approaching. The ancient Celts called this period between Halloween (All Saint's Day/Samhain) and the winter solstice (Dec. 22nd) the season of sleep. Winter nights are also the traditional time for storytelling. The story that I'm about to tell is drawn from Celtic mythology. It is part of the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of eleven medieval tales, and the Book of Taliesin. Texts date from 14th to 16th century but the original language suggest that these tales may have been told as early as the 6th century.
I read it as a story about the muse, but something else may speak to you.
The Cauldron of Inspiration and the Birth of Taliesin
Long ago, when the world was a bit younger than it is today, there was no veil separating the realm of the seen from the realm of the unseen. What we call elves and fairies and spirits moved freely among human beings. But that time is past. Humans needed to grasp at what is “real” in their eyes, at what is felt in their hands, and so the curtain was hung. But it is still “just” a curtain and there are times and places where the fabric is thin. Very thin.
In the early days of the two worlds there was a woman named Cerridwen who moved between the realms. Some say she was a moon goddess or the Great Mother of the grains, others call her a sorceress, but I won’t pretend to know such things. It is said that she was quite beautiful, with flowing dark hair and skin like milk, and she surely possessed great magic, as our story will reveal.
Cerridwen lived with her husband and three children on an island in Bala Lake, in the hard rock country of northern Gwynedd. Her oldest son, Afagddu was well blessed. Her only daughter Creirwy, was the fairest maiden for miles around with a voice like silver bells. But her middle child, the boy called Morvran, was ugly and ill formed. This caused his mother great concern. It is hard to get along well in the world without some measure of beauty and grace. Cerridwen decided to concoct a potion that would instill wisdom in her son Morvran, and a poetic tongue, so that he too would prosper. His face cannot be beautiful, she thought, but his voice, his words, and his thoughts-- these will be.
She built a fire and took out her great cauldron, called Awen, and filled it with water and honey, acorns, barley, and other grains. Her magic would take one year and a day to complete and the fire must be kept and the pot must be stirred this whole time lest the contents burn and stick. Cerridwen called upon her ancient manservant Morda. “You sir,” she said, “must tend this fire day and night and make sure that it does not go out.” Morda was half-blind and could manage no more than this, so she also called the young Gwion, a servant boy, and gave him the important task of stirring the pot. “This is your job for one year and one day,” she told the lad, “See that you perform it faithfully--- or suffer the consequences.”
The desired potion was powerful indeed and tricky to bring to completion. Every day Cerridwen went into the woods and fields to find the herbs and other ingredients necessary to make her son wise. These she chopped and ground and handled carefully, and added to her great cauldron when the astrological signs were right, often under the light of the full moon, or perhaps in the deep darkness of the new. She said the right prayers and sang the right songs and brought all of her powers to the task, even in silence. Although a great pot sat simmering on the fire, all that could be consumed were the first three drops. Whoever partook of the first three drops would instantly know past, present, and future, and perceive the underlying unity of all things. But the rest was poison.
Slowly, slowly, day by day, and night by night, the vital strength of Cerridwen’s potion took shape and grew. And always Morda tended the fire and Gwion stirred the pot.