Cerridwen: Teacher and Initiator

cerridwen2Cerridwen is one of the Old Ones, one of the great Goddesses of the Celtic World. She embodies all three lunar aspects of the Goddess: Maiden, Mother and Crone, through her Cauldron of Wisdom, Inspiration and Rebirth. The cauldron has an intimate association with femininity, together with the cave, the cup and chalice. The association of femininity with justice, wisdom and intelligence goes back to very ancient times. Cerridwen was originally worshipped by the people of Wales. In some tales, it is told she lived on an island, in the middle of Lake Tegid, named after her husband, with her two children, a beautiful daughter, Creidwy, and a very ugly son, Afagdu. To compensate her son for his unfortunate appearance, Cerridwen brewed a magical formula, which would make Afagdu the most brilliant and inspired of men. For a year and a day, she kept sacred herbs simmering in her magical cauldron, under the constant care of a boy named Gwion. One day while Gwion was stirring the cauldron, a few drops of the bubbling liquid spattered on his hand. Unthinkingly, and in pain, Gwion, sucked his burned hand, and suddenly, he could hear everything in the world, and understood all the secrets of the past and future. With his newly enchanted foresight, Gwion knew how angry Cerridwen would be when she found he had acquired the inspiration meant for her son. He ran away, but Cerridwen pursued him. Gwion changed into a hare, and Cerridwen chased him as a greyhound; he changed into a salmon, and Cerridwen pursued him as an otter; he became a wren, and she flew after him as a hawk; finally, he changed into a grain of corn, and Cerridwen triumphant, changed into a hen, and ate him. When Cerridwen resumed her human form, she conceived Gwion in her womb, and, nine months later, gave birth to an infant son, whom she, in disgust, threw into the water of a rushing stream. He was rescued by a Prince, and grew into the great Celtic bard, Taliesin. Cerridwen’s cauldron is an ancient feminine symbol of renewal, rebirth, transformation and inexhaustible plenty. It is the primary female symbol of the pre-Christian world, and represents the womb of the Great Goddess from which all things are born and reborn again. Like the Greek Goddess Demeter and the Egyptian Goddess Isis, Cerridwen was the great Celtic Goddess of inspiration, intelligence and knowledge, and was invoked as a law-giver and sage dispenser of righteous wisdom, counsel and justice. The image of her cauldron, holding the magical potion of wisdom, is the mythical origin of the Halloween image of a cauldron-stirring Witch, making up her witch’s brew. The brew had to simmer for a year and a day, a common passage of time in Celtic lore, and a standard time before magical initiation.

Today, many pagans believe that her shape-shifting chase after Gwion was meant to represent the different elevations of magical initiation rites. The chase can also be seen as representative of the many changes our souls must make into different forms and over different human lifetimes, before we can discover the very reason for our existence. The various characters and animals in this ancient story represent aspects of ourselves and the lessons that must be learned for inner growth. Indeed, Cerridwen’s tale and it’s many layers of meaning is the basis of Druid teachings. The potent nature of her brew has today transformed Cerridwen, in some eyes, into a goddess of fertility, creativity, harvest, inspiration, knowledge and luck. The story of Cerridwen can also be seen as a metaphor of the relationship between teacher and student. If we look at Cerridwen as the teacher and Gwion the student, we see the job of a teacher to challenge the student, when the student is ready. The random drops of Cerridwen’s special brew which flew out of the cauldron and onto Gwion can be seen as sparks of knowledge, which when they hit our being run through us like wild fire, exploding with sudden meaning. During the chase, Cerridwen forced Gwion to acquire new wisdom, as she shapeshifted into the predator that could catch and kill the prey whose form Gwion had assumed. Cerridwen forced him to use the knowledge he acquired, as they ran together, and in the end she devoured him, only to bestow upon him a new and greater identity, that of the legendary poet Taliesin. Thus was his magical initiation. Transformations of all kinds are an important part of Celtic mythology, and the center of this mythical element is often a cauldron. In the Celtic legends, there are three types of cauldrons: the Cauldron of Transformation, the Cauldron of Rejuvenation and Rebirth, and the Cauldron of Inspiration. Cerridwen’s cauldron symbolizes the merging together of all three of these aspects into one archetypal cauldron. The Celtic Otherworld is called the Land of Youth, and the secret that opens its doors is found in Cerridwen’s cauldron. Gwion’s sudden absorption of the three drops of brew from Cerridwen’s cauldron also shows what appears to be the random nature of greatness and inspiration. The three drops of Cerridwen’s brew are an encryption of primal creative power. Gwion appeared to be a random recipient of the cauldron’s magic (remember when you became aware of your magical gifts?), yet when he was reborn he became the famous bard Taliesin. The impact on Gwion was such that he had to be transformed to assimilate the knowledge he had obtained. This illustrates the process of magical training and initiation. After completing this transformation, Gwion took on a new name, Taliesin.

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