Ceridwen by Christopher Williams (1910)

In Welsh medieval legend, Ceridwen (play /ˈkɛrɪdwɨn/ kair-id-wən), also spelled Cerridwen, was an enchantress, mother of Morfran and a beautiful daughter Creirwy. Her husband was Tegid Foel, and they lived near Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid) in north Wales. Medieval Welsh poetry refers to her as possessing the cauldron of Poetic Inspiration (Awen) and the Tale of Taliesin recounts her swallowing her servant Gwion Bach who is then reborn through her as the poet Taliesin. Ceridwen is regarded by modern Wiccans as the Celtic goddess of rebirth, transformation, and inspiration.



There are several possible interpretations of the name 'Ceridwen'. The earliest recorded form, found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, is Cyrridven.[1] This was interpreted by Sir Ifor Williams as "crooked woman" (cyrrid < cwrr "crooked or bent"? + ben "woman, female"), although the precise meaning of cyrrid is uncertain.[2][3] Another possible meaning for the second element, based on the much more common form 'Ceridwen', is "fair, beloved" or "blessed, sacred" (gwen, mutated here to -wen, is a common element in female saints' names, e.g. Dwynwen).[4]


According to the late medieval[5] Tale of Taliesin, included in some modern editions of the Mabinogion, Morfran (also called Afagddu) was hideously ugly, so Ceridwen sought to make him wise. She had a magical cauldron that could make a potion granting the gift of wisdom and poetic inspiration. The mixture had to be boiled for a year and a day. Morda, a blind man, tended the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach, a young boy, stirred the concoction. The first three drops of liquid from this cauldron gave wisdom; the rest was a fatal poison. Three hot drops spilled onto Gwion's thumb as he stirred, burning him. He instinctively put his thumb in his mouth, and instantly gained great wisdom and knowledge.

Ceridwen chased Gwion. He turned himself into a hare. She became a greyhound. He became a fish and jumped into a river. She turned into an otter. He turned into a bird; she became a hawk. Finally, he turned into a single grain of corn. She then became a hen and ate him. When Ceridwen became pregnant, she knew it was Gwion and resolved to kill the child when he was born. However, when he was born, he was so beautiful that she couldn't do it. She threw him in the ocean instead, sewing him inside a leather-skin bag. The child did not die, but was rescued on a Welsh shore - near Aberdyfi according to most versions of the tale - by a prince named Elffin ap Gwyddno; the reborn infant grew to became the legendary bard Taliesin.

Later interpretations

Ronald Hutton suggests that Ceridwen first appeared as a simple sorceress character in the Tale of Taliesin, of which the earliest surviving text dates to the mid-16th century, but which appears from its language to be 9th-century in composition, according to Hutton. References to Ceridwen and her cauldron found in the work of the 12th-century Gogynfeirdd or Poets of the Princes (such as Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr) he thus considers later, derivative works. In them, according to Hutton, Ceridwen is transformed from a sorceress into a goddess of poetry. Citing this and a couple of other examples, Hutton proposes that the Gogynfeirdd substantially created a new mythology not reflective of earlier paganism.[2] Nonetheless, references to Ceridwen's cauldron (pair Ceridwen) are also to be found in some of the early mythological poems attributed to the legendary Taliesin in the Book of Taliesin.[6]

The Victorian poet Thomas Love Peacock also wrote a poem entitled the Cauldren of Ceridwen.[7] Later writers identified her as having originally been a pagan goddess, speculating on her role in a supposed Celtic pantheon. John Rhys in 1878 referred to the Solar Myth theory of Max Müller according to which "Gwenhwyfar and Ceridwen are dawn goddesses."[8] Charles Isaac Elton in 1882 referred to her as a "white fairy".[9] Robert Graves later fitted her into his concept of the Threefold Goddess, in which she was interpreted as a form of the destructive side of the goddess.[10]

Graves' theory was appropriated by Wicca, in which Ceridwen plays a role as a goddess, her cauldron symbolising the feminine principle.[11]

See also

  • Finn MacCool and the legend of the Salmon of Knowledge


  1. ^ A. O. H. Jarman (ed.). Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (University of Wales Press, 1982), 3.3.
  2. ^ a b Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Blackwell Publishing, 1993, p. 323
  3. ^ Rachel Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein (University of Wales Press, 1991), pp. 308-9.
  4. ^ Rachel Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein (University of Wales Press, 1991), p. 308.
  5. ^ This story is first attested in a sixteenth-century manuscript; the prose is late medieval, while the orthography is modern. The version found in Lady Charlotte Guest's printing of the Mabinogion is not reliable, as it was in part forged by Iolo Morganwg. (Williams, Ifor (1944) Lectures on Early Welsh Poetry ch. 3. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.)
  6. ^ J. Gwenogvryn Evans (ed.), The Book of Taliesin (Llanbedrog, 1910), 33.10; 27.13-14; 33.10.
  7. ^ Thomas Love Peacock, The Works of Thomas Love Peacock: Including His Novels, Poems, Fugitive Pieces, Criticisms, R. Bentley and Son, 1875, p. 113
  8. ^ John Rhys, Lectures on Welsh Philology, Trübner, 1879, p. 305
  9. ^ Charles Isaac Elton, Origins of English History, B. Quaritch, 1882, p.253
  10. ^ Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 192
  11. ^ Cerridwen: Keeper of the Cauldron

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