Wales, once the high seat of druid learning, still whispers stories that have deeper resonances than the mere hearth-side tale. The most famous of these is The Birth of Taliesin, a story that on the surface seems to be about a boy and a witch, but is, in fact, an account of initiation into higher consciousness through the cauldron of rebirth:
Long ago, in the time of King Arthur, there was a Lady of great magic called Ceridwen, who lived by the shores of Bala Lake. Ceridwen had two children, a girl and a boy. The girl was called Creirwy, Dear One, and she was as fair as the moon upon water. But her other son, Avagddu, whose name means Darkness, was ugly, crooked, and stupid as a block. But Ceridwen loved her misshapen son, and longed to bring brightness into his life, so she studied the books of the Druid alchemists known as the Pheryllt, and mastered the secret art of brewing a Cauldron of Inspiration, three drops of which would bestow the knowledge of all things past, present and future upon her hapless son. She learned under which moon to gather the herbs, under which stars to steep them, and when at last she had all the ingredients together, she set them to cook in her great iron cauldron for a year and a day.
To watch over it she hired a local peasant boy, a young lad called Little Gwion. For all that year little Gwion stirred and stirred the simmering brew with a great wooden spoon, spending his days feeding the fire with twigs and dead leaves, and his nights keeping warm by its flickering flames, until the time had almost come when the magical brew was ready. But on that last day, as Gwion stirred the potion sunwise for good luck, three drops sprang out of the cauldron and landed on his hand – and without thinking about it, the lad sucked the burn and swallowed the three drops of Inspiration. In that moment he was filled with a great light that burst open the horizons of his young mind. It was as if everything that had ever happened and was going to happen in the world rolled out before him, and infinity made a home in his head.
But with his outer eye, he saw Ceridwen coming towards him, her face exploding with anger! So little Gwion dropped the wooden spoon and he ran, but she came close behind, and he heard her footsteps like thunder upon the path. The boy ran and ran, and in his thoughts he was Hare leaping to safety – and he turned into a hare and leaped away. But she turned into a greyhound, and Hare was swift but Greyhound was swifter, and soon the little animal could feel her breath on his neck. He bounded to the edge of the lake and leapt into the water, and in his thoughts he became a fish, and Salmon he became and swam away through the dark reedy waters of the lake.
But Ceridwen leapt into the water and she became an otter, and though Salmon was swift, Otter was swifter, and her paws flexed for the kill. But the fish leapt out of the water, and in his thoughts, he became a bird. He was Crow, beating at the air with his wings, and he turned into Crow and away he flew. But she leapt out of the water, and she turned into a hawk. And Crow was swift, but Hawk was swifter, and swooped down and dug its talons into the neck of the smaller bird. But at the last minute, he turned into a grain of wheat and dropped down between the cruel talons onto the threshing-floor of a nearby mill. And there he hid with thousands of other grains of wheat.
But Hawk turned into a Black Hen, and she fluttered and flew down from the sky onto the threshing-floor, and scratched and pecked until she found the one grain among the many and swallowed it up. And no sooner had Black Hen swallowed the grain of wheat than the great cauldron over the fire rocked one way and rocked another and with a great crack, it split in two. A black liquid oozed out, dowsing the fire, and trickling away in a black stream that poisoned all the land and all the horses that grazed there.
In the belly of Ceridwen, the little grain of wheat began to grow. It grew and it grew and three months passed and six months passed, and she was getting bigger, and when nine months were over, she lay on her back and gave birth to a baby boy. As soon as the child was born, she took a dagger—for she knew well who he was—and went to slit his throat. But she made the mistake of looking into the child’s face—and he was so beautiful and he was her own son, and she couldn’t bring herself to kill him. She threw the dagger down with a clatter and she made a coracle out of withies, hide and pitch, wrapped the baby up in layers of animal skins and placed him gently in the coracle. Then she tucked it under her arm, and strode over mountain and moorland until she came to the ocean and cast the coracle upon the salt-cold waters. The little boat was sent spinning and tossing by the waves and currents and winds of the sea for many hundreds of years, but in all that time the child wrapped in skins did not age by a single day.
Now, many years later, a Welsh prince called Elphin lived at the mouth of the river Conway. He was a wastrel and a gambler and heavily in debt. One May Eve, he heard that the salmon were running, so he said to himself: "Now if I stretch some nets across the river banks, I can catch some salmon, and make some money."
So he stretched his nets across the estuary and all night long he waited there under the bright stars, and in the morning he waded into the water to see what he caught. There he found not one single fish—but, caught in the nets was a little coracle, all encrusted with limpets and barnacles.
And inside the coracle something lay wrapped in animal skins.
Elphin folded back the skins one by one, and when the last one slipped off, there lay a little baby boy smiling up at him. Around his head shone a bright light. Elphin could not believe his eyes. All he could say was: "Look at that shining brow!" And in Welsh that is Taliesin, and so the baby boy was called from that time forth. And Taliesin grew up to be the greatest poet and prophet that Wales had ever known, and some say he was none other than Merlin himself.
In early Celtic tradition, the poet had the powers of the shaman, being able to transcend time and space, and experience life in a variety of forms. A real poet called Taliesin lived in the sixth century, and many of the poems attributed to him describe the unbounded consciousness that he experienced when he died to his old limited self and was reborn as a poet:
I was in many shapes before I was released:
I was a slender, enchanted sword…
I was rain-drops in the air, I was stars’ beam;
I was a word in letters, I was a book in origin;
I was lanterns of light for a year and a half;
I was a bridge that stretched over sixty estuaries;
I was a path, I was an eagle, I was a coracle in seas.
The story of little Gwion’s rebirth as a poet-shaman is reminiscent of the initiation rites within the mystery schools of late antiquity. In ancient Egypt for example, initiates had to pass through the twelve hours of the night, corresponding to the sun’s sea-journey below the horizon. Their emergence was like the dawn’s rebirth each morning. This underworld journey took the candidate into the realm of the Great Goddess as receiver of the souls of the dead and giver of new life. On his return, he was said to be "twice-born," that is, first born of a human mother, then reborn of the goddess. But in the Welsh story, Gwion is actually "thrice-born", for after Ceridwen has given birth to him, she casts him into the ocean, another feminine symbol of primordial Being. There is something peculiarly Celtic about this, the number three being particularly sacred to the Celts, just as the power of the brew was contained in three drops.
That Ceridwen is a Welsh aspect of the Great Goddess is suggested by her two children, who in their polarized qualities of darkness and light, personify the opposites: the Two that emerge from the One to form the world of creation as we experience it. Her cauldron is a powerful symbol of transformation. A vessel containing magical ingredients accompanies goddesses throughout Indo-European tradition, and in pagan British iconography it often takes the form of a large cauldron or vat. Celticist Miranda Green writes:
"It may be that the symbolism of the vat on the Celtic goddess images represents not only the presence of wine but specifically of red wine and therefore blood, death and resurrection."
A cauldron of rebirth plays a central role in another Welsh story, Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, where warriors newly killed in battle are thrown into a huge magical cauldron from which they emerge reborn: an image that is also clearly depicted on the 6th century Celtic silver cauldron found preserved in a peat-bog in Gundestrup, Denmark.And the curious Welsh poem,The Spoils of Annwn, tells an early story of King Arthur who undergoes a perilous journey by ship to Annwn, the Welsh Underworld to retrieve a magic cauldron that was warmed by the breath of nine maidens. This story is often considered to be an early version of the Quest for the Holy Grail. The vessel of the Goddess containing wine or blood later became the chalice that bore the blood of Christ.
So Ceridwen’s cauldron is both the womb that gives birth to Taliesin, and also, as a symbol of the goddess who metes out death as well as life, an instrument of destruction whose spilled contents poisoned the streams and the animals that drank from them. And Ceridwen herself is also the powerful agent of transformation within the cauldron, for one version of the tale tells us she lives under a lake—topographically a vessel containing liquid. Ceridwen within the lake is herself the embodiment of the elixir of wisdom.
Little Gwion does not intentionally ingest the magical drops. His experience is paralleled by his Irish counterpart, Fionn mac Cumhaill, who tasted the Salmon of Wisdom by accident: the young Fionn was cooking the Salmon which had been caught by an old druid who had labored many years to catch the marvelous fish. The boy touched the fish with his thumb to burst a blister on its side, sucked his burnt skin, and so became filled with divine inspiration, much to the druid’s chagrin.
Gwion’s initiation begins in earnest when he undergoes the shapeshifting battle with Ceridwen. A sequence of events unfolds that describe a process of "uncreation," or reverse evolution. In Western esoteric lore, the act of creation is seen as a process of descent through the four elements, beginning with fire, primal energy; through air, the mental plane; water, the imaginal plane; and finally earth, the physical plane. Gwion first becomes a creature of the earth as the hare, then of water as the fish, of air as the bird, and lastly as a fiery spark of potential life, symbolized by the grain of wheat. Now he is literally swallowed up by Ceridwen, the goddess who deals death to create new life, as the seed falls into the darkness of earth to be transformed in the spring.
When she sets him afloat on the ocean, Gwion undergoes a variation of the "night-sea journey," ending up at an estuary, a liminal place where land and water meet, a suitable place to re-enter the physical world. He emerges from the sea just as the "shining brow" of the sun arises on the first day of summer—in Celtic tradition, the first morning of May. The fisherman who rescues him does indeed land a fish: Little Gwion has been reborn as the all-knowing creature of the Celtic Otherworld—the Salmon of Wisdom! His transformation from ignorant peasant boy to enlightened master is complete.
Gwion’s later identity is prefigured in his first name: Gwion—and Fionn—both derive from a root word meaning "white" or "shining." In essence, he represents the soul, which is often portrayed as a shining light: as the Earth orbits the Sun, so is the soul the great light at the center of our egoic self. His initiation through the Great Goddess can be viewed as an allegory of the death of the ego and awakening of the soul to higher consciousness.
Today, few of us attend mystery schools, but Ceridwen, keeper of the cauldron of changes, is at work in our own lives when the soul demands to be attended to. She hunts us down, forcing us to be fluid, to adapt, to shape-shift into new roles that challenge our ideas of who we are. As it was for Gwion, such changes generally come unsought while we are going about our daily business. A divorce, a death, the loss of a job—whatever hook we have hung our identity on is suddenly snatched away—and we are plunged into the dark womb of the Mother of Changes to be remade.