Sometimes you end up in a myth. It’s not the myth you thought you’d end up in or the myth you chose. You’re not who you thought you would be. Nobody else sees the myth the same way you do.
It began when I first started learning about the Bardic Tradition and heard that Ceridwen was the goddess of the cauldron that brews awen, the poetic inspiration that is like mead to the Brythonic bards.
As a poet I thought Ceridwen was a goddess well worth meeting so I drew myself a cauldron, lit a candle, constructed a visualisation. One of those 2D interfaces that sometimes helps you interact with what is. I imagined Ceridwen as a blue-robed, dark-haired, faceless woman stirring a cauldron.
Nothing happened. Then, from nowhere, out leapt a hideous grey-haired hag who put her bony arms around my neck, nearly strangling me. She demanded I go with her to her cottage in her woods. She sat me down at her table in a room with a sun dial and smaller cauldron over the hearth on a wobbly three-legged stool and insisted that I call her ‘grandmother’. Initially I thought she was an ancestor.
I presumed this showed Ceridwen wasn’t interested in me. She already had worthier devotees. Soon afterwards I got found by my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn and guardian of the cauldron.
I met ‘grandmother’ again when I was travelling Annwn in search of inspiration on my flighty white-winged mare. She ditched me and I found myself falling downwards through the air, flapping my arms like wings, steadily acquiring black feathers, but not quickly enough to stop me hitting the ground. When I returned to my senses the hag-like woman was standing over me. With a wrinkly smile she told me I was ‘beginning to get my raven’s wings’ before taking me to her cottage again.
There she told me to look into her cauldron, where I saw in vivid blues and reds a Dark Age battle of clashing spears, crashing swords, broken shields, fallen flags, blood crimsoning the nearby waters, then the shades rising in a sorrowful march to depart. Researching it afterwards I realised it was the Battle of the Region Linuis fought by Arthur against the Saxons and wrote a poem about it*.
After this gift of awen from her cauldron I began to suspect the hag was the real (as opposed to my imagined) Ceridwen. The name ‘grandmother’ came to make sense a couple of years later. Gwyn had shown me a cauldron filled with stars and not long afterwards I went to see my friend, Nick Williams, performing an experimental poetry set in a blacked-out room with strobe lights. I had the sensation of being in a cauldron of poesy and also in the womb of the universe. I recalled that Nick refers to a goddess called Old Mother Universe and realised she is Ceridwen – the oldest mother of all.
I went on to write a book called The Broken Cauldron, focusing on how Ceridwen’s crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ is shattered in the Welsh myths and of my task of gathering the stars back into it.
Whereas, in the Bardic Tradition and Druidry, Taliesin and Arthur, those responsible for stealing the awen and the cauldron and the shatterings that have brought devastation to the land are hailed as heroes, I found myself standing in the shoes of Morfran ‘Sea Raven’, Ceridwen’s dark and ugly son, who was later known as Afagddu ‘Utter Darkness’.
He for whom she boils her cauldron in the hope the brew will inspire him and cure his imperfections. He who does not get the awen, who cannot win poetic inspiration the quick way, but must work to find the words to heal the lands poisoned by the contents of the broken cauldron, to repair it piece by piece, story by story, so the stars shine in bright new constellations on a new world.
Gwyn is my guide in this task, and in serving him, I am also serving Ceridwen. She does not appear to me often, but when she does, I am often her awkward black-winged child, the dark imperfect one.
As Afagddu I’m learning imperfection is necessary; an understanding of what others find repulsive, whether it’s darkness, death, decay, plastic, the monstrous creatures of Thisworld or the Otherworld. That these hold their own beauty when the concept is not corrupted by our society’s false ideals.
It’s not the Old Mother’s Universe that needs fixing, but the way we perceive it, the collective vision, which guides our acts. When we learn to see clearly both Creirwy* and Afagddu will be beautiful.
*’The Region Linuis’ was first published in Heroic FantasyHERE.
**Creirwy means ‘Lively Darling’. She is Afagddu’s beautiful (twin?) sister.
With thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the image ‘A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud’ by ESA/Hubble.
A premature foetus
with eyelids stretched closed
inner eyes pondering
the universe within
born from the cauldron
after the disaster
dancing its stillbirth
like a puppet on the wind
something that fell from the stars
The story of the (re)birth of Taliesin is well known. A young man called Gwion Bach stole the Awen from the cauldron of Ceridwen, leaving it shattered and the land poisoned. He fled and was pursued by Ceridwen, each shifting through a series of forms. He was finally swallowed as a piece of grain by Ceridwen as a great black hen. Ceridwen gave birth to him as Taliesin.
Throughout the poetry attributed to Taliesin he repeatedly states this identity is only one of his many forms. For example at the beginning of ‘The Battle of the Trees’ he says ‘I was in a multitude of forms / before I was unfettered’ and lists a number of his transformations:
I was a slender mottled sword
made from the hand.
I was a droplet in the air,
I was the stellar radiance of the stars.
I was a word in writing,
I was a book in my prime.
I was the light of a lantern
for a year and a half.
This way Taliesin consistently denies his origins from Ceridwen’s crochan ‘womb’ or ‘cauldron’. It is notable he never refers to her as ‘mother’. In ‘The Battle of the Trees’ he states explicitly: ‘It was not from a mother and father / that I was made’ then he tells an alternative story of his creation:
and my creation was created for me
from nine forms of consistency:
from fruit, from fruits,
from God’s fruit in the beginning;
from primroses and flowers,
from the blossom of trees and shrubs,
from earth, from the sod
was I made,
from nettle blossom,
from the ninth wave’s water.
Math created me
before I was completed.
Gwydion fashioned me –
great enchantment wrought by a magic staff;
by Eurwys, by Euron,
by Euron, by Modron;
by five enchanters –
of a kind like godparents
was I reared.
In ‘The Greater Song of the World’ he says he was made by God from ‘seven consistencies’:
of fire and earth,
and water and air,
and mist and flowers,
and the fruitful wind.
In ‘The Story of Taliesin’ he makes a stranger claim: ‘my original country is the region of the summer stars’. We have already seen Taliesin state he has been ‘the stellar radiance of the stars’. How does this sit with his account of his creation and his (re)birth from Ceridwen’s womb?
Marged Haycock notes Taliesin’s words share similarities with apocryphal Middle Age sources describing the creation of ‘the microcosmic Adam’ not only from dust, but ‘from land and sea, earth, the clouds of the firmament, wind, stones, the light of the world’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’.
There are parallels between the creation of Taliesin as microcosm and the world as macrocosm. Intriguingly we now know our world was born from the stars through the process of stellar nucleosynthesis. The Taliesin poems uncannily predict the theses of modern science. All the elements that make up our planet and the life upon it originate from the stars.
After the Big Bang the stars formed as hydrogen and helium were drawn together by gravity and nuclear fusion began. Hydrogen was burnt first, then helium, which produced carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, argon, calcium, titanium, chromium, and iron. The collapse and explosion of stars in supernovae ejected the elements across the universe.
Our solar system was born from a cloud of interstellar gas and dust composed of hydrogen, helium, and elements from supernovae. As gravity caused it to contract nuclear fusion began in the sun and the planets, including the earth, formed. From the elements came life – microorganisms, plants, trees, fish, birds, animals, then humans and all our creations.
Taliesin is indeed correct that he originates from the stars. The story of the creation of Taliesin by ‘five godparents’: Gwydion, Math, Eurys, Euron, and Modron, is also the story of the creation of the world. It may even be suggested these five deities were once seen to have a role as creator gods, perhaps sharing a similarity with the archons of the Gnostic tradition.
Taliesin seems to have succeeded in denying his motherhood by Ceridwen. In fact denial of Ceridwen’s status as the Great Goddess of the cauldron, the womb of all life, is a consistent theme throughout the poems attributed to Taliesin and medieval Welsh poetry as a whole.
In ‘The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin’ he says:
I entreat my Lord
that (I may) consider inspiration:
what brought forth (that) necessity
at the beginning, in the world
which was in need?
Here he is claiming that awen, inspiration, born from Ceridwen’s cauldron is of earlier origin.
In ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ we find tension between conflicting translations of peir as ‘cauldron’ or ‘Sovereign’ (God). ‘Ban pan doeth o peir / ogyrwen awen teir’; ‘Splendid (was it) when there emanated from the Sovereign/cauldron / the ‘ogyrwen’ of triune inspiration’.
Amongst later bards petitioning Ceridwen for awen is only acceptable when disguised as a metaphor and under the ordinance of God. Cuhelyn Fardd asks God for poetic power akin to ‘the dignity of Ceridfen’s song, of varied inspiration’. Prydydd y Moch requests inspiration from God ‘as from Ceridfen’s cauldron’ and asks God for ‘the words of Ceridfen, the director of poetry’.
However, it cannot be denied that when Gwydion and company create Taliesin they are tapping into the creative processes of the womb of the universe and its old mother herself – Ceridwen.
If the stars were born from that first shattering of Ceridwen’s cauldron, the Big Bang, and Taliesin was born from the stars, then Ceridwen is still his mother and this cannot be denied. She will always be his beginning and his ending and he will never escape her no matter how hard he denies her as the origin of his creation and no matter how fast he shifts form and runs.
‘Thence rolled down upon him the storm-clouds from the home of the tempest; thence streamed up the winter sky the flaming banners of the Northern lights; thence rose through the illimitable darkness on high the star-strewn pathway of the fairy king.’
I write this post as a newcomer to the path of the Awenydd, having walked it in earnest little longer than a year and a day. The terms Awen and Awenydd have been familiar since coming to Druidry. In the Awen I found a name for the all-consuming force of inspiration that has burnt forever in my veins with the fire of stars in the iciest reaches of a dark universe. Its furious purpose was revealed by a god after many years of searching.
Restless years. Wilder years. Seeking Blake’s infinite. Throwing my soul into the furthermost abysses of Western European philosophy where reason bites its own tail, curls up and dies and the only way to survive the white hot sun of truth is to burn with and express its creativity.
Trying to find a framework to decipher visions of our native spirit world without knowing if my experiences were ‘real’. Searching Christian mysticism, Graeco-Roman, Saxon and Norse mythologies and finding only analogies. Discovering Britain has its own mythology in The Mabinogion, The Triads of the Island of Britain, The Four Ancient Books of Wales and regional folk and faerie lore.
Finally, Gwyn ap Nudd, my Fairy King finding me and teaching me to walk the Star-Strewn Pathway.
The Star-Strewn Pathway begins in one’s local area with the recognition the whole landscape is inspirited. Awen sings from the earth-sun at this world’s core through its molten mantle, sandstone bedrock, layers of clay and harrowed loam. Wonder can be found in backyards of composting earthworms and hatching spiders.
Pathways lead to suburban edgelands. Narrow valleys of trees impossible to build on, brooks shrunken by drainage systems tripping down wooden platforms. Algae-covered stagnant ponds beloved of ducks. Decaying mills pink with Herb Robert housing volleys of pigeons circling above.
These places are inspirited and there are spirits: huge boggarts who once stretched gurgling through mosslands grey and whiskery; undines clasping their last waters; newly planted woodlands arising into forms of consciousness with inherent knowledge of tree, bird and mycelia of mushrooms to the tread of deer.
Inevitably pathways lead abroad. It is necessary to trace local brooks to the river’s crashing heart, find its trickling source and greet rolling tides with the sea at its shining estuary. To meet its Great Goddess who washes her hair by moonlight and stretches watery arms throughout the watershed.
To travel ancient woodlands of oak men, snow-topped mountains of icy blasting and cities of tower blocks, steeples and malls which guard a heritage locked in catacombs and glassy vaults. Every facet of woe and joy, awe and strife, adds to the alchemy of our own sun.
In rain or mist, at twilight to the touch of thunder, it is possible to step from known to unknown pathways. Wandering lost in a storm-cloud of emotion I have often found myself on unfamiliar tracks with strange figures, no longer myself. Sometimes it is those dusky shadows who beckon me, footsteps leading into the wildwood’s tangled heart.
In the wildwood all the fay lights are lit by stars. They dance and glimmer, throwing bright shapes and longer shadows across paths which intertwine like roots. These paths have their own lives, untwining and uprooting to walk their own way through the wood. Where the fay strew their lanterns on the ground one might find the Star-Strewn pathway.
There is a long tradition of caves and holes leading to the underworld. Their entryways are utter darkness. Timeless. Illimitable as despair. They lead into a womb of tunnels, the edge of an abyss, to where that age-old creatrix Old Mother Universe gives birth to stars. From thence the Star-Strewn Pathway unfurls through underground heavens.
When the moon is full she lays out her bridge of vibrant stars in the river. The ripples become stepping stones. From the river-moon the Star-Strewn Pathway leads through the catastrophic beauty of falling stars to the star-decked parapets of the Fairy King’s hall.
At his banquet stars burn and freeze. The order of things is undone. In the crux of fairy arts, the Fairy King’s Star Cauldron, the wonder of the universe is reflected and re-made anew.
There are other ways to reach Gwyn’s Hall. As many ways as there are souls. Some fly with coveys of hounds or wild geese. Others do not need to fly at all.
This is not the path for everyone. There are many gods, stars and cauldrons.
Any soul flight requires a return to and grounding in the body of this world; dragging backward through hedgerows, screaming and echoing from slanting rock-faces to kiss the earth with bloodied and muddy lips.
Apostasies need voicing in cafes and bars, chain-stores and museums. Launching into the internet’s mirror-void where the dust-mote of a spark of Awen can be multiplied into a million blazing simulacra fading as quickly into black holes.
Following the Star-Strewn Pathway does not lead to catasterism ‘placing amongst the stars,’ but living a full life upon this earth, returning to and from the halls of our deities, knowing only our bones and star-songs will survive for future generations. Until, with our land and gods, we are swallowed by the sun. Perhaps in this manner we will receive our final catasterism.
*This article was written for and first published with an introduction by Heron on ‘The Path of the Awenydd‘. This blog aims to explicate and explore this lesser known path. It is also an excellent and growing resource on Bardic, Brythonic and Faerie Lore. Do check it out. Many thanks to Heron for supporting my work.
Enduring years of disconnection,
incredulity of stars,
anger beneath the heavens,
she scathed the priests and walked alone,
drifting among chapels, knowing she didn’t belong,
her robes of night fell on soft rushes.
They say she walked along the marsh. They say she walked out to the river. They say she looked out to the sea.
In the damp, dark parishes
paradise was never hers,
she walked amongst the outcasts and the sick
healing wounds that should never open,
seeing what shouldn’t be seen,
her robes of night fell on troubled waters.
Mary of the lepers, Mary of the marsh, I saw you running to the river, I saw you running to the sea. How you longed to sail away…
Daffodils leap like shots of fire.
Primroses curse in white-yellow stains.
Blackthorn’s eldritch stars explode
As chainsaws rip aside the bright spring day.
Mock cairns of woodchip
Spat from hawthorn’s frame
Line the road of death
I will drive down
I will drive down to avoid the rain.
*Technically I won’t be driving down the by-pass because I swapped my car for a bicycle. However I’m not adverse to getting a lift and still feel responsible for the death of the hawthorns who have been companions on the path beside the by-pass for many years.
As I make my circuit stars hold vigil in an icy breath.
Roses of Annwn bring beauty from death.
Wintering starlings spotted with snow
sleep in a tree that nobody knows.
There is a courtship of stability in this kingdom of cold
where we reknit the bonds as dream unfolds
in shadows of farmhouses down the pilgrim’s path
through old stony gates in footsteps of the past
to the healing well where a serpent’s eye
sees through the layers of time’s disguise.
A procession sways down the old corpse road
where the lych gate swings open and closes alone.
From the empty church bells resound.
Reasserting its place on the abandoned mound
a castle extends to the brink of the sky.
Within its dark memory a fire comes to life.
As warriors gather to warm their cold hands
I know I am a stranger in a strange land.
*Roses of Annwn is a kenning for mushrooms I came across in The Faery Teachings by Orion Foxwood
Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.
There is no lack of wood upon the hearth,
The hounds are calm, the horses fed and watered.
Put knife to meat, drink your share from the horn,
There is endless plenty in my cauldron.
Join and dream to the songs of my bards,
They play a magic from the world’s beginning.
Beneath the Faery moon and Annwn’s stars
All things are sung back to wonder.
Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.
*The original manuscript ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (1536) relating Gwyn’s feast on Glastonbury Tor can be found here: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html It’s possible it took place on Michaelmas day, September 29th, which marks the last day of summer and beginning of Autumn.
‘Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again Dragged by the force of some inner tide’
– Pink Floyd High Hopes
The world was ours, the moment all that mattered.
Our hopes were high in the mist of dawn.
We flung our friendship over the wildest horizons
riding rainbow lights and drums to distant haunts
that never satisfied the fire in our souls
nor the loneliness that lay its pall between us.
Strung out on stars, burning everything of value
we reached the ravaged borderlands and paused
so far gone even astronomers couldn’t find us. Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
they saw the stone circle and distant Tor,
the penumbra of a festival vanished to the night.
At last we staggered home lost and nearly blind,
dazzled by the sun we couldn’t find to tiny houses
with stiff front doors surrendering hope for certainty.
The return was hard, obeying the constant grind
of re-learning how to put one foot in front
of the other one. Re-mastering the system, unseeing
starry skies. Yet on the odd occasion reality elides to a glimpse of how green it was on the other side.
I fought onward, eventually alone
as the division bell began to toll, making happy
families with freshly ironed clothes, polished homes
and forced smiles. From a dusty library I looked out
across the hills- a glimpse of green and beacon fire.
My feet trod through cotton grass to broken remains
of tribal ruins drawn by chants on the west wind.
The other side returned to life in the vestibules of trees.
I saw a river goddess wash her hair in the rain. Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
the fragments stayed broken, my vision incomplete.
Stunned by the Tor redrawing itself on the backdrop
of my mind I relit the embers on the Ribble’s bank
and recalled the last hint of paradise before everything
went black and time took our dreams away. Guided
by the voice of an otherworldy king I reclaimed my pride
at the Tor’s white spring. Time performed its circle,
gave back my starlit dream. The world is mine again.
To the other side and spiralling back I ride dragged by the force of some inner tide.