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Drops from the Cauldron
On Inspiration and the Myth of Taliesin
Why do fiction writers write? Where do the stories come from?
I expect humans have been telling stories for about as long as we’ve had language. As I first learned from reading Joseph Campbell1 , stories in the form of myths have always told us who we are, why we’re here, and how the world came to be.
But where does the inspiration for stories come from?
The Bard with the Radiant Brow
A myth I’m particularly fond of provides some answers. It is the tale of Taliesin, a legendary bard of Medieval Wales. His story, Hanes Taliesin , first appears in 16th Century collections of tales. It was later included in Lady Charlotte Guest’s 19th Century version of The Mabinogion2, which you can read at sacred-texts.com.
Here is an edited version of Lady Charlotte’s text:
In times past there lived a man of gentle lineage named Tegid Voeland and his wife, called Ceridwen, who was a sorceress. They had two children, a beautiful daughter named Creirwy, and a son named Morvran ab Tegid, who was the most ill-favoured man in the world. Now Ceridwen thought that he was not likely to be admitted among men of noble birth, by reason of his ugliness, unless he had some exalted merits or knowledge.
So she resolved, according to her arts, to boil a cauldron of Inspiration and Science for her son, that his reception might be honourable because of his knowledge of the mysteries of the future state of the world.
Then she began to boil the cauldron, which from the beginning of its boiling might not cease to boil for a year and a day, until three blessed drops were obtained of the grace of Inspiration.
And she put Gwion Bach (a young boy) to stir the cauldron, and a blind man named Morda to kindle the fire beneath it, and she charged them that they should not suffer it to cease boiling for the space of a year and a day. And she herself, according to the books of the astronomers, and in planetary hours, gathered every day of all charm-bearing herbs.
Gwion Bach tends the Cauldron of Ceridwen. Print by J.E.C. Williams in the book 'Y Mabinogion', trans. J.M. Edwards (Wrexham, 1901). Source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pair_Ceridwen_00.JPG
But one day, towards the end of the year, as Ceridwen was culling plants and making incantations, it chanced that three drops of the charmed liquor flew out of the cauldron and fell upon the thumb of Gwion Bach. And by reason of their great heat he put his thumb to his mouth, and that instant, he foresaw everything that was to come, and perceived that his chief care must be to guard against the wiles of Ceridwen, for vast was her skill. So, in very great fear, he fled towards his own land.
When Ceridwen came in and saw all the toil of the whole year was lost, she went forth after Gwion Bach, running.
He saw her, and changed himself into a hare and fled. But she changed herself into a greyhound and chased him.
He ran towards a river, and became a fish. But she, in the form of an otter, chased him under the water,
He turned himself into a bird. But she, as a hawk, followed him and gave him no rest in the sky.
Just as she was about to stoop upon him, and he was in fear of death, he spied a heap of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn. He dropped among the wheat and turned himself into one of the grains. But she transformed herself into a high-crested black hen, and went to the wheat and scratched it with her feet, and found him out and swallowed him.
Ceridwen bore him nine months, and when she was delivered of him, she could not find it in her heart to kill him, by reason of his beauty. So she wrapped him in a leather bag, and cast him into the sea.
The story goes on to tell how Gwion Bach was rescued from the sea and, because of the great light he had taken into himself, was named Taliesin (“Radiant Brow.”) And he grew up to become the foremost Bard in land.
Unpacking the Myth
For an in-depth analysis of the myth and its many sources, I highly recommend Taliesin, The Last Celtic Shaman.3 This wonderful book by scholar John Matthews links the legend to both the Celtic bardic traditions and the worldwide phenomena of shamanism.
But what does the myth have to say to us modern storytellers?. Let me trot out a few ideas…
Inspiration comes from a magical brew produced by a witch (or goddess in some traditions). The brew is intended to provide all knowledge and wisdom to a chosen one. But the drops do not go to the person intended. By accident, a young and lowly servant is gifted with the magic.
You might say inspiration is a gift, unlooked for and unexpected. Storytellers (fiction writers, poets, songwriters) don’t necessarily choose to become storytellers. Rather, this crazy path chooses them. I have heard so many writers say: “I couldn’t do anything else.” Or, again, “The only good reason to become a writer is because you can’t not be a writer.”
Because he now sees visions, the boy knows at once that the sorceress is angry and means him no good. He flees. And because of the magic in those drops, he is now a shapeshifter, able to transform himself into many different creatures.
Just so, storytellers transform themselves into many shapes to imagine their fictions, placing themselves into the heads of their characters, envisioning many points of view.
And what about that ending? The angry goddess swallows the boy in the form of a seed. But that’s not the end. After gestation, the boy is born again, a radiant child that the goddess cannot now bring herself to harm. So she casts him onto the waters (like Moses), where he will be found again, and a grand destiny awaits him.
Who is this Ceridwin anyway? The sorceress, the hag, who might also be called a goddess? I interpret her as Destiny, the imperative that all of us face to follow our Fates. Again, storytellers don’t choose this path, it chooses them. I also think she can be seen as the Great Goddess who both devours us and gives us birth—in other words, the Universe.
Some time back, inspiration came to me. The Tale of Taliesin magically merged in my mind with childhood memories, specifically in relation to a young cousin of mine who grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. I wrote out the story, tinkered with it a bit, and will present it in my next post: “The Bard of Bayonne.”
Three more drops and one more song
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a different version of the story, written and performed by my all time favorite Celtic Folk-Rock Band, Emerald Rose.
Three More Drops, from the Album Archives of Ages to Come
See especially, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, (C)1949
The Mabinogian Translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. The story of Taliesin is at https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/mab32.htm
Taliesin, the Last Celtic Shaman by John Matthews. (C)1991, 2002
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