This is a retelling of the Tale of Taliesin that I wrote after several years of reading and working with the themes of this myth. My wish is that it continues the tale like a dialogue between me and the characters, and with all of you who find it here. I hope you take away something new, and that you may be inspired to create your own version as well.
Content warning for themes around self-loathing and an unwanted pregnancy. These are elements present in the original tale, but I take a much closer look at them in this rendition.
Without further ado…
The Cauldron of Cerridwen
Once there stood a good house near the shore of Lake Bala. There, Tegid Foel lived with his wife, Cerridwen, and their two children who were quite different, but equally loved by their parents. Their firstborn daughter was Creirwy, which means “pretty one”, and their son was Morfran, which means “sea crow”.
The beautiful Creirwy was quick to smile and laugh, and she moved with effortless grace. Her little brother was ungainly and awkward with his too-long limbs, and face broken out with blemishes. He often stooped uncomfortably and kept near the shadows, as if trying to hide. Where Creirwy was full of confidence, and generous with both words and gifts, Morfran bubbled with anxieties, and self-consciously avoided attention. Each was perfect in their mother’s eyes.
They spent their childhood exploring the lake, fields, and hills around their home. In the summer, they stuck their feet in its refreshing waters. In the winter, they puffed their breath to join the fog. Creirwy’s room was on the Northern side of the house, warmed gently throughout the year by the sunshine which she greeted gladly each morning. Morfran’s room was on the Southern side, where it was always cold and shaded, and the chill seeped up through his feet.
When he was young, Morfran’s mother would tuck him in, stroke his hair softly, and tell him stories of fantastic events and heroes. He took refuge in her embrace, and imagined faraway places full of wonderful events, where he could take the place of a hero — respected, and accomplished. Gradually, he began to grow out of fairy tales, and turned his mother away from his bedside, in the manner of children who yearn for adulthood to arrive more quickly. Cerridwen treasured the hours with her young son, but she encouraged him to develop his independence, with his own opinions, interests, and skills.
As her children aged, the expectations of the community fell on their shoulders. Visiting friends and family were full of praise for Creirwy, and the woman she was growing into. They sometimes called her Llywy, meaning beautiful. They had little regard for her brother, who was reluctant to join conversations, and had an unremarkable, ungainly appearance. They came to call him Afagddu, which means “utter darkness”. Sometimes they suggested that he could be sent away to learn a useful trade, or that he might grow out of it — whatever ‘it’ was.
Sometimes Morfran would burn with resentment for his sister, for how popular and happy she was. This was quickly followed by guilt and shame, because he loved his sister. But he couldn’t shake the unkind words of the people around them, as they seemed to confirm his deepest fears. Despite Cerridwen’s encouragement, he felt that he could never live up to his sister’s shining standard. He despaired of ever being considered handsome or respectable. Sometimes when he was alone, he felt that his parents must love Creirwy more, while merely putting up with him as a burden.
Cerridwen’s heart ached whenever she caught sight of her son wallowing, or avoiding activities he used to enjoy, due to his low self-esteem. Hoping to boost his confidence, she planned a party for his 13th birthday. She made him a handsome suit of rich, embroidered fabric. She combed his hair and praised his reflection in the mirror, with a kiss on the cheek. His shy smile made her heart swell with love and hope.
The party was full of feasting, music, and dancing. Many people traveled from neighboring towns to honor their family with gifts, and enjoy the excuse to gather socially. Creirwy was stunning in her dress of light, flowing fabric. She glided through the room, welcoming everyone with her dazzling smile. In the firelight, she looked like a sparkling jewel.
Morfran dutifully attended the floor, being the guest of honor, but he felt awkward among so many strangers. It seemed like their judging eyes were always on him from the crowd. He soon returned to the edges of the room where he felt more comfortable, and avoided conversation. As the afternoon went on, Cerridwen watched his awkward, stiff posture and ready grimace deter would-be dancers from his path. By nightfall, his scowl prevented anyone from approaching, as he sulked in a corner, feeling unwanted. Every curious glance seemed full of scorn, and it fueled his jealousy of the merriment on display until at last he was able to return to his room.
Day by day, his insides grew ever twisted, as his anxieties fed back on themselves. Every unkind word he had ever overheard seeped under his skin, until he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror without categorizing every feature as imperfect, ugly and unbearable. His own face became a prison for his pent up emotions. His peers were as outwardly judgemental as his inner voice. Despite hating their rude comments, he couldn’t stop hearing them echo in his mind. He became increasingly reclusive to avoid the negative attention.
Cerridwen couldn’t bear to see him this way. He was handsome and capable in her eyes, but she heard the opinions of others. One day, after watching her dear son struggling, her resolve sharpened into a plan. She would develop her wisdom, craft, and magic into a means to give her son a peerless intellect. That way, he could at least be respected across the land for his mind, even if he would never be admired for his face. She would prepare a draught that filled him with great knowledge, the clear sight to apply it, and a confident voice to share his ideas.
To this end, she prepared her favorite dappled white mare, and gathered supplies for a long trip. She rode away from the lake, over fields and hills. Soon she was shaded by the towering trees of the forest, and beyond that, the base of a mountain. The slope was steep and rocky, with a harsh wind, but her horse carried her steadily upward until they arrived near the top of the mountain where Dinas Affaraon lies.
On the mountain was a lone tower, where the wise gathered to study ancient tomes and reflect on the world from their great distance. Cerridwen consulted with the wise folk and searched their expansive library, until she found what she needed: knowledge of the elixir of Awen. She spent long days and nights by candlelight, carefully memorizing each ingredient: herbs, fungi, stones, and animal parts. She learned the names of the waters she must collect under different moons. She practiced the special words that would bring out the best of each ingredient when added to the brew. In exchange for the recipe, after each supper, she filled the tower with story and song. The tales were brought to life through her voice, until the wise ones had wept and cheered and finally slept.
After a fortnight, she rode back down the mountain, through the forest, over hills and open fields, until she could see her lake in the distance, reflecting her home in its clear waters. In the time she was gone, Afagddu had taken to hiding in his rooms, while his hatred for himself poisoned every word and deed around him as an attack on his person. He spurned his mother at the door, believing that she, too, had finally abandoned him. It hurt, but she knew that it was his pain and not her dear son, who lashed out at her.
The knowledge of a possible solution fueled Cerridwen with passion. She was determined to guide her son into a clever, confident man. As great as her skills were, she still needed help to keep the fire burning and the brew stirring while she gathered ingredients throughout the year. These were simple tasks, so she set out to hire help.
In the woods, she found an old man, bent with the weight of years, traveling with a boy about the same age as her son. Though the man walked slowly with a cane, and his eyes were clouded with cataracts, his mind was sharp. As they traveled, he instructed the boy in history, geography, and identifying the trees and birds of the area. The boy was eager to explore the forest, directing the conversation to anything interesting he noticed around them.
When Cerridwen approached, the man introduced himself as Morda – which means “good sea” – and the boy as Gwion Bach – which means “little innocent”, or “white one”. She offered them steady work for a year and a day, to come tend a fire, fetch firewood, and keep her cauldron from boiling over. Morda agreed to her terms, as it would be enjoyable work to sit by the fire. Gwion also agreed, as he was eager to be considered a man, with responsibility and money of his own. Although he wished it were more interesting and glamorous than simply fetching and cutting firewood.
Cerridwen escorted them to her home on the shore of Lake Bala. They settled around her great cauldron, which was so large that its chain was anchored in the ceiling and the floor. The door and windows were kept open constantly, to let out the smoke. It was not the most comfortable place, but it was peaceful. Gwion Bach enjoyed the lake, where he was able to watch the many animals who came to drink, and the plants changing through the year. He would fetch firewood each day, and in the evenings sit by the fire.
Morda would entertain the boy with many tales he had learned over his long life. They would discuss their lessons, and sometimes Gwion was dissatisfied with the lack of clear answers. Some days, the boy would find an interesting plant or creature while wandering, and the old man would help him learn the little features that distinguished one from another. In this way, Morda had a comfortable warm seat to rest his joints, and Gwion had a wonderful education of the natural world.
As it was no secret that Cerridwen had hired assistants, her family learned of her work, though not its true purpose. Only Afagddu had concerns about this project. He resented that his mother was spending even more time out of the house, away from giving him attention, as she roamed to gather ingredients. She would not tell him what it was for, in order to avoid raising his expectations. His bitterness took this as her distrust in his abilities and a resistance to seeing him as a man.
Creirwy also took interest, and came by the cauldron once, just to see what was going on. She greeted the hired pair kindly. But she was not interested in sitting around by the fire or cutting firewood, and returned to her own pastimes. Gwion watched her sometimes out by the lake, riding her horse or braiding flowers. Morda teased him for his attention, and laughed at his embarrassment, in the knowing way that adults have when growing boys want to look at pretty girls. Neither noticed Afagddu, as he resented them strongly, and kept away.
For Cerridwen, the year was packed with a busy schedule. Each week there was something new to gather during that moon phase, at just the right time for a certain flower to bloom, or a rare mushroom to rise, or for the cosmos to resonate with a particular stone. Cerridwen spent long hours going through her notes, calculating just the right timing and manner to introduce each item to the mixture. She spent further time wandering through the forest, especially whenever it rained, searching for areas where something needed might appear. She was focused and determined, no less passionate about her mission than she was the day it began. But it was a lot of effort; she struggled to keep up with the daily demands of motherhood on top of scouring the wilderness for what she needed. For what Morfran needed.
Gradually, she spent less and less time at home. She stayed up later, burning candles while she worked to carefully mince and dry different herbs. She no longer had time to read to her son, or to stay and stroke his hair until he slept. Besides, he was a young adult now, and she wanted him to feel independent. She was doing this all for him. Once her gift came to fruition, she was certain it would all be better with the far-reaching knowledge and wisdom to guide him.
By the twelfth moon, she had heavy bags under her eyes. She hadn’t been speaking as much, always thinking over what the next steps were, and running through what she had done already. She was steeped in calculations of the path of the stars and the cycles of the moon. Her husband was supportive, but also busy with his own business affairs. Creirwy sometimes brought her food when she forgot to eat, from being wrapped up in her studies.
Finally, the last day was approaching! She had barely managed to get everything in time. She spent the entire night preparing the last ingredients, until her eyes were dry and itchy, and her whole body felt sluggish from the effort of staying awake, of peeling and chopping, of pounding her mortar and pestle. Her hands were cold and wrinkled from carefully washing the herbs in moon-blessed water. Her knees were stiff from gathering.
She had been memorizing the words, ensuring that she could say them perfectly without hesitation. At dusk, she took over stirring the cauldron in a meticulous fashion, each movement of the long handled spoon symbolically attuned to what she dropped in. She spoke in a lilted rhythmic way, carefully adding herbs, fungi, and fermented liquids at the right time with their special words.
After this work, she directed Gwion to set several logs below the cauldron, and told Morda to stir it steadily through the night. Too tired to go to her own room, she dropped onto a pallet near the cauldron. She instructed them to wake her at dawn’s first light, so she could get some much needed rest for the final ritual tomorrow.
Morda valiantly stayed up as late as he could, softly speaking stories to pass the time, but his age no longer agreed with all-night vigils. After Morda’s beard nearly dipped into the cauldron from fatigue, Gwion insisted that his mentor get some rest. He took over the stirring, glad to have an important task. After several hours, the novelty wore off, and he struggled to stay awake, himself.
As the sun’s light began barely peeking from behind the hills, Gwion noticed the fire needed tending. He added another log and shifted them around with a poker, then he rushed back to stir the bubbling brew. In his absence, the cauldron had nearly boiled over the edge. His movements were hasty, trying to settle the mixture, but some of the elixir splashed up over the edge and three drops landed on his thumb. He sucked his burnt thumb instinctively, and in that moment he was awakened.
Everything happened quickly. The cauldron cracked with a sound like thunder, waking Cerridwen and Morda where they slept. The brew burst from the halves of the great cauldron. Gwion hardly noticed any of this, struck by the overwhelming tide of knowing that filled him. He knew then that all things are one thing, yet each has their own nature to be respected.
And he knew this gift was not meant for him.
Cerridwen woke disoriented, and saw the cracked cauldron leaking an awful, oil-slick sludge that reeked of decay. Her eyes burned into Gwion’s where his own eyes stared wide without seeing her, and she knew he saw the wonders of the world. She was filled with fury, that a mere boy who had been trusted with a simple task had betrayed her, had stolen everything from her son, that the solution to their problems had been abruptly wrenched away.
As he returned to present awareness, Gwion realized her anger. In the same instant, they both began to run. Out, away, quickly! He got a head start, while she nearly ran over the surprised Morda and pushed him aside, since he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. Her rage was focused on a singular point — the boy who had robbed her son.
His head was so full that it was empty, knowledge and instinct bubbling and passing through his mind without landing on anything solid. He wanted to be fast, to get away from her, and his stride changed — he was a hare, sleek and swift, like the prey he had sometimes startled out of bushes. Behind him, there came a growl and snarl, a snapping of teeth, and the steady lope of four long legs of the greyhound bitch catching up to him.
Panicked, he didn’t stop running as he reached the river Ayrfen. He tried to jump, but it was too far for his tiny body. He landed with a splash in the water. Breathe his body screamed! So he did, with gills along his sides, his body even smaller now, smooth with shining silver scales. As a salmon, he swam through the waters upstream, leaping sometimes to get around pools and rocks that blocked his way and gained him distance. Cerridwen didn’t hesitate to dive in after him. Her otter body was powerful in the water, sinewy muscles meant for swimming, with a thick coat of fur to keep her warm, and dry, and twin predatory eyes focused forward her prey.
He leapt once more, with her paws reaching for his tail. He felt her claws snag on his fins, and his instinct drives him to keep going upward, away from her clawed grasp. So he did, wings beating swiftly, rapidly, his heart pitter-patter even faster as he swiveled up into the brightening morning sky as a wren. She gathered her haunches and leapt upward close behind, her brown fur shifting into brown feathers. Her wings were powerful, sweeping great feathers to propel her behind him tirelessly as a falcon.
He swooped down into the trees, mimicking the little birds he had watched forage through the woods. His tiny wings slipped between branches, while her great wingspan carried her faster, but more carefully in the bigger spaces between trees.
After his initial panic faded, and he realized that she was not tiring, that she would chase him forever. He spied a farm stretching out in the distance, with a barn. He darted out of the trees with her not far behind, and he dropped towards a pile of winnowed grain, focused on his desire to hide, to be unremarkable, to perfectly fit in with all the millions of grains around him.
Yet her eagle eyes were sharp and tracked him down as he fell. She landed heavily on stout scaled legs with a full, round, feathered body which scattered the pile all around. Her beak was short, meant for catching little grains. Her focused senses drove her unerringly forward. He could not react in time before her sharp mouth closed all around him, and he was taken into darkness.
Her victory was quick, and bereft of satisfaction. There was no way to regain what had been lost. Cerridwen felt her talons on the ground, the warm sun soaking her black feathers, and the beat of her heart. When her eyes opened into her usual form, she found herself pregnant once more.
As far as they had run, and swam, and flew in their desperate chase, her return journey on foot took much longer. She watched the clouds pass, and the moon follow the sun. She greeted the elder trees, and listened to their slow wisdom. She sometimes stopped to watch the mountains sit stoically ahead. She rested on the shore of the river and watched it pass ever onward.
Cerridwen had time to reflect on the events, and what she could have done differently. Yet even in her despair for Morfran, she could not bear to do harm to the life growing within her. A babe comes blameless into the world, and her nature was to be a loving mother, devoted and true to her children. However, she could not bear to raise this one at her own home. She knew that in her heart, she could never forgive the babe for a betrayal he would not remember. He would grow up cold without a warm mother’s love, and she could not bear the thought of somehow failing another son as she had already failed one.
So she walked, and sought a solution to offer this child a chance at a true family. She would set his course, and give him the gift to grow into his full potential — but without her guidance, her comfort, or her love for him. Once the idea had settled into resolve, she found herself feeling strangely bittersweet. She knew his life would carry its share of trials, and she wished she could bear witness to the ways he would live up to his gifts.
Staring up at the stars one night, she admitted to herself the danger was in loving this child too much. If he became as bright and talented as she suspected he would be, then she might become too proud and favor him over her other children. This would be a far greater betrayal of Morfran than the stolen drops of Awen.
As her belly grew larger, and her steps came with greater effort, she found a secluded area by the river delta to rest. Her second son was born as dawn crested over the mountains. She looked into his eyes for a moment, and knew she had made the right decision. She placed him into a leather coracle, and sealed it with a kiss. She set it gently upon the water, to flow out to the good sea and find a family who may love him without baggage. To find a better mother than she might have been.