Enchanted Wales: Myth and Magic in Welsh Storytelling by Miranda Aldhouse-Green is our Book of the Month for November. Here's an exclusive extract to whet your appetite...
CAULDRONS, WITCHES AND SHAMANS
Welsh Mythology is a Narnia-like world where owls and stags can speak, salmon are so huge that men can ride on their backs, severed human heads can still talk and magicians can create women from flowers. These medieval written mythic tales were inscribed by monks in the 13th-14th centuries CE but we can track them back to an ancient tradition of oral storytelling that may go back more than 2000 years and which relate strongly to archaeological evidence for pagan religion and ritual. Cauldrons feature strongly. Sacred vessels used in ritual during the Iron Age and Roman period throughout the British Isles, their presence is writ large in medieval Welsh myths.
In medieval times and before, these vessels were used for boiling large amounts of meat for communal meals, often for feasts. But in the Welsh mythic tradition, these cooking-pots were presented as capricious, with minds of their own: cauldrons ‘with attitude’ that chose for whom they would agree to cook food (only the courageous) and how well the hearth-fire heated their contents (only those fires heated from the breath of virgins!). Two of the Welsh mythic stories are particularly cauldron-rich, the story of Brân the Blessed and the Tale of Taliesin.
Brân’s story is the subject of the Second of the Four Branches of the group of tales that make up the Mabinogi. Brân was the lord of Harlech in North Wales and the king of the British Isles as well. His most precious possession was a cauldron of rebirth, an object that had the capacity to bring dead warriors back to life if they were dunked in its sacred water. They were reborn as good as new and could fight better than ever before: the only caveat was that they could no long speak, which indicated that they still belonged to the world of the dead, known as Annwfn (the Welsh ‘otherworld’). But this cauldron had its own agenda. For when Brân and Matholwch, king of Ireland fell out, and Brân gave his precious cauldron to Matholwch in an effort of reconciliation, war broke out anyway, and the Irish king used the cauldron to resurrect his own warriors, thus scuppering the Welsh army’s hopes for victory.
But Brân’s wayward cauldron was not the only one with attitude. In a late medieval mythic text known as the Tale of Taliesin, the central characters are a witch named Ceridwen and her magic cauldron, whose contents had the power to provide all knowledge and wisdom to the consumer. Ceridwen brewed up her magic stew in order to impart these gifts as solace to her son Afaggdu, who was blighted with exceeding ugliness (appearance was an important element in these myths). The sorceress wove a spell so that whoever tasted the first three drops of her stew would be endowed with these precious gifts but the rest of the concoction would be poisonous to other tasters. While the magic mess was boiling, Ceridwen was overcome with tiredness so she left a little lad, Gwion, instructions to stoke the fire beneath the cauldron and to guard it. But the cauldron clearly had its own ideas as to who should be given its largesse. The liquid within it suddenly spat out drops, three of which landed on Gwion’s hand. Instinctively, the boy put his scalded thumb in his mouth and, lo and behold, he instantly possessed the gifts of knowledge and wisdom.
Ceridwen woke up, mad with anger and Gwion fled in terror, pursued by the vengeful witch. In his bid to escape her wrath, Gwion turned himself into various animals but Ceridwen then shape-changed herself into predators. Finally the boy was cornered where he hid in a barn and turned himself into a grain of wheat, while Ceridwen reacted by becoming a hen and ate him. Even more bizarrely, nine months after swallowing the grain, Ceridwen gave birth to a staggeringly beautiful baby boy, Gwion reborn, and he grew up to become the shaman poet Taliesin, whose name means ‘the bright, shining one’. Shape-shifting is a common element in shamanism all over the world. In many shamanic traditions, animals are regarded as spirit-helpers, able to ease the shaman’s journey to the spirit-world. Taliesin retained his skin-turning abilities and his poetry opened gateways to the mysterious otherworld in which spirits lurked.
The Tale of Taliesin is just one of the wonderful, Narnia-like stories that make up the Welsh mythic tradition. Enchanted cauldrons are present in so many of them that they might be regarded as agents for bridging the divide between the secular and sacred worlds and between earth-world and the realm of the gods. They play a central role in the enchanting realm of Welsh folklore.
Enchanted Wales: Myth and Magic in Welsh Storytelling is out now. Find out more and order your copy here.
Illustration by Jacob Stead.