We often drive to Bala, in North Wales, famous for its dramatic and beautiful lake.
It is a lake steeped in legend and folklore, not least relating to one of the best known figures in Welsh mythology — Ceridwen.
For those who don’t know the tale, in a nutshell, it runs thus:
Ceridwen was a beatiful witch-queen and Goddess who lived in a castle on the shores of Lake Bala with her husband, Tegid Foel, and children Creirwy and Morfran.
While Creirwy was the most beautiful girl in the land, Morfran was extraordinarily ugly.
So gruesome was his appearance, that most people called him Afagddu — “utter darkness.”
In the hope of making his lot in life a little more bearable, Ceridwen resolved to make him the wisest man and greatest poet (big kudos as far as Welsh folk are concerned ) alive.
And so she set out to brew the Awen — “poetic inspiration”.
Commissioning a special cauldron for the task from Gofannon, she employed a couple of tramps — an old man called Morda and a boy called Gwion Bach — to keep the Awen simmering at just the right temperature for a year and a day.
The two fulfilled their task diligently. And, in the hours before the Awen would finally be ready, Ceridwen brought Morfran to the cauldron so he could drink the moment it was complete.
But they fell asleep. As the crucial moment approached, Morda told Gwion to put an extra log on the fire. Then, the unthinkable happened; the Awen over-heated just a bit too much, and out flew three drops of potion, landing on Gwion Bach’s thumb.
Without thinking, he put it in his mouth to soothe the burn.
But it was in that moment that the Awen was ready.
Gwion Bach received the magic of the Awen.
Immediately, he knew Ceridwen would soon wake, realize what had happened, and would be so angry, she’d try to kill him.
He legged it.
And, just as he’d forseen, she woke, realized what had happened, and set off after him in a thunderous rage.
Being older — and faster (and, of course, a Goddess) — she was soon almost upon him. But just as her hands were about to close around his neck, Gwion suddenly realized he could transform into other beings.
And so he turned into a hare — and sprinted from her grasp.
But Ceridwen (being a Goddess) could also transform, and turned into a hound…
Once again, she almost caught him. With her teeth about to close on him, on the banks of a stream, Gwion transformed again, this time, into a salmon, and plunged into the gurgling waters.
Ceridwen turned into an otter, and plunged in after him.
The chase continued.
Once more, Ceridwen almost caught him; as her sharp otter-claws reached out, he turned into a swift, and flew up into the sky.
Ceridwen changed into a hawk.
Gwion realized these tactics were hopeless. Growing weary he looked down and saw a pile of freshly threshed grain. He dropped from the sky, turned into a grain of wheat and fell on the pile.
Ceridwen flew down after him, turned into a hen, and, with unnerving skill, pecked him up, and swallowed him.
She thought she’d won.
But the grain of Gwion Bach began to grow within her — as a baby.
When Ceridwen realized what had happened she resolved to kill the baby as soon as it was born.
But nine months later, her anger had mellowed, and when she finally gave birth, and held the baby in her arms, her heart melted. The new-born Gwion was beautiful.
So she sewed him up in a bag instead, and dropped him in the River.
What happened after that is another tale…
But to return to the baby’s “mum.”
Most believe that Ceridwen (also often spelled Cerridwen, Keridwen, or Kerridwen today) is an ancient Cymric Goddess, and she is often now identified with the Irish Brigid.
She is regarded by many modern Pagans, especially Wiccans, as a Goddess of poetry and inspiration.
She is also associated with the moon, an association which has come about through one scholar’s interpretation in the past of her name as meaning “crooked woman.”
However, there are significant problems with this, not least because the word said to mean woman — ben — is otherwise uknown in Welsh, and its existance is postulated from an Irish word, and from Ceridwen itself, which makes it rather a circular argument…
It’s not impossible, of course, that this is the source if Ceridwen’s name goes back to the days before Welsh and Irish separated, but then you would rather expect for there to be a parallel name in Irish — and there isn’t.
Much more likely therefore — and suggested by most known early forms of Ceridwen’s name (such as Cyrridven, Kerritwen and Kyrriduen) — is that the -wen represents what it usually does in Welsh girls’ names — gwyn “white,” “blessed” and “pure.”
There are numerous alternative possibilities for the first element too.
Popular ones are Welsh cerdd “skill,” “poetry,” and “music,” and cariad “love.”
Less likely linguistically, but still an intriguing possibility, given the tale, is the Common Celtic *kwritu- “magical transformation.”
But in all this speculation, it is worth keeping the original myth, rather than all the modern interpretations, in mind.
Fact: Ceridwen is firmly associated with Bala Lake in North Wales.
On the shores of this distinctly special lake, there is a sacred spring, noted for its magical powers.
Nowadays, it is dedicated to St. Cywair—who is also known as Gwyr — who gives her name to the village of Llangower.
Cywair/Gwyr is said to have been the mother of Llywarch Hen, another legendary bard — just like Ceridwen’s son Taliesin.
It begs the question: are Cywair and Ceridwen really one and the same?
Is Ceridwen truly, in origin, the Goddess or genius loci of this special spring?
In Modern Welsh, cywair itself means “order,” “key,” and “tune,” while gwyr means “sloping” — and “crooked.”
Once again, we seem to come full circle…
Ceridwen was not used as a given name until the late nineteenth century, when it was taken up enthusiastically in Wales, and is now regarded here as a bit of an “old lady” name, and the short form — Ceri — has been more popular in recent years, with the further development Cerys most popular of all.
Elsewhere, Ceridwen has become a very popular Wiccan Name, and is often adopted as a Craft name in one of its forms.
As a magnificent, ancient, beautiful and versitile name, with a wonderfully rich a history, I think it deserves to be popular, especially in the Pagan community.