Long ago and faraway there lived a woman named Ceridwen. Ceridwen had a son and a daughter. Her daughter, Creirwy, was very beautiful, the most beautiful maiden in the world, but her son. Oh dear! Her son was not beautiful. He was called Morfran which means Great Crow but everyone called him Afagddu, Utter Darkness.
He was so, so ugly. Ceridwen was very, very distressed. He was her dear son and yet everyone who looked upon him was disgusted and horrified. Her daughter was, indeed, fair enough but that was no help at all. Her son, the Great Crow, was ugly.
“What can I do for him?” She mused to herself. The sun was shining, the herbs smelled sweet. “What shall I do for him?” she sang.
A robin bounced upon a nearby branch.
“Knowing” he chirped. “That’s what he needs. A good dose of knowing.” And with that he flew off singing.
“Ah!” thought Ceridwen, “That’s it! I’ll give him all the knowing of everything that is in this world. Then, when he speaks, people will listen to his words and not notice his monstrous face.”
With that she set about gathering the herbs. Thyme she got, for where would the world be without time. She took pieces of paper and placed them in her cauldron. In between each sheet she sprinkled thyme.
“This is not paper which I’ve cut but money, in this pot I put. Thyme upon it now I sow to keep it safe and make it grow.” And she stirred it as she poured on more moonshine.
Then there was rosemary for remembrance, for what was the use of her darling Crow knowing everything if he could remember nothing? And sage she got for its name alone, for this herb brings wisdom. It would also cleanse out all the rubbish and pain that filled her Crow’s mind and leave him free for inspiration to enter.
Vervain she picked with her left hand, just as the Dog Star climbed the sky, and she was careful to leave a honeycomb behind in payment.
“For it eases aching eyes and gives clear vision so the Druids say” she whispered “and true prophecy too and my Crow will need that.”
And mistletoe she took on the sixth day after the full moon.
“Here’s truth” she said “and truth-speaker and truth-seer thou shalt be.” And she put it into her cauldron.
And so she cut and carried the herbs which would inspire her son.
She journeyed down into the Underworld and spoke to the great horned one who is Guardian there.
“Give me” she asked “a tiny piece of the essence of every animal and bird and fish and flying thing and crawling thing and burrowing thing, and swimming thing and running thing that lives within Middleworld.”
“And what will you use it for an’ I give it thee?” He asked her back.
“’tis for my son, my Great Crow. I would have him know the essence of every living creature in the Middleworld. So will he be admired and none will think to call note of his ugliness.”
“An’ will he use his knowing wisely?” Demanded the great horned one.
“Aye! That he will.” Cried Ceridwen. “For I have put in all the herbs of truth and honesty and wisdom too into the brew I mix.”
And Cerrunos gave her the essence that she wanted, which contained all the living creatures who partook of life in Middleworld. Ceridwen carried it carefully in a pouch next to her heart and took it home. She stirred it into the pot with another cup of moonshine.
And then she climbed and climbed up the trunk and branches of the great oak which holds up the world. Further and higher she climbed until her breath was ragged and her limbs aching. At last she saw it, spinning into the distance, shimmering so that she could not long hold her eyes on it. Wearily she made her way to the door.
There was no answer to her knocking for some while and then, as she leaned against the door, it slowly creaked open. She was inside a great hall. Shining stalactites and stalagmites twined together to hold up the arching roof. Crystals caught the light of the moon and reflected it back from each to each. The shadows wove themselves around her so that she could no longer see the floor she thought she stood upon.
“Moonlady!” she cried. “Arianrhod, where are you sister when I need you?”
And there was a rustling and stirring amongst the shadows. Screwing up her eyes Ceridwen saw the white foot step out of the gloaming and her sister’s tall willowy form follow hard upon its heel.
“What will’st thou have of me sister?” asked Arianrhod, her voice seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
“I want the knowledge of the moon and stars for my blighted son, my dearest Crow.” Ceridwen answered.
Arianrhod laughed. “Why should I give thee ought for the monster that spewed out from between thy legs?”
Ceridwen fought down the urge to scratch out the beautiful eyes that were full of starlight and coldness and laughed down at her.
“Because he is ugly. Because he has nothing except the ridicule of all men. If he has all the wisdom and all the knowing in all the worlds then men will look to him and it will no longer matter if he is ugly.”
“But what is that to me, sister?”
“Because I am your sister. And because, some times, you too have to enter into the worlds of utter darkness and so will need a friend.”
Arianrhod stood and thought. Inwardly she smiled. Perhaps she would gain by doing this little favour for her sister. And who could tell how it might turn out?
“Here!” And she reached up into the Firmament and pulled out a handful of stardust. “Here! Quickly! Take it before it shimmers away into nothing.”
And Ceridwen took the golden stardust and put into the pouch next to her heart. She leaped her way down the oak tree and ran all the way back to her home. The stardust glittered wickedly as it sprang in amongst the other ingredients in the cauldron.
“Now it must be stirred for a year and a day.” Ceridwen ordered. “But who shall stir it for I cannot!”
She went down and crossed the river into the little town of Llanfair in Powys. There she found the boy Gwion Bach playing by himself.
Since thou has’t nought to do but play come earn thy bread with me and stir my cauldron.” She commanded him.
And she took with her the old man, Morda, to stoke the fire whilst Gwion stirred.
Gwion stirred and stirred and stirred. It was grievous hard work for the cauldron was very large and Ceridwen would not let either of them stop for a moment. But Gwion kept his pace and stirred manfully for the full year and a day until, just in the very last hour, the very last moment even, the cauldron bubbled. It bubbled and bubbled and began to shake. Great waves rose and fell across the surface of the brew. It began to spit and trouble itself as though it were giving birth. And then, just as Gwion Bach was hanging over the side trying to hold the stirring paddle safe, three great drops spurted up out of the cauldron onto his thumb.
“Arrrrgggghhhh!” Cried Gwion Bach, for the brew was boiling hot and his thumb hurt very much. And he stuck his thumb in his mouth.
For a moment nothing happened at all. And then the cauldron rumbled and shook, and with a great shrieking of tearing metal, it broke itself in two. All the brew, the rich brew which Gwion had been stirring for a year and a day, tumbled out and poured down the hill and into the river. King Maelgwn’s horses were there taking their evening drink and as the cauldron brew fell into the water so it was poisoned and all the horses fell down dead. Needless to say, King Maelgwn was not pleased.
Finally, inspiration struck Gwion Bach and he realised that he had taken the potion that was meant for Morfran, the Great Crow, who was also called Afagddu. He knew Ceridwen would not be pleased. In fact she would be furiously angry. Gwion took off at a run, out of the house and down the hill.
He ran and he ran and he ran. And then he realised he was running on four legs. Leaping with great strong hind legs and steadying himself with delicate fore paws. He could hear Ceridwen too, pounding along, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. His ears had become as long as long so he heard her great paws following him and the rasping breath behind her lolling tongue. For he knew that she had become a greyhound and was chasing him. He could see too that he had become a hare and was racing along the meadow heading for the river.
Suddenly he was at the bank and going far too fast to stop. He leapt out, out across the water hoping against hope to reach the other bank. But long before he was even half way across he fell and tumbled down and down into the cold dark depths of the river. He thought his lungs would burst so long was he going down. Finally he tried to swim upwards, threshing his little paws which were very good for running but not at all for swimming. And he found himself wriggling, flashing, swimming, faster than an arrow until he broke the surface in a great leap. He looked down at his paws to find them become the silver fins of a great salmon. Eagerly he leaped ahead into the water and swam upstream as fast as fast.
Then he found he could hear her, through his skin. He leaped again and saw a great brown otter swimming as fast as she could after him and he turned again into the stream and forced his way ahead. Next thing he knew was the great rumbling and crashing of the weir. Water tumbled and fell on him throwing him every which way. Frantically he leapt again, up and up into the air so that he could see the top of the weir, but he could not make it and fell back again into the raging pool at its feet. Again he leapt up striving to see over the top into the deep pool above the weir and again he fell back. A third time he leapt up, struggling, threshing his body in an effort to swim up through the air and even flapping his fins.
Then he found himself born upwards as a great sweep of wings bore him into the air. Looking at his arms he found them pearly grey and knew himself to have become a racing pigeon. He pressed his wings into the air and flew for all he was worth. Then he heard the cry, the scream of a hawk over his head. Glancing upwards he could see Ceridwen as a tiercel, flying round and round above him and making ready to stoop.
Gwion despaired. He closed his eyes and his wings and plummeted down towards the great barn below him. Somehow his tiny body found a hole in the roof and he found himself landed upon a great pile of wheat. And in that moment he knew that he too was a grain of wheat. Desperately he hoped to hide in the multitude of grains and never be found again.
Ceridwen saw him fall and shrieked her rage. She, too, closed her wings but hers was a planned stoop and she dived through the hole in the roof after Gwion Bach and landed in the pile of wheat.
“Prrrrk! Prk! Prk! Prk! Prk! Prk!” she said, for she had become a beautiful glossy brown hen with two great red combs.
“Prrrrk! Prk! Prk! Prk! Prk! Prk!” she scratched with one bright yellow claw, turning over and over the grains of wheat Slowly, oh so slowly, she made her way grain by grain through the pile until she found him. And then,
“Prrk!” she clucked and swallowed him down. Ceridwen had eaten Gwion Bach.
Soon she felt herself swelling and she found herself growing over the following nine months as Gwion grew again within her belly. And as the nine months came to pass so she was delivered of a beautiful boy. Oh! He was so beautiful, his brow shone as though the light of the moon and the sun were behind his eyes.
But Ceridwen could not keep him. Oh no! Still she loved her Morfran, her beloved Crow, and she would have none of this beautiful boy. But she would not kill him either. So she took a leather bag and sewed the baby up inside. Then she took the bag to the river and cast it in.
For three days and three nights the bag floated down the river until, on May Eve, it came to rest against the weir.
Now then! You remember Maelgwn? He whose horses had died from drinking the poison brew that had come from the cauldron when Gwion Bach had sucked the three drops of wisdom from his thumb? Well Maelgwn had a son called Elphin. And Elphin was not much of a son, a wastrel lad but with a good heart and a good wife. Now Maelgwn in the hopes of putting his son by way of some money and profit, sent him down to the weir on this May Eve to catch the salmon. For it was said there was always a good catch of salmon at the weir on May Eve.
So Elphin took his horse and went and sat by the weir with his lines and his nets. And he sat and he sat and he sat. No salmon showed itself. Even the minnows laughed and swam beneath the stones as they saw him approach. But Elphin sat on, until the moon was high in the sky.
As he looked at the weir he saw something bumping against the stones and thought he heard a faint cry. He strode out into the water and came up to where the thing was and saw it to be a leather bag. He picked it up, it felt lumpy and something live wriggled inside. Then he heard again the cry. He carried the bag to the bank and took out his knife to cut the leather thongs which held it together. As soon as he had cut them he found himself holding a baby.
It was the most beautiful child he had ever seen.
“You are the Shining Brow!” he said staring down into the baby’s bright eyes.
“I am indeed!” the baby replied and Elphin was so surprised he nearly dropped the child back into the water again. But he took him home and reared him as his son.
The child prophesied that he had found something of far more worth than the catch of salmon. Both Elphin and his wife were satisfied with the catch. The boy grew and became a great bard and a great wise man and knew all of everything that lives. He was a wonder in his own land … but that is another story …
© Elen Sentier 2011. All rights reserved.