Welsh Mythology: The Mabinogi

The Mabinogi is a collection of stories found in Welsh manuscripts that were written in the 12th and 13th centuries, although the stories themselves are probably much older. In them you’ll find tales of heroes and monsters, King Arthur and his knights, magic and war. The stories were translated into English in the 19th century by Charlotte Guest, who called her book The Mabinogion.

Part of the Mabinogi tells the story of the witch-goddess Ceridwen and her sons. In this story, Ceridwen gave birth to a son who was so hideously ugly that she feared for his future. The only way he’d be accepted into court, she reasoned, was if he possessed extraordinary knowledge and powers.

So Ceridwen made a potion in her cauldron that would give her son this remarkable knowledge. The potion had to boil for a year and a day; once it was distilled to just three drops, it would hold the power she wanted for her son.

Ceridwen hired a boy, Gwion, to stir the potion, then went off to do other things. Time passed. When the potion was nearly ready, three drops flew out of the cauldron. Gwion consumed them, taking into himself all the knowledge and power of Ceridwen’s potion. The cauldron broke into pieces.

When Ceridwen found out what had happened, she chased Gwion. The boy was afraid of her and ran as hard as he could, but Ceridwen was close behind him. Using his newfound knowledge, Gwion changed himself into a rabbit so that he could run faster. Ceridwen was also a shapeshifter, however, and she changed into a greyhound. And so it went on — when Gwion leapt into a river and became a fish, Ceridwen chased him as an otter; when he flew into the sky as a bird, Ceridwen became a hawk.He couldn’t escape her or even get far enough ahead to rest.

Finally, the exhausted Gwion ran into a barn, dove into a pile of grain, and turned himself into a piece of grain to hide there. Ceridwen changed into a hen — and ate him.

Nine months later, Ceridwen gave birth to a son. It was Gwion, reborn. Ceridwen had planned to kill the baby, but the child was so beautiful and intelligent that she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The child grew up to be Taliesin, the most famous Welsh poet.

If you’d like to read Guest’s translation of this story, click here.

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