Summer is the season of truth. In New England, summer always begins when the sun melts the layer of snow that has given the illusion of our world as a unified and peaceful white landscape, revealing the artifacts of daily life dropped and covered over by each successive storm. The chocolate muffin that fell out of my pocket on the way to work, homework, make-up, keys and more all return and must be disposed of or reintegrated into our lives.
As I putter in my garden, pieces of 19th century broken dishes and bottles constantly rise and make their way into the top layer of shifting soil. These objects had been tossed out the back door by six generations of former occupants and are now coming back as reminders that our ecological misdeeds will always be found out. Beyond these seasonal metaphors for revelation, in summer many of us are outside and with others much of the time. We can see and be seen in the clear light of day for all we do and all we are. And so, I think summer is the perfect time to contemplate Cerridwen’s cauldron.
To me, from a personal rather than scholarly or historical point of view, the story of Cerridwen’s cauldron has always held rich insights about the many facets and meanings of truth-finding. As you remember, Cerridwen created a brew in her cauldron to give her son knowledge and wisdom. Instead, Gwion, another young boy who was tending the cauldron, acquired this gift when he tasted some of the potion that had splashed on his finger. Using his new foresight to divine Cerridwen’s anger, he tried to escape her by shape-shifting into animals, birds, and plants. Finally, he was eaten in the form of a grain of wheat, then given rebirth by Cerridwen, eventually being renamed Taliesin and becoming a brilliant bard.
How often do we run from truths, like Gwion, only to find ourselves consumed by them? How rarely do we allow ourselves to be joined to our own divinity, as he is eaten by the goddess Cerridwen in the story, so that the harshness of the truths can be recreated into poetry as great as Taliesin’s? Truth is, indeed, just facts, until we bring our own sacred insights to them to create meaning, beauty, inspiration, or “poetry,” as we mean it here. First, however, they must be faced and it is in this that, to me, much of the magic lies. Consider the artifacts from ancient cultures labeled “fertility goddesses” and hidden in the backrooms of museums until we acknowledged the imbalance of many modern religions, rediscovered our own feminine sacredness and shone a new light on the statues, and brought forth a wave of reborn spirituality.
At first, when I thought of Cerridwen’s story, I assumed that the message was to be like Gwion/Taliesin, the person who was transformed. But, as I become older and more willing to take on responsibility, I see that our mission is also to be Cerridwen, to be She who transforms by giving the gift of truth-seeing.
I have a friend, Ruth, who knows well how to be Cerridwen. One day recently she called to tell me that her very beloved mother had died. At the memorial service, the church’s stone walls rang with Ruth’s grief and anguish, even as she told the congregation of how her mother’s life, and her own and those of many family and friends, had become almost unbearable by her mother’s dementia. One by one, she invited those who had known her mother to come forward, be truthful, and tell a memory, no matter how sad. Story by story, her mother’s life was recreated as a whole, outside of the turmoil of the recent past, and the anger and sorrow held by those in the room began to heal. Her mother had been brought home after the long journey of dementia had driven her away, not in body, but in her spirit, and we all had come to understand our own and others’ vulnerabilities in a way we had not before. At that moment, Ruth was Cerridwen, making us all face the truth so that we could then make our memories into the poetry of her mother’s true soul.
Becoming Cerridwen is heartbreakingly hard at times, but also makes us into bearers of great gifts. When we create truth-telling, we are forced to be truly present in the physical world in all its treacherous uncertainty, but also its great and fertile richness. Only because Taliesin was reborn as a bard and immersed himself in the events of his own time is he still remembered. My friend could easily have idealized her mother’s last years as we so often do when discussing the dead, fashioning someone who had never lived from bits and pieces of her mother’s biography. Instead, the stories were full of the stuff of real life – escaping a fire in her home as a child, her favorite banana pudding, and the shocked tears of her family as they watched her mind slip away to where they could not go. It is from these details that the power of the transformation came as everyone again felt admiration for her courage, the cool sweetness of the pudding, and the salty sickness in their stomachs the first time they realized what was wrong with Ruth’s mother. The truth has a way of grounding us in our physical world so that its poetry becomes clear.
The second gift of Cerridwen’s cauldron is freedom from fear. Just as Gwion’s release from Cerridwen’s terrifying grasp came with his rebirth as Taliesin, so were all of us at the memorial service released from so many fears – that we would not be there for Ruth in the way she needed us to be, that those of us who knew her mother would never experience the joyful moments we remembered again, or that the bad memories would overcome the good as our permanent image of her. Until the full truth is acknowledged, fear will always lurk in the walls we build out of lies, stopping us from bounding beyond them to the place inside us where poetry is made.
A third gift is clear sight of all – both bad and good – that is in front of us, the real clairvoyance that Gwion gained but could not at first perceive. Like all of us who are used to seeing things in one way only, Gwion could only see that his gift would enrage Cerridwen, not that it would lead to his becoming a long-remembered bard. And just so was Ruth and all of us at the memorial service suddenly able to see so many joyful, kind and generous moments of Ruth’s mother that would have been forever forgotten had we not been invited up to reveal all aspects of her life. When we open up our eyes, we see everything, including stunning vistas and unimagined beautiful truths that are the stuff of our poetry.
In Cerridwen’s time, her brew was for one person only and truth was easy to hide. It is less so now, with technology above us and within our homes connecting us to so many others across our planet. It is as if the heat of summer is evaporating the cauldron’s potion, sending it into sunny sky over the whole globe so that we can all breathe it in. It is now even more important that each of us become Cerridwen, finding ways to help others transform the information that is streaming our way ever faster into poetic guidance for ourselves and others to create a happy, peaceful, sustainable world. Summer is here. Go out into the world. Be with others. Find truths and make them into poetry. Share the bounty of Cerridwen’s cauldron.
Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.