I’ve been thinking about climate change: there have been several articles recently about the areas of Wales that will be lost to rising seas over coming decades. This is going to cause major social and economic upheaval. It’s going to demand that our society direct huge amounts of resources to defending ourselves from the sea – which means that those resources won’t be available for other social programmes that many people depend on. Large numbers of people may be forced to leave their homes and communities for ever. This is inevitably going to be traumatic. This is where we will need our bards. In Wales, the figure of Gwyddno Garanhir tells us that this has happened before, and we survived. If we did it before, we can do it again. Gwyddno connects the tales of Taliesin and of Gwyn ap Nudd: the tales of poetic inspiration, and of deadly challenges.
I’ve been thinking recently about humans and our capacity for evil, provoked in part by a post by Nimue Brown: What Does It Mean to Unpeel a Monster?
There are, perhaps, two kinds of evil people. There are those who are driven by their animal nature; this is the evil caused by lust, anger, desire, and the like. Then there are those whose higher nature has become corrupt. They have come to believe that they know how to make the world perfect. Unfortunately, this usually means eliminating those of their fellow humans – and elements of nature – who fail to be perfect.
And [Gwyn] captured Pen son of Nethog, and Nwython, and Cyledr Wyllt his son, and he killed Nwython, and forced Cyledr to eat his father’s heart, and because of that Cyledr went mad.
(The Mabinogion, translated by Sioned Davies, p209)
There is a truth that needs to be understood about Gwyn ap Nudd, and it is not a comforting truth.
- The cauldron was heated for a year and a day. It distilled all wisdom into three drops: the rest of the liquid was a bitter poison.
Takeaway: wisdom does not come easily or without cost. Wisdom comes from bitter experience. Those who never suffer setbacks do not acquire wisdom. There is always a price: and sometimes that price is not always paid by the person who acquires the wisdom. We can probably all think of occasions when we hurt other people, inadvertently or otherwise. We may have reflected upon our actions, and regretted them, immediately or later. We may well have learned from them, and become a wiser and better person for the experience. But: the other persons still got hurt, and we often can’t remedy that. The three drops contained all knowledge and all wisdom: how much hurt, and upset, would have been needed to provide that?
- Where was Afagddu during the year and a day?
Ceridwen seems to have decided that Afagddu should receive the benefit of the cauldron, without contributing. Had he received the distilled wisdom, he would not have worked for it. Presumably, Ceridwen would have guided him and mentored him. What might he have become? And how hurt and disappointed must he have been, to see his path to acceptance and a place of honour taken by another? A question with a complex answer: why did Ceridwen not obtain another cauldron, and more herbs, and tried again? Perhaps because Llyn Tegid was poisoned, and no other water would do (why not?). His chance came, and he lost it, and neither was any doing of his. Is this a lesson that we should not shelter others or, through our love for them, stifle their opportunities to learn and do for themselves?
- Gwion was a random beneficiary of a lot of planning and hard work that was intended for someone else. He received a great gift – and it killed him.
For all his sudden insight… he was not able to escape Ceridwen’s wrath. He had all the knowledge in the world: but it wasn’t gained from his own efforts and practice, so he was unable to apply it effectively. He was swallowed as a seed, and that seed impregnated Ceridwen so that he was reborn – but it was Ceridwen’s love, not his knowledge, that saved him.
- Ceridwen puts the reborn Gwion into a coracle, and sends him to the sea. He floats there (for forty years?) before returning to land.
Perhaps this is Ceridwen returning things to balance. Having borne a son, she has given him all she has to give – a sets him free to shape his own future, according to what the world sends him and where the sea takes him. He returns to the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir, whose horses were poisoned by the broken cauldron, and restores his family’s fortunes.