The Cauldron of the Otherworld

When Druids mention cauldrons, we’re usually talking about the story of how Gwion Bach, stirring the cauldron of learning and prophecy for the witch-queen Cerridwen, accidentally took the brew himself and became Taliesin in a terrifying bardic initiation.

The cauldron itself gets acknowledged as the vessel of Transformation-with-a-big-T but rarely does anyone connect the dots between the cauldron’s brew and where it comes from to get the power that it has. Yes, it mentions nature’s herbs and human cunning craft learned from the studies of Fferyllt (Virgil. The Roman poet became for the Cymry a legendary magician. Bards. Gotta love ’em). It mentions the spirit of prophecy, the speech of the gods that gives oracles of wisdom and uncanny knowledge. But it doesn’t go on about the Otherworld as the engine of the magic, possibly because the Christian copyists were uncomfortable with putting the concept down.

Druidry is sometimes taken for nothing more than a nature mysticism with a mythic angle, but the big scary Otherworld is central and we owe it to ourselves and the tradition to pull it front and centre and engage with it. So please bear with my Gwydionesque story-spinning and let’s do it.

First, let’s call it by its name: Annwn, sometimes Annwfn or Annwfyn. Its name means something like ‘beyond deep.’ It’s soooo deep that deep doesn’t go far enough down. It’s that deep.

Now let’s figure out where it is. Down there, obviously, right? Well, kind of, but there’s rather more to it. The thing about deep, right, is that it’s where the eye cannot see and where the hand cannot reach. If you look in the remaining writings of many an old tradition, you get a list of places where Otherworld stuff happens.

1) Where the eye cannot see:

beyond the firelight

the backs of caves

cellars and windowless rooms

the gloom of the deep forest, where the sun barely penetrates the canopy

the bottoms of pools, lakes, wells, rivers, the sea

in mist or fog

around the next corner

directly beneath our own feet

over the horizon

into the sun

and of course, under the bed and inside the wardrobe.


2) Where the hand cannot reach:

the day sky, above the highest peaks

the distance, the horizon

into the rock

into the deep water

the treetops

the further shore

the night sky, the stars.

Not a complete list, but you get the idea. All these places are beyond us, but when we approach them they become the scene of encounter with the Otherworld, with Annwn. Here is where we stumble across the fairies. Here is where we meet a King of Annwn, in Pwyll — the First Branch of the Mabinogi. Here the Twrch Trwyth, the enchanted Boar, escapes the ruins of Arthur’s war band in Culhwch & Olwen. Here are the scenes of the ill-fated expedition of Arthur from which none but seven returned in Preideu Annwfyn.

On the subject of encounters, we next ask: who lives in Annwn? Who are the denizens?

In the forest, Pwyll meets Arawn, king of Annwn who enlists him to aid his struggle with a rival king. Rhiannon (the one from the Mabinogi, not the love-goddess of popular paganism) emerges from a fairy mound, on the run from an arranged marriage. Manawydan finds himself in a battle of wits with the vengeful Grey One of the Wooded Cell in The Third Branch to lift an Otherworld enchantment on the human kingdom of Dyfed. The legend of the Lady of the Lake of Llyn y Fan Fach, in The Physicians of Myddfai, locates an entire family beneath the surface of the lake.

The denizens of Annwn have society, they have politics. But there’s also the mysterious Claw that reaches out of the night through Teyrnon’s window to seize his foal in Pwyll. There is the livestock of the Lady of the Lake, the hunting hounds of Arawn, there’s Y Twrch Trwyth, there are Y Tylwyth Teg, the fairies, there are the earth-spirits rendered as the demons of Annwn, held within the body of Gwyn ap Nudd, lest the world be detroyed, in Culhwch & Olwen. Pigs wander freely through the portals of Annwn, providing the magician Gwydion with a guide to the Tree whence he charms Lleu back down to human life in Math –The Fourth Branch.

The denizens of Annwn also have purpose. And their main purpose seems to be to intervene in human affairs. The Four Branches are basically about how Annwn initiates a number of forays into human affairs which take the rest of the story to resolve and find an harmonious new arrangement between the human and the Other. The Otherworlders bring with them sovereignty over the land, prosperity, wisdom. They also bring horror and entanglement. To have their involvement is to have a boar by the tail. And they choose to involve themselves.

Pwyll is “seized by the thought and by the desire to go hunting” and chooses an unlikely location for his hunt, where he meets the King Arawn. In other words, it wasn’t his own idea. We should take this quite seriously. If you are doing more than play-acting in pretty Druid robes, then be advised that the Otherworld is already on your case and you had better be on your best game. When a Taliesin tells us in Preideu Annwfyn that the Cauldron of Pen Annwn, the Head of Annwn, does not boil the food of a coward, he’s giving us fair warning about what we are undertaking here.

Taking the initiative back is no mean feat. Branwen — The Second Branch is a disaster as the denizens of The Other Shore (represented as Ireland) are attacked at horrendous cost to both sides. Arthur’s foray into Annwn leaves none but seven returning alive. And fighting the enchanted Boar decimates his war band. Manawydan needs all his cleverness to outsmart those who have cast a spell on the kingdom. And yet this is what we are invited to do.

The Cauldron of Pen Annwn is described as “dark-rimmed, with pearls.” Now humour me here, but when I think of dark, with pearly bits I look up at the night sky. (Here’s a detailed exposition of the apparently astronomical themes of The Fourth Branch)

Hmm. Night sky. Cauldron of black, edged with pearls? What if we are IN the cauldron, looking around it and seeing the stars? Knowing, as our forebears did, that the sky around seems to revolve such that what is above us now crosses westwards and disappears over the horizon, only to reappear later in the east? Meaning that the sky regularly traverses into Annwn, heavenly realm and underground being interchangeable and effectively the same thing?

(As I write this, I’m aware of how badly I’ve expressed it. It makes much more sense when I’m sat outside on a clear night with no light pollution, reading Preideu Annwfyn aloud in its Middle Welsh, and watching the sky wheeling past)

The Cauldron of the Otherworld

So Annwn is everywhere, and is cauldron-shaped. What about this power of inspiration then? We’ve seen that Annwn brings an empowered relationship to the human realm. We know of poetic inspiration such as that which powers Taliesin, the Awen, which the Tale of Taliesin tells us he received from the cauldron of Cerridwen. But we’ve barely touched on it yet. Let’s have Taliesin explain it for us with a text I use as an incantation:

Awen a ganaf / Awen I sing

o dwfyn ys dygaf / from the deep I bring it

Auon kyt beryt / a connected river which flows

Gogwn y gwrhyt / I know its might

gogwn pan dyueinw / I know how it ebbs

gogwn pan dyleinw / I know how it flows

gogwn pan dillyd / I know how it courses

gogwn pan wescryd / I know how it retreats

Yn Annwfyn y diwyth / In Annwfyn formed

yn Annwfyn y gorwyth / In Annwfyn made

yn Annwfyn is eluyd / In Annwfyn below the earth

yn awyr uch eluyd / In the air above the earth

Awen aghymes / Immeasurable Awen

(rearranged from Angar Kyfundawt)

So, Awen: it comes and goes, it flows, like water (Daoist chi, anyone?). It comes from Annwn, it wells up from the deeper-than-deep. And according to the Tale of Gwion Bach, it makes one “extraordinarily learned in the Arts and full of the spirit of prophecy.”

If you have a cauldron, perhaps you could say this incantation over the cauldron, maybe burning some incense or small wood inside. See the smoke billowing out from it as you enchant the immeasurable Awen from the Cauldron of Annwn.

Then again, perhaps you might try your hand at cooking a magical brew, chanting your spells over the steam arising from the cauldron before consuming the Awen that bubbles within.

Gaze deep into the cauldron, or upon those portals of Annwn where the eye cannot see and the hand cannot reach. Either way, expect Annwn to intervene in your life, transforming you, impelling you towards mastery of the Arts and making you speak like a prophet, able to deal with the denizens of Annwn as an equal.

I know that Druids love their homework. This is for you.

The Tale of Gwion Bach and the Tale of Taliesin in The Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales by Patrick Ford.

Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin by Marged Haycock.

The Physicians of Myddfai by Terry Breverton.

The Mabinogion by Sioned Davies

Will Parker’s Mabinogi website

John Toffee’s blog Mabinogion Astronomy

Mary Jones’ website – the Welsh texts


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