by Kristoffer Hughes
published by Llewellyn, December 2012
paperback: $13.32, kindle: $9.99
Bardic magic is a powerful thing.
We hear or read a story and we’re transported to a galaxy far far away – or to the wilds of Wales. People, places and things come alive, animals talk and trees walk – and a boy becomes a hare, a salmon, a wren, and a grain of corn. Great deeds are done, kings are kingly and heroes are heroic – and the greatest bard in the history of Britain is born.
When storytelling is done right it’s more than entertainment. A good story shows us the world from a different perspective. We identify with characters and situations and we feel what they feel. We learn from their failures and we grow with their triumphs.
A good story will feed your soul. A good story will plant a seed in your subconscious, setting off a chain of actions and reactions that can be truly transformative.
Stories can change your life… though if you’re not mindful, they can change it in ways you’d rather they didn’t. And that makes the bard – the singer, the storyteller, the writer, the filmmaker – a very powerful person. Anyone who says “it’s just a story” doesn’t understand the power of bardic magic.
From the Cauldron Born is an exploration of bardic magic. Author Kristoffer Hughes (Chief of the Anglesey Druid Order) begins by discussing the origins of the Tale of Gwion Bach – the Story of Cerridwen and Taliesin. As a Druid and a native Welsh speaker, Kris is uniquely qualified to discuss not just the literary origins of the story (all of which are in Welsh) but also its religious and magical aspects. He makes a very important point about the differing approaches to this and all Pagan stories: “the spiritual expression of the tales should have an understanding of the academic, and the academic an appreciation and acceptance of the visionary.”
He also discusses how ancient stories like these were preserved: by the bards, by the medieval monasteries, and by the narrative spirit – the deep relationship “between the spirit behind the tales and the people to whom they were relevant.” The stories were preserved because they were important.
When I tell this story it takes about seven minutes. Kris gives its exegesis 176 pages. Each character has his or her own chapter, even those like Creirfyw and Tegid Foel who are mentioned in passing and play no apparent part in the main plot. But if magic teaches us anything, it teaches there are no irrelevant factors and no unimportant people. They all have something to teach us, if we’ll only pay attention to them. In discussing Cerridwen’s hideously ugly son Morfran Afagddu, Kris says:
The primary message of the shadow is “deny it at your peril.” For the brew to be effective, we must consume it knowing who we are down to the minute detail – even what instills shame and embarrassment must be acknowledged for the elixir to work.
Though the literary analysis is good, ultimately this is not a literary work. It’s a book of magic – the magic of transformation and initiation. And magic requires participation.
Imperative to connection, one must be fully immersed in the tale; it must be made alive within you.
the mysteries must be utilised and experienced in order for them to be assimilated … no amount of studying will bring about that realisation unless the mind is engaged in a visionary sense.
The final section is titled “Stirring the Cauldron” – it gives suggestions for ritualizing the story and using it to transform your life. The year-long ritual meditation to brew the Awen is serious and deep and it requires a significant amount of work. While I have not performed this particular ritual, I have participated in an extended ritual exploration of this story and I can tell you it is effective. Do the work and the story will transform your life. But be prepared for what may come:
There is always an ordeal within transformational rites and initiations, and it is imperative that this element be present, for it causes us to act on instinct.
And while the results of this work can be truly magical, set your expectations realistically.
The Celtic mysteries do not demand that we transcend or even seek enlightenment per se; they ask that we be of the world whilst simultaneously being aware of the otherworlds and the inexorable link to our primary origination.
As I read From the Cauldron Born, I kept going back and forth as to whether it is primarily a work of Self-centered Paganism or of Deity-centered Paganism. The book is intended to transform the reader / worker, and in proper Druidic fashion Kristoffer Hughes does not insist on one interpretation of the story, or on one way of understanding Cerridwen. If you approach this story and this work as a exercise in self-improvement, that’s what you’ll get – and you’ll benefit from it.
But if you approach it as a way of learning more about Cerridwen and growing closer to Her, you’ll get that too. She can be a loving mother. She can also be a terrifying pursuer. Either way or both, She is worthy of our honor, and perhaps more importantly, our attention.
When I asked Kris who he had in mind when he wrote From the Cauldron Born, he said “intermediate practitioners.” I think he hit his target. Don’t let the crescent moon on the spine fool you. Llewellyn publishes more than Wicca 101, and this is not a book for beginners. Before you take up the Way of the Cauldron, you should have read and processed several introductory Pagan books, plus at least one introductory book on Druidry. You’ll need the foundation they provide to fully appreciate the depth of From the Cauldron Born.
This book also has value for advanced practitioners. Even if you’ve already been transformed by the Cauldron and received the Awen, there is almost certainly something about this story you don’t know – something new about Cerridwen or Morda or Taliesin or the Awen itself you can incorporate into your practice and your life.
Beyond that, it’s an excellent blueprint for bardic magic. What Kristoffer Hughes has done with the story of Cerridwen and Taliesin we can do with any story – including the stories of our lives. By deconstructing stories we can tease out hidden bits of wisdom and inspiration, and we can better learn how to construct and tell powerful stories of our own.
And never forget why you’re doing this. Learning and growing, becoming wise and powerful is a good thing, but it’s not the ultimate goal. As Kristoffer says about this story and its transformative powers:
Whatever your intentions, they must be balanced by a sense of service. This material should not be kept and neither is it a secret; we serve the mysteries and our gods through serving them and our communities.
Note: while we were in Wales, Kristoffer Hughes gave us his time, his wisdom, and his friendship. He did not give us his books – we bought them. While I owe Kris greatly for his hospitality, my primary obligation with a book review is to the reader, not the author. If I couldn’t honestly give the book a good review, I’d conveniently forget to review it.