Witches in folklore are interesting, colorful and magical such as Cerridwen a Welsh enchantress, shape-shifting herbalist and witch. She was known as the keeper of The Cauldron of Knowledge and Insight and The White Sow. Welsh magical practitioners considered, Cerridwen as a symbol of wisdom and power. Today she is still revered in the Wicca religion as The Goddess of the Pair.
Below Painting of Ceridwen by Christopher Williams (1910)
The 13th century Tale of Taliesin, was named after the 6th century poet who is the focus of the legend. Cerridwen is married to a giant named Tegidfoel. She births two children, a daughter named Crearwy, which means ” Light.” Cerridwen’s son is named Afagddu which means “Dark.” These Celtic children repesent the Gaelic force of Yin and Yang much like the ancient Taoist symbol. Cerridwen desires the best for her children, especially her son Afagddu who she sees him lacking specific gifts such as being attractive. She doesn’t worry about her daughter as she is equipped with all the desired gifts and skills for life.
Cerridwen uses her superior magic to concoct a potion to enhance his powers of intellect, supernatural, fortune telling, botanical knowledge. While Cerridwen collects the herbs and recites her ritual for the potion someone must keep stirring the cauldron and keep it boiling for a year plus one day. A blind man tends to its fire and the cauldron is stirred by an ignorant boy named Gwion Bach who eventually becomes the Future Taliesin.
One day while stirring the pot, three drops splash on his thumb. The splashed potion was scalding hot that Gwion sucks on his thumb to soothe the pain unknowingly tasting the potion. The potion is effective with the first three drops after that it turns into poison.
Gwion suddenly realizes his error of tasting the potion so he flees from the scene trying to escape Cerridwen’s anger. She tracks Gwion across the countryside transforming herself into several different creatures. Gwion has these same morphing powers too. He first transforms into a hare in order to escape the infuriated witch. Cerridwen morphs into a greyhound in order to catch the fast moving hare. Gwion next becomes a fish, the clever witch transforms into an otter to counter his move. The Gwion morphs into a bird yet Cerridwen turns into a Hawk that flys faster than a small bird. Lastly, Gwion changes into a single corn kernel, only to be eaten by the crafty witch disguised as a hen. However, the tale does not end there. The very fact that the boy had swallowed the potion protected him from being completely destroyed. Once Cerridwen was pregnant she was very insightful and knew the infant would be Gwion once he was born. She plotted to kill him upon his birth. She hadn’t planned for the baby boy to be so handsome that she could not go ahead to kill him. Cerridwen sewed a bag placing the baby into it and threw it into the ocean. The boy didn’t drown but was rescued near Aberdyfi a Welsh shore. The Prince who rescued him was named Elffin ap Gwyddno; the reborn baby grew to become a man known as the legendary bard Taliesin.
Above Illustration of the skilled witch Cerridwen, the blind man and the boy Gwion stirring the Cauldron (Public Domain.)
Another famous witch who was connected to the Fae is the powerful Irish Queen Morrighan, a goddess of war and battle. According to Irish folklore, this role would be assigned to the bain sidhe, who managed the death of an associate linked to a particular family or clan. Morrighan may have been the same witch Morgan le Fay mentioned in the Arthurian legends. Her first debut in literature is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Life of Merlin, written in the first half of the twelfth century. Morgan has become known as a Femme Fatale, who bewitches men and then creates all types of magical chaos.
Below Picture of Merlin presenting the future King Arthur, 1873. Private Collection. Artist: Lauffer, Emil Johann (1837-1909). Public Domain
Another one was Danu, a witchy Celtic mother. Her name is The Queen of Elphame, and she turns up in the folk tradition of Lowland Scotland. The Queen of Elphame is most notable for her role in the medieval ballad and later fairy tale called “Thomas the Rhymer.” Danu was linked with the Tuatha Dé Danann (“People of the Goddess Danu”).
According to Scottish Folklore the Queen of Elphame, is the fairy ruler of Elphame (Elf-home; compare Norse Álfheimr), the underworld Scottish fairyland is linked to the Celtic witch Nicnevin. She appears in a number of conventional mystical ballads, including Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. She also appears in a number of accounts from witchcraft trials and confessions, including the confession of Isobel Gowdie.
Alexander Montgomerie, in his Flyting, described her as:
Nicnevin with her nymphes, in number anew
With charms from Caitness and Chanrie of Ross
Whose cunning consists in casting a clew.
The Arrival of the King & Queen of Fairies – E Stuart Hardy.
Speaking of Nicnevin, besides being the famous Queen of Elphame, Queen of the Fairies of Fife. She is also called Gyre Carlin, the Bone mother.
Witch Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Nicnevin name evolved from the Gaelic Nic an Neamhain, meaning “Daughter of Flap,” spirit-woman or witch/goddess who personifies the frenzied havoc of war. She is symbolized by flying geese similar to the symbols of the Roman goddess Juno. Succeeding the chaotic Christian witch trials, she was then categorized as a Seelie (benevolent fairy) Queen of Elphame and Unseelie (malevolent fairy) Nicnevin goddess of Witches. She represents both sides of the divine feminine.
Nicnevin is associated with the deceased riders of the night in German folklore of the Wild Hunt. She is a shape-shifter representing once more the divine feminine. She can morph into an old crone or a beautiful young woman dependant upon her situation. Nicnevin is also known as the goddess of witches, magic, crossroads and the dark moon.
Queen of the Unseelie by the talented Brian Froud
Nicnevin is revered by witches on Samhain, the Celtic New Year, here she is celebrated with prayers and feasts in her name. The Rites of Nicnevin are practiced on November 1st. During this seasonal celebration, she is known to grant wishes and answer pagan’s thoughtful prayers. Nicnevin is the legendary mother witch, Hecate, or Habundia figure of Scottish fairy lore.
Fairies have existed according to fairy-lore for a very long time. They are well known in many cultures and in different regions around the earth.
Many tales speak of the Fae’s special leader, a mystical queen who governed Fairyland.
Not all witches represent the Crone phase, such as the maiden witch named Grimhild or Grímhildr in Scandinavian Folklore. According to Norse legends in the 13th century Völsunga Saga she was quite attractive yet nefarious. She was described as a “Fierce-Hearted Woman.”The Saga mentions that Grimhild married King Gjúki of Burgundy and birthed three children.
She was bored to death at times, no mobile phones back then, so she gave the hero Sigurðr a magic potion that made him forgetful. He forgot that he had married his wife Brynhildr so he in his confused state of mind would marry Gudrun, her daughter. Grimhildr even desired for her one son Gunnar to marry Brynhildr who would have nothing to do with this awful set up except for the fact she had promised Grimhildr that she would do it.
Brynhildr would only marry the man who could cross the ring of flames she placed around her. Grimhildr convinced Sigurðr into aiding Gunarr marry Brynhildr. Sigurðr was the only one who could cross the ring of fire that encircled Brynhildr, so he and Gunnar switched bodies so Gunnar’s body could cross the flames. The brave Brynhildr wed Gunnar after she had made a promise to Grimhildr. When Brybhildr heard that Sigurðr had betrayed her with another woman named Gudron, unaware that he had been bewitched by Grimhildr in marrying her daughter Gudrun, she became very angry and vengeful towards Grimhildr. Brynhildr killed Sigurðr and herself. Next, Grimhildr forced Gudrun to marry Bryhilr’s brother Atli. Gudrun didn’t want to marry Atli since she knew he would kill her brothers.
That is the last we hear of Grimhildr in the Völsunga saga, some folks believe that the actual ring of fire that Brynhildr encircled herself with, may have brought misfortune even death upon the attractive, mischievous Grimhildr.
Last but never least is the powerful Hecate also known in Ancient Greek as Ἑκάτη or Hekátē) Queen goddess of Witchcraft, Queen of the Crossroads and the Night. Her name in Greek, means “influence from afar.” She is often depicted as the triple-headed Hound of the Moon, and at times symbolized rotating a spinning wheel.
Mighty Hecate governs the realm between life and death. She serves as an emissary between people and spirits. The Greeks knew her as a Titan’s daughter and as the handmaiden to the goddess Persephone, Queen of the Dead. She is a skilled herbalist and botanist. Hecate may have originated on the Black Sea, home to Medea her most trusted servant and priestess. In Caria now modern day Western Turkey, she was worshiped as their Supreme goddess at her cult site of Lagina. She owns the real Skeleton Key that unlocks the gates to all other realms.
According to the poet Hesiod, Hecate was the only daughter of Asteria, a star goddess who was the aunt of Artemis and Apollo. The celebration of Hecate’s birth was connected to Phoebe’s return during the darkest stage of the moon as a lunar goddess.
In the Theogony of Hesiod depicts Hecate as a Titan who aligned herself with Zeus and cites in Theogony,
Hesiod describes Hecate in her role as one of the Titans who allied herself with Zeus, and says in Theogony,
” Hekate whom Zeus the son of Kronos honored above all. He gave her splendid gifts, to have a share of the earth and the unfruitful sea. She received honor also in starry heaven, and is honored exceedingly by the deathless gods…For as many as were born of Gaia and Ouranos amongst all these she has her due portion. The son of Kronos (Zeus) did her no wrong nor took anything away of all that was her portion among the former Titan gods: but she holds, as the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both in earth, and in heaven, and in sea. Also, because she is an only child, the goddess receives not less honor, but much more still, for Zeus honors her.”
Sources & References:
Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (Penguin, 1977; ISBN 0140047530Thomas
Wright, Narratives of sorcery and magic, from the most authentic sources (Redfield, 1852)
Rossell Hope Robbins , The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, 1959.
The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ffcc/ffcc002.htm
Völsunga Saga, The Saga of the Volsungs. The Icelandic Text According to MS Nks 1824 b, 4° With an English Translation, Introduction and Notes by Kaaren Grimstad. 2nd ed. AQ-Verlag, Saarbrücken 2005.
Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas (Penguin Classics: London, 1981.)
Hesiod, Theogony, in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.
Ruickbie, Leo. Witchcraft Out of the Shadows: A Complete History. Robert Hale, 2004.
Hecate Education at Ancient Encyclopedia online.